#90 The Reluctant Bride

The Reluctant Bride
Patty Wilkinson

For my dear friend and Beta Reader Extraordinaire Bertie Whiskin on the occasion of my 90th Story!

(Some adult themes, strong language and violence)

Chapter 1

Dawn was breaking at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and Mrs Daisy Cooper, the housekeeper, made her way quietly across the parlor and began to rake the embers of the fire into life. She shivered a little and looked out at the white wilderness beyond the window. More snow had fallen overnight she noted.
Once she was satisfied there was a good blaze going in the parlor fireplace, she made her way into the freezing kitchen and rolling her sleeves up lit the cook-stove and began preparing breakfast.
In the bedroom on the other side of the ranch house Slim Sherman awoke and stretched languidly; listening to the comforting sounds of Daisy rattling the pans in the kitchen.
Then he glanced over at his pard Jess Harper, still fast asleep in the other bed. His bedding was in the usual disarray after another night of dreams. Jess himself lay spread-eagle on his stomach across the bed his face hidden in the depths of his pillow.
Slim got up and padded across the room and proceeded to wash up, shave and dress before returning to look down at his friend.
“Hey Jess wake up,” he said, “breakfast’s on.”
When Jess lay there unmoving Slim shook him none too gently, “Wake up…time to rise and shine,” he yelled in his ear.
This provoked a muttered curse as Jess shifted position and pulled the blanket more closely around him.
“Jess come on, snows down and the chores are going to take forever,” Slim said forcefully, “git up darn you!”
Jess muttered something very rude and physically impossible, making Slim chuckle and slap him hard on his naked back, “Save the insults just get up huh buddy...I’ll go pour you a coffee,” and with that he left the room shaking his head and smiling.
Daisy greeted him with a loving smile as he entered the kitchen, “Good morning Slim dear. Could you just go and milk the cow, we seem to be right out,” she added apologetically.
He nodded and donning his warm coat made his way across to the barn.
When he returned, Mike, their blond headed young ward, was seated at the breakfast table along with Daisy who was pouring out the coffee.
“Jess isn’t up yet,” she said as Slim entered.
He rolled his eyes, “Still in the land of nod, I guess. I swear he’s getting harder to wake up the older he gets...and ornerier too,” he added, marching over to the bedroom door.
“Jess get your sorry hide out here this minute or so help me I’ll...” then turning to see Mike watching him with interest, added weakly, “or I’ll be real mad at you.”
Daisy chuckled and said quietly, “That’s telling him.”
Slim came back to the table and gave her a rueful smile and said softly, “I guess little ears don’t need to hear what I’d really like to do to him.”
“Aw Slim you’re no fun,” Mike piped up causing Daisy and Slim to laugh out loud.
Slim ruffled the youngster’s hair and said, “You don’t miss a trick do you Tiger.”
However, before the child could reply the bedroom door creaked open and Jess wandered out.

He was unwashed, unshaven and his shirt was in disarray hanging loose outside his pants and only partly fastened exposing his muscular tanned torso.
“Jess,” Slim said now clearly irritated, “what sort of example is that to set for Mike?”
Jess turned bleary eyes on him, “Huh?”
“You, the state you’re in,” Slim said sharply.
“Uh...oh right,” and he buttoned his shirt up and made a half-hearted attempt at tucking it in before collapsing in his seat and eyeing his coffee cup.
“Darn it Jess you look like you’ve had a night on the whiskey,” Slim said eyeing his partner irritably.
“So have ya?” Mike asked with curiosity.
“No, I ain’t,” Jess said morosely, “and shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?” He added.
“Nope I don’t reckon the Stage will make it today,” the child said happily, ignoring Jess’s rebuke, knowing he didn’t mean to be unkind.
Heck Jess was his best friend in the whole world. But the youngster was well aware that often he wasn’t at his best in the mornings and viewed the matter philosophically.
Daisy smiled across at the dark headed young cowboy, who she loved like a son, and said, “I’ll get your breakfast dear.”
However, she was surprised when Jess shot out a hand to stop her rising, “I ain’t hungry thanks Daisy.”
He sat crouched over his coffee cup, taking the occasional sip and looking the picture of misery.
“Why whatever is the matter dear are you sick?” she asked looking anxious.
Jess flicked a glance in her direction, knowing it was useless to lie.
“Felt better,” he admitted.
She immediately rose and ran a professional hand across his brow and tutted, “You’re very warm dear, I think maybe you should go back to bed, for a while at least.”
“I’m OK,” he said stoically, but then a few minutes later he started coughing....and now Slim turned worried eyes on him.
“Daisy’s right,” he said quietly, “I think maybe you’ve picked up a chill after that soaking you got yesterday. You were out for hours in that bitter cold wind and snow.”
“Yeah, well the dang fence had to be mended didn’t it,” he retaliated, “what with those darned beeves makin’ fer the blue yonder,” he growled before another coughing fit hit him.
“Come on Hotshot...bed,” Slim said getting up from the table and assisting Jess up, “and you stay there until you’re feeling better. Mike and I can run the place for few days can’t we Tiger?”
“You bet!”
Once back in his bed Jess stretched out wearily...and Slim noted how pale and drawn he looked.
Jess squinted up at him and said gruffly, “Will ya stop lookin’ at me that way.”
“What way would that be?” Slim asked a twinkle in his eye now.
“Like yer measuring me up fer a coffin ...it’s only a dang cough Slim.”
“I know, I just can’t help remembering how sick you were last winter with that darned lung fever though,” Slim said quietly.
Jess merely flapped a hand at him, “Quit diggin’ bullets out of me before I’ve been shot dang it. Just leave me to sleep huh...I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Once Jess settled down to sleep, Slim returned to the breakfast table looking troubled.
“This is all my fault Daisy,” he said looking sheepish, “I should have gone and helped him. But I just had to get the end of month returns sorted out for the Stage-line. You know how strict they are lately.”
She shook her head sadly, “It’s not your fault dear. I think we forget how sick Jess was with the lung fever last year. Doc Sam was worried it would make him prone to chest ailments. But well, he’s always so strong and fit. The way he’s faced all those gunshot wounds so bravely, in the past... you don’t expect the freezing cold Wyoming weather to be his downfall.”
“I guess not. I thought he was getting better acclimatized. Gee you should have heard the fuss he used to make about the weather when he first landed,” he said chuckling at the memory.
“Well, I love it,” Mike stated brightly. Then turning to Daisy said, “Can I go up the hill and make a snowman Aunt Daisy...can I please!”
Daisy flicked a glance over to the time piece on the mantle and said, “Well it doesn’t look like the early Stage is going to make it, so I don’t see why not. But you must do a little school work after lunch though,” she added, smiling as the child jumped down from the table and whooped around the room in delight.
“So why up on the Lonesome Pine hill Mike?” Slim asked, referring to the steep hill just behind the ranch house.
“Because it’s the highest place nearby and my snowman will be seen from the Laramie Road,” he said proudly.
Slim smiled down at the youngster, “Just help me with the chores first, seeing as Jess is sick...OK? “
The child nodded vigorously, “Sure come on Slim. Let’s get to it,” he said racing to the peg for his hat and coat.
“If only Jess was that enthusiastic about work in the morning,” he said winking at Daisy.
She smiled back, “I’ll go and make him some hot lemon and honey for that cough....and you two wrap up warmly, we don’t want any more chills,” she added firmly.

The morning passed swiftly. Once the chores were completed Mike ran off up the hill to make his snowman and Slim retired to the warmth of the barn to mend some tack. He was beginning to think lunch was kinda late and he’d just decided to go in the house and see how Daisy was doing with the preparations when Mike came hurtling down the hill and into the barn.
“Come quick Slim, I saw the Stage from up the hill coming down the Laramie Road, but there’s something wrong. It’s going awful slow and it looks like Mose is leading the team.”
Slim threw down the bridle he was working on and went and joined Mike in the yard. Then a few minutes later the Stage came slowly down the rise, with Mose trudging through the deep snow looking pained.
Slim ran to meet him, “Hey Mose what’s up? Had some trouble?” he asked anxiously.
“Too darned right I have,” the old timer said. “We made it most of the way from Cheyenne OK. Then dang me iffen I didn’t hit this darned rock hidden in a snowdrift Buckled the front wheel real bad...lucky it didn’t come off I guess. I’d tried to get to Laramie see, but the road is completely blocked between here and town, so I had to turn back. That’s when I hit the rock. Passengers ain’t any too happy,” he added, “but what’s a guy to do...huh Slim?”
“Well, I reckon you went way beyond the call of duty turning out at all on a day like this,” Slim said stoutly, “you must be fair exhausted Mose, cold and hungry too huh?”
Mose gave a gummy grin, “I sure am Slim, if there’s any of Miss Daisy’s cooking going, I wouldn’t say no.”
“When did you ever,” Slim said grinning at the old rascal. Then he turned his eyes to the heavens, “It doesn’t look like you’ll be going anyplace for a day or so anyway, with the road blocked and more snow to come. So, I guess you can fill yer boots, as Jess would say,” he chuckled.
“Uh, so where is he? I thought he’d be off snow balling  with the boy,” Mose said turning and grinning at Mike.
“Nope he’s sick...got a real bad chest,” Slim said sorrowfully. But before he could say more, he was alerted by an angry cry from the Stage.
“Excuse me my good man, but are we to sit in here freezing for the rest of the day?” An exasperated voice asked.
Slim raised a questioning eyebrow to Mose.
“That’ll be la de da Ma Henrietta Molesworth,” Mose said rolling his eyes, “She’s kinda difficult.”
“Great,” muttered Slim, pinning a smile on his face and making for the Stagecoach door.
Yanking it open he gave the shrewd looking late middle-aged woman his most charming smile and said, “My apologies Ma’am...uh Mrs Molesworth...welcome to the Sherman Relay Station, you’ll be our guest for a little while it seems,” he added.
She allowed herself to be handed down and then giving Slim the full benefit of the Molesworth frown, her grey eyes positively icy, she said, “Widow Molesworth my good man...and we shan’t be staying; we have important business in Laramie... So just mend this confounded vehicle and we’ll be on our way!”
Slim just gaped at this onslaught, but before he could reply a dark-haired girl emerged from the Stage and said, “Oh Mama, don’t take on so. I’m sure the dear man is doing his best,” she added beaming at Slim.
Slim was once more completely confounded, “Uh Miss?” he asked when he finally found his voice.
“Miss Molesworth,” she replied breathily, leaning forwards and offering a dainty gloved hand... “Miss Gilly Molesworth...with a G,” she added for good measure.
“Delighted,” Slim muttered, looking anything but, and taking in the rather alarming younger version of the Widow Molesworth. She was homely rather than pretty with her mother’s tight lips and steely grey eyes. Although these were now twinkling eagerly in Slim’ s direction as she still held onto his hand.
Slim felt slightly wrong footed and removing his hand gave her a weak smile before turning to see yet another passenger about to alight.
“Ladies, Mose you get on inside, out of the cold, Miss Daisy will attend to you,” he said with another weak smile before turning his attention back to the coach.
A stern faced; tall lanky Padre now peered anxiously around him before making a beeline for Slim.
“Bless you sir, am I to understand we are to be stranded here?” he asked in alarm.
“Well, uh, not stranded exactly,” Slim said trying to jolly the agitated man along some. “But yes, I’m afraid you will have to stay a little while until the weather settles and we can get this wheel fixed too.”
“I see, I’m on my way to visit the Reverend Wesley in Laramie, do you know him at all?”
“Oh yes,” said Slim smiling genuinely now, “Joshua and his wife Mary are good friends, you know them well?”
“Yes, we were colleagues back in Philadelphia. I haven’t seen them since they moved out here though,” he added... “My name is Jenkins... Reverend Bill Jenkins at your service.”
Before Slim could respond he heard a loud cough behind him and spun around to see the final passenger had alighted from the coach. He was now standing glaring at Slim with ill-concealed impatience.
He was tall and broad with dark forbidding eyes. Dressed all in black and with a low-slung iron, tied down he looked every inch a gunslinger or bounty hunter... Even as Slim watched he noted the way the edgy looking man rested his hand on his Colt.45 as though just itching for an excuse to draw.
Now he moved forwards and cussing pushed the Padre roughly aside.
“Are you in charge here?” he asked glaring at Slim.
“I am, yes. Slim Sherman, I own this spread,” said Slim stoutly, “And I’d ask you to treat the other passengers with some respect!”
He raised an eyebrow at Slim’ s rebuke, but decided to let it go for now.
“Sorry,” he said patting the Padre on the back, “why don’t you toddle off inside and leave me and Sherman here to talk huh?”
Once the padre had left with a shrug, the man in black turned to Slim and said, “How long then Sherman? I can’t stay here, got me some important business.”
“Well, I’ll tell you Mr…?”
“Huh...oh uh Brown...Carl Brown,” the other said with a sarcastic smile.
“Well, ‘Mr...er... Brown’” Slim said the disbelief clear in his tone, “it depends on the weather. The way this northerly is blowing in, it could be a few days...could be longer.”
“Well, that’s no damn good to me! I’ve gotta be off. So, you got a good horse I can buy?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope I haven’t. Even if I did, I wouldn’t send any horse out in these weather conditions. It’s due to get a lot worse before it gets better,” he added smugly.
“Is that so?” Brown asked, again caressing his gun. “No horses? I thought this was supposed to be a dang ranch.”
“None for sale,” Slim said again firmly. “Of course, you could always walk the twelve miles to town...you might just make it,” he added with a grim smile.
“God damn it!” Brown yelled.
Then, “So you got grub on in there?” he asked tipping his head to the ranch house.
Slim nodded and Brown turned to walk over, but Slim shot out a hand to haul him back.
Brown looked down at Slim’ s restraining hand and then up into his eyes before wrenching himself free.
“What now?” he cried angrily.
“You go in there...you watch your mouth,” Slim growled. “There’s an elderly lady and a youngster at home and I don’t want you upsetting them, got that?”
Brown nodded, “Sure...whatever,” and he marched across the porch followed by Slim.
As Daisy was still finishing cooking the extra meals Slim took Mose off to help him unhitch the team. Then the old timer scratched his head and said, “Darn it I nearly forgot Slim. I’ve got a strong box up under the seat.”
Slim clambered up and threw down the hefty box.
“What you got then Mose? “
“Bank Notes and some bullion bound for the Laramie Bank. Quite a haul there Slim, we need to put it someplace real safe.”
As they lugged the heavy chest indoors Slim noted the interest it generated in Brown’s eyes. But the others hardly registered his presence as they were now tucking into Daisy’s good repast.
“In here,” Slim said quickly as he opened his bedroom door and pushed Mose and the strong box inside.
As the door closed behind them Jess awoke from a restless sleep and looked up in surprise...but quickly collected his wits.
“Well, howdy Mose, I guess I ain’t dressed for visitors,” he said as the sheets fell away to expose his naked torso and he gave a laugh, which quickly turned into a violent cough.
“Mornin’ son,” Mose said plumping himself down on the edge of the bed. “Slim said you were sick. You can’t take our northerly weather huh? Uh-huh, you sure do look real poorly,” he added cheerfully.
Jess rolled his eyes at Mose and turning to Slim asked, “What’s going on Pard?”
“Stage is snowed in with four passengers,” Slim said succinctly. “Plus, this cash delivery for the bank and I figured it would be safer in here with you Jess. I guess you can still aim your gun, cough or no cough huh?” he added wryly.
“Safe from who exactly,” Jess asked sitting up and taking an interest.
Slim shook his head, “A guy out there says he’s called Brown. I don’t like the look of him Jess, looks like he should be on a Wanted Poster...either that or he’s a Bounty Hunter...either way I don’t trust him.”
“Want me to git up, give you a hand?” Jess asked.
Slim looked over at his bleary eyed pard, his face now flushed from a slight fever...and again that awful cough.
“Nope,” he said quickly, “I think it would be better if you stayed put for now. Just watch that money and keep an ear cocked. If I need help, I’ll holler, OK?”
He and Mose left but a few minutes later Slim returned. Closing the door quietly behind him he removed Jess’s gun from where he’d secreted it beneath his vest.
“So, why all the secrecy?” Jess asked accepting his iron and placing it carefully beneath his pillow.
“I didn’t want to worry Daisy. Besides I was kinda hoping that Brown didn’t get wind of the fact that there was another man here, could be useful if he starts anything out there,” he said tipping his head towards the door.
“Well good luck with that one,” Jess said dryly, “because I’ll lay odds on Mose having already given everyone out there, chapter and verse about me coughin’ my guts up and looking real poorly,” he said with a lopsided grin.

Chapter 2
It was later that night when Slim finally turned, in that Jess was to hear more of their guests.
“So where have they all bedded down,” he asked with interest. “In fact, who are the others… you didn’t say?”
Slim sighed and sank down on his bed, “How long have you got,” he asked wearily.
“Oh, as long as it takes,” Jess said stretching out and grinning at his pard.
“You’re looking better.”
“Feel it, figure I’ll get up tomorrow and lend you a hand.”
“Um, well I doubt Miss Daisy will let you out to do any yard chores with that cough, but I guess she could sure use a hand looking after all our guests.”
Jess didn’t look any too enthusiastic about that and merely said, “OK spill then...who are the others apart from this Brown guy?”
“Well, there’s a real ornery widow woman and her daughter.”
Jess’s eyes lit up at the sound of a daughter, “So ...is she pretty?”
“Not so as you’d notice...takes after her Ma, she’s kinda homely, and her Ma’s temperament, he sighed, “well she’s sorta shrew like you know?”
Jess shook his head.
“Well tight lipped, eyes that sorta bore into you, or freeze you out and a temper that makes you look like a pussy cat.”
Jess took all this in, “What the daughter too?”
“Oh no she tries to be real charming. In fact, she tries too darned hard,” he added looking slightly haunted...remembering how she had watched him so intently over supper. She’d hung on his every word and frequently said how wonderful running a Relay Station must be, with much exaggerated eye widening and little gasps of delight at anything he said.
Now he shook his head, “I guess she’ll turn into her Ma eventually though,” he concluded, “most girls do don’t they.”
Jess considered that and thought about his girl Millie’s dear Ma, Peggy Johnson and smiled, “Well that ain’t always so bad, is it?” he said.
“Uh, depends on the Ma,” Slim said dryly.
“I guess, so where are they all sleepin’?”
“The women folk next door in Mike’s room, he’s bunking down with Daisy, Mose, Brown and the Padre out in the bunkhouse.”
“A Padre, huh?”
“Yeah, a nice enough guy I suppose. A friend of Josh Wesley...but there’s something not quite right about him.”
“Oh, so what are you sayin’? Do you think he’s an Outlaw too, in disguise maybe?” Jess asked with a chuckle.
“Nope, I don’t mean it that way. He’s just…oh I don’t know...kind of jumpy...ill at ease. He doesn’t seem to have that sort of strength and inner peace you usually associate with men of the cloth,” he finished, “know what I mean?”
Jess just shrugged, “It takes all sorts I suppose.”
Then their exchange was interrupted by a strange noise from the room next door. It sounded like something between a rusty gate opening and then old Harpy the donkey sounding off.
“What the hell is that?” Jess asked looking alarmed.
“That,” said Slim with a grimace “is the daughter laughing.”
“The hell it is,” gasped Jess...and then somewhere in his brain a distant memory stirred and he sat bolt upright looking horrified, “This woman...the Widow, what’s her name?”
Slim frowned, “It’s Mrs Molesworth... Henrietta Molesworth I think Mose said and the daughter is Gilly Molesworth.”
“Gilly with a G,” Jess said despairingly.
“Yeah, that’s right, but how did you know?” Slim asked looking surprised.
“Oh, I know her alight,” Jess said quietly.
“Well go on then,” Slim said, “let’s hear it.”
“You remember that time a couple of years ago when I delivered that little Palomino mare, I’d broke to a ranch just north of Cheyenne?”
“Sure, the Bar T wasn’t it...and the buyer was...” then Slim snapped his fingers, “That’s right Wilber Molesworth.”
Jess nodded his face registering disquiet at the memory.
“You had to stay a couple of nights because Traveller came up lame didn’t you,” Slim added, “and wasn’t there some kind of trouble? I remember you were real shook up when you landed home...you never did say why.”
“No, I didn’t,” Jess agreed. “So, uh, do they know I’m here? Did Mose say anything about me?”
“No, I caught him in time...warned Daisy and Mike too. Said not to mention you were in here, so no worries there.”
“Thank goodness for that,” Jess said exhaling a deep breath.
“So, you and Widow Molesworth don’t get on too well?” Slim asked expecting Jess to tell all.
“Not so as you’d notice,” Jess said gruffly.
Slim waited, but when it became clear Jess wasn’t about to enlighten him anytime soon, he got up and wandered off to get ready for bed.
Once he was in his bed, he glanced over at his buddy who was still lying there like he’d just seen a very forbidding ghost.
“Oh well you’ll be able to renew your acquaintance tomorrow,” Slim said cheerfully, “seeing as how you’re feeling so much better,” he added.
Jess rolled his head on the pillow towards his buddy and said quietly, “I think I just had a relapse Slim...don’t think I’ll be able to get up tomorrow.”
Slim hid a smile and said, “Night Jess,” before turning over and falling asleep instantly.
But Jess lay awake late into the night reliving that time over two years ago when he had first clapped eyes on Miss Gilly Molesworth and her family.

He had ridden into Cheyenne town late one morning and making for the saloon he slaked his thirst with a good cold beer. Then he turned to the barkeep and said, “Can you give me directions for the Bar T... someplace north of here...family named...uh Molesworth?”
The bar was quiet and the barkeep inclined to talk so he continued polishing his glasses and said, “Sure it’s about a couple of miles out of town, down a track to the left near a big pine, can’t miss it.” Then leaning on the bar said, “So what do you want with the Mole then friend?”
“Huh...the Mole?”
“Ha, yeah that’s old Molesworth’ s nick name around here...we all figure he’s been tryin’ to tunnel his way out of that place and escape his Mrs for years,” he said with a boisterous laugh. “Hen pecked you see.”
Jess grinned back, “She’s that bad, is she?”
“Worse...could nag for the State. Leads poor old Wilber a dog’s life...and the daughter ain’t much better by all accounts.”
“Yeah, she ain’t spiteful like her Ma, just man mad. All she wants is to git married and escape like her Pa,” he said chuckling again, “but I figure she’s left it kinda late, up on the shelf see. So, what’s yer business there then friend?”
“I’m just delivering a horse won’t be staying long.”
“Uh well make sure you see the money up front,” was his parting shot, “word is money’s kinda tight there... old Ma Molesworth sees to that,” he added shaking his head.
Jess rode out of town a little later and was within a mile of the ranch when Traveller came up lame. The old track to the ranch was badly potholed and areas were quite steep and it was on one of these banks that the shale path gave way causing Traveller to slip badly and pull a muscle.
Jess cussed and dismounted at once...bending to examine the damaged leg, before fondling his mounts ears. “Poor old boy I guess that hurts some,” he said softly. Then taking a deep breath he proceeded to lead both horses carefully down the track on to the Bar T.
He had no sooner arrived than a small middle-aged man scuttled out of the ranch house to meet him.
“Ah, Mister Harper, he said eyeing Jess up and down, “you’re younger than I expected.”
Jess took this as some sort of rebuke, but merely shook the outreached hand and said, “Maybe sir, but I’ve a good few years of horse breaking under my belt, I don’t think you’ll find any problems with the mare.”
“Oh, I’m sure not,” he said hurriedly admiring the pretty Palomino. “It’s just that we don’t see many suitable...uh... I mean any young folk around here, a real treat. My Gilly will be thrilled to have a youngster of her own age to chat to. Uh you will stay a while?” he asked suddenly looking anxious.
Jess was still reeling from being described as a youngster, but quickly pulled himself together.
“Yes sir. Actually, I was wondering if I could stay a couple of days. My horse came up lame down the track. I’d like him to rest up before I head back. Maybe you’ve got a bunk house...or a barn I could stay in?” he said vaguely looking around him at the somewhat rundown yard.
“Nonsense young man we’ve plenty of room in the house. I’m sure my wife, Henrietta will be delighted for you to stay...as long as you like. Once she sees you,” he added, again casting his eye over Jess from head to toe.
Jess wondered why he was beginning to feel something akin to a prize bull in the auction ring...but then his attention was taken by a high-pitched shriek.
“Wilber... Wilber where are you? Always off someplace,” the nagging voice continued and then a plump woman came into view around the side of the house. But she stopped short when she saw Jess and then marched over with her face wreathed in welcoming smiles.
“Oh my, so who do we have here, Wilber?” she asked in a suddenