#81 The Doppelganger

The Doppelganger
Patty Wilkinson
(Some violence, strong language and adult themes)

Chapter 1
It was a peaceful early summer’s evening at the Sherman ranch and relay station. Slim and Jess were sitting relaxing and chatting quietly whilst young Mike finished his homework at the dining table.
After a while the child let out a huge sigh and Jess exchanged an amused glance with his pard before turning to the youngster.
“What’s up Tiger?” he asked kindly, “Those spellings real hard tonight huh?”
“No, it’s not that Jess, I’ve learned them pretty good I think…it’s this last part I have to do.”
Slim stood up and stretched before he wandered over to join the boy, leaning over his work.
“Can I help you Mike?” he asked, “It’s getting pretty near your bedtime you know.”
The child sighed again, “We have ta look in the dictionary and choose a real long word we haven’t seen before. Then write down what it means and read it to the class tomorrow and tell everyone what it means.”
“Well that shouldn’t be too taxing,” Jess said grinning at the boy, “I figure there are more words in that old dictionary that you don’t know than those you do!”
“Yes, but that’s the point Jess, there’s too much choice I just don’t know which word to choose.”
“Well that’s easy Tiger just open the book at random, close your eyes and put yer finger down on the page…and that’s yer word…easy!”
“Heck that’s a swell idea Jess, why didn’t I think of that!”
Slim and Jess exchanged another grin as the boy did as he was bid.
But then he looked totally puzzled, “Well I’ve never seen that word before…dopper…dopul…”
Slim glanced down and grinned, “Doppelganger Mike.”
“What the heck does that mean?” Jess and Mike asked in unison.
Slim looked over the boy’s shoulder and read aloud from the dictionary:
“A doppelganger is a mysterious, exact double of a living person. It's a German word that literally translates to "double walker" or "double goer". A doppelganger isn't someone who just resembles you, but is an exact double, right down to the way you walk, act, talk, and dress. Sometimes they are regarded as a ghost or harbinger of bad luck.”

“Gee that’s so neat!” Mike said,” I bet nobody else will have a great word like that.”

“I just hope you don’t hafta learn how to spell it before tomorrow, or we’ll be here all dang night,” Jess said dryly.

“Oh no you won’t young man, ” Daisy said marching in from the kitchen where she’d been washing the dishes… She peered down at the homework assignment and said, “No dear, you just have to read it out…so you copy that out and then off to bed…and we’ll practice saying the word at breakfast time,” she added kindly.

Much later once both Daisy and Mike had retired for the night the two cowboys sat on in front of the fire sipping a celebratory glass of whiskey a piece, reveling in the fact that all the stock had finally been returned to their summer grazing up on the higher ground.

It had turned chilly and the fire was welcome, both men feeling relaxed and a little sleepy after the hard day’s work they’d put in with the herd.

After a while Jess chuckled, “That sure was a humdinger of a word, so you think there’s any truth in it Slim?”

The blond rancher thought carefully for a while and then said, “I imagine there must be some evidence for it Jess, if it’s in the dictionary.”
“Um, sounds kinda fanciful to me,” Jess said taking another sip of his Red-eye,” and anyway what are they supposed to be a ghost or real?”
“Real I believe,” Slim said, “But for someone to look just like you, it is kind of weird eh?”
Jess nodded, “Kinda scary to think there might be another one of you wanderin ’ about the place Hardrock,” he added with a chuckle.
“Well thanks,” Slim said throwing him a black look.
Then Jess said more thoughtfully, “So iffen they’re supposed to look just like you, is that where it ends or do they think like you and have all your strange little ways ya know?”
“God help us if there’s another one of you, with your ‘strange little ways,’ ” Slim snorted.
They lapsed into silence for a while and then Slim said thoughtfully, “It’s really interesting you know Jess…that special something that makes us all different…the way we are and what forms us.”
“Yeah, fascinating,” said Jess sarcastically and topping up their drinks.
“No really, I was discussing it with Doc Sam a while back. Well you know how keen he is on the mind and what makes us all tick.”
“Sure do,” Jess said with a smirk, “I’ve been bamboozling him ever since we met.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” Slim said with a broad grin. “Anyway, he’s been studying work by this guy called…um… Sir Francis Galton…and he set up this Nature versus Nurture debate.”
“He did?” Jess asked looking slightly dazed.
“Yup, it’s quite simple really he has been debating which is more responsible for the way we are when we grow up…the way we are raised or the characteristics we inherit from our parents.”
“Well God help me iffen that’s true,” said Jess darkly, “the way my pa was…both in his character and how he brought me up…well I sure wouldn’t like to think I’d turned out like him in any way.”
Slim threw his buddy a compassionate glance, “Yeah, but your dear Ma made up for that, she was a real good woman wasn’t she Jess?”
“Oh yeah, she sure was, loyal and honest as the day’s long. God fearing’ too, she sure knew her Bible and taught all us kids the scriptures.”
“Oh right and you’re real renown for your Bible quotes aren’t you Jess,” Slim said with a burst of laughter.
“Just because I don’t dang well spout it all the time, don’t mean I don’t know it,” Jess said gruffly.
Slim immediately sobered, knowing the truth of it.
“I’m sorry Jess I was just joshing you. And no, you’re nothing like your pa, and everything like your Ma.”
Jess took another sip of his drink and looked reflectively into the fire…and then turned troubled eyes to Slim.
“But what if I am like him Slim…deep down...and one day I’ll just turn and everything will come out. I’ll prove to be a real bastard like him? God knows I’ve got his temper and I ain’t any too patient either...we both know I ain’t no saint.”
“Now you’re talking crazy,” said Slim,” you’re nothing like that and since you’ve been here you’ve calmed right down, you’ve changed pard.”
“Yes, but look how I was,” Jess persisted, “riding that ol’ Owl Hoot trail…getting into trouble…acting plum loco half the time.”
“Yes, well after all you’d been through…losing your kin in that goddamn fire…not to mention the atrocities you suffered in that dang prisoner of war camp…it’s kind of understandable you’d rebel some. See that’s the nurture side of the debate Jess…things you learn growing up affect you sure. But I personally believe things in later life can make or mar a man. There were so many that turned to drink, drugs, crime after the war when they returned to find they’d lost everything. But you’re one of the ones that finally turned his life around and you should be proud of that.”
Jess drained his glass and said softly, “And part of that was down to you Slim…Andy and old Jonesy too.”
Then he gave a huge yawn, “Come on let’s turn in, this conversation is getting kinda … maudlin.”
Slim’ s jaw dropped, “Heck Jess have you been reading Mike’s dictionary?”
Jess chuckled, “Nope it was on last week’s spelling list…m-a-u-d-l-i-n, and the definition of maudlin is someone who is overly sentimental, often in a tearful way or as a result of consuming alcohol.”
Slim laughed, “Well that’s about spot on Jess. We’ll make a scholar of you yet!”

On that note they turned in.

But just weeks later that conversation was to come back to haunt Jess.

The men soon forgot all about their talk of doppelgangers as they threw themselves into hard work.

They had suffered badly in the previous fall when a flood had decimated the area and like many other ranchers, had lost several head of expensive cattle. Then the winter had brought some devastating storms causing widespread damage to the building and fences on the property.

Now in early summer they were really feeling the pinch and Slim had been losing sleep trying to juggle the accounts to make ends meet.

Meanwhile Jess threw himself into working the mustangs he rounded up earlier in the year and now he was preparing to deliver a string of green broke critters to Major Adams over at the fort.
“You sure you can manage on your own with these?” Slim asked as Jess roped the half dozen lively animals, nose to tail, all ready to head out.
“Sure I can,” Jess said quickly, “and anyway we don’t need any more expense right now do we? Those Jackson boys are always willin ’ to help out, I know, but we still hafta pay ‘em at the end of the day Slim. So, I reckon you’re better stayin’ put.”
“Yes, I know that,” said Slim irritably. Then he sighed expansively, “I just get so darned tired of worrying about money sometimes. The stock we lost last fall in the floods have really set us back again you know Jess, not to mention those repairs on the property after that terrible winter.”
“Sure I know that. That’s why I got this bunch ready in record time. The army money should tide us over for a while. Then as soon as I hear of any more mustangs passing this way, I’ll go on another trip. You’ll see, it’ll be fine Slim.”
“That’s all well and good Jess and I appreciate all your hard work really, I do…but I figure it’s going to take more than a few mustangs to fix things right now,” and he shook his head looking really anxious.
Jess looked across at him and frowned, “Try not to worry, I’ll think of something,” he said quickly and with that mounted up.
“See you in a few days,” he said. “I might travel back across land stop off in the Medicine Bow forest on my way home. Bag some fresh meat for the pot. That should help the food bills anyway…huh?”
Slim nodded, “Thanks Jess, see you by the end of the week at the latest OK? Plenty to get on with here you know. We’ve still got the east pasture boundary fence to patch up.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Jess in a resigned voice, “see ya pard,” and he led the string of horses off up the rise at speed.
“Take it easy Jess,” Slim said softly, before turning back into the house to try and make some sense of the accounts once more.
It was over a week later when he harnessed up the buckboard and drove Daisy into town to do the marketing for some basic supplies. Jess had promised to take her on his return from the fort, as he said he needed to visit town too. However, he was now two days overdue so Slim had decided to drive her in himself.
He dropped her off at the mercantile promising to pick her up within the hour and then made his way purposefully down Main Street and into the Sheriff’s office.
Mort’s head shot up when Slim marched in and he gave his old friend a rather startled look, “Howdy Slim, er… everything alright?” He asked.
Slim stopped in his tracks and peered at his old friend, “Sure Mort why wouldn’t they be?”
“Uh no reason really, so is Jess not with you?”
“Um…no, Mort can I have a word?”
“Sure, pull up a pew,” the Sheriff said smiling at his old friend and going over to the stove to fetch him a coffee.
“What can I do for you Slim?” The ruggedly handsome older man asked once they were settled with their drinks.
Slim looked down and flushed slightly before saying, “Well it’s like this Mort. You know how you said you had an old buddy who might be in the market for my Pa’s dueling pistols?”
Mort’s jaw dropped, “Dadgum it Slim, I thought you told me you’d never part with them?”
Slim shrugged, “The truth of the matter is we need the cash Mort. We’re sailing pretty close to the wind right now. I really need to buy in some more stock and we’ve still repairs to attend to after all those darned storms.”
Mort nodded, “Yup you’re not alone in that. I heard old Walter Pickens went to the wall just last week…sad day, real sad.”
Slim agreed and then said, “So this friend of yours that collects pistols?”
“Oh yeah, sure he’ll be real interested, I’ll send him a wire and he’ll pay top dollar that’s for sure.”
Slim gave a deep sigh, “That’s a relief…I can tell you Mort, thanks.”
“So, things are really bad then?”
“Could be worse, at least the mortgage is paid off, after that windfall we had a couple of Christmases’ ago,” * he said looking more cheerful, “So we’ll still have a roof over our heads, but... ” *See # 68 Love They Neighbor
“But?” Mort asked.
“But yes, things are kind of tight right now, “he finished sadly.
Slim looked across at his buddy, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh nothing, it’s nothing at all really Slim.”
“Oh well if you must know I’ve had a wire from the Sheriff over at Rawlins, Red Smith and he was saying how a Stage had been robbed, well an attempted robbery, and two of the passengers swore it was Jess.”
Slim’ s head shot up.
“What!” he bellowed, “What are you saying Mort?”
“It’s ridiculous and I believe Red thinks the same. He said he didn’t know why he bothered to wire me…being a good friend of Jess he knows it is crazy…but these folks insisted he said.”
Slim looked down and said nothing.
“It is absurd, isn’t it Slim?” Mort said now casting his old friend a troubled glance.
“Sure it is,” Slim said quickly. “So, what are you going to do about it Mort?”
“Well I’ve already interviewed the Stage driver, one Billy Snell, but he’s new and doesn’t know Jess. Sure the description matches Jess, but it could match hundreds of men.”
“Did this guy get away with much?”
“Nope, luckily this young chap, Billy had his wits about him, managed to fire off a couple of shots at the guy and then chivvied up the horses real fast. The low life outlaw fired a couple of shots back, but they went wide so the Stage got clean away.”
“Oh well that proves it,” said Slim with the ghost of a smile, “Jess wouldn’t have missed.”
Mort smiled back, “No he wouldn’t but this is all academic anyway. Because we both know Jess wouldn’t stoop to that. No matter how bad your money troubles are, would he?”
“Of course not,” Slim retorted angrily, “I shouldn’t have to even answer that Mort!”
Then more calmly said, “So what of these so-called witnesses, have you spoken to them?”
Mort nodded, “They’re neighbors of yours old Charlie and Beth Soames.”
“What?” Slim asked looking startled, “Hell Mort, Charlie can hardly see his hand before his face in those dang thick pebble eyeglasses he wears…and as to Ma Soames…well she’s so timid I’m surprised she even looked.”
“Well you’ve got that one right.” Mort said, “Apparently Charlie pushed her down to the coach floor when the outlaw attacked, so she just heard his voice. But she was adamant it was Jess, he’d got a kinda deep raspy voice,” he mused. “Then Charlie said he only saw him for a minute, but he looked the spittin ’ image of Jess, down to similar togs and all.”
“Well hell lots of men have deep voices and Jess dresses like anyone else. We both favor
the same style jacket as do half of Laramie and everyone wears denims and a Stetson. I don’t buy any of that as evidence Mort…and neither should you.”
“OK no need to lose your rag Slim, I don’t pay this evidence any more credence than you do, but I still have to be seen to be doing my job. So where is Jess I’ll need to speak to him?”
“Uh…well I’m not too sure,” Slim said now looking slightly anxious. “He was delivering some mustangs over to Major Adams at Fort Bridger. Then he said he’d travel back home through Medicine Bow forest and pick up a deer for the pot.”
“So, he was in the right area,” Mort said thoughtfully, “and he’s late back you say?”
“Well that doesn’t prove anything,” Slim said hotly.
“I never said it did,” Mort replied just as brusquely. “The thing is Slim, if he was in the right area, he might have run into the guy, maybe even heard about the hold up and went after him?”
Slim’ s face cleared at once, “Oh yeah I never thought of that. Uh, sorry Mort, I know I’m kinda over protective where my buddy’s reputation is concerned.”
“I understand,” said Mort kindly, “just ask him to call by when you see him huh?”
It was to be another couple of days before Slim could confront Jess as to his whereabouts.
He rode in late one afternoon looking weary and somewhat ill at ease Slim noticed at once.
“Well howdy,” Slim said sarcastically, “so you actually remembered where home is did ya …eventually?”
Jess threw him a jaundiced glance.
“Don’s start Sim I’m dead beat,” he said as he lowered himself painfully slowly down from the saddle and led Traveller towards the barn.
But Slim wasn’t going to be fobbed off so easily, “Jess you’re late back and I want to know where you’ve been,” he said as he followed him into the barn and watched as his buddy started unsaddling his mount.
“And where’s that game you said you’d bring back for the pot, damn it you’ve had long enough to shoot a whole dang herd of deer!” Slim continued hotly.
Jess suddenly looked furious, “I couldn’t find no game and anyways since when have I gotta be dang well answerable to you fer my every move I make?” he snarled.
“Since there are two Sheriffs and an eye witness really keen to hear your side of events regarding a Stage robbery just this side of Rawlins and not a million miles from where you’ve just been Jess!” Slim yelled angrily.
Jess stopped in his tracks, bowed his head and then leaned against Traveller for a moment seemingly gathering his wits, but when he turned to look at Slim his face was a mask of fury.
“Are you sayin’ you think I robbed the Stage?” he asked ominously quietly.
“Not me no…I’m on your side… But others…the witnesses are implying it yes…and you’re acting real guilty right now Jess what am I supposed to think?”
“You can think what you damn well like,” Jess spat angrily…before turning back to his task.
Slim stood there irresolute for a moment, breathing heavily, before turning on his heel and walking away. It was no good trying to talk to Jess when he was like this, he knew that. But by God he was going to get the truth out of him before the night was out he vowed.
It was after a supper where Jess had eaten his meal in silence, and finally a puzzled Daisy and Mike had bedded down, that Slim decided to have it out with his pard once more.
Jess had got up from his fireside seat and was going off to bed when Slim headed him off.
“Not so fast Jess…go sit down again and I’ll fetch you a nightcap you look awful.”
Jess sighed deeply, but then did as he was bid.
The men sat sipping their whiskey, just looking into the fire for some time, before Slim finally broke the silence.
“OK Jess are you ready to tell me where you’ve been now, because I’m not going to quit until I get to the truth.”
Jess turned weary eyes on his friend and then said quietly, “I was just tryin’to spare yer feelings Slim.”
“Go on,” said Slim softly.
“Well you know how the Major offered me a job mustang breaking for the Army, the last time we had money troubles?”
Slim just nodded.
“And how dang upset you were thinkin ’I  was goin’ ta leave the sinking ship and take a job with the Army, because it was real well paid and all?” Jess continued.
“I do,” Slim said, “and I also remember how you said you’d never do that.”
“And that still holds true, but I did do a job for Major Adams and afterwards he was real insistent I join them on the payroll. But I said no Slim, really I did but I thought iffen you knew you’d be real upset again.”
Slim rolled his eyes, “I figure proving your innocence is a dang sight more important than my feelings,” he said with the ghost of a smile.
“I can see that now yeah.”
“So, what was this job then?”
“Huh…of yeah, tracking a deserter who’d stolen the Major’s Horse,”
“What, that big buckskin you broke…three, no four years ago?”
“That’s the one, Prancer, gee he’s one smart horse,” Jess said grinning now, “and I figure he means as much to the old Major as Traveller does to me.”
“So, I take it you found him?”
Jess nodded, “Oh yeah, and brought the deserter back too. Well the Major was real impressed and offered me the job of Head Scout right there and then.”
Slim gave a little whistle, knowing the kind of wage that would bring in.
“Jeez, are you sure about that Jess, you don’t want to take him up on the offer?”
Jess gave him a tired smile, “Sure I’m sure Slim…just quit giving me a hard time about robbin’ Stages though huh?”
“You’ve got it pard,” Slim said happily, come on let’s get you bedded down you look all in.”
Slim stood regarding his partner a little later and shook his head sadly.
Jess hadn’t taken time for even the most basic measures of washing or even undressing completely before falling into bed, still wearing his dusty shirt, just shedding his denims and boots before crashing down…asleep in seconds.
“Well I don’t know what Daisy’s going to make of that,” Slim said softly noting the filthy grey dust on the clean sheets, “but you’re just too beat to be too particular tonight huh,” and he climbed into his own bed. Thank God all had turned out well he thought and things could get back to normal.
The following morning Slim decided to let Jess sleep in a while, seeing as he hadn’t stirred by their usual rising time. Daisy was calling them for breakfast so after Slim had completed most of the yard chores he decided to rouse his friend, imagining he’d be ready for some food.
“Yes, dear do go and wake him,” Daisy said, “he’ll be hungry, he only picked at his supper last night…he is alright?”
“Yup, just tired I think Daisy, and as to that business I told you about…well no need to fret. Jess has got a good alibi…not that we doubted him…but there are others who do.”
Daisy nodded wisely, “Yes and although I’m sure Charlie and Beth meant well, they were just mistaken.”
“Meant well?” Slim asked looking scandalized.
“Oh yes dear, apparently they were most concerned that if Jess had…um you know, reverted to his previous…er…ways. Then we should know so we could help him ‘see the light’ as dear Beth said.”
“Well no need,” Slim replied, “and Jess ‘saw the light’ as she calls it a while back and there’s no way he’d go back to that life. You know that don’t you Daisy?”
“Of course, I do dear. Now go and wake him and tell Mike to get a wriggle on too or he’ll be late for school.”
Then a little voice behind them said, “I’m here. What are you whispering about? Is it something to do with Jess and why he was so kinda sad last night?” the child inquired innocently.
Slim and Daisy exchanged a charged glance before Slim walked over and hugged him, “Nothing for you to worry your head about Mike. Jess will be fine. He’s just a tad tired after his long ride, that’s all,” and he marched off to get Jess up.
Slim walked into their room and approached the bed where Jess was lying on his back still fast asleep, but looking flushed and sickly.
Slim ran an experienced hand over his pard’s forehead and cussed softly, he was running a high fever.
“Jess, wake up buddy,” he said nudging him gently.
That was when Jess turned in his sleep to lie on his side and Slim saw a dark red stain on the sheet where he’d been lying and on closer inspection his shirt was wet with dark red sticky blood too.
Slim made for the door, “Daisy…hey Daisy can you come in here?” he called urgently.
Some minutes later Jess was awake and looking around him dazedly.
“What happened buddy, did you get shot up?” Slim asked as Daisy very gently started unbuttoning his blue work shirt…tutting softly.
“I don’t know why you didn’t get undressed properly for bed,” she chastised, her uncharacteristic tetchiness merely born of worry.
“Didn’t want Slim to see I’d been hurt,” he muttered, “I didn’t want no dang fuss, I’m fine Daisy really.”
“You’re far from that,” she said tight lipped as she removed his shirt exposing a blood-stained bandage.
“Is this the army doctor’s work?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Jess nodded, “The horse thief took a pot shot at me and got lucky…but I got him in the end,” he said winking at Slim.
Daisy ignored Jess’s bravado and said, “I assume the army doctor also told you not to ride for a week or two as well?”
Jess looked kind of embarrassed then, “He did, yes Daisy, but I had to get back, knew you’d all be fretting.”
“So, you decided to do the three hundred odd mile trip home anyway?” Slim said dryly.
“Uh…nearer two fifty across land,” Jess said quietly.
“And the reason you came home empty handed from that alleged hunting trip too,” Slim added.
Daisy rolled her eyes and said nothing, before marching off to fetch her medical bag.
It was later that day that the bedroom door opened admitting Slim and Doc Sam.
Jess opened his eyes and then cussed quietly when he saw who it was.
“Well hello to you too,” Sam said a twinkle in his dark brown, kindly eyes.
“Sorry Sam, it ain’t you. It’s just that we really can’t afford to be sick right now. Heck I only caught a bullet in my side, ain’t nuthin’.”
“Um let me be the judge of that huh Jess,” Sam said looking kind but firm.
Sometime later he stretched up from where he’d been examining his patient.
“You were quite right to call me Daisy, there’s a nasty infection going on there. The wound needs cleaning and the dressing changing daily and the patient needs bed rest for at least a week.”
“And yes, Jess I do mean it,” he said looking from Daisy back to Jess.
To his surprise Jess didn’t argue, just looked somehow beaten…and that was to Sam’s mind much worse.
Once Daisy had marched off to make some coffee and Slim had disappeared to change the team on the noon stage, Sam sat down on the edge of the bed and said softly, “What’s wrong buddy?”
When Jess didn’t reply at once Sam said, “It’s not those stupid rumours going around about you having allegedly robbed the south bound Stage is it? Because I’ll tell you, I for one don’t believe a word of it.”
Jess rolled his eyes, “Never knew I was so dang popular…or should I say notorious?” Then he sobered again.
“Nope it’s not that.”
“What then Jess, because you look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Jess sighed deeply, “OK it’s you being here, that’s why I was tryin’ to keep it from the others, I knew they’d dang well fuss and call you out.”
“Well what’s so bad about that?” Sam asked looking mystified. “I like coming out here, having a chin wag with you and Slim not to mention enjoying Miss Daisy’s delectable coffee and cake.”
“That’s the point,” said Jess, “sure we love to see you on a social visit, but dang it Sam this is business and I can’t pay you…again.”
Sam’s face cleared as the light of what his buddy was saying dawned.
“Well heck that doesn’t bother me any Jess. I’ll just take my fee in fish from your lake or the odd deer on my next hunting trip. I really don’t mind.”
“But I do,” Jess said brusquely, “heck Sam it just ain’t right. We ain’t paid you for the last visit either. Damn it, you could come fishin’ and huntin’ fer a month of Sundays and it wouldn’t cover what we owe you.”
“My dear chap I’d no idea you felt this way,” said the good doctor looking stricken. “But there really is no need you know. I consider you and Slim two of my dearest friends.”
“I know that,” Jess said, “but all the more reason we should treat you fair.”
Sam looked down, lost in thought, and then looked up and grinned at his buddy, “Maybe you could pay me back…in kind…but it would be of more use to me than the cash if I’m honest with you Jess.”
“Go on then,” Jess said eagerly, “spill the beans.”
“Well I have the son of a very old friend visiting me in a month or so, my Godson in fact. He’s a Botanist and doing a post graduate degree in the flora of the mid-west. Especially in the non-cultivated areas where nature is in the wild so-to-speak; that is areas that haven’t been grazed or farmed.”
“So where do I fit in?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“Well my friend, it occurred to me you would be the perfect guide and that area you call Paradise the ideal spot for him to find his specimens, so I wondered if you could act as his guide?”
“Well sure…he needs a guide then?” Jess asked.
“Indeed, he does, he’s…well…quite naïve and rather a tenderfoot too. He hails from New York and hasn’t set foot outside the halls of academia for many a year, so I believe.”
“He hasn’t huh?” Jess asked looking totally bamboozled.
“That is, he hasn’t been away from the University these last few years, so he’ll be unversed in…well, even basic survival skills in your ‘big open’ Jess. I just need you to look after him and bring him home safely. It would only be for a week or so you understand.”
Well what could he say?
“Sure, Sam I can do that, I’ll be real pleased to help you out some.”

