#74 Breaking Up - The End of the Road

#74 Breaking –Up the End of the Road

Patty Wilkinson

(Some violence, adult themes, strong language and reference to drug addiction)

Chapter 1

Jess Harper tipped his Stetson back and ran a hand over his weary face.
“Just another mile to go boy,” he said patting Traveller's arched neck, the horse blowing gently through his nostrils as if in reply.
He pulled his hat back down again a determined glint in his deep blue eyes as he kneed his mount on down the Laramie road through the twilight of a mild summer’s evening. It would be dark shortly he surmised and so he’d stay the night in town and push on to the ranch at first light. OK, so his pard, Slim Sherman wouldn’t be any too pleased about that but Jess sure wasn’t going to risk his good old horse breaking a leg in the dark.
Besides it had been way too long since he’d seen his best girl, Millie Johnson, and they had some ‘catching up to do, he thought a big smile suddenly appearing on his travel weary countenance. Yup whatever was griping Slim would just have to wait until the morning.
He was returning from delivering two green broke mustangs to one George Smyth, an old friend of Slim’s Pa, down near Boulder. His ride over to the old man’s ranch had taken him over a week with the two lively critters in tow. Then he’d had to stay a while and help George work on them, before finally setting off for home over five days ago.
He’d received Slim s first wire on his arrival asking him to get home as soon as he was able. However, part of the deal had been that Jess would stay on a while and work the horses and he was determined to keep his promise and not sell the nice old guy short.
Heck, Slim knew the score he thought now as he approached town, but he’d still sent another wire, urging Jess to get on home pronto. But also saying everything was fine with young Mike, their ward, and Daisy the beloved ranch housekeeper. So why was Slim being so dang unreasonable he wondered as he finally reined in outside the livery?
“Evening ’ Bert,” he said as he slipped down from the saddle and grinned over at the old timer who ran the stables. Bert peered into the gloom of the late evening light and then gave the young cowboy a toothless grin in return, as he emerged from one of the stalls.
“Why Jess Harper, I ain’t cast eyes on you in a while boy, you been away?”
“Yup delivering a couple of green broke mustangs down to Boulder and they sure were a lively pair,” he said winking, “kept me and ol’ Trav here on our toes.”
Bert chuckled and took the reins from Jess, “You look all in boy, I’ll see to this fellah for you OK?” he asked knowing Jess liked to tend his own mount more often than not.
“I guess so, thanks,” he said looking slightly undecided and patting the horse’s rump fondly.
“Don’t worry son, I’ll treat him like my first born,” the old man chuckled as he led the animal away.
Jess gave a bark of laughter and flapping a hand at his old friend turned and retraced his steps back along Main Street towards the Laramie Saloon.
Outside he paused for a moment and removing his hat used it to brush himself down some, clouds of dust emanating from his denims and shirt, before running a sleeve across his sweat grimed face and ramming his hat back in place.
Maybe Tom would let him use the hot tub he thought hopefully as he entered the saloon.
The place was dimly lit and it being a week night only half a dozen old die-hard drinkers in evidence as he strode across the room, impatient to see his girl. With any lucky Lily, Slim’ s girlfriend would be on duty too and maybe he could get to the bottom of what was troubling his buddy.
As he reached the bar, he came to a standstill staring in surprise as a buxom blond woman of about forty ambled over from where she’d been polishing glasses. Chewing in a desultory manner she raised a plucked eyebrow, “What’s yer poison honey?” she drawled.
Jess’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped, “Who in hell are you and where’s Millie?” he finally gasped.
The woman took the somewhat unfriendly greeting in her stride, “I’m Gladys dear...and there ain’t no Millie here that I know of.”

“Millie,” Jess practically bellowed. “Millie Johnson, she works here!”
“Nope not any more she doesn’t honey. Just me and my sister, Bertha,” she said tipping her head towards a woman as skinny as Gladys was fat, with suspiciously black hair framing her haggard old face.
Jess turned to stare at the woman and then turning back to Gladys said, “Lily...is Lily here then?”
“No dear, like I keep trying to tell you it’s just me and Bertha serving. Now can I get you something to drink... or maybe something else?” she asked raising a suggestive eyebrow.
Jess looked horror stricken and then growled, “Whiskey... and leave the bottle,” he added as she brought a bottle and glass over.
She shrugged and banging the bottle down went to turn away when he rallied, “What about Tom, don’t tell me he’s been replaced by some dang harpy too?”
“Hey watch who you’re calling names boy,” she said sharply.
“I ain’t no boy, now where in hell is Tom, huh?”
She jerked her head towards the back parlor, “He’s in there resting, been sick,” she muttered, “and he don’t want disturbing so he said.”
“Tough,” said Jess vaulting the bar, snagging the whiskey bottle and glass as he went, before marching off to find the barkeep and discover what had happened to his girl.
Gladys exchanged a look with her sister, “Well I never,” she expostulated, “did you see that Bertha dear?”
Bertha nodded, “I did sis, terrible,” she said looking equally affronted, but harboring a secret smile of admiration for the wonderfully athletic and handsome, if rather short tempered, young cowboy.
Jess strode into the parlor and Tom opened his eyes from where he was languishing on the couch with one carefully bandaged foot up.
“What the hell’s goin ’ on Tom?” Jess yelled without preamble. “Where are the girls and what are those old women doin ’ out there?”
“Oh it’s you,” said Tom shifting to sit up and grimacing in pain as he moved.
Jess suddenly felt a wave of pity for his old friend.
“Is yer gout playin ’ up Tom?” he asked as he settled down in a fireside chair opposite.
Tom nodded, “Something fierce,” then he saw the bottle still grasped in Jess’s hand.
“That my whiskey?”
Jess threw him the ghost of a smile, “Yup I guess it is, seein ’ as I ain’t paid for it yet.”
Tom shook his head sadly, “No payment needed Jess. It’s on the house and I’ve a feelin ’ we’ll both be in need of a drink when I tell you what’s been happening. Pour us a couple of good shots will you son?”
Jess did as he was asked and passing a glass across narrowed his eyes, “Are you gonna tell me what all this is about then Tom?”
The older man nodded, “I guess I ain’t got no choice, just don’t shoot the messenger huh Jess?”
Five minutes later Jess exploded with rage, “But couldn’t you stop her Tom?”
“She was hell bent on going, what could I do? You weren’t here and Slim tried to reason with her.”
Jess sighed deeply, “So let me get this straight. Lily and Millie have both walked out and Lily was the first to go...just upped and left without even saying goodbye to you?”
“That’s about the size of it yes. She was here at breakfast, couple of weeks ago this was, said she needed some things from the mercantile and just never came back. We were all real worried of course and then one of the young Patterson kids called by with a note for Mille from her. Said she’d seen him down the street and passed it to him, just before she took a Stage out of town.”
“So what did it say?”
Tom shrugged, “I didn’t see it. But Millie said just that she was needed at home, she’d had a letter. She said and couldn’t face all the goodbyes...especially to Slim, so she just took off and said she’d write.”
“And she never even told Millie?”
“Nope...and that’s what’s so strange, first Lily going and then the next week Millie took off.”
“She went without saying anything as well?”
Tom looked away quickly, “Oh she said something alright, in fact she said plenty...but I guess you don’t wanna hear it.”
Jess who had been sitting on the edge of his chair throughout these latest disclosures suddenly jumped up and started pacing around the room. His heart was beating almost clear out of his chest, his pulses racing, what in hell was going on he thought?
“Well you’ve got that wrong Tom! Because I want to hear every dang word!” he finally managed.
Tom glanced away unable to look Jess in the eye, “Well she said she was throwing you over Jess. She said she’d had enough of you always being off working away someplace or stuck out on the ranch and she never got to see you so what was the point?”
Jess just stared in consternation before collapsing back down in his chair. He felt suddenly dizzy the bile rising in his throat... this couldn’t be happening he thought.
“She said that?”
Tom nodded, “And there’s more too.”
“Go on,” said Jess stony faced.
“She didn’t go alone.”
“Huh, what do you mean...did Lily come back for her?”
Tom just shook his head, again unable to look Jess in the eye and muttered, “There was this guy that turned up. It seems he was an old friend from the Panhandle...she took off with him Jess.”
Jess shot up from the chair again looking furious, his eyes dark and dangerous. “Who did she go with Tom, who was the guy?” his heart now feeling like it might jump clear out of his chest.
“A real smooth talker, sharp dresser too, called himself Chuck Hanson, ring any bells?”
“What that lowlife!” Jess yelled, “What in God’s name is she doing throwing ’ her lot in with him again.”
“Again, you say?”
Jess nodded, “They dated for a while back down in Texas when they were just youngsters. It was after I lit out trailing the Bannister Gang. They were close, real close...until she woke up to him.”
“He’s a bad lot then?”
“The very worst, a ruthless killer, although you wouldn’t dang well know it. All those fancy ways he puts on to impress folk.” Oh yeah, he was a slick one alright Jess mused to himself. He would stroke kittens and make eyes at yer granny, but deep down he was as devious and evil as they came. Goddamn it, Millie knew that...she knew it!
“Well he was real attentive, bringing by flowers and candy. Took her out dancing and to dinner too...turned her head some I guess Jess.”
Jess’s jaw tightened and he closed his eyes for a moment cussing quietly. No, it couldn’t be right, Millie wouldn’t give him the time of day...would she?
He stared vacantly back at Tom. “I don’t believe it,” he said finally, “I don’t believe she’d run out on me this way and certainly not with the likes of Chuck, she saw him for what he was years ago.”
“Well maybe he changed,” said Tom mildly, “after all you did.”
Jess just shook his head...then said, “Did she leave anything for me... a letter or somethin’?”
Tom shook his head sadly, “I’m sorry Jess. Just a message, she said to tell you it’s over and not to look for her, she just wants out. Said it was the end of the road. I’m sorry son. I told you that you wouldn’t wanna hear it didn’t I?”
Jess shook his head still unwilling to accept what had happened there must be some reason...Millie didn’t mean it, she couldn’t surely? His stomach now felt like he’d swallowed a lump of lead and his mouth was so dry he could barely speak.
He stood up to go…needing to be alone to process everything. And boy he certainly wasn’t about to spend what was left of the evening with Gloria and her sister Bertha. At the door he paused as a thought struck him...
“This Chuck, he...he didn’t stay over did he Tom?”
The barkeep shook his head, “Nope, well I think not anyways.”
“Jeez Tom, ya think don’t you know?” Jess cried angrily. Now the lump of lead in his belly felt even heavier and his heart was physically aching at the thought of his girl with another.
“He was staying at the hotel and I sure wouldn’t have invited him in here. As far as I know Millie didn’t stay over there either, but I don’t know for sure.”
Jess just nodded, “Thanks Tom.”
“I’m sorry son, real sorry. I just can’t think what came over her...”
A little later Jess lurched out of the saloon and made his way unsteadily down Main Street. He was still clutching the half empty whiskey bottle Tom had given him, wondering what to do...where to go to lick his wounds.
Seeing a light still burning in the Sheriff’s office he made his way over and opening the door peered blearily inside.
Mort Cory was at his desk, sipping a coffee and reading a report but he looked up as Jess stood on the threshold looking pale and weary.
“Come on in Jess, you’re letting in a draught,” he said briskly.
Jess came in slamming the door behind him and swayed over to the desk.
“Howdy Mort,” he slurred, “I’m back.”
The Sheriff perused his old friend carefully, “So you are,” he said after a moment and then quietly, “I see you’ve heard the news then?”
Jess threw himself down into the chair opposite and said, “What that my girl’s run out on me? Yes I’ve heard the news alright.” The act of saying those words somehow making it real and the pain struck him anew.
“Look Jess, I’m sorry, real sorry. I guess none of us saw this coming.”
Mort’s kind words nearly pushed him over the edge, but instead of breaking down he got angry...a typical Harper reaction.
“Well I weren’t around was I?” he said suddenly belligerent, “But you could have stopped her Mort...talked some sense into her. Hell, you saw the low life she was with, didn’t you?”
“What that Chuck Hanson? He seemed pleasant enough Jess, real well mannered.”
Jess just shook his head, not another sucker pulled in by him, he thought, “I didn’t think you’d be so dang easily hoodwinked Mort...the guy’s a loser and in trouble up to his neck over the border in Mexico. He’s wanted for murder, among other things.”
“Are you sure about that Jess, or are you just kinda jealous, huh?”
“Jealous ...well of course I’m dang well jealous,” Jess said leaping up from his seat and glaring at Mort. “Why wouldn’t I be? The guy’s done stole my girl. We’ve got an understanding, dang it Mort...how do you expect me to feel?” he asked; his voice breaking on the last word.
“Look Jess, just simmer down some will ya? I’ll get you a coffee and then you can bunk down here tonight and we’ll talk it all thorough in the morning huh?”
However, in true Harper style Jess refused to be side-lined.
“I wanna talk about it now Mort. I wanna know why you didn’t help her out and Slim too...what the hell was he playin ’ at? And more to the point why did Lily ship out? Without even saying goodbye to her best friend or her man...what was that all about?”
“Uh, that was kind of odd, I agree and I did check around, but it seems it was all legit. She left a note for Millie explaining everything.”
“Did you see it?”
“No, but Millie did, said it was all OK and Lily just hated farewells, get’s real upset. It seems she was needed at home, family business.”
Jess shook his head, “What about my pard? I guess he got really upset too, or did she not think of that?”
Mort just shrugged, “Women, who can figure them?”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Jess splashing a liberal amount of whiskey into the coffee Mort had just poured him. Then he proffered the bottle to the Sheriff.
Mort rolled his eyes, then grinned at his old friend, “Oh hang it all why not,” and accepted, shaking his head. “Leading the Law astray, but maybe these are exceptional circumstances hey buddy?” Then he shook his head, “I still can’t believe it of her.”
Jess took a sip of his laced coffee, “Me neither,” he agreed sadly. Then with spirit, “And I reckon I don’t Mort... I won’t believe it until she tells me to my face...I’m gonna go find her.”

It was getting on for mid morning when a rather hungover Jess finally reined Traveller in by the water trough in the Sherman ranch yard. Jumping down from the saddle he left his horse to have a welcome drink before mooching over to the barn where he expected to find Slim.
Sure enough, he was in there grooming the Stage line horses from the early morning run and Jess reflected he’d have missed seeing Mike, who would be school bound by now. He stood on the threshold watching his partner for a minute before saying softly, “Slim, I’m home.”
He spun around and made his way quickly out of the stall and as he advanced Jess noted his extreme pallor and the dull look in his eyes. Almost as though he was deeply grieving, he thought fleetingly...but then again maybe in a way he was.
“About dang time,” Slim exploded, looking pretty mad, “I’ve been wiring you to get back.”
“Well I know it, but we had a deal with old man Smyth and I thought you’d want me to honor it, what with him being an old family friend and all,” Jess said equally belligerently.
Slim sighed, “Yes, you’re right, sorry pard...so good journey, all OK?”
“Yeah swell. But never mind that Slim, what’s all this about our girls walkin ’ out on us huh?”
Slim sighed dramatically before slumping down on a hay bale and gesturing for Jess to do likewise.
“You heard then?”
“Yeah, Tom filled me in, eventually, but not until I’d met those ol’ witches he’s got workin ’ for him now, what the hell’s all that about Slim?”
“Uh...well with the girls leaving that way he just had to get what he could, needed the help and they were sick of working for Bawdy Bill, so...”
“What they worked at the Last Chance?” Jess asked in horror, referring to a saloon and brothel on the edge of town... “Um, so no wonder she asked me if she could get me something other than a drink,” he said grimacing.
“Never mind about them, what the heck are we going to do Jess?”
“Well go find ‘em and bring ‘em back of course.”
Slim smiled for the first time in several weeks.
“Do you think they want to be found though?” He asked his face clouding again.
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, but we sure can’t leave it like this, we have to know one way or the other Slim. As far as Millie’s concerned...if she really wants us to break up...well then,” and his voice trailed away and he looked stricken.
Then he took a deep breath, “As far as Lily goes it don’t ring true that she’d just walk out that way without sayin ’ goodbye...nope there’s something amiss here Slim.”
Then moments later they heard Daisy calling out and Jess got up to go and say Howdee.
As soon as he saw the look of concern in her kindly old eyes, he knew she had heard. After a brief embrace they walked slowly, arm in arm, into the ranch house together and through to the kitchen where Daisy commenced making coffee and Jess sat down at the table.
“You know dontcha?” He said after a minute.
She nodded, “I’m so sorry my dear, I just don’t know what has come over her, she has been acting so out of character.”
“Go on...”
“Well she stopped coming to the Women’s Group and then when I saw her in the street she pretended she didn’t see me, just hurried away, I felt so hurt. Why, Millie has been like a daughter to me...I thought she would have confided in me if she felt there was something wrong, I really did.”
Jess shook his head, “She left a message…said I’d been neglecting  her...she’d had enough. But Heck Daisy she knows the score, my workin’ ain’t never bothered her before.”
“Well maybe she hasn’t ever been enticed away before dear,” she said quietly.
“Ha...enticed, that’s a good one,” Jess said bitterly, “more like ensnared...caught in a trap like a poor innocent critter.”
“I take it you don’t like Mister Hanson?”
Jess had a face like thunder, “And you do I suppose, won over by his good manners and slick dressin’ huh?”
“Actually dear no, I didn’t take to the man at all, I thought he was an imposter and rather smarmy.”
Jess smiled for the first time and accepted the coffee she now passed him, “Good fer you Daisy, I just wish everyone else could see through him, he’s a bad lot...real bad.”
“Oh goodness, do you think Millie might be in danger then dear?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno Daisy, but I aim to find out.”
“You’re going after her?”
“I sure am...and I think Slim will come too. He needs to get to the bottom of why Lily left that way and I figure the only person that really knows is Millie.”
When she said nothing and looked a little apprehensive, he said, “You’ll be OK for a week or two, if we get the Jackson boys to look after the spread? It’ll be OK,” he said persuasively, it’s real quiet at the ranch right now and they’ll do all the heavy work.”
“Oh it’s not that Jess, we’ll manage fine. I’m just afraid that, well that you’ll get into a fight with this Hanson man...maybe forget yourself and end up in terrible trouble...”
“Don’t fret Daisy I ain’t about to go killin ’ the guy, but I just have to know the truth. Hear it from Millie herself. If she really don’t...” He paused and swallowed before continuing, “if she really don’t love me no more then I guess I’ll have to let her go...but I ain’t giving in easy Daisy.”
Then he looked thoughtful, “So you met him...saw them together?” He asked, his eyes narrowing as he waited to hear her thoughts on the couple. To hear what he really didn’t want to...but knew he just had to...Was she in love with Hanson?
“Uh, yes I’m afraid I did dear...in Miss Mollie’s Cafe.”
“Go on,” he said stony faced.
“Well as you know Miss Nugent and I meet for coffee and cake there every last Thursday of the month, our little treat.”
He just nodded, willing her to go on...if he had to face the worst then dang it please get to the point he thought bitterly.
Daisy seemed to read his mind and quickly continued.
“Well we were at our usual table towards the back of the cafe when they came in and they didn’t see us at first...”
But then she stopped. How could she tell the dear boy that they were acting like lovers? Hanson all over Millie, holding her hand and whispering in her ear...and Millie...how had she acted? Certainly not in the happy relaxed way she interacted with Jess...she was...what? Almost shy...no not shy... tense she seemed a little ill at ease, so Daisy thought. But then as she and dear Nelly Nugent had got up to leave and seen the couple Millie seemed to be quite flirtatious with the man. Almost as though she were trying to make a stance...Tell this to Jess when you see him...so brazen, so unlike the dear girl she thought again.
Then she was quickly brought back to the present.
“Dadgum it Daisy so what happened in Molly’s Cafe?”
She looked vague, “Er well they came in and had a coffee together and they did seem...um, quite close I suppose,” she finished lamely.
Jess merely sighed and sipped his coffee again...the lead weight in his belly taking on new proportions...

Chapter 2
The men rode out just two days later making for Peggy Johnson’s Boarding house in Cheyenne.
According to Mose Shell, Millie and Hanson had got the Stage there just a few days earlier and so Jess hoped to catch up with his girl. Or if not, her Ma Peggy would fill him in on events. Heck he was almost family and so Peggy would be on his side surely?
Peggy Johnson opened the door to him that evening and stood rooted to the spot, like a rabbit lookin ’ down a shot gun so Jess thought...dang it she looked petrified.
“Ma, are you OK?” he said anxiously.
“Uh, yes of course,” she said quickly gathering herself, “I just wasn’t expecting you Jess...Slim,” she said flicking a glance towards the tall rancher flanking Jess.
“Well can we come in then?” asked Jess when she still stood staring at him.
She nodded, reluctantly pulling the door open wide to admit the men and then she said quietly, “I don’t want any trouble Jess dear.”
“So, they are here then?”
“Yes, in the front parlor.”
Jess’s heart started beating fast and his mouth was suddenly dry.
“Jess?” Peggy said more firmly.
“Huh?” What had she said...she didn’t want trouble?
“I can’t guarantee that Ma,” he said honestly, before heading towards the closed door.
Jess paused for a moment at the door.
Then Slim came forwards, after glancing at Peggy’s ashen face he put a steadying hand on Jess’s shoulder.
“Take it easy, Hotshot, no point in upsetting Millie, or her Ma...huh?”
Jess closed his eyes and took a deep breath before pushing the door open and striding in.
The couple were sitting on the couch holding hands, but Millie quickly pulled free and jumped up as Jess barged in.
“What are you doing here?” she cried looking furious.
“Well what the Hell do ya think?” Jess yelled equally aggressively. “You ran out on me without even leaving a letter...throwin ’ away everything we had... for this oily bastard,” he said throwing Hanson an infuriated glance.
The tall man stood up then and squared up to Jess, “Who are you callin ’ names Harper!” he spat angrily.
“Oh pipe down,” Jess said flicking him an irritated glance as though he were no more than an annoying fly buzzing around him, before his eyes looked pleadingly into Millie’s.
“We have to talk,” he said firmly.
“There’s nothing left to say, I explained to Tom...I’ve had enough, you’re never around Jess. I need a man I know will be with me when I need him.”
“Like this prize idiot I suppose, come on Millie, you’re worth more than this low life...and anyways I don’t believe ya! You’re lying’ I can tell.”
Hanson suddenly felt he should defend his male pride and took a swing at Jess, but that was a mistake...a big mistake.
Jess parried it easily, before taking a swing that sent the lanky man flying across the room where he crashed into the wall, out cold before he hit the ground.
“Like I said we need to talk...in peace,” Jess said his eyes still fixed on Millie.
She was deathly pale but just nodded, “Alright... upstairs,” and the couple left the room.
The two ran lightly up the staircase to Millie’s room at the top.
As he entered it Jess’s emotions reached a new level of pain... Hell they’d spent so much time together in here over the years...talking, planning...but mostly making sweet love.
He glanced over at the big soft bed and could smell the light fragrance she always wore and might well have wept...if he wasn’t so dang angry.
Now he turned to her his eyes tormented.
“What’s goin ’ on Mill, because I don’t buy this, you wouldn’t run out on me this way...I know it and so do you.”
She refused to engage with him and wandered off to the window peering out.
After a moment he followed her over and put a hesitant hand out to her shoulder, but she froze, before spinning round.
“Get off...just get off me Jess,” she yelled, her eyes brimming with tears.
All he wanted to do was take her in his arms, hold her close and make everything better...but he knew he couldn’t.
“Don’t you see how hard this is for me?” she cried, “I don’t want you in my life anymore Jess...I...I don’t love you anymore!”
Jess felt like his whole world was caving in around him, in slow motion...he had a pain in his heart so sharp and sudden that he gasped...and had to bite down hard to stop crying out in pain.
“So ... you love him?” he eventually asked.
She just looked down, but finally nodded, “Yes.”
Jess thought about that for a moment and then said coldly... “Kinda funny you didn’t rush to help him, when I decked him just now wasn’t it?”
She had no answer to that and so did the only thing she could, she lost her temper.
“Get out,” she screamed... “Just get out and go home Jess...leave me alone...I don’t want to see you again...not ever!”
“You don’t mean that,” he whispered, his face suddenly drained of color. “We have to talk it through sweetheart...we can sort it out.”
She shook her head. “No, we can’t,” she said firmly. “I’m leaving with Chuck and I’m not coming back and I don’t want you following me...we’re through and that’s my final word!”
With that she marched out of the room and he heard her tearing down the stairs and then the front door slamming behind her.
He almost fell down on her bed, suddenly feeling totally drained and sank his head into his hands.
Slim was there a few minutes later and just slumped down on the bed beside his buddy.
After a moment he said quietly, “I’m sorry Jess real sorry...Come on let’s go home pard.”
They went down the stairs and when it was obvious both Millie and Hanson had gone out Jess mooched off to the kitchen where Peggy was sitting in her rocker looking weary. But she sprang up when Jess came in.
He said nothing, merely walked over and took her in his arms. He held her close for a minute and then tenderly kissed the top of her head before pulling gently away so he could see her face.
“Goodbye Ma,” he said quietly, before turning and leaving the room. Moments later she heard the front door close and she sank down in her chair and finally let the tears fall.

The men stayed at a seedy hotel across town and were on the road at first light.
However, they had only been riding for about an hour when Jess started going slower and slower before finally reining Traveller to a standstill.
It took Slim a moment or two before he realized he was riding on alone, lost in his thoughts as he was. He eventually reined in and looked back before turning and trotting to where Jess sat his horse looking pale and drawn.
“You OK pard, you’re not going to chuck are you?” Slim said, the extreme pallor, making it seem likely. They’d both somewhat overindulged the previous night in the rundown hotel’s miserable little bar and he was not feeling any too good himself.
Jess just shook his head looking irresolute before seeming to make up his mind.
“I’m goin ’ back Slim.”
“You’re what...why? She’s told you how it is pard, and you’ve just got to accept it.”
“Can’t...and I won’t Slim, I’ve just got a gut feelin ’ this ain’t right, not right at all...”
Slim shook his head, “Look I guess this feels kind of like bereavement and you just can’t accept it, up here,” he said tapping his head, “but you have to Jess.”
When he said nothing Slim tried again, “It’s like when Maria was shot...you didn’t believe she was dead...remember? * See #1 Loved Lost Survived. You just held her close, wouldn’t let anyone near, because your brain couldn’t accept the truth...and I figure maybe this is the same Jess...its hit you so dang hard that you just can’t believe it.”
“You really know how to cheer a body up dontcha?” Jess spat sarcastically.
Slim sighed, “I’m just trying to make you see sense Jess, what good will going back do? She’s told you she doesn’t want anything more to do with you. I guess she couldn’t make it any damn clearer.”
“Ain’t you worried about Lily...goin ’ off that way? You said Ma Johnson was real vague about the whole business. Heck Lily was like another daughter to her, she’d be the first to know if there was a problem back home.”
Slim shrugged, “I agree it was kind of odd...but she did say Lily would be writing to me, was going to explain.”
“So yer just gonna go home and wait on the mail then?” Jess asked bitterly.
Now Slim looked undecided, “What else can I do?”
“Come and help me knock the shit out of that son of a bitch Hanson, I figure he’s the key to all this.”
The ghost of a smile flitted across Slim ’s face, “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask him a few questions.”
“Now yer talkin’,” Jess said grinning at his buddy, “come on then what are ya waitin’ for?” And turning his mount he kicked him off to a gallop heading back to Cheyenne.
Sometime later Jess hammered on the boarding house door and just seconds later it was flung open by a very distressed looking Peggy Johnson.
She peered up at Jess and then up and down the street before opening the door wide and the men followed her into the front parlor, where she gestured for them to sit.
“You’re too late,” she said flatly, “they’ve gone.”
“Gone?” Jess whispered, flicking a glance over to Slim and then back to Peggy, “Gone where?”
She shook her head, “I don’t know exactly and Millie said you mustn’t try and find her.” Then she looked really tearful, “You really mustn’t dear please...”
“What’s all this about Ma? Is it Hanson, has he got some hold over her?”
She stood up, “You’d better go, both of you, you’ll only make matters worse if you pry into it all.”
Slim rose to go, but Jess pulled him back down again a stubborn glint in his eyes, “I ain’t goin ’ anywhere until you tell me everything.”
“I can’t,” she pleaded, “I just can’t I made a solemn promise to Millie.”
Jess ignored the comment and then said, “I can’t leave it like this Ma and you know it. She’s in danger isn’t she?”
That was the last straw for Peggy and she broke down in tears, “Oh Jess dear I don’t know what to do I really don’t.”
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” Slim said kindly, “just tell us everything you know huh Peggy?”
She finally nodded and started telling the distressing tale.
“It all started when Lily disappeared, she’d been abducted by some friend of Hanson...so he could manipulate Millie. That note wasn’t from Lily at all it was from this man Davis, Harry Davis...He told Millie that if she ever wanted to see her friend alive again, then she must go along with everything Hanson said when he arrived.”
“I knew it... I just knew it was all down to that bast...er that lowlife Hanson!” Jess said his eyes flashing angrily.
“You know this Harry Davis?” Slim asked anxiously, the fear for his beloved Lily making his voice harsh.
Jess nodded, “Yup he’s kinda slow, but he won’t hurt Lily, Slim...he’s just a dog’s body hired to look after her, I guess. He’s not real good at thinkin’ things out, but he ain’t quite as ruthless as Hanson.”
“Go on Peggy,” said Slim urgently...
“She did exactly as Hanson wanted, played along with him and she convinced the whole town that they were lovers... that’s why she avoided dear Daisy, she knew she couldn’t pull the wool over her eyes,” Peggy said with a sad smile.
“Same with me,” Slim said sadly. “I tried to talk to her and she just got so mad and upset I figured I’d better wait until Jess landed home, let him talk to her.”
“But why in hell all that play-acting Ma, saying she didn’t love me no more?” Jess asked.
“She was desperately trying to make you hate her dear, she just wanted you to go back home to keep you safe...both of you,” she said glancing at Slim. “That’s why she made me promise not to tell you any of this too.”
“I just don’t get it,” said Jess, “what’s she protecting us from.”
Peggy shrugged. “I don’t know who’s behind it all, this Hanson and Davis are merely in his employ I suppose. But whoever it is wants you both to try and track Millie and Lily. Then they’ll capture you and try to kill you I imagine. Some outlaw, or revenge from the war maybe? Millie thought if you didn’t take the bait...if you rode back home, well this man would just give up and let both girls go free.”
“Ha! Like that’s gonna happen,” Jess spat. Nope if this guy had gone to all the trouble of abducting the girls no way would he let them go, the next thing would be a ransom, his and Slim’s lives in exchange for the women’s lives...but he decided not to share that with Peggy.
Part of him was elated, his Millie still loved him...but then seconds later the truth hit home she was in mortal danger. The rollercoaster of emotions making him feel quite dizzy and sick.
“So Ma, when did they head out?” Jess said bringing his thoughts back to the present.
“Late last night they went by horse that I do know...heading south.”
“Heck Ma, why didn’t you tell Doug?” Jess asked, referring to Sheriff Doug Masters. “He could have trailed them easy.”
She shook her head again looking close to tears. “Hanson said if I told the law he’d kill dear Millie, I just couldn’t run the risk.”
Jess’s kind heart went out to the middle-aged women. Heck Millie might be his girl, but this was Peggy’s dearly loved youngest daughter and the strain must be terrible for her.
“Look Ma, we’ve got to ride after them, see if we can pick up a trail, have you any idea at all where they’re heading?”
“Well yes I do dear, back down to Texas. In fact, they are heading for Boulder via the old Indian route on the edge of the Rockies. Hanson made sure I knew that...I expect he believed you’d be back for Millie and wanted you to know where to follow him... Oh the man is so devious.”
“Ain’t that the truth, but it seems one heck of a lot of trouble to go to just to get us out there? If someone’s got some kind of vendetta against us why not just find us and dang well fight it out?”
Slim nodded, “All this cloak and dagger stuff makes no sense at all.”
“I suppose if whoever it is wants to trap you, then it’s better away from the ranch where help might be at hand. Maybe it was the only way he could think of getting you both to head down to Texas together?” Peggy suggested.
Slim shrugged, “Or maybe whoever it is wants to cause us the maximum amount of pain and worry.”
Jess nodded, “Well they sure got that one right. I can’t think of a better way to get us real upset than takin ’ our women,” he reflected.
“Or so darned mad,” Slim said grimly, his eyes flashing with uncharacteristic fury.

The two men went on their way shortly, promising that they would get Millie and Lily back safely as soon as they could. But once out of Peggy’s hearing Slim turned to Jess and said, “I reckon we need to talk to Doug before we head out?”
“Agreed, they’re long gone now, but when we catch up with them it might be a good idea to have the law on our side, so maybe Doug will deputize us.”
It was still quite early in the day so both men figured seeing the Sheriff would be a worthwhile investment of their time.
Peggy had already filled two large gunny sacks with provisions, so they aimed to be up and away before mid morning.
Doug jumped up from his desk as Slim and Jess marched in and grinned.
“Howdy, what brings you two down here.” he asked raising a surprised eyebrow, so who’s minding the store huh? Haven’t left the lovely Miss Daisy stranded all on her own have you?” he asked in his usual jocular manner.
But when neither Slim nor Jess shared his little joke, he said, “What’s up boys?” and he tipped his hat towards a couple of seats by his desk.
Slim straddled one and Jess took up residence on the edge of Doug’s desk, fixing him with a steely glare.
“I’ll tell ya what’s up Doug, Lily and Millie have been abducted ...my Millie from right under your nose. Heck didn’t you think something might be up when you saw her with that lowlife Chuck Hanson?”
“Hey hold on,” Doug said raising both hands in a gesture of submission, “I didn’t even know Millie was in town. I’ve been away myself this last week visiting the in-laws, my Jenny’s about to produce again and got a hankering to see her Ma. Larry my Deputy doesn’t even know Millie, him being new to the job an’ all. So, shall we start again and I’ll make us all a coffee while you fill me in on everything huh?”
Jess bowed his head, “Sorry to go off half cocked that way Doug, I guess me and Slim are kinda wound up.”
“Well I can sure understand that buddy,” Doug said equably giving his old friend a gentle punch on the arm as he went off to fetch the coffee pot.
Half an hour later Slim said quietly, “So that’s about the size of it Doug, we aim to ride out this morning after Hanson and Davis and get the girls back, but it would be a help if we had the weight of the law behind us.”
“Well, sure that goes without saying. In fact, I’d come with you if my dang new Deputy hadn’t come down with Chicken Pox of all things, the guy’s never dang well he’s a liability.”
“We’ll manage alright,” Jess said rising to leave, “dontcha worry on that score Doug, we’ll sort ‘em good.”
“Um, that’s what worries me,” Doug said with a wry smile, casting Slim a knowing look.
“Just keep your pard in check will you Slim? I’d sure hate him to overstep the mark,” he said, the smile on his lips not quite reaching his eyes.
Slim just gave a brief nod, thinking that it wouldn’t only be Jess that would have to be restrained from beating the perpetrators to a pulp, if one hair of his girl’s head had been hurt.
Then Doug looked thoughtful, “No idea who this could be then Jess...some guy in Texas you say?”
“Your guess is as good as mine Doug,” Jess said quietly, “you know how it was for me back down there...could be anyone...but I’m thinkin’ someone that wants to get to Slim too...so that narrows it down some.”
The knotty problem of who was behind this whole sorry affair was the subject of much debate as the two cowboys made their way out of town heading south, before branching off the main road and taking the old Indian trail heading for Boulder.
They rode briskly, now in single file as the track was narrower. They were flanked by the rocky foothills to their right and a steep gorge to their left, a river flowing noisily along several feet below them.
After an hour or so the trail widened out a little. To their right and in front the mountainous terrain became even more inhospitable with rocky outcrops looming above them and now dense pinewoods leading down to the gorge many feet below them on their left.
It was now getting on for late afternoon and the men had refused to stop and rest, the only thought on their minds…that of getting closer to their women and hopefully before they had been harmed in any way.
Slim and Alamo were just slightly in front of Jess and Traveller both moving at a steady pace, until two things happened almost simultaneously.
A spooked rabbit ran almost in front of Traveller making him shy and sidestep and a rifle shot rang out.
Slim turned in the saddle and was just in time to see his partner catapulted out of the saddle as the bullet hit home and he crashed to the ground, rolling once and then laying deathly still.
Slim wrenched his rifle out of its scabbard, spun Alamo around and then dived from the saddle rolling and opening fire almost in one fluid movement. The bushwhacker returned fire and Slim dodged and then dived forwards, throwing himself on top of Jess shielding him from the now random shots that were raining down all around them. Several bullets narrowly missed them, ricocheting off nearby rocks, but Slim held his nerve and waited until he could get a good clear shot.
The redheaded, stocky man made the fatal mistake of standing upright to get a better aim. However Slim immediately fired off a couple of shots, the second one catching the man full in the chest. He fell several feet down the mountainside before rolling over several times and coming to a stop, lay on his back unmoving.
Slim got up slowly squinting into the sun as he viewed the attacker and assuming him to be dead he turned his attention to Jess. He hunkered down beside his buddy and as he turned him over Jess gave a low moan.
“Wha ’ happened?” he asked, peering up at Slim and then around him.
“A bushwhacker back-shot you buddy, caught you top of your arm though...thank God he was a lousy shot.”
Jess grimaced in pain as he tried to sit up and then fell back down again, “Nope he weren’t Slim. It was Trav, somethin’ spooked him and he skittered to the right...if he hadn’t I reckon I’d be a dead man.”
Slim sucked in a breath frowning before he gently unbuttoned Jess’s shirt to look at the damage.
“Well the good news is the dang bullet shot straight through, but it’s a mess, I’ll need to clean it up as good as I can and then find a doc Jess, we’ll push on to Boulder huh?”
Before Jess could answer they were disturbed by a low groan followed by a yell of pain as the assailant tried to sit up.
“What the hell!” Jess growled now alert and scrabbling up himself, with a helping hand from his pard, and said, “I thought you’d done for him Slim?”
“Me too,” said Slim grabbing hold of his rifle and approaching the red-haired man who had sunk back against a rock and was now cussing softly.
Slim marched over, Jess on his heels and both men surveyed the assailant for a moment before Jess exploded in anger. Lurching forwards he grabbed hold of the man’s jacket and started shaking him violently.
“Where is she what have you done with my girl!” he yelled furiously.
“Steady Jess,” Slim said pulling him gently back, “he’s shot up real bad...just let him speak while he still can huh?”
Jess rocked back on his heels and peered down scornfully, “Come on then Davis, where are Millie and Lily and why did you dang well back shoot me?”
“Davis?” Slim gasped in shock, “This little runt is Davis?”
Jess nodded, “So come on Harry, cat got yer tongue huh?”
Davis licked his lips and seemed to almost cower away from Jess.
“I... I was due some money...a real big share iffen I came out and finished you Jess... Chuck said I could have his share of the takings iffen I killed you.”
“What takings... and Goddamn it why?”
“The money from the boss...we’re bein ’ paid handsomely for bringing you an’ this here fellah down to Texas,” he said eyeing Slim warily.
“So why shoot me iffen yer bein ’ paid to deliver me to Texas?” Jess asked looking totally befuddled.
“It’s Chuck, he’s had a change of heart...I guess he wants the cute little dark one...Millie for himself. So, he’s double-crossing ’ the boss. He was sweet on her years ago it seems and he’s a hankering to wed her.”
“The hell he has!” Jess spat furiously.
Then he shook his head, “So how do ya think that’s gonna work anyway...iffen we ain’t delivered to Texas you won’t get paid will ya?”
Harry Davis looked vacant for a moment and then swore loudly.
Jess rolled his eyes to Slim, “I told ya he weren’t the brightest,” he said, shaking his head.
Then he addressed the man again, noting that his shirt was now completely soaked in blood and figuring he didn’t have too long.
“You’ve been made a prize fool by Chuck, Harry. He got you to do all the dirty work...while he stays nice and safe with the girls. I guess its payback time huh? So are you gonna tell us where he’s holed up?”
Harry just looked stubborn and that made Jess see red.
He grabbed hold of him again and commenced shaking him aggressively once more.
“We can do this easy or hard Harry, but yer gonna tell us...”
Again, Slim tried to intervene...but then Harry gave an anguished cry of pain, grabbing his chest and so Jess eased off of his own accord.
“OK...OK you win,” he gasped. “There’s a shack about three miles down this track to the left. Get to the turn off by a big cotton wood...about a mile down there...the girls and Chuck are there.”
“Uh, well they’d dang well better be,” Jess said gruffly.
Slim looked down realizing the guy hadn’t got long and offered him some water from his canteen and then said, “So who put you up to this Harry... who is it that wants us down in Texas...and why for God’s sake?”
The red headed man’s eyes began to look dazed and he coughed, a dribble of blood escaping from the corner of his mouth...
“Wants you dead...hates ya somethin ’ fierce,” he gasped... “somethin ’ fierce.”
“Yeah but who wants us dead?” Jess hollered.
But it was too late...Harry Davis ’ head rolled to the side and he breathed his last breath.

