#79 Andy Slim and Me- What Happened Next.

Andy, Slim and Me – What Happened Next?
Patty Wilkinson
Second of a Trilogy Andy, Slim & Me Stories

Some strong language, adult themes an and violence

Forward by Jess Harper

I guess those first few weeks and months at the Sherman Ranch and Relay were kinda eventful in more ways than one. I reckon it was a time of learning…us all getting to know and trust each other and heck that didn’t come easy.
See I was just findin’ my feet. Even beginning to think that Wyoming might be the kind of place I could settle, put down roots, heck really make a go of things…Then the Durkin brothers arrived and turned everything upside down…* See #78 Andy Slim & Me
I won’t go into the details, but when Andy was put in grave danger, well then, I felt I really should move on...It was only the fact that I managed to save Andy’s life that made Slim realize I would never let him or the kid down. Well I guess that really strengthened the bond between us all…especially me and Slim and I was persuaded to stay.
Then there was Mort Cory. Jeez I never thought I’d count a lawman as one of my good friends but it was sure shaping up that way. I figure he rated me as much as I did him, especially when the chips were down and you needed a good man at yer back. It had been Mort who helped me out when the whole town had turned against me after an old flame, Durkin’ s sister, had spread lies of the very worst kind about me. The Sheriff helped to ‘exonerate’, me ...Slim’ s words. So now I was in pretty good standing with everyone…well almost everyone…
As to old Jonesy , well I guess he figured the jury was still out as far as I was concerned and there was no way he was cutting me any slack…That was until one day in high summer of that first year that I started to call the Sherman place home…. and he needed my help.

Chapter 1
(As told by Jess Harper)

“Andy…Andy! Garldarn it where is that boy?”
Jonesy stood on the porch surveying the ranch yard and looking as mad as all get out.
A few minutes later Slim emerged from the barn carrying the bridle he’d been mending.
“What’s up Jonesy?”
“It’s that dang little brother of yours, he’s upped and done his disappearing act again…off with that no-good drifter if I’m not mistaken.”
Slim grinned, “Not such a little brother now Jonesy, he’s shot up lately and into his teens, quite the young man about town.”
“Well that’s as maybe but he ain’t too grand and grown up to think he can get away without helping out around the place.”
“But he did all his chores before he went off to the creek fishing with Jess. I asked him and so did Jess, so don’t go blaming him,” Slim said remembering how hard Jonesy had been on his pard of late...well on all of them truth be told.
“Fishing…ha I might have known it and he promised, yes promised he’d help me stir up a batch of liniment this afternoon.”
Slim mentally weighed up the pros and cons of his kid brother spending Saturday afternoon down at the creek fishing with his hero or slaving away in the barn helping Jonesy brew up some of his foul-smelling liniment and figured there was no contest.
“I’m real sorry Jonesy I’ll talk to the boy, but when Jess came home and said the fish were biting, the pair of them were so excited I guess Andy clean forgot.”
Jonesy just grunted and continued to scowl.
“Oh come on Jonesy cut the boy some slack, he’s had a difficult time of it lately. It looks like the lovely Wendy has thrown him over for Skeet Jenkins. The boy that helps out at the mercantile and Andy’s heartbroken…This is the first time I’ve seen him crack a smile in the last two weeks.”
“Uh, the child’s too young for all that romantic nonsense anyway.”
Andy had been captivated when young Wendy Wright had joined his class earlier that term. At a year older than Andy she was way more sophisticated and as Jess had thought on first sight, had trouble written all over her. But with her trim figure, fiery red hair and pert expression, Andy had fallen hard for the girl.
“Hey Jonesy it was hardly a passionate love affair, they just held hands and made sheep’s eyes at each other, just puppy love I guess.”
“Um, that’s more than can be said for her Ma. She was all over the drifter like a rash at the Spring Dance…no wonder he took off on that cattle buying trip.”
Slim grinned at the memory. Sophie Wright a stunning widow and ma to Wendy had certainly set her cap at Jess and was constantly sending invitations for Jess and Andy to visit her and her daughter in her cottage on the edge of town…. Or she had done up until recently.
“Well Andy maybe heartbroken,” Slim said, “but I know Jess is real relieved. I figure she’d got him in her sights for husband number two and he was running scared.”
“Uh, so maybe he’ll stay around the place and get some work done for a change now,” said Jonesy dourly.
“Oh come on Jonesy, he’s much better than he used to be. Once he’s up and got some coffee down him he works really hard.”
“Some coffee you say, Jeez that boy practically keeps Arbuckle’ s in business single handed!”
However, the argument ceased abruptly as me and Andy rode in full of our exhilarating afternoon down at the creek.
“Look at these,” Andy shouted jumping down from his pony and dangling a string of large silver fish under Slim’ s nose, “we done pretty good huh!”
Slim nodded, “Swell Andy, but hey did you forget you promised to give Jonesy a hand mixing the liniment?”
The boy’s head swiveled towards the older man and he looked wary, “Gee Jonesy I’m sorry I clean forgot…can we do it now?” The youngster asked.
“No I reckon not, it’s too dang late in the day to start it now,” Jonesy muttered, “I’ve gotta start makin’ supper for you ungrateful young layabouts,” he said casting his sour glance from Andy to me and back.
“Aw I’m sorry Jonesy,” I said quickly, “how about we both give ya a hand tomorrow huh?”
“Can’t,” he replied dourly, “got business in town tomorrow.”
“Again, why that’s the third time you’ve been in this week Jonesy and what kind of business could you have on a Sunday?” Slim asked, the words out of his mouth before he could think to rein them in and be a tad more prudent.
The old timer turned on him, eyes flashing in anger, “My business, that’s what,” he spat before turning on his heel and entering the house, slamming the door behind him.
“Well that’s you told,” I said with a wry grin.
But Slim merely looked anxiously at the recently slammed door, “Something isn’t right,” he said quietly, before returning to the barn to finish mending the tack.
“What about the fish?” Andy said plaintively, “We need to clean ‘em for supper Jess.”
“Here, give ‘em to me,” I said taking the string of fish from him and giving him my reins. “You go put the horses up and I’ll clean the fish and have a talk with Jonesy, see iffen I can find out what’s botherin’ him huh?”
I entered the kitchen kinda warily as Jonesy was now chuckin’ pans around the place with abandon, always a sign he was not in the best of moods. I found the old chopping board and put it on the kitchen table and then commenced gutting the fish, throwing the entrails in a bucket for the cat. After a minute he slumped down opposite me on a chair looking pretty dang miserable.
I suddenly felt kinda sorry for the old guy and glancing at him, said, “What’s wrong Jonesy, your sacroiliac playing up lately?”
“Yer back…”
“Oh…um no, well no more than usual,” he said with a sniff.
“So, what is it, your rheumatism?” I asked, thinking there was dang well something that was making him so difficult to live with.
“No darn it, you young whipper-snapper it ain’t none of your business…Dang it can’t a body be out of sorts without this kinda grilling?”
“Look I’m only worried about ya Jonesy. You’ve been real hard to live with for a couple of weeks now…so what’s up huh?” I asked tryin’ real hard not to lose my temper with the old goat.
“Hard to live with you say, well maybe it’s time I moved on then,” he yelled turning a furious scowl at me, “I’m goin’ to lie down and I don’t want disturbing,” he muttered as he got up and marched over to his room, just as Slim and Andy came in ready for their meal.
“What’s wrong with him now?” Slim asked coming into the kitchen as Jonesy’s bedroom door slammed behind him.
I shrugged, “Beats me I was just tryin’ to be nice to him and he got mad and stomped off.”
“Nice huh, well that’s a first,” Slim said raising an eyebrow at me.
“Oh come on Slim, I know me and Andy tease him somethin’ rotten, but we don’t mean no harm and I kinda like the old guy. Well he sure dishes up a good stew and dumplings anyway,” I said honestly.
“So that’s it…you’re worried your stomach might suffer iffen Jonesy takes to his bed,” Slim said with the glimmer of a smile.
Then Andy said, “So what do you thinks wrong with him, is it because I forgot to help him out today?”
“Nah, Andy I’ve gotten a feeling it’s more than that,” I said, “I dunno what it is, but I aim to find out.”
We enjoyed our fish supper and what’s more we all had plenty to eat too, for a change.
“I sure don’t know what’s gotten into that old goat lately,” I said through a mouthful of fish, “but well… is it me, or has he been kinda stingy with the rations lately?”
Slim looked up and then said thoughtfully, “Yup I’ve noticed that too. Been running out of basic staple cooking ingredients too and he seems sort of unwilling to replenish our stocks, it’s strange.”
“And we haven’t had any treats for ages either,” Andy piped up, “no shop bought cookies or candy.”
“Maybe he’s trying to make a point,” I said dryly, “he’s always saying I dang well eat him out of house and home…maybe this is his way of protesting?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope he’s not that devious...even if he is right,” he finished grinning across at me.
“Hey I’m a growin’ boy,” I protested. Then more seriously, “Besides when you’re used to never knowing where the next good meal is comin’ from you kinda make the most of things when you can, I guess.”
Slim sobered at once, “Yeah, I know pard, I was only joshin’ you…besides Andy here eats even more than you do. No there’s something going on, but I’ve no idea as to what.”
“Well don’t go and ask him,” I said with feeling, “because he sure don’t like bein’ questioned any.”
The following day was Sunday and we were surprised when Jonesy went off to get changed after our mid-day meal. He asked if Andy would hitch up old Betsy to the small buggy he used when going to town.
“I’d do it myself boy, but that dang critter hates me somethin’ fierce.”
I rolled my eyes at Slim knowing that only Jonesy would be in fear of docile old Betsy. Nope the old-timer sure didn’t get on with horses.
Once the youngster had gone off to do as requested Slim turned from where he was working at his desk and said, “So going someplace nice then Jonesy?”
He jumped and said, “Just to see some friends, back for supper,” and marched out the door without so much as a backwards glance.
Slim and I exchanged a puzzled look.
“Well he hasn’t ever done that before,” Slim said in surprise. “He’s always said Sunday is a time for being with the family and resting up…usually has a nap round about now.”
“Uh, well it don’t look like he’s thinkin’ of nappin’ today,” I said getting up and wandering over to the window to peer out.
Slim sighed, “Nope I guess not.”
Then I marched purposefully over to the door and pulled on my gun-belt, before snagging my hat…
“You off out too?” He asked raising an eyebrow…
“Yeah, I thought I’d just go into town for a couple of hours, back for supper,” I said quickly diving out the door before he could question me further.
It took me no time at all to get Jonesy in my sights and then I trailed him easy without him having a clue I was just behind him.
He had made for town and I was just beginning to think that maybe he was really going to catch up with his old cronies, Bert from the livery and Ezra from the mercantile. But then he turned off the road and reined in at the Last Chance Inn…a real low dive on the edge of town.
Bawdy Bill ran a real shady establishment. Part whore house and part saloon, with a gambling den in the back room. The hookers were rough and ready, the whiskey watered down and the gaming tables doubtless rigged I thought. I knew for a fact that Bill pulled punters in by allowing the poor suckers to win a few games before bleeding them dry. The card tables were a magnet for card sharps and The Last Chance would be the very last place I’d risk my hard-earned money…so what was Jonesy doing there?
I waited for him to climb stiffly down from the buggy and enter the place before I followed at a distance.
Well it sure weren’t for the women I knew that. Even if the old guy had been interested, he’d have to be plumb desperate to part with his money for any one of the girls on offer. They sure were over the hill and part of me felt kinda sorry for them, ending their days in a place like this. I can’t say as I’ve ever had the need to pay for it, but I sure don’t knock them either. Jeez we all hafta turn a buck or two and iffen that’s the only way they can do it, well good luck to ‘em. Anyway, as I say, I figured Jonesy weren’t interested in the women. He’d kinda mentioned a lost love once and whereas none of us knew anything about it, it was clear that Jonesy was pretty much done with woman.
‘Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em,’ he’d told me once…when under the influence of some ‘purely medicinal’ whiskey. Then he’d looked me in the eye and said,’ there ain’t no bullet that can hurt a man as much as a woman son…you just remember that!’
So, if it weren’t the workin’ girls…and I pretty much doubted the watered-down whiskey…and definitely not the ‘friendly’ company of ol’ Bawdy Bill…then it had to be the card tables.
Well what I didn’t know back then was that Jonesy had sort of a problem with gambling...well more a problem with knowing when to stop that is…Seems he’d gotten into debt way back and Slim’ s Pa had bailed him out…Well after that Jonesy had sworn off the gambling…that is until that summer when he kinda got a hankering for it again.
Anyway like I say I didn’t know he’d got problems…that was until I sat in a dim corner in the back room of the Last Chance and watched him lose a month’s wages in the space of an hour or so…When it became pretty clear that he weren’t about to stop anytime soon I thought maybe I’d better step in and try and rein him in some. Well he sure didn’t take that too well.
I wandered over to the table and leaning in said quietly, “Er… I think maybe it’s time to get on home Jonesy.”
Well he almost jumped out of his skin and looked mighty embarrassed…but that quickly changed to anger and he told me in no uncertain terms where I could dang well go.
Seein’ as there was no way I was going to shift him…and the card players were gettin’ kinda fretful wanting to get on with another game I decided to sit in, thinking at least I could keep an eye on him that way.
Well it didn’t take me long to figure the dealer was a real card sharp and not even that good at it either. I caught him dealing from the bottom of the pack almost at once. However, I decided to bide my time and waited until I knew I’d got him… He’d just cleaned up and was raking all his winnings in when I called time on him.
“What are you saying…I’m cheating?” He blustered when I challenged him.
“Oh come on,” I said sarcastically, “You might be able to pull the wool over their eyes,” I said tipping my hat to the elderly and mostly slightly drunk players, “but not me…”
“Prove it,” he said making a grab for the deck and his cards, but I was too quick for him.
“Just a minute,” I said pulling the deck and his hand of cards towards me…along with the other cards…Then I picked out a card like conjuror with a rabbit out of a hat and produced the ace of Diamonds…along with another four aces…
He looked bewildered as though he was gonna say he’d never seen the extra card before, but then thought better of it and went for a derringer hidden in his vest pocket… But I’d drawn and taken the gun off of him before he had a chance to draw breath, never mind his pistol.
There was a deathly silence before all hell broke loose, the punters cussin’ him and Bawdy Bill cussin’ everyone…
In the end I fired off a shot to get ‘em to settle down and then faced the card sharp…
“OK so I’ll give ya a choice,” I said pleasantly, “you donate all your winnings back to these poor suckers you’ve just fleeced and you can go on your way….or we can take a walk down to the Sheriff’s office and let him deal with it…so what’s it to be huh?”
Well he sure didn’t take much convincing and the punters got all their money back…but I weren’t done with him yet…I escorted him from the building and suggested he didn’t return to Laramie unless he wanted to get me real riled…
He mounted up scowling at me and cussin’ some and his parting shot was, “Tell your old friend back there that a fool and his money are soon parted so they say…and he’ll end up penniless with or without my help…. just you see if he don’t,” and with that he spurred his horse off, heading away from town.
I stared thoughtfully after him and then I spun around as I heard a cough behind me and Jonesy stood there looking as sickly and as guilty as I’d ever seen him.
“You ready to come home now?” I asked.
He just nodded and plodded over to the buggy and climbed on board like he’d got the weight of the world on his shoulders. After a minute I took pity on him and hitching Traveller on behind I jumped up next to him and taking the reins set Betsy off at a brisk trot towards home.
It was now late afternoon, but the sun was still very hot and as we passed by the lake I decided to pull in and cool off a spell from the brisk off-shore breeze. Maybe get the old timer to open up and explain what was going on too.
We jumped down from the buggy and made our way over to a fallen log by the lakeside both relaxing with our backs to it, watching the shimmering lake surface where the sunlight seemed to dance across the sparkling waves.
We sat there in silence for a while and then I tipped my hat back and turning to him said, “Why Jonesy?”
“Huh?” He asked obviously playing for time.
I sighed deeply, “Why are you gambling away all your hard-earned cash…and in a dive like that too, come on Jonesy, this ain’t like you.”
He shrugged, “Why… you ask?” He said angrily… “Well I’ll tell ya…since you seem so interested. I wanted something exciting back in my life…something for me…Dang it, young Andy was so full of that Wendy…always in a daze. Didn’t need, or want me anymore, I guess… He just sees me as a spoil sport makin’ him do his lessons and chores nowadays.”
“Hey that ain’t true Jonesy the boy thinks a lot of you, he’s just at a difficult age I guess…gives us all a hard time.”
But he just ignored me and continued.
“As for young Slim, well he ain’t been company for me since you arrived.” He turned hurt eyes on me then, “time was it was me he always turned to for a bit of banter and chat…we’d sit out on the porch chewin’ the fat…Now all he wants to do is spend time with you. He’s forever going off drinkin’ or womanising…he sure never was like that before you landed,” he finished gruffly…now pretending to be angry rather than hurt… I could see that.
I paused collecting my thoughts and then said, “I’m real sorry Jonesy, I never meant to come between you that way…and there’s room out on that old porch for three ya know… As to the other stuff, well he’s a young man and I figure it’s time he threw over the traces some and enjoyed himself. Heck… it’s only natural wantin’ to date girls and visit the saloon…”
“What about me,” he yelled then, “all I wanted was some excitement why the heck can’t I kick over the traces too as you call it… huh?”
“Well sure you can Jonesy…but I kinda think it would be a good idea iffen you did it without bankruptin’ the place huh?”
His head shot up at that and his eyes narrowed, “What are you sayin?”
“Oh come on Jonesy, you were spendin’ money like water this afternoon, and you’ve been heading out to town several times a week for over a month…I’m guessing you’ve spent all your savings and are digging into the housekeeping money now huh?”
He said nothing just ducked his head.
“I’m right ain’t I…that’s why we’ve been on short rations these last few weeks ain’t it huh?”
“Alright…alright I admit it I’ve been a dang fool, you satisfied now…!”
I just shook my head sadly, “Oh Jonesy…really? You’ve spent all your savings that you’d put aside for that treatment on your back?”
He nodded, “That’s why I had to keep going, I’ve been trying to win it all back.”
Well there was no dang answer to that…he knew he’d been a prize fool and he didn’t need me to tell him that.
He looked over to me then,” I suppose you’re gonna really enjoy telling Slim about this, how the old fool got himself into such a dang mess and…”
I put a hand up to stop him, “Nope he won’t hear it from me Jonesy…”
His mouth dropped open at that and he looked real surprised, “He won’t?”
“Nope, just as long as you promise to stop…then I won’t tell anyone.”
“Oh…really?” He said sarcastically.
“Yes really. Look I know you don’t rate me too highly Jonesy…think I’m trouble with a capital T, but there’s one thing you need to know about me...if nuthin’ else. I am loyal to my friends and if I make a promise, I dang well keep it….so no I won’t say anything to Slim….as long as you stop.”
Jonesy’ s head shot up at that… “So you…um you count me as a friend do you then son?”
I nodded, “Sure iffen you’ll have me?”
His old face finally relaxed into a grin, “I guess you’re not half as bad as folk believe.”
I grinned at him accepting the backhanded compliment as about as good as I’d get from old Jonesy…
But then his face clouded again… “But what the heck am I going to do about all this debt?” He asked looking totally beaten.
I punched him lightly on the arm… “Why dontcha let me worry about that…come on let’s go home huh.”
Then I turned to him frowning, “Hey do you recall that first time me and Slim were staying overnight in town and I said it was for a poker game, how they tended to go on all night?”
He nodded, “I do indeed and I know it was a couple of girls you were staying with too, never mind a darned card game.”
I flushed up some, “Uh, well never mind about that, but you told me you’d never been a gambling man?”
“Yeah, well I lied didn’t I,” he said throwing me a sly wink.
I just shook my head and hid a smile thinking there was more to the old guy than probably any of us knew.

