#87 The New Teacher

The New Teacher

Patty Wilkinson

(Please be aware some adult scenes, violence and strong language)

This was set before our boys had special girlfriends!

Slim Sherman

Supper had long finished and I was sitting at the table with Mike, helping him complete his homework.

He chewed the end of his pencil in concentration and then applied the point to the note book in front of him, writing carefully, a frown of concentration on his young face. After a few minutes he turned his big innocent eyes on me and said, “I guess that’s it Slim can you check the spelling for me, I sure wanna get this right for Miss Brown.

I turned and exchanged a smile with Jess who was sitting on his old rocker in front of the fire whittling a piece of wood into a small whistle for the boy. He winked back at me but said nothing. We both knew Mike’s sudden attention to his lessons was more to do with the massive crush he had on his new teacher rather than a genuine thirst for knowledge. However, we decided to take advantage of his new found enthusiasm for learning and help him all we could. That was the reason why he was still hitting the books, long after his bedtime.

Just at that moment Daisy entered the room from where she had been washing up the dishes in the kitchen and said, “Oh my Mike, what are you still doing up, its way past your bedtime.”

Mike looked across and replied, “Aw please Aunt Daisy, just a few more minutes I’ve gotta read this story out in class tomorrow and I have to get the spellin’ all right for Miss Brown.”

“Well, I’m sure Miss Brown would agree with me that you’ll do a whole lot better in school tomorrow on a good night’s sleep,” she replied.

Seeing the boy’s crestfallen expression, she softened and said, “Tell you what Mike, Slim will check the spellings and correct any that need doing and then we can look at it together after breakfast alright?”

He beamed at her, “OK, thanks Aunt Daisy,” he grinned and kissing us all went happily off to bed.

Daisy and I went and sat by the fireside with Jess and after a while I started chuckling to myself.

“What’s up Pard?” Jess asked.

“This story of Mike’s,” I replied, “it’s priceless.”

“Let’s hear it then,” he said, so I began to read.

“My Life, by Mike Williams Class 2”

'Jess and Slim are my best friends and they look after me real well and let me do good stuff like ridding
(sp) and swimming and helping out about the ranch. Aunt Daisy makes reel (sp) good food like apple pies and stuff like that. And she does reel (sp)l good hot chokolate ( sp)  too.
Slim is reel (
sp)  good at Math and riting (sp)  and Jess is reel (sp) good at breaking mustangs but he falls off a lot and says lots of bad words and then gets up again and gets back on the mustang. Aunt Daisy don’t let him back in the house until he’s washed up reel (sp) good when he has been falling off a lot.
Sometimes on a Saturday Slim and Jess go to town to the saloon. When they come back they smell of beer and laugh a lot and they always remember my candy.
I luv
(sp)my family very much and we have lots of fun.

We looked at each other and Daisy wiped away a tear, but whether from emotion or laughter I wasn’t sure.

Jess had been laughing as hard as I had, but he suddenly stopped and said, “We can’t let him read that to the new teacher! What in heck will she think of us? I can’t stay on a horse to save my life; I cuss something fearful and we’re forever down the saloon drinkin’ beer. She ain’t gonna think we’re the best of guardians, that’s for sure.”

Daisy beamed across at us, “I shouldn’t worry too much,” she said, “just read the last line again, I love my family very much. We have lots of fun”, that’s the important bit and I guess she will take the rest with a pinch of salt.

“I sure hope so,” I mused, “I sure hope so!”

The following morning at breakfast Daisy and I helped him sort out the spelling mistakes as promised and then we had to sit through another 10 minutes of hearing how wonderful his new teacher was.

“And not only is she real kind and real smart, but she’s real pretty too,” he finished with a sigh.

Just then we heard the early morning Stage rolling in and Jess and I went off to greet it and have some banter with the driver, our old friend Mose Shell. As usual Jess stood strategically placed with a hand out ready to open the door and Mose drew up to within an inch of where he stood and grinning down from the box said, “That’s four out of four this week Jess, if I get it right tomorrow, I guess you owe me a dollar.”

Jess started prevaricating but the argument was cut short as Mike ran out clutching his school bag and was unceremoniously bundled up into the coach. Mose grinned down at us, and with a cheery “See ya tonight,” he was off again at speed, scattering chickens as he went.

Jess and I stood watching as the Stage disappeared off in a cloud of dust and turning to me, he said, “The kid’s sure got it bad. I can’t wait to meet this new teacher if she is as wonderful as he thinks,” he added grinning across at me.

“Me too buddy,” I agreed, “Me too.”

Turns out we didn’t have too long to wait either as we finally met her the next Friday night at the Laramie Spring Dance.

I didn’t have a date that night, but Jess was with Millie a good friend of his. They go way back and have a real easy relationship, and often go out together if neither one is seeing anyone, but it is very much a no strings affair which seems to suit them both.

Well that night we all met up in the saloon, where Millie works, and had a couple of drinks and then walked down to the Town Hall where the dances are held. As we went in, the first person we saw was our good friend Doc Sam Baker, along with his pretty young daughter and Nurse, Carrie on his arm and another young lady on the other.

He advanced towards us and said, “Jess, Millie, Slim, I’d like you to meet the new School Teacher, Miss Emma Brown.”

Well all I can say is that Mike sure didn’t do her justice, she was more than wonderful. She was gorgeous, small, with long dark hair and the most beautiful big brown eyes and an inviting, friendly smile. She seemed to look straight through to your soul but she had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes too, which was real attractive.

We shook hands with her and grinning at us she said, “Don’t tell me, you have come straight from the Saloon,” and then turning to Jess continued, the sparkle in her eye even brighter, “and you Mr Harper, are doubtless black and blue after spending the day being unseated by a wilful Mustang.”

Jess grinned back at her, “Jess, please,” he said leaning forwards and touching his hat and giving her his best lady-killer smile, “and I guess you’ve been reading Mike’s story,” he finished looking a mite sheepish.

“Indeed,” she agreed, “but don’t worry I have allowed for a little poetic license,” she smiled.

Jess looked a bit confused for a moment, obviously not knowing what the hell she was talking about, but rallied well and with a wise look said, “I’m sure you have Ma’am.”

She turned to me with a wink and said, “And I believe you are the reader in the family Mr Sherman, maybe you would care to take a turn around the dance floor and tell me about your reading preference,” she said smiling across at Jess and Millie, before excusing herself to Sam.

I was in seventh heaven, she danced like a dream and I was the envy of every man present as we whirled around the dance floor.

Well ol’ Jess there is a pretty good dancer himself and he was up dancing with Millie and I noticed Emma’s eyes kept returning to the couple.

After a while she cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at me and said, “So, are Jess and Millie going steady?”

I gave a guffaw, “Heck no, they’re just real good friends that’s all.”

She looked speculatively over at him and said nothing, but I knew that look, the way women always look at Jess, and my heart sank.

We stayed together for another couple of dances and then there was a Ladies Excuse Me and Emma shot off and after tapping Millie on the shoulder danced away with Jess. They sure made a good-looking couple, though I hated to admit it. I saw how they were chatting animatedly and seemed to be enjoying each others company and my heart plummeted further.

As soon as the dance was over though he brought her back to me and I guess he saw a look in my eye which said ‘back off buddy’, and after smiling charmingly and thanking her for the dance he reclaimed Millie and disappeared into the crowd .We didn’t see them again and I guessed Jess had gone back to Millie’s place for the night, as he often did if they had been out together.

At the end of the evening I saw Emma scanning the crowds and I guessed she was looking out for Jess and Millie, but after a while Sam and Carrie came over.
Turning to Emma he said, “I’m so sorry but I’m afraid a medical emergency has cropped up and I must dash,” and then turning to me he said, “Would you be kind enough to see Miss Brown home for me Slim?”

I was delighted to have the opportunity of course and Emma seemed happy enough, so we collected her wrap and took off down the main street arm in arm.

She told me how kind Sam and Carrie had been to her since she arrived in town, knowing no one, and I told her that they were good friends of ours.

“A good job too,” I said grinning over at her, “the amount of times we need his services, especially, Jess.”

She looked quite surprised and said, “It is true then, he is always falling off horses?”

“Yeah, that and getting shot, or beat up,” I said, chuckling.

“Oh goodness,” she said, “he does sound a lively chap.”

“Oh yeah, Jess is pretty lively,” I said beginning to really enjoy myself now.

We had already heard from Mike as to how Miss Brown came from a posh town back East and it was obvious that she was very gentile and well heeled and I figured if I painted Jess as a bit of a rough and ready rogue, well she might not find him quite so attractive.

I guess it was kind of small minded of me. But Hell, it always seems to be Jess that gets the pretty girls and I kind of figured it was my turn. Anyway, all is fair in love and war I comforted myself.

She was living in the school teacher’s house right next to the school near the bottom of Main Street and as we neared the door, I felt my pulse beginning to race in anticipation of our parting, would she let me kiss her I wondered?

As she withdrew her key from her purse and placed it in the lock my heart was pounding fit to burst and I thought she was just going to enter and throw a quick good-night over her shoulder. But she suddenly seemed to change her mind and turning back to me she took a step closer and looking up at me with those wonderfully expressive eyes said, “Thank you so much for the dancing and seeing me home Slim.”

I looked down into those bright eyes which were looking at me with an amused slightly challenging expression and I decided to chance my luck and leaning down kissed her very gently on the lips. She responded and so I took her in my arms and kissed her more firmly, feeling my pulses racing and my stomach flip over as the kisses became more passionate. After a moment she pulled back and reaching up patted me gently on the cheek before saying, “Goodnight,” and entering the house she closed the door quietly behind her.

I just stood there staring at the closed door, feeling on cloud nine. Turning, I almost danced down the street and into the livery to collect my mount, Alamo, and then whistled all the way back to the ranch, unable to remember when I had last felt so joyful.

Jess landed back about lunchtime the following day looking really tired and I could only imagine the night he had enjoyed in Millie’s company; the lucky dog. But for once I wasn’t envious as I was still reliving the kisses from the night before.

“So how did you get on with the new School Ma’am?” he asked later in the evening when we were leaning on the corral fence away from Daisy and Mike’s inquisitive ears.

I gave him a broad grin and a wink.

He gave a low whistle, “That good eh,” he said grinning back at me and slapping me on the back.

“So, what did you think of her?” I asked, dreading the answer, but to my surprise he looked away and then said quietly “Pretty, real pretty, but I guess she’s out of my league Pard”, and then looking back at me said “Good luck,” and with that he strode off to bed down the horses for the night.

I looked after him with a mixture of feelings, relief in the knowledge that he wasn’t about to make a play for her. Then guilt at the way I had talked about him, putting him down and giving her a false image of him.

I was also aware that he was selling himself short in thinking he was not good enough for her and I knew he would be surprised if I told him how attracted to him, she undoubtedly was. But then that was something I sure as hell was going to keep from him and I told myself again that all was fair in love and war and went off to help him with the stock.

Chapter 1 – Jess

I was looking forward to meeting Mike’s new teacher as we’d heard so much about her and I sure wasn’t disappointed she was a real cracker. I guess it was her eyes that I noticed first, she had this wicked twinkle in them and I reckoned she could be real good fun and didn’t seem like your typical teacher that is for sure.

Anyways, once she started goin’ on about poetic license and the like…well she lost me and I guess I kinda rebelled a bit, which is what I do when I feel I’m out of my depth. I put on this crazy act of pretending to be a country boy from Texas with no brains at all which, in a way is true. As I didn’t get much formal schooling. Maybe I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that. But I know I’m pretty smart in a lot of ways and I’m a real quick learner too. Once Slim and I got to know each other real well, he offered to help me with my ciphering and spellin’ for letter writing and such and I guess I’m not too bad now, certainly not as bad as I was making out to the new school teacher at any rate.

She had come and claimed me for the Ladies Excuse me and I started talking about the Mustang breaking I was doing, making out that fallin’ off horses was about all I was good for. But she turned the tables on me completely by saying, “For someone who is a partner in a thriving business, not to mention the work you do deputizing for the Sheriff, looking after all the town folk, well I would imagine there is a little more to you than your prowess on a Mustang, Mr Harper.”

Figuring Sam and Mike had been filling her in on all of us at the Relay Station, I grinned down into those mischievous eyes, “The name’s Jess,” I said, “and I guess you’ve caught me out Ma’am.”

Then I said, “So what is a well read, smart young lady like you doing in a town like Laramie?”

“Oh, I’m not what I seem either Jess,” she responded twinkling at me, “I imagine I’m a bit of a rebel too. I defied my Pa by coming out here. He said the life would be too hard for me and I decided to prove him wrong, as simple as that.”

I nodded thoughtfully and then said, “Well could be your Pa has a point there, it can be kinda hard for a woman alone out here.”

She looked deeply into my eyes then and said, “Ah, but I’m not alone now am I Jess? I’m making new friends everyday, like you”, and gave me a very forward look.

“And Slim,” I said giving her a cool look back.

Hell, I’d seen the way my buddy’s eyes had lit up when he first met her, looked like he was as crazy as Mike was about the woman and there was no way I was about to do anything to jeopardize that.

She looked back, a slight frown on her face, but she recovered quickly and said, “Oh of course, Slim, and I hope to meet Aunt Daisy soon too, Mike talks so much about you, and then looking solemnly into my eyes said very quietly, “He loves you all so much.”

Just then the dance ended and I marched her back to Slim and after thanking her for the dance I took off with Millie again, feeling relieved to see her waiting patiently for me.

Soon after that we decided to call it a night and go back to her place. Some gut instinct told me not to say goodnight to the others as I was still feelin’ kinda unsettled after my conversation with Emma and I sure didn’t want to encourage her, not if Slim was interested.

When we got back to Millie’s cosy room above the Saloon, she seemed kinda quiet and I wondered what had upset her.

Millie and I go way back and I guess we understand each other real well. We go out together sometimes, when we aren’t seeing anyone else, and she is happy to share her bed with me on occasion too, but our relationship is very easy, no strings attached. It’s always been that way and we are both OK with it. I guess she’s the best woman friend I’ve got and I’d do just about anything for her.

She looked over and gave me a quizzical glance, “I reckon that new school Ma’am has got her eye on you,” she said grinning across at me from where she was making us some coffee.

“You think?” I asked, smiling back.

“Oh yeah…the speed she was there for the ladies excuse me,” she said lightly as she brought the drinks over and sat down.

I looked back, serious now, “Well I ain’t interested,” I replied, “I guess Slim is though.”

“Oh dear, I can see problems ahead then,” she said with a worried look.

“Yeah, well let’s just forget about Slim and his problems,” I said moving across the sofa and pulling her gently into my arms. I reached down and kissed her gently and then pulled back and looking deep into her eyes, said, “I’m more interested in your problems.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, turning away quickly.

I reached out and putting my hand gently on her shoulder pulled her back to face me and was surprised to see tears in her beautiful eyes.

