#89 Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Patty Wilkinson
Some strong language, adult themes and violence

Chapter 1
It was a warm sunny day in early summer when Mose Shell hustled the early morning stage down the rise and into the Sherman yard.
Jess Harper stood his ground as the stage hurtled towards him, coming to a standstill within a few inches of his boots, the horses blowing, nodding their heads and sweating profusely.
“Hey Mose where’s the fire?” Jess asked grinning up at the old timer on the box.
“Running late that’s what! I ain’t gotten time fer coffee or your silly games checkin’ my stopping speed either. I’ll change the team back in town,” he added, making to head off again.
“Kind of a waste of time comin’ by then,” Jess said mischievously.
“Huh...oh yeah...um...you got mail,” he said reaching under his seat for a pile of letters and parcels and throwing them down to Jess.
“Hey have you been stockpiling these?” he asked looking surprised.
“No, I ain’t they all just arrived at the same time, that’s all,” came the irritable reply. “There’s a feed bill fer Slim...that there book about Pirates that Mike was hankering after for his Birthday I guess,” he added. “Miss Daisy’s catalogue and uh...one for you from Montana by the looks of it...Now who could that be from do ya think... huh?”
“I thought you were running late?” Jess said deadpan.
Mose looked even more annoyed at missing out on the contents of Jess’s letter but merely said, “Garldarn it so I am,” and urged the horses off at speed, soon disappearing up the rise in a cloud of dust.
Jess chuckled to himself and turning re-entered the ranch house, where his pard Slim was just finishing breakfast along with Miss Daisy and young Mike.
“We got some mail,” he said cheerfully tossing Slim’ s letter across and carefully placing the two parcels on the table beside Daisy, “Uh you might wanna put that one someplace safe ya know?” he said winking at her as he motioned to Mike’s birthday book. He knew young Mike’s Birthday wasn’t until October, but Daisy usually bought stuff early to spread the cost. Things had been kinda hard of late money wise he reflected...but hopefully they’d be back on track again once they’d sold some stock at the end of the year... Then Daisy brought his thoughts back to the present time.
“Of course, dear,” she said returning the wink and then looking at the catalogue cover. She’d enjoy a good glance at that later she decided, once the boys had gone off to work.
Then she noted the letter in Jess’s hand, “Oh has someone written to you too dear?” she asked smiling up at him.
Jess had forgotten the other letter and grinned back at her, “Looks that way yeah.”
He glanced down at the closely written address for the first time and his smile suddenly faded and the color drained from his cheeks.
“Jess dear whatever’ s the matter?” she asked.

At her tone, Slim looked up from perusing the feed bill and over at Jess. He had now sunk down onto his chair and was staring at the letter on the table before him with deep foreboding.
“Jess, hey what is it pard?” he asked gently.
He continued to stare at the envelope for another minute.
Then Mike watched him closely, “Ain’t you gonna open it Jess?” he asked with all the tactlessness of youth.
“Uh, Mike dear maybe you’d like to go and feed the chickens if you’ve finished,” Daisy said throwing him her best ‘no nonsense’ look.
Mike knew something was afoot, but had enough sense not to pursue the matter. Anyway, the sooner he did his chores the sooner he could take off fishing.
He sighed deeply to make his point, and then said “Yes Aunt Daisy,” got up and ran off to do as he was bid.
Once he’d gone Slim said, “Well, aren’t you? And who’s it from anyways?”
Jess finally pushed the letter a little further away from him and then looked up into Slim’ s concerned gaze. “It’s from Wade....but he’s... dead!”
“What...your brother Wade?” Slim asked in consternation, “But I thought he was killed in the war?”
“So did I...”
“Well, he obviously wasn’t Jess dear,” Daisy said, “and that’s a cause for celebration isn’t it...so don’t you want to see what he has to say?”
At that Jess leaped up from his seat and glared at her, “No, I dang well don’t,” he growled before marching from the room, slamming the door behind him.
Slim and Daisy exchanged an alarmed glance, something was wrong...very wrong.
“Do you know anything about this Wade, why Jess should be so upset?” Daisy asked after a moment.
Slim shook his head, “Not really. I know there was no love lost between them. He bullied Jess unmercifully when he was little and then just ran off and left the family after the fire. He was hardly a good role model to his younger brother. But even so, surely Jess must want to know what he wants after all this time?”
“Maybe that’s the whole point dear. It could be that he wants something Jess feels he just can’t give...like his forgiveness maybe?”
Slim sought out his buddy in the barn sometime later. He found him sitting on a straw bale mending harness with a fixed look of concentration on his face.
“Want to talk about it?” Slim asked, plonking him-self down on another bale.
When Jess said nothing Slim said, “So is it a case of I’m not my brother’s keeper?”
“Huh?” Jess growled frowning.
“You know in the Bible when Cain killed his brother Abel?”
Jess’ head shot up, “I didn’t kill my brother, what are ya talkin’ about Slim? I might have felt like it more than once though,” he added bitterly.
“Heck Jess I know that. All I’m saying is...that when God asked Cain where his brother was, he replied, I’m not my brother’s keeper...but what he really meant was that my brother isn’t my problem... Is that how you feel, he’s not your problem anymore...huh?”
Jess shrugged, “Maybe...I guess you find that real hard to understand Slim, what with you and Andy bein’ so close?”
“Not really, I know your brother was well...difficult.”
Jess shook his head and gave a hollow laugh, “Oh yeah, he was difficult alright...”
Then he looked Slim properly in the eye for the first time, “Hell Slim you’ve been more of a brother to me than he ever was... now just leave it will ya...huh?”
Slim took a deep breath and stood up. Then he reached across and squeezed Jess’s shoulder, “Sure,” he said softly before leaving the barn.
It was later that evening when the matter was brought up again.
Slim had already headed off to bed and Jess and Daisy were sitting before the fire enjoying a last coffee before turning in.
Jess was uncharacteristically quiet, staring into the depths of his coffee cup.
Daisy glanced at him, and then up at the mantelpiece, where she had propped up the unopened envelope.
After a moment she took a deep breath and said, “Oh Jess dear, do read what he has to say...You may regret it if you don’t. It must be something really important for him to have contacted you after all this time?”
He was silent for so long she thought he wouldn’t reply, but then he whispered. “Can’t Daisy...”
“But why ever not dear?”
Jess shook his head, “Because he’ll want me to do something...something I don’t wanna do Daisy...something that’ll eat away at me until I hafta give in. Can’t you see that?”
She looked at him and then nodded her wise old head, “Yes maybe I can dear... it’s your decision of course,” and with that she got up and made her way quietly off to bed.
Jess stood up and paced around the room like a caged tiger. His hand was constantly flexing over where his gun would have sat on his hip, had he been wearing it; like he’d a desire to draw it and blast the offending letter to kingdom come. He stood by the window looking out into the moonlit yard for some time before he eventually turned and went off to bed, where he finally fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter 2
The following morning when Daisy arose at first light and made her way into the parlor to light the fire, she was surprised to find the task already done.
On further inspection she found Jess slumped in his rocker, the opened letter in his lap, staring vacantly into the flames. He was barefooted, his shirt open and hair untidy from sleep and she guessed he’d just rolled out of bed and come to read the letter at last.
“You’re up early dear,” she said taking the chair opposite.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said softly.
“You read it then?” she ventured.
He nodded.
“Was it...uh...bad news dear?” she asked solicitously.
“You could say so,” he replied and then passed the missive over, “here read it for yourself.”
Daisy looked down at the closely written letter, her eyes misting over the more she read.
Howdy Jessie, I guess you thought I was dead... that’s what I wanted folk to think. After the war...I needed to start a new life. Well, that’s what I got...I know you won’t believe this kid but I’ve changed...got me a good woman and family here... But the war finally done for me boy... I was crippled pretty bad...couldn’t provide for them like I wanted...Now, well truth is I ain’t got long...so I’m asking you...no... begging you...come up here and take care of them for me kid...I know I don’t deserve it...the way I treated you when we were young ‘uns, but please for God’s sake do this for me Jessie...
“Jess dear what will you do?” Daisy asked tearfully.
However, Jess’ face was a mask of bitterness... “He made his choice when he walked away after the fire...he stopped being my brother that day Daisy and I don’t owe him a thing.”
Jess point blank refused to discuss the matter further with Daisy or Slim when he tried to talk it through. He was quiet and withdrawn, but otherwise got on with his life as normal. So, the following Saturday night found him and Slim in their usual best clothes propping up the bar at the Laramie saloon. Slim’ s girl Lily and Jess’ Millie had to work that night, but the men were able to spend a little time chatting and joking with them in between them serving other customers. However, at the end of the evening they all congregated in Millie’s comfortable room over the bar for coffee and more intimate conversation.
It hadn’t escaped Millie’s notice that Jess wasn’t his usual self. So, when he was out of the room helping Lily fetch her homemade cakes she quizzed Slim.
“What’s up with Jess tonight,” she asked as she poured Slim’ s coffee. He looks...uh I don’t know kinda troubled...is there a problem at the ranch?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope it’s personal Millie, I reckon you need to ask him yourself.”
She raised a questioning eyebrow at that, “He’s not sick?”
“Heck no, it’s nothing like that. He paused and then decided she needed to know. “You see the thing is... uh...well he got a letter from Wade.”
“Wade! Good grief he’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Apparently not...well not yet anyways...seems he’s dying and wants Jess to go see him.”
Millie shook her head, “And he’s refusing?”
“Got it in one...and I figure he’ll regret it if he doesn’t go.”
She just looked down, “You don’t know how it was back then Slim. The way Wade abused Jess...heck he nearly killed him in a fight once. Then after the fire when Jess needed his support, he just went off and abandoned him and Francie.”
Moments later they heard some banter between Jess and Lily as they returned and Slim said softly, “Don’t say I told you... Just try and get him to open up to you...because he sure as heck won’t talk to me about it.”
After the coffee had been drunk and Lily’s delicious cakes demolished, they sat chatting idly, Jess with a casual arm slung around Millie as he shared her shabby old couch before the fire.
Slim was seated on the only armchair, Lily on his lap, talking softly to her, when Millie threw him a meaningful glance.
After a few minutes Slim gave an exaggerated yawn and said, “Uh, I’m pretty beat, how about we leave these good folks to it huh Lily?”
Lily looked slightly surprised at the sudden turn of events as it was still quite early. But there again she relished any romantic interlude with Slim and so agreed with alacrity, jumping from his knee and hauling him up from the deep chair.
Once Millie had shown them out and had flopped down on the couch beside Jess again he frowned slightly and said, “What’s goin’ on Mill, I saw that look you gave ol’ Hardrock. Has he been sayin’ somethin’ to you huh?”
She looked down flushing and then up into his eyes, her expression now determined, “We’re worried about you that’s all Jess. I could see you weren’t yourself tonight.”
“So that’s why you sent me off with Lily to bring the cakes,” he said raising a quizzical eyebrow. Then more seriously, “So he’s told ya then?”
“Not everything no, just that you’d heard from Wade...he didn’t want to tell me at first, so don’t be mad at him.”
He sighed deeply and then pulled her close, “Heck I’m not mad at him, you neither...I guess I’m kinda mad at me.”
“How so?”
“For lettin’ him get to me this way...I didn’t think he was anything to me anymore.”
“And he is?”
He shook his head, “I dunno Mill. Sure, he’s my brother...but I just dunno what to do and that’s a fact.”
“I know how difficult it was for you back then, of course I do, but maybe he deserves one last chance...it wasn’t his entire fault you know Jess.”
He raised an eyebrow at that and said gently, “How would you know sweetheart? You weren’t there, not all the time, didn’t see how he was.”
“I know it...but Ma told me stuff that maybe you don’t know about Jess.”
“What kinda stuff?”
“Do you remember that time he whopped you so badly that he nearly killed you?”
“Think I could forget it?” Jess asked gruffly.
“You almost crawled to our place for my Ma to fix you up because you didn’t want your own Ma to see you that way,” she continued.
He nodded, “I thank God for your dear Ma. She sent word home sayin’ as how your family had a nasty dose of the flu and I’d come down with it too and she’d keep me there to stop me bringing it home to the young ‘uns. I stayed until all the bruises had gone.”
Millie smiled at the memory, “That was the first and last time I ever heard my Ma tell a lie. But she wanted to save your Ma the pain of seeing you that way...and knowing that it was Wade that had done it too. She was real close friends with your Ma you know Jess, until your Pa stopped her visiting. He said my Ma was putting ideas into her head.”
“Like what?” Jess asked with interest.
“Like she didn’t have to stay there and be abused, she could escape and make a life for herself....and you kids.”
“She wouldn’t go, wouldn’t leave him. Francie asked her why once and you know what she said?” he asked. “Because I love him,” he said shaking his head in bewilderment. “Even after the way he treated her...drinking away his wages...hitting her...everything...she still stayed.”
Millie felt quite tearful at the thought...but then remembered how she was trying to help Jess.
She took a deep breath and said, “Anyway I was real upset and once you were sleeping, I asked my Ma how come Wade was so mean.”
“So, tell me,” He said sarcastically, “I’d just love to know.”
“Well according to my Ma, your Pa hadn’t always been that way. Time was he was a good family man...was a real Pa to young Wade...Francie too...then things started going wrong. There was a terrible drought and he lost all his stock...and his ranch too. He had to get work share farming. Then your Ma lost a baby before you were born. He started drinking about then...and as the years went on, he gradually lost everything. His friends...work...and worst of all the respect of his kids. Wade was only four when you were born...but by the time he was nine or ten he’d started questioning your Pa. He stood up to him and was walloped real good for it Ma said. After a while he just seemed to give up...on your Pa, on the family, on life itself so it seemed...all he wanted to do was grow up and get out.”
“Didn’t we all,” Jess said morosely, “but that don’t explain why he was so dang hard on me...hell none of it was my fault.”
“Um but that’s not the way Wade saw it. As far as he was concerned everything was fine until your Ma had another baby after Francie...that’s when the rot set in. So, he told my sister once. He blamed you...and the babies that came after you, for everything that happened Jess. Your Pa going off the rails ...hitting yer ma, drinking...he reckoned that was because he had all those extra mouths to feed and he just couldn’t cope.”
“Well Pa should have dang well kept his pants buttoned up,” Jess said angrily. “Hell, it weren’t my fault. I didn’t ask to be born!”
“I know that,” she said equally acerbically, “I’m just trying to help you to see why he was that way Jess!”
“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”
She just shrugged and looked forlornly at him, “I thought...maybe it would help you understand?”
After a moment his expression softened and he pulled her close, “Heck I’m sorry sweetheart I’m being a real jerk...forgive me huh?”
She pulled away slightly so she could look up into his concerned deep blue eyes, “Nothing to forgive,” she said kissing him softly on the lips...let’s turn in ...things will seem better in the morning.”
He made love to her later, so very tenderly and her heart wept for him. She would have given anything to help him resolve the painful decisions that lay ahead...but knew it was now out of her hands.
Jess lay awake into the small hours, still holding a sleeping Millie close as his mind went back to that dreadful day when brother fought brother...all those years ago.

Chapter 3
He was eleven and Wade fifteen then and practically feral, spending as much time as he could away from home. This in turn infuriated his father who needed his help on the land. So, it seemed to Jess like the household was in a permanent state of war. His father rumbling away and blaspheming, because that no good first born had gone AWOL again. Before demanding Jess stay home from school and do Wade’s share. That made Jess as mad as all get out. Eventually he too had started back-chatting his Pa and received many a good beating for it too. But mostly he tried to do as he was told for his poor Ma’s sake as he hated to see her so upset.
So, it was this particular fall day Jess had been kept home from school yet again to help harvest their crops, whilst Wade spent the day round at a friend’s house, drinking and playing pool.
At the end of the day Pa had set off for the saloon and Jess sat outside the cabin taking his ease and looking to the following week with dread in his heart. Mr Black, the teacher had told young Jess in no uncertain terms that if he missed one more day of school that term, he would receive ten strokes of the cane...in front of the whole school.
“I can’t have the likes of you attending when you think fit Harper,” he’d said angrily the previous day. “I intend to make an example of you, and maybe all the other pupils will take note,” he growled. “I wouldn’t care but you’re a bright boy, catch on really quickly when you want to. You could make something of yourself given half a chance,” he added shaking his head and marching off.
Jess sighed and looked after him knowing there was little point in trying to explain.
Now sitting in the evening sun his fear turned to anger. Goddamn it this was all Wade’s fault. Why the hell couldn’t he pull his weight? Sure, Jess would help out after school and at the weekends... he didn’t mind that...but to do a man’s work every dang day at the expense of his learning just wasn’t fair.
Then he heard someone whistling cheerfully and looking up saw Wade advancing through the trees to the side of the cabin.
He stood up, murder in his eyes and said gruffly, “Where in hell have you been all day?”
Wade threw him a quizzical glance, “My, my…Ma’s little soldier cussin’ what would she say huh?”
“I’ll do more than damn well cuss in a minute,” Jess yelled angrily.
At this Wade pulled himself up to his full height...at fifteen he was a good head and shoulders taller than Jess and several pounds heavier.
“Just watch yer tongue you little shrimp, or I’ll flatten you!”
That was it! Jess’s temper ignited.
Wade never knew what hit him as Jess lashed out and threw a punch that floored his brother. Then he stood over him panting...his breath coming in gasps as he waited for Wade to retaliate.
Wade wiped the blood dribbling down his chin from a split lip and viewed his little brother with the eyes of a big cat about to go in for the kill.
What followed was almost as violent, as the two boys fought as though their very lives depended on it.
Of course, eventually the inevitable happened and Jess was knocked out. Wade stood over him sweating and bleeding looking down at Jess’s deathly pale face and for a terrible moment he did indeed think he was dead.
But then he moved, groaned and then sat up retching from the pain in his belly where Wade had kicked him unmercifully.
Once he was sure Jess was alive, he bent down and with his face close spat furiously, “If you tell I really will kill ya next time!” And with that he marched off in the direction from whence he’d come...once more whistling cheerfully.
Jess groaned and got to his knees, an arm protecting his bruised ribs and stomach and thought it would probably be preferable to die right there and then.
He looked up at the cabin and thanked God that his dear Ma was visiting a neighbor with the little ones. Then he moved slowly off towards the woods and Millie’s place over the ridge.
He looked down at her beautiful sleeping face, so dear to him and remembered how terribly upset she had been when he arrived late that afternoon. Ma Johnson had rallied around and cleaned him up as best she could. But she had to agree with Jess, his Ma really didn’t need to see him that way.
Later he was to learn that his Ma was in the family way again and Ma Johnson was aware of that and merely suggested the subterfuge to save her worry. He had of course agreed with alacrity at the time. But it wasn’t until he was older that he fully understood why Ma Johnson had been so accommodating. Like his old Ma needed any more angst in her life back then, he reflected now.
As it happened his Ma was so poorly with morning sickness, she accepted the story without a second thought and merely sent a message back thanking dear Peggy for her support in caring for a sick Jessie... sent her love and hoped he would get over the flu soon.
As the dawn light gently filtered through the curtains of Millie’s room in the Laramie saloon she stirred and opened her eyes to find Jess looking lovingly down at her.
“How are you feeling today?” she asked sleepily.
“Like I’m one lucky guy to have you in my life,” he whispered before kissing her tenderly.
Much later they met up with Slim and Lily at Miss Molly’s eating house for breakfast. By the time they arrived Slim was digging into bacon and eggs and called for Molly to bring his partner the same. But Jess called her back and just ordered coffee and breakfast for Millie.
“What’s up Jess, are you sick?” Slim asked his eyebrows shooting up in surprise.
Jess muttered, “I just ain’t hungry.”
Slim shot Millie a glance, but she merely shook her head slightly and he said no more.
It was when breakfast was over and the girls going off back to work to clean and tidy the bar ready for the lunchtime shift that Jess surprised his pard even more.
They’d kissed their girls’ goodbye and Slim was making for the livery when Jess pulled him up. “Ur... I’m not going back yet.”
“Huh, why not Jess?”
“Well, it’s Church this morning ain’t it and I thought I’d catch up with Daisy and Mike they’ll be over there by now.”
“What…you’re actually volunteering to go to Church without Daisy forcing you at gunpoint?”
“Oh, come on Slim I’m not that bad, besides you usually go if we’re in town any way.”
“Yes, I know,” Slim agreed, “I’m just a tad worried about that sick heifer and was going to go straight back and check on it.”
“Well go on then,” Jess said turning and marching back up Main Street
Slim watched him for a moment and then hurried off after him. “I guess the critter will keep for another hour or so,” he said lightly before falling into step with Jess.
They were just in time to squeeze into two spare seats next to Daisy and Mike before the Rev Joshua Wesley made his way up to the pulpit to address the congregation.
Josh was a good friend to all at the ranch and his sermons always instructive and relevant. However, Jess had been known to drift off to sleep during the lengthier homilies Slim knew...and so he was startled to see Jess was actually listening intently to the older man. But he was even more astonished to see his buddy on his knees obviously praying intensely later on in the proceedings. This business about visiting Wade had clearly rattled his pard he thought as they rode back to the ranch later. He just hoped he’d received some Divine guidance from above as to what he should do about the situation.
It was later as they turned in that Slim broached the subject.
“So did it help...going to Church that is?”
Jess paused in unbuckling his belt and looked slightly startled, but recovered quickly, “I guess it did some, yeah.”
“So, you’ve decided?”
Jess removed his pants and shirt and sat down heavily on his bed.
“I guess I have, yes...I’ll go see him. If you can manage without me for a while, I know money’s kinda tight right now Slim and you won’t be able to hire any help.”
“Look its fine Jess. Mike is on the school summer holiday and he’s a real help now. Just as long as you’re back for the fall round-up it’ll be OK.”
“Thanks,” he said softly.
“What made you change your mind?”
“It was Millie really she told me some stuff about Wade that I didn’t know. Then in Church I got to thinkin’ how I’d feel if he died and I hadn’t seen him, just this last time...and well I guess the Good Lord made me see things kinda differently.”
“Well, I’m glad Jess and I think you’re doing the right thing.”
“I sure hope so.”

Chapter 4
It was a long arduous journey up to Montana as he suffered the intense heat and occasional fierce summer storm. He was sure glad he had Traveller to see him through the difficult terrain and the company of his beloved sheepdog, wolf cross, Blue too.
Other than the two critters, he met few folk as he traveled due north up through Medicine Bow, then he skirted Casper and carried on through the Bighorn Forest. He saw the occasional sign of Indian. But none bothered him and he made it up to Billings in reasonably good time.
He knew from Wade’s letter that he had a place east of Billings near a small town called Hunter’s Point on the banks of the Yellowstone River. So, he breathed a sigh of relief as he rode into the one-horse town on a sultry afternoon.
He looked warily around him; always on the alert in small places like this, where he didn’t know anyone or the set up. Some small towns were welcoming and very neighborly...others, dens of iniquity with a population peppered with petty criminals and occasionally more notorious outlaws.
This place looked pretty sleepy as he rode slowly down Main Street. He took in the old timer snoozing on a bench outside the saloon. He noted the closed shutters of the mercantile, the owner obviously having a noon break and finally a rather shabby looking boarding house came into view. He went on by until he reached the livery on the edge of town...noticing the Sheriff’s office was boarded up and there was no cafe or hotel.
He reined in at the livery and sliding down from the saddle caressed Blue’s ears and told him to sit and stay. Then he wandered off into the cool dark depths of the livery looking for the owner. After shouting shop a few times, a middle-aged balding man emerged from the back where he’d clearly been taking a nap. However, he managed a welcoming smile and said, “Yes sir can I help you?”
“I just need a stall for my mount,” Jess said tipping his head to where Traveller was waiting patiently in the blazing sun.
“Sure, bring him on in Mr…?”
“Harper, Jess Harper.”
“Well good to meet ya Mr Harper, they call me Ginger,” he said grinning and pointing to his nearly bald pate, “well I guess it’ll hafta change sometime,” he added, with a raucous laugh. Jess enjoyed the joke and the men shook hands.
Once Traveller was installed and Jess had rubbed him down, insisting on watering and feeding him himself he turned to the owner and said, “Er would you mind iffen I left my dog in here too Ginger?”
The older man threw Blue an anxious glance, “He don’t bite do he?”
Jess rubbed Blue’s ears, “Nope he’s a big softie...as long as nobody gets too near old Trav there. Then he’d get a mite upset I guess, he’s kinda protective of his buddy,” he said grinning. “See I figure he might not be too welcome in that Boarding House down the street,” he added.
Ginger nodded, “Um...if yer thinking on staying at Widow Blake’s place you might have a point, she runs a pretty tight ship. Sure, he can have a billet here.”
“Thanks, I’ll be back tonight to feed ‘em and check they’re settled and I’ll be heading out first thing tomorrow, OK?”
“Why sure that’s fine Jess...I’ll take good care of them.”
Jess turned to go...and then turned back, “One more thing, isn’t there a Sheriff in town?”
“Nope...see we have no need of one here...all real law-abiding citizens here about,” he said with another rumbling laugh.
“That’s real good,” said Jess turning and marching off.
So maybe the real reason Jess had left Blue at the livery, namely to watch out for his horse, wasn’t really necessary after all. But heck he’d never completely trusted new places off the beaten track like this and he decided he sure wasn’t gonna let his guard down yet.
He had a tremendous thirst on him and decided to call in at the saloon before booking a room at Ma Blake’s Boarding House.
As he marched in through the bat wing doors, he swore he saw the dust settle...almost as though he was the first man to enter in years. However, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light within, he slowly became aware of several men staring at him from the bar. A few others having stopped playing poker at the tables and were equally mesmerized as they watched the stranger make his way to the bar.
Jess watched as a small anxious little man scuttled over, “Yes sir what’ ll it be?” he almost squeaked.
“Beer,” Jess said before turning and scrutinizing the company still all staring at him, most of them looking pretty much as worried as the barkeep he now noted.
He turned back to the little man and accepted the beer draining it almost in one and called for another. Once he’d taken an appreciative sip of his second pint he said, “I guess you don’t get too many strangers in these parts...huh?”
“No,” the nervous bartender agreed, “we sure don’t...so um have you been sent then Mister?”
“You know sent...by er...him?”
Jess looked puzzled, “I don’t know what yer talkin’ about. Nobody sent me. I’m here on business...looking to visit my brother Wade...Wade Harper. Do you know him?”
The barkeep gave a gasp of relief...and turning to the spectators in the bar called out, “It’s OK folks he ain’t been sent.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jess asked again, beginning to think he’d arrived in some sort of mad-house.
“Oh nothing, nothing at all,” the barkeep said now beaming happily, “another beer sir?”
Jess decided one more would hit the spot nicely before he made his way off to Widow Blake’s place.
Once he had his drink, he decided to ignore the other issue and said, “Well do ya know him...Wade that is?”
“Wade Harper,” the man said looking up to the ceiling for inspiration, “Nope...nope can’t say as how I do.”
Jess frowned, “But he only lives a couple of miles from town...up on the banks of the Yellowstone I believe. I was kinda hoping for directions.”
Hell, he thought, Wade livin’ within’ spitting distance of a saloon and yet didn’t frequent it...unbelievable. Maybe not now he was sick...but before surely, he must have been there or at least into town for supplies.
The barkeep appealed to the assembled company, “Anyone here know a Wade Harper?”
There was a low rumbling of dissent...and then several folk said , “No never heard of the guy...you must be mistaken Mister.”
Then another standing at the bar said, “Looks like you’ve had a wasted journey Mister, I should head on home if you know what’s good fer you.”
Jess turned and threw him a hard look, “Are you crazy?” Then he growled, “Hell, are you dang well threatening me,” he added.
The other man backed off quickly raising his hands in a gesture of submission, “Heck no Mister,” he said and then more softly, “Just maybe a friendly warning huh?”
“A warning... about what?” Jess asked looking more puzzled than angry now.
He shrugged, “Just that maybe some things are better left to lay. May be this ain’t a real good place to go lookin’ for things...or people come to that,” and with those words he backed off and left swiftly followed by most of the other drinkers.
Jess turned back to the barkeep and winked at him, “I guess I ain’t ever emptied a saloon that dang quickly before...sorry about that,” and finishing his beer he threw some coins on the bar and left.

