#84 The Language of Friendship

The Language of Friendship

By Patty Wilkinson

(Some violent scenes, strong language and adult themes)

Thank you to Michelle Butler for excellent screen cap

Chapter 1
Jess Harper was striding down Laramie Main Street whistling to himself; a happy smile on his handsome features. The sun was shining, he had money in his back pocket and he was on his way to see his girl Millie. All was right with the world.
He was so busy contemplating the next few hours of dancin’ and romancin’ with his gal he wasn’t looking where he was going and ran slap bang into a tall slender man just emerging from the mercantile.
Both ricocheted back and then their eyes met and Jess gave a gasp of shocked surprise.
“Pete... Pete Brown is that you?”
The other nodded smiling broadly, “Howdy Jess...I was coming over to visit with you tomorrow; didn’t expect to find you here.”
Jess studied the other and tried to keep the smile on his face, but Jeez Pete was a mess. He looked far and away older than his mid-thirties, his face haggard and almost grey...his body slender to the point of emaciation. Hell, the guy looked really sick.
But then Pete broke into his thoughts and slapping him on the back said, “Well aren’t you going to buy an old buddy a drink then huh?”
“Sure,” said Jess pulling himself together and returning the grin and the pair made their way on down the street to the saloon.
Once Jess had introduced Pete to Millie, they took their drinks to a quiet table to talk; Jess promising to see his girl a little later.
“She sure is a looker,” Pete said appreciatively. Taking a small sip of his beer he glanced over to where Millie was still serving at the bar, before her night off.
“So are you two heading out later huh?” he asked with a wink.
Jess nodded, “Yup...but never mind about all that. What are you doin’ way up here...and where is little Beth...she is with you?”
“Sure, she’s over at the hotel. She was kinda tired after the long journey and having an early night. Not so little now either Jess.”
Jess smiled. Gee Beth was such a sweet child he remembered.
“She must be what ten...eleven now?”
Pete shook his head, “Nope just turned thirteen and going to be a real stunner just like her Ma.”
Both men suddenly sobered at the memory of Pete’s beautiful wife Lizzy, gunned down in her prime.
Jess sat quietly for a moment casting his mind back to the tragic events of that day nearly eight years ago...

He’d been working the winter as a wrangler on Pete’s small spread down near Colorado Springs. It had been a hard-old winter and many businesses had gone to the wall with horse and cattle rustling rife.
One bitterly cold night in March the rustlers hit. Even though Jess and Pete tried desperately to protect the stock there were just too many gunmen. Jess was shot, but poor Lizzy was killed in the cross fire. Both men blamed themselves for not keeping her safe. But knew in their hearts there was nothing they could have done. The rustlers outnumbered them five to one and they had no chance of fighting them off. The other casualty of the attack was poor sweet little five-year-old Beth.
She has awoken and witnessed everything...the terrible noise of the gun-play and then her beloved Ma shot in the chest in front of her. The child had screamed and wept bitterly for her dead Ma. And that was the last time she ever made a sound. She had been struck dumb by the horrific sight and had not uttered a word since.
Afterwards Pete had sold up and embarked upon a nomadic existence drifting from town to town, taking casual labor, just him and Beth. They made a covered wagon their home and gradually life settled down for them. Although it was impossible to send his daughter to school because she was mute, he successfully schooled her himself and she had grown up into a bright happy child, as long as she was with her beloved pa. She had also turned out to be a really talented artist and she spent many happy hours drawing portraits of her Pa and pictures of the animals and countryside around her.
Jess had caught up with them just a few years ago when he was returning from a cattle drive. It was getting late and he was just thinking of making camp when he came across an old covered wagon by the roadside. The campers had a good fire going and the enticing smell of freshly brewed coffee greeted him as he rode in hoping to be offered a cup.
Then he was delighted to find his old friend and Beth sitting around the campfire, about to set to making their supper. It had indeed been a pleasure and also a revelation to Jess at how well the pair were coping after their tragic loss.
Pete professed not to miss the daily grind of ranch life and enjoyed the prospect of the open road. But it was Beth who was the real star of the show. With the help of her Pa she had perfected her own unique form of sign language and chattered away to her Pa constantly, her hands and expressive face never still. She had also communicated with Jess via a small pad and pencil, expressing her delight at seeing him again and offering to show him some of her signs.
In the end Jess had spent nearly a week in their company, before reluctantly having to return home. But those few days had been an eye opener as he saw how well the child had learned to deal with her disability. But even more astounding than that had been her exquisite paintings and drawings. Jess had sat for her and the likeness was uncanny and equal to any professional artist he reckoned.
On their last evening together, with Beth tucked up in bed, the men had shared a glass or two of whiskey.
Jess turned to his old friend and said, “I reckon Beth could really make a name fer herself with that drawin’ skill of hers ya know Pete. It’s just a shame it’s only the likes of us gets to see it. She could be real famous you know; given half a chance.”
Pete had looked down into his whiskey for a minute before saying, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that Jess. I have...acted on it too. I’ve made arrangements for her to take a place at an Academy of Art back east once she turns fourteen. A guy I met on my travels set it all up. He saw Beth’s pictures and said same as you. He worked at the place and showed me this here fancy prospectus. They’ll teach her all she needs and she can board there too. It’s not cheap, but Lizzy and I had made provision for her future before Lizzy passed over....so that’s all in hand.
Jess had looked shocked, “Jeez won’t you miss her when she goes?”
“Sure I will, “he said his voice thick with emotion. “But she has to go Jess. I can’t stand in her way. Gee her dear Ma would have been so dang proud.”
Now Pete broke into Jess’s thoughts...
“I just wish Lizzy could see how well she’s grown.”
Jess’s head shot up, “She was a lovely lady your Lizzy and I bet young Beth is gonna be a credit to you both. She’ll be off to that swanky Art Academy soon huh?”
Pete smiled, “Yes, not long now. I know she doesn’t want to leave me but she’s real excited about going in a way too.”
“How is she...uh in herself that is?” Jess asked feeling slightly uncomfortable.
“Is she still mute do you mean?” Pete replied with a rare flash of anger.
“I’m sorry... that was kinda crass,” Jess said.
Pete took a deep breath and said, “No buddy, I’m sorry just a kind of sore point you know? Yes, she’s still mute, but the specialist we saw said she could still grow out of it. Was the shock you see, witnessing her Ma die that way?”
“I remember,” Jess said softly. The ghastly scene forever engraved in his memory. The shot, Lizzy giving a surprised gasp and then the hauntingly terrible screams of young Beth.
“Yes well, this Mr Howe, a tutor from the Academy, said there would be no problem with Beth. Said he’d take her under his wing. You see his daughter is mute too Jess. She is deaf and mute from birth so he understands. That’s how we met…he saw me and Beth signing and came over and introduced himself.”
“Well it looks like you’ve finally hit some good luck then,” Jess said cheerfully, “and about dang time too huh?”
But he didn’t notice his friend cast his eyes down and decline to answer as just then Millie wandered over.
Jess suggested Pete accompany them to the dance, but he declined saying he must really get back in case his daughter awoke.
“But I would like to pay you a visit tomorrow, maybe?” he asked suddenly looking kind of anxious so Jess thought.
“Well of course,” he said quickly, “that would be swell. I’ll ride in with you and introduce you to the others. We’ll head out after breakfast tomorrow and you’ll stay a while huh?”
Pete seemed to visibly relax, “Thanks Jess that would be great. Uh you still have that housekeeper you told me about living in?”
Jess nodded, “Sure Miss Daisy’s still with us. Don’t fret you won’t hafta sample my cookin’. I know Mike and Beth will hit it off real good too.”
Pete smiled again, “I sure hope so, thank you,” he said before rising to leave. “Have a good time you two,” he added quietly, before wandering off back to the hotel.
Jess gazed after him and said softly, “There’s somethin’ not right there Mill… the guy looks kinda sick don’t you think?”
Millie nodded, “Yes, he does look a bit under the weather.” Then brightening, “A few days of Daisy’s cooking will work wonders,” and grabbing hold of his hand she hoisted him out of his seat.
“Come on you, the dance will be over before we get there at this rate,” she chastised, her sparking eyes belying her sharp tongue.
The following morning Jess wandered down Main Street and was surprised to see Pete just leaving Doc Sam’s place. He increased his pace to catch up with his old friend and said, “Howdy Pete, so what are you doin’ at the doc’s place yer not sick are you?”
Pete jumped at Jess’s sudden appearance, but recovered quickly, “Heck no Jess. I’ve just got a problem with indigestion; can’t stomach my own cooking I reckon.”
Jess grinned, “Well you ain’t alone in that and I figure you’re in for a real treat with Miss Daisy’s meals. She’ll soon fatten you up,” he laughed giving Pete a slap on the back.
They arrived at the hotel a little later and Beth was waiting for them in the reception area.
The dark-haired girl’s eyes lit up when she saw Jess and she ran towards him, her face beaming in welcome and hands working ten to the dozen.
“Hey, hang on there sweetheart,” Jess said gently, “I’m kinda out of practice,” and he watched her as she gestured to her heart and made a sweeping motion with her hands towards him.
“Yeah and it’s really lovely to see you too,” he grinned, smiling down at her as she relaxed knowing she was understood.
Gee, Pete was right he thought…she really was a sweet looking kid with those big brown eyes and her hair neatly braided and hanging down to her waist.
“Come on honey,” he said smiling down at her, “I’m gonna take ya over to the ranch to meet young Mike, I figure you’ll hit it off real good.”
They arrived at the ranch later that morning, Pete driving the old covered wagon into the yard, Jess riding alongside.
Slim ran out of the barn at the noise of the ramshackle wagon rolling in and stood looking on curiously.
Jess slipped down from the saddle and smiling up at Pete and Beth glanced across towards Slim.
“These are some old friends of mine, Pete and Beth Brown, come to visit for a few days.”
Then looking back to Pete said, “This is Slim Sherman my partner in the ranch, and good friend.”
Pete leaned down from the wagon and shook Slim s outreached hand.
“Good to meet you Mister Sherman, I hope it won’t be any bother if we hitch up for a while?”
“Heck no, it’s just fine,” Slim said beaming up at the rather sickly-looking man sitting next to the stunningly beautiful young girl. By contrast she radiated health and youthful bloom, her sparkling deep brown eyes looking around her with interest.
“Howdy Beth,” Slim said smiling at her,” good to know you. I imagine you’d like to meet Mike... he’s around here someplace, “he added, glancing around him and calling for Mike.
When Beth merely smiled and nodded her head vigorously Jess sidled over to Slim and said very softly, “She don’t speak Slim, I’ll explain later,” before moving forward to help the child down.
Then moments later Mike burst out of the house followed by Daisy.
“Ah, there you are,” Slim said, putting an affectionate arm around the boy’s shoulders, “this here is Mister Pete Brown and his daughter Beth. How about showing her around the place huh Mike?”
Mike advanced on the older child and grinned at her.
“Hi Beth so do you like Raccoons...I’ve got a pet one wanna see?”
When she nodded and smiled, he grinned back...
“So, you come far?” he added.
She put her head on one side and then pointed to the distance and raised her arm to encompass...a long way.
Mike nodded, “That far huh. Well you’ll like it here. Aunt Daisy makes swell cookies and Slim and Jess are the best...so do ya like fishing huh?”
When Beth merely grinned and nodded again Mike turned to Jess and in an aside said, “She don’t talk too much does she Jess?”
Jess said very softly, “She doesn’t talk the way we do at all Tiger. But she can in her own way. See she uses sign language and I figure you’re smart enough to pick it up real quick.”
Mike looked at Beth with new respect in his eyes, “Hey that’s real cool will you show me how?” he asked.
Beth pointed to herself and then made the sign of a heart and a little gesture with her finger and thumb.
Mike looked slightly puzzled and when he looked to Jess for guidance, he talked the youngster through it, making the signs himself. “I would love to,” he said,” see?”
Mike’s face lit up with understanding, “Of course I get it!”
“Gee thanks Beth this ’ll be fun,” he said grabbing her hand and taking her off to Bandit’s pen.
“They’ll be OK,” Jess said grinning over at his old friend.
“I think you’re right,” replied Pete giving a huge sigh of relief, which didn’t go unnoticed by Daisy. Now she came forward and after introductions bore him off into the house offering food and hospitality in equal measures.
Following on, Jess grinned at Slim, “Good old Daisy you can always depend on her to make folk feel comfortable.”
Slim smiled and nodded although he secretly thought maybe Daisy’s nursing skills would be more of use because the guy sure did look sick.
Slim’ s theory was born out later at supper when Pete made a valiant effort to convince Daisy that her meal was exceptional, whilst still managing to eat very little, and recycle the rest via Buttons and Blue, the ranch dogs.
“Do tell me if they are being a nuisance,” Daisy called over from the top of the table.
“Really Jess those animals shouldn’t be in here when we have guests.”
“Please Ma’am, don’t throw ‘em out on my account,” Pete said looking rather sheepish. It was only Slim though who had noticed the subtle way Pete had been feeding the dogs and figured it better to say nothing than to upset Daisy.
The father and daughter retired early; pleading tiredness after their long journey. But to Daisy’s practice eye Pete looked nearing exhaustion rather than just normally tired.
Once supper was over their guests retired for the night to their wagon. Drawn up behind the barn it had a peaceful view of the home pasture and also easy proximity to the outhouse, so the ideal spot.
Daisy was worried about their comfort though and felt they should be sleeping under the ranch house roof.
“Aw bless you ma’am, but Beth and I are used to the old wagon. See it’s our home now Miss Daisy and we have everything we need there, really.”
Once the door had closed behind them Daisy turned to Jess, “I really am worried about them, Jess dear.”
“ They’ll be fine Daisy. Like Pete said they’re used to camping out in the wagon and it’s a real mild summer night, they’ll be just fine, quit frettin’.”
“No dear it’s not that....”
Then she turned to where Mike was still at the table and valiantly trying to hide a yawn, supper having been taken later than usual.
Daisy broke off her conversation with Jess and said, “Come along Mike, time for bed young man.”
“Aw Aunt Daisy do I hafta?”
“Indeed dear. It is way past your bedtime and besides you promised to be up early to show Beth that special fishing spot down by the creek didn’t you?”
At that the child sprang from his seat and headed for the door, “Sure, I’d better get some sleep, ‘night all, “and he disappeared into his room.
Slim and Jess chuckled, but when Jess turned back to Daisy, he saw she was looking quite anxious.
“Hey what’s up Daisy,” he asked, “it’s more than just Pete and Beth’s comfort that’s botherin’ you ain’t it?”
Daisy nodded, “I’m quite concerned about your friend Jess. He didn’t seem to eat a lot at supper and he looks so unwell and terribly thin.”
Slim wondered if now was a good time to come clean about seeing Pete feeding Daisy’s excellent chicken dinner to the dogs, and had in fact eaten practically nothing, but decided against it. Maybe the guy really was just tired after the journey.
“Is that all?” Jess asked smiling across at her. “Well you’re right in a way. Seems he’s just been suffering from indigestion. But he saw Sam this morning and got some medicine, so he’ll be back to his old self pretty soon.”
“I certainly hope so dear,” said Daisy as she started gathering up the dishes for washing. But she knew in her heart of hearts it was something way more serious than that.
“They are staying a little while aren’t they dear,” she said turning back from the kitchen to glance at Jess.
“Uh, sure Daisy a few days maybe a week, that’s, OK ain’t it?”
“Absolutely dear and maybe he’ll be feeling better after a nice rest here,” she said hopefully. But more to the point maybe she could get Doc Sam to call and take another look at his patient. Because he really wasn’t right, she just knew it. But how could she get the doc to call?
After Jess and Slim had pitched in helping to clear and wash up all three sat around the fire with a post supper coffee and discussed their visitors.
Jess filled them in on the sad demise of Pete’s wife, Lizzy, and the subsequent effect that had on dear Beth.
“I felt so dang bad about it all at the time,” Jess said honestly, “we should have kept her safe.”
“But if what you say is true Jess you were hopelessly out numbered nobody could have done more than you did, I’m sure of that,” said Slim honestly.
“Thanks, pard,” Jess said softly, looking off into the dying embers of the fire and remembering that terrible time.
He relived poor sweet Lizzy lying in a pool of blood and little Beth screaming and screaming...until suddenly she wasn’t.
Jess shook his head as though trying to erase the memory.
“Beth was never the same again after that,” he said softly. “She used to be such a little chatter box, always around me and her Pa, ‘helping’ as she called it. It worried Lizzy to death that she’d get hurt around the horses and all. But in the end, it was Lizzy who...” and his voice trailed off his eyes bleak.
Thinking to try and change the subject to less painful memories Daisy said cheerfully. “Well Beth seems to be a bright intelligent girl and quite happy in herself don’t you think?”
Jess nodded, “Heck yes she’s really come on from back then. For a while we really thought she’d pine away, not talkin’ or eating, just sitting staring into space. I reckon it was the puppy I brought her that kinda helped some.”
Daisy smiled broadly at him then, “Trust you to think of that just what she needed I imagine.”
He nodded, “Twas just a little runt I found at the livery, the owner was gonna drown him, but I took him home and she loved that little guy at first sight. Me and Pete really thought it would do the trick, get her talkin’ again...but no. She was still so dang anxious around folk she didn’t know, well anyone really. Only folk she was OK with we’re me and her Pa.”
“What about other family, her friends?” Daisy asked.
Jess shook his head, “Nope no other kin... save her Ma’s sister. But she’d eloped and gone to live over in Denver someplace and they’d lost touch. Beth didn’t have no little friends either, we were kinda isolated on the ranch and she hadn’t started school yet.”
“But she did attend eventually?” Slim prompted, “Because she sure is a smart kid, you can see that the way she picks things up so quickly.”
Jess shook his head. “They sold up and took off in the wagon just the following month and I didn’t hear anything of them, until I ran into them on the way home from that cattle drive a few years ago.”
“I remember that,” said Daisy, “you said they were really pleased to see you, especially Beth and you stayed with them for a while.”
Jess nodded, “By then Pete had taken her to a doc as she still wasn’t speaking and he was pretty sure she could talk iffen she wanted to, but the horror of seeing her Ma that way had upset her...up here,” he said tapping his temple. “He seemed to think she might grow out of it. Said it was real unusual for her not to speak at all. Usually kids are OK with close family and friends, but nope...not in this case. That’s why she never went to school. Sure, Pete tried to send her but she just got so dang upset, not eatin’ and being real fretful. So, he figured it was doin’ her more harm than good and book-learned her himself, as well as he could.”
“The poor little thing,” Daisy said looking tearful.
“So, it seems the only folk she feels real comfortable around are Pete and me,” Jess said with a surprised grin on his face. “Pete told me today he was amazed at how well she’s fitted in here...going off with Mike that way. Says it really ain’t like her to accept folk so quick, but he reckons it’s because I live here, so she feels safe.”
“Well that’s wonderful,” Daisy declared. Then she looked thoughtful.
“You know if they are staying here a while maybe Pete could take her to see Doc Sam? You know how up-to-date he is on conditions of the mind, there may be some new research that he’s aware of that might help her?”
Jess nodded, “Sure I’ll mention it to him...and Daisy, thanks.”
“Whatever for dear?” she asked looking surprised.
“Fer bein’ so understandin’ I really appreciate it.”
“She’s a sweet child, I just hope Sam can help her,” Daisy said; getting up and making for her room, and maybe he’d take another look at her Pa she thought secretly.
“Goodnight dears,” she called over her shoulder.

Chapter 2
The following morning Mike took off early with Pete and Beth and was happy to show them the best fishing spots along the creek which bordered the home pasture. Soon the three of them were settled in the early morning sunshine, casting their lines and peace reigned.
Meanwhile back at the ranch house Jess and Slim had been relaxing on the porch with a very welcome lemonade after completing the morning chores and changing the team on the early Stage. It was another hot day and they had enjoyed the cold drink and now were just considering going back to work when a rider came briskly down the rise. He dismounted and paused to tether his mount by the water trough before walking across the yard towards the two seated men.
“What no work to do?” he asked cheerfully as he mounted the porch grinning.
Jess chuckled, “Well we could say the same about you Sam. We ain’t got anyone sick out here, so I figure you’ve just come over for some of Miss Daisy’s fresh lemonade huh?”
The doctor looked across at the cool pitcher and licked his dry lips, “Well I wouldn’t say no,” he replied eagerly.
Slim stood, slapped him on the back and disappearing into the house returned minutes later with a clean tumbler and poured his friend a generous measure.
Once they were all relaxing back in their seats Slim said, “So is this just a social visit then Sam, not that it isn’t great to see you,” he added, “but kind of a long trip just for a glass of lemonade isn’t it?”
Sam nodded and sipping the drink with obvious pleasure smiled and said, “Worth every mile though.” Then he put his glass down on the little porch table and looked serious. “No, the reason I’m here is to check on your guest Mister Brown and bring him some medicine too.”
“Well that’s really good of you,” Slim said, “so is he sick then? He sure doesn’t look any too good.”
Sam looked down quickly and said, “You know I can’t discuss my patients Slim and if Mister Brown wants you to know about his health, well he’ll tell you himself.”
“Or not,” Jess said quietly. “I was kinda worried about him myself when I saw him leavin’ your place Sam and he said he was just sufferin’ from indigestion?”
Sam said nothing for a moment and then clearing his throat said, “So is he here?”
“Gone fishin’,” Jess said with his infectious grin, “but they’ll be home shortly, been out since sun up.”
Then he went on to explain all about Beth and her inability to speak including the reason for it all.
Sam was very interested as Daisy had imagined he would be and said, “Ah, a case of selective mutism. I’ve read a paper on this by an esteemed German physician. And you say she can’t talk at all, not even to her Pa?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope not a word since she was about five...and she’s thirteen now.”
“Unusual, very unusual,” said Sam thoughtfully, “I’d really like to see her. So how does she communicate?”
Jess explained about the sign language. “She’s as bright as a button Sam and an amazing artist...drawin’ and paintin’ since she was a young ‘un.”
“Really,” asked Sam, “she sounds a very interesting case, I’d love to see her,” he repeated.
“Well here’s your chance,” said Slim getting up from the porch as Beth, her Pa and Mike advanced across the yard accompanied by the dogs barking in welcome.
Jess noticed that Pete looked rather anxious at Sam’s presence, but that was nothing compared to his daughter. As soon as she realized Sam was a doctor, she turned deathly pale and fled in the direction from whence they had come minutes earlier.
Mike looked mystified, “Is she OK?” he asked.
Pete shook his head, “Nope, go after her would you Mike, maybe take our catch into Miss Daisy huh... and tell Beth I’ll be along shortly?”
Mike nodded obediently and ran off to do as he’d been bid.
“I apologize for my daughter’s seeming rudeness doctor,” Pete said quickly “I’m afraid she isn’t any too fond of authority figures, like doctors and teachers...well any strangers really,” he added, glancing to Jess for support.
“I explained everything to Sam,” Jess said softly, “he’s real interested in this kinda thing, might be able to help?”
“That’s kind of you,” Pete said, “I’ll speak to her later, maybe talk her round,” he added vaguely.
Sam nodded, “Good, good,” he said briskly. “Anyway, it’s you I’ve come to see Mister Brown, I’ve um some new medicine, that you may find helpful. Maybe we could talk, in private?”
Slim and Jess took the hint and went back to work leaving Sam and Pete to talk out on the porch.
As they wandered back over to the barn to continue mending some tack Jess shook his head and said, “I knew it Slim, he’s real sick ain’t he?”
Slim merely shrugged, “We don’t know that Jess. But even if he is, at least Sam’s on the case and he’s a really good doc, the best. I reckon he’ll sort your friend out with the medicine he’s brought.”
Jess said nothing but glanced back to the porch where Pete and the doctor were now deep in conversation.
“I sure hope so,” he muttered to himself before joining Slim in the barn.
Once Jess heard Sam walking across the yard over to where his horse was tethered, he made his excuses to Slim and downing the bridle he was mending he marched quickly out.
He caught up with Sam just as he was about to mount up.
“Hey ain’t you staying for dinner?” he asked.
Sam tipped his hat back and grinned at his old friend, “Well I’d love to Jess, but I’m going to have to take a rain check on that. I’m due over at the Patterson place. Ma Patterson is due any day now.”
Jess scratched his head, “Is that number eight or nine?”
Sam chuckled, “Don’t ask I figure they’ve lost count too.”
Then he sobered, “Did you want to speak to me Jess?”
He nodded, “I’m kinda worried about Pete, he looks so dang scrawny and he ain’t eating...can’t you tell me what’s wrong with him Sam?”
His friend paused for a moment looking hesitant and then said, “You know I can’t. But what I can say is that the guy really needs a friend right now...keep an eye on him huh Jess?” and with that he mounted up and rode off.
It was later in the afternoon before Jess managed to have a quiet talk with his old friend. He found him leaning on the home pasture gate watching Beth seated cross legged among the long grass of the meadow. Her dark head bent over her sketch book as she concentrated on drawing some wild flowers.
Jess went over and leaned on the gate, chewing on a straw. The pair stood watching the youngster in companionable silence for a little while, before Jess said, “Is she OK now?”
Pete turned to him and smiled, “Yup...she’s doing what she loves best. It always calms her down losing herself in her paintings.”
Jess nodded, “I remember. It seemed it was all she wanted to do after she lost her Ma. But that’s a good eight years ago now Pete. Dontcha think she should be over all that now? After all you told me that specialist said she could speak again one day and it was just a matter of time huh?”
Pete shrugged, “I just don’t know what to think. She’s fine if it’s just the two of us, but any strangers like the doc, teachers, folk she doesn’t know or trust come along then she just goes to pieces.”
Then he gazed at Jess and said, “Except for you, she trusts you Jess.”
Jess glanced over to where Mike was now laying down in the long grass beside Beth, the dogs panting in the heat beside him. He was chattering away and Beth seemed equally animated her hands and face busy as she talked to him, albeit in her own special way.
“She trusts Mike too,” Jess said nodding over to the enchanting scene of the youngsters laughing together.
Pete looked over and nodded, “That’s really good to see. I can’t tell you how good. She’s had so few friends of a similar age. Just Joanie really, the daughter of that guy I told you about from the art college. Jason Howe. Well his girl is deaf and mute, but they managed,” he said grinning now. “I figure that’s why she is OK with the idea of going next term. Sure, she’ll miss me, but I know she’ll be happy and well-looked after by Joanie’s Ma and Pa, Jason and Dory,” he finished suddenly looking deeply sad.
“Hey buddy, it ain’t like yer never gonna see her again,” Jess said punching Pete lightly on the arm, “she’ll be home for the holidays before you know it.”
“Sure, I know,” Pete said smiling bravely at his friend.
“ I thought she couldn’t go for another year or so?”
“Huh? Um...yeah, I got special permission for her to start a little early. She really needs to catch up on her Math, Writing, that kinda thing. She’ll have a special tutor for all that and hopefully be caught up with the others by the time she hits fourteen.”
Jess shook his head, “This must be costing you a pretty penny Pete?”
“Yeah, but that’s no problem. Dear Lizzy was a wealthy woman in her own right you know Jess. She’d already set up a trust fund for our Beth. We could see her talent even as a toddler she could draw and paint so dang well. So nope she’ll have enough cash for schooling and to support her iffen she wants a career in art later.”
“Looks like you’ve got her future all mapped out,” Jess said grinning.
“ Well yes...just one thing I’ve got to do before she heads off in the fall.”
“So, what’s what?”
“I promised her I’d get a steady job, so she would always be able to mail me and have a place for her to visit in the holidays too.”
“Well that makes sense.”
Pete nodded, “That’s why I’m going to sound out a guy named Peters, off the Cheyenne road, the Cross-Bar Ranch, it’s about thirty miles away you know it?”
Jess nodded, “Sure, Dan Peters is a good man. But I didn’t think he was taking on right now. He told me he was cutting back some, thinking of selling up, retiring early.”
“Not what he said in his letter,” Pete insisted, “he said he’d be happy to talk to me about the job of head wrangler, with a view to ramrodding the outfit.”
Jess shook his head, “Well that’s news to me...but hey good luck...so you going to see him soon?”
A look of distress momentarily flashed across Pete’s still handsome features and was gone before Jess noticed. He gathered himself quickly and said, “Uh, yep, I thought I’d go visit him the end of the week, if you could take care of young Beth for me for a few days?”
“Well heck yes of course,” Jess said enthusiastically. “She ain’t no trouble at all, she’s fitted in real well ain’t she?” he said nodding over to where she and Mike were now in fits of hysterical silent laughter over some childish joke...the blond and dark heads close together.
“That she has,” Pete agreed. But Jess didn’t hear the fervent, “thank God,” Pete muttered under his breath.
“So how are you,” Jess asked earnestly, and don’t tell me you’ve got indigestion because I don’t dang well believe you. I’m pretty sure Sam wouldn’t ride all the way out here just because you’ve got a belly ache. Fer goodness sake Daisy’s got some Dinnifords in the kitchen cupboard that’ll cure any kinda indigestion, you only had to ask.”
Pete looked down and shook his head sadly, “You’ve caught me out on that one buddy...it is a tad more serious.”
“I knew it,” said Jess, “so what’s wrong then Pete, because you sure don’t look yerself.”
“Seems I’ve developed an ulcer...in my stomach, that’s what’s made me a tad sickly, lost my appetite and that’s a fact.”
Jess nodded, “Well I’m real sorry to hear that Pete. Had one of those dang things myself a few years back... started chucking up blood,” he said grimacing at the memory. See #13 Silver Lady
“Doc Sam saw me right through it though. Gave me some special medicine, Daisy fed me a real healthy diet and I was just fine in no time.”
Then he shook his head, “So why didn’t ya tell us you were sick. Miss Daisy’s a nurse you know, she’d have made special meals for you.”
“No!” Pete cried loudly and then noting Jess’s bewildered expression said more quietly, “I uh, mean I don’t want any fuss, don’t wanna be a bother you know?”
“Well you won’t be. Good old Daisy will be glad to help.”
“It’s not just that Jess. You see Beth doesn’t know I’m sick and I really don’t want her to either. She gets real panicky if I’m ever ill, thinks she’s going to lose me as well as her Ma.”
Jess tipped his hat back and looked thoughtful, “Well I can understand that. So how will she cope when you ride out on Friday...if yer still going for that job. Are you well enough?”
“Huh... uh yes I’ll be just fine the doc says. As to Beth I reckon she’ll manage OK with young Mike and you riding shotgun on her,” he said with a wide grin. Then more reflectively, “It’ll be good for her Jess. She’s going to have to get used to being without me, in a few short months anyway when she starts the new school.”
So it was that Pete stepped back some from caring for his daughter and encouraged her to spend time helping out Miss Daisy with the domestic chores and spending down time with Mike and Jess. They would head off swimming or fishing and then Pete would cry off at the last moment saying he was kinda tired, or needed to help Slim out with some work.
The day before he was due to ride out to discuss his new job was no exception.
“Aw Pa, you’re no fun anymore,” Beth had signed before giving him a big hug and racing off to the creek to go swimming with Mike.
Jess watched them go and then turned to his old friend, “You OK?” he asked solicitously.
“ I’m fine,” said Pete pinning a grin on his face. “I’m just making sure she spreads her wings some, that’s all. She can’t be daddy’s girl all her life,” he added, still smiling, but his eyes suddenly bleak Jess noticed.
Jess leaned on the gate as the two men watched the children running off across the pasture and then turning to his friend said, “There isn’t anything else that’s worrying you Pete?”
Pete seemed to jump and then regain his composure, “Nope why, should there be?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno. It was just something Sam said to me...about how you could really use a friend right now?”
“Well yeah he’s right. I need you to take care of my precious little girl for me don’t I?” Pete said softly.
Jess grinned at him and said, “Well heck you know that’s not a problem. We’ll all love watching out for her while you’re away, you know that, she’s a great kid.”
When he glanced over at Pete, he was surprised to see tears in his eyes.
“Hey buddy, what is it?”
“Huh...nothing Jess, I just really appreciate all you’re doing for me and Beth, you know that dontcha?”
“Well sure I do,” Jess said punching him lightly on the arm.
“And Jess...”
“Don’t think badly of me will ya?”
“Now why should I do that?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
But before he could reply Daisy marched out carrying a tray of lemonade and the moment was lost.

