#83 The New Deputy

The New Deputy
Patty Wilkinson

Some violence, adult themes and strong language
Many thanks to Michelle Butler for the use of her excellent screen cap.

Chapter 1
Mort Cory, Sheriff of Laramie and good friend to all at the Sherman Ranch, had been like a bear with the toothache for nigh on two weeks according to Jess Harper. He just didn’t know what had gotten into his friend.
He didn’t want to call at the saloon and sink the odd glass of refreshing beer, he didn’t want to eat his fill at Miss Molly’s eating house and he certainly didn’t want to pass the time of day with any of his old friends.
“I just can’t figure it,” said Jess as he buttered a biscuit at the breakfast table. “I thought maybe it was somthin ’ I’d done but I ran into Kate Munroe the other day and she said the same, he’s just turned real ornery.
“Maybe he’s sick,” suggested Daisy, the ranch housekeeper, ex-nurse and fount of all knowledge concerning folk and their strange little ways; as Jess described the human condition.
Slim Sherman the tall blond rancher got to his feet, ready to start the day’s work and said, “No, I don’t think so Daisy, he seems fit enough to me. Nope maybe he’s just feeling kind of er...frustrated, you know with Miss Kate refusing to wed him and all.”
The relationship Mort had with Kate Munroe was a complex one. With Kate spending most of the year up the Laramie Mountain; which she loved for the freedom and outdoors lifestyle. Here she had a platonic relationship with a distant cousin, Denver James and his sons, renowned moonshine makers. But she was also a huge part of Mort’s life and spent quality time with him too but refused to settle down. Jess had once said they broke the mold when Kate was born. A wise woman well versed in the art of Indian medicine, she was as tough as any man, able to out shoot, fish or drink most. But she still retained an allure that was irresistible to many men, even now in her more mature years.
“Well I aim to get to the bottom of it once and for all when I ride into town later,” Jess said with the light of battle in his deep blue eyes. “After all he’s a real good friend and if something is bothering him, we should try and help him out some huh?”
Ignoring Jess’s altruistic sentiments Slim glared at him, “Please tell me you’re not going to town again, garldarn it Jess that’s the third time this week!”
“Well we need stuff from the mercantile, don’t we Daisy?” He asked throwing her a hopeful glance.
“Do we dear?” she asked returning his look with one of kindly innocence.
“Sure, you remember, you said you were getting real low on cinnamon for the apple pies and.... er...”
But before Jess could continue Slim broke in, “Come on Jess just because its high summer and not too much work to do, that doesn’t mean you can go swanning off to town to spend all your day in Miss Millie’s bed....er company I mean...” he quickly corrected himself in deference to Daisy’s presence.
“I weren’t thinkin’ of even callin’ in on Millie,” Jess said looking the picture of self-righteous indignation. “Heck she’ll be way too busy working in the saloon, this weather its full all the dang time. Folk get a mighty strong thirst in this hot weather. Nope I’ll go to the mercantile, then call in on Mort and be home for the afternoon Stage, supper at the latest,” he amended.
“Sure you will,” drawled Slim winking at Daisy and recovering his temper some. After all, if a man couldn’t idle away the odd summer afternoon with his girl then what was the point in working fit to drop the rest of the year. Nope he’d just make darned sure he got to go visit with his girl, Lily, the following week.

“Oh, do give the Sheriff our love Jess. I so hope he’ll be more himself soon,” Daisy said earnestly.
Jess rode into town mid-morning and he figured that would give him time to get Daisy’s items from the mercantile, have a good heart to heart with Mort and still leave him plenty of time to spend with the delectable Millie.
Whistling softly to himself he strode down Main Street after placing Daisy’s few things into his saddle bag and then wandered into Mort’s office.
The Sheriff was sitting at his desk reading some wanted posters and he looked up irritably when Jess walked in.
“What do you want?” he asked looking far from friendly.
“Well a better attitude for one thing. Like a ‘howdy Jess, how are ya doing would be a nice start,” Jess said sarcastically.
Mort glared at him and then after a moment his face relaxed into a rueful grin.
“I’m sorry buddy, so how are you and everyone at the ranch?”
“We’re fine, Daisy sends her love. But we’re real worried about you Mort. So, what’s goin’ on huh?”
“Nothing is ‘going on’ as you put it,” said Mort irritably, glowering at him once more.
Jess shrugged and wandering over to the coffee pot poured him-self a cup of the strong brew.
“Well help yerself why don’t you?” Mort growled.
Ignoring the bitterness in his friend’s voice he merely raised the pot and said, “You want a top up then Mort?”
Mort sighed deeply and just nodded.
Once both men were furnished with a steaming cup Jess took the chair opposite the desk and said firmly, “I ain’t goin’ until you tell me what’s bothering you Mort.”
Mort stared into his coffee for a while and then said, “If you must know its Lon.”
“Huh, your deputy, well what about him? He’s not sick is he Mort?” he asked being quite fond of the young deputy. OK he could be a tad lax at times, but he was cheerful company and did a pretty good job supporting Mort loyally when the chips were down.
“Huh? Oh no, no nothing like that. He’s resigned. Seems his wife Betty is expecting again. She says she wants her husband home for his supper on time every night not half way across the county chasing outlaws or doing a night shift here.”
“Oh, I see,” said Jess looking surprised as he knew how much Lon loved the job.
“She said a heck of a lot more too,” said Mort miserably, “ending with she didn’t want the father of her babies getting his head blown off by some lowlife he was chasing in the name of justice.”
Jess hid a smile knowing just how volatile Betty could be.
“Well you can’t blame her for that Mort.”
“Oh, I know and I can see her point well enough. But that doesn’t help me any Jess. I’m real stuck here there’s just nobody in town fit for the work, unless?”
Then he threw his old friend a hopeful glance.
Jess looked up and seeing the questioning look in Mort’s eye said, “No! Oh no Mort I ain’t doin’ it. Sure, I don’t mind ridin’ posse and acting deputy on occasion but I can’t commit to any more. Heck I’m a partner in the ranch now, you know that. What the heck would old Hardrock say huh?”
“Oh, Slim would skin me alive if he knew I’d even suggested it,” said Mort with a wry grin. “But I’m desperate here Jess. This dang town is full of wanna-be deputies who’d be as much help as the dang cat when it came to a shoot-out. Or else folk like yourself who are busy with their own lives. But I’ll tell you this Jess out of ‘em all I’d have you watching my back before anyone else I can think of.”
Jess looked down taking this information in and then threw his friend a sincere smile, “Well I appreciate that Mort I really do and I feel real bad not bein’ able to oblige you. Maybe you’ll just hafta try further afield? Send some posters out to Cheyenne, Denver even huh?
“I’ve done that, just waiting to hear back. But I’d really like someone I know...maybe even got a likin ’ for. But it looks like I’ll get some kid wet behind the ears that I’ll have to train up from scratch again. This happening just when I was hoping I could take a step back and give young Lon some more responsibility.”
“You don’t know that Mort, you might find someone real keen to learn or even had some experience.”
“I sure hope so,” the Sheriff said sighing deeply,” because I’ll tell you this in confidence, I’m feeling my age right now Jess and for two pins I’d chuck it all in and go fishing to the end of my days.”
“Aw come on Mort you don’t mean that. Look at your old pappy still going strong at 86, ready to pitch in and help in a fight even now what would he say to that huh?”
“He’d say pull yourself together son, bite the dang bullet and git on with it!”
“Well then,” said Jess grinning at his friend, “that sounds like good advice to me.”
As Jess had surmised the bar was heaving with thirsty drinkers the temperature outside soaring and it was pretty warm in the murky depths of the Laramie saloon too. The place was crowded with noisy sweating drovers and the staff all working at full tilt. So, it wasn’t until nearly three in the afternoon before Millie was finally able to take a break.
She’d managed to exchange the odd snippet of conversation with Jess in between serving, but now she raised an eyebrow and tipping her head towards the backroom lifted the bar flap to let him through.
“Just half an hour please Millie dear,” Tom said as Jess passed through into the back, “we’re short staffed with Lily sick don’t forget.”
Millie rolled her eyes to Jess, but replied good naturedly that she wouldn’t be long.
There was only a flimsy curtain dividing the back room from the bar, offering them little privacy but hell at least he had some time alone with his girl, Jess thought happily.
Then his brows furrowed, “Lily is sick?”
“Uh...oh yes, nothing serious, just a nasty summer cold she’ll be fine in a day or so.”
“OK, I’ll tell Slim when I get home.”
“So, what brings you back to town so soon?”
“To see you of course,” he said with a wink, “and uh, well Mort too I reckon, he really ain’t himself right now.”
“So I hear…I expect that’s down to Betty laying down the law,” said Millie with a grin
“You know about that?”
She nodded, “Uh-huh, apparently she told Lon he could get another job or get out but I figure that was her condition talking really.”
“Well she’s pregnant again Jess, that makes women folk have all sorts of strange ideas, it can make them kind of moody and unpredictable too.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Jess dryly, “so what’s he gonna do?”
“He’s got himself a job helping out Will Hardman the Blacksmith. Will has said he’d train him in all the stuff he does. It could be a good job...steady anyway.”
“If he can live with old Will’s temper that is,” said Jess chuckling. “Jeez he’s got a real short fuse that guy.”
Millie nodded, “According to his wife it’s the heat makes him so bad tempered.”
“Well kind of a strange choice of job then, workin’ at a forge,” said Jess laughing. “I bet he’s mighty ornery on a day like today then. I sure wouldn’t like to be in Lon’s boots working for the guy.”
“Oh well as long as it keeps Betty happy, he’ll be happy. He really loves her, you know.”
He nodded and threw her a smouldering look, “Like I do you sweetheart. You’re sure looking purty today Mill.”
She ran a hand through her dark wavy hair, the heat making little curls stick to her forehead and there was a slick of perspiration glistening at her cleavage...the low cut, sparkling white blouse showing off her golden tan.
“I sure don’t feel it,” she said smiling at him, “it’s too darned hot.”
“We could maybe go out in the back yard for some fresh air...cool off some?” he suggested with a knowing smile....
It was a couple of weeks later before Jess and Slim made it back to town.
As soon as Slim had heard that Lily was sick, he’d hightailed it to town to visit, bearing candy and one of Daisy’s romantic novels. However unfortunately he brought the bug back to the ranch. First, he came down with the heavy cold, then Daisy. She had insisted on bed rest and nursing him as he coughed and wheezed his way through the nasty bug. The result being that she and Mike were laid low with it too and finally Jess. Of course, Jess being Jess…he refused to give in and rest resulting in an awful hacking cough that lasted for weeks after the illness was just a distant memory to everyone else.
“At least I know where to find you.” Slim said cheerfully one morning as he entered the barn to discover Jess grooming Traveller.
Once the coughing fit abated Jess glared at him through watery eyes.
“Well that’s real comfortin ’ for you. Maybe I should go catch me another darned cold, just so you can keep tabs on me.”
Slim chuckled at that, “Cheer up Jess. I thought we might ride into town later, with it being Saturday. Catch up with Lily and Millie...and take a look at this new deputy Mort’s taken on too, what about it huh?”
Jess’s good humor returned at once, “Sure thing Hardrock, it’ll be just great to see the girls. Not so sure about this new deputy though, according to Mose he’s running a real tight ship. Apparently, he had a go at the old fool last week for the Stage running five minutes late.”
“What,” Slim asked looking annoyed, “what’s it got to do with him?”
“That’s what I said,” Jess replied, “kinda big for his boots for a new guy dontcha think Slim?”
Later that evening the men left their mounts at the livery and made their way down Main Street and into Mort’s office.
As they entered, a tall, dark haired man with penetrating steely grey eyes looked up from his paper work and frowned at them. He was obviously annoyed at the way they’d just barged in interrupting him, Slim imagined.
“Yes gentlemen, what can I do for you?” he asked with a less than friendly look.
Jess’s eagle eye had weighed up the guy at once and wasn’t any too impressed by what he saw, then he noted something else that made he even less so.
Raising a cynical eyebrow, he said, “Uh...Sheriff?”
The man indicated the shiny badge on his chest, with Sheriff emblazoned upon it and nodded, “That’s right Mister can I help you huh?”
Jess and Slim exchanged a glance before Jess said, “I uh...thought Mort Cory was the Sheriff around here?”
The man looked somewhat wrong footed and muttered, “He isn’t here right now.”
“Well I can see that,” said Jess glaring at the guy, “so I figure you must be the new deputy huh?”
The man nodded, “That’s me...the names Cody...Frank Cody and you are?”
“Jess Harper and this here is my partner Slim Sherman, from the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.”
Neither man moved to shake hands and Slim continued, “We’re very good friends of the Sheriff, so where is he deputy?”
“Uh he was kinda sick, got this nasty head cold that’s doing the rounds so I sent him home,” the man said pompously.
“You sent him home?” Jess echoed raising an eyebrow. “I figure that was your boss’ call weren’t it?”
Cody flushed up and said, “Well of course that’s what I meant, just a turn of phrase.”
Slim and Jess moved to go before Slim turned back and said rather belatedly, “Good luck with the new job...you’re in good hands with Mort showing you the ropes.”
Cody nodded but declined to reply.
Then Jess wandered back across the office and leaning over he pulled open the top desk drawer and extracted one of the deputy badges he knew Mort kept there.
He flipped it over to Cody and said deadpan, “You might wanna change yer badge. You wouldn’t want any confusion as to your role, now would you?” He threw him a hard look and then followed Slim outside.
“So, what do you make of that?” Slim asked once they were out of earshot.
Jess shrugged, “I reckon Mort must be feelin’ pretty sick to leave an upstart like that in charge of the town, let’s go visit huh?”
Mort called for them to come in when they knocked on the door a little later and he was a sorry sight so Jess declared.
The Sheriff was huddled in front of the fire with a blanket around his shoulders, even though it was a hot sticky evening without. His eyes were watery, his nose red and his demeanour miserable.
The men quickly rallied around, making him a hot drink and also a plate of scrambled eggs as he professed not to have eaten that day.
Once he had consumed his meal, he was soon looking a tad brighter. Sipping a coffee, laced with red-eye, he turned to his friends and said, “I take it you’ve met my lowly deputy.”
Jess chuckled, “He is rather full of himself ain’t he Mort? We caught him trying on your badge for size. I figure he’d have passed himself off as the Sheriff if we hadn’t called his bluff.”
“The hell he did,” Mort said looking annoyed, “He sure is one arrogant dude. He’d only been in there two minutes before he started rearranging everything!”
“Beats me why you took him on,” said Slim, frowning at his old friend.
“He comes highly recommended by some Sheriff down in Arizona. I’ve not heard of the guy, I must confess...but he gave a glowing reference, along with a couple of others from down that way. Plus, he was the only one that had any experience. So, I said he could have a trial run, see how he pans out. Mister Briggs the leader of the council was pretty impressed with him too, said he highly recommended I take him on, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Jess looked thoughtful, “He looks to be late thirties...maybe forty? So, if he’s that dang good why ain’t he made Sheriff yet?”
Mort shrugged, “From what little I’ve seen of him he’s not the most likeable of guys...bit of a nit-picker you know?”
“Like criticizing Mose because the Stage was five minutes overdue,” said Slim.
“Ha, yup and the rest, he bawled out a kid for spitting and another for not calling him sir!” Mort shook his head, “Oh well let’s give him time to settle in, maybe he’ll prove to be up to the mark if we have some real crime huh?”
“Maybe I should go and start a fist fight in the saloon and see how he copes,” said Jess grinning.
However, Mort didn’t smile back, “Don’t cross him Jess. He’s already asked me why I use a known ex-outlaw to deputize for me.”
Jess looked furious, “I thought he looked kinda wary when I introduced myself. Hell Mort, how does he know about my past?”
Mort shrugged, “He’s worked down south a lot...would be kinda strange if he hadn’t come across your reputation down there, probably all gossip and hearsay anyway.”
Jess’s eyes narrowed and he threw Mort a challenging glance, “So what did you tell him?”
“I told him that who I chose to be my deputy was my darned business and that as a matter of fact you were one of my closest friends and the best dang deputy, I’d ever worked with…OK?”
Jess flushed and looked down, “I’m sorry Mort...and thanks.”
“Well like I say don’t give him any cause to flex those overactive muscles of his Jess. The man’s just itching to throw someone in jail and with me off my game right now I can’t put the brakes on him.”
“You got it Mort I’ll be the model of an upstanding citizen I promise. But I figure you need to show him who is the boss once yer better because the guys takin’ liberties already and he’s only been here five minutes. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile I reckon.”
Mort was to remember those prophetic words many times in the future and wish he’d heeded them sooner.
Jess and Slim moseyed on down to the saloon when they left Mort’s place and found the old Parson holding court at the bar with some of his drinking buddies, blackening the new deputy’s name. The tall lanky man dressed in a dusty old black frock coat and black trousers and boots topped off with a parson’s hat looked the picture of a down and out ex man of the cloth...which was exactly what he was.
He turned from his friends when Slim and Jess strode in, his countenance and large wild eyes, brightening as he saw them.
“Well met Brother Harper, Brother Sherman, you have had a favorable meeting with our esteemed Sheriff I trust?”
Jess exchanged a glance with Slim, wondering, not for the first time at how fast news traveled around the town.
“Yup, Parson he’s still not too well, but getting there, be back behind his desk by next week he thinks,” said Slim.
“Hallelujah,” cried the defrocked cleric. “Praise the Lord...and hopefully harmony will be restored to the Laramie jail upon his return.”
“You’ve run into the new Deputy then?” Jess said dryly.
“Indeed, I have Brother Harper,” he said. His strange eyes, that seemed to operate almost independently of each other widening even more in exaggerated horror, “That has been my sorry lot. I was unfairly arrested, after imbibing possibly a little excessively, whilst delivering the Word of God.”
“Drunk as a skunk, while Bible bashing,” muttered Tom from behind the bar. “Sayin ’ we were all bound for hell in a hand cart iffen we didn’t repent.”
The Parson ignored him and continued his tale of woe. “This um...spawn of Satan...Deputy Cody incarcerated me with no supper and he even locked the cell door, denying me the use of the facilities or the coffee pot!”
“Well that’s real unreasonable of him,” Jess said hiding a smile.
The defrocked Parson delivered his sermons in saloons, mostly in an advanced state of inebriation and usually ending them in a fist fight. As Mort said on many occasions, he’ll save our souls even if he has to kill us in the process. But he had kind of a soft spot for the old soak and pretty much let him come and go through an unlocked cell door when in custody. Once he’d slept off the drink and was sober, he was free to leave...until the next time.
“Well if I were you, I’d keep my preaching to a minimum,” declared Slim, “because you really don’t want to tangle with Deputy Cody, Parson, especially not when the Sheriff isn’t around to help you out.”
“Duly noted Brother Sherman, I will keep my own council and watch and wait...The wrath of the Lord will subdue Deputy Cody’s evil ways in the fullness of time I’ve no doubt.”
Jess chuckled, “What ’ll you have Parson?”
“Well that’s most convivial of you Brother Harper a large glass of whiskey if you would be so kind?”
Jess chuckled again shaking his head and winking at Slim and ordered the drinks.
Once they were all furnished with a glass the Parson raised his and made a toast, “To your health gentlemen and especially that of our revered leader, Sheriff Mort Cory.”
“Mort Cory,” the others echoed.
Chapter 2
Mort Cory sat at his desk with his head in his hands trying to remember when he’d felt so dang bad.
He hadn’t really seemed to bounce back after that darned bad cold, but heck that had been nigh on three weeks ago he reflected so he should be well over it...but no. He seemed to be constantly tired, nodding off to sleep at the drop of a hat, even at his desk for goodness sake he thought angrily. Why, that’s all that up-start Frank Cody needed to muscle in on Mort’s territory. Even now he was walking the town doing the last check before standing down for the night. Mort had agreed to him going off alone...as he had done all week giving in to the exhaustion and waves of nausea that had been afflicting him of late.
He glanced over to the new, rather ostentatious desk in the corner of his office that Frank had insisted on buying...everything filed meticulously, the top neat and highly polished. Then looked back to his own untidy battered desk and sighed again.
Why for two pins he’d had given in and visited the doc. But he knew for a fact that Doc Sam was run off his feet treating folk with the nasty bug that he and so many others had succumbed to. Now Sam’s daughter cum Nurse Carrie was laid low and Mort reckoned the good man didn’t need to be bothered with Mort moaning about all his aches and pains. Nope, it was probably just a nasty dose of old age mixed with melancholy he thought... Because it wasn’t just the terrible lethargy that was bringing him down; but also fits of forgetfulness.
Why, just last week he’d forgotten about an important Council Meeting and had gone off to bed early. However, Frank had saved the day by attending and now was the toast of all on the council; appreciated for his efficiency and forward thinking. Oh yes thought Mort wryly, the guy sure was good at making an impression where it mattered. He’d got all the bigwigs in town eating out of his hand. Especially the leader of the Town Council, one Edgar Briggs...a rather supercilious little man who was not overly fond of the Sheriff...or his choice of sometime deputy, Jess Harper either. Yup Cody sure had him in his pocket, along with many of the wealthy ranchers, bank manager and all the Town Council.
However, the miscreants, drunks and general ruffians hadn’t a good word to say for him. The jail was almost permanently full and paperwork abounded...fines heavy and frequent. But Frank Cody seemed to thrive on it all and as Mort sank lower and lower so Frank seemed more cheerful and efficient, bringing in drunks and youngsters for petty crimes mostly.
Now as the jail was empty for once Mort was just about to call it a day when the office door opened and Jess breezed in.
“Well howdy,” said Mort cheered at seeing a friendly face, “so what brings you to town so late of an evening Jess?”
The dark-haired rancher looked puzzled and tipped his hat back, “Well I got a message you wanted to see me kinda of urgent...so I figured I’d ride in and stay over...see Millie too,” he said grinning now. “So, what’s up Mort?”
Mort cast him a puzzled look, “Heck Jess I don’t recall sending you a message...you must be mistaken?”
“Come on Mort, either you did or you didn’t,” said Jess in exasperation... “Mose said you left word you needed to speak to me on a real important and confidential matter...ring any bells huh?” he asked sarcastically.
However, when Mort suddenly looked so lost and upset, Jess quickly changed his tune.
“Look it’s OK buddy, maybe it’ll come back to you...why don’t we go down to the saloon for a nightcap huh?”
Once they were sitting at a quiet table with a large whiskey apiece Jess said softly, “What’s up Mort, you really don’t seem yourself right now?”
Mort sighed deeply, “Where do you want me to start?”
“The beginning is usually a pretty good place,” Jess said with an encouraging smile.
Mort shrugged, “Well I’ve been feeling a tad off color...but it’s more than that Jess...I’m really feeling my age lately...keep falling asleep on the job...forgetting things...dang it losing things too... my spare Sheriff badge...my best pen...even that real purty cap pin Kate gave me,” he said looking sorrowful, “I’m just turning into an old fool...”
“Heck you ain’t old Mort, I figure you’ll still be givin ’ us all a run for our money in a good twenty years, if your old Pa is anything to go by... But maybe you haven’t bounced back from that sickness yet huh? I’ve still got that darned cough and I had it before you did...I reckon you need to see Doc Sam?”
“Well that’s rich coming from you who won’t go near the doc unless he’s bein’ dragged there,” spat Mort aggressively as he took another swig of his whiskey.
He was slurring his words Jess noted and he looked pretty much the worse for wear after just the one drink. Well heck that wasn’t like Mort, he could hold his drink as well as the next man...better than most...something sure was wrong Jess thought.
“Well it ain’t me we’re talkin’ about is it?” he retaliated equally acerbically.
Mort hung his head, now looking contrite, “I’m sorry son, I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”
“Come on I’ll walk you home, things will look different after a good night’s sleep,” Jess said standing and draining his glass.
“I don’t need you baby-sitting me,” Mort said quietly as he got to his feet...but then he staggered and clutched the table for support.
Jess looked on embarrassed, “You OK Mort?”
“Sure, I am,” he slurred and he made his way rather erratically across the bar to the door.
Jess was at his side in moments and walked him the short distance to his house down an alley just off Main Street leaving him at his door.
“I’m staying the night with Millie, I’ll call round for you tomorrow and we’ll go see the doc huh Mort?”
The older man looked furious, but then sighing said, “Alright have it your own way, anything to stop you nagging,” and he made his way inside, shutting the door firmly behind him.
When he returned to the saloon it was almost empty save for one Brett Jones, an old friend of Slim and member of the town council. He turned to welcome Jess as he went over to the bar and ordered a drink from Tom.
“I see you’ve escorted our drunken Sheriff home again,” Brett said with a broad grin.
“What are you talkin’ about?” Jess asked frowning at him.
“Oh, just that our esteemed Sheriff has been tipping the jug. This isn’t the first time he’s rolled home from here recently you know Jess.”
“He weren’t drunk,” Jess insisted, “he’s just not too well right now ‘tis all.”
“OK have it your own way...but I’ve seen him drunk a few times lately. And not just that, he seems in a daze half the time. Forgot an important meeting just last week and never seems to be out on the street anymore...just dozing in his office. I’m telling you Jess the Town Council are this close to taking a vote of no confidence,” he said gesturing with his thumb and first finger...just inches apart... “Your buddy is going to have to get his act together or he’ll be out, I’m sorry to say.” He finished his drink and marched out before Jess could argue any further.
Jess peered over to where Tom and Millie had been witnessing the exchange.
“Is this true?” Jess asked. “Has he been drinking a lot huh Tom?”
“Drinking a lot nope, but drunk...I guess so on several occasions Jess. I just can’t see as to why though, he’s had no more than a glass or two...Unless he’s drinking in the office,” he said thoughtfully, “but that’s just not like Mort.”
“No, it’s not,” Jess said, “and I aim to get to the bottom of this.”
The following morning found Jess and Mort in Sam’s office, the medic sitting looking thoughtfully at the Sheriff.
Mort had insisted Jess join him for the consultation, saying he had no secrets.
“Anyway, the way my dang memory is at the moment it’ll be good to have someone else there...in case I forget what the doc says,” he’d admitted.
“So, let me get this straight,” said Sam after he’d physically examined the patient and found his health to be reasonably fair. “You’re feeling sickly and very tired...problems with memory and general lethargy?”
Mort just nodded.
“And er...a problem with the drinkin’ too huh Mort,” Jess said quietly, “it seems to go to your head real quick don’t it?”
The Sheriff closed his eyes and inhaled deeply and Jess braced himself for the lambasting he was expecting...but Mort merely exhaled and said quietly, “Yup, that too.”
“Now tell me have you been taking any medication since you were sick...something for the aches and pains you’ve been suffering?”
“Well no, you know I ain’t Doc, you’d know iffen you’d given me something.”
“Oh yes of course old chap. I was thinking maybe some of Kate’s Indian Medicine remedies?”
“No, I’ve not seen Kate for a while. We had a bit of a fall out a while back. Anyway, she wouldn’t give me anything to harm me, you know that Sam.”
“Oh indeed yes . It’s just that many of your symptoms are similar to those seen when folk are taking some form of strong medication...the memory loss...tiredness...seeming allergy to alcohol. Well I think you should refrain from drinking at all until we get this sorted out.”
“Oh great, this just gets better and better,” Mort groaned.
Sam pretended not to hear and then said, “Well we can rule out the use of medication...so that leaves us with the fact that...uh...maybe you’re just not entirely over this nasty bug that’s been around. I know Carrie was very sick with it...you too Jess.”
“Oh yes, yes,” said the Sheriff impatiently, “but they haven’t been forgetting things...losing things...dang it Sam I feel like I’m losing my mind!” Then more quietly, “Please tell me I ain’t going senile Sam. I know some older folk sorta lose their reason but hell I’m not that old even if I do feel it right now.”
Sam looked kinda awkward, so Jess thought, and said, “Well that is a possibility yes...But it’s early days Mort...let’s just try a few things before we make a diagnosis of that sort... I’d like you to take some time off...take a real break, plenty of rest and good food...then when you feel better some light exercise and I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks.”
Mort looked furious.
“Hell Sam, I can’t do that. Dang it the word on the street is that the Town Council are losing patience with me. The way I’ve been of late, messing up and forgetting stuff. Staying home is all they need to retire me and put that self-righteous Frank Cody up as Sheriff!”
“He’s right Sam,” Jess said, “I heard that from Brett Jones on the council just last night.”
“Sorry Mort, I was gonna tell you,” he added.
“Well that’s it; I have to stay...start pulling my weight,” said Mort determinedly.
“Well then nothing will change,” said Sam quietly. “I’m sorry Mort, you asked for my professional opinion and you have it... You’re clearly not well, be it mentally or physically I’m not sure...but you can’t go on this way.”
“But I’ve no choice,” said Mort looking shaken and pale.
“Yes, you do,” said Jess. “How about you deputize me and I’ll come and watch yer back for a week or two... Knock the arrogance out of that bastard Cody for a start... I can be your eyes and ears...remind you of things and make sure you’re not caught napping huh?”
Then turning to Sam said, “I can take some of the worry off of his shoulders send that punk Cody off out of the office and Mort can take it real easy rest up as much as he can what do you say Sam?”
“Well that seems like a good compromise, what say you Mort?”
Mort looked almost moved to tears...eventually he said, “I say I don’t deserve a buddy as good as you Jess....you too Sam. I know you only want the best for me.”
Then he looked thoughtful, “But will the Town Council swallow it, another deputy?”
“Look Mort, be upfront with them tell ‘em you’ve been sick and what Sam’s said, you need to take things kinda easy and so you need another deputy. You can tell ‘em I’ll work for free too...until you’re more your old self...I reckon they can’t moan about that.”
“I can’t ask you to do that and what about the ranch too?” Mort asked.
“You ain’t askin’. I’m offering and the ranch will be just fine. We’re real quiet right now, with it bein’ high summer. Mike is on school holiday and he can pick up some of my chores, so stop yer worrying we’ll get through this Mort.”
So, it was that Jess joined the team, much to Frank Cody’s disgust.
“Are you saying I’m incapable of holding the fort Sheriff without the likes of that ex-con helping me out?”
To Mort’s relief Jess was out of earshot in the back. He figured the arrangement would be over before it started at this rate...as Jess would have taken a swing at the new deputy.
“Now look here let’s get this straight,” said Mort glaring at the younger man. “Jess is doing me a favor stepping in to help out until I’m back to my old self and it’s been agreed by the town council. So, whatever your thoughts just keep them to yourself huh. I’ll tell you now, Jess makes a mighty fine friend...but you sure don’t want to cross him and I think you want to remember that Frank. Now go and check out that robbery Widow Smyth reported.”
“What, her stolen purse?” he asked looking affronted.
“Think that’s below you do you son? Well let me tell you that purse contained all she’d got to last her the month...now show a little compassion and go and sort it out. And here take her some cash too we’ve got a small contingency fund for this sorta thing.”
Cody watched as Mort went over to the safe and withdrew some cash, before returning the key to his vest pocket.
“Lot of money in there Sheriff?” he said slyly, “What’s it all for?”
“This,” he said passing across a few dollar bills, “is from a local Charity for folk who have fallen on bad times, widows and orphans, that kinda thing. Here sign for it,” he said pushing a chit across.
“And the rest...there must be several hundred dollars in there?”
“Bounty money from the Stage Company on Red Burton, he robbed the Stage a while back got a wanted poster out on him.”
“That’s a powerful lot of cash,” Cody muttered again before reluctantly leaving the office.
The situation wasn’t easy for any of them, with Cody obviously resenting Jess’s presence and Jess trying to make an effort not to lose his temper with the pompous man. The only good thing was that Mort seemed much more his old self. He was more alert and, on the ball, and Jess was beginning to think that maybe it was just the sickness that had knocked his buddy for six. There was no more napping at his desk, losing things and even his memory seemed back to normal.
Frank Cody seemed pretty exasperated with the situation Jess thought, almost as though he’d enjoyed the Sheriff’s ill health. But there again why wouldn’t he Jess mused, after all with the Sheriff out of the picture the way was clear for Cody to be promoted.
“Well not on my watch,” he muttered to himself.
It was just a few days later when Mort again opened the safe for some petty cash and Jess noted that Frank was watching his every move.
Once the deputy had been dispatched to buy some office supplies from the mercantile Jess said, “He sure don’t like doin’ boring jobs, does he? I thought he was gonna refuse when you sent him off for paper and a bottle of ink.”
Mort grinned back, “I reckon the novelty is wearing off some now I’m back in the saddle and he’s getting the mundane stuff he’s none too happy.”
Jess looked thoughtful, “It’s been real quiet around town lately too. No fights robberies, heck the last bit of excitement was Burton robbing the Stage and that was a while ago.”
“I imagine he’s high-tailed it over the border by now,” Mort said. “Too darned bad we couldn’t apprehend him that’s for sure. But we all gave it our best shot; I suppose he was too dang devious and had a good head start on the posse. I figure I’ll give it another week or so and then hand that bounty money back to the bank; I don’t like large sums like that hanging around the place.”
“Um....so Mort who else has a key to the safe...other than you that is?”
“Well Lon used to have one, but I keep his locked in my desk drawer now he’s gone. I’m not really too sure I can trust the new guy yet...why do you ask Jess?”
“For the same reason,” Jess said quietly, “I don’t trust that joker any further than I could throw him. And something else...he watches you like a hawk when you open the safe.”
“I don’t think he’d rob the safe Jess. Come on, the guy might be a pain but he comes with glowing references.”
“But you still don’t trust him with the safe key though?”
Mort looked slightly bemused, “No I guess I don’t... sort of a gut feeling.”
Then he shook his head, “Anyway no need to worry about the safe. Are you OK with this Schedule for evening duty I’ve drawn up Jess?”
Jess leaned over his shoulder and perused the handwritten document and then nodded, “Yup that makes sense. He’s on night duty tonight and Thursday and I’ll take Friday and the week-end, if we do get any trouble that’s when it’ll be.”
“Precisely and I’d rather leave the town in your capable hands Jess. After all Cody still hasn’t had his metal tested yet. The only folk he’s arrested are senile drunks and a couple of youngsters...for cheeking him!”
“Yeah and talkin’ of senile drunks we’re more likely to have the Parson as our guest over the week-end and I figure he’d prefer my hospitality over that of Deputy Cody any day.”
Mort chuckled at that, “Well good luck Jess. Are you sure about me taking off for a couple of days?”
“Well heck sure I am Mort, it’s just what you need to get you on top form again. Like I say it’s been quiet as the grave this last week and we ain’t expecting trouble.” Then he grinned, “Maybe all this boredom will knock Cody into submission and he’ll go off and find a livelier town.”
“We can only hope,” said Mort rising and shaking Jess’s hand. “Take care and I’ll see you in a few days.”
Wednesday came and went with Jess and Cody warily treading around each other like a pair of ornery tom cats...Cody having his nose put out of joint because Mort had left Jess in overall charge.
“I’m sorry Frank, but Jess has far more experience of the town. He knows the people better than you do and they know him and trust him...that’s just the way it is...and I’ll be back in a couple of days.”
It was Thursday evening and Jess was just thinking he might check on the town and then stand down leaving Cody in charge of the one prisoner they had in the jail.
He’d reached for his hat and rifle when there was a commotion outside and Mose charged in.
“Come quick Jess all hell let loose in the saloon. Some drovers hit town and they were drunk as skunks before they even landed...now they’re wrecking the place. Tom says come pronto.”
Jess threw the rifle he was holding over to Cody before grabbing another, “Come on!” he yelled and tore off down Main Street.
He’d burst into the saloon and discharged the rifle, effectively stopping the drovers in their tracks. But before he could throw them all out the fight broke out again and he was involved in the general fisticuffs and ensuing mayhem. He was vaguely aware that Cody wasn’t by his side. But then he was hit in the face by a beefy fist and everything but blind rage went out of his head. The fight was finally brought to a stop and he was able to evict most of the drovers. Now looking dishevelled and weary, he arrested the two main troublemakers who had started the fight.
“Cody! Cody...dang it where is that son of a ....”
“I’m here Harper...just coming,” said Cody rushing forwards and removing his handcuffs from his pocket, quickly cuffed one of the prisoners whilst Jess dealt with the other.
“Well you took yer time, where were you?” Jess asked angrily.
“Why right here Harper, I just went out front to make sure they’d moved off.”
Jess just threw him a hard look, but decided to let it lie until they were alone.
Once the prisoners were safely locked up for the night Jess regarded the deputy stony faced, “So where were you when I needed ya?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Cody flushing an unbecoming pink, “Hell Harper I was out in the street half the time in the thick of it I can tell you! Then I was making sure they left town like you said.”
Jess glanced at him again, heck there wasn’t a mark on him, whereas he sported a black eye and was pretty much cut and bruised all over.
He opened his mouth to argue and then thought better of it. What the hell, he was off duty now and Millie was waiting for him, supper ready and a glass of beer poured he imagined. She’d said she would help Tom clear up and then dish up the stew she’d made and not to be long.
“You’ll be OK guarding the prisoners?” Jess asked sarcastically. “I’ll be back about nine tomorrow, but once they’re sober you can chuck ‘em out first thing. They’ll need to catch up with the cattle drive. I’ve already fined them, money’s in the safe.”
Cody just threw him a look fit to curdle the milk.
Hiding a smile Jess left.
It was later after supper when he was sitting comfortably with an arm around Millie’s shoulders that the subject of the new deputy came up again.
Millie was fussing a little.
“You really are going to have a shiner tomorrow Jess, that’s a real nasty cut on your cheek too.”
He threw her a cheeky grin, “I guess I must be getting’ old, the deputy hardly had a mark on him.”
“Well that’s because he wasn’t fighting,” said Millie hotly.
“Huh...what do ya mean? He was fightin’ out in the street, so he said?”
“Well he’s a big fat liar then. When the fighting got really bad, I went and hid at the back by the stairs...where you always tell me to hide if there is trouble...it’s safe there.”
“Go on, “said Jess ominously quietly.
“Only I wasn’t the only one to have the same idea. Cody didn’t see me because I was right at the back behind the coat stand. But he was there Jess...just watching and then when it looked like you’d broken it up he mussed up his hair and pulled out his shirt...so it looked like he’d been fighting too.”
“The hell he did,” said Jess in shock, “why would he do that for goodness sakes?”
“Because he is a coward maybe,” she said. “Most bullies are and he’s certainly that.”
“I figure he’s duped us all with those fancy references he came with; well me and Mort don’t trust him. But I think it’s about time everyone else woke up to what he is, because right now he’s really fooling the town council and all the big wigs.”
“You’ll sort him out,” she said with a lazy smile.
Then leaning in seductively she licked her lips and said, “Anyway we’ve more interesting things to be thinking on huh?”
Taking her sweet face between his big hands he smiled into her eyes and said softly, “Well you ain’t wrong there,” and then he kissed her.
Chapter 3
A little after nine o’clock the following morning, whistling merrily, he burst into the Sheriff’s Office and then stopped dead in his tracks.
The two drovers were looking daggers and of the new deputy there was no sign.
“Hey Harper what’s going on,” asked the surlier of the two, “you’ve had our money and we’ve sobered up... I thought you’d left orders to let us go early so we could re-join the drive?”
Jess nodded, “So I did...where’s the deputy?”
The other man shrugged, “Who knows, he took off last night for an hour or so and came back looking real pleased with himself. Then when we woke up at first light he’d skedaddled again. That ain’t right he’s supposed to be here if you’ve prisoners in... I know my rights. What if there’ d been a fire? And we ain’t had no breakfast we’re entitled to be fed you know!”
“Oh, shuddup yer moaning,” Jess said genially. “So, what’s it to be, stay locked up and I’ll feed ya, or do ya want out...huh?”
“Out,” they said in unison.
Jess returned their gun-belts and then said, “And if you come back, you’d better dang well behave, you understand?”
“Oh, we won’t be coming back,” said the big ornery drover, “the jail is better over in Cheyenne; figure we’ll call in there on the way back,” and with a cheeky grin the men left.
Five minutes later Cody dashed in looking as guilty as all get out so Jess thought.
“Oh, you’re here,” he said, “I thought...”
“You thought I wouldn’t be able to drag myself here out of my lady’s bed huh? Well wrong. I take the work seriously…so where the hell have you been all night?”
“I don’t know what you mean?” Cody said flushing up.
“The prisoners said you’d been out most of the night,” said Jess glaring at him. “You know dang well you’re not to leave them unattended at any time.”
Cody stood there just staring at him and then the door flew open and Edgar Briggs, the leader of the Town Council stood there beaming at him.
“Good morning Deputy Cody,” he said warmly. Then he glanced at Jess and muttered “Harper,” before turning back to the new deputy.
“You asked me to call to collect the bounty money as I recall. So, if you fetch it I’ll sign for it and take it back to the bank,” he said brightly.
“Now just hang on a dang minute here,” Jess said angrily. “It ain’t up to the deputy to remove money from the safe...that’s Mort Cory’s job and I know for a fact he intends to attend to it when he gets back tomorrow.”
“Deputy Cody here thought it wise in view of um...the Sheriff’s recent...absentmindedness that we deal with the matter now, “said Briggs, rather officiously.
Turning back to Cody he smiled again, “You may open the safe on my say so Deputy...”
Cody put on a look of innocence tinged with sorrow.
“Um I’m sorry Councillor I’ve not been permitted to have the key you’ll have to ask Deputy Harper here.”
“Well I ain’t opening it unless the Sheriff says it’s OK,” Jess said hotly. “This is the Law’s business not the Council’s Briggs.”
The older man looked furious, “Just do as I ask Harper or I will have to fine the Sheriff for being in possession of bounty money so long after the incident.”
Jess was slightly wrong footed by that. Maybe there was some dang law or rules about it and he sure didn’t want to get Mort in trouble.
He sighed deeply and reaching in his vest pocket for the key opened the safe.