Chapter 5
He found the owner of the boarding house sitting out front on an old rocker, enjoying the welcome evening breeze. She was very slender with grey hair neatly pinned up and her back ramrod straight. She looked like she wouldn’t take any nonsense Jess thought.
“Howdy ma’am, I was wondering iffen you had a room for the night?” he asked throwing her his most charming smile.
The old lady peered at him through the evening gloom and then gave a little gasp of shock once she saw him clearly.
“Ma’am, you, OK?”
She pulled herself together quickly and said in a strong deep voice, “Yes, just dandy...and I do as it happens young man, my family are away at present...so you can take your pick, doors are all open upstairs.”
Jess just grinned at her, “I ain’t bothered ma’am. I guess I’ll just take the one that’s nearest...I’m kinda beat, had a long journey.”
“OK, that’ll be the first-floor front...good choice. I’ve got a nice feather mattress in that one...although by the looks of it you won’t need much rocking tonight. So, you come far you say?”
Jess nodded, plonking his saddlebags down on the boardwalk, “Yup all the way from Laramie, Wyoming ma’am.”
“Well, that’s a fair old ride...mister…?”
“Harper ma’am, Jess Harper.”
Again, she seemed to jump and look slightly wary, but covered it quickly by rising from her rocker and saying, “Well Jess I imagine you’ll be wanting some supper and maybe a soak in the hot tub first? I’m Mrs Blake, Widow Blake that is, but you can call me Ma.”
“Now yer talking, er Ma, thanks,” Jess said grinning and following her inside.
It was over supper that they got further acquainted.
“You’ve come a powerful long way,” she said throwing him a questioning look, “Laramie you say?”
“Yes, I part own the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station there, with my partner Slim Sherman.”
“A relay and ranch huh, must be quite a good business?”
“We get by, some years better than others you know how it is in ranching... kinda up and down.”
She nodded chewing on the excellent stew she had served and he replied, “How about you Ma’am... er I mean Ma. Have you run this place long?”
“Long enough,” she said suddenly looking a tad cagey, “since my old man passed.”
Jess looked down and then said softly, “You must miss him.”
She considered that, “I guess so...but he was a bad ‘un, Jess. Sure, I loved him something fierce...but I didn’t like him too much.”
Jess was slightly shocked to hear those words issuing from an old lady, but said nothing.
“So, you got family son?”
Jess smiled, “Sorta...there’s Miss Daisy back at the ranch, our housekeeper, but she’s more of a Ma to us. Me and Slim, Mike too.”
“He’s our ward just ten years old, but shaping up to be a real good rancher,” he added proudly.
“They must all be missing you?”
Jess nodded, “I guess so. See they’re like kin to me.”
“And is there a special lady?”
Jess beamed and nodded happily, “There sure is...Millie and yeah, she’s real special,” he added his eyes shining.
He thought he saw a fleeting look of pain cross her strong features...but it was gone in seconds.
“So, it must have been something real important to tear you away from them, and travel all this way?”
Jess had finished his meal and took a pull at the beer she had provided before he finally answered.
“Yes, I guess so. I’m here to visit my brother Wade Harper. Do you know him Ma?” he asked scrutinizing her closely.
When she looked down without answering he said, “Or are you gonna lie and say you’ve never heard of him like they did in the saloon?” he asked irritably.
Her head shot up, her eyes blazing with anger for a moment and then she took a deep breath and said, “I guess they were just trying to keep you safe Jess. What did they say…forget about it and ride out?”
“Pretty much yeah...so why’d they say somethin’ like that huh?”
She glanced over at his plate and said, “If you’ve finished, go get comfortable in the front parlor. I think maybe you’ll need a real drink too,” she added, plucking a half bottle of whiskey and two tumblers from a side table.
Once they were settled in the comfortable front room, she poured them both a stiff drink. Then she sat just looking at him before she finally said, “In answer to your question, yes I was going to lie to you. You seem a nice young man, with everything to live for. But I can see you are also a stubborn one and I doubt you’ll go off home as we suggest? Oh no, the likes of you will go on searching until you find your brother...and most likely get your head blowed off in the process.”
Jess gave her a thoughtful look. There sure was more to this old biddy than he first thought. Jeez she was some tough cookie he surmised.
“Oh yes you can look after yourself,” she continued. “I can see that. The way you wear your gun, real low slung and tied down...that well-polished holster. Hell, even the way you hold yourself...how your hand constantly works just above your gun butt when you’re feelin’ kinda worried or thinkin’ things through. Oh yes I’ve seen it all before boy...you are...or maybe were a gunslinger...am I right?”
Jess looked her in the eye, “Maybe. So, what’s that got do with anything huh?”
She shook her head sadly, “Because now I know you won’t back down from a fight...well you’re gonna get yourself killed boy, just as sure as God made little green apples.”
“I think you’d better tell me what this is all about Ma,” he said coolly.
She sighed and then said, “Yes I think maybe I should, I guess it’s the only way I’ll make you see sense and head home.”
She took a good swallow of her drink and didn’t even grimace. Jess figured she was no stranger to the whiskey bottle and hid a smile.
“See it’s this way Jess...did you wonder why we didn’t have a Sheriff in town. There’s a Sheriff’s office alright, but no Sheriff.”
“The guy in the livery said it was a real law-abiding town,” Jess said with a derisory snort, “I guess maybe he was lyin’ too...Seems to be kind of a habit around here.”
“There isn’t a Sheriff in town because my old man shot him dead. Then he kinda persuaded the town council not to do anything about it...or recruit anymore law in town either.”
Jess who was sipping his whiskey nearly choked, “How in hell did he do that?”
She narrowed her eyes and looked at him intently, “You ever heard of Wes Blake and the Blake gang?”
“Well sure I have, who hasn’t...Hell, wait a minute, you’re not sayin’...”
“Yup, Wes was my old man and Charlie, Pete, Dev and Hank are all my boys.”
Jess gaped at her and then looked around him like he expected the notorious Blake gang to suddenly materialize out of thin air.
“Oh, it’s alright,” she said quickly, “they’re attending to...uh a bit of business down Mexico way. They’ll send someone to tell us when they’ll be back.”
Suddenly all became clear to Jess, the less than friendly reception in the saloon and those words uttered by a much-relived barkeep addressing the other drinkers, “It’s OK folks he ain’t been sent...”
“So, the gang hole up here then?” he asked.
“More than that, they own the town and everyone in it,” she said a touch of smugness in her tone.
“That must make you a real proud Ma,” he said sarcastically.
She flushed up at that and said, “Not really...no I hate the way they’ve turned out...But it’s all they saw from being youngsters, their Pa robbin’ and killin’... stands to reason they’d be that way inclined.”
“No, it damn well doesn’t,” Jess said angrily, “didn’t you have any part to play in bringing them up fer goodness sake! Couldn’t you teach ‘em right from wrong huh?”
“Did your Ma?” she snapped throwing him an icy look.
“Yeah, I guess she did. Gave it a damn good shot anyways,” Jess replied. “And anyway, it ain’t me that’s runnin’ with a gang that don’t think twice about robbin’ innocent folk...and worse,” he added furiously.
“Well at least you know now why I want you to vamoose!” she yelled back.
“No, no I don’t. What’s that got to do with me visitin’ my brother?”
She immediately clammed up, but Jess wasn’t taking any crap from her.
“Come on then out with it,” he growled, “you’ve come this far don’t hold back now!”
“Alright, alright ...it’s my Charlie, my eldest, he’s got the hots for Wade’s wife Molly...and he’s coming back for her real soon. He was waiting on Wade passing over but I guess he’s getting a tad impatient...and he’ll kill anyone that stands in his way,” she added for good measure.
Jess just stared at her not believing what he was hearing...eventually he said, “Don’t Molly get any say in this matter huh?”
She just shrugged, “Charlie wants something he takes it...He’s moving her in here as soon as he gets back.”
“The Hell he is!” Jess yelled leaping up from his seat and pacing around the small room.
“Look I told you boy he wants her and he’ll kill you to get her. He’s fast Jess, real fast...just see sense and head on home to your gal... huh?” she said pleadingly.
“He’s fast, is he?” Jess snarled, “Well guess what so am I,” and with that he turned towards the door. He paused for a moment and then turned back.
“I appreciate you tryin’ to help me Ma. But I ain’t goin’ anywhere...see ya in the morning,” and with that he went to his room.
Breakfast the following morning was a low-key event. Jess merely applying himself to the good bacon and eggs Ma Blake had provided, while she sat silently opposite him sipping a black coffee. Once he’d done, he wiped his mouth, threw back his coffee and then smiled at the old woman, “That was swell. Thanks.”
She merely nodded in reply.
“So, are you gonna tell me where I can find Wade’s place then Ma?”
She sighed deeply, “Well I guess you’ll find it anyway. Go about a mile south out of town and you’ll come upon a lake, your brother’s place is just a little further, on the left. You’ll see a gate...track beyond... his shack is about half a mile up there.”
“Shack... so he ain’t got a big spread then?”
“Ha bless you no. They scratch a living out there, goodness knows how. Grow their own veggies, got a few scrawny chickens...a house cow. I guess young Molly’s the main bread winner, takes in washing from all around. Their place is on the river bank see, real handy for washing that ol Yellowstone River.”
Jess sighed and shook his head real typical of Wade he thought, lyin’ around the place while his poor wife worked her fingers to the bone...a real chip off the old block he thought angrily. But then he remembered his brother was sick, real sick so...
Ma Blake broke into his thoughts, “I’ve been thinking about you all night long and I figure there’s a way out.”
“You do?” Jess said throwing her an amused look.
“Uh-huh, see Molly and Wade were planning on going away, heading up north to live with her kin. Wade couldn’t fight my Charlie for her, not the way he is...so their only way out was to move. That was until he took to his bed...But now maybe you could take them...be gone by the time my boys get back huh?”
When she saw a stubborn look flit across Jess’s face she added, “Please boy, it’s what she wants I know that for a fact...better than staying here and a life as an outlaw’s woman. My boys would kill you for sure and where would that leave her huh?”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” Jess said looking suspicious.
“Should do, she does all the washing when I’ve got paying guests... that’s how Charlie met her. She’s a great kid Jess, way too good for the likes of my Charlie. Please son, just get her away and keep her safe...huh?”
Jess nodded, I’ll do my best and thanks for...well...for being straight with me Ma ... I appreciate it.”

Chapter 6
He found his brother’s place easily enough, but nothing prepared him for the squalor.
He entered the small scruffy yard and dismounted calling Blue to heel quickly as he wandered over to examine a large dung pile. Off in the distance he could hear the protests of a cow long overdue for milking and raucous squawks came from a nearby hen house. The occupants were yet to be released and fed so he guessed. He peered up at the well risen molten hot sun and figured it must be well past mid-morning already and shaking his head made his way towards the battered front door.
He rapped loudly on the door and stood frowning at the peeling blue paint for several minutes before it was finally opened by a boy of about fourteen. The youngster glared up at him, his unruly black, wavy hair was overly long and his expression one of profound mistrust. “Yeah, what do ya want?” he growled his voice surprisingly strident and deep.
Jess had a strange feeling of déjà vu as he looked into the child’s deep blue, unblinking eyes, but quickly asserted himself, “I’d like to speak to yer Ma,” he said smiling encouragingly.
“She’s busy,” the child said making to slam the door in Jess’s face, but he was too fast for the youngster and with a well-placed boot halted the action.
The boy scowled at him, “What are yer playin’ at Mister?”
Jess sighed and rolled his eyes, “Look son is your Pa, Wade Harper?”
The boy nodded briefly.
“Good, well I’m yer Uncle Jess,” he said forcing his way over the threshold. “Good ta meet ya. Now go fetch yer Ma, will you?”
The boy glared at him, flushing and balling his fists, but something in the stranger’s dark blue eyes made him back down and he turned away calling, “Ma...visitor,” before he went off to find her.
A few minutes later a weary looking woman in a dark dress, with a worn grey pinafore over, entered the room. She had blond hair tied severely back and even the all-enveloping coverall couldn’t hide the fact that she was in the latter stages of pregnancy. She almost waddled into the room, one hand to her back and peered up at the stranger with wary exhausted eyes, “Yes, I’m Molly Harper what can I do for you Mister? Iffen it’s washing ya need, it’s gonna hafta wait, my man’s real sick right now.”
Jess stared at her agape before swallowing and whispering, “Molly... Molly Bright... is that you?”
Her head jerked up and she really looked properly at him for the first time, “Jess... oh thank God Jess, you came,” she cried and running over she collapsed in his arms as the tears flowed.
He held her close feeling the swell of her belly firm against him...she was carrying his brother’s child for God’s sake. But still his pulses raced as he inhaled the sweetly remembered scent of the lemony soap, she had always favored.
After a moment he pushed her gently back so that he could look into her eyes properly and what he saw there made his heart miss a beat. He leaned in and kissed her tenderly on the forehead, “It’s OK,” he said softly, “everything’s gonna be OK...”
Seconds later there was an ear-splitting scream...as a young girl entered the room and stood transfixed staring towards the still open front door, “Ma,” she cried frantically, “there’s a wolf come in!”
Jess and Molly jumped guiltily apart and Jess turned to see Blue sitting on the doorstep, tongue lolling and his tail beating a welcoming tattoo.
Jess turned back to the young girl and grinning at her said. “It’s OK honey he ain’t a wolf...well not really,” he amended, “he’s my dog. Hey come here Blue say howdy.”
The dog romped into the room and frolicked around Jess for a minute before heading for the youngsters; the boy having come in to see what all the fuss was about. Now Blue sat and offered a huge paw.
Molly turned anxious eyes on Jess, “Is he safe?”
“You bet, he’s a sheep dog and wolf cross...but he loves kids...soft as a kitten,” he added grinning down at her.
The children were enchanted with the big dog and soon Blue was rolling on his back enjoying all the fussing.
With the young ‘uns distracted by the animal Jess turned his attention back to Molly and threw her a puzzled look, raising a quirky eyebrow, “So how come you married my brother I thought you hated him?”
She looked past him into the middle distance and said quietly, “Things change Jess...he’s changed...”
“Oh right...sure,” he replied sarcastically.
She tipped her head towards an open door on the far side of the room, “Why don’t you go see for yourself...that’s why you’ve come isn’t it....to see him one last time?”
Jess looked down at her feeling slightly wrong footed. Why had he come? And more to the point why had she wanted him to? She must know what it would mean to him to see her again... But then he remembered it was Wade who had written the letter begging for his help and he figured maybe she wasn’t aware of its content.
Then they heard a weak cry from the back room, “Go on,” she said giving him a gentle push, “go and make your peace with him...please Jess, he doesn’t have long.”
He swallowed hard and cast her an apprehensive glance before doing as she asked.
He entered the dimly lit room, his heart thumping in trepidation at what he might find there. But nothing prepared him for the almost skeletal form of his older brother lying beneath the covers. The room was dimly lit, with only a little sunlight filtering through the threadbare drapes and it took Jess a minute or two to be able to focus properly. Then he saw the head on the pillow move a little and the eyes snapped open fixing Jess with a penetrating look from those deep blue eyes he remembered so well.
His brother licked his dry lips and then whispered, “Pull the drapes Jessie, so I can see ya better.”
Jess did as he was asked and then turned back and took a seat beside the bed.
Wade’s complexion was almost as white as the spotless pillow behind him and his once strong muscular arms lay upon the quilt as thin and weak as chicken legs and Jess could have wept. Sure, he had hated Wade growing up. His brother’s constant bullying or complete indifference towards him having driven an immovable wedge between the two. But now his heart softened. After all, he was still kin and there was maybe something they could salvage in these last few days together?
As if reading his mind Wade swallowed hard and said, “I guess this is where I say I’m real sorry?”
Jess looked down at him, compassion in his dark blue eyes...but he sure weren’t gonna make it too easy.
“For what?” he asked.
A glimmer of amusement passed across Wade’s rugged features, “Still the same old Jessie, you ain’t gonna let me get off easy are ya?”
Jess looked down but said nothing.
“OK then I’m real sorry for makin’ yer life hell when we were growin’ up...no excuses, I was just a prize bastard...But I guess I realized the error of my ways once I signed up.”
“Um...yeah I had a sergeant that made my life a misery... bullied me even worse than I had you little bro....and I guess it hit home...how I’d been all those years. Well, I sure got my comeuppance, if that’s any consolation to you?”
“Not really,” Jess said quietly, “See I could have really used a helpin’ hand back then. A brother I could have relied on ...looked up to. You know how dang hard it was Wade. Pa drinkin’ and knocking us about...Ma tryin’ to be brave and keep it all together... those poor babies dyin’ before their time of the fever...all that... Well, we should have stuck together...helped each other ya know?”
Wade closed his eyes tightly and Jess thought maybe he’d been too dang honest. What good would it do to bawl out his brother on his death bed? It wouldn’t help either of them. He opened his mouth to apologize...but Wade was speaking again.
“You’re right of course...I’m sorry Jessie really I am... I guess I was a little crazy back then and needed someone to blame for all that...and it ended up being you.”
Jess remembered what Millie had told him and it seemed like her theory was spot on he thought now.
“Yeah, well it was all a long time ago. Things change... people change,” he added throwing Wade a speculative look.
“Hell yes,” Wade agreed. “I’ve changed…I really have. Jeez I’m a pussy cat now...in fact I sometimes think I’m kinda too soft with that boy of mine...you’ve met Zac?”
Jess nodded remembering the aggressively angry looking youngster.
“Uh, he needs a strong hand...getting out of control, won’t do what his Ma tells him,” and he sighed sadly. But then he rallied, “Young Tilly is different again...just turned ten, but got an old head on those shoulders. She’ll be a big help to her ma...when I’m....” he closed his eyes again and then opened them and peered at Jess, “When I’m gone,” he finished...a look of utter despair flitting across his still handsome features.
For the first time Jess realized how difficult it was for his brother to get the words out as he seemed very short of breath.
“Are you sure,” he said now, “that they can’t do anything I mean?”
“I’m sure alright...the doc says it’s a matter of days now...my lungs just packed up Jessie...got some kinda growth I think he said... nothing to be done.” Then he rallied and said, “That’s why I needed to see you... It’s about my Molly,” and then he paused and looked suddenly mortified. “Oh hell, I guess I should apologize about that too.”
Jess looked perplexed, “Huh?”
“Well, I stole your girl didn’t I kid...huh?”
Jess shrugged, “It was her choice, she threw me over...and for you it seems. Funny because I thought she really hated you when we were all kids.”
“Oh, she did...and I loved her...I guess that’s why I teased her so much...I just wanted her attention.”
“Then we all grew up,” Jess said softly.
“Yes...and you two got together...loves young dream,” Wade said almost bitterly.
“Until she threw me over,” Jess said sadly. “You know I never knew why...she wouldn’t speak to me...and then she moved away before I could try and make it up.”
“I know,” Wade said quietly. “See I told her you were two-timing her...said you were gonna split with her...and she believed me.”
“You did what!” Jess cried furiously.
Wade just lay there, his breath coming in rasping gasps now.
Jess fought down his anger and then said more quietly, “Does she know the truth of it now?”
Wade nodded, “Yes I told her just after I wrote to you.” Then he threw him a sad smile, “looks like she’s spent her whole life with the wrong brother huh?”
Jess was silent for a long time, then he shook his head, “Nope I guess it was right she married you. We’d never have been happy the way you two are...your own place, a family...I wouldn’t have wanted any of that...not back then anyways, I was just a kid myself. I figure things worked out just about right.”
Then both men turned as they heard a movement behind them and Molly stood there carrying a tray.
“Time for your medicine and a rest Wade,” she said quietly.

Chapter 7
It was after supper before Jess and Molly could talk properly.
The meal had been a trying affair with Zac withdrawn to the extent of almost rudeness and young Tilly tearful...obviously terribly worried about her dear Pa.
Molly managed the children as well as she could. Offering loving support to Tilly and trying to turn a blind eye to her son’s ill-mannered grunts and sighs, the only way he seemed to be able to express himself if addressed. Jess fought down the desire to say something throughout the meal. But he couldn’t help feeling some good plain talking was what was needed to sort the young man out.
Once Zac had stomped off to bed with a terse ‘goodnight’ thrown over his shoulder and Molly had tucked Tilly in, the two sat before the fire nursing a coffee apiece.
Jess threw her a compassionate glance, “You look all in, those kids should help you more,” he said softly.
She put a hand up to her hair, now escaping her bun, pretty little curls framing her face.
“Well, I’m not getting any younger...and don’t have too much time for fixing myself up right now,” she said resentfully, ignoring the comment about the children.
“Heck, that’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean you looked bad,” he said quickly. “You’re great... really Molly, hardly changed at all,” he lied. “I just mean it must be hard...havin’ to deal with the kids. Wade so sick and running this place too. It’s bound to tire you....in um...your condition,” he added.
She turned sad eyes on him, “I guess you were right, what you told Wade, you were well out of it. I imagine you had no desire to have children with me huh Jess?”
“I didn’t want kids with anyone back then, we were too darned young, we were only seventeen,” he said hotly. “Dang it, Molly you know what my home life was like...overcrowded and never enough of anything to go around, can you blame me?”
“No, no of course not,” she said looking contrite.
“I’m kinda surprised Wade did,” he added, “He never said he wanted to be a family man...but I’m sure glad he settled down. It’s real obvious how happy you’ve been together.”
She shrugged, “Oh he didn’t want kids, not originally. You see once you’d gone Jess, I was so heart sick... I... well I turned to Wade on the rebound. Anyway, one thing led to another and I found myself in the family way. But thank God Wade did the right thing by me.”
Jess stared at her in astonishment, “But it worked out OK...in the end?”
“Oh yes she agreed, with a lot of compromise and hard work. But yes, we’ve been happy...we love each other and the young ‘uns... I just wish things were different now,” she added bleakly.
He reached out and took her hand squeezing it and looking deeply into her sad eyes, “Me too.”
After he’d said that, he realized it really was true. Even with the knowledge that Wade had betrayed him over his affair with Molly...he still found he was able to forgive him...and wished fervently that they had more time together...to really get to know each other.
He turned in shortly after that opting to sleep out in the barn with Traveller and Blue, knowing that space was at a premium in the ramshackle old house.
He was comfortable enough stretched out on his bedroll on a bed of sweet hay...but sleep eluded him.
His mind kept spiraling back through the years. He remembered playing kiss chase in the school yard. Then catching Molly and kissing her behind the old cottonwood tree. It was a kiss that was to stay with him forever. How old had he been then...thirteen maybe fourteen? He’d been a similar age to Zac. He smiled grimly in the dark...poor kid had all that to go through. He’d to learn all about negotiating girls and first love and all without the sage words of a loving pa to help him through.
Then he remembered later when he’d been on leave from the army. His dear Millie gone back east with her Ma...her Pa killed. All Jess had wanted to do was come back to his old home town and have a few beers and laughs with old friends...forget about the damn war for a week or two. Then he’d bumped into Molly and the intensity of the passionate affair still had the power to make his belly flutter and his heart race.
It was maybe made all the more fervent because of its brevity. The young couple having such a brief time together. He really hadn’t meant for them to become lovers...but it had been Molly who had instigated it.
“I want you and need you,” she had cried, as she lay in his arms in the long grass by the river just outside their old hometown.
“It ain’t right sweetheart,” he’d said softly, “I can’t offer you anything. Hell, I’ll be back on the battlefield this time next week and won’t know when I’ll be home again.” Then more quietly, “If I’ll be home again…”
“But that’s the whole point,” she broke in, lovingly caressing his cheek, “don’t you see... this could be our last chance of happiness.”
Well, she sure had been convincing Jess remembered now as he relived that first time with her. Then they had made love as frequently as they could, the whole world seeming to stand still as all they thought, or cared, about was their passionate affair.
That’s why Jess had been truly shocked and mystified when he went to see her on the last day of his leave only to be told by her sister that Molly wasn’t at home and anyway, she never wanted to see Jess again...it was over. He was distraught, but her older sister was adamant that Molly didn’t want any more to do with him and eventually he had to go back to war heartbroken, never to see Molly again, until that day. Sure, he’d gone looking after the war, but she’d left the area and nobody knew her whereabouts.
Now of course he was aware that Wade had been responsible for telling her lies about him...and yes it did rankle. Sure it did. His brother might be dying...but this was just another time, out of many, when Wade had betrayed him.
He lay there in the dark and wondered how much his brother had actually changed and how much was merely an act. Was he sucking up to Jess because he wanted him to take care of his family after his death? Well, that was another worry Jess admitted. Hell, he couldn’t take them back to the ranch, the business could barely support feeding four mouths never mind a further three.
But no, then he remembered, there were plans afoot for them all to take off up north to live with Molly’s folks. Apparently, they’d moved up from Texas some years previously, but her Pa had refused to see them as he disapproved of her marriage to Wade; Molly had told him. It seemed that her Pa had refused to give his consent to the marriage and so the couple had eloped. Shortly afterward they were wed Wade had been conscripted and left poor Molly alone and pregnant. However, he was severely wounded just a year later and was invalided out. He spent the rest of the war with his family trying to eke out a living, although the damage to his right arm, sustained in battle, made life very difficult for him.
Up until a few days ago Jess had thought his brother to have perished in the war...and now this...he really was about to lose him. He eventually fell asleep determined to really talk to Wade the following day and try and get to understand this complex, difficult man who was his only living relative. Save for Francie, his beloved sister, now living with her husband thousands of miles away on the west coast, “Oh Francie, I wish you were here too,” he whispered as he finally drifted off.