Chapter 2
Jonesy was real quiet for a week or two but I covered for him by telling Slim I thought he was feelin’ kinda neglected of late. Well Slim and Andy rallied around and made a fuss of the old guy and things settled down again, although I noticed he had stopped his trips to town and gradually the rations got back to normal. So I figured he hadn’t squandered anymore of the housekeeping. Yup he was back on an even keel, except for all the money from his savings which was pretty much gone for good I figured.
Then come mid-summer he pulled his back again lifting a heavy barrel of his liniment and was in a lot of pain we all knew. But it was actually old Doc Johnson that suggested he try a new Doc over in Denver who was apparently the guy to go to for manipulation and massage for back problems like Jonesy’s.
“What the heck does that involve, massage and manipulation?” I asked winking at Slim before turning an inquiring expression on Jonesy.
“Well not the kinda massage you’re thinking of you young Lothario,” he snapped back at me.
“Womanizer Jess,” Slim said in an aside.
“Who… me?” I batted back looking the picture of innocence…
“Well you were the one that told me all about your time on the Barbary Coast and what you got up to,” he said with a wicked grin.
“Um…so are you going to see him then?” I asked Jonesy, quickly trying to change the subject…and then I remembered he couldn’t and cursed myself for askin’.
He threw me a stony look and said, “I can’t be spared right now too much to do around the place.”
“Well that’s not true,” Slim said at once, “we’ll manage and I know you’ve got the money saved up so what’s stopping you?”
“I’ve told ya I’m busy,” he snapped before glaring at me and marching off.
“What’s gotten into him?” Slim asked glancing across at me. “I thought he was feeling a bit more chirpy of late.”
I just shrugged and wandered off across the yard to start the chores, but I knew dang well what the problem was. All Jonesy’s funds had been gambled away and he had nothing left, but I sure weren’t about to share that with Slim.
Slim followed me out and we wandered over to the barn and started mucking out. Then after a while he paused and leaning on his fork said, “Oh well it’s the Sunday Shoot next week maybe that’ll cheer old Jonesy up some.”
“The what?”
“Sunday Shoot, kind of a tradition in Laramie. Basically, just a target shooting contest, you pay an entrance fee and then the winner receives top prize money. It’s a really good day out. Folks come from miles around… tends to attract professional shooters. They go around from town to town, so not usually won by a local…but good sport none the less. Then the women folk have a Bake Sale and there’s usually a homemade competition too, best cider, best grown vegetables that kinda thing…fun for all the family… Well mostly, I guess it gets kinda lively by night fall…
But I’d stopped listening at top prize money. That’s what I needed to pay for Jonesy’s treatment and regain some peace and harmony back at the ranch once the old man was out of pain again…Jeez he might even feel up to makin’ a batch of apple pies if he was all hunky dory again I mused.
“I said so are you up for it then…next Sunday? Do you want to try your hand at winning the top prize money? It’s a really substantial amount.”
“You bet,” I said grinning across at him, “I sure do!”
The day of the Sunday Shoot dawned bright and sunny and we were all in high spirits as we made our way into town. Jonesy was driving the buggy with Andy on board and me and Slim following on behind on our mounts. Andy was chattering away nineteen to the dozen and even Jonesy was looking reasonably cheerful for once.
It had been arranged that Jonesy and Andy would return home early evening once all the family fun was over and before any trouble hit the streets.
“So is Mort expecting any real problems?” I asked Slim as we rode into the town now busy with excited crowds.
“Nothing he can’t handle,” Slim replied, “just some drunkenness… maybe the odd fool wanting to shoot up the place, but a few of us usually pitch in and help him if things get a mite too lively.” I chuckled at his understatement and imagined that things usually got real lively iffen he didn’t want young Andy to stay around.
I looked at the crowds, the bunting and stalls all set out with the ladies Bake Sale and also a couple of stalls both professing to be the suppliers of the best cider in Wyoming.
But before I could go and investigate further, I saw something that made my heart start beating faster and a cold sweat break out… or should I say saw someone…a guy from my past… ‘Kid’ Cassidy…also known as Con Cassidy.
Well I figured that the nick name ‘Kid’ was kind of unfortunate now as he was way past his thirties and was kinda thickset and real homely lookin’ too. When I was but a teenage kid myself all the girls were after ol’ Con…but I guess he hadn’t aged too well and I knew for a fact that he sure hadn’t lived too well either. He was wanted for murder down in Mexico as far as I knew…and was a nasty piece of work all round.
Just then Slim broke into my thoughts.
“Jess…you listening to me? I said I’m going over to sign up for the shoot. Are you coming? Andy and Jonesy have gone off to the Bake stall to get us some stuff before it’s all sold out.”
I shook my head to clear it some and then reaching in my shirt pocket pulled out some cash.
“Uh, sign up for me will ya Slim? I’ll go check on Jonesy, make sure he gets us one of Ma Hudson’s chocolate cakes huh,” and I marched off before he could answer.
Maybe it would have been better iffen I’d just said howdy to Con at the sign in desk…But part of me knew he’d be pretty riled at seeing me again…in fact more than riled…I figured he’d probably wanna kill me. But there again the feeling was mutual…Out of all the folk to land in Laramie for the Sunday Shoot why did it have to be Kid Cassidy?
It was sometime later when I met up with Slim again and he was real ready for some hi jinks as Jonesy would have said, urging me towards the cider stalls.
Uh, I don’t think I’ll bother I said as he offered to pay for the first drink.
He looked at me in shock, “Huh, you’re refusing a drink…I said I’d pay”
“Yeah I know that,” I said, “but I kinda want to keep a clear head for the shootin’ ya know?”
“Oh come on Jess, when did you ever refuse a drink?” He asked, “I thought we were supposed to be having some fun huh?”
“Sure… sure,” I said, “but like I said I really want to keep a clear head for the shooting Slim. I don’t wanna get me a case of cideritis”
Huh?” He asked.
“I pointed to his drink, too much of that darned stuff and you can’t see the target too well ya know Slim?”
“Oh…yeah, I get you now,” he said laughing. “But it’s just a bit of fun Jess I’m not in it to win.”
“Well I am,” I muttered darkly.
I’d kinda promised Jonesy I’d help him sort out his money problems…and now with the back treatment in the offing I figured he needed to go over to Denver and get it treated as soon as he could. I knew he could only field Slim’ s inquiries about why he didn’t go for so long and I also knew how real important it was to the old guy that Slim should never find out about his gambling.
I’d wandered off to check out some stalls selling fishing hooks and flies on the far side of the street leaving Slim sampling ‘possibly the best cider in Wyoming’. I guess I must have been lost in thought, because just moments later someone tapped me on the shoulder and I spun around, finding myself looking into the evil stare of Kid Cassidy.
“I thought it was you Harper,” he growled…
Then he turned to his sidekick Wally Barnes, “Who’d have thought it eh Wal…we’ve searched high and low for this punk and here he is right under our noses…”
“Howdy Con,” I replied stony faced, “so you lookin’ for me then?”
“You know dang well I’m lookin’ fer ya boy,” he rasped, “we’ve got stuff to settle ain’t we huh?”
I shrugged, “I can’t see as how we have. I decided to leave the gang end of story.”
“He makes it sound so dang reasonable don’t he Wal,” he spat, “nuthin’ about waltzing off with my girl and everything else that happened later you note.”
“I sure do boss,” said the ever-deadpan Wally.
“Butt out Wal,” I spat angrily, “this ain’t nuthin’ to do with you…”
“As for you Con that was all a long time ago, just leave it huh,” I replied irritably.
“Oh I’ll leave it alright got us a shootin’ competition to win first…then I’ll deal with you.”
“So when did you learn to shoot straight?” I asked sarcastically, just for the fun of watching him squirm.
“Goddamn you Harper,” he spat, “I may not be a sharp shooter like you, but I surround myself with good men and I’ve got a real good man shooting today and he’ll do me proud, just you wait and see!”
Then he paused for a moment… “You’re not entering…”
It was a statement rather than a question and that really riled me…
“Sorry Con, but money’s almost as good as won,” I replied before marching off and leaving him staring open mouthed after me. I thought afterwards iffen I hadn’t have provoked him that way then maybe what happened later would have been different…But nah…He was a total bastard and had plans for me right from the moment he clapped eyes on me, I guess we both knew that.
“Are they old friends of yours?” Slim asked raising an eyebrow at me as I walked over.
“Not as you’d notice,” I replied, “not nowadays anyway.”
“Nah, just empty threats I guess…seems to think his man’s gonna win the shooting competition.”
He chuckled at that, “And I suppose you are huh?”
“Of course,” I said winking at him.
Well it was a pretty close-run thing and Mort and the judges had to check and double check…but yes, I won six straight bullseyes to Bill Wicks’ four.
There was a huge cheer from the crowd and I was surrounded by well-wishers… But as I looked up and saw Con berating Wicks and then the look in his eyes when he turned to glare at me, a shudder ran down my spine and I felt like a dark cloud had just blotted out the sunshine.
Then the moment passed and I was being genially escorted to the saloon where it was the tradition that the winner bought the drinks.
Sometime later I went out to where Jonesy was keeping Andy company on a boardwalk rocker by the saloon door, both enjoying a sarsaparilla a piece.
I gave Andy some money for candy and he ran off to the mercantile after thanking me happily.
Once he’d gone, I pulled the envelope out of my vest pocket containing the eye wateringly large amount of winnings…I cut out about a quarter of the prize money and put it back in my pocket and then passed the remainder in the envelope across to Jonesy.
“What’s this?” He asked his eyes opening wide in shock.
“Money for the doc’s fees, should be ample there, maybe you could take a little holiday after the treatment…”
“Dang it boy I can’t take this!” he cried trying to hand it back.
“Sure you can, darn it Jonesy it’s the only reason I entered…Besides if I have to hear you whinging on about that bad back one more day I swear I’ll go plumb loco!”
He looked down the hint of a smile on his lips, but when he looked up at me there were tears in his old eyes…
“Thank you, son, but I really can’t take it,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.
“You can’t not,” I said softly. “I promised you I’d sort it out, back by the lake that day remember? And I always keep my promises.”
He was silent for a long time before finally folding the envelope and putting it in his pocket, “Thank you Jess… I won’t ever forget this,” he said softly.
I just nodded, “You go over and wire that Doc in Denver right now Jonesy and say you’ll be arriving early next week huh?”
He nodded, “I’ll do that very thing…”
“Do what Jonesy?” Asked a breathless Andy running up.
“Go book myself into that clinic… Jess here’s just talked me into it.”
“Jeepers that’s great… Hey can I come too Jonesy? I’ve always had a hankerin’ to see Denver can I huh…huh?”
“Might not be a bad idea I said, “it’s still school holidays and he’d be company for you. I figure your...uh savings would stretch to that huh Jonesy?”
The old man nodded, “I reckon so, we’ll talk it through with Slim later…. come on then child, we’re going to the telegraph office and then home…enough excitement for one day.”
Then as Andy bounded off Jonesy turned back to me, “You and Slim have a good time and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Leaning forwards, he shook my hand before turning and marching off after Andy.
I stood watching him go for a few moments thinking how fond of the old coot I’d grown, then I turned and went back to the bar, where the beer was flowing like water and a wild time was being had by one and all.
By mid-evening I was feeling kinda mellow and so I wasn’t at all wary when some guy I didn’t know came in and said there was a lady out in the back alley who would like a word. Well since our latest gals, Cindy and Emma had moved on, me and Slim hadn’t had any dates for a few weeks. I for one was missin’ the female company something fierce. I’d been disappointed to note that the very pretty saloon girl Jenny wasn’t on duty tonight. I’d high hopes of making our friendship something a tad more intimate, iffen you get my meaning. Now with this invitation I wondered if it could be her. Maybe she’d seen me in the bar and wanted to ask me up to her rooms for a coffee, but didn’t want to make it common knowledge. Sure, that would be it I thought, knowing how embarrassed she would have felt if all the attention was focused on the two of us…
Slim and Mort, who had joined us at the bar, exchanged an amused glance.
“What does she look like?” I asked the tall lanky stranger.
He shrugged and made an hourglass gesture with his hands. “Real purty, big eyes…dark hair kinda shy…”
I knocked back the remains of my beer in one and turning to Slim said, “Don’t wait up,” before following the stranger outside.
He just gestured to the dark alleyway that ran along the side of the saloon before rushing off in the opposite direction.
I turned into the alleyway, the fact that it was pitch dark not fazing me at all this being a route I knew well from visiting with the saloon girls on other occasions. I figured that Jenny would be out by the back steps of the saloon where the girls sometimes took their ease during a break, enjoying a gossip and cigarette. I could see the patch of lamplight spreading out beyond the backdoor and purposefully made my way along towards it.
One minute I was looking forward to some banter with young Jenny, maybe even a kiss and a cuddle if I played my cards right…and the next I was sprawled face down in the dirt having been tripped by some unseen force. I had been winded and started to drag myself up when someone came from behind…dragged me up, turned me around and threw a haymaker to my chin sending me reeling backwards. The element of surprise having gotten the better of me I staggered and fell badly. I rallied real quick though and hurled myself at the attacker wrestling him to the ground and raining blows to his head and upper body…He fought back but it was obvious that I was the victor…until two and then three other men joined the affray kicking and punching with wild abandon. I fought back and floored two of them and then another couple joined in until three held me down whilst another two punched and kicked me mercilessly. The last thing I saw was Con Cassidy’s ugly mug glaring down at me…
“Don’t think for a minute this is over Harper, you ain’t even started to suffer yet,” he yelled, before spitting in my face and mooching off down the alleyway, his cohorts close behind. Then I blacked out….
Meanwhile back in the bar Slim and the Sheriff were drinking up and making ready to leave.
“Want me to walk the street with you Mort, see off any trouble makers?” Slim asked.
“I reckon I’d be glad of the company Slim especially as Lon is back at the jail minding the prisoners.”
“Full house?”
“You bet, so I guess we’ll just send any drunks on their way,” he said grinning at Slim. “I figure the flak from their wives will be worse than a spell in the cooler anyways.”
Slim turned to wish Tom a goodnight…
“So which of your lovely ladies has the pleasure of Jess’s company tonight then?” He asked grinning at the barkeep.
“Huh, none as far as I know Slim, why do you ask?”
He explained about the stranger telling Jess he was wanted outside, “I thought it might be that cute little brunette... um Jenny, she’s not working tonight, is she?” Slim asked.
He shook his head, “Nope she took to her bed yesterday got a real bad head cold so it won’t be her.”
“Odd,” said Mort, “oh well doubtless the boy’s gotten his feet under some poor gals table.” Then his eyes flicked to where the bar clock said nearly midnight, “or in her bed,” he muttered with a chuckle….
“Come on then Slim let’s get the town put to bed and then I’ll treat you to a good strong coffee huh…”
It was when they were coming back to the Sheriff’s office after having cautioned one or two late revelers that they stopped by the saloon as Tom was just locking up for the night. They exchanged some pleasantries and were just about to cross the street heading for the coffee pot when they heard a commotion down the side of the saloon.
“What was that?” Slim asked peering down the dark alleyway.
“Sounds like someone just knocked over the trash cans,” Mort said rolling his eyes, “not another dang drunk.”
“I guess we can’t leave him down there,” Slim said, “least we can do is get him on his feet and send him off home huh?”
“I guess so,” said Mort rather reluctantly, now having got the coffee pot in his sights not wanting to relinquish it. The night had turned a mite chilly and he needed warming up some.
The two men wandered off down the alley and then moments later heard a yelp of pain and exchanging an anxious glance increased their pace.
When I came around sometime later the pain in my stomach and lower belly made me nearly throw up and I breathed deeply trying to gain control. But then another pain shot through my chest…My left hand was throbbing and I guess there weren’t a bit of me that wasn’t cryin’ out in agony. I shook my head to try and clear it…and peered out into the darkness, trying to make sense of what had happened…
Then it all came flooding back…the lanky stranger telling me Jenny was waiting down the alley for me…no…not Jenny…a girl he’d said, a curvy brunette, and I’d just assumed it was the lovely Jenny. Then I’d been bushwhacked by a gang of Con’s thugs…Men I’d ridden with in the past Goddamn it…had once called friends…But I guess that all ended when I walked out on them. You were either for Con and his gang or against them and as I could no longer stomach the way they acted…well that was it as far as I was concerned. Now, after all those years I was finally paying the price.
I started to drag myself up and then staggered before I lost my balance and cannoned into the saloon trash cans, cussing and groaning in pain.
Then just seconds later I heard voices and Slim and Mort were there, hunkered down beside me, comforting arms pulling me up into a sitting position.
“What the heck are you doing down here pard, what happened?” Slim asked looking real shocked.
“Takin’ a nap,” I muttered sarcastically, “help me up will ya?”
It took the two of them to drag me up and then it was obvious I couldn’t walk unaided and so they half carried me half dragged me across the street to the Doc’s place….me arguing all the dang way that I was fine and didn’t need to see him.
“Well you’re going to,” Slim said loudly. “So just quit complaining.”
“I’m OK,” I insisted and then everything started going kinda muzzy again and I had this pounding in my ears and then Mort caught me as I passed out again.
When I came too old doc Johnson was peering down at me and Slim was behind him, both of them looking kinda anxious.
“Welcome back young man, we were just about to give up on you,” the white-haired old guy said chuckling at his own wit. “So how are you feeling?”
I took a deep breath and cussed softly as the pain from what I imagined to be a bust rib ripped through my chest…My head was aching something fierce and the pain in my guts and groin area was making me feel sick to my stomach…Then I raised my left hand up to wipe my hot face and saw my hand was swathed in bandages.
“Now I do hope you are going to behave Jess because you’re in a bad way son, real bad.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but he raised a hand to silence me.
“Do you want to know what the damage is huh?”
But before I could reply he started telling me. “So, we’ve got us a couple of cracked ribs, multiple contusions to body especially the stomach and groin area, where you’ve been severely kicked…a nasty blow to the head, possibly causing mild concussion and badly bruised hand…that looks like it’s been stepped on…hard. Yup someone really doesn’t like us...eh Jess?”
“I dunno about you,” I said dryly,” but I’m damn sure they don’t like me…”
He ignored my wit and continued, “But on the whole you’re fit and healthy and so I imagine you’ll live to fight another day…” Then frowning he said, “Even though that may be true, you need to take it easy son, really easy. Riding will be very painful for a week or two and that hand must be kept bandaged and rested it’s a nasty wound.”
Then he turned to Slim, “A light diet and any vomiting of blood or severe stomach ache he needs to come back at once, there could well be internal bleeding after that kicking…He needs bed rest for a week and then gentle exercise…I’ll see him in two weeks.”
Mort and Slim helped me across to the Hotel room we’d booked for the night and laid me down on the bed, Slim pulling off my boots and Mort looking on anxiously.
“So, did you see who did this to you Jess…there was more than one of them I would imagine?” Mort said.
“Oh yeah,” I drawled, “it was the whole Cassidy gang.”
“What…Kid Cassidy? I can’t say I saw him in the town…but then it was a mite busy today… so are there any papers out on him, do you know?”
“Sure, he’s wanted for murder and robbery, but down in Mexico, you can’t touch him Mort.”
“Uh, maybe not for that, but what he’s done tonight, my God Jess this is a bad business…I could bang him up in my jail and lose the key for what he’s done to you.”
“Here, here,” said Slim with feeling.
“I’ll get on the case right away,” Mort said making for the door.
But I called him back, “Forget it Mort he’ll be long gone, ol’ Con is way too smart to hang about after this.”
The Sheriff turned back and cast me a wary look, “Con you say?”
“Huh…oh yeah it’s the Kid’s given name.”
“You know him well then?” Mort asked frowning slightly.
I nodded, “I guess I do, see I rode with him once Mort…”
There was a sharp intake of breath from Slim and he and Mort exchanged a troubled glance.
“Well it shouldn’t come as such a dang shock,” I said bitterly turning to Slim, “You said I was trouble the day I rode in…”
“It’s OK Jess I guess you had your reasons,” he said quickly… “Look you need to rest buddy…we’ll talk about it tomorrow huh.”
Mort left soon after and we settled down for the night…But it was a long while before I could sleep and I knew dang well this latest revelation had really rocked Slim’s faith in me…and I reckoned I really couldn’t blame him for that.
The following morning, I awoke to see Slim peering over at me from where he was sitting on the edge of his bed.
“How are you feeling today?” He asked kindly.
“How do you dang well think?” I muttered.
“OK Jess now listen up, I know you won’t like this but I think it would be best if you stayed in town for a few days, until you’re feeling better huh?”
To his surprise I didn’t argue any. Heck I’d just seen at close quarters what Con and that gang were capable of and I sure as hell didn’t want them anywhere near Andy or old Jonesy.
“Sure,” I agreed, “I guess it wouldn’t do me any harm to rest up a bit.”
He opened his mouth to argue with me and then snapped it shut as he realized, I’d actually agreed to his plan.
“Look I’ll take Traveller home with me to save you on livery bills and pick you up when I drop Andy and Jonesy off at the railroad for their trip to Denver on Thursday OK?”
“Swell wish ‘em a good journey from me huh?”
“Yes I will, and I’m real glad you persuaded him to go,” Slim said.
“Me too…er give Traveller a good rub down won’t ya Slim?”
He nodded and getting up mooched over to the door, “I’ll get them to send you some breakfast up…and er Jess…”
“We’ll talk when you get home OK…I’m none too happy about all this business…”
I just nodded, hell I was none too happy about it either…but I said nothing, just collapsed back on the bed and closed my eyes until I heard the door close behind him.
I slept most of the morning and then spent an hour or so pacing around the hotel room like a caged animal. Checking and re checking my gun and looking out of the hotel window at life going on below. I considered going to have a chat and coffee with Mort. But after the latest revelation that I was once a member of the Cassidy Gang I thought maybe I wouldn’t be any too welcome.
Then I suddenly felt mad…real mad… Hell why was I skulking around in a down at heel hotel room when I could be taking my revenge on Con Cassidy?
I remembered he was heading for Rawlins to try his luck in a shooting match up that way, or rather his sharp shooter Bill Wick’s luck. I figured I could be there and back before Slim even knew I was missing. Hell, anything beat hanging about here licking my wounds anyway. Yup the good old Harper temper was after revenge and I was gonna get it no matter what.
I guess I kinda started to regret my decision just a mile or two into my journey. I figured old Doc Johnson had told me not to ride for a very good reason, it was incredibly uncomfortable. Every muscle in my body seeming to cry out in pain as I rode out of town that afternoon. It didn’t help that I’d chosen probably the most lively, challenging ride old Bert at the livery had to offer.
“Are you sure about this Jess, Gambler here is a pretty tough ride and you really don’t look up to it, if you don’t mind me saying,” he said viewing my battered face and various other battle scars.
“Look I need something with a bit of go in him,” I said, “not one of your old nags ready to be pensioned off…got me a long hard ride ahead and I’m in kind of a hurry.”
“Well be it on your own head son just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
It didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a huge mistake and Jeez how I longed to have Traveller beneath me. That good old horse of mine had a sixth sense and would have stepped real easy, somehow knowing I was in pain… Number of times he had seen me home, unconscious, beat up or worse for drink, he just looked out for me real good…Now with this young, headstrong ride I was finding every step was jarring my back and I ached all over.
I was finding it real hard to hold the lively gelding back now…What had my old uncle once told me…never trust a horse with four white socks? Um well Gambler here had that, plus a blaze and a real cussed streak too I reckoned. Right now, all he wanted was his head. So, after a while I just sat back and let him gallop off his high spirits. Hell, all he wanted was to run free in the Big Open and I guess I can kinda understand that.
After a mile or so he finally settled down to a steady trot that suited us both better and we made good time, only stopping to camp as the sun finally sank behind the Medicine Bow forest to our left.
We pushed on at first light and it was mid -morning when I reined in at Sam and Martha Elliot’s Trading Post that was the halfway mark between Rawlins and Laramie.
Slim and I always stopped off there when we had business in Rawlins and we had frequented it quite a lot recently as we’d sold some of our beef to ranchers up just north of the town.
Now I reflected on my trip and hoped I would catch up with Con and the gang real soon…Then maybe I’d stopover in Rawlins for a few days and renew my acquaintance with the lovely Lola. She worked as a saloon girl at The Wayfarer’s Friend a saloon in the centre of town, run by a miserable guy Silas Barnes. Slim reckoned he was born plain ornery, but I figured something real bad must have happened to make him that way…However the saving feature of the place was Lola and the other saloon girls Kitty and Gemma, who more than made up for the old guy’s miserable character.
Now I dragged my thoughts away from the delectable Lola, swung down from the saddle and made for the porch of the Trading Post…but something wasn’t right.
Although it was now late morning the door was still firmly closed, there was no welcoming smoke rising from the chimney…and the rocker on the porch where old Sam Elliot could usually be found smoking his pipe and ready for a yarn…was empty.
I made my way cautiously across the porch and knocked loudly on the door, but the noise just echoed within the seemingly empty building. I tried the door and it swung open with an eerie creak…
Then I called out, “Hey Sam…Martha…shop…you open?”
When there was no reply I entered and then stood on the threshold in total shock…
The place was a mess. Furs and blankets had been pulled from the shelves and barrels of flour and vinegar split open their contents thrown about the place. Chairs were overturned and it looked like a herd of buffalo had stomped through the place.
I made my way slowly to the counter and saw the till was open…and empty.
As I went behind the counter to take a closer look I stumbled over something on the floor…
It was a body…a dead body…. that of old Sam Elliot.
I hunkered down beside him and ran a hand down his cheek but it was as cold as marble and he’d obviously been dead sometime…
I retraced my steps and called out again and thought I heard a noise in the back room. Drawing my Colt, I made my way to the door before kicking it open and levelling my gun at the empty room…Empty that is, except for Sam’s wife, Martha standing looking totally dazed, blood streaming down her sweet old face from a wound to her head…
I quickly holstered my iron and said softly, “It’s OK Martha it’s me Jess Harper.”
She stared at me for a moment like she’d never seen me before and then there was the light of recognition in her eyes, “Jess, oh Jess, thank God,” she cried as she almost fell into my arms…
I held her close as she wept and then after a few minutes she pulled herself together and looking up at me said quietly, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Chapter 3
I drove Martha and her husband’s remains the few miles to their son’s homestead in her old buckboard. Then after I broke the news to Martin and his family, I left him with his Ma for them to come to terms with the tragedy in privacy.
It was later that the full story came out.
“It was Kid Cassidy and his gang,” Martha whispered.
“You’re sure?” I asked.
“Oh yes dear I know them you see; they’ve traded with us before. Sam didn’t like them too much, but they’d always paid in the past, albeit reluctantly.”
“But not this time…”
She shook her head, “No, they didn’t. They ordered a lot of provisions and I totaled it up as Sam packed it…Well the whiskey alone came to a tidy sum. Then they said they couldn’t pay, were off to the Shooting Contest in Rawlins and would pay on the way back.”
I just rolled my eyes at that and she continued.
“Exactly, that’s what Sam thought, we’d no guarantee they’d win and so Sam said no, he needed payment then… that’s when they got violent wrecking the place,” and she started to cry again.
“Ma, it’s OK you needn’t tell us anything else right now,” Martin cut in, but she put a hand up.
“No son, I have to tell Jess here, these men must be brought to justice…”
Then she took my hand and continued.
“I was so upset that Cassidy called for one of his men… er, Wicks, Bill Wicks that’s it… to take me out the back. Well he had to carry me as I didn’t want to leave dear Sam…But he was real careful with me, I could tell he didn’t want to hurt me. He made me lie on the couch and went back to the door to see what was happening.Then there was more shouting and a shot was fired…well I struggled to escape and that man Cassidy marched in and said something to Wicks…But he said no he wouldn’t do it…. then Cassidy cussed at Wicks, grabbed me and hit me hard on the head…with his gun, I think. Next thing I knew you were calling out Jess.”
I shook my head in disbelief, what kind of bastard knocked out a defenseless little old woman?
I could see Martin Elliot was just as mad and for two pins would have ridden out with me…but his wife was having none of it.
“What if they come back,” she cried, “we’ve the three little ones to think of Martin. And what about your Ma…hasn’t she suffered enough, without worrying about you too…you’re no shakes with a gun either, just leave it to the law…please darling.”
“She’s got a point Martin,” I said, “I’m lookin’ for the gang anyways…got somethin’ to settle with them myself. But now…well I guess this is a hanging offense and we really need the law involved.”
“Ha, well good luck with that one Jess, the Rawlins Sheriff was shot nigh on three months ago and there’s no replacement. Nobody will take it on. Seems they took the man that shot the Sheriff and lynched him from the highest tree…It looks like Rawlins is a real lawless town right now.”
I thought fast, “The nearest law is Laramie then. The Stage goes past here don’t it?”
“Well yes, one Laramie bound due this evening.”
“Fetch me a paper and pencil will ya, I’ll send a message for Mort Cory to meet me in Rawlins pronto…”
I rode into town that evening and the place sure was jumping, with some fist fighting and drinking in the streets and the place looked like hell on wheels.
I left Gambler at the livery and made for the Wayfarer’s Friend Saloon, deciding to look up Lola at once and just hoped she’d be working that night.
I elbowed my way through the crowds to the bar, casting an eye around the place for a sight of Con and the gang, although I was pretty sure they hadn’t hit town yet. I’d checked in the livery and there was no sign of Con’s distinctive showy Palomino and so I figured the gang were holed up someplace outside town drinkin’ themselves into a stupor with the proceeds of the Trading Post raid no doubt.
Then all thoughts of Con and the gang were swept from my mind for a moment as I saw the beautiful blond figure of Lola approaching me.
“Why Jess Harper this is a nice surprise. I declare I was just thinking of you,” she said in her sexy southern drawl. “So here on business again Jess?”
“Sort of yeah,” I said grinning at her, thinking she was even lovelier than I’d remembered.
Then she leaned forwards and ran a slender finger down my cheek, “Hey Jess honey you sure have been in the wars huh?”
I felt my belly flip at her touch and my heart miss a beat as I smiled into her enticing green eyes, “Kinda, but it ain’t of any consequence,” I replied, not wanting to dwell on my injuries and still feeling a tad embarrassed at being duped that way by Con and the gang.
“Slim with you?” She asked looking past me…and changing the subject, picking up on my reluctance to talk about my injuries, I guess.
My happy grin clouded some at the memory of how I’d run out on my pard and how dang mad at me he’d be when he found out too.
“No, he ain’t with me this time I’m all on my lonesome,” I finally replied.
“Oh well that’s too bad honey, we’ll have to keep you company,” she chuckled, winking at Kitty and Gemma, the other saloon girls, who were smiling over at me.
“So, what kind of business are you here for then?” Lola asked, “Have you brought more cattle over?”
“Nope I’m here looking for Kid Cassidy,” I replied, “Do ya know him?”
“Don’t I just,” she replied, “he came to the Shooting Contest last year and his man lost so he wrecked the place, he’s a real bad loser. Bad lot all around I figure.”
“Well you ain’t wrong there,” I agreed.
“So he’s coming back for the match then?”
“Yup I guess so, and if he does you get old Silas to serve him huh.”
“Ha that would be a fine thing,” she replied, “Silas is sick and taken to his bed.”
“Really, nothing trivial I hope?” I said with a cheeky grin.
Lola tried to hide a smile and slapped me gently on the arm, “Jess you are awful, the doc is worried, he’s pretty sure it’s Typhus.”
“Heck that’s catchin’ ain’t it?”
“Nope he says not this kind. The doc thinks he caught it from a flea bite off one of those dang rats that’s been plaguing the yard these last few weeks, horrible things,” she said shivering…. “We reckon they came over in a wagon load of supplies from Texas…and you can sure tell they’re Texas rats,” she said grinning “they’re huge!”
But before she could say more a bunch of drovers marched in.
They were full of banter and fresh off the trail, all wanting serving at once and the girls were rushed off their feet.
It wasn’t long before tempers were fraying and I was undecided whether to punch the lights out of the ring leader or not. But then I figured that would just cause a free for all fist fight wrecking the place. So, I did the only other thing I could think of to help. I vaulted the bar and pitched in serving the lively crowd.
It was much later that night when I was finally able to chat with Lola and the girls again as they were clearing up.
I kinda wondered if I would be able to sleep in their rental room above the bar, where Slim and I had lodged when we had been here on business lately…But there again with all the additional folk in town for the Shooting Contest I guessed it would probably already have been taken.
However, when I asked Lola about it her eyes twinkled and she said, “I think we can find some accommodation for Mister Harper can’t we girls?”
Then she turned back to me and said, “How’s about you collect your saddlebags whilst I finish cashing up here and I’ll meet you at the back door in…say ten minutes?”
I went off to the livery, checked on Gambler and picking up my gear, returned to the back entrance of the saloon a little later.
Lola threw open the door at my first knock and stood there looking as purty as a picture, her blond hair freshly brushed out and falling around her shoulders. She was now wearing a lacy kinda robe tightly clinched in at the waist, showing off her curvy figure to the full. As she ushered me in, I caught a wave of her exotic perfume and felt my pulses start to race…
She took me straight up the stairs…past the letting room and on to her own, some way down the corridor. Well this was gettin’ kinda interesting I thought. I stole a glance at her as she unlocked her door and I figured there had been precious little cashing up done in my absence and a whole lotta primping.
Once inside she lit a lamp and I looked around at the room, overflowing with feminine bits and bobs of clothing, shoes and makeup scattered about the place, everywhere smelling of her deliciously heady perfume.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” she said quickly gathering up the scattered clothes and throwing them behind a screen before turning that lovely smile of hers on me.
“So Jess... a drink?”
While she was pouring out some whiskey, I looked around the dimly lit room again, noting the old couch pulled up in front of a merrily crackling fire. In the shadows, in the corner, was a large double bed, hastily covered with a colorful blanket.
When she returned with the drinks she saw where my gaze was directed and looked from the bed to me and our gaze locked or a moment…before she suggested we sit on the couch by the fire. Although it was midsummer the evening had turned chilly and the fire was kinda nice…sorta romantic, I guess.
We sipped our drinks in companionable silence for a little and then she turned to me and said, “You never said what your business here was Jess, except you were looking for Cassidy. Has it got anything to do with this?” And she once more ran a finger down my battered face.
I sucked in a deep breath and resisted the urge to kiss her there and then, thinking better of it, not wanting to rush things.
“Yes, in a way…I’m after Cassidy and his gang…sure they did this to me,” I said running a hand over my face. “But worse than that Lola…they done murdered Sam Elliot.”
“What old Sam from the Trading Post…no,” she cried in shock.
I told her all about it and how I’d called on Mort Cory for back up.
“I guess the council still ain’t replaced your Sheriff?”
She shook her head, “Edward Briggs is the leader of the council and he has tried real hard I know that, but nobody seems to want the job…and the longer we don’t have law in place well the wilder town will get.” she said ruefully.
“I reckon I’ll go see him tomorrow,” I said thoughtfully, “maybe he can suggest someone to stand by me? I aim to take them in alive for trial over in Laramie…It’s what Sam’s family want and it’s fitting. I guess dying by my gun would be the easy way out…Con needs to swing for what he did,” I said bitterly.
I felt her shiver beside me and put an arm around her pulling her close.
“Are you cold?” I asked softly.
She shook her head, “No just kind of scared all this talk of hanging…And I’m scared for you too Jess, you can’t take on the whole gang single handed and I don’t reckon old Briggs will be able to offer you much support.”
“Oh well I guess Mort will come through, and we’ve got us a few days grace...I don’t reckon they’ll hit town before the contest…plenty of time to plan what I’ll do…But in the meantime…”
“Well I guess I need a place to rest my head tonight…you got any ideas?” I asked grinning at her.
She opened her beautiful green eyes wide in a parody of innocence… “Well I really can’t think…unless…well maybe you’d like to bunk in here with me?”
That was what I’d been waiting to hear and now I leaned forwards and very gently brushed her lips with my own before taking her in my arms and kissing her again…only this time real thoroughly.
After a moment she pulled back and squinted up at me and gave that wonderful sexy chuckle of hers, “I guess I’ll take that as a yes then….”
That was the beginning of our time together and I guess I can only describe it as blissful. She was one hell of a girl in bed…But more than that she was the kindest, sweetest woman I had ever met. The town’s folk had a soft spot for her and she showed everyone the same loving care. She was forever lending a listening ear to her girlfriends’ troubles or helping any down and out coming to the backdoor for a hand out. Everyone was offered the same kindness and understanding. She was charming, funny and just about as sexy as all get out…and I was beginning to fall for her in a big way.
It was real hard to drag myself away from her and I stayed at the saloon and helped out around the place while waiting on Con and the gang to hit town. I served behind the bar, shot rats in the yard and even took my turn at nursing grumpy old Silas, the barkeep. Actually, he was pretty nice to me and I figured he was real glad to have another man about the place to deal with the more personal side of his nursing and I felt kinda sorry for the guy as he sure was sick.
I finally managed to get off to visit Edward Briggs on about the third day of my stay…I’d checked the telegraph office daily and when there was no word from Mort I was beginning to feel more and more angry. Hell, maybe Mort and Slim didn’t approve of my association with the Cassidy gang, but that was no reason to leave me in the lurch now. If they didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about me anymore, surely they wanted to avenge old Sam Elliot’s murder? I felt so dang lost and let down. I thought Mort was my friend…and surely Slim would have heard about the fix I was in by now?
When it became apparent that they weren’t gonna bail me out I went to see what the Town council could do to help.
However, as Lola had implied, Briggs was of little help and just the appearance of the short fussy looking man hardly inspired confidence. I had entered his office with high hopes, but they were soon dashed.
I’m sorry Harper, I do understand the severity of the situation, but I’m afraid I cannot help you. I am not skilled with a gun and neither are my colleagues on the council. Most of the town’s folk are simple shopkeepers or ranchers with young families…As to the influx of lawless layabouts we are beginning to see on our streets; well I hardly think we can recruit from there.
Then he marched over to his desk, dug about in a drawer for a minute before returning triumphantly holding out a shiny Sheriff’s badge… “Here you are Harper, as far as I can see you’re the only man for the job.”
I just stared at him in shock, “What, you expect me to bring in the Cassidy gang single handed, while you and the rest of the town sit back and watch…what do you think this is some new kind of entertainment, like bull ridin’?”
“No, no of course not…I can recommend a couple of men who may be willing to back you up, although I know for a fact, they don’t want the role of Sheriff…”
I reluctantly took the badge, “OK you’ve got a deal, but just until I arrest the gang. Then I’ll be leaving to deliver them to Laramie…seein’ as I don’t have back up from the law over there,” I added bitterly.
I had gone off to meet with Bernie Walters a giant of a man and the town Blacksmith and Leo Haddon, who I already knew as he owned the livery stable. Both men were willing to stand by me as a temporary measure and were pretty handy with a gun too, after their war service. We were all sworn into office as Sheriff and Deputies later that day, on the understanding that their roles would be part time and strictly on a ‘work when needed’ basis. That way their businesses shouldn’t suffer too much I hoped.
That night as Lola lay in my arms in her big soft bed, she asked me about my plans.
“I spoke to Councillor Briggs in the saloon today,” she said, “and he was saying he couldn’t wish for a better Sheriff than you Jess…might you consider it, once all this Cassidy business is over huh?”
I looked down into her beautiful green eyes and for the first time actually considered a life away from the Sherman spread. Mort and Slim who I’d considered close friends seemed to have turned their backs on me…Andy would be off to school in the city in a year or so…and as to Jonesy, well I guess he didn’t care either way. So, working as Sheriff during the day and coming home to the delectable arms of Lola every night…well, maybe that was where my future lay…But there was a job to do first and the Shooting Contest was the following morning.
“You know I reckon I might just give that some serious thought,” I said, before cupping her face between my hands and leaning in to kiss her…
The morning of the Shooting Contest dawned bright and clear and I stood at the saloon door looking out to where the town council were going about their business, busily setting up stalls and hanging bunting. If that dang Edward Briggs put half as much effort into canvassing for a Sheriff as he did the preparations for the shooting match, he might have some candidates I thought bitterly.
I spent the day patrolling the streets, every so often checking the livery for the gang’s mounts, but nothing. It looked like they weren’t going to enter the contest after all.
In the end it was won by a local man and the town went wild celebrating into the wee small hours of the morning. Leo and Bernie had proved to be excellent deputies and we worked well together, clearing the streets of drunks and generally keeping law and order.
But two things were really bugging me. Mort and Slim hadn’t come through for me, hadn’t even had the courtesy of replying to my note… Plus I was still at square one as far as arresting the Cassidy Gang was concerned.
Maybe I’d misjudged the situation and instead of lying low before the Shooting Contest they had actually vamoosed down south and over the border. But no, why should they I argued with myself. They didn’t know that the atrocious crime they’d committed had been witnessed. Didn’t know I was following them, or that poor Martha, who they had left for dead, was ready and willing to testify against them. It just didn’t make sense…but all was to become clear the following day.
The day after the Shooting Contest I was up early and going about my duties as I had been ever since I had been sworn in as Sheriff. I may not have wanted the job, but I respected the role and was prepared to give it my all.
I again stood at the door of the saloon looking up and down Main Street bathed in early morning sunshine. Just moments later Lola joined me in a hastily pulled on robe, her lithe body still warm from our bed. She snaked an arm around my waist and looked up at me with those fascinating green eyes, “Do you really have to work so early,” she asked beguilingly.
“You know I do sweetheart,” I said smiling down at her. But then I couldn’t resist reaching down and kissing her deeply…before breaking off and sighing.
“Hey this is no good,” I said lightly, “we carry on like this and there won’t be any work done by either of us this morning.”
She just gave me that sexy smile of hers and said, “Would that be so bad?”
“Uh, you ain’t tryin’ to divert a lawman from his line of duty are you Ma’am?” I asked with a grin.
She laughed at that, “Well maybe I am…so how about a coffee about eleven then Sheriff? But not before as I need to cash the takings when the bank opens later.”
“How about you call in on the way and I’ll walk ya down,” I suggested, “there’s still a few real suspicious folks wandering about the streets, and I’d feel happier taking you.”
“Well anything to make you happy Sheriff,” she said with a cheeky grin.
I’d been working for an hour or so when I heard a shot fired, followed by two more in quick succession and grabbing my rifle I tore out of the office.
A glance up and down the street confirmed where the shots had come from…the bank! A man was standing outside it minding several horses and even as I started heading that way the rest of the Cassidy Gang ran out and immediately opened fire on me…
I dodged behind a water barrel all the time returning the fire and just hoping that Leo and Bernie would hear the gunplay at the far end of town and come to help me out some. I winged the lookout, but then the bullets were raining down on me, one narrowly missing my ear and then finally one slammed into the top of my left arm…But that just fuelled my fury and I dodged around the board walk benches until I was in range to use my Colt and was able to kill one of the gang…the others now huddled together and exchanging shot for shot with me….
Then just as I was beginning to wonder if my ammo would last out I heard the sound of horses galloping full tilt down the middle of the street, their riders with all guns blazing as they attacked the gang, downing two and injuring another…..Then just moments later both Wally and Con threw down their weapons and raised their hands in submission.
My head swiveled to see Mort and Slim...just behind me…here at last…
Slim waved and then went over to relieve them of their guns as Mort slipped down from the saddle and wandered over towards me.
“Well you sure took your dang time!” I exploded.
“Nice to see you too Jess,” he said grinning at me.
Then just moments later Leo and Bernie came tearing down the street and helped Slim to cuff the prisoners… Before Leo turned to me and said, “We’ll take them over to the jail shall we Sheriff?”
Mort and Slim did a double take and said in unison, “Sheriff?”
Both of them were now looking at me with renewed respect.
I ignored them and said, “Yes will ya, I’ll be over in a minute,” and I turned to where a small crowd of onlookers had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
“Come of folks, shows over,” I said, trying to get them to move on.
Then one of the young Tellers stumbled out of the bank…
“Sheriff I think you’d better come quickly,” he yelled.
“Go on,” Mort said, “I’ll clear the crowds for you huh…Sheriff?”
I threw him a quizzical look, but he just grinned innocently at me.
When Slim and I entered the bank there was an overwhelming smell of cordite and the air still thick with clouds of smoke. Then as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I was aware of a figure that was kneeling by a body towards the back of the bank and weeping softly.
I strode across and peered down at the figure lying on her back for a good minute, before slowly reaching down and pulling the weeping woman up and handing her to the teller, who led her away.
Then I slowly sank down beside the body lying so deathly still. Her blond hair fanned out behind her head, a neat bullet hole in the centre of her chest…her heartrendingly beautiful green eyes open wide in an expression of surprise.l
I stared at the bullet hole, feeling a pain in my heart like I’d stopped a bullet myself. I swallowed hard, the rising nausea almost overcoming me and closed my eyes tightly as tears threatened. Breathing deeply, I tried to gain control, then I looked back down at her…So perfect in every way…except for that one tiny hole in her chest…
After a while I leaned forwards and very gently ran my hand across her face and closed her eyes, still unable to comprehend the fact that…Lola was dead.
I kissed her forehead very tenderly, my heart practically beating out of my chest as the truth dawned on me…she was gone…and I gave a stifled cry of pain…or maybe fury I don’t know which.
Slim hunkered down beside me a hand on my shoulder, “Jess?”
But I ignored him and looked up to where the young Teller was now staring at the body in morbid fascination…
“Who did it?” I barked…
He stared at me looking terrified, but rallied after a moment and said, “It was the Gang leader Sheriff…Kid Cassidy that shot her. Miss Lola told them that Sheriff Harper was on his way to the bank…that they should go…Then Cassidy said, “Harper…Jess Harper? And she said yes that’s right, he’s my man…”
“Hell, why’d she do that, couldn’t she just keep quiet…for God’s sake!”
The Teller shook his head, “Widow Soames was in here with her young grandson… I figure Miss Lola was trying to save them Sheriff. Thought if she said you were on your way the Gang would make a run for it…”
I just shook my head. Goddamn it that was so dang typical of her…looking out for others before herself… The widow’s young grandson was only three and Lola was real fond of him, I knew that.
“But why…” I tried again, finding it difficult to take it all in, “Why did he dang well have to shoot her?”
The Teller looked down, but finally forced himself to look me in the eyes, “He said it was for his girl Ginny, Mister Harper…said it was an eye for an eye and how you’d understand.”
When that finally hit home, I jumped up and roared in anger, “Where is the bastard I’ll pull his dang head off…” and I made for the door…
But Slim was too fast for me and grabbing hold of me pushed me roughly against the wall.
“You’re going nowhere until you calm down some,” he said quietly but firmly….
Then he looked down to where my shirt sleeve was sodden with bright sticky blood from the gunshot during the shootout, and said, “Come on Jess let’s see the doc get that arm fixed up huh?”
It was as we left the bank that we met the Undertaker striding down the street…dear God it was really true I acknowledged, although my mind had been trying to tell me it was all just a terrible dream. I stopped and spoke briefly with him, arranging to visit later, before Slim bore me off to the doc’s place.
I guess by the time I arrived back at the jail some of the stuffin’ had been knocked out of me, the loss of blood and stitches in my arm making me feel pretty sick.
Slim had been with me throughout the ordeal and now he supported me as we elbowed our way through the crowds surrounding the jail house.
Once inside we were confronted with an anxious looking Mort and my two deputies seeming kinda out of their depth.
“What in hell’s goin’ on out there?” I asked.
“Lynching’ party,” Leo said succinctly, “it’s the way they do things in this town, you know that Jess.”
“So do you agree with that Leo?” Mort asked.
“Well after what happened to Miss Lola…” and he drew a deep breath shaking his head, “in my heart I hafta say I do agree with them in a way…But no Sheriff my head tells me it ain’t right, they hafta have a proper trial.”
“How do you feel about it?” Mort asked turning to Bernie.
“Like him, I’m sworn in as a deputy,” Bernie growled, “and I’ll uphold the law.”
Then I felt Mort’s eyes swivel to me…
“Well ain’t you gonna ask me Mort?” I said bitterly.
“Well?” He asked quietly.
“I don’t need a dang lynching party I could kill the bastard with my bare hands,” I spat, before slumping down in my chair at the desk, “that answer your question?”
But then the silence was broken by further disturbances from outside and Mort went off to read them the riot act and they finally dispersed, but I guess we all knew they’d be back sooner or later.
It was still a working day for Leo and Bernie so I dismissed them, saying I’d manage just fine with Slim and Mort’s help, if they could come back on duty in the evening.
Once they had left Mort turned to me and said, “Need I be worried Jess?”
“Come on you know dang well what I mean, which side are you on Jess, the law or that mob that was outside before, because you can’t be on both.”
I looked down, “I dunno,” I whispered, “I guess I don’t know anything anymore…”
He sighed deeply but I guess he appreciated my honesty.
“So, do you mind if I get the statements from the prisoners, might be easier on you huh?”
“Oh do as you damn well please Mort!” I yelled…
He and Slim exchanged a look, but I guess they knew I was hurtin’ real bad…and I don’t just mean my arm, so they cut me some slack.
Once Mort had gone down to the cells I mooched over to the window and rested my hot aching head on the cool glass, watching the towns folk wandering by, laughing and chatting like it was a regular day…But Hell how could they…when just down the road my girl was lying on a marble slab….nothing seemed real anymore.
“Why don’t you take it easy, put your feet up for a while huh?” Slim asked kindly, tipping his head towards an old couch by the far wall… “I’ll wake you if anything happens.”
In the end it seemed like a good idea and I suddenly felt real sick and dizzy, so I stretched out on the couch and fell into an uneasy sleep.
It must have been about an hour later when I was awoken by the sound of shattering glass and gunfire.
Leaping up I snagged my rifle and closely followed by Slim and Mort made for the porch.
“What in Hell’s going on?” I yelled at the unruly mob that now stood before me.
Then a local trouble maker, John Stokes, came forwards, “We’ve come for Cassidy, Sheriff… We don’t mean you no harm, just give us Cassidy … this ain’t nuthin’ personal…we just want the prisoner.”
Then I guess something inside of me snapped.
“Well you ain’t dang well having him…and I take it as real personal whichever way you wanna look at it…you wanting to take my prisoner. So you want him you’re gonna have to go through me first and I don’t give in easy.”
Then Councillor Briggs came from the back of the mob, “Harper, we don’t want anymore bloodshed today,” he pleaded, “just give up the prisoner and no one will get hurt.”
“Well that’s where yer wrong Mister Councillor,” I drawled. “See anyone tries to take my prisoner I’ll make sure the whole damn lot of you are hurt… You swore me in a few days back…Something’ along the lines of me upholding the law to the best of my ability at all times, so help me God….? Well I guess I took that oath kinda serious, even if you didn’t…So no, you and this rabble won’t be taking my prisoners. They’re going to Laramie and they’ll have their trial and I can guarantee that Cassidy will hang for the murders of Sam Elliot and Lola Jackson… But they’ll be tried by a judge and jury not a mob of half-crazy folk like you!”
Then a very sheepish Councillor Briggs came forward and stood beside me, “I think we should all be ashamed, let’s just back off and let our Sheriff do his job…”
Some of then started muttering and turned to go, but I hadn’t done with them yet.
“I know many of you were real fond of Miss Lola,” I said, “and I can understand why feelings are running kinda high… But I…well I loved her somethin’ fierce and I guess if I can abide by the law then you folk can too…huh?”
There was much shuffling of feet and some very sheepish glances in my direction before the mob turned and left quietly a few even coming up to shake my hand and offer their condolences.
Once they’d gone, we turned back into my office and Slim gave me that huge kind smile of his, “Well I guess that clears up one thing,” he said.
“Which side you’re on Jess, and I guess I knew you’d make the right choice in the end,” he said slapping me on the back.
I gave him a weak smile and just hoped and prayed I’d have the strength to carry out my promise.
The crowd kept theirs anyway and we weren’t disturbed by them again.
Later that night I went and visited Lola to say my last goodbyes.
The Undertaker told me that her parents were coming the following day to take her back to their ranch where she’d be buried in the family plot after a private service for the family only. I guess I could understand that, but thought it was a shame that the town couldn’t say farewell to someone who was so greatly loved by them all. Even old Silas had got up from his sickbed to pay his last respects and I knew Kitty and Gemma were in pieces. I’d visited earlier and it had been hard for me, real hard, as I collected my stuff from her room and said goodbye to the girls.
Now as I sat looking down on that beautiful face as cold and pale as the marble slab on which she lay I had an overwhelming urge to fetch a blanket to warm her…her favourite pale green dress seeming somehow too flimsy for the cold, dimly lit room.
“Why?” I whispered, “Why didn’t you wait for me…I said I’d walk ya down…Hell, why didn’t we just go back to bed this morning like you wanted,” and that’s when I broke down and wept…
Then later I was suddenly angry and railed at her, “Why, why…why!”
I was so mad at her for leaving me, mad at Cassidy…even mad at Slim and Mort for not arriving sooner…but mostly I was mad at me for not keeping her safe.
Then I felt terrible and begged her forgiveness…
Finally, I got up from where I had been sitting beside her for over an hour. Feeling cold and weary I stooped down and kissed her tenderly on her icy cold forehead one last time…and walked from the room without looking back.