Then he dropped his hand as though he’d been bitten and cussed loudly.
“Come, come man I haven’t got all day,” said Briggs impatiently.
Jess spun around to face him. “It ain’t here.”
“But you knew that didn’t you Cody?” he said turning on the deputy.
The deputy’s expression grew even more innocent, his eyes opening wide, “Why ever should you think that Jess?” he gasped.
Jess blinked at the use of his given name for the first time in their relationship and figured it was all part of this charade that was unfolding before him.
“Not there you say,” Briggs said looking deeply shocked, “but there was over $500!”
Then peering more closely at Jess said, “It hasn’t been broken into so who are the key holders?”
Jess shrugged, “Just me and Mort...but hell it was all here last night, I swear it was.”
“Well with just the two of you having a key...and the Sheriff out of town I think maybe we have our thief right here, arrest this man Deputy Cody!”
“Into the cells if you please Jess,” the deputy said more in sorrow than in anger, his expression one of pity as he cocked his head towards the cell door.
“Are you dang well out of yer mind?” Jess yelled looking from Briggs to Cody and back. “Why the hell would I take it?”
“Oh come, come Harper, we all know what a precarious business ranching can be, dependent on weather...animal sickness and the rest...” he said vaguely, “ranchers are always short of cash. With the exception of large ranch owners like myself of course,” he said smugly.
Jess just shook his head in bewilderment, “And do you really think Slim Sherman would accept that kinda money into the business if I had taken it! Hell, you know me better than that anyway Briggs. I wouldn’t do that I just wouldn’t!”
Briggs just shook his head, “Well I thought I knew our Sheriff too, but there he is swanning off and leaving the town in the hands of a raw young recruit and a convicted ex-criminal.”
Jess swallowed the insult as well as he was able, more concerned right then with sticking up for Mort.
“You gave him a few days leave of absence yourself dang it, said it would do him good!”
Briggs decided to ignore that and merely said, “Put your prisoner in the cells deputy.”
It was when Cody pulled his gun that Jess saw red. It took him only seconds to wrestle the Colt from his grip and then he sent him flying across the room with a well-aimed haymaker to the chin. He ran across and dragging him up by his shirt followed through with a second blow, rendering the deputy semi-conscious.
But when he turned back to the Councillor he froze. The man had grabbed one of Mort’s rifles and now had it pointed at Jess’s head.
“Whoa,” Jess said quietly, “Watch what yer doin’ with that Briggs it’s loaded.”
“As I am well aware, now get in the cell Harper while the deputy and I investigate further...Or are you admitting your guilt...because anymore of this rash behaviour and there is not a man in town who will believe you are innocent!”
Jess could kinda see the logic of that, plus he was well aware that Briggs didn’t know one end of a gun from the other and he could easily shoot the dang thing without even meaning to. Heck he might be a rich rancher, but he hired men to do any shooting that was needed.
He slowly dropped his gun-belt and put his hands up in submission.
“I ain’t got nothin ’ to hide so you go investigate Mister Councillor Briggs and good luck to you,” he snarled before heading off to the cells, followed by a rather groggy looking Cody.
Leaving him there Cody and Briggs made their way to the saloon, where they insisted in turning Millie’s room upside down looking for the stolen money.
She stood by, hands on hips watching them, looking flushed and angry.
“You’ve no right to come in here!” she shouted, “Jess is innocent he wouldn’t take anything from the Sheriff’s safe; are you crazy?”
“You be quiet young lady if you know what’s good for you,” replied the Councillor.
“Are you threatening me?” Millie cried looking even more irate.
“Look pipe down, what would a little whore like you know about right and wrong?” Cody spat glaring at her.
There was a stunned silence in the room and then both men turned to see Tom standing by the door holding a rifle on them.
He looked ashen he was so angry and he stared at them so hard that both men flushed up with embarrassment.
“You git the hell out of my saloon, before I blast you to Kingdom Come,” Tom finally bellowed. “And don’t either of you come back... ever!”
They shuffled out, but Briggs paused by the door.
“I’m just doing the Sheriff’s duty for him Tom.”
Then turning to Millie said, “And if you’ve any common sense you’ll steer clear of that no-good saddle tramp...he’s trouble girl.”
Tom was now incensed and he stuck the rifle hard into Brigg’s ribs.
“Out,” he snarled... and the little man practically ran out and down the stairs whilst Tom went over to comfort Millie.
“Looks like we’ve drawn a blank here,” said Cody, “let’s check out the Sheriff’s gaff huh?”
Briggs was still rubbing his belly where Tom had shoved the rifle, but he brightened some at the idea.
“Good thinking Deputy...the way the Sheriff’s been acting lately he might well be the perpetrator or most likely they are in league.”
If Briggs was somewhat surprised by the ease of which the deputy was able to force the Sheriff’s door, he said nothing...after all they were on official business he would explain if challenged.
They looked around the place to no avail and then Cody suggested they try the old desk in the corner of the room. He pulled open the drawers randomly and after a while came up with a duplicate set of keys for the jail, including another safe key.
“Well I never,” said Briggs, “that’s not very efficient those should be under lock and key.”
Cody agreed and continued pulling out drawers at random until he came to the last one which was locked. Searching through the bunch of keys he’d found he eventually chose one that fitted.
Dragging the drawer open he gave a low whistle, “Bingo,” he said turning to the Councillor, “looky here Mister Briggs,” he cried passing over the envelope containing the bounty money.
Briggs looked totally shocked, “Goodness me, I never really thought it of him...I’ve known Cory for years; now Harper he’s another kettle of fish but Mort Cory?” And he shook his head sadly. I know I was relying on you to expose him as being...well past the job but I didn’t expect this.
“My guess is that it was Harper that put him up to it,” said Cody, “knowing the way the Sheriff’s been of late...well kinda not himself...with the drinking and all... I guess Harper forced his arm some.”
Briggs looked very serious, “Oh well it will be up to a jury to decide that. We’ll arrest the Sheriff when he comes back...if he comes back...and then it’s down to the court and the circuit judge. Uh, strange he didn’t take off with the money though isn’t it?”
“Like I said he’s probably in league with Harper if I hadn’t called on you to collect the money, they’d have gotten clean away with it too!” Frank Cody said looking rather pleased with himself.
“Yes, good man. I think we’ll have to be thinking of a promotion for you once this is all over,” said Briggs smiling at the younger man. “Just what the town needs someone we can all rely on. I do like a plan that comes together,” he added with a devious smile.
They had parted company then and Cody swaggered down Main Street, he just loved it when a plan came together too.
Once back in the office he sat at Mort’s desk, pulled a bottle and glass from the bottom drawer and poured himself a good measure. He knocked it back in one before wandering over to the cells.
Jess’s head shot up when Cody walked over.
“So how did ya do it then Cody? How about this...you got hold of a spare safe key from some place and then went and hid the money at Mort’s place when you were out of the office last night...huh?”
“Pretty close Harper...go to the head of the class. Not that anyone will believe that crazy notion, not with Briggs and half the town on my side now.”
“Oh, sure you done real good convincing the town that Mort’s losing his mind and I’m a no-good saddle tramp. But what I wanna know is why? This is more than you wanting Mort’s job, hell you wouldn’t last five minutes. Not only are you a liar Cody but you’re a dang coward too, hidin’ in the back and leavin’ me to sort out that fight alone.”
“That little bitch Millie told you I suppose? She must have seen me huh?” spat Cody, flushing an unbecoming shade of red, “Well she’ll get what she deserves soon enough.”
That incensed Jess, “You go anywhere near her and by God I’ll slaughter you Cody!”
“Oh, I don’t really think you’re going to get the chance my friend. You see I’m stopping all visitors. That includes that Mister Benson, the solicitor you requested... I uh...forgot to contact him anyway. Miss Millie and anyone else in town are going to be refused visiting too. Oh yes and your partner Sherman, I’m reliably informed, is currently in Cheyenne on Stage line business. So, you see Harper you are quite alone and quite helpless.”
Jess just stared at him, completely nonplussed.
“Why Cody, what did I ever do to you?”
“All in good time Harper...let’s wait until the good Sheriff joins us huh?”
Chapter 4
There was a reception committee waiting to meet Mort when he rode into town late the following afternoon.
He’d marched into the office looking forward to a coffee and chin wag with Jess. He’d got plenty of news, the most important piece that he’d made up his silly row with Kate and they were back on track again. In fact, she’d travelled back with him and was now resting at Mort’s place. She’d suffered a rare bout of ill health. Just a stomach upset, but Mort had insisted she rest and so she had taken one of her Indian-recipe sleeping drafts and would be out for the count for a while Mort figured.
He stopped in his tracks when he entered his office to find Cody, Briggs and two other members of the town council in attendance.
“Hey what is this,” he said jovially, “a welcoming committee?”
“Hardly,” said Briggs, “you and I need to talk Sherriff.”
Some half hour later Mort was red in the face from protesting his innocence and that of Jess Harper too.
“Of course, we wouldn’t do a dang fool thing like that!” he spat angrily. “What are you thinking of Briggs...jailing Jess this way?”
“Not just Jess it’s you too I’m sorry to say Cory. You see we found the missing money in your desk at home and I guess there is no way you can talk your way out of that.”
It was later that evening that Jess and Mort were to find out what was really going on.
Briggs and the council members had departed once Mort was securely locked in the cell adjoining Jess’ saying they were happy for Cody to takeover as temporary Sheriff until the issue had been resolved.
“I’m expecting the circuit judge at the end of the month,” Briggs concluded, “until then these men remain in your custody Frank,” and he had left.
Once the men had gone Cody figured it was time for a little celebration and he pulled out Mort’s bottle of redeye and poured him-self a large drink, followed in quick succession by another. Then he wandered across the room and peered at the men like they were animals in a cage and truth was, both were beginning to feel pretty much that way. Jess particularly hated to be confined and now his temper was just about at meltdown.
Mort was merely outraged that he’d been duped that way and just hoped to God that Kate would wake up soon and come to find him...Maybe she could at least contact Benson, the solicitor, for them.
Surprisingly Cody wandered off again and returned sometime later with two cups of coffee and very carefully passed them into the cells. Jess had made to take one of the cups, but Cody had pulled it away, “Nope, this one’s yours Harper.”
Then he handed Mort the other cup, “For you Sheriff, I know how you like plenty of sugar,” he said with an insincere smile.
Both men sat and sipped their coffee, but it seemed Cody hadn’t finished with them.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” slurred Cody, “not so high and mighty now are we Harper...and as for you Sheriff...well this is a sad end to such an illustrious career,” and he sniggered. “The way you’ve been lately...like an old man...sleeping on the job, hitting the bottle,” and he shook his head in mock sadness.
“Shut yer face Cody, unless you’ve gotten something to tell us! Like why we’ve been set up,” Jess snarled.
“Oh yes...I did promise didn’t I,” he replied calmly.
He wandered off to replenish his glass and then returned and just looked at them for a good minute. Then with a sly little smile he started his tale.
“This is all about revenge gentlemen. I’d been looking for a way to uh...shall we say infiltrate your lives and low and behold I saw this job advertised...heaven sent you could say.”
“Just git on with it,” Jess muttered.
“You may recall your bank was robbed...uh about four years ago now, by the Clancy Gang?”
Mort nodded, “That’s right…they chose a real good time, me, Jess and half a dozen others were out of town riding posse after a rapist.”
“So, I believe and your deputy er...Lon isn’t it…was sick that day, food poisoning so he said huh?”
“He didn’t just say it...he was real sick when the doc saw him. It came on sudden. It turned out later that he’d been poisoned by one of the gang, Jess said hotly
“Ha...a likely story,” spat Cody. “Any way you look at it, you left the towns folk unprotected that day.”
“Well sure,” said Mort, “but hindsight is a great thing. We didn’t know the bank was going to be robbed or that Lon would get sick that way. All we knew was that a guy had raped and beaten up a young girl and we needed to nail him before he struck again.”
“What’s all this got to do with you anyway Cody...you didn’t even live in the town,” Jess muttered.
“No but my brother, his wife and young daughter did...I wonder if you remember what happened that day? How the bank was full of customers...and a woman and her young daughter were shot down...killed in the cross fire when that teller drew a gun on the gang?”
Mort looked anguished, “Sure I do...that’s haunted me for years, it was really terrible. But hell man, you can’t hold me and Jess responsible just because we weren’t here. I’ve explained all about that, where we were and why.”
“Well that’s just too bad because I do hold you responsible and you’re both going to suffer just like my kid brother did it destroyed him after they died.”
“Hang on a minute that guy was called Bailey, Rob Bailey...not Cody,” said Jess.
“Yes, you’re right and I’m Frank Bailey, just thought a change of name was in order; handy too Cody...Cory...easy to get a signature mixed up. Like all those chits in the safe for payment of fines signed by you Mort. Oh yes, the men all thought I’d signed Cody but nope. I wrote your name on the receipts only sadly there isn’t any matching cash. I’m saving that little gem for the trial...make things look even more authentic huh?”
“And you planted the bounty money at my place too,” said Mort. It was a statement, not a question.
Cody nodded, “So you just try and prove it though Sheriff...see I’ve got Briggs and his cronies eating out of my hand...and not one of them will cross Briggs...so you haven’t got a chance in hell of being believed.”
“Why now after all this time,” asked Jess “and surely it’s your brother who should be kinda mad about it all not you?”
“Oh, he is, believe me he’s a dang sight more than mad,” spat Cody looking really furious. “My brother never got over the shock of losing his family, it’s preyed on his mind all these years and then just last month he tried to take his own life. He’d hung himself in the barn. But thank God I got there in time and cut him down. It was after that I devised my plan. I convinced him he needed to get even and he’d feel better. So he’s out there just waiting to put our plan into action.”
“What plan?” Jess and Mort asked in unison.
“Why the plan to make you both suffer, and just as much as he has done of course. Those you love and care about will meet a painful and horrific end just like dear Ellie and Mary. Only difference being you’ll know what’s going to happen, but you won’t be able to do a damn thing about it, because you’ll be stuck in here. Yes, I’m sorry to say sweet little Millie’s days are numbered...as are those of the kid at the ranch...the blond cute one.”
Jess cussed loud and long and thumped the bars with his hands but knew there was nothing he could do right then, but vent his feelings.
“Oh, and yes Sheriff I haven’t forgotten you. I believe you have a lady friend called Kate...currently at your place? Well Rob will be joining me in the next few days so I’ll let him decide what to do about her and the others.”
Then he turned away and snagged his hat from the peg by the door and turned to go.
“Just off for supper at Miss Molly’s,” he said with a wolfish grin. “I imagine you two are feeling too dang troubled to eat so I won’t order any over. I’ll see you later. Oh, and don’t even think about repeating this conversation...because nobody would believe you,” and with another smirk he was gone.
Mort turned to Jess who was looking just about as distraught as the Sheriff had ever seen his friend...and he figured he must look pretty similar. Goddamn it if one hair of Kate’s head was hurt... sure she could look out for herself...but she was sick right now...what if Cody decided to pay her a call?
“Damn it, Mort...what’s he thinkin’... that’s the craziest notion I ever heard!” Jess yelled, breaking into Mort’s thoughts.
“Exactly Mort replied that’s why he’s got us all strung up like a turkey at Thanksgiving Jess. Nobody would believe he’d go to these dang lengths just to try and get some cock-eyed revenge for his brother.”
“Well you’d better believe it,” said Jess slumping down on his bunk, “and there ain’t a dang thing we can do right now.”
They were both lying on their bunks sometime later wrestling with the problem when Jess glanced over at Mort and saw that strange dazed look in his eyes... Hell he thought he was over all that and it was just that nasty bug that had laid him low. Had made him so forgetful and darned right dozy...but now he looked really out of it again.
“Mort you OK?”
It looked like he was on the verge of nodding off...garldarn it how could he, Jess thought angrily...they needed their wits about them if they were going to get out of this mess.
“Mort…damn it speak to me!” he hollered.
Mort’s head shot up and he looked apologetic, “Sorry Jess. I’m just feelin’ real tired all of a sudden.”
“Well this ain’t no time to be takin’ a nap Mort, we need to think of something.”
Mort yawned widely, “Sorry I don’t know what’s come over me, I thought coffee was supposed to keep you awake, not send you to sleep,” he said with a weak smile.
Jess’s eyes suddenly snapped open wide in astonishment.
“Coffee...that’s it Mort let’s see your cup.”
“What... why?”
“Damn it Mort, just pass it across will ya.”
Mort shrugged and passed it through the bars, “Be careful don’t spill It. I couldn’t drink it all that clown put way too much sugar in it as usual.”
Jess took the cup and smelled the contents before taking a hesitant sip and grimacing.
“This has been doctored Mort,” he said quietly, “and I figure this has been your problem all along, why you’ve been so forgetful and tired.”
“What...are you sure?”
He nodded, “You ain’t got a very good sense of smell Mort, but I can smell there’s something in here other than coffee and there’s a faint bitterness too.”
Then he swirled the cup around and standing on his bunk he reached up and tipped the contents out of the window and looked closely at the empty cup before passing it back.
“If you look real careful you can see some sorta powdery stuff at the bottom a sleeping draft is my guess.”
“Well I’ll be,” murmured Mort. “So, it was just that bastard messing with the coffee all along?”
“It looks that way yeah.”
Then he suggested the Sheriff drink his fill of water from the bucket of drinking water left for the prisoners’ use, “That should wash it out of you some.”
Mort was looking more his old self before too long and the men were just settling down to try and formulate a plan when someone just below the cell window gave a low whistle...then a deep melancholy voice intoned, “Are you there, Brother Harper...Brother Cory?”
Jess and Mort sat bolt upright exchanging a shocked glance before jumping up and looking to the high cell window.
Then just moments later a battered black hat came into view followed by two large, strange wild eyes...that peered in at them.
Jess was the first to come to his senses and said, “Parson, that you?”
“It is indeed Brother Harper and it appears you and the good Sheriff find yourselves in a somewhat disagreeable situation?”
“Yeah you could say that,” said Mort, rolling his eyes to Jess.
“Might I suggest that liberation is called for and at the earliest possible opportunity?” he continued.
“Huh?” Jess asked looking perplexed.
“He says do we want springing... I think,” whispered Mort.
Then peering up at the Parson, Jess said, “Yup Parson, so you think you could help us out some?”
“Indisputably Brother Harper...your petition shall no sooner be noted than done. I shall have your horses waiting here at the rear of the building shortly. Be ready to make your escape within the hour...I shall return and outwit that dullard deputy. Gird your loins Brother Harper...Brother Cory...I shall return!” he cried before suddenly disappearing from view as the barrel he was standing on upturned. There was a crash and much cussing before they heard him hurry away.
Jess turned to Mort, “Do ya think he’ll come through?”
“Indisputably,” said Mort with a faint grin...but then he sobered. “But should we run Jess, isn’t that making us seem even guiltier?”
“Well what’s the alternative have that bastard Cody...uh Bailey, harm Millie or Kate or even young Mike dang it! We can’t protect them stuck in here Mort or prove our innocence either. We hafta make sure everyone’s safe first and then find this Rob Bailey and make him confess. Hell, you said yourself nobody will believe us otherwise.”
Mort looked grave, “I suppose you’re right Jess, there’s no other way out. But doggone it I never thought I’d go on the run.”
“Don’t fret Mort,” Jess said with his cheeky grin, “you’ll soon get the hang of it.”
It was sometime later when Cody AKA Bailey returned looking smug and well fed.
“That Miss Molly sure makes a tasty chicken stew,” he said licking his lips, before sinking down at his desk and pouring himself another drink from Mort’s rapidly depleting bottle.
He was just dozing, feet up on the desk when there was an almighty crash as the door flew open admitting the Parson...who stood there his wild eyes staring around him as he swayed drunkenly, an empty bottle of whiskey held aloft.
Cody who had catapulted forwards nearly falling out of his chair now got unsteadily to his feet.
“What’s the meaning of this you drunken old gas bag?” he yelled glaring at the Parson.
“Well met Brother Cody,” the Parson intoned, “I come in peace! Here to save you from sin and damnation, repent now I say repent!”
Cody shook his head to clear it, the whiskey he’d been imbibing most of the evening slowing him down.
“Shut up... go and do your God bothering someplace else you old soak,” Cody stormed.
“I’m afraid I cannot do that Brother Cody. I have a mission to save your soul from the Devil. Repent I say repent and join me in the heavenly embrace of the Good Lord!”
“No thanks,” said Cody dryly, “but you can come and join Harper and Cory, save their souls if you’ve a mind to,” he said chuckling at his own wit.
“Come on man...in the cells,” he said more briskly, “and you can dang well stay here until you sober up some!”
The Parson seemed quite happy with the idea.
“That will be wholly conducive, thank you Brother Cody,” he murmured as he allowed himself to be propelled towards the last free cell, then he stood back to allow the Deputy to unlock the door.
It was when the half-drunk Cody was trying to locate the key hole to admit the Parson that the other snaked a hand around to the deputy’s holster. He stealthily removed the gun in one quick movement before digging it painfully into Cody’s back.
“Now I believe the saying is ‘hands up’ Brother Cody. Do exactly as I say and you shall not be harmed,” the Parson said pleasantly and now as sober as a judge.
It took only seconds for the bunch of cell keys to be transferred from the deputy’s hands to Jess’s. Then once liberated he grinned at the Parson before throwing Cody unceremoniously into the cell he had just vacated.
“Thanks Parson we owe you,” Jess said as he freed Mort. Then he re-entered the cell now occupied by Cody who was sitting on the bunk looking slightly dazed at this sudden turn of events.
Leaning down he grabbed hold of Cody’s jacket by the lapels and dragging him forwards so they were inches apart he hissed, “Don’t you ever...ever threaten any of my family or friends again.”
Then he back-slapped him hard across the face nearly parting his head from his shoulders...or so it felt to Cody.
“Throw me some rope and cuffs will ya Mort,” he called out over his shoulder.
Minutes later Cody was stretched out face down, tied to the bunk, his hands uncomfortably cuffed behind his back and gagged with his own bandana. Then Jess threw a blanket roughly over the still form... “Perfect,” he whispered to himself, “anyone comes by they’ll think I’m just takin’ a nap.”
He then entered Mort’s cell and covered a couple of pillows with the blanket, so that too looked like there was a sleeping occupant.
Then he went over and liberated their guns from Cody’s desk drawer...before checking the other drawers.
“What are you doing?” Mort asked impatiently, “If we’re going, we should go...”
“Hang on a minute,” Jess said as he selected a key to unlock the very bottom drawer and then his face relaxed into a wide grin.
“Well looky here Mort all those things you thought you’d lost your pen, spare badge all here, quite a Magpie our deputy.”
Mort came over and gasped, “Garldarn it... the scheming bastard.”
“Exactly,” said Jess and then rooting around some more found a small jar at the bottom containing some white powder with a faded label saying Chloral Hydrate.
“I figure this could be what he used to drug you with Mort,” he said tipping a little into an envelope and scribbling a hasty note.
He returned the jar and re-locked the drawer. Then removing the key from the key ring he put it in his vest pocket.
“What are you doing?” Mort asked.
“I’m gonna drop a sample off at the doc’s place. The rest is evidence. It will be safe enough locked up in there until we get back. He’s hardly likely to draw attention to the contents by breaking it open, is he? If I know that fussy Briggs, he’ll move in here to help ‘keep the peace’ while he sends Cody off lookin’ for us, so with Briggs about he won’t get a chance to check it anyway.”
“So, what are we waiting for let’s go,” said Mort again.
Jess turned to where the Parson was happily draining the last drops from Mort’s bottle of red-eye and said, “Will you be OK Parson, I guess you’ll be the first one Cody goes after.”
“Fear not Brother Harper, I have contingency plans. I have a place for the night sleeping in dear Brother Wesley’s Church,” he said referring to the local Padre. “He often supplies a warm sanctuary for me there when I am in need. Then I have arranged for Brother Shell to stop the Stagecoach for me and pick me up a little way out of town on his way to Cheyenne, where I shall reside until uh...the dust settles, is the term I believe.”
Jess grinned at him, “Good old Rev Wesley and Mose too. Watch yer back Parson and thanks again, “he said before the men parted company.
They crept around the back of the jail and there sure enough they found Traveller and Mort’s Buck ground hitched, saddled and ready to go.
“Look Mort you get off home and rouse Kate, she needs to come with us and I’ll put this note through the Doc’s door and then go fetch Millie, the saloon should be closing round about now.”
“Then what ’ll we do?” Mort asked still looking a little dazed after the recent events.
“I reckon we need to ride for the ranch, with Slim still over in Cheyenne they could be at risk... I figure Cody will put his little plan of harming our women and Mike into place as soon as he can...we need to keep ‘em safe.”
Mort nodded, “This still doesn’t sit any too well with me Jess. But that’s as good a plan as any and I sure don’t want harm to come to anyone else...I’ll meet you back at my place in ...say half an hour?”
Once he’d dropped the note off Jess led Traveller down the back alley until he came to the saloon and then made his way in through the back entrance. As he had hoped Tom was just seeing the last customers off the premises and Lily and Millie were clearing glasses.
When she saw Jess, Millie nearly dropped her tray of glasses, but put it down carefully before running into his arms.
“Oh, Jess thank God,” she whispered, “I tried to visit but that pig of a deputy wouldn’t let me see you.”
“It’s OK sweetheart. But look Millie, it really ain’t safe for you here. You go throw some things in a bag, we’ve gotta leave now.”
“What... why...what’s happening Jess?”
It only took him a minute to explain the situation to her with Tom and Lily listening in.
“I’m real sorry about this Tom,” he said once Millie had gone off to pack, “but I hafta keep her safe.”
“Well of course you do Jess, I can see that and we’ll manage won’t we Lily girl?”
Lily smiled and confirmed they’d manage just fine.
“Slim should be home tomorrow afternoon,” she added, “so he can look out for Millie and Kate while you try and find this uh... Rob Bailey?”
“Yup that’s the plan,” Jess agreed, “we need to clear Mort’s name...mine too.”
Tom shook his head, “There would be no need if folk in town knew what was happening. None of them would believe Mort or you would stoop to thieving Jess, and Cody knows it. That’s why he’s kept everything so dang quiet...threatened me and Millie with jail if we said anything and he’s hushed up a few others too. Just waiting for the trial and then it’ll be a done deal I guess.”
“Well let’s hope it don’t come to that,” said Jess. “Iffen we can find this guy and make him tell the truth that is.”
Chapter 5
It was just before dawn when they finally rode into the ranch yard and made their way to the barn.
Kate was still far from her usual sparky self and Millie and Mort looked pretty sleepy, so it was only Jess who was reasonably alert. That fired by his anger. Hell, he and Mort shouldn’t be skulking about in the dead of night, hiding away like two darned convicts and that was all down to that crazy Cody, Jess thought bitterly.
They were just putting their horses up for the night by the light of a lantern swinging from a beam when the barn door suddenly burst open and Slim stood their wielding his rifle.
They all froze like some bizarre tableau for a second. Slim looking on in surprise at the four, who stood there like startled rabbits, before everyone started talking at once...stopped and then laughed.
“I saw the lamp, thought I’d got horse thieves,” Slim said.
“What are you doing home pard I thought you were in Cheyenne on Stage-line business?” Jess countered.
“The meeting finished early. So how about you, I thought you were helping Mort out for a while?” he asked grinning across at the Sheriff.
“And to what do we owe the honor of the company of you dear ladies?” he added, encompassing them in his wide grin, “Not that it’s not great to see you and just about in time for an early breakfast too.”
Then he turned back to his partner with a slight frown, “So what’s up then Jess?”
Jess mooched over to his buddy and threw an arm around his shoulders, “Well I’ll tell ya Slim, it’s rather a long story, but me and Mort, well we’re on the run.”
They were sitting around the breakfast table sipping a coffee and discussing the problem.
“That was real good thank you ma’am,” Mort said passing his empty plate across.
Daisy smiled at him, “Well you’re very welcome Sheriff, as are all of you. I just wish the circumstances were more pleasant,” she added with an anxious little frown.
“Don’t worry Aunt Daisy it’ll be fun hiding Jess and the Sheriff from those bad men,” Mike piped up cheerfully.
Jess leaned over and ruffled the boy’s blond hair.
“Just you remember this ain’t a game Tiger. I want you to stay real close to Slim and Aunt Daisy all the time. Miss Kate and Millie too. You’re not to head off any place alone...you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Mike said seriously, “I promise. So when do you think they’ll come looking for you Jess huh?” he added grinning again.
It was late that afternoon when a small posse headed by Cody and Briggs arrived at the ranch.
Slim went out onto the porch to greet them.
“Howdy Deputy Cody, Mr. Briggs, what can I do for you?” he asked with a polite smile.
“Cut the pleasantries,” snarled Cody, still smarting from his recent humiliation, “Where’s Harper?”
Slim assumed a look of surprise, “Why he’s in town helping out the Sheriff isn’t he?”
“Well we wouldn’t be here looking for him if he was,” Briggs barked officiously. “Both he and the Sheriff are missing after seriously assaulting Deputy Cody and we are here to arrest them.”
The men dismounted and several went off to investigate the barn and yard whilst Briggs and Cody followed Slim inside.
Cody stopped in his tracks when he saw Daisy, Kate and Millie all clad in aprons and busily working at the table, baking and bottling.
“What’s going on... what are you doing here?” Cody snapped eyeing Kate and Millie.
“Why they’re here for the Sunday Shoot cook-up of course,” said Daisy, like she was humoring an imbecile. “We always meet and prepare our produce a couple of weeks before the Sunday Shoot, we have a produce stall there you know gentleman.”
“You do?” Briggs asked in disbelief.
Then turning on Kate, “You cook do you my dear?”
Kate treated him to the icy Munroe glare and said, “Yup I cook... you got a problem with that Mister? Uh and I ain’t your dear either.”
Briggs flushed up and wandered off pretending to look behind the couch, as though Jess might suddenly materialize from thin air.
Cody turned cold eyes on Millie, “Come on then girl, where’s your man huh?”
Millie opened her eyes wide in childlike innocence, “Why deputy...have you lost him?” she asked guilelessly.
Cody cussed under his breath and turned away and then after a moment he cast his eyes heavenwards to the attic trapdoor.
“Get a ladder Sherman I want to check your attic,” he barked.
“Oh dear,” said Daisy, more in sorrow than anger, “please don’t go up there deputy, it hasn’t been opened in years and it makes such a mess...the dust you know?”
Cody ignored her and once Slim had fetched the ladder, Cody put it in place and climbed up, pushing the old trap door open. However as soon as it opened a deluge of sooty dust covered him and he retreated coughing and cursing in equal measure.
“I did warn you dear,” Daisy said with a complacent little smile.
Cody glared at her but before he could reply the other posse members breezed in.
“Nothing to report Mr Briggs, Harper’s horse isn’t here or the Sheriff’s either. We must have got it wrong.”
Briggs turned a nasty shade of puce and left, but Cody turned back.
“If I find out you’ve been harboring criminals then you’ll be in serious trouble.”
Slim glanced at the retreating back of Councillor Briggs, now out of earshot.
“I think we both know there is only one criminal around here,” he spat angrily and believe me if any harm comes to these women or the boy then you’ll be in serious trouble too and don’t you forget it Cody, because that’s a promise!”
“I...I don’t know what you mean,”the deputy stuttered before quickly taking his leave.
Once they had ridden out, Jess and Mort made their way down the ladder.
“Oh, Jess dear you must have found every scrap of dirt and dust in the whole of the attic and pushed it out of the trap door,” she said going off to fetch the broom and chuckling to herself.
“I guess I did, just about,” Jess agreed grinning, “er sorry Daisy.”
“Shall I go and fetch Traveller and the other horses from the bottom of the home meadow now?” Mike piped up.
“Not just yet,” Slim said, “they might just try and trick us and come back.”
“Oh, they won’t be back,” Kate chuckled, “we gals embarrassed them real good. They never can stand to be shown up by women folk, men like Briggs and Cody!”
Later that night, the women retired to bed, Kate and Millie taking Mike’s room and the youngster bunking in with Daisy. But Jess Slim and Mort sat up hatching their plans over a glass or two of red-eye.
“So, what evidence do we have against them or they against us come to that?” Mort asked being ever the practical one.
“Well precious little against me,” Jess said bitterly, except that cock and bull story they’ve dreamed up saying we are in league to try and embezzle that bounty money Mort. It’s pretty obvious that Cody planted that money at your place. Hell, he admitted it didn’t he!”
“Yes, not to mention all those bogus receipts Cody’s got where he’s signed my name on those fines, he’s been giving out right left and centre. Heck I should have noticed that,” the Sheriff said shaking his head sadly.
“Well the money weren’t in the safe so he must have pocketed it all,” said Jess.
“Well that’s one thing we’ve got on him, if we can get hold of those chits, we can easily prove they’re forgeries, his signature is probably nothing like yours Mort,” said Slim. Mort indeed had a very bold clear flourish of a signature which was well known about town...but not well known to Cody...and pretty hard to copy so Slim thought.
“What about his references Mort did you check them,” asked Slim, “because I’d bet my last dollar they are forged too?”
Mort shook his head sadly, “Nope, Briggs did it, assured me all was just fine and we were lucky to get a man of such high caliber...then once he was in office and started doctoring my coffee...well I just wasn’t myself and I forgot to double check them.”
Then Jess’s face lit up, “Well at least I took a sample of that powder out of your desk and put it through Doc Sam’s door with a note...asked him to check what it was and why we needed to know... he’ll be checking that out.”
“What we really need to do is get hold of those references and check them out, those phony receipts he’s been signing in your name too Mort,” said Slim, “and I’ve an idea how to get them.”
“So, have you still got the spare Safe key Jess?” he asked.
Jess grinned at his pard and produced it from his vest pocket.
“I’ll go into town tomorrow and see what I can do,” Slim said cheerfully.
Jess grinned at him and ran a finger around his earhole, “Am I hearing this right? Is the upright, law abiding Slim Sherman thinkin’of robbing the Sheriff’s safe? Takin’ the fine receipts and removing important references too?”
Slim threw him a rueful smile, “That’s exactly what I aim to do Jess, needs must when the devil drives and I reckon that Cody is the devil incarnate, way he’s treated you and Mort.”
Then Jess looked thoughtful, “You know there’s more to this than meets the eye I reckon. You know the ongoing vendetta we’ve been having with Briggs and the Bar G, Slim.”
“What’s that all about?” Mort asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well you know Briggs owns one of the biggest and most profitable ranches around,” said Slim, “and he’s pretty damn smug about it too. But there’s one thing he hasn’t got and that’s the Army contract for breaking and providing mustangs; that honor goes to my pard here,” he said smiling proudly. “The Major reckons Jess can do no wrong. Heck he’s offered him a job there before now and he thinks very little of Brigg’s wranglers. That alone is a good enough reason for Briggs to want Jess discredited or even thrown in jail. Then he’d stand a chance for the contract.”
Now it was Mort’s turn to look thoughtful, “You know what? I believe old man Briggs hates me something fierce too. He hasn’t been right with me ever since I threw that nephew of his in jail for disturbing the peace. He said I should have dealt with it more...uh...more discreetly. Seeing how the kid was related to, quote, ‘such an important and upstanding force for good in the community.’”
“Kind of humble, isn’t he?” Slim said grinning.
Jess just shook his head, “I was there the night that Billy got stinkin’ drunk and started shooting up the saloon. Hell, it was a miracle nobody was killed. What did Briggs want you to do Mort, pat the kid on the head and say naughty boy don’t do that again?”
Mort chuckled, “Pretty much. It sure rankled when I gave him a month in the cooler and a big fine. Sorted the boy out good though, he’s been meek as a lamb ever since, sworn off the drink for good too!”
“Shame you can’t do the same with his uncle,” Jess drawled.
“Well maybe after tomorrow we’ll be one step nearer doing just that very thing,” Slim said hopefully.”
“I know Briggs, and you haven’t seen eye to eye for many years Slim but I thought he had more common sense than to side with the likes of Cody. Surely he can see through him and realise what a devious bastard he is?” Jess said shaking his head.
Slim burst into the Sheriff’s office looking the very epitome of a wronged citizen.
“What do you think you were doing coming out and upsetting the women folk and child?” he shouted angrily as soon as he was through the door.
Cody looked up anxiously wondering if Sherman’s temper equaled his partner’s and he was going to be assaulted again. Hell, he could still feel the sting of that vicious backslap and sported a nasty bruise to prove it.
“No need to get so darned upset Sherman,” he blustered, making sure the desk stayed between him and the irate cowboy.
“You may have dang well pulled the wool over everyone else’s eyes,” Slim continued now getting into his stride as the righteous citizen defending the maltreated, “but not mine Cody!”
“I…I don’t know what you mean,” Cody bleated, eyeing the door and wondering if he could make an escape.
Just then the door flew open admitting Tom from the saloon looking rather shaken.
“Come quick Sheriff, there’s all hell let loose at the saloon. I really need a hand!”
Cody was on the horns of a dilemma, make an excuse, but have to stay and face this aggressive, rather frightening rancher or take his chance at the saloon.
One glance back at Slim and he jumped up from his seat.
“I’m coming Tom,” he squeaked before dashing out, leaving the door open.
Slim closed it before heading for the safe, quickly unlocking it and retrieving the counterfeit fine receipts. Then moments later he’d also liberated the bogus references from Mort’s desk drawer and was soon on his way whistling cheerfully as he marched down Main Street to the saloon.
He caught up with Cody just as he was leaving.
“All sorted out then Deputy?” he asked cheerfully.
Cody looked slightly wrong footed by the suddenly cheery countenance of one recently so dang furious...but just shook his head.
“All blown over when I arrived,” he said. “I figure they took off when they knew I was on my way,” he added pompously.
“Sure,” drawled Slim sarcastically, “that’ll be it,” and he disappeared into the saloon leaving Cody floundering for a good comeback.
Once inside Slim approached the bar and grinned at Tom.
“Gee thanks buddy that was great, we owe you.”
“No problem,” said Tom drawing a pint for his friend and pushing it over. “Anything for Jess and Millie, you know that and the Sheriff too. Give ‘em my best when you get back.”
“So, Tom, what’s the word on the street?” Slim asked once he’d taken a good draw of his beer.
Tom looked thoughtful, “I’d say the majority of the town are still backing Mort and Jess; most of them didn’t believe all those stories that Mort was getting past it and figured it was just this new guy trying to make a name for himself.”
Then he looked thoughtful, “As for Jess, well he’s held in pretty high esteem around here as you know Slim. Nobody believes either he or the Sheriff would have stolen that bounty money. Most folk are saying it’s a disgrace and he’s been set up. They were wondering why it had all been kept under wraps too. Until Mose got wind of it all, that is, “he said with a grin. “So the only ones who think there is anything in it are Briggs and his cronies on the Council and one or two of his rich friends.”
“Well why doesn’t that surprise me?” asked Slim taking another pull at his beer. “But that’s good, I’m glad most folk haven’t lost faith. Just got to try and expose that bastard Cody for what he really is.”
Tom nodded thoughtfully, “I really wish Lon would see sense and come back as deputy. He dang well hates working for that slave driver Will Hardman. I really don’t see old Lon as a Smithy anyways...ain’t got enough brawn,” he said chuckling.
Slim agreed, “Maybe if Will carries on being a pain in the butt Lon will have second thoughts. Mort really could do with a good friend in the office right now.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes drinking their beers and then Slim said, “Uh... so Tom have there been any strangers in town?”
The barkeep scratched his head and looked to the ceiling for inspiration, “Nope can’t say as there has; not that I’ve seen in here.”
“I’m looking out for a guy named Bailey...can you tell Mose if you see him? He can pass on the message,” Slim said.
“Bailey...Bailey...um only Bailey I know was that rancher from south of Town. He moved on after his wife and daughter were killed in that bank raid...terrible business that was...Rob...that’s it Rob Bailey,” he said snapping his fingers.
“That’s the guy, so can you ask Mose to let us know if he comes in here?” Slim asked draining his glass and making to move off.
“Oh, he won’t be coming in here Slim,” Tom said quickly.
“How so,” asked Slim looking intrigued, “signed the pledge has he?”
Tom shook his head, “Nope nothing like that...the guys dead Slim.”
Slim stopped in his tracks and came back to the bar, “What...are you sure?”
“Sure, I’m sure,” said Tom, “he hanged himself a few weeks back. Made all the papers down in Albuquerque, my cousin lives there and he mentioned it in a letter seeing as how the guy was from these parts. Seems his brother found him but too late...tragic isn’t it?”
Slim nodded looking bewildered.
“You OK Slim, care for another beer?” Tom asked kindly.
But Slim merely shook his head, “No got to be off...thanks Tom. I really appreciate all you’ve done and we’ll try and get Millie home just as soon as it’s safe.”
“But why would he say that?” Mort asked looking mystified, “Why lie about his brother still being alive, he said it was this Rob that wanted his revenge didn’t he Jess?”
The men were gathered in the barn where they’d gone to meet Slim when he rode back in later that morning.
“Looks to me like the only one wanting revenge is Cody, uh that is Frank Bailey himself,” said Jess. I imagine he blames us for his brother taking his own life. In his mind he’d never have done it iffen he hadn’t lost his family that way and according to Cody the blame for that lies firmly at our door Mort.”
Slim shook his head sadly, “The man is a bully and a coward, but you can’t deny he’s pretty cunning. This way he can commit whatever crime he wants. like hurting the girls or Mike and as long as there are no witnesses, he can blame it on his brother and he’ll be the one heading the posse looking for this none existent brother too.”
“Well that’s where he ain’t gonna get away with it,” said Jess firmly. “Heck if old Tom knows his brother is dead there will be others and it’s easy enough to check.”
Then he turned to Slim, “Speaking of which did you check out those references?”
