#78 Andy Slim amd Me - The Beginning

Andy, Slim and Me – The Beginning
Patty Wilkinson

The First of a Trilogy of when Jess first moved to the Sherman Ranch
As told by Jess Harper


When I think back to those early days when I first rode onto the Sherman spread it seems like a different lifetime…a different me. Back before Mike and Daisy landed, life was often difficult, dang it...it was downright dangerous at times…and in more ways than one.
Millie was back down in Texas in those days and seeing some guy…who I didn’t think a whole lot of to be honest. But I guess it was easier not to think on it too much. She seemed happy enough and so who was I to go messin’ up her life and then ridin’ out again as had been the pattern in the past.
So no, back in those days it was just Andy, Slim and me Jess Harper…oh yeah and Jonesy of course…I can’t forget old Jonesy….

Chapter 1
“Garldarn it where is that no good wastrel drifter,” Jonesy bellowed from the depths of the ranch kitchen.
“He ain’t in our room,” young Andy replied mooching into the kitchen, “why what’s up Jonesy?”
“He’s only dang well gone and eaten the last of the bacon, so there’s none for breakfast…darned saddle tramp would eat his starving old granny’s last biscuit I do declare!”
“Uh, it weren’t Jess’s fault Jonesy…it were mine,” said Andy looking kind of sheepish.
Moments later Andy’s tall blond brother strode in, “You mean it wasn’t Jess’s fault…not weren’t,” he said throwing his kid brother a censorious glance. “So, what hasn’t Jess done then huh?” Slim asked.
“Well I guess he ate it, but he didn’t know it was the last of the bacon, see I made us a snack last night. He’d been out in the barn until real late with that sick heifer and when he came in he said he was cold and starving hungry. So I… well I offered to make us some bacon sandwiches.”
“Oh you did, did you…without thinking to ask huh,” spat Jonesy, still looking as mad as all get out.
“Well you weren’t here were you Jonesy, you and Slim were over at that stockholders meeting in town until gone midnight.”
“Fair point,” said Slim reasonably. “I figure Jess is over in the barn checking on that heifer, I’ll go fetch him.”
“And tell the saddle-bum there ain’t any bacon for breakfast, he’ll have to make do with biscuits and beans. Or ship out,” Jonesy finished under his breath.
Slim slapped the old timer on the back, “I know he can be kind of hard work Jonesy, but you can’t fault him as far as the stock’s concerned, he’s nursed that young heifer real good.”
“Um, that’s as maybe,” the old man muttered as he started banging pots and pans about on the stove…a sure fire sign his feathers had been ruffled.
I was tendin’ the sick critter when I heard a movement behind me and I’d turned and drawn my weapon before I even had time to think about it…
Slim stopped in his tracks and put up a hand in submission, “Hey whoa Jess, I come in peace,” he said looking slightly shocked in spite of his trying to lighten the moment.
“Sorry,” I said shaking my head and holstering my iron at once, “just gut reaction I guess.”
“You’ve been here nearly a month now Jess, I thought you’d settled down some, trusted us all here?”
“Sure, sure I do Slim,” I said feeling kinda stupid. “It’s just…well when you’ve led the kinda life I have it makes sense to draw first and ask questions later.”
“You’ve never said, not told me too much about your past Jess, I don’t know anything about you, your kin even…except you’re from Texas. I guess you were honest enough to tell me you’ve got a past, tangled with the law…even time in prison…and I appreciate your honesty…but…”
“But you want the full picture,” I said suddenly feeling mad. Here I was actually beginning to maybe put down roots and I was bein’ judged again, and doubtless found wanting. Hell, I might as well up sticks and move on now if he wanted chapter and verse of my murky past.
“You want the full picture so you can decide iffen I’m good enough to be hanging out with yer kid brother, or if I’m gonna lead him astray huh Slim? I guess that old goat Jonesy has already pronounced me unfit…so now it’s your turn huh?”
“Now hang on I didn’t say that, I’m just trying to understand you Jess, to understand why you’re so dang jittery? Drawing on me…for ever checking the Big Open. Like you’re expecting unwanted guests anytime…the way you have those terrible nightmares and wake up shaking and yelling…I need to know why, is that too much to ask?”
I hung my head suddenly feeling real bad. Sure he had a right to know who he was taking into his home for goodness sake.
I sighed deeply, “One day I’ll tell you everything Slim, if I’m still around that is….But for now I want you to trust me when I say I’ll never do anything to harm Andy, or put him in danger, I give you my word on that.”
He looked deep into my eyes and then nodded, “That’s good enough for me.
Then he turned his attention to the heifer, “How’s she doing?”
I drew a deep breath and smiled for the first time that day, “She’s gonna be fine Slim…just fine.”
Well I sure didn’t think my promise to keep Andy safe would be tested so soon, but that’s the way it panned out.
As we walked back across the yard Slim turned to me with a grin and said, “Oh by the way Jonesy’s gunning for you.”
“Huh… what have I done now?”
“Only eaten all the dang bacon,” he said chuckling.
“Well hell I didn’t know that Slim, Andy cooked up a mess of bacon last night sure but…”
“I know and he’s squared it with Jonesy, but you know what he gets like when his feathers are ruffled.”
“Don’t I just,” I replied with feeling as we entered the house.
It was a Saturday morning so we were more relaxed than usual and as we came to the end of our leisurely breakfast I said, “I believe you’re running low on supplies Jonesy,” and gave him my cheeky grin.
“Yes, well if some folk not a million miles from here weren’t born with hollow legs I guess we wouldn’t be getting through stuff so darned quickly,” he retaliated, throwing me a black look.
I ignored his baiting and said, “Well iffen you want to write up a list I’ll get the stuff when I’m in town later.”
He just made a sorta growling noise that could have been yes…or possibly no, but then he wandered off for pencil and paper so I figured he was comin’ round.
“You’re going to town?” Slim asked as he poured us both another coffee.
“Yup, thought I’d pick up that lumber we need to mend the corral fence, maybe take a look around, I ain’t seen much of the town since I arrived.”
Hadn’t seen the inside of a saloon, not to mention any purty saloon girls either I thought, but wisely kept that to myself.
Then Andy who had been wolfing down biscuits like there was no tomorrow said excitedly, “Gee can I come with ya Jess, can I huh?”
Well I guess the last thing I needed was a thirteen-year-old kid hanging round when I was intent on downing a few pints and sweet talkin’ the local beauties. But I needn’t have worried because Slim frowned at him and said, “I really don’t think so Andy, you’ve got chores to do here haven’t you.”
“Aw Slim, please, I’ll get to it right away, be ready to go when Jess rides out…after all he’s got chores too.”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Slim replied looking uncomfortable.
Then Jonesy looked up from where he’d been chewing on the end of his pencil.
“Haven’t you got homework to do too young man? If I remember correctly you’ve math to do before that test on Monday morning?”
“It’s OK Jonesy I can do that tomorrow, really I can.”
“So, can I come with you Jess please?”
“Well I dunno Andy….”
“Please…I’ve got my Birthday money to spend and I won’t be any bother, really I won’t!”
Then turning to his big brother said, “You said I could go to town to choose a present Slim you promised!”
What could I say, gee I felt kinda sorry for the boy if I’m honest.
“It’s OK with me, I guess,” I said in a resigned voice and Slim ’s final objections were lost as Andy gave a huge whoop of delight, his eyes sparkling.
“OK,” said Slim weakly, “but home before dark OK?”
We rode into town mid-morning and drove to the lumber yard and once the supplies were loaded on the buckboard we made for the mercantile. I handed over the list of foodstuffs that Jonesy had supplied whilst Andy searched the place for something to spend his Birthday money on. I hafta say I was kind of surprised when he purchased a blue shirt, similar to the ones I favored. I’d have expected him to blow the lot on candy and comic books…but no.
“Interestin ’ choice,” I said as we made our way back along Main Street to the buckboard, me with the parcel of supplies and him clutching the new shirt.
He flushed up a little and then looking around us leaned in and said, “See there’s this new girl in class…Wendy Wright and she was saying how she really liked a well-dressed man, so thought I’d make kind of an effort, smarten up some…she’s real pretty,” he finished confidentially.
I nearly choked, gee it sure looked like young Andy was growing up and I fleetingly wondered what Slim would make of it.
As if he’d read my mind, he looked kind of anxious, “Don’t tell Slim will you, he’ll only tease me about it.”
“Heck no,” I said stoutly, “our secret Andy…”
By this time, we’d reached the buckboard by the saloon and we stashed our purchases away. I was just wondering if it was legal or not to take a thirteen-year-old drinkin’ when my eye landed on the sign outside an office just down the street, Mort Cory, Sheriff…um, maybe not then. Sure, I’d met the Sheriff on several occasions since I’d landed in Laramie and for a lawman he was a real nice guy…and a good friend of Slim Sherman too. But even so I doubted he’d approve of me taking his friend’s kid brother into the saloon.
I was just pondering what I could do with the youngster and had decided I would just have to forego the delights of the saloon and take him back home when someone caught my eye across the street.
A few yards down a tough looking, scruffily dressed hombre was lounging on a bench, chewing on some baccy and looking vacantly around him. Jeez it couldn’t be…but it dang well was…Bradley Durkin …gunslinger, murderer and God help me…on the lookout for me and revenge I figured.
I instinctively pulled back into the shadows by the saloon door dragging Andy with me.
“Hey what’s up, yer hurtin’,” he squawked as I held his arm in a vice-like grip.
“Shud-up,” I whispered, “don’t make a move Andy.”
I was just considering if we could make it to the buckboard and hightail it out of town before he noticed me, when the saloon door flew open and I felt a huge ham sized hand descend on my shoulder…
“Well if it ain’t little Jesse Harper as I live and breathe…we was hopin’ to meet up with you son.”
I turned and peered up into the evil, slightly dim-witted gaze of Dog…Bradley Durkin’ s older brother.
I don’t recall his proper name, he’d always just been Dog to me...the older slightly crazy brother of Brad Durkin. Oh yeah and brother to their little sister Annie too… And that’s where the problem lay I guess. This was all about me and Annie I figured…or rather the fact that there wasn’t any ‘me and Annie’ any more, since I’d dumped her for two-timing me over twelve months ago.
Quick as a flash I leaned down and whispered to Andy, “Go fetch the Sheriff Andy…”
Before he could object, I pushed him in the general direction of the office. “Now,” I barked, “and stay there until I come get ya.”
Well the kid tore off like the Devil himself was on his heels and Dog grabbed me in his huge meaty hands and pushed me none to gently in the general direction of his brother.
“Looky who I’ve found,” he bawled down the street, “only good ole Jesse Harper…just like you was plannin ’ Brad.”
Brad uncurled himself from the bench like the snake that he was and fixed me with a harsh gaze…
“I heard as you were in these parts Harper, figured it was time we caught up and settled things…once and for all, we’ve unfinished business huh?”
I had a terrible sinking feeling and figured the Sheriff wouldn’t be in time to halt the shoot-out that it looked like Brad was itchin’ for.
“Brad”, I said nodding to him. “Unfinished business you say?” I asked innocently.
“You know dang well what I’m talkin’ about Harper…my kid sister and how you left her expecting ’, got a babe in arms just a few days ago thanks to you!”
Well that sure was a surprise, seein’ as how I hadn’t cast eyes on Annie Durkin for nigh on a year or more.
“So, how’d you figure I’m the father then?” I asked feeling darned well hard done by. Hell, he knew I hadn’t clapped eyes on the gal for all that time…so how could he think that?
“Because that’s what she told me, so you got a problem with that Harper?”
I was suddenly mad, hell real mad…
“Sure I’ve got a problem with that!” I yelled. “Especially seeing as how your sister had a thing going with Daly Smith…both before and after we were dating…maybe even during for all I dang well know! I figure you don’t need to look any further than him iffen you’re lookin’ fer a father for the kid.”
Well that riled him real good and he backed off from me taking the gunfighter’s stance and I was suddenly aware of the Saturday morning shoppers backing off as they sensed a fight in the offing.
When I saw he really meant business I tried to back off some too and reason with him, but he was having none of it….
“Come on Harper you mean bastard, I’ll teach ya to treat my kid sister like dirt…not to mention the little matter of you gunning down cousin Jake!”
Well by then I just knew there was no reasoning with him…he had the light of battle in his eyes and it really didn’t matter that I was completely innocent…he just wanted to take it out on someone.
I backed away, facing him off, vaguely aware that Dog had come to flank him and I knew dang well that if Brad didn’t down me then Dog would have a good go at it…
It all kicked off just as the Sheriff made it down Main Street a few moments later…But then the unbelievable happened. As soon as Brad and Dog saw the Sheriff, they made a run for their mounts and just seconds later all that could be seen was a cloud of dust as they stormed off
Mort came over a friendly arm around Andy’s shoulders…
“Er something I said?” He asked grinning at me, nodding to where Bradley had stood just moments before.
I smiled back, “Guilty conscience I guess.”
“Friends of yours then Jess?”
I shook my head, “Not exactly, I dated his sister for a while and he seems to think I got her in the family way.”
“And so did you?” he asked his grin broadening.
I shook my head, “Heck no…But I guess it goes deeper than that Sheriff, I killed their cousin down in El Paso…self-defence, but I guess Brad and Dog don’t see it that way.”
The Sheriff shook his head again looking out to where the riders had so recently left, “Do ya mean Brad Durkin and his brother?”
“You know them?” I asked.
“Know of them yes son, got a wanted poster somewhere in the office, wanted for murder, but that was down in Mexico I believe, out of my jurisdiction.”
I nodded, “It wouldn’t surprise me,” I muttered.
Then I turned to Andy, “Come on I guess we’d better get you home,” I said and thanking the Sheriff we returned to the buckboard and were soon speeding out of town.
“Hey Jess, so where’s the fire?” Andy protested after a few minutes of me lashing the team on to an even faster gait.
I just frowned and said nothing. Brad’s final words to me echoing around in my mind, ‘just watch yer back Harper this ain’t over…I’m gunning for you and anyone as gets in my way,’ he had growled throwing Andy and the Sheriff a black look before he’d mounted up and sped off.
Well that was it as far as I was concerned. I was out of there just as soon as I’d delivered Andy home safely and collected up my stuff. I’d wages to the end of the month that Slim had paid me just that morning. I decided I’d head up towards Canada and put as much mileage between me and the Sherman brothers as I possibly could. Pulling my jacket collar up I felt a shiver run down my spine as a chill wind blew up and a few snowflakes drifted gently down. Great I thought just what I need.
When we got back, I unloaded the timber and Andy went running off to the house, full of the latest happenings in town I guessed and yup I was right. Just five minutes later Slim emerged and started helping me shift the fence posts before finally turning to me.
“Andy was saying there was some excitement in town, two men gunning for you?”
I froze, this was it then the end of the trail for me and Slim…There was no point in denying what had happened or the fact that Andy could have been in danger…So I opted for the truth.
I sighed deeply and threw the last post down before jumping down from the buckboard.
“Yes, there was some trouble. A guy I knew back in Texas called me out…”
When Slim turned pale and looked shocked I quickly reassured him.
“It was OK Slim. Andy wasn’t in any danger. Not then anyways, but I guess I can’t guarantee that for the future. Brad and Dog, well they won’t let it lay…they’ll come looking for me and that’s why...” I paused suddenly finding the words so hard to say, “that’s why I’m heading out…after supper once Andy’s turned in.”
I don’t know what I was expecting him to say, but I sure weren’t prepared for the anger…
“So you’re just giving up…taking off and leaving me in the lurch huh,” he spat furiously.
“Dang it Slim, we’ve brought the herd down for the winter. You said just the other day this was a quiet time. We’ve done most of the repairs now… just the corral to fix and Andy can help you with that.”
“And what about Andy, you’re just going to ride out without even saying goodbye…have you any idea how upset he’ll be?”
“Yes I have,” I snarled, “but maybe it’ll be easier for him if he thinks I’m an utter bastard huh? Instead of that dang hero he seems to have made up in his mind… Once I’m gone, he’ll soon forget about me and you can stop worrying about him too Slim.”
“You know dang well what I mean. I made a promise to you that I’d keep him safe…well if I stay around here, I don’t think I can keep that promise…so do ya see why I’ve got go?” I asked, almost pleadingly.
He dropped his angry gaze then and shook his head sadly, “There must be some way around this Jess,” he said softly.
Eventually he talked me out of going that night as the snow was coming down thick and fast and to be honest I didn’t wanna take my old horse out in it. Traveller sure hates the snow, even more than me, I guess.
Anyways I was up before first light and leaving them a note on the kitchen table I lit out into a beautiful moonlit winter scene. At least the darned snow had stopped falling now, but I knew I’d never make it over the mountains to Canada…so I made a plan.
I figured that Brad and Dog would be someplace around watching the comings and goings at the ranch, so all I had to do was head off on the Laramie road for a few miles so they could pick up my tracks in the untouched snow. I figured I’d head for the lake and make camp up in the cave there…far enough away from the ranch to keep Andy and Slim out of trouble. Then I’d just have to hope I was still up to speed when they called me out… And if it all ended here on this inhospitable Wyoming mountainside, well so be it… Better than constantly looking over my shoulder all the time waiting on them to ambush me… Nope I needed to get it over with and move on.

Chapter 2
It was just after dawn when Jonesy awoke and made his way muttering and grumbling into the main room. The snow had brought on his rheumatics and he cussed softly under his breath as he stirred the fire into life, built it up with some logs from the basket and then made his way slowly into the kitchen. There he did the same to the cook-stove and filled the coffee pot putting it in place before he reached the frying pan down and commenced cooking bacon and eggs.
It was as he turned to set the kitchen table that he saw the note and few coins.
He picked the penciled note up and squinted at it short-sightedly, before sighing deeply.
“Doggone it the dang fool didn’t have to go. Aw why did he do a darned stupid thing like that?” and he re-read the hastily scribbled letter.

Slim, I guess you didn’t do too good a job of talking me out of going. Tell Andy I’m real sorry. But I ain’t the man he thought I was. I guess Jonesy was right all along and I am a no-good saddle tramp. Thanks for everything and for trying to get me to settle down and fly straight, sorry it didn’t work out, Jess
PS the money’s for the vitals Jonesy, I just took some coffee and beans…left the bacon for breakfast…J.