Chapter 2
True to his word Sam rode into the ranch yard just five weeks later along with a rather gawky looking young man who was riding a horse somewhat awkwardly. There was also a very pretty blond girl, riding a tad better and clutching what appeared to be a small animal of some sort, in a sling suspended from her neck.
Jess gave her a double take, before marching forwards to welcome Sam and his guest and was shortly joined on the porch by Slim and Daisy.
Sam swung down from the saddle and beaming at the small reception committee said cheerfully, “Good morning one and all. May I introduce my Godson, Larry Woolerton?”
At this, Mike, who had just joined them on the porch gave a little cry of mirth, having once owned a pet lamb called Larry…and then the surname Woolerton was the finishing touch and he collapsed in helpless giggles.
Daisy quickly stood in front of the child, until he regained his composure and manners. She smiled benignly at the pale youth with the floppy blond hair and air of startled surprise about his features. Almost as though he’d just woken up and found himself in an alien world, Daisy thought with great perception.
But then she was aware that Sam was speaking again, “Er and may I also introduce Miss Eloisa Montgomery, Larry’s fiancée, who will be accompanying Larry on the trip,” he said throwing Jess an apologetic glance.
“Eli, Larry please meet Mrs Daisy Cooper, your guide Jess Harper, Slim Sherman, and the young man at the back there is Mike Williams.”
Blue who had been standing beside Jess wagging his tail, suddenly broke ranks and running over to where Eloisa was still seated on her mount, he jumped up barking excitedly and started capering around, his tail now wagging in a frenzy of welcome.
Jess quickly called his dog to heel and apologized, but Eloisa merely smiled happily, keeping her seat admirably Jess noted as her mount sidestepped and rolled his eyes.
“It’s alright really, I expect he just wanted to say hello to my Fifi,” she said removing a tiny white bundle of fluff from the sling, “This is Fifi,” she said holding the pooch aloft, “she is a French Poodle.”
“Huh,” asked Jess looking bewildered, “a French puddle?”
Eloise gave a tinkling little laugh, “No silly, Poodle she is a French Poodle. That is her breed just like your dog is a, “then she looked more closely at where Blue was now sitting to attention at his master’s feet, “oh my goodness a Wolf!” she screamed.
“It’s OK,” Jess said quickly, “he’s only half wolf, and I guess he ain’t eaten another dog in…um…ages.”
She stared at him horrified for a second before collapsing in mirth, “Oh my goodness you are a tease,” she said smiling into his eyes.
“Really my dear girl you should wear your eyeglasses,” said Larry rather tetchily.
“Well come along in,” Daisy said, “I’ve coffee and a pie just out of the oven.”
The others all trooped inside but Sam and Jess held back.
“I’m really sorry about this Jess, but young Larry insisted that Eli accompanied him. To be honest with you I don’t think he can believe a beauty like that falling for him. As a result, he’s kind of jealous of anyone muscling in, so didn’t want to leave her home without him.”
Jess shook his head, “Well that’s not a good way to start off a relationship is it Sam? If you ain’t got trust you ain’t got nuthin’.”
“My sentiments exactly, but you can’t tell the young nowadays. He’ll just have to figure it out for himself and maybe a bit of your common sense will rub off on him eh? Um…that’s if you’re still happy to go ahead with Eli and er…Fifi on board?”
“Sure I am,” said Jess pinning a smile on his face and ushering the doc inside.
Heck what could he say? He owed the doc big time.
After Sam’s initial visit to dress the wound from the horse thief’s bullet, he had to return twice more. Once because Jess was so sick with a fever and the wound had to be opened, cleaned out and re-stitched and once again when Jess was so very ill after the anesthetic.
Yup he sure owed the doc he mused, and he’d pay him back even if it did mean a week out in the wilds with a weedy looking kid, his ravishing girl who looked like trouble, and of course, Fifi.
“Fifi,” he muttered under his breath as he wandered into the house, “what kinda name is that for a dog?”
They finally all bunked down for the night ready for an early start in the morning, with Eli sleeping in with Daisy, and Larry out in the bunkhouse.
It was obvious that Larry was less than happy with the arrangement of his girl sleeping under the same roof as two virile, handsome young cowboys, but he said nothing and, in the end, he had no choice.
“Well goodness what does he expect?” Daisy asked in a whispered confab with Slim in the kitchen, “They can’t sleep together in the bunkhouse that would be most unseemly.”
Slim agreed that it would, but secretly wondered what embargoes Jess had planned for the trip…but decided not to ask his pard.
It was clear Jess was not happy with the situation and he let fly with his feelings about the whole business later in the privacy of their shared room.
“I must be dang crazy iffen you ask me…takin’ a tenderfoot like Larry out in the wilds. Jeez he can hardly sit a horse, and as for Eli and that darned Fifi!” he rolled his eyes words failing him.
Then he remembered Sam’s last words as he rode out that afternoon.
“You will er…make sure that everything is um… dealt with in the upmost decorum, won’t you Jess?”
Jess frowned at him, “Know your trouble Sam? When you get rattled you start spouting the dang dictionary. Just tell me in plain English will ya?”
Sam took a deep breath, “Just make sure no shenanigans go on…as dear Daisy would say. Don’t let them share a bedroll Jess…OK?”
Jess looked horrified, “What am I supposed to do sit up all dang night with my shot gun?”
Sam chuckled at that, “I’m sure you’ll find a way,” he said slapping him warmly on the back.
“You see Jess, her Pa’s a High Court Judge so we wouldn’t want any scandal would we old chap?”
The words were echoing in Jess’s mind as they set off the following morning. But from what he could tell, shenanigans with her fiancé, at least, was the last thing on Eli’s mind that morning. She seemed totally captivated with Jess, hanging on his every word regarding their trip and the flora they hoped to find, whilst Larry rode along in a sulky silence.
However, no matter how he was feeling Larry was extremely polite and insisted on calling Jess, sir, which the cowboy found most disconcerting.
“Please just call me Jess will ya?” he said wearily for the third time.
“Of course, sir…um Jess,” a flushed Larry replied, whereas Eli had no such qualms. It was Jess this and Jess that until he was relieved when they finally arrived at their designated camp. It proved to be an idyllic spot on the shore of a small lake teaming with fish and the surrounding countryside a plethora of wild flowers, wild herbs and shrubs.
“Will this do ya?” Jess asked reining in and tipping his hat to the surrounding greenery.
“I’ll say,” replied Larry his facing lighting up for the first time that day. Looking around him he saw so many of his beloved wild flower species and even more that he had never seen before, except in botanical diagrams.
He leapt down from his horse and would have drawn out his notebook there and then if Jess hadn’t stopped him.
“We need to make camp first,” he said, casting a glance up to the heavens. “It’ll be dark in a few hours and we need to get a fire going, tend the mounts and think about supper too. There’ll time enough fer yer drawing in the morning huh?”
Larry looked rather sulky but nodding started to unsaddle his mount whilst Eli went off cheerfully enough to find some firewood, Fifi and Blue trailing her.
Satisfied that the young woman would be safe with Blue riding shot gun Jess tended to her mount and Traveller before hauling the saddles and bedrolls over to the camping area. Then he carefully placed Eli’s belongings on one side of the fire and his and Larry’s well away on the other side.
When Larry returned from tending his horse, he gave the arrangements a rather forlorn glance, but said nothing.
However, Jess intercepted the look and said quietly, “We may as well get this straight right off Larry. There’s a time and place fer romancing’ the ladies…and this ain’t it.”
Larry flushed to the roots of his hair and said, “I wasn’t um…I mean...I wouldn’t…er…er…”
“Good, glad we got that all sorted out then,” Jess said grinning. “So, you wanna come and see iffen we can haul some fish out of the lake for supper huh?”
Considering Larry was such an utter rookie as far as the great open was concerned, Jess was pleasantly surprised when he turned out to be such a good angler. Both men caught some good specimens and then the youngsters enjoyed their very first alfresco meal.
They went and sat down by the shore once they were replete, gazing at the spectacular sunset over the lake, both Eli and Larry in total awe.
“I just never knew all this existed,” Eli said gesturing to their surroundings. “Well of course I knew about it,” she corrected herself, “but I’ve never experienced it first-hand like this. Thank you SO much Jess,” she gushed.
Jess just smiled, “ You never get used to an evening like this no matter how many times you see it,” he said nodding to the blood red reflection of the dying sun on the mirror calm lake, “it’s real special huh?”
She looked at him dewy eyed, “Really special,” she agreed. But whether she was now referring to the view or to her new travel companion wasn’t completely clear.
After a minute Larry said testily, “You should put your eyeglasses on Eloise; you’d see it all much better.”
She just shrugged and rolled her eyes at Jess and after a few minutes Larry said he was turning in and mooched off moodily.
“Are you coming dear?” he called over his shoulder.
“Yes, in a minute. I just want to watch the sun go down,” she replied, before turning back to where the sun was now drifting slowly down behind the mountains.
After a final backward glance he wandered off with a sigh and Jess felt kinda sorry for the boy.
Once he was out of earshot Eli sighed, “He’s such a bore sometimes…so jealous.”
“It’s only because he cares,” Jess replied his eyes still on the red ball of setting sun.
“Silly boy,” she muttered, “he really has no need to feel jealous that way…does he Jess?” She asked turning large blue, innocent eyes on him.
“Nope,” he agreed, “absolutely no need at all.”
“Oh,” she said looking rather crestfallen.
They sat in silence for a few more minutes before she gave a little shiver, “It’s getting chilly,” she said casting him a hopeful glance.
He agreed it was, “Maybe you should turn in,” he said getting up, “I’ll just check on the horses. Night Miss, ” and he wandered off.
Eli watched his disappearing back, an unfathomable expression in her young eyes, before she sighed and getting up sauntered back to the fireside.
As Jess had hoped he had nipped any silly romantic ideas in the bud and from then on Eli treated him with polite respect and kept all her flirting for her fiancé.
There was however a blossoming romance in the camp and that was between Fifi and Blue. The diminutive Poodle followed Blue around like a shadow and the big dog suffered her affections good naturedly, and eventually seemed to enjoy romping with his new buddy.
Whereas Jess thought their capers hilarious Eli was less impressed, especially when Fifi returned to camp one day stinking and filthy dirty.
“Oh, my darling little girl” Eli gasped, “Where have you been?”
Then minutes later Blue romped in looking equally decadent.
“ Looks like they found a mud pool to wallow in,” Jess said grinning.
“I must wash her, come here my pet,” she said but Fifi was having none of it, her new found freedom now gone completely to her head and she ran off with Blue…both dogs barking joyfully.
“Oh dear,” said Eli looking desperate, “whatever shall I do, Jess?”
He grinned at her, “Nuthin’, quit frettin’ Eli, they’ll be back when they’re hungry. She’s a dog ya know not some little baby, she can look after herself.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said thoughtfully, “she certainly seems very happy since we came out here. She’s only ever been in a park back home. This is exciting for her…for us all,” she added smiling happily.
Jess looked over to where Larry was engrossed in collecting specimens and said, “So are you an um…plant student too then Eli?”
“Goodness no,” she giggled, “I hate Botany, that’s far too boring for me. No, I’m reading History.”
“Uh-huh,” he said wondering what was the point of that…history was history weren’t it? You couldn’t change it, and once you knew all about it…well then what? But he didn’t voice his views, just nodded wisely.
“In fact, I’ve brought some of the books I’m studying with me,” she said brightly, pulling on her gold rimmed eyeglasses, “I think I might just do a little reading, seeing as Larry is so busy.”
“Right,” said Jess cheerfully, “well iffen you’ll be OK here I figure I might just try my luck fishin’ again this afternoon,” and he marched off with his line.
Yup this old trip wasn’t turning out too badly at all he thought happily.
The week flew by and a good time was had by all, but it was on the last evening that Larry made a request.
“I can’t tell you how very useful this trip has been,” he started as they sat sipping a post supper coffee and once more enjoying a spectacular sunset over the lake.
Jess glanced up and threw him a speculative glance, “Why do I feel there’s a but coming?” he said with a small smile
Larry grinned back, “But there is just one specimen I am short of. It’s an alpine flower found in mountainous areas, with tiny yellow flowers,” and he showed Jess a picture.
“Oh sure, they grow all over on the Snowy Mountain Pass.” Jess said.
“Is it far…could we go on the way back?” Larry asked eagerly. “I would so appreciate it Jess, really I would.”
What could he say?
“We’ll make an early start tomorrow, we’ll only be a couple of days late getting back,” he replied.
Meanwhile back in Laramie a figure stood in the shadows of an alley just off Main Street, watching the entrance of the saloon.
After a while he pulled his black hat down firmly and strode across the street, pushing open the bat-wing doors and stood viewing the dim, half empty interior for a minute before marching over to the bar.
The hour was late and most of the drinkers were about to leave and so Millie looked up in surprise at the latecomer, a look which quickly turned to delight.
“Why Jess I wasn’t expecting you for another day or so,” she said smiling up at him.
The cowboy tipped his hat back and grinned at her, “Well, I couldn’t keep away any longer, besides that Larry got all he needed so I figured we’d head home early.”
Moments later Tom joined the couple, “Good to see you Jess…drink?”
He shook his head, “Nope I’m fine thanks,” and then he threw Millie a hopeful glance.
Tom grinned at him and then turned to Millie, “Go on then girl, you can call it a night we’ll clean up tomorrow huh?”
Millie didn’t need any second bidding and she was soon leading the way upstairs to her warm comfortable room.
She was a tad surprised when Jess didn’t reach up and get the key down from the lintel above her door, where it was hidden, to politely open the door for her. She paused for a moment and then she simply did it herself and led the way into the room, adjusting the lamp by the door before wandering over to light the one on the mantelpiece.
She turned back and was startled to find Jess right behind her.
“Hey haven’t you forgotten something honey?” she asked raising an eyebrow.
He looked puzzled and then leaned in for a kiss, but she backed off.
“Huh…what is it?”
He looked down at his boots and then light dawned.
“Oh yeah... of course.”
He made his way back to the door and took his boots off and glanced back at her to note she was still frowning.
“And gun?” she said now shaking her head.
“Oh yeah,” he said again, now reluctantly removing his gun belt and leaving it on the door handle she noted instead of on the coat hook like he usually did. She frowned again.
“Jess have you been hitting the Red-eye?” she asked with the ghost of a smile.
“No, I haven’t sweetheart,” he said smiling back at her, “but if you’re offering?”
She shook her head, “Sorry I’m right out of it, best I can do is coffee?”
He advanced on her now and said, “Maybe later huh?” There was a strange look in his eyes that she didn’t recognize and she felt slightly uncomfortable.
Then she looked down at his stocking feet and was shocked. There were holes in his none too clean socks. What was Daisy thinking letting him wear those she thought fleetingly…but then all thoughts were dismissed as he grabbed hold of her tightly, pulling her into a rough embrace.
Something was wrong…very wrong...he didn’t smell right for a start. Jess always had an aroma of clean fresh air, soap and just a hint of leather and horse about him.
This man stank of stale beer and cigarettes.
He was holding her so tightly he was hurting her now and then he forced his mouth against hers.
She tried to pull away filled with revulsion.
Jess kissed her passionately for sure, but he was also tender and loving. This kiss, if it could be called that, was brutal and painful.
She jerked her head back, the foul taste of his cigarette-fueled breath making her want to gag.
She looked up into those oh so familiar eyes and saw nothing but pure lust.
No love or tenderness.
When Jess looked at her it was as though he could see into the depths of her soul…as though he was acknowledging all she meant to him. But this man was merely staring at her…his expression now one of irritation.
“What’s wrong?” he barked.
She looked down, who in hell was this man? This man with Jess’s face, Jess’s voice…Jess’s gestures…and yet who wasn’t Jess?
Maybe he was sick…or God forbid taken a drug of some sort she pondered.
Then he moved in close again and she saw something that made her blood run cold.
In the light of the lamp on the mantle she saw a very fine silver scar running from the corner of his eye down his cheek. It was almost invisible, but her sharp eyes saw it and she gasped. Who was this? Was it some ghostly apparition?
“Come on gal, how about it?” he asked raising a questioning eyebrow. “It isn’t like you to act so ladylike.”
She took the insult on the chin and swallowed hard. She had to know the truth, she just had too.
Leaning in she gently started to unbutton his shirt, while he grinned down at her.
“That’s more like it little lady,” he drawled.
She completed her task and then stared at his tanned torso in horror.
Apart from one small scar it was completely unblemished. No knife wounds, no sign of the multiple bullet wounds he’d received over the years, his ‘badges of honour’ as he once laughingly referred to the fine silvery scars that dominated his chest, stomach and shoulders.
She looked back up into those deep blue eyes, now looking slightly uncertain.
“Who the Hell are you?” she spat angrily.
In answer he merely grabbed hold of her and commenced kissing her even more forcefully this time.
Millie struggled valiantly and screamed but he silenced her in seconds, throwing her on the bed, his weight on top of her and a hand covering her mouth.
She stared at him, her eyes huge and terrified as he glared down at her furiously.
“Shut the Hell up or I’ll kill ya!” he growled.
After a minute he shifted his weight from her and removed his hand. “You gonna behave and not yell the dang place down?” He asked.
She nodded.
“Well you’d better not,” he said scowling at her and moving to sit on the edge of the bed. “And quit looking so dang terrified. I ain’t gonna rape you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he muttered angrily.
Millie said nothing but sat up rubbing her shoulder where he’d grabbed her so hard.
“I may play a bit rough but I’m no rapist,” he said throwing her a slightly less antagonistic look.
“So, who are you,” she whispered, “because you’re sure not Jess Harper.”
He looked down and sighed deeply, “No I’m not,” and then he cussed, “Goddamn it, I thought I’d get away with this…the perfect revenge eh…having Jess Harper’s woman? I was so gonna enjoy telling him all about it.”
“Who are you,” she repeated, “and why do you want revenge?” Then more anxiously, “Is he alright? You haven’t hurt him?”
“No, I haven’t hurt him,” the man said mimicking Millie’s voice, “and I won’t as long as you do exactly as I tell you.”
“Why should I?” she cried. “Jess can look after himself. Anyway, he’d eat you for breakfast; especially when I tell him what you’ve done.”
“Well I really wouldn’t do that,” he said again looking flushed and angry, “because I’ll tell you exactly what I’m gonna do if you don’t high-tail it back to your Ma in Cheyenne.”
She just gaped at him, waiting to hear his empty threats, all the time trying to plan how she could escape. But what he said next made her really sit up and take notice.
“See Millie it may have escaped your attention, but I’m a dead ringer for your boyfriend,” he said sarcastically, “and so if I was to murder you, right now in cold blood I figure he’d be the number one suspect. Tom downstairs and that blond piece…uh Lily, they’ll both be able to tell the courts how Jess Harper stayed the night, and your man will hang honey,” and he gave a nasty laugh.
Her eyes widened in fear, as he smiled again. But his eyes remained deathly cold and calculating. “But I’m not gonna do that, because I’m not a murderer either…least ways not yet. You just do as you’re told and head off on the first Stage out tomorrow and old Jess will be just fine. This was just a bit of fun you understand…seeing if I could fool you.”
“Who are you?” Millie said again. “I don’t believe that you won’t hurt him, you were talking about revenge.”
“So I was little lady, so I was…and yes I’ll be paying Jess a visit. I’ve got me a score to settle with him. But if he’s as good with an iron as you claim, then you’ve no cause to worry huh? Once I see you safely off on that Stage, I’ll go find Jess and we’ll uh…have a little chat. You refuse to go and I’ll make damn sure he hangs. Because iffen I don’t kill you, then that old woman and kid back at the ranch will do. After all they wouldn’t suspect their good buddy Jess would harm them, now would they? Then Slim can sit back and watch his buddy hang and there won’t be a thing you can do about it. You head off and everything will be just fine.”
“Alright! Alright!” she cried her head beginning to ache now with his continual bullying. “I’ll do as you say, but I still don’t know who you are or why you’re doing this.”
“My name is Jake…Jake Harper and Jess’s Pa was my old man too….so we’re kin see, half-brothers, but it’s more than that. Have you ever heard the word doppelganger?”
She shook her head, “No I don’t think so?”
“It’s a strange thing but folk say everyone has an exact double…down to looks, habits…voice everything. But they very rarely meet. However in this case I made it my business to find the other me…as I like to think of him…of your Jess,” he said bitterly.
“Why…and why do you hate him so much?”
“It shows huh? Well you’re one perceptive little lady. Yes, I do hate him, even though I never even heard of the guy until last year. I was born in Dallas and then a while back me and my old Ma moved down to Mexico, and that’s where I met up with Lex Connor and the rest of the Connor Gang.”
Millie gave a little gasp.
“You know them huh. I thought you would, seeing as how Jess put them behind bars for five years for armed bank robbery. They were looking for revenge and weren’t really in the mood for listening when I tried to tell them I wasn’t Jess Harper.”
She just gaped at him again.
“I think you noticed the little scar,” he said putting a hand to his cheek, “that was courtesy of Lex…and that bullet wound in my chest too...left me for dead…but not before they knocked around my Ma too…she died just a week later.”
“I’m sorry,” Millie said, her eyes filling with tears now, “but you can hardly blame Jess, he didn’t know anything about it. He doesn’t even know you exist.”
He just stared at her like she was crazy, “Someone has to pay…my Ma didn’t deserve that…and anyway that isn’t all he’s done to me. Because of him I’ve been the one hounded and hunted down by numerous outlaws all wanting revenge, while he walks around scot free. I’ve had enough, and it’s time he took some of the punishment.”
“What…what’s going to happen?” Millie asked tearfully.
“I’m heading off to Paradise once you’re safely on that Stage. Then we’ll have a nice little chat and I’ll make him understand how I feel. I just want him to hear me out, that’s all,” he said sounding almost rational.
Millie frowned and then said, “How did you know he was there; and about my Ma living in Cheyenne; and Lily’s name?”
He gave a bark of laughter, “Well I’ll tell ya Millie; see I’m kind of a master of disguise. My old Ma was on the stage. She was a real good actress and as a kid I’d mess around with the props, make up, costumes that kinda thing and I got real good at using them.”
She just stared at him and then he mooched over to where he’d brought his saddle bags up and turning his back to her pulled some things out.
He pulled on a dusty old jacket and when he turned around a few minutes later he was totally transformed. He’d replaced his black Stetson with a battered old brown felt hat and now he sported a straggly grey beard and thick pebble glass eyeglasses.
“My God!” Millie gasped a hand shooting to her mouth. “You’re that old prospector…Jack…Jack Salt.”
“That’s me Ma’am,” he said in a frail sounding voice, “At yer service.”
When she was still sitting in shocked silence, he grinned at her.
“Yup I’ve been sitting in that bar listening to all the tittle tattle, when you girls were chattering away. Then there was old Mose Shell coming in and gossiping to anyone who would listen. Oh yes siree I know all about my alter ego Jess Harper, and all about you too Millie dear.
So, you just be careful…very careful, because I am one dangerous man. I have the capacity to decimate Harper’s life and yours too unless you do just as I say. Savvy?”
She just nodded looking terrified.
“Good girl, now you get some shut eye and I’ll rest up on that nice comfy couch of yours I spy over there. Then in the morning you can break the news to Tom that your dear Ma is sick and you’ve got to head off to Cheyenne. Understand?”
Millie nodded, “Yes I understand.”
Chapter 3
The following morning Jake saw Millie onto the early Stage destined for Cheyenne. Everyone around assumed he was Jess and he really milked the situation, leaning in and kissing her passionately. All Millie could think of was that she had to comply with him. There would be time enough to decide what to do about the situation once she was safely in Cheyenne. Maybe it would be safe to wire Mort she thought? She tried to contain a shudder of revulsion as Jake leaned in and whispered, “Just you remember little lady, you say nothing to nobody iffen you want to see Harper alive again…got it?”
She nodded and climbed quickly aboard, surreptitiously wiping her mouth with the back of her hand…a look of total disgust on her pretty features.
Jake stood in Main Street waving the Stage off before marching purposefully down towards the livery and then he would head out on his trip to Paradise. He reckoned he should be in time to meet up with the Botanist’s party and maybe even get the opportunity to have a crack at that cute little girl, the one that was supposedly promised to the lanky tenderfoot. Now that would really put the cat among the pigeons. Jess Harper messing with the guy’s fiancée. Yup that would sure tarnish his reputation some.
Luckily the usual livery owner had taken to his bed with a bad head cold and the new stable boy didn’t question the fact that Jess Harper wasn’t riding his usual bay mount. He rode out sometime later, taking a back road and being certain he wasn’t seen. Then once he was a few miles from town stopped and put on the old prospector disguise and transformed himself into one Jack Salt. He grinned at himself in the little square of mirror he’d used to adjust his beard and then put on the wire framed thick lense eyeglasses that hid his striking dark blue eyes.
“Well howdy Mister Harper sir,” he said in a frail breathless voice, “so how’s the wild flower hunting going?”
Then he chucked to himself and pulled the battered brown hat well down and headed off towards Paradise, hoping to meet them on their way back to Laramie. Then maybe he’d have a chance to get to know the girl some…especially if Jess was off with that Larry looking for specimens.
It was early the following morning when the first part of Jake’s plan came to fruition at least. Disguised as Jack Salt he came across the trio making their way towards the Snowy Mountain pass.
Jess reined in when he saw the old timer, riding that large, showy grey of his that never seemed to fit his personality. A mule more fitting the bill Jess mused now. Then he remembered the old guy said he’d won him in a poker game. Yup he sure was a slick player Jess thought, there was more to old Jack than one would think.
“Hey Jack what brings you to these parts?” he asked as the old timer rode up and reined in beside him.
“Well Howdy Mister Harper sir,” Jack/ Jake said in the cracked old voice he had adopted. Then he turned to embrace the purty gal and the pale youth, with his short-sighted gaze and said, “So how’s the wild flower hunt going?”
“Very well thank you,” Larry replied politely, “I um don’t think we’ve met?”
Jess grinned at the old man, “This here is Jack Salt, sometime prospector and bar fly huh Jack?” he said with a friendly grin.
Jack gave him a smile, “It’s true I do like the comradely of a bar, and I don’t go short of news with my friend Mose Shell for company.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jess muttered darkly, knowing what an old gossip the guy was.
“So, going far?” Jess asked again.
“Uh, nope just going to take a look see down the creek, maybe do a little panning,” he said vaguely, “How’s about you, all done?”
“Just about,” Jess said, “we’re goin’ to spend a day or so up by the lake meadow on the Snowy pass. It seems there’s some specimen Larry’s missing.”
“Well good luck,” the old man said, getting ready to move off.
Then he stopped, “While you’re up there Mister Harper you might want to call in at the trading post, I’ve heard old Seth and Nelly have just taken in a batch from Denver James…all good stuff so I believe.”
“Is that a fact?” Jess asked perking up at the thought of some hill whiskey, “Thanks Jack I may just pay ‘em a visit, we’re running kinda low on supplies anyway.”
With that they parted company, going their separate ways. But after five minutes Jack/Jake reined in and paused watching the party heading off towards the foothills…before slowly following. Yup now maybe he’d had an even a better idea than seducing that pretty little wench….and his eyes lit up. This new idea could really scupper Harper…if it all went to plan he thought gleefully.
Later that day once the camp was established and Larry was happily off hunting the little yellow flower he was after, Jess announced he was going to the trading post.
“It’s just half a mile down that track we passed, I won’t be long,” he told Eli, “you’ll be alright here.”
She noted it was a statement rather than a question and agreed she would be fine, although she would have quite enjoyed the ride out… But there again he’d be quicker on his own and she figured and probably didn’t want her tagging along.
“Off you go, I’ve plenty of studying to get on with,” she said and noted the little sigh of relief as he headed off.
Jess kneed Traveller on to a brisk trot enjoying the freedom and peace and quiet. Sure, Eli and Larry were a nice enough couple, but he had little in common with them and he was happy to enjoy his own company for an hour or so.
When he landed at the trading post he tethered Traveller to the hitching rail and stepped up onto the porch where old Seth was sitting in a rocker taking his ease.
“Well howdy Jess, what brings you up here?” the old man asked with a toothless grin and peering at him through short-sighted, watery eyes.
“I heard you’d a new batch of Denver’s moonshine,” Jess said winking, “oh yeah and we’re short of bacon and coffee too.”
Seth pulled himself out of his chair, “Come on in boy,” he said. “So, Slim not with you?”
Jess shook his head and explained about the couple he was escorting searching for wildflowers.
“Wildflowers is it?” Seth said with a chuckle, “Not really your usual line of business huh Jess?”
Jess shook his head sorrowfully, “A guy’s gotta earn a buck Seth, I’m kinda doin’ the doc a favor to pay off the medical bill I owe.”
“Ah, got it,” the old man said sagely, “times are hard right now, for everyone …after that dang hard winter.”
Jess just nodded, “Yup.”
Then Nelly bustled in to fill his order and after some more banter he made his way back to camp, with the supplies and a half bottle of hill whiskey.
Just an hour later the shop doorbell rang and Seth came out of the back room.
“Well howdy Jess,” he said peering short-sightedly at the young cowboy, “you forget something?”
“I guess I did yes,” he said drawing his Colt and aiming it at Seth’s head, open the till…now!”
Jess returned to the Ranch a couple of days later to a reception committee.
He’d parted company with Larry and Eli on the Laramie road, both assuring him they would be just fine to travel into town alone. Jess figured they couldn’t get into too much trouble in broad daylight. Anyway, he was getting kinda sick of playing gooseberry and so wished them a safe journey and turned for home, whistling up Blue as he went.
He rode into the yard and noticed Mort’s buckskin tethered by the water trough, so leaving Traveller beside him marched across the yard and into the house.
“Hey I’m home,” he called out chucking his hat on the peg by the door and turning with a welcoming grin on his face…then he froze.
Mort and Slim had both leapt up from the table when he walked in, their faces a mask of shock and resentment. Then he glanced behind them where Daisy still sat at the table, her eyes red from crying.
Jess stared at them for a minute.
“What’s up?” he finally managed. “What’s wrong…is it Mike?”
“No,” Slim said quickly, “he’s at school, thank goodness.”
“Well what is it then?” Jess asked noting the unhappy frown on Mort’s face, whereas Slim looked…well…simply shattered.
“Why did you do it, Jess?” Mort asked gruffly, his eyes bleak, “Why’d you do it son?”
“Do what?” Jess asked in bewilderment. “Will somebody tell me what’s goin’ on here?”
It was Slim who answered.
“Mort’s just come from town. Nelly and Seth Armstrong have just reported a robbery, and said it was you Jess.”
Jess’ jaw dropped and he wandered over to the couch and sank down his head dropping in his hands for a moment before he looked directly at Slim, “And you believe this?”
Slim looked back for a good minute and then said softly, “No I don’t Jess. I’m sure there’s a rational explanation…so what is it huh?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno. I was there, a couple of days ago sure, but I just bought supplies. Larry and Eli will tell you.”
“You see he’s got an alibi,” Daisy piped up, “they were with you Jess?”
“Uh…well no, but…”
“I’m sorry,” said Mort, “but it’s the Armstrong’s word against yours. Seth said you came by, were chatting, bought some supplies…he also said you mentioned things were kinda tough financially right now?”
“I was just agreeing with him. He was sayin’ how it had been a bad winter and folk were finding it hard.”
Mort turned to Slim, “But you are in trouble money-wise aren’t you Slim, that’s why Jess took the job to pay the doc’s fees…so I believe.”
“Mose told you I suppose,” Slim said angrily, “gossiping again.”
“But it is true?” Mort asked again.
Slim hung his head, “Yes.”
“So Jess I’ll ask you again,” Mort said quietly, “did you rob the trading post?”
“No!” Jess yelled, “I didn’t…I wouldn’t…you’ve gotta believe me… and anyway iffen I had, do ya think I’d land back here to be picked up…I’d be long gone and you know it Mort.”
Mort shook his head, “Nope, I reckon you wouldn’t but none of this makes any sense…and like Slim I do believe you Jess. It must be some kind of terrible mistake…But even so I have to take you in…try and get to the bottom of this, I’m real sorry,” and he brought out his handcuffs.
Jess threw him a hard look, “You won’t need those Mort, I’ll come quietly,” and he marched to the door snatching up his hat. Then he turned and went back to where Daisy was now crying silently.
He pulled her up from her seat into a warm embrace and held her close.
“It’s OK Daisy, it’ll be fine, don’t fret…please.”
She took a deep breath and stood tall, before caressing his cheek gently, “Of course it will dear, you go with Mort and sort everything out and I’ll see you later.”
He nodded and then said, “Come on Mort let’s get to it.”
As he passed Slim, his pard grabbed his arm, “I’ll be in to see you tomorrow Jess and I’ll get old Benson, the solicitor on the case too. We’ll sort it out, I promise,” he said giving his arm a gentle punch.
Jess bowed his head and then nodded and looked deeply into Slim’s eyes for a moment, “Thanks,” he whispered, before heading out the door after Mort.
It was late afternoon when they landed in town, folk coming home from work or calling in the saloon for a quick drink.
Jess looked longingly down the street and then followed Mort inside the office.
The Sheriff wandered over to the board and selected a key before walking across to the door to the cells, Jess following. He selected one usually used by staff, which had more comfortable mattresses on the bunks and unlocked the door, standing aside so Jess could enter.
He wandered in sighing deeply and threw himself down on one of the bunks.
Mort swung the door closed, but didn’t lock it.
“I’ll go make us some coffee,” he said quietly.
Jess watched him turn away and then called out, “Uh, Mort ain’t you forgotten something?”
Mort looked to where he’d left the key in the lock without turning it, and then grinned at his old friend. “Well I figured even you wouldn’t be hot headed enough to escape when you don’t even know who you’re looking for. Let’s wait and see what Seth and Nelly have to say huh? They’re coming back first thing. Nelly was real upset and I didn’t get a proper statement. I figure maybe they can give us a clue as to who really did it huh?”
Jess nodded looking suddenly hopeful, “You think so?”
“If it wasn’t you who did it well then it stands to reason it must have been someone else who maybe favors you in looks. We just need to get to the bottom of things.”
He returned with the coffee sometime later and then said, “I’ll go across the road to Miss Molly’s and fetch us some supper Jess. Mind the shop will ya? Anyone calls just say I’ll be back directly.”
Jess viewed the unlocked cell door thoughtfully for a few minutes after Mort had gone. But nah, he was right, there was nothing to go on. He could hunt high and low and not find the real robber. Nope, he’d just have to be patient and bide his time. But hell, that really ain’t my strong point he said to himself and he stretched out on the bunk and closed his eyes.
Mort came back a little later with supper and a bottle of whiskey. After their shared supper they played a few hands of poker and as they turned in for the night Jess declared he’d had far worse nights in jail.
Mort chuckled as he took the other bunk.
“With any luck Seth and Nelly will be more composed tomorrow and we’ll get to the truth.”
“So, let me get this straight Nelly,” Mort said patiently, “the second time Jess, allegedly, visited, you didn’t actually see him, you were in the back room and just heard his voice?”
She nodded vigorously, “That’s right Sheriff. I’ve known Jess Harper many a year and it certainly sounded like his voice…but not his tone, if you understand me?”
Mort raked a hand through his greying hair and took a deep breath, “Nope not really ma’am.”
“Well it sounded like his voice, deep and kind of gravelly, you know? But the way he spoke was real nasty like. He said, ‘Open the till now!’ Then when my Seth tried to reason with him, really kindly…well Jess just went mad cussing and saying some real hurtful things.” Tears sprang to her eyes, “I couldn’t believe it of Jess, I just couldn’t it was so unlike him. Goodness knows the boy’s got a short fuse, we all know that, but I’ve never heard him take on that way.”
Mort nodded sagely, “So do you think it’s possible that it wasn’t Jess at all, but an imposter who looked like him?”
She shook her head, “I don’t know…it could be possible I suppose. After all, my Seth is getting a tad short sighted, aren’t you dear?”
Seth who had been sitting quietly throughout the interview frowned now.
“I guess I am some yes.” Then his eyes lit up, “I’ve been trying to think what it was that was strange, and I’ve just remembered. He took the money in a gunny sack, and then he reached across the counter and took several packs of cigarettes too. Well Jess gave up a couple of years ago and I thought it kinda strange at the time.”
Mort made a note and then turned back to Nelly, “And you didn’t see him at all?”
“No, well not close too. You see I went out the back Sheriff and thought I might catch him as he left. I thought I might be able to talk some sense into him, I really don’t think he’s a bad boy…just troubled with money worries like so many,” she said softly.
Mort nodded for her to continue.
“Well I went around to the porch but he was up and away. He nearly ran into me with that great big grey horse he was riding.”
Seth’s eyes opened wide in surprise, “You must be mistaken my dear, he was riding Traveller when he came in the first time. I saw him with my own eyes…I was out on the porch…and he took some sugar with him said he liked to keep old Trav sweet.”
The elderly couple turned to Mort looking bewildered.
Mort scratched his head, “Something doesn’t add up here. I’ve interviewed the young couple he was escorting and they assure me Jess was only carrying the supplies when they saw him. So, unless he stashed the money someplace, I really think he must be innocent.”