Chapter 4
The next morning, I said goodbye to Leo and Bernie. Briggs from the Town Council had turned up the previous evening and asked them if they’d stand in as Deputy and Sheriff on a part time basis until a new Sheriff had been appointed and they had agreed to do so. Well I was real pleased as I figured they’d make a damn good job of it between them.
So that had freed me up to accompany Mort, Slim and the prisoners back to Laramie for the trial. But now as I waited in my office, I was beginning to regret the decision as I heard Mort bringing Con, Wal and the only other surviving gang member Cain Winters up from the cells, the other two having perished in the bank heist.
I had not been able to even look at Con since he shot Lola and now as Mort led him past me and out to our waiting horses I stiffened, my heart beating real fast. As he went out, he threw me a sly look and it took all my willpower not to grab hold of him and knock his head off.
Slim noticed me breathing real fast and the way I flexed my hand above my Colt, always a sign I was real mad or upset and he came over and rested a hand lightly on my arm.
“Look Jess you don’t need to ride out with us, if you’d rather stay here a while until the trial and everything is over, we’d understand.”
I scowled at him, “Dontcha trust me?”
“Heck it’s not that, but I can see how difficult this is for you pard.”
I just shook my head, “Nope I’m needed to give evidence and anyways if Ma Elliot can go over and testify, I guess I can…I can’t let her down Slim, or Lola either,” I finished quietly.
We made it out of town without any trouble although there were plenty of bystanders watching us escort the gang out and they received some cussing and booing as we passed by.
I tried to concentrate on the job in hand and nothing else and the day passed reasonably smoothly. It wasn’t until that evening after we’d made camp that the sparks began to fly… It was a chance comment that Con made that really fired me up, just as it was meant to, I guess.
He was allegedly talking to Wal, the two of them cuffed and tied to a couple of pines on the edge of our camp. Supper was over and while Slim and Mort stayed by the fire brewing up some coffee, I had gone to check on the horses.
It was as I returned, I heard Con snigger and say, “Of course you know why that Lola was so darned popular don’t’ you Wal?”
“Why would that be so then boss?” Wal asked innocently.
“Well because she weren’t too particular see Wal. She went with anyone, so I heard…the tart with a heart they call that kinda woman, don’t they?”
I guess he never saw it coming, but I back slapped his face so dang hard I nearly took his head off of his shoulders and split his lip real bad, the blood pouring down his chin.
Well he yelled like a stuck pig and that alerted Mort and Slim who came over and hauled me off him before I could inflict any more damage.
“Jess ease off,” Slim hollered, “He’s just winding you up? What he wants is for you to lose your mind and do something you’ll regret…end up hanging for his murder, can’t you see that?”
“And carry on this way, and that’s what might well happen!” Mort chipped in.
“Oh great,” I said sarcastically, “who needs enemies with friends like you two,” and shrugging off their restraining hands I turned my back on them all and wandered back to the campfire.
We sat in moody silence for a while before Mort finally cracked open a small bottle of Red Eye and livened up our coffee some.
Slim was the first to break the silence and said quietly, “We really are on your side you know Jess.”
“I was beginning to wonder,” I muttered darkly, “when you didn’t show after I sent that message…well I figured you’d given up on me…”
There was a shocked silence and then Mort said, “Hell no son, nothing like that…see we didn’t get the message until two days ago and we headed straight out. I got Lon to cover my duties and Slim got old Jethro in to mind the ranch just as soon as we knew you needed some back-up.”
“It’s true,” Slim said, “Jackie the stage driver was taken real sick on the journey in, only just made it before he collapsed…Food poisoning and was on his back for several days… As soon as he was able, he told us about your message and the murder at the Trading Post.”
“Then blow me down that Bill Wicks landed in my office,” Mort said taking up the story, “said he’d been witness to a murder and he wanted to give evidence in return for a lighter sentence…he’s waiting on us in the Laramie jail right now.”
“I guess that’s why they never turned up at the Shooting Contest then,” I said, “Con’s sharp shooter had gone AWOL.”
Mort nodded, “Seems Wicks was told to kill the old woman and he refused…headed off as soon as he could after that…But he did have a clear view from the door of the back room. He saw Con pulling his gun on the old man and shooting him at point blank range and he’ll testify to that.”
“Poor old Martha,” I said sadly.
Mort nodded, “We called in at the Trading Post on our way to Rawlins. The son, Martin has moved his family in and given up his farm… Seems he never did too well as a sod buster anyway and he’s determined to make a go of the store.”
“Well good luck with that one,” I said bitterly, “I reckon most of the merchandise was damaged or destroyed by those bastards.”
“It’ll be a hard slog but I guess they’ll do it,” Slim said. “I feel real sorry for Martha though stuck in that small shack with Martin, his wife and three young kids under five… She loves them something fierce, but I guess at her time of life she deserves some peace and quiet, not crying babies all night long.
“Can’t they build on, or maybe fix up a small cabin for her?” I asked.
“Yup on the cards,” Slim said, “but Martha says it’ll just have to wait until the business is on the up again, money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Ha ain’t that the truth,” I agreed.
We turned in shortly after that, but I felt much better knowing that my buddies hadn’t let me down …maybe there was still a place for me back in Laramie after all.
The following morning, I was kinda surprised when Mort suggested the prisoners wash up in the little creek running along just below the camp site and even more surprised when he allowed them to bathe un- cuffed. One by one he led them down to the creek and they washed up and returned to the camp. All went well until it came to Con’s turn.
Slim was busy packing the camp up and I’d just finished grooming the horses when I wandered down to the creek to see if Mort was ready to go.
He was standing near the edge of the river, his rifle balanced against a rock beside him. He saw me and waved me over and then seemed to turn his back on the prisoner…As I walked over, I saw Con dive out of the shallows and tear towards Mort…
I yelled a warning to Mort, but too late…Con had already jumped him and thrown a punch, catching Mort off balance. He fell badly and Con made a dive for the rifle just as I arrived on the scene. I kicked it out of his reach and then threw myself at him, wrestling him to the ground where we rolled over and over. I finally gained control and grabbing him by his shirt hauled him up and threw a haymaker that sent him flying. But he recovered quickly and flew at me, punching, kicking and gouging in a wild frenzy, as though fighting for his life…and I guess maybe he thought he was.
I returned punch for punch…and out of the corner of my eye I could see that Mort was now back in possession of his rifle and although it was levelled at us, he made no attempt to stop the fight.
It must have lasted a good ten minutes, with both of us beginning to tire before I finally threw the punch that was to end it and Con lay in the dirt out cold.
I peered down at the bloody wretch that was Con Cassidy without a jot of compassion…just an overwhelming feeling of release.
Mort wandered over and said casually, “You done then Jess?”
I just nodded, too winded to reply.
“All out of your system is it now son?” He asked kindly, and threw me a quizzical look.
“Hell, Mort you set this up,” I said shocked…
He gave me a wide-eyed innocent look, “Me…are you crazy?” He asked…
Then winking at me said, “Help me get the prisoner up will you, I reckon he won’t be walking anyplace for a while.”
When we returned to camp the knowing look in Slim’ s eyes confirmed what I already believed. Mort had taken a huge risk and let me discharge my anger and pain in the only way I could right then. Now I felt I could back off some and let the trial take its natural course…my personal revenge spent.
I tried to thank them, but both men denied any knowledge of what I was implying and it was never spoken of again.
But looking back on it now, maybe I was mistaken…and it was just as Mort had said, I was crazy to think that, I guess I’ll never know.
Once we delivered the prisoners safely to Mort’s cells, we high-tailed it back to the ranch to catch up with a few chores. Old Jethro had done a real good job and as it was high summer there weren’t too many pressing jobs to be done, which was kind of a good thing because I was feeling real bad. At first, I’d thought it was just aches and pains following my fracas with Con, but then the headaches started and I felt nauseous and real weak.
“Come on Jess pull your weight, will you?” Slim said in exasperation early one morning when I was still sitting over my coffee long after the yard chores should have been started.
I just made a growling sound which could have meant pretty much anything, but Slim interpreted as, ‘go take a jump.’
“Andy and Jonesy are due home in a few days,” Slim continued, “and look at the state of this kitchen old Jonesy will go ape when he sees the sink…not to mention his pans.”
“Well that ain’t my fault,” I returned angrily, “go tell Jethro it’s him that managed to get tar in the sink and burn out half the pans too.”
“Yes, well we’d better pick some new ones up after the trial tomorrow,” he said briskly, “or there’ll be another hanging…Jonesy doesn’t take prisoners as far as his pots and pans are concerned, you know that Jess.”
When I just sighed and poured myself another coffee he sat back down at the table and looked closely at me.
“What’s wrong Jess are you sick?”
I just shrugged, “No I’m OK, why?”
“Because you’ve hardly done anything since we got back, is it this darned trial, because it’s a foregone conclusion you know. He’ll be convicted of double murder and hanged…that’s what you want isn’t it?”
“No,” I yelled suddenly furious, “what I want is for him never to have killed those poor folks in the first place.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said softly and poured himself another coffee, topping mine up.
“Look Jess about that, what Cassidy said in the bank, something about Ginny…and it being an eye for an eye…what was all that about?”
Hell, the last thing I wanted to do was dredge all that up again, but there again Slim was involved in all this and I figured I owed him an explanation.
I told him how and why I decided to leave the Cassidy Gang.
“I just didn’t want that kinda life no more Slim…and certainly not robbin’ and killin’ which is pretty much the way it looked to be going. It had been just a load of young men kicking off the traces after the war…I served with Con, Wally and Cain…we had history. Well the drinking and shooting up the odd town for the hell of it was fine at first…but later things turned dark…real dark.”
He nodded, “I can see that, but this Ginny, she was Con’s woman you say?”
“Yes, but she’d dumped him Slim, he’d treated her real bad, knocked her about and worse,” I said bitterly. “Then later when I told him I was shipping out he was real mad...did all he could to keep me… See I was his sharp-shooter I guess Slim, pretty much like Wicks is now…he wanted me to watch his back.”
Slim grinned then, “Well I guess you can’t blame him for that, you’re a good man to have on side Jess, I sure like to know you’ve got my back.”
“Yeah, but you ain’t setting about to rob a bank are you Slim?”
“And he was?” Slim asked looking shocked.
“Oh yes, down in Texas it was…well me and Ginny didn’t want no part of him anymore and we lit out, went south of the border…Next thing we knew Con and the gang are on the run from the botched bank job in Houston and they followed us down to Mexico.”
“Hell, so what did you do?”
“I met up with him and found out he was thinking of trying his luck at robbing our town bank down in Santa Jago, just south of the border. Well it was just a one-horse town Slim, but me and Ginny had settled in real well, were happy there and well liked.”
“So, you did steal his girl then…huh?” Slim said casting me an old-fashioned look.
“No, I told ya, we were just friends, I helped her escape from Con because he was being an absolute bastard to her, but that’s all Slim, I swear. She’d met up with a real nice guy by the time Con and the gang found us…a Teller at the bank, hang it all they were engaged Slim.”
“So, him …killing Lola it wasn’t about jealousy?” He said.
I shook my head... “Nope. So, like I said I met up with him and once I heard of his plans to rob the bank, I went crazy, told him straight that I planned to go warn the Sherriff and if he came into town I’d be siding with the law. I promised him if he rode in, he’d be dang sorry…”
“So what happened?”
“He did and he was,” I said succinctly.
“Go on,” Slim said now all ears.
“I warned the Sheriff and he deputized me…so when the gang hit I stood alongside the law to protect the town…the place I called home then Slim….But of course the gang didn’t see it that way, figured I’d betrayed them…But I hadn’t I laid it on the line as to what would happen…”
“Ginny, so where does she fit in Jess?”
I sighed deeply closing my eyes for a moment, remembering the pretty flame haired girl with the infectious giggle…
“The day the gang rode into town she saw them from her bedroom window and ran down Main Street to the bank…she wanted to warn Mike, her fiancé… She was caught in the cross fire when the Gang opened fire on me and the Sheriff….and Con blamed me for her death…”
“But that’s crazy, he was in the wrong!”
I just shrugged… “I know but he can’t admit that, not even to him-self, I guess it’s less painful to blame me….”
“So who shot her do you know?” Slim asked, obviously fascinated by the whole business…
But before I could answer the early morning Stage rattled in and I never told him…not until sometime later that is….

Chapter 5
The day of the trial dawned grey and dreary with the threat of rain and I figured it pretty much matched our spirits. I felt sick to my stomach and for two pins I’d have stayed abed…but I knew I really had to attend the trial. Not just to give my evidence, but to see justice done for Lola…Sam and I guess for me too.
The trial itself was over within a few hours all the evidence against the gang overwhelming and it was an open and shut case with Con Cassidy being sentenced to death and lengthy prison sentences for both Cain and Wal….
Throughout the morning I’d been feeling more and more sick, my head and back aching. I was beginning to feel real hot too and wondered vaguely if the bullet wound was maybe infected.
When the trial was over and the prisoners led away, I stopped to talk to Martha Elliot as I had something kinda important I really needed to say to her. It was an emotional conversation for us both and in the end her son came over shook my hand and led his tearful Ma away.
Then Slim came over looking mighty annoyed, “Hey I hope you’ve not been upsetting that sweet little old lady.”
I sighed deeply, “No I ain’t been upsetting that sweet little old lady Slim, we just had some business to discuss, but I ain’t upset her.”
“Um…good, well shall we make tracks for home, we’ve still got some more cleaning up to do before Jonesy and Andy arrive home tomorrow Jess. That is unless you want to stay in town, see the hanging in the morning?”
“No, I guess not Slim I’m feelin’ kinda beat…but I wanna see him before he dies.”
“You do?”
I just nodded, “There’s something I’ve gotta clear up once and for all, and I think maybe you should hear it too.”
Mort looked kind of wary when I asked to see the condemned man, but I assured him I wasn’t about to sign up for round two.
He chuckled at that and led me through to the cells accompanied by Slim.
When we entered Con came to the bars looking disdainful, “What do you want Harper…come to gloat?”
I shook my head, “Nope to set the record straight…once and for all…about Ginny’s death.”
His head shot up, “What about it…she’s dead ain’t she and it was all your damn fault. Either you shot her or…that drunk of a Sheriff did.”
“I shook my head it weren’t me Con…”
“It was him then that dang old fool of a Sheriff…killed her in the crossfire…got off lightly just losing his job…should have hung,” he said bitterly.
“Yeah…except it wasn’t Sherriff Morris that killed her either. Sure, he was drunk that morning…so dang drunk he couldn’t have hit a barn door at two paces, I should know I was right there beside him…But it suited the Town Council to lay it at his door, they wanted an excuse to fire him. So, they got the old doctor to say she’d been shot in the back. A terrible mistake on behalf of the Sheriff whose eyes were none too good and he suggested he be retired…all a cover up.”
Con looked shocked and then puzzled, “So who the hell did kill her then?”
“You,” I said, “I saw it real clear and there was only one shot that it could have been…yours.”
He turned deathly pale and then shook his head before slumping back down on the bunk… “No…I don’t believe it…”
“Well you’d better, I was with the doc when he took the bullet out…it was in her chest Con, if it had been me or the Sheriff that had shot her by mistake it would have been in her back…she was facing you, had her back to us as she ran…”
“Noooo!” he howled, the sound sending shivers down my spine and I saw Slim flinch at the unearthly sound.
“Maybe I should have told you sooner,” I said bitterly, “you might have spared Lola’s life…But I guess we’ve both gotta live with that guilt. Maybe you’re the lucky one. You’ve only got until sun up tomorrow to brood on it,” and with that I turned on my heel and left him to reflect on the fact that the girl he had once loved died by his own hand.
Then Slim was beside me as we left Mort’s office and threw a comforting arm around my shoulders, “Come on Pard, let’s go home,” he said quietly.
I’d returned the lively Gambler to the livery when we brought the prisoners into town and today was riding Traveller after a joyous reunion with him on my arrival back at the ranch.
Slim had watched me making a fuss of my good old horse with a broad smile on his face.
“What?” I’d asked glancing across at him.
“I was getting kind of worried when you lit out without telling me…but I knew you’d be back for Traveller.”
I looked down and said quietly, “I’m sorry Slim, I shouldn’t have taken off that way…I was just so dang mad at what they’d done to me and I guess I was goin’ kinda stir crazy stuck in that hotel room…But I should have left a message at least.”
“Yes, you darned well should,” he’d said with a flash of anger, but then relented. “But you’re back now and that’s the main thing huh?”
I nodded feeling guilty as hell, how could I ever have considered staying up in Rawlins…Yes there was Lola, but we could have made a good life together here in Laramie.
Now as we headed for home after the trial and I mounted Trav I felt so dang relieved to be riding him and as usual he seemed to pick up on my somewhat fragile state and trod real easy and careful.
It didn’t take Slim long to realize all was not well and he peered anxiously at me…but said nothing just reined Alamo back and into step with me and we made our way slowly home.
By now as well as the pain in my head and back my stomach was cramping and all I wanted was my bed.
I figure Slim didn’t realize how bad I was feeling and he kept up endless chatter about the outcome of the trial…and then how much he was looking forwards to seeing his kid brother and Jonesy the following day.
He’d gone off and bought some new pans while I collected our mounts from the livery.
“I guess we can try ‘em out tonight huh, fry up some bacon and beans…biscuits with lashings of butter… um,” he said happily. But it was when I nearly gagged that he knew there was really something wrong.
He cast me an anxious glance and said, “Maybe an early night would be a good idea instead?”
The last couple of miles I could feel myself drifting into unconsciousness and had to struggle to stay upright…
Then we finally arrived in the yard…I reined Traveller in and slipped down from the saddle and that’s when everything started going black…
I was vaguely aware of Slim’ s strong arms grabbing me before I fell and carrying me into the house…
The next thing I knew I was laying on the old couch in the parlor, it was evening and the lamps were lit and a fire crackling in the grate…
Then I was aware of three pairs of eyes anxiously peering down at me…
“W…what happened Slim?” I croaked.
“You passed out buddy I guess you’ve been feeling sick all day huh?”
“What is it Jess do you feel real bad?” Andy blurted out, looking worried.
“Hey what are you doin’ here, you ain’t due back until tomorrow…we’ve gotta clean up some,” I said casting Slim a worried glance.
“Never mind about that,” said Jonesy, “we came home early to surprise you boys…So what’s wrong then Jess huh? Garldarn it I can’t leave you alone for five minutes,” he finished now looking his usual ornery self.
I sighed deeply, “I’m just tired I guess…and tried to sit up, before the pain in my head made me flop back down again.
“Tired is it?” Jonesy chipped in. “Well you look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet boy…I reckon bed fer you and the doc tomorrow if you ain’t perked up none.”
“Aw Jonesy…”
“Uh, sure looks like it’s a dang good job me and Andy decided to come home early. It seems like you two have been getting in a whole mess of trouble without me to ride shotgun on you both.”
Then Andy’s face lit up with excitement, “Mose was telling us on the ride home how you’d brought in the Cassidy Gang single handed, is that true…huh, huh?”
But Slim broke in, “Andy go help Jonesy with the supper will you and I’ll sort out Jess here. I’ll tell you all about it later OK?”
“But Slim!”
“Go on scoot and give poor Jess some peace and quiet huh?”
“Sure…sorry Jess, “and he mooched off to do as he was told for once.
It was later that night that we all figured I was real sick.
Jonesy had come in with some of that foul brew he called tree bark tea which he reckoned was a real good pain killer and I hafta admit, it does the job even if it does stink to high heaven. Anyways this time I’d no sooner downed a cup, than I brought it all back up again and then commenced chucking for most of the night.
The following morning when Mose came by he was sent off with a note for old Doc Johnson to call and by the time he arrived at noon I was in a real poor way. My belly was hurtin’ real bad, I ached all over like I’d been stomped on by a herd of buffalo and I was as hot as blazes. I had started coughing too… a dry terrible sound even to my own ears.
Doc checked the bullet wound to my arm and reported it to be healing real well.
“No young man I think you’ve got an infectious disease of some sort, have you been in contact with anyone who’s been sick this way?” He asked.
“Uh, well yeah, I was helpin’ look after old Silas from the Wayfarer’s…he was real sick,” I said… “But it was a good while ago since I was there.”
The doc looked kinda worried then, “Some diseases can incubate for up to ten days maybe longer….so what was wrong with this Silas then son?”
I groaned, thinking I might well chuck again, “He’d got the Typhus the doc said,” I gasped swallowing hard…
Slim, Jonesy and the doc all took a step back and Jonesy cussed softly.
“Goddamn it boy, you don’t do things by halves do you, that’s a dang killer…” Jonesy muttered.
“And mighty infectious too,” said the doc looking anxious. “You’ll need to be in quarantine… nursed really carefully.”
“Huh?” Slim asked looking real shocked.
“They call it Epidemic, or war fever…passed from man to man…and wiped out thousands in the civil war,” the doc said shaking his head sadly.
Then he pulled up my undershirt and we all saw a rash on my chest, which pretty much seemed to confirm what he’d just said, the others were thinking I reckoned.
“Jeez…Goddamn it Jess,” Slim muttered and I don’t think I’d ever heard him cuss that way…
Then I was coughing again….and couldn’t get my breath…but as soon as I could speak, I tried to reassure them…
“It ain’t that type Doc, the girls all nursed old Silas too. The doc said that was fine so long as we washed up plenty after looking after him…it was some other kind…doc said it was probably from the rats in the yards….”
“Uh, and so did you have anything to do with the rats then?” The doc asked brightening slightly.
“Sure I did, shot at ’em most days…killed a good few…big bastards they were.”
“Um, typhus from rat flea bite…could be I suppose. I’ll wire the doc over in Rawlins and get him to confirm the diagnosis.”
“But in the meantime, I think we should make every attempt to nurse him with the upmost care Mister Jones,” he said turning to address old Jonesy. “I’ll leave a face mask and you need to wash carefully after tending him…I suggest no one else visits until we have a proper diagnosis…And you and the boy, Andy, should stay well away Slim, he could be infectious, we just don’t know yet.”
“It’s really serious then?” Slim said softly.
The doc just nodded his wise old head, “Both types have a very high mortality rate I’m afraid…whether epidemic or murine…the outcome could well be the same for the patient…”
“Oh well let’s look on the bright side,” I said sarcastically, “if the Rawlins doc was right, it’s just me that gets to die, the rest of you will be just fine…”
“Jess don’t say that,” Slim said and I was real shocked to see what might have been tears in his eyes….
Once the doc had gone Jonesy recommenced swabbing me down with cool water to try and get the fever down, but now I was beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing. Suppose, just suppose the diagnosis the Rawlins doc had made was wrong…and I was actually really infectious…well heck I didn’t want to harm anyone at the ranch.
It was while Slim was busy in the yard and Jonesy had gone off to prepare dinner that I managed to drag myself up out of bed and dressed…Then I made it to the bedroom door, pausing for a moment to catch my breath, before pulling it open and peering out…Jonesy was banging pans about in the kitchen making the noon meal and I took my chance and staggered towards the front door... but I never made it. Everything suddenly started going dim and I felt like I was walking through deep mud…almost as in slow motion…then I was falling…down…down…
Slim walked in through the door just as I hit the deck and then Jonesy ran in from the kitchen wondering what the crash was as I’d grabbed hold of a chair and brought that down with me too.
Slim and Jonesy hauled me up and carried me back to bed…Once I’d been stripped off once more and was laying back on the pillows two pairs of angry eyes peered down at me.
“What in Hell was all that about,” Slim finally managed, “where did you think you were going huh?”
I just shrugged, “Anywhere…away from here that is.”
Jonesy just looked puzzled, “Garldarn it boy, my medicine ain’t that bad is it…even Doc Johnson says I make the best darned tonic this side of Kentucky.”
I sighed deeply, “It ain’t that you old coot…I…well dang it I just don’t want you catchin’ it…Slim or Andy either…I figured I’d ride out to the cave and camp out until I’m over the worst…”
“Are you crazy? That’s the most dang fool stupid thing I ever did hear!” Jonesy said stoutly. “You may be the most ornery, all fired difficult and self-opinionated, pesky saddle tramp I’ve ever met…But well I’ve gotten kinda used to havin’ you around…So just simmer down and behave yerself…you hear me boy!”
“Er, Jonesy is that dinner I can smell burning?” Slim said sniffing the air…
“Darn it, now see what you’ve done!” Jonesy said glaring at me… “Now you just stay put or I’ll dang well rope you to the bed,” he snarled before marching off to rescue the meal.
Slim grinned at me and then sat down on the edge of the bed.
“That goes for me too…I’ll send Andy off to stay with a school friend until we’re sure of the diagnosis. But I guess I’ll take my chance along with Jonesy…You see what you don’t realize is that we’ve all gotten kinda fond of you and your ‘ornery ways’ Jess.”
Then he glared at me just like Jonesy had done, “So are you going to behave, because we’re going to get you well iffen it kills us all in the process,” he said, once more breaking into a grin.
Well I guess I couldn’t speak right then so I just nodded and he gave me a gentle punch on the arm… “That’s better, now you rest up some huh? I’ll see you later,” and he marched out.
I lay there looking at the closed door for a long time…never having felt quite as humbled as I did right then….
I guess I don’t ever remember being as sick either. Sure, I’d been beaten up and shot more times than I could remember and suffered some with a fever when the wounds had gotten infected…but hell nuthin’ like this fever…
Slim and Jonesy worked on me around the clock swabbing me down with icy cold water from the well when I was burning up and then bundling me up in blankets when I started shivering and shaking with cold. I seem to remember cussin’ some, but mostly I was pretty much out of it, lashing about and mumbling…
But if the real world had become remote and strange…my own personal Hell was way too real. I had terrible dreams, mostly about Lola. I kept seein’ her face as it was when I found her after the bank raid… those beautiful eyes just staring up at me. Just as I did at the time, I gently closed her eyes…But then they would spring open again…staring deeply into my own eyes…and Jeez that felt so…so dang chilling…The expression in her eyes subtly changed too. When I’d found her she had a look of shock in those beautiful deep green eyes…But now as I stared at her in morbid fascination the expression slowly changed to one of deep concern, matching exactly how she’d looked at me when I first walked into the Wayfarer’s after I’d been beat up…
Eventually I could take it no more and I started yellin’ and cussin’ just trying to blank out that terrible vision…dream…hauntin’ whatever it dang well was…
Then Slim was there with a comforting arm around me, “It’s OK pard I’m here, it’s OK Jess….”
I looked up at him barely able to focus…and my mouth as dry as the desert sand…
But he seemed to understand and offered me a cold drink of water before layin’ me back down again.
“What time is it?”
“Late Jess after one I guess…”
“I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be it’s alright…”
Then he settled back to chat, “Bad dream?”
I shrugged, “I guess so yeah…”
“Want to tell me?”
I shook my head, “Nope…I reckon there’s no point in us both bein’ spooked shitless…”
“It was that bad eh?”
I just nodded.
That was one of the few moments of reason I had for a good few days and as the fever raged once more and I guess old Jonesy started really thinkin’ I was on my way out.
He and Slim had been trying to cool me down again, but it weren’t working and although I could hear them chatting none of it made too much sense until Slim suddenly sounded real angry…
“Don’t talk that way Jonesy he can get over this I know he can, he’s young and strong, isn’t he? God knows he’s come through worse!”
But the old man just shook his head, “He’s fading fast son, you can’t deny it. He just doesn’t have any reserves left. Look at him he’s just skin and bone…and I reckon he’s just about lost his fighting spirit too…
Well doggone it that did it as far as I was concerned. I wasn’t gonna let some dumb illness see me off and I sure wasn’t having that ol’ goat give up on me either…I groaned some and then opened my eyes, focusing on the two of them, “I ain’t done fer yet and don’t you dang well say I am,” I growled.
Well they exchanged a glance and then the old timer said, “I guess I’d forgotten about that ornery streak of yours son….”
Well I hafta be honest, there were a few times when I thought that maybe I really wouldn’t make it…It was real hard having the constant pain in my back and head as any pain medicine Jonesy gave me I mostly chucked back up….But very gradually I started to feel a little better and it was then that I really appreciated all they had done for me.
Once it was certain there was no risk of Andy catching it, he was allowed home and he did his share of helpin’ me…especially sitting and chatting to try and take my mind of everything and I thought again what a really great kid he was…
Then Slim did pretty much everything for me, when he wasn’t running the ranch single handed when Andy was in school and I felt real bad about that.
“Look you just put your mind to getting well, huh pard…me and Andy can manage just fine until you’re well again,” he’d said real cheerful like, but I could see the strain in his face and I felt so dang bad that I couldn’t pull my weight.
But of them all at the ranch it was old Jonesy that took on the brunt of looking after me…and I hafta say it was a real eye opener. See right from day one I kinda had the feeling he didn’t like me too much…I mean the way he called me ‘that no good saddle tramp,’ was kind of a clue as to his feelings, I guess. He moaned and nagged me like an old woman and the feeling of dislike was mutual.
But then things changed some when I saw Slim out of a bit of bother with Bud Carlin and his gang and he thawed a tad. But I reckon he still didn’t like to see me around Andy too much. Thinkin’ I was a real bad influence on the boy…and I guess at first maybe I was to some extent, tellin’ him about all the wild times I’d had. Then I’d acted pretty much like a big kid myself joining in with Andy’s childish pranks to wind the old guy up some…
However, just lately me and Slim had gotten much closer. We were real good friends goin’ off drinkin’ and dating the purty saloon gals and I reckoned I owed it to him to side with him as far as disciplining the youngster was concerned…Sure the parenting was up to Slim, and Jonesy to some extent. But now I tended to back them up as far as school work and the like was concerned. Well that made for a much easier relationship between us all…with the exception of Andy maybe. But I guess he was coming around to the idea that I could be just as big a pain in the butt as the other adults in his life and he accepted it.
So yeah, me and Jonesy had some kinda truce. I knew I weren’t his most favorite guy by any means…but he put up with me for Andy and Slim’ s sake, I guess… That’s why it was so dang odd the way he looked out for me…
It was late one evening and I’d spent most of the day cussin’ or chuckin ’ and I guess nobody could blame him if he’d lost his rag with me…but no he was real patient.
Andy was abed and Slim staying overnight in Cheyenne on stage-line business, so it was just the two of us…
After he’d cleaned me up for the third time, helped me to a cold drink and straightened my pillows he sat back on the bedside chair looking pretty beat.
After a moment I said quietly, “Why are you doin’ all this for me Jonesy?”
“Huh?” He asked looking surprised, “You’re sick and you need takin’ care of boy…”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to, you could just go off to yer bed and leave me and I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” I added, “I’m not the easiest I guess.”
“Well ain’t that the truth,” he said grinning over at me…
“So, why’d you do it?” I persisted, “Why have you been so dang good to me?”
“I’ll tell you Jess. See the way I figure it is that you’re family now…Well as much as the critters out in the pasture, that ornery old donkey and even that dang house cat Jasper all are….All of you can be hard work, exasperating’ and downright cantankerous….But you belong here now son and we look after our own….”
I just gaped at him for a good minute unable to speak and I guess he realized I was kinda overcome because he muttered something about getting us a hot drink and marched off to make it…
I lay there just looking after him…and that was when I really felt that maybe…just maybe I’d found home.
It was a week or so later when Slim told me he’d found out about my little secret…
I was on the mend, the fever gone and most of the pain too, but I still felt as weak as a kitten and that was really getting me down, I guess. I’d tried to get up that morning, much against doctor’s orders and taken a nasty tumble…so now I was confined to bed again with Slim riding shot gun on me…
He’d changed the bed and now I was spread out on the top cover feelin’ kinda warm as the weather was very hot and humid for early fall.
Slim cast my old undershorts a withering glance. They had once been a deep red and now had been washed out to a pale pink.
He shook his head and said, “Honestly Jess you really need some new underclothes…why don’t you spend some of that money you won at the Laramie Shooting Match…you really could use some new stuff you know.”
I must have looked kinda cagey, because he said, “Hey, you have got some left haven’t you pard…you didn’t blow it all in Rawlins, did you?”
“No, I didn’t blow it all in Rawlins,” I said angrily.
Uh…but it’s all gone isn’t it Jess …huh?”
I sat up at that and then feeling kind of light headed slumped back down on my pillows.
“What makes you think that?” I asked playing for time…
“Because I bumped into Martha Elliot from the Trading Post on my way back from Cheyenne, she’d been visiting friends over there, and she was telling me about that little ‘bit of business’ you were negotiating with her on the day of the trial.”
“Oh that,” I said beginning to feel myself flushing up.
“Yes, that…and she said to tell you that they’ve had the cabin built and she’s about to move in and just loves it…said to thank you so much for putting up the collateral.”
“Uh…good,” I muttered…
“One thing beats me though Jess…”
“Oh…so what’s that?”
“How’d you get her to accept it? Ma Elliot has been so darned proud all the time I’ve known her, brought Martin up that way too, so didn’t she think of it as charity?”
I chuckled then, “Nope see I said it was an advanced payment on one of those big double kayaks Martin builds, they’re swell and would be great for fishing the lake…”

Slim rolled his eyes, “Oh yeah…and how do you think you’re going to get one of those big cumbersome crafts Martin makes all the way over here?”
“Yeah, that’s the point,” I said grinning, “by the time they’ve figured that out Ma will have moved in.”
“Gee but you’re a devious one,” Slim said looking kinda impressed.
“Well they wouldn’t have taken the money as a gift, they’d have said it was charity, so I had to be a bit tricky,” I said winking.
But then he fixed me with his steely glare, “So what about the rest of the money then Jess…you could have built old Ma Elliot a darned castle and still had plenty of change over so what happened to that huh?”
When I said nothing and just peered innocently up at the ceiling he said softly, “Well I’ll tell you since you can’t seem to recall…It all went on that trip to Denver and Jonesy’s back treatment didn’t it Jess?”
I stared at him then feeling real taken aback.
“How’d you know that?”
“Because Jonesy told me when you were so sick last week, said he’d been hitting the poker table again and how you bailed him out. Then paid for all his treatment and the hotel for him and Andy…heck you didn’t need to do that Jess…”
“I wanted to,” I said stoutly, “that’s why I entered the dang competition in the first place.The old coot was so dang upset he’d gotten in a mess with the gambling again…well I just wanted to bail him out…I guess I felt kinda sorry for him, if you must know.”
Slim just shook his head now smiling at me, “You’ve been a real good friend to old Jonesy and I guess he won’t forget that in a hurry…and I thank you too Jess…”
I reckon we were beginning to feel kinda embarrassed by now so he reverted to grousing about my under-shorts again…
“You must have some cash left for new ones,” he insisted.
“Oh I’ve got new ones alright,” I said grinning at him…
“You have?” He asked in surprise, “Well why didn’t you say so… where are they buddy put ‘em on…”
“I can’t they’re in my saddle bags out in the barn.”
“What the heck are they doing out there?”
“Well see it’s this way…you never know when yer gonna strike lucky. So, I always keep clean new ones in my saddle bags, women are kinda particular about that sort of thing you know Slim.”
He shook his head and chuckled then, “Oh Jess you’re incorrigible…”
“Uh…I guess that’s not good huh?”
He just shook his head and laughed again…

Chapter 6
So it was that me and Jonesy finally made our peace. Maybe he just realized that he’d gotten kinda fond of me when it looked like I was so sick I wouldn’t make it…I dunno. But what I do know was there was as subtle change in our relationship. Sure, we still cussed each other on a regular basis, but it was more in the way of friendly banter than with any real malice. I think maybe our relationship now had somethin’ that was lacking before…mutual respect.
Life was pretty good at the ranch as fall advanced. The mornings were getting chilly and misty as we began to bring the stock down for the winter. It was hard work, but felt real good as we worked as a team, Andy helping out at the weekends too.
It was whilst I was out looking for strays one morning that I spied a bunch of wild mustangs heading south and decided to bring a few in to break later in the year.
Slim’s face was a picture of shock as I hustled half a dozen prime young critters into the yard late one afternoon, yelling for him to open the corral gate.
Once they were safely in, I jumped down from Traveller drinking in the sight of the sweating, lively horseflesh as they charged about the confines of the corral wide eyed and feisty.
“Ain’t they somethin’ else?” I asked turning to grin at Slim.
He shook his head in disbelief, “Well I guess they’re quite a sight Jess, but what are they doing here?”
“Well I’m gonna break ‘em of course.”
“You know how then?”
“Sure, I do,” I said turning to him, “was taught by the best, the Arapaho.”
“I lived with them for a while Slim, a few years back and my buddy in the tribe taught me everything he knew about horse whispering and turns out I’m pretty darned good at it too.”
“You are?” He asked, respect in his eyes.
I just nodded, “You said yourself it was real quiet around here once we’d brought all the stock down, so I can work on them then…sell ’em on for a pretty penny too Slim, the army will pay top dollar you know.”
Well that impressed him even more and he looked back at the horses with renewed interest.
“You don’t say,” he replied.
I gave them time to settle in before I started working on them, but spent all my free time just staying close so that they got used to the human voice and the way we acted around them…
Young Andy was fascinated by the whole business, but couldn’t wait for me to get stuck into riding them though.
“You’ve gotta take it real slow and easy,” I explained, “be real patient too. The idea is to earn their trust and that don’t happen overnight Andy.”
Well I guess patience wasn’t his strong point, mine neither iffen I’m honest, but I guess mustang breaking is one of those times when it pays off.
Meanwhile we still had to catch one or two more ornery strays and then ride fence one more time down in the south pasture just to be sure the critters couldn’t break out.
On top of that the weather had turned cold, I mean real cold and I had a sorta feeling I wasn’t about to enjoy the Wyoming winter.
“Jeez that darned wind is enough to freeze the butt of a polar bear,” I complained to Slim one morning as we rode out to check the fences.
He just grinned at me and said, “Aw poor little Jessie Harper feeling the cold then?”
Well that made me as mad as all get out. Hell, I couldn’t help it if I still wasn’t used to the dang northern climate.
Traveller balked some as we rode out of the yard, side stepping and shaking his head as the bitter wind blasted directly into his face as we rode up the rise.
“My old horse don’t like it either,” I complained.
“Well he’d better get used to it,” Slim parried, “because it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, I can promise you that.”
However, things were just about to get a whole lot worse anyway and the weather seemed kinda trivial after what was to happen next.
It all started one morning in October when old Mose brought us some mail. Well there was the usual stuff, some bills for Slim. But also, a note from Andy’s teacher asking for a meeting and I guess that was kind of odd in itself.
“So why didn’t Miss Charmers send the letter with you Andy?” Slim asked looking confused and not a little angry.
When the kid just shrugged and said he didn’t know that made Slim even madder…
He opened the note and read it to himself, me and Andy watching him anxiously, as my pard’ s usually cheerful expression changed from puzzled to downright grim.
“It seems she has already sent two notes via you, but I never got them,” he said sternly, “so what’s going on Andy?”
When the child just looked sullen Slim really lost his rag…and with it being a Saturday told him to get to his chores and he’d talk to him later.
I figured it was none of my business, but I was kinda surprised that Jonesy had nuthin’ to say on the matter…
Then I looked across the breakfast table, where we were all having a last coffee before work, and noticed the old man had received a letter too.
He had it open on the table in front of him and was staring at it with unseeing eyes.
Slim and I exchanged a worried glance.
Then I asked gently, “Bad news Jonesy?”
He didn’t seem to hear me for a minute, his gaze vacant, and then he pulled himself together, “Uh yes son…a dear friend is sick, real sick…in fact I doubt he’ll make it.”
“Well that’s too bad,” I said softly.
“Anyone I know Jonesy?” Slim asked sympathetically.
“Yes, old Herbert Morton, he was a good friend of your daddy too Slim.”
“Herb Morton, who used to own the Blue Jay Ranch you mean?”
“Yup that’s it. He retired to Cheyenne; uh must be just after your Pa died…he was a good friend to him…me too.”
“What does he say?” Slim asked.
“Just that, he’s real sick and he would like to see me one last time.”
“Well you must go of course,” Slim said at once.
“Aw Slim how can I? Young Andy in trouble of some sort…and this young buck will probably fall off of one of those dang mustangs and break something,” he said casting me a melancholy glance, “No, it’s impossible.”
“Nonsense,” Slim said robustly. “Jess and I can handle anything that’s bugging Miss Charmers and we’ll sort Andy out no matter what it is.”
Then he turned to me and grinned, “And by the time Jess gets through this darned horse whispering…malarkey of talking the darned critters into submission…Well you’ll be home long before he’s got around to even thinking of actually putting a saddle on one.”
I gave Slim a mock glare, “Well that’s where you’re wrong. You’ll live to regret that Hardrock…just you wait and see. I’ll have those critters eating out of my hand and the army contract signed and sealed before Thanksgiving!”
Then I turned and slapped Jonesy on the back, “We’ll be just fine don’t you worry…after all what can happen?”
It was to take a good deal more nagging and cajoling before Jonesy finally agreed to the trip though.
It was eventually me that clinched it as we sat by the fire drinking a last coffee before retiring.
I made a tutting noise and looked sadly into the fire, alerting both Slim and Jonesy.
“What’s up?” The old guy asked peering over at me.
I shook my head, “Oh nuthin’ Jonesy, just thinkin’ about the times I’d have given my eye teeth to be in your position.”
“Huh, what are you talkin’ about now?” He asked petulantly.
I stared mournfully across at him, “Well to have the chance to say a proper goodbye to a real good buddy…More often than not I just heard someone’d been gunned down and never had a chance to …well see ‘em off proper like.”
“You know, say how much they meant to me, chew the fat. Tell a few yarns, kinda ease their passin’ you know…like a last kindness…”
“Uh, I didn’t think of it that way,” he said quietly.
“Yeah, well I reckon it’s the things you don’t do in life that you look back on and regret, not the things you do,” was my parting shot as I rose and went off to bed.
Slim came in some half hour later and grinned down at where I was stretched out on my bed.
“Well?” I asked.
“Packing as we speak, heading out on the early Stage Tuesday. Said he wanted to replenish the larder tomorrow, leave the place ship shape and then he’ll be off.”
I grinned back at him, “Well that’s good to hear.”
Slim nodded and started getting ready for bed before turning back to me…
“So, was that all true? About you not getting to say your last goodbyes to old friends and all that?”
I just gave him a sly wink, “Some of it,” I said before turning over and closing my eyes…asleep in minutes…but I heard Slim’s deep chuckle as I dozed off.
True to his word old Jonesy stocked up on supplies and gave the place a good clean up before taking off on the early Stage bound for Cheyenne.
We waved him off and then turned back to the ranch house and coffee pot.
“Poor old guy,” I said quietly as we sat back down…
“Huh, why do you say that?” Slim asked.
I shook my head, “I dunno, I reckon when you get to his age, he’ll be lookin’ to lose a few more old friends through illness, old age and the like…makes you think…”
“Huh, makes you think what?” Slim said pouring us both a coffee and taking a sip, before looking at me, eyebrows raised in question.
“Makes you think you should make the most of life while yer young,” I said with a sly wink, “know what I mean?”
“Like cracking open the odd bottle on a work night…and maybe asking a couple of young ladies over to supper?” He asked understanding my reasoning at once.
I nodded, “Exactly what I was thinkin’ buddy. Course we’d hafta git rid of young Andy for a while.”
“No problem, he could spend a few nights with his best pal Ben,” Slim said eagerly. “Might do him good to have a break from me anyway…I guess we’re not really seeing eye to eye right now.”
I gave him a sympathetic nod. Slim had been to see Miss Charmers and it appeared that Andy had been slacking on his work and generally been difficult and sullen. It turned out that he was still kinda upset at bein’ thrown over by a class mate he’d been seeing, the lovely red headed Wendy Wright…Then when she hooked up with Skeet from the mercantile, well that had been the last straw for young Andy. Anyway, I’d set him straight and told him a few home truths about romancin’ the fairer sex and he’d calmed down some now. But I figured he wouldn’t want me and Slim’ s romantic episodes pushed in his face so to speak.
We were full of plans and spent the rest of the morning scheming whilst half- heartedly doing the chores.
Truth was the herd were now all present and accounted for and were settled happily in the south pasture. We’d worked long and hard driving them all down and figured we now deserved some down time. I’d made a good start with the mustangs too and figured everything was on track.
Later I was sitting out on the porch waiting for the noon Stage while Slim was rustling up the meal for us, having lost the bet when we flipped a coin.
“OK I’ll do it today,” he said reluctantly, “but after this we take turns.”
“Sure, sure and anyway, we play our cards right the girls will cook us somethin’,” I said happily.
We’d decided to ask Meg and Tessa, both girls being up for a good time and real easy on the eye. We’d dated a few times since Cindy and Emma had left town and I figured they’d be more than happy to oblige with a bit of cooking and more than likely a little romancin’ too. The only fly in the ointment being Tessa’s over protective, bossy Pa. But she’d gotten around his strict rules and stayed out at her friend Meg’s place, with me and Slim, a few times. So, I figured she’d manage again.
I sat back on the porch rocker looking out to the mountains and let my mind wonder over Tessa’s many qualities a big grin on my face…until I was dragged away from my rather less than gentlemanly thoughts by the arrival of the Stage…
I exchanged some banter with Mose, changed the team, waved him off and was just about to go and investigate how Slim was getting on with the mid-day meal when I heard another visitor coming down the rise.
I shielded my eyes against the sun and was just able to make out the livery hire buggy being pulled by Bert’s Tilly, making its way sedately into the yard.
I opened the front door and yelled to Slim that we’d got company before making my way across to where the driver had reined in by the corral fence. Peering up I was surprised to see the trim but shapely figure of Mrs Sophie Wright and her daughter young Wendy, Andy’s ex- girlfriend.
Sophie, or Widow Wright, as she was known in town, beamed down at me looking as darned beautiful and poised as ever…But I just gaped up at her feeling kinda wrong footed. Hell, I hadn’t hardly clapped eyes on her since the Spring Dance, when she had made it more than obvious that she’d got me in line for husband number two. Well I’d vamoosed out of town real quick, on a cattle buying trip and managed pretty much to avoid her since my return.
Now I flushed up some remembering the times she’d invited me to dinner, along with Andy, and all the excuses I’d made. That was until Wendy had thrown Andy over for Skeet Jenkins who helped out at the mercantile. Poor Andy had been heart broken and even though, as Slim had said, it had just been a real bad case of puppy love it had still hurt the kid real bad.Well hell, the way his school work had been suffering was proof enough of that I thought , as I looked up at the redheaded youngster responsible for Andy’s unhappiness.
Now young Wendy was sitting there looking pretty dang angry and I wondered what was going on…
Just then I heard Slim behind me and he seemed to collect his wits quicker than me.
Touching his hat said politely, “Mrs Wright…Wendy, what can we do for you?”
Sophie Wright gave him the full benefit of her perfect smile and said in her sexy southern drawl, “Well Slim honey I think it’s a case of what I can do for you…and uh, Jess here too of course,” she added turning the full force of her beam on me.
Slim made a slight choking sound, but recovered well and said, “Uh, so what would that be then Ma’am?”
“Oh really what’s all this Mrs Wright and Ma’am, I think we are all better acquainted than that aren’t we? Now could one of you strong gentlemen help us down?” She asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Um of course,” Slim said helping them down whilst I backed off, beginning to have one of my bad feelings about all this.
We both stood there transfixed wondering what was to happen next and I finally ventured, “So Ma’am…er Sophie, you’ve come to visit huh?”
She gave her deep sexy chuckle at that, “Oh you boys are so funny, I’m sure Mister Jones must have told you that I have come to act as housekeeper whilst he is away,” she said sweeping past us and into the house, closely followed by Wendy.
Slim and I exchanged a shocked glance before following her in.
“I think there must be some mistake,” Slim started cautiously.
“Oh no, no mistake Slim, Mister Jones was most adamant that I come and care for you lovely men and sweet Andy too of course…I know my Wendy can’t wait to get re-acquainted with him and make up that silly little tiff they had,” she said casting her daughter a warning glance.
Wendy, who had been biting a nail, merely tossed her flame red hair and looked bored.
“Well that’s real kind of you Ma’am,” I said,” but you really needn’t bother we can manage just fine.”
“Oh I’m sure you can Jess, but some jobs are women’s work and I will take great delight in tending to your every need,” she said casting me a rather bold look.
“Er…no,” I almost squeaked, “um, that is… see it wouldn’t be seemly ma’am two uh, ladies under the same roof as us rough bachelors… could cause a real scandal.”
“But you have a bunkhouse here don’t you,” she said turning to me with a devious smile, “so I’m sure that will cover that little problem just fine honey.”
I was just wondering if I could say I was still kinda infectious from the Typhus when there was a smell of burning from the cook stove and Sophie leapt into action.
“Oh dear I think your meal needs a woman’s touch, you men sit on down and Wendy and I will serve,” she said casting her wide smile upon us both before disappearing off to the kitchen.
Slim and I made our way slowly to the table like doomed men to the gallows and sat.
“What are we gonna do?” He whispered across the table.
“I dunno what you’re gonna do, but I’m gonna shoot Jonesy,” I said bitterly.
Slim made a brave effort to make conversation over the meal, but I just kept my head down and tried to ignore the way Sophie kept peering over at me and giving me that smile that made me real nervous.
“So why aren’t you in school?” Slim asked Wendy, “You’re not sick I hope?”
“No,” said Wendy throwing her mother a moody glance.
“Uh, she’s just getting over a nasty cold and is rather run down,” her Ma said quickly, giving her daughter a quelling look. “Young girls of her age seem to outgrow their strength,” she said with a little laugh.
I flashed Wendy a quick look and yup the kid had sure filled out some I thought. Then looked quickly away as she threw me one of her smouldering looks from beneath her lashes…Jeez what was it with this family the dang daughter was as brazen as her Ma I thought fleetingly.
I bolted the last mouthful and scraping my chair back made my excuses and left…Slim throwing me an anxious look as I marched out…but hell he was on his own…all bein’ fair in love and war and this sure was war.
It wasn’t long before he met me out by the corral…
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“Move our stuff out of our room, I said they could sleep in the house, we’ll take the bunkhouse,” he said looking slightly embarrassed.
“What! Are you crazy, once they get in the dang house we’ll never get rid of them,” I barked.
“Hush, keep your voice down, they’ll hear you.”
“Well good, maybe they’ll get the message then,” I spat.
“Oh come on Jess it won’t be so bad. We can’t be rude. Anyway, Jonesy will be home in a few days...what can happen huh?”
Once I’d shifted my gear out, I spent the rest of the day off checkin’ fence, although we both knew it wasn’t really necessary. I only came back in time to change the team of the afternoon Stage bearing Andy home from school.
When Slim told him of our visitors his face was a study of embarrassment tinged with hope.
“Look Andy iffen you’re thinkin’ of makin’ up with the lovely Wendy I should just back off some,” I said gently.
“Huh, why what did she say?” he asked breathlessly.
How could I tell him it wasn’t what she’d said, just the look of bored resignation in her eyes at the mention of his name.
“Uh, well nuthin’ I guess, but heck she’s seein’ that Skeet ain’t she?”
He just shrugged, “I guess so…anyway maybe we can just be friends again huh?”
“Maybe,” I agreed and turned back to changing the team.
Wendy was cool with Andy throughout supper and I was beginning to feel real mad at her. Surely she could cut the kid some slack and be polite if nuthin’ else.
After supper Andy got stuck into his homework, but without much prompting I noticed. When it became obvious that Wendy was going to ignore him, I guess he figured he’d just snub her too and I didn’t blame him one little bit.
Shortly after she’d reluctantly helped her ma wash the dishes, she vamoosed off to our room for an early night… slamming the door after her without so much as a ‘good night.’
At least her Ma looked embarrassed and apologized for her daughter’s behavior.
“I’m so sorry I’m afraid Wendy is a little overwrought at present,” she said quietly.
Slim threw Sophie an understanding smile.
But over on the other side of the room I muttered to Andy that darned right ornery would be nearer the mark and was rewarded by his cheeky grin.
Soon after he retired for the night to the bunkhouse and I promised to join him shortly.
Sophie turned from where she had made herself comfortable by the fire.
“Surely you don’t turn in this early Jess, I was hoping to renew our friendship, catch up on all your news,” she said brightly.
“Uh, sorry Ma’am,” I said, looking anything but, “workin’ on a ranch, well we need plenty of sleep, up early ya know?”
“Yes, I can imagine it’s very um…physically demanding,” she said, “it obviously keeps you very fit,” she added sweeping a bold glance down my body from head to toe.
Garldarn it I felt myself begin to flush up with embarrassment and turned away to take my coffee cup back to the kitchen.
When I returned, she said, “Jess, Slim might I have a quick word before you turn in?”
Slim and I exchanged a wary glance but sank back down in our seats and waited for her to speak.
She looked down composing herself and then looked back up at us, “This is rather hard for a mother to say, but I am sorely disappointed in my girl.”
I made a sorta grunt that could have meant anything and Slim nodded in encouragement for her to continue.
“The fact of the matter is that Wendy has made a rather unsuitable liaison with a boy that helps out at the mercantile.”
I breathed a sigh of relief that neither Slim nor me were the cause of her frettin’.
“Oh yeah, young Skeet,” I said,” he’s a tad rough maybe?”
“Ha, you could say that,” she replied bitterly, “and very advanced for his age too.”
“Really, um so in what way do you mean?” Slim asked innocently knowing that Skeet wasn’t the brightest of youngsters.
Her face took on a closed look and she said, “Let’s just say he has designs on my daughter and I doubt if his intentions are honorable.”
I nearly laughed out loud, “Well he is sixteen,” I blurted out thinking he was just about on track for his age and would have been surprised if a healthy young man of sixteen didn’t have plans for the pretty and rather forward Wendy.
She turned on me then, “Why that is still a child in my books and unless he’s thinking of offering matrimony then he has no right to um…associate in that way with my daughter and she’s far too young for that anyway.”
“Well as she is still only fourteen, I guess it’s up to you as to who she uh…associates with,” Slim said trying to placate her.
“Well yes you’d think so,” Sophie said angrily, “unfortunately Wendy has always been somewhat headstrong… more so as she um…matures. That’s one of the reason’s I accepted Mister Jones’s idea of us staying here for a while, I really needed to get Wendy away from that bad influence.”
“Well I can see that Ma’am,” Slim said politely, “but that won’t solve the problem in the long run. I mean you can hardly stay here forever,” he finished firmly.
She flushed up at that and carefully avoided my eye, “Oh of course not,” she said with a false little laugh. “It’s just that it will give her a break from him, staying out here. I was also thinking that if maybe she renewed her friendship with dear Andy…Well she would forget all the nonsense with this Skeet boy. I thought I could try and encourage Andy to make friends again?”
It were me that reacted first to that notion and I said angrily, “Now hang on here Sophie I hope you ain’t thinkin’ of using Andy, because that’s dang well cruel. Anyone can see that Wendy ain’t interested anymore and it would be real unfair to raise the boy’s hopes that way.”
“I agree,” Slim said firmly, “Just leave Andy out of this. If the two of them decide to make it up fine, but I really don’t want you meddling Mrs Wright,” he finished coldly.
The use of her surname seemed to upset her as much as Slim’ s comments I noted and she back peddled real fast.
“Oh you misunderstand me, I’m really not an interfering mother,” she said quickly, “I just want what is best for my little girl.” Then she sighed deeply, “It’s so hard for a mother alone you know…”
“I’m sure it is ma’am,” Slim said quietly before getting up.
I figured this was our cue to leave so stood up too and wishing Sophie a goodnight we retired to the bunk-house.
“The cheek of the woman,” Slim fumed as we made our way across the chilly yard to the less than comfortable old bunkhouse. “I think I’ve just about had enough of Widow Wright and her ‘headstrong’ daughter already,” he said bitterly.
“Ha, headstrong, I can think of another word for her,” I muttered…