The old timer was still standing there shaking his head and frowning at the missive when Slim strolled in.
“What’s up Jonesy, rheumatics playing up?”
“Yes…no, well that is yes, but it ain’t that Slim, look,” and he passed the note over.
Slim swiftly read the missive and cursed, “Dang it, I knew he wasn’t listening to me…this would all have blown over if he’d just sat it out.”
“What are you talking about Slim, those hombres in town gunning for him?”
“Yup, he lit out because he was so darned worried that they’d come looking for him and Andy or one of us would get hurt in the crossfire…”
There was suddenly the sound of a shocked intake of breath and both men spun around to see Andy standing there looking pale and shocked.
“Is it Jess…has he gone?” he finally managed.
Slim nodded, “I’m afraid so Andy, at first light I guess…he left a note, said he was sorry…”
But Andy ignored the offered note and stared at his older brother in consternation.
“Well why haven’t you gone after him…come on Slim, he can’t have gotten too far… Not in this weather,” he said casting an anxious glance at the snowy scene beyond the kitchen window.
“Now take it easy Andy, there’s no point in searching for him. You know how Jess can go to ground, if he doesn’t want to be found then he won’t be.”
“That ain’t so, you can track him real good in this snow.”
“I’m sorry Andy I can’t. I’ve got an important meeting with the Head of the Overland in town this morning…and anyway I don’t reckon he means it. He’s not stupid and he knows traveling any distance in this weather would be crazy. Nope I guess he’s found someplace to hole up until this all blows over.”
The child was finally convinced to sit down and eat his breakfast and then he went off to his room to prepare for the math test, the following morning, whilst Slim rode out saying he’d be back sometime in the afternoon.
It was after a scratch lunch that Andy barely touched, that Jonesy said he was off to the bunk-house for an hour or so to boil up some of his foul-smelling liniment, having been banned from making it in the house.
“You go check out those fractions again and I’ll test ya when I come back in to get the supper on,” Jonesy said as he limped off, carrying the ingredients for his stinking brew.
Andy waited until he knew Jonesy would be busy stirring his evil potion and then pulling on his hat, coat and warm muffler he headed for the barn. He saddled up Patch his pony and led him out quietly and up the rise. Once well away from the house he mounted and spurred the plucky little critter off towards the lake cave. Yup if Slim was right, that was just the perfect place to hole up and wait for the dust to settle he decided. Then when he’d found Jess he’d convince him to ride home with him…Easy the child thought smugly and with any luck they’d be home before Slim landed back for supper.
He was about a mile from the cave riding along the lake shore when he heard distant gunfire. Then just ten minutes later he saw a burly looking rider off in the distance coming his way.
The youngster sensibly reined Patch in behind some large pines that afforded him cover and watched as the man advanced on him. After a few minutes he passed by...a big ugly man, leaning at a strange angle in the saddle and as he passed within a few yards Andy saw a large red stain on his jacket front and figured he’d been shot. What’s more he recognized him as Dog, the plug ugly, crazy one and brother of Bradley Durkin. But where was Bradley and more importantly where was Jess?
When I had arrived at the cave overlooking the lake early that morning, I’d rubbed Traveller down and put him up in the little lean-to stable set back from the lake. It was warm enough in there and once my mount was dried off and blanketed, I left him to enjoy his breakfast and made my way up to the cave.
At first, I was kinda wary of lighting a fire to cook my own grub, but then I figured Slim wouldn’t allow Andy to come looking. I also knew Slim had business in town and that old goat Jonesy sure wouldn’t bother I thought with a wry grin. Nope the only folks looking for me would be Brad and Dog and I figured I might as well advertise where I was and get the whole sorry business over with as soon as possible.
It was mid-afternoon before I saw the men making their way slowly along the lakeside and I’d come down the steep trail from the cave to meet them, when they finally reined in some ten minutes later.
“You sure don’t believe in hiding yer tracks do ya boy,” said Bradley throwing me a sarcastic smile.
“I weren’t aiming to,” I replied coming forward and throwing the older man a harsh look. “I just wanna get this over with once and for all Brad, but away from my friends at the ranch.”
“Ha! Friends you say,” Brad laughed nastily. “You hear that Dog, the boy thinks he’s got friends.”
Then turning back to me he said, “They ain’t friends’ boy… they’d disown you in a second iffen they knew even half of your murky past. I guess they don’t know they’re entertaining murdering ’ scum do they boy…huh?”
Well that really riled me.
“I ain’t about to tell you again Brad, I didn’t murder your dang cousin, he were drunk as a skunk and opened fire on me…I warned him to back off and he wouldn’t…hell he shot me in the arm before I fired on him and you can ask the Sheriff down in El Paso if you don’t believe me…he saw it all!”
“Sure,” he said sarcastically, “just like you didn’t get my sister into trouble too huh?”
“You know that’s a dang lie. I ain’t even been in Texas these last twelve months much less your sister’s bed!” I yelled feeling mad as all get out now.
“So why would she say it was you then huh?” Dog asked, with his usual dazed expression.
“Because I dumped her and she wants to get her own back I’d guess,” I said. “Either that or she’s plumb loco; maybe it runs in the family huh?”
Well that was just a step too far for Brad who was always real protective of his seemingly simple brother.
“That’s it Harper, you git on your knees and pray to your Maker for a swift end…because it’s dang well-nigh!”
I could have almost laughed at his turn of phrase…until I suddenly realized what danger I was in…Brad was fast, real fast…and even if I downed him Dog would finish it. I sighed and took a couple of steps back, “Come on then what are you dang well waiting for?” I spat.
Both men dismounted and backed off away, assuming the position.
“Go on then bro he’s all yours,” Dog drawled.
There was a tense minute when nobody moved, that felt like a lifetime, and then Brad drew on me and a slug hit me in the shoulder. However, a split second later I downed him, my bullet finding its mark straight through his heart. But my victory was short lived as Dog’s bullet slammed into my thigh and I felt my legs buckle as I began to fall I desperately tried to focus and aim and was just able to see my bullet hit Dog, before I fell to the rock solid icy ground and passed out….
Once the big man, Dog, had passed by, Andy waited in the cover of the pines, until the horse and rider disappeared over the hill. Then he rode hell bent for leather towards the cave.
He was just at the edge of the lake looking up towards the rocky outcrop that housed the cavern when he saw two dark objects lying in the snow at the side of the lake. Spurring his horse on he quickly dismounted and stood looking down at the man Bradley Durkin, lying on his back…his eyes still open and a look of utter surprise on his features…a neat black hole in the centre of his chest. Andy swallowed hard fighting down the rising nausea before he let go of Patch’s reins and half ran half fell towards the other body a few yards away. Throwing himself to his knees he put out a hesitant hand to Jess’s face…as pale as marble and almost as cold.
“No,” he cried suddenly grabbing Jess by the shoulders and shaking him hard… “no Jess wake up, please wake up!”
Blood covered the front of his shirt from the shoulder across the chest and also his right thigh….and he lay completely still hardly seeming to be breathing.
Andy shook him again, tears now streaming down his face…
“Jess wake up!” he screamed again and after a moment was rewarded by a low groan.
I opened my eyes and swallowed hard, “Andy be careful….”
“It’s OK Jess that Bradley is dead and the other hombre er…Dog, he took off and I figure he’s hurt real bad.”
I gave a sigh of relief and then felt everything going black again.
“Get Slim,” I whispered before I passed out.
When I came around, I was lying on my bunk in the room I shared with Andy and Slim. I was back at the ranch and an old guy was listening to my chest with one of those um…stethoscope things.
Then Slim loomed into view, “It’s OK Jess this is Doc Johnson, you got yourself shot up some but you’re going to be OK.”
I tried to drag my eyes open wider and peered at the greying old guy, now taking my pulse. He had extraordinary bright blue eyes and a cheery smile.
“You’ll be just fine young man as long as you behave and do exactly as Mr Jones here tells you,” he said briskly, turning to where Jonesy was looking on.“You’ve been severely injured, um…lost a lot of blood and although the shoulder wound is reasonably superficial…. the leg wound is more serious.”
Well the way I was hurtin’ pretty much all over I could believe that alright, the pain radiating from my groin to my knee especially making me feel sick to my stomach.
“Now it is imperative that you remain in bed for the present. Then when…. and I say advisedly…when, I allow you to get up you must be most circumspect as to your locomotion….do I make myself clear young man?”
About as clear as a dang dust storm I thought and swiveled my eyes to Slim for some help.
“Got to keep off the leg until doc says you can walk buddy, then take it real slow and easy once you start moving around again,” he supplied
“Well why didn’t he say so?” I muttered softly to Slim.
Then turning to the doc decided I may as well at least pay lips service to being a good patient, “Sure doc whatever you say.”
“Garldarn it Jess Harper you are the most difficult ornery dang patient I have ever had the misfortune to nurse,” Jonesy declared the following day.
“What is that dang stink?” I repeated, “Fer goodness sake Jonesy…what IS that stuff?”
“It’s my good liniment and the added ingredient is Eucalyptus oil special just for you.”
“You really shouldn’t have bothered,” I said weakly.
“Well sure I should,” he said giving my chest a final rub with the darned muck.
“See the eucalyptus helps keep your airways nice and clear, helps you breathe real good…the last thing you want to end up with is Lung Fever boy…and folk get that real easy from layin’ around the place on their backs for too long.”
I personally thought the dang stuff made me want to stop breathing altogether as the smell was makin’ me feel sick as a dog, but there was no arguing with the old coot so I just pretended to be asleep until he left me in peace.
Andy had kindly given up his bed as it was easier to nurse me on a proper bed rather than the small bunk I usually used. He’d shipped out to Jonesy’s room while I was sick as I kept disturbing him in the night with my cussin’ and moanin’ as I tried to get comfortable. Slim was worried the kid wouldn’t be able to get up for school and that made me feel even guiltier than I did already.
It was about three days later that I really lost my temper with Jonesy. To be honest it was because I was worried, real worried as the pain in my leg seemed to be gettin’ worse rather than better…Hell I’d heard of folk losing a leg from a deep wound like mine and I guess I was kinda fearful.
‘Just get out and leave me in peace!’ I’d yelled at him when he said it was time to change the dressing on the wound.
Well he’d pulled himself up to his full height, which weren’t too much, and said,’ if that’s the way you want it you sassy young drifter you can dang well rot as far as I’m concerned’…..and he’d marched out of the room, leaving me feeling even worse.
Slim had taken to turning in once Jonesy and Andy were abed and this night was no exception. I knew he’d been doing that instead of relaxing with a book or working at his desk and I appreciated his company really I did, but that night, well I was just feelin’ real bad, in more ways than one.
He’d stripped off his shirt and had a wash and then came and sat down on the edge of his bed looking down at me a troubled look in his eyes.
“You look real rough buddy.”
“Well thanks,” I snarled, “that’s probably got somethin’ to do with the fact that I’ve had half my dang leg blowed off and that old goat Jonesy fusses more than my old Granny.”
Slim snorted at that and then sobered, “Are you in a lot of pain?”
He must have seen the look in my eyes and the way I kept shifting ’ around in the bed so I figured there was no point in lyin’ to him.
I nodded, “Been worse, been better.”
He continued to peer anxiously at me and then shook his head. “What you could do with is something to ease the pain, like old Jonesy’s medicinal whiskey.”
My face brightened at that notion, “Yeah, might help,” I agreed.
“Um…if only I knew where he’d stashed the dang bottle…he moves it around see…worried we’ll all turn into drunkards’ iffen he leaves it laying around.”
“Yeah well livin’ under the same roof as him fer long enough is a good reason to make any man turn to the bottle,” I muttered bitterly.
Then my face cleared, “Hey I’ve got some Slim.”
“Huh…got what?”
“A half bottle of Red Eye, in my drawer,” I said nodding over to the chest of drawers on the other side of the room. “Go fetch it and we’ll have a glass apiece,” I said feeling almost cheerful for the first time in days.
He dug about removing some of my few possessions until he unearthed the bottle and then went off to fetch a couple of shot glasses and poured us both a measure.
Well that sure hit the spot and he poured us each another before leaving the bottle on the nightstand and sauntering over to tidy my things away again. He replaced my stuff until he held up a book up in surprise, “Is this yours?” he asked.
I looked over to where he was holding the old family Bible and just nodded.
He flipped it open and looked at all the names on the front page and gave a little whistle, “Phew a lot of Harpers in your clan…so are they still all down in Texas?” Then he frowned, “Heck Jess do you want me to wire your folks let them know you’re kinda sick?”
I just shook my head but he wouldn’t leave it alone.
“They might be worried about you. Especially your Ma, you know the way they fret,” he said with a small uncertain smile.
“She won’t be frettin’ any,” I said bitterly.
He raised a questioning eyebrow then, “Oh, why not?”
“Because she’s dead,” I spat.
He opened his eyes wide, “Heck I’m sorry Jess I didn’t know,” he said looking kinda embarrassed…Then, “What about your Pa or brothers and sisters, maybe they’d like to come visit you, stay a while maybe?”
“Goddamn it Slim will ya leave it, they’re dead…all dang well dead OK!”
He looked shocked to the core, but still carrying the Bible walked over and sank back down on his bed, “Gee I’m so very sorry…how?”
“Fire,” I said tersely, “were mostly taken in the fire….at our homestead.”
I briefly told him about the night of the Bannister’s raid where they had left a trail of carnage across our town, killing and burning as they went.
“There were just the seven of us then, Ma and Pa had buried another four young ‘uns, three of the fever…one stillborn,” I said my eyes bleak as I remembered the death of my beautiful baby sister.
He just sat transfixed watching me, “Go on,” he whispered eventually.
I sighed deeply and continued.
“There were seven of us trapped in the house and only three came out alive…. Ma, Pa the young ‘uns all dead…burnt alive,” I said my voice sounding somehow matter of fact…but I knew I couldn’t get emotional…or I’d be lost.
He just shook his head, tears in his eyes…so I went on to the bitter end.
“Wade, the eldest, he lit off someplace before the embers were even cold,” I said angrily…remembering how he’d abandoned me and Francie.
“Then I found a place for Francie…some friends took her in and said they’d care for her…”
“And you, couldn’t they take you in too Jess?”
I nodded and gave him a grim smile, “Oh yeah, they’d have taken me they were good people, real good.”
“So, why didn’t you go with your sister?”
I shrugged, “There was just too much dang anger inside of me I guess. I had to hunt down the gang and kill them for what they’d done to us…to everyone….”
“But…hell Jess how old were you?” he asked looking perplexed.
“Fifteen,” I said quietly.
He gasped and then sat silently, absorbing all this information…then said, “Francie…and er Wade?”
“Francie died in a Diphtheria epidemic, down in Galveston…buried in the Bay…don’t even have a grave to visit. As for Wade, someone told me he’d perished in the war...I dunno if it’s true or not…he was a loser anyway,” I said bitterly, “he only cared about himself.”
Slim looked suddenly so darned sad I felt sorry for him.
“I’m so dang sorry,” he muttered again.
“It was all a long time ago,” I said, just wanting to change the subject now…feeling pretty near breaking point…what with my leg throbbing and the whiskey makin’ me feel kinda light headed.
He got up and turning went and put the Bible carefully back where he’d found it and then turned back to me.
“So, did you catch up with them…The Bannisters?”
I shook my head and then gave him a weak grin, “And a good job too I guess. I was a pretty fast draw, but not as good as I thought I was, they’d have slaughtered me…”
“And now Jess?”
“Now, I’d kill every last one of them in a New York minute,” I said softly.
He sat back down on his bed and poured us both another drink, “So what happened?”
“The war happened,” I replied, “and I signed up as a boy soldier as soon as I was sixteen…well nearly sixteen,” I said grinning openly now, “I lied.”
He shook his head in awe, “That’s young…you fought for the Confederacy I guess huh?”
I nodded suddenly feeling anxious, “Does that…um make any difference…to us, our friendship, you bein’ in the Union?”
He seemed to think about it for a minute and then that great smile of his lit up his whole face and he said, “Nope I guess not…like you say it was all a long time ago right…you?”
“Hell no,” I said, “the wars over and there ain’t no point in lookin’ back. What happened is done with….no matter how bad,” I finished quietly.
“You had a bad time,” he said sympathetically… a statement not a question.
“Pretty bad at one time…in a prisoner camp…with a real bastard in charge,” I said, “but I guess there was that sort on both sides…and I survived it…how about you?”
“The same I guess, I was captured too and escaped…went into the war as a private and came out a second lieutenant…so I guess it was good for me. It taught me to manage men and be responsible… Gave me a taste for this stuff too he said grinning at me and raising his glass.”
I smiled back, “And here was I thinkin’ it was me that introduced you to strong drink,” I said with a chuckle….
“Uh, well I guess you’ve got a few other tricks up your sleeve ready to corrupt me …as Jonesy would say,” he laughed. “What was it you were talking about the other day…Moonshine and pretty girls well that sounds like kind of a lethal combination.”
“Too right Slim, I guess I’d better start educating you up as soon as I’m better, we’ll start on the Moonshine and work up to the girls huh?”
“Well you’d better get some sleep then buddy,” he said grinning across at me, “sooner you’re well sooner I can start my education.”
But it weren’t gonna be that easy, no siree…
The following morning, when he came to rouse me I was completely out of it and was burning up with a fever. So Slim told me later.
It seems the leg wound had got infected and it was a pretty close-run thing for a while. Doc Johnson was called back in to do his worst…and poor young Andy was fussin’ and frettin’ and even old Jonesy was kinda upset…
The doc was called first thing that day, but by the time he landed about mid-afternoon I was in a real bad way, lashing about on the bed half out of my mind with the fever.
Jonesy had been trying to cool me down with ice cold water from the well but it seemed to have little effect, save makin’ me cuss louder.
When the Doc strode in old Jonesy threw him a baleful glance, “Well you took your dang time…this boy’s burning up and the leg’s infected real bad…”
“Apologies one and all,” the doc said not looking at all repentant Slim thought.
“I was detained at the Patterson place twins and the second one was rather tricky…turned out it was a breech delivery…but mother and babies doing well now,” he said cheerfully rubbing his hands together.
Then he peered down at me, “So what have you been up to then young man…not got good healing flesh so it would seem um?”
Then turning to Jonesy, “Hardly any flesh on the boy at all…don’t you feed him Mr Jones?” he asked innocently.
“Eat,” exploded Jonesy, “the boy’s been eating us out of house and home since he dang well arrived…ain’t lack of good vittles Doc I can tell you that!”
“Humph, well let’s have a look at that leg then,” the doc said pulling the covers back.
He removed the dressings and then looked grave, “This is really nasty he declared…I’ll need to incise this dead tissue and clean the wound out again and re stitch….”
I must have given an involuntary groan because he smiled down at me, “Don’t you worry Mr Harper, we’ll put you out with some Ether.”
“My equipment is in a case in my buggy would you mind Slim?”
Slim returned a few minutes later and the doc carefully unpacked a large glass flask packed in straw and a piece of sponge.
“Now this is quite easy young man, simply inhale deeply when I tell you and you’ll be sleeping like a baby before you know it,” the doc said cheerfully.
Well I guess he hadn’t come across the Harper fightin’ spirit, because it were a good ten minutes before he could get me under, according to Slim.
Gee that stuff stank and then as I began to feel really strange, I guess my natural instincts kicked in and I started trying to pull off the sponge mask. Slim reckoned it took him, Jonesy and even young Andy to hold me down, before the Ether finally knocked me out. Then he said the actual procedure was all over in a matter of minutes as the doc skillfully cut away the rotting tissue and after cleaning the wound real good stitched it up again.
Well I guess that was the easy bit…once I came round he merely told me to behave and hurried off to his next patient.
It was poor ol Jonesy and Slim who had to clean me up and sit with me hour after hour as I chucked throughout the night and most of the following day.
By supper time I was about through, my belly aching with heaving and I peered up at Slim through bloodshot eyes, “Never,” I said firmly, “never ever let that man give me that stuff again, you hear me Slim!”
He just grinned down at me and then said, “Well you’ll just have to be real careful not to get shot up again then won’t you pard?”
I guess something in the way he said that must have hit home. Or maybe it was because that was the first time he’d called me pard. Made me feel like I belonged there I guess.… Whatever the reason something real important was about to happen in my life…something that would change me forever….