“Oh, I do so hope so,” Nelly said tearfully, “I’ve always had a soft spot for dear Jess, such a polite young man…usually.”
Shortly afterwards Mort thanked them for their statement and assured them he would be in touch when he had some news.
He then visited Eli and Larry again, and furnished with new information from them, he finally visited Nelly and Seth in the Laramie hotel and shared the news with them. Then he walked jauntily along Main Street and breezed into his office.
Lon, his deputy, looked up when he marched in.
“Howdy Sheriff what’s up, you look like a dog with two tails.”
Mort winked at him and then called out, “Hey Jess come on out here, got some news for you.”
“So why didn’t you tell me Larry and Eli rode over to the trading post to meet you?”
Jess shrugged, “I didn’t see the point. They just wanted to move a mile or so down the shore and thought I’d worry when they weren’t at the camp we’d set up. It seems this specimen Larry was after was down there.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mort impatiently…botanical specimens being the last thing on his mind.
“The point is… you couldn’t have robbed Nelly and Seth; you’re innocent Jess. In the clear! You rode out with them and were constantly in their company, including the time when the robbery actually took place an hour after you first left.”
“Well I told ya didn’t I,” said Jess laconically.
“You did, and thank God I believed you all along, but now we have the proof…and there’s something else and Mort explained about the large showy horse that nearly mowed Nelly down.
Jess looked thoughtful, “The only person in that neck of the woods with a horse like that was old Jack Salt. Do ya think someone stole his horse?”
Mort shrugged, “It’s a possibility but it still doesn’t help with this guy who looks like you and is up to no good.”
“No, I reckon not,” Jess agreed. “So, I’m free to go then Mort?”
“Uh-huh, so what are you going to do about all this then Jess…because I imagine you’re not going to let in lie?”
“You bet yer life I’m not,” Jess agreed, “First stop the saloon, see if old Jack’s been in recently and if he’s had his horse stolen. See ya Mort. I’ll let ya know when I find anything out.”
“Uh, Jess don’t you think you should go straight home and put those good folks out of their misery?”
“All in good time Mort. I need to nail this guy before he does anything else to land me in jail…besides Mose has probably already told them,” he said with a cheeky wink.
He strode cheerfully along Main Street and into the saloon reveling in his freedom. Sure Mort had made his stay in jail as pleasant as possible…but even so…
The saloon was deserted as it was only early and Jess figured he’d catch up with Millie before he asked about Jack and his possible horse theft.
“Howdy Tom, is Millie about?” he asked hopefully as the barkeep came through from the back.
Tom frowned, “No, why would she be Jess? You put her on the Stage just a couple of days ago--her Ma’s sick, remember?” he asked throwing his old friend a quizzical look.
Jess just gaped at him, “How in hell could I have done that? I’ve been off on a trip and then spent last night keepin’ one of Mort’s cells warm,” he spat.
“You’ve been in the cells?” Tom asked raising an eyebrow, “You been tipping the jug then Jess?”
He shook his head, “Nope why’d you say a thing like that?”
“Because you aren’t making much sense, you were here as clear as day on Wednesday. Stayed over and then put dear Millie on the Stage to Cheyenne on the Thursday morning. First Stage out, she was real upset, her Ma was taken bad. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten all that Jess?”
Jess looked deathly pale and turned anguished eyes on Tom. Grabbing him by the shoulders said, “I was here you say…stayed over Wednesday…in Millie’s room…with Millie?”
Tom’s eyebrows shot up and he wriggled to free himself from Jess’s vice like grip.
“Sure,” he nodded, “like you do. Then you saw her onto the Stage and kissed her goodbye. I saw you. I was standing by the door to wave her off…her being kinda troubled and all.”
Jess went even paler and Tom wondered if he might chuck up…or even pass out.
“Jess, what’s up buddy…you not feeling too good? Have you been in a fight, got a hit on the head…not thinking straight maybe?” he suggested.
But Jess had turned, dashed out of the door and was half way down Main Street leaving Tom, rubbing his shoulder and muttering to himself. “I sure don’t know what’s gotten into that boy today but I hope he sleeps it off,” and turned back to his work.
In retrospect Jess should really have called in on Mort and explained about this latest happening in the torturous web that seemed to be slowly enmeshing him. It was now clear to him that somebody, with an uncanny likeness to him, was gradually trying to erode away his good name and indeed his whole life. Firstly, by robbing the trading post and discrediting him in front of his friends. And now by…oh God he couldn’t bring himself to think it. But he had to…now by having sex with his girl. He couldn’t think of it as making love…this bastard whoever he was had done it purely as a blatant act of…what? Revenge…hatred? Who would hate him enough to perpetrate such a vile act? And what of Millie…hadn’t she realized that he, whoever he was, was with an imposter? Was this look alike so dang convincing that even kind, clever Millie couldn’t see through him?
The very thought made the blood pound in his ears as he collected Traveller and rode out at speed, the thought of seeing Mort never even crossing his mind. All he wanted to do was get to Cheyenne as fast as he possibly could, find the imposter and rip him limb from limb.
Then as he rode on at breakneck speed a thought came to him. He cast his mind back to that word Mike had chosen for his homework assignment all those weeks ago. The word Doppelganger suddenly flashed into his mind…what had it meant? He strained to remember and then he had it and muttered under his breath, “A doppelganger isn't someone who just resembles you, but is an exact double, right down to the way you walk, act and talk. Sometimes they are regarded as a ghost or harbinger of bad luck.
“Well ain’t that just the truth,” he said to himself, “It sure will be bad luck for that low life when I catch up with him.”
Chapter 4
Jess arrived in Cheyenne and wasted no time in stabling Traveller at the livery. He tossed his old buddy Bill, the owner, a few coins.
“Give him a real good rub down and extra rations will ya Bill, he’s been ridden real hard.”
“You got it Jess, staying long?”
He just shrugged, “Dunno,” and patting his beloved horse he strode away looking every inch like a man on a mission, or so Bill thought as he watched him march off.
Sure ol’ Jess was a swell guy but you really wouldn’t want him as an enemy he reflected as he led Traveller off to his best stall and started rubbing him down.
Jess beat a furious tattoo on the door of Ma Johnson’s Boarding House, the legend ‘Gentlemen Only Bed, Breakfast and Hot Tub’ over the brightly painted door.
A few minutes later the door was opened by a rather startled looking Millie, who took a step backwards and gazed at him uncertainly.
“Jess, that you?” she whispered, shrinking back again as he put out a hand to her.
He dropped it quickly and peered deeply into her eyes.
“It’s really me Mil, take it easy. What can I do to convince you huh?”
But the deeply concerned look in his eyes was enough. She stepped forwards into his encircling arms and relaxed into his familiar strong embrace. The faint aroma of soap and fresh air mingled with leather and horse immediately comforting and reassuring.
He dropped a tender kiss on the top of her head and then tipped her chin up with one finger so that he could see into her eyes, “You’ve seen him ain’t ya sweetheart…that guy with my face?”
She nodded flushing, “I…I honestly didn’t know when he came up to my room. He’s so like you Jess, heck your own Ma couldn’t tell the difference.”
He gave a little groan, “Please Millie... tell me you didn’t.... you know?”
“No,” she said quickly, “No, once I saw him close too…I knew, I just knew.”
“How,” he asked, “dang it, he’s fooled pretty much everyone else. You said my own Ma would be tricked; how did you know?” he asked desperately, wondering if she was just trying to appease him.
She gave him a tiny smile, “He didn’t smell like you…or taste like you,” and then she reached up and kissed him tenderly, “and he didn’t kiss like you either,” she whispered, before kissing him passionately, and tangling her fingers in his dark hair.
Jess kissed her passionately before pulling gently back and looking into her eyes again, “Thank God,” he whispered.
But then he was suddenly filled with righteous fury yet again.
“Why?” he railed, “Why’s he doin’ this to me…to you…huh why Millie? Where the hell is he?”
“Hush honey,” Millie said gently, “come through to the parlor and we’ll talk, Ma’s out visiting we’ve got the place to ourselves.”
Once they were settled on the couch before the fire, a glass of Red-eye a piece, Millie began her tale.
“He was in my room, but it’s alright Jess, once I’d realized he wasn’t you he backed off, really.” Maybe now wasn’t the right time to tell him that the guy…uh Jake, Jake Harper had threatened to kill her if she didn’t high-tail it home to her Ma’s in Cheyenne. Time enough for that later once he was in the picture as regards to his half-brother she decided.
“We talked Jess, once he could see he wouldn’t get anywhere with me we talked nearly all night. He was driven and reminded me a bit of you when you were on the trail of the Banister Gang…so single minded…so bitter…but I suppose he would be a little like you in character as well as looks. You see Jess he’s your half-brother.”
“What!” Jess yelled nearly spilling his drink, “Goddamn it is there no end to my Pa’s sins? Even now when he’s been dead all these years his dang actions are comin’ back to haunt me. How many more poor bastards did he sire… huh?” he spat angrily.
“Jess, really!” Millie said looking shocked at his unaccustomed language. Sure, she knew Jess could cuss for Texas when mad, but rarely in front of her.
He hung his head, “Sorry.”
He eventually calmed down some and she was able to continue to tell him more.
“His name’s Jake and he took the name Harper.”
“So, who was his Ma?”
“A lady from your town lived pretty close to you. A woman called Rose? He said she was half Mexican?”
Jess looked perplexed…
“You mean Aunt Rose? We kids all called her that. She was a neighbor, used to sit in and look after us sometimes if Ma was sick, or just given birth. I remember she left town when I was about six or seven. We never knew why…she just lit out.”
“That’s because she found out she was pregnant, and according to Jake he said she never told your Pa. She moved to Dallas, had the baby and then took up work as an exotic dancer in the saloons.”
“Oh, real good job for a Ma with a baby at home,” Jess said sarcastically.
“Um, well according to this Jake she adored him, spoiled him rotten, especially after she landed a real good job on the stage, that’s why she worked so hard; it was all for him. Later she was an actress, quite famous it seems.”
“Well good fer her,” said Jess cynically, “so why did her dear son go off the dang rails, and more to the point why’s he got it in for me?”
“It was much later when things went wrong,” Millie continued. “She retired early from the theater having made good money and bought a small spread on the Mexican border…near her old home town. That’s when Jake had his first run in with a gang led by one Lex Corrigan?”
Jess whistled, “He was sure a bad ‘un. He hated me something fierce after I killed his brother in that attempted bank raid. The kid was drunk and just started shootin’. There was no way out of it. He died and I was shot up pretty bad. Lex and the gang ended up in prison for a good spell after he shot the Deputy Sheriff who came to my rescue. He was hurt pretty bad as well.”
She nodded, giving him a sympathetic look. “Lex was finally released last year and unfortunately mistook Jake for you, as so many of us have. He went gunning for him but it didn’t’ end well.”
“Go on,” Jess said, now looking wary.
“There was a shoot-out, Jake was shot and left for dead and his Ma, your Aunt Rose as you called her, was attacked and died later of her injuries.”
“Jeez no….so that’s why then,” Jess whispered. “Why he’s gunning for me… for revenge.”
She nodded, “That was just the start of things Jess. It seems there where quite a few folks mistook him for you and wanted to kill him. That’s why he worked so hard on his fast draw…to protect himself I guess,” and she sighed looking apprehensive.
“He’s fast?”
She nodded, “He took great pleasure in showing me…please Jess…don’t take him on, leave it to the Law huh?”
“That fast eh?” Jess said shaking his head in wonder.
“I figure you can’t blame him in a way,” he said begrudgingly. “Sure, none of this is my fault but I reckon he’s been pushed to the brink…Maybe he’s slightly crazy? I reckon it’s not every day you find out you’ve got a doppelganger and they’ve got kind of a troubled past. I made more than a few enemies in the old days. You know that Millie and I’ve still got folk wanting to call me out.”
“You’ve got a what?” Millie asked looking puzzled at the word she’d never heard before, but now had suddenly heard twice in the last few days...first from Jake and now Jess.
“Huh? Oh yeah, a doppelganger it’s like a complete double, right down to the way they talk, walk all their mannerisms.”
“And think the same, the same conscience; loyalties and values?” Millie asked looking disbelievingly.
Jess shook his head, “Nope I reckon not.”
“Jess what are you going to do?”
“Find him, stop him and try and talk some sense into the guy I suppose; after I’ve knocked him into next week for what he did to you,” he finished, looking flushed and angry once more.
“Jess, just walk away from it please. After all he didn’t hurt me in the end. I think it was all just idle threats. He could have forced me…but he didn’t. He was a gentleman in the end and slept on the couch.”
Jess ignored that and said, “What do you mean idle threats, what did he say he’d do?”
She sighed and looked down, “He threatened to kill me and then said Tom knew he…that is Tom thought YOU were in my room, so you’d hang for it.”
“The hell he did!” Jess yelled jumping up from his seat.
She looked down just waiting for his next question.
“What else?”
She looked up into his eyes now dark with rage and knew she had to tell him everything, even if it did put him in mortal danger, because she just knew he wouldn’t let it lie.
“He threatened to harm Mike and Daisy too; but only if I didn’t behave. As long as I came here and said nothing, he promised they wouldn’t be harmed. He said he just wanted to see you to talk. I’m sorry,” she finished, her face distorted with anxiety now, “I just didn’t know what to do Jess. I was trying to keep you all safe.”
He was immediately contrite, “Hey sweetheart, none of this is your fault. You did the right thing, sure you did. I’ll go home tomorrow and just hope he’ll come find me and we can um…sort everything out.”
Millie dreaded to think what that meant exactly, but had more sense than to ask.
They were late rising the next morning after a night of unbridled passion. After the fear and uncertainty of the last few days they both needed to reassure each other and found solace in their closeness.
Jess finally headed off mid-morning saying he’d wire her as soon as it was safe to return to town. But it was a very anxious Millie that waved him off, knowing that if it came to a shoot-out, Jess and his half brother were pretty evenly matched.
Jess decided to go and visit his old friend Sheriff Doug Masters and put him in the picture as to what had been happening recently…especially if this Jake Harper was about to try and frame him for some heinous crime again.
He was surprised to find the Sheriff’s Office empty, but after calling ‘shop’ a couple of times a wizened old timer finally emerged from the cells, carrying a rifle.
“Yup,” he yelled, “what’s all the darned fuss about son?”
“Who the hell are you and where’s the Sheriff?” Jess asked petulantly, not being in the best of moods and certainly not happy to be referred to as son by a total stranger.
“Sheriff ain’t here, ” the other replied, looking as ornery as Jess was feeling.
Jess just glared at the man who finally became aware that he was in the presence of one who might cause him some grief and back peddled quickly.
“Sheriff’s wife just havin’ another kid and Deputy Haines is off sick, so I’m coverin’. Marty Green retired Sheriff,” he said with a toothless grin. “So, what kin I do fer ya son?”
Jess wondered how many years it had been since he’d been a Sheriff, because he looked about 110. He was short sighted and obviously stone deaf too, the way he was yelling.
It just wasn’t dang well worth it Jess decided. How could he explain the presence of a doppelganger in his life and the implications that held? Hell, it all sounded pretty improbable to his own ears and the old guy looked like he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“Uh, nuthin’,” Jess said backing off, “give my best to the Sheriff and Jenny, I’ll um...wire them,” and he left pronto.
It was when he arrived at the livery that he was in for the shock of his life.
He mooched into the stable and noting Traveller wasn’t in his usual stall called out for Bill.
After a few minutes the old timer came out from the back chewing on some baccy and looking surprised when he saw who was there.
“What’s up Jess…back already? I thought you said you were riding shotgun on the Stage back to Laramie…uh that was a good couple of hours since…you forget something?”
Jess just stared at him and then paled, “Where’s Traveller?”
Bill shrugged, “Well I don’t know Jess. You said you were hitching him up behind the Stage. Did that old rascal pull free? No siree he ain’t been around here looking for a second breakfast if that’s what yer thinking?”
The smile on his face quickly faded as Jess moved in real close and spat “What in hell have you done with my horse!”
“I told you boy…you took him,” Bill said, now looking thoroughly anxious.
Jess looked down and cussed before looking around him, “Two hours ago you say?” He asked.
“Yup, I saw you head out myself,” Bill said now looking puzzled “You hitched Traveller up behind, along with old Jack Salt’s mount, that smart grey of his and then helped Mose lift the strong box on board.”
“Strong box huh?”
“Why sure, you said that Mose mentioned the usual guy riding shotgun hadn’t shown up so you were doing the shift.”
“The hell I did,” Jess muttered.
“Nuthin’ sorry Bill, look I need a horse, fastest you’ve got OK?”
“Well sure Jess, but I haven’t got much in the way of hire horses right now. Um, I suppose you could have Storm but you really don’t want him. He’s fast alright but…”
“I want him,” Jess yelled, “saddle him up Bill and make it snappy huh.”
“OK but be it on your own head Jess. The circus left him last time they were in town, said all he was good for was dog meat. He performs all these dang circus tricks OK, but not necessarily when he’s supposed to, he’s real unpredictable Jess.”
Jess glanced at the showy, big boned, Palomino who was also weighing him up, rolling his eyes and pawing the ground menacingly.
“I’ll take him,” Jess said.
As soon as Jess cleared town, he let the big horse have his head and he galloped like the devil himself was on his tail, tearing along at breakneck speed with Jess urging him on.
Meanwhile back at the Relay Station an exhausted Mose pulled the team to a quivering sweating standstill just as Slim ran out from the barn.
He quickly took in the spent horses, blowing and shaking their heads in distress. Then he noted the look of shock and wretchedness in his old friend’s eyes as he jumped down from the box.
“Hey Mose whatever ’s happened?” Slim asked reaching out a steadying hand as the old timer swayed a little.
“Your partner that’s what’s happened,” Mose spat now looking full of righteous indignation.
“What are you talking about?” Slim asked, “Jess is still in town trying to sort out some um…misunderstanding,” he said lamely.
“The hell he is,” Mose said stoutly, “he just robbed the dang stage Slim! One minute we were chatting away nice as pie and the next he turned his rifle on me and threatened to ‘blow my goddamn brains out’ is the phrase he used. Um yes, blow my goddamn brains out iffen I didn’t pull up and throw the strongbox down.”
Slim’ s face was a picture of shock, and then he said quietly, “I just don’t believe it.”
“Well you’d better believe it, because I’m gonna be having a word with Mort Cory as soon as I land in town.”
Slim was galvanized into action and ran over to collect the replacement horses, “Hang on Mose,” he said when he returned, “I’ll ride along with you but first come in for a coffee, let’s talk this through huh?”
Mose looked wary, “All the talking in the world ain’t gonna change the facts Slim, but five minutes won’t make any dang difference. Your buddy will be long gone now…headed for the border no doubt.”
The thought of Jess committing such a crime, then riding out like that, made Slim feel sick. He wouldn’t…hell couldn’t just leave them that way. There must be some rational explanation.
“It’s like I said,” Mose continued, settling down with his coffee, “Jess seemed his usual self, uh maybe a tad jumpy, but then I figured he’d stayed the night with Miss Millie and hadn’t had much sleep.”
Slim reflected that it was a good job Daisy was off visiting a friend that day, as Mose could sometimes be a tad too forthcoming.
“Go on,” said Slim, “was there anything else? Did he look different, or wear different clothes? Hell, what I’m trying to say Mose is…well you are sure it really was Jess?”
“What!” roared Mose now taking offense, “I’m not in my dotage yet Slim Sherman! Garldarn it, I’ve known the man for years. Sure it was Jess. Except for that dang temper outburst. Well sure we all know the boy’s got a short fuse, but I ain’t ever seen him that way before. So…well…so doggone mean Slim…the way he threatened me,” and he shook his head sadly.
“Maybe he’s sick,” Slim said with a flash of inspiration, “you know had a blackout, lost his memory or something?”
“Only thing he’s lost is the plot,” Mose said morosely. “He was onto a good thing here…a partner in the business, good friends around him and he throws it all away to go back on that old Owl Hoot Trail.” Then he sighed deeply, “I guess a man can’t really change, and now he’s gone Slim, so I figure you need to face up to it. The boy’s just turned bad again.”
Slim cursed the fact that he’d been unable to ride in the day before as promised; but with the Stage-line boss spending the day at the ranch insisting on having an important discussion there and then, he’d had to postpone his visit. Then later that day, just as he was determined to ride out no matter what, he’d had a message from a neighbor. Saying Jess had seen him and said he was just fine, everything had worked out OK and he’d be home as soon as he could make it…and now this!
“Well I had no reason to keep him locked up,” Mort said scratching his head and looking almost as shocked as Slim had.
“Looks like you had every dang need from where I’m standing,” said Mose angrily. “Hell, you say he was accused of robbing the Trading Post, and both Nelly and Seth Armstrong blamed him, but you let him go?” he asked in amazement. “Just because Seth doesn’t see too well and then OK I know Nelly didn’t even see him at all...but did recognize his voice?” he finished looking askance.
“Yes,” said Mort now clutching at straws. “Garldarn it,” it had all seemed to make perfect sense at the time. “See when this other guy came by that looked kinda like Jess...well he was riding a big flashy grey horse, not Traveller, that’s what made us think again, seemed real strange he was riding Traveller one minute and then the grey, so we figured it was another guy that kinda favored Jess some.”
“Uh, a grey like the one old Jack Salt rides you mean?” Mose asked.
Mort nodded, “Exactly. We thought maybe the robber had stolen his horse and Jack hasn’t been seen around town lately either.”
“Nope but his horse was in Cheyenne,” Mose said deadpan.
“Huh?” Mort and Slim asked almost in unison.
“Yup was last seen tethered to the back of the Stagecoach along with Traveller. I asked Jess about it and he gave me some cock and bull about him taking him back to Laramie for Jack…well that didn’t make no sense to me. What was his horse doing all the way over at Cheyenne and no sign of Jack? But Jess just threw me one of those looks of his as if to say shut the hell up…so I did.”
“The guy that looks like Jess you mean,” Slim said angrily, “not my pard!”
“Oh, it were him alright! There can’t be two such dang ornery bastards about,” Mose said with feeling. “Anyway, we’ve been all through this, I’d swear on my old Ma’s grave that was Jess Harper….no doubt about it! Proves it too don’t it? If Jess had that grey in Cheyenne, he must have ridden him when he robbed the Trading Post too. For some reason he took him off of that Jack Salt and used him in the robbery instead of Traveller.”
Then glancing at Slim said, “I’m real sorry Slim I wouldn’t have thought it of the guy either. But that was Jess as sure as God made little green apples. He done turned bad again…sorry though I am to say it,” he added quietly.
“What about the evidence of Eli and Larry,” Mort said still trying to justify his decision to let Jess go free. “They said that they met Jess on his way back from the trading post and were with him all the time after that.”
“Um, so they say,” replied Mose, “but ol’ Jess can be real persuasive when he wants. Supposing he threatened them…said what he’d do if they told the truth about him. If Jess was desperate enough, he might have done huh?”
Then Mose turned to Slim, “So how did they seem when they returned with Jess?”
Slim looked suddenly wary, “Uh, they didn’t come back to the ranch with Jess. He rode in alone and said they were making their own way back to town.”
“Well then, maybe he did threaten them,” said Mose.
“Well why don’t we ask them,” Slim suggested, “they seemed a nice enough couple I’m sure they’d have told the truth no matter what…huh Mort, what do you say?”
Mort’s face took on a look of even deeper concern, for the first time the fingers of doubt beginning to clutch at his heart.
“Can’t Slim,” he said quietly, “they upped and took off for home first thing this morning.”
“But they were due to stay another month or so, there was even talk of Jess taking them out again looking for some rare prairie grasses, I believe,” Slim said.
“Seems that Larry’s Pa was taken sick and they had to go home sooner than planned,” said Mort.
“So, they can’t give any evidence; well ain’t that convenient,” said Mose, turning to Slim. “Uh it ain’t looking any too good for your pard is it Slim?”
“Hell, Mose you can’t be serious. Couldn’t you see through this guy? He might look like Jess…but you know he wouldn’t rob a Stage…or hurt you? He just wouldn’t….how could you even think that.”
“Uh, you weren’t there Slim and you just don’t want to face it.”
“You neither Sheriff,” he said turning to Mort, “you both being good buddies, but you just have to accept it…Jess has turned his back on you folk.”
Slim slumped down on one of the office chairs, his head in his hands, “I still don’t believe it,” he muttered.
Mort sighed deeply, “Only one thing we can do. I’ll get a posse together and we’ll go after him, hear his side of events.”
“Sure, and some trigger-happy member of the posse will dang well shoot him before we get a chance to talk,” said Slim looking wretched.
“So, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” said Slim, “um…maybe you and me go find him; reason with him?”
“Then let him go,” scoffed Mose.
“You know me better than that Mose Shell,” Mort said angrily. “If Jess is guilty then sure he’ll be brought in and tried just like any other felon.”
Then he turned to Slim, “You go and buy some supplies Slim and I’ll get Lon to mind the shop for a day or two.”
Slim nodded, “Can you take word to the Jacksons, ask the boys to mind the ranch for me Mose? Explain to Daisy, just tell them all me and Jess are away on business huh? She should be back from visiting Widow Jones by now and hopefully won’t have heard any gossip.”
“I suppose so,” he muttered, “and um, well good luck. I’m sorry to see the boy’s sunk to this again, real sorry.”
Mort threw him a hard look, “No gossiping about this in the saloon Mose. Let’s just keep Jess innocent until he’s proven guilty huh! Not that he will be, I’m sure,” he added, casting Slim a concerned glance.
Chapter 5
Jess had been riding hard and Storm, the big ex circus horse was sweating and beginning to slow down some by the time they finally reached the spot where the Stage had been robbed. Jess stared in dismay, but little surprise, at the remains of the shot-up Strongbox and tracks of the Stage going in one direction and two horses going in the opposite one.
He dismounted and looked carefully at the tracks that were clearly visible in the dusty road.
The Stage had continued on its way and would have arrived at the Relay by now Jess surmised. The other two tracks, belonging to Traveller and the big grey belonging to Jack Salt, heading towards the Snowys and all the mountain cover they would afford.
Jess paused, uncertain whether to cut across to the ranch and call on Slim’ s help, or follow the robber. Hell, the guy had his horse; there was no dang contest.
He jumped up in the saddle again and gave Storm a reassuring couple of pats on the neck…and then just moments later he was catapulted forwards as the big horse went to his knees and then fell heavily on his side.
As he fell Jess rolled and just managed to get out of the way as the animal heaved a deep breath and then lay motionless…dead.
Jess got to his feet and walked slowly over looking at the magnificent beast lying deathly still and cursed. Garldarn it why had he ridden the critter so wildly? He hadn’t meant to push him too hard, of course he hadn’t and the animal had seemed happy to have his head and run free. He must have overdone things and his heart had given out.
Jess sank to his knees.
“I’m so sorry old fella,” he said softly, feeling so dang bad. Then a thought struck him, here was his worst nightmare; left afoot in the middle of nowhere. Miles from the ranch and that dang horse thief taking his beloved Traveller further away with every second he sat there and he could have wept with frustration.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath…and then he heard a movement…
His head shot up and he watched in amazement as Storm lifted his head, rolled to his knees and then stood up, shaking his mane and pawing the ground looking every bit as though he couldn’t wait to continue the chase.
“What in the blue blazes,” Jess muttered standing too, grabbing hold of the bridle and peering closely at the very healthy-looking animal before him.
Then he remembered old Bill’s words…how he was a circus horse…who had been left at the livery because he had a tendency to do his variety of tricks at inappropriate times. Well sure doin’ the dead horse routine halfway through chasing a horse thief was a real inappropriate time Jess agreed with the ghost of a smile.
He cast his mind back to his old friend Cheeko’ s horse act. He worked at the Barnum and Willis Circus and had a wealth of tricks he executed with his talented horses and Jess wondered what other little wiles Storm had inline for him.
He shook his head and remounted, “Just keep yer act for later huh big fella,” he whispered as he kneed the animal on …but this time at a slightly more sedate pace.
He carried on until it was too dark to see the tracks and then made a basic camp with a fire but no hot food or coffee. He’d left town so fast he hadn’t bothered with supplies and so he just drank some water before settling down for the night, not feeling he could eat anything anyway.
The more he thought about Traveller’s disappearance the worse he felt. This half-brother of his looked like he would stop at nothing to get his revenge on him. He was kept awake most of the night envisaging him hurting Trav or even killing him, leaving the corpse for Jess to find; the first indication the sound of the buzzards’ call, and finally the birds circling high in the sky in the distance.
The following morning, he awoke at first light from a restless slumber, but to the sound of torrential wind and rain, not of buzzards proclaiming a kill.
“Goddamn it,” he swore, as he looked about him to see the tracks completely obliterated by the wild weather.
He dragged himself up and set off in the same general direction in which he’d been going the night before; towards the distant Snowy’s and just hoped his hunch was right and this Jake Harper was still heading that way.
The day hadn’t been without its surprises though as Storm had gone through his full repertoire of tricks and wiles…all equally unexpected. He would suddenly come to a lurching stop and start rearing up and dancing on his back legs for no obvious reason, Jess’ expertise on a horse being the only thing saving him from several nasty falls. Then at other times, when Jess reined him in, he would paw the ground as though counting; nodding his head and blowing loudly through his nostrils.
Jess figured maybe he was a little crazy, the circus life having somehow addled his brain because the behavior was getting more and more bizarre as the day went on.
“You really are plum crazy ain’t ya big fella?” Jess said affectionately, “I reckon the only place you’d be happy is off in the Big Open and maybe you’d forget all this nonsense you’ve been taught, but not yet because right now I need ya!”
He carried on until exhaustion overcame him and once more, he set up camp only when it was too dark to see where he was going. At least the worst of the weather had abated and he was able to dry off before falling into a deep dreamless sleep.
He had camped near a gently flowing river and as the first rays of sunshine broke through the mist, he stretched and wandered over to the river bank to wash up for the day.
Then he stopped and just stared open mouthed in amazement.
There before him on the opposite side of the river…almost completely shrouded in mist a horse was drinking his fill. A tough looking bay…and even as Jess watched, Traveller lifted his head and gave a little whinny of welcome, before walking slowly across the shallow stream towards his master.
Jess watched transfixed as his good old horse emerged from the mist and came up to him, gently nudging him with his head before searching Jess’s shirt pocket for a sugar lump.
Jess felt closer to tears than he had since he was a boy and threw his arms round Traveller’s neck holding him tightly and breathing in the comforting smell of horse.
After a few moments he took a deep breath and stood back, rubbing Traveller’s ears and talking softy to him as he checked him over briefly. He wore no saddle or bridle, but a piece of frayed rope was dangling from his neck and Jess figured he’d been tethered and had escaped.
“On your way home were you old boy?” he said, eventually finding the sugar that Traveller was still looking for. Once he’d checked him over more thoroughly, he walked back to camp, Traveller following him like a shadow and giving little nickers of pleasure and blowing gently down his nostrils.
Once in the camp he greeted Storm and then wandered off cropping the grass as though he’d never been away.
Jess watched him, unashamed tears now in his eyes…and came to a decision.
Walking over to where Storm was ground hitched, he slipped off the rope and halter, so that he could run free and stood back to see what would happen.
The big horse looked around him rather uncertainly for a minute…almost as though he couldn’t believe his luck… and then without a second’s hesitation he turned and galloped off towards the distant hills.
Jess watched him go and then wandered over to Traveller and patted him affectionately. “I figure we’ll give you some time to git yer wind back and then we’ll go after the guy that took ya, huh Trav?”
Meanwhile back in Cheyenne Millie was sick. It was just a really bad summer cold, but enough to keep her in bed feeling really sorry for herself. It was as she was lying there going over and over her conversation with Jess that she suddenly realised that she’d omitted to tell him that Jake Harper and Jack Salt were one and the same. She had meant to tell him and then Jess had gotten real upset when he discovered Jake had threatened her and it had completely slipped her mind.
She called out for her Ma and Peggy ran up the stairs to her see what her daughter needed.
“Ma I know Jess was calling in on Sheriff Masters to explain everything before he rode out, but he didn’t know about Jack Salt and Jake being the same person…can you go tell the Sheriff and get him to wire Sheriff Cory, I think it might be real important.”
When her Ma returned sometime later saying Sheriff Masters was still on leave after the birth of twins and the ancient Sheriff in charge was deaf as a post…Millie scribbled a note herself.
“Here Ma can you take that to the telegraph office please, send it to Mort Cory…he really needs to know this.”
Good natured Peggy Johnson smiled down at her daughter, “Of course dear…now you keep warm and try not to worry, Jess will be just fine…you’ll see.”
Sometime later over in Sheriff Mort Cory’s office, his deputy Lon scratched his head and read the wire for the third time.
Jess Harper got a double gang STOP Arrest Jack Salt STOP signed Millie Johnson.
What the heck was all that about…Jess had a double gang? Heck he didn’t know he was running with a gang again…and where did Jack Salt fit in? Was he a gang member too? Also, why would Millie incriminate her man that way? Gee things must be pretty bad if even Millie was against the guy now. He sighed and placed the wire on the Sheriff’s desk for Mort to deal with on his return.
At about the same time Mort and Slim were reviewing the situation as they sat over the first coffee of the day, huddled in front of their camp fire. The storm of the previous night had completely obliterated the tracks they had been following, just as they had done for Jess, and now they were working blind.
“This is crazy,” Mort said looking at Slim over the rim of his coffee cup, “Jess could be holed up anyplace…and with no trail to follow…well…”
Slim shook his head, “You go back if you want to Mort but I can’t leave him out here. I have to find him and try and make some sense of it all.”
“You still think he’s innocent don’t you Slim?”
The blond rancher’s head shot up, “Sure, why? Don’t you?”
Mort looked embarrassed, “Well you have to admit Mose’s evidence was pretty damning…and there’s something else…”
“Go on,” said Slim deadpan.
“Well so far we’ve pretty much given Jess the benefit of the doubt…conflicting evidence…elderly folk who don’t see or hear too well… But have you forgotten way back in early summer there was a report that Jess had attempted to rob the Stage when he was off delivering those mustangs? You remember…Charlie and Beth Soames reported having seen Jess…and then the driver Billy Snell fired off a few shots?”
“Sure, but Charlie and Beth don’t see or hear any better than the folk at the Trading Post,” Slim muttered. “Besides Jess had an alibi for that,” he exploded suddenly angry, “he was doing a job for Major Adams back at the fort; tracked a deserter and horse thief, brought him in and got shot for his trouble.”
“But suppose he didn’t?” Mort said.
“Just suppose he really did attempt to rob that Stage. Billy Snell, the driver, fired off several shots and maybe one found its mark and that was how he was shot…not by the deserter at all?”
Slim remembered how reticent Jess had been when he returned back from the fort and had even kept the gunshot wound a secret at first…but then he dismissed the thought…he wouldn’t believe it he just wouldn’t.
Slim looked furious, “Jess wouldn’t lie that way and besides you checked with the Major, didn’t you?”
Mort looked kinda uncomfortable. “Well yes I sent a message but they said the Major was out on a mission and he never did get back to me. I mean like you, I thought it was a crazy notion but now…well I figure the evidence is really stacking up against him Slim, even you must admit that?”
Slim looked bewildered and then cast his mind back to that evening in early summer just before Jess headed out to deliver the mustangs. He remembered sitting at the table and helping Mike with his homework and then a thought suddenly struck him…
He snapped his fingers, “But don’t you see Mort…the one thing every incident has in common is that folk are swearing they saw Jess; but what if it wasn’t him at all but a doppelganger?”
Mort choked on his coffee before finally recovering and saying, “Dang it Slim…a what?”
“Doppelganger it means someone who is your exact double…in everything, way you speak walk, exactly the same features…think about it Mort!”
“Are you mad? Do these uh…doppelgangers even exist huh Slim? Are they real or some crazy notion you’ve come up with?”
“It’s in the dictionary,” Slim said firmly.
“Oh well it must be true then,” Mort said sarcastically shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
“Well I don’t give a damn what you think,” Slim said stoutly, “I’m going to carry on looking for my pard, because as soon as your theory that he’s guilty gets out every dang Bounty Hunter in the country will be gunning for him!”
“Slim will you take it easy, I never said he was definitely guilty but I just think it’s something we have to consider. Heck I want to help him just as much as you do. I dunno what’s going on in his head right now but I do know he needs help and as a good friend I don’t intend to give up on him just yet either. So OK, we’ll carry on for another few days…but then…well we can’t stay out here indefinitely Slim…you must see that.”