Slim nodded, taking the letters out of his vest pocket, “I wired the Sheriff in Arizona and the other name he gave, a Sheriff over in Colorado.
Jess looked at the letters and then cussed, “Well this ain’t right for a start.”
Both men looked over at him enquiringly.
“This letter supposedly from Sheriff Bates over in Arizona dated last month?”
Mort peered at it, “Well it looks genuine enough, on official notepaper and all.”
Jess gave him a grim smile, “Except Sheriff Bates died nigh on three years ago.”
“Are you sure Jess?” Slim asked raising an eyebrow.
“I’m sure alright,” Jess said, “I was there when he was gunned down.”
“Well I bet this other one is a fake too,” said Mort looking slightly more cheerful.
“So, did you get to see the doc too Slim?” he asked.
“I did indeed and he sends his best to you both. He agreed to sign a statement saying that those powders were indeed a very strong sleeping medicine, in fact he said an overdose could have been fatal. If we can prove all this, I figure Cody or Bailey whatever he calls himself could be up on an attempted murder charge. It’s particularly dangerous if taken with even small amounts of alcohol too.”
“Jeez Mort it’s a good job you didn’t tie one on,” Jess said looking stricken, “you could have been killed by that no hoper.”
“So, what happens now,” asked Slim, “you two can’t stay in hiding forever. What do you think he’ll do next?”
Jess secretly thought that being holed up with his best girl sure had its advantages, but sensibly kept his feelings to himself.
“Well I reckon he’ll try and get you off the property Slim,” said Mort thoughtfully. “He doesn’t know me and Jess are holed up here and with you gone that leaves the women folk and Mike as sitting ducks.”
“Hell, Mort you better hadn’t let Kate hear you referring to her as a sitting duck, she’d never forgive you,” said Jess with feeling.
Mort chuckled, “No more she would, and to be honest with you I figure Cody would bite off a sight more than he could chew if he started messin’ with my Kate. But even so we need to keep an eye out for him, he’s real devious.”
It was later that night when they were in their room preparing for bed that Slim remembered his conversation with Tom about Lon.
“Yup it seems he’s real unhappy working at the Blacksmith’s place, I figure he’s made a big mistake,” said Slim thoughtfully.
Jess dried off from where he’d been washing up at the basin and slinging the wet towel in the general direction of a chair started unbuttoning his pants as he wandered over to his bed.
“Well that’s too bad. I can’t understand why he chucked in his job anyway. He loved working for Mort and Hell it ain’t that dang dangerous. I’d rather take my chances with Mort than that Will Hardman, the guy’s got a real temper on him,” Jess replied.
“Well you should know,” said Slim chuckling.
“Hey I may have kind of a short fuse, but I don’t go throwing hammers at folk,” Jess said with feeling, “the guy’s a danger, to himself and any poor bastard that gets in his way.”
Jess climbed into bed and lay back, hands laced behind his head looking pensive.
“You know Slim I figure I’ll ride over to Lon’s place tomorrow and have a word with Betty see if I can change her mind.”
Slim who was settled in bed with a book on his lap pushed it aside, looked across at his buddy and said, “Oh no...no Jess are you crazy? You’ve got posters out on you and half the town looking for you and Mort...you’ll be picked up in no time.”
“Aw you worry too much Slim. Lon’s place is about a mile this side of town...and I can be there and back in no time. Anyway, you know me. If I don’t wanna be found then I won’t be.”
“Well isn’t that the truth,” Slim agreed with a faint smile, “just be careful though Jess for goodness sake huh.”
He rode over to Lon’s place early the following morning. He kept to the back trails and didn’t see hide or hair of another living soul, save a few jackrabbits. He dismounted and left Traveller ground hitched a little way off and then walked quietly into the yard.
As he had hoped Betty was there in the yard pegging out her laundry, her usually shapely figure now heavy with child.
He walked over and gave a little cough so as not to frighten her too much.
She spun around looking fearful for a moment until it registered who it was and then her face relaxed into a warm welcoming smile.
“Well howdy stranger,” she said easily, “I thought you and Mort were on the run...desperadoes the pair of you,” she said with a chuckle.
“Well I’m glad you can see the funny side Betty,” he said, before grinning at her and walking over for a hug.
“So how are you keepin’?” he asked as he pulled back and surveyed her vast stomach.
She patted the bulge and grinned at him, “Oh just dandy Jess...but I’ll be better when this young ‘un makes his appearance.”
Then she looked at him her head on one side, “I’m guessing this isn’t a social visit...mighty dangerous for you to be out and about I’d have thought?”
He nodded, “I really need to talk to you Betty, about Lon.”
She nodded and linking his arm they walked into the house.
Once they were sitting at the kitchen table a coffee a piece she said, “I suppose you’re here to get me to say it’s OK for Lon to go back to his job with Mort; but I can’t do that Jess I just can’t I’m so darned scared.”
“Heck Betty that ain’t like you,” Jess declared looking surprised. “I know you didn’t like the hours. But you know Lon can look after himself and with Mort watching his back, he ain’t in that much danger really he ain’t.”
“Uh, that’s what you think,” she said darkly. Then getting up she went and fetched her handbag and digging deep brought out a crumpled brown envelope.
“Here read this.”
Jess cussed softly, “Well I can see as how this would spook you up some. Does Lon know about it?”
She shook her head, “He’d have ignored it, said it was some crank. I had to play it real clever Jess. God forgive me, but I said I’d walk out if he didn’t leave the job. We had a terrible row, but he finally agreed...for me and the babies.”
Jess shook his head sadly, “And now he’s working for that Will. Heck, come on Betty, anything has gotta be better than that huh?”
When she still looked undecided, he smiled at her and took her hand across the table.
“Look honey it is OK this is all bluff, written by that no-good new deputy Frank Cody. It’s all part of some crazy revenge,” and he went on to explain everything.
Sometime later Betty was once more her old self grinning at Jess.
“Well I’m just so relieved you’ve explained everything and yes I’ll suggest Lon gets his old job back, I promise.”
“Tell him everything,” Jess said as he made to leave. “With him on the inside we’ll be that much closer to exposing Cody for what he really is,” and the sooner the better he thought privately.
It was when he was making his way back home on the old Indian trail high above the Laramie road that he saw a lone rider heading towards the oncoming Stage that was hurtling along at speed...Mose running late again he surmised. He reined in and peered more closely at the lone rider and his heart missed a beat.
“Goddamn it, Cody,” he whispered to himself.
He shrank back and continued to watch as Cody flagged the coach down...then there was a brief interlude when he spoke to Mose and passed something over, before turning his mount back towards town while Mose headed off towards the Relay.
Jess took his time and was doubly careful not to be seen, finally arriving back at the ranch a half hour after the Stage had left.
He dismounted leaving Traveller hitched by the porch and went and took a seat along with Slim and Mort.
“Did everything go OK?” Mort asked.
Jess nodded, and explained about the note from Cody and the threats.
“Poor kid,” Mort said, “she must have been beside herself with worry.”
“Well she’s over it now and gonna convince Lon to get his job back.”
Then turning to Slim he explained about what he’d seen out on the trail.
Slim nodded, “Mose said that Cody stopped him and gave him a letter for me. Said under no circumstances was he to mention it was delivered by him, just to say it was in the regular mail.”
Jess chuckled, “So of course the first thing Mose says is he was stopped by Cody, given a letter from him and told not to say anything!”
“Exactly,” Slim agreed, “so this is obviously one of Cody’s little homemade missives, allegedly from the Stage line company in Cheyenne,” and he passed the letter over.
Jess read the contents and grinned, “Gotta give the guy his due, it is written on official Stage Line paper; so, are you attending this supposedly important meeting?”
“What do you think?” Slim said. “Oh yeah I’ll take the Stage out so Cody thinks I’ve left town and then I’ll double back. Mort and I figured maybe a little reception committee would be a good idea...with Briggs hiding in the back where he can witness whatever Cody is going to pull first hand.”
Chapter 6
Jess spent the rest of the day around the ranch, neither he or Mort daring to venture too far in case they were spotted and their whereabouts reported back to Cody. It was hard for them both though, especially being in such close proximity to their women, but not being able to spend time alone together.
Normally Mort and Kate would have shared a bed, but knew it wasn’t proper with young Mike and indeed Daisy around and so Mort had been using the couch in the parlour with Kate and Millie sharing Mike’s room. Whereas Kate and Mort were reasonably philosophical about the situation Jess and Millie were feeling more and more frustrated. Every time they found themselves alone someone would barge in on them. Usually Mike who craved their company to go fishing or swimming in the creek. Plus on occasion Slim or Mort, who backed off with embarrassed apologies. But none the less halting any romantic interlude Jess and Millie had hoped for.
It was high summer and the home meadow was full of sweet-smelling grasses and wild flowers. Pretty as a picture so Daisy declared as she looked upon the scene with Millie the following morning. They were relaxing after pegging the washing out; leaning on the meadow gate listening to Mort chatting away to Mike as he helped him fashion a new cage for one of his critters. Slim was busy indoors with the accounts and Jess was sitting on a bench by the kitchen door mending a bridle. After a while he wandered over and leaned on the gate with Daisy and Millie. Feeling the warm sunshine on his back he was just longing to have his freedom again, without constantly having to run for cover when anyone called.
Daisy seemed to pick up on his thoughts as she so often did, and resting her hand over his on the gate said gently, “It won’t be for much longer dear, that Cody will soon be exposed for the rogue he is and then life can get back to normal.”
He squeezed her hand and said, “Yup, I know Daisy,” but he still sighed, his eyes misty as he looked out across the meadow towards the creek.
Daisy looked from Jess to Millie and back, and said, “Uh, I do believe Millie was just about to take a little stroll to pick some wildflowers for me, why don’t you accompany her dear?”
Jess’s head shot up and his face was suddenly transformed by an eager smile, “Sure...come on Mill,” he said quickly. Then he cast a glance over to where Mike and Mort had their heads together over the cage they were building.
“Don’t worry dear I’ll make sure you aren’t disturbed,” Daisy said softly.
Jess leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, before grabbing Millie’s hand and making their getaway.
As they strolled along through the long grass, the sun warm on their heads and a playful little breeze ruffling Millie’s glossy hair, she looked over at Jess and giggled.
“What is it?” he asked raising a quirky eyebrow.
“You,” she said with her pretty tinkling laugh, “I’d never had thought you would get so excited about picking wildflowers.”
He stopped in his tracks and pulled her into a warm embrace, “Well who said anything about pickin’ flowers,” he murmured, before moving in for a kiss.
They lay on their backs in the long grass near the creek, watching tiny white clouds scudding across the sky high above them.
“I wish I’d taken that Cody out when I had the chance,” Jess said, “stopped him before he could do any real harm.”
“Well you couldn’t really,” Millie said practically, “like Mort said he had you implicated up to your necks, or so it appeared. Mort said nobody would believe you if you’d tried to explain what was really happening.”
Jess sighed, “I just hope we can get him tomorrow. Because I’m tellin’ you Mill if he does anything to hurt you or Mike…well I won’t be held responsible.”
Then he leaned up on his elbow looking down at her and gently stroked her cheek ... “Dang it, you’re so beautiful…” he whispered.
She gazed up at him her lips slightly parted and eyes glittering with desire.
“...beautiful and very, very irresistible,” he whispered as he leaned across her, gently pinning her down with his weight and kissing her deeply. Then nothing mattered to the young couple, except the here and now, as they made passionate love with nobody to see or hear save the birds in the blue sky high above as the warmth of the summer morning enveloped them.
It was sometime later when they finally made their way slowly back home across the field hand in hand, whispering secret jokes and laughing.
Slim was sitting on the porch, sipping lemonade, when they arrived back at the house and he threw his partner a knowing look when the couple walked over.
“Well where are they then?” he asked grinning at Jess and raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Huh?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“Why the wild flowers you’d gone picking of course,” Slim said with a snigger, “that’s why you went for a walk wasn’t it pard?”
Jess flushed up and Millie moved swiftly off to the house.
“I’ll uh, just give Daisy a hand with lunch,” she said disappearing indoors.
Once she’d left Slim turned a quizzical glance on Jess, “Huh?”
“Aw shuddup Hardrock,” Jess said slumping down on the other porch chair and throwing him a mischievous grin.
The following morning Slim left bright and early for the alleged trip to Cheyenne. He’d decided to ride into town and pick up the Stage from there making sure Cody saw he was out of the way...he also intended to arrange for Briggs to attend an early morning meeting at the ranch.
“Don’t tell him what it’s about,” Jess had suggested, “him and that Cody are thick as thieves the guy just won’t believe his deputy can put a foot wrong. Tell him it’s to do with finding me and Mort; that you’ve got a lead or somethin’ that’ll bring him over for sure.
Slim had arranged with Bert to tether the ranch horse Slim had been riding, to the back of the stage shortly before they left town; hoping Cody wouldn’t be suspicious. Then once they were a few miles out Mose would let Slim off and he’d ride hell for leather back to the ranch, hopefully arriving before Briggs, riding in early too.
As luck would have it everything went to plan.
Slim hurtled back to the ranch using the back track and arrived some good half hour before Briggs finally rode in fussing and fretting
He dismounted and tied his mount to the corral fence over by Mike’s pony. Then made his way stiff legged to the porch where Slim awaited him.
“What’s all this about then Sherman? A bit cloak and dagger isn’t it dragging me all the way out here, this better be worth it.”
“Oh, it’ll be worth it alright Briggs,” Mort said as he strolled out onto the porch to join Slim.
“What...what’s the meaning of this!” the rotund councilor cried in agitation. “Arrest this man at once Sherman!”
Slim just shook his head, “I can’t do that Briggs, you see the Sheriff and my partner are the innocent parties in all this business. It is Cody we need to arrest for setting them up and for the atrocities he’s a mind to carry out shortly too.”
“What do you mean?” Briggs blustered, beginning to sweat and look really uncomfortable.
Mort and Slim quickly filled him in on how Cody had deceived everyone and that they were in possession of conclusive evidence to prove it. Then went on to say that Cody was at that minute on his way to the ranch to try and take the women and boy away and possibly even kill them in revenge for his brother’s untimely death.
Briggs turned pale. “But that wasn’t your fault Cory you were out of town on business we couldn’t foresee the bank hold-up.”
“Exactly what I said,” Slim agreed.
But before they could discuss the reason for Cody’s irrational behavior further, they heard a rider approaching fast and all hurried indoors out of sight.
Briggs just had time to acknowledge Daisy, Millie and Mike before they were ushered into Daisy’s room and told to stay there until the matter had been resolved and Slim came to fetch them.
Kate remained with the men, ready to play decoy once Cody arrived...and they didn’t have long to wait. Mort had been none too happy with the role Kate insisted on playing. But eventually had to back down when it became clear she was adamant that it was necessary for her to play her part if they were to nail Cody and supply the evidence, they needed to convince Briggs.
Cody stormed into the yard and dismounting fired off a shot and yelled for the women folk to come out pronto.
Kate waited to the count of ten and then walked out onto the porch.
“What’s the dang racket about?” she asked angrily, “What do ya want Deputy?”
“I think you know that Ma’am,” he snarled, “that pretty little Millie from the saloon and the blond kid...I know they’re in there.”
“What on earth do you want with them?” Kate asked, just praying that this would be the moment Cody showed his true colors, once and for all, for the benefit of Councillor Briggs, now listening intently on the other side of the door along with Slim and Mort.
“Oh, come on don’t play the innocent Mrs Munroe, it doesn’t suit you,” growled Cody. “I’m sure word has got around as to my plans for you all, after all that’s why you and the other women are staying here, to keep safe huh? That’s down to Harper and the Sheriff warning you all. You know I’ve gotten a score to settle with them too and now its payback time. So you can throw down that iron you’re wearing and call the others out or I’ll come and get them,” he said, swinging down from the saddle, drawing his gun and leveling it at Kate’s head, “Just like the Good Book says an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth and a loved woman and kid....killed in exchange for the loss of another loved woman and child. Now I won’t tell you again, lose the gun!”
Kate sighed dramatically and threw her Colt down.
“If that’s the way you want it Deputy but I ain’t comin’ with you and neither are the others.”
“If that’s the way you wanna play it I’ll just blast your brains out here and now. I’d intended to make the Sheriff and Harper sweat some before I dispatched you, but it’s all the same to me. So you gonna change your mind then Ma’am?” he asked with a sickly grin.
But just a split second later the grin was wiped from his face as a gun was levelled to his temple and a deep raspy voice said, “I don’t think the lady’s fer changin’ her mind Cody. Now throw down your gun, or I’ll drop ya here and now,” and Jess dug the gun more firmly into Cody’s head.
He immediately dropped the gun and swallowed hard.
Slim and Mort burst out of the house, Mort taking Kate in his arms and holding her close whilst Slim strode across to where Cody was standing looking totally bewildered by the sudden turn of events.
“I reckon this the end of the line for you Cody, the game’s up. Councillor Briggs heard everything, “said the Sheriff striding over with Kate.
Then he turned back to glance at the house an eyebrow raised in question, “Garldarn it where is the guy?”
Back inside the house Briggs had turned from red to deathly pale as the drama unfolded outside and now taking his derringer from his suit pocket, he hurriedly entered Daisy’s room.
“Come quickly Miss Millie,” he called, “Mister Harper needs you...there’s a problem outside.”
Millie went to follow him, but Daisy held her back, “No wait here dear, we were told not to move until it was safe, this could be a trick.”
That was when they turned back to Briggs and saw him leveling the gun at them. Mike cried out in fear, and Millie pulled him close, “It’s alright Mike,” she whispered.
“What are you doing Mister Briggs?” Daisy asked looking astounded. Goodness this was Mister Briggs, leader of the council, staunch member of the cattleman’s association and wealthy land owner what on earth had got into him?
“Get out of the way woman,” Briggs shouted going to make a grab at Millie, but Daisy was too fast for him and stood in his way protecting a now tearful Mike and stunned Millie.
That’s when he panicked and raised his gun to threaten Daisy. But he was unused to firearms and in his panic his finger slipped on the trigger and the gun went off.
Daisy gave a little gasp and fell forwards hitting the floor hard and lay there deathly still.
Now shaking with fear and shock at what he had done he quickly grabbed a stunned Mike and put the gun to his head.
“You come with me girl,” he said turning to Millie, “or I’ll kill him too,” he spat.
He was looking totally demented now his face a mask of horror...transforming him into a completely different person, Millie thought fleetingly, almost as though the pompous bossy Briggs had been changed into the devil himself.
The others had been alerted by the shot and ran towards the house, but stopped in their tracks when they saw Briggs emerge pushing Millie before him and holding Mike in a vice like grip, the derringer at his temple.
Jess was the first to recover, “Goddamn it man what the hell do ya think yer doing?” he yelled, “Let the boy go!”
“Can’t do that Harper, I’ve too much to lose now.”
“You shouldn’t have involved me Sherman,” he added flicking a glance over to Slim.
“What are you talking about?” Mort cried, “You’re as much the Law in town as I am...what’s got into you man?”
All the time they had been talking Cody, who had not yet been handcuffed, stealthy reached down for his gun and seconds later it was rammed hard into Jess’s back.
“Hit the dirt Harper,” he growled, “and that goes for the rest of you too.”
Jess hesitated but only for a second as Cody cocked his Colt and aimed it at Millie.
“You’ve got three seconds to do as you’re damn well told. We haven’t got anything to lose now Harper so your gal may as well end it here as down the trail.”
It was a matter of minutes before Jess, Slim, Mort and Kate were all unceremoniously bound gagged and thrown into the barn. Cody having second thoughts about abducting Kate, realizing she was trouble with a capital T.
Cody’s parting shot as he left, “Don’t even think of following us. I’ll be keeping a close watch and if I see anyone, anyone at all I’ll kill the kid you got that straight?”
Chapter 7
It was sometime before they finally got free.
Jess managed to escape first, once he’d located his hunting knife in his boot, but even so it took a frustrating five minutes or so before he was finally able to cut through the ropes, free his hands and then do the same for Slim.
Once his pard ’s hands were loose Jess left him to cut the other’s free as he made a dash for the house.
Mike’s last words as he’d been bundled up onto his pony echoing in his ears.
“That Mister Briggs...he done killed Aunt Daisy!”
Jess tore into the house crashing open the door to Daisy’s room and stood on the threshold for a moment breathing heavily.
Then he ran over to where Daisy was seated on the bed, head in hands shaking violently.
“Daisy,” he whispered, “Goddamn it Daisy are you OK?” he cried as he threw himself down beside her taking her in his arms.
After a moment she looked up her eyes dazed, “Oh yes quite alright now dear, I think I must have fainted. He shot at me...but the bullet seems to have missed,” she said with surprise.
Then her eyes opened wide in alarm, “Mike...Millie are they alright?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope they got them Daisy, rode out after they’d tied us up real good...damn it. I can’t believe they did that. It was Briggs that fooled us all. Hell, we all trusted him, what happened?”
Daisy shook her head in bewilderment.
“I just don’t understand it, he ordered us outside and when I refused, he turned his gun on me...I really don’t think he meant it to go off Jess. But he was just so, well so frightened of something, so agitated. I can only think something terrible must have happened to turn him this way? He went so pale and sweat was pouring off him, I thought he might have a heart attack or something. He was just so strange.”
“Real out of character, that’s for sure,” Jess said looking puzzled.
“That’s not all,” she continued, “I do believe there is something very wrong there. His wife Hilda has been even more difficult than usual recently. She’s a very uh...forthright woman, well quite opinionated on occasion and has made a few enemies at the Women’s Group if I’m honest. But I feel rather sorry for her as she’s been quite anxious lately and she won’t tell me what the problem is, it’s all very unsettling.”
Jess shrugged, “Well whatever the problem is he’s thrown his lot in with Cody and we’ve gotta go after him Daisy.”
“Of course, dear, but won’t that be putting dear Mike and Millie at risk?”
Jess just shrugged looking anguished.
“What else can we do? Heck Daisy it’s not a case of if he’ll kill ‘em it’s when. We have to try and get them back...we’ll ride just as soon as we can. You’ll be OK?”
Mort and Slim didn’t need any persuading and Kate was adamant she would ride with them too until Jess took her on one side.
“Look Kate I can’t leave Miss Daisy here alone. I know you wanna get back at that no hoper Cody, Briggs too, for what they’ve done to Mort. But me and Slim can’t rest easy leaving Daisy here all by herself, she’s so dang upset.”
Kate nodded, once Jess had made his heartfelt plea.
“I’m sorry, being selfish, of course I’ll stay boy. I won’t pretend it isn’t a blow, I’d sure have liked to have gotten my hands on that scum Cody, Briggs too come to that. But yes, I can see your point and I’ll stay here, run the place while you and Slim are away. Change the teams. Look after the stock, yup Daisy too. You get off and sort them out, sort ‘em out real good huh Jess boy?”
They were off before the hour was out, figuring that the party would have a good start and so Cody wouldn’t pick up on them following. The day was dry and clear with no wind, so they had no problems tracking them and as the afternoon wore on Jess felt they were almost within reach.
After a while the men took a break to make plans...all of them beside themselves with worry. Not only was Cody half-crazy and completely unpredictable but seemingly Briggs had suddenly lost his mind too.
“I just can’t figure it,” Slim said for the umpteenth time. “I’ve known Briggs all my life. He settled here the same time as Pa, he was a bit younger, but they got along OK. It was later they had a bust up. When Andy and I were youngsters, he made Pa an offer for our place really generous, but Pa wouldn’t sell.”
“Well you can’t blame him for that,” Jess said, “it was your home why would he, as it’s in a prime spot too.”
“Yes, that was it. The ideal spot with the Mountain, hill grazing and the lake. Well after that Briggs changed, wouldn’t give Pa the time of day and always been, well kind of curt with me. But this. I just can’t figure it.”
“So you said,” Jess said deadpan. “I don’t really care why he’s gone nuts Slim. All I want is to get Mike and Millie back in one piece. So, we’re all agreed? We’ll keep following until they make camp and then try and surprise them after dark huh?”
Mort shook his head sadly, “It’ll be risky, really risky, but we don’t have any choice. Mike and Millie are on borrowed time as it is.”
“Well thanks Mort, that makes me feel a whole lot better,” Jess said sarcastically.
Mort sighed deeply, “I’m real sorry Jess...but we hafta face facts it’s not looking good.”
It was late afternoon when they reined in again and Jess pointed to a plume of smoke lazily wafting up to the deep blue sky.
“Looks like they’ve made camp, not too far away either, “he said excitedly.
Mort nodded, “We’ll wait until dusk and then walk in. Try and surprise them...but by God we’ll need to make sure Mike and Millie aren’t in the line of fire.”
Slim nodded and Jess compressed his lips tightly and just looked down...his feelings on the matter clear.
They settled down to wait although it was hard for them all. Jess pacing about and Slim looking equally agitated, whilst Mort tried to remain the voice of calm reason.
“We have to go in under cover of darkness. We go in now we could spook them if they see us coming and we don’t want Briggs going off half-cocked again. God knows what could happen.”
Jess just sighed, “But what if...
“Jess just take it easy huh?” Slim broke in. “We don’t know he’ll harm them. I can’t see Cody shooting a woman and child in cold blood and certainly not Briggs. I figure he’s just taken them to give us both a scare, it’ll be OK buddy you’ll see.”
As dusk began to fall, they started to make their way silently, on foot towards the campsite.
They were only about half a mile away when two shots rang out on the still night air.
Jess and Slim exchanged a look of undisguised horror and started running at breakneck speed with Mort on their heels.
They burst into the camp, the horses tethered nearby and a fire crackling merrily with a coffee pot bubbling away.
At first it seemed deserted and then they were just able to make out a figure beyond the fire. He was on his back lying very still. As the men approached, they saw a stunned look on his face and a bullet hole neatly in the centre of his forehead. Cody was very, very dead.
Then out of the corner of his eye Jess saw a movement and drawing his Colt with lightning speed he called for the other to show himself. Then just seconds later Briggs stumbled out from the undergrowth looking deathly pale and still holding the smoking derringer.
“Drop it!” Jess snapped and Briggs looked surprised before slowly looking down at the gun in his hand like he’d never seen it before and then he dropped it like a red-hot poker and shuddered.
Slim walked over to him and took his arm, “What happened,” he asked quietly,” and where are Millie and Mike?”
“Huh?” He looked around him in a dazed manner and then seemed to pull himself together, “Uh gone...they escaped they’re alright I promise you.”
Jess let go a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding and staggered as a wave of dizziness and nausea threatened to floor him.
“Thank God,” said Slim and then looking down at the gruesome body of Frank Cody said, “That’s more than can be said of Cody...you did this?”
Briggs nodded looking bewildered at what he had done, “Yes...you see I had to stop him.”
“Stop him?” Mort asked.
He nodded, “He was drunk and started...started messing with Miss Millie...then he...oh Jeez.”
“Go on,” growled Jess, “he what?”
Briggs looked at him helplessly, “He tried to rape her. I knew I couldn’t fight him so I pulled my gun. I thought if I let off a shot, he’d stop but he...he didn’t.”
“So, what did you do?” Mort encouraged.
“So, I shot him God forgive me. I only meant to stop him...not this,” and he stole a look at the corpse, before looking quickly away.
“I’d have done the same in your position,” Jess said quietly, “so where did they go Briggs, do you know?”
He shook his head and then pointed off behind them.
“She ran off that way, took the boy just a few minutes ago...you’ll find them easy.”
It was a couple of hours later when the full story finally came out.
Slim and Jess had hurried off to find Millie and Mike, leaving Mort standing guard over Briggs who had sunk to the ground the picture of despair.
They called out and in a matter of a few minutes Millie was throwing herself into Jess’s arms and Slim was holding Mike tightly.
Both were weeping and clearly very distressed and it was sometime before Millie was coherent enough to explain what had happened, while Jess listened with increasing horror...eventually just holding her close and rocking her gently.
Mike was the first to recover and said that Mister Briggs sure is a good shot, “He had his eyes closed when he shot that bad deputy!”
“The hell he did,” muttered Jess just thankful that the bullet had indeed found it’s mark and not hit Millie. Jeez he thought it just kept on getting worse and worse.
“Come on Tiger,” he said kindly, “let’s go back to our camp and see if we can find some supper for you huh?”
When they arrived back Mort had covered the corpse in a blanket and put him on his horse and was ready to head back to where they had made a scratch camp and left their own horses.
Now Mike was fast asleep before the camp fire, Slim close at hand leaning back on his saddle...and ready to comfort the child should he wake with a nightmare after his ordeal. However Jess had explained that all was well with Daisy and so it was a very relieved little boy who finally fell asleep.
Jess sat very close to Millie, his arm protectively around her and he’d hardly relinquished his hold on her since they had been reunited. She had bounced back well after her initial tearfulness. Now basking in the warmth of Jess’ warm embrace she was beginning to feel much better.
The men had all fortified themselves with a splash of hill whiskey in their coffee and now Briggs was looking a slightly better color, so Mort figured it was time to get to the bottom of everything that had happened.
Briggs had been told that Daisy had just been frightened half to death, but had not actually been shot and that was when he had finally broken down and sobbed like a baby.
“It was an accident I never meant for the gun to go off,” he kept repeating, “please believe me.”
Eventually it was Jess who put him out of his misery.
“I for one believe you,” he said, “because if I didn’t there’s no way you’d still be in one piece Briggs...trust me.”
He gave a shuddering sigh and said, “Thank you Harper, that’s more than I deserve.”
“So, are you going to tell us what’s been going on?” Slim asked.
Briggs nodded, “I suppose I have to yes.”
“And make sure it’s the truth too Mister Briggs,” Mort said firmly, “be rest assured if you lie, we’ll find out.”
Briggs nodded and then sighed, “Where to begin?”
“How about at the beginning,” said Slim, “what made you side with that Cody? We know why he was so against Jess and Mort...but why you too?”
“You don’t,” Briggs said quietly, “don’t know the real reason why Cody did this.”
“Go on then we’re listenin ’,” Jess drawled.
“It was me...all of it was down to me. You see I’m practically bankrupt.”
Slim opened his mouth to object, but Briggs put up a hand to silence him.
“Oh, I know it looks like I run a thriving ranch and have money but it’s not so. I’ve hardly bought in any stock these last two years and have fired most of my hands. The spread being so far out of the town folk haven’t noticed. My last hope was that Army Contract supplying mustangs and of course that went to you.”
Jess just nodded.
“I was desperate and then I formulated a plan. I figured if I could get some extra cash somehow, I could just about afford your ranch Sherman the place I’ve wanted all my life.”
“It’s not for sale Briggs you know that,” Slim said stoutly.
“Not now I know, that’s where my plan came in. It was me who sent that note to Lon’s wife, so he’d quit and me who paid Cody to come and act as Deputy and squeeze you out Sheriff.”
“But why the dickens did you do that?” Mort asked, “I’ve always done a good job haven’t I?”
Briggs nodded, “Oh yes too good a job that’s why you had to go. With you out of the way I had free rein to help myself to fines and any bounty money in the safe. Oh yes there was quite a lot more in that safe that I could apply for once you were dispensed with Cory. Then it was I who suggested Cody take Mike and Millie. It was to have been Mrs Munroe too, but she proved a tad too lively,” he said throwing the Sheriff a rueful look.
“Go on,” said Slim, “what did you hope to gain by abducting them?”
“I knew you’d take off after Cody to try and get them back and he was supposed to ambush you and kill you both. That way the ranch would be put on the market and I would make an offer, way below the asking price of course, but I figured young Andy would be so grief stricken he’d sell anyway.”
It was Mort who restrained Slim, and Millie grabbed hold of Jess.
“Don’t she said softly, “just let him talk... tell it all... to the end. He’ll get his just rewards later. But we need to know everything, don’t we?”
Jess nodded, and after a moment growled, “OK let’s hear it all Briggs.”
“Cody believed he’d get away with it. He figured he could be away over the border with the money I’d paid him before your bodies were found.”
“So, let’s get this straight,” said Slim, “all that rubbish about him being the brother of Rob Bailey was a lie?”
Briggs nodded, “He wasn’t Frank Bailey. He just made all that up to keep my reputation safe. You see I couldn’t be seen to have anything to do with any of it. So, Cody had seen in his local paper how Rob Bailey had hung himself...and just used the story.”
“And all the time it was you who was instigating everything. Mort and Jess being discredited...and the abducting of Millie and Mike?” Slim asked.
He nodded, “I was just too slow to catch up with Cody and warn him he’d been set up. That’s when I panicked and shot at your poor housekeeper, then believing she was dead I figured there was no turning back. I was going to pay Cody off and let the hostages go in the morning, then head for the border too, thinking a rope was all that was waiting back in town for me.”
Jess sighed deeply, “That’s one hell of a story...if it’s true?”
“Oh, it’s true all right,” said Briggs.
Slim shook his head, “It sure seems so...well so darned out of character Mister Briggs. You’ve always been such a law-abiding citizen on the council and everything.”
Briggs shook his head sadly, “Jealousy Sherman pure jealousy. You see I envied your Pa and you too I guess all my life. You had exactly what I wanted. Your Pa married a kind, loving woman and then had you two boys. Whereas my Hilda was barren so I never had the family I wanted. That’s why she’s been so contrary most of our married life nothing good enough,” he mused.
Then he sighed and continued. “I coveted your land too. Oh, my spread was successful, until I made some disastrous investments. But it was never the place I wanted to be. I longed for your lake and mountain, not to mention your hunting grounds. Paradise, remember I made you and offer for that and you turned it down flat?”
Slim just nodded.
“Then there was you Harper. Boy how us rich ranchers laughed when Sherman took you on. We all figured you’d rob him blind...or murder him in his bed...that reputation you came with. But nope you made a real good job of being a rancher and turned into the best damn wrangler and horse whisperer in these parts, how ironic is that huh? You know I was going to spare you, take you on with the ranch once Sherman was dead and I’d bought the place. But then I found out you were a partner in the business a co-owner, so you had to go too.”
“Except I didn’t did I Briggs?” Jess said quietly. “The only person that’s going any place is you. Either the gallows or jail, either way it’s the end of the road for you huh?”
Briggs sank his head down on his chest and was unable to answer.
Jess shook his head, “You know you just couldn’t write it could ya? Folk would never believe this of you Briggs and with Cody on board you had a watertight case with nothing to implicate you...Jeez,” and he shook his head in disbelief.
“I just can’t believe it of you,” Slim said again, looking dazed, “that you’d actually have me and Jess killed?”
Suddenly Jess was furious and jumping up he paced around the camp before turning on Briggs.
“It just don’t make sense...you’re not a murderer. What was the real reason? Because I don’t buy the notion that you were just jealous, that don’t turn a man like you into a murderer.”
Briggs looked like he might break down and sat with his head in his hands for a good minute before he finally looked Jess in the eye.
“You’re right of course you are Harper. You see I was driven to it, a desperate man. I was losing not just the ranch and my livelihood, but my wife too. All I had to offer her was my wealth. Then when she finally realized we were losing the ranch she went crazy. God knows she hasn’t always been the easiest but she really laid into me. Said as how I was useless as a husband and a provider can you imagine how that made me feel...huh?”
The others looked on feeling kind of embarrassed at this deeply private information. But it was obvious that Briggs needed to unburden his soul and he ploughed on regardless.
“I’m a lousy rancher, can’t shoot a gun straight and not too good at herding and roping so it was my head wrangler, Chet Edwards that pretty much ran the spread and he threatened to leave if things didn’t improve. All I’d had going for me in the past was money and now I was losing that hand over fist. The only way I could see to get through it all was to fire my place and use the insurance money to buy your place Sherman at a knock down price. Which I could have done with you out of the way. And yes, Harper you’re right...I’m not the murdering kind. But with Cody doing the deed I could kind of divorce myself from it all, pretend it was nothing to do with me...God forgive me. But the last straw was when Hilda said she was leaving me unless I sorted everything out. Got us a new place to live and money in the bank again and she’d set her heart on your place. That was the real reason...I did it to keep my wife...because you see it’s crazy, I know, but I still love her.”
There was total silence for a few minutes after he’d finished speaking, which was eventually broken by Slim.
“Thank you for explaining everything,” he said quietly. “It doesn’t condone what you’ve done Briggs, but it explains it and I figure we can all understand some, as to why you did it anyway.”
Jess nodded, “And at least you did the right thing by Millie, thanks for that.”
“I reckon we should all turn in,” Mort said then thinking it wise to draw a line under the recent events...tomorrow was another day and it would be up to a judge and jury to meter out the consequences of Councillor Briggs actions.
Chapter 8
When the town’s folk saw the sorry state of Councillor Briggs, they all knew something was sadly wrong. Then later when he admitted the part he played in discrediting both the Sheriff and Jess Harper there was little sympathy for him, or his hapless wife.
With all the evidence accrued by Jess, Slim and the Sheriff, along with Doc Sam’s confirmation that the Sheriff had been drugged, the case was pretty much an open and shut one...if somewhat complicated.
In his summing up the Judge was rather long winded, but as he said it was a complex case with many twists and turns and he had needed to cross question some people to get to the true facts of the matter.
“So explain again Mister Harper about your belief that the deceased, Frank Cody was indeed the brother of one...uh...Robert Bailey who’s kin were killed in the bank heist a while back?”
“That’s the lie he fed us yes sir. But it wasn’t true, just some crazy story he made up to cover his back. He was gonna say he was Rob Bailey’s brother and it was all down to this brother that me and Slim had been killed that way both Cody and Briggs would be in the clear. You see Briggs covered his back real well judge. He concocted that story along with Cody so we’d all think it was his alleged brother’s revenge and he was responsible should anything happen to us.”
The judge frowned, “I understand now... and your proposed murder was really at the behest of Councillor Briggs, who employed Cody to carry out the deed on his behalf?”
Jess nodded, “That’s about the size of it Judge, yeah.”
In his final summing up the Judge went into great detail, until nearly all in the court room were practically dozing off. But then he finally concluded.
“So, you will see members of the jury, this appears to be something of a crime of passion. The defendant was in a state of deep depression and apprehension at the thought of losing his home...but especially his wife and did what he saw as his only chance of saving his marriage. Providing his wife with what she had urged him to obtain, namely the Sherman Ranch. Plus, a healthy income once more, this to be obtained by the demise of Mr Slim Sherman and his business partner Mr Jess Harper. Once they were dead the defendant was prepared to fire his ranch and use the insurance money to purchase the Sherman Ranch, the Relay franchise and also hopefully Mr Harper’s lucrative contract supplying mounts to the Army, which would be run by his head wrangler Mr Chet Edwards.”
Jess glanced over at a scowling Edwards and wondered just how much he knew of his boss’s plans. He’d said he was totally innocent and as shocked as everyone else when he heard of his employer’s duplicity...but Jess wasn’t too sure. There was an ongoing feud between the two men, Edwards still furious that Jess had won the Army contract.
However, Jess’s attention soon returned to the Judge.
“I would like the jury to consider all the evidence very carefully.” he said rising.
Briggs was eventually convicted of conspiracy to kill Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, also the killing of Frank Cody. However, this was reduced from murder to manslaughter. All the other transgressions such as firing on Mrs Daisy Cooper and plotting to discredit the Sheriff were also all taken into account.
There was complete silence in the court when the Judge finally delivered the sentence...that of life imprisonment.
There was a gasp of shock then a scream of horror from Hilda Briggs, who had turned deathly pale. Chet Edwards, who was sitting next to her attempted to comfort the stricken woman, but it was Daisy who she ran to, collapsing in hysterical tears and she was led away to be comforted by the kindly housekeeper.
It was much later once they were back at the ranch that Jess asked what had happened between Daisy and Hilda Briggs.
“Why did she turn to you Daisy, I thought she was real jealous of you livin’ here after everything you have told us in the past.”
Daisy nodded, “Oh yes she was terribly. But she is also very troubled and I imagine she was in need of a friend today...and no matter what has happened between us in the past, well we have been members of the Women’s Group together for many years.”
“Uh, with friends like her you don’t need enemies,” Jess said dourly.
Slim grinned at that, “Well I’d take Daisy as a friend over that low life Edwards any day, she sure didn’t take to him comforting her.”
“Um,” Daisy said thoughtfully.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jess asked picking up on the shrewd look in Daisy’s eyes, “You know somethin’ dontcha?”
“I really couldn’t say,” Daisy replied looking the picture of innocence.
“Aw Daisy,” Jess cried, “there’s somethin’ going on ain’t there.” Then he knitted his brows and thought deeply, “Heck, don’t tell me that Hilda and Edwards have been fooling around?”
Slim’ s head shot up, “No that can’t be true, can it Daisy?”
Daisy rolled her eyes, “Alright I’ll tell you seeing as you’ve guessed anyway. Yes, they have been playing around behind poor Mr Brigg’s back for years. They had decided that once the deed had been done, that is you two out of the way...then they would implicate Briggs and once he was in jail she would divorce him and take over our ranch just as planned...only with Edwards not her husband.”
“I knew it!” Jess exploded,” Edwards was in this up to his neck.”
“Well not really dear, both Edwards and Hilda knew vaguely that Edgar Briggs was out to discredit the Sheriff...you too Jess and he’d told them that with you in jail Jess he would be able to persuade Slim to sell. So, they were as shocked as everyone else when the conspiracy to murder was proven.”
“So, what will she do now?” Slim asked. “Will she set up home with Edwards anyway? She can divorce Briggs, seeing that he’s in for life.”
Daisy shook her head sadly. “No dear she’s had second thoughts. Apparently, Edwards doesn’t seem quite so appealing now she won’t be sharing our ranch with him. It seems he’s got quite a temper too and she was rather fearful of what he would do later. He went off to the saloon to get drunk after the trial and she was dreading him coming home.”
“That’s too bad,” said the ever kindly Slim, “should we let Mort know do you think?”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary dear. We talked and she took my advice, bless her. So, you see I put her on the afternoon stage to Cheyenne. She is staying at Mrs Johnson’s Boarding House tonight and then taking the railroad back to Denver to live with her sister.”
Jess grinned broadly, “Well that’ll teach Edwards to go messin’ with someone else’s wife.”
“Precisely dear, now could you cut me some wood for the cook stove please?”
“And maybe you’d like to call Mike in Slim? He could set the table for supper,” and she bustled off to make a start on the meal.
“Good ol’ Daisy,” Jess said grinning at her retreating figure, “couldn’t wish fer anyone better to have at yer back in times of trouble eh Hardrock.”
It was early the following morning when there was a loud hammering at the front door.
Jess, Slim and Daisy were sitting around the table having a quick coffee after the early Stage had left.
“Who the heck’s that?” Jess said jumping up, “Don’t say Mose has forgotten to leave the mail again.”
He threw the door open and was confronted by a furious looking Chet Edwards, Edgar Briggs head wrangler.
“Where’s that meddlesome bitch?” he yelled before trying to elbow his way in past Jess.
However, the burly man was stopped in his tracks as Jess grabbed him by his jacket lapels and threw him out onto the porch, before following through with a well-aimed punch, splitting his lip, which sent him sprawling off the porch and in the yard dirt.
“Watch yer mouth,” he spat, “so what do you want Edwards?”
Chet Edwards scowled up at him, rubbing a hand across his now blood smeared face and rasped, “I wanna speak to Ma Cooper, have her tell me why she filled my Hilda’s head up with lies. She’s done left me Harper and that’s down to that interfering woman in there!”
By this time Daisy had made her way onto the porch and stood there arms akimbo looking equally as angry as Edwards.
“For your information Mr Edwards I merely advised Hilda of the options available to her and helped her to come to a decision and if today’s little drama is anything to go by, I can see she made the right choice.”
“Why you!”
“Shut the hell up Edwards or you’ll get more of the same,” Jess growled.
Slim who had come up behind him said,” I think you were just leaving weren’t you Edwards?”
When he stood up still looking belligerent and glaring at Daisy, she drew herself up to her full height and said, “I really think you need to ask yourself as to why Hilda left Mr Edwards. Because as far as I can see you are a bullying liar, I think we all know that you were implicated in the whole business of discrediting the Sheriff and Jess. You knew what was happening but didn’t speak up and that’s as bad as being a part of it all in my book. I should really go home and reflect on what you’ve done,” was her parting shot and with that she swept off back into the house.
Edwards dragged himself up and after dusting himself down with his hat he stood swaying a little and glaring at Jess.
“Well you heard the lady, git,” Jess snarled.
“You’ll regret this,” Edwards muttered as he turned tail and jumping up into the saddle he left at a lively trot.
Jess turned to Slim and threw him a cheeky grin, “Some folk have no luck, do they?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Slim replied,” Hilda Briggs went off and left him. I figure it would be worse hitching up with her...don’t you Jess? I reckon he had a lucky escape.”
Jess grinned, “Yeah, ha, you’ve got a point there buddy,” he said laughing as they made their way back inside.
They were to hear nothing of Hilda Briggs, or indeed Chet Edwards for a while.
Then a couple weeks later Daisy had a letter from Hilda saying that she had settled well at her sister’s small spread just south of Denver, except she had received several threatening and abusive letters from Chet Edwards after she had refused to return to him.
They were sitting out on the porch with lemonade when Daisy read extracts of the letter to Slim and Jess.
‘I have written and warned Chet that if he does not leave me in peace, I will have no other option than to write to the authorities telling them of the part he played in all that sorry business...when Sheriff Cory and Mr Harper were incriminated. It wasn’t until much later he bragged to me of his part of procuring the sleeping draft and various other shady doings...I tell you this is confidence my dear, but I will let you know if I decide to write to Sheriff Cory with this information.’
“Oh dear,” said Daisy, “I do wish she hadn’t told me...what should I do, should we share this information with Mort for him to act upon it do you think?”
“I reckon there ain’t much point,” said Jess. “Edwards left town after the ranch was sold off...and nobody knows where he was heading, so I can’t see the point, it’s all over and done with now anyways.”
“I agree,” said Slim and grinned at Daisy when she raised a surprised eyebrow.
“Oh, I know Daisy I usually follow the law to the letter, but I agree with Jess. I don’t think the guy really played a significant role in it all. It’s his word against hers regarding the procuring of the sleeping draft. It would be hard to prove unless some was found on him maybe. To be honest Mort has his hands full running the town without taking off looking for the likes of Edwards. But I’ll certainly mention it to him. If Edwards comes back to town...well that’ll be different I guess.”
The following day Daisy was busy preparing for a trip to town, whilst Jess and Mike were painting a cage belonging to one of Mike’s critters.
Once ready she marched off to the yard and watched them as they worked together in harmony.
“I wish you’d spend as much care and attention painting the bunkhouse,” Daisy said with a chuckle as she saw the intense concentration on their faces as they wielded their paint brushes.
Jess looked kind of sheepish at that, “We will get around to it before fall I promise Daisy. It’s just uh...gettin’ the right color of paint you know...old Ezra has it on order I believe,” he said vaguely.
“Oh well I shall be calling at the mercantile I’ll check shall I dear?” she asked with an innocent smile.
But then Mike butted in before Jess could reply, “Can I have some candy Aunt Daisy, please?” he wheedled.
“May I have not can I have dear,” Daisy said absently.
“May I then, pleeeease?”
She smiled then and ruffled his hair, “I expect so dear...you’ve been very good lately, I think a little treat wouldn’t come amiss.”
“Me too...huh Daisy, may I... please?” Jess asked raising a quirky eyebrow.
Daisy smiled at him thinking how her rough, tough ex gunslinger, beloved middle son, as she thought of him, could be as big a kid as Mike.
She shook her head laughing now, “You boys! Yes, I’ll buy candy...and paint,” she said throwing Jess a mischievous glance.
But before he could react Slim lead Betsy over hitched to the light buggy Daisy favored.
“You sure you’ll be OK on your own?” he asked, “Jess or I could easily drive you over.”
“Oh no dear that won’t be necessary,” she said with her warm smile, “I need to go to the haberdasher’s as well as the mercantile. Then I’ve arranged to take coffee with dear Elizabeth at Miss Molly’s café. It is ages since we caught up.”
“Well you enjoy yourself,” Jess said helping her aboard, “and no gossiping about what me and Slim have been getting up to either,” he said with a wicked wink.
“Why no of course not,” Daisy said looking suitably shocked, “after all with the exemplary lives you lead there really is nothing to tell is there?” she finished with a twinkle in her eye and she slapped the reins and took off before the men could think of a suitable come back.
Daisy enjoyed her visit to town. She had passed the time of day with Ezra and the old shopkeeper had loaded several cans of paint into the back of the buggy along with various items of grocery and the candy. Plus, right at the top a pack of the herbal tea she favored...a little treat for me she said to her-self smiling. She would enjoy a strong brew of the relaxing herbal infusion later after supper she decided, but first coffee, cake and a good gossip with her old friend Elizabeth.
It was when the two women exited the café still talking twenty to the dozen, that Elizabeth stopped in mid – sentence. She pointed over to where Betsy was standing dreaming, hitched to the rail still outside the haberdashers.
“Do you know that man skulking around your buggy Daisy?” she asked peering short-sightedly across the street.
Daisy glanced over and was just in time to see Chet Edwards looking furtively around him, standing near the back of the buggy.
“I do hope he’s not thinking of stealing your groceries,” Elizabeth said stoutly; and grabbing Daisy’s arm the two women made their way swiftly across the busy street.
However, by the time they arrived the man had disappeared among the shoppers on the crowded walkway.
“Do you know him Daisy dear? Did he take anything?” Elizabeth asked urgently.
Daisy checked the top of the grocery store bag and yes, her tea and the candy were still poking out of the top and the cans of paint still much in evidence.
“Everything is fine,” Daisy reassured her friend as she scanned the crowds for a glimpse of the man.
“So, do you know him?” Elizabeth asked again.
“Um...oh yes sort of dear, it was that wrangler from Edgar Briggs spread, Chet Edwards,” she said quietly.
“What that nasty piece of work who was having an affair with Hilda you mean?” Elizabeth asked, happy to rake up the distant scandal.
“Indeed,” agreed Daisy nodding.
“Didn’t you say he called at the ranch and threatened you and Jess Harper gave him a bloody nose?” Elizabeth asked looking anxious.
Daisy nodded again, “Yes it certainly looked like him.”
“Well maybe you should tell Mister Harper,” said Elizabeth now looking enthralled, she so loved to hear of the things the young cowboys at the ranch got up to and the more violent or outrageous the better.
“Oh, I don’t think I need do that.” Daisy said with a little shudder, “Jess can be rather uh volatile when he thinks any of us are in danger. I’m sure it was just a coincidence he was near the buggy. Anyway, he hurried off when he saw us coming didn’t he, so I’m sure he means me no harm.”
Elizabeth nodded and then gave Daisy a hug, “Now you take care and give my best to all at the ranch won’t you dear,” and the two women parted.
Once Daisy was home and had put the merchandise away and prepared supper she sat down by the fire and sipped a good strong cup of her herbal tea, whilst the beef stew cooked.
She felt rather strange she thought as she got up a while later to put the final preparations to the meal. She was rather dizzy and her heart seemed to be pounding a little. She steadied herself by putting a hand on the back of her chair. Then Jess, who had just come in, looked over anxiously, “Are you OK Daisy?” he asked marching over and taking her arm.
“Oh, quite alright dear,” she said quickly, “just been overdoing things a little today maybe, I’ll have an early night once we’ve eaten.”
When the meal was over Jess jumped up from his seat declaring he and Slim would clear and wash the dishes and Mike would make Daisy a nice cup of her herbal tea and bring it in to her room.
“Come on,” he said taking her arm and ushering her across to her bedroom door, “early night Miss Daisy and no arguments.”
“Oh my, I do believe you can be just as bossy as me,” Daisy said chuckling.
Then she put a hand up to her mouth hiding a yawn, “Well I really think I will go to bed though dear, goodnight all,” and she entered her room.
Jess watched her his eyes anxious and he turned to where Slim was donning her apron before washing the dishes, “She looks her age tonight don’t she,” he whispered, “do you think she’s OK Slim?”
“She’ll see us out,” Slim said with a broad grin, then more quietly, “just overdone it like she said, she’ll be fine tomorrow, you’ll see. Now go check on Mike I saw him heading off to his room with that big bag of candy that was meant for sharing.”
“The hell you did,” Jess said grinning and hastening towards the child’s room.
“Hey Tiger, weren’t you gonna make Aunt Daisy a cup of tea...huh?”
The following morning both men overslept.
Slim was the first to surface and he stretched yawning and looking around him with surprise. Sunlight was streaming in through the window and on further inspection Jess was still snoring away too.
Slim reckoned it must be getting on for nearly eight o’clock from the slant of the sun’s rays and he called across to his pard, “Hey wake up Jess we’ve slept in.”
A faint groan came from beneath the covers but there was no movement.
“Come on Jess shake a leg; the darned Stage will be here soon with Mose fretting and fussing.”
Jess rolled over on his back and opened one eye, “Can’t be mornin’ yet, ain’t no coffee on...or breakfast,” he said sniffing the air and frowning.
“Heck you’re right.” Slim agreed as he jumped out of bed and started pulling his pants on.
Jess sat up slowly scratching and yawning before peering around the room like he’d never seen it before, “Wa’ time is it?” he muttered.
“Late,” said Slim tersely, “get up I’ll go wake Mike.”
Jess appeared in the parlor a few minutes later, his pants on and shirt hanging loose, feet bare and he stared around him wondering where his boots were. Slim was lighting the fire.
Then it registered with Jess that there was no activity in the kitchen, no cheerful humming or the sound of bacon frying or coffee bubbling on the stove.
“Where’s Daisy?” he asked looking shaken.
Slim shook his head, “She must have slept in too. We’ll make breakfast and then take her a hot drink in later huh? Maybe she could do with a morning in bed she was pretty tired yesterday.”
Jess scratched his head looking unhappy, “This ain’t like her Slim, I don’t like it.”
Slim stood up from where the fire was now crackling enthusiastically, “It’s not like her I agree. Maybe she could do with a tonic, I’ll ask Sam to call by next time I’m in town. But right now, let’s get breakfast on the go huh?”
Once he’d finished picking at his meal Jess poured a coffee and took it across to Daisy’s room. Tapping lightly on the door he opened it slowly, “Daisy can I come in, I’ve brought ya a drink,” he said softly.
When there was no reply he walked in, put the cup down on the nightstand and turning away drew the drapes back a little before turning back towards the bed.
“Daisy,” he said hesitantly...and then he drew a shocked breath...she was deathly pale... and on closer inspection he couldn’t see her breathing.
His mouth was suddenly dry and he stood irresolute for a moment before leaning in more closely. Nope there was no sign of breathing and neither could he find a pulse in her wrist or neck. He stood staring at her for a good minute frozen to the spot as the reality of the situation hit him like a freight train...dear Daisy was dead.
He eventually opened his mouth to yell for Slim and then thought better of it and going to the door said quietly, “Mike if you’ve finished go start the yard chores will ya.”
“Aw Jess do I hafta I wanna see Aunt Daisy.”
“No Mike not right now,” Jess said gruffly, before taking a deep breath and smiling at the boy. “Those chickens will be rioting we’re real late feeding them today. You go do that and make a start on the barn and Slim and me will be out directly OK?”
“OK,” the boy said reluctantly and he wandered out to the yard closing the door behind him.
“What’s up?” Slim asked looking up from where he was finishing his breakfast, “Is she sick?”
When there was no answer it just took one look at his buddy’s face to galvanize Slim into action.
He tore across the room his long legs covering the distance in seconds and then he stood on the threshold of the room looking down at Daisy’s pale, still form...
“Oh God no,” he whispered.
Both men checked her vital signs again, but there was nothing.
Then before they could do more, they heard the early morning Stage rattling down the rise and into the yard.
“Hell,” muttered Jess, “go on out before Mike comes in to tell us Mose is here Slim.”
The tall rancher gave Daisy one more distraught glance before turning to go.
“And Slim tell Mose to ask Doc Sam to call...we need answers. She shouldn’t have just dang well upped and died on us this way,” he said angrily, “something ain’t right about this Slim...not right at all.”
He was still gazing down at the deathly pale figure when Mike charged in and stopped in his tracks as he followed Jess’s gaze. Then he looked back up to his hero and said, “What’s the matter Jess...is Aunt Daisy sick?”
When Jess said nothing but just stared at the boy with utter despair in his deep blue eyes the dreadful truth registered.
“What, she’s worse than sick Jess?” he cried looking suddenly horror stricken.
Jess put out a hand to the boy but he moved back out of reach his lower lip trembling as he broke down in heartrending sobs before he threw himself across her inert body.
“Wake up Aunt Daisy, wake up!” he cried, now completely distraught.
Jess finally came to his senses and gently pulled the boy away before carrying him from the room.
He sat down on the old couch, the youngster on his knee with his arms tightly around Jess’s neck as though clinging on for dear life and sobbing as though his heart would break.
That’s the way Slim found them a little while later.
He stood for a moment looking at his pard ’s stricken face and listening to the sound of the child’s muffled sobs as he buried his face in Jess’s shoulder. Then Slim turned away and returning to keep a vigil beside Daisy whilst they waited for the Doctor to arrived.
Mike had finally cried himself to sleep by the time Sam rode in and Jess left him snuggled under a blanket on the couch as he went to let Sam in.
“Is it really true?” Sam asked looking aghast. “The dear lady is usually in such robust health.”
Jess nodded, “She is...er was...but she’s had one hell of a time lately Sam. What with that bastard Briggs shootin’ at her. Then his dang wrangler, Chet Edwards comin’ around shoutin’ the odds at poor Daisy, I figure it was all too dang much and her old heart gave out.”
Sam shook his head sadly and leaning over squeezed Jess’s shoulder before making for Daisy’s room.
When he entered Slim was sitting by the bed, his head bowed in prayer, but he looked up when Sam walked in and stood up.
“Thanks Doc. I reckon there’s not much you can do now but we just need to know what caused it. If there was something we should have seen...or done to help her,” he finished lamely.
Sam nodded and sank down on the edge of the bed and started checking Daisy over. After a moment of listening to her chest, he shook his head and bent lower to his task...before giving a gasp of surprise and looking up at the two men.
“What?” Jess asked leaning forwards.
Sam removed the stethoscope from his ears and looking totally elated said, “There is a heartbeat and pulse...very slow and faint...but she is still alive!”
Slim and Jess exchanged a glance before both speaking at once.
“You’re sure?” Jess asked.
“Really,” gasped Slim, allowing his face to relax into an astonished grin, “she’ll be OK?”
Sam looked grave, “That depends on the cause...has she eaten or drank anything different from normal?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope...she ate supper with us last night and then said she was kind of tired and was having an early night.”
“Hang on, she had some of that awful herbal tea she sets so much store by,” Jess said, “Mike made it and brought it in for her.”
Then his gaze landed on the empty cup on the nightstand, “Look that’s the cup she used there.” Then he picked it up and peered at the dregs of tea for a moment before sniffing the contents, his face suddenly a mask of shock.
“Hell no; check that out Sam, don’t that smell like that sleepin’ draft Cody used to drug Mort?”
Sam took the cup and sniffed it before swilling the dregs around, “Yes look here...some powdery residue. You’re right Jess this has been tampered with...looks to be with Chloral Hydrate, just the same as Mort.”
“Will she be OK?” Slim broke in.
Sam shrugged, “It’s difficult to say, the fact that it was administered with a herbal tea which is in itself a sedative makes it doubly potent, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“Goddamn it!” Jess exploded, “How did it get in her tea?”
“It was a new packet she only bought it yesterday,” Slim supplied, “I suppose someone could have tampered with it if it was left unattended in the buggy, like when she went for coffee with her friend maybe?”
Jess went off to tell Mike the good news that Daisy was still alive and fighting her corner and then the men settled down to wait it out.
That night when Jess put Mike to bed, he was still very upset, blaming himself for preparing the deadly brew that had cause Daisy to be so sick.
“Hey Tiger it really weren’t your fault...don’t forget Aunt Daisy had already made herself a drink before supper and she didn’t notice anything was wrong with the stuff...so of course you wouldn’t either huh?”
“I guess not,” the boy said wearily.
But when the time came for Jess to turn down the nightlight and leave the boy he got really upset again.
“Don’t go Jess, please...”
In the end he’d stretched out on the bed by the child and held him close as he once more cried himself to sleep...then feeling utterly drained Jess fell asleep too.
It was nearly dawn when Slim came in and gently shook him awake...he and Sam having kept a vigil on the elderly lady.
“Jess...Jess,” he whispered, “she’s going to be OK...Daisy’s going to be OK!”
Chapter 9
It was lunchtime before Daisy had recovered sufficiently to fill in the details of her shopping trip...and the fact that she had encountered Edwards, albeit from a distance.
“He must have had time to doctor the tea if it was on the top of the parcel,” said Slim.
“Why the heck didn’t ya tell us you saw him Daisy?” Jess asked looking frustrated.
“Because of that temper of yours Jess, dear,” Daisy said gently taking his hand and squeezing it, “I didn’t want to cause any more trouble or discord towards the man.”
“I’ll give him discord when I catch up with him,” Jess muttered darkly before rubbing her hand gently and giving her a rueful smile, “I’m just so dang glad you’re OK.”
“Me too,” said Slim.
“Me three,” piped up Mike, all three sitting on the bed surrounding her. Then they all laughed with relief.
“I think our patient needs a good rest now,” Sam said, “and then I really must get home...after a coffee maybe?”
“I just can’t see how you’re going to track him down, that’s all I’m saying Jess. Of course, I want justice to be done,” said Slim shrugging.
“Well it shouldn’t be too dang hard,” Jess replied getting up from the table where all three men were sipping their coffee.
He marched around the room, before turning back towards Sam and his partner, “He was in town yesterday, we know that, someone must know where he’s living now...or where he’s heading.”
“Anywhere to get away from you Jess,” Sam said dryly. “If he did see that Daisy had seen him loitering around the buggy, he must know the truth will come out in the end and you’d go looking.”
“That’s why I need to go now,” Jess said heading for the door, “before he heads off into the blue yonder.”
“Hold on Jess,” said Slim jumping up from his seat, “I’ll get you some supplies and then just take a minute to talk this out with Sam and I...no point in going off half-cocked this way.”
Jess finally turned and slumped back down in his seat, “I ‘suppose yer right,” he said begrudgingly.
“Anyway, Mike’s still sleeping, you have to say goodbye to him properly Jess. He’s had enough upset in his life lately, without you swanning off with not even an adios,” Slim reproved, before going to fill a gunny sack for his pard.
“Let’s think this through,” said Sam kindly, “all we know is that it looks like Edwards tampered with Daisy’s tea, but why? Do you really think he’s still upset for the part Daisy played in supporting Hilda Briggs in her break up with him?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, he was pretty mad at the time, but Daisy reckons Edwards and Ma Briggs have fallen out now anyway, according to a letter she got from Ma Briggs.”
“A letter, do you still have it?” the doc asked.
Jess looked puzzled, “It’s someplace around here, she was only reading it to us the other day.”
Slim finally ran it to earth under some correspondence on his desk.
Daisy was going to reply and was looking for a stamp he remembered.
“May I?” Doc Sam asked.
“Sure, Daisy read it to us so there’s nothing private,” said Slim passing it over.
“Here we are said Sam excitedly after a few minutes of perusing the letter. It says here:
‘I have written and warned Chet that if he does not leave me in peace, I will have no other option than to write to the authorities telling them of the part he played in all that sorry business... when Sheriff Cory and Mr Harper were incriminated. It wasn’t until much later he bragged to me of his part of procuring the sleeping draft and various other shady doings... I tell you this in confidence my dear, but I will let you know if I decide to write to Sheriff Cory with this information.’
“Well there’s your motive,” said Sam, “the man’s obviously running scared. Mrs Briggs has threatened him with the Law and he doubtless guessed that she would have shared everything with dear Daisy. So I figure he felt he couldn’t let either of them live. This wasn’t the just revenge of making an old lady sick for meddling in his love life, as he saw it. No, this is attempted murder! He wanted to shut her up in case she were to tell the Sheriff of the part Edwards played in all that business with you and Mort, Jess.”
Slim and Jess both looked deeply shocked, “Jeez,” Jess muttered, “Well he’ll dang well suffer for what he’s done.”
“And what he’s about to do,” Sam broke in. “By my reckoning he’ll believe he’s silenced Daisy and now he’ll be on his way to find and kill Mrs Briggs too. Without their evidence he’s in the clear.”
“You really think he’d go that far...killing Daisy and Ma Briggs?” Slim asked looking stunned.
Sam nodded, “You see it was Edwards who procured the drug and I imagine he knew exactly what it was capable of...the fact that it could be fatal mixed with another sedative. Yes, I think we are definitely looking at attempted murder, it’s just proving it all that might be a problem,” he added.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that,” Jess said quietly, “I’ll dang well knock the truth out of him.”
Jess made his way into town at first light the following morning. He intended to catch up with Mort to discuss the matter before traveling by railroad to Denver. He figured that would be quicker and he could hire a mount to get him out to Mrs Grey’s little spread just outside town. Daisy had said that Hilda Briggs’ sister Emma Grey was a widow lady who ran a small spread eking out a living by selling produce from her sizable vegetable plot.
“Poor woman,” Daisy had murmured, “first losing her husband in a terrible accident and then having Hilda moving in. Not the easiest of souls to live with I imagine,” she had added softly.
Well awkward cuss or not, Jess thought as he rode into town, the woman was in grave danger and she needed to be protected.
He found Mort just heating up the coffee pot; and removing his gloves and hat Jess took a seat and waited for the strong coffee to brew.
“So, what brings you to town so early,” asked Mort casting his friend a quizzical glance, “I reckon Miss Daisy’s coffee is just as good as mine, if not better?”
However, his cheeky grin died on his lips as Jess explained exactly what had happened to Daisy and who the perpetrator was.
“Jeez I’m real sorry to hear that,” said Mort, “and the good lady is completely better, you’re sure?
Jess nodded, “So how about it, Mort have you seen the guy in town?”
Mort shook his head, “Unfortunately no, but he has been in, that I do know. I wanted a word with him regarding that letter Miss Daisy received…Slim told me all about it, but we both thought it fruitless to go searching...he was long gone...or so we thought but....”
“But?” Jess asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“But that was before he was seen here in town. Tom said he’d been in the saloon, but he didn’t tell me until it was too late. Apparently, he’d been seen skulking around.”
“Yeah, skulking around the buggy and Daisy’s dang shopping,” Jess interjected.
“Uh...yes indeed. Anyway, I asked around and it seems he took the railroad out of town yesterday evening headed for either Cheyenne or Denver, the ticket guy couldn’t remember.”
Jess shot up out of his seat, “Denver,” he said, “I knew it!”
“Now hang on Jess where are you off to in such a blamed hurry?” Mort asked, “Why are you so worried?”
Jess explained again including Sam’s theory that Edwards wanted both Daisy and Hilda Briggs dead to stop them giving evidence against him.
“So can ya wire the Sheriff in Denver Mort and get him to ride over and meet me at Ma Grey’s place?” he asked, “I’ll go pick the guy up bring him back here for trial, yeah?”
Mort nodded and after digging about in his desk drawer withdrew a Deputy badge and threw it over, “You’ll need this then buddy. But...er Jess, one thing the Sheriff over in Denver was shot dead last week and his Deputy left town. He couldn’t cope apparently... it’s a pretty lawless place right now, and I’m sorry to say but it looks like you’re on your own. I’d come but...”
“You can’t leave the town right now I know. So, what did Lon’s Betty have in the end anyway?”
“She had a baby girl cute as a button... just like her Ma.”
Jess grinned across, “Well that’s pretty cute then, Betty is a stunner.”
Mort grinned, “Don’t let Millie hear you saying that. So, are you seeing her now?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope, I don’t wanna worry her and I should be home in a few days all being well.”
“Good luck buddy and wire me if you get into trouble. I should be free by next week. Lon’s due back at work ...his in-laws are visiting then,” he finished laughing, “I reckon the boy will be good for overtime.”
Jess chuckled and giving a brief salute took his leave.
The railroad trip was uneventful and when Jess arrived, he went straight to the livery to pick up a hire horse and get directions to the Grey spread.
“You visiting Ma Grey on business then boy?” the old timer asked as he saddled a lively looking pinto gelding for Jess.
“Sorta,” Jess said noncommittally, “why do you ask?”
The old man turned from his task and said, “Well seems like the Widow Grey is real popular right now, you’re the second dude that’s asked directions lately.”
Jess’s head snapped up at that, “Who else has asked?”
“I dunno Mister, some guy, didn’t give a name. About your build, heavier, a little older maybe, rough looking like he’d been on the trail a while. He bought a horse off of me, nice little Bay mare.”
“When?” Jess asked impatiently.
“When did the guy call by?”
“Oh I see...uh...yesterday, late it was.”
Jess threw him some coins and a few extra for his trouble.
“Gee thanks Mister...you never said what your business was?”
But Jess had mounted and was already halfway down Main Street.
“Everyone’s in such a dang hurry nowadays,” he muttered to himself, before pocketing the money and wandering back to his evening meal.
It was dusk as Jess finally rode into the yard of the small spread and hitched the pinto to the rail before knocking a loud tattoo on the ranch front door.
When there was no reply he tried again and then called out, “It’s Jess Harper from the Sherman spread, can you open up Mrs Briggs?”
Eventually the door opened a crack and a worried face peered out.
“Who?” she asked peering at Jess rather short-sightedly.
“Jess Harper Ma’am,” Jess said touching his hat respectfully, “and you must be Widow Grey? I’m here to see your sister, Ma...uh, Mrs Hilda Briggs?”
The small bird-like woman looked him up and down and then opened the door a little wider to reveal that she was holding a rifle rather awkwardly.
“Uh, you won’t be needing that Ma’am” he said, casting the weapon a wary glance, never trusting elderly women bearing guns not to accidentally blow his head off.

“Let me be the judge of that young man,” she said rather officiously.
However, Jess detected a tremor in her voice and on closer inspection the hands wielding the gun were also trembling.
“Ma’am...is everything alright...is your sister here?” he asked anxiously.
She sighed deeply lowering the gun, “No everything is certainly not alright Mister Harper...you’d better come in.”
“Dead?” Jess said sometime later, looking deeply shocked. “Your sister is dead?”
“Shot just this very morning by that terrible man that worked for them...Edwards...Chet Edwards,” she said slumping down on a couch in the parlor, where Jess had followed her in.
She stared at the gun resting across her knees for a moment and then shuddered before laying it carefully down on the floor.
“I’m sorry about that. It belonged to my late husband Joseph. You see when you came to the door, I thought it was Edwards coming back to kill me too.”
“What exactly happened?” Jess asked sinking down on an armchair opposite her.
She shook her head for a moment and then looked up as though dazed.
“Uh, he arrived late last night, gushing romantic nonsense at first. How terribly he’d missed dear Hilda...how he wanted to take her away for a fresh start up in Canada. Well Hilda didn’t swallow any of that rubbish. Between you and me Mr Harper I think the novelty had worn off. Oh yes, she was flattered enough when Edgar was busy with business and that Chet was all over her, paying her attention. But now, well I think she had seen through him. It was the ranch and the lucrative contract with the military he was after, so she believed...that was why he courted her. But now he was running scared, afraid she would expose him for the villain he is.”
Jess had listened to all this background information with as much patience as he could muster.
But now he said, “So you say he shot her Ma’am?”
She nodded, “Oh yes she’s quite dead, in the back room you can see for yourself.”
When Jess didn’t move, she continued.
“Well they sat up talking for a while and then he bedded down on the couch and Hilda came to my room. She’d turned down his offer of going away together flat. But he was still insisting she would change her mind. He said he had brought some supplies and was going to cook her a romantic breakfast in the morning...to show her what a good husband he could be. Ha well she saw through that alright. Told me she’d humor him by eating breakfast and then send him packing.”
“So, what happened?” Jess asked leaning forwards and looking at the older woman intently.
“She told me to stay in my room and she would deal with him, give him his marching orders over breakfast. Then the next thing I knew there was some shouting and a gun went off. I have to admit I was really frightened,” she said throwing Jess an anguished glance. “I looked around for Joseph’s gun and then remembered it was by the front door. I listened at my door and all was quiet...so I opened it a crack and I could see the front door was wide open. I ran out and to the window and was just in time to see Edwards riding out like the very Devil was chasing him. Then I turned back into the room and saw poor dear Hilda on the floor by the kitchen door.”
Here she stopped and gave a stifled sob, “I’m sorry Mister Harper.”
“Hey it’s alright,” he said impulsively leaning forwards and grasping her hands in his own. “This is hard for you; real hard I know. But tell me Ma’am...Mrs Grey did your sister say anything...before...uh the end?”
She nodded, “Oh yes she did. Apparently, he insisted on using the supplies he’d brought to cook the breakfast. That’s when she became suspicious and looked at the pack of coffee when he wasn’t looking. It was there Mister Harper, that stuff he’d used to drug the Sheriff at least that’s what she assumed, a strange white powder. So, she questioned him and that was when they argued. He threatened her with his gun, saying if she’d just shut up about all that business then she would have been safe but as it was .... well she couldn’t live.”
“That’s when she started yelling and he drew his gun and shot her. She lived for another ten maybe fifteen minutes...begging me not to leave her. So, I couldn’t get help. Then when she died...well I was just too fearful to go for help...thinking he’d come back for me,” and she dissolved into tears once more.
Jess debated going after Edwards there and then, but knew he couldn’t leave the poor woman alone in the house with her dead sister in the next room. Besides it was dark now and he didn’t think the frisky young pinto would be the best way to travel in the pitch dark, moonless night.
So, he stayed the night, sleeping on the couch and the following morning delivered Widow Grey to her nearest neighbor and good friends so she could be cared for and her sister’s remains dealt with.
“Don’t worry Mrs Grey,” he said softly as he made to leave, “I promise you I’ll bring him to justice. He’ll hang for what he did...all we need is for you to be ready to come over to Laramie to give evidence at the trial.”
She nodded, now dry eyed and looking stronger, “Thank you Mr Harper of course I will, but you seem very sure you’ll apprehend the man?”
“Oh, don’t you fret about that,” Jess replied as he swung easily up into the saddle, “after what he did to your sister and Daisy, I’ll hunt him down if it’s the last thing I do, you can depend on that Ma’am.”
Jess was as mad as all get out when he rode off that day. He kept remembering the frail body of Hilda Briggs, lying so still and pale. Heck she’d been a difficult woman, but no one deserved a death like that. Hell, that could have been Daisy he reflected as he rode on. Jeez all this had really brought home how much she meant to him. He really thought of her as a Ma now and her passing would have hurt him deeply. Then there were the ramifications on the whole ranch ‘family’. How Mike had cried himself to sleep that night and how dang upset he and Slim had been too.
He urged the young pinto on to greater speed the anger in his heart threatening to overwhelm him...the bastard would hang and pretty damn soon if Jess had his way.
By the time dusk fell he’d talked himself out of a lynching, but he pledged he’d have Edwards at Mort’s office within the week if not sooner.
He’d pretty much guessed the route Edwards would take. Along the old owl hoot trail, that is the former Indian route, used now mainly by folk who didn’t want apprehending for one reason or another. He’d picked it up just north west of Denver and it ran pretty much straight up towards Cheyenne, skirting Boulder and Fort Collins before turning north east and by-passing Cheyenne it headed due north towards the Canadian border. Jess figured that was exactly where Edwards would be heading.
He was just thinking of reining in and calling it a day when he saw a plume of grey smoke unfurling into the darkening summer sky. He sat up tall in the saddle and narrowing his eyes he peered into the fast falling dusk. It couldn’t be Edwards already he had too greater start on him ...so who then? It was mainly outlaws and the odd Indian who used the trail and the last thing he felt like was confrontation with some dispossessed trail bum or fugitive. On the other hand, they may have had a sighting of Edwards and have information Jess really needed to know right then.
Finally, he urged his mount on through the twilight until he hit the edge of the camp. Then he ground hitched him and made his way quietly in on foot.
What he saw as he entered, the three familiar faces sitting before a roaring fire, made his spirits rise considerably.
He gave a little warning cough and was not surprised when the two younger men were up on their knees like lightning both training their rifles on him, while the third older one looked on with interest.
After a moment the rifles were lowered and Cody and Mick James strode over to shake his hand.
“Good to see you Jess,” Cody said, “but you shouldn’t be creeping up on a man that way.”
Jess chuckled and shook his hand warmly, “Why? You ain’t got no guilty secrets have ya Cody,” he asked, before shaking Mick’s hand and wandering into the camp.
By then Denver James, their Pa, had scrambled to his feet, “Why Jess Harper you’re a sight for sore eyes boy. What brings you to these parts huh?”
“Hunting  a lying’, no good woman killer,” he replied succinctly. “How about you...a tad far from home ain’t ya Den?”
The men sat back around the fire and Jess was given a tin mug of Denver’s best Moonshine.
“On business, got be some customers down Boulder way,” Denver replied. “So, a murder hunt you say?” he asked his old eyes lighting up at the sniff of some scandal.
Jess settled down and told them everything and then described Edwards.
“So, you seen the guy?”
“Sure did, just yesterday,” said Cody, “he bought some grog off us. But he weren’t too inclined to chat, just said he was heading off to a funeral Laramie way.”
“The hell he did,” Jess muttered, “well he ain’t wrong there, but it’ll be his own dang funeral he’ll be goin’ to.”
After a while once they’d eaten and shared some more drink Denver said, “That reminds me talkin’ of Laramie, you seen anything of our cousin Kate?”
“Sure” said Jess, “she was involved in all that sorry mess too. Briggs was gonna abduct her along with Millie and Mike, until he realized, he’d bitten off more than he could chew!”
The men all chuckled and nodded, “That’s our Kate,” said Denver.
And then more thoughtfully, “So did she say when she was coming home then boy?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno.”
“Too busy keeping the Sheriff’s bed warm I imagine,” Denver sniggered.
“Well if you’re that concerned why didn’t you call in at Laramie and check on her?” Jess countered.
Denver shook his head, “We’d heard about that dang new Deputy and figured we’d give him a wide berth. But now the coast’s clear we’ll go see her on the way back...kinda missing her cooking ain’t we boys?”
“Sure, are Pa,” the young men agreed.
“Um...well a word of advice, I’d just say yer missing her company not her cooking,” Jess advised, “or it could be a long hard winter for you guys because I doubt she’ll be comin’ home any time soon iffen you don’t show some appreciation.”
The men took that on the chin and agreed they’d do some real pretty talkin’ around her...just to be sure.
The following morning Jess took off at first light, declining the James family specialty of eggs over easy fried in bear fat.
It was noon by the time he discovered an old camp...but the ashes were still warm in the campfire and he also discovered a discarded empty bottle of Moonshine.
“Gotcha,” he muttered to himself as he remounted. He’d figured Edwards would be easy enough to get the drop on...but a hungover Edwards would be child’s play.
Afterwards he was amazed at just how simple it was to apprehend the felon.
He came upon him just a few hours later out for the count and sleeping like a baby...a half empty bottle of Moonshine at his side.
Jess who had ridden into the camp almost stumbling over the stretched-out Edwards quickly dismounted and walked over.
Then spying the man’s canteen, he picked it up and emptied the contents over the sleeping man’s face before kicking him brutally in the ribs.
“Get up you no good murderin’ scum!” he yelled.
Edwards finally roused himself and squinted up at Jess through bloodshot eyes, “Wha?” he muttered.
Jess reached down and dragging him up by his shirt front delivered a haymaker to the unsuspecting man’s chin.
“I said git up!” Jess yelled even louder.
Edwards was now sprawled on the ground several feet away cowering as he finally woke up and realized his worst nightmare was actually happening. He’d been apprehended and worse still by Jess Harper who had every right to want to kill him. And knowing Jess’s temper Edwards was indeed fearful for his life.
“Git up and fight me you low-life,” Jess spat advancing on him, “or is it just women you attack...huh?”
Edwards just stared at him slack jawed before finally staggering to his feet and raising his hands.
“OK Harper you caught me fair and square...I admit it...now just back off huh?”
“Back off!” Jess bellowed, “Now why would I wanna do a fool thing like that huh?” And he threw another punch.
“That was fer nearly killin’ Mrs Cooper.”
Then he back slapped him hard...blood now streaming down Edwards’s face, “And that’s fer scarin ’ young Mike half to death.”
Then he issued a final blow to the chin sending him reeling once more, “And that one was courtesy of yours truly.”
“Please...please,” Edwards blubbered, “no more Harper. I confess. I’m guilty alright...just take me to the law.”
Jess nodded and turning away to his mount he returned a few seconds later with a pencil and an old feed bill. He turned it over onto the blank side and offered it to Edwards.
“There write a confession and sign it...pronto.”
Edwards did as he was requested, admitted to shooting and killing Hilda Briggs and the attempted murder of Mrs Daisy Cooper and signed it.
Jess nodded and folding the paper placed it carefully in his vest pocket.
“Good, very good,” he said quietly, “Now if anything happens to you on the way back to Laramie at least we have your confession.”
Edwards looked even more terrified then.
But Jess merely turned away and hid a grin. Nope he wasn’t gonna harm the guy. He’d had his revenge and felt better for it. Now it was down to Mort and a court of law to meter out the ultimate punishment for the crime, not him. But it wouldn’t hurt to keep Edwards guessing he thought mischievously.
The trip back to Denver and then home to Laramie by railroad passed seamlessly and Jess was able to hand over his prisoner just three days later.
With Edwards locked up in the jail Mort now perused the signed confession again and grinned up at Jess, who was sitting on the corner of his desk.
“You done real good Jess,” he said, “with this confession along with the evidence from Mrs Grey and Daisy the guy will swing for sure.”
Jess nodded, “Then maybe we can draw a line under this whole goddamn awful business.”
Mort shook his head sadly, “And all because Briggs was desperate to please his wife...and the poor sucker was being made a fool of all along by her and Edwards.”
“I think jealousy was a huge part of it too, Briggs and his wife always wanting to buy the Sherman spread. It don’t make any sense does it Mort? Sure, it’s a great place and we do have the lake and the mountain...plus all the huntin’ at Paradise...but heck the Briggs spread must be three maybe four times the size.”
Mort shrugged, “A case of the grass always being greener I suppose...Plus of course the guy was practically bankrupt,”and he shook his head. “All the years I’ve known Briggs...I never thought he’d get himself into a mess like this.”
“It was unforgivable what he did to you though Mort...well had done to you at the hands of that bastard Frank Cody anyway.”
Mort nodded, “But I reckon Edgar Briggs redeemed himself some by dispatching Cody before he could hurt young Millie.”
At her name Jess’s face lit up and he glanced at the large wall clock behind Mort and jumped down from the desk making for the door. With any luck Millie’s afternoon break should be starting round about now, he surmised.
“Now where are you off to in such a blamed hurry,” Mort cried, “what about your statement...uh Deputy Harper?” he added with a grin.
Quick as a flash Jess removed the badge and threw it across to Mort and said, “I quit and I’m off to see my girl...be back later to do the statement Mort.”
“Why you’re just plain unreasonable and unreliable...can’t get the dang staff now a days,” Mort called after him, but secretly chuckling to himself.
A second later the door opened and Jess’s head popped around.
“Uh... just a thought Mort…you might wanna be kinda wary next time you employ a Deputy...you can’t be too careful you know,” and he disappeared from view as Mort hurled his paperweight at the closing door.
“Jess Harper you’ll be the death of me,” he laughed. “But I wouldn’t have you any other way,” he finished quietly.
The End
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