#75 Abduction

As told by Jess Harper & Slim Sherman
Patty Wilkinson

(Please be aware of adult themes, strong language and violence)
Thanks to Sally Bahsen for screen cap

Chapter 1

I guess it was all my fault the way things turned out. Least ways it sure felt like it at the time. See the way I figured it, if I hadn’t gotten sick…then none of the other stuff would have happened back in the fall of ‘75.
It had been one of the hottest summers we could ever remember, with the creek and the lake getting real low. So I figured we should have been kinda thankful when the heavens opened and it looked like we’d have to start building an Ark. But when the rain fell relentlessly day after doggone day while we were bringing all the stock down to the low grazing for the winter, we got kinda sick of the novelty of all that wet stuff.
It was the Friday before the Harvest Dance that I got soaked through to the skin and boy was I mad about it. Slim was back in the east pasture chasin ’ up strays leaving’=  me to herd a few yearlings across the ridge and down into the home pasture. Well that would have been just fine iffen one of the ornery critters hadn’t managed to git in the creek, set on drownin’ itself. I weren’t havin ’ none of that, seeing as she was worth top dollar, one of our prime Aberdeen Angus beasts, and so I stripped off my coat and boots and waded in to git a rope on her.
When I rode back into the yard an hour or so later, shaking and shivering with the cold and covered in mud, I sure weren’t in the mood for any of Slim’s wise cracks.
“Hey Jess, what have I told you about bunking off to the swimming hole when there’s work to be done,” he greeted me, grinning up from where he’d just emerged from the ranch house looking real dry and clean.
I guess the look I threw him kinda said it all because he backed off some.
“Sorry Jess, why don’t you get in the house, Miss Daisy’s been frettin about you this last half hour. She’s been boiling up some water for the tub for you.”
“Oh, well that’s somethin’,” I muttered, as I went to put my horse up in the barn, thanking the good Lord for Daisy Cooper our housekeeper and surrogate Ma to us all at the relay.
But then a moment later a single rider came galloping down the rise at full tilt, splashing his way through the puddles.
“Looks like someone’s in a hurry,” said Slim.
“Looks like trouble to me,” I said darkly…and I weren’t far wrong either.
It only took a minute for us to recognize Sheriff Mort Cory’s big boned buckskin and a little later he reined in, looking real worried.
“I’m sorry to bother you boys on a Friday night,” he said looking anxiously down at us. “But the truth of the matter is I’m in kind of a fix. I need some volunteers to ride posse. Old Judge Maher’ s place was robbed and the Judge shot, villains got clean away. Then the Stage driver had a sighting just past Jigger’s Rise. Iffen you can spare an hour or so I figure with the three of us we stand a good chance of bringing them in…what do ya say?”
What could we say? I got back up on Traveller and Slim fetched Alamo and we high-tailed it up the rise at speed, looking to get some sorta justice for poor old Judge Maher.
We finally found the culprits that turned out to be a pair of shit scared kids hiding in an old line-shack just east of Jigger’s Rise. I was near froze to the darned saddle and feeling sick to my stomach so I didn’t hold back any when it came to arresting ’ them, that’s for sure.
“OK Jess, that’ll do,” said Mort hauling me off the older Bennett boy and handcuffing him along with his kid brother.
“What in tarnation were you thinking of attacking old Judge Maher that way? Your Pa would be turning in his grave if he knew how you two had turned out,” Mort spat looking about as all fired mad as I was feeling.
The younger boy, Billy was sobbing when Mort had finished and even Jody the older kid looked real sheepish.
“You’re just lucky the Judge is a tough old bird,” said Slim, “he’s not hurt badly…But I figure you’ll both be thrown in jail for this…and about time too…Things have gotten way out of hand with your behavior since your Pa died.”
Jody the elder boy started protesting at that, making me even madder.
“Why you workshy, conniving little bastard, what did your poor Ma do to deserve offspring like you? A good spell in the prison and hard labour is just what you need to straighten yourselves out,” I growled.
Once Mort had carted them off, Slim turned to me.
“You’re right about that Jess I feel real sorry for Ma Bennett, she’s not had much luck since her husband passed on.”
“No,” I agreed, “and I can’t see as how she’ll run that spread single handed either, not through the winter…”
“Come on Jess, you’re shaking pard, let’s get you back to the ranch for that hot tub huh? We’ll worry about Widow Bennett later. Anyway, I heard tell she wanted to sell up and move down south to her sister’s place. I guess this is just the chance she needs, I reckon every cloud has a silver lining huh?” He said cheerfully.
“Can’t see none in that,” I said peevishly, tipping my head towards where yet more thunder clouds were on the horizon.
Even after the hot tub and a couple of restorative glasses of Red Eye, I still couldn’t get warm and I figured I’d caught a chill. So I wandered off to bed, taking Buttons, young Mike’s dog, with me to keep me warm much to Slim and Daisy’s amusement.
The following day was Saturday so we had a relaxing breakfast and Mike decided it was real unfair I’d had his dog in bed with me all night, when he was expressly forbidden to have the critter even in his room at bed time.
But when Slim explained how I’d gotten real cold and couldn’t get warm, he relented like the good kid he is.
“I’m sorry you felt so bad Jess, are you OK now?” he asked turning his big innocent eyes on me.
Truth be known I felt kinda sick, feverish and shivery, but I sure wasn’t gonna let Daisy see that or she’d be all for packing me off back to bed. Then I could wave goodbye to the hot date I had planned with my girl Millie at the Harvest Dance.
“I’m just swell thanks Mike,” I said quickly, avoiding Daisy’s eyes.
But our housekeeper is a wise old bird and she was having none of it…
“I’m fine really Daisy” I said quickly rising from the table and heading for the barn, “chores to do,” and I disappeared out the door.
I managed to stay out of Daisy’s way for most of the day and then as soon as our supper was over Slim and I got all duded up for our dates.
I could feel his eyes boring into me from the other side of our shared room and buttoning up my smart, black frock coat turned to him.
“Daisy’s right you’re not feeling too good are you pard?” he asked softly.
I just shrugged, “I’ll be OK with a couple of shots of Red Eye down me.”
“Maybe you should stay home?” he said casting me a concerned glance.
“Are you kiddin’ me, throw up the chance of a night with my Millie? No way, I’m fine, quit your worrying Slim.”
The dance was all I’d hoped for and Millie looked real cute in a new dress bought special. It was in a reddish-brown material that kinda favoured the leaves in fall and I can’t remember seeing her looking more lovely.
Sure, I felt kinda beat, but after a glass or two I was on the dance floor and jumping around with the best of ‘em.
It was after it was over, I guess things hit me.
I stood up to leave and all of a sudden, the room was whirling and shifting and I guess I’d have taken a fall iffen Slim hadn’t grabbed my arm and steadied me.
“Hey pard you have one glass too many?” he asked chuckling.
It was Millie who came to my defense before I could answer.
“No, he’s only had a couple of glasses all night Slim. He looks like he’s coming down with something to me.”
“I knew it,” said Slim, turning to look more intently at me.
“Hang on, will you two stop talking about me like I’m not here,” I said indignantly.
“No Slim I ain’t drunk,” I said turning hard eyes on my buddy.
Then more kindly, “And no Millie I ain’t sick. Now are we all going back to your place like we planned or what?”
Slim and Millie exchanged a glance which they thought I didn’t see and Slim rolled his eyes but said nothing.
“Sure we are honey,” said Millie taking my arm and we made our way down Main Street to her rooms over the saloon.
When me, Millie, Slim and his girl Lily arrived, the place was real quiet and we figured old Tom, the barkeep, must have closed early on account of everyone bein ’ at the dance.
So we had a real good time. We all partied a while in Millie’s room. That is until we were gettin ’ kinda beat. Well to be honest, me an’ Slim wanted to be alone with our women and so he hightailed it over to Lily’s room along the corridor and we all settled down for the night.
And no I ain’t going into the details, because what goes on in my lady’s bed stays there…But we had a real good night.
Then I remember that I was woken up the following morning by sunlight streaming in through the window. The first thing I noticed was that my head was aching fit to burst and the second that I was aching all over and feelin ’ really sick as well.
I opened my eyes and squinted up at Millie who was up and dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed looking down at me, concern in her deep brown eyes.
“Aw, you got up,” I said feelin ’ real disappointed, thinkin’ about maybe a little morning loving despite feeling so bad.
She smiled down at me, knowing precisely what was on my mind.
“Easy cowboy,” she said softly, leaning across and gently brushing back my hair from my forehead her fingers lingering as she checked out how hot I was.
“Are you OK honey?” she asked again looking concerned and ignoring my comment about her havin’ gotten dressed.
“You’re a bit feverish I reckon.”
“Just a chill, I’ll be fine …so you getting back in…huh…huh Millie?” I asked throwing her my most charming grin.
She shook her head and looked kinda regretful, “Sorry Jess, but you’ve got to get up and go fetch Mike from Sunday school.”
“Huh what the heck, so why do I have to fetch him?” I groaned.
“Slim was by a couple of hours ago said he’d met up with Daisy when he and Lily were walking back from breakfast at Miss Molly’s. Apparently, Mary Jones is in labour with her fifth and Daisy had volunteered to go help out.”
“Oh yeah”, I said sighing deeply, “she did say somethin ’ of the sort.”
“Well she dropped Mike off at the Sunday school, Slim’ s gone back to the ranch to do the morning chores and he asked if you’d fetch Mike.”
I groaned again, “When?”
“Oh, in about ten minutes honey, it’s turned noon already.”
I sighed deeply, “So no time for…”
“Nope,” she said smiling at me and giving me a gentle cuff to the head. “And you take it easy today Jess, you really don’t look so good.”

It was later that night with Mike tucked up in bed and Miss Daisy staying over at the Jones spread that me and Slim had a chance to compare notes on the day.
“All I’m sayin ’ is she don’t look much like a Sunday school teacher to me,” I said again.
“Well what’s a Sunday school teacher supposed to look like Jess?” he asked with that broad grin of his, that kinda lights up his whole face.
I shrugged, “Dunno, but not wearing lipstick and a real tight dress, not to mention winking at me…well that ain’t right for a Sunday school teacher is it Slim?”
He just chucked at that.
“Mike seems to like her OK.”
Then he frowned at me, “Are you still feeling bad with that chill Jess, you hardly touched your supper?”
“Well I guess my belly’s gotten kinda used to Miss Daisy’s cookin ’ Hardrock…yours comes as kind of a shock.”
“I’ll give you shock,” he said throwing a playful punch in my direction, but when I didn’t retaliate, he looked worried again. “Come on pard lets hit the hay, I figure you really aren’t yourself.”
The following morning we just had a scratch breakfast, with Miss Daisy still actin ’ midwife and got Mike off to school on the early Stage before facing the day…and what a day it was.
The rain was pitching down again like there was no tomorrow and I was burning up…But we still had to get the rest of the beeves down and Slim couldn’t manage alone that’s for sure. So we set off, him real reluctant for me to go, but knowing there weren’t much choice.
The endless rain had made the going real bad, muddy and slippery makin ’ the work of rounding up the beasts even more difficult. Plus, half of them had ‘gone to earth’ finding sheltered places away from the weather and we figured we’d gotten at least a couple of weeks work to find ‘em all and with the threat of an early winter looming we sure had our work cut out.
We’d split up to cover more ground. With me going east and Slim west and arranged to meet up late afternoon back at the ranch to do a tally on the number of beasts we’d located. Then spend the rest of the day checking ’ out the home pasture fence. Not wanting the ornery critters to make a bid for freedom once we’d corralled them.
Anyways as it happened it didn’t rightly turn out that way.
As the morning went on I began to feel worse. But me being me and kinda wanting when it comes to common sense regarding my health, I just battled on, cussing softly calling the ornery critters all the names under the sun…until….
It was late afternoon when it happened. I’d corralled a good number of the beasts in a holding pen about a mile from the ranch and was just gonna take another quick look around before heading back, when an old familiar feeling hit me…The world started spinning and getting darker and darker and I felt myself falling as I gradually slipped from the saddle in a dead faint.
When I came around, I was lying in my own bed, stripped and wrapped in warm blankets with Slim and our good friend Doc Sam Baker peering down at me.

Chapter 2

I knew Jess was pretty sick as soon as I saw him after he rode back from town following the Harvest dance. But heck I sure didn’t know he was that bad, or I never would have let him ride out that way.
Millie said he was sleeping real deep when I saw her in the corridor of the Saloon when me and Lily were heading back from breakfast. But I just figured he was worn out after a night with his girl, or I’d never have let him work, like I say. But come Monday morning he seemed OK. Looking back now though maybe he was making light of it as Miss Daisy wasn’t around and we had to look out for Mike.
When he didn’t turn up as expected it only took me an hour or so to locate him…real near the holding corral, his mount Traveller grazing nearby and my best buddy lying in the mud.
“Hey, Jess pard, what are ya doing down here?” I said softly as I turned him over.
It was some time later before he came around after I’d got him back to the ranch and boy did he look sick…coughing and pale as pale….

Now Sam smiled down at him, “Welcome back Jess, so what have you been up to…huh? Slim says you caught a chill a few days back?”
My buddy just looked kinda dazed but nodded before he started coughing and I suddenly realized he’d been doing that the last couple of days. This time however a spasm of pain crossed his face and he clutched his chest and cussed softly.
“Jess?” said Sam looking concerned, “does it hurt to breathe?”
He nodded again, “Yeah kinda…hurting pretty bad Sam.”
That was so unusual for him to admit he was ‘hurting pretty bad that Sam and I exchanged an anxious glance before the doc took out his stethoscope and started listening to Jess’s chest again.
After a few minutes he helped him to sit up and did the same to his back, before resting him down again and replacing the covers.
“What is it Sam?” I asked in a whisper, dreading his reply as he now looked deeply troubled.
He sighed and then glancing at me, but turning back to address Jess he said, “Looks to me like you’ve got a real bad case of pleurisy Jess.”
“Inflammation of the pleura of the lung, the two surfaces of the lungs and chest wall are sort of rubbing together when you breathe and causing the acute discomfort. You had it once before I seem to remember?”
Jess looked perplexed.
“Maybe…so it’s bad is it then?” he finally managed, abandoning all pretence of understanding the medical jargon.
“Just about as bad as it can be, without turning into lung fever and that can be a killer as you know.”
“What’s the treatment Sam?” I asked casting Jess an anxious look, seeing him taking tiny breaths and now breaking out in a sweat and looking real sick and in pain. I had a vague recollection of Jess having some problem with his lungs before, but didn’t know how it was treated.
“Nothing we can do I’m afraid Slim, it just has to run its course. He needs to be sitting up, even at night, lots of pillows and keep breathing normally even if it hurts like hell. But that should hopefully prevent lung fever developing. Just keep him quiet in bed and I’ll visit again in a few days….”
Then he turned back to Jess, “I’ll leave some Laudanum for the pain Jess.”
Just as I knew he would, Jess sat up his hackles rising, “No you damn well won’t he declared hotly I’ll be fine Sam.”
Sam looked puzzled for a moment and then flushed up looking embarrassed.
“Gee Jess, I’m real sorry I forgot about that business… Of course I’ll send over some of my homemade pain relief, does a pretty good job and totally safe…OK?”
“Thanks doc,” he muttered, resting back down and closing his eyes, looking plumb tuckered out.
I showed Sam out and he turned to me on the porch.
“That was a nasty business, I should have remembered.”
He was referring to the matter of Jess having become way too fond of the* Laudanum once a few years back. He was forced to take it when up against a deadline to break some mustangs and was suffering broken ribs after a fall. He just kept taking the strong medicine to keep going, not realizing its addictive affects. Then when he finally came off it, he suffered excruciating withdrawal symptoms. It had been terrible to watch and he had never touched the stuff since.

*See #14 The Last Chance and #74 Breaking Up the End of the Road

“It’s something I sure won’t forget in a hurry,” I said with feeling.
Then, “He will be OK won’t he Sam?”
The doc looked kind of worried.
“I hope so, as long as he does as he’s told…But it’s a real nasty, painful illness Slim and he sure won’t be fit to work for two or three weeks no matter what he says.”
I just laughed bitterly at that.
“I figure you’d better send a pair of Sheriff Cory’s handcuffs along with that medicine then Sam, it’ll be the only way I can keep him in bed for that long!”
I re-entered the bedroom quietly and stood contemplating my best buddy as he lay there, eyes closed and his face tense as his breath came in painful shallow gasps.
After a while his eyes flew open and he squinted up at me.
“What in hell are we gonna do now,” he drawled.
“Look let me worry about that pard you just concentrate on getting well, huh?”
“Can’t do that Slim, we’ve gotten half the stock out on the hill, God knows where, and you expect me to sit back and leave you to deal with it all?”
“Look OK I admit we’re in kind of a fix, but I’ll just have to buy some help in for the next few weeks until you’re up and running again.”
“And where in Hell are ya gonna find some help huh? Everyone’s flat out doin’ the same as us and any as are needing help have already took on.”
I sighed in exasperation knowing the truth of it.
“Mose will be by later I’ll ask him to put the word out around town, see if there’s maybe someone passing through that’s looking for work.”
“Like some no-good drifter?” he said with a faint twinkle in his deep blue eyes. “I should be real careful Slim, that kind are nuthin ’ but trouble.”
“Well isn’t that just the truth,” I said grinning down at him and clipping him gently around the head.
“I‘ll go fix you some coffee, just take it easy huh Jess.”
“Sure,” he replied,
Then, “Slim, don’t make a big fuss when you tell Mose, you know the way he exaggerates. He’ll have me dead and buried an’ I don’t want Millie worryin’ OK?”
“You got it pard.”

Meanwhile back in Laramie a middle-aged couple sat in the back bedroom of a seedy boarding house at the wrong end of town, in deep conversation.
The woman was one Lizzy Black, aka Lizzy Grove. She was wearing a threadbare, tight green dress and slightly too much makeup and carelessly pushed back her blond unkempt hair as she addressed her husband, with a cheery grin. “It was easy as taking candy from a baby. That old Padre swallowed my story of being a gentile woman from back east, fallen on hard times…Took me on to teach those brats in the Sunday school, and no questions asked.”
“Beats me as to how you pulled it off,” said Jake Black, looking at his wife with admiration, “what about the teachin ’ side of things?”
“Easy, just get the kids to learn Bible passages and draw pictures of religious stuff,” she said vaguely.
“No wonder that little bastard Mike Williams is so taken with you,” he drawled, “sounds pretty much like you’re letting them get away with murder. God help you if the Padre checks up, gives ‘em a test or something.”
“Well we’ll be long gone by then won’t we my love, taking the gullible young Mike with us. I guess that should put Harper in a lather and you can get your own back on him. Three long years you were languishing in the Federal Penn thanks to Mister Harper and now it is payback time.
“Ain’t gonna be as simple as that though honey bun.”
“Huh...so why not Jake?”
“I was in the saloon before and that old fool Mose Shell, the Stage driver, was in tellin ’ one an’ all that Jess Harper is sick, real sick, dyin’ maybe.”
Lizzy threw him a shocked look and then a slow smile, “Well that’s great ain’t it…will save you a job anyway.”
“You just don’t get it do ya…I want Harper to suffer…really suffer. Not just turn up his toes an’ die in the lovin’ arms of his goddamn family…that’d be just too darned easy!”
“OK so what’s the plan?” she asked.
“It seems Sherman, Harper’s partner, is takin ’ on hands while Harper’s ill…So I thought I’d apply, reckon he’s real desperate…and it’ll be kinda nice bein’ on Harper’s payroll while I’m waitin ’ on killin ’ him.”
“But what if he recognizes you Jake?”
“I reckon he’s too sick to be up and about and if he does cast an eye on me, well I guess I’ve changed some,” he said bitterly fondling his grey beard. “I’ll keep a real good eye on him and as soon as it looks like he’s getting better we high-tail it out of here, but not with just his kid...but his woman too.”
Lizzy’s eyebrows arched questioningly.
“Woman?” she asked suspiciously.
“Yeah, nice little bit of fluff from the saloon. Kinda classy, lovely figure, curvy, big brown eyes,” he continued his own growing misty at the thought of the delectable Millie.
“Jake,” she said angrily, “you promised after the last time. You promised you’d be faithful!”
“And so I will my little honey bun, this is purely business. Seems she’s real upset about Harper. Gone on up to the ranch when she heard he was so sick. So I figure he’ll be more than a little upset when she disappears off the scene along with the boy.”
“Well I just don’t want any more funny-business, you stray again and we’re through!”
Now it was Jake’s turn to display his displeasure.
He took a swig from the bottle of Red Eye he had just uncorked and threw her a malicious look.
“Just don’t push it woman,” he muttered darkly, “you need me one hell of a lot more than I need you and don’t you forget it.”
She watched with distaste as he got stuck into the whiskey, knowing of old when to hold her tongue. Jake was pretty handy with his fists when riled and she had suffered many a backhander from him in a drunken rage. So she wisely backed down and went off leaving him to his own devices.

I had to call Doc Sam out again the following day as Jess took a turn for the worse.
Thank God Sam had called in at the Jones place and alerted Daisy as to the fact that Jess was so sick and Thad Jones said he’d be fine caring for his Mary and the little ones now and Daisy must come back home.
It was that evening and I was just turning in when Jess started thrashing about on the bed, looking really fearful and I realized he couldn’t get his breath.
I yelled for Daisy who had just gone to bed and she ran in a moment later wearing her old blue robe and a troubled expression on her kindly face.
“Whatever is the matter dear?”
Then she looked over at where Jess was now turning blue around the mouth, making a terrible rasping noise as he struggled to breathe.
Her nurses training kicked in at once and she ran over and told me to help her pull him up in the bed so he was sitting up and leaning forwards and then she massaged his back, all the time talking gently and calmly to him.
After a few minutes he relaxed some and his breathing became easier…
“Gee Hotshot, that sure worried me,” I said shakily once he was looking more himself.
“You and me both,” he whispered taking a shuddering breath.
I guess that’s why I finally took on that no hoper Ben Groves as he called himself.
I was so sore afraid that Jess would get up from his sickbed and come back to work when he saw me struggling to bring the stock down alone.
News had gotten to Millie as to how sick Jess was and so I wasn’t surprised when she landed the day after he had been taken so poorly.
When he woke up next day, not only was Doc Sam peering down at him looking worried but Millie too.
“I guess I must be really sick,” he said with a soft chuckle, “got me the doc and my best girl at my bedside, reckon we only need the Padre and I’ll be really worryin ’.”
“Please don’t,” said Millie quickly sinking down on the edge of the bed and taking his hand, “don’t joke about it honey.”
I suddenly had a vision of the Harvest Dance, heck just a few short days ago, although it seemed much longer.
I had been sitting a dance out with Lily, my girl.
It was towards the end of the dance, the band playing a slow number and ol’ Jess and Millie were holding each other real close. He was gently kissing the top of her head and she was snuggled up, her head on his shoulder and I thought what a real swell couple they made.
Then Lily, who had been watching them too, said softly,” Millie told me once that she had loved Jess since she was 6 years old and he was seven and he carried her books back from school.”
I guffawed at that…
“What’s so funny,” she asked, “Millie told me that she’d loved him from that moment on, that’s so romantic.”
“Nothing really”, I said smiling. “Just on two accounts, firstly it was a miracle he was there to carry her books as according to Jess he hardly ever made it to school, that dang father of his keeping him home to work the land.”
Lily threw me a saddened look at that.
“Yeah I heard about his Pa.”
“The other thing is it’s taken him so darned long to wake up to the fact that Millie is the girl for him…he’s dated so many women…”
“And Millie’s seen men too,” said Lily stoutly.
I nodded.
“Well I’m just glad they’ve finally realized what the rest of us have known for years they’re perfect for each other.”
And now watching them together I was struck once more as to how much they cared for each other.

Ben Groves, who was to be our new hired hand, turned up a few days after Jess’s attack. He was real rough looking with a straggly grey beard, about forty years of age and a calculating look in his eye that I didn’t like too much. Even Daisy who usually welcomes any waif and stray in need of a good feed up didn’t take to him either.
Anyway, he seemed keen enough and then when he said he was wed to the new Sunday School teacher, well I guess that was about as good a testimonial as I was going to get…But there again the Padre can be way too trusting on occasion and had been duped before… But as they say hindsight is a great thing and I was in desperate need of some help. So, God forgive me I took him on. He stayed in the bunk house during the week and I gave him Saturday afternoon and Sunday off to go visit with his wife and the first few days went smoothly enough. He didn’t say much, had no sense of humor, which I was sorely missing. Always exchanging banter with Jess, but I guess he got the job done and I’d no cause to fault him…. at first that is anyway.
Jess asked about the help and I was pretty vague, not wanting to worry him. But it was Mike who said exactly what I’d been thinking.
“Its funny ain’t it that Ben is married to my Sunday school teacher…He really don’t look like a Sunday school kinda person.”
Daisy and I exchanged an amused glance over his head and made no comment. But I was to remember it later and thought of that old phrase, ‘out of the mouths of babes and suckling’s…’
“So what’s this guy like?” Jess asked after the first day I’d ridden out with Ben.
“Just fine, good worker, in fact I guess you can take as long as you like to get well,” I said with a grin…But I didn’t fool him any.
“That good huh?” he said laconically before rolling over and closing his eyes.
It wasn’t like Jess not to rise to my baiting him and so I knew he was still feeling mighty sick.
I lay awake that night listening to his labored breathing and that was to set the pattern for the next week or two. Jess was struggling to breathe. Cussing softly in pain every so often as he took a deep breath and suffered pain ripping through his lungs. He didn’t say much, not even to complain, so I knew he was suffering really badly and that’s why I never voiced my suspicions about Ben Grove.
It all started when he came back from his Sunday off in town, clearly inebriated. I said nothing and he just took himself off to the bunkhouse and turned in. It was the following morning when I really got mad at him.
He had been invited to take his meals with us and at breakfast he cussed loudly at young Mike and told him to pipe down when he was being a bit loud when retelling a joke his best friend had told him.
Daisy looked quite shocked at the ripe language and I stepped in at once.
“There’s no cause for strong language Ben!” I said reprovingly.
To be fair he apologized to Miss Daisy at once. But he just glared at Mike and I figured I’d diffuse the situation by sending Mike off to prepare his bag for school, but I sure wasn’t going to let it drop.
Later in the barn I confronted him.
“You want to keep working here Groves I suggest you leave any disciplining of Mike to me…and we aren’t used to strong language in the house either.”
He looked kind of unrepentant and just muttered, “I’ve got me a sore head Sherman the kid was just making it worse is all…”
“Yeah, well it’s a good job my partner didn’t hear you cuss that way in front of Daisy or I figure he’d have bloodied your nose and chucked you off the property,” I said dryly… “So just keep it in check OK?”
He nodded at that.
Then, “So how is er…Harper I heard in town that he was real sick?”
His voice and demeanor where concerned, but he had a malicious glint in his eye that I really didn’t like.
“He’s fine,” I said gruffly, “he’ll be on the mend pretty soon I guess.”
As it was Jess was up and about again way before I expected. Or that I realised there was any real problem with Groves.
He’d been late up a few times, missing breakfast and obviously suffering a hangover and I figured he was drinking in the bunkhouse on his own…But there again it was his own free time. I figured it was only for a few weeks anyway, so ignored the problem.
However, everything suddenly kicked off during the second week he was with us.
Daisy had taken a trip over to check out the new Jones offspring and I was out inspecting the home pasture fence now most of the stock were down, with just a few unaccounted for. So there was just Mike and Jess at home.
Well this is how Jess told me of it later that day…
He was up and about, in the house for the first time, and decided to venture out and give Mike a hand with his chores. Seeing as to how Daisy and I weren’t about to tell him to rest, he said with a wink.
Once in the yard it seemed that he heard some kind of a ruckus coming from the barn and on entering saw Mike looking tearful, and real distressed.
I figure Jess was way too mad to give a real good account as to what had happened, but it seems that Ben had been mistreating Jess’s horse Traveller.
Jess came upon things just as Groves had cussed young Mike for trying to stop him lashing out at the horse again.
Jess staggered into the barn. Just the short distance from the house having exhausted him… But as he entered, he heard Groves yell at Mike.
“The dang horse needs to learn some manners, I figure Harper is way too lax with him,” and raised the whip once more, ready to beat Traveller, who was now rolling his eyes and tossing his head in obvious displeasure.
Jess was suddenly illuminated as the barn door swung open…and he took in the scene before him…
Groves turned quickly, the whip still raised and look of bitter resentment in his sly eyes as he confronted the man who had brought him to justice, after he had robbed the Stage, all those years ago.
He never saw it coming as with lightning speed Jess advanced on him, throwing a punch to the jaw that sent Groves flying across the barn and landing in an untidy heap several feet away.
He lay there rubbing a hand across his jaw, his eyes wide with shock at the speed and ferocity of the attack.
Jess was shaking with rage and advancing on the older, stocky man hauled him up and threw another punch. This time splitting his lip the blood splattered messily down his grubby shirt front.
The man cowered back now, the look of fury in Jess’s eyes making him truly a feared.
“Git your things and git out,” Jess spat, “you’re fired!”
The other got gingerly to his feet and again rubbing his face, muttered, “I’ve wages owing.”
Jess put a hand in the back pocket of his denims and pulled out some notes and coins and threw them at Groves.
“There’s your goddamn wages, now get out before I beat you to a pulp!”
Groves dragged himself up and slouched out of the barn and a few minutes later they heard him riding out of the yard.
Jess immediately strode over to where Traveller stood shaking and still very spooked.
“I’m real sorry Jess,” said Mike coming over to where Jess was now caressing Traveller’s nose and talking softly to him.
“I tried to stop him, but he said a real bad word and then said he’d turn the whip on me iffen I didn’t shut the hell up!”
Jess turned at once and ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately.
“Hey Tiger this ain’t your fault…’tis mine. Iffen I hadn’t been so dang stubborn workin ’ when I was sick, then Slim would never have had to take that low life on….”
It was later that night when Jess told me all about it.
“I figure I’ll be well enough to ride out with you tomorrow,” he said as we turned in for the night.
I looked anxiously across at him, “I don’t know Jess you’re still pretty weak and got that nasty cough too.”
“I’ll be just fine, quit fussin ’ Slim…”
Then more reflectively, “Beats me why you took on that troublemaker anyway.”
I sighed deeply.
“Well I didn’t have a lot of choice did I Jess….and he is married to the Sunday school teacher, I figured he’d be OK…”
Jess just rolled his eyes at that…then said thoughtfully, “You know there was something kinda familiar about him…is he from these parts?”
I shrugged, “I reckon not. He didn’t say, just that he’d been working someplace down south.”
“Um…the local prison I shouldn’t be surprised,” Jess said knowingly… “he’s just got that kinda look about him.”
“Well you should know,” I quipped, “guess you’ve seen the inside of enough jails.”
“Um, I guess,” he replied, his eyes still unfocused as he tried to recall where he’d met Groves. Then what I’d just said hit home…
“Why you!” and he lunged at me giving me a clip around the head for my cheek and I grinned back at him, knowing now he really was on the mend.

Chapter 3

I went back to work the day after I’d roughed up and fired Groves and although it was kinda tough the first few days I managed.
Daisy and Slim were nagging me as usual, but the way I figured it I’d already had way too much time layin ’ around the place and needed to get back to it.
We rode out early, until sundown for a couple of days. Then once we’d finally located the rest of the stock we made a start on getting the house and out building ready for the winter storms to come.
By the end of the week I was real beat and that annoying cough still troubling me some, making me feel like my chest was tearing  open every time I coughed. But hell, I sure wasn’t gonna let that stop me seeing my Millie come Saturday night.
Even though Lily and Millie had to work that night we still had a good time. Slim and I caught up with some neighbors, had a hand or two of poker and a few drinks and then the evening was drawing to a close and old Tom the barkeep let the girls off early.
We sat around a little table towards the back of the bar and had a few more drinks and a good laugh before repairing to Lily’s room where we sat around chatting and drinking coffee. To be honest by then I just wanted my girl to myself, but didn’t wanna appear rude, so we had some coffee and then I started casting her kinda meaningful looks and yawning some, before she finally got my drift.
“I guess we’ll call it a night,” she said catching my eye and giving me that real lovin’ look of hers.
Slim intercepted the look and grinned across.
“You just be real gentle with him Millie,” he quipped, “the boy’s been sick.”
She snuggled up to me at that.
“I know,” she said, “I visited remember?”
Then turning to me said softly, “You really shouldn’t have come into town you know Jess, you’re still not yourself.”
I winked at her then and pulled her even closer.
“You’re kinda glad I did though ain’t ya?”
I guess I found out just how glad she was a little while later.
The love making was special, real special…. But I wasn’t myself, she was right there.
Afterwards I felt real emotional, almost in tears. I held her close and whispered, “Don’t leave me Millie, don’t ever leave me will ya?”
She pulled gently back from my embrace and peered into my troubled eyes.
“Oh course I won’t honey, why would I? I love you don’t I…so very much,” she whispered, so softly I could barely hear her…and that was to come back and haunt me so many times in the future…thinkin’ I’d never hear her say it again.
As it was, we just lay together in her big bed, until I gently took her again and then we slept in each other’s arms about as contented and close as any couple could possibly be, I figured.
The next day I still felt real emotional and exhausted too and I reckon this pleurisy had taken more out of me than I first thought.
I guess that’s why Millie let me sleep in and tiptoed out of the room leaving me resting, before making her way across the corridor to Lily’s room.
She knocked gently and a moment later Lily answered, still in her robe, but up and about and looking past her, she could see that Slim was fully dressed and sipping a coffee.
Lily smiled in welcome and opened the door wider to admit her friend.
“Morning,” Millie smiled before declining a coffee.
“I just thought I’d tell you Jess really isn’t himself Slim, I’m letting him sleep in, do you think you could fetch Mike from Sunday school, I know it’s Jess’s turn and Miss Daisy is busy…but?”
“Sure, sure I will,” Slim said with his easy smile.
Then it clouded.
“He’s still in a lot of pain from that lung sickness I figure. He shouldn’t be working…but you know what he’s like.”
“Oh yes,” she said with a grim smile… “I know alright.”

It was a hour or so later when me and Millie were disturbed by a hammering on her door and on throwing it open we saw Slim standing there looking kinda agitated.
“Slim whatever is it?” My girl asked looking anxious, seeing as to how worried my pard was looking.
I wandered over and gave my partner a sleepy smile, “Hey Hardrock where’s the fire?”
“It’s Mike, I went to fetch him from Sunday school and the Padre said he’d been taken home by Mrs Groves. Apparently, a couple of the kids were sneezing and she was worried they were coming down with this flu that’s doing the rounds. So she took it upon herself to cancel the class and send all the kids home.”
“All of the kids but Mike?” I asked.
“Looks like it, all the others are from the town. I’ve been to the livery and Sunny, his mount is gone. Bert said he’s rented Ma Groves a mount and the two had ridden off an hour ago.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked. “He knows full well we’d go and fetch him, all he had to do was wait in the school room.”
“I know Jess. I don’t like the look of this and you know who Ma Groves is married to…could be some kind of revenge?”
“Who…revenge what kind of revenge…what’s going on?” A puzzled looking Millie asked.
I hadn’t told her about me firing Groves or why and there sure wasn’t time to go into it then…But by God, when I thought about it later, I sure wish I’d put her in the picture.
As it was there really weren’t no time.
I gave her a lingering kiss, promised to call on her real soon and then ran down the stairs after Slim to get our mounts and get home as quick as we could.

“I just don’t get it Ma’am, why couldn’t I wait for Slim and Jess to pick me up as usual?”
“They’re busy dear…I don’t want to upset you, but your Aunt Daisy was suddenly taken ill and your guardians are with her and the doctor now…It’s rather serious and Mr Sherman asked that I should ride with you over to Cheyenne to stay with Aunt Daisy’s sister, just until she is well again, you see.”
Mike shook his head looking even more bewildered.
“She was just fine this morning…and anyway Jess or Slim would take me to Aunt Daisy’s sister, my Aunt Violet, on the Stage. It’s a powerful long ride you know?” He said turning troubled eyes on the rather dumpy woman sitting her mount so awkwardly.
She sighed heavily.
“Please don’t argue dear, I’m just doing what your guardians asked, now hurry along we have to meet up with my husband over at Scott’s Bluff before night fall, he will escort us safely to Cheyenne.”

Meanwhile as Jess and Slim were riding hell for leather for the ranch up on the tree line overlooking the Laramie Road a single rider watched them, a malicious look in his eyes.
Once they were well on their way, he spurred his mount back towards Laramie and the Saloon.
“Yes Ma’am, Mr Sherman said as you should ride back with me right away, it seems Mr Harper had a real bad turn after they landed home…real bad.”
Millie looked bewildered.
“Sure he was a little under the weather, but not that sick…and Mike, their ward, was he at home do you know?”
“Yes, ma’am arrived safe and sound, my dear wife took him back just as she said she would.”
Millie turned to change into her riding attire.
“I’ll meet you at the livery in five minutes,” she called over her shoulder as she ran off upstairs.
“So you say he’s really poorly?” she asked again, once they were on their way to the ranch.
“Yes Ma’am, I’ve been working there a couple of weeks now. I have to tell you, I ain’t never seen one as hard working as Mr Harper, even though he’s been sick an’ all. Kept tellin ’ him as how I’d take the strain, but nope, he’d gotta be out there pullin ’ his weight so he said.”
“That sounds like Jess,” she said with a small smile, before averting her gaze.
To be honest there was something about Ben Grove that she just couldn’t take to. He was allegedly happily married to the Sunday school teacher, so why did he spend night after night propping up the bar in the saloon ogling her and occasionally making downright salacious remarks to her and Lily. She hadn’t said anything to Jess as she knew how protective of her, he could be…But now in his company she began to feel quite anxious and if it hadn’t been for the fact that Jess needed her, she would never have ridden off with the peculiar man.
It was when they were nearing the lake and Ben veered off the road and took the track over towards Scott’s Bluff turning back to town and then the old Cheyenne road that her seeds of anxiety became full blown misgivings.
“Where are we going,” she asked, reining in her mount, “the Sherman spread is that way surely?”
“Short cut Miss.”
“No…” said Millie suddenly afraid, “no it isn’t……what are you up to Mr Groves?”
He gave her an evil grin at that and very slowly drew his gun and aimed it at her head.
“Actually, it’s Jake, Ma’am…Jake Black…and you ain’t goin ’ anywhere near the Sherman spread, you’re comin ’ with me…!”
“No, I’m not,” she said staunchly, “I’m going to find Jess.”
“No, you ain’t Miss Millie,” he said with an intimate leer, “you’re a comin ’ along with me, that is iffen you want to see Jess’s young ward Mike Williams alive again?”
“Mike…you’ve taken Mike?”
“You got it Millie dear. Now you just be a real good girl and come along with me and we’ll find young Mike and have a nice little chat about your dear friend Mr Harper…OK?”
She just stared at the Colt pointed at her head for a long minute.
“I guess you don’t give me a lot of choice,” she answered before kneeing her mount on towards Scott’s Bluff.

Chapter 4

We rode into the yard and threw ourselves from our mounts before diving into the house.
Daisy came out of the kitchen a few minutes later and smiled at us.
“Oh, thank you for fetching Mike back I had to check on Mary, that young husband of hers was fretting about the baby.”
“He’s not here then?” I asked bleakly.
“No dear I thought…?”
Slim looked devastated, “He was supposed to be delivered by his teacher over an hour ago, seems class was dismissed early…”
“I don’t like the sound of this Slim,” I said. “Don’t forget that I fired Ben Groves who is married to Mike’s teacher maybe this is some sort of payback?”
Slim and Daisy both looked real worried at that and two minutes later Slim and I were back in the saddle and heading for town and the Sheriff.
“Well I can’t go off arresting folk for taking youngsters home from Sunday school,” said Mort throwing us a tired look. “Surely he’ll be in safe hands with her? I mean maybe she’s stopped off at one of the other old wife's places…young Mike havin ’ fun with the kids, not noticed the time?”
“Hell, Mort do you not know the lowlife she’s married to? It’s Ben Groves that I had to get rid for abusing my mount…He’s a real bad lot…and maybe they’ve taken Mike because of me firing him that way…sorta payback?”
“I suppose you may have a point,” said Mort reluctantly… “and there’s something…I dunno, kinda familiar about that guy, just can’t pinpoint it.”
“Me too,” I said excitedly, “and iffen we’re both of a mind Mort, then maybe he was in trouble of some sort. How’s about we look out some of your collection of old Wanted posters…huh, can’t do any harm.”
I really just wanted him to get a posse organized and head out looking for the kid and old ma Groves, but seein ' as it didn’t look like he was about to do that anytime soon, I figured I had to convince him there really was a problem.
Slim cast a surprised look in my direction, me bein ’ so rational, but hell I know when to be patient…well some of the time anyways.
It was half an hour later when we came to a ragged wanted poster down at the bottom of the pile for one Jake Black wanted for Stage robbery and I recognized him at once. Sure, he’d aged some…well one hell of a lot actually and grown that straggly grey beard, but it was definitely the guy who was now calling himself Ben Groves alright.
I cursed myself for being so dang stupid…
“How could I not have recognized him?” I said to Slim with a pained look. “Gee the guy threatened to kill me long and loud after I arrested him…I should have remembered that.”
“Easy pard, you were sick don’t forget and dang mad too. You threw a couple of punches and then ordered him off the property that was hardly time to get a good look at him.”
“Um”…I muttered, “so are ya convinced now Mort, can we get some men together and go look?”
Lon, Mort’s deputy, had already been around the town making inquiries whilst we were checking out the posters and he had returned after drawing a blank.
There were few people about on the street with it being a Sunday, but old Bert from the livery confirmed that Ma Groves and young Mike had ridden out together earlier that morning and the child seemed happy and relaxed in the teacher’s company.
“Did he see where they were heading?” I asked urgently
“Down Main Street, heading towards the Laramie road and your spread, said he was expecting the hire horse back long since, she’s hired it until 2pm and it’s going on three now and he was getting kind of edgy.”
“He’s not the only one,” muttered Slim darkly as he turned to where the afternoon had suddenly become nearly as dark as night and the rumble of distant thunder heralded yet another storm.
“And there goes our chance of tracking ‘em iffen we don’t get a wiggle on,” I said making for the door.
Lon had organized half a dozen worthy citizens to ride out with us and we followed the road, stopping every few hundred yards to check if they had deviated onto a side track…and then I saw it, the distinctive small hooves of Mike’s Palomino pony, Sunny, looking to be traveling at speed, He was heading off towards Cheyenne and the distant hill country surrounding the Laramie mountains along an old backtrack frequented by Indians in years gone by.
Even as we rode the tracks became more and more difficult to trace and the storm finally hit with a sudden deluge obliterating everything in its path.
“This is crazy,” said Mort after an hour or so of backtracking and circling the area, the group having split up to cover more ground. “We’ll just have to go back to town, try again in the daylight. I’ll alert Sheriff Masters over at Cheyenne too. If they’re heading that way he’ll find ‘em.”
Well Slim and me were none too pleased about that. But I guess the guy had a point as it was near pitch dark now and if we carried on we knew there was the danger of one of the mounts falling and breaking a leg. So we just had to do what Mort wanted, although I did plenty of cussin ’ and frettin ’ before they finally persuaded me.
One of the men riding with us was a good neighbor and he promised to tell Daisy what was happening and to get his sons to work the Relay for us until we could get back and we finally repaired to the Saloon.
I guess both of us were in need of a stiff drink or three and the company of our women as we were feelin’ sorely tried by recent events.
So, I was real shocked at what happened next.
Lily and old Tom, the barkeep just stared open mouthed when I strode in…
“What’s up,” I asked, “I ain’t been banned have I Tom? I don’t recollect bein ’ in trouble in here…least ways not recently,” I qualified throwing him a speculative look.
“It’s not that,” Lily piped up, “we just thought you’d been taken real sick, is all.”
“Huh, why’d you think that, heck we were drinkin ’ together just last night?”
“It was Ben Groves,” said Tom, taking up the tale, “he was in here a few hours ago, real upset, said how you’d been taken real bad and was askin ’ for Millie to come over to the ranch and…”
“Groves!” Me and Slim yelled at once… “I might have known it,” I added bitterly.
“So you just let Millie go off with him?” I asked Tom feeling pretty damn mad now.
“Well sure why shouldn’t I, the guy works for you don’t he?” asked Tom now looking thoroughly perplexed.
“Not since I fired him!” I spat angrily… “and his name ain’t Groves, its Black, Jake Black who robbed the Stage out Cheyenne way a few years back…He got a three stretch for his trouble and swore he’d get even,” I finished miserably.
“Easy Jess, Tom had no reason to know that…”said Slim quietly.
“You say Millie went with him Tom?” asked Slim trying to be reasonable, I guess.
“Yup, ran upstairs to get in her riding britches and took off, Groves…er Black, had a horse already waiting on her and they rode off real fast heading for your place…least ways that’s the way they seemed to be heading,” he finished apologetically.
I guess I really can’t remember when I was madder or more upset than I was then. At first we kinda thought, yes Mort had a point, maybe Ma Groves, that is Ma Black had taken Mike off to one of her friends…but now with the added shock that Millie had been taken…well I was fair spitting ’ I was so mad.
I was all for riding out there and then, storm and dead of night makin ’ no damn difference, but Slim finally talked some sense into me and we decided to head out at first light.
There was a miserable misty drizzle still fallin ’ but at least the torrential rain of the night before had gone…but leaving absolutely no trace of where the Blacks had ridden off to with my ward and best girl.
Iffen he thought taking them would be just about the worst possible thing he could do to me I guess he wouldn’t be wrong and I knew Slim was hurtin ’ somethin ’ fierce too, not to even mention poor Daisy back at the ranch.
We rode on all morning passing the place where we had last seen Sunny’s tracks and then pressing on towards the distant mountains thinkin’ maybe they were holed up in one of the large caves at the base of the mountains…But why…what was their game? We just didn’t know. Were they gonna hold our loved ones to ransom…so we’d pay up and get them home safe…Or was Black intent on killin ’ them and then gloating in my face?…I very much feared the latter.
I was feeling sick to my stomach, in fact I’d thrown up my breakfast just half an hour into our ride and now my guts were churning with fear as I thought about the worst possible scenario, Millie and Mike layin ’ dead someplace…Or maybe he’d hurt them real bad and just left them to die? The more I thought on it the worse I felt and one glance over at Slim confirmed he was feeling pretty much the same. When was this goddamn nightmare gonna end I wondered…?
Then I had a sudden thought.
“I reckon I may know where he is Slim.”
“Huh, how come?”
“When I finally ran him to ground after the robbery, I caught up with him at The Swift Arrow caves to the west of Cheyenne.”
“What near the old Cheyenne Indian burial ground?”
“Yup, that’s it.”
“But why would he go there if he thinks that’s where you’ll be looking?” asked Slim looking puzzled.
“Because he wants me to find him of course…What’s the point of sweet revenge iffen you don’t see your victim sufferin ’ huh Slim? My guess is he’s gonna hurt Millie and Mike and wait for me to come along and find ‘em.”
“Oh God,” said Slim softly as the truth of it dawned on him…
“Come on what are we dang well waitin ’ for?” I said hustling Traveler off to a gallop.

Chapter 5
Meanwhile as Slim and Jess were hurriedly making their way towards the mountains west of Cheyenne, Jake Black and his wife and hostages were holed up in a huge old Indian encampment cave some twenty miles west of Cheyenne, just as Jess had thought.
It had not been as simple as Black had first thought. His wife had the devil’s own job convincing the child that he was being taken to his aunt Violet, Daisy’s sister over in Cheyenne. Then when Jake had met up with them at the prearranged venue of the caves, with a now tied and gagged Millie, the boy had gone berserk biting and kicking at Black to try and help Millie, who he obviously adored.
Finally, Black had taken the child across his knee and beaten him brutally until his wife protested that he would kill the youngster.
“Right you little bastard you do exactly as you’re told or you’ll git more of the same,” he spat angrily as he released the child, who stood tearful and trembling.
“You understand kid?” He yelled raising his hand again ready to slap him.
“Yes sir,” Mike cried looking panicky, “I understand real good.”
Then Black advanced on Millie and tore the gag off her, leering into her angry face.
“Leave Mike alone,” she yelled furiously, “he’s just a little boy!”
He gave her a sharp backhander across the face at that, her head snapping back as she glared at him way beyond angry now.
“Why you dirty coward, so what else do you do apart from hitting women and children!”
“Don’t,” cried Lizzy Black, coming forwards, “don’t rile him Millie…”
But too late Black had swiped her across the face again, the blow making her stumble backwards and fall hard as young Mike jumped forwards and went and threw himself down beside her, looking terrified.
“Leave her alone!” he cried, sobbing now…in fear and shock.
“Please Jake, please don’t hurt the girl,” Lizzy cried again.
Jake leered down at Millie again, getting some perverted pleasure from seeing her lying helpless in the dirt by the cave mouth…and suddenly his persona changed once again.
He turned to his wife and gave her a patronizing glance before turning back to Millie, a gleam in his rheumy eyes.
“Of course, I ain’t gonna hurt the little lady,” he drawled, “quite the contrary, I figure we’ll be good friends, real good friends, once we’re acquainted better…”
Then he turned hard eyes on Mike.
“Get in the cave you little brat and no more of your lip or I guess you’ll be the first to meet yer Maker.”
“Why,” asked Millie now looking horrified, “why are you doing this to us?”
“Harper…in a word my dear young lady…Jess Harper. I lost three good years of my life thanks to him and I swore revenge back then…and now it’s payback time.”
“What are you going to do?” She asked tremulously.
“Make you suffer,” he said casually… “and when Harper arrives, as I know he will eventually, he’ll see what anguish I’ve caused you and then the fun will really begin!”
She just threw him a challenging look but had sense not to say any more.
It was later that day that Jake decided to make his move.
He had sent Mike and Lizzy off to collect kindling. Fired by the half bottle of Red Eye he had consumed during the afternoon he wandered over to where Millie was sitting by the cave entrance, her wrists still tied and a look of resentment in her dark brown eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked as he advanced on her and slumped down on a rock, so close she could smell him…and the foul stench of stale liquor too, making her want to gag.
“Well I’ll tell you, pretty little lady,” he said leering at her again and running a stubby finger down her cheek… “I guess I want you…seein ’ as you’re Harper’s woman…I reckon that would be the one thing that would really hurt him…huh…huh, what do ya say Millie, gone kinda quiet ain’t ya?”
“Don’t you dare,” she spat angrily, “don’t come anywhere near me or Jess will tear you apart…”
“Hum…maybe little lady, but he ain’t here is he and I am…” he leaned in, grabbing a hank of her hair in his plump fist, pulled her towards him and started kissing her.
Millie yanked herself back away from him, the look of disgust in her eyes merely lending fuel to his brutal lust…
He was too strong for her, his passion lending him strength and minutes later he had ripped her dress and was on top of her…as Millie struggled and screamed, desperately trying to get away from his vice like grip…
Then he grabbed hold of her shoulders and shook her so violently that she fell backwards, hitting her head hard on a rock…rendering her instantly unconscious.
“No!” cried Lizzy coming upon the couple a few minutes later…
She threw down her bundle of fire wood and grabbed her husband’s rifle…
“Stop it, stop it!” she screamed…
Being so far gone in the throes of passion Jake paid her no heed…as he continued to mistreat the now unconscious Millie, slapping her hard on the face in an attempt to revive her.
Seconds later a single shot rang out and he slumped forwards across Millie, blood oozing from a wound to his back.
Lizzy gasped in horror at what she had done, throwing the rifle down…
Then without thinking she simply tore over to her mount, threw the saddle on and rode out without a backwards glance.
Mike was often to wonder why she did that, abandoned him and Millie that way. With Millie looking so sick and all, but after talking it through much later he figured she was just so upset she wasn’t thinkin’ straight.
Once she had ridden out Mike crawled over to Millie and held her close, her seemingly lifeless body lying so still.
Then he glanced over to where Black had crawled away and now lay on his back breathing loudly and cussing some.
It was a good half hour later before Millie came around…but she wasn’t right, not right at all, so Mike was to say later.
She had a strange faraway look in her eyes and she hardly seemed to recognize Mike, just called him boy.
Then she sat up properly and saw where Black was still lying on the ground and she stiffened looking terrified.
“It’s OK Millie; I guess he can’t hurt ya now Mike insisted, noting her fear…. I figure Ma Groves has done for him.”
Millie merely looked at Mike like he was speaking a strange language…
“Ma Groves, you say?” She questioned.
“Sure, my teacher Millie, you know that. She just up and shot Mr Groves when he was…” here the boy flushed up but manfully continued… “you know when he was doin’ bad things to you.”
Millie looked momentarily shocked and then her eyes glazed over.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
“We need to get to town,” said Mike sagely, ignoring Millie’s odd behavior, “and I figure Cheyenne is nearer…kinda due East I figure,” he said throwing Millie a confident glance… “we’ll set off now and make it by dark I reckon.”
They both cast the comatose body of Jake Black a final glance and then thinking him dead made for their mounts.
As we rode on, I glanced over at Jess and I can’t ever remember seeing him looking more grim or upset. God knows I felt bad enough at the thought of young Mike and Millie being taken hostage by this mad man…but hell Millie was Jess’s woman…and I knew she meant everything to him.
We were closing in on the mountainous area where the caves were situated when we saw a lone rider galloping hell for leather like the devil was a chasing her and it didn’t take us long to change course and intercept the woman.
Gee she looked real spooked and I hardly recognized this wild looking female as Mike’s Sunday school teacher, Mrs Groves…Then I remembered she wasn’t, she was Lizzy Black, Jake Black’s wife. Then all thought was driven from my head as she reined in and threw us a terrified look and made to ride off in the opposite direction.
However, before she could move Jess had leapt down from his mount and grabbing hold of the reins of her horse with one hand easily pulled her from the saddle with the other.
“You ain’t goin ’ anywhere Ma’am until you tell us where that low life husband of yours is,” he yelled glaring at her.
She looked purely terrified before gasping, “They were at the caves…the Swift Arrow caves…he was…” and then she collapsed in tears…
“What?” yelled my pard looking like he may well change the rules of a lifetime and slap a woman…
“I came back from collecting wood and he was forcing himself on her…”
“What!” Jess yelled again turning ashen…
“The boy,” I said quickly… “Mike is he OK?”
She just shook her head… “I don’t know he’s crazy…could have done for them both after I left…He said he would…But he was wounded…I just don’t know,” she cried, looking anguished.
“Come on,” I said and we remounted and took off for the distant hills, leaving a tormented looking Lizzy Black staring after us.
When we arrived at the caves Jake Black was lying by the entrance in a pool of blood and we both thought he was dead.
We scanned the area and there was no sign of Millie or Mike and then Black groaned and Jess was on his knees by his side in a split second.
“What have you done with them you goddamn miserable bastard,” he spat, grabbing the older man by the shoulders and shaking him violently.
I rushed over and pulled him off.
“Take it easy Jess let him speak, it’s our only chance of finding where they are.”
He backed off but still glared at the now fully conscious Black.
“So where are they,” I asked quietly, “it’s all over for you Black, but you can make amends, just tell us where they are…” I pleaded.
“Dead,” he spat, “the kid is anyway…the woman wounded real bad, she can’t have gotten too far. Feisty little thing, she managed to get the kid’s body on her mount and then just about made it into the saddle, but like I said…she won’t last,” and he gave my pard an evil smile… “I guess I ain’t got no regrets though... everythin ’ was worth it for time spent with yer woman Harper…”
There was a long minute of deathly silence before Jess erupted in incredible fury, shaking Black by the shoulders violently and cussing long and loud…
It was a good few minutes before I could finally get through to my buddy.
“Jess! Jess for God’s sake man he’s gone…he’s dead, leave him.”
He stared blankly at the lifeless body of Jake Black. Then pulled himself up and staggered over to a nearby pine tree, leaning on it for support, and I thought he might throw up again or even faint. He had turned from deathly pale to almost grey, his face a study of shocked horror, and I figured I looked pretty much the same.
Then after a moment he fell to his knees and touched something on the ground and then glanced over at me, holding his hand out…it was covered in red sticky blood…Millie’s or Mike’s we knew not…but Black had been telling the truth, they were dead or dying…
Jess staggered up and started checking the tracks.
“Look,” he said his voice thick and gravelly with emotion, “see here Slim, these are Mike’s boot marks and here…looks like he fell and then here…see these small boots are Millie’s and she’s dragging him over here,” and he walked slowly towards some bushes and then we saw hoof prints where the horses must have been tethered…Then we heard it, the unmistakable sound of Sunny, Mike’s pony, as he lifted his head from cropping the grass and gave us a little whinny of welcome.
We went over and Jess ran a gentle hand down the diminutive critter checking for any injury…but he seemed fine.
Then he turned to me looking totally broken.
“If the pony is fit and healthy, I guess this means Mike was unable to ride him. Because he sure as hell wouldn’t have left Sunny iffen there was any choice,” he said gruffly…if he was still alive, left unsaid, but acknowledged by us both.
We mounted up and followed the tracks, but it was nearly dusk when we smelled wood smoke and caught a glimpse of it rising into the clear evening sky.
“It’s gotta be them ain’t it?” said Jess the light of hope in his deep blue eyes for the first time that day.
We rode into their camp a little while later and the first thing we saw was Mike hurtling towards us, crying and laughing at the same time, delirious with excitement and relief to see us.
Jess was the first down from the saddle and the boy ran into his arms and my pard held him close…
“Thank God,” he whispered hugging him before passing him to me and turning to where Millie was still huddled by the fire, her arm tied with a makeshift bandage and a look of pure terror in her eyes.
“Millie!” Jess almost sobbed and running forwards took her in his arms…
But she cried out in fear and backed off…
“No,” she shrieked… “get away from me!”
“Mill, Millie… sweetheart?”
“She ain’t quite right in the head I guess,” Mike piped up… “ain’t been since that Mr Groves attacked her real bad.”
I turned to look at the boy, “Attacked her, what do you mean Mike?”
The child looked really embarrassed at that.
“I guess he was hustling her Slim, into stuff she didn’t wanna do…and then he threw her back real hard and she hit her head, knocked her unconscious…Then later she came around and she was really weird…kept callin ’ me boy instead of Mike…and then she didn’t seem to remember you and Jess or even Aunt Daisy and her best friend Lily…it really don’t make sense,” the child said looking bewildered.
I watched Jess staring into her indifferent eyes, his own full of hurt and shock and I felt so dang sorry for him…for them both, I guess.
It was later that night when Mike and Millie were finally sleeping that we had a chance to discuss this latest turn of events. Mike had settled down well and once Millie’s arm had been carefully bathed and bandaged, she too finally fell asleep.
Jess had at first been shocked and upset, then frustrated and angry and was now completely devastated at the change in his lover, soul mate and best friend…hell she was so special to him…
“I guess it’s the same as what happened to you that time Jess,” I said gently as I saw the haunted look in my buddy’s eyes as he glanced over to his sleeping girl.
I was referring to the terrible bout of amnesia he suffered after falling in the river and banging his head really badly. A stranger had hauled him out and Jess had absolutely no idea of his own name or history…until Mike found him weeks later and the sight of the youngster finally brought his memory flooding back. *See #18 Lost.
“Yeah and as soon as I saw Mike, I remembered everything,” he said bitterly, “hell everything that me and Millie are to each other…well why didn’t the same thing happen?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know pard, I figure the doc may be able to help, we’ll ride into Cheyenne tomorrow and see old Doc Potts, and he’ll maybe get to the bottom of it…”
“It’s not just that she doesn’t know who I am…she looks terrified of me,” he said despairingly.
I just clapped him gently on the shoulder, not knowing how to comfort him.
“Come on Jess, let’s turn in, we’ve a long ride tomorrow.”
I knew deep down what the problem was though.
I had seen the look he had given her when she had backed off…his eyes so full of love, of passion… mixed with hurt, that she had been overwhelmed by the strength of his emotions… To see, who she thought of as a complete stranger, looking at her that way was bound to spook her some I figured. Especially after the rape attempt by Groves aka Black.
I felt kind of bad that she had acted more normally with me, just seeing friendly compassion in my eyes that didn’t ask anything of her…But how could I tell my pard that it was his strength of feelings for his girl that was frightening her?
I glanced over at him, now laying on his bedroll, one arm flung across his eyes. I figured he wasn’t far from tears, and my heart bled for him… It seemed like Black had got his way, my partner was suffering really badly, just like he had intended.

Old Doc Potts steepled his fingers and looked lugubriously over at Jess.
“I am going to discuss my patient with you,” he said, glancing over to include me, “as I know what good friends you are of dear Millie and I feel if she was in a healthier state of mind she would wish you to be consulted. You especially Jess have an understanding with the young woman I know, and so it is only fair you should be included in her…”
“Doc will you just get to the point,” said a now thoroughly frustrated Jess… “is she gonna get her mind back and if so when, this is drivin’ me crazy ya know?” he said angrily.
“Quite so,” said the elderly physician, being quite used to the Harper temper, when sorely tried.
“I propose that I keep her sedated here for a day or so and see how she responds and then... Well I think in view of her Mother being on that family visit to St Luis, then she would be better back home in Laramie…if you could escort her maybe?”
Millie’s Ma ran a high-class boarding house there in the town, but was currently closed as she was on a protracted visit to her son, his wife and new baby.
“Sure, sure,” said Jess abstractedly, “but she is gonna get well ain’t she doc…huh?”
“The mind is a very difficult thing to predict Jess…having suffered a bout of amnesia yourself you must understand that. She has been very badly traumatized, both physically and mentally and it has taken its toll on her and so I think we must really err on the side of patience I’m afraid.”
“You mean she is going to be this way for some time then?” I asked, seeing that Jess was having trouble dealing with this latest bombshell.
The doctor nodded.
“It may be a physical thing, as a result of that blow to the head, or more likely hysterical amnesia…”
“Huh, Millie ain’t given to havin ’ hysterics doc, she’s tough, real tough,” said Jess belligerently.
“I know that,” said the doctor smiling benignly at my pard and trying to calm him some, I guess.
“But from what you tell me first this er…Black tried to rape her?”
Jess just groaned softly and nodded.
“Even though he failed...was shot before he could molest her...she was still emotionally traumatized, ”the doctor continued.
Jess nodded, “Well sure I can understand that.”
“Then according to Mike, she was knocked unconscious. She came around eventually and they thought they could escape. They assumed that Black was dead but he came around and opened fire on them. That resulted in poor Mike fainting with fear and Millie thinking he’d been shot dead. Then finally she received that nasty gunshot wound to her arm…any one of those things is enough to affect the balance of the mind Jess…I guess it was lucky that Black fell unconscious after shooting at them and they were able to make their getaway, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“I guess not,” he muttered.
“It is all just too much for her to accept, so her brain has kind of switched off…to recover I believe. Like I say you must be very patient with her…and er…don’t try and rush her into trying to remember how you two are…er… were together. It may be that you have to start and court her from scratch so to speak, try and get her to fall in love with you all over again, if her memory doesn’t return.”
“And you think that’s possible?” Jess asked looking totally shocked now.
The doctor just shrugged.
“It’s early days young man…just take things really slowly, try not to rush her or you’ll scare her you understand?”
“Sure,” muttered Jess quietly, “I love her doc I ain’t gonna hurt her that way…”
“And just be thankful young Mike seems in tip top shape and was able to tell us all that happened,” he finished gravely.
“Hell, we sure are doc, I said thankfully.”

Chapter 6

I rode out with Mike, leading Slim’ s mount Alamo, a couple of days later, leaving Slim to escort Millie back on the Stagecoach.
I was still feeling bitterly hurt at our conversation of the previous evening and I figured I must have looked real angry as far as Mike was concerned.
“I just don’t get it sweetheart. Why do ya want Slim to take you back…we’re together you and me. Hell Mill you’re my best friend…we’re lovers why are you treating me so mean?”
She just looked kinda flustered, near to tears I guess and I suddenly felt terrible being so dang crass…But I guess I was just so frustrated, how could she forget me this way?
“I don’t know you,” she whispered. “I’ve never seen you before in my life…and yet you insist we’re lovers? I don’t love you; I don’t even know you…How do I know you’re not just saying that to have your way with me?”
I just stared at her then feeling so damn bad…
“Millie I wouldn’t do that. I love you too much to ever hurt you that way…You must remember…please, try and think!”
“I’m sorry,” she cried before getting up from her chair in the hotel lounge where we’d been sitting and making for the stairs to her room.
She turned after a moment and then blurted out… “If you must know I feel safer with Slim… You…you frighten me Jess. The way you look at me…all that passion in your eyes, it scares me,” and she ran off, now in tears…leaving me cursing at how badly I was handling everything.

“Jess, Jess?”
“Are you OK, you look real mad?”
“Sure, sure I am Tiger,” I said reaching across and ruffling the youngster’s hair, “just kinda frettin’ about Millie, you know?”
“Sure,” he nodded looking relived that it was nuthin ’ he’d done, I guess.
“She will be OK Jess, after all you were weren’t ya, it’ll just take a little while I guess…huh?”
I nodded, thinking what a great kid he was…
“Sure, sure it will. Come on Mike, let’s get these critters movin.’ I bet Aunt Daisy’s been missin ’ you something fierce,” and we spurred our mounts on to a brisk trot.
It was obvious as soon as Millie entered the saloon that she wasn’t going to be able to settle back there. Her usual cheerful, feisty self had been replaced by an innocent young woman who seemed practically afraid of her own shadow. It was real hard to watch as Tom and Lily came over and started to make a big fuss of her and were met by blank stares. Then there was a shout of drunken laughter from a drover at the bar and she jumped a mile and looked terrified.
“This ain’t gonna work Slim,” I said softly. “I’ll take her across the road to doc Sam’s place while we figure out what to do. Can you fill in Tom and get Lily to bring some of Millie’s clothes over huh?”
Sam had already been put in the picture re Millie’s health by his colleague Doc Potts and welcomed her warmly. Then Carrie, his lovely young daughter and nurse whisked Millie off to her room to visit.
“I know you’re having some problems with your memory right now,” she said gently, “but I’m a real good friend of yours Millie and we’ll work it all out, trust me huh? Come up to my room for a talk?”
Millie looked blankly at her and then Carrie’s friendly way won her over and she gave a timid little smile.
“Thanks Carrie, I’d like that.”
Once they had gone Slim went off to check on Mike who was having milk and cookies with Sam’s housekeeper and I slumped down in a chair opposite the doc’s desk, feeling suddenly exhausted.
After a moment he went over to a cabinet and poured us both a stiff drink and passed one over to me.
“Thanks,” I muttered downing it in one.
“This is real hard for you Jess.”
It was a statement, not a question and I just nodded.
“I’m just hurtin ’ some I guess,” I said softly. “Hell Sam, she’s my best girl, she means everything to me…I’ve been so worried about her and now all I want to do is hold her in my arms…love her…make everything OK again and she don’t want to know me . She says I scare her, I’m way too …er…intense…well I can’t help that can I? The way I feel about her…way I look at her?”
“I know Jess and I do understand, but you’re really going to have to back off, give her space, time to recover…”
I sighed deeply.
“I guess.”
Then I looked over at my good buddy, knowing he was talking sense really.
“Look Sam, I need to take her home with me, look after her and maybe seein ’ each other everyday will kinda help her mind recover, what do ya say huh?”
He looked at me long and hard and then his face broke into a huge grin.
“I think that’s the best medicine she could have buddy…but Jess, you take it real easy. Try and rush things you could do more harm than good OK?”
Those words were to echo in my brain…later, much later.
Millie was kinda hesitant at coming over to the ranch with us. But when we explained we had a live-in housekeeper, who would look out for her she kinda warmed to the idea. Then Mike said how he’d show her all his critters and it was a real safe place a long way from town and the noisy saloons, that she was finally won over.
It sure was swell havin ’ her home, but she didn’t warm to me any and spent most of her time huddled up with Daisy or around Mike and his critters.
I guess I took the doc’s advice and really backed off some. I tried to look on her as a little sister or something, but it was hard, real hard…
It all came to a head about three weeks into her stay with us.
I’d treated her real gentle, never making a move, fer God’s sake acting like her big brother, even though that was really difficult for me.
One Saturday night I took off for town. Earlier than Slim, not bein’ able to stomach the kinda evening we used to spend together, me and Millie, Slim and Lily at a dance or just drinking in the bar…Now though Millie was too dang scared to go into town and sure as hell she didn’t wanna go with me…So I figured that’s why I lit out that night headin’ for the low life dump on the edge of town, ‘The Last Chance ’ saloon.
Slim caught up with me just as I was downing my sixth…maybe seventh glass of Red Eye and was chatting to Cheryl, a real pretty girl and real willing to have a chat and a laugh too.
“Jess…we need to talk…”
“Slim, well hi there,” I slurred, “real good ta see ya, so what are you doin’ in a place like this?” I asked sarcastically, pullin ’ Cheryl a mite closer.
“Jess…come on, this isn’t like you,” he said collapsing on a seat next to me… “what about Millie…huh?”
At his tone and the mention of another girl Cheryl disappeared back behind the bar and stood there lookin ’ kinda resentful.
“What do ya mean,” I asked, taking another swig of my Red Eye… “it’s not like me to want a woman…huh…want a bit of female company?”
“That’s just what I mean, you don’t want just any woman’s company Jess…you want Millie’s. You’re promised to her, or have you forgotten that…?”
“No, but she dang well has!” I yelled back…all the pain and anguish of the last few weeks somehow being released.
Then I finished my drink, and shook my head sadly, “I wasn’t gonna…you know do anything... with that Cheryl. Hell. I wouldn’t ever cheat on Millie, you know that dontcha? She was just keepin ’ me company…I just needed someone to talk with Slim, damn it…”
We rode back home shortly after and I apologized to Slim.
“I guess it isn’t me you should be apologizing to though is it Jess?” he said softly.
I hung my head feeling a real bastard.
“I’ll try,” I said then, “what the doc said, try courtin ’ her like I did way back, make her fall for me all over again,” I said, throwing him a hopeful look…
“Sure Jess,” he said real kindly, “you do that pard; it will all work out in the end…”
I was to remember those words later…
So I just tried courting Millie all over again.
Well, she sure didn’t take too well to it at first that’s for sure.
See, she was real spooked around men…after her run in with Black I figured, and so every time I got kinda close she backed off real fast…makin ’ me more and more frustrated.
I started courtin ’ her taking things real slow, for me, I guess. It was strange asking Millie to go for a walk, or fetchin ’ her flowers all that kinda stuff, because you see I reckon I hadn’t courted her before, not really. We’d just grown up together, been best friends and over the years that had changed to a really deep affection and then love…gee I sure loved that woman…. But Millie, my Millie had gone and in her place was this shy, innocent young woman who flushed up and looked real uncertain iffen I just held her hand…Well after how we’d been…the lovin ’ so damn passionate, so free and easy…this new Millie was kind of difficult for me to take.
Anyway I stuck with it, spending time with her, riding out, goin ’ on picnics in the late fall warm sunshine…all the stuff you do to get to know a girl…get her in the mood for a little romancing I guess if I’m honest…Hell I was sure missin ’ that side of things, as much as her wonderful sense of fun and relaxed happy personality. That trip to the bar on the edge of town had really shaken me up some too. How could I have visited that dive? Just talkin ’ to another woman felt like a betrayal. I could never cheat on my Millie, because I knew deep inside, she was still there…but I just couldn’t seem to get through to her.
Then it happened one afternoon about four or five weeks into her stay at the ranch.
We were in the middle of an Indian summer although it was real late in the year and I guess it was unseasonably hot.
Slim had taken Mike and Daisy into town, leaving Millie busy doin’ some knitting up on the porch and after a while I joined her from where I’d been mending harness and sat a spell.
After a while I asked, “What are you makin’?”
“A jacket for the new Patterson baby,” she said with a smile, “Daisy taught me how to knit, but I guess I knew before as it came real easy.”
After a few minutes she stood up.
“It’s getting late maybe I should start supper?”
I looked up from where I still sat on the porch…
“I guess, yeah…”
Then standing up I walked towards where she still lingered by the door…
“So maybe iffen the knitting came back to you real easy…once it was explained that is…well could be other things could?” I asked with a smile and raised eyebrow…
She smiled shyly over, “Maybe?”
I leaned in and looked down at her full red lips and then back up at those beautiful brown eyes I knew so dang well…
“Mill” I whispered…
She leaned in and very gently brushed her lips against mine…at first hesitantly and then more firmly and after a moment I responded kissing her back, pulling her closer to me, one hand cupping her face and the other running gently down her back…
Then she was tangling a hand in my hair drawing me even closer and the kissing got hotter and hotter. I could feel my pulses racing and I gave a little moan of pleasure as she moved in even closer her soft body yielding against my firm muscular one.
Then just as suddenly as she had come on to me she backed off…
“No,” she cried, almost in terror, “no this is all wrong,” and she made to run away from me…But I was too fast for her and grabbed her arm, pulling her back towards me.
“How can it be?” I cried. “How can it be wrong when I love you so much…please Millie you must remember how it is with us…how it was?”
She just shook her head and wrenching herself free from my grasp she flew into the house crying.
That’s how Daisy found her when she landed home from the shopping trip half an hour later... layin’ on her bed in floods of tears.
“What in Hell happened?” Slim asked looking furious.
“Nuthin ’ just a kinda misunderstanding I guess,” I muttered darkly.
Nothing more was said, but Millie didn’t appear again that night, pleading a headache and saying she was having an early night.
Daisy was kinda tight lipped and Slim obviously mad at me, but no more was said. It was after supper when we were having a final coffee by the fire before settling down for the night that I glanced over at Slim.
He was looking broodingly into the fire and I knew he was still feeling real resentful about my behavior, no doubt thinking I’d forced myself on Millie. Especially after he’d found me chatting to that Cheryl a while back…He knew how dang unhappy I was with the situation, how frustrated I was feelin’.
Sure a man had needs, but did he really think I’d behave that way towards Millie?
“It’s not what you think you know Slim,” I said at last, really needing to clear the air between us.
He turned to look at me at that and said impatiently, “So what do I think…huh?”
“That I’ve upset Millie by forcing attentions on her that she didn’t want,” I said angrily, feeling myself flushing up…
“And didn’t you?”
I jumped up from my chair at that and yelled angrily, “No I damn well didn’t and if you must know it was her that started it…She kissed me first Slim…and then she got real passionate…and well things were just gettin ’ real interestin ’ and she backed off…Sorta panicked, said it was wrong…I don’t know,” I sighed now running a hand through my hair in frustration… “It seemed like she wanted me and then…”
Slim looked apologetic then...
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, “I didn’t realize and I guess she’s feeling as frustrated and mixed up as you are Jess…”
I nodded…
“I guess so…that’s why I’m gettin ’ out for a while Slim…give her some space to think things through.”
“Hey, you don’t need to do that pard.”
“Yup, I do…for my own sanity as well as hers Slim…It’s killin ’ me being so close to her, but not being able to…well you know…even kiss her for God’s sake.”
“I can see that would be kind of trying,” he said softly.
“Well that’s putting it mildly,” I replied bitterly.
“So where will you go?”
“Over towards Paradise, seems there’s been a sighting of some wild mustangs, thought I might have a crack at bringing a few head back. I figure I’ve got time to break ‘em before the bad weather sets in. We’ve got all the stock down so I reckon you can spare me for a few days huh Slim…what do ya say?”
I rode at first light the following day and was gone a week.
When I returned Millie had gone.
As I rode into the yard Slim and Mike came running towards the coral gate and opened it for me. I figured they’d seen the dust blowing up from the trail, as I drove the half dozen fine specimens of Mustang I’d managed to round up into the yard.
They closed the gate behind the critters and I swung down from the saddle grinning at my buddy and hugging young Mike.
Then a few moments later Daisy joined us clasping her hands in delight as she looked at the sweating heaving beasts now galloping around the coral, their eyes wild and fearful as they explored their new environment.
“Good trip then Pard, these sure are excellent animals,” Slim said beaming across at me.
“Yup, they’ll make real fine mounts,” I agreed, “I figure the Army will pay top dollar for ‘em.”
Then I looked around me.
“So, where’s Millie?” I asked.
Slim and Daisy exchanged an anxious glance before Slim finally said, “She isn’t here right now Jess.”
“What? Not here…so is she back at work?” Then I grinned, “Hey don’t tell me, she’s OK huh…got her memory back and she’s workin’ back at the saloon!”
Again, I saw Daisy flick my buddy a worried glance.
“Come inside dear,” she said softly, “we need to talk.”
“No…hang it all Daisy just tell me where the Hell she is?”
It was Slim who spoke up then.
“She was taken sick Jess, not long after you left…got herself a nasty dose of this flu that’s doing the rounds and…well Doc Sam figured she’s be better over in his hospital bed…seeing as there was the other issue…”
“Other issue…what other issue?” I cried feelin ’ real aggravated now.
I turned to look at Daisy, “and you’re a nurse, heck couldn’t you have cared for her here?” I asked.
She shook her old head and looked at me sadly.
“She was suffering bad headaches…really bad and the doctor was concerned that they were stemming from that nasty bang to the head that she received and he figured she would be better off staying at his office, just so he could keep an eye on her dear, as a precaution.”
I took all this on board and then without missing a beat I was back up on Traveller.
“Where the heck are you off to?” asked Slim lookin ’ kinda aggrieved.
“To Doc Sam’s of course,” I barked, to see my girl…where else would I be goin’?”

Chapter 7

I hammered at the Doc’s door for what seemed like ages before he finally drew it open an irritated look on his face and then he relaxed and grinned at me.
“Well howdy stranger, where’s the fire and I thought you were off chasing mustangs?” he said cheerfully as he pulled the door opened wider to admit me.
“How is she?” I gasped ignoring his friendly welcome.
“Ah,” he said gravely, “come into my study Jess, we need to talk.”
“Can’t I just see her first?”
“No, I’m sorry buddy, she’s quite deeply sedated right now, I really don’t want her upset.”
“Hell, neither do I,” I replied hotly, “I ain’t gonna upset her Sam, I love her garldarn it, you know that!” I yelled, my frustration making me sound churlish even to my own ears.
“I do know that,” he said quietly and calmly, “but we still need to talk, come on Jess,” and he propelled me gently towards his study.
Once I was sitting down opposite his desk and nursin’ a glass of Red Eye, I didn’t particularly want, he started to explain what had been happening to my best girl.
“You see it wasn’t just this dose of flu Jess, I figure Daisy could have handled that just fine, it was these severe headaches…I was worried they might be associated with that nasty blow to the head she received at the hands of Jake Black.”
“Bastard,” I muttered darkly.
“Quite so,” said Sam briskly… “anyway, she suffered quite a bad concussion after that.”
“But that was ages ago,” I interrupted, “she’s over all that now Sam…all but her memory problems that is…”
“Um…I thought so too,” he said grimly, “that is until this last little episode she’s had…”
“Huh, what, what are you talkin ’ about Sam, I thought she’d just had a few headaches?”
“That’s right, but I needed to keep her under observation, that’s why I insisted in her coming back here and well…”
“And what?”
“It seems I did the right thing; you see she had a seizure yesterday Jess…”
“A…a fit you mean?”
“Correct, it can be a side effect of a blow to the head…maybe a symptom of something more serious, an internal bleed on the brain, that’s why she must remain perfectly still and calm…”
I just stared at him blankly for a minute and then…
“This is real serious ain’t it Sam?”
He nodded, “It could be, but it’s too early to tell yet.”
I downed the whiskey in one, and then stood up and paced the room, before turning on Sam, my voice thick with emotion…
“Then I have to see her, stay with her Sam…don’t you see, I can’t leave her like this…She may not love me anymore…may not even feel she knows me…but I can’t give up on her, I just can’t, you’ve gotta understand that Sam…please…?”
Doc looked real troubled and then after a moment he finally nodded.
“OK Jess, I guess I’ll never hear the end of it if I deny you... and who am I to do that anyway?”
“I can stay then, sleep in the hospital room, and help care for her?” I asked eagerly.
“You got it, but Jess…”
“Real slow and easy buddy, this is a very sick young lady we’ve got us….”
I entered the room real softly and sank down on the chair by the bed, looked at my girl by the glow of a dim night light and my heart missed a beat.
In just the week I’d been away she seemed to have lost weight and her face was pale, but very beautiful. In sleep she looked so much like I remembered her as a little girl…and then her eyes flickered open and she stared at me for a moment looking kinda dazed…
“It’s you,” she finally managed…
“Jess,” I said softly, “you remember sweetheart, Jess.”
She nodded and continued to gaze at me as she would a mere acquaintance and then said quietly, “What are you doing here Jess?”
“I’ve come to help care for you,” I said gently.
“Sure, help the doc out and I…well I kinda thought if we talked some, it might help that old memory of yours too.”
She suddenly looked tearful, “No I’m never going to remember my past…it’s over and done with Jess, I have to make a new future for myself…”
“And does that include me?” I asked…holding my breath as I looked down at her…praying she would relent, say of course…how could it not…
She looked away, “I’m tired,” she said softly and she closed her eyes, but I knew she was faking ’ it, because she just couldn’t look me in the eye.
The following morning, I made myself scarce while Carrie did all the intimate nursing jobs and then came back in to sit with Millie once she had been washed and made ready for the day ahead.
“Are you still here?” she asked in an almost disinterested tone.
“I ain’t going’ nowhere, not until you’re better,” I replied quietly.
And I was true to my word. Apart from leaving when Carrie needed to take care of basic nursing duties, I stayed by her bed day and night, barely eating or sleeping.
She was over the worst of the flu, but the headaches were bad, real bad. I spent most of my time laying cool cloths on her forehead, which seemed to help some and administering the pain relief the doc had prescribed.
Sometimes when she was feeling a little better, I regaled her with tales of us growing up on the Panhandle together and whereas she listened with interest I might have been talking about another couple, another time, as she had no recollection of her former life.
I desperately thought of our past together, surely there was something that would make her remember?
When her head wasn’t hurtin ’ I talked real soft and told her all about her family. Her big sister Ginny and little brother Tad and all the stuff we used to get up to. Bunking off school to go huntin ’ and fishing, and how she was real good with a sling shot.
She listened quietly as I talked on and on, about one Christmas I’d spent at her house when my Ma was real sick and how wonderful it was. The first real Christmas I’d ever had, what with my Pa drinkin ’ away all the money and not believing celebrating our Lord’s Birth. Told her about the friendship bracelet she’d fashioned for me that year, she was nine and I was ten. How she was worried I’d think it was sissy.g
“And did you?” asked Millie, now giving me her full attention.
My face relaxed into an easy grin, “Nah, it was the best present I’d ever had,” I said honestly.
“You said it was a friendship bracelet and if I wore it then we’d be best friends forever and ever…and I guess we have been,” I finished softly… “then I kissed ya.”
She looked kinda misty eyed at that, but said nothing.
Then looking deep into her beautiful eyes, I said softly, “I guess I loved you even way back then.”
She flushed prettily at that and looked down, “So what happened to it?”
I smiled, “Still got it, back at the ranch with my special stuff, way too small now, but I’d never throw it away…”
She looked up at me and gave me that beautiful smile of hers, “I’m glad,” she whispered.
Some days were hard for her, a fever making her toss and turn and others her headache making her sick to her stomach and then I just sat quietly beside her. Wiping her face with cool cloths and just bein ’ there for her, to offer a sip of water or turn her pillow.
Gradually she got a little stronger and she started asking for my stories of her past…our past and I was real glad to oblige.
One evening Carrie came in and sat with us and we laughed and chatted like the old friends we all were and it seemed for a minute I had my happy go lucky Millie back again…But I hadn’t, I really hadn’t. I began to think I never would have that…oh so close, intimate relationship with her ever again.
But we were becoming friends, real good friends and I figured me spending every waking hour caring for her somehow proved my love for her. She began to slowly realize I was in for the long haul and I really cared about her as a person, not just a lover as she had first surmised.
Now we were easy together, could laugh and enjoy each other’s company, but that was as far as it went. If I even so much as took her hand she got that closed scared look in her eyes, so I didn’t touch her at all…knowing I had to be patient if I was ever to resume our deep loving relationship.
It was Carrie who took me aside and told me a few home truths one evening.
Millie was sleeping and I’d gone downstairs for a coffee.
I’d found Carrie in the kitchen and she poured me a cup and then stood there staring at me, hands on hips.
“What…what?” I asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Supper,” she said, “I kept some back for you… yet again.”
“I ain’t hungry sweetheart,” I said collapsing down at the kitchen table and taking a sip of the welcome brew.
“Jess, you really are going to get sick,” she said giving me her bossy nurse’s look.
“Aw, Carrie don’t give me a hard time,” I muttered.
See me and Carrie are real good friends and we don’t stand on ceremony, like I say we tell it like it is…and right then Carrie was about to do that...and then some.
“Have you looked at yourself lately?” she continued, the light of battle in her eyes. “You’ve lost weight, which is hardly surprising seeing as you’ve been living on coffee and cigarettes and when did you last change that shirt or shave?” she continued relentlessly.
“Aw, Carrie, please…I’m real troubled here, you know the way it is with Millie. I guess I can’t think of anything else right now…”
“Well it’s hardly a good look for a suitor is it?” she continued, now with a faint smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.
“I’m hardly that,” I muttered, “more like big brother…”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she replied, now grinning openly and taking the seat opposite me.
“Huh?” I glanced up at her, “what are ya talkin ’ about Carrie?”
“Just the fact that I think Millie has fallen a little bit in love with you.”
“Huh? What are you sayin’…I mean how do you know?” I gasped looking shocked.
“We talked,” she said giving me a secretive little smile, “and I really think she’s fallen for you, all over again Jess…”
“Well she sure ain’t showin ’ it…”
“It’s early days…she’s still scared, troubled after what that dreadful man Black tried to do to her…”
“She remembers that then?”
“Yes…but that’s all Jess…all she sees when she tries to look back to her past is that evil swine forcing himself on her…well is it any wonder that she is terrified of the intimate side of love? She just can’t remember anything other than pain and fear…”
“That bastard,” I whispered harshly.
“Yes, well he’s dead,” she said practically, “and now we have to move on and try and get dear Millie well again.”
I nodded, “Sure, sure you’re right sweetheart.”
“When wasn’t I?” she asked grinning across at me.
I grinned back, “So what did she say?”
She tapped her nose at that.
“I can’t break a secret...sisterhood, you know,” she said chuckling. Then taking pity on me said softly, “Just that she has feelings for you and she really isn’t sure what to do about it…she’s scared like I say Jess, you just have to take it really slowly…”
“Sure,” I said now finally letting my spirits soar, “so you think there’s a chance for us then Carrie?”
“Oh yes, more than a chance I’d say,” she laughed.
I sighed deeply and then turning to her said, “Did you say there was some supper?”
She came around the table and hugged me at that.
“And while you’re eating, I’ll heat up the water for the hot tub and find you a clean shirt, before that one walks clean off your back,” she said giving me a friendly cuff and wondering off to the cook stove to fetch my supper.

Chapter 8

Millie was well enough to return to the ranch with me just a week later. I drove the hire buggy into the yard one Monday morning dreading what my pard would have to say about my prolonged absence.
We rattled up to the front door and I jumped down lightly before turning and helping Millie down and was encouraged when she allowed me to take her arm and lead her towards the house.
Then the door flew open and Daisy was there smiling broadly at us both.
“Oh welcome home my dears, welcome home,” she cried before bustling Millie inside. “Come along in out of this chilly wind dear, you’ll catch your death,” she said, ever the clucky Ma.
I followed along with Millie’s valise and we settled down with a coffee and caught up on the news.
“You look so much better my dear,” Daisy said.
Millie flicked a glance in my direction and gave me a shy smile.
“A lot of that is down to Jess,” she said softly, “he’s been wonderful, so patient, nursing me and entertaining me with stories…”
Nothing escaped Daisy and I saw her glance questioningly at me and then back again at Millie before replying.
“So, your memory dear, has it returned?”
Millie merely shook her head and looked like she might cry, but took a deep breath, “Not yet,” she said quietly.
“Oh well its early days,” said Daisy cheerfully, “and you’re welcome to stay here for as long as you want to my dear. It’s lovely for me to have the company of another woman after all these menfolk,” she said and they exchanged a warm smile.
Daisy and I had been sitting enjoying a coffee on my return. Now I rose, drained my cup and thanked her, knowing I could put off the inevitable no longer.
“So where’s Slim?”
“Out on the Home pasture mending fence,” she said, “one of your mustangs escaped, but Slim got him back and is just double checking the rest of the fencing, we had a bad storm, caused some damage.”
I cussed softly under my breath.
“I’d best go help him,” and smiling down at my two favorite women left quickly.
I found Slim busy mending the fence and his head jerked up as I rode across the pasture and dismounted, throwing him a sheepish look.
“You’re back,” he said, his expression neither friendly nor angry, just stating a fact.
“Slim, I’m real sorry,” I said… “I just had to be with her… it was important, real important.”
He sighed deeply, “Yeah, I know…so how is she?”
“About the same, still don’t remember anything, but her headaches are gone, doc says she should be just fine…physically.”
“Oh, well that’s something I suppose,” said Slim quietly.
Then I looked more closely at him and saw how bone weary he was looking.
I leaned over and punched his arm gently, “You’re lookin ’ pretty beat pard and I guess that’s down to me…like I say I’m real sorry and I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
He gave me a faint smile at that, “No need…”
“Sure there is, why dontcha hightail it back home, rest up some I’ll finish out here huh?”
He shook his head, “Nope be quicker iffen we work together and then…”
“Yeah and then... what?” I asked eagerly.
“And then you can start breaking those goddamn ornery mustangs you fetched up with before you rode out and left me high and dry.”
I squirmed a little at that, knowing that feelings must be runnin ’ pretty high for Slim to cuss that way.
“Sure, sure I will. It’ll be done before the first snow and then we’ll git ‘em over to Major Adams at the fort, he’s always lookin ’ out for good mounts.”
He glanced up to the overcast sky at that.
“Um, well I guess you’d better get a wiggle on then Jess because I reckon we’ll be seeing the first snowfall before the month’s out.”
We finished the fence mending and I started work on the mustangs directly after dinner and boy was he right, they sure were an ornery bunch.
The worst of the lot was the grey, that had already made a bid for freedom and had been brought back by Slim, and she sure was one ornery female!
I’d cussed so long and hard when I was tryin ’ to break her that Mike thought her name was ‘that Bastard Horse! So we had to change it real quick to the more the suitable name of Betsy, before Daisy got wind of the name Mike had been bandying about the yard.
It was one Saturday morning about a week after Millie had returned home to the ranch with me. I’d spent every waking hour working on those darned horses and truth to tell I was near dead on my feet. I was in no fit state for heavy work on my return after spending all my time caring for Millie and neglecting myself. Well Miss Daisy said I looked real peaky and in need of a square meal and I figure she was right.
Then Slim kept tellin ’ me to take it easy and stop bustin ’ a gut workin ’ so danged hard…But hell I’d made a promise to him to get the work done before the snow was down and I aimed to keep that promise, no matter what.
Well I don’t know as to how it all happened…as the puppies were supposed to be locked up in the barn.
See Mike’s dog Buttons had pups and one of them was a real bruiser with trouble written all over him. He’d already had a chew at my Sunday best boots, not to mention one of Daisy’s favorite hats and that was when he was confined to the barn with his brothers and Ma.
Well on this Saturday I’d just vaulted the coral fence after having been thrown once again by that Bastard Horse…er that is Betsy. Millie was there as she had just come out to watch and commiserate some. Although she hated to see me breaking the mustangs as she got so darned upset when I took a fall… That was so unlike my old Millie…the one I had loved for so long. Gee she took everything in her stride and yelled encouragement from the side lines…but now she could barely dare to watch me…
Anyway, I dusted myself down with my hat and was just about to suggest we go find a cup of coffee when there was a tremendous din as the puppy from hell, who had escaped the barn, charged into the corral barking at the grey mare, fit to awaken the dead.
Well old…Betsy there didn’t take any too kindly to being harassed by the young whippersnapper and charged at him rearing up and bellowing in anger.
Quick as a flash Mike made a dive into the corral chasing after the pup, who was still holding out barking and growling at the mare.
Millie and I stared in horror as the horse’s iron hard hooves just missed young Mike by a fraction as he stood as though frozen to the spot, now terrified of the critter as she continued to rear and cry out in anger.
Then I was under the fence and grabbing the pup by his scruff. I then seized hold of Mike and tucked him under my arm before I tore across to safety and almost threw them both under the fence where they lay in a jumble of arms and legs and although shocked, unhurt.
I was just about to dive under myself when I felt a sickening blow to my back and was catapulted towards the fence which I hit hard before slithering to the ground dazed and winded.
Then a moment later I felt firm hands grab me and I was dragged unceremoniously under the fence to safety.
I must have passed out for a moment and when I came to, I saw Slim anxiously peering down at me…
Then Millie was suddenly there, throwing herself down in the dirt beside me and takin’ me in her arms, cryin’ fit to burst…
After a moment I managed to free myself from her embrace and say, “Hey sweetheart, it’s OK, I’m fine…just shook up some is all.”
She stared down at me lookin ’ kinda dazed and then peered around her…as though she had just woken up from some kinda bad dream…. and I guess she had.
“Jess,” she muttered, Jess, “what happened?”
“I had a fall is all that dang horse just caught my back, but I’m OK…”
“Thank God,” she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment…
Then she looked around her again, in puzzlement, “What am I doing here…why aren’t I at work…?”
Then her face went deathly pale…
“Oh no…oh God no…Mike…is Mike OK?”
“Sure, I’m just fine Millie, I’m here see,” the youngster piped up, grinning down at her.
“Mill…Millie are you remembering what happened? How Black took ya…huh, hurt you and Mike?” I asked hardly daring to breathe as I waited for her answer.
But there was no need, the fear in her eyes, the way she trembled and then the storm of tears said it all…she’d remembered alright.
Then I managed to drag myself up and pulled her into my arms…
Slim drifted away with Mike to give us a minute…
Then she was kissing me, the tears still wet on her face…kissing me deeply and passionately…she was back, my girl was back…
It was much later that day that Doc Sam filled us in on Millie’s progress.
Slim had insisted on calling the doc out to tend to the nasty gash to my shoulder blade and now I sat on the old leather couch by the fire, one arm in a sling and the other holding my girl in a protective grip around her waist.
“I guess it was always just going to be a matter of time,” the doc said beaming across at us from his seat opposite. “But I reckon the shock of Mike and you being in such danger finally speeded things up some. The brain is a funny old thing and sometimes one trauma can counteract another.”
“Um,” I said vaguely, not really getting his drift, but not caring too much either…my Millie was back and that was all that mattered.
I guess all we really wanted was to be alone together and try and make some sorta sense of everything that had happened between us those last few weeks…and more than that to have some privacy for other reasons too.
It sure didn’t look like that was gonna happen though because every time we found ourselves alone, then someone would come and interrupt us at a real bad moment. When young Mike had barged in on us kissing in the barn for the second time, I guess we gave up on any intimacy. So just took time to talk…properly for the first time since the whole goddamn nightmare had started.
It was the day after Sam had visited and I’d strict instructions not to ride or work for a few days after my injury. So we decided to walk down to the creek. With Mike at school and Slim kept busy doing all my chores, as well as his own, I figured we wouldn’t be bothered.
We sat on a large sun warmed rock near the water’s edge, marveling at the wonderful weather even though it was late fall.
After a moment I took her hand and said softly, “Gee Millie, you’ve no idea how good it feels to have you back to your old self.”
She smiled across at me, “Me too, “she agreed and then her face clouded.
“I’m so sorry Jess, from what you’ve told me I’ve been very cold and distant, that must have hurt you so much?”
I just nodded, “You’ll never know how much,” I whispered and then moved closer, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “But you’re back now, that’s all that matters.”
Then she was in my arms and we were kissing, at first gently and then more and more passionately and I was just wonderin ' if my lady was up for a bit of open-air lovin’ when Button’s ran up barking something fierce and jumping ’ all over us.
I sighed deeply as she pulled away, the intimate atmosphere broken.
The following morning at breakfast I broke the news that Millie was going home.
Daisy objected at once.
“You really don’t need to go yet my dear,” she said smiling over at my girl, “why not recuperate a little longer?”
Millie’s gaze flicked from Daisy to me and back again, before she replied.
“That’s really kind of you Daisy, but I really must get back to work. Tom has been so good keeping my job open and I really don’t want to take advantage of his good nature.”
Daisy couldn’t argue with that so she gave in gracefully.
“I’ll drive you over later this morning if you like?” Slim offered throwing her a friendly grin.
“No,” cried Millie, “That won’t be necessary Slim, thank you but Jess has already offered,” she said quickly.
Then Slim turned to me an evil twinkle in his eyes.
“I dunno pard, you’ve been laid up with that nasty gash to your back, I don’t think you could handle the buckboard right now…”
“It’ll be just fine,” I said quickly, and anyway we thought we’d use Daisy’s little buggy; Millie can drive that easy.”
“Looks like you’ve thought this all through then, if you’re sure?” said Slim, grinning broadly now.
“Quite sure,” I said firmly.
Once we were all on board and ready to go, I paused for a moment and looked down to where Daisy and Slim were waiting to wave us off.
“I er…thought I might stay over,” I said, carefully avoiding their eyes. “I think I’ll call in get the doc to check this shoulder again, come back tomorrow…or day after,” I added very quietly.
Slim was barely concealing his mirth by this time, but Daisy obviously hadn’t picked up on my scheming.
“Oh Jess dear, is it bothering you?”
“Some,” I said softly, now hating myself for lying to her… “But I guess it will be just fine Daisy, if I rest up in town…once I’ve seen Sam.”
“Oh, I’m sure it will pard, “said Slim trying hard to suppress a grin, really enjoying my discomfort, “just rest up some Jess…no exertions huh?”
I threw him a stony look at that and saying our farewells Millie shook the reins and hustled old Chief out of the yard at a lively trot.
Once we were up the rise and on the Laramie road I relaxed back and rolled my eyes at Millie.
“You wouldn’t think it would be so dadgum hard just to get a few hours alone with my girl, would you?”
She just giggled at that and urged Chief on to a greater speed.
We finally landed at the livery and Millie reined in Chief around the side of the building and I jumped down before reaching up and helping her alight. I held her for a minute longer than strictly necessary, our gaze locking and what I saw in her eyes making my pulses race.
I quickly loosed out old Chief in the corral around the back, but as we turned to leave Bert came striding over.
“Well I’ll be if it ain’t Miss Millie, now how are you my dear?”
“She’s good thanks Bert,” I supplied quickly. “I’ve left Chief out the back he’ll need a billet for a couple of nights OK?”
“Sure, sure,” said Bert vaguely and then turned back to Millie.
“Would you like to come around the back to the house, see the wife?” He asked eagerly, “She’s been sore worried about ya…we all have.”
“That’s real kind of you Bert,” she replied smiling up into his old grey eyes,” but I have to see Tom, about my job and all…”
“OK, I’ll see ya later then,” he said with a toothless grin as I grabbed Millie’s hand and marched her off down Main Street.
She looked playfully up into my eyes as my pace increased as we neared Widow Brown and her friends, just emerging from the mercantile.
She stopped in her tracks and then gave a little gasp of pleasure before walking purposefully towards us.
“Why Millie my dear how are you?” she asked
“She’s just fine,” I said, my hold on Millie’s hand tightening…
“Now just a minute young man,” said Maud Brown turning to throw me a concerned glance. Millie has been prayed for by all us ladies in the Women’s group steadfastly throughout her illness, now you wouldn’t deny us a few minutes to visit with her, would you?”
“No Ma’am,” I replied wearily…
A good ten minutes later we finally entered the saloon, where Tom was behind the bar polishing glasses, the noon rush not yet having started.
As soon as he saw us, he hurried around from behind the bar and pulled Millie into a warm hug.
“Thank goodness you’re well again,” he said grinning from ear to ear. “That old rogue Mose was in earlier and said as how you were planning on coming home today.”
I muttered something darkly under my breath as to what I’d do to the interfering old gossip monger, but nobody heard as the bar was filled with the cries of delight coming from Ginny and Lily, Mill’s co-workers.
Once she finally managed to escape from all their questions, hugs and laughing banter she turned back to Tom.
“I’m so sorry I’ve been sick for so long” she said sincerely, “is it true, what you told Slim, I can start back again?”
“Of course, Millie dear, heck the old place wouldn’t be the same without you,” he said quickly.
Millie sighed with relief.
“So, would you like me to start back at work right away then?”
I held my breath and threw Tom a pleading glance.
His eyes flicked from Millie to me and back again, before saying quietly, “Oh that won’t be necessary my dear, you still look a mite peaky, how about the end of the week huh?”
I let out the breath I’d been holding and taking her valise in one hand and her elbow in the other guided her towards the stairs to her room.
“Guess I’ll just see her settled in, OK Tom?” I called over my shoulder, turning to glance at him.
He gave me a slow, wicked wink and nodded, “Sure, sure Jess you do that boy.”
We ran up the stairs two at a time and walked down the corridor to her room and I felt over the door lintel for her key and then unlocked the door, before ushering her in.
We stood inside and I took a deep breath scanning the pretty, familiar room, thanking God that this moment had finally arrived and then I looked down at my girl.
She had tears in her eyes and I gently pulled her towards me… “Millie?”
“Have I told you lately how much I love you?” She whispered.
I cast my mind back to that night all those weeks ago when I was feelin ’ real fretful for some reason and I’d said to her ‘Don’t leave me Millie, don’t ever leave me…’
Then she’d replied, ‘Why would I? I love you so very much…’
Well I guess she had left me…for a while, but now she was back and I knew now that she’d never leave me that way again.
“I guess you ain’t,” I replied looking deeply into those loving brown eyes.
“Well I do,” she whispered, “I love you very, very much….”
I kicked the door shut behind me and took her in my arms…
And I guess what happened next is our business…

The End
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