Meanwhile Jess was preparing for another day on the trail. He figured if he hadn’t caught up with his alter ego, Jake Harper by now, then he was either way off track or the man had been riding through the night.
“So,” he said as he rubbed Traveller’s velvety nose, “I reckon iffen he’s been burning the midnight oil it should just about have caught up with him by now. Maybe we’ll strike it lucky huh…catch him napping.”
He threw himself up on Traveller’s bare back, Storm’s saddle being way too large, and pointed his horse in the general direction from whence his good old horse had come…his tracks still clearly visible. Oh, what a joy it was to be back on his horse, like an old familiar glove they fitted each other perfectly, the two working together as a well-oiled machine. Even without the benefit of a saddle Jess was still able to ride at full tilt feeling completely in control as he felt Traveller’s sheer strength beneath him, the pair working in perfect synergy. They ate up the miles and by noon Jess arrived at what looked like an old campsite.
Then he saw his saddle concealed in some scraggy bushes and knew for certain he was on the right trail.
He didn’t waste any time before saddling Traveller up and chuckled to himself, knowing that his good old horse would have tipped Jake off at the first opportunity. But there again he’d only been taken to add more fuel to Jess’s anger and Jake’s need for revenge. He was still puzzled as to why the guy was riding Jack Salt’s mount though. Had he robbed the old prospector and left him for dead? He sure hadn’t been seen around the place recently. He shrugged and remounted with a song in his heart. His saddlebags, with all the makings of coffee and even the small pack of Arbuckle’ s he always carried was still intact, maybe things were looking up.
It was late afternoon when he saw the smoke from a camp fire rising up into the pellucid summer sky and he patted Traveller’s neck.
“Got him,” he whispered before riding on towards the distant tree line in the valley below. It had to be Jake Harper. With very mixed feelings he made his way to meet his doppelganger and half-brother at long last.
He rode into the camp sometime later and was astonished to see the old prospector, Jack Salt, sitting by the fire. He looked up short-sightedly as Jess entered the camp, but didn’t in anyway seem surprised.
“Well howdy Mister Harper,” he greeted him warmly in his crackly old voice. “Good to see ya.”
Jess dismounted and mooched over, “What the hell are you doing here Jack?” he asked.
Then spying the showy grey hitched up in the background he raised an eyebrow, “Uh last time that horse was seem was over in Cheyenne. Old Bill said he’d seen him being hitched up to the back of the Stage?”
The old timer nodded sagely, “That he was and I was inside. Old Mose gave me a free ride see son he’s real good that way, but don’t like folk to know. Uh so…you’ve seen him…Mose have you?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, I lit off after whoever had robbed the Stage, but you’d know all about it I guess…bein’a passenger and all?” he asked throwing him a questioning look.
Jack Salt nodded grimly. “Indeed!”
“But you don’t look all that worried at seein’ me again. After all it was me that robbed the Stage weren’t it?” Jess asked. Assuming the old guy had been taken in by his doppelganger just like everyone else…save his dear Millie he remembered now.
“Well sure I ain’t, because I know who you are son. Ya see I buried that imposter just a day ago.”
“Huh?” Jess asked now reeling with shock. “You did what!”
“He died, so I buried him,” the old timer repeated. “See he was a guy named Jake, Jake Harper. He was a half-brother to you and out for some revenge he said. It seems he was all for committing crimes so you’d carry the can, and boy he was a dead ringer for you…that’s for sure!”
Jess sank down on a rock opposite the old man and tried to take in all this new information.
“So why were you riding with him?” he finally managed.
“When he robbed the Stage, he took me with him for insurance. He thought Mose wouldn’t shoot for fear of hitting me and it worked real good. Then once we set up camp, he had a swig or two of my Red-eye and opened up to me. Told me how he hated you something fierce…told me all about it. How his poor old ma was killed all because you two looked so much alike. I imagine he’s never forgiven you for that.”
“Never mind about that,” Jess said gruffly having heard chapter and verse from Millie.
“He’s dead and buried you say? How come…and where is he laid to rest?” he asked, his heart sinking. Without a body he had no damn evidence to prove his innocence. OK, Millie would testify, but folk would think her biased. As for this old timer, well everyone knew he tipped the jug…who’d believe his word?
“I buried him back along the trail away,” he said vaguely, “can’t remember exactly. It was that old horse of yours son. He threw him real bad, then trampled him. He died a real nasty way.
Jess’s head shot up…sure Traveller would have tipped him off…but trampled him?
“When was this Jack?” he asked quietly.
“Why...uh, just yesterday afternoon it was.”
Yesterday afternoon Jess had been riding Traveller himself, but he said nothing.
“Uh, you don’t recall where you buried him…when it was just yesterday?” he asked looking surprised.
“I’m getting old Mister Harper my memory ain’t what it was,” the old man said plaintively.
Something wasn’t right…Jess just had a gut feeling.
There was something about the way Traveller had rolled his eyes, sidestepping and showing signs of unease as they entered the camp…tossing his head and snorting angrily.
Then as he’d been talking to Jack, he noticed the old guy repeatedly pulled his battered old brown hat down over his eyes…almost as though he was trying to hide his face.
Now he peered closely at him and was surprised at how unwrinkled his skin was. He realised that he’d hardly ever seen the guy in daylight before; except for briefly in passing over at Paradise on the botany trip. Then he’d seen him only fleetingly, and other times it had always been in the dimly lit saloon.
On impulse he stood up and walking across to the old timer and tipped his hat back, revealing a head of dark wavy hair, bearing very little similarity to the straggly grey beard he sported.
Jess gasped and then growled, “Take ‘em off!”
“Huh?” Jack asked now looking mighty apprehensive.
“The false beard and eyeglasses…take em off,” Jess repeated.
Jack looked down and then tore off the beard and removed the eyeglasses looking up unrepentantly into Jess’s shocked face.
Jess looked back into his own deep blue eyes and took a step backwards; the reality of the situation almost flooring him. So, it was true…he really did have a doppelganger. And then it hit him that Jack Salt and Jake Harper were one and the same! The enormity of the state of affairs was hard to take in.
There was a charged atmosphere and then Jess spat, “So when were you gonna come clean and tell me?”
Jake shrugged, “I wasn’t not for a while anyway I’d more plans. I figured I’d visit them at the ranch…cause the boy and old woman some misery, then maybe kill someone and let your partner watch you hang for it.”
Jess stared at him for a full minute before he hurled himself at the other knocking him flying with a haymaker to the chin, and hauling him up, threw several more vicious punches to his face and upper body.
Then a bleeding, cussing Jake retaliated in a furious flurry of kicks, bites and punches, the two men now rolling in the dirt like two rabid dogs.
They were so evenly matched that the outcome was anyone’s guess; until a lucky punch winded Jess and he fell to his knees, clutching his chest and gasping for breath.
In that split second that he was off guard Jake drew his gun like greased lightning and fired off a shot.
The bullet creased the side of Jess’s head and he fell forwards…by all accounts dead…or so Jake thought.
Once he’d caught his breath he managed to crawl over to Jess’s body. With a mighty effort he turned it over and slipping a hand inside his shirt was amazed to find there was still a heartbeat.
“You may be alive now but you sure don’t have a future my friend; not if I have my way,” Jake muttered under his breath…before going to fetch a rope and trussing Jess up like a turkey at Thanksgiving.
After a few minutes he came around, coughing and cussing, before opening his eyes and staring up at Jake, blood streaming down his ashen face from the head wound.
“You always draw in the middle of a fist fight do ya?” Jess growled. “Didn’t anyone ever teach ya that ain’t the way things are done…huh?”
“I reckon not,” Jake sneered, “now you just shut the Hell up Harper and listen to me real good huh?”
Jess just swallowed hard and pulled on the ropes, tightening them even more, much to his frustration.
“I’m heading out now, making for your ranch. I figure it’s time I paid my compliments to that dear old housekeeper of yours and see if her Apple Pie is every bit as good as Mose insists it is. Only I figure she isn’t going to be any too impressed with Jess harper. See you’re going to be taking on some kinda nasty habits; drunkenness, maybe nock the kid around a bit for good measure huh? Yup I figure they’ll be glad to see you go when you finally ride out.”
“You won’t get away with it,” Jess said through gritted teeth, “Daisy will see straight through you in a minute.”
“I doubt it, after all it took your girl a while. No Harper I intend to upset them at the ranch and then go on a killing spree; murder some innocent folk, a friend or neighbour maybe huh? Then sit back and watch you pay for it with your life. Slim will really enjoy a ringside seat at your necktie party.”
Jess just glared after him, never having felt so dang mad or as frustratingly powerless before.
But by God this wasn’t over he pledged to himself.
“I’ll leave you some water. I reckon that should keep you alive until I get back to free you. After all it wouldn’t be any fun without the murderer showing up for the hanging now would it Jess? And iffen you’re thinking everything will be just fine if your Millie gives evidence, you can forget it. Who’s gonna believe her and anyway I’ll be long gone. You need me if you want to prove your innocence and that just isn’t gonna happen!”
When he didn’t reply Jake just smirked at him, “I’ll be back,” he said before marching off and minutes later he rode out on the grey gelding.
A mile or so away Mort and Slim had been alerted by the sound of the gunshot and turned their mounts in the direction from where the sound had come from.
Jake wasn’t expecting to have his prowess at acting tested quite so prematurely. But none the less he adopted Jess’s deep gravelly voice and general demeanour at once.
Slim was the first to spy the lone rider walking his mount slowly towards them, the big grey, picking his way carefully down a rocky incline a few yards away.
Slim stared in shock as who he thought was Jess came into view.
“What in hell have you been up to?” he asked in dismay, as he reined in beside him, seeing his pard’s terribly battered and bruised face.
He groaned and then said, “It was that guy that’s been impersonating me, doin’ all the robbin’ I finally found him Slim and had it out with him.”
By now Mort had reined in beside them, “So you have proof of that do you Jess?”
He nodded, “I sure do, he visited with Millie she’ll tell you everything. His name is Jake Harper and he claims he’s my half-brother. He could be because dang it I reckon my own Ma couldn’t tell the difference between the two of us.”
“Is that so?” Mort asked still looking unconvinced, “And so where is this Jake then huh? What have you done with him Jess?”
The dark-haired cowboy swayed a little like he might pass out.
Slim jumped down from Alamo and ran over to his pard.
“Take it easy Jess,” he said softly and led him over to a fallen log to sit.
“I’m waiting,” said Mort looking on with little sympathy.
“Hell, Mort can’t you see he’s really badly hurt?” Slim said angrily.
Then he turned back to who he believed to be Jess and said, “Let’s take a look see what the damage is huh?”
He was a tad surprised when he felt his friend recoil and pull away abruptly as Slim started to unbutton his shirt.
“I’m OK,” he growled, “quit fussin, fer God’s sake Slim!”
Slim pulled back looking hurt. Sure, Jess didn’t like to be fussed, but he’d never been quite so aggressive about it. Maybe he was feeling bad Slim reasoned…after all he’d been through a lot lately.
Then Mort noticed something else as he glanced over to where the grey was now cropping the grass nearby.
“So, where’s Traveller?” he asked dismounting and coming over to tower above where the cowboy now sat slumped on the log, head bent.
He said nothing for a full minute and then said very quietly, “That lowlife, Jake shot him.”
Slim gasped and put a comforting hand out to his pard’s shoulder.
“Oh Jess I’m so dang sorry,” he said with deep feeling.
“And you let him walk away?” Mort asked now frowning. “Uh I don’t think so…you’re lying…unless you’ve killed him huh?”
“Mort!” Slim said in a shocked tone, “Why are you being this way, you can see he’s really upset.”
“Is he?” Mort growled, before grabbing the man by the shoulders and forcing him to look up into his eyes. “Are you huh, Jess?”
“Just leave it Mort!” he spat angrily.
Then something in Slim snapped, he looked into those oh so familiar blue eyes and saw nothing but irritation. There was no sadness or even anger at his loss. What the hell was happening here?
The man glanced at him and then looked away, unable to stand the scrutiny in the blond rancher’s eyes.
“I reckon you’d better answer Mort,” Slim said eventually, “and more to the point where is this Jake you spoke about. Maybe if we see him everything will become clear huh buddy?” He asked almost pleadingly. “Or is Mort right; you’ve killed him and buried your only hope of proving your innocence?”
That was when the dark-haired cowboy fell forward into Slim’ s arms in a dead faint.
When he was still out of it a good half hour later Mort had to concede that he was indeed in a poor way.
It was now almost completely dark and so they made camp and Slim cleaned up his pard as best he could by the light of the fire and then left him to sleep, just hoping he’d be more himself when he awoke in the morning.
Once his partner was sleeping comfortably Slim and Mort sat sipping a final coffee before, they too settled down for the night.
“Well what do you make of it?” Slim asked after a few minutes.
Mort shook his head, “I just don’t know…he’s so…well strange Slim, not himself at all.”
“Oh, come on Mort, think of everything he’s been through with all the accusations, worry, and now Traveller…dead.”
“Uh…so where is this mysterious Jake Harper then?” Mort said, “If he even exists…”
“Well of course he does. Maybe he had indeed killed him after what he did to Traveller? I guess he’ll tell us everything when he’s feeling better,” Slim added.
But Mort didn’t look convinced.
“You have to face up to the fact that he may be lying Slim... about everything. Think about it. He’s got the motive. You said yourself that you’ve got some really bad money troubles right now. And so maybe Jess decided to help you out the only way he knows how.”
“No, I…”
“Just hear me out Slim. He’s also got the perfect alibi saying he’s got … what did you call it…a doppelganger? He can go on robbing and blame it all on this mysterious Jake Harper; who we are yet to cast eyes on. Then there’s all Mose’s evidence too, or are you saying he’s lying?”
Slim sank his head in his hands, “I just don’t know what to think anymore,” he said in a muffled voice. He lifted his head and looked over at his pard who was now sleeping deeply. “I just don’t seem to know him anymore…it’s like there’s this kinda void between us. I can’t explain it.”
“I can,” said Mort quietly, “It’s called guilt Slim, the boy’s riddled with guilt at letting you down…letting us all down.”
Slim just sighed in despair, “What am I going to do Mort?”
His old friend threw him a compassionate smile, “Get a good night’s sleep Slim. We’re both exhausted, things will look better in the morning.”
In the morning both the grey gelding and the dark-haired cowboy had gone.
Chapter 6
Not only had the cowboy and his horse gone, but he’d taken Mort’s Buck and Slim’ s Alamo with him too.
They were a good twenty miles south west of Laramie in pretty rough terrain on the edge of the Medicine Bow forest and all they could do was set off walking.
“So, you still think he’s innocent?” Mort said testily as they trudged along in the early morning sunshine, the beauty of the day lost on them as they fumed inwardly at having been so easily deceived.
“He looked like he was really sick,” Slim muttered, “Hell Mort I just don’t understand how he could do this to us…turn his back on our friendship this way.”
Mort just shook his head sadly, “I figure the boy must be sick…had some kind of brainstorm. I was finding it real hard to imagine he was back on the old Owl Hoot Trail, but this? Betraying us this way? Hell, Jess is the most loyal, honorable guy I know…”and he lapsed into silence and they plodded on, both feeling as miserable as all get out.
It had taken Jess longer than he expected to escape mainly due to the nasty wound to his head. He’d managed to locate his hunting knife in the top of his boot and had begun the laborious task of cutting through the thick rope. However, after an hour or so he had passed out again. The wound was still bleeding, albeit now quite sluggishly. That proved to be the pattern throughout the night, until by dawn the final thongs were severed and he was free.
He wasted no time in checking Traveller and then headed out following Jake’s tracks.
It took him an hour or so to locate the campsite and note that three horses had left, followed by two men on foot. Had Jake met up with someone on the trail and then stolen their mounts he wondered…but why? Hell, why did the bastard do anything he thought angrily as he kneed Traveller on to a greater pace following the tracks.
It was nearing noon when he saw a pair of men ahead of him looking vaguely familiar. One was shorter walking briskly, to keep up with the easy lope of the much taller lanky man. Then he stopped and took his hat off to wipe his sweating brow, revealing a mop of blond hair.
“Slim,” he whispered to himself. “Slim and Mort,” then he gave a whoop of delight and spurred Traveller on apace, “Hey guys wait up!” he yelled.
Slim and Mort both turned, simultaneously drawing their weapons; their faces masks of anger tinged with fear.
Jess ignored the somewhat unfriendly welcome and threw himself down from the saddle marching over to them.
“Hey Slim…Mort? It’s me Jess.”
“Is it really?” Mort asked, still leveling his gun at the man. “So, what have you done with our mounts then huh?”
Jess looked bewildered and glanced at Slim for help. “What’s he sayin’?”
“Come on Jess, you lit out from camp in the night, taking Alamo and Buck,” Slim said in exasperation.
But Jess was having none of it and interrupted angrily.
“The hell I did! I spent all last night tied up by a lowlife called Jake Harper. He done shot me and left me tied to a dang tree yesterday afternoon. I only got free this morning and then traced his tracks.”
All the time he’d been talking Slim had been looking at him closely. Sure, there was a nasty wound to his head that Jake didn’t have…and more. For the first time Slim noted that Jake had sported a check shirt that he’d never seen before and also brown boots, which Jess didn’t favour. At the time with everything that had happened he hadn’t registered it, but now…. Then he glanced at Jess’s mount and saw Traveller alive and well to his delight. So, the man from the night before had been a fake but dadgum it, one hell of a good one!
“Jess, is that really you?” he said softly.
Jess who had been imploring Mort to drop his weapon, turned to look at his pard. The expression in those blue eyes so full of affection mixed with puzzlement that Slim was immediately convinced.
He holstered his gun and moving to his pard’ s side shook his outreached hand, before pulling him into a bear hug.
After a moment Jess pulled back and cast Mort a questioning glance, “Mort?”
The Sheriff was still unhappy, Jess could see that, but there again Jake was convincing…real convincing. After all he’d fooled Millie at the start and numerous others too.
“What do ya want me to do Mort?” he asked.
He shrugged, “If it’s true what you’re saying and it really was this Jake we were entertaining last night then I really don’t know Jess, because he’s a dead ringer for you.”
“Maybe this will do it,” Jess said and he slowly unbuttoned his shirt, “He ain’t got all these has he?” and he laid bare his scarred torso.
Slim looked at the familiar territory of his pard s, ‘badges of honor’. Then Jess stripped off his shirt to show the very faint silver scars, where he was once horsewhipped in the prisoner of war camp. “Or these or...” he said as his final shot,” this?” he asked pointing to where the bullet had so recently grazed him at the temple.”
Mort lowered his gun, “Put it back on son,” he said quietly, “I’m, sorry Jess, but we had to be sure.”
Jess buttoned up his shirt and grinned at his old friend.
“Why dontcha light a fire while I go fetch yer horses? It looks like he loosed ‘em off about half a mile or so back. They’ll be down by the river.”
Then he dug around in his saddle bag for the coffee makings and threw them across to Slim, “I could kill for a coffee,” he said cheerfully before making his way back down the track in search of Alamo and Buck.
Jess was back by the time the coffee was ready with the two horses in tow, none the worse for their little adventure.
Once the animals had been checked over, the men settled around the fire, Jess looking slightly apprehensive now.
“We should be on our way as soon as we’ve finished,” he said accepting a good strong coffee from Slim, “That low life said he was heading for the ranch and was gonna upset Miss Daisy and Mike by acting real badly around ‘em. They won’t be in danger but even so I think we should go in a few minutes,” he added as he finished drinking his coffee down quickly.
Slim looked surprising serene at the mention of the threat, “Well I shouldn’t worry too much Jess, there won’t be anyone there. Today is Sunday and Daisy and Mike will be in town until late afternoon, Daisy’s got some do at the Women’s Group and Mike’s at Davy Johnson’s party and staying over.
Jess gave a little whistle of relief. “So, it’s just him goin’ on a shootin’ spree we need to worry about then huh?”
Mort tipped his hat back looking wary, “I think you’d better tell us everything you know about this guy from the start Jess; the crimes he’s already committed in your name and those he’s got planned too!”
Jess sighed trying to think where to start. He knew everything as Jake had enjoyed bragging, plus of course Millie had told him stuff too. So, he began at the very beginning as Mort had requested.
“To start with you need to know he had a disguise, as well as lookin’ like my twin brother he also was a master at changing his appearance…see he was actually Jack Salt too.”
He looked up at Slim and Mort’s expressions and chuckled, “OK I know it seems kinda fanciful, but it’s true. That’s how he got all his information, sitting in the saloon night after night, drinking with Mose. Listening to our girls chatting too Slim, that’s how he knew exactly where I’d be at any given time.”
“Go on,” said Mort, deadpan.
“It was him that attempted to rob the Stage way back in early summer over Rawlins way. He knew I was up in the area with the mustangs. Then when you paid no credence to that Mort, later he robbed the trading post.”
Then he gave a grim laugh. “It was Jake masquerading as old Jack Salt that told me they’d got some of Denver’s best brew in stock…just to be dang sure I’d pay a call. What he didn’t reckon on was Seth and Nelly seeing me ride in on Traveller, but later he was riding that fancy grey.”
Mort nodded, “I’ll double check that those two young kids on the Botany trip can vouch for you as well. They went home earlier than expected.”
“Uh yes so I believe. Millie got friendly with Eli and said Larry’s Pa was taken sick, appendix I think, somethin’ like that so they went home early.”
Slim and Mort exchanged a glance, Mort having previously thought that suspicious.
Now he smiled at Jess, “Thanks for the information, I’ll follow it up and get a water tight alibi from them for you, likewise with the Major at the fort. I couldn’t contact him before.”
Jess nodded, “He was setting out on business when I left. They’d been called to settle a possible injun uprising in Montana. He should be back now though.”
“Then there was the Stage robbery,” Slim said quietly, looking at his pard over the rim of his cup, “Mose seemed really convinced that it was you?”
“And you believed him?” Jess asked…his expression now cold.
“Look Jess things were stacking up against you, what were we supposed to think? Mose was absolutely adamant it was you,” Mort exclaimed.
Jess hung his head. “Oh, he’s good this guy, real good. It even took Millie a while to see through him. Tom, Bert from the livery in town and Bill over in Cheyenne, he fooled them all. It was after Millie told me all about him and then Bill said Jake, (who he believed was me) was riding shotgun, that I followed the Stage. But I was too late to prevent the robbery…so I went after him. The rest you know. We fought, he pulled a gun and shot me and tied me up. Then he lit out and came upon you two pretty soon after. I imagine he felt he had to stay and convince you both that he was me before he headed off. He didn’t have much choice comin’ across you that way.”
Then he gave a bitter laugh, “By the sounds of it he convinced you two without too much of a problem…he was me pretty convincing huh?”
Both Slim and Mort looked rather embarrassed, but had to agree.
“That’s all the more reason we have to catch him before he does any more damage,” Jess said thoughtfully.
“Like what?” Mort asked.
Jess sighed, “He was talkin’ about murder…killin’ someone so I’d hang…and I think he’s just about crazy enough to do it too Mort.”
Slim leapt up, “Daisy?”
“No.” Jess said quickly, “he wouldn’t hurt a woman, of that I’m pretty sure. He could have, uh, you know…forced himself on Millie but he didn’t. She said he was a gentleman once she sussed out that he wasn’t me. And anyway, you said Daisy would be in town today?”
Mort threw the dregs of his coffee on the fire.
“I think we should head for town, catch up with Miss Daisy and Mike and make sure they stay somewhere safe until this situation is sorted out. You too Jess, if you bunk down in the jail with me you’ve got the perfect alibi huh?”
“That’s all very well and good keeping us all safe Mort but what about the poor devil he’s out to murder, what about them huh?”
“We’ll just have to keep an eye open for this Jake Harper and hopefully nab him before he can strike,” said Mort. “Come on let’s get going, sooner we’re in town, happier I’ll be.”
Once they hit town Slim took on the task of ‘rounding up Daisy and Mike’, as Jess put it. He booked them both into the Laramie Hotel with an adjoining room for himself. Then once he was sure they were settled in he returned to the Sheriff’s Office.
“I really think I should go back to the ranch with them tomorrow,” Slim said as he sat on the edge of Mort’s desk sipping a coffee. “Both of them are a tad anxious about all this business. In fact it was kind of hard to explain about this doppelganger character to be honest. It all seems so unbelievable. Anyway Daisy wants to get back home…so…”
“Well yeah of course she does,” said Jess hotly, “me too.”
Then he turned to Mort…
“Heck we can’t let this guy rule our lives. Me and Slim have a business to run ya know. We’re skating on thin ice as it is Mort, we can’t afford to buy in hired hands to cover me, and it ain’t fair leaving Slim to do all the work.”
Before Mort could reply there was an almighty crash as the office door banged open, practically coming off its hinges, admitting an unruly mob of a dozen or so men…all looking like they were out for blood.
Mort grabbed his rifle and Slim and Jess drew their irons too.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Mort exclaimed angrily, addressing one Clem Black, the owner of a timber business on the edge of town, stalwart member of the town council and to Mort’s mind, an all-out trouble maker.
“We’ve come for this man!” Clem spat angrily glaring at Jess.
“He murdered Newman Goodall’s son Christopher this afternoon while you were out fishing or such like with Sherman here,” he said nodding to where Slim had turned very pale and edged slightly closer to his pard.
“You have witnesses who thought they saw Jess?” Mort asked, ignoring the jibe.
“Indeed, we do and no ‘thought’ about it! Newman himself was badly injured. He’s with the doc having a bullet dug out as we speak. But he saw it and will testify; if he makes it,” he added darkly.
“Anyone else witness this?” Mort asked.
“Yes, Newman’s wife, Elizabeth was there on the doorstep when her boy was gunned down and that uh…Suzy… Suzy Morgan, Christopher’s girl. She saw it all too,” he said shooting a penetrating look in Jess’ direction. “Poor kid is at the docs as well. Really hysterical…she was beside herself with grief!” he yelled.
At the mention of his old flame Jess looked even more stunned. He’d had a very volatile love/hate…on/off relationship with Suzy many years ago; before he and Millie were an item. See # 8 The Runaway
Suzy was probably the biggest tease he had ever met and would keep him guessing, going off with other men and then come running back to beg him for forgiveness. Jess had endured it for a good six months before declaring he’d had enough of her childish games and finished the relationship. However, there were some who declared Suzy still carried a torch for him and would get back together given any encouragement. Even at the last dance she had abandoned her latest love Christopher Goodall while she danced the ‘Ladies Excuse Me’ with Jess… flirting outrageously, so Slim had noted at the time, and now this.
“Well what are you going to do about it?” Clem yelled, backed up by several other overzealous worthies. “We want justice Sheriff, even if the murdering swine is your good friend.”
“Oh, you’ll get justice all right,” Mort said equally angrily, “Just as soon as I apprehend the felon. I can categorically tell you now it wasn’t Jess Harper, because he was with me and Slim at the time of the offense.”
“Oh, sure you would say that,” growled Henry Pratchet. “Are you saying Elizabeth Goodall and Suzy Morgan are liars then?”
“No, I’m not saying that,” said Mort, taking a deep breath and trying to remain calm. “What I’m saying is they are both mistaken. Jess has a double…a step-brother who is the spitting image of him. Slim and I have seen him and that’s God’s own truth. I know it’s kinda hard to accept but that really is the case. This guy, Jake Harper, is the one who’s committed all these crimes of late; the robbery at the Trading Post and the Stage hold up too.”
“Oh, please Sheriff,” said Clem sarcastically, “surely you can do better than that!”
“It’s the gospel truth I’m telling you, and Millie Johnson has seen him too, he hoodwinked her and Tom from the saloon as well. I tell you, the guy’s a dead ringer for Jess!”
“Um, interesting these folks are all Harper’s friends isn’t it?” Clem Black said.
Then glancing over to Jess said, “You’re kind of quiet Harper. Got nothing to say in your defense?”
“I ain’t gonna waste my breath,” Jess drawled, “seems like you’ve got me tried, convicted and condemned to hang already.”
“Well isn’t that the truth,” piped up young Jed Smit another trouble maker who always seemed to be in the middle of any unrest or rebellion.
“I think it’s time you left,” Mort said raising his rifle to point at Clem’s substantial belly.
Clem cast a quick glance back over to where Slim and Jess were still holding their Colt’s pointing in his direction and decided not to push his luck.
“This isn’t over Harper,” he sneered, “we’ll be back for you…with a rope,” and he marched towards the door.
But Mort was too fast for him and he barred the way, thrusting his rifle painfully into the bulky man’s guts.
“Anymore talk like that Black and you’ll be spending the foreseeable future in my jail, and that goes for the rest of you!” he spat angrily, before standing aside and letting the now somewhat subdued deputation troop out.
Once they’d gone Jess holstered his gun, “Thanks Mort, but they’ll be back you know.”
“All the more reason to find the real culprit dang it,” said Mort angrily, hating having his authority usurped, albeit only fleetingly.
“Dadgum it where’s that deputy of mine?” he rasped, channeling his anger towards the hapless Lon.
“Yeah, that’s a point,” said Slim, “I thought you left him in charge; he should have taken control of this business.”
“Too damn right he should,” Mort growled, pushing the door to the cells open and hollering down the corridor.
Then he rushed inside, drawn by at a faint groan coming from one of the cells.
He hurried into the cubicle, followed by Jess and Slim and stood back in shock at the sight of his deputy lying on one of the bunks, bound and gagged.
Mort quickly removed the offending gag from a very groggy looking Lon.
“What in hell happened to you, son?” Mort asked with concern, as he quickly used his knife to cut though the ropes binding the young deputy.
Lon shook his head a couple of times and stared around him as if in a daze and then he finally focused on Jess and literally jumped back, cowering away from the dark-haired cowboy.
“Jess Harper,” he finally managed, “that’s what happened to me boss. He came in here claiming you’d deputized him to give me a break. The next thing I know he pistol whipped me and tied me up. I’ve only just come around.”
“So, you don’t know anything about the murder then?” Mort asked.
“Murder, what murder? All I know is that Jess here has given me one hell of a headache and you don’t seem too concerned about it,” said Lon plaintively.
“It weren’t me, that’s why,” Jess said quickly, “I was with Mort way down in Medicine Bow forest when you were attacked and young Christopher Goodall was killed.”
“Chris Goodall is dead? You mean Suzy Morgan’s beau?” Lon asked trying to catch up.
Then he turned back to Mort, “It was Jess here I swear it. What’s going on boss huh?”
It took Mort a good ten minutes to finally convince his deputy that the person he had seen was not Jess, but indeed his exact double.
“Well dang me,” the young deputy said scratching his head and now throwing Jess an amused glance, “he sure does favour you Jess.”
“Don’t I know it” said Jess dryly.
They had returned to the main office and the Sheriff had just poured his deputy a reviving coffee, when the door burst open once more, admitting a tearful, wild eyed Suzy Morgan.
She was followed by an equally distraught looking Carrie.The doctor’s daughter being the first to speak.
“I’m sorry Sheriff, but she ran off from Pa’s office insisting she see Jess.”
But even as she spoke the diminutive, pretty blond girl hurled herself at Jess pummeling his chest with her small fists and crying wildly.
“How could you do that, gun him down in cold blood?” she screamed, beating his chest relentlessly.
Jess tried to restrain her by grabbing her wrists.
“I hate you; I hate you!” she screamed.
He ignored her histrionics and merely held her close until the storm finally abated.
Eventually she gave a final hiccuping sob before she took a deep steadying breath and said more quietly, “Why Jess? Why didn’t you just tell me the way you felt? You didn’t have to kill him. Now you’ll hang for sure,” she said breaking down into silent tears.
“Sweetheart it weren’t me that killed Chris, really it weren’t!”
“I saw you with my own eyes,” she wailed. “It was you I loved all along Jess. You must know that,” she cried her eyes now full of adoration, but then quickly followed with misery “It was you who threw me over, remember?”
Jess was used to her mercurial personality and stopped himself from asking why the heck she was going out with Chris Goodall, if she didn’t love the guy. Knowing her he figured she’d probably just been stringing him along until Jess himself fell into line again. So, he merely said, “Huh…so what was I supposed to have said before I shot him?”
“Why that you were going to kill Chris and go away with me of course,” she said. Even with all this heartbreak and trauma, there was still a triumphant gleam in her eyes Jess noted. Hell, she really was something else he thought bitterly.
“I do believe you’d have carried me off if I hadn’t swooned,” she added breathily.
Carrie rolled her eyes at Jess in spite of the seriousness of the situation and they exchanged a meaningful look, both knowing the Suzy of old.
“Look Ma’am,” said Mort, “you’ve got it all wrong,” and again he attempted the task of trying to convince yet another citizen of the existence of Jess’ lookalike and explain Jess’ alibi was indeed the Sheriff himself.
After a while she turned her baby blue innocent eyes on the Sheriff and taking a shuddering breath, voiced her question, “So it really wasn’t Jess committing a crime of passion then?” she asked in a small voice.
“No Ma’am,” said Mort trying to hide a grim smile.
Then she turned her eyes, again brimming with tears, on Jess “And you don’t want to get back with me?”
Jess felt a stirring of pity for the girl. Sure, she was kinda shallow and real flighty, but in her own strange way, she probably did love him, he thought.
“I’m sorry honey,” he said softly, “but no. I’m with Millie now, you know that.”
“Oh yes…of course,” she said looking around her in a slightly dazed manner.
Then she turned back to Carrie, “I think I’d like to go home now Carrie. Will you take me?”
Once the couple had left, escorted by Lon, Slim turned back to Jess. “She always was kind of a handful wasn’t she pard?”
“You can say that again,” muttered Jess bleakly. Hell, she’d shown hardly any compassion or indeed sorrow at the death of Christopher Goodall.
“Women,” he muttered exchanging a dumbfounded glance with Slim, “who can figure them eh?”
Slim shrugged and turned to Mort, “Do you think Suzy believed you?”
Mort shook his head, “Kinda hard to tell. I reckon she’s still in shock after witnessing the shooting. That’s why she’s talking kinda crazy. To be honest, this story about Jess having a double is sort of hard to swallow, unless you’ve seen the evidence,” he added quickly.
Slim looked over to where his pard had slumped down on the saggy old couch by the wall and thought he looked pretty much done in.
“Its common knowledge you had that bust up with young Chris Goodall too Jess,” he said softly.
Jess’s head shot up and he looked angry, “Goddamn it Slim, you know how I feel about Newman Goodall making his son the Deputy Manager!”
Jess didn’t know the word nepotism but he sure knew what it meant and he’d been as irritated as everyone else when the Manager had appointed his completely talentless son as the Deputy Manager of the Laramie Bank. It wasn’t just that he was wanting in the actual skills to carry out the role, but he was also sadly lacking in the practice of confidentiality.
It had been one day a few weeks earlier when Jess had found Christopher holding forth in the Laramie saloon regarding the financial issues plaguing them at the ranch.
“I shouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t the Sherman spread that goes to the wall next,” he had pontificated to a rapt audience. “I mean what does an ex-gunslinger like Harper know about ranching anyway?”
There had been a sharp intake of breath, as unbeknownst to Chris, Jess had entered the bar and had been standing listening to his name being blackened for a good couple of minutes.
However, Jess employed great self-restraint for once and stopped short of punching the bespectacled youth into next week. He had left him in no doubt as to what he would do if he heard him mouthing off that way again however. He made his point clear using some very colourful language, resulting in Chris slinking out of the bar and keeping a very low profile ever since.
“So, what’ re you sayin’? People will think I gunned him down in cold blood just because he was bad mouthing me in the saloon?” Jess asked moodily.
“Of course not,” Slim said quickly, “but it sure won’t help any if folk know there was bad feeling between you. It will all add fuel to the fire won’t it.”
“Except that it weren’t me and I wasn’t there!” Jess spat, now feeling so frustrated at the whole situation that Slim and Mort could see he was about to blow.
“It’s OK,” said Slim more kindly, “we know that pard... we just need to convince everyone else that’s all.”
“Yeah and the only way I can do that is go after that low life Jake and bring him in,” said Jess a determined look in his deep blue eyes.
“Oh no…no,” said Mort quickly, “that mob would have you strung up from the nearest tree before you made it out of town.”
“Well we’ll just hafta hatch a plan to get around that won’t we?” Jess said, refusing to be side-lined. “Because whether you like it or not Mort, I’m gonna find the bastard and bring him to trial. If I don’t, I reckon I’m done for because folk aren’t gonna let this rest. They wanna see justice done and half of them ain’t too bothered who swings at the end of that rope either,” he finished bitterly.
Chapter 7
A little later Slim reluctantly returned to the hotel to check on Daisy and Mike, whilst Jess and Mort settled down for the evening.
“I doubt that mob will bother us again tonight,” Mort said thoughtfully, “but if old man Goodall pegs out…well then, I figure we’ll have a riot on our hands Jess and you’ll be safest in one of the cells.”
“You’d be safest if I were to head out later tonight,” Jess replied stubbornly.
“Come on Jess, I can’t let you do that; it would be suicide.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Jess asked belligerently.
“Oh, come on Mort, you know dang well what I mean. Are you saying you’re arresting me or that you’d rather I stayed put…but I’m a free man and can do as I please huh?”
“I’ve no grounds to arrest you because I know for a fact that you’re innocent, but I have to consider your safety too Jess so, no I won’t let you go out there.”
Jess looked down and said nothing.
Looking back on that conversation Mort mentally kicked himself. Dang it he should have known what his friend was like and the only way to hold him would have been under lock and key, but by then it was too late.