Chapter 8
The following morning at breakfast Molly looked even more exhausted as she sipped a coffee and watched Jess demolish the bacon and eggs she had provided.
“You always did like your food,” she said smiling fondly at him.
He smiled back and then they both heard the mournful cry of the house cow emanating from the barn and Molly pulled herself up, one hand to her back and made for the door.
“Hey where are you off to?” Jess asked in surprise.
“To milk Nellie of course, she won’t do it herself.”
“Huh, so don’t the kids do any chores?” Jess asked looking surprised.
“It’s easier just to do it myself, by the time I’ve persuaded Zac to do any work,” she said irritably. “He used to be a great help when he was younger...but these last few months...well he’s just so darned ornery.”
Jess looked angry, “And what about Tilly?”
“She’s a good girl, collects the eggs sometimes...but she’s so upset about her Pa I don’t really like to trouble her.”
Jess stared at Molly, looking so haggard and ill, her swollen belly huge and once more a hand to her aching back and he saw red.
He stood up looking furious and said quietly, “Well, I’ll have no problem ‘troubling’ either of them. You sit down and finish your coffee,” and he marched purposefully from the room.
There were some raised voices and then total silence...and a few minutes later both children traipsed through the kitchen and out into the yard to do the chores.
Jess re-entered the room and sat back down at the table opposite a rather shocked looking Molly.
“How the heck did you do that?” she asked in awe.
“Just a little plain talking,” he said with a wicked wink, picking up a biscuit and buttering it. Then he grinned at her, “That Zac don’t half remind me of me at that age...sure don’t like to be bossed around does he,” and he happily popped the biscuit into his mouth. But he failed to notice Molly glance down...a secretive look in her eyes.
After breakfast whilst Molly got on with her chores, he took a coffee in to Wade, deciding they really needed some plain talking in that relationship too.
Once they were both settled Jess looked across at the pale shadow of a man who had once been his robust tough big brother and nearly backed down. What did it matter what Wade’s motives were in inviting him? If he was just using him because of his need to have someone to look after his family...then so be it.
It was Wade who finally broke the silence, “I guess you’re wondering how I found you and why I needed your help so much huh?”
Jess threw him a weak grin, “It had crossed my mind, yeah. You said in your note you needed me to look out for yer family?”
He nodded, “Yes, but that’s not all Jessie, I needed to make it right between us, explain things.”
Jess sighed deeply, seeing how much just talking was taking out of his brother. “There’s no need,” he said, “you apologized yesterday. I’m finding it kinda hard to forgive you for ridin’ out that way after the fire...but I guess I’ll get there...eventually.”
Wade nodded, “I can’t expect more...thanks...”
“So how did you find me anyway?”
“It was just lucky. For a while after the war, I thought you’d perished. Folk said you’d died in the prisoner of war camp.”
Jess nodded, “Yup, I nearly did.”
“But it seems you’re made of tough stuff,” Wade said giving him an approving glance. “Next time I heard of you was a couple of years later. I was on a cattle drive with a guy and he recognized the name; asked if I was any relation to the gunslinger, Jess Harper, who rode with the Hudson Gang?” He peered up at Jess now, “Hell, I couldn’t believe it Jessie...you riding with the likes of them? Getting in way over your head... seems you went a little loco back then huh?”
Jess nodded, “You could say so yeah. I started just messin’ about, running with gangs of ex-soldiers like myself. Then folk realized I was real good with a gun and I was in demand. Hell Wade, you knew that...saw me practicing my fast draw and firing off into that old clay bank at the back of the shack.”
“Sure I did. I remember you saying how you were going to get out of that life of poverty any dang way you could too. How you weren’t gonna let another living soul bully you the way Pa and I had,” he added, his voice dropping and closing his eyes in pain, at the memory.
“So, this guy that knew of me, did he say where to find me huh?”
“Oh yes...but I couldn’t do it...couldn’t look you up Jess.”
“No, couldn’t be dang well bothered,” Jess said suddenly angry.
Wade shook his head, “Nope it wasn’t that. It was because I felt so dang ashamed. See I should have been a better brother to you back then, helped you instead of making your life a misery. I figured if you’d chosen the owl hoot trail then it was all my fault.”
“Don’t flatter yerself,” Jess said bitterly. “You had nothing to do with it. I managed to get in trouble all on my own. What you’d said or done were nuthin’ to me by then.”
Wade looked bleak and then said, “I reckon I asked for that.”
Jess ignored him and changed the subject. “Anyway, that was way back then. I saw sense and changed, Wade. Met up with Slim Sherman and made a life for myself as a rancher.”
“And a very successful one and a champion of law and order too I hear.”
“It was a lucky break how I finally found you. Molly had some old newspapers a friend gave her to start wrapping up the china and stuff...for when she er...moves on.”
Jess opened his mouth to ask about that, but Wade raised a hand to silence him. “Let me finish kid.”
“So, in the headline of this newspaper from Billings was how you and some other guys had wiped out a gang of bank robbers in the town. It seems that you worked as deputy for the Laramie Sheriff and were a prized and much respected resident of Laramie. Residing at the Sherman Ranch and Relay... I was so dang proud of you Jessie,” he added his eyes filling up with unshed tears.
Jess looked down feeling a tad embarrassed, “And so you sent that note.”
“Yes, I wrote as soon as I saw the article, it was dated a couple of years ago and I just hoped and prayed you’d still be there.”
“What did you mean in your note...when you said you wanted me to ‘take care of them?’”
“I uh... I need you to take them up to her Pa’s place about a hundred miles north of here. You saw the prairie schooner in the yard I imagine, it’s all packed and ready to go.”
Jess stared hard at his brother, “Anything’ else you wanna tell me?”
Wade looked away quickly, “I know it’s asking a lot, what with her expecting and all, but it’s for the best Jess, she can’t stay here.”
“Well, it is way too isolated here and she needs her Ma and Pa. She will do after I’m gone anyways.”
“And she don’t need the likes of Charlie Blake to come callin’ huh?”
Wade shrank back and looked even paler if it were possible.
“You...you know about that?” he stuttered.
“That a notorious outlaw, one Charlie Blake, has the hots for your wife and he aims to carry her off to town any day now? Oh yeah, I know all about that Wade. But it would have been kinda nice iffen you’d shared it with me. Seein’ as it’s my head that’s likely to get blowed off...according to his Ma that is,” he added bitterly.
“You’ve seen Ma Blake?” he muttered looking uncomfortable.
“You got it and she was good enough to warn me about what was going on.”
“I just thought if you took off soon, then you wouldn’t need to worry about it,” Wade whispered.
Jess took a deep breath and tried to control his anger...after all, Wade was dying. Hell from the way he was breathing today it wouldn’t be long either. Nope there really was no point in bawling him out...just let it go Harper he said to himself.
Then Wade was speaking again, gasping to get the words out, “Please kid, I’m begging you.”
Then the enormity of the task hit him. Wade was still alive and Molly was yet to give birth. It could be weeks before they could set off on the long journey and even then, he would be lucky to make it all the way up North and then back to Wyoming before fall or even winter set in. Hell, he couldn’t let Slim down that way. There was no way they could buy help in right now and Slim sure couldn’t manage for months on end alone.
He was terribly torn as he looked down into Wade’s pleading eyes.
“I dunno,” he growled, “Hell Wade I just dunno,” and he turned and strode out of the room, practically crashing into Molly standing motionless in the doorway.
Once he’d left, she hurried over to the bed and sank down on the edge talking Wade’s hand in her own.
“I don’t think he’ll do it,” Wade gasped, “Hell Mol, he has to it’s your only hope.”
“Oh, he’ll do it alright,” she replied her eyes suddenly devious, “he’ll do it my darling, don’t worry about that.”

Chapter 9
Jess was awakened at dawn the following morning by a dreadful screaming coming from the shack. Then seconds later Zac was calling him.
“Quick Uncle Jess, come quick... it’s Ma...the baby’s coming!”
As soon as he saw her, he knew something wasn’t right…she was seated on the old rocker by the fire; bent double and looking as white as a sheet with a thin slick of sweat on her pale forehead.
“How long have ya been like this?” Jess asked urgently.
“Hours,” she gasped, “something’s wrong Jess...I had all the others so easy...but I’ve never...felt pain like this;” she cried before another contraction overtook her.
Jess looked at her with dismay and was suddenly aware of the children looking on in horror. Turning to Zac he said, “Are there any women folk here about...someone who could help?”
The youngster gave a sigh of relief, “Sure there’s our neighbors, Auntie Peggy and Uncle Josh just over the ridge.”
“They’re good folk...you trust ‘em?” Jess asked quickly.
“Why sure they look after us if Ma’s sick...Aunt Peggy is her best friend.”
“OK well here’s what you do, go over and tell Auntie Peggy the baby’s coming and can she come over huh?”
The boy nodded and turned to go but Jess called him back, “And Zac take yer sister with you will ya...stay there with your Uncle Josh until I come bring ya home, OK?”
Zac opened his mouth to argue, but Molly who had recovered from the pain said urgently, “You know that’s what we’d planned Zac, so do as you’re told...and look after your sister she’ll be fearful.”
“Yes Ma,” he said softly before turning and hustling his little sister out; but not before she had tearfully hugged and kissed her Ma goodbye.
Shortly after they’d gone, Molly once more gave herself over to the agonizing contractions.
Jess took himself off to the far end of the shack where the children slept and quickly covered Zac’ s bed with some newspaper and old bedding he found in a draw before returning to the parlor where he helped her back to the bedroom.
She allowed herself to be laid on the bed and the covers pulled over and then she said urgently, “Check on Wade will you Jess...he was breathing real bad when I got up a few hours ago.”
Jess returned a little later to say that his brother was sleeping peacefully and didn’t appear to have heard his dear wife yelling in agony.
Once more she convulsed in pain and said through gritted teeth, “Where the hell is Peg...I can’t do this alone Jess!”
“Yer not alone,” he said as he gently rubbed her back, “I’m here ain’t I.”
“But what do you know about birthing,” she said bitterly, “other than cows and horses.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said smiling down at her, “see I’ve not just delivered one baby...but two...so I figure I’m somethin’ of an expert,” he added with a wink.
She looked at him in amazement tinged with a new respect, “Really?”
He nodded, “Yup, so you just take it easy OK ... and everything will be just fine.”
But what he didn’t say was he had a real bad feeling about it this time. She seemed in such agony...and yet there was no sign of the baby appearing.
So it was that he gave a lusty sigh of relief when the door opened an hour later admitting a cheery looking plump blond woman in her late thirties.
“Ah you must be Uncle Jess,” she said beaming at him, I’m Peg James, neighbor and friend.”
Then she turned her attention to Molly and frowned a little, “Hard going is it Molly love?”
Jess stood back and let the experienced woman examine Molly and afterwards she patted her friend on the hand and told her to try and rest before she motioned for Jess to join her on the other side of the room.
“It’s a breach birth,” she whispered, “poor girl. The baby’s coming out the wrong way.”
Jess had needed to help the occasional breach cow give birth and knew it was sometimes possible to reposition the calf prior to birth. Now he suggested this to Peggy.
She looked rather taken aback until he explained he was a rancher and had helped critters give birth on the odd occasion.
Once the light dawned, she smiled at him, but then she quickly looked anxious again.
“Yes, it is possible, I’ve seen it done in my nursing days...but unfortunately the baby is fully engaged now...and will be born breach...no other way for it I’m afraid.”
“She’ll be alright though?”
Peggy looked even more concerned, “I hope so, I’ll do my best.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Uh...no my dear this is woman’s work...but maybe you could sit with poor Wade. I have a feeling his time is near. I looked in for a moment when I first arrived and I’m afraid it’s not looking too good. God willing he’ll live to see the baby,” she added as she almost pushed Jess from the room.
Jess entered his brother’s room and realized the wisdom of Peggy’s words immediately.
He stood on the threshold for a minute bracing himself to enter and then walked quietly in and took a seat beside the bed.
Wade opened his eyes and after several attempts was finally able to gasp, “Any news?”
Jess shook his head, “I think it will be a while yet...but that Peggy seems to know what she’s doing, Molly’s in good hands.”
Wade nodded, “She were a nurse...before she married,” he wheezed.
Jess just nodded, “How are you feeling?”
Wade just shook his head sadly, “Like I’m on my way to Hell in a hand cart.”
“Don’t…don’t say that,” Jess whispered. “Is there anyone I can call, do you wanna see a minister?”
“Bit late to have my sins forgiven I guess,” he chuckled, which turned into a coughing fit. Once he’d recovered Jess lifted his head up from the pillow and helped him to drink a sip of water. Then he lay back his bloodshot eyes looking intently up at Jess.
“The only forgiveness I need is from you kid.”
Jess met his gaze and then took his hand and said softly, “Then you have it...”
Wade gave a deep sigh of relief and closed his eyes.
For a terrible moment Jess thought he had gone...but then his chest began to painfully rise and fall again and all that could be heard in the room was his labored breathing.
It was sometime later when he opened his eyes again and said softly, “Have you thought more on what we were talking about Jessie...you looking out for my family, when I’m gone?”
Jess squirmed in his seat, sure he had, he’d thought of nothing else. But now with Wade obviously not long for this world and Molly shortly to be delivered of her child...then yes maybe he could make it up to her folk’s place and get back to the ranch for the fall round–up.
He was just about to reply when Wade said, “See I want you to wed her Jess...”
Jess nearly fell off his seat, “Huh...where the hell did that come from?” he asked sharply.
“Well, you love her don’t you...she’s a good woman Jess and great kids you could do a whole lot worse you know,” he wheezed.
“Hell Wade, I DID love her once...years ago. But I was just a seventeen-year-old kid...what did I know about love back then? I guess it was just a real bad case of puppy love for us both.”
However, Wade shook his head, “Nope she’s always been sweet on you, cried for a week when we thought you were dead that time.”
Jess just ignored his comment.
“Look Wade I’ll see ‘em right, take her home...but that’s all. I’ve gotten my own life back in Laramie, a partnership in the ranch and a woman I love...one I’m promised to.”
Wade looked surprised, “Really…so who would that be...anyone I know?”
“Actually yeah... it’s Millie Johnson.”
“What that cute little Tom boy you used to hang around with?” Wade asked looking amazed.
“Yup, but she grew up Wade and like I say, I love her and we’ve gotten an understanding.”
Wade just lay back looking defeated, his breath now ragged and a sweat breaking out on his pale face.
Jess gave him some more water and was just about to suggest he take a nap when the silence between them was broken by the lusty cry of a new born infant.
“Praise the Lord,” Wade whispered... “Go check my Molly’s OK will ya kid,” he added.
Nothing prepared Jess for the carnage he saw as he entered the bedroom...there was a discarded blood-stained sheet on the floor and Molly lay back on the pillows totally drained, pale and trembling.
Then he looked over to where Peggy was cradling an infant swaddled in a clean shawl. He walked over and peered down at the precious bundle and his heart stood still. The tiny baby looked up at him and with her tight black curls and huge dark eyes she was the very image of his baby sister Amy, who had died of the fever at just two years of age.
Jess stared down at her unmoving as his heart raced and he was hurtled back in time to the day little Amy was born...and the same love and joy surged through his veins.
He turned back to Molly, “She’s beautiful,” he whispered, but she was already sleeping.
“She had a bad time,” Peggy confided, “and lost an awful lot of blood.”
“She’ll be OK though?”
Peggy shook her head, “It’s touch and go. I’ve done all I can for her but she really needs a doctor... I think she may need stitching.”
“Well hell get one,” Jess cried, “I’ll pay for it.”
She shook her head again, “It isn’t about the cost, there just isn’t one in town. The nearest is a good forty miles due north...on the way to Molly’s folks place... and he’s retired now I believe... but he might be able to help you.”
“And if he can’t?”
She shook her head again, “I just don’t know Jess, it’s in the lap of the gods right now, but you need to try and get help that’s for sure.”
“I could ride and fetch him back maybe?”
She shook her head, “It would take too long and the doc is old, I doubt he still sits a horse. No, your only way is to drive her there. The wagon’s all ready to go...I’ll stay here and nurse Wade to the end,” she added.
At the mention of his brother he said, “Can I take the baby to show him?”
“But of course,” she said passing the exquisite little one across.
Jess held the warm bundle close and once more felt a strong wave of love for her taking him completely by surprise.
He entered the bedroom and saw the look of utter joy in Wade’s eyes as he carried the baby over.
“You have a beautiful little daughter,” Jess said gently.
Wade struggled to sit up and Jess placed the warm little bundle snugly in his outstretched arms.
Wade pulled the blanket back and peered down at the sweet little face, the darkly fringed eyes opened wide and he leaned forwards and kissed her dark curly hair before looking up at Jess in wonder, “You know who she favours,” he whispered.
Jess nodded, “Yes, she’s the image of little Amy.”
A look of complete understanding and love passed between the two brothers and then they looked back down at the little one.
“A good name for her...I think,” Wade said smiling down at the infant.
After a moment he said quietly, “And Molly?”
“She’s uh...she’s just fine,” Jess lied, “resting...took it took a lot out of her though,” he added honestly.
He nodded and then settled back; little Amy cradled in his arms as his head rested back on the pillows... with a little sigh and smile of complete happiness on his lips.
Then he gazed back up at Jess, “Please Jessie boy...please take ‘em on...after all blood’s thicker than water...and these folks are your kin...please tell me you’ll think on it. Please...?” he whispered.
What could he say? His brother was dying and it was his last request.
“Sure,” he said softly, “sure I’ll think on it Wade, you just rest now huh.”
Wade looked at him for a long minute and then a huge smile lit up his face, “Thanks,” he whispered, “I knew I could rely on you kid,” and he closed his eyes for the last time. Just seconds later he breathed his last breath.

Chapter 10
The next few days passed in a kaleidoscope of mixed emotions. There was pure joy at the advent of little Amy, as Molly had agreed to call her, but terrible sadness at the passing of a good father and husband.
It had been Peggy who had broken the news of their father passing to the children on her return home. Then at Molly’s behest Jess laid Wade to rest in the family plot out back, before the children arrived home the following day.
“It’ll be easier for them,” she said tearfully. “Then we’ll head off tomorrow maybe?” she asked hopefully.
They had discussed her need for urgent medical help and Jess’s willingness to drive the family north.
Now he nodded, “Sure I guess it’ll be better for the children to get started as soon as we can. For you too... and let’s just hope that doc can fix you up OK,” he added anxiously.
Jess had then gone out and dissipated some of his grief and anger at his brother’s passing by digging a deep grave, the sweat pouring off him as he dug furiously...soon stripped down to his bare chest as he labored on in the heat of the day. Then he laid his brother to rest in a sheet...there being no time to fashion a coffin. He had looked in on Molly to see if she was well enough to pay her respects, but found her sleeping.
Once the deed was done and the grave filled in, he stood before it, hat in hand looking down at the freshly turned earth, the hastily made marker, merely stating Wade’s name and dates of birth and demise.
“I’m sorry Wade,” he said softly. “Sorry we didn’t meet up sooner. I reckon we could have put all our differences aside and made a real go of being brothers.” He sighed and then continued, “I’ll do what I promised… take care of the family. I’ll deliver them up to Molly’s Ma and Pa safely...God willing, but I can’t wed her Wade. I’m real sorry but I don’t love her... nor her me. It would be a sham just for the kid’s sake, and that would never work.”
Unbeknownst to Jess Molly had awoken and dragged herself from her bed to go and pay her last respects and had heard everything Jess had just said. She sighed and turned away before he saw her...her usually gentle eyes bearing a new look of determination as she slowly made her way back to the house.
The following day Peggy and her husband, Josh, arrived with the children and once Peggy had ushered them inside Josh wandered over to speak to Jess.
“Good to meet you at last,” the cheerful looking middle-aged man said offering a hand, “I’ve heard a lot about you from Wade.”
Jess looked surprised but shook the offered hand, “Is that so?” he asked throwing Josh a quizzical glance.
“Sure, as soon as he found out where you lived it’s all he could talk about,” Josh confirmed. Then he turned his attention to the covered wagon Jess had been checking over.
“So, you’re taking them all up north, like Wade wanted then?”
Jess nodded, “Yup, we’re heading off later today, Molly needs to see a doc and it’ll take us a fair time...looks like this old crate won’t go much above walkin’ pace the amount of stuff they’ve packed,” he added wryly.
“I guess you’ll be takin’ old Nellie along too,” Josh said staring past Jess to where the house cow was standing chewing the cud and looking into the middle distance.
“Huh?” Jess said looking askance.
“Stands to reason,” Josh said quietly, I hate to say it, but well my Peggy is real worried about Molly and iffen she don’t make it, well you’ll be in need of fresh milk for the baby won’t ya.”
Jess removed his hat and ran an agitated hand through his wayward locks, “Yup I guess that makes sense,” he said...and then rolled his eyes,” Jeez what a mess huh.”
Josh nodded sympathetically, “It sure is...and I hate to be the bearer of bad news Jess, but that ain’t all you’ve got to worry about either.”
“Um...yeah see it seems the Blake brothers may be back soon. You know about Charlie and Molly, do you?”
“Uh something yeah, Ma Blake said Charlie was keen to wed her...but that ain’t gonna happen... Molly wouldn’t do that.”
“It’s hard to say this Jess, but she wouldn’t have any say in the matter, if Charlie Blake wants something he takes it...and word is he’s coming home to claim Molly for his own anytime now.”
Jess shook his head looking perplexed, “I just don’t get it, all those Blakes have got a bounty on their heads, Charlie alone is wanted for third degree murder, why ain’t anyone in the town turned them in…or at least told the law where they are...huh?”
“Because they’ve gotten the whole town running scared,” Josh said honestly. “Including me I’m sorry to say. See he’s got spies in town Jess keeping an eye on everyone...and if anyone decides to step out of line...maybe call the law in, well they’re ‘taken care of’.”
“Killed Jess... Oh, real subtly, like Chas Brown he got sick of being bossed around by Charlie and decided to leave town. He was heading for Billings to talk with the Sheriff there and he never made it...horse threw him the word was...and the guy was a champion in the rodeo,” he added shaking his head. Then there was Parsons that owns the mercantile...he turned on the Blakes, refused to serve them and his wife and daughter were killed in a buggy... ‘accident,’ the guy ain’t been the same since.”
“I get the picture,” Jess said quietly, “and I’d sure like to get my hands on the Blakes, but not yet. I can’t take ‘em on with Molly and the kids in the line of fire.”
Josh looked worried, “Well you may have to, because Charlie ain’t the sort to give up. He’ll follow you for sure and have his brothers in tow too... you wouldn’t stand a chance Jess, the guy is a fast draw...real fast.”
Jess knew the truth of it, even if he could out draw him...it would be four to one and the odds would be impossible...then what would happen to Molly, the children and hell... young Amy?
Josh had wandered off to pay his last respects and was now staring down at Wade’s last resting place. When Jess joined him Josh’s face was very thoughtful, “This has given me an idea Jess...”
“Molly nearly died giving birth you know,” he said quietly, “Peggy told me.”
Jess nodded, “I know it.”
“So, what if she had?”
“What if you turn over some more earth...and put up two more markers..Ones for Molly Harper and Jess Harper? If Charlie thinks you’re both dead he won’t come looking. He’ll just figure a neighbor has taken the kids in and ride out.”
The wagon was all packed with the children and Molly aboard and old Nellie tethered to the back.
Jess made his way across the yard and took one final look at his brother’s last resting place. Removing his hat and lowering his head he stood in silent prayer. Then he looked over at the two freshly dug graves next to it, one bearing the name Molly Harper and the other his own name. He shuddered before putting his hat back on and pulling it down hard. Retracing his steps across the yard he climbed up onto the wagon next to Molly and with Traveller and Blue following on he urged the team out of the yard and pointed them due north.