Chapter 3
The following morning Pete headed off after breakfast.
He held Beth tightly, kissing the top of her head and telling her to be a good girl for Aunt Daisy.
She nodded and made the sign for, ‘I will Pa.’
“And you do whatever Jess tells you honey. He’s well...kinda taking over from me while I’m gone. You heed what he says...huh?”
She nodded again and signed, ‘I will Pa, I promise.’
He smiled down at her, “He’s a decent man hon, will look out for you real good.”
Then he took deep breath. “Love ya Beth gal.”
‘I love you too Pa,’ she signed, before hugging him tightly, and then made the signs for, ‘hurry home.’
He didn’t reply just looked over her head to Jess.
“Thank you Jess...for everything, you’ve been a real good friend,” he said, looking kinda close to tears; Jess thought in surprise. But then he figured it was a real wrench leaving his daughter this way, even if it was only for a few days.
“You’re welcome buddy, good luck and like Beth says, hurry back home huh?”
Pete looked down and then gently pushing Beth towards Jess, he mounted up and took another deep breath.
“Thanks for the loan of the mount Slim,” he said as the lanky rancher joined Jess and Mike on the porch along with Daisy.
Slim reached forwards and patted the buckskins neck, “Old Buck will see you right,” he said grinning. Then noting the rather awkward way he sat the horse, he wondered if he was kind of out of practice, not currently owning a riding horse of his own. “He’s a good old boy,” Slim added.
“Thanks, been a while since I sat a horse, use the wagon mostly.” Then he leaned forwards in the saddle and fondled the horse’s ears, “Knows his way home, does he?”
Jess grinned, “Sure he does, why yer not thinkin’ of getting’ lost are ya Pete?”
The dark-haired man smiled, “Heck no.”
Then he leaned across and offered a hand to Jess.
“Thanks for everything and uh...Jess you take real good care of my little girl for me, she’s kinda precious.”
“You know I will, “Jess said shaking his hand.
“I’m sorry Jess...real sorry,” Pete added softly.
Jess frowned, “For what?”
“Just for all my fussin’ and frettin’ you know,” Pete said vaguely.
Then Daisy came forwards and handed up a gunny sack, “Some food for the journey,” she said kindly, “and no need to fret Pete, Beth is in good hands here I promise you.”
Pete took the sack, and touched his hat, “Thank you Ma’am. I know that, I couldn’t leave her otherwise.”
Then giving Beth a loving smile said, “Be a good girl Beth, make me proud huh,” and with that he rode away.
He turned and reined in just once at the top of the rise and glanced back one last time. The little family were all standing waving. Jess with a protective arm around Beth’s shoulders, her still with a brave smile on her face as she waved vigorously. He took one last look, raised a hand in farewell and kneed Buck off at a brisk trot.
“So, would you like to help me make some chocolate cookies?” Daisy asked turning to the sad faced girl.
After a moment she swallowed hard and nodded and taking Daisy’s offered hand they wandered off back inside the house followed by Mike.
But Jess stayed rooted to the spot watching the small cloud of dust at the top of the rise that was all that remained of his departing friend.
Slim threw him a quizzical glance, “What’s up pard?”
Jess finally tore his gaze away from the rise and muttered, “I dunno Slim I’ve just got a real bad feeling.”
About an hour later Slim could stand it no longer.
“For goodness sake Jess if you’re that worried go and check on him. He said he was going to take it real slow and camp on the way...you’ll find him easily.”
“What about Beth?”
“She’ll be fine. Daisy and Mike are keeping her happy. Just tell her you’re going to town and will be back early tomorrow...she’s used to you doing that.”
“You’re sure you don’t mind?”
Slim shook his head and rolled his eyes. “No, I don’t mind. Heck I’ve had to cope with you and your ‘bad feelings’ way too many times. I’ve found over the years it’s easier to just let you ride off and work everything out in your own way.”
Jess smiled, “Thanks Slim.” Then he sobered, “But I ain’t ever wrong, am I? I reckon Pete’s in trouble and is way sicker than we thought. I figure maybe he needs a friend right now just like Sam said.”
After making sure Beth was happily employed at the stove with Daisy and Mike, he told them he needed to go to town and would be back early the following morning. The children merely grinned at him and went back to their cooking. But Daisy raised an eyebrow and said quietly, “Is everything alright Jess dear?”
He nodded and said, “Yes, I hope so Daisy,” before wandering off to saddle up Traveller.
It was nearly noon when he saw a plume of smoke rising up through the densely forested area in which he was riding. He’d told Pete about the old Indian trail which was a short cut to the Cheyenne Road turn off where he’d find the Cross-Bar Ranch.
Now he reined Traveller in and took his bearings. Yup he figured he’d find Pete camped down in the gully yonder by a stream, the perfect place to stop for a mid-day break he mused. He kneed Traveller on through the forest eager to sample some of Daisy’s offerings that he knew to be in Pete’s gunny sack. Then once they’d relaxed some maybe his old friend would open up and tell him what was really wrong, he mused.
He had nearly reached the camp when a loud shot made him jump and Traveller side step, his eyes rolling and nodding his head vigorously at the sudden blast in the peaceful woodland.
“What the Hell?” Jess muttered and patting his horse reassuringly, moved him on towards where the sound had come.
Just minutes later he entered the camp, where smoke and the smell of cordite still hung in the air.
He dismounted and drawing his gun looked around him cautiously.
The fire was still crackling brightly and old Buck was grazing not far away. He had been stripped of his tack Jess noted and wasn’t hitched, just left to roam free. Wondering why Pete hadn’t ground hitched him he wandered over. Heck he knew better than that. Buck was a reliable animal and wouldn’t stray far...but even so. And where was Pete anyway?
Jess skirted the fire and was just going to rope Buck when something caught his eye near the bushes to his left.
He walked over and then stopped dead in his tracks...his eyes opening wide in horror, before he turned away gagging.
It took him a few minutes to compose himself. Holstering his gun, he took a deep breath and went and knelt beside the body of his old friend...dropping his head in silent prayer...Pete Brown was dead...very dead.
It was some hours later when he rode down Laramie Main Street, leading Buck, bearing his gruesome cargo.
He stopped outside the undertakers and dismounting marched in grim faced.
Charlie Fairfax the local undertaker came quietly from the back room, bearing his usual lugubrious expression, but he brightened some when he saw who it was.
“Well howdy Jess, brought me some business?” he asked cheerfully rubbing his hands together and looking hopeful. A visit from Jess Harper was usually good for trade he mused.
But then he looked up at the rather forbidding countenance of the young cowboy and a shiver ran down his spine. It looked like Jess was not in the best of moods, the legendary temper on a short fuse the elderly man surmised. Looking slightly wary he said more respectfully, “Uh so what may I do for you this afternoon?”
Jess nodded his head towards the door, “Got a body...a friend, needs tendin’ Charlie.”
“Of course, sir,” said Charlie Fairfax now the epitome of professionalism. “I’ll get the boy to assist,” he said referring to his young apprentice and nephew Denny and turned to fetch the lad.
However, Jess reached out a hand to stop him. “No, I’ll help ya with him Charlie... young Denny don’t need to see this.”
Charlie raised an eyebrow, “As you say,” he conceded, not wanting to rile the already somewhat volatile looking Jess.”
Sometime later Charlie regarded the lean, deathly pale figure laid out on the slab and shuddered a little. It was indeed a grim sight.
“A friend, you say?” he said turning back to Jess, “He has family, there will be mourners?”
Jess merely nodded.
Charlie shook his head, “We can’t have a viewing Jess. It will have to be a closed casket you know.”
Jess nodded again and then said, “Don’t do anything yet Charlie, the Doc will have to visit and the Sheriff needs to know too with-it bein’ a suicide and all.”
“Of course, dear boy,” Charlie said. Suddenly feeling sorry for the tough young man, who was so obviously grieving the loss a good friend. “You’ll deal with that?”
“Huh?” Jess asked looking dazed.
“You’ll see the Sheriff and doctor and inform the next of kin?”
Jess took a deep breath and then said, “Sure I’ll do that Charlie and we’ll be in touch about the arrangements for the funeral and all OK?” With one final look at the remains of Pete Brown he left.
He marched purposefully down Main Street, neither looking to right nor left his face a mask of fury. Wary town’s folk stood aside as he passed and glanced at his retreating back every inch of him proclaiming his anger.
When he arrived at the house with the brass plate declaring that it was the residence of Doctor Samuel Baker MD he hammered loudly on the door with his fist.
Carrie the doc’s pretty daughter and good friend of Jess hauled the door open an expression of mild irritation in her eyes which quickly changed to surprise when she saw who it was.
“Why Jess what-ever ’s the matter, is someone hurt?” She asked.
Ignoring her comment Jess merely brushed passed her into the lobby, “Where is he?” he growled, his dark eyes flashing ominously.
Carrie gasped in shock, “Pa’s in his study Jess,” but before she could say more Jess was already charging down the corridor and into his old friend’s room at the end.
The doc was enjoying a post luncheon coffee whilst reading the local paper before afternoon surgery. But he dropped the paper at once and rose from his armchair at Jess’s intrusion.
“My dear fellow, what on earth is the matter?” he asked.
Seeing Jess confronting him that way, fists clenched, breathing heavily and with a look of deep resentment in his dark blue eyes, Sam felt a tremor of anxiety.
“Why didn’t ya tell me he was in such a bad way Sam, why?” He spat furiously.
Sam looked past Jess to where Carrie was standing hesitantly on the threshold, “Pa?”
“It’s alright my dear, Jess and I just need to talk, fetch him some coffee, would you?”
Once she had quickly backed out Jess snarled, “I don’t want coffee I want some answers Sam. Like why you kept me in the dark about what was goin’ on with Pete. Goddamn it I asked ya didn’t I?”
“Sit down Jess,” Sam said firmly.
Jess looked like he might very well throw a punch, but after a moment he sank down onto the fireside chair opposite Sam.
“I imagine this is all to do with your old friend, Pete Brown, he’s worse?”
“He ain’t worse,” Jess spat, “he’s dang well dead!”
Sam looked shaken at that news, “Oh dear...I knew he didn’t have long, but even so that is a shock to me, it really is.”
“You’re shocked?” Jess yelled, “Well how the hell do ya think I felt when I found him with his dang brains blowed out, huh?”
Sam gaped at him for a moment trying to process this latest information.
“You mean he killed himself...committed suicide?”
“That’s exactly what I mean and he wouldn’t have had the chance iffen I’d known he was that upset about stuff...if you’d just levelled with me Sam!”
Sam bowed his head, “I’m really sorry Jess. I told you as much as I could. I tried to tell you he needed a friend, but that’s as far as I could go, you know that. The oath I took about keeping patient’s confidentiality is sacrosanct; I can’t break it, no matter what the circumstances.”
“Well you know what you can do with your goddamn patient’s confidentially,” Jess ranted, “because it’s done cost a good man his life!”
With that he jumped up and exited. Practically sending Carrie flying, as she entered bearing his coffee and he left slamming the door angrily behind him.
He stood outside the doc’s office the blood pounding in his ears and took a deep breath to calm him-self some. What to do? What he really wanted was to go to the saloon and sit quietly working his way down a bottle of red-eye. But he had something he needed to attend to first.
He made his way across the street and burst into the Sheriff’s office, his face still like thunder.
Mort Cory who had been busy writing a report, glanced up and one look at his old friend’s face made him put his pen down at once.
“Jess...what can I do for you?” he asked looking slightly wary.
Jess threw himself down in the seat opposite Mort’s desk and muttered, “Any coffee going?”
Mort frowned slightly, but merely nodded, “Sure, help yourself and top me up, will you?” he added.
Jess did as he was asked banging the pot down and bringing the drinks over. He passed Mort’s across and then slumped back down just staring into the depths of his cup.
After a moment Mort broke the silence, “So who was it you just delivered to old Charlie Fairfax then?”
“You know about that?” Jess asked raising a quirky eyebrow.
“Not much gets passed me, you know that...so who?”
Jess took a sip of his coffee and then said, “It was what was left of my old friend Pete Brown.”
“What, the guy you were in town with the other day with the cute little girl?”
“You got it yeah, the very same.”
“Well what happened?” Mort asked looking concerned.
“He done killed himself this morning.”
“You heard me. He dang well blew his brains out down near the Crooked Pine Valley.”
“What was he doing out there and why?” Mort asked.
“He said he was on his way to see Peters at the Cross-Bar Ranch about a job, but I figure that was a lie.”
“So why did he do it Jess and are you sure it was suicide?”
“I’m sure alright, point blank range through the temple...and still holdin’ the smokin’ gun...no mistake there, Mort. It just needs for you to take a look and verify it, then Charlie can get to work.”
“Sure, I’ll get right over there. But do you have a motive Jess. He seemed such a nice guy and with that little girl to look after and all, it doesn’t make sense?”
Jess shook his head, “He was real sick according to the doc. But he dang well wouldn’t tell me about it, Mort. If he had then maybe I could have talked him out of killin’ himself.”
“The doc’s just doing his job Jess, can’t blame him for that.”
“Well I dang well do!” Jess replied hotly.
Mort grimaced and pulling open a desk drawer withdrew a half bottle of red-eye and splashed a liberal amount into both their cups.
“Now you don’t mean that Jess. The Doc’s a good man but he was shoved up against a rock and a hard place, wasn’t he? Bound the way he is by that oath he took...huh?”
“I suppose so,” Jess said reluctantly, hanging his head, “I reckon I was maybe kinda unreasonable with him.”
“The Doc’s a good man and a good friend to you Jess. I should make your peace before sundown huh?”
“Yeah, I will,” he replied less grudgingly, the strong liquor relaxing him a little.
Mort sipped his drink and eyed Jess over the rim of his cup and then said, “I’m glad you came by I was gonna ride out and see you later.”
“Um...bit of bad news I’m sorry to say Buster Lynch and his brothers are back in town. They were released from the State Pen just two days ago and the word is they are looking for you.”
“Oh great,” said Jess sarcastically and then threw the Sheriff a wicked grin, “Well bring it on, because the way I’m feelin’ right now I could do with slamming my fist into that low life’s smug face.”
“That’s as maybe Jess, but I’d rather you just told me if you have any trouble with them. You know the Lynch brothers they don’t play by the rules. They play dirty…real dirty son and I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“I know it,” Jess said with a tired smile, “I’ll be leaving town at first light...got to break the news to young Beth about her Pa.”
Mort frowned, “Jeez, I really don’t envy you that. What will happen to her?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno if he’s left a Will or anything, but I promised him I’d care for her while he was away and so I guess that still holds true. It looks like I’m the nearest thing she’s got to kin.”
“Well good luck with that one buddy...and I’ll send a message if I hear anything of Buster Lynch...you’ll be staying at the saloon with Miss Millie I take it?”
Jess stood up and nodded, “Yeah...and thanks Mort.”
“What for Jess?”
“For making me realise what a jerk I was bein’, I’ll go apologize to Sam right now. See ya.”

Chapter 4
It was Mrs Braddock, the doc’s housekeeper, who answered the door to Jess’s tentative knock and she stood back weighing him up, a wary look in her kind old eyes.
“Is the doc in?” Jess asked.
“Well that depends young man. I certainly hope you haven’t come to upset him again,” she said firmly, “because he doesn’t deserve it you know.”
Jess hung his head, “I know it Ma’am. I’ve come to apologize.”
“Well, that’s more like it dear,” she said more kindly pulling the door open to allow him in.
It was a well-known fact within the doc’s household that old Ma Braddock had a soft spot for Jess Harper. Now she gave him a sympathetic smile, “I’m sorry for your loss dear. Now you go and find the doctor, he’s in the parlor and I’ll bring you in a nice cup of coffee.”
Jess removed his hat, “Thank you ma’am,” he said quietly as he moved off to find Sam.
The doc stood as soon as Jess entered and came forwards a welcoming smile on his face, “Ah Jess good to see you, come in, come in,” he said offering a fireside seat.
Jess stood there looking awkward and then said, “I’m real sorry Sam. I was out of order, soundin’ off that way.”
“All forgotten my dear chap, here,” he said gesturing to the chair again, “sit...whiskey?”
Jess nodded and took a seat and once they were both furnished with a drink Sam shook his head sadly.
“It was a nasty business, poor man,” the memory of his recent visit to the undertakers making him shudder. Sam was used to gruesome sights dealing with the dead and dying on a daily basis...but even so. He sighed lustily.
“It must have been very harrowing for you finding him that way,” he observed now, “No wonder you were upset.”
Jess suddenly looked desolate, “How the hell do I explain that to a thirteen-year-old kid Sam? Tell her that her Pa shot himself that way?”
Sam looked thoughtful and then said, “Maybe you don’t?”
“Of course you have to break the news of his passing, but maybe you could merely say it was an accident...he fell from his horse maybe?”
“Hell, Sam I can’t lie to her, that ain’t right,” Jess said looking shocked.
“Well what on earth would telling her the truth achieve huh? I know for a fact that he was adamant that nobody knew he was so sick, least of all young Beth. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want her to know he’d passed that way either Jess...sometimes a white lie can save a lot of suffering you know.”
Jess hung his head and then looked across at his friend, “Maybe you’re right. So, what was wrong with him then Sam? You can tell me now he’s gone huh?”
Sam steepled his fingers looking serious, “I suppose it can’t hurt now, it’s all in my report for the records on his death anyway. He had a carcinogenic growth in his stomach Jess.”
“It’s when rogue cells grow out of control you could say,” the doc said trying to present the complex illness in layman’s terms. “The stomach pain and sickness made him lose all that weight. Then the cells had moved around his body by the time I saw him. The disease was in his bones, and we think had also entered his brain. He was beginning to get terrible headaches; the nausea of course and shortly would probably have had fits as well. After that there would have been a quick, but very painful demise, he only had weeks to live Jess.”
Jess looked horrified, “Dear God...that’s terrible. But heck Sam we’d have looked out for him, Daisy could have nursed him.”
Sam shook his head sadly, “I suggested that, but he was adamant Beth shouldn’t know. He was hoping he could hang on until she was at that Art College later in the year. But it wasn’t to be. I offered him a place at a nursing home, down near Denver. I suggested he say he was working away, to spare the child. I really thought he’d do that. I had no idea that he’d decided to end it all you know Jess, no idea at all.”
Then there was a tap on the door and Mrs Braddock came in with a tray laden with coffee and some of her apple pie. She beamed at the men and said, “All put to rights now Doctor?”
Sam smiled and said, “Yes thank you Mrs Braddock,” and she beamed at them both before leaving the men to it.
Once she’d gone the doc went and fetched something from his desk.
“I’m glad you called in Jess, I was going to come and find you. Charlie Fairfax found this letter in Pete Brown’s pocket; it’s addressed to you.”
Jess’s eyebrows arched in surprise, “Really?”
“It may hold some answers,” Sam said passing it across.
Jess tore open the envelope and read the closely written page, twice and then ran a hand across his face, clearly moved, before passing it across for Sam to read.
“Says he’s real sorry for lyin’ to me that way. He’d planned to end it all that day. Uh, I should have seen it coming Sam, I really should. He said he was sorry...you know, just before he rode out. I asked him why, but he just made somethin’ up. But it was this he was apologizing for. I figure he knew it would be me that found him. Dang it, he even asked if old Buck knew his way home. When I found him Buck was loose, he’d have come on home when he was hungry.”
“Hind sight’s a great thing Jess, but you really couldn’t know. With that lovely daughter to care for I imagine it was very hard for him to take that final step. So, what will happen to her?”
Jess shrugged and glanced at the letter now in Sam’s hand, “He’s asked me to care for her. He says there ain’t nobody as knows her like I do, understands her signing an all, asked me to be her guardian.”
“So, will you?” Sam asked.
Jess shrugged, “I reckon so, she’s a great kid. I’ll hafta run it past the others too of course. Be mighty tight havin’ an extra mouth to feed, but we’ll get by.”
“Then she’ll be off to the Art School come fall,” Sam said, “Her Pa said that was all paid for, by a trust fund, so that’ll help some.”
“Sure, sure we’ll manage,” Jess said again. “If she wants to stay with us that is. She does have an aunt someplace, but the family had lost touch...so it’s us or the orphanage.”
“No contest,” Sam said smiling over at his buddy, “She couldn’t wish for a better billet.”
Jess nodded, “I’ve just got to tell her what’s happened to her Pa first and I really ain’t looking forward to that Sam.”
“Will you be a little economical with the truth then?” Sam asked raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Do ya mean will I lie to her...I dunno Sam it don’t sit easy lyin’ to the kid. But maybe you’re right it’s for her own good. I’ll sleep on it,” and he rose to go, thanking Sam for all he’d done.
Just then Carrie burst in, stopping in her tracks when she saw Jess, a guarded look in her eyes.
“It’s OK,” he said at once grinning at her and raising a hand, “I come in peace.”
“Well thank goodness for that,” she said in her forthright manner, finally returning his grin. “You owe me Jess Harper, I got coffee spilt all down my best blouse courtesy of you,” she said, rolling her eyes at him.
“Aw honey, I’m sorry,” he said moving over and giving her a little hug.
She giggled then and pushed him away, before suddenly remembering why she had barged in.
“Oh, Pa Jenny Wright has gone into labor with twins, we’re needed over at the ranch right away Wilber Wright is panicking, says she’s in terrible pain.”
The doc leapt up at once grabbing his black bag and following her out said, “Sorry Jess, we’ll talk more tomorrow maybe?”
Then he called down the corridor, “Don’t wait up Mrs Braddock, we’ll be late back,” and he was gone.
Jess took his leave and wandered down to the saloon, hoping to talk the matter through with Millie.
“What, out? Well where is she Tom?”
The barkeep shrugged, “I can’t recall Jess. It’s her night off. A quilting party someplace I think she said, back about ten. So, you want a drink or what,” he asked somewhat irritably as the bar filled up and he and Lily looked like they were in for a busy evening.
Jess took this on board his heart plummeting, maybe he’d just go back to his original plan and get wrecked, “Give me a bottle Tom,” he said dourly.
The barkeep reached for a bottle of Red eye and then slid a shot glass across.
“I hope we aren’t in for any trouble Jess?” he said warily.
“Not from me,” he said somewhat tetchily, “I’m just lookin’ fer some peace and quiet.”
“You could always wait for Millie in her room,” Tom said hopefully, but Jess had already lurched over to a distant table in a dark corner and was seated looking mean and moody in equal proportion.
“Or not,” Tom, finished casting his old friend a final anxious glance before turning to serve the next customer. Let’s just hope nobody riles him he thought to himself and that Millie arrived home soon. She knew how to deal with Jess when he was like this.
He had sat hunched over his glass for a good couple of hours, the level in the bottle slowly going down as he tried to see how he could best tackle the problem of breaking the terrible news to young Beth. Dang it he thought it would be one hell of a lot easier if the kid could talk to him properly. Then what would the others make of it all? Slim had read him the riot act only yesterday, just because he’d accidentally spilled some feed. “That stuff doesn’t grow on trees you know Jess!” he’d barked angrily.
“Huh, what’s eatin’ you?” Jess had replied.
“Have you seen the end of month business returns?” he’d asked looking pained. “They don’t make for happy reading Jess. We’re all going to have to pull our belts in until we sell that next batch of stock...and that means not wasting expensive supplies.”
Now Jess was going to ask him to take on a young growing girl, who would doubtless eat them out of house and home and would also need kitting out for the smart college she was to attend.
Now he sighed again…Dang it. What to do?
Over at the other side of the saloon a young urchin cautiously pushed the bat-wing doors open and approached the bar.
Tom eyed him irritably before leaning over the bar and saying, “Git out sonny...you shouldn’t be in here.”
“Please sir, I’ve a message from the Sheriff for a Mister Harper?” the youngster said doffing his cap respectfully.
“Well that’s different,” Tom said, “he’s over there in the corner kid. Give him the message and then scoot.”
“Yes sir!” the boy said throwing the barkeep a cheeky grin before hastening over to where Jess was sitting deep in thought.
It was a few seconds before the child got Jess’s full attention, “Huh, what did ya say?” Jess drawled.
“It’s Sheriff Cory sir. He asked if you’d come help him out, right now,” the youngster said all but grabbing hold of Jess to hurry him along.
The urgency of the message finally penetrated and Jess made to stand up, swaying a little, “He’s in trouble is he boy?”
“I reckon so sir, down the side of the saloon, he said you’d help him out?”
“Thanks,” said Jess absently flipping the boy a coin as he pulled his hat down hard and hastened to the door.
Outside the night had turned chilly and damp and with no moon the back alley was pitch black.
Jess stood on the threshold and called out for Mort, and was rewarded by someone calling his name weakly.
Thinking his friend was hurt Jess tore down the dark passageway, only to fall heavily as he tripped over a rope strung across the narrow walkway.
He was completely winded and before he could move someone pounced on him, drawing him up and pinning his arms behind his back whilst another punched him hard in the face and then even harder in the belly.
The sudden onslaught had completely thrown Jess. Now he got his second wind. He was as mad as all get out, his fury fueling his fighting ability. He jabbed an elbow into the man restraining him causing him to double up in pain. Easily freeing himself he sent the other assailant flying with a haymaker to the chin. Then all hell broke out as three other men joined in the altercation.
At one stage Jess had downed four of them. That’s when the fifth pulled a knife, ripping it down Jess’s right arm, making him fall to his knees in agony and rendering the arm momentarily useless. The others, now recovering, pitched in once more.
Sometime later Jess was lying on the ground, the men giving him a final kicking when they heard the sound of heavy footsteps running down the alley towards them and then a shot was fired off. Next thing Mort Cory, Lon his deputy and a couple of towns folk stood there covering Jess’s attackers. Moonlight suddenly breaking through the clouds illuminated all in the alleyway.
Mort advanced telling the men to drop their weapons which they sheepishly did and then the Sheriff turned to the ringleader, Buster Lynch, still looking brazen even though caught red handed.
“The Lynch Gang, now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Mort spat angrily.
Buster, however, looked unrepentant and merely growled, “How in hell did you know Cory?”
“That kid you paid,” Mort said, “he suddenly realized what he’d been sucked into and came and tipped me off. You want to recruit more carefully iffen you want folk to do your dirty work Lynch, not everyone is as corrupt as you and your no-good family.”
Then he turned to where a younger boy was standing shaking in fear, “I reckoned young Horace here is the best of your family and now you’ve dragged him into your evil ways too...getting the kid to act as look out,” and he shook his head sadly.
Then turning to Lon said, “Take them away and lock ‘em up good Lon, they won’t be going anyplace for quite some time, if I’ve got anything to do with it.”
Tom having heard the gun shot now opened the back door cautiously, illuminating Jess in the light flooding out from the saloon kitchen. Then both he and Mort tore across the yard and knelt down beside the wounded man.
He was lying on his side, his knees up trying to protect himself from the vicious kicking he’d received at the hands of the Lynch brothers. His shirt sleeve was soaked with blood from the knife attack and his face was bruised and battered, blood trickling down from a split lip.
“Dammit they worked you over good boy,” Tom muttered softly.
Jess who was semi-conscious suddenly rallied and started fighting off Mort and Tom as they tried to pull him up to a sitting position.
“Hey easy Jess,” Mort said loudly, “it’s me Mort. You’re OK now. Those low life vermin are in my jail and they’ll be there for the foreseeable, don’t you fret about that!”
Then seconds later Millie dashed over, just returned from her night off, and cried out in consternation, “Jess oh my God. Sheriff what happened?”
“It was the Lynch Gang just came over to thank Jess for the part he played in arresting them after that Bank job,” Mort said wryly. “But don’t worry Millie dear they’ll get their just rewards.”
“He needs to see the doc and pronto,” Tom broke in, “the way he’s bleeding.”
“No, can’t,” Jess gasped.
“Please come on honey, you need to see him, that’s a really nasty gash in your arm,” Millie said holding back tears.
“He ain’t there,” Jess panted, “at a confinement, ‘til late he said.”
“Can you bring him up to my room,” Millie said, now firmly taking matters into her own hands, “I’ll clean and bandage the wounds until the doc can attend.”
Tom and Mort managed to get Jess on his feet, but then he suddenly went limp and it was clear he’d passed out. Both men took his weight and half dragged, half carried him up the stairs to Millie’s room. She ran ahead and unlocked the door and the men followed her, depositing Jess on her large comfortable bed. While Millie dashed off for water and clean rags Mort gently removed Jess’s boots and gloves and looked down at his pale countenance. “Jeez, he looks bad,” he muttered.
“Uh, he was tipping the jug some earlier too,” Tom informed him, “I figure he’ll have a sore head come tomorrow.”
Millie came back and carefully unbuttoned and removed his shirt revealing the full extent of his injuries and Mort gave a low whistle. “I reckon a sore head will be the least of his worries.”
Then he looked over to where Millie was looking almost as pale as her patient as she saw the nasty knife wound.
“I’ll go over and check on the doc, see if he’s home yet. If not I’m sure Mrs Braddock can tell me where he is and maybe Carrie will come over if the doc’s too busy. I figure this really needs medical help Millie and as soon as possible,” Mort added before turning and clattering off down the stairs.
Tom and Millie exchanged an anxious glance.
“All we can do is bind it up real good to stop the bleeding,” Tom suggested, “and just hope and pray the Doc gets here before it’s too late.”
It was, in fact, Carrie who arrived sometime later saying her Pa was still with his patient who was having a really bad time during her first confinement.
“We got a message from the Sherriff. Pa will be along as soon as he can,” she assured Millie, “but he suggested I come and take a look.”
Once the young nurse had assessed the situation, she went about the job of cleaning the knife wound thoroughly and re binding it... Jess looking stoic and only cussing softly, under his breath, now and again.
“You did just the right thing,” Carrie assured Millie, “you stopped the bleeding and it shouldn’t need stitches as long as the patient keeps this sling on and behaves himself,” she said giving Jess a mock glare. Then she went on to clean and dress the rest of his many injuries. But when it came to unbuckling his belt to remove his denims and dress the wounds he’d received to his abdomen, he quickly stopped her.
“No,” he said fiercely, “the doc can do the rest later.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Oh really Jess I am a qualified nurse you know! The male form is all just part of the human body, nothing special, you’re being very unreasonable.”
“Yeah, well I’m keepin my ‘parts’ private,” he growled, “unreasonable or not.”
Finally, she was satisfied that he was as comfortable as she could make him right then and left with strict instructions that he was to say abed until the Doc had seen him in the morning.
“Pa will finish tending your injuries tomorrow,” she said, rolling her eyes at Millie, both despairing at her patient’s bashfulness.
It was very late by the time Carrie had finished and once she had left, Millie got ready for bed and slipped in beside Jess.
“How are you feeling now?” she asked solicitously.
“Like every kind of a fool,” he said staring bleakly up to the ceiling. “If I hadn’t been gettin’ stuck into the hard stuff I’d have whipped ‘em good.”
Millie shook her head, “Five to one and they jumped you Jess, had the advantage from the start, it was a miracle you managed as well as you did.”
“Uh, maybe,” he said quietly.
Then Millie lay watching him, leaning up on her elbow, “So why were you hitting the red eye? Tom said you were in a real bad mood.”
Jess finally turned his head to look her in the eye.
“Guilt, for not saving my friend, I reckon.” Then he went on to explain the whole sorry business about Pete’s suicide and the ensuing task of having to break the news to young Beth.
Millie reassured him in her usual common-sense manner and eventually the couple fell asleep in each other’s arms, Jess’s heart a tad lighter.
The following morning, he was awake at first light and slipped quietly out of bed dressing in the semi dark, before Millie finally stirred.
“Jess, where the heck are you going?” she cried angrily. “You heard what Carrie said, you’ll be in real danger of that wound opening up if you’re not careful. And, the doc needs to see you and check you over before you head anywhere.”
“Damn it Millie I’ve gotta go!” he exploded, “I can’t risk that old fool Mose breaking the news about Pete...dontcha see that? I have to explain to Beth myself. That’ll be hard enough. But coming out of the blue from a stranger?”
Millie leapt out of bed and ran to him, holding him close... then looking up into his weary eyes said, “I’ll get dressed and catch Mose before he heads out, tell him to keep quiet and I’ll get the doc to come over too. He can check you out and you can go home later huh honey?”
Jess ran a gentle finger down her cheek and looked deeply into her eyes, “I’m sorry I yelled,” he said softly, “I’m just so dang worried for the kid.”
“I know,” she whispered and then she reached up and kissed him softly on the lips.
They were disturbed from the loving interlude a few minutes later by a rap on the door.
Millie pulled reluctantly away from her lover’s arms and opened the door to reveal the doc standing there looking exhausted.
Millie ushered him in and he threw Jess a quizzical glance, “I knew it, up and dressed at this hour and thinking of riding home too no doubt huh?”
Jess looked kind of sheepish and the doc relented.
“I understand you need to get home Jess. But Carrie said she was unable to complete her examination and you really need to be thoroughly checked over before you think of siting a horse...so back on the bed huh buddy?”
Millie took her cue and saying she would go and catch Mose, she threw a coat on and left the men to it.
Sometime later Sam turned from his patient, “OK you can get dressed again now Jess.”
Then he said quietly, “It’s as I thought, you have severe bruising and some contusions to the lower abdomen and groin area.”
“In English Doc,” Jess said testily.
Sam grinned looking to where Jess was now buckling on his gun belt.
“Let’s just say that the result of that good kicking you received will somewhat inhibit your love life for a week or so and riding a horse will be well...extremely uncomfortable and inadvisable.”
Jess threw him a bewildered look and then said quietly, “What are you sayin’... no romancin’ or ridin’ doc?”
“Exactly,” replied Sam beaming at his friend, “just for a week or two, buddy, it won’t be so bad.”
“Well that’s easy fer you to say,” Jess retaliated, thinking of his lost love life and then of his beloved Traveller waiting for him at the livery.
But Sam was already ahead of him.
“If you go fetch Traveller, we can hitch him behind my buggy and I’ll drive you back to the ranch at once. Would that suit you Jess?”
The cowboy smiled for the first time that day, “That’ll suit me real good...thanks Sam.”

Chapter 5
It was still early when Sam’s small buggy swept into the ranch yard with only Slim up and about to see it.
He marched over from the barn and looked on in surprise as Jess slowly climbed down from the doc’s vehicle.
“Jess, what’s going on?” he asked noting the sling.
Then he turned to Sam and said, “Hey doc, what are you doing over here at this hour, my pard been in trouble again?”
Jess ignored the question and went to unhitch Traveller, whilst Sam tipped his Stetson back and smiled tiredly at his old friend.
“Just delivering your partner,” he said, “and if you’ll excuse me
Slim, I won’t stay. I’ve got a date with some breakfast and then a nice cosy bed for a few hours.”
Then he beckoned for Slim to lean in.
“You’re right he’s been in a spot of trouble Slim, no riding or heavy duties for a week or so OK?” he said softly.
Slim nodded looking puzzled, but before he could ask more Sam made to move off.
Jess raised a hand in farewell and said, “Thanks for everything Doc I appreciate it.”
“Uh, well you just behave huh Jess...do as I’ve told you and that arm will heal just fine,” and with that he shook the reins, waved to Slim and took off up the rise at speed.
Slim wandered over and threw his buddy and inquiring glance.
“What’s going on Jess, what did you do to your arm?” Then as he came closer and saw the battle scars of the previous night clearly visible on Jess’s face, he looked furious.
“Oh no, you’ve been fighting!” Slim said angrily. “What the Hell’s going on Jess huh?”
Jess grabbed hold of Traveller’s bridle and began to slowly walk him over to the barn, “Just leave it will ya Slim?”
“The hell I will,” Slim said heatedly, following him in, “I want to know what you’ve been up to.”
By now Jess had Traveller in his stall and was just about to pull the saddle off when he realized how encumbered he was with the sling. He paused for a moment looking totally defeated and that’s when Slim stepped in.
“Hey buddy, you go sit down, you look awful, I’ll do this,” he said with resignation. His anger abating as quickly as it had flared up.
For once Jess did as he was asked. Heck he was exhausted and his head and arm were aching something fierce and he felt sick and slightly dizzy.
Once he was seated on a straw bale Slim went about tending to Traveller, occasionally sneaking anxious glances at his pard.
Once the chore was completed, he came out closing the stall door behind him and taking another bale, he sat opposite Jess and said, “So you going to tell me, or do I have to guess?”
Jess gave his friend a tired smile, “Well it was this way Hard Rock,” and proceeded to tell all.
He explained all about the attack by the Lynch Gang and their subsequent arrest by Mort. However, it was when he came to explain about finding Pete dead and why, that he almost broke down.
Slim looked completely stunned, “I had no idea he was that sick. None of us did Jess, you mustn’t beat yourself up over that.”
But Jess stubbornly shook his head, “I should have seen it... seen he was upset about somethin’ anyways.”
“But you did buddy,” Slim insisted, “your bad feeling, remember? That why you rode out after him.”
“Uh yeah, except I was too dang late weren’t I!”
Slim looked down sadly, “What are you going to tell her...and when?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno. Sam seems to think I should lie to the kid, tell her old Buck tipped him off or somethin’.”
Slim looked up, “So where is Buck?”
“Um...oh he’s back at the livery. He threw a shoe I left him there seemed easier... I’ll fetch him later in the week.”
“The Hell you will,” Slim said staunchly, “the doc said no riding and he looked like he meant it, you’re taking it real easy until you’re over all this Jess. One death on the ranch is enough for one week. Just listen to advice for once huh?”
“Does that include the advice about lying to Beth about how her Pa died?” Jess asked looking anguished.
Slim thought about that long and hard. Then said, “Well Jess I figure if it was me, I’d rather be shielded from the details. It seems to me the kid has lost her Pa that’s enough for her to deal with...that and an uncertain future.”
Jess’s head shot up about to tell Slim about the letter seeking Jess’s permission to take over as guardian and then thought better of it...maybe that could wait… one thing at a time.
He had taken Beth off to the creek fishing after breakfast and broken the news to her then as best he could. He had a sudden flash of hope that the shock might at least trigger her speech again...but no. She was wild eyed and frantic with grief but remained silent, finally weeping softly in Jess’s warm embrace.
He had already broken the news to Daisy and had asked her in turn to tell Mike whilst he was away with Beth. So, it was a very subdued pair of children who sat red eyed and miserable over the midday meal later. Nobody felt much like eating and eventually Jess took the children over to the Robertson spread, young Ben being a good friend of Mike’s.
“Are they OK?” Slim asked when Jess returned sometime later.
He nodded, “I told the Robertson’s all about Pete passing and Ma Robertson was real understanding, said she’d keep an eye on ‘em. I figure a change of scene will help them both some. They were goin’ fishin’ fer catfish in their pool.”
“So, what’s going to happen to her....in the long run I mean?” Slim asked looking worried, “Does she have any kin at all?”
“Uh yeah, an aunt, but they’ve lost contact according to Pete. We need to talk,” Jess said looking a tad sheepish.
Daisy turned away to get on with some chores, but Jess called her back.
“This concerns you too Daisy.”
It was a good hour later that the idea of Jess becoming Beth’s legal guardian had been discussed long and hard.
Slim finally said, “Well there’s no way around it Jess. We’ll have to tighten our belts some, but yes of course she must have a home here. As long as Daisy’s sure it isn’t too much work?”
“Absolutely not dear, it will be wonderful having her stay with us, the poor little mite.”
Jess sighed with relief. “I’ll do as you suggest Slim, see old man Benson and get him to try and trace that aunt. But if not then I’ll instruct him to draw up all the legal papers for a formal guardianship, and just hope my past don’t cause too many problems.”
Slim grinned at that. “Well look at it this way buddy, we’re in with a head start this time because we’ve already got Daisy on board! What circuit judge is going to argue with her huh?”
“Oh you!” Daisy said slapping him playfully on the arm, but looking quite pleased.
So, the wheels were set in motion for Jess to be Beth’s legal guardian. The long summer days ran one into another with Beth grieving for her Pa terribly at first and then gradually accepting her new life.
She and Mike were inseparable. They spent time swimming, fishing and riding out together and he was proving to be a true friend; learning her signing and sharing secrets and private jokes, the three years in age difference unnoticed between them.
Maybe that’s why he kept the biggest secret Beth had, although he felt kind of bad about keeping the truth from the others at the ranch.
It all came about one gloriously hot summer morning in July.
Daisy had packed them some lunch and they were spending the day down at the creek swimming and fishing.
They had finished their lunch and were stretched out on a large rock overlooking the stream when Beth suddenly saw something out of the corner of her eye, just beyond where Mike was lying down relaxing in the noontide sun.
She suddenly gave a strange croaking cry and then in a hoarse whisper said “Mike look out,” and grabbing his arm pulling him towards her...just as a sleepy rattler slithered onto the rock.
Mike was jerked away from the danger and seconds later the snake slipped off into the undergrowth, alarmed by the sudden strange noise.
Having recovered from the initial shock Mike gazed over at his young companion and said, “Hey Beth, you can speak!”
She blushed a dark red, looking down and whispered, “I know it.”
“You know it?” Mike repeated in astonishment, “You mean you always could and you’ve been lying to me, Jess...heck to yer Pa too? Did he know you could talk?”
She shook her head, the memory of her dear Pa and the way she’d deceived him making her feel desolate.
“I...I didn’t mean to lie that way,”she said in her strange hoarse whisper. “I couldn’t speak at first after Ma was killed I really couldn’t. It was like I’d forgotten how to make the words. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Then one day I tried and tried to talk to my puppy and I could...I was gonna go tell Pa, but then...well I didn’t.”
“But why on earth didn’t you?” Mike asked looking perplexed.
“I heard someone talking to Pa and it was a man from the school board, saying I needed to attend the school, and Pa was explaining how I had been struck dumb after my ma passed and couldn’t talk at all. Well I knew then I had to keep the secret, because I couldn’t go to school.”
“But why not?” Mike persisted. “OK I know somethings are a pain like Math and spellin’. But you have fun too, see all your friends and play at recess...get to do real neat stuff like drawing pictures and singing songs, we have fun!”
“But don’t you see, I was afraid, afraid if I went away to school something terrible would happen to my Pa, he’d die just like my Ma did. I had to be with him to keep him safe.”
That somehow seemed logical to Mike. After all her Pa had died when she hadn’t been there to look out for him. All that was a real strange business he thought. He knew darned well that old Buck wouldn’t have fallen and pitched Beth’s Pa off that way. He was real sure footed. It didn’t make any sense. Then he dragged his mind back to the current issue.
He jumped up and grabbed hold of her hand, “Come on Beth, let’s go home and tell Jess he’ll be so happy,” he said beaming.
However, Beth looked anything but happy.
“No” she said quickly, “he mustn’t know Mike, it’s to be our secret, nobody must know, promise me,” she said, looking all set to cry.
“OK,” Mike said quickly, being of a mind with Jess in his fear of hating to see females cryin’. “OK I won’t say anything, but why?”
She looked down and then up at him, “Because if you do, I’ll be sent away to live with my horrible old aunt and I’d never see you or Jess again. Right now, while the grown -ups all think I can’t talk...well they are real protective of me. But if they find out I’m just a regular kid that can talk fine...well maybe they’ll send me away to that Aunt... I’m pretty sure they could find her if they tried real hard,” she said sadly. “So, you see it has to be our secret Mike, no matter what!”
“Is she really awful, that ol’ aunt,” Mike asked kindly.
Beth looked thoughtful, “I’m not sure. I hardly knew her really...all I remember was that Ma was mad at her for going off with a man and getting married. Ma said he was a real bad lot and her sister would live to regret it...and I guess she did. She wrote not long after saying it was a huge mistake and then we didn’t hear anything else...so I really don’t want to live with her and her bad lot husband!”
“Heck no,” Mike agreed.
Almost from the first moment that she was aware that her her Pa had passed away the relationship between Jess and Beth seemed to change. She had been really upset by the injuries he’d received at the hands of the Lynch Gang and had watched and listened carefully when Daisy chastised Jess for using his arm too soon after the nasty knife wound and attempting to ride long before the doc had suggested he should do so.
Beth was in fact getting more and more clingy as the days went on and could hardly bear to let Jess out of her sight when he eventually rode off with Slim to check the fences. She had been fine to wander off with Mike fishing, safe in the knowledge that Jess was confined to the yard due to his injuries. But now she seemed to be a different child, anxiously checking the rise every five minutes, for a sign of the cowboy’s return.
Once the children were in bed that night Daisy told Jess about the problem.
“Well hang it all Daisy I can’t stay in the yard all the time, she’ll just hafta get used to it,” Jess said feeling tired and irritable after a long hard day in the heat.
“I know dear, but you have to make some allowances for her. Losing her dear Ma that way and now her Pa too, I imagine she feels you are all she has left in the whole world. After all you’ve known her since she was little and she really is comfortable in your company.”
Jess who was leaning against the mantelpiece ran a hand through his unruly hair and then smiled down at Daisy in her fireside chair, “I know it Daisy and I’m real sorry for the kid, but what can I do?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment or two and then glanced over at Slim, engrossed in a book on the other side of the fire, “Um well maybe take her with you?”
At that Slim put his books down and frowned, “Uh I don’t think that would be a good idea Daisy, I mean Mike would want to come too and they’d really slow us down.”
“Would that be such a bad thing dear?” Daisy asked diplomatically, “After all Jess is still supposed to be on light duties and taking things easy.”
Both men shook their heads knowing when they were beaten.
“Alright we’ll take them tomorrow, just so she can see old Hot Shot there is safe and sound out mending fence...but we’re not making a habit of it Daisy,” Slim said firmly.
“No of course not dear,” she said smiling benignly.
Jess shook his head, “That’s all very well, but if she’s as clingy as you say Daisy how on earth are we gonna get her to go off to that smart Art College come fall?”
“Well hopefully by then some of her confidence will have returned,” Daisy said sagely, “but right now she’s relying on you to take her Pa’s place Jess and I think you have to take her needs seriously.

Chapter 6
The next day the four set out early. The men said they would make no special allowances for the youngsters tagging along, when Daisy had suggested taking a picnic and maybe a rug to put down on the ground, should it be a tad damp.
“Look Daisy,” Jess had whispered in the kitchen, “we don’t want them makin’ a habit of it. Once they see how darned well borin’ and uncomfortable ridin’ fence is, they’ll be happy to stay home and play. Nope they’ll have trail food and rough it just like us.”
Daisy shrugged, “Well if you say so dear, but do keep an eye on them won’t you, it could be dangerous out there.”
Then Slim came in and grinned at their housekeeper, “Dangerous, you’re kidding Daisy. Beth is more likely to come to grief playin’ Tarzan swinging on that rope Mike’s set up in the barn than riding along the fence line. You worry too much,” he added leaning over and kissing the top of her head, “heck what could happen?”
Then turning to Jess said, “Come on pard lets hit the saddle huh.”
Jess too gave Daisy a quick peck on the cheek, “Don’t fret Daisy, see you at supper time,” and the couple took their leave.
“I told Daisy,” Jess said as they marched over to the barn, “this ain’t a treat for them, it’s hard work and as soon as they figure that the sooner Beth will be happy stayin’ home.”
“Great,” said Slim sarcastically, “spoken like a true potential guardian.”
“Come on Slim, I’m really fond of the kid you know that, but heck we can’t be babysitting and working too, can we?”
“Uh-huh, plus it sets a precedent too doesn’t it Jess?” Slim said now grinning wolfishly.
“Huh, what are you sayin’?”
“Well it stands to reason doesn’t it, once the pattern is set by allowing her to come to work with you, well the next thing she’ll want to come to town with you Saturday night. Um a threesome on your date with Millie should be real interesting,” he sniggered.
Jess’s face was a study of horror for a moment before he relaxed and chuckled, “Nah, Daisy would never allow it, taking a kid that age to the saloon.”
Slim turned away shaking with laughter, gee his pard was so easy to kid sometimes.
“Anyway,” Jess said morosely, “I can’t go to town yet can I...or go mustanging. Doc Sam said there was no way I could ride that distance yet. Bad enough riding up to the east pasture,” he moaned. Heck what was the use of being out of action in the romancin’ department and yet still be able to ride out to work.
The children were in high spirits racing their ponies and obviously enjoying the new freedom away from the yard and home pasture.
However as soon as they reached the far side of the east meadow Jess showed them what mending fence entailed.
They were set to help with any repairs that needed doing, which meant lots of standing around passing tools and generally having to skivvy for the cowboys by fetching and carrying.
After a few hours it was clear they were tired and bored and Slim relented.
“Hows about you two set up camp, get the coffee and beans on while Jess and I finish off huh?”
Both children looked mighty relieved and hastened to fetch wood for the camp fire.
“We’ll be just over the ridge mending the fence down by the creek,” Jess said, “We’ll be out of sight for a little while, but we’ll hear if you holler,” he added, before spurring Traveller on to catch up with Slim.
His buddy glanced back to where the children were now busily assembling the makings for the fire.
“You think they’ll be OK out here?” Slim asked.
Jess nodded, “Sure Mike’s been cooking on a camp fire for a good while now and its second nature to Beth too. Heck she’s lived on the road for years, camping out everyday, what’s gonna go wrong?”
Slim shrugged and changed the subject.
“So, any word back from Mister Benson yet about tracing any living relatives?”
Jess shook his head. “Last I heard he was chasing up folk from that old address book I found in their wagon. It had the sister in there...the one that eloped. Seems she had been in touch, saying she’d made a big mistake and then nothing. Benson is trying her last known address and if he can find her then I imagine Beth will go live with her. She is her Ma’s sister after all.”
Slim looked thoughtful, “So how would you feel about that?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno. By all accounts she was a worry, according to Pete anyway. Always falling for the wrong kinda guy...and then upped and eloped. Seems she was something of a romantic fool according to Pete, but I guess she’s payin’ the price...married a real bad -un by all accounts. But there again she is kin and I figure a young girl, growing up, needs a mother figure to well...fill her in on all the stuff young girls need to know,” he said vaguely.
Slim nodded, “That would be down to Daisy, if we did keep her and that’s a big ask Jess. Girls growing up can be...well a real handful you know?”
Jess nodded knowledgeably remembering back to his sister Francie’ s turbulent teen years and he shook his head wryly. “We’ll just hafta see what Benson comes up with. To be honest though Slim if this husband is as bad as Pete suggested I figure she’d be safer with us anyways.”
Meanwhile back at the camp the youngsters had the fire crackling merrily away and the coffee pot in place when they saw a stranger riding in.
Mike’s first instinct was to yell for Jess and Slim as he knew he wasn’t supposed to engage with strangers off the ranch, particularly if he was alone.
He stood up from the fire and narrowed his eyes focusing on the big Pinto loping towards him and then gave a little sigh of relief. “It’s OK Beth, I know him,” he said.
“Who is it?” Beth whispered in a voice still croaky from little use.
“It’s only Crazy Horse,” said Mike grinning.
“Well that’s what we kids’ call him, because he’s kinda simple...Crazy see?”
“And Horse...he doesn’t look anything like a horse,” she said gazing off to the distance where a lanky youth was now riding over.
“Nah,” said Mike softly, “Horace is his name. Horace... like Horse see? Like I say we call him Crazy Horse, because he’s kinda slow, but his given name is Horace Lynch.” Then he turned to Beth as the boy rode in and whispered, “You’d better hush up Beth iffen you don’t want him to know you can speak.”
Horace Lynch reined in his mount and looked down uncertainly to where Mike and Beth peered up at him. Then seeming to collect his wits he said, “Howdy Mike, is Mr Jess around?”
“Sure, just over the ridge, he’ll be back for coffee in a minute,” Mike supplied. “You want one?” he asked remembering the good manners Daisy had been trying to instil into him.
Horace slid down from the saddle and then looked over to Beth, “Who are you?” he asked, staring at her with his rather dazed expression.
But before she could say anything Mike jumped in, “That’s Beth a friend of ours, but she don’t speak.”
Horace seemed to take that news in his stride. He rarely judged others as he had been judged himself far too often in his young life. So, he tended to just accept folk at face value.
“OK, howdy Beth” he said nodding before he squatted down by the fire and accepted a coffee from Mike.
It was sometime later that Jess and Slim crested the hill and seeing they had company spurred on their mounts down into the camp at speed.
Jess was the first to arrive and flinging himself from the saddle yelled angrily, “What the heck’s he doin’ here?”
Horace had jumped up at the cowboy’s arrival, spilling his coffee and now stood shaking and staring at Jess as though rooted to the spot.
Mike looked at Jess in shocked surprise at his hero’s sudden anger.
“He just came by to see you Jess. I was bein’ polite offering him coffee...did I do wrong?” he asked looking anxious.
By this time Slim had swung down from the saddle and quickly marched across to Mike and threw an arm around the child’s shoulders, “No Mike you were just doing what you thought was right. But you really should have called for us first, huh?”
“Never mind about that,” Jess yelled angrily, “do you know who this is Mike?”
Mike looked wary and said softly, “Sure he’s Crazy...uh I mean he’s Horace Lynch.”
“Yup and one of the no-good Lynch scums that helped beat me up,” Jess hollered. “It were the Lynch Gang that attacked me, remember Mike?”
Mike hung his head and whispered, “Sorry Jess I didn’t think...I mean...”
But then Horace suddenly seemed to find his voice.
“I rode over to see you Mister Jess...to say I’m real sorry for what happened.”
“Sure you are, real sorry you were caught anyway,” Jess spat. “And so why ain’t you banged up in Mort’s jail with the rest of your lot?”
“I saw Mort when I went to town the other day. He let him go after a stiff talking to,” Slim replied. “He said he was real upset about it all and Mort figured he’d learnt his lesson. That he was really sorry and wouldn’t be doing the like again.”
“I’ll bet he was,” Jess countered angrily.
“I didn’t wanna go Mister Jess, really I didn’t,” the youngster said plaintively. “It was my big brother Buster. He said if I wouldn’t be lookout then I’d get the same as what he was gonna give you...and Buster don’t josh about that kinda thing,” he finished woefully, looking close to tears.
Jess just sighed in exasperation and looked down.
“Come on Jess he’s just a kid,” Slim said.
Then turning to Horace, said, “How old are you anyway fourteen, fifteen?”
“Just turned sixteen Mister Slim, sir,” the boy said politely.
Slim shook his head sadly, “It wasn’t your fault your brothers all turned wild after your Ma and Pa died so tragically. You were just a young kid, weren’t you?”
Horace looked down and sighed deeply, “Yes I was sir.”
Jess could stand it no longer. He was now beginning to feel kinda guilty for being so mad at the youngster, when Beth nudged him.
Jess looked down and saw she’d scrawled something on her drawing pad, which was never far from her side.
He took it from her and read the childish scrawl, ‘Be Kind’.
He looked into her wide earnest eyes beseeching him to do the right thing.
Then he took a deep breath and looked off to the horizon for a good minute before turning back to the boy.
“OK I accept yer apology, Horace, I believe it weren’t all your fault. You stay an’ have some coffee and beans with us huh?”
Everyone visibly relaxed and there was a clamor to get the meal going, with much laughter and banter.
Later on, Jess said, “So what are you gonna do with your life then Horace. It’s looking pretty much like your brothers are goin’ to be doin’ a long stretch, so you’re on your own now huh?”
“Yes, sir Mister Jess, the Sheriff said he’d dang well throw away the key iffen he could,” the youngster said, with no apparent animosity.
Slim wondered if his older brothers being incarcerated was, maybe something of a relief to the boy.
“You’ll not miss them then?” he asked tentatively.
“No sir,” the boy said his head shooting up and a look of anger flashing briefly across his face. “They bully me something’ fierce. I was kinda hoping to find someplace I could lie low, get me some kind of work. I ain’t afraid of hard work you know,” he said sincerely. “I just wanna be left alone, that’s all. I know folk laugh at me,” he added with perception, “‘cos I’m kinda slow...But I’m just the way the good Lord made me and I can’t help that.”
“I reckon he made a pretty good job of you boy and it seems to me you could really make something of yourself, given half a chance,” Slim said kindly.
Jess had been very quiet and thoughtful during this exchange but now he looked at Horace and said, “So you really mean it, you’re looking for work, a place to stay?”
Horace nodded, “Sure am Mister Jess...I kin turn my hand to most things practical, all sorts of ranch work...carin’ for critters of every sort...I like to work...when I can,” he added sadly.
“Well how’s about you ride over to the Morton spread, I know Seth Morton is hiring on right now and he’s a good man who will look out fer you. As long as you behave and do a fair day’s work,” Jess added frowning slightly.
“ I would sir, surely I would,” Horace said jumping up and looking truly animated for the first time that day.
Jess glanced over at Slim, “What do ya think?”
The blond rancher nodded, “I think it’s swell idea...and I know Seth is desperate for help.”
“Um,” said Jess morosely, “and the sooner the better...he needs to mend those dang fences of his and stop his stock straying onto our land.”
“So, you know the Morton place then?” he asked turning to Horace.
When the youngster shook his head, Jess gave him directions... “So, the turn off is just past our lake,” he concluded, gate by a huge cotton wood you can’t miss it.”
Slim looked thoughtful and then said, “Old man Morton is something of a recluse, doesn’t take kindly to folk wandering across his land, we’d better give you a note of introduction.”
Then calling to borrow some paper and pencil from Beth, he wrote a brief note of introduction and endorsement and passed it over for Jess to sign too.
Jess read it and frowning over to Horace said, “You won’t let us down now will ya boy?”
“Oh no I promise Mister Jess,” he said crossing his heart, “on my old Ma’s grave...I’ll make ya real proud I promise ya.”
“Good enough,” Jess said grinning at him. “One good thing anyways, you’ll be safe enough there from those no-good brothers of yours, they trespass they’ll get both barrels from old Seth, that I can promise you!”
The boy grinned from ear to ear now and shook Jess and Slim’ s hands looking as happy as a pig in muck so Jess declared as the youngster rode off a song in his heart.
It was later when they were settling down for the night in their room that Slim brought the matter of their visitor up again.
“It was real nice of you to be so understanding earlier,” he said casually.
Jess just shrugged throwing down the damp towel he’d been using and heading for his bed, “Seemed the right thing to do at the time.”
“Uh, so wouldn’t have anything to do with Beth then?” Slim asked hiding a smile.
Jess who was now lying on his back, sat up quickly and frowned at his friend, “Huh?”
“Come on Jess I saw what she wrote, I do believe she’s found a way into that granite old heart of yours. Gee, you’ll be getting a reputation as a soft touch if you’re not careful,” he said, a grin now spreading across his face.
“Aw you,” Jess said flapping a hand at him, “I’d have gotten around to forgiving’ him eventually you know that.”
“Sure, you would,” Slim drawled, climbing into his own bed, a look of innocence in his eyes...but barely suppressing his mirth.
“She’s a good kid, always sees the best in folk, nuthin’ wrong in that,” Jess said staunchly before turning over and falling into an instant sleep.
Slim glanced over and wondered for the umpteenth time how his pard could drop off practically in mid-sentence. Then he smiled into the darkness. Yes, he was right that Beth sure was a lovely natured kid...
But he sure hoped that young Horace would repay their trust and not let them down. Then he too fell into a deep slumber.

Chapter 7
The lazy summer days of the long school holidays went on with Mike and Beth enjoying each other’s company immensely. The secret of Beth’s returned speech being a special bond between the two.
At first Mike had felt rather uncomfortable keeping the huge secret from the others. However once Beth had impressed upon him the importance of the cloak and dagger behaviour he had understood. Indeed, almost felt it his duty to support her.
“You see it’s this way Mike, there’s another thing” she had said earnestly, “I’m really worried that Mister Howe won’t take me in and help me at the Art College like he promised if he knows I can speak,” she said.
“Huh, well why not? He said he would, didn’t he? I heard Slim say it was all arranged.”
“Yes, but that was before. You see my friend Joanie, their daughter, is a deaf mute. We get on really well with signing, but maybe she won’t want to be friends anymore once she knows I can speak just like regular folk.”
Mike looked thoughtful, “Nah, I don’t believe that,” he said. “She’d just be glad for you if she’s a real friend.”
“She is,” Beth said quickly. “But what of her Ma and Pa, they’ll think I deceived them to get a place at the college. Heck I might not even be allowed to attend!”
“Sure you will,” Mike said remembering the look of wonder in Slim’ s eyes when he had first seen Beth’s art work. He’d called Jess over and the two men had pored over the beautiful drawings and paintings in awe.
“But you’re real good,” he said now, “of course you’ll be allowed in.”
“Um, but let’s just keep it all secret for now huh Mike?”
“OK, I reckon it ain’t really a lie, it’s not like they’ve asked me if you can speak and I said no,” he said thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” Beth said grinning at him, “and anyway it’s kind of neat having a secret from the grown-ups isn’t it?”
Today the youngsters were sitting on the corral fence, Mike and Slim cheering Jess on lustily as he attempted to tame a lively mustang, Beth looking on with shining eyes and clapping in delight.
After an hour or so the lively critter’s ducks and dives became less frequent and finally, she was walking obediently around the corral obeying Jess’s every instruction. He finally rode her over to where Slim and the children sat and patted the horse’s neck affectingly.
“There ya go Slim she’s as sweet as a nut. She just needs schooling on. I reckon she’s a tad skittish, kinda scared of her own shadow still, but we should manage to work that out of her in time.”
“Well done,” said Slim jumping down from the fence, “I’m just going to fetch the relay teams from the home pasture, Mose will be here on the noon stage soon, so are you all finished for this morning?”
Jess nodded, both men following the rule that back-up must always be on hand when bronc busting.
“Sure, I’m just gonna walk her round to cool off, you get going Slim.”
The children watched as the smart young horse walked elegantly around the arena.
Then suddenly a gust of wind got up from nowhere, tearing at the rose bushes around the side of the ranch and blowing tumble weeds hither and thither...
Jess didn’t have any warning.
One minute his mount, Lucky, as Mike had christened her, was stepping quietly around the ring. Then the next a tumbleweed blew across her path and she leapt and bucked like a critter possessed; throwing Jess off and then galloping off at speed, eyes wild, tail streaming behind her in the wind.
Jess landed badly. He had slammed into the corner fence post and then ricocheted off it to land on his back in the dirt, hitting his head as he fell. He lay there motionless as a now completely out of control Lucky came thundering back towards him.
The children, who had been sitting there in total shock, were suddenly galvanized into action. Mike cried for Beth to fetch Slim, before launching himself off the fence and making for Jess, all the time yelling and waving his arms to ward of the advancing mustang.
Beth opened her eyes wide in horror before emitting an ear-splitting scream yelling for Slim. Then she too hurled herself from the fence and ran towards the home pasture all the time crying out loudly for Slim to come quick!
Slim charged over just in time to see Mike desperately trying to drag Jess’s lifeless body under the fence, Lucky now beside herself with fear and rage rearing up over them, her killer hooves missing them by inches. Then she hit home one hoof crashing down on Jess’s thigh...
Slim immediately drew his gun and fired a volley of shots in the air that had the desired effect of sending Lucky tearing away across the corral in panic. He was then able to sprint over to Mike’s assistance quickly pulling his buddy to safety.
Jess lay on the couch in the parlor a blanket covering him and a cool cloth laid across his forehead.
He cautiously opened his eyes and glanced around him to find four pairs of concerned eyes peering back.
Daisy was the first to react and she sat down on the edge of the couch taking his hand, “Oh Jess dear you gave us such a shock, how are you feeling?”
Jess squeezed her hand and said, “OK,” then he tried to sit up but gave a yelp of pain and fell back again, cussing softly under his breath.
“Take it easy pard that bronc stomped on you some, the doc is on his way but you keep real still huh. Daisy’s only just got the bleeding under control.”
Jess gingerly lifted the edge of the blanket to reveal he was in his undershorts and his thigh was tightly bandaged.
He threw Daisy a slightly embarrassed glance, “You did this?”
“I had to dear. We couldn’t wait for Doc Sam; the wound was bleeding terribly...you must keep very still lest it opens up again.”
He nodded and replaced the blanket before turning his attention to Mike and Beth and forcing a smile said, “Hey you two, don’t look so worried, I’ll be just fine, had worse than this ain’t I Mike?” he said throwing a gentle punch at the youngster’s arm.
Then he glanced at where Beth was standing back a little looking pale and drawn.
“Come here sweetheart,” he said reaching out a hand to her.
She came forwards and took his hand giving him a shy smile.
Then he winked at her, “You know I could have sworn I heard you hollerin’ for Slim before I passed out, must have been dreaming huh?”
Slim threw Mike and Beth a slightly quizzical glance before turning back to his partner.
“Oh no you weren’t dreaming Jess that was Beth hollering like a good ’un...turns out she’s been able to talk for a while.”
Then raising an eyebrow at the youngster said kindly, “I think we need a little chat huh?”
“To darned right we do,” Jess said looking astonished.
But before further investigations could be made, they heard the sound of Doc Sam’s light rig entering the yard and the matter was forgotten, for the moment anyway.
It wasn’t until the following afternoon that Jess was well enough to talk with Beth.
The doc had said that the deep wound needed cauterizing and stitching to prevent further bleeding and infection.
“Aw Sam not that dang chloroform, what’s wrong with a bottle of Red-eye huh?” he said pleadingly.
“What, you want a bottle of Red Eye?” the doc said smiling benignly down at his old friend, “We’ve got to sedate you to fix up this leg Jess and you’re really lucky it didn’t break, so count your blessings.”
Then turning to Daisy, he rolled his eyes, “Red-eye for an aesthetic Daisy, whatever next...”
“Well Doc Johnson swore by it,” Jess said belligerently.
“Um, well luckily for you we live in a more enlightened age now,” said Sam smiling at his old friend.
“Don’t see as it makes any difference,” Jess said morosely, “I’ll just chuck up my guts after you’ve finished anyway, whiskey, chloroform it don’t make no difference.”
But by then Sam was already instructing Daisy to administer the anesthetic and finally peace reined as Sam started patching up his patient.
So, it was the afternoon of the following day when a rather chastened looking Beth entered his bedroom.
“Aunt Daisy said you wanted to see me,” she whispered in her still rather raspy voice.
He nodded and tipped his head towards the bedside chair, “Come and tell me all about it sweetheart, I ain’t mad, just kinda puzzled.”
A good hour later he was holding her hand and begging her not to cry.
“Sure, I can understand how you were thinkin’...that iffen your Pa knew you could speak then you’d go off to school and you were real worried that he’d somehow be lost to you, the way your Ma was. That makes sense. Just dunno how you kept it up so dang long though.”
She just sniffed and shrugged, “It just got to be a habit and after a while I forgot I’d ever been able to talk...and then...”
“And then...go on.”
She told him about the rattler on the banks of the creek and how she’d yelled to warn Mike.
Jess sat up and looked even more surprised, “So Mike knew all along?”
“Yes, well only these last couple of weeks, but it was my fault Jess, I told him to keep it a secret, please don’t be mad at him.”
“Heck I ain’t mad, just surprised the kid managed to keep it secret,” he said now grinning at her. But there again I figure he owes you big time. You saved his life Beth...thank you,” he whispered squeezing her hand.
She just looked down and sniffed again.
“Hey why so sad, this is something to be celebrated ain’t it?”
She nodded, “Except...”
“Well they might not take me at the college in the fall if they find out I can actually speak.”
Jess shook his head and chuckled, “Heck with the incredible paintin’ you do, they’d be plum crazy not to. Nope forget that Beth, yer destined to do real well there and really make a good life fer yerself.”
“You think so?”
“Heck I know so honey.”
When she still looked unsure, he told her to go fetch her drawing book.
Five minutes later he turned over page after page of amazing drawings.
She had caught Daisy beating the rugs on the line, dust flying everywhere and a determined look in her eyes.
She’d captured the look of love in young Mike’s eyes as he groomed his pony Sunny and Slim ’s strong muscles rippling as he attacked the wood pile.
Then there were many others, Jess tending a pulled muscle on Traveller, his very demeanor depicting his worry and fears for his beloved mount. His head bowed as he gently rubbed in the liniment. Then another of him with his head thrown back laughing riotously at something Slim had said...and another of him just sitting back in his rocker, eyes closed after a hard day.
“See,” he said tapping the page, “every one you’ve painted is a picture that tells a story...you ain’t just a painter Beth. You’re a story teller and a dang good one. I’m tellin’ ya sweetheart you’re destined to be up there with the best...talkin’ or not, don’t make no difference...you’ll see.”
It was one day, sometime later, that Beth was to really understand what he meant about her creating stories... Well maybe not completely at the time. But later when she was more mature, she would truly understand. She would gaze at the finished painting that she had made from that rough sketch so long ago and could conjure up a different time, that of a young girl growing up.
Jess had been confined to the ranch and yard for what seemed like a lifetime to him. Hell, he was missing his girl something fierce...it seemed so long since he had held her...made sweet love.
It was early evening, the chores done and Jess had wandered over to the big corral fence and was looking over to the Snowys dreaming of freedom, of hunting and fishing...and maybe another mustanging trip. Then sighing thought once more of his girl.
So absorbed was he in his own thoughts and longings that he never noticed the little girl crouched in the shadows working quickly and neatly, head bowed over her drawing book.
She captured perfectly the look in those deep blue eyes...the need for something she could not then fully comprehend...
The odd overheard remark, “Hell, Slim I’m missin’ my Millie somethin’ fierce.” Then another time, “How dang long am I gonna be cooped up here I hafta go check out those Mustangs Mose saw up by Dead Man’s ridge...come on Slim, my leg’s just fine.”
And Slim ’s answer, “Not yet Jess you have to be patient huh,” which was followed by Jess’s muffled oath.
Some years later when she finally finished the painting, she understood his angst...his longing. Then she added two little figures on the porch. Herself and Mike playing checkers with all the innocence of childhood...neither of them, then, really aware of Jess’s needs and wants.
But as she grew up, she understood that longing all too well and the picture represented her transition from child to adult. The child was still playing checkers on the porch...But the eye of the adult was seeing the young cowboy’s need... and longing for something she didn’t yet fully comprehend...but knew it was what made Jess...well, Jess; and why she loved him so much.
Since she had started speaking again it was as though the flood gates had opened and she was able to question and listen to the many answers with increasing fervor. Whereas once her communication had been relatively basic, now she was able to begin to really examine every aspect of her life. She was able to talk about feelings and plans in greater depth than ever before. And as her vocabulary and understanding matured so did her innermost thoughts and feelings as she gradually started the transition from child to young woman.
She had always been a bit of a tom-boy, probably due to her having been brought up in a solely male environment and she had been happy to ride, fish and generally roughhouse with Mike. But gradually she began to act with a little more decorum, to be aware of her looks and dress. She spent ages braiding her hair and enhancing its glossy beauty with colourful ribbons provided by Daisy.
Then she started to spend more time with Jess, often to be found in earnest conversation with him, or merely watching him work, a pencil and drawing pad in her lap.
It was Daisy who first noticed that the youngster was starting to bloom, her figure gradually filling out and her demeanor becoming more ladylike and thoughtful.
One day Daisy caught her sitting on the porch daydreaming and she went and sat down beside her bringing a bowl of peas to pod.
“I’ll help,” the child said easily as Daisy began the chore.
Then Beth looked over to where Jess, was grooming the relay horses by the corral and said softly, “He’s very handsome isn’t he...Jess?”
Daisy followed her gaze, “Yes he is dear, very, as are all my boys,” she added smiling across at her.
Beth ignored that and said, “And he’s thoughtful too, I like that in a man don’t you Aunt Daisy?”
Daisy hid a smile and agreed that yes, she did.
“Knowledgeable as well,” she continued, her gaze never leaving Jess’s lithe body as he completed the job and patted the nearest horse on the rump. “And kind to animals,” Beth finished throwing Daisy a winsome smile.
“Pretty perfect all round,” Daisy said, this time a little smile playing on her lips, but her comment went unheeded as Jess strode over to them.
“Well how are my best girls?” he asked playfully as he leaned across Beth and helped himself to a freshly podded pea or two.
Daisy slapped his hand good naturedly, “Stop it Jess, there will be none left for supper at this rate,” she admonished.
Then Jess turned to Beth, “Hey you comin’ down to the creek with me and Mike, fish are bitin’ and we’ve time before supper.”
Then he turned to Daisy, “If you can spare her,” he added with a wink.
But Beth was already passing the bowl back to Daisy and she leapt up grinning at Jess, “Sure thing, I’ll go get our lines,” she said before running off. Then she stopped in her tracks, “Is that OK Aunt Daisy, can you manage?”
Daisy smiled back at her, “Yes of course dear, you go and have fun.”
The youngster ran indoors to fetch the fishing tackle and returned seconds later and Jess went to meet her...
“Jess dear...” Daisy called after him.
“Yeah, what is it Daisy?” he asked half turning.
“Uh...just take care of them,” she said as Mike ran up.
Jess threw her a slightly puzzled look and then nodded, “Of course, see ya later.”
With that he wandered off Mike jumping around him like a playful puppy and Beth walking sedately beside him, his arm slung around her shoulders as he walked along deep in conversation.
Slim watched them go and then came over and took the seat so recently vacated by Beth and picking up the bowl of peas carried on the task where she had broken off.
After a minute he glanced over to where Daisy was still watching the trio making their way across the home pasture.
“Is everything alright Daisy?” he asked with perception.
“Uh, yes I think so dear.”
“Come on Daisy, what’s up?” he asked giving her his warm smile.
“It’s Beth,” she said quietly, “she’s growing up fast. I think I should take her to town soon, get her kitted out in some more appropriate clothes befitting a young woman.”
“She looks fine to me,” Slim said as he watched the distant figure now chasing after Mike and dressed in her usual checked shirt and denims.
“Yes dear, but she’ll be off to college in the fall and she will need er, more suitable attire for that. Anyway, she is in need of some more suitable undergarments too,” she said hesitantly.
Slim raised an eyebrow, “Uh yeah?” Then he suddenly comprehended and colored a little, “Um yeah, well I’m sure you can deal with um...all that kinda thing Daisy,” he said quickly.
She hid a smile and said, “Yes thank you dear, it shouldn’t be too expensive. Plus, Beth has quite a substantial inheritance according to Mr Benson don’t forget. Her ma was very well off in her own right and she has inherited all that money. She also has her Pa’s savings, left in his Will, should keep her very comfortably until she can earn an income, or marry maybe.”
“Heck Daisy don’t start marrying her off yet,” Slim laughed, “she’s just a little girl.”
“Yes, well that’s where you’re wrong Sim, she’s growing up quickly, really quickly and I think we should all acknowledge that fact,” she added briskly.
Slim turned and really looked at her then, “What do you mean Daisy?”
“Just what I say dear, she is growing up. Beginning to get all the physical and well...emotional feelings of an adult...but without the maturity to really understand what is happening to her. I just feel we should take care around her and be sensitive to her feelings.”
Slim just stared at her, an eyebrow raised waiting for her to continue.
“Well the truth of the matter is she has a childish crush on Jess. She seems to think he is perfection on two legs,” she said looking somewhat bemused.
Slim gave a bark of laughter, “She does?”
“Now Slim, don’t be unkind. It is all very innocent on her behalf. I don’t think she really understands about adult love yet...But she idolizes him and that is the way that young girls learn about love, a sort of trial run if you like. They adore an older male figure...but in a very innocent manner.”
Slim shook his head still chuckling to himself.
“And does old Hot-shot know about this?”
Daisy shrugged, “I very much doubt it, I know how completely unobservant you boys are. Maybe you could say something...just so he’s aware of the situation and doesn’t inadvertently hurt her feelings in anyway?”
“What? You gotta be kiddin’ me...little Beth, but Hell Slim she’s just a little girl,” Jess protested.
“Well that’s what I said, but Daisy seems to think different, says she’s growing up real fast and you’re to be careful of her feelings that’s all. You know, don’t tease her about puppy fat, that kind of thing.”
“She ain’t fat, she’s a skinny little thing,” Jess replied, still looking somewhat dazed.
“I said that sort of thing, you know what I mean Jess just be kind to her.”
Jess suddenly cast his mind back to that time long ago when young Carrie had had a crush on him and grimaced. See # 3 ‘The Doctor’s Daughter.’
“Jeez, this ain’t gonna be like Carrie all over again is it?” he asked looking aghast.
“Nah, I shouldn’t think so, she’s still really young Jess and innocent. Daisy reckons she doesn’t know all that stuff about adult love...she just looks up to you...sort of idolises you, you know?”
Jess gave a sigh of relief, “Well that’s alright then, I can cope with that.”
The two men were chatting in their room as they prepared for bed and now Jess suddenly stopped unbuttoning his shirt a look of horror in his deep blue eyes.
“Hell, Slim I won’t be expected to fill her in on all that, you know the birds and the bees?”
“Well sure you will Jess after all you are going to be her legal guardian; goes with the territory I guess.”
Jess just stared at him in dismay until he saw his buddy’s lips twitch as he tried to control his mirth.
Jess finished unbuttoning his dirty work shirt and threw it in Slim s face, “Aw you!” he yelled looking exasperated.
“It doesn’t look like Mr Benson has had any luck locating Beth’s aunt, so I guess you’ll just have to bite the bullet and do your guardian’s duty Jess,” Slim said smirking.
Jess just stood there glaring at him, before his buddy finally relented.
Slim gave a good belly laugh then, “Your face Jess...and don’t worry I figure Miss Daisy has all that side of things in hand.”
However, it soon it looked like neither Jess nor Daisy would be responsible for educating Beth in the birds and the bees as Jess referred to the facts of life...because shortly everything was to change.

Chapter 8
It was just a few days later when Mose drove the noon stage very sedately down the rise and into the yard.
Jess nudged Slim and winked at him, “It looks like Mose is on his best behavior, must be a female on board.”
Then he jostled Slim out of the way to be the first to welcome the occupant and help her down from the coach.
Jess’s hunch was correct and he held a hand up to help the sole passenger down.
She inclined her head graciously to him and stepped down looking inquiringly around the yard, before turning back to the two men, now openly staring at her.
“This is the man you’re lookin’ for Ma’am,” Mose said helpfully tipping his hat towards Jess.
The woman was of medium height, slender and dressed in a green costume with matching hat perched on top of auburn hair sprinkled with grey. She was plain rather than pretty and could be any age from late thirties to over forty Jess surmised, her expression was somewhat marred by frown lines. Now she turned steely grey eyes on Jess and said, “Mr Harper, I take it. I believe you are detaining my niece here, Elizabeth Brown?”
Jess just stared at her dumbfounded. This must be the errant aunt and now she was...what accusing him of holding Beth by some kind of force?
However, before he could speak Slim came forward looking pretty annoyed, “I hardly think detained is the right word Ma’am. My partner here has been kind enough to offer young Beth a home here yes...in the absence of any kin.”
She turned hard eyes on him, “And you are?”
“Sherman Ma’am Slim Sherman...and you are Beth’s aunt you say?”
“I don’t just say young man I am, and I demand to see her at once.”
Jess had got his second wind and was just about to acquaint the woman with the full force of the Harper temper. But luckily Daisy, who had come out to defuse the situation, came forwards.
“Good afternoon my dear, I am Mrs Cooper the ranch housekeeper and you are dear Beth’s aunt?” she asked with an inquiring smile.
The woman swept passed Jess and confronted Daisy. “Yes, my name is Martha Hudson, uh Widow Hudson,” she said loudly casting a baleful glance in Jess and Slim’s direction.
“Well that’s somethin’,” Jess whispered in an aside to Slim, “at least that no good husband is out of the picture.”
Slim nodded, “But really...she’s hardly a fairy-tale kindly aunt is she Jess...what ’ll Beth make of her?”
Martha Hudson turned her back on the men ignoring their rude whispers and turned back to Daisy, “Well where is she then? The Stage won’t wait forever my good woman.”
Daisy was still blanching from the ‘my good woman’, when Jess strode over.
“Look Ma’am I don’t know who you are...you may be Beth’s aunt, maybe not. But I’m sure not gonna let her go just on your say so...We’ll talk with our Solicitor and be in touch,” he said offering his arm to escort her back to the coach.
“Not so fast young man, I’m not leaving until I’ve seen my niece...I’ve traveled a considerably long way, so just go and fetch her there’s a good chap.”
Jess took that on the chin and merely growled, “She ain’t here right now.”
“Well pray, where is she?” the woman asked turning to Slim as being the lesser threatening of the two men, a look of mounting anxiety on her homely face.
“She’s down at the creek with young Mike, our ward. She’s quite safe ma’am, just gone fishing,” Slim said pleasantly.
“Fishing? Fishing! Are you mad sir? What is a vulnerable young child doing going fishing with your ragamuffin boy?”
“I can assure you she’s in safe hands with Mike. He’ll look after her real good and anyways she can look out fer herself. She is thirteen dang it, not some baby,” Jess spat angrily.
Just then they were alerted by one of the dogs barking a welcome as Mike and Beth entered the yard from the home pasture, their catch slung on poles over their shoulders, both looking bright eyed and cheerful.
But then Beth stopped in her tracks and stared warily at the woman in green.
Martha Hudson came forwards opening her arms a rather grim smile on her face, “Well hello Elizabeth dear, how you’ve grown, come and kiss your Aunt Martha.”
Beth stared at her in horror for a minute before crying, “You’re not my aunt, I’ve never seen you before,” and with that she bolted to the sanctuary of the house.
Jess and Slim exchanged a puzzled look whilst Daisy hastened after the troubled child and Martha remained staring stonily after her.
Then they all turned as Mose climbed back up on the box, having given up on any chance of coffee or interesting conversation.
“You goin’ or stayin’ then Ma’am, because I’m headin’ out now,” he said gruffly.
“Going,” Jess barked.
“Staying,” Slim said at the same moment.
“The lady’s staying,” Slim repeated.
Then turning to the woman said, “If you’ve got some proof of who you are on you Ma’am, I suggest we check that out and maybe give you a little time to talk to your niece. See if she remembers you once she’s calmed down some huh?”
“Are you crazy?” Jess muttered, but Slim turned and hushed him.
“It’s the only way Jess,” he said softly, “we have to find out who she is, no point in delaying matters,” and with that he collected Martha’s valise and taking her arm escorted her into the ranch house.
They finally all sat down to a late luncheon with the exception of Beth who had retired to the wagon, still parked out back, and was refusing to come out.
Once the meal was over Jess went to talk to the child and returned sometime later saying Beth was adamant that she’d never seen the woman in her life before.
“And now she’s stopped talkin’ again,” he said to Daisy, “she’s real upset.”
“I’ll go to her,” Daisy said at once and left quickly.
“What do you mean stopped talking again?” Martha asked irritably.
“She lost the power of speech after the shock of seeing your sister killed,” Slim said quietly, “and has only just recently started speaking again...I guess this shock has set her back some.”
“What are you talking about man is the child simple?” she almost bellowed.
That really infuriated Jess, “No she ain’t simple! Far from it, she’s real talented. But seein’ her Ma blasted to kingdom come that way can kinda upset a little kid, believe it or not,” he said sarcastically.
“And what would you know about it all?” Martha countered throwing him a look of contempt.
“I was there,” Jess said quietly, “so I know how upset she was. I’ve seen her over the years too, I know her pretty well and she trusts me, which is more than can be said for you.”
“I’m kin and that’s what the child needs right now,” Martha said firmly, “and some good old-fashioned discipline too if I’m not mistaken. It seems my brother in law spoiled her and it looks like you are doing the same. Spare the rod and spoil the child is my maxim.”
Jess leapt from his chair and glared at her now, “You put a rod anywhere near that kid and you’ll have me to answer to,” he spat.
“Easy Jess,” Slim said grabbing his arm and gently propelling him back to his chair.
Then he turned to Martha and said, “So maybe we could see the evidence that you actually are Beth’s aunt,” he asked politely.
“But of course, said Martha and she delved into her case pulling out a large buff folder and spilling the contents out onto the table.
There was a copy of the letter Mr Benson had posted to her, along with her marriage and birth certificate.
“There, is that enough evidence for you Mister Sherman?” she asked triumphantly.
Slim perused them and then passed them to Jess all the while wondering how they could get out of the predicament as the documents looked to be authentic.
“So, I will be leaving on the late afternoon stage with my niece, if you would be good enough to pack her things,” Martha said with a mocking smile.
“Oh no,” Jess said firmly, “she ain’t going anyplace until the circuit judge arrives and verifies those documents. He’s due in a few days and it’s down to him as to who gets custody.”
She raised her thin eyebrows at that, “What? You intend to do battle for her Mister Harper, with your reputation as a gun-fighter, I hardly think you have much of a chance.”
“Well the Judge didn’t seem to have any problem with me takin’ Mike on, so I wouldn’t be so sure of that Ma’am,” he said throwing her a challenging look. “And anyway, how come you seem to know so much about me huh?”
“One has one’s sources Mister Harper,” she said her steely gaze faltering for a moment.
All the time this wrangling had been going on Slim had been thinking hard.
Now he said, “Jess is right about that Ma’am. According to Pete Brown’s Will, Jess is in loco parentis until it has been proven that a blood relative exists and is a fit guardian. So, I suggest you stay with us here for a few days and renew your acquaintance with young Beth and we’ll meet up with the Judge together huh?”
She rolled her eyes in bad grace but then said, “Well I suppose I might as well, if that is the only option.”
Then he turned to Mike, who had been standing in the kitchen doorway watching events with increasing unease.
“Uh Mike will you show our visitor to the guest accommodation,” Slim said.
“The bunkhouse Mike,” Slim added tipping his head towards the door.
“Maybe you’d like to tidy up a little and have a nap after your journey,” he suggested as the woman rose and followed Mike out reluctantly.
Once the door shut behind her Jess jumped up, “What the hell did ya wanna do that for Slim, now we’re stuck with her.”
“Because if she’s under our roof we can keep a good eye on her...Haven’t you ever heard the phrase keep your friends close, but your enemies closer Jess? This way we can keep an eye on her.”
Jess sank back in his chair, “Yeah, I suppose that makes sense. You know it is real funny Slim, Beth is adamant she’s never seen the woman before.”
“Uh, well she was pretty young when she saw her last Jess.”
“Maybe...but somethin’ ain’t right Slim.”
They were silent for a moment and then Slim said, “How do you fancy a little trip out to Denver Jess?”
“I made a note of her address from her documents, why don’t you go over and check her out...talk to neighbors, see if you can dig out any dirt on her. Because I’m with you on this one something doesn’t feel right.”
The night before Jess went on his trip to Denver, he made one last ditch attempt to find out the truth from Beth.
Since her Pa’s passing, she had slept on a cot in Daisy’s room and Jess sought her out in there on the pretext of saying goodnight.
“Are you sure you’ve no recollection of this woman sweetheart?” he asked yet again.
She shook her head firmly, “She isn’t my aunt,” she said for the umpteenth time, “why won’t anyone believe me?”
“I’m sorry Beth, but she’s got all the paper work that kinda proves she is.”
“Well maybe she stole it or something, I don’t know,” she said irritably.
“Look you were real young maybe you’re mistaken?”
“Jess you have to believe me,” she said turning pleading eyes on her hero. “I know she’s not my aunt because I remember exactly what she was like. She had fair curly hair like Ma and Ma’s twinkly blue eyes too. I guess she was really sad when I saw her, because she wanted to get married and everyone kept saying she shouldn’t...I reckon that made her a bit miserable and that’s why I didn’t take to her too much...she didn’t have much time for me. But she was nothing like that woman out there,” she said tipping her head towards the bedroom door. “She didn’t look like her or talk like her...and she sure didn’t act like her.”
Jess grinned down at the youngster, “And to think I thought you’d stopped talkin’ again,” he said with a wink.
She smiled back, “I just want to talk to you and Mike right now. I can’t talk to that Martha woman and I won’t,” she said stubbornly.
Jess leaned over and kissed her tenderly on the top of her head.
“You get some sleep sweetheart and try not to worry. I’m gonna go and try and sort everything out...OK?”
She nodded and gave him a loving smile, “OK Jess...thanks.” Then she turned over and was asleep in minutes, Jess was on the case and all would be just fine she knew it.

Chapter 9
When Jess arrived in Denver, he made his way to the small house on the edge of town, which was the alleged address of Beth’s Aunt.
He knocked with the well-polished brass knocker and waited, but there was no reply. Well he wasn’t really expecting one because after all Martha Hudson was back at the ranch in Laramie...wasn’t she?
But something made him knock loudly again and after a few minutes a slight, woman with wavy blond hair and a troubled expression opened the door a few inches.
“Yes?” she said warily.
Jess stared at her, thinking she was vaguely familiar. Then he realized she was very much like dear Lizzy, Beth’s Ma.
“Mrs Hudson,” he asked politely tipping his hat, “Mrs Martha Hudson?”
The woman nodded, “Yes that’s right, what can I do for you...Mr?”
“Harper Ma’am, Jess Harper.”
“Jess Harper you say? I know that name I believe my brother-in-law had a wrangler of that name, worked the ranch with him?”
Jess nodded, “Yes that’s me Ma’am.”
“You’d better come in Mr Harper,” she said opening the door wider to admit him.
“I’m surprised you know of me,” he said once they were seated in the neat little parlor.
“My dear sister wrote to me often, even though she never received a reply,” she said sadly bowing her head.
Jess wondered if it was his place to ask why she had severed all ties with her sister and family, but thought it somewhat intrusive on such short acquaintance. Anyway, he had more pressing matters on hand, like who the Hell was that dang woman back at the ranch?
However, before he could broach the subject, Martha spoke again. “I expect you are wondering why I never replied, or attended her funeral?”
Jess just shrugged.
Martha looked down again as though bracing herself to say something and then it all came out in a rush.
“You see Mr Harper I made a bad marriage, a huge mistake. Oh yes dear Lizzy and Pete tried to warn me about Carl, but I wouldn’t listen. I was just so madly in love,” she admitted, her blue eyes swimming with unshed tears.
Jess said nothing, just moved uncomfortably in his chair, before saying, “Uh I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I just wouldn’t listen to their advice, Pete said he knew him of old, he was a bad lot and marrying me purely for my inheritance.”
“And did he?” Jess was moved to ask.
She brushed away a tear and said, “Oh yes they were right about him. All that I own now is this house. All the rest of my money, what’s left of it,” she said bitterly, “is in my husband’s bank account.”
Jess just shook his head sadly.
“But it’s worse than that Mr Harper. He has kept me a virtual prisoner here all these years. I’m never allowed out alone and he made me cut all ties with my family, not even letting me attend dear Lizzy’s funeral. He beats me, bullies me and ridicules me at the least opportunity too.”
That really riled Jess, “The Hell he does, so where is this lowlife?” he asked half rising and looking around him as if her husband might suddenly materialize.
“In the county jail right now for armed bank robbery...But he’s due out soon and I was going to try and escape,” she said her eyes wide in fear at the notion.
“Escape? But heck you’re not held prisoner now are you Ma’am...why dontcha just sell up and vamoose while he’s in the jail?”
“Because of Myra,” she said softly.
“Myra Hudson, my sister in law. She’s away on a trip but due home any day now. She rules the roost here Mr Harper, I set a foot wrong and Carl will hear of it from her and make sure I pay the price.”
“Huh...from a jail cell?”
He has friends in town. Once I decided to try and leave and he got two men to come to the house…” here she stopped, before whispering, “They threatened to...”
“To what?” Jess asked looking perplexed.
“To commit the most terrible atrocity a woman can suffer,” she whispered.
Jess just stared at her for a minute completely dumbfounded until realization hit home.
“What you mean rape you?”
She nodded, then said quickly, “They didn’t, but I had to promise I’d stay here and not leave the house until Carl was released.”
“And this sister in law...er Myra would have sat back and let that happen?”
She nodded, “Yes, it was her that told Carl.”
Jess was totally lost for words and then the light dawned.
“Tell me is this Myra about your height, red hair turning to grey and hard eyes that could burn a hole straight through ya?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, you know her?” she asked looking surprised.
“Yeah I know her alright. So, are you missing some documents Ma’am, like your Birth certificate and stuff?”
She went to check immediately and returned shortly looking puzzled, “Yes it’s gone and my Wedding Certificate, other things too.”
“And you haven’t received a letter from a Solicitor named Benson?”
She shook her head, “No, I haven’t. But what has this all to do with Myra?”
Jess said quietly, “She’s back at the ranch right now tryin ’to claim custody of your young niece Beth by makin’ out she’s you Mrs Hudson.”
Now it was Martha’s turn to look deeply shocked, “What dear little Beth? But why, she’s living with her Pa, Pete, isn’t she?”
Then it was down to Jess to explain about Pete’s sad demise and the subsequent need for a guardian for Beth.
She dropped her head into her hands and wept at the news of Pete’s death and it was sometime before they could resume the conversation.
“But why, why would she do such a thing?” she finally asked looking perplexed. “She has never married or expressed a desire for children.”
Jess shook his head, “Beats me...except that Beth is due to inherit her Pa’s money when she turns sixteen. Until then the rest is tied up paying for her place at a smart Art College back east.”
“Bless the child she always loved to draw from being a toddler,” Martha replied. “So, this Art college would the fees be refundable if she decided not to take her place?”
Jess clicked his fingers, “Of course that’s it. The fees would come to a tidy sum and then if she kept the child, she could get her hands on the rest of her inheritance a few years down the line.”
Martha nodded, “Exactly. Myra owns a small haberdasher’s shop in town and is always looking for new assistants...the ones she employs usually leave after a week or two.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me,” Jess said exchanging a grimace with Martha.
“So, she would get free labour and a nice fat inheritance at the end of it all,” Martha said looking aghast.
“Well we’ll soon put a stop to that,” Jess said firmly leaping up from his seat. “I’ve gotta go send a wire home warning them,” he said. “You pack a bag and be ready to leave within the hour OK?”
She looked hesitant, “What if someone sees me leaving and it gets back to Carl?”
Jess’s eyes narrowed and he looked thoughtful. “You know I’ve heard that name...Carl Hudson. Has he ever been in Laramie, in trouble there?”
She nodded, “Yes for robbing a stage.”
“Ha, I knew it,” Jess said grinning at her. “It was yours truly that put him in jail for that. I was riding posse as deputy for Mort Cory. It was me that shot him and brought him in. So, don’t you fret none Ma’am, I can deal with Carl Hudson and his kind...you just get ready huh? I’ll send the wire and be back in half an hour or so.”
She showed him to the door, but as he turned to go, she restrained him with a hand on his arm.
He turned questioning eyes on her, “Yes?”
“I just want to thank you Mr Harper, for all you’ve done. I’ll be ready to leave when you return.”
He smiled down at her,” Call me Jess, huh?” and tipping his hat he marched off down the street.
Martha ran up to her bedroom and hauled down a large valise, quickly filling it with some clothes. Then she lugged it downstairs and added a few important documents, mementos and treasured family likenesses, before snapping it shut and placing it in the hallway.
It was only about twenty minutes later when she heard a knock at the door.
Smiling she rushed to pull the door open, “Oh my Jess you were quick, I’m all ready,” she said, before the next words froze on her lips as she looked into the icy stare of one of Carl’s henchmen, Jake Dunn.
The huge man glowered down at her, “So where do you think you’re going pretty lady...and who the Hell is Jess...huh?” he asked belligerently a challenging look in his piggy eyes.
“I’m going nowhere,” Martha cried before she tried to slam the door in his face, but he was too quick for her and burst his way in, nearly falling over the case.
“So, not going anywhere huh?” he asked grabbing her wrist and twisting it until she cried out in pain. “I really wouldn’t think of going anyplace,” he spat, “because you see your dear husband will be coming home real soon. Got parole and he really wouldn’t like it iffen you weren’t home to greet him.”
A few minutes later Jess was alerted that all was not well when he heard screams emanating from Martha Hudson’s house. As he tore down the street, he saw the door was open and more muffled shouts and the sound of a male voice cussing loudly came from inside.
Jess stood on the threshold of the parlor and surveyed the carnage within.
The furniture had been tossed around, chairs and tables scattered and fragments of a broken vase and china littered the floor.
At the far side of the room Martha cowered behind the upturned couch, blood trickling down her chin from a busted lip where Dunn had back-slapped her across the face.
Then Jess’s gaze turned on Dunn, who was still cussing over a bite to his hand where Martha had tried to defend herself.
“You dang bitch,” Dunn roared, “well you’ve sure got this comin’,” he added loosening his belt and glaring at the poor terrified woman. “I guess you’ve got to learn a few manners...”
“Nope, I reckon you do,” Jess spat furiously.
The big man spun around only to have Jess smash his fist in his face, following it through with a punch to the belly that caused the bulky man to fall to his knees gasping in pain.
But Jess wasn’t done yet. He grabbed hold of a greasy hank of the thug’s hair and dragging his head back, slapped him hard across the face twice...splitting his lip and making his eyes water.
“Please,” the huge man cried in terror, “enough...I’m sorry OK....”
“Sorry!” Jess bellowed, “That don’t even come close Mister. Now you listen up and listen good! Me and Mrs Hudson here are leaving town today and if that no-good scum of a husband comes within a mile of her in future, he’ll live to regret it. You just tell him that from Jess Harper. He knows me and he’ll know I dang well mean it.”
The man staggered to his feet, “Yes sir Mister Harper.”
“Now git,” Jess yelled and the other lumbered quickly out like the very devil was on his tail.
Jess made his way carefully through the rubble to where Martha was now standing up, but shaking like a leaf.
“You OK?” he asked softly as he tipped her chin up to review the damage to her pretty face.
She nodded, “He’d only been here a few minutes when you arrived.”
“Thank God,” he whispered, “come on Ma’am let’s get you cleaned up some huh?”
He gently bathed the split lip and bruise to her cheek where Dunn had slapped her a second time.
Once he’d finished, he smiled down at her, “There ya go and you’ll be good as new in a day or so. We’ll tidy up and then head off huh?”
She shook her head no...
“Huh, what you ain’t coming? Heck Martha you can’t stay here with that hoodlum about and doubtless others around too.”
Then she smiled at him and shook her head, “No I don’t mean that. I mean let’s not clean up. Let’s leave it for my husband to find when he’s released um?”
Jess’s face relaxed into a huge grin, “I reckon that’s a real good plan,” he agreed, “come on let’s go...”
Meanwhile back at the ranch things were not going well.
On the second evening at the ranch the woman posing as Martha, that is Myra Hudson, had practically ordered Daisy out of her own kitchen, saying she had a very delicate stomach and would prepare her own light repast.
Daisy had been somewhat annoyed by this rather domineering attitude.
But she relented when Slim whispered, “Just let her get on with it Daisy, less work for you and maybe she’ll retire to bed early if she eats now...huh?”
Sometime later she emerged with a plate of omelette and a steaming cup of tea and sat down in isolated splendor at the dining table.
“By the way Mrs Cooper I have taken the last of your tea.”
Daisy raised an eyebrow about to make a caustic remark, her evening cup of tea being one of her greatest pleasures.
‘Martha’ raised a hand, “Fear not my good woman, I have replaced it with some of my own. I always carry a little when I travel. It is imported from the east and a much superior brand I think you’ll find. Just my little way of thanking you for your, er...hospitality.”
Well that somewhat took the wind out of Daisy’s sails and she thanked the visitor meekly.
However, her thanks were not to be long lasting.
She had enjoyed two cups of the new brew with the unusual flavor, but could not entice ‘Martha’ to join her.
“I shall retire early,” Mrs Hudson proclaimed, “I believe we are to take dear Elizabeth to town tomorrow to buy some new clothes a treat indeed.”
“Well we were to go,” Daisy said hesitantly, “but now we have a guest...maybe we will postpone the visit.”
“Nonsense dear lady I will accompany you. You wouldn’t begrudge an indulgent aunt treating her little niece to a few fripperies, now would you?”
Daisy looked somewhat surprised at this sudden turnabout, but welcomed it.
“If you wish to join us that would be very pleasant, we’ll take my little buggy in directly after breakfast,” she said cheerfully, just hoping that this new ‘friendly’ aunt would be able to bring Beth around.
However, it was not to be, because for the first time in years Daisy was taken ill and had to return to bed, once she’d managed to get through cooking breakfast.
“I’m so sorry Slim dear,” she said wincing as the pain in her gut once more kicked in. “It must be something I ate, or maybe that foreign tea of Mrs Hudson’s was a tad rich for my taste.”
Slim commiserated and said she must spend the day in bed and they would manage just fine.
Then he apologized to Ma Hudson, saying he really must tend to the ranch end of month accounts that morning.
“I’m sorry.” he said sincerely, “but Mike here will keep you entertained I’m sure.”
Later in the morning once she was sure Slim was fully engrossed in the books ‘Martha’ went out to the yard and sought out Mike and Beth.
“Michael dear would you be so kind as to harness up Miss Daisy’s buggy, Elizabeth and I are going to town on a little shopping expedition.”
“We are?” Beth blurted out, forgetting her refusal to speak to this strange woman who professed to be her aunt.
“Indeed, we are dear, I intend to kit you out in some fine new dresses and also some pretty new ribbons, how about that?”
Beth looked undecided, sure she wanted to look her best and new dresses and ribbons sounded exciting...and yet...could she trust this imposter?
She stood undecided until her ‘aunt’ spoke again, playing her trump card.
“Oh yes and Mr Sherman has asked us to collect Mr Harper from the rail-head, I believe he is due home from his business trip later today.”
Well that clinched it, Jess was coming home and she would have new ribbons with which to dazzle him, what could be more perfect.
Myra Hudson saw at once that she had won the battle from the dreamy look in the child’s eyes and she swung around to where Mike was still standing uncertainly waiting for his orders.
“Get to it boy, hurry along, Elizabeth and I are waiting,” she said impatiently.
Mike hurried to do as he was bid but once the rig was all set to go, he said, “Are you sure this is alright with Slim, Mrs Hudson?”
The woman quickly hauled herself up into the driving seat and pulled Beth up beside her.
“Yes of course,” she said irritably, “in fact he suggested it. He also asked me to tell you he must not be disturbed on any account; he is very busy and he asked you to please clean out the hen house.”
Mike’s face was a picture of gloom. Not only had he not been invited on the trip to town, but now he had to do his least favourite chore.
“Yes Ma’am,” his said with resignation.
“Bye Beth, have fun,” he added, before slouching off towards the hen house kicking a stone as he went and muttering darkly, that life just wasn’t darned well fair.

Chapter 10
When they arrived in town Beth was surprised when they left the buggy and Betsy the mare over at the relay, whereas Daisy usually just left her tethered near the mercantile.
“We won’t need the buggy for a while Elizabeth,” she said quickly, “now stop fretting and come along we must hurry.”
Beth wondered what all the rush was about, after all they had most of the day before the north bound train from Denver was due, so Mike had confided before they left.
She tried to explain this as Mrs Hudson hurried towards the rail-head, but was just told to hush and that children should be seen, but not heard.
Well that’s just fine by me Beth thought mutinously, I’ll just stop speaking to the mean old woman, see how she likes that.
However, it was just a short time later that her irritation turned to fear.
“You wait out here Elizabeth, I just want to check the time of Mr Harper’s train,” she said as she bustled off towards the rail-head office.
Beth rolled her eyes in frustration, heck it was only a little while since she had told her what time Mike had said Jess was due to arrive. If indeed he was on that train, because they had not heard anything since he left on business. Beth wondered idly what kind of business would call him away to a town...maybe some deal to do with selling cattle she thought. Then she remembered their conversation the night before he left. Maybe he’d gone to check on this strange woman’s story? She sure hoped so.
She was getting bored standing out on the boardwalk so quietly made her way to Mrs Hudson’s side and was just in time to hear something that made her blood run cold.
“That’s right my good man,” her ‘aunt’ said in her penetrating voice, “one adult and one child’s ticket to Denver...yes singles, we won’t be returning. The train is due in five minutes you say?”
There was a muffled reply.
Then Mrs Hudson started remonstrating with the poor man, “Well I certainly hope it is on time my good man. I have just paid out good money for a service and I expect you to get me to my destination on time!”
There was more in the same vein, but Beth didn’t stay to hear it.
She quietly backed off and once she was out of the rail-head office, she tore down the street and disappeared down the nearest alley.
She was soon lost in the muddle of backtracks behind the town and eventually ran out of breath and sat on a rock panting and crying softly...where to go...what to do?
She finally pulled herself together and reviewed the situation. Maybe if she could get back to the livery, she would get that nice man Bert to hitch up the buggy for her and she could get back home. Or at least someplace away from town where she could hide until the danger passed.
After many a wrong turn she found herself near the corral, out the back of the livery. She inched her way towards the building and was able to enter via a side door finding herself in the dim interior at the rear of the building.
She made her way hesitantly forwards and then stopped stock still as she heard voices coming from the front yard and she moved a little closer so she could hear, but still staying in the shadows.
What she heard made her tremble in trepidation.
Mrs Hudson was holding forth and the Sheriff and Bert from the livery were listening as she droned on.
“You see my good man,” she said addressing a somewhat wary Bert, “my niece seems to have gone missing. She’s wandered off somewhere and I thought she might have come back here to await me?”
When Bert shook his head, she continued. “As I said to the Sheriff, she is a highly strung child susceptible to fantasy I’m afraid. She seems to imagine I’m some sort of imposter instead of her loving aunt,” she said with a look of sadness. “I merely went to the rail-head to inquire when Mr Harper’s train would arrive and when I returned, she had vanished, I really am quite concerned...especially as she is well...you know... a little simple.”
In the shadows Beth nearly choked at that, how dare she say those dreadful things about her and to lie about the visit to the rail-head too! She very nearly blew her cover to expose the woman for the liar she was, but managed to stop herself in time. Who would believe a mere child over a grown up? It looked pretty much like she’d convinced the Sheriff that the runaway needed apprehending as soon as possible.
“Don’t worry Ma’am,” Mort said earnestly, “I’ll get a party together right away and we’ll check the town out, if she’s here we’ll find her don’t fret.”
Beth immediately turned tail and fled, running slap bang into a tall youth as she ran out through the side door.
Both stopped and she looked up into the slightly dazed gaze of none other than Horace Lynch. He was the young man that Slim and Jess had helped to secure a job with one of their neighbors. Even though he was a member of the notorious Lynch family Jess had seen fit to trust him and that was enough for Beth.
“Howdy Horace,” she said pinning a winning smile on her face, “remember me, I’m a friend of Mike Williams and Mr Jess?”
His rather dull-witted features relaxed into a warm smile, “Sure, howdy Miss Beth, so what are you doin’ here, is Mister Jess with you?”
She shook her head and thinking quickly said, “No Horace, but he said he really wanted you to help me, will you do that?”
“Why sure I will, anything for Mister Jess, he was real good to me.”
Sometime later Horace drove his wagon full of fence posts away from the livery and down Main Street at a fair lick.
Once they were well away from town he slowed to a standstill and leaning back pulled up the tarp covering the timber.
“I guess you can come and sit by me now Miss Beth, we’re well out of town and that mean woman won’t see you.”
It was a good half hour later before Beth was able to convince Horace of her plan.
“I just don’t see why I can’t take ya home to the ranch,” he said again, “it’s where you live ain’t it?”
Beth sighed and tried again.
“Yes, it is but the real mean lady is staying there too. Only the folk at the ranch don’t know she’s real mean...and if I’m not careful then I might get sent away with her.”
“Sent away,” he repeated, looking slightly befuddled. “Well that ain’t good Miss Beth you don’t want to leave the ranch and Mike and Mister Jess and Mister Slim do ya?”
“Exactly,” said Beth, sensing a break through. “So, you have to find a place I can hide until the mean woman gives up looking and goes away got it?”
His face cleared at last and he smiled at her, “Sure I understand now. There’s an old cabin on the edge of my bosses land...and near Mister Slim ’s too...But nobody goes there no more...would that do ya?”
“Perfect!” Beth said beaming at him.
The youth blushed, “Well you’re real welcome Miss Beth, anything for Mister Jess,” and he set the horses off at an even greater pace. “We’ll keep it a real good secret, until Mister Jess comes to get ya OK?”
She nodded, “That’s swell, thank you Horace,” and she sat back and relaxed a little for the first time that morning.
Then she got to thinking...
Here she was off on an adventure with a virtual stranger and yet she had none of her old fears. Time was she hid from strangers and refused to speak in their presence. But now after her time at the ranch with all the dear folk there she had found a new confidence and she rejoiced in it. My, what a lot she’d have to tell Jess once they were reunited, she thought happily.
Meanwhile back at the ranch Slim stretched and got up stiffly from his desk and looked over to the time piece on the mantle...goodness nearly noon, he’d better get the stage horses ready and he marched quickly from the room and across the yard.
He didn’t see Mike in the depths of the hen house and quickly prepared the fresh teams, being ready just as Mose entered the yard.
Once the team had been changed and Mose furnished with the news that Daisy was none too well and coffee was off, he returned to the box and made ready to leave.
“Give the dear lady my best,” he said with his toothless grin. Then he did his usual trick of searching his pockets for mail.
“Nearly forgot...wire from Jess, over in Denver, tellin’ ya when he’s arriving home I shouldn’t wonder,” he said before tossing it down to Slim and urging the team off up the rise at speed.
Slim shook his head chuckling as Mose headed off, “Nosy old goat,” he said to himself, adopting Jess’ nick name for Mose, before ripping open the envelope.
Then his mirth quickly died as he read the contents.
“Mike,” he yelled, “Mike, where are you?”
The child finally emerged from the hen house looking somewhat disheveled, “You want me Slim, I’m nearly done,” he said as he ran over.
“What were you doing in there?” Slim asked in surprise.
“Cleaning it out like Mrs Hudson told me to. She said you said I was to clean out the chickens and not to disturb you on any...uh... “the child looked skyward for inspiration... “on any account, that’s it.”
Slim looked puzzled, but let the matter go.
“Never mind about all that, where is Mrs Hudson right now Mike...and Beth too?”
“Well gone to town of course,” the child said like he was trying to humor a lunatic, “she said you suggested it Slim. Same as me cleaning out the hens,” he added reproachfully...still waiting to be congratulated for his efforts.
“The Hell she has,” Slim growled, forgetting for once not to cuss in front of the child. “Tell me how did she go Mike and when?”
The youngster looked thoughtful, “After breakfast sometime and she took Aunt Daisy’s buggy and Betsy.”
At the mention of Daisy Slim turned for the house, before turning back and ruffling the boy’s hair affectionately, “Good job Mike, thanks for cleaning out the chickens. You finish off out here and then come in and keep Aunt Daisy company huh...I’ve got some business in town.”
Daisy stared at the brief wire that Slim had given her.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said again, “so that Mrs Hudson really was an imposter all along and dear Beth was right. Oh, Slim do ride to town quickly Beth may be in some danger.”
Slim nodded, “I’m on my way Daisy... you’ll be alright?”
“Oh yes dear I think that Mrs Hudson, or whatever her name is, just spiked the tea with a laxative powder...I’m much better now...you get along.”
As soon as they arrived in Laramie Jess accompanied the real Aunt Martha over to Mort’s office, wanting to put him in the picture regarding the bogus aunt. Also, to warn him of her connection with the notorious outlaw, Carl Hudson. They entered the office and then Jess stopped dead in his tracks. Mort was at his desk in conversation with none other than Myra Hudson who was sitting opposite him and obviously holding forth on an issue of importance...
“I really must ask that you search again Sheriff,” she said petulantly. “Goodness me it can’t be beyond you to simply find a missing child!”
Jess who had been standing on the threshold of the office now dashed across and confronted Myra angrily.
“What’s this about a missing child...what have you done with Beth?” he asked throwing the woman a furious look.
“Why Mister Harper, you’re back,” she said looking a tad uncomfortable. Then she looked beyond him and saw Martha standing just behind Jess looking rather uncertain.
At the sight of her sister-in-law Myra colored up, but recovered quickly.
Jumping up she glared at her saying, “What on earth are you doing here my dear, you know you’re not strong, you really shouldn’t have travelled all this way.”
“She’s here to discuss guardianship of her niece Myra, as you well know,” Jess growled.
“I know no such thing. What are you talking about young man? I am Martha Hudson and have the documents to prove it as have been verified by Sheriff Cory.”
“The documents you stole!” Jess yelled back…now looking like he was really about to let rip so Mort thought.
“Now hang on a minute here folks, “Mort said placatingly. “This lady is correct Jess we both saw her Birth and Marriage certificate didn’t we.”
“Yeah we saw them aright, it’s just that they don’t belong to this woman; she stole them from her sister-in-law. You see Mort we figure this imposter wanted the Guardianship so she could get at young Beth’s inheritance.”
“Prove it!” Myra said defiantly.
“ I can prove it alright,” Jess snarled. “Fer a start I knew Martha’s sister and she and Martha here were like two peas in a pod. I never knew that until I saw a likeness of them together and you look nuthin’ like her.”
Then he turned to Martha, “Show Mort that family likeness of you and your sis Martha.”
She dug about in her valise and produced the framed photograph and also some letters.
“These have my signature.” she said softly and it is also on the marriage certificate...maybe you could compare them?” she asked shyly.
“That’s more like it,” Mort said cheerfully.
“I have your signature too Ma’am,” he said addressing Myra, “the one I obtained from when you released the documents into my keeping for the Judge to examine.”
It only took a few minutes for the matter to be proved conclusively. Martha’s neat signature on her letters matched the one on the marriage certificate perfectly, whereas Myra’s was an untidy scrawl.
“I think that proves the matter without a doubt,” Mort said, relieved the conflict had been resolved.
Myra turned an unbecoming shade of puce and made for the door, “I’m not staying here to be insulted,” she screeched.
Mort was too quick for her and jumping up he barred her way. “Not so fast Ma’am, we have the little matter of falsifying a statement, fraud and by the sounds of things attempting to abduct a minor. The only place you’re going is one of my cells until we sort this unholy business out once and for all.”
Having said his piece, he then took her arm to escort her to the cells, to the accompaniment of her loud protests. But Jess suddenly stepped out in front of her, “What have you done with Beth,” he bellowed, “where is she?”
Myra shrugged, “I really couldn’t say Mister Harper. The ungrateful brat ran away. She could be anywhere by now, the Sheriff certainly couldn’t locate her,” she finished with a sneer.
“Is this true Mort?” Jess asked looking pained.
“I’m afraid so, yes Jess. Lon, myself and a good dozen others have scoured the town, she’s just not here.”
“Well damn it she must be someplace,” he retorted. “Unless...maybe she’s tryin’ to get back to the ranch on foot?”
He turned to leave and just at that moment the door flew open and an anxious looking Slim, accompanied by Lon, swept in.
“I came to report an abduction Mort,” Slim said and after casting an eye around the office his gaze came to rest on Myra and he turned pale. His eyes flashing dark with anger, he growled “and it’s that woman who is responsible!”
Lon nodded and turned to Mort, “It looks that way boss. I had a word with Sid in the ticket office and it seems this lady bought a ticket for herself and a child, non–return to Denver. I figure the young ‘un got wind of it and did a bunk.”
“Well what are we waiting for,” said Jess urgently, “let’s go look for her pard,” he said grabbing hold of Slim ’s arm and pulling him towards the door.
“Hang on,” said Slim quickly, “haven’t you forgotten something Jess?” And he tipped his hat to where Martha was now standing by Mort’s desk, looking anxious and not a little fearful as the chain of events unfolded.
“Sure, sorry,” Jess said absently, “this is Mrs Martha Hudson. Beth’s real aunt. Martha this is Slim Sherman my buddy and partner in the ranch.”
Their eyes met across the office and to Slim it seemed as though the sun had just come out and a choir of angels were singing in his ears. Martha smiled shyly at the handsome blond cowboy and for a moment felt her fears subside. Surely these kind honest men would help her she thought.
“Pleased to meet you Ma’am,” Slim murmured.
“Likewise,” she said softly.
Slim finally dragged his eyes away from the vision of loveliness and turned to his pard.
“It would make sense for you to escort Mrs Hudson back to the ranch on the Stage Jess, as you don’t have a mount in town. See if Beth’s turned up back home, she might have got a lift from someone.”
Then he turned back to Martha and said, “You will stay with us until this matter is resolved, won’t you?”
Martha nodded, “Most kind of you,” she said softly.
“That’s all sorted then,” Slim said happily.
“Maybe you could have another good look around town Mort and I’ll ride out and check the route back home. If she has decided to walk, I’ll see her.”
Then he turned back to Jess, “If there’s still no sign you and I will have to start checking out the local area, she may be hiding out someplace until the dust settles.”

Chapter 11
It had been nearly a week since Beth had mysteriously disappeared without a trace.
Martha although terribly worried about her little niece had settled in well to ranch life. She was proving to be a good help and companion to Daisy. However, the astute housekeeper had noted Slim ’s attentive attitude towards the pretty young woman and wondered if his feelings were slightly more than just concern. But no surely not, why he was practically engaged to dear Lily. Did she also perceive a slight lightening of the spirit of their guest as Slim entered a room? Possibly, but the poor woman was in dire straits and was in need of a little comfort Daisy thought.
Martha had talked to Daisy telling her of her dreadfully abusive husband, thankfully still in jail. Then she told of her fears for her dear little niece, lost and maybe hurt or worse.
“I just want her to be found and then God willing maybe we can both escape and start a new life together,” she had confided.
Slim and Jess had searched relentlessly, ignoring the ranch work to look for the missing child, all to no avail.
They were riding home on the sixth day when Slim reined in his mount looking helplessly across the deserted landscape and sighed deeply.
“It’s no good Jess I figure we’re going to have to accept the fact that we’re not going to find her. It could be she’s been picked up by someone and they’ve decided to keep her. Or maybe the shock of all this has rendered her speechless again and she can’t tell them where she lives?”
Jess looked devastated. He took off his Stetson and wiped a hand across his exhausted countenance before ramming it firmly back in place.
“Or worse maybe she decided to walk and got lost and she met up with a bear or cougar...any damn thing,” he finished looking close to breaking point.
“We haven’t seen any buzzards about,” Slim said hopefully, “maybe she’s been taken like I said and let’s just hope and pray good folk have taken her in.”
“So that’s it?” Jess said belligerently, “You’re gonna stop lookin’ just like that?”
“Jess it’s been nearly a week and we’ve searched high and low...I can’t think of anywhere else she could be.”
“We’ve searched all our spread and around, but we just asked our closest neighbors to search their land, maybe they haven’t... not thoroughly anyway.”
“You’re just clutching at straws and you know it. Just ease off some will you Jess; you’re only making this business all the harder. We’ll just have to wait for some news.”
“Well you can do what you damn well please, but I aim to carry on looking,” and with that he kneed Traveller off to a fast trot.
Shaking his head Slim watched Jess head off, before he clicked Alamo on to a slower gait following him, but at a distance. He knew that Jess was in danger of his temper exploding from frustration and fear for the child and he didn’t want to be any too close when that happened.

It was actually Mike who was to lead them to where Beth was hiding.
The child had pleaded to be allowed to go and search for Beth as well. But Daisy had said that it was bad enough for one youngster to go missing without courting disaster and letting another out of their sight.
However, it was Jess who fought Mike’s corner and said quietly as an aside to Daisy that the kid needed to feel he was helping.
“He’ll be fine as long as he stays on Sherman land and takes Blue with him.”
“Please Aunt Daisy,” wheedled Mike, “I promise I’ll be real careful...honest I will.”
Then Slim pitched in and said maybe if Mike could just ride around and look at the places, he and Beth had played together then he might find a clue.
“Who knows she could be here someplace right under our noses,” he said thoughtfully, “in one of your secret hiding places huh Mike?”
Daisy finally capitulated with the proviso that he should return every couple of hours or so.
“There will be cookies for you and a nice cold drink for Blue if you are on time,” she said, thinking a little bribery wouldn’t go amiss in this case.
Eventually it was agreed and the following morning Mike rode out, proudly carrying Jess’s timepiece, carefully stowed in his pocket. With a cheery wave he trotted Sunny off towards the home pasture. From there he figured he’d make tracks towards the lake. He knew Slim had already checked the cave, but if Beth had seen him coming, she might well have hidden herself he thought. After all he reasoned Beth was not yet aware that Myra Hudson’s cover had been blown and that Beth’s real aunt was now staying in their bunkhouse.
He had checked the cave and was disappointed to find it empty. Now he rode back towards the ranch, eager to meet his curfew and enjoy some freshly baked cookies, but he reined in as he saw a lone rider hurrying towards him.
Unsure as to what to do, he was just about to set Sunny off in the opposite direction when he recognized the other to be Horace Lynch and in a mighty big hurry too by all accounts.
A few minutes later a fearful looking Horace reined in beside Mike.
“I sure am glad I found ya Mike ...are you out looking for Miss Beth?”
Mike confirmed that he was...
“Well you don’t need look no more I got her...But I’m real worried Mike, ‘cos she’s sick...real sick...in fact I think she may be dead,” he whispered, now looking totally stricken. “I don’t know what to do. I was gonna ride for Mister Jess, but I figured he’d blame me and be real mad at me. Then he’d tell Mister Morton my boss an’ he’ll fire me! Then maybe I’d get hung for her dyin’ and all.”
This all came out in a jumble and Mike had some difficulty following it, so it took a minute for the tragic news to sink in.
“Dead,” Mike gasped, “she can’t be dead and if she is, well heck Horace you’ve got to tell a grown up...of course you have!”
When the older boy still looked undecided Mike said, “OK look why dontcha take me to her and then I can tell I found her and you won’t get in trouble huh? She may still be alive anyway...you’ve gotta help Horace you’ve just gotta!”
Horace still looked unsure but eventually nodded, “Come on then it ain’t far.”
They rode off towards the old-line shack that was on Sherman land abutting the Morton spread.
“But Slim checked here,” Mike said as they neared the ramshackle old place.
“I know Miss Beth said, but she was real worried that mean old aunt was still at your place so she done hid until he’d gone.”
“So, she was OK last week?” Mike asked.
“Yup, I done brought her water and some food...not much, just what I could scrounge, some bread that had been thrown out and some taters...She was real hungry. Then Mister Morton saw me bunking off and he done told me to git to work or else. So, I couldn’t go for uh...three...no four days he said carefully counting on his fingers and frowning with the effort. Maybe five I can’t recollect. Anyways today when I went and she was just layin’ there not movin’ Mike and I got real scared and figured I’d go hide...then I saw you.”
“You did right to tell me,” Mike said, imagining that was the sort of thing Jess would have said under the circumstances. It was funny how much more grown up he always felt in Horace’s company, he thought now. Maybe it was because the boy was a little simple and looked up to Mike. However, he didn’t have more time to consider the matter further as they had arrived at the shack.
They dismounted and moved towards the old building, partially covered in ivy, the windows all smashed and door hanging open at a drunken angle.
Mike stopped in his tracks, what if she really was dead...and a shiver ran down his spine as he stood there irresolute. However, he had to find out and taking a deep breath he moved to the half-closed door and pushing it open crept inside, followed by a very nervous Horace.
The space was dark and even with the door wide open it took a while before his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light. After a few seconds he steeled himself and went and knelt by the inert body, partially covered by a dusty old blanket. He put out a tentative hand to her cheek and was relived to find it warm...then he shook her gently and was rewarded by a tiny groan and her eyes flickered open and she stared at him in terror. But just seconds later she recognized him and tried to speak...but nothing came out except a painful gasp.
“Go get my canteen,” Mike said half turning to where Horace still stood hesitantly by the door.
Once Beth had sipped some cool water she tried again, but still she was unable to utter a sound, so she resorted to sign language. She told Mike she had eaten some bad food that had made her chuck up and now she had a terribly sore throat.
Mike nodded, “I understand...you just rest there.”
Then he turned to Horace, “Look you’ve no need to worry, she’s OK. She’s not dead is she...just sick. But you’ve gotta ride to the ranch and fetch Jess or Slim, she’s real poorly and we need a grown up to help.”
Horace shook his head, now physically shaking, “I can’t Mike. Mister Jess will be real mad at me for letting her get sick. He was trusting me to look out for her.”
Mike wondered what on earth crazy Horace was talking about now? Jess hadn’t anything to do with this. He shook his head and returned to the matter in hand.
“He’ll be a heck of a sight madder iffen you don’t get help,” he said firmly.
“One of us has to stay and look after her and I’m the one that understands her signing. So, you’ve gotta go for help,” he said logically. “And now ain’t the time to argue,” he added, again Jess’s words spilling from his lips.
Horace eventually capitulated, “You’ll stand up for me won’t ya,” he asked as he turned to go.
“Sure,” Mike nodded, “but just get going will you! She needs help now,” he said turning back to where a very pale Beth seemed to be having trouble breathing.
Jess had decided to break off from the task of replenishing the wood pile and ride out to meet Mike, due home for the promised cookies shortly. He had already spent several hours combing the countryside on the far side of the ranch, to no avail and he wondered if the boy had any better luck.
He knew the youngster intended to check out the cave so he headed in that direction. He was nearing the boundary fence with the Morton spread when he saw a rider in the distance and after a moment, he could make out the figure of Horace Lynch riding hell for leather towards him.
It took him a few minutes to understand the garbled explanation, but it finally became clear.
“The old-line shack on this side of the Sherman and Morton boundary, yes I know it,” Jess said quickly, “come on let’s go.”
He spurred Traveller on in the direction from whence Horace had just come assuming the boy was on his tail.
However, Horace watched Jess disappear off in a cloud of dust and then turned his mount towards the distant Snowys. Heck he didn’t want to end up in jail like his brothers, no siree...he was heading off out to the Big Open before anyone could find him.
As Jess rode up, Blue bounded out barking a welcome and capering around him as he dismounted. He gave the dog a brief pat before heading into the dimly lit shack.
Mike turned as he entered and stood up from where he’d been kneeling beside Beth and said, “Jess come quick, she’s real sick...I think she’s dyin’.”
As they rode into the yard, Jess cradling Beth, Blue barked loudly to herald their arrival. Minutes later Slim, followed by Daisy and Martha rushed out onto the porch. But their expressions of welcome quickly turned to anxiety as they saw Beth in Jess’s arms looking pale and lifeless.
Jess quickly handed her down to Slim who carried her carefully indoors to the couch in the parlor.
Daisy was at her side immediately and looked up to Jess, “Whatever happened to her dear?”
However, it was Mike who replied. “Horace had her hidden in the ol’ shack by the Morton boundary fence and I guess he gave her some food that was bad. She said she was real sick. Was chucking and then she got this real bad throat and now she can’t talk at all because it hurts real bad.”
“You’re sure about all this?” Slim asked.
Mike nodded vigorously, “Sure she told me by signing and I understand that real good now.”
“So where is that dang Horace and why was he keeping her there?” Jess asked looking around him angrily.
“She was hiding from that ol’ aunt, who wasn’t really an aunt,” Mike explained, “I guess he hid her real good. But when she got sick he was scared he’d be in trouble, so I guess he’s run away,” he finished, noting the look of anger in Jess’s eyes.
“Too dang right he’s in trouble,” he agreed.
“Never mind about all that now dear, the child needs the doctor. Can someone fetch him please?” Daisy said as she bent to feel the temperature of Beth’s forehead.
Martha stood nearby looking on anxiously at her pretty little niece.
Sometime later Sam drew back from examining the youngster and gave her a reassuring smile.
“You just rest up Beth dear and take the medicine that aunt Daisy gives you and that should help with the pain,” he said kindly patting her hand.
She had been in a daze since she was brought home and his words barely seemed to register with her and she just closed her eyes once more.
Then he gestured for the other adults to join him in the kitchen.
“That’s one very sick little girl back there,” he said softy once all were assembled. “She has a septic throat and that in turn could cause a nasty fever and further infection. She seems very run down and lost some weight too by my reckoning?”
Jess nodded remembering how light she was when he’d picked her up and mounted Traveller.
It was Martha who broke the silence first, “She will be alright though doctor?” she whispered, unshed tears welling in her anxious eyes.
“I’m sorry my dear, but I have to be honest; the prognosis is not good right now. We must just hope and pray that she comes through it and with careful nursing she has a chance.” he replied glancing over to include Daisy in his reply.
When Martha’s tears spilled over and she gave a little sob, it was Slim who was at her side in two quick strides. He enfolded her in a warm embrace and offered comforting words. The others left them together to check on Beth and Mike who was still standing by the couch looking very woebegone.
“Hey Tiger come help me bed down the horses,” Jess said slinging a comforting arm around the boy’s shoulders, let Beth get some shut-eye huh?”

Chapter 12
So it was that they started the marathon task of trying to nurse Beth through her terrible illness. She remained bedded down in the parlour and everyone took their turn in nursing the sickly child.
Later the following day the child at last opened her eyes and took notice of what was going on around her. Eventually her gaze came to rest on a petite blond lady sitting close by, her blue eyes swimming with concern.
Beth looked deeply shocked and mouthed the word “Mama?”
“No dear,” Martha said gently, “I’m your aunt Martha, do you remember me?”
Then Beth smiled for the first time since she returned home her little face alight with recognition and happiness as she nodded vigorously.
“Well,” said Daisy looking on, “there’s no doubt that you are indeed the real Aunt Martha dear.”
As the doc had surmised the throat infection quickly invaded the rest of her body over the next few days and she suffered fever, aches and pains. Her glands were enlarged too so Daisy noted on the third day.
“Poor little mite,” she said to Martha.
Then to Beth, “No wonder you can’t speak. With that throat so inflamed and now your glands. You can barely open her mouth to eat or drink, can you dear? But don’t worry. I’ll make some lovely broth just now that will ease the pain a little.”
Martha looked deeply disturbed, “Oh Daisy I am so worried about her.”
Daisy shushed her and indicated they should move away from the couch, pulled up to the fire.
“I shouldn’t talk that way my dear,” she said kindly, “it’s always important to stay positive in front of a patient. She may not be able to speak, but she can hear us you know.”
“I’m sorry, of course you’re right,” Martha said immediately contrite.
Then she sighed, “If only I knew her sign language, I could understand her so much better. Is there a book or something that would teach me, maybe the doctor would have one?”
Mike who had been waiting patiently to ask Aunt Daisy if he could have his mid-morning milk and cookies said, “It isn’t a book learning kinda sign language Ma’am. See Beth made it up all herself. But I could teach ya if you like?” he added cheerfully.
“Mike that would be wonderful,” Martha said smiling at the eager youngster. “So, does it have a name this special signing?”
Mike grinned at that. “I asked Beth just that when she first came to live here and she signed that it was the ‘Language of Friendship,’ because it was only her friends that had learned it for her...I thought that was real neat.”
“Yes,” Martha said, flicking a glance over to Daisy, “it certainly is. She’s very special to have devised it...and you’re a special friend to have learnt it too,” she added giving him her warm smile.
As the little girl got more and more sick the adults sat with her around the clock, chatting to her, bathing her face and fragile limbs to help cool her down. Then painstakingly they tried to get her to drink as much as she was able. This however often ending in tears as it was so painful for her to swallow.
It was late one evening when Martha had been nearly reduced to tears herself as Beth once more turned her face away from the offered cup. Everyone else was abed save for Slim. He had stayed up on the pretext that he needed to tally the end of month business returns, but really, he just needed some time alone with Martha.
He couldn’t understand his feelings towards her, neither did he really want to analyze them too closely. He loved Lily passionately, sure he did. So, what did he feel for this slender woman with the wavy blond locks and amazing eyes? Merely concern...pity...or something more? All he knew was that his heart started beating faster when she entered a room and all he wanted to do was stay with her...be close to her...more than that he wouldn’t allow himself to think.
He turned from his books now and wandered over, “Still no luck?” he asked.
Martha shook her head, “It seems cruel to force her, but the doctor said it was imperative she drinks as much as possible.”
Slim took the water jug and headed for the door, “I’ll fetch some fresh cold from the well. The doc said if it was really cold it would numb her throat a little and be easier to get down.”
Sometime later Beth was settled and sleeping, the cold water having done the trick. The spare cot they had brought in from Daisy’s room, pulled close to the fire.
They stood staring down at the youngster, her face now slightly rosy with the fever.
“Look I’ll stay up with her tonight,” Slim said noticing how tired dear Martha looked.
“No, I want to do it, really Slim. Besides you and Jess have taken your turns today and you have a ranch to run as well...remember?” she said with the ghost of a smile.
“We don’t mind, we want to help,” Slim said softly, smiling down at her.
Something in his eyes made Martha’s head spin a little and she caught her breath, looking away.
No, she couldn’t do this, fall for this handsome rancher. Not with her terrible husband in jail but due out any day now. He would never divorce her, she knew that. So, she had reconciled herself to a single life, once she could escape him. However, the last thing she wanted to do was to put Slim in any danger, knowing how aggressively jealous her husband was. Suppose he found her...and realized there was something between her and Slim? It didn’t bear thinking about.
“Are you OK?” Slim asked solicitously, taking her silence to mean she was feeling weary or maybe overwhelmed?
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said quickly, “I’ll just lie down on the couch for a little and maybe doze, I’ll awaken if she stirs, I’m a very light sleeper.”
Once she was settled Slim covered her over with the pretty patchwork cover that usually adorned Daisy’s chair and adjusted a cushion at her head.
“Thank you,” she murmured as he stooped over her, pulling the quilt up, his head so close to hers.
His gaze flicked across her face, resting on her lips for a moment then he leaned in and kissed her tenderly on the forehead, before withdrawing back. He looked deeply into her eyes...the intensity of his gaze sending a little shudder of desire through her.
“Goodnight Martha, just call if there’s any change...or you need anything... anything at all.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, before closing her eyes unable to meet that charged look any longer.
Slim turned, lowered the lamp and quietly left the room.
When he entered the bedroom, he was surprised to see Jess sitting up in bed glancing through an old catalogue.
“Still thinking of buying that new saddle?” Slim asked.
Jess shrugged and tossed it aside, “Maybe...”
Slim started stripping off his shirt and he wandered over to the washstand and had a hasty swill before turning back to where Jess was still sitting up in bed. He was looking pretty darned upset about something, Slim could see now.
However, before he could question him, Jess said, “What’s goin’ on Slim?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You know dang well what I mean, what’s going on between you and Martha?”
Slim flushed up immediately and turned away making a great fuss of folding the towel before he turned back...
“Nothing, why, what are you talking about?”
“Come on Slim, sure you do... You spend half the dang time daydreaming and the rest in her company.”
“The heck I do,” Slim said hotly. Before glancing over to the door and lowering his tone.
“So, what about tonight then huh Slim? We both know you finished workin’ on those figures nigh on two days ago.”
There was no answer to that so Slim resorted to aggression.
“What the Hell’s it got to do with you anyway,” he spat, “you’re not my keeper Jess!”
Jess hid a smile, “Do ya know who you sound like?” he asked.
“No who?” Slim growled.
“Me,” Jess said now unable to hide his amusement. “Hang it all Slim it’s usually me that gets in way too deep with the ladies, not you.”
“I’m not romancing her if that’s what you think,” Slim said angrily.
“Well I’m dang glad to hear it,” Jess said equally furiously, “because I sure wouldn’t like to see Lily hurt, she’s a real good friend of mine.”
“And you think I would?” Slim said.
Jess just shrugged, “Way yer goin’ I guess it’s gonna happen, unless you rein it in Slim... No good can come of this. She’s married if you remember...and you’re in love with Lily...so you say.”
That really incensed Slim and he glared at Jess, “I’m warning you,” he growled...
The whole conversation had been carried out in angry whispers, for fear they should disturb the sleeping household. However, the look in Slim ’s eyes and his tone left Jess in no doubt that now was the time to back off.
He lay down and merely said, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” before turning on his side ...asleep in minutes.
The next morning Slim declared he was off to town on business.
“What business?” Jess asked, throwing him a censorious look across the breakfast table.
Slim looked down, “We... er need some materials, wire and posts. I thought I’d ride by Mort’s office too. See if there’s any word on the circuit Judge, he’s been laid up with that influenza for a while now.”
“We need to get the matter of guardianship sorted out,” he said now turning to Martha, but unable to meet her steady gaze.
“You want me to come along?” Jess asked.
When Slim didn’t reply Jess repeated his question.
“Huh? Um, no, no I don’t Jess. You get on with shoeing Betsy and Dancer.”
With that he left the table abruptly, strode across the room, snagging his gun belt and hat from by the door and was gone.
“Well that’s me told,” Jess said quietly, buttering another biscuit.
“Oh my, is he alright Jess dear?” Daisy asked looking worried.
Jess flicked a look across to Martha and noted her slight flush and how she dropped her gaze, before he turned back to Daisy.
“I guess,” he said gruffly, before standing. “Thanks for breakfast,” he said before following Slim swiftly out.
He caught up with him just as he was leaving the barn, leading Alamo.
“What’s up Slim and why are you really going to town, because we sure as hell don’t need any more posts, the barns stacked with them,” Jess said belligerently standing in his path.
Slim was forced to stop and he looked down before finally meeting Jess’s angry gaze.
“I’m going to see Lily if you must know.”
Jess just nodded and stood to one side to let him pass.
“Give her my best,” he said quietly.
Slim pulled his hat down hard and mounted.
“Yeah,” he muttered before kneeing Alamo off at a fast trot.
It was mid-morning by the time he finally entered the saloon. He’d been waylaid by a neighbor seeking his help freeing a steer that had become bogged down in mud by the creek.
It was therefore a rather grubby and impatient Slim that strode through the bat-wing doors of the Laramie saloon. It was still reasonably early and so just a few diehard drinkers lounged at tables and one standing at the bar.
Slim marched over and ignoring Tom’s cheery greeting said, “Can I speak to Lily, it’s really important.”
Tom rolled his eyes and continued polishing a glass, “You’re kiddin’ right?” he asked laconically.
That was just the last straw for Slim, “No, I’m not kidding!” he thundered, “So, where is she?”
Tom shook his head, “You really have forgotten haven’t you. I said to her don’t fret honey, he’ll be tied up with some crisis or other at the ranch, he sure won’t have forgotten.”
Slim just looked blankly at the barkeep, “Huh?”
Tom sighed deeply, “That she was off to stay with her sister during her confinement, help care for the baby for a little too...gone about a month. You were supposed to take her out to supper last night and see her off.”
Slim 's  face was a picture of shock, “Jeez, of course, I thought that was next week...she’s gone?”
Tom nodded, “Early train...she wasn’t happy buddy...not happy at all.”
Slim hung his head and ordered a whiskey and downed it in one before calling for the bottle.
He poured another drink and then just stood there peering down at it.
Tom exchanged a concerned glance with the other solitary drinker at the bar, but made no comment.
If Jess Harper acted this way, well everyone knew what was coming and gave the guy a wide berth... But Slim? Well, that was another kettle of fish altogether. In fact, Tom couldn’t ever remember Slim hitting the red-eye so early in the day.
Slim was completely oblivious to his surroundings. All he could think of was his dear sweet angel of a girlfriend Lily and how he had let her down. Now his little dalliance with Martha seemed completely unimportant. He’d just got a tad close because he felt so very sorry for her. He realized that now. But his feelings for Lily were completely different. Oh, how he longed to hold her close, kiss her, make passionate love...But she had gone and what’s more she was mad with him and upset. How could he have forgotten? But it had been a while since he’d seen her what with all the business at the ranch with dear Beth missing and then so sick.
He was eventually roused from his reverie by Tom asking sarcastically if he was gonna drink that whiskey or not.
Slim looked up and then back down at the drink, “Not,” he said decisively...
“So, do you have Lucy’s address...Lily’s sister that is?”
“Uh...um...someplace,” Tom said looking vaguely around him.
“Tom!” Slim barked furiously.
“OK, OK don’t go gettin’ yer pants in a ruck,” Tom replied before producing a tattered scrap of paper from behind the till.
“She screwed it up she was so dang mad...but I rescued it, figured you’d be by sooner or later,” Tom said grinning at his friend.
“Thank God,” Slim said fervently, taking the paper and carefully placing it in his note book.
“Thanks Tom,” he said his good humor restored, “I appreciate it,” and with that he paid for the whiskey he hadn’t drunk and marched out of the bar.
Tom picked up the coins and shook his head grinning at Slim ’s departing back before taking the unwanted drink and downing it in one, “Good luck,” he said sincerely, before returning to polishing the glasses.
Next, he called in at Mort’s office for a reviving cup of coffee, the unaccustomed early whiskey having gone to his head somewhat.
“Not like you to be imbibing before noon,” Mort said as he leaned over and put the coffee in front of his friend, surreptitiously sniffing his breath at the same time, “and whiskey on a working day?”
“You’re not related to a hound dog are you Mort, ’cos you’ve sure got the sense of smell of one,” Slim replied irritably.
“That sounds just like the sorta thing your partner would say,” he said chuckling, “not to mention knocking back the red-eye before lunch.”
Slim had to smile at that and remembered Jess’s comment of the night before, “Hang it all Slim it’s usually me that gets in way too deep with the ladies, not you.”
“Maybe I’ve been spending too much time around him and I’m picking up some of his bad habits,” Slim said with a rueful grin.
“Um, so what’s really the problem?” Mort asked throwing Slim a penetrating look as he sipped his coffee.
Then he put the cup down, “I knew it. Its woman trouble isn’t it?”
Slim flushed up, how in hell could Mort know about his misguided feelings for Martha...fleeting as they were... Surely Jess hadn’t been into town discussing his private business.
“I knew it as soon as I saw Miss Lily taking off for the rail-head this morning. I thought uh-uh Slim ’s gonna be in big trouble iffen he’s forgotten to see her off.”
Slim breathed a sigh of relief, “Got it in one Mort and I’m going to have to fit one heck of a slice of humble pie into that letter I’ll be writing later.”
Mort grinned at him then. “So, anything else I can do for you other than counseling you on affairs of the heart?”
“Yes, you can actually Mort. We wondered if you’d heard anything on the health of the circuit Judge? Last I heard he was sick and he’s way overdue for the meeting regarding young Beth’s guardianship. The sooner it’s dealt with and Mrs Hudson can take her niece back east the better.”
“The last I heard he was still convalescing, be another week maybe two. But what’s your rush Slim? Young Beth’s a sweet kid and that aunt of hers is pretty easy on the eye I must say. Don’t you think?”
“Can’t say as I’ve noticed,” Slim said looking away quickly.
Mort threw him another penetrating look, but decided to say nothing.
“Poor woman,” he said quietly, “married to that thug Carl Hudson, what the hell did she see in him?”
Slim shrugged, “She was very young and just smitten I guess.”
“Yeah, well marry in haste repent at leisure so they say,” Mort said broodingly. “But having her knocked about that way? Nasty business, ” and he shook his head. “So, is she going for a divorce?”
“I really couldn’t say,” Slim said gruffly, “none of our business I guess.”
“No, you’re right of course,” Mort agreed. “Anyway, Hudson isn’t due to get out for another few weeks, so I believe. Hopefully she’ll be back east by then and he won’t be able to find her.”
“I sure hope not,” Slim said fervently.
“Thing is though we’re still holding his sister, Myra Hudson, on that abduction charge. She’s at the prison right now and will be until the Judge can come and pass sentence. I guess if her brother gets wind of that he’ll come over...but hopefully the guardianship issue will be resolved by then and Mrs Hudson and Beth will be long gone.”
Slim, nodded “I sure hope so.” he said again. Then he gave a low whistle, “hell Mort what’s she doing in there?”
“Huh...oh the prison you mean. Well she objected to having all male staff here so I suggested if she wanted to be held in a woman’s prison with a female jailer it could be arranged.”
“I bet she’s regretting that,” Slim said, knowing that new inmates would be locked in their tiny cells twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.
“Teach her not to be so dang picky,” Mort said cheerfully.

Chapter 13
Beth eventually won her battle against the terrible infection that had racked her young body for over a week and she was able to really start to make friends with her aunt.
“So once the judge has agreed I may be your legal guardian we can make plans about moving back east to find suitable accommodation near the art college,” Martha said cheerfully one morning as Beth was sitting up on the couch drinking some milk and looking much more herself. Her speech now thankfully returned.
Jess had just come in from the yard to make himself a coffee, Daisy visiting a neighbor, but he wandered over and smiling down at the youngster said, “Hey that’ll be swell won’t it Beth; having aunt Martha ridin’ shot gun on ya?”
Beth looked passed her aunt to where Jess stood behind her grinning down at the pair and thought her heart might break. Sure, she loved this new funny, kind aunt. But she adored Jess and the thought of him no longer being in her life was agonizing for her newly fledged emotions.
She swallowed and nodded agreeing that it would be fun. But Jess could see her heart wasn’t in it.
Martha too seemed to notice some tension and she gave up her seat on the couch beside Beth and said, “You stay here and keep Beth company Jess, I’ll make that coffee for you.”
Smiling his thanks, he took her place.
Once Martha had bustled off, he took Beth’s hand and said gently, “What’s up sweetheart, yer lookin’ forward to going to that college and getting all educated up ain’t ya?”
“Yes she agreed I am...and it will be so special with all the different kinds of paints, charcoal, drawing boards all that kind of thing,” she said suddenly animated at the thought.
“But?” Jess asked now peering intently at her.
“But you won’t be there,” she cried tragically, looking on the verge of tears.
Jess looked startled.
“Hey Beth don’t take on so. Aunt Martha will look after you real good and you can visit sometimes in the holidays. So, it won’t be so bad...huh?” he asked giving her a quick hug.
“Really...I can come back...see you again?” she asked pulling away so that she could see his face.
“Heck sure you can.”
“Well that might not be so bad then,” she said beaming at him. “Can I go find Mike and tell him?”
He smiled at how quickly she was able to seesaw from tragedy to joy within the span of a few minutes.
He nodded, “Sure but don’t overdo it or you’ll have Aunt Daisy on my back, half an hour and then back to rest up OK?”
“Deal,” she said grinning at him before she dashed off slamming the door behind her.
Moments later Martha entered bearing Jess’s coffee.
“Was that Beth going out?”
“Yup, it’s real warm out and I told her she’s not to be gone too long.”
Martha handed him his coffee and sank down on the couch beside him.
“That’s fine, Daisy said she could get some fresh air later today. So, is she alright Jess? I got the feeling maybe she didn’t want to go with me?”
“Heck no, it ain’t that...it’s just uh...”
“Just what Jess please tell me?”
“Well I guess she’s just gotten kinda used to being around here, around me ya know? But she’ll be fine once she gets to that smart college.”
Then the light dawned and she said, “Oh I understand now. Daisy explained to me that Beth was a little bit in love with you.”
Jess looked embarrassed, “Heck it’s just a childish crush, nuthin’ more.”
“Hey don’t make light of it. After all it may just be puppy love to us, but to her it’s very real.”
“I guess,” Jess said looking down.
“And I have to say she has very good taste,” Martha added with a charming giggle.
“Aw Martha,” Jess said looking acutely uncomfortable.
She was immediately contrite. “I’m sorry Jess I shouldn’t tease you, especially after you’ve been so kind. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t happened along and got me out of that dreadful mess back in Denver.”
Jess just shrugged, “Pete was a real good friend and I just wanted the best for his little girl. He trusted me to look out for her and that’s all I’ve tried to do Martha.”
“And you’ve done it perfectly,” she said softly. “You’ve all been so very kind Daisy, Mike....Slim.”
When Jess just sipped his coffee and said nothing she said, “Um...is he alright...Slim?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t he be?”
“I don’t know, he’s been a bit distant since he returned from town and I wondered if anything was bothering him?”
Ah-ha thought Jess now’s my chance to set the record straight once and for all.
“Well there is something yes...his girl has gone away for a few weeks and he’s kinda missing her.”
“Yeah, Lily, she’s a great gal... they’re close...real close ya know?”
Martha nodded feeling slightly bewildered, what was Jess trying to tell her? That he’d maybe picked up on her affection for Slim? But that’s all it was really, just a feeling of safety in his company...no more. Yes, he was handsome and kind, but she wasn’t free and any romantic thoughts on her behalf had been quickly quashed. But deep down inside she was devastated. Maybe sometime in the future she could have made a fresh start with Slim...but not now.
“I’m glad for him,” she said holding Jess’s gaze, “you deserve lovely girls and I wish you both every happiness really I do.”
Jess wasn’t quite sure where this was going and what Martha was trying to tell him either. But it sure weren’t that she was lusting after his pard, so he figured he’d just leave well enough alone.
“Uh thanks,” he said quickly slugging back the last of his coffee. “I’d better get back to work, see ya,” and he was off out of the door in the blink of an eye.
Martha watched him go a slightly puzzled look in her clear blue eyes before she shook her head and went off to start preparing supper.

A few days later Daisy reckoned that Beth was well enough to accompany her and Martha to town to finally kit her out for her new school. The circuit judge who was now well enough to travel, was due to arrive the following week and they would move back east soon after.
Mike had pleaded to be included in the shopping party and so the four set off bright and early one sunny morning towards the middle of August.
Daisy declared there would be little room in her small buggy for the children and all Beth’s new outfits, so the youngsters opted to ride into town.
They were about two miles from their destination when Daisy spied something strange up ahead of them.
A branch had been pulled across the road partially blocking it.
“That’s odd,” she said pulling Betsy to a halt, “there hasn’t been a bad storm for weeks.”
However, before she could speculate further a rough looking character emerged from behind some rocks waving a rifle at her.
His expression was one of pure hatred as he looked up at Martha and said sneeringly, “Well howdy honey-bun, I don’t expect you were countin’ on seeing your old man today huh?”
Martha had turned deathly pale and a hand shot up to her mouth as she gasped in shock and fear.
“What’s up hon, cat got your tongue,” he smirked.
Daisy stared icily at the man who must have been handsome once, but now had the bloodshot eyes and dissipated look of the perpetual drunk.
“I take it you are Carl Hudson,” she spoke up bravely, “and I’ll have you know that dear Martha here wants no more to do with you, so stand back and let us pass please.”
“Let us pass please,” Hudson mocked in a fair approximation of Daisy’s dulcet tones.
Then more gruffly, “Oh no I don’t think so ma’am. Now you listen up and listen up good. I’m takin’ these young ‘uns as sorta insurance,” he said reaching forwards and yanking Sunny’s reins, before moving over and taking Beth’s horse’s in hand as well.
“Hey get off!” Mike cried angrily...the cavalier treatment of his mount making him forget his fear.
“Watch it son,” Hudson spat furiously. “You just behave unless you want to see yer granny there take a bullet in the head.”
Mike was immediately silenced and threw Daisy an agonized glance.
“It’s alright Mike, don’t be afraid dear,” she said quickly, “Jess and Slim will be along shortly. I really can’t think what’s held them up,” she added glancing back along the road.
“Nice try Mrs but they ain’t comin’ and you know it. Now enough chat. You just listen to me. See those standing pines yonder?” he asked.
Daisy and Martha nodded.
“OK, so you dear wife will meet me there at sundown tomorrow. You come alone and bring me $1000 in used notes...and don’t give me any rubbish about not having it. You can get collateral on that house you are always so proud to tell me you own back in Denver. Not to mention your dear nieces’ inheritance. Oh yes, I’ve been back and seen the old place is on the market,” he growled angrily.
Then he shook his head remembering he needed to make his getaway as soon as he could. There would be time enough to remonstrate with her later.
“Just be there,” he said furiously,” because if you ain’t I’m gonna shoot these brats, starting with your beloved niece. You come alone with the cash and your suitcase, because you and me are still married iffen you like it or not. You come alone you hear me...no law and nobody else either, or the kids die and that’s a promise!”
With that he mounted up and turning his rifle on the children said, “You come with me pronto.”
Then he led them off at a fast trot...both Mike and Beth helpless to resist.
“Over by Pine Ridge,” Mort said tipping his hat back, “and about an hour ago you say Miss Daisy?”
Daisy nodded and glanced over to where Martha was sitting trembling with fear and shock.
“But you mustn’t go after them Mort dear, he said he’d harm the children if the law was involved, we just can’t risk it.”
Mort nodded, “I guess you’re right Ma’am, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat... I’ll ride back to the ranch with you, Slim and Jess need to be in on this.”
Jess looked up at the sound of approaching riders and turned from grooming the relay horses to call out to Slim in the barn. “We’ve got company Slim.”
Then just moments later Daisy brought the buggy to a standstill in the yard, followed by Mort who quickly dismounted.
“Hey Daisy what are you doing back so soon?” Jess asked looking puzzled. Then he looked up to the rise and back again. “And where are the kids?”
“I think we need to talk,” Mort said grimly and headed towards the ranch house. Slim came forwards and helped the ladies down and they all followed Mort inside.
“What,” roared Jess, “you say that hoodlum Hudson took the kids, well why the hell ain’t you got a posse up looking for them?”
“If you’ll simmer down, I’ll tell you,” Mort said equally acerbically.
“Miss Daisy here said he threatened to kill ‘em if the law, or anyone else come to that, were involved.”
“Surely that’s just an idle threat,” Slim blustered. “I know he’s a bad lot, but surely he wouldn’t hurt a child?”
Mort suddenly looked grim, “Well that’s where you’re wrong, I’m sorry to say Slim. You see he’d had his release delayed. As you can imagine he wasn’t any too happy about that. So, he somehow managed to get one of his gang to smuggle a knife in. A couple of days later he pretended to be sick and as he was being escorted to the town doc, he drew a knife. Killed one of the warders and used the other as a shield taking another officer with him, so he could escape. Then once he was free…he killed him too. He’s one desperate dude who will stop at nothing!”
At that Martha gave an agonized little cry and Slim was at her side at once, a protective arm around her shoulders.
Jess grimaced, his right-hand clenching and unclenching above his iron as though he would like to draw and shoot at anything just to dissipate his anger.
“So, you see he’s nothing to lose,” Mort continued. “If he doesn’t get his own way, I figure he could well kill both children. Mike as revenge for you bringing him in after that Stage job Jess...and Beth, well to spite you I imagine Mrs Hudson.”
When Daisy gave a little gasp of horror Mort looked slightly sheepish. “I’m, really sorry for my plain-speaking ladies, but I’m afraid we must face up to the facts if we are to outwit him.”
Jess’s head shot up, “So you got a plan Mort?”
The wise sheriff nodded, “One of sorts, but I guess you folk won’t like it too much.”
“Try us,” Jess drawled.
Mort looked over to where Martha was still in Slim ’s comforting embrace and said quietly. “I think we should initially do as he wants. Send Mrs Hudson to the rendezvous place at sundown tomorrow with the cash.”
“What are you plumb loco?” Slim exploded tightening his grip on Martha’s shoulder.
“I’ll do it.” Martha said a split second later.
Jess ignored both outbursts and said softly, “Then what Mort?”
“Once he’s let the children go, I reckon he’ll head for that big cave just half a mile south of Pine Ridge. In fact, that’s where I figure he’ll be holing up now. It’ll be getting dark so he’ll stay there ‘til sun up, before heading for the border.”
“But if you know exactly where he is can’t you just go and arrest him?” Daisy asked hopefully.
“I’m sorry, no ma’am, it would be just too risky with the young ‘uns in the line of fire.”
“How can you be sure he’ll release them if Martha rides in?” Slim asked.
Mort glanced down and when he looked back up, he seemed kind of embarrassed. “Uh, well I reckon he won’t want the kids around once he’s got his wife there to uh...catch up with,” he muttered quietly.
Jess drew the Sheriff aside from the ladies hearing and said quietly, “Are you sayin’ what I think yer sayin’ Mort?”
“Oh, come on Jess, what would be the first thing you wanted to do if you’d been banged up in jail for four years?”
“Exactly,” Jess whispered back, “hell Mort you can’t let her go through that.”
“I don’t intend to...listen this is what I propose....”
He turned back to include Slim and the ladies in his idea.
A little later Jess revued Mort’s plan.
“OK I get it,” he, said, “so me and Slim ride in before sundown, leave our mounts down in the gully and climb up the rocks at the back of the cave and stay there until he returns with Martha?”
Mort nodded, “By that time hopefully the children will be free and I’ll follow Martha and Hudson back towards the cave at a safe distance.”
“Then once they are inside, we burst in and take him,” Jess continued.
Mort nodded, “Yup, that’s about it.”
“But what about Martha,” Slim said sharply, “suppose he decides to kill her too!”
Mort shook his head, “Nope I don’t think he’ll hurt her.”
Then he turned to Martha, “I figure he does love you Ma’am even if it is a real jealous kinda love. I’ve seen it before in prisoners who have their wives kept tabs on by heavies whilst they are in jail. They just can’t bear the thought of the wife leaving.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Martha said quietly, but she exchanged a charged glance with Jess. Both of them knew that a man who sent his heavies to rape his wife if she dared leave him was way more than just a jealous husband.
Jess opened his mouth to declare just that, but Martha ran to him and said quietly, “It’s alright Jess I know what I’m doing. I can handle him and I trust you all to keep me safe. I have to do it for the children,” then very quietly, “don’t say anything please.”
He placed a hand gently on her shoulder, “You’re sure?”
She nodded vigorously and then turned back to Mort, “I’ll do it Sheriff!”

