#73 The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard
Patty Wilkinson

For Tony Gill

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1
“All I’m sayin’ is I don’t see why it should be me that has to do it Slim,” Jess Harper said petulantly.
“You’d be just as good at keepin’ this here Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes safe as I would be...in fact even better because your all educated up. Heck I never even knew there were still Lords and Ladies back in the old country, thought they were just somethin’ out of Mike’s fairy-tale stories.”
“They’re real alright Jess and darned important too, especially to our economy, according to the dignitaries of the Laramie town council. We’re real honored that they want to take a vacation out here. And you know dang well why I can’t do it, with the boss of the Stage line breathing down my neck and wanting meetings all the time, trying to improve the routes and our efficiency.”
“Well good luck with that one,” Jess said sarcastically, “the railroad will be takin’ all the trade in the next few years anyway, it’s a fact buddy and yer just gonna have to face it.”
“Uh, well if you’re right we need all the cash we can get then don’t we? According to Mort Cory he reckons this here Cynthia and Roger Hamilton-Forbes are loaded and not afraid to spend it either. Come on Jess how hard can it be? All you have to do is keep them safe as they look at all the delights Wyoming has to offer.”
“Right... delights like snakes, bears, coyotes, not to mention the two-legged vermin like outlaws and renegade injuns.”
“Jess you’re just being difficult, look on the bright side, the glories of the lake in the sunset, the snowy mountains, deer, fish, wild mustangs all sorts of things to entertain them.”
“Well how dang long do I hafta ‘entertain’ them for?”
“Not long, just a couple of weeks...and then they may want you to accompany them over to Denver where Lord Hamilton-Forbes has a real big business deal to settle.”
“Two dang weeks are you crazy? I’ll tell ya now Slim I just ain’t doin’ it!”

Jess stood back as the Stagecoach came to a shuddering standstill as Mose hauled on the lines, bringing the four in hand to a halt puffing and sweating.
“Got some real purty passengers for you Jess boy,” he said grinning from ear to ear.
Jess nodded looking less than enthusiastic, “Swell,” he muttered grasping the door handle and pulling it open, he stood back to assist the passengers down.
The first to alight was a small bird like woman with brown intelligent eyes, which quickly surveyed the ranch house and yard before coming to rest on Jess and accepting his helping hand with alacrity.
She wore a tiny hat with a veil perched on top of blond curls put up in a sophisticated style and a deep blue velvet suit, made up of a jacket and long skirt. Her tiny feet were clad in tan button boots. She could have been anywhere from thirty to forty Jess figured and was mighty easy on the eye.
“What a spiffing little place,” she said beaming up at Jess as he relinquished his hold on her.
Jess just stared for a moment and then gathering his wits said, “Uh, thanks Ma’am we like it.”
Then moments later Lord Hamilton-Forbes jumped down from the stage and looked eagerly around him, before smiling at Jess, but addressing his wife, “It certainly is my dear, awfully jolly.”
He wore a tweed suit, mustard colored vest and brown brogues. He looked to be several years older than his wife but was very dapper with a neatly trimmed mustache, greying hair and a monocle on a chain around his neck.
“Welcome to the Sherman ranch sir, ma’am,” Jess said having been primed by Slim to be on his best behavior.
“What ho young man, you must be Harper is it?”
“Yes sir, Jess Harper,” he said offering a hand which was shaken firmly.
Then Slim came over leading the replacement team and introduced himself.
“Slim Sherman, pleased to meet you your Lordship.”
“None of this Lordship and sir nonsense old chap. Just call us Roger and Cyn,” he said turning to smile benignly at the rear view of his diminutive wife as she wandered over to the corral to admire some unbroken mustangs.
Jess turned back to Slim and whispered, “Sin...he just called his wife sin.”
However, Jess was unaware of Lord Hamilton- Forbes exceptional hearing.
He gave a bellow of laughter, “No old man not sin as in...er sinner, but Cyn as in Cynthia you see ...what!”
“Uh, yes sir,” Jess said looking blank. “Um, Roger that is,” he finished lamely.
“Good show, so I think this is just the spot for a bit of R and R, what!”
“What?” asked Jess now looking decidedly bemused.
“R and R, rest and relaxation, not a military man then Jess?”
“Uh, I was,” he said quickly, “R and R yup, we can give ya loads of that er...Roger.”
“Good man, so can you show us to our billet then um...wash and brush up needed I think.”
Jess was just about losing the will to live by now and so having dealt with the team Slim returned to bail him out, “Your billet, of course I’ll show you to the guest wing sir...uh Roger.”
“Guest wing?” Jess echoed.
“The darned bunk house,” Slim whispered, “come on Jess keep up... get their bags will you.”
As Mose started throwing the copious amount of luggage down from the rack Roger turned back.
“I say old chap be careful will you, breakables in there dontcha know! Pink Gin and some of my best Port as a little gift,” he said with a broad wink.
Jess gave him a weak smile in return and took charge of the unloading, “Pink Gin dadgum it, whatever next,” he muttered to himself.
He carried the luggage over to the recently promoted bunkhouse and was in time to hear Cynthia exclaim in delight, “What a darling little room, how very quaint.” Her sparkling eyes traversed the neat as a pin accommodation with a double bed covered in a beautifully handcrafted quilt. Two comfortable armchairs a table and chairs and stove with a colourful rag rug before it made up the rest of the furniture. There was a washstand towards the back of the room, partially obscured by a partition affording a little privacy. The room shone after Daisy’s ministrations, the windows sparkling and the freshly laundered yellow drapes adding to the overall welcoming ambiance.
Cynthia toured the room touching a cushion here and admiring a water color picture on the wall there before turning back to her husband and saying softly, “Where are the facilities do you think dear?”
“Uh, good point old girl. Er facilities Jess...for us to uh, have a wash that sort of thing.”
“Yeah right over there at the back sir...er Roger,” Jess said pointing to the jug and basin partly obscured by the screen.
Cynthia looked slightly surprised, “I was um meaning the facilities you know where we can spend a penny?”
“The lavatory man...what do you call it out here?” Roger exclaimed.
Light dawned in Jess’s eyes, “Oh the outhouse ya mean, sure ma’am it’s just out back,” he said pointing from the window to the wooden structure tucked away off behind the vegetable plot.
“Thank you Jess, most kind,” she said weakly... “and uh a bath maybe?”
“Ya want a bath...what now?” Jess asked in amazement.
Then Slim came forwards and elbowed Jess aside, “Sure we can attend to that ma’am...er Miss Cynthia, I’ll get my partner here to bring the tin bath over and go boil up some water.”
“No really I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble I’m sure the jug and basin with suffice admirably for now,” she said quickly.
Just then the door burst open and Mike flew in followed by a tail waving barking pair of dogs, Buttons and Blue.
“Out!” Slim and Jess yelled in unison to the dogs, before introducing young Mike.
“Gosh,” the youngster said his eyes wide with excitement, “I’ve never met a real Lord and Lady before, so do ya live in a castle?”
“Bless you no boy, just a very old rather draughty stately home.” said Roger smiling kindly.
Mike looked slightly let down by that, but covered it well.
“It’s real swell that yer visiting,” he said cheerfully. Then confided, “I’ve gotta go now my dog Buttons, has real bad fleas again. I’m just gonna bathe her with some of Miss Daisy’s special lotion, its real good. Fixed me up when I had those nits that time didn’t it Jess?” the child said eagerly.
“Scoot Tiger,” Jess said flushing with embarrassment and frogmarching the child out.
“I’m goin’ I just need for you to get me the tin bath down though please Jess, I can’t reach it, I need to give her a good soak first.”
For a moment Lady Cynthia Hamilton–Forbes looked slightly aghast at having to share a tin bath with a flea infested hound, but she rallied well and smiled at the youngster, “Good luck!”
“Thanks ma’am, I guess I’ll need it. Buttons is real hard to catch, I guess she hates baths even more than I do,” he said with a grin before departing.
“I think we’ll leave you to settle in,” Slim said backing out and dragging Jess with him. “Dinner will be served at one o’clock if you’d care to pop across to the house?”
“Dinner, uh...you mean luncheon? Yes old chap, wonderful,” Roger said cheerfully.
The two men wandered back across the yard, “Popping across for luncheon to be served,” Jess mimicked with a cheeky grin, “I do declare Mister Sherman you’ll be drinkin’ their darned Pink Gin next,” he said with a hoot of laughter.
When the Hamilton-Forbes arrived promptly at one, Daisy came forward to be introduced.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to greet you,” she said dropping a little curtsy, to Jess’s amazement, “I was busy finishing off the baking. I do hope you like Chicken and Dumplings Sir Hamilton–Forbes, your ladyship, “she finished looking a tad flustered.
“I’m sure I shall my dear,” said Lady Cynthia with a genuine smile.
A little later Sir Roger beamed up at Daisy, “My dear Daisy, a triumph!”
“You can’t beat a bit of native cooking can you old thing?” he said turning to smile at his wife.
“Heck this ain’t Injun cookin’ its American,” Jess said hotly defending Daisy’s culinary skills.
“Ha, my dear chap you misunderstand me, I meant local cuisine of the country do you see...what!”
Jess piped down but when the apple pie arrived, he said staunchly, “Well this is sure American... a national dish.”
“Uh, I think you’ll find it came from England originally,” Lord Roger murmured.
But turning to Daisy said “And excellent it is too my good woman!”
It was when they were clearing away that Slim overheard Roger say something softly in French to his wife. Cynthia had said that she wished their cook back home was as good as Daisy... and what a problem it was back in England to find good reliable staff for reasonable wage.
That was when Roger said in French to her, “Pas devant les domestiques, my dear,” Not in front of the servants, (translation) ...thinking nobody would understand and reminding his good wife that it was not polite to mention wages in front of another person’s servant. However, he underestimated Slim.
Slim waited until Daisy was out of earshot in the kitchen brewing the coffee and then said quietly to Roger, “Daisy isn’t our servant, she’s one of the family Roger and I’d be real obliged if you’d treat her as such.”
Jess hadn’t understood what had been said but he picked up on the suddenly chilly atmosphere.
“I do beg your pardon old chap I’d no idea, so is she your Mother...Aunt perhaps?”
“You don’t have to be blood kin to be family,” Jess said quietly, “I guess you’ll learn that when you’ve been out here a while longer Roger.”
Roger flushed up, “Quite so, I stand corrected, please forgive me.”
“Of course, a misunderstanding,” said Slim quickly.
Jess‘s attention was on Mike who had been fidgeting for a while and now Jess said, “I guess you need to go finish yer chores now OK Tiger?”
“Aw, Jess...must I?”
“Sure you must, you need to groom Sunny...I guess you’ve been way too busy sortin’ out Buttons?
Mike nodded and got up saying see you later politely before running off to the barn.
“What a sweet child,” said Lady Cynthia, “so you are widowed then Jess?”
“Well the boy is yours is he not?”
Jess chuckled, “Heck no, well not really, he’s our joint ward me and Slim adopted him a few years back.”
“Really, so he’s a nephew of some sort?” Roger asked looking surprised.
“No, nothing like that,” said Slim and then relayed the story of how Mike had fetched up at the ranch one stormy night picked up by a troop of oriental show folk from where they had found him injured by the roadside.
“His people had been massacred in an Injun raid,” Jess said quietly, “Mike saw it all, but hid and survived. When no relatives could be found we took him on.”
“Oh my goodness,” said Cynthia looking wide eyed, “killed by Indians you say?”
“Yes Ma’am the whole wagon train was killed, but it was a while back, we ain’t had too many problems recently,” Jess said trying to allay her fears.
“I’m not worried for myself, Roger here is a jolly good shot and I can hit the bull more often than not, no it was that poor child I was worried about.”
“He’s just fine now,” said Slim quickly. “Miss Daisy acts as a Ma to him and me and Jess try and cover everything else... he’s growing up to be a great kid.”
But Jess was still thinking about Cynthia’s comment, “Hit the bull?” Jess asked looking mystified.
“The bull’s-eye on a target,” supplied Roger, “my little minx here can hit it most times, be it with rifle or long bow...she’s a dab hand.”
While Jess was digesting this information, Daisy dispensed the coffee and said, “So do you have children Lady Cynthia?”
“Yes my dear, four, two of each...all packed off to Norbury now thank goodness,” she said with a chuckle.
“To Norbury you say?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
“Public school old chap one of the best around, what you’d call a private school, fee paying and they all board out, in term time. We’ll have ‘em back when they’ve got some education under their belts and ready to do a day’s work! Can’t be doin’ with ankle biters around the house too noisy don’t you know...Much better to parcel then off for a while I think!” Roger said with a bark of laughter.
“We kinda like to have our young ‘un’ s around,” Jess said darkly, before getting up to go and help Mike.
There was a pregnant silence for a moment after Jess had left and then Roger turned concerned eyes on Slim, “Dear me I was just joking, we love the little terrors to bits don’t we Cyn darling?”
“We do indeed, just our little joke,” she said. “I think we’re beginning to understand that maybe the American sense of humour is a little different to ours?”
Slim grinned across at her, “I’m sure we’ll figure it all out in time Cynthia.”

The following morning at breakfast they all began to make plans.
“My partner Jess here will be taking you around,” Slim said in his new role of tour organizer, while Jess looked on feeling somewhat out of his depth. Heck what did these dudes want of him he wondered.
“What we want is some excitement,” Roger said with passion, “off the beaten track, natives, wild animals you bring it on old chap…Cyn and I can take it don’t you know!”
“Uh, well pretty much everywhere is off the beaten track,” Jess said with a smile, “but I guess we could go up to the lake do a spot of fishin’ and camp out for the day?”
“You know a day of fishing would be like a breath of fresh air to us Jess my friend, we’re ready for that aren’t we my dear?”
“Certainly Roger, nothing I’d like better,” Cynthia replied with alacrity.
“So how would you like to travel?” Slim asked, “Buckboard?”
“Well this is a ranch and I’ve seen some pretty good specimens of horse flesh, so can’t we ride over?” Roger asked.
“Uh, yes,” said Jess hesitantly, “guess so. You both ride then?”
“Ride... what! Ha Cynthia here was practically born in the saddle was quite a nifty Point to Point rider in her day,” Roger said with a laugh. “And yours truly is never happier than on a good old steed, so lead on young man, find us your best mounts!”
It was later that morning that Jess did indeed realize that he was in the company of excellent riders and he relaxed a little.
They made it to the lake by mid-morning and Jess was delighted to be able to show off the state-of-the-art fishing tackle that Doc Sam Baker had given him for his last birthday. The two men happily compared their fishing equipment whilst Cynthia made herself comfortable by the lakeside enjoying the gentle breeze that helped to alleviate the heat of the burning sun. After a while she lay back for a little nap in the warm sunshine.
Meanwhile Jess and Roger had moved a short distance away so as not to disturb her and cast their lines, sitting in companionable silence enjoying the sport. Well Roger was anyway, but Jess was constantly on the alert, scanning the surrounding countryside for any movement and checking over to where Cynthia lay relaxed and happy.
He cast his mind back to a meeting with Mort Cory just a week ago and sighed, dadgum it, he sure wasn’t any too happy about this dang job.
“It’s this way Jess, your name came up in conversation back in Boston where Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes were the guests of the Governor...Governor Harrick. I don’t have to remind you who he is, or how you saved his life when that gang tried to abduct him when he was on business in Cheyenne that time. Anyway, the upshot is that he recommended you as the best man for the job of guarding his Lordship on his visit here and maybe even when he goes over to Denver to complete his business deal there.”
“I don’t get it Mort, who am I supposed to be guarding him from, he’s just some rich old guy from England ain’t he, why should anyone over here be interested in harming him?”
“You just said it yourself Jess, he’s rich...and I mean real rich. Apparently, his family made a fortune over in South African diamond mines and now he owns a good deal of Sussex, an ancestral pile and property in London and Scotland too.”
“Well good fer him, so what’s he doin’ over here? It doesn’t look much like he needs to make any more cash does it?”
“He’s a business man Jess, lives and breathes deals, pretty much like you do hunting and fishing...it’s what he does.”
“Uh well it’d be a darned sight easier iffen he did it back in his own country.”
“Hey don’t knock it Jess, yes it will be dang hard work and you’ll have to be on your metal all the time day and night, but heck it will be worth it he’s prepared to pay top dollar and I mean top dollar!”
Now Jess was awoken from his reverie by Roger’s shout of joy, “I say old chap I’ve got a bite...fetch the landing net will you, he’s a whopper!”

Back at the ranch Slim and Mort Cory were deep in conversation over the kitchen table, a coffee a piece.
“I feel kinda bad at persuading him to take the job on to be honest,” Mort said peering over the rim of his cup. “It just seemed like the money was too darned good to turn down.”
“Uh, well if something seems too good to be true it usually is,” Slim said sagely.
“Well Sheriff Denny Jackson over in Denver is taking on a couple of extra deputies for his Lordship’s stay, but what they really need is an undercover bodyguard...someone to just fade into the background, but be constantly vigilant.”
“Ha,” Slim barked with laughter, “I wouldn’t say that being ‘constantly vigilant’ is exactly Jess’s strong point.”
“Well I sure hope he’s being it right now, because if our information is correct then Roger and Cynthia could be in grave danger at any time, but most likely once they get to Denver,” he added when he saw Slim’ s face drop.
But Slim wasn’t fooled, “What, even on our land?”
Mort shook his head, “I don’t really think so, reckon the Governor is being a tad clucky over them, but even so, tell Jess to keep his wits about him OK?”

“What the heck do ya think I’ve been doin’ all dang day?” Jess said irritably, turning round to face Slim, pausing from where he’d been rubbing down Traveller.
“Look I’m just telling you what Mort said. Apparently, Roger’s made a few enemies over the years, there’s a lot of politics in some business deals you know Jess.”
“Yeah well I ain’t interested in their dang politics, all I wanna do is get him safely off of Sherman land end of next week and get back to normal.”
“Uh, well it might not be quite as simple as that Jess.”
“Oh? “
“Um, you see Governor Harrick is adamant that Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes need an undercover bodyguard when they move on to Denver and he thinks that you’re the man for the job.”
“Yer kiddin’ me,” Jess gasped with alarm.
“Nope and he’s offering you very good rates…very good indeed Jess.”
“How good?”
Slim mentioned the eye wateringly substantial fee that Mort had quoted.
Jess kept his poker face and turned back to the task in hand, “That good eh,” he said quietly.
Slim knew when to keep quiet and just let his buddy think on it so he changed the subject.
“Mort said he saw a whole bunch of Prong Horns up by Dead Man’s Leap on his way over. You might want to check them out tomorrow, Roger likes deer hunting, so he said.”

The deer hunt was a huge success. Jess and Roger taking off before first light and catching up with the small herd near a watering hole just as the sun was coming up. Jess tracked them down wind and then got in the perfect position for Roger to take the first shot.
Jess stood by ready to finish off the critter should Roger miss, but he turned out to be a crack shot and brought down a magnificent stag. He was getting ready to aim again when Jess pushed his gun down.
“Sorry Roger we’ve gotten an unwritten law around here that we never kill more than we can eat, we don’t just shoot for the sport ya see.”
Roger put his gun down and said gravely, “I see um...well when in Rome I suppose?”
“When in Rome do as the Romans do...means do as the locals do,” he said succinctly. “If that’s the way it is around here fine and I respect your views.”
“Thanks,” said Jess, “if you’ll give me a hand we’ll get him up on the back of Traveller and I’ll get him home and butchered for Daisy. She’ll be real pleased with this fellah and you can have the head for a trophy for that ol’ stately home of yours?”
Roger beamed, “Jolly good show old chap that would be perfect.”
As the men rode back Jess said, “So where did you learn to shoot so darned good?”
“All over really,” Roger said thoughtfully, “Tiger hunts in India, all manner of big game in Africa of course. I did the Grand Tour a few years ago as a young man. France, Italy...Pompeii, that kind of thing for the culture don’t you know? Got a taste for travel...so moved on to the Continent and did some serious big game hunting, loved it! Most enlightening I must say. Some of those seeming savages, the local natives I mean, have some most interesting and profound ideas regarding philosophy, medicine that sort of thing Jess.”
Jess nodded, “Gee I can understand that, some of our best medicine comes from the Indians,” and he went on to tell Roger all about an old Indian. Lone Wolf who had lived over on Paradise, a far-flung area of the Sherman land, who had shared many of his ancient cures with Doc Sam Baker. *See #50 Lone Wolf’s Secret.
“I really would like to meet him,” Roger said enthusiastically.
Jess’s face clouded, “Can’t Roger he passed over a couple of years back.”
“Oh I’m sorry old chap he was a good friend I can tell.”
“Yup, the best,” Jess agreed quietly.
“Paradise that’s a jolly interesting name is it far?”
“Uh, yeah it’s way over on the south side of the ranch a good half days ride. Slim’ s Pa left it fallow said it was only fair he should share some of his land with the natural critters and so the huntin’ and fishin’ are real good over there. Bein’ on Sherman land it ain’t hunted by anyone but us, got wild turkey, deer, ha...cougars and bears too...but no place is perfect,” he said with a chuckle.
“Well that really would be good to see, maybe next week?”
When the first week drew to a close Roger wanted to know what the young men did to relax at the week-end.
Jess exchanged an uncertain glance with Slim before he said dismissively, “We usually end up in the Laramie saloon, our girls work there, but I think we’ll give it a miss,” he said quickly, knowing they would have to stay at the ranch and guard their visitor.
“But that sounds like a splendid idea,” said Roger jovially.
“You wouldn’t mind if I slipped over to the local public house ...er I mean the saloon, with Jess and Slim come Saturday would you Cyn dear?”
“Of course not, Daisy and I will have a wonderful time chatting and swapping recipes, won’t we?” she said cheerfully smiling at the elderly housekeeper.
“Why certainly,” said Daisy looking enchanted at the notion.
“Well that’s all settled,” said Roger... “top hole what!”
“Indeed,” said Slim, trying to look enthusiastic, whereas Jess merely gave his partner a deadpan look. What sort of Saturday night would they have entertaining ...no looking out for, Lord Hamilton–Forbes?
Later that evening in the privacy of their room Jess suddenly had a thought.
“Dadgum it Slim I’ve been employed to mind Ma Hamilton –Forbes as well as Roger, I can’t leave her here what if somethin’ happened?”
“Like what?
“Well how would I know? Mort seems to think they could be in some danger, said I was to watch ‘em both.”
Slim sighed deeply, “So one of us will have to stay home I guess?”
Jess nodded, “Toss fer it?”
Slim agreed, “My coin though,” he said quickly knowing to his cost that Jess possessed a double headed one.
So it was that Jess and Roger set off for town on the Saturday evening, both dressed for a good night out. Jess in his Sunday best frock coat, white shirt, string tie and highly polished boots tucked into smart black pants. Whereas Roger cut the mustard in an equally snowy white shirt, dark bow tie and dark eastern style evening suit.
As they strode into the Laramie saloon sometime later every head turned to see the foreigner in smart eastern duds in their midst.
“So much fer keepin’ things quiet,” Jess muttered to himself. It looked like every man in the bar was keen to know who the newcomer was and what his business was too.
Jess kept it as low key as he could, merely introducing him to Millie and then asking what he’d like to drink.
“I suppose Gin is out of the question my dear?” Roger asked the beautiful girl before him.
Millie agreed that it was, and offered beer or Red Eye.
“I guess Red Eye is as near to pink gin as yer gonna get,” Jess said with a chuckle at his wit.
“It would seem so,” said Roger joining in the laughter, “well bring it on my dear, when in Rome I always say!”
Millie glanced over to Jess.
“Don’t ask,” he whispered, “just bring us a bottle... and Millie a lemonade fer me please.”
She raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Jess took the drinks over to a quiet corner table and set them down.
“You not imbibing them Jess?”
He shook his head, “No sir I’m on duty you know.”
“Uh, quite so, although I’m sure I’m safe enough here old chap, am I not?”
Jess scanned the bar with a practiced eye, all were regulars and everyone seemed to have settled down again once the novelty of an overseas visitor had died down.
“Uh, I guess so,” he replied, “but I’m still on duty.”
As the evening wore on the bar got livelier and Roger got stuck into the Red Eye, but Jess was amazed to see that he was holding his own and seemed hardly inebriated at all. When he got half way down the bottle Jess suggested he should kind of maybe take it easy, but Roger was just fine.
“I say my dear chap this is like mother’s milk to me don’t you know. Brought up with a tiny drop of good Scottish whiskey in my bottle as a baby to help me sleep, never looked back,” he said with a guffaw.
Jess grinned at him and shook his head then his attention was taken by an altercation at the bar.
Millie cried out, “Stop it Ted, you’re hurting me.”
Jess leapt up in time to see Ted Garth from the Flying Y up to his old tricks with the saloon girls.
He was a middle-aged bachelor who regularly had too much to drink and got way too familiar with the girls, saying suggestive things to them. But this time he had overstepped the mark and when Millie had told him to take his lewd comments elsewhere, he had grabbed hold of her arm and twisted it, cussing nastily at her.
Jess was there in seconds, “Leave her be Garth!” he said threateningly.
Unfortunately, Garth had drunk way too much to be rational and letting go of Millie he turned to Jess and said, “So you’re gonna make me are ya Harper?”
There was the sound of chairs scraping back as the other drinkers sensibly removed themselves from the line of fire.
Jess just glared at him and seconds later Garth went for his gun...but Jess had drawn and had him covered before Garth was even half way to his iron.
There was a united gasp at the speed of the draw before a voice rang out, “I think that’s about enough gun-play for one night, huh Garth?”
All turned to see Sheriff Mort Cory in the doorway, cradling his rifle.
He came further in and acknowledged Jess with a friendly nod and then turning to Garth said, “Let’s put it this way, you git off home now and sober up, or you’ll do it in my jail.”
Garth looked surly and then nodded.
“And Garth an apology is due I think?” Mort said.
The big man turned and blushing furiously said, “Sorry Ma’am,” to Millie then... “Sorry Harper,” and turning slouched out.
Jess re-holstered his gun and grinning over at Mort said, “Drink?”
Jess pointed over to where Roger was seated and the Sheriff moseyed over and joined him, soon realizing that Roger was totally overwhelmed.
“Did you see that Sheriff?” he asked as Jess wandered over to the bar to fetch Mort’s drink.
“Uh-huh, seen it more than a few times,” Mort confirmed.
“Well I never did, never saw the like,” Roger said, “my goodness that was faster than the eye can see I do declare.”
“Yeah, Jess is darned fast alright,” Mort agreed, “but he’s pretty selective about who he draws on these days, that I will say for him,” he concluded with a grin at Jess, who was returning to the table with Mort’s beer.
“Well thanks Sheriff,” Jess said with a twinkle in his eye, “so glad you approve.”
Mort slapped his knee and let out a burst of laughter, “Well I guess I wouldn’t have left my town in your hands so often iffen I didn’t approve,” he said honestly.
Jess grinned back at him, “So you’ve met Lord Hamilton –Forbes I take it?”
“Oh yes,” said Mort, “we’ve met,” exchanging a grin with Roger, “I told him he’d got about the best billet in town staying at the Sherman place.”
“Um,” Jess said, “well I figure maybe we’d better stay in town tonight, judging by that,” he said softly to Mort, tipping his hat towards the level of the Red Rye bottle... “and I ain’t had any,” he added.
Mort said he’d sit with Roger while he drank his beer, if Jess wanted to check on Millie.
But no more than ten minutes,” he said as Jess wandered off, “I do have a town to keep in order you know Jess.”
“Sure, sure,” he said as he dived over to Millie and asked Tom if she could have her break then.
Once in the back room he ran a finger tenderly down her cheek, “Are you OK, that fool Garth didn’t hurt you too much...because if...”
“No Jess really I’m fine, I was more angry than anything, he’s got a filthy mouth when he’s drunk.”
“Yeah, well he’s gone now,” and he gently encircled her waist before pulling her close and kissing her. At first gently and then more passionately, giving a little groan of desire as he felt her slender frame yield to him.
After a while he relinquished his hold and looked deeply into her eyes.
“Jeez Millie I really wanted to be with you tonight,” he whispered, “but I guess I’ve gotta guard old Roger back there.”
“It’s alright Jess I knew the score,” she said. “I’m not too happy either, but come on it is real good money and you can’t pretend you don’t need it at the ranch?”
He hung his head, “Yup, I guess you’re right sweetheart, but I sure wish I was spending the night at your place.”
“So do I,” she said kissing him lightly before pushing him gently away, “I’ll see you real soon, OK, once this job is finished?”
He nodded, “The sooner the better,” he said softly before giving her a heart stopping smile and returning to take his post back in the bar.
On his return Mort gave him a small nod towards the door, implying that their guest had maybe imbibed enough for one night. Jess suggested they make a move and Roger seemed happy to be escorted across the road to the Laramie Hotel. Here they parted company with the Sheriff, who wandered off on his nightly patrol, wishing them a good night.
Jess booked two adjacent rooms and helped a now slightly inebriated Roger upstairs.
They parted at Roger’s door and Jess said, “Lock the door and stay put until I come and fetch you at breakfast, but I’m just next door if ya need anything OK?”
“Uh-huh,” said Roger looking slightly bleary eyed “I thought you’d be sharing a billet with that handsome little filly of yours, Millie?” he said with a rather suggestive leer.
“Uh, well ya thought wrong,” Jess said gruffly, “‘night Roger.”
“Night old chap,” and he lurched into his room.
Once Jess heard the door being locked, he ambled off to his own room preparing for a long and rather lonely night. The thought of Millie lying in her big soft bed just across the street making him feel even more restless.
Meanwhile next-door Roger was settling down for the night and considering the evening’s events. He’d been very impressed on several accounts. For starters; the fact that his young guard had remained totally sober, even though it was his night out...obviously taking his work of guarding his charge seriously. Then that incredibly spectacular draw, so impressive and what an asset that would be in a bodyguard he mused. Finally there was the real proof of the young man’s attention to duty, the fact that he had decided to stand guard over Roger rather than spend the night with his girl. The sacrifice was plain to see in the young man’s eyes. Yes, if ever there was the right man for the task of guarding himself and dear Cynthia on their trip to Denver it was Jess Harper, he decided...but would he do it?