Chapter 3
It was almost dark before the men realized they’d been hoodwinked and there were no cottonwoods, no turn off to the left and definitely no shack.
Jess was practically beside himself with worry. Slim similar, although both men showed their feelings differently. Whereas Jess became more and more angry, cussing at each wrong turn, Slim became increasingly taciturn.
Eventually it was almost too dark to see. And it was increasingly dangerous to continue the search, the spectacular drop to the gorge just feet from the trail making their journey even more hazardous in the twilight.
It was Slim who reined in and admitted defeat first.
“What are ya talkin ’ about?” Jess yelled furiously, “We can’t leave ‘em stuck out in some shack with that bastard Hanson. God knows what he might do.” Then his voice dropped and he looked anguished, “Might’ve already have done,” he finished quietly.
“Jess you can’t think that way. Hell don’t you think I’m worried sick about Lily? But the fact is we can’t find that shack in the dark, if indeed it exists. Davis could have lied about it all...Hanson might have carried on to Boulder, be sleeping in a nice comfy hotel as we speak.”
“Yeah, well he better hadn’t be sleepin ’ in a nice comfy hotel with my girl or I’ll dang well swing for him,” Jess said with feeling.
Slim just nodded, knowing the truth of it.
“Come on Jess let’s set up camp and ride into Boulder at first light. Get that arm of yours seen to and catch up with the Sheriff huh? He may have seen them or caught up with them. Don’t forget Doug said he’d wire Sheriff Dave Stuart and tell him to keep an eye open.”
Jess finally agreed to make camp, although he wasn’t happy about it and neither man could face any of the food provided by Peggy Johnson, good though it was.
They lay by the fire resting back on their saddles and listening to the night time sounds. Small animals rustling about, the cry of a lone wolf carried on the soft night breeze and the background noise of the river rushing through the gorge below them.
After a while Jess sighed and looked over at his buddy, “I reckon this is about the worst dang night I can remember,” he said his deep gravelly voice full of emotion, “I keep thinkin’ Slim, what if...you know...what if he’s layin ’ with her now?”
Slim shook his head, “Millie would fight him Jess she’s one hell of a tough cookie. You know that and Lily’s with her too, they’ll look out for each other.”
“I sure hope so,” Jess said quietly...Then he shifted his weight and rubbed his arm.
“Hurting bad Jess?”
For once he just nodded and then lay back and pulling his blanket over, staring with bleak eyes at the stars twinkling above him.
After a moment he rolled his head so he could see Slim and said softly, “I guess we both are pard, I’m sorry. This is just as bad fer you I know that...”
Slim let out his breath and said, “Someone dang well hates us Jess, that’s for sure...but who?”
Jess just shrugged, his thoughts once more going back to Millie.
He felt sick to his stomach about what she might be going through. Suppose that son of a bitch had forced himself on her. He sure wouldn’t put it past him. Oh yeah, he came across as a charming gentleman alright. But underneath Jess knew he was an animal...with an animal’s appetite. Hell, in his younger days back on the Panhandle he had used and abused females with sickening regularity. He left a string of broken and desolate women behind him after he used them and then simply walked away. All except Millie that was...Millie was the love of his life, so he had professed, and it had been her that walked out on him Jess knew.
Then a thought struck him...what if Millie wanted to be with Hanson? Had agreed to their liaison if he promised to stop working for whoever it was wanted him and Slim dead? What if he’d managed to worm his way back into her affections? Hang it all she’d seemed darned convincing when she’d said it was over between her and Jess... that she didn’t want to see him again. Would she have lied to her Ma about it all, feeling embarrassed at heading off with Hanson? But no, surely not...Millie would have seen Chuck Hanson for what he was, wouldn’t she?
That night neither man had slept well and they headed off for Boulder soon after dawn.
Sheriff Dave Stuart was a good man but sorely tired. He ruled the town with a will of iron, but even so trouble was forever erupting in the many saloons and whore houses built for the needs of miners in the former gold rush of ’59. Now with most of the mines closed many folks still made a good living working in the saloons and houses of ill repute as the town filled with cattlemen and railroad workers. Although the bawdy houses had been outlawed by the Town Council members back in ’73 it was a dang difficult thing to police as Sheriff Stuart well knew. So along with keeping a lookout for prostitutes he also had drunkenness and petty crime to fight.
Maybe that was why he was less than enthusiastic in offering to assist Slim and Jess in their search, although he had every sympathy with them.
“Yup I received the wire from Sheriff Cory,” the stout, middle-aged man said, “and I’d like to help you boys out...but you can see how I’m fixed,” he said gesturing to the full cells behind him. The noise on the street was already sounding rowdy even at this early hour and would doubtless get worse as the day wore on.
“Look,” said Jess in frustration, “we’ve already done some of your job for ya...sorted out that back shooter Harry Davis who was involved in the abduction. We laid him to rest up near Pine Brook Hill. All we want from you is some help. So have you seen a stranger in town, with two real purty women?”
“One blond and real slim, the other brunette and curvy,” Slim added.
“The dude, Hanson’s a real sharp dresser, tall and walks around like he owns the darned place,” Jess said bitterly.
Sheriff Stuart thought about it carefully, “Nope sorry, no folk like that and they’d stand out like a sore thumb from the regular folk in town.”
Jess rolled his eyes and sighed, pacing about the Sheriff’s shabby office.
“What about a line shack, down a track near some cottonwoods?” Slim asked hopefully.
Again, the Sheriff thought long and hard and then his face relaxed into a happy grin for the first time. “Oh… you mean the old miners shack up on the Salina track?”
Slim shrugged, “Could be.”
“You go back the way you’ve come and then a mite further on down the track from Pine Brook Hill you’ll pass a few cottonwoods. Take a left there heading towards Salina and there’s an old miner’s shack about a mile or so along the track. It’s real overgrown and easy missed.”
“Of course,” Jess whooped, “Davis meant us to go back the way we’d come...hell Slim we must’ve rode past the dang turn off before he bushwhacked us!”
It took all Slim’s persuasive powers and determination to get Jess to see the doc. But eventually he agreed and had the bullet wound tended professionally. He was treated by a keen young medic from back east, acting as Locum for old Doc Potts.
Slim hid a smile as the earnest young man gave Jess instructions for his recuperation.
“You need plenty of rest and absolutely no riding or exertion of any kind. You must follow a light diet, preferably based on milky drinks and eggs and maybe a little poached fish. I will check the limb over in a week or so, good day Mr Harper,” the smart young doctor said smiling benignly.
“OK doc, whatever you say,” Jess agreed, touching his hat and taking his leave.
Once they were safely outside Slim looked at his buddy in amazement, “So you’re really going to follow the doc’s instructions?”
Jess looked at him like he’d lost his mind, “What do you think?” he asked before marching down the street. Mounting his horse, he kneed him off to a brisk trot in the direction of Pine Brook Hill.
Slim stood there for a moment before shaking his head, the shadow of a smile on his face, “I guess not then,” he said to himself as he went to mount up and follow his pard.
They found the turn off OK, but still rode up and down the track a couple of times before they saw the small path leading to the miner’s shack.
Once it was in sight they dismounted and leaving their horses down the track a little piece made their way slowly towards the rundown building. Jess drew his Colt and both men stepped silently onto the porch and peered in through the grimy window. At first the place seemed deserted. There was no smoke issuing forth from the chimney and the room seemed empty and ramshackle.
Jess wiped his gloved hand across the window to remove some of the dust and was rewarded by a slight movement within. On closer scrutiny he was just able to make out the figure of Hanson, reclining on an old leather couch, pulled up close to the empty hearth.
Jess gestured to Slim that they should enter and seconds later he kicked the door open, guns pointing at the prone figure on the couch.
To their surprised he barely moved, just peered up at the intrusion with hooded, sickly eyes.
The room stank of stale vomit and there was a bucket strategically placed near the couch.
Ignoring the man’s obvious malaise Jess was across the room in seconds and dragged him up by his shirt front. Then he shook him roughly, “What in hell have you done with my girl, you slimy bastard?” he yelled.
Hanson’s teeth were chattering so much he could barely answer, just muttered, “G...gone, they lit out some place.”
“Where, where have they gone?” Jess bellowed, clenching a fist and looking like he might well start raining blows on Hanson’s sorry hide.
After a moment Slim pulled him away, “Easy Jess let him speak, he’s clearly sick.”
“Sick!” Jess bellowed, “He’ll be more than dang sick when I’ve finished with him.”
“Back off,” Slim yelled furiously, “you want to know what’s happened, don’t you?”
Jess threw Hanson back down on the coach, breathing heavily he turned away and ran a hand over his sweating face.
“OK, so tell us what happened,” Slim said, “and make it snappy, because my pard here is on one hell of a short fuse right now.”
Hanson glanced over at Jess and then back to Slim.
His face was a terrible grey color and he was sweating profusely, his eyes looking furtive, as though weighing up his options.
“We’re waitin’,” Jess growled turning back to Hanson.
“OK, I’ll tell ya. It was that crazy broad Millie she done poisoned me!”
Jess snorted derisively, “What by accident or on purpose?”
He exchanged the glimmer of a smile with Slim, both men remembering the time Millie‘s cooking once gave Jess a belly ache for a week.
“On purpose,” Hanson cried sounding real hard done by, “that prissy one Lily, she found some rat poison and they dang well put it in the rabbit stew...near done me in they did!”
“Well good fer them,” Jess said his eyes now blazing with anger, “just like that poor sod Harry. He near back-shot me...but it didn’t quite turn out how you planned it Chuck, he’s dead.”
“Never mind about all that now,” Slim said taking offense at his Lily being referred to as prissy, “so where were they heading huh?”
“I don’t know I tell ya, I’ve been chucking up since they lit out late last night, they can’t be too dang far away.”
“They better hadn’t be and they’d better be OK too,” Jess snarled, “because iffen they ain’t I’m gonna come back here and shoot yer dang brains out...got it?”
Hanson just nodded and looked like he might well throw up again, the idea of death suddenly seeming quite attractive.
Jess leaned over and handcuffed him before turning to Slim.
“We may as well leave him here and pick him up once we’ve found our women. He ain’t in any shape to go anyplace is he?”
Slim nodded, “I guess you’re right there.”
They left Hanson and checking the stable took his pony with them and ground hitched him a mile or so down the track, just to be sure he didn’t escape.
Then they sat their mounts looking undecided as to where to look next.
“They didn’t head for Boulder or we’d have seen them,” Slim said.
“I guess they could have gone down this track towards Salina. Millie might have thought to head for George Smyth’s place,” Jess said thoughtfully. “I told her his ranch was between Boulder and Salina before I headed off to deliver those mustangs.”
Slim shook his head, “I just don’t know Jess. I imagine they were both pretty much lost out here and my Lily isn’t any too good on a horse either.”
He shook his head, “Plus they lit out at night, Jeez, they could have gone anywhere.”
Jess took his hat off, wiped his sleeve across his face and ran a hand through his wavy locks, before jamming his hat back in place, “I dunno, but we’ve got to start someplace.”
So eventually both men turned their mounts along the narrow track heading towards Salina.
It was Jess who picked up the tracks of two horses and his heart leapt...they were going in the right direction.
As they rode on the track opened out, a small stream bubbling along to their right and majestic pines all around them.
“Good camping area anyways,” Jess said appreciatively, “maybe they stopped once they were away from the shack and camped the night?”
Both men had their eyes peeled for signs of a camp and just a half hour later they were rewarded by discovering the remains of a camp fire...the grass around flattened down.
Slim slipped down from the saddle and hunkered down by the fire.
“Ashes are still warm pard,” he said with a sigh of relief, “I guess they can’t be too far ahead of us.”
It was maybe ten minutes later when two shots shattered the late afternoon stillness.
The men exchanged a shocked glance before spurring their mounts down the track towards the sound of the gunfire.
It was the panic-stricken screams that alerted them to the exact whereabouts of the women.
Throwing themselves down from the saddle they tore towards the figures of Lily and Millie.
The carcass of a big cat, still twitching in the last throws of death, lay near the prone figure of Millie. A smoking rifle still clasped in Lily’s trembling hands.
Jess knelt by the unconscious body of his girl and stared down into her ashen face.
“Dear God, Millie...” he gasped.
Lily threw the rifle down and collapsed in hysterical tears and moments later Slim was beside her holding her in his warm embrace.
He held her close for a few minutes, before gently leading her over to a fallen log and sitting her down.
“You’ll be alright for a minute?” He asked and on receiving a brave nod left her for a moment to fetch some things from his saddle bag.
Meanwhile Jess held Millie’s broken body tightly, before bowing his head to look more clearly at the terrible wounds the big cat had inflicted, her upper arm bloody and mangled.
“Goddamn it,” he muttered, unable to think straight.
But Slim was at his side in moments with a canteen, bandages and a small bottle of spirits from his saddlebag.
“Come on Jess,” he insisted urgently, “get to it, we’ve got to clean this out right away you know that. The longer we leave it the more likely she is to get a real bad infection.”
Jess just peered at his buddy for a moment before shaking his head as though to clear it and taking the canteen and some of the clean rags started to wash out the deep penetrating puncture wounds.
Then he knew he had to splash the spirit into the lesion, but he was shaking so much he could barely uncork the bottle.
“Want me to finish off?” Slim asked, looking almost as pale and anguished as his partner. Lilly had turned away unable to watch the procedure, tears coursing down her pale cheeks.
Jess shook his head, “Nope I can do it Slim....”
It was as he was finishing off that Millie came around crying out in agony as the neat spirit penetrated the wound.
“It’s OK sweetheart,” Jess said clasping her to him, “it’s all over you’re safe now...”
She continued screaming and trying to fight him off for another few moments before she finally focused on him...
“Jess, is that you?”
He nodded, and then she started sobbing quietly with relief.
He gently bound the wound and then held her close again, running a hand up and down her back, whispering calming words until she stopped weeping and finally nestled in his warm embrace.
Jess’s heart was racing...all he could think of was how easily he could have lost her. Found her mauled corpse too late if it hadn’t been for Lily’s quick action.
He looked up to where she was still sitting on a fallen log, Slim’s comforting arm around her.
He mouthed the words, “Thank you.” His eyes so full of emotion that Lily could hardly bear to look into them, but nodded before looking away, tears once more cascading down her colorless cheeks.
Slim could feel her shaking and knew the terrible shock both girls must be suffering and decided they should make camp there for the night. Let them both recover some before going back to collect Hanson.
Jess didn’t need any persuading and Slim and Lily soon had a cheerful blaze burning away and the coffee pot on. Meanwhile Jess just held Millie close, as she dozed a little.
Watching the pair Slim thought Jess looked like he would never relinquish his hold on his girl ever again.
However, after a little while he mooched off to his horse and returned with a clean shirt from his saddle bag.
Sinking down next to Millie again he said, “George Smyth’ s Mrs is kinda particular about clean shirts at the dinner table, so Daisy packed me a couple of extra ones, I guess I never unpacked ‘em.”
Looking down at her flimsy white cotton blouse ripped beyond recognition, he said quietly, “I know it ain’t any too fashionable, but guess it’ll keep you decent and warm huh?”
She smiled at that, “Thank you Jess, I’d be honored to wear your shirt.”
Very carefully he removed her ripped one and helped her into his blue cotton work shirt and although it was way too big, it did the job as he’d said.
He glanced at her before very tenderly fastening the buttons and then removing his bandana shaped it into a sling for her damaged arm.
“There ya go Ma’am,” he said with a mock salute, “all ready for the doc’s inspection tomorrow.”
She smiled into his deep blue eyes, “Thank you Jess, that’s much better, I guess I just need to rest a while now huh?”
Jess had one thing on his mind though and he had to find out there and then, even if he did upset his girl...the thought of it was tearing into him like a knife in his guts.
Eventually he voiced his concerns, “Mill...are you OK, he didn’t ya know didn’t force ya?”
She looked puzzled and then flushed up ... “No, no he didn’t Jess. Lily and I stuck together all the time.”
He sighed with relief and pulled her a little closer softly kissing the top of her head.
None of them were very hungry, but guessing it must be a good while since the girls had eaten, Slim insisted they eat something, before they finally turned in for the night.
Slim and Lily had settled on one side of the large campfire and Jess and Millie on the other, affording both couples a little privacy.
Jess had tended all the horses and brought his saddle over for a pillow and placed a blanket down and covered them over with another. Now Millie was lying snugly in his arms.
“How are ya feelin’,” he asked solicitously, “is yer arm hurtin ’ you bad?”
She shook her head, “No not too bad, thanks.”
He looked down at her beautiful face and could tell from her eyes she was lying, but said nothing, merely stroked a finger gently down her cheek.
After a moment she gave a huge sigh, “I’m so glad you found us.”
“Really?” he asked raising a quirky eyebrow, “now I got the feelin ’ that you and me were through...that ya didn’t wanna see me again?”
She turned troubled eyes on him then, “I had to do that Jess I was trying to keep you safe. I thought Chuck would just let us go if you didn’t rise to the bait.”
“I very nearly didn’t. I turned for home, but then it just didn’t feel right. I knew you wouldn’t throw me over that way.”
She gave him a tiny smile, “You know me too well...so did Ma tell you everything?”
“Uh huh, said as how you did it for me...but I’ll tell you, you’re a real good actress Millie.”
She flushed up, “I really am sorry for hurting you that way...”
He very gently, pushed a strand of her hair behind her ear and then looked deeply into her eyes. “I know that,” he said softly.
His gaze shifted down to her lips and then back to her eyes, almost questioning, before he very gently leaned forwards and covered her soft lips with his own...just brushing them so, so tenderly, before kissing her more deeply and giving a soft groan of desire.
After a few minutes she pulled back and giggled, before tipping her head towards where Slim and Lily‘s outline could vaguely be made out beyond the fire.
“We can’t...you know,” she whispered, “not with...” and looked across the fire again...
“Heck I weren’t thinkin’ on...doin ’ that,” he said pretending to look profoundly shocked. Then reverting to his normal expression said, only half joking, “I just wanted to be sure you still wanted to though. I thought that Chuck might have turned your head some?”
“What,” she gasped, “after I poisoned him with my dinner?”
“Well that don’t count, ya darned near poisoned me, not so long ago,” he replied, hiding a smile.
“Yes...well that was by accident,” she said hotly. “I meant to poison Chuck, “then they stared at each other for a moment before bursting out with peals of laughter.
“Hey you two, some of us are trying to sleep over here,” Slim called out in mock irritation.
“Uh, well as long as that’s all yer doin’,” came the quick-fire response from Jess...which was met with a bark of laughter...before peace finally reigned.

Chapter 4
The following morning when Millie awoke at first light Jess had gone.
Her first thought was that he had made his way back to the shack to knock nine bells out of Hanson...but then she saw the fire had been stoked up and the coffee pot put in place. Further investigation revealed that Slim and Lily were still fast asleep.
She got up quietly, the sound of the bubbling stream leading her to seek out her lover, imagining him to be washing up.
As she approached, she saw his naked back, still wet from an early morning wash, as he sat on a sunny rock, holding a pane of broken mirror in one hand and a razor in the other.
Knowing better than to creep up on him, she coughed before moving swiftly into his line of vision.
“My goodness a man who shaves out on the trail, I am impressed,” she said with a little giggle.
He returned her smile and patted the rock next to him, “A man’s gotta look his best for his special girl,” he said, putting down the shaving tools. Then more seriously, “How’s your arm?”
As he spoke her gaze fell to the snowy white bandage on Jess’s own arm and she ignored his question, “What happened?” she asked leaning forwards and placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, before sitting down on the rock.
“Harry Davis done back shot me a couple of days ago, well tried to anyways. Luckily, he was either a lousy shot or Traveller sidestepped at the right time ...so it’s just a scratch,” he said dismissively. “Anyway, never mind about that, how are you feeling,” he persisted, “any fever, chills?”
When she shook her head, he never the less ran a hand over her forehead and was pleased to find it cool and her eyes bright and clear.
“Nope, you’re lookin ’ in pretty good shape,” he agreed, before leaning in and taking her in his arms and kissing her very thoroughly.
That was how Slim found them a few minutes later.
“Hey I thought it was me and Lily that were supposed to be up to ‘shenanigans’,” he said, quoting an old housekeeper the men had employed a few years back.
Jess and Millie sprang apart looking embarrassed for a moment and then they all laughed.
“So, Lily is still sleepin’?” Jess asked innocently.
“Er, I guess so.” Slim said noncommittally.
“Ha! Like you wouldn’t know,” Jess guffawed.
“I’ll go and make a start on breakfast,” Millie said quickly, seeing the boys were into one of their lively banter sessions as Daisy termed it.
Once Millie had gone Slim sobered.
“I think you should take the girls to town after breakfast Jess, get Millie checked over, your arm too. I’ll go pick up Hanson huh?”
Jess’s head shot up and he looked furious, “What, so you don’t trust me with him?”
Slim threw his buddy a very frank look, “I’m not too sure, maybe not...what do you think huh?”
Jess looked out across the stream to the mountains beyond for a good minute before turning back to his friend, “Maybe you’ve got a point Slim,” he said quietly, before they turned back for camp.
Jess accompanied the girls back to town, leaving Slim to pick up Hanson and follow on.
Once they were all booked into a small hotel, Jess took Millie over to the doc’s place.
Young Doc Steven Bennett was still in charge and greeted Jess like a long-lost friend.
“Ah, Mister Harper, good to see you, so you’ve come to have the arm checked over huh?”
“Sort of, but it’s really my girl here that needs to see ya doc, Millie, Miss Johnson that is, was mauled by a cougar yesterday and really needs you to check her out.
The young easterner looked rather bemused and turning to Millie said, “All in good time my dear lady, I’ll just attend to Harper first, if you’d care to take a seat,” he said pulling one out before leading Jess over to the examination couch.
He removed the bandages and examined the wound before smiling brightly.
“Excellent, this is healing well. I’m so pleased that you have clearly adhered to my advice as to a light nutritious diet and absolutely no exertion of any sort, especially riding?”
“Oh absolutely,” Jess agreed without missing a beat and actively avoiding Millie’s incredulous expression.
Once Jess was dismissed from the couch Millie was asked to sit down and the doctor started consulting one of old Doc Potts ’ medical books.
After several minutes Jess had enough, “So it just needs checking over doc. I cleaned it out real good, those puncture wounds go kinda deep.”
“Er, yes, of course,” the young medic agreed, appearing rather flustered.
He examined the wound carefully and then grinned over at Jess, “It looks to me like you did a real swell job of cleaning this out, no sign of infection...but you do need to look out for any sign of fever or chills and then get back to me...Then as with your injury Mister Harper the lady needs lots of rest, no exertion of any sort and a light diet based on eggs and milky drinks.”
“Sure thing,” Jess agreed helping Millie down from the couch and turning to settle up the account with his nurse.
Once they were out of earshot Millie burst out laughing, “What, you’ve been following the doc’s orders to the letter have you Jess?”
He just shrugged, “No need, I’ve got real good healin ’ flesh see.” But then smiling down at her said, “But you, young lady are gonna do exactly as the doc says, lots of rest huh.”
He escorted her back to the hotel and left her and Lily in the lounge drinking coffee while he went over to the Sheriff’s office to see if Slim had arrived yet.
To his surprise he had only just landed and the paperwork was still being completed.
“Howdy Jess,” Slim said as his pard mooched into the office. “I’m a tad late arriving, Hanson’s darned horse had wandered off and it took me the devil of a time to find him.”
Jess nodded, “Hanson’s locked up then?”
Sheriff Stuart nodded, “Yup, but as I was just explaining to your buddy here, Harper, he’ll have to go back to Laramie to be tried as that’s where the offense took place.”
Jess swore softly under his breath, “Great and I suppose we’ve gotta take him huh?”
“‘Fraid so,” the Sherriff replied.
“Can I see him?” Jess asked.
The Sheriff and Slim exchanged a quick glance before the lawman said, “He’s still kinda sick boy, I’d leave it for now huh. They’ll be plenty of time for you to question him on the way to Laramie I imagine.”
Jess threw his buddy a dark look before glancing back to the Sheriff, “Oh yeah I imagine so,” he agreed with acrimony.
Once the reports were all complete and the men found themselves out on Main Street Jess turned on his pard, “What did ya tell him? I was lookin ’ to swing fer the bastard huh Slim? I just wanna get the truth out of him that’s all.”
“Yeah, and the way you’re feeling right now darned well kill him in the process. Come on Jess I’m just trying to save you from yourself, can’t you see that!”
Jess stood leaning on the hitching rail looking down the street for a good minute before bowing and shaking his head then looking back up to his buddy.
“Yeah, I know,” he said quietly.
“Come on let’s go find our women and spoil them some,” Slim said draping an arm around Jess’s shoulders and propelling him towards the hotel.
They four spent a quiet day together relaxing and after supper were ready for an early night, before their long journey the following day.
The two couples parted at their separate rooms, Slim chuckling and saying, “Don’t forget your new regime now Jess, like the doc told ya...a nice light diet and definitely no exertion huh?” he said winking as Jess unlocked his hotel room door and ushered Millie inside.
Jess merely flapped a hand at his buddy and quickly closed the door behind him and his girl.
Then moments later she was in his arms and he was kissing her urgently.
After a moment he backed off and gave her a quizzical look, “It feels kinda funny kissin ’ someone wearin ’ a man’s shirt,” he said alluding to his blue, rough cotton shirt that Millie still wore.
“Oh well if that’s the case maybe I should take it off then?” she suggested coyly.
“Maybe you should at that,” he agreed, tentatively beginning to undo the buttons, slipping it off and letting it fall to the floor. Before taking her in his arms again, kissing her once more and then guiding her towards the big comfortable bed.

The following morning, they discussed their plans over breakfast in the hotel dining room.
It was agreed that Slim should travel in the stagecoach with the girls and Hanson, Jess following behind on Traveller and leading Alamo, as far as Cheyenne. They would stay overnight at Millie’s ma’s boarding house, before the men headed on to Laramie with the prisoner.
The girls decided they would stay at Mrs Johnson’s place to recuperate from their ordeal and make plans for the future.
“I just don’t know what we’ll do,” said Millie mournfully, “with that Gloria and her sister working our jobs, Lily and I will have to find something else.”
“Well you could always marry us and be ladies of leisure,” Jess said, only half joking.
Millie and Lily exchanged an amused glance....
“Um, sounds great in theory,” Millie said smiling benignly at her lover, “but we all know it’ll be a good few years before any of us are ready for that kind of commitment. Lily and I want a bit of fun before we start washing all your dirty socks,” she finished with a chuckle.
“Yeah, well we’ll just have to get the lovely Gloria and Bertha fired somehow,” Slim said joining in the banter. “Maybe we should bar the place until you’re reinstated. The amount Jess drinks on a Saturday night old Tom would go bust in a month!”
“Oh yeah, very funny,” Jess said dryly, getting up and picking up his hat from a nearby chair. He rammed it in place and said cheerfully, “I’ll go and saddle up and fetch yer horse Slim so I’ll be all ready when the stage goes, about half an hour huh?”
Slim just nodded, “Yup that’s fine.”
Jess leaned over and kissed Millie on the top of her head, “See ya later gorgeous,” he whispered before striding off.
As he walked away Slim watched him through narrowed eyes, “What’s he up to now?” he said thoughtfully.
“What’s wrong Slim?” Millie asked alerted to her friend’s gaze still boring into Jess’s departing back.
He shook his head, “I don’t know Millie, but he’s up to something. It’s just not like him to be so darned reasonable about the arrangements for Hanson. He’s hatching something out and I’ve got a feeling I won’t like it, not one little bit.”
Millie looked shocked, “What, you think he’s after revenge, would try and beat him up...or worse?”
“I don’t know,” said Slim, “but he sure as heck won’t let it lie. He’ll have his retribution one way or another...and yes if Hanson had hurt you Millie, I guess Jess would have killed him,” he replied honestly.
She gave a little cry of shock, “Oh Slim, keep him safe please, keep him away from Hanson, if you can.”
“I’ll do my best honey,” he said softly and with that they all left to prepare for the journey ahead.
Jess’s behavior was exemplary around Hanson, to the extent that he practically ignored him. Slim dealt with the Sheriff and climbed into the stage with Hanson handcuffed to him, once the women were settled.
Millie kept her eyes downcast refusing to even look at him. Whilst Lily threw him black looks, before settling down to watch the countryside speeding past.
Jess followed on at a slightly slower pace, all the time looking out for anyone following them. After all this wasn’t finished...not at all...the architect of all that had happened was still out there someplace. Even now possibly dreaming up new schemes by which to make his life hell and there was no way Jess was going to let him get away with it.
They finally arrived in Cheyenne to great sighs of relief from one and all, save Hanson.
He was hustled into Sheriff Doug Master’s jail, just as soon as they hit town. With Jess again, uncharacteristically ignoring his adversary and leaving Slim to make the arrangements for their prisoner, whilst he escorted the girls safely to the boarding house.
Ma Johnson was ecstatic to see her youngest daughter back safe and sound and dear Lily too and her eyes were brimming with tears as she addressed Jess.
“I knew you wouldn’t let me down boy, I knew you’d bring our Millie home safely.”
Jess grinned at her, “Well it comes with a price Ma, strong coffee and a piece of yer chocolate cake?”
“Coming right up son,” she said, once more smiling at the young cowboy.
It was after supper that Jess made his getaway. He noted that Slim was chatting quietly with Lily and Millie and her Ma had gone off to make more coffee and he got up quietly and left the room.
Putting his head around the kitchen door he smiled at mother and daughter, so much in accord, before saying, “Just gonna check on Traveller, back soon.”
Both women smiled indulgently, Jess’s love for his old horse legendary in the household.
Once out of the house Jess made his way purposefully down Main Street and into Sheriff Doug Master’s office, almost taking the door off its hinges as he burst in.
“Well howdy,” said Doug, taking his feet from his desk and welcoming his old friend with a measured look.
“I was expecting you, so what kept ya huh?”
Jess grinned at his buddy, “I guess I ain’t gonna get anything past you Doug, so where is the bastard?”
“End cell...but before I let you in Jess you need to promise me one thing.”
“Don’t do him any lasting damage OK? He’s in my charge and I’m honor bound to keep him...well reasonably safe... but I’m guessing this is more about information than revenge am I right?”
Jess nodded. His face was slightly flushed and his breath coming fast...
“I owe that bastard big time for what he did to Millie and Lily too...but he’ll keep. We’ll just let the law take care of that right now Doug...like I say I’ve got time... but what I need to know is who’s responsible for all this and why...you can understand that can’t ya?”
“Sure I can buddy and Hell Jess iffen I weren’t the law around here you could knock the shit out of him... but bein’ as how I am... maybe I’ll come and watch you ...er interrogate him and step in if things get a tad too heated huh?”
Jess turned to smile at his old friend ... “I guess we saw some prize bastards in the war didn’t we Doug, but not as devious and two-timing as Hanson and his boss.”
Doug just nodded and then picking up the cell keys said, “Come on buddy, let’s go talk to him huh?”
Jess didn’t even need to talk; all he did was look at Hanson with the full Harper fury and the guy was squirming away to the end of the cell.
“Hey come on Hanson, don’t be bashful,” Doug said sarcastically as the two men made their way down into the empty cells, “I’ve got a visitor here for you.”
As Doug unlocked the cell, letting Jess in Hanson gave a whimper of fear.
Jess advanced and grabbing him by his shirt threw him unceremoniously against the cell wall with a sickening thud.
“Sheriff, help...do something,” Hanson almost squeaked.
Doug looked studiously up at the ceiling and said nothing.
“OK Hanson we can do this real easy or hard and I’m not too bothered either way,” Jess said menacingly. “All I want from you is who the hell is running this fiasco, where are they and why are they doin’ this to me and Slim? Now start talking.”
When Hanson just stared seemingly struck dumb, Jess back-slapped him hard, splitting his lip...a trickle of blood running down his chin.
Jess sensed Doug move behind him, but he said and did nothing.
“Well...who in hell is behind all this, because I know for a fact you don’t have either the brains or guts to work alone. You might have a poster out on you fer murder back in Mexico. But we both know that was some poor female ya killed...you just ain’t got the guts to face a man have you!”
When he still remained silent, Jess grabbed hold of his shirt again and balled his fist.
“I’m waitin ’ Hanson!”
“Alright...alright, I’ll tell ya what I know...the boss is real rich, got a fancy ranch just south of Denver. He made a whole shed load of money in saloons and whore houses. He part owns the Top Dollar and a couple of other places with real high-class hookers. That’s all I know about him; I haven’t ever seen him.”
“So what’s his goddamn name,” Jess yelled, “and why target me and Slim?”
“I don’t know, really I don’t...Sheriff, please,” he yelled, “git him off of me!”
“Just answer his questions,” Doug said laconically, “that’s what I’d advise.”
Chuck Hanson swallowed hard, “You’ve got to believe me Harper. The only contact I have is a guy named Frederick who’s his number one man. Nobody ever sees the boss I guess he’s kind of a recluse. Frederick and a big black guy, called Samson, help run all the boss’s enterprises.”
“Enterprises you say…huh?” Jess spat, raising an eyebrow to Doug.
“It’s you he’s after Harper, got some score to settle, Sherman wasn’t involved, only to the extent that we had to take his girl. We needed her to persuade Millie to come with me.”
At the mention of Millie, Jess started to breathe heavily and he felt a slick of cold sweat running down his back.
“Oh I ain’t forgotten what you did to my girl,” he said quietly, “but I guess we’ll settle that another time...So this boss ain’t done with me yet I guess?”
Hanson shook his head, “I had a visit from Frederick when I was banged up in the Boulder jail.”
“What?” Jess yelled. Then he remembered how hard pushed the old Sheriff was with the cells full to busting and figured he couldn’t blame him for not saying anything.
“Go on,” he said.
“Well this Frederick had a message for you from the boss.”
“Oh really...”
“Yup said you were to go to the ranch, see him, said there was stuff needed settling.”
“Well why in Hell didn’t he just say so in the first place?” Jess spat furiously, “Instead of takin ’ the girls an’ all.”
Hanson shook his head, “I figure he wanted you to suffer...I don’t know, I was just paid to take them, not ask questions.”
Jess just shook his head, “So, Denver you say...not Texas?”
Hanson shook his head, “That was just a ruse, to keep the law out of things.”
“Um, well I might just take the law along with me,” Jess said thoughtfully.
“I wouldn’t, you see Frederick said something else...if you don’t arrive alone, if you bring the law in, he’ll make sure you never see the old woman or the kid again.”
So far Jess had been pretty restrained, for Jess...so Doug thought. But this was just a step too far.
He erupted in fury, punching Hanson hard on the chin and sending him flying across the cell, before he dragged him up and threw another and another punch...until Doug finally had to restrain him.
“That’s enough! Come on Jess, he can’t explain if you knock him senseless, just back off, huh.”
Jess shrugged off Doug’s restraining hold, and then threw Hanson back onto the cot before pacing away to look out of the tiny cell window.
After a couple of minutes, he turned back, “So are they in danger, has this Frederick gone after them?” he finally managed.
“No, no really Jess, they’re safe. They just used that as a threat if it looked like you wouldn’t play ball.”
“Oh, I’ll play ball alright, can’t dang well wait,” Jess spat.
Then turning to Doug, said, “Let me out will ya Doug?”
All the Sheriff’s powers of persuasion were unable to convince Jess to just walk away from the situation.
“What, and have Daisy and Mike taken, killed even…are you crazy?”
“Well OK, go then, but at least let me tag along huh?”
Jess shook his head, “You heard what that lowlife said Doug, I involve the law and Daisy and Mike are in trouble. Hell, if he’s as rich as Hanson says he could have guys working for him anyplace. It’d only take one wire to Laramie and that would be it.”
Doug slumped down at his desk, “I guess you’re right, so what do you plan to do?”
“Go and meet up with this boss, whoever he is and shoot it out with him I guess.”
“And just hope and pray he’s not as fast as you?”
“You got it.”
Doug just shook his head in shocked disbelief, “Jess buddy...please?”
But there again he had no other ideas....
Then as it happened Doug’s mind was taken off the problem as a neighbor rushed into the office to say his dear wife Jenny was in labour with their third child and he was needed.
Jess grinned at his buddy, “Well go on what are ya waitin ’ for? Git to it Pa....I’ll hang on here until your deputy arrives OK?”
Doug threw himself out of his chair making for the door, “Thanks Jess, I owe you,” and he was gone, leaving Jess smiling after his old friend.

Chapter 5
The following morning the men said their fond farewells to the girls and leaving them at Ma Johnson’s place made their way down to the livery and then on to the jail to collect the prisoner. As Jess had surmised it was Larry Benson, Doug’s deputy in charge, now recovered from the Chicken Pox and he delivered a rather battered looking Hanson into the two men’s custardy.
“So how’s Jenny, any news yet?” Jess asked.
“Nope, not so far, seems it was a false alarm yesterday, but then the boss was called back home this morning, so I guess things are getting er...underway now,” the young deputy said flushing up a little.
“I hope it all goes to plan and they get the little girl they’re hoping for,” Jess said grinning at Larry.
Once outside Slim shoved Hanson unceremoniously along in front of him and then pushed him down onto a bench to await the arrival of the stage.
“Don’t even think of moving a muscle,” Slim growled, “we can have you covered in a split second, got it?”
“Loud and clear I’m not going anyplace,” Hanson agreed casting Jess a wary glance.
Slim and Jess moved off a little distance and then Slim tipped his head back towards the prisoner sporting a black eye and bruising to his face.
“Was that down to you, or is Hanson just real clumsy and had a bad fall?” Slim asked with a quizzical glance.
Jess merely shrugged, “Just clumsy I guess,” he said innocently.
Then he looked back at his buddy, “Look Slim, I’ve been thinkin’ could you manage this lowlife on yer own?”
“Huh, why, you’re coming home aren’t you?”
“Um, well I kinda thought I’d hang on here, make sure Jenny’s OK...Doug and me are real old friends you know that, I guess he’d want me to wet the baby’s head with him. I can be back in, say a couple of days?”
“That’s some head wetting Jess, and I imagine you’ll be looking in on Millie too huh?”
Slim sighed, “Maybe it’s for the best, I reckon I don’t need you kicking off if Hanson there says the wrong thing...OK, but Jess...?”
“Yeah…what is it?”
“Home by the end of the week huh, I don’t want to be left with all the work. Miss Daisy’s set her heart on us painting the bunkhouse this summer you know that.”
“Sure, sure I’ll be home before you know it,” Jess agreed with his cheeky grin.
Then moments later Mose swept in with the four up and the prisoner was stowed on board, now handcuffed to Slim.
“See ya pard, give my love to Daisy and Mike and er...look out fer ‘em real good won’t ya Slim?”
Slim frowned a little, “Sure I will, always do. Say howdy to Jenny and the new baby,” and then the stage took off down Main Street at speed.
Jess watched it go, Alamo tethered on behind, until it disappeared and the dust had settled.
Then with a determined look in his eyes he mounted up and headed in the opposite direction making for a certain spread just south of Denver.

He made good time, pushing Traveller on until it was nearly dark, before he made camp.
Then he was up and on his way before first light.
The Double D ranch was just as Hanson had described it, big smart and set back from the main road into town.
Jess rode in through the open gate towards the impressive long porch fronting the two-story wooden building, the windows glittering in the early morning sunlight.
He dismounted and hitched Traveller to the rail before looking around him.
Then he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and spinning around saw a huge blond-haired man moving out from the shadow of a large pine, just to the left of the ranch house.
“Hold ‘em high Mister and state your business,” he said gruffly, waving a rifle at Jess’s head.
“Jess Harper, come to see yer boss,” Jess said equally curtly, “Whoever he might be,” he muttered, ignoring the request to raise his hands.
The other came forwards, now smiling, “I’m pleased to meet you at last Mister Harper, please walk this way,” he said now almost subserviently as he walked towards the front door, Jess following.
The door opened onto a massive room, looking incredibly opulent with a red plush couch and matching chairs, in front of a large marble fireplace. The walls were adorned with paintings of beautiful, scantily clad women. Jess was reminded of a high-class tart’s boudoir, such elegance but just tipping into the realms of bad taste, as Daisy would call it. He smiled to himself wondering just who this guy was...and then he sobered again. He was the kinda bastard who ran roughshod over other folk’s feelings and he remembered the hell he’d been through when Millie had been taken.
He turned on the blond man and said crossly, “Well where is the son of a bitch? Can’t he get his sorry ass out of bed?”
The man flinched slightly at Jess’s crass words, but recovered quickly.
“On the contrary Mister Harper, you are expected. I will go and inform my employer of your arrival.” Then turning at the door said, “I am Frederick by the way,” and turning, left the room, closing the door soundlessly behind him.
Jess was looking at the figure of a beautiful nude painting set over the fireplace. After appreciating her many attributes, he leaned forwards and looked more closely at the flame colored hair and large stunningly expressive violet eyes that seemed to be somehow familiar.
However, before he could put a name to her the door opened and a woman entered, flanked by a huge dark-skinned man, built like the side of a house. The muscles rippled beneath his starched white shirt and his eyes were hard and cold never leaving Jess’s face.
Jess weighed him up for a second or two before transferring his gaze back to the woman...and his heart missed a beat as he was staring straight into the violet eyes of the portrait behind him.
“Trixie Malone, what in hell are you doin ’ here?” he gasped after a moment.
“Hello Jess honey,” she whispered huskily in her Texan drawl, “I live here, I’m the boss.”
Jess just stared at her for a good minute totally speechless...before saying, “So it was you...you that’s put me through hell...Goddamn it Trixie, why?” he asked, his legs suddenly feeling like they might well give way beneath him. He stifled the urge to stride across the room and slap her, or at least give her a good shaking and once more felt himself trembling, with rage.
As though reading his mind she gestured to one of the chairs, “Sit a while Jess we need to talk this through.”
“Too right we damn well do,” he replied angrily, before casting a glance to where the big black man still stood as if he was a sentry on guard.
Trixie followed Jess’s line of vision and gave a throaty chuckle. “Oh, don’t worry about Samson, he won’t repeat anything we say Jess, you see he can’t speak. He had his tongue butchered back in Africa for some misdemeanor or other I imagine,” she said dismissively. “The perfect servant really he can never tell any of my guilty secrets.”
Jess looked shocked, “You really own all this...and those men are your... what...bodyguards?”
She nodded, “Oh yes, I’m sickeningly rich my dear, but as they say money doesn’t buy happiness.”
Jess looked at her more closely. It had been what... over ten years since he’d cast eyes on her and time had not been kind. Her once stunningly beautiful face was ravaged, the lines around her mouth speaking of bitterness and the once beautifully expressive eyes now dull and lackluster. Her spectacular figure was thin to the point of emaciation and her beautiful flame hair, streaked with grey and hanging lankly around her pinched face... What in hell had happened to her Jess wondered?
But then he remembered why he was here.
“OK let’s hear it and it better be damn good,” he spat, his anger threatening to overwhelm him again.
“You kidnap my best girl and her friend...hurtin ’ my pard as well as me. I thought I’d lost her...she made up a lie...pretended to finish it with me...just to keep me safe. But I don’t expect you’d know about that kinda loyalty would ya Trixie? Then one of your paid sharp shooters back shot me...tried to anyways, but it turns out he weren’t any too good at sharp shootin’. Then to cap it all my girl got mauled by a dang cougar...and all this is firmly down to you ma’am so what have you gotta say huh?”
Out of the whole tirade the use of the word ma’am was the one that hurt the most. OK she had a good few years on the young cowboy, but once he’d treated her as an equal...no more than that he’d practically worshiped her she remembered. Now it was as though he couldn’t even bring himself to use her name and from the way he looked at her he felt nothing for her but disgust now. However, that merely fueled her vengeance and she drew herself up to her full five foot and started ranting at him.
“You want to know why? Then I’ll tell you!”
She marched towards him and stared up into his bewildered face. “I’ll tell you why... Jess Harper...take a good look at me...this is why. I’m a decrepit broken woman...with no life, no self respect and no dang future and that’s all down to YOU...as you put it, so succinctly.”
“Well how in hell do ya figure that?”
“Because you walked out and left me! You rode out and left and you broke my heart. Breaking up with you was the end of the road for me. You went out the door and the drugs and drink walked right in.”
“Oh no, you can’t blame abusing yourself on me. If you go down that kinda road you know dang well what the consequences will be.”
“Well I didn’t!” she screamed, “I was just trying to dull the pain of you going...you meant everything to me and you just upped and left!”
“And you know dang well why too!” Jess yelled furiously, even now his stomach churning with the pain of the memory.
“I could see I was losing you, I thought it would get you back can’t you see that?”
He just looked blankly at her, “You’re dang well crazy, you know that?”
He turned his back on her and went and slouched down on one of the red plush chairs and cast his mind back to that time so long ago.

*******It was not long after the war ended and he’d returned to Texas to find nothing but death and destruction.
There was nothing left there for a young man in his early twenties and he drifted up north until he hit a small town just south of Albuquerque. He decided to stay for a few weeks to earn some much-needed cash, before moving on, the quest for the Bannister gang never far from his mind.
He’d mooched into the livery one bright sunny morning and had practically fallen over a young man asleep in the straw near the door.
He woke yawning and stretching before peering up at the dark-haired cowboy with his quirky eyebrows raised in surprise.
“You always sleep right here in the doorway?” Jess asked grinning down.
The man jumped up, brushing himself down and returning the grin, before offering a hand.
“Billy-Joe Idles, proprietor and you are?”
“Jess, Jess Harper.”
“Well Jess Harper, in answer to your question, nope not as a rule, but I make an exception after a skin full at the Dirty Dollar,” said the young curly haired man.
Jess chuckled, as the truth dawned, “Well I sure hope you ain’t too hung over...and I was looking fer the boss, is he around?”
“Just said didn’t I ... Billy-Joe...proprietor...I mean I can tell you’re a Texan and they kinda speak different, but proprietor means boss down south doesn’t it?”
Jess wasn’t too sure whether to take offense at his Texan roots being slighted, but as he was in the market for a job, he let it pass.
“Kinda young ain’t ya?”
“Uh, well my daddy passed on a while back and left me the business lock stock and barrel...you wanna see the Will?”
Jess grinned again, “I guess not, so would you be looking for help, seems kind of a big place to run all on your own...especially if yer kinda partial to the grog huh?”
Billy-Joe stared poker faced at the newcomer and then gave a bark of laughter.
“Why Jess Harper I surely like your style, how’s about we wander over to the Dirty Dollar and discuss it some huh?”
And so it was that Jess formed a good friendship with Billy-Joe and he settled down to work at the livery.
It soon became pretty clear that the Dirty Dollar was Billy-Joe’s second home and Jess quickly found out why. Apart from the obvious attraction of beer and spirits the main draw was Miss Trixie Malone. The petite flame haired beauty had the hearts of every red-blooded male in town, but was interested in none...until Jess Harper arrived that is.
It was a few days after his arrival that he wandered into the saloon one evening with Billy-Joe and there she was behind the bar dispensing beer and acerbic comments in equal measure.
Their eyes met and that was it for Trixie, love at first sight, whereas if Jess was to be honest it was more like lust at first sight as far as he was concerned.
“This is Trixie Malone,” Billy-Joe had said with a wry smile, “meet Jess Harper, Trixie.”
“Howdy handsome,” Trixie said actually looking slightly coy Billy-Joe noticed.
He ordered their beers and then once she had gone down the bar to fetch them, said softly to Jess “And you can quit drooling buddy, the lady don’t do dating.”
“Is that a fact?” Jess said running a measured eye up and down the rather delectable back view of the pocket Venus.
When she returned, he accepted the beer and after taking a thoughtful sip, smiled into those wonderful violet eyes and said, “So what time do ya get off then sweetheart?”
“Well as a matter of fact I’m due some time off tonight, since you ask,” she said throwing him a rather forward glance from under her long lashes.
“Well that’s real good. So seeing as how I’m new in town would you like to show me the best place to get a steak then?”
Billy-Joe just watched open mouthed as she had a quick word with old Seth the barkeep and moments later was at Jess’s side.

“Come on then cowboy let’s go,” she had said cheerfully.
From that day on they were practically inseparable, with Jess moving into her rooms above the haberdashery just a few weeks later.
However as usual Jess wasn’t in it for the long haul and he made that very clear on their first date when it looked like he would be invited to share the lady’s bed.
He had been invited up to her place for coffee after their steak dinner and now they were lounging on her smart leather couch, Jess with an arm draped around her shoulders, wondering when... or even if he should make a move on her. Sure, she was one hell of a woman, but maybe things were moving a tad fast. Getting way too intense if the look in those beautiful violet eyes was anything to go by, he mused. Yup, time to cool things a little he decided.
But while he was weighing up the situation Trixie had begun to take things into her own hands. She looked deeply into those enticing blue eyes, moved in and kissed him with abandon. One hand running through his dark wavy hair, pulling him even closer as Jess responded passionately....
After a few minutes he reluctantly pulled back and said quietly, “Look Trixie, there’s something I guess you need to know.”
She looked slightly apprehensive at that, “You’re not married, are you?”
“Ha, me heck no ...are you?”
“No, widowed.”
“Uh, yes he was killed in the war, but I don’t like to talk about it OK?”
“So, you were saying?”
“Uh, well it’s just that I’m not one for real serious relationships, because I ain’t gonna be around too long see?”
“Yup, I reckon I’m kinda fiddle footed. I like the big open and never settle down anyplace for long.”
“Maybe you’ll like this old town, decide to stay huh?”
“Nope,” he said, “I won’t because there’s other reasons why I can’t hang around here for good... but they’re kinda complicated,” he finished not wanting to expand upon the whole Bannister Gang business.
Then he sighed, “Well I guess I’d better be going, it’s kinda late,” and he started to rise.
But she pulled him back down, “What’s your hurry, we were having a good time weren’t we?”
He slumped back down and nodded, “Sure we were sweetheart, but I don’t wanna take advantage of you. Like I say, I’m not gonna be around for long, so if you were thinking on makin’ plans...well...”
She looked him in the eyes and decided there and then to lie...he’d change his mind, sure he would.
“Well I’m sure not asking anything of you except a real good time mister. So are you up for that then...or what?” she whispered her eyes smouldering with desire as she inched forwards until he could feel her warm breath on his cheek.
‘What’s a guy to do?’ was his last rational thought before he cupped her face between his big hands and kissed her deeply, leaving her in no doubt about what he intended to do next...
The only fly in the ointment was Billy-Joe who was at first profoundly jealous of the relationship between Jess and Trixie.
“Dang it if I don’t give you a job…and how do ya repay me huh…by getting off with the purtiest gal in town!” he professed only half joking. “So come on Jess how’d you manage that huh? Get the high and mighty Trixie practically worshippin ’ the ground ya walk on?”
Jess had just shrugged and said, “All in the kissin ’ buddy, it’s all in the kissin’.”
However, as time marched on Billy-Joe seemed to accept the couple, just as Jess was beginning to feel like he was hemmed in and maybe it was time to call it a day.
In retrospect he questioned the wisdom of having moved in with her. But hell, they’d had another, what he liked to think of as an honest, frank discussion beforehand. She had been left under no illusion that Jess had no aspirations to be husband number two. In fact, he had even shared the very personal reasons as to why he was pursuing the Bannister Gang.
“Iffen I get wind of them being anyplace around I’m gonna have to go,” he had told her and she seemed to accept it at the time. However, the more he tried to put a little distance between them, by occasionally staying out at an all-night card game, the more she seemed to want to keep him close. Her lovemaking was becoming almost desperate as though she could chain him to her by the depth of her passion.
He was going to suggest that maybe he should move out to make matters easier when he did finally decide to leave, but when it came to it he just couldn’t find the words. How could he leave her, he loved her didn’t he? But enough to settle down for good... he wasn’t sure. It certainly hadn’t been in his plans to stay there for good. But when she held him so close and cast her spell over him, he was lost. Enslaved by her body and the places she could take him with her wild, abandoned lovemaking.
Eventually the decision was taken out of his hands.
It was a Friday afternoon and Billy-Joe had gone over to the Dirty Dollar for a drink while Jess finished off the chores in the livery and waited in for a hire horse to be returned. So it was mid evening before he finally made it to the saloon. He wondered vaguely if Billy-Joe would be the worse for wear and in need of a hand to return to his rooms along the street from the livery. This had occurred several times when the young man had fetched up at the saloon early and Jess looked around for him as he walked in.
The place was dimly lit and quite busy, so it was a while before he realized that neither Billy-Joe nor Trixie were there. He called for a beer from Seth and asked if he’d seen Billy-Joe.
The elderly man looked rather embarrassed and then said, “He had a skin full and I suggested he go sleep it off.”
Jess rolled his eyes and gave the old timer a knowing look, “He just can’t take it that Billy-Joe,” he said with a broad grin, before knocking his beer back.
After a while he called for another and then said, “Is Trixie in the back cookin’ your supper?”
Seth frowned and cast a glance at the clock on the opposite wall.

“No, but she dang well should be. I don’t know what’s happened to the gal, she slipped out and said she wouldn’t be long, but that was nigh on an hour ago.”
Jess finished his beer some time later and said, “I’m off home now Seth I’ll tell Trixie yer waitin ’ on yer supper huh?”
“You do that son, thanks.”
When Jess arrived, the main room was in darkness, but he could see a line of light beneath the bedroom door.
He called out, “Trixie I’m home,” and barged into the room, thinking maybe she was sick, if she was in bed that early.
He stopped in his tracks as though frozen to the spot as his mind tried to make sense of the dimly lit scene before him.
Trixie lay naked on the bed, encircled by the glow from the bedside lamp...and as Jess had entered the room Billy-Joe rolled away from her, his face a mask of horror as he turned to look at his friend.
The look on Jess’s face reflected that of Billy-Joe’s, shock and embarrassment.
Jess felt a sharp pain in his chest, like a knife had stabbed him. A wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm him and for a terrible moment he thought he might well chuck. He gulped...unable to speak, a huge lump in his throat.
Trixie was the first to react...
“I’m so sorry. I never meant for you to see this.”
“No?” he finally managed, “Are you sure of that? You take my friend into your bed...into our bed and you never thought that I’d find out?” he asked coldly.
She sighed, “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I thought you were going to leave me... and if I made you jealous enough, you’d stay.”
Jess just stared at her with incredulity for a moment before saying, “Well you sure got that one right.”
“I did?” she asked the glimmer of hope in her violet eyes.
“Yup, I am goin’,” he replied and grabbing his saddle bags he quickly piled in his few belongings.
“Jess, buddy I really am sorry,” Billy-Joe said, his speech slurred, “I was real drunk, didn’t know what I was doin’...she came on to me and well...”
“Save it,” Jess snarled, “I guess you deserve each other,” and with that he slammed out.
“Jess, please we can work it out!” Trixie screamed scrambling out of bed and racing after him.
But the front door banged and by the time she was up and dressed he was on the road out of town, heading for the big open.*******

Chapter 6
Now all these years later he looked into those same violet eyes and saw nothing but bitterness.
“I still don’t get it,” he said, “why now after all these years, dang it why anyways? I was the injured party, ‘twas you that slept with my friend as I recall it. You’re crazy,” he repeated.
“Crazy with love; crazy for you, even after all this time you can still make me feel like I could die with love for you.” Then she gave a mirthless bitter laugh, “In fact I’m going to and soon too, if the doctor is to be believed. So that’s why my dear... I’m dying and I figure I’m going to take you down with me.”
Jess felt a shiver of apprehension run down his spine and he flicked a glance over to where the man Samson still stood impassively by the door.
He sighed deeply and looked back at her, “It won’t wash ma’am...I ain’t going to be hoodwinked by your dumb notions.”
“Stop it!” she cried shrilly, “Can’t you even call me by my name...when I think what we were to each other...don’t you care at all?”
“Sure I care, I care about my girl Millie,” he said harshly, “not to mention my pard and Daisy and Mike back at the ranch. I believe you threatened to hurt them too iffen I hadn’t showed up. That’s pretty dang low even for you ain’t it?”
“Oh believe me I haven’t even started on you,” she said seeming to rally, her anger overtaking the hurt.
“Well I don’t know as how yer thinkin’ of doin ’ that because I ain’t hangin ’ around,” he said standing up and making for the door.
For a big, heavy man Samson moved incredibly quickly. As Jess advanced on him the black man kicked out, catching Jess in the lower belly causing him to sink to his knees in agony, before karate chopping the back of his neck and sending him sprawling, out cold before he reached the floor.
When he came to, he was lying on a cold floor in almost total darkness.
Gradually his eyes became accustomed to the dim light. He was just able to make out the shapes of a table and chair from the light filtering through a dusty window at ground level and he figured he was in some sort of a cellar.
He dragged himself up and over to the table and slouched down on the chair sinking his head into his hands. He had no pain in his head which was strange considering the blow he’d received, but he felt a strange almost peaceful light headedness. He also felt slightly dazed as though he was almost detached from his body and floating, the feeling somehow pleasant. In fact, he felt deeply relaxed in spite of his dire current predicament.
Eventually he folded his arms on the table and putting his head down slept.
He awoke sometime later to find his hands manacled and Samson, with a hypodermic needle in his hand. Jess’s shirt sleeve had been rolled back and there was a trace of blood on the inside of his arm where the needle had penetrated.
“What the hell,” he yelled his head shooting up and he tried to stand, but Samson easily pushed him back down on the chair.
“What was that?” he asked again, before remembering the big man was unable to speak.
Then before he could do anything else, he was hauled up from his seat and manhandled up a flight of steep steps to the main house and was shown back into the elegant sitting room.
If he’d felt somewhat out of it before, now he felt so dizzy he could barely stand and also slightly nauseated.
“I see Samson has given you some of my lovely medicine,” Trixie said as she stood up from where she’d been reclining on the long red couch.
“Bring him over here Samson,” she cooed, sitting again and patting the space beside her.
Samson delivered him over and pushed him gently down beside Trixie, Jess feeling as weak as a new born kitten.
“What the hell is that goddamn stuff?” he slurred.
“Morphine, it’s just the best isn’t it?” Trixie enthused.
“No, it dang well ain’t I feel...kinda funny,” he finished vaguely.
“Oh you’ll get to really love it...I did.”
“Then she turned to Samson,” and I think we’ll have some of the other stuff now, it’s about that time,” she said peering at small gold clock on the mantelpiece.
Samson went over to a cupboard across the room and opening it with a key on a chain around his neck took out two small glasses and then poured a dark substance into each glass, returning he handed one to Trixie who downed it immediately.
“And for Mister Harper please Samson.”
Jess ’ hands had been manacled behind his back and grabbing hold of Jess’s hair Samson yanked his head back and pushed the glass to Jess’s lips, forcing the glass against him and giving him little choice but to drink the bitter tasting fluid...but just seconds later he spat it out swearing violently.
“Goddamn it, that’s Laudanum!” he yelled looking as mad as all get out and shuddering uncontrollably.
“Well there’s no need to make such a fuss,” Trixie said, fastidiously wiping a tiny splash from her dress with a lace handkerchief.
“Make a fuss! I was damn well near addicted to the bloody stuff once,” he yelled. “Had to take it to keep goin’ when I was hurt real bad and needed to work... it ended up takin’ over my goddamn life and you say don’t fuss!”
“Well, welcome to the club my dear,” she said drily. “I’ve been dependent on it for years, morphine too and other stuff, a hopeless case you could say....and all because of you. So I think it’s about time you really understood my world...with all its dark, dark places. Oh it will be wonderful to start with, that feeling of deep, deep peace, of ecstasy almost...yes?”
Jess said nothing but remembered the rush of pleasure after the shot of morphine and then the wonderful feeling of floating with not a care in the world...but now he just felt exhausted, like he could sleep for a week.
“Unfortunately, you have to take more and more to gain the same effect and then of course if you don’t get it regularly, well then that is hell on earth,” she said quietly.
“Don’t I know it,” Jess said remembering that terrible dark time when he’d had to go cold turkey and really thought he would die from the agony of it all. In fact, he’d never have gotten through it if it hadn’t been for Daisy’s loving care and Slim’ s strength of mind. Thinking of them now he was filled with a terrible melancholy and wondered briefly if it was a side effect of the morphine, or he was just generally missing them.
He was suddenly filled with righteous indignation.
“You ain’t doin this to me Trixie, you ain’t dragging ’ me down with ya.”
“Well maybe we can come to some arrangement,” she said throwing him a challenging look.
“All I want from you is a little loving... the way we used to be...huh honey, what do you say?”
Jess was horror stricken the thought of it abhorrent. OK he knew she had a good ten years on him and must be in her early forties now, but hell she looked nearer sixty. Boy she’d sure let herself go. Today she’d obviously made an effort by slapping on thick make-up, which actually intensified her poor sagging features and lines around her mouth and eyes. But it was more than her looks that put him off, it was the way she was inside...so bitter, so desperate.
“Can’t do that,” he said coldly.
“Why can’t you?” she asked looking deeply hurt.
“Because I don’t love ya that’s why,” he said brutally. “I don’t really know as I ever did. But if I did it died that day I saw you with Billy-Joe...”
“But that was so long ago, can’t you forgive me and forget it all, move on?”
“I have,” he said angrily, “it’s you that’s stuck in the past if you really think we can carry on where we left off. I’m promised to a girl who I love and there ain’t no way I’m gonna be unfaithful, but I figure you wouldn’t understand about that with your track record.”
“So much for you forgiving and forgetting,” she said raising an eyebrow at him. “I think you protest too much Jess Harper. Would you really be this mad if you didn’t have some feelings for me?”
Jess just cussed lightly under his breath, but said no more.
“You’ll change your mind,” she said belligerently, “take him away Samson. You’ll be begging me for my favours before long,” she said darkly, turning away as Samson and Frederick manhandled him back down to the cellar.
The second time the morphine was administered, the following morning; it took both Frederick and Samson to hold him down, whilst another member of her staff administered the shot.
“Damn it Frederick,” he yelled, “can’t you see how dang wrong this is...how can ya do this to me?”
“I have my orders sir,” he replied respectfully.
This time the dose was increased and the two men hauled him upstairs to where Trixie was waiting for him, wearing a diaphanous gown, which left little to the imagination. It was low cut and almost see through Jess noted as he was thrown down on the couch next to her. Both men withdrawing to a respectful distance guarding the door.
This time Jess’s handcuffs had been removed but he was almost completely out of it, sailing off on a pink cloud of bliss. Through the narcotic induced haze he saw the figure of a beautiful woman smiling at him, her eyes full of desire and leaning in he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her long and hard... then fully aroused, he began kissing her neck and pulling gently at the fine material of her negligee, as she gave a little moan of pleasure... It was just as she was unbuttoning his pants that he finally came to his senses...
“Millie....Mill?” he said hesitantly, then he pulled away trying desperately to focus...
“What...what the Hell?” he gasped and his hands went instinctively to where hers were still lingering by the buttons of his pants. He pushed them away savagely and leapt up as though he’d been burnt, staggering slightly as a wave of dizziness and nausea threatened to floor him.
“What the hell are ya playin ’ at?” he spat angrily.
“Well I thought that was patently obvious,” she snapped back, looking deeply hurt at his cavalier attitude.
He just shook his head before slumping down on one of the chairs by the fireplace and sank his head in his hands. How the hell had he gotten into this dang mess he thought bitterly?
The third time they tried to administer the drug he fought like a wild cat, but was overpowered eventually, when two further guards were brought in to help hold him down. Every time they gave him the drug, they seemed to give a larger dose and he became gradually increasingly aware of the withdrawal symptoms as it wore off.
He felt anxious and very nauseated...his breathing labored and a terrible feeling of depression and impending doom.
“How can you do this to me?” he ranted when he came out of the fog of unreality on the third day.
“And how can you treat me so badly?” she retaliated. “God knows your precious Millie will never find out, why can’t you just relax and have a good time with me like you used to huh?”
Jess’s eyes narrowed, “That’s how you made all yer money ain’t it, as a good time girl, huh?”
She nodded and said belligerently, “Yes I did, so what’s it to you? Old Seth had been asking me to set up in business there for a good while and not long after you ran out on me, I agreed. Guess who my best customer was ...ha your friend Billy-Joe, he wasn’t that sorry for what he did eh Jess?”
Jess just shook his head and said nothing.
“When Seth passed over he left me the saloon...and I ran it as a whore house...first one in the town and we did good business...real good. I sold it on and bought a place here in Denver...then another and a saloon. All high-class places with the most select girls...only top dollar for my girls.”
She gave a little laugh, “I guess I went from the Dirty Dollar to the Top Dollar Saloon,” she said mentioning one of her businesses.
Jess shook his head, “Jeez, I’ve been in that place a few times, never knew you owned it.”
“So would you have come up to see me if you had?” she asked.
He shrugged, “Maybe for old time’s sake just to say howdy,” he nodded.
“But for nothing more?”
“Look Trixie, can we end this now huh...that was all in the past and nuthin’ good’s gonna come of you holdin’ me this way...druggin’ me...”
“We’ll see,” she said. “So, are you feeling kind of uncomfortable Jess, when it wears off, um?”
He said nothing....
“I guess you’ll be begging for it, the needle that is, real soon won’t you huh?”
Again, he ignored her, trying hard to think of something else, anything else...other than the thought of death by addiction to opiates, which he knew was the only way out for her...and maybe him too if things didn’t change pretty damn soon.
If he thought forcing the drug on him was bad, then the withholding of it was almost worse. He’d endured nearly two weeks of the strong drug and was now completely hooked on it. So when it was suddenly stopped he was in agony. At first it was not too bad, he just felt anxious and slightly nauseated...but then as the days ran together, he became sick to his stomach, dry retching and curled up in pain.
Every day the same message was relayed down to the cellar where he lay on his bed of pain...come up and see me Jess, come and let me comfort you...but he steadfastly refused. He realized that the ‘comfort would be in the form of a needle in the arm and the oblivion he so craved. Strangely she didn’t push the matter. He figured she was just biding her time until he agreed to see her again. Hoping that he would succumb to the urge to join her and become equally dependent on the drugs she so craved.
As the pain gradually receded and his body accommodated itself to life without the drug he finally agreed to visit again, but was totally shocked by the change in her.
Before she had looked tired and old for sure, but now she was a mere shadow of her former self, her skin a terrible grey colour and her lank hair framing her once beautiful, ruined face, her eyes looking sunken and lifeless.
He came in and sat quietly on one of the armchairs and looked across at her, pity in his eyes for the first time. Sure he was angry, furious at what she had put him through, but now he could see she was clearly sick and not just physically he guessed.
“Trixie,” he said softly and she looked up as though she hadn’t noticed he’d entered the room maybe she hadn’t he reflected, seeing the cupboard door standing open and the empty glass of Laudanum on the table beside her.
“Are you OK?” he asked gently.
After a moment she lifted her head and peered over at him as though in a daze and then finally gave him that old smile that he remembered so well.
“Jess you’ve come to see me,” she said looking delighted. Then she frowned a little. “The doctor has just been and he says I haven’t long, so I’m glad you’re here with me,” she admitted almost as though he were merely a friend come to visit as she was sick.
He gave a little groan, “Look Trixie, you can beat this, I’ll help you,” he said. “God knows it ain’t easy...have you really any idea what you’ve just put me through?” he asked suddenly furious. But it was obvious from her expression that she had no idea what he was talking about, had completely forgotten that he’d even been in the house at all, never mind that she had put him through the agony of withdrawal.
He stared at her and then felt a brief stirring of guilt. Was all this his fault? Had he made her think that he would offer her more than he was prepared to give way back when they first hooked up? He didn’t know, but he thought not. Any which way, she was dying and yes once they had been close...so maybe he owed her something?
Thinking about it all later he reflected on these sentiments and he figured that he was still in the final grips of the morphine after-effects making him much more placid and reasonable than he was usually. But whatever the reason he tried to help her, he really did....and that’s why what happened next was so cruel.
Over the next few days he tried to get her to quit her habit, but she was adamant it was too late.
“Look you’re a strong woman Trixie, you couldn’t have made it in business so well iffen you weren’t. Look around you,” he said gesturing to the sumptuous room within the smart ranch house and surrounding acreage. “All this and staff to run it, you’ve done real well for yourself. So you’re strong enough to face giving the drugs up and trying to get well again ain’t ya?”
She just shook her head, “The doctor says it’s impossible now I’m too weak and the withdrawal symptoms could kill me, stop my heart.”
“But hell, if you’re dyin ’ anyway you’ve nuthin ’ to lose. And who is this dadgum doc anyway? What’s he doin ’ feedin ’ ya these drugs, this mess you’re in is pretty much down to him I reckon.”
She shook her head, “Doctor Haines is in my employ, on the payroll and as such he tries to regulate my intake and keep me as well as possible. Believe me without his help I’d have been dead long ago.”
Jess just shook his head, “If he’s a proper doc he should be tryin’ to get you off the stuff no matter what.”
Jess finally met up with Doc Haines and actually quite liked the guy. Sure, he said in an ideal world folk wouldn’t get addicted to these kinds of drugs, but seeing as how Miss Malone had, then he made it his duty to keep her as safe as he possibly could.
“She was totally addicted long before I met her Jess and I only agreed to act as her physician if she would at least let me regulate her intake.”
“So, can I have your help then?” Jess asked, “Maybe fix up some less strong stuff I could give her and try to get her to cut back at least huh, what do ya say doc?”
“We could certainly try,” the doc agreed, “but if she becomes too distressed, we must call it a day OK?”
She tried to please Jess by reducing the dose of morphine, but her body’s reaction was so horrendous even Jess had to admit that maybe she really couldn’t do it.
She slept on a day bed discreetly positioned behind a screen in the large sitting room and on the first night that she began to have withdrawal symptoms he had stayed with her all night. His arms wrapped around her as he tried to comfort her as he would a sick child. She had been wracked with pain and he had held her close whispering encouragement and talking about anything and nothing to try and take her mind of it all.
The doctor had visited and had seen how hard Jess was trying to support her, but in his heart, he knew it was hopeless.
It was impossible and by the evening of the second day she was in such distress that she had to return to her old ways.
However as soon as she returned to the full dosage she seemed to deteriorate before Jess’s eyes.
Sometimes she couldn’t get her breath and would cough until the tears ran down her grey cheeks and at other times, she seemed completely out of it and looked like some terrible parody of her former vibrant self.
Jess stayed with her now because he felt he should do, not because he was being forced into the situation. But even so his movements were restricted and it was clear that he would not be able to leave the ranch. His gun belt had been taken on the first day and the place was religiously guarded by her many staff. He had attempted to break out at the beginning before the morphine sapped him of his strength and will. It had taken a good five men to restrain him, but eventually they downed him by pistol whipping him.
At the end of the third week he laid his cards on the table. “Look I’ll stay with ya until...you know... the end but then I’m goin’ back home.”
At one stage she had been rambling and saying the ranch would become Jess’s home when she passed over. But now she appeared to have completely forgotten the conversation.
“But of course, that’s all I ask of you,” she said innocently, in one of her more lucid moments.
“I need to send a wire home too, tell ‘em I’m OK and I’ll be back when I can,” he added.
“Consider it done, I’ll send Frederick into town,” she agreed.
Meanwhile back at the ranch Slim was losing patience with his partner.
When two days had turned to three and then four, he was furious and said to Daisy, “Darn it, I know he wanted to see Doug’s new addition and spend some extra time with Millie after everything that’s happened, but come on Daisy he’s taking advantage here!”
“Yes, but he’s been through a lot dear and so have you, maybe we can try and be understanding for a little longer um?”
At the end of the second week Slim rode into town. He was sitting in Miss Molly’s cafe having a welcome coffee after doing the marketing for Daisy when a young messenger boy from the Telegraph Office ran in.
“Two wires for you Mister Sherman sir,” said the polite young delivery boy.
“Gee thanks Sammy,” Slim said flipping him a coin and taking the envelopes.
One was from the Stage superintendent saying he would be calling for an important meeting in the next few days and he expected to find everything ship shape.
The other one was from Denver and from someone called Frederick on behalf of Mister Jess Harper.
All well. Stop. Will explain when I get home. Stop. Arrive as soon as I am able. Stop. Regards
Slim looked bewildered, who was this dang Frederick and why couldn’t Jess send the wire himself. Then more to the point what the heck was he doing in Denver?
He sighed deeply and then decided to pop across the street and see if his old friend Mort Cory could shed any light on the situation.
Mort grinned at Slim as he entered, “Come to check up on your prisoner then Slim? Circuit judge not due for a few weeks you know.”
When the tall rancher didn’t return the smile, Mort stirred in his chair, “Something up Slim?”
He shrugged and sat down in the seat opposite the desk, “I dunno. Jess has done his famous disappearing act... supposed to be back at the ranch and he’s hightailed it off to Denver for some dang reason,” he said irritably.
“Denver you say...well I reckon our friend out the back may know something about that, he got a wire from some dude in Denver, but it wasn’t signed.”
It only took a few minutes for Slim to find out exactly where Jess was and why.
“I told him back in Cheyenne...the word was that the old woman, Miss Daisy and the kid would be taken iffen he didn’t show up in Denver for a meeting with the boss,” Chuck Hanson muttered. “But your partner never said he was definitely going.”
“And you’ve really no idea who this boss of yours is then?”
Hanson shrugged, “Nope, dang rich he is I know that, but otherwise no idea, I’m just the sucker who’s the hired help. Got a wire sayin’ I was a dead man iffen I croaked, but I guess that’s too dang late now, seein ’ as how I told Harper everything I knew?”
Slim and Mort returned to the office.
“Funny Doug never mentioned anything about Denver? But there again he was out of the office worrying about his Jenny giving birth, so I guess we can forgive him,” said Slim.
“Uh and if I know Jess, he’d have headed out without telling anyone too,” Mort agreed.
Slim looked sorely tried, “I should ride over but I’ve got the darned Stage Superintendent breathing down my neck sometime next week.”
Mort looked concerned, “At least he’s sent a wire saying he’ll be home when he can. Maybe he’s resolved everything with this mysterious boss, whoever he is huh?”
“Maybe, but it doesn’t feel right Mort...”
“I guess I could wire Sheriff Jackson over in Denver ask him if he’ll ride over to this Double D ranch that Hanson mentioned, see if Jess is OK. After all you’re here to look out for Miss Daisy and Mike, aren’t you?”
Slim smiled for the first time, “That would be a weight off of my mind Mort thanks.”
“And iffen this Hanson is to be believed and the guy behind the kidnapping of the girls really is there, then I guess the law will need a word with him anyway.”
If Jess thought Trixie looked sick when she had tried to kick the drugs, nothing prepared him for the way she looked just a few days later.
Her complexion had a strange translucency to it, looking almost young again, but her figure was now so slender that she looked almost brittle, like she might break if he held her. Then he saw the despair in her eyes.
He just knew that her time was drawing near and it appeared that she did too.
That particular morning, he was sitting quietly with her on the large couch when she called Frederick over from where he was standing guard on the door as usual.
“Today,” she said quietly, “today we do it Frederick.”
The heavily built blond man threw her a searching look, “Ma ’am, are you sure?”
She just nodded, “Give me the usual first and then you know what to do.”
He just stood there staring at her for a moment and then she threw him an angry look, “Frederick, we had a pact remember? If you don’t want to take the responsibility then others will for the same rewards.”
He nodded and went over to the cupboard and returned with her usual dose of Laudanum, which she downed quickly.
Jess had been listening to the bizarre conversation and now he narrowed his eyes and said, “What’s going on Trixie?”
Before she answered she glanced back at Frederick, “Get the other staff in now Frederick, they will be needed shortly,” she said before turning back to Jess.
“This is it Jess, the end of the road. I’ve made up my mind that I can’t carry on any longer...the end would be...well let us just say unpleasant, so I have decided to take matters into my own hands.”
“Oh come along you must have realized I’d take the easy way out?” she said with a bitter laugh.
“Hell Trixie, what are you sayin’...you can’t do that, I said you mustn’t give up, you could still beat this thing if we just try again?” he said looking scandalized.
She shook her head and then several of her guards stormed into the room.
Jess half rose from his seat beside her, his hackles rising at the sudden intrusion.
He was surrounded in moments and had a gun put to his head by one of the heavies.
“Just take it real easy Mister Harper,” Frederick said quietly. Moments later Jess was manacled again and roped to one of the wooden dining chairs, unable to struggle with a Colt .45 held to his temple.
“Trixie?” he said, his expression anguished.
She sighed, “Like I just said I can’t take this anymore Jess, I’m finishing it...I’ve come to the end of the road...and so have you.”
He just stared at her uncomprehendingly.
“A suicide pact,” she said with a grim smile, “two lovers deciding to die together. Quite romantic really don’t you think and this way my loyal servant Frederick is not implicated in any way.”
Jess just stared at her in horror as the truth dawned on him...
“No,” he cried, “you can’t, this is insane!”
But even as he spoke Frederick was drawing up the deadly dose into the syringe.
“You want it now... ma’am?”
“Yes, now Frederick...and you know what to do afterwards?”
“Yes Ma’am.”
Seconds later Jess saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and Samson burst into the room...and strode towards Frederick. Desperately trying to intervene he tried to drag Frederick away from Trixie...but he was too late.
The guards had guns trained on him. But the big black man paid no heed and still tried to push himself between Trixie and the guards, using his last ounce of strength to protect her, as he saw it. That was when one trigger happy man opened fire and Samson fell like a mighty oak, jerking for a moment before crashing to the floor.
It was almost as though Trixie hardly noticed and Jess reckoned, she was already pretty much out of it with the Laudanum she had just taken. But he had to try again.
“Trixie don’t do this! OK we can talk it through, maybe try and get close again if that’s what you need from me, but not this....”
She shook her head and by the look in her eyes she was way past understanding.
“Now,” she said turning back to Frederick.
Nodding in assent he administered the lethal dose.
She smiled over at Jess, “I’ll see you in paradise cowboy,” she slurred...
“Goddamn it, you’ll pay for this!” Jess yelled, at Frederick. “She’s not in her right mind, you murdering bastard!”
But then Frederick advanced upon him with another loaded syringe...
“I’m sorry Mister Harper, but I have my orders...”
Jess struggled to his last breath...but then someone coshed him over the head and he sank forwards, out cold.
“I’m sorry Mister Harper,” Frederick said again quietly, “I’m just following orders,” and rolling up the sleeve of his deeply unconscious victim he administered another lethal dose of the drug.
Then he turned to one of the guards.
“Ride into town and fetch the Sheriff and Doc Haines will you Bates we have an unfortunate suicide attempt to report.”
Sheriff Denny Jackson tipped his hat back and ran a hand over his face as he read yet another wire concerning the goings on at the Double D spread south of town. The first had been from Sheriff Doug Masters of Cheyenne requesting he assist one Jess Harper should he arrive in town regarding an alleged kidnapping by the man who owned the Double D ranch. Well the Sheriff had discounted that. No Jess Harper had turned up and he knew for a fact that the owner of the Double D was a lady invalid. So, he figured there were a few wires crossed somewhere along the way.
However just that morning he had received another wire, this time from an old friend Mort Cory, saying pretty much the same thing. Well if old Mort thought there was a problem, maybe it would be worth looking into.
He was just about to call out back to his young deputy to mind the shop whilst he rode out when the door burst open and Frank Bates ramrod from the Double D ranch rushed in looking mighty upset.
“Mornin ’ Frank, so where’s the fire?” asked Jackson grinning up at the thick set man.
“There’s no fire Sheriff, but I’m sorry to say I need to report a death...well two deaths, suicide we believe it to be. Doctor Haines will be able to confirm it, but we thought with it being a sudden death you should be informed.”
“Oh, I’m real sorry to hear that Frank, so it was the invalid lady I take it and another you say?”
“Uh yes a man called Harper, Jess Harper an old friend of Miss Malone, well more than a friend it seems. Looks to be like a suicide pact, we found their bodies together in Miss Malone’s bed...the man Harper with the syringe still in his hand. It looks like he killed her and then himself.”
Sheriff Jackson’s head shot up at the name, “Jess Harper you say?”
“Yes Sheriff, you know him?” Frank asked, suddenly turning pale and looking anxious.
Sheriff Jackson was nobody’s fool and decided to play his cards pretty close to his chest, “Uh, no can’t say as I do. I’ll just have a word with my deputy,” maybe he should ride along too, he thought now...something didn’t smell right about all this business...not right at all.
When he arrived at the Double D he was shown into the main sitting room and greeted by Frederick James the number one man.
“So, what’s all this about Frederick, your man Bates here says there’s been a double suicide?”
“It certainly looks that way Sheriff Jackson,” Frederick said in his usual polite manner. “I found the couple this morning when I went to wake my lady up for breakfast, maybe you should take a look, we haven’t moved anything.”
The Sheriff mooched over to the back of the parlor where a screen hid the day bed from the rest of the room and gave a gasp of shock. Jess and Trixie lay entwined in each other’s arms on the bed semi naked and Jess was still clasping a syringe in his hand...both of them pale and lifeless.
The Sheriff wandered over to take a closer look and then said, “Did you say the doc was coming across?”
Frederick nodded, “Yes any moment now sir.”
Sheriff Jackson grunted and turned to his deputy Carl and said, “Looks like an open and shut case.”
Then the Sheriff turned back to Frederick, “Leave a note, did they?”
“Yes sir, “said the burly blond man, “right here on my lady’s desk.”
Jackson perused it for a moment and nodded, “Yup as I thought, lovers ending it together...be united for eternity, usual sort of rubbish,” he said bitterly. “When will these folks learn...hell suicide is a crime...but this guy was doubly guilty...murder and then suicide too, crazy son of a bitch, what a damn waste huh?”
Just then the doctor bustled in looking agitated, “Is it true, Miss Malone has ended it all?”
Sheriff Jackson shrugged, “Looks to me like she had some help from her lover here I guess.”
“Oh, deary me,” said the elderly doctor, “and Mister Harper seemed such a down to earth kind of person too, I really wouldn’t have thought this of him. Why he’d been trying very hard to wean her off the drugs you know,” he said turning his earnest gaze on the Sheriff.
“Oh really?”
“Uh indeed, I even supplied some weaker less potent form of the drugs to try and get her off the higher dosage, but all to no avail I’m afraid, the withdrawal symptoms were just too much for her to bear as I predicted.”
“Who had access to the drugs?” the Sheriff asked wandering over to the open door of the drugs cupboard on the other side of the room.
“Well myself, Samson, and latterly Mister Harper here, when he was trying to reduce her usage,” Frederick replied.
“Right....so where is Samson?” asked Sheriff Jackson raising a questioning eyebrow, the man was devoted to Miss Malone, that he knew and he was surprised that he wasn’t in attendance.
“Oh he won’t be able to help Sheriff, he can’t speak as you know, or read and write either, so won’t be able to offer a statement at all,” Frederick said quickly.
“Uh, I’d like to see him none the less,” said the Sheriff curtly, “he’s no idiot and can answer questions yes or no, with a shake or nod of the head, can’t he?”
Frederick exchanged an anxious glance with Bates before saying, “Well actually he’s not too well right now. I was going to ask you to take a look at him when you’ve finished in here doctor, he had an ... um...an accident early this morning. Out hunting and got shot by one of the hands...mistook him for a deer,” he said with a nervous laugh.
There was a silence in the room as both the doctor and Sheriff looked slightly bemused.
“Very well,” said the doctor, “I’ll check him out directly. I just need to examine Miss Malone and Mister Harper to confirm death by opiate overdose.”
He examined Trixie first very thoroughly and after a few minutes sighed, “Life extinguished and the cause seems to be as suggested as far as I can tell,” he confirmed.
Then he turned his attention to Jess. He took his pulse and then listened to his chest with his stethoscope for a good couple of minutes, before checking the pulse and breathing again, very carefully.
“What is it doc?” the Sheriff asked, noting the attentive look in the doctor’s eyes.
“By jingo, he’s still alive Sheriff, only just... but there is a faint pulse and very shallow breathing. He’s in a very deep coma like state, but he may recover!”
Again, Bates and Frederick exchanged a worried glance, which the doctor intercepted and just assumed they were concerned for the man.
“Wrap him warmly in some blankets and place him in my buggy would you please?” The doc said addressing the Sheriff and Deputy. “I’ll just check out Samson and if the wound needs attention we’ll take him back to town as well.”
Then the Sheriff turned back to Frederick. “There has been a serious crime committed here and as such I would ask that none of the staff leave until the matter has been thoroughly investigated. I’ll need to interview you and Bates here, also Samson later in the week.”
“But I thought you said it was an open and shut case,” Frederick said rather brusquely, “I can’t see what else you need to know Sheriff.”
“Um, well we’ll know more when Harper comes around, if indeed he does. Until then I’d be obliged if you would do as I ask,” the Sheriff said casting the big blond man a cool look. “Or you could accompany me to town and wait in the cells maybe?”
Frederick immediately lost his surly attitude, “That won’t be necessary Sheriff, rest assured we will all be ready and waiting to assist in your enquiries when you are ready to interview us,” he said back peddling quickly.
The Sheriff just nodded, “Quite so,” and then assisted his Deputy in carrying Jess out to the doctor’s buggy.

Chapter 7
Jess was in a long dark tunnel. Somewhere at the very end he could see a pin point of light, but the more he tried to drag himself painfully towards it the further away it seemed to get. Sometimes he just felt as if he should give up. A lovely warm pink light would envelope him, taking away the pain and the fear. Then he would sigh and snuggle down breathing in peace and love.
At other times he would feel profoundly agitated, knowing he had to pull himself together and haul himself along the narrow dark tunnel with its terrifying inhabitants, just knowing that he had to reach the light.
Sometimes he would come face to face with some shocking mythical beast hissing and snarling and blowing smoke and flames through its flared nostrils.
At other times Trixie’s haggard face loomed before him. The features drawn into a hideous death mask and he reeled in horror, putting his hands over his face to hide from the truly awful apparition.
It was these hideous beings that made him persevere on his agonizing journey towards the light, the need to escape, greater than the urge to stay and face the demons.
Inch by inch he dragged himself along on his belly, the sides of the tunnel seeming to close in on him, until it felt like he was being constricted, his throat was closing up and he was gasping for air...coughing and wheezing, he pulled himself onwards.
Then suddenly he was in the daylight. Brilliant light surrounded him and he was gasping for breath, tears streaming down his face as he coughed and retched.
“Mister Harper, Jess...take it easy my boy, just try and relax,” came the soothing voice of Doctor Haines.
Jess tried to steady his breathing and peered around him, trying desperately to make sense of the situation.
Then it came flooding back to him. He remembered Frederick administering the fatal dose of morphine to Trixie and how he had fought to try and stop him. Then how he had been held down and then as he fought desperately he’d been pistol whipped and descended into blackness.
“Trixie?” he asked looking up at the doctor.
The old man shook his head.
“You gave her enough to kill her Jess. But when it came to administering your own lethal dose you must have inadvertently used some of the supply that I had watered down. You know when we were trying to reduce her intake, remember?”
When Jess said nothing, the doctor continued.
“You made a suicide pact, I know all about it young man, and thought better of you.” Then he sighed deeply, “Unfortunately the Sheriff is waiting to see you once you are well enough. It appears that in the eyes of the law you have committed murder and will undoubtedly have to pay the price,” he concluded sadly.
Jess’s befuddled mind slowly started to clear, “Hey hang on doc, it weren’t me who gave her the overdose it was that bastard Frederick!”
The doctor looked surprised. “Well that isn’t what Frederick or any of the staff are saying my boy. I fear they will all swear on oath that they found you that way... I’m afraid a court of law will find you guilty, no matter what you say.”
Jess’s head shot up as the full implications of his situation hit him.
“Get Slim,” he whispered.
“Pardon my boy?”
“My pard Slim Sherman, wire him to come will ya doc?”
By the time Slim rode into town a few days later Jess was already being held in Sheriff Jackson’s jail and the outcome of the coming trial a foregone conclusion according to the word on the street.
“Look I’m sorry Mister Sherman, your friend Mister Harper may well be a pillar of the community back in Laramie and deputize for my old friend Mort Cory, but he’s still on a murder trial here.”
“What evidence can you possibly have against him?” Slim asked looking bewildered.
“Only the fact that he was found naked in bed with the deceased, a hypodermic needle in his hand and a note left declaring that he and Miss Malone had made a suicide pact. He was seen by several trusted members of staff including Miss Malone’s personal assistant and also her ranch ramrod...who have sworn on oath that their statements are true. Not to mention the local doctor.”
“I just don’t believe it,” Slim said shaking his head, “Jess wouldn’t do that.”
“Well it looks like he did. It seems he was addicted to the morphine the same as Miss Malone was. I guess he couldn’t bear to see her dying the way she was, so he decided to end it all too.”
Slim just shook his head looking stubborn.
“Look I don’t know anything about this Miss Malone, or what she was to Jess. But I do believe she was behind the kidnapping of two Laramie women, Millie Johnson and Lily Laverne, who also just happen to be my and Jess’s girls. Can’t you see the truth of it Sheriff? For some reason this woman had some sort of vendetta against my buddy.”
The Sheriff just shrugged, “Not from where I’m standing she didn’t. Damn it man, she was a recluse and an invalid, how was she supposed to go tearing off down to Laramie abducting some women, that’s pure nonsense.”
“Well why dontcha wire Sheriff Cory, he’s got one of her men in his jail right now. He’s already admitted that the owner of the Double D employed him to abduct the women.”
“Oh, so he mentioned Miss Malone by name, did he?”
Slim looked slightly wrong footed, “Well no, not exactly, he wasn’t sure who the boss was to be honest, but it was definitely someone from the Double D spread.”
“Sounds a lot to me like your man is trying to pass the buck, for something he dreamed up himself,” the Sheriff declared.
“Please just check with Mort,” Slim said earnestly.
“Uh, I’ll think on it, see what the judge thinks, he’ll be by in a day or two.”
“Thanks, so can I see my pard?” Slim asked.
“Um, sure I guess so, although he ain’t good company I’ll tell you that young man...won’t eat and been cussing something fierce, he’s like a dang bear with a sore head...it’s probably the coming off those drugs has done it, can make a body feel real badly so I hear.”
He stood up and collecting his keys made towards the cells... “So, you didn’t know he was hooked on morphine then?”
“He’s not,” Slim said curtly. “Hell, I’d sure know if he was.”
“Uh, so he’s never done anything like this before then, how about Laudanum, the lady was hooked on that too...so did he have a liking for that huh?”
Slim’s stomach began churning and he felt slightly sick, “Can I just see him Sheriff?” He said ignoring the question.
For the first time he had the seeds of doubt in his mind as he recalled those dark days when Jess was addicted to Laudanum. “Please God no,” he whispered to himself as he followed the Sheriff down to the cells. See #14 The Last Chance
They were down some steep steps and were dark and damp smelling. Slim gave a little shudder of unease as he entered the dank place and saw Jess reclining on a cot in the first cell. Dim light was filtering in through a small window at street level, all the other cells standing empty.
“Visitor for ya Harper,” the Sheriff said unlocking the door and letting it creak open, before standing aside for Slim to enter. Then he clanked it shut relocking the door.
“Holler when yer done,” he said retreating off up the steps.
Jess swung his legs down from the bed and stared up at his pard who was gazing down at him, his eyes full of compassion...and what else? Was there a questioning look in those familiar blue eyes? Jess thought.
After a moment Slim said quietly, “Jess please tell me you haven’t gotten back on that Laudanum?”
“What do you dang well think?” he replied bitterly. “You saw how I was last time Slim, how it nearly killed me beating it, do you really think I’d go through all that again deliberate...huh?”
Slim slouched down on the other cot opposite and took his hat off, throwing it down next to him and running a hand through his blond hair said, “I dunno buddy, I sure hope not, but God Jess, you look pretty damn rough.”
“Well sure I do, have you any idea what I’ve been through these last weeks, huh?”
Slim shook his head and gave his friend a weak smile, “Nope but I bet yer bottom dollar you’re going to tell me huh pard?”
Once Jess had explained everything Slim still looked slightly unconvinced.
“So you say they got you hooked on this morphine and you couldn’t do anything about it huh?” he asked, “Well that doesn’t sound like you Jess...why didn’t you just fight them off?”
“Do ya think I didn’t try? Damn it Slim there were, five maybe six heavies holdin ’ me down...first time they pistol whipped me...there weren’t nuthin’ I could do, for God’s sake!”
“And this er...Trixie, you were real close at one time I take it...so did you leave her in the lurch then Jess...because something must have made her real bitter to treat you so bad?”
“Look Slim you weren’t there. I told her up front how it was gonna be, how I wasn’t gonna be around for the long haul...I guess she just didn’t believe me. Anyway, it was all a real long time ago. Damn it I ain’t seen her for ten years or more.”
Both men lapsed into silence for a few minutes considering the unfathomable ways of the ‘weaker sex.’
Then Slim sighed deeply and looked over at his buddy, just knowing he had to ask...
“Listen Jess...you were out of it a lot of the time, could there be any tiny possibility that you did it? You gave her that fatal shot? Maybe you were high on the stuff yourself?”
“Goddamn it Slim, I don’t know which is worse being dang well hung out to dry this way by her, or rescued by you. Sounds like you’re one step ahead of that dang jury next week. I reckon they’ve gotten me guilty and ready to hang before they’ve even heard the evidence.”
Slim sank his head in his hands and then said, “Jeez, I’m really sorry buddy. It’s just so much to take in....I mean I never even heard about this Trixie and here she is turning our lives upside down.”
“Look Slim, you’re right I was out of my mind on those damn drugs I admit it...but I’d know if I’d done something like that. Hell, even that poor bastard Samson tried to intervene and got a bullet in his chest for his trouble.”
“That’s it! Slim said, “Maybe I could go and see him, get him to make a statement?”
Jess shook his head, “No point the guy can’t speak properly, nor read and write. But they shot him alright Slim and passed it off as a hunting accident. Nope it were the big blond hombre Frederick that killed her I saw it all. He would have done for me too iffen he hadn’t mixed up the bottles. He gave me a shot of the stuff the doc had watered down some when we were trying to wean her off the morphine.”
“What about the doc, won’t he speak up for you?”
Jess just shrugged, “I doubt it. Hell Slim they’re all in it up to their eyes, all on her payroll. I know for a fact that Frederick was going to inherit when she passed over, the others too, I guess. Nope they’ve all got too much to lose by telling the truth.”
“Well we’ll see about that,” said Slim with spirit. “I’m going to have a word with the doc and the folk at the Double D too. Heck Jess there must be someone that’ll stand up for justice.”
“Well good luck with that one,” Jess said morosely. “So is old Benson coming over to fight my corner?” he asked referring to the Sherman family lawyer.
Slim s face fell, “No can-do buddy. He’s been real sick, appendicitis, still recovering. But don’t worry I’ll find the best I can here in town. Look I’ll see you later,” he said rising and calling for the Sheriff.
Just before he left Jess cast him a wary look, “You do believe me about all this business dontcha Slim?”
There was the fraction of a second’s pause before Slim cast him a weak smile, “Sure, sure I do Jess...don’t fret, I’ll see you later huh?”
“I’m sorry Mister Sherman I just wish I could help you more. But as I say as far as I saw it, Mister Harper was a welcome guest at the Double D and not held prisoner as he claims.”
“Really, are you sure? Jess said he was handcuffed and thrown in a cellar some of the time?”
“I saw no evidence of that but I did see him the worse for wear on a couple of occasions when I had called to visit Miss Trixie. Whether from Laudanum of morphine I couldn’t say, but he was semi-conscious and wasn’t aware of my presence.”
Slim sucked in a deep breath, frowning, but said nothing as the doc continued.
“Then he left for a week or two I believe and appeared to have stopped taking the drug the next time I saw him. In fact, he actually asked for my help to wean poor Trixie off the stuff. That’s why I was so shocked by the suicide pact. All I can assume is that when she couldn’t kick the habit then he started using morphine again. With the balance of his mind affected he took her life and attempted to take his own. I’m sorry my dear chap, but it looks to be an open and shut case.”
Sometime later that day Slim rode into the Double D yard and tethering Alamo to the hitching rail went and hammered on the front door.
A few minutes later it was opened by the towering figure of Frederick. “Yes sir?” he asked politely.
Slim touched his hat, “Howdy, Frederick would it be?”
“Yes, at your service sir.”
“Uh, I’m Slim Sherman, a friend of Jess Harper and I’ve come over to collect Traveller, his mount?”
“Ah yes sir, that would be the big bay, I’ll send word over to the stable for him to be saddled and Mister Harper’s belongings placed in the saddle bags too. Would you care to step inside for a coffee whilst you wait sir?”
Slim removed his hat and followed the exceedingly polite older man inside, mentally shaking his head. Hell, this guy didn’t seem the sort that would tie up, pistol whip and force drugs on anyone...did he? What in hell was going on here?
“A most distressing business sir,” Frederick intoned as Slim sipped his coffee sitting in the sumptuous parlour a little later.
“So, do you know what happened?” Slim asked casually.
“Indeed sir, the mistress and Mister Harper were close, uh...very close if you get my meaning sir?” He said coughing discreetly. “It seems that my lady heard Mister Harper was in the vicinity and invited him for a visit here, to how should I put it, renew their um...relationship.”
“But that’s crazy,” Slim cried, forgetting to play it cool as he’d planned. “Jess has an understanding with his girl, he wasn’t looking for another relationship.”
“Uh, maybe not sir, but I can assure you that as soon as he saw my lady he was clearly smitten. Goodness they spent their entire time together, quite touching seeing young love blooming again, so to speak.”
Slim just shook his head, “I don’t believe it,” he muttered.
“Of course my lady was very beautiful,” Frederick said gesturing to the portrait over the marble fireplace.
Slim put down his cup and wandered over peering up into the violet eyes looking down at him with a hint of challenge. The hourglass figure and flame red hair made a truly enchanting picture and he sighed deeply. If anyone could lead his buddy astray then he guessed it would be the likes of Miss Trixie Malone.
He turned back to Frederick, “Tell me was my pard using drugs too?” he asked bleakly.
“Indeed sir, he acquired a liking for the Laudanum especially and also morphine, I’m afraid tragically quickly. Then when he realised the end was nigh for Miss Malone, I believe he decided they should leave this world together.”
“What?” cried Slim, “You’re saying it was his idea?”
“Undoubtedly sir yes after all it was he who administered the fatal shot to my lady.”
“Goddamn it man how can you be so sure?” Slim asked.
“Well it was I who found the couple, naked in my lady’s bed, just over here,” he said walking Slim over to the screen and pulling it back to reveal the bed...the bedding still scattered untidily around.
“He had the syringe in his hand and they were lying together...there could be no doubt as to what had happened,” Frederick finished, his voice thick with emotion.
“Uh, I’m sorry sir, I was very close to Miss Malone, she will be sadly missed by us all here at the Double D,” he said quietly. “If you’ll excuse me I’ll go and check on your friend’s horse,” and he left quickly, blowing his nose loudly.
Slim just stared down at the bed, imagining Jess and the lovely Trixie laying together there and he sighed deeply. Either Frederick was telling the truth of he was a damn good liar...
Slim was just turning to leave, already mounted and leading Traveller when a thought struck him. Heck of course he’d read Chuck Hanson’s statement saying how his orders had come from someone called Frederick, who was the go between for the big boss at the Double D. How it was on Frederick’s orders that Lily and Millie had been abducted.
Now turning to look back down at the big man, from the saddle, he said, “Tell me do you know a man called Hanson...Chuck Hanson?”
The older man paused for a moment and his gaze flicked away as though thinking.
“Let me see, uh, yes there was a man of that name I recall. He worked here a couple of years back it would be, but we had to dispense with his services. He was idle and often drunk, uh, why do you ask Mister Sherman?”
“He was implicated in a crime back in Laramie...abduction and he blamed it on you. Said he was working for the boss of the Double D and you were his contact?”
Frederick gave a bark of laughter. “Sour grapes Mister Sherman, he was doubtless trying to incriminate me in some scam to get his own back on me. We had rather an acrimonious parting of the ways. He seemed to think we owed him some wages, which we did not.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Slim said thoughtfully, “but that’s why Jess turned up here I guess...on Chuck’s say so...he reckoned that you were threatening to harm our housekeeper if Jess didn’t come to see Miss Malone?”
“Utter rubbish, sir if you will excuse me saying so. I can assure you Mister Harper came here under no duress of that kind. My lady heard that he was over in Cheyenne and sent a wire asking him to call and visit for old time’s sake that’s the truth of the matter. He did so with great pleasure too I may add; he was delighted to be reunited with her, albeit for a tragically short period.
Slim sat still thinking carefully. Remembering how they were supposed to return to Laramie together with the prisoner and how Jess had changed his mind at the last minute and had opted to stay in Cheyenne, allegedly to welcome Doug’s new offspring.
But he hadn’t had he? He’d ridden out for Denver that very day. Heck he could have received a wire from Trixie and said nothing....
“Goddamn it man how many times do I have to tell ya”, Jess yelled in frustration. “I didn’t take the drugs of my own free will, they forced me and no I wasn’t Miss Malone’s lover...and yes I was being held against my wishes...do ya not listen?”
The earnest young lawyer, Peter Lawrence, that Slim had employed, cast the tall blond rancher an anxious glance, before turning back to his client.
“I’m merely trying to establish the facts Mister Harper, after all these claims have all been refuted by each and every member of the staff at the Double D ranch. They are saying you were a welcome guest there not kept under duress and that you willingly partook of certain um...mind enhancing substances, and that you and Miss Malone were…well...lovers. Now surely they can’t all be lying?”
“They’re all on her dang payroll ain’t they? All up to their dang necks in it too. Believe me they’ll make a pretty penny out of this business. Why dontcha check out Trixie’s Will, I can guarantee that bastard Frederick will figure pretty large in it.”
“I’m afraid legally we have no access to that until it is read before the beneficiaries,” young Peter Lawrence said regretfully.
“Well that’ll be too dang late won’t it?” Jess spat bitterly, “Because I’ll have attended a good ol’ necktie party by then.”
“Jess, please don’t talk that way!” Slim interjected.
“Why not Slim? It’s the goddamn truth ain’t it...and I don’t know why you’re here anyways as you don’t believe me either do ya?”
“Look Jess, all I said was what Frederick said sounded plausible...He was very convincing and had an answer for everything...even said that Miss Malone had wired you in Cheyenne asking you to go visit...”
“He said that? Then he’s a dang liar!”
“But you did run out on me, told me that lie about staying to wet the baby’s head, when you were really hightailing it down to Denver. Why didn’t you tell me that Chuck had told you about the threat to Daisy...huh?”
“Because I didn’t want you dang well fussing and frettin’, I knew you would be home shortly and would look out for Daisy. I thought if I could just go and sort this so-called boss out, I’d be home without worrying anyone. Dang it I didn’t know it was Trixie that was the big boss did I...how could I?”
“I don’t know Jess... I just don’t know what to believe anymore.”

