#76 A Very Different Christmas

A Very Different Christmas

Patty Wilkinson

Thanks to Sally Bahnsen for use of amazing screen cap

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1

“I’m sorry Harper really I am and if there was any other way, believe me I’d take it…you are a loyal and much respected member of my staff…but…”
“But…” Jess said raising a questioning eyebrow…
“But, Christmas or not, the Stage must get through and the fact is that we are down three of our best guards due to this dratted influenza, well I have no choice but to ask you,” said Mister Jenks the Stage line Supervisor.
“So, I’m yer last chance?” Jess said glumly.
“Well I’m afraid so, yes…you should still be back for Christmas…er weather permitting,” the dapper little man said casting a cautious glance out of the Stage line office window to the grey skies without.
Jess sighed deeply, “OK Mister Jenks I guess I don’t have no choice…So let me get this straight, I head out tomorrow, day before Christmas Eve, stay over and then head back real early on the 24th arriving in Laramie mid-day?”

Jess headed home with mixed feelings. In one way this was a real blessing…he’d be able to spend some time with his girl Millie, who was spending a week at her Ma’s boarding house in Cheyenne, helping out over the Christmas rush… Plus he’d be able to buy all his gifts, which he’d left to the last minute. Cheyenne was a much better-appointed town, he figured. Sure, old Ezra in the mercantile had some good stuff…but heck did he know how to charge. Jess had hoped he might drop his prices come Christmas Eve. But now he’d head for some of Cheyenne’s bargain stores as soon as he hit town. He knew just what he was getting Daisy and Millie. Mike’s was already bought…and he figured he’d find something real nice for old Hardrock in the larger town too. Then he sighed…Jeez, Slim wouldn’t be happy about him having to ride shotgun either…but it looked like it couldn’t be helped.
The matter was discussed in detail over supper that night…
“Well I certainly hope you don’t get snowed in, when you visit Cheyenne dear,” Daisy said when she heard the news, “it’s an awfully long trip if the weather is inclement.”
“Oh don’t worry about that,” Slim said, “the weather will be set fair until after New Year now mark my words.”
“How do ya know that?” Jess asked through a mouthful of Daisy’s beef stew.
Slim tapped his nose, “My Pa taught me really well Jess…it’s all in the winds…the star formation…all sorts of things. I guess if you’ve lived here long enough you just learn to read the weather.
“Is it like reading my school books?” Mike piped up.
“Well almost as easy,” Slim said winking at the youngster, “just a knack I guess….”
Jess threw him a doubtful glance, “Well let’s just hope you’re right Slim or I’ll be spendin ’ Christmas in Cheyenne…and then his face fell into a beatific smile as he remembered that’s where his girl would be. “Er, I guess that wouldn’t be too bad though,” he said softly.
“You don’t huh…well just you remember you’re a partner in this outfit Jess and it takes two to run it…So if you’ve gotten any thoughts of being snowed in with Millie over in Cheyenne for the winter you can forget them!”
“Oh Slim, Jess wouldn’t do that,” Daisy said chuckling, “now who is for Apple Pie?”
“Sure I wouldn’t,” Jess said sniggering and casting Slim a cheeky glance before offering his plate over to receive the pie.

It was with mixed feelings that he set of on December 23rd, his rifle across his knees and old Mose driving the team and whistling tunelessly at his side.
After a while Mose turned and regarded the young cowboy thoughtfully.
“It looks like Mike was kinda upset with you takin ’ off just now,” the old timer said after a while, sniffing and rubbing a grubby spotted handkerchief across his perspiring forehead…
“Huh? Oh yeah, I guess he was more worried about fetchin ’ a tree into the house for Christmas,” Jess said with a depreciation grin. “But Slim said he’d take him to find one today and I should be back in time to help him decorate it on Christmas Eve.”
“Um, well let’s hope so,” Mose said glumly, “iffen we don’t catch this dang influenza or git held up by robbers in the meantime,” he said sniffing loudly again…
“Well that ain’t gonna happen I had that influenza just last winter and so did you if I remember right?”
“Uh…well yes I did, didn’t I,” said Mose looking visibly more cheerful, “just a head cold a comin ’ then maybe…that I can cope with,” he said slapping the reins more enthusiastically.
They drove on along the Laramie road for a while, enjoying the winter sunshine, before Jess said, “So why do ya imagine we’d be held up?”
“Well stands to reason don’t it boy, we’ll be carrying a strong box on the return journey, special delivery to the Laramie Bank and what’s more the Lewis gang are in the area.”
“Oh,” said Jess his head snapping up, “who says so?”
“Its common knowledge,” Mose blustered, “so the Padre says anyway.”
“The Padre,” Jess scoffed, “so when was the last time he was sober enough to know the whereabouts of anybody…or anything, come to that, save where he’d put the whiskey bottle?”
“Well that’s kinda harsh Jess the old guy ain’t that bad. He preached a pretty good sermon in the saloon the other night…before the fight started that is….”
“Yeah and guess who started it,” Jess said in derision, “I reckon he’s gettin ’ worse. He’s not happy with just bein ’ defrocked and slung out of the Church, he’ll be getting the same treatment in the saloon iffen he ain’t careful. Tom’s getting real sick of the damage he’s caused of late…”
“Well it’s the run up to Christmas ain’t it,” Mose said laconically, “stands to reason that he’ll be preaching more often…”
“Um, and I thought it was all about Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men,” Jess said with irony, “crazy old fool,” he muttered, but not unkindly… as he was kinda fond of the old goat if he was honest.
Then he renewed his scrutiny of the surrounding countryside with slightly more attention. Maybe there was something in the Padre’s warning…he was occasionally right after all, Jess had to admit. Then he remembered back to that Bank raid in Denver the year before and how he’d been caught up in it…He’d shot one of the Lewis brothers before he’d been caught in the crossfire himself and the gang had escaped. But not before Butch Lewis had shot one of the young tellers dead. He now had a murder charge against him and a rope waiting Jess remembered smiling grimly… Hell he’d be miles over the border iffen he’d got any sense he reflected and relaxed a little.

They made good progress to Cheyenne, arriving in plenty of time for Jess to hit the stores as there was extended opening hours due to the proximity of the holiday. He’d said his farewells to Mose, promising to be at the office bright and early for the return trip, before marching off purposefully down Main Street, heading for the various mercantiles.
It was sometime later when he almost fell through the door and into his friend Sheriff Doug Masters ' office…
He staggered and made a brave attempt to keep hold of all his purchases, but even so several scattered to the floor and landed at his feet.
Doug jumped up from where he’d been reclining in his desk chair with a coffee and sprang to his friend’s aid…
“Nothing breakable I hope Jess?” He said grinning as he piled the errant gifts back into Jess’s arms.
“Howdy Doug,” Jess said grinning back over the top of his parcels, “nope, I don’t think so anyways,” he said thoughtfully.
Doug nodded and wandering over to the coffee pot came back and placed a cup on the desk, “Take a seat,” he said and nodded to the coffee, “you look like a man in need or a pick me up.”
Jess carefully placed his gifts on the desk before slumping down on the other chair and after taking a grateful sip, remarked, “Danged exhaustin’ this Christmas shopping,” and winked at his old friend.
“Ain’t it just,” Doug agreed, though truth be told it was his dear wife Jenny who had borne the brunt of the festive preparations.
“So, are you here to spend the holiday with your Millie?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope just a flying visit…more than my life’s worth Doug. Old Slim worries I’ll be snowed in someplace iffen I’m away from the ranch for more than a few hours,” he said with a bark of laughter.
“Well he’s got a point,” Doug said seriously, “it has turned mighty cold this afternoon and that’s a north-westerly blowing up, sure fire sign of snow that is.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “Dang it Doug you’re as bad as Slim fer weather predicting except he’s pronounced it set fair for the next few days.”
“Um we’ll see…so how’s things anyway, all well at the ranch….?”
It was sometime before Jess got around to broaching the subject of the where-a bouts of the Lewis Gang.
“Can’t say as I’ve heard anything personally Jess, but that’s not to say that they’re definitely not around… The Padre could be right, he mixes with some er…pretty tricky characters, you know?”
“I know alright,” Jess agreed, “Clint Townsend, Chas Lewis’s cousin for one…”
“Um…exactly…. Drinking buddies, aren’t they? So yes, I’d take care Jess, especially with that strong box on board.”
“Hopefully they’ll be too dang busy celebratin ’ Christmas to worry about hold ups,” Jess said with a grin…
“I sure hope so too Jess, just watch your back huh?”

As Jess stood outside the smart edifice of Ma Johnson’s Boarding House, waiting for his knock to be answered, the first flakes of snow started drifting softy around him…
Then before he could dwell on the inclement weather the door was pulled open by a flushed and very pretty Millie. She wore a tightly fitted deep blue dress, partly covered by a snowy white apron, her dark hair tumbling around her shoulders and a little smudge of flour on her cheek.
“Jess!” She almost squeaked a hand automatically shooting up to brush back her untamed glossy tresses…
“I wasn’t expecting you,” she finally managed, “Oh it’s so good to see you! But how come you’re here?”
“Uh, let a body in outer the cold and I’ll explain,” he said laughing…
She pulled the door open wide and he marched in, throwing down a gunny sack that Doug had found for him, now bulging with his purchases, and took her in is arms…
After a lengthy passionate embrace, they heard Peggy Johnson calling out asking who was there and the couple made for the parlor, arm in arm….
It was late that night when Jess got quietly out of bed, leaving Millie sleeping, to peer out of the window at the silent street below. There was a full moon and he was able to make out a deep layer of snow sparkling in the moonlight and he gave a little sigh of pleasure…
“Well it can’t be helped Slim, can’t travel in this kinda weather, now can I?” He whispered and with that happy thought he clambered back into bed and snuggled up with his best girl…Christmas was gonna be just swell he thought before he drifted off to sleep again…
The following morning, he was awoken by the rattle of rain being blown against the window pane and looking out was aghast to see the snow almost melted and a grey dreary morning without. He sighed deeply; all his plans of a romantic interlude scuppered. After a moment Millie awoke and yawned, before sitting up to see where her lover was…
“Jess…what’s wrong?”
He sighed again turning to her, “Dang it Millie it’s raining ….”
“So I ain’t snowed in am I? I’m gonna hafta make the run after all…”
Millie considered the news in her usual easy-going manner before saying, “Well it’s still early…you getting back in?”

Jess tore down Main Street, struggling to tuck his shirt into his pants with one hand, the other holding his rain-slicker and sack of presents…
“You’ll find that thar rain-slicker works a sight better iffen you wear it,” Mose said chuckling as Jess burst into the Stage office…
He was also greeted by a rather pale worried looking youth sitting behind the desk…
“Howdy Cyril,” Jess gasped ignoring Mose’s attempt at humor, “sorry I’m late, where’s yer Uncle; I need to check the Strong box on board.”
“He’s not here Mister Harper,” said the youth, “I guess I’m in charge…but I didn’t think you’d be traveling…I sent a wire to Laramie office last night saying the Stage was cancelled until further notice, the snow was so thick at closing time I thought…”
“Well it ain’t down to you to think young Cyril,” Mose intoned gloomily, “that’s yer Uncle’s job, he’s in charge here, so where is he?”
“He’s got the influenza Mister Shell, he’s real sick and he said I was to be in charge…really he did!”
Jess was not in the best of moods after having to leave the delectable Millie’s bed to race to work in the pouring rain, without so much as a sniff at the coffee pot and now he intervened…
“Is it in yer strong room?” He asked brusquely…
“The strong box boy, come on we’ve gotta get going,” he said casting a glance out through the office window to where the passengers were beginning to look kind of restless…
Once the strong box was loaded up under the driver’s seat, Jess turned his attention to the motley bunch of passengers…
There was an elderly woman, who looked rather disgruntled, a frown on her once pretty face that was now lined with years of discontent and unhappiness. She was dressed smartly enough, but her clothes although neat and clean had obviously seen better days. She shivered slightly in her light coat and tapped a foot impatiently.
Behind her was an agitated looking little man in a scruffy ill-fitting suit, old rain-slicker and rather incongruous pork-pie hat perched on his head…He peered at Jess through world weary eyes and sighed quietly. There was something about his demeanor and the censorious look he threw Jess that reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember who.
But then his attention was claimed by a pretty, rather harassed looking woman, holding a young boy’s hand, hurrying up the street towards the coach. Jess thought the child to be about Mike’s age and wondered at a nine-year-old who still held his Ma’s hand… But then the thought fled as the unhappy looking elderly woman said sharply, “Well young man are we going to Laramie or not?”
Jess turned to her and forced a smile, “We are ma’am, please let me help you,” and he handed her up to the Stage before turning to help the younger woman with the kid…and then the small man clambered up, looking warily around him, before settling in his seat, pulling his collar up and feigning sleep.
Jess slammed the door on them and then swung up onto the box beside Mose…
“So uh, you are definitely making the journey then?” Came the hesitant voice of young Cyril who had followed them out from the office.
Jess looked at the now completely snow free street and then back down to Cyril, “Looks that way,” he said gruffly and nodded for Mose to set off…
“But…but what about my wire?” Cyril cried, “they won’t be expecting you until after Christmas now…”
“Well send another one,” Jess yelled back before turning to Mose, “Garldarn it…as though it ain’t bad enough gettin ’ up at the crack of dawn without that young idiot fussin’ and frettin’….”
Mose just smiled to himself, knowing the real reason for his young friend’s angst, but wisely saying nothing…
As young Cyril watched the Stage disappear around the bend in the road, he made his way purposefully off towards the Telegraph office…But then stood back in surprise at the notice on the door…
Closed until further notice due to staff sickness
Cyril sighed; another had succumbed to the illness he thought regretfully…Then oh well it will be a nice surprise for folk in Laramie when the Stage arrives on time he surmised and with that he wandered off back to the office and a welcome cup of coffee.
Right then Jess would have happily killed of a cup of coffee.
He pulled up the collar of his rain-slicker and squinted out at the grey morning through narrowed eyes, the rain almost horizontal now and stinging his face buffeted by a strong wind.
He grimaced and gripped the rifle across his knees a little tighter as he cast a glance over to the distant hills and figured nobody but a fool would be abroad in that kinda weather unless they had to be…
Then he relaxed back and let his mind wander back to the evening before.
Once the boarders had all been fed and disappeared off out to the saloon in town, or to bed, Jess Millie and her Ma Peggy had settled around the fireside with a post supper coffee.
“Well this is a treat,” said Peggy cheerfully, “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you this side of Christmas Jess dear.”
“It’s real good to see you Ma,” Jess said grinning across at the buxom cheerful woman, “and that sure was a good supper”. Then he glanced out of the window and said, “The way that snow’s still a comin ’ down you may be stuck with me a while longer,” and he clasped Millie’s hand and squeezed it gently.
Peggy smiled, “Well I think we could stand that couldn’t we dear?” She said winking at her daughter…
A little while later Peggy drained her cup and stood up, “Well I’m off to bed. I’ll leave you two young things to it.” But then she stopped in her tracks. “Oh I forgot Jess, I have a present for you here, I was going to send it with Millie for New Year, but you may as well take it now, share it around with Slim and the Sheriff after your Christmas dinner maybe?”
She reached a bottle shaped parcel from its hiding place behind her chair and passed it over…
Jess stood up immediately and took the older woman in his arms and hugged her, “Gee thanks Ma…that’s real kind of ya…”
“You may as well open it now dear,” she said flushing prettily and suddenly looking very much like her daughter.
Jess carefully pulled the wrapping paper away to reveal a bottle of genuine Scottish whiskey…and grinned happily.
“Hey this is wonderful; I ain’t had any of this stuff since we befriended that Scottish family up on the Mountain a few years back!” (See # 30 Mike’s Story) “Iona and Callum MacDonald and their family,” Jess said enthusiastically. “Callum introduced me and Slim to the real McCoy, this stuff is just the best,” he said cheerfully surveying the label, “Where the heck did ya get it Ma?”
She smiled archly, “From one of my boarders, he’s really a Snake Oil salesman, but he has kin over in the old country that send him supplies over occasionally. So at this time of year he sells a few bottles off to selected customers.”
“Well I’m sure glad you’ve got such good connections,” he said chuckling.
Then he reached into the gunny sack that he’d left by his chair and passed over a small parcel tied with a red ribbon…
“For Christmas Day,” he said winking at her,” and no peekin ’ before.”
“Oh my dear you really shouldn’t,” she said coquettishly, but none the less took the offered parcel and kissed him tenderly on the cheek, “You’re a good man,” she whispered, before turning to take her leave.
Once the door had closed behind her Ma Jess sat back down and Millie snuggled in a little closer, “That was nice of you…”
He just shrugged, “I’m real fond of your Ma, we go back a real long way you know that…”
She smiled, “Yes you do… Remember that Christmas you stayed at our house when your ma was taken real sick?”
He nodded, his eyes turning misty at the memory of the kindness and understanding shown him by Millie’s dear parents…
“I’ll never forget it,” he said softly.
Then raising a quizzical eyebrow, he said, “So do you want your present early too?”
Her eyes immediately lit up and she gave a little whoop, “Of course I do!” She said clapping her hands in joyous anticipation and for a moment Jess was transported back to the pretty little seven-year old he had fallen in love with on the day he first set eyes upon her…
He sat there just staring into her beautiful face, until she said, “Well?”
“You said you had a present for me?”
“Uh…oh yeah,” and he dragged himself back to the here and now and again dug deep into the gunny sack.
She gasped at the beautifully wrapped gift and quickly tore the paper away exposing the most gorgeous dress she had ever seen. It was pure silk and of a wonderful glowing burnt orange color, with a delicate contrasting lace trim. Low at the front and back it was cut to hug the figure seductively…
He looked on anxiously as she stared at it her face still and impassive…
“You like it dontcha?” He asked…
“No,” she whispered, “I love it Jess... I absolutely love it!”
He sighed with relief, “I weren’t sure…whether this or the gold one…I …”
“This is perfect,” she exclaimed jumping up and holding it to her figure before dancing around the room, “just perfect.”
Good choice Madam Fifi, Jess thought thankfully. Gee the elderly shop keeper had even let him have the gold one for half price, “just in case ‘Mademoiselle is not enchanted with the Burnt Umber, sir….”
Jess grinned at the way the woman had postured and put on the phony French accent. Gee everyone knew her name was Nelly Jackson and she originally haled from Rawlins… But he’d played along with her charade and had got a real good deal on both the dresses… He figured maybe he’d keep the second one for her Birthday…He really hoped Daisy would put it in her wardrobe, knowing the ribbing he’d get from Slim if he kept it in their room.
“Come on,” she said laughing now, “let’s go up and I can try it on for you…”

Now dashing along on the Stage his face fell into a broad grin as he remembered her trying on the dress…and then how he’d removed it later…and what had happened next…
“What the heck have you got to look so darned pleased with yerself about?” Mose said sniffing …and blowing his nose loudly.
Jess glanced across at him and hiding a smile said, “Nuthin ’ Mose, nuthin ’ at all….”