Chapter 2
They set off for Paradise on the Monday morning, planning to stay a few days.
“Bear and cougars you say,” Roger had said in delight, “I certainly would like a crack at a bear.”
“Uh, well they’re generally best left to their own devices,” Jess said dryly, “not the kinda critter you’d seek out fer the fun of it.”
“Nope, you ever seen a man mauled by a bear?” Jess asked succinctly.
“Can’t say that I have,” Roger replied pleasantly.
“Yeah, well you don’t wanna,” Jess said mounting up and preparing to head out.
Roger and Cynthia were mounted on two of the best ranch riding mounts and Jess was leading Harpy the old mule, carrying their extra camping gear as a nod to what Daisy called ‘civilized behavior’, for Cynthia’s benefit.
“After all you can’t expect a lady like that to wash dishes in the stream and eat out of the cook pan the way you and Slim tend to if left to your own devices. She needs proper crockery and bedding and several changes of clothing too.”
Jess had sighed in frustration, but had done as he was asked. Even though he knew that trying to get the old mule to move at any decent pace would be practically impossible normally and even more so, heavily laden as he was.
They arrived about noon and Jess quickly set up camp on the shores of the small lake. It was a beautiful spot with far reaching views and had the added benefit that the lake was also teeming with fish as it was fished so infrequently.
“Practically jump out and straight into yer keep net,” Jess said grinning at Roger.
Meanwhile Cynthia had settled down at the lake edge soaking in the magnificent views of the stretch of water and snow topped mountains on the horizon. The huge pines surrounding them and the sandy shore immediately in front of her made for a perfect vista.
“No wonder you call it Paradise...a positive Garden of Eden,” she said smiling up at Jess.
He grinned back, “Not without its serpents though,” he chuckled.
She raised a quizzical eyebrow surprised at the young man’s knowledge of such things.
“You know your Bible then Jess?”
He nodded, “One thing my ma was real particular about was us kids readin’ the Bible stories. And you just watch out Miss Cynthia because it may look like Paradise, but it ain’t without its fair share of dangers.”
“I’m sure I’ll be more than safe with you around to protect us Jess,” she said with a slightly coquettish glance at him.
“Ma’am,” he replied succinctly, before wandering off to fetch some wood for the campfire. He sighed deeply…all he needed was this rather curious woman flirtin’ with him, as though he didn’t have enough on his plate he thought.
It was over supper that night that Roger broached the subject of Jess accompanying them to Denver for their business meeting.
“You really would have the best of everything,” Roger insisted, “a smart hotel room, the best cuisine and of course top remuneration as befits a gentleman of your unprecedented talents.”
Jess just grunted, “Well I dunno Roger I’m not sure if Slim can spare me right now. After all he’s been doin’ all the chores these last couple of weeks and we’ll need to um...start bringing the stock down for the winter pretty soon,” he improvised.
“Really, but it’s barely autumn...er fall yet,” said Roger with surprise.
“Yup, but these Wyoming winters can come down on ya real quick,” Jess said thinking on his feet. “That old snow can start fallin’ before you know it and then we’d lose the whole herd iffen we hadn’t brought ‘em down to the low grazing see?”
“I hear you,” said Roger his eyes twinkling with amusement.
Then he turned to his wife, “We’ll just have to think of a way to persuade the young man won’t we Cyn, my dear?”
Jess nearly choked on his coffee, but said nothing, merely went off to check on the horses.
Roger turned to wink at his wife, “Oh dear I do believe he’s misconstrued my comment my dear,” he said with a bark of laughter, but Cynthia merely followed Jess‘s back view a look of slight wistfulness in her eyes.

The following morning Jess had the fire going and coffee on at first light, intending to take Cynthia and Roger on a trek up the small mountain behind them so they could enjoy the spectacular view. He also had high hopes of finding a few unsuspecting wild turkeys roosting in the trees in the foothills too and figured it would make a change from the usual fare.
They were sitting around the camp fire enjoying a final coffee before tidying up when Jess suddenly threw his cup down, grabbed his rifle and tore off towards the lake.
“Gadzooks,” exclaimed Roger in dismay, “what’s going on old girl?”
Cynthia too was shocked and they both leapt up and then quailed at the scene they saw playing out before them.
An elderly man was racing along the edge of the lake with a huge brown bear loping after him.
Even as they watched they saw Jess take aim and fire a warning shot to try and scare off the animal, although he was not in range to kill it.
The huge creature paused for a moment and raised itself up on its hind legs seeming to be sniffing the air for this new interloper, before going back down on all fours and continuing to chase its quarry.
The disreputable looking old timer, dressed in filthy buckskins had taken the opportunity to change direction and was now heading for a huge pine tree. He was halfway up with surprising agility, by the time Jess tore down the slope towards the still advancing bear.
He waited until the critter was within range so he could get a good clean shot...but just as he fired the animal lurched to the left and so instead of a shot through the heart/lung area Jess caught the shoulder, and the bear just kept on coming.
It was nearly upon him when he shot again, this time right through the head but the great animal kept on charging for another few seconds lashing out with its huge paw and catching Jess a glancing blow to his left arm, before finally crashing down, twitching and writhing for a few seconds before it finally lay dead at his feet.
Jess stood clutching his bloody arm for a moment and then fell to his knees.
Moments later the disreputable old man ran over having shinned down from the tree, Roger and Cyn bringing up the rear both looking deeply shocked.
Jess half turned and then his face lit up, “Why Denver James you old son of a gun, dontcha know enough not to mess with a bear?”
Denver gave his toothless grin and reaching over clasped Jess’s shoulder warmly.
“Dadgum it boy iffen you didn’t just save my hide!”
“Jess you’re terribly hurt,” said Cynthia arriving out of breath and looking close to tears as she saw the bloodstained shirt sleeve.
“Garldarn bears don’t even have the sense to know when they’ve done died,” spat Denver throwing the critter a pained look. Then he grinned at Jess, “but look on the bright side bear steaks for supper?”
Jess turned pale and swallowed hard, but whether from his injuries or the thought of eating bear it wasn’t clear.
Denver turned to the company and said confidentially, “Jess here ain’t any too keen on bear meat, made him kinda sick a few years back.”
Then turning to Jess said, “I don’t think you’ve ever gotten over it, have ya boy?” he asked raising an amused eyebrow.
But when Jess merely groaned Denver leaned forwards and hauled him up, “I guess we’d better get him back to your camp folks,” he said addressing an increasingly worried looking Roger and Cynthia. “He looks a mite like he’s gonna chuck...or pass out maybe,” he said squinting across at Jess, now with a more concerned look.
Once Jess was sitting down with his back to a log, beside the camp fire Denver said, “So you got the makings to clean it out real good then boy?”
Jess nodded, “Saddle bag Den, spirit and bandages, clean water in the canteen.”
He returned moments later, Cynthia and Roger hovering in the background feeling unsure as to what to do.
“Can I er...do anything to help?” Cynthia finally asked Denver as he knelt down by Jess and started stripping off his tattered shirt.
Denver glanced up and noted the pale trembling woman in the smart eastern duds and figured not.
“No thanks ma’am, I guess this is men’s work, you could maybe hold his arm fer me Mister?” he asked, throwing Roger a resigned glance, secretly thinking he wouldn’t be much help either.
“Certainly, old chap, only too glad to oblige,” Roger said at once squatting down on the other side of Jess and gingerly supporting the dreadfully lacerated arm.
“Bastard critter gave ya a real good swipe Jess boy,” Denver said conversationally. “Looks to be almost down to the dang bone here...Like I said, not got the sense to know when they’ve been killed those darned bears, I guess he did this as he fell though.”
Cynthia gave a little gasp and swayed slightly.
“I should sit down Ma’am,” Denver said squinting up at her, not needing another casualty to tend.
All the time Denver was muttering to himself and cleaning the wound out with the cool water Jess’s expression stayed impassive, the only sign of his pain a nerve twitching in his cheek and his teeth tightly clenched.
“This may smart a tad buddy,” Denver said as he uncorked the bottle of Red Eye and prepared to pour the neat spirit over the open wound.
Jess gave him a slightly sardonic glance, knowing that old Den was the master of understatement.
“Hold hard,” Denver said to Roger as he sloshed the strong spirit into the wound...Roger turned deathly pale and looked like he might faint as Jess bucked and cussed as the alcohol burnt the gaping flesh.
Then it was all over. The wound tightly bound and amazingly, to Cynthia’s eyes, Jess was cracking jokes with Denver over the culinary delights he was aiming to cook up from the bear’s carcass.
“Well you just leave me out of yer dinner party I think I’ll be just fine with a nice rabbit stew,” he said chuckling.
Cynthia couldn’t believe how incredibly brave he was being and just stared almost open mouthed at the banter between the two men.
Jess intercepted the look and misunderstood, thinking Cynthia was maybe miffed that she hadn’t been formally introduced.
“Uh sorry, Roger, Cyn, this is an old friend of mine Denver James, Denver…Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes all the way over from the old country.”
“Well heck Jess why didn’t ya say,” said Denver removing his disreputable old buckskin cap and holding it to his chest, bowing slightly.
“I’m real sorry fer cussin’ that way ma’am I didn’t realize I was in the company of like... royalty?”
“I say my good man, nothing like that,” Roger spoke up quickly, “just a pair of plain old visitors here to enjoy the sights don’t you know!”
“Uh, well I guess you’ve seen a few more dang sights that you’d expected today,” Denver said with a cheery grin.
“So what are you doin’ here anyway Den and where are Cody and Mick?” Jess asked referring to the old man’s sons.
“Way back in camp,” he said jerking his head back towards the mountain. We were just takin’ a short cut across Sherman land on our way back home...been tradin’ up Casper way, thought we’d take a break and I just came down to do a little early morning ’fishin’, I figure old Mister Bear had the same notion.”
Jess nodded, “And so did you do well in Casper?”
“Well enough,” the old man said his rheumy eyes suddenly secretive.
“Come on Den I’m hardly gonna tell Mort, am I? Then as an afterthought, “Is Kate with ya?”
“Nope ‘fraid she ain’t boy, stayed back on the mountain...shame she’d have fixed up that arm real good.”
Jess turned back to Cyn and Roger who were avidly soaking up all the local gossip.
“Denver here lives up the Sherman Mountain with his two boys and his cousin Kate Munroe... She’s a real interesting lady,” Jess said enthusiastically, “really into all that Indian healing we were talkin’ about the other day Roger.”
“Um, well the Sheriff seems to think she’s real interestin’,” Denver said morosely, “I don’t know why he doesn’t just up and marry her and be done with it.”
“Because Kate don’t wanna get married that’s why,” Jess said with spirit.
“So, what do you do for a living Mister James?” Roger asked looking fascinated.
“He makes Moonshine,” said Jess.
“Fur trader,” said Denver both men speaking at the same time.
Then the old timer grinned ruefully, “A bit of both I guess.”
“That’s making Moonshine, from illicit whiskey stills isn’t it?” Roger asked.
Jess and Denver exchanged a rather anxious glance before Jess said, “Well, um sort of...”
Then Roger gave a bark of laughter, “Why that’s just wonderful. At home I have a supplier of Poitin... Irish hill whiskey amazing stuff... sound a lot like your moonshine Denver old chap!”
Both men visibly relaxed, “Well I guess you’d better sample some,” Denver said with a grin. “Me and the boys will come by tonight.”
Once Denver had left, Cynthia started fussing over Jess, giving Miss Daisy a run for her money, so Jess thought.
“Don’t you think we should head back to the ranch?” she asked, “You don’t look well Jess, not well at all.”
Jess just gave her his poker face, “Well I guess you wouldn’t either iffen you’d been socked by a darned bear.”
The he saw the hurt look in her eyes.
“Look I’m sorry Miss Cynthia, but I’m fine really and it would be much better for me to rest-up here for a few days than start riding out, that could make it bleed some ya see?”
“Really, would it?” she asked looking even more distressed.
“Uh-huh, now do ya think we could have an early supper tonight, because you really don’t wanna sample Denver’s recipe fer bear!”
Actually, the evening was a huge success, with the big rough mountain men making a profound impression on Roger and Cynthia with their homespun philosophy and wicked sense of humor.
Denver, Cody and Mick rode in at sunset and were armed with bear steak for those who wanted them and a few bottles of Moonshine as well.
“Come on Jess boy, this’ ll fix ya up iffen yer still feelin’ a tad poorly,” he said offering a small bottle of the brew.
“Thanks Den, much appreciated,” said Jess from where he was sitting by the fire flanked by Cyn and Roger.
“Well I’ve brought some steaks over, but looks like you folks have already eaten,” said a crestfallen looking Denver.
“Yup sorry buddy, we’ve just finished supper, but would be happy to share some Moonshine and a few yarns,” Jess said glad of the company.
The wee small hours of the morning found them all sitting around the camp fire laughing and having, as Roger termed it later, simply a whale of a time. It was amazing he told his friends back home months later, how much he and these wild, rough, tough Mountain men had in common. They all had a love of good whiskey for a start, along with the passion for hunting and fishing and also something else...a feeling of oneness with nature.
“Whether it be the subcontinent, the old homeland or here in the Americas, you just can’t beat being at one with nature, can you?” Roger said now.
Jess and Denver grinned over at this strange hombre from thousands of miles away. He had, different speech, clothes and ideas, but maybe at heart was as much a pioneer as they were.
“Well I’ll sure drink to that Roger,” Jess said, and they sat back, enjoying good drink, good company and the Big Open.

They returned back to the ranch a few days later, Cynthia and Roger refreshed and revitalised after their adventure, Jess somewhat less so.
As soon as they rode in Slim marched out of the barn to greet them and stopped in his tracks when he saw a rather pale Jess with his arm in a sling.
“Garldarn it Jess,” he exploded in exasperation, “what have you done now?”
“Please Mister Sherman, Slim don’t be angry,” Cynthia said looking near to tears, “He was so very brave,” and she looked like she might well swoon, Slim thought fleetingly.
“Oh, so you’ve been brave have you pard?” he asked with an amused glance up at Jess, “So what was it huh? Indian raid, charged by a buffalo...shoot-out with the whole of the Kinney Gang um?”
“Bear,” said Jess succinctly slipping down from the saddle. “Was fixing to make ol’ Den James his breakfast...”
“Until Jess here stepped in,” Roger broke in excitedly, “I’ve never seen shooting like it, or such bravery, the way he went after that huge dangerous animal!”
Slim ’s expression quickly changed to concern, “You OK pard?” he asked softly.
Jess just nodded.
“Get on inside and let Daisy take a look, I’ll look after the horses,” he said quickly.
For once Jess did as he was told and mooched off towards the house, followed by Slim’ s troubled gaze.
“He will be alright?” Cynthia asked picking up on Slim’ s concern.
Slim flicked his eyes back to her, “Oh yes, sure ma’am, tough as old boots is Jess,” he said before leading Traveller off to the barn.
Jess was remarkably quiet for the rest of the day, even submitting to Daisy’s ministrations without too much backchat.
However, it wasn’t until he and Slim were bedding down that night that the reason for his reflective mood became apparent.
He was lying on his bed nursing his injured arm with his good one as Slim washed up and then wandered over throwing him a quizzical look.
“Hurting?” He asked kindly.
“Is that what’s been bothering you since you landed home then?” Slim asked sinking down on his own bed and peering over at his buddy.
“Nope I reckon not.”
“Well what is it then Jess, you’ve hardly said two words all evening?”
“I’ve been thinkin’… ain’t I?”
“Oh well first time for everything,” Slim said with a chuckle at his own wit.
Jess just sighed and rolled his eyes.
“OK so what’s up then, what have you been thinking on?”
“It’s this dang trip over to Denver.”
“Look Jess I understand you don’t want to do it. Sure, it was real good money, but you’ve done a great job with them and I figure it isn’t fair to make you do anymore, specially the way you are right now.”
“No, it ain’t that Slim, I was kinda thinking of doing it.”
“You were? Slim asked in surprise, “Well that’s something of a turnaround isn’t it? I thought you were dead against the trip?”
“Well I was, up until I got to know them a bit better and well...if they really are in danger, like Mort says, well then maybe I should help them out.”
Slim nodded, “OK so why the change of heart though?”
“It was gettin’ to know them properly,” Jess said thoughtfully. “For all his strange clothes and the way he talks I reckon ol’ Roger ain’t that much different to us ya know.”
Slim gave a bark of laughter, “Really...well can’t say as I can see the similarities myself.”
Jess just shrugged, “He likes to hunt and fish, he’s done it all over the world ya know Slim. Got a real likin’ fer the Big Open too” he said his eyes alight with enthusiasm.
“Really a kindred spirit then,” Slim said with a chuckle.
Jess ignored him and continued.
“It was more than that though. It was after I was hurt by that dang bear. Denver fixed me up real well and Cynthia could hardly stand to watch, hell she nearly keeled over. But then after Den had headed home, she actually changed the dressings and looked after me real good...a lady like that Slim,” he said looking kind of choked... “that’s kinda humbling ya know pard. So, well I figure maybe I owe them somethin’?”
“OK Jess. But why don’t you just sleep on it buddy, see how you feel at the end of the week?”
But Jess got his stubborn look on and just said, “I need to do it Slim. I really don’t wanna, but I guess I should ya know, go an’ keep ‘em safe.”

Chapter 3
The following morning after breakfast Jess declared he had some business in town. He and Slim were cleaning out the barn and his pard didn’t take the news too well.
“Come on Jess, you’ve been off hunting the last few days I was kind of hoping Cynthia and Roger might entertain themselves today and maybe I could get some work out of you.”
“Well what do ya think I’ve been doin’ down at Paradise, sittin’ on my butt. I’ve been lookin’ out fer them real good and if you remember it was your dang idea! Anyway, I can’t do too much with this bum arm, can I?” he said waving his bandaged arm in Slim’s face.
“OK no need to get yer pants in a ruck Jess and I know you’ve been hurt. But I’m just saying I could do with a hand today. You’ve got one good one, haven’t you?” he added sarcastically. “We really need to fix up that leaking roof on the lean-to before the weather turns.”
“Well why dontcha get Roger to help you? Say it’s an old traditional American skill, lean-to mending and you can pass it on free of charge? From the sounds of it he’d find it real useful, seein’ as how he was complaining of a leaky roof in that ol’ stately home of his.”
Slim merely rolled his eyes, “How long will you be?”
“Back for the noon Stage, promise,” he said grinning.
He breezed into Mort’s office sometime later and after a cheery greeting poured himself a coffee.
“Help yourself why don’t you,” said Mort with a mock glare.
“Sorry Mort did you want one?” Jess asked looking the picture of innocence.
“Uh yeah, if you’ve left me any,” the Sheriff growled.
Jess grinned at him and pouring out a cup plonked it down on the desk before his friend. Then straddling the chair opposite took a sip of his own drink.
Mort smiled back, “So how are you getting on with the Lord and Lady then Jess?”
“Real good actually, that’s what I’ve come to see you about Mort.”
“Uh yeah I was thinkin’ of taking them up on the job offer to escort them down to Denver and look out for them while they do their business deal there...but I just needed some more information. I kinda get the feeling you’ve been holding out on me Mort?”
The Sheriff gazed at Jess over the rim of his cup, as though making a decision and then placing the cup down again said, “Yes, well if you’re serious about this job, then you deserve to be put in the picture Jess. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything before, but the ‘powers that be’ have been kinda cagey about the whole business. They reckon that the fewer people that know everything the better.”
Jess looked slightly bewildered, “Powers that be...full picture? I reckon you’d better start filling me in Mort, don’t you?”
“OK, well Lord Hamilton-Forbes is kinda particular about his body guards, got to be someone that he trusts and gets on with and he’s already told me you fit the bill and he really wants you...But I have to tell you Jess this is a big job, real big...with him being who he is an’ all.”
“Well I know who he dang well is, an English lord who kinda likes huntin’ and fishin’ and doin’ the odd business deal. OK he may be as rich as all get out, but under it all I figure he’s just a regular guy.”
“Um...well that’s where you figure wrong Jess. Lord Roger Hamilton-Forbes the Third is actually a distant cousin of the Queen of England and probably one of the richest and most influential men in the dang country.”
Jess just stared in amazement, “The Queen...what that Victoria? The one that always looks so darned miserable in pictures?”
“She’s in mourning Jess, lost her husband er...Albert and I guess she ain’t ever gonna get over it.”
Jess just nodded, “Oh right...so what about Roger then...does that make him at risk of bein’ abducted or somethin’?”
“Probably yes, but that’s not the main problem over here. It’s this deal he’s set his heart on. Apparently, a lot of folk want to try and stop him.”
“Yup, he’s endorsing the railroad...or to be more specific one particular railroad. He’s willing to buy shares, or more shares I should say, he’s already put one hell of a lot of money into it.”
Jess gave a bark of laughter, “Well that’s kinda ironic ain’t it?” Me being employed to guard a guy who’s gonna put us out of business...well the Stage line anyway.”
“Ha, I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s inevitable eventually you know Jess, the march of progress.”
“I know alright. Grow with Wyoming and all that, but just try telling Slim.”
“Um well anyway this won’t affect us in Wyoming the proposed Railroad is down in Colorado.”
“You seem to know a lot about it all Mort?”
“Yeah, well I’ve made it my business to know. If there’s going to be any attempted assassination, it’s not going to be on my watch.”
“Well sure it won’t I’m guarding him ain’t I?” Jess said with a grin.
“Yup there is that. Plus, nobody knows he’s here apparently. They sent some decoy that looks like him down to Boulder on a hunting trip and so anyone that might want to pick him off is wandering about down there,” he said with a laugh.
Jess shook his head, “That sounds real serious, going to those lengths...so these people mean business then?”
“Afraid so...that’s why Sheriff Denny Jackson down in Denver is taking on a couple of extra deputies. But they also want an undercover bodyguard to be on the look-out for them all the time. Someone to just fade into the background and watch everything... But be there if anything happens and as I say his Lordship wants you and you alone. So ... you’ll do it?”
Jess looked down for a long time deliberating and then finally grinned across at his buddy. “I guess so. But I just hope Slim don’t find out what line of business he’s dang well in, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Mort sighed, “Or he might say all the more reason to take the job Jess...more money than you could earn in a year at the ranch for just a few weeks work.”
Jess nodded, “But I’ve got the feelin’ I’m gonna earn every last cent Mort.”

Jess was home in time to help change the noon Stage as promised. Later when the men were alone in the barn, grooming and feeding the stage horses, Jess took the opportunity to sound out his buddy.
“I went to town to talk it all through with Mort, this business of guarding Roger and Cynthia for a tad longer and I’ve decided I’ll do it.”
Slim’ s head shot up from where he’d been cleaning out a horse’s hoof and letting go of the critter’s leg, said “You have?”
“Yup, it’s what you wanted isn’t it Slim? Jeez on those wages we’d be set up for months to come. Can buy in new stock; even think about buying that parcel of land out back of the old Benson place that you keep goin’ on about.”
Slim looked thoughtful, “Yes I know the money’s good Jess. But I’ve been thinking about it and well...that’s one heck of a lot of cash and I figure it reflects just how dang dangerous this job’s going to be. If it means that we might lose you...well I guess we don’t need the money that much pard.”
“Hang it all Slim, it’s only good money because ol’ Roger is so darned rich, he can afford to pay good wages...and anyway I can look after myself you know that.”
Slim just sighed and rolled his eyes, “Sure you can,” he said sarcastically, “so you were just funnin’ about with that bear, were you?”
“Well I’m still here ain’t I?” Jess said in exasperation.
Slim finally relaxed and grinned at his friend, “Yup I guess you are. So have you told Roger? He’ll be real pleased...Cynthia too,” he said more quietly.
“No of course not I wanted to run it past you first...so you’re OK with me goin’? It’ll only be a couple of weeks pard, three at the most and I’ll be home in plenty of time to bring the herd down for the winter.”
“Uh...I suppose so,” and he turned back to his task.
It was a little later when they were finishing grooming the horses that Slim said casually, “So how old do you think that Cynthia is then?”
“Cynthia, she seems younger than Roger?”
Jess stopped and thought about it for a moment, “I guess so, late thirties maybe, he looks to be over forty...kinda hard to tell...why?”
“Just wondering, she’s a mighty fine looking woman though isn’t she? A real stunner...for her age that is.”
“Um,” Jess said vaguely, whilst mooching over to Traveller’ s stall and checking his water bucket.
It hadn’t escaped Slim’ s notice that Cynthia seemed slightly changed since her camping trip where Jess had been hurt protecting them all from the bear. He’d caught her staring at his buddy once or twice with a rather confused look in her eyes...like she was trying to figure his pard out he thought. Or with Sherman perception, maybe she was trying to deal with some new and unsettling emotions within herself. Oh yes, he’d seen woman gaze at his friend that way before...in fact too many times and it usually ended badly.
“Well don’t you think so?” Slim persisted.
Jess who was now checking a worn bridle looked up and frowned, “About what?”
Slim sighed deeply, “About Cynthia, she’s... well a real lady you know Jess.”
“Yes, I know that,” Jess said now narrowing his eyes and giving Slim his full attention.
“Yes well, just you remember that when you’re off in the big city and getting up close and personal guarding her.”
Jess glared at his friend, “Not only is she a lady, but a married one and I ain’t about to forget that in a hurry Slim.”
“Um...well as long as she doesn’t either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that...oh hang it all...I’ve caught her sort of looking at you a few times Jess, you know the way woman do...”
Then the penny dropped and Jess gave a bark of laughter, “Come on Slim, she’s just sorry for me that’s all. She was real upset when that ol’ bear took a swipe at me...that’s all it is I promise you... Do you know your problem?”
“Nope, but I guess you’re going to tell me.”
“You worry too dang much Slim, come on let’s go, I’m starvin’ and its fried chicken for dinner....”

Jess had wasted no time in letting Roger know he would be pleased to accompany him to Denver as bodyguard and as Slim had predicted Lord Hamilton-Forbes was delighted.
“I say old chap that’s absolutely topping! Did you hear that Cyn dear, Jess has agreed to travel with us and keep an eye on everything during our visit?”
Cynthia looked slightly startled, but rallied well. “That is good news,” she said glancing over at Jess and then looking away quickly and blushing slightly.
However, neither man noticed as they were busy making plans.
Daisy and Mike had already headed off to bed and now Cynthia arose yawning. “I think I’ll make my way across to our room now dear,” she said smiling at Roger, “goodnight all.”
Slim smiled and rose to open the door for her, but Jess and Roger merely waved vaguely in her direction.
“I won’t be long my dear,” Roger called out.
“Night Ma’am,” said Jess before turning back to some documents Roger was showing him.
But it was Slim who saw her turn back, a wistful look in her eyes, before she turned to hurry off across the yard towards the bunkhouse. Then he made a swift decision and pulling the door to behind him, fell into step with Cynthia.
“I’ll see you across Ma’am, light the lamps for you and check the stove too, it gets a tad chilly in there at this time of year.”
“Thank you Slim that is kind and its Cynthia you know.”
Slim smiled down at her, “Of course...Cynthia.”
Once inside he busied himself lighting the lamps and then went off for some more logs for the fire.
On his return he noted that Cynthia had poured herself a small pink gin.
“Care for a nightcap?” she asked smiling across at him.
Slim wasn’t really all that keen on Roger’s favorite tipple, but not wanting to look unfriendly he accepted the drink with thanks and they both settled by the now roaring fire.
“It’s er...very good of you to agree to Jess accompanying us,” she started, “you’ll miss him.”
“Yes I will,” Slim said glancing over, “but I guess we need the cash and Jess knows that, he’s doing it for all of us at the ranch.”
She smiled then, “That sounds like him. He’s very loyal and trustworthy isn’t he. That’s why Roger was so eager to engage him as our guard. You see if I’m honest with you Slim, Roger wasn’t too happy about me accompanying him on this trip. He loves me to be with him usually, but he was concerned about the dangers. Well now with Jess to look after me he can relax a little.
“Look after you?” Slim echoed.
“Well mostly yes. Both of us on the journey of course, but whilst dear Roger is in his business meetings then we will need Jess to look after me, keep me out of trouble,” she said throwing Slim a slightly quizzical glance, before looking down into her drink. “Well from a distance,” she continued “after all he is supposed to be undercover...in public anyway.”
Slim said nothing for a moment and then clearing his throat said quietly, “Well I think you’ll find Jess will act professionally as befitting one in the employ of a lord and lady, both in public and in private,” he finished dryly.
“I’m sure you’re right Slim,” she said with a small smile, somehow feeling that there was some sort of hidden agenda behind Slim’s seemingly innocent words. She stared into his eyes and saw concern there, but before she could question him the door banged open and a jovial Roger burst in.
“I say old chap I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to let Jess come on my payroll for a little while, I really do appreciate it. I think Cyn here would have me abduct him and take him back to England with us to work for us there, wouldn’t you old girl? “he said with a bark of laughter. “Made quite a hit with my wife I think...”
When he saw the shocked look in Slim’ s eyes he frowned, “I say old chap, only joshing you. I wouldn’t really try and poach your partner,” he said, “really, just my sense of humour don’t you know!”
“Sure, I get it,” Slim said smiling weakly before turning to take his leave, “night ....”
Once he’d gone Roger turned to his wife. “Lovely folk these Americans, but strange sense of humor don’t you think old girl?”
When Slim returned to the ranch house he found Jess poring over some papers and he sat down next to him at the table.
“Is this Roger’s business deal then?”
“Uh, yeah,” Jess said quickly moving the paper to one side away from Slim’ s vision.
“So, what’s it all about then…no need to be so darned secretive is there?”
Jess sighed, “You won’t like it.”
“Try me.”
“He’s putting money into the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.”
“What the DRG...goddamn it Jess it’s the railroads that are our main competitors or had you forgotten?”
“Nope I hadn’t forgotten, but had you forgotten how much he’s paying me to look out for him Slim? This is a big deal, I mean a real big deal...here look at this map.”
Slim sighed but cast a glance down at the detailed map Jess had pushed across.
“But this is heading south, through Colorado ... it won’t affect us at all.”
“That’s right. Roger’s been filling me in on everything. He bought shares in the DRG back in ’71 and they laid lines down as far as Colorado Springs. Then they moved on south to Pueblo and Canon city, they were heading for Texas, but there’s been a change of plan.”
“There has?”
“Yup, they’ve decided to take the lines due west to cater for all the new mines that are opening up in the area... Going to be real tricky, all sorts of problems, a gorge to bridge and then only a narrow track along an old river bed...but other companies want to buy the land too...mostly the Santa Fe Company.”
“And Roger’s worried about the competition?”
“Roger’s worried about gettin’ his dang head blowed off as he’s the main backer. Without him there will be no deal...so now do ya see why he’s so darned concerned about their safety?”
“Sure, he’s just been talking to me about it...seems he’s real worried about Cynthia, it looks like she’s the one you’ll be guarding mostly...while Roger is in meetings and the like.”
“Well that shouldn’t be too taxing,” said Jess with a broad grin.
“Jess are you taking this seriously, it looks to me like there are one hell of a lot of folk out there who would like to see Roger dead...come on pard it’s not too late to change your mind you know.”
Jess just shook his head and threw Slim his stubborn look.
“Can’t do that Slim, I’ve given him my word....”

