#80 Andy Slim and Me -End of an Era

Andy, Slim & Me - End of an Era

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

Third of the Trilogy of the ‘Andy, Slim & Me’ stories

As told by Jess Harper.

Times they’d been changing since I’d first moved into the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station...I guess me arriving with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets, as Slim termed it, kinda changed things some...me in particular. But then over the first and second year I was there I reckon everyone who slept under that ol’ roof changed some...and in some real special ways too.
I guess the biggest change in me was when I put my old gunslinger weapon up for good and decided to throw in my lot at the Sherman place...Well I reckon there were a few times I regretted that decision...But maybe not as much as Slim, Andy and old Jonesy had cause to. What with my wild ways and all...But I figure generally they ended up feelin’ kinda glad I was a part of the set up. And dang it, I never thought I’d say this...but I was real glad to have a place to call home...a place where I could really make something of myself.
Anyways I’d been there a while when Slim decided that it was time young Andy left home to head off for a St Louis Boarding School and get all educated up as per his Pa’s last wish...Well I’d spoken to the boy about it and it looked like he was pretty much fired up to move on. To get the kinda education he needed under his belt to be an animal doc... or as Slim said hopefully, even a real proper Doc...
Well that was until the day he was to leave the ranch loomed closer and closer...and it looked like he was having second thoughts....

Chapter 1
“What about all my critters Slim? I can’t leave them, I just can’t.”
“Come on Andy we’ve been all through this, that owl with the busted wing is all ready to be released back into the wild and that darned baby deer is almost full grown and ready to go too. It’s cruel to keep them penned up when they should be with their own kind...we discussed all this.”
He sighed looking down at the barn floor, “I know it...but what about Bandit, I’ve had him since he was tiny, he couldn’t survive in the wild Slim.”
“Hey I said I’d look out fer that ol’ Racoon didn’t I Andy?” I said from where I was grooming my horse and listening in to their conversation.
He turned to me, “It ain’t just the critters I’ll miss Jess it’s all of you too,” he said throwing his brother an anguished glance.
Well I guess all this was getting to Slim as he looked real mad and said, “For goodness sake Andy you’re going it’s all arranged! Jonesy took you to Cheyenne to get you all rigged out. Then you’re traveling as far as St Louis with your best buddy and his Pa, it’s not like you’re going alone. Ben Brown and his Pa will be with you.”
“Yes, but Ben’s attending the Springfield School right over on the other side of town. I’ll never see him...why can’t I go there too Slim huh?”
“I told you Andy it’s a day school and Ben’s got kin there he can stay with. You’ll be a boarder, sleeping in the school. Midnight feasts all that kind of stuff it’ll be fun you’ll see. Besides the Mason Academy was the school Pa attended and he wanted you to go there too.”
“Well I don’t see why I have to,” Andy said now looking belligerent, “why should I huh?”
“Because it was our Pa’s last wish that’s why...he told me before he died it’s what he wanted for you!”
Andy looked like he might well burst into tears, but instead ran from the barn, half colliding with Jonesy entering as he ran off.
“Well you sure dug into the cellar for that one,” I said angrily, “Hell Slim you can see the kid’s upset.”
“This is nothing to do with you, it’s between me and Andy so just butt out,” he growled before marching off after his errant brother.
Jonesy wandered over and threw me a sad smile, “He didn’t mean it boy, he’s just upset, I guess. He doesn’t want young Andy to go any more than the rest of us...but it’s like he said. Mathew Sr wanted it for Andy and I figure Slim is just carrying out his wishes.”

A week or so later found us all at the Stage Depot in Laramie waiting to wave Andy off...We’d arranged to meet Ben and his Pa there and I guess feelings were running pretty high as we prepared to see the kid off. Then something happened that was to make matters a whole lot worse. Ben’s older sister Tessa arrived with her Pa to wave her brother Ben off.
Well me and Tessa had been seeing each other up until a few weeks ago. But then two things happened. Her Pa forbade her to go to her job at Miss Molly’s cafe or date anyone as he really needed her home to take care of her sick Ma. So, she gave up her job at the Cafe...and me too...even though we’d gotten real close. Then I was to learn that young Andy had a major teen crush on Tessa and was real mad at me for bein’ friends with her too. In fact, it was a heck of a lot worse than that as he caught me and Tessa together...and it was pretty clear to him that we were much more than just friends... * See Andy Slim & Me What Happened Next.
So when she turned up with her Pa and little brother it was kind of a shock to both me and Andy.
I remembered the last time we had been together after the town dance. I’d stayed over with her, at her friend Meg’s apartment above the Cafe. Meg was seeing Slim and so we all enjoyed the dance before seeing our girls’ home and staying over.
We’d dropped Andy off earlier at his friend Ben’s house where he was staying for the week-end. Early the following morning, before we were up, Ben and Andy had arrived knocking at Meg’s door at the crack of dawn. Well young Ben had been sent to find his sister to say their Ma was real sick and she was needed back home. Andy caught me and Tessa together and had run off looking real upset. I’d seen Tessa home and that’s when she told me it would be better if we didn’t see each other for a while as her Pa was kinda strict and really wanted her home to care for her ailing Ma.
Right now, old man Brown was throwing me black looks as he escorted Tessa and Ben towards the Stage Office.
“Uh-uh, here comes trouble,” Slim whispered in my ear as Brown approached.
Slim knew him of old and had told me how Tessa’s older sister, Judy, had left home and eloped because her Pa was so dang strict with her, never letting her date or go out at all. Now it seemed he was acting the same way around Tessa. OK I knew her Ma was real sick and wouldn’t be getting any better, but even so Tessa was almost a prisoner in her own home as I knew only too well. Every time I came to town, I’d call in at Miss Molly’s Cafe and ask after her, but Meg rarely saw her now, unless she visited the house, where she was made less than welcome by old man Brown.
Then just moments later Tessa was there her eyes lighting up as she saw me, a pretty flush to her cheeks.
She turned and said hello and smiled at Andy and I noted he turned bright red and seemed to have lost the power of speech...but then I remembered the huge crush he had on his buddy’s sister and felt real sorry for the kid.
Then she turned her gaze back to me.
But her Pa pushed in front of her, “Sherman, Harper,” he said brusquely, frowning at me, before he saw Jonesy standing behind us. Well that seemed to make him even less hospitable and he ignored the old guy.
Turning to Slim he said, “Well where’s this darned Stage of yours Sherman...running late again I see.”
In his usual patient manner Slim shouldered the seeming full responsibility of the running of the whole Overland Stagecoach company single handed and merely said, “It’ll be here directly Mister Brown.”
Then two seconds later Mose came rattling down the street pulling the team up beside us and was soon chivvying all who were traveling to get on board.
Tessa kissed her brother goodbye and then turning to Andy did likewise, the boy’s face aflame again.
I thought for a moment Andy wouldn’t go...until Slim grinned at him and said, “Off you go Andy, go get all educated up and before you know it, you’ll be real smart huh?” And he handed him up to his place on the coach where Brown and young Ben were already seated.
“But I don’t wanna be smart,” was his farewell come back, “I wanna be just like you and Jess!”
Me and Slim exchanged a half amused half insulted glance, before turning to wave the stage off with Slim and I trying to put on a brave face and grinning at the kid. But old Jonesy turned away and there were tears in his eyes.
“Ain’t right,” he said quietly, “just ain’t right at all.”
Then Brown leaned out of the window... “You get straight home now gal... like you promised your Ma,” and then all that could be seen was a haze of dust as the stage made its way out of town.
I turned to where Tessa was still standing watching the coach and said softly, “I’ve missed you...so much.”
Her head bowed and then she turned t look at me properly.
“Me too,” she whispered.
Then as we just stood there gazing into each other’s eyes Jonesy came up and tipping his hat said, “How’s your dear Ma Tessa?”
Tessa dragged her gaze away from me and looked deeply saddened.
“Not well Mister Jones, not well at all. The doc says it’s just a matter of time. That’s why Ben’s going away to school. Ma thought it would be too difficult for him seeing her decline this way.”
“I’m real sorry,” I said quietly, leaning in and running a hand up and down her arm...my heart breaking for her.
“That’s too bad,” Jonesy said, “I’m so sorry my dear. So young Ben is staying with kin in St. Louis, is he?”
Tessa nodded, “My Auntie Annie yes.”
When Jonesy said nothing, I turned to look at him and saw all the color had drained from his face. After a second he coughed to clear his throat and finally said, “What you’re Ma’s sister Annie...Annie Peters?”
Tessa nodded, “You know her?”
Jonesy just said, “Yup...used to anyways...so still runnin’ that smart hotel, is she?”
Tessa shook her head, “No, she sold it after her husband, Uncle Ted died. She bought something smaller, a Boarding House, right opposite the Springfield School and she can’t wait for Ben to move in there with her.”
But Jonesy was miles away staring into space. Then he looked back at Tessa and said, “Dead you say...Ted Peters is dead?”
Tessa threw me a puzzled glance before looking back to Jonesy, “Yes nigh of five years come Thanksgiving.”
Jonesy just shook his head and wandered off towards the buckboard where Slim was waiting to drive us all back to the ranch.
“What was all that about?” She asked watching the old timer mooch off.
“Search me,” I said.
Then, “Tessa can I see you again? It was real good what we had... weren’t it?”
She nodded sadly, “It was really special,” she said looking up into my eyes. “But I’m sorry Jess I promised Pa I’d look after Ma to the end. I have to stay home and nurse her.”
Then she reached up and kissed me gently on the cheek before turning and running off down the street, calling, “Goodbye,” over her shoulder.
I stood watching her until she disappeared inside her house and then whispered, “Bye Tessa,” before turning and wandering off to the buckboard.
Slim and Jonesy were waiting for me and they moved over so I could get up on the seat with them and then Slim hustled the team down Main Street towards home.
We were silent for a good couple of miles before I finally turned to Jonesy and said, “So what was all that about? Tessa’s Auntie Annie, was she a friend of yours?”
“None of your damn business,” Jonesy snarled, before looking ahead, his mouth set in a firm line that said, ‘enough... don’t push it!’
I exchanged a glance with Slim over his head, but said nothing.
Well I guess we were already missing Andy and the rest of the journey proceeded in silence.
Much later in the day me and Slim came into the house for supper, to find no food cooking and Jonesy sitting at the kitchen table getting stuck into the medicinal whiskey.
We exchanged a puzzled glance for the second time that day before both settling down on either side of him at the table.
“You OK Jonesy?” Slim asked kindly.
“Uh, if you must know, no I’m not...my dang sacroiliac’s playing me up something fierce...so I’m having a drop of comfort...if it’s anyone’s business,” he said throwing us both an accusing glance.
Slim raised his hands in submission, “Nope feel free,” he said.
“Absolutely,” I agreed, “dig in Jonesy in fact I’m feelin’ kinda sick myself,” I said with a wink at Slim.
“You are?” Jonesy asked.
“Uh-huh, love sick,” Slim said with a wolfish smile, “lusting after that cute little Tessa, aren’t you Pard?”
“Hey I’ll have none of that, you boys treat that young lady with some respect,” Jonesy said before hiccup ping and staring bleary eyed at Slim.
Slim merely shrugged and went off to fetch a couple of shot glasses.
“So what’s this really all about?” I asked the old man. “It wouldn’t have something to do with this mysterious Annie Peters would it?”
When he just poured himself another drink and didn’t reply, Slim, who had now returned with the glasses, poured us a good measure each and said, “Don’t tell me...you were sweet on her right?” And he gave a loud guffaw.
“Well as a matter of fact you’re right,” Jonesy said indignantly.
I’d just taken a swig of my drink and almost choked, “Really?”
He sighed deeply, “It’s just like Mort Cory always says. You young bucks think you invented romancing the ladies. Well I’ll tell you, me and Mort were cutting the mustard on the dance floor long before you boys were a twinkle in your Pa’s eyes.”
“So are you gonna tell us about her?” I asked, taking another sip of my drink.
Well I guess the whiskey must have loosened his tongue because he said, “Do you recall me telling you that a woman had the power to hurt a man way more than any bullet?”
I nodded, “I guess you’re not wrong there Jonesy.” Boy I’d been knocked back a few times and knew the pain all too well.
“So it was this Annie, gave you a hard time?” Slim asked.
He nodded, “You could say so... See it was this way. It was back in the ‘50’s and I was working as a piano player in the bars all around St Louis when I first met Annie...Annie Smyth as it was back in those days...and her sister Martha, both of them dolls. Well Martha was already engaged to Horace Brown, Tessa and Ben’s Pa and Annie was stepping out with Ted Peters...until I happened along that is...”
“What you stole her from him?” I asked looking shocked.
“Huh, don’t think I’ve got it in me eh? Well let me tell you I was a real ladies man back in those days...they liked the piano playin’ ya see...and I was a real good dancer too.”
“So what happened?” Slim persisted.
“Well she threw him over for me, didn’t she? We got engaged and were all set to Wed, even had the banns read... Martha was real sweet about it all...but not that Horace Brown...refused to speak to me from that day to this.”
“I kinda noticed that at the Stage office,” I said.
He nodded,” I couldn’t believe it when he moved the family over here twenty odd years ago. Dear Martha would pass the time of day, but not him. He got on well with your Pa though Slim, I guess that’s why Andy was always made welcome there.”
“Well go on then,” I said enjoying this side of Jonesy he’d never allowed us to see before.
He sighed deeply, “She threw me over didn’t she. See Ted Peters was a bit of a gambler and won a fortune on the tables and up and bought this huge swanky Hotel in the centre of St Louis. Well I guess that turned Annie’s head because he won her back, with the promise of a life of luxury, staff to cater to her every need. Well what’s that compared to a two-bit piano player’s wages? I guess I can hardly blame her.”
Well I sure would I thought bitterly, but from the look on the old guy’s face I figured he wouldn’t appreciate me saying that somehow.
“So what happened in the end?” Slim asked gently.
“She upped and married him...and lived to regret it,” Jonesy said sadly. “She wrote me just a year later, sayin’ she’d made the worst mistake of her life but he wouldn’t divorce her and she wouldn’t live with me out of wedlock... so that was it.”
“Until today, when you heard he was dead,” I said softly. “So, what are you gonna do about it?”
He looked up at me sadly, “Nothing boy, nothing at all...if she wants me, she knows where to find me.” With that he staggered off to the kitchen and commenced banging pots and pans about and we left him to make supper, knowing the discussion was closed, for now and knowing Jonesy, probably forever.
Andy lay in the narrow hard bed in the dormitory along with eleven other boys. All were either chatting in muffled whispers or in a few cases sobbing softly and he thought he might very well die of homesickness.
The journey itself had been uneventful as he sat daydreaming of that goodbye kiss from Tessa. Then he remembered the sadness in the eyes of Slim and Jess...and old Jonesy turning away, groping in his vest pocket for his handkerchief.
They had met up with some other boys and a master, in Cheyenne, all bound for the Mason Academy, where they continued their journey by railroad. There was only one other new boy from his part of the country, who was a head taller than Andy, but very thin and pale. He had a thatch of red hair and a rather annoying habit of pushing his eye glasses back up his nose as they frequently slid forwards. However, Andy immediately struck up a conversation and found him to be both funny and wise beyond his years.
“Andy, Andy Sherman,” he said offering a hand.
“William Saunders, but friends call me Will,” the other said shaking Andy’s hand firmly.
“My esteemed pa seems to think this place will make a man of me,” he said scathingly, referring to the Mason Academy. “But I reckon nature will take care of that, without boarding school and all that living hell,” he said, rubbing the fuzz of soft fine hair on his chin.
“What do ya mean living hell?” Andy asked looking shocked.
“Oh haven’t you heard? There is a new Headmaster, a retired major and apparently, he runs the place along the lines of a Union prisoner of war camp...and us poor lot are the ‘Confederates’,” he said with an ironic smile.
Andy was immediately angry, “You shouldn’t joke about that kinda thing. My best friend was a Confederate and was in one of those ‘God-awful places,’ “Andy said quoting Jess.
“Well I’m not joking Andy and if I were you, I wouldn’t mention you count a confederate among your friends either...certainly not to Major Beeston anyway.”
They finally arrived at the school towards nightfall, all tired and hungry.
But instead of the supper and warm welcome he had been expecting they were immediately sent to a large cold hall, where they were told to stand to attention in total silence. Then about half an hour later Major Beeston marched in. He then proceeded to rant at them all for a further hour. Telling them that they should never forget how lucky they were to be given the opportunity to grow into a strong fighting force of young men. Then told them exactly what would happen if they didn’t comply with all the school rules...of which there were many.
It was later in a whispered exchange over a cold supper that Andy queried the fact that they were to be ‘grown into a strong fighting force of young men.’
“Heck I thought this was a school, not a military academy,” he said to one of the older boys.
“Used to be a proper school...but you try telling the Beast, Major Beeston that is. He thinks he’s still in the army...it’s all drilling and parade work and precious little studying,” the lad, Fred Smith, said angrily. “My pa’s paying out good money to get me all educated up so I can go into business with him as a Pharmacist, he owns a store in Philadelphia. He wants me to get a good classical education and then go on to college, fat chance here,” he spat. “Heck we don’t even do the sciences!” He finished, forgetting to whisper and gaining a black look from one of the masters.
“Well why dontcha tell your Pa, write home?”
Fred Smith laughed, “You’re kidding, they tell us what to write in the monthly letter home and then check them all. If you say anything bad about the place...well the letter never makes it home.”
“What? But they can’t do that,” Andy said furiously, “that’s terrible... you sure?”
“Seen ‘em in the bin with my own eyes in the Beast’s study, I was waiting in there for him and saw a letter I’d written to Pa in there. When I asked him about it, he said it was because my handwriting was bad and I let the school down but I know better.”
“Smith, go and light the lamps in your dorm!” The master from the far end of the table intoned.
“Please sir, I haven’t finished my supper,” Fred said.
“Well you should talk less and eat more in future, off with you.”
Fred swore under his breath and mooched off to do as he was bid...
“And jump to it boy, at the double!” The master shouted after his retreating back.
Andy and Will exchanged a wary look, “Welcome to Mason Academy Andy,” Will whispered.
Now as he lay in the dark reviewing the last few hours, he had only one thought on his mind, how could he escape?