Chapter 2
They had been traveling for some time when the already wet, slippery road became even more hazardous as rocks and larger stones were washed into the road from the nearby hills.
Mose was now struggling to hold the reins, the horses becoming more and more skittish as the road surface became more treacherous…
“Pull ‘em back, slow ‘em down,” Jess yelled above the sound of the howling wind.
“What do ya thing I’m dang well tryin ’ to do?” Mose snapped back.
“Goddamn it Mose try harder!” Jess yelled.
After a moment or two, as the coach rocked dangerously from side to side Jess leaned forwards and took some of the strain of the lines and gradually the horses slowed down and eventually came to a sweating, head shaking, stomping stop.
Jess jumped down and went to the animal’s heads and spoke softly to them, calming them as best he could, before turning and casting an uneasy glance around him.
They were about another thirty or so miles from Laramie, but the way the weather was closing in he wasn’t too sure if they’d make it. The rain had now turned to a sleety downpour and the horses were trembling with shock and fatigue. He patted the lead horse gently on the flank before turning to open the stagecoach door and check on his passengers…
“Sorry about that folks,” he said somehow managing to produce a cheery grin, “I guess the horses are a tad spooked by the weather…uh everyone OK…?”
There was a chorus of protest from within…
“No indeed we are not OK young man,” cried the elderly woman in the threadbare coat, “we are far from OK as you put it… I am bruised and battered and as for this child he is terrified aren’t you boy?”
The youngster looked up to his mother for guidance and the rather anxious woman agreed that little Freddy was indeed petrified and wanted to get off right now, she said wringing her hands and looking fearful.
“This is just awful, such a rough ride…I really can’t cope with much more,” concluded the elderly woman sharply.
“Well I’m sorry Ma’am Jess said touching his hat to the older woman, we’ll do our best to drive a tad slower… that should help some.”
Then he turned his attention to the lady with the rather soppy offspring, as Jess thought of the child… “I’m really sorry ma’am…er Freddy,” he said flicking a glance towards the pale sickly-looking child, “but nobody is gettin ’ off. It is way too dangerous out here…Just sit tight and we’ll get ya to town just as soon as we can.”
Then he leaned a little closer to the younger woman and said softly for her ears only, “It might be better iffen you acted a bit less fearful Ma’am, set the boy a good example huh?”
With that he slammed the door shut and returned to his place on the box next to Mose…
“Are they alright?” He asked, raising an eyebrow…
“What do you think?” Jess replied caustically, “All the women folk are frettin ’ and fussin ’ and that poor dang kid don’t know iffen he’s comin ’ or goin ’ with all them woman takin ’ on so. Only one ain’t creatin ’ is that old guy, but I guess he must be drunk, seems to have slept through it all…”
“Wish I was dang well drunk,” said Mose morosely, before slapping the reins and setting the team off at a more sedate pace.
They went on their way for another couple of hours and although the sleet had now turned to snow it wasn’t lying too deep and Jess and Mose figured they’d be home and dry in time for a quick drink with Slim at the Relay before parting their ways.
Then the wind got up, lashing the snow almost horizontal, stinging their eyes and causing the horses to sidestep and balk as they continued their way along the treacherous trail. They now had the open plains to their left and were hugging the hillside to their right, the weather hitting them obliquely.
“Garldarn it Mose, how much further is it before we git off of this narrow trail?” Jess asked, the whole terrain becoming alien to him as familiar land marks were now clad in a blanket of snow, a thin mist falling all around them making the scene even more unrecognizable.
“About another mile and then we leave the hills behind and come to the turn off for the old Harrison place…Only another hour or so after that and we can warm our toes by your fireside,” he said with a toothless grin, “and I sure hope Slim ’s well stocked up with some of Denver’s best, because I could sure do with one.”
Jess chuckled, “Me too buddy, “he replied with feeling.
They continued on through the murky afternoon, until the turn off to the Harrison place finally materialized through the gloom…
“Well thank God for that,” Jess said with conviction…
Just a mile or so back along the track they had just managed to miss a small avalanche of rocks and stones careering down the hillside, but luckily passed by before the track was blocked.
Mose shook his head, “I’m gonna hafta report that at the office, but I doubt they’ll send the work gang out until after the holiday…”
“Uh, well just take it real slow and easy Mose, we don’t wanna cause another landslide,” Jess had said jokingly…
“Dang road,” Mose said grumpily, “supposed to be better than the old Cheyenne road, but I can’t see as how, this ‘un is always closing in the bad weather, landslides, flooding you name it….”
They were barley past the Harrison spread when Jess heard an ominous thundering noise and looking up saw a mud slide hurtling down the bank just a few yards in front of them…
“Stop,” He yelled out grabbing hold of the lines and almost tipping Mose from the box, “stop ‘em Mose!”
The avalanche of mud, shale and rocks tore down the hillside gathering momentum as it came and Jess and Mose were only just able to halt the horses in time before the road was completely impassable.
Jess swore long and loud before leaping down from the box to quieten the horses that were rearing up in terror at this latest horror, Mose having trouble holding them.
Once Jess had quietened the critters Mose jumped down to join him and then the two men walked down the road away to investigate the damage…
“Well we ain’t gonna get passed this,” Mose said gloomily surveying the heap of rubble now blocking their path, “Twill take a team of men a week or more to move this lot…”
“We’re blocked at the back too dang it!” Jess cried feeling totally frustrated…
“Well I guess there’s only one course of action,” Mose replied thoughtfully.
“Well it’s obvious ain’t it, we’ll have to take the trail down to the Harrison spread and then cut across land to the old Cheyenne road that abuts their southern pasture.”
“Are you crazy? The passengers are creatin ’  just drivin ’ on a proper road. So what do ya think they’ll say iffen we start crossing pasture land, this ain’t the damn wagon train ya know Mose!”
“Well what choice do we have…stay here?” The old timer asked indignantly…
Jess looked up and down the deserted road, the snow now coming down in earnest…
“I guess we don’t have any option…Toss up for who tells ‘em?” Jess said hopefully.
By the time they’d managed to turn the coach in the narrow road and head for the old Harrison place it became clear that they would be unable to complete their trip that day. Daylight was fading and the snow was now coming down so thick and fast they could barely see the horse’s rumps just in front of them…
After a while Jess jumped down and led the horses slowly down the narrow track towards the Harrison ranch.
Jess had known Bill and Jeanie Harrison well. They were a devoted couple with no kin and had always made a big fuss of Mike, remembering his Birthday and Christmas. That was why it had been so sad when they had both perished from the influenza outbreak just two years ago, dying within days of each other.
Since then the spread had remained empty, the beasts all auctioned off and the proceeds given to the Church as stated in old man Harrison’s Will… But as to the ranch house and buildings no provision had been made and they had been left to decay and return to the earth from which they had been erected.
“Typical of Bill,” Slim had remarked at the livestock auction, “never one to make a fuss and I guess he just wanted the land to return to its original wild state it was in before he built on it.”
“Sure is a shame though,” Jess had said looking across the pastureland and up at the well-appointed ranch house, it’s a real nice little spread…”
Now as they slowly entered the yard, he glanced around him noting the semi derelict buildings and overgrown vegetable plot which had once been Ma Harrison’s pride and joy.
He shook his head sadly and looking up at Mose said, “Well it ain’t much but I figure it’ll keep us warm and dry until we can make it to town.”
He took a deep breath readying him-self for the onslaught he knew would be coming from the passengers.
Poor old Mose had lost the bet, with the aid of Jess’s two headed dollar, but now he knew it was his turn to take the brunt of their anger. He just hoped he was able to hold it together without losing his temper, but jeez he really was up against it. He was tired, cold, gagging for a good strong coffee and knew in his heart that none of them would be home for Christmas.
“Well about time too,” the elderly woman cried as Jess handed her down. Then she took a moment to take in the down at heel yard now looking even more derelict in the late afternoon gloom and said, “Wait a minute young man, this isn’t Laramie!”
Jess sighed deeply, “No ma’am, Mr Shell explained didn’t he, how the road was impassable…we’re gonna hafta stay the night here and then try and make it across country tomorrow.”
Then he cast his eyes up to the forbidding clouds above and amended, “Or wait here until rescue arrives…”
“What!” She said throwing him an incredulous look, “Stay here…for Christmas you mean?”
“Unless you’ve got a better plan,” he said under his breath, really beginning to forget that the customer was always right, as Slim had tried to drum into him over the years…
“I heard that young man,” she said sharply, “and it’s not my place to have a plan, that’s your job surely?”
Jess dug deep into his very limited supply of patience and managed to paint a smile on his face, albeit a small one. “Uh, why dontcha call me Jess instead of young man,” he said, “the name is Harper, Jess Harper….”
“Um I see Mister Harper and you may call me Mrs Briggs, widow Briggs that is,” she said throwing him another sharp look as though to say and if you have any designs on a poor widow woman you can forget them…
But before he could register that, he was met with a wailing sound from within the coach and was able to make out the over anxious mother trying to placate her now tearful son…
“Is it true?” She asked earnestly leaning forwards, the better to see Jess. “Are we to spend Christmas in this…this wilderness?” She asked, tears now brimming in her own eyes…
He leaned in and helped her and the boy down, “Just a temporary measure,” he said briskly, “we’ll get ya to town just as soon as we can I promise you.”
“But not before Christmas?” She persisted.
“Ma’am it’s Christmas Eve afternoon now, and unless we get some kinda miracle then no we ain’t gonna be home for Christmas…but I figure we’ll just hafta make the best of things huh?”
This brought about fresh sobs from little Freddy and as the snow was lashing down driven by an almost gale force wind, Jess felt the kid had a point. It sure weren’t the best of places to celebrate Christmas.
“OK,” he said briskly, “all inside and me and Mose will rustle up some hot drinks and a meal just as soon as we can.”
“We will?” Mose muttered before turning to start unharnessing the team.
Meanwhile the other passenger, the old guy in the pork pie hat and oversized rain slicker had alighted from the other side of the coach and was busy trying the ranch door…to no avail.
Jess wandered over and said, “What’s up, is it locked?”
The little man shrugged, “It sure won’t budge mister…what sorta place is this anyway?” He asked peering up at the dark rather forbidding edifice.
“The sort that’s gonna save our bacon,” Jess said crossly, his short supply of patience almost exhausted now. “Unless you wanna chance yer luck and stay out in this?” He asked, tipping his hat towards the increasingly squally weather.
The older man had the grace to flush up and said quietly, “I guess not…sorry mister….”
“The name’s Jess,” Jess said grinning at him, “and you are?”
“Oh a creature of no account, but you can call me Blackie everyone does…”
“Huh is that yer first name or second?” Jess asked intrigued…
“Just Blackie,” he said quietly…
“Ok well er…Blackie, iffen you move I’ll get my shoulder to it,” Jess said, beginning to shiver with cold and just wanting to get inside the old place.
Blackie moved over and Jess got his shoulder to the door, but it took three good heaves before it eventually swung open, revealing a large dark room within.
By this time the women folk had joined them and Jess quickly led the way in… He felt his way across the semi darkened room to the windows and pulled the drapes back. The weak afternoon light flooded in revealing a once elegant room, dominated by a huge stone fireplace, a large leather couch and several chairs set around it. To the left, set in the window was a very large oval dining table and chairs. Its beautiful walnut top now covered in layers of dust…as was everything else in the room.
“My goodness what is this place?” Widow Briggs asked, looking around her. “Why on earth has a beautiful house like this been so neglected?”
Jess explained about Bill and Jeanie Harrison’s untimely passing and how it was Bill’s last wish that the property returned to the earth from which it had been shaped.
She looked around her shaking her old head, “Such a shame…”
Jess seeing a spark of humanity in the woman’s eyes said, “Iffen we can find the kitchen and fire up the cook stove do ya think you and er the other lady could brew us up some coffee…I’ve got some Arbuckle ’s in my bag…”
Then he heard a movement behind him and the mother and child had joined them before the old fireplace…
“My name is Dawn, Mister Harper, Dawn Peters and you know young Freddy,” she said a protective hand on the youngster’s shoulder.
“Pleased ta know ya Dawn, that’s a real pretty name,” Jess said beaming at the young woman. “Say could you give Mrs Briggs a hand in the kitchen if I take Freddy off to help me find some kindlin ’ for the stove?”
Dawn Peters looked uncertain for a moment, but then her son wriggled free and said, “Can I Ma, can I go help the stagecoach man?”
She looked back up at Jess and saw his kindly, honest eyes gazing at her and made a decision…
“Yes, you may Freddy, but stay close to Mister Harper, no running off…”
“He’ll be fine, I’ll look out for him,” Jess said and touching his hat he left with the child.
Once outside he looked down and grinned at the youngster, “Your Ma’s kinda clucky ain’t she?” He said conspiratorially.
The youngster smiled weakly, “I guess she is, but I’ve gotten kind of used to it since….,” and then he looked down saying no more…
“Since what?” Jess asked intrigued...
“Oh nuthin ’ Mister Harper…er I think the log store is over there isn’t it,” he said quickly changing the subject.
Jess shrugged and decided not to quiz the boy further, doubtless everyone’s story would come out sooner or later he thought sagely.
They wandered over to the old log store and Jess was pleased to see that there was still a goodly supply of logs and also some dry kindling. He loaded up the child’s arms with the dry saplings and sent him back off to the kitchen and then searched around for a log basket for the heavier load…
Spying an old metal washing tub that he figured would do the job he piled some logs in and then straightened up and surveyed the scene before him… The Stage parked in the old yard, the horses now being tended by Mose in the barn, the snow now just flitting gently down and he was suddenly overcome by a feeling of déjà vu.
He remembered exactly the same thing happening to him a few years back…Old man Harrington, the then Stage-line boss, had asked him to ride shot gun on Christmas Eve. The dang coach axle had broken leaving him high and dry with the drunken Padre, an uptight miserable old spinster and a very pregnant young lady. He shivered now at the memory of how he’d had to help young Mary give birth…
“You think I’d dang well learn,” he said bitterly…
“Talkin ’ to yerself now boy?” Mose asked cheerfully as he wandered up behind Jess.
He shook his head in bewilderment, “Just remembering that time the Stage broke down Christmas Eve and young Mary gave birth, think I’d know better than to dang well work over the holiday again.”
Mose looked horrified, “Garldarn it, bless me I’d forgotten all about that…the old Padre drunk as a skunk and that Miss Cross refusing to help…Jeez that sure was a tough time.”
Jess nodded, “Until little Luke was born, guess he changed everything, kinda reminded us what Christmas was really all about.”
Mose nodded sagely, “That he did.”
Then he gave Jess his toothless grin, “Well at least we ain’t got us any pregnant females this time.”
Then they heard Ma Briggs calling out querulously from the back door, complaining that the cook stove wouldn’t light.
Jess rolled his eyes, “We’ve sure got us a dang cantankerous one though,” and he mooched off to lend her a hand, lugging the logs with him.
Once the cook stove was sorted out the women got started preparing some food whilst the others gave the sitting room a good clean up, lit the fire and lamps and before too long the old place looked pretty comfortable.
It was over a surprisingly good supper that they all discussed the situation.
“Well we seem OK for food,” Jess said digging into the beans and taters that the women folk had rustled up.
“There are plenty of cans in the larder and still some good vegetables in the root cellar,” Dawn said, “so we won’t starve…”
“Oh great,” said Blackie, “beans and root vegetables for Christmas dinner.”
“Well what do ya expect?” Mose said waspishly, “At least Jess has got ya safely into somewhere warm and dry for the night…what were you expectin ’ a three course Christmas dinner as well?”
Blackie looked slightly ashamed and turning to Jess said, “I’m sorry young man, I guess you’re doing your best…”
Jess shrugged, “I’ll try and get ya all to Laramie tomorrow.” Then he sighed, “But if the snow keeps on coming down this way well… I’ll go out first thing and see if I can find some game for our dinner at least…”
“I’ll give you a hand,” said Blackie, “I’m quite a dab hand with a hunting rifle.”
Jess thanked him and then said, “Might not be roast turkey, but we’ll do our best,” he said winking at Dawn.
She flushed and looked down at her plate before saying, “Well I for one am glad we are in such safe hands with Mister Harper to look after us…um and Mister Shell too,” she added as an afterthought.
Now it was Jess’s turn to feel slightly embarrassed, “Jess,” he said quietly, “please call me Jess and I’m real sorry about it,” he said, “so will there be folks missing you in Laramie ma’am?”
She shook her head, “No, not really we’re new to town. I start a job, managing the haberdashery after the holiday.”
“Oh, so what made you choose Laramie?” Jess asked with interest.
She shrugged, “I saw the advertisement in a magazine. I’ve done that kind of work before and Freddy and I needed a fresh start, so I applied and got the job,” she said simply. “There’s an apartment over the shop that will be just right for the two of us,” she added shyly, flashing a quick look at Jess and then away.
“Oh, so no Mister Peters around then?” Mose asked in his usual inquisitive manner…
There was a long pause and then she said, “Er no, he passed away three years ago.”
This news was followed by an embarrassed silence.
Jess was the first to break it.
“I’m real sorry for your loss ma’am,” he said softly. Then seeing she was close to tears he turned his attention to young Freddy.
“You’ll love Laramie,” he said enthusiastically the school is swell and all the kids real friendly. I’ll introduce you to my Mike; he’ll help ya settle in.”
Dawn’s head shot up at that news, “Oh, so you’re married Mister Harper…uh…Jess?”
“No, I’m not,” he chuckled, “Mike is my ward.”
“So how about you Ma’am will you have relatives frettin ’ if you don’t turn up for Christmas?” Mose asked Ma Briggs, now fully recovered from his faux pas and once more trying to nose out some gossip.
“I very much doubt it,” Ma Briggs said bitterly, her mouth turning down, “my family will hardly miss me at all I suspect.”
“I’m sure that’s not true dear lady,” Blackie said with feeling, “you have a family at least,” he added sadly.
She sighed deeply, “Oh I’m just a charity case they don’t really want me around,” but she clearly didn’t want to enlarge upon that.
Again, there was an embarrassed silence before Dawn got up and replenished the coffee cups and shortly afterwards the women folk and young Freddy retired to the kitchen to wash the dishes.
Once they had gone Blackie gave the others a mischievous look and producing a deck of cards from his pocket, like a magician and said, “Well what about it gentlemen, a round or two of poker to pass the time?”
After the fourth game it became obvious to Jess that Blackie was probably about the worst poker player he had ever seen and what’s more he seemed totally addicted to gambling.
After Jess had won more than a month’s wages and Mose slightly less Jess decided he should call time. It had been Blackie that had insisted on the cash stakes instead of just playing for matchsticks as Jess had first suggested. Now he seemed incapable of stopping, wanting just one more round to try and win some money back, so he kept saying.
Jess cast his mind back to a time several years ago, when he’d been at the Sherman spread just a few months. He had found out that old Jonesy was a hopeless gambler. It came to light one Sunday afternoon when Jess, thinking all was not well with the old timer, followed him to town and watched him slowly losing a month’s housekeeping in the space of a couple of hours. Thankfully old Jonesy had seen sense and eventually changed his ways, with Jess’s help. But Jess doubted Blackie would be as easy to help as he seemed a hopeless case.
“Come on Jess, it’s only just seven o’clock,” Mose said peering at his ancient time-piece, “we’ve time for a few more rounds.”
“No, we ain’t Jess said firmly, “Blackie has lost enough for one night…”
Then they heard the ladies advancing and Blackie reluctantly put his cards away.