“Hey sweetheart,” I said softly, “what’s the matter?”

“Nothing, Jess I’m OK,” she said softly.

“This is me you’re talkin’ to,” I said, “now tell me what’s wrong… Millie?

Tears welled up in her eyes again and spilled over, rolling down her cheeks, “It’s Ma,” she said quietly, “she’s sick, Jess, real sick and I need to get to Cheyenne to look after her, nurse her through,” she swallowed hard. “Through to the end, I guess. I don’t know how I can get there though,” and she shrugged sadly.

“Oh, sweetheart I’m so sorry,” I said softly, “can I help? Millie have you not got the fare?” I asked being pretty sure she wouldn’t have.

She shook her head looking down.

I tipped up her chin with a finger so that she looked into my eyes, “Millie,” I said softly, “you know you only needed to ask me. I’ll go to the bank tomorrow, it’s the least I can do to help,” and leaning down I kissed her gently, feeling her responding beneath my lips.

After a second, she pulled back and with a watery smile said, “I sure am glad I’ve got you as a friend Jess Harper.”

“Well you’re real special to me, you know that dontcha sweetheart... “I whispered...

Then I took her to bed and much later she lay in my arms and we talked all through the night, about everything from our friendship through to her poor Ma’s last illness. I think talking things through helped her a little and the next day she seemed brighter and at least resigned to what her immediate future held.

First thing the next morning I arranged to meet for coffee at Miss Molly’s café as soon as I had visited the bank to withdraw the money for her.

I entered the café and saw her at once sitting quietly looking deep into her coffee cup, but she looked up and smiled at me as I came and sat down. Molly came over with a cup for me and topped up Millie’s and asked if we would like anything else.
I guess we were both feeling kinda upset and so we said, no just coffee and she left the pot and went back to the counter to serve a customer.

I didn’t notice anything at the time but that customer was Ida Storm a well named widow woman whose one joy in life was making trouble and upsetting folk with her idle gossip. I know Slim had cause to speak to her once when she spread some nasty rumor about Daisy. Well I sure wasn’t fond of the woman myself, with her way of always spying on folk and then bad mouthing them.

Anyways that morning I only had eyes for Millie as I tried to comfort her. I took the money out and pushed it across the table to her and her eyes opened wide as she saw the large wad of notes. “Oh Jess,” she whispered, “this is far too much,” and started pushing it back. I took the money and put it back in her hand closing her fingers around it, “It’s OK sweetheart,” I said softly, “use some of it for the treatment and then for afterwards you know…for the arrangements. If…well if she doesn’t make it wire me and I’ll come, I promise.”

The tears started flowing again and I said, “Come on let’s go back to your place and I’ll help you pack and see you off.” Helping her up I left some coins on the table for the coffee and taking her hand we left for the saloon.

I saw her off on the Stage a little while later and then went over to the store to pick up some candy for Mike before returning home.

As I entered, I heard Ida Storm gossiping amongst a small group of her cronies and over by the cash desk stood Emma, rooted to the spot, looking real pale. Ida had her back to me and hadn’t heard me come in and she continued talking in her loud forceful voice.

“Bold as brass they were, sitting in Miss Molly’s. He gave her a wad of cash, probably from his gambling I should think, and she said it was too much. Well he wasn’t having that, ‘for the treatment’ he said, well I can’t say as I’ve heard getting rid of a little stranger, called that before,” she sniggered.
“Then she burst into tears, poor mare, I expect she thought he would marry her iffen he got her in the family way, but not that no good gunslinger. The way that Jess Harper is with women, well it just isn’t decent. I doubt if she’s the first he’s got in the family that way...probably won’t be the last either….”

I stood there for a moment shaking with anger and slowly she became aware that everyone was looking behind her and turning she saw me standing there. Her mouth fell open and her cheeks flushed up and she started to say something, but I was too fast for her.

I strode over and stood right in front of her and bending down so our eyes were level, talking real low and menacing I said, “You evil old witch, iffen you weren’t an old lady I’d put you across my knee.”

Then standing back I surveyed the amassed company including Emma.

“I’ll just say this once,” I growled, “Millie is a very good friend of mine, so when she said her Ma was dying I figured the least I could do was to lend her the money for her fare to Cheyenne, plus some extra to help with her Ma’s treatment and funeral arrangements. I guess that’s what good friends do for each other.”

Looking around again and then back at Ida I said, “If I ever hear Millie gets wind of your filthy rumor, God help you because I won’t be held responsible,” and with that I turned on my heel and left.

By the time I got back to the ranch I had calmed down some and decided to try and put the incident out of my mind, so when Slim said I looked tired and gave me a suggestive wink I didn’t rise to his teasing.

I didn’t feel like tellin’ him I sure was tired, but not because of the reason he thought. But because we’d been up all night talking about poor Millie’s sad news, me trying to sooth her and help her deal with it all.

I couldn’t tell him about what happened later in the store either; I was so dang mad, I just wanted to forget about it. I kept seeing Emma’s pale tense face though, as she couldn’t help overhearing Ida’s spiteful tongue. I wondered if she had believed her, before I came in and set everyone straight.

Did I care? I reflected and then figured I did. I thought back to my conversation with Millie, saying Emma had her eye on me and my reply that Slim was interested in her and the problems that might cause. Oh Hell, what a darned mess I thought.

That’s when I asked Slim how he had got on and it was obvious he was already in deep, and I just knew I had to back off. Get out of the picture all together. I couldn’t ever hurt him that way. Besides I imagined Emma was probably thinking, ‘no smoke without fire’ and was imagining me as a womanizer of the worst kind.

I figured I’d, had just about enough of it all and decided to stay on the ranch and put all my energy into breaking the Mustangs and leave the fairer sex to their own devices for a while. So, I spent the next couple of weeks tackling a big bruiser Mike had christened “Bad Boy”, which was just about as big an understatement as you could get. He wasn’t just bad he was pure evil and a widow maker if ever I saw one.

He sure was a pretty fellah though a big strong Palomino Stallion, but I swear he was plumb crazy. I’d spent what seemed like forever trying to gentle him with kindness and bribery of sugar and carrots. But the first time I put a saddle on him he near tore my head off as he bucked me off and then turned on me. That set the agenda for the work with him. He was always there with a sly nip at the least, or a full-blown tantrum, tossing me off and doing his very best to stomp on me too, when I hit the ground.
Slim was all for giving up and losing him back into the wild. But he knows how stubborn I am, so I guess he knew I wouldn’t be giving up on the beast anytime soon.

It was a couple of weeks after the dance. Slim had returned to town several times for dates with Emma and was becoming more and more besotted with her. It had been bad enough with Mike singing her praises morning noon and night without Slim at it as well. He near drove me mad with his love sick ways and always seemed to be staring into space with a soppy grin on his face. Several times he suggested I go to town too. But I made the excuse that Millie was still away, although really, I just didn’t want to see Emma, worried as I was about what might happen.

Then one afternoon Mike came home from school with a message from Emma for me. Looking up and smiling his innocent little boy smile he said, “Miss Brown said how she would like you come into school after class tomorrow,” he said.

I looked puzzled, “Why me Tiger?” I asked, “It’s usually Slim that talks to your teacher about school stuff. I guess he’s better at that kinda thing. Are you sure Miss asked to see me?” I finished sneaking a glance at Slim to see his reaction, noting he looked equally surprised, but said nothing.

“Oh yes siree”, he said, “I checked and she said, I need to speak to Mr Harper, tell him it’s important.”

No more was said of it that night and Mike went off to school the following day with the assurance that I would pick him up after school and visit with his teacher.

That day Slim was even more absent minded than usual and preoccupied with thoughts of his true love no doubt.

I started working with that ol’ Bad Boy after our coffee and as usual Slim was sitting out on the corral fence to watch my back. It’s real dangerous to work with the horses without someone around to watch out for you and so that is what we always did.

I was up on the mustang and he was in a real mean mood that morning that’s for sure. He wasn’t kicking and trying to toss me off, but he kept turning to try and nip my leg. I could feel the tension beneath me and just knew he was going to erupt.

For some reason, Slim suddenly jumped down from the fence and disappeared into the barn to fetch something and that was when all hell broke loose. The horse suddenly went berserk and galloped around the corral like the very Devil himself was chasing him, bucking and rearing until he finally unseated me.

I fell real hard and was winded and just couldn’t move. Then I saw him heading back for me and rearing up he crashed down, one of his hooves giving my chest a glancing blow and I yelled for Slim as everything went black.

When I woke up Doc Sam and Slim were leaning over me and I was lying on my bed and I heard Slim say, “Thank God”, before everything went kinda hazy again. I came around properly a little while later with Sam checking my pulse and grinning down at me said, “Welcome back Jess, you sure gave us all a bit of a scare there buddy.”

I looked around and saw Daisy’s pale worried face peering down, but there was no sign of Slim.

“Ssslim,” I whispered.

“It’s OK he’ll be back in a moment,” said Sam, “now listen Jess, you’ve been stomped by that ol’ horse. He jumped on your chest and a couple of ribs are stove in pretty badly. But I’ve bound you up really tightly and guess you’ll be OK. As long as you are sensible and do exactly as Miss Daisy here says, savvy?”

“Sure,” I whispered, “I’ve got a feelin’ I’m gonna be real sensible this time Sam, ‘cos to be truthful I’m hurtin’ kinda bad here.”

It was unheard of me to admit to that, but I really was feelin’ pretty damn bad and figured I’d be doin’ just about anything that was needed to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Sam threw me a concerned look, “That bad eh?” he said quietly.

I just gave a brief nod, but said no more.

He went off and started talking to Daisy and I heard him muttering about a strong pain killer, but I guess I must have drifted off again.

When I came to next, Slim was sitting at my bedside looking real worried.

I glanced up at him and said, “Hey there Pard, are you OK?”

He looked down at me and he seemed real upset, “Hell Jess,” he whispered, “I’m so goddamn sorry. I should never have left you. I wasn’t thinking straight,” then even more quietly, “I’m so, so sorry, this is all my fault.”

Chapter 2

When Jess got back to the ranch the day after the Spring Dance, I could see something was wrong. He looked real tired. I teased him, as I knew he had stayed the night with Millie, but he didn’t raise to the bait and I kind of thought he was worried about something.

Still, Jess being Jess, he wasn’t about to say anything until he was ready. So, I figured I’d back off and give him some space. He eventually told me about Millie and I could see how upset he was for her. Then he point-blank refused to come into town for some of the Socials I was fixing to take Emma to. He said it was because Millie was away. But that was just an excuse because I know at least half a dozen girls that would have gone with him…. and I knew he knew that too.

Anyways he seemed to want to stay around the ranch working on the mustangs and so that is what he did and all was going real well until the morning he tried to sit ol’ Bad Boy again.

Well to be truthful that morning I wasn’t thinking too straight. The night before Mike had come home with the message that Emma wanted to see Jess in school the following afternoon. Now it has always been a rule at the school that I deal with everything academic and they have that in their records too. So, neither of us could figure why she would want to see Jess about Mike’s education, unless, of course it was just an excuse.

I remembered the way she had looked at him the night of the Spring Dance, that speculative look in her eye when I told her he and Millie weren’t serious. Then the way she had shot off for the Ladies Excuse Me and how good they had looked together.

Now I was worried sick that she was going to make a play for him and to be honest things weren’t progressing as quickly as I had hoped in our relationship. Every time I tried to get a bit closer, she seemed to put on the brakes.
Then, there was also the number of times Jess seemed to crop up in the conversation. How was he, was he coming into town, almost every date she seemed to want to talk about him.

Matters had come to a head a little while back, and it was obvious that something had been bothering her for some time, the way she spoke of it. She wanted to know if Jess had heard how Millie’s Ma was and I was kind of surprised that she knew she was sick.

That’s when she let slip the bomb shell to what had happened with Widow Storm in the store. My heart ached for Jess as I knew how devastated he would have felt at that vindictive gossip. I was also kind of hurt he hadn’t confided in me as well, if I’m honest.

But mostly I was just real worried for him and said as much to Emma.

“He took it really badly,” she agreed. “I have never seen anyone so angry. He went white and I could see him shaking from way over the other side of the store. He went over to this Ida Storm and said something really quietly which I didn’t catch, but she looked absolutely terrified.”

I gave a small smile and said, “Well the ol’ Harper temper is really something to behold.”

“You can say that again,” she said nodding sagely.

“Thing about Jess,” I said real quietly “is that he is loyal to his friends, anybody crosses one and God help them.”

“He certainly is an interesting character,” she said reflectively.

I gave her a cool look, but just said, “Oh yeah, he’s that alright.”

That had been a couple of weeks ago and I hadn’t said anything about the incident to Jess as I figured he would have mentioned it himself if he wanted me to know.

Now I was sitting out on the fence watching the big Palomino prancing about the corral. For once it looked like Jess was in control of the big fellah and I suddenly remembered I had left the lid off the grain bin in the barn and jumping down I went to attend to it. Then I noticed some harness hadn’t been hung on the wall properly. Then...well I guess I just stood there for a minute or two staring into space wondering for the twentieth time that day why Emma had invited Jess to the school.

Suddenly I heard a tremendous crash and Jess hollering for me and I dashed out just in time to see Bad Boy rearing over Jess’s prone body, his lethal hooves crashing down by his chest.

I tore across the yard and for once vaulted the fence as easily as Jess always did and ran in front of the stallion waving my arms and yelling at him. He backed off and I took the opportunity to grab Jess and drag him out of danger. He was completely out of it and there was blood seeping through his blue shirt forming a large ugly stain down the front. Daisy came running out, on hearing all the noise, and after her initial cry of shock, she helped me carry him into the ranch and on to the couch.

“Oh my, what happened Slim?” she asked turning anxious eyes up to me before she started unbuttoning his shirt.

I looked down in horror at the mess that was Jess’s chest and could hardly speak, finally I whispered, “I left him Daisy. I only meant to be a minute…I left him; I never do that when he’s up on a mustang…never…”

“It wasn’t your fault Slim,” she said kindly, then, “but I think you have to ride for Doc Sam right away. It looks like he has several broken ribs and his lungs may be damaged too.”

When Sam examined Jess, I could see he was real concerned as he felt around the ribs and kept checking his pulse. Jess’s breathing was real shallow and he looked like he was having trouble getting his breath. We had moved him to his own bed and suddenly he seemed to get a lot worse and started turning blue.

Sam quickly whipped away the pillow that had been supporting Jess’s head and laid him flat, and tipped his chin up to open up his airway more. Then he leaned over and listened to his chest with his stethoscope for several minutes before giving a sigh of relief and looking down I saw the color begin to return to Jess’s face.

After a minute or two he started to come around and leaning over I whispered, “Thank God.”

Then he was out of it again, but Sam said the initial danger was over and if he took real good care he should be OK.

Then turning to Daisy, he said quietly, “You know the danger of pneumonia, try and get him to breath as deeply as he can even though it will be hellish painful. Just let me know if his breathing deteriorates again. There still might be some lung damage. I guess you’ll have to watch him like a hawk Daisy, but…well you know the signs to look for as well as I do”

I suddenly felt I couldn’t stay in the room a moment longer and dashed out and went and stood on the porch shaking, feeling sick to my stomach. My best buddy was lying there in god awful pain. He still might not make it and it was all down to me. First rule of horse breaking was never work alone, so why in hell had I left him?

I returned to the room a little later and was relieved to see he had come around properly and his breathing seemed a mite easier although I could see it was causing him a lot of pain.

I kept apologizing, but in typical Harper style he made light of the incident, “Hell Slim, that mean ol’ horse had set his mind on stomping on me today and you bein’ around wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said.

We both knew that wasn’t strictly true. But I just gave him a weak smile and said,
‘Thanks for taking it so well Jess.”

Then Daisy bustled in with some broth for him and I left to do the chores, but was relieved to hear, “Aw Daisy, a man could starve clean away on rations like this,” a sure sign he was feeling a little better.

Later that afternoon I figured that I had better attend the meeting with Emma in Jess’s place as we had instructed Mike to wait for Jess instead of getting the Stage home, secretly, I guess I wanted to find out what the meeting was all about.

Before I drove out, I popped my head round our bedroom door and thought he was asleep. But after a second, he opened his deep blue eyes and grinning across said, “Are you comin’ in or what?”

I went in and sat on the edge of the bed smiling down at him, “How are you feeling?” I asked.

He smiled and said ‘fine,’ as I had expected. I figured Jess could have his head hanging off and he’d still say he was fine.

“I’m just off to pick up Mike from school,” I said, “any message for Emma?”

He shook his head, “Nah, just say I’m sorry I can’t make the meeting. Find out what she wants will ya buddy?”

“Sure,” I said, “and I’ll just tell her you’re indisposed.”


“Indisposed Jess, it’s teacher speak for fallen off a mustang and got stomped on some,” I said giving him a wicked grin.

He grinned back, “Yeah, she’ll like that,” he said quietly, “seems like Mike’s story was a bit truer to life than we first thought,” he said giving me an ironic look.


As I entered the school room Mike came running to meet me and threw his arms around my waist, “Hi Slim, sure is good to see ya,” he grinned and then looking behind me, “so where is Jess?”

I squatted down beside the little boy so that our eyes met and said, “See it’s like this Mike, Jess has had a bit of a tumble from ol’ Bad Boy….”

At this news Mike looked real upset and said, quickly, “He’s OK though Slim... ain’t he? He’s not hurt real bad...huh?”

“Well, pretty bad,” I said honestly, “but he’ll be fine in a week or two, you’re not to worry.”

At this I suddenly heard a sharp intake of breath and realized that Emma had got up from her desk and was standing next to us. She was looking down at me with a shocked expression on her face, one hand shot up to her mouth as though to stifle a sob.

We both looked up at her and Mike went over and said, “Don’t fret Miss Brown, Jess is always getting hurt real bad, but like Slim says, he’ll be OK soon.”

Then turning back to me said,” That’s right ain’t it Slim?”

I grinned at him and patted him on the back and then fetching some coins out of my pocket I gave him a couple and said, “Sure, now go over to the store and get yourself some candy Tiger and then wait in the buckboard for me. I just need a quick word with your teacher,” and with a big grin he ran off.

Turning to look at Emma I said, “Are you OK?”

She looked a bit uncomfortable at having reacted so emotionally and replied coolly, “Oh yes of course, it was just a shock. I er…hate to hear of any sudden accidents.”

“Yeah well, it’s pretty nasty,” I said, “I didn’t want to upset the boy, but it was touch and go for a while there this morning.”

“W…what happened?” she stuttered.

“He got thrown and then the cussed stallion stomped on his chest. He’s got several busted ribs…and well he stopped breathing just afterwards. But the Doc was there and sorted him out, thank God. He says we are to watch him real close. He’s still in danger.” Then I said, “Dad gum it Emma, I feel so bad, I left him …just for a minute and that’s when it happened, I feel so terribly guilty.”

She came and stood beside me and rested a hand on my arm, “It is just one of those things,” she said gently, “you mustn’t blame yourself and I’m sure he will be fine.”

“Yeah, I sure hope so,” I said sadly. “Anyway, he said to ask you what the meeting was about, Mike’s not in trouble is he?” I added looking anxiously at her.

“Oh, no,” she said, “nothing like that,” and then turning away from me said lightly,
“It doesn’t matter it’s not important.”

I grasped her arm gently and pulled her round to look at me and saw she was blushing and knew something was going on.

“Well that’s not the message we got,” I said, more loudly than I meant, “Jess got the impression that it was urgent.”

She refused to look me in the eye and just muttered, “Mike must have misunderstood me, and really it doesn’t matter.”

I suddenly saw red and said angrily, “Emma do you want to go out with Jess? Is that it?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, before she turned on me, “Don't be ridiculous Slim why, we have absolutely nothing in common at all are you mad?” she said angrily.

I figured she was protesting a mite too much, but decided not to say anything about that, “So what did you want to talk to him about then?” I asked again.

She gave a huge sigh, “You’re really not going to let this lie are you Slim?” she said in an exasperated tone.

“Nope,” I said giving her a cool look.

She finally looked me in the eye and said, “Have you heard of an author called Emma Vermont?”

“Sure, I have,” I said grinning at her,” she writes all those slushy romances; Daisy loves ‘em.”

“Well thank you,” she said in a sarcastic voice, “I’m so pleased to hear I’m famous for writing, ‘slushy romance’!”

“What, you?” I said, “You’re Emma Vermont?”

“The very same,” she said grinning at me.

“So…so where does Jess fit into all this?” I asked eventually.

“Well,” she said, “my latest novel is set here in the country and one of my characters breaks mustangs for a living and so I just wanted Jess to help me with my research. You know, what the beasts are like, how you catch and break them, that sort of thing; really.”

I gave a huge sigh of relief; “Well I’m sure he’d be pleased to help you out,” I said,
“as soon as he’s better that is.”

She smiled back, “That’s wonderful,” she said beaming at me, “now I must run I have choir practice in a minute,” and with that we left the school.

As she turned to leave, she said, “Oh I nearly forgot, Tom over in the saloon said for me to tell Jess there is a letter over there for him from Millie,” and with that she dashed off, before I had the chance to make another date with her.

Cursing my stupidity, I crossed the road and found Mike sitting up in the buggy enjoying his candy bar.

“Just got to pop into the saloon, I’ll be one minute,” I promised and headed off.

Tom was wiping down the bar as I entered and the place was pretty much deserted. He greeted me with a big smile and said, “What can I get you?”

I explained that Mike was in the buckboard and I had just come to collect Jess’s letter.

“Oh yes I’ll fetch it,” he said and returned a few minutes later beaming at me as he passed it over, “I guess this will cheer him up a mite,” he said kindly, “give him my best wishes and I hope he gets better real soon.”

I grinned back, amazed yet again at the bush telegraph in the Town, but just gave him my thanks and went back to where Mike was still waiting patiently for me.

When we got back to the ranch Jess was asleep and Daisy was looking real worried, “Oh Slim,” she said, “thank goodness you are back, I have been so concerned about Jess, his breathing got really bad again this afternoon. I’ve given him some of the strong pain killer, but if he’s no better tomorrow I think Sam should come out again.”

I shook my head feeling so dang worried and went to check on him. He was lying flat on his back, and his breathing sounded labored and he looked deathly pale. I reached out and brushed his black wavy hair back off his forehead and he felt kinda warm too and I wondered if he was getting a fever.

Just then Daisy came and joined me, “Does he feel a tad warm to you?” she asked and I nodded, only to see her disappear and return a minute later with a bowl of cool water and a damp cloth and she set about wiping his forehead.

“Here let me,” I said taking it gently from her and sitting on the edge of the bed carried on doing the same.

She watched me silently for a few minutes and then said, “Slim dear, you mustn’t blame yourself so, Jess doesn’t you know.”

I looked across at her and felt tears spring to my eyes and blinking them back said softly, “I guess I can’t help it Daisy, I should never have walked off like that.”

After a few minutes I felt him stirring and stopped mopping his face and after a second his eyes opened and he gave me a weak grin and said, “Will ya stop yer frettin’ Slim? I told ya didn’t I, I’m fine,” and Daisy and I exchanged a warm smile over his head.

“Sure, you are Pard,” I said softly, “sure you are.”

But we all knew he wasn’t and that night he got really sick. I sat up with him through the long hours and the following day and refused any help in caring for him. I figured this was all down to me and so it should be me that looked after him. Sam visited several times and finally the fever broke and he was through the worst.

The day after he was finally over the fever, we were able to have our first proper conversation in a week.

He gave me a lazy smile, “So what did Emma want?” he asked.

When I filled him in and told him she was Emma Vermont he laughed so much he nearly stopped breathing again.

“Wow,” he said, “so we have an author amongst us, no wonder she talks like she’s just swallowed a dictionary at times,” he continued grinning at me.

Then more seriously he gave me a quizzical look and said, “So how’s it goin’ with her Slim?”

I really didn’t want to say that we seemed to be drifting apart. I kept trying to make dates and more often than not she cancelled at the last minute and when we did go out, she was kind of distant and I couldn’t seem to move our relationship forwards.

“Not too good,” I said deciding to be honest.

He gave me a regretful look and said, “Sorry to hear that buddy.”

Over the next week he continued to progress and now he could sit out in his rocker on the porch for a few hours each day and was beginning to get his strength back.

We were sitting out after lunch one day and I suddenly remembered the letter I had got from Millie the day he had been taken really poorly.

I went and found it in my jacket pocket and after apologizing for forgetting all about it gave it to Jess and left him alone to read it in peace.

I came back a while later with a couple of coffees for us and after putting his down on the old table at his elbow I looked across and was surprised to see him looking off to the horizon, tears in his eyes.

“Hey, what’s the matter buddy?” I asked softly

Turning to look at me his face broke into a huge grin, “It’s real good news,” he said.
“You know I gave Millie all the money I’d saved for that new saddle?”

I didn’t know he had given her all his money, but just nodded and said, “Well?”

“Well, she just wrote back and they put the money towards payin’ for a real good doctor from back East” and he couldn’t speak for a moment, but I saw him swallow and try again … “Slim, he’s cured her, Millie’s Ma, she’s gonna be OK!”

I grinned back at him, “Say that’s fantastic,” I said, “gee buddy I’m so pleased. Guess Millie deserves some good luck too, she ain’t had an easy life.”

He nodded in agreement, “Yeah, you sure got that right Pard,” he replied, “and when I think….”

But he stopped himself and I figured he was remembering what old Ma Storm had implied and I knew then that he didn’t want me to know because he cared so much about Millie. He just didn’t want me to hear those evil rumors, and I was reminded of what a loyal friend he truly is.

Pretty soon after that he turned in. I was a mite worried at the time it seemed to be taking for him to bounce back and I figured he had been hurt really badly this time.

Chapter 3 –

Well I was pretty much beat up after that ol’ mustang jumped on me that’s for sure and I knew I was hurtin’ as bad as I had in a long, long while. But even so I didn’t think it would take as long for me to get back to normal as it did.

After the first day I got a real bad fever and I know Doc Sam, and Daisy played their part in nursin’ me but it was Slim did the lions share and I truly can’t thank him enough for that. Sure, I know he was feelin’ kinda guilty about leaving me for a minute or two that day. But Hell, that was crazy and I sure didn’t blame him.

The best news I had was to hear Millie’s Ma was gonna be OK and I went to bed that night feeling really happy for the first time in ages.


Late next afternoon I was sitting out on my rocker on the porch when I heard someone coming down the rise. Then a couple of minutes later a buggy arrived with Emma driving. It was a Saturday and so Mike was around and he came running out to welcome his beloved teacher and then Slim emerged from the barn and I saw the look of joy on his face as he helped her down.

I knew it hadn’t been too good between them so I hoped maybe things were back on track again. She came over to me on Slim’ s arm and seemed kinda surprised to see me sitting in the rocker, my arm protectively across my chest, and I knew I looked pale and had lost a lot of weight.

“Hello Jess, how are you?” she asked a look of concern on her pretty face.

I smiled and said fine and after a few minutes I excused myself, thinking I would give the two love birds some space.

I went into the ranch house and suddenly felt dog tired and told Daisy I would skip supper as I wanted an early night.

“Oh, Jess dear, are you sure,” she said, “you have lost so much weight, you really need to eat.”

“Aw, please Daisy,” I said softly, “looks like we’ve got company and I really don’t feel up to it.”

“Alright,” she agreed, “I’ll bring you something in later maybe; you do look a bit peaky.”

It was a hot evening and I stripped off to my under shorts and lay down on my bed feelin’ real tired.

Later I heard the others come in for supper and the usual banter around the table and then I must have drifted off.

Next thing I knew Emma was sitting on the edge of my bed looking down at me.

I looked to cover myself, but the blanket seemed to have fallen away and I felt mortified and turned on her, “What are you doin’ in here Emma? I don’t know how things are back East, but around here folk generally wait to be invited into a man’s bedroom,” I said giving her a hard look, feeling real embarrassed.

“It’s absolutely alright Jess,” she said gently, “please don’t upset yourself. I just had to see you, and Slim is fixing up my buggy and Daisy is off in the kitchen packing some pie for me to take back. I just thought I’d pop in and say good night,” and with a little girl look said, “you don’t mind, do you?”

“What do ya want Emma?” I said in a resigned voice.

She leaned over and laid her hand on my bruised chest, “You’ve been injured really badly, by that dreadful horse, haven’t you?” she said.

I nodded and said nothing.

She removed her hand from my chest and then ran a finger down my cheek, “I’m really sorry you have been so sick Jess,” she said, looking deeply into my eyes.

“Look, don’t you think you should go and find your boyfriend?” I said, giving her a real hard look, “I guess Slim will have hitched up your buggy by now.”

Leaning forwards her lips gently brushed mine and then she kissed me properly and God help me I responded and kissed her back…just for a moment…before I pulled away.

She looked deeply into my eyes with longing and whispered, “It’s you I want Jess... it has always been you. When I kiss Slim it’s you that I’m thinking of.”
She gave me one last sad lingering look and with that she stood up and quickly left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Leaving me feeling disgusted, both by my own behavior and also hers.

How could she do that to Slim? The thought made me feel terrible and I lay there cursing my body for betraying me because as soon as she kissed me, I knew I wanted her and I just felt so damned ashamed.

A little while later I heard Daisy chatting and then the front door banged as Slim came in to fetch her. I breathed a sigh of relief that at least nobody knew about her coming to my room.

I couldn’t sleep and lay tossing and turning until Slim finally landed home in the small hours. I’d left a light on low for him and he came in quietly and started getting ready for bed. After a while he glanced across at me and coming over grinned down at me, “Hey buddy can’t sleep? “He asked.