Chapter 11
They moved at a leisurely pace and by Jess’s calculations it would be a couple of days before they hit the small settlement where old Doc Hanson had retired. The progress was mind numbingly slow and not helped any by Zac’ s attitude. He was grieving deeply for his pa and this was exhibited in his off hand, rude attitude particularly aimed towards Jess.
“By God I swear I’ll tan that kid’s hide iffen he tells me he ain’t doin’ as I say because I ain’t his Pa again,” Jess spat angrily to Molly one night...the youngster now asleep under the wagon.
“He can’t help it,” Molly said quickly, “he’s missing Wade something fierce; he’s just grieving.”
“We all are,” Jess replied bitterly. Then he took a deep breath and put a hand out to her...and taking hers squeezed it gently. “I know,” he said softly. “It ain’t easy for the boy... I guess I understand.”
They were sitting by the camp fire enjoying a last coffee before turning in. Tilly and the baby were already fast asleep in the wagon, where Molly would join them shortly, whilst Jess bunked down by the fire, keeping guard on the little family.
Now he looked down to where Molly was still gripping his comforting hand and gently removed it, giving her a kindly smile.
She looked down and took a deep breath before looking back up at Jess, “What...uh, what if he was?”
“Huh?” Jess asked looking puzzled.
“What if Zac were yours?”
His eyes opened wide in shock. Had Wade discussed his plan for Jess to wed Molly with her...or Hell had it been Molly’s idea all along?
He just stared at her open mouthed, “I uh...don’t know what you mean,” he prevaricated.
“What if you were his real father?” she explained.
“Look Molly...I know Wade suggested it...but I’m really not planning on asking you to wed me. See I’m promised to a sweet girl back in Laramie...and anyway all that between us was a long time ago you know...we were just kids.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said patiently. “I’m telling you, that you are Zac’ s real Pa. Heck Jess can’t you see it? He’s the image of you...even to his ornery ways,” she added with a tiny smile.
Jess who had taken a sip of his coffee, his mouth suddenly dry, almost choked.
Once he had stopped coughing, he peered at her in consternation, “What the hell are you saying?”
“It’s perfectly obvious,” she said calmly. “You know how we were together when you were home on leave that summer. We couldn’t leave each other alone...spent all our time together making love.”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t have gotten you in the family way,” Jess said firmly, “I was careful, real careful...”
“Well not careful enough by all accounts. You see I was feeling off color when Wade told me you’d been two timing me. I felt sick and was off my food...but I just thought it was because I was so upset by your betrayal. Then by the time I was sure I was pregnant you were away fighting a war and your brother was declaring his love for me...wanted to marry me...so of course I said yes. What else could I do? I thought you didn’t love me anymore...and so I accepted his offer.”
Jess cast his mind back to the conversation he’d had with her just the week before... how she’d said she’d gone with Wade on the rebound and become pregnant almost at once and how he’d done the right thing by her... Well either she was lying then...or now, but which was it?
As though reading his mind she said quietly, “I wouldn’t lie to you about something like this, you know that. Zac is yours and a blind man could see it.”
“What about Wade did he know?” he asked suddenly.
She shook her head, “No, I never told him. But deep in his heart maybe he did know.”
Jess shook his head in amazement...he must have really loved her to accept another man’s child he thought. Then the enormity of it hit him. Hell, if this was true then he had no choice but to marry her and take care of his son...what else could an honorable man do? But the cost to him would be unbearable. To be asked to turn his back on Slim and his life at the ranch with the folk who he considered to be kin to him now. To turn away from his beloved Millie....he couldn’t do it...and yet he knew what he was honour bound to do. His mind was in turmoil and he felt tears prick behind his eyes.
He swallowed hard, “I’m gonna check on the horses,” he said gruffly, “you get off to bed, we’ll talk tomorrow,” and with that he lurched up and disappeared off into the dim evening mist.
Molly watched him go...the determined look once more in her eyes. She needed Jess like never before, especially if Charlie Blake were to come looking for her. It was imperative that he keep her and the family safe. She was doing it for them, she told herself. He had loved her once she reasoned and he could learn to love her again...she could make him happy, she knew she could.
Jess wandered over to where Traveller was ground hitched some distance away. His head came up and he gave a little nicker of welcome as Jess wandered over.
He patted the sturdy bay and found him a sugar lump and then threw an arm around his neck, burying his face in the comforting aroma of warm horse and let his emotions run free. He felt like a drowning man with no sign of hope. He seemed to be clinging to Traveller as to dear life itself and he thought of the grim future ahead of him...a loveless marriage and the loss of his dearest friends and the love of his life...with no way out of it that he could clearly see. The only thing shining through like a beacon of light was the fact that he had a son! The very thought of it hit him like an avalanche...a mixture of shock, fear and pure delight.
It was in the early hours of the morning that the idea came to him... Would it work? Could it work...and seriously did he want it to? It could turn out to be the lesser of two evils...and if the boy was indeed his, then surely, they could forge some kind of bond? He was at that difficult age right then, neither boy, nor man and was obviously finding the transition hard, made even harder by the death of his beloved Pa. But it was because there had clearly once been a strong bond between Wade and Zac, that Jess thought he might be able to revive it in time...albeit in a different way.
He would never be Wade and if indeed Jess was really Zac’ s biological father...then Wade had been his true Pa in every other way. No, maybe he had to try and forge a relationship with the boy based on friendship...right then it seemed an impossible task, but one he had to try. If he could get the youngster to accept his idea, well then, he would have to convince his Ma, which would be an even more difficult task...but it was one he must attempt.
His idea was to take Zac back to Laramie with him and bring him up alongside Mike.
Zac was, after all, near fully grown and would be able to make a good contribution to the ranch workforce Jess reasoned. He, in turn, would be able to fulfil his parental duties and really get to know his son. Molly would be left with the easier task of raising the two girls at home with her parents.
Jess knew there was no love lost between Wade and Molly’s Pa. In fact, that had been why the couple had eloped...so how would the older man accept young Zac? To Jess’s eyes the youngster looked the image of his older brother and was full of Harper attitude. Hell, he could really see the fur flying and he figured at least Molly’s Pa would be enthusiastic about Jess’s plan. He remembered Mister Spence as being a kindly easy-going man...but that was until someone messed with his younger daughter, he reminded himself. He yawned as the first light of dawn slid over the hills and he stretched ready to face another day...and hopefully to make some kind of peace with his son.
Despite his good intentions Jess found he had to reprimand the boy almost before the morning was over. Zac, who was riding his pony, insisted on either trailing way behind the wagon, or rushing off ahead and disappearing from view and Jess had already told him several times to stay close by.
Eventually he had needed to saddle Traveller up and leaving Molly with the wagon went to find the recalcitrant boy.
Now the child turned angrily on Jess as he made his request once more.
“I’m old enough to look after myself I’m not a little kid!” he yelled.
“Well stop dang well acting like one then!” Jess yelled back.
They were now passing through a densely wooded area with high mountainous peaks on either side, the ravines they frequently passed through ideal territory for cougar and bear to attack.
“Didn’t yer Pa teach you anythin’ about ridin’ in the big open?” Jess asked impatiently.
The youngster looked surly and said, “Nope, why should he, we never went anyplace.”
As Jess had left Molly and the children a mile or so down the track and saddled up Traveller to find the boy, he was aware that they should be making their way back and not sitting on their mounts arguing. He rolled his eyes and sighed deeply.
But before he could lambast the boy further and turn back, Traveler gave an anxious whinny and sidestepped before pawing the ground.
Jess was immediately on the alert and he scanned the surrounding rocky landscape before his gaze finally came to rest on a grayish form way off in the distance, making its way slowly across a rocky ridge.
Jess pointed, “See over there...mountain lion...”
The boy gaped in shock.
“So do ya think you could pick him off from here?” Jess asked tipping his hat towards where Zac’ s hunting rifle lay in its scabbard.
The youngster flushed angrily, “No, you know I couldn’t.”
“Nope me neither,” Jess agreed amiably. “So, I guess we’ll leave him to go on his way huh? But we were real lucky to see him,” he added, picking up his reins and beginning to turn Traveller back towards the wagon.
“How so,” asked Zac turning and following him, “I thought they were real dangerous.”
“Oh, they are,” Jess agreed, “but we were lucky to see him first. It could have been different Zac, because iffen we hadn’t he could have jumped us from one of those high rocks behind us maybe...and then yer a dead man. They pick ya off from behind and get the back of yer neck in their jaws more often than not. A man don’t last too long after that.”
Zac looked suddenly terrified, “So what should I do, to keep safe?”
“Stay real close to someone who knows his way around the big open,” Jess replied with a cheeky grin.
The boy looked at him and grinned back...the message finally having sunk in.
“I guess I’ll be staying real close to the wagon from now on then huh.” Then softly, “I’m real sorry Uncle Jess, I should have listened to you.”
Jess gave him a friendly smile, “That’s OK you’re young...but I guess time will take care of that, come on boy, yer Ma will be frettin’,” and they made their way back to the wagon in companionable silence.
It was later in the day that Jess was able to build on his fragile new alliance with Zac.
They had camped for the night by a stream and whilst Molly nursed the baby and Tilly gathered firewood, Zac and Jess went off to get some fish for supper.
Having grown up with the river on his doorstep Zac was an enthusiastic and efficient fisherman and soon caught a goodly amount. Jess congratulated him and then said, “So what do ya wanna do when we get back, clean the fish or tend the horses?”
“Oh, the horses please!” Zac said looking more enthusiastic than Jess had previously seen him.
“You like ranching, horse care, that kinda thing?” he asked hopefully.
“I sure do, I just love to work with the horses. Ma said you break mustangs back in Laramie that must be swell work,” he said eagerly.
Then his face fell, “I guess I won’t be getting’ to do much cattle ranching at Grandfather’s place though.”
“Oh... how so?” Jess asked puzzled, surely Molly had said her Pa had quite a sizable spread.
The boy looked acutely embarrassed and then whispered, “He runs sheep”
Jess stared at him in horror, his mouth slack, “What?”
“Sheep damn it,” he replied looking bleakly at Jess.
He decided to ignore the cussing and wondered if now would be a good time to address his notion of Zac maybe going back to Laramie with him. But then he thought he should really discuss it with Molly first and merely said, “Well that’s too bad,” and the subject was dropped.
Once they had caught enough fish for supper, they made their way back towards the camp. “Thanks for offering to do the horses,” Jess said as they made to go their separate ways, “I appreciate it.”
He figured giving Zac an option of what he wanted to do to help, rather than ordering him to do stuff was the ideal way to treat the kid and it seemed to be paying off.
“Supper should be ready when you’ve finished, and don’t forget to wash up, you know what yer Ma’s like,” he added with a rueful grin.
“Don’t I just,” the boy said chuckling, “I guess us men need to stick together huh Uncle Jess,” he said cheerfully, “against all that petticoat bossing we get from Ma and my sis.”
“You got it,” Jess said punching him lightly on the shoulder.
The boy was coming good he thought as he marched happily back to camp.
However, his new found elation didn’t last long as he entered camp to find Tilly cuddling a fractious Amy and no sign of Molly.
“Where’s yer Ma honey?” he asked throwing the fish down and peering around him.
“Gone to lie down, she suddenly felt real sick and went awful pale...I’m scared Uncle Jess.”

Chapter 12
Jess entered the dimly lit wagon and crouched down beside Molly who was lying on her side on the straw mattress clutching her belly and moaning softly.
She looked up at him despairingly, “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “can you feed the kids, I don’t think I’m up to cooking tonight.”
“Sure,” he said softly, “so what’s wrong Moll?”
She smiled fleetingly at the use of his old nickname for her, but then groaned again.
“I’ve got a terrible pain...and the bleeding’s real bad too,” she whispered looking away in embarrassment. “It’s not normal Jess...there’s something wrong, very wrong.”
“Look honey we should make it to that small settlement where the doc has retired to by tomorrow, he’ll be able to fix you up,” he said, sounding more confident than he was feeling.
Molly just sighed and closed her eyes, before opening them and looking suddenly very scared... “Jess you will look out for them won’t you if...if I don’t make it?”
“Hey don’t you get to thinkin’ that way,” he said quickly, “you’ll be just fine if you rest up some... I’ll bring you some supper in a little while huh?”
Giving her hand a comforting squeeze, he left the wagon and went to find the children.
They were sitting disconsolately around the campfire and Jess watched them for a moment, feeling the weight of responsibility heavy on his shoulders.
The baby was now fractious, clearly needing feeding or changing or probably both he thought distractedly. Little Tilly was nursing the baby in her arms and looking every bit the little mother, he thought with a tiny smile. She’d had to grow up way faster than she needed to he lamented. Then he turned his gaze on her brother who, in the throes of adolescence, didn’t seem to be able to decide yet whether he was a man or a boy. Well, if his ma passed over the kid would hafta grow up real fast Jess mused, before he pinned a smile on his face and ventured over to the children.
He smiled down at Tilly, “Yer Ma’s taking a nap but she’ll be much better tomorrow I guess,” he said giving her an encouraging smile.
“I figure she won’t be able to feed the young ‘un though.”
Then turning to Zac said, “So can you go milk Nellie and I’ll give Amy a bottle?”
He was pleased to see the boy headed off to do as he was bid without any back chat. Things were looking up he thought thankfully.
Then he turned his attentions to Tilly, “Could ya go find a clean diaper from the wagon honey, I’ll change this little one, figure that’ll settle her down some.”
Sometime later the children were watching a pan of fish frying whilst Jess fed the baby.
Tilly glanced over as Jess finished feeding Amy and then gently held her close against his shoulder, patting her back to bring up her wind.
“How come you’re so good with babies when you don’t have any back home?” Tilly asked curiously.
Jess grinned at her, “I guess you just pick it up along the way. See there were a few babies in our family Tilly and sometimes if Ma was sick or busy, us kids would help her out. I guess a lot of folks learn that way, from lookin’ after younger brothers or sisters.”
“Zac doesn’t believe in that,” she said throwing her brother a scornful look, “he says babies are women’s work.”
Jess glanced over at where Zac had bowed his head in embarrassment.
“So, you think it makes me less of a man just because I can change a diaper?” Jess asked him quietly.
Zac’ s head shot up and his face flushed, “No sir...Uncle Jess, I didn’t mean that,” he said quickly.
When Jess said nothing but merely smiled at the boy, Zac stood up and came across to where Jess was resting back against his saddle now rocking the baby gently to sleep.
“Here,” the boy said holding his arms out, “I’ll do that and settle her down for the night with Ma shall I?”
Jess grinned happily at this new and impressive Zac, “Sure that would be a big help, thanks,” he said passing the precious little bundle across.
With supper over and the baby and Tilly now sleeping peacefully in the wagon, Jess and Zac settled down by the fire.
After a while Zac looked over at his uncle and said, “Ma’s real sick isn’t she...you just said she was fine for Tilly’s sake, didn’t you?”
Jess glanced over from where he was sipping a last coffee before turning in and decided the boy should know the truth.
He nodded and said quietly, “Your Ma is pretty sick yeah. But we’ve just gotta hope this Doc Hanson can sort her out, we should be there before dark tomorrow.”
The boy nodded and then cried out, “It ain’t fair! Why do all these bad things happen, first Pa dyin’ and now all this!”
Jess shrugged, “Bad things happen to good people sometimes, that’s just the way it is, you hafta just pick yerself up and carry on.”
The boy looked at him intently then, “That’s what you did after that terrible fire that killed all your family isn’t it, Uncle Jess?”
Now it was Jess’s turn to feel overcome, “What do you know about that?” he asked gruffly.
“Just what Pa told us. How you were the strong one...made sure your sis was OK and then rode off after those men that burnt you out. Pa said he really admired you for that.”
Jess felt shocked to the core, “He told you that?”
The boy nodded, “I was feeling real upset about something one day. I’d fallen out with a friend over something really stupid. Pa was mad at me told me to go and make it up with him. Then he told me about the fire...how he was so scared and upset he just ran off and abandoned you and Aunt Francie. He just rode out and kept riding, trying to hide from it all. He said it was the biggest regret of his life too...leaving you that way… said it was too late for him to make amends, and that’s why I should make my peace with Billy while I still could.”
That was probably the longest speech he’d ever heard the boy utter and now he looked at him with new respect.
“Thanks fer telling me that, Zac, I appreciate it,” he said softly.
“So how do you do that, keep it together when things are so terrible bad?” Zac asked.
Jess peered over at him in the growing dark, “I guess it’s about the way you choose to deal with stuff,” he said quietly. “You can just lay down and let it swamp you...or you can fight it anyway you can... I guess I was just born a fighter.”
Zac said quietly, “That’s how I’d like to be.”
“I think you already are,” Jess said softly. Then it suddenly hit him, the reality of it...that this was his son...of course he’d be a fighter, how could he not be?
Shortly afterwards they settled down for the night, knowing the next day would be a busy one. But it was many hours before Jess finally fell into a restless sleep...to dream of his new found son...and all he meant to him.

Chapter 13
It was mid-afternoon when they finally arrived at the small settlement of Cedar View.
He reined in the team and looked at the few ramshackle cabins and one trading post and shook his head. So much for the high-life of a decent hotel bed...even a cool beer in a saloon would have sufficed he thought sadly.
He turned and peered in the back of the wagon to see Molly still sleeping peacefully. Then he turned back to where Tilly was holding Amy on the seat beside him and said, “I figure we’d better bring Amy into the store with us we don’t wanna disturb yer Ma.”
He took the sleeping baby from her and then helped the child down before instructing Zac to stay and keep an eye on his ma.
Holding Tilly’s hand and gripping Amy tightly, her little head resting on his shoulder, he entered the cool dark store. Then he stood looking around at the various skins, guns and goodly supply of canned goods.
After a few minutes he called, “Shop,” and eventually a small, elderly man wielding a rifle came into view and peered warily at Jess.
“Yeah, what do ya want?” he growled.
“Well good afternoon to you too,” Jess said sarcastically, never liking to have a weapon waved in his face for no good reason.
The man seemed to realise he was being unnecessarily surly and putting the gun aside he said, “Uh sorry mister, but there’s rumors of outlaws about.”
Jess let go of Tilly’s hand and she wandered off to look at the candy on display and he shifted Amy’s weight onto the other shoulder, “Do I look like a dang outlaw?” he asked frowning.
The shopkeeper finally grinned at him, “Can’t say as you do sir no. So may I be of help?”
Jess pulled the list of supplies from his pocket and put it on the counter sliding it across, “I’d like ya to fill that and can ya direct me to the docs?”
“I think I’ve got the supplies,” he said picking up the list and scrutinizing it carefully, “but can’t help you with the doc.”
“Well why the hell not,” asked Jess angrily, Doc Hanson does live here don’t he?”
The shopkeeper’s head shot up, “You a friend of his?”
“Nope but I need to see a doc real urgently.”
“Well, I’m sorry but you can’t see him.”
Jess was just about to flip and give the shopkeeper both barrels of the Harper temper when he continued...
“...You can’t see him because we buried him last Tuesday.”
Jess felt like he’d been kicked in the guts. Then as though sensing his despair Amy gave a little muffled cry, that usually heralded a full scale melt down and Jess realized she was overdue a feed.
“Tilly, go fetch a bottle from the wagon will ya honey,” he said weakly as he tried to pacify the baby, now growing red in the face and beating the air with her little fists.
Once she’d gone the store keeper looked over at Jess and said quietly, “You look like a man sorely tried...so is it you that’s sick?”
He shook his head, “Nope the baby’s ma out in the wagon. She’s uh...got some problems after giving birth to this little one.” Then hopefully, “Ain’t there anyone in this place that could help us mister? Some woman that helps womenfolk give birth maybe?” he asked hopefully.
The man pondered long and hard, “Ain’t hardly anyone left here now, they all moved on after we’d had some Indian trouble. There’s my wife of course, she’s had six of her own so I guess she knows something of it.”
Jess sighed, “Can she come look at Molly at least?”
The man turned away and hollered into the back, “Betty, Betty love can you spare a moment?”
A minute later a sprightly woman came in wiping her hands on her apron and beaming at the men.
“Gentleman here needs your help my love.”
“What seems to be the problem my dear?” she asked addressing Jess.
“I’ve got a lady out in the wagon in real need of doctoring, she’s kinda got some problems after...um giving birth,” he added hesitantly.
“Oh, what sort of problems dear?”
“Uh... well she’s lost a lot of blood, maybe you could take a look?” he asked feeling embarrassed at having to discuss such intimate matters with a complete stranger.
“Of course, I can take a look at your wife dear, although I don’t know what I can do.”
“She’s not my wife,” Jess said quickly.
“Oh?” she asked suddenly looking askance and glancing over at her husband.
“She’s my sister-in-law, my brother is dead. Now can you take a look please Ma’am?” he said gruffly.
She was at once all smiles again and bustled about selecting some items for the patient. She put some articles from a bottom draw discreetly in a brown paper bag and then selected a highly colored tonic from a shelf behind her, “Doctor Pepper’s Magic Elixir,” she said happily, “cures most ailments I find.”
Jess sighed deeply, but said nothing other than, “Thank you ma’am.”
She went off to check on Molly, whilst Tilly sat on a chair in the shop giving Amy her bottle. Jess paid for the supplies, then he said, “Uh, add a few bars of candy to that will ya...and ...um a bottle of whiskey.”
When they finally made camp late that afternoon Jess was delighted to see that Molly was looking a tad brighter.
“So is Doc Pepper working his miracles then?” Jess asked tongue in cheek as they sat together after supper, the children all asleep.
She smiled over at him, “I doubt it, but Betty gave me a good tip...to lie flat with my legs raised ...seems to have helped a little anyway.”
“Yeah, but dang it you need to see a proper doc Molly and there ain’t one between here and your folks place according the guy in the mercantile.”
“Well, it’s only another fifty miles or so,” she said softly, “I’ll make it I’m sure... I have to Jess. Everything will be just fine once I make it home, you’ll see.”
“Sure it will,” he agreed and then gave a little shudder as he looked off into the evening gloom.
There were rumors of outlaws about the storekeeper had said...and Jess figured he’d have to be vigilant. But what could he do if the Blake brothers did attack them? Even he couldn’t take down four against one...and he knew it.
He pushed the notion to the back of his mind, no point in frettin’ about stuff that hadn’t happened yet he thought.
Then he decided whilst they were sitting chatting so companionably now might be a good time to broach his idea of taking his son back to Laramie to raise him there.
However, to his chagrin Molly was dead against the plan.
“I can’t lose my boy!” and that was her final say on the matter. “I’m sorry Jess but we need you...all of us...” and with that she made her painfully slow way back to bed in the wagon.
Jess watched her go, his last hopes dashed. There was nothing else for it… he had to do the honorable thing; but it was hard, by God it was hard to turn his back on all he knew and loved.
He turned in and finally slept...but awoke at the tiniest sound. Up in an instant, his gun drawn as he peered into the dark, his ears straining for the sound of an interloper. Would Charlie Blake come for her? Had he already visited the old shack and seen the bogus graves Jess had dug, bearing crosses with his and Molly’s name? Then had he dug down to check...finding the graves empty? Only time would tell.

Chapter 14
Sheriff Mort Cory swung down from the saddle and tethering his buckskin to the rail by the Sherman ranch house door, quickly made his way across the porch and knocked a hearty tattoo on the front door.
Minutes later he was astounded when Andy Sherman answered his knock.
“Bless my soul, what the heck are you doing here son?” he exclaimed, taking Andy’s hand and shaking it warmly.
“Home on an extended break,” Andy said cheerfully. “I’m all finished at school and just waiting to take my place in Med school. But it doesn’t start for another few months so I thought I’d come home and shake old Slim and Jess up,” he said grinning.
Mort was quickly shown to the breakfast table, Daisy giving him a welcoming smile and pouring him a coffee.
“It sure is good to see this young man again,” Mort said cheerfully.
“Yup seems he’s got four months off after finishing school, before he starts at the hospital for his medical training and he plans to spend it here with us!” Slim confirmed. “And I have to tell you Mort he’s been a splendid help with Jess being away. He’s practically running the place. Between him and Mike I reckon I could retire and spend my days fishing,” he joked, leaning over to ruffle Mike’s blond hair.
To his surprise Mort suddenly looked rather uncomfortable, “Um, that’s why I’m here,” he said, “about Jess.”
“Oh, dear me he’s not in trouble is he Mort?” Daisy asked looking suddenly anxious.
Mort failed to meet her eye and merely said, “Uh, not really. He’s just fine as far as I know, but I just need a quiet word with Slim about him.”
“Oh, yes of course,” Daisy said at once taking the hint.
“Come along Mike let’s go and collect the eggs while the Sheriff and Slim talk and we can hear all the news about Jess later.”
Once the child had reluctantly left, Andy rose to make himself scarce too but Mort bid him sit.
“You stay here son, I guess this affects you too.”
Slim turned a worried gaze on his friend, “What’s all this about Mort?”
Before replying Mort said urgently, “When did you last hear from Jess?”
“Why...uh...it was just last week. He wired to say his brother had passed over and he had to escort his widow and kids back home to her parent’s place on the Canadian border. He was real sorry, but I guess he felt honour bound to help her out,” he added.
“Um, well I had this wire from Wade Harper’s next-door neighbor,” Mort said pulling a crumpled note from his pocket and smoothing it out on the table, “one Josh Soames...seems a nice guy by all accounts.”
“Go on,” said Slim dead pan.
“To get right to the point it seems an outlaw named Charlie Blake is also a neighbor...met up with Molly when she took washing in for his ma. He fell for her hook line and sinker and now he’s going to claim his prize...the widow Harper.”
“So, what does Molly think about all this?” Slim asked nonplussed.
“She doesn’t want any part of the guy. It seems Jess has taken her off, as you said, heading for the border. Josh wired to tip me off that this Charlie Blake is on his way back to town...but not for a little while...so we would have time to go warn Jess and help him out some.”
All the time he’d been talking Andy had been listening wide eyed.
“But of course, you have to go Slim you just have to!”
Slim turned anxious eyes on his kid brother, “I can’t leave this place for weeks on end you know that, Andy.”
“Heck you just said I was practically running the place single handed Slim, me and Mike can manage real well!”
“He’s talking sense Slim and I really think Jess needs our help...you know who Charlie Blake is don’t you?” Mort asked.
Slim frowned, trying to recall the name.
“He’s only Charlie Blake of the notorious Blake gang. He and his three brothers are wanted in four states for murder and robbery. He’s a real bad lot Slim and one of the fastest draws out there too. I’ve seen it first-hand. Had a run in with him and his gang a few years back... they escaped the posse,” he said shaking his head, “but he was real fast back then.”
“What, is he faster than Jess?” Andy quaked.
“Could be son, but I guess it doesn’t matter anyway if Jess is up against all four of them; he wouldn’t stand a chance anyway.”
“I’ll ride out tomorrow,” Slim said decisively.
“Good, I’ll pick you up at first light,” Mort said grinning at him.
“You...you’re coming too...but what about the town Mort?”
“Well, I’ll tell you...a bit of a lucky break there. See I’d booked myself a month’s leave of absence seeing as how I ain’t had a vacation in years. My deputy Lon is taking the reins helped out by my nephew...so no problem. Anyway, dear Kate, he said referring to his lady friend Kate Munroe, is visiting her friends near Billings and I said I’d ride along and keep her company.”
“That’s mighty good of you Mort but won’t she have something to say with us disrupting your plans?”
“Hell no, she’s real fond of Jess you know that Slim. In fact, it was her idea...said she couldn’t wait to land a few pot shots in the Blake’s direction.”
Slim had to laugh at that, “Good old Kate, she would too,” he murmured, “they broke the mold when she was born.”
“That they did,” Mort agreed. “So, we’ll head off and help Jess out and bring him back home for a good long visit with young Andy here,” he said smiling with satisfaction.