Chapter 3
Progress was slow, real slow and the longer I stayed in my bed the more frustrated I became. But finally, the day arrived when the doc decreed that I could get up and walk around the house some, but I must use a stick. Well that was about as welcome as a Padre in a whore house, and I just got more and more mad as the dark winter days dragged on and I limped around with that dang stick.
One night I was particularly down. I’d finally made it across the yard to visit Traveller, but had paid the price of my leg hurtin’ like hell all evening. I was sitting by the fire sipping a coffee, Andy and Jonesy long abed when Slim came in from checking the horses in the barn.
He came over and waggled a bottle in my face, “Looky what I found out back of the barn.”
I raised an interested eyebrow, “That what I think it is?”
“Yup, Jonesy’s secret stash of medicinal whiskey…”
“Well bring it on,” I said grinning at him and my spirits rising for the first time in days.
He tipped a good measure into my coffee cup and did likewise to his own, then placed the bottle on the hearth between us.
“I reckon that leg’s still bothering you some,” he said looking concerned, “I thought this might help?”
I nodded as the spirit warmed me, “Sure hits the spot thanks Slim.”
We sat on thinking our own thoughts for a while and then he turned to me and said, “So tell me Jess what happened after the war…did you go home? Go back to Texas?”
I nodded, “Yeah but there was nothing left there for me Slim. Near everyone I knew dead or moved on. The devastation…it was um…pretty bad.” I said shaking my head as I remembered it. The burnt-out shells of buildings…the crops left standing in the fields as the men were dead and gone…rotting on some lonely, distant battle field.
“Was it really?” he persisted, clearly wanting to hear more.
I nodded, “I don’t wanna talk about it Slim. I went on the drift, like I told ya…until I landed here.”
He seemed to understand.
“It was hard going back after the war…for us all I guess. At least I had this place…so what about you? Did you mean to go on the drift for so long, or did it just happen that way?”
I shrugged, “I guess it started off me still searching ’ for the Bannisters…then folk got wind of the fact that I had a kinda fast draw and that made me real popular,” I said with a grimace, never bein ’ one to boast about my skill with a gun.
“Popular, what with gangs, is that how come you got in trouble with the law?” he asked quietly.
I nodded, “It all started out as a bit of fun really…and if I’m honest I missed it Slim,” I said sipping my drink and looking deeply into the embers of the fire. “I missed the comradeship you get in a war…all fightin’ for the same thing, watching your buddy’s back and him yours. I reckon a lot of good men ended up that way after the war…no homes, family or jobs to go back to…so they turned to gangs and then petty crime. Drunkenness, shootin’ up towns for the hell of it…kid’s stuff really…just big kids playin’ a game….”
“Go on…”
I looked across at him then, “Until it stops bein’ a game Slim...until innocent folk get robbed, scared half to death or killed…that’s when I washed my hands of it all walked away.”
He gasped his eyes open wide in shock, “What you killed a man that way…robbing him Jess?”
My head shot up, “Hell no, not me…damn it Slim I wouldn’t do that. I ain’t ever killed a man that weren’t about to shoot me first, I swear that. Nope it was a man I was riding with…I thought I knew him, but I guess I didn’t,” I said almost to myself.
“So, then what happened?”
I rode away…alone, promised myself I’d done with riding in a gang…done with robbin’ and crime…and I tried Slim, God knows I tried.”
“So what went wrong?”
“There was always someone out there wanting to try me on…see if I was really as fast as my reputation. Others wanted to hire my gun…Every place I tried to settle down, make a fresh start some bastard would find me and call me out…just like Bradley and Dog Durkin here in Laramie. I don’t reckon I’ll ever be free of it Slim,” I said raising troubled eyes to him, “No matter how dang hard I try.”
He looked thoughtful and then said, “Well I reckon you’ve never tried it here before have you, with Me, Andy and even old Jonesy watching your back? Yes, you got in trouble with the Durkin brothers, but we were here to bail you out Jess…that’s the difference, do you see that?”
I looked over at his kind honest face and felt real choked…
“Maybe,” I whispered.
Soon afterwards I said I was tired and headed for bed…I sure had a lot to think over….
It was a couple of weeks before I was able to ride again and the first place I went was to town.
Well I was real beat when I rode back in that evening and as I was rubbing Traveller down Slim came in and started reading me the riot act.
“You look terrible…the Doc said you weren’t to go far and Andy told me you’d ridden all the way to town! Dang it are you crazy?” he asked looking real angry.
I turned to him, the pain in my leg a reminder that he was right, of course he was…but I wasn’t about to give in easy.
“I’m fine, quit fussin’,” I said, “you’re beginning to sound like Jonesy.”
“Yeah well we only get mad because we care about what happens to you,” he said still looking pretty annoyed.
“I know I figured that,” I said lightly, “but I really needed to go to town Slim, I’ll tell ya about it later…after the others have turned in OK?”
“I suppose it’ll have to be,” he said, “come on in then Jonesy’s holding supper for you, so iffen you want to eat it and not wear it I figure you’d better get yourself in there pronto.”
I ginned at him and patting Traveller on the rump I hauled my saddle bags, which held my important parcel, onto my shoulder and followed Slim out across the yard.
It was much later that evening when we were having a final coffee in front of the fire that Slim turned to me and said, “OK so what’s all the mystery then?”
“You’ll see,” I said as I marched off to our room and came back with the brown paper parcel wrapped in string.
“So what did you buy?” he asked looking interested.
I untied the parcel and passed over a shiny new handgun…
He took it from me and weighed it in his hands before looking down the gun sight and spinning the cylinder… “Nice weapon,” he said appreciatively, “very nice…so what did you buy this for Jess, you already carry a pretty good hand gun don’t you?”
I nodded, “Oh yeah, too damn good Slim…have you seen it...I mean real close up?”
He looked embarrassed for a moment and then said, “Yes I have Jess…it’s a gunslinger’s weapon, customized for speed and accuracy I know that.”
I nodded, “It’s a killin’ machine Slim, no other way to look at it I guess…and that’s why I’m putting it up…for good.”
I stood up and wandered over to the coat hooks by the door and reaching up took my gun-belt down and strolled back over…then I pulled my old gun out and passed it to Slim butt first.
He took it, passing me my new Colt.45 back and I slid it into my holster…it felt right.
He looked down at my old gun, feeling its weight and balance…the ultimate in finely honed precision…and just for a second I wavered…but no, it had to be done. I had to prove I was sincere.
“What are you going to do with this one?” Slim asked.
I paused for a moment and then took a deep breath, “I guess that’s down to you Slim…I just want you to put it someplace…where it’ll be safe and Andy won’t find it. I can’t get rid of it completely…it’s a reminder of what I once was…”
“Are you sure you want to give it up?”
I nodded.
Then he stood up and moving over to the mantelpiece removed a couple of bricks revealing a hidey-hole. “Pa kept important documents in here, spare cash…we’ve got the safe now…so I guess this is as good a place as any huh?”
I nodded, “Perfect…thanks Slim.”
He pushed it well to the back and then returned the bricks.
“You understand what this means don’t you Slim?” I asked.
He nodded, “I think I do yeah.”
“It’s my pledge to you…Andy and old Jonesy too I guess…that I’m givin’ it up for good and all it stands for. See I think I’m gonna throw my lot in with you Slim…here in Laramie, give it a go, for a while at least…. iffen you’ll have me?”
He just walked over and shook my hand…the smile on his face a mile wide, “Sure we will pard.”
Well it sure would be nice to say I settled in just swell and we all lived happily ever after…but it weren’t that way… not that way at all…
Things hadn’t changed, not that much.
Jonesy still hollered at me every morning to get out of my dang pit or my breakfast would be in the cat. Andy and I still messed around teasing and tormenting the old timer in equal measures…but something was gradually shifting. My relationship with Slim was changing as we began to go off to town together. I started educating him up real good as far as strong drink, poker and sweet talkin’ the purty girls was concerned. Then as I got to know him better, I started to back him up more as far as disciplining Andy was concerned too.
I could see why he’d gotten so dang ornery when I was kinda tardy about getting jobs done around the place as well and I really started to pull my weight…Kinda riding for the brand now rather than just passing through. I started taking things more seriously and that included standing in for Slim when he asked me to. Maybe that was why Andy and I clashed so badly that afternoon.
“I thought you were my friend,” he shouted at me flushing up and looking near to tears.
“I am,” I said quietly, “and quit yellin’ Andy you’ll waken Jonesy and you know his sacroiliac‘s playing up something fierce, he’s taking a nap in his room just next door.”
“Well why should I care,” he said stubbornly, “nobody cares about me.”
“Hell if we didn’t care we’d let you just go off and do as you please,” I said getting angry myself now… “You know Slim left word that you weren’t allowed to go that party at the Webster place…not with Jim’s Ma and Pa out of town.”
“Well what difference does that make?”
“You know dang well, Jim’s older brothers will have strong drink and lots of it…they’ll be inviting every cheap, easy girl in town and then….um well…then I guess that’s why Slim don’t want you going…”
I had my back to him in the kitchen making a sandwich and it wasn’t until he was silent and I turned around that I was just in time to parry a swing…as he tried to punch me. Grabbing hold of him I frogmarched him into the parlor and threw him none to gently down on the old leather couch.
“You mind tellin’ me why you decided to try and land one on me?” I asked feeling pretty damn mad.
He looked up at me now almost incoherent with rage, “Because Wendy’s going and she ain’t a cheap, easy girl Jess…don’t you say that don’t you dare!”
I sank down on my rocker and observed him closely...aha so Wendy, the new girl from school, who liked smart dressers, was the crux of all this I reckoned.
“I’m sure she ain’t,” I said eventually, “but iffen she’s allowed to go to one of the Webster’s parties, well then either her folks don’t know what they’re like, or they don’t give a toss for their daughter, because no sane parent would let their daughter within a mile of the place.”
He looked defeated at that, “I guess her Ma don’t know about the Webster’s parties, she said if I was going that was good enough for her.”
“Except you ain’t,” I said again forcefully in case he hadn’t quite got the message.
“Aw Jess, please… what’ ll she think when I don’t meet her?
I sighed deeply, “Where had you arranged to meet her?”
“At her house, I was gonna ride in and then walk over to the Webster place.”
“And if you don’t turn up,  what’ ll she do then?”
“I dunno, she might go with her friend Jenny.”
I sighed again seeing my nice leisurely Saturday afternoon disappearing in smoke. Why in hell did Slim have to be over in Cheyenne on business and poor old Jonesy taken to his bed?
“Garldarn it,” I cussed, “I suppose I’d better ride in and warn her Ma.”
“Me too,” he said excitedly.
“Oh no you don’t…someone’s gotta stay here and change the afternoon Stage…and that’s gonna be you.”
“Aw Jess, you’re no fun anymore…why are you bein’ this way!”
“Because the business is important to me…should be to you too. You know dang well why Slim’s had to ride over to see the Overland bosses. With the threat of the Railroad we’ve all got to be on our toes and look real efficient. So how’s it gonna look iffen we can’t even get a fresh team ready on time huh? I’m sorry Andy, but if you want me to go and sort out this mess you’re in…then you’ll have help out here!”
I arrived at Wendy Wright’s place, a smart little house on the edge of town, late afternoon. When I knocked a cute little redhead answered the door a huge smile on her face, which disappeared when she saw yours truly standing’ there. Never the less I gave her my best smile and ploughed on regardless… “Wendy?” I asked.
She nodded, “Uh huh, do you want Ma?” she asked looking up from beneath her lashes in what I imagine she thought was a rather seductive way.
“Yeah, in a minute, but I’ve got a message for you first, from Andy.”
“Andy? You know him...is he alright?” she asked looking anxious.
“He’s just fine, sends his apologies but he can’t make it.”
“Uh, yeah he has to work tonight, we’re real busy at the ranch and what with the boss bein’ away and all, well he’s needed.”
“I see and you work there do you… Mister…?”
“Harper Miss, Jess Harper, yes I do and I’m a friend of Andy.”
“Well it’s real good to meet you Jess Harper,” she said throwing me another smouldering look.
Hell, how old is this kid? Fourteen going on twenty-five, I thought grimly.
Just then there was a movement behind her and this vision of loveliness came into view…boy was she a looker. From her long golden hair through her curvy figure to the neat little red shoes she wore, she was perfection…
I guess my gaze must have lingered over her a tad too long because she said quite briskly, “Do we have a visitor Wendy?”
“Yes Ma this is Mister Harper from the Sherman ranch. He’s come to say Andy can’t come to the Birthday party,” she said pouting.
Her Ma’s face lost that kinda frosty look and she gave the kid a sad smile, “Well that’s a real shame honey...and with Jenny being sick I think maybe you should give it a miss too.”
“Aw Ma, I can go on my own… can’t I?” she asked looking real put out.
Ma Wright flicked a glance in my direction and something in my expression must have troubled her as she turned back to young Wendy and shook her head, “Not this time dear, run along upstairs and take off that pretty dress while I have a word with Mister Harper.”
The child disappeared off upstairs, lookin’ pretty darned mutinous, but I guess I couldn’t blame her. Her Ma showed me into a nice-looking sitting room, with a fire crackling in the grate and a red velvet couch pulled up in front…the whole place clean and tidy.
She asked me to sit and offered a coffee, but I said no thanks…really wanting to get back…just in case Andy had decided to disobey my orders.
“I get the feeling that there is more to this than meets the eye,” she said sitting down on the couch beside me and fixing me with a less than friendly look.
I nodded, “I guess I told Wendy a white lie, see Andy ain’t allowed to go to a party at the Webster’s place…I just didn’t want him to lose face in front of her, I guess. But he’s way too young for that kinda party, he’s just a kid really,” I said quietly.
“Well that’s what they are,” she said, “just children. My Wendy is only fourteen and Andy a little younger...but what on earth can be wrong with them attending young Jim Webster’s Birthday party for goodness sake?”
“Is that what they’ve told you?”
“Indeed, a little party for a few school friends and to be honest I really wanted her to attend and make some more friends as we are new in town.”
“Not these kinda friends ya don’t,” I said firmly, “and I really don’t think it’s…uh…well… fitting to go to the kinda party they have there.”
“Oh you don’t Mister Harper,” she said the frosty look back in her eyes, “so tell me do you have much experience of parenting young girls?” she asked coldly.
I guess I was feelin’ kinda wrong footed by now and not a little annoyed. Heck I’d given up my free time and ridden over to save her daughter’s virtue and this was all the dang thanks I got.
“No Ma’am,” I said equally coolly, “but I do have experience years back of being a young boy let loose at parties with strong liquor about. Where the boys got young girls drunk so they’d maybe do things they shouldn’t….”
There it was out, maybe not the most subtle of explanations but I guess it did the trick.
She looked horror stricken and then said, “Are you telling me little Jim’s Birthday Party was going to be some kind of an er…orgy?”
“Pretty much Ma’am the Webster boys are famous for it. See Mister and Misses Webster travel a lot on business leaving the older boys in charge. Tom’s about seventeen now and Bobby nineteen…and between them they know quite a few girls…who um well are maybe at tad lacking when it comes to morals.”
“You mean girls of easy virtue… good heavens Mister Harper what is this place we have moved to!”
“Well it ain’t that bad a place,” I said quickly, “and most of the parents know about these parties and ban their kids from going just like we have with Andy.”
“Um, well I certainly hope that young man wasn’t thinking of plying my daughter with drink and having his way with her,” she said stoutly.
“Oh no,” I said quickly, “heck he’s been brought up better than that Ma’am. I guess he didn’t really understand exactly what he was getting into...I’ll have his older brother put him straight and explain exactly why he couldn’t go.”
She sighed deeply, “It’s times like this I miss my dear Leon…my husband, he died last year.”
“I’m real sorry ma’am,” I said quietly.
“Wendy and I came here to start a new life…and now this.”
“I shouldn’t worry too much Mrs Wright…the Sheriff knows all about it…He usually rides over and sorts it all out before things go too far. They’re already on a last warning…so I figure he may be making a few arrests according to Slim Sherman…I reckon that’ll make sure Jim’s parents stop things for good.”
“I see, well thank you for taking the time to come over and warn me Mister Harper I appreciate it.”
I nodded smiling down at her, hell she sure was attractive when she smiled… “You’re welcome Ma’am and please call me Jess.”
She really smiled then her whole face lighting up, “I’m Sophie, Jess…good to know you.”
We sat there smiling at each other and I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to kiss her luscious looking red lips…so I stood up quickly, “I’d better be on my way Ma’am…er Sophie.”
“Well if you’re sure I can’t tempt you…. to a coffee,” she finished with a knowing look in her eyes.
I gulped, “No thanks Ma’am, gotta be getting along,” and I positively dashed from the room.
At the door she gave me a lazy smile, “Bye then Jess and don’t be a stranger, Andy is welcome to visit any time…you too.”
I gave her a weak smile and touching my hat hopped up on Traveller and made for Main Street and the saloon.
I tethered Traveller up outside the saloon and taking off my hat rubbed a hand across my burning face and through my hair…gee I sure felt warm…in need of a quick beer before I headed home. That Sophie was one stunning woman I thought. But no…don’t even go there Harper, not a widow obviously lookin’ for husband number two…and certainly not one with a sassy little redheaded daughter who looked like she’d got trouble written all over her.
Nope…see I favored women that knew the score…that just wanted a bit of fun…some good lovin’ and no strings attached…in fact a woman just like Cindy.
I entered the saloon and went and stood at the bar and she came over right away.
“Hey Jess good to see you, so where’s Slim tonight?”
I took in the delightful vision of the pint-sized Cindy, adorable from her blond curls to her long…long, shapely legs.
She was smiling at me her cute little dimples very much in evidence and I smiled back, “Off in Cheyenne single-handedly saving the future of the Overland,” I said.
“He works so hard,” she said, turning to include her friend Emma in the conversation.
“Too hard,” said Emma looking disappointed, “I hardly ever see him.”
The bar was pretty busy but Cindy ignored the other customers and fetched me a beer, before settling down for a chat.
“So, are you in town for the evening?” she asked eagerly.
I shook my head, “I’m ‘fraid not sweetheart, with Slim away and Jonesy’s back playing up I’m needed back at the ranch.”
She gave a little pout of displeasure and rolled her eyes at Emma, “I reckon we’ll have to find us a couple of town workers iffen we want to see anything of our men,” she said, with only a hint of humor.
“Aw honey don’t be that way,” I said quickly. “How’s about me and Slim take you to the dance next week…and maybe stay over at your place huh? What do you say?”
I knew I was chancing my arm by moving the relationship on apace, but heck iffen they really wanted to see more of us...well then…
They exchanged a charged glance and then Cindy said, “Uh, that sounds like fun...the dance anyway…we’ll see about the other.”
But from the way her eyes were twinkling I knew I was pretty much on a promise.
So it was a pretty happy cowboy who rode home later that evening.
I was just rubbing Traveller down in the barn when the door banged open and Slim stood there.
“Hey I thought you weren’t home until tomorrow,” I said grinning at him in welcome.
“Well that’s pretty obvious,” he said tartly, “seeing as how you high-tailed it off to town leaving Andy to deal with the stage on his own!” Then he leaned forwards and sniffed, “You’ve been off drinking in the saloon all afternoon, by the smell of it too!”
“Now hang on a minute,” I said feeling my heart begin to beat fast and my anger rising, “didn’t Andy tell you where I’d gone…and why?”
“Nope, he was there to change the team when I landed home this afternoon, but then he made himself scarce. He’s not speaking to me if you recall because I banned him from going to that shindig at the Webster place.”
I sighed, “That’s why I was dang well in town Slim,” and I explained exactly why I’d gone and what had happened.
“I’m sorry I guess I got it all wrong. It was good of you to ride in and to save Andy any embarrassment, by saying he had to work. Heck I’d no idea he’d invited that Wendy or I’d have spoken to her Ma myself. So what’s she like, Mort said she was quite a looker?”
I flushed up some and turned back to Traveller.
“OK I guess iffen you like that kind.”
“Oh yes,” he said a smile in his voice, “so what kind would that be then buddy?”
“She’s a widow lady on the lookout for some sucker to be husband number two. Plus, she comes with a cute little redheaded daughter who looks like a real handful…Well that ain’t what I’m lookin’ for Slim, don’t know about you?” I said turning to grin at him. But he was looking kinda troubled.
“A handful you say?”
“Uh-huh, looks like she’s got trouble written all over her. Oh sure she was polite enough and did what her Ma told her to…but a man can see through all that. Nope I reckon she could turn out to be way older than her years…and I’ll tell you one thing Slim, Andy just ain’t ready fer that kind of relationship yet.”
“Heck no, he’s just a kid,” Slim said looking stunned.
“Well I didn’t say that, he’s growing up fast Slim, he’s a young man now and he’s gonna start asking questions…you know what I’m sayin’? You need to talk to him.”
He shook his head looking even more surprised, “Really?”
“Yup and I figure iffen you haven’t already had ‘the talk’ with him, then you’d better get to it buddy.”
“’The talk’ you say? Oh the birds and the bees you mean, heck he knows all that stuff Jess, he lives on a ranch for goodness sake with critters mating and giving birth all over the darned place,” he said in exasperation.
I turned back to him and rolled my eyes, “Garldarn it Slim, critters ain’t like folk. I mean you’ve gotta tell him all about girls...dating…What happens at the Webster’s parties would be a good place to start…He really didn’t seem to know what he was getting into…Heck he’s not used to strong drink…or easy girls either.”
“Well of course not, he’s been brought up properly.”
“That’s as maybe, but he needs to know what the real world is like out there Slim. Needs to know about the temptations that a young man faces…and if and when he eventually caves in he needs to know how to keep the woman safe…Hell Slim do I hafta spell it out for you?”
He shook his head and repeated, “He’s just a kid.”
“Maybe he is now, but he’s growing up fast and I get the feeling that this Wendy is streets ahead of him,” I said. “He needs to know the score Slim, before he finds himself in a whole mess of trouble.”
I was so concerned for the kid that I forgot all about the plans for my own love life…and that of ol’ Slim until later that night.
When Andy was abed Slim had gone in saying he wanted a little talk…and was in there for nigh on an hour.
Luckily Jonesy’s back was still playing up and he’d retired sometime earlier, so it was just me and Slim.
“Well?” I asked when he came and sat down beside me in front of a roaring fire…
He threw me an irritable glance and then said, “Do you have to sit on top of the fire that way Jess?”
I shrugged, “I can’t help it if I feel the cold, I’m a Texas boy ain’t I. Not used to this dang Wyoming weather.”
He just grunted and looked into the fire.
“Well,” I asked again, “did you put him straight…about the kinda party the Websters throw and all?”
He nodded, “I did…but I don’t know who was more embarrassed me or him when it came down to…you know explaining about everything.”
I chuckled, “I guess there was no place to run once he was bedded down.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured, knowing the way he is right now for storming out and slamming the door behind him,” he said with feeling.
“It’s a shame your Pa ain’t around should be his job by rights…”
“Um I suppose so, not that he helped me much.”
“Nah, he just had a word before I rode off to the war saying that a gentleman always treats a woman with respect and certain things have to wait until the wedding night.”
I gave a bark of laughter, “And so did you pay him any heed?”
He laughed too, “What do you think,” and rolled his eyes.
“So how about you then Jess?” he asked after a pause.
“Oh I was off romancing’ the girls when I was just a young ‘un… gotten my heart broke when I was only about ten,” I said with a chuckle…remembering the lovely Abby Jackson, my first crush. (See #2 Spring Fever)
“Ha, why doesn’t that surprise me?” he guffawed. “No, I meant did your Pa have ‘the talk’ with you?”
I shook my head, “Nope, he just said iffen I ever got a girl in the family way he’d beat me to a pulp…but there again, I didn’t really need to go that far…he was quite happy to beat up on me anyways.”
Slim’ s head shot up and he looked shocked and I realized I’d said too much. Goddamn it, my past was in the past and I sure as hell didn’t want it all dragged up tonight.
“You didn’t get on then?”
“You could say…anyway never mind about all that now. So, is he seeing her again, Wendy?”
He shrugged, “I sure hope not, I haven’t encouraged it anyway.”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Now what’s up?”
“Dontcha think tryin’ to keep them apart will only make him keener? Next thing we know they’ll dang well be eloping.”
He laughed and then looked serious, “You don’t think so…really?”
I laughed too, “Nope I guess not…anyway you’ve got more important things to worry about right now.”
“I have?”
“Uh-huh, how you’re going to explain your absence on Saturday night to old Jonesy.”
“I’m gonna be out…all night?”
“Yup in town with me, Cindy and the delectable Emma…and what’s more I figure we’re on a promise to stay at their place after the dance too.”
His eyes lit up at this piece of news and he grinned at me, “Tell me more pard,” he said excitedly.