I shook my head, and then I had to know, “Good night?” I asked casually.

He beamed back, “The best yet,” he said happily, and then as if reading my mind,
“Well guess I haven’t seen the color of her bedroom curtains yet, but things are sure hotting up,” he said with a cheeky wink.

My heart sank, what if they made love and all the time, she was imagining it was me, I felt physically sick at the thought.

“Are you OK buddy,” he asked with a concerned look, “You’ve gone kind of pale, feeling sick?”

“Nah, I’m OK,” I said quickly, “just my ribs aching some that’s all.”

He frowned looking real worried,

“Do you want the pain relief medicine?” he asked, but I declined saying it would pass off and with that he turned out the lamp and we settled to sleep.

At least he did. I stared into the darkness wondering what to do. I couldn’t tell him what Emma had said, I knew it would break his heart. Equally I couldn’t let her continue make a fool of him, either way I knew it would be a real test of our friendship. I wished to God that Millie was around. I figured she would be able to help me to think what I should do.

By the morning things looked better as they so often do in the light of day and I tried to forget all about the problem.

My chest was feeling better every day and I was able to take up some light duties around the ranch again. But I gave the mustangs a wide berth, figuring I wasn’t quite ready to be tossed about by any of the ornery beasts still waitin’ to be broke.

The following Saturday we had arranged for Doc Sam and Carrie to come out to the lake with us for fishing and a picnic. They often visited and I was looking forward to seeing them. Especially as Sam had promised to check me over and say if it was OK for me to resume the horse breaking. I was dying to get back to work by now and knew I had to get the rest of the stock green broke soon. We needed to sell them on before they ate us out of house and home that was for sure.

I was just hitching up the buckboard for Daisy, and Slim was loading up the picnic when the Doctor’s buggy came in sight. Then as I looked up at it a welcoming grin on my face, I felt it freeze as I saw not only Sam and Carrie but also Emma on board.

Nobody seemed to notice my attitude in all the welcome hellos as they jumped down. Then Sam clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Shall we go to your room for a moment Jess, so I can check you over?”

Emma’s head shot up at the mention of my room and a look passed between us, but I quickly looked away and said, “Sure Sam,” and led the way into the house.

He asked me to remove my shirt and lie on my bed and then he reached over and holding my wrist proceeded to take my pulse. After a little while he gave me a quizzical look, “Um”, he said, “you’re running a bit fast there Jess. Don’t tell me you’re nervous? Do you think I’m not going to give you a clean bill of health is that it?”

I just grinned back and said nothing. How could I tell him it was the sight of Emma attired in a tight fitting, low cut dress looking so goddamn beautiful that had set my pulse racing. I knew I had to fight my attraction towards her and knew it was wrong and I desperately wracked my brains for an excuse not to go with the picnic party.

Sam gave me a real thorough check up and said my ribs had healed well and I could go back to mustang busting’.

“Not that I want you to,” he said grinning down at me, “because you’ll no doubt break something else. I guess you’re good for business though Jess,” he added laughing at his joke.

“What about my pulse,” I asked grasping at straws, “maybe I should stay home, rest up today?”

He gave me a surprised look, “Are you crazy, give up a day’s fishing; no siree, best medicine there is, a spot of fishing,” and with he that marched off to find Daisy and a cup of coffee while I got dressed and ready to face the ordeal ahead.

I left Slim to drive the buckboard and went to saddle Traveller, figuring I could maybe hatch up an excuse to leave early. As I came out of the barn Emma, Carrie and the Doc were up on their buggy ready to go and Slim took off with Daisy and Mike and I brought up the rear.

Once we arrived at the lake the women fussed about with the food while the rest of us went off and started fishing. I decided to stick to Sam like glue, knowing she wouldn’t make a move on me in front of him. So, the morning passed peacefully enough.

It was when we were settling down for the meal that it happened.

Daisy suddenly noticed that she had left the two large flagons of lemonade in the buckboard, and quick as a flash Emma jumped up, “I’ll fetch it for you Daisy,” she said smiling kindly at the older woman, then turning to me she said, “Jess will give me a hand won’t you.”

I looked desperately around for Slim, but he had wandered back over to the water’s edge with Sam and they were deep in conversation about fishing tackle. So, with a resigned sigh, I stood up and followed Emma as she walked off towards the buckboard.

We had left it up near the road and it was screened from the lake by several trees, where the team were hobbled and grazing.

I caught up with her and said in an angry whisper, “What the Hell are you playin’ at now Emma?”

She turned hurt eyes on me, “Don’t be cross with me Jess,” she said quietly, “I just wanted a few minutes alone with you.”

Then giving me an intimate look, she said, “Anyway after the look you gave me when I was climbing down from the buggy, I thought you wanted to be alone with me too?”

My eyes strayed down to her cleavage again and with a super human effort I pulled them away blushing, and said nothing.

She came closer to me and grabbing hold of my hand said, “You like this dress don’t you Jess, admit it.”

I looked down at her and just nodded.

“I bet you’d like it better if it was on the bedroom floor,” she said her eyes twinkling in delight.

I pulled my hand away from her grasp and turning to face her, said angrily, “For God’s sake Emma, you sound like a passage from one of your dime novels! The thing is though, this is real life not one of your two-bit stories. Real people with real feelings and right now you’re trampling all over my best buddy’s feelings and I ain’t gonna be any part of it, do you understand?”

“I understand you’re making such a fuss because you want me Jess...and you’re feeling really guilty about betraying your friend, aren’t you? Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want me,” she said challengingly her chin up and her beautiful brown eyes flashing.

I took her in my arms pulling her into a rough embrace, before suddenly breaking away and walking towards the buckboard where I stood with my back to her, shaking with emotion.

She came and stood behind me and put a hand on my shoulder pulling me round and I stood facing her a look of anguish on my face, “Don’t do this Emma please, just leave it,” I said in an urgent whisper.

She reached up and gently stroked my face, “I’m sorry, but I can’t” she said and with that collected one of the flagons and started back for the lake.

I stood looking after her, taking deep breaths to calm myself, before picking up the other one and following her back to the lakeside.

Chapter 4

I sure was glad that Jess seemed to be finally recovering from the damage the stallion had done to him, but it took him a lot longer than usual to bounce back and he sure had us all worried for a while.

I cursed myself when I thought back to that fateful day when I had gone off and left him with no back up. But the main reason I was being so hard on myself was because it was really down to my jealously that the accident happened. If I hadn’t been standing in the barn worrying about what Emma wanted with him then I guess I would have been there to help him when he needed me.

I figured I couldn’t go on beating myself up over it forever and Jess obviously didn’t hold a grudge, so eventually I let it go. The day I went to visit Emma, in his place, and she finally admitted that she just wanted him to help with her book research, I was just so relieved. I still couldn’t believe a beautiful girl like that would choose me and I figured I was really lucky.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though and she seemed to blow hot and cold all the time. I was really beginning to think she was going to end it and even said as much to Jess and then the next thing I knew she came and visited me at the ranch one Saturday.

Gee I was so pleased to see her and she kissed me when I helped her down from her buggy and then we went over to have a word with Jess.

He only chatted for a few minutes and then made his excuses and disappeared into the ranch and I noticed her gaze after him a look on her face I couldn’t fathom. I sat down on the seat he had just vacated and Emma sat beside me and with a concerned look said, “Jess looks terrible, he’s gone so thin and he looks like he is in pain, I had no idea he was so unwell.”

“He’s on the mend now,” I said, “thank God, but it’s taken a while, and he still gets real tired and his ribs hurt like hell I know.”

She looked really distressed and said, “Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“Well, I guess we have done all we can,” I said quietly, “he’s got some medicine for the pain and he just has to rest up and he’ll be fine.”

I changed the subject and we spent a pleasant afternoon together and she seemed happy enough in my company. But when I tried to kiss her in the barn she pulled away, saying she was worried Mike might see and so I eased off.

She seemed real disappointed when Jess didn’t join us for supper and that little green eyed monster returned and I wondered if she really did want to go out with him after all, although she had denied it vehemently.

At the end of the evening I went and made ready her buggy and hitched Alamo to the back, thinking I would see her safely back to town as it was getting late.

When I returned to the ranch her whole demeanor seemed to have changed again and she sat up real close on the journey home and seemed in a very loving mood.

When we got back, she asked me in for coffee even though it was real late. But it soon became obvious it wasn’t coffee she was interested in and we sat on her couch kissing really passionately. Things were kinda moving on a pace and I thought at one stage I’d be having breakfast there. But she put on the breaks at the last minute and backed off saying she didn’t want to rush things. So, I guess I felt I had to do the gentlemanly thing and return home, although I sure felt frustrated.

The following Saturday I had arranged for Sam and Carrie to come fishing and for a picnic and suggested he might like to bring Emma too and I was delighted when she arrived in the Doctor’s buggy.

Sam had arranged to check Jess out and I noticed Emma shot Jess a funny look as he took off with the Doc for his check up and I wondered what that was about. But I just figured she was concerned for him as we all were. Therefore, I was delighted when Sam said he had given him a clean bill of health and he was OK to get to the bronco bustin’ again.

Secretly I wished I could loose out that Bad Boy as I figured he had a real killing instinct. But I knew Jess would go crazy if I suggested it, so I just vowed to keep a good eye on him once he started working the horses again.

I guess Daisy was of a mind and we were discussing it later in the day, as I helped her set the food out while the others finished off their fishing.

“I can’t help but worry about him riding that dreadful horse,” she said quietly to me.

“Yeah, but you know how stubborn he is,” I replied, “heck that’s the first one he’ll be getting up on come Monday morning you’ll see.”

I hadn’t noticed that Emma was listening to our conversation until she suddenly burst out, “That is ridiculous Slim surely you can tell him he mustn’t ride that beast again,” she said looking flushed and angry.

“Hey, honey no need to take on so,” I said quietly, “and if you think Jess is going to listen to anything I have to say, well I guess you don’t know him any too well.”

“Just tell him he is not to ride him,” she said again, firmly.

I looked back at her, beginning to feel concerned with her attitude, “He is an equal partner in the ranch Emma and he does what he needs to do with the horses. It’s his job, I know it’s not always too safe, but it is what he does for a living, now can we drop it please.”

I couldn’t help but feel jealous again, as she was obviously so very worried about him.

She blushed deeply and turning away muttered, “I’m sorry Slim. I imagine this is none of my business, I apologize.”

Daisy had witnessed our little argument and giving me a quizzical look said, “Could you call the others please Slim.”

Then Sam called me over to discuss the merits of his new fishing rod and it was some time later, as we were sitting down to the picnic that I noticed Jess and Emma were missing.

“It’s alright dear,” said Daisy noticing I was looking around for them, “they are just fetching the lemonade,” and a few minutes later Emma returned and went and sat over by Carrie. She looked really flushed and her eyes were sparkling and I thought how desirable she looked in that low cut dress.

Then Jess came over and sat down next to me, but he was real quiet and I noticed he hardly ate anything.

“Are you OK pard?” I asked quietly.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” he replied rather sharply.

“No reason,” I said, “you just don’t seem very hungry. It’s not like you to turn down Daisy’s fried chicken?”

He said nothing more, but after everything was tidied up the women folk went for a stroll down by the lakeside and we men returned to our fishing. A little later he came and sat beside me and said quietly, “You were right Slim. I ain’t feelin’ too good. I feel kinda sick, so I guess I’ll head back home.”

I looked at him with concern. He sure looked pretty pale and I could see he was shaking some, “Do you want me to come with you?” I asked.

“No, I’m OK,” he said, “I’ll just head off now while the others aren’t around. I don’t want Daisy fussin’,” and with that he took off and I saw him hop up on Traveller and shortly after he disappeared over the ridge.

When the others got back the first thing Emma said was, “Where is Jess?”

“Gone home,” I replied evenly, “said he felt sick.”

“I knew it,” said Daisy, “he’s not been himself all day. Oh dear, I hope he isn’t coming down with that fever again.”

Sam came over and joined in our conversation, “He seemed OK this morning,” he said, “pulse a mite fast, but that’s all.”

Then turning to Daisy said, “Don’t fret I’ll check in on him when we get back,” and with that we resumed our fishing.

When we returned home there was no sign of Jess or Traveller and then Daisy came out of the kitchen with a note in her hand, “It’s alright,” she said relief in her voice, he says:

‘Josh Stevens rode by and wanted me to check out his new brood mare. Back late, don’t wait up,
PS feeling better.’

I grinned over at Daisy, “Typical Jess, given a chance to see a new horse and he forgets he’s feeling sick.”

Sam smiled enjoying the joke, “Yeah, that’s Jess OK.”

Emma was looking kinda annoyed but said nothing and smiling over at her I suggested I visit the following day after Church and she agreed.


I’d said goodbye to Daisy and Mike after Church as they were staying in town over night for a Church Social. As things were to turn out it was a dang good job that they weren’t around at the ranch for a while, that’s for sure.

I rode up to Emma’s place and she opened the door looking real serious. We went and sat on her couch in the living room and throwing an arm around her shoulders I pulled her to me and kissed her gently, then more passionately.

After a minute she pulled away, “No Slim, don’t,” she said angrily.

“What’s the matter honey?” I asked feeling really hurt.

“It’s, it’s just not working Slim,” she said quietly looking down, “I think we should stop seeing each other.”

I sat back just staring at her…shocked to the core. Last time I had visited her I was convinced we were to become lovers…and now this, I just didn’t understand what was going on.

I ran my fingers through my hair looking down at the floor, and then I put a hand on her arm turning her to face me, “Why?” I said, “I don’t understand, is it something I’ve done?”

“No,” she said softly, “it’s not you, not your fault.”

“Then... what?”

“Just leave it Slim,” she said firmly, “it’s over that’s all.”

I was suddenly angry, “It’s Jess isn’t it. You’re in love with him! Hell, have you been seeing him behind my back?”

But I knew as I uttered the words that he would never do that to me and felt ashamed for even thinking it.

What if she had come on to him though? Hell, she would sure be hard to resist and Jess is as ready for action as the next man where a beautiful woman is concerned…but even so he wouldn’t…would he?

I suddenly realized Emma was talking, “No it’s not Jess. I’ve already told you that. I just want a break from dating. I have my book to finish and I can’t do both. Now I’m sorry Slim but I must ask you to leave,” and without more ado, she marched to the door and opening it stood there as I got up and walked out.

I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I guess this is goodbye then,” I said softly.

“I’m very sorry Slim,” she said, as she turned and closed the door quietly behind me.

I stood looking at the closed door for several minutes before shaking my head sadly and turning I mounted Alamo and spurred him on in the direction of home.

When I got back it was early evening and Jess was sitting out on the porch, “No need for you to have rushed back,” he said grinning up at me as I approached, “Daisy and Mike are off at some Church social, staying in town until tomorrow so I’m cookin’ tonight.”

Something in my face must have alerted him that all was not well because as I slumped down in the chair next to him, he said, “Hell Slim what’s the matter?”

I couldn’t speak for a minute and then said quietly, “It’s Emma, she’s thrown me over.”

He stared at me in silence for a moment looking totally shocked and then said, “Oh buddy I’m so sorry.”

I looked across at him and saw he was genuine, but there was something else in his eyes, something that told me he was feeling real uncomfortable.

Then I knew it, I just knew it.

“She’s been coming on to you hasn’t she Jess,” I said really quietly.

He knew that tone. Knew that I was way beyond mad, but he also knew he couldn’t lie to me.

I looked across at him and saw what I had dreaded.

He nodded his head once almost imperceptibly and then looking me in the eyes said very quietly, “Yes.”

In the same frighteningly quiet voice I said, “What did you do Jess, have you been with her…have you taken her to bed?”

“No, I ain’t,” he yelled leaping up from his seat and facing me, “I wouldn’t do that to you, you know that I wouldn’t Slim.”

“But you didn’t tell me either did you?” I yelled standing up and moving towards him pushing him in the chest so he staggered backwards. He looked down again and said so softly I could hardly hear him.


That did it I suddenly lost all reason and punched him hard on the chin. He rolled with the punch and stood his ground, but didn’t retaliate. I punched him again and again and with the third hay maker he fell to the ground and lay there shaking his head to clear it.

I lunged down and grabbing his shirt front hauled him up again and punched him hard in the face and yelled, “Goddamn it Jess fight me.”

He just stood there bleeding from his nose and a split lip and shook his head, “I ain’t gonna fight ya Slim,” he said quietly.

Then I guess I threw a lucky punch and knocked him out. 

I looked down at him for a moment  and a wave of shame and remorse flooded through me...

But then I once more thought of the two of them together, the pain changing to fury and  turning I retraced my steps and mounting Alamo rode out of the yard.

I don’t know how long I rode for, but as dusk began to fall, I turned and headed for home and with each mile I began to feel more and more guilty, as my rage left me.

What had I done? Beaten up the best friend I had in the world, and for what? Just because he couldn’t bring himself to tell me my girlfriend was playing around.

For all I knew he could be lying dead or at best seriously injured. Why in Hell didn’t he fight back I thought. But knowing Jess’s sense of honour I figured he somehow felt he deserved the beating.

When I got back to the ranch everywhere was in darkness and as soon as I had stabled my horse, I entered the ranch house and saw there was a dim light in the main room from a lamp on the mantelpiece. Going over to it I turned up the lamp so the room was illuminated and turning around saw Jess stretched out in his rocker, looking over at me, a quizzical expression on his face.

“Iffen you’re here for round two, I’m gonna tell you I’m still hurtin’ some from round one. So, can we leave it until the morning please Pard,” he said, with the ghost of a smile.

I flung myself down in the chair next to him and said, “Jess, I’m so, so sorry. I guess you didn’t deserve that.”

After a minute or two he looked across at me and said, “Maybe I did Slim. I guess I should have tried to find a way to tell you,” then raking his hand through his black curls, said, “damn it, Slim I just didn’t know what to do.”

I looked across at him feeling about as bad as I can remember, “Gee Jess, I’m so goddamn sorry, I was just so jealous. I guess I needed to lash out...are you OK?”

“Oh, reckon I’ll live...just about,” he said quietly with a small smile.

Then looking more like the tough Jess, I knew so well, added, “But if you are thinkin’ of round two anytime soon, I hafta tell you I won’t be takin’ it lyin’ down again Slim.”

Chapter 5

Well, the way things went at the picnic I couldn’t get out of there fast enough after what happened between me and Emma by the buckboard. I was real fearful that she was going to make some more mischief before the day was out and so I made the weak excuse to Slim that I was feelin’ sick and high tailed it back to the ranch.

When I got home, I suddenly realized that Daisy and Slim would most likely be worried about me and asking all sorts of questions on their return, so that’s when I decided to take off for the evening, leaving a note.

I knew of a card game going on at a neighbor's ranch, and that Josh Stevens would be there. Knew he would cover my back too if any questions were asked. As it happened my luck changed for a while there and I even won a few hands, so life was beginning to look a bit more cheerful…until Slim headed home the Sunday evening that is.

As soon as he sat down next to me, I could see he was hurtin’ real bad and I just knew in my heart it was Emma who had been the cause of it all. So, when he said she had dumped him, I wasn’t too surprised and I figured that this was confession time.

He knows me too damn well, and so I couldn’t lie to him. I knew everything was gonna come out at last, and in a way, I was kinda relieved that he would at least know the truth now. Then in some strange way I also figured I deserved the beating I got. For the way I hadn’t said anything to warn him about the way she was. But Hell, it’s real hard to tell your best buddy his girl is just stringing him along.

Well ol’ Slim there sure gave me a thrashing. By the time I came round he was long gone and it was pitch dark. I cleaned myself up some before stretching out in my rocker by the fire. I guess I must have fallen asleep because next thing I knew he was back and he’d calmed down. He sure was sorry for what he had done to me.

We finally got to bed real late, after cracking open a bottle of Red Eye and talking it all through. In the end we decided we would tell Daisy I got messed up some fallin’ off of Bad Boy again. We figured that she would be so dang upset if she knew the truth of it all, that it was worth a white lie or two to keep the peace. And boy were we glad she and Mike had been in town as I figure neither of us would have wanted him to be witness to what happened.

That was about it, for the next week or so. Slim licked his wounds and felt kinda sorry for himself and I didn’t feel any too good either, hurtin’ in places I didn’t know I had places, after our set too. Then Mort Cory, our good friend and Sheriff called to see us and things were to get a whole lot worse before they got any better.

I was up on Bad Boy when he rode in and as Slim had predicted he was the first bronco I got back up on as soon as the Doc had said I was fit. Well I sure wasn’t gonna let him get the better of me. So, after he’d tipped me off for the third time Slim was just about ready to cut our losses and free him. But I figured I hadn’t suffered so much just to back down. I got up there again and this time hung on for dear life. Eventually I could feel him begin to tire and he slowed down and finally stopped his prancin ’ and stood head bowed shaking and blowing in defeat.

There came a round of applause and whistling from the side of the corral and I saw Slim and Mort leaning on the fence, grinning over at me. I jumped down and loosing the stallion off came over to chat.

“How’s things Mort,” I asked, “ain’t seen you in a while.”

He took his Stetson off and raked his hand through his hair before replacing it and turning to me, “Been kept pretty busy Jess,” he replied, “and now Lon, my deputy, has only gone and busted his arm and I’ll tell you, I’m in a bit of a fix.”

“How so?” asked Slim, giving him a concerned look.

“Well, I’ve still got a prisoner in my jail. One that turned over the store a while back… and I’m supposed to be taking him to Cheyenne tomorrow for his trial, but I haven’t got anyone to cover for me. I was kinda wondering…I know it is short notice, but could one of you do it for me? It would just be for a few days, week at the most.”

We exchanged looks, before Slim replied, “I guess it’s down to Jess here Mort, I’ve got the Stage line boss, Mr Peterson down tomorrow for the annual review and returns, can’t miss that I’m afraid.”

“How about it Jess?” he said giving me a big grin, you can use the hot tub out the back anytime you like and I’ll even throw in breakfast at Miss Molly’s place everyday too.”

“Well, how can I resist an offer like that?” I said grinning back at him. “Besides it will give all the bruises, that big brute has just given me, time to heal,” I said laughing and jerking my head to where the Palomino was standing tossing his head and giving me a wilful look.


The following morning, I arrived in plenty of time and walking into Mort’s office was pleased to see he’d got the coffee on and I was soon making myself at home.

“I’ve got a brand knew mattress in the back cell,” he said with a smile, “so you are welcome to bed down in there and I’m not expecting any trouble. So, guess you’ll have a nice relaxing few days, and not a mustang in sight,” he added grinning over at me as he made to leave.

Once he had disappeared off on the Stage with his prisoner, I made a quick patrol of the town and then settled down to drink coffee and look at the latest batch of wanted posters. As predicted, the town was real quiet and the day drifted by and after a final check of the main street at midnight I came back and bedded down in the back cell and was asleep in minutes.

The following morning after I had checked the town, I crossed over the road and entering Miss Molly’s café, I ordered the works and sat back with a coffee looking out at the peaceful street. Just then a shadow passed the window and a woman entered and walked briskly over to the counter and gave an order for bread before turning to leave. Then she saw me and turning back came over and stood by my table looking down at me…it was Emma.

I hadn’t seen her since the picnic and I didn’t particularly want to see her now, the way she’d treated Slim.

“May I join you?” she asked, with a hesitant smile.

I said nothing, but pulled the chair out next to me for her to sit.

Molly came over with another cup and the coffee pot and poured her a cup and topped mine up and I nodded in thanks, before looking back at Emma waiting for her to speak.

“How is Slim?” she asked quietly

“Like you care,” I growled

She blushed deeply, looking down and then looking me in the eye, said, “Well I suppose I deserved that.”

“Yes, you damn well did,” I muttered.

To my surprise she said, “I’m sorry for the way I treated Slim, really sorry, I used him to try and make friends with you and that was wrong of me.”

I looked across at her with a puzzled expression on my face, “If you wanted to be friends with me you only had to ask,” I said, “there was no need to act the way you did.”

“I couldn’t,” she whispered, “I felt you were, well…out of my league so to speak.”

“What!” I exploded, “What are you talking about?”

“Well, the way you are with the local girls, so relaxed, so experienced and I…well, I suppose I’m not like that, I haven’t…what is the phrase you use…I haven’t ‘been around.’ I certainly don’t know any men like you anyway,” she said looking up from under her lashes at me.

I suddenly got it…

“Oh no,” I said, “I see what you’re talking about. Now let me see…” I said copying her turn of phrase… “What’s that phrase you use back East, oh yeah, I know, ‘a bit of rough’. You know lots of gentlemen, but you wanted to see what it would be like with an old cowpuncher like me. Probably doing more research for your book,” I finished angrily “Well I’m sorry Emma but I’m not as easy going as Slim, and I sure know when I’m being used,” and with that I stood up and left her staring after me open mouthed as I left the café slamming the door behind me.

About ten minutes later there was a knock at the office door and Molly was standing there carrying a tray covered with a snowy white napkin.

I welcomed her in and said, “Hey I didn’t know ya did waitress service Molly, gee thanks.”

She beamed at me, “Well occasionally I bring Mort a meal over,” but then wagging a finger at me, “but I don’t make a habit of it. I just thought I’d spoil you for once.” Then turning to go she said, “Besides I think Slim got a rough deal from that stuck up cow too, and you sure told her good,” then with a cheeky wink she left.

I stood there staring after her, shaking my head, amazed yet again at the Laramie bush telegraph and wondered if there was anything about Slim and my personal life the good folk of the town didn’t know.

It was early afternoon when a young lad burst into the office almost cannoning into me, “Whoa there, where’s the fire,” I said as I recognized Davy Smith the young son of one of our neighbors. “What are you doin’ out of school, lessons aren’t over early are they Davy? I asked.

“No sir,” he replied looking real upset, “It’s Mike he’s had an accident and Miss Brown sent me to fetch the Doc and you…but the Doc is out on a call Mister Harper,” he finished gasping for breath.

I grabbed my hat and tore down to the School, Davy just behind me and I crashed into the classroom at top speed. I could see Emma had left one of the older children in charge of the class and they were all reading quietly.

“She’s taken Mike next door to the school house sir,” the lad in charge said and thanking him I dashed round, my heart pounding, dreading what I might find.

I banged on the door and after what seemed like an age later Emma appeared looking pale and drawn and ushered me in.

I went through to the sitting room and Mike was lying on the couch with a damp cloth on his forehead, looking so small and helpless and I felt a pang of dread.

I didn’t know if he was sleeping or unconscious and after exchanging an anguished look with Emma, I knelt down beside him and taking his limp little hand in mine studied his white face before turning to look up at Emma, “What the hell happened?” I whispered.

“He had a fall Jess,” she said, “just a simple fall, they were all playing chasing at recess and he tripped up. He seemed alright at first, except for a nasty bump on the head. But then about half an hour ago he was very sick and now he is drowsy, I’m worried it could be concussion,” then looking around, “Where is Sam?”

“On a call,” I said briefly and then leaning forwards I said, "Hey, Tiger can ya hear me?”

He stirred a little, but didn’t open his eyes and my stomach lurched in fear, and looking down I swore very quietly.

Emma came and put a hand on my shoulder, “Don’t worry Jess I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she said but I shrugged her hand away and said nothing.

After a few minutes I looked up and saw she had tears in her eyes and felt kinda sorry for her, “This ain’t your fault Emma,” I said, “don’t get upset. Why don’t you go back to your class, I’ll stay and look after him until Sam gets here,” I finished quietly.

“I’ll just go and dismiss them,” she said, “school should be out in a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”

By the time she returned Sam had arrived and he was busy looking in the boy’s eyes with a flash light as I stood back watching, feeling real troubled.

After a few minutes he stood up and shook his head, looking over at me. “He isn’t too good Jess, looks like a bad case of concussion, could possibly be a fractured skull. I won’t be able to tell for a while, we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll keep him under observation back at my office. Do you want to bring him over now?” he asked, putting his instruments away in his black bag and casting me a worried glance.

I gently picked the boy up, still wrapped in the blanket and made for the door and Emma opened it for me. As I passed through, I paused for a moment and then looking across at her said, “Thank you for looking after him Ma’am,” and then left with Sam following me.

Once we had got him in bed at Sam’s place, I sat with him and apart from briefly leaving to attend to my duties in the town I didn’t leave his side .By early evening he seemed a little better and opening his eyes smiled up at me and said, “Hey Jess what are you doin’ here?” and then looking around him… “Say where am I? I thought I was in the school.”

I looked down and explained, “Ya had a fall during recess and banged your head real bad,” I said, “but I reckon you’ll be OK in a little while,” and looking across at Sam was relieved to see him smile and nod in confirmation.

After a while we left the boy to sleep and I went and sat in Sam’s cosy sitting room and accepted a glass of whiskey from him. Taking a sip, I closed my eyes and shook my head before looking over to Sam, “Gee he sure had me worried that time,” I said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, the whiskey warming and relaxing me some.

He smiled back at me, “I guess his skull is OK, got a hard head like his uncle Jess,” he said laughing. Then more seriously, “I’ve got to visit one of the Patterson kids tonight, I’ll call in and see Slim and Daisy on the way and tell them the news and that he should be OK to travel tomorrow. Slim can come out and fetch him home in the morning. It’s just lucky he was staying the night over at his pal Davy’s house, so they won’t have missed him yet.”

“Thanks Sam, that would be a great help,” I said, “I can’t really leave town until Mort lands back or I’d take him myself.”

He nodded and then said, “How is Slim? I was sorry to hear things didn’t work out between him and Emma.”

I tried to be as none committal as possible, “I guess he’s gettin’ over it Sam, keepin’ busy you know.”

He gave me a speculative look and then said quietly, “I personally thought it was you she was interested in to be honest Jess. She’s always talking about you that’s for sure. Quizzing Carrie about what you are really like. I thought it rather odd really, seeing as how she was dating Slim.”

“Yeah, well I figure she is kinda odd,” I said dryly, “not my type anyway Sam,” I finished quietly.

He cast me another quizzical glance but said nothing more and getting up went and refilled our glasses and we started talking about his passion…fishing.

I spent the night in a chair by Mike’s bed even though Sam insisted he was on the mend and there was no real need. He grinned at me shaking his head when he came in first thing the following morning to see that I had nodded off in the chair.

“You’re going to have one Hell of a stiff back today Jess,” he said.

I just grinned and was delighted to see that Mike had woken up and his eyes were bright and clear and he was demanding breakfast.

“I dunno,” I muttered grimly, “I guess Mike’s bounced back from his last adventure quicker than I have.”

Sam and Carrie offered me breakfast too, but I figured I should do a quick tour of the town before installing myself back in the Sheriff’s office, just in case I was needed.

I was out the back having a wash an hour or so later when I heard the office door bang and coming in with a towel thrown around my shoulders and my shirt still hanging open, I entered the office to see Emma standing there.

She looked me over real good, before suddenly remembering why she was there and coming towards me said, “Mike …how is he Jess, I have been so worried.”

I smiled across at her and then remembered my state of undress started to button my shirt and pulling my bandana out of my pocket fastened that as I replied, “He’s fine thanks, on the mend and off home later today.”

“Thank God,” she said coming over and placing a hand on my chest, she looked up into my eyes and said, “I was so worried,” before giving a small sob.

I reached out to pat her shoulder, “Hey it’s OK,” I said, “He’ll be fine now.”

“Really?” she asked anxiously and then threw herself into my arms sobbing with relief.

What could I do, I held her close stroking her hair gently and trying to sooth her and at that moment the office door opened and Slim was standing there. The smile of greeting was frozen on his face as he took in the picture of me holding Emma in my arms, before turning abruptly and closing the door behind him.

“Slim”, I yelled, pushing Emma away and making for the door, but I was just in time to see him disappearing into Sam’s office opposite.

Turning back to Emma I gave her a cool look and picking up my hat I rammed it firmly on and marched across the road to the Doc’s house.

Slim was sitting in Sam’s office drinking coffee when I arrived and sensing the atmosphere between us Sam took himself off to check on his patient. He turned at the door to give us a puzzled look, before disappearing off to find his young charge.

I sank down on the chair beside Slim and looking anxiously across at him said quietly, “It’s not what you think Slim; she was just upset about Mike that’s all.”

He gave me a cool look, “I guess it’s none of my business anymore is it,” he said, “She is a free agent after all.”

“Goddamn it Slim,” I yelled, “I’m telling ya there was nothing going on.”

He turned and gazed at me, and for a second, I was looking into the eyes of a stranger, before he looked down shaking his head as if to remove the image of me and Emma.

Eventually looking back at me he said quietly, “It really doesn’t matter now, anyway Jess”. After a pause he said, “The important thing is that Mike’s OK isn’t it?”

I nodded, looking over at him, and wondering what was going on in his head, wondering if I would ever know.

Then Mike bounced in and we didn’t get another chance to talk properly.
But as he left with the boy in the buckboard, he leaned down and said softly, “Take care of yourself Jess, watch your back,” and with that clicked the team on and they disappeared down the street in a cloud of dust, leaving me watching them and wondering exactly what he meant.

Well I sure didn’t have much time to ponder on it, because that was when all hell was suddenly let lose in the town. A cattle drive had passed within a few miles and a few of the drovers took it into their heads to come into town, get roaring drunk and then trash the place. I managed to sort them out OK with the help of the ramrod from the outfit. He took them back to the drive with their tails between their legs and their wallets a mite lighter with the fine I’d imposed for them wrecking ol’ Tom’s saloon.

Then I’d no sooner got that under control than a fight broke out between the Walker brothers and a couple of the drovers the ramrod had missed. I pitched in to sort it out and one of the drovers ended up drawing on me. I shot him in the arm and the others backed down real quick.

Well I stomped about a bit and then let the others off with a caution and banned the Walkers from town for a couple of weeks and sent the other drover back to his outfit.

So, I just had to take the injured man over to the Doc’s place to be fixed up before throwing him in the cell for Mort to deal with on his return.

By nightfall I was pretty much ready for my bed. Hurtin’ some too from all the cuts and bruises I’d sustained during my set too with the drovers. So, I had me a real good soak in Mort’s hot tub and then turned in early after checking on my prisoner.

I must have been asleep for a couple of hours when I heard someone beating on the office door real loud. Sighing I dragged myself up off the cell cot and made for the door, pulling my shirt on and fastening the buttons on my denims as I went. The hammering was getting louder and more urgent.

“Alright I’m a comin’” I yelled as I staggered towards the door still heavy with sleep.

As I dragged the door open Emma flew in and fell into my arms crying hysterically. I had a feeling that I’d been here before, but said nothing. Pushing her gently away I looked into her tear stained face. I opened my mouth to speak before closing it again and looking in horror at the blood that was streaming down her face from a deep cut to her temple.

I half carried her to Mort’s chair and sitting her down went and found a clean cloth and applied it to her head to stem the flow of blood.

“Who did this to you sweetheart?” I asked softly.

After a moment she looked up at me, “A tall man, an intruder, I didn’t see him clearly,” she finished, closing her eyes in pain.

“Is he still there?” I asked, moving towards the door.

“No,” she replied, “he heard a noise outside and fled, but I’m so scared Jess. I think that he’ll come back, he was after something, could have been my latest manuscript.”

“Let’s get you over to the Doc,” I said softly and helping her up we made our way across the road.

Sam checked her over and after applying a bandage and saying the damage wasn’t too bad, he offered Emma a bed for the night.

At that she got quite hysterical again saying she must return home as she was so worried that the man would return and take her work, and turning to me begged me to stay the night to protect her.

I desperately tried to think of an excuse, but hell I was the only lawman around, how could I let a defenseless female go back into that situation alone. I exchanged a look with Sam and he shrugged and tried again to make her stay there but she was adamant, so we finally left and went back to her place.

I went in first and checked the place out and strangely I could see no sign of a break in and when I mentioned it to Emma, she looked a little embarrassed and said she thought she might have left the door unlocked when she retired to bed.

I raised an eye brow and gave her a quizzical look but said nothing.

Likewise, when I asked her what he had used to attack her with she just replied that it was too dark to see, “a club of some sort,” she replied vaguely.

Anyways I was kinda tired after the day I had experienced and I was looking longingly at the couch by the fire, thinking I’d stretch out there once she finally retired to bed. But then she went and got us both a glass of whiskey and sitting down patted the place next to her, so I had no choice but to sit and have a night cap with her.

“For the shock,” she said gesturing to her drink with a twinkle in her eye. It occurred to me that she seemed to have bounced back pretty darned quickly after her ordeal. But I decided to keep my thoughts to myself and resting back on the couch, I closed my eyes for a second and let the whiskey do its work, warming and relaxing me.

After a minute or two I opened my eyes and was surprised to see her looking intensely across at me.

“Jess,” she said, “I’ve waited so long for this time together on our own. So that I can talk to you properly…explain things to you.”

“Look, Emma,” I started, “it’s kinda late and…”

But she broke in, “Please Jess I have to tell you how I feel or I think I’ll go mad. I’ve never met anyone like you before,” she continued, “so wild, so exciting…so dangerous.”

“For God’s sake,” I yelled, “there you go again Emma spoutin ’ like one of your cheap novels! I ain’t any of those things. I’m just a plain workin’ man and right now I have to tell you, I’m one hell of a beat up, worn out, workin’ man.”

Her eyes opened wide and then suddenly she leaned forwards and kissed me hard before pulling back a little and looking deeply into my eyes said, “Too worn out for that cowboy?”

I don’t know whether it was the whiskey, or the fact that I had resisted the temptation for so long because of her relationship with Slim…but I just couldn’t hold out any longer and suddenly my resolve wavered and I thought what the hell.

If I’m honest I had wanted her from that first time she had kissed me. Now as she leaned in again and ran her hands through my hair pulling me towards her, kissing me again passionately, I gave into it and kissed her back.

Well things were getting interesting. I mean real interesting. We’d moved on apace when she suddenly pulled back and said, “No…please,” and pushed me away.

I leaned back so I could see into her eyes, from where we were now stretched out together lying on the couch, “I thought this is what you wanted,” I said, looking down at her, “isn’t it? “

“Yes, yes, I do, it’s just all moving too fast, I do want you Jess, but...”

I stood up from where we had been lying together and walked over to the fireplace and leaning on the mantel piece, I rested my head on my arm for a moment with my back to her. I took a couple of deep breaths to calm myself and waited for my body to catch up with my mind.

Then I spun round and in an exhausted voice said, “What the Hell are you playing at Emma?”

I sure was feeling pretty mad. I didn’t know if she was just a tease or if she was genuinely uncomfortable with the situation, she had got herself into. She sure seemed kinda inexperienced, so maybe that was it.

I figured maybe she lived in some sort of romantic fantasy world, where her make-believe books were all mixed up with real life. Suddenly it just didn’t matter any more, I was plumb wore out and I said wearily, “Just go to bed Emma and let me stretch out on the couch,” and with that she ran from the room crying.

I shook my head sadly and whispered, “Women,” under my breath before lying down, closing my eyes and falling instantly asleep.

It was the early hours of the morning when I was awakened by a noise and I tensed wondering if it was the intruder back again. I slipped off the couch and went and peered out of the window and then I heard the sound again, an ol’ Tom cat yowling.

I grinned to myself and turning back into the room went over to the table and lit the lamp, knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep again.

I wandered restlessly around the room and then went over to Emma’s desk and looking idly through the paper work. Then out of curiosity I picked up the copy of the manuscript she was working on and taking it over to the couch started reading.

It was entitled ‘The Horse Breaker’ and was about two cowboys who were best buddies, and their romances with the local school teacher and how the relationship tore their friendship apart. The more I read the more I realised she had just about catalogued everything that had happened to her since her move to Laramie, even the way she had used Slim and tried to seduce me.

I couldn’t read anymore of the trash and I was feeling sick to my stomach to think that she had written down all the intimate details of her relationships for the whole world to see. I put the manuscript back on the desk.

I was standing at the window, looking out at the breaking dawn when I heard a sound behind me and Emma was standing there in a revealing shift, looking at me, with fear in her eyes.

“I thought I heard something,” she said.

“Just an old Tom cat,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said relaxing. Then, “Jess I’ve had a terrible thought, do you think the intruder that attacked me, well he was very tall…You don’t think it could have been Slim do you...in a moment of passionate jealousy?”

I could have laughed if I hadn’t been so darn mad at her.

She must have picked up on my angry expression because she said, “Jess, please don’t be angry with me I didn’t mean to…”

But I cut in before she could finish, my voice loaded with sarcasm.

“What Emma, you didn’t mean to use my best buddy...or to set the two of us against each other? Or to start making love with me and then change your mind just for fun…Or was it so it would fit into your plot better? Did you want to see what a common cowboy like me would do if you turned me on and then backed off? Or how I’d react if you told me my best buddy had attacked you?”

She just stared at me open mouthed.

“Then again Emma, I figure there was no break in, or any attack. You know what I think?” Without pausing for her to answer I continued, “You tripped and fell against a kitchen cupboard and thought that would be a kinda good way to get my attention.”

“How did you know?” she whispered blushing deeply and looking down.

“I didn’t,” I replied, “just a lucky guess.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “so sorry.”

But I hadn’t finished yet… “Oh yeah, I’m mad about all that,” I said, “but you know what makes me really mad huh? It’s the fact that you could do all those things, then write ‘em down for the whole goddamn world to read Emma. You see I don’t know how it works back East, but around these parts, well, when a man and woman are intimate, that’s kinda private. They don’t discuss it with others and they sure as Hell don’t write it all down for everyone to read about. How could you do that Emma...damn it, how could you do that?” I finished, practically shaking with anger.

I suddenly couldn’t bear to be under the same roof and picking up my hat and gun belt I walked out, slamming the door behind me.

I crashed through Mort’s office door practically laying it off its hinges and waking the prisoner who sat bolt upright, pulling his blanket around him and staring at me in terror. I banged about the office for a while and then thumped the coffee pot on the stove, threw myself into Mort’s chair and sat there glaring at the office wall.

Eventually I calmed down and poured myself a coffee and looking over at the prisoner, still sitting rigidly, a look of fear in his eyes as he contemplated me, I said quietly, “Like a coffee?”

He nodded and came to the bars and reached out for the cup I offered him and took the powerful brew sipping it with obvious pleasure, before looking across and saying, “Women trouble, Deputy?”

I turned and gave him a weak smile, “You got it friend,” I said softly, “you sure got it,” and with that took my coffee and went and turned in for the last couple of hours before the new working day began.

The next morning, I was in no better mood and went about my duties with a grim look in my eyes which seemed to make everyone give me a wide berth and I figured that was probably for the best all round. So, I was surprised when Sam marched in later in the morning. Ignoring my less than hospitable greeting he fetched himself a coffee from the pot, sat down opposite me and after a few minutes said, “Are you going to tell me what happened then Jess?”

I looked across at my good friend and just didn’t know where to start. As if reading my mind, he said softly, “Shall I help you out? I know Emma probably used Slim, to try and get to you. It was obvious from the start she was keen on you. But I guess you butted out as soon as you saw Slim had the hots for her?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but he raised his hand, “Hear me out Jess. Then, knowing how loyal you are to your friends she figured you wouldn’t go behind your buddy’s back, so that’s when she dumped him. Right so far?” he asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

I nodded.

“Then we had all that play-acting last night.”

I must have looked surprised, because he smiled at me, “Oh yes, I could see that injury was merely where she had caught her self on a door, shelf or similar, thing about head wounds is they look spectacular Jess, lots of blood for not too much damage usually.”

Then he gave me a concerned look, “What I want to know now is what happened last night, because you sure seem really distressed about something Jess.”

I took a deep breath and looking him in the eye, told him about my feelings for her and how I’d kept them, pretty much in check, up until last night. Then about her coming on to me and the final consequences, how she’d suddenly backed off.

“That’s not what made me so mad though Sam,” I said. “Sure, I was annoyed, but hell, these things happen and when she called time…well that was it. I walked away. No, it was afterwards…You know she’s an author?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Well last night I couldn’t sleep and I picked up her latest manuscript…and Sam it’s all there, everything. How she came in my bedroom and kissed me, the way I reacted, all the stuff she’s done with Slim. All about what we’d been through, even that darn fight we had over her. Sam it’s hurt me real bad. I can’t believe she would betray a trust like that. Those personal, private things, how could she put them down for the whole world to read?”

