#82 A Time of Atonement

A Time of Atonement
Patty Wilkinson
Many thanks to Cindy-Lou Penny Mussack for use of her screen cap)
(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)
(Atonement is the concept of a person taking action to correct previous wrongdoing on their part, either through direct action to undo the consequences of that act, equivalent action to do good for others, or some other expression of feelings of remorse.)

Part One
Chapter 1

Jess Harper lay on his back in the shade of an old cottonwood, chewing on a blade of grass and thinking about his girl Millie.
It was high summer. All the stock now grazing contentedly up on the higher ground and the fences had all been mended along with most of the harnesses. Even the outhouse had finally been painted at the request of Mrs Daisy Cooper.
Now Jess stretched languidly and rolled his head to look at where his pard Slim Sherman was snoring lightly beside him. Jess grinned and then wickedly dug the blond rancher in the ribs with his elbow, “Wake up Slim, time to make a move.”
“Uh...huh...wha...?” Slim said surfacing from a deep sleep.
Jess nodded to where the sun was slowly beginning to sink in the west, “Nearly supper time buddy, don’t wanna be late do ya? Miss Daisy was planning on Chicken and Dumplings tonight you know.”
Slim shook his head to try and wake up and said irritably, “Don’t you ever think of anything other than your stomach Jess?”
“Well sure I do,” Jess replied in mock annoyance, “I think of Millie...a lot if ya wanna know.”
“Uh, that’d be right, your belly and women.”
“Hey, not women Slim,” he said genuinely put out now. “That may have been true once, but it’s just Millie now, you know that.”
“I reckon that’s true,” Slim conceded, “and about time you settled down, the amount of wild oats you’ve dang well sown.”
Jess stood up and dusted himself down with his hat, “I uh...thought I might ride into town tomorrow, pick up supplies and um...maybe catch up with Millie,” he said hopefully.
Slim frowned, “I don’t think we need any supplies, do we?”
Jess narrowed his eyes and thought deeply for a minute or two, then, “Nails,” he said triumphantly, “we’re powerful low on nails Slim.”
“We are huh? So, what were you thinking of nailing then Jess?”
“Well I don’t know do I?” Jess replied hotly, “It could be real awkward iffen we’re caught without any though.”
Slim chuckled, “Nice try pard but I think your romancing is just going to have to wait until Saturday night, just like mine. Miss Daisy’s got a job for you tomorrow.”
Jess looked wary, “Huh, first I’ve heard of it. So, what does she want doing?”
“New shelves in the larder, says one is so darned wobbly she’s in danger of losing all the bottled goods and that includes peaches for those pies you’re so fond of Jess. I said you’d make it a priority.”
“Me, but why me...huh?”
“Because I’m going to be spending the day doing the end of month returns and you’ll be glad to know things are looking pretty good. The books are definitely back in the black.”
Jess grinned and slapped his partner on the back, before making for his horse.
They’d suffered some severe money problems earlier in the year, but now after a lot of hard work things were getting back on track. Gee it had been worth all that effort he’d put in breaking those dang mustangs he reflected. Now with the relief of solvency and the easy living of the summer ahead he figured they could both ease off and relax some. Maybe even find time for that fishing trip they’d been talking about he pondered.
Then he jumped athletically up into the saddle, “Come on, race ya back,” he yelled as he kneed Traveller off to a brisk canter, across the home pasture and into the yard.

The following morning was all hustle and bustle as Daisy got Mike packed up for a trip to visit with his friend Davey Jenson. The Jenson spread was just outside Laramie and the boys had been planning all sorts of high jinks for the school holidays.
“Now don’t you forget your P’s and Q ’s,” Daisy said, “and cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
“Yes, Aunt Daisy,” he said obediently, but Jess could tell the child’s mind was elsewhere.
“Looking’ forward to camping’ out with Davey?” Jess asked.
Mike’s face lit up, “I sure am it’s just...”
“Just what Tiger?” Jess asked gently.
“Well with me and Buttons being away for a whole two weeks, will you be OK, I mean will you miss me?”
Jess and Daisy exchanged a smile and then he ruffled the child’s hair.
“Heck Tiger, we’ll all miss ya something fierce, but we’ll be just fine as long as we know you’re enjoying yourself.”
Daisy nodded, “Jess is right dear and we’ll look forward to hearing all about your adventures when you get back.”
Mike jumped up from the breakfast table and hugged Daisy and Slim, before turning and giving Jess a huge bear hug, “Thanks Jess, you’re the best,” he said, before dashing off to collect his bag.
Daisy smiled benignly at the child’s retreating back, and then gave a little sigh of contentment, “That young man adores you boys,” she said happily, “he certainly was lucky to find a home here with you.”
“Cuts both ways,” Jess said with a cheeky grin, “heck iffen we hadn’t found Mike we’d never have gotten you in our lives Daisy,” he said grabbing her and depositing a kiss on the top of her head.
“Oh, getaway with you,” she said beating him off, but never the less looking mighty pleased with herself.
Then minutes later the Stage rattled in and all was bedlam as the dogs barked and Mike, his dog Buttons and luggage were finally all deposited aboard.
Mose was looking very self-important as he handed Slim several envelopes, for once at hand, “Your mail Slim, Miss Daisy’s catalogue, stuff from the bank and one for Jess.”
Slim grinned at the old timer and put the letters on the porch rocker before going to wave Mike off.
“Remember what I told ya Mike, you need good willow to make a decent bow,” Jess called out as the Stage took off.
“I remember,” Mike called, “bye” and then the Stage was off up the rise and away.
Daisy turned to Jess and said, “Oh Jess, bows and arrows they’ll end up blinded.”
Jess chuckled, “Well every Ma in the world says that, but I ain’t ever met anyone blinded by a kid’s bow and arrow yet.”
Slim put an arm round their housekeeper, “I can vouch for that too Daisy, don’t fret the boy will be just fine.”
“If you say so,” she replied with resignation.
“I’ll go and put the coffee on and clear out the larder for you shall I Jess dear?”

It was much later that afternoon before Slim remembered the mail still out on the porch seat.
Jess had finally completed the new shelves, and without the use of one nail, Slim declared mockingly. Now the men had brought their coffee out onto the porch.
Slim picked up the mail and after passing Jess’s over he slipped the bank statement into his vest pocket to read later.
“So, who do you know in Montana?” he asked inquisitively peering at his pard over the rim of his coffee cup.
Jess looked equally mystified, “Dunno, nobody as far as I can recall,” he replied ripping the envelope open.
As he watched, Jess’s face changed from interest, to shock and then he turned very pale. He read the letter again...and then again before he finally shot up out of his rocker making for the barn.
“Jess...Jess, what’s up pard?” Slim called after him, but he didn’t hesitate as he strode off at speed, emerging just minutes later riding Traveller.
Slim, who was now halfway to the barn, was nearly mown down as Jess rode out.
“Where the heck are you going?” he called, “Daisy will have supper on the go in a minute.”
“Tell her I ain’t hungry,” Jess called back, “I’ll be checking fence...back late,” and with that he spurred his mount off at speed.
“But the fences are just fine, we’ve just done checking them,” Slim said, but he was talking to himself.
“Maybe it’s bad news,” Daisy speculated, “a friend has died, do you think?”
Slim shrugged and finishing his meal pushed the plate away.
“But he said he didn’t know anyone up in Montana, Daisy.”
“People move around all the time,” she said sensibly. “You say he looked upset?”
“More than that Daisy he looked like he’d seen a ghost, he was way beyond upset.”
“Oh, well I expect he’ll confide in you later dear, once he’s had a chance to think things through,” Daisy said wisely, “I’ll have an early night and you can talk to him when he gets back.”
Slim was just thinking of turning in when he finally heard the sound of a rider. Ten minutes later, after putting Traveller up for the night, an exhausted looking Jess mooched into the house.’
Slim waited until his buddy had slumped down in his fireside chair before leaving the room, to return a minute later bearing a whiskey bottle and two tumblers. Then without speaking he poured out two good measures and passed one over to Jess.
Once Jess had nodded his thanks and taken a good slug of the amber liquid, Slim asked gently, “So are you ready to tell me about it now?”
Jess looked down into his glass for a good minute and then up at buddy.
Slim wasn’t prepared to see so much pain in those familiar blue eyes and instantly put a hand on Jess’s shoulder, “Hey pard what’s wrong?” he asked softly, “You can tell me.”
“It’s Grace,” he finally managed, “I think she’s dyin,’ she needs me Slim.”
Slim’ s eyes opened wide in shock, “Well sure Jess, you have to go if it’s that important, but who is Grace?”
Jess took another slug of his whiskey and once his glass was refilled, he said, “It’s kinda a long story Slim...and one I ain’t too proud of either.”
“We’ve got all night Jess...and maybe you’d feel better if you told me huh?”

Chapter 2
So, Jess reluctantly began his tale...
“It was just after the war. I had been back to Texas, but there was nuthin’ left for me there, Slim. Friends and family were all gone; dead or moved away, the place in ruins, no work to be had, just bad memories so I rode north. I stopped at a small one-horse town some ways north of Amarillo. I only meant to stay a night or two...dang well wish I had now.”
He groaned softly, remembering that time as though it was only yesterday.

“Howdy, so you’re a stranger in town then?” The barkeep said weighing me up.
“Well spotted,” I said sarcastically. With a couple of saloons, a mercantile and some real down at heel shacks I figured it weren’t real difficult to spot someone new.
Well it might have been small, with probably only one or two hundred folk living in the area, but what they lacked in numbers they sure made up for in trouble. The place was pretty dang lawless with drunkenness and shoot-outs seeming to be the order of the day.
The barkeep wiped a glass with a grubby cloth and said, “So staying long son?”
Well I’ve never been too keen on being called son, especially by folk that I’d not even been introduced to...but seein’ as I was powerful dry, I let it go.
“Longer than I was gonna,” I said, “my horse just came up lame.”
“Well that’s too bad, a real shame,” he said like he thought it was anything but. “So, you’d be lookin’ fer a billet then huh boy?” he asked placing a cold beer before me.
I had considered bunking down with my good old horse, not bein’ any too flush but then somethin’ happened to change my mind.
A woman strolled in from the backroom...and Jeez was she a stunner. From her glossy golden hair to the tips of her dainty high heels she was every inch a doll.
She sashayed over and turned huge green eyes on me and I was lost.
“So honey, what’s it to be, you staying in our uh...guest suite?” she asked leaning forward and giving me the full benefit of her low cut tight red dress.
Well I might have been only nineteen, but I sure knew a come-on when I saw it.
I took a mental revue of my finances and figured I could just about afford a few nights at the saloon.
I swallowed hard and said, “Yes Ma’am.”
“Aw now honey, don’t you go calling me ma’am it makes be sound like your Ma,” she chuckled.
“Well you’re dang well old enough,” the barkeep muttered.
She threw him a hard look and then turned back to me, “You can call me Sadie honey, Sadie Travers. It’s good to meet you,” and she offered a dainty hand.
Well it didn’t take me too long to figure that she was a hooker and the barkeep, Wes was her pimp.
It was later that evening when she had seemed way too familiar with most of the men who frequented the place that the truth dawned. Especially after she had disappeared off with one or two, returning with a fist full of notes that she furtively passed to Wes.
Well I sure didn’t want any part of that and it was later that night when she tapped on my door that I put her straight on the matter.
“I’m sorry Ma’am. I don’t pay for it...ever,” I said as she snaked around the door wearin’ this kinda skimpy night dress.
She just stared at me for a moment and I felt myself flushing up, “Er nuthin’ personal, just never needed to...besides I doubt I could afford you,” I added with the ghost of a smile.
“Well who said anything about payment honey?” she said as she came in quietly closing the door behind her. “I just thought it would be kinda nice to get a bit better acquainted; and it’s Sadie...remember?”

Well what’s a guy to do? I was young and ready for anything. Besides I’d been on the trail for nigh of six weeks with nobody but my old horse for company...so....

Slim grinned at me now, “Well you sure haven’t changed too much over the years...so is that who the letter was from this Sadie?”
I felt my stomach lurch as I remembered, “No Slim...she’s dead.”
“Go on,” he said softly.
“So, me and Sadie got real well acquainted, and I don’t just mean in that way either. I figure she was in need of a friend...a confidant anyway .She opened up over the next few days and told me all about her life. It seems she hadn’t always been in that line of work. She worked in a store until she hooked up with a guy named Ben Travers. He was the love of her life she reckoned and everything was real swell until she found herself in the family way. She was kinda hoping that they’d wed. But no, it seems this Ben already had him a wife, but one that was a real bad lot. You know the sort…could nag for Texas?”
Slim chuckled, “Yeah I do...go on.”
“But he still didn’t feel he could divorce her because she got sick. Seems she was well enough when he met up with Sadie, but then she got real ill and he got to feeling real guilty.”
“Why not Jess if she’d got a baby on the way...surely?”
“That’s what I asked. But it seems she never told him about the baby. Then in the end he felt he couldn’t leave his wife and so Sadie threw him over, like I say without ever telling him she was pregnant. He was real upset and upped sticks and moved up north. Once the kid was born, she found herself a job that would keep ‘em both.”
“Working as a hooker?”
I nodded, “Yup Slim. This barkeep Wes owned a shack on the edge of town and he let her have it rent free for herself and the baby as long as she uh...entertained certain clients when requested.”
“Jeez that’s no life,” said Slim looking really troubled.
“I know it, but what could she do? It’s real hard to get out of that kinda situation...but that’s exactly what she wanted to do and she wanted me to help her.”
“I might have known you’d get caught up in it,” Slim said with a weary smile.
I ignored him and carried on with my sad tale.
“See her daughter was just seventeen and Sadie was scared that Wes would want her in the same line of business and she was real worried. See she’d always kept her daughter out of town, shielded her from the truth of what she did at work. She even taught her at home, when she was off in the day...the kid had no friends or contact with anyone in town. So, like I say Sadie was scared that Wes would want her to work for him too.”
“Well she would be scared garldarn it. Nobody would want that kind of life for their daughter!” Slim exploded. “So, what happened?”
I shivered, remembering back to that tragic night.
“Like I said Slim it was a lawless old town and one Saturday night some drunken drovers came in and started wrecking the place...a fight broke out then someone drew a gun and before I knew it there was a free for all shoot- out goin’ on. I dived behind the bar to try and grab Sadie and get her out but...”
Jeez I felt my throat tighten, even after all this time, as the full horror struck me afresh.
“Go on Jess,” Slim said softly.
I looked up at him my eyes misty, “But she’d already been shot Slim...she died in my arms. She’d been caught in the cross fire, but it was impossible to tell who fired that fatal shot. The last thing she said was, ‘Take Grace away Jess... for God’s sake keep Grace safe for me. Promise me you’ll always care for her Jess, promise me.”
“Grace was her daughter?”
I nodded.
“And this letter is from her, from Grace?”
I nodded again, “Well actually, it’s from her doctor, she’s real sick Slim and been askin’ for me…I have to go.”
“So, this Grace,” Slim asked now sniffing out some intrigue, “You helped her to get away, looked after her, like her Ma wanted back then?”
I stared at him deadpan for a full minute and then said, “I got engaged to her back then.”
I stood up and went unsteadily to the bedroom door, the whiskey we’d been imbibing all evening suddenly hitting me hard.
“I’m turning in,” I said quietly.
He just nodded, knowing I wasn’t about to say anymore that night and reluctantly stood up too.

That night I lay awake, remembering it all…

How I’d drawn my gun, in a lull in the shooting, and fired it at the ceiling effectively stopping the gunfight and how I’d laid into the drovers so dang bitterly that not one could look me in the eye. Then how Wes had sent for the doc and the undertaker...and how I’d made my way down Main Street to the mean little shack on the edge of town where Grace and Sadie lived.
This was the first time I clapped eyes on Grace, her Ma keeping her safe in the shack. Like some Princess locked up in a castle as I’d remarked to Sadie once.
When the door finally opened, she was nothing like I’d expected, that’s for sure.
She took a while to come to the door and then she called through, “Who is it? Ma says I’m not to answer the door at night time.”
“It’s OK Grace I’m a friend of your Ma’s,” I said quickly, “she...uh asked me to call.”
After a moment there was the sound of bolts being drawn back and finally the door swung open revealing...one of the most stunning girls I had ever seen.
She was wearing a thin white nightgown with a pretty pale blue shawl hastily thrown around her shoulders and she was bare footed. I looked into wide innocent blue eyes set in a heart shaped face, surrounded by glossy honey blond wavy hair. She was breathtakingly beautiful. But there was something about her that made me want to protect her, even from that very first moment that I set eyes on her.
I felt my heart breaking. How could I tell this child...for that’s what she looked like, that her dear Ma was dead?
“Can I come in?” I asked gently, “I need to talk to you about your Ma...”
When I finally broke the news, she screamed like a wounded animal and hit out at me, refusing to believe me. I held her close and she eventually collapsed in hysterical tears.
I stayed with her all that night as we sat before the fire, with her crying on and off for what seemed like hours. Then eventually she looked at me with those trusting eyes as I told her what her Ma had planned for her.
It seemed they had a distant cousin with a spread up in Montana...and Sadie had written pleading for them to stay until she could find suitable work... but as yet she’d received no reply. She’d shared that with me just recently, thank goodness.
“I’ve got the address,” I told Grace now, “I can take you...it’s what your Ma would have wanted.”
“What about Uncle Wes?” she said innocently, “I think he wanted me to work alongside Ma at the saloon...I don’t want to let him down.”
I took a deep breath...Jeez, but she was a real innocent I thought.
“No honey it’s OK,” I said, “I really don’t think you’d wanna do the kind of work Uncle Wes had in mind for you.”
“Why what did he want me to do?” she asked.

I looked away and then said, “Why dontcha try and get some sleep, we’ve got a lot to see to tomorrow. We’ll head off for Montana as soon as your dear Ma’s been laid to rest OK?”
She looked a little uncertain and then grabbed my hand, “You won’t leave me will you Jess? I don’t want to be alone; I’m scared.”
I shook my head, “No I won’t leave you sweetheart.

And I didn’t, not for a long while anyways....

I glanced over to where Slim was now sleeping peacefully and knew I had to tell him everything. And that I had to go to Grace as soon as possible too… of that there was no doubt.

The following morning at breakfast I broached the subject of me heading off to Montana.
“Well of course you must go,” Daisy said at once, “if this lady is an old friend and needs you.”
“Mustn’t he Slim?” she said turning to my pard. “We can manage, can’t we?”
“Sure,” said Slim smiling at me.
“When do you want to head out Hotshot?”
Their thoughtfulness really got to me and I just said, “Tomorrow, thanks,” before I quickly left the table and marched over to the barn, feeling real touched by their kindness.
Slim joined me ten minutes later as I was grooming Traveller and stood watching me for a while before saying, “So you want to tell me some more... did you marry her, this Grace then Jess?”
I sucked in a deep breath, remembering all that had happened between me and Grace...it was complicated. Hell, it was really complicated.
I put the brushes down and let myself out of the stall before slumping down onto a straw bale. After a moment Slim took one opposite me his face impassive. But I knew he was curious and I really couldn’t blame him.
I shook my head... “No not in the end Slim...she married another guy.”
“Oh...really, so she turned you down then?”
“It was all real complicated Slim.”
“Well when wasn’t your life?” he returned, the hint of a smile in his kind eyes. “So, are you going to tell me or what?”
I cast my mind back to that time...a time of self-discovery I reckon it was, for both me and Grace. A time of love and sacrifice to

Grace and I set off on the long journey to Montana a few days later, with just the provisions and clothes our mounts could carry. There was precious little in the shack that Grace wanted to take anyway, save some pieces of jewellery of her Ma’s. Some rings and a pretty gold locket. I had admired it and Grace had opened it and showed me a faded likeness of a handsome blond-haired guy.
“That’s my Pa,” she had said looking lovingly at the picture, “he’s called Ben and he’ll come find me one day you know Jess. I’m sure Ma said he’d moved up Montana way, that’s why he couldn’t be with us...but maybe we’ll find him there.”
I just nodded and said nothing, wondering how much Sadie had told her of her two-timing Pa, obviously not too much I figured.
Right from the start I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t get too close to Grace. I would treat her like a little sister and deliver her safely to her kin in Montana and that would be an end to it. But boy that was a hard promise to keep. We hit it off so well and we were real easy in each other’s company and as the days went on we started to get pretty close; well too close for my liking really.
She had such a childlike innocence about her that made life kinda difficult for me. She seemed to have no idea of boundaries. If she was cold, she’d ask to cuddle up and she thought nothing of asking me the most personal of questions. Hell, she was like some bouncy young puppy who just wanted to stay close and be loved and cared for. But to my mind it was real difficult having a stunning young girl constantly hugging me or asking what I was thinking at any given time. Of course, she was quiet a lot of the time too; clearly grieving for her Ma...and that made it hard for me to set those boundaries in place that we really needed.
One night it all came to a head though when she once more crawled into my bedroll saying she was freezing cold and would I cuddle her. Well that was about as much as I could take. I let rip telling her to git back where she belonged and I threw some more wood on the camp fire.
She cowered under her blanket and looked up at me with those huge innocent eyes of hers and said quietly, “Did I do something wrong Jess?”
How could I tell her that every inch of me was screaming to take her and kiss her, hold her close and make passionate love to her? Hell, I was a red blooded nineteen-year-old for goodness sake!