Chapter 2
It was a very subdued trio that arrived back at the ranch after seeing Andy off.
Jonesy started banging about his pots and pans, saying he was going to brew up a vat of horse liniment and by the look on his face didn’t want disturbing.
Slim immersed him-self in the ranch accounts and I took off riding fence.
I figured it was for the best that the kid had been sent away to get a proper education. Hell, neither me nor Slim wanted him ending up like me...which had been his number one career choice the last year or so. But now he really had a chance to make something of his life. Maybe even in medicine and I knew he wouldn’t get the basic schooling for that back in Laramie. Nope he needed all those sciences and if goin’ away was the only way to get that kinda stuff...then so be it. But it was hard, real hard and I was missing the kid already.
Then I thought about the chance meeting I’d had with Tessa. It had really shaken me and I guess I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed having her in my life. Sure, it had still been early days when she’d had to finish our relationship, because of her domineering pa, but even so we’d got close in those few weeks, real close.
I’d called into Miss Molly’s Cafe with Slim, earlier in the day to buy some treats for Andy’s journey. While I was chatting with Meg, she’d let slip that Tessa often called in for bread on a Friday morning, and then she’d winked at me.
Uh, so I decided to ride in the following Friday and just hang about until she appeared, thinking that just a glimpse of her and few words would be better than nothing. Then I shook my head and smiled inwardly, hell I’d sure got it bad.
Then later back at the ranch Jonesy had unburdened himself about his lost love Annie and I guess that spurred me on some. I sure didn’t wanna lose Tessa for good and figured I had to do what I could to keep her in my life...no matter how difficult that would be to achieve.
So the following Friday morning, found me sitting on a bench on the sidewalk, right by Miss Molly’s cafe, where I couldn’t possibly miss my girl. Then just an hour later there she was, the girl of my dreams waltzing down Main Street...heading for the cafe.
“Jess...I...I didn’t expect to see you,” she stuttered, “How is Andy have you heard?”
I shook my head, “They are allowed to write home at the end of the month...you heard from Ben?”
She nodded enthusiastically, “Yes we got a wire. He settled in well with Auntie Annie, loves it, but misses home of course.”
“Of course,” I said softly, looking into her beautiful eyes and I guess we both knew I weren’t talking about her young brother missing home anymore...but us missing each other.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “It’s Pa, you know how protective he is and especially now when Ma is so poorly.”
Then I felt terrible, lusting after her, when her Ma was so sick...
“How is she?” I asked.
She shook her head, “Not good...I should go.”
“Of course,” and then I shot out a hand and pulled her back towards me, “I’m thinkin’ of ya...you know?”
She nodded and impulsively kissed me softly on the lips before pulling back and saying, “I know,” and bowing her head ran swiftly into the cafe to collect her bread.
I stood watching the closed door wondering how I could possibly get her back into my life, but right then it seemed impossible.
Meanwhile back at the Mason Academy Andy was having a completely different experience of school to his friend Ben.
The day started at dawn with a cold shower and then a five-mile cross country run. Followed by another cold shower...before the boys were ushered into the dining hall where they partook of a meager breakfast in silence. It seemed that ‘the Beast’ was particularly keen on cold showers saying that they turned young men’s thoughts away from the ‘sins of the flesh.’
Then there was a daily protracted School Assembly where any miscreants were publicly humiliated, before being taken away and thrashed soundly...for any misdemeanor no matter how trivial as far as Andy could see. These included speaking out of turn, complaining about anything from the small, cold meals and frequent showers, to the lack of any decent schooling.
The school day was mostly spent marching around the quadrangle, or parade ground as Major Beeston termed it. Then an hour of Physical Education and another run before the academic learning finally started after the midday meal.
The curriculum seemed to be very similar to that of the Laramie School, some simple math, followed by essay writing and spelling tests. The boredom occasionally alleviated by some History...of Battles of the civil war and Geography...battle fields.
Andy had finally had the impertinence, according to the Major, to ask if there would be any lessons in the sciences and Latin as per the prospectus he and his brother had been sent. He was told in no uncertain terms that he was lucky to be a Mason boy and he shouldn’t rock the boat.
However, Andy being Andy asked that his brother be informed of the differing timetable and that had led to six of the best in ‘the Beast’s’ office and the suggestion that he toe the line or more punishment would be metered out.
“All I’m sayin’ is that it doesn’t sound like him,” I said as Slim pored over Andy’s first letter home for the tenth time.
“Looky here, he says the staff are extremely kind. Heck have ya ever heard him say anyone is ’extremely kind, ‘ and certainly not a dang teacher!”
“Well maybe they are...how do you know Jess you haven’t ever been to an expensive fee-paying school have you?” Slim said tersely.
“Maybe not,” I muttered, “but I sure know what teachers are like.”
He just rolled his eyes, but I persevered.
“And here,” I said pointing to the letter, ‘the early morning runs are a lark, such fun’. “Hell, that ain’t the way the kid talks and Andy thinking an early morning run is fun?”
“Well maybe the others talk that way and enjoy it all and he’s just learning to fit in,” Slim said.
“Uh, I guess we won’t know the kid when he comes home in the summer,” I muttered miserably before I went off to start the yard chores.
But something wasn’t right I just knew it. There was no mention of his pony Patch...or of Bandit and the whole way it was written was completely unnatural. Heck I’d had letters from Andy before when he’d been away staying with family friends back east, and they were nuthin’ like this short formal note we’d got. Why couldn’t Slim see that I wondered?
Meanwhile I guess we were all tryin’ to adapt to life without Andy in it and I figure it hit old Jonesy the hardest. Me and Slim still had all the chores to do and our minds were kinda focused as we tried to survive the freezing temperatures of that January and February. We spent our time checking the stock and making the outbuildings secure for any winter storms we might have thrown at us.
But old Jonesy, apart from his usual pastime of concocting evil brews of liniment and various other potions and medicines...well he was feelin’ pretty redundant, I guess. Sure, he was still chief cook and housekeeper. But his heart really wasn’t in it with Andy bein’ away. He had nobody to chivvy up to do his homework and chores...or to lend a kindly ear to when the kid was upset or sick.
Then there was that other business praying on his mind about Annie, Ma Brown’s younger sister. He never talked about this Annie, but I caught him looking off into space once or twice and just knew he was thinkin’ on her...wondering if now they could make a go of it maybe? But when I tackled him about it, he just clammed up and refused to talk to me.
So life went on as ever through January and February...until we hit the end of March and the stirrings of spring.
Jonesy was still brooding...and I was little better frettin’ over the situation between me and Tessa.
Slim was still dating her friend Meg and sometimes came home with snippets of information for me. Her Ma was weaker...but holding her own. Her Pa was as ornery and difficult as ever. Young Ben had settled well into the Springfield school but was missing his family and especially his best buddy Andy and he wanted to know how he was getting on.
Slim relayed this to me late one Sunday morning as he was grooming Alamo after riding back from town after a night of passion with Meg.
Well I guess I was feelin’ kinda jealous and frustrated too and itching for a fight and I said, “Yes so how is Andy, Slim? Because your guess is as good as mine...from all we can gather from those dang letters he sends home.”
“What do you mean?” He asked turning from his task to glare at me.
“Oh come on Slim you know exactly what I mean, we had no more information in the second letter than we did in the first and as to this month’s it’s overdue by a week...ain’t you worried?”
“Why should I be worried? It’s an excellent school. For goodness sake Jess if it was good enough for Pa it’s good enough for Andy.”
“So it’s the same Headmaster as your Pa had?” I asked sarcastically. “I don’t think so...places change Slim.”
He looked kinda wrong footed at that and then said, “Let’s wait and see what he says in this next letter huh?”
Well it arrived on the Stage the following morning and Slim read it before passing it across to me and Jonesy.
“See just as I said the boy’s fine,” Slim said.
I looked down at the neatly written page before me...but none of it made sense...
Dear Big Brother,
The marching and PE we do every day is really making men of us and I am sure you will be pleased at how fit I am now... I think the small meals are very healthy too and most of us have lost weight and feel much better for it. I am enjoying learning all about the history and geography of war, it is so interesting.
I hope you and the other staff at the ranch are keeping well...give my regards to Mister Jones and Mister Harper,
Yours sincerely,
Your brother,
“Are you crazy?” I spat staring at Slim. “How can you say he’s fine? When did he ever call you ‘Big Brother’ or me and Jonesy Mister? Can’t ya see, it’s some kind of dang message from the boy...saying he’s spending all his time marching and drilling...Jeez, it sounds more like a boot camp than a school....and who is this dang Major Beeston anyway...huh?”
“He comes highly recommended,” Slim replied.
But I could see from his face he was worried.
Meanwhile back at the Mason Academy Andy had just about reached the end of his tether. He’d sent three letters home, all but saying the place was just awful and he wanted out.
Jeepers which part of ‘early morning runs were a lark’....and ‘hoping that Mister Jones and Mister Harper were well’ did he not understand? Wasn’t it darned obvious that he was sending messages home in code? He’d lost weight...he was spending all his time marching around a dang ‘parade ground’...how much more information did Slim need before he did something?
It was now mid March and something far more worrying than being worked like a trooper and half starved had happened. His new best friend Will was sick...really sick. He’d been pretty peaky from the start, a cough here and cold there...but now he had taken to his bed and hadn’t been seen in class for over a week.
The boys were not allowed to visit friends in sickbay upon pain of Matron’s temper and ‘the Beast’ took it very seriously if anyone upset Matron.
However, it was when Andy overheard a conversation between the Head and Matron that he just knew he had to take action.
“I’m sure the youngster will be just fine,” Major Beeston said dismissively,” and you know how much that quack Phillips, in the town charges.”
“I know sir, but I really think the young man needs to see Doctor Phillips, his cough is on his chest now and I really am quite concerned. Maybe a note home to his parents in Denver?”
“Um...we’ll see, give it another week Matron, the boy’s a weakling, needs to toughen up....”
It took Andy all his self control not to face up the Head and Matron there and then. But instead he made his way to sickbay and once Matron had gone off to her dinner he slipped into Will’s room.
He took a shocked breath when he saw the state of his friend. He had lost even more weight and had a terrible grey hue to his complexion and his breathing was labored and shallow.
“Hey buddy how are you doin’?” Andy asked as he slumped down on the edge of the bed.
“Not too good,” Will admitted, “they keep saying the doctor is coming, but he never does...I feel really bad Andy...the worst ever,” and then he started coughing again.
Andy found some water and carefully gave his friend a drink before resting his head back on the pillow again. Then just moments later the door opened and Major Beeston and Matron stood on the threshold glaring at Andy and Will.
“What do you think you’re doing here boy...you know it’s out of bounds,” the Head intoned.
“I’m lookin’ out for my buddy...which is what you should be doing!” Andy yelled, incandescent with rage and completely forgetting this new subservient act he was supposed to display at all times.
“Watch your tongue boy,” Major Beeston declared loudly, “get back to your dorm this minute!”
“No sir!” Andy yelled, looking close to tears but still standing his ground. “I won’t until you promise to get the Doc to Will here. You can see how sick he is!”
The Major screamed like an out of control critter of some sort Andy thought later...incensed by the boy’s lack of fear and respect.
“How dare you, how dare you address me that way child!” he yelled.
Andy said nothing, the thought of apologizing not even entering his head.
“I can see we need to break this wild spirit of yours Sherman!” He said gravely, “Maybe a spell in solitary will do the trick um?”
Then without any further discussion Andy was frogmarched down to the cellar by the Head and thrown unceremoniously into a dark cold room. It was furnished with a desk, chair and low cot...the only light from a narrow window half way up the wall.
“You will do all your studying, sleep and eat in here young man, until you learn some manners and respect,” the Head said, before turning and marching out and with the sound of a key turning in the lock Andy’s last hope of freedom was dashed.
But it only took him a day in solitary confinement before he worked out how to escape.
The narrow window set halfway up the wall looked out onto the driveway to the school. The School itself set in verdant countryside about a mile from the town of St Louis. All Andy had to do was scale the wall, unlock the window and escape. Then he could notify the local doctor as to Will’s distressing illness before making for home.
During his time in the school he had worked hard running errands for the staff and generally taking on duties unpopular with the other boys and had received quite a substantial remuneration for his trouble, his aim to amass enough money for the fare home. He figured now he had about half of it and he’d just have to blag the rest he thought...hitch a lift... or walk even but he had to get his friend help and then get home and explain it all to Slim.
Luckily Andy kept his money in a small wallet in his pocket at all times, there having been a spate of petty theft in the school. Now as his hand closed around the wallet, he thanked God he’d had the foresight to save up and keep the money close.
He waited until after lights out and then by the light of a full moon filtering in through the dusty window he made his plans. Once he’d pulled his desk up to the wall and placed his chair on top, he was just about able to reach the rusty latch of the narrow window... It took him another hour or so to finally work the rusty bolt free and push the window open... Then it was just a matter of squeezing through the tiny space and dropping down six feet to the stony ground below...
He froze as he heard voices as he stood beneath his window...... The voices finally faded away, he heard a door open and close and then silence....
It was dawn when he reached the town and finally located Doc Philips’ office. Andy had met the doctor briefly a few weeks ago when he badly sprained an ankle during his PE class. Luckily a school governor was present and the doctor sent for at once. Now as Andy rang the doorbell he just hoped and prayed the doc would come up trumps and visit as he wanted.
Sometime later the two parted company. Doctor Philips was soon on his way to visit Will. Then he said he would inform Will’s father of his son’s illness and have him taken home if the degree of sickness merited it.
“Would you like a lift back to the school?” the kindly doctor asked, thinking it a tad strange to send the youngster out so early and unaccompanied.
“Err, no thank you sir. Major Beeston wanted me to do some other jobs in town for him as well as call you,” Andy said looking the picture of innocence.
“Right you are sonny and don’t you worry about your friend, he’s in good hands now,” the doc said as he turned his buggy towards the school, with a cheery wave.
It wasn’t until after the doctor’s visit that Major Beeston finally put two and two together and realized that the mystery child who had summonsed the doctor was indeed Andy Sherman.
The doctor himself had been incredibly angry that he had not been sent for earlier.
“The child is extremely ill, he has pleurisy and that in turn could well develop into lung fever, which can be a killer. Especially in the sickly and undernourished, such as this child! “
“Well I can’t help it if he’s a poor eater,” the Major blustered,” and he was only taken ill about a day or so ago.”
“That’s not what his young friend said,” the doc replied. “He believes the child has been in sickbay for over two weeks, so what have you to say to that!”
“Well of course if you prefer to believe some imaginative child,” Beeston said shrugging.
The doctor turned a hostile gaze on the other, “You know I think I do. Now please ask Matron to prepare the child for a journey, I will take him back to my office and nurse him there.”
Beeston turned to go, but the Doctor called him back.
“Oh, and Major as a member of the School Board I will be calling an Extraordinary Meeting to discuss this matter and so I should be prepared to answer some very searching questions on the health and welfare of the children in your charge.”
It was sometime later when Major Beeston finally gave up hope of finding the absconded child and had to inform his guardian.
Me and Slim had changed the team on the noon Stage and were about to wave Mose off when he did his usual annoying habit of searching through all his pockets saying he had a wire somewhere...he was sure he had.
It eventually came to light and he passed it down to Slim.
“Post marked St Louis, so it will be from young Andy,” he said sagely. Then he waited expectantly to see the contents.
However Slim merely thanked him and placing the envelope in his vest pocket waved and made for the ranch door.
I grinned up at Mose and then followed Slim inside out of the chilly early April wind.
Jonesy was just about to dish up the stew, but he paused a pan in one hand and spoon in the other as he watched Slim’s expression turn from one of expectation, to puzzlement and finally pain as he read the wire...
“What’s up buddy,” I asked softly, “is it from Andy?”
He shook his head, still reading and re-reading the short missive...
After a moment he passed the wire across to me and I read it:
It was addressed to the Guardian of one Andrew Sherman...
Andrew Sherman absconded following punishment for a grave misdemeanor STOP Thorough searching of School and town unsuccessful STOP Await to hear if Sherman has returned home STOP Notification of permanent exclusion to follow. STOP Major BF Beeston Headmaster.
I stared at the brief and totally tactless note for a moment before passing it across to Jonesy...
“What the Hell are they playing at,” I exploded, “they lose the kid and then wanna throw him out on his ear... I don’t believe it!”
Slim sank down to his chair, looking almost grey now, “What can he have done that was a grave misdemeanor? Andy’s a good kid always has been...Heck Jess...where is he?” He asked suddenly leaping up from his chair and making of the door.
But I caught up with him before he got there, “Take it easy Slim, where do ya think you’re going huh?”
“Well to St Louis to find him of course...”
“Look just stop and think for a moment. You read the note, they’ve looked every place. You won’t help any by tearing off over there. Why not just take a day to think it through huh? The kid might turn up here you know how resourceful he is,” I said.
“I hate to say it but that saddle tramp is talking good sense...give it a day Slim and wire the school again, he may have turned up,” Jonesy said.
We finally sat down to the mid-day meal, but mostly just pushed our food about the plate.
Then Slim insisted in riding into town to consult Mort and got him to send a wire to the St Louis Sheriff to see if he could shed any light on Andy’s disappearance.
At about the same time that Slim had been reading the wire from Major Beeston, Andy was sitting at the kitchen table of the Peters Boarding House, Springfield, St Louis writing a long and heartfelt letter to his big brother.
After Andy had left the Doctor’s office, knowing that the kind man was on his way to the school to visit Will, he made his way towards the rail-head office intending to get a ticket as far as he could and then planned to try and hitch a ride on a wagon heading towards Wyoming. However just as he was about to enter the rail-head, he saw one of the masters from the school, on a day off Andy surmised, heading towards him before turning off and entering the rail-head.
Andy didn’t know where the master was going, or when he’d be heading back, but he knew he couldn’t risk being seen so decided to lie low in a cafe opposite the station and spend a little of his money on some breakfast. It was maybe about an hour later when he saw the doctor arrive back in town and tenderly carry Will, now wrapped in warm blankets, up the steps and into his office.
He was sitting there in two minds whether he should pay his friend a quick visit when something else caught his eye...several of the masters from the school, lead by Major Beeston were striding down Main Street looking all around them and stopping folk and questioning them. That was when it dawned on Andy they were looking for him.
In a heartbeat he was up from his seat and had hightailed it out the back door of the cafe and along an alley way. Here he paused looking to right and left... but either way lead back to the main thoroughfare where the street was now thick with staff looking for him.
He turned back and saw a ramshackle building just to his left and cautiously trying the door found him-self in an old abandoned store room. It was dark and full of cobwebs, the sound of rats scurrying about sending shivers up his spine as he entered. But it was hidden away down the back alley and towards the rear in the shadows was the ideal place to hide. He wandered over and found an old tarpaulin and settling down he pulled it over him and lay down on the cold dusty floor and finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
The first fingers of dawn were just filtering through the dusty windows of the building when he finally awoke and dragging him-self up, dusted him-self off and made for the door. He cautiously pulled it open and peered down the alley, to find all quiet and then slowly made his way towards the rail-head again.
Back in the shadows of the old building a rough, dirty urchin thumbed through the notes in the pocket book he had taken from the sleeping boy with the curly black hair just an hour ago and smiled to himself... “I guess you ain’t any too street wise are ya boy,” he muttered to Andy’s retreating back, “Someone should have told ya to keep yer cash in yer boot.”
It was when he was standing in the rail-head at the ticket window that Andy realized, he’d been robbed. How could it be so, he ranted to himself. All that hard work how he’d guarded that pocket book day and night and now some saddle tramp had up and stolen it in night. He could have wept with frustration. But he didn’t, he merely turned away from the ticket window and made his way out to Main Street again feeling hungry and lost. What to do...where to go? Certainly not back to that dang school he thought belligerently. But then he had an idea...not that school...but what about his friend Ben’s school over at Springfield? Ben had kin there, folk who might even know Slim and Jonesy...surely they’d help him...send a wire to Slim and he’d come sort everything out he just knew he would.
He arrived in the street where the Peters Boarding House was located round about noon after asking numerous folks for directions. Some ignoring him and marching on, others kind and friendly. It was situated right in front of the impressive edifice of the Springfield School and he paused to take in the large red brick building.
Then as he stood looking up at the many windows glittering in the noontide sunshine a bell rang and moments later a throng of youngsters tumbled out laughing and calling out to each other happily as they made their way home for the mid-day break. Then as he stood back to let the boys pass Andy was almost mown down by a tall blond haired boy with rugged good looks... Ben?
“Ben!” He cried in joy.
Ben Brown stopped dead in his tracks his face a picture of surprise quickly followed by delight as he recognized his best friend from home.
The two boys hugged...pulled back and shook hands in a more adult greeting and then hugged again, both laughing and chattering ten to the dozen.
Sometime later Andy found himself seated at the Peters Boarding House dining table eating probably the best stew and dumplings he’d ever tasted and being quizzed by Ben’s Auntie Annie.
“So, you’ve lived with Jonesy most of your life then Andy?”
Andy nodded and said through a mouthful of stew, “Yes ma’am, he moved in after Ma and Pa died, he looks after us all, me Slim and Jess Harper.”
“Hmm...Harper you say I know that name,” she said thoughtfully, “a gunslinger from down Texas way huh?”
Andy nodded, “‘Cept he ain’t a gunslinger no more ma’am, he gave it up and works as a rancher now and he’s a real good friend to me and Slim...Jonesy too now I guess.”
“Well I’m glad to hear it boy and if you’re going to be moving in, you’d better start calling me Auntie Annie hadn’t you, huh?”
“I am...er I mean I can?” Andy asked excitedly.
“It seems like the best option. You say that old Major is running a boot-camp and you want a good education with science and the like? Well you’ll sure get it here at the Springfield school. My goodness poor old Ben here has got Biology and Chemistry tests nearly every day haven’t you boy?”
Ben nodded sadly, “But we have lots of fun too Andy. The masters are kind and the other boys are fun to be with, you’ll see, it’ll be a hoot!”
“Well I sure hope so...that’s if Slim will let me.”
“You let me worry about that young man,” said Auntie Annie stoutly. “As soon as we’ve eaten, I’ll go send your brother a wire saying you’re safe. And you Andy will write him a real long letter telling him just what that dreadful Beeston man is really like um?”
Andy nodded enthusiastically, “Sure will ma’am...er I mean Auntie Annie.”
“Good boy,” she said patting his arm kindly. “Uh...and maybe you’d send howdy to that old fool Jonesy from me too? Tell him I’d be real pleased to see him... if he’d a mind to visit that is,” she finished blushing a little.
But neither of the boys noticed they were way too busy whooping with joy.
Slim was like a bear with a sore head as he waited for some news from St Louis and me and Jonesy weren’t much better. Then just a day later we got two wires and a bulky letter on the noontide Stage.
Luckily it was Luke Jackson driving the Stage as it was Moses day off, so we didn’t have to go through the usual conjuring act before the letters appeared...or dodge Moses’ nosy questioning.
Once the Stage had left, Slim took the letters inside and the three of us sat before the fire as he opened them.
The first was from the St Louis Sheriff, in reply to Mort’s inquiry. Saying Andy had not been found, but there had been no reported deaths either and so he assumed the boy had traveled out of town somehow...but not via railroad.
“Well of course he didn’t go on the railroad,” Slim said angrily, “he hasn’t got any money, only enough for the tuck shop and the like not his fare home though.”
I made no comment but just watched his face for clues as he tore open and read the contents of the second wire. He read it carefully twice and then closed his eyes and gave a little gasp.
“Hell, Slim what is it?” Jonesy and I said together, fearing the worst.
He eventually opened his eyes and beamed at us.
“He’s safe,” he said finally, “at Annie Peters Boarding House in Springfield. She says he wants to go to school there as the Mason Academy stinks...according to Andy,” he said with another huge grin.
“See I told ya didn’t I!” I said belligerently, “I told ya the kid was trying to send us a message, but you wouldn’t have it.”
Slim looked kinda wrong footed at that.
“Maybe you were right Jess this Annie Peters says he’s writing to explain everything.
Then I looked down at the letter I’d been holding and passed it across to Slim,” I guess this must be from him then,” I said, “I didn’t recognise the handwriting, it’s too dang neat!”
Slim smiled at me, “Well that school must have taught him something then.”
But just five minutes later the smile was wiped from his face, “Garldarn it what’s this Major Beeston playing at?” He said angrily. “I trusted him...I trusted him to look out for my little brother and by the sounds of this the kid only just escaped with his life!”
I stared at him in shock as he continued.
“Listen to this Jonesy...Jess, ‘I knew my friend Will was real sick, but when I was caught visiting and asked for the doctor I was slung in the ‘pokey.’”
I hid a smile at the kid using my slang word for jail...but at least this letter sounded more like the Andy we knew and loved.
“Go on,” Jonesy said.
Slim looked back down at the letter, “He escaped and slept out in an old store house...Jeez, I’m glad Ma and Pa can’t see this,” he said with feeling.
“Go on Slim,” I urged, “then what...?”
“Uh...’finally made it to Springfield on to the north of the town and hooked up with Ben and his Auntie Annie’...thank God,” he said.
Jonesy perked up at the name Annie, “Anything else?” he asked hopefully.
Slim looked back down, “Just that he really wants to attend school there along with Ben.”
“Is there anymore news about ...er anything?” Asked an expectant Jonesy...
“Um...no...Err ... yeah, there is a PS saying howdy to you from Annie.”
Jonesy grabbed the letter and commenced reading it from the beginning again.
“Well are ya gonna?” I asked.
“Huh?” Slim said looking kinda dazed.
“Let him attend this here Springfield School with young Ben like he wants?”
Slim shrugged, “Well if he’s to get the kind of education Pa wanted for him it seems like a better bet than this other place and anyway...”
“Anyway, what?” I asked.
“Well he’s been expelled from the Mason Academy hasn’t he so we don’t have much choice,” Slim said throwing me a rueful grin, “I guess more of your influence has rubbed off on him than we thought,” he said chuckling...
“Hey he was only bein’ loyal and sticking up for this here Will like a true friend,” I said indignantly.
Slim reached across and squeezed my shoulder, “That’s exactly what I meant pard,” he said quietly.

Chapter 3
Slim was all ready and packed up to head off to St Louis the following day.
“I don’t see as how you hafta take off,” I said churlishly, “seems like an open and shut case to me...the kid wants to go to this new school, he’s got a good billet, so what’s more to do?”
Slim sighed, “Look I’m sorry to leave you with all the work Jess...But I have to go interview the school board, make sure this Springfield school is all it says it is... Like I dang well should have done with the other place.”
“Well it’s as well I ain’t goin’,” I said stoutly, “because that dang Major Beeston would be gettin’ more than the rough edge of my tongue after what he did to Andy and that young Will too.”
“Um well it’s a good job you’re not then isn’t it Jess because I don’t need any more trouble. I’ll just make sure Andy is happy in his new home and school and I’ll be straight back.”
“Leaving me and the old man to do everythin ’,” I moaned...
“Well there’s not too much to do,” he said cheerfully, “most of the herd are back up on the summer grazing... Just those dozen prime critters in the Home meadow... keep a real watchful eye on them Jess...I aim to get a real good price on them later in the season...real good.”
“Yeah, yeah I hear you,” I said as we stood on the porch, him duded up real smart, valise in hand.
“Oh yeah and the little matter of the east pasture fence needs mending...uh and the bunkhouse roof is letting in water again,” he said cheerfully, “but all in your own time pard.”
Then a moment later we were joined by Jonesy in his Sunday best and totin’ a valise too.
“Where in hell do ya think you’re goin’?” I asked.
“Jonesy?” Slim asked looking bewildered.
“Oh didn’t I say? I’m comin’ with ya,” he said grinning at Slim.
Slim looked at me and back to Jonesy, “Since when?”
“Since I was on a promise from the delectable Miss Annie,” he said with a huge grin. “She says she wants to see me and so I guess I’ll oblige.”
“But what are you going to do about your fare?” Slim said looking askance.
“All taken care off...got my savings for the fare and I’m only planning on buying a one-way ticket.”
“Huh?” I asked looking confused.
“See I aim to stay there...Well stands to reason, someone’s got to ride shotgun on young Andy...and that’s gonna be down to me,” he said firmly.
Then just moments later we heard the sound of the Stage racing down the track.
“Jess you’ll be just fine. I’ve every faith in you to run this place single handed and there is always old Wilber Knight if you get stuck, he’ll give you a hand for a few dollars.”
“Huh?” I asked looking really shocked now...
“Hey I trust you pard...after all you know what to do now after all that stuff we did in the winter. You can handle all the paper work as well as everything else, what can go wrong?”
I just gaped at him as he and Jonesy climbed aboard.
Then Jonesy leaned out of the window and said, “I always said you were a no -good saddle tramp, that I couldn’t trust as far as I could throw, so now’s your chance to prove me wrong son!”
Then he grinned at me and shook my hand firmly, “Good to know you Jess and thanks for everything,” he said softly.
Then the Stage was off up the rise and I stood watching it leave and suddenly I was all alone left to run the whole dang spread on my own. But then I grinned...sure I knew what to do...what could possibly go wrong?
I guess it was the fact that I didn’t heat up the Mulligan Stew properly, that Jonesy had left me, that I was so sick after it. Either that or it was his parting revenge I thought wryly as I staggered back to the ranch from yet another moonlit visit to the outhouse... I finally collapsed on my bed groaning and cursing in equal measure before eventually falling into a deep sleep.
It only seemed like minutes rather than hours when I was dragged from my slumbers by someone banging on the door. I opened my eyes and noted the strong sunlight filtering in through the thin drapes...and then the hammering on the door commenced again along with someone hollerin’ to open up pronto.
“Alright, alright I’m comin’,” I yelled back, throwing myself out of bed and staggering towards the door. Wearing just my undershorts, I threw it open to reveal Mose standing there looking mighty vexed.
“Well at last, what’s going on Jess? Where are the horses...Slim...and Jonesy ...and my dang coffee?” He asked looking mighty aggrieved.
I merely groaned at the thought of coffee and swallowed hard.
“Come on, then,” he said grumpily seeing I wasn’t going to answer him. “If it’s just you here shake a leg I’ll be running late and you don’t want me to report you to the Stage line for inefficiency do you!”
Well that really riled me, left to run the dang place alone, poisoned and now this.
“Well I guess you wouldn’t want me to report you to the Stage line for running late almost every Saturday morning because you’ve had a skin full on the Friday night and can’t get up...would you?” I asked belligerently.
Well that sure changed his tune, “Uh, no I guess not. Ain’t no call for that Jess. I’ll go make the coffee while you get dressed and then I’ll help you with the team OK?” he said back-tracking real fast.
I nodded, “OK, as long as we understand each other Mose, then that’s just fine,” and I wandered off to pull on some clothes.
I’d finally managed a cup of old Mose’s coffee and kept it down until the Stage made its way up the rise...and then turned away and chucked it back up and that was pretty much the picture for the next few hours.
By the time it came to shutting up the chickens for the night and bedding down the horses I was pretty much ready to hit the hay myself.
I couldn’t face anything to eat and by sundown I was stretched out on my bed still feelin’ pretty much like death would be a pleasant release.
The following day things didn’t get a whole lot better. Sure, I was up on time and got all the chores done, and things seemed to be panning out OK until the noon stage drew in.
Well I could tell by the way Mose was drivin’ that somethin’ was afoot.
If there was a good lookin’ woman aboard he’d tear down the rise like the devil was after him...just showin’ off I guess. Then if it were just your every day customer he’d take it kinda swift, but careful ya know. But today it was really steady and real careful... and that got the old alarm bell ringing.
Well as soon as this guy got down from the Stage and started lookin’ around him, like he owed the dang place... I knew he was trouble.
Once he’d looked over the ranch and corrals, like he was gonna make an offer to buy the place, he finally looked over at me.
“Bertram Jenks is the name and I’m your new supervisor, Mister Sherman,” he said briskly.
“Good day Mister Jenks,” I said real courteously. “I’m afraid Mister Sherman ain’t here right now...he’s away on family business, maybe I can help ya? Jess Harper’s the name and I’m in charge here right now.”
He looked me up and down like I was somethin’ the cat had dragged in and said, “Harper you say...and Sherman’s not available?”
“No sir,” I said gritting my teeth, “but like I say anything you need I can attend to.”
He gave me a kinda more accommodating look and said, “OK young man I’ll sample your hospitality in the way of coffee first and then maybe we could take a look at the books huh?”
It was a mere twenty minutes later that he left grinning at me.
“Well Harper I guess the Stage line is pretty safe in your hands in the absence of Mister Sherman...well done! I really like to see a man that can turn his hand to the books as well as the more mundane jobs,” and shaking my hand he urged Mose to get on at top speed.
I sank back and took a deep breath, well at least I’d past muster there so maybe Slim had been right and nothing could go wrong...
I was still feeling pretty sick after the food poisoning and had another early night after my triumph with the Stage line boss.
It must have been about three or four o’clock in the morning when something awoke me...
I sat up in bed listening, wondering if a fox or coyote was botherin’ the hens. But then I realized it wasn’t just the hens that were creating a fuss but the horses out in the barn too...Then off in the distance I could hear the sound of startled cattle cryin’ out to one another... Goddamn it we’d got rustlers, out in the home pasture...after those prime steers Slim had told me to take real good care of.
I was out of bed, in my denims and buckling on my gun-belt in a matter of seconds, before tearing across the yard to the barn. I emerged a minute or two later riding Traveller bareback and heading for the far side of the home pasture where the herd had congregated down by the creek.
But by the time I arrived they were long gone, just the churned-up mud of the riverbank showing where they had crossed the river heading for the old Benson spread, now derelict, and beyond that the mountain foothills with box canyons and gullies. Ideal to lie over until they could rebrand and get the critters away...
I swore long and loud, making my poor old horse’s ears go back nervously...
“OK fellah,” I said softly patting his neck, “this ain’t your fault...”
Then turning him back for home I made plans as to what to do next. I sure weren’t gonna risk my good old horse breakin’ a leg wandering about in the dark and anyway I figured there were probably several men involved as there usually were in organized gangs of rustlers. So it wouldn’t be a real smart notion to go in alone, even if that was what I really wanted to do. But no... I thought what Slim would do and that was ride for Mort Cory at dawn...so that’s what I did.
I was halfway to town and I couldn’t believe my luck when who should I see riding my way but Mort Cory. He was heading up a posse of six men, Lon his deputy, a few townsfolk and bringing up the rear old Wilber Knight riding drag.
Mort reined in, raising a hand to halt the posse and said, “It seems you may have had some visitors in the night Jess?”
I nodded, “How in hell did you know Mort?”
He looked kinda embarrassed and then said, “Well I got a tip off from Wally Hughes.”
“What that old soak, what does he know about it?” I asked looking puzzled. Wally was the town drunk and hardly the most reliable informant.
Mort shook his head sadly, “Rustlers, right?”
I nodded, “Yup taken all Slim’ s prime beeves almost ready to sell on...”
“They were branded of course?”
“Of course, but I’d pay top dollar that’s bein’ changed while where sittin’ here jawing about it,” I said angrily.
“Yeah, well luckily I know where they’re heading,” Mort said. “See old Wally overheard a bunch of strangers discussing it out in the Last Chance Tavern on the edge of town. He was hanging around looking for a free drink and they ignored him seeing as he was pretty much drunk by then anyway... So he heard it all, how they knew Slim and Jonesy had left you home alone... and they knew all about those prime critters of yours too...I don’t know how...But that’s what Wally said.”
“So why didn’t you dang well get over to the ranch last night!” I asked belligerently.
Mort shook his head sadly, “I found Wally walking down the middle of Main Street singing and so I brought him in and threw him in my jail to sober up overnight... well he kept on about rustlers...but I just thought it was the drink talking. It wasn’t until this morning that he’d sobered up enough to make kind of a convincing case, so I figured we’d better ride over and take a looks see.”
“Well better late than never,” I muttered kinda churlishly.
However, Mort didn’t say anything as I guess he could see how worried I was...and that didn’t come close. I was way beyond worried as I cast my eye over the motley crew of posse members. None of them, bar Lon, looked like they knew one end of a rifle from the other and as to old Wilber Knight, hell he couldn’t hit a barn door at three paces...he was about a hundred, and half blind fer goodness sake...
“What’s he doin’ here?” I asked Mort softly, tipping my hat to where Wilber had finally caught up with the others.
Mort said equally quietly, “Poor old boy offered to help, he was a good friend of Slim’ s Pa and I guess he wanted to do something. But to be honest he’s just slowing us down.”
I nodded, “I’ll fix it Mort,” and I urged Traveller off to where old Wilber was just getting his breath back.
“Gee I’m glad you’re here Wilber,” I said as though I’d just seen him. “I’m in kind of a fix with Slim away and this rustling business. Do you think you could spare me some time to look out fer things back at the ranch while I’m away?” I asked.
Well the old guy’s face lit up and his faded blue eyes twinkled, “Sure thing Jess it’ll be my pleasure,” he said, “you can count on me, you go get yer critters back son.”
I thanked him and turned back to Mort, “OK let’s ride and hope your tip-off is right Mort, because I dunno how I’m gonna face Slim if we lose those beasts....”
We headed back the way we’d come and then left the road at the old Benson place and headed for Monument Rock... then took a hard turn to the left and dead in front of us were the twin gullies, the one to our right ending in a box canyon, ideal for penning up the small herd and getting a fire going to re-brand them. Well I sure hoped that old Wally’s information had been right.
I cast a glance up to the clear morning sky and yup, just as I’d thought there was the whisper of a trail of wood smoke snaking its way into the sky.
The problem was that the rustlers would have lookouts staked out high in the rocks above us giving them a huge advantage.
Mort reined in and raised a hand to stop the posse...and then just seconds later someone opened fire on us and we all dived for cover.
Well it was pretty much a stand-off for over an hour and all we could do was keep engaging them in fire, hoping they’d run out of ammo first.
Then one of our men was fatally wounded and that was enough for me.
“I’m goin’ around the back, try and flush ‘em out Mort, you cover me,” I yelled.
“Are you crazy, you’ll never scale that rock with them firing on you,” he said.
“That’s why you’re coverin ’ me ain’t it,” I said with a confidence I weren’t really feelin’. But hell, I was mad now, real mad.
I felt the bullets whistlin ’ past my head as I ran across the space between us and the rock face, but Mort kept them pretty busy and I heard a yelp of pain from above me and figured he’d hit his mark and got one of them.
Once I was on the rock face that was the easy part and I scrambled away to the left so that I could come up behind the three men that had been raining shots down on us.
Well my hunch paid off real good and I was able to surprise them from the rear...
“Throw ‘em down it’s over,” I barked and they turned towards me, two panicking and throwing their rifles down. But the third opened fire on me, missing me narrowly and I returned the fire shooting him straight through the heart. He paused, eyes widening in shock for a moment before clutching his chest and falling backwards over the edge of the ridge and landing with a sickening thud...
That was the signal for those below to clamber up the more accessible route to the top.
Then I turned to the two who had surrendered and saw the big red headed bruiser who had shot and fatally wounded one of our men, Jed Harris.
“You’ll swing fer what you did today,” I said angrily, but before I could say more Mort and the others arrived on the scene.
Once the rustlers were handcuffed Mort and I left the remainder of the posse guarding them and along with Lon we made our way across the ridge and down to the camp below.
“I just don’t want to risk another innocent man dying,” Mort said anxiously, “Jed Harris had a young wife and baby at home...I feel just terrible.”
I nodded, “Me too...you’re right Mort. But at least we’ve got the guy that did it. I guess you and Lon are doin’ your job and I’ve got kind of a vested interest. But those guys shouldn’t be put in that sort of danger...even if they did sign up for it.”
“You’re right Jess and I figure there will only be another two or three down in the camp. They may even have made a run for it by now hearing all that gun play. So we’ll manage without the townsfolk joining in the party,” he finished grimly.
I could hear the herd lowing restlessly even before I saw them. Then as we crested the hill, we could see them penned into the blind gully...and just alongside was the still burning fire for the branding irons.
The area seemed deserted but as we slowly started making our way down to the camp three more guns opened fire on us from the opposite hillside...
This time however we had the slight advantage of height, looking down on them, and it was pretty easy to pick them off. I wasn’t even aiming to wound by then. I was so dang mad as I thought of poor little Lisa Harris widowed at twenty and her baby without a Pa... Jed had been a good man and he didn’t deserve that kinda end.
It was a matter of ten minutes or there about before both Mort and I shot two of the rustlers’ dead, the third throwing down his weapon and surrendering.
We entered the camp and Lon went over and cuffed the last of the rustlers and that’s when I recognized him as Ed Smite a drifter who Slim had employed a few weeks back to help us move the herd up to their summer grazing. However, after he’d arrived for work drunk a couple of times Slim had fired him....and now I guess he’d decided it was payback time.
The other two men that we’d killed lay close together at the foot of the hill and I wondered if I knew them too.
I was just about to go and investigate when Mort called me back to show me the branding iron still in the fire...
“Jeez these guys have gotten a nerve he said looky here Jess. They were gonna use this straight bar to go across the ‘S’ of the SR brand changing it into a $ sign... for the Lucky Dollar Ranch brand used by Bert Watts over Cheyenne way. I’ve heard the Sheriff over there had thought there was something not quite right at the Lucky Dollar Ranch for a while. But he’s never been able to pin anything on Watts....this might be just the evidence he needs.”
I dunno what it was, maybe my sixth sense for danger, but something made me turn just as one of the allegedly dead rustlers fired off a shot at Mort. In the wink of an eye I yelled a warning and pushed Mort aside...taking the bullet myself in the shoulder.
Mort had dived and rolled and fired on the guy shooting him straight through the heart.
I fell to my knees holding my shoulder and feeling the hot sticky blood run between my fingers, feeling sick to my stomach with the burning pain.
Mort was beside me in seconds, helped haul me up and took me over to sit on a rock just as Lon dashed across to us.
“I guess you just saved my life Jess,” Mort said looking decidedly shaky. “What made you realise the bastard was still alive?”
I shrugged, “Gut feelin’ and instinct I guess Mort. You can’t have led the kinda life I have, on the owl hoot trail, without somehow pickin’ up on things like that.”
“Well this is one old Sheriff that is dang glad you’ve had a less than squeaky clean past son, because I guess I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for you ‘pickin’ up on things as you call it.”
I just grinned at him, “You’d do the same fer me Mort, forget it,” and I made to stand up.
“Now where the hell do ya think you’re going?” Mort said, easily pushing me back down on the rock.
“To get that dang herd back where they belong,” I barked,” before some other no good swindlin ’ bastard like Ed Smite takes a likin’ to the critters and decides to waltz off with ‘em.”
“Come on Jess that’s hardly likely and you’re in no fit state to ride never mind herd a whole mess of cattle some twenty odd miles back to the ranch.”
“Sure I am, it’s just a scratch,” I muttered, hatin ’ anyone to fuss me.
Mort rolled his eyes to Lon, “Scratch he says...you seen yourself Jess?”
I looked down to see the whole of the front of my shirt was sodden with blood now and I cussed softly.
“You sit down there,” he said more kindly, “and I’ll clean you up some and then see how you’re feeling huh?”
Half an hour later Mort sank back on his heels and looked at his handy work, a neat bandage covering the cleaned-out wound, my arm in a sling fashioned from my bandana.
“Well it’s cleaned up; bullet went straight through and bleeding stopped. But I don’t know for how long Jess if you’re still insisting on moving the herd.”
“You bet I am,” I responded, “snakes alive Mort have you any idea what Slim will do to me if I lose these beauties?”
He just shrugged, “Knowing Slim he’d be more worried to know you’ve been hurt than anything.”
“Um...maybe,” I said darkly, “but I ain’t gonna risk it Mort.”
I dunno to this day how I made it back to the ranch...but I did.
Mort rode with me along with some of the posse. The others accompanied Lon taking the dead and surviving rustlers back to town.
It was almost dark when we finally settled the beeves back in the home pasture and made for the ranch house.
I was surprised to find the place in darkness and the chickens still scratching about in the yard.
“What the hell,” I muttered,” where’s that old goat Wilber, I thought he was coverin’ the place for me.”
We made our way inside and as I walked through the kitchen I all but fell over a prone body in the middle of the floor.
Mort lit the lamp by the door and we both looked down in horror at poor old Wilber, out for the count. In fact he was so dang pale I thought he was dead, but then a few minutes later he groaned and tried to sit up.
Mort helped him up onto a chair and he sat there rubbing the back of his head and groaning quietly for a few minutes.
I fetched him a drink of water and then said gently, “What happened Wilber?”
He shook his head and then winced before replying.
“I dunno son...I’d just arrived, figured I’d make a coffee before I started work...then someone jumped me from behind...pistol whipped me real good...I was out cold, then I seem to recall hearing the Stage arrive, but they didn’t come to the door. I suppose Mose knew you’d be out looking for those no good hoodlums so I guess he changed the team himself.”
By this time, I was beginning to feel as bad as old Wilber looked and I slumped down on the other chair sinking my head and briefly taking a deep breath...
“You didn’t see who it was...did they take anything?”
He shrugged, “I dunno boy, I’ve been pretty much of it until now.”
I dragged myself up and made for the door as Mort called out, “Dang it Jess where are you going now?”
“Check the barn,” I threw over my shoulder and lurched off, finding it kinda hard to stay upright now.
I was back a few minutes later, “As I thought, they’ve taken a horse and a spare rifle from the barn. It must have been some chancer just seein’ an opportunity,” I said, seeing old Wilber here thought he’d try his luck,” and I threw Mort a wry smile.
“What? You don’t look any too worried.”
I chuckled even though I was feelin’ kind of light headed by now, “Well I’ll tell ya Mort, the dang gun jams and that old nag he chose can’t run straight...so I guess he ain’t no horse man. He was only green broke too, I figure he’ll throw him and find his way home before dawn.”
Mort grinned back at me, “Not a completely wasted day then, at least you got the cattle back.”
Then he turned to Wilber, and said, “Come on then old timer, I’ll take you over to the doc’s to be checked out when we get back to town.
Then he turned back to me, “You too son, you’re looking pretty peaky.”
I just shook my head and threw him my stubborn look.
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere Mort I’m guarding this dang place with my life from now on.”
“Uh, well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that Jess...but way you’re looking...well,” and he gave me a wry smile and shook his head sadly.
I went out to see them off and thank the posse again for all their help, Mort’s parting shot as he left, “I’ll send Doc Johnson over in the morning and you’d better be resting up when he arrives!”
I just flapped a hand at him and wandered off to lock up the hens for the night.

Chapter 4
Doc Jonson rolled up as promised the following morning and found me cleaning out the barn.
“I do declare boy you haven’t got the common sense you were born with,” he said as he dropped down from the light buggy he favored for his rounds.
“Well the dang critter’s ain’t gonna clean themselves out,” I replied feelin’ kinda out of sorts...my head aching something fierce and the shoulder wound throbbing.
“That temper of yours doesn’t help matters either,” he replied waspishly.
“Did anyone ever tell ya you’d the bedside manner of a grizzly with toothache?” I asked pleasantly.
His eyes widened and he stared speechless for a moment, being used to being almost revered by most of his patients...
Then he gave a big belly laugh and clapped me on my good arm, “Jess Harper you’ll be the death of me,” he chuckled, “come away inside and let’s see what the damage is this time huh?”
Half an hour later he snapped his bag shut and peered at me over his eyeglasses.
“I don’t know why I’m going to waste my breath...but I signed up to the Hippocratic Oath and I’m supposed to save lives, so I’ll give it my best shot,” he said with a patient smile.
“You’ve a nasty infection in that shoulder...which should get better now I’ve cleaned it thoroughly...But...and I use the word advisedly...BUT... Mr Harper that will only be with complete rest, plenty of fluids...of the non-alcoholic variety and no riding for about ten to twelve days...do I make myself clear?”
“Chrystal,” I replied with an innocent smile.
The good doctor departed telling me to attend at his office the following week to have the wound re dressed.
I waved him off before wandering across to the barn to saddle up and go check the stock out in the home pasture.
The critters looked none the worse for their little outing which is more than could be said of yours truly. But I’d a ranch to run and I sure as hell weren’t gonna let Slim down first time he’d trusted me with it.
So, I guess I pretty much ignored the doc’s advice across the board.
I worked from dawn till dusk doing all the jobs that were necessary to keep the place ticking over and then dosed myself with liberal amounts of old Jonesy’s medicinal whiskey at night to ease the pain some so I could sleep.
By the end of the week I could barely function, the only thing driving me on, the thought that Slim was due back on the noon Stage.
I’d already dispensed with the sling as it hindered my work and the wound had bled out another couple of times and was hot and painful, so I guessed it was still infected.
Oh well I thought once I get through today’s chores maybe Slim will be able to take over and I can get me some rest like the doc wants.
The noon Stage finally arrived bang on time with Mose bringing it to a stop with a flourish...the team sweating and nodding their heads at the high-handed treatment.
I bit back a rebuke, just feeling too dang weary to bother and opened the door for Slim.
He jumped down beaming at me before looking around the yard, drinking it all in...
“Gee Jess the old place looks wonderful,” he said grinning at me, “everything been OK?”
“Just swell,” I said grinning back.
“No problems then?”
I thought about that for a full two seconds...food poisoning, his prime beeves rustled, Jed Harris shot dead by the rustlers, one of our horses and a gun stolen and poor old Wilber pistol whipped....and oh yeah, I’d been wounded real bad.
“Uh, no, no problems Slim, none at all,” I replied with an innocent smile.
“That’s wonderful,” he said grinning across at Mose before patting me hard my the arm...my bad arm...
“I knew you were up to it!” He said cheerfully.
I cussed and moved back out of his reach as the agony in my shoulder threatened to overwhelm me...
“Jess... hey Jess you OK...you’ve gone awful pale?”
Then he sprang forwards and caught me as I fell in a dead faint.
When I came to I was layin’ on the old leather couch in the parlor, Slim sitting on the edge and wiping my brow with some blessedly cool water and Mose looking anxiously over his shoulder.
“I told him he should rest after he was shot up some by those dang rustlers...The doc done told him too...but would he listen? Bad enough he had that food poisoning as laid him low for a few days. But all that worry with the cattle being taken, well I guess that was even worse....poor young Jed Harris bein’ killed and all....and then Wilber beat up that way too...nasty business...real nasty...”
Slim just stared at Mose slack mouthed before looking down at me...
“Jess...food poisoning...cattle rustling,” he said his voice rising to a shriek, “damn it what’s been going on?”
Well he soon calmed down when I explained exactly what had happened. Then Mose threw his two cents in as well telling how I saved Mort’s life and impressed the new Stage line supervisor too. So I kinda forgave the ol’ goat...and then I guess I must have fallen asleep because next thing I knew it was morning and Slim was rattlin ’ coffee cups in the kitchen.
He came in a little while later with a cup and grinned down at me. I struggled to sit up and took it from him, before lookin’ around me.
“What am I doin’ here?” I asked where I was still layin’ on the parlor couch.
“You looked kind of peaceful last night, I didn’t want to wake you,” he said smiling down at me. “How are you feeling now?”
I took a sip of the reviving coffee and said, “Better thanks.”
“Um... well you’re going to take it easy for a while Jess, you’re no good to me if you work yourself into the ground...and besides...”
“Besides what?” I asked.
“I reckon I’d get it in the neck from Mort and Mose for mistreating the conquering hero if I didn’t look after you right,” he said with a bark of laughter.
“Well you’re in a real good mood this morning considering we’re still a horse and rifle down,” I said.
“I guess that old rifle was a liability...the horse too Jess, I reckon whoever it was, did us a favor taking them off our hands.”
I just shrugged. “Maybe but I’d like to git him for what he did to poor old Wilber.”
Slim sobered at that, “Yeah well that was unfortunate sure...I’ll check on him next time I go to town...which won’t be for a while.”
“Yup I’m going nowhere until you’re back on your feet, so if you’ve finished that coffee see if you can make it to bed and I’ll bring you some breakfast in.”
I grinned up at him, “That a threat or a promise?”
He just whacked me lightly across the head and marched off whistling.
It was later that morning when all the yard chores were done that he came and sat with me to tell me all about his trip to St Louis.
Slim and Jonesy arrived tired and hungry late in the afternoon and after asking directions finally made it to the pleasant street that housed Ma Peters Boarding House. With the legend above the door, ‘rooms let to respectable gents only. Board lodging and all meals inclusive, bath extra.’
There was a glossy varnished front door with an impressive brass knocker. Jonesy knocked politely. But Slim turned around to view the impressive edifice of the Springfield School opposite, now silently basking in the late afternoon spring sunshine all the students done for the day. It certainly looked good from the outside, but Slim was determined to interview the Headmaster, one Professor James D Potter, and decide its merits for himself.
Then moments later he was thrust out of his reverie as the door was thrown open and Andy stood there, his face lighting up with joy at the sight of his brother and Jonesy.
“You came...you really came,” he yelled jumping about in his excitement before suddenly looking anxious... “Gee Slim I’m sorry really I am but I just couldn’t stand being in the Beasts’ School really I couldn’t, it was awful.”
“Hey it’s OK I understand and we’ll talk it all through later. But let us inside first will ya, Jonesy and I are kind of tired, it’s a long way you know....”
Then moments later a small, middle aged woman, looking as neat as a new pin and wearing a spotless apron, bustled forwards, closely followed by her nephew Ben.
“Did I hear the name Jonesy,” she cried in delight, “my dear man you came all this way to see an old woman, God bless you,” and she almost fell into Jonesy’s outstretched arms.
Slim and Andy stood staring at this bizarre picture of Jonesy embracing the smart little woman so enthusiastically...After a moment he pulled apart and looking a tad pink, said, “Well you certainly aren’t an old woman Annie, not at all,” he said his eyes shining.
Then, “Slim meet my dear friend Annie Peters.”
Here Slim broke off his tale as I gave a cry of surprise...
“No kiddin’ the old goat really has a proper lady friend?” I asked in amazement.
“Sure looks like it Jess...he’d really got his feet under the table by the time I left too. He was staying in the second floor back, in a double room with me, but I’ve a feeling he’ll be moving into the second-floor front before too long...”
“Huh?” I asked looking perplexed.
Slim winked at me, “That’s Ma Peters room Jess.”
“No kiddin’ really?” I said again in amazement.
“Uh- huh, he’s really smitten, never seen him that way before.”
“So you think they’ll get wed?”
He shrugged, “Who knows, but he certainly isn’t coming back here anytime soon.”
I digested that piece of information and then threw my buddy a horror-stricken look, “You know what this means Slim?”
“No. What?”
“We’ve gotta take it in turns cookin’ and doin’ all the domestics...Jeez and I’ve only just gotten over that dang food poisoning.”
“Oh come on Jess it won’t be too bad and anyway we can maybe get a pretty girl, or two, in to help us out huh?”
It was a while later before he got around to telling me how Andy was doing.
“He’s really settled in with Ma Peters, calls her Auntie Annie and shares a room with Ben and it won’t work out any more expensive than when he was boarding at the other place...and he’ll be much happier at Springfield.
“So you liked the school?” I asked.
He nodded, “It’s perfect for him, all the subjects he needs to get into a really good medical school later and Professor Potter seems to think he has the aptitude as long as he keeps working hard.”
“Professor Potter eh...sounds impressive.”
“He’s a great guy got a doctorate in Psychology Jess...a really bright man.”
“I’ll say I couldn’t even spell it,” I said grinning at my pard... “So, what’s all this about Medical School then?”
“He’s had a change of heart about being an animal doc. He said it was all the times the doc has looked after you...and then his new buddy, Will, getting so sick, he felt he’d really like to learn how to heal folk.”
“Well that’ll be a help, havin’ a doc in the family will sure cut down on our medical bills,” I said chuckling and absently rubbing my aching shoulder.
“Isn’t that the truth,” Slim said with feeling.
Then he grinned at me, “Mort called by this morning while you were sleeping told me how you saved his bacon, he’s truly grateful you know Jess.”
“I know it,” I said looking down and feeling kinda embarrassed...
Then I sighed deeply, “I just wish I could have done the same for young Jed Harris...he’s left a young widow and baby and me and Mort feel just terrible.”
Slim nodded, “He was telling me about it, but friends and family are all rallying around they’ll see them right Jess.”
“Yeah, well let’s hope the bastards that did it get their just rewards.”
“Oh you can count on that Jess. Mort says he’s a known criminal called Ginger Bailey, wanted for robbery in Colorado and murder down in Texas too, a real nasty piece of work by all accounts. He’ll end up on the business end of a rope for what he’s done no doubt about it.”
“But it won’t bring Jed back...no matter how high they hang him will it,” I said bitterly and we lapsed into silence thinkin’ on the frailty of life and how it could be snuffed out in a moment.
“Well you just concentrate on getting better pard so you can give your evidence and nail those hoodlums huh?” Slim said after a while.
I was up and about again in a few days and back to my normal health by the time the circuit judge hit town a couple of weeks later.
I guess there was nobody that wasn’t delighted when Jed Harris’s murderer was sentenced to hang and the remaining gang members got good lengthy prison sentences.
Lisa Harris had sat stony faced throughout the trial and there wasn’t even a flicker of emotion on her face when the perpetrator was sentenced to death...
I caught up with her just as she was leaving the court room accompanied by her brother.
“Lisa...I... I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Jed...the whole business.”
She looked up at me with those huge doe-like eyes of hers and blinked away a tear, “I don’t blame you Jess...it was Jed’s choice to ride posse. It’s what he believed in, upholding the law...helping others, he was a good man...maybe too good,” she said softly as she turned to go.
“If there’s anything...” I said haltingly, feeling tears behind my own eyes.
“Yes, I know, you said in your letter...but I’m fine really,” she said softly, before taking her brother’s arm and moving off her head bowed.
Slim wandered over and said quietly, “She’s right Jess, she doesn’t blame you or Mort...Jed was his own man, did what he thought was right and she respected that.”
“Yeah, but doin’ the right thing won’t bring up his baby son will it,” I said angrily before heading to the saloon, the need for a drink suddenly overriding anything else.
Slim caught up with me there about half an hour later, staring into an empty glass, the half empty bottle beside me. I sat in a dark corner towards the back of the saloon where I wouldn’t be bothered.
He strode in snagging a shot glass from the bar on his way over and straddled the chair opposite me.
“What are you doing way over here?” He asked raising an eyebrow.
“Don’t want disturbing,” I said gruffly.
He turned to glance at the bar where a few drinkers were eyeing me warily, all too familiar with the Harper temper.
“Oh, I don’t think there’s much danger of that Jess,” he said quietly, “I guess most of the regulars know to leave well alone when you’re looking like you are.”
“Oh, and how would that be?” I asked aggressively.
“Like you’re looking for the answers to all your problems at the bottom of a whiskey bottle and if you don’t find them, you’re likely to go off half cocked. Maybe punch the first person that crosses your path just for the hell of it...am I right?”
“Somethin ’ like that,” I muttered.
“Well it’s a good job Jonesy isn’t around to see you,” he said, “and you know what he’d say.”
“Yeah, he’d nag me like an old woman...so is that what you’re gonna do then Slim?” I asked looking him properly in the eye for the first time.
He held my gaze steadily for a good few seconds and then poured himself a stiff drink.
“Nope I think I’ll join you pard,” he said grinning at me.
Well I guess we were pretty much both the worse for wear by the time we set off for home and not too much work got done for the rest of the afternoon and we both went off to bed real early.
The following morning, we sat glumly staring into our coffee cups and not botherin’ with any breakfast.
I glanced over at Slim and gave him a faint smile.
“What?” He asked loudly and then clasping his head said in a whisper, “What?”
“I was just thinkin’ this is the first time I’m kinda glad Jonesy isn’t around, he’d be giving us a real hard time wouldn’t he.”
Slim smiled, “That he would.”
He drained his coffee and said, “I suppose we’d better make a start,” then said thoughtfully, “you want to go to town for the hanging?”
“When is it?”
“Three days time I believe, Friday, they’ve gotta build the scaffold I suppose.”
“Poor little Lisa,” I said softly, “not only bein’ put through all this but now she’ gotta see that dang scaffold up reminding her every time she looks out of the window.”
“Well it’ll all be over soon, so you going?”
I shook my head, “Nah, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of botherin’... low life,” I muttered.
We were just about to head off into the yard when we heard the early morning stage rattling down the rise.
“Mose is early,” I said, “we ain’t even got the team ready yet...”
“Come on then Jess jump to it, it’ll be just our luck if that new Superintendent is aboard again.”
Mose was alone, but absolutely bursting to tell us the latest news from town.
“What’s up?” I asked sarcastically, “Couldn’t ya sleep Mose it ain’t even gone half past yet...”
“Never mind about that I’ve got news for you boys and you ain’t gonna like it one little bit.”
“OK fire away,” Slim said before vaguely wandering off to collect the horses...
But he was back moments later as I yelled at Mose, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me....so is Mort OK?”
Slim had mooched back when he heard me sounding off, “Mort? What’s going on Mose?”
“Like I just told Jess here, the Sheriff’s office was fired late last night, Mort is sick, but the doc says he’ll make it OK.”
“Well thank God for that,” said Slim.
“Yes, but that ain’t all, I was just about to tell you, iffen you’d both stay in one place and listen!”
“Go on,” I said, “and fer goodness sake keep your voice down will ya Mose, I’ve got kind of a sore head right now...”
Mose looked sheepish then, “Uh yeah I heard as how you’d tied one on last night Jess, bein’ as you were so mad at that rustler shootin’ young Jed.”
“Well not much gets past you does it?” I said gruffly, “So come on Mose spit it out, we can’t stand here jawin’ with you all the dang day...”
“OK but don’t shoot the messenger. The reason Mort’s office was fired was to get the prisoner out. It was near on midnight and they threw some burning rags through the door, doused in goodness knows what. Mort was dozing in his chair and was overcome by the bad fumes and smoke real quick... Then it seems two men with bandanas over their faces got the cell keys and let that Ginger Bailey out and they all escaped!”
“The hell they did,” I whispered feeling shocked to the core.
But Slim was a bit more wary knowing Mose’s way of never letting the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
“You’re really sure of all this Mose, these men and Bailey definitely escaped?”
“Sure as I’m standing here, ‘twas Miss Molly that saw it all from her bedroom window...There was a moon last night and she saw them plain as day dragging out that Ginger Bailey and then they were up on horses and away, the Sheriff’s office ablaze… Miss Molly’s screamin ’ woke pretty near the whole town and they got the Sheriff out OK. But truth be told not too much damage done to the office...’twas the fumes...some foul stuff they used...made Mort proper sickly....”
I moved off to the barn with Slim in hot pursuit, “Where are you off to?” He asked warily.
“Where do ya think, if Lon’s getting a posse together, I’m ridin’ with him...”
Slim sighed, “I guess we can’t both go now we’re without Jonesy here to mind the place...”
“Sure, look we’ve got to get him back Slim, for Mort and Lisa’s sake...we can’t let that killer go free...”
“No of course not, go on then Jess...And Jess, give Mort my best when you see him, I’ll get over when I can....and take easy huh?”
I threw myself from Traveller’s back loosely tying the reins to the Sheriff’s hitching rail and marched into the office only to be faced by an anxious looking Lon loading up a rifle...
“How’s Mort?” I asked and then casting a glance around me at the blackened walls of the office said, “And where’s the posse?”
He looked up and gave me that slow friendly smile of his, “Well howdy Jess, good to see ya.”
Well I wasn’t too interested in niceties right then so I just said, “Well?”
“Uh, Mort’s just fine, still at the doc’s office, but he’s stopped coughing and retching now and is just cussin’...real mad he is at being tricked that way.”
“Weren’t his fault....so what about the others?”
“Ain’t no others Jess, haven’t had any takers and after what happened to young Jed Harris you can hardly blame them. Folk pay the likes of me and Sheriff Cory to keep them safe in their beds at night...ain’t their responsibility to go chasin’ after felons.”
“Even so...”
“Sorry Jess that’s just the way it is right now...and that ain’t the worst of it.”
“Go on,” I said very quietly.
“Mort doesn’t want me chasin’ after them either. He says with him laid up for a week or more...and the Lewis Gang seen in the area, well it would be pure madness to leave the town without any law in place.”
“Garldarn it Lon, so what are we supposed to do? Just let them ride off into the sunset, walk away scot-free huh...is that the way the law works around here?”
“I know it stinks Jess, but what can I do? Mort’s my boss, I’ve gotta do what he says and he’s thinking of the safety of the whole town.”
“Yeah well he ain’t my boss,” I said making for the door, every inch of me as mad as all get out.
“Jess hang on, where are you going?”
“Mose said they’d been seen heading south for the hills back of Cheyenne...I’m gonna go and bring ‘em in Lon...and you can tell those men out there not to shirk with the scaffold. I’ll have him back for the hanging...6am Friday, just as planned.”
Lon just gaped at me, but I was up on my horse and halfway down Main Street before he came to his senses and ran out of the office after me...callin’ me back. But I just waved a hand and increased my speed to a canter...leaving town in a haze of dust.