Chapter 15
They made good time and one sultry summer’s evening they finally reined in at Wade Harper’s yard and looked around them.
It had been agreed that they would not enter the small town for fear of their presence getting back to Charlie and his gang. Mort had already decided that with the help of the law in Billings he would attempt to regain law and order in the town...but figured his best ally in that was stealth.
If indeed Charlie and his brothers did accost Jess in an attempt to abduct Molly...then most of his work would be done for him he figured. With Jess, Slim and his dear Kate beside him facing up the gang, he was pretty certain the law could win...especially if the outlaws were taken unawares.
Slim was the first to speak, “Kinda run down isn’t it...let’s hope the inside’s better huh?”
All three dismounted taking in the straggly vegetable plot and dilapidated looking barn.
“Why don’t you and Kate put the horses up for the night,” Mort suggested. “I’ll go around the back and find the log store, get a fire going in the cook-stove huh?”
Slim and Kate had unsaddled the mounts and were just about to rub them down and feed them, when Mort appeared at the barn door.
Slim spun around, “That was quick work,” he said grinning at his friend, “did you find some logs?”
Mort merely shook his head, “Nope, but I think there’s something you need to see out the back, you too Kate...”
The couple exchanged a puzzled glance before following Mort outside.
Once out of the dimly lit barn Slim was able to see Mort’s expression more clearly and what he saw made his blood run cold, “Mort?”
The Sheriff merely shook his head and marched back off in the direction from whence he had come.
Kate and Slim followed him and turned the corner of the house... then stared at where Mort was now standing over a neat plot, his head bowed.
Dashing over Slim realized at once that he was looking at the family burial plot.
He regarded the neat row of graves. Two small ones were obviously older than the rest and were of two small children, both having died of the fever as infants. The other three were newly dug, the first one bearing the inscription on the rough handmade cross, ‘Wade Harper’ and the dates of his birth and death.
The other two just had hastily made markers the first bearing the name Molly Harper, Slim read, frowning. Then he turned to the last grave and he felt his heart miss a beat as he read the name Jess Harper carved on the rough marker.
He gasped and swayed as the truth hit home...Jess...Jess was dead?
He felt a strong comforting hand on his arm, “Take it easy Slim, here sit a moment,” Mort said, leading him to a nearby fallen log.
Slim collapsed on the welcome seat and watched as Mort went over to Kate and threw a comforting arm around her shoulders as she stood in deep shock staring down at the grave.
It was over an hour later before Mort could finally get Slim to leave the graveside and join him and Kate in the house. He wandered over in the gloom; the evening having turned chilly, and placed a hand on Slim’ s slumped shoulder. He felt him shudder and wondered fleetingly if he was cold or the shiver was a sign of his deep grief. After a moment Slim turned misty eyes on Mort.
“Why,” he asked, “why did it happen here miles from everyone who loves him...cares about him?” Then he took a sharp intake of breath, “Hell Mort what ’ll I tell Millie?”
“I can do that,” Mort said softly, “now come in and get warm. Kate’s got supper on and she’s frettin’ about you sitting out here all on your lonesome.”
Kate had been pleasantly surprised to find the ranch house to be as clean and neat as a new pin, Molly having left it in perfect order. The furniture was old, but well-polished and the fabric and furnishings clean and carefully darned and mended, speaking volumes to Kate. Molly had been a diligent and good wife and she suspected the place looked rundown outside because of her husband’s illness.
All the time she tried to keep her mind on the mundane...closing it to the horrific sight of the freshly dug grave outside. She bustled about preparing supper whilst Mort had laid the fire, going about her duties on autopilot. But once the stew was on the cook-stove she had no option but to sit quietly before the fire with Mort, both of them lost in thought.
Now as Mort entered with Slim, she was stricken by how haggard and sick he looked, his countenance almost grey and his eyes sunken.
She jumped up from the fireside armchair and Mort settled Slim into it almost as though he was an invalid. They exchanged an anxious look at the state of their dear friend, Mort shaking his head almost imperceptibly.
Slim refused any food saying he felt sick to his stomach, but eventually accepted a coffee, liberally laced with whiskey.
“I just don’t get it,” he said to Mort, peering at him over the rim of his cup. “I got that wire saying he was fine...they all were, save for poor Wade of course. Saying he was heading to the border...so how can he be dead?”
Mort shook his head and then said thoughtfully, “Was that wire actually sent by Jess?”
“Of course...well uh no it was sent by that neighbor Josh Soames, on Jess’s behalf. I guess he was too busy getting packed up to ride into town. It was Jess’s words alright but signed Josh Soames on behalf of Jess Harper.”
“Um, mine was from him too. What if...well what if this Josh Soames isn’t who he professes to be at all? Maybe he’s part of the Blake Gang and he sent those wires to get me to come over here...and to stop you. Your wire said he was fine...so you’d no call to come out here...but mine said he needed help. Soames wouldn’t know I’d call on you to ride out too.”
“But why would this Josh Soames, or the Blake gang, why call you over here?” Kate asked, looking puzzled.
“Because I was leading the posse that was after Charlie Blake a few years back and I killed his cousin Jake Manders. He swore he’d get even and I guess maybe now it’s payback time.”
“Makes sense,” Slim said dejectedly. “I guess we’ll go call on this Josh Soames tomorrow huh Mort? Find out what all this is about, because by God I’m not going to rest until I find his killer.”
They finally settled down for the night, Kate and Mort having brought in a couple of cots, pulled up near the fire. As much to keep Slim company as for the warmth. Slim was stretched out on the old couch. Soon Kate and Mort were asleep, but Slim lay awake watching the fire make patterns on the walls and casting his mind back over the years.
Jess grinning devilishly at him after making a sarcastic comment as Slim had waved his lost love off on the stagecoach. Then how Slim had retaliated, the two had tussled, both finally falling in the water trough and Jess’s indignant... “It ain’t even Saturday!”
The time they had nearly come to blows over doing all the chores, in the days before Daisy’s arrival...but had ended up falling about in helpless laughter.
There had been so much laughter.
Hell, how could he break the news to dear Daisy who thought of the boy as a son?
Then he remembered the bitter, dark times, when Jess’s murky past had surfaced to give him such terrible trouble. How he’d always seemed to emerge virtually unscathed, but older and wiser.
His loyalty...how he would do anything to have the back of those he cared about.
He remembered dear Millie’s terrible accident and how Jess had stayed by her side constantly for days on end, neither sleeping nor eating until she was finally on the road to recovery. Never giving up, even when it was clear from the doc that she had practically no chance of recovery...still he fought on for her.
Well damn it he wouldn’t give up either, he thought angrily, and he wouldn’t rest until Jess’s killer was dead and buried.
The following morning, they were just finishing a scratch breakfast when they heard a horse clatter into the yard and then there was a brisk knock on the door.
Both men drew their weapons and Mort cautiously opened the door to see a middle-aged man standing there grinning at him, “Howdy Sheriff, I see you got my wire, Josh Soames,” he said putting out a hand.
Mort quickly replaced his iron and shook Josh’s hand somewhat warily before turning and introducing him to the others.
However Slim kept hold of his gun and frowned at the newcomer.
“What happened to my partner?” he snarled without preamble.
The smile faded from Josh’s face and he looked confused, but then the light dawned.
“Jeez I’m so sorry, I should have come over yesterday...but I had a real sick cow on my hands. I take it you’ve seen the graves?”
“Just tell me how he died and who the hell is responsible!” Slim barked.
“Look Mr. Sherman, it’s OK, Jess isn’t dead, Molly neither.”
Slim felt the room shifting around him and heard himself say quietly, “He isn’t?”
You’d better come in, Mort said quickly opening the door wider.
“The graves were just a trick to fool Charlie Blake and his brothers,” Josh continued. “Jess and I figured iffen Charlie thought Molly was dead he’d quit looking for her...and if we pretended Jess was dead too then Charlie wouldn’t search for him to ask how she died. But I should have wired you again explaining.”
“I’m so sorry it must have been a terrible shock,” he said, now addressing Kate.
“You could say that,” she replied quietly, always the master of understatement, but giving him a cheerful grin, such was her joy at the wonderful news.
Once they were all settled down Josh explained exactly what had happened. “I’ve brought a route map with me,” he said, “they were heading for Cedar View to see the doc there.”
“They needed to see the doc?” Slim echoed, assuming it would be Jess that was injured in some way if he was running true to form.
“Yes, it was for Molly, Wade’s wife. She had a few complications after the birth and was in need of a doc,” Josh explained.
“The birth you say?” Kate asked raising her eyebrows.
“Yes Ma’am, didn’t I mention it? Molly gave birth the day before poor Wade died.”
Kate gasped, “So did they have a large family?” Heck she thought, as far as she knew Jess had gone to visit his dying brother and now there was a wife and goodness knew how many offspring, if Wade took after his Pa, she thought grimly.
Josh shrugged, “Not as big as some folk around here, they lost two to the fever. So, there’s young Zac at fourteen, he’s the image of his pa. Tilly is a sweet little girl of ten and the new baby...Amy I believe they called her.”
“So let me get this straight,” Slim said, a look of incredulity in his mild blue eyes. “My pard is out there someplace on the run from Charlie Blake’s gang with a sick woman, an adolescent, a little girl and a new born? “ He allowed himself the ghost of a smile.
He was just beginning to recover from the trauma of the last twelve hours and rejoice in the fact that Jess was alive. But oh boy this was yet another whole mess of trouble the boy had gotten himself into he thought shaking his head sadly.
“Tell me the latest on the Blakes,” Mort interrupted urgently, suddenly realizing how dire the situation was with a woman and children in possible danger.
“They were sighted a good few days’ ride away. If you set off now you should be able to catch up with Molly and Jess and warn them, the wagon’s real heavy laden and only traveling at walking pace. Anyway, with luck Charlie will fall for that scam with the graves and ride off again. I’ll stay out of the way, so he won’t hear anything from me, I’ve got some business up north and I’ll take the family with me. If he’s not taken in by the graves, I reckon you’ll have Jess’s back if they do keep looking?”
“Oh yes you can count on that,” Mort said firmly, “and thank you for all you’ve done we appreciate it and you stay safe.”
Slim leaned over and shook Josh’s hand, “I second that.”

Chapter 16
Jess was feeling more and more wary as the days progressed. Not only was Molly clearly not well, but he was also worried about the possible advent of the Blake brothers. Maybe the scam with the graves hadn’t worked? That guy in the mercantile had said there were rumors of outlaws abroad. Could that be Charlie and the gang?
As the days went on the children became more apprehensive and edgy. Hell, he thought sadly, they’d had no time to mourn the loss of their dear Pa and now here they were off in the middle of nowhere missing their old home and friends and their Ma real sick too.
With Molly so ill, caring for the baby had pretty much landed at Tilly’s door with her doing the lion’s share, whilst Jess and Zac took their turn as often as they could. Jess felt heart sick for the young girl having to take on so much responsibility, but it couldn’t be helped he told himself. Once she turned in exhausted after supper every evening, he gave the night feed, with Zac taking over in the early morning and so a routine of sorts was established.
Zac himself had stepped up to the plate admirably and seemed to be growing and maturing before Jess’s very eyes. He was clearly anxious as he was more aware of the predicament, they were in than his younger sister, but he bore the responsibility well.
Jess had asked him to take on driving the wagon, freeing him up to frequently backtrack to check they weren’t being followed and the system worked well.
Jess was just beginning to relax and think maybe they would make it safely to the border unscathed when early one morning he saw a party of three riders’ way off in the distance. He couldn’t make them out, but they seemed to be advancing upon them, albeit slowly, as they stopped frequently to check the tracks.
He was pretty sure he hadn’t been sighted and so he figured he would have a valuable half hour or so to try and conceal the wagon and make Molly and the children safe...but then what to do? Open fire on them before they could attack him? Could he pull it off one against three? The odds could be worse he figured and at least he had the element of surprise on his side.
He galloped back to where Zac was driving the wagon slowly along at little over walking pace and called out to him to pullover. Then he clambered in the back where Molly was dozing fitfully. But she was instantly awake as Jess hunkered down beside her.
“We’ve got company,” he said urgently.
“Wh... what is it him ...Charlie?”
“Could be, it’s too far to see, but I need to git this wagon outta site and then you and the kids sit tight while I try and sort it out, OK?”
“Sort it out,” she echoed, “goodness Jess you can’t take on the whole Blake gang on your own.”
“Well, I don’t have a whole lot of choice do I,” he said irritably, “so you got a better idea?”
Then seeing her hurt look, he said, “I’m sorry honey. Now listen up good…I’ve already explained all this to Zac. If anything should happen to me, he has the map to get you home. It’s pretty straight forward and you should make it in a week or so, ten days tops...OK?”
“No!” she said, hysteria mounting in her eyes, “We can’t leave without you Jess.”
“You have to put the kids first Molly. What do you think Charlie will do to them huh? It’s only you he wants.”
She visibly quailed at that.
“I’ll hide the wagon as best I can over behind those cottonwoods. You and the young ‘uns head over yonder, see those rocks over that way?” he said moving towards the back of the wagon and pointing.
She nodded.
“Well according to the map there are several huge caves that way. With any luck Charlie won’t have a map and won’t think to look for you way over there. Take Blue with you and keep him and the baby quiet. I’m sorry but it’s the best I can do,” he added before jumping down from the wagon and going to inform Tilly and Zac of the plan.
Ten minutes later the wagon was carefully concealed and Molly and the children were hidden in a huge cave about a quarter of a mile away. The only glitch had been that Blue refused to go with them at first, until Jess pulled rank and spoke sharply to his beloved dog.
Now he was perched high above the trail on a rocky outcrop, his rifle at the ready. He figured if he could pick one...maybe two of the men off then he’d have a reasonable chance with a shoot-out when the third got into close range. He knew surprise was his ally and just hoped and prayed that he wouldn’t be spotted before he could strike.
It sure didn’t sit well with him ambushing them that way...but he reminded himself they all had a rope waiting for them with charges of multiple murders on their heads. Plus, he had to think of Molly and the children; and he had little doubt that the Blakes would either abandon or kill the youngsters.
They were much closer now and he could see that one of the men was very tall, the other two average height. One clad in buckskin, his hat at a jaunty angle... looking more like a mountain man than an outlaw Jess mused.
Then he took up his rifle and focused on the tall man a few yards ahead of the other two. He was in his sights and Jess held his breath and was just about to squeeze the trigger when he stopped and looked closer. There was something about the frisky trot of the man’s mount that was vaguely familiar...like at any moment he would break into a joyful gallop.
Then as the rider and horse came even closer, he saw it was Alamo! Jeez it was Slim along with Mort and Kate! For one terrible moment he realized he might have killed his best friend and he felt an icy shiver down his back. Then he was suddenly aware that Blue had broken free and was capering around him giving little joyful barks. Seconds later he sniffed the air...stood stock still looking down the trail and then tore away towards the riders, his tail wagging and barking madly in a frenzy of welcome.
Jess followed him down the steep rocky pathway. Minutes later Slim had swung down from the saddle and was laughing and crying out in welcome...almost bowled over by Blue. Then the men were bear hugging, shaking hands and laughing up to where Kate and Mort sat grinning down at them.
Once they had all embraced and briefly exchanged news Jess remembered the others waiting fearfully in the cave and picking Traveller up on the way all four quickly made their way to the caves.
It was Zac who greeted them at the entrance looking shaken and frightened.
“It’s OK,” Jess said quickly swinging down from the saddle and marching over, “it weren’t the Blakes after all. See these are friends of mine, everything’s OK buddy.”
However, to his surprise the boy still looked distraught, “It ain’t that Uncle Jess,” he whispered, “its ma...she’s dead.”
Jess exchanged a stunned glance with Slim before he ran into the cave followed by the others.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light within...but then he was just able to make out Molly lying on her side deathly still. Tilly was sitting close by nursing the baby and weeping silently.
Kate was instantly beside him and said, “I’ll check her you tend to that poor child Jess.”
Jess gently took Amy from Tilly and passed her over to Slim and then held the child in a close embrace as she cried piteously.
After a few heart-stopping moments Kate looked up and smiling said, “It’s alright honey Ma just took a fainting spell, she’ll be just fine in a little while.”
It was later that evening before the visitors were able to relax and chat around the campfire with Jess, Molly and the children abed.
Kate had checked her patient over carefully and was able to report that she was now healing well after the difficult birth, but was still very anemic and rundown following the heavy blood loss. She had wasted no time in concocting one of her old Indian herbal remedies made from locoweed, sarsaparilla and a few other choice herbs guaranteed to get her back on her feet in no time, so Kate proclaimed.
Now as they sat around the fire sipping a welcome coffee Kate glanced down at where little Amy slept peacefully in her rocking crib.
“You know Jessie boy that little one sure puts me in mind of your baby sister Amy. I guess Wade called her after her?”
Jess nodded and smiled at the sweet little angel with the mop of dark curls, “Yes,” he said “we saw the likeness the minute she was born.”
“Amy?” Slim asked not remembering Jess had kin of that name.
“She died of the fever when she was just two,” Jess said.
“Hell...I’m sorry,” Slim said at once, looking troubled.
Jess merely shrugged, “Long time ago pard.”
Thinking to change the subject Kate said, “Now young Tilly takes after Molly, with that purty blond hair and big brown eyes...I imagine her Ma was a real stunner as a girl?”
“Um,” Jess said noncommittally, “Er so what about Zac then who do you think he favours?”
“Jeez he’s the spit image of you at that age,” Kate said chuckling. “The boy’s got a bit of edge to him the way you did and that mop of wavy hair and blue eyes...peas in a pod you two could be.”
Jess went very quiet...but Kate didn’t seem to notice as she rambled on, “Yes you and Wade were very alike when you were younger. But once he hit his late teens, he really filled out...whereas you stayed as thin as a lath,” she joked.
Slim turned to Jess to josh him about his slender form and was surprised to see a look... of what? Alarm...no... may be resignation...in his pard’ s eyes?
“Jess are you OK?” he asked hesitantly.
But before he could reply the baby awoke for her feed and as Jess scooped the crying baby up the moment passed.

Chapter 17
It was later the following afternoon before Slim and Jess were able to talk in private. Zac was driving the wagon. Kate and Mort were scouting on a little ahead leaving Slim and Jess to ride drag. They continually scanned the horizon for signs of movement...but the coast seemed clear for miles around.
After a while Slim reined in and said quietly, “Shall we take a break, we can rest for ten minutes or so and catch them up easy.”
“Sure,” said Jess slipping down from the saddle and taking a good slug of water from his canteen. Then he wandered over to where Slim had sat down, his back to a rock with a good view of the open countryside beyond them.
Jess sat down beside him, tipped his hat back and relaxed against the rock closing his eyes.
“So, what’s going on between you and Molly then?” Slim asked after a moment.
Jess’s eyes snapped open and he turned to stare at him, “Huh?”
“Oh, come on Jess, she insisted on getting up to make you some breakfast this morning and couldn’t do enough for you.”
Jess just shrugged, “Probably feeling kinda guilty for havin’ taken to her bed for so long, leavin’ me holding the baby,” he added with an unconvincing grin.
“Uh, nope it’s more than that. Hell, Jess she’s all stargazey and moonstruck around you.”
Jess flushed up and said, “I never noticed.”
Slim sighed loudly, “You never do pard...but I’m telling you she’s got plans. I figure she sees you as husband number two.”
To Slim’ s surprise there was no indignant denial... Jess merely looked off into the middle distance before saying softly, “I guess I need to level with you Slim.”
Then he slowly told him all about the death bed conversation with his brother and how he’d asked Jess to take on his family...wed Molly and bring the children up as his own. His last words... ‘Thanks kid I knew I could rely on you.’
Slim just gaped at him and then said in a shocked voice, “So are you going to?”
Jess looked desolate, “No, at least I weren’t gonna. I was just gonna deliver them safely to Molly’s folks. They’ll be just fine there with Mr and Mrs Bates; they’ll accept the family and give her all the help she needs. See I know them Slim.”
“You know them?”
Jess nodded and then explained about how he had once dated Molly when he was a youngster...how Wade had split them up...and then how when he returned from the war the couple had left town...and he hadn’t seen Molly again until now.
Slim took this all on board and said quietly, “I had the feeling that you had known each other before.” Then he gave Jess an intent look, “You said you weren’t going to stay with her and the children...so what’s changed...are you saying you’re going to now?”
“I’ve got to Slim,” he muttered.
Slim was suddenly angry, “Why...some kind of family loyalty? Hell Jess, don’t we deserve some loyalty too...Me, Daisy and Mike? I thought we were like kin to you now. There’s the business too, you’re a partner!”
Then he looked astonished, “Hell Jess what about Millie? I can’t believe you’d throw her over?”
“Do you think I want to do that?” Jess yelled, “Do you think I wanted any of this Slim?”
“Then why?” Slim asked more calmly.
“Because Zac is mine,” Jess said, “dang it Slim, he’s, my son!”
There was a brooding silence for a good minute before Slim finally replied, “Are you sure?”
Jess nodded miserably, “Yeah, Molly wouldn’t lie about that kinda thing...we… well we were real close when I was home on leave that time. Then she went with Wade on the rebound when we split up...so yeah… I guess he’s mine alright.”
“How does that feel?” Slim asked softly.
“Terrible... wonderful... scary. Hell Slim I’ve got my family around me again. Real kin when I thought there were none left...that’s pretty special you know?”
“Sure...sure I can see that,” Slim acknowledged. Hell of course Jess would want to be close to the only kin he had in the world.
But then that thought was blown away as Jess looked him in the eyes...his own filled with unshed tears, “I don’t wanna leave Laramie Slim...my whole life is there...but what can I do...if the boy is my responsibility?”
“But is he Jess? You need to be absolutely sure, why don’t you talk it through with Kate? She’s a shrewd old bird. I reckon she would have some insight?”
“She was the one that said that me and Zac were like two peas in a pod,” Jess reminded him.
“Yes, but she also said you and Wade were really alike at that age...trust me on this Jess ask Kate huh?”
When he didn’t reply Slim turned to him, “Jess?”
But his pard was focusing on something far off in the distance...a dust cloud made by several riders eating up the miles.“Looks like we got company Slim.”