Did your Ma ever talk to you about uh...love, marriage that kinda thing?” I asked hesitantly.
She looked puzzled for a minute and then said, “About how babies are made that sort of thing you mean?”
I just nodded, feeling the color rising in my cheeks, but hell the subject had to be discussed before I went plum crazy.
Then she gave me that beautiful smile of hers, “Oh yes Ma told me all about that, but what’s that got to do with us Jess? That only happens when you’re married...”
I just stared at her feeling completely perplexed and for one awful moment I wondered if she was simple; but then I remembered her upbringing. From day one she had been closeted in that shack, firstly, because Sadie had been excluded by the local women folk for being an unmarried Ma. Then later she’d kept Grace home refusing to let her go to the wild place that was town, where shoot-outs and drunkenness were the rule. I could kinda understand her reasoning. But like some Princess locked in an ivory tower, Grace had no experience or understanding of how the world worked...especially of how folk should act around each other...or so it seemed.
I figured it was my task to explain it all to her if we were to survive the trip in any kind of harmony.
“Look Grace, you’re right. That stuff should always happen when folk are married...but people, men in particular have uh...feelings before they’re married. That’s why there are, um...certain rules that older folk have... to stop those um...feelings getting acted on. You understand what I’m saying?” I asked, thinking I might well die of embarrassment there and then.
She looked thoughtful for a minute or two and then said, “I’m not stupid you know Jess... I know all about that kinda romantic stuff. Ma had books, lots of them, with folk kissing and making love...I know all about that...it’s just...”
“Just what?” I asked patiently.
“Well I just didn’t think of you as one of those heroes in the books...I think of you more as a big brother sort of person looking out for me.”
I sighed with relief...
“Good well let’s just keep it that way huh...and Grace, that would be a dang site easier for me if you stayed out of my bedroll huh?”
Her eyes opened wide with shock as realization hit home. Then she gave a little gasp, “Sorry Jess...OK,” she said, giggling and flushing prettily, before pulling the blanket up and settling down to sleep.

Slim chuckled, “Gee I bet that was a real difficult conversation.”
“You’re not kiddin’,” I agreed.
“So, if you both decided to carry on with the brotherly kind of relationship...how come you ended up engaged?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
“I fell in love with her,” I said simply.
Chapter 3
“So, are you going to tell me what happened next?” Slim asked once he’d gotten over my declaration of love for young Grace.
“This is where it gets kinda complicated Slim and in the end...well I’m none too proud of myself. See I reckon it was all my fault things got out of hand in the first place.”
“Go on,” he said softly, “I won’t judge you. You know that Jess...besides it was all a long time ago, you were still really young.”
I shook my head, “Old enough to know better. But heck Slim you should have seen her, she was a real stunner,” and I remembered back to that fateful day when things changed between us, forever.

I’d been fighting my feelings for her for weeks.
At first it was just good old-fashioned teen lust. She was so dang beautiful with the face of an angel and the figure of...um of a mature young lady, with everything stacking up in the right places. I tried not to notice; even took myself off someplace if she was washing or getting changed, but it was more than that. I began to realise that her nature was just as beautiful as the rest of her. She was kind and caring with a wicked sense of fun and before long I was completely smitten.
Well I caught her gazing at me with a kinda thoughtful look in her eyes a few times. But other than that, I’d really no idea that she felt the same until that day about a month into our trip.
We were camping near a huge lake and I had left Grace to build a fire whilst I went off to bag a couple of rabbits for supper.
It was high summer and I wasn’t expecting any predators to be around as I raised my gun to shoot a large buck rabbit taking his ease. He was basking in the late evening sunshine on the hillside a few yards away from me.
The next thing I knew I’d been catapulted forwards into the dust. There was a horrendous deep growling noise and then a big cat sank its teeth into my upper arm.
Somehow, I managed to turn, and bringing my knees up I was able to kick him off and reach for the hunting knife in my boot. Then we wrestled some more, before I finally lunged the knife into his heart. Even then his dead weight pinned me down for another few minutes before I was eventually able to push him off. I rolled away retching with pain and shaking in fear and it was a good while later before I managed to stand and stagger back to camp.
By the time I arrived, my shirt sleeve was soaked in blood and I felt sick to my stomach. I reckon I must have looked pretty pale and ill because as Grace glanced up from the fire her face registered deep shock.
She jumped up and ran over to me, supporting me back into the camp and helped me to sit.
“Jess...oh Jess what happened,” she cried, “who did this?”
“Cougar,” I muttered, “darn critter” and whispered a few more oaths under my breath.
She sat back looking at me in horror and then past me to where I’d just walked in.
“It’s OK,” I said quickly, “he’s dead he can’t hurt you sweetheart.”

She cleaned the wound up as best she could but not without much frettin’ and cryin’ over me.
Eventually the job was done and she stood up and went to fetch some coffee. I lay back on my saddle and squinted up at her, “I’m real sorry Gracie, but supper’s off,” I muttered when she returned with the drink.
She put it down and then kneel ed beside me, leaning over to brush my hair back from my aching head, “As though I care about that,” she whispered, “You’re all I’m worried about.”
She stared down at me her eyes now two dark pools of concern, before she leaned down further and gently caressed my lips with her own, before kissing me deeply. I kissed her back and after a few moments she pulled slowly away, looking down at me.
I recovered first, “What was that for?” I asked, my heart nearly beating out of my chest.
She looked down and then back at me.
“I ...I don’t know,” she stuttered and then, “It’s just because...well I couldn’t bear to be without you Jess. I didn’t realize until just now how much you mean to me,” and a single tear ran down her cheek.
“Hush it’s OK,” I whispered, “you’re just upset, but I’ll be fine and everything will be back to normal tomorrow, you’ll see.”
But it wasn’t ...it really wasn’t.
I must have passed out, or fallen asleep...because when I awoke it was nearly dark and Grace was lying beside me, her head on my shoulder and one arm across my chest...fast asleep.
The next morning everything was different.
Oh, sure we tried to pretend it wasn’t, but there was no going back. That one kiss had sealed our fate.
I could think of nothing else, except how I wanted to repeat it...take her in my arms and make love to her.
But that wasn’t going to happen. So, I figured the best thing would be for us to find some work in the next town we came to. I’d pay for a room for her and I’d bunk down with Traveller. Maybe a little time apart would end this madness.

“Madness... how so Jess?”
My head shot up and I looked around me in a daze at the familiar Sherman barn and then focused on Slim sitting opposite me, heck I’d been so engrossed in the past I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“Why madness,” he persisted, “she was a real pretty girl...you were both free what was wrong?”
I just stared at him like he was crazy for a moment before replying.
“Hell, everything was wrong, can’t you see Slim? She was different from other girls I’d had. They knew the score and were happy to have a little fun. But she was real special because she was so innocent and pure. I wasn’t about to change that. Her Ma had trusted her into my care and I weren’t about to abuse that trust.”
He nodded, “I can understand that Jess, you’ve always been kinda honorable,” he said with a little smile.
I nodded, “I hope so, way Ma brought us kids up. But hell, it was difficult. We were so dang close it was hard to resist her and the only way I would lay with her that way...would be iffen we were wed. That’s where the madness was, it would have been crazy to get wed at just nineteen. Hell, I’m only ready to think about that kinda commitment now over ten years on. But then I was a wild one Slim. You know that! I was still on the trail of the Bannisters, had ridden with gangs and there was still so much dang hatred and bitterness in me. But even so she was just so darned tempting. I wanted and needed her right then... so...”
“So, you got engaged?” Slim supplied.
I nodded, “Yeah, but that happened later,” and I looked up to the ceiling remembering that day when our future together seemed assured..

After the big cat incident our whole relationship shifted some and probably for the first time in her life, she had someone dependant on her and she kinda took to the notion. I was real sick from an infection and she nursed me tenderly. Doin’ all sorts of intimate stuff that...well that only a nurse should do and I reckon that changed the way we were together.
Once I was well again the new found intimacy between us lingered and yes, we started to realise that we were falling in love. But I still held out and stopped the kissin’ and cuddling as soon as it looked like things were getting out of hand. But it sure weren’t easy for either of us.
So, we finally did as I suggested and rode into a town just south of Denver one day and decided to stay a while. I got her a room at a respectable Boarding House. Then I got me a job at the livery with a free bed in the hay loft so all was well.
Except it really wasn’t... All that happened was that absence made the heart grow fonder, just like the old saying goes. I missed her nights, missed our breakfast chats, missed just seeing her smiling at me until it was unbearable. Sure, I still saw her in the evenings for a few hours and Sundays but it weren’t the same.
Then everything seemed to overwhelm me...both of us I reckon.
It was a Saturday and as there was a Fair in town old Seth, my boss at the livery, had given me the day off and we sure aimed to make the most of things.
I reckon it was the Fortune Teller that sparked off the thought of getting engaged even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
See Grace wanted to go in to the booth and have her fortune told, but was way too shy to go without me. Well I thought it was crazy to waste a few cents on some old biddy spoutin’ nonsense but Gracie was adamant so I paid up. I sat at the back of the tiny, dark tent and watched as this Madame Margo peered short-sightedly into a crystal ball and started talking all about Grace’s past.
“I see a solitary child,” she intoned, her bangles rattling as she raised her arms to encompass ‘the past vision’ as she called it. “A child greatly loved... cherished but kept in a gilded cage.”

Um I snorted to myself, I wouldn’t have called that old shack a gilded cage, but it had sure been a sort of cage seein’ as how Grace rarely left it and yes, she was cherished alright by her dear ma.
I tried to see how Grace was taking it, but her head was bowed, her face in shadow.
Then Madame Margo gasped, “I see great tragedy, guns blazing...blood, tears and a flight from the cage with a trusted man.”
At this Grace’s head shot up and she turned and looked at me with a look of deep shock.
I half stood about to go tell this old biddy that was enough, a lucky guess I figured. But even so we didn’t need to hear more. However, the fortune teller looked directly at me and said in that kinda spooky voice of hers, “Fear not for your intended, young man, I shall not harm her or frighten her,” she uttered.
I opened my mouth to say, no she had it all wrong Gracie weren’t my intended we were just friends, but something in the look I got from Madame Margo silenced me and I sank back down in my seat.
She turned back to Grace and taking her hands said more quietly, “I see a future with a great loss, followed by happiness and fulfillment albeit within a gilded cage. Once more that is to be your fate in life. To be kept safe and loved...but maybe too much. Freedom is essential to life for some and they will surely wither and love will die if they are kept in a cage. For others they learn to accept it. The loss of the man you love will bring freedom to him...never forget that my dear and all will be well in the end. Then in the distant future more loss...but eventually a final marriage and happiness to the end of your days, of this I promise you.”
Then she looked up at me and said, “The sitting is over, take this young lady away, cherish her, but follow your heart young man...and all will be well,” she finished kindly.
Once we were back outside blinking in the bright sunlight Grace turned to me looking amazed, “Oh Jess what do you think all that was about?”
I just shrugged, “Search me...”
Then I spied one of those new -fangled photographic booths and whisked her off to have our likeness taken.
Well we sure had a swell time at the fair, eating and probably drinking way too much and in the end, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to say goodnight. So, we both stole up the ladder to the hayloft in the livery and lay in each other’s arms. Well one thing led to another and soon we were getting close...I mean real close...until I eventually pushed her gently away.
“Jeez I want you so damn much,” I whispered.
“I’m here,” she replied softly...leaning in and kissing me again.
But I wouldn’t take her.
“No, I said gently, not here, not this way...we’ll do things proper, see a preacher first huh?”
She threw her arms around me. I’d never seen her so happy.
“I knew it! As soon as that Fortune Teller called me ‘your intended’ I knew it would happen today,” she said joyfully.
Then she opened the little gold locket she always wore around her neck and showed me the picture of her pa on one side and then the photograph we’d had taken at the fair now on the other. “This means we’re engaged doesn’t it Jess?” she whispered.
I looked deeply into her innocent child like gaze and knew even then that it was wrong...oh so wrong...but I nodded and said, “Yup I guess it does.”

Then I looked over to where Slim was gazing at me his expression unfathomable.
“I told you I weren’t real proud of myself over this business,” I said.
He just shook his head, “You were young and heck Jess you had been trying to do the right thing by her, as you saw it. But when reality kicked in you suddenly realized the enormity of what you’d done, what you’d committed yourself to...huh?”
I nodded at my buddy and gave him a wry smile, “Well ain’t that the truth.”
I stretched back and tried to remember everything the way it had happened, before carrying on with the story.

So, I figured it would be better iffen we could find some work where we could be together...stay close...but not that close, as we saved up for the future.
Gracie was all for finding a preacher the very next day, but I told her these things couldn’t be rushed and we had to get us some money and a place to live first.
“Heck Grace, as soon as we’re wed the next thing will be little ones comin’ along. A man has to provide for his family and I need a real good job, not just muckin’ out a small-town livery.”
Hell, I’d seen poverty first hand in my own childhood and I sure didn’t want history to repeat itself.
Well I reckon luck was smilin’ down on us because just a week later I met a guy who was about to change our lives.
It was one evening in late summer when this tall guy with dark hair and a kinda anxious look about him fetched up at the livery, saying his horse had gone lame and could I help him out.
I looked to where a pretty grey mare was lookin kinda out of sorts and told him to bring her in and I’d take a look.
He raised an eyebrow and said, “Uh...you’re rather young, is the owner about?”
Well that kinda annoyed me and as old Seth had gone for his supper and wasn’t expected back, I said, “Nope just me. I reckon I can’t help bein’ young, but I figure time will take care of that, in the meantime do you want me to take a look at your horse or not?”
I saw the corners of his mouth twitch at that as though he was trying not to smile and he said, “Touché, I guess I deserved that, yes take a look if you will.”
Well it didn’t take me long to see what the problem was and I applied a cold compress to the painful leg, followed later by some liniment and a bandage all the time talking softly to Ginny as she was called.
Once I’d finished, I stood up and patted her on the shoulder and told her what a good ol’ girl she was...having forgotten the owner was still standing there watching my every move.
I felt kind of self-conscious and just said, “All done sir if you rest her up here for a few days she should be OK to ride out by the end of the week.”
He nodded and then said quietly, “Where did you learn to doctor a horse like that?”
I shrugged, “Just picked it up along the way.”
The guy wandered up and down the stable then looking at the other horses, “So do you have a horse here?” he asked turning back to me.
I nodded, “Sure but he ain’t for hire mister, nobody rides Traveller but me.”
“Quite so,” the gentleman said, then, “which one is he?”
I mooched down to the end stall where Traveller was dozing, but his head came up and he wandered over as I approached. He nuzzled my shirt pocket looking for a treat and blowing gently down his nostrils in welcome.
I patted him and gave him a sugar lump and then turned to look at where the guy was now watching me intently.

“He’s a mighty fine horse,” he said eventually, taking in Traveller’s bright intelligent eye and gleaming coat, “and he’s well cared for I can see that.”
“A man looks after his horse, before himself,” I said quietly, “to my thinkin’ anyways.”
“Mine too,” the stranger agreed.
Then he put out a hand, “My name’s Owen, Owen Dalton, pleased to meet you.”
I shook his hand, “Jess Harper.”
“Well Jess you certainly know your way around a horse...um I wonder…”
“Uh, I’m currently staying with my brother Arnie Dalton and I know for a fact he’s looking for a good wrangler to head up his stable. He’s got fifty good horses, working animals and some he races. He’s looking for a good man to do basic doctoring and maybe some horse breaking too...would you be interested?”
“Hell would I!”
I smiled to myself now...back then I played my cards pretty close to my chest, well still do I guess. So, I looked really noncommittal and asked how much.
Well that sure clinched it...the wage packet per week was more than I could earn in a month at the livery.
When I still said nothing he said quickly, “That would just be starting salary of course, once you’ve proved yourself it could be substantially more...so, interested?”
I agreed that I was and he arranged that I should ride back home with him at the end of the week.
“My brother’s spread is about fifty miles north of here,” he said, “it’s called The Flying D, perhaps you have heard of it?”
I must have gaped at him; Hell, the Flying D was the most prestigious ranch within the state and was famed for miles around for the quality of the stock.
I nodded, “Sure have,” I said forgetting my deadpan act for a moment.
His eyes twinkled at that and he moved to go.
Then he turned back again, “Uh I know it’s a long shot, but you wouldn’t happen to have a wife or girlfriend with you?”
I narrowed my eyes wondering what he was up to now, “I might have, yes,” I said quietly.
He looked delighted at that, “Well there is also a vacancy for a housekeeper cum nursemaid... Ellen, that’s Arnie’s wife has just had twins and she really could do with a hand. So, do you think your girl might be interested?”
The three of us rode out at the end of the week, me and Grace absolutely overjoyed at this piece of good luck that had miraculously come our way and Owen looking pretty pleased himself.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed by me the way he caught his breath and looked stunned when he was introduced to Grace. If ever I’d seen a guy instantly smitten then it was Owen Dalton. I’d felt a spasm of jealousy. But then reminded myself he had done us a huge favor. Besides he was only visiting his brother and would be heading home to Montana the following month, or so he had proclaimed.
Grace however in her usual innocent manner was completely oblivious to Owen’s clear interest in her.
“So, tell me my dear are you and Jess engaged to be married or merely stepping out?” he asked just a few hours into the trip. We’d stopped for a break and I’d taken the horses down to a stream for a drink and neither of them heard my return.
“Oh, we’re going to be wed one day,” she said happily, “but Jess says you can’t rush these things. But look, this is our special picture,” she said proudly opening the pendant around her neck.

He had to lean in real close to see it and that’s when I made my presence known. Owen leapt back flushing up, but Grace looked composed and happy.
“I was just showing Mister Dalton our special picture,” she said casting me a loving glance.
“Owen,” he said quickly, looking over to me slightly warily, “you must both call me Owen.”
“OK Owen, time to go I reckon?” I said rather brusquely.
“Uh of course yes,” he said avoiding my eye and mounting quickly he led the way, Grace and me taking up the rear and chatting quietly.
Well it sure didn’t take us long to settle in and luckily Arnie Dalton seemed just as impressed with my wrangling skills as his brother had been.
So it was I worked from dawn to dusk with the horses and then fell into an exhausted sleep in the bunkhouse, whilst Gracie worked just as hard in the main ranch house. She’d hit it off right away with Arnie’s pretty young wife Ellen and was a natural at helping out with the twins. The only downside, as she saw it, was that she was confined to the house most of the time, sleeping in a room adjacent to the babies so that she could tend them in the night.
Well sure I’d wanted us to cool things down a bit having found it so difficult to keep my feelings for her in check whilst we were spending all out days and especially nights in such close proximity... But now I hardly ever saw her, even our time off didn’t seem to coincide. When I’d had a quiet word with Arnie about that he merely said he was paying me top dollar and he expected one hundred percent commitment which I guess I could understand . After all, as far as he was concerned Grace was just my girlfriend, we weren’t married and she didn’t even wear my ring. However, I did wonder how much of this was all down to Owen Dalton. As far as I could tell he seemed to spend a lot of his time with his sister-in-law, the babies, and of course Grace.
At first, I was pretty dang jealous and frustrated missing my girl so much, but gradually things fell into a pattern of work and then some pretty good downtime too. Once I’d got used to the routine I coped better and at the end of the day was ready for a few drinks and maybe a hand or two of cards with the other men. Then we started going to town and before I knew it, I was one of the guys again and really enjoying myself. I’d kinda missed the comradely after I left the army. Then I’d found it again briefly riding with a few crazy gangs...getting into trouble shooting up towns and getting drunk as a skunk. Well this was nuthin’ like that, but it sure was good to be part of somethin’ again.
So, I guess it was kinda my fault that Grace turned to Owen for company more and more. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, I just figured she was working real hard, but enjoying herself too. Well the odd evening we spent together all she seemed to want to talk about was how well she got on with Ellen and how cute the twins were. We’d started drifting apart even then. It was clear that she wanted exactly what Ellen had, a loving husband and sweet kids; but even when I’d suggested we wed on that crazy impulse at the fair I never saw young ‘uns in the picture...not really. Sure, I knew it would happen eventually. But hell, I just wasn’t ready for that kinda responsibility. In fact, the more I hung out with the guys playin’ poker and drinkin’ the more I got cold feet about the whole engagement thing.