Chapter 8
The day of the trial dawned wet and windy and the weather did nothing to raise Jess’s spirits.
Slim had decided to join him in the cells for a visit before leaving for the courthouse and now the Sheriff was chatting idly to him as they made their way down to visit his buddy.
“The circuit judge arrived last night,” Sheriff Jackson said as he showed Slim down the steep steps to the cells.
“Oh, so who is it?” Slim asked.
“Judge Harry Howells,” he said gloomily, “not the easiest visitor to be honest, kind of a fussy eater.”
Jess who had been standing by the bars eagerly hoping for another coffee heard this and gave a gasp of shock.
“Dadgum it, that’s all I need ‘Hangin ’ Harry ’ fer the judge.”
“Now, now young man, don’t you go disrespecting the law, that’ll get you in real trouble. Judge Howells may have something of a reputation for erring on the stringent side, but I’m sure he’s quite fair.”
“Fair!” Jess bellowed, “He’s hung more men than you’ve had hot dinners and with damn little evidence to convict ‘em half the time, either.”
“You seem to know a lot about him,” Sheriff Jackson said with a raised eyebrow.
“Uh, well I used to move in kinda less than law abidin’ circles at one time,” he muttered.
“Oh dear, that doesn’t look good young man. The Judge tends to do his research and if you’ve got a murky past you can be sure he’ll know all about it. You got any posters out on you right now huh?”
“No, I dang well ain’t,” Jess exploded angrily.
“OK just pipe down young man, that temper of yours won’t serve you well in Judge Howell’s court, that I can tell you. Nope it’s not looking good for you son,” he finished before letting Slim into the cell and taking his leave, clattering back up the steps.
“Jeez,” muttered Jess under his breath before sinking back down on his cot, head in hands.
“He’s got a point buddy,” Slim said softly, sitting on the opposite cot.
“Don’t you start,” Jess growled throwing his pard a black look, “you’re like the rest of them anyways. You don’t believe a dang thing I say do ya?”
“That’s not true Jess, I want to support you, really I do...but you make it kinda hard you know.”
“Ain’t difficult Slim all you’ve gotta do is believe in me ain’t you?”
“I’m here aren’t I?”
“That ain’t the same thing though is it?”
Slim sighed lustily. “All I said was maybe...just maybe you did or said stuff that you weren’t aware of because of the drugs. Hell you’re only human Jess, nobody could blame you.”
“Fer God’s sake Slim, I think I’d know if I’d killed a woman, wouldn’t I?”
“But you were in her bed Jess, with the syringe in your hand, you can’t deny that, the Doc saw you and he wouldn’t lie. He’s a good man trying to do a dang difficult job.”
“Sure he saw me there if that’s what he says. They must have moved me after they gave us both the morphine overdose, hell I was in some sort of coma after that Slim, they could have done anything to me and I wouldn’t have known.”
“And you say this er Samson tried to intervene?”
“Sure and was shot for his trouble...so how is he anyway?”
“The doc said he was pretty sick a nasty bullet wound at close range, allegedly whilst out hunting according to Frederick,”
“Yeah, well he would say that wouldn’t he.”
“Um...the doc said he’d needed some surgery on his mouth too, poor guy.”
Jess nodded, “He was about the best of a bad lot. I could tell he didn’t want any part of drugging ’ me and he was loyal to Trixie, right up to the end.”
“Look maybe this lawyer will be able to pull something out of the hat huh?”
“Maybe...and er, thanks for finding him, I guess I’m bein ’ kind of difficult right now Slim...sorry.”
“No more than usual pard,” Slim said with a grin and gentle punch to Jess’s arm.
But then Jess turned back to his old friend, “But it still don’t change nuthin ’ Slim. You don’t believe me do ya...and that hurts, that really hurts,” he said before looking down, the picture of dejection.
Slim felt a stirring of compassion for his friend and guilt that he was finding it so dang hard to believe in him too, “Jess...I...”
But then they heard the Sheriff thundering down the steps and the moment was lost.
The whole trial was a shambles from the start in Jess’s opinion.
Judge Howells seemed to be very much on the side of the Double D lawyer, one Marcos Pelew, who was a fast talking very experienced man. He seemed to have a quick come back for every statement that young Peter Lawrence, Jess’s lawyer made.
He poked holes in every argument the young man had, from Jess being held prisoner to his protestations that he had been ill-treated and had drugs forced upon him.
“Come, come Mister Harper,” Pelew said as he cross examined the cowboy after Jess had told his side of events. “I have studied your past records carefully and it comes as some surprise to me that an ex-gunslinger and general hard case like yourself would be held prisoner against your will and forced to take drugs? Would you care to elaborate how that came about?”
“Sure... I was overpowered by Trixie’s bodyguard, Samson. He caught me bad with a drop kick to the... er...lower belly, floored me. I guess I never thought a big guy like that would move so dang fast. After that they gave me a shot of morphine while I was still out cold...and that seemed to kinda sap my strength I guess.”
“Really, well I expect you would know all about that Mister Harper, I doubt if it is the first time you have used strong drugs.”
“Objection sir!” shouted Peter Lawrence, but it was overruled.
Marcos Pelew wasted no time before he totally blackened Jess’s character and made him appear to be a womanizer and out and out liar, with a fondness for drugs, be it alcohol, laudanum, or something else.
“After all,” he said expansively, “if one were to get shot up as much as Mister Harper has done in his somewhat rebellious past, I imagine taking strong drugs for pain relief would become a way of life.”
“I object your honor,” Peter Lawrence called loudly once more, but the judge took no notice and just gave a laconic, “Overruled.”
“So Mister Harper you studiously deny having an affair with Miss Malone, although Doctor Haines will testify that you were in her bed when she died and he had seen you there on several other occasions...so would you care to tell me about your relationship with the deceased?”
“No I damn well wouldn’t,” Jess said loudly, scowling at the smooth talking lawyer with the cat like smile.
“You’re really are not helping your case with this surly behavior Mister Harper,” the Judge boomed, “Will you please answer the question.”
“I was in her bed when she died because he and his cronies put me there when I was out of it,” Jess yelled pointing an accusing finger at Frederick.
“Uh, but you slept with her at other times, did you not?” Pelew asked, looking more like a cat with a mouse now.
Jess sighed and turned to the Judge, “I stayed with her a couple of nights when she was having real bad withdrawal symptoms. Dang it I was trying to get her off the drugs! The doc visited us early and saw us together that way sure, but it was all innocent. I didn’t want a dang affair with her...that was all in the past.”
“So you do admit that you were once lovers then?” Pelew asked.
“That’s none of your Goddamn business!” Jess spat furiously again.
“Mister Harper please...you are in contempt of court; I will not have this strong language! Any more of this and I shall have to deal with you most severely,” the Judge said angrily.
“Oh, so cussing s a dang hanging offense now is it?” Jess muttered, to much hilarity from the jury.
“Silence in court!” the Judge boomed now looking furious.
Sometime later Judge Howells started his summing up.
“So gentlemen we have heard from several witnesses employed at the Double D ranch that Mister Harper was invited to visit by Miss Malone and was a welcome guest and not held under duress as claimed by Mister Harper. Furthermore, we have heard from Miss Malone’s man servant Mister Frederick James how the defendant was given both Laudanum and morphine by the deceased and became dependent upon the drugs in a relatively short period of time. We have also heard how he was often intoxicated with both drugs and alcohol and it was possibly while in this state that he murdered Miss Malone and attempted to kill himself. He was indeed found by Mister James and seen by Doctor Haines lying close to the deceased clutching the used hypodermic syringe in his hand.”
All the time the Judge had been speaking Jess had become more and more agitated, until he could stand it no longer and he pulled free from the guards flanking him leapt over the small gate separating him from the witnesses and making for Frederick yelled, “That’s all damn lies tell ‘em Frederick....every damn thing you and your men have said are stinkin’ lies!”
“Restrain the prisoner,” the Judge yelled and seconds later four strong men of the jury managed to manhandle him back to the dock.
“Mister Harper I will not tell you again, you are in contempt of my court and I will not tolerate it.”
Then he turned to the jury.
“Gentlemen you have seen firsthand what a volatile and aggressive character Mister Harper is and to my mind quite capable of a crime of passion... if not premeditated murder and furthermore...
Just then the court room door burst open admitting a wild eyed huge black man, who swept towards the Judge crying out in a strange deep and indistinct voice, “No....no Mister Jess is a good man, he did not kill Miss Trixie! Mister Frederick,” he cried pointing an accusing finger at Frederick, “he is the one who did kill the mistress!”
The Judge looked up angrily, “Who are you and what do you think you’re doing disrupting a court of justice?”
“Please your honor this is Mister Samson Bali, Miss Malone’s personal assistant and bodyguard,” the doctor said standing and nodding encouragingly at Samson.
“What... I thought the man couldn’t speak,” said the Judge in surprise.
“I have recently been treating Mister Bali for a bullet wound and on examining his mouth I was able to see that the patient was suffering from tongue tie.”
“What? Explain yourself Doctor Haines,” the Judge said irritably.
“Uh, well there is a small piece of skin that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth, called the lingual frenulum. Occasionally babies are born with this attachment of skin too tight and it restricts tongue movement and therefore their speech. Poor Samson was operated on by one of the elders back in his African village and unfortunately he made a pretty poor job of it.”
“Yes, well get on with it,” the Judge said brusquely.
“Well to get to the point, young Samson was taken for a slave and worked down in the cotton fields in our deep south, until he was liberated after the war and found work with Miss Malone. I was interested in what could be the problem with his speech...Lack of it that is and on examining him was able to perform a simple operation to free his tongue... But his presence here is a complete surprise to me. I really didn’t think he was healed well enough to speak yet. As it is, he is still rather indistinct, but if you persevere you will be able to understand him your honor.”
“Well he clearly is able to speak to some degree and yes maybe we should hear what he has to say,” the Judge said reluctantly.
“May I ask for a short adjournment your honor, to consult with the witness,” said Peter Lawrence.
“I suppose so,” said the Judge rising, “we’ll take half an hour, no longer mind...I must be on my way this afternoon.”
It was a much more confidant Peter Lawrence who interviewed his star witness just a half hour later. Although Samson’s speech was at times very slow and in some ways resembled that of a profoundly deaf man, he could still be understood by all. As his evidence began to dispute everything that Frederick, Bates and the other Double D staff had said and indeed completely agree with Jess’s version of events so the atmosphere in the courtroom gradually began to change. There were some mutterings and many of the jurors started to cast less than friendly looks towards Frederick and his cohorts.
But it was when Samson revealed how he came to be shot and it was Frederick who was responsible for administering the lethal drug to Miss Malone and what he thought was a similar dose to Jess that the big blond man’s temper exploded and he cussed angrily.
“You damn idiot Samson shut your mouth; you’ll see us all in jail you fool!”
“Silence in court,” intoned the Judge, staring balefully at Frederick. “You seem a mite upset Mister James, surely this man has a right to his version of the truth. And it seems to me that the explanation for the way he was wounded seemed rather, shall we say imaginative? A hunting accident and he was shot at point-blank range with a Colt .45 and not a hunting rifle...um?”
Frederick back peddled and tried to collect himself, “I’m sorry your honor, I just hate to see this man lie like this, I can only imagine Harper has bribed him to make the statement.”
“How in hell could I do that, I didn’t know he could speak anymore than the rest of you did,” Jess snapped. “He’s the only one of the lot of ya who is prepared to stand up and tell the truth...the rest of you are a bunch of liars and cowards. God knows what Trixie would make of you all...”
It was Bates who snapped first. He turned to Frederick and said, “It’s no good, I can’t carry on lying this way boss.”
Then he turned to the Judge, “I’m sorry your honor, me and the boys thought we were doin ’ good in keeping quiet...But we were wrong real wrong. It’s right what Harper said, all of it. We did keep him captive... force drugs on the poor bastard and it was wrong, real wrong of us. And yup it was Frederick that killed Miss Malone and attempted to kill Harper too...and God forgive me I was one of the men that held him down,” he finished hanging his head in shame.
The Judge looked deeply shocked for a moment and then said quietly, “This puts a whole new perspective on the case. Uh, it looks like we all owe you an apology Harper.”
As he spoke Jess’s head shot up and his gaze locked with Slim’ s across the courtroom before he looked away, his expression one of resentment mingled with deep hurt.
Chapter 9
It was another week before the trial was finally over. Frederick sentenced to hang on conviction of the murder of Miss Trixie Malone and the other members of the Double D staff involved given lengthy jail sentences. However, because of his willingness to give evidence and the way he had tried to help Jess and Trixie, Samson had a lesser sentence.
Jess and Slim rode out of town the day after the trial where Jess had given evidence against Frederick committing him to a death sentence, both men deciding not to stay for the hanging.
Jess rode on throughout the morning looking stony faced and after an hour or two Slim could stand the atmosphere no longer, reined in and stopped.
“What’s up?” Jess asked, “We’ve only been goin ’ awhile, not time for coffee yet.”
“It’s not coffee I want Jess, it’s some sense out of you,” Slim replied.
“What do ya mean?” Jess asked frowning.
“Like why you’re so all fired mad at me. Dang it Jess you’ve hardly said two words to me since the trial.”
Jess looked down for a while and then said softly, “Maybe that’s because I don’t know you anymore Slim.”
“What do you mean?”
Jess sighed deeply, “Well you didn’t dang well believe me back there did you?” he said tipping his hat back to the recently ridden trail.
“Huh?” Slim asked.
“You know dang well what I mean. You didn’t believe that I hadn’t touched those drugs freely, or that I hadn’t slept with Trixie either. Hell, as though I would Slim! Now I’ve got Millie...do you really think I’d cheat on her that way?”
“Well of course not buddy...not in your right mind that is...but heck you were drugged up to the eyes by all accounts. Can you honestly say you didn’t fall for Trixie’s charms again...or even had rather a fondness for the Laudanum, like before? Heck Jess nobody would blame you the way you were ill-treated.”
“Yeah, except that weren’t the way it was Slim...and you won’t damn well believe me will ya?” He said before kneeing Traveller off to a brisk trot.
That was to be the pattern of their journey home, with both men reaching an impasse where neither could bear to argue about the matter any further. However, Jess seemed to retreat under a cloak of resentment and just refused to engage with his good friend on any level. In fact, he was completely morose, riding in silence during the day and merely gazing into the campfire or distant hills when they made camp.
On the third evening Slim could stand it no more.
“Goddamn it Jess we’ll be home tomorrow, how long are you going to keep this up huh? Just say something will you? Hit me if it’ll make you feel better...but do something!”
Jess turned cold eyes on Slim and said quietly, “I don’t reckon that’ll do it Slim. I don’t know how I can keep workin ’ with a guy who doesn’t trust me no more. I figure maybe this is the end of the road for us huh?”
Slim looked shocked to the core and then rallied.
“What, so you’re just giving up on everything, leaving the partnership, walking out on us, Daisy and Mike...all because of a misunderstanding!”
“No! All because you don’t trust me Slim! Didn’t believe me when I said I hadn’t touched those damn drugs willingly, hadn’t slept with Trixie...you sided with that dang judge and jury thinkin’ the worst of me didn’t ya!”
“Look I’m sorry OK. But I saw you when you were addicted to the Laudanum before. I know what it did to you, how you’d have practically killed to get another fix.”
“Yeah and you know dang well I’ve refused to go anywhere near the stuff since then too! Dang it, it was only a few months ago I nearly floored Doc Sam when he was gonna give it me. That time I got shot up after the bank raid. He might have forgotten I couldn’t tolerate the dang stuff...but I haven’t!”
“Look alright Jess I was wrong, so what’s it going to take to get you over this huh, because I sure can’t put up with you acting this way much longer.”
“Well maybe you won’t have to,” Jess spat angrily, before heading Traveller towards home at a brisk trot.
“What on earth has got into Jess?” Daisy asked as she watched the bedroom door close behind him, “I’ve never seen him this way before.”
Slim gave a little groan, “How long have you got Daisy?”
“As long as it takes for me to understand dear, goodness he hardly touched his meal and he’s not said more than two words to Mike or me.”
“I think maybe we’d better have some coffee Daisy,” Slim said moving towards the fireside.
An hour or so later Daisy sat back tears in her wise old eyes, “Oh the poor boy no wonder he’s so down.”
“It’s more than that Daisy, he’s talking about leaving. I guess that’s why he’s been so quiet with you and Mike, trying to create some sort of distance between you to make it easier for him to go.”
A hand shot up to her mouth, “Oh no dear, that can’t be so!”
“I’m afraid it is Daisy I figure I’ve hurt him really badly, not believing everything he was telling me. But heck when a doctor swears on the Bible that he’s seen ...er certain things well I guess you have to give him credence. I never said I didn’t believe Jess, I just thought if he was high on drugs then he wouldn’t be aware of um...certain behaviour, things he might have done.”
Daisy was silent her lips pursed in thought and then said, “I think Jess is rational enough to accept that. No, I fear this goes much deeper. I had dealings with pain killer addiction in the war...Those poor boys, so badly wounded and then the very thing that was there to help them cope with the pain was their downfall in the end,” and she sighed deeply.
Then she pulled herself together, “One of the things about morphine is that once the addiction is beaten the patient can be left feeling bewildered and profoundly depressed. Even the smallest worry or slight assuming huge proportions. I really fear that is what is affecting Jess.”
“So, what can we do to help him?”
She shrugged, “It’s very difficult, rather like grief it’s pretty much a waiting game...waiting for the terrible dark shroud of depression and anger to lift...there is no time limit.”
“So what can we do?” he persisted.
“Get Doc Sam to check him out for a start after all mental illness is his forte, maybe he can help.”
Slim looked skeptical, “He can only help if Jess is still around Daisy, if he decides to ride out then nobody can help him.”
“What about Millie, she’s back at the Saloon you know, did you call in on your way home?”
Slim shook his head, “I suggested it, but he didn’t want to see her...I just can’t figure him.”
Jess lay on his bed on the other side of the wall peering up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.
His stomach was churning and he felt slightly nauseated.
What in hell was wrong with him? He felt so angry and let down. Why the heck hadn’t Slim believed him? But more than that why did he, Jess, have no interest in anything. Garldarn it, he couldn’t even be bothered to call in and see his girl. All he wanted to do was lie down...sleep and never wake up again. Yup, that would be about perfect he reflected. Maybe ol’ Trixie had a good point ending it all that way.
He remembered how he was hallucinating when he was in the drug induced coma and how he’d tried so hard to pull himself out of it...inching his way painfully towards the light and freedom. But right now, that pink haze of peace and nothingness was what he craved.
He turned on his side and decided what he had to do...he had to ride out, he couldn’t stay here causing those he loved misery...tomorrow, maybe he’d do it tomorrow? Then the overwhelming urge to bawl his head off came over him. The like of which he hadn’t experienced since he was a little kid in diapers and he closed his eyes tightly...just praying for sleep and release.
When Slim came to bed a few hours later Jess was lying on his side, turned away from him. But as Slim turned the night light up a little he saw his pard’s back tense and said softly, “Jess you awake?”
When there was no reply he sighed sadly and after a quick wash he undressed got into his bed and lay in the silence feeling the waves of animosity in the air. How had things got so bad between them he wondered? Heck Jess was the best friend he’d ever had surely it couldn’t all end like this?
The following morning was a Saturday and the men usually cut themselves a little slack and had a half hour lie in, however when Jess was still abed at nine o’clock Slim saw red. He’d done all his own chores plus Jess’s not to mention trying to reassure young Mike that Jess was just fine, not sick… just kind of tired after their long journey.
Now he marched into their shared room banging the door noisily behind him and Jess awoke scowling and groaning.
“What’s up?” he muttered squinting up at Slim.
“I’ll tell you what’s up, it’s gone nine and I’ve done the darned chores!”
Jess just said a very rude four-letter word and then, “So is that all...huh?”
“No, it’s not! Daisy’s fussing and fretting, that you’ve not had your breakfast, says you’ll starve to death,” he said rolling his eyes, “like that’s going to happen.”
Then he looked more serious, “What’s more Mike’s off to spend the last couple of weeks of the school holidays over at his friend Davy’s ranch and you can’t even be bothered to get out of bed to see him off.”
Jess’s attitude changed completely then and he dragged himself up, “Sorry I forgot.”
Five minutes later he wandered out to the porch where Mike was sitting patiently on his valise waiting for Davy’s Pa to collect him.
He gave Jess a slightly anxious smile when the dark-haired cowboy approached and hunkered down beside him.
“Hey Tiger are ya lookin ’ forward to a good time with Davy then huh?” he asked trying to act normally.
The youngster agreed that he was and then said quietly, “Jess are you mad at me?”
Jess’s quirky eyebrows arched and he said, “Heck no, why do ya say that?”
“Well you’ve been acting kinda funny since you got home, not talkin ’ and lookin ’ real angry.”
Jess felt a twist in his guts, how could he be so dang unfeeling towards the kid.
“Gee Mike I’m sorry, I ain’t mad at you really I’m not. I’m just kinda beat I guess...me and Slim had a long journey from Denver you know?”
The child nodded excitedly, “I know and all that business with the bad men hurtin ’ you and the trial and all.”
“Huh? How do ya know all about that Mike?”
“It was in the Laramie Sentinel...I didn’t get to read it all as Aunt Daisy took it away, said she needed it for the outhouse... but I think she didn’t want me readin ’ it ya know Jess,” he said earnestly.
“Well I don’t blame her Tiger you know what I think of the Sentinel. The outhouse is the best use for it.”
Just then there was a flurry of excitement and Billy Green along with his son Davy hustled their buckboard into the yard, to raucous barking from Buttons and Jess’s dog Blue. Then the child was off in a flurry of hugs and goodbyes....
Jess stood watching as the dust settled and then cast his eyes up to the snowy range a look of such pain and longing in his gaze that Slim had to look away, unable to bear seeing his pard that way. Then whistling up his dog Jess made for the stable and Slim knew that would be the last he would see of him until supper time.
Sure enough Jess emerged leading Traveller and mounting up threw a laconic, “Riding  fence,” over his shoulder before disappearing over the ridge in a cloud of dust, Blue at his heels.
Much later they ate a strained supper, where Slim and Daisy had tried to act normally, keeping the conversation going whilst Jess merely pushed his food around his plate.
Once the meal was over Slim said kindly, “Would you like first shower then Jess?”
“Wash up buddy, it’s Saturday and we’ll be hitting town later. Need to get spruced up for Miss Millie dontcha.”
He shook his head, “I ain’t goin ’ Slim.”
Daisy and Slim stared at him in consternation.
“What do you mean?” Slim asked, “You haven’t seen her since we got home, what’s up?”
“Well what will I tell her, she’s sure to be looking out for you?”
“Tell her what you Goddamn like,” Jess spat before scraping his chair back and marching off to the bedroom.
Daisy’s eyes were full of reproach, “You know I don’t think I’ve ever heard him cuss that way in front of me all the years I’ve known him,” she said sadly.
“He’s not himself Daisy,” Slim said softly, covering her tiny hand with his own, “he doesn’t mean it.”
“Oh I know that dear, but I just feel so sorry about everything...and how must Millie be feeling? It was in the paper you know, all about the alleged drugs and the way Jess and this Trixie person were once lovers...You know what that rag is like once it gets hold of a bit of scandal. Then as soon as he was exonerated, I think the news made about the bottom of page ten.”
Slim shook his head, “I’ll talk to her, try and make her understand.”
“Well no...no I don’t understand,” said a flushed and tearful looking Millie.
The couple were sitting at a quiet table at the back of the saloon and Slim took a sip of his beer before trying again.
“He’s just not feeling so good right now Millie, all this business down in Denver has kind of got to him I guess.”
“Oh yes I read all about that,” she said bitterly. “So, is it true that this Trixie and Jess were once lovers and that he was taking Laudanum again?”
“No, well not as far as I know. He sure didn’t start anything up again with Trixie if that’s what you’re thinking all he did was to try and help her out, for old time’s sake.”
“I’ll bet he did,” she snapped.
“This isn’t like you Millie, Jess always says you don’t have a jealous bone in your body...one of the things he loves about you...”
“ And it’s not like Jess either,” she retaliated, “the reason I’m usually so understanding is because he’s always explained everything to me in the past...We’ve talked things through together....but now he can’t be bothered to even see me!”
“I’m worried about him Millie, really worried. I saw a look in his eye today like he used to get when he first rode in. Looking at the big open like he needed to be there so darned much that nothing or nobody could stand in his way.”
Her head jerked up at that and she looked suddenly very young and vulnerable.
“What... you think he’d leave the ranch your partnership? Mike, Daisy and me?” she finished in a small voice.
Slim just looked down for a long time then said, “Yup, that’s pretty much what he’s implied. Said it was the end of the road for me and him...he can’t seem to get past the idea that I didn’t stand by him over all that business of him taking the drugs...I’d seen what it had done to him in the past and I knew how vulnerable he was...that’s all, but I wasn’t judging him. Now he thinks I don’t trust him and he sure doesn’t trust me anymore,” he said miserably.
She sucked in a deep breath, “What can we do?”
Slim shrugged, “Daisy seems to think he’s real down, depressed after being forced to take all those dang drugs, says she saw it in soldiers in the war. I had a word with Doc Sam earlier. He’s going to take Jess off fishing tomorrow, try and talk some sense into him.”
Even the prospect of fishing seemed to hold no joy for Jess; and Slim and Doc Sam were sorely pressed to convince him to go over to the lake to check out how they were biting.
Eventually Sam persuaded him to ride out saying he’d been looking forward to it all week and he needed Jess to show him the best spot to set up camp.
Jess sighed lustily now as the two men sat in silence looking out at the pure beauty of the shimmering lake, their lines cast in the clear sparkling water.
“You’re not fooling ’ me for a minute,” Jess said finally, “Daisy and Slim have cooked this up ain’t they?”
“Please doctor, try and talk some sense into the dear boy,” he said in a good approximation of Daisy at her most clucky.
Doc Sam chuckled, “We can’t get much past you can we buddy...so do you want to talk about it then, huh?”
Jess just shook his head, “Nope.”
“OK so do you mind if I do?”
“Can’t stop ya,” Jess said irritably.
“Right so let’s try this for size...you feel really angry and let down by Slim’ s attitude...you think he should have believed everything you said?”
“Pretty much yeah, I reckon he still thinks I’ve got a hankering ’ for Laudanum, but you know that ain’t true don’t you doc?” he asked gruffly.
“Sure I do Jess and so does Slim, but he was just concerned for you. After all, the decision of whether or not to take these opiates was taken out of your hands by the sound of things...am I right?”
Jess just nodded.
“And there I think lies the crux of the matter.”
“It does?”
“Yes, you see Jess for once in your life you weren’t in control of the situation. For whatever reason your guard was down and Samson was able to overpower you and render you unconscious, yes?”
Jess just nodded silently, looking a mite embarrassed.
“After that, once the drugs had been administered it was a relatively easy task to keep you semi sedated. You were unable to try and escape or overpower your guards and that my friend is the problem and why you are so very angry.”
“Oh, I’m dang angry alright,” Jess agreed.
“Uh, well the thing is that I reckon you’re angry at yourself Jess and anger turned inwards can bring a person down...I mean really down, like you’d lose interest in everything...everyone...life itself maybe?”
Jess looked down and took a deep shuddering sigh, “Maybe.”
“Almost like you wouldn’t want to go on?” the doc probed.
When Jess said nothing Sam said softly, “It’s hardly surprising after everything you’ve been through. And Millie, you’re mad that you didn’t keep her safe aren’t you...that’s why you can’t face her now isn’t it?”
Jess suddenly looked like he might breakdown ... “I guess so,” he managed. Then he said huskily, “So iffen that’s the case, and I ain’t sayin’ it’s so...but if it were what can I do?”
“There’s no quick fix Jess, it’s rather like bereavement, you just have to ride it out and wait for the storms to pass.”
When Jess said nothing Sam said, “Slim was kind of worried that you might be thinking of riding out?”
“It would be for the best Sam, I ain’t no good to them at the ranch right now I reckon.”
“Why don’t you let them be the judge of that? Heck Jess have you any idea how greatly loved you are by Daisy and Mike...and what a great buddy you are to Slim, it would hurt them all deeply to lose you.”
“Maybe hurt ‘em worse if I stay,” he said morosely.
“Look Jess I can understand, to some extent, how you’re feeling right now...you just don’t want any part of bein’ with folk, even the ones you care about, does that sound about right?”
Jess nodded, “I guess so.”
“Um...so why don’t you stay up here for a while? With just Traveller and Blue for company. I’ll square it with Slim. In fact, I’ve already had a quick word and he says the only thing on the agenda right now is painting the bunkhouse. He said he’d do that if it would make you feel better.”
Jess’s head shot up, “He said that?”
“Yup...he just wants you well again and returned to the cussing, ornery Jess we’ve all become kind of attached to....so what do you say huh?”
Jess gave the glimmer of a smile, “It might work at that, given a week or so of my own company I guess maybe I’d be ready for some sparin’ with old Hardrock again.”
Sam could see the change in his old friend already. OK, sure he had a long way to go to overcome the terrible cloak of depression that seemed to have engulfed him. But as he’d seen with so many patients, once they could look rationally at what was happening in their life and most importantly in their minds then they began to feel a little better.

Chapter 10
So it was that Jess spent his ‘dark nights of the soul ‘over at his lakeside camp.
Once Sam had left him there, he settled down for the night. It was warm for late summer and he decided to sleep out rather than make his way up the steep slope to the cave where he Mike and Slim so often camped when on a week-end fishing trip.
When his camp fire was crackling merrily with the coffee pot on he lay back on his saddle and contemplated the lake. With the last streaks of the scarlet sunset turning the water to a blood red it was spectacular and he relaxed a little for the first time in weeks.
Then he cast his mind back to a trip he’d taken with Miss Daisy a few years ago, seeking her long-lost elder brother. * See #59 Daisy’s Promise.

*******They had sat in companionable silence and after a while Daisy turned to look at Jess and said, “Didn’t you used to get awfully lonely when you were on the drift, all by yourself out in the big open?”
He gave her his shy smile, “Nah, not really Daisy, when I first struck out on my own, well I was still a kid really, after the fire.”
Daisy knew he was referring to a disastrous fire down in Texas, where he had been born and brought up the son of a poor share farmer. The fire had been set deliberately by the Bannister gang and his home had burnt to the ground killing his parents and two of his four siblings, leaving the 15 year old Jess full of pain and anger.
“Well after that, I figure I felt kinda safer outdoors, couldn’t bear to be confined to a house for a long time afterwards, had nightmares thinking it was on fire…still do,” he said quietly, looking into the distance.
Then he pulled himself together again and said, “The moon and the stars, were my friends, the night time sounds like a lullaby. And I guess it does a man good to be alone with just his soul for company sometimes, kinda makes him stronger…ya know Daisy?”
She looked over deeply moved and amazed at how poetic the young cowboy could be without realizing it.
“When did you get to be so wise?” she asked softly.
He turned to look at her and then gave a slow smile, “I guess I’ve just packed a lot of livin ’ into a short time he said,” with a little shrug.********

Now thinking back to that night, he smiled to himself, yup maybe that’s exactly what he needed…To be alone with his soul for a while. He considered everything Sam had said about his anger and depression of the mind but it didn’t mean much to him. Sure ol’ Sam was a good guy and a real good friend, but Jess wondered about the things he came out with sometimes.
He relaxed back, his saddle for a pillow, one arm loosely around Blue’s neck, the huge animal lying with one protective paw across his master’s chest.
“Yup boy I reckon Sam talks through his butt sometimes, but maybe this is one of his better notions huh?”
Blue’s tail wagged in agreement and then he gave a little sigh of pleasure as he settled down next to Jess; all was well with the world if his master was close by.
Over the next few days very little changed and Jess felt very lethargic, his usual passion for fishing and hunting sadly absent. However, he had to roll out in the morning to tend his horse and to hunt for meat for his dog and himself, so gradually he started to feel slightly more motivated.
The long nights were the worst time when his mind played games with him and he would see visions of Trixie on her death bed...a look of such pleading in her eyes, before they slowly closed and her head fell forwards and he knew she was gone. Then he would cry out in anguish at the waste of her life...Why had she harmed herself so badly over the years? Was it as she had said, merely because he had left her? Had she really harbored that grievance and hurt all those years, her addiction to drugs entirely his fault?
The thoughts went round and round in his brain like rats in a barrel and the more he thought about it the more he just didn’t know.
It was on the afternoon of the third day that a stranger approached.
He had been napping by the fire after a late lunch and it was Blue’s frenzied barking that alerted him.
He leaned over and grabbed his rifle, leveling it at the interloper.
“State yer business Mister, this is private land,” Jess snarled, annoyed at being woken from his slumber after yet another disturbed night.

The man put his hands up and gave Jess a faintly familiar grin, “I’d say ten years is a powerful long time to hold a grievance, Jess buddy, even if I did steal your girl,” he said with a chuckle.
Jess peered up at the tall blond haired man and slowly lowered his rifle, “I’ll be dammed if it ain’t Billy-Joe Idles...livery proprietor,” he said with a bark of laughter, “what the hell are you doin ’ here?” he asked as he threw down his rifle and offered his hand.
Billy-Joe took it and shook it warmly. “Got me some business over in Laramie and thought I’d look you up, the folk at your ranch said I’d find ya up here.”
“Really?” Jess asked looking surprised.
“Um, well I heard about all that trouble with our Miss Trixie. Told them I was an old buddy of yours. I live over Denver way, but I’ve been back down south on business and missed the trial and all the...nasty business.”
Jess nodded and made his way back to the fire and coffee pot gesturing for Billy-Joe to sit and he poured them both a cup. Then he sat back and surveyed his old friend. He’d sure thickened up some, the hair a tad thinner and his eyes had the slightly watery look of the perpetual drunk.
“Her dying that way and all, yes it was a real nasty business,” Jess agreed, “so you kept in touch with her then?”
“Heck yes, she was one of the reasons I sold up and bought a place in Denver, we saw each other every so often.”
“Goddamn it Billy-Joe couldn’t you have done something to stop her, she must have been on the road to ruin for many a long year...didn’t you even try to stop her?”
“Hell of course I did,” yelled Billy-Joe equally angrily. “The doc and I tried real hard, but she’d been on the damn stuff for years before I even realized...nobody knew.”
Jess closed his eyes and then looked back at his old buddy, “I’m sorry...just feeling a tad guilty I guess seein ’ that it was all my fault, her dyin ’ that way.”
“Huh, how do you figure that?”
“Well that’s what she told me, that she turned to drugs after I lit out...she was so well... heart-broke I guess.”
To Jess’s surprise Billy-Joe gave a shout of laughter, “Aw please don’t tell me you fell for that sob story...she used to churn that out all the dang time. She even said she started drinking real heavy when I moved on, got myself a wife...made me feel real bad...until I found out the truth.”
“Which was?”
“That she’d been on the drink and drugs since way before you or I even cast eyes on her...She was just a hopeless case Jess and to make herself feel better she’d blame it all on someone else.”
Jess gave a huge sigh of relief... it weren’t all his fault after all.
“She was real fond of you though, moped for a good while after you left town. Then she started working as a hooker in the Dirty Dollar and that sure seemed to perk her up some...made a dang good living at it too.”
Jess just shook his head grinning, “I’ll bet she did... So how about you... married you say?”
“Ha, not anymore she dang well ran out on me didn’t she! Said it was no fun living with a guy who was already wed to the whiskey bottle, I ask ya women eh!”
“Yup hard to figure them,” Jess agreed although he had every sympathy with the former Mrs Idles having seen Billy-Joe the worse for wear on a far too regular basis.
“So I make my living as a sort of traveling salesman for fine spirits now...got me a meeting with a guy called Denver James in Laramie, he sells real good stuff so I hear?”
“Yup the best moonshine you’ll find this side of the Rockies,” Jess agreed.
“Talking of which, you got anything to liven up this coffee huh?”
Jess thought about the small bottle of Red Eye, at the bottom of his saddle bag and knew that would be gone in the blink of an eye once Billy-Joe got stuck in.
“Um can’t say as I have,” he lied.
“That’s a shame,” he said. Then, “Well it’s been good catching up Jess and I’m glad you saw Trixie before she died too. She had a real hankering to see you after the doc told her she didn’t have too long to go...I guess she’d have done pretty much anything to see you one last time.”
“Oh, she did that alright,” Jess agreed bitterly, but Billy-Joe didn’t seem to hear.
“Uh, well I guess I’d better be makin ’ tracks, nearest saloon is in Laramie you say?”
“You got it, yup...and er if you come across a real cute brunette called Millie keep yer thieving hands off of her because she’s my woman.”
Billy-Joe gave yelp of laughter, “I hear ya loud and clear buddy.”
The two men stood up and shook hands and Billy-Joe marched over to his horse, but Jess called him back.
As he turned Jess swung a punch, the haymaker flooring his unsuspecting friend.
He lay in the dirt rubbing his chin a hurt look in his eyes, “What the hell was that for?”
“For sleepin ’ with my girl Trixie that time, I should have done it back then,” Jess said with a friendly grin, before reaching over and hauling Billy-Joe to his feet.
He rubbed his chin again and then gave Jess a crooked grin, “Yup I guess I deserved that.”
Then he said, “Your girl’s called Millie you say.... I won’t go within a mile, don’t you worry on that score buddy,” and chuckling he mounted up and trotted off with a friendly wave.
Jess waved back and wandered over to the fire feeling strangely liberated...come the end of the week he might just ride into town and treat Millie to a slap-up meal he thought happily.
It was on the Friday afternoon that Jess was again to have visitors.
Now his love of fishing seemed to have returned and he figured he’d enjoy himself for one last day before heading home the following morning.
He had just cast his line when he saw a couple of riders off in the distance circumnavigating the edge of the lake.
As they came nearer, he was able to make out Alamo and the smaller figure of Mike’s Palomino filly Sunny.
His heart leapt and he suddenly felt like there was nothing more that he wanted than to tease young Mike and have a bit of banter with Slim.
However, the riders reined in about a couple of hundred yards away and after a moment Slim raised a hand in a gesture of friendship, before turning and riding slowly away.
Jess, who had returned the wave, watched him go and sighed softly.
Then Sunny came on towards him, but once he focused on the pretty filly, he realized that the rider didn’t sit the saddle like Mike, with his little legs sticking out at right angles from Sunny’s wide girth, kicking him on with gusto. No, this rider was more refined, just allowing the young horse to make its way into the camp at her own pace...a rider who wore a deep red shirt, dark pants and a large Stetson hiding her face.
“Millie....Mill that you?” Jess gasped as he ran forwards.
She reined in looking down at him, the love shining out of her big brown eyes as she held her arms open to be helped down.
He took her in his arms, holding her close...feeling her heart racing beneath the thin shirt, matching that of his own heart beat, and then pulled back looking deeply into her eyes...
“Millie what the heck are you doin ’ here?” he whispered. “And why are ya wearing  that?” he asked tipping her Stetson back.
She gave her infectious giggle, “Daisy insisted on it, said it would protect my complexion from the sun....and I’m here because I love ya and miss ya you great lug, why do ya think?”
“Aw Millie,” he gasped taking her in his arms before leading her towards his camp fire a strong arm around her waist, Blue dashing around her barking in delight, tail waving madly.
As soon as she saw he was fishing she asked eagerly if he had another line.
“Why sure sweetheart you wanna fish?” he asked in surprise.
“Uh huh, it’d be just like old times when we were kids,” she said smiling broadly.
So they fished and talked about everything that had happened. About their feelings, hopes and fears for their future. Then they fished some more and talked long into the evening. Until the time for talking was over and Jess took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. Then he led her up the steep path to the cave where a soft straw mattress spread with an old Indian blanket awaited them. There as the evening sun once more set the lake aflame, they made sweet, sweet love...their fears and past traumas forgotten...
Over breakfast down by the lake shore the following morning Jess cast her a quizzical glance and said, “You didn’t happen to come across a guy called Billy-Joe the other day did ya?”
She smiled at him over the rim of her coffee cup, “I wondered when you’d ask.”
“So you did!”
“Yes, and he said to tell you especially that it was Slim that introduced us and no way would he do ‘you know what ’ again.”
“Um...OK then.”
“So er...what IS ‘you know what’?” she asked raising a teasing eyebrow.
“Never you mind...so is that all he said?”
“Oh no, he told me everything about that Trixie...about how sick she was. She was mentally ill as well as the addictions, I guess. How she would have done anything to see you again...and about how none of this stuff was your fault... I’m sorry Jess I guess I misjudged you. I suppose I was just kind of jealous for once.”
“Well heck I can see that, I guess I was a tad jealous of that no hoper Hanson.”
She chuckled, “There really was no need, his breath stinks you know and he uses snake oil on his hair,” she said wrinkling her nose.
“So, we’re good again, you and me?”
“Sure we are...you know we are after last night,” she whispered with a tender look.
“Thank God for that,” he said with feeling. “But I guess I’ve a few bridges to mend with them back at the ranch. I’ve been acting like a jerk since I got back home.”
She nodded, “Slim and I had a good talk the other night.”
“You did?”
“Um, he thought you were going to ride out, leave him in the lurch, got real upset.”
“Gee, I didn’t mean for that to happen. I’ll talk to him just as soon as we get back.”
“She nodded I think he’d appreciate that, so shall I get packed up?”
“Well we’re going back aren’t we?”
“Yer kiddin ’ me, go back home when I’ve got my best girl by my side and the whole weekend ahead of us, are you crazy?”
“What about Slim?”
“He’ll keep, besides I wanna make sure he’s finished painting the bunkhouse before I go home,” he said with a laugh.
She looked delighted, “So what shall we do, fishing or go bag some rabbits for dinner?”
“Nope, I was kinda thinking of takin ’ a little nap,” he said tipping his hat over to where his bedroll was laid out by the camp fire from when he’d camped out before Millie arrived.
“What? You can’t be tired, it’s only mid-morning,” she said looking bewildered.
“Who said I was tired?” he said with a wicked glint in his eye...
“Why Jess Harper you are shameless,” she said with a playful giggle....
The couple made their way back to town on the Sunday evening and after leaving Sunny and Traveller back at the livery made their way up the outside staircase to Millie’s room over the saloon.
They had a scratch supper and then settled down in front of her fire as the night had turned chilly.
“You really had no idea I was coming to see you?” Millie asked turning to look at him from where she was reclining in the crook of his arm.
“Nope, it was a real good surprise, why do you ask?”
“Just that the cave was so lovely and inviting, all the blankets aired that way, the mattress set out with that lovely Indian blanket and the fire all made up...it was just perfect,” she said. As she remembered him holding her close and whispering such special things to her as they lay together, the firelight casting romantic shadows on the cave walls.
He grinned down at her, “I’d tidied the place up some because I was gonna take Mike fishing before he starts back at school next week. He’ll be home from his buddy Davy’s place in a day or so. I’ll try and make things up to him, for being so dang difficult lately. But I’m glad I got the place cleaned up. It was real special that night weren’t it?”
She nodded, “Real special.”
They fell into an easy silence, just enjoying being so close. Then after a while Millie said, “Are you going to make things up with Slim too?”
He sighed deeply, “Sure I am, but I guess it will take more than a fishing trip to settle things with ol’ Hardrock...heck Mill, I said I was gonna ride out...I’m not sure if he’ll forgive me for that.”
“Oh I think he will if you explain everything to him the way you did to me.”
“What about Daisy, she’s been really upset about everything too you know Jess.”
A shadow of pain crossed his handsome features, “Yeah I know... I was gonna take her out to Miss Mollie’s and treat her to a slap-up meal...but it don’t seem enough.”
After a moment she got up and wandered over to her chest of drawers, and returned with a box beautifully wrapped in pink paper with a pink bow, “Give her this,” she said offering the little package.
“Huh, what’s this?”
“Some of her favorite perfume, Lily of the Valley, I bought it for her when I was in St Louis that time. I was going to give it to her for Christmas.”
“Aw, gee I can’t take this Millie.”
“Of course you can, I’ve plenty of time to buy her something else. Besides, you can say it’s from both of us. I feel pretty bad about avoiding her in the town when that Hanson was messing around. I just knew that I would break down and tell her everything if I spoke to her and put Lily in danger. I have explained and she understood, but this will just say how sorry I am that I hurt her that way.”
“You really are kind of special ain’t ya,” he said softly, putting a finger under her chin and kissing her tenderly....
Jess rode into the yard early the following morning so he’d be in time to help Slim with the early morning chores.
He slipped down from the saddle and led Traveller and Sunny over to the water trough. Moments later Slim emerged from the barn, pitch fork in hand.
However, he threw it down and advanced on his buddy with a warm grin and offered his hand, “Welcome home pard!”
Jess swallowed deeply, thank God, everything was gonna be OK.
He shook Slim’s hand warmly and then cast a glance over to the gleaming bunkhouse.
“Hey Slim you did a swell job,” he said.
“Uh, it’ll be just fine once it’s finished,” Slim agreed with a wicked grin.
“I left the roof for you buddy. I’ve got me a tad wary of heights since I had that nasty tumble from the barn roof,” he said. Referring to an incident the previous year when he had suffered badly from memory loss after falling from the roof. *See 69 Oblivion
“Aw Slim!”
Slim chuckled joyfully, “It won’t be so bad Jess if you start right away you should have it done by supper huh?”
It was the following evening before the two men sat and talked properly.
Jess did as Slim had asked and finished painting just before sundown and fell into his bed shortly after saying he was dead beat.
Now the two friends sat out on the porch enjoying yet another spectacular sunset over the snow-capped mountains and enjoying a glass of Red Eye apiece, Daisy having said she wanted an early night. Although Jess had his suspicions that she was subtly giving him and Slim some space.
“That was a real nice gesture,” Slim said now smiling, “Daisy was cock a hoop with that scent.”
Jess nodded, “I don’t figure it really made things up to her though Slim.”
“Maybe not the perfume itself, but it was the thought and what you said to her as well, that was real nice pard.”
Jess sighed deeply, took another sip of his drink and focusing on the distant mountains said quietly, “We need to talk Slim.”
“I thought we were.”
Jess transferred his gaze to his buddy and said, “You know dang well what I mean.”
When Slim didn’t respond he said quietly, “I just don’t know how to make it right between us Slim.”
Slim’s eyebrows shot up and he looked surprised, “Well there’s no need to Jess. I guess I was in the wrong anyway, but it took your old buddy Billy-Joe to set me straight.”
“Um, we had a long talk, all about how Trixie cheated on you with him, and that’s why you rode out, finished with her. Well heck Jess I know you, there’s no way you’d have gone and seen her unless she’d forced your arm by having the girls kidnapped that way and she knew it too.”
Jess nodded, “I guess you’re right, if she’d just written and asked me to visit her I probably wouldn’t have done...I didn’t trust her no more you see Slim, she’d lied to me before, so even if she’d said she was real sick, I might not have believed her.”
“He said how desperate she was to see you again and how she’d have done pretty much anything to keep you there too...like drugging you for instance. I’ve just never met anyone like that before Jess, couldn’t believe it. Then with all the other evidence stacking up, the doctor even swearing that you had been found together that way...well it all seemed pretty convincing...but I should have believed you.”
Jess sat looking out to the mountains again and then said thoughtfully, “If I’d been in your boots, well then maybe I wouldn’t have believed it either Slim, I can see that now.”
Slim gave a little sigh of relief, “So can I take it you won’t be leaving, dissolving the partnership...it’s not the end of the road?”
Jess looked across and said, “Nope, I’m stayin ’ as long as you want me to?”
“Sure I want you to,” Slim said a huge grin spreading across his handsome features.
“Uh, there’s just one thing though Slim, I ain’t painting anymore dang roofs. Next time we pay the Jackson boys to come an’ do it...deal?”
Slim leaned across and shook Jess’s hand warmly, “Deal.”
Shortly after he had returned home Jess had received a letter from Samson, written for him by the lawyer Jess had employed Peter Lawrence, thanking Jess for making a statement supporting Samson in the trial and helping him to receive a lighter sentence. Also saying that he intended to change his life around once the short custodial sentence was over and he would make the best of his second chance.
It was two years later when Mose delivered a letter for Jess postmarked Nairobi, Africa.
He tore it open at the breakfast table, all eyes upon him as he read the boldly written long missive.
After a while Slim said, “Well, come on Jess who the heck do you know in Africa for goodness sake?”
“It’s from Samson,” Jess said looking amazed. “He says that after Frederick was hung, all the contents of Miss Trixie’s Will went to him, he inherited all her money and the ranch. He sold it and returned to his village back in Africa...the place he was taken from for a slave when he was just a young boy.”
He looked back at the letter, “He’s used the money to build a small school.” Then he chuckled, “He says he enrolled as the first student and finally learnt to read and write.” Then he shook his head looking misty eyed.
“What is it dear?” Daisy asked.
“He says here how this is the very first letter he’s ever written and he wanted to thank me again for standing up for him back at the trial.”
“That’s swell pard,” Slim said taking the letter and reading it for himself, whilst Mike clamored for the exotic looking stamp.
Jess grinned happily.
“What are you thinking dear?” Daisy asked.
“It just goes to show what I always say, good can come out of bad stuff that happens, it just takes a real long time sometimes,” Jess said.
“Amen to that,” said Slim. Then, “Come on then work to do.”
“OK I’m comin’, “Jess replied swigging the last of his coffee and carefully putting the letter in his vest pocket.
Looking thoughtful Slim said, “You know if Samson can do it maybe there’s hope for you pard...If you went back to school with Mike for a while, you might learn to write real good like Samson...instead of your writing looking like a half dead spider’s wandered across the page.”
“What? What...half dead spider, why Slim Sherman....!”
But Slim was through the door and already half way across the yard...Jess in hot pursuit...
The End
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