Then giving him a despairing look, “And what the Hell will Slim do when he finds out? She can’t print it can she Sam? We’ve gotta stop her some way,” I finished looking into his kindly face.

He gave a deep sigh and then said, “I figure there is something we need to discuss first Jess, a thing you need to know.”

Something in his manner made me sit up and listen real good, leaning over I asked “What’s that Sam?”

He looked me in the eye and said, “You aren’t going to like this Jess…but Emma came knocking on my door, shortly after dawn and said,” he stopped and looked kinda embarrassed, before continuing, “She said you had forced yourself on her.”

I threw my head back like I had been physically punched, and then yelled, “What! She said what?” Then, “Please Sam, please tell me you didn’t believe her.”

“I didn’t believe her,” he said right away, “and after I’d spoken to her for a while she admitted, well …that she’d made it all up. But what I’m telling you Jess, is that we are dealing with a lady here who is…well I guess she’s sick. She’s mentally unstable anyway, that’s for sure. She certainly doesn’t have a rational view of life and to be honest I think she has a real problem in telling the difference between real life and fantasy.”

“You’re not wrong there,” I said, “so what do we do about it all Sam?”

“Well, I reckon you should consult with Slim’ s family solicitor, Mr Benson, about the book publishing laws. However, I think as long as she doesn’t call you by name and also puts a disclaimer in saying the characters aren’t real, well then I figure she can get away with it.”

“But that’s crazy Sam,” I exploded, “everyone in Laramie will recognize the characters. Hell, you’re even in it as the friendly doctor who has made her so welcome.”

He shook his head sadly, “I guess all we can do is back off and give her no more opportunities to use stuff she can write about. If she is sick, well maybe I should contact her Pa, but as far as you are concerned, I should just stay clear Jess.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I said grimly, “she won’t be seeing me again, that’s for sure.”

Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Sam had just left and I made ready to go down the street to meet the early morning Stage from Cheyenne, knowing Mort would be onboard. Boy was I looking forward to seeing him back so I could hi tail it back to the ranch for a while and lie low. Plus, I needed to have that conversation with Slim. Tell him all I knew about the book and see if we could do anything to stop her publishing. I sure didn’t relish telling him, but hell after last time I sure wasn’t about to keep anything from him either, no matter how difficult I would find it.

I was just heading for the door when it opened and Emma stood there, looking flushed and anxious, as well she might I thought as the old Harper temper started rising.

“I’m surprised you’ve got the nerve to show up here,” I said giving her a hard look, “seeing as what you told Sam.”

She had the grace to blush even more deeply and looking at the floor said, “I’m extremely sorry Jess, you don’t deserve the way I have treated you, please forgive me.”

I just gazed at her shaking my head sadly, unable to believe the front of the woman, ignoring her request I said, “All I want you to do is keep away from me Emma, do you understand?”

“How can you say that,” she said in a pleading voice, “after all we have meant to each other…after last night.”

“Last night,” I yelled, “you made a fool of me and then went and lied about what had happened to Sam. I guess you don’t really know anything about adult relationships at all do you?” I finished.

“Please Jess,” she whispered, “give me another chance, I so want to try and make a go of things with you. I think we could be really good together,” she said, sidling over and standing real close, looking up at me from under her lashes and pouting a little.

I pushed past her, none too gently, and made for the door and with my hand on the door handle I turned and looked back at her briefly, “Oh I really don’t think so. I know when I’m being played for a fool and I guess I’ve featured enough in your latest two-bit novel.” I said bitterly, before opening the door and walking out leaving her staring after me.

I was aware that she had followed me out and was standing watching me as the Stage hurtled in, coming to a standstill beside me, the horses blowing and ol’ Mose grinning down.

Then he seemed to remember something, “Oh Jess, got a confession to make to ya. I was supposed to warn you that some drovers were heading to town the other day, intent on making mischief, clean forgot to mention it, sorry.”

“It’s OK,” I said returning his grin and then rubbing my chin which still bore the evidence of my fight with one of the drovers, “I found out about it soon enough, don’t you worry!”

Then turning away from Mose I opened the Stage door and Mort climbed out and shook hands, “Good ta see ya Jess,” he said before turning back to help another passenger down.

Suddenly I was looking into Millie’s beautiful brown eyes. She hurled herself into my arms and gave me a big hug before pulling back with tears in her eyes, and said, “Oh Jess, I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for Ma!”

I leaned forwards and kissed her, “Gee it sure is good to have you back Millie,” I said quietly and with a promise to return and catch up with Mort shortly I picked up her bag and with my arm around her waist we walked over to the saloon together.

What I wasn’t aware of at the time was Emma watching. Her eyes narrowed and a grim look on her face, before she turned and marched off towards the school house.

Later I went and found Mort and filled him in on everything that had been happening during his absence. I explained the reason the drover was in the cells, how he had drawn on me during the mayhem, when his friends were wrecking the saloon.

“So, not all plain sailing then,” he said.

“And what have you done to upset that pretty little school Ma’am Jess? She just gave you a look that would curdle the milk,” he said with a huge grin.

“Aw, don’t ask,” I replied with a sheepish grin, “ I’d rather tangle with a mess of drunken drovers.”

“It’s as bad as that huh?” he responded with a cheeky wink.

But I quickly changed the subject and we sat with a coffee and putting our feet up just relaxed some.

Well, I’d arranged to stay the night in town and take Millie out to dinner as a welcome home celebration, so I spent the day helping Mort out, before heading for the saloon.

We had a real good night together and the following morning we decided to go over the road to Miss Molly’s for a spot of breakfast before I headed back to the ranch.

It was real early, so I was surprised to see Emma just leaving her house. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me and after glaring at us both, retraced her steps and re entered her house, slamming the door behind her.

Millie and I exchanged a look, “Golly Jess you really have upset her ain’t you?” She said with a wicked grin.

“I guess,” I said softly, “but Hell, she had to be told Millie after all she’s done.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she agreed.

I had confided everything to Millie the night before. And as I knew she would, she’d been real supportive and offered good advice, and not for the first time I thanked God, for her loyal friendship.

Chapter 6

I had mixed feelings about Jess landing back at the ranch that day. Sure, I’d missed him, I always did when he was away, but then there was the bad taste in my mouth from the last time I’d seen him. How I’d walked in on him and Emma, seeing them together that way, well it was like a knife through my heart, I have to admit.

By the time he came over to Sam’s I guess I’d calmed down some and I believed him when he said there was nothing going on, but I figured it was only a matter of time. Emma had him in her sights and I knew how persuasive she could be, and I guess I couldn’t really blame him if he finally succumbed to her charms.

Thing is, I knew he would feel he had to be honest with me. I knew he’d confess and so as I saw him riding in that morning, I guess I felt I really didn’t want to know what he’d been up to in town.

He dismounted and walked over to where I was standing by the corral, gave me a big smile, and shook my hand, “Hey Slim, it’s good to be back,” he said.

“Sure good to have you back pard,” I said and was suddenly aware that I really meant it, and Hell, no matter what he’d been up to I guess I’d get over it.

He looked kind of edgy and I knew there was something on his mind. After a minute or so he said, “Where are the others?”

“Oh, of course,” I said, “you don’t know. As the school holidays have just started Daisy figured it would be a good time to head off for Cheyenne and visit her sister for a couple of weeks, sorry Jess, but the cooking an’ all is down to us.”

I was surprised that he didn’t react in his customary way of moaning and lamenting Daisy’s absence. But he was OK about it and I wondered if he thought we might be coming to blows again over Emma and didn’t want her or Mike around to witness it.

“Jess,” I said softly, “I meant what I said, about Emma, she is a free agent now and…well if you have got it together with her, then I guess I’m OK with that now. I’m certainly not going to get into a fight over it again,” I said giving him a sincere look.

He looked down and flushed a little, “We need to talk buddy, but not now, this evening maybe?”

“OK,” I said, aware that our serious conversations tended to be over coffee on the porch after supper and I dreaded what he was going to tell me, figuring whatever it was, it was real important to him.

Dusk was falling as we sat out on the porch and we were well into our second cup of coffee but Jess still hadn’t opened up to me and I was beginning to feel kind of anxious. He sat there staring at the horizon and after a while I said irritably, “Hell Jess will ya just spit it out, if you’ve taken Emma to bed, well I guess I can learn to live with that, it ain’t the end of the world.”

He turned to look at me his eyes flashing with anger, “I can’t believe the way that woman had played us off,” he growled, “and I was too damn stupid to see it. Fell for it even though I’d seen what she’d done to you.”

“Come on then,” I said, a resigned note in my voice, “tell me what happened.”

So, he told me about how Emma awoke him banging on the office door, blood everywhere and how after Sam had patched her up, she insisted Jess stay at her place for the night. But how he found out later that it was all a scam and she had hurt herself in an accident, not by the hand of an intruder.

“She was hysterical,” he said, “Sam couldn’t calm her and so we figured I should stay and look after her. Later at her place, she poured us some whiskey and seemed to perk up some,” he said before looking down.

“Go on,” I said quietly.

“She started kissing me and well, one thing led to another, the way it does,” he said softly, “I’m sorry Slim... I guess I just ran out of willpower.”

“Its OK, I needed to know,” I replied.

There was a long pause and then he continued, “So things were sorta getting to the point of no return and then she suddenly went real cold on me, pushed me off.”

At that point I must have taken a quick breath because he looked over at me and said softly, “You too?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I guess maybe she’s a tease, that or real inexperienced. So, what did you do?”

“What the hell do you think I did Slim,” he replied angrily, “I backed off and sent her to bed. It was what happened next that has riled me so much,” he finished.

I looked across my eyebrows raised in question, but he just sat there looking out into the darkness.

“Come on Jess, it can’t be that bad,” I said, looking at him and was surprised to see he was struggling with his emotions. More quietly I said, “What is it pard?”

He took a deep breath and finally said, “You know she writes those trashy novels Daisy and half the women in Laramie enjoy so much?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure I do, so what about it huh?”

“So, we are the main characters in the one she’s writing now,” he said bitterly.
“It’s all there Slim, these two buddies who fall out over the pretty school ma’am. How the tall blond one gets her first…and everything they do together,” and then giving me a hard look, “and I sure mean everything.”

I must have gone real pale, because he looked concerned, “Are you OK Slim?”

I just nodded, “Go on.”

“Everything she did with me too, Slim, every private intimate minute down in black and white for all the good ladies of Laramie to read.” Then he paused and turned ashen, “Oh, my God…and Daisy too,” he said exchanging an agonized look with me.

I was silent for a while taking it all in and then said, “Can’t we reason with her, get her to change it?”

“No reasoning with her Slim,” he said softly, “the woman is crazy, she even went to Sam and said I’d...”

He looked away and I saw him swallow hard before continuing, “She said I’d forced myself on her,” he said giving me a look full of pain.

“Oh Jess,” I said quietly.

“It’s OK, she confessed to lying after a while, but Sam reckons she’s sick, mentally unstable he said Slim. He figures she has a hard time knowing the difference between real life and fantasy. What with all the story writing she does.”

I was quiet for a while and then said, “I guess we could get our solicitor on the case?”

“Sure, could try, but Sam seems to think she knows the law. She just changes people’s names and she can get away with it,” he replied.

“Well goddamn it Jess we’ve got to do something,” I said, with feeling.

“Do ya think I don’t know that?” he responded angrily and then after a minute, “Sorry Slim, I sure don’t want to have words with you again. I guess she’s caused enough problems between us…let’s just sleep on it,” he finished sounding bone weary.

“Good idea,” I said and a little later we turned in. But I guess neither of us slept too well that night and so I was surprised when I woke up at first light to find Jess’s bed empty. On further investigation Traveller was missing from his stall too and I wondered where he had lit off to so early.

I didn’t have too long to wait as he landed back at lunch time.

“So where have you been off to?” I said lightly, “I don’t know... a week off in Laramie and you start treating this place like a hotel,” I joked.

He didn’t rise to my bait and instead just gave me a hard look before marching off to the stable to attend to his mount.

I followed him in and after a few minutes said, “Hey, what’s the matter buddy?”

“Just leave it Slim,” he growled ad he continued to rub Traveler down without turning.

Then I noticed the blood on the sleeve of his shirt, “Are you hurt Jess” I asked softly, “do you want me to have a look?”

He glanced down at his arm, “It’s nothing,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me, I insisted…what’s the matter Jess?”

He turned on me then looking real angry, “The matter is a man can never get any damn privacy around here,” he spat, “now will you just leave it!”

I turned on my heel and left him to stew, knowing he’d come around once he’d calmed down some.

It was late afternoon when Mort Corey rode in and I went to meet him and with a friendly grin said, “Oh no Mort, you aren’t borrowing my partner again, he’s got far too much work to catch up on here.”

Just like Jess he didn’t respond to my banter and just said, “Is he here?”

“Sure he is,” I said and on yelling for him he walked out of the barn and over to where I was standing with Mort.

He nodded, in welcome, “Mort.”

“Jess, I guess you know why I am here?” he said looking mighty serious.

Jess looked a mite uncomfortable, but then shook his head, “No?”

“Come on Jess,” he said quietly, “you were seen leaving Miss Brown’s place early this morning…do you deny you were there?”

Jess looked down and then back at Mort, “No, I was there alright,” he said.

“Well, then I think we need to talk boy,” he replied, looking even more serious.

“What’s all this about?” I asked.

Mort turned to me, “Seems Emma’s neighbors heard a ruckus going on this morning and when she didn’t come over to their place for coffee as planned, they went round and found the place turned over and blood splattered on the kitchen floor.”

“I made a few inquiries and it turns out Widow Storm was passing with her dog first thing and saw Jess running out of there and riding Traveler away like the devil was on his tail.”

He turned back to Jess, “And so I need an explanation from you Jess, or I’m gonna have to take you in.”

He walked away and went and stood leaning on the corral fence his head bowed and Mort and I followed him. I caught hold of his arm and saw him flinch, “Show me your arm Jess,” I said firmly.

After a minute he rolled up his sleeve and undid a makeshift bandage uncovering a deep slash in his arm, obviously made by a large knife.

Mort gave a low whistle, “Say how did you come by that Jess?” he asked.

“Better ask Miss Brown that,” he growled.

“She did this?” I asked in amazement.

He turned and looked us both in the eye and then with a sigh said, “I rode over first thing. I couldn’t sleep all night Slim,” he said casting me a desperate look, “figured I’d have it out with her once and for all, try and get the manuscript off her.”

At this point Mort said, “Hang on you’ve lost me here, what manuscript?”

I spent a few minutes filling him in on all the details and he said, “Dad gum it Jess no wonder you were madder than a wet hen.”

“Anyways,” continued Jess, “I started talking to her real calm like and tried to explain how bad it would be for us iffen she published it. Well that didn’t seem to cut any ice with her. So, I guess I kinda lost it…yelled at her sayin’ how it just weren’t right to put those things down on the page. Those real private things a man and a woman do together and all of a sudden, she just went berserk. We were in the kitchen having coffee and she threw her cup across the room and then went to a drawer and pulled out a big carving knife and came at me. Truth to tell I just wasn’t expecting it, she lunged at me and…well, I guess that blood on the kitchen floor you’re so worried about Mort, it was all mine.”

“I wrestled the knife off of her and then she started screaming that she was going to see Sam and say I had come back to finish what we had started the other night. That I had forced her against her will...well at that I just turned and ran. Hell, Mort the woman is plumb loco,” he finished quietly.

“What about the place being trashed?” Mort asked softly.

Jess shook his head, “She did it after I left, I guess. I wouldn’t be surprised if she went into hiding to make it look like I’d killed her and hidden the body, ” he finished sarcastically.

“I don’t get it,” said Mort, “Lon and I searched the place from top to bottom and the neighbors swear she hasn’t been seen leaving. I don’t know for the life of me where she is.”

“I think I do,” I said thoughtfully. “When I was a kid my best pal lived at the school house, his Pa was the teacher. Anyway, we had a secret play house, way up in the attic. It’s got a secret door. You can’t tell it’s there unless you know where to look. We used to hide from his annoying little sister,” I said grinning.

“What are we waiting for?” said Mort, “let’s check it out.”

As we arrived at the house it was dusk and I thought I saw a light glimmering through the sitting room window, but by the time we knocked there was no sign of it though, and after getting no response to our knocking we entered.

The place was sure in a mess with furniture turned over. We went up the stairs to the attic and then I showed them where the secret door was and low and behold there was a line of light under the door. Mort tapped on the door and said, “Sheriff Cory, come out please miss.”

After a few minutes Emma emerged and fell on my chest saying, “Oh thank God you are here Slim!”

Then gesturing to Jess she turned pale and said hysterically… “Keep him away! Help me Slim!”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said calmly, “looks to me a lot like he needs protecting from you Emma.”

Then Mort came forwards and said, “Emma Brown I am arresting you for malicious wounding, with attempt to murder.”

At that she fell apart and cried hysterically and ran to Jess grabbing hold of his shirt and saying, “Jess I am so, so sorry I never meant to hurt you, I just got so mad, when you said you didn’t want me… I love you so much,” she finished, sobbing.

Mort pulled her gently away from Jess who muttered, “Got a damn funny way of showing it,” before turning away and going back down the stairs, followed by me, Mort and Emma.

When we got to the living room, Mort looked over to Jess and said, “What do you want me to do, do you want to see her in jail Jess, ‘cos that’s sure as hell where she belongs. Do you want to press charges?”

Jess turned away and after a minute I saw him shake his head almost imperceptibly and then turning to Mort said, “I guess not…just keep her out of my way,” and with that he walked off and we heard Traveler galloping away a few minutes later.

Chapter 7

After that final show down with Emma all went quiet for a while. Slim and I were pretty busy working around the ranch and I finished breaking the last of the mustangs.

We went into town occasionally and I caught up with Millie. But Emma always seemed to be somewhere in the background at a dance or social, just watching us, but never made any move to talk and that was just fine by me.

Towards the end of the summer she went away on holiday to stay with her folks back East, so the word on the street was. Slim and I felt a lot more relaxed and almost forgot about that goddamn manuscript.

Until one Monday morning towards the end of summer when Mose pulled into the yard with his usual flourish, doing his best to dispatch our chickens.

Leaning down from the box he passed me a package, “For you Jess,” he said, before climbing down and heading for Daisy and a cup of coffee.

Slim and I set about changing the team and it was much later that I remembered the parcel I had left out on the porch.

It wasn’t until we were having our coffee out there, that Slim found it on his chair and chucking it across to me said, “Hey buddy, you never opened your mail.”

I tore the packet open and I realized it was Emma’s book, but I was relieved to see it was still in its unpublished form.

There was a note in the package and I read:

I thought you and Slim would like this preview, before it goes to print, please note the new paragraphs on pages 32 and 57, look forward to your reaction when I return Jess, with all my love, Emma.
PS It is not too late to make some amendments, maybe we can talk Jess?

I stared at the note for a few minutes before turning to the relevant page numbers and my heart sank. She had put in the incident with Ida Storm and the misunderstanding about the money that I had given Millie. The way it now read, it was obvious that Millie was expecting my child and I had callously paid her off.

I turned with trepidation to the next page she had mentioned. This time there was a graphic description of her interview with Sam and the allegations of what I had done to her. The Sheriff was involved and later her story was proved to be true and I received a lengthy prison sentence for rape.

I took a deep breath and turning to Slim I said, “I guess that’s... what did she call it? Uh, oh yeah poetic license, this is what ya call real poetic license, that’s fer sure,” before passing the book over to him.

He picked it up and started to read and his expression became more and more furious as he read on. After a while he could stand it no longer and flung the offending material on the floor, “Damn it Jess, how in Hell can she write that filth,” he said, giving me an anguished look. “All those details….”

“She sure leaves nothing to the imagination,” I agreed, bitterly.

I was so angry I didn’t dare let rip. I just didn’t know what I would do, so I was trying to hold it together by making silly cracks and using humor to cover my hurt. But Slim wasn’t taken in for one minute.

“Jess, I know you’re as mad as hell,” he said quietly, “but listen buddy, don’t do anything until we’ve thought it through…OK?”

I looked across at him, and then looking down just nodded, “OK,” I said.


We heard nothing more and finally the first day of the new school term came around. We figured Emma must be back from her holiday, but neither of us had been to town in a while and she hadn’t been in touch. We knew she would be contacting us at some stage; so, I guess we were both pretty much on edge waiting for Mike to get home from school that afternoon, in case he had a message for us.

We heard Mose pull up in the yard as we were mending harnesses in the barn, and came out to meet the Stage. We had the usual banter with old Mose and as he took off, I looked down at Mike’s grinning face and said, “So how was your first day back then Tiger?”

His face fell for a moment and said, “Well I was real sad because Miss Brown has left…But I guess I’m happy again now ‘cos we’ve got this new teacher and he’s real swell, he…”

Mike continued singing the praises of his new teacher, but I had stopped listening. Where the Hell was Emma and what was she up to?

I looked across at Slim and could see he was thinking the same thing. Maybe she had given up teaching to devote her whole life to writing, I thought. Goddamn it maybe she was with her publisher at this moment, maybe the book was out and Daisy would be bringing a copy home any day now.

Well we didn’t have to wait too long to have all our questions answered. The following morning Sam drove over and said he wanted a quiet word with Slim and I. Daisy was off visiting a neighbor and so Slim made some coffee and we all sat round the table in the ranch house to talk.

“So, what’s this about?” asked Slim, “you’re looking mighty serious Sam.”

“Well I guess I owe you two a bit of an apology for not saying anything to you earlier. But well you know my job is bound by the constraints of confidentiality where my patients are concerned.”

“Huh?” I said.

“He means he can’t talk about patient’s problems to the world and his dog Jess,” said Slim dryly.

“Go on then Sam,” I said.

“Well the patient I’m talking about is Emma. However, I have her permission to put you both in the picture as to her health problems now,” he said.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Back East with her Pa, recovering from some sort of mental breakdown,” he replied.

“Her Pa is a doctor too and we have been corresponding regularly. I’ve met him a few times at conferences and the like and he asked me to keep an eye on Emma when she first moved here, he said she was a bit highly strung.”

“And then some,” I muttered.

“Well, yes,” he said giving me a sympathetic look, “I guess you bore the brunt of things Jess. The alarm bells started ringing when she made that false accusation against you. Then when Mort told me about the way she had attacked you, I knew I had to do something.”

“Go on,” said Slim quietly.

“I figured she was already mentally unstable, but after that, then I just knew she needed specialist help. So, I got in touch with her Pa and he came and fetched her home. She’s been seeing a specialist in mental health out there and is slowly getting better.”

“The thing is she has confessed to sending you another manuscript Jess with some amendments?”

“Yeah, I got it a few weeks back,” I said.

“Well, she just wanted you to know when she sent that she was pretty much out of her head. She didn’t mean anything she said and she promises not to publish it. She was just beside herself with anger and wanted to hurt you anyway she could.”

Slim gave a sigh of relief, “Thank goodness for that…about her change of heart that is,” he said grinning across at me.

But I wasn’t convinced, “How can we trust her Sam?” I asked, “It’s not like she’s got that good a track record on doing what she says.”

“Oh, she will have no choice,” he said smiling at me encouragingly, “You see I’ve read that manuscript too Jess and there is no way she would ever be published, it’s all just too explicit, no self-respecting publisher would touch it.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, “she’s had loads of books published, Daisy’s always reading them.”

“Have you ever read one?” asked Sam.

“You’re kidding,” I replied giving him an astonished look.

“Well, do you really think Miss Daisy would read stuff like that?” he asked patiently.

“Heck no, of course she wouldn’t,” Slim replied.

“Exactly,” said Sam, “and she has never written one like that before. All her previous books have just been slushy romances that finish at the bedroom door. Heck what she has been writing here...well it’s positively erotic in places.”

“So, what happened to change the way she writes?” I asked.

“You did Jess, and Slim too. I guess she was suddenly aware of the possibilities of love, sex, intrigue and decided to experiment a bit.”

“Oh really,” I said sarcastically.

“She had led a very sheltered life back East and I guess with her new freedom she got a bit carried away. All the romance and story telling kind of got mixed up with the real world and suddenly she just couldn’t cope. She couldn’t differentiate between the two, real life and fantasy, hence the mental break down.”

“So, are you saying we drove her to it?” Slim asked shooting Sam a worried look.

“Hell no,” he replied, “you weren’t to know how vulnerable she was. She was a very good actress, she could play the role of temptress very well, but I guess it was just a game for her. She didn’t realise the consequences of her actions,” he finished sadly.

I thought about the way she had marched into my bedroom bold as brass, when I was lying in bed half naked. Then I remembered how she had started making love the night of the alleged intruder attack. “Yeah, I guess she should have been on the stage”, I said my voice fully of irony, “she sure had me fooled.”

“The artistic temperament,” said Sam sagely, “I figure they are a mite different to the rest of us mere mortals.”

“Yeah, that’s for sure,” I muttered grimly.

After that the conversation moved on to how the fish were biting and Sam’s latest fishing rod.

It wasn’t until he was leaving some time later that he said, “I got another letter from her Pa yesterday and as soon as Emma is well, he is taking up a new post out West in California. They will be passing through these parts on their way West and Emma wonders if she could visit? I guess she wants to set the record straight between you,” he finished.

I looked across at Slim and could see the look of worry in his eyes and I sure didn’t want to see her again either. But hell, she had been sick and I guess she couldn’t help that. After a minute I nodded OK.

Slim said, “I guess…as long as she is really cured, I sure don’t want Daisy or Mike being upset.”

Sam nodded wisely, “I’ll be absolutely sure she is OK I promise,” he said and with the agreement to return for some fishing at the weekend he drove off in a cloud of dust.

We stood looking at each other after he had gone relief on our faces. Then I turned and walked over to the corral fence and stood looking out to the horizon suddenly feeling completely exhausted and something more...ashamed at the way I had treated her.

Slim came and stood beside me, “What’s up pard?” he asked quietly.

“Feelin ’ kinda bad,” I said, “I guess I would have been more understanding, iffen I’d known she was sick and all.”

“You didn’t know. Hindsight’s a great thing. Hell, Jess she was pretty darn convincing. I sure hadn’t got her down as being as innocent as Sam said. So, I reckon I feel as guilty as you for the way I was with her. But she was the one to start things more often than not. How’s a man to know that she was so inexperienced about loving,” he finished softly.

“Yeah, how’s a man to know,” I agreed shaking my head sadly.


It was a couple of months later when Sam drove Emma and her Pa into the ranch yard. They were on their way out West and were having a stop over in Laramie for a couple of days.

We were both real nervous at seeing her again. Jess more so than me I think as he had certainly had a more turbulent relationship with her. We had both had feelings for her and I was very concerned for her future. So, it was a real pleasant surprise when I helped her down from Sam’s buggy to see her looking so fit and well. That mischievous twinkle that had so attracted her to me and Jess was back in her eye and although she had obviously lost weight, she still had a head turning figure.

As I helped her down and then chatted to her Pa, I noticed Jess was standing back looking kind of withdrawn. But she immediately walked over to him and gave him a friendly kiss on the cheek and he seemed to relax some and escorted her into the house and I followed on with her Pa and Sam.

We sat with Daisy and enjoyed her coffee and pie and Mike was overjoyed to see his old teacher again and lost no time in telling her all about Mr Jackson, her replacement who was just so great.

She smiled at me over his head and then said quietly, “Could I have a word alone with you Slim?”

We went and sat out on the porch and she apologized for her behavior and I was more than willing to forgive her.

“It’s like I am looking back at a completely different person,” she said softly, “I can’t believe how badly I behaved.”

“Hush,” I said, “it’s all in the past and forgotten, all I want now is for you to have a fresh start and make the most of your new life Emma.”

“Thank you,” she replied softly, “I just hope Jess will be as understanding. I do believe I was even more hurtful to him.”

“You’ll just have to ask him,” I said quietly, “shall I go get him?” and she nodded gratefully.


Later that night after Mike and Daisy were long in bed Jess and I sat out on the porch and instead of our usual coffee we had a glass of Red Eye a piece and were both felling kind of mellow.

“So how did you get on with Emma?” I asked inquisitively.

He looked across at me a huge grin on his face, “I guess we managed to iron out our differences,” he said.


“Yeah, we just talked properly for the first time and know what... I kinda liked her. She said she was real sorry for the way she behaved and I did the same and I guess it’s all done with,” he finished smiling across at me.

“I figure that calls for a celebration buddy” I said, pouring us both another generous shot of Red Eye.

“Oh yeah, there is something else,” he said and suddenly produced a book from beside his chair,” she gave me this today, it’s the revised version of ‘The Horse Breaker’ only she has changed the title to ‘The Heart Breaker’,” he said with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

I took it from him and read the synopsis on the back cover, ‘The story of a mustang breaking cowboy and the local school teacher, a love that never could be.’

“She reckons that I’m the cowboy, but she’s changed it all around so much that nobody would ever know,” he said with a sigh of relief, “and she assures me it’s perfectly OK for Daisy to read. Lots of dots at the end of the chapters, she said, whatever that means.”

Then I looked inside the front cover and read the dedication. For my two favorite cowboys (you know who you are), with apologies and love, Emma Vermont.

I looked across at Jess, “Hey, I guess we’re famous pard…but not too famous.”

“Yeah, thank goodness,” he said,” I sure didn’t want to be too famous Slim,” and with that we laughed and had one more glass of Red Eye for luck, before turning in.

The End
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