Chapter 18
They galloped back towards the wagon and were surprised to see that they had decided to make camp early that afternoon. It was a cloudy, sultry day. Mort had figured dusk would come early so when they came upon an ideal camping spot with a small stream and shelter under some huge cottonwoods, he suggested they stop there for the night.
Molly was feeding the baby and Kate had the coffeepot on the fire when Jess and Slim hurtled into the camp scattering small stones and dust as they went. Earning them a cross, “take it easy boys,” from Kate as pebbles rattled against the coffee pot.
Jess ignored her and leapt down from Traveller and strode over to Molly, “Git the kids in the wagon pronto,” he yelled without preamble.
When she just stared at him, he yelled, “Now Molly, just do it...the Blakes are on their way!”
That galvanized her into action. While Kate and Mort checked their weapons Jess tied Blue to one of the wagon wheels with a strong thong attached to his collar. Then he entered the wagon where Molly was cuddling a tearful Tilly.
“Can’t we have Blue in here with us?” Zac asked looking equally upset.
“No boy, I need to be sure he can’t get free again, I don’t want him shot in the crossfire.”
Then he turned to Molly and took her by the shoulders so he had her full attention, Tilly now attending to a fretful Amy.
“Listen up good,” he said quietly but firmly, “if one of those bastards should make it past us you need to shoot him...shoot to kill Molly can you do that?”
“I...I think so,” she whispered looking uncertain.
“As soon as you see Charlie or one of the others just fire off a shot...then loose off Blue, he’ll keep him busy and give you another chance at shootin’ iffen you don’t get him the first time...OK?”
Then he stooped to pick up Wade’s old rifle and thrust it in her hands.
“Keep the kids hidden under that old tarp at the far end of the wagon,” he added, “they should be safe enough there...but you’ve gotta shoot to kill if one gets through,” he added again and he turned to go.
“Be careful...we need you.”
He nodded, squeezed her arm gently and called, “It’ll be OK kids, just do as your Ma says,” and with that he was gone.
There was no time left to go with Jess’s original plan to ambush the riders, as they heard them advancing almost as soon as they had ridden out of the camp and within five minutes or so they saw them riding hell for leather in their direction.
“Nothing for it but to stop ‘em in their tracks,” Mort said reining in. “We’ll hitch the horses over there out of the way and just block the road...no other option at this late hour...they’d be off and past us before we climbed up to a good vantage point.”
So it was that the Blake gang made up of Charlie and his younger brothers, Pete, Dev and Hank rounded a bend in the trail and were dumbfounded to see four people strung across the road, effectively blocking their way.
The men reined in quickly and peered at the assembled company glaring back at him.
Charlie was the first to break the silence.
He tipped his hat back and gave them a spine-chilling smile. “Well, well...So you must be Wade’s little brother,” he said addressing Jess. “The um...late Jess Harper,” and then he gave a booming laugh. “You didn’t really think you’d catch us out with that grave scam did ya boy? Oh no Ma had already filled me in on your plans to rescue poor Molly from my evil clutches. Practically begged me to let her go,” he said still smiling evilly. But his next words were icy cold. “But I can’t do that, see boy. So, you and your buddies either back down...or die here. I want that woman and I aim to have her.”
“I wouldn’t be so hasty if I were you,” Mort growled, “Jess has the law on his side. You’re all wanted for murder...so I guess we’d be in our rights to shoot you down here and now, unless you’d like to come quietly?” he added.
That took Charlie’s attention and the bitter smile froze on his face.
“Cory...Well I’ll be damned, I’ve been wanting to catch up with you for a while...after that nasty business where you dispatched cousin Jake... and I see you have yer woman with you too...this is just wonderful,” he said with a little nod in Kate’s direction.
Then he glanced at Slim and smirked, “And you must be Harper’s partner in the ranch...welcome.”
Jess had been getting more and more furious, his hand flexing above his gun and now he could keep quiet any longer.
“Goddamn it, Blake, quit yer chit-chat an’ get on with it!”
“You want some action, do you Harper? Well, I think me and the boys can oblige,” he said slipping down from the saddle and motioning for his brothers to do likewise.
All the time he’d been talking Blue had been howling in the background and now as silence fell the unearthly cries sent shivers down Charlie Blake’s back.
“What’s that goddamn racket?” Hank blurted out looking around him in trepidation.
“That’s my tame wolf,” Jess said grinning at the obviously spooked men. “I guess he just can’t wait to sink his fangs into you. They’ll be cutting him loose shortly,” he added for good measure.
Dev turned anxious eyes on his older brother, “Charlie?”
“He’s just kiddin’,” Charlie said uncertainly.
“Am I?” Jess asked with an evil grin.
Dev licked his lips and threw the youngest brother Pete a nervous glance.
“I don’t like it Charlie...let’s get out of here,” Pete whispered, as Blue now threw himself into a volley of anguished blood curdling cries.
“Don’t be so damn wet,” Charlie snarled.
Then very quietly, “I’ll take Harper, you take the sheriff Dev and that leaves the woman and blond cowboy to you two,” he said nodding to his youngest brothers Pete and Hank.
It was all over in the blink of an eye...and when the smoke cleared the four Blake brothers lay dead or dying.
Pete was injured badly and died in Kate’s arms just a few minutes later.
“Dang it,” she muttered, “I only meant to wound the kid not kill him.”
Jess hunkered down beside her, “Iffen you hadn’t he’d have killed you Kate and that’s a fact. None of them had anything to lose. They all had a necktie party on the agenda at some stage...we just ended it a tad sooner than they’d planned.”
She gave him a weak smile, “You sure have a refreshing way of looking at things son and I guess you’re right. Maybe it’s better to end it here cleanly than swing from a rope?”
“Yer not kiddin’,” Jess agreed. “I guess with this lot it would have turned into some kinda freak side show...they’d have been practically selling tickets. At least this way they get a swift clean end.”
Then Mort and Slim strolled over, “The others are all dead,” Mort said quietly. “It’s too far to take ‘em back for burial. I guess we’d better lay them to rest here.”
Jess stood up, “I’ll ride back to the camp and put ol’ Blue at ease,” he said with a grin and let Molly and the kids know we’re all OK. I’ll pick up a couple of shovels too.”
Slim nodded, “And tell Molly to get the coffee on, we’ll be ready for one when we’re done here,” he said casting an eye up to the overcast sky.
Mort looked around him at the falling dusk, “Yup we’d better get a wiggle on, it’ll be dark soon.”
Jess rode briskly into camp and was just about to call out in welcome when a shot rang out through the gloom.
He was catapulted backwards out of the saddle...a terrified Traveller bolting leaving Jess sprawled unmoving in the dirt.
From the back of the wagon Molly lowered the rifle and gave a little gasp of horror.
If she had waited a second longer, she would have heard Blue’s anguished howls turn into delighted yaps of pleasure as his master rode in.
As it was Jess lay motionless, to all appearances…dead, and Molly looked on in dismay at what she had done.

Chapter 19
Back at the site of the recent shootout they heard the loud gunshot echoing around them and then Blue’s howls turning to terrified whimpers.
“What the Hell?” Slim said, exchanging a shocked glance with Mort before hurling himself into the saddle and riding full tilt back to the wagon, hastily followed by Mort and Kate.
When Slim entered the camp, he threw himself down from the saddle and stared in horror at the scene before him.
His pard was lying unmoving face down in the dirt. Molly stood looking down at him, the still smoking rifle in her hands and tears coursing down her cheeks.
She looked up startled as Slim approached.
“It was an accident...I heard a rider and just fired, like he told me too...it was too dark to see his face properly. Oh God Slim, I’ve killed him,” she finished, sobbing pitifully now.
By this time Mort and Kate had ridden up. As Mort marched over Slim motioned with his hat towards Molly and Mort understood at once.
“Come along my dear,” he said kindly, taking her arm and relieving her of the rifle as well in one swift movement. “Let’s go and check on the children and see if we can hush up that dang dog too,” he added with asperity.
Once they had gone Slim very gently rolled his pard over and took a deep intake of breath at what he saw... The front of his shirt was covered in dark blood and by contrast his face looked almost devoid of any color, save for the dark shadows beneath his closed eyes. He already looked like a dead man...and Slim just stared down at him in anguish.
Then Kate was gently pushing Slim aside and feeling for a pulse in Jess’s neck. She breathed a sigh of relief and turning back to Slim said, “He’s still with us, help me carry him over by the fire, the light will be better there.”
Slim refused any help and gently lifted his partner up and carried him across into the camp, amazed at how heavy Jess was considering his slight frame.
Once he was made as comfortable as possible on his bedroll, Kate quickly removed his shirt and surveyed the damage.
“Bullet’s still in there dang it,” she muttered, “hafta go fishin’ for it...fetch my kit from my saddle bag will ya Slim?”
Mort returned a few minutes later and said, “Molly’s in a terrible state Kate...the kids too cryin’ and carrying on something fierce.”
Kate rolled her eyes and said, “That’s all we need a darned hysterical woman on board. Go back and tell her Jess is alive and hopefully he will be just fine. Get her to settle the young ‘uns down for the night. None of them want to be any party to this,” she added as she stared bleakly down at the dreadful wound to Jess’s shoulder. “Make sure they stay in the wagon Mort...Molly too.”
It was when she was half way through removing the bullet that Jess finally came to and it took all Slim and Mort’s strength to hold him still, so Kate could complete the delicate operation. However, once the bullet was finally out, it seemed as though their troubles were not yet over as he continued to bleed profusely.
After a few minutes Kate pushed a wad of clean rags into the wound and asked Slim to keep the pressure on, in spite of Jess’s cussing and fretting that he just wanted to be left alone.
“We’ll try this for ten minutes or so,” she said ignoring Jess’s protests. Standing up she wandered off to fetch a drink from her canteen.
Mort followed her and said softly, “Are you OK honey?”
She rubbed her aching back...stiff after stooping over Jess for so long and said, “I guess I am Mort...but I really don’t know about the boy”
Mort frowned, “You don’t think he’s going to make it?”
She shrugged, “If the bleeding doesn’t stop, well the only choice is to cauterize the wound. But the state he’s in right now, with all that blood loss... I really don’t think he would stand up to it Mort...the shock could kill him.”
When she returned to her patient sometime later, she hesitantly removed the pad and then cussed softly under her breath as fresh blood oozed out.
Mort who was standing back a little with Slim, giving Kate some space, said quietly. “Jeez, I guess we’re between a rock and a hard place here.”
“Huh?” Slim asked feeling slightly dazed.
“Kate says only way to stop him bleeding out is to use a red-hot knife...but the shock could kill him. But iffen she doesn’t well... the blood loss could.”
Slim turned away and tried to deal with this latest nightmare. Damn it! Would this never end he thought bitterly. First thinking his pard was dead...and then the blessed relief of discovering he wasn’t...and now this...plunged into despair again.
A few minutes later he felt a light hand on his shoulder, “Slim, we need your help...Kate’s decided we have to go ahead.”
Jess was alert enough to know what Kate had in mind as soon as he saw Mort thrust the knife blade into the depths of the fire.
He rolled his head away from the grim sight and flicked a questioning glance up to Kate.
“No other way?” He asked softly.
She shook her head, “I’m sorry Jessie boy.”
He nodded stoically his jaw clenching and his mouth set in a hard line...just waiting for the onslaught.
When it came the pain was excruciating, the stench of scorching flesh making Slim gag, as along with Mort he tried to hold Jess still.
When Kate applied the, now white hot, blade to the wound Jess’ back arched and he bucked uncontrollably as the others tried desperately to hold him down.
Then it was all over and Jess fell back, his head lolling to the side as he passed out.
Seconds later there was a horrific scream and Molly tore across from the wagon, looking at the scene in consternation, “What are you doing to him,” she cried, “my God, you’ve killed him!”
“We’re doing what needs to be done,” Kate said briskly, “he’s alright Molly just unconscious.”
Then turning to Mort said out of the side of her mouth, “Deal with her will ya Mort? Jess really doesn’t need these darned hysterics on top of everything else right now.”
Mort was finally able to lead her away on the pretext that the children would be frightened and needed to be reassured.
Kate merely rolled her eyes at Slim and went back to checking on her patient.
“Has it worked?” Slim asked anxiously when a few minutes had passed.
Kate removed the pad covering the wound and then gave Slim one of her rare huge smiles that lit up her whole face, “You bet,” she replied happily.
Sometime later Jess stirred and asked for some water.
Once he was comfortably settled Kate and Slim relaxed a little and Mort returned and poured them all a coffee.
“What the heck was all that about?” Kate asked quietly, noting that Jess was now sleeping and not wanting to disturb him.
“I guess she’s a bit overwrought,” Mort said sipping his coffee reflectively.
“You can say that again,” Kate said, never being one to mince her words. “Dang it you’d think Jess was her husband not her brother-in-law!”
Slim merely looked down but said nothing.
Then the subject was dropped as Jess suddenly awoke, shaking uncontrollably and saying he was freezing, between chattering teeth.
“Damn it,” Kate muttered, “this is just what I didn’t want to happen.”
“What is it?” Slim asked looking anxious.
“Reaction to the cauterization sends the body into a sort of shock I suppose you’d call it,” Kate said watching Jess closely. “Plus, the huge loss of blood can make the patient really cold,” and she went and found an extra blanket to cover Jess over.
When he was still shuddering a little while later Slim knew what to do. It was an old trick his Pa had taught him to use if he was ever stranded in the snow with young Andy. To get under a blanket together and hold each other tight to share their body heat. It was worth a go he decided and with Kate’s approval he got under the blanket with Jess and held him in a firm embrace, feeling him shaking violently and the deathly coldness of his body seeping into his own.
“What are you doin’?” Jess muttered darkly.
“Trying to warm you up some you idiot...or would you rather freeze to death huh?”
Jess considered the options for a minute and then relaxed back closing his eyes...and was asleep soon after.
Within an hour or so Jess had warmed up and was still sleeping peacefully so Slim was able to return to his seat beside Kate and enjoy another coffee, this time laced with some of her cousin Denver’s hill whiskey.
He nodded over to where Mort was fast asleep on the other side of the fire. “If you want to turn in, I’ll watch Jess,” he said quietly.
She nodded, “Thanks Slim, I’ll just have another cup and hit the hay,” she said, topping up his cup too and adding another splash of spirits.
They sat in companionable silence for a little while and then Kate said abruptly, “So what’s the deal with Jess and Molly then?”
Slim threw her a guarded look and said, “Huh?”
“Come on Slim you’ve noticed it too. Molly’s all over him like a rash and Jess is really not himself. He nearly snapped my head off when I told him that Millie was missing him something fierce. So, what’s happening huh? Because that little Tilly seems to be under the impression Jess is staying in Canada with them.”
Slim took a deep breath and said, “I guess Jess would have gotten around to telling you himself sooner or later,” and he relayed the tale of how Jess and Molly had first met... then Wade’s sabotaging of the relationship and their subsequent romance and marriage whilst Molly was on the rebound.
Kate listened quietly until Slim explained about the bombshell Molly had revealed of Jess being Zac’ s real Pa and Jess’s reaction to the news...
She shook her head sadly, “That son of a gun always was overburdened with too much loyalty and the need to always do the honorable thing,” she said quietly. “And its darned well misplaced in this case too.”
“Misplaced?” Slim asked.
“Yup of course, there’s no way he’s Zac’ s Pa.”
“But how can you possibly know that, Kate?” Slim asked in disbelief.
“Well, I’ll tell you, I’m a people watcher see. When my dear husband and I ran the saloon back on the panhandle I kinda got a gift for it. I knew as soon as a stranger walked in iffen they’d be trouble or not. I knew who the liars were and who I could trust...and I could spot a long-lost family member come visiting before they’d even said who their kin were.”
“Go on.”
“Well, I figure there’s more to a person than the way they look. Sure, young Zac looks a lot like Jess did at that age...but he doesn’t have any of his mannerisms.”
“Gestures, behavior... our funny little ways that makes us different from each other,” she continued.
“How do you mean?” Slim asked really interested now.
“Well Jess has his own unique walk. He strides out like he’s a man on a mission,” she said chuckling. “Almost swaggers sometimes...and boy do the ladies like it,” she added. “Number of times I’ve seen the ladies turn along Main Street and watch young Jess march by,” she said grinning at him now.
Slim chuckled too, “Yup that’s Hotshot alright...”
“But Wade, he was what I’d call a shuffler... he strolled everywhere...never saw him speed up...except maybe if his daddy was on the war path,” she sighed. “Anyway, young Zac is just the same, he ambles about the place just like his pa. Then there was the fibbing. If Wade was caught out, he’d do this real wide eyed innocent look...and blow me down I saw Zac do just the same to his Ma the other day. Twas when she asked who’d eaten the last of that apple pie,” she chuckled. Jess would never do that. He’d either have told the truth or if he lied, he was so dang good nobody ever knew.”
Slim laughed again, “Well isn’t that the truth.”
“Um and there are so many more little nuances...I could tell you about...nope Zac is definitely Wade’s offspring, I’ve no doubt.”
Slim was happily shaking his head in wonder, “Well I’ll be...”
“Which just leaves us to decide who is going to call Molly’s bluff, you or me?” She asked with an evil grin.

Chapter 20
Kate stood looking down at her patient, “How long’s he been like this Slim?”
It was early the following morning and Kate awoke to hear Jess cussing softly and thrashing about, clearly with a high fever.
“An hour or so,” Slim said shaking his head. “I stripped off his shirt and been swabbing him down with cold water from the stream, but he seems to be getting worse.”
“Looks like an infection dang it,” Kate muttered stooping down to get a better look. “I’ll put a clean dressing on that wound with some fresh herbs to help treat it. But I guess he’ll just have to ride it out Slim, he’ll get a lot worse before he gets better, I’m thinking.”
Later that morning Molly looked down in anguish at Jess. A comforting arm was around her daughter’s shoulders.
Kate was gently wiping his burning face and he seemed completely out of it thrashing about on his bedroll and calling out for Millie.
“Who is Millie?” the little girl asked hesitantly.
“His best girl,” Slim said throwing the child a kind smile, “I guess he’s missing her real bad.”
He couldn’t help but notice Molly flinch, but he said no more as Tilly was speaking to him again.
“He’s not going to die like my Pa, is he?” she whispered.
Kate looked up quickly, “No child, not on my watch. Now why don’t you and you’re Ma go pick some more of those herbs I showed you yesterday huh? That would be a real help. That special tea of mine will be just what Jess needs to get his strength back once he’s over this fever.”
It was another day before the fever finally broke and Jess was able to sleep deeply and begin to recover.
He awoke the following morning to find the rest of the camp still asleep save for young Tilly. She stood looking down at him her eyes serious, “Are you feeling better Uncle Jess?”
“You know what honey I think I am,” he said smiling up at her.
She fell to her knees beside him and sighed with relief.
“Miss Kate let me help nurse you some yesterday,” she said, “I dabbed cold water on your head to help cool you down and then I sat and watched you so I could tell her if you needed anything.”
“Well thanks sweetheart I appreciate that.”
“That’s OK I think I’m going to be a nurse when I’m grown up,” she said thoughtfully. “Do you think I’ll be clever enough to be able to do that Uncle Jess, huh?”
“I think you already are,” Jess said taking her hand and squeezing it.
So it was that for the next few days Jess was a reluctant passenger lying in the back of the wagon, while Slim sat up front driving and chatting with Molly.
It was the second day before he found the words to broach the subject that had been playing on his mind since Jess first talked it all through with him. Now armed with some new information he felt he could put it off no longer.
“Tilly seemed to think Jess is going to stay in Canada with you,” he blurted out.
“Maybe,” she said noncommittally, “he hasn’t decided yet.”
“Now why would he want to do something like that?” Slim persisted. “Leave the woman he loves more than life itself...his home, his business and all his good friends back in Wyoming?”
“He...uh has a commitment,” she said vaguely. “One that he feels he should honour I guess.”
“Like what?” Slim persisted, determined not to be side tracked.
“You’re very inquisitive,” she said with an uncertain smile.
“Sure I am, he’s my best buddy and if he’s going to throw his life away, well of course I want to know why.”
She seemed suddenly angry, “Well how about this! He’s Zac’ s natural father...and as such he feels honour bound to help bring him up...is that a good enough reason for you?”
Slim stared at her long and hard until she glanced away, flushing up.
“It would be if it were true,” he said quietly, “but I think we both know it isn’t don’t we Molly?”
“What...what do you mean? She blustered.
“I mean you’re lying,” he said succinctly, “and that’s really cruel of you Molly. I’ve seen how he is with the boy, with all the young ones. They’re his kin and he’s grown to love them. I can see that. But I also know the thought of leaving his Millie and all the folk he loves back in Laramie is killing him. You have to be honest; you have to tell him the truth.”
“I ... I really don’t understand what you mean?” she stuttered.
“Oh, I think you do. Kate is darned sure Zac is Wade’s son. She knew the boys when they were growing up, says he’s a dead ringer for Wade at that age.”
“So, you’re taking her gut feelings and long-ago memories over what I say as the boy’s mother?” She asked sharply.
“Nope not just that...I did the simple thing that I guess Jess didn’t think to do...I asked Zac when his birthday is.”
She sucked in a deep breath.
“Simple math Molly, the boy was born a good twelve months after Jess rode out. Now I know first babies are often late...but three months?”
She gasped and covered her face...clearly distraught, “I’m so sorry,” she eventually whispered.
“I guess it isn’t me you should be apologizing to,” Slim said quietly.
“So, are you going to tell him?” she asked fretfully.
Slim shook his head, “Nope... you are...and sooner rather than later, we’ll be at your folks place any day now,” and with that he flicked the reins to hurry the team on and they continued their journey in silence.
That evening Molly was very quiet and went about preparing supper without a word to anyone. Eventually she asked if someone would tell Tilly supper was ready.
Slim marched off to the wagon where Tilly had been nursing Jess since he had been so badly wounded.
She’d taken to her duties like a duck to water, sitting patiently beside him all day. Sometimes she read to him from one of her many story books and other times just sat quietly watching him as he slept, occasionally brushing a hand across his forehead to check his temperature as she had seen Kate do. She also administered the pain killing medicine so hated by Jess, impressing Slim and Kate by the professional way she brooked no argument.
“Come on Uncle Jess it’ll make you feel better.” Even more amazing was the way Jess behaved and did exactly as he was told with no cussing or even much argument.
“I’m going to kidnap her and take her back home with us,” Kate had said jokingly, “at last we’ve found a way to make that son of a gun behave when he’s sick!”
Now as Slim quietly peeped into the back of the wagon, his handsome features relaxed into a huge grin. Seeing Kate passing by, he beckoned her over.
Jess was fast asleep with Tilly’s much loved rag doll in bed beside him, whilst Tilly was sleeping peacefully nearby. Her book lay to one side and her head was resting on Blue, using his big back as a pillow. The huge dog’s head shot up and he beat his tail in a gentle welcoming tattoo on seeing Slim, before sighing and relaxing back again.
Kate and Slim exchanged a wicked grin, “Priceless,” Slim said softly, “I sure wish I had one of those photographic cameras to preserve this for posterity.”
Kate chuckled, “The rag doll is the finishing touch...he’d never live that down.”
Slim shook his head, laughed and withdrew from the wagon and then said more seriously. “The way Tilly’s been acting, looking after her baby sis and nursing old Hotshot so well you forget she’s just a little girl, with her dolls and adventure stories.
Kate nodded wisely, “I guess both the kids have had to grow up real quick after the death of their Pa. It’s just lucky Jessie was around to pick up the pieces. That little girl adores him and Zac hero worships him too. He’d make a darned good Pa to them all I know that...But Hell Slim it just ain’t right to build all that on a lie. I sure don’t want Jess to give up everything and then find out later that he ain’t really the boy’s Pa.”
“Oh, that won’t happen,” Slim said softly. “I had a long chat with Molly today and she’s admitted it all. She’s going to tell Jess the truth before we get to her folk’s place. I guess that’ll let him off the hook.”
Kate gave a sigh of relief, “Well thank goodness for that. Now everything’s sorted out and Jess is on the mend I figure me and Mort will ride out in a day or so...take our little break together huh?”

Chapter 21
Mort and Kate rode out a few days later, making for her buddy’s ranch. Then after their visit they intended to call in at Billings and inform the Sheriff there of the demise of the Blake Gang and discuss a way forwards for the little town and decide how to end the outlaw’s reign of terror.
“I figure we need to weed out the informers uh...spies they had based in the town and I reckon we’ll start with the town council,” Mort said to Slim before he left. “Once they’re all run to ground and made known then we can appoint some law and order to clean the place up.”
Slim had nodded, “Jess and I should be able to join you and give you a helping hand by the end of the month.”
“Oh, so Jess is coming home then?” Mort said with a hopeful look, “Kate wasn’t too sure.”
“Oh yeah, he doesn’t know it yet Mort, and I figure you should leave well alone right now, but yes I figure he’ll be riding out with me.”
Mort knew better than to pursue the matter as he saw Molly and the children advancing upon them and merely said, “I sure hope so Slim.”
When Mort and Kate rode out the following morning Jess felt bereft thinking, he probably wouldn’t see his dear friends again. However, when they made to leave with a cheery ‘see you boys later’ from Kate and jaunty little salute from Mort, Jess just couldn’t bring himself to say anything...and then they were gone.
He turned away feeling sick to his stomach. He should have explained, said he’d got to stay with Molly and the kids. He’d barely had time to discuss the matter further with Kate since he’d been shot and now, she was gone.
“You, OK?” Slim asked kindly.
Jess just nodded. “I figure I’ll drive the wagon today...I ain’t gonna get my strength back lounging about in the back.”
To his surprise Slim agreed eagerly, “Good plan and I’ll take Zac off hunting. Supplies are getting a tad low we could do with some fresh meat.”
Then as Molly wandered over Slim said, “Jess will be driving the wagon today Molly, I guess that will give you a chance to talk things through huh?”
Molly looked startled and flushed up when Jess looked over enquiringly...but she just mumbled something and went off to feed Amy who had just started crying and Slim marched off to find Zac, leaving Jess looking puzzled.
An hour or so later they were on their way. Slim and Zac had taken off on their hunting foray and now Molly turned and peered into the back of the wagon. Tilly was in there deeply engrossed in her school books as she had been most days since Kate had said a good standard of education would be needed if she were serious about becoming a nurse.
Molly turned back to Jess and said smiling, “She’s studying again, that child is so single minded she’ll do anything she sets her mind to I do declare.”
Jess grinned, “Just like Francie huh?”
Molly smiled back, “Yes, she may have my looks but the rest of her is pure Harper.”
Jess said nothing and they rode on in silence until Molly took a deep breath and said, “Jess... I’m so sorry but...”
“Hey quit apologizing will ya?” Jess said breaking in quickly. “I told you it was an accident you shot me. It was me that told ya to shoot first and ask questions later weren’t it,” he said with a friendly grin.
“No...no you don’t understand,” she cried, before glancing behind her and moderating her tone. “You don’t understand,” she said again, more quietly. “I’m apologizing for lying to you...for deceiving you.”
His head swiveled towards her, “Huh?”
“About Zac, I’m sorry Jess I lied...he isn’t really yours at all.”
Jess’s jaw dropped and a host of emotions flooded through him...shock...and relief quickly followed by disappointment...and then anger.
“So, when were you gonna tell me?” he snarled, “When I’d moved to Canada...or maybe once the boy turned twenty-one and I’d spent all those years helpin’ bring him up, when I should have been home in Laramie with my girl...huh?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said beginning to weep soundlessly. “I was just so scared, what with Wade dying...the baby coming and then Charlie chasing after me and all...I just panicked.”
“I’d have helped you out,” Jess said furiously, “you know that. You didn’t hafta lie...Damn it I trusted you Molly,” he said now looking so hurt it near broke her heart.
All he wanted to do was escape, go someplace quiet and lick his wounds. Hell, he really didn’t think it would be such a huge blow finding out the boy wasn’t his after all. Sure, he was still his uncle and that was real special too...but part of him was completely devastated.
At least life could return to normal a little voice in his head piped up...once he’d settled his kin in their new home...he could return to his.
His spirits rose a tad as he thought of his homecoming and seeing his beloved gal again.
Then he was suddenly aware of Molly speaking to him, “What’s that over yonder Jess?”
He looked to where she was pointing and his blood ran cold...puffs of smoke were clearly visible emanating from behind a nearby hill...looking pretty much to Jess like Indian smoke signals.
He reined in the team and peered over to where dark clouds of smoke puffed across the horizon at intervals, “That sure weren’t made by a regular camp fire smoke,” Jess said softly.
“What do you mean?” Molly asked picking up on his anxiety.
He ignored her question and said, “Do you know if there are Indians in these parts?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know the area any more than you do Jess...are there Indians in Canada?”
“We ain’t crossed the border yet...still in Montana. It could be Black Feet maybe,” he mused, “and iffen they’re signalling...it could be they’ve gotten us in their sights...and I don’t reckon they’ll be suggestin’ we call by for coffee and a chat either.”
“What, you mean there could be trouble?”
He nodded, “We’ll haul to here and wait for Slim to get back and then I guess we’ll go take a look.”