Chapter 3
Meanwhile back at the ranch Slim and Daisy had pretty much given up on Jess arriving home in time for Christmas. However, Mike still kept running to the window every few minutes, peering out at the now fast falling snow in the yard and beyond in the hope of seeing Jess driving in.
After a while Slim went over to join him, slipping a kindly arm around the child’s shoulders, “I think we’re going to have to accept the Stage won’t have made it through Mike, he should have been here by noon and it’s nearly your bedtime, it’s gone seven.”
“Aw Slim, he said he’d be home,” the child said earnestly and then sighed deeply, before glancing back into the room at the beautifully decorated tree glittering in the glowing light of the fire.
“Suppose he’s broken down like that other time…or bad men tried to steal the strong box,” he said anxiously. “I’d feel better if I knew he was safe at Miss Millie’s Ma’s place,” he continued sadly, “but we don’t know that do we Slim... not really.”
Slim sighed and then cast Daisy an anxious look.
“Well we don’t know for sure dear no, but knowing Jess he’ll be just fine you’ll see... and well if he does miss Christmas we’ll just have to have another one when he gets home.”
“Really,” asked the child his eyes lighting up, “a proper one with the tree and turkey and all?”
Daisy nodded, “I think so yes dear, well we’ll have a really special meal anyway to welcome him home… Now come along, Santa will be here before you’re asleep at this rate…”
The child was just about to do as he was told when there was a movement in the yard and a minute later a rider came into view…
“Jess,” Mike yelled, “I knew he’d be home I just knew it,” and tearing to the door he threw it open excitedly.
Then his little face fell as there standing on the door step was... the Sheriff.
“Well howdy Mike,” Mort said with a huge grin, “and it’s real good to see you too!”
“Aw I’m sorry Sheriff I thought you were Jess,” the child said turning sadly away.
“Hey hang on young man I may not be Jess, but I’ve news of him,” Mort said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Come on in Mort, don’t stand out there in the cold,” Slim said quickly.
Then Daisy was there, “Oh dear he is alright isn’t he Sheriff?”
“He’s just fine ma’am,” Mort said removing his hat and brushing some of the snow from his jacket. “I got a wire last night from the Stage-line office saying due to bad weather conditions they wouldn’t be heading out today…I’m real sorry I couldn’t get over sooner but it was kinda busy in town.”
“You can stay now, for Christmas that is,” Slim asked quickly, “Lon is covering for you?”
“You bet, I wouldn’t miss my usual Christmas with you folk for anything,” Mort said cheerfully.
“Great I’ll go and put your horse up in the barn,” Slim said grinning and making for the door…
“And you, young man scoot, now you know Jess is just fine, bed huh?”
“Sure,” said Mike with a relieved grin. All was right with the world again. Not only was his hero safe, but he had the prospect of two Christmas’s life just didn’t get any better!
“Come and sit by the fire Mort,” Daisy said as Slim left for the barn, “I’ll fetch you a mince pie and glass of sherry wine.”
When she returned she passed the drink and plate over and then took a seat opposite, and looked sadly into the fire, before turning back to him, “I’m so glad you were able to make it,” she said softly, “it will be rather quiet this Christmas I’m afraid.”
Mort nodded, “Kate was so disappointed not to be able to join us, but Denver’s been really sick she was needed at home.”
Kate was Mort’s special lady friend and she usually made it down from the mountain where she lived with her cousin and his sons most of the year…But Denver being so sick scuppered her plans.
“How is he, have you heard?”
“Got a message from her just yesterday from the Padre of all people, he’d been up the mountain for his Christmas Moonshine,” Mort said chuckling. “He said old Denver was over the worst and Kate would see me in the spring.”
“Oh good,” Daisy said with feeling, “you’ll be missing her.”
“Oh yes,” said Mort with conviction, “and Slim, his Lily too?”
Daisy nodded, “She promised her Ma she’d go home this year, with her Pa passing in the fall… so I’ll have no female company to gossip with,” she said sadly, “and poor Slim is missing her dreadfully.”
Mort nodded sadly, “Yup and now Jess has gone AWOL,” he said and then grinned, “but at least he’ll be with his Millie, every cloud eh!”
Slim made his way over to the barn, leading Buck, the moonlight making the yard almost as light as day. The snow had stopped now and the air was crisp and clear but very cold.
He threw the barn door open and the moonlight flooded in, making the lighting of a lamp unnecessary and he led the Sheriff’s old buckskin down to the end stall next to where Traveller was dozing.
Slim opened the stall door and was about to lead Buck in when he stopped in his tracks…There asleep in the hay, snoring gently, his black hat over his face lay his partner.
“Jess? Jess what the heck are you doing here?” Slim asked in delight…
When there was no movement Slim nudged him gently with his foot, “Exhausted are ya buddy, or have you been on the Red Eye already huh?” He asked smiling again…
Again, getting no response Slim bent down and tipped the hat back, “Hey Jess wake up,” he said…and then he sat back in bewilderment…
Yes, he had a similar lean handsome face…and when his eyes suddenly sprang open, they were the same deep blue…but there the similarity ended…Slim was looking into the eyes of a complete stranger.
He leapt back, a hand automatically going to his gun butt. However, on closer inspection he saw the stranger was unarmed and was now gazing at him with curiosity rather than antagonism or fear.
Slim was now feeling rather foolish and said angrily, “What do you think you’re doing here, this is private property.”
The other stretched languidly and then said in an Irish brogue, “Well I’m really sorry if I’ve damaged your hay at all mister, but I just needed to take a nap.”
The flippant response reminded him so much of Jess he was speechless for a minute, but eventually recovered.
“What’s your name and what’s your business here?” He asked firmly.
The intruder made to get up and Slim stepped back as the tall lanky man stood and brushed the straw from his clothes before saying in his soft sing song voice, “I was baptized John, but everyone calls me Johnnie, Johnnie O’Hara and pleased it is I am to meet you mister...?”
“Sherman,” Slim said gruffly, “Slim Sherman and I own this spread so, what are you doing here er…Johnnie?”
The younger man looked down and when he returned Slim ’s gaze there was a new look of sadness in his dark blue eyes.
“We’ll I’ll tell you Mister Sherman, ‘twas because of my good old horse, he broke a leg about ten miles back on the hill above the Cheyenne road to be precise…had to shoot him…I was walking to town and then when the snow came on I thought I’d shelter for the night…I meant no harm,” he added throwing Slim an exhausted glance.
Slim looked at the young man’s soaking clothes and felt a wave of pity for him, losing a well-loved horse was always a wretched occurrence and even more so in these circumstances.
“I guess you’d better come in, dry off some, you’ll freeze to death out here,” he said pulling his own warm jacket more firmly around him.
“That’s really kind of you Mister Sherman, thank you,” he said giving Slim a little salute, the gesture again reminding him of his pard… But this man wasn’t Jess and they didn’t know him from Adam, so he decided not to let his guard down…
“Uh, well I’m warning you now, no funny business, I’ve a lady and young boy in the house and I don’t want them upset in any way you understand, no strong language or the like huh?”
“Ah, you’ll hear no blaspheming from me Mister Sherman, I can assure you of that,” he said earnestly.
“Well see to it you don’t,” Slim said and guided the man across the yard and into the sanctuary of the warm parlor.
“So you’re not from around these parts,” Mort said a little later, immediately aware he was stating the obvious, “if you know what I mean,” he added.
“Indeed, sir, er Sheriff,” the young man said, “from God’s own country originally, uh, that is Ireland of course, but I’ve been on these shores for a little while now and love the place so I do.”
“What line of work are you in?” Mort persisted, wracking his brains to see if the face was familiar from any of the wanted posters back on his desk in Laramie.
“I can turn my hand to pretty much anything from carpentry to farming and working with horses but mainly I suppose you could say I’m a traveler and spreader of the word, I like to move from town to town do ya see sir.”
“On the drift then,” said Slim dryly, again seeing the parallel between the newcomer and his pard.
Daisy who had been biting back a comment suddenly could bear it no longer, “Will you two please stop interrogating the young man can’t you see he’s soaking wet, half frozen to death and doubtless starving hungry.”
Slim and Mort both looked slightly taken aback at Daisy’s rare display of annoyance and quickly made amends…
Slim looked Johnnie up and down and said,” I guess you’re about the same build as my pard, come through to the bedroom and I’ll fix you up with some dry clothes and maybe Daisy could dry your stuff?” He asked throwing his beloved housekeeper a winning smile.
It was later after Johnnie had eaten and Daisy had retired to bed that the three men sat around the fireplace with a nightcap.
“I really appreciate this so I do,” Johnnie said to Slim yet again. “You taking me in and feeding me, even allowing me to sleep on the couch by your fire, you’re a good man Mister Sherman.”
Whether or not it was the unaccustomed Moonshine that Mort had brought as a gift or just the spirit of Christmas, but both men had warmed to this newcomer in their midst. He was earnest and forthright and something about him made one implicitly trust him Slim mused now…
Mort sank back in his chair, feet out almost in the hearth and a happy grin on his face, “So tell me about your family Johnnie, where do your parents live now?”
His face clouded and he said quietly, “Mammy and daddy are deceased Sheriff... daddy was a Minister in the Church…and mammy helped him in his work. But they were both taken of the fever many years ago now…”
“I’m sorry,” Mort said sincerely, “and what of your bothers?”
“Ah that would be Mathew…and Luke,” he said grinning now. “Matt works in the tax offices in Illinois and Luke is a doctor up in Montana.”
Slim stared at him for a moment and then grinned broadly, “So you boys where Christened Mathew, Luke and John…so no Mark?”
Johnnie looked down quickly a cloud crossing his face, “Uh, no Mark…well there was but he changed his name. He didn’t think too much of Mammy’s little joke,” he said bitterly… But then he regained his good mood and said, “That’s what happens when a man of the cloth marries a woman with a sense of humor!”
It didn’t take Mort long to enjoy the joke too, “Well I guess we couldn’t be in better company on Christmas Eve than sharing a glass or two with one of the Apostles,” he quipped.
Slim gave a bark of laughter, but John merely smiled secretively, looking down into his glass…
“So what will you do,” Mort asked eventually, “you’ll not get far in these parts without a good horse…”
“Oh I’ll get by,” he said cheerfully, “the good Lord usually provides…”
After a while Slim stretched and yawned, “Well I reckon we’d better turn in. There’s a young man not a million miles away that will be getting us up before dawn ripping presents open,” he laughed. Then he sobered, gee it sure wouldn’t be the same around the place without his partner’s cheeky grin. Followed by mock protests when Mike tore into their room with his stocking wishing them a Merry Christmas…But he sure hoped he was enjoying himself with Millie and would be home soon…
He and Mort retired to the bedroom leaving Johnnie comfortably settled on the old leather couch.
“I sure hope you don’t regret letting him stay,” Mort said thoughtfully as he sat down on Jess’s bed, “you don’t reckon he’ll slit our throats in the dead of night and make off with our turkey dinner do ya?”
Slim laughed softly, “Nope I reckon we’re safe enough… Anyway, Daisy likes him and that’s good enough for me, she’s a really good judge of character….”
The next morning as expected Mort and Slim were awoken by Mike’s whoops of unconfined joy as he ripped open his stocking presents…bouncing up and down on Slim’s bed and laughing happily…After a while he sobered and said quietly, “today would be just perfect if only Jess was here…”
At the mention of his pard ’s name Slim remembered Johnnie sleeping out in the parlor and figured this new and exotic guest would go a long way to cheering up the youngster….
He pulled himself out of bed and Mike jumped into the warm space he’d just vacated, happily clutching a new story book he’d found in his stocking… Slim ruffled his hair affectionately, “You stay nice and quiet and read your book while I go and rustle up some coffee for the Sheriff,” he said quietly, wondering how Mort had managed to sleep through the child’s hullabaloo.
He ambled off to the kitchen casting a glance over at the couch by the window, but it was empty… Frowning he went back to his room and pulled his boots and pants on before investigating further…Johnnie wasn’t anywhere in the ranch house or in the outhouse or bunkhouse either… Finally, Slim made his way across the yard and was surprised to see hoof prints in the pristine early morning snow… He increased his speed and pulling the barn door wide peered inside…Alamo’s stall was empty….
He tore back to the house and shook Mort awake… “Dang it,” he yelled, “that Johnnie’s gone and stolen my horse…he’s taken Alamo!”
Daisy insisted on the men having some breakfast and a hot coffee before heading off in pursuit. “After all, how far can he have gone in this weather?” She said briskly, “And I really don’t believe it of him.”
Mort shook his head sadly, “You’re a wonderful woman Miss Daisy, but maybe a tad too trusting?”
She ignored his comment and marched off to the kitchen to check on the Turkey that was cooking away in the slow oven… Maybe she’d been mistaken about the young man…but she was sure not…Oh dear if only Jess were here, he’d have been able to see through any duplicity, goodness he’d mixed with enough villains to be able to recognize one on first sight she thought with a wry smile.
She was still brooding on the matter when the front door slammed and she heard a cheery greeting…
“Merry Christmas all…”
She rushed through to the parlor and saw Johnnie standing there looking flushed and triumphant.
“I hope you didn’t mind me borrowing one of your horses Mister Sherman,” he continued happily, “but I had to go back and collect my saddlebags from where I’d stashed them down the trail a little way… I was just so exhausted yesterday I couldn’t carry them a step further.”
“Here dear lady,” he said turning to Daisy, “some of my supplies to help with the rations.”
Then turning to Slim and Mort grinned and said, “And a little Irish whiskey to share later too.”
Then he finally turned to Mike and threw him a beautifully carved flute…
“I’ll teach you a few Irish tunes later on yes?”
Mike looked delighted his eyes sparkling as he accepted the gift with thanks.
Slim could barely meet his eye and Johnnie suddenly became aware of the tension in the room…
“Oh dear I should really have asked to borrow the horse shouldn’t I?” he said looking crestfallen. “It was just that I wanted to go out early and didn’t want to be disturbing you…”
“That’s OK,” Slim said quickly, “no harm done…”
“He’s fed and watered and rubbed down really well,” Johnnie said still looking apologetic…
“All is well that ends well,” Daisy said cheerfully, “now who would like to give me a hand peeling the potatoes…um?”