Chapter 7
The following morning, we all awoke feeling cold and uncomfortable. The temperature had plummeted during the night and when Slim poked his nose out the door and sniffed he reckoned he could smell snow in the air.
“Oh great that’s all we need,” I said bitterly, “to be dang well snowed in with the widow and her ornery daughter.”
Slim shuddered at the thought as we made our way across to the house for breakfast, but reassured me it wouldn’t come to that.
“We usually don’t get too much of a westerly wind, a tad early too, it’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
As we entered, Sophie was cooking our breakfast...and it smelled dang good too.
Well you sure couldn’t fault her cookin’ and she was real easy on the eye too, I had to admit.
From her golden hair, through her shapely figure down to the little red shoes she favored she sure was a cracker. She seemed to look even lovelier than usual this morning and she smelled of some exotic perfume. She sure made breakfast a kinda different experience to what we were used to with old Jonesy in charge. Laughing and flirting with us both in equal measure and I felt kinda dazed by it all.
I looked across at Slim and saw he was lookin’ kinda foolish too and hoped he wasn’t fallin’ under her spell. Sure it was one thing to appreciate how dang gorgeous she was but quite another to act upon it.
I noted that Wendy seemed in a better mood today too and even started teasing Andy some and it looked like they might have buried the hatchet.
When the early Stage was about due, it seemed she was going off to school too and it looked pretty much like the kid was flyin’ straight again.
Her ma kissed her goodbye and said, “Remember Wendy, no going out of school to visit that boy and you come straight home on the afternoon Stage with Andy.”
“I promise mama,” she said smiling at her ma before wishing us a polite good morning.
I resisted the urge to ask her who she dang well was and what had she done with Wendy and just exchanged a wink with Slim.
Once we’d waved the Stage off, I turned to my buddy and said, “I saw you ogling the delectable Sophie over breakfast, please tell me you ain’t weakening pard.”
“Huh… what, no of course not,” he said quickly, before casting a sad glance towards the house, “she is rather striking though isn’t she Jess.”
I nodded, “Oh she’s that alright and I bet she knows some tricks too,” I said with a sly wink. “But what you’ve gotta remember is she’s like a darned spider with a web…and we’re just a couple of innocent ol’ blue flies… You get in that web and they’d be no way out pard…and I reckon she’d eat you for breakfast anyway!”
He laughed at that, “Yeah, but what a way to go huh?”
I just shook my head sadly, “It sure is tempting but she’d have ya off to the preacher before you could saddle up and ride for the hills…trust me I’ve met her sort before.”
“Oh really,” he said raising an interested eyebrow, “so what happened?”
“I’ve got me a real fast horse ain’t I?” I said laughing and clapping him on the back as we went off to start the yard chores.
Well iffen I was tempted on that first day by the time we were half way through the week she was driving me plum crazy with her flrtin’. Not to mention the way she always seemed to be squeezing past me, or reaching across…the woman sure weren’t shy. But she made certain that she was real subtle about it all…I even mentioned it to Slim, but he figured I was imagining it all…
So all I could do was make myself scarce and just hope that ol’ Jonesy would be home real soon.
I’d spent most of my time riding fence and then turning in early to avoid her. The only bit of good news was that Andy and Wendy seemed to be back on track again and getting on pretty well…on the surface anyways. But I’d been watching the girl real closely and yup she laughed at Andy’s jokes and played checkers with him in the evenings…but there was something…something not quite right that I couldn’t put my finger on. The odd sigh here and a rolling of the eyes…all behind Andy’s back and I got to thinking maybe she was just using him. Pretending to be buddies, but for her own ends. I noticed Skeet hadn’t been mentioned since that first day and she’d arrived home on the Stage with Andy every afternoon…so her Ma had relaxed some, I guess…
I reckon my feelings were confirmed on the third day when they arrived home on the afternoon Stage.
True to Slim’ s word it had been snowing steadily since mid-morning and now it was laying several inches deep. Slim and I had suggested that Sophie and her daughter should return home to save being snowed in, but she was adamant that all would be well.
“Why I heard you two talking yesterday and you said it would just be a dusting Slim, wouldn’t come to much for another month or so…and so I’m sure Wendy and I will be just fine for another few days. After all I did promise dear Mister Jones,” she said with that coy look.
“Well what could we say?”
Now as the kids scrambled down from the Stage Andy was ecstatic…
“Hey this is just swell... if it carries on this way, we can build a snowman and no school tomorrow!” And he gave a wild yippee cavorting about the yard…Slim and me grinning at his enthusiasm.
But when he turned to Wendy wanting to have a snowball fight, she knocked him back.
She sighed deeply, “Oh Andy you’re such a child,” she said unkindly before tossing her flame red hair and marching off into the house.
I felt real sorry for the kid and clapped him on the back, “Hey I’ll take ya on, once the Stage is changed,” I said cheerfully.
But he just shrugged me off and mooched into the house looking like he’d got the weight of the world on his shoulders…
I looked after them, wondered what her game was. Had she been stringing him along...and now we were seeing the real Wendy? I didn’t know. But I sure didn’t like what I was seein’ right then, not one little bit.
She made the effort to be civil to him during the evening but it was obvious, to me at least, she was just going through the motions…
When Slim and me went out after supper to check on the horses we were met by a winter storm…the wind blowing up something fierce and the snow drifting several feet deep in some places.
“Oh great,” I said sarcastically, “just a light dusting huh?”
“Uh…well it won’t stay around for long…I hope,” he muttered anxiously.
Jeez but it was cold and doubtless not a lot warmer in the old bunkhouse.
I shivered as we passed it on the way back to the house, “It’ll be bitter cold in there tonight,” I muttered, “the dang place needs chinking. The wind goes straight through it…we’d be better off in the barn with the horses Slim,” I moaned.
“I guess you’re right,” he said, “we haven’t chinked the place since Pa passed over and I guess it’s weathered some.”
“Some!” I exploded, “I wouldn’t put a sick heifer in there, it’s freezin’.”
He looked a tad worried then… “Well it’s OK for us, but Andy used to have a weak chest when he was but a young ‘un I sure don’t want him getting sick.”
“Hey what about me gettin’ sick,” I muttered, “I’m a Texan boy ya know not used to this dang snow.”
We wandered back across the yard and I paused hearing the eerie sound of a lone wolf on the wind…Quickly joined by more, all howling down somewhere off to the east pasture. Exchanging a glance, we hurried back to the sanctuary of the house.
Once we returned to the parlor I sat on top of the fire and couldn’t stop shivering.
I was just wondering where Jonesy had stashed the ‘medicinal whiskey’ before he left, when Sophie waltzed in from the kitchen and stopped in her tracks.
“Why Jess you look terrible,” she said coming over and draping an arm around my shoulders, “whatever’s the matter?”
I shifted slightly away out of her reach, her nearness having a powerful effect on me, in more ways than one.
“It’s OK Ma’am. I just feel the cold and it’s real bitter out there tonight,” I muttered.
She looked thoughtful for a minute and then said, “Oh dear you men can’t sleep out in that dreadful old bunkhouse tonight, you must have your own beds back.”
Slim flashed me a startled look before saying, “Well, uh, what about you and Wendy?”
“Well we can have Mister Jones’s room of course, I believe Andy sleeps in there usually, so Wendy can have the cot and I’ll be comfortable in Mister Jones’bed. I noticed that there is a bunk bed in your room ideal for Andy and we’ll all be nice and snug,” she said her smile embracing us all.
I guess it was the mention of Andy that made Slim agree…not to mention the possibility of a wolf attack.
He sorta half-heartedly said, “Well, um, I’m not sure that would be wholly proper ma’am.”
“Oh stuff and nonsense,” she said stoutly, “besides whose to know…I certainly won’t tell,” she finished with a rather wicked wink…
Slim flushed up and suggested we go across and get our stuff and we left without further argument.
“Hell Slim, where’s this all gonna end?” I said as we made our way across the yard, “Suppose we git snowed in with ‘em for weeks!”
“Oh it won’t come to that, “he said calmly, “it’ll all have melted by tomorrow, you’ll see.”
The following morning when I woke up and went into the parlor to look out at the yard it was several feet deep in snow.
Moments later Slim joined me at the window, “Uh-uh,” he said softly.
I just glared at him, “So what are we gonna do now then Slim, play happy families for the next three months?”
But before he could answer Wendy mooched into the room and peering out of the window said a very un- lady like word…then turned to Slim.
“So, what about school, the Stage will come won’t it?”
He shook his head, “I very much doubt it. No, it looks like you and Andy have a day off.”
When she looked real put out, I said, “Hey honey, that’s good ain’t it…no school?”
She sighed dramatically and rolling her eyes said, “You just don’t understand,” before slamming off back to bed, nearly bringing the door off its hinges.
“Well I guess that’s you told,” Slim said grinning at me before going to investigate how Sophie was doing with the breakfast.
After we’d eaten, Andy, Slim and me went off to do the yard chores, but I lingered in the barn long after we’d finished our jobs. It was pretty chilly, but hell it beat fighting off Sophie’s advances as I told Slim, once Andy had gone back indoors.
“Oh come on Jess, she’s not that bad you’re imagining it all…”
I just shrugged, “Maybe I am…but she sure makes me feel real uncomfortable.”
Of course, the Stage never arrived and once the cold drew us back indoors, we spent the rest of the day together in the parlour.
Slim at least had the accounts to tend to and Andy played some board games with a rather reluctant and moody Wendy.
So that just left me and Sophie.
Well I hated being confined to barracks at the best of times and was pretty bored. But Sophie was in her element having me to talk to all day long and we sat by the fire, her with her mending and quizzing me about everything from my time before I landed at the ranch to my views on votes for women… However, when it became obvious that I wasn’t gonna be particularly forthcoming on anything I guess she admitted defeat. After a while she just cast me the odd searching look…like she was trying to figure me out.
The day finally dragged by, with no sign of the snow melting. I was beginning to feel stir crazy already and decided I may as well have an early night. Slim however beat me to it and retired first. As it would have looked kinda churlish if I’d vamoosed as well, I stayed by the fire a little longer and accepted a final coffee.
Once Sophie passed it over, she gave me a thoughtful look and said, “Jess can we talk?”
Well I thought that’s what we’d been doing all the dang day…but just smiled and said, “Sure what’s on your mind?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment and then gesturing to the room in general said, “Well this situation we are in. I believe you think it’s rather contrived, don’t you? “She asked cocking her beautiful head to one side.
I guess I must have looked kinda puzzled because she went on, “You know contrived, set-up? You think I’m here with another purpose in mind, other than just acting as housekeeper to help Mister Jones out, don’t you?”
“Huh, I ain’t sure what ya mean?” I said, beginning to feel myself flush-up.
She peered at me real closely then and said, “Oh I think you do Jess. You think I’m a widow woman on the lookout for another husband and I’m interested in you… don’t you…um?”
When I just stared at her saying nothing, but looking pretty much like a rabbit looking down the barrel of a Winchester, she carried on.
Well tell it like it is why dontcha I thought privately. She sure weren’t afraid to say what she was thinkin’.
“Yes Jess…I have to be honest… when I first saw you, that time you visited the house on Andy’s behalf, well I was taken with you…very taken…”
I ran my palms down my denims, suddenly feeling them sweating and just made a vague grunting sound that could have meant anything…
“And I admit it, I am attracted to you,” she continued. “But I imagine I have acted somewhat foolishly, in your eyes?”
“Right, uh…yes…I mean no,” I floundered.
She gave that low throaty chuckle of hers, seemingly amused at my embarrassment.
“Oh you are so typical…you men are all the same, so easily embarrassed by the truth. You like a simple life…no great dramas, all you want is a peaceful time, good food and good loving?” she said raising an eyebrow. “The way to a man’s heart my old ma used to say.” Then smiling again, she said, “I’d forgotten how untidy you men are too…A little thoughtless when it comes to er…grooming and the state of your clothes as well…”
I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to shave that morning and ran a hand across my face. Then glanced down at the ripped knee of my denims…well I guess she had a point there I mused…
When I just looked down and said nothing, I figure she felt kinda bad about her outburst. Well it seemed I was on the money, because she sighed deeply and then said, “I suddenly feel rather ashamed at the unseemly way I’ve acted trying to capture your attention…no…your heart…these last few days.”
Well there was no answer to that, what the heck did she want me to say I wondered? Jeez I really weren’t used to a woman bein’ that bold and forthright iffen I’m honest and it kinda threw me.
She looked at me long and hard and then gave another lusty sigh, “It‘s clearly obvious you have absolutely no interest in me at all,” she finished the hint of a tear in her eyes….
My heart was thumping in my chest now and I felt every kind of a bastard, remembering how I’d treated her…Barely giving her the time of day before I disappeared off to work, ignoring all her advances and little kindnesses.
“Look I’m sorry ma’am…er Sophie I think you’re real lovely…a kind, beautiful woman…it ain’t that…”
“It’s just that you don’t want to be railroaded into marriage?” She finished for me.
I nodded and then felt awful as the tears finally brimmed over and ran down her face…
She stood up and turning her back on me went over to the fire and stood looking sadly into the flames.…
I sat there unsure what to do for a moment, before going across and placing my hands gently on her shoulders and turning her around to face me.
She looked up at me…her face flustered, “I’m sorry…I really didn’t mean to embarrass you this way….”
“Hey, it’s OK and you haven’t…and just for the record I ain’t plannin’ on gettin’ hitched to anyone, not now maybe not ever…”
She shook her head, “I’m sorry I feel such a fool…after all I’m older than you and maybe not even your type?”
I looked at her beautiful face, those luscious red lips slightly parted. Her blue eyes open wide and seeming to look straight into my soul and I was lost…
Very slowly I cupped her face in my hands, looking first into her eyes and then flicking my glance down to her lips and back up again, the passionate expression in those lovely eyes making my heart miss a beat…
I leaned in and teasingly brushed her lips with my own…and when she didn’t back off, I kissed her more firmly, before taking her in my arms, the kissing growing more and more abandoned…I was just thinking maybe I should stop this….it couldn’t go anywhere…not with Slim, Andy and her daughter just a few feet away…
Then we heard the click of a door closing and we leapt guiltily apart…our heads turning instinctively towards the bedroom doors…but both were tightly closed…
I took a deep breath trying to regain my composure and gave her a nervous smile… “Do ya think they saw anything?”
She shrugged looking anxious, “I don’t know Jess…I hope not…”
“You’d better turn in,” I said quietly, “if it was Wendy she may be upset.”
She nodded and turned to go, but I called her back…and she fixed questioning eyes on me, “Yes?”
“I’m real sorry, I guess I was kinda out of order there,” I apologized.
“No need to be,” she whispered throwing me another passionate glance, before disappearing into the bedroom.
Oh boy what had I started now I wondered guiltily as I made my way to my own bedroom.
Andy seemed to be fast asleep on the bunk-bed, but Slim was awake and he turned on his side when I came in, turning up the night light…
“Well you took your time,” he muttered, “What have you been getting up to out there with the lovely Sophie then?”
My head shot up and I peered at him suspiciously, was it him that had seen me and Sophie together?
“Nuthin’,” I said before quickly turning away to wash up…
Whether or not he’d seen me and had just decided not to tease me any further or was just kidding me, I didn’t know. But by the time I got into my bed he was snoring gently.
I quickly doused the night light and climbed into my bed. But lay there in the dark for hours going over and over my conversation with Sophie and that passionate kissing, before finally falling into a restless sleep.
The following morning, we awoke to blue skies, brilliant sunshine and the snow melting away quickly.
I sat across the kitchen table watching Andy looking the picture of dejection…I knew something was on his mind, but figured maybe it was just that the Stage would be able to get through so he and Wendy would be returning to school.
However, when he went across to feed his pony, I went over with him and said softly, “Is everything OK buddy?”
He looked up from where he’d been petting old Patch and said, “Not really…I…um Jess…tell me is it ever right to betray a confidence?”
I thought about it and said, “No…not really…I mean its real important loyalty ain’t it?”
He nodded looking really worried now.
“So, do you think you should?” I persisted. “Because well if it means you’re helping someone by telling on them…well maybe it’s justified…why dontcha tell me about it all huh?”
He looked pretty much like he was about to open up when Slim yelled that the Stage was here and Mose was running late.
I sighed, “You’d better go Andy, but we’ll talk about it tonight huh?”
He nodded and ran off, me looking after him and wondering what could be upsetting the boy so much. Then I wondered if maybe it was him who’d seen me and Sophie together and cursed under my breath.
Slim joined me in the barn a few minutes later and said, “We’re running short of supplies I’ll have to go into town later, but we need to mend that corral gate first, can you give me a hand?”
“No,” I said quickly, “I mean I’ll go Slim, after we’ve mended the gate.”
I was feeling kinda uncomfortable around Sophie truth be told… Oh yeah, I’d enjoyed the kissin’ alright…But then last night I couldn’t help but think maybe this was one of her ploys…Get me real fired up…and then once we’d slept together, she’d start talkin’ about settling down. Jeez, why hadn’t that occurred to me before…and yes, she was right she had left me wanting more…and maybe I just didn’t trust myself around her right then.
Just then she broke into my thoughts calling us in for a coffee before we started work.
Once we’d drained our cups Slim got up and made for the door, “Come on Jess let’s get that gate sorted out before we lose any of your darned mustangs.”
I grinned and got up to follow him, but Sophie called me back…
“Did you find out who saw us?” She whispered.
I shook my head, “I thought it was Slim, but I can’t be sure...you?”
She shook her head, “It could have been Wendy, she appeared to be asleep when I went in…but I’m not sure….”
I just shrugged and said, “I’ve gotta go, Slim will be frettin’.”
She nodded, “I’ll see you later?”
Jeez what could I say? I just nodded and vamoosed and then as soon as I could made for town.
As it happened the gate took longer than we thought and it was afternoon before I set off.
“You may as well call in at the school and bring the kids back,” Slim said as I left, “be quicker than waiting for the Stage. I want Andy to clean out those critters of his before dark. He’s been neglecting them a bit lately…what with having Wendy to entertain and all,” he said.
I decided to call at the school before I went to the mercantile and tell Andy to wait on me after school and as I went in noticed the children were still out in the yard for recess.
Now as I entered the school room, I cast my mind back to the interview we’d had with Miss Charmers, the teacher, not so long ago about Andy’s behaviour in school.
“He’s not himself at all,” she’d said, “neglecting his work and quite argumentative…”
Well it had turned out that he’d been thrown over by Wendy for that Skeet Jenkins and was just nursin’ a broken heart poor kid.
Now Miss Charmer beamed at me as I entered the school room.
“Why Mister Harper, how are you…all well at the ranch I hope?”
I touched my hat to her and returned her smile, “Yes thanks ma’am…I just came in to leave a message for Andy and Wendy, could you ask them to meet me at the mercantile when school’s out I’ll be takin’ them home.”
Her pretty face frowned at that, “I’ll tell Andy certainly…but Wendy, well she lives in town doesn’t she?”
I nodded, but explained about Sophie housekeeping for us and how Wendy had been living at the ranch all week.
At that Miss Charmers looked even more surprised, “But she’s been going home for her midday meal to her mother’s house all week I don’t understand?” Then she looked even more concerned. “Goodness I sent her home sick this morning…she promised me her mother was at home and she’d go straight there…I had no reason to believe she was lying.”
I sighed deeply, “I think we need to talk to Andy huh?”
“Look Andy, you’re not in trouble but we really need to know the whereabouts of Wendy Wright, you do know don’t you dear?” Miss Charmers asked kindly.
Andy flushed and looked down shuffling his feet.
“Andy,” I said real firmly, “you remember what we said this morning about betraying a confidence? Well I guess this is one of those times huh?”
“She’s gone home,” he whispered, “she’s been meeting up with Skeet at her Ma’s house.”
“What,” I almost yelled, “why in Hell didn’t ya tell us?”
“I couldn’t,” he cried, “I couldn’t tell on her Jess…I’d promised.”
I shook my head, “Well she should never have put you in that position.”
Then feeling kinda sorry for him I said more gently, “We’ll discuss it tonight huh… And as far as Wendy’s concerned, it was just a guess on my part as to where she was OK? It’s the first place I’d have looked anyways.”
With that I departed, promising Miss Charmers I’d return her errant student as soon as I could.
I knocked on the brightly painted front door of the Wright place and heard a faint scuffling noise within, but nobody came to answer my knocking. Eventually I tried the door and it swung open letting me into the bright airy hallway…
Moments later an anxious Wendy tore down the stairs quickly fastening up her blouse buttons followed by a very flushed and guilty looking Skeet Jenkins.
I stopped in my tracks and glared at them both, “Jeez you two better hadn’t have been doin’ what I think you have,” I growled…
“It’s you, what are you doing here?” She gasped disregarding my question.
I ignored her outburst, “Well?”
“We ain’t done nuthin’ wrong Mister Harper really we ain’t,” Skeet almost squeaked.
“Uh, so why should I believe you?” I asked angrily.
He looked down then, “OK… sure we’ve been fooling around some…but I promised I’d wait until we were wed…it’s just, well you know how it is sir…one thing leads to another….and…”
“Oh he knows all about that,” Wendy cried indignantly, “he was only kissing my Ma last night…it was disgusting!”
I glared at her digesting this information, before soldiering manfully on…
“It’s you we’re talkin’ about not me…and so what’s all this about gettin’ wed are you crazy?”
Then I turned to Skeet, my eyes narrowing, “Do you even know how old she is?”
“Sure I do, sixteen same as me and we’re eloping to Cheyenne on tomorrow’s Stage and you can’t stop us!” Skeet said belligerently.
I shook my head in disbelief, “Oh boy have you been had. She’s just only fourteen…she’s still just a little kid,” I said angrily.
Skeet’s face was priceless…shock, disbelief and then anger flitting across his young face.
“Well you sure act like sixteen,” he said bitterly turning on her.
“I’m nearly fifteen,” she spat throwing me a hard look, “and I’m real mature.”
Skeet ignored her and then he looked back at me, “It were her that made all the running Mister Harper…with all her kissin’ and cuddling, wanting to marry and settle down and all…enough to drive a man crazy…”
The words like mother like daughter ran fleetingly through my mind…they sure were a class act I thought, not knowing whether to feel amused or irritated.
“Hell, I was going to pack in my job for you,” he said bitterly, “leave all my friends and try and set up a home…all for a little kid. You don’t understand, do you? This is real, not one of your silly games!”
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Wendy huffed, “it was just a bit of fun…Nelly Jones said I couldn’t get you to go away with me, well I sure proved her wrong. And don’t pretend you didn’t enjoy the loving, because I know otherwise….and I told Nelly and the others all about that too,” she finished triumphantly.
I could see it was a toss-up as to whether Skeet burst into tears of embarrassment and frustration or got real mad. So I said gently, “You git back to the store right now and I guess old Ezra won’t have missed you yet, huh Skeet?”
He nodded, “Yes sir.”
“Oh and Skeet, you won’t be seein’ the young lady again.”
It was a statement not a question, and he knew that.
“No sir,” he agreed, “I certainly won’t,” and with that he turned on his heel and left.
After he’d gone slamming the door behind him Wendy shimmied over and standing way too close cast me one of her smouldering looks from under her lashes…
“I do so love a masterful man,” she drawled…
Gee if it hadn’t been so dang sad it would have been comic, I guess.
“Don’t even think about it,” I said menacingly. “And another thing, you use Andy again, putting him in that difficult position you’ll regret it, you understand me?”
She looked real guilty then, “I’m sorry…I really do like Andy, he’s been kind to me and I’ve treated him terribly badly,” she said honestly.
I looked down at her, “I guess maybe there’s hope for you yet,” I said dryly, “come on let’s get you back in school huh…”
When we arrived back at the ranch later that afternoon, I sent Andy off to tend his critters like Slim had wanted and then escorted Wendy in to see her Ma…
“We need to talk,” I said finding Sophie in the kitchen, making a start on supper.
Her face lit up, “Oh I’d like that,” she said throwing me one of her intimate looks…
“Uh about Wendy here,” I said half turning and then ushering her in and gesturing for her to sit at the table…
Wendy mooched in and slumped down looking as moody as hell, whilst her ma tried to hide her disappointment.
I leaned against the wall, arms folded and told her ma briefly all that Wendy had been getting up to in her lunch break over the last week and about today’s events too.
Well Sophie was really mad, as I knew she would be, “I can’t believe this of you…how could you do this after you promised me you wouldn’t see that dreadful boy again!”
Wendy merely rolled her eyes and sighed, “Oh don’t take on so ma,” she said in a bored voice, “it was just a bit of fun…”
Well I’d had about enough of them both…First the kid and her Ma had landed, unannounced scuppering the plans me and Slim had to entertain our girls while old Jonesy was away…Then Sophie made me feel real uncomfortable with her flirtin’and plain talkin’….not to mention all the upset Wendy had caused Andy…and now she was cheeking her ma this way…
“Dang it just you treat yer Ma with some respect young lady!” I growled glaring angrily at her.
She looked kinda shocked at that and flicking a glance over to Sophie said, “Sorry ma…”
Sophie still looked pretty darned mad, “Just go to your room and start packing,” she said briskly, “we’ll be heading home tomorrow as you obviously can’t be trusted…”
Once she’d gone Sophie turned to me, “They were upstairs you say…at the house?”
I just nodded.
“So do you think, I mean um…well…did they…you know?” She muttered looking pretty near to tears.
“Have they made love?” I supplied, thinking maybe it was time she had a bit of plain talking from me.
She nodded looking totally defeated.
I shrugged, “I really don’t know, probably not…but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have her checked over by the doc. Maybe some straight talkin is needed too. She’s way too young for all this kinda thing ain’t she.”
She came over from where she’d had her back to the sink and sank down on a kitchen chair, “You’re right of course…Oh Jess where did I go wrong with her?” She finally managed, “I thought I was friends with her you know… We were so close after her pa died.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” I said quietly, “it’s kinda hard to discipline a friend. I reckon she’s got plenty of them anyways. What she needs is a strong ma to set a few boundaries…show her right from wrong?”
“I don’t set a very good example, do I?” She said throwing me a rueful look.
“Hey I didn’t say that,” I said quickly.
“No but it’s true none the less. I’ve embarrassed myself and you during my stay here and I really am sorry,” she said quietly and getting up she wandered off to the bedroom to talk to her daughter…
A few minutes later a very woebegone Andy came in the back door and sat down at the table looking up at me…
I gestured with the coffee pot, “Want one, or some milk?”
When he shook his head, I poured myself a cup and glanced over at him, thinking he looked real troubled.
“Is Wendy mad…does she know I told you where she was?”
I shook my head, “I told her she was out of order making you keep that kinda secret and she was real sorry… But no Andy I told her it was me that guessed where she’d be.”
“Thanks…so she doesn’t hate me then?”
“Heck no…she said she felt real bad the way she’d treated you.”
He took this on board and looked a tad happier, but then said, “I guess I won’t be getting back with her though, see I figure I can’t trust her Jess.”
I nodded, “Wise move and anyway I guess she’s trouble buddy.”
Then he threw me a quizzical glance, “So did you really seduce her ma?”
I was just taking a sip of my coffee and choked…
Once I’d recovered, I said, “Where the heck did you learn a word like that Andy?”
“From Wendy, she said she came out of her room to get a drink last night and you were kissin’ her ma…looked like you’d be doin’ more than that too iffen she hadn’t barged in,” he finished, looking real interested.
I put my cup down slowly and said, “Uh well I can explain all that…”
Then I heard someone enter the kitchen and glancing up looked straight into Slim’s shocked eyes… “Yeah Jess…so let’s hear it then…explain away…”
I sighed deeply and looked down, “Aw Slim it were just one of those things, she’d gotten real upset about er…stuff. Then I got kinda close to her and well, you know how it is…one thing led to another…Next thing I knew she was in my arms and we were kissin’…”
Then I turned to Andy, “I guess you won’t understand maybe but…”
“Oh I understand alright,” he replied with a cheeky grin, “but last time I did that I ended up getting my face slapped.”
Slim and I turned to him both real shocked… but I was the first to recover…
“Well see Andy you must have kinda misjudged it…You can tell by the look in her eyes if she wants you to kiss her or not and you hafta weigh up the situation, take things real slow and then…”
Slim coughed and said abruptly, “I think if my kid brother needs lessons in romancing it will be coming from me Jess.”
Then he turned back to Andy, “If you’ve finished your chores can you go and fetch some wood in from the log store for the cook stove, looks like it’s down to me and Jess if we’re going to get any supper tonight.”
Once the kid had gone Slim turned back to me, “So go on then, you were kissing her and then what happened?”
“I stopped kissin’ her,” I said dead pan…
“Really Slim, hell I weren’t about to go no further with you Andy and her darned daughter under the same roof, was I?”
He grinned at me then and slapped me on the back, “No I guess not… but I bet it sure was tempting?”
I just flushed up and nodded, refusing to say any more…