Jess who had bedded down in the staff sleeping quarters at the back of the cells, waited until the small hours when he knew Mort would be sleeping soundly. Then he tiptoed out of the room and made his way silently into the office. He paused just long enough to scribble a quick note and then let himself out and made his way down Main Street to the Livery.
He walked in and called out to young Billy the stable boy.
As he’s surmised Billy was asleep in the hayloft, but came quickly down the ladder when he heard Jess call out.
“Is that you Mister Harper sir?” the youngster asked blinking in the light of the overhead lamp Jess had just lit.
“Yeah, I just wanted to tell you I was taking Traveller.”
“Kinda early ain’t it sir?” The boy asked squinting up at Jess.
Jess grinned at him, “If you mean am I on the run, then I guess I am, because the Sheriff sure don’t want me to leave town. But see it’s this way Billy, some punk out there is a dead ringer for me and he done shot Chris Goodall and his Pa and I’ve gotta go find him, clear my name see?”
“Sure, I can understand that,” the boy said as he led Traveller out of his stall and hauled the saddle in place.
The horse accepted being wakened from his slumbers with his usual easy-going manner and merely nuzzled Jess’s shirt pocket looking for a sugar lump.
Jess obliged and then rubbed his mount’s velvety nose talking softly to him, the horse blowing gently down his nostrils in reply.
Then Jess raised a quizzical eyebrow to the boy. “Half the town think I’m lyin ’ about having a doppel - er a double and the rest think I’m the other guy, impersonating me. So how come you don’t…huh?”
“Because I know you Mister Harper and you wouldn’t lie about that kinda thing and I know it’s you…stands to reason. You only have to see the way this big fella is around you,” he said patting Traveller affectionately.
Jess felt real moved by the boy’s loyalty.
“You’ve got a good heart Billy,” he said softly, before tossing him some coins, “you go treat yerself in the morning huh.”
“Gee thanks Mister Harper sir,” the boy said his eyes shining, “and good luck!”
Jess walked Traveller slowly down Main Street, making as little sound as possible, before mounting up at the edge of town. He headed off towards Medicine Bow, to where Jake had left him bound and gagged. He figured that he’d have realized Jess had escaped by now, and also knew the miscreant would be heading for the Canadian border…Jake having bragged about his plans. Well he dang well wouldn’t make it Jess vowed as he kneed Traveller off to a brisk trot as the first rays of dawn lit his way.
Meanwhile back on the edge of town Clem Black had awoken with a bad case of indigestion. He’d taken some powders and was now staring moodily out of the bedroom window waiting for the discomfort to abate when something caught his eye. It was a lone figure walking down the centre of the street leading a bay horse. Harper! Goddamn it, it was Jess Harper! Even as he watched the young cowboy mounted up and set off at a hurried trot.
Just seconds later he was pulling on his pants and shirt and quickly left the sleeping house, heading for the homes of Henry Pratchet and Jed Smit, his allies in the capture and comeuppance of one Jess Harper for the brutal murder of Christopher Goodall.
“Well if the law won’t deal with the culprit, we’ll just have to take matters into our own hands,” he said sometime later to Henry Pratchet as they stood about in the Livery stable.
“Where the hell is that boy?” Henry asked moodily, not being a morning person and not at all happy at the early call, “how long does it take to saddle a hire horse for goodness sake?”
A good ten minutes later, Billy led an aged nag very slowly into the stable.
“Sorry,” he said looking anything but apologetic, “he was kinda hard to catch.”
“Well that sure surprises me,” Henry said eyeing the geriatric mount with a jaundiced eye, “he the best you got?”
“Yes sir, he is a tad old, but he runs at a good steady pace, good for a long ride. So, will you be making a long ride sir?” he asked politely.
“None of your goddamn business kid,” Henry said taking the reins and climbing up into the saddle.
“Come on Clem, we’ll call in at the Lazy B and collect my boys, Jim and Pete, I think we could use some tough young blood,” he added throwing the skinny Jed Smit a rather disparaging glance.
“Yes, yes,” replied Black fussily, “let’s just get on or we’ll never catch up to Harper.”
Billy sat up and took notice at that, his suspicions confirmed, and as soon as the men had ridden out, he high-tailed it to the Sheriff’s office.
“Good boy, you were right to tell me,” Mort said tossing the lad a coin, “I appreciate it. Um…keep all this to yourself will you son, we don’t want a whole gang of bounty hunters on the trail, do we?”
“No sir,” the boy said quickly, “they won’t hear nuthin’ from me Sheriff.”
Mort wasted no time in alerting Slim over in the hotel and the two rode out within the hour, leaving Lon once more in charge. However just as they were about to ride out, they had a flying visit from Doc Baker.
“I just thought I should let you know the news at once Mort. I figure it will have a bearing on the case?”
“Indeed, it will Sam, many thanks,” Mort said beaming at the medic before he and Slim rode out at speed.
Jess was aware that Clem Black and his cohorts were on his trail way before they were within striking distance. He reined Traveller in and checked out the raised dust far off in the distance. He was just able to make out five riders, Clem and his buddies along with Henry Pratchett’s two boys from the Lazy B Ranch he figured and smiled grimly.
It was a standing joke between Jess and Slim that the B in Lazy B stood for bastards as most of the crew were just that, so Jess proclaimed. However, the exceptions were Jim and Pete Pratchett who were real good wranglers, hard workers too. Their only shortcoming being that they were totally under their father’s thumb. If Henry said jump, they asked how high, and Jess just knew if their Pa said lynch Jess Harper; they’d give it their best shot.
They were real good at ropin ’ and riding as Jess knew having been up against them in a calf roping contest once. They had excelled and so he figured it would be sensible to give the boys a wide berth. He therefore kneed Traveller up a steep incline towards the old Indian trail, running parallel above the road below. As long as the party didn’t glance up, he would be just fine up there and still stay on track for running Jake Harper to ground. Once he’d done that, he figured there wouldn’t be a jury in the country that would find him guilty of the alleged crimes that had been laid at his door.
In hindsight, maybe he should have gone to ground himself and stayed hidden until Clem and his cronies had passed him by. But he just didn’t want Jake to get clean away, and he had one heck of a head start on Jess, that he knew…
Mort and Slim had been riding for a good while when Mort reckoned they must be getting pretty close to their quarry so he fired off a volley of shots.
Slim reined in beside the Sheriff looking puzzled, “What’s all that about Mort?”
“I thought I’d just send a message to Clem Black and his buddies that the law is around. With any luck they’ll pause for us to catch up and we can share Sam’s news.”
Slim looked uncertain, “Or else it’ll make them pursue my pard even faster,” he said casting Mort an anxious glance.
“Well come on then what are you waiting for?” Yelled a now equally anxious Mort
As the shots echoed out across the prairie behind the ridge Jess was riding along, the bunch of riders just below him glanced up as one and saw him.
Jess immediately set Traveller to a headlong gallop, taking a route down from the rocky uneven path above, to the road, which was much easier for Traveller to navigate at speed.
Jess lay low across his horse’s neck as the posse of men opened fire on him.
“Just like old times ain’t it boy?” he called to his horse. “You and me bein’ chased by a dang posse.”
He was now riding at breakneck speed, but then two things happened at once. The road became suddenly deeply rutted from a recent flash flood, and Jess, not wanting to risk Traveller falling, slowed down some. Then at the same moment Jim Pratchett’s mount leapt forward at even greater speed and the young cowboy twirled his rope high, before expertly roping Jess and yanking him from the saddle to smash into the dirt; leaving Traveller carrying on now rider-less.
Jim was off his horse and had a winded Jess roped up like he was a calf ready for the branding iron, in the blink of an eye.
“There ya go Pa. I’ve got Jess Harper for ya, now what are you gonna do with him?” asked a grinning Jim.
“String him up from the highest tree of course son!” Pratchett said with a nasty laugh. “Looks like the Sheriff isn’t going to do his duty, so I guess it’s down to us town folk from the council to see justice done.”
“But, heck Pa that’s a lynching,” Jim said looking deeply shocked. “I don’t want anything to do with a lynching.”
By then his brother Pete and the rest of the gang had ridden over.
“You’re going to hang Harper?” Pete asked now looking just as aghast as his brother.”
“I thought we were just bringing him in for a fair trial, you never said anything about a hanging.”
“Tosh!” Clem Brown spat, “A lily livered pair you’ve raised, Henry!”
Then he turned to Jed Smit, “Go fetch his horse back will you Jed. It’s kind of fitting Harper ends his days on the back of his beloved Traveller huh?”
Jess had now recovered sufficiently to get to his feet, although he was tightly bound and now held in the vice like grip of Clem Brown, Henry Pratchett having levelled his rifle at Jess’ head.
“Any last wishes Harper?” he asked with a grim smile. Jess replied with a very colorful response basically suggesting Clem Brown did something physically impossible, “You go… …. …..”
Clem was furious and back-slapped Jess hard and growled, “Maybe when we finally bring you to justice you’ll atone for your sins before you meet your Maker? It’s about time you learned some humility huh?”
“Ha, from you?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow. “I figure you don’t know the meaning of the word, and as for justice…so lynching is justice now huh…no trial…nuthin’.”
“And you think that’s a good idea do ya Jim?” He asked the now ashen faced youngster.
“Nope, you know I don’t Jess.”
“Please Pa don’t do this,” he added.
“Too late boy,” Henry spat as Jed returned with Traveller.
“Bring him over to this big old Cottonwood Jed... it’ll do the job nicely.
Jess was manhandled into the saddle by Clem and Jed, and the rope thrown over the huge tree branch high above, the noose placed around his neck.
“So, do you want to confess before we serve justice?” Clem asked now holding Traveller’s bridle.
Jed stood at the horse’s rear, ready to whip his rump, sending the critter off, leaving his master hanging.
“No because I’m damn well not guilty!” Jess yelled angrily.
“Have it your own way,” Clem said.
“OK Jed, whip the horse real good!”
Jed raised the whip but then halted abruptly as both Jim and Pete levelled their rifles at him.
“Put the goddamn whip down Jed or I’ll shoot,” yelled Jim angrily.
The gangling youth dropped it like it was a red-hot poker and backed off.
Immediately Henry went and picked it up, ready to do the deed himself but then Jim and Pete trained their guns on him.
“Drop it Pa…please,” Jim said, using his last ounce of courage to disobey his father.
Then a voice behind them all broke the pregnant silence.
“I should do as he says if you know what’s good for you Henry,” said Mort in an icy tone, “because see iffen you don’t I might just have to blow your damn head off.”
All the party surrounding Jess turned as one, lowering their weapons.
“I’m just doing the job that you won’t Sheriff,” Henry said unabashed.
“Well it’s a good job those boys of yours have got more sense than their Pa then,” said Slim furiously, “because you see Henry, my partner couldn’t be guilty. Newman Goodall came around just before we left town. Doc Sam came over and told us Newman shot the gunman in the shoulder at almost point-blank range. Sam reckons he’s probably dead by now, from a wound like that. Uh and as you can see Jess hasn’t got a mark on him.”
Both Clem and Henry exchanged an embarrassed glance, looking mighty wrong footed by this latest piece of news.
“You’re really lucky your boys stepped in Henry, because you’d be looking at the business end of a rope yourself if you’d hung Jess here, you too Clem,” Mort rasped.
Just a few minutes later Slim slipped the noose from around Jess’s neck and hauled him down from the saddle. He placed a comforting hand on his shoulder to steady him and asked, “Are you OK pard?”
Jess rubbed his throat, took a deep breath and sighed, “Yeah. Thanks.” Then he turned the full force of the Harper temper on his would-be assassins!
It had taken more than a little of Mort’s diplomacy and patience to finally calm his friend down.
“Just leave it to me huh Jess, they won’t go unpunished for this I can promise you,” he said as he finally remounted and started to escort the now shamefaced men back to town.
Once they’d moved off Slim turned to his friend and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, “Are you sure you’re OK pard?” he asked kindly.
Jess sighed deeply, “I guess…”
Then he moved off and mounted up again, turning Traveller away from home.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Slim asked plaintively as he too mounted up, now nearing the end of his tether from all the ordeals of late.
“To find him of course,” said Jess doggedly, “even if he is dead, I can prove my innocence once and for all…and if he ain’t…well we’ve got us some talkin’ to do. I need to find out why he did all this Slim. Hell, he’s kin after all. There must be something we can salvage. I’m kinda short on kin ya know,” he finished with a grim smile.
Slim slapped his arm gently, “I know that Jess, but you just have to accept it, you’re too late, and he’ll be dead by now for sure. Looking for a corpse out there would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, you just haven’t got any chance.”
“But I need to try,” Jess said looking despairing.
That was it for Slim, he’d had enough.
“Dang it Jess have you forgotten where you started from? We’ve got a business to run and one that’s in pretty poor shape right now too. I need all hands-on deck and that includes you. Poor Daisy and Mike have been pitching in to help me but we can’t carry on this way…I need you Jess.”
Jess’s head shot up and he looked immediately contrite. He took a deep breath and looked longingly off to the distant hills, where he thought he would find his half brother...dead or alive he didn’t now care too much. He just needed an end to things. Then Slim’s words echoed in his head, ‘I need you Jess.’ and he knew what he had to do.
“I’m sorry Slim, I’ve been kinda thoughtless, you’re right, I’ll get back to work.”
“Well you’ve had good reason to act the way you have been. But now it would be really good if you could get off out there and fetch home some mustangs back to break, that would be a really big help Jess.”
Jess gave him a genuine smile at that, and said, “You got it pard, but do ya think I could just come home and get me some of Miss Daisy’s cookin’ under my belt first huh?”
Chapter 8
Jess set off on his mustanging trip a few days later heading south for the base of the Sherman Mountains where there had been a recent sighting.
He enjoyed the ride down deciding to camp near the lake and maybe even venture up the mountain a ways and see if he could find old Denver James.
Denver had an illicit still up the mountain and Slim’s last words, before Jess rode out, had been, “Say howdy to old Den if you see him won’t you Jess?” Then he had given his pard a broad wink. Jess had just grinned back knowing that the presence of Daisy had forbade Slim adding, ‘and do a little trading huh?’
There was no sign of the purported mustangs so far and Jess figured he’d spend the night by the lake and then push on further south. He enjoyed some fishing and after supper settled down for an early night.
He was still wrestling with his feelings about Jake Harper and for two pins would have taken off after him again... But no, he owed Slim his loyalty and anyways the guy was probably long dead he decided as he settled down for the night.
It was the following morning, just as he was finishing a scratch breakfast, that he saw a familiar figure riding towards him around the lake perimeter.
With her white blond hair, deeply tanned, unlined face and startlingly blue eyes, Kate Munroe sure was an attractive woman Jess mused, even if she was now in her middle years.
Dressed in her usual buckskins that suited her trim figure so well, she raised a hand in welcome before slipping easily down from the saddle as Jess rose to meet her.
“Howdy Jess,” she said striding over and offering a hand. She shook Jess’s firmly grinning up into his face, “long time no see stranger.”
Jess showed her to a place by the fire and poured her a coffee.
“Way too long Kate, so where’s that Denver been hidin’ you huh?”
“Oh, you know me better than that Jess,” she said with a wicked wink, “I’ve been up to Montana visitin’ some good friends these last few weeks. I left that workshy old fool to look after him-self for a spell.”
Kate was a distant cousin of Denver James and had moved up the mountain with Den and his sons, Cody and Mick, after her husband Charlie died.
It was an arrangement of mutual convenience, with Kate acting as housekeeper and Denver keeping an eye on her and ‘watchin’ her back’ as he liked to say. However, Kate was a force to be reckoned with. Jess knew that she could look after herself in most circumstances being as good as, and often better, at hunting fishing and shooting as any man. But she was sensible enough to know that living up the mountain alone was not without its risks. So, the couple rubbed along reasonably well most of the time. But Jess figured that was mostly due to the fact that Kate was her own woman and came and went at her own discretion.
He chuckled now, “So did Denver survive then?”
“Oh, he managed just fine. That’s why I’m off down to Laramie for a spell. Thought I’d check up on the Sheriff,” she said, looking out to the lake and flushing a little.
Everyone knew that Mort Cory was sweet on Kate, but the jury was still out as to her feelings. Sure she was real fond of the man, she had once professed to Jess, but maybe not enamored enough to finally agree to marriage Jess surmised, time would tell.
They exchanged some more news before Kate finally drained her cup and stood up to leave…and dropped her bomb shell.
“Uh, so did you meet up with that half-brother of yours then Jess?”
Jess just gaped at her.
“Uh a guy named Jake Harper, claimed he was your half-brother and he’s a dead ringer for you, so had no reason not to believe him.”
Then she threw him a sardonic look, “After all we know what your Pa was like don’t we Jess?” * See #56 Kate Munroe’s Secret.
“You’ve seen him…alive?” He finally managed his mouth dry and heart practically beating out of his chest.
“Hey Jess, you OK boy? You’ve gone mighty pale,” said Kate sitting down again and giving him her full attention.
“Have ya?” he almost shouted, ignoring her question.
She nodded, “Not only seen him but nursed him real good too Jess. I found him out on the trail, more dead than alive. I really thought he was you at first glance.”
“Go on,” Jess whispered.
“Well that was until I stripped him off of course. See he didn’t have any of those scars of yours. He was in a filthy undershirt and stinkin’ socks…well heck Jess, Miss Daisy would never send you out in socks more hole than wool,” she said chuckling and shaking her head, “good old Daisy.”
“Never mind about that…he survived you say?” Jess asked looking not just pale but real upset now Kate noticed.
“Why sure he did boy, all patched up. He told me he was kin to you and how he was riding over to the ranch to pay a call. I thought you’d have seen him? He was riding this way, unless he took the old Indian trail,” she said thoughtfully, “could have done I suppose?”
“How long?” Jess cried leaping up from his seat.
“How long ago did he leave Kate?”
“Oh, I see… it was yesterday afternoon. He said he’d take it real slow because he’s still feeling kinda beat up. Said he’d camp out then set off first thing. He should be arriving round about now I reckon. But I expect Slim will make him welcome so don’t fret boy.”
Jess was up and breaking camp in the blink of an eye. He threw his saddle on Traveller and jumped up all the time Kate watching him in puzzlement.
“When you see Mort tell him Jake’s at the ranch will ya Kate…it’s real important,” he said urgently.
“Well sure hon…but what’s wrong, where’s the fire Jess?”
But she was too late Jess was already disappearing in a cloud of dust back towards home.
Some half dozen miles from the Sherman Ranch and Relay a lone rider waited up on the hillside, his rifle at the ready.
Jess never knew what hit him…
One minute he was spurring Traveller on to even greater speed and the next he was flung from the saddle as a bullet caught him in the back of his arm.
He fell heavily hitting his head, rolled over a couple of times and then lay deathly still in the dirt.
The man with his face rode up a few minutes later, replaced his rifle in its scabbard and looked down at his half-brother without a trace of compassion, before dismounting and wandering over.
He squatted down, peering at the still body for a good minute before smiling grimly.
“That’s an end to it,” he said quietly, “well as far as you’re concerned anyway brother dear. But I think I can tarnish your reputation a tad more and this time I’m really going to pay attention to detail. I reckon this will be my greatest test yet…convincing Sherman and the old woman that I really am you, huh?”
Then he removed Jess’s shirt, bandana, gun belt and boots, and put them on before dragging the body to some scrubby bushes and covering it with some more leaves and branches. .
“Sad ending your days this way huh Jess…but kind of fitting too. See in my eyes that’s all you are…just buzzard bait,” and with a grim smile he wandered off to catch Traveller.
That was a bigger task than he had anticipated, but he eventually roped the angry horse and led him away…Traveller sidestepping and whinnying in frustration and anger, rolling his eyes and even attempting to bite Jake.
However, he eventually pulled the rope tight and managed to lead him albeit with difficulty as he rode his own grey mount.
A mile or so from the ranch Jake ground hobbled his grey gelding near a stream with plenty of grazing and threw Traveller, who was now tethered to a tree with a short rein, a wary glance.
“I guess you aren’t about to let me ride you are you, horse?” he growled, and Traveller let out an angry whinny, shaking his head and that pretty much answered the question Jake figured
“I thought not,” he said, “so we’ll just have to think up a little story for Sherman won’t we, and teach you a few manners in the process,” and picking up a heavy branch he used all his strength to bring it crashing down on Traveller’s front legs.
An hour or so later Jake walked down the rise and into the yard leading a very subdued and lame horse.
Slim wandered out of the barn looking surprised, “You back already pard something wrong?”
Jake took a deep breath, first hurdle successfully negotiated.
“Sure is,” he said adopting Jess’s deep gravelly voice, “we were jumped by a cougar and Traveller went down, bruised his knees real bad. Just caught my arm on a rock,” he said showing the patch of blood on the shirt from where he’d shot Jess. “But it’s only a scratch...it’s this old fellah I’m more worried about.”
“Oh, buddy I’m so sorry,” said Slim at once, “bring him in the barn, I’ll fetch the liniment and some cold water.”
Jake smiled at the blond rancher’s retreating back, like taking candy from a baby he thought fleetingly, before following him into the barn.
Slim was slightly surprised at how hand-shy Traveller seemed around Jess, actually turning to bite him when his buddy bent to put a cold compress on the swollen joints, before rubbing in the liniment.
“That’s not like him,” Slim remarked frowning.
“Yeah well, he was pretty spooked by it Slim; the dang cougar was right on top of us, so what do you expect huh!”
Slim made allowances for the brusque reply knowing Jess must be really upset, and Traveller too by the look of things.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Slim said quietly, “go ask Daisy to get the coffee pot on huh?”
Jake just nodded.
Once Slim had gone he stood up from where he’d been applying the liniment and walked out of the stall banging the door behind him, making Traveller flinch and roll his eyes.
“Stupid critter,” Jake scoffed, “it’s a dang good job you can’t talk, horse,” he said before mooching off for a quick cigarette.
Then he paused and put the pack away again…attention to detail, remember, he said to himself. That dumb broad Millie had smelled the drink and smokes on him and he figured Miss Daisy would be just as astute. But at least this time he had all the right ‘props’ as he thought of them. He was in possession of Jess’s iron, boots, hat and shirt, so that would all add to the illusion. Heck with any luck they’d all think he’d perished from that dang Bank Manager’s bullet, so he really had everything going for him he thought smiling to himself. Now with Harper dead he could really enjoy himself.
Luckily for Jake, Slim had already warned Daisy that Jess was in a somewhat volatile mood, so she backed off some. I’ll just be there with a listening ear when I’m needed, she decided. But oh, it was hard not to take him in her arms and hug him such was the look of sadness in his eyes.
Jake had done his homework well. All those hours of standing at the Laramie bar as Jack Salt had not been wasted. He’d heard from Millie how upset Jess was one day because his beloved horse was sick. Another day he’d heard how Slim had teased Jess about Miss Daisy’s clucky ways around him. Then as to how fond he was of the kid, er Mike, yes that was it, Mike.
“So, where’s Mike?” he asked as he sipped the coffee provided by Daisy who now sat opposite him smiling, but saying little.
“Oh, he’s been staying over at young Davey Johnson’s place, took the dogs with him,” Daisy said smiling again, “I expect you were wondering where Blue was?”
Jake thought…blue...blue…a dog, yes of course.
“I sure was,” he agreed.
“I was going to fetch him tomorrow and drive into town for some new school shirts,” Daisy said eagerly, “you could drive me if you like Jess. We could see Mike and check that Blue and Buttons have been behaving themselves?” she finished with a little chuckle.
“Yeah, sure that would be swell,” Jess agreed.
Then turning to Slim, “I thought I’d wait until Traveller was better before I um…rode out again,” he said vaguely, wondering what Jess had been up to and what had that Kate woman said to him?
“Sure…so did you have any luck?” Slim inquired.
Slim sighed and rolled his eyes theatrically, “Finding the mustangs Jess.”
“Oh them, uh, nope not a sign…need to go further south I reckon.”
“Makes sense, so did you go up the mountain then?” he asked softly as Daisy went off to refill the coffee pot and fetch some pie.
“Heck Jess what’s wrong with you, did you bang your head when you came off Traveller?”
“No, why?”
“Well you’re sure acting like you did. You were going to try and see Denver, bring us some Moonshine back?”
“Hush Jess,” Slim whispered, “not so dang loud are you crazy, Daisy’s just next door.”
“Sorry…um, that sure…er I mean no, didn’t see him Slim.”
Then he got up quickly and made for the door, “I’m going to check on my horse,” he called over his shoulder and was gone, banging the door behind him.
Daisy came back in carrying the pie and looked at the recently slammed door in surprise, “Where’s he gone?” she asked.
“Check on Traveller,” Slim responded, looking equally surprised, “heck he’s only just come in, that’s a bit excessive even for Jess.”
Daisy nodded, “Especially when there’s fresh pie to be had.”
Slim shook his head, “I think this cougar attack has upset him more than I realized. Don’t worry Daisy I’m sure he’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep.”
Slim and Daisy were left even more perplexed when ‘Jess’ merely picked at his food before excusing himself to go check on Traveller again.
It was much later and Slim was just thinking of following Daisy’s example and having an early night when ‘Jess’ finally returned.
In reality Jake had no idea where his step-brother slept and by the process of elimination figured that he must bunk down with Slim. He’d noted Daisy popping into her room before supper to wash up and tidy her hair, so she said.
Then sometime later Slim had disappeared into the child’s room to fetch a book…so other than the bunkhouse he must be sharing.
But what if he was wrong?
Luckily the dilemma was solved as the tall rancher grinned at him as he entered, “I thought I’d have an early night, busy day tomorrow, you coming?” Slim asked over his shoulder as he headed for the third bedroom.
Much later Slim was to kick himself for not noticing his pard’ s strange behavior. But at the time he was pretty bushed and of course under the impression that the doppelganger was dead. Hell, he later reasoned with Mort that the guy was wearing Jess’s hat, shirt, boots, damn it even his gun-belt; but oh yes the odd behavior should have been a clue.
“Hey Jess why have you got your gun in here?” Slim asked raising a quizzical eyebrow, “you expecting to be robbed in the dead of night, are you?”
“Your gun Jess, you didn’t leave it on the hook with your hat. You know how unsettled Daisy gets about guns inside the house…well beyond the coat hook anyway,” he amended with a wink.
“Oh, yeah I wasn’t thinking.”
“Um you’re doing a lot of that right now aren’t you pard?” Slim said chuckling.
But Jake had more important issues on his mind…dang it which bed was his?
Thankfully Slim, inadvertently, came to his rescue again. He chucked aside the towel he’d been drying off with after his cursory wash and went and stretched out on the bed nearest the door.
Jake wandered over to the washstand and spent a good five minutes washing and brushing his teeth, even brushing his hair, in the hope that Slim would have fallen asleep by the time he needed to strip off for bed.
Fool he cursed himself, why didn’t he think of the possibility of a shared room. Dang it, the house was pretty small and obviously the old woman and boy would want their own rooms.
Then Slim broke into his thoughts.
“Good grief Jess what’s got into you? OK I know Millie’s back from Cheyenne, but you weren’t thinking of riding over now were you?”
“She is?” Jake said turning and looking surprised.
“Oh yeah of course I forgot to tell you. Well you have been out in the barn all evening,” said Slim irritably, “But yeah, Mose told me this morning. You could call in and see her while Daisy’s at the mercantile tomorrow huh?”
Jake nodded, “Yeah, I might just do that,” and finished folding the towel carefully.
“So, what’s all that preening in aid of then?” Slim asked a broad grin spreading across his face, “just getting ready early huh?”
“Something like that,” Jake growled before mooching over and turning the night light down a little. Then he went over to his own side of the room and removing his gun-belt he unbuttoned his pants and removed them quickly with his back to Slim before sliding into bed leaving his shirt on.
What the heck had got into his partner Slim mused as he noted the neatly folded towel, instead of left in a puddle on the floor…and yup, he’d even folded his pants over the back of the chair by his bed. Usually there was a trail of discarded clothing spread across the room. and Jess sure wasn’t bashful. Heck they’d been stripping off in front of each other without any awkwardness or even noticing they were doing it for years. But now Jess seemed almost embarrassed by his nakedness, and why wash up that way and then leave his shirt on...it didn’t make sense.
“Jess are you feeling OK?” he finally asked, turning to look at the dimly lit figure in the other bed.
“Sure, turn the light off will ya…night.”
Slim frowned…Jess still occasionally suffered terrible, horrific nightmares resulting from seeing his kin burn to death in a house fire, and from his experiences in a prisoner of war camp. So, it was an accepted practice that they kept the night light burning low. Then when he awoke cussing and sweating…eyes open wide in terror… the lamp was comforting and helped him to wake up properly and recover more quickly.
Slim just thought this was yet another piece of strange behavior brought on by the nasty big cat attack making Jess fret about Traveller. Or maybe it was due to all that dreadful business with that imposter Jake Harper having stressed him out? Something was sure making him act out of character, Slim mused.
He sighed, it was too dang late to start questioning him now and anyway knowing Jess he was probably already asleep Slim mused as he reached out and extinguished the light.
Meanwhile just a handful of miles from the ranch the real Jess Harper stirred and groaned. The pain in his left arm made him gag. Goddamn it he’d been bushwhacked and left for dead by the looks of things he figured. As he became more aware of his circumstances he felt a weight pushing down on him. Then after initial investigation discovered he was lying face down under a large bush with several heavy branches covering him.
Using all his strength he managed to flip over onto his back and then lever the branches away so that he could sit up.
The little spinney and surrounding area were bathed in moonlight and Jess peered anxiously around for Traveller, but to no avail. So, he whistled him up…but nothing. He was alone and he shivered and cussed softly. It was that dang swine Jake that had struck again…he just knew it. Hell shooting him once, after that fight and taking his horse had made Jess as mad as he could remember. But this! Doing the same thing again…well that was just too dang much! ‘Well good luck in riding him.’ he said to himself, ‘I hope you break your Goddamn neck.’
He tried to sit up, but fell back in agony, realizing his left arm was useless. The guy had shot him in the back of the arm…which was real painful…could have been worse though. Hell, he really would have been dead, Jess mused, if the bullet had been just a few inches further over.
He shivered again, although it was now midsummer, the nights could still strike cold. Then he realized he’d been stripped of his shirt, bandana and boots and on further inspection his gun-belt, gun and hat where missing too.
‘So, yer gonna try yer luck at hoodwinking my partner again are ya?’ he said softly. ‘Well we’ll see about that!’
Using every ounce of willpower, he hauled himself up and headed off in the direction of the ranch…every step an ordeal as his arm and head throbbed and his stocking feet painfully encountered the hard-rocky terrain.
He had only gone a couple of miles before his socks were in shreds and his arm started bleeding badly due to the exertion.
He stopped and reviewed the situation. Now he was feeling nauseous and really dizzy and knew he wouldn’t make it unless he paced himself…
He finally pulled off his under vest and tore it into strips, using some to bind his feet and the rest to dress the wound at the top of his arm. Then he settled down for a nap, deciding he’d feel better for a break and would continue at dawn.
Chapter 9
As the first fingers of dawn filtered through the bedroom window Slim stirred in his sleep and was surprised to see ‘Jess’ up and already dressed.
“Hey pard what’s gotten into you?” Slim said yawning and stretching, “It’s not like you to be up before you smell the coffee brewing.”
Jake looked panicky for a second but recovered quickly, “Uh well if I’m taking Daisy into town later, I thought I’d make a start on the yard chores.”
Slim opened his eyes wide, “Are you OK pard, not running a fever, are you?” he teased good naturedly.
“I’m fine,” said Jake making for the door, “I’ll get to it, see you later,” and he was gone.
Slim shrugged and rolling over went back to sleep.
At breakfast time his partner’s behavior was even stranger, he hardly ate anything, merely pushing his food around the plate and Slim began to wonder if in fact Jess really was sick.
Daisy was busy and didn’t seem to notice as she needed to complete several chores before she could go to town. So, she had left the men to eat whilst she got a load of washing done and out on the line.
Finally, she was ready and Slim harnessed Buck and Dandy to the buckboard, before turning to where Daisy and Jake had just strolled over.
“Take it easy pard,” Slim said, “Dandy hasn’t been worked in a while and he may be a tad lively, you know how he can get…you don’t want a runaway,” he chuckled.
Jake just nodded and then helped Miss Daisy up before taking the reins and giving Slim a cursory wave before he moved sedately off.
Slim watched them go, his eyes slightly uncertain. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something not right about his partner. He’d hardly spoken all morning and he seemed somehow disorientated. Heck when Slim suggested he feed and water Mike’s pony, Sunny, he headed to the wrong stall. Then he’d forgotten to check on Bandit, the child’s pet racoon that Jess always cared for when the boy was away.
He shook his head and watched the buckboard disappear over the rise before turning away to deal with the task himself.
It was just a little later when he was sitting on the porch mending a halter, that he saw a figure limping slowly into the yard. He looked hot and weary in the mid-morning heat. He was stripped to the waist and more bizarrely wore no boots. Then as the hat less figure drew nearer Slim saw the tousled black hair and recognized Jess…Jess? What the hell was going on here?
Slim ran to meet him, “Hell Jess what happened to you?” he cried anxiously.
Jess stared at him and then opened his mouth to speak, closed it again and pitched forwards in a dead faint.
Slim caught him and hauling him up in his strong arms, carried him into the house and deposited him on the couch, before fetching some water.
He came around a few minutes later and with Slim lifting his head, drank the water thirstily before laying back down.
“Jess are you OK? What in hell happened? Where’s Daisy?”
“Is he here?” Jess asked ignoring the question. “Is that bastard Jake here?”
Slim looked bewildered for a second and then everything fell into place: the excessive ablutions of the night before; the tidy folding of clothes; the unheard-of early start and lack of the famous Harper appetite…Jeez they’d been duped again he realized.
“Jake Harper, the doppelganger did this to you!”
It was a statement rather than a question, but Jess nodded.
“Kate Munroe found him on the trail all but dead and fixed him up, said he was heading this way. I followed him, but he was too dang clever. He must have been waiting for me near Dead Man’s Gully. He back-shot me and took my hat and gun. The shirt off of my back even goddamn it! Hell, he took Traveller too Slim!”
“It’s OK buddy he’s in the barn.”
Jess sighed, “Did you just ask where Daisy was?”
“Oh God,” Slim said turning pale and leaping up, “he’s driving her to town,” and he made for the door.
Jess sat up to follow him but fell back again. His arm was useless and the pain in his head throbbing, blackness threatening again.
He just heard Slim saying, “No Jess, you stay put, you’ll just slow me down,” before he blacked out again.
Slim hesitated by the door torn between helping his pard or riding to save Daisy. But then he figured she was in more urgent need of his help so he reluctantly turned and left. He tore across to the barn and just minutes later emerged on Alamo and galloped out of the yard at high speed.
Jake drove the team along at an easy pace, Daisy chatting merrily away to him. It was some time before she realised that her companion was hardly speaking.
“Is everything alright dear?” she asked kindly.
Jake turned to her and said, “Sure…uh Daisy, just remind me where the Johnson spread is, to pick up Mike?”
Daisy turned to him in disbelief.
“Why Jess dear you know where Chas and Molly’s ranch is. Goodness knows Mike visits young Davey often enough. What’s wrong dear, are you not too well?” she asked suddenly feeling the first stirrings of uneasiness.
“Sure…uh I remember now,” he replied suddenly taking up the whip and rousing the horses from an easy trot into a full gallop.
“Jess, there really is no hurry,” Daisy said at once.
Then she looked into the face of the man hustling the team on to even greater speed. Her heart stood still and everything suddenly fell into place. His cursory, almost rude attitude, his strange question about the whereabouts of the Johnson spread, and now this, using a whip on poor Dandy and Buck…something Jess would never do.
“It’s not Jess is it? You’re that imposter. The terrible man that has got dear Jess into so much trouble,” Daisy cried suddenly aware without a doubt.
“Got it in one lady,” Jake drawled, “but sadly you won’t live long enough to tell,” he said before urging the team on to even greater speed.
It was just a few hundred yards further on that the buckboard started careering completely out of control, the horses bolting wildly, just as Jake had planned. Moments later he jumped. Diving and rolling completely unhurt, whilst the buckboard ploughed on heading towards ultimate destruction, Daisy holding on for dear life and screaming.
He stood watching it in satisfaction for a moment before hastily taking cover in the roadside ditch as he heard a rider approaching.
Once Slim had galloped past, Jake ran hurriedly away to the copse where his mount was hobbled less than half a mile away. Then he rode off to the mountain foothills where he would lie low for a while and plan his next move.
Meanwhile Daisy’s hysterical screams alerted Slim of her proximity and just seconds later he rounded a bend in the road and saw the buckboard hurtling away out of control, the horses now utterly spooked.
It only took Slim a minute or so to ride alongside and grabbing hold of the now trailing lines was able to gain control, bringing the horses to a wild eyed, head shaking stop. They were sweating and pawing the ground in alarm at their cavalier treatment but otherwise unhurt.

Slim wasted no time in jumping up on the seat and taking Daisy in his arms, and he held her close until the shaking stopped and was finally able to speak.
“Slim oh thank goodness,” she finally managed, “that wasn’t Jess driving it was that dreadful Jake. He jumped clear just now and left me with the horses bolting,” she sobbed. “We’ve been duped Slim! How could that happen? He is the image of Jess though…in looks that is,” she amended, “but not in character…we should have known.”
“I know Daisy and it’s crazy we’ve been taken in. But yes I do know…you’re right.”
“You do?”
“Yes, Jess, our Jess that is, just turned up at home, that bas… uh that Jake back-shot him and left him for dead yesterday.”
A hand shot up to Daisy’s mouth, “Oh my dear is he badly hurt?”
Slim shook his head, “He’s not too good Daisy, but I had to leave him to find you. I reckon we’ll go and fetch Mike home and ask Chas to ride into town for Doc Sam. Then we’ll get Mort to sort the rest out.”
“Garldarn it,” Jess muttered to Slim later the next day, “this is how the whole sorry business started off with me havin’ to ride shotgun on that wildflower huntin’ trip with Larry and Eli to help pay the doc’s bill. Now we’re in debt again.”
“Well what was I supposed to do Jess, huh? Stand by and see you bleed out. That’s a really nasty wound, it needed cauterizing and it was infected too.”
Jess just growled something rude and then said, “So what are we gonna do?”
“You’re not going to do anything! Mort will send a posse out looking for the guy. But he said specifically you were to stay put Jess. If you start wandering about out there, how is the posse to know the difference if even Daisy and I couldn’t spot it huh?”
Jess sighed deeply, “OK you’ve got a point but I don’t reckon he’s given up on getting his revenge Slim. Just as soon as he realises that I’m not dead, then I figure he’ll be coming after me. I sure don’t want Daisy and Mike around when that happens.”
“Well it’s your lucky day then,” Slim said grinning down at his pard, “or had you forgotten Daisy and Mike were taking a trip over to Cheyenne next week to spend some time with her sister before Mike starts back at school again?”
“Uh, if she still goes, you know how dang clucky she gets when I’m hurt Slim.”
“Well it’s down to you to behave and do as she says. That way you’ll really be on the mend by the time she’s ready to head off huh?”
They waved a still slightly reluctant Daisy off the following week.
“You will be sure he doesn’t overdo things won’t you Slim?” Daisy asked as she turned back from where she’d been about to join Mike in the Stagecoach.
Jess merely rolled his eyes and Slim agreed that he would treat Jess like an elderly, frail maiden aunt.
“Oh Slim, get along with you!” Daisy said chuckling and slapping his chest gently.
“Up ya get,” Jess said grinning at her, “Mose wants to be off. I’ll be just fine, stop frettin’ and have a great visit huh?”
“Thank you dear, I’ll try,” she replied finally taking her seat.
Once the Stage disappeared over the rise Slim turned to Jess and slapped him playfully on the arm, “Come on great auntie Jessie, let’s get you a coffee and then you can have a nap in your rocker,” he quipped.
“Aw Slim will ya shut up,” Jess replied, none the less following him in and making a beeline for the coffee pot.
So, the two friends settled down to a relaxing routine. With Slim picking up the more strenuous chores and Jess, for once, behaving him-self and not doing anything too taxing, the wound to his arm still in the process of healing.
The only thing to cause any friction occurred on the evening Mike and Daisy had left.
After supper Jess made his way over to the mantelpiece and carefully removing a loose brick, felt inside. Then moments later he pulled out an object wrapped in a piece of old cloth. He mooched over to the table and spreading a newspaper finally revealed the item and stood staring down at it.
Slim who had been watching him from his seat by the fire now got up and wandered over to the table where Jess had his head bent to the task in hand.
The blond rancher stared down at the gun, Jess was now stripping down and cleaning, for a good minute before finally saying, “What do you think you’re doing Jess?”
Jess looked up frowning, “Cleaning it…what does it look like?”
“I can see that, but why? You promised me you’d never touch that old gunslinger weapon of yours again Jess.”
“Well what the hell do you want me to do? That bastard Jake’s got my Colt and I’m damn sure I can’t afford a new one.”
Slim hung his head, “I guess not.”
“Besides according to Millie he’s fast; real fast Slim. I figure I’ll need all the help I can get,” he said looking down at the customized weapon.
“So, you really think he’ll come back?”
Jess shook his head, “I don’t think it…I know it Slim. He ain’t gonna ride away while I’m still alive.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I wouldn’t,” Jess said quietly, “iffen I felt that strongly I’d hound him until I finished it.”
“Like with the Bannister Gang?”
Jess nodded, “Yup like with the Bannister Gang, and I ain’t forgotten what he did to my good old horse,” he added looking momentarily stricken.
“He’s OK now Jess,” Slim said softly, squeezing Jess’s shoulder, “his legs have healed up just fine.”
“That’s as maybe ,” Jess replied gruffly, “but I ain’t about to forget that Slim. Why for two pins I’d be off after him and…”
…“For goodness sake Jess we’ve been all through this,” Slim butted in, “if a posse and goodness knows how many Bounty Hunters can’t track him down, then I guess he just isn’t here anymore. He’s headed for the Canadian border, like he told you he would.”
“Maybe you’re right. What’s the price on his head right now anyway?”
Slim mentioned an eye wateringly huge amount.
Jess gave a low whistle, “Figures, for murdering a Bank Manager’s son,” he said laconically.
Slim nodded, “So will you relax Jess and just forget about him, he’s long gone.”
“I just wish I could believe that,” Jess muttered, “but I can’t. See I reckon he’s too much like me Slim…he ain’t gonna let it lie…no matter what.”
Slim knew there was no point in arguing with his buddy, so he merely changed the subject and just hoped things could get back to normal as soon as possible.
Jess flicked a glance up at him and gave him a half smile.
“I’ll be riding out on that mustanging trip as soon as the doc gives me the all clear,” he said, “start to get the finances back on track huh?”
It was just the following day that an intruder turned up in the yard, but it wasn’t the one they were both dreading.
Blue alerted the men to the stranger in the yard and they both emerged from the barn, their guns already drawn when a tall blond man stepped down from his horse and slowly raised his hands.
“I come in peace,” he said, his eyes twinkling.
“So, who are you then?” Jess asked gruffly. “and what’s your business?”
“My name is Carl Jenks and my business, the same as yours I imagine Mister Harper. I’m here looking for your half-brother Jake Harper.”
Jess’s eyes narrowed, “So you’re a Bounty Hunter then. Well I hafta tell you they aren’t any too welcome around here, no matter who they’re looking for.”
“Oh, on the contrary Mister Harper, you misunderstand me. I’m here to try and help Jake… you see he’s by best buddy.”
Jess flicked a glance over to Slim.
“In that case you’re a mite late,” he drawled, “see Jake’s wanted for murder, I reckon he’s past help. All that’s waitin’ fer him, if you find him, is a rope.”
Carl paled and looked deeply troubled, “I’d no idea it had come to this,” he whispered, “the dang fool…so who did he kill and why?”
Slim stepped forward and explained the basic facts of what had happened, “He wanted to see my pard hang you see Mister Jenks,” he concluded, “that’s the depth of his hatred, and I believe there would have been no reasoning with him…even if you had arrived earlier.”
Carl Jenks hung his head, “Maybe you’re right, he was very bitter that’s for sure, “and he shook his head sadly before turning back to his horse, “I’m sorry to have intruded.”
On impulse Slim stopped him. Something about the situation made him feel kind of sympathetic. This good friend coming to try and save Jake from himself somehow reminded him of his relationship with Jess. How often had he bailed his good buddy out of some dreadful situation? OK, Jess was no murderer but even so, this Carl’s heart was clearly in the right place Slim thought.
He flicked another glance over to Jess and then said, “We usually stop for a coffee round about now. You’re welcome to join us Mister Jenks; maybe fill us in a bit about your friend. I figure we’re finding it kind of hard to understand why he’s so dang bitter and wanting to kill a man he’d never even met until recently.”
Carl Jenks looked from Slim to Jess and back and seeing no animosity, but merely genuine concern agreed.
Once the men were settled around the table Jess said gruffly, “I hafta tell you Mister Jenks, Jake ain’t my favorite person right now, bein’ as how he’s shot me twice, leavin’ me fer dead and stole my good old horse too.”
Jenks looked contrite, “I’m so very sorry and please call me Carl.”
“OK Carl so why have this vendetta against my buddy?” Slim asked. “I know he’s had some difficulties in the past being mistaken for Jess and there was that business when his Ma was hurt, but even so it really isn’t Jess’s fault. It’s just…I don’t know maybe an Act of God or something…a freak of nature call it what you will. But the likelihood of two people favoring each other this way is very rare and like I say none of this is Jess’s fault.”
Jess said nothing just stared broodingly at Carl, knowing there was nothing the man could say to justify his friend’s actions.
“Oh God I know,” Carl agreed, “It’s ridiculous to think anything else. Of course, none of this is your fault Mister Harper but you see Jake is…well…flawed I guess you’d call it.”
“Huh?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow.
Carl nodded, “You see ever since he was a small boy he was completely under his mother’s thumb. Oh, don’t get me wrong he adored her but she made him her whole life. Everything she did was for her beloved Jake. That’s why she was such a popular actress, she threw her heart and soul into the work, just to earn money for her ‘darling boy,’” Carl said rather witheringly.
“Go on,” said Jess, dead pan, wondering how an over clucky Ma could excuse first degree murder.
Carl seemed to pick up on Jess’s mind set and said quickly, “Of course what I’m saying doesn’t in any way justify his behavior, but maybe in some ways explains it.”
Jess said nothing but continued listening attentively.
“Well Jake grew up and became interested in the Stage himself, was a good actor, a master of disguise.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jess said with feeling, remembering Jack Salt.
“Um…anyway, so mother and son worked together on the stage, lived together did everything together. I think you’d say Rose was the centre of his world and that’s when the rot set in. You see she wanted him all for herself. If ever he found a girl, well she was never good enough as far as Rose was concerned and she’d find some way of splitting them up. But Jake just couldn’t see it. He thought his Ma was perfection. He adored her too.”
“Well that’s all very touching,” Jess said dryly, “but it don’t explain why he wants me dead.”
“Oh, but don’t you see…she died because this Corrigan gang confused you and Jake and he just can’t forgive you for the loss. OK I know it’s not rational, but then Jake isn’t a rational sort of guy. He just can’t see past the fact that she died because he has your face. He’s been grieving ever since and that grief has turned more and more to anger towards you. Then it wasn’t just the incident with the Corrigan gang, but more people came forward gunning for him, for you that is. You’re none too popular down Mexico way Jess.”
“Yeah, well that’s because there are a powerful lot of dang outlaws down there and the ones that are gunning for me are the ones I helped put behind bars. Like Lex Corrigan.”
“We’re really sorry it happened,” Slim said. “But Jess can’t help it if he has this…uh doppelganger, it’s just a quirk of nature.”
Carl nodded, “I guess you’re right, it’s a really rare occurrence I know that.”
Then he hung his head looking completely defeated, “I’d no idea Jake had murdered a man in cold blood though. That really can’t be justified no matter what he’s been through. I’m wasting my time trying to help him, I can see that now; he’ll be hung anyway and I reckon he deserves to be,” he finished sadly.
Shortly afterwards Carl left, just waving a hand in a sad farewell as he rode slowly up to the rise and onwards.
“What do you make of that?” Slim asked turning to Jess.
“I reckon Jake’s got a better friend than he deserves, but even the best of friends can be pushed too far,” he said, holding Slim’ s gaze for a moment.
It was later that day that Doc Sam rode in declaring he’d got a rare day off, and how would it be if he stayed for supper and did a spot of fishing in the creek the following day.
“You do know Daisy’s away and Slim’ s cooking?” Jess said with a cheeky grin.
“Oh, I’ll risk it,” Sam replied, “the way I figure it the company will be worth it.”
It was over supper that the topic of Jake Harper and his friend Carl was discussed.
Sam shook his head sadly, “A classic case of the loss of an over emotionally attached mother causing mental breakdown in an offspring.”
“Huh, give it to us in English will ya Sam?” Jess said casting his friend a weary glance.
“When a mother makes their child the centre of their world above all else then the relationship can be flawed. The mother for example thinks no one can replace her, even when the child reaches maturity and in the same way the child, even as an adult will revere the parent above all others. Some even to the extent that they will forgo choosing a mate to stay and care for the parent, albeit willingly.”
“That doesn’t sound any too healthy,” Slim said thoughtfully.
“Indeed, it is not,” Sam agreed, “the adult offspring is still totally dependent on the parent and if anything should happen to them then they really cannot cope and become…well sometimes mentally deranged. The grieving process is very much intensified and the relative may be stuck in a particular phase of grief, like anger toward others. In this case towards you Jess.”
“So do ya really think that’s what happened with Jake then?” Jess asked, “When his Ma died after that attack he just wasn’t thinking straight and so that’s why he came after me?”
“Oh yes I’m pretty sure of it,” Sam agreed. “Maybe if he’d seen a doctor he could have been helped, but now after that dreadful murder he will certainly hang. Possibly in the future, in a more enlightened age he will be treated for the mental illness from which he almost certainly suffers, but now?” he shook his head, “It’s sad, very sad…and very difficult for you, Jess I realise that.”
The conversation finally turned to more pleasant topics, like how the fish were biting. Then once the Red eye, that Sam had brought, was cracked open the atmosphere lightened even more and it was a much more jovial party that turned in some hours later.
Chapter 10
Later in their bedroom Jess stripped off, flinging his clothes untidily around the room with abandon, much to Slim’s amusement and relief.
“So, what do ya make of Doc Sam’s theory then?” He asked.
Slim looked thoughtful, “He knows what he’s talking about…it all makes sense, and I can’t think why else Jake would have acted the way he did.”
Jess nodded, “I guess not.”
“Oh, come on Jess don’t tell me you’re feeling sorry for the guy after all he’s done to you?” Slim said looking astonished.
“No, of course not,” Jess said quickly. “Hell, after what he did to Daisy, not to mention Traveller…nope. But I just wish it was a bit more black and white. I really wanna hate the guy, but iffen he’s sick in the mind…well I just don’t know?” and shaking his head sadly he turned in.
The following morning there was just the problem of who should accompany Doc Sam on the fishing trip and who would remain at the ranch to see the Stages in and out.
Jess felt around in his pocket for his double- headed coin, but Slim was too quick for him.
“Uh, I’ve got one here,” he said quickly, putting a hand out to prevent Jess using his.
Jess merely shook his head, chuckling and called “tails” as Slim flipped the coin.
“Sorry buddy, lady luck isn’t on your side today,” Slim said grinning and showing Jess the coin, head up/tail down and Jess agreed after further close examination.
Sam and Slim set off for the creek on the far side of the Home pasture just a little later taking Jess’s dog Blue with them.
“It’ll do him good to have a long run,” Jess agreed, “he ain’t been off the ranch in a good while.”
Jess knew he liked to go rabbiting up at the old Benson spread abutting the Home pasture and patted the big wolf/dog’s head. “You behave now boy. No barkin’ around the fishermen,” he laughed as he waved the small party off.
The place felt kinda lonely once they had ridden out. Blue finally took off with Slim, albeit rather reluctantly, never liking to leave Jess’s side for too long. Plus Buttons was off staying with Mike’s friend Davey, whilst the youngster was away, his friend having taken a real shine to the little dog.
Jess glanced around the yard and saw Jasper the ranch cat sitting in a patch of sunlight washing his face and lookin’ kinda superior to Jess’s mind. “Dang cats,” he muttered, as he went across to the barn to start work. At least you knew where you were with a dog, but Jasper…Well one day he was nice as pie and the next raking his claws down yer arm in glee. Nope give me a dog or a good ol’ horse any day, he said to himself heading for Traveller’s stall.
Meanwhile over at Dead Man’s Gully, just a few miles away Carl and Jake sat over a late breakfast. They had somewhat overindulged in whiskey the night before after a rather heated debate and now both men stared into their coffee cups nursing sore heads.
“So, he’s definitely there?” Jake asked again, raising bloodshot eyes to his old friend.
“I told you, didn’t I? He’s just fine…recovered from you back-shooting him. Garldarn it Jake I just can’t believe that of you,” Carl muttered angrily.
“So, it’s not justified, is that what you’re saying? Ma’s dead because of that low life and don’t you forget it!” Jake snarled.
“Your Ma’s dead because that Lex Corrigan made a mistake. It’s nothing to do with Jess. He’s not guilty of anything except sharing the same looks as you, and he didn’t have any choice or control over that,” Carl spat angrily.
“Oh, it’s Jess now is it? So, when did you change allegiance then?” Jake said his head shooting up, “I thought you were on my side?”
“Oh, for God’s sake just listen to yourself man. You’re still acting like a little kid. This isn’t about sides Jake! It’s about right and wrong and if you’re going to carry on blaming an innocent man for the death of your Ma then you’re about as wrong as you can be. And no, I don’t want any part of it!”
“This is it then, the end of the line for us,” said Jake quietly.
Carl took a deep breath. “Look it doesn’t have to be. Why don’t you just forget about Harper and head for the Canadian border. I’ll come with you. We can set up a business…maybe find us a couple of nice gals and settle down. What do you say huh?”
Jake jumped up, throwing the remains of his coffee on the fire, “I say Go to Hell. I’m going after Harper and that’s an end to it!”
Carl got up slowly and shook his head, “Well I’m sorry, because as sure as God made little green apples, you’ll hang Jake.”
With that he went and saddled up, leaving without another word...the friendship was over he admitted sadly and he’d done all he could. As for Jess Harper, he wouldn’t be in time to warn him but there again the guy looked like he could look after himself. Plus, Slim was with him, not to mention that huge dog…nope Jess would be OK.
Jess had completed all the yard chores and was now relaxing back on a porch rocker weighing up his next move. He knew that they’d sorta promised Daisy that they’d paint the outhouse whilst she and Mike were away, but gee, it sure was a hot morning and after all there was nearly a week to go before her return, he reasoned.
Nope what he really wanted to do was take a trip to town and catch up with Millie. Heck he’d not seen much of her lately, what with her extended stay in Cheyenne and all the business with that dang Jake.
Then he got to wondering if maybe there was enough paint leftover in the barn to complete the task. He thought maybe not and so he’d have a good excuse to ride into town later or maybe tomorrow. He stretched languidly and had just stood up to go and check out the paint situation when he saw a rider making his way slowly down the rise and into the yard.
Jess stared in disbelief as he recognized the showy grey and yes, Jake Harper riding him.
His hand immediately went to his gun butt, hovering above it, his fingers restlessly clenching and unclenching.
Jake dismounted unhurriedly and hitched his horse near the water trough, before almost sauntering over to where Jess had now left the porch and was watching him with narrowed eyes.
“So, you decided not to dress up for the occasion?” Jess said his voice icy. “What no old man…or maybe you could have stretched to a man of the cloth…or even a dang circus clown,” he growled.
“Nope, no pretense this time Jess. I’m coming just as I am…see it’s time to finish things…don’t you think?”
Jess nodded, “I guess so.”
But Jake didn’t want to leave it at that. He felt that somehow, he had to justify himself.
“You just don’t understand,” he said, sounding to Jess’s ears like a petulant child.
“So try me.”
“OK well you were lucky growing up, surrounded by a loving family…a proper Ma and Pa…brothers and sisters and I had nobody. Just me and Ma…she was my world…all I had and because of you she’s dead,” he said. “It’s alright for you…you can’t understand what it’s like to be alone in the world.”
“Oh, come on,” Jess cried, “what are you twenty-three, twenty-four? Hell, you should be able to cope alone goddamn it!”
“You just don’t understand,” he said again.
“Oh, I understand alright,” Jess said suddenly furious, “that Pa that you wanted in your life so much was a bad ‘un. He got him a liking for the jug and tipped it way too often…And anyways…he perished along with nearly all of my kin in a house-fire…and I’ve been alone since I was just fifteen years old…so don’t tell me I don’t dang well understand!”
Jake looked suddenly wrong footed, “I…I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, well it was a long time ago, and your Ma didn’t know about it either.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I went after them of course seeking out the scum that set the fire.”
Jake’s head sank down to his chest, “So maybe you do understand the anger, the pain and the loss? But damn it the need for revenge too!” he yelled, looking up, his eyes suddenly flashing black with fury.
Jess thought fleetingly, I must look that way when I’m real mad…pretty dang scary.
But he merely nodded.
“We could have talked it out here and come to some sort of a truce maybe,” he said softly, “but not now…not after what you did to Chris Goodall…well you’re gonna hang no matter what you do to me.”
“That’s assuming I’m caught,” Jake said with an evil smile. “You see once you’re dead, I’ll just high-tail it off disguised as some poor old prospector until I’m well on my way to the border. It’s easy, if you have a talent for disguise, the way I do,” he bragged.
Jess just shook his head, “You really are sick in the head ain’t you. You don’t feel any remorse for what you did to that kid do you?”
That seemed to anger Jake and he backed off some, “Come on then Jess Harper, let’s see how fast you really are huh?” he said smirking.
Back on the bank of the creek, Slim and Doc Sam heard a couple of gunshots that were followed a little later by several more.
“What the Hell?” Slim said leaping up and throwing his line aside, “that came from the ranch.”
Blue, who had been dozing in the cool shade of a cottonwood, leapt up and barking wildly tore off across the home pasture. Slim and Sam hurriedly mounted and followed the visibly distressed animal.
When they arrived a short time later the scene before them was totally bizarre; so Slim was to tell Mort later.
Jess was slouched on a porch rocker, his gun still in his hand aimed at the figure of the doppelganger. Jake Harper had collapsed in an untidy heap, lying in the dirt cussing and bleeding profusely from a wound to his right arm. Meanwhile Blue, who had arrived a few minutes earlier, had straddled the wounded man and was growling and snarling fiercely.
Doc Sam took in the situation at once, noting the lifeblood oozing from Jake’s arm. Then flicking a glance to Jess who seemed virtually unhurt, he said briskly, “Call him off Jess, this man needs urgent attention.”
Jess stared at Jake for a good minute longer, his expression unfathomable, before curtly calling his dog to heel.
Blue gave a final deep, throaty growl before doing as he was bid and loping over sat at his master’s feet. Then he gave a little whimper and put his head in Jess’s lap, rolling his eyes sorrowfully.
Slim who had seemingly been frozen to the spot as he observed the scene before him, suddenly came to his senses and realised Jess was clutching his arm. His shirt shredded and a dark stain was appearing.
He dashed over and said, “Are you OK buddy, did he wing you?”
Jess shook his head and gave his pard a grim smile. “No, it was that dang cat! He got kinda spooked when the shootin’ commenced and decided to hole up on the porch roof. The only thing is he used me as a jumpin ’ off place.”
Slim couldn’t help but smile, as he peered upwards and was just able to discern two ears and a pair of anxious eyes peering down from the safety of the porch roof.
Then Sam brought their attention back to the prisoner, “Help me inside with him, will you?” he asked. “He needs patching up some before he heads off to jail.”
Slim helped the doc with the prisoner and once he started cleaning and bandaging the wound he returned outside to the porch where Jess still sat almost like he was in a daze.
Slim took the other seat and after a moment said, “So what happened?”
Jess cast his mind back and shook his head as though to clear it.
Jake had backed off and assumed the position, but there was no way Jess was going to draw first.
Then without warning Jake drew, his poker face giving no clue as to when he would strike.
But Jess was prepared and his old gunslinger weapon didn’t let him down as his bullet penetrated Jake’s arm before he had a chance to fire off his own shot.
He fell hard crying out in agony and cussing.
That was when Jasper used Jess to spring up onto the porch roof, raking his claws down his arm as he went.
He’d cussed softly before he finally wandered over and dragged Jake up from the dirt.
“Quit fussin’,” he said gruffly, “you ain’t hurt that bad”
Then he stooped and picked up the Colt Jake had dropped and shoved it in his belt.
“Mine I think,” he spat angrily as he pulled off the black Stetson from Jake’s head and dusting it off, placed it on his own head, ” before frog marching Jake over to the porch, where he collapsed in a heap, in the dirt near the porch step groaning afresh.

After a moment he seemed to rally though and sneered, “You’re a lousy shot, couldn’t even find my heart huh? I thought this was supposed to finish things.”
Jess stood up from where he’d collapsed on a rocker looking as mad as all get out now, “Well maybe that’s because you ain’t got one,” he spat furiously. “And anyway, I was aiming to stop you...not kill you...I figure that’s the hangman’s job!”
When Jake merely sniggered that’s when Jess really lost his temper and back-slapped him hard across the face.
“What was that for?” Jake sniveled now looking deeply affronted, a hand rubbing his burning cheek.
“That was for Daisy!”
Then he gave him another backhander, practically breaking his nose, “And that was for what you did to my good old horse. The Judge can deal with everything else,” he said wandering back to the rocker.
“That’s when I let off the other shots,” Jess said, turning to Slim sometime later, Sam now inside tending Jake. “I didn’t trust myself not to really lay into him, figured you’d hear and come home.”
Slim cast him a wary glance and remembered Jake’s bruised and blooded face. “Yes, I think you probably did the right thing Jess,” he said softly.
Both men looked up as the Stage rattled into the yard, just a few minutes later. Mose pulled on the lines bringing the coach to a standstill right beside the porch and peered down inquisitively, before jumping down from the box and marching over.
“What’s going on?” he asked peering at where Jess was still clutching his bleeding arm and looking pretty peaky, so the old timer thought.
“Nuthin’,” said Jess quickly, “Slim will help ya change the team Mose,” he growled, before standing up rather unsteadily.
Mose remained staring at the two cowboys, knowing he was missing something here.
“So, what happened to your arm then Jess?” he persisted.
“It was that dang cat,” Jess said with feeling before moving towards the door. However, before he could enter, it opened suddenly and Sam stood there looking perplexed, “I think you’d better come in here Jess,” he said quietly.
By now Mose was practically bursting with curiosity and turned to where Slim had just returned with the replacement team.
“So, are you goin’ to tell me what’s a goin’ on then, or what?” Mose asked tersely.
Meanwhile inside the house Sam took Jess to one side and said quietly, “Jake is saying he’s completely innocent, says he wants to see the Sheriff and explain everything. It seems that he only heard about your existence recently after his mother’s death. He’s only just arrived in the area to visit you and seems to have walked into a crazy place where his half-brother is a wanted felon. Says he can’t believe that kin of his could be wanted for robbery and murder. He also said that he is completely innocent and you’re using him as a scape goat.”
Jess’s jaw dropped, “What! And you believe him?”
Sam sighed deeply, “No of course not! The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. But he does tell a very convincing story Jess. I think you will need to employ a good solicitor at the trial. Because, as he says, a lot of the evidence and alibis have been supplied by your good friends, namely, Millie, Mort, Slim, and yours truly. Well, I reckon he’s got a point, Jess. A good solicitor could use that against you and he aims to pay for the best.”
“But that’s crazy! Surely the Judge will believe the word of the town Sheriff and Doctor?”
“Well one would hope so,” Sam agreed. “But I think we need to be prepared. You see we are dealing with one very devious mind and as far as I can tell a very sick one too Jess.”
“I’ll give him sick!” Jess yelled marching out of the kitchen where Sam had led him to talk in private.
He strode over to where Jake was now reclining on the couch nursing his bandaged arm, and grabbing him by the shoulders hauled him up onto his feet and commenced shaking him roughly.
“Why you deceitful bastard, what makes you think you’ll get away with your filthy lies, huh?” he yelled, balling a fist.
But just then the door burst open and Slim entered followed by an inquisitive Mose, both men stopping in their tracks and gazing in shock at the scene before them.
Sam marched over and taking the initiative said, “I really think you should accompany the defendant to town on the Stage Slim and I’ll join you. We can both give Mort our evidence then and maybe Jess can ride in later in the week?” The words ‘when he’s calmed down’ left unsaid, but hanging in the air and understood by Slim at once.
Then Sam turned to Jess, “Don’t worry buddy. I’m sure everything will be alright. You just take it easy here and leave me and Slim to deal with things, “he said placatingly.
Jess opened his mouth to argue but Slim was too fast for him.
“The doc’s right Jess, you need to stand back from this a little; leave us to cope with it right now, and uh, Jess, go wash that cat scratch real good OK? You don’t want it getting infected,” was his last shot as Sam and he hustled the prisoner out, watched by Mose who was now all agog at the sniff of some juicy gossip.

Chapter 11
The day of the trial was set for Friday of the following week and Jess awoke feeling really rough.
He’d been feeling kinda out of sorts for a day or two, with vague aches and pains. However today he felt awful, his head was aching and he thought maybe he was coming down with the influenza, although he hadn’t been coughing or sneezing. But he did feel sick to his stomach and for once not in the least bit hungry.
He sighed, pulled on his boots and mooched into the kitchen for breakfast or a coffee at least he decided.
As he had feared Daisy, now home again, picked up on his lack of appetite at once. Getting up she came around to his side of the table and ran a hand lightly across his forehead, gently pushing back his untidy curls before frowning down at him.
“As I thought, you’re running a slight fever dear.”
Then she looked anxiously over to where Slim was digging into his pard’ s untouched bacon and beans.
“I really don’t think he’s well enough to go to the trial today Slim, he’s not himself.”
“I am here ya know Daisy,” Jess said irritably, “and anyways how do ya think it would look if I didn’t turn up to give evidence? Heck that’s just what the likes of Clem Black and his cronies would like, considering they’re still not completely convinced I’m innocent.”
“But that’s ridiculous dear the evidence regarding that Jake is overwhelming. Goodness folk will believe my statement surely? How he tried to kill me in the runaway buckboard?”
Then Slim waded in, “Of course they will believe you Daisy and Mr Benson will present an excellent case on Jess’s behalf.”
“Well it shouldn’t be necessary,” Daisy exclaimed hotly. “Goodness there are enough people giving evidence on our side.”
“Uh, I guess so, but as Sam says Jake can be very convincing. Don’t forget he made his living as an actor and he really believes all the lies he’s been telling. Sam reckons it’s all part of the man’s um... psychosis,” Slim said.
“Huh?” Jess asked looking pained.
“Hang-up or insanity Jess, call it what you will. Sam has a fancy medical term for it but I doubt old Judge Manders will be any more impressed by the term than you are. He really isn’t interested in the whys or wherefores of a murder. He just wants to prove guilt and hang the culprit.
Jess ran a hand over his aching head, “And you think he should walk free, if he’s not right in the head then?”
Slim shrugged, “No, but I’m not sure he should hang either. Maybe he should be detained in prison or a mental hospital?”
“Or maybe this psychosis is all a big act too and the guy is just trying to pull the wool over Sam’s eyes,” Jess said thoughtfully. “I guess we’ll never know.”
The trial took several hours with Jake putting on an award-winning display of acting. How he was a poor heartbroken son, seeking solace in his one remaining relative...one Jess Harper. And his shock and humiliation when he discovered his long-lost brother had a history of crime and had now clearly reverted to his former ways.
Yes, Jake had sure employed a very smart young solicitor; but not smart enough. Old man Benson, the Sherman family solicitor, ran rings around him. What with Benson’s years of experience, plus the overwhelming evidence against Jake Harper the defendant was found unanimously guilty by the Judge and jury.
The Judge finally intoned the words “You shall be taken from this place and at dawn tomorrow and will be hung by the neck until dead. May the Lord have mercy upon your soul...take him away.”
There was utter silence in the court room as the prisoner was led away, and then everyone erupted in cheers and much speculation and discussion of the outcome. Many came over to pump Jess’s hand in congratulation...including even Clem Black and Henry Pratchet.
“Never doubted you,” old man Black said without a trace of irony in his face...so Jess noted.
If he had felt sick before he felt downright nauseated now and just turned away...right into the path of his good friend Doc Sam.
“Let’s get you out of this bear garden Jess,” he said softly. “Daisy’s a little worried about you, so I promised I’d check you over, OK?”
Jess decided that was probably the lesser of two evils because if he didn’t leave right now, he was getting dangerously near to punching Clem Black on the nose and he figured the Judge wouldn’t appreciate a free-for-all fist fight in his court room.
Jess had been in two minds whether or not to stay in town for the hanging...but of all people it was Sam who persuaded him to do so.
“You see Jess I think he needs you, wants to see you anyway one last time, you’re all he has left in the world.”
“Are you crazy?” Jess asked staring at his old friend. “After everything he’s done you want me to make my peace with him?”
Sam nodded, “Oh don’t get me wrong Jess not for him, well not just for him that is, but for you too.”
Jess took a deep breath.
After the consultation they had moved into the doc’s parlor and were now partaking of a glass of his finest whiskey.
Jess looked down into the depths of the amber liquid and said, “So how do you figure that?”
“Because if you don’t, I think you’ll always regret it Jess. He is one of your last surviving relations and no matter what he is...well he’s still kin...and he’s sick too Jess, really sick, up here,” he said tapping his head, “and he can’t help that huh?”
Jess turned up at the Sheriff’s office just an hour before dawn, leaving Slim sleeping in their shared hotel room.
As he entered, he bumped into his good old friend Reverend Joshua Wesley, the town minister.
“How is he?” Jess asked softly.
“At peace I think, he confessed his sins and I have given him absolution.”
Jess nodded, “I’ll go see him for a minute.”
“That OK with you Mort?” he asked flicking a glance to where Mort sat drinking coffee, feet up on his desk.
“Are you sure you want to Jess?” the Sheriff asked casting him a concerned look.
Jess shook his head, “Nope, but I think I have to.”
Joshua reached over and squeezed his shoulder, “Good man,” he said softly before taking his leave.
Jake sat up quickly as Mort unlocked the cell door admitting Jess.
Once the Sheriff had left, the younger man looked up at Jess and said, “You came...I really didn’t think you would.”
“Yeah, well you don’t know me too well,” Jess said gruffly, taking a seat on the opposite bunk. “So what did ya want...huh?”
Jake shrugged, “Now you’re here...I don’t know. To say sorry maybe...sorry we didn’t meet earlier too. It might have changed things if we had. I was short of a big brother growing up...I reckon you’d have made all the difference.”
“Maybe,” Jess agreed, “but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“No,” and they lapsed into silence.
Then Jake looked over and said, “You knew my Ma before I was born. What was she like then?”
Jess cast his mind back to the little seven-year-old boy he had been, the last time he’d seen Rose and smiled.
“She was a real nice lady,” he said softly, “kind to us young ‘uns and real good fun too, never strict with us. She always smelled real sweet...roses I think...she wore rose perfume.”
Tears sprang to Jake’s eyes. “Yes, she did...I’d forgotten that.”
Jess sighed deeply, “If it’s any consolation, it would have all been my Pa’s fault. He was kinda weak around the ladies, when he was younger anyway. It weren’t yer Ma’s doing ya know...he’d have sweet talked her, offered the earth and then not come through.”
Jake nodded his head, “Life’s kinda funny isn’t it Jess? Strange a man like that having a good son like you. I guess he didn’t deserve you...me neither, but for different reasons.”
Jess said nothing, figuring that as apologies went, well that was up with the best.
Then Mort was there, “Sorry, time to go.”
Jake stood up and moved towards the door, before stopping and glancing back at Jess.
“You think she’ll be there waiting for me my Ma... brother?”
Jess didn’t miss a beat, “Yup I know she will be.”
He stood alone as Mort took the prisoner down Main Street to the gallows and then suddenly Slim was at his side. As they stood by the office door, they clearly heard the gasp of the crowd as the trap door opened and then the whoosh of the drop and then the louder exclamation of the onlookers as Jake Harper’s life ended.
Slim leaned over and slapped Jess gently on the shoulder, “Come on pard let’s go home,” he said softly.
It was a few days later that the two men sat out on the porch, sipping a whiskey apiece...Mike and Daisy long abed.
“So, what changed your mind in the end, about visiting Jake?” Slim asked quietly, “You decided to forgive him maybe?”
Jess shrugged. “I dunno, just seemed the right thing to do, you know Slim? And maybe I did kinda forgive him yeah.”
The blond rancher smiled and said softly, “Well I’m glad you did.”
Jess just nodded and sipped his drink looking over from his porch seat to the distant Snowys.
Then Slim looked more closely at his buddy.
“It’s been hard for you all this business...finding kin and then him turning out to be…well the way he was, what was it Carl said? Flawed...makes you wonder doesn’t it Jess?”
“What? If it was his Ma’s upbringing that turned him that way, or it was just in his blood that he’d turn out a wrong ‘un, you mean?”
“Yes, that nurture or nature thing Sam seems to set so much store by?”
Jess shrugged, “He was just unlucky if he really did get sick in the mind because of losing his Ma that way. Don’t forget I was in a pretty bad way after I lost Maria. Up here that is,” he said tapping his head. # 1 Loved Lost Survived.
“Yes, but the difference is you had the guts and tenacity to get through that Jess,” Slim replied. “Jake just didn’t.”
Jess shook his head, “Nope you’re wrong there Slim. The difference is I had you at my back. It was you that helped pull me through. Maybe,“ he sighed deeply, “just maybe if I’d known the guy better...understood more I could have got him through it too.”
“No Jess you can’t think that way, he didn’t let you close enough to even begin to understand much less support him, he was too dang busy trying to get his revenge on you.”
“You’re right,” Jess agreed reluctantly. “Still it’s a pity that things weren’t different. I’m kinda careless the way. I’ve lost all my kin; it might have been nice to have a little brother again.”
“Well I shouldn’t fret too much about that,” Slim said with a warm smile, “because you’ve got one tucked up asleep inside. I may play the Pa roll with Mike, but you’re the big brother he idolises. And uh...if ever you’re in the market for a big brother yourself, you’ve got one right here,” he finished shyly.
Jess looked over, his eyes suddenly kind of misty, “Thanks pard,” he said softly.
They sat on in silence enjoying the view of the moonlit yard from the porch, before Slim decided to lighten the atmosphere and change the subject.
“So how are you feeling now Jess? You never told me what Sam’s diagnosis was when you went to his office, the day before Jake’s…uh, life ended?”
“Was hanged Slim, you can say it. The guy was hung by the neck until dead.”
Slim said nothing for a moment and then, “So the diagnosis…what was wrong Jess?”
Jess rolled his eyes, “You won’t believe it. I got sick from that cat scratch! The doc found some lumps in my neck and said it was a sign of a low-grade infection probably caused by Jasper scratchin ’ me. It’s got some fancy name Feline Infective...something or other,” he said vaguely, “makes you feel real bad, aches, pains, sick to yer stomach. Dang cat,” he muttered.
“But you’re feeling better now?” Slim persisted.
“Sure, this new diet the doc recommended with all that extra milk instead of too much coffee has helped. Plus, all the green vegetables that Miss Daisy’s been feeding me at every dang meal, it’s pretty awful but it seems to have done the trick.”
“Well you’ve sure been making enough fuss about it,” Slim said.
“I know, but the doc said it was the quickest way to get well again, a real healthy diet seems to be the best cure he said, or the sickness can drag on for weeks. Just a good job it’s working.”
“Oh really, so the diet regime has helped?” Slim said grinning broadly now.
Jess nodded, “Yup, I actually do feel a whole lot better for all those greens and extra milk!”
But Slim was bubbling with barely concealed laughter now.
“Hell, Slim what’s so darned funny huh?”
“Nothing Jess, nothing at all, it’s just that Daisy’s been trying to get you to eat more healthily for years, but it takes Jasper to finally get you to oblige!”
Jess looked stony faced, and then grinned, “I guess you’re right there, Hardrock.”
Then as if on cue Jasper sauntered over and cast Jess a wary glance before finally deciding to risk it and he jumped lightly onto his lap. Then he turned in a circle twice before settling down.
Jess glanced down at the tawny colored animal on his knee and put out a tentative hand to caress him, “Dang ornery critter,” he muttered, before exchanging a smile with Slim.
All that could be heard were the gentle night time sounds of small animals rustling in the undergrowth and the distant call of a lone wolf. The two men looked up to the moonlit Snowys, sipped their drinks and listened to the deep rhythmical purring of one very contented ranch cat.
The End
Thank you for reading.

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