Chapter 4
Jess awoke on Christmas morning feeling disorientated…
He sat up slowly from where he’d been stretched out on the couch and looked around the room in the dim early morning light, filtering in through the threadbare drapes…and shivered.
A couple of old cots were drawn up by the fire, one with Mose snoring softly and on the other Blackie lay curled up and sleeping like a baby…Jess smiled grimly…after the amount of money the guy had lost the night before he was surprised he could sleep at all…
He shivered again and then pulling the dusty blanket he’d been sleeping under around his shoulders shuffled over to the fire and poked it into life before putting on a couple of logs and crouching there warming his hands for a few minutes…
Jeez he shouldn’t be here in this chilly dusty old ranch house…it was Christmas for goodness sake. He should be celebrating with his girl…or back at the ranch with the folks he now thought of as kin… Had Mike opened his stocking yet he wondered and was the delicious smell of turkey roasting in the slow oven wafting through the house? At the thought of turkey his stomach growled with hunger….
He mooched over to the window and peered out at the murky yard beyond still covered in several inches of snow…Nope there was no way he could risk taking passengers over land today…So it would have to be plan B… He wandered over to where Blackie was still sleeping soundly and shook him awake…
“Nearly light,” he whispered, “you still of a mind to come help me bag somethin ’ fer Christmas dinner?”
Blackie cussed softly and moaned some but eventually got up and a few minutes later the men quietly left the sleeping household.
An hour or so later they were making their way back through the now sunny, but bitterly cold, morning with a brace of plump pheasants and three small ducks…
“So what’s the deal with your gambling  then?” Jess asked conversationally as they strode through the snowy pastureland heading back to the ranch…
“Huh?” Blackie asked looking somewhat shamefaced…
“Well you can’t stop can you…hell anyone can see it’s a mugs game so why’d you do it?”
Blackie shrugged, “I don’t know it gives me something… a sort of buzz I suppose always thinking I’m going to win this time…make a fortune…”
Jess rolled his eyes, “But a blind man could see that ain’t gonna happen yer just kiddin’ yerself…”
Blackie was silent for a long time striding along, head down in deep thought before finally turning to Jess and saying, “I wasn’t always this way you know ...I had something once… a real good life, I was good at my job, popular…had a wonderful time….”
“So what went wrong?” Jess asked now looking a tad more sympathetic…
“My Molly,” she upped and died and then everything seemed to go wrong… I started drinkin ’ and visiting the saloon and playing the card tables. Then one night I was on a winning streak…couldn’t go wrong…and I’ll tell you Jess,” he said turning sparkling eyes on his new confidant… “it was the first time I felt anything since my Molly passed…So I went back the next night and the next …and I’m still doing it…I lose all my stake money…get a dead end job to pay for the next game and then move on to another town…then another always thinking my luck will change….”
Jess listened in silence but now he said softly, “But I guess we both know that ain’t ever gonna happen…”
Blackie nodded sadly and whispered, “I know it…”
“Well then…you’re just gonna have to stop,” Jess said reasonably.
“Can’t, can’t do that Jess, too much temptation do you see?”
Jess was silent again and then said, “So what did ya do, when you had a good job, were popular and all?”
“I was a blacksmith,” he said quietly…
Jess was unable to hide his smile, “What you…really?” he asked, surveying the dapper little man with skepticism.
“Ha, don’t believe me huh?” Blackie said suddenly looking animated. “Here feel this,” he said rolling up his sleeve and flexing his muscles.
Jess obliged and was surprised to see his rock-hard biceps.
“Well I’ll be,” he said softy….
“Oh yes I know,” Blackie said grinning, “Blacksmiths are usually huge great hulking men ain’t they…but believe me I’m as good as any of them, in fact better than most… I won the Blacksmith iron-working and shoeing championship over in Denver three years running,” he said proudly…
Jess snapped his fingers and beamed at his new friend, “That’s it…I knew I’d seen ya some place before I was there last time you won, two…no three years ago...right? They call you the Mighty Midget…Champion Smitty.”
Blackie nodded happily, “That’s it…that’s me…or it was.”
“So, why’d you quit, you were just great.”
“It was after Molly died, like I say…my life just kinda fell apart…I’ve tried to get back on track…but working in a town…well the temptation to drink and gamble is always there, right on my doorstep…”
Jess considered this, “Yeah I can see how that would be a problem….”
Then a few minutes later he tipped his hat back and stopped walking, “I’ve got it,” he cried in delight.
“You have?”
“Yeah, you ever heard of the Sunacre spread, owned by a guy called Edward Knight… about twenty miles north of town?”
Blackie nodded, “Well sure of course I have he’s one of the biggest and best horse suppliers in the territory…”
“Uh-huh that’s him and I know for a fact he’s looking for a new blacksmith to take over running his Smithy…”
“You’re sure?” Blackie asked looking expectant. “You think he might take me on?”
Jess nodded, “I’m sure alright, the last guy took off with a trapeze artist from a traveling show last month. Ed was asking my buddy Slim if he knew of anyone just a few days ago…”
“So you know Mister Knight?”
“Oh yeah, I break horses we do quite a bit of trading with him. Like I say he was over visiting us just last week, I could take you over to the ranch and introduce you? Got business up there come New Year anyways.”
Blackie looked overjoyed, “You’d do that for me?”
Jess nodded, “On one condition, you stay sober and out of the gambling halls yeah?”
Blackie nodded, “Well it’ll be perfect Jess, stuck out on that spread miles from town I won’t be tempted the same…I can do it this time I know I can…”
“Well you’d better,” Jess said slapping him on the back…
Then he grinned again, “Come on let’s get back…I guess some hungry folk will be waitin ’ on their Christmas dinner….”
Blackie grinned back at him, “You know Jess for the first time in years this really feels like Christmas!”
When they arrived it was still early, but the place was in turmoil…
Jess heard Dawn sobbing loudly as they crossed the yard and then Mose hurried out the front door looking wildly around him.
“Hey what’s up Mose?” Jess asked chucking his kill down on the porch and putting a hand out to the old timer…
“It’s the kid, that Freddy, he’s gone missing, his Ma’s kickin ’ up something fierce…and that Ma Briggs ain’t much better…”
Jess strode into the house to find a swollen-eyed Dawn looking desperately around her…
“Hey don’t worry,” Jess said quickly, “the kid’s probably just hiding you know the way youngsters are…”
“No, no really he wouldn’t do that he’d know I’d be worried…”
He turned his gaze to Ma Briggs, “You’ve checked… looked everywhere?”
“Indeed young man, under the beds, in the wardrobes even behind the drapes I can assure you he isn’t in the house…”
“He ain’t in the outhouse or barn either,” Mose confirmed…
“Well he must have taken off someplace,” Jess said logically, “you women folk stay here in case he comes back…”
Then he turned to Mose and Blackie, “We’ll split up and cover the surrounding area he can’t have gone far….”
The snow covering the yard was a jumble of various footprints and it was impossible to isolate Freddy’s smaller tracks from those of everyone else.
Blackie took off in the rough direction he and Jess had gone on their hunting expedition, in case the child had decided to follow them… and Mose in the opposite direction. But Jess wandered over to the log store…He remembered the child looking at something off in the distance behind the ranch house where there was a patch of scrub and a few pines… Maybe he had hoped to secure a sapling as a Christmas tree Jess thought as he walked purposefully in that direction.
The wind had gotten up in the night and now the powdery snow was blown hither and thither, obscuring any tracks the child might have made. Jess turned his collar up against the chilly northerly and cussed softly under his breath, “Dang kid what’s he playin ’ at?” He muttered, although his outburst was fueled more by concern than genuine anger.
He reached the relative shelter of the small spinney of pines and his hopes were dashed…there was no sign of life at all…save a lonely buzzard off in the distance…which was quickly joined by another…. and then another….
“Oh please God no,” Jess gasped and the birds swooped lower, obviously drawn by some fallen prey…
Jess started jogging in the general direction where the birds were now making their blood curdling cries as more joined them and they swooped lower and lower…
By this time Jess had reached another small copse, this time of Cottonwoods, interspersed with some Holly bushes…
He stopped for a moment, as he was almost spent after tearing over half a mile up the steep rugged hill. He leaned against a tree, a hand to his side as he panted, desperately trying to catch his breath…All the time his eyes never leaving the circling birds of prey above him….
Then a movement caught his eye and looking to his left he saw a small figure sitting on a fallen log watching the circling birds in fascination…
“Freddy…thank God,” Jess gasped as he took another deep breath and made his way over, relief flooding through him as he collapsed on the log beside the child…
Freddy turned to him a look of welcome in his wide brown eyes, “Hi Mister Harper, you come to watch the birds too?” He asked.
Jess bit back an angry response and said, “No I ain’t son, I’ve come to find you, your Ma is frettin ’ something fierce back there,” he said tipping his Stetson back the way he’d come.
The boy’s look of friendly interest quickly turned to alarm, “Gee what time is it? I meant to be back before Ma woke up.”
“Well you ain’t,” Jess said, “it’s way past breakfast time and everyone’s out a lookin’ fer you Freddy!” He said curtly.
The enormity of what he’d done suddenly hit home and the youngster looked anxiously up at Jess, “Oh I really didn’t mean to upset everyone,” he said innocently.
Even though he was dark haired something about his earnestness and honesty reminded Jess of Mike and he relented.
“So what are you doin’ up here anyway…apart from bird watchin’?” He said casting a jaundiced eye up to the noisy birds…
Freddy leaned down and picked up some Holly branches liberally dotted with bright red berries… “I came to collect some Holly for Ma, she loves it and I thought…” then he sighed and cast his eyes down…
“You thought what Freddy?” Jess said gently leaning forwards and putting an encouraging hand on the boy’s shoulder…
“I thought she might like to make a Holly wreath. She always used to…before, well before Pa died…She used to be happy Mister Harper she’d laugh and tease me and Pa. She’d make a really special Christmas dinner and buy presents and always put a wreath on the door, said it was real important…”
“Go on,” Jess said softly…
“Well she hasn’t done that since…you know…we lost Pa. We hardly celebrate Christmas at all…sure I get presents…but Ma never looks happy or laughs…and she wears those real dark clothes…she used to dress up real pretty in a new dress for Christmas…”
“And you thought today might be different…being here in a new place?” Jess asked, really trying to understand.
Freddy nodded vigorously… “I sure do…see she laughed last night Mister Harper, when you told that joke about Mike…and she looked real happy…So I thought I’d get the Holly for her…and she’d be happy again today and put up a wreath like she used to,” he finished quietly.
“Well I guess we’d better head on home and find out huh?” Jess said gently helping the child collect his Holly branches.
When Dawn saw her son walk in the door with Jess she started sobbing hysterically and grabbing the child held him close as though she would never let him go. After a while she turned her tear stained face up to Jess and said, “Thank you Mister…uh Jess…thank you so much,” then she broke down again…
It was clear that young Freddy was both embarrassed and upset by his Ma’s behavior and after a minute Jess gently pulled him from Dawn’s grasp and suggested he go help Ma Briggs with breakfast while he had a quiet word with his Ma…
The child looked mighty relieved and then before he ran off he turned and picked up the Holly from where Jess had left it on the table… “I brought these for you Ma, so you could make a wreath for the door and we can have a proper Christmas again huh?” He asked eagerly…
Dawn swallowed hard and gave him a weak smile, “Thank you dear,” she said quietly…
“Go put ‘em in water Freddy,” Jess said, “I guess yer Ma can attend to it later huh?”
Once Jess and Dawn were alone with Mose and Blackie tending the horses and Ma Briggs keeping an eye on Freddy, Jess turned to Dawn.
“Come and sit down,” he said guiding her to a fireside chair and taking the other himself…
“Was that all it was about?” She asked after blowing her nose and wiping her eyes, “he just wanted Holly for a wreath?”
Jess shook his head, “No ma’am it was about a lot more than that, I guess he wanted his Ma back.”
Her head shot up and she flushed, “Why whatever do you mean?”
“I mean your husband might be dead but that poor kid can’t mourn him for ever and I guess you can’t either…there comes a time when you hafta accept things and move on….”
OK he thought maybe I’m bein ’ kinda harsh here, but it needed to be said.
She leapt up at his words looking furious , “How dare you…. How can you begin to understand what it’s like to lose someone so close to you…like I did…someone you love with all your heart…Or for a young boy to lose his Pa…he’ll mourn and miss him until the day he dies!”
“Well he’ll have a very unhappy life then!” Jess spat back…” And actually, I do understand…more than you know, I’ve lost folk real close to me too…so I guess I do know some of what yer goin ’ through….”
Then he got up and moving over to her took both hands in his and said more gently, “It’s different for everyone I know that. You hafta grieve in yer own way…But there comes a time when you have to say enough and try to move on, if not for you then for the boy.”
“What do you mean?” She asked, her anger suddenly drained…
“We talked…he told me how Christmas used to be when his Pa was alive…and how it is now for him…no kid should be unhappy at Christmas time…”
She just looked down… “I’m sorry I can’t help it…I don’t know how to change…where to start….”
“You could make a start with makin ’ that wreath for the door huh?”
She nodded, “Alright…”
“And there’s somethin ’ else you can do,” he said softly…
“Oh what’s that?”
Jess mooched over to the corner of the room where he and Mose had stashed the strongbox from the Stage and also Jess’s gunny sack containing all his presents… He carefully selected one and coming back over gave it to Dawn… “You can wear that for him….”
Dawn’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, “What is it?”
“Open it and see,” Jess said grinning…
She tore the paper off revealing the beautiful golden dress and gasped in shock… “Oh Jess it’s beautiful…I couldn’t really…”
“Sure you could,” he said smiling at her, “it’s your color,” he added, remembering what Madam Fifi had said about the gown when he had originally purchased it for Millie… ‘it is her color and Dawn was dark haired like Millie so, “You’ll look just great in it…better than this huh?” He asked nodding to the drab grey dress she was wearing…
Her eyes shone and a small smile crept across her face... “It is lovely,” she said wistfully…
“Well then?” he said.
“But it’s a present you’ve bought for someone,” she whispered now sorely tempted…
He shook his head, “Nope ‘someone' already has her gift…this is for you….”
Dawn decided not to protest any further… “Oh thank you!” she cried and kissed him on the cheek before running from the room clutching the new dress to her chest.
Jess watched her go shaking his head and with what Slim would have described as a soppy grin on his face.
When they all finally sat down to dinner together it was a much more cheerful group than they would ever have believed just a few short hours before. Young Freddy was elated at the transformation in his Ma. She looked real purty he thought as he observed her slightly flushed animated face as she chatted to Mister Harper next to her. The dress was making her look like a princess so Freddy thought. She and Mister Harper were laughing a lot too and he figured that she really liked him, just like he did.
Mose and Blackie were in deep conversation, Mose exalting the merits of Miss Daisy’s cooking…
“Yes, Jess there and Slim sure fell on their feet when Miss Daisy moved in, why I reckon she makes about the best chicken and dumplings this side of the Rockies, or anywhere to be honest,” he mused.
Dawn looked down and said softly, “Well you are certainly lucky to have her in your life Jess…”
Jess didn’t notice the slightly wistful tone and merely agreed that she was wonderful and that they were truly blessed…
Then he thought of them back at the ranch and a wave of homesickness overcame him. Gee I sure hope they aren’t fretting he thought…But no Slim would imagine they’d cancelled the run because of the weather… Or maybe he was even feeling mad, imagining Jess had used the weather as an excuse to stay with Millie? He sighed softly and looked up, straight into the eyes of Ma Briggs opposite and saw his own sadness reflected back.
“Are you worried your family will be fretting?” He asked kindly.
“No,” she said at once, “I told you, I’m merely a nuisance to them…My son is only taking me in out of duty,” and she gave him a look saying and that is an end to it.
It was much later that Jess again tackled her on the subject.
Dawn had taken Freddy off for an early night after the day’s excitement. All the adults had rallied around to make the day special for him. Jess had found a set of checkers in a drawer and played several games and Blackie showed him some card tricks…His Ma had provided the presents…But by the look in the kid’s eyes Jess figured the best present he’d received was to see his Ma looking so happy and relaxed.
Mose and Blackie were dozing on the couch, snoring gently after sharing some of Jess’s Highland whiskey and looked like they wouldn’t be moving anytime soon.
Ma Briggs had sat down by the fireside and brought some knitting out and Jess felt honor bound to keep her company, although he too could have done with a nap after the good food and drink.
“So uh, does your son live in Laramie?” He asked politely.
She opened her mouth to give the acidic reply that it was none of his business and then saw his kindly interested gaze and said, “Yes, he owns the bakery in town.”
Jess’s jaw dropped, “What you don’t mean Benny Briggs?” He said in astonishment. Gee the guy was fat and jolly and the exact opposite of this skinny miserable looking woman.
She nodded, “I do indeed, so you know him?”
Jess nodded “I’ll say everyone knows ol’ Benny.”
“Benjamin,” she said crossly, “his name is Benjamin and doubtless folk know him better than his own mother does,” she said bitterly. “You know the old adage Mister Harper? A daughter is your daughter all of her life…but a son is a son, until he takes him a wife… Well I rued the day he married that hussy Bella…and she turned him against me…I never hear news of him or the young ones. I’ve three grandchildren Mister Harper and have never cast eyes upon them…”
Jess was rather alarmed at this sudden flow of information, but he had asked after all, he mused.
“So why now?” He asked.
“My dear husband passed over and left me nearly penniless,” she said bitterly, “what else can I do?”
Jess thought of poor dear Daisy and the dire straits she had been in when she had landed at the ranch, also a widow and all their hard-earned money taken by a swindler…But she was a different person altogether. She had merely rolled up her sleeves and got a job…using her experience and initiative…
He smiled as he remembered back to her arrival at the ranch when she had been devastated to learn that the shop she had allegedly bought had never existed. But she’d been a force to be reckoned with when she understood the predicament that he and Slim were in, needing a housekeeper if they were to adopt young Mike. Well she sure had won the day for them and made their adoption of Mike possible by impressing the circuit Judge so much.…He wondered vaguely if he should suggest this rather tiresome woman seek employment too…but then thought better of it as she was still glaring at him uncompromisingly…
Then a thought struck him…
“So when did you last talk to Benny…er Benjamin?” He asked…
“Not in years, just the odd letter…and this latest one begging me to move to Laramie…like he needs me,” she said bitterly.
“But he does,” Jess said impulsively. “What with the business to run and those three little ones, darn it, he’s rushed off his feet.”
“But what about that floozy Bella, doesn’t she help him?” She asked looking scandalized…
Jess shook his head, “Not now…she used to, was real popular with the customers…I guess a bit too popular with one though,” he said trying to hide a smile, “she upped and ran off with him.”
If Ma Briggs had looked outraged before she looked down right horrified now, “What, she left my poor dear boy and those sweet children?”
Jess smiled inwardly that now her heartless son had been transformed into a ‘poor boy’, but then he figured that was a mother’s love for ya…
He made an effort to keep a straight face and said, “So the truth of it is he really needs you right now Mrs Briggs and I figure he’ll be real pleased to see you…”
“Indeed, young man,” she said looking flushed and happy, “so when can we go, tomorrow maybe?”
Jess made his excuses after that, saying he’d go and check out the weather.
He wandered across the chilly yard, now bathed in moonlight, but he was pleased to hear the gentle drip of water as the snow began melting from the ranch house roof and surrounding out buildings. Yes it looked like the snow was thawing and so their journey could begin again in the morning he thought happily.
He looked up to the moon and wondered how dear Millie was and then how Christmas Day had gone back at the Sherman spread…Gee it sure would be good to see everyone on the morrow. Maybe Daisy had even held back some turkey for him, he thought hopefully, before turning and heading back to the relative warmth of the old ranch house.

Meanwhile ten miles away, back at the Sherman spread Slim was standing out on the porch looking up at the same moon and reflecting on the day.
It sure had been different what with Jess missing and the advent of John…or Johnnie as he preferred.
Gee the guy surely was an enigma Slim thought, such a mixture of piety and raucousness… He had offered to say the blessing before the meal which kind of surprised Slim. It also irritated him a tad as it was a given that he always did that on special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving. However, a look from Daisy made him smile at the younger man and nod assent.
Johnnie had started his stay treading rather carefully around Mort, but once the initial meeting was concluded and Mort was obviously not worried that the drifter was any threat to the family, he’d relaxed some, Slim noticed…But did the newcomer have anything to hide he wondered and was his initial wariness around the Sheriff cause for concern?
But it seemed not as Johnnie integrated seamlessly with the festive celebrations by making Mike laugh with his silly jokes and complimenting Miss Daisy on her pretty dress and wonderful meal. He’d even contributed his bottle of ‘whiskey’ to the festivities. Then Slim chuckled and shook his head at the memory…
Mort had taken a good draft of the offered spirit as the men sat before the fire chatting, Daisy busy making the final adjustments to the meal in the kitchen and Mike setting the table. Seconds later the Sheriff choked and turned an interesting shade of puce…He swallowed hard closed his eyes and then opened them again looking over at John and said in a raspy whisper, “What the dickens is that stuff?”
Johnnie had grinned and said, “Why it’s poteen of course Sheriff. Irish hill whiskey and the very best you can get…. The Sheriff’s eyes watered, but he bravely took another sip and declared it excellent, if dealt with cautiously!
Slim had taken a wary sip, but moments later his face relaxed into a broad grin, “That sure packs a punch,” he confirmed.
So it was three very happy gentleman that sat down to the their Christmas dinner and if the banter was rather lively and the compliments of her cooking extreme then Daisy just smiled and sipped her Sherry wine, thinking men would be men…But rather missing her usual female allies in the form of Kate, Millie and Lily.
And that of dear Jess too. No, the day just wasn’t the same without him and she knew Mike was feeling the same. Oh, he had relished all his presents and was now wolfing down his dinner like he didn’t have a care in the world. But Daisy had noticed how every now and then he would cast a regretful glance at Jess’s unopened presents under the Christmas tree. Earlier when he’d been dispatched to bring in more wood for the cook stove, she had glanced out of the window to see the boy scanning the distant rise for a glimpse of his hero returning, before turning sadly away. No, things just weren’t the same without Jess’s lively presence and she hoped and prayed the snow would thaw and he would be home where he belonged before too long.
Slim thought exactly the same as he surveyed the distant moonlit hills…then he heard it, the distinct sound of running water and the snow slowly started thawing and running off the roof… He smiled as he turned away, back to the warmth of the ranch fire, maybe his pard would be home tomorrow.
When he returned, he noted the Sheriff had retired, taking Jess’s bed again and Johnnie was settled on the old couch looking like he was about to get some sleep too. But when Slim came in he picked up the poteen bottle and waggling it said cheerfully, “One for the road Slim?”
The way he ‘d held up the bottle and his cheeky grin reminded him so much of Jess he felt strangely bereft for a moment before remembering his manners and wandering over he accepted a final drink. Maybe that was why the newcomer had fitted in so astonishingly quickly he thought fleetingly, because he shared some of his pard ’s traits.
Slim sank down in Jess’s rocker and surveyed Johnnie marveling again at how quickly he’d fitted into the family, now calling Slim easily by his first name and playing and roughhousing with Mike like he was a favorite uncle… But now he surprised Slim by observing astutely, “I believe you have all missed your partner…uh, Jess have you not…especially the youngster?”
Slim nodded startled by his insight, “You noticed?” he asked.
“Indeed, I did, so tell me about him, he has worked here long?”
Slim nodded and filled him in on a little of Jess’s history; how he too had been on the drift at one time, but had settled well to ranch work and was in much demand for his horse breaking skills too.
Johnnie nodded showing interest, “So is there a young lady on the scene?” He asked with his cheeky grin.
“You bet,” said Slim returning the smile. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t at the bottom of his absence he thought, but kept that to himself. Sure, the weather had been bad, but Jess could have made an effort to get through he thought fleetingly.
Johnnie nodded, “Such a shame he couldn’t make it, so it is,” he said echoing Slim ’s thoughts. “Business in Cheyenne delayed him so you say?”
“Huh? Oh yes sort of. He was riding shotgun on the Stage and Mort got a wire saying the weather was too bad to travel…but I’m hoping they’ll be here by tomorrow, seems to be thawing out there now,” he said glancing towards the window…
Johnnie looked surprised, “The Stage will come here?”
“Sure, this is a Stage stop,” Slim said, “didn’t I mention that…the Stage comes through on the way to Laramie.”
Johnnie looked puzzled, “But I saw the Stagecoach on Christmas Eve, just before my horse broke his leg…I was traveling on an old Indian track high above the Cheyenne road and saw the Stage just below me… It was stopped as the road was blocked by a landslide.”
“What,” asked Slim looking shocked, “are you sure…did you talk to them?”
“Oh I’m sure, I was going to go down, to see if I could be of service, but they’d turned around and were heading up a track, looked like it led to a big ranch house, I suppose they were going to get help to dig the road from there?”
“Where exactly was this?” Slim asked urgently.
Once John explained Slim said, “That sounds like Bill and Jeanie Harrison’s old place, but that’s been abandoned nigh on two years, since they died…so they’d be no help up there and Jess knew that.”
“Maybe they just wanted to shelter there,” suggested Johnnie hesitantly. “I was going to check on them, but then my horse fell and I guess everything else went out of my head.”
“Um,” Slim said absently, his mind still on his pard, “or more likely cut across their land to get to the old road…But if they had they’d have made it here by now,” he said looking anxious, “darn it what if the coach came off the road, they could be hurt or worse,” and he jumped up and marched towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Johnnie asked jumping up too.
“To look for them of course,” said Slim impatiently.
Johnnie shook his head “Hey calm down Slim, you’ll just get in trouble heading out in the dark and snow still down too…what if that lovely animal of yours…er… Alamo took a fall …’tis easy to break a leg in these conditions and don’t I know it…after losing that good old horse of mine?”
Slim stopped buckling his gun-belt on and stood irresolute for a moment before taking it off and returning to the fireside, “I guess you’re right,” he admitted… “I’ll ride out at first light.”
“And I’ll be joining you, if I may,” Johnnie asked in his soft Irish burr, “yes?”
Slim nodded and slapped him gently on the arm, “Yes thank you Johnnie, I’d appreciate that…”