Chapter 8
Sophie and her daughter departed early the following morning as planned and in a far more subdued mood than when they’d arrived.
As we waved them off in the hire buggy Slim turned to me and said happily, “I guess that’s that then and I figure we got off pretty lightly.”
“You do?” I asked frowning at him.
“Well sure, neither of us got engaged to her and not even a fast horse required.”
I stared dead pan at him for a moment and then gave a bark of laughter and then neither of us could speak for several minutes as we collapsed in gales of mirth.
So things settled down into the usual routine.
Old Jonesy returned to the fold after laying his good friend Herbert Morton to rest.
“I thank you for making me go Jess,” he said sincerely, “you were right it was a kindness to sit and talk with old Herby during his last days.”
Then he turned sad eyes on me and Slim, “It made me realise how precious a real good friendship is I guess…You two enjoy the good times together…and don’t let an old fool like me try to put a stop to you kicking over the traces occasionally huh?”
Well he looked so dang woebegone I guess Slim didn’t feel he could lay into him about the business of landing us with Ma Wright as a housekeeper, feelin’ kinda sorry for the old guy.
But I had no such restraint, “So why did you land us with that darned man huntin’ widow?” I asked plaintively.
He turned a surprised look on me, “What, Mrs Wright? I thought you’d be glad of her, she’s a mighty fine cook so I believe,” he said innocently. “Anyway, better than some young girls you and Slim would doubtless have brought in.”
“Yeah, well that’s as maybe,” I said, “but she was trouble Jonesy and that daughter of hers weren’t much better.” Then my eyes narrowed and I peered at him closely, “More to the point what do you know about us bringing girls in…er if indeed we were gonna, which we weren’t were we Slim?”
Slim just shook his head, “Heck no, never crossed our minds.”
But then I saw that the old guy really was looking pretty dejected, so I figured I’d just let it go. However, I made a vow to myself that from then on old Jonesy weren’t gettin’ so much as a sniff of my love life in the future and that way he couldn’t wreck it.
It was the following week that I moseyed into Miss Molly’s café and as luck would have it my latest girl, Tessa was waiting on tables, along with her best friend Meg. I’d had a real hankering to catch up with her after having been stuck at the ranch for the last few weeks. Now as she sashayed over, her dark hair framing her beautiful oval face and her trim figure looking real purty in her neat waitress dress, my heart missed a beat.
“Yes sir, what can I get for you today?” She asked taking out her pencil and notepad with a professional air. However, the look in her eyes and little giggle slightly spoilt the proficient act, but made her look all the more delectable to my eyes.
I grinned up at her, “Howdy Tessa, can I get two coffees please?” I asked with my best smile.
She raised a perfectly curved eyebrow at me and said, “Two?”
“Uh-huh, I just saw Miss Molly headin’ down to the haberdasher’s store, so I figure you’ve got time to drink one with me if Meg there will mind the shop,” I asked throwing her buddy an engaging grin.
“I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you,” she said as she sat down passing a coffee across and reaching for cream for her own cup.
“Oh yeah,” I said feeling a tad guilty, “me and Slim have been real busy bringing the herd in for winter, but that’s all done now, so we’re due some down time,” I finished throwing her a hopeful look.
She made a non-committal ‘um’… sound and peered down into her coffee cup.
“Hey what’s up sweetheart, dontcha want to spend some time with me?” I asked forlornly.
I figured we’d been getting along well, real well, I thought as I remembered an evening of passion after the late summer dance a few weeks earlier when she’d defied her pa and spent the night with me over at Meg’s apartment above the café.
“Well that depends…”
“Oh, depends on what exactly?” I asked, thinking things weren’t panning out as planned.
“Whether or not you’re still seeing that Wright woman?”
I nearly choked on my coffee, “Huh, what you sayin’?”
“Well she did move into the ranch for a while, didn’t she? That’s what everyone’s saying anyway.”
“Who’s everyone?” I spluttered, then, “Oh never mind, but it weren’t that way honey, really it weren’t. It was old Jonesy that brought her in as housekeeper and that’s all she did…er house-keep, honest.” Well pretty much anyway I thought privately.
She finally seemed to relax and her dark brown eyes sparkled with laughter, “Alright, I believe you…so what did you have in mind?”
On the ride back to the ranch I mused at what a really swell girl Tessa Brown was and how dang hard it was to court her too.
I’d first clapped eyes on her a few months ago when I’d gone around to her folk’s house to pick up Andy. He’d been staying the night with his good buddy Ben, Tessa’s brother and one of his oldest friends. Slim said that the Brown’s place was practically Andy’s second home and he’d known Ben and his twenty-year old sister, Tessa most of his life.
As soon as I’d clapped eyes on Tess there was a kinda spark between us. I could see that she’d felt it too and I had a real craving to see more of her…really get to know her. But that really weren’t too easy, especially as she didn’t want her brother to know we were seeing each other.
“He’ll only tell Pa and then he’ll start fussing and fretting,” she‘d said wearily. “Best we just keep our relationship secret.”
Well that didn’t sit too easy with me as I didn’t like going behind her Pa’s back. Heck it wasn’t as though she was some sort of inexperienced young girl…Tessa had enjoyed plenty of romances in her life and sure knew what she was doin’ as far as men went… Nope she was old enough to make up her own mind as to who she kept company with and I figured her Pa should accept that….But I guess I just wanted to keep the peace, so I agreed…and boy was that a mistake in the long run…but heck I’m gettin’ ahead of myself…
See she lived with her folks and younger brother on the edge of town and her Pa was kinda strict as I say, with her and Ben…Well that was kinda funny in a way because she was a real fun lovin’ girl and pretty much up for anything. She was mature enough to have left home ages ago and it would have been a dang sight easier iffen she had. But her Ma was kinda sickly so I guess she was needed at home to help out. Maybe that’s why she really enjoyed the rare free time she had and she’d sure been up for my idea for the week-end.
“So let me get this straight,” Slim said later in the privacy of our room.
“The girls are actually meeting us at the dance and then we’re invited back to Meg’s apartment over the cafe for a late supper?”
I nodded excitedly, “Yup that’s it and Tessa has told her Ma she’s staying over at Meg’s place again…so things are lookin’pretty good,” I said with a happy sigh.
Then I frowned slightly, “Just make dang sure Andy doesn’t get wind of this, Tessa don’t want her brother and family to know about us…you know the way her Pa is.”
Slim nodded sagely, “Old man Brown is his own worst enemy. He was so over protective of Judy, that’s Tessa’s older sister, that she upped and eloped…never went home again.”
I gave a little whistle, “Gee she must have been hard pressed to do that, leave her Ma and all.”
He nodded, “He just hates to see his girls with any man and all it’s done is make Tessa determined to enjoy herself as soon as she gets the chance.” Then he said thoughtfully, “I sure hope she isn’t thinking of eloping?”
I grinned at that, “Nah, not Tessa…we already had ‘the talk’.”
“You know Slim if ever things are looking to get…well real interestin’ as far as romancin’ goes?”
He looked puzzled for a minute and then it dawned on him, “Oh yeah, real interesting, I’ve got you.”
“Well I discuss what we both want out of the relationship…something real permanent…like a visit to the padre and kids, in which case I say thank you ma’am and goodbye. Or they’re just after a bit of fun, no strings attached and no bad feelings afterwards… ya know? That way nobody gets hurt and there ain’t any nasty surprises down the line a way.”
Slim just shook his head and chuckled, “Well I suppose that makes some kind of sense…and I figure Tessa falls into the latter category huh?”
“You got it,” I said winking at him.
“I guess we’ll leave the dance early huh? “He said grinning at me now and planning his time with the cute Meg.
Just then Andy barged in and sat down on my bed…
“What are ya up to?” He asked looking curious.
I threw Slim a quelling glance and said, “Nuthin’ kid… why’d ya ask?”
“Because I heard you say something about the dance…Saturday…So can I come huh?”
“No,” we said with one accord…
“Aw why not, it ain’t fair I never get to go anywhere.”
“Come on Andy you know you’re not old enough for a town dance,” Slim said reasonably, “there’s strong drink…the odd fight, it just isn’t suitable.”
“Well how am I supposed to get another girlfriend?” he asked in exasperation. “That’s what you two do isn’t it, take girls to the dance…or pick them up there?”
Slim flashed me a worried glance before saying, “Look Andy we’ve been through all this before, I think you’re really too young to be thinking about girls…You’d do far better applying yourself to your studies anyway…plenty of time for dates when you’re older.”
“Darn it Slim, I’m nearly fifteen and that’s plenty old enough…some girls think I’m real mature for my age too!”
Slim sighed looking irritated, “Like who for goodness sake?”
“Like Ben’s sister Tessa, she says I’m real grown up and sensible…she thinks I’m real special too, she said so.”
My head jerked up from where I’d been digging about in my drawer looking for a clean shirt for the dance and my heart missed a beat at the mention of her name, but I said nothing.
Slim gave a bark of laughter, “Is that all? Heck Andy, Tessa’s known you since you were a baby. Of course she’s going to think you’re great and sure she’s really fond of you, just like a big sister.”
Andy flushed an angry red at that comment and leaping up off the bed made for the door, “You just don’t understand anything!” He yelled before diving out and slamming the door behind him. Then moments later the front door slammed too.
Slim rolled his eyes, “Dadgum it, now what’s got into him?”
“He’s just growing up buddy and it can be real painful, dontcha remember?” I asked with a faint smile.
“Well I wish he’d just hurry up and do it,” Slim said dourly, “because acting Pa to him just got way too difficult.”
“Well maybe you’re just too close, do you want me to have a word with him?”
He shrugged, “I guess it can’t do any harm…OK thanks…”
I turned to leave but he called after me, “But Jess please don’t go putting fanciful ideas into the kid’s head about romancing and all that kind of thing huh? He’s still way too young to be going to the Laramie dance and dating girls. Holding hands with a little school friend is one thing, but he just isn’t ready for the real thing yet.
“Sure, sure I know that,” I said quietly, “I’ll just calm him down some that’s all.”
I caught up with him in the barn where he was chewing a straw, leaning on Patch’s stall gate and looking into space.
He turned when I mooched in and after a moment wandered over to where I’d sunk down on a straw bale and took one next to it.
“What’s all this about Andy?” I asked softly.
“It’s him,” he said angrily, tipping his head towards the ranch house, “my darned brother, heck he just wants to keep me in diapers for the rest of my life Jess. Can’t he see I’m near all grown up? It’s like what he said about Tessa. She likes me Jess I mean really likes me…why does Slim always make it sound like I’m a dumb kid?”
I shrugged, “I guess he doesn’t mean to, but maybe he just finds it kinda difficult seeing you growing up so fast…and knowing he don’t have all the answers for you… Some things in life you just have to figure out for yourself I guess.”
He turned now giving me his full attention, “Like what?”
“Like knowing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t maybe?”
“Huh… so tell me then what I should do?”
I looked over at him feeling so dang sorry for the kid…I guess I missed out on a lot of this angst because I was damn well free to do exactly as I pleased at just a little older than him…But I still had all the same insecurities of youth...especially around falling in and out of love…
“Look Andy there is absolutely no way that Slim will let you go to the Laramie Saturday night dance until you’re at least another year or two older…Jonesy neither…”
He rolled his eyes and sighed lustily…
“But I figure he might be talked into letting you attend the Church Youth Group, plenty of girls go there and I believe they have dances and all sorts of stuff goin’ on.”
He looked up at me in surprise, “How come you know so much about it?”
“It were Tessa told me,” I said …and then suddenly stopped and sucked in a breath, realizing I didn’t want Andy or Ben to know about me and Tessa.
“When did you see her?” he asked his eyes narrowing and throwing me a suspicious glance.
“Uh…I guess it must have been that time I fetched you home from Ben’s house,” I improvised, “she helps out with the youth group occasionally…I think she said.”
“She does?” He asked looking interested now, “Well maybe Ben would like to come then… we could try it I guess…if Slim will let me,” he finished more cautiously.
“You leave yer big brother to me,” I said grinning at him, “now how’s about you come in and make your peace huh, show old Slim there just how mature you really can be huh?”

Chapter 9
We rode into town on Saturday night feelin’ real good in our best duds. I’d spent all my wages on buying new clothes when I first arrived, including a real smart frock coat and brocade waistcoat and the money sure weren’t wasted.
I’d checked in the mirror before we left the ranch and a clean shaven real smart dude in a sparkling white shirt, string tie, smart waistcoat, pants and jacket peered back at me…Yup I reckon I passed muster. I’d run a cloth over my Sunday best boots and then tipped my best Stetson at a jaunty angle before turning to grin at my pard. Well he had scrubbed up pretty good too and I figured our girls would be mighty impressed.
Now as we rode into town, I turned to look at Slim again and then at Andy riding proudly beside him in his Sunday best. Nope Slim hadn’t caved in, but he had said that Andy could visit with his buddy Ben that Saturday night to discuss joining the Church young folks’ group. I figured the Brown place was pretty much open house to Andy and so Slim and I left him at the door before riding on to the livery.
Well the evening went real well and before we knew it the band were striking up one of those slow numbers and I was holding Tessa real close, inhaling her heady perfume and wondering just how soon we could make a move…
I pulled her even closer, nuzzled into her neck and whispered in her ear…“So you ready to call it a night soon sweetheart?”
She pulled back a little so she could look me in the face and giving me an amused look said, “Why are you hungry…ready for supper huh?”
I winked at her and said softly, “Well I’m sure ready for somethin’…”
She slapped me playfully on the chest and rolled her eyes, but I could tell she was of a similar mind and once the dance was over, she suggested to Meg that maybe we should head on home.
We left the dance hall and both instinctively cast a glance up at her folk’s window as we passed on our way down to the café, but all seemed quiet and there was no sign of her Pa on the lookout for her.
We were met by the delicious smell of beef stew coming from the cook stove, where Meg had left it simmering away and it sure tasted as good as it smelled.
Once the meal was eaten and cleared away, we sat around the fire feeling pretty darned good, Meg and Slim cuddled up on the couch and me in the armchair with Tessa on my lap…
I glanced around the shadowy room. The lamplight now turned down to a romantic glow and thought I’d never seen a nicer place. The little kitchen area was away in the corner behind a screen, the armchair and sofa covered in a pretty chintzy material and the whole place clean neat and tidy. After a while I couldn’t resist glancing over to the daybed in the opposite corner, the pillows and mattress discreetly hidden by a colorful blanket…. Meg had only one bedroom in the place and of course that’s where she and Slim would be bedding down, leaving this room for me and Tessa to make ourselves comfortable…Well I knew we’d be way more than that…if only Slim would take the hint and suggest he and Meg go off to bed and leave us in peace.
I finally caught his eye and after much yawning and stretching he and Meg declared we should call it a night…
Well don’t think I’m gonna tell you what happened next because I guess that’s just our business, me and Tessa that is, but we had a real special time I can tell you that. In fact, by the end of the night I figured I was falling more than a little bit in love with her. That’s why what happened next was so dang hard to take.
It was still early, maybe six o’clock when Tessa got up and pulled on her robe…I woke instantly and said, “Hey sweetheart where are ya goin’ it’s early yet?”
She smiled down at me, “Only as far as the coffee pot, like one?”
I nodded, “But only if ya climb back in when you’ve made it…”
She leaned down and kissed me softly, “Deal,” she whispered as she floated off towards the kitchen area.
I was just drifting off again to the wonderful aroma of freshly brewed coffee when I was rudely woken by someone hammering on the door.
We exchanged a puzzled glance and then we heard Ben cry out, “Sis…Sis…you in there?”
Before I could move, she ran to the door and hauled it open…
“Ben…Andy what on earth are you doing here at this hour?” She gasped, hurriedly pulling the robe more tightly around her.
At the mention of Andy, I was out of bed as quick as a flash and after hunting around on the floor found my pants and was just buttoning them up as he marched in.
He paused on the threshold of the room and stared at me, at first in surprise and then with shock and finally anger as the truth of the situation dawned on him.
His gaze flicked from me to Tessa and back, “How could you!” He eventually cried in anguish, “How could you do that!”
But before I could say anything Ben, who was looking close to tears, ran to his sister, “You’ve gotta come home right now!” he yelled, “Pa sent me, it’s Ma…she’s sick…real sick!”
Then everything seemed to happen at once, a sleepy Meg and Slim emerged from their room as Tessa rushed past them to get dressed…I pulled on my shirt and gun-belt and then Slim demanded to know why Andy had cussed and bolted from the room…Finally Slim dressed and was despatched to hunt down his little brother whilst I accompanied Ben and Tessa home.
We paused by her gate and Tessa said, “Run along in Ben, tell Pa I’m on my way…”
Then she turned to me, “I’m so sorry about this…”
“Don’t be, it’s OK,” I said softly, running a gentle hand up and down her arm.
She sighed deeply and closed her eyes before looking up at me, “It isn’t though is it? It’s not fair on either of us…”
“It’s Pa,” she said, “I very much doubt Ma is as sick as he’s making out…it’s just a ruse to bring me to heel…to stay at home where I belong…can’t you see?”
I looked nonplussed… “Well call his bluff, come back with me,” I almost pleaded.
She shook her head, “I’m sorry Jess I can’t do that…because one day she will be really sick, I know that…she won’t ever be properly well and it’s just a matter of time before we lose her…”
I felt shocked by that, “I…I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” I said quietly.
“No…nobody does…and Ma doesn’t want them to either. I’m sorry Jess but I really don’t think I can risk seeing you again…Pa will be mad and that upsets Ma…I am so very sorry,” she whispered as the tears began to fall. “You…won’t breathe a word to anyone about Ma will you?”
I shook my head, “No, of course not…if that’s the way she wants it.”
She nodded and threw me one last heart-breaking glance before running into the house…
I just stood there staring after her feeling totally bereft…and finally turned and wandered back towards the livery to fetch my horse.
Slim had eventually run Andy to ground near the livery, but had been unable to get any sense out of the boy as to why he’d run off and was so upset.
Well by the black looks he was throwing me I figured it had something to do with finding me and his friend’s sis together that way…But to be honest I was feeling so dang bad about what had just happened between me and Tessa that I hadn’t much time or sympathy for the kid.
As soon as we landed home, I tended my horse and then got stuck into the yard chores right away…When it became apparent that I wasn’t stopping for breakfast Slim threw me a quizzical look, “What’s up Jess, you’ve hardly spoken a word since we got back? Are you coming in for coffee at least, Jonesy’s made it hot and strong just the way you like it…huh?”
When I just shook my head and turned back to cleaning out the barn he said, “Garldarn it Jess as though it isn’t bad enough having Andy being mean and moody now, you’re just as bad.”
“Well maybe I’ve got good cause,” I snarled, “just leave it will you Slim!”
He rolled his eyes, but at least went off to the house and left me alone to lick my wounds in peace.
Unfortunately, Andy didn’t share his older brother’s survival instincts when it came to giving me a wide berth when I was in this kinda mood.
So after his breakfast he just stormed right in…
By now I’d worked up quite a sweat trying to work off the feelings of pain and frustration at the loss of the beautiful Tessa from my life and I was feeling hot, tired and in no mood for smart teens layin’ down the law.
“So why did you hafta to choose her?” He yelled as he entered, “Out of all the girls in Laramie you had to pick on Tessa.”
“It was mutual Andy, she likes me as much as I like her…and I weren’t forcin’her to do anythin’ she didn’t want to do, before you say it... OK!” I snarled.
“I don’t believe you!” he said, looking close to tears… “You must have tricked her into staying with you…and now I suppose you’ll dump her and go find someone else. What is it they say…love ‘em and leave ‘em…that’s the way it is huh?” he said sticking out his chin belligerently.
“Hey whoa,” I said looking down at his bright red, angry face. “What’s all this really about Andy…this is more than just lookin’ out for a friend’s sister ain’t it?”
He looked down and swallowed hard before looking me in the eye and saying, “I love her Jess, I always have…and she thinks I’m real special too.”
I sighed deeply and sank down on a straw bale, just wondering if the day could get any worse.
“Look Andy I’m sure she does think a lot of you…but just not in that way huh?”
“Well why not?”
“Because she’s a grown woman and you’re…er, well still kinda young, you know.”
“It’s only six years difference…when I’m twenty she’ll only be twenty-six, heck that’s no difference at all…Besides you kissed Wendy’s Ma and she’s way older than you, heck she’s nearly forty!”
“Look Andy that’s different we’re both adults…Anyway I bet Tessa never said or did anything to make you think she was interested…did she?”
He looked away and then finally shook his head, “Nope I guess not…except for saying I was a special friend of the family and they were all real fond of me…but I just thought that…well in time she’d feel the same way as I do…and now you’ve spoilt it all.”
“Andy I’m real sorry OK, but me and Tessa were….”
Jeez, how could I explain all about attraction and adult love to the youngster… indeed should I? That was Slim’s role wasn’t it?
“You and Tessa were what?” He asked peering at me, eyes narrowed.
“We were real good friends,” I said quietly, “but you needn’t be jealous, because I won’t be seeing her no more…”
He looked hopeful for the first time since we got back home, “You won’t…how come?”
“She’s um…needed back home and her Pa ain’t too keen on her dating right now,” I said quietly. “But maybe by the time you hit twenty she’ll be free huh?” I said throwing him the ghost of a smile.
He just nodded and wandered off, leaving me feeling totally miserable. Was I really going to give in and let her domineering Pa take over her life? I shrugged, maybe so. After all if her Ma really was that sick, then maybe I should just bow out and let the family deal with it in their own way. Then I shook my head sadly, but it sure was a waste, that Tessa was so darned adorable.
It was when we were turning in that night Slim finally got the whole story out of me.
“So, you’re really not seeing her again,” he asked in amazement, “I thought you really liked her?”
“I do,” I said giving him a troubled look and throwing myself down on my bed, “of course I do…Dang it Slim that’s why I’m doing as she asked me to. With her Ma being so sick I guess I can’t add to the family’s problems.”
He shook his head and sank down on his own bed, “Nope I suppose not…and yeah, I won’t say anything about her Ma’s illness, like you asked. It’s a real shame though. I can’t say as I care for old man Brown too much. But Martha is a sweet woman and Tessa takes after her.”
“There’s something else you should know too Slim.”
“Oh?” He asked raising an eyebrow.
“It’s Andy, all that fuss, well I guess I know what it was about now,” and I explained what had happened between us in the barn.
Slim shook his head, “Poor kid…just a childish crush I imagine.”
“Oh come on Jess haven’t you ever felt that way about an adult when you were a youngster growing up. It’s kind of a rehearsal for the real thing, I guess. You feel like you’re in love, but it’s usually with someone unobtainable…that’s like a safety net I suppose…you have all those longings, but you know subconsciously that it’ll never really come to anything.”
When I just stared at him agape, he warmed to his theme some.
“Yup I remember falling head over heels with my teacher when I was a young ‘un…she sure was a pretty lady. Anyway, it happened Ma had decided to take me out of school and home school me. I reckon I’d reached the stage when Miss Harris had just about taught me the three R’s really well, but Ma wanted more for me. So…her being a retired teacher and all she took me on.”
I chuckled at that, “Gee that sure put an end to your crush then,” I said.
He chuckled, “Nah I reckon it had already run its course by then. I think it was a girl called Becky next,” he said shaking his head and grinning at the memory.
Then I cast my mind back to my school teacher, Ma Stark who was fifty if she was a day, tall and skinny as a rake with iron grey hair and piggy evil eyes that bore right through you…Her sarcasm was caustic and she had been my worst nightmare…
“How about you then Jess?”
I just stared at him and said weakly, “No I guess not.”
Then he looked real thoughtful, “It’s really time I sent him off to school you know Jess. It’s overdue in fact…been putting it off truth be told.”
I frowned at my buddy, “What’re you takin’ about Slim he goes to school already don’t he?”
“Huh? Oh yes, I see what you mean…Nope I mean a proper college, Pa’s old school over in St Louis. I promised him I’d send Andy there to complete his education…See the second son is always trained up for a professional job in our family…that’s why I’m so hard on the boy about his studies.”
“What sorta profession?” I asked.
“Anything he wants, lawyer, doctor an accountant maybe…”
I just stared at Slim, “So does Andy get any say in this?”
“Uh…well about the path he takes once he’s all educated up, why sure…he was saying he might like to be a veterinarian, or doctor even.”
“No, I mean does he get a say in you sending him hundreds of miles away to school?”
“Oh, I see, well no not really…it’s all been agreed, Pa left provision in his Will to pay the fees…it’s just a matter of when.”
“So when do ya think?” I asked thinking there were gonna be more ructions once this idea was aired.
“Sooner rather than later,” Slim said looking saddened, “the Spring Term I think, they have an intake in January. The sooner the better I reckon. I think Miss Charmers has taught him about as much as she can…after all she has to cater to the younger pupils too. There’s another reason as well…”
“Um…I think maybe a time away from all these temptations of young women is what is needed too…A spell in an all-boys school and he’ll soon be thinking of his studies and forget about all this foolishness…like thinking he loves Tessa Brown,” he said stoutly.
“Poor kid,” I muttered under my breath…
“And Jess, don’t mention it to him huh…time enough in a few months, let’s get fall and Christmas over with first.”
“Oh I don’t think there’s much danger of me telling him anything,” I said with a sigh, “he ain’t speaking to me right now.”