Chapter 4
“Well I still don’t see why you boys need to spend the night in town,” old Jonesy said for the third time as we sat around the breakfast table that Saturday morning.
So far we’d managed to dodge the question, but now I realized he wasn’t gonna give up.
“Uh, there’s a card game see Jonesy and me and Slim thought we’d play a hand or two…and well these things have a habit of lasting a real long time, all night sometimes,” I said turning an innocent smile on him.
“Well do they indeed, I wouldn’t know, not being a gambling man…”
“I didn’t think you were either Slim?” He said turning a baleful look on my pard. “Not until this here no good saddle tramp arrived anyway,” he finished huffily.
“Oh come on Jonesy, it’s just a bit of fun, we won’t be betting much and I reckon we deserve a break, the way we’ve been working lately,” Slim said persuasively.
“Um,” said Jonesy darkly, but no more was said about our trip to town…
It had been a chilly ride over with a few inches of snow still lying and I was glad to get Traveller settled in the livery and make for the dance hall. As we entered a wall of heat and noise greeted us and Slim turned to grin at me. “Gets kind of hot and crowded in here…worse as the night goes on,” he said, peering around the tables looking for our dates.
I grinned back at him, “Well that’s real handy, gives us an excuse to go out back for a while to cool off.”
He looked puzzled, “Uh what are you saying Jess?”
“With our girls Slim, a bit of private one to one time…ya know?”
When he still looked mystified, I rolled my eyes, “Time to get to know ‘em a bit better…huh?”
The light of understanding dawned then and he grinned back, “Oh yeah, good plan.”
I shook my head and wandered over to the bar…this educatin ’ up of Slim was gonna be more hard work than I’d anticipated.
I turned back from the bar with our beers just in time to see Cindy and Emma pausing by the door and looking around them.
Slim and I dived over and they looked real pleased to see us.
“We’d have picked you up from the saloon,” I said gallantly…looking my date up and down and appreciating the way her yellow dress clung to her neat figure leaving nothing to the imagination.
She giggled, “Well we didn’t really have the night off, so we had to kind of pretend we were sick.”
I grinned at her, “You two are plain evil,” I said flicking a glance over to Slim.
“Well I sure hope Tom will cope alright,” he said seriously.
“Oh he’ll be just fine,” Emma chipped in, “it’s never busy on a dance night. So are you buying a thirsty girl a drink then Slim?”
A couple of hours later I was whacked from dancin ’ to the lively band and sweating somethin’ fierce, it sure was hot in there and that Cindy sure loved to dance I’d discovered.
I ran a finger around my starched collar and then loosened my string tie, deciding that comfort was finally gonna take the place of lookin’ well turned out. My dark frock coat was already on the back of my chair and my brocade vest would be joining it soon iffen I didn’t cool down some I thought.
“How about we go cool off some?” I asked Cindy hopefully, but the band had just struck up again and she didn’t hear me.
“Say what?” she asked looking puzzled.
“Wanna get some fresh air?” I asked leaning in and yelling in her ear.
When she nodded, I took her hand and led her out through a door concealed behind a curtain and into the back alley.
As the cold air hit us we both staggered a little, the combination of the drink and fresh air making us a little lightheaded. Never being one to miss an opportunity I pull her close and felt her relax against me.
“Are you cold?” I asked softly, running a hand gently up and down her bare arm.
“Only a little,” she replied looking up at me and making no move to back off.
Encouraged I leaned down and cupping her beautiful little face between my hands I kissed her… at first real slow. Then as she kissed me back more and more passionately before pulling her even closer….
After a while she pulled away and gave a little sigh, her eyes real dreamy.
“I guess it’s gettin’ kinda cold out here…I figure it might be warmer at your place?” I asked hopefully.
She gave me a secret little smile and my heart started beating faster, “Shall we go then?” I asked hesitantly.
She shook her head, “Oh I can’t leave without Emma, we never split up,” she said firmly, before turning back towards the door….
I sighed deeply. The way Emma had been putting away Muleskinners all dang night I reckoned Slim would end up carrying her home.
When we got back in we watched her and Slim dancing away in a lively fashion and I wondered how long it would be before I could drag them both away from the dance floor.
“Is she OK?” I asked Cindy.
“Huh, why shouldn’t she be?”
“Oh I dunno, she’s been tipping’ the jug a bit ain’t she?”
“Oh yeah, Emma sure does like a Muleskinner or two…but don’t worry Jess she can take it OK…just makes her kind of frisky,” she said with a sly wink.
Jeez, well you’re a lucky dog Slim I thought privately. Then turned back to Cindy, “So another drink huh?”
As me and Slim went to the bar later I said, “We’ll just have these and then head off OK?”
“Uh…head off?”
“Yeah, coffee and stuff at their place, come on Slim keep up…that’s iffen Emma can still walk,” I said turning and looking over to where the girls were sharing a joke.
“What do ya mean, it’s just blackcurrant juice isn’t it?” he said innocently, peering at the drink I’d just bought for her.
My eyebrows shot up, “Garldarn it Slim, its blackcurrant liqueur and whiskey!”
“It is? Well I didn’t know, never asked what was in it.”
I smirked at him, “Well don’t worry buddy see it seems it makes her real playful according to Cindy...as long as she don’t pass out first.”
“Really?” he asked casting a glance back to the girls who gave us a little wave.
We arrived at their rooms over the haberdasher’s store half an hour later and I was amazed to see that Emma seemed perfectly fine, if a little lively. However, Cindy was looking decidedly sleepy and I was kinda wondering if an early night was in order and whether or not I’d be invited to join her.
We’d clambered up the metal fire escape stairs to the side of the building and then Emma had produced a key and let us into the large space over the shop. Cindy turned a wall lamp on lighting the space up and it sure was purty. The whole place havin’ a real feminine feel to it from the frilly drapes through to the homemade rugs and lace cushions on the big couch and chairs.
“Hey this is swell,” I said enthusiastically, “so how many rooms are there?”
“This, a small kitchen but only two bedrooms now,” Cindy said chuckling.
“Just the two?” I said, breathing a sigh of relief that the girls didn’t share, but heck how many did they need?
“There used to be more,” Emma said joining in some secret joke as she looked over to her friend and giggled.
“What’s so funny?” Slim asked, looking around him and breathing in the heady scent of perfume….
Cindy went over to the mantelpiece and lit a small lamp and we looked around as it cast a lovely warm red glow over the proceedings.
“Well here’s a clue,” she said cheerfully….
I looked at the red light as the truth began to dawn on me, “Don’t tell me this place was a brothel,” I said laughing.
Cindy nodded, “Yup…until the recent reforms when the town council closed them all down.”
“Hey they ain’t closed down,” I said laughing too, “they’ve just moved around some.”
“Oh and you’d know would you?” Cindy asked arching a cheeky eyebrow at me.
I shook my head, “I just heard tell…don’t use ‘em myself… never had the need to.”
“Oh is that right?” she asked sidling over…and taking my hand she led me over to the couch before the fire and I figured my luck was in.
“How about you Slim?” Emma asked, trying not to laugh as he was so obviously embarrassed.
“I…er…um,” and he ran a finger around his shirt collar.
“Slim’ s kinda shy,” I said to Emma, “be real gentle with him huh,” I said grinning over at my buddy’s discomfort.
At that she wandered over to him and whispered something, then said, “We’ll go make some coffee,” and they disappeared off to the kitchen.
When they returned some ten minutes later with the drinks me and Cindy pulled apart reluctantly.
Then as Emma put the tray down Cindy yawned widely…
“You know I’m so tired, I’m sorry about the coffee Em… I think I’ll turn in,” she said getting up and moving towards the door.
I stared at her open mouthed before she paused and glanced back at me, “Well you coming then or what?” she asked with her cheeky smile….
Well I needed no second telling that’s fer sure…
It must have been about midnight when we were awoken by someone hammering at the door.
I untangled myself from Cindy’s warm embrace and said, “You expecting’ company?”
“What at this hour, no I’m not,” she said indignantly.
“Maybe it’s someone not been in town for a while and doesn’t know the …er… the workin’ girls business has moved on,” I said raising an eyebrow at her.
She thumped me on the chest none too gently for my cheek and then said, “Well whoever it is they sure sound desperate, you’d better go put them straight.”
I reluctantly pulled on my pants as the frenzied hammering on the door increased and I made my way barefoot out of Cindy’s room, bumping into Slim in the corridor.
“Who’s that, what’s goin’ on?” he asked sleepily.
“Well how should I know?” I asked irritably as I lurched off to drag the door open.
Mose Shell stood there looking beside himself with anguish… “Fire!” he yelled at us, “At the livery…come quick!”
By the time we arrived half the town seemed to be up, and a chain of folk passing buckets along was in progress.
I grabbed hold of old Bert the owner and yelled, “Trav and Alamo, are they out Bert?”
The old timer just stared at me, the horror of the situation seeming to have struck him dumb.
I shook him hard by the shoulders, “Bert are they out!”
“Alamo’s in the corral out back with the others…but Traveller was in the very back stall, I’m sorry boy but we couldn’t save him…”
I practically threw him down and tore to the entrance of the barn and above the shouts of the crowd and the roaring of the fire I could hear my good old horse bellowing in fear and rage.
I yanked a bucket out of the hands of the nearest man and threw it over myself before pulling my bandana over my face and mouth moving towards the door…but seconds later I was dragged away by Slim.
“No Jess it’s impossible, you can’t go into that….”
I dragged angrily away from his grasp, “Git off,” I yelled.
But again he pulled me away, calling for Mort to come and help him to restrain me…
That was when I saw red. I elbowed him in the ribs and squirmed out of his hold threw a punch to the chin that sent him reeling backwards…
I took my chance and dodging past Mort tore into the burning building, beams now falling all around… It was pitch black, the smell of smoke suffocating and the noise of the fire and cracking timbers deafening.
I made my way blindly to the back of the building, dodging falling timber, led on by Traveller’s now frantic cries of fear…Until at last I reached his stall and throwing the door open waited for him to vamoose out…but he just stayed stock still…almost as though he was held by some invisible force…then just seconds later part of the roof caved in just a few yards from us and the moon illuminated the scene before me. It was obvious at once that my horse wasn’t moving because he dang well couldn’t…he was hobbled.
I pulled my hunting knife from the top of my boot and cut through the rope that was binding him…and then more of the ceiling collapsed, bright red sparks cascading around us… That was enough for me… I was up on Traveller’s back and we were on our way out of the mayhem in seconds.
I almost careered into the line of fire fighters, but managed to swerve and carried on until we were half way down Main Street…away from the clamor of the fire and the terrible stench of burning. I slipped down from his back and almost collapsed, leaning over the hitching’ rail and coughing like I might very well bring my guts up, tears streaming down my blackened face.
That’s how Slim found me sometime later…
I felt a hand on my back and swung around to see him back off…a quizzical look in his eyes. “You aren’t going to take another swing at me are you buddy?” he asked softly.
“Hell no, I’m sorry Slim but I had to get him out,” I said reaching out and patting my old horse’s neck. He was standing rock still, his head down and breathing kinda hard…but other than that he seemed OK.
Slim just shook his head, “That was a crazy thing you did back there you could have been killed…or hurt really badly at least,” he continued.
My head shot up and I glared at him then, “There ain’t anyone that’s gonna get hurt real bad except the bastard that hobbled my horse Slim!”
“What someone did what?”
“You heard right and I guess this is why the dang fire was started in the first place. Someone trying to get back at me by burning my horse alive…someone that knows me real well and what high regard I have for this old fellah,” I said patting his neck again…Just wanting to touch him and be close. The thought of what might have happened making me feel sick to my stomach.
Slim was looking horror stricken, “Who in hell would do a thing like that Jess?”
“I dunno, but I sure aim to find out,” I spat angrily.
We’d finally taken Traveller back to the corral and checked on Alamo, before making our way slowly back to the girls place just as dawn was breaking. Bert had promised to keep an eye on our mounts but I really didn’t want to leave Trav alone for too long.
We cleaned up some when we got back. But the romantic spell was broken and after promising to see them the following week we made our way from the girl’s place across to Mort Cory’s office.
He looked up from his desk as we entered and grinned at us, “Well if it isn’t the hero of the hour,” he said addressing me, “you’re talk of the town Jess. The way you went into the blazing barn for your horse.”
I just rolled my eyes ignoring the comment before slumping down in the chair opposite his desk, suddenly feeling bone weary.
“I’m sorry Sheriff,” I said quietly, “but I guess all that mess back there was down to me.”
Mort’s head shot up and he flicked a quick glance over to Slim before looking back at me in surprise and saying, “Why do you say that son? “
When I explained about Traveller being hobbled, he gasped, “Who in hell would do a terrible thing like that?”
I shrugged, “Someone that don’t like me too much I guess.”
“Well that’s the understatement of the year,” Slim said, sitting down on the corner of Mort’s desk.
“Any ideas Jess?” Mort asked.
I shook my head, “You know how my life was before I moved here,” I said honestly, “could have been anyone of a number of folks got it in for me.”
I’d shared some stuff with the Sheriff after I’d helped him out some, when Bud Carlin and his gang had struck the ranch some time back. Kinda thinking my past would be better coming from me, than Mort finding out…which I knew he would eventually.
He nodded sagely.
“But whoever it is will wish they’d never been born when I track ‘em down,” I spat angrily.
“And will you?” Slim asked, casting me an anxious look.
“Too dang right,” I said angrily….and then took a deep breath and looked up at him.
Then I remembered our recent talk and how I’d promised to put up my gunslinger weapon for good….I sighed deeply and shook my head before looking at Mort and paused for a good minute, wrestling with my conscience.
“Maybe we can leave it to the law to sort out,” I said eventually.
Slim gave a sigh of relief and slapped me on the back, but said nothing.
“I’ll get on it right away,” Mort promised…
“But Sheriff…you will lock ‘em up and chuck the key away won’t you,” I said.
He smiled at me warmly then and said, “You bet son, I’ll do that very thing.”
It was later as we were riding home that Slim turned to me and said, “Did you mean it, what you said to Mort, about letting him deal with this business?”
“Said so didn’t I?” I replied gruffly, feeling somehow wrong footed. It went against everything I was…everything I believed in. I guess I was brought up with the old Bible saying an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and I really couldn’t remember the last time I was so dang mad…or wanted revenge so much. But there again I’d made a promise to Slim, that I’d settle down and not go lookin’ fer trouble anymore. Now the commitment I’d made was weighing kinda heavy on my shoulders to be honest.
“He’s a good man Mort Cory, he’ll do everything he can to bring the guy to justice,” Slim said as if reading my mind.
I nodded, “I know it…come on Slim let’s get home I wanna let Jonesy take a look at Trav, I’m kinda worried that he may have been damaged some in all that smoke, may need some of his doctorin’.”

Chapter 5
As it turned out Traveller was just fine after a few day’s rest, which is more than can be said for me. I coughed and cussed for days after the fire…but that wasn’t the worst of it, no siree.
I guess it was everything that happened that night… The way Slim tried to stop me running into the barn and then the terrible smell and sound of the fire brought it all back to me…those terrible memories….
How I’d woken up to the screams and terrible smell of burning black smoke billowing across the room where Wade and me slept… Then him dragging me across the room and out through the window….us both falling in the dirt layin’ there coughing and coughing… Then he’d gone and the noise was even worse people all around me yelling and shouting to ‘get out …for God’s sake someone get ‘em out.’ Then I’d dragged myself up. I ran around to the front of the shack and could see clearly through the window the silhouette of ma holding the two smallest ones against a background of a red glow and leaping flames… of Pa and Francie there was no sign…
I ran between the crowds that were desperately throwing buckets of water...but anyone could see it was a lost cause…and made for the front door. But before I got there strong arms grabbed me and hauled me away…a neighbor, old man Bennett, and Uncle Seth restraining me, but still I struggled. Until Mr Johnson was there, Millie’s Pa and he’d cried out in horror… “It’s over Jess…it’s over boy, they’re gone.”
Even as he spoke, I heard my Ma scream out one last time…a sound that will haunt me to my dying day…I struggled again and again, “Let me go!” I yelled, but he was too strong for me and he pulled me away to a cottonwood some distance off…the flames and sparks now lighting up the night sky like the fourth of July.
Then I just stared at him in horror, before turning back to look at the smouldering building, that had once been home and the truth dawned on me. They were all dead…Ma, Pa and the young ‘uns…and I collapsed to my knees.
Then Francie was there beside me crying hysterically, blackened and coughing …but alive and we held each other tightly and cried like we’d never stop….
“No…oh God no,” I yelled hysterically….and then I was wide awake, the anxious faces of Slim and Andy peering down at me.
“Hey it’s OK buddy,” Slim said gently, sitting down on the edge of the bunk and slipping a comforting arm around my shoulders, “it’s OK just a bad dream huh?”
Andy was dispatched to get me a cold drink and I finally settled down again, but that was to be the pattern for the next few weeks…the terrible nightmares
Sure, I’d had the odd bad dream since I’d arrived, but nuthin’ like this and I knew I’d wakened them both and darned well frightened Andy.
The following day Slim and I were cleaning out the barn and I said, “I’ve been thinkin’ Slim, I reckon I’ll move out to the bunkhouse fer a while.”
Well it was really chilly with snow laying and he looked up and threw me a surprised look, “What the heck do ya want to do that for Jess? It’ll be freezing in there, even with a fire going.”
I shrugged feeling real embarrassed, “It’s theses dang nightmares Slim, I can’t keep wakin’ you and the boy up all the time they’ve got worse since the livery fire.”
“Oh is that all?” he said with a grin, “Well don’t worry about that. Jonesy and I had a chat about it today and he’s happy for Andy to bunk down with him for the foreseeable.”
“Yeah, you recall he moved in there when you were so sick after that shoot-out?”
I nodded.
“Well Jonesy said it worked real well, he makes sure Andy doesn’t sit up all night reading those comics of his and he gets him up on time for school too. So I figure it’ll all work out for the best in the end…it suits me as well.”
“Oh… how so?”
“Well when you and I have been tipping the jug some in town we can come in and won’t have to tiptoe about in the dark trying not to wake him.”
I chuckled at that, “So you see us turnin’ into the town drunks then do ya Slim?”
He laughed at that, “Nope but the town gigolos maybe,” he said with a guffaw. Then more seriously, “Gee those girls were hot weren’t they?”
I nodded remembering my night of passion with Cindy…heck we’d hardly had time to discuss it since we landed home.
“Sure were,” I agreed, “so you and Emma….?”
“We sure did and she’s absolutely wonderful,” he said looking starry eyed. “In fact, I really think I could make a go of things with her, you know Jess?” he said seriously.
Uh-uh…I thought.
“Um, well its early days yet Slim and plenty more lovely girls out there too.”
“Oh she’ll do me just fine,” he said dreamily…
Maybe now wasn’t the right time to break it to him that both Emma and Cindy had plans to move on, in the not too distant future.
I cast my mind back to what had happened between us that night.
Once we were in her room I’d turned the key in the lock and then taken her in my arms…both of us feelin’ much more relaxed now we were alone…It wasn’t long before she had turned to me and asked me to undo the buttons of her dress at the back…I started and then paused before abandoning the task and sitting down on the bed.
She turned around to me looking uncertain, “Jess? What’s wrong?”
I patted the bed beside me and she sat down, looking kinda anxious…
“I’ve got some…you know …in my drawer if that’s the problem.”
I shook my head and patted the pocket of my denim’s, “No it ain’t that, I’ve got that covered.”
“Well then?”
“I…um I figure I need to tell you that…well I ain’t the settling down kind. This thing with you well, it’s just a bit of fun ain’t it? Because iffen you’ve gotten any ideas of…well ya know gettin’ serious…then maybe I should go now?”
There it was out…but it had to be said. Heck, I’d learnt that the hard way when some girl down in Albuquerque had wanted to call the banns and buy a crib the day after. Well I’d no plans to settle down yet a while and I figured Cindy deserved to know that.
She looked shocked and I really thought she’d show me the door and then her face relaxed into a big grin, her dimples making her look so dang cute.
Then she shook her head, “Jess Harper when have I ever given you the impression that I wanted to settle down huh?”
“You ain’t…but some girls, when they make this sorta move, they expect some commitment ya know? Well sure I’m always faithful, heck I wouldn’t two time you…but as far as seein’ the preacher…well…it ain’t gonna happen.”
She burst out laughing at that, “Now why would I want to do a darned stupid thing like that, heck I’m not even staying in town for long.”
“You’re not?” I asked feeling kinda wrong footed now. Heck it was us men that were supposed to love ‘em and leave ‘em …not the women folk…
“No, Emma and I are on our way to California…we figured we’d find ourselves a couple of rich prospectors and live on the coast. We’re only here for the winter, come the spring, once we’ve earned enough, we’ll be off.”
I must have looked kinda miserable at that news because she leaned over and kissed me real passionately before pulling back and looking deep into my eyes.
“But we’ve got a long winter before then,” she said seductively, “so are you gonna unbutton this dress for me …or what?”
“Huh?” I asked as I was suddenly catapulted back into the present.
“I said, how did you get on with Cindy?” Slim asked raising a suggestive eyebrow.
“Just swell,” I said grinning at him.
“Well go on then…”
“Uh-uh…nope Slim, see thing about me is…what goes on in my lady’s bed stays there…OK?”
He threw me a frustrated glance and said, “Aw Jess you’re no fun,” and I exploded with laughter.
“What.... well what?”
How could I tell him he’d just looked and sounded exactly like his kid brother!
It was the following day that a very solemn looking Mort Cory rode into the ranch.
He tethered his buckskin by the corral and moseyed over to where Slim and me were working on the fence on the other side of the enclosure.
He tipped his hat back and stood watching us for a moment, like he weren’t sure where to start and then Slim came forwards throwing his hammer down and said, “Howdy Mort, everything OK?”
He nodded in acknowledgement before looking even more grave and turning to me said, “We’ve found out who was responsible for the fire over at the livery Jess.”
I came and lent on the corral fence looking up at him, “You have?” I asked suddenly just wanting revenge more than anything else. “Damn it Sheriff I sure hope you’re gonna punish him real good.”
“Er…no, that won’t be necessary Jess.”
“What…hell iffen you’re not doin’ anything I dang well will, I’ll rip his head off!” I yelled suddenly furious.
“Take it easy buddy,” Slim said resting a hand on my chest as I looked kinda like I was about to vault the fence and land one on the Sheriff, “hear Mort out huh?”
“It’s OK Slim, he’s a right to be angry, after what happened,” Mort said.
“His name was Jody Durkin Jess…ring any bells?”
“But he’s just a little kid,” I exploded.
“I guess he grew up some since you saw him last, he was sixteen. At least that’s what he told Bert when he took him on as stable lad a few weeks back.”
“Will somebody please tell me who this kid is and what’s going on?” Slim asked.
I turned to him then, “He’s Bradley and Dog Durkin’ s little brother, lives down in Texas with their sister Annie,” I said.
“Not anymore he doesn’t,” said Mort quietly.
I shook my head, little Jody, but hell why would he do that? He wasn’t a bad ‘un as I remembered him, just because he was a kid that was no excuse though.
“You’ll still charge him?” I said, “Heck Mort he may just be young but he must have known what he was doing…but why?” I asked looking mystified.
“Oh that’s easy enough,” said Mort we found some letters in the room he had at Bert’s place from his brother Dog. Seems he wasn’t supposed to burn the whole place down, just enough to upset you Jess. The other horses were supposed to escape just Traveller would have come to a sticky end because he was hobbled. The boy was supposed to call out the alarm before the fire was too bad.”
“But the fire was really bad,” Slim said, “he sure didn’t do too well in alerting folk.”
“That’s because he couldn’t Slim…see he died in the fire.”
I drew a deep breath and turned away feeling sick to my stomach, he wasn’t a bad kid. How in hell had he gotten caught up in all this?
Slim said softly, “Are you OK Jess?”
I nodded and turned back to the Sheriff, “Why?”
“It was Dog that made him do it. Remember he was wounded after your shoot-out with Bradley and we all assumed he’d died when he just disappeared?”
I nodded, “Andy said he looked in a real bad way, I thought he must have died out in the big open someplace, yeah.”
“Uh, well it appears not. He wired young Jody to come up from Texas and he got a job with old Bert. The stable boy sleeps up in the hay loft some nights…usually at the week-end in case of any trouble. So it would be easy enough for him to the set the fire, escape and then call the alarm, knowing that Traveller was hobbled and wouldn’t escape with the other horses.”
“So how come he didn’t do that?” I asked.
“Well when his body was found this morning, he was in the far end of the building under some rubble fallen from the roof. He had a bad head injury…looks like he tripped as he was leaving and knocked himself out…then died from smoke inhalation.”
I shook my head sadly, “I still don’t get it, he wasn’t a bad kid.”
“Um well we found some letters written to him by Dog, saying how you murdered Bradley and was father of Annie’s kid…all sorts of real bad stuff Jess and I figure the boy was just powerful mad at you.”
So this is all Dog’s fault,” I said bitterly, makin’ up the lies to get the kid to do his dirty work for him.”
“There’s more,” said Mort quietly, “Dog’s wanted for murder down in Cheyenne, killed a saloon girl in cold blood, in front of witnesses…there’s one hell of a bounty on his head, she was a real popular girl,” he said sighing.
I went very quiet then, just looking down and thinking.
“What’s happening about the livery Mort?” Slim asked.
“Oh folks are rallying around as they always do with this kinda thing. There are some fundraisers planned that’ll help some. But it’ll take a tidy sum to get it rebuilt properly. At the moment Bert’s still open. Put a big tarp over the roof…but I just hope we don’t get too much more snow,” he said sadly.
As he turned to mount his horse, I remembered my manners and said, “Thanks for riding over Sheriff.”
He smiled for the first time, “I think it’s about time you called me Mort don’t you son,” he said, now grinning at me.
I smiled back, “Thanks er…Mort.”
After he’d ridden out touching his hat in a little gesture of farewell Slim turned to me smiling, “Well I guess that’s a first, you with a lawman as a buddy. I figure we’ll make a law-abiding citizen of you yet Jess,” he said chuckling at his own wit before returning to mending the fence.
But to me that was just like salt in a wound, because what I had in mind I knew he wouldn’t like, not one little bit.
I’d sat back and let the law handle the business of the livery being fired…and that had been so dang hard for me. It went against the grain on so many levels. I’d always fought my own battles. Retribution swift and sometimes brutal, folks knew not to mess with Jess Harper…and that’s the way it had been as long as I could remember. Now though I’d made that promise to Slim that I’d try real hard to settle down and not go courtin’ trouble. But today…this… well this I just couldn’t let go. No matter what the cost I had to be true to myself and if that meant losing Slim and Andy’s friendship and my new life…well then so be it.
I was real quiet all day and I guess Slim knew there was something wrong, but it was after supper when we were sipping a last coffee, Andy and Jonesy abed, that he raised the subject.
He threw me a wary glance over the rim of his coffee cup and then after taking a sip put the cup down and said, “So are you going to tell me what’s on your mind Jess?”
I squirmed uncomfortably in my rocker, before looking him in the eye, “OK but you ain’t gonna like it.”
“Try me.”
“I’m riding out Slim, got some business to attend to…”
“Oh, so would that ‘business’ have anything to do with Dog?” he asked, dead pan.
I nodded, “Maybe.”
“Well I don’t know why,” he said with spirit, “with a Bounty that size there won’t be any shortage of folk hunting him down he’ll come to justice eventually.”
“Yeah and the Bounty will be in some other guy’s back pocket,” I said angrily.
He just stared at me then, “Well I never had you down as a Bounty Hunter,” he said frowning.
I jumped up at that, suddenly furious, “How could you even think that,” I yelled. “Hell, they’re lower than a snake’s belly and just as dang unpleasant.”
“Then why?” he asked looking mystified.
“For Bert of course,” I said, “that should be enough to fix up the livery real good.”
He shook his head then, “But even so Jess…why take the risk, he could kill you. You’ve got a good place here, aren’t you happy?”
“Sure I am,” I said softly, sinking back down into my chair and looking off into the embers of the dying fire in the hearth, feeling kinda choked, “happier than I’ve ever been.”
“Well then?” he said raising a questioning eyebrow at me.
“Listen Slim. That fire…it was all down to me…Bert’s suffered because Dog was trying to get his revenge on me. So I have to make it right with Bert…he’s a good man and he don’t deserve this… Besides its personal now…I have to finish it once and for all. I’m sorry Slim,” I said as I rose and made for the bedroom.
I paused at the door and looked back to where he was looking pale and tense.
“I’m real sorry,” I said again, before making for my bed.
I rode out the following day remembering the bitter words of reproach at my leaving…and then the forgiveness which was almost worse…making me feel so bad at leavin’ them all.
Surprisingly it had been Jonesy who had taken it real bad.
I’d told him early, before Andy was up, hoping he’d be on my side and help break it to the boy, but instead he lashed out angrily.
“How can you do this, you ungrateful saddle tramp,” he yelled. “That boy adores you, looks up to you…and by God he’s taken your part in every dang argument since you moved in…and this is the way you repay him?”
“This ain’t about me and Andy,” I said hotly feeling as guilty as sin, knowing the truth of it…but Hell what could I do? I had to do the right thing by old Bert…and Jody too really as he was just an innocent kid who’d been duped by his older brother…and had paid the ultimate price.
“I have to get justice, for Bert and Jody, can’t you see that?” I said almost pleading with him to understand.
“That’s what the law’s there for boy,” he said his eyes flashing in anger. “Your place is here. How’s Slim supposed to run this place single handed with just an old man with a bad back and a youngster away at school all day tell me that!”
“He managed alright before I fetched up here,” I said sulkily.
“Yes, practically working himself into the ground. Then you come and lighten the load some…uh, when you can be bothered to work that is,” he muttered. “Even got Slim off enjoying life, having fun for the first time since his ma and pa died…and yup I admit it, that’s down to you…and now yer running off…aw it don’t make sense,” he said turning back to banging pans about on the cook stove.
Andy was in turn angry and tearful and ended up practically begging me not to go, until I felt so dang bad that I could stand it no longer and marched off to pack my things up, such as they were.
After a little while I heard the early stage rattle into the yard and stood there motionless for a good minute, before I turned and marched out into the yard…Hell I couldn’t let the kid go off without saying goodbye…
He was arguing with Slim, about going to school I guess, so I wandered over to say farewell.
I thought for a minute Andy was gonna blank me…but then just before he climbed up into the coach he turned and ran towards me throwing his arms around me and hugging me real tight.
“I’m sorry I was mad at ya Jess…but you will come back won’t ya huh?”
I looked over his head to Slim and saw him give me a tiny nod. “I figure your job will still be open when you’re through Jess.”
I swallowed hard, feeling a lump the size of Texas in my throat and just nodded at Andy, “Sure, now go on…Mose will be cussin’ ya if you make him late.”
Andy scrambled on board and waved until the stage disappeared from view over the rise.
Then I turned to Slim, “Did ya mean that?”
He nodded and then grinned at me, “Sure I did…after all you haven’t finished educating me up yet have you…we’ve got the girls…but not gotten around to the Moonshine yet have we? If you’re back for Thanksgiving maybe we could give it a try then huh?”
“I didn’t know what to say…Jeez, I’d never been treated this good before…OK so Jonesy was real mad at me, but I figured that was just because he was lookin’ out for Slim and Andy.
“Thanks Slim,” I said quietly, “I’ll get back just as soon as I can….”
Sometime later I rode into Laramie and tethered Traveller up outside the Sheriff’s office and moseyed on in.
Mort was at the stove just pouring himself a coffee and gestured to the cup.
“Thanks Sheriff,” I said grinning at him, “I guess that would hit the spot real well.”
“Mort,” he said raising an eyebrow.
“Mort,” I said smiling at him, “thanks,” and accepting the coffee I settled down opposite him at his desk.
“So what brings you into town Jess, just here for the coffee or, um something more?”
I sipped my drink, giving me time to get my thoughts in order and then said, “I was wonderin’ if you’d had any sightings of Dog, or knew roughly where folk are lookin’?”
He cast me a thoughtful look over the rim of his cup and then said, “So you’re going after him then son…I kinda thought you might.”
“So, are you gonna give me a hard time for leaving Slim in the lurch, like everyone else?” I asked peevishly.
“I guess a man has to do what he thinks is right,” he said quietly, “it isn’t up to me to judge you Jess and I reckon you have your reasons.”
I gave him a grateful smile, the guy sure was growing on me.
“Thanks Mort…so anyone seen him?”
“No, but there was a post mark on the last letter he posted to young Jody, it was Cheyenne and if I was a betting man, I figure he’d be hiding out somewhere maybe north of Buford. See he’d need to be near a small town for supplies, yet near enough to Laramie to get news of what happened about his plot to kill your horse. I figure maybe that was all about flushing you out Jess…if he wants a shoot-out with you, well what better way to get you riled?”
“Well ain’t that the truth,” I agreed, “so you think he wants me to find him?”
“Could be yeah…but what you’re going to have to watch out for is all the crazy Bounty Hunters on his trail too. It won’t take them long to think along the same lines as us. Plus seeing as your latest exploit has made the front page of the Laramie Sentinel, I reckon most of the Bounty Hunters in town will be watching your every move.”
Mort passed the local paper over and sure enough there was a headline declaring: Brave Jess Harper Defies Death to Rescue Horse! Then there was a rather sensationalized report of the livery fire.
“Goddamn it,” I cussed, “they can’t write this.”
“Oh but they can I’m afraid, freedom of the press and all that and to be fair they are the facts…no lies have been printed. This will be real good for the fundraising events too. There’s a dance already organized. Then a picnic in the spring and maybe even a rodeo come high summer.”
“Oh great,” I said sarcastically, “and poor old Bert should have a new roof over his head in a year or two. Hang it all Mort he’ll be out of business by then, he needs the cash now!”
He threw me a warm look then, “That’s what all this is about isn’t it, you want the Bounty for Bert huh?”
I nodded, “That’s part of it yeah. You see I figure I’m kinda to blame for all this Mort and I aim to make it right.”
“Uh, very commendable, let’s hope you don’t get your head blown off in the process,” he said dryly.
“Oh Dog’s real fast alright,” I said with a grin, “but I reckon I’m a tad faster…hope so anyways.”
“Yes, but it’s not just Dog you’re up against though is it son…you’ve got those dang Bounty Hunters to throw off the scent first.”
“Hey ain’t you getting kinda rattled here, I don’t reckon there will be that many folk looking in these parts after all it’s only you and me knows about that post mark huh?”
Mort shook his head, “Nope I’m afraid that’s common knowledge, Bert told Mose Shell…and well…” he shrugged.
“Great,” I muttered.
“And if you don’t believe me about the Bounty Hunters just take a look out the window.”
I stood up and mooched over to the window and peered out. Sure enough a motley crew of four or five men lounged on the other side of the street. They were pretending to be just chatting and chewing baccy, but every so often they cast a glance over to the Sheriff’s office and it was clear they were just waiting for me to appear.
“So, see what you’re up against?” he asked dryly. “The guy all in black, chewing on that match is a professional, the others local men ready to chance their arm for the Bounty.”
I turned back into the room, “So what do you suggest I do?”
“Well there’s a back door, if you wait until Lon, my Deputy, arrives I’ll get him to bring your horse around while I go out and distract them some. Then once the coast’s clear I’d head off like you’re making for back home, in case anyone else is watching. Once you’re sure you’re alone then take the old Indian trail that forks north about six miles from here, you know it?”
“Yes I think so, the one that leads up to a small lake?”
He nodded, “Yup once there take the trail due south and head for the Twin Mountains…then go south from there to Turtle Rock. You climb that and you can see for miles. I figure he’ll be holed up somewhere around that area, plenty of game, water and tree cover, ideal and only five miles or so from Buford…He may have been in and checked the paper already. I guess if he’s heard about young Jody dying that way he’ll be as mad as all get out, huh?”
The thought wasn’t a happy one, but maybe if he was that angry he’d seek me out sooner than later and we could get the whole dang business over and done with once and for all.
“I’d best get movin’ then,” I said cheerfully as the door opened and Lon strode in.
“Uh, we’d better get moving,” Mort said, smiling at me.
“I’m the law around here Jess and it’s up to me to seek out anyone like Durkin with a price on his head. Sure, it would be the easy option to let the Bounty Hunters takeover and do my job for me, but that’s not the kind of lawman I am.”
Well part of me was kinda glad he’d be riding along as he sure knew the terrain better than me back then but what about that dang Bounty?
He threw a quizzical glance in my direction, “And the um Bounty…no matter who brings our man in, it’ll go to Bert yeah?”
I gave a sigh of relief, “Thanks Mort.”
“OK I’ll go distract that bunch of deadbeats out there while Lon fetches your horse and you ride out the way I told you. I’ll meet you at the end of the Indian trail by Middle Crow Creek later. There are a couple of good size lakes, plenty of tree cover for shelter too. Make camp there and we’ll head off to Turtle rock at dawn tomorrow. Have the coffee on and I’ll see you for supper OK?”
“OK…and thanks Mort.”

Chapter 6
Mort rode in just as I was thinking of breaking out the bacon and beans and the coffee pot was simmering on the camp fire.
I was up on one knee, my Colt drawn before I even stopped to consider but holstered it just as quick… “Sorry Mort.”
He grinned at me as he stepped down from his old buckskin, “That’s OK Jess, you can’t be too careful out in the Big Open, I know that.”
He dropped the reins and wandered over to survey the view beyond the campsite, the lakes sparkling in the late evening sunshine and row upon row of majestic pines beyond.
Then he wandered back, removing his gloves he rubbed his hands and warmed them by the fire. It was still pretty chilly, but at least all the snow had melted.
“Nice spot,” he said appreciatively.
I nodded looking up at the huge pines surrounding us and inhaled their heady scent, “It sure is,” I agreed. Then pouring him a coffee I said, “So have you a likin’ for the Big Open then Mort?”
“Oh Hell yes, I guess if I wasn’t a lawman I’d have been a Mountain Man or maybe even a lumberjack up in Canada,” he said his eyes turning dreamy as he focused on the view again.
“So what stopped you?” I asked.
He tore his gaze away from the landscape to look at me and then came and sat down by the fire beside me.
“Well I’ll tell you Jess, see my old Pappy was a Sheriff and his Pa before him so I guess it’s kinda in the blood,” he said grinning at me.
I nodded seeing the sense of that.
“I guess you were lucky to have someone like that to look up to,” I said quietly.
He nodded, “And I’m guessing maybe you didn’t?”
I just shook my head, but didn’t volunteer any more information and I was surprised and pleased to note that Mort didn’t push it.
“So anyway,” he continued, “it seemed like a good idea and it hasn’t been a bad life…But one day…uh when I retire it might be kinda nice to build a little shack out here, some place just like this.”
“Well you ain’t planning on retiring anytime soon I hope,” I said chuckling. “I guess you’re the first lawman I could call a friend and I sure don’t want to lose you yet a while.”
He grinned back at me, “Heck no…not for a while yet. Although I won’t see forty again…dang it, or forty-five either,” he said suddenly realising he’d recently had a Birthday. “But no Jess I’m not considering on giving up anytime soon, love the work too darned much, truth be told. So are you thinking on cooking us some supper then?” he asked, changing the subject.
I grinned at him, “Coming right up.”
It was later after supper as we relaxed by the camp fire sipping a coffee that Mort got up and went and fetched something from his saddle bag.
He came and sat down again and uncorking a small bottle he poured some into his coffee, before offering it across.
I took a sniff and I guess my face relaxed into a huge grin.
“Is this what I think it is?” I asked.
“Well that all depends,” he said winking, “help yourself.”
I poured a slug in and then said, “It’s a while since I had any real good Moonshine like this.”
“Is that what it is?” he asked arching his eyebrows at me…his face dead pan.
I chuckled, “I reckon it is…as you know dang well dontcha Mort.”
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he replied openly grinning at me now “and anyway it was a gift…so I guess that can ease my conscience some.”
“So who would be dang fool enough to give a lawman Moonshine?” I asked grinning as the liquor hit the spot nicely.
“Well I’ll tell you,” he said after an appreciative sip, “it was the Parson.”
I nearly choked on the drink, “What a man of God gave you this?”
“Uh-huh, well a defrocked man of God. The Parson’s kinda unique you see Jess, usually gives his sermons in the saloon and iffen he can’t convert folk he ends up in a fight. I’ve always said the old Parson will convert us all to the ways of Righteousness. Or dang well kill us in the process,” he snorted with laughter.
“He sounds quite a character,” I said.
“Oh he’s that alright and spends most weekends in my jail for disturbing the peace. So every once in a while, he leaves me a little bottle of comfort…a kinda thank you for treating him fair I guess. He pretty much has the run of the place and free meals. Hell, he’s been taking me for a ride for years come to think of it,” he said suddenly looking shocked at the realization.
I took another appreciative sip, “It’s good stuff,” I said.
“Sure is…some of Denver James’ best.”
“Huh, is ol’ Denver in these parts?”
“Yup, you know him then Jess?”
“I do, ain’t seen him in a good few years though. I know his cousin Kate Munroe better, her and Charlie run a saloon back down in Texas. She’s a real good woman,” I said sincerely, “looked out for me pretty good when I was a kid.”
“Uh…so you used to frequent saloons when you were a young ‘un did you then Jess?” he asked winking at me.
I shook my head, ignoring the joke, “Not me, my Pa…spent way too much time in there,” I said bitterly. “Most of his dang wages went there…”
“I see and Kate, she was a nice woman you say?”
“Oh yeah, she’d pack him off home tell him to go buy food for us kids…She ran a real tight ship did Kate, didn’t like to see a man tippin’ the jug too much. Many is the time Kate would call us kids in the back room for some candy or bread and jam…she was real kind,” I said softly.
“It must have been hard down on the panhandle in those days,” he said thoughtfully.
I just nodded, not wanting to share the wretched poverty that had been my lot growing up.
“What you’ve never had I guess you don’t miss,” I said with a grin, just wanting to change the subject.
He seemed to pick up on that and said, “So Denver lived there at one time then?”
I shook my head, “Nope just visiting kin, then he upped and married a Mountain woman and moved to Wyoming so I heard had two boys...Mick and Cody.”
“That’s it they’re full grown now work with their Pa, allegedly hunting and selling the hides. But I guess he makes most of his income distilling the hooch. He doesn’t trade in front of me so I figure live and let live. I just make a point of not knowing where his still is…and then I can’t arrest him,” he said with a chuckle.
He sure was my kinda lawman I thought secretly as I sipped my coffee and watched the sun sink slowly down behind the pines.
“So Jess,” he said thoughtfully, “how come you got in bad with the law; you don’t seem the usual owl hoot type.”
I shrugged, but for once the question not angering me.
“It was after the war,” I said, “I guess like a lot of the rebel soldiers there was nuthin’ for me to come home too, Texas was a mess…and I sorta missed the friendships I’d made. I figure that’s why some men joined gangs, for the camaraderie. I guess I made a few mistakes in the friends I made. Then there was my fast gun, once you get a reputation it’s kinda hard to lose.” I said honestly.
He nodded, “I had noticed,” he said with a grin, “the gunfighter’s rig you wore…so what happened to it Jess?”
I was quiet for so long I figured he thought I wouldn’t answer and then I said, “I’ve put it up Mort…for good. It’s back at the ranch. Slim’s stashed it away for me. See, it’s kind of a pledge, that I’ll change…that I have changed,” I said looking across at him.
“Well I’m glad to hear that son, I figured as much,” he said softly, his brown eyes warm and kindly.
Then he leaned over and tipped some more Moonshine into my cup and raised his, “To new beginnings huh?”
“New beginnings,” I repeated and we sipped our drinks…in perfect accord.
The following morning, we awoke with slightly thick heads, but that didn’t stop us from setting off at first light after a scratch breakfast.
We were now heading due south on an old trail running parallel with the Laramie/Cheyenne road, the Twin Mountains to our left and Turtle Rock ahead of us. It sure was purty countryside, lush green pines as far as the eye could see. Flanked by the peaks of the Twin Mountains to our left and Sherman Mountain to the right the area was abundant with wildlife. I figured under happier circumstances me and Mort could have enjoyed a real good hunting trip, but right now our minds were focused on much more unpleasant business.
As ever I had been totally alert looking out for trouble from every direction, especially behind. Well I was pretty sure we hadn’t been followed and that’s why what happened next was such a dang shock. We were winding our way along a wide gully, tall rocks towering above us on either side, about a mile north of Turtle Rock when two things happened.
Traveller gave a little wicker of unrest and as I looked up to see what had spooked him, I saw the sun glinting on a rifle barrel…way up on the hillside to our right.
I reacted without even thinking and drawing my rifle from its scabbard yelled a warning to Mort riding on my left. I steered Traveller into his buckskin, making the horse shy away to the left and he protested loudly. Then I almost pushed Mort from the saddle as I dived off and threw myself to the ground.
“Git down!” I bawled and he hit the ground a few feet from me…Even then as he lay there winded and shocked the hidden marksman opened fire on us.
Having not had time to reach for his rifle Mort was layin’ there like a sitting duck as shots peppered the ground around him, his hand gun useless at that range.
In seconds I was there and threw myself across him, sheltering from the flying bullets as I returned shot for shot.
As the gunman reloaded, I took the opportunity to almost drag Mort, who was still badly winded, to some scant rock cover to our left and we had a moment to review the situation.
“Just one,” I gasped, “but he’s a dang good shot.”
Mort nodded, “Dadgum it my old horse has hightailed it down the trail with my rifle,” he spat angrily, “save your ammo Jess until you can get a good shot huh?”
I nodded, “I guess we’ll lie doggo for a spell, huh.” (Lie doggo- play dead).
It worked just as I’d hoped. Thinking he’d killed us, or at least we were badly injured the bushwhacker, broke cover and started making his way down the mountainside. That’s when I stood up, took careful aim and picked him off real easy.
He fell a good hundred feet landing with a sickening thud, but I figured he was dead before he hit the ground.
Mort stood up and we dusted ourselves down before wandering over to where the grim corpse was sprawled at the foot of the rocky outcrop.
Dressed all in black it was clear he was the professional Bounty Hunter last seen chewing a match back on Main Street in Laramie.
“Dang it, he must have followed me,” Mort said looking apologetic, but I shook my head.
“I don’t think so Mort, I’d have known iffen anyone was following us and he sure couldn’t have passed us and got up there without us noticing. No I reckon he got the Stage to Cheyenne and then hired a horse and headed for Turtle Rock, from there he’d have been able to see us coming and had time to choose a real good spot to bushwhack us from.”
Mort nodded, “You could be right, and he sure made a good job of that.”
Then he turned to me and said real sincere like, “I owe you my life son and I won’t be forgetting that anytime soon. I guess I couldn’t look for anyone better to have my back, thanks,” and he shook my hand.
Well I’ll tell ya, that made me feel so dang good. Having someone of Mort Cory’s caliber sayin’ that to me.
I just smiled and shook his hand, “You bet,” I said quietly and then marched off to start digging a grave for the Bounty Hunter.
Mort agreed there was no point in taking the corpse into Cheyenne as they were between Sheriffs right then. Seeing as the last one had been shot a couple of weeks since and nobody new sworn in yet.
“That’s why it’s down to me to sort out this whole sorry business Mort confided, sooner they find a new Sheriff happier I’ll be.”
“So when we find Durkin we’ll be takin’ him to Laramie for trial then?” I asked.
“If we can take him alive that is Jess,” he agreed throwing me a kinda questioning look.
I shrugged, “I guess that’s down to him Mort. I’ve got no hankerin ’ fer a shoot-out, seeing him at the end of a rope will do me just as well, but I sorta imagine he’ll be thinkin’ different.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt about that son, just needed to know how you were thinkin’ ‘tis all.”
Once the bounty Hunter, one Jed Hollins according to some papers in his pocket, was laid to rest we continued our way towards Turtle Rock, now all our senses on double alert.
We finally made it and resisting the urge to make camp and brew up some coffee we decided to climb the steep escarpment at once and check out the view for any signs of Durkin, or the other bounty hunters for that matter.
“I shouldn’t worry too much about us being set up again,” Mort said. “I know every one of the men out there playing bounty hunters and they know it too. I don’t reckon they’d try it on with their Sheriff. In fact, I don’t think any of them has the guts to take on Durkin either…just greed spurring them on I reckon.”
I guess we were pretty much out of breath by the time we’d scrambled to the top of the steep hill and I was kinda regretting we hadn’t taken a break when Mort yelled something over to me.
I dragged myself back to the here and now, “Huh…what say Mort?”
“I said what’s that over there, just by those bushes.”
I followed his gaze and saw what looked like a bundle of rags…until it moved….
We drew our guns and walked slowly over and then Mort let out a cry of shock before kneeling down beside the body of a man, bound and gagged and feeling mighty terrified if the expression in his eyes was anything to go by.
I pulled my hunting knife from my boot and quickly cut through the ropes whilst Mort untied the gag and offered his canteen.
The man drank thirstily almost choking until Mort pulled the canteen away and told him to take it easy.
“You know this guy Mort?” I asked.
He nodded, “This is one of our sometime bounty hunters,” he said with a wry smile, “Ed Barnes.”
“Aw Sheriff don’t have a go at me,” the man growled now looking a slightly better colour, “that money’s real tempting ya know.”
“Um,” Mort muttered, “when will you folk realize you need to leave this kinda thing to the experts. So what happened to you anyway huh?”
“It were him, that dang murdering’ bastard Durkin,” Ed said now looking as mad as all get out.
“I was up here thinking it was kinda a good place to get my bearings and he done come up behind me…”
“Yes. Yes go on,” said Mort impatiently, “so why did he leave you this way, not kill you huh?”
“He said I was to give a message to the man from the Sherman spread, Harper. That’s you ain’t it, the guy that went into the livery in that thar fire to git yer horse right?”
I just nodded, “So what’s the message?”
“Goddamn it man what’s the message he sent me?” I exploded, now beginning to feel real anxious.
“Oh yeah, he said he’s gonna settle it fer good between you two and you’re to hightail it to the lake over on the Sherman spread, he’ll be waitin’ up by the old cave…you know it?”
I ignored his comment and frowned at Mort, “Why double back that way, why not just settle it here and now?”
Mort shrugged and turned back to Ed Barnes, “So is that all then Ed?”
The guy was now rubbing some life back into his sore wrists and lookin’ real fretful.
“Uh, yeah, he said he’d have a kid with him…you’re to git there as soon as you damn well can or the boy will die like his own young brother Jody did and you’d know all about that.”
My blood ran cold and I felt an icy shiver run down my spine…
I grabbed hold of the older guy’s shirt front and dragging him up said, “What kid... did he say who?”
“Why the one from the Sherman spread of course, young Andy Sherman…”
I threw him back down on the ground and exchanged a horror-stricken glance with Mort before jumping up and tearing back down the hill, swiftly followed by Mort.
“And he said no law to be involved,” Ed yelled after us.
Then Mort stopped in his tracks and ran back, “How long ago did he leave?”
“I dunno, been out of it some of the time, a day or so, maybe two?”
As we guided our mounts towards the Laramie road I cussed long and loud.
“Two days head start is way too much Mort, he’ll have taken Andy by now for sure.”
“Well Slim and Jonesy won’t have taken that lyin’ down you can be certain of that. Slim may have found him already, got him back…”
Back at the ranch things had not been easy since Jess rode out.
Andy was particularly difficult, missing his new buddy like crazy.
He was hardly eating and neglecting his studies and Slim was at his wits end with the boy.
There had been yet another spat over supper that night, with Andy slamming off to his room leaving Jonesy and Slim feeling both angry and upset in equal parts.
“Dang it Jonesy as though I don’t have enough to worry about what with all the extra work left now Jess’s gone, without Andy cutting up rough all the time!”
Jonesy shook his head, “He’s not been the same since all that business when we banned him from taking young Wendy Wright to that party at the Webster’s place you know Slim…it’s not just Jess riding out.”
“Well hang it all Jonesy, you don’t think I should have let him go do you? Heck you know what goes on at the Webster’s place, hardly an ideal venue for a first date huh?”
“No of course not, but he has asked to visit Wendy at her home a few times now. Jess said it was a real nice place and her Ma seemed to look after the girl well…so maybe we should let him visit huh?”
“I don’t know Jonesy I’m kinda busy right now to go riding into town with him.”
“Well that’s what I’m saying… the lad’s plenty old enough to ride over to the Wright’s place on his own isn’t he. It’s this side of town and iffen I remember rightly, your Pa let you ride in when you were younger than Andy is now.”
Slim looked down weighing up the pros and cons, “Um, maybe I am a tad over protective,” he mused.
“Yes, and maybe that young Wendy will take his mind off of frettin’ about the drifter too, you thought about that?”
Slim sighed, “Well anything that’s going to cheer him up some has to be a good thing I guess.”
As it happened an invitation was issued in the form of a note from Wendy’s Ma inviting Andy to visit over the week-end, staying for a small supper party, with other school friends, on the Saturday evening and riding home on Sunday morning.
Slim was still in two minds about it however. Recalling how Jess had said that in his opinion young Wendy looked like trouble and her Ma was in the market for another husband…But that was just Jess’ take on things he thought and Andy seemed real smitten with the girl.
In the end the decision was made for him when he rode into town later that week on Stage company business.
Once the work was concluded he decided to call in at the Wright place on his way home.
Well as he told Jonesy later that day, Mrs Wright was delightful and very keen to reassure Slim that Andy would be well looked after, and the young people closely supervised. He’d seen Wendy again fleetingly as she came home from school for her lunch and she too seemed sensible. Even a little studious, the perfect companion for young Andy so he said at supper that evening.
“So can I ride over really? Andy asked practically jumping for joy.
“Yup, as long as you stick to the rules, best behavior and come straight home on the Sunday morning OK?”
Andy rode out on the Saturday looking as smart and grown up as Jonesy and Slim could ever remember. He wore his Sunday best clothes and had even slicked his hair back with some snake oil he’d found in Slim and Jess’s room. He clutched a box of candy for Wendy and her Ma and couldn’t wait to ride out. But of course Slim again ran through the rules of riding alone, not to deviate from his route on the main road and to go straight to Wendy’s house…returning at the specified time on the Sunday.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said wearily, “I promise Slim, now can I go huh?”
He nodded and waved him off cheerfully as the youngster trotted his mount up the rise and off towards town…but he was never to arrive….
He had only ridden about two miles, when he saw a horse idly cropping grass at the roadside…and then on further inspection a man lying face down in the dirt.
Andy reined in Patch, his mount, and peered down at the motionless figure and wondered if he was dead or merely badly hurt…Jeez, what to do?
He was under strict instructions not to dismount or stop and speak to any strangers he saw on the road, but heck Slim wouldn’t want him to leave a badly injured man there to die, would he?
He finally came to a decision and slipping down from the saddle he made his way slowly over to the bulky form in the dust.
“Are you OK mister?” he asked hesitantly and when there was no answer he knelt down by the man and rolled him over on his back…
That’s when Dog Durkin struck. One hand grabbed Andy’s upper arm in a vice like grip, whilst the other hand brought up a Colt .45 under the child’s chin…
“Well if it ain’t young Andy Sherman,” he said gruffly, “real pleased to make yer acquaintance…they call me Dog…Dog Durkin, you may have heard of me….?”
It only took a moment for him to bind and gag a terrified Andy, get him mounted again and begin to make his way across country to the lake, to lie in wait for Harper…That had been on the Saturday afternoon.

Chapter 7
Now it was Sunday as Mort and I made our way hell for leather from Turtle Rock to the lake back on Sherman land.
We made good time turning off the Laramie Road and heading inland skirting the east pasture and heading north through the vast pine forest that marked the boundary of the Sherman outfit. Mort and I had fleetingly thought of heading back down to the ranch, but decided it would take too long and what could Slim do anyway?
We decided that once we’d neared the lakeside cave, we would approach it through the forest rather than take the usual route along the lakeside. The lake’s track could clearly be seen from the cave I knew, where as the dense forestation would effectively hide our arrival. However, the thick woodland and shrubs meant we had to dismount and lead the horses and that was making me feel so dang frustrated. All I could see in my mind, Andy lying hurt…or worse. Hell, I guess Dog had always been kinda unpredictable at the best of times. But now with, in his mind, the deaths of Brad and Jody layin’ at my door, I figured he’d do just about anything to get back at me.
Once we were within a few hundred yards of the cave we tethered our mounts and continued on foot. We carried on until we were near enough to make out the dark outline of the cave halfway up the hill beyond the lake. Then what looked like a camp down on the edge of the lake…but of Andy and Durkin there was no sign.
“So how do you want to play it?” Mort whispered, “I guess I’d better stay back, he might overreact if he sees you’ve brought the law in.”
I threw him a grimace, “Master of the understatement eh Mort…I figure ol’ Dog there would ‘overreact’ with both barrels.”
He nodded, “You could be right…So how about you go in real slow and I’ll get around behind him, ready to kinda surprise him…soon as I get a chance?”
I nodded, “But hell Mort don’t you put Andy in any danger, right? If it comes to a choice between him and me…well I guess I don’t hafta tell you to save him, do I?”
“Uh, well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that son…good luck,” he said as he made his way off silently to the other side of the camp, skirting around the hill as best he could.
I gave him time to get in place and then wandered into the camp, calling out for Dog as I went.
There was complete silence, although the fire was burning away with a coffee pot in place, so I figured he couldn’t be too far away.
I mooched over to the small makeshift corral we’d built for the horses when we camped there on fishin’ trips. It was set back from the lake and Andy and I had cleared the scrub ground, leaving one huge pine in the centre of the enclosure to give the horses some shade.
Now as I walked across, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and stared in horror at the scene before me.
Andy was sitting his paint pony Patch beneath the old pine tree…and a rope was suspended from one of its branches, a noose around the boy’s neck… He sat perfectly still and ramrod straight, the only movement his eyes as they swiveled to see me...the look in them one of abject terror.
Durkin stood by the horse’s head, looking over at me and inanely grinning, before his face changed to a mask of bitterness. Then he moved away slightly and raised his rifle…
“Took your time didn’t you Harper,” he said gruffly.
My mouth was so dry I could hardly speak and I licked my lips before saying, “Let the kid go Dog, this business don’t concern him.”
“Oh? Well I think it does…see I lost a little brother because of you…and I hear you and this young ‘un get on like brothers according to him that is. So, what was it that old Padre used to tell us back on the Panhandle…uh? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…that were it weren’t is Jess boy huh?”
I felt sweat running down my back, my heart pounding fit to burst and I swallowed hard, “Look Dog... just let the kid go huh? Kill me iffen that’s what you want, but just loose him from that rope…please,” I almost begged.
He cocked his rifle and said, “Well that’s mighty tempting Jess, I’d like to oblige really I would. But see I’m kinda trigger happy and as soon as I fire off this ol’ gun of mine I figure this here pony will be a mite spooked…and once he moves any…well…and he made a gesture running his hand across his neck…that’ll be it for the youngster…So I figure we need to keep everything real quiet and peaceful huh?”
Andy gave a little whimper at that and I moved a pace forwards, “It’s OK Andy,” I said softly, “it’ll be just fine, keep real still huh.”
I fleetingly wondered where Mort was and hoped to hell he could see what was happening and wouldn’t fire off a shot.
Dog was now looking real thoughtful and I wondered what he was planning. Ha! Imagine I’d always thought him to be simple…well he was sure anything but that. He was dang devious and evil through and through…but not simple.
“Look let Andy go…we’ll have that shoot-out, anything! You said you wanted to finish it didn’t ya…well then….?”
“Shud-dup,” he yelled suddenly looking mad and he yanked his rifle up again, making Patch nod his head and take a pace back…
Andy gave a little cry of fear but kept his seat, the rope now painfully tight around his neck…
“Dog…fer God’s sake,” I said softly… “please don’t do this…”
He just stared at me, his strange eyes unfocused and then he seemed to come to a decision.
Pointing the rifle at my head he said, “OK…I figure it’ll be more fun to play a different game and this way I kill two little birds with one stone…”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talkin’ about, but I didn’t have too long to wait to find out…
“OK... get the kid down, you win Harper, the boy can go free I promise you that. It’s you I want!” he barked.
Well I sure didn’t need tellin’ twice and I marched over to Patch, gave him a gentle pat and then telling Andy to take his foot out of the stirrup I put mine in and reaching up removed the rope from his neck before pulling him quickly from the saddle. Then I was holding him tight…like I’d never let go and he was sobbing in fear and relief.
But just moments later I felt the cold metal of Dog’s Colt against my temple.
“Let go of him,” he snarled…
Then to Andy, “Come here boy.”
He’d put his rifle aside and now his handgun had come into play…I didn’t dare try to wrestle it off him in case Andy got caught by a stray bullet and so I gently pushed him away from me.
“Do as he says Andy, it’s OK. He says you can go free, tell Slim,” I swallowed hard, “tell Slim I’m real sorry huh.”
The minute I relinquished my hold on Andy, Dog dragged him a few feet away, the pistol now held to the kid’s head…
“OK Harper now mount up and put the noose around your neck,” Dog said menacingly. When I just stood there he pulled Andy closer, “or do you wanna watch the kid get his brains blowed out …huh? Then he gave a menacing laugh, “Come on now, you didn’t really believe I’d set him free did ya?”
I climbed up on Patch and did as requested…figuring this was the end of the road for me…but what about Andy, Hell I couldn’t let him be hurt….
“Look Dog, just do what you’ve gotta do, but let the kid go like you promised, this ain’t anything to do with him,” I tried again.
“Just like it weren’t your fault young Jody perished in the livery fire I suppose?” he said sarcastically.
The unfairness of the situation would have been almost comical if it weren’t so dang tragic, I thought.
“That was down to you,” I growled, “I didn’t ask the boy to fire the livery and kill my horse, did I? That was you! You filled up a perfectly good kid with so much bitterness, so many dang lies that he thought he was doing the right thing…That’s way beyond evil Dog, no matter which way you look at it!” I yelled, forgetting for a moment I was trying to keep him sweet.
Dog gave a roar of anger like a wounded animal and Patch again moved…the rope tightening around my neck…making me choke for a moment…but then he settled again…
“OK so this is what’s gonna happen,” Dog spat angrily, I’m gonna shoot young Andy here…and don’t you worry…it’ll be nice and clean through the temple,” he said tapping the gun gently on the side of Andy’s head…and I figure that will spook that little pony into bolting…and you’ll be strung up high Jess boy….So you got any last words then huh?” he asked smirking up at me…
There was no way out I knew that and the irony of the situation hit me…I’d end my days at the edge of the lake…the very place where I’d first met Slim Sherman…That meeting which had set me on the road to a new life…. Well that wasn’t to be now… But by God I sure wasn’t taking Andy down with me…
“Mort,” I yelled at the top of my voice, “shoot the bastard!”
I glanced over to where Dog was now looking slightly uncomfortable, his devious piggy eyes darting around him…
Then just seconds later there was a sickening thud and Andy was catapulted out of his grasp as Dog lurched forwards a look of surprise in his eyes for the split second before he fell…Mort’s hunting knife embedded between his shoulder blades.
However, before I could even draw a sigh of relief the commotion finally spooked Patch and I felt him leap forwards and buck tipping me off. The rope tightened on my neck and seconds later I was suspended in mid-air as he bolted from beneath me. There was a rushing in my ears and then everything went black as I swung from the end of the rope.
When I came around about five minutes later I was lying on my back, Mort peering down at me anxiously and young Andy crying hysterically.
I was coughing and spluttering, my throat feelin’ red raw both inside and out. But hell, I was alive and so was Andy and that was the main thing.
“Hush up boy,” Mort said gently to Andy, “go fetch your canteen, huh. I figure Jess here could do with a drink.”
When he’d gone, I tried to sit up and with Mort’s help managed to on the second attempt.
“Take it easy son, you’ve just been on the business end of a rope you know, you rest up for a little huh.”
“Don’t I know it,” I whispered running a hand around my neck which I knew must now bear the marks of the rope…Along with the faded scars from a similar event a few years earlier.
Mort seemed to be in tune with my thoughts and glancing down at my neck said, “So make a habit of this kinda thing do you then Jess?”
I gave him a lopsided grin and muttered, “I was dang well innocent last time too.”
Then Andy appeared with his canteen and gave me a welcome drink.
“Does it hurt real bad?” he asked, his brown eyes looking at me intently.
“I guess it’s kinda hard to talk right now Andy,” I whispered, “but it’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“Voice of experience speaking,” Mort said winking at me.
I shushed him, not wanting Andy to ask all about my last tussle with a rope and changed the subject.
“Did you cut me down Mort?”
He nodded, “Yup, it took a minute or two to get my knife out of that lowlife…and then we cut you down. Jeez you were sure lucky it wasn’t too much of a drop Jess, another few feet and you could have broken your neck.”
“I’m just glad you thought to use your knife and not a bullet…poor old Patch would have really taken off with a bullet flyin’ around. I’d have suffered a dang sight more than I have. As it was he just bucked and gently tipped me off…I guess that helped some.”
Then I turned to Andy, “Are you OK, he didn’t hurt you…other that scaring you half way into next week that is?”
“Nope,” then he threw his arms around me, “Jess you were so brave, I’ll never forget it never!”
Then he turned to Mort, “You too Sheriff!”
Mort just ruffled the child’s hair.
“Yeah, thanks,” Mort I said softly,” iffen you hadn’t thought to use your knife I guess it might not have ended up so well.”
It was sometime later before any of us felt like moving. But when Andy said he’d been captured the day before then I figured we’d better be making tracks as I knew Jonesy and Slim would be mighty worried.
It was now Sunday mid-afternoon and even though Andy said he hadn’t been expected home before noon I still knew he’d be in hot water for landing so late, even if it wasn’t his fault.
Mort decided to ride straight back to town taking the grizzly corpse of Dog with him.
“I’ll ride out to the ranch tomorrow Jess and we can do the paper work there,” Mort said.
When I just nodded, he gave me a searching look. “Sure you don’t want me to send old Doc Johnson over?”
Now my throat was so swollen I could barely speak, but knew it was just a matter of time and it would be OK eventually.
“I’m fine,” I rasped, “just fine Mort.”
He threw me a quizzical look, but figured there was no point in arguing so mounting up, he just said, “Look after him Andy and I’ll see you both tomorrow,” and he made his way back off towards Laramie.
Meanwhile back at the ranch when noon had come and gone Slim became more and more fretful.
“Oh cut the boy some slack,” said Jonesy dishing up the mid-day meal. “He’ll be here any minute full of apologies just you wait and see. They were probably larking about to all hours; you know what youngsters are like.”
“I’ll give him larking about,” said Slim darkly, before digging into his beef stew and dumplings.
As the minutes turned to hours even old Jonesy started peering out of the window and tutting as he looked over at the time piece on the mantle.
When he was nearly two hours late Slim made for the door grabbing his gun belt and hat…
“Now where do you think you’re off to?” Jonesy asked.
“I’m going to go fetch him home of course, where do ya think?”
“Aw Slim, give him a little longer, he’ll be so dang embarrassed if his big brother comes to haul him home…he’s just tryin’ to act the big man in front of his girl I guess... impress her you know? I’m a tad worried too but even so, he’s just down the road a ways…what can have happened huh…he’ll be safe enough.”
Slim shrugged and turned back into the room, “He’s got until, three and then I’m going to drag him home by the scruff of his neck…girl or no girl,” he said angrily. “And don’t tell me you’re only a tad worried, because I don’t believe you!”
The hour came and went and Slim was just marching over to the barn to saddle up when he spied two figures coming down the rise and moments later Jess and Andy rode into the yard.
Slim stood there, arms akimbo looking as mad as all get out.
Andy and Jess dismounted and wandered over, both looking kinda woebegone…which Slim read as guilty.
“I might have known it,” Slim bellowed now all his worry turning to anger, “you met up with Jess on the trail and decided to go off fishing, or swimming or some such foolishness!”
I opened my mouth to deny the accusations and say it was too dang cold for swimming…had Slim gone mad? But when I opened my mouth and tried to speak a mere squeak came out closely followed by a gasp of pain, my throat now so swollen that I was in agony.
However Slim didn’t seem to notice, he was too busy peering furiously at his little brother.
“It weren’t that way really it weren’t,” Andy said, “you see….”
“Wasn’t,” Slim exploded, “it wasn’t that way…how many times do I have to tell you Andy!”
Andy looked down and counted to ten, “OK it wasn’t that way. See I was abducted by this guy and then he tried to kill me and Jess and then….”
“Stop right there young man, don’t make things worse by lying!”
“I’m not lying…ask Jess…”
Slim turned angry eyes on me, “Well?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing… “I…uh…”and then I felt the blood pounding in my ears again and taking a deep breath I marched off to the barn with Traveller, just hoping I wasn’t gonna pass out before I’d put him up for the night.
“Well I guess that’s our answer,” said Slim angrily, “at least he’s not lying for you. Now get off to your room Andy…no supper and we’ll talk about all this in the morning.”
“But Slim!”
“I won’t be telling you again Andy!”
When I got back from the barn and entered the ranch house Andy had gone to bed, but Slim was still pacing around the place and looked pretty much like he was itching for a fight.
“Well what have you got to say for yourself?” he asked glaring at me.
I glared back and said, “Nuthin’,” and turning made for our room, just wanting my bed and the terrible aching in my throat to stop.
Well that seemed to stop him in his tracks some and he turned and shrugged at Jonesy who had just come out of the kitchen.
For once he seemed to be on my side and said, “There’s some stew and dumplings goin’ beggin’ if you want boy, I could heat it up, you’re looking kinda peaky.”
I smiled at him, but just the thought of food nearly made me gag, “No thanks,” I managed and then disappeared into the bedroom, ripping off my shirt, bandana, boots and pants before I crashed out on my bed, asleep in seconds.

Chapter 8
The following morning Slim woke me at first light banging about and finally mooched over and looked down at me.
“So you got anything to say for yourself then? Hell, Jess didn’t you think we’d be worried sick about Andy…didn’t he tell you he was due home huh?”
I just groaned and closed my eyes again and he got mad and said sarcastically, “Well get up, you’ve been away long enough, maybe you could manage a few chores this morning huh?”
“When I lay there with my eyes closed, he saw red and pulled the covers back exposing my naked chest.
“For goodness sake will you…and then he sucked in a deep breath and sank down on the edge of the bed… “Hell Jess what happened to your neck?” he said in a hushed tone.
My eyes snapped open at that and I just stared at him, not knowing where to start.
“Is that caused by what I think it is?” he asked, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder.
I opened my mouth to reply, “Yes,” and then gasped in pain and my hand shot up to my throat.
His expression was now full of compassion… “Does it hurt really badly?”
I just nodded….
“Can’t talk too well huh?”
I nodded again.
He looked down and cussed softly, “I guess maybe I’ve made one big mistake…”
Then getting up he yelled out, “Andy…Andy get yourself in here….!”
Sometime later Andy had told the tale from the beginning, about how Dog had tricked him and ending with a rather dramatized version of the whole hanging business.
Slim was in turn shocked, horrified and finally relieved that all had ended well…for us at least.
Then Jonesy, who had been listening carefully throughout the proceedings, went off to fetch me a cold drink to ease my throat and the others left me to sleep a while.
Mort rode into the yard just in time to wave Andy off in the Stage on his way to school.
He tied his buckskin to the hitching rail and joined Slim on the porch.
“I see the boy’s recovered OK from his ordeal,” Mort said turning to Slim.
Slim nodded and gestured for Mort to take a seat on the porch and sank down on a chair beside him.
“I guess kids are pretty resilient, he can’t wait to go tell all his school friends about his adventures,” Slim said with a wry smile. He was kinda tearful and upset at first though. Hell, who wouldn’t be going through all that Mort? Well you know first-hand,” and both men dwelled on the horrific scene once more.
Then said sincerely, “I can’t begin to thank you for what you did Mort.”
“Heck it’s not just me you want to thank,” said Mort quickly, “it was team work…if it hadn’t been for the way Jess handled things it could have been a whole different ending.”
“Sure, so Andy explained how Jess swapped places with him, thinking the youngster would be set free?”
Slim nodded, “Yes and then how Dog tricked him and said he was going to shoot Andy anyway…he’d lied. The gunshot would have spooked Patch so Jess would perish at the same time.” He sighed deeply, “You have to give him credit for thinking that out…that was one heck of a devious plan.”
Both men reflected on the truth of it, in silence for a few minutes before Mort continued.
“Anyways, I guess I ain’t ever seen bravery like it Slim. The way Jess took the boy’s place and then called out to me to shoot…knowing dang well that would most likely be the end of it for him if I did.”
Slim’ s head shot up and he listened intently as Mort continued.
“I know all about hangings, God help me, I’ve performed one or two myself,” Mort said sadly. “And believe me, if that pony had been spooked by a shot that close, he’d have reared and dived off like the devil was on his tail,” he shook his head. “The way that rope was tied I figure Jess’s neck would have been broken.”
Then he turned to look Slim in the eyes… “And I figure he knew that too...but he still gave the order for me to fire.” He shook his head again, “I reckon Jess is the one you should really be thanking Slim.”
I knew what I had to do, and dragging myself up I washed and dressed and then started packing my saddle bags.
As I left the bedroom, I saw Mort and Slim entering the house, Jonesy just bringing some coffee to the table.
“Heck where are you off to Jess?” Slim asked in surprise, noting my packed bags, “You’ve only just landed home.”
Home…Jeez, that one word made me wanna weep…it was all I wanted. Hell all I’d ever wanted for years I suddenly realised, a place to call home…But how could I stay now?
I sighed deeply and pulled myself together.
“I can’t stay Slim,” I croaked, “I broke my promise...I said I’d keep Andy out of trouble…and I couldn’t.”
“Are you crazy?” he retaliated, “Of course you did! Mort’s just told me how you took Andy’s place on Patch thinking he’d go free. Then how you yelled for Mort to shoot that bastard Durkin even though you knew you’d most likely pay the price…and you reckon you didn’t keep him safe huh?”
I just shrugged, “I guess it was me that brought all the trouble to your door in the first place though.”
“And why were they after you?” Mort said staunchly, before answering his own question, “Because of some crazy notion that you were father of his sister’s kid and you killed his cousin…neither of which is true! Well the murder of Jake Durkin sure ain’t I checked with the Sheriff…As to his sister, well I guess that’s out of my jurisdiction,” he said with a chuckle. “But that sure ain’t any reason to hang a man for goodness sake, “he finished smiling across at me and easing the tension some, I guess.
“So, no Jess none of this was your fault,” Slim said, “so let’s just forget it huh?”
I just looked down, not knowing what to say…sure I wanted to stay, but what if something else kicked off…I was real undecided.
That is until Slim turned to Jonesy and said… “Heck Jonesy you know what this means dontcha, now Jess is back we can all relax some…no more extra chores. I might even find time to go over to Paradise and pick off a turkey for Thanksgiving.”
Then he turned to me, “So how about it Jess we could go find us a turkey huh? Then more quietly, for my ears only, “And maybe go up the mountain and do some trading with old Denver James too, so what do ya say huh?”
Well what could I say?
The following week we did just that and it was while we were camping out in the Big Open that the full story of what had happened while I was away from the ranch all came out.
“Gee I’m real sorry I didn’t ask you about it earlier,” Slim said as we sipped our coffee by the light of the camp fire. “I was just so darned worried about Andy I’d clean forgot about why you’d taken off in the first place.”
So after I’d filled him in about everything, the set-to with the Bounty Hunter and then the mad dash to go and save Andy I sat back relaxing and looking into the flames.
“You know Slim I guess I really rate ol’ Mort he’s a good man to have along when the goin’ gets kinda tough.”
Slim threw me an amused glance at my usual understatement and then said, “Well you know Jess from talking to Mort I figure he feels exactly the same about you.”
My head shot up and I nearly spilt my coffee, “You think?” I asked in surprise.
“I know so for a fact,” he said now grinning at me before draining his coffee cup.” He said as how you’d saved his bacon and he was real proud to have you as a friend.”
Well I can’t begin to tell you how great that made me feel…a real good man like Mort Cory counting me as a friend.
“Come on now Jess time to bed down if we’re going to take that trip up the mountain to do a deal with Denver James tomorrow,” he said winking at me.
“For a man who says he’s never touched Moonshine you seem to know a fair amount about the guy and his whereabouts,” I said with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh everyone knows of Denver James in these parts and I know where he is because his Still is up on the Sherman Mountain.”
I just stared at him in amazement, “Well that’s more than Mort knows, I reckon.”
“That’s right, unless someone tells him,” he said throwing me a wary look.
“Hell no, he won’t hear it from me, I wouldn’t tell on ol’ Den anyways.”
“Huh…ol’ Den, so you know him then?”
I just nodded, “Yup.”
He shook his head and lay down pulling his blanket over, “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” he said with a chuckle…
Well Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went and I have to say Slim took to the Moonshine real well…OK, so he overindulged some as Jonesy would have said and puked up for a couple of days, but he soon got the hang of it. Just like I finally got the hang of celebrating the holidays, but I guess it took me a while longer to come to terms with everything.
See what you hafta understand is that my Pa wasn’t a celebrating kinda man…not in the holiday sense anyways. Sure, he’d go down to the saloon and get as drunk as a skunk…and that’s where all the money went. So our Thanksgiving and Christmas were just the same as any other day. Sure Ma made the effort with a few homemade gifts and some extra food if she could, but that was about it. That’s why I was kinda like a fish out of water, particularly at Christmas when all the old Sherman traditions came into play. The turkey shoot, then choosing a tree and hauling it in to decorate on Christmas Eve. Slim bringing this old box of the family decorations down from the loft and the shouts of glee as the brothers dressed the tree… Well it was all beyond me and I felt kinda out of it.
Slim seemed to understand though and he was real patient with me when I was kinda ornery as I was out of my depth. But then things got better on Christmas Day when Mort joined us and we cracked open the moonshine. Old Jonesy cooked up a storm and I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
So that first winter continued with icy blizzards and deep snow all around. Jeez I hated that cold weather. I was all for packing up and heading Traveller back to Texas. Days turned into weeks and we were confined to the yard and barn with just the odd foray out to the home pasture to feed and check on the stock. I guess we were all getting kinda stir crazy and I was real relived to wake up one morning in early spring to hear the sound of running water, the ice and snow were finally melting! Spring was definitely here.