Well things came to a head about a month or so after we’d arrived at the Flying D spread, when something happened to rock my world.
One evening Owen sought me out and suggested we go for a quiet drink together. Well I was kinda surprised, but seeing as how he was the boss’s brother, I figured I should be civil to him, even if I was a tad miffed at the way he’d been spending so much time around my girl.
We sat in a quiet corner of a small tavern on the edge of town and I figured he didn’t want our conversation disturbed by any of my buddies from the ranch.
I sipped the whiskey he’d brought me and then weighed him up over the rim of my glass...gee the guy sure looked edgy.
“So, you wanna talk about anything in particular?” I asked after we’d sat in silence for a few minutes.
He looked around him kinda anxiously and then said quietly, “Yup, I want to talk about Grace...you see Jess I love your girl.”
I just stared at him for a full minute feeling totally shocked. Hell, I knew he found her real attractive...well who wouldn’t... but love?
Then he said quickly, “I’m not messing around with her, Jess I want to take her home with me, marry her.”
Well my first instinct was to smash a fist into his face, but what he said next stopped me in my tracks.
“You see Jess I adore her and I can offer her everything her heart desires, a home, children, security. I’ll be honest with you...I’ve been doing some checking up on you.”
My eyes narrowed, “You have huh?”
He nodded, “It seems you’ve got kind of a checkered history haven’t you Jess? In and out of jail, drunkenness, riotous behaviour, disturbing the peace?”
I threw him a cold look, “Yeah real big-time villain that’s me.”
He looked down and then back up at me again, “It seems you were wanted for murder in Texas too?”
I nearly lost it them, “Fer God’s sake I was acquitted of that charge, some low life set me up, there ain’t any truth in that.”
I showed him the papers from my pocket book and he apologized at once...but he wasn’t through yet though.
“And your vendetta with the Banister Gang...is that untrue too?”
My head shot up at that, “What do you know about the Bannisters?”
“Enough to know you’ve spent all your time, save during the war, seeking them out for firing your family home and killing your kin.”
“How the hell do you know all this and what are you getting at?” I asked angrily.
“I have money,” he said simply, “that buys information. Now you answer me one question Jess. What would you do if I told you I know exactly where you can find the Bannisters...huh?”
That was enough. I leapt up and grabbing him by his shirt front, I yelled, “If you know anything dang well tell me!”
He looked pretty shaken at that and pulled roughly away, “And if I tell you what’ ll you do Jess huh?”
“Why go after them of course what do you dang well think!” I yelled, now feeling as mad as all get out
He sat down again and gestured for me to sit too, which I reluctantly did.
“I think you’ve just answered my question,” he said quietly. “You’d go after them, without a thought of what that would do to dear Grace. So, you see Jess I don’t think you’re quite as committed to her as you think you are.”
I looked down and cussed softly…goddamn it he was right of course.
Then he gave me a hesitant smile.
“Look Jess I liked you as soon as I met you, I think you’re a great kid. But I really don’t think your heart is in this relationship with Grace is it? Do you really want to buy a small spread and settle down with babies? Because that’s what she want and right now buddy not in ten years’ time.”
He was right...I knew that, “So how does she feel about all this?” I asked gruffly.
He shook his head, “Oh she likes me right enough and if you weren’t around then I think she might learn to love me. But right now,” and he just shook his head. “I haven’t declared my love for her. I wanted to sound you out first. Just think about what I’ve said huh? I can offer her the world Jess and I genuinely want to settle down with her....do you?”
When I said nothing, and just looked down into my whiskey he stood up and said quietly, “I’ll be leaving for Montana next week, It’s time you decided what you think would be best for her huh Jess?” And with that he left.

Jess was back in the barn with Slim just staring at him looking shocked, “So what did you do pard?”
Jess looked bewildered for a moment, “I did what I had to do...I made her hate me so she’d go off with him.”
Slim gasped, “But you loved her.”
“Sure I did but maybe not enough Slim. Owen was right, I wasn’t ready to commit and anyway what could I offer her, huh? He was rich, educated, years older and with property up in Montana. She could still see her kin if it didn’t work out. I kept thinking what Sadie would have wanted for her...and there was no contest.”
“So, what did you do Jess?”
“I acted like a prize jerk, got drunk, was real distant with her until we had this huge fight and she walked out on me. It had to be that way. Dontcha see Slim...she would never have left me otherwise. It wasn’t fair to keep her hanging on that way and I knew it. As soon as Owen mentioned the Bannister Gang, well that was all I wanted to do, find them...kill them and then head off into the Big Open. Hell, even the novelty of a good, well paid job was wearing off. I was feelin’ tied down...I needed space Slim. You know the way I am…or was anyway.”
“Sure I do,” he agreed. “So, were they really about; the Bannisters that is?
“Nope he was just testing me.”
He looked thoughtful and then said, “So if it ended so badly between the two of you, why do you think she wants to see you now? And more to the point where’s this Owen?”
“Dead,” he said, “according to this Doc Turner that wrote me. She’s a widow and it looks like she’s fallen on hard times. He says she’s in desperate need of a really good friend. She’d mentioned me a few times and he reckoned I should be the one to sort out her affairs...once... you know...she passes,” Jess said sadly.
Slim shrugged, “That’s kind of a big ask isn’t it? Surely there’s someone else? I mean she must be still quite a young woman?”
Jess nodded. “Sounds like there isn’t anyone else Slim, besides...”
“What?” he asked raising an eyebrow at his pard.
“I feel I need to, well... make amends for the way I treated her back then. She was a young innocent girl and I should never have gotten involved with her that way in the first place.”
Slim gave him a thoughtful look, “Well hell Jess it’s not like you took advantage of her. You didn’t ever uh...did you?”
Jess shook his head, “No I didn’t ever. But that ain’t the point Slim, I hurt her real bad and now I need to make things right.”

Part Two
Chapter 4

Jess rode out for Montana the following day.
“I figure I’ll be gone about a month, two at the most, Slim. You’re sure you’ll be OK running this place single handed?”
“I said I would Jess and I mean it. Besides Mike will be back from his visit next week, he’s a real good help now. So, you just go and do what you need to; Daisy and I understand. Just make sure you come back though huh?”
“Sure I will, just as soon as I can,” and with that he hugged Daisy one last time, shook Slim’ s hand and whistling up his dog Blue rode off at speed.
He was probably a week into his journey north when he became aware someone was trailing him.
He’d ridden up through Rawlins and Riverton and was heading for Bozeman through the Yellow Stone. Well he knew there would be all sorts of dangers from Indians and maybe the odd outlaw heading for the border, so any other traveler needed to be scrutinized carefully.
By the looks of things the single rider didn’t look to be trying to hide from Jess, in fact he even thought that the guy had raised a hand in welcome, but that could be some kind of trick Jess believed, always erring on the side of caution out in the Big Open.
“Let’s see just who this guy is and what he wants huh?” he said to Blue sometime later.
Jess had reined in and made his way on foot up to the top of a steep rock overlooking the trail and decided to surprise his fellow traveler and see exactly who he was and what his intentions were.
It wasn’t long before a tough looking Pinto came into view the slender rider clad in buckskin, his Stetson pulled well down covering his face.
Jess stood up and covered the rider with his rifle and was just about to call for him to halt, when he reined in of his own accord. Then tipping his hat back he grinned up at where Jess was now standing feeling rather foolish.
“Hell don’t just stand there Jess come down and say howdy won’t ya?” the rider said now openly chuckling.
Jess grinned in spite of his embarrassment and quickly jumped down from the rock as the rider dismounted and offered her hand. For the rider was indeed a woman and a mighty fine one too Jess thought.
He smiled into the startlingly blue eyes of Kate Munroe and said, “Well I’ll be...what the heck are you doin’ out here Kate?”
Kate shook his hand in welcome. Then taking off her Stetson to reveal her striking white blond hair and tanned, beautiful face dusted herself down before replying.
“Well I’ll tell you Jess boy, I’m heading for Montana too. I’m going to visit some friends over near Bridger Creek, north of Bozeman. So, when Mort told me you were heading the same way I thought it would be kinda agreeable to ride over together.”
“Well sure it’ll be just swell,” Jess agreed, “but how the heck did Mort know?”
“Mose told him,” she said grinning. “I’ve been staying with the Sheriff for a week or two and was planning on visiting my buddies up in this neck of the woods, so seemed like a good time to make my trip, knowing I’d be in your good company.”
“Uh-uh,” said Jess with a wry grin, “I hope Mort won’t blame me for you heading off.”
Kate barked with laughter and slapped her thigh, “Oh my, that’s a good one! Nope don’t fret Jesse, I guess it’ll do the old fool good. He’ll appreciate me all the more for being away. Besides I plan to visit with him again on my way home.”
Jess smiled at her, for once not taking exception to the use of his old childhood name. Jeez, but he and Kate went back a long way. She had been a neighbor in his old home town as he was growing up and real kind she’d been to him when he was a young ‘un too. But they shared a much more abiding bond, albeit one they rarely talked about these days. * See #56 Kate Munroe’s Secret.
Now Kate lived up the Sherman Mountain with a distant cousin Denver James and his sons Mick and Cody, where she generally ruled the roost. It was merely a platonic friendship with Denver and one Kate appreciated, knowing it wouldn’t be wise to live up the mountain alone. However, she was a free spirit and spent much of the summer travelling and doing as she wished. She could outshoot and out drink most men and declared she was equal to anything that was asked of her...and Jess couldn’t think of a better travel companion.
Now he gave her a thoughtful look and said again, “Well that’ll be just swell, uh...so have you got any of Denver’s brew with you?” He asked cheekily.
Kate shook her head and laughed, “Well iffen you’re going to have an old lady travel companion it helps if she comes with a goodly supply of Moonshine,” and she produced a small dark bottle, “From Denver’s last batch and I reckon it’s gotten your name on it Jess.”
He grinned and took it with alacrity thanking her and then said gallantly, “And where’s this old lady then? I can’t see anyone but a real beautiful woman in her prime.”
Kate laughed raucously again and said, “Well I can see why sweet little Millie puts up with all your shenanigans. You always could charm the birds out of the trees,” she said slapping him none too gently on the back.
“Come on then son, shake a leg…we need to put in a good few miles before you broach that bottle,” she said in her bossy way.
“Yes Ma’am,” Jess said chuckling.
Mounting up they rode off together in perfect accord.

They made good time and covered another twenty odd miles before camping for the night by a fast running stream.
It was once they were settled, after their repast, enjoying a cup of coffee laced with moonshine that Kate asked him about the purpose of his journey.
“Old Mose didn’t know,” she said grinning, “so I figured it was probably personal rather that business?”
Jess cast her a guarded look, “You could say so, looks like my past has come back to haunt me...again,” he said finally.
“Oh, well that sounds pretty intriguing,” Kate said her shrewd blue eyes opening wide with interest, “would you care to tell me?” she said with a twinkle.
Jess looked down, “It ain’t funny Kate.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, looking contrite, “and it’s OK no need to tell me if it’s real personal.”
“It’s not that, hell you and I don’t have any secrets, do we?”
She gave him a sad smile, “No we don’t.”
Jess dug into his vest pocket and pulled out the long letter from Doc Turner of Bozeman, Montana, explaining everything. Then he filled her in on some of the background as he had done Slim, but maybe not in as much detail. If he was being honest, he was surprised that he’d disclosed so much to his pard. Jess was usually a very private man and kept his past right there, where it belonged so he often said. But this time he hardly remembered he was talking as he relived that time so long ago. Now with Kate he still shared some of that difficult time as he trusted her discretion implicitly and also valued her advice.
Kate was very quiet and thoughtful throughout and finally said, “Well Jess boy, I can’t see as why you feel so dang bad about all this. Surely it was this...er Grace’s choice to go off with Owen Dalton?”
Jess just shrugged, “I was pretty mean to her in the end Kate, we had this massive row and I guess I kinda pushed her into his arms.”
“Maybe that was the best thing all round though,” Kate said wisely, “Hell Jess you know what you were like after the war...you were a mess boy. Real troubled after what you’d been through. Then you teamed up with that bad lot down in Texas got in a whole lot of hot water...remember?”
Jess just nodded, “Sure I guess I went kinda loco back there for a while.”
Kate smiled good naturedly at him, “You sure weren’t good husband material Jesse. You needed to do one heck of a lot of living and learning before you were ready to settle down. Nope you made the right decision boy...no need to feel bad about it.”
Jess merely shook his head, “I guess I just can’t help it. Anyway, I aim to make it up to her. Be there for her when the end comes; help her through and sort everything out. According to this Doc Turner she’s practically a recluse, no friends or kin...she needs me now Kate.”
“So how did this Doc Turner know how to contact you?” Kate asked suspiciously.
Jess shrugged again, “I dunno, he said Grace had mentioned me a few times. Maybe she had some old newspapers. I was involved in apprehending the Dawson Gang in Montana a few years back and it made the papers. She could have kept that, had my address and everything in there.”
“I think I remember that, they robbed the Laramie Bank and you and Mort tracked them all the way up to Bozeman, didn’t you? Were just in time to stop them turning over the bank there too as I recall.”
Jess nodded, “Strange to think Grace was there all along. I’d no idea.”
“I doubt you had much time to think about women anyway,” Kate chuckled, “as I remember it you killed Ed Dawson and injured his kid brother Denny before they shot you. But you and Mort still brought them in, Denny, Butch and Tam Dawson, the three remaining brothers. Gee that was a while ago, they must be due for parole?”
“Overdue, I think they got out a few months ago according to Mort.”
“Well I hope they’ve got the common sense to stay on the right side of the law now,” she said.
Then changing tack, she said, “So I imagine Millie will miss you, being gone so long and all.”
“About the same as Mort will you,” he retaliated with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
“Why you cheeky young whippersnapper,” she said hotly, but she looked kinda pleased Jess noted as she topped up their cups with some more of Denver’s best.
The trip went really well and they had some varied, occasionally heated, but always interesting discussions. Sometimes Jess thought of her as the Ma he’d lost way too prematurely, with the good sense and kind advice she offered. Sometimes she was more like a buddy, testing him and occasionally sorely trying him. But always making him think, yup Kate sure was a good companion to have on the trail. Plus, unlike some women he’d traveled with she was happy to pull her weight. She could shoot a rabbit or catch a fish just as ably as he could. In fact, sometimes she even had the edge on him he thought wryly as she produced a pair of chubby jack rabbits for supper on their last night together.
They sat long into the night talking and drinking and Jess hid a smile at the fact that his companion could hold her drink as well as any man he’d met and better than most.
Just before they settled down for the night Kate turned to him and said softly, “You won’t do anything rash will you son?”
Jess stopped in his tracks from where he’d been throwing some logs on the camp fire and said, “What do ya mean Kate?”
She just shrugged, “I don’t know, I’ve just got me kind of a gut feeling about this business Jess. I think there’s someone wants a part of you. Maybe money to pay to lay her to rest, settle debts. Or something more sinister...all I’m saying is watch your back huh?”
He threw her a quizzical glance, “Hey yer not turning into a clucky Ma on me are ya?” he said with a grin.
She smiled back, “That’ll be the day, but just watch your step Jess. I’ll be riding back end of the month, maybe we can meet up in town, ride home together if your business is all done huh?”
He gave her a genuine smile at that, “I can’t think of anything I’d like more, thanks Kate.”
When they arrived in town, they parted company, Jess to seek out Doc Turner’s office to get the exact address of the Dalton spread. Kate to hook up with the Barker sisters, the old friends she was staying with.
As they were standing outside the livery saying their goodbyes a blond gentleman of about Kate’s age wandered past and raised his hat beaming at her.
“My word Kate Munroe” he said as he passed, “lovely to see you again my dear! We must catch up later,” and then he rushed off just making the store before it closed for the day.
Jess raised an eyebrow, thinking there was something vaguely familiar about the guy...but couldn’t place him. “That ain’t one of your many admirers is it Kate?” he asked with a cheeky grin.
She gave him a playful slap, “Why Jess Harper behave yourself. Ben is very nice gentleman. He’s my friend’s neighbor and just lost his wife before you say more.”
Laughing he’d kissed her cheek and then made his way down Main Street towards Doc Turner’s Office.
He knocked on the substantial door with the shiny brass knocker and after some time a tall rather brooding figure, in his late thirties, came to the door. He frowned at Jess and said, “Yes?”
“Doc Turner?” Jess asked offering his best smile.
The other frowned even more deeply, “Dead,” he said succinctly and looked like he might well shut the door in Jess’s face.
Jess lost all pretense of polite discourse and putting a well-placed boot on the doorstep said, “Not so fast Mister. Dead you say...when?”
The man sighed and said, “He was shot a couple of weeks ago, if you must know. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bank was robbed and Doctor Turner was caught in the cross fire. I unfortunately have been co-opted in to hold the fort so to speak until a replacement can be found.”
Then he seemed to relent some and offering his hand said, “I am Doctor Hanson and you are?”
“Harper, Jess Harper,” said Jess shaking the outstretched had.
“So, can I assist you Mister Harper?” he asked now looking somewhat less forbidding.
“Well I sure hope so. See I’ve ridden all the way over from Laramie to visit with an old friend, one of Doc Turner’s patients. Grace Dalton? Only I’d arranged to meet the Doc so he could fill me in some on what was wrong and get her address.”
Doctor Hanson looked thoughtful, “The name is familiar yes, would you care to step inside Mister Harper and I’ll consult my colleague’s records.”
Telling Blue to sit and stay Jess followed the doctor inside.
Once in his study the doc dug about in a filing cabinet for several minutes muttering under his breath. “No sense of order,” he mumbled to himself, before selecting a bulky folder and sitting back down at his desk opposite Jess.
He sighed again and said, “I’m not usually such a surly character Mister Harper but you see before you a man sorely tried.”
“You are?” Jess asked throwing him a sympathetic smile.
He nodded, “You see my esteemed colleague was a great one for notes. My goodness each patient had practically a life history in their notes,” he said tapping the bulky document before him.”
He spent time on notes and caring for all his patient’s needs. Be they emotional, spiritual or physical; above and beyond the call of duty. But as to collecting fees or buying in supplies…” and he gave a shrug, “very lax...very lax indeed.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that,” Jess said, just wishing the guy would get to the point so he could make tracks.
“Alright let’s take a look,” the doc said as he perused the closely written notes.
Then he looked up at Jess and said, “I suggest you tell me what you know of this case Mister Harper and I can maybe confirm your information? You see all medical records are highly confidential...as you probably know old chap?”
Jess nodded goodness knows Doc Sam was always banging on about patient confidentiality.
“Sure, I understand. Doc Turner told me that Gracie was dying of an incurable disease and her time was running out. He felt she would really wanna see me and so, I came,” he finished simply. “All I need from you doc is exactly where the spread is. I know her husband Owen Dalton was a rich man he told me he had a real big spread over Paradise Valley way... but that was a good ten years ago.”
Doc Hanson frowned and consulted the notes “According to this they moved from there a good five years ago and now have a ranch just off the North Road. It’s a small place, red barn near the road you can’t miss it.”
Jess knew the area from his previous visit and gave a little whistle, “Gee that’s something of a come down. The land is real poor up there for grazing, and worse for growin’. What was he thinking of?”
The doctor once more consulted the copious notes, “Well I suppose this isn’t medical information so I think I can share it. It seemed the Dalton place went bust. He made some bad business deals including shares in several gold mines, which made a loss, then after he became sick, they needed a smaller place anyway.”
Jess nodded, “I reckon that makes sense. So, when did he die doc?”
At that the doc’s head shot up and he looked surprised. “Well he’s still alive Mister Harper. Albeit very sick...I um...wasn’t going to say anything but I feel you should be furnished with the correct facts. Mrs Grace Dalton is in reasonably good health, very run down and tired from caring for an invalid husband; but not sick as such.”
Jess’s jaw dropped and then he said, “Let me get this straight. Owen is alive, but real sick, and Gracie is OK?”
The doctor nodded, “I haven’t been completely honest with you, again for confidentiality reasons, but yes I do know them, in fact I visited them just last week.”
“Why would Doc Turner lie about it, in the letter?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
Doc Hanson shrugged; the mystery awaking his interest, “Who knows…he was quite the um, maverick character I believe but I doubt he would lie that way. May I see the letter?”
Jess obliged and Doc Turner scrutinized it carefully and then laid it down next to the case notes.
After a moment he gave a little cry of surprise before looking up at Jess, “But my dear chap, this wasn’t written by Doctor Turner at all, look the writing is completely different!”
Jess stared at the two documents and then cussed softly, “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” he asked.
Hanson shook his head, “I don’t know, but if I were you, I’d go and find out.”
Then he frowned again, “It’s a long time since you’ve seen the Daltons?”
Jess nodded.
“Well maybe I should warn you, it’s rather an unusual set up; Mrs Dalton never leaves the ranch. According to Doctor Turner it was the same when they were in Paradise Valley. She never socialized or went to town to do the marketing. At first, he thought she was being held prisoner but now we know she was, and is, completely happy with the arrangement. Such a beautiful woman, maybe her husband kept her locked up away from other men?” He said flushing a little, “But as I say she seems perfectly content...almost like a bird in a gilded cage,” he said suddenly looking saddened and rather wistful.
Jess took a deep breath, “Nuthin’ changes then,” he said quietly.
“I beg your pardon?” the doc asked, looking closely at Jess now.
“It was the same when she was a young ’un. Her ma kept her in all the time wanting to keep her safe, I guess. They lived in a kinda rough ol’ town, no law you know? Anyway, she missed out on school, makin’ friends, everything, until her Ma died. So, bein’ kept in the ranch is nuthin’ new to her...and probably made her feel kinda safe.”
“You could be right. I imagine people who have never had any freedom probably wouldn’t miss it,” the doc said thoughtfully.
Then he seemed to come back to the present and said briskly, “Well doubtless you’ll see for yourself Mister Harper. Good luck.”
Jess, taking that as his dismissal, thanked the doc and took his leave.
He stood outside the doc’s office looking up and down Main Street, in a quandary as to what to do. Hell, if Grace needed his support with her sick husband she had only needed to ask. There was no call for all these devious lies, but then again that wasn’t in Grace’s nature. No, there was more to this business than met the eye. Well he was dang sure he was going to get to the bottom of things. Maybe wise Kate was right and someone wanted something from him. He mooched off down Main Street looking for a cheap hotel that would accept dogs, things would look better in the morning he decided.