Chapter 10
It took Andy one heck of a long time to forgive me for what he saw as my transgression with Tessa…Slim’ s words...In fact it wasn’t until he was a grown man that we discussed the whole issue properly and he was able to see things from an adult perspective and really understood.
Sure, he got over it pretty much in a few weeks and forgot about it too I reckon…but he never really forgave me until much later as I say.
However, I guess that marked a change in our relationship though. He finally grew to accept that I was just an ordinary man with wants and needs. With failings, doubts, and fears too, just as all men have. He started to see me as a regular guy and not some sorta hero up on a pedestal. Just a man tryin’ to do the best he can…but sometimes gettin’ it wrong. And I figure that made for a much more genuine and honest friendship between us.
I guess it was the mustang busting that finally healed the rift between us that my relationship with Tessa had caused.
I did what I always do when I’m hurtin’ some and threw myself into my work…Several hours up on the back of an ornery mustang helped me collapse into an exhausted sleep at night…Instead of layin’ awake and dwelling on the girl I’d loved and had now lost. Best dang thing for a broken heart I thought to myself.
I finally tamed one of the most difficult of the bunch and did a victory lap around the coral to whoops and applause from Slim and Andy.That was when I figured Andy was feelin’ better. I was real touched to see a look of genuine respect in his eyes and Slim’ s too as I finally slipped down from the horse I’d named Lucifer.
“Jeepers Jess that was just swell, I thought you’d never break him!” Andy said his eyes shining with delight.
“Me neither,” said Slim patting me on the back, “well done!” I guess all that sweet talking and spoiling of the critters paid off. You did the job in half the time I expected and this fellah’s as sweet as a nut now.”
“Well maybe there’s more to me than just a fast draw,” I said winking at him, but only half joking.
Slim suddenly looked serious and said, “Yup I think you’re right Jess…I guess we’ll make a rancher of you yet.”
It was later that afternoon when I was watching the mustangs milling about in the coral, deciding which one to get up on next that Slim wandered over.
We stood in silence watching the quality horseflesh for a while and then he turned to me and said, “I meant what I said this morning Jess you’re becoming a real asset to the place.”
I just threw him a quizzical glance and said, “Really?”
He nodded, “You know if you sliced me in two, you’d see ‘riding for the Sherman Brand’ written right through me.”
I paused to imagine that rather bizarre picture before saying quietly, “Go on Slim.”
He shook his head and gave me a grim smile, “Well when you first landed here with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets, I didn’t think you’d got it in you to make a go of things…”
“Uh-huh,” I agreed, knowing the truth of it…
“But now, well you really have an important role to play in the business. Not just with this,” he said tipping his Stetson towards the corral, “but the way you get stuck in and are one of the team now…once we get you going in the morning,” he added with a chuckle.
But then he sobered again and said, “What I’m trying to say is…well I think if you’re prepared to give it your all and ride for the brand, well you’ve got a good future here Jess, real good,” and with that he marched off to help Andy lock the chickens up for the night.
I looked after him, my mind buzzing, maybe this was destined to really be my future…and this time the stakes would be held real firm…
I carried on breaking the mustangs with renewed vigour, beginning to feel all this was more than just a job…
But Slim had got one thing dang well right, I did find it kinda hard going to get started in the mornings, especially now as they were cold and frosty with the ground hard as iron.
“Dadgum it Slim it’s weeks to go before Thanksgiving and it’s bitter,” I said one morning, pulling my warm jacket tighter around me as I stood on the porch surveying the freezing yard and distant snow-clad mountains.
He grinned, “Well Jess I keep telling you, you’ve just got to toughen up and eat some of old Jonesy’s porridge for breakfast like he keeps telling you...best start to the day you can have.”
I threw him a black look, “If you think I’m gonna start my day with somethin’ that looks like the cat’s just chucked up…then yer mistaken,” I said bitterly before wandering off to start the yard chores.
I was dressed in winter underwear, thick wool shirt, heavy weight denims, chaps and my thick jacket…and old Doc Johnson said later it was a dang good job I was so well padded up or things could have been much worse…
I was up on Gilly a tough little Palomino mare and the last of the bunch to be broken, all the rest ready to go to their new home. She was one of the first mustangs I’d brought in and was pretty much gentle already…Maybe that’s why I kinda took my eye off the ball for a moment…something I was to really regret I can tell you.
It was a Saturday and so both Slim and Andy were up on the corral fence offering words of encouragement and derision in equal parts.
“Come on Jess, show her whose boss,” Slim yelled, laughing wickedly.
“What do ya think I’m doin’?” I spat back as I struggled to control the lively critter…who had taken a rather dim view of me bein’ up in the saddle.
I was just thinking I’d finally got her, as she started responding to my commands, when a sudden blast of icy wind blew some tumble weed in front of her. She took off like a mad thing, bucking and rearing until she finally tipped me off, tearing away down the corral, her mane and tail streaming behind her as the wind really got up.
I fell heavily and awkwardly on my right hip, the pain making me gag and almost passed out as I came into contact with the rock-solid frozen ground.
Andy and Slim were beside me in seconds and dragged me to safety, just as Jonesy emerged from the house to say dinner was ready.
“I told you he’d git thrown by one of those evil critters,” he said viewing the situation, arms akimbo, and a satisfied grin on his face.
“Well I’m real glad to prove you right,” I spat bitterly, “now will someone help me up, or am I gonna lay down here freezin’ to death fer the rest of the day?”
It was obvious as soon as they hauled me up that I’d done something to my hip and ankle and I just couldn’t walk…So amongst much cussing and yellin’ from me all three finally carried me into the house and onto the old leather couch by the window.
Slim fetched a blanket and Andy built up the fire whilst unexpectedly Jonesy went to fetch the ‘medicinal’ whiskey.
Well that cheered me up some I guess, but I wasn’t cheerful for long, because as soon as I tried to stand an hour or so later the pain was real bad and I collapsed back again on the couch.
Jonesy came in from where he’d been clearing the dinner table and started scolding me as only he could.
“Right then you no good wastrel, are you going to lay there cussing all afternoon, or are you going to let me take a look at the injuries now huh?”
I finally gave in figuring it was easier to let the old goat have his way than argue. But it wasn’t long before I regretted my decision, when he went to pull my boot off…
I cussed so dang wildly, even for me, that Andy was quickly dispatched to the kitchen to wash up the dishes, Slim figuring my language was way too explicit for young ears….
However, once my boot and sock were off I guess I got the sympathy vote as my ankle was now every color of the rainbow and swollen to three times its usual size. Jonesy called for ice cold water from the well and rags to bind it, which caused more yellin’ from me…and that was before he even started on my badly bruised hip…
As luck would have it, Doc Johnson was only a few miles away helping deliver a baby at the Patterson spread and Andy was dispatched to fetch him. He called by and gave me the once over a few hours later.
“What possessed you to work with those crazy mustangs in this freezing weather?” He asked frowning at me as he straightened up from assessing the damage.
I shrugged, “I’ve never worked the horses in a cold climate like this before. I didn’t think about what could happen, with the ground bein’ so hard an’ all.”
The old man rolled his eyes at that and exchanged an exasperated look with Jonesy. “These youngsters never think ahead,” he said waspishly, before glaring at me again.
“Well young man you are extremely lucky not to be nursing a broken hip and leg. As it is the hip is very badly bruised, but should heal well…if you are sensible,” he declared peering at me over his eyeglasses.
I just nodded, there being nuthin’ much I could say in my defense to be honest.
“Uh…well as to this ankle, keep off it for a week and then light duties,” he said.
Snapping his bag shut, he departed with a tip of his hat and a quick, “Good day gentlemen,” and he was gone.
“A week,” I exploded, “I can’t dang well sit around for a week!”
“You can and you will,” said Jonesy, a self-satisfied smile on his face, “and don’t worry, you won’t be bored, you can help me prepare the veggies, fold the washing…all manner of things you can still do...got two good hands haven’t you?”
I guess that’s why I really wanted to get the final batch of mustangs delivered as soon as I was better. I’d been going stir crazy stuck in the ranch with only Jonesy for company and wanted out and the Big Open was sure callin’ me.
It was a couple of weeks after my injury and although my hip was still a bit stiff in the cold mornings my sprained ankle had mended pretty good and I couldn’t wait to get off the property for a while.
I’d finally finished working on Gilly and she was soon green broke and ready to go like the others.
Me and Slim were waiting on the afternoon Stage when I told him of my plans…
“I don’t know Jess...you’re still not back to normal yet. Are you sure you can manage those ornery critters as well as the long ride to the fort?”
“Sure I can,” I said, sounding a lot more positive than I was feeling. Truth be known that old hip of mine still bothered me some after a few hours in the saddle and the fort was way more than a few hours away. But hell, I’d really impressed the Major with the first batch of mustangs I’d sold him. I knew he was desperate for more and I didn’t want to let him down.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said dismissively, “quit fussin’ Slim, you’re turning’ into more of an old woman than Jonesy.”
However, before he had time to retaliate the Stage swung down the rise and came to a standstill in the yard. Just seconds later Andy burst out of the coach so excited he was practically incoherent… so it was some minutes before we were to learn that Miss Charmers, his teacher, was off on compassionate leave for a week, after the death of her father.
“Well heck Andy that’s nothing to be so dang happy about,” Slim reproved, “the poor woman’s just lost her Pa.”
Andy adjusted his face to show concern and pity for a good minute, before continuing his excited babble.
“Crazy kid,” I said shaking my head and grinning across at Slim as the youngster flew off to impart his exciting news to Jonesy.
Slim grinned back at me, “It’s good to see him acting like a kid again instead of moping over his ‘lost loves’.” he said rolling his eyes.
I guess I had to agree too, remembering all the lusty sighs and spats of temper we’d all had to endure over the last few weeks. All since Wendy knocked him back. Then as though that wasn’t bad enough, he’d realized I was romancin’ his best buddy’s sister and his latest crush Tessa.
Well I reckoned there were still a few fences needed mending regarding that business. Then a thought struck me, maybe Slim would let Andy help me out delivering the mustangs?
I tackled Slim about it as we rubbed down the relay horses later in the barn.
He shook his head, “Well I don’t know Jess, I reckon the teacher will have set them some work to do, it’s not a holiday you know.”
“Sure, I know that, but we can be there and back in a few days and still have plenty of time left for him to study.”
When he still didn’t look any too happy, I decided to play my trump card…
“I guess you were right Slim, I’m not really a hundred percent yet, I reckon I could do with a hand…and there’s somethin’ else too…”
He raised a questioning eyebrow, “Yeah, what’s that then?
“Well that Major…you know how impressed he was with those other critters I took over?”
He nodded, “Sure I do, you’ve told me often enough.”
“Yeah well, I figure if I get this last batch over in record time, he’ll make it a regular contract…and you can’t say the money wouldn’t be useful, huh Slim?”
Well that sure hit home, like I knew it would, and by supper time he’d agreed to let Andy ride along with me…
“But straight there and back, no stopping off hunting or fishing,” he said amidst Andy’s whooping and cheering.
The trip out went without incident…We managed the half dozen lively mustangs between us and although my hip did bother me some, I managed OK. And boy was it worth it to see that old Major’s face when he saw what I’d brought him.
We stood by the corral fence near the main barracks and one of his sergeants put the horses through their paces and each and every one responded well, thank God.
Sure, I’d put the work in and the animals were green broke. But they needed schooling on of course and the major was well aware of that. I like a man that knows his horses and that old Major knew horses inside out and knew when he was looking at good stock too.
Now he turned to me and grinned, “I like your style Harper, and good genuine horse whisperers are dang hard to find in these parts. I had an excellent man once, half Arapaho, knew his stuff…but he passed over a good few years back,” he mused.
Then he turned to Andy, “So you’re young Matt Sherman’s kid brother then son?”
Andy nodded and offered a hand, “Yes sir, Andy Sherman.”
The Major shook it firmly and smiled at the boy, “I knew your Pa …a good man.”
Then he turned back to me and reaching in his pocket brought out a fat envelope. “The price we agreed Mister Harper and a bonus for a job well done…thank you.”
I pocketed the money and shook his hand, “Thank you Major, much obliged.”
He nodded, “I take it you’re staying on at the Sherman place, making a go of it there?” He asked raising an eyebrow.
I glanced down at Andy and then up at the military man, “Yes sir, I am,” I agreed.
“Good man,” he said slapping me on the back. “Well you can tell Mathew Sherman I’m very impressed, in both the horses and his choice of wrangler too. I’ll be drawing out a contract…a lucrative contract, in the next week or so, I’ll send it over by dispatch rider. Sign it and return it young man and I think we can have a very profitable association,” and with that he nodded and marched off, leaving me and Andy speechless.
Well we were riding on air as we made our way back to the ranch, both of us elated.
It was much later that night when we finally sat around the campfire and talked properly for the first time in ages. On the journey out I’d been kinda preoccupied, worried about delivering the critters safely. But now we were both pretty tired, but happy, sitting in the moonlight and sipping a coffee before turning in.
We were leaning back on our saddles relaxing when Andy turned to me and said, “Did you mean it Jess, what you said about staying, making a real go of it at the ranch?”
I nodded, “I guess I did yeah.”
He looked down for a while, “Good I’m glad…I…I was real mad at you over that thing between you and Tessa you know,” he said glancing up at me…
I nodded again, “I know Andy and I didn’t mean to hurt ya really I didn’t…I dunno...maybe I’d have backed off iffen I’d known you felt that way about her. Or at least told you what was happening between us. I sure didn’t mean for you to find out the way you did.”
He sighed, “Yes I know and I’m over all that now anyway…I was bein’ real stupid believing she’d think of me that way…I guess I’m just a kid to her.”
I agreed, “But she’s real fond of you and that must count for something huh?”
“I guess so yeah….and Jess…”
“I can’t forgive you yet, it still really hurts…when I think of you two together…But I wanna put it behind us, try to forget it and move on yeah?”
I looked over to the kid…no…to the young man before me and I figured he’d just made a huge leap towards being truly grown up.
“I understand that,” I said seriously and then reaching across took his hand, “Amigos again?”
He nodded and shook my hand firmly, “Amigos.”
I wondered fleetingly, with this new found maturity, if now would be a good time to broach the subject of him going away to school. There again I figured that was really Slim’s job…But it wouldn’t hurt to sound him out some.
“So has Miss Charmers left much work for you to do when we land home?” I asked casually.
He looked a bit puzzled by the sudden change of subject, but rallied well…
“Uh, nope not too much and all kid’s stuff anyway…spellings and some math…real boring stuff.”
“Oh…so it’s getting a bit dull then?”
He nodded and yawned, “All we seem to do is writing, reading and darned math…I think I might just fade away from boredom, you know that Jess?”
I chuckled, “Well it can’t be that bad, dontcha do other stuff?” I said vaguely, “like er geography, history that kinda thing?”
“Not so much, I’ve read all the books on history, geography too and all that does is make me wanna see all the places I’ve read about, but I never get to go anyplace.”
“Sound like you could do with a change of scene,” I said lightly, thinking maybe the kid wouldn’t object to being sent away quite as much as we all thought.
His face lit up at that, “Wouldn’t I just…I wanna go on the drift like you did Jess…see the world.”
I sighed deeply, hell this weren’t goin’ the way it was meant to.
“Come on Andy we’ve been all through that a million times…you know why that’s a real bad idea.”
He just sighed and looked mutinous, “I know what you say…but I still think it sounds like fun…well better than bein’ stuck out on the ranch anyways.”
I decided to try a different tack, “So what do ya want to learn about then if the three R’s are getting kinda predictable? “
“Oh that’s easy, science of course!”
“You know Jess…Biology, Chemistry even Physics…all about the world, animals, plants how everything works…see that’s the kinda thing I need to know iffen I’m gonna be an animal doctor.”
I smiled inwardly, got ya I thought!
“Well maybe you will get to learn all that stuff one day,” I said grinning at him.
“Maybe, but I don’t know how…Anyway like I always say, you turned out pretty good without too much schoolin’, look how impressed that ol’ Major was with you.”
“That’s different Andy,” I said hotly, “I’m just an ol’ saddle tramp…but you…well you’ve got the chance to be anything you want, really make something of your life, the way Slim wants.”
“Well so have you,” he said eagerly, “I reckon you could be a partner in the ranch one day.”
“Oh yeah, like that’s gonna happen,” I said rolling my eyes.
“Well why not I can’t think of anyone better…and I sure don’t wanna stay on the ranch all my life.”
“Well that’s down to you and Slim to discuss, I figure that’s your rightful place, but I sure won’t be in the running anyway.”
“Well why not?”
I sighed deeply, “Because number one, you have to have stake money to buy into a business…and I’m usually flat broke. And two I ain’t had the schoolin’ for it Andy…You need to know about keepin’ the books straight, writing letters to the Stage company, all sorts of stuff I know nuthin’ about. So now do ya see how important yer schoolin’ is huh?”
“Well you could learn, you’re real smart Jess…I know you are.”
“Sure I am,” I said grinning at him, “too dang smart to know when I’d be floggin’ a dead horse expectin’ to be made a business partner, so let’s hear no more about it OK.”
“Aw Jess it would be just swell, and I could go off and know Slim had a buddy watching his back.”
I sighed again, “Look Andy let’s just worry about gettin’ you all educated up first huh?”
He looked thoughtful, “Well I can’t see Miss Charmers teachin’ the stuff I need to know.”
I just made a noncommittal grunt and figured I’d leave him to think things out.
“Come on Andy, time to turn in, I promised Slim we’d be home by noon tomorrow, so early start…”
We settled down and then a few minutes later he said, “Jess?”
“Yeah, what is it?” I replied sleepily, wondering what gems of wisdom my newly matured little buddy was about to impart…
“I’m real cold, you don’t happen to have any medicinal whiskey in your saddle bag do ya?” He asked hopefully.
I nearly choked at the thought of offering a fourteen-year-old kid neat hill whiskey, and lied, “Nope I ain’t…and iffen yer cold chuck another log on the fire,” I said firmly.
Then we settled down to sleep. My last thoughts that with all the issues with girls and now strong drink, it was high time the kid went off to school. Away from my obviously disruptive influence…Then I smiled to myself, but hell the kid sure was a dang good poker player, I’d taught him well.

Chapter 11
Well Andy wasn’t the only one to be feeling the cold.
I woke up at dawn shivering to the sight of a white wonderland …several inches of snow surrounding the campsite.
As luck would have it we’d bedded down beneath a huge old pine and so were still quite dry and I was able to get the fire blazing away with the logs I’d fetched from nearby the night before.
I roused Andy and passed him a piping hot coffee a little while later and he sipped it appreciatively, whilst looking around him in delight.
“You know what this means,” he said cheerfully, “it looks like we may be snowed in early this year…no school, Yippee!”
“Yippee,” I muttered somewhat less enthusiastically under my breath…but Andy picked up on my less than eager response at once.
“Oh it won’t be so bad Jess. There won’t be too much work and lots of time to sit around and play checkers, that kinda thing.” he enthused.
“Yeah, and havin’ to slog out in the bitter cold to the pasture to check on the herd an’ borin’ jobs stuck in the barn mendin’ tack all the dang day,” I retaliated, “Not to mention going stir crazy with old Jonesy moanin’ on about his sacroiliac and Slim quotin’ long passages out of those dang borin’ books he reads!” Plus, no chance of a visit to the saloon or meeting any purty girls I secretly thought.
“Heck it’s not that bad Jess…we’ll have fun, you’ll see….”
“Garldarn it Andy will you stop complaining you’re bored, we’re all stuck in here too you know…Now go find an improving book to read…plenty in the attic,” said Slim irritably.
The kid slouched off looking pretty fed up…and I sympathized.
I wandered over to the window and surveyed the grey mist beyond, huge flakes of snow floating down to make an even thicker blanket covering the yard, corral and as far as the eye could see.
“Still coming down,” I said turning back to the room, where Slim was reading by the fire and Jonesy at the table playing Solitaire.
Getting no response, I wandered back over to my rocker by the fire and slumped back down, casting my mind back over the last few days.
It had been good talking everything through with Andy when we were on the trail home and I figured there was a new feeling of mutual respect and understanding between us now…That’s why I decided to address the issue of him going away to school…
I could hear the kid still banging about up in the attic so I said, Slim, “Can we talk…about Andy goin’ off to school and all?”
He put his book aside at once and threw me an inquiring look, “What about it?” He asked.
I tipped my head over to where Jonsey was still sitting at the table playing cards, “Does he know about it?” I asked softly.
But before Slim could reply Jonesy piped up, “Yes I do and don’t think much of the idea either if you want to know.”
I exchanged a grin with Slim, having forgotten what good hearing old Jonesy had.
“So, what about it,” Slim asked again, “and it’s OK you can talk in front of Jonesy, as though you’d dare not to,” he whispered.
“Heard that too,” came from the back of the room.
We rolled our eyes and I said, “Well I figure you’d be better talkin’ to him before Christmas Slim, iffen you’re thinking of sending him off in the new year, it don’t give him much time to prepare.”
“Well for once I agree with the drifter,” Jonesy supplied, “the child will need new clothes, books all manner of stuff for that smart school you’re so dang keen on.”
Slim looked thoughtful, “Uh, I hadn’t thought about that, I guess you’re right Jonesy, it’s just that I know I’m going to get so much darned fussing and fretting from him… I thought it would be easier if we just told him and he went pretty soon after, less time to worry about it all.”
“That’s the point,” I butted in, “we had a long talk on the trail. Turns out he’s real bored in Miss Chamber’s classes, was talkin’ about the kinda book learnin’ he’d really like…Uh... Chemistry, Biology and uh Phys…some other thing I forget. Reckons it’s what he needs to be an animal doctor.”
“Well that’s wonderful,” said Slim looking enthusiastic, “but why didn’t he tell me that?”
I shrugged, “Dunno, maybe you didn’t ask. Anyway, he’s just about had it with the Laramie school and wants to travel, so maybe this here school of yours will fit the bill Slim?”
“You’re right,” he said thoughtfully, “on both accounts. I should have consulted him…and yes maybe a change of scene is what he needs…I’ll talk to him tonight.”
After supper me and old Jonesy made ourselves scarce, him having an early night and me taking myself off to the barn to bed down the horses.
It was later when Slim and I were in our room that he told me everything.
“You were right Jess; Andy was really quite keen on the notion of going off to a smart school and learning everything he needs to know about the sciences. Too early to decide on a career yet of course, but this will give him a good start…Heck he’s even promised to buckle down and do some studying tomorrow.”
I grinned across at my buddy, “He ain’t runnin’ a fever is he?”
However, the following morning true to his word Andy settled down with his books at the table once all the chores were done with…
Slim too settled down with paper and pencil and commenced doing some ciphering.
After a while, feeling bored, I glanced over and asked what he was doing.
“Uh, just calculating the amount of timber we’ll need for that lean to we were thinking of adding on to the barn and costing it up,” he said.
Then looking up at me he said, “It’s a shame you never attended to your books like young Andy there Jess or you could give me a hand working this out,”and he chuckled, before going back to his notes.
Well that made me feel real mad I can tell you…So I went and fetched paper and pencil myself and peering out of the window made a rough sketch of the proposed building work…chewed my pencil some and then finally wrote down some figures.
After a while Slim grinned up at me, “Havin’ a go at it are you pard?”
I just nodded. Then I gave him the dimensions, amount of timber we’d need and a rough idea of cost.
He stared at me for a full minute, before saying, “Huh?”
I repeated my calculations, Andy and Jonesy now taking a keen interest.
“Well how the devil did you do that?” He said in surprise. “That’s spot on and taken me nigh on an hour to measure it all up and then do the math.”
His amazement made me feel even madder than I did before, “I guess I ain’t as dumb as you seem to think I am,” I spat angrily.
“Hey Jess I never said that, I just didn’t think…er…”
“Didn’t think I’d gotten any education, I know,” I said, “and anyway it’s like Andy’s always sayin’ I’ve got by pretty good without it so far,” and I stormed out to the sanctuary of the barn.
“Jess…hey Jess!” Slim called after me, but I’d had enough.
I marched over to the barn and commenced grooming my good old horse, something that always calms me down some.
Then I got to thinking why I was so mad…heck Slim didn’t mean no harm. I knew that…But all the same I figured maybe deep down I was kinda ashamed of not having too much schooling under my belt. Sure, I could read OK and write fine too…but my handwriting was kinda difficult to read maybe, if I was honest. I could add and subtract…all the basics of math too…but that was about it really.
Sure I’d picked stuff up along the way, like bein’ able to look at a plan and work out the materials needed to build stuff…but that had all been trial and error…learned hard from many mistakes. I’d got other skills too, horse breakin’, some horse doctorin’ as well. I could do practical stuff like bridle makin’ horse shoein’…all manner of ranch work…
But heck that wasn’t real education. Like bein’ able to total up the ranch books at the end of the month…and get the right answer every dang time…or write a good business letter to the Relay company…well that was all down to Slim…And for the first time in my life I began to feel real bad about my lack of education. Heck me and Andy had even talked about it back on the trail…how I should aspire to be a partner one day…and the skills I’d need…But hell that was never gonna happen.
I was so busy thinkin’ on it all I didn’t notice Slim standing behind me until he gave a little warning cough…and I swung around to face him.
He put his hands up in submission, “I’ m sorry Jess that was real crass of me, I didn’t mean to upset you... really.”
I sighed and putting the brushes down left the stall and went and faced him.
“You haven’t,” I said quietly, “I guess it needed sayin’.”
“Well come on Slim we both know I ain’t had much schoolin’…”
“And that bothers you?”
I shrugged, “It never used to.”
“But now…it does?”
“Maybe …”
“I could help you out some…if you’d let me,” he said cautiously.
“Why’d you wanna do that?” I asked him suspiciously.
He frowned, “Because maybe it’s what you need to do and besides…it could help me out.”
“How so?”
“Well if you could do the books…maybe write the odd business letter…uh, if I’m away or something…it’d be a help,” he said vaguely.
My eyes narrowed and I peered at him, “You been talking to Andy about me?” I asked. Feeling real annoyed if the kid had suggested I might be after a partnership in the business. After all that had been all his idea not mine.
“No…why?” He asked casting me a puzzled look.
“Aw…nuthin’…I just thought…um…nuthin’.”
He grinned at me then, “OK well now we’ve got that straight how about it huh?”
When I still looked kinda undecided he said quietly, “We can do the learning in our room, Jonesy and Andy don’t even have to know…and I know you’re real smart Jess…we’ll get you up to speed in no time…so how about it?”
Well what could I say… but, “Hell Slim get out of here I ain’t book learnin’…and especially not with you dang well callin’ all the shots!”
“Please yourself,” he said and departed lookin’ kinda hurt.
I guess it was Andy that made me change my mind, the way he’d took to his books and seemed to really be getting something from it all.
During our self-imposed imprisonment, thanks to the snow storms, Slim had gone up to the attic and fetched down some of the books his ma had used to teach him, when he was a similar age to Andy. Well that really seemed to fire him up, he was devouring knowledge like there was no tomorrow and it was real nice to see.
Anyway, it was one day when he’d asked me several times how to spell a word and I didn’t know that I began to feel…I dunno, almost like I’d let him down I suppose. Oh, he didn’t make me feel bad, just said he’d ask Slim later…Then another day I glanced down at what he was workin’ on and it just didn’t make any sense to me…just a jumble of letters and numbers. He saw me looking and said, “Did you do this in school Jess?”
Well I gave him a kinda old fashioned look, and said “What do ya think? What in tarnation is it anyway?”
“Algebra,” he said, “and don’t ask me what dang use it is Jess because I dunno, but Slim says they’ll all be doin’ it at this new place, when I eventually go, so I guess I’d better get to it….”
Jeez the kid was learnin’ stuff I’d never even heard of!
I guess that’s when I decided I should bite the bullet and ‘get to it’ as well.
I found Slim sometime later and said, “Er buddy, you know what you were sayin’ about helpin’ me out some with my cipherin’ and all?”
I won’t pretend it was easy…and yes, some harsh words were exchanged on both sides upon occasion. But dadgum it most of the time we got on real good and it turned out Slim was patient and encouraging, which is more than can be said of old Ma Stark, my original teacher back on the Panhandle.
Anyways we really got stuck in and after a while I figured I was bein’ a bit precious not tellin’ the others that Slim was educatin’ me up…and so I broke the news after supper one night.
Jonesy grinned from ear to ear and I braced myself for the inevitable put down… But no…
“Well good fer you boy, I guess you’ll make somethin’ of yourself in the end,” he said slapping me on the back.
Andy was just as enthusiastic and said, “That’s swell we can study together!” Then winking at me said, “I guess it’s always a good idea to be ready for anything huh Jess?”
I knew he was talkin’ about our conversation out on the trail when he’d suggested I might become a partner in the business…and now I threw him a quelling glance, “I told ya that ain’t gonna happen Andy.”
“What ain’t…er, I mean isn’t going to happen?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
“Nuthin’,” me and Andy replied, before fallin’ about laughing.
Well I have ta say that thanks to Slim I can now write a pretty mean business letter, can add up the end of month returns without gettin’ three different answers and can even spell pretty damn good…well most of the time anyways…OK if I’m bein’ honest here the words that are real bastards, but ones ya need when yer writin’, like ‘necessary’ and ‘sincerely’… that kinda thing I get right…mostly. But I knew it was time to call a halt when he wanted to go all through his ma’s old dictionary and learn me all the words and their meaning and spellin’….
Things came to a head late one evening when we’d been hitting the books for an hour or two and I’d pretty much had enough. Garldarn it we’d only gotten down to the D’s and I wondered just how many words we had to go…
“OK this is a good one for you,” said Slim cheerfully, “desist d-e-s-i-s-t…desist.”
I sighed deeply, “What the hell does that mean?”
Slim checked the dictionary entry and said, “Uh… cease, stop, discontinue, end…
I stared at him blankly, “Huh?”
“Well don’t you see Jess…if someone wants to take you on in a gunfight and you have a notion that you don’t want any part of it…like the good law-abiding citizen you are now…” he said chuckling.
“Go on,” I said deadpan…
“Well all you have to say is desist …and your opponent will back off,” he said gleefully.
I rolled my eyes and then banging my books shut glared at him, “Ya know what Slim I reckon its time these here lessons…desisted…. Ya know? Ceased, stopped, and ended huh?”
He looked over and grinned, “Maybe you’re right pard and I figure you know all you need to now…”
I narrowed my eyes and stared at him, “What do ya mean by that?”
“Oh nothing,” he said innocently.
“Are you sure Andy hasn’t said anything to you?” I asked.
“About what?”
I shrugged, “I dunno, my future here…that kinda thing?”
Slim threw me that huge kind smile of his and said, “No pard…nothing…but it’s real good to think you want a future here…real good.”
It was to be a good few years later that he admitted he’d lied to me that night… Sure Andy had suggested I’d be an ideal partner in the ranch. Slim had agreed, if I decided to stay and really prove I was prepared to ride for the brand… Well I guess I did on both accounts and the rest as they say is history…

What Slim said about my future really got me thinking and I lay in bed that night going through everything that had happened over the last twelve months or so and the way things had gradually changed… The way I felt about my life there…and my relationship with all at the ranch too…
Right from the get go Jonesy had been real wary of me and he didn’t like or trust me too much…But then over the months things changed. I guess it was when I discovered he was gambling and I entered the Sunday Shoot to help him pay off his debts that things changed some...It was later that he told me how grateful he was for the money. But it was as much the fact that I didn’t tell on him to Slim that meant so very much to him. That’s when a new bond of trust was formed between us which would last a lifetime.
Then months later he nursed me through that real bad Typhus sickness…
When I asked him why he was bein’ so dang good to me he’d replied, “I’ll tell you Jess. See the way I figure it, is that you’re family now…Well as much as the critters out in the pasture, that ornery old donkey and even that dang house cat Jasper all are….All of you can be hard work, exasperatin’ and downright cantankerous…But you belong here now son and we look after our own….”
I guess that was one of the reasons I decided to stay and really make a go of things there.
Me and Slim were gradually beginning to understand each other and make allowances too, the way good friends do. We might not have always seen eye to eye, or even agreed with the others morals and ethics…but we sure tried dang hard to understand them. I guess he’d begun to trust me more and gave me more and more responsibility around the place too. But it wasn’t until years later that he admitted he was kinda testing me…making sure I was as committed to the ranch as he was.
It was after I had the stake money and the experience that Slim had finally offered me a partnership. Once the deal was signed and sealed then he said, “I needed to know Jess…needed to know that you cared about the old place as much as I do…and now I’m sure.”
But all that was to be a good few years down the track…
As to Andy and me…well I guess our friendship had grown and matured…and not without its ups and downs, but maybe in a way it was stronger because of that…He had just been an eager young kid when I rode in all those months ago…him idolizing me and my fast gun and wild ways…Well now he’d seen beyond that, seen the real man beneath that rough exterior and our friendship was all the better for it. Now he was turning into a really mature young man with a glittering future ahead of him, if Slim had his way.
Andy too seemed real excited about the adventure of goin’ off to the boardin’ school in St Louis Missouri...that is until the day of departure drew near....
A tearful Andy turned to his big brother and said, “I don’t wanna go Slim, I don’t wanna be all educated up…I just want to be like you and Jess.”
Slim and I exchanged a half amused, half hurt glance…the kid sure had a way with words I thought…But hang it all, what would we do now?
Well I guess that’s another story….
The End
Thank you for reading.
Part three of the ‘Andy, Slim and Me’ Trilogy: ‘Andy Slim and Me- End of an Era’ out soon.

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