Chapter 9
Well accordin’ to a poetry book Slim had been reading to pass the time, ‘in spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…’
I stared at him when he quoted that, “Huh, what you sayin’ Slim?”
He repeated it and then said grinning at me, “That’s according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson anyways.”
I considered that and then sighing said, “Well I don’t know as how that’s true Slim, ‘cos my thoughts of love have been dang well drivin’ me crazy all winter long…never mind in spring.”
“I guess it has been kind of tough snowed in here for so long,” he agreed. “How about we ride into town to get the supplies tomorrow and call at the saloon, see if Emma and Cindy are good for the Spring Dance next week huh?”
Heck we’d not set eyes on the saloon girls since the snow had confined us to the ranch sometime in mid-January and I wondered what sorta reception we’d get. But then it sure was worth checking them out because I was feeling mighty frustrated truth be known and I really was lookin’ forward to a little romancing.
I must admit I was kinda surprised that Slim had suggested it, until I remembered how well he’d hit it off with Emma…But then I remembered that he didn’t know the girls had plans to move on at some stage.
“Well that sounds a real good idea Slim,” I said cheerfully, “and I guess we’ll find someone to take if those two knock us back.”
He looked kinda worried at that notion, “You think they will?”
I just shrugged, “I dunno, but plenty more fish in the sea if they do I guess,” I said casually.
“Uh, but I really like Emma,” he said quietly, “I mean really like…”
“Look Slim, Cindy told me a while back they might not be…um well, around forever. See the thing is they’re kinda set on heading west…to the coast,” I admitted.
We had been grooming a couple of the relay horses in the barn and now he came out of the stall putting the brushes to one side looking real upset.
“Well I didn’t know that,” he finally managed.
“Oh come on buddy, it ain’t the end of the world,” I said, but beginning to feel kind of sad myself at the prospect of them moving on. “I guess we’ll just have to make the best of things while they’re here huh?”
That’s why we scrubbed up real good in clean shirts and our best boots and Stetsons to drive the old buckboard into town the following morning.
As we were harnessing up Betsy and Tam, Jonesy mooched over with his list and a couple of gunny sacks for some of the purchases.
He threw them in the back of the buckboard and said, “Be sure to cover the merchandise over with the tarp Slim looks like rain,” he said casting an eye up to the cloudy sky.
Then he wandered around to where I was just fixing to jump on board as Slim gave the harness a final check. Jonesy stopped in his tracks as he glanced over at us and then said, “Well don’t you two look purty…real purty,” he said with a sly gleam in his old eyes. “Now iffen I didn’t know better I’d think you two boys were going courting.”
“Who us?” I said innocently as I climbed on board and took up the reins.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about Jonesy,” Slim agreed jumping up beside me…then just seconds later I slapped the reins, the horses taking off at speed and all that was left in the yard was a cloud of dust and a rather puzzled looking Jonesy.
Once in town we got through the marketing in record time, throwing everything in the back of the buckboard and covering it over with the tarp as true to Jonesy’s prediction a light drizzle had begun to fall.
Tethering the horses up outside the saloon we marched inside. Both of us ready for a quick beer or two before heading home.
Cindy and Emma were in their usual place behind the bar and eventually seemed to be quite pleased to see us. Although we had to put up with some cheeky banter before they finally agreed to accompany us to the dance.
“Well I really don’t know do you Cindy?” Emma said inspecting her nails. “I think we’ve been really badly neglected by these boys of late.”
“Aw Emma we couldn’t help it,” Slim said looking pained, “we’ve been stuck out on the ranch snowed in, we’d have called iffen we’d been able,” he finished with a hopeful smile.
She sniffed and looked bored, “Oh really?”
I decided to try a more forthright approach and sidling over to Cindy reached across the bar, took her hand and said huskily, “Hell sweetheart I’ve missed ya something fierce…been goin’ crazy stuck out on that dang ranch.”
She raised a disbelieving eyebrow, “You have, have you?”
“Sure I have honey…and I guess iffen we can go to the dance together I’ll show you just how much,” I whispered, for her ears only.
She flushed up at that and gave me a little slap on the arm, “Cheeky man!” she said, but looking secretly pleased I figured.
“So will ya…huh?” I asked throwing her my best smile.
She cast a glance over to Emma, who gave a small nod and sighing said, “Well I suppose so….as long as you treat a girl right…pick us up here and on time!”
Once all the arrangements were made, we finished our beers and headed for home, but not until I’d stolen a kiss across the bar before we left. I was rewarded by the promise of a real good night at the dance. Iffen her lovin’ kiss was anything to go by I figured, not to mention the passionate look in her eyes as we left.
Once we were out the door Slim turned to me, “Heck Jess you don’t half chance your arm, kissing her that way in the middle of the saloon for all to see!”
But I just looked unrepentant, “It’s all in the kissin’ buddy,” I said quietly, “way to a woman’s heart is good kissin’.”
“Oh really and so you’d know would you?” he said smirking at me.
I just winked at him, “Watch and learn, watch and learn,” I said tapping my nose before I took up the reins and we headed for home, both feelin’ mighty pleased with ourselves.
When we got back to the ranch the rain had finally stopped and I jumped down and tethered the horses near the kitchen door and then went around the back of the buckboard to unload.
Slim pulled off the old black tarp and shook the rain off it and then we stopped in our tracks as we stared in shock at what lay hidden beneath the tarp….
I gasped in utter disbelief.
“What in Hell is that?” I finally managed.
Slim turned to look at me after a moment, his expression equally incredulous, “It’s a baby Jess.”
“Well I can see that but dang it all Slim, what’s it doin’ here?”
There was now a faint smile hovering around my buddy’s mouth, “Well I dunno Jess you tell me.”
I stared back at the tiny, dark haired baby sleeping soundly in a wicker basket, its mop of dark curly hair, tiny face and one hand the only things visible, the rest snugly wrapped in a warm pale blue blanket.
“Well does it remind you of anyone Jess?” he asked now actively grinning at me.
“Yeah a baby,” I replied bitterly, “you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all.”
“Well that’s not a very fatherly attitude Jess…”
“Huh?” I asked, then what he was implying hit home, I turned on him, “Hey you can’t lay this at my door…it ain’t mine Slim!”
“Well you’re the only one around here who nearly got his neck stretched just a few months back for allegedly being the daddy of the Durkin baby, or have you conveniently forgotten that?”
“No, I dang well haven’t and I told ya then it weren’t me who sired the kid it was that low life Daly Smith! The guy Annie Durkin two timed me with…seeing him when I couldn’t make a date and using him to try to make me jealous too. Jeez Slim I reckon that’s what all this is about, her makin’ out I’m the Pa because Daly won’t commit, well I’ll tell ya now it ain’t gonna work!”
“Jess that’s the least of our problems, the fact is we’ve got a baby to look after and right now I figure….”
But we were never to hear Slim’ s words of wisdom, because right then the baby awoke, took one look at us and started bawling the place down.
Well that alerted Jonesy that all wasn’t well out in the yard and he came charging out and then stopped dead in his tracks staring at us both.
“What’s that almighty racket, is that dang cat of ours after the vittles again…huh?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope it’s worse than that Jonesy,” and picking up one of the sacks of provisions made for the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “Jess there will explain everything….”
It was sometime later after I’d made a makeshift diaper out of an old dish rag and settled the baby back to sleep that we were able to talk properly.
“I thought you said you didn’t know anything about babies,” Slim said throwing me an amused look tinged with respect.
“I didn’t say I didn’t know about lookin’ after babies,” I spat, “I just said as how I didn’t know anything about this particular one…and I figure I would if I was the Pa as everyone seems to dang well think.”
“So how come you can change a diaper?” Slim insisted.
“Oh hell Slim you can’t come from a big family like mine without pickin ’ up stuff along the way,” I said, “it’s just common sense anyway ain’t it.”
Slim and Jonesy shrugged and then the old man said, “At least we know he’s a boy now anyways…and a real chip off the old block too,” he chuckled peering at me.
“Jonesy will ya stop it, how many times do I hafta say it, he ain’t mine... Hell I ain’t clapped eyes on the girl for more than a year, maybe longer and this little ‘un is barely two months old, if that.”
“Um…pretty close call though Jess,” muttered Slim.
“Will ya stop it? Garldarn it Slim, iffen you don’t believe me what chance am I gonna have with other folk?”
“More to the point what are we going to do with it?” Jonesy asked, voicing what I guess we’d all been thinking since we found the little fellah.
I shrugged, “I guess we’re gonna hafta find his Ma and give him back…she must still be in town.”
“Well why don’t we just wait for her to find you Jess,” said Slim, “After all a Ma wouldn’t just abandon her baby. She’s obviously left it with you hoping you’ll get back together…wed her and give the kid a name.”
“Well she’ll have a dang long wait,” I muttered.
“Oh come on Jess you must be pretty fond of her seeing as you were so close once?”
I just shook my head, “Nope whatever we had died the day I found out she’d been cheating on me….and that’s an end to it…OK?”
I guess he saw that look in my eyes that said ‘end of... period’… because he backed down and just suggested he go up in the attic and try and locate Andy’s old feedin’ bottle as the baby would be hungry when he woke up.
It was sometime later that the afternoon Stage rolled in bearing Andy home from school.
Slim and I rushed out to change the team, leaving the baby sleeping peacefully in his basket by the fireside.
Once Andy had jumped down full of the day’s doings at school and had finally wandered off with Slim to collect the fresh team, I took Mose on one side.
“Uh, so Mose had any interestin’ passengers lately?” I asked casually.
“Uh, what sort would that be then son?” he asked throwing me a quizzical glance.
I just shrugged, “I dunno, something different like maybe a dog or um… crate of hens traveling in the stage or… say a baby?”
He perked up at that, a huge smile creeping across his face, “Ah so you’re askin’ about the purty lady and the tiny baby…so um, what would be your interest in them be then Jess boy huh?” he asked now looking positively wolfish in his curiosity.
“Uh, no interest,” I said innocently, “just me and Slim were havin’ a wager as to who or what your most unusual passenger would be that’s all.”
He just threw me an old-fashioned look and seeing the new team were all hitched up he jumped back up on the box and made ready for off.
Then grinning down at me said, “She’s stayin’ the night at the Laramie Hotel…just in case yer interested,” and then with a guffaw slapped the reins and took off up the rise at speed.
As I followed the others across the yard and entered the house a gust of wind caught the door and it slammed behind me…causing the baby to wake and give a little whimper.
Slim and I exchanged a worried glance as Andy stopped in his tracks staring at the baby basket in shock.
Then he turned puzzled eyes on us, “Jeepers what the heck is that?” he asked.
“It’s a baby,” Slim and I said in unison…
Well if Slim and Andy didn’t know anything about carin’ fer babies before that night, they sure as hell did after it.
The little ‘un went through his whole assortment of tricks, from wailing to be fed…or changed, to chucking up half his milk. That being across Slim’s shoulder as I showed him how to burp a baby. Then there was the wailing with legs up… obviously colicky pain…and then just as dawn was breaking, he started off again, wanting his early feed.
“Beats me as to why a man ever has a family,” Slim grouched, eyes at half-mast as he sat before the fire giving the baby his bottle.
I swung the baby and bottle from his grasp and carried on with the task myself.
“That’s why the Good Lord invented women,” I muttered, “they’re way stronger than us. Made to look after the little’ uns, and that’s just what this one’s Ma is gonna be doin’ before the day’s out too, I promise ya that,” I said bitterly.
Slim nodded, “Well I sure hope so, who thought it could be so dang difficult huh? I’m going back to bed for a little while,” he finished staggering off looking wore out.
The only one who appeared not to have suffered was Jonesy now whistling cheerfully in the kitchen as he put the coffee pot on.
He brought me a cup in a little later and I threw him a surprised look.
“So how come you’re so dang chirpy this morning?” I asked. “Andy, Slim and me are pure wore out with all the yellin’ this one’s been doin’”, I said, expertly rubbing the baby’s back and being rewarded with a loud hiccup.
“Huh?” asked Jonesy, removing some cotton wool from his ears, “what’d you say Jess?”
“Nuthin’… nuthin’ at all Jonesy,” I said shaking my head.
Chapter 10
I set off for town after the early Stage had gone through and all the yard chores were completed.
To my surprise Andy had cut up rough when I’d said I was taking the baby back to his Ma that day.
“Aw Jess…Slim, can’t we keep him,” he implored his brown eyes pleading.
“You crazy” I asked, “after last night?”
“Well he’s just not used to us yet; he’ll soon settle down. Please…Jess can we keep him, huh?”
“Look Andy this ain’t one of your wild critters,” I said impatiently, “it’s a little person and should rightfully be with his Ma and Pa…”
Well he is, ain’t he,” the child retorted, “his Pa anyways.”
“Look Andy I’ve told ya once, he ain’t mine!”
“He isn’t mine!” Slim bellowed the constant poor grammar getting on his nerves as always and the lack of sleep making him fractious.
We both stared at him in shock for a moment, but I recovered first.
“Well nobody said he was pard…”
Slim just rolled his eyes, “Go get your school books Andy and no more talk of babies OK…he’s going back to his Ma and that’s an end to it.”
Andy slammed out of the room looking mutinous and I turned to Slim, “Thanks buddy…”
But Slim was grinning down at the baby…
“You can’t blame the boy,” he said softly, “after all he is kinda cute isn’t he Jess.”
I just shook my head, “Don’t you start, he’s going back today!”
But then I looked down at the little ‘un and with that mop of curly black hair and those big blue eyes peering up at me, lookin’ kinda knowing…well sure he was as cute as a button, but he had to go, I knew that.
Now as I made my way slowly down the Laramie road, the baby safely stowed in the back of the buckboard I wondered how to approach Annie. She must have been in pretty dire straits to abandon her baby that way I figured. Heck, and all her three brothers had been killed, one of them by my hand and I dreaded to think what our meeting would be like.
Sometime later I marched into the Laramie Hotel and was just about to inquire as to the whereabouts of Miss Annie Durkin, or whatever name she was currently using, thinking that she might have added a Mrs for proprieties sake.
However, before I could ask the clerk, I saw a movement across the hall in the hotel lounge and noticed a woman over the far side, her back to me, drinking coffee.
As I entered carrying the baby basket she half turned and gave a little gasp.
She looked even younger than I remembered, her long dark wavy hair framing her perfect face and her blue eyes huge and almost fearful as she stared at me. She was very pale and slender. Looking almost fragile and the harsh words I had intended to utter, about her abandoning her baby, died on my lips.
“Annie?” I said, our gaze locking for a good minute, before she jumped up and took the basket from me peering anxiously down at her child. But he was sleeping peacefully, unaware of the drama unfolding around him.
“How could you?” I said softly, still feeling kinda angry at the way she’d treated him.
Her head shot up and she said, “I knew he’d be safe with you. You know how to look after little ‘uns. After all we learned that at our Ma’s knee didn’t we Jess back on the Panhandle? We had to I guess being part of big families.” Then she must have suddenly remembered what happened to my family and gave a little cry, “Oh, I’m so sorry…I…”
“It’s OK, that was a long time ago,” I said quietly.
We both sat back down on the couch, the baby basket between us and I said, “So, what’s all this about Annie, what are you doin’ all the way up here huh?”
She looked like she might cry and then said, “Well I don’t have a home anymore do I…with Brad and Chas both dead….”
“Chas, who the heck is Chas?” I asked looking puzzled.
“Dog,” she said bitterly, “he had that stupid nickname Dog, but Ma and Pa called him Charles... that was his given name.”
I just nodded remembering that her Ma and Pa both perished in the war.
“Then with my little brother gone too, I couldn’t afford the rent on the house,” she said now fighting back tears.
“Look I’m sorry, real sorry, that young Jody died that way,” I said taking her hand. “He was a good kid…just led astray by Brad and Dog I guess.”
She nodded, “I hated them Jess, hated them with a vengeance and I’m glad they’re dead, but Jody was different.”
“Brad came after me, said I’d gunned down your cousin Jake in cold blood, that’s a filthy lie you know Annie.” Then I remembered the other reason that Brad had been gunning for me.
“Why did you tell him I was the kid’s father?” I asked glancing down to where the baby was stirring in his sleep, his little mouth making sucking actions and I figured he’d need feeding again soon.
When she was silent, I flicked a glance back to her, “Annie…why?”
“Because it’s the truth,” she said stiffly, “Jamie is your son Jess.”
“The Hell he is,” I countered, “and you know it…Heck Annie we ain’t laid together for well over a year and this little one…err…Jamie is no more than a couple weeks old if that.”
“He’s five months,” she said quickly, “just small for his age.”
I just stared at her thinking she must be crazy if I was gonna swallow that one.
“Why are ya lyin’?” I asked.
When she just looked down, I said quietly, “I can’t do this Annie, can’t wed ya iffen that’s what you’re after. This baby ain’t mine for a start…and for second well I don’t think any relationship will work if it ain’t built on trust. You’re lyin’ about this and you lied way back when you told me you weren’t seein’ Daly Smith…So I guess it would be kinda doomed before it started huh?”
She ignored the fact that she’d been with Daly Smith and had lied to me about it on several occasions.
“You loved me,” she cried, “we were so good together…I thought…”
“You thought what? I was serious we’d get Wed have a family? When did I ever agree to that huh? You know darned well we talked it through and we both said we didn’t want that. Dang it Annie you knew I weren’t staying around that long and you said that was just fine. You just wanted some fun…some laughs together…nuthin’ too heavy.”
“Well I lied!” she shouted, looking close to tears, “Because I wanted to keep you. That’ what all girls do, they say what they think their man wants to hear…But I thought once we’d laid together, you’d change your mind. Then later when you talked about moving on, I thought I could change you…make you settle down.”
“Make me…change me…hell Annie what kinda relationship is that huh? Then you dang well slept with Daly…I guess that was all part of the plan too huh…to make me jealous so I’d wanna stay?”
“Well what was I supposed to do?” She yelled, the tears now running down her flushed cheeks.
“Tell me the truth in the first place,” I yelled back, “and I’d never have gone with you iffen I’d known that was how you were thinkin’, that’s fer sure! I told ya right from the start I wasn’t gonna be around for the long haul…said I was gonna be leaving on that cattle drive come spring…you knew that!”
Then James woke up and started yellin’ blue murder…
That’s when the desk clerk came over and asked politely if Annie would take the baby out as it was disturbing the other guests…
I stood up quickly, not knowing how to resolve everything. Sure she was kinda devious, trying to entrap me with another man’s kid…But part of me felt responsible for her too...all alone and with her brothers all dead and her home gone. Had I taken advantage of her back then I wondered? But no, she had seemed to be a woman of the world, happy go lucky and ready for a good time…How was I to know she had a hidden plan and hoped to change me?
“Look, I guess we need to talk some more,” I said, “I’ll come by later, tomorrow when he’s havin’ his afternoon nap, OK?”
She nodded and gave me a watery smile, “Room ten…after luncheon tomorrow,” she said and picking up the basket where Jamie was now crying hungrily, made her way up the stairs to her room.
I wandered outside and stood looking up and down Main Street for a minute before making purposefully off towards my horse. Boy did I need a drink… but I figured it wouldn’t stay at just the one the way I was feeling, so I set Traveller for home knowing there was work to be done.
As it was, we were real busy and so I just told Slim briefly what had happened and how I intended to try and talk things through with Annie the next day. Maybe even pay her fare back home, hoping she could stay with relatives or friends back in Texas.
The following day I rode into town and as it was still quite early, sometime just after noon I decided to spend some time with Cindy over at the saloon. The place was empty, save for a couple of old bar flies playin’ checkers at a table, and Cindy and Emma were chatting quietly behind the bar.
I gave them a friendly grin of welcome and was surprised when I was rewarded by a pair of icy stares, before Cindy eventually sauntered over and said coldly, “Yes sir what can I get you?”
My head shot up and I said, “Hey honey what’s up? Are you still mad because I couldn’t get into town when the snow was down...I thought you’d forgiven me,” I said smiling hesitantly.
“Oh I did,” she said bitterly, “but that was before I knew what a lying’ two timing pig you really are.”
I took a step backwards feeling almost like she’d slapped me and just whispered, “Huh?”
“You heard me and I sure don’t know why you’ve fetched up here. If you want a date to take to the Dance next Saturday, well why dontcha ask your wife…huh Jess, because I sure won’t be going with you!”
I felt totally perplexed now, “What are ya talkin’ about Cindy?”
“Your wife over at the hotel…mother of your son Jess...or has he conveniently slipped your memory too huh?”
Then all became clear. I threw her a deadpan look, “I take it you’ve met Annie?”
“Oh yes, in the haberdashers, I admired little Jamie and that’s when he said she was here to see you…Said you’d walked out on the marriage as soon as she got pregnant…Said as how she hoped you’d change your mind once you saw your son.”
“And you believed her?” I said bitterly.
“Yes we all did, didn’t we Emma?” she said turning to her friend.
Emma nodded, “Everyone says he’s the image of you….”
“What…everyone in the haberdasher’s right?” I asked, slowly becoming aware of a plot to blacken my name.
“Um…oh yes and the Woman’s Group too. We thought we’d introduce her around,” Cindy said with a wicked glint in her eye… “So yes, I guess every woman in Laramie has been warned as to what an utter bastard you are…So good luck getting another date…I figure you’ll just have to go back to that poor sucker of a wife, if she’ll have you.”
I just stared at her for a minute rendered speechless and then turned on my heel and marched off across the street making for the hotel. I took the stairs two at a time and knocked furiously on the door of number ten…but there was no reply. I continued hammering until an angry old man popped his head around the door of number eight and told me to quit banging’ as he was trying to nap.
“Where is she?” I bellowed at him, “The woman and baby?”
“Gone,” he said slamming the door in my face.
I cussed loudly and tore back down the stairs to confront the clerk on the front desk.
“I’m sorry sir, the lady checked out and took the East bound Stage; was staying at the Cheyenne Hotel I believe her companion said.”
“Uh, suitor, husband possibly? I couldn’t say sir, but they seemed very close.”
I wandered out of the hotel and stood on the sidewalk, lost in thought.
I was at a loss to know what to do…I figured there wasn’t much point in going back to try and explain everything to Cindy as it looked pretty much like her mind was made up. But hell, surely she thought more of me than that…but apparently not.
Then I almost laughed at the irony of the situation, Annie had succeeded where her brothers had failed. She’d single- handedly made me about the most unpopular guy in town. The women folk hated me and the men probably all thought I was a fool for getting caught that way.
I was still standing there feeling as mad as all get out and wondering what to do next when someone hailed me from across the street.
I looked up and saw Mort standing outside his office, waving me over.
I mooched across and said, “Howdy Mort.”
“Heck Jess, you look like a man that could use a good strong coffee,” the Sheriff replied and ushered me into his office.
He poured us both a cup of his bitter, but reviving, brew and we both settled down on either side of his large untidy desk.
After I’d stared into my cup for a good few minutes Mort sighed and said, “So you wanna tell me about it then son?”
I looked up into his warm kindly eyes and decided maybe it would help some.
“You recall those lies Dog and Brad were tellin’ about me and their sister Annie Durkin?”
He nodded, “That you’d got her in the family way and refused to commit, yup I do and you denied it.”
“Well that’s because it weren’t dang well true!” I exploded.
He put a hand up then to calm me down some, “Take it easy Jess I believe you. I may not have known you too long, but one thing I do know is you’re a man of your word,” he finished with a kindly smile.
“Well that’s more than most folk,” I said angrily, remembering the recent fall out with Cindy.
He nodded, “Yup I guess it’s a case of lock up your daughters Jess Harper’s in town,” he said with a grin.
However, he soon sobered when I glared at him.
“Hell this ain’t no laughing matter Mort, she’s turned every woman in Laramie against me, including my date for the Spring Dance next Saturday,” I added ruefully.
“Don’t I know it,” he said looking pretty sorry for me now. “The girl from the café opposite, Molly that does the prisoner’s meals, she was full of it. Said you’d left this Annie in the lurch as soon as you knew she was expecting…well that’s enough to rile any woman I guess…if it were true that is,” he finished quickly.
I just grunted and then put my head in my hands, feelin’ so dang helpless...but what could I do?
“Look Jess…er can’t you reason with this um...Annie make her take all these lies back?” he asked after a minute.
I looked up and then shook my head, “It’s too dang late she’s vamoosed, with that no hoper Daly Smith, I guess, the real Pa. Taken the noon Stage.”
Then a thought struck me, “Hey Mort, its Friday ain’t it?”
“Yeah, so why, what difference does that make?”
“Well dontcha see, old Jonesy always makes Mulligan Stew on a Friday, Mose’s favorite. He makes sure he stops over for the mid-day meal, passengers or not…and I reckon if I hurry I’ll catch ‘em still at the Relay. Maybe I can talk some sense into her,” I said jumping up and making for the door.
However, Mort called me back…
“Hang on Jess iffen you want to make this right here’s what you need to do…”
After five minutes I grinned at him, “You think that’ll work?”
“Sure it will boy, you get off now and as soon as Lon comes by to cover me I’ll ride over and play my part OK?”
I grinned at him, “That’s way more than OK Mort, thanks,” I said pumping his hand before diving off to find Traveller and head for home at speed.
As I tore into the ranch house, I was relieved to see that Annie was seated at the dinner table along with Slim and old Jonesy and also Daly Smith as I’d expected. They all looked up as I charged in, Annie, half rising as though to try and escape, looking deeply shocked and flushed.
“Jess,” she cried, “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“No, I bet you weren’t,” I replied angrily.
Then Daly stood up, looking as pale and gawky as usual.
“I um…err…don’t want no trouble Jess,” he said quietly, his beady eyes darting around the room as though looking for an escape route.
“Don’t go gettin’ yer pants in a ruck Daly,” I said pleasantly, “it’s Annie here I wanna talk to…then you can have her back and welcome.”
“Well yes, I should think so,” he said now mustering some bravado as it appeared he was not my target.
I just rolled my eyes and taking hold of Annie’s elbow, none too gently, escorted her outside to the porch where we could talk in private, Slim and Jonesy looking on, but having the sense not to interfere.
Once we were seated, I said, “Well you wanna tell me why you’ve treated me so bad?”
When she just looked down at her hands neatly clasped in her lap, I grew even more annoyed.
“OK how about this for starters, Daly back there,” I said tipping my hat towards the house, “refused to marry you and so you thought you’d try your luck with me. Tell me the kid was mine in the hope I’d believe ya and do the right thing…Right so far?”
She just nodded peering down at her hands as though she’d never seen them before.
“So when I didn’t wanna play your game you had to go for plan B. Wiring Daly to pretend you and me we were getting wed, knowing that would make him jealous enough to come get you and finally face up to his responsibilities of being a Pa maybe… right?”
She nodded again, “Yes,” she whispered, “he is Jamie’s Pa, you’re right, and we are to be wed in Cheyenne. It worked… he was real jealous of you, always has been.”
“OK, but what I don’t understand is why you had to blacken my name that way, “I said bitterly. “Tell all those dang lies about me. My girl’s thrown me over and there’s precious little chance of dating anyone in town again thanks to you…why’d you do that huh?”
That was when she looked me in the eye for the first time and she looked furious.
“Why do you think…because you murdered Bradley in cold blood and then hunted down poor Chas... um Dog that is, and had him killed too! I may have told you that I hated them, but I lied to you Jess, they were my dear brothers no matter what they’d done I cared about them.”
I jumped up then and stared down at her, my heart pounding, eyes narrowed, “Now just one doggone minute here…who says I murdered Brad?” I yelled.
“Why Chas…er Dog as you called him, he told me, told young Jody too, said he didn’t stand a chance, you gunned him down in cold blood.”
I then recounted what happened down by the lake, how both Brad and Dog had faced me off and how Brad drew first hitting me, before I retaliated and shot him through the heart.
“Hell Annie what was I supposed to do just stand there and let them use me for target practice?” I spat. “I no more murdered him in cold blood than I did your cousin Jake…that was a dang lie too and I figure Brad knew that.”
“Why should I believe you?” she asked beginning to look slightly wrong footed.
“Because it’s the dang truth and you’ve known me long enough to know I wouldn’t lie about that kinda thing,” I exploded. “And iffen you still don’t believe me go ask old Doc Johnson in Laramie about how he dug Dog’s bullet out of my leg…and Brad’s from my shoulder.”
She had the grace to flush up and look away then.
Figuring she was beginning to believe me I then went on to tell her exactly how Dog had met his end and why.
“So you see,” I concluded, “iffen the Sheriff hadn’t knifed him, the pony would have bolted, I’d have hung and an innocent thirteen year old kid would have had his brains blowed out by your dear brother…so I guess Mort didn’t have any choice.”
“Stop please stop!” she cried before covering her mouth with her hand as though she was about to chuck, tears now pouring down her face.
Then she finally pulled herself together, “I’m so…so sorry,” she whispered, “I got it all so wrong.”
Then her eyes opened wide in horror.
“It was me,” she cried, “it was all my fault that my brothers died…If I hadn’t lied to them telling them you were Jamie’s Pa they would never have taken you on… I just thought they’d bring you home, make you marry me…not try to kill you,” she said looking totally bereft, before breaking down in hysterical tears.
I watched her for a moment and then could stand it no longer and sank down on the seat beside her and put a comforting arm around her shoulders…then she was in my arms, her head on my shoulder as I held her close and she cried like she would never stop.
That’s how Mort found us some time later.
He hitched up his mount and strode up onto the porch looking down at where Annie had finally stopped crying and was wiping her tears away and looking real repentant.
“So young lady, what are you going to do to make amends to Jess here? What you’ve done is commit slander which is a mighty serious offense you know,” Mort said gravely, looking every inch the fierce lawman.
She looked up at Mort, and sniffed, wiping her eyes once more, “I don’t know Sheriff…but I’ll do anything… .anything at all.”
Then turning back to me said, “I really am so sorry Jess.”
It was much later that evening that Slim and I had a chance to discuss the matters of the day, once Andy and Jonesy were abed.
After the little chat with Mort, Annie had returned to the house and as requested took a seat at Slim’ s desk and wrote out a ‘Statement of Regret,’ to be published in the Laramie Sentinel the following week. She admitted that all the things she had said about me had been complete fabrications and how she deeply regretted any harm she might have done my reputation as a gentleman. She also said that the falsehoods had been made whilst she was in a profoundly emotional state following the deaths of her brothers and made while she was not in her proper mind. Then Sheriff, Mort Cory, had signed the statement. Adding that as Miss Durkin had apologized to Mr Harper and he had accepted her apology then she would not face charges of slander on this occasion.
“So do ya think it’ll do the trick?” I asked Slim now as we sat by the fireside sipping a last coffee before retiring.
“Well I sure hope so for all our sakes,” Slim said casting me a worried glance.
I sighed deeply, “Andy sure took it all pretty badly,” I agreed.
It had transpired that young Wendy Wright had sought Andy out at recess and told him her Ma had said he couldn’t take Wendy to the Spring Dance. When pressed as to why, Wendy had said she wasn’t sure but her Ma had said that she wasn’t to mix with Andy because of his friendship with Mr Harper, but would explain no further.
Andy had come home in a terrible state, both tearful and angry and became even more upset when a valid reason wasn’t forthcoming.
Eventually I had tried to explain as best I could as to what Annie had said about me and how that had stained my character so badly.
“But that’s all lies,” he’d cried furiously, “you wouldn’t do that…and anyway why isn’t she in trouble for lyin’ about you…it just ain’t fair.”
I agreed. “I’m real sorry about this Andy, but hopefully this piece Annie wrote for the paper will make Wendy’s Ma change her mind huh?”
Now Slim cast me a sad glance, “I sure hope it’ll make Emma and Cindy see sense too.”
“Huh? Oh hell Slim this won’t affect you and Emma will it?”
He just shrugged, “You know those two… how they always stick together….”
“Um, I guess so.”
Then I thought about the dance.
“Hey Slim I thought you said Andy was too young to attend the Laramie Dance Hall…I mean I guess it does get a bit wild in there huh?”
“Uh...oh yeah I see. No Jess the Spring Dance is like a family affair. It’s always held out at the Briggs spread out on the edge of town in their barn. The women folk cook up a mess of food and we all pitch in and take homemade cider and beer, lemonade too…it’s for all ages a real family outing.”
“Oh great,” I said darkly, “so I guess I’ll be about as welcome as a wet dog at a parlour social,” Remembering Mort’s jibe about folk needing to lock up their daughters when I was in town.
“Oh come on Jess it’ll be alright, folk will have forgotten about it by next week and anyway there’s always that article in the local rag that should set the record straight.”
On the day of the dance Andy and Jonesy had taken the buckboard over with our contribution to the social, homemade cider and some of Jonesy’s apple pies. But Slim and I decided to head to the saloon on our way, have a quick drink and see if Cindy and Emma had gotten over their huff yet.
I guess I was feelin’ kinda resentful at the way Cindy had treated me iffen I’m honest, but there again I figured Annie could be real convincing, after all she had ol’ Slim there believing it for a little while.
I hadn’t made too much of an effort to get ready and thought I’d maybe just stay in the saloon and get a little drunk. To hell with women…if they wanted to see me as the villain of the piece then let ‘em git on with it, I thought. So I was lookin’ tidy and had dusted down my denims and put on a clean shirt, even shaved, but that was about it. I guess that’s why I was kinda surprised when two of the saloon girls came over to serve me right away, flirtin’ and laughing, before Cindy arrived and sent them off.
Well she was lookin’ good, real good in a low cut green dress that looked like she’d been poured into it, leavin’ nuthin’ to the imagination as per usual.
“Well howdy Jess, glad you could make it,” she said breathily, looking up at me from under her lashes, before passing my beer over, “on the house sweet man.”
I flicked a glance over to Slim, raising a questioning eyebrow and then back to Cindy, “Thanks,” I muttered, taking a pull of the beer and wiping my mouth on the back of my hand before peering at her again, feelin’ kinda puzzled at this about face.
“So, shall we go in a minute,” she said, “Emma won’t be a moment.”
“Huh…heck Cindy I thought we weren’t speaking that you were real mad at me?” I said feelin’ kinda confused.
“What? Oh that, just a misunderstanding Jess…I never really believed that woman anyway.”
“Sure you didn’t,” I said cynically, but thought I might as well let the matter drop, no point in upsettin’ her again and she was lookin’ real cute.
Then Slim noticed a copy of the Sentinel on the bar and tapping it said, “So has everyone seen this then Cindy…the article Miss Durkin wrote exonerating Jess here?”
She nodded briefly, “Yes I believe so, but let’s not worry about all that now,” and bustled off to collect her wrap, taking the paper with her.
Slim and I exchanged a look, feeling totally perplexed as to the ways of woman folk, but decided to just take it in our stride, accept it and move on. Our girls were looking real purty and seemed happy to be with us so why rock the boat?
It was when we arrived at the dance that I was surprised to note that everyone was looking kind of friendly, heck all the women folk too. Even folks like Ma Bootle from the haberdashers. I felt sure she would blank me, thinkin’ I was on my way to hell in a hand cart after all the recent gossip, but she actually smiled at me and inclined her head graciously.
“What’s goin’ on Slim?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth, “the woman folk seem to be lookin’ at me in a real strange way…but they don’t seem mad exactly.”
Slim just shrugged, “That’s women folk for ya Jess, I said it would all blow over just relax huh.”
It was a little later when Slim had brought us a couple of ciders over and the girls were helping with the food that Andy strolled across with young Wendy on his arm and Mrs Wright following on.
Well I guess I’d never seen the kid looking so proud or grown up and Wendy looked real purty too. But it was her Ma that Slim and I couldn’t keep our eyes off as she was lookin’ stunning. Her hair was up in some sort of fancy style and she wore this golden dress that kinda hugged her figure and I guess every red-blooded male in the room was eyeing her up.
She sashayed over to me and Slim and said, “What a lovely surprise, Mister Sherman…Jess…”
“Ma’am,” I said touching my hat and smiling into her eyes.
“Oh please its Sophie, remember,” she said her eyes twinkling in delight.
“Sophie,” I repeated with, according to Slim later, a soppy look on my face.
Just then the band struck up and Andy dived off to the small dance floor with Wendy on his arm as her Ma looked on fondly.
“They make such a sweet couple, don’t they?” she said turning back to me and holding my gaze just a tad too long.
Then she turned her brilliant smile on me once more, “So are you all alone tonight then Jess?” she asked, moving so close that I could feel her sweet breath on my cheek and smell her heady perfume.
Then a voice piped up from behind me and Cindy said, “No, actually he’s with me,” and I felt a possessive arm link through my own.
“Oh, shame,” Sophie said looking totally unabashed, “maybe we can have a dance later then Jess?”
I nodded, “Sure, later Sophie.”
I felt Cindy stiffen next to me, but she said nothing.
Sophie had moved off to go back to her seat and then turned round again, “Oh I forgot to mention it, Andy is coming over to supper next week and I’d love you to join us Jess. I think it’s so important one really gets to know one’s children’s friends and family, don’t you?” she said throwing Cindy a triumphant look before turning and marching off, “I’ll tell you the day and time later,” she called over her shoulder.
“Well of all the cheek!” Cindy exploded.
I glanced down at her wondering if now would be a good time to remind her she had thrown me over just the previous week and so technically I was free to see who I liked, but decided against it.
“Shall we dance?” I said instead.
It was later in the evening that I guess maybe Cindy had call to be a bit annoyed as I reckon I was the most popular guy in the room when the Ladies Excuse me dance was announced. I had a string of girls all wanting to partner me and no sooner had one fallen into step with me and we were cavorting about the dance floor, than another tapped her shoulder and my partner was replaced with another…and another. Each one seemed prettier and more forward than the one before and several actually implied they were free to date, should I be looking for a new girlfriend.
Once the dance was over Cindy and Emma had dashed off to powder their noses, so they said, but I figured they were talking tactics as to how to get rid of all the woman that seemed to be falling over themselves to dance with me and Slim….well especially me iffen I’m honest.
Slim turned to me and grinned once the girls were out of earshot, “So are you having a good time then pard?”
I nodded, “I guess so, but I just can’t figure why all these woman are throwing’ themselves at me Slim, it don’t make sense…Heck last week I was about as popular as a skunk in the wash basket….and now they can’t seem to keep their hands off me.”
He chuckled at that, “Is that so…um? Well you know what they say Jess, girls like a bad boy, maybe that reputation you acquired has done you some good.”
I just rolled my eyes at that and was about to tell him he was plumb crazy when someone yelled for silence.
I looked up to see Mort and old Bert from the livery climb up on the little stage, where the band had been playing, and after several attempts by Mort everyone was finally quiet, listening expectantly.
Mort thanked the Briggs Family for their hospitality and for allowing the town to hold the Spring Dance in their barn.
Then he turned to Bert and said, “Now I guess Bert here from the Livery doesn’t need any introduction, and he’d like to just say a few words while we are all gathered together tonight…Bert.”
Bert came to the front of the stage and peered short-sightedly out at the folk beyond, now all listening intently.
He cleared his throat a couple of times and then started speaking in a surprisingly firm, loud voice.
“I just wanted to say something important,” he started, “about a newcomer to Laramie. He’s been here only a short few months but I guess he’s made his presence known…already. You see this young man has been in the tricky position lately for being vilified for something he hadn’t done…and unacknowledged for something he had done…and I wanna set the record straight today…Because you see I guess the fellah got in bad with some of you folk and that was kinda my fault, well because he helped me out that is…”
He sighed deeply and then said, “I guess I’d better get to the point…and I hope you won’t be too mad at me Jess…”
Every head turned to stare at me and I felt my heart start pounding, what was the old guy gonna say?
“I know I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone where the money came from to repair the livery so quickly, but I guess this is a promise I can’t keep boy… You see folks… young Jess here went and risked his life, along with our good Sheriff, to bring in Bradley Durkin and his brother Dog, who had the livery fired. Well he did that partly so he could claim the bounty money and give it to me to repair the livery and that’s exactly what he did!”
At that there was a huge cheer and folk were patting me on the back and congratulating me, until Mort called for silence again… “Just hear old Bert out,” he said, “or we’ll be wasting good drinking and dancing time!”
Once it was quiet again Bert continued.
“So that’s what he did but at no small cost to himself…he was badly wounded…and he also suffered the wrath of Durkin’ s sister Annie. Anyways this Annie, by way of revenge, made false and slanderous I think the word is...yes slanderous claims against the boy...which we all know now to be completely untrue.”
Several people said, “Here-here and terrible lies,” before Mort hushed them again, for Bert to continue.
“It was when I heard from the Sheriff that she was writing a formal apology in the Sentinel that I decided to write an article of my own properly thanking Jess for everything he’s done to help me stay in business and keep our town livery open. Well I guess Slim and Jess are the only folk in town who haven’t seen this Saturday’s copy of the paper,” he said chuckling, “but I reckon we wanted it to be a surprise for you tonight son…”
Well it sure as hell was that I thought. I guess part of me was kinda mad that he’d blown my cover, but there again he did it with the best of intentions and for that I was truly grateful. I made a short, but real heartfelt, reply and then the drinks flowed and the dancing recommenced and a real good night was had by one and all.