Chapter 5
He had no trouble in locating the Dalton spread. However, even after the doctor’s warning he wasn’t prepared for the shabby, rundown place he encountered.
The yard gate was hanging off its hinges and the vegetable plot at the side of the house had gone to seed, weeds in abundance. There was no sign of any cattle save for a skinny house cow sharing the home pasture with a pair of dispirited looking work horses...a plough and buckboard standing idle and rusting nearby.
Jess looked towards the barn where a few straggly hens pecked aimlessly at the ground, although there was no meat on them and they looked pretty much like they’d given up on life Jess figured. Blue’s ears pricked up at the sight of them, but even he didn’t have the heart to chase the poor bedraggled critters.
Jess turned his attention to the shabby house in need of a coat of paint and the windows cleaning. Then on closer inspection he saw some of the roof tiles were missing and the shutters were broken, several hanging off at an angle, “Jeez,” he muttered under his breath, “what a dang mess.”
He took a deep breath, dismounted and marched over to the porch and after tethering Traveller he stepped up to the door. He was just about to knock when something to his left caught his eye. A diminutive girl of about five was peering curiously around the side of the house, but dodged back out of view as soon as Jess saw her. He paused where he was waiting and sure enough, she peeped around again, revealing a pretty heart shaped face framed with blond curly hair and huge innocent blue eyes.
“Hey honey it’s OK I won’t hurt ya,” Jess said softly, “uh, is your Ma around?”
The child looked terrified and disappeared and Jess heard a door opening and closing somewhere around the rear of the property.
He was just about to knock on the door when it was dragged open and a small blond-haired boy of about Mike’s age, stood there looking kinda fierce so Jess thought hiding a smile.
“Ma’s busy right now and Pa doesn’t allow strangers here,” he said loudly, looking kinda flushed and scared now, but holding his ground.
“Well that makes sense son,” Jess said kindly, “but see I’m not a stranger, I’m an old friend of your Ma and Pa’s.”
“I don’t know you,” he said stoutly and then turning his attention to Blue, said, “Say is that a real wolf mister?”
Jess genuinely grinned then and said, “Nah, he’s half sheepdog and real friendly, you can pat him iffen you want.”
The boy seemed sorely torn between seeing this stranger off as per his Pa’s wishes or actually getting to pet a real wolf...well he sure looked like one anyway. In the end his childish curiosity won out. Putting out a tentative hand he stroked Blue’s thick coat and was rewarded by a lick to the hand.
“He’s taken to you,” Jess said smiling down at the youngster.
Then his attention was taken as someone came up behind the child, wielding a rifle aimed at his head.
“Get inside Ben,” a woman cried nervously.
“Aw Ma, this man’s got a swell dog and...”
“Ben! Do as you’re told, now!”
“Yes Ma...”
The boy pushed past his Ma and disappeared inside the house just as she moved out of the shadows.
“Now be on your way mister, strangers aren’t welcome here,” she said gesturing with the rifle.
“Gracie,” Jess said softly barely recognizing the painfully slender, fragile looking woman standing before him.
Her eyes opened wide in shock and she slowly lowered the rifle.
“Jess? Jess!”
She threw the gun down and ran into his outstretched arms collapsing in tears.
After a few moments she collected herself and pulled gently back wiping a hand across her eyes, “I’m sorry…what must you think of me. It’s just so good to see you though,” she added shyly.
“You too,” he said smiling into her eyes, “so iffen you ain’t gonna shoot me are you gonna ask me in?”
Her beautiful face broke into a smile and Jess thought fleetingly it was like the sun coming out after a storm and then mentally kicked himself for being so dang fanciful.
Grace linked his arm and walked him inside beaming at the inquisitive youngsters who had now come to see what all the fuss was about.
“Gemma, Ben this is your Uncle Jess, a very good friend of mine...uh and Pa’s,” she added quickly.
Sometime later Jess sat before a meager fire with a cup of coffee and he glanced around the small dark room. It was clean enough but everything from the rugs to the drapes and couch were threadbare and shabby.
Gracie noticed him casting an eye over the room and said, “I must apologize, we lost everything a few years back and never really managed to get back on our feet.”
He shrugged, “It’s you I’ve come to see Grace, not the house.”
She looked puzzled then, “But why Jess, it is so wonderful to see you...in fact I can’t think of anything in the world that would be better than to have you here right now. But how did you know I needed you so much?” she asked, her voice catching and tears not far away again Jess guessed.
He sighed and looked down before replying, “Come on Gracie, we were always honest with each other, weren’t we? You wrote me pretending to be Doc Turner asking me to come.”
Her face was a picture of astonishment; her eyes opening wide in shock, her mouth a perfect O, and then she recovered.
“I never...I didn’t Jess…truly I didn’t. Maybe I would have done but I don’t know where you live so how could I?”
He was surprised, but believed her at once.
“OK sweetheart, don’t go upsetting yourself,” he said quickly as she looked tearful again, “I believe you. So, who did write it I wonder,” he said softly.
“May I see?” she asked.
Reaching into his vest pocket he passed the letter over.
She scrutinized the envelope first, “Oh Laramie,” she said softly, “you’ve come a long way Jess.”
He just nodded but said nothing as she opened the letter and read the content, turning pale and then looking decidedly anxious as she did so. She finally replaced it in the envelope and looked over at Jess.
“I didn’t write it,” she said again, “but I know who did...”
Just then there was the sound of a hand bell ringing from a room at the back of the house she arose and hurried out, calling over her shoulder that she wouldn’t be long.
Jess returned the letter to his pocket and sipped his coffee wondering who had summoned her and also who the writer was, but figured he already knew on both accounts.
However, before he could give the matter further thought young Ben entered the room and coming over knelt down by Blue and stroked him gently, “He sure is a real fine dog,” he said grinning up at Jess. “What’s he called?”
“Blue,” Jess said.
Then seeing the little girl once more peeping shyly around the door at him said gently, “Do you wanna come meet Blue as well?”
She stared at him wide-eyed, but after a moment her interest overcame her bashfulness and she made her way over, dropping to her knees and fussing the huge grey animal along with her brother.
When their mother returned a little later looking rather flustered, they both jumped up clambering for her attention.
“Ma have you seen Uncle Jess’s dog isn’t he just perfect?” Gemma declared looking starry eyed.
“Can we get one Ma?” Ben asked looking hopeful, “You’re always saying we could use a good guard dog what with Pa being sick and all. “Can we Ma huh?”
She shook her head and then gave the boy a weary smile, “We’ll see. Now get to your chores both of you, Uncle Jess and I need to talk.”
The children got up and moved off reluctantly towards the door, but then Ben turned back, “Is Uncle Jess staying Ma?” he asked expectantly.
Grace went and sat down on the couch next to Jess, turned to him and smiled, “I hope so son,” she said quietly, “for a little while anyway.”
Jess winked at the youngster, “Yes, I’ll be around for a while buddy, now get to it like yer Ma said huh.”
The children whooped with joy before dashing off to do as they were told.
Once the door had closed behind them Jess said quietly, “Nice kids.”
She nodded, “Thanks, they’re all that have kept me going...since...since Owen was diagnosed.”
“So, it really is him that’s so sick and not you, like the letter said?” He asked.
She nodded bowing her head, “Terminal lung disease Jess and only a matter of time now...days rather than weeks the doc said the other day.”
Jess reached across and took her hand, “I’m so dang sorry,” he said quietly.
When she said nothing he said, “It was him that wrote the letter weren’t it Grace?”
She nodded, “I didn’t know. He just admitted it. I just don’t know why he told you all those lies though. I’m so sorry he really isn’t in his right mind at the moment.”
“I guess he figured I wouldn’t come if he’d said it was him that was sick...but he knew I’d come for you,” Jess said quietly.
She shook her head, “I don’t understand how he could impose on you that way. After all you made your feelings plain ten years ago, back at the Flying D and that was an end of us wasn’t it...after we had that argument about bringing the wedding forwards. You just weren’t ready; I know that now.”
He felt terrible and just said quietly. “It was for the best. As to why he wrote me? Well I think he probably reckons there’s nobody else to look out for you and the young ‘uns after he’s gone.”
She bowed her head again and said nothing, but Jess persisted, “I’m right ain’t I, you don’t have no kin or friends to help you out?”
She finally looked up at him and tears were once more coursing down her pale cheeks.
“No, nobody, Owen made sure of that. He always said we were a family unit and we didn’t need anybody else. My Ma’s cousin had died by the time we moved here and as to my Pa well I was never really sure whether he’d moved up here or not. Ma would never talk about him. Then Owen refused to try and find him, saying he’d look after me now.”
“What about the kids, don’t they have any friends you could call on? Some of the other parents could help maybe?”He asked.
She shook her head, “Owen always said...uh, says they have each other so there is no need for any friends.”
He shook his head in amazement at how history was repeating itself.
“And you teach them at home, they never go off the ranch?”
She nodded, “It seemed safest.”
“Dang it Gracie ain’t you learned nuthin’? What’s gonna become of Gemma when she comes of an age when she wants to go courtin’? She’ll be a complete innocent just like you were. You were lucky you fetched up with me who didn’t take advantage of the situation. You really were so dang naive.”
“Don’t,” she said covering her face with her hands, “I can’t bear the thought of anyone harming her.”
“Then help her to mix with other kids. She needs to learn to look after herself, and be independent of you. She has to learn all about friendship by playing with other kids from a young age. It’s the only way she can to grow and mature, Ben too. Heck can’t you see the harm you’re doing them keeping them safe as you call it?”
“It’s Owen,” she whispered, “he’d never allow it.”
He just stared at her, both of them knowing soon that wouldn’t be an issue.
It was later that afternoon, when Owen awoke from his nap that he asked to see Jess...alone.
“Try not to tire him, he’s very weak,” Grace said as she showed Jess into the sick room.
She left quietly closing the door behind her and Jess advanced into the room.
Nothing prepared him for the wreck of a man that had once been Owen Dalton.
He was so emaciated that his body hardly registered beneath the snowy sheet and his face had a dreadful grey hue, his eyes sunken and lifeless.
However, he made an effort to acknowledge his guest and raised a hand weakly in welcome.
Jess sat down on the bedside chair and said, “Howdy Owen,” and then more quietly, “I’m real sorry to see you this way.”
Owen waved a hand dismissively, “I reckon I’ve accepted it Jess...there’s no point in fretting over things we can’t change,” he said quietly, before gasping for breath.
“Take it easy,” Jess said looking anxious, “don’t talk if it tires you.”
“Got to, things need to be said,” he panted, “Thank you for coming. Now listen up Jess I don’t have long; we both know that.”
Jess nodded and pulled his chair in closer leaning forwards to catch Owen’s thin reedy voice.
“You remember how it was back at the Flying D... you neglecting Grace...and me falling in love with her?
Jess opened his mouth to object…heck he hadn’t neglected her, had he? They were both just working real hard and never had time off together...he’d wanted to see her, sure he had.
However, he kept his mouth shut. If that was the way a dying man wanted to remember things, then so be it. And maybe, thinking about it later there was a tiny grain of truth in it. When it was so obvious that Grace wanted marriage and children and he had other plans. Then it had all come to a head when Owen had tested him by saying he knew the whereabouts of the Banisters. And yes, sure Jess had been ready to ride out to find them, at the drop of a hat, without due thought as to what that would do to Grace.
Now he flushed at the memory…then that declaration of love from Owen, saying what he could offer her and dragging Jess’s past up by contrast.
Then Owen broke into his thoughts, “Well do you, remember it all?”
Jess just nodded, “ I do yeah.”
“Do you remember how you were darned well out of order later? Upsetting her, acting like a prize bastard huh?”
“Look Owen I figured it would be easier for her iffen she hated me. After you told me you loved her and wanted to make a future with her well I knew I had to end it.”
Jess took a deep breath looking to the heavens searching for the words, “Sure I could see as how you’d make a better husband for her than I ever could be. I know I weren’t ready for that kind of commitment and I figured the only way she’d leave with you was if she really hated me and knew we didn’t have a future.”
Hell, he thought privately the guy should be thanking him for letting him waltz off with his girl, not castigating him, surely?
Owen sighed, “Yes you’re right I can see that, but maybe it was the wrong thing for her. You see Jess it’s always been you. Oh yes, she said she loved me…eventually, and we’ve been happy enough, had two lovely young ‘uns; but all through our lives together she has still loved you.”
Jess opened his mouth to object but Owen raised a trembling hand to silence him.
“Please let me finish, I know for a fact… look,” and with great effort he scrabbled around in the bedside table drawer and pulled out a small velvet bag from the very back, “here see.”
He passed the little pouch across and Jess tipped the contents out onto the palm of his hand and the little gold locket belonging to Grace’s ma, Sadie, sparkled up at him.
“Open it.” Owen wheezed.
Jess did as he was asked and the faded photograph of Grace’s Pa, Ben Travers was on one side and the one of himself and Grace, taken at the fair all those years ago on the other.
“A good likeness,” Owen whispered...Jess flushed up, but said nothing.
“She wore that every day of our married life,” Owen said quietly. “She told me it contained a picture of her old Pa...and I believed her until the day the chain broke and I offered to take it to town to be repaired. The jeweler opened it up and I saw you looking back at me,” he gasped, “and I knew then she still loved you...always had...always would.”
“No,” Jess said quietly, “I don’t believe that.”
“Oh, it’s true alright Jess. You didn’t see her after you rode out. She cried herself to sleep every night for a month...and I reckon she’s never been the same since. Oh, sure she’s made the best of things, been a loyal loving wife and mother. But it was always you she wanted and now she can have her wish. You see Jess once I’m gone, I want you to Wed her.”
“Now just a minute here...” Jess said leaping to his feet forgetting he was in the presence of a dying man, “don’t I get any say in this!”
Owen shook his head, “You owe her big time Jess. You promised her dying Ma that you’d always care for her...and you didn’t come through. It was you she wanted and you she should have been with and now is the time for atonement. You can make it up to her by marrying her and raising my precious children as your own Jess and that is my dying wish,” he finished, before finally running out of steam and closing his eyes.
Jess started to remonstrate with him, but it was clear the guy was past talking, for a while anyway. He carefully replaced the locket in the drawer and quietly left the room.
Chapter 6
Jess thought it prudent not to discuss the specifics of his talk with Owen as he really didn’t want to embarrass either of them. But then the thought struck him that maybe he had already confided in his wife? Hell was she lying all along and in league with Owen to get him to marry her and bring up the children? But no, the Grace he had known wasn’t a scheming woman; but hell, he thought, she sure was a desperate one...so who knew what lengths she’d go to, to protect her kids?
She certainly didn’t seem in any hurry to find out why Owen had asked Jess there, but again he figured they both knew that she was in need of some support to see her through the difficult times ahead. Well sure he didn’t have a problem with that...but marriage? He sighed and wished he was home with his girl. Hell, what would his dear Millie make of all this he pondered?
But then Grace broke into his thoughts.
“Will you be alright sleeping here on the couch?” she asked, as she entered carrying some clean bedding. “I’m afraid we only have the two bedrooms.”
He assured her he’d be just fine.
The children were long abed and it was getting late.
“You get off,” Jess said quietly, “you look done in, I’ll make up the couch.”
She nodded, but then sank down on the chair opposite him as though her legs would no longer support her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“What for?” he asked gently, raising a questioning eyebrow.
“This,” she said gesturing around her, “for calling you here. Owen really shouldn’t have bothered you.”
“It’s OK,” he said softly.
Then out of interest, “So how did you think you’d manage? It’s gonna be real hard when...well when he passes, with the children here and all. Having to go to town to make arrangements, all that sorta thing?”
“I was totally reliant of dear Doc Turner...he was a lifeline for me. Oh, Jess I miss him. He did so much to help and support me. Cared for the children, tended Owen, prayed with us all...he was a lovely man.”
Jess threw her a concerned look, “That’s just too bad...always the good ones that are taken too soon,” he said softly. “He was mixed up in a bank raid so Doc Hanson said?”
She nodded, “Yes it was that terrible Dawson Gang.”
“The hell it was?” Jess said in shock, “Good grief they’ve only been out of prison five minutes.”
“Apparently a Sheriff and Deputy foiled their last attempt to rob our bank and they decided as soon as they were released the first thing they’d do was come and finish the job.”
Jess shook his head in disbelief, “Dang it I might have known they wouldn’t go straight.”
She frowned at that, “You know of them Jess?”
He grinned at her, “Dadgum it. I was the Deputy! Jeez Gracie if I wasn’t needed here, I’d be after them like a shot.”
She shook her head, “I imagine they’ll be way over the border by now. Well I certainly hope so anyway. One of them was shot, injured quite badly I believe, but they seem to have gone and taken him along with them. I just hope the town gets a new Sheriff soon, the place has been going downhill since old Sheriff Black retired.”
Jess shook his head sadly, “So uh, now Doc Turner isn’t around what are your plans for the future?” he asked, suddenly needing to know where she stood as far as Owen’s plans for Grace and himself were concerned.
Her head shot up and she looked somewhat uncomfortable.
“I really don’t know, I think Owen wants me to sell up and move to town, if I can’t find anyone to help me run the place,” she said casting him a cautious glance.
What the heck did that mean he wondered?
“Well it sure needs a lot of work ...uh that is if you’ve a mind to sell up,” he said quickly. “I could make a start on that, mend the gate and the barn door, fix up the house. It would make it easier to sell if it was done up some. It would be a nice little spread for a young couple just starting out...I could make some enquiries in town?”
She looked less than enthusiastic at the notion, but agreed that would be most helpful.
“It would be for the best Gracie,” he said softly, “for you and the young ‘uns. They could go to the school start making friends and you could maybe find a little job. You’ll need to earn a living, maybe in a mercantile, or dressmakin ’ or something,” he said vaguely. “I imagine you don’t have too much spare cash to live on.”
She looked completely overwhelmed by the whole notion and taking a deep breath changed the subject.
“So Jess enough of me and my troubles, you’ve not told me anything about you and your life in Laramie...do you work full time as a Deputy Sheriff?”
He chuckled at that, “Heck no I just help Mort out, the Sheriff that is, from time to time. Nope I’m a rancher. I’m a partner in a real decent spread, the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, we’re a Stage stop, got a contract with the Stage line, run cattle and horses. We’ve got a real good deal with the military breakin’ and supplying horses too. That’s why I can’t be away for long,” he said honestly, “I’ve left Slim Sherman, my partner, with all the work.”
“I understand,” she said. “So it’s just you and Slim at the ranch is it?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope young Mike and Daisy live with us too.”
Her face fell, “Young Mike...you have a son?”
Jess grinned at the thought of Mike, “Oh he’s a great kid, same age as your Ben. Adopted son I guess you’d call him. He’s our Ward...me and Slim took him in when his kin were killed in an injun raid. Best thing we ever did and then we found Miss Daisy, she’s our housekeeper. Rules the roost and keeps us men folk all in order,” he said beaming at her.
Grace returned his smile and gave a tiny sigh of relief, “Well that’s wonderful quite a little family...you must miss them.”
He agreed that he did and then saw her try to hide a yawn.
“Go on honey, you get to bed you’re tired, we’ll talk more tomorrow huh?”
She nodded and passing him the bedding took her leave wishing him a good night.
Then she stopped and paused at the door, “Thank you Jess, for everything,” she said softly before turning and making her way off to bed.
Once she had left, he quickly made up a bed on the couch and stretched out, feeling exhausted. But sleep evaded him as Owen’s words ran round and round in his brain like rats trapped in a barre

All through our lives together she has always loved you.”
Then later as Jess looked at the faded picture in the locket, “When I saw that I knew she had always loved you...always had... always would.”
Finally, his parting shot, “You promised her dying Ma you’d always care for her and you didn’t come through. It was you she wanted and you should have been there for her...and now is the time for atonement...Marry her, that is my dying wish...dying wish...dying wish....”
Jess stared into the darkness with unseeing eyes...what would he do...damn it what should he do?