Chapter 5
Jess arose early the following morning and eagerly went to the window to check on the weather.
After a moment he grinned and went over to wake Mose and Blackie from their slumbers, declaring the snow was melting and they could be on their way as soon as breakfast was over.
Jess watched the passengers going about the business of packing up and preparing breakfast and wondered at the change in them all…Maybe it was something to do with the spirit of Christmas he thought, or possibly just the opportunity for folk to stand back and revue their lives. Have the time to talk things through with others.
Then there was the fact that this sure had been a very different Christmas he reflected, what with the upset of the broken journey and them all having to learn to get along together and make the most of what they could salvage of the special day…Whatever it was it sure seemed to have worked its magic on the little group, bringing them all closer together.
Breakfast was a lively affair with all the Stage passengers now looking forward to their journey’s end with hopes of making a fresh start. What a difference a day makes Jess thought again as he watched Ma Briggs discussing knitting jumpers for her brood of grandchildren with Dawn and Blackie asking Mose probing questions about the Knight Ranch…
“Oh, you’ll fall on yer feet if you get the job there,” Mose said his rheumy old eyes looking gleeful. “I reckon Mrs Knight is almost as good a cook as Miss Daisy,” he said slapping his thigh and laughing at his own wit, “Pretty close-run thing…pretty close,” he guffawed.
Freddy was obviously getting bored with all the grown-ups talk and so Jess said, “How about you come and help me feed the horses champ. If it’s OK with yer Ma, that is,” he added flicking a glance over to Dawn.
He was surprised and pleased to see her nod at once, only adding the proviso that he should wrap up warmly.
Once the horses were fed and watered and ready to be harnessed up Jess made a move to go and fetch Mose. He’d need him to help him lug the heavy strong box and all the passenger’s cases back on board…but he bumped into Dawn just as he and Freddy were emerging from the barn…
“He’s fine,” Jess said quickly, “not too cold.”
“It was fun Ma.”
“ I helped with the horses real good didn’t I Jess?”
“You sure did,” Jess said beaming at the youngster.
“That’s good dear,” she said absently, then ruffling the boy’s hair said, “you go and collect your things together Freddy I expect Jess will want to be off shortly.”
Jess agreed that he would and made to leave the barn when she put out a hand to stop him.
He looked down at the restraining hand on his chest in surprise and then glanced up into her eyes.
She removed her hand quickly and flushed a little, “I just wanted a quiet word,” she said, turning to watch her son’s retreating back.
“Sure,” Jess said moving back into the barn and gesturing for her to sit on a straw bale, “what’s on yer mind?”
“I…um this is hard, I just wanted to thank you for…well making me face up to my responsibilities… You were quite right, it’s time dear Freddy’s life returned to normal and he accepted life without his Pa and moved on, like you said.”
Jess nodded, “And what about you, are you gonna try and move on too?”
She shrugged, “I really don’t know if I can it’s so difficult…”
“Folk will help you,” Jess said sympathetically, “if you’ll let ‘em?”
“Oh, I’d like that,” she said impulsively looking deeply into his eyes…
Jess felt an alarm bell ringing and said, “Uh sure, I mean Miss Daisy goes in the haberdashers all the time, I guess she could show you around town, take you to the Women’s Group that kinda thing.”
“That would be nice,” she said slightly less enthusiastically. “She buys dress material I suppose, for dances and the like?”
Jess looked puzzled, “Huh, no I don’t reckon so, usually trimming for her hats I think…she’s real fond of those kinda fussy hats,” he said with a fond smile, “flowers and ribbons and the like ya know?”
Now it was Dawn’s turn to look puzzled, “Oh really…um so how old is Miss Daisy?” she asked with a flash of insight.
Jess pursed his lips and said, “I really couldn’t say…older than Mort and maybe a little younger than Mose, but heck I’ve never asked, garldarn it I wouldn’t dare!”
Dawn burst out laughing at the troubled look on the young cowboy’s face.
“So, who exactly is Miss Daisy?” She finally asked.
“Huh…oh yeah she’s our housekeeper, looks out for me and Slim and acts as a Ma to Mike, why do you ask?”
“Oh no reason,” she said her face now alight with merriment and her eyes shining…
But before she could say more Mose marched in and said, “So are we gonna make this dang trip or what Jess, because I reckon we need to get a goin ’ if we are!”
The journey across the pastureland was even rougher than Jess had anticipated.
He had warned the passengers that they would be in for a bumpy ride but they all took it in good spirits and young Freddy looked positively excited at the prospect.
However, after the first few hundred yards Jess and Mose were anything but excited as it soon became clear that the Stage was practically up to its axles in the soggy ground that was now part melted snow and part mud bath.
“It wouldn’t be so bad iffen we didn’t have all that luggage and that dang heavy strong box,” Mose complained bitterly…
“Well what do you want me to do ask ‘em to walk to town carrying  their luggage?” Jess snapped back, the worry making him equally churlish.
Mose just shrugged and peered down at the quagmire below him, “The horses don’t like it either,” he said morosely.
Jess sighed, “OK pull up,” he said and once the Stage was at a standstill he jumped down from the box, landing in a huge muddy puddle. He swore softly, rueing the fact that he’d worn his best boots in honor of his visit with Millie and her Ma… Then taking a deep breath he marched to the horses heads and proceeded to lead them slowly across the waterlogged landscape…A bitter wind had sprung up and he pulled his collar up, consoling himself that they should hit the old Cheyenne road within the hour and hopefully the going would be somewhat easier there.

Meanwhile in a line shack about two miles south of where Jess was now plodding along leading the horses, the Lewis gang stirred from their sleep. It had been a real heavy night and the gang had celebrated Christmas in the only way they knew, by getting blind drunk…and now they were suffering the aftermath of their merrymaking.
Butch, the gang leader sat up in his bed coughing and scratching, before reaching blindly to a rickety old side table for his cigarettes…Lighting one he coughed some more before dragging himself out of bed and peering around the dimly lit shack where his brothers Pete and Chas were still snoring away in a drink induce stupor. He suddenly felt exasperated…a New Year on the horizon and no money yet again…And worse than that a murder charge against him and rope awaiting…Yup they had to get their work done and head for the hills as soon as possible he reflected. Staggering over to where Pete and Chas innocently slept before the embers of a dying fire, he kicked them awake…
“What the Hell!” Chas yelled looking much aggrieved, but young Pete just stared at his older brother knowing better than to complain…
“Git up, you good fer nuthin ’ bastards, “Butch yelled furiously, his hangover adding fuel to his anger…
“Have you both forgotten we’re gonna relieve Harper of that strong box today huh? That’s if you two dumb kids can get a move on! The way you’re shaping the Stage will be in Laramie a fore yer even up and movin’…”
“Aw Butch stop yer moanin ’,” Chas said rubbing a hand across his aching forehead, “I dunno why we didn’t just go take the strong box when we saw ‘em heading off to shelter in that old ranch house…”
“Well mainly because you and yer little brother were as drunk as a pair of skunks. And because…”
“Because what?” Pete asked, now standing up and looking around for his rifle.
“Because I want to be able to get a good clean shot at Harper and where better than with him sat up on the top of the Stagecoach huh? Or have you forgotten he killed your brother in that bank heist last year?” Butch snarled.
“Well we sure ain’t ever gonna forget,” Chas said, “seeing as how you remind us every dang day.”
“Yeah well kin means something to me if it don’t to you,” Butch spat, “and I’m gonna kill Harper if it’s the last dang thing I do.”
Then he looked slightly less aggressive and said persuasively, “We’ll get that strong box and then we’ll head for Canada, lie low for a while…Maybe even find a few girls huh…so what do ya say… live the good life huh boys?”
What could they say, Butch had ruled the roost all their lives and what he said they did…anyway the sound of a nice Canadian girl and money to spend was kinda appealing.

Jess ploughed on, leading the horses through the rough terrain. They’d been walking for over an hour, with no sign of the old Cheyenne road in sight. He was just about tuckered out. His legs felt like lead and he was sweating profusely in spite of the freezing northerly blowing.
Casting a glance at the team he could see they were fairing little better as they snorted and shook their heads in complaint at the heavy load. A quick glance at the wheels confirmed all he needed to know they were now almost completely encumbered with the sticky mud, sinking deeper and deeper with every step.
He called a halt and made the unprecedented decision of asking the passengers to walk, there by significantly lessening the load… He consulted Mose first who ruminated long and hard before replying…
“Well I dunno Jess ‘tis powerful hard to expect the woman folk to walk in this,” he said peering down at the filthy mix of melted snow and mud before them. “I mean what would Mister Jenks have to say about it?”
“He’d probably be dang glad I got all the Stage line passengers to town in one piece…because iffen we carry on this way this ol’ crate is gonna be stuck solid and we’ll darn well freeze to death out here…you want that…huh?”
He put his argument much more eloquently to the passengers however and they could all see the logic and agreed quickly if not particularly enthusiastically….
“I’m real sorry to have to ask you ladies Jess said as he helped them down, but Dawn merely blushed and said she quite understood and Mrs Briggs said more robustly, “It can’t be helped young man, not your fault…”
Then Blackie jumped down and after taking a good look at the poor horses drenched in sweat and obviously sorely tried, he nodded and said quietly, “Only thing you could do Jess.”
So it was that Jess was heartily relieved when the road finally came into view some thirty minutes later and the passengers could all get back on board. He too settled himself happily next to Mose, one foot resting on the strongbox and his rifle cradled on his knees and gave a sigh of satisfaction… Heck he could almost smell Miss Daisy’s gravy and leftover Turkey dinner and taste the sharp bitter tang of some of old Denver’s Moonshine and turning to Mose said “I guess we’ll be home in a couple of hours huh?”
Mose ever the pessimist said, “Well I dunno about that Jess, this road is kinda rough, gonna hafta take things real slow and careful….”
Jess looked at the vast open prairie all around them, the mountains now in the distance. At least there wouldn’t be any more landslides he thought and once they joined up with the new road again in an hour or so everything would be plain sailing and he relaxed back in his seat…
“Yup you just take it real steady Mose,” he said as he closed his eyes and settled back for a nap, hat tipped over his eyes.
It was only ten minutes later when he was rudely awakened by the sound of horses galloping up behind them and peering back Jess saw a gang of three horsemen advancing …and seconds later his worst fears were confirmed when they opened fire.
Grabbing hold of the edge of the seat he swung down, perilously into the line of fire, so that he could yell to the passengers to keep down and hold tight, before straightening up and returning the fire, Mose urging the horses into a crazy gallop, the coach swaying violently.
The riders were advancing at speed and Jess felt a bullet whistle past his ear, sending a spasm of fury though him. He leaned out, dangerously close to losing his balance, before firing off a shot that brought the nearest rider down…dead before he hit the ground…. His horse shied and then carried on racing forwards and Jess recognized the showy grey gelding belonging to young Pete Lewis…
“Of course,” he muttered under his breath, “the Padre was right as usual,” and he smiled bitterly at the irony of it. How illogical, man of the cloth…albeit fallen from grace, being more knowledgeable of the doings of outlaws than the local lawman. But then his attention was taken by the ensuing onslaught as yet another bullet narrowly missed him…
“Garldarn it Mose won’t this ol’ crate go no faster,” he yelled, as the horses ploughed on across the uneven terrain, the coach now rocking alarmingly.
“Not and stay in one piece,” Mose yelled back, “maybe we should pull over…let ‘em have the money?”
“Are you crazy?” Jess snapped back as he whistled and yelled at the horses to go faster…
Now bullets were flying all around them and Mose was nearly hit as he stoically urged the team on to greater speed….
Jess hauled himself up again balancing precariously on the seat he fired off more shots… but then just seconds later Butch Lewis’s bullet found its mark….
One minute Jess was cussin ’ and shootin’, as Mose recalled later, and the next he was gone…shot in the chest and catapulted off the Stage into the path of the oncoming horses…
That was enough for Mose…Jess was dead and he had the lives of his passengers to think of and he knew the Stage would simply smash up if he continued at the breakneck speed which he was driving…There were woman and that cute kid aboard…nope without Jess to protect them they didn’t stand a chance he figured and regretfully he started to pull on the lines to slow the team down…

Back at the ranch Slim had slept badly, worried as he was by Johnnie’s revelation of the night before. Where the heck were the Stagecoach and his partner? If Jess could possibly have made it home for Christmas, then Slim knew he would have done.
Maybe…just maybe, he kept telling himself, they were just holed up at the old Harrison place… It was still standing and all the furniture and such was intact as far as he knew…so it would have made a reasonable stopping place if the journey and weather had proved too difficult. Then there was the landslide and Slim knew that the only way home would be to cross the Harrison pasture and meet up with the old Cheyenne road…maybe that’s what Jess had in mind he thought hopefully.
Slim awoke at first light and quickly shared his news and worries with the Sheriff…
To his surprise the usually upbeat Sheriff looked decidedly worried…
“I have to tell you Slim that I was pretty relieved when I got that wire saying they were snowed in at Cheyenne…See the thing is there has been a positive sighting of the Lewis gang in the area… I only heard after the wire from the Stage office. I’d thought I might ride out after Christmas and escort them back…I really can’t figure it though, what with a murder charge hanging over Butch Lewis. But it is a possibility they could have waylaid the Stage I suppose.”
Slim looked pale, “Heck don’t tell Miss Daisy that, we’ll stick with the landslide story and just hope it’s the truth of why they’re so late in arriving.”
However, Daisy was nobody’s fool and she soon picked up on the atmosphere, especially when Slim requested an early breakfast saying he, Johnnie and Mort would be riding out on some business as soon as they could.
Luckily Mike was still snuggled down in bed after all the excitement of Christmas Day, so Daisy felt able to speak her mind…
“Has this got something to do with Jess not getting through?” She asked Slim over the breakfast table, “Because I was rather surprised that he hadn’t made it…you know how um…determined he can be…”
Slim threw her a weak smile knowing it was useless to try and pull the wool over her eyes and so he shared everything that John had told him the previous evening and how they intended to ride out to the Harrison spread and hopefully escort the Stagecoach back…
Daisy had nodded and then turning to the Sheriff said, “And do you think the Lewis gang may strike Mort?”
The Sheriff choked on his coffee and said, “Um…well Daisy, I really couldn’t say about that…they may be around….um a possibility,” he said refusing to meet her eye…
“Well I suggest you waste no time then,” Daisy said decisively, “get along now, Jess maybe in need of your help.”
The men all made ready to leave, Slim giving Daisy a warm hug as he got up from the table, “He’ll be fine,” he whispered…
She nodded, “Yes of course…along with you,” she said pinning a smile on her face….
Once she heard them ride out, she sank back down at the table her eyes troubled …she had a bad feeling a very bad feeling and Daisy was never wrong….

The three men heard the gunshots as they rode hard along the old Cheyenne road in the direction of the Harrison spread and they increased their pace, galloping hell for leather towards the sound of the distant gunfire.
By the time they arrived Mose had pulled the coach to a juddering standstill and had alighted quickly warning the passengers to keep down and out of sight…
Then two things happened almost at once…
Mort, Slim and Johnnie galloped around the bend in the road and were just in time to see what remained of the Lewis gang reining in beside the Stage. However, at the sight of the advancing Sheriff they quickly took cover behind a rocky outcrop to the roadside and a brief gun battle ensued.
It was Slim, who was madder than a wet hen, so Mort declared later, that shot and killed Chas Lewis and after that it was only a matter of time before Butch finally surrendered.
Once he’d thrown his gun out and come forwards Mort manacled him whilst Slim verified that Chas was dead.
Meanwhile Mose leapt out of the Stage where he’d been sheltering with the passengers. He called the all clear and they also slowly alighted now the gunplay was over, and looked around them in shocked bewilderment.
Slim was the first to speak and after looking about in a dazed fashion said, “Where’s Jess Mose?”
The old timer looked down, all eyes upon him. After a few seconds he looked up and met Slim ’s anxious gaze, “I’m real sorry,” he muttered…and paused suddenly choked and unable to go on.
Slim just stared at him in horror before Butch broke the silence…
“I gunned the bastard down like he deserved Sherman… An eye for an eye…so the Good Book says and your partner will rot in Hell for what he did to Pete…let alone murdering our kid brother back in Denver!”
Slim was enraged and striding over to Butch bellowed in his face, “Jess was upholding the law on both occasions as well you know!” Then the full force of his anger was unleashed as he laid into Lewis with both fists…
It took all Mort, Johnnie and Moses ’ strength to eventually pull the tall rancher off Butch Lewis who by then lay in a mangled heap in the dirt, blood issuing from his busted nose.
Slim finally allowed him-self to be dragged away and apologized to Mort…before glancing over at the passengers and remembering his manners apologized to them too. Then he noted how terrible they all looked, the young woman and child in tears and the older man and woman also looking stricken…
It was the dapper little man who was the first to voice their fears and turning to Mose said, “Are you sure about that… Jess is really dead?”
Mose looked anguished and said quietly, “He caught a bullet in the chest and then he fell into the path of the outlaw’s horses…I guess nobody could survive that Blackie.”
At this the younger woman gave another heartbroken sob and the elderly woman put a comforting arm around her….
Seeing the agonized look in Slim ’s eyes Mort took his arm and said softly, “Come on Slim, let’s go find him, bring him home huh?”
Leaving Mose and Johnnie guarding the prisoner they made their way despondently back to their mounts and retraced the path of the Stage.
They had been riding for a while before Mort spotted a body lying on its back in the dirt and the two men made their way quickly over and dismounted.
Slim saw the black hat first, sweat stained and battered, just the sight of it making his heart miss a beat…Then his eyes were slowly drawn to the body…the black unruly hair slightly ruffled by the stiff breeze that had gotten up….]the eyes wide open, expressing deep shock as they stared sightlessly up to the sky…
Both men gazed at the figure for a long minute before Slim let go a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding….
“Bullet straight through the heart,” he said softly as he looked down without a trace of compassion at the body of… Pete Lewis.
Mort shook his head and smiled grimly, “Jess always was a crack shot.”
“Is, a crack shot,” Slim repeated angrily, “we don’t know yet Mort…not for sure….”
Then he looked around him a puzzled expression in his eyes…
“So where is he anyway… we should have found him before we came across this bastard if Jess shot him.” Then his eyes lit up, “Maybe he’s up...walking wounded huh Mort…wandered off someplace?”
“Maybe,” Mort said quietly before going off to find Pete Lewis’s mount, not wishing Slim to see the desolate expression in his eyes.
Once they had loaded the grim cargo up onto the grey, they retraced their steps, leading their mounts and all the while looking out for signs of Jess.
It was sometime later that Slim caught sight of a dark smudge contrasting with the pristine snow at the bottom of a steep ravine by the side of the road. Here in the shadowy depths the snow was still laying thickly.
Slim called Mort over and they both peered down the steep embankment before giving a little cry of shock…it was indeed a body…
Then just a few feet away from them Slim saw Jess old black Stetson, even more battered and sweat stained than that of Pete Lewis and so much more precious. He stooped to pick it up and held it to his chest almost like a talisman…if Jess’s hat had survived…well so would he have done, Slim reasoned in his fevered mind.
Both men slipped and slid almost falling down the steep embankment in their haste until they reached the spot where Jess had fallen. He’d obviously been thrown clear of the outlaw’s horses, thank God Slim thought as he advanced on the seemingly unscathed body of his pard.
He knelt down and very gingerly turned the body over, gasping in shock at what he saw.
Jess’s face was almost as white as the surrounding snow, save for his lips which had a blue tinge to them…His eyes were closed and dark smudges beneath them told of pain and fatigue…the long lashes casting a shadow on his pale cheeks in the cold winter sunshine.
There was no sign of a heart beat or breathing….
Slim looked up and exchanged an anguished glance with Mort, “I think we’re too late,” he whispered.
Never the less after a moment he gently unbuttoned Jess’s thick sheepskin jacket, with the neat bullet hole in the front , to reveal a bloodstained shirt beneath…Slim groaned at the extensive bleeding , but carried on pulling the shirt up to finally rest a hand on his pard ’s bitterly cold chest, desperately seeking any sign of life….
Just seconds later his head shot up, a look of disbelief and then joy in his eyes as he felt the weakest of heartbeats, “He’s still with us Mort…thank God…but only just…Go get the bandages will you, in my saddle bag, I need to try and stop this darned bleeding,” he said, his voice shaking.
Slim worked quickly and efficiently to stem the flow of blood and then bandaged the wound tightly. He had been relieved to find an exit wound in Jess’s back when he and Mort had carefully lifted his pard forwards, but he knew there was still a very real risk of internal organ damage… The wound was to the right of Jess’s chest well away from his heart though.
“Could have punctured a lung or worse,” Slim said looking worried.
“So when did you get to be so dang knowledgeable?” Mort asked with a wry smile…
Slim just shrugged, “Living with Hotshot here you kind of pick it up,” he said grimly. Then looking down at Jess’s pale almost grey complexion said quietly, “it’s the blood loss which is the worst thing right now, we’ve got to keep him real quiet and warm Mort.
“Well he doesn’t look like he’ll be kicking up too much of a fuss anytime soon,” Mort said sadly as the two men carefully hauled him up and started the difficult ascent back up the bank carrying him between them.
It was when they reached the top and placed him gently down, wrapping a blanket around him that he started to come around coughing and gasping in pain. His eyes flickered and finally opened a crack, as though the bright sunlight hurt them…. but then he opened them wider and sighed softly, “Slim, that you?”
“Yeah, take it easy huh, you caught a slug in the chest Jess, you’ve got to relax understand?”
At that Jess tried to sit up before failing badly and slumping back down…
“The Stage,” he croaked, “passengers Slim, women and a kid…”
“Hush it’s OK,” Mort said his kindly rugged face looming into Jess’s line of vision, “all taken care of buddy…they’re all just hunky-dory on the Stage. Chas and Pete Lewis dead and Butch in irons, so all you have to do is relax and do as your told for once savvy?”
Jess sighed deeply, “I guess so Mort,” he said before closing his eyes again…
By now the cold wind was getting even stronger with the threat of more snow and the men wasted no more time before hoisting Jess up onto Alamo. Then Slim swung up behind him, stuck the old black Stetson in place on his pard ’s head and they made their way slowly back down the trail towards where they had left the Stagecoach.
Their arrival at the Stage was somewhat muted as Jess was out cold again, resting back against Slim, his head on his shoulder as Slim held him firmly in place…His colour ghostly, making him look more dead than alive.
“He really is alive…he’ll make it?” The young woman Slim now knew as Dawn, asked earnestly.
He nodded and said softly, “He’s in with a good chance ma’am,” and on that hopeful note the Stage started on its way slowly towards the relay station, all on board somewhat subdued by the recent events.
It was agreed that Jess would fare better riding double with Slim than rattling around in the Stage, and also Slim could check if any bleeding started again and generally keep a close eye on him. So, the party set off sedately along the uneven road, Mose driving the stage at walking pace and Mort, Johnnie and the prisoner bringing up the rear with Slim and Jess.
Occasionally Jess would wake and mutter something under his breath, cussing at the pain, Slim surmised with a wry smile. But he made no attempt to complain about riding double, so Slim figured he was feeling every bit as bad as he looked. Then he felt his pard begin to shiver uncontrollably and he held him even closer, willing his own body’s warmth to bring his pard some comfort and just praying they’d make it home in time.

Chapter 6
It was nearly dark when they arrived at the ranch, the lamps lit and Daisy and Mike looking anxiously out through the window.
Daisy was there by his side as soon as Slim reined in and gently lifted his unconscious pard down from the saddle…
“Oh Slim whatever has happened?” She asked looking deeply shocked.
“Attempted Stage robbery,” Slim said succinctly, “bullet through the chest, but he’s holding his own Daisy, bleeding’s stopped too…”
Mike stood pale faced and anxious as Slim carried his hero in and straight through to his bed, quickly followed by Daisy…
Slim gently deposited Jess on his bed, noting the terrible pallor and shallow breathing, hang it all, he couldn’t give up now he thought, but the journey back had clearly taken it out of his buddy.
Daisy bustled about finding extra blankets and chivvied Slim to remove Jess’s wet clothes, all the time Mike peeping from the door and looking more and more upset.
Finally, with his pard settled and warmly wrapped up Slim turned and saw the child…
“Hey Mike come here,” he said softly and he ran over into Slim ’s warm embrace before peering down at his hero…
“He looks real funny Slim... he ain’t gonna die, is he?” Mike asked in a small voice.
“Certainly not,” Daisy said briskly, “but what he does need is lots of rest and peace and quiet young man so let’s leave him to sleep shall we?”
“Mort’s gone on to town with the prisoner,” Slim said softly to her as they left the room, “said he’d send out Doc Sam first thing tomorrow…”
They left the room, pulling the door closed and then stopped in their tracks as the parlor was completely crowded with people. There was a young woman and child warming them-selves by the fire, whilst Johnnie was dispensing cups of coffee to Mose and the older couple…. Blackie and Ma Briggs.
Slim had completely forgotten about the Stage passengers with Jess’s life seemingly hanging in the balance. But now like a true professional he took a deep breath, pinned a shaky smile on his face and made the introductions…
Then turning to Daisy said apologetically, “It’s rather late to be heading on to town I thought maybe the passengers could get something to eat and bunk down here for the night?”
Daisy hardly missed a beat before smiling at the massed company and saying how it would be a pleasure to put them up for the night and she’d get onto supper right away. Then she turned for the kitchen nodding for Mike and Slim to accompany her.
“I’m really sorry Daisy,” Slim whispered, “but what can I do?”
“Nothing Slim dear its fine, but I will need some help. Mike if you could light the fire in the bunkhouse, it should be plenty warm enough now the thaw is here, the gentlemen will be comfortable in there. Then could you make up the cot in my room, you’ll have to sleep there tonight I think…. The ladies and young um…Freddy can squeeze into your room as it has the bunk beds plus your bed…a bit of a squeeze, but just for the one night it should be adequate.”
Then she turned her attention to the blond rancher, Slim could you make everyone welcome, make some more hot drinks and then explain about the sleeping arrangements? Um…and maybe some hot water in Mike’s room, the ladies will want to wash up after that dreadful journey.”
Slim nodded, “Yes Ma’am… I’ll get on that right now and uh…yes I really want to stay in the house to watch Jess.” He exchanged an apprehensive glance with Daisy, not wanting to say anything in front of the boy, but both knowing the seriousness of Jess’s injuries.
However, Mike seemed to have perked up some at being given the new responsibilities, “I’ll get right to it Aunt Daisy,” he said cheerfully following Slim ’s lead. “Then can I take Freddy out back and show him my critters?”
“Yes dear, but come in when I call,” Daisy said, relieved that the child was looking a little happier.
When Slim returned to the parlor Dawn came to his side at once looking almost tearful, “How is he, please can I see him?” She asked softly.
“Uh, he’s sleeping ma’am,” Slim said feeling rather uncomfortable, heck this woman hardly knew Jess he thought fleetingly, but he sure seemed to have made a big impression on her.
“I see,” she said turning away sadly, then she rallied, “this must be a dreadful imposition on your housekeeper, uh Daisy, may I offer my help?”
Slim ’s face lit up with the first genuine smile to cross his face that day, “Thank you ma’am, that would be much appreciated,” he said. Then the others overheard and all rallied round offering their help too… But it was Johnnie who took on the lion’s share of tasks Slim noted and was glad of the young man’s support yet again.
So it was that a relatively cheerful group finally sat down to one of Daisy’s excellent meals, Mose being the first to offer his compliments. He looked across at the dear lady he so admired and was sorry to see she looked tired and not a little agitated. Then he realized she must be fretting about young Harper. Heck the boy was like a son to her, he knew that and things weren’t looking good, not good at all he thought sadly.
Part way through the meal Daisy excused her-self and disappeared into the bedroom to check on Jess.
She entered the room quietly, leaving the door slightly ajar and went over to the bed and was relieved to see he was awake and taking notice.
“How are you feeling dear?” She asked softly as she sat down on the edge of the bed taking his hand.
He rolled his head on the pillow the better to see her in the dim lamp light,“Kinda like I’ve been stomped on by a heard of buffalo Daisy, but otherwise I’m OK,” he said with a weak grin.
She could see how much just answering her had taken out of him and she was fearful that he might be bleeding internally. She checked the snowy white bandage to his chest and was relieved to see that at least that was not stained.
“Could you manage some supper, a little broth maybe?”
He shook his head, “I ain’t hungry Daisy…”
She was just about to remonstrate with him, suggesting he try a little or maybe some milk…when the words died on her lips…
Jess had turned his head towards the door and his eyes were open wide in alarm…
“Why whatever is it dear?” She asked, peering behind her to see if someone had entered…
“Who’s that talkin’?” Jess hissed in a low whisper.
Daisy listened and then heard the singsong Irish lilt of Johnnie relating some tale for the benefit of Mike and Freddy.
“Why that’s just Johnnie dear, he joined us for Christmas and is staying on for a little while. Slim says he’s very useful around the ranch and he’ll be needed whilst you recuperate…”
“Where’s he come from?” Jess persisted now looking extremely anxious.
Daisy brushed his unruly hair back from his forehead in a calming gesture, “I don’t know exactly dear, he’s on the drift I believe. He just turned up in the barn and…”
“Just turned up in the barn and you invited him for Christmas!” Jess cried the effort of talking making him breathless now and the mounting anger causing him to flush up slightly.
Said bluntly like that yes it did sound rather an imprudent move, but how could she explain that her gut feeling had told her Johnnie was a good man, who would do them no harm, she was sure of that.
“He’s lovely, so good with Mike,” she said weakly. “There’s really no need for you to fret dear. Slim thinks he’s absolutely above board too, goodness his Pa was a clergyman you know.”
“So he says.” Jess said darkly, and then again, “so where’s he from…originally I mean…he’s Irish I can tell that, “He said bitterly…oh yes, he knew that accent alright….
“I um, really couldn’t say, but I’ll ask him if it’s bothering you dear,” she said quickly. “But now I think you need to rest,” and she helped him to sit up and gave him another dose of her special pain medicine. “There, you’ll sleep now and maybe you’ll be well enough to meet Johnnie tomorrow and you can see for yourself what a nice man he is…”
Jess suddenly felt too weary to argue and he rested back on the pillow…asleep in minutes, the sound of Johnnie’s laughter and soft Irish brogue the last thing he heard.

Jess was dreaming.
He was in the Laramie saloon and it was crowded and smoky…he sat at the bar a beautiful woman at his side, her hair so dark and eyes so blue…so very beautiful but it wasn’t Millie he noted…and then his breath caught…it was Maria. The girl he had loved and lost so long ago…but she was dead, wasn’t she?
* See # 1 Loved Lost Survived.
“Honey?” He whispered, “you came back…you’re OK?”
She arched an eyebrow and smiled that beautiful smile of hers, “Why where would I be going to?” She asked with that winning smile, “I’d never leave you Jess…you know that.”
“But you’re…you’re dead,” he stuttered…
She looked shocked and then laughed, “Why Jess whatever makes you say that?” She asked in her lovely Irish burr.
But then just seconds later Maria’s head suddenly shot up as she looked at a reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
He saw her eyes widen in terror and in the next split second she screamed “Jess watch out,” as she ran in front of him shielding him from the person she had seen in the mirror.
Almost immediately two shots rang out one striking Maria in the chest causing her to slump to Jess’s feet and the other penetrating Jess’s left arm. His lightening reaction and shots were a mere whisker of a second behind, and fanning his colt he emptied all six shots into the heart of the gunman, who bucked and writhed, but was dead before he hit the ground.
The silence in the bar after the shots was palpable as Jess fell to his knees cradling Maria in his arms. “God damn it git the Doc!” he screamed. Gently lifting her chin up he looked deep into the two pools of blue reflecting back his own pain and fear.
“Marcus,” she said weakly, “he found me Jess”
“Hush, don’t try to talk,” he whispered holding her close and feeling her warm life blood oozing relentlessly into the front of his shirt.
Suddenly seeming to rally she reached up and pulling herself up by his shirt front and leaning up she kissed him gently on the lips and said, “ Don’t you ever forget I love you Jess Harper,” then her head suddenly dropped back the life force finally leaving her.
Jess let out a blood curdling cry, “No, dear God No!”

He sat bolt upright in bed sweating and shaking and moments later he felt Slim ’s strong arms around him, “It’s OK pard, it’s OK,” he said gently, “just a bad dream huh….”
Jess looked around him like he’d never seen the room before and then up into Slim ’s kindly concerned eyes, “Slim…oh thank God,” he muttered and then he started staring around the room again, “He’s here ain’t he?”
“Who’s here buddy?” Slim asked softly, knowing that the best way to deal with his pard after a nightmare was to try and humor him.
“Marcus, he’s here I heard him before, talkin ’ and laughing out there,” he said nodding to the door.
Slim shook his head, “No Jess, Marcus is dead… you shot him, said you’d nailed him to the gates of Hell, remember?”
Jess just continued to stare at the closed door…
“That was just Johnnie you heard before. Like I say you just had a bad dream Jess that’s all… It’s probably because you’re running a bit of a fever,” he said anxiously passing a cool hand across Jess’s forehead.
Jess looked up to the ceiling trying to make sense of everything, “I heard him,” he persisted…and then he looked back at Slim. “The blood,” he whispered, “there was so much dang blood, then she kissed me, said she’d always love me…”
“I know Jess, I know,” Slim said, squeezing Jess shoulder gently, “but that’s all over and done with. All happened a long time ago, remember? Now you get some sleep huh…Doc Sam’s calling by tomorrow, he’ll see you right, fix you up real good huh Jess….”
But he was already asleep, his face flushed and breathing now shallow and rapid…
“He’ll fix you up real good Jess,” Slim repeated softly as he pulled the covers over…but his eyes were bleak as he quietly left the room.

True to his word Doc Sam Baker arrived at the ranch shortly after first light as the guests were just partaking of their breakfast.
Slim showed Sam into the bedroom where Jess was still sleeping and gave him the details of the shooting and also of Jess’s feverish nightmare too…
“Seems convinced that Johnnie out there is Marcus O Leary come back to haunt him,” Slim said softly… “He’s Irish alright, but that’s the only thing he has in common with that murdering bastard.”
Sam’s head shot up at Slim ’s strong language, so out of character.
“I’m sorry Sam,” he said quickly, “but the memory makes be so mad…It was before your time I know, but believe me that Marcus was a bad ‘un.”
“So I have heard,” said Sam, “an ex-lover fueled by jealousy I believe, a dangerous combination.”
Slim looked anguished, “Sure was and that jealousy nearly killed three people…”
“Three people, but only O’Leary and Maria died surely?”
Slim tipped his head down to where Jess was still fast asleep. “Nearly took Jess too,” he said softly. “Oh not from the wound he received, although that was bad enough…but everything that happened afterwards Sam. I guess he just lost the will to carry on. He didn’t care if he lived or died, worked himself into the ground too…almost as though by running away from the grief…ignoring it, he could somehow escape it…In the end Doc Johnson figured he was well on the way to dying from a broken heart.”
Sam looked grave, “I’ve heard of that, seen it happen too. But he pulled through…”
Slim nodded, “I kind of talked some sense into him in the end…and he got through it yes…But now well… I’m really worried Sam. He had a nightmare about her last night…and as I say he’s convinced Johnnie is Marcus.”
“It sounds to me like Jess is none too happy with life right now Slim,” Sam said quietly, his handsome face troubled, “Well I’d better wake him and look him over, see what the damage is huh?” He said casting Slim a knowing look…
Both men waited for the angry outburst when Jess was aroused from his slumbers, but nothing. He merely groaned and said, “Howdy Sam, come to check out the damage eh?”
Some ten minutes later Sam stretched up from where he’d been leaning over his patient carefully examining the lesion and checking his heart and lungs as well, his expression now slightly more cheerful.
He shook his head and rolled his eyes to Slim, “I don’t know how he does it, but it looks like your pard here will live to fight another day.”
Then smiling down at Jess said, “I for one would be darned grateful if you didn’t…fight that is,” he said chuckling now… Then he sobered, “But that’s not to say you’re not in a bad way Jess, you’ll be out of action for a couple of weeks rather than days.”
“Aw, come on Sam, I’m fine, well I will be after a few days with my feet up,” Jess said flippantly.
“No, you certainly won’t,” Sam retaliated, “you’ve severe bruising and contusions to a good fifty percent of your body after that nasty fall, a serious bullet wound and still the slight possibility of some internal damage… So, until I’m satisfied that there is absolutely no internal bleeding you are to stay put. Understand me?”
“I hear ya,” Jess replied petulantly.
“That’s not what I asked,” Sam snapped back, “do you understand the seriousness of this huh, or do I have to spell it out?”
It was now Jess’s turn to roll his eyes, “Yeah, I guess so, I’ll behave Sam.”
The doctor’s infectious grin spread across his face and he punched Jess lightly on the arm… “Good man…”
Slim left the room to impart the good news to Daisy and Sam settled down making himself comfy on the edge of the bed… “So tell me Jess, what was this nightmare all about huh?”
That closed look Sam knew so well flitted across Jess’s face and he thought he would refuse to answer…Sure he knew what a private man his friend was, especially where his past was concerned…but in this case the doc thought talking things out might help.
Jess sighed deeply and then seemed to come to the same conclusion…
“You know all about Maria,” he said softly…
Sam nodded; the tragedy had happened when he was staying in town negotiating taking over Doc Johnson’s practice when he retired a few months later.
“It was about her, the way she died…Dang it Sam it was so vivid I could see her as plain as I can you now. Feel her blood soaking my shirt…smell the cordite after I’d emptied my gun into that bastard O’Leary… it was all so damn real….”
Sam nodded sympathetically, “The mind can play some cruel tricks Jess. The combination of the trauma of being hurt so badly combined with hearing that Irish accent again just triggered those painful memories… But I can assure you Johnnie O’Hara is a pleasant enough young man…you have nothing to fear on that score… Both Daisy and Slim trust him and that’s good enough for me.”
“Uh, well I guess I’ll reserve judgement,” Jess said quietly… “But maybe you’re right doc I am probably just over reacting…”
Sam gave his friend a penetrating look, “Maybe…but then you’re really not yourself Jess,” then he asked, “are you feeling sickly and hot?”
Jess agreed that he was and the doc ran a hand across his forehead, “Yes you’re sure pretty warm Jess, you probably took a chill lying in all that snow yesterday. Now you keep wrapped up warm when you’re shivering and you need cool cloths applied if the fever increases, I’ll tell Miss Daisy, and please Jess just do as you’re told huh?” He asked wearily as he stood to take his leave.
But then just moments later the door opened and Daisy’s anxious face popped around it, “All done Doctor?”
Sam told her his finds and said she must watch closely for any signs of internal bleeding, which he listed. “But you know what to look for Daisy you don’t need me to tell you…”
Then turning to Jess said, “I hope you men realize how lucky you are to have a trained nurse for a housekeeper!”
Jess agreed that they sure did and gave her a loving smile…before pushing the warm blanket away and declaring he was too dang hot…
Sam turned back to Daisy and said quietly, “I think he’s caught a chill too Daisy and I doubt if that will improve the boy’s temper any…”
“Hey I heard that,” said Jess looking hard done by, “I just said I was a mite warm ‘tis all…”
Daisy exchanged an amused glance with the doc out of Jess’s vision and said, “I’m sure you are dear, I’ll just see the doctor out and bring you some nice cool lemonade…”
Once the doc had left Mose made a move to follow suit, although it was obvious his heart wasn’t in it. He was aware that Miss Daisy’s larder was probably still pretty full of festive fare and he was loath to leave without sampling more. Plus of course he was kinda sweet on the dear lady as everyone at the ranch knew.
Now he thanked her profusely for her hospitality as did all the passengers beaming warmly at both Daisy and Slim. “I sure hope Jess is feelin ’ better soon too,” he added.
Surprisingly it was the rather brusque and no-nonsense Ma Briggs that came over to Daisy later and said earnestly, “Tell me how is the dear boy?”
“Oh he’s coming along,” Daisy said, “the doctor seems to think he’s escaped without any internal bleeding, although time will tell…”
Ma Briggs smiled… a rare occurrence and asked that he should be given her best wishes…
Then Blackie came forwards, “And tell him from me I really appreciate all he’s done. Not just to keep us safe…but well…other stuff …he knows,” he muttered suddenly looking embarrassed.
Then he turned to Slim, “I can’t thank you enough either Mister Sherman,” he said patting his pocket that contained a letter of introduction from Slim for Blackie to give to his possible perspective employer, Edward Knight of the Sunacre Ranch. “Tell Jess I ain’t ever touching a deck again thanks to him,” he finished looking decidedly emotional.
Slim agreed, but felt rather puzzled, had Jess beaten the poor guy at poker and cleaned him out, he wondered, but no Blackie seemed genuinely fond of his buddy.
Slim just shrugged and started carrying the passenger’s luggage out to the waiting Stage…Mike and Freddy running around, letting off steam and getting underfoot as they larked around together the way only young boys can do.
Freddy’s Ma watched him fondly from the parlor window and said, “We would love Mike to come and visit once we’re settled, they have really hit it off.”
Daisy smiled at the youngsters, “Indeed, I’ll call by next time I’m in town and see how you both are and we’ll arrange something.”
Then Dawn cast a wistful eye towards the closed bedroom door, “And Jess, he really will be alright?”
Daisy nodded, “Given time I’m very hopeful yes…”
“Could I visit, just for a moment?” The younger woman asked impulsively, “He was so kind to me and Freddy I really would like to thank him properly.”
Daisy too glanced at the closed door and had a vision of Jess as she’d seen him just five minutes earlier.
He’d pushed the covers back complaining that he was way too hot, exposing his old cut off under- shorts. Once red they were bleached to a pale pink after many washes and had even shrunk a little now fitting very snugly and resting just below his navel…Above he was naked save for the snowy white bandage that, even at this time of year, still contrasted with his deeply tanned, muscular torso…
Daisy fleetingly imagined the look on the young woman’s face when she saw such a virile specimen of manhood in his prime…But that was quickly replaced by the look of horror on Jess’s face if some woman who was a mere acquaintance should see him that way….
“Um no dear I’m afraid he’s resting…but I’m sure he’ll visit with Mike one day. As soon as he’s better, anyway,” she said quickly as she saw the look of disappointment in the young widow’s eyes…