Over on the other side of the yard Roger was snoring gently, whilst Cynthia lay looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought.
It was just a crazy infatuation of course it was; she knew that...the way she felt about the blue-eyed Texan. He’d certainly given her no cause to feel this way. But she hadn’t felt so giddy and excited since she was a young woman...it was just madness...Goodness she was a mother of four, the eldest just turned fifteen. Now if it had been Phoebe feeling this way it would make perfect sense. A young inexperienced girl, but Cynthia was a happily married woman.
She turned slightly and looked lovingly at her husband’s profile in the moon light filtering in through the window and felt a little twist of guilt. Of course she loved him and this was just an aberration...a kind of silly madness, that meant nothing and wasn’t real.
But that cowboy...the way he called her ‘ma’am’ in his Texan drawl...the jingle of his spurs... those deep blue eyes that could be as soft and gentle as a summer’s sky, or as dark and forbidding as a stormy sea. That lively banter between him and Slim, that made her laugh out loud, why they were brothers in all but blood she thought fleetingly.
Then she remembered Slim’ s words earlier. Was he trying to warn her off in his own very subtle way? She blushed at the thought... And what had Roger said, “He’s made quite a hit with my wife I think.” It was said in jest of course...but even so. She must be careful... Really what was she thinking and she rolled her eyes and gave a little chuckle. Then turning on her side closed her eyes and at last fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The following morning their final plans were made over the breakfast table.
Slim would drive them to the Rail head early the following morning. Jess was to make his way there separately and act as though he didn’t know the couple.
“It’s a dang fool notion going undercover in Laramie if you ask me,” Jess said, “everyone knows I’ve been showin’ Roger and Cynthia around the town this last week.”
“Yes, well if it’s what Mort wants so you’d better do it pard,” said Slim. “Anyway, could be there’s strangers in town...on the lookout.”
“I guess you’re right. Anyway, there are two guards on board who have been briefed. If there is any trouble, they’ll help me out some. Then Sheriff Jackson‘s gonna meet us in Denver...so should all be just fine,” he finished giving Cynthia an encouraging smile.
“Would you like me to help you pack dear?” Daisy said kindly, imagining that Cynthia usually had servants to help her out.
Cynthia smiled over at her, “You know I would Daisy, thank you.”
The two women bustled off to the bunkhouse chatting animatedly about the best way to fold silk dresses and why was it one never had enough hats when traveling?
Roger rolled his eyes and then gave the back view of his wife, disappearing off across the yard, a fond look.
“I was truly blessed when I married that dear girl,” he said quietly, “not many women would traipse halfway across the globe to support their spouse.”
Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance, “I’ll keep her safe ya know Roger.”
“Yes old chap I know that,” he said, seemingly pulling himself together. “So, Jess I do believe you were going to give me a lesson in horse breaking the Indian way today um?”
The day was spent with Roger, Slim and Cynthia standing on the side-lines whilst Jess worked a rather edgy Palomino mare, who was just about two parts, broke. He talked Roger through the basics of horse whispering. Once up in the saddle he was thrown around quite a bit and Roger, and Cynthia in particular, were very impressed by his skills in taming the large excitable horse, but also quite anxious.
“But it looks so dangerous Jess don’t you get hurt and thrown off a lot?” Cynthia asked.
Jess chuckled, “Yup and usually more than today...but I didn’t wanna risk breaking anything before our trip...Ol’ Abby here is almost broke now and I didn’t figure she’d do me too much damage.”
“Abby, that’s a pretty name,” Cynthia said.
Jess chuckled, “She’s named after an old girlfriend, she was trouble too.”
Cynthia laughed, but Slim noticed how she also flushed up...just what was going on here he wondered?

Chapter 4
Jess said his farewells to all at the ranch and left for town very early the following morning. He rode one of the ranch horses and left him in the livery for Slim to collect later in the morning, when he dropped off Cynthia and Roger at the rail head.
He marched down a deserted Main Street and up a back alley that brought him to the rear entrance of the saloon. Then ran lightly up the outside staircase and tapped on the door. Just moments later he heard the bolt pulled back and the door swung open revealing Millie in her nightdress, a shawl pulled hastily around her shoulders.
He grinned down at her, “You got my message then?”
She nodded, pulling him in. He closed the door behind him and followed her along the passage to her room.
Once inside she grinned up at him. “Mose delivered it last night, he was dying to know what it said,” she chuckled.
“You don’t mind me comin’ by so early, but I’ve gotta be at the rail head by ten o’clock, catch the Denver bound.”
She nodded and then took both his hands in hers, “I wish you weren’t going Jess, I’ve got a real bad feeling about this job.”
He chuckled at that and then sobered when he saw the expression on her face...
“Hey I thought it was only me that got bad feelings,” he said gently pulling her into his warm embrace.
She pulled back a little looking up into his eyes and he couldn’t resist very tenderly kissing her, before picking her up and carrying her back to the still warm big feather bed.
Much later she lay in the crook of his arm and said softly, “You will be careful in Denver won’t you?”
“Sure you know me.”
“Um, that’s what’s worrying me. I still don’t know why you have to go...it’s a lot of money I know...but well money isn’t everything.”
“I know sweetheart, but it ain’t just about the money. I kinda like the guy and anyway I promised I’d keep ‘em safe and I always keep my word.”
She nodded. “I understand that,” and then she sighed.
“That Lady Cynthia is very sophisticated and beautiful, isn’t she?”
Jess threw her a quizzical look. “And also, very happily married, with four kids back home too...and she’s old enough to be my...er...”
“Your Ma? I don’t think so Jess.”
“I was gonna say big sister,” he said ruffling her hair and grinning down at her.
“Oh you!” she expostulated and a play fight ensued...until Jess stopped fighting and started kissing, with the inevitable consequences.
It was nearly nine thirty when Lily knocked on the door saying Tom was wondering how Millie was fixed to do a bit of work that morning.
“Garldarn it!” Jess said leaping out of bed and searching for his clothes, “I’m supposed to be seeing Mort, and the dang train goes in half an hour!”
Luckily Mort Cory knew Jess of old and when he didn’t turn up by half past nine, he moseyed over to the Saloon. He bumped into Jess just hurtling out of the door still fastening the buttons on his smart vest.
“Snakes alive! Well don’t you look the dude about town,” Mort said chuckling and eyeing Jess’s Sunday best clothes, from the snowy white shirt with the black tie, down to the frock coat and Sunday best hat and boots.
“Yeah well I am travelin’ with a Lord and Lady ya know,” Jess said, “gotta look my best. Besides got my work clothes right here,” he said holding up a battered looking valise.”
“No Jess you’re traveling near them, not with them remember? You’ve never cast eyes on ‘em before.”
“Yeah, I hear you Mort, but I can’t see the point.”
“Point is these supposed hit men...if they exist that is, will be looking out for guards and dispatch them first. You just sit tight and try not to make it obvious you’re on the payroll...that way you stay alive longer and serve Lord Hamilton-Forbes better too,” he said with a wink.
“So you really think they’ll try and get to him on the journey there?”
“I really don’t know Jess; all this stuff is kinda out of my league. All I know is it’s big business and a lot of money at stake, not to mention politics. Some folk aren’t happy with the new proposed routes. I guess anything could happen.”
“Just great,” Jess said sarcastically.
“Look you’ve got some back up, two of the guards Charlie and Pete can really handle themselves. They’ll be travelling in the mail car and will patrol all the passenger cars regularly. There are no private carriages, so Lord and Lady Hamilton–Forbes will be seated in the end car next to the mail car...you will sit diagonally opposite them. That way you can see them and anyone approaching from the other end of the car got it?”
“Yup. I’ve got it.”
“Oh, and Jess I figure you should have this,” Mort said, handing over a Deputy badge. “It may help some if you find yourself in trouble...some folk will back down when they see a bit of tin on a man’s vest.”
Jess chuckled, taking it and putting it on his own vest, “Thanks Mort I figure I may need all the help I can get!”
All the time they had been talking they had been walking briskly towards the railhead and now they could hear the piercing whistle of the arriving train and minutes later saw Slim just helping Cynthia and Roger on board.
Jess pulled his hat down hard, “Wish me luck Mort...see ya.”
“I surely do boy,” Mort said quietly as he watched his good friend give Slim a little salute and jump aboard the train, “I guess you’re gonna need it.”
Jess settled himself in the seat that Mort had specified, studiously ignoring Cynthia and Roger...although he felt Cynthia’s gaze upon his a couple of times. A quick scan of the carriage revealed a few well-known faces and of the others none seemed to look particularly menacing. Mostly elderly ranchers going to do business in Cheyenne, accompanied by their wives.
However, he didn’t look any further than their own car, thinking it would look suspicious if he patrolled the whole train and figured he’d leave that job to Charlie and Pete.
Charlie had been across to check his ticket, but other than a subtle wink, had made no mention of the job they were both there to do.
All was peaceful until they reached Cheyenne and then there was a clamor of folk alighting and many more climbing on board. Now Jess was mostly surrounded by people he didn’t know and some of them mighty rough looking too. One in particular caught his attention and to his trained eye he put him down as a gun slick. His suspicions were aroused even further when the tall lanky man with the scarred cheek leaned over and said something in a fierce whisper to the occupant of a seat, just two up from where Cynthia and Roger were seated.
The elderly rancher seemed to argue and then reluctantly got up and made his way further down the car, vacating his seat to the newcomer and Jess watched him vigilantly for the next hour of the journey. However, it seemed that his suspicions were to come to nought as the scruffy looking individual merely scanned the local paper before settling down to sleep.
Jess had relaxed and was just wondering if a nap was in order himself, when ‘scar face’ as Jess had dubbed him awoke stretched and then after a cursory glance around the car got up and made his way slowly towards where Cynthia and Roger were chatting quietly.
Jess was immediately on the alert knowing that there was nothing beyond them but the mail car, so the hombre was up to no good he figured any which way you looked at it. If he wasn’t gunning for Roger then maybe he was about to rob the mail and take a dive off the train when it slowed down and stopped in a few minutes to take on water just beyond Boulder.
Then as the scruffy man came closer Jess saw the glint of a knife in his hand. Moving like lightning he grabbed hold of the lanky man’s arm just as he lunged at Roger. As he jerked the assailant’s arm roughly back he dropped the knife yelling out in pain and shock. Then Jess followed through with a punch to the chin that sent him flying down the car. Suddenly aware that he was about to blow his cover and mindful that there could be other would-be assassins on the train Jess thought fast.
“You’re the dirty lyin’ sidewinder that cheated me at the poker table back in Laramie ain’t you!”
Before his adversary had a chance to get up, let alone answer Jess hauled him up throwing another haymaker that affectively rendered him unconscious. Then Pete and Charlie were at his side and helped carry the prisoner into the mail car.
“Well done Harper!” Charlie said as he handcuffed the still unconscious man and tied him to a strong box for good measure.
Meanwhile Pete, who had picked up the large hunting knife, gave a soft whistle, “This guy sure meant business.”
Jess nodded, “I figure he was gonna hole up in here, keeping you covered until we stopped to take on water and if I’m right he’ll have an accomplice waiting with a getaway horse...I’ll be back in a moment,” he finished and dived off back to the railcar.
Leaning over Roger and Cynthia’s seat he said loudly, “I’m real sorry about that folks, but that guy had it comin’ cleaned me out in Laramie with a marked deck.”
Then very quietly he said, “Are you both OK?”
When they nodded, he said softly, “Right, when the train stops in a minute, I want you to get down on the floor, there could be some gunplay... I’ll explain later.”
Then loudly, “Well sorry again,” and went back to the mail car.
“OK Charlie when we stop can you go and look out for Lord Hamilton-Forbes and his Mrs and Pete you open the sliding door here the minute we slow down. If that lowlife has an accomplice, I’ll be here to meet him.”
Once Charlie had been dispatched to watch over Cynthia and Roger the locomotive started to slow and blow its whistle, signalling it would be stopping shortly. Pete pulled the door back and low and behold exactly as Jess had predicted a scruffy looking individual on a paint pony and leading a similar one was waiting just by the track side.
Jess sprang up and covering the man with his rifle said, “Get down off of yer horse, drop your iron and come over here real slow.”
Although the man looked profoundly shocked, he held his ground, his eyes searching for his buddy.
“Who’s asking?” he batted back.
“The Law,” yelled Jess getting impatient now and leveling his rifle, “now do as you’re damn well told or I’ll shoot.”
At that the man seemed to suddenly realize the dire straits he was in and spurred his horse off away from the train.
“Goddamn it,” Jess cussed before leveling his rifle and opening fire. He winged his quarry easily, bringing him down from the saddle where he rolled around in the dirt crying out in pain
Jess quickly jumped down from the train, ran down the track a way until he reached the man, and hauling him up, frog marched him back to where Pete was covering him.
“Quit yer fussin’ you ain’t hurt that bad,” Jess growled before pushing the man up to Pete’s waiting hands.
“Stow him with the other one will ya Pete?”
Then turning back to the wounded man said gruffly, “I guess you and your partner have got some explaining to do when we hit Denver.”
When they pulled in at Denver Sheriff Denny Jackson, along with his two new deputies were waiting to greet Cynthia and Roger. Then after a quick consultation with Charlie the two prisoners were also escorted away by the deputies.
As per their previously agreed plan Jess faded into the background and just kept a cautious eye on the couple, letting the Sheriff take the lead. He glanced around his fellow passengers as they alighted, but none seemed to be paying any special attention to the Hamilton-Forbes, or indeed himself.
The Sheriff was now ushering the couple towards a large imposing, and recently constructed hotel, and Jess followed on slowly.
He waited in the reception area until the three had disappeared upstairs before approaching the desk.
“Harper, I believe a reservation has been made for me?”
The clerk looked rather superciliously at Jess noting the low-slung gun he wore and the slightly menacing look in the deep blue eyes.
Jess repeated himself and the clerk looked at his booking folder and then looking back up at Jess, his face suddenly wreathed in a welcoming smile, “Of course Mister Harper, the booking made on behalf of the Sheriff and town council so I believe. Welcome to Denver.”
Jess just nodded and taking the key ran lightly up the wide curving staircase.
Once in his room he threw his valise down on the bed and immediately went to the adjoining door and knocked lightly, before turning the key and entering on Roger’s invitation.
Roger immediately advanced on Jess and shook his hand warmly. “My dear chap how can I thank you enough, above and beyond the call of duty!”
“Don’t you think old girl?” he said turning and addressing Cynthia.
She nodded and Jess noted how pale she looked, “Are you alright Jess and did you kill that other bandit?” she whispered.
He smiled sympathetically at her, “Nope, just a flesh wound.”
Then he turned to the Sheriff and touched his hat, “Howdy Sheriff. Your deputy deposited those no-good hombres in your jail?”
“Indeed he did. Good to see you again Jess.”
Then he noticed the badge, “Ah, so Mort deputized you, good...but inside your vest pocket I think Jess we don’t want to advertise you as being anything to do with the law or security remember?”
Jess nodded, “Sure,” and removed the badge. “Maybe you should take my statement about the attack here then Denny, rather than back in your office?”
Once that was taken care of the four settled down to a short meeting.
“Well it certainly looks like we haven’t over reacted by getting extra security for you Lord Hamilton-Forbes,” the Sheriff said, “if that business on the train was anything to go by it looks like you both need guarding real good.”
“You’ve got good men?” Jess asked anxiously.
“I hope so, I’ve still got my usual deputy who you know, Carl Wright, and have taken on a couple of temporary ones too. One I know well Chuck Norris, he helps me out as deputy when the need arises, pretty much like you and Slim do for Mort.”
Jess nodded, “That’s swell, what about the other guy?”
“Jake Brown? He seems pleasant enough, I don’t know him personally, but he just turned up on the door step looking for work last week, good timing eh?”
“Uh, I suppose, he’s reliable?”
“Oh yes, comes highly recommended by your old friend Red Smith over at Casper, he had a real good reference from him, so I figured why not?”
Jess nodded, “So how are we gonna play it?”
On a rota I reckon, the five of us take it in turn to look out for his Lordship here and Lady Hamilton-Forbes when they’re together. Then the same when his Lordship is at his meetings and her Ladyship is here in the hotel, I’ll draw up a rota OK?”
“No!” Roger said, rather more forcefully than he meant to and all eyes turned to him.
“Uh, I’m sorry but I’m most concerned about this business...and I appreciate all your plans my dear Sheriff...but I must insist that Jess is present at all times when my wife is alone and also in the evenings when we are together. We have discussed this and Jess is happy to take on the onerous task...but he is the only person I know around here and completely trust.”
“My men are trustworthy alright Lord Hamilton-Forbes,” the elderly Sheriff said slightly tetchily, “I can assure you of that.”
“I’m sure you can old chap, but I’m adamant, Jess acts as our undercover bodyguard, or I’m afraid I must withdraw my offer of finance...the risk to my dear wife is just too great.”
Jess looked surprised, never having heard Roger sound so serious or single minded before. But there again maybe he hadn’t been in such danger as he had been earlier on before either.
“I’m OK with that Denny,” Jess said quietly, “sure I’ll need your men as back up, but I’m happy to put in the extra hours.”
“Oh well if you’re sure, we’ll work it that Lord Hamilton-Forbes has two of my deputies watching him during his meetings and you can take care of her Ladyship, then you will be on hand to do the evening shift as well, along with a deputy around should the need arise.”
So it was Jess started working as hard as he could remember. It wasn’t that the work was particularly strenuous, he wished that it was...give him a few hours of mustang breaking anytime, he thought mournfully. No, it was having to be constantly alert, on the lookout for trouble around the clock. Even when Roger and Cynthia retired for the night, he was still sleeping with one eye open as he used to jest with Slim, when they were on the trail together.
The first few days went smoothly enough, with Roger just having to go down the street to a large office to meet with the executives of the DRGR Company during the daytime .Then later he and Cynthia ate in the hotel dining room, before retiring early for the night on most occasions.
During the mornings Cynthia mostly kept to her room, reading or doing some tapestry. Jess mooched about his room, checking out of the window and occasionally taking a look down the corridor. Then he lay on his bed idly spinning the chamber of his gun, checking it was fully loaded and in good working order.
By the second day he was going stir crazy and nearly jumped out of his skin when there was a gentle tap on the dividing door. He sprang off the bed and hauled the door open in seconds, “You OK?” he asked breathlessly peering around the room.
She nodded, “I suppose so, but I really am on the verge of dying of boredom.”
He grinned down at her then, “You and me both,” he said.
“Look Jess I know I was supposed to tell you if anyone came to the door, but wouldn’t it make more sense if you were in here with me? You can always pop back to your room if it’s the chambermaid wanting to turn the bed down or something?”
Jess glanced briefly over to the large double bed on the far side of the room, before saying softly, “Well I dunno Ma’am it don’t seem right me bein’ in here with you, maybe Roger wouldn’t like it?”
“Nonsense,” she said with a throaty chuckle, “we’re both adults aren’t we why should he possibly object?”
Jess felt he might be getting into deep water if he said that maybe that was exactly why Roger would object, but just smiled weakly. “Maybe we should run it past him?”
“Please,” she wheedled, “I really am quite miserable and lonely...worried about dear Roger too.”
Jess sighed softly before closing the door behind him. Mooching over to the two comfortable chairs placed by the window he pulled the drape back and looked down to Main Street.
“Well I guess I can keep an eye on things from here as well as my room...so what do ya want to do?”

Back at the Sheriff’s office Denny Jackson was interrogating the tall lanky man with the scar on his face, his accomplice still being held at the doc’s office.
“Look Baines I know your name from this letter in your wallet and I also know you were paid to kill Lord Hamilton–Forbes...paid darned well too if these bills represent the down payment,” he said scattering dollar bills across his desk. “What I don’t know is why, also who was paying you?”
The scar faced man Baines was tight lipped, and stood looking insolently up at the ceiling.
The Sheriff persevered, “The letter is signed BW...so who’s BW when he’s at home huh?”
When this was met by stony silence the Sheriff lost his temper, “Goddamn it man, there is enough evidence here, plus Harper’s statement, to throw you in jail and forget where I put the key!”
Then he tried another tack, “Maybe if you opened up some, gave me some answers I could make things a little easier for you.”
“Yer wasting yer time Sheriff I ain’t talkin’.”
The Sheriff just shook his head, “It makes no odds to me, you’ll just rot in jail and this BW is gonna be sadly disappointed. Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes are being real well looked out for.”
“That’s what you think Sheriff,” Baines said with a sly grin, “but there are others out there that’ll succeed where we failed...that bastard Hamilton-Forbes won’t be leaving town alive, or his oh so smart little wife,” and he gave a harsh laugh.
“Take him back to the cells will you Carl,” he said to his deputy, “I’m just going to go and check a few things out.”
The Sheriff marched off to the office where Roger was meeting with the Railroad managers and checked that the deputies Jake Brown and Chuck Norris were in place, before moving on to the hotel.
He was about to run up the stairs when he decided to check out the dining room it being mid-morning. There at a table on the far side of the room sat Lady Hamilton-Forbes and a couple of tables away sat Jess looking as inconspicuous as possible. However, his head snapped up as Denny walked in.
The Sheriff went and sat over with Cynthia and after a few minutes the two left, Jess shadowing them a few yards behind.
Once they were all back in Cynthia and Roger’s room, Jess said, “Is everything OK Denny?”
“Uh, yes and no...”
Cynthia looked anxious, “Is it Roger?”
“He’s just fine Ma’am, I checked on him not ten minutes since and my best men are with him. Nope it’s that Baines and his buddy that you brought in Jess. They’re refusing to talk and adamant there are others to follow...I guess we really need to be on our toes.”
Jess looked worried, “I figure it’s Roger that’s the main target, I think I should be there with him.”
Denny shook his head, “Nope he was adamant just now that you look out for his wife Jess...I’ll put Carl on the case if that makes you feel any happier and it’s only another few days isn’t it Ma’am?”
She shook her head, “I believe that was so, but now there is talk of a site visit, Roger seems to think he should attend.”
Denny and Jess exchanged a glance, but said nothing.
“So all OK here ma’am?”
“Yes, thank you Sherriff, Mister Harper has been taking good care of me.”
The Sheriff threw Jess a thoughtful look, but again chose not to comment.
“We’ll catch up later Jess,” he said and touching his hat said, “Ma’am” and left.
“Oh dear Jess do you really think Roger is in a lot of danger?” asked Cynthia once the door closed behind the Sheriff.
“I dunno Cynthia, but he’s in good hands, try not to worry.”

Jess and Cynthia got into the habit of spending every morning together in her room just talking and really getting to know each other. At first Jess was his usual reticent self, not wanting to share any of his past with this Lady with the aristocratic background, so different from all the women he knew. But there again they had so much in common too. They shared a love of horses primarily. Also, Cynthia professed to like hunting and fishing too, but maybe not with the quite same passion that her husband did.
It was when their history was discussed that Jess started getting his tight-lipped poker face that she was beginning to become familiar with.
“It’s alright you know, I won’t be shocked,” she professed, “Roger’s friend Governor Harrick told us all about your past life as a gunslinger and drifter...the hard times you suffered before you landed in Laramie.”
“He did, did he,” said Jess looking angry.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean to upset you...I... well, I just wanted you to know it doesn’t make any difference to me...to Roger and I, that is...sometimes a man is a better person when he’s had a struggle in life...so Roger says.”
“He does huh?” Jess said still looking annoyed.
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
He looked into her sincere blue eyes and his heart melted...
“No, I’m sorry Cynthia; I’m acting like a real jerk... Yes, I’ve had some kinda difficult times”, he said dismissively. “But I guess I’m, a real lucky guy ending up at the Sherman spread, finding ol’ Slim, Daisy and Mike.
“I think they’re the lucky ones,” she said quietly.
“So what about you, you ain’t always been married to Roger, what was your life like as a young ‘un?”
“Blissful, I was incredibly lucky to have a large, loving family and a very forward-thinking father. I went to a very prestigious school and did well there,” she said proudly.
“Uh, so yer all educated up? Well it sure shows, you know a lot about the world, places you’ve seen, things you’ve done I figure they’re kinda unique for a woman?”
“Yes, you’re right Jess. Mostly women are just groomed to be wives and mothers in my society. But I benefitted from a good education, I sometimes wonder what I’d have made of my life if I hadn’t met Roger and had that brood of children so young,” she said thoughtfully.
“You’ve no regrets though?”
She looked up into those questioning blue eyes and said softly, “No, no regrets I wouldn’t change a thing.”
They smiled at each other both having the feeling that they were becoming good friends, the honesty growing between them forming a real bond between the two.
Then the moment was broken as there was an urgent hammering on the door and someone called out for her to open up quickly.
“It’s your husband ma’am, he’s been hurt!”
She immediately ran towards the door but Jess restrained her and said, “Get behind the door Cyn, it could be a trap.”
Then he drew his gun and opened the door cautiously.
As he did so he was just in time to see a figure retreating into the shadows a gun in his hand...
“Drop it!” Jess snapped as the man looked uncertainly around him for a means of escape.
Then someone shouted from the far end of the corridor, “Hurry up Brad get her down here!”
“Shut up Skeet, you fool,” yelled the man with the gun and then as Jess’s attention focused on the disembodied voice down the corridor, the other man, Skeet, shrank further back into the shadows and disappeared into one of the rooms further along the corridor.
Jess was just deliberating whether to follow Brad, the man with the gun, or check out his accomplice when two things happened at once .
Cynthia burst out of the room, past Jess and cried, “I must go to him if he’s hurt Jess!” and, Brad opened fire.
Jess lunged at Cynthia pushing her to the floor and lay on top of her, protecting her from the bullets that were now ricocheting around them, as he returned fire.
It was all over as quickly as it had started. Jess shot and killed Brad, then warily stood up, dragging Cynthia up with him and holding her close for a moment, feeling her trembling like a leaf.
“Look go back in the room and lock the door, stay there until I come for ya,” he said urgently.
She did as she was told and Jess made his way down the corridor to check on the dead man and then ran up to the room where Skeet had last been seen. But the place was empty and after scanning the corridor again he decided he needed to go back to check on Cynthia.
By now a small crowd of avid onlookers had gathered around the corpse and Jess yelled angrily, “Don’t just stand there goddamn it, git the Sheriff,” before he knocked at Cynthia’s door and was admitted.
“Oh Jess,” she cried breaking down and sobbing as he took her in his arms.
“Hush, it’s OK, it’s OK,” he said softly, “I’m here and you’re safe now.”
She looked up into his kind blue eyes and he ran a gentle finger down her cheek, wiping a tear away.
“You’re safe now,” he repeated.
Sometime later there was a loud knock on the door and Sheriff Jackson called out, “Everything alright in there?”

Chapter 5
Roger, Cynthia and Jess were sitting in the Sheriff’s office reviewing the situation.
“What I’m, sayin’ is I can’t guard you both Roger, unless you agree to Cynthia coming to these meetings with you.”
Roger looked uncertain for a minute and then capitulated. “I can see the sense in that yes Jess. But maybe I really should just forget about everything and take dear Cynthia home...”
“But the whole project will be abandoned to the detriment of the town if you do,” the Sheriff said ruefully. “A lot of folk are depending on you to bring jobs and prosperity to the town.”
Roger looked undecided, until Cynthia spoke up.
“I know how much this means to you my dear and Jess had proved over and again that he can keep us safe, I vote we continue.”
“Really my darling girl,” Roger said his face lighting up, “well if you’re sure?”
She nodded smiling across at Jess, “Yes I’m sure.”

It was late that night and Jess was in the Sheriff’s office drinking coffee, two deputies standing guard outside Cynthia and Roger’s room.
Jess wasn’t too happy about the proposed field trip to check out the area where the new tracks were to be laid and was voicing his opinion with the usual Harper forcefulness.
“I dunno about this Denny, that bastard from the railroad hold-up said there were others involved. And what about that guy at the hotel...er Skeet something...have you found him yet? Or found out anything about him?”
The Sheriff shook his head, “No on both accounts. But he’s not local that’s for sure. The other guy wasn’t from these parts either, both in the employ of this BW whoever he is, I reckon.
Jess shook his head looking mighty worried, “The dang town could be full of this BW’s men just waitin’ to hit on them the moment I let my guard down for a second.”
Denny Jackson nodded, “I think you’re right Jess. And it looks like your cover’s been blown too. A good few folk saw you with her ladyship directly after the shoot-out . It’s the talk of the town...how she was crying and carrying on and you holding her and trying to calm her down...it was dang obvious you knew each other well.”
“Well dadgum it, what was I supposed to do, she’d just near been shot, of course she was upset an’ needed comforting’.”
“I agree Jess. I’d probably have done the same myself; all I’m saying is no point in being undercover. It’s common knowledge now that you are their personal bodyguard,” the Sheriff said.
Jess sighed in exasperation, “So what are we gonna do?”
“I think you should do exactly as Roger wants, go visit the railroad site and as soon as you can. You can take one of the deputies, young Jake Brown, with you.”
“Oh right, so dontcha just think we might be sitting ducks, riding off across open countryside for sixty odd miles?” Jess asked sarcastically.
“You would be, if the town didn’t all think that Cynthia and Roger had high-tailed it back to Laramie.”
“It’s the perfect plan Jess, just like the one Mort used when they were at the ranch. A couple looking like them went off to Boulder, right?”
“Well we’ll do the same thing again. I have a couple of friends who are dead ringers for the Hamilton-Forbes. Plus, I’ll send Carl Wright with them, my number one deputy. That will convince anyone that’s interested that it really is them. By the time they realise they’ve been duped you’ll be safely back from your trip. The deal will be signed and sealed and then you can all really get back to Laramie....so what do ya think?”
Jess looked wearily at the Sherriff, “I guess it’s about as good as we’re gonna get. We’ll ride out tomorrow.”
The operation went like clockwork.
The following day Jess, Jake Brown, Cynthia and Roger road out of town just before first light, heading south.
Later that morning the Hamilton-Forbes stand-in couple, both dressed in some of Cynthia and Roger’s clothes, made their way to the railroad, escorted by the Sheriff and Deputy Carl Wright.
Once the deputy had departed with the decoys the Sheriff made a point of going into the saloon and chatting loudly to the barkeep, saying how pleased he was that ‘them thar aristocrats’ were heading back to Laramie.
Meanwhile the four had made good time and were more than half way to their destination when they finally camped for the night.
Jess had found Deputy Jake Brown taciturn to the point of rudeness during the day, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He thought he was maybe a tad overwhelmed by escorting a Lord and Lady, or maybe he was worried about the responsibility of keeping them safe he mused.
Now as the two men worked together tending to the mounts, whilst Cynthia and Roger made a start on cooking supper, Jess decided to make one more effort with the man.
“So, you’ve known Red Smith a while then?” Jess asked turning to grin at the stocky ginger haired man.
“A while,” he replied, still brushing down his horse without turning to look at Jess.
“Worked as deputy for him you said?”
“That’s a wild old town of his ain’t it?” Jess quipped, “It keeps ol’ Red real busy.”
Jess sighed deeply.
“Done much work with the law have you, worked other places?
Brown finally turned and gave Jess his full attention. “Sure I have, mostly back east; things are kind of different there. This is pretty un-nerving I guess, just you and me responsible for those two,” he said tipping his hat to where the Hamilton-Forbes were cooking up a storm.
Jess grinned at him then. “I thought it was somethin’ like that. Well you just relax Jake I figure we’ll manage OK. Those decoys should take the heat off us some.”
“I guess you’re right at that, “Jake said looking a little happier.
The two men continued their work in silence before returning to the camp where Cynthia was just about to dish up a delicious smelling rabbit stew.
Jess slumped down opposite Cynthia and Roger, his back against a fallen log and Jake sat beside Cynthia. He took his plate of stew and gave her his thanks before he started wolfing it down cheerfully.
Roger was his usual quirky self and there was a lot of banter and laughter around the camp fire.
Despite Jess’s relaxed light-hearted attitude, he was in fact very much on the alert. He was constantly scanning the fast-flowing stream in front of them and surrounding countryside for any movement or sounds. OK he’d tried to make light of their situation to calm down Jake, but in all reality, he knew they were in quite a vulnerable position.
He was suddenly aware that Roger was speaking to him and looked across the fire to him.
“Sorry Roger what did ya say?”
“I just wondered if we’d make it to the site by tomorrow night.”
“Depends, but I guess so,” Jess said scanning the evening sky as the sun began sinking in the west.
“Looks set fair so yup, a good chance I reckon....”
Then he put his cup down and picked up his rifle, half rising.
“Jess, what is it old chap?”
Ignoring him and keeping his eyes focused on something under the trees just beyond the camp, Jess yelled, “Show yourself...now!”
Seconds later a portly little man strode into the camp a hand gun levelled at Jess.
“Drop it!” Jess yelled leveling his rifle at the man’s head.
“Ha...I think you’re going to be the one to ‘drop it’ Mister Harper,” the man said in a British accent.
Jess’s eyes narrowed, “So whose gonna make me?”
Then a voice behind him said, “I am Harper drop it right now!”
Jess spun round to see Deputy Jake Brown holding a gun to Cynthia’s head.
“What in hell are ya doin’?” Jess spat.
“What does it look like, now drop the Goddamn gun Harper or I’ll blow her ladyship’s brains out.”
“Drop it man for God’s sake!” Roger cried out.
Jess flicked a glance over to Roger, hesitated and then finally threw the rifle down.
Turning back to Jake Brown Jess yelled, “Take the gun off of her Brown!”
“First your hand gun Harper, take it out real slow and throw it over here,” said the portly little English man.
Jess did as he was asked and then Brown pushed Cynthia roughly into Roger’s waiting arms where she all but fainted.
Brown and the interloper were now leveling their guns at Jess and Roger.
“I knew there was somethin’ not right about you. Ha I thought you were just a nervous kid...but no...” Jess said glaring at Brown, “you were never Red Smith’s deputy, were you?”
The man gave a harsh laugh, “Nope, but I did spend a spell in his company, in his jail actually. Yeah, and I did study the law back east too, but from the inside of a cell,” he added with a grim smile.
Jess turned back to where the Brit had entered the camp and was now checking it for firearms.
“So who the hell are you?” Jess asked angrily.
“He’s Fred Knowles, my estranged cousin,” Roger said bitterly, “he seems to think he’s entitled to half my money...don’t you Fred?”
“I don’t think Roger, I damn well know it. My Uncle, your dear lamented Papa, always said I should have a substantial legacy in his Will.”
“And so you did,” Roger said looking furious, “and you gambled it all away!”
“I may have speculated a little, made some errors, but I’m only human cousin dear...I deserve a second chance do I not?”
“Damn it man you’ve had a second chance and a third, what more do you want!”
“Ha, well since you ask…how about the delectable Cynthia,” Fred said moving across to where Cynthia was still trembling in her husband’s arms.
“What about it my dear, why not throw your lot in with old Freddy, I can give you a much better time than Roger here.”
“That’s enough Fred!” Roger barked looking thoroughly rattled now, “You just back off, you always were a scoundrel of the worst kind and I see nothing has changed.”
“Cut the chat,” growled Jake Brown suddenly asserting himself. “Keep ‘em covered Knowles while I tie them up...then we can discuss our plans and it don’t include any dang females.”
It was while Jake was busy roping Cynthia and Roger to one of the large pines that Jess struck.
Seeing Knowles attention was momentarily on his cousin who was being roughly manhandled and tied up by Brown, Jess took his chance. Lunging at the shorter man he easily floored him with a single blow to the chin. Then he made a dive for his own hand gun that had been kicked in the dirt, just feet away.
But it was just out of reach and even as he made a desperate lunge for it, a shot rang out from Brown’s gun and caught him in the shoulder and he sank to his knees cussing loudly.
Moments later Brown marched over and kicked Jess brutally in the belly telling him to shut the hell up.
Knowles had recovered from Jess’s attack and he dragged himself up rubbing a hand across his jaw, blood trickling down his chin from a busted lip. Now he advanced on Jess, watching Brown binding Jess’s hands and ankles and leaving him lying in the dirt on his side.
“Why don’t we just kill him?” Knowles yelled in fury, “he’s just some damn... what do they call them...uh gunslinger, isn’t he?”
“Because he’s useful to us that’s why, he could be our ticket out of here,” Brown snarled, “or have you forgotten my plan?”
“What, to double cross the boss and throw your lot in with me, no of course not old man...An excellent and very devious deception that you should be proud of.”
“Uh...maybe or I might just live to regret it, but any which way we can’t do it without Harper here,” he said looking disdainfully down to where Jess was groaning softly, blood now soaking the front of his shirt.
“Well then old boy I suggest we patch him up before he bleeds to death on us,” said Fred looking down dispassionately at Jess.