The following morning, he was awoken to the sound of childish giggles.
Snapping his eyes open he found himself peering into the blue guileless eyes of young Gemma.
“Are you asleep?” she asked.
Jess sighed and threw her a tired grin, “Well I was but I guess I ain’t now honey.”
She giggled again at that and then glanced up at where Blue was lying protectively on the large old couch beside his master, having crept up in the dead of night.
“Is he allowed?” she asked.
Jess grinned and glancing at the shabby old couch figuring the dog couldn’t do too much harm... but after all he was a guest.
“Probably not,” he said.
“Get down Blue.”
The dog yawned widely and threw Jess an indignant glance before jumping down as he was bid.
Then Ben wandered in and made a fuss of the big animal, the dog’s tail beating a tattoo at all the fond attention he was receiving from the children.
After a while Ben looked up and said, “Ma said you’re going to help us patch-up the place?”
Jess nodded, “The yard and house could do with fixin’ up some?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically, “I’ll help you Uncle Jess, if you’d like me to,” he added shyly.
“That would be swell,” Jess agreed, “We’ll get to it right after breakfast OK?”
The child nodded, “Pa will be real pleased and I reckon he’ll buy some more stock in when he’s better...so I think we should check the boundary fences too.”
Jess just stared at him, “When he’s better?” he repeated quietly.
Then Gemma piped up, “Sure, after all Uncle Jess, Pa’s been sick for a long, long time, so he should be getting better real soon now.”
Jess transferred his gaze to the pretty, diminutive girl and knew he just couldn’t argue with the logic of a five-year-old, but his heart was breaking for her.
After breakfast Jess sent the children off to sort out some tools for the work, saying he wanted a quick word with their Ma.
Once they had gone Grace poured them both another coffee and sitting back down gave him an enquiring look, “Jess?”
He sipped his coffee and then putting the cup down, said quietly, “You ain’t told them have you Grace?”
“Told them what?”
“That their Pa ain’t gonna make it...they think he’s going to get better.”
She looked down unable to meet his eyes and whispered, “I can’t Jess.”
“Well someone has to.”
“No,” she said more forcefully, “they’d be so terribly upset.”
“Well they’re gonna be upset anyway ain’t they...but at least it won’t be such a shock iffen they’re prepared. So, what does Owen say?”
“He knows I can’t do it and he had asked Doctor Turner to break the news to them, when the time was right, but now with him dead…”
Jess closed his eyes and took a deep breath, “OK, I’ll do it,” he said finishing his coffee and standing up.
The tears that had welled up in her eyes now spilled over and she impulsively grabbed his hand and kissed it, “Thank you so much,” she whispered.
He said nothing, but put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently, before leaving the room to find the youngsters.
It was later that morning when they were taking a break from the work, resting in the cool shade of a huge cottonwood that Jess decided to broach the subject.
Then almost on cue Ben said, “I figure Pa will buy in some Longhorns. He says they’re the best. What do you think Uncle Jess?” he asked turning from stroking Blue to look at the dark-haired blue-eyed cowboy he was beginning to like and trust.
Jess took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think he will be Ben.”
“Huh? So why not?” Ben asked looking puzzled.
“Because...he ain’t going to make it Ben, he’s too sick to ever get well.”
The child just stared open mouthed for a moment and then jumped up, his young face a picture of shock. He flushed up and shaking with anger he roared, “That’s not true! Why are you saying that?”
“Because you need to know boy, I’m sorry...real sorry,” Jess said.
But before Ben could say more, they were both suddenly aware that Gemma had crept up behind them.
Now she stood there, her little face contorted in horror and her mouth a huge O... before an ear-splitting wail erupted from her tiny frame. She ran into Jess’s arms, crying hysterically. Unlike her brother she was of an age to believe unequivocally anything a grown-up told her, no matter how unlikely or terrible.
Ben looked at the scene before him and then into Jess’s concerned gaze and knew he was telling the truth. He turned and ran off towards the barn, to cry in private.
After a while Jess picked the little girl up and they went to find her Ma.
Grace looked pale and anxious when she took her daughter from Jess’s arms, but just mouthed, “Thank you,” before he left to go and check on Ben.
He entered the dark barn and was just able to make out the small figure huddled on the ground, his back against a stall door, head bowed.
Jess mooched over and sank down beside the boy, saying nothing...but just being a reassuring presence.
After a while Ben sniffed and ran a hand across his face, “I’m not crying,” he said belligerently.
“No,” Jess agreed “and even if you were it wouldn’t make you any less a man Ben.”
Ben turned his tear stained face towards this kindly wise man, who was Uncle Jess, and said, “Really?”
Jess nodded, “I cried somethin’ fierce when I lost my Ma and Pa and I was older than you. It just shows you care boy, never be ashamed of that.”
Ben sniffed and moved in closer and Jess threw a comforting arm around the child as he let go and cried like his heart might break.
After a while the sobs finally ceased and the boy wiped a grubby hand across his face.
Jess squinted down at him and said, “You all done?”
The child nodded, “I guess I am yeah...”
Jess threw a gentle punch to the boy’s arm, “let’s go wash up and find yer sister. I guess she’ll be in need of a big brother right about now huh?
The boy nodded and got shakily to his feet, “Girls eh... I’d better go look out for her,” he said with all the resignation of a sorely tried brother.
“Good man,” Jess said softly, knowing that thinking about others was usually a pretty good way to start to move forwards and begin to recover from the initial shock. Looking out for little Gemma was the distraction the boy needed right then Jess figured.
As it happened of the two, Gemma was the first to bounce back.
It was later that evening; Ben was spending some time with his Pa and Gemma was stroking Blue and chatting with her Ma and Jess about them getting a dog one day.
Grace just said, “We’ll see sweetheart,” thinking that maybe a dog would help ease the child’s pain a little at the loss of her beloved Pa.
Then Gemma said, “Well I reckon Pa will buy us one when he comes back from visiting Jesus and the Angels...huh Ma?”
Jess and Grace exchanged a charged look over the child’s head and Jess very gently shook his head...as though to say ‘let it lay.’
“Maybe dear,” Grace whispered, “come along now, time for bed.”
Once they had gone Jess fondled Blue’s ears and looked sadly into the fire...poor little kid. Hell, she was only five years old, of course she couldn’t understand right now. Anyway, she’d got a whole lifetime to understand and grieve he thought...maybe this time of innocence was a God’s send...literally.

Jess worked hard mending gates and fences, painting and cleaning, all the time accompanied by the children and a closeness and trust had grown between them whilst Grace looked on with appreciation. Because of Jess she was able to spend precious hours with her husband reminiscing of happier times and planning for the family’s future.
“Jess is a good man,” Owen wheezed, “and I think he’ll stand by you when I’m gone.”
“Owen, please don’t talk that way,” she had cried, “I can’t bear it.”
“It has to be faced,” he said more firmly, gripping her wrist and looking earnestly up into her eyes, “he owes you Grace...he made a promise to care for you and he has to stand by it. He promised your dying Ma...you told me.”
“But that was before us. He relinquished that obligation when I married you,” she said equally intensely, “please Owen just leave it he has his own life now.”
“Look me in the eye and say you don’t want him...for you and for the children’s sake,” he said, “tell me!”
“It’s not about what I want,” she said again, “he has his own life.”
“For the children then,” he whispered.
She looked away and just squeezed his hand, unable to meet his pleading gaze.

Chapter 7
Doctor Hanson visited regularly and had struck up a good rapport with Jess often stopping to chat with the dark-haired cowboy. He really admired the way Jess had come to help out old friends, but also wondered if there was more to this altruism than met the eye...Grace Dalton sure was a beautiful woman he mused.
One morning a couple of weeks into Jess’s stay, the doc sought him out in the barn, when he was on his way home.
“Mornin’ doc, how’s the patient?” Jess greeted him as he emerged from Traveller’s stall.
The doc looked somewhat tense, “I’m afraid it won’t be long now...he could go at any time. Just ride in for me day or night when the end comes.”
“Thanks doc I appreciate that,” Jess said quietly.
“Uh, about that other business we talked about, I think there may be a property that could suit the family on the edge of town, just opposite my office. The elderly owners are moving down to Wyoming to live with kin, I can sound them out for you?”
“Thanks that would be a real help,” Jess said enthusiastically. Then he looked more closely at the tall bespectacled man, “You OK doc you look kinda agitated?”
“Um? Well yes, I suppose I am. I was broken into last night Jess, just some bandages and pain medicine taken, but it is rather troublesome. I suppose folk just don’t like paying for treatment. As I told you before my predecessor was rather lax in that department.”
“That’s too bad,” Jess said, “and the sooner the town gets a new Sheriff the happier folk will be I guess.”
The doc threw Jess a speculative glance, “So would that be a position you might be interested in then Jess? After all it was you who was the deputy that foiled the original bank raid wasn’t it?”
Jess grinned at him, “I see you’ve been doing your homework. Yes, it was me and Mort Cory the Laramie Sheriff.”
The doc nodded, “Yes it seems you killed the ring leader, Ed Dawson and injured another before you were shot, it’s the talk of the town Jess since this recent raid. Old Doc Turner was really popular and folk are looking for revenge for his death. But with Sheriff Black moved away and no law in place, well we don’t even have wanted posters out on them, so nobody even knows what they look like.”
“Well I reckon that’s of no account anyway Doc, because they’ll have hightailed it over the border by now. Heck all this happened about three weeks ago didn’t it? They’ll be long gone and the trail cold by now.”
“Well I certainly hope so, I would much prefer to settle in a law-abiding town,” he said with a rare smile.
Jess grinned back, “So thinkin’ of stayin’ on permanent then doc?”
“Maybe, if they find a Sheriff...so we can’t persuade you?” he said raising a questioning eyebrow.
Jess shook his head, “Nope I’m just visiting here, got me a business and gal waiting on me down in Laramie. I’ll be off home just as soon as I get Grace and the children settled someplace.”
The doc virtually beamed at him then, “A business and a girl...really?”
Jess looked slightly bemused and just said, “Yup. I’ll be needed back home to run the ranch pretty soon or my partner will be sending out a search party.”
The doc actually laughed at that. Then said, “Oh well let us just hope we find a Sheriff from somewhere, I can’t afford to be robbed all the time.”
Jess looked uncomfortable and then tipping his hat towards the house said softly, “I imagine all these visits are racking up the bill some huh doc?”
The doc turned and mounted his horse before smiling down at Jess, “Oh don’t worry about that. I often waive my fee for terminally ill patients. Especially where a special lady like Mrs Dalton is concerned,” he said quietly, before giving Jess a little salute and kneeing his horse of at a brisk trot.
Jess watched him go and then smiling shook his head, “Special lady huh doc?” he said to himself, before turning back to Traveller’s stall.
The following day Owen was to finally lose his battle and die peacefully surrounded by his family.
It was almost as if he knew his time had come because he asked to see Jess one final time.
As soon as he entered Jess could see the man was fading fast, “Shall I get Grace,” he asked at once. But Owen shook his head and gestured for Jess to sit.
“We need to talk in private first,” Owen gasped his breath shallow and distressed now.
“I want to thank you for all you’ve done for my family Jess,” he managed.
Then reaching out and grabbing Jess’s hand, said, “For the love of God don’t desert them now man. Please I beg you stay and care for them for me. Take Grace as your own, give her what I couldn’t. She wants you Jess...all you need do is take her into your life and the little ones too...please I’m begging you.”
Jess could hardly bear to look him in the eye, but he forced himself to do so.
“I’ll stay for as long as I’m needed,” he said softly, “and that’s as far as I can go Owen. I can’t wed Grace because I’m promised to another. I’ve got my own woman and life back in Wyoming but I won’t let her down I’ll make sure she can cope before I go.”
Owen nodded and then said so softly that Jess could hardly hear him, “You’ll stay for good; I know you will.”
Jess figured there was no point in remonstrating with a dying man so just offered to fetch the family in and this time he agreed.
And so it was Owen ended his days surrounded by his loving family, able to say everything he needed to the children. Especially his son, who was to remember those last minutes with his beloved father all his life. For little Gemma it was a case of snuggling up to her dear pa and remembering that closeness and love surrounding her.
To Grace he had given false hope in that he implied that Jess would be staying for the long haul, “You will be safe with him my dear,” he whispered, “he will care for you and the children now that I can’t....be happy.”
But Grace was so distressed that she didn’t even respond, just said how much she loved Owen and he wasn’t to worry, she and the children would be fine whatever happened.
Then he gently slipped away from them.
Jess, in the next room, heard the deep wail of grief from Grace, followed by the children’s cries of woe and quietly stood up and went off into the yard knowing the family must grieve alone. Later he would go and help Grace with the children and then ride for the doc. But now they needed to be together to come to terms with their terrible loss as a family.
It was evening before Jess and Grace found themselves alone together. The children, exhausted from crying were finally asleep.
Maybe it had been a mistake to add a shot of red-eye to Grace’s coffee; but Jess figured that she was still in shock and maybe the spirits would help her sleep more soundly. But as it was, it merely loosened her tongue and she shared things that maybe on reflection she wished later that she had not.
They had been out on the porch bench. The evening still warm after a scorching day and they were making plans for the funeral, which was to take place at the end of the week. Jess suddenly remembered about Owen’s brother Arnie. He had owned the prestigious Flying D Ranch. Hell, he could spare a buck or two, Jess thought, why the heck hadn’t he offered to help his brother out and why wasn’t he here now helping Grace?
When he broached the subject with Grace, he was surprised to hear they had sold up the Flying D and moved lock stock and barrel to New York.
“More opportunities for the twins so they said in their letter, but we’ve lost touch. The last letter I wrote telling of Owen’s illness came back saying address unknown. So, you see we’re quite alone she said,” tears springing to her eyes once more.
Jess who could never bear to see a woman cry threw a comforting arm around her shoulders, “Hey I’m still here,” he said gently. “Everything will turn out OK in the end, you’ll see.”
She took a huge shuddering sigh and then gave him a watery smile, “I knew you wouldn’t let me down. I so hoped you’d stay Jess. Owen said you would...but I wasn’t sure...oh thank God,” she whispered.
Jess tensed; this wasn’t right...not what he meant at all. Heck she’d just been bereaved and her mind was all over the place he told himself. But he had to put her straight, he couldn’t have her thinking he’d stay and wed her like Owen had pleaded.
“That is, I’ll stay and see you through this,” he said softly, gently pushing a lock of stray hair behind her ear and looking deeply into her hopeful eyes.
“Stay until you’re in the new house and the children are feelin’ more settled, but then I have to get home Gracie...I can’t stay with you forever.”
“You can’t?” she uttered, her beautiful eyes now huge and troubled.
He shook his head, “I figure you knew that didn’t you? I’ve got a home, friends, my work all back in Laramie; you know that...I can’t stay here, I’m needed.”
“You’re needed here too,” she said before giving another little sob and running from the porch into the sanctuary of the house.
Jess’s head sank down to his chest and groaned softly. Why hadn’t he just told her the truth...he was promised to another...he loved Millie and always would. Sure, he and Gracie had something real special, but that was years ago and he’d moved on changed and so had she. There was no going back. Hell, why hadn’t he said something...but it never seemed to be the right time.
He sighed again and whistling up Blue went off to check the horses before turning in.
The funeral dawned another perfect summer’s day, the deep blue sky and sunshine making a mockery of their misery.
Jess drove the small family to town, all dressed in their Sunday best. They rode in the recently overhauled buckboard pulled by the ranch horses looking sprightly at this unexpected outing.
The Church was surprisingly full considering the family had virtually no contact with the town’s folk and Jess figured most of them were there out of curiosity.
The circuit pastor had visited prior to the funeral and gave a good account of Owen Dalton and his family and declared him to be a good man with a life well lived and a family to be proud of.
Several of the women folk in the congregation searched for a handkerchief at his poignant words and vowed to try and make a friend of Grace when the opportunity arose.
The children behaved exceptionally well. Ben standing tall and dry eyed, linking arms with his ma. She hid her tear-stained face behind a black veil, whilst Gemma’ s little hand found its way into Jess’s. She sat quietly, legs swinging as the man in the black frock at the front of the Church droned on. Was her pa up there above the Church ceiling in the sky having a cup of coffee with the angels she wondered and would he be home for Thanksgiving? She decided he would be and then peered up into Uncle Jess’s troubled face and hoped he would stay with them ‘Forever and ever amen’ she said to herself, liking the sound of the words.
Later at the graveside she became a little tearful, demanding attention and it was Jess who picked her up, cradling her in his arms. She held him tightly, her little hands clasped around his neck as the age-old ceremony drew to a close.

At the back of the small crowd a man with a beard and thick eyeglasses pulled his shabby hat down further and peered at the scene before him a strange gleam in his eyes, “Well Jess Harper…quite the family man ain’t you,” he whispered to himself, “won’t the others be real excited to know you’re in town.”
Once the small gathering started to move off, he quickly made his way across the graveyard, hurried down Main Street and disappeared down a back alley.
After a few minutes he peered surreptitiously around him, before opening a rickety gate and entering the back yard of an old disused and boarded up mercantile.
Once inside the dark, damp place he called out softly, “Butch, Tam...I’m back.”
“About time,” growled the rotund, grubby looking figure of Butch Dawson, “you get it?”
Denny tossed a bottle of whiskey across to his brother and said, “Where’s Tam?”
“How should I know...probably sleepin’… it’s what he does mostly since that bastard at the bank raid shot him.”
“Well go get him I’ve got some news for you both...”

“What!” yelled Butch and Tam in unison
“That bastard that killed Ed and damn well shot me,” Denny confirmed, “here in town. He looks to be shacking up with some widow woman and her brats.”
“Well, where is he?” Tam asked rubbing the still painful shoulder that he’d been nursing since their recent bank raid.
Denny shrugged, “I dunno, but according to the local gossips they’re all moving into town soon, so they’ll be sitting ducks...and I aim to get me that Jess Harper if it’s the last dang thing I do. I still git pain in that leg he shot up and we all lost three dang years rotting in jail thanks to him.”
“Why wait?” Butch asked, “I vote we find him and finish it now.”
But Denny shook his head.
“Nope...we’ve had it real easy holed up here while Tam recovers from that dang bullet. It’s the perfect place. Hell, nobody would think to look here…they all believe we’re long gone. With the doc’s place just down the street for pain medicine and no Sheriff in town it’s perfect. Dang it they don’t even know what we look like!
“Well I guess that’s true,” Butch conceded.
“I can come and go with this beard I’ve grown and the eyeglasses as disguise, should any smart-ass Sheriff hit town,” Denny continued, “and this place is safe from prying eyes. But as soon as we kill Harper, we’ll need to make a break for the border and we need Tam to be fit for that.”
“I’m getting there, give me another week or so and I’ll be ready,” Tam said.
“So, we’ll just bide our time. By the looks of things, he ain’t going any place. All agreed?” Denny asked.

Grace seemed to have forgotten the awkward conversation she had with Jess on the night Owen had died and she treated him as the good friend he was, with no reference to a future together. She also made a huge effort to make life as normal as possible for the children as they started packing up their belongings for the move to town.
It couldn’t come soon enough as far as Jess was concerned, knowing that his continued presence would make it all the harder for them when he had to leave.
The children had completely accepted him as one of the family now. Ben coming to him for help and advice on anything from rabbiting and fishing to the best way to mend a bridle, all subjects Jess was well acquainted with and happy to impart his knowledge.
Gemma seemed to be looking upon him as a sort of surrogate pa and this didn’t sit quite as comfortably with Jess. Sure, he was happy to do everything Owen had done, from reading bedtime stories to helping her care for her pony. But he was aware that she was getting way too close to him and the wrench at parting would be real hard and not just for her, he realized.
As for Grace, she was biding her time. She watched the growing affection between Jess and her children and hoped that it would be strong enough to keep him by her side. Then maybe, just maybe he would learn to love her like he once had done.
After all, he was older now, more stable and mature. A business man with a partnership in a ranch, who knows she thought, he might take them all back to Laramie with him. The thought that he might have a girlfriend or indeed be promised never crossed her rather self-absorbed mind. All she could see right then was life from her perspective and not Jess’s. She didn’t think he might be worried at leaving his partner running the business for so long, or that he might be missing his friends especially young Mike. Nor did she for one minute imagine he would be missing a girlfriend.
But somebody did. One Kate Munroe, and at that very minute she was on her way to town to seek out Jess and see if he was ready to ride home.
It was Doc Hanson who rode in with the news that a lady in town was asking of the whereabouts of one Jess Harper.
The doctor had been a regular visitor since Owen’s passing, saying he was just checking all was well and they were eating properly and looking after themselves. But Jess secretly thought he had an ulterior motive and was maybe a little bit sweet on Grace.
Kate had remembered that Jess didn’t have an address for Owen and Grace Dalton and that he had intended visiting Doc Turner for the information and so it was that Kate looked out the Doc’s office.
However, there was no answer to her knock and a few minutes later the next-door neighbor popped her head out of her door, “Can I help you,” asked an inquisitive looking middle-aged lady.
Kate explained her quandary and was surprised to hear of Doc Turner’s death at the hands of the Dawson Gang. Then she inquired about the whereabouts of the Dalton spread, where an invalid lady, Grace Dalton, lived and she was staggered by the news the woman was happy to supply. That it was not Grace who was dying, but indeed her husband, who was now in fact dead, leaving a grieving widow.
“Well I shall certainly know where to come in future for information,” said Kate smiling at the grey-haired matron.
The lady who introduced herself as Widow Adams took that as a compliment and said she liked to keep abreast of things.
“I know Doc Hanson still visits regular,” she said with a smirk, “and of course she has that handsome er...good friend staying presently. All the way from Wyoming I believe. Must be a real good friend of uh... the family to come all that way?” she said throwing Kate a speculative glance and hoping for a bit of scandal.
“Yes,” said Kate quickly, “I am a travel companion of her guest and I can assure you he is here to support the whole family, just as old friends should in times of crisis. Now would you be kind enough to ask the Doctor to convey my best wishes to Mister Harper and tell him I await to hear from him at the hotel?” and with that Kate swept off.
“Well, yes of course,” the Widow Adams replied to Kate’s departing back and turned away into the house, disappointed that she had no delicious gossip to chew over.
It was a day later that Jess rode into town, hitched Traveller up in front of the hotel and marched inside.
He caught up with Kate sitting perusing the local paper and sipping coffee in the lounge.
He walked over and took her in his arms hugging her tightly for a moment before sitting down opposite his old friend.
“I figure this calls for a proper drink,” Kate drawled and calling for the bartender she ordered two large whiskeys.
Once they arrived, she took an appreciative sip and then sat back and peered at Jess.
“Well go on then. What’s been happening with you and the lovely widow Dalton?”
Jess flushed a little under the scrutiny of Kate’s penetrating gaze.
“Just been helpin’ them out some since Owen passed,” he said quietly.
“Um...sounds like a little more than that to me Jess,” she said, “Now didn’t I tell you to watch your back? Said I had a bad feeling about all this didn’t I? How I thought maybe someone wanted a part of you?”
Jess looked uncomfortable, “I dunno what you mean.”
Kate folded the paper to the headlines and passed it over, “Maybe this will help you huh?”
He looked down at the headlines, ‘Deputy who Foiled Dawson Bank Raid Returns to Support Grieving Widow.’ Below was a vividly written account of how Jess had been helping the family since the death of Owen Dalton and how he and the attractive, but reclusive, widow Dalton would shortly be moving to town together and living at the old Grove residence opposite Doctor Hanson’s Office. Below was a large photograph of Jess standing at the graveside, holding Gemma in his arms and flanked by Ben and Grace, looking every inch the family group.
“Well?” Kate asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
Jess paled and then looked up at Kate, “It ain’t the way it looks.”
“Oh, come on Kate what are you sayin’ I’m messin’ around? Hell, Owen’s only been dead five minutes.”
“So, you’ll wait a respectable time before moving in with her then?”
“Dadgum it Kate no! I didn’t mean that, and I ain’t movin’ in either. They are, next week and I’m stayin’ at the hotel to see them settled in and then I’m going home...OK?” he growled belligerently.
She nodded, “I’m sorry boy, but you can see the way it looks...how folk will be thinking?”
“It’s none of their dang business,” Jess spat angrily.
“Look I’m on your side. If I didn’t care about you and Millie well, I’d ride out and leave you to your own devices. But as it happens, I do care so I’ll stay around a while and ride back with you like we planned huh?”
Jess frowned at her, “Dontcha trust me Kate? What do you think I’m gonna do? Do ya really believe I’d throw over Millie and move in with Grace and the kids?”
“No, I don’t,” she said quietly, “but none the less I can see this is hard for you Jess. It looks to me like you’ve gotten way too fond of those young ‘uns and them of you and the sooner you break the ties the easier it will be all round.”
Jess looked down, “I guess maybe you’re right.”
“When wasn’t I?” she said with a cheeky grin, “So are you going to buy the next round or what?”