Chapter 7
The next few days were anything but easy for Slim and Daisy as Jess swung from burning heat to the chills of a high fever.
It was on the third day when the fever finally broke that Jess inquired about one Johnnie O’Hara.
“So how come I ain’t been introduced,” Jess asked his pard belligerently one morning, “if this darned Johnnie is so wonderful…And how come you felt fit to take a drifter on the payroll without consulting me …huh...I am a partner in this business you know.”
Slim was feeling less than tolerant after yet another broken night with Jess lashing about and cussing in the throes of the terrible nightmare about Maria’s death. So retorted angrily, “Well you were on the drift once Jess and I took you in!”
“Yeah and look where that got ya,” Jess replied, only half joking.
Slim sighed, “Look he needs the work Jess. He lost a good horse and is in need of a replacement…so I thought if he gave us a few weeks work while you recoup, we could let him have Cracker, what do ya say?”
Jess grinned at the name of the grey, who’d been christened by Mike as she would have jumped a mile if a fire cracker had exploded anywhere near her. She’d recently been broken for an army contract, but Jess decided she was unsuitable. The mare was very timid and would have panicked under fire, but with care and patience would make a good work horse.
“Well I ain’t really got the time to school her on and we don’t need another riding horse, so yeah, iffen he wants her that’s fine by me. So where is the guy and why ain’t I seen him,” he asked again.
Slim looked vague, “I don’t know really, every time I’ve suggested he comes to say howdy he always seems busy…I think maybe he doesn’t like to be around sick people,” he said thoughtfully.
“Well a bullet wound is hardly catching,” Jess said rolling his eyes, “so what’s he up to now huh?”
“Uh, riding fence over on the north pasture, but he’ll be back for the noon Stage…I’m taking Mike and Daisy to town, the boy needs new boots before school starts next week. I thought I’d treat them to a meal at Miss Molly’s as well.”
Jess just nodded and stretched feeling really bored with lying about in bed all the darned time.
As so often happened Slim seemed to pick up on his thoughts and said brusquely, “And if you’re thinking of getting up and giving him a hand with the team you can forget it. Miss Daisy says you’re not to even think about doing any yard work until after the doc visits.”
“Aw Slim…so when’s that gonna be?”
“Not until next week” said Slim chuckling and making a hasty exit…
Jess hurled a pillow after him, but it only caught the closing door and he heard Slim ’s rich laughter as he made his escape…
A few minutes later he put his head back around the door. “Daisy says if you promise not to go outside you can make a pot of coffee for Mose and Johnnie once the teams are changed OK?”
Jess grinned back at him throwing the bed-covers off, “I suppose it’ll have to be,” he said, none the less looking a lot more cheerful than Slim had seen him since he landed home all shot up.
Jess quickly dressed, and if he felt a little lightheaded and nauseous well that sure wasn’t gonna hold him back… Nope the sooner he was up and doin’... well the sooner he’d get his strength back he reasoned.
When he heard Slim drive the buckboard out of the yard he shrugged on his warm coat and marched over to the barn to check on Traveller. Then he spent a good hour grooming him, arguing in his mind that this wasn’t yard work because well he weren’t in the yard…However after a while the unaccustomed exertion started to take its toll on him and he felt decidedly dizzy. His chest was aching where the wounded flesh was still knitting too and he decided to call it a day and sit for a spell before the Stage was due in.
He had dozed off over the local paper in front of the fire when he heard the sound of the Stage arriving and getting up too quickly his head started spinning again. He had to grab hold of the mantelpiece to steady him-self, nearly felling the stately Christmas tree standing to the right of the hearth.
Then he wandered off to the kitchen and slid the coffeepot across the stove to heat up before going to check on Mose and look over the mysterious Johnnie, who seemed so averse to meeting him.
Not wanting to stand about in the cold he peered out of the window and was rewarded by the sight of Mose chatting to a lanky dark-haired man of medium build. Jess surmised this must be Johnnie O’Hara, his strong Irish accent audible although he couldn’t tell exactly what he was saying. Then the man turned and glanced towards the house.
Jess’s head shot up and his eyes widening in shock as the Irishman’s features came into sharp focus… “Goddamn it,” he whispered under his breath, it couldn’t be…again Jess’s head started spinning as the realization of who the man was hit home…hard.
He strode across to the door snagging his gun belt on the way and pausing only to buckle it in place he yanked the door open and marched out…
Johnnie now had his back to Jess and was deep in conversation with Mose.
He was just a few feet away from where Jess stood with his right hand now flexing edgily above his gun.
“O’Leary!” Jess yelled…
Johnnie automatically spun around at his name…his face looking pale and terrified. As well it might as he observed the eyes of a man who looked very much like he was about to shoot first and ask questions later.
Mose saw the look in his friend’s eyes too and his blood ran cold… But before Jess could make a move Mose dashed forwards…
“No Jess, you’re mistaken this here is young Johnnie O’Hara that’s been helpin ’ Slim out while you’ve been sick….”
Jess ignored the old timer before saying menacingly, “Well he sure answers to O’Leary…”
Then addressing the man Jess said, “Dontcha...so what is it, cousin …brother…because you really favour Marcus O’Leary…enough to be real close kin huh?”
Johnny hung his head before looking Jess in the eye, “He was my younger brother…and I’ve come to atone for his sins…. to tell you how very sorry I am for everything that happened.”
“Oh, you have, have ya?” Jess spat looking just about as furious as Mose had ever seen him… “And that’s supposed to make everything alright is it? Some crazy bastard slams a slug into my woman’s chest at point blank range…and you wanna say sorry?”
As he spoke, he was reliving that moment once more, the stuff of his nightmares…the two shots slamming home into their targets…the pain… the blood…the horror of it all and Jess felt like he might well pass out…. his head swimming and a black cloud descending…
But instead he drew his gun.
“Git out,” he drawled, “git the hell off of my property before I shoot!”
“I should do as he says.” Mose whispered urgently, “when he’s this way ain’t no arguing with him Mister.”
Johnnie took one more look into Jess’s eyes and knew the truth of it and a shiver ran down his spine.
“Figure I’ll hitch a ride into town with you Mose,” he said quietly backing off…
By the time Slim, Daisy and Mike returned home Jess had gotten himself into one heck of a rage and as Slim admitted to doc Sam later there was no reasoning with him.
The first Slim knew of the happenings back at the ranch was when he arrived mid-afternoon, and by some quirk of fate they hadn’t met up with Mose or Johnnie in town.
Jess was sitting out on the porch a rifle across his knee waiting for his pard’s return and as Slim reined in the buckboard and looked over at his buddy he could tell at once all was not well…
He shook the reins moving old Betsy around to the kitchen door and jumping down he turned to help Mike and Daisy down. Jess’s demeanor had not escaped Daisy either and she cast Slim an anxious glance before putting a gentle arm around Mike and saying, “We’ll just unload shall we dear, I think Slim wants a word with Jess.”
As Mike had a new comic book awaiting his attention, he jumped to it without question…and so he was none the wiser as to what was unfolding out on the front porch a little later.
Jess jumped up immediately as his pard advance, “Did ya know?” He spat without any niceties… “Huh did ya Slim huh?”
Slim looked totally perplexed “Did I know what? Hang it all Jess what are you so all fired upset about?”
“You really don’t know you’ve hired a dang O’Leary to work for us?” Jess spat.
Slim looked appalled, “What…one of Marcus’s family, I don’t believe it! Johnnie is a great guy…and his name’s O’Hara…surely?”
“He lied to you Slim about his name …about everything…”
“Huh, you’re kidding me…come on Jess I can’t believe that!”
“Well I’m tellin ’ ya it’s true, couldn’t ya see the likeness?”
Slim shook his head “I never saw Marcus it was all over so dang quickly…you shot him and then someone covered the body… I don’t think I really saw his face properly at all,” he admitted.
“I did,” Jess said quietly “it’s dang well engraved on my heart forever and I’m tellin ’ you that was kin of Marcus or I’m a Dutchman. And anyway, he’s dang well admitted it Slim!”
“So what did he want… and what are you going to do?” Slim asked, watching his pard still lying back on his porch rocker but about as primed and ready to blow up as a keg of gunpowder…
When Jess said nothing Slim continued… “
So maybe he just wanted to try and make amends, after all his Pa was a Minister…maybe it all sits kinda badly with him, he wants to try and make things right, huh?”
But then he looked into his pard ’s eyes, “Ain’t gonna happen Slim,” Jess said and Slim knew there was no reasoning with his good friend.

What neither of them had been prepared for was Johnnie O’Leary’s tenacity of spirit…or down right death wish as Jess referred to the young man’s attitude, much later.
At eight o’clock the following morning when the Stage drove in Johnnie jumped down from the box and went to meet Slim who was just leading the replacement team over.
Slim stopped in his tracks and said, “What are you doing here O’Leary?”
“I see he’s told you,” Johnnie said casting his eyes down before meeting Slim ’s icy gaze.
“I’m really sorry I had to lie to you, so I am…but there was no other way and I have to speak with Mister Harper, tell him things he needs to know.”
Slim cast an anxious glance back towards the house, even though he knew Jess was sleeping deeply after a dose of Daisy’s pain medicine. He’d taken a turn for the worse the night before and Sam would have to be called out again.
Slim shook his head, “He’s not well, not up to seeing anyone and especially not you…In fact I shouldn’t be surprised if seeing you, having all that business raked up again, is what’s made him take a relapse.”
“I’m sorry so I am…but given time maybe he’ll come around…listen to me?” Johnnie persisted.
Slim thought that Hell would doubtless freeze over first but just said, “I doubt that very much…I really can’t think of anything you can say to make things better….”
Johnnie nodded sadly, “And don’t I know that too. But maybe the knowing of why it all happened would somehow ease the burden some…explain things?”
When Slim merely shook his head, Johnnie looked sadly towards the house before turning towards the barn, “I’d better get me to work then Mister Sherman.”
“What!” Slim exploded, “I thought Jess made it abundantly clear that you’re not welcome around here O’Leary and to be honest that goes for me too… I hate to see my pard upset this way and for no good reason, other than salving your conscience maybe?” he said with sudden perception.
Johnnie flushed up then and said honestly, “Well maybe there is a bit of that too…But anyway Mister Sherman we had a deal, we shook on it. I said I’d give you fair labour in return for that lively little mare…now you wouldn’t be thinking of going back on your word, would you?” He asked his Irish eyes now suddenly twinkling…
Oh yes Johnnie knew a man of honour when he saw one alright, and a deal was a deal…shaken on and agreed.
Slim sighed deeply, knowing when he’d been outfoxed.
“OK, well you can carry on for now and as soon as Jess is well enough I’ll ask him if you can stay on until the works done…But only if you sleep in the bunkhouse and take all your meals out there… I don’t want you anywhere near my pard, is that understood?”
Johnnie confirmed that it was and he wouldn’t approach Jess unless he asked to see him…
Well that wouldn’t be happening Slim thought as he changed the team, trying to ignore Mose’s curious glances.
“So you gonna tell Jess then?” Mose asked laconically as he sat up on the box ready for the off.
“Just ask Doc Baker to call will you Mose?” Slim replied dead pan, before leading the spent horses over to the corral…
Would he? God knows he thought bitterly and he figured he was between a rock and a hard place…Maybe this Johnnie O’Leary could ease Jess’s pain and sorrow some…He’d seemed a good enough man, before he knew who he was, that is, he ruminated. And why should a name make any difference to his original opinion…And after all a man couldn’t be his brother’s keeper…heck that was in the Good Book wasn’t it….

Doc Sam straightened up from where he’d been examining an indignant Jess, “I dunno why they called you out I’m OK,” he muttered impatiently.
Sam indicated to Slim and Daisy that maybe they should leave him to his patient as it was clear some plain speaking was needed.
They both picked up on the slight indication of the doc’s head towards the door and raised eyebrows and Daisy said quickly, “I’ll go and make you some coffee doctor,” and she left ushering Slim before her.
Once they had gone Sam settled himself down on the edge of the bed and said in a long-suffering tone, “So what was it Jess? Grooming that old horse of yours…chopping logs for the cook-stove, or some other darned fool thing …because you’ve been doing something to make that wound open up again…”
Jess looked slightly wrong footed and then sighing said, “OK so I groomed Traveller sure, but it’s hardly chain gang stuff Sam, just real light work.”
“Um well you’ve obviously over done it. So, unless you want me to give you an aesthetic and stitch the wound, which I wanted to do originally…then you’d better listen up and fly straight Jess! Because if not you’re going to be in big trouble… do you understand me?”
Jess just grunted in the affirmative looking a tad embarrassed, “I guess so…sorry Sam…”
“Well OK. So, tell me about this O’Leary chap is he really Marcus’s brother?”
Jess sat up quickly from where he’d been reclining on his bed and grasped his chest as the pain ripped through him…
“Steady Jess,” Sam said, putting a concerned hand on his arm and pushing him gently back on the pillows…
“So what do ya know about him?” Jess gasped once the pain subsided.
“Enough to be worried about you buddy,” he said softly, “it must have been a real shock seeing the guy looking so like Maria’s killer…”
“You could say,” Jess admitted bitterly….
“So, you won’t talk to him then?”
“Don’t you start,” Jess spat angrily, “if I so much as cast eyes on him again he’ll be dang sorry…He had the nerve to come here lookin’ for me, to apologize, can ya believe that Doc…after what that low life Marcus did!”
Then he sighed deeply, “The thing is I’ve never forgiven myself for not being faster on the draw that day…for not seeing him before he hit on us…If Maria hadn’t stepped in front of me that way then she might have lived… You know I’ve thought since…it was crazy for him to want her dead…I figure that was maybe a mistake…He was aiming solely at me and Maria just got in the line of fire. Maybe he thought with me dead he could somehow get her back,” and he shrugged, “guess we’ll never know.”
Sam looked thoughtful, “I believe Johnnie just wanted to help you Jess…maybe cast some light on why the tragedy happened huh?”
“It happened because that dang excuse for a human being was madder than a box of frogs …Hell why else would anyone shoot dead someone they professed to love…huh Doc answer me that one?”
“Or as you say, it could just have been a terrible accident that she was killed too.”
“It don’t make no damn difference now,” Jess said bitterly, “I guess I’ll always take the blame and I sure as hell don’t want it all raked up again!”
The doc could see Jess was working himself up into one of his rages and so backed off.
“I guess we’ll never know… if you’re adamant you won’t speak to this brother,” he said quietly.
But Jess remained silent refusing to rise to the bait.
Then said, “I can’t anyway I sent him off, said I’d shoot him if he came on the property again.”
The words were out before Sam could stop them, “But he’s mending a fence up on the home pasture I saw him as I rode in….”
Jess stared at the doc in shock for a few seconds…then, “Slim…Slim, git yerself in here pronto!”
It was over an hour later before Jess finally capitulated albeit sullenly.
“I guess I can see yer point of view,” he finally agreed reluctantly, “iffen you’d shaken on the deal and he’s done all that work already…well I figure you’d no choice. But dang it Slim you keep him out of my way or by God he’ll be sorry!”
It was a few days later when Jess was to have a sudden change of heart…and that was all down to Mike.
It was a Saturday and after Slim had been to the mercantile he’d stopped by the haberdashers and picked up Freddy for a visit with Mike as had been agreed between Daisy and Dawn.
“He’ll be just fine my dear,” the older woman had professed, “I’ll take great care of him and we’ll bring him back in time for the Church Service on Sunday.”
Jess was recuperating well and knowing that Freddy was visiting he mooched over to the barn where Mike was showing off the new saddle, he’d been bought for Christmas…
Jess intended to go and talk to the youngster he’d befriended over their impromptu Christmas back at the old Harrison spread, and check out how he was settling into town with his ma.
However, raised voices in the barn made him stop in his tracks and listen.
“All I’m saying is my Uncle used to say the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Freddy said firmly.
“But that’s all wrong,” Mike replied angrily, “you can’t say that…Red Cloud’s son Little Fox is my friend…you better hadn’t say that when I introduce ya!”
“But I don’t get it Mike,” Freddy said now sounding slightly uncertain, “how can you have an Indian as a friend when it was them Indians that killed yer Ma and Pa and all those folks on the Wagon Train…dontcha just hate ‘em?”
Mike shook his head firmly, “It ain’t good to think that way Freddy…Jess says there’s good and bad in Indians, just the same as there are in white folk…you can’t blame a whole bunch of folk for something just a few bad ones did… Jess says that you hafta take folk at face value…Look at the man and decide iffen he’s good or not…you can’t go blamin ’ sin on a whole nation that way.”
Freddy was obviously lost in thought and then said, “I guess that makes sense and your friend Little Fox sounds like fun and I’d really like to meet him Mike, if he’s a good Indian like you say.”
Jess turned away and hung his head…Jeez, what was that phrase Slim used…out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and he grimaced…well Mike weren’t either, but he was sure talkin ’ good sense…
Heck he’d said those very words to the kid many times before…so when did he start ignoring his own beliefs then he wondered sadly.

Sometime later he saddled up Traveller and headed for the Home pasture boundary where he knew Johnnie was mending fence.
It was a bright sunny morning and mild for the time of year, early January. Jess felt a glimmer of warmth on his back from the sun as he rode briskly across the pasture.
He saw the trail of smoke wafting gently towards the deep blue sky before he arrived at the place where Johnnie had a fire going and was taking a break from his labours.
When he rode in and swung down from the saddle Johnnie showed no surprise or fear, merely offered the coffee pot.
Jess accepted the drink and then sat down on a log opposite him.
“Well you’re a cool one considerin ’ I was all fer ripping yer head off last time we met,” he said before sipping his coffee and throwing Johnnie a weak smile.
Johnnie returned the smile more broadly and said in his Irish lilt, “Well I’m relying on the Good Lord to see me through right now… See Mister Harper I don’t think He’d have guided me this far if I wasn’t meant to talk to you…ease your hurt a little if I can….”
Jess raised an eyebrow, “You talk like a man of the cloth?”
“Ah yes, it is true I am an ordained minister of the Church…have my own little Living and congregation back in County Cork.”
At the name of the place in Ireland where Maria had grown up Jess felt a stab of something akin to pain in his guts and took a deep breath…
“You knew her growing up?” He finally asked, knowing there was no need to say to whom he was referring.
“Indeed, I did,” Johnnie said with a faraway look in his dark brown eyes… “She was the most beautiful young lass that you ever saw…with that long hair and those huge dark soulful eyes. Begorra she was the sweetest child on God’s earth so she was and I loved her dearly.”
Jess swallowed hard and then said gruffly, “I guess anyone that knew her loved her…”
“Ah, that’s a fact so it is,” Johnnie agreed and both men looked off to the distant snow-clad hills remembering Maria… the beautiful woman who was no more…
Then Johnnie seemed to pull himself together…
“Anyway, I had to come and find you to…well try and explain things…I had a calling to do it if you understand me…I felt the Good Lord in His wisdom wanted me to make the journey and seek you out….”
“Well you sure took your time about it,” Jess said bitterly, “she’s been dead and gone more than a few years and I really don’t want to rake up the past… I don’t want the boy upset by talk of her either,” he said throwing Johnnie a less than friendly look. “He loved her as much as I did, she was like a Ma to him,” Then Jess looked down bleakly as he remembered that terrible day by the lake when he’d had to break the news to young Mike that Maria was dead…
“So why now?” Jess persisted once he felt he could speak again.
“It was the letter… I received a letter a few months back from Marcus….”
“Huh?” Jess cried, “What are you talkin ’ about I nailed him to the gates of Hell…he was shot dead the day he killed Maria.”
“Ah yes indeed I know that,” said Johnnie quickly, “but the letter had been sitting in a hotel drawer over in Cheyenne all these years… The place was up for sale and someone found the letter, all stamped and ready to go…addressed to me back in County Cork…Marcus’s last letter and confession…”
Jess raised a cynical eyebrow, “So what did ya do absolve him of all his sins…that’s the way of things in the Church ain’t it?”
Johnnie merely shook his head sadly and ignored the comment, “I think before I read you the letter, I should explain a little about our family…about Marcus?”
“You can explain all ya want,” Jess said quietly, it ain’t gonna help any…”
Again, Johnnie said nothing, but looked up to the sky as though seeking Divine intervention…or maybe just collecting his thoughts Jess surmised.
“Mark, as he was baptized, was four years younger than me and a welcome addition to the family…Mammy wanted a large family and Da, although he was a Minister and didn’t earn much, was of a similar mind… So it was that just four years after Mark was born that Mammy had the twins young Matty and Luke…
Jess raised a quizzical eyebrow just as Slim had done a few weeks earlier, “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John eh…so yer folks had a sense of humor huh?”
Johnnie chuckled, “Oh indeed my Mammy did, but soon I was Johnnie and Mathew always Matty… Well it would be when the twins were born that we all saw a change in Mark…I guess Mammy was pretty worn out looking after the babies…but she adored them… Young Matty was small and sickly and took a lot of her attention…but Luke thrived… Begorra, but he was a bonnie baby…blond curls like Mammy and big blue eyes…nothing like the rest of us,” he chuckled, a hand to his dark hair… “Mammy loved him to bits…so she did….” and he looked back at that happy time smiling, before continuing.
“Anyway Mark had always been a Mammy’s boy, but he was terrible after the twins were born…For ever crying for his Mam ’s attention…It was embarrassing for me as an older brother…I’d tell him not to be so soft,” he said shaking his head sadly, “then one day things came to a head….”
“Go on,” said Jess now fascinated in spite of his initial hostility.
“Mammy was bathing the twins by the fire, but little Matty who had a nasty cold took to coughing so badly that Mammy lifted him out and took him off to bed telling me and Mark to watch baby Luke, saying she’d be back in a moment… Then a little later she called through for me to fetch a dry towel and dry off young Luke...as I’d done before being the eldest at eight years old and pretty good around the young ones.”
Well Jess could sure identify with that, “Okay so what happened?” He asked intrigued.
“So I went to fetch the towel and when I came back Mark was holding the baby under the water…Baby Luke was all but drowned Jess,” he said softly, even now after all these years his gentle face registering the horror of the clearly remembered scene…
“Jeez,” Jess muttered, “He really was crazy weren’t he….”
Johnnie shrugged, “Maybe he was in some way…certainly mentally troubled…”
Jess let out a bark of humorless laughter, “You can sure say that again…so what did you do?”
Johnnie shrugged, “What could I do? I had to tell Mammy and Da, I just couldn’t trust him you see Jess… Then things changed, he sort of turned inwards…seemed to somehow switch off from the family. All his love and attention went from Mammy into his friendship with young Maria. Well her being the way she was, she was kindness and compassion itself… and made a good friend of him… They were inseparable before too long…and he spent most of his time around at her folks place…Then things changed when they were just fourteen and Marcus, as he insisted on being called then, said they were to marry as soon as they were old enough…”
Jess shook his head sadly, “So she really loved him?”
“I really don’t know, but both sets of parents thought it were just puppy love, you know…it would blow over…but no… Then the rest you know I imagine, how they eloped at just sixteen…Mammy and Da did all they could to try and find them. Indeed, Da went over to England searching, but he was a sick man by then and just a month after his return both Mammy and Da were dead of the fever and Maria’s folks soon afterwards… I was stuck at home bringing the twins up as well as I was able. I was just twenty and the twins twelve…I couldn’t leave to try and find Marcus and I’ve lived with that sorrow all my life…Maybe I could have intervened if I’d found them… I don’t know…Maria wrote to me once saying how they were estranged… She told me of everything he’d done,” and he shook his head, his face suddenly ashen, “unforgivable things so they were…”
“I know it,” Jess said softly, “I know it all….”
Johnnie shook his head, “I’m so very sorry…. He sighed deeply, “Anyway she said she was going to make a new life in America…and I thought she’d be safe really I did…”
“And she would have been if it hadn’t been for that damn brother of yours,” Jess said bitterly… “You feel bad you couldn’t save her…Well how the hell do ya think I felt… still feel …huh? I loved her more than life itself and she died trying to spare me…how do ya think that feels?” He finished furiously…. Then he gave a bitter laugh, “Me the famous gunslinger…so dang fast…but I weren’t fast enough…not when it really mattered…”
To his surprise Johnnie looked up heavenwards again and said softly… “At last… at last I know why I was called here….”
Jess looked over puzzled.
“I think you’d better just read this Jess…. And if you think it’s rather dramatic…er fanciful even, please just remember that Marcus was actually a very talented poet and writer. If only that was what he’d just stuck to,” he muttered wearily.
Jess took the fat envelope from Johnnie and opening it perused the closely written pages carefully…

My dear Johnnie,
I hope you haven’t forgotten your estranged brother Marcus. The Black Sheep of the family finally raises its weary and crazed head you are doubtless thinking….and you would be right… I am crazy…crazy with passion and unrequited love…crazy with sorrow for a life I had and threw away all of my own volition… I have always loved too greatly; it is my great affliction…and now before I commit the ultimate sin…maybe I can see clearly for the first time the full depth of my depravity and evil… Maybe in your power as a member of the Church you can plead my case… I don’t know…But I truly believe that I must be insane to do what I must….
I have followed my beloved Maria across half the globe and now I am convinced of what I must do to be reunited… we must die together…. I have had so many opportunities over these last months…before she met the man she loves… one Jess Harper…I could have cut her down…and so nearly did on many occasions…But now I finally have the strength to do it…. She will die and hopefully I will die from Harper’s bullet…but no matter he is not important…I can turn my gun on myself as I have so often envisaged… My Maria was so special …to everyone, not just me…and now I know the only way she will share her life with me will be in death…. Nobody or nothing can stand in my way…If not now another day another time…when least expected her end will come…and we will be reunited…forever…
So dear brother a crime of passion, undoubtedly…but also premeditated …so no…there will be no forgiveness or redemption for me…, no absolving of sins… this I know….

Here the letter ended and Jess stared hard at the paper before looking up into Johnnie’s beseeching gaze…

Chapter 8
It was Mike that finally united them. The overheard conversation in the barn being the reason Jess had given Johnnie a chance to justify himself, as Jess explained to Slim later in their room that night.
Slim could hardly believe his eyes when he’d seen his pard and Johnnie riding into the yard together chatting quite amiably.
“It’s still pretty tough,” Jess said as he took his shirt off and wandered over to the washstand, “seeing the guy lookin’ so much like that Marcus…but I guess I’m beginning to get over that now.”
“I’m glad,” said Slim who was sitting up in bed and book lying forgotten in his lap. “I don’t think I’ve seen you so chipper in a long while…So what exactly was in that letter to change your mind about all that business… don’t tell me the Reverend Johnnie has got you forgiving Marcus?” He asked with a wry grin.
Jess threw the towel down and wandered over to his bed. “Yer kiddin’…Nope I guess I can’t ever do that Slim. I figure that’s down to the Good Lord to forgive or not…I guess I just ain’t saintly enough,” he said with a crooked grin.
“But something’s changed I can tell,” Slim persisted…
Jess nodded and sitting down on the edge of his bed he looked thoughtful…
“I feel…I dunno kinda peaceful, like a burden’s been lifted ya know?”
“Go on,” Slim said softly.
“Well see I’ve always felt so bad that I couldn’t keep her safe…didn’t draw fast enough…”
“Oh come on Jess we’ve been over this a thousand times, I was there remember? I saw the whole thing…Marcus wasn’t even wearing a holster…his gun was already drawn and cocked when you turned and saw him…
“Yeah I know…but dontcha see…according to that note he left he weren’t aiming at me at all…he was aiming at Maria…Hell he even wanted me to kill him after he’d shot her…. He’d already said that he was gonna kill her no matter what, so I guess I couldn’t have saved her…kept her safe…no matter what I did. See up to now I always thought it was me he wanted dead and was aiming at and Maria took the bullet for me, but I was wrong...I guess he was just crazy.”
Slim shook his head sadly, “He really was wasn’t he…”
Jess shrugged, “So all along it was her he wanted dead, not me. He thought they’d be reunited in death…you can kinda understand the logic even if he was so very wrong…”
Slim just raised a questioning eyebrow….
“You’re forgetting I saw her that time at the graveside Slim…and she was so dang peaceful … serene…there was no way Marcus was anywhere around…”
Slim looked thoughtful, “You really do think you saw her don’t you buddy?”
Jess looked up his gaze now shocked, “Hell I don’t think I saw her Slim... I did.”
Slim backed down quickly…if it really was Maria come back to visit him…or just a figment of his imagination, what did it matter if it had brought his pard some comfort…
Then he looked deeply into those dark blue sincere eyes and he knew without a shadow of doubt that Maria really had come to say a last farewell to his buddy… And heck why not? Their love had been so abiding that it even survived beyond the grave.
“I believe you Jess,” he said softly, “and I’m just so glad that you decided to talk to Johnnie in the end, so what changed your mind?”
When Jess explained about the overheard conversation in the barn, Slim shook his head grinning broadly, “He’s a great kid isn’t he?”
Jess nodded, “Sure is…”
“So you’re feeling pretty good now Jess…wound healed up…problem with Johnnie resolved huh?”
Jess nodded looking puzzled, “I guess so yup…why do you ask?”
“Well I’ll tell you… You know how you missed out on Christmas stuck out at the Harrison place?”
“Don’t I just,” Jess said grimly…wild duck, stringy pheasant and two-year-old root veggies just don’t cut it ya know Slim…Sure the women folk did their best…but it weren’t a proper Christmas….”
“And you missed all that Christmas has to offer. Singing those good old carols, Daisy’s cooking, old Denver’s Moonshine, the Tree, presents and celebrating our dear Lord’s birth in style huh?”
“Well sure I did,” Jess said irritably, “so why are ya goin ’ on about it huh?”
Slim beamed at his buddy, “Well see it’s this way, Daisy and I made young Mike a promise on Christmas day….”
Five minutes later Jess’s face was a picture, “Heck Slim we can’t have another Christmas Day…it’s January 21st!”
“So are you going to tell Mike then huh?”

It was January 25th and the table was groaning with Christmas Fare…the atmosphere convivial as Jess looked around the crowded room.
At the end of the table Ma Briggs was deep in conversation with Daisy relating a humorous story about one of her grandchildren. To Jess’s eyes she looked years younger than she had back at the Harrison place, when her devoted son dropped her off at the ranch for the belated meal.
It had been Jess’s idea to invite all from the ill-fated Stagecoach and now Mose was swapping tales with a hearty Blackie, as he dug into Daisy’s wonderful Turkey dinner. The champion blacksmith had been received with open arms by all at the Knight ranch. He’d told Jess quietly, on his arrival, that he hadn’t been off the ranch once since he landed the job and that was just the way he liked it… “No temptation see boy, like I promised you…I’ll never touch a deck again….”
To both Jess and Slim ’s delight their girls were able to help them celebrate at the most unusual festive gathering and all agreed that is was a splendid idea.
Lily was now chattering away to Dawn who in Jess’s opinion looked just dandy…. She was dressed in a bright red frock, the widow’s weeds now consigned to the back of her wardrobe so she was explaining to Lily.
“It was Jess that made me see reason,” she said softly. “He gave me the most exquisite golden dress as a gift and Freddy was so enchanted when I wore it…well I realized it was time for me to try and get my life back to normal.”
Then she wondered if the dress had been meant for Jess’s sweet girlfriend and quickly changed the subject. Oh yes it had been rather a shock when she had seen the dark haired beauty on his arm earlier in the day…But now she was reconciled to the fact that he was taken…. and indeed she felt happy for him…really she did…because she was nursing a little secret of her own…but Lily was way too well versed in local gossip…
“So my dear how long have you been seeing the lovely Vincent Edwards?” She asked with a knowing smile, “All the girls at the women’s group are simply green with envy.
Jess looked up and smiled across at poor Dawn’s blushing face and said, “Hey Lily go pick on someone yer own size…”
That made both girls hoot with laughter and minutes later Dawn was shyly telling her new friend all about her friendship with Vincent….
At the far end of the table Jess took Millie’s hand and squeezed it gently, “You OK?” he whispered.
She smiled back, “Never better cowboy… this is the best Christmas ever!”
He looked deeply into her eyes…and the expression said it all, no words needed to pass between them….
It had been Slim who suggested that maybe all the business between Jess and Johnnie O’Leary would be better kept from Millie… After all Johnnie had now gone on his way, off to visit with his brothers before returning his beloved Ireland. So there was no real need for Millie to hear about his visit at all…
She had been delayed over in Cheyenne caring for her dear Ma who had suffered a broken arm after a nasty fall. But now her Ma was well again and Jess was delighted to have his girl back home.
“I know she knows all about you and Maria…but I can’t see the point of raking it all up again…she doesn’t need to know,” Slim had insisted.
“Well that’s where you’re wrong,” Jess had retaliated, “because we don’t have no secrets… Sure she knows how I felt about Maria…still do,” he said softly. “But she understands Slim…she knows how I feel about her too…how it’s different but just as strong and just as special…nuthin ’ or no one will ever change that.”
So he had taken her off to the barn and lovingly explained to her all that had befallen him since they last met…There were tears of sadness and then her loving understanding and an even deeper affection between the young couple…Jess had been right….
“I needed to hear it and from you,” she had whispered, “and I’m just so glad that the dear man made that long journey to explain it all to you.”
“You and me both,” Jess said quietly, “and dang it I nearly sent him on his way…would have done if it hadn’t been for Mike… he sure made me think again.”
Now he looked down the dining table to where Mike was in earnest conversation with Freddy…
“Yup I figure this is the best Christmas ever,” Mike said happily. “I guess there aren’t many boys that get to have two Christmas’s,” he said laughing.
“Except me,” Freddy said gleefully. “I had one back at that old ranch house we went to when we we’re snowed in and now this one…But the best thing is I’ve got my Ma back,” he said softly watching Dawn as she giggled happily with Lily…yup he agreed best Christmas ever…
It was towards the end of the meal when everyone was feeling rather mellow that Blackie stood up rather unsteadily and professed that he wanted to make a short speech and toast. He was heckled good- naturedly by Mose and Slim, but held his ground…
“There’s a young man not a thousand miles from here who deserves a few words of thanks,” he started surveying the now hushed assembly.
“Not only did he lead us to a safe place when we were stranded out God knows where, but he made sure we enjoyed our Christmas as much as we possibly could…and in his own way he gave us all a present.”
Then he turned to the lady to his right and said, “Miss Dawn, looking so pretty today owes all that to this man…he told her how it is and gave her a beautiful frock to wear…But more than that I guess he gave her the will to change and start living her life again after her sad loss…and be a real Ma to young Freddy again,” he said winking at the child.
“Hear, hear,” whispered Dawn looking flushed and very pretty if a little embarrassed…
“As to Mrs Briggs here, he continued, “she’ll be the first to tell you that this gentleman wasn’t afraid to do some straight talking that led to her being reunited her with her son and family…right Ma’am?”
Ma Briggs nodded looking exceeding cheerful, “Indeed, indeed!” She said brightly…nodding sincerely.
“And as for yours truly…well I’ve kicked a real bad habit and got me the best dang job I’ve ever had… Made a fresh start…. and that’s all thanks to you Jess,” he said…
“To Jess Harper, Merry Christmas son,” he said raising his glass in a toast.
“To Jess,” they all chorused raising their glasses and toasting the young cowboy…
All through Blackie ’s speech Jess looked more and more embarrassed sinking down in his chair, and holding onto Millie’s hand like a lifeline…But he was just able to mumble his thanks before there was a clamor of excitement from all. As Jasper the house cat finally managed to jump on the table scattering wine glasses and food as he made a determined effort to claim the turkey as his own…
Amidst all the mayhem Slim turned to his buddy and said softly, for his ears only, “Hey Jess I figure you’re more saintly than either of us gave you credit for huh?” A huge smile covering his face and slapping his pard on the back… before diving for cover as Jess retaliated by cuffing his friend around the head…and then they dissolved into helpless laughter…

It was just twelve months later that Daisy sported a new hat as the ‘Second Christmas Folk’, as Mike had termed them were once more reunited.
Everyone declared that Dawn made a beautiful bride and Freddy a charming best man to his hero Vince Edwards… Within another year Dawn gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and her happiness was complete.
As to Ma Briggs she lived a happy, if a little chaotic, life with her son and his three offspring and was still hale and hearty enough to offer advice and support to her great grandchildren. Her son was forever indebted to his dear ma for her unstinting care and devotion. Over the years she transformed herself into a rotund jolly woman as cheerful and friendly as her dear son…Always a surprise to Jess when he entered the bakers to find her serving with a ready smile…the bitter skinny widow he had originally met banished forever.
As to Blackie he lived a long and productive life as the head Blacksmith of the now famous Knight Stud and Livery. Old man Knight having gone into the dude ranching business way before it became popular with the masses. Even after Blackie was no longer able to work, Edward Knight gave him a home for life in a small, but comfortable, cabin on the ranch. To his dying day Blackie never touched a deck of cards again.
Jess often thought back to that time when the family had enjoyed the distinction of two very special and very different Christmas Days. They shared love, remembered Jesus and his birth… and of course received and gave some lovely presents.
But probably the very best gift Jess received that year was the one given by the Reverend John O’Leary of County Cork, who had traveled halfway across the globe to try and right a wrong… .to offer peace and redemption to one very special young cowboy.

The End
Thank you for reading

Wishing you all a Happy & Peaceful Christmas

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