Eventually Cynthia had been hauled over to take care of Jess, clean the wound out and bandage him up. Thankfully the bullet had gone straight through. But the injury looked worse than it was as there was a goodly amount of blood.
Jess felt awful. Like he’d let them both down and now poor Cynthia had to tend him again. He could see how much it was taking out of her as she gently removed his soiled shirt and started cleaning out the wound, with cool water. But when it came to the use of spirit to clean the area thoroughly, she turned quite pale, a slick of perspiration on her forehead.
“I’m...sorry ... I can’t...” and then she looked up at her captors, “One of you will have to help me, support him.”
Eventually Brown mooched over and hunkered down beside her.
“What’s up little lady are ya afraid of hurtin’ your...um ... good friend here?” he asked with a lecherous leer.
“Watch yer mouth,” Jess snarled.
“Uh, I don’t think you’re really in any position to be layin’ down the law are ya Harper?” he sneered before grabbing hold of him by the shoulders whilst Cynthia poured the spirit onto the wound just as she had seen the old Mountain Man, Denver James do with the bear injury.
She had a fleeting memory of them returning to the ranch and Slim’ s first words, “Garldarn it Jess, what have you done now,” and finally fully understood the blond rancher’s reaction. Yes, the young cowboy surely was a magnet for trouble she thought. Then she remembered how he’d been hurt trying to protect her and Roger.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, but Jess’s eyes were tightly closed and he appeared not to have heard her.
Finally, the worst was over and Brown wandered off leaving Cynthia to bandage Jess up.
As she worked on him, he tried to calm her down some, assuring her that no it wasn’t too painful and he’d be OK really he would.
“Look I want you and Roger to just keep safe, don’t rile that Brown, he looks to be on a pretty short fuse,” he added.
“Jess what are we going to do?”
“I dunno, but I’ll think of somethin’ I promise you...So what about this Fred, will he really try and cheat his own cousin?”
“Oh yes. He drinks you see Jess, gambles too...he’s just pure evil...well weak anyway...I think he’d do pretty much anything for money,” she added as she tied the bandage in place.
They were down by the fallen log, Jess lying against it and Cynthia squatted down beside him when Brown marched over again.
“What are you two dang well whispering about? Git away from him if you’re all finished, my Lady,” he added sarcastically, pulling her up and pushing her in the direction of where Roger was still tied to a tree.
“Get off of her,” Jess spat furiously and was again kicked hard by Brown.
“Stop it!” Cynthia cried looking terrified and grabbing hold of Brown’s arm to try and pull him away.
“So the little lady’s real fond of the saddle tramp then?” Brown said with another nasty leer directed at the pair. “Well, well... I guess you’ll just have to behave and do as yer told then ma’am, unless you want to see him strung from the highest tree...huh?”
She flew back to Roger then sobbing and Jess looked down wondering how long Cynthia and Roger could survive the situation. How the Hell had he let that bastard get the drop on him? But there again he’d fooled Sheriff Jackson too.
Once he’d tied Cynthia up again Brown came back over.
“So Harper, I guess I’d better put you in the picture as to what’ going on.”
Jess just threw him a baleful look, but said nothing.
Undaunted Brown continued.
“See it’s this way Harper, you’re going to take a letter from your friend Roger to the bank in Denver requesting the removal of all his funds...sayin’ that he’s changed his mind about the investment on the Railroad and he’s hightailing it back to the old country pronto.”
“So why would I do a dang fool thing like that?” Jess spat.
“Because iffen you don’t the little lady will be strung up...and she’ll suffer some first too,” he said with an evil glint in his eye... “I’ve never had a real lady before...”
When what he was implying dawned on Jess, he pulled frantically at the ropes binding him, flushing up and cussing loudly.
“Hey take it easy Jess, I only said if you didn’t do as you’re told...calm down...she’ll be just fine as long as you behave,” he said almost kindly.
Jess just stared at him wondering if he was completely sane...the wild glint in his eyes and the way he swung from being bitterly angry to almost pleasant making him think, very possibly not.
Jess said nothing for a moment and then, “So who is it you’re double crossing?”
“Huh? I see yeah, a big investor in the Santa Fe Railroad company, the company competing for the site your Roger is after. He’s paid me good money to get rid of Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes. Without their backing it leaves Mr Watson of the Santa Fe the only contender for the contract...worth a powerful lot of money that is, I can tell you.”
“And so you just got greedy and figured you’d make more by fleecing ol’ Roger then?” Jess said bitterly.
“Come on Harper don’t tell me you’ve never gone for the main chance. Why accept hundreds of bucks when I can get thousands...even if I do have to share with that idiot Fred Knowles.”
“But you won’t will ya Brown you’ll double cross him too. Just the same as you have old Barney Watson, I figure.”
“You know him?”
“Come across him yeah, a shrewd business man and he don’t let any principles get in the way of a business deal... I guess yer pretty well suited.”
“That’s as maybe,” Brown said now looking surly again. “But all you’ve got to think of is doing your bit Harper. Because iffen you don’t get back with the money within the allotted time, then your friend Roger and his good wife will pay the price...see there ain’t no way out for you,” and he gave a harsh laugh before moving off.

Chapter 6
The following morning Jess awoke feeling dreadful, he was sweating profusely and his shoulder felt like it was on fire. He gave an involuntary groan that alerted Brown and he ambled over looking down impassively at the dark-haired cowboy.
“What are you griping about now Harper don’t come that sob story that you ain’t feelin’ too well.”
Jess just glanced up at him not deigning to reply.
Brown then squatted down by Jess and ran a hand over his forehead before recoiling back in dismay, “Goddamn it, yer burning up.”
“Miss Cynthia git over here, Harper’s real sick,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Cynthia, who had been untied for the night, but guarded by Brown and Cousin Fred, now jumped up quickly and hurried across.
“Jess, I’m so sorry this is my fault, I didn’t clean the wound thoroughly enough.”
“It ain’t that,” he said softly once Brown had wandered off, “I guess it’s just a reaction, I’ve had a bout of fever before after bein’ shot, it don’t amount to much usually...but I guess it’ll give us a little more time to try and get out of this dang mess.”
It was later that afternoon and Jess had been putting on an act worthy of an award, lashing about and groaning, although the fever was indeed genuine, now he didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as he was acting.
Cynthia finally pleaded with Brown to untie Jess’s ankles and remove the manacles from his wrists.
“You can see how sick he is...and what good will he be to you if he dies?” she cried hysterically.
“OK, OK quit yer wailing,” Brown growled irritably, finally doing as she requested.
“But don’t you go trying any tricks Harper, me or Fred will have you covered all the time...got it?”
But Jess was now feigning sleep and didn’t reply.
Brown merely sighed loudly before mooching off.
Once he’d gone Jess opened one eye...and then the other before glancing over to where Fred and Brown were drinking coffee. Brown with his rifle on his knee, ready to use should Jess move at all.
“OK listen up,” Jess whispered, “this is what we’ll do. You pretend to clean out the wound with some of that hill whiskey, then later offer the bottle to cousin Fred, he won’t be able to resist it and if he drinks the lot that should slow him down some.”
“What about Brown though?” she asked, looking anxious.
Jess peered up to the azure sky, the sun beating down on yet another perfect Indian summer morning.
“I figure this heat will get to Brown later, if you recall he took himself off for a swim in the creek yesterday. Was gone for good hour, that’s long enough for Fred to tip the jug and be pretty drunk I reckon. See he ain’t used to our hill whiskey and it packs a real good punch...”
Jess had already noticed Fred’s interest in the whiskey the previous day and had been sure he kept it close by him...now they just had to bide their time.
Sure enough about noon Jake Brown stretched and lumbered over to where Jess was apparently still asleep.
“He any better?” he growled.
“A little, the fever is beginning to drop, I think. I cleaned out the wound again with this strong spirit,” she said waggling the bottle for Brown and Freddy to see.
“Uh, well he’d better dang well be fit enough to ride tomorrow,” he said curtly, “we’ve wasted enough darned time already.”
Then turning to Fred said, “I’m going for a swim, watch ‘em real close Fred.”
Once he’d gone Jess and Cynthia waited for Freddy to take the bait and sure enough before too long he ambled over and hunkering down beside Cynthia said, “Have you got any of that liquor in the offing Cyn old girl?”
She pretended to hesitate and then handed it over with an irritable, “I suppose you’ll only take it if I don’t give it to you.”
He gave a bark of laughter at that.
“You know me too well old girl,” he said before grabbing the bottle and ambling off to the shade of a nearby pine.
“OK you go over and sit by Roger,” Jess whispered, “be ready to untie him as soon as I floor Freddy, OK?”
“Are you sure about this Jess, he’s still got his rifle,” she said tipping her head to where Freddy now sat with his back against the tree, the rifle across his legs and the bottle to his lips.
“I’m sure,” Jess said, “now git, I don’t want you in the line of fire Cynthia...Go and explain everything to Roger, so he’s ready?”
“Alright, just be careful,” she said rising and sauntering over to where Roger was sitting watching anxiously from across the other side of the camp.
Fred hardly seemed to register her going and Jess reckoned that the Moonshine was weaving its magic already.
It was about half an hour later that Jess saw Fred’s chin drop to his chest, the empty bottle beside him. Very slowly he sat up...watching the portly little man for any reaction...but nothing. Then just moments later a snore resonated from him.
Jess seized his chance. He was up and across the few feet between them in seconds, wrenched the gun from a startled Fred’s hands and threw a punch that rendered him out cold all in the blink of an eye.
He picked up the fallen rifle and turned to Roger and Cynthia his eyes sparkling and a triumphant grin on his face.
Then the grin faded and he slowly lowered the rifle.
Brown stood across the camp; his rifle trained on Cynthia’s head...
“Wise move Harper, now drop it,” he spat.
“Jess...please!” Roger cried out in terror.
Jess threw the rifle down, bowing his head, “Goddamn it,” he muttered softly, before turning and mooching back over to his bedroll where he sank down totally dispirited.
Jake Brown marched over to where Fred was just coming round and kicked him hard on the leg, “Get up you drunken old bastard,” he yelled angrily, “go tie up Harper and real good this time... I figure he ain’t sick at all.”
Then he turned and returning to the others tied up Cynthia again.
“I reckon you need watching real good too little lady,” he spat angrily.
“You keep yer woman in check iffen you know what’s good for you,” he said now turning to address Roger. “Anymore trying to outsmart me and one of you will be real sorry...know what I mean?” he asked waving his rifle under Roger’s nose.
“Indeed,” said Roger quietly, throwing Jess an apologetic glance.
“As for you Harper,” Brown said wheeling around to glare at Jess, “you can’t be trusted so there’s a change of plan, we’re all going back to Denver, but we’re gonna leave the Hamilton-Forbes tied up in a place I know. I’ll be right beside ya all the way, you mess up and they’ll stay there for good. Well until they die of thirst that is...and the beauty of it all is you won’t know for the life of you where to look for them Harper...because as of tomorrow you’re gonna be blindfolded.”
He gave a bark of laughter and Jess was again sure he saw a glimpse of madness in Brown’s eyes.
Then he marched over to check on Jess who was sitting with his back to a tree, his feet and hands tied once more. However, after a moment Brown went and fetched another length of rope and tied him to the tree yanking the cord painfully tight.
“We don’t want you wandering off again do we Harper?”
When he didn’t reply Brown looked infuriated and back slapped his face hard, splitting Jess’s lip.
“I said do we Harper!”
Jess looked up coldly, “Well I guess you don’t,” he replied insolently.
Brown totally lost it then and dragged the rope even tighter, pulling on Jess’s shoulder causing the wound to open and start bleeding again.
“I say Brown, don’t you think you should ease off,” asked Fred diffidently, “don’t forget we need him in one-piece old chap.”
Brown stood up his gaze never leaving Jess’s face...and ignoring Freddy.
Then he kicked Jess hard on the leg, “Old Jess here is hard as nails ain’t you buddy,” he said with a friendly grin...so at odds with his recent behaviour.
Jess stifled a cry but said nothing.
“Just leave him alone you blaggard!” Cynthia cried in dismay.
Brown spun around and glared at her, “What...blaggard?” he asked with a sneer, “I take it that’s not a compliment ma’am.”
Then he turned back to Jess, “I just want Harper here to apologize to me ...that’s not too much to ask is it?” he asked pleasantly.
“Hell with freeze over first,” Jess spat.
That was when Brown let fly with his fists again and after a few minutes Fred had to literally drag him away.
“Come on old chap, think of tomorrow, we need Harper if we’re going to convince the Sheriff and Bank that the note to withdraw all that cash is genuine.”
That was the thing that finally stopped Brown and he wandered off to make some coffee, leaving Jess bleeding and groaning softly.

The following morning Jess could barely move and Brown had to help him mount, but refused to let Cynthia dress his wounds. He tied his hands again and blindfolded him, before leading off his mount, followed by Cynthia and Roger with Fred bringing up the rear and keeping his rifle trained on them.
It didn’t take long for them all to realize that Jess was really struggling to even stay upright. By noon when they stopped in the shade of some cottonwoods, he was barely conscious, just staying in the saddle by good luck rather than design.
Brown had cussed Jess long and loud as he hauled him down from the saddle and threw him brutally down in the dirt.
“Git up you lazy sod,” he yelled furiously.
“Stop it!” cried Cynthia, “Can’t you see he’s hurt and sick too?”
“Sure he is,” Brown drawled, “like he was last time? When he dang well knocked Fred senseless and would have taken off if I hadn’t arrived back pronto.”
Then he turned back to where Jess lay motionless on the ground and sighed deeply, “Sort him out Fred,” he called out and wondered off to tether the mounts.
Fred cleaned Jess up as well as he could and offered a canteen, but after a few sips Jess started retching and pushed it away.
Later when they set off again it was clear that he was unable to ride unaided and so he finally rode double with Fred. All three prisoners had been blindfolded now and it was almost dark when Brown finally called a halt.
Jess was roughly pulled from the saddle and manhandled through a narrow door and into some sort of shack. It smelled damp with a hint of wood smoke and he guessed it was an old line cabin, or possibly prospectors hut. He was thrown roughly down on a bunk and then a moment later he heard Cynthia and Roger enter, both of them talking in subdued tones. Then he blacked out.
When he came round there was a fire crackling in the hearth and Cynthia was bending over a cook-pot suspended above the heat. Roger was tied to a hard-backed chair watching her whilst Fred and Brown lounged before the fire drinking coffee. The room was small and shabby, a small lamp on the mantelpiece the only source of light.
Jess blinked, looking around him and reveling in the fact that at least the blindfold had been removed...but where in hell were they? He tried gingerly to sit up, but fell back with a soft groan, the ropes digging painfully into his wrists and ankles. He had the metallic taste of blood in his mouth from the beating he’d received from Brown and he ached all over. His head was pounding and he felt slightly nauseous.
Moments later Brown loomed over him grinning down nastily, “Well back with us then are you Harper?”
Jess just grunted.
“Come on then get up,” said Brown leaning over and slicing the rope at Jess’s ankles with a razor-sharp knife.
When Jess didn’t attempt to move Brown said impatiently, “Come on then get up, I need to see you’re on top form for tomorrow. This is no time to go layin’ around the place Harper.”
“Damn it man he’s ill can’t you see that?” Roger said loudly. “Just leave him alone why can’t you?”
“Shut the hell up old man,” Brown said spinning around and looking furious. “He’s putting it on again.”
Then he turned back to Jess and hauled him up on his feet, “Come on, I’m waiting Harper...how about a little dance for us iffen you don’t wanna walk?” he said drawing his gun and firing it at Jess’s feet.
Jess stood there impassively for a minute before keeling over and falling in a dead faint.
“Goddamn it, he really is bad,” Brown muttered before dragging him back up on the cot and turning away looking furious.
Later he and Fred got together in a huddle in the corner of the cabin to discuss their plans.
“Well this is no dang good,” Brown spat. “Harper would never make it to town and how could I explain the state of him anyway.”
“Well I’m sorry to say it old boy, but it’s you who have scuppered our plans, you should never have attacked him that way.”
“And he should never have riled me that way,” countered Brown.
Fred sighed, “So what shall we do?”
“Shut up...just let me damn well think.”
A while later he said, “OK I’ve got it. We’ll leave Harper and Ma Hamilton-Forbes here...tied up like a pair of dang turkeys at Thanksgiving. You me and Hamilton-Forbes will ride into town and see the Sheriff. Tell him we were attacked and Harper and Cynthia Hamilton-Forbes killed. That’s why Roger is going back home, broken hearted. We go to the bank, Hamilton-Forbes collects the cash and we hightail it out of town before anyone is any the wiser.”
“Um, and my dear cousin Roger will do exactly as you say if Cynthia is locked up here. Even if he spilled the beans he wouldn’t know where to start looking for her. That sounds a superb plan old boy.”
“Uh, as long as you dang well stay sober long enough for us to get the job done,” Brown said tetchily.
“You can rely on me, I’ve learnt my lesson, so then what?”
“Huh? I see yes, well we’ll come back here pick ‘em up and make for the Mexican border.”
“What take them with us, Harper too?”
“Yes,” he said tapping his nose, “insurance see Fred. If the Sheriff smells a rat and alerts the law and we get stopped further down the trail then Lord Hamilton-Forbes can be our alibi...confirm that he’s ‘going home’ like he said. How he’s hired me to escort him. We’ll let ‘em go at the border...and kill Harper, I’ll enjoy that,” he said with a grim smile. “We’ll just have to keep an eye open for the law though and hide the lovely Cynthia if need be.” Then he looked thoughtful, “I guess we should really kill her, but that would be a dang shame...Nope I’ve got plans of my own for her ladyship,” he said almost to himself.
“Why not just kill Harper now?”
“Insurance again, I reckon Roger and Cynthia there have gotten real fond of Harper...Um, especially her ladyship,” he said sarcastically. “We threaten to kill Harper I guess she’d do pretty much anything to keep him alive,” he said winking at Fred. “Nope we’ll keep Harper for as long as he’s some use to us.”
The following morning Brown shared his plans with the prisoner and as he expected Roger Hamilton-Forbes was less than receptive to the idea.
“I refuse to go anywhere without Cyn,” he cried looking distraught.
“Well I’m sorry about that your Lordship,” Brown said sarcastically, “but I think you’ll find it’s me that’s calling all the shots. You see I ain’t askin’ ya... I’m tellin’ ya, this is what’s going to happen. You me and your dear cousin are going to convince the Sheriff and bank manager that you are a poor bereaved broken man, who just wants his money and to leave America for good. Because iffen you don’t old friend that won’t just be a story, it’ll be the Gospel truth, you really will be a widower...got it?”
Roger looked thunder struck, “You mean you’d really kill Cyn...and Jess?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean...well not actually kill them, just allow them to die. If we leave them up here in this isolated spot, bound up real good and with no food or drink...well it’s only a matter of time before nature takes its course...iffen you get my drift?”
“My God man, that’s inhuman!”
Brown who was chewing idly on a matchstick nodded, “Yup I guess so,” he said pleasantly, “so you comin’ then? I sure hope you’re a good actor Roger, because I guess your little lady’s life depends on it huh?”
Roger had said an agonized farewell to his dear wife, promising to return for her and telling her to be strong. As he turned to go Jess called out from where he was once more tightly bound.
“It’ll be OK Roger, I’ll look out for her, just tell the law everything it’ll be OK,” he called and received a brief shake of the head in return.
“I can’t risk that old chap,” he said looking anguished, before Brown pushed him roughly out of the door.
If only he’d been able to speak to Roger privately, he’d have told him that fool Brown had never checked him to see if he carried a knife. Damn it all he’d get Cynthia free, sure he would...but the chance to talk never arose. Hell, he’d have used the knife to escape earlier but the opportunity to liberate Cynthia and Roger safely had never arisen. Now with both Fred Knowles and Brown out of the picture he had plenty of time to make their escape.
Just moments later the cabin door slammed and there was nothing to be heard save the sound of horses riding out fast.
“Garldarn it,” Jess spat and he cocked his head to one side listening carefully.
“What is it?” Cynthia asked from where she was sitting on the floor by the fire, her wrists and ankles tightly tied, the rough rope chafing her already.
Once the sound died away, he turned to her, “They’ve dang well taken our mounts,” he said looking furious.
“What does it matter?” she said sighing, “We’re stuck here until they return anyway...if they do return that is,” she whispered.
Jess sat up from where he’d been lying back on the cot and swung his legs down. Very carefully he managed to withdraw his hunting knife from his boot. Grasping it awkwardly between his bound hands he started the arduous task of sawing through the thick rope at his ankles. After what seemed like hours the rope finally gave way and he was able to move his feet once more. He stood grimacing in pain as the blood flowed freely again, causing a terrible burning sensation. Then very unsteadily he made his way over to where Cynthia’s face was now alight with hope.
“Put your hands out and keep ‘em real still, OK? If I slip with this knife it could cut you real bad, it’s powerful sharp.”
“Alright,” she whispered tensing herself as he began to cut through the fibrous cord binding her wrists.
Eventually her hands were released, the rope falling to the ground and she gave a little cry of triumph, shortly followed by one of pain as her blood started circulating freely again.
“Hurts some don’t it,” he said with a sympathetic glance.
She nodded, but quickly pulled herself together and taking the offered knife from him spliced through the rope binding his hands and finally the one around her own ankles.
She stood up quickly and took a step forwards, but would have fallen if Jess hadn’t caught her.
“Steady,” he said looking down at her with a gentle smile.
She stayed in his arms for a moment and he could feel her heart beating through her thin shirt, her warm body so very close and he inhaled the fragrant perfume she always wore.
Then she pulled back, “Jess what are we going to do?” she asked a catch in her voice.
“Go find our mounts,” he said decisively. “They’ve only been gone an hour or so and I figure they’ll have tethered them someplace, no point in taking them into town, would slow them down some, I reckon.”
“Then what do we do?”
“We’ll lie low and wait for them to head back here and then I’ll take you into town where you’ll be safe. Then go after them and get Roger and the money back.”
“But why can’t we just go after them now?”
“Because I’m not armed and I can’t risk tryin’ to jump them with you around Cynthia. Don’t forget my job was to keep both of you safe and I just can’t do that if I take you into that kind of danger with me.”
She sighed deeply, “I suppose not.”
“Look let’s see how long it takes to round up the mounts first? I guess you don’t realise how much trouble were in. No water and no horses could be a death warrant out here. I’m not sure where we are but I am pretty certain there will be nuthin’ but hot dry desert between here and town and I reckon we wouldn’t make it afoot.”
Her face fell and she suddenly looked fearful, “Really?”
He nodded, “Look I don’t wanna worry you none, but you need to know how serious this is,” he said quietly. “Now go fetch a shawl or somethin’ to keep you warm at night, it gets mighty cold.”
“What, we’ll be out all night, have to sleep out there?” she asked looking even more worried.
“I reckon. Figure we’re at least a good twenty miles from town here, the way Brown was talkin’ and on foot that could take a while to cover in this heat and with no water. That’s why we need to head off after the horses. They’ll be headed for the nearest water trust me on this.”
She looked fearful, “Maybe it would just be better to wait for Brown and the others to come back, he might let us go once he’s got the money,” she said hopefully.
“Yeah, or he might not come back at all,” Jess said softly.
Her head shot up, “Really but be said he would.”
Jess gave a bitter laugh, “Not everyone has your morals Cynthia. Brown would sell his granny for a bent nickel. He might just up and ride out with the money.”
And kill Roger and Fred as well he thought, but decided not to voice his fears.
“So do you feel strong enough to head out, sooner we go the better.”
She nodded, of course, “I’ll just get my things together.”
Jess fetched a couple of empty canteens, but decided against taking blankets, thinking the added weight would weigh them down too much.
It didn’t take Jess too long to pick up the tracks of the two men leading his and Cynthia’s mounts. After a couple of miles, they reached the point where two riders had split off and the rider-less mounts had been loosed off. But there was no sign of them anywhere on the distant horizon shimmering in the relentless noontide sun.
Jess looked around him and saw some scant cover and vegetation over to their left and tipping his hat towards it said, “Come on Cynthia, we’ll take a break until it gets a little cooler.”
Once they were hunkered down under a scrubby tree Jess looked warily around him.
“What do you think happened to the horses?” Cynthia asked noting his worried expression.
“I reckon they’re heading for the nearest waterhole or creek. I guess it’s over towards that mountain range yonder, can ya just make out some greenery over that way?”
“But that’s miles away, didn’t you say Denver was dead north?”
He nodded, “It’s kind of a gamble I guess, but I figure the horses will be nearer than the town. There should be water too and I don’t reckon we’ll make it to town without any,” he said quietly.
Cynthia licked her parched lips, “I’m just so dry now I can hardly speak,” she whispered, “I don’t think I can even make it to the horses Jess.”
His head shot up and he reached over and pulled her gently to him, a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Sure you can,” he said softly. “I promised Roger I’d look after you and that’s just what I aim to do.”
“But who’s going to look after you?” she asked.
His face was badly bruised and he sported a black eye from the altercation with Brown. Plus, she had noted his hand occasionally rubbing his ribs as though they were aching and the fleeting look of pain in his eyes every so often.
“Ha, I’m OK,” he said throwing her his cheeky grin, “you heard what Brown said... hard as nails that’s me.”
She just shook her head and gave him a sympathetic look.
After a brief rest he hauled her up again and they started trudging along in the wake of the horses. “How far do you think they’ve gone?” she asked stopping to wipe a weary hand across her face and tuck a strand of escaped hair behind her ear.
Jess stopped, looking down at her flushed tired face and his heart bled for her. Hell she was a lady she shouldn’t be going through all this. He had a momentary flash of anger towards Roger. What the Hell had he been thinking bringing the delicate, enchanting woman to the harsh Wild West?
“I dunno I guess they won’t stop until they hit the creek.”
“Do you think it’s much further?”
He scanned the horizon where he could just make out the hazy image of some cottonwoods.
“Too far for us to make it tonight,” he said glancing down at her and noting the sudden look of panic in her eyes.
“Hey, it’s OK, don’t you fret none, I’ll look out for you,” he said quietly.
She looked back up at him, but said nothing. How could he look after her she thought, with no firearm to protect them against wild animals? No food, water or shelter. He looked weary too and in pain she guessed and again she felt the rising panic.
He seemed to read her thoughts and quickly reassured her.
“We might not make it to water tonight, but I can see a mess of shrubs and cactus not too far away...I’ll show ya how to get a drink from one of those and we should be able to make a fire at least...head out at first light. Come on it ain’t too far.”