Chapter 14
Meanwhile in a huge cave to the south of Pine Ridge Carl Hudson surveyed the children with a jaundiced eye.
“Iffen you two know what’s good fer you you’ll shut up. Kids should be seen and not heard, so I don’t want a peep out of either of ya...got it?”
Mike and Beth who were sitting close together in the dim recess of the cave nodded obediently.
“Um, well see ya don’t and don’t even think of tryin’ to escape because I meant what I told the women folk. I will kill ya, make no mistake about that. I’ve already killed two and they can only hang me once...so you pay heed huh?”
“Yes sir,” Mike whispered.
Once Hudson had wandered off to the mouth of the cave with a bottle of red-eye Mike turned and gave Beth a brave smile and signed, ‘Are you OK?’
She nodded. ‘Yes,’ but she was inwardly quaking.
Mike desperately tried to think what Jess would do under these circumstances. Cuss at his jailer long and loud to start with Mike thought with the ghost of a smile...but then what? Bide yer time boy, he distinctly heard Jess’s deep gravelly voice in his mind...just take it real slow and wait...see iffen he drinks all that bottle huh?
Of course, Mike thought, if the guy was drunk maybe they could sneak past him.
He tried to convey that message to Beth via the secret signing and with some lip reading too and she eventually got the message and signed back, good plan.
However unbeknownst to the children Hudson had come up behind them and had been watching for a few minutes. Then he finally broke the silence and growled, “What in hell are you two up to with all that hand waving’ malarkey?”
Mike thought his heart might well beat clear out of his chest, but Beth appeared quite composed, “Just playing a kids game Mister,” she said with a cheeky grin.
“Uh, well stop it yer gettin’ on my nerves,” he barked, “or do I hafta tie you up?”
“No sir,” Beth replied meekly, “we’ll stop playing, won’t we Mike?”
“Yes sir,” Mike said looking the picture of innocence.
Hudson muttered something that sounded like ‘dang kids’ and wandered back off to his bottle left by the cave mouth. He resumed his seat leaning back on an old fallen tree by the entrance, staring moodily to the open country side below.
Beth too had been thinking of Jess and how worried he would be about them. Then how proud of her he would be when they managed to escape and she willed the horrible man to drink his fill and hopefully pass out.
It was several hours later and quite dark when they eventually heard loud snores coming from the cave entrance.
Getting up slowly and quietly they inched their way towards the sleeping figure, who was now sprawled out on his back. His body, they saw, blocking the narrow entrance. Stealthily and with great care they stepped over the sleeping form, first Mike successfully and then Beth. However, as she was just about to step over his legs he stirred. She held her breath and after a moment he settled on his side and the gentle snoring recommenced. Mike held out a hand to her and she gingerly stepped over the sleeping man and they hurriedly made their way down the steep path to the valley below.
There they paused and Mike whistled softly for Sunny, his mount, but there was no response. In fact, they could hear nothing, save the sound of Hudson’s mount grazing nearby. The children made their way over to where the big buckskin was ground hitched, but there was absolutely no sign of their own mounts.
“He must have hidden them some place,” Mike whispered, “or maybe they got loose?” he added, feeling a stab of pain at the loss of his beloved pony.
“I guess we’ll just have to walk to town then,” Beth replied. “We need to find that nice Sheriff Cory, he’ll know what to do,” she finished her voice somewhat shaky.
She peered around her in the pitch dark wondering just how they would get there though, when they could barely see a few feet in front of them. There was no moon and to confound the situation a light mist was rising, making even the nearby trees look hazy.
Mike nodded and then once more thought back to his hero and what he would do. Jess would say leave the horse, you need to be afoot in the dark Tiger, safer see?
He took Beth’s hand and said bravely, “Don’t worry I’ll look after you Beth. Come on I figure it’s this way to the road.”
But they were never to make it.
They’d only been walking for ten minutes or so when Mike stopped in his tracks, “Yup look Beth there’s Pine Ridge dead ahead...so the road must be about a mile this way...come on,” he cried excitedly rushing forwards, “we’re nearly there!”
Just seconds later the ground seemed to open up beneath their feet and they were suddenly falling, plummeting down until they came to earth with a jolt at the bottom of a deep pit...both children knocked unconscious by the fall.
Back at the ranch Jess had been getting more and more impatient as time went on.
“We have to wait and play it Mort’s way,” Slim said grimly. “We just can’t risk Mike and Beth’s lives by trying to take him in the cave.”
“I guess you’re right,” Jess muttered, “but it’s hard, real hard knowing they’re probably close by and we can’t help them.”
“Please Jess just be patient a little longer,” Daisy begged. “We have to keep them safe and this seems to be the only way.”
“Look Jess, he needs them for the deal. He knows dang well we won’t pay up unless we get the youngsters back safely, so he’ll be looking after them I’m sure,” Slim said, sounding more certain than he actually felt.
Now it was late afternoon and they would be riding out shortly.
Slim was worried sick about dear Martha as well as the children. She had ridden into town with Mort the day before to sort out the finances and he wouldn’t see her again until they met up at the rendezvous with that bastard Hudson that evening. The more Slim thought about him the madder he got. How could he treat his beautiful wife this way?
Jess had hinted at how he had bullied and abused her and Slim couldn’t wait to get his hands on the miscreant and bring him to justice. He’d hang for what he’d done and that was what he deserved Slim thought dourly.
Then he was dragged from his thoughts by Jess sounding impatient.
“I said it’s time we were going, the sun will be setting by the time we get in place,” Jess said as he strapped on his gun belt and snagged his hat from the hook by the door.
Then he turned to Daisy, “You’ll be alright?”
Daisy nodded and came and gave both men a brief hug, “Do be careful, both of you.”
“We will,” Jess said giving her his warm smile, “don’t fret Daisy, back as soon as we can.”
“We’ll be fine,” Slim agreed.
But then with hard eyes he added, “Which is more than can be said for that bastard Hudson!”
Daisy exchanged a glance with Jess, thinking how out of character that remark was and more in keeping with Jess. But even he moderated his colourful language in front of her.
After a moment Slim looked down, “I’m sorry Daisy,” he muttered, “I guess all this has got to me.”
“Of course dear, I understand...but do take care.”
Back at the cave, Hudson had finally awoken mid-morning with a monumental hangover. So it had been another hour before he finally thought to check on the children and found them missing.
He had spent the day combing the surrounding countryside, whilst trying to stay hidden. The first place he’d looked was down on the far side of the hill behind the cave where he’d tethered the two ponies...But they were still standing there patiently. He swore and muttered to himself...but there was nothing he could do; they had got clean away. But they were on foot at least so probably hadn’t made it home yet, so he was still in with a chance. He’d just have to try and bluff it out.
As the time for the meeting drew near, he went and released the ponies, slapping them hard on their rumps and sending them off in the general direction of the road. Maybe he could say he had released them early and they were on their way back to the ranch...and Martha would just have to believe him.
The whole thing sounded pretty flimsy even to his own ears...but there was nothing more he could do. Anyway, what was Martha going to do about it? She would be alone and unarmed so he could deal with her alright...and forget the dang kids, they’d get home, sooner or later, and everybody would be happy. Even that dang outspoken old woman, Jeez she was a trouble maker if ever I saw one Hudson reflected.
Jess and Slim were now in place behind the rocks just to the left of the cave waiting impatiently for Hudson to emerge.
But, when he finally did show himself there was no sign of the children.
Slim and Jess peered down anxiously, but nope, now Hudson was making his way down the rocky pathway heading for the distant Pines.
“Maybe he’s got ‘em tied up in the cave?” Jess suggested and the two men made their way hastily down towards the cave entrance. After giving Hudson’s retreating back a quick glance they headed inside. But no, the place was completely empty and indeed no sign of the children having even been there.
“What’s he playin’ at?” Jess spat. “If he’s hurt ‘em...” he added darkly.
“Come on let’s get after him,” Slim said, “Martha’s out there in danger!”
The two men dived quickly down the stony pathway and on towards Pine Ridge tracing Hudson’s footsteps.
A few minutes later they heard raised voices and charged forwards, stopping just yards from where Hudson was confronting Martha angrily.
She was sitting her horse and looking flushed and upset, but was refusing to part with the money, or dismount until she saw the children.
“I told you they’re OK you silly bitch. I sent them off on their ponies an hour ago they should be back at the ranch safe and sound by now. So you dang well come here...or do I have to fetch you huh?”
He drew his gun and cussed loudly when she made no move to do as he asked, “Goddamn it woman get off of that nag and bring me the dang money or so help me I’ll shoot you,” he raged.
“No, you damn well won’t!” Slim yelled.
Hudson spun around and seeing the two men behind him immediately opened fire...but two shots found their mark before he had even aimed.
Jess’s in his shoulder, but Slim ’s had slammed square into his chest catapulting him backwards.
Jess ran over and knelt by his side, but Slim made straight for Martha and pulling her down from her mount he enveloped her in his warm embrace.
Mort was there just seconds later and joined Jess by Hudson’s body.
The dark-haired cowboy had the man by the shoulders and was shaking him so hard his teeth were rattling, “What have you done with the kids you low life scum,” he bellowed.
“Easy Jess let him speak damn it,” Mort interjected just as Slim and Martha hurried over.
“Dead...” Hudson gasped with an evil grin, “I killed the little brats...drowned them in the pond yonder and buried them in a shallow grave out back of the cave someplace...don’t recall where,” he added with a horrific smirk.
Martha gave a cry of shock and would have collapsed if Slim hadn’t been supporting her.
Then Jess once more laid into the dying man...cussing and back-swiping him hard across the face, before Mort finally pulled him off.
“Enough Jess,” he thundered...enough...he’s gone.”
There was a sudden silence...before Jess broke it by glaring at his Pard and yelling, “Why in hell did ya have to shoot him in the chest Slim? I’d already covered it...winged him...so he’d hang... Now we’ll never find where he’s laid ‘em to rest...or even if he was lying or not.”
Slim looked completely broken....
“I…I just had to finish it; the way he threatened Martha, I just wanted him dead” and he hung his head.
There was another long uncomfortable silence before Mort said quietly, “It’ll be dark soon. I figure we need to go out back of the cave and see if he was telling the truth or not huh?”
Once the sun had set and darkness was falling Mort called a halt.
“We’ll have to give up for now and come back tomorrow...they could be anyplace, like that bastard said.”
“Or nowhere,” Martha spoke up.
“I don’t believe he had it in him to kill innocent children that way, really I don’t Sheriff. He was a bad lot and violent yes...but he wouldn’t hurt a child for all that. Plus, it doesn’t add up. Carl was terrified of water ever since he nearly drowned as a child...he won’t go near lakes or rivers...or even a small pond like that one by the Pines.”
“There were certainly no signs of a struggle, or even tracks at the edge either,” Mort said thoughtfully, “I checked.”
“Well where in hell are they?” Jess snapped angrily...his fear making him sound belligerent.
“Maybe they really are on their way back to the ranch just like he told Martha and he was just trying to get us real wound up?” Slim suggested.
“Well he dang well succeeded,” Jess muttered.
“Or they could be heading for town, it being closer,” Mort said. “Strange Martha and I didn’t pass them on the way, but they could be using the old back road, Mike knows that shortcut doesn’t he Slim?”
The tall rancher nodded. “Yeah, so why don’t you head back Mort, and take that lowlife with you,” he said tipping his hat back towards the pines where Hudson’s corpse still lay. We’ll take Martha back to the ranch and see if maybe they’ve turned up there after all huh?”
“No,” Jess yelled looking tormented. “No I ain’t going anyplace until I’ve checked back of the cave again in daylight...If that bastard has killed them then I need to know. Anyway, same as Mort said. You and I came here from the ranch and had they been headin’ home we’d have seen them Slim. Think about it...they must be somewhere around here.”
Slim hung his head, “Maybe you’re right, I don’t know. But I do know Daisy will be going crazy with worry back at the ranch.”
Then he turned his gaze on Martha and said, “Martha here looks done in. I’ll take her back and see you tomorrow Jess if you’ve a mind to stay?”
“I have,” he said gruffly and with no further comment turned on his heel and marched off towards the cave.
Slim half made to follow him, but Mort grabbed his arm, pulling him gently back and shaking his head.
“Let him go Slim, he needs time. This business has hit him real hard.”
“Hell do you not think I’m upset too!” Slim snarled angrily.
“I know buddy,” Mort said slapping him lightly on the arm. “But we all deal with these things differently... You need to take care of Miss Martha there and Daisy, keep ‘em safe and try and ease their pain. But old Jess there,” he said tipping his hat towards where Jess had now disappeared in the encircling gloom of late evening,” he needs time to lick his wounds and try to figure out how to deal with it all.”
Slim nodded and gave his old friend the ghost of a smile, “You know us so well Mort,” he said softly, “thanks for everything. I’ll send a message if there’s any news. Otherwise we’ll meet up here tomorrow.”
He turned and taking Martha’s arm escorted her to her mount and shortly afterwards the couple rode out heading for the ranch.
Meanwhile Jess had unsaddled Traveller and left him ground hitched to graze, whilst he took one last look at the rough land behind the cave.
He knew the area was peppered with old mine-shafts and tunnels and the rocky ground was constantly shifting and moving, particularly after heavy rain. Now as he surveyed the area in the failing light, there could be anyone of a hundred places looking like the earth had been recently disturbed and he could have wept. The rough terrain swept off to the horizon as far as the eye could see and a man could maybe spend the rest of his life searching and not find the unmarked grave he reflected.
After a moment he sank to his knees and prayed like he had never done before. One minute he was shouting in anger at a God who could let this happen and then moments later atoning for his blasphemy and beseeching his dear Lord to help him find them. Then finally whispering, “Lord if they are in your safe keeping please give me some kinda sign...it’s the not knowing...” he finished.
Eventually he got unsteadily to his feet and retraced his steps to the cave and once he’d tended to Traveller he settled down for the night. As he laid his bed roll out and settled down in the dry cave, he really didn’t think he’d sleep a wink. He tore off his gloves, hat and boots before stretching out ready to spend the night tossing and turning. He was so exhausted by all the emotional turmoil of the last twenty-four hours though that he fell into a deep slumber almost at once.
It was nearly dawn when something awoke him. He sat bolt upright peering into the dim dawn light at the cave’s mouth, listening intently... his gun drawn instinctively. Yes, there is was again a tapping noise that seemed to come from the walls of the cave itself...but how could that be? Then moments later he heard a muffled cry, “Help....please anyone, help us...”
“Mike...it was Mike?”
Dear God, his prayer had been answered was his immediate thought.
He had sent a sign...the ghostly pleas of a lost soul calling out in the wilderness. But why was the child earthbound Jess wondered. He got up shivering and walked to the mouth of the cave seeking some respite from the voices. For now, Mike’s plaintive wails had been joined by Beth’s...and he just couldn’t bear it.
He went and sat on a rock outside the cave, his head in his hands thinking he might well completely lose his mind such were his fears.... He was shaking uncontrollably now, sweat running down his back and his breathing coming in painful gasps as he tried desperately to catch his breath.
After a few minutes, he slowly began to calm himself by breathing slowly and deeply and eventually felt once more in control.
Something was wrong real wrong... Innocents like Beth and Mike should be dwelling in Paradise with the dear Lord...not left abandoned to walk the earth as lost souls...so what could be happening he wondered.
After a minute he steeled himself to get up and re-enter the cave, the distant tapping now louder and the cries more despairing...
Going to the back of the cave where the noise seemed to be emanating, down at ground level, he stooped down and picking up a rock knocked it against the hard flint of the cave wall.
After a short pause there was frantic banging in reply and more heart felt cries for help.
“Mike, Mike that you?” Jess yelled as loudly as he could.
“JESS? JESS!” Came the cry of joy...Mike and Beth screaming as one.
There was no way into the cave from the rear so Jess hurriedly ran outside and around the back searching for some sort of break in the rocks.
After five minutes of fruitless searching he finally spotted what looked like a metal grating partly obscured by weeds and rocks.
He tore at the rocks with his bare hands until they bled, but then he was rewarded by the sound of the voices getting louder as the children scrabbled their way towards the light.
He dragged the rusty grating out of the way and just seconds later he was rewarded by two filthy, little tear stained faces peering back at him from the dim tunnel. Then they were in his arms all three crying tears of joy at the reunion.
“I knew it...knew you’d come,” Beth finally managed.
Jess brushed her dusty tangled hair back and holding her face between his hands smiled down at her, before kissing the top of her head and then turned to hug Mike close, too overcome to reply.
He finally got control and said, “I guess we need to get you two home, they’ve all been worried sick. There’ ll be time enough for you to tell me all about it once you’re fed and cleaned up some huh?”
The children sighed in relief at not being cross questioned, exhausted as they were after the recent traumas of the long night in the dark tunnel.
So with Mike sitting to his front and Beth with her arms around him sitting behind him Jess set off for home at a slow walk. Traveller’s measured step sending Mike to sleep after they had only gone a couple of miles. His little blond head lolling back onto Jess’s chest. Meanwhile Beth held onto Jess tightly, thinking she had never loved anyone so much. He was her true knight in shining armor  her perfect hero.

Things all moved pretty swiftly after that. The circuit Judge had arrived and agreed to Martha’s guardianship of young Beth.
Then he had passed sentence on Myra Hudson, for the part she had played in trying to abduct the child. But, the ever kind hearted Martha spoke up for her sister-in-law. She felt that the woman had suffered enough losing her home, the house having successfully sold, and also her brother. The judge took that into account and sentenced her to six months imprisonment to be served at the Denver prison.
The children recovered from their ordeal quickly. In fact, they bounced back much more readily than the adults.
Surprisingly it was the rough, tough Jess who usually hid his innermost feelings so well who took the longest to recover from the trauma.
He kept seeing that terrible open landscape behind the cave, thinking it was their last resting place, but not knowing where to look for the shallow grave.
Now days later standing in the barn he remembered those terrible ghostly cries in the cave and he shuddered.
At that very moment Slim came up behind him and slapped him on the back, “Hey what’s up buddy... did a ghost walk over your grave?”
Jess’s head shot up, “Somethin’ like that,” he said gruffly.
“Come on Jess, this isn’t like you. Mike and Beth are home safe and sound now. The circuit Judge has given Martha Guardianship and she and Beth are off to make a new life back east tomorrow. So, you’ve really no cause to worry about little Beth any longer.”
Jess gave him a weak smile, “Yeah I know it...guess I’ll miss her something fierce though.”
“Yeah me too,” Slim agreed.
Jess threw him a quizzical look and said, “Beth...or Martha?”
Slim looked quickly towards the barn door to see if anyone was within earshot and then said, “Don’t start that again Jess. I was just looking out for her that’s all.”
“So, were you ‘lookin’ out for her’ the other day when you kissed her?” Jess asked turning from his task of grooming Traveller to peer intently at his buddy.
Slim turned scarlet, “I didn’t...I mean it wasn’t the way you think...she was just so overwhelmed when Beth came home...she needed some...affection.”
“Affection,” Jess spat, “so that’s what they’re callin’ it now huh...bein’ unfaithful?”
“I wasn’t,” Slim yelled furious now, “she just needed someone to be there for her...at that particular moment and it was me...and that’s all there is to it...I love Lily. You know that.”
Jess just shook his head and returned to his task, “Let’s just hope she does,” he said softly.
But Slim had stormed off tormented by his feelings. He knew in his heart that all he felt for dear Martha was compassion. Sure, she was a beautiful woman, the kiss they had shared very special...and under different circumstances, then yes, he might have been tempted. But no, it was Lily he wanted, he was absolutely sure of that; and by God he certainly hoped his letter had convinced her of that.
It was a subdued party that set off for the rail-head after breakfast the following morning. Daisy drove the buckboard, deep in conversation with Martha, and Mike and Beth sat in the back chattering away. However, although the young girl answered all Mike’s excited questions about her new life...she never took her eyes of Jess.
He and Slim were flanking the buckboard having opted to ride into town as they had some business to attend to later, whereas Mike and Daisy would return home once they had waved their friends off.
Now Beth turned to Mike and said, “Isn’t Jess a swell rider, he seems like he was born in the saddle, don’t you think?”
Mike glanced over and agreed he was a good rider.
“So strong too,” she added softly, “did you see the way he tossed my trunk full of all my stuff onto the buckboard? Gee that weighs a ton, I couldn’t even lift it.”
Mike agreed he was real strong...
Then he threw his friend a puzzled look, “Hey Beth you ain’t soft on him, are you?” he asked.
She flushed a little and turned away, “Why of course not, are you crazy? I was just sayin’ that’s all.”
But when the time came for them to depart, standing on the station, she could hide her true feelings no longer.
The locomotive was waiting for them to climb aboard, sitting there like some huge, smoke belching monster as the guard blew his whistle and cried, “All aboard.”
That was when she threw herself into Jess arms sobbing and declaring her love for him.
“Hey sweetheart, it’s OK don’t take on so,” he said looking helplessly to Daisy for support, but she merely shrugged and gave him a sympathetic look.
Then he took the youngster in his arms and held her tightly kissing the top of her head before releasing her and looking into her pleading dark eyes...
“I love ya too,” he replied quietly, “and if I had a little girl, I’d want her to be just like you.”
She nodded, knowing that was all she could expect from him and if that were so, well it was better than nothing. Thinking her heart might surely break she smiled bravely at him and said, “You will write, won’t you?”
“Sure, I will...”
Then the officious looking guard hurried up and said, “You really need to get aboard now folks!”
Martha nodded and turned to go, before running back and throwing herself in Slim ’s arms where she kissed him passionately, before turning and climbing aboard where a tearful Beth was waiting for her.
Then the final door was slammed the whistle blown the flag was waved and the huge engine finally got up steam. It huffed and puffed its way along the track and in moments was shrouded from view by clouds of steam and smoke, Mike, Daisy, Slim and Jess standing alone on the platform still waving vigorously.
Then as the mist cleared a solitary figure stood there in the distance. After a moment she put down her valise and started running towards the little group.
“Lily,” Slim whispered before crying out joyously “Lily,” as he ran to meet her.
Then she was in his arms as he twirled her around laughing with elation. Then putting her down he kissed her deeply.
“Looks like Lily’s home from visiting her sister,” Jess said conversationally.
Then he turned to Daisy and grinned, “I guess that letter you wrote must have done the trick.”
“Oh, Jess I didn’t write it all you know that! I just helped Slim out a little that’s all.”
“Uh, well I guess you did a real good job,” he replied grinning and looking over to where Slim and Lily were still locked in a passionate embrace.
Daisy got hold of Mike’s shoulders and turned him around, “Come along young man, I don’t think we’re needed here at the moment, how about a nice coffee at Miss Mollie’s Café...Jess dear?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Jess said grinning down at her and taking her arm, “I figure that’s exactly what we need right now...”
It was some time before they heard from Martha and Beth. But when they did it was excellent news. They had met up with Beth’s Mentor Jason Howe who was a tutor at the Art College. They had been invited to stay with him, his wife Dory and Beth’s friend, their daughter, Joanie. Martha had made good friends with Dory and was delighted to report that she and Beth had now secured a small but delightful house on the same street.
With Martha’s letter was a separate one from Beth addressed to Jess.
Daisy raised an eyebrow to Slim across the table, where they were enjoying a mid-morning coffee break, as she passed the missive over to Jess.
He tore it open eagerly and was soon chuckling and shaking his head a huge smile on his face.
“What’s so funny Jess?” Slim asked a smile on his own face at the sight of his partner looking so animated.
“Looky here,” said Jess passing the letter over, “gee the kid is so dang talented.”
Slim too was soon grinning away and he showed Daisy.
“Oh my she is so clever, all these little sketches describing what she is talking about, why you might almost be there beside her,” she exclaimed as she pored over the little pictures in the margin.
There was one of her dear friend Joanie signing to her and another of Martha sitting with her new friend Dory. She also included various pictures of the new house and even Joanie’s pet dog. The last page though, was given over to a beautiful picture of Jess grooming Traveler and below it simply said...I miss you.
“Bless her heart,” said Daisy her eyes misty. “The child really does love you Jess, in her own way. Puppy love can be quite real you know.”
Jess looked down and said softly, “Yeah I know it.” Then smiling up at her, “but I guess its nuthin’ time won’t take care of huh.”
But he was wrong. As the words of the song say, ‘First love never, ever dies.’
Beth did exceptionally well at Art College, accepting commissions for portraits before she even graduated. In her next to last year she took a grand tour of Europe, chaperoned by Martha. They had an amazing time with Beth learning from some of the iconic artists of the day and Martha soaking up the culture and fascinating people she met along the way.
Back home during her final year at college Beth fell in love with a fellow student Freddy Cole. The couple graduated with honors and were to go on to have a golden partnership throughout their long lives. Not only as husband and wife, but also as artists and later became joint owners of a swish Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue.
Beth’s dear Aunt Martha never married, but had a little apartment in their home and happily helped to care for Beth’s children, her great niece and nephew. If ever she was asked why a beautiful intelligent woman like herself had never remarried, she just shrugged and said that the right man had never come along...
But in reality, he had. Unfortunately, the tall blond rancher she had fallen for was promised to another. So she just kept in touch with Daisy, enjoying all the news from the ranch and of the doings of Slim Sherman and Jess Harper...although she too, like her dear niece, missed them all dreadfully.
Although they never visited Wyoming again, Beth and Martha kept in touch all their lives. Beth was eternally grateful to all at the ranch for taking her in and caring for her after the death of her dear Pa. She was also deeply indebted to Jess for finding her beloved Aunt Martha and helping to make her dream of becoming an artist a reality.
Her life was one of merriment and hard work devoted to promoting the arts. At their gallery not only did they display their own work, but also gave a helping hand to struggling young artists, a place on the hallowed walls of the Cole Gallery being a real feather in the cap of a budding artist.
It was a huge place ornate and well-appointed with light flowing in from its many windows and the large entrance doors that opened out into a circular entrance hall with an imposing reception desk. Above the desk in pride of place was a large watercolor painting.
It depicted a ranch yard and in the background a pair of children sitting on the house porch playing checkers. A little blond boy was grinning cheerfully at a slightly older girl. Her dark hair neatly braided and held in place with bright ribbons. They were both barefooted and two dogs lay nearby, panting in the afternoon heat. It was a magical insight into a moment in time in that world, so long ago.
In the fore ground the same girl was crouched in the shadows, her dark head bent over her sketch pad. The object of her portrait was standing leaning on the corral fence.
He was young and very handsome, wearing a dusty blue work shirt and tight denims. His black hat set back at a jaunty angle exposing a tangle of dark hair. He seemed oblivious of the young girl drawing him as he looked out to the distant Snowy Mountains...a look of profound longing in his deep blue eyes.
The title of the painting, written in gold lettering below the ornately framed work of art was simply, ‘The Awakening.’
There was much conjecture in the art world as to the meaning of the title of the famous painting, but Beth never explained it. She just gave an enigmatic smile and said it simply meant whatever the viewer wished it to mean.
The original painting remained there even after Beth and Freddy’s son...and then his son took over the running of the gallery. It was never put up for sale, no matter how much the rich art dealers were prepared to pay. Beth just said that some things were beyond price and refused to discuss the matter further.
Beth’s aunt was the only other person who understood what the title ‘The ‘Awakening’ was really alluding to. That it was in fact the ‘awakening’ of the first pangs of love as felt by a young girl. It was a time of transition, from being a child playing checkers, to a youngster in love with her hero.
After all Martha thought with a smile, every little girl needs a hero and who more deserving than Jess Harper?
The End
Thank you for reading.

Email Address:
If you have enjoyed this story, please send me a comment!

This contact form was created by Freedback.