Chapter 5
I rode hard until I reached the mountain foothills at the back of Cheyenne and then slowed down some trying to track the horses as well as I could.
I knew the horse Bailey had been riding was a big boned buckskin with large hooves and he favored his nearside front leg, got some rheumatism or an old injury I figured. I’d noticed him particular when we rode back in after we’d caught up with the rustlers. The horse was stabled at the livery and would have been auctioned off after Bailey was hung... I felt kinda sorry for the critter and had given old Bert a few cents for liniment for the old boy. Now as I studied the tracks, I could easily make out the animal’s distinctive marks...and two other riders flanking him.
I knew the route they’d be taking too and smiled at the irony of it. I guess my time on the owl hoot trail hadn’t been wasted as I knew most of the back tracks and places to hide out from the law almost by instinct. There was an old Indian trail about five miles to the east that I figured they’d have used as it was real overgrown and hardly ever frequented by folk now...
It only took me about an hour or so to pick up their tracks and then later the remains of their campfire and knew I was on the right trail.
I figured they were at least ten hours ahead of me, especially if they had ridden for most of the night. That was a pretty dumb thing to do, but if they were desperate enough to make their get-away then I guess that was what they would have done. But then I reckoned once they’d put some distance between them and town, they’d find a nice quiet hide-away to hunker down in until the heat was off. A man is much easier to find and track if he’s on the move...than holed up someplace. I knew the area where they were headed pretty well as Slim and me had hunted up there. I also knew the mountainside was peppered with caves and it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack tryin’ to find them. But that’s what I aimed to do and I just prayed luck would be on my side.
And it was...
I wandered on down across the open county side towards the foothills and there in the distance halfway up one of the steep hills I saw wood smoke...gotcha I thought.
I took my time advancing on them, guessing they’d have a look out. So I left Traveller a good quarter mile from where I guessed they’d camped ...taking it real slow and keeping my belly pretty much to the ground.
I couldn’t believe it. They weren’t even up in one of the caves but camped out on the banks of Horse Creek, like they were on a dang fishin’ trip or something.
I decided to go in real easy and wait until they were eatin’ supper and give ‘em a surprise.
And I hafta say it all worked a treat...at first...
I jumped them just as they’d served up a stew of some sort.
I’d been watchin’ them for maybe an hour and something struck me as real strange. Bailey still seemed to be a prisoner. He was tied up like a turkey at Thanksgiving and lashed to a cottonwood. The other two hombres seemed to be ignoring him and sure weren’t thinkin’ of offering him any supper either by the looks of things. The dusk was gathering fast and I couldn’t make out their faces. But they looked to be about my age and I figured they’d give me a good fight iffen I didn’t have the surprise element on my side, so I bided my time.
Once they were seated around the campfire and started eating, I figured I’d strike.
I strode into the camp leveling my rifle at them and yelled, “Get up real slow and drop your weapons.”
Both men turned to me mid mouthful and stared like they’d seen a ghost and I guess I must have looked mighty similar...covered in dusty trail dirt.
Well I reckon we were both pretty surprised because I recognized a couple of sidewinders I’d come across back on the Panhandle and from their expressions I figure they recognised me too.
When they didn’t move, I barked, “Did ya hear me drop ‘em!”
It was Dec Ross that responded before his younger brother Chas.
“Hell, if it ain’t Jess Harper...what are you playin’ at buddy?”
“I’m playin at upholding the law...and I ain’t yer buddy,” I snapped, “so are ya gonna drop your weapons or am I gonna shoot ya?”
He was still chewing and turned to Chas and said, “Did ya hear that little bro, Jess Harper’s layin’ down the law...now do you think that’s a neighborly way to act?”
Well that was it. I fired off a shot that blew the coffee cup out of his hand and another that ricocheted off the stew pot and growled “I ain’t gonna tell you again...”
Both men stared at me in shock before drawing their weapons and throwing them down at my feet.
“Well that’s better,” I said, deadpan and then I looked them over properly. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on the Ross brothers for nigh on six years and they sure hadn’t improved any.
After a moment I cast a wary eye beyond the camp to the falling dusk, “So where’s Jake...he can’t be far away?” I asked.
There was silence...for a moment and then Chas said, “My brother’s dead...killed by that bastard,” he continued, tipping his hat to where Bailey had been sitting motionless just watching the unfolding drama from where he was confined, tied to the cottonwood.
“Well dang it he was gonna hang for the murder of Jed Harris come Friday,” I exploded, “why didn’t ya just save yourself the time and effort and get a ringside seat for that iffen you want him dead?”
“It’s Pa,” Chas said sulkily, “he wants vengeance for Jake and I mean the ‘Ross way’. This sucker’s gonna really suffer before Pa strings him high.”
“Well I hope your Pa’s a patient man,” I said dryly, “because the prisoner ain’t going anyplace but back to Laramie and that goes for you jokers too.”
“Why would that be, what have we done?” Dec asked angrily.
“Just the little matter of you firing the Sheriff’s office and near killing a good buddy of mine,” I growled, “now quit jawnin ’ and git on your bellies. The sooner you’re all nicely parceled up happier I’ll be...”
I meant to stay awake I really did...
Once Dec and Chas were tied up real good and lashed to a couple of cottonwoods, adjacent to Bailey I went and offered the prisoner some water...
He took it gratefully, “Thanks Harper.”
“Oh don’t thank me,” I said bitterly, “I just want ya well enough to go to the gallows...don’t want ya dyin’ on me on the way back.”
I threw the remains of the stew in the pot a wary look and decided not to risk it and just poured myself some of their coffee, before settling down to watch the prisoners.
The next thing I knew the sun was beating down on me and as I stirred from my doze, I was suddenly wide awake, feeling the cold barrel of a colt 45 at my temple.
I stiffened and looked up into the cold eyes of Dec Ross.
“I guess we caught ya off guard Mister high and mighty, law abiding Harper,” he crowed nastily. “I reckon you forgot to check our boots for hunting knives didn’t ya?” He said sniggering.
“Goddamn it,” I muttered under my breath, feeling every kind of a fool, how could I have missed that...
“Up ya get,” he said gesturing with his gun and I stood up slowly...
Well I guess Dec was enjoying his moment of triumph so damn much he let his guard drop for a split second as he exchanged a grin with his kid brother.
But that was long enough for me to lurch forwards and wrestle the gun from his grasp and throw a haymaker hitting him so hard I sent him flying to sprawl on the ground several feet away.
Then Chas drew on me, but luck was on my side.
“Put the darned gun away kid,” Dec snarled, “me and Harper will finish this once and for all, I’m gonna kill the bastard with my bare hands.”
Chas reluctantly holstered his iron and looked on as his brother charged at me roaring like a wounded buffalo.
Jeez but the guy could fight and I guess we were pretty much evenly matched as we continued slogging it out punch for punch. That is until it was obvious he was tiring and that’s when he decided to change the rules and drew a lethal looking hunting knife from his boot.
Well back in those days I didn’t carry my knife in my boot and it was over in my saddlebags down the trail with Traveller and I cursed softly. I guess that was the day I decided always to keep it by me. But that was no dang help at that moment as he furiously slashed the knife within inches of me. Then he finally found his mark and slashed the razor-sharp blade down my left arm, leaving a crimson ribbon of blood soaking into my shirt.
Well by this time I was way beyond mad and I lunged at him with all my force. Grabbing hold of the arm holding the knife in a vice like grip I tried to disarm him, but he wasn’t gonna give in easy... I could see the fury in his dark eyes just inches from my own as we both fought for control of the knife... Then his eyes opened wide and he looked at me with something akin to bewilderment before he let out a breath and I felt him slump against me, as his own knife penetrated deeply into his chest...
I guess he was dead before he hit the ground but it took both me and Chas a few seconds to realise what had happened. Then I reckon it must have hit us both at exactly the same moment.... that Dec was dead.
In that moment of realization Chas drew on me and fired. But I hit the deck, rolled out of trouble and grabbed my discarded gun from the dirt where Dec had thrown it earlier, not believing my luck, and fired back...his second bullet whistling within inches of my ear...mine finding its mark straight through his heart.
I lay there feeling too dang weary to get up...but after a moment I managed to drag myself across and check Chas really was dead and I gave a sigh of relief. Now all I had to do was get back to Laramie.
I lurched over to the creek and almost fell headfirst into the fast-flowing stream and let the cool waters ease all the cuts and bruises from my fight. Then I finally ripped off my shirt and bathed the deep gash to my arm... I came back into the camp in search of some clean rags to bind it up and went through Chas and Dec’s saddlebags... Well I didn’t find any clean rags but there were some soaked in some kinda pungent liquid and I guess that was pretty much conclusive evidence that they were responsible for firing the Sheriff’s office.
Dang fools I muttered to myself. Iffen they’d just come quietly they’d have received a jail sentence instead of paying with their lives. Then I wondered how their Pa would take to losing his two other sons as well as Jake and a shiver ran down my spine.
It was afternoon by the time I’d loaded the remains of the Ross brothers onto their mounts and headed off with Bailey to collect my good old horse. My every move taking longer than normal as I ached all over after the beating I’d taken at the hands of Dec Ross. My face was a mess, with one eye blacked, a split lip and bloody nose. But that was nothing to the rest of me where he’d kicked me hard in the lower belly, gouged and even bitten me...Well I guess we both felt it was a fight to the death and had to do our damndest to win...Maybe that’s why he eventually pulled the knife I thought ruefully as the pain in my arm throbbed with every heart beat.
We eventually set off the way I’d come, flanking Cheyenne and then making for the Laramie road and through to town...But as dusk gathered it became clear I weren’t gonna make the deadline I’d set for myself, unless we traveled through the night that is....
I dunno what possessed me to do that, just my dang pride I suppose. I’d told Lon I’d deliver the prisoner back at 6 am on the Friday morning, the time arranged for the hanging, and I was gonna do it even if it dang near killed me in the process.
Once it was dark, save for a moon flitting in and out behind the clouds I made Bailey dismount and we walked the remaining miles, leading our mounts. Dang it I thought I weren’t gonna put Traveller at risk, or the plucky buckskin, that I’d become kinda fond of, either.
It was just about sun-up when I trudged that final few hundred yards down Laramie Main Street and near as damn it to 6am.
To my amazement the street was lined with town’s folk. All standing silently watching my progress as I walked in, leading Dec and Chas’s mounts bearing their grim cargo, a manacled Ginger Bailey walking at my side. Concern registered on the faces of the bystanders as they saw my battered face and filthy clothes, blood from the knife wound now oozing gently through my tightly tied bandana on my arm. Blood started to issue from my lip again as well and run down my chin and I brushed it angrily away with my shirt sleeve, my gaze never leaving the scaffold in the centre of Main Street. Mort was standing waiting in the front of it flanked by Slim and the Padre and I focused on Slim willing myself to carry on.
About twenty yards from them I stumbled, regained my balance and stood for a moment trying desperately to find the energy to carry on, although I just wanted to lay down there right in the middle of the street and never move again... The vision of Slim in the distance started to waiver and I thought I might pass out... Then someone in the crowed started to applaud...and this was taken up by another and another, until it sounded like the whole damn town was there supporting me and urging me onwards...
I took a deep breath and gesturing to Bailey to continue we walked the last few yards, until Slim was there along with Mort and Lon and I could finally pass my prisoner over to his fate.
I don’t remember too much of what happened after that.
I know the padre said a prayer for Bailey and spoke to him real quiet and reassuring and then the prisoner made his final journey up the scaffold neither looking to right or left.
I heard the whoosh of the rope and the sigh of the crowd and knew he’d had a good clean death with Mort in charge...Then I heard Slim cry out and say, “For God’s sake someone help me get him to the doc’s,” then it all went black and there was nothing....
Well I was just fine after a good sleep. I guess it was the long trek and short rations that did for me that day. But I was back at the ranch and really pulling my weight pretty soon after. It was early summer now and we’d sold off the cattle that had been taken and for a darned good price too. Then I took off on a Mustanging trip and came back with some real good horseflesh, which I started workin’ on right away to fulfill the army contract I’d gotten us.
The rest of the time was just spent on the usual chores of looking after the critters, mendin’ fence and generally lookin’ to the Stage line duties.
As to the domestics, in Jonesy’s absence, well it hadn’t been easy. In fact we almost came to blows one day when I wanted to bring the clean washin’ in off the line and Slim was dead against it as he’d just washed the dang floor! That wasn’t the first time that had happened either I can tell you. Well we squared up to each other, but finally just dissolved into laughter at how dadgum stupid we were behaving.
So I guess we were really lookin’ forward to Jonesy and Andy arriving home for the long summer holidays. That’s why we were both so dang shocked by Jonesy’s letter.
It arrived on the early morning Stage and after we’d dodged Moses’ questions, and had finally sent him on his way, we retired back to the kitchen for a coffee to read the letter in peace.
I watched Slim as he ripped the envelope open, a look of happy anticipation on his face, which quickly turned to surprise and finally worry...
“What’s up?” I asked.
“He isn’t coming Jess, old Jonesy says he’s staying put,” then he quoted from the letter:
‘I’m happy to say that I am now a partner in the Peters Boarding house...all lawful and proper, we done it through a lawyer and everything. So now it says, Proprietors Mrs Peters & Mr Jones, over the door and I figure I’ve come home at last. Dear Annie is my true love, and although she still won’t wed me, she is happy for us to be together for the rest of our lives and that is all I ever wanted.’
“Jeez,” I exclaimed, “he’s sure got it bad... ‘true love’ ... either that or he’s been on the ‘medicinal whiskey’.”
Then it registered what he’d said... “He ain’t comin’ home? Not ever?”
“Looks that way Jess...not for a while anyway...which means one of us is going to have to go and fetch Andy back for the summer holidays, heck he’s far too young to travel all that way alone.”
Well in the end we decided to toss a coin for it, both of us not too bothered either way and so it was something of a relief, in a kinda way, when we had an early morning visitor the next day.
We’d just waved off the early morning Stage when Horace Brown, Ben and Tessa’s Pa, rode in looking real upset.
“Mister Brown,” Slim said, “What can we do for you?”
“Uh, howdy Slim,” he said.
Then turning to me with a less than friendly glance, “Harper.”
Slim stood his ground with an inquiring eyebrow and after a moment Brown gathered him-self together and said, “It’s the wife, my Maud...passed away last night....”
But before we could respond he continued, “I’m going to fetch young Ben home from school a week early, would you like I should bring Andy back too?”
Slim was the first to take in this information and said, “I’m really sorry for your loss Mr Brown, Maud was a lovely lady.”
He just nodded looking down, until I said, “That goes for me too Mister Brown, Ben is a great kid and your wife one of the best, she’ll be sadly missed.”
He looked at me like he was battling with his feelings...hell I knew he didn’t rate me much...and then I thought maybe he’d even heard the rumours about me seeing his daughter Tessa?
He threw me a hard look and then looking down seemed to ease off some and said, “Thank you...both of you, I appreciate it. My dear Maud is at rest now and Tessa is staying with a friend. So I figure its best I go across and break the news to Ben in St Louis...and maybe you could have the boy to stay here for a little while...after the funeral?”
“Sure,” Slim said quickly, “whatever we can do. You know Ben is always welcome here, just as Andy has been at your place.”
“Yes, well those were happier days,” he said sadly before turning his mount and heading for home.
We watched the tragic figure move off and then I turned towards the barn...
“Hey Jess where are you going?” Slim asked me a few minutes later as he caught up with me saddling Traveller.
“To see Tessa of course,” I said.
“Come on Jess I’d leave it.... at least until her Pa has left for St Louis tomorrow, you know how he feels about anyone messing around with his daughter.”
“I ain’t messin’ around with her,” I spat turning on him, “Anything that happened between us she wanted just the same as I did...and now... well I was just gonna offer her my sympathy that’s all. Hell, Slim what do you take me for huh?”
“OK, I know the truth of it Jess, but old man Brown doesn’t, so just ease off huh?”
I put my head down and then patted Traveller’s neck, knowing Slim was talking sense as usual and after a moment sighed and pulled the saddle back off.
I rode into town at noon the following day and made straight for Miss Molly’s cafe.
As soon as I sat at a table Meg was there with the coffee pot and an inquiring look...
“You want Tessa huh, “she asked quietly, and then tipped her head towards the back stairs, “I figure you’re just what she needs round about now Jess...go on up. You won’t be disturbed. I’m working late tonight.”
I tapped gently on the door of Meg’s room and after a long pause the door was pulled open hesitantly and Tessa stood there looking so small and frail. Her eyes were red from weeping and she was wearing a dark dress that just intensified the paleness of her face and my heart went out to her.
She held the door open wide for me to enter and then she threw herself into my arms, “Jess, oh Jess,” she whispered and I held her close as she started to weep once more.
After a while she composed herself and went off to make us a coffee and then we just sat and talked for hours. It was as though the flood gates had opened and she could finally voice all the pain and fear she had suffered through her mother’s last days.
“Now it’s Pa I’m worried about,” she said softly, “he’s taken it all so badly Jess...it’s almost as though he’s afraid to love Ben and I in case we are taken too.”
“What do you mean?” I asked feeling puzzled.
She sighed, “He doesn’t want Ben home at all after the funeral. He said he was going to ask Slim if he could stay with you?”
I nodded, “Yup and seems a good idea, Andy will help stop him brooding too much maybe...so what else?”
“Well he insisted I come and stay with Meg for a while, said it would be too upsetting for me with all the memories the house holds. But more than that he’s encouraging me to get my old job back and move in here permanently.”
“So will you?” I asked
She shook her head, “I don’t know. Molly has said the new girl hasn’t worked out and even offered me a room of my own over the shop ...It was her store room but she’d cleared it to rent...so it could be mine. Oh Jess it would be perfect, I’ve always wanted my independence...but I’m so worried about Pa.”
“Well he’s gotta grieve in his own way sweetheart, maybe he’d find it easier if he’s alone, don’t have to put on a brave face you know?”
She shook her head, “That’s not what’s worrying me, it’s his drinking.”
“Huh, I didn’t have your Pa down as a big drinker.”
“He wasn’t least ways not until Ma got sick...now well he gets drunk most nights and I hate it...he frightens me Jess.”
“Well maybe you’d be better off here then, until he gets over things some, huh?”
“I don’t think he ever will Jess...me neither,” she whispered before dissolving into tears again.
“Hey honey, it’ll be OK,” I said softly putting an arm around her as she rested her head on my shoulder.
We were seated on the daybed in Meg’s tiny parlor and after a while I suggested she turn in and as it was nearly dark, I rose and lit the lamps, before turning to her again.
“Go on Tessa an early night and you’ll see things different tomorrow, you’re just exhausted.”
She finally allowed me to tuck her up in bed and I bent down and kissed her tenderly on the forehead...
“’Night sweetheart, I’ll visit again soon OK?”
But she grabbed my hand and looking imploringly up at me said, “Don’t go Jess, please don’t go, I can’t be alone...not tonight.”
I looked down not knowing what to do.
“Shall I fetch Meg?” I asked.
She shook her head, “No, it’s you I need Jess, please come lay with me I need you close.”
I stared down at her for a few moments and then finally unbuckled my gun-belt, toed my boots off and got in beside her, holding her real close. I could feel her soft breath on my face and her heart beating next to mine... She snuggled up to me resting her head on my chest and I kissed her hair gently, “Go to sleep now sweetheart,” I whispered, “I’ll be here tomorrow when you wake...I promise.”
I rode into the yard the following morning just in time to change the horses, as the early Stage was due in shortly.
I left Traveller by the hitching rail and marched over to the barn, to see Slim emerging leading the fresh team.
He threw me a less than friendly glance and growled, “Oh so you remembered where you live eventually did you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked feeling kinda hard done by, “You know I was gonna go and look out fer Tessa.”
“Yes I know,” he said equally angrily, “but I didn’t think even you’d stoop so low as to take advantage of her at a time like this Jess.”
“Huh?” I asked looking at him in amazement, “What are ya sayin’?”
“I mean spending the night with the poor girl when she’s grief stricken...and what’ ll you do if her Pa finds out huh?” He asked warming to his theme.
Well that got me real mad I can tell you.
“First of all, it’s none of your damn business what Tessa and I do! But if yer so interested I’ll tell ya. Yes I did sleep with her last night...but that’s all I did sleep...she begged me to stay Slim, needed the comfort. And as for old man Brown he’s so busy tipping the jug I doubt he’d notice what his daughter’s doin’... as he don’t seem to care too much right now.”
Then a thought hit me, “Anyway I figure it’s old Jonesy you should be worryin’ about. God knows what Brown’s gonna make of it when he pitches up in St Louis and sees Jonesy’s name over the door along with his sister-in-law,” I said.
Slim turned pale, “Gee you’re right Jess, I’d better warn him, send a wire and Jess...”
“Yeah... what now?”
“I’m really sorry, I guess I misjudged you.”
I just grunted and went off to fetch the other two horses.
It was later after Mose had departed promising to send Slim’ s wire that I asked about it all.
“So, what’s this vendetta between Jonesy and Brown all about anyway, what’s it to him who his sister in law marries or lives with for that matter?”
Slim looked wary, “Well according to Pa, Horace Brown was sweet on Annie, before she upped and got engaged to Ted Peters. She wasn’t interested and eventually he gave up and married her sister Maud and I guess it worked out well in the end. But when Annie threw over Peters for Jonesy, well Horace was real mad as he didn’t think Jonesy was good enough for her. So he was real mean to Jonesy and Pa reckons he even talked Annie into dumping him and marrying Ted Peters. He figured she’d have a better life with him.”
“Dang it Slim, it weren’t none of his business. Jeez if anyone’s got cause to be mad I figure it’s Jonesy, spending a lifetime without the er... ‘Love of his life’.” I said quoting the old goat’s letter and chuckling at the memory.
“Yes, well let’s just hope they both see sense,” Slim said quietly, “I reckon Horace Brown’s gotten enough on his plate telling poor young Ben his Ma’s dead.”
“I agree,” I said...then a thought struck me. “Dontcha think Brown’s kinda old to have a kid Ben’s age...he must be ...what... over fifty?”
Slim nodded, “Over sixty I think, but Maud was a good ten years younger and was about forty when she had Ben. Ma said Doc Johnson called him a little miracle...was real small and sickly when he was born and look at him now... as tall and straight as Andy...strong too.”
“Yeah, poor kid though,” I said quietly, “his Ma dead and Pa hitting the bottle. I guess it’s down to us and Andy to look out for him for the next few weeks, and poor Tessa,” I said under my breath, I’d need to look out for her too.

Chapter 6
Slim was as skittish as a turkey at Thanksgiving waiting on Andy’s arrival and had been standing on the porch waiting for the noon Stage for the last half hour.
“You won’t make it come any sooner starin ’ at the track that way,” I said as I slumped down on one of the porch chairs behind him.
“I know it,” he said taking the chair next to me and stretching out those long legs of his, “I’m just kind of worried about him Jess, having to cope with Maud’s death, he was real fond of her you know. Then traveling all the way with Horace Brown, way he is right now...gee I hope he stayed sober.”
“Heck sure he would have; he wouldn’t get drunk in front of young Ben.”
“No, I guess not... I wonder how he took the news of his Ma passing over.”
“How’d ya think,” I said sadly.
It was just ten minutes later when we heard the Stage rattling down the rise and into the yard, stopping right by the porch.
Mose grinned down at us and said, “Special delivery ...passengers on board.”
Then the door opened and this handsome, smart young man climbed down and stared at us uncertainly for a moment before giving a whoop of joy...
“Slim, Jess... I’m home!”
I couldn’t believe how he’d grown since he’d been away. He was almost a head taller, long legs like his big brother and a new set to his jaw showing an inner determination that I’d never seen before. Yes, he was definitely well on the way to adulthood I reckoned. He hugged us both and then as if in regard to his new grown up status shook our hands too.
Well we were makin’ such a fuss of the boy firing questions at him and him trying to answer us both at once, that we didn’t notice the small dapper man in a smart suit, wearing his hat at a jaunty angle, alight from the Stage....That is until he gave a little cough.
We both turned and stared in shock at...Jonesy.
“What the heck are you doin’ here?” I blurted out in surprise. “We thought you couldn’t make it...too busy with the ‘love of yer life’,” I said trying to keep a straight face.
“Well that’ll be enough of your insolence saddle tramp,” he replied sharply and then he grinned and striding over shook me warmly by the hand, “Good to see you Jess.”
Then Slim was there shaking his hand, “It sure is good to see you Jonesy but we weren’t expecting you.”
“Oh well I can just turn around and go back home!” He said in mock irritation...
“Well which is it to be?” Mose asked stonily, “Goin ’ or stayin’ because dang it I’m goin’ before I run any later.”
We all smiled up at him and said in unison, “Staying!”
We trouped into the house me carrying Jonesy’s bag, Slim with an arm slung around Andy’s shoulders and a huge grin on his face.
The first place Jonesy headed for was the kitchen.
He stopped in the doorway of his old domain arms akimbo and said, “Well I guess I didn’t come a moment too soon, looky at the state of the place. Look at my poor old pots and pans...what have you two been doing?” He asked in horror as he noted the sad state of the cook stove and the empty cans of beans in the trash.
It was after dinner was over and we sat around drinking our coffee that Jonesy finally opened up and told us all his news.
“Well she’s sure knocked you into shape,” I said, nodding at his smart city suit.
“Only befitting a gentleman of business,” Jonesy retorted, “as the proprietor of one of the most prestigious boarding establishment in Springfield, St Louis!”
I just chuckled and rolled my eyes to Andy.
“So what made you change your mind about coming home,” Slim asked, “and how did you get on with Horace Brown?”
“It was Annie,” he said seriously, “as soon as Brown told us about her sister passing well of course she wanted to attend the funeral, so we’ve closed the business for a few days.”
“Of course, I should have realized she’d want to attend,” Slim said, “so how’s she taken the news and Ben?”
“Oh not too badly, I guess they both knew it was on the cards...but death’s always a shock,” he ruminated, “so dang final.”
“It’s OK for Ben to stay, after the funeral that is, isn’t it Slim?” Andy asked.
“Why sure it is,” Slim replied, “we discussed it with his Pa, he felt he’d be happier out here with you for company, get away from the house and all the memories.”
“Sometimes those memories can be kinda good though can’t they Slim, kind of comforting,” the boy said. “I like to remember Ma and Pa, but I guess it’s a bit soon for him to think of his Ma and not be sad...so yeah, it’s best for him to be here.”
Slim and I exchanged a smile at this new mature Andy.
“Well I know he’ll be in good hands in your company Andy,” Slim said softly.
“So how’s Tessa?” Andy asked thoughtfully, “It must have been hard for her looking after her Ma that way.”
I nodded, “She’s been real upset yes, but I think she’ll be OK.”
“You’ve seen her?”
I remembered then that Andy had a huge crush on his buddy’s big sister before he went off to school and wondered if he was gonna get upset again if I admitted to seeing her. But there again I wasn’t about to lie to him.
“Yes, I’ve seen her... I guess she’s in need of a friend right now.”
He turned and smiled at me, “Good I’m glad she’s got you then Jess.”
Then he asked after his racoon and raced off to check on him.
I shook my head at his retreating back, “Your kid brother sure is growing up Slim,” I said in wonder.
“Isn’t he just,” Slim said proudly.
Then we both turned our attention back to Jonesy, “So how was it with Brown?” I asked again, “Did he try and split you and Annie up again?”
Jonesy’s head shot up at that, “What do you two know about all that?”
“Plenty,” said Slim grinning at him, “I’ve remembered now that Pa told me how Horace never thought you were good enough for Annie and tried to split you up.”
“Um...that’s about the size of it...But I only learnt the truth of it all from Annie recently. Apparently, he told her I was seeing other women behind her back and gambling too.”
“So were you?” I asked knowing Jonesy’s history of playin’ the tables kinda recklessly.
“No, I wasn’t,” he said indignantly, “on both accounts...maybe the odd hand of poker, but I was faithful to Annie. Anyway, she believed him and as you know she married that blaggard Peters.”
“Blaggard?” Slim asked.
“A real no good hoodlum, but once they were wed it was too late. Poor Annie had made her bed and had to lie on it I guess. He wouldn’t divorce her and so she had a hard life, real hard...”
“But you’re happy now, both of you?” Slim asked earnestly.
Jonesy grinned from ear to ear, “Happy as a couple of clams boy.”
“And Horace?” Slim asked.
“He’s apologized said he was wrong all those years ago. Once he saw how happy we are together, gave us his blessing.”
“Well that’s sure a relief,” I said, “so when do we meet the lovely Annie?”
“Tonight,” he said grinning at me, “booked us all in at the Laramie Hotel for dinner.”
“And when’s the wedding?” I asked mischievously.
But he just shook his head, “Don’t hold yer breath boy, once bitten twice shy I guess.”
It was the following morning at breakfast that me, Slim and Jonesy discussed the previous evening, Andy having a lie in after the late night.
“She really is a lovely lady,” Slim said enthusiastically, “I can see why you fell for her Jonesy.”
“Yup,” I agreed, “and she’s knocked you into shape too Jonesy. She’s got you almost as smart lookin’ as she is and all without any petticoat bossing either, dunno how she does it,” I said shaking my head in mock wonder.
“Well I aim to please her without none of that ‘petticoat bossing’ as you call it,” he said stoutly, “her every wish is my pleasure.”
I rolled my eyes to Slim and said softly, “Jeez he’s got it bad.”
Anyway, Jonesy pretended not to hear and changed the subject.
“Annie’s real worried about young Tessa though.”
My ears pricked up at once, “How so? Sure she’s upset, but she’s strong she’ll be OK...get over it in time,” I said.
Jonesy shook his head, “It ain’t that, but Annie’s worried about her Pa, the girl says he’s drinking real heavy and she’s at her wits end with him. Her Pa’s encouraging her to take a job at Miss Molly’s place too,” he said shaking his head.
“Well what’s wrong with that?” I said stoutly, “It’ll get her out of the house and she works with her buddy Meg, I figure that’s what she needs, a bit of normal stuff back in her life after nursing her Ma for so dang long.”
“Uh, maybe but Annie was saying how the girl’s real bright, could do better than just waitressing all her life. She wants more I believe too. So, Annie had the notion of offering her a place over with us in St Louis where she could find something more suitable.But she won’t leave her Pa... or you I guess,” he said lightly, but turning an enquiring gaze on me.
“First I’ve heard of it,” I said quietly, “I thought she was happy in Laramie.”
“Uh, I guess she was until all this business, losing her Ma and then her Pa bein’ such a worry would be a shame to hold her back though huh Jess?”
The thought of losing her from my life made me feel desolate...but then if I really cared I’d want what was best for her wouldn’t I?
I said nothing and then the moment passed as Andy rolled in yawning and asking if there was any breakfast left.

Chapter 7
The day of the funeral dawned dull and wet and was surprisingly cold for mid-summer too.
Jonesy had thought it better to stay at the ranch with us leaving his lady love with her family to help organise the youngsters. Also, to keep an eye on Horace Brown’s drinking I guessed. I secretly thought if anyone could get him flyin’ straight again it would be Annie Peters. She sure had a way about her that got a man doin’ what she wanted and somehow thinkin’ it was all his idea in the first place. Yup Jonesy had sure met his match I thought as I stood at the graveside watching a stone-cold sober Horace Brown lay his wife to rest.
Andy stood next to his best buddy Ben, a hand on his shoulder and acted with all the compassion and awareness of a guy twice his age and I was as proud of him as I knew Slim was.
After the committal folks were invited back to Horace Brown’s place for a wake, organized by Annie with the help of the woman’s group, of which Maud had been a member up until her last illness.
It had been arranged that Annie would catch the early morning Stage the next day and bring Ben out to stay at the ranch and pick up Jonesy. Then they would go on to visit friends in Cheyenne briefly before heading back to St Louis and Ben would stay with us indefinitely.
With all the folk milling about and offering their condolences at the wake me and Tessa had little time to ourselves. But I did manage to catch her just as we were about to leave and taking her hand led her into the kitchen which was quiet and well away from the parlor.
“You OK?” I asked, taking the other hand and looking deep into her eyes.
She nodded, “I’m better now it’s all over yes,” she said softly.
“Your Pa seems better?” I said hesitantly.
She looked down and said quietly, “Until Auntie Annie leaves anyway...then...” and she shrugged.
“Do you want me to talk to him?” I asked.
She shook her head, “No it’s alright Jess really, he wants the place to himself for a while so I’m moving out and taking up Mollie’s offer of the room and job.”
“Well that’s just swell,” I said happily, thinking we’d be able to spend more time together.
She smiled shyly at me, “I thought so,” she agreed, seeming to read my mind.
I leaned in and kissed her very tenderly on the forehead before pulling back and looking at her intently.
“You need me anytime, just get the Stage, to the ranch. I’ll tell Mose to give you a free ride. I guess Ben would like to see you too huh?”
She nodded, “I’d like that Jess thanks.”
Then we heard a little cough and saw her Auntie Annie just entering, the room, but by the look in her eyes she’d heard and seen everything...and I guess I had that confirmed the following day.
Annie along with Ben arrived on the Stage and stopped over for a coffee whilst me and Slim changed the team.
It was when Slim had gone back in the house to let everyone know the Stage was about to leave that Annie came over to me quickly and asked for a quiet word.
“Yes Ma’am what can I do for you?” I asked smiling down at the neat bird like little woman.
“It’s more what you can do for my dear niece,” she said looking at me earnestly.
“Oh,” I said feeling wary, “so what would that be?”
“Try and convince her to come over to St Louis, it’s what her dear Ma would have wanted I know.”
I felt kinda uncomfortable and said as much. “Well I guess that’s down to Tessa to decide and I know she’s awful fond of her Pa and don’t wanna leave him right now.”
“And you too Jess, she’s awfully fond of you too I think?”
I shrugged, “We’re pretty close I guess yes...”
“Oh come on my dear I think you’re more than that, you’re lovers, have been anyway. I can always tell. Something about the way you look at her...the tenderness of that kiss yesterday, oh yes you love her alright and so you’ll want the best for her...don’t you?”
I didn’t know what to say, of course I did. I bowed my head before looking her in the eyes, “Sure I do ma’am, but I guess that’s her decision and I ain’t about to persuade her either way.”
She nodded sadly and then said, “Maybe you’re right young man she shouldn’t be coerced, it should be her decision and hers alone. Look after her won’t you dear?”
I nodded, “You know I will.”
Then all was hustle and bustle as Jonesy and Annie got on board and we waved them off.
I guess that summer was real special to Andy, Slim and me...in so many ways. A time of change...of the end of Andy’s childhood and the beginning of a new even stronger relationship between the three of us...a bitter sweet time I figure you’d call it.
Right from the start Ben fitted in real well with us all. He loved the horses and especially the wild mustangs I was still breaking and so he and Andy were my constant companions. Alternately cheering me on when I stayed the distance, or groaning and hiding their eyes when I came a cropper. I shared all I knew about horse whispering with Ben, just as I had with Andy in the past and he was fascinated by the whole business. I guess it took his mind off brooding about his sad loss some too.
But there were days when the grief was all too much for him and he and Andy would go off down to the creek fishin’ and talking for hours. I guess that was when the strong bond between the two was formed, a bond which was to last a lifetime. Andy was a real comfort to him back then for sure and tried to do all he could to help his buddy through the terrible grief he was feeling.
Me and Andy were over in the barn one evening, checking on his pony Patch who had come up lame.
“Just pulled a muscle,” I said straightening up from where I’d been examining the critter’s leg, “resting him up and some of Jonesy’s liniment should do the trick.”
He nodded and then said, “Do you miss it Jess, not having Jonesy around anymore?”
I grinned down at him, “You know I guess I do,” I said shaking my head in wonder, “I can’t believe it...but it’ true. I guess I just got kinda used to havin’ the old goat around, ya know?” I finished chuckling.
He nodded wisely, “I guess sometimes you don’t appreciate something or someone, until they’re not around anymore. Like Ben’s Ma. He feels real bad that he didn’t write home more. Wishes he’d kept his room tidy that kinda thing. It’s hard isn’t it Jess, when you can’t say sorry anymore. I think he’d like to.”
I nodded, “There’s things I’d like to tell my Ma sometimes...so I kinda tell her anyway, figuring maybe she can hear me...I hope so anyways.”
He nodded, “That’s a good idea maybe I’ll share that with Ben huh?”
“Are you OK,” I asked anxiously, “after all you were real fond of Maud weren’t you?”
“Yes I miss her too Jess, but I guess I’ve gotta look out for Ben, that’s what friends do ain’t it?”
I just gave him a little punch on the shoulder and nodded, thinking what a swell young man he was turning out to be.
It wasn’t just Ben we were looking out for, but Tessa too. It seemed that the moment Annie left town Tessa’s Pa started hitting the bottle again, just as Tessa had predicted. She visited and tried to get him to wash up and shave and eat the dainty meals she prepared for him, but he really was being dadgum difficult and sometimes wouldn’t even open the door to her.
That’s when she started visiting us at the ranch regularly on her weekly afternoon off, to spend some time with Ben and try to be both Ma and Pa to the youngster.
She’d arrive on the noon Stage and then I’d drive her home after supper.
The first couple of times I left her at her door, saying I needed to get back to the ranch. But really Slim’ s words were still echoing in my ears...I didn’t think you would stoop so low as to take advantage of her...when she’s grieving this way. Jeez I sure didn’t want to make matters worse for her by getting too close too soon.
It was on the third visit however that she shyly asked me up to her room for coffee.
“Are you sure?” I asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Of course, after all you haven’t seen my new place, small but all my own,” she said smiling up at me, the implications clear.
The room was indeed tiny, with just space for a big old armchair before the fireplace, a little stove and sink in one corner and table and two chairs set in the window, overlooking Main Street. The space to the back of the room taken up by her bed, adorned with a colorful quilt and cushions.
It was getting dark and she lit the lamp as we entered, its warm glow making the whole room come alive, giving a feeling of peace and comfort.
“It’s just great,” I said turning to smile at her and then our gaze locked and she flushed up a little.
“I’ll get that coffee,” she said, insisting I take the armchair.
The fire was lit as the evening had turned chilly, making the room seem even more welcoming.
When she returned with the coffee, she made herself comfortable on the rag rug before the fire and we chatted quietly about the day’s events.
“Andy has been just wonderful with Ben...you all have,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what we’d have done without you.”
“It’s OK,” I replied, “he’s a great kid and we love having him around.”
She nodded and then stared into the fire before a tear slowly made its way down her cheek.
“Hey sweetheart what is it?” I asked, putting my cup aside and resting a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she sniffed, “it’s just so difficult with Pa being the way he is. He just doesn’t seem to be able to cope. He and Ben have never been close, not the way you and Slim are with Andy. He’s just so much older, more like a grandfather figure really,” and she wiped a hand across her eyes.
“Tessa, don’t,” I whispered, “I hate to see you upset this way.”
She looked up at me the expression in her eyes almost pleading.
I took her hand and pulled her up onto my lap, putting a comforting arm around her and holding her close.
“Hush it’ll be OK,” I whispered gently kissing her hair.
Then her chin came up and she was looking into my eyes, before slowly moving in and kissing me.
I returned her kiss tenderly, but then I felt her heart racing and as the kissin’ became more and more urgent I pushed her gently from my knee and carried her over to the bed.
Then I stopped for a moment, “You’re sure,” I whispered, “you want this?”
She nodded, “Very sure....”
The next morning when I showed up at the ranch after breakfast I wondered if I was goin’ to get a hard time of Slim again, or indeed Andy and Ben, but for different reasons.
But no all was well and Slim said in front of the boys, “So you decided to stay over at the hotel last night then Jess, like I suggested?”
My heart missed a beat and then I replied, “Er yup, I figured it was kinda late for the return journey.”
Ben just seemed to accept that I would have delivered his sister home and then gone on my way...but Andy? Well if he suspected anything, he didn’t seem too worried. But it was just the following day that I found out why he wasn’t bothered about my relationship with Tessa anymore.
When I’d heard Ben and Andy chatting quietly to each other the name Amy seemed to crop up quite a bit and I wondered who she was. A relative of Ben’s maybe or a friend’s kid sister and then something happened to make me sit up and take notice.
I was in the barn grooming Traveller and Ben and Andy were checking Patch’s leg and chatting away about this Amy yet again. So feelin’ kinda curious I asked Ben if she was a cousin or something.
“Heck no,” he said grinning across at Andy, “she’s Andy’s girl.”
I must have looked kinda shocked because both boys hooted with laughter.
Then Andy turned sparkling eyes on me, “She’s swell Jess you’ll just love her too,” he said excitedly.
I cast my mind back to his first painful bout of puppy love when he fell for the nubile redheaded Wendy...and boy was she trouble. Then there had been that crush on Tessa and now this.
But this was different I figured. This was the real thing and the newly mature self-confident Andy seemed to be taking it all in his stride. I remembered him begging me not to tell Slim about Wendy lest he tease him. Then there had been all the pain of his unrequited feelings for Tessa. But now he seemed happy and relaxed to tell me all about it without a trace of shyness or embarrassment.
“We study Physics and Chemistry together,” he said cheerfully and then as an afterthought, “been dating for about six weeks now, but we were real good friends before that.”
I just stared at him open mouthed, “You were huh?”
“Oh yes,” he said, “I seem to remember you said it was always good to be friends with women as well as have them as lovers, you said it made for a better relationship, didn’t you?”
I remembered I’d been talking about my very best female friend Millie when I’d said that and I knew it was real true. Jeez me and Millie went way back and I loved her something fierce. But we’d decided long ago that, for now at least, we’d just stay real good friends and not make any kinda commitment. So she was seeing some guy and right then I was involved with Tessa. It was to be a while before me and Millie finally got together. But that was not until after Maria came along, but I guess I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now...that’s another story.
I was suddenly aware of Andy looking quizzically at me, “Hey Jess you were miles away. I said you told me it was good to have your girl as a real good friend too huh?”
I gulped, “I did?”
“Sure,” he said, “anyway I figure you were right because me and Amy are real close now. I was gonna ask Slim if she could come and stay, but she’s gotta visit with her grandparents down in Cincinnati... she said she’d write though.”
Then he heard Slim calling him and dashed off, Ben at his heels.
I stared after him, “Real close huh?” I muttered wondering what Slim would make of this latest piece of news.
Well I guess he took it pretty good and he’d already sussed out that maybe this Amy was more than just a friend.
“Heck Jess he isn’t going to get up to much with that Auntie Annie and Jonesy riding shot gun on him, is he?” He said laughing and I guess I had to agree.
I was kinda pleased that Slim was taking it that way too and not fussin’ and frettin’ over the boy which he had done in the past.
So, summer moved on and Slim took the boys off to our huntin’ ground over on Paradise. They went deer huntin’ and had the whale of a time and I minded the spread again for a few days.
I was seeing Tessa pretty much every week as summer gradually moved towards fall and one night, I noticed a few changes to her room.
There was a bookshelf crowded with books by all kinds of writers from the old country, like Dickens the Bronte sisters and our own Mark Twain, and I remarked upon them.
“Oh I love literature,” she said looking really happy for the first time since her Ma’s death, “I guess I have inherited it from my Pa, what with him being an author and all,” she said, before flushing and a hand shooting to her mouth, “Oops, I should never have said that Jess forget it.”
I looked at her intrigued, “Your Pa’s a writer? I thought he was a business man?”
She shook her head, “That’s what he wants everyone to believe. He figures folk wouldn’t take him seriously if they knew the truth. But yes he’s a very successful author...at least he was until Ma became ill...he hardly ever writes now.”
“He’s real successful?” I asked looking surprised.
She nodded, “He writes under the name of Walter Frost...you may have heard of him?”
I shook my head in wonder, “I sure have, Slim reads him all the time, but I guess I ain’t a great reader,” I added shyly.
“Uh, well please don’t tell Slim. I should never have said anything. But yes, I have always had a love of books and writing. I guess that’s why I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. To share that joy of the written word,” she added wistfully.
I turned to her in surprise, “So why ain’t you then, you’re sure bright enough.”
She shrugged, “Ma wanted me to go off to collage but after Judy eloped, well Pa just couldn’t bear the thought of me going away.”
“You could work at the Laramie School,” I persisted, “train up there maybe?”
She shook her head, “No the teacher there already has a student teacher under her, no Jess it’s just a pipe dream.”
“Hey,” I said taking her in my arms. “Never let go of yer dreams. I think you’d be a great teacher and maybe... well who knows, huh?”
I stayed with her again that night and the following morning she asked me to try and reason with her Pa about his drinking and recent almost ‘reclusive ways,’ as she called it. Well the guy hadn’t been seen out in the town for a few weeks now, so I guess she had a point.
It was late summer now and Slim and I had discussed Ben and Andy’s journey back to St Louis and we both figured it was down to us to escort the youngsters, seeing as how Horace Brown had done the trip previously. I knew Slim was worried about a visit from the Overland Superintendent which he’d missed before and so I figured it was down to me to travel with the boys.
“Maybe you could have a word with him about his drinking as well as the trip to St Louis,” Tessa said again as we stood outside his locked door waiting for him to reply to our loud knocking.
“If he ever answers the dang door,” I said winking at her and imagining that any advice from me would be about as welcome as a skunk at a Sunday picnic.
“We’ll try the back door,” she said decisively, “he sometimes forgets to lock that.”
I had a real bad feeling as soon as we entered the dank, dark place Tessa had once called home.
The back door had swung open easily and we were now standing in the kitchen that could do with a woman’s touch I noted.
Tess stood still, suddenly alert to the silence about her.
“Why dontcha stay here Tess, I’ll take a look,” I said quietly.
I guess I knew he was dead even then...something about the stillness of the place...maybe she did too, because she just nodded, looking real fearful.
It was only a matter of moments before I was back at her side and she could tell from my eyes the truth of it...her dear Pa was indeed dead.
I just nodded, “He’s in his bed sweetheart, I guess we’d better call for the doc. But it’s too late...way too late.”
Her eyes seemed huge as she took in what I was saying...what she knew...and then taking my hand and squeezing it she went off to say her last goodbye to her Pa.
Doc Johnson certified Horace Brown dead, from a heart attack, he said sadly turning to look at Tessa.
“I’m so sorry my dear, but he’d had a bad heart for many years and I think all this business of losing your dear mother put an extra strain on it and it just gave out.”
“I ...I didn’t know,” she stammered.
“No, well he didn’t want anyone to know and he hasn’t been helping himself any these last few weeks neglecting himself and drinking way too much,” the doc reflected sadly.
But then he put out a comforting hand and patted her arm gently, “There was nothing you could have done my dear, he was a very stubborn man. He wanted to be reunited with your Ma and maybe he just died of a broken heart,” he said reflectively.
At the time I thought he was bein’ kinda fanciful sayin’ that, but boy was I to learn the hard way that he had a point...when I was in a similar position...but that was way in the future *See # 1 Loved Lost, Survived.
Right then all I could think about was caring for Tessa.
I accompanied her to the Undertakers and made all the arrangements and then took her home to her room over the Cafe where she had finally dissolved into heart wrenching sobs.
Luckily it was a Sunday and so the cafe was closed and after a few minutes there was a gentle tap on the door and Meg entered. Tessa was in my arms and I threw Meg a beseeching look over Tessa’s head, really feeling that maybe her buddy was the best one to deal with the situation right then.
Meg seemed to understand at once and came forwards saying softly, “Tessa, I saw the undertaker leaving, I’m so sorry.”
As I’d surmised Tessa was in need of her girlfriend’s support and it wasn’t until I moved to leave that she said in panic, “Oh God...Ben, I have to tell Ben.”
I shook my head, “It’s OK sweetheart, I’ll do it.”
I rode into the yard with a heavy heart, dreading what I had to do and thinkin’ it was probably one of the hardest jobs a man could ever have.
Andy and Ben came running around the side of the ranch house full of how well the fish had been biting that morning and I tried to smile at their enthusiasm...but I guess I just couldn’t make it.
I handed Traveller’s reins over to Andy and said quietly, “Put him up for me will ya Andy and give him a real good rub down.”
The boy looked puzzled, knowing as how I always liked to tend my own horse.
“Jess, what’s wrong?” He queried.
“Just do it Andy,” I said softly.
He looked me in the eyes then saw an expression there that brooked no argument and he knew he’d have to obey at once.
He just said, “Sure thing Jess,” and taking the reins led Traveller off.
Ben turned to follow him, but I put out a hand to stop him, “We need to talk,” I said gently, steering him towards the porch.
Andy returned from attending to Traveller to see the fast retreating form of his best buddy running across the home pasture towards the creek.
He moved to follow, but I called him back, “Leave him Andy, I guess he needs some time.”
The youngster turned back and came and threw himself down on the porch chair, recently vacated by his buddy, “What’s wrong Jess...what’s going on?”
When I explained about Horace Brown dyin’ from a heart attack he looked totally shocked and took the news almost as badly as his friend had done...
“It’s true what they say,” he murmured after the initial shock had sunk in, “life can be a real bitch can’t it Jess?”
I smiled inwardly thinking how strange those world-weary words sounded coming from a mere boy. But then I suddenly realized he wasn’t a boy anymore. In fact, he’d probably grown up more in the last few months than any kid should have to...young Ben as well.
“Ain’t that the truth,” I agreed, before giving him a gentle punch on the arm, “We’ll give him half an hour and then go and fetch him home huh?”
The funeral was not well attended, with Annie and Jonesy unable to afford the expensive trip to Wyoming again so soon. Few towns’ folk attended either, Brown not having been a very popular figure and virtually a recluse these last few months. But I couldn’t help wonder if the mourners would have been greater iffen folk had known he was the popular author Walter Frost.
The day was blessed with perfect early fall weather, the sun beating down from a clear deep blue sky, in contrast with Maud Brown’s committal, just a few weeks earlier. Ben and Tessa stood up to the ordeal well.
It was a few days later when she asked me to accompany her to Mister Benson’s office for the reading of her Pa’s Will.
Benson was Slim’ s family solicitor and I knew him quite well, so he didn’t seem unduly worried that I should be asked to join her for the reading.
“Jess, Mister Harper that is, is a close friend,” Tessa had proclaimed, “I really want him present Mister Benson.”
“Quite so,” said the dapper gentleman, gesturing for us to sit before his big old desk where the official papers were laid out in front of him.
He cleared his throat looking down briefly before opening the folder and looking at Tessa over his spectacles said solemnly, “I will be as brief and to the point as I can my dear, I realise this has been a difficult time for you.”
“The estate of the deceased was originally to be divided between the three siblings following the death of your father...but I believe you are estranged from your older sister?”
“No, well yes I suppose so,” Tessa stuttered, “she left home several years ago, to get married and we haven’t had any word since...she was um...maybe estranged from Pa. But Ben and I would love to get in touch with her...if we could, but we have no idea where she went.”
“Quite so,” he said again, steepling his fingers and throwing her a sorrowful look.
“So in the meantime all the estate will be divided between yourself and your younger sibling...uh Master Benjamin Brown, who attends the Springfield School St Louis, correct?”
Tessa nodded, “What about the fees Mister Benson, I’m so worried.”
Benson smiled for the first time during the interview, “Well you have no need my dear, your father died a very wealthy man, very wealthy indeed. I surmise from his illustrious career as a writer no doubt.”
“You knew about that?” Tessa asked in surprise.
“Oh yes my dear, it’s all in here,” he said tapping the folder before him. “He had accrued quiet a nest egg and that along with the money from future book sales... well let’s just say you will have no financial worries.”
Then he perused the folders again, “There are a few stipulations and proviso’s though...not written in stone you understand, but your parent’s last wishes for you and your brother that you may like to consider carefully.”
Tessa and I exchanged a glance, before he continued.
“Your father visited me a little while back to discuss your future and it appears that you have always entertained the idea of becoming a teacher?” He asked his benign face relaxing into a pleasant smile once more.
She just nodded, “Oh yes...Mama was keen for me to train, but Pa not so much I think.”
“Well it seems he had a change of heart my dear. I think he knew his days were numbered and he asked me to research possible colleges that you might attend, to that end of becoming a qualified teacher.”
“Oh...really,” Tessa interjected looking surprised.
Benson nodded and then rooted through another file before pulling out a smart brochure and handed it to her with a flourish, almost like a conjurer with a hidden bouquet of paper flowers.
“It is most fortuitous that the Springfield School, attended by your brother and under the auspicious leadership of one Professor James D Potter no less, is now offering places to suitable candidates to be student teachers. The placement would be in their newly opened Elementary School facility for younger students. So my dear you have a lot to think about.”
Tessa looked pretty excited, but also shocked and I figured it would take a while for all this to sink in.
“As to other matters, your father had contacted your mother’s sister Mrs Annie Peters to be Benjamin’s legal Guardian. She has agreed and also wants it to be known that on the death of your father you will have a home with her and er...um... Mister Jones,” he said throwing me a quizzical glance, “for as long as you like. But certainly, during your teacher training, should you decide to take up that role.”
There was some more legal jargon and various forms for her to sign, before we found ourselves on the other side of Mister Benson’s office door, feeling a whole host of emotions.
Looking at Tessa I figured she was pretty much overwhelmed and also excited at the prospect. But then she looked me in the eyes and there was a deep sadness that had nothing to do with the loss of her parents and more to do with our inevitable break up I figured.
I guess I was feelin’ kinda upset at the thought of losin’ her too, almost before we’d really tried to make a go of things and looking at her I guessed maybe she was thinkin’ the same.
But there was also a new glow to her. A look of anticipation and eagerness I’d never seen before and I knew then that it was the end for us and I just couldn’t stand in her way.
“Oh Jess...do you really think I could do it?”
“Sure you could,” I replied, “it’s what you wanted ain’t it...of course you’ve gotta go for it.”
“But Jess,” she whispered looking at once elated and then suddenly doubtful, “what about us?”
I pulled her close so she couldn’t see the expression in my eyes and said softly, “Well you go off and get all educated up...make a new life for yourself. Maybe you’ll find a guy more suited to you than an old cow poke like me ...huh?”
She pulled back then and I guess she saw the pain in my eyes, “No she said quietly...I can’t leave you I really can’t.”
“Sure you can,” I said and taking her arm led her across the street towards Miss Molly’s.
When we reached her side door, she paused looking for her key and then opened the door waiting for me to follow her up...but I just stood there.
After a second she frowned, “Jess? Aren’t you staying?”
I shook my head unable to look her in the eyes, “Nope sorry sweetheart I can’t Slim needs me back at the ranch.”
She looked deeply hurt for a moment, before reaching up and kissing me passionately.
“Are you sure?” She asked with a little smile.
I looked down at her and nodded, “I’m sure...see ya soon,” and I pulled my hat down hard and marched off towards the livery without a backwards glance.
Jeez that was so hard for me to do. I wanted to stay with her more than anything. Longed to lay with her, love her...but I knew I shouldn’t. I had to end it, for her sake and the sooner the better I figured.
When I arrived back at the ranch Slim was real surprised to see me.
“I thought you’d be spending the night with the lovely, Tessa,” he said quietly, as I made myself a coffee in the kitchen, both boys in the parlour just next door.
“Well you thought wrong then,” I muttered.
I sighed deeply, “We’re through Slim, she’s goin’ off to St Louis to be a student teacher at the Springfield School.”
Slim looked surprised, “How come?”
“Provision in her Pa’s Will, he’s left them both a shed load of money, so she can finally do what she’s always wanted.”
“And is it,” he asked, “what she wants?”
I shrugged, “It’s what she needs...and she’ll get over us once she settles there.”
“What about you?” He asked.
I took a sip of my coffee and said, “I really need to talk to Ben, tell him all about his Pa’s Will.”
Slim just nodded, but I felt his eyes following me out of the room and knew he wouldn’t let it lie.
It was later when we were turning in that he tackled me again.
“Just maybe she’d got it right,” he said thoughtfully, “maybe your relationship is more important than her ambitions?”
I shook my head, “Just leave it Slim, it was hardly the romance of the century, she’ll soon find someone else...like I say it were just a bit of fun between us.”
“Is that how you really feel?”
I couldn’t answer that so decided to change tack.
“I guess we’ve gotten more important things to worry about than my dang love life,” I said angrily, “like how we’re gonna afford my return fare to St Louis.”
Well that sure shut him up...
“I guess we’ll just have to cut back some,” he said unhappily, “but we can’t let the boys and Tessa travel all that way alone.”
Oh no I thought of course, I’d be escorting Tess there now as well...if she decided to go that is...
The following morning Mose brought two letters for Andy and as usual the old timer was all agog wanting to know the senders and hopefully contents too.
The first one was from his girl Amy I guessed from the way his face lit up and he squirreled it away in his back pocket to read later.
The second was a bulky envelope with a Denver postmark.
“But I don’t know anyone in Denver,” he said squinting at the neat, closely written hand.
“Best open it then boy, only way to find out,” Mose called down from the box.
“Yeah, Andy you take it off inside and open it,” I said winking at him, before throwing Mose a cheeky grin.
Mose sighed deeply, “I guess I’ll be on my way then,” he said slapping the lines and departing in high dungeon.
I chuckled and throwing an arm around Andy’s shoulders we went back inside where we joined Slim and Ben still at the breakfast table.
Andy quickly ripped the envelope open and to everyone’s surprise a whole bunch of dollar bills fell out.
Andy’s eyes were wide with shock and I figure that was mirrored by us all.
“What the heck?” Slim exclaimed.
“Who’s the letter from Andy?” I asked, as he and Ben started eagerly counting the money.
He picked the letter up again and scanned down to the signature at the end.
“Someone called George Saunders,” he said looking puzzled.
Then another shorter note fell out simply signed Will and the light of understanding shone in his dark eyes.
“It’s from my friend Will...Will Saunders, George must be his Pa. You remember Slim, my buddy who got real sick back at the Mason Academy?”
Slim nodded, “What does his Pa have to say Andy, why the money?”
Andy turned to the letter and his face glowed with pleasure.
“Hey it’s a thank you for me looking out for Will. His Pa says he was so sick he nearly died...wow!”
“That’s bad,” said Slim seriously, “that Major Beeston should be ashamed running a school that way.”
“Better than that he’s been fired,” Andy said cheerfully. “Mister Saunders complained to the Mason Academy School Board and they fired The Beast!”
“Well that’s good,” I said, “but what about the money Andy?”
“Huh, oh yeah,” and he continued to read the letter aloud.
‘So my dear boy I hope you will accept this small gift in the spirit in which it is sent as a sincere thank you for befriending my son and literally saving his life. William mentioned that you were most concerned about travel expenses incurred by your brother when accompanying you to and from school. Therefore, I thought this donation might be of some practical use to you all, my sincere thanks once more, yours George C Saunders.’
“Gosh Jess there’s enough here for your fare when we go back to school next week and still some left over,” he said with excitement.
Slim looked less than happy though, “We can’t accept it,” he said quietly, “its well... like charity.”
Well that really annoyed me, “Hell Slim, the guy’s got money and we need it. Just accept it in...huh what did he say? Yeah, in the spirit in which it is sent...the guy just wants to thank Andy...that ain’t charity.”
Slim thought hard and then that big grin of his appeared and he said, “Yup I guess you’re right Jess, I’m being a jerk,” and he ruffled Andy’s hair.
“So, are you paying Jess’s fare then Andy?”
“You bet,” Andy said happily.
Then turning to Ben said, “And there should be enough left over for some candy for us for the journey too!”
Me and Slim exchanged a smile over his head, yup our boy was growing up fast...but maybe not too fast.
The day of our journey dawned bright and sunny and was a real contrast to when we had seen Andy off last January. Now he seemed genuinely happy to return to his studies...or maybe return to the girl next door, young Amy, I thought was more likely.
Ben looked quite drawn and anxious as he sat next to his sister and we waved Slim off at the rail-head. I figured it was a real big step for him as he would only ever return to Laramie to visit with Andy, the family home now in the hands of the solicitors and up for sale.
I had visited Tess just once the previous week at the coffee shop, to try and persuade her to take up the offer of a place at the Springfield School that Mister Benson had procured for her.
She had been out running an errand for Miss Molly when I arrived and it was Meg who came to serve me. As the cafe was pretty quiet, she took the seat opposite me once the coffee had been poured.
“What’s going on Jess,” she said in her usual forthright manner, “why haven’t you been visiting with Tessa this week.”
I sighed deeply, knowing the gal wouldn’t stop until she got the truth.
“I was kinda tryin’ to make a point,” I said quietly.
“So what would that be?” She asked raising a censorious eyebrow, “She’s real upset you know Jess, thinks you don’t care for her anymore.”
“Hell, Meg I didn’t mean to upset her!” I said quickly, and then said, “Uh, sorry ma’am I didn’t mean to cuss. But see thing is I really think she should take this teachin’ opportunity...and well if she’s stuck on me it’ll hold her back.”
“Oh she’s stuck on you alright,” Meg said with a slow smile, “but yes maybe I agree with you this is a wonderful chance for her to really make something of herself.”
I nodded, “So you’ll help me persuade her?”
She nodded, “Miss Molly will kill me, best darned waitress she’s ever had so she says, but yes I’ll help you.”
By the time a breathless Tessa returned from serving the prisoner’s suppers across at the jail, Meg and I had hatched a plan.
Tessa paused on the threshold of the cafe, throwing me an uncertain look, before walking over and saying hesitantly, “Hello Jess.”
I stood up smiling and pulled up a chair for her.
She gave a quick look towards the counter and then when she saw Molly was busy in the back, she sat down...
“I can’t stay long, we’re still on duty,” she said casting Meg a warning glance.
“Not for much longer,” Meg said robustly, “well not for you anyway. Tess, just listen to what Jess here has to say will you honey?”
Ten minutes later Tessa sat back looking flushed and kinda excited, I guess.
“So it’s for Ben’s sake you want me to go,” she said again, “you think he needs his big sis around?”
I nodded, “Sure Annie and Jonesy will do a good job riding shot gun on the boy, lookin’ out for him. But right now I guess he needs real close kin. It’s been hard on the kid you know Tess, losing both your parents that way.”
“Oh I do know,” she replied.
“He’s growing up fast too,” I said, “just like Andy and I figure a big sis is a real important part of a boy’s life. I know Francie sure educated me up real good about how to act around girls, the things they like, that kinda thing. The sorta stuff your Ma wouldn’t tell you,” I said grinning at the memory.
“You’re right of course,” she said. “I just thought maybe you’d grown tired of me?”
“Heck no....but it’s like I say. Ben needs you and then I’ll be real busy these next few weeks, bringing the stock down for the winter and such like, so we wouldn’t have seen much of each other anyway. But you’ll be busy studying and you’ll hardly miss me at all...so will ya go Tessa huh, will ya?”
Now here she was sitting opposite me in the rail-car, lookin’ about as pretty as I’d ever seen her, all dressed up like a real lady and I felt so dang happy for her, but also so bad that I would lose her.
Sure, we’d talked about meeting up, me visiting sometimes...going over to see Andy. But I knew it wouldn’t happen...not really and this was the end of the road for us. I cared for her but I guess that’s why I had to let her go.
It was a long tiring journey and we were all pleased when we finally landed at Annie and Jonesy’ s place late one evening.
Old Jonesy’s face lit up when he pulled the door open and turning back to Annie said, “It’s the boys and young Tessa, then grinning at me added, “and just see what else has blown in, that no good drifter,” the twinkle in his eyes and hearty slap on the back softening his words.
It was after supper, when the boys and Tessa had turned in tired after their long journey that I was able to catch up on all the news with Jonesy and Annie.
Once I’d shared all the happenings over at the ranch during the summer and had heard about how well the Boarding House was doing under their new shared ownership Jonesy said quietly, “I sure hope you and Slim are managing OK without me huh?”
“Well we ain’t poisoned each other yet with the cookin’, but I guess it’s only a matter of time,” I said chuckling.
He grinned and then his face clouded, “Seriously though boy, you’ll look out fer Slim won’t ya...watch his back?”
“Always do,” I replied easily.
Then Annie came over, topped up my coffee cup and settled down on the couch beside me.
“I see you changed your mind then Jess.”
I raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Last time we talked you said you wouldn’t persuade Tessa to come and live here, but she told me today that’s it’s down to you that she’s here now...it was you who persuaded her?”
“Oh, I see yeah, well after her Pa died and then she had the opportunity to come here and study, things changed and it seemed to make sense,” I said quietly.
“But she wouldn’t have taken up the offer if you hadn’t persuaded her,” she insisted.
I nodded and then said softly, “It’s like you said before Ma’am, if you care about someone you want the best for them and I figure her future here is better than anything I could ever offer her.”
She looked kinda choked at that and just reached out and taking my hand squeezed it, “You’re a good man,” she said quietly and soon after, we all retired for the night.
The following morning was all hustle and bustle as the boys prepared for the first day of term and Tessa for her first day as a student teacher.
I figured it would be easier if I said my farewells in the morning and was gone by the time they returned later in the day...less painful all round.
Tess was the first to leave and I walked her across the street to the School, wanting our last goodbye to be kinda private.
“I will see you again?” She asked tearfully.
I nodded, “Maybe one day sweetheart,” I agreed, knowing it wasn’t any too likely and not wanting her to wait for me. “But...well Tessa iffen you find someone...someone you know...you like...well then, I’ll understand,” I said.
She leaned in and kissed me, and then pulling back said, “I’ll never forget you...never...I’ll write,” and then she dashed off through the gates and disappeared through a large heavy door into the school.
I stood staring after her for a good minute and then turned and sadly retraced my steps.
Luckily, I didn’t have too much time to brood upon my goodbyes to Andy as he was just about ready to leave as I returned.
We stood in the lobby facing each other and again I was amazed at how tall and strong he looked, but the expression in his eyes was kinda emotional, “I’ll miss you Jess,” he said huskily, “something powerful,” and he came forwards and offered his hand, “goodbye...safe journey.”
Then he threw himself into my arms and held me tight for a full minute before letting me go, his eyes misty, “Take it easy huh Jess?”
I nodded, “Sure you too buddy...”
Then Ben came clattering down the stairs and Annie was suddenly there chivvying them along saying they’d be late on their first day back and they waved and tore off across the street together laughing and yelling as young boys do....
I stood at the door, the silence suddenly unbearable as the two disappeared out of sight and all I wanted to do was go home.
“Bye Andy,” I said softly.

Chapter 8
I guess Slim was kinda pleased to see me home and I figured it must have been real quiet for him, with me and the boys gone...but it weren’t just that as he told me later.
“So you see Jess the new stage line Superintendent is really keen for us to pull out all the stops. What with all the competition from the railroad...well we’ve got to prove that the Stage still has something to offer.”
“Things like bone hard, dusty seats and Mose finding every dang hole in the road to drive through?” I said grinning at my pard.
“Heck Jess this is no joking matter...it’s our livelihood you know.”
“Well I know that, but hell Slim you can’t stand in the way of progress and if that’s what folk want...well then.”
He threw himself down on his fireside chair...both of us studiously ignoring the dirty supper dishes still on the table.
He brushed his blond hair back with an agitated hand and said, “This is for Andy, not just us. It’s his inheritance too you know Jess...his future.”
“Oh I reckon his future is pretty much guaranteed,” I said, “he’s doin’ real well at that school according to Jonesy he’ll be coming out top of his grade come Christmas.”
“And that’s another thing,” Slim said looking even more concerned, “we’ve got to find the fare home for him by then too.”
“In that case I guess I’d better get to work on those green broke Mustangs and get them off to the Army Post as soon as I can, that’ll bring in a tidy sum Slim.”
“Thanks buddy,” he said quietly before wandering off to his desk to check out the monthly figures yet again, but I got the feeling he was worried, real worried.
Well I worked my butt off with those dang critters and finished the job in record time earning a nice fat bonus from the Major as a sign of his appreciation so he said.
“Uh...and Harper, if ever you get sick of ranching there would be a place here in the platoon for you,” he said just as I was about to ride out.
I must have looked kinda shocked because he continued, “As a civilian I mean, catching and breaking all our mounts and some scouting too. I’ve heard good things about your scouting ability from the Laramie Sheriff. It would bring in a good salary my boy, double what you’re on now I’d wager and bonuses too. Just see me if you decide you want a change huh?”
I grinned down at him from where I sat Traveller and said, “I’m ridin’ for the Sherman brand Major and that won’t be changin ’, but thanks anyway,” and with that I gave him a little salute and rode out. But I could feel his eyes following me and knew he wouldn’t give in easy.
Over the next few months I had cause to remember his words when things got mighty bad back at the ranch. I thank God now that I stuck by Slim...but it weren’t an easy time for either of us.
The first thing to happen was that we had a visit from the Stage Superintendent. He was very apologetic, but none the less pretty much told us that we’d have to take a cut in wages, or lose the contract.
“I’m deeply sorry,” the harassed man said. “I can’t fault your work, either of you. You Sherman come with excellent references from my predecessor. As to you Harper, well I have seen your work first hand when Sherman has been away, and you offer an excellent service too. No, I’m afraid this directive comes from Head Office. All the Stage Stops have to prove their worth by operating on a budget until the end of the year at least. Then further decisions will be made. The staff that have proved they can cope under these difficult times will be retained and hopefully the original remuneration restored. Those that don’t meet these stringent requirements...well, I’m afraid we will be dispensing with their services.”
“Garldarn it Slim, this just ain’t fair,” I bellowed once we had seen the Superintendent off on the noon Stage.
“Well you heard what the man said, if we can prove our worth over the next few months we’ll be back in business,” Slim said hopefully.
“And if not?” I asked.
He shrugged, “I don’t want to dwell on that Jess.”
“Yeah if we did lose the contract... well there might not be enough work to justify two men’s wages here. It would make more sense just to buy help in at round up time,” I said.
He looked really upset then. “Hang it all Jess, I gave you a fresh start here and offered you a job for life, if you want it. I’m not backing down on that, not now, not ever,” and he marched off, leaving me feeling even worse.
Well I guess we both put our backs into the work, going that extra mile to make our service second to none as far as the Stage Stop was concerned, plus working all hours bringing the beeves down to the low grazing for the winter and riding miles checking fence.
We’d land home cold tired and often soaked to the skin and then had to cook the meager rations we had now allocated ourselves...and tempers were running mighty high.
Plus, there was something else bothering Slim too. Sometimes I’d catch him watching me with a strange look in his eyes, almost as though he were waiting for me to declare some bad news of some sort... But then I figured he was just looking wary as he was waiting for my temper to let rip once again...as the days got shorter and colder and rations got less and less.
Things all came to a head one night when we arrived home to a cold dark house and nothing in the larder save some stale bread and cans of beans.
“This is crazy!” I exploded. “How am I supposed to do a full day’s work on this? I thought you were going to town yesterday to do some marketing?”
“I was,” he spat back, “until you came riding in and said the south pasture fence was down. What do you want me to do Jess, wave goodbye to our prime stock and take off for town so you can stuff your face huh?”
“Well, I’m hardly doin’ that, now am I?” I said, mopping up the last of the sauce with my stale bread. Hell Slim a man could dang well fade away and die on rations like these.”
“Well maybe you’d better go off and see if you fare any better at the Army Camp then!” He spat angrily.
My head shot up and my eyes narrowed, “What do you know about that?”
“Enough,” he said looking furious now, “I believe you’ve been offered a job there on double what you earn here...and they’d doubtless feed you better too!”
I just stared at him open mouthed, “Who told ya that?”
He looked kinda shame faced then and mumbled, “Mort might have mentioned it in passing.”
“And you didn’t think to ask me about it?” I yelled now feeling equally mad.
He looked down, “No point, looks like you’ve already made up your mind anyway.”
I didn’t believe what I was hearing...
I got up slowly from the table, my right-hand hovering over my gun butt and restlessly flexing...a habit I have when I’m real upset about something...
Well I saw Slim’ s eyes open wide and realized that he thought I was about to draw on him. Hell, that was the last straw...did he really still not know me or trust me?
“Do you think that of me,” I asked quietly, “that I’d just up and run first sign of trouble. Hell, Slim I’ve worked my butt off over the last few months, don’t that mean anything at all to you?”
He backed off then looking real apologetic, “I’m sorry Jess, I just thought...well I could hardly blame you anyway...if you did take the job.”
“Well I would,” I said stoutly, “I’d blame me...because that ain’t the way I am Slim...I may be just a two-bit gunslinger still in your eyes. But I have integrity and loyalty and when I told the Major I rode for the Sherman brand and that wouldn’t be changin’ then I dang well meant it,” and with that I slammed out of the house, feeling so darned bad that I might just have thrown a punch iffen I’d stayed.
He came to seek me out in the barn sometime later and found me grooming my good ol’ horse.
He stood watching me for a minute and then said softly, “Jess?”
I turned and looked across at him, the pool of light from the over-head lantern revealing the look of deep sorrow on his face...
“What can I say?” He whispered.
I shrugged, “Nuthin’ to say....so you want me to go?”
“Of course I don’t Jess... that’s why I was so mad... I just couldn’t face the thought of losing you too...what with Andy and old Jonesy gone. Well it’s getting kind of quiet around here isn’t it? Quiet and darned miserable too way things are right now...and facing it all alone ...” and he just shrugged. “But I think maybe it would be the best for you though?”
Well of course I had to forgive him and I wandered over and slapped him on the back, “I’m not goin’ anywhere,” I declared. “Anyway, it ain’t that bad pard...it’ll be Christmas soon and they’ll be home...and I honestly ain’t goin’ any place... you know that dontcha?”
He nodded, “I’m sorry I doubted you Jess... I won’t again... and as to the rations....”
“Yeah?” I asked eagerly.
“I thought we might dispatch one of those dang chickens for supper tomorrow and maybe finish off the last of Jonesy’s secret stash of Medicinal whiskey...what do you say?”
I grinned at him, “Make it that dang cockerel and you’ve got a deal!”
So we weathered that storm and then I went off hunting to help with the old ‘cash flow’ as Slim termed it and it looked like we were on track again. We’d managed to save enough for Andy’s fare home and figured that Jonesy would be joining him, so no need for us to have the added expense of fetching him.
Our only worry was the recent damage to the barn roof...
A storm had blown in and a lightning strike burnt some of the timbers, but luckily, we caught it in time before too much damage was done. It was currently covered by a heavy-duty tarp, that was keeping the weather off the critters, but we both knew that a real good snowstorm would cause further damage.
“It’s just not strong enough to withstand a strong wind and as for heavy snow fall, well...” and Slim shook his head anxiously, as we surveyed the problem a few days later.
“But we ain’t got the cash for all the timber we’d need,” I said, “you know that Slim and there’s no way the timber merchant would let us have credit, you know what old Fred’s like.”
Slim nodded, “Can’t blame the guy he nearly went under a few years ago carrying everyone else’s debts...so he had to make that strict rule to survive.”
I shrugged, “Well there’s only one thing for it, we’ll just have to use the money we put aside for Andy’s fare home.”
He turned to me looking horror-stricken, “No Jess, we’ll find a way,” he said before marching off to collect the horses as the morning Stage was due in.
I looked after him knowing how he felt. Hell, I really wanted to see the boy too...but what if there was another storm, or worse snow, before we could afford to fix it? Then our livestock would be put in danger and also our livelihood...We had to do something and Slim knew it too...but just didn’t wanna face it I guessed.
It was just a couple of days later that his arm was forced.
We woke up to the wind howling and looking out the door saw storm clouds gathering over the hills.
“It’s no good Slim,” I said softly, “I’m gonna have to ride into town after breakfast and pick up that timber, no matter what it costs. We can’t leave the horses at risk this way...heavy snow could bring the whole dang roof down.”
“I know it,” he said, his eyes bleak as he looked off to the distant snow-covered mountain range.
“Yes, just do it pard,” he said sadly as he turned back into the ranch house.
Well old Fred cut me a pretty good deal, but the timber still took most of our savings and I just hoped there would be enough left over for a present for the kid and to cover the cost of mailing it.
The threatening storm hit just as we were about halfway through replacing the damaged roof timbers and there was no way we could stop at that point. We carried on in the relentless downpour until we were soaked and chilled to the marrow...But as dusk finally fell, we hammered in the last nail and breathed a sigh of relief.
Once we finally staggered down the ladder to solid ground again, we were faced with the usual evening chores and I sighed deeply at the thought of yet more work.
“You feeling alright Jess, what’s up?” Slim asked as I shivered and pulled my old jacket around me against the freezing wind that had now got up.
“Oh nuthin’,” I said sarcastically, “save bein’ half froze to death and hungry as a starvin ’ coyote.”
He grinned at me then, “Well it’s my turn to cook, so I’ll get right to it, heat up some water for the tub too. Unless you want me to do the yard chores...you look real peaky Jess.”
“I’m fine,” I said gruffly, “you go fix supper and we’ll toss for first turn in the tub yeah?”
“OK,” he grinned and marched off.
Boy was I to live to regret not taking him up on his offer.
By the time I’d bedded down all the critters for the night and cut extra wood for the fire and cook stove the rain had turned to snow, stinging my face with the full force of a northerly behind it.
One look at me as I dragged myself inside made Slim run for the hot water to fill the tub.
“We won’t flip a coin,” he said quietly, “you go in first Jess you look as white as a sheet, real sickly.” Then grinning at me said, “I guess you Texans just can’t hack our Wyoming weather huh buddy.”
I glared at him, but then remembered he’d given me first go in the tub, so didn’t rise to the bait and just thanked him.
Even after I’d had a good soak in the steaming bath, I still felt chilled, couldn’t get warm and sat huddled in front of the fire, a blanket draped around my shoulders.
By the time supper was on the table I could hardly keep awake and finally went off to bed before I lay down with my head in my plate as Slim had jokingly said.
I awoke in the small hours sweatin ’ and cussin’ feeling about as bad as I could remember for a long while.
Well I must have woken Slim because after a while he got up and lit the lamp before wandering over to my bed and sitting on the edge.
“What’s up Jess, you sick?”
I nodded, wiping a hand across my face, “Kinda hot,” I croaked.
Slim ran a cool hand over my forehead and whistled, “Jeez, you’re burning up buddy,” and he went and fetched me a cold drink and cool rag to lay on my forehead.
“I guess you caught a chill out there today Jess, I’m sorry I should have done the outdoor chores, I’m more used to this weather than you are.”
“It’s OK,” I wheezed, then I started coughing and it was a good few minutes before I managed to catch my breath.
Slim shook his head, “You’re real bad pard. Gee I wish Jonesy was here... he’d sort you out.”
“Yeah with that dang liniment rub of his,” I muttered, “well thank God for small mercies eh.”
“I know he had kind of strange ways, but he was a good man to have around when you were sick Jess...knew just what to do.”
Then he sighed, “I’ll get Mose to ask Doc Johnson to call tomorrow.”
That sparked off another spasm of coughing, but after a drink I said firmly, “No...no doctors Slim we can’t dang well afford it. I’ll be fine in a day or so...really I will.”
Well I guess that illness brought us closer in a strange kinda way.
We were both confined to the house and yard pretty much as the weather had closed in that night and by morning there were six-foot drifts and absolutely no chance of the Stage arriving anytime soon.
“Well I guess that solves one problem,” I said laying back on my pillows and sipping a black coffee, being all I could manage for breakfast.
“Huh so what’s that?” Slim asked looking anxious.
“Well you can’t send for the doc if Mose don’t turn up,” I said grinning at him. “So why dontcha take a look at that Montgomery Ward catalogue of mine and choose a real nice present for Andy from us both. I figure we’ve just about got enough left for that, if we don’t have the doc’s fees to worry about.”
He searched around under my bed and finally unearthed the dog-eared brochure and started browsing.
“I think he was kinda hankerin’ for a new Stetson,” I said, “guess he wants to impress his Amy.”
“Oh yeah,” said Slim grinning, “young love.”
“Don’t mock him Slim, I figure he’s real serious this time.”
Slim shook his head and chuckled, “Uh yeah...sure.”
“Hey ain’t you ever heard of childhood sweethearts?” I asked innocently.
Slim sighed and shook his head, “OK a Stetson it is, “then he frowned. “I reckon I’d better write to him and explain we can’t afford his fare home for Christmas.”
I nodded, “He’ll understand Slim he knows how we’re fixed.”
“Sure, I know, but it just won’t be the same without him....”
He wandered off to order from the catalogue and write to Andy and left me sleepin’ in between bouts of coughing’ that near brought my guts up.
By the following day I was in a real bad state, burning hot, followed by shivers, the sound of each breath now rasping the pain in my chest makin’ it kinda hard to breathe.
Slim looked down at me shaking his head, “It’s no good Jess I’ve got to get the doctor to you buddy...things could ...well turn real nasty.”
“What do ya mean turn.” I wheezed, “I guess it’s already turned pretty nasty.”
He nodded, “That’s why I’m riding for the doc.”
“Huh? I thought it was wall to wall snow out there?”
He shrugged, “It’s started to thaw and I just remembered Doc Johnson always does his house calls for the elderly and chronically sick out this way towards the end of the month.”
“Well it’s the twenty-ninth...but who’s sick in these parts?”
“Nobody as far as I know, but Ma Patterson’s latest is due anytime now. I bet the doc will be visiting her, I’ll ride over and see after breakfast.”
Well I don’t remember him leaving, but have a vague memory of the doc arriving and pullin’ me about some, listening to my chest and talking about pleurisy, whatever that is. Then he gave me a shot of something and left some foul medicine and also some vapor rub to ease my breathing.
Much later I woke up to Slim smearing the rub on my chest, lookin’ real worried.
“Has the doc gone?” I whispered.
Slim nodded, “He said you are pretty sick Jess, he’s left medicine, but he said he’d be back in a few days. Weather permitting.”
“It’s that bad?” I groaned.
“Looks like pleurisy that could turn to lung fever Jess...so you’ve got to behave do exactly as I say OK?”
I was gonna argue and then just didn’t have the energy.
“I guess so,” I whispered before coughing until I almost chucked.
He pulled me up in the bed, thrusting his pillows behind me as well as my own so I was sitting up and then gave me a dose of the medicine.
“You just take it real easy pard,” he said softly as I lay back against the pillows, “the doc seems to think you might not get over this, but we’re going to fight it and prove him wrong aren’t we...huh?”
Well that was the beginning of the longest couple of weeks of our lives I guess. As I gasped for breath and coughed until I threw up and Slim carefully nursed me as best he could.
Jeez we both missed Jonesy’s comforting presence, but we struggled on and by the time the end of the second week came around I figured old Slim looked almost as rough as me.
I lay back on my pillows watching him as he made his way slowly around the room, tidying up some and removing the tray and empty bowl of broth he’d made for me earlier.
“How do you feel now,” he asked turning back to the bed, “think that broth’s going to stay down?”
I nodded, “I reckon so...figure I’m feelin’ a bit better now Slim.”
He sighed with relief, “Well that’s good pard, ‘cos I’ll tell you I’m just about on my last legs,” he muttered giving me a tired grin. “Holler if you need anything,” he said as he made for the door.
He looked back.
His face broke out into that broad grin of his and he just nodded, “You’re welcome....”
I was up and about by the time the Stage finally got through a few days later, but still taking it easy. As he heard it arriving Slim reached for the letter he’d written Andy...but I moved over to his desk and stood in his way.
“No Slim, don’t send it just yet...something may turn up huh?”
“Are you kidding me...we can’t even afford a gift now,” he said sadly, then stopped realizing that it was my fault that the rest of our savings had gone on the doctor’s bill.
“Yeah and that’s down to me,” I said, “just let me try and fix it huh Slim, give it another week?”
He slapped my arm gently, “It isn’t your fault pard, you couldn’t help being sick. But OK I’ll wait a while...send the letter explaining everything next week,” then he rushed off to change the team.
When he returned half an hour later, he was looking flushed and happy, “There was a letter from Andy,” he said waving it in my face.
“Well are you gonna open it then?” I asked feeling just as excited.
He sank down at the table and ripped the envelope open a happy expectant look on his face... which slowly changed to one of concern and eventually sadness....
“What’s up Slim?” I asked.
“He’s not coming home,” he said flatly.
“Huh, what do you mean he’s not coming...er I mean we know that...so did you write already or somethin’?”
Slim looked up his eyes desolate, “I mean he doesn’t want to Jess. He’s been invited to spend the day with Amy and her parents he asks if I’d mind.”
I took this new information in and then said, “Well that’s swell you don’t need to tell him we can’t afford the fare and he’ll have a great time with his girl...so that’s good ain’t it?”
He stood up throwing the letter aside for me to read, “I guess so,” he said despondently, before mooching off to start the yard chores.
But there was still the little matter of the present I thought as I idly picked up the letter and scanned it.
I smiled as I read how excited he sounded. Yup the kid had sure grown up some lately. I remembered back to that tearful youngster heading off to St Louis for the first time and sayin’ he didn’t wanna be smart he just wanted to be like me and Slim and I shook my head smiling at the memory...
Then I picked up the catalogue that Slim had discarded the night before and saw the Stetson he’d ringed in pencil and gave a little whistle at the price, knowing we just didn’t have that kinda cash to splash out right then. It looked like being a pretty frugal Christmas all round. OK we could go out and shoot a turkey and I reckoned it couldn’t be too dang hard to cook it. Plus, Denver James had already been around tradin’ his Moonshine, so that was all sorted out.
Slim had grinned at the time and said we’d have to keep it in the barn lest Jonesy got wind of it. But now it didn’t matter because Jonesy weren’t comin’ either and I was surprised at how much I’d miss the old goat. But he was fixed up with his lady love now, so why would he make the journey?
I mooched off to the kitchen to think about what we’d have for dinner. As I was still not too good Slim had insisted I did all the domestics until I was OK to brave the filthy Wyoming weather again.
I guess that’s why he was so mad when I said I was riding into town the following Saturday morning.
“For goodness sake Jess you’ve still got that cough and the snow might have gone but its bitter cold out there.”
“Slim will ya stop yer fussin’ garldarn it yer getting worse than Jonesy was.”
“Well someone’s got to talk some sense into that thick skull of yours,” he yelled back.
“Look I’ll wrap up warm and be back before supper OK...Ma?” I said teasingly.
He stared at me stony faced for a moment or two and then his mouth began to twitch and then we were both laughing until the tears came...
“OK but straight home,” he finally managed...collapsing on a chair with more peals of mirth.
I arrived home to the tantalizing smell of beef stew comin’ from the kitchen and Slim popped his head around the door a few minutes later. He was wearing Jonesy’s long striped apron and had a smudge of flour on his flushed cheek.
“Beef stew and dumplings,” he said proudly, “go wash up its all ready.”
It was after supper that he finally got around to the purpose of my trip to town.
I got up and throwing my jacket on went over to the door.
“Where are you going now?” Slim asked immediately.
I rolled my eyes, “To the barn, to get something.”
I returned a little later totin’ a large hat box.
Slim did a double take and then said, “What’s that?”
I opened it up and brought out a smart black Stetson with a silver hat band.
Slim looked at it in puzzlement and then back up at me... “What’s that for you’ve got a perfectly good Sunday hat,” he said.
I sighed, “It ain’t for me is it? It’s Andy’s present.”
He looked at it more closely and then his eyes narrowed, “How did you pay for this Jess...you haven’t....um...”
“What robbed the bank...held up the mercantile?” I asked my eyes flashing in anger now.
He looked away and then back at me, “Sorry Jess I shouldn’t have said that. But the fact remains we’re pretty much living hand to mouth right now and certainly don’t have the cash to splash out on this kind of thing. It must have cost a fortune?”
“Nope, I did a deal with Ezra at the mercantile.”
“Uh, what sort of deal?” He asked looking wary.
“Don’t matter, thing is we’ve got the present for Andy. So you just need to wrap it up real good and address it and Mose will take it to the mail tomorrow OK?”
“No,” he said firmly, “what deal?”
I sighed, “Well Ezra’s bought a young gelding for his niece for Christmas, but it ain’t broke yet, so I promised to work on him for a few weeks OK?”
“No it’s not OK,” he yelled. “You know perfectly well the doc said no strenuous exercise...hell Jess you shouldn’t even be riding yet.”
“Well the deals done, we shook on it,” I said before taking myself off to bed, Slim’ s angry eyes boring into my back as I left the room.
Well that was the beginning of a few tough weeks I can tell you. Not only did working the young horse knock the stuffing out of me, but I also had to put up with Slim’s constant nagging.
I rode over to town as often as I could, but in the end, it seemed simpler for me to bring Lucky, as the critter had been christened by his young owner, back to the ranch. Then I was able to work with him as many hours in the day as I could, after and before all the ranch work. Well Slim didn’t take too kindly to that as he could see how much it was taking out of me and after supper one day, when I was feelin’ real wore out, he voiced his concerns yet again.
“For goodness sake Jess, just tell Ezra you’re not well enough to honor the agreement, he’ll understand! Once we’ve sold off the next batch of heifers, we can pay him in full for the Christmas present for Andy.
I just shook my head stubbornly, what Slim didn’t know was that I’d also traded my time for a present for him and also a few other Festive items to grace our table. I knew he always invited Mort Cory over for the day and although it wouldn’t be the same without Jonesy fusssin ’ over the turkey and Andy’s whoops of joy as he ripped open his presents...well at least we could make the best of things.
And you know it wasn’t too bad at all. Sure we missed Andy and even old Jonesy. But I guess me and Mort helped to liven things up some for Slim, along with some of Denver James’ best brew. He was real touched that I’d worked around the clock to afford those little extra trimmings....and a present for him as well and so I guess it was pretty much a success, in the end.
Well Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went and I reckoned Slim was just living for the summer when Andy would land home for a few weeks.
We sure had some ups and downs in our friendship over those months, me walking out and going off to help out old buddies, but I always seemed to find my way home again.
The home that I would never have found if it hadn’t been for Andy, I reflected as the summer holiday approached. I guess me and Slim kinda got off on the wrong foot when he found me trespassing by the lake that day. But it was Andy that befriended me and urged me to stay around before Slim and me eventually buried the hatchet and became real good friends.
We were more than just ranch owner and hired hand now. We were best buddies and trusted and cared about each other. Jeez he’d sure shown that when he looked after me so good when I was sick with that darned pleurisy. But that wasn’t all we’d been through.
Heck over the last year we’d watched each other’s backs as we helped Mort out. Stuck together through thick and thin when things got tough and I figured we were pretty much up for anything that could be thrown at us. Jeez we’d been through so much together I just knew things would never be the same again...for me anyway...I’d found a new family at last.
I reckon Slim was devastated when Andy wrote to say he’d been asked to spend the summer down in Cincinnati with Amy and her grandparents.
“Doggone it Jess, has he forgotten where he started from?” Slim asked me with hurt eyes.
I shook my head, “He’s growing into a young man Slim, and with a real special girl...of course he wants to spend time with her... wouldn’t you, in his place?”
Slim just shrugged, “I can’t believe it...special girl...heck Jess he’s still just a little kid.”
“No Slim he really ain’t... I hate to be the one to tell you, but your little brother is pretty much all grown up.”

Chapter 9
Well it was to be nearly a year later that my words were proved to be true, when Andy finally landed home for the summer.
By then young Mike Williams our ward and Daisy Cooper our beloved housekeeper were in our lives, when the letter arrived early one summer morning.
Daisy had come out into the yard to pass the time of day with Mose and he had passed the letters on to her.
“Oh, Slim this is for you.” she said as she searched through the three letters that she had received.
“Gee Aunt Daisy how come you get so much mail?” Mike asked looking up at her with a milky mustache.
We were all sitting around the breakfast table for a coffee once the early Stage had headed out.
“Well I have so many friends back east,” she replied,” and we write often. You need to write to receive mail you know Mike, “she said reprovingly.
Then she passed Slim’ s letter over, “It’s from Andy I think,” she said with a warm smile.
It must have been way over two years since we’d clapped eyes on Andy, so I guess Slim was pretty chipper when he said he was coming home that summer.
Well if he hadn’t believed me when I told him Andy was all grown up, I guess he sure did once his little brother landed home that year.
He’d grown a good head taller and looked like he’d end up as tall and straight as old Hardrock. His features we’re strong and his eyes steady. But it was more than that, he just radiated confidence. Gone was the moody teen or hesitant young boy...to be replaced with an assurance and bearing we’d never seen before.
He’d jumped down from the Stage looking around him and then looked up and saw me and Slim advancing on him and his face broke into a huge grin as he marched over and gave us a firm handshake.
“Gee it’s good to be back,” he said, looking out to the Snowy Mountains and then back at us pure joy in his deep brown eyes.
Daisy and Mike came running out and introductions were made among much laughter and banter, especially between Mike and Andy, the two hitting it off at once. Then the youngster bore him off to inspect his menagerie of critters, Andy taking it all in his stride a friendly arm flung around the younger boy’s shoulders.
Then Slim and I exchanged a glance... “See told ya,” I said, “all grown up and a young man to be real proud of huh Slim?”
He nodded and turned quickly to change the team, but not before I’d seen a hint of a tear in his blue eyes...
Andy settled in well and it looked like he was prepared to really pull his weight about the place. In fact I was beginning to wonder if he’d changed his mind about a scholarly way of life and was gonna give ranching a go.
One evening when Andy, Slim and me were sitting out on the porch shooting the breeze and drinkin’ coffee Slim asked him about it.
“Not that I object to you pulling your weight, and learning all these new skills Andy, but I was sort of wondering why?” He said raising an eyebrow.
Andy grinned at his big brother and then said, “Well I guess I need to be all educated up in ranching because that’s the only way I figure I can earn the money I need to get through collage.”
“So, you are staying on at the end of next term then?” Slim asked looking overjoyed.
Andy nodded, “Professor Potter has been real encouraging and even helped me with my application to Med. school, but I’ll need to earn some money to pay the fees, my upkeep all that kinda thing.”
“Heck no, we’ll find the money,” Slim said quickly, but Andy put up a hand to silence him.
“Come on Slim I know how you’re fixed, after that drought last summer when you lost all those prime beeves, well you’re only just recovering from that...I know money’s tight around here, always had been.”
“We manage,” Slim said rather irritably, but Andy just shook his head.
“Why do you think I haven’t been home in so long? Because I knew it was hard for you to find my fare. Well I got me a little part-time job helping Aunt Annie, back at the boarding house. Just cutting wood and washing up that kind of thing, but I managed to save my fare in the end.”
“Andy, I wrote to you, said I’d send the fare,” Slim said now looking kinda embarrassed.
“I know Slim, but I wanted to be independent, I’m not just a little kid anymore you know...I’m all grown up and got to make my own way in life from now on. So I figured I’d get a job at a ranch someplace, earn some money just in case I get a place at Med School in the future.”
Slim looked like he was going to argue the point, until I stepped in with my two cents worth.
“Andy’s talking sense Slim, he needs to take control of his life, do things his way...like he says he’s all grown up now.”
Slim’ s head shot up and he glared at me and I really thought I’d overstepped the mark...after all I wasn’t blood kin, even though it felt like I was sometimes.
But then his expression softened and he said quietly, “I guess you know the boy better than I do Jess...you’re right of course...sorry Andy.”
“That’s OK,” he said cheerfully. “I thought I’d make a start this summer so I’ve asked Mr Jenkins if I can work his market garden over the next few weeks and he said yes...I start tomorrow!”
Jenkins was a bit of an oddball. He was from the old country and on his arrival some ten years back had eked out a living by planting potatoes on his plot of land, some three miles down the Laramie road from us. Then over the years his business had prospered and he provided a huge amount of fruit and vegetables to the local town’s folk.
I exchanged a surprised look with Slim, but I was the first to recover, “Hey well done Andy...so the drinks are on you come Friday huh?”
Andy grinned, “You gotta deal!”
“Um...well I suppose the work is OK...but the saloon, uh...I’m not sure about that Andy,” Slim said looking kinda wary.
“Slim, he’s seventeen for goodness sake!” I said, “Cut the kid some slack; a couple of beers won’t hurt him!”
So it was that the following Friday night found Andy, Slim and me sitting around a table in the Laramie saloon, enjoying a beer or three. Andy’s first week at the Jenkins’ place having gone real well and now he was tired but triumphant.
After a while Mort Cory came in and wandered over to our table a broad grin on his face, “Well I’ll be ...if it ain’t young Andy Sherman all grown up,” he said arms akimbo as he surveyed the youngster.
Andy immediately stood up and offered his hand, “Sheriff Cory, good to see you,” he said politely.
“Mort, I think you can call me Mort now,” the Sheriff said as he shook Andy’s hand warmly.
Once Mort had settled down with a beer and had exchanged a few pleasantries with Andy and Slim he turned to me.
“It was really you I was looking for Jess, I need a word.”
“Uh-uh, what’s he done now?” Slim asked grinning at his old friend.
Mort winked at me and then said, “Nothing at all Slim, your partner here is a highly valued pillar of the community now as you well know.”
I grinned back at him, “So what’s up then Mort?”
His face clouded and he said, “Do you recall a couple of years back, the time Slim left you in charge of the ranch on your own for the first time?”
“How could I forget it?” I said chuckling, “I got food poisoning from some of Jonesy’s heated up stew and then we were hit by rustlers took all Slim’ s prize critters he’d got lined up for market.”
Mort nodded, “That’s right and you me and a posse tracked them down and caught up with them...and Jed Harris was killed by one of the rustlers, Ginger Bailey... remember?”
I nodded, “Sure I do and we got the bastard but the Ross brothers sprung him from your jail and near killed you in the process setting fire to your office, if I remember rightly.”
“Oh yes I remember that,” Slim interjected, “Dec and Chas Ross fired the jail and took the prisoner, because they wanted vengeance on Ginger Bailey for killing their brother Jake, right?”
Mort nodded, “I was so sick that Jess went after the Ross brothers...and brought them back to be buried after a shoot–out brought the prisoner back to be hung too.”
I shook my head, “Dang bad business all around. It was down to their Pa old Angus Ross, he wanted to meter out his retribution on Bailey for gunning down his eldest son, Jake...I guess a public hanging in Laramie weren’t good enough for him.”
Mort nodded, “So he lost all three sons in the end because of his bitterness and wish for revenge. Then he grinned at me, ‘meter out retribution?’ Hey, have you been sleeping in the dictionary Jess?”
I chuckled,” Those where Slim’ s words at the time, thought they had kinda a nice sound to ‘em.” Then I sobered, “Nasty business though,” I agreed. “But why bring it all up again now Mort?”
He sighed deeply and took a pull at his beer before answering me, “Because the word on the street is old man Ross looking for you Jess, wants his revenge for you killing Chas and Dec.”
“Well he took his dang time didn’t he, like you say that was nigh on two years ago,” I said looking surprised.
Mort gave me a wry smile, “I guess he’d have gotten around to it sooner if he hadn’t been banged up in jail for the last eighteen months. He was imprisoned for robbery and assaulting a lawman. Then as soon as he was released, well dang me if he didn’t go crazy and killed the lawman that had arrested him!”
“So what the hell is he still doing walking free Mort?” Slim asked.
Mort shook his head sadly, “By some miracle he managed to escape and has pretty much laid low since the murder down in Texas and nobody seems to be able to get near him, even though there is a mighty high price on his head.”
With that he withdrew a Wanted poster from his vest pocket and smoothed it out on the table revealing a sour faced elderly man with an eye watering bounty printed beneath the picture.
“Jeepers,” Andy said, “that’s an awful lot of money.”
Mort nodded, “Well Sheriff Knowles was a well-respected man and I guess half of Texas is willing to pay to get his killer hanged.”
“So why would he do a dang fool thing like turning up here,” I asked, “If he’s got any sense he’d hightail it over the border.”
“Well he clearly hasn’t, “Mort said drily, “because I have it from a reliable source that his one goal in life is to gun down the man who killed his sons...after that apparently he just doesn’t care if he lives or dies.”
Slim sucked in a deep breath, “He sounds really dangerous Mort.”
Mort nodded, “Armed and dangerous...approach with caution,” he said quoting from the Wanted poster.
“Or preferably don’t approach at all,” Slim said firmly.
“Uh...looks like I might not get that choice though,” I said casting Slim an anxious glance and then flicking a quick look at Andy who was looking real troubled.
“You don’t think he’ll really try and shoot Jess do you Sheriff...er Mort?” Andy asked looking worried.
Mort’s brow furrowed, “I’m sorry Andy but I think that’s exactly what he’ll try to do.”
“But that’s crazy, heck why do folk have to go around shooting each other?” He asked hotly. “Life is precious it shouldn’t be thrown away that way!”
Mort looked pretty shocked by this angry outburst and Slim and I exchanged a charged look.
“Shoot-outs never used to bother you,” I said softly, “in fact time was you used to get real excited about ‘em.”
“Yes, well that was then, I’ve changed Jess. I just hate to see the waste of a life, any life, guns are just awful, they shouldn’t be allowed...then nobody would get hurt.”
“Well that’s all very well in principle Andy, but we have guns to protect ourselves. I won’t be going looking for trouble, but what can I do if this Angus Ross opens fire on me...try and reason with him?” I asked.
Andy shrugged, “No maybe not, but I just don’t want to see you hurt Jess. You’re not real young anymore you know...reactions slow with age,” he said philosophically, “we did it in Biology.”
Well I choked on my beer at that. Once I’d recovered, I said, “I’m hardly in my declining years Andy and I figure I’m still just about able to handle a gun, if I hafta.”
“Maybe you can...but this Angus Ross, he must be real old huh?” He said casting a glance at the Wanted poster.
“That’s true Andy, he’s no spring chicken, but the man’s a gunslinger, real fast and wily as they come. So I guess you needn’t feel too sorry for him,” Mort said...before flicking an amused glance in my direction. “And as for Jess here I reckon there’s still some life in the old dog yet,” he chuckled.
But Andy wasn’t about to be teased and turned angry eyes on the Sheriff, “I know that, but I just don’t want to see either of them hurt...or worse. Hang it all when I’m a doctor I sure hope guns and shoot-outs are a thing of the past. I aim to cure illness, not patch up crazy folk who want to kill each other.”
“Well that’s quite a speech young man and I think we all agree with you,” Mort said sincerely. “But until that day comes, I guess we’ve just got to get on with our lives the best we can. If this Angus Ross is all fired determined to kill Jess, then I guess no amount of reasoning is going to stop him trying...so I figure we all need to be on the alert for him huh? Deal with the situation if...or when it arises.”
“Look Slim I ain’t gonna argue with you. I just have to head out and meet this Angus Ross, because iffen I don’t he’ll land at the ranch and I ain’t about to put Daisy and the young ’uns at risk...you either for that matter. You heard what Mort said the man’s a ruthless killer and likely as not to shoot anyone that gets in his way.”
“Well that’s the point. I can see you need to keep him away from Daisy and the boys, but I’m here to watch your back Jess, it’s crazy just riding out. You don’t even know where he is, or even if he is looking for you.”
“Oh, he’ll be lookin’ alright Mort’s informer ain’t ever wrong Slim. He knew when the Lewis gang were gonna hit that time and when someone was gonna spring Earl Bennett from Mort’s jail too.”
“How does old Dusty know this stuff?” Slim asked shaking his head in bewilderment.
I shrugged, “Contacts I guess, he rode that old owl hoot trail for many a year Slim, bound to pick up stuff.”
We were chatting in the barn, the day after our night out with Andy in Laramie and I guess we were both feelin’ real proud of the way the young man had conducted himself during the evening.
Now I looked up at Slim and said, “Andy’s got a point ya know, it is crazy all the shootin’ and killin’ that goes on...I just wish I could see a way around it.”
Slim nodded, “Me too, but I guess while there’s still scum like Ross and his family around, we’ll just have to deal with it the best we can like Mort said.”
I nodded, “He’s a swell kid ain’t he. Do ya think he’ll make the grade as a doc one day Slim?”
“I sure hope so,” Slim said grinning at me, “wouldn’t that be something huh!”
The following day was Sunday and as usual Daisy corralled us all and marched us off to Church. After the Service I made my excuses and saying I’d see them all back at the ranch I turned Traveller in the direction of the Last Chance Inn, on the edge of town.
It was not a place I frequented often as old Bawdy Bill ran a house of ill repute of the very worst kind. Not only were the girls past their prime and kinda desperate but he also watered down the drinks. The place was filthy and stank of rank beer and sweat...the punters mostly old and disreputable.
I marched over to the bar and ordered two whiskeys.
“And I’ll take it full strength Bill,” I said throwing him a hard look.
“Of course, Mister Harper,” said the runty little guy, smiling slyly at me.
I took the drinks and then turned with my back to the bar and peered into the murky depths of the dimly lit room. I finally spied him in the far corner...an empty whiskey glass before him and an expression of deep misery in his rheumy old eyes.
I mooched over and plonked the glass down in front of him.
He nearly jumped out of his skin and then his eyes registered the glass before him and lit up, “Howdee Mister Harper...for me?”
I nodded and straddled the chair opposite him.
“Yeah, for you Dusty...in exchange for some information huh?”
He nodded and threw the drink down in one, “Anything for you Mister Harper sir,” he grovelled.
“What do ya know about Angus Ross gunning for me?”
“Uh....well just that his wife, Hannah Ross, begged him not to come lookin’ said as how she’d already lost three boys and her husband to the rope so she thought. Then when he escaped jail she wanted him to head for Mexico.”
“Oh I bet she did,” I said wryly, “shame he didn’t listen to her then and how do ya know this anyway?”
“Easy my missus and Hannah Ross go way back, were in school together. She wrote my Aggie and asked if there was anything I could do to stop it. Well I sure weren’t about to try and reason with that Angus...not with his reputation, so I done told the Sheriff.”
He was now eyeing my glass of whiskey greedily, “I did right didn’t I Mister Harper?” He bleated.
I nodded, “Yup you did right Dusty,” and I pushed my glass over to him, “here and thanks.”
He was still thanking me as the bat-wing doors swung shut behind me and I gave a grim smile. No way would I be takin’ a drink in that place. Hell I’d seen Bawdy Bill spit on the glasses as he polished them and I shuddered at the thought. That and the notion that at any moment Big Bertha would lumber over and proposition me made me dive for my horse and take off at a lively canter...shaking the dust of the Last Chance from my boots as fast as I dang well could.
I rode back into town and headed for Mort Cory’s office.
He was sitting smoking a cigar, feet on the desk and newspaper in hand as I marched in.
He grinned up at me and said, “Heck Jess dontcha know its Sunday? Shouldn’t you be getting your feet under the table and demolishing one of Miss Daisy’s succulent roasts round about now?”
“I guess so Mort, but I needed to talk...”
He nodded, “I thought you might,” and he swung his feet down, folded his paper and pushed across a box of cigars, “smoke?”
I shook my head, “I don’t use ‘em Mort.”
He smiled, “My Sunday indulgence, so what can I do for you Jess?”
I sighed and looked at the ceiling for inspiration, “It’s this business with Angus Ross...”
“What about it?” Mort asked looking concerned, “Are you worried?”
“Uh no, well not the way you mean anyways. I’m just kinda troubled I’m gonna let Andy down. He’s right of course, we should be able to settle things without blastin ’ each other to kingdom come...but I guess word just hasn’t gotten around to Ross and his kind.”
“Um, well if you’re thinking of reasoning with him, I should forget it,” Mort said grimly, “you’d be talking to yourself. Anyway, what’s the guy to lose by wasting you, he’s going to be hung for murder anyway and I can’t hang him twice.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Anyway Jess this is my call I’m the law around here so I should be the one taking the risks huh...unless....”
“Unless what?” I asked.
“Unless you were looking to pick up that bounty, it’s a mighty substantial sum Jess....would go a long way to help out with young Andy’s schooling...huh?”
The thought of the bounty hadn’t crossed my mind...up until then.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right Mort and anyway this is my fight, it’s me he’s coming gunning for after all.”
“So what will you do?”
I shrugged, “I sure ain’t hanging about at the ranch for him to come callin’ not with the others there. Nope I reckon I’ll head out for the high country, follow the old Indian trail for Cheyenne, that’s the way he’ll be coming I figure.”
“Well that’s down to you Jess. I can’t come with you. Not right now with the Sunday Shoot next week...you know what a crazy place the town turns into, what with the world and his dog after the prize money.”
“Yeah, I know Mort and anyway like I said, this is something I have to do...alone.”
Well I guess Slim weren’t quite as accomodatin ’ as Mort and we had kind of a bust up in the barn about it later that day.
Eventually Slim gave in, knowing he couldn’t leave the ranch right then with another inspection by the Overland Superintendent due soon. Sure, we’d cut the mustard that time and were back in business at the full rate of remuneration. But we both knew that could change at any time if we slacked off.
“Look just tell me where you’re heading,” he said eventually, “and if you’re not back by the time the inspections over I’ll come looking OK?”
I nodded, “I guess so Slim...and filled him in on my plans.”
Then a little while later Andy joined us in the barn, looking real upset, “Are you really going after Mister Ross?” he asked.
I reached out and put a gentle hand on his shoulder, “I have to Andy, I don’t have no choice.”
“But you will try...try and stop it...just bring him in huh?”
I flicked a glance over to Slim and he gave me a tiny nod.
“OK Andy, sure I’ll do the best I can OK? Now you get yourself off to work...don’t want ya bein’ late for Mister Jenkins on my account.”
“OK Jess, but take it easy, won’t you?” He said before mooching off to saddle up his pony and a little later he rode out, glancing back at me and still looking real anxious. Then he turned back and said to Slim, “I may stay over iffen Mister Jenkins wants me to work late...OK Slim?”
Slim nodded in assent and I waved and then went into Traveller’s stall and started to saddle up.
“You’re going already?” Slim asked raising an eyebrow.
I nodded, “I figure it’ll be best if I go Slim, especially now Andy knows I’m heading off after that no hoper. Next thing we know Daisy will get wind of it and start fussin’ and frettin’.”
Slim grinned at me knowing full well that Daisy, even with her clucky ways, was real special to me and I just didn’t want her worried.
“What are you going to tell her and Mike?” He asked.
“Thought I’d just say I was goin’ mustanging...anyway you never know I may see some on the way home,” I replied with a cheeky grin.
Slim just shook his head and gave me a wry smile, “Come in and say goodbye at least, she’ll want to put some vittles up for you.”
I finally rode out although I knew Slim really didn’t want me to go, but hell he also knew I had no dang choice if I was to try and keep everyone safe.
I took off heading for the old Indian Trail as I’d said and it didn’t take me long to realise that it hadn’t been traversed for a good long time. So at least I could be pretty sure Angus Ross hadn’t already passed by this way, so all I had to do was keep on going towards Cheyenne and with any luck sooner or later I’d find him…or he’d find me. I kinda had the feeling he wouldn’t be about to bushwhack me though. I cast my mind back to what Chas and Dec Ross had told me, when they had abducted Bailey from the jail. I had asked then why they’d bothered because Bailey was gonna swing for killing Jed Harris anyway. Chas had replied, “Its Pa,” he said sulkily, “he wants vengeance for Jake and I mean the ‘Ross way’. This sucker’s gonna really suffer before Pa strings him high.”
Well if he’d been feeling pretty mean after the death of his eldest son Jake, lord knew how he’d be feeling now after the loss of his other two boys.
As I rode on alone, I reflected on Andy’s simple ideas about folk giving up trying to solve their differences by way of the gun and wondered if I could have acted differently when I’d gone after Chas and Dec Ross. But hell, I’d had a fist fight with one man and he’d drawn a knife on me, which he’d died by. Then the second son had tried to gun me down and I’d returned fire in self-defence. Nope I figured there was nothing I could have done differently to have changed things. This was all down to old man Angus Ross sending his boys to liberate Bailey. So he could meter out his revenge in his own way and I reckoned he’d have the same fate planned for me too. I figured there was really no way out. He had to be stopped before he arrived at the ranch and I really figured he couldn’t be reasoned with, even if I tried.
Once or twice I’d had the feeling that I was being watched and had turned back and scanned the trail behind me…but nothing all was quiet…Anyway my quarry would be in front of me not behind I reasoned.
By the time dusk was falling I reined Traveller in and decided to make a cold camp, not wanting to alert Ross to my whereabouts at that late hour. Hopefully I could catch him unawares and maybe even reason with him as Andy wanted, but I very much doubted it.
I tended to Traveller’s needs and then settled down to jerky and cold water for my supper, missing the warmth of a fire, coffee and hot meal. But I knew Ross would be alerted to smoke from the fire and just didn’t want to risk it.
I was up and on my way at dawn and was rewarded by a sliver of blue smoke rising into the clear morning air coming from halfway up the mountain I had been skirting. Luckily there was plenty of tree cover and I figured Ross wouldn’t have seen me coming …if it was indeed him.
After riding for a further ten minutes I dismounted and ground hitched Traveller before heading on up the steep hillside on foot.
I made my way stealthily through the undergrowth until I was nearing the area where I’d first seen the smoke…and moments later I was rewarded by the sight of Angus Ross sitting before the camp fire, a blanket around his shoulders, peering into the embers.
As I advanced, he looked up at me with rheumy blood shot eyes and after a moment growled, “Oh it’s you Harper,” almost like I was some acquaintance that he’d been expecting.
I stared down at him, “I believe you’re lookin’ fer me?”
He nodded, “But then I figured it would be easier for you to find me.”
“Well I have,” I said gruffly, “so what now then huh?”
He pulled the blanket closer around him, “Nuthin’ I guess. I’m an old, sick man…can’t out draw you Harper…just want to say my piece before I die.”
I stared down at him, “And I’m supposed to believe that?”
He coughed violently and then peered up at me, tears now streaming down his face, “Believe what you damn well want to…but it don’t take much to see I’m a sick man.”
I sighed deeply and hunkered down on the opposite side of the fire from him and he chucked another log on and shivered.
“Look,” I said determined to justify my actions, “what happened to Chas and Dec. They fired the Laramie jail and made off with a murderer waiting hanging…nearly killed the Sheriff too, dang it, what was I supposed to do?”
“Bring ‘em in…jail them…I don’t know… but not kill my boys,” the man said coughing again, “my only surviving sons.”
“I wouldn’t have done,” I said softly, “if they hadn’t tried to kill me first. Goddamn it man, do ya think I like killing? I had no dang choice Dec said he wanted a fist fight and then pulled a knife on me…we struggled and it ended up in his chest. Then Chas drew on me…hell what could I do…stand there and let him gun me down?”
I was almost beginning to feel sorry for the old man and figured he’d had all the stuffin’ knocked out of him by the deaths of his three sons and he seemed a mere shadow of the gunfighter Mort had described.
“Stand there and let him gun you down?” he echoed, before quick as flash pulling a derringer from beneath his blanket.
I was taken completely unawares…the bastard had me with my guard down and a bullet slammed to the right of my chest, at almost point blank range, before I could move.
I was knocked backwards, the pain to my chest taking my breath away, the shock and agony flooring me and then blackness descended.
When I came around, I was aware of someone leaning over me and sobbing quietly. I tried my damnedest to focus and finally made out Andy’s white and terrified face hovering above me.
“Andy? Andy… what in hell are you doing here?” I gasped.
“I…I followed you Jess. I thought I could reason with him, get the old man to hear your side of the story and stop the shooting.”
I groaned…thinkin’ I had more on my mind right then than Andy’s half-baked ideas on fair play…and negotiation.
I tried to lean up although it felt like my chest was on fire, grabbed hold of Andy’s shirt front and said, “Damn it Andy never mind about that, where is the bastard?”
The tears began again and he said, “Jess…I shot him…I think he’s dead.”
I was shocked to the core, but rallied quickly, “Go check him Andy real careful and make sure to take the gun off of him he might me faking it.”
The boy strode over to where Ross was lying on his back…the derringer still clutched in his hand and removed it chucking it over in my general direction. Then he felt for a pulse and after a moment cried out, “He ain’t dead Jess…there’s a pulse!”
“Get your rope Andy and tie him up.”
“Huh, but he’s hurt Jess.”
“Just do it,” I snapped, “the man’s dangerous.”
He did as he was told and then rushed back to me.
“Jess you’re shot up real bad,” he whispered, “I’m going to have to take your shirt off and take a look.”
I was kinda thrown by his confident approach and even though he was really shook up he wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hand and taking a deep breath started unbuttoning my shirt.
It was clear from the get go that I was hurt pretty bad from the way my shirt was soaked with blood already.
He carefully removed my shirt and then ran back to his mount for a canteen and clean rags.
“Andy yer gonna hafta clean it with spirit!” I murmured, feeling pretty much like I might well pass out again.
The boy had done a real skilled job, but now he waivered, “I do…but where will I get it?”
Then I remembered I’d left Traveller way down the trail.
“Try the old man’s saddle bags,” I said, “he may have some grog.”
Moments later he was back by my side with a small flask of moonshine.
I braced myself, “Go on Andy just do it…real quick huh.”
The old Andy would have been frettin’ and fussin; but this new strong capable young man took it in his stride and cleaned up the entry and exit wounds quickly and efficiently. He bound the wounds and made me comfortable covering me with his bedroll. Then glancing down to where I was now shivering uncontrollably threw another log on the fire and leaving the canteen close by made his way over towards Ross.
“Andy,” I groaned, “what are ya doin’?”
“I’m going to tend him too of course,” he replied. “It was me that shot him Jess. I saw what he’d done and he turned the gun on me, so I fired…but I hafta make amends now, I just have to.”
Then I saw the determined look in his eyes, “He needs me too Jess….”
I backed down when I saw the resolute jut of his chin, “Just be careful huh.”
That was to be the pattern for Andy’s life once he was full grown and qualified as a doctor. All were equal, white man and Indian, rich or poor, robber or lawman…all equal in his eyes as they all needed his help…and I found that kinda special…just about as special as Andy is.
It was a few weeks later towards the end of summer that we all sat around the dinner table discussing the matter of Angus Ross’s end.
Well I guess that was a real wake up call for all involved and we all learned something from the experience.
Andy managed to save old man Ross’s life by removing the bullet from his arm and later Doc Johnson was to say the boy done real good. But that didn’t stop Ross being tried for murder of Sheriff Knowles down in Texas, convicted and hung.
“I just don’t get it,” Andy said a few weeks later when the news filtered through via Mort. “Why did he kill that Sheriff Jess?”
I shrugged, “I guess he was real mad at him for jailing him when all he wanted to do was hightail it up here and seek his vengeance on me. As it was he was banged up in Sheriff Knowles jail for 18 months. I guess the bitterness was just eating away at him and he lashed out at the Sheriff as soon as he was released.”
“Thinking he had nothing to lose,” Slim chipped in, “after all if he’d got his way and killed Jess, he’d have been hung anyway.”
“Thank goodness I followed you,” Andy said softly, “was able to look out for you when he shot you Jess.”
“Amen to that” I said softly, “you really saved my bacon Andy.”
“Um, even if he did go about it in a less than sensible way,” Slim rebuked, “it wasn’t good to lie to Mister Jenkins that way Andy or to take off without telling me.”
“Aw Slim, it wasn’t really a lie. I just told Mister Jenkins a friend was in trouble and needed my help, he was really understanding about it all. ”
“Um well I guess he wouldn’t have been iffen he’d known you were preparing to risk your darned life and gun down a dangerous outlaw,” Slim said belligerently.
“Oh, but I wasn’t planning on that really I wasn’t Slim. I took my rifle just as a precaution, but I fully intended reasoning with Mister Ross. Try to make him see that shooting Jess would solve nothing.”
I sighed deeply, “There are some folk you just can’t reason with Andy. Old man Ross was out of his mind with grief and anger, nobody or nuthin’ could have stopped him.”
He shook his head sadly and then looked me in the eye, “I know that now Jess…I should have listened to you and Slim…but I just had to try…you can see that can’t you?”
I nodded and leaning over punched him gently on the arm, “Sure I can Andy and I thank God you were there for me…but ya know...I figure your future lies in doctorin’, not negotiating! Doc Johnson says you’re a natural!”

And so it was that the following fall Andy started his long hard training as a medical student.
He was helped in part by the substantial bounty money I claimed on his behalf on Angus Ross. Merely telling the boy I’d had a good poker win, knowing instinctively that bounty money would not sit easily on the young man’s conscience. He also benefited from a trust fund set up by his Pa in the hope that he would one day train for a profession. I guess it was a real close-run thing as to who was prouder, me or Slim when he finally graduated as a doctor.
I look back in gratitude now to that young boy that made a friend of me and helped to turn my life around by welcoming me into his life and home. Then I look at the man he is today, all educated up and a real special person, one I’m proud to call a friend.
Tessa? Well she qualified as an elementary school teacher and was real good at it as I knew she would be. Just a few months after she’d left me she wrote to say she was seeing the Head teacher’s eldest son, Michael and I knew then that it was all over between us. She married him and they had a whole brood of young ‘un’ s.
Her brother Ben went on to be an excellent horse doctor. He always said it was watching and learning from me, that painful summer when he lost his Ma and Pa, that gave him an abiding love of the critters. Him and Andy remained best friends and often looked back to those days at the Springfield School when they were finding their feet and growing up….
As to me, well after the news that Tessa was seeing someone else, I guess I nursed a broken heart for a month or two…
That was until someone called Maria came into my life…But I guess that’s another story! (#1 Loved, Lost, Survived).
The End
Thank you for reading my 80th Story!

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