Chapter 7
Taking her hand, he led her on towards the haze of low-lying shrubs in the far distance.
It was nearly dark by the time they reached the rough scrub land and Jess quickly used his knife to cut into a cactus and showed Cynthia how to suck out the life-giving moisture.
“I guess it doesn’t taste any too good, but at least it will keep us alive,” he said quietly.
Once they were feeling a little better, he wasted no time in gathering some firewood together and soon had a welcome blaze going.
The temperature had dropped alarmingly and even though Cynthia wrapped her shawl around her shoulders she was soon shivering and looking close to tears.
Noting her distress Jess moved closer and again put a protective arm around her
She snuggled up and put her head on his shoulder, looking out at the sinister darkness that engulfed them. Then tensed and shuddered at the sound of a distant wolf howling.
“Hey it’s OK he’s miles away,” Jess said encouragingly.
She settled back down again in his comforting embrace.
“Do you think they’ve arrived yet?” she asked presently.
Jess shrugged, “I reckon, maybe if they pushed it some. Bank will be closed though, they’ll have to go tomorrow, ride back later. They could find us missing by tomorrow evening at the earliest.”
“Do you think they’ll come looking for us?”
“Nah, he’s got Roger for his ‘insurance’ as he calls it...I figure they’ll high-tail it for the border as fast as they darned well can.”
“Poor Roger,” she said softly, “he’ll be so worried.”
They were silent for a while and then Jess got up and threw some more fuel on the fire.
“Look I think we should bed down now,” he said awkwardly and slipping off his jacket lay it down near the fire, “this’ll stop the cold striking up from the ground some,” he added.
“Jess you’ll be cold,” she replied.
“I’m fine, now settle down, try and get some sleep we need to head off at first light to avoid the heat.”
It was an hour or so later that Jess got up to feed the fire and saw she was shivering uncontrollably.
“Cynthia, are you OK,” he asked softly.
“Yes...well a little chilly,” came the muffled reply and she pulled the shawl more tightly around her.
He came round from the far side of the fire where he’d bedded down and sank down beside her.
She turned and lay on her back looking up at him, “I’m sorry I’m being a nuisance,” she said in her aristocratic tones.
Jess hid a smile, “No yer not bein’ a nuisance,” he said kindly, “you’re just darned cold, and you can’t help that.”
Then rather diffidently he said, “Look ma’am, times like this we...well we bundle ya know?”
She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow, “No...I don’t know?”
He flushed a little, “Well kinda cuddle up, for comfort and warmth, nuthin’ else,” he added quickly.
She looked a little shocked for a moment and then shivered again, “Yes,” she said quietly, “I think under the circumstances maybe that is what is required, thank you Jess.”
He hid a smile at her rather formal speech, but none the less lay down beside her.
“Lie on yer side,” he said quietly and once she was comfortable, he spooned against her back, an arm holding her around the waist, his gentle grip reassuring but also somehow disturbing too.
She felt his firm taught chest and stomach against her back, his soft breath on her neck and experienced a little frisson of excitement.
After a moment his deep voice seemed to rumble in her ear, “Is that better?” he asked innocently.
“Yes much,” she replied, her voice sounding slightly shaky even to her own ears. She took a deep breath and said more firmly, “Thank you Jess.”
She lay in his warm embrace, hardly daring to breathe, and wondered what was going through the young cowboy’s mind.
It hadn’t escaped her notice that he had reverted to calling her ‘ma’am,’ instead of Cynthia and wondered if that was his way of reminding her, and maybe himself, that he was in her employ and acting in that capacity only.
She let out a little sigh, but of course ...what was it Slim had said, “Well I think you’ll find Jess will act professionally as befitting one in the employ of a lord and lady, both in public and in private.”
Yet again Jess had proved his partner to be right and was behaving as a perfect gentleman. Just as she had known he would. Then why did a tiny part of her wish that he was a tad less gallant? Did he think her too old or unattractive she wondered? Then she mentally slapped her wrist, ‘goodness Cynthia’ she thought angrily to herself,’ just be thankful you are safe and being looked after,’ and with that she finally fell asleep.
Jess held her close inhaling her soft perfume and feeling her gentle, rhythmical breathing as she finally slept, the expression in his eyes, as he looked up into the starry, sky unfathomable.

The following morning, he woke her at first light and they continued their trek toward the distant river where hopefully they would find the hire horses grazing peacefully.
Jess grimaced at the thought of what would become of them if he was unable to locate their mounts.
Stealing a glance at him Cynthia wondered if Jess’s expression was one of worry, or was he just suffering due to the lack of his usual morning coffee. She remembered how Slim had ribbed him about it. Then turning to Cynthia, his eyes sparkling with mischief had said, “Only way to get my partner up and running in the morning is to make sure he’s got plenty of gut rot black coffee down him.”
This was prior to their hunting trip over to Paradise and she had smiled back and said, “I’ll remember that Mr Sherman...er Slim,” and they had exchanged a warm smile.
Now she wondered what Slim was making of all this, what would he do when he heard that she and Jess had allegedly been killed? She knew Brown intended to tell the Sheriff that was what had happened. How upset everyone back at the ranch would be she thought with a stab of anxiety.
She turned to Jess to share her thoughts but seeing the preoccupied look on his face she decided he didn’t need anything else to worry about.
As the morning wore on and the relentless sun beat down their pace slowed and every step became a huge effort.
Jess had divested himself of his jacket and tied it around his waist, his bandana in his back pocket and his shirt open, exposing his bronzed, firm torso, slicked with sweat. The dark shadow of several days beard growth gave him a rather rascally appearance which was strangely appealing. She imagined he had looked this way when he was a gunslinger, maybe on the run from the law and the notion sent a ripple of excitement through her. But again, she chastised herself. Here they were in a life and death situation and she was fantasizing about his past. What had got into her she thought guiltily?
They trudged on for another hour, the distant green haze of the tree line was exasperatingly far away and never seemed to get any nearer.
By now they were just dragging themselves along, Jess supporting her around the waist; his own strength dwindling fast. Had he made a terrible error of judgement he thought as they forced themselves on through the heat of the day. Should he have tried to make it back to Denver? Then his thoughts were broken into as Cynthia tripped and fell heavily, almost bringing him down with her.
She lay full length in the baking sand and he dropped to his knees beside her.
“It’s no good Jess I can’t go on,” she whispered, “I’m awfully sorry but I just can’t...”
Jess pulled himself up again, squinting down at her, “Yes you can,” he said firmly, “and yer dang well gonna!”
She sat up looking suddenly fearful, never having heard him address her that way before.
“Git up ma’am,” he said gruffly, taking her arm and pulling her up.
She leaned against him steadying herself for a moment and then she looked up, straight into his blue uncompromising gaze.
“Come on,” he said slightly more gently, “we’ve gotta keep moving.”
Then gently taking her arm again he slowly walked onwards. The sun was now at its zenith but there was nowhere to shelter.
After a further hour she collapsed again and this time remained lying in the sand, physically unable to drag herself up again.
Jess took off his Stetson and ran a weary hand across his burning face before ramming the hat back in place, shaking his head very slightly.
He looked over to the tree line once more and taking a deep breath bent down and picked Cynthia up in his arms and continued, staggering on beneath the white-hot desert sun.
He was just thinking he was done for and could go no further when he looked up and saw the trees now in sharp focus merely a matter of yards away and couldn’t believe his eyes... They had seemed so far away, but he figured he’d been walking on in some kind of daze...Then he could smell the fresh water and hear a light breeze paying through the trees.
He looked down into Cynthia’s poor exhausted face, “We’re here,” he said softly, “we made it...”
Her eyes which had been at half-mast sprang open and she opened her mouth to reply, but a mere croak came out...
He very gently set her down on her feet again and taking her hand they walked towards the heavenly vision of greenery and the sound of running water.
Then they were running and laughing with relief before throwing themselves down at the water’s edge and cupping the life-giving water in their hands and drinking greedily.
After a moment Jess paused and leaning over pulled Cynthia back from the water.
“Take it real slow,” he said, “or you’ll chuck it back up again.”
“Chuck? Uh yes I see...”and she started drinking more cautiously.
Once he had drunk his fill Jess took off his boots and shirt and waded into the invigorating ice-cold water...revelling in its reviving powers.
“Come on in,” he called as he swam downstream a little way, giving her some privacy to disrobe.
Cynthia paused looking at the enticing water with longing and then moments later striped off her blouse and skirt and entered the water dressed in just her petticoat.
Jess waited until she was under the water and her modesty preserved before he swam over, grinning at her obvious pleasure.
“This is wonderful,” she cried, joy sparkling in her eyes.
“Can’t beat a swim after a long walk,” he agreed winking at her and making light of their recent ordeal.
“Oh you!” she said laughing and splashing him with water.
Jess quickly retaliated and then they were like a couple of kids laughing and frolicking in the shallows of the creek...as the strain of the last few hours was washed away.
Cynthia was just thinking she should really get out and dry off, when she stumbled catching her toe on a stone beneath the water. She cried out and would have fallen if Jess hadn’t suddenly been there beside her.
He caught her easily pulling her into his strong arms.
“Steady,” he said smiling down at her, “are you alright?”
She looked up at him her gaze somewhat taken aback as she peered up into his concerned blue eyes and felt his firm lithe body so solid up against her own soft form.
Jess felt a stab of pleasure at her close proximity and then saw the look in her eyes had suddenly changed from shock to desire....
He tilted his head down so that their lips were mere inches away...one hand gripping her hair gently as her head tipped back and she moved imperceptivity closer to him.
They were just seconds away from kissing, when Jess came to his senses and pulled back, the expression in his eyes a mixture of shock and embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, before pulling away.
Taking her elbow, he helped her to the bank and she wandered off a little way to sit on some rocks and dry off. While Jess stood irresolute staring off to the distant hills his mind in turmoil, all his senses and emotions running wild. Both of them feeling deeply shocked at what had nearly taken place.
After a while Jess wandered over and said, “I was just gonna take a look-see up stream, see iffen I can find those dang horses. You wanna come?” he asked trying desperately to return to normality.
She shook her head, “I think I’ll just have a proper wash while you’re away, make a fire...for later?”
He nodded, “I won’t go out of hollerin’ distance,” he said before marching purposefully off to where he’d seen some tracks earlier.
He breathed a sigh of relief once he was a few yards away...what in hell had come over him, he asked himself shaking his head sadly...Too dang long on the trail without yer woman, said a little voice in his head. She sure was one damned attractive female he conceded. But hell, that was no excuse and she weren’t Millie. So that was the end of it...before it even began, he told himself sternly. He sighed deeply before once more applying himself to tracking the animals.
It was only ten minutes or so later that he caught sight of the horses grazing peacefully on the verdant grassland flanking the river. But his grin of triumph quickly turned to anger when he saw that they were both still saddled.
He had assumed the horses had been loosed off from the lean to stable unfettered with their tack...and now as he approached them slowly, he felt the anger rising within him.
It was another few minutes before he could catch the excitable sparky buckskin he’d been riding. However, Cynthia’s little Palomino trotted over as soon as she saw Jess and he made a big fuss of her.
“Come on Buck, see sense like Purty here,” he called over and eventually the big buckskin ambled over and Jess was able to lead them back to where Cynthia had a fire going.
He made a big fuss of both horses and remembered back to the surly livery boss in Denver. Jess had asked him what his mount was called and the man had looked surprised, “I don’t call ‘em nuthin’ Mr, just Hoss...or in this case that dang Hoss,” he said with a chuckle.
“He’s trouble?” Jess asked looking the prime animal over.
“Nope just a tad feisty, guess you’ll manage him OK Mister,” he’d replied.
Jess had nicknamed him Big Buck, never liking to ride an animal he couldn’t call by name, albeit a temporary one.
Then when Cynthia had seen the Palomino, she had clasped her hands in delight and said, “She’s so pretty!” and so Jess had called her Purty...
As Jess approached the camp Cynthia jumped up from where she’d been tending the campfire looking delighted that Jess had found the horses. However, on seeing the look of wrath on his face her welcoming smile froze.
“Jess whatever ’s the matter?” she asked as she walked to meet him.
“That bastard Brown sent ‘em off saddled up that’s what!” he spat angrily forgetting himself in his righteous anger. Then looking a tad embarrassed said, “Pardon ma’am.”
She nodded her head in answer, “That’s alright you’re upset and rightly so,” she said staunchly.
“Help me get their saddles off and clean ‘em up some will ya, they could have some saddle sores...or worse come up lame....” he said quietly.
Then he pulled something out from the scabbard beside the saddle. “One good thing though,” he said his eyes now alight with mischief, “they darned well forgot to remove my rifle.”
“Jess that’s wonderful,” she said returning the smile warmly.
“I guess we can maybe have rabbit stew tonight, if I can scare one up,” he said looking even more cheerful.
It was much later after he had treated the horses as well as he could, groomed them and then ground hitched them nearby that he took a look in his saddlebags.
Cynthia was at last brewing up some coffee, the pot and makings in a gunny sack Jess kept on his saddle horn, but she looked up in surprise as he gave a cry of delight.
“What is it?” she asked rising from her task and looking over at where he was digging about in the saddle bags.
He looked over at her wonder in his eyes and held up his Colt.45. “I don’t believe it,” he said looking as cheerful as she’d seen him in a long while.
He still wore his gun-belt complete with bullets and wasted no time in loading the gun, spinning the chamber and checking and double checking it.
“Why did they leave it in your saddle bag?” Cynthia asked looking amazed.
Jess shrugged, “I dunno...I guess they thought I wouldn’t be in any position to go look. Maybe Fred was looking around for another bottle of Moonshine and just stuck it in here...I heard Brown tell him to find my gun and get rid of it.”
“Or maybe he was trying to help us?” Cynthia said raising an eyebrow. “Thought you might escape and if so, would need a gun to keep us both safe?”
“Well you know him better than me,” said Jess, “maybe he was kinda worried about you? After all he is kin.”
“Um...but he’s never bothered about us before,” she said honestly.
“Well maybe your life wasn’t at stake before,” Jess mused.
She looked thoughtful, “Maybe you’re right...”
Jess just shrugged, no longer concerned with the whys and wherefores ...but just glad he was armed once more.
Then Cynthia turned and smiled jubilantly at him, “You know what this means...now we don’t need to head back to Denver, we can go after Brown and Fred right away and find Roger!”
“Hey now hang on,” he said, “I told ya I didn’t wanna take you into danger, armed or not...I still need to get you safely back to town first.”
But he wasn’t prepared for her stubborn streak that almost rivaled his own.
She just said nothing, turning away, but there was the light of battle in her beautiful eyes.
“Look I figure I’ll go see if I can find any rabbits in that scrub land yonder,” he said, hoping to draw a line under the argument, “I won’t be long.”
It was later that evening after a good rabbit stew supper that the subject was raised again.
They had said little over the meal and Jess was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable.
After a while he turned his worried gaze upon her.
“Er...I guess I should apologize...for earlier, I was way out of order and I’m real sorry ma’am,” he said formally.
Her head shot up from where she’d been contemplating her coffee cup and she flushed up a little.
“It was nothing,” she said quickly, “just one of those things. I think it was just all the strain and worry...and then the relief of finding the water at last.... well we just ... needed some comfort I suppose,” she finished quietly.
He looked down for a long minute and then said, “Well, I’m sorry anyway and it won’t happen again.”
“I know,” she said looking at him properly for the first time since the incident ... “I know,” she repeated more quietly.
He sighed deeply, “I guess we’d better get some sleep, long ride tomorrow.”
“No,” she said softly.
“It won’t be that long back to the cabin will it?”
“Look Cynthia I’ve explained about that I can’t take ya...you must see sense...What would Roger think of me taking you into that kinda danger?”
She looked down and pursed her lips before regarding him once more, a challenging look in her eyes, “I should be more concerned about what I will think...or do if you refuse to take me,” she said firmly.
He looked up exasperated, “Look Cynthia, I’m sorry but you just ain’t comin’ and that’s an end to it....”

Chapter 8
They set off at first light, making much better headway riding than they had done on foot and made it back to the cabin shortly before noon.
Cynthia had been so upset when Jess had insisted on heading for Denver that eventually he’d decided to give in and returned to the cabin, hating to see her so very distressed. Garldarn it he thought secretly, how come women always had that effect on him? Turn on the tears and he was lost he thought shaking his head sadly with a grim smile.
“But when we get there you stay way back out of harm’s way, you understand,” he’d said fiercely, the worry making him sound harsh.
“I promise,” she had said timidly, casting him a watery smile.
Now as they approached the hide-out Jess dismounted and nodded for Cynthia to do likewise.
They had reined in beside a small copse several yards from the cabin and although it looked deserted Jess wasn’t taking any chances.
He withdrew his rifle from the scabbard and said gruffly, “You stay right here, understand? I’ll call ya when it’s safe.”
She cast him a deferential look and nodded. “I understand...and Jess...”
“Uh, what?”
“Be careful won’t you.”
He nodded and suddenly feeling guilty at his cavalier attitude gave her a grin and patting her arm gently, said, “Sure I will,” before slowly making his way towards the cabin.
It was mere minutes before he emerged from the shack and called out to her to join him.
She ran over, “Have they moved on already? “she asked, looking surprised.
Jess shook his head, “I’m sorry Cynthia, but it looks like they never came back.”
She looked stunned for a moment and then said, “We’ll maybe they had trouble getting the money and they’re on their way back right now.”
Jess just shook his head looking out to the distant horizon...no he thought, his worst nightmare was probably true, they’d acquired the money and then Brown had killed the others before heading for the border.
“Jess, what is it?” she asked peering up at him.
When he didn’t reply she said, “Maybe they were apprehended and the Sheriff is on his way to find us right now?”
Jess thought that highly unlikely...knowing Roger would have moved heaven and earth to get the money so that he could return to free his dear wife.
When he was still silent the truth finally dawned on Cynthia and her eyes opened wide in shock, her mouth agape, before she turned back to Jess.
“Oh God...you think they’re dead don’t you Jess? You think Brown’s killed Roger, maybe Fred too?” and she stood there trembling as her eyes filled with tears.
“Hey it’s OK Cyn, we don’t know that,” he said gently and then moments later she threw herself into his protective embrace...sobbing pitifully.
It was sometime later before she managed to pull herself together and they were able to discuss the matter rationally.
Jess figured that one of two things had happened, maybe Cynthia was right and Brown had been apprehended...and something had prevented help arriving to liberate them. Or he was right and Brown had done the deal and was now heading for the Mexican border. However, either way Jess figured they needed to return to Denver to find out exactly what had happened. Heck, maybe ol’ Sheriff Jackson had come looking while he and Cynthia were off chasin’ the horses, but no, there were no tracks he reminded himself.
They rode into Denver late the following afternoon, hitching their mounts outside Sheriff Jackson’s office Jess took Cynthia’s elbow and escorted her inside.
Denny Jackson had his back to them and was busy pinning up a wanted poster on his notice board.
“With ya in a moment,” he called out...and then turning around a few moments later he gasped...turned very pale and ran a hand across his face...the other hand going out to a nearby chair to steady himself.
“Denny, you OK?” Jess asked coming forward and helping the older man sit on the chair as he looked pretty much like he might collapse.
“J...Jess Harper,” he whispered peering up at the dark haired cowboy. Then he turned his gaze to Cynthia, “Ma’am...But garldarn it you two are dead ain’t ya?”
Jess grinned at him shaking his head, “Uh...it would appear not Sheriff.”
“But Jake Brown...my Deputy, he dang well said you’d both perished at the hands of some sharp shootin’ bushwhacker, working for one of the backers of the Santa Fe line, most likely he thought.”
Then Cynthia ran forwards, “Sheriff have you seen my dear Roger, is he alive?”
“Why sure ma’am...but I don’t understand it, he said you were dead. Why would he think that?”
“Because that charlatan of a deputy made him say it,” Cynthia said shrilly.
Denny turned troubled eyes to Jess, “What’s she saying Jess, charlatan?”
“It’s true Denny that Jake Brown is a con man, a fake...had us all fooled at first, I guess. The closest he’s been to Red Smith is a spell in his jail...that letter of recommendation was forged...he’s no more a deputy than the ranch cat!”
“What you’re telling me is he’s in league with the Santa Fe mobsters?”
“I’m sayin’ worse than that Sheriff. As you know there are a bunch of guys that didn’t want Roger to back the D&RGW (Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad). The main man is one BW...that’s Barney Watson...I finally figured out what BW stood for, he’s one of the stakeholders on the Santa Fe line.”
“Of course, I should have realized that....so this Jake Brown was in his employ then?”
“Was, but he’s upped and double crossed him. He figured he’d make more money by kidnapping Roger and Cynthia here and forcing Roger to withdraw all his stake money from the Bank.”
The Sheriff cussed softly and then sank his head in his hands, “And I dang well escorted him to the Bank and saw him off on the railroad...Dang it how could I have been so stupid!”
“The railroad, you say?” Jess repeated, “So where was he headed?”
“Uh...back to Laramie, Roger said he wanted to see Slim, give his condolences on your passing Jess. Jake went with him. Well his work here was done it was only temporary while Lord and Lady Hamilton Forbes needed guarding. He said he was going back up to see Red Smith and get his old job back if he could.” Then he sighed lustily, “He sure took me for a prize fool!”
“You and me both Denny,” Jess said angrily. Then he cussed under his breath, “Dang it...so have you told Slim about all this...about me and Cynthia allegedly shot dead?”
“Well no, I figured it would be better if Roger broke the news to him,” the Sheriff said looking a tad uncomfortable. I guess maybe I should have wired him but....”
“Thank God you didn’t,” Jess said with feeling, “at least everyone at the ranch has been spared that and I doubt Jake and Roger will be going anywhere near the place.”
“Jess, where do you think he’s taken Roger?” Cynthia asked looking pretty near to tears yet again.
“I reckon he’s makin’ for the Canadian border, not Mexico at all,” Jess said bitterly. “But I’ll tell ya one thing...he sure ain’t gonna make it, not iffen I’ve got anything to do with it that is!”
“You’ll go after him then Jess?” Sheriff Jackson asked.
Jess nodded and then said, “Did he have another guy with him, goes by the name of Fred Knowles?”
The Sheriff shook his head, “Nope not as I saw, it was just the two of them...went straight from the bank to the rail head they’ll have quite a head start on you Jess.”
Jess nodded, “Yeah, we’ll stay in town tonight and be at the rail head for the first train out to Laramie,” he said the light of battle in his eyes.
It seemed sensible to stay in the same hotel as previously and the clerk even gave them the same adjoining rooms.
They went down to supper together but neither of them had too much of an appetite.
They finally left the dining room and took their coffee in the hotel lounge.
“What do you think has happened to Fred?” Cynthia asked after they had been sitting in silence for a while.
Jess shrugged, “Maybe he just stayed out of town.”
“Or maybe Brown killed him, you said he might,” she said her eyes wide with dread.
“I guess he’d outlived his usefulness after he’d tipped Brown off about the amount of money Roger was putting up...and where it was.”
“So there was no need for Brown to keep him around,” Cynthia finished flatly, “that way Brown would take all the money for himself.”
Jess just nodded, “I guess that could be so, yeah.”
“So, what will happen to Roger? When will he be expendable Jess?” she asked looking close to tears again.
Jess reached out and took her hand across the table, holding it and casting her a look of deep concern. “No point in thinkin’ that way sweetheart,” he said softly. “I’ll catch up with him real soon and Roger will be just fine, you’ll see,” he said with more conviction than he was feeling.
“Jess are you sure?”
He just nodded, “I’m gonna give it my best shot. Now why don’t you turn in? We’ve got a long day tomorrow and things will look better after a good night’s sleep.”
“I won’t be able to sleep,” she said quietly, “how could I?”
None the less shortly afterwards Jess escorted her up to her room and pausing outside her door said, “It’ll be OK Cynthia, really it will, try not to worry...”
She turned to face him from where she’d been about to enter her lonely room and had an overwhelming desire to stay in Jess’s reassuring company a while longer...
“I really won’t sleep you know, why don’t you come in and sit with me a spell?” she asked hesitantly.
Jess looked down, “Well I dunno ma’am... its gettin’ kinda late you know...”
“Yes, yes of course I’m just being silly...goodnight Jess,” and she turned to go into her room once more...but again she hesitated.
Jess looked down at her and felt a mixture of pity and a stirring of something else...deep affection... or was it just sympathy?

Leaning forwards, he very tenderly kissed the top of her head, “Night Cynthia,” he said softly.

She glanced up at him and felt at once safe and cherished, “Goodnight....and Jess...”


“Thank you, for everything,” and she disappeared inside her room.

He stood looking at the closed door for a good minute before turning and entering his own room, his deep blue eyes somewhat troubled.

He had removed his boots, gun-belt and shirt, but left his pants on in case he was called out in the night for any reason. Then he lay back against the pillows his expression very thoughtful as he stared up at the ceiling, willing sleep to come and ease his worries.

He had finally dropped off and was sleeping deeply when a piercing scream from next door woke him.
His heart was pounding as he sat up, threw his legs out of bed, grabbed his hand gun and tore across the room. He wrenched the dividing door open and stood transfixed for a moment. Then registering the scene before him quickly leapt into action.

Cynthia was sitting up in bed, illuminated by a bedside lamp and was now screaming hysterically. Her terrified eyes never moving from the coiled rattle snake at the end of the bed...poised to strike.
Jess opened fire at once...blasting the critter several times and it leapt and bucked as the bullets slammed into it...dead at the first shot.
Jess was across the room in seconds and wrapped Cynthia in his warm embrace, stroking her hair and whispering softly to try and calm her down.
Just a few moments later there was yelling in the corridor and then a loud knocking at the door, followed by the Hotel Manager’s head peering around.
“Mister Harper what on earth is going on here, you are disturbing my guests,” he said somewhat officiously.
“Well I’ll tell you what’s dang well happening,” Jess said incensed as he left Cynthia and grabbed hold of what was left of the rattler. He thrust it in the little man’s face and said, “The lady had an unwelcome guest and I figured I should dispatch him, before he did too much damage.”
Then turning from the manager continued, “But I’m real sorry if you folks were disturbed,” he said sarcastically, casting a glance at some inquisitive bystanders peering in through the door.
The manager quickly shooed the guests away before returning with abject apologies.
“I’m so sorry sir, your ladyship,” he said, “I will be sure the girl is suitably chastised.”
“Huh, what girl is that?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“The maid you see sir. She hangs the washing out in the back yard and then she is supposed to fold it and place it in the laundry basket and bring it up at once to change the beds.”
“Right,” said Jess beginning to lose interest and wondering when he could get back to his bed.
“Well she doesn’t sir...she takes her break, leaving the laundry in the yard folded in the basket. Well it’s not the first time this has happened...it was just a nasty couple of bugs got into a bed last time...but this...well it could have been fatal, but for your fast reaction sir.”
Jess sighed, “OK...now do ya mind if we turn in, we’ve got a real early start....”
“Of course...sir, ma’am, my sincere apologies again,” he said backing out of the room.
Once the door closed behind the manager Jess turned back to a pale shaking Cynthia.
“Hey come on, it’s alright now,” he said gently as he advanced on the bed and sat down on the edge taking her hand.
The kind gesture was too much for her and she collapsed in hysterical sobs.
“Hey sweetheart, don’t take on so,” he said shifting his position so he was on the bed beside her and could take her in his arms and try and sooth her once more.
It was a good few minutes for the hiccuping, heart rending sob to finally slow down and cease.
Jess sighed deeply, “Are you OK now?” he asked edging back a little.
But Cynthia clung onto him for dear life.
“Don’t go Jess, don’t leave me please,” she cried looking like she might well break down again.
Jess weighed up his position...stay the night and possibly have her ladyship’s reputation tarnished...or leave her alone terrified and sleepless?
“OK.” he said gently, “I’ll stay right here as long as you get some sleep now?”
She nodded, settling down in the circle of his arm and he kissed her gently on her forehead, “It’s OK,” he said again softly, “everything will be just fine...”
But would it be he thought as he lay beside her, listening to the gentle rhythmic sound of her breathing as she slept...would it really?

The following morning after a hasty breakfast they made their way to the rail head and were soon settled down and on their way back to Laramie. The journey was uneventful and Cynthia was able to sleep, whilst Jess sat beside her relaxing and thinking back to the traumatic trip out when Roger had been attacked. Then he felt suddenly terribly guilty...he had been employed to keep him safe and yet he had failed miserably.
What ever happened he had to find Roger and bring him back safely. He owed that to Cynthia he thought as he glanced down at her downy blond head, now resting on his shoulder as she slept....and he felt a wave of affection for her. They’d gotten close, real close he realized now and the burden of responsibility for her future happiness hung heavily upon him.