When Jess returned to the ranch it was strangely quiet. No welcoming dog or children.
Gemma was missing.
Ben came tearing out of the house as soon as Jess rode in, yelling incoherently.
“Hey buddy, take it easy.” Jess said kneeling down and grabbing hold of the youngster’s shoulders.
“Now take a deep breath and tell me what’s happened,” he said gently.
The child did as he was asked and then it all came out in a rush, the words tumbling over each other.
“It’s Gemma Uncle Jess she’s gone, vamoosed we can’t find her anyplace. Ma and Doc Hanson are out looking now and they’ve taken Blue with them to help.”
“Tell me exactly what happened,” Jess insisted.
“Well Ma and the Doc were talking about moving to the new place. How we could go to school, make friends and all,” he said his expression clearing for a moment at the thought. But then his brows knitted again, “Gemma was playing with her dolls under the table and listening in, you know the way she does,” he said rolling his eyes in brotherly derision, “and the next thing we knew she’d gone. Ma and the Doc went to bring some more boxes downstairs and when they got back, she’d disappeared.”
“So where are your Ma and the Doc now?” Jess asked urgently.
“They’ve looked in the barn and all around the house and yard, and now they’ve gone up the hill out back and taken Blue too. She’s made a play den up there,” he confided.
“Anywhere else she might be?” Jess asked anxiously, “Think Ben!”
“Down by the creek? I mean Gemma knows not to go there, but well she’s been kind of stubborn lately...been naughty too. Ma says it’s just because she doesn’t want to move and she’ll be fine once we all go. She loved going to the creek, Pa used to take us fishing there,” he finished dejectedly.
Jess stood up quickly, his heart beating ten to the dozen. They’d had a bad storm just the other day and the creek was running fast and furious. It was narrow, but pretty deep, with a steep bank above it.
“Stay here,” Jess said quickly, “uh...in case she comes back. I’ll go down to the creek and check.”
He could hear the water rushing along even before he saw it and he sprinted the last few yards, his eyes desperately scanning the bank as it came into view.
Then something caught his eye. Right at the edge of a large rock stood Gemma looking down at the torrential flow of water, swirling around far below her. She was gazing into the foaming depths, as if mesmerized, her bright red pinafore dress contrasting with the dark rock on which she stood.
He knew if he startled her by calling out, she might well lose her balance and fall in, so he had no choice but to creep up on her and snatch her from the dangerous edge.
Luckily the noise of the rushing water covered any sound he might have made as he approached and he easily got within inches, before grabbing her. Once she was in his arms, he held her close like he would never let her go again.
She screamed out in fear, but quickly relaxed in his arms once she saw who it was and giggling said, “Are we playing hide and seek Uncle Jess, because you caught me real good!”
Jess just held her even closer waiting for his heart to stop pounding. He suddenly had a vision of the tiny frame tumbling to a certain death on the rocks way below and he closed his eyes, his face contorting as if in pain.
After a minute a little voice complained, “Uncle Jess you’re hurting.”
Jess immediately loosed his hold on her and apologized.
“Heck I’m sorry sweetheart, you just had me kinda worried there for a moment, you were a tad near the edge you know, you could have fallen.”
She looked surprised, “I was? I didn’t know. I was just looking at the pretty waves. Pa used to say there were Mermaids in there you know,” she said giving him a little smile. “I thought they were just at the ocean, but Pa said no, we had our very own here.”
Jess smiled back and taking her hand led her a safe distance away and they sat down on a sun warmed rock.
“You really shouldn’t run off that way you know,” he said seriously, “Your Ma is frettin’ something fierce; we all were.”
She turned guileless blue eyes on him and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to upset Ma...or you.”
“I know that, so why did you run away? You know you’re not allowed to come here alone.”
She looked down and a tear finally ran down her cheek and her shoulders started shaking.
“Hey it’s OK,” he said quickly, “I’m not mad at you. But we all love ya and want to keep you safe. You know that don’t you?”
She nodded and then said, “I don’t want to go to the new house.”
“Well why not Gemma? It’ll be fun, you’ll make friends, learn lots of neat stuff in school, be able to go to the store for candy, you’ll love it.”
“It’s not that,” she said wiping a tear away with her hand, “it’s Pa. Don’t you see Uncle Jess...if we move, he won’t be able to find us when he comes home.”
Jess felt a lump in his throat the size of Texas and just pulled her close, rubbing her back and trying to pull him-self together.
Then he gently pushed her away so he could look into her eyes, “It’ll be just fine, we’ll leave him a note,” he said.
She beamed at him. Then through her tears she suddenly reminded him of her beautiful Ma, who at that moment was worried sick
“You wanna ride home?” he asked.
She nodded vigorously and so he swinging her up onto his shoulders he strode quickly back to the house.
After all the tears, recriminations and finally forgiveness Grace took an exhausted Gemma off to bed. But as the child reached the door she turned around and ran back to Jess throwing herself into his arms and whispered, “Love you Uncle Jess,” before trotting back to her Ma and following her out.
Leaving them all had just got that bit harder Jess realized.

Chapter 8
A couple of days later with the buckboard laden with all the family’s worldly goods they set off for town. Jess riding Traveller and Gemma on her diminutive pony, Rolly.
It was Doc Hanson they all had to thank for so much Grace acknowledged as she shook the reins and set off on the mile-long journey into town.
Not only had he secured a good deal on the old Grove place, opposite his office, but he had also been responsible for finding a nice young couple to buy the Dalton spread. Grace had left most of the furniture behind, knowing that the Grove house was coming virtually fully furnished. It contained much better furniture than she and Owen had owned too she thought, remembering how all the good stuff had been sold off to cover debts. The icing on the cake was that the Doc had agreed to let Gemma keep her beloved pony in the pasture land he owned behind his office.
She glanced across to where Gemma and Jess were sharing a joke as they rode along together and she wished for the umpteenth time that he was joining them at the new house and she cast her mind back to the conversation of the night before.
They had once more been sitting out on the porch enjoying the mild night and the way the moonlight illuminated the now neat and tidy yard. Grace had been in a nostalgic mood.
Turning to Jess she said, “You know when we moved, I thought it was the end of the world. Losing our smart place in the valley and coming here. But now all I can remember are the happy times...before Owen got sick that is.”
“It must have been hard for you,” he said, throwing her a sympathetic glance.
She shrugged, “Not as hard as this is now. Heading off to a town where I don’t know anyone, to a completely different way of life. I don’t think I can face it without you,” she finished in a small voice. “Please Jess won’t you move into the house with us...just for a while, there’s plenty of space.”
Jess looked off to the distant horizon and then finally back into her hopeful eyes, “I can’t do that Grace and you know why.”
When she remained silent, he said, “I’ve gotten way too close to the young ‘uns. They rely on me and think of me as kin now; it can’t go on Grace. When I go home, they’ll miss me, so it’s better I start putting some distance between us. I’ll just be down the street at the hotel and I’ll visit, get ya all settled in, like I promised.”
“We’ll all miss you,” she said taking his hand and looking down at it.
He very gently pulled his hand away and said, “You’ll find the town’s folk will rally around and help you out...make a friend of you. You’ve already had an invitation to join the women’s group ain’t you?”
“That’s hardly the same,” she said impatiently and then more gently, “it’s you I want with us Jess.”
He looked down and then made a decision, “I’ll stay another week and then me and Kate will be riding out like we planned.”
“Kate?” she said her head shooting up, “that woman you met in town the other day?”
Jess nodded, “She’s been visiting friends and she’s ready to go home to Wyoming so we thought we’d ride together. It’s nice to have company on the trail.”
“I’ll bet it is,” she said bitterly, “so you and this Kate, you’ve known each other for long?”
Jess hid a smile and nodded his head, “Yup, most of my life.”
When Grace still looked uncertain, he said, “She’s a really good friend, practically old enough to be my Ma and is seeing the Laramie Sheriff. She’s a real nice woman Gracie, you’d like her.”
She nodded and gave him a wide grin, obviously relieved. But then she said, “So you could stay a little longer really, couldn’t you?”
He shook his head suddenly knowing this was the time to tell her about Millie even if it did upset her dreadfully.
“No, I couldn’t,” he said firmly, “I’ve a partner and friends that are like kin waitin’ on me back at the ranch. We’ve work to do; it’ll be time to bring the cattle down for the fall pretty soon. And I reckon my girl Millie will have been missin’ me somethin’ fierce too...so you see I really need to get home Grace.”
She stared at him her face a blank mask for a moment, before she said quietly, “You have a girlfriend? I didn’t know.”
Jess moved uncomfortably on the shared bench, “Well, how could you? I was gonna tell you about her, but there never seemed to be the right time. It felt kinda crass after you just losin’ Owen and all...I figure you really didn’t need to hear about how happy me and Millie are.”
Jess felt terrible, but it had to be said. In fact, it was long overdue.
“Thank you,” she said softly, “that was very thoughtful of you. I’m uh...happy for you both; really I am,” she said all the time avoiding his eye.
Then she pretended to yawn, “Well I think I’ll turn in, busy day tomorrow,” and she stood up to go inside.
But Jess called her back, “Gracie, are you OK?”
“Yes of course,” she said casting him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, “why wouldn’t I be? ‘Night Jess,” and she disappeared inside the darkened house.
Jess sat out in the moonlight a while longer and shrugged, maybe he’d misread the situation all along he thought, before he wandered over to check on his good old horse.“Jeez,” he said softly to himself, "at least you know where you stand with a horse.”
Now as Grace watched him riding along looking so happy in Gemma’ s company her spirits rose a little. Maybe he could be persuaded to stay after all if he saw how devastated the children...and her-self would be without him. It was written in the stars after all she reflected as she remembered that day at the fair and the visit to the Fortune Teller’s tent. Everything she said was engraved upon her heart...especially the last words:
“Then in the distant future more loss...but eventually a final marriage and happiness to the end of your days...of this I promise you.”
There was no other person in the world that she wished to spend the rest of her life with other than Jess Harper and she just knew all would come right if she was just patient. She slapped the reins and hurried the horses on to town and her new life with renewed hope in her heart.

Once they were all settled in at the house Jess booked in at the hotel, but went back to the new house for supper as requested by the children. Then he helped put them to bed as usual before having a final coffee with Grace and heading off.
He stood by the door feeling kind of awkward. He’d been with the family so much since Owen’s heart-breaking passing and now he felt almost as though he was abandoning them.
“You’ll be alright?” he asked standing out on the porch.
She nodded, “I’ll have to be won’t I.”
“Look Gracie please...I can’t stay with ya. These folks,” he said tipping his hat to the almost deserted street, your neighbors…well you don’t want them to think badly of you...having a man staying who you ain’t wed to.”
“Oh, it’s a bit late for that isn’t it?” she said bitterly, “Or have you not seen the newspaper?”
He nodded, “Sure I have, Kate showed me and I paid the Editor a visit. He’s retracting the statement about me moving in with you in next week’s copy and he apologized.”
“He did?” she asked looking amazed.
Jess nodded unconsciously flexing his fingers above his gun butt, “Took a little persuasion, but he realized the error of his ways in the end,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“Thank you,” she said softly, “you’ll come by for breakfast?”
He nodded, “Sure, try and stop me,” and kissing her chastely on the cheek turned and marched off down the street heading for the hotel, Blue at his heels. He’d half considered leaving the big dog there whilst he was at the hotel...but then he figured the kids needed to start getting used to life without him. Then he grinned wryly, gee they’d probably miss the big fellah more then they would him he surmised.
He entered the hotel thinking he’d have a nightcap before turning in, so moseyed into the bar and ordered a drink. Then as he turned around to survey the almost empty place, he heard a familiar hearty laugh, followed by a deep baritone one and peering through the dimly lit room finally saw the source of the hilarity. A couple sitting closely together at a corner table and he recognized the infectious laugh as belonging to Kate Munroe.
He looked more closely and then saw she was in the company of the blond, middle aged guy who had said ‘howdy’ when they first arrived in town all those weeks ago and they sure looked pretty cosy together he thought. He was the one whose disabled wife had died recently and was a neighbor of the friends Kate had been staying with, he remembered and he wondered how much time they’d been spending together.
He knocked back his drink deciding to retire for the night, still feeling kind of annoyed at Kate’s attitude the last time they had met and not wishing to see her right then. Heck she had no dang right quizzing him about his relationship with Grace and implying he was cheating on Millie.
He turned away from the bar and that’s when Kate saw him and called him over.
He wandered reluctantly across the room and tipped his hat, “Evening  Kate.”
She gave him a slightly wary look before saying, “I’d like you to meet my good friend uh...Ben, he’s Mary and Rose’s neighbor out at the Crafty Fox Ranch.”
Jess nodded and shook the offered hand, “Evening,” he said gruffly.
“Good evening old chap,” Ben said expansively, “dear Kate here and I have had the most wonderful meal haven’t we my dear.”
Kate agreed that they had.
“That’s good,” said Jess. Looking like it was anything but. Hell, what was Kate thinkin’ of drinking and laughing with this guy who so obviously had the hots for her.
“Care for a nightcap?” Ben asked pleasantly and looking pretty damn smug so Jess thought, like a man on a promise.
“No er... thanks,” he added, “been kind of a long day...’night,” and he ambled off towards the door.
However, Kate excused herself for a moment and followed him out, catching him up in the lobby.
“You are staying here tonight aren’t you Jess?” she asked without preamble, “Not with the family, I hope. It really wouldn’t do Grace’s reputation any good you know for you to stay overnight with her. Now she’s in the town, folk will notice.”
That was about the last straw for Jess. He was exhausted after all the furniture moving. The children had been tired and clingy, not wanting to go to bed, because they knew he was leaving soon. Then that last episode on the doorstep with Gracie trying to be so dang brave and failing badly had really got to him. Hell, he’d wanted to take her in his arms and hold her until she felt better. But he knew that wouldn’t help anything in the long run and now here was Kate haranguing him.
He turned on her, blue eyes blazing with anger, “Yes I’m stayin’ the night in the hotel since you ask Kate. So how about your ‘friend’...uh... Ben will he be stayin’ too? You seem real close, shame you don’t even know his second name huh. I figure you’re bein’ kinda hypocritical ain’t ya preachin ’ to me? At least me and Gracie are old friends...you hardly even know this guy.”
He never saw it coming as she slapped him hard across the face, the full force of her fury stinging painfully.
They stared at each other for a full minute, both looking equally shocked, before he turned on his heel and hastened up the stairs to his room. Too dang mad to stay in her company, afraid of what he might say.
Early the following morning when he made his way downstairs to let Blue out, she was sitting in the lobby, reading the newspaper again, a coffee at her elbow. But she lowered the paper and looked at him as he made his way past her.
“Jess?” she said hesitantly, but he just threw her a look that might well have made a lesser woman shake in trepidation, before barging out through the hotel door and down the street.
Now he felt more hurt than angry. Hell, she was one of his oldest friends wasn’t she, so how could she think so badly of him? He’d bent over backwards to protect Grace’s reputation by booking a room at the hotel and getting the paper to print a retraction. But if Kate didn’t trust him, then what would others be thinking of his relationship with the newly bereaved, beautiful widow? He thought Kate understood him, would believe that his relationship was totally honorable...but clearly not.
He spent the day helping to get the house ship shape, moving furniture and fixing up one or two things, like a dripping faucet and sticking cellar door. But mostly he laughed and played with the children…telling them all about Mike and his friends and what fun they had in school and even more so playing together during the holidays.
Ben was spellbound and getting quite excited about his new life in town, but Gemma became more and more pensive, just wanting to sit on Jess’s knee, or cuddle up with a small arm clasped around his neck, listening quietly. Or else she would lie down on the couch and snuggle up with Blue. His long fur clutched in her little hands...almost as though the physical contact with her two heroes would keep them from departing.
Leaving that night was even harder after he’d heard Gemma crying herself to sleep. So he began to wonder if it would be easier all around if he just shipped out as soon as possible. Because prolonging the painful parting was making everyday more difficult.
As he made his way back to the hotel that night he decided he must make it up with Kate. After all, he’d been downright out of order implying she was messing around with that guy Ben. Sure, she was having a laugh and enjoying his company, but that was just Kate’s way and he knew perfectly well that she would be faithful to Mort. He was aware that even though she and the sheriff made light of their relationship it was indeed very special to them both and Kate wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it. But dadgum it he sure wished she was as certain of his fidelity to Millie. Just the thought of his girl now made his heart beat faster. He’d see Kate and apologize. Then suggest they leave within the next few days he decided.
There was no sign of her in the bar or lounge and so he wandered over to the reception desk.
“I’m sorry sir Mrs Munroe checked out this morning and left no forwarding address.”
Jess stopped in his tracks feeling shocked to the core. Dang it, Kate had run out on him, she must be really mad he thought sorrowfully.

The next few days were spent in a flurry of preparing the children for school the following month...there were books to buy and new clothes too. Jess was worried about Grace’s finances and offered her a small loan, but she was adamant she was fine for money.
“Dear Michael, uh Doctor Hanson that is, got us an excellent deal on the house,” she said.
He raised an amused eyebrow at the use of the Doc’s Christian name. He was glad she’d made a friend, but he didn’t comment.
“So, I am reasonably comfortable for the moment,” she continued. “Then once the children are settled in school, I’ll look round for a little job like you suggested.”
Jess tipped his hat back and grinned at her, “I can’t believe how well you’re managing sweetheart,” he said proudly, “considering you’ve been stuck out at the ranch all your married life this must be one heck of a change for you?”
She nodded, “Do you remember that Fortune Teller? She said I was like a little bird in a gilded cage. Well now I have been set free and it’s not as scary as I once thought.”
But then she looked troubled, “But that’s because I have you at my side Jess...when you leave me what will I do?” and she just shrugged lapsing into silence.
“You’ll be fine,” he said gently, “the Doc... um Michael...he’ll look out for you and that Ma Birch that called by the other day too. She said she’d introduce you to some ladies in the quiltin’ group, you’ll hardly miss me you’ll be so darned busy.”
She just gave him a watery smile and agreed, maybe he was right.
On his last night he treated the little family to dinner at the hotel, thinking the novelty would take the edge off him leaving the following day. The children, although at first rather overawed by the imposing building, soon relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, albeit still being on their best behavior.
For a fleeting moment Grace wished she had been able to find a babysitter so she could have indulged in Jess’s company alone. But in her heart of hearts she knew his attitude towards her would have been no different whether the children were present or not.
She knew she was still a good-looking woman and that he found her attractive with the odd lingering look of appreciation and gentlemanly comments on her appearance. But that was as far as it went and of course she knew his heart lay with another...Millie. But even so a little voice kept reminding her of that session with the Fortune Teller, ‘A final marriage and happiness to the end of your days.’
So, when the time came for them to say goodnight on the front porch of her little house that night, she wasn’t afraid. She knew...just knew that he wouldn’t leave her on the morrow...and she was right.

Chapter 9
The following morning, he was up early and packed ready to leave. But first he had to pick something up from the livery and go say his final farewell to Grace and the children. He walked quickly down the street looking forward to seeing Blue. The dog having been banished to Traveller’s stall after an elderly hotel guest had complained at sharing the lobby with a wolf. He smiled at the memory now, poor old Blue sure had a rough trot sometimes and Jess just wished the woman could have seen the dog playing so gently with young Gemma.
Main Street was deserted and flooded in dawn light with the promise of another beautiful late summer’s day ahead and he was keen to get on his way as soon as possible.
He was halfway down the street when someone behind him called out, “Not so fast Harper.”
He spun around to see a tall rangy man flanked by a short rotund one and a much younger guy. All three were standing in the centre of the road a few yards away...and all taking the gunfighter’s stance.
Jess was totally bemused for a moment, but stood his ground. He peered down the street and then he realized who he was facing...the Dawson Gang!
He glared at Denny, in the centre who had called him and said, “What do ya want Dawson? Come to apologize fer shootin’ Doc Turner and robbin’ the bank have ya? That’s a shame as I don’t figure the folks round here are any too forgiving.”
Denny flushed angrily, “Neither are we Harper, we ain’t forgotten how you killed Ed and nearly did for me too.”
Then the stout Butch growled, “Or the long three years we’ve been rotting in jail either...so now it’s payback time.”
“What about you Tam...you gonna be part of this murderin ’ gang too? “Jess hollered.
“It ain’t murder Mister,” Tam said quickly, “a fair gunfight is all.”
Jess gave a derisory snort “Fair huh...three to one?”
“Well sure you’re a Hot-shot ain’t you,” Denny sneered, “I figure taking on three of us will be child’s play to you Harper.”
Jess’s head shot up and he scowled at the men, the use of Slim’ s nickname for him making him feel totally bereft. Hell, he sure wished his pard was at his side...he might have been in with a chance then...but now?
He knew there was still no law in town despite the town council’s sterling efforts to recruit someone; heck he’d been approached himself more than once.
His mind spun in a turmoil, no Sheriff to come to his aid and precious few folk who would possibly stand by him and all of them probably still in their beds at this early hour. The Dawson Gang were nobody’s fool. They could shoot him down and be on their way to the border before anyone even missed him.
But there was no escape so he just stood his ground, one hand flexing above his gun, just waiting for one of them to make a move. He would be killed of course, but by God he’d go down fighting.
Then something caught his eye behind him and to his left and he flicked a quick glance in that direction, to see a slender figure emerge from the shadow of the livery yard. She wore buckskins and a brown Stetson, pulled down low, partially obscuring her white blond hair, the look in her deep blue eyes murderous as she surveyed the gang.
“OK boys,” she shouted across at them, “let’s even up the odds some shall we?”
The men exchanged an amused glance and then Butch said, “OK, in your own time Ma’am.”
Kate glared at him, “I’m with Jess on this one. You want to fight, then we’ll wait on you to draw first. Just so there’s no confusion later as to how you were the ones who called Jess out. But I believe folks will tell it how it was.”
Denny looked anxiously around him and now saw a man in a doorway, a woman and child peering from a window and another group of men forming near the saloon.
“Goddamn it,” he hissed to Butch and Tam, “let’s get this over with and ride out pronto.”
It was all over in seconds.
There was a barrage of shots, too fast and furious for the eye to see.
As soon as the Gang made their move, Jess and Kate both drew with lightning speed, taking out Denny and wounding Tam. But simultaneously Butch’s bullet found its mark and Jess crashed to the ground like a stone and lay motionless face down in the dirt.
Within a second a wild, furious bundle of grey fur hurled itself at Butch and he smashed into the ground, Blue on top of him growling and snarling before sinking his teeth into the petrified man’s plump upper arm.
There was silence for a full minute, save for the sound of the brutal snarls emitted by Blue. A fine trail of gun smoke spiralled to the sky and the stench of cordite was all around...and then all hell broke loose.
Kate called Blue off and then various members of the town council rushed forward and made a citizen’s arrest taking Tam and Butch along to the town jail, and Denny to the undertakers.
In the meantime, Doc Hanson had hurried out of his house and was kneeling beside Jess when a breathless Grace arrived looking pale and distraught.
“Oh God no,” she screamed when the doc turned Jess gently over and she saw the bloody shirt front and him looking more dead than alive. His eyes were closed tightly in pain…his dark lashes casting a shadow on his paper white face.
“Oh, Michael is he dead?” she cried, sobbing openly now.
The doctor shook his head, and turning to several bystanders asked them to help carry Jess to his office before he put a comforting arm around Grace, “I’ll do all I can my dear, go back to the children. I’ll call round when I have some news.”
Kate who had been kneeling beside Jess leaned close and said, “You hang on in there boy...I ain’t going any place, I’ll be in to see you later.”
With that she stood up and led the shaking Grace away, before returning and grabbing Blue by the collar and steering him back to the house too. He obeyed her, albeit reluctantly, constantly looking back to where his master had fallen.
Once Grace and the children were being comforted by a kindly neighbor, Kate made her way purposefully across the street to the doc’s office.
She knocked on the door, but when there was no reply, she pushed it gently and it swung open revealing a smart lobby leading to a room at the back where a door was ajar.
She called out and moments later the doc’s head appeared around the door and he beckoned her over.
“I’m right in thinking you are Mrs Kate Munroe?” he asked.
She nodded, “Doctor Hanson I presume, I’ve heard a lot about you from my good friends Rose and Mary Bronson.”
“Indeed,” he said smiling, “ and I about you too dear lady. So, uh Mrs Munroe I believe you are pretty knowledgeable regarding medical matters?”
Kate nodded, “I have an understanding of Indian medicine and herbal treatment and I know my way around a body well enough to nurse the sick,” she agreed.
“Well you are just the lady I need,” the doc declared. “You see Mrs Munroe I have yet to engage a nurse, or indeed even a housekeeper to assist me and I am very much in need of some help in treating Mister Harper.”
“I’m yer gal then,” Kate said cheerfully, “you just tell me what to do Doc and I’ll make sure that young man behaves; he’s uh, not always the easiest of patients,” she confided with a wink. Then more seriously, “So you can help him then Doc, he looked pretty beat up to me.”
The doctor nodded, “He’s in a bad way alright Mrs Munroe, I won’t lie to you it will be touch and go. The bullet is lodged in his chest and we won’t know how severe the damage until we remove it, so shall we get started?” With that he led Kate to his hospital room.
Jess lay on the operating table stripped to the waist, a swath of bandage covering the deep wound and he looked even paler than before if that was possible Kate thought fleetingly.
However, his eyes snapped open when he heard her voice and he whispered, “Kate...thank God...are you OK?”
“I’m a darned sight more OK than you are boy,” she said cheerfully, “but don’t fret the doc and I are going to patch you up just fine.”
Jess stared at her and then said with the ghost of a smile, “I’ll never live this down...I wind up all shot up and you walk away without a scratch.”
She smiled back, “I figure that was more down to those dang outlaws not wanting to shoot a woman, rather than anything I did.”
“You came back,” he whispered.
She nodded, “I only got a couple of day’s ride away and then had a kinda bad feeling...thought I’d come back and see if you were alright, pretty lucky I did I reckon.”
“You did real good,” Jess said quietly, “I finished Denny, but it was you that winged Tam before he could do any damage.”
Then the doc advanced on them with the ether and said they must put Jess to sleep now.
However, Jess raised a hand to stop him...
“Come on Jess,” Kate said patiently, “I know you and anesthetic don’t mix any too good, but it’s the only way son. The doc’s going to have his work cut out removing that bullet and keeping you alive...you understand?”
Jess nodded, “It’s not that Kate...I just wanna say something first...in case I don’t make it ya know?”
Kate and the doc stood waiting as Jess took a painful breath and looked deeply into Kate’s concerned eyes, “I just wanted to say sorry...for the other night, I was way out of order. I know you’d never do anything to upset Mort...I’m real sorry Kate.”
She squeezed his hand in a rare display of affection and said, “Me too Jess, and I’m real sorry I whacked you too...so let’s just forget it huh?”
He nodded and then said, “And er Kate...if it doesn’t go well, tell the folks back home that I... well you’ll know what to say huh?”
She nodded, “I won’t need to tell them anything boy, now hush up and do as the doc says.”