So life continued at the Ranch and Relay and I figure I was becoming accepted by everyone now and was starting to feel I really was home. But of course, life never runs smoothly and there were one hell of a lot more ups and downs to go before things got a whole lot easier with the arrival of Mike and Daisy some years later.
We heard that Annie and Daly did indeed get hitched in Cheyenne and then moved back to the Panhandle…but it was to be many years before I was to hear any further news of them.
Cindy and Emma finally moved on in early summer when they hooked up with a widower heading west in a wagon, with his six-year-old son. Well he’d offered them free passage iffen they’d look out for him and the boy, doin’ all the domestic chores and caring for the young ‘un and it seemed a good deal.
Slim was real put out by Emma leaving and it took him a long while to ‘get back in the saddle’ so to speak… and find another girl. Me? I guess I was kinda relieved in a way. See Cindy had been gettin’ close. I mean real close and had started making jokes about how well we got along. Well I guess the alarm bells started ringing some. See after what Annie had admitted about how all women just told their man what he wanted to hear. Like they were happy with a casual fling…but really all they craved was a serious relationship. Followed by marriage and young ‘uns…Well I guess that kinda worried me some…if it were true that is. Made me kinda wary for a while and I reckon my suspicions were right….
See it was a good few months before we heard from the girls again. Then a letter arrived one morning and I was amazed to hear that Cindy had married the widower and was now step ma to his son and was expecting a little one of her own. Emma it seemed had found true love too…so that was an end to that and I figured I’d had a real narrow escape, seein’ as I’d no plans to settle down then…or maybe ever.
As to Andy and Wendy, well they were getting on real well and I figure the kid was growing up fast. But he’d heeded my advice and was taking things real slow and making a good friendship with the girl before he embarked on a proper grown up relationship…Hell they were still both real young.
As to her Ma…Sophie, well what can I say? I’d managed to get out of that intimate supper she’d invited me to at the Spring Dance. I took off on a cattle buying trip for a few weeks and kinda hoped that she’d have some other guy lined up to be husband number two by the time I returned.
However, she seemed in no rush to wed again and she didn’t seem to want to date either as half the men in town had asked her…only to be knocked back.
“Nope I reckon she’s holding out for you Jess,” Slim said with a chuckle as we discussed the matter late one night over a glass of red-eye before retiring.
“Yup, she was asking after you the other day in the mercantile, wanted to know if you were home from your latest trip away yet and would we be attending the Church picnic next week?”
“Huh, are you crazy?” I asked taking a slug of my drink and topping up our glasses from the bottle on the hearth.
“Nope well I reckon she’s serious Jess, you just watch out,” he said before he gave a bark of laughter.
“I just thought if young Andy keeps on courting Wendy I reckon you could have a double wedding, he’ll be all grown up by the time you get around to making any sort of commitment!”
“Slim,” I exploded, ‘will you shut up!”
“Come on Jess, you must be a little bit tempted she sure is a stunner…”
Oh yes she was a stunner alright… and was I tempted? Hell yes of course I was… and did I do anything about it? Um, well I guess that’s another story!
Like I said at the beginning…life back then was difficult, dang it even downright dangerous at times…and in more ways than one…Well ain’t that the truth…But iffen I had to choose as to which is the more dangerous a shoot-out or females on the look-out for husbands …well I’ll tell ya it’s gotta be the females every dang time…but like I say that’s another story!
The End
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