Chapter 9
They were welcomed home with many questions and deep sympathy from both Daisy and Slim when it became clear that all had not gone to plan on the trip.
“Oh my, you must sleep in with me tonight,” Daisy said after supper. “I can’t bear to think of you all alone in the bunkhouse, you poor dear.” Daisy saw that Cynthia looked exhausted after her ordeal and was really not up to any further discussion that night and encouraged her to turn in.
The women folk had gone for an early night and Mike was also abed, leaving the men folk to their own devices. Slim glanced over at where his buddy sat by the fire nursing a coffee and looking worn out and utterly dejected. So Slim mooched over to the kitchen and returned with a half bottle of Red Eye...
“Like to liven up your coffee some Jess?” he asked with a sympathetic smile.
Jess’s head shot up, from where he’d been miles away gloomily reliving the awfulness of the last few days.
“Thanks,” he muttered offering his cup...then taking a good swallow relaxed back in his chair, closing his eyes. A few minutes later he sighed deeply, “I needed that.”
“I thought you did,” said Slim attending to his own cup, before topping Jess’s up again.
“So, you want to tell me all about it?”
“Nuthin’ more to tell,” Jess said morosely, “except that bastard Jake Brown played me for a fool...Once he’d got the drop on me there was nothing I could do Slim, I couldn’t risk him hurtin’ Cyn...or Roger,” he added.
Slim had noticed there seemed to be a new closeness between Jess and Lady Hamilton-Forbes and now with this casual use of her Christian name his thoughts were confirmed. “She’s taken it all badly,” he said quietly.
“Well sure she dang well has,” Jess exploded, “how do you expect her to feel not knowing if her husband is alive or dead?”
Slim said nothing, just bowed his head and waited for Jess’s fury to abate.
He didn’t have to wait long, “I’m sorry Slim, I guess I’m acting like a prize jerk. It’s just that I feel so dang responsible for all this.”
“Heck Jess none of this is your fault, it was Denny Jackson that took the guy on, maybe he should have done a few more checks.”
“Uh, maybe,” Jess said sipping his coffee.
“So, you’re still determined to go after him?”
“Well sure I am... how can I not Slim? I was employed to keep the guy safe and I failed. Of course, I’ve gotta go and try and find him...bring him and the money back if I can.”
“It sure is a long shot Jess and I don’t even have that old map of the best route up to the border. It was destroyed on the journey we took up there with your brother-in-law Gil Brady that time...it got lost as I remember.”
Jess nodded, “Gee that was a bad business.”
Slim nodded, “It was a darned difficult trail too Jess, even worse without a decent map.”
Jess nodded and then grinned over at his friend. “Hey I’ve just remembered Mort’s got a real good map... I remember him telling me when we got back that time...I’ll ride in tomorrow and see him,” he said draining his cup.
The following morning when Cynthia joined them at the breakfast table, she looked much more rested and in control.
Mike, who had been primed not to ask questions and certainly not about Roger was on his best behaviour, keeping Cynthia entertained with tales of Buttons and Blue. The dogs had rolled in some fox dung and were ‘stinkin’ like skunks,’ so Mike had said cheerfully...
“It took us all morning to get ‘em bathed didn’t it, Aunt Daisy!”
“Indeed it did,” Daisy said smiling indulgently at the child.
“Now if you’ve quite finished your breakfast dear run a long and do your chores.”
Once the child had gone Slim smiled across at Cynthia, “It’s good to see you looking better, rested anyways.”
She smiled back at him, “Well at least there was nothing to frighten me half to death here.”
“Uh... no, well I hope not?” Slim said looking slightly puzzled.
Cynthia looked from Slim to Jess and said, “Didn’t you tell them about that dreadful Rattle Snake in my bed?” she asked innocently
“No, he didn’t,” Slim said, at once turning questioning eyes on his buddy.
“Do tell pard,” he said throwing Jess a penetrating look.
Jess looked down into his cup and said gruffly, “Nuthin’ to tell...a snake got into Cynthia’s room and I dispatched him, that’s all.”
Cynthia didn’t pick up on the charged atmosphere in the room and carried on happily with her tale. “Oh he’s being far too modest,” she said smiling and including Daisy in her wide innocent gaze. “He shot the creature several times, woke up half the hotel in the process it was after midnight I believe. The room was thick with the smoke,” she said wrinkling her attractive little nose. “Goodness we could still smell it when we woke up the next morning couldn’t we Jess?” she said with a little shudder. “Cordite I think it is...a very pungent smell don’t you think?” she said turning to Daisy.
Daisy gave an involuntary start, but pulled herself together quickly... either Cynthia was somewhat brazen...or remarkably innocent...and she thought probably the latter. Maybe Jess had just stayed in her room to keep her safe and slept in the chair she thought charitably.
However Slim viewed the proceedings with no such tolerance and was now glaring at Jess who was looking decidedly flushed and guilty.
“I’m glad to hear you take your guarding duties so seriously,” Slim said sarcastically again throwing Jess a black look.
Jess drained his cup and stood up, “Gotta go, see you later. Thanks for breakfast Daisy,” and he spun on his heel and was halfway to the door before Slim could react.
“So where do ya think you’re dang well going at this hour?” he called angrily to Jess’s retreating back.
“See Mort, I told ya yesterday,” he said succinctly and dived out slamming the door behind him.
“Well I sure didn’t see that coming,” said Mort Cory, pushing his Stetson back and wiping a hand over his face, staring at Jess in shock.
“Yeah, well I figure I didn’t realize what I was gettin’ into,” Jess said morosely.
“I feel kind of bad Jess, after all it was me that persuaded you to take the job,” Mort said ruefully.
“You did a bit, but it was mostly Slim...anyway you couldn’t have known that Jake Brown was jail bait,” Jess said honestly, “he was the problem...I dang well trusted him...sure fooled me.”
“And you think he’ll have already dispatched this Fred Knowles and possibly Roger Hamilton-Forbes too?” Mort said looking sorely troubled.
“Well I can’t see no reason for keeping him alive, can you?” Jess asked. “I guess he’d just slow him down some. That’s powerful rough territory up to Canada from here, up to Casper, across Montana and the snow will be down soon too,” he said casting an anxious eye out to the cloudy grey sky beyond the office window.
“Slim will need you around to bring the herd down soon,” said Mort.
“Do ya think I don’t know that?” Jess yelled, suddenly furious.
There was a tense silence in the room and then Jess hung his head, “I’m sorry Mort, I guess I’m a tad wound up over all this business.”
“Sure, I can see that,” said Mort quietly, before taking Jess’s cup and topping it up with fresh coffee.
“So, what will you do?”
“Go find him of course and bring Roger and the money home...if he’s still alive, I figure I’ve got another few weeks before we need to move the herd.”
“Hell Jess that’s gonna be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Jess shrugged, “There aren’t too many routes a man on a horse could take, he’s gotta keep out of Indian Territory, near a water source and go through the mountain passes. I figure I’ll flush him out...I just hope I find him before he kills Roger though,” he muttered almost to himself.
“So, how’s Lady Hamilton-Forbes taking all this?” Mort asked.
Jess looked away, “How do ya think?” he asked gruffly.
“Hey Jess, what’s up buddy?”
Jess sighed, “I’ve let her down Mort...badly...I should never have let that bastard Brown get the better of me.”
“Come on Jess if I know you, he wouldn’t have done it easy. After all he had the surprise element on his side didn’t he? You thought you could trust him...and I’ll bet he got that purty little lady in his sights... held her at gunpoint? I figure you wouldn’t have had much choice but to give in.”
“Yup, that’s about the size of it Mort, but it don’t stop me feelin’ real bad.”
Mort decided to change tack, seeing that his old friend was getting kind of rattled.
“So, what does Slim make of all this, is he happy with you taking off after Brown?”
“Ha...I’d hardly call it that, but he sees I have to do it and I think he’s feelin’ pretty guilty too. He practically forced me into doing this dang job, so I figure he can’t gripe when it all went wrong.”
“Well if there’s anything I can do...I’d come with you if I didn’t have this ol’ town to keep in order.”
“Yup, I know Mort...I’ll be fine...but there is one thing, have you still got that old map of the passes up through Montana?”
“Sure I have,” and Mort dug about in the bottom draw of his desk before finally pulling out an old map. Don’t forget though Jess...you go too far towards the border and you might not get back this side of spring if the snows come early.”
“Yeah, I know that Mort.”
He stood up, “Sooner I go, sooner I’ll be back,” and he put out a hand and shook the Sheriff’s, “be seein’ ya Mort.”
“Sure, you take care now Jess.”
“Sure” and he marched off out of the office and moments later Mort heard Traveller pounding down Main Street and out of town.
“Good luck boy,” he whispered as he refilled his coffee cup and sipped the brew pensively.
When Jess arrived back, he went straight to the barn to rub Traveller down and a few minutes later Slim joined him.
“If you’ve come in here to have another go at me you can forget it,” Jess barked angrily, “I ain’t in no mood for it Slim.”
“Hey take it easy buddy...I’ve come to apologize. Cynthia explained exactly what happened...she wasn’t feeling guilty, so I guess it never crossed her mind that we’d...well think things weren’t err... quite proper,” he finished lamely.
Jess’s head shot up and he turned from his task, “Well she’s a lady ain’t she... not got a filthy mind like you.”
“Touché,” said Slim softly, “and I am sorry Jess.”
“And don’t think you can bamboozle me with that French talk, I know dang well what you mean,” Jess said, his expression however not matching his bitter words. “What I just said, about your mind...I was on the money huh?”
Slim saw the twinkle in his buddy’s eyes and gave a bark of laughter, “Yup, I guess so. Jeez I reckon we’ll make a scholar out of you yet Jess.”
Jess couldn’t help but grin at that and punched Slim gently on the arm, “You’re forgiven.”
“Well that’s real good pard I sure wouldn’t want us to be fighting, seeing as I’ll be riding out with you when you head off”.
“Huh, what are you talkin’ about Slim?”
“Just what I said, I’m coming with you to fetch Roger back and find that scum Brown.”
“Come on Slim you can’t, what about this place?”
“I’ve been over to see the Jackson boys and they’re happy to oblige for a while.”
Jess just shook his head, wanting to say yes come on pard I need all the help I can get, “But...”
“But nothing Jess, I feel terrible about all this business. It was my fault you took the darned job in the first place and so I figure I should try and help you out some.”

And so it was that Slim and Jess rode out early the following morning.
Daisy was her usual stoic self, saying they would manage just fine and not to worry about them. Mike was wonderful too.
Jess had said, “I want you to look out for the women folk while we’re away Tiger.”
The boy had pulled himself up to his full height and said, “You can rely on me Jess!”
Slim ruffled the boy’s hair and Jess winked at him, before turning to say his farewells to Cynthia.
She looked pale and drawn and was still saying she wished to accompany them on their quest.
“Come on sweetheart,” Jess said leading her away across the yard from the others, “we’ve been through all this it just ain’t right to take a woman up on that trail. It’ll be real hard going for us, never mind a lady like you...”
“I can ride as well as you and Slim,” she protested.
“It could be real dangerous too, hostiles, bad weather and terrain, not to mention the folk you get up on that old owl hoot trail.”
“Owl hoot trail?”
“The route we’re takin’ is straight up towards the border and there are usually a good few outlaws around crossing over and it really ain’t no place for a lady. I’m sorry Cynthia...but I’ll bring him back safe....I...”
At that she put a finger up to his lips to stop him and he looked down at her in surprise...
“Don’t,” she whispered, “don’t make promises you can’t keep,” and her eyes filled with tears...
Then she was in his arms and he held her close for a minute before gently withdrawing....
“I have to go...look after yer self,” he said softly.
She nodded, “You too...”
Then with another wave to Mike and Daisy he jumped up into the saddle and moments later he and Slim left the yard at a brisk trot.
They made good time heading for Casper and then they planned to go on north taking the old Bozeman trail for some of the way. It was later that evening after supper that Slim broached the subject of Cynthia.
“I guess Cynthia was real upset about all this business,” he started…throwing Jess an uncertain look, to where his buddy was laid back against his saddle, by the fire, sipping a coffee.
He didn’t react at first and then flicking a glance towards Slim said, “Sure of course she is, so why wouldn’t she be?”
“No reason,” Slim said suddenly feeling slightly wrong footed, “I er... just meant I can’t remember her being so emotional before, I thought the British were supposed to have this ...’stiff upper lip’ never showed their feelings too much.”
Jess just shrugged, “She’s been through a lot Slim, you can’t blame her for falling apart some.”
“Uh...even so, before... back at the ranch...you and she seemed...real close?”
At that Jess’s head shot up, and he looked like he might give an angry retort. However, he seemed to reconsider and relaxed back looking into the fire.
“With me and Cynthia... well it’s kinda complicated,” he finally said quietly.
“You want to talk about it?” Slim asked, really needing to understand what was going on...surely Jess wasn’t falling for the aristocratic beauty...he couldn’t be thinking of throwing Millie over...could he?
Jess sighed deeply, “I guess I’d better. I’ve got a feelin’ you’re thinkin’ the worst of me as usual huh Pard?”
“No...I... well... I just don’t want to see you hurt Jess...or Millie either.”
“Millie? Where did that come from?” Jess asked sitting up now and looking alarmed.
“Well there’s something not right between you too, you didn’t even stop by and see her when you visited Mort did you?”
Jess hung his head, “Nope...I didn’t Slim, but that ain’t got anything to do with me and Cynthia...I purely didn’t want to upset her by tellin’ her I was off up to Canada... I knew she’d be real worried frettin’ and fussin’ and I didn’t have enough time to explain everything to her. I figured maybe she wouldn’t realize I was back home. I thought I could save her from worrying and could make it to the border and back without her knowing...then I could explain everything when I landed home.”
“Explain what Jess...about you and her ladyship?” Slim asked sarcastically.
Jess really did look angry now, “Dang it Slim there ain’t no ‘me and her ladyship’ as you call it! What I was gonna explain was why I’ve been away so long. All about Brown abducting Roger and how I’ve had to slog all the way up to Canada to sort everything out...And I don’t have to remind you this is your entire fault Slim. I didn’t want to take on the goddamn job in the first place!”
“OK, I’m sorry Jess that was out of order. So just tell me what’s been happening, because sure as hell there’s something going on between the two of you.”
Jess looked down into his coffee cup for a while and then turned his deep blue eyes on his friend, before taking a deep breath and starting to speak.
“I guess at first I was kinda in awe of her, both of them, being so dang aristocratic and all educated up too. But then after that little run in I had with the bear...the way she tended me...well that was real humbling, you know Slim? A lady like her looking after the likes of me,” and he shook his head in admiration.
“Go on,” Slim said softly.
Jess sat and tried to get his thoughts in order and then shrugged. “I dunno, kind of hard to explain, but over the last few weeks we’ve become friends...real good friends. And I guess I’m kind of proud of that Slim, thinking that old Roger and Cyn think of me as their friend too. Then we had all that business with Brown and things changed again...”
“Uh...I think Cynthia has come to rely on me...maybe a tad too much, if I’m honest. But hell Slim there ain’t anything in it. It’s just because she’s having such a hard time right now, she needed someone to turn to...and that’s all there is to it...she needed a friend and I was around.”
“And you, how do you feel Jess?”
Jess sighed again, “If yer askin’ have I got the hots for her, well the answer’s no. I admire her and like her as a friend...and that’s it Slim. Not every relationship with a woman has to be about sex you know,” he finished indignantly.
Slim looked down and hid a smile, “Yes I had figured that out myself a while back Hotshot, I just wasn’t sure you had...”
Jess absorbed this information and then cussed loudly reaching over and giving his pard a none too gentle cuff around the head. Then both men dissolved into laughter.
“Well I’m sure glad we’ve got that one sorted out,” said Jess eventually. “Now maybe we can concentrate on finding Roger and returning him to his poor long-suffering wife!”

Chapter 10
The two men ploughed on relentlessly, aware that time was not on their side. They rode through forests and steep sided gorges, along river banks and over mountains...finally arriving at Wolf Creek, some fifty odd miles from Great Falls and another hundred miles to the border at Sweet Grass. The men had crossed the snow line and the going was treacherous over some of the mountain ranges, forcing them to dismount and lead their horses, trudging on through the inclement weather.
Now both animals and men were pretty much done in but with the border almost within their reach they knew they must carry on. However, supplies were getting low and tempers frayed and so it was with something akin to pure joy that they came upon the Wolf Creek Trading Post.
It was in fact merely a rather shabby looking large shack with a small corral out back, set on the river’s edge and surrounded by dark gloomy looking pines. Nevertheless to the travelers it looked like heaven on earth.
They hitched their mounts to the rail and briskly entered the shack, relieved to be out of the prevailing northerly, which had been blowing most of the morning. They stopped on the threshold, the aroma of paraffin, tallow and animal skins assaulting their nostrils. Then as they became more accustomed to the dim light, they were able to make out a couple of Crow Indians up by the counter arguing over a transaction. After much debate they finally threw some coins down on the counter and left wielding a rifle and bottle of Moonshine.
Jess did a double take as the men elbowed their way past him and then he advanced angrily upon the filthy, grossly fat man behind the counter.
“What in Hell do ya think yer doing’ tradin’ with the Indians that way? You know their Chief don’t allow them to drink ‘white man’s firewater’ and selling that with a rifle too...are you crazy?”
“Well I don’t see as how that’s any of your Goddamn business mister,” the storekeeper returned angrily.
“Well it’ll be my darned business iffen they get drunk and start shootin’ that damn rifle in my direction,” Jess exploded.
“Look calm down pard,” Slim said quietly, “the deal’s done and we can’t change that, now let’s just get our stuff and get out huh?”
Jess just glared at the storekeeper and then decided Slim had a point and as they were desperately short of coffee and other basics he just sighed and said no more.
But the big ornery man wasn’t as easily mollified and threw them a baleful stare.
“We need some of Arbuckle’s best,” said Slim consulting his list.
The fat man just stood unmoving and continued staring at him, “Supposing I don’t want to serve you mister,” he spat, folding his arms and looking mutinous.
That was enough for Jess. He was tired and the lack of coffee in his system was making him feel darned right irritable.
In the blink of an eye he drew his colt and held it just beneath the man’s wobbling double chin. “You’ve got ten seconds to git the damn coffee, before I blow yer brains out,” he growled.
Well that certainly did the trick and a shaking, pale and very polite storekeeper filled the order with no further back chat.
As they left Jess threw him a grin, “See that was real easy weren’t it?”
The fat man nodded his eyes still huge with fear.
Then Jess turned back to him, “Say have you seen some men pass by this way...a couple of English Gentleman and a tall dark-haired guy...kinda ornery?”
The man nodded vigorously and then shook his head.
Jess turned and came back to the counter, “Well which is it fer God’s sake yes or no?”
Slim came up and pulled Jess gently away, “Easy Jess, your terrifying the guy, just let him speak huh?”
“Well?” Jess asked slightly more reasonably.
“Yes sir...but just two men, not three. One with a real posh accent...could be English I dunno...the other real sharp... but didn’t say too much.”
“The English man did he have like greyin’ hair...wore a dark eastern style suit...had a monocle around his neck...like single eye glass?”
“Yes,” said the man grinning and relaxing for the first time, “that’s him to a tee. They looked to be heading north towards Sweet Grass I’d guess. Most folks cross the border there. They were by just a few days back,” he added for good measure.
Jess smiled back. Then he gave a sigh of relief and turned back to Slim, “That’s Roger alright, he’s still alive Slim, thank God!”
They headed on up north, only stopping to camp when darkness made it impossible to continue and then did the same the following day.
That night Jess was as jumpy as a rabbit in a rifle’s sites and kept prowling around the camp, driving Slim mad.
“Jess will you sit a spell you’re driving me crazy,” the usually placid Slim snapped.
Jess returned from where he’d been checking the horses, yet again.
“Those dang wolves are scaring the horses,” he muttered as he slumped down by the fire. “If indeed they are wolves,” he added moodily.
“Well what else would they be?” Slim asked crossly.
“Crow of course, signalling.”
Slim shook his head, “You worry too much, and we’ve got a treaty with them now haven’t we?”
“Yeah, so what were those Indians doin’ off the reservation then, its way down south of Montana...”
“Well I don’t know Jess; every tribe has their renegades and trouble makers just like a town of white folk.”
“I know and that’s what’s worrying me Slim, armed Indians high on Red Eye don’t make a real good combination, that’s all I’m sayin’. The sooner we find Roger and ride fer home the happier I’ll be.”
Slim looked thoughtful and put his head on one side, listening intently to the eerie sound of the wolf cries. If that’s what they were he thought now, the sound sending shivers down his spine.
He glanced over at his pard knowing it took a lot to spook him and suddenly felt another shiver of unease, “Well let’s hope we catch up with them soon,” he replied, pulling his bedroll more tightly around him and settling down for the night.
The following morning, they were huddled around the campfire after a chilly night enjoying a much needed coffee when Jess threw his cup down, rising and drawing his colt in one swift movement. Slim’ s head shot up as he stared at his buddy and then off towards the tree line, where Jess was looking intently.
“Show yourself,” Jess growled menacingly...and just moments later a tall, well-dressed man staggered forwards, before gasping and falling in a dead faint almost at their feet.
“Dadgum it,” Jess muttered, “Roger, hell Slim it’s Roger!”
The two men quickly pulled him up and dragged him over to the fireside where they lay him gently on Jess’s bedroll. Moments later his eyes flickered open and he squinted up at the men before gasping with relief, “Slim...Jess my goodness it’s so good to see you I...I...”
“Hush, don’t try to talk,” said Slim offering a canteen of fresh water and lifting Roger’s head up so he could take a welcome drink.
“Cynthia, my dear Cynthia, she is safe?” he gasped after a moment.
Once he was assured she was safe at the ranch, he relaxed back, eyes closed and breathing a deep sigh of relief.
It was a good ten minutes later before the whole sorry tale came out.
It seemed that Jess was right and the two very drunk Indians had attacked Roger and Brown’s camp, killing Brown and stealing their mounts...
“So how did you escape?” Jess asked looking bewildered.
Roger looked slightly embarrassed, “Call of nature. I’d gone behind some rocks to relieve myself and I heard what I thought was a wolf’s cry...Well I have to be honest,” he said turning twinkling eyes on Jess and Slim, “I was rather startled and waited behind the rocks, thinking the animals were near at hand...and just hoping Brown would dispatch them as I wasn’t in possession of a fire arm of course.”
Jess was getting rather impatient and interrupted, “Garldarn it so what happened Roger?”
“Uh, oh yes, well moments later I heard Brown cry out and then the horses gallop off...I came out and was just in time to see two Indians riding off on our horses. I couldn’t do anything so I ran back to the camp, but I fear Brown was dead, a knife wound to the chest...so much blood,” he said shaking his head sadly. Then recovering himself, continued, “So I lay low until morning and then decided to try and get myself back to the trading post at Wolf Creek. I thought he might have a horse for sale,” he finished, suddenly looking quite distressed.
“What’s up?” Jess asked kindly, “Did those Injuns take yer money too?”
“What? Of I see, no Jess it was in Brown’s saddle bags, they rode out bare back, I have all the money safely here,” he said tapping his jacket pocket.
“So you should be happy then,” said Slim, raising a puzzled eyebrow.
“I know, I just feel awfully bad about the whole business. You see I couldn’t bury Brown. I had no shovel and the ground was frozen solid....it really does go against the grain leaving him that way,” he said sorrowfully.
“Is that all?” Jess asked with a cheerful grin, “Well don’t you fret any, I guess Brown didn’t deserve a decent burial...anyways the coyotes will have had him by now,” he finished succinctly.
Roger shuddered.
“Shut up Jess you really aren’t helping,” Slim said.
Then turning back to Roger, “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“I’m sure old chap, just tired and hungry. I seem to have been walking forever. I walked through the night. I’ve not had any food or drink for ...uh I don’t know how long.”
“Well we can sure fix that,” said Jess stirring the fire up to a new blaze and putting the frying pan in place, “bacon and beans suit ya?”
They let Roger sleep for the rest of the day. Then the following morning they slowly made their way back towards the Trading Post. Slim and Roger riding double, Jess on the outlook for trouble.
The previous night they had again heard the ghostly sound of wolves on the wind. Then towards dawn the sound of galloping horses off in the distance. Although whether they were being ridden or were wild mustangs they couldn’t tell.
Now Jess was on the alert scanning the surrounding hills, but eventually the Trading Post came into sight.
“I dunno if we’ll be lucky,” he said turning to address Slim and Roger. “Last time we were here I could only see a couple of old mules in the corral...I figure we won’t be home fer Thanksgiving if you have to ride one of those,” he said winking at Roger.
As they rode in though and tethered their mounts Jess gave a cry of surprise and then cussed, “Jeez, looky who’s here, that ol’ buckskin look familiar to you maybe Roger?”
The older man dismounted and wandered over, “My goodness, this is the horse I was riding when we were attacked by those natives...”
“I kinda thought he might be,” Jess said reaching out and patting the animal’s neck gently. I figure your horse has just been traded in for some more firearms and liquor.”
Slim joined them shaking his head, “You’re right Jess and I really think this guy should be reported to the authorities. The truce between the Indian and white man is fragile enough at best around here, it really doesn’t need folk like this...what’s he called, er Trader Bill, making matters even worse.”
However Slim was talking to himself, Jess already marching over to the trading shack.
He burst in with such fury he nearly brought the door off its hinges and Trader Bill stepped back a pace, realizing that the customer from Hell had just returned.
“Yes sir,” he said weakly painting an obsequious smile on his face, “what can I do for you today?”
“I’ll tell you what you can dang well do for me,” Jess exploded, “you can stop trading with those no-good renegades. It’s down to you that a man’s been murdered in his camp and another nearly met his end too.”
“Well I’m sorry sir, but I really can’t be held responsible.”
“You sold ‘em liquor and guns, didn’t you?”
“Well, uh, yes.”
“Well you’re responsible then,” Jess spat angrily.
Just then Slim and Roger entered and Jess spun around. That horse in the corral, he’s yours right Roger?”
“Indeed,” Roger confirmed...
“Right,” said Jess, we’ll take him.”
“Certainly sir...I’ll write you up a bill of sale,” the fat man said eager to get rid of this volatile young cowboy.
“That won’t be needed,” Jess said, “see I won’t be paying for him, just returning him to his rightful owner.”
“But you can’t, that’s illegal and daylight robbery to boot!” Trader Bill protested.
“So, did you get a bill of sale from the Injun’s?” Jess asked.
When the other flushed and looked down Jess said, “I thought not...and uh, throw in a saddle too will ya, we’ll pay fer that.”
Trader Bill looked like he might well object, but one look from Jess stopped him in his tracks, “Yes sir,” he said soberly bustling off to select a suitable saddle.
They made good time and camped out near a fast-flowing river with plenty of tree cover too in case the threatening snow began to fall.
“Gee I sure hope the weather isn’t as bad as this back home,” said Slim looking worried, “we really will have to get the herd down as soon as we land home you know Jess.”
“Yeah, I know it,” came the less than enthusiastic reply from Jess who was pouring coffee for them all, now settled for the night by a blazing camp fire.
“So, you say Brown killed Knowles just a few days into your journey up north?” Slim asked resuming their conversation of a few minutes earlier.
A cloud crossed the Englishman’s face, “Gunned him down in cold blood,” he replied bitterly. “The Lord knows I wasn’t too fond of my cousin, but he didn’t deserve to die that way. I really thought he was going to kill him when we rode into Denver to get the money. Brown insisted Fred stay out of town and I hoped he’d just decided to abandon him. But no, he arranged to meet him at the rail head. It was much later when we were riding for the border and passed near your ranch that things came to a head,” Roger said sadly.
“What happened?” Jess asked sipping his coffee thoughtfully.
“Brown just picked an argument with him...said he’d had too much to drink and he should turn in. Well that was like a red rag to a bull for my dear cousin...he got rather annoyed and that’s when Brown drew on him and shot him...poor Fred didn’t stand a chance, he had a derringer I believe, but it was in his saddle bags. Yes, what Brown did was out and out murder.”
All three men reflected on that unsavory fact for a moment and then Roger said sadly, “He was a difficult man. A weak man and yes his addiction to spirits and gambling made him a downright bounder...but he was kin and I wouldn’t have wanted his life to end this way.”
Jess shook his head, “Well I guess he shouldn’t have hooked up with Brown then....”
Roger nodded agreeing.
“Well anyway... on to more pleasant things, you say my dear Cyn is quite well Jess?”
Cynthia had been the first thing Roger had asked about when he met up with Slim and Jess and now he was eager to glean any scrap of information about the woman he loved so dearly.
“Sure, except fer missin’ you something fierce,” Jess said quickly.
“You escaped from that dreadful shack... clearly,” Roger said rolling his eyes at stating the obvious. “But tell me did she suffer much, was she hurt at all? You went directly back to the ranch?”
“Look she’s just fine,” Jess said really not wanting to elaborate on the time he had spent with Cynthia. Hell, the last thing they needed was for Roger to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.
“Besides, you’ll see for yourself soon,” Slim said butting in and having similar thoughts as Jess, “I reckon we should make it back within the next week or so. And it won’t be a moment too soon,” he muttered to himself.
He watched as Jess got up and started checking on the horses again and wandering around the camp, peering off to the distant hills.
“Is he alright?” Roger asked quietly, having picked up on Jess’s tense mood.
“Sure, sure he is,” said Slim expansively; wondering himself just exactly what was biting his pard. Was it talk of Cynthia rattling his nerves, or more likely his conscience, Slim thought darkly…or was it something else?
Much later when Roger was snoring gently Slim turned to his buddy who was sitting staring into the fire.
“What’s up Jess, is it mention of Cynthia that’s got you spooked this way?”
Jess’s head shot up, an angry glint in his eyes. “No why should it?”
“No reason I guess, unless there’s something you’re not telling me?”
When that comment was met with stony silence Slim tried again.
“So what’s up then Jess, can’t you just relax? Brown and Knowles are dead and we’re bringing Roger and the money home safely, garldarn it what more do you want?”
Jess just shook his head. “I dunno, but something just doesn’t feel right?”
Slim sighed dramatically, “For goodness sake Jess, what?”
Jess again looked off to the snow-clad hills, “It feels like we’re bein’ watched, followed maybe?”
“What those renegades after us you think? After all we’ve not heard any more of those wolf calls have we?”
Jess shrugged, “No I guess not, but somethin’ ain’t right Slim trust me.”
It was just two days later when Jess’s premonition became fact.
He had hung back several times, letting Roger and Slim ride on ahead...and then the second time it happened he rode quickly up the trail to catch them up.
“Slim, hey Slim wait up,” he called.
Roger and Slim reined in their mounts and waited patiently until Jess was alongside them.
He looked pretty rattled so Slim thought, casting anxious glances behind him before saying, “I was dang well right Slim, there is a guy about half a mile down the trail...he’s keepin’ real well back, but he’s following us alright.”
Slim sighed, “Maybe he’s just riding our way....”
“So why does he keep back just out of sight...mostly that is...nope there’s something wrong about all this Slim.”
“What do you want me to do my dear chap?” Roger asked looking equally anxious now.
Jess tipped his hat towards a deep ravine about a mile in front of them. “Once we pass through there we’ll be out of his line of vision, I’ll jump ship and you two carry on through, you leading Trav Slim. I’ll get up on one of those rocky ledges and jump him...that way I’ll have the surprise element and be able to down him before he bushwhacks us.”
“And what if he’d no intention of bushwhacking us Jess, what if he’s just an innocent traveller?” Slim asked looking stern.
“Then I’ll apologize to the guy,” Jess said with his cheeky grin.
Everything went to plan and Slim and Roger trotted through the ravine leaving Jess clambering up one of the steep sides, until he had a good view looking across the plain. After a moment a rider came into view and there was something vaguely familiar about him Jess thought. However, he didn’t have long to ponder as just minutes later the horse and rider were picking their way cautiously down the canyon, obviously not wishing to bump into the riders he was following.
Jess timed it perfectly and just as the rider of the tough looking little bay passed below him, he jumped, landing on target and pulling the astonished rider from the saddle, both men falling heavily. However Jess was the first to recover and leaping up he laid a haymaker on the unsuspecting man, sending him reeling. He followed through with another couple of body blows and by the time Slim and Roger had retraced their steps Jess’s prisoner was unconscious...
Roger and Slim dismounted and walked over to where Jess had removed his hat and was wiping his sleeve across his perspiring face, an expression of bravado on his handsome features.
“See I told ya pard, I said the guy was up to no good.”
Slim and Roger stared down in disbelief at the battered body of one... Jake Brown!
After a minute he groaned and shook his head as he came round. Jess went over and kicked his leg hard. “Come on Brown git up you ain’t that badly hurt,” he growled angrily.
“But...but you’re dead,” muttered Roger, looking deeply shocked.
“Not yet he ain’t,” said Jess with an evil grin, “but I figure it won’t be too long ... there’s a rope waiting’ on you Brown... it’s just a matter of time.”
Their prisoner was unceremoniously thrust back up onto his mount and lashed to the saddle horn and the party moved on again. Jess taking up the rear, his steely gaze never leaving the prisoner and his rifle at the ready.
It was later that night that the matter was discussed more thoroughly.
Once they set up camp Jess helped Brown down and pushed him roughly towards a large pine where he intended to tie him. But it soon became obvious that the altercation with Jess had opened up Brown’s wound and he was now bleeding badly. Jess had cussed irritably before going and fetching clean water and dressings and then went about cleaning and binding the deep knife wound.
When he’d finished, Brown gave him a quizzical look, “So why are ya botherin’ Harper. I guess I ain’t yer favorite person?”
“Well you got that one right,” Jess agreed and then with a nasty smile, “I just don’t want you to take the easy way out by dyin’ on the trail. It would be a real shame to deprive the hang man of his day now wouldn’t it?”
Brown swallowed hard, but said no more and Jess turned away and went and sat by the fire with the others.
“I just can’t understand why I thought he was dead,” said Roger shaking his head.
“Easy done,” said Slim, “especially if the body has lost a lot of blood or is really cold. Gee I’ve thought Jess had croaked, more than once. Just lucky I realised my mistake before burying him,” he said with a bark of laughter.
Roger gave a shudder of distaste, not quite getting the men’s black humor.
“Don’t matter anyways,” Jess said laconically, “he’ll hang sooner or later for killin’ Fred.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Roger, just wishing the whole sorry business was over and he and Cynthia were safely on the boat returning home to the green and pleasant land that was England.
“So I guess you’ve had enough of the ol’ Wild West and you’ll be headin’ home?” Jess asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“You know I think I will Jess. When I visited the bank to remove all my cash for that scoundrel Brown the Manager inferred that the Denver Railroad had managed to secure another backer. So yes, as I won’t be letting the town down, I think I will withdraw my offer and head off back home.”

Chapter 11
It was about a week later when a tired, disheveled band of riders finally entered Laramie, just as folk were lighting their lamps.
Jess gave a weary grin as he slipped down from the saddle and said, “I guess it’ll be too late to ride home tonight, after we’ve seen Mort and given him our statements,” and he threw a wistful glance in the direction of the saloon.
His meaning was not lost on Slim and he punched his arm gently, “I figure you’re right there pard,” he agreed, looking forward to seeing his own girl just as much as clearly, Jess was his Millie.
The men entered the Sheriff’s office pushing the belligerent Brown in front of them and Mort stood up as they strode in his face a mask of surprise, quickly followed by pleasure.
“Well I’ll be,” he said his rugged face breaking into a broad grin. “If it ain’t Slim and Jess back from foreign parts and dadgum it, you brought Lord Hamilton-Forbes back in once piece too!”
Then he turned his attention to where Brown was standing head bowed.
“Brought back the bogus Deputy too? Well you’ll be getting the book thrown at you son,” Mort said angrily.
“Much more than that Mort, the guy done killed Fred Knowles in cold blood...I guess he’ll be attending a good ol’ neck tie party,” Jess drawled.
“You don’t say,” said Mort, throwing Brown an even harder look, “Well come on let’s get you locked up in one of my cells.”
Then turning back to the men, “And then we’ll have a little talk.”
When he returned, he passed coffee around and they all settled down.
“So is there a problem Mort? Roger here will swear to the fact that Brown gunned his cousin down in cold blood, the guy wasn’t even toting a gun,” said Slim.
“Yes,” said Roger, “that is the gospel truth Sheriff...it happened at our camp about five miles outside of this town as we passed by from Cheyenne on the way up to the border.”
“I’m sure that’s right,” Mort said. “But it’s much more likely to stand up in court if we have a body. So, do you know the exact spot?”
Roger agreed that he did and described the land around Dead Man’s leap.
Mort turned to Slim and Jess and said quietly, “I guess someone will have to go out with his Lordship and exhume the body, I’ll send Lon out with him tomorrow.” “If that’s alright with you,” he asked turning back to Roger, who was now looking quite pale.
Before he could reply Jess broke in.
“No Mort, I’ll ride along with Roger, do the job.”
Mort looked surprised, “But aren’t you needed back at the ranch now Jess?” he asked flicking a glance to where Slim was watching his partner, a troubled look in his eyes.
“I’ll be alright with the Deputy,” Roger said quickly, if not entirely sincerely. “I know you need to get back to work both of you,” he said turning and smiling at the two cowboys.
“No,” said Jess, “I’m your bodyguard and I ain’t about to quit until you’re safely on the railroad heading back east, I’ll take you and that’s an end to it.”
Then he turned to his partner, “One day won’t make no difference will it Slim?”
Slim saw how fired up Jess was and decided to back down, and said hesitantly, “I guess not...”
Then began the lengthy business of writing and signing statements. The extent of the deviousness of one Jake Brown fully exposed. How he had tricked and overpowered Jess, taking him and the Hamilton-Forbes hostage. Also, how he’d left Jess and Cynthia tied up in the cabin and had no intention of returning for them. But how Jess had managed to free them and they’d walked miles without water across the desert to retrieve their mounts.
Up until then Jess had skimmed over the finer details of the atrocity, but as Mort asked some probing questions poor Roger became more and more distressed.
“My poor chap,” said Roger turning concerned eyes on Jess, “and my poor dear Cyn, tell me how she coped?”
Jess found it hard to look Roger in the eye remembering how very close he and Cyn had become. Heck they’d nearly gone a step too far he remembered now... Jess’s mind suddenly returned to the intimacy of their swim in the creek after their terrible ordeal. The memory making him flush up and feel decidedly jittery.
“She was fine Roger, real brave,” he replied curtly.
Then turning to Mort said irritably, “How much longer is this gonna take Mort, we’re real tired and pretty dry too ya know.”
Mort hid a smile thinking Jess just wanted out so he could see his girl and have a beer or three, not picking up on the somewhat charged atmosphere that had suddenly sparked off.
Slim was now looking at Jess as though he was somehow at fault and Jess was refusing to give anyone eye contact. After a few minutes it filtered through to Mort that there might be more going on here than he was fully aware of...Or maybe they were all just dead beat and fed up and who could blame them he thought.
“Look gentlemen I can see you’re all pretty tired, how about we finish off the paper work tomorrow huh?”
They didn’t need any second bidding and the men rose with alacrity and were heading for the saloon in minutes.
Once they got there, Roger halted, “Um, I think I’ll retire for the night, if you don’t mind. I know it’s pretty early, but to be honest I really am exhausted,” he said.
Jess’s heart sank, here he was almost within kissing distance of his girl and he had to baby sit Roger all dang night. Slim said he’d see the others later and made for the sanctuary of the saloon, leaving Jess to escort Roger across the street to the Laramie Hotel.
However Roger paused at the entrance and said, “Look here old chap I really don’t need you guarding me around the clock now you know...I’m sure all that business is at an end. It’s common knowledge that another is backing the railroad project so I do believe I am out of danger.”
Jess desperately wanted to believe him and yes sure it was true, but still he hesitated, his sense of duty kicking in.
“Go on Jess, go and see the lovely Millie, I’ll be just fine. I’ll stay in the same room as last time I stayed here when you slept in the room next door, instead of with your girl,” he said with a grin. “I did appreciate it old man...but no need now really. Maybe you can collect me in the morning, um...how does that sound?”
Finally, a grin crept across Jess’s face, “That sounds just swell,” he admitted.
“Right, goodnight Jess and er thank you for all you’ve done, especially for my dear wife, I really do appreciate it,” he said, before turning on his heel and entering the hotel.
Jess watched from the open door; his expression unfathomable. He checked to see the night porter hand over a key and satisfied Roger was settled for the night he finally turned and made for the saloon.
As he entered, he was reminded that it was Saturday night and the evening was in full swing with someone bashing out a tune on the old honkytonk piano and Tom and the girls doing a brisk trade at the bar.
Jess saw Slim at the far end of the bar and went to join him, his eyes never straying from the serving area.
“You seen Millie?” he asked as soon as he reached his pard.
Slim nudged a glass of beer across to Jess and shook his head sadly, “Sorry pard she isn’t working tonight.”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked totally despondent, “Well where the heck is she?” he asked before taking a long pull at his beer.
Slim shrugged, “Jenny just said she was covering as it was Millie’s night off.”
As soon as he was able Jess caught Jenny’s eye and called her over.
“Yes, gentlemen another beer is it?”
Jess quickly drained his glass and pushed it over.
“Hey Jenny have you any idea where Millie is tonight?” he asked hopefully when she returned with the beers.
“I’m not too sure Jess. I know she and Betty were thinking of heading to the dance tonight, but I haven’t seen her leave yet. She may still be titivating, you know what we gals are like,” she said with a giggle.
But Jess barely heard her as he was off up the stairs at speed to Millie’s room above the bar.
“What about your beer?” Slim called after him.
Jess just flapped a hand and yelled, “You drink it Slim,” before turning the corner at the top of the stairs.
He was just beginning to think he was too late and she had already left for the dance when the door was finally pulled open revealing Millie. She was dressed only in a pale blue satin robe, her hair up in a towel. Her face devoid of makeup and Jess thought she looked as innocent and beautiful as he had ever seen her.
“Why Jess, I was in the tub. I wasn’t expecting company,” she said looking flushed but rather pleased.
He grinned down at her, “Well I guess I came at just the right time then. I could sure use a hot tub about now.”
She looked him up and down, the trail filthy clothes, several days’ growth of beard and the exhausted way he lounged against the door frame...but also the twinkle in his deep blue eyes...and to her he looked just wonderful.
“Come on in then cowboy,” she said huskily, “I think I might just be able to oblige you there....”

It was quite some time later before the two returned to Millie’s pretty sitting room. She sat on the floor, before the fire to dry her hair, Jess on the old leather couch behind her. He was clad only in pristine, cut down shorts from his saddle bag, his torso bare as he sat basking in the warmth of the fire. After a little while he leaned forwards and took the towel from Millie’s hands.
“Here let me,” he said softly, before gently rubbing her hair dry.
Millie relaxed back against his legs and after a while he threw the towel down and then started to gently comb the tangles out.
She gave a little sigh of contentment and after a minute he slid down from the couch and sat down beside her, looking into the glowing embers of the fire.
She turned to him, “Cynthia,” she said softly, “so how did you get on with her?”
Jess had already given her a brief rundown of the events of the last few weeks, but hadn’t really touched on the only part that she really needed to hear about.
It was when Daisy had attended the Women’s Group meeting with Cynthia the previous week that she had been slightly disturbed to hear of the recent events.
Cynthia had been completely open and honest regarding her version of what had befallen the pair. But it was when she had been relating the terrible time she and Jess had after they’d escaped from Brown and Knowles, walking miles in the desert, that Millie had really taken note.
“Your Jess was just so wonderful,” Cynthia had said dewy eyed, “he saved my life Millie my dear he really did. I can never thank him enough; he is a true champion and a gentleman too is he not?”
Now Millie looked into his deep blue eyes and raised an eyebrow, “Well?”
Jess sighed deeply, before turning and looking her in the eye.
“It was all real hard goin’ Mill and when folk are in a life and death situation...well feelings run kinda high, you know?”
Millie nodded, “I kind of figured that...but I think Cynthia has gotten fond of you Jess...I mean real fond of you?”
He listened to that and then shook his head, smiling into her eyes, “Maybe for a minute or two back there...but that’s all it was and I guess now all she wants is her husband back in one piece.”
She smiled back at him, knowing the truth of it, but just needing to hear it from his lips.
Now her gaze lowered before looking back up into his eyes, “You must be really tired how about an early night?” she suggested.
He leaned in and kissed her very gently, “Well ya know I feel a lot better after that hot tub...but maybe an early night wouldn’t be a bad idea?”
She giggled and smacked him across his tanned chest, “Jess Harper you are one cheeky man,” she laughed.

It was nearing dawn when two shots rang out from the Hotel across the street.
Jess stirred in his sleep and then just pulled Millie further into his warm embrace, before drifting off again.
However, just ten minutes later there was a hammering on the door.
Jess sat up rubbing his eyes, peering through the darkness...Millie suddenly awake at his side.
Tom called out urgently from the other side of the door, “Hey Jess, come quick there’s some trouble across the street.”
Jess dragged himself up, pulling his denims on and ran to the door, “What’s goin’ on Tom?”
“Lon was just over, said there was some trouble with that friend of yours, his Lordship ya know... um Hamilton-Forbes?”
Jess sighed with exasperation, “Hang it all Tom what about him?”
“Been shot Jess the guy’s dead according to Lon...you’re needed over there pronto...Slim too.”
Jess stood there breathing heavily, it couldn’t be true surely...he couldn’t be dead? Roger had been out of danger hadn’t he? Garldarn it, he’d have never left him on his own otherwise.
He grabbed his clothes and gun belt, cussing softly under his breath as Millie looked on anxiously.
Then Slim emerged from Lily’s room along the corridor and was at his side, “Come on Jess let’s go see what’s happening, “he said softly.
Jess threw Millie an apologetic glance then made his way down the stairs and followed Slim across the street to the hotel, buckling on his gun-belt as he went.
On their arrival they found the place in chaos with the Manager in reception trying to placate his many disturbed guests.
“Upstairs, first floor front gentlemen,” he called as he saw Slim and Jess run in, “the Sheriff is waiting for you up there.”
The two men tore into the room that Roger usually occupied when in Laramie and Mort stood back so that they could get a good look at the victim lying in a pool of blood on the bed.
Jess’s stomach turned over, how in hell could it have come to this? How was he going to break it to Cyn?
He looked more closely and glanced up at his pard who was also staring transfixed at the body on the bed. Then Slim threw a comforting arm around Jess’s shoulders.
Slim felt his buddy relax and sway a little as the relief flooded through him. The body on the bed was not that of Roger Hamilton-Forbes.
Sure, he looked like him, same build and coloring...but he certainly wasn’t Roger.
“Where’s Roger? Jess’s asked, looking perplexed.
“I don’t know,” said Mort, “but I figure we’d better find him real quick, before our murderer realises he’s killed the wrong man.”
It was as they were going downstairs that they discovered the truth when they bumped into the night porter on his way up with the Laramie undertaker.
Jess tipped his hat to Charlie Fairfax, the undertaker, and then stopped the night porter Fred.
“Hey Fred, you had Lord Hamilton-Forbes in last night didn’t ya, so where’s he sleepin’?”
“Uh...of that posh guy from the old country...Lord Roger he likes me to call him,” the old man nodded grinning at Jess.
“That’s him... well?”
“Aw, we were real busy last night what with the dance and all, folk wanting rooms,” he said with a rather licentious wink, “and so I couldn’t give him his usual room so I put him in the ground floor back...you know where that is I guess, huh Jess?” he said with yet another broad wink.
“I know alright,” said Jess returning the grin, “thanks,” and he and Slim made their way down the stairs.
The ground floor back was a room usually reserved for those who couldn’t make it up the stairs after a night of imbibing the pleasures available at the saloon rather too freely. Jess had occasionally tied one on in his early days in Laramie and was quite familiar with the room. Now the cowboys knocked loudly on the door and seconds later it was cautiously opened by a rather anxious looking Roger.
“Goodness me whatever is going on?” he asked. “All that shooting and noise, I really thought I should stay put until you arrived Jess. I hope I did the right thing?”
Jess grinned at him, “Oh yeah you did that alright Roger, come on let’s go get some breakfast at Miss Molly’s place and I’ll tell ya all we know. Once I’ve seen Millie that is, I figure she may be a tad worried,” he added.
After breakfast and with Roger now fully conversant with the recent happenings in the hotel, they made their way over to the Sherriff’s office to get Mort’s take on events.
“Well, I’m sorry to say it but it looks to me like someone still wants you dead Roger,” Mort said gravely.
“But why so? Words gotten around that he’s pulled out of the D&RGW (Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company) deal, so why else would anyone want him dead?” Jess asked looking baffled. “He ain’t no threat to the Santa Fe Company no more.”
“Maybe someone doesn’t want him to testify against Brown,” suggested Mort, with a sudden flash of inspiration. “It was the talk of the saloon last night. I caught Mose holding forth, after you two had retired...so early,” Mort said with a suggestive smirk aimed at Jess and Slim.
Then he sobered, “Mose must have overheard me and Lon discussing you and Jess going to dig up Knowles grave,” he said turning to Roger. “Our murderer must have overheard and decided on the spur of the moment to get rid of you Roger.”
“But that’s monstrous...and so who was the poor chap that was murdered in my place?” Roger asked.
“A guy named Forbes, a snake oil salesman from Cincinnati. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever committed the murder must have sneaked a look at the register and just saw the name Forbes and put two and two together.”
“And he came up with five,” Jess supplied.
“About as good at math as you then Jess,” Slim sniggered, and received a clip around the ear from his pard.
“Look this is serious,” said Mort, throwing them a stern look. This means that Roger here is still in danger. It’s all around town who was killed last night, so it’s only a matter of time before the murderer realizes he’s killed the wrong man and strikes again!”
Both men immediately sobered and Jess sighed deeply, knowing that his bodyguard duties wouldn’t be over anytime soon.
“Well I guess we can forget exhuming Knowles body; Roger would be a sitting duck riding over to Dead Man’s Leap, it’s all open countryside up there,” said Jess.
Mort looked thoughtful for a moment, “Unless....
“Uh, unless what Mort?” Slim asked.
“Unless you two swapped clothes,” said Mort looking at Slim and Roger. “You’re a similar height and build. OK Roger has a few grey hairs, but that Bowler hat you wear will cover that up,” Mort said grinning at Roger.
Jess scrutinized the pair through half closed eyes. “Yup, I reckon you could get away with it Slim. So what do you propose Mort? For me and Slim to ride out and see iffen we can draw out our man?”
Mort nodded, “I’ll make sure word gets around town this morning and then you two exchange clothes,” he said to Slim and Roger. Then Roger, you stay nice and safe hidden away in one of my cells and I figure we might just get away with it.”
“My dear chap I can’t allow you to put yourself in danger this way,” said Roger turning to Slim.
Then back to Jess, “Or you Jess, you really have risked enough for my family over these past weeks, I really can’t ask for more.”
But Slim shook his head, “This isn’t just about you anymore Roger, an innocent man’s been murdered and his killer needs to be brought to justice, before he tries to kill again. Next time it might be you. Or he might even go after Cynthia and use her to coerce you not to testify,” he said as an afterthought.
Roger paled at the thought, “My goodness. Yes I do see your point old man...but do be careful won’t you?” he pleaded.
“He’ll be fine,” Jess said with a grin.
Then slapping his buddy warmly on his arm, “I’ve got his back Roger, so there’s nuthin’ to fret about.”
The two men rode out at noon heading due north towards Dead Man’s Leap a desolate mountainous region about five miles from town. They rode slowly, leading a pack horse from the livery for the body and Slim carried a detailed map of where to find the shallow grave.
“Kinda suits ya that Bowler hat,” Jess said throwing his buddy a wicked grin.
Slim grimaced and ran a finger around the shirt collar which was chaffing him some, “This collar’s too dang tight,” he complained.
Jess turned slightly in the saddle and looked behind them before reining Traveller in.
“Well I reckon that’s the least of your problems Slim, we’re bein’ followed.”
“The hell we are...really?”
“Yup about half a mile or so behind us, he’s just stopped behind that clump of pines, we passed five minutes ago. No don’t look,” he continued. “So how do you want to play it Slim?”
“Well I’d kind of like to get out of this without a bullet in my dang back,” Slim replied brusquely.
“I figured as much,” Jess said with a cheery grin, “so maybe we should split up...once we get to the ravine running down the bottom of Dead Man’s Leap, we’ll be out of sight. I can pull back from the trail and lie in wait for him...pick him off easy?”
“Uh, if you say so Jess...that’s as long as he doesn’t suspect we know he’s there that is.”
“Yeah, so come on then what are ya waiting for?” Jess said kneeing Traveller on to a brisk trot.
“What am I waiting for?” Slim muttered irritably, before pushing Alamo on to a fast gait and catching up with Jess a few minutes later.
“There is one thing though,” said Jess thoughtfully after they’d been riding for five minutes or so, “I guess we’re gonna have to let him take a pot shot at you Slim.”
“Really, so why would that be?” Slim asked, raising an eyebrow and looking far from happy.
“Well it stands to reason, he ain’t done nuthin’ wrong so far has he, except follow us...and we can’t prove it was him that killed that Forbes guy. So, we’re gonna have to let him attempt another murder...then we can arrest him.”
“Oh that’s just swell,” said Slim sarcastically, “just swell.”
“Look it’ll be fine. I’ll rein in and stay behind that mess of big rocks just as you leave the canyon... he’ll see you riding off towards Knowles grave and I figure if you go slow enough he’ll open fire on you...then I’ll blast him from up on the rocks...OK?”
“Uh, so you get to be nice and safe behind the rocks and I get to ride out in the open and get shot at,” said Slim looking even less happy.
“Well I can’t help it if you’ve got those great long legs and broad shoulders, there’s no way Roger’s duds would fit me,” Jess said knowing he had logic on his side.
Slim just sighed dramatically and said, “Make sure you bring him down with your first shot huh?”
“You got it pard. Don’t worry it worked when I ambushed Brown didn’t it?”
“Uh, but Brown didn’t have me in his sights,” said Slim miserably, “this guy’s gunning for me and will be aiming to kill Jess.”
“Yeah, well I know that don’t I. Quit griping Slim and trust me will ya?”
Slim pulled his hat down hard and as they reached the end of the ravine Jess eased Traveller off behind the rocks giving his buddy a farewell salute.
Taking a deep breath Slim kneed Alamo on to a fast trot.
It was all over in a matter of minutes.
As Jess had predicted the lone rider made his way down the deep ravine and then paused where it suddenly opened out. He reined in his mount and raising his rifle he took aim and fired at Slim ’s retreating back.
Then two things happened at once. As the gunman opened fire Slim fell from the saddle like a stone, rolled over several times and then lay ominously still in the dirt.
Jess opened fire at precisely the same moment and caught the gunman in the shoulder sending him hurtling down from the saddle where he lay on the ground crying out in pain and shock. Jess jumped down from his vantage point and had the man disarmed and tightly tied up in seconds. Then he threw him roughly to the ground...
“Don’t even think of moving or you’re dead meat,” he drawled angrily before turning and tearing off to where Slim was still lying face down in the dirt.
As he ran Jess’s heart was pounding and he could barely breathe such was his distress. Why had he come up with this crazy scheme, what had he been thinking putting his friend’s life in danger that way. Hell, he’d shot the sniper OK but a second too late...
Now he threw himself down beside Slim and closing his eyes swallowed deeply before very gently turning his buddy over in his back...
“Please, please Lord let him be OK,” he whispered to himself...
Slim looked OK except for a small abrasion to his head where he had caught it on rock as he fell...
“Goddamn it Slim don’t do this... don’t you dare die on me!” Jess yelled desperately looking for the bullet wound that had downed his buddy.
Then just seconds later Slim took pity on his pard and opening his eyes grinned broadly up at Jess.
Jess sighed deeply, “Are you OK?” he finally managed.
“Sure, never better,” said Slim cheerfully, “the bastard missed me by a mile.”
“So, what are ya doin’ down there?” Jess asked indignantly.
“Just having me a little rest,” said Slim trying to suppress his mirth as he pulled himself up and went off to fetch Alamo.
“Come on Jess, let’s get going, you don’t want your prisoner to escape do you?” Slim said now openly laughing before swinging up into the saddle and spurring Alamo back down along the trail to where the captive was still lying in the dirt where Jess had left him.
Jess pulled his hat off and ran a hand through his hair before ramming it back in place, “Garldarn it, Slim Sherman I’ll swing for you!” he growled, before finally grinning and shaking his head.
Then he retraced his steps down towards where Slim was now interrogating their prisoner. Jess already planning his revenge on his buddy.
It was sometime later when the trio rode into Laramie, Jess leading the pack horse with the grizzly remains of Fred Knowles slung across it and shrouded in a blanket.
Jess peeled off taking Knowles to Charlie Fairfax’ s place for the undertaker to deal with the corpse, whilst Slim escorted the prisoner into the jail.
Slim marched in and pushed the prisoner down in the seat opposite Mort’s desk.
“Here you are Sheriff,” he said, “this is the desperado wanted for the murder of Mr Forbes from Cincinnati and attempted murder of yours truly,” he said bitterly. Although I guess he thought he was shooting at Lord Hamilton-Forbes, huh son?”
Mort looked down at the disheveled, unrepentant looking youngster who couldn’t have been much more than nineteen and then back up at Slim.
“Yup a real desperado....”
Then addressing the boy Mort said, “OK son, let’s hear it then, who are you and how on earth did a kid like you get caught up in all this?”
But the boy just hung his head and refused to speak.
It was sometime later when Jess breezed in and threw some papers on Mort’s desk.
“These letters addressed to Fred Knowles were on the body, plus this,” Jess continued throwing down a pocket book. “Got his name and address back in Britain, I guess this proves his identity...plus he’s got three bullet wounds...one to the head and the others to the heart, no mistaking the fact that Brown wanted him real dead,” he said gruffly. “With Roger’s witness statement I guess we’re home and dry.”
Then his attention was caught by the youngster still slumped in the chair, his hat in his hands... exposing his sandy coloured hair...hair that Jess had seen recently...Yes of course identical to that of Jake Brown. But there was something else familiar about the boy now he saw him up close...
“Jess, what is it buddy?” Slim asked peering over at Jess who had a slightly dazed look about him.
He was transported back to that night at the Denver hotel when someone had hammered at the door of Cynthia’s room saying Roger was hurt...then how Jess had gone to investigate...there were two men in the corridor...one had yelled, “Hurry up Brad, get her down here...”
Then the other had replied, “Shut up Skeet you fool!”
Then when Brad had opened fire on Jess and Cynthia he’d been killed by Jess in the shootout that ensued.
But the other man, Skeet, had escaped.
“Jess, what is it pard?”
But Jess ignored Slim and walked around behind the boy and then called loudly, “Skeet!”
The youngster spun around, “Yes?” Then he realized his mistake.
“It was you weren’t it, in the Hotel back in Denver....you were with a guy called Brad. He died in that hotel Skeet, but you escaped didn’t ya?”
The boy hung his head, but guilt was written all over his face.
Jess leaned down and jerked the boys head back up by his hair, suddenly looking furious, “Why...why did you do it kid,” he yelled, “throw your life away trying to help that no good scum Brown?”
The boy looked like he might well cry and Slim felt a stab of sympathy for him.
“Easy Jess,” he said softly.
Jess sighed loudly and prowled around the office, “It’s just such a Goddamn waste,” he said angrily... “a kid like this going to the gallows and for what!”
Then a thought struck him, “Have you got Brown in the cells now Mort?”
“Uh huh, the doc said he was well enough to move back over, he returned this morning.”
“What, so he’s in there with Roger?”
“No Roger went back to the ranch. He was gettin’ kinda upset worrying about his wife, so Lon took him over said he’d stay until you guys got back.”
Jess nodded, “I reckon you should put the kid in there with Brown.”
“Just do it Mort...huh?”
Mort sighed, “OK, come on kid I guess I can take your statement later.”
When Mort walked over to the connecting door to the cells Jess nodded for Slim to follow and all three men entered the back rooms, where the cells were located.
As soon as they walked in Brown’s head shot up and he looked shocked to the core... “Skeet what in Hell are you doing here?” he asked.
“You know this kid?” Mort asked.
“Sure I do he’s my kid brother, why what’s he done Sheriff?”
“I guess you’ve just found your motive,” Jess said to Mort, “he was just tryin’ to save his big brother’s skin,” and he and Slim turned away, feeling sick at heart at Brown for dragging his kid brother down with him.
When Mort came back a few minutes later he said, “I’ll get the night porter at the hotel to identify the kid, seems he brushed past him when he ran out. Old Charlie tried to tackle him but the kid was too fast. But the description he gave fits OK....dang shame he’ll hang for this,” he finished quietly.

Chapter 12
Jess and Slim returned to the ranch that night and as they rode in Mike came tearing out to greet them, closely followed by Buttons and Jess’s dog Blue barking in delight. Then Daisy, Roger and Cynthia joined the welcoming committee.
It was later after supper, once Lon had departed for town, that they discussed their visitor’s plans.
“The trial should be next week as the circuit judge is due soon and once that’s over, you will be free to travel home,” said Slim, smiling at the couple, imagining they couldn’t wait to get home.
But they had other matters on their mind.
“What will happen to Brown and his kid brother?” Roger asked his brows knitted.
Slim swallowed and looked down, so it was left for Jess to reply.
“They’ll both hang, if found guilty...and they will be,” he said quietly.
Daisy sucked in a deep breath, “Er Mike dear, if you’ve quite finished your supper, I think it’s time for bed.”
“Why do I always have to go to bed just when things are gettin’ interestin’ Aunt Daisy?” Mike asked reluctantly.
“Come on Tiger, time to hit the sack, that’s if you want to help us on round up next Saturday?”
“Gee Jess really! OK I’m goin’!” the child said whooping before jumping up and heading for his room.
Once he’d gone Daisy turned to Jess, “Are you sure dear, he’s very young...is he ready for that sort of work?”
“Sure, he’ll be fine Daisy, we’ll just take him out for an hour or so, the kid’s gotta learn. Besides we need all the help we can get,” he said casting Slim a rueful glance, “it’s getting mighty chilly out there and we’re running a couple of weeks late as it is.”
Roger cleared his throat and threw his wife a little conspiratorial smile, before addressing the men. “Well Cynthia and I have been discussing that very matter and we’d really like to stay on for a week or two and help you out, if that wouldn’t be an imposition Miss Daisy,” he said turning to where Daisy was looking flushed and happy.
“Why no, not at all, it would be lovely to have dear Cynthia’s company a while longer and I know the boys could use your help.”
“So that’s all fixed, Jess, Slim, yes?” Roger asked looking eager.
Slim was the first to recover, “Well I er...I’m not sure Roger, I mean Jess wasn’t hinting, we can manage perfectly well really you know.”
“Yes,” Jess agreed, “we’ll be just fine Roger.”
“Aha...you don’t think we’re up to it do you!” Roger said his eyes sparkling with glee. “Well I’ll have you know my Papa ran a herd of over a thousand head of Aberdeen Angus up on our moors and I can tell you they take some moving...big headstrong... er...’critters’ as you’ d say. So, no I’m no stranger to moving cattle and Cynthia here has done her share too haven’t you my dear?”
Jess noticed that Cynthia looked slightly less enthusiastic, but she rallied well.
“Yes of course Roger.”
Then turning to Slim said, “It will be our pleasure to help out.”
Then not quite meeting Jess’s eye said more quietly, “It is the least we can do after all you have done for us.”
It was much later that night, as they were preparing for bed, that Slim and Jess had a chance to discuss the matter further.
“I guess it can’t do no harm,” Jess said as he stretched back on his pillow, hands laced behind his head, “and we are kinda behind. We sure don’t wanna get caught out by an early snow like we were a few years back do we?”
“I guess not,” said Slim giving his torso a cursory wipe with a towel to dry off after his recent ablutions.
He threw himself down on his own bed, looking somewhat troubled however. “It just seems kind of impolite expecting them to help us out. OK I know you’ve worked real hard to keep them safe Jess, but you’ve been paid darned well for it too.”
“Maybe they’re just doin’ it out of friendship,” said Jess quietly.
Slim looked up, “You consider them to be friends then?”
“Sure, why...don’t you?”
“I guess I don’t know them as well as you do...and well, you are just an employee aren’t you Jess...on their payroll.”
Jess shrugged, “I was just on the payroll here too, but I reckon we ended up pretty good friends.”
There was no answer to that so Slim changed tack. “I kind of got the impression Cynthia wasn’t too happy about it anyway.”
“No, it weren’t that,” said Jess thoughtfully.
“So, you’d know what she’s thinking would you?”
“We talked about it, when she came over to the barn after supper to help me settle the horses down for the night.”
Slim threw his buddy a knowing look then, “Uh, I wondered what that was all about.”
Jess sighed, “Don’t go gettin’ me wrong again Slim, she just wanted to talk about the trial that’s all.”
“Um, she’s real upset about Brown’s kid brother hangin’. She wanted me to speak to Mort see if there’s some way he can get a prison sentence instead.”
“Hell, he’s a murderer Jess. He gunned down that poor guy in the hotel and would have killed me too!”
“I know that, sure I do, but I figure he must have been pretty hard pressed for a youngster to do that sort of thing...I guess he figured it was the only way he could save his brother.”
“So that makes it alright does it?”
“No, of course not... I told Cyn it was the law. A man commits a dang murder, well then he can expect a rope around his neck. What is it you’re always quoting at me... ‘a man lives by the sword he dies by the sword’.”
Slim hid a smile, “We’ll make a scholar of you yet...so did you tell Cynthia that?”
Jess nodded, “But she’s still real upset about it all. I figure I’ll ride into town and have a word with Mort at the end of the week, see what he’s found out about the kid.”
“Uh, yeah Daisy’s short of supplies and we could do with some stuff as well. Anyway Slim I feel kinda bad about the kid too...yeah I know...” he said raising a hand to silence Slim’ s protest. “But sometimes things ain’t all they seem. Remember that Mexican kid that stole my horse...he nearly swung for that, would have done too iffen I hadn’t liberated him from jail,” said Jess with his cheeky grin.
“Well I hope you’re not thinking of doing some of the same for Skeet Brown Jess, because I sure don’t think Mort would take any too kindly to that,” said Slim stoutly.
“Well of course not,” Jess replied looking affronted, “I just wanna be sure the kid gets a fair trial and we know all the circumstances around why he did it, ain’t nuthin’ wrong in that is there? I can’t help it if I’ve got kind of an understandin’ where the underdog’s concerned now can I Slim?” 

Slim grinned across at his buddy, “Nope I guess not, and I wouldn’t have you any other way Jess.”

The following day they started bringing the cattle back down to the lowlands of the East pasture and both Cynthia and Roger proved to be a great asset. They worked steadily every day and towards the end of the week the task was nearly completed.
The weather had turned decidedly chilly with a nasty northerly blowing up and according to Slim the smell of snow on the wind.
It was mid-afternoon and Slim and Roger had herded a dozen more critters down the mountain foothill towards the ranch, leaving Jess and Cynthia to round up a few strays they thought would be sheltering in a nearby box canyon.
As Jess had predicted, the four young heifers were taking refuge from the chilly wind at the end of the canyon. He slipped down from the saddle to check them over and then wandered back over to where Cynthia was watching him, looking kinda cold and peaky so Jess thought.
“They’re just fine,” he said, “but I guess you’re not, you look freezing’. How’s about we take a break before heading back, I’ll set a fire and make some coffee,” he said without waiting for an answer.
Once they were sitting warming their hands on the steaming coffee mugs Cynthia said, “By my calculation we’re nearly finished?”
Jess nodded, “Just about. There’s another dozen head unaccounted for, but I’ve a good idea where they’ll be and I figure I’ll save ‘em for Saturday and bring Mike up here like I promised.”
“You love that little boy don’t you,” she said smiling into his eyes.
Jess was always rather uncomfortable about discussing his feelings and just said softly, “He’s a great kid yeah.”
“I’ve been missing my brood terribly,” she said suddenly, her eyes misting, “it will be wonderful to see them all again.”
Jess smiled at her, “Well it won’t be too long, once the trial’s over you can get off home.”
She nodded, then said thoughtfully, “You know Jess I thoroughly intend to take a leaf out of your book as regards the children.”
He raised a questioning eyebrow and waited for her to continue.
“I’m taking the two younger ones out of school and employing a governess for them to be educated at home. There will be time for full time education away from home when they’re older,” she said firmly.
Then she turned to him smiling, “Seeing the closeness between you and young Mike has been a real eye opener to me...thank you Jess.”
He said nothing for a moment, just sipped his coffee, then said, “And Roger agrees?”
“Yes, he thinks it’s a wonderful idea. He intends to take young Toby around the estate with him a lot more, show him the ropes, just like you are doing with Mike.”
Jess nodded, “Well good I’m glad and hope it works out OK.”
Then he noticed she had gone very quiet and her eyes were brimming with tears...
“Hey what’s up?” he asked gently.
She paused and then said, “I was just thinking about that poor boy, Skeet...he is some mother’s son too. How will she feel when she finds out what is to befall him?” And then her tears started flowing in earnest.
Jess felt deeply moved, but kinda uncomfortable too, hating to see a female crying.
After a moment he threw an arm around her shoulders and said softly, “Hey, don’t take on so.”
But his kindness seemed to make her worse and she sobbed as though her heart would break.
He held her closely, her head on his shoulder, and finally her sobs came to a shuddering stop and she pulled out a lace handkerchief and wiped her eyes and blew her nose, before giving him a watery smile.
“Please forgive me, I don’t know what’s come over me lately, I seem to cry at the drop of a hat, my emotions are all over the place,” she apologized.
“You look fine and don’t be so hard on yourself Cynthia. You’ve been through a lot lately ain’t you...bound to take its toll,” he said sagely.
She sighed and looked up into his concerned blue eyes, just inches away and for the second time since she had met him, she was within a heartbeat of kissing him.
What is wrong with you her sensible side yelled at her...you are happily married; this man is nothing to you...but her heart yearned for him.
Almost as though he’d read her mind Jess pulled back a little throwing her a quizzical glance, before he poured the remains of his coffee onto the fire and stood up.
“Come on,” he said softly, “I reckon you’re just tired, let’s get you home eh?”
As she stood up she swayed and would have fallen if Jess hadn’t grabbed her arm to steady her.
“Are you OK?” he asked, concern again registering in his deep blue eyes.
“I...er...yes I think so. I’m sorry Jess I just went a little dizzy there for a moment.”
“Come on,” he said taking her elbow and walking her to her mount. “I reckon you’re in need of some of Daisy’s good cookin’,” he said with a grin.
And maybe a large helping of old-fashioned common sense too he thought privately, the look in her eyes earlier not having been lost on him.
She retired early that night complaining of a headache and Roger joined her in the bunkhouse shortly afterwards.
With Mike in bed Daisy, Jess and Slim took their coffee to the fireside and chatted companionably.
After a while Daisy said, “I’m worried about that girl, there’s something not right.”
“She’s hardly a girl,” said Slim smiling across at his housekeeper, “she’s in her thirties, maybe even forty.”
“Um, well she’s still a girl to me,” said Daisy thoughtfully, “and if I’m not mistaken a poorly one too.”
Jess’s head shot up, “How do you mean Daisy?”
“I’m not sure dear, I may be just imagining it but she looks very pale and drawn to me and none too happy either.”
Jess nodded, “You can say that again, she was in tears out on the mountain this afternoon.”
Now it was Slim’ s turn to look up in surprise, “Why what did you do to upset her?” he demanded.
“Nuthin’,” said Jess equally abruptly, “why should I? It was just that Skeet Brown that she was frettin’ about. Carryin’ on about what his Ma would say about it all.”
“Oh well I can understand that,” said Daisy staunchly, “he may be a bad lot...but he’s still some mother’s son.”
“Well she couldn’t have been much of a mother if she didn’t teach him right from wrong or to value life that much! Heck Daisy he killed that guy in the hotel and then had Slim in his sights, would have killed him too iffen I hadn’t stopped him with a bullet.”
Daisy looked distressed at that, “I’m sorry I didn’t know.”
“Yes, well we didn’t tell you because we didn’t want you being upset,” said Slim glaring at his buddy.
Jess hung his head, “Sorry Daisy, but I guess you need to know what he’s really like. I’m gonna ride in and see Mort tomorrow and I promise you if there is some reason why he thinks the kid shouldn’t hang...well then, I’m prepared to listen. I agree with you he’s so darned young...” he said quietly, now looking sadly into the embers of the fire.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance before Slim leaned across and gave his buddy a slap on the back, “You’ve a good heart Hotshot...come on let’s turn in, another busy day tomorrow.”

Chapter 13
The following morning Mike had headed off to school on the early Stage and the others were just relaxing around the breakfast table enjoying a final coffee when they heard a rider coming in fast.
“Who the heck’s that at this hour,” muttered Jess lurching up from the table and making for the door. He snagged his gun belt on the way and went out onto the porch, swiftly followed by Slim.
The men came back in a few minutes later with Mort Cory.
“Sorry to visit so early,” the Sheriff said eyeing the remnants of breakfast still on the table, “but I needed a word with you.”
Cynthia and Roger got up to leave, but Mort put up a hand, “It concerns you folks too,” he said quickly.
Once they were all seated and Daisy had supplied Mort with a welcome coffee he cleared his throat, “I got word yesterday that the circuit judge will be with us on Monday and so once the trial is over you good people can be on your way home,” he said nodding to Cynthia and Roger.
Roger breathed a sigh of relief, “Well that is good to know, isn’t it my dear,” he said turning to include his wife.
“Not that we haven’t enjoyed your company...immensely,” he reassured Slim, Jess and ‘dear Daisy’ as he thought of her. “But I feel we really need to get back to the old country now, see the nippers and get back to normal,” he said happily.
“What about the boy,” asked Cynthia ignoring Roger’s comment, “will he be tried and hung?” she asked, again looking emotional Jess noted.
Mort looked down, “No, he won’t ma’am.”
She gave a little gasp, “Thank goodness.”
“How so,” asked Slim turning to Mort, “has some exonerating evidence come to light, I can’t think what it could be?”
Mort was silent for a moment and then taking a deep breath said, “He can’t be hung because he’s already dead.”
“What?” Jess and Slim gasped in unison, whilst Daisy took Cynthia’s hand across the table. Both women were looking shocked and distressed.
“What happened?” Roger asked, being the first to recover.
“Well the truth of the matter is he tried to escape last night. You know how you winged him Jess?”
“Sure, but Doc Sam checked him over and cleaned him up, said it was pretty much just a graze.”
“That’s right, but Lon didn’t know that. He was on duty last night and when the kid started fussing and fretting saying his arm was hurting real bad...well Lon went in to check on him. Turns out the kid had a hidden derringer. He turned it on Lon...they struggled and the gun went off killing Skeet outright.”
Cynthia’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a scream.
“How in hell did he get a gun in the first place?” Jess asked looking indignant.
Mort shook his head, “It must have been his Ma, had it hidden someplace. She was the only one to visit him. She must have had it hidden in her dress or somewhere I checked her bag...”
“The poor woman,” said Daisy softly, “trying to save her boy and she inadvertently killed him.”
Mort shook his head, “Maybe it was an easier way to go than hanging though.”
“So, he would have hung?” Slim asked.
“Oh yes, without doubt... after what he did.”
Cynthia still looked unconvinced so Mort ploughed on, not liking to upset this pretty, educated woman, but feeling she should know the truth.
“You see it’s this way, he was wanted for murder in Mexico too. He killed a young woman down there. She threw him over and he upped and stabbed her through the heart...”
There was an intake of breath from all at this latest revelation...
“Yes, he was violent alright,” Mort continued. “He had a list of crimes as long as your arm to his name, from hitting women to assaulting an elderly man...for just a few bucks. That guy from Cincinnati had a wife and four youngsters too. So, I figure the world will be a dang site safer without Skeet Brown in it,” he finished throwing Cynthia and apologetic look.
She looked down and then said softly, “It would seem so Sheriff. I think maybe Daisy and I were wrong about him.”
“Don’t feel too badly about that Ma’am, you and Miss Daisy here were just looking at it from a Mothers’ point of view and who can blame you?” he said quietly.
“That poor woman,” said Daisy...”to lose both sons,” and she shook her head sadly.
Mort took his leave shortly afterwards and the men went off to get on with the yard chores, leaving Daisy and Cynthia to commiserate over this latest blow.
“I will miss you all so much,” said Cynthia later as she and Daisy sat out on the porch shelling peas for supper. She cast a glance over to where Jess was chopping some firewood for the stove and gave a little sigh before turning back to Daisy, “but I think I really need to get home.”
“I understand my dear,” said Daisy patting her hand gently, “I’m sure you must be missing your family dreadfully.”
Cynthia looked at the older woman with a glazed expression and then seemed to pull herself together. “Uh, yes of course I am,” she agreed, before glancing back to where Jess had tipped his hat back and was wiping a sleeve down his sweating face after the exertion of the wood cutting.
Daisy followed her line of vision and smiled inwardly, but made no comment.
However, it seemed clear that Cynthia needed to talk.
“I...um have been feeling a little strange of late,” she said quietly. “I can’t quite explain it...I’ve been getting terribly emotional about things...which isn’t like me at all.”
Daisy said nothing knowing Cynthia just needed a listening ear.
“I’ve...had some silly notions too...feelings that aren’t real I know that, but disturbing none the less,” she said casting Daisy an anguished look.
Daisy knew exactly to what Cynthia was referring. She had noticed the way she looked at the handsome, dark haired cowboy, her eyes telling of a depth of hidden feelings.
However Daisy also knew that Cynthia was far too well bred and loyal to her husband to voice her concerns and so Daisy decided to talk in general rather than specific terms.
She smiled at the younger woman and said gently, “I think you are exhausted my dear, you have been through so much over these past few weeks and in a foreign land away from your family and friends. I think it is understandable that you would feel, well not quite yourself?”
Cynthia nodded, “But I have had some quite...well... inappropriate thoughts and feelings about er...someone,” she finished, flushing up and looking down.
“Well my dear, it is quite normal to feel very close to people who have helped through a troubled time or ordeal of some sort. People you have come to rely upon are very special...of course they are. But I think it is sometimes easy to confuse feelings of say...love with deep gratitude and affection.”
“You think so?” Cynthia asked hesitantly.
Daisy nodded, “But I can promise you all that will change once you are home again and have time to recover from everything you have suffered. Those feelings will fade away, just like a dream at the break of day,” she finished with a kindly smile.
Cynthia had an overwhelming feeling of relief at Daisy’s sensible and yet sensitive words.
“Oh Daisy, you are so wise and comforting,” Cynthia said taking the older woman’s hand and squeezing it, “thank you... and Daisy?”
“Yes my dear?”
“You won’t ...you know say anything to...anyone about my silliness?”
Daisy shook her head, “Our little secret Cynthia dear. Now let’s get these peas finished off or we’ll have a hoard of hungry men wanting their supper and nothing ready.”
Cynthia beamed at her mentor and then bent to her task.
The following week the trial took place as scheduled and all involved had to give evidence. Although Mort had said in an aside to Slim, “I don’t know why the Judge is dang well bothering, it’s an open and shut case anyone can see that.”
“Well the ways of the law might be rather long and convoluted,” Roger said, “but they got there in the end.”
However, it was the ‘end’ that was the undoing of his dear wife.
Cynthia had bravely given evidence against Brown her responses being strong and fair, but the ordeal had obviously taken its toll and she looked quite pale and ill when she returned to her seat, so Daisy thought. Cynthia cast her a glance and also smiled at her husband sitting further down the row, next in line to give his evidence. Then she took her seat, flanked by Daisy and Jess.
Once Roger had given his substantiation the jury were finally asked to consider the evidence and give their verdict.
The end was nigh and particularly so for Brown, Jess thought, as the court official told them all to rise for Judge Jeffers to give his judgement. The jury had unanimously found Brown guilty of murder and attempted murder and so the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
“All rise,” intoned the court usher.
“For the murder of one Frederick Knowles the jury has found the defendant guilty. I thereby order Jake Brown to be taken from this place and hung by the neck until dead at dawn on the third day of the month, and may God have mercy upon your soul,” said the Judge solemnly.
It was as the crowd were dispersing and Roger was making his way back across the courtroom to his wife that she stood up and then gave a little moan as her legs seemed to buckle and she fell in a dead faint.
Jess was the first to respond and caught her before she hit the floor, taking her up into his arms and carrying her limp body towards an anti-room at the back of the courtroom. He was closely followed by an anxiously looking Daisy and Roger.
“What on earth happened?” Roger gasped as Jess gently laid Cynthia down on a leather couch in the little rest area.
“I dunno,” said Jess, “one minute she was fine and the next she just keeled over.”
“I think it must be the strain of giving evidence and then the shock of hearing Brown is to be hung,” said Daisy. “Even if he maybe deserves it, well it is still a terribly upsetting business all around.”
Jess said nothing, privately thinking that there was no ‘maybe’ about it and the sooner Brown was dispatched the better. He had shown absolutely no remorse. Heck iffen Jess hadn’t had his hunting knife hidden in his boot and was able to liberate them then it was highly likely that he and Cynthia would have perished back in that old cabin. Roger sooner or later too, again at Brown’s evil hand.
His reverie was broken as Doc Sam made his way in from the courtroom, however, “I saw what happened,” he said briskly, “maybe if you all give the patient some space, I can examine her?”
Everyone left so that Cynthia could have a little privacy and then ten minutes later she emerged with the doctor supporting her, looking a tad better, but still quite pale and drawn.
Roger rushed over and put a protective arm around his wife, “Tell me Doctor what’s wrong?” He asked looking concerned. “This isn’t like my dear wife she has the constitution of an ox!”
“I can’t be sure,” said the doctor earnestly, “I need to do some more tests and examine your wife properly, if you would care to come over to my office?”
It was decided that Slim would take Daisy home in the buggy in which she had arrived, as Mike was due back at the ranch shortly, after spending the day at a friend’s house. Meanwhile Jess sat in the buckboard outside the Doctor’s office waiting to drive the others back to the ranch.
The longer he waited the more concerned he became and when the couple finally emerged arm in arm, they did nothing to put his mind at rest. In fact, quite the reverse as they both looked somewhat shell shocked and Jess feared the worst...Cynthia was seriously ill.
He jumped down from the buckboard and once Roger clambered up Jess carefully handed Cynthia up to him. Then jumping up on the other side of her solicitously wrapped a blanket around her legs to keep her warm.
No explanation as to her health issues were offered and Jess felt it impolite to inquire too deeply, so just said quietly, “I sure hope you’ll be feeling better soon Ma’am.”
Cynthia flushed a little and threw him a tiny smile, “Thank you for your concern,” then turning to look at her husband she took his hand and continued to Jess, “but I will be just fine, I’m sure ...given time.”
Jess noted the slightly dazed look in Roger’s eyes and the way the couple seemed so ...almost remote as though they were suddenly removed to a different world. Shrugging to himself he slapped the reins and urged the team on for home and some normality he hoped.
But, on their arrival Roger and Cynthia disappeared off to the bunkhouse, giving their apologies and saying they wouldn’t require supper but would be having an early night after all the excitement of the day.
“Early night,” asked Slim looking surprised when he caught up with Jess in the barn a little later, “heck it’s only just turned five o’clock.”
Jess came out of the stall where he’d been rubbing down Betsy and tipped his hat back, “I reckon she ain’t any too well Slim,” he said looking real upset.
“Um...first passin’ out that way and then coming home Roger kept hold of her hand and was lookin’ at her real strange...like maybe it’s somethin’ real serious. Heck Slim this is all my fault.”
“Huh...well how do you make that out Jess?” Slim asked looking perplexed.
“Well I was her personal bodyguard, weren’t I? Maybe I should have kept her safer. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that dang spell, we had out in the desert that’s done made her so sick...and then I let her ride out with me instead of taking her back to town where she could have rested up.”
“Come on pard, you’re being kinda hard on yourself aren’t you. Heck you just did what you had to do. It sure wasn’t an easy job.”
But Jess just shook his head, “If she’s real sick I won’t ever forgive myself for this Slim and I guess Roger won’t either,” he said miserably before going off to groom Traveller.
His gloomy mood persisted throughout the evening with him barely touching his supper and then saying he was turning in early too.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a worried glance as the bedroom door closed behind him.
“What’s up with Jess,” asked Mike looking worried, “he hardly spoke over supper and he didn’t wanna play checkers, is he sick?”
“No he’s just fine,” said Slim ruffling the boy’s hair, “just kinda worried about Miss Cynthia that’s all. So come on then champ are you going to show me how you manage to beat Jess at checkers all the time then?”
When Slim finally turned in several hours later he wasn’t surprised to find Jess wide awake, lying on his back peering up to the ceiling with sightless eyes.
He slumped down on his own bed and turning the lamp up a little, smiled across at his buddy, “Can’t sleep?”
Jess rolled his head on the pillow the better to see his friend, “Hell Slim what if she dies?”
Slim sighed and rolled his eyes, “Now why do you think she going to do that? Heck Jess she’s just a little overtired, I guess. Yes, maybe hiking across the desert took it out of her some, but she’s a strong capable woman, it’ll take more than a bit of roughing it to see her off.”
“Hell Slim it were a tad more than roughing it...that bastard Brown tied her up for hours on end. Then we had to trek across that dang desert with no water...sleep in the freezing cold...”
Then he gave a little groan at the memory of how cold she’d been and how he’d had to hold her close to keep her from getting way too chilled...and now...she was real sick anyway.
“Jess stop it pal...look tomorrow I’ll have a word with Roger, get to the bottom of what’s really wrong with her, OK? So stop fretting and let’s get some sleep will you?” he said in exasperation.
The following morning however there was no need for Slim to make inquiries as Roger and Cynthia were full of what Doc Sam had told them the previous day.
They arrived at the breakfast table promptly and were already in place when Jess staggered in looking to all the world like he’d been out on the town, instead of tossing and turning all night. Now Mike had been dispatched to fetch him as Roger said he wished to speak to them all together.
Jess seated himself opposite Cynthia and Roger, unshaven and his hair still mussed up from sleep.
But feeling kind of sorry for his buddy Slim made no comment, other than to say that Roger needed to speak to them all.
Jess’s head shot up, his eyes suddenly going from half-mast to open wide as the situation registered...Roger was going to tell them all that Cynthia was so sick she might not survive and it was all because of the terrible times she had experienced recently...he knew it... he just knew it...
“Well that’s just wonderful news,” said Slim beaming...
“Oh my dear I’m so very pleased,” said a tearful Daisy...
“That’s just excellent isn’t it Jess?” Slim said, punching his buddy gently on the upper arm.
“Uh,” asked a dazed looking Jess... “what?”
Slim chuckled, “The boy ain’t woken up properly yet Roger, you’d better tell him again!”
Roger looked across at Jess, “I’m going to be a father again Jess...my dear Cynthia is expecting our fifth child!”
It took a moment for the news to register and then Jess’s face broke into a beautiful smile, “Really?” he asked looking from Roger to Cynthia and back... “but that’s great that’s well...just great!”
Then he stood up and went around the table to shake Roger’s hand and give Cynthia a chaste kiss on the cheek and gentle hug.
It was later in the day that Roger sought Jess out in the barn and came upon him sitting on a straw bale mending a bridle.
“I say old chap, I just wanted to come and chat if you’ve a moment?”
“Sure,” said Jess putting his work down, “what’s on your mind?”
“Well I...er that is old Cyn and I wanted to just say thank you...for all you’ve done for us during our time here....looking out for us so well, we needed to tell you how much we appreciated it...you really went that extra mile and saved our hides ... more than once.”
“Aw heck, no need,” said Jess suddenly feeling kind of embarrassed.
“Well Cynthia...and me too of course, but she especially, thought it was important that you knew how much you were appreciated. How you...well saved her bacon I think you would say...out in that desert. She’s taking a nap right now, but she was most insistent that I make sure that you’re feeling alright about everything?”
Jess looked down now feeling even more uncomfortable.
“There’s no need,” he mumbled, but thank you...just doin’ my job I guess.” Then taking a deep breath he smiled across at Roger, “I’m real happy for you...it was quite a shock though?”
“Indeed it was old man...we thought that Cyn was passed all that sort of thing. But your Doc Baker has said as long as she’s sensible and looks after herself she can give birth at forty just as well as she did at thirty. So that’s why we’re going home...taking the early Stage out to the rail head in the morning and back to old England...and the children. That’s what my dear Cyn needs now, family around her.”
The following morning all was hustle and bustle as Cynthia and Roger got all packed up ready for their journey back home to the old country. Then before they knew it breakfast was over and they heard the sound of Mose bringing the four in hand down the rise at a lively pace.
It was while Roger was busy supervising their luggage being safely put aboard, helped by Slim that Cynthia took Jess’s arm and moved away a little from the group.
He looked down expectantly into her beautiful brown eyes and said, “Is everything alright?”
She nodded, “I just wanted to thank you again for all you did for me, especially when we were taken prisoners Jess.”
“There’s no need,” he said quietly.
“But there is, you were a wonderful bodyguard.”
When he said nothing she continued, “You were brave, loyal...and discreet...the ideal combination for a bodyguard, don’t you think?”
He smiled at that, but remained silent feeling slightly uncomfortable.
She gave a quick glance to her right, where Roger was now in deep conversation with Slim, and turned back to him the look in her eyes suddenly rather bold. Then she reached up and very gently kissed him on the lips....
Jess was completely taken off guard but after a moment kissed her back, taking her in his arms and holding her close for a minute or so before releasing her and pulling gently away.
Their gaze locked and they exchanged a look of deep affection and understanding, before she gave a little sigh and looked down.
“I... I just had to know what it would be like,” she whispered after a moment, before gazing candidly up into his deep blue eyes.
Jess tried to hide his feelings behind humor and said playfully, “So how was it then?”
She smiled up at him, knowing he was trying to defuse the charged atmosphere between them.
“Oh just as good as I imagined,” she said with a girlish giggle.
Then her demeanor changed and she looked very solemn. “Seriously though Jess I’ll never forget you and thank you... for everything.”
Then Roger called across the yard, “Come along old thing, look lively, Mose needs to be on his way.”
And the spell was broken.
Jess took her gently by the elbow and escorted her across the yard and helped her up into the coach where Roger was waiting patiently for his dear wife.
Then there was a flurry of goodbyes and waves and moments later all that was left was a whirling dust cloud in the distance as Mose urged the horses up the rise and on to town.
Daisy made her way back into the house and Slim turned a less than friendly gaze on his buddy, “So what in hell was all that about?” he growled.
“Come on Jess I saw you kissing Miss Cynthia.”
Jess turned pale, “Did Roger see us?”
“Nope and a good job too, heck Jess she’s a married woman and pregnant to boot, what in tarnation were you thinking?”
Jess just shrugged and looked off to where the Stagecoach had so recently departed, before turning back to his buddy...
“Heck Slim it weren’t my fault, she kissed me...it don’t count if she’s the one that makes a move ya know.”
Slim shook his head in disbelief, “I don’t know how you do it Jess, I really don’t. If you fell in the dung pile, you’d still come up smelling of roses.”
Jess just grinned at his pard and patted his pocket containing the sizable check Roger had given him earlier.
“Hey I’m a real good asset around here I’ll have ya know,” he said, slapping Slim on the back and marching off into the house in search of the coffee pot.
It was the following summer before they were to hear anymore of Cynthia and Roger, when a letter came addressed to Daisy.
They were sitting having a coffee after changing the early morning team and now all eyes were on the letter set in front of Daisy.
“Well aren’t you going to open it then Daisy?” Slim asked, looking on with interest.
Daisy was a little concerned that the letter might contain some reference to the conversation she and Cynthia had regarding the lady’s feelings about a certain blue-eyed cowboy, now innocently sitting opposite her and sipping his coffee.
“Um, alright dear,” she finally said and tearing open the envelope read the contents before her face relaxed into a happy smile.
“Good news my dears... Cynthia was delivered of a bouncing baby boy recently and she just wanted us all to know that they were all well and very happy.”
Jess just smiled indulgently and Slim said, “Gee that’s wonderful, so what did they call him?”
“Er...let me see, oh here we are...Marmaduke, Roger Hamilton-Forbes,” she said beaming.
“What kind of dang name is that?” Jess said looking pained.
“An aristocratic one Hotshot,” Slim said with a chuckle.
Then turning to Daisy, “What else does she say?”
Daisy read on and then said, “My goodness, well that is nice!”
“Huh?” Jess asked.
“She says that the way we are with young Mike really made her think again about sending the children away to be educated. The older ones will stay as they are established and happy, but she is bringing the two younger ones home to be educated by a Governess. She says they realize now that it will be far more beneficial for them all in the future.”
“I wonder what made them change their minds,” Slim said thoughtfully, “they seemed to set a lot of store by that famous public school.”
“She says it was Roger that made the decision. He saw you Jess and Mike together and realized just how much he was missing out on, not having spent much time with his boys. Now he intends to show his sons ‘the ropes’ around the estate in preparation for when they eventually take over.”
“Well that sure makes sense,” said Jess pleased that Roger had been open to his ideas and the new baby would experience a close relationship with his father, just as Mike had with him and Slim.
“It looks like we supplied them with more than just a vacation home and Bodyguard then,” Slim said laughing.
They thought no more of Jess’s career as a Bodyguard...until one bright fall morning when Mort Cory rode into the yard.
Jess and Slim emerged from the barn where they had been busy grooming the relay horses from the early Stage.
“What brings you riding in so early,” asked Slim looking concerned, “not trouble I hope?”
Mort swung down from his old buckskin and tethered him to the coral fence before turning and grinning at his friends, “Nope nothing like that Slim.”
“Daisy’s out doing the marketing, but we’ve got a pitcher of lemonade on the porch, come and sit a spell,” said Jess.
Once they were seated and Mort had praised Daisy’s lemonade, Slim turned to him and said, “So just a social call then Mort?”
“Um, sort of, but I’ve also got a proposition for Jess here,” he said turning and smiling at the cowboy who was lounging against the porch upright sipping his drink.
“So what’s that?” he asked, half hoping he was needed as deputy for a spell and he could hook up with his girl when off duty. “You want some help then Mort?” he asked eagerly.
“Nope not me son, everything ticking over nicely right now with Lon doing extra hours for me...I may even fit a fishing trip in before Thanksgiving.”
“So what is it?” Slim asked.
“Uh you recall that Lord and Lady Hamilton-Forbes who came to stay with you last summer?”
“How could we forget,” said Jess drily...then his face fell, “Garldarn it Mort they ain’t comin’ back for some more of the same are they?”
Mort exchanged a grin with Slim and then said, “No Jess, but I figure they imagined that you might not be too keen on Bodyguard duties again. So I guess that’s why they wrote me...to sort of be an intermediary.”
“Like a go-between Jess, they want me to try and talk you into doing a little job?”
“What kinda little job?” Jess asked looking wary.
Mort flicked an anxious glance over to Slim, looking for back-up, but none came so he soldiered on.
“Apparently these real close friends of the Hamilton-Forbes want to come out here for a vacation, Miss Cynthia enclosed a letter from the couple er an... Isabelle and Percy Montmorency, well Lord Montmorency and his younger sister Isabelle that is,” Mort said with a little chuckle.
Jess came and sat down heavily on a porch chair next to Mort, “Not again,” he muttered weakly.
“Uh, yes well, they are looking for a guide rather than a Bodyguard as such, but I guess they would need looking out for some Jess.”
“Err, yes well this um Percy wants to shoot bear especially and is looking to try and collect some of the more dangerous species of snake.”
“Collect, like live?” Jess asked his eyes wide in astonishment, “Why in hell would he wanna do that?”
“He collects them Jess, it’s one of his many hobbies and he keeps them as pets. According to this letter he’s particularly interested in capturing a Prairie Rattle snake and the rarer Midget Faded Rattlesnake, are you familiar with them?” he asked innocently.
“A Rattler’s a dang Rattler,” Jess spat, “and that midget one is about as dang dangerous as all get out. A man would be crazy to mess with one...especially a greenhorn like this Percy what’s his name!”
“Well I guess that’s where you come in,” said Slim reasonably, “so I suppose he’s paying top whack again Mort?”
Mort disclosed an eye watering figure and Jess moved uncomfortably in his seat. That was a hell of a lot of cash to turn down but even so....
“It’s your call,” said Slim.
Jess hung his head...thinking hard. Could he really turn down that amount of money?
“There’s more,” said Mort encouragingly, “his younger sister, Isabelle wants to learn to ride Western style...well that shouldn’t be a problem, teaching a lovely young lady to ride?”
Jess grudgingly agreed that it wouldn’t be any too hard.
“Yes, and she says she would also like to learn to swim whilst out here. She says Lady Cynthia mentioned what a strong swimmer you are Jess and....”
Jess’s head shot up at that... “No,” he bellowed. Then more quietly, “nope...no way,” and he stood up quickly. “Just tell ‘em no Mort, Hell tell ‘em I’ve left the dang country or somethin’ but I ain’t doin’ it!”
With that he marched off towards the barn calling over his shoulder he was riding fence the rest of the day.
Mort turned a quizzical glance on Slim, “I guess that’s a no then,” and they both collapsed in gales of laughter.
Jess rode out at a brisk pace and didn’t stop until a good few miles were between him and Mort. Then he reined in and patted Traveller’ s neck gently.
He looked out to the distant hills, shook his head and smiled grimly. I guess it’s one thing catchin’ killer snakes...but teachin’ young aristocratic women to swim, well garldarn it...that’s another thing altogether, he thought.
Shaking his head again he kneed Traveller on at a more leisurely pace...nope some things he figured he just wouldn’t dang well do no matter what the pay. Heck what would Millie think of that he mused and shuddered...nope his Body-guarding days were definitely over and he gave a deep sigh of relief.
The End
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