Kate spent a long night at his bedside after the protracted and difficult operation was finally completed successfully, as far as the removal of the bullet was concerned. However, Jess had his usual reaction to the anesthetic making him sick as a dog. He threw up for most of the night and the doc was extremely worried that the strain would pull the stitches in the deep wound necessitating further surgery.
Later that morning once Jess was sleeping peacefully at last, Kate and the doc relaxed with a coffee. “I can’t thank you enough for what you have done Mrs Munroe,” Doc Hanson said sincerely.
“Please call me Kate why dontcha,” she said scrutinizing him over the rim of her coffee cup. “I figure folk who have shared a night like we just have should be on first name terms don’t you?”
He beamed at her, “Certainly, and please call be Michael. I certainly couldn’t have managed without you that’s for sure. I really must try and find a suitable nurse cum housekeeper, if such a creature exists in this town,” he finished flatly.
“Well I imagine Grace will be looking for some part time work once the children start school next month,” Kate said shrewdly, the way the Doc’s face lit up whenever Grace was mentioned not having been lost on her.
Now as she expected he grinned from ear to ear, “What an excellent idea Kate, you really are one smart lady; just as old Ben said.”
Not only a smart lady but a pretty unique one too, he thought, never having met anyone like her before. Goodness a woman that could stand up against the Dawson gang and even shoot one of them without turning a hair was indeed a force to be reckoned with. No wonder Ben was so taken with her. She most certainly was different from the usual ladies one met.
Kate threw him a wary glance, “You know Ben?”
“Oh yes I’m well acquainted with your friends Rose and Mary of course and with Ben living so close I was introduced to him too, a pleasant chap.”
“Oh,” said Kate looking surprised, “I thought you were new to town?”
“Oh no I’ve acted as locum for old Bill Turner...uh Doctor Turner that is, a few times in the past; when he’s been sick or away visiting kin in the old country. I guess that’s why I was the first-person folk called on after he died.”
Kate nodded, “I see…yes, Ben is a good man...but a little lonely I think?”
The doc nodded, “Yes, he is and that’s why I was so pleased to see him keeping company with you. But you’re leaving us I hear?”
“Oh yes,” said Kate quickly, “I uh...need to get back to Laramie, I’ve a good friend there and he’ll be wondering where Jess and I have got to. We were due home last week. I did explain that to Ben. About my friendship with Mort that is and there was never any suggestion I should remain or take the relationship any further you know,” she said stoutly.
“Of course not, and I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just that I’m fond of Ben. He’s been through a lot lately losing his invalid wife, it’s not been easy for him over the years you know?”
“Yes, he told me all about having a short affair with a woman years ago. But that was before his wife was diagnosed with her complaint. She was I think rather a difficult woman and worse once she was an invalid, so I believe. He said this other young lady was the love of his life. But then when she suggested they take things further and wed he realised his obligations lay with his wife and had to leave the other woman. He said it was the biggest regret of his life. That and never having children, Kate said sighing, “But he is an honourable man and felt he should do the right thing... in the end.”
“I know he told me he felt terribly guilty when he had the affair. But he was just so utterly bowled over by this other woman and as you say his wife was something of a harridan, he was completely torn between love and duty. Some poor folk don’t have easy lives do they?” the doc said sadly.
Then they heard the sound of Jess waking up and cussing loudly saying he felt blamed awful and where was everyone?
Kate rolled her eyes at the Doc before getting up to tend her friend, “Ain’t that the truth,” she said with feeling.
Jess made good progress and the doc was relieved when Kate offered to stay in a spare room and nurse him whilst the doctor went out on his rounds.
It was then lying in the peace and quiet of the doc’s hospital bed that Jess opened up and gave an honest account of all that had occurred since he last saw Kate.
“You were right all along,” he admitted, “I guess that was why I was so dang mad at you. Gracie does want us to carry on where we left off. She’s been...well making it real clear that she don’t want me to go...and…” he sucked in a deep breath, not knowing how to tell it.
“Go on,” said Kate quietly.
“Even Owen reckoned she still...well loves me. She still wears a locket with our picture in. Hell, Kate I know I should have maybe rode out sooner but I felt so dang responsible for her and then the kids kinda got to me. They’re just swell children Kate,” he said his eyes lighting up.
“Why responsible for her?” Kate asked raising an eyebrow, “It’s years since you even clapped eyes on her.”
He shrugged, “I promised her dying Ma I’d always be there for Grace if she needed me. Then I proposed that time; when I really shouldn’t have done. Owen said she was, well real cut up about it all when I finished it and left her.”
“Jess, come on boy, everyone gets their heart broken at some stage and they get over it.”
“Yeah, except I don’t think she has,” he replied softly.
“Please tell me you’re not thinking of staying and making a life here with her out of duty, are you?” she asked.
He glanced at her and then looked away, “I thought of it...but...”
He turned back to face her, “I just couldn’t do it Kate, I love Millie too much. I couldn’t ever leave her.”
“Then stop fretting, you just concentrate on getting well and I’m pretty sure young Grace will survive without you. She’s tougher than you think Jess. She’s been wrapped in cotton wool all her life, first her Ma according to you, and then by this Owen who kept her locked away on the ranch. Well now she can spread her wings and start living properly and I figure she can do that just fine without you, there are others here that will look out for her OK?”
He nodded, “I sure hope so.”
“I know so,” said Kate giving him a playful punch on his arm.
Then she peered more closely, “Are you alright boy, you look kinda warm?”
Jess assured her he was feeling fine and then they heard the front door slam and Doc Hanson entered looking rather apprehensive.
It seemed that one of his patients, a youngster, had badly broken his leg and the hospital bed was needed for him.
“He has to be in traction you see? His leg suspended and progress checked daily, so I’m sorry but I really require your bed old chap.”
“Well sure doc I was gettin’ kinda bored with layin’ around anyways,” said Jess cheerfully.
“No, you misunderstand me,” said the doc quickly, “it is imperative that you have bed rest for at least another week...maybe longer. So, I tried to get your old room back at the hotel but unfortunately they are fully booked with this wretched Fair hitting town tomorrow.”
“Fair?” Kate asked looking blank.
“Uh yes, you know rides, sideshows, photographic booth...one of those traveling shows....so the town is booked solid and folks coming in from miles away.”
Kate looked dismayed. So much had happened since she had ridden back into town early on the day of the shooting, she hadn’t had time to book a room herself.
“But fear not,” the doc said smiling at them both, “I took the liberty of asking dear Grace ...er Widow Dalton, if she could put you both up for a little while and she is making up the beds as we speak,” he said with a relieved smile.
“Great,” said Jess, like it was anything but and giving the doc a weak smile.
They moved in later that day and the children were beside themselves with joy at having their Uncle Jess back under their roof. As to Grace she hid her feelings well. But Kate could see the love in the young widow’s eyes every time she looked at Jess and she knew things needed to be resolved sooner rather than later.
However, before Kate could embark on some of the plain speaking for which she was renowned Jess took a turn for the worse.
He had managed the walk across the street to Grace’s new house OK, but on Kate’s insistence had gone straight to bed. Grace had fussed around him offering more blankets and hot drinks when all he really wanted to do was sleep. He had cast Kate a beseeching glance and she quickly suggested Grace and the children showed her around the new house and leave Jess to rest.
Once Grace was busy preparing the youngster’s supper Kate came back up to check on her patient and found him sweating and cussing in equal measure.
She ran a practiced hand over his forehead and tutted, “I knew it, you’re running a fever. I thought it was too good to be true that you’d be well so darned quickly.”
Jess insisted he was fine and Grace had just piled on too many blankets, but he really wasn’t.
There followed three days of cussing, sweating and thrashing about as the fever racked his weakened body pushing him to the edge, until Kate really feared for his life once more.
She nursed him exclusively although it was clear that Grace wanted to be with him. But hell, Kate reasoned now wasn’t the time for silly romantic ideals. The boy was dang sick and needed the no nonsense skilled nursing that she knew only she could provide and so Grace had no say in the matter. That’s why Kate remained at his bedside day and night and did not relinquish her post until the fever finally broke in the early hours of the third day.
His eyes flicked open and he peered at where Kate sat in her chair dozing lightly, but at his first move she was wide awake again.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” she said jovially.
Jess blinked and looked around him before focusing back on Kate, “What time is it?” he whispered.
She shrugged, “Nearly dawn.”
Jess frowned, “Well dadgum it, what are you doing up Kate?”
“Looking after you, you great lug,” she said affectionately, “you’ve been mighty sick boy, got yourself a nasty infection in that wound. But I figure you’re on the mend now.”
Blue who had been curled up on the floor beside the bed now jumped up with his front paws on the bed and wined softly before licking Jess’s hand.
He grinned down at the big animal and then back to Kate, “You get off to bed Kate you look done in and I’m in good hands here.”
She yawned and stretched, “You know I think I might just do that, as long as I can trust you to stay abed and behave huh?”
“Sure...I ain’t goin’ anyplace right now,” Jess agreed feeling as weak as a new born kitten.
She got up and mooched to the door before he called, “Thanks Kate.”
She gave him a tired grin and waved a dismissive hand at him, “Oh well I think you’re worth the trouble boy...but don’t push it. You git yerself fit now, do as I say and we’ll be ridin’ home before you know it.”
After she left, he fell into a deep restorative sleep and it was Grace who came and sat with him later, Kate out for the count after her long vigil.
Grace had been beside herself with worry and in fact couldn’t bear to watch as Jess had thrashed around during the worst of the fever.
She had cried piteously, “Oh Kate please help him, I can’t lose him now I just can’t!”
Kate had enough on her plate and merely told the younger woman to pull herself together or vacate the room.
“He really doesn’t need to hear you wailing and fretting,” Kate said brusquely, “you go tend to the children, they’re real upset too,” she added more kindly.
Grace sat by the bed, the children playing quietly downstairs and she was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of relief mixed with love as she watched his chest gently rise and fall. The sweep of his dark lashes on cheeks that were now a healthy colour, the fever burnt out.
After a while she could contain herself no longer. She gazed at his strong handsome features and his oh so kissable lips and after a moment leaned forwards and kissed him gently.
Jess was in that place halfway between dreaming and waking and his dream had been of his beloved Millie. Now as he gradually awoke and felt the sensual pleasure of soft lips on his own, he responded with passion. However, it was just moments later that his eyes sprang open and he pushed Grace abruptly away realizing his mistake.
“What the heck,” he muttered, “Grace...what are you doin’?”
“I... I’m sorry,” she faltered, “I was remembering that time...when you were so sick after that cougar attack...do you recall it?”
He frowned and raised an eyebrow, “Yes I guess I do. But what has that got ta do with anything...huh?”
“But Jess don’t you see when I kissed you then...properly for the first time, it was the beginning of everything. Our love and our life together and it could be the same now,” she said eagerly.
“No,” Jess said quickly, “you’ve got it all wrong Gracie that was then, things have changed...we’ve changed...this ain’t right, for either of us.”
“But it is! It’s written in the stars that we’ll be together in the end. The Fortune Teller predicted it that day at the Fair. The day we became engaged Jess you made a promise to me.”
He sighed, “Come on Grace that was a world ago, we’ve both moved on and I sure ain’t gonna disrupt my whole darned life on the say so of some crazy old woman Fortune Teller.”
“Just hear me out,” she cried, almost as though her life depended on it. “I wrote it all in my diary that night and I’ve read it time after time, so I can quote exactly what she said that day...please let me tell you.”
Jess was beginning to feel sick and kinda lightheaded and she took his silence as consent for her to continue.
Grace looked up to the ceiling and quoted the fortune teller’s reading word for word, “I see a future with a great loss, followed by happiness and fulfilment...albeit within a gilded cage. Once more that is to be your fate in life. To be kept safe and loved...but maybe too much. Freedom is essential to life for some...and they will surely wither and love will die if they are kept in a cage. For others they learn to accept it. The loss of the one man you really love will bring freedom to him...never forget that my dear. You must make that sacrifice for the one you love and all will be well in the end. In the distant future more loss...but eventually a final marriage and happiness to the end of your days...of this I promise you.”
Then she looked down at Jess, “You see she predicted everything, great loss...first Mama, and then I lost you when you went from my life. Yes both Mama and Owen kept me safe in a ‘gilded cage,’ just as Madam Margo told it. Then in the distant future more loss...well that’s Owen dying of course!”
Her face lit up, “Then she said, ‘but eventually a final marriage and happiness to the end of my days’...she promised me Jess...she promised I’d marry you!”
“Hell, Grace you can’t live the whole of yer life on the predictions of one crazy old lady!”
“But don’t you see Jess, she was right about everything else, about me being kept too safe and the sad losses in my life. She even predicted the loss of the man I love...that has to be you because you are the only man I have ever truly loved,” she said tears now streaming down her face.
“What she actually said is, the loss of the man you love will bring freedom to him...and she also said, ‘Freedom is essential to life.’ Well heck that’s true of me Grace, I’ve always needed my freedom, time in the Big Open. I still do sometimes,” he added reflectively.
Then he continued, “Then that bit, somethin’ about and love will die if they are kept in a cage’ and I’ll give her that, she was dang right,” Jess said looking at her with concerned blue eyes. “Because I really believe our love would have died iffen I’d been tied down with you and a family at just nineteen. Hell, Grace can’t you see, it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”
Kate had awoken some time ago and had been about to enter the sick room and tell Grace she was ready to take over, when something made her pause on the threshold. Then she had witnessed everything...the passionate kiss...Jess’s protests...and then the ensuing argument.
Heck this was all Jess needed she thought and as the discussion got more and more heated, she decided to take charge.
She knocked loudly on the door and said, “Ah, here you are Grace, I think Gemma is looking for you.”
Grace stared at her for a moment before jumping up from the edge of the bed and running from the room.
“Are you OK Jess?” Kate asked running a hand over his forehead and peering down at him anxiously.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked gruffly.
“Long enough,” she said with a wary look. “She needs telling Jess and I figure that’s gonna be down to me huh?”
Chapter 10
Kate sought out Grace later that evening. The children were in bed and Grace was just finishing clearing the table when the older woman walked in.
“Is Jess alright? Should I go and sit with him, if you’re taking a break?” Grace asked looking concerned and moving towards the door.
Kate put out a hand and gently restrained her, “No, he’s fine. He’s sleeping well, so there is no need for us to stay with him now. It’s just a case of time for him to get his strength back.”
“Thank God,” said Grace fervently casting her eyes to Heaven.
Kate sat down at the table and indicated the chair across from her, “I think we need to talk,” she said heavily.
“Oh?” Grace replied sinking down opposite her. She was rather overawed by this somewhat overbearing, strident woman who seemed to break every rule of femininity and yet had men falling over themselves to be in her company.
Kate, being Kate made no bones about it and went straight to the heart of the matter.
“I think you need to understand that you’re wasting your time Grace. You see Jess is already pledged to another and he is an honourable man. So, nothing or nobody will make him change his mind and what’s more he loves Millie dearly and she him.”
“But...but you don’t understand,” cried Grace her desperation lending her courage, “we are meant to be together. It’s written in the stars, he’ll come around...I know he will...in time.”
“No,” said Kate firmly, “I’m sorry my dear but he won’t and if you really love him, as you profess to, then you’ll let him go and without the burden of unfounded guilt too. He’s stood by you and gone over and above the call of duty and now he needs to go home.”
In desperation Grace pulled the locket from around her neck and opening it said, “Look at this Kate, you can’t deny the love in his eyes!”
Kate did as she was bid and looked at the faded photograph. But then something else took her attention and she stared in shocked disbelief at the other photograph.
Ignoring Grace’s question, she countered it with one of her own.
“Tell me Grace, who is this blond-haired man?”
Grace looked surprised but said, “Why that is my dear Pa, his name is Ben, Ben Travers...we named Ben after him.”
Kate just stared at her in amazement, “So do you know where he is, your Pa that is?”
She shook her head, “No. I’ve never met him, he moved out before I was born. Ma would never talk about it or tell me why. All she took from him was his name although they were never married, I discovered after her death. She just used to say he would have loved me dearly...but that’s all. Why do you ask?”
Kate looked nonplussed for a moment and then said, “Er...no reason.”
With that she stood up and said, “I’ve just remembered something I need to discuss with Doctor Hanson, would you excuse me my dear, I won’t be long.”
Grace watched her go with troubled eyes. Was this brisk, strong woman right maybe? Was she just lying to herself? She’d been so sure that the prediction would one day come true...but now she was sorely afraid that maybe she had been mistaken all along.
The following morning the children were both begging to go to the Fair and finally Grace agreed to take them although it was clear that she would rather be spending her time with Jess. He was well enough to get up now and was relaxing by the fire and chatting to Kate when the family left, Grace saying they wouldn’t be long.
Once the door had slammed behind them Kate turned to Jess, a secretive look in her sparkling blue eyes.
Jess glanced over at her and said, “Well come on then Kate spit it out.”
“Huh, I don’t know what you mean?” she said openly smirking now.
“Whatever it is you’ve been bursting to tell me since breakfast,” he said, “and I’m guessin ’ you don’t want Grace to know about it...huh?”
She gave him a genuine smile then and said, “Not much gets past you does it Jess boy.”
“Well are you gonna tell me or what?”
Kate finally relented and decided to put him out of his misery.
“You know that locket Grace wears around her neck all the time?”
Jess flicked her a challenging glance, “Yup with our picture in it? I know Kate and yes, we did look like we were really in love and yes it was real cute. But dang it, like I told Grace all that was a powerful long time ago and things change.”
“I don’t mean that one,” Kate said impatiently, “the other one of her Pa. The blond guy with the nice smile...so have you seen him some place before?”
Jess frowned and cast his eyes to the ceiling concentrating hard, “You know I had a feelin’ I knew him when Owen showed it to me again a while back. But I just can’t place him.”
“It’s Ben,” said Kate triumphantly.
“Ben? Ben Travers...my friend’s neighbor. The guy I’m NOT having an affair with,” she concluded when Jess was still looking vague.
“What...that guy?” he said his eyes opening wide in surprise, “Are you sure?”
She nodded, “I called in on Doc Hanson last night and asked what Ben’s surname was. Well heck Jess there can’t be two Ben Travers with blond hair and that warm smile, it’s definitely him.”
“Jeez,” he muttered, “...so does he know?”
“Of course not, how could he? He’d no idea Sadie was even pregnant when he left. It’s going to be a huge shock when he finds out not only does he have a daughter, but he’s also a grandfather,” she said gleefully.
“Well, I’ll be...” said Jess shaking his head and grinning at the thought, “So who’s gonna tell him? Then looking slightly bemused, “and her?”
Kate looked thoughtful, “Well you’ll tell her I reckon Jess. You see I’ve arranged for Doc Hanson to break the news to Ben. We both figured it would be quite a shock, in a good way of course. Then the Doc will arrange for him to visit to meet Grace and the children.”
Jess grinned over at Kate and said quietly, “You know this could be just what we all need.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well stands to reason don’t it? If she’s gotten a new Pa in her life, she’ll hardly miss me at all when we ride out will she?”
However as with many things in life, it was not that simple.
“What,” asked Ben Travers again, “a daughter, grandchildren...but you must be mistaken Doc. I’m sure I’d know if I was a Pa and grand–pappy wouldn’t I!”
“It seems not,” said the doctor patiently and explained the situation yet again.
Ben shook his grey head and said softly, “Sure I remember Sadie she was the love of my life Doc. But I had to let her go...Jeez I let her down so badly. I didn’t know about the baby. I really didn’t,” he said throwing the doc a beseeching glance. “If I’d known she was in the family way I’d have done things differently, sure I would.”
“I know,” said the doc kindly, patting the older man’s shoulder, “but now you can finally have your daughter in your life after all this time.”
Ben sank his head to his chest and groaned softly, “I can’t he said, I just can’t. Leaving her Ma that way...it just wouldn’t be right...as much as I want to see them. I figure I just don’t deserve that kind of happiness after the way I behaved.”
The doc tried in vain to change his mind for over an hour and eventually made his way back to Grace’s house, pushing his way through the merry crowds enjoying the fair.
Once he’d ascertained that Grace and the children were still out the Doc unburdened himself.
“I just don’t understand it,” he said looking anguished, “the man has a chance of happiness with dear Grace and those wonderful children and he’s just rejected it out of hand.”
Jess looked thoughtful, “I can kinda understand it doc, maybe I should have a word with him?”
Doc Hanson shrugged, “I’ve talked until I’m blue in the face. He just won’t listen.”
“All the more reason for me to try then,” said Jess standing and heading for the door.
“Now just a minute,” said the doc rising too, “you’re not well enough to be going out yet.”
“Look do ya want this sortin ’ or not?” Jess said with a flash of anger, “me and Kate are ridin’ out soon and I sure as hell don’t want to leave things this way,” he finished before heading off out the door.
The doctor made to follow, but Kate called him back and gave him a rueful shrug, “Don’t waste yer time Doc. Once Jess gets all fired up this way there’s no stopping him, so I shouldn’t bother trying.”
Jess strode over to the hotel where he knew Ben was staying, on the off chance of seeing Kate again before she rode out, he figured.
He caught up with him in the bar working his way down a bottle of whiskey.
He gave Jess a nod as he walked over, “Uh Jess isn’t it? Dear Katie’s companion? “He asked looking slightly bleary eyed.
Jess grunted assertion and then said, “An’ its Kate not Katie.”
“Uh, oh yes, I stand corrected. A wonderful woman,” he said looking down into his glass.
Jess ignored that and said, “I didn’t have you down as a big drinker?”
It took Ben a few seconds to register the comment and then he said expansively, “Well I’m not dear boy, hardly touch the stuff...but I’ve had rather a shock,” then he poured another drink and said, “purely medicinal I can assure you.”
Jess hid a smile at the well remembered phrase, so often on old Jonesy’s lips. Then taking a deep breath ordered two strong coffees and escorted Ben over to a quiet table at the back of the room.
“You need to git sober and listen up real good,” he said.
Something in his tone and those concerned blue eyes made Ben really sit up and take notice. After all the boy was a friend of dear Kate so he must be a good ‘un he reasoned.
Just half an hour later a now completely sober and reflective Ben was almost won over.
The fact that Jess had also known Sadie and was able to tell him what her life had become after Ben had left had been a real eye opener. He was completely devastated.
“If only she’d told me, she wouldn’t have needed to go through all that, “he said shaking his head sadly.
“Look I’m real sorry I had to tell you about the way she earned a livin’ and the way she died too,” Jess said quickly. “But dontcha see Ben…now you can make it up to her in some ways by being there for Gracie and the kids. That’s what Sadie would have wanted I’m sure.”
Ben still looked undecided, feeling somehow unworthy and undeserving of such happiness with his own kin to care for at last.
Jess watched him and then played his trump card. What was it Owen had said to him? Oh yeah, he’d got it...the word was atonement. He’d wanted Jess to marry Grace as an act of atonement. But he knew in his heart that wasn’t right...not for him or for her. He had done his best to right any wrong doing he might have done her in the past. He’d been there for her and the children when they needed him most and now, he felt the debt was paid in full.
He said quietly, “I guess maybe it’s a time of atonement, huh Ben? Making it up to the family; you can’t help Sadie now but you can help her kin can’t ya huh?”
“You...you think they’d really want me in their lives?” he asked a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
“I don’t think it...I know it,” Jess said firmly, remembering the photograph of Ben in the locket that Grace had carried with her all her life and yes, he was dang sure she’d want to meet him at long last.
“I’ll tell her today and say that you wanna visit her OK?”
When Jess arrived back at the house Grace had returned from the fair looking flushed and animated.
“We must talk, I have some wonderful news!” she said excitedly.
Jess smiled down at her, “Well sure Grace and I’ve got something I need to tell you too.”
Then the children bounded in full of stories of their fun time at the fair and Grace grimaced over their heads.
“Later,” she said with a tiny intimate smile, before taking them off to settle them down for an early night.
It was later, with Kate out visiting Ben, that Jess had his chance to impart his news to Grace. But she was so impatient to share hers first he told her to go ahead.
“Well....you know how we went to the fair today?”
Jess just nodded, suddenly having a slightly uneasy feeling about this allegedly ‘wonderful news.’
“Oh Jess,” she said grabbing his hand as they sat together on the couch, “you’ll never believe it but I saw Madam Margo at the fair.”
“You must remember, Madam Margo, the Fortune Teller, the one we saw all those years ago?”
“Well sure I remember her,” he said briskly, “we were only talkin’ about the old fake the other day.”
“But she’s not Jess, she’s really not. You see I had another reading done. She asked if I had anything that I owned that was special to me, that she could hold to help her to see my future.”
“I bet she did,” Jess said sarcastically, “don’t tell me, you gave her the locket.”
“How did you know?” she asked looking surprised.
Jess just rolled his eyes, “A lucky guess...or maybe I just thought the same as she did, you’d hand over somethin’ real special that was full of clues as to what she was gonna say next.”
Grace ignored that and then said, “Well anyway, she opened it up and gave this sort of gasp and then said ‘But my dear this is the man who has come back from the distant past. He is the one destined to stay with you all of your days’.”
Jess looked down and smiled to himself. OK maybe you had to give ol’ Madam Margo her due, because she was spot on this time, he thought.
He looked up into her sparkling eyes and said quietly, “She was right about that Grace. But it weren’t me she was talkin’ about. It was the other picture in the locket...it was your Pa... see he’s here in town.”
There was a shocked silence for a full minute while Grace battled with the inner turmoil of losing Jess, but finding her Pa. Eventually she said weakly, “Tell me exactly what you’re talking about Jess.”
The first meeting, between Grace and her Pa took place behind closed doors the following morning.
Jess had arranged to take the children over to Doc Hanson’s place to check on Rolly, Gemma’ s pony, and Kate accompanied them.
“Well done for succeeding where I failed,” said the Doc dryly as the adults stood by the paddock gate watching young Ben and Gemma fuss the pony.
“Maybe I know more about atonement than you do doc,” Jess said with a depreciating grin.
“What do you mean by that?” the doc asked raising an eyebrow.
Jess looked thoughtful, “It’s a word Owen used. He was tryin’ to get me to Wed Grace and take on the kids as my own...he said it was a time for atonement. You know, making amends. But I figure I’ve done that. Helped her out all I can and now it’s down to Ben Travers. He saw that when I said it would be what Sadie, Grace’s ma, would have wanted. See I knew her and yup that’s just what she would have wanted to happen for Grace to find her Pa at last.”
“So, you’ve no intentions of doing as Owen asked then?” the doc asked diffidently, “You’re not thinking of marrying Grace?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, I don’t love her doc and I figure she don’t love me either. Just the memory of what was...long ago. So, you see there’s room in her life for someone else,” he said giving the doc a sly glance. He noted the way the doc flushed up and looked pretty darned pleased with himself and Jess finally breathed a sigh of relief...everything was gonna be OK.
“I figure we’ll make tracks tomorrow, huh Jess?” Kate asked.
Jess waited for the doc to protest, saying he should rest up a while longer but surprisingly he didn’t.
“Sure,” he said grinning at his old friend, “that sounds good to me.”
The following morning after breakfast he and Kate had made their way to the livery to collect their mounts and something else too.
They rode down Main Street and were pleased to see all their friends out by Grace’s porch ready to wave them off. The children and Grace looking pretty subdued, Jess noted, along with Ben Travers. In fact, the only member of the group looking pretty perky was the doc Jess observed and figured that was everything to do with his proximity to Grace, rather than the fact he was pleased Jess was leaving town.
He slipped down from his mount and holding a wriggling gunny sack knelt down by the children.
“Me and ol’ Blue there are gonna miss you kids somethin’ fierce,” he said honestly, “So we figured we’d leave ya something to remember us by.”
Then he opened the neck of the sack and the cutest little grey and white puppy stuck his nose out and soon wriggled free landing in Gemma’s outstretched arms. Both children were beside themselves with delight. Even Grace had a smile on her face when he kissed her chastely on the cheek, saying goodbye. Then he shook hands with Ben Travers and Doc Hanson, hugged the youngsters and was back up in the saddle in the blink of an eye.
Never being one for protracted goodbyes Kate had already given a little salute and started to ride away.
“You visit again next time you’re up this way...you hear?” Ben Travers called, waving.
Kate gave a farewell salute and nodded before heading off.
“I’d better be goin’ too,” Jess said smiling into Grace’s now misty eyes. “Be happy huh?”
She nodded and the doc finally took the daring step of putting an arm around her shoulders.
“Oh, she’ll be just fine won’t you Grace?”
She turned to look into those kind brown eyes and in that moment knew...yes, she really thought she would be. With the doc and her Pa to look out for her she figured life would go on and it might just be pretty good.
Jess whistled up Blue and with a final wave spurred Traveller on to catch up to where Kate was waiting for him at the bend in the road.
They’d been riding along in companionable silence for a while when Kate turned to him and said, “You know I’ve been thinking.”
“Um...about our visit here, well I reckon that Mort and Millie don’t need to be burdened with all the details of our trip. About that Grace wanting a tad more than you were prepared to give for example?”
“Um...and like that Ben Travers havin’ the hots for you?” Jess asked grinning now.
Kate flushed a little, “Well yes I guess...after all nothing happened so like I say, best kept to ourselves huh?”
Jess nodded, “I reckon what happened in Bozeman should stay in Bozeman huh Kate?”
“Exactly,” she said beaming at him.
Then spurring her mount on to a brisk canter called over her shoulder, “Come on then Jess boy let’s get home.”

It was a good six months later before Jess heard anything from Grace and her family.
The letter arrived via Mose.
He was just getting up from the dining table after indulging in coffee and some of Miss Daisy’s delicious pie, when he recalled he had mail. After doing his usual trick of patting all his pockets he finally produced a large official looking envelope from inside his vest pocket and waved it at Jess, a twinkle in his rheumy old eyes.
He sniffed the envelope and rolling his eyes said, “By the delicious aroma of scent and neat hand, I figure this is from a lady friend Jess and contains some kinda invite I reckon?” he surmised.
“Well I ain’t gonna find out unless you dang well give it to me, am I?” retorted Jess irritably as Mose held it just out of his reach.
“Kinda tetchy ain’t he?” Mose said as Daisy and Slim looked on in amusement.
“Uh...Montana postmark...so I reckon it’ll be from that Miss Grace won’t it?”
“Just give it here will ya Mose, or so help me!”
Mose still held onto the letter.
“Funny kinda business that weren’t it Slim?” He said conversationally. “As I recall it, that Miss Grace was supposed to be the sick one. But ‘twas her husband that up and died in the end. We never did get to the bottom of that,” he reflected throwing Jess a speculative glance.
“That’s because it weren’t any of your goddamn business,” barked Jess getting thoroughly annoyed now.
Then turning quickly to Daisy muttered, “Pardon me Ma’am,” before he turned and easily wrestled the letter off Mose.
“Ain’t you running late?” Jess asked sarcastically casting a glance towards the clock on the mantle.
That was enough to send Mose on his way huffing and puffing because after all that he didn’t have time to check out the contents of the letter.
Once he was on his way, they all sat back down and Daisy poured them some more coffee, whilst Jess opened the letter, Slim and Daisy looking on keenly.
After a while Jess’s face lit up as he perused the contents. Firstly, there was a large formal Wedding Invitation, beautifully written on crisp cream card and also letters and pictures from the children.
“Well I’ll be!” he said shaking his head and grinning broadly. “She’s only sayin’ she’s up an’ marrying the doc.”
“Huh?” Slim asked looking curious. “What…the doc that tended you when you stopped a bullet from the Dawson Gang?”
“Uh...oh yeah, but he was a kind of family friend before that. He was carin’ for her husband to the end, then he kinda rallied around helped her find a house in town, that kinda thing.”
“Well it looks like he was there at just the right time and love blossomed,” Daisy said cheerfully. “Oh how exciting, a wedding,” she said clapping her hands. “When is it dear...you will attend?”
Jess looked down and flushed a little, “In the spring, beginning of April. But no, I guess not Daisy.”
“Oh, that’s a shame, why not dear? She was a very close old friend, wasn’t she?”
“ Yeah, but it’s way too far to go Daisy and we’ll be busy then.”
“Taking the stock up to the higher grazing and all...won’t we Slim?” he asked turning to his partner for support.
Slim nodded vigorously, “Um, I figure we will Jess...shame that.”
“Oh well,” said a somewhat deflated Daisy and collecting the cups made off to the kitchen to do some baking.
Once she’d gone Slim looked over at his buddy and said softly, “What’s the real reason you don’t want to go Jess? After all, Daisy said she was a real close old friend...But maybe a tad too close huh?”
Jess nodded and looking uncomfortable said quietly, “You could say so yes.”
Slim threw his pard a quizzical look, “Mose was right we never did really get to the bottom of things when you landed home. You didn’t really tell us too much, other than it was Owen, her husband, who wrote you. Then that he died while you were there... how you stayed on a while to settle her and the kids into town. Then you clammed up...sure didn’t want to share anything,” Slim said looking slightly hurt.
Jess sighed, “ I was tryin’ to put it behind me...see it weren’t an easy time. Owen wanted me to wed her and take on the kids...and it turned out she was of the same mind.”
Slim gave a low whistle, “Jeez that was kinda awkward. Uh you weren’t tempted I take it?”
“What do you think,” asked Jess hotly, “I’m with Millie now you know that.”
“Sure, and I also know what a darned overactive conscience you can have at times too. I know you felt pretty bad about leaving her when you were younger. I mean that’s why you made the trip in the first place wasn’t it?”
“Well maybe I was for a minute there...for the kids more than her really. They’re real lovely young ‘uns ...look Slim, “and he pushed across a letter from young Ben and a pretty drawing of the puppy from Gemma.
Slim read the note and admired the painting before saying softly, “It must have been kind of hard to ride out and leave them?”
Jess nodded, “Yup, but I couldn’t stay Slim, I just couldn’t leave Millie...not even for them.”
“That’s why you don’t want to go... you think it might rake everything up again?”
“Dunno,” said Jess honestly, “but I sure as hell don’t want to risk it.”
“She was still in love with you then?”
“She reckoned she was...who knows. Anyway, she’s happy with the doc now and that’s the main thing.”
Slim nodded,“ It sure is, yeah.”
Then he threw his buddy a calculating look, “It’s odd you know. It wasn’t just you that didn’t want to discuss the trip. According to Mort, Kate was pretty reticent too.”
“Cagey Jess, tight lipped... didn’t seem to want to tell him about her visit either.”
“Well maybe there was nuthin’ to tell,” Jess said throwing him an innocent look.
Well Slim sure knew when his pard was lying through his teeth, but for once he figured he’d let him get away with it. Least said soonest mended as his old Ma used to say he remembered with a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Jess asked throwing his buddy an annoyed glance.
“Nothing, except you’re going to be pretty busy this evening writing to those cute kids and then explaining to the lovely Miss Grace just exactly why you can’t attend her wedding.”
“Aw Slim, what ’ll I say huh...huh?”
Grace and Doctor Hanson were married that April, the blushing bride given away by her dear Pa Ben Travers, with little Gemma as her bridesmaid. If Grace was a little saddened by Jess’s absence she recovered well and was extremely touched by the beautiful wedding gift and attached note, wishing her every happiness for the future.
The couple did indeed have a long and happy married life together, Grace giving birth to twin boys the year after their marriage making their contentment complete.
The older children never forgot their ‘Uncle Jess’ and even kept in touch with him, long after they were fully grown and had flown the nest. They always remembered that kind friend of their Ma. The man with the twinkling blue eyes, who had arrived in their lives at a time of great need...and who had cared for them as if they were his own kin...a very special friend to one and all.
The End
Thank you for reading

Wishing Mr Robert Fuller  a Very Happy Birthday!

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