Chapter 22
The Indian smoke signals were still clearly in evidence when Slim returned a while later.
“Do you see what I do?” were his first words to Jess, tipping his hat to the clouds of smoke off in the distance
“I figure we should go take a closer look,” Jess replied. “If we leave Molly and the kids here we can scale that steep hill and still keep an eye on them while we check out where the signals are coming from.”
It was a tough haul up the rugged hillside but once they reached the top they were rewarded by views across the plain as far as the eye could see.
Slim checked out the area with his field glasses and then chuckling passed them over to Jess, “Well I’ll be ...there’s your Black Feet War Party Jess!”
Jess focused the glasses and then his handsome features relaxed into a happy grin, “Looks like someone could use our help.”
They returned to an anxious Molly and revealed their findings.
“So, it looks like the guy’s had a fall or somethin’ his leg was bandaged. He’s got a smoky fire goin’ and was making the signals to try and alert some help I guess,” Jess concluded.
“Oh goodness we must help him,” Molly said at once.
Then Tilly piped up, “If he’s hurt, I can help look after him can’t I Ma.”
Molly rolled her eyes at Jess and said gently, “Well we’ll have to see what sort of person he is first dear. There are some pretty rough characters roaming around here you know. It might be better to leave his care to Uncle Jess or Slim.”
“But if he’s hurt, he’ll still need taking care of, proper nursing, like Miss Kate taught me,” Tilly persisted.
Jess grinned down at her, “Well said honey, spoken like a true nurse.”
Then he lifted her up into the back of the wagon before turning to Slim and saying cheerfully, “Let’s go find Tilly’s patient huh.”
It was an hour or so later before they had negotiated their way around the small mountain and made it to where the man now seemed to have given up signalling and was dozing by the camp fire.
“You’d better stay here,” Slim said to Molly and the young ‘uns, “let me and Jess check him out first.”
Jess handed the reins to Molly and jumped down, advancing on the man still dozing unaware of their presence.
But then he heard a movement and sat up quickly making a grab for his rifle and leveling it at Slim.
“Take it easy,” Slim said quickly, we mean you no harm, just saw the smoke and came to see if you needed some help?”
Something about the grey-haired man’s strong features were vaguely familiar to Jess...and then he spoke.
“Thank God! It’s good to see you guys. I’ve dang well busted my ankle I reckon. Can’t seem to put any weight on it. My spread is just over the ridge...I was hopin’ my Hannah would see the signals and bring the buckboard out for me. I figure it’s her baking day though,” he finished ruefully, “darned well tied to the kitchen stove ‘til supper.”
All the time he’d been talking Jess was aware that Molly had climbed down from the wagon and inched her way over to the men.
Now she gave a little cry of delight, “Pa? Pa is that you!”
He looked slightly dazed and peered up at the young woman, before the light of recognition lit up his face. Molly...heck it’s my little Molly!”
“Pa... yes it’s me!” and she rushed over falling to her knees and taking his hand, overcome with emotion.
Jed Bates squeezed her hand and then looked up from Slim to Jess and smiling asked, “Friends of yours?”
But before she could answer he peered more closely at Jess.
“Wade...that you Wade Harper?” he asked looking rather uneasy.
“No sir, I’m Jess Harper, Wade’s kid brother,” Jess said quickly.
Mr Bates expression changed at once, his face relaxing into an easy grin, “Well if it ain’t young Jessie Harper the rooky soldier, gee but it’s good to see you again son. You dated my Molly back in the war, I remember that. Me and Hannah we’re real sorry it didn’t work out for you two,” he said … leaving unsaid, ‘and a dang sight sorrier it did with Wade!’
“Never mind about all that now Pa,” Molly said quickly, “let’s get you up in the wagon and home, then we can check out that leg and I’ll explain everything.”
It was a very different homecoming from the one Molly had been expecting. She really thought her Pa might want nothing more to do with her after she had eloped with Wade and not been back in touch with the family for so long. But she was delighted to see that both her parents were elated to have her back home with them and they were absolutely charmed with her off spring too.
Everyone was made welcome and Molly got her parents up to speed on her life since she left home to elope. Finishing with Wade’s sad demise and her subsequent desire to move to Canada and be reconciled with her parents once more.
“I just can’t believe it,” Hannah, Molly’s Ma, kept saying beaming at the amassed company.” Going from just me and Jed rattling around the place to a ready-made family of young ‘uns and our darling Molly home again.”
Then she turned to Jess and said happily, “And you too of course Jess dear. You will be staying, won’t you? You and Molly are back together? Uh...so sad about poor Wade of course,” she added quickly.
Jess looked dumb struck, but Molly quickly intervened, “Of course not Ma, Jess and Slim here have just been escorting me home.”
“But Ma I thought...” Tilly piped up.
“Hush dear we’ll talk later,” Molly said quickly, throwing her daughter a firm look.
It was the following evening and Slim and Jess’s last night at the ranch. They were sitting out on the porch with Molly’s Pa, his foot up on a stool. All were enjoying a glass of whiskey apiece before turning in.
“I’m really pleased it was just a sprain,” Slim said tipping his hat to Jed’s foot.
The older man grinned, “Yup I shouldn’t be out of action for too long and young Zac has offered to help me out in the meantime.”
“He’s a good kid and real keen to learn ranching,” Jess said. Then he chuckled, “Jeez he was so dang relieved when he found out you ran a herd of cattle, not sheep!”
Jed rolled his eyes, “One of Wade’s little jokes according to Molly.”
Then he sucked in a breath, “But to be fair I figure I misjudged Wade. Sure, I was mad as hell when he and Molly eloped...swore never to see them again. But I was wrong...really wrong. The things Molly’s told me... well I guess Wade turned out real good in the end. You can see that the way those kids have turned out... a real credit to them both.”
With that he refreshed everyone’s drinks and they sat in companionable silence just listening to the soothing night sounds all around and sipping their drinks.
After a while Jed turned to Jess and said quietly, “I meant what I said you know son. There will always be a place here for you. You’re kin...those are your nieces and nephew and we’d welcome you as part of our family. It’s a good life here. Real fine prospects for a man,” he said casting his eyes off to the distant mountains...all the land in between belonging to the ranch.
Jess said nothing for a moment and merely flicked a glance over to his pard.
Slim could see Jess was looking kinda choked and said quickly, “It sure is a wonderful land Jed...those majestic pines...the lakes and mountains. It’s a good place to raise a family for sure.”
Then Jess seemed to rally and turning to Jed said, “I thank you kindly Jed. I appreciate it, really, I do. But my home is back in Laramie. Sure, it’ll be hard leaving those kids...real hard...but I know they’ll be just fine here with you and Hannah to support Molly.”
“She wants you to stay too,” Jed said hopefully. “I think she’d really like to turn the clock back you know Jess?”
He sighed deeply and then said, “I reckon you can never do that Jed. What we had is dead and gone. Just like the young kids we were back then. We’ve changed, grown up and moved on.”
“But Molly...”
Jess put up a hand to silence him and then rested it gently on the older man’s arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, “my minds made up. The woman I love is back in Laramie and my family too.”
“Family... but what family?” Jed asked looking puzzled.
“I told you about Miss Daisy and young Mike didn’t I? They’re my family now Jed ...and my pard Slim here is a brother to me. So, no I’m sorry. Like I said it’ll be real hard to leave them...leave you all...but sometimes kin ain’t nuthin’ to do with blood ties.”
Jed knocked back his whiskey and then leaned over and shook Jess’s hand, “Well I wish you luck then boy ... all the luck in the world...and you keep in touch...you hear!”

Chapter 23
The following morning Slim and Jess were ready to leave early, after a splendid breakfast courtesy of Hannah.
Molly had been very quiet throughout the meal but had held it together, even though her heart was breaking. She knew she couldn’t persuade Jess to stay and indeed it would have been terribly wrong and unkind to have done so. But she couldn’t help wishing things were different.
The children however were not as composed as their mother and Zac was clearly upset about his uncle’s leaving. After breakfast Jess had asked for Zac’s help in packing all the food Hannah had generously provided for their journey. The two moseyed off to the barn deep in conversation and on their return, Zac looked almost cheerful.
“Jess has said I can visit when I’m older and he’ll show me horse breaking Grandpa,” he said enthusiastically, “that would be real useful here wouldn’t it!”
“It sure would,” Jed agreed smiling over at Jess and mouthing, ‘Thank you...’
But then Tilly burst into noisy sobs throwing herself at Jess and begging him not to leave.
He took her off and they chatted for some time, Slim looking on anxiously until the little girl returned to her Ma. She was still tearful, but clearly trying to be brave.
Eventually Slim and Jess mounted up figuring it was best to make a clean break. Jess had pecked Molly on the cheek and kissed little Amy asleep in her arms before mounting and whistling up Blue.
The big wolf/dog came tearing around the side of the house and up to Jess. But as soon as he waved and started to trot out of the yard the dog started barking and whining...running back and forth between Tilly and Traveller’s retreating back.
Slim and Jess reined in and came back a way, “Come on you goofy mutt,” Jess said laughing. But Blue merely sat down in the yard refusing to budge.
Jess’ face fell and he said quietly, “I figure you’ve got yourself a dog Jed.”
“No son, I’ll go fetch a rope, you can lead him off.”
Jess shook his head, “Nope,” he said quietly, “it’s his choice. He’s a free spirit always has been. He found me...and well iffen he’s decided he wants to stay here with the kids, I can’t blame him. Me and Slim are going now...if he comes along with us maybe you could get young Tilly a pup, say it’s from Uncle Jess huh?”
“And if he stays?” Jed asked.
“If he stays, you look after him for me,” Jess said quietly. “He’s a real good dog,” and with that he turned Traveller and both men rode out at speed...the sound of Blue’s desperate...yaps and whines in their ears as he ran hither and thither unable to decided where his allegiance lay.
They rode on in silence for an hour or so until Slim could stand it no longer. He reined in and once Jess was beside him, he said, “You want to go back for him?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope. I guess he’s made his mind up. It’s hard for him Slim, I know that...and I ain’t gonna make it any worse for him. Come on let’s get going, we’re due to meet up with Mort at the end of the week,” and with that he spurred Traveller on to a brisk trot.
Slim looked behind him for any sign of the big bear-like dog on the horizon...but nothing and he shrugged and sadly turned Alamo to where Jess was already almost out of sight.
They made good time, only stopping for a short break at noon and by sundown they were ready to setup camp. They found a pleasant spot near a tinkling brook, under the shelter of some huge cottonwoods and were soon settled for the night.
Earlier Slim had cooked up a mess of bacon and beans, but Jess had merely moved it around his plate, before giving up any pretense of eating.
“Not hungry?” Slim asked sympathetically.
Jess merely shook his head before wandering off to the stream to wash before turning in.
It was several hours later when the men were awoken from their slumber by the sound of something crashing around in the nearby foliage.
They were instantly awake, up on one knee guns drawn...looking out into the moonlit scene before them.
“Kinda noisy fer a big cat,” Jess whispered glancing over to Slim.
Then just seconds later a huge grey ball of joy erupted from the nearby bushes whimpering and yapping in a frenzy of delight.
He tore across to Jess bowling him over and pinning him to the ground as he covered his face with wet licks.
“Git–off, you crazy mutt,” Jess laughed.
Then Blue was off and giving Slim an equally exuberant greeting before collapsing on the ground beside Jess. He lay there panting...his tongue lolling and to all the world looking like he was grinning broadly.
Slim looked over a wide grin on his own face and then looking puzzled said, “Hey Jess what’s that on his collar?”
Jess probed down into the thick fur and found Tilly’s small leather purse attached to his collar by one of her pink hair ribbons.
Exchanging a baffled look with his pard Jess opened the purse to find a short note written in Tilly’s neat hand.
His face broke into a broad grin, “Ha...listen to this Slim, she says after we’d left and her folks had gone inside, she saw that Blue was heading after us and she locked him in the barn. Then sometime later Zac found him and told Tilly she’d been real bad to do that and so they set him free.” Then he looked up and said quietly, “Aw Slim the kid says she’s so sorry. I’ll write her as soon as we hit Billings say I forgive her and I’ll make sure Jed gets her that puppy...that’ll help some I guess.”
They finally settled down for the night again, but Slim had trouble dropping off and wandered over to check on the horses. When he came back, he glanced down at Jess. He was fast asleep with Blue’s head and one paw resting protectively across his chest. The big dog opened his eyes and his tail beat a little tattoo of welcome as Slim glanced down and he said softly, “Welcome home fellah,” before turning and settling down to sleep himself.

Chapter 24
They rode into Billings on a dismal wet day and made straight for the Sheriff’s office, where they figured they’d find Mort waiting for them.
They weren’t disappointed and were pleased to see him sitting at one of the desks when they breezed into Sheriff Marston’ s large pleasant workplace.
The middle-aged Sheriff looked up from where he was working at his desk and threw them an inquiring glance, “Yes gentlemen?”
Mort leapt up from the other desk and strode across the room to welcome his friends, shaking their hands warmly before turning back to say, “These are the friends I was telling you about Walt, Jess Harper and Slim Sherman. They’ve promised to ride into Hunter’s Point with me and round up the rest of Charlie Blake’s informers and conspirators.”
The older man beamed and then held up a bandaged arm, “I’ll be real glad of your help boys, that’s for sure. I’m laid up at the moment and my deputy has a full time job keeping a lid on things around here. So, I really can’t offer you any help I’m sorry to say. I have told Mort that I give him my permission to act on my behalf over there and round up the scum who have apparently been terrorizing the town.”
“That’s OK, I reckon we’ll manage,” Jess said with a sly grin aimed at Mort.
He chuckled, “Yup I think we’ve proved ourselves by bringing the Blake gang down,” he agreed winking at Jess.
“I reckon once we’ve brought these last few hombres to justice and appointed a new Sheriff, things will settle down over there,” Mort added.
“Well, I’m indebted to you; all of you,” the Sheriff said sincerely. “I’d really no idea what had been going on over there. Seems they must have a bogus Sheriff as well as everything else. The odd occasion I’ve needed to go over, there was a Sheriff Parton on duty...everything seemed above board,” he said shaking his grey head. “I sure had the wool pulled over my eyes,” he added ruefully.
Then they settled down and formulated a plan.
Jess should ride in first declaring that he’d been shot by Charlie and left for dead. How Charlie had taken up with Molly Harper and as far as he knew would be arriving in town sometime soon. He’d only come by for a few days as his horse had gone lame. That was his story. Then Mort and Kate would arrive and book into Ma Blakes Boarding House, saying they were a couple returning from a funeral in Canada. Once they were all in place Slim was to ride in posing as the man sent by Charlie to herald his arrival. He was to say Charlie had called a special meeting of everyone who was on his payroll before his return to discuss some important matters. Once the word was out and all Blake’s fellow conspirators were in the meeting then Jess, Slim, Kate and Mort could strike and arrest them all.
“All sound pretty easy...on paper,” Jess proclaimed. “But what iffen we don’t get ‘em all...they could set up again as soon as our backs are turned.”
“That’s where you come in Jess,” Mort said, “You got on pretty well with Ma Blake didn’t you?”
Jess nodded, “Yup I kinda admired her in a way. She don’t take no crap and speaks as she finds... a real tough old bird.”
“Um, well it’s down to you to tell her about the death of her sons... and then get her to tell you every last person on the payroll. If she wants to stay out of jail herself that is,” he added with a wry grin.
“Uh...you don’t want much do ya?” Jess said looking wary.
“Come on pard, charming little old ladies is your specialty isn’t it!” Slim asked grinning over at his pard.
Jess rode into Hunter’s Point at noon the following day.
He made straight for the saloon, figuring the sooner word got around that Charlie was on his way home, the better.
He had a feeling of déjà vu as he entered the ill lit saloon and moseyed over to the bar.
The barkeep’s head shot up and he did a double take as he recognized the tough looking dark haired young cowboy. He shot a sideways glance to the other men holding up the bar before saying in awe, “Didn’t think we’d be seeing you back in these parts Mister.”
Jess turned and glanced at the amassed company all staring at him like they’d seen a ghost and with a grim smile on his face turned back to the barkeep.
“So why would that be then?”
The nervous little man looked even more uncomfortable and then said, “Word on the street was that Charlie Blake went lookin’ for ya...for that sweet little sister-in-law of yours anyway.”
Jess just nodded and ordered a whiskey and after knocking it back and sipping a second one the barkeep finally asked what everyone else in the saloon was waiting to hear with bated breath.
“So, what happened then son...he found ya did he?”
“Oh yes,” said Jess bitterly. “He found me alright...dang well shot me and left me fer dead too.”
A big ugly looking guy at the other end of the bar wandered over at that and said to his friends, “How do we know this stranger is telling the truth? Dang it, this could be one of Charlie’s little scams. Maybe he bought the guy off and sent him here to spy on us all.”
“Well, he’s got enough spies in town as it is,” came from an old timer sitting at one of the nearby tables, “he don’t need no more,” and there were mutters of agreement.
“I still don’t like it,” the big guy said. “Iffen he escaped from Charlie’s mob like he says why’d he come back here to Charlie’s home town?”
Jess realized it was vital that they should believe him if their plan to catch the other felons within town was to work. So he silently unbuttoned his shirt exposing the recent shoulder wound, still looking raw and painful, “That proof enough for you?”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the barkeep and general muttering from the others.
Then turning to the big guy he said, “And in answer to your question I only stopped here because my horse went lame. I’ll be gone in a few days...before Charlie and his brothers land anyways.”
“So, he is on his way home?” The barkeep asked anxiously.
Jess nodded, “I heard them talkin’ after Charlie shot me. This new guy was to ride into town later in the month to tell you Charlie was on his way. I’d seen him earlier before the shootout. He’s a real tall, lanky, blond guy. Real mean lookin’, but I guess he saved my bacon,” Jess said grinning now.
“How so?” asked the barkeep.
“Well one of Charlie’s brother’s, Hank, said he was gonna bury me. But this tall guy said not to waste his energy as I’d make good buzzard bait.”
The barkeep shuddered, “Then what happened?”
“They headed off towards the border. I guess Charlie was gonna leave the kids with Molly’s folk up there. That’s what she said she wanted, iffen he caught up with us. He told the blond guy he was heading home with her, by the end of the month he reckoned…gonna get hitched he said.”
Jess was amazed at how easily the lies slipped from his lips. He smiled inwardly at the part he’d made up for his pard. Jeez he just hoped he was able to act the part of being ‘real mean looking’ when he finally rode into town for his own acting debut.
The big ugly guy turned away. “It looks like the guy’s telling the truth...dang it!” He added bitterly, before asking for a whiskey...the atmosphere in the bar suddenly bleak.

Chapter 25
The moment Jess had been dreading when he rode into town was finally here.
He stood outside Ma Blake’s Boarding House...took a deep breath and rapped on the door.
After a little while it was dragged open revealing Ma Blake, a questioning look on her face, but that quickly turned to shock and then dismay as she realized who it was.
“Howdy Ma,” he said softly, “I was wonderin’ if I could get a room?”
She just stood there staring at him as though she had seen a ghost but finally dragged the door open fully admitting him with Blue at his heels.
She showed him into the front parlor, just nodding when he asked if the dog was welcome.
He took a fireside chair as requested and then looked up into her bleak eyes as she remained standing and staring fixedly at him.
“You met up with Charlie and my boys then?” She finally managed to ask, although she was dreading the answer.
He just nodded his gaze never faltering as he looked into her weary old eyes tinged with fear. Hell, she already knew what was to come, he surmised.
She sighed deeply, “I guess iffen you’re still standing then my Charlie ain’t...am I right?”
He nodded.
“I’m sorry Ma … yes”
“My other boys tell me, dear God...them too?” she suddenly asked her eyes widening in dread of what he might say next.
He tore his eyes away and looked down before finally looking back up at her, “Them too.”
A hand shot to her mouth and she sat down suddenly on the chair opposite him.
He stood up and went over hunkering down beside her, “Ma?”
She looked at him, no malice in her gaze only bewilderment, “How...how’d you do that all on your own boy?”
“Had me some friends come by to watch my back...they helped me out some.”
“I see,” she said quietly.
“Hell, Ma I’m so dang sorry, but they left me no choice,” he said now taking her hand.
She allowed her hand to rest in his and then looked into his sad eyes.
“No need to apologize. It’s kill or be killed out there. I know that...I told ‘em all often enough,” she added looking off to the middle distance, “Live by the gun...die by the gun.”
Then she turned back to him, “Good clean shots... they didn’t suffer?”
“Yes, good clean shots,” Jess confirmed, “Straight through the heart...they wouldn’t have suffered none.”
Except for the youngest boy he thought darkly...but she needn’t know about that.
She nodded, “Better than a rope,” she said softly. “If they had to die before their time, and I knew they would of course, it goes with the territory,” she finished sighing deeply.
Jess was amazed at how philosophical she was being. But then he thought maybe she’d faced up to it all when they embarked on a life of crime. Had maybe come to terms with their deaths long ago.
Jess squeezed her hand and stood up looking around the room and then his gaze came to rest on what he’d been searching for.
“Drink Ma?” he asked kindly.
She nodded, “And help yerself too boy...not easy breaking this kinda news I imagine.”
He stared at her in incredulity for a moment stunned by the fact that she appeared to bear him no apparent animosity.
He shrugged to himself, but poured them both a stiff whiskey and then took his seat opposite her again.
They sipped their drinks in silence for a while and then she drained her glass and refilled it and Jess’s too before sitting again.
“Well, I guess that’s it now. The Blake’s terrorizing the town is over and I can’t say I’m sorry,” she added honestly. “Maybe I can start living a normal life without folk being in fear of me and what I’ll say or do. They needn’t have been that way you know boy. I hated what my sons did as much as anyone else around here. I just didn’t have the power to stop it I guess,” she whispered…now looking completely defeated.
Jess shook his head, “No it ain’t Ma. It ain’t over until we round up all his paid flunkies who’ve been spying on the town’s folk while Charlie’s away. You must know about them?”
“Oh, sure I do...but they ain’t all bad Jess, some just terrified for the lives of their loved ones. Charlie threatened them you know and darned well carried out his threats too if folk didn’t do as he told them.”
“Did he threaten you too Ma?” he asked softly.
She looked down, “We had differences on occasion sure. He was very like his Pa you see Jess...didn’t think women’s opinions counted for much.”
Jess raised a quizzical eyebrow at that.
She gave him a tired smile, “Oh sure I come across as a pretty tough cookie, I know that...but my Charlie well, he was a complete bastard if I’m honest with you Jess. ...and yes I guess I was a feared of him same as most folk. He raised his hand to me more than once, you know.”
Jess just nodded and threw her a sympathetic look, the thought suddenly crossing his mind that maybe a tiny part of her was relieved his tyranny was over.
“You said some of his men were a feared of what he’d do, but not all of them?”
She shook her head, “No boy, there’s folk in this town that’ll just take over where he left off...They’ll continue bullying folk and milking money of out them. I don’t reckon this old town will ever be fit for decent folk again.”
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong Ma,” he said quickly. “See that’s why I’ve come back...to clean up the place... To throw all these dang hoodlums in jail and get the law back in place so folk can breathe easy again.”
“You reckon son,” she asked throwing him a disbelieving look, “so how do you think you’re gonna do all that huh?”
Jess settled down to explain the plan to her and as he talked, she became more and more animated.
“So, Ma, all I need from you is a list of folk on Charlie’s payroll.”
When he’d finished speaking, she jumped up from her chair and marched across the room purposefully. For one dreadful minute he wondered if she was about to dive off and warn the miscreants that he was after them.
He stared after her in alarm, “Heck Ma where are you off to in such a dang hurry,” he called.
“Why to get pencil and paper of course boy,” she tossed over her shoulder, “you wanted a list didn’t you?”
Later that night Jess was to realise the full extent of Ma Blake’s grief however.
She had cooked him supper and they were just drinking an after-supper whiskey when she suddenly stood up and said, “I’m ready for my bed Jess, I’ll leave the door on the latch if you’re going out,” and went quickly from the room, calling goodnight over her shoulder.
He finished his drink and realizing it was kinda late thought he might do likewise...but then Blue whined and placed a huge paw on his knee peering deeply into his eyes, before giving another soft whimper.
“Heck boy you ain’t been out have ya,” he said caressing the dog’s silky head. “Come on let’s go take a walk huh.”
Jess called in at the livery to check on Traveller and then made his way down Main Street and back to the Boarding House.
He entered quietly, locking the door behind him and then ran lightly up the stairs to his room, closely followed by Blue. All seemed quiet. However, as he passed Ma’s room, he heard the distinct sound of sobbing. He paused...his hand reaching out to knock and then he withdrew it. Hell, she was a proud woman he thought and she sure wouldn’t want a virtual stranger seeing her that way. He sighed deeply and carried on towards his own room, reflecting on the far-reaching effects of gun-play. Hell, to lose one son was devastating...but four? He shook his head and wondered if she would ever get over it. Sure, she was a tough cookie, but just how tough he wondered.

Chapter 26
The following morning at the breakfast table she made no pretense of being strong, but merely sat pale and red eyed sipping her coffee.
Jess had made a concerted effort to eat the good breakfast she had made him, but it was like ashes in his mouth and he finally pushed his plate aside and poured them both another coffee.
“Are you OK Ma?” he asked after a while, peering across at her anxiously.
She nodded, “I’ll git over it boy...given time that is. But there’s just one thing bothering me...”
“Go on,” he asked looking at her steadily.
“You...you did lay them to rest?”
He nodded, knowing that Slim and Mort had indeed buried them deep and marked the graves.
She nodded when he reassured her and he was just about to offer to clear the table when there was a rap at the front door.
“Holy Moses, who the heck is that so darned early,” she said irritably.
“I’ll go Ma,” he said pushing his chair back and marching off to the lobby.
He pulled the door open wide and was amazed, but pleased, to see Mort and Kate standing on the step.
Mort looked quite distinguished in a dark suit and black tie. Then he turned to Kate and hardly recognized her. She was dressed from head to toe in a black dress and bonnet with black ribbons, the epitome of a high-class lady in mourning.
He hid a smile, hardy remembering a time that she hadn’t been togged out in her beloved buckskin britches and jacket.
Now she threw him a menacing glance, “Don’t you dare say anything Jessie boy,” she warned.
He gave her a wide-eyed look of innocence, “Heck Kate I wouldn’t say nuthin’ you look real.... um... real well,” he finished lamely.
“So can we come in?” Mort asked drily, “We’d like a room er...son,” he said now slipping into character.
“Sure,” said Jess standing aside and then following them in, “Er walk this way, sir...ma’am,” he added for good measure leading them to the kitchen where Ma sat sipping her coffee.
She stood up as they entered and Jess was just about to introduce them when Mort said in a deeply dismal tone. “Good morning Ma’am, my uh wife and I are just returning from a family funeral and require a room for a few nights.”
Then turning to Kate added, “I’m afraid my dear wife here is quite exhausted.”
“Now is that a fact?” Ma asked looking quite unmoved.
Mort looked shocked and turned to Jess for support.
“Take it easy Mort I filled Ma in on your arrival yesterday, we were expecting ya, but not quite so early,” he added.
“Well, you might have told me,” Mort said shame faced.
Then he turned to Ma Blake, “I apologize Ma’am I didn’t mean to lie to you. But we’d decided to stay in character until Jess here had levelled with you...and from the way he was acting I figured he hadn’t said anything,” he added throwing Jess a belligerent glance.
Jess chuckled but a quelling look from Kate silenced him.
“Aw don’t blame Jess,” Ma said, “I can smell a lawman a mile off. So, howdy Sheriff Cory...and you must be Mrs Munroe,” she added turning to Kate and scrutinizing her.
Kate nodded, “I’m real sorry for your loss Mrs Blake.”
Ma Blake inclined her head before looking up into Kate’s troubled eyes, “Thank you,” she said quietly, before turning to make fresh coffee and suggesting Jess take their visitors into the front parlor.
“How did she take it?” Kate asked in a whisper once they were seated.
Jess shook his head, “How do you think?”
“Um...she looks pretty done in... can’t blame the poor woman...and now us all cluttering the place up when she needs time to grieve,” Kate mused.
“She’s OK with it,” he said softly. “I told her they all died swift and clean...don’t say anything else OK Kate?”
She looked startled, “But that young ‘un he lived a while shouldn’t she know that?”
He shook his head, “Why? Do ya think she’ll feel better for knowing he suffered...died in pain huh? Or do you just wanna get it off of yer own conscience?”
“Jess!” Mort exploded angrily.
“No... he’s right,” Kate said softly. “I did feel real bad about it. I thought maybe it would help if I was honest with his Ma. But Jess is right it would be for all the wrong reasons.”
Then they lapsed into silence as Ma returned with a tray of coffee.
They chatted for a while, making plans and then Ma retired to the kitchen saying she’d baking to do. Kate offered to help, but she was kindly, but firmly rebuffed.
“Need my own company just now Mrs Munroe, thanks all the same,” she said quietly as she wandered off.
Kate looked after her sadly, “Dang it,” she whispered.
“Kate my love will ya stop blaming yourself,” Mort said softly. “We did what we had to do...there was no help for it, you know that.”
She nodded and just looked down.
Jess and Mort exchanged a glance before Jess took a deep breath and said, “So when are you expecting my pard to hit town?”
“Later this morning, we camped out, at your brother’s place last night, said he’d be here by noon,” Mort replied. “You’re ready to ride out I take it. You can’t be seen to be under the same roof as one of Charlie’s men, that’d really blow our cover.”
“I was just gonna fetch Traveller and hitch him out back,” Jess replied. “I’ll wait and see him ride in and then I’ll head off and lie low until the meeting day. I sure hope he don’t look too wholesome,” he added sniggering.
He needn’t have worried.
He was glued to Ma Blake’s front window, overlooking Main Street and it was just an hour later when he alerted Mort and Kate, “He’s here!” he cried.
They all peered out of the window to witness Slim riding down the middle of Main Street...unshaven and with a mean look in his eyes and his whole persona menacing.
“Jeez,” said Jess softly as he turned back to his friends, “iffen I didn’t know better I reckon I’d give that hombre a real wide berth.”
Slim stepped down from Alamo, hitched him up before the saloon, then taking a deep breath, pulled his Stetson down hard, marched across the boardwalk and entered.
He pushed open the bat wing doors with force and stood there checking out the dim interior. Then once he was sure every eye was upon him, he marched over to the bar.
“Whiskey,” he drawled glaring at the edgy little barkeep, his stubbly jaw clenching and his eyes hard.
Once he’d downed it in one and ordered another, he surveyed the other clientele and he figured now was the time to make his presence known. He glared at the barkeep and drawled, “I’ve been sent by Charlie. Know what I mean?”
The barkeep visibly quaked and said, “Yes...yes sir, I know sure... I do.”
“Right, then hear this,” Slim growled, beginning to quite enjoy the role play, “I’ve got a message from Charlie.”
“Yes...yes sir... I can tell folk; pass it on,” he said nodding vigorously.
“OK there will be a Meeting with Charlie and the boys at his Ma’s house this Friday at four sharp. All who are on the payroll hafta be there, no excuses...you got that?” Slim said casting the barkeep a dangerous look.
Without giving him a chance to reply, he reached over and grabbing his shirt pulled him up, just inches from his face, and glared at him, “I said, do you understand...huh? Because you know Charlie...he don’t like mistakes,” he finished, before dropping the little man. He shrank back jabbering that yes... of course he would relay the message.
Then Slim gave the other drinkers a menacing look before turning on his heel and leaving as quickly as he had arrived.
Grinning to himself he led Alamo down Main Street and tethered him in front of the Boarding House...But before he had a chance to knock on the door it was thrown open by Jess beaming at him and laughing, “Well howdy Slim...come to shoot up the town have ya?”
“What the hell are you still doing here?” Slim asked, but none the less beaming at him and pumping his hand in welcome.
“I’m just on my way pard...thought I’d stay and introduce you to Ma and then I’m off. I’m heading out on the back road, nobody will see me.”
Slim entered and Kate and Mort clapped and whistled, “An excellent performance,” said Mort chuckling. “If you were as scary in the saloon as you looked riding in, I guess folk are pretty damn terrified by now.”
Slim grinned back at his old friend, “It was kinda fun at that.”
Then Ma came in and Jess moved to her side, “Ma, this is my partner, Rocky Sherman,” Jess said, his eyes twinkling.
“Huh?” Slim and Mort asked in unison.
“Well, my nickname for ya is Hardrock... so I thought I’d shorten it to Rocky,” he said with a mischievous grin, “sounds a whole lot more menacing than Slim, dontcha think?”
“I’ll give you Rocky,” Slim said with a less than gentle clip around his ear, “get out of here Jess!”
Jess winked, kissed Kate and Ma on the cheek and left calling he’d see them at dawn on Friday....and then he was gone.

Chapter 27
True to his word Jess landed back early on the Friday morning. He left Traveller in the back yard. Then let himself in through the kitchen door and was sipping his second cup of coffee when Ma came down an hour or so later.
“Oh my, you gave me a shock,” she said recoiling when she entered to see Jess happily reading the local paper, hat tipped back at a jaunty angle and coffee cup in hand.
He jumped up quickly, “Sorry Ma, didn’t mean ta startle you...but I needed to get in place before the town was awake.”
“That’s alright dear. I remember now you said you’d be here at first light. Goodness I even left the door open for you.”
Then she sank down at the table and accepted the coffee he’d just poured for her. “I don’t know, I reckon my old memory is going,” she sighed with a weak grin.
“Well, I guess you’ve had a lot on your plate of late,” Jess said gently. “At least we’ll be out of your hair in a few days if all goes to plan,” he added apprehensively.
“You’ve got my list,” she said. “Of those ten folks there are at least four who won’t give you any trouble. They are the ones just scared for their lives. They work for Charlie because they didn’t have any choice; running scared see boy?”
Jess nodded, “So what about the other six then?”
“The one to watch is the guy who poses as a Sheriff if the law comes to town.”
“Ah yeah the Sheriff back in Billings told us you’d got a Sheriff; sure fooled him.”
She nodded, “Matt Parton, he’s a slimy devil Jess...you’ll need to watch him...a real fast draw too...fastest I’ve seen.”
“Go on who else on this list do we need to watch Ma?” Jess asked pulling it out of his vest pocket.
They pored over her neat handwriting and she pointed out the ring leaders.
“Here, Seth Downs...leader of the Council and a bully if ever there was one,” she said grimacing. “He’s in ... I should say, was in... Charlie’s confidence ...He was always nice as pie. Yes sir, no sir...But truth is Jess he was lining his own pocket. He was getting protection money out of folk, just because he was supposedly in well with the gang. Said if they paid him regular, he’d make sure Charlie and the boys left them alone.”
“The Hell he did,” Jess growled...thinking making money of the back of the Blakes was just as bad as being a gang member...and it sickened him...
He shook his head, “Anyone else in authority?”
“Why yes there’s Pete Harris, Seth’s deputy on the Council, he’s in league with Seth.”
Jess made a note on the list, “And the others?”
“Hugh Godley. He’s a gambler and general all-round bad lot. He hangs out in the saloon, pretending to be buddies with everyone...but in reality, he’s listening in and reporting back to my boys...least he used to,” she said suddenly looking tragic.
“Look Ma iffen this is upsetting you...?”
“No, it’s OK Jess. I just keep thinking they’re still here you know? They’ll walk in that door any minute cussing and demanding food,” and she shook her head sadly.
Then she took a deep breath and applied herself to the list once more.
“Alright...and then there is Ed Myers and his brother Luke. They run several scams...Latest one was that Charlie now owned the livery and the prices were going up...told the owner that he was dead meat if he said he hadn’t sold out to Charlie...and all along it was Ed Myers taking all the money...Charlie knew nothing about it.
“Hell, Ma couldn’t you tell folk?” Jess asked outraged.
She shook her head, “People around here won’t give me the time of day. Those that do show me friendship are usually only paying lip service to it. Too darned scared to blank me...But mostly folk don’t give anything I’d say any credence.”
“I’m sorry Ma,” he said regretfully.
“Yes, well I did my best. I went to Ed and told him I’d sussed out his little scam and... well I really wish I hadn’t,” she said ruefully.
He was suddenly alert, “Why so Ma?
She just sighed, “Like my Charlie he’s a tad too fast with his fists. He smacked me around some, said if I told Charlie, I’d get worse...well I’m too dang old for that kinda thing Jess, so I just let it go.”
Jess took a deep breath and got up from his chair and went to peer out into the yard, bathed in early morning sunshine.
“Jess...are you alright,” the elderly woman asked, coming over and placing a gentle hand on his arm.
He looked down at her and she saw his eyes were misty and full of compassion. He took another deep breath, “Yup Ma I’m OK. But I can tell ya one thing... that Ed Myers ain’t gonna be shortly...of that I can promise you.”
After breakfast Jess filled the others in on what Ma had told him.
“I sure can’t wait to git my hands on that Ed Myers and give him some of his own medicine,” he said bitterly.
Slim flicked Mort an anxious glance. But Mort merely said, “For once I really don’t blame you Jess.”
“Well, we have to arrest them first,” Slim said getting back to business, “so how’s this going to work then Mort?”
It was agreed that Slim would hold the meeting in Ma’s front parlor, whilst Kate, Mort and Jess listened from the adjacent kitchen. Then once Slim had managed to get as much evidence against the main ring leaders that he could, then the others would swoop in and make the arrests.
“I’m just kinda worried about Ma being in there, what if there’s any gun-play?” Jess asked anxiously.
“We’ll have the element of surprise on our side,” Mort said, “the only problem might be the guy with the fast draw...er...Matt Parton...Um or should I say ‘Sheriff’ Parton,” he added with a grim smile.
“Leave him to me,” Jess said. “Ma said he’s real fast, but like you say we’ll have surprise on our side.”
On the dot of four o’clock there was a loud rap on the front door and Ma was dispatched to show the men in.
Peering through a crack in the kitchen door Jess smiled to himself.
Slim stood before the fireplace, glass in hand and a forbidding look in his eyes. He was unshaven and his general appearance was disheveled. In fact, he looked every inch the diehard criminal he was aiming to portray Jess mused.
The men filed in and took seats around the room, but when Matt Parton, the alleged fast draw and bogus Sheriff sat beside Ma, Slim glared at him. He had been easy to spot as he was even sporting a Sheriff’s badge Slim noted wryly.
“Not there,” he growled gesturing with his thumb for Parton to move to a chair on the far side of the room well away from Ma.
Parton opened his mouth to argue, but the look of forbidding in Slim’ s steely glare quickly quelled him and he moved across the room albeit with plenty of eye rolling and sighing.
Once everyone was present Slim stood there weighing up the amassed company. Then the silence was broken by an ugly bruiser who said, “Well come on man, where’s Charlie, we haven’t got all day to waste.”
Slim threw him a look that would curdle the milk and said, “And you are?”
“Downs, Seth Downs Leader of the Council,” he said with obvious self-importance. “This here is Pete Harris, my Deputy. So, where’s Charlie huh?”
“He’ll be along all in good time,” Slim said gruffly. “I’m Slim Sherman his latest recruit and he’s asked me to ride in and get all the finances sorted out before he arrives. Seems like he’ll have more important stuff on his mind,” he added.
A smallish rat faced man sniggered, “I had heard he was gonna wed that showy piece, Molly Harper, nice little figure on her. I wouldn’t mind a go at that one myself.”
In the kitchen Mort felt Jess tense up and threw him a warning glance.
“Shut your filthy mouth,” Slim snarled. “We’re here to discuss business not the boss’s love life.”
“Yeah, shut up Hugh,” Parton muttered, “let’s get down to business.”
Slim threw Hugh Godley a dark look. So, he was the no hoper gambler who listened in to folk’s private conversations in the saloon and passed information on...he looked the part Slim thought.
He cleared his throat, “I’ve got a list of duties and names here,” he said waving a piece of paper at them. “I just need to check you’ve all completed your tasks of uh...extracting er...donations, from the towns folk and I believe the going rate is that you all receive fifty percent of what you make from the people and the rest goes to Charlie, right?”
“Ha...and some of us make a great deal more don’t we Myers?” Seth Downs, from the Council said evilly. “Don’t think I don’t know about your little scam over at the livery. I very much doubt Charlie will see any of the money you’re making for yourself over there.”
“Well, I sure ain’t seen a cent, since he took my business over,” muttered the livery owner sadly...but everyone ignored him.
“Well at least I don’t run a protection racket,” Ed Myers countered, “you must be making a pretty penny out of that.”
Slim’ s head whipped around and he saw the bulky form of Ed Myers and his kid brother looking on angrily. So that was the woman beater he thought, well I sure hope Jess doesn’t hold back any.
“Gentlemen can we just keep with the business in hand,” Slim spat angrily.
The paper containing all the unlawful practices carried out by those present, was waved in the air to attract their attention. Thank goodness Ma had a finger on the pulse and knew all the nasty little money-making crimes they were guilty of committing; along with bullying and actual bodily harm in many cases.
“So, let’s start with you Parton...impersonating an officer of the law...demanding money with menaces from town’s folk for wages and upkeep of the Sheriff’s office. Is that correct?”
“Nice one,” Myers muttered, “seeing as he’s probably only had to play Sheriff once in the last twelve months...when that idiot Sheriff from Billings called in.”
“Alright, I don’t need chapter and verse,” Slim growled. He named a figure, “So that was the income and you get fifty percent, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Parton almost proudly. “Got extra this year too, put the frighteners on that new family who just moved in. I had the young widow in tears sayin’ as how her kids would have to be real careful...How this was kind of a dangerous town. Hell, she couldn’t wait to pay up.”
Slim tensed and took a deep breath before pinning a smile on his face, “Well done, Charlie will be real impressed,” he said before moving onto the next.
Back in the kitchen Jess was having his work cut out not to explode into the room there and then and floor the lot of them, but Mort whispered for him to take it easy and continued to make hurried notes.
“We need all this as evidence Jess,” he muttered, “just bide yer time huh?”

Chapter 28
It was over an hour later when Slim had finally worked his way through all the terrible atrocities the men had carried out in Charlie’s name. The six ring leaders were happy to boast of their success in extracting money with menaces from the innocent and sorely tried town’s folk. Many tales of bullying and harassment of the vulnerable and weak came out and made Slim’ s blood boil. In fact, he expected his pard to storm in at any minute and lay into the miscreants.
However, when he turned his attention to the remaining four men there was a different story altogether. The Bank Manager, Mercantile owner, ex-Livery owner and coffee shop manager were all equally reluctant to record their tales of extortion. Indeed, one and all were shame faced and embarrassed.
When it came to the time for Slim to total up their fifty percent, the Bank manager stood up and asked to speak.
Slim nodded and the little man glanced around him before eyeing Slim squarely and taking a deep breath.
“The fact of the matter is ...me and my friends here,” he said nodding to the other three towns folk... well we don’t want our fifty percent. We want no part of Charlie and his money-making scams. Oh, we’ll keep on working for him,” he said quickly. “We’re all too dang scared for our loved ones not to. We can’t leave town either. I guess we know too much,” he added wryly. “But we want you to know...and the rest of you too dang it,” he said casting an angry look at the six other men, “we want you all to know we’re only here because we’ve no choice. So, you can keep your money,” he said quietly and he sat down again...to a rising cheer from his friends.
Then all hell broke loose with the six ringleaders goading the others...and then Slim yelled for order.
At that very moment the kitchen door flew open admitting Mort, Kate and Jess.
The whole group turned as one to stare in shock at the interlopers.
The bogus Sheriff Parton was the first to react, drawing his gun, but Jess was faster and had him covered in the blink of an eye, “Throw it down right now mister or I’ll drop ya where you stand,” Jess snarled.
Parton dropped his weapon like it was red hot and stared in horror as realization of the situation suddenly hit him...they’d all been set up...real good.
Then Mort trained his rifle on the amassed company.
“Right, you can all drop your weapons and hit the deck,” he said, the authority in his voice leaving no call for argument and they all did as bid instantly.
Once on the ground Parton squinted up at Slim and growled, “Who the hell are you anyways?”
Slim pulled his vest back revealing a tin star, “Deputy Sherman,” he said and this is Sheriff Mort Cory of Laramie, Deputy Kate Munroe and Deputy Harper and you my friend are under arrest!”
Then Mort took over and in no time had all the men with their hands tied and ready for the short walk across the street to the Sheriff’s Office. He deliberately sent Kate across first with the four reluctant criminals, after assuring them they would be dealt with fairly. Then he and Slim got ready to accompany the others, apart from Ed Myers.
“Uh you bring this last one over will ya Jess?” Mort said with a wicked twinkle in his eyes, before turning and pushing the council leader and other miscreants roughly out of the room.
Ed Myers went to follow on, but Jess tapped him on the shoulder.
“Just a minute Myers, got somethin’ for ya,” Jess said.
Then as he turned to face him Jess swung a punch that sent him flying clear across the room. He fell in a heap looking up at Jess with fearful eyes; a trickle of blood running down his chin.
“What was that for?” he muttered.
“That,” said Jess furiously, “was for Ma. See old ladies like her ain’t too handy with their fists, can’t fight back see Myers... but you’d know that wouldn’t you!”
Myers looked away quickly, guilt written all over his face, but when he looked up again the guilt turned to dread as Jess advanced upon him.
He withdrew his hunting knife from his boot and looked down at where Myers lay now shaking uncontrollably. “Wha...what are you going to do?” he almost squeaked.
Jess ignored the question and merely said, “Put yer hands out.”
Trembling Myers raised his tied hands in front of him.
Jess stared him in the eyes for several long minutes and then with a quick slash of his knife severed the rope binding Myers hands.
The lanky man’s eyebrows shot up in shocked surprise, “Are you lettin’ me go?” he whispered hardly daring to believe his luck.
Jess gave him a weary smile, “Oh no... I’m just givin’ ya a chance to defend yerself. See it’s no fun punching the guts out of a guy iffen he can’t fight back. Hell, that’s no fun at all,” he said squaring up to the other. “Come on then Myers … you never know, you might just get lucky and escape after all. Or is it just little old ladies you beat up on...huh?”
It was a good clean fight Ma said afterwards, but it was a foregone conclusion that Jess would wipe the floor with Myers. Sure, he fought back real good she reported to Mort and Kate later, but he was never going to thrash Jess. Then with a rare smile she’d said, “Jeez can that boy fight, like watching one of those circus acrobats,” she had said shaking her head and chuckling. “He’s so darned fast on his feet, ducking and diving. The power of those fists...Myers didn’t stand a chance,” and she chuckled once more. “I guess he won’t be hitting old ladies again anytime soon,” she added.
Once Myers had been laid out cold Jess threw a tumbler of cold water over him. Then when he had finally managed to get up, he was marched over to the jail.
Slim, Kate and Mort were all waiting expectantly for his arrival; a knowing look in their eyes.
Jess pushed the prisoner into the office where he stood shaking and staring around him in a daze.
“Resisted arrest,” Jess said with a cheerful grin, “had to restrain him some Sheriff.”
Mort looked at the prisoner and noted his knuckles were bleeding from a fight and also that Jess was sporting a busted lip and he smiled.
“I can see that Deputy, thank you,” and he merely pushed Myers into one of the cells.
Then he turned to his friends and said, “Thank you one and all, I think this concludes our business for today. I’ll just go and wire the Billings Sheriff with the good news and ask the circuit judge to attend as soon as he can,” and he marched off looking as happy as a dog with two tails.

The judge made it to town in record time. The results of the trial were a foregone conclusion with the main ringleaders receiving long custodial sentences. The others though received much less severe punishment due to the circumstances. The judge understood that most of them had been led to work for the gang as they feared for their lives and those of their loved ones and this was taken into account.
The judge also showed compassion towards Ma. Indeed, he said as long as she promised to keep the peace, she would not receive any custodial sentence. She was completely overwhelmed by his generosity and from that day forwards she made it her life’s work to help those in need. Often offering free bed and food to those who had hit hard times, nursing the sick and generally doing good works.
Mort and Kate had said their farewells to Slim and Jess as they had decided to stay on in town for a further week or so to enjoy some down time alone together.
Now Jess and Slim were on the way home and had camped for the night by a fast-flowing river. It was early morning the following day and they sat sipping a coffee after enjoying a good breakfast.
Slim had noted that Jess had been uncharacteristically quiet since they set off for home and now as he watched him looking out to the distant mountains, he saw the sadness in his eyes.
“Any regrets Jess?” he asked softly.
“You know about not sticking with your kin...the way Molly wanted you to? Setting up a new life in Canada?”
He was silent for a while, still looking off to the middle distance and then he turned back to Slim.
“Well, I guess you got the short straw as far as that’s concerned Pard.” he said softly.
Slim’ s eyes opened wide in shock, “What you mean you’ve changed your mind, you are going back to Canada?”
Jess’s face broke into a grin at that, “Nah... I mean you’re lumbered with me for the foreseeable future,” he said chuckling now.
Slim saw the joke at once and punched his buddy lightly on the shoulder, “I guess I can live with that,” he said grinning back at him. Then more quietly, “It must have been hard though Jess huh?”
He sobered quickly and nodded, “Sure it was. Those kids of Wade’s are great ain’t they”? He said every inch the proud Uncle.
Slim nodded, “Yup a credit to him, Molly too.”
“But I couldn’t have stayed,” Jess continued, “I guess in the end... my new family... you, Daisy and Mike means even more to me than blood ties...and Millie of course...no way could I think of leavin’ her.”
Slim was too moved to reply and realizing that Jess went on quickly, “Anyways I can go visit and young Zac can come and stay with us when he’s older, huh.”
“Sure...sure he can,” said Slim now having recovered, “and you can teach him all you know about horse breaking.”
Jess smiled and turned to his buddy, “I’ve missed that... it’ll be good to get back home again won’t it.”
Slim nodded and then said with a wink, “That’s if we’re still needed there. The way Mike and Andy were talking we could well be out of a job. They reckoned that they could run the place a whole lot better than we do!”
“They did huh,” Jess said grinning and knocking back the remains of his coffee in one.
“Well come on then Pard what are ya waiting for, let’s get home,” he said leaping up and making for Traveller, “I reckon we’ve been gone way too long.”
“Amen to that,” Slim said jumping up and following his buddy, a happy grin on his handsome face. Home the best word in the world he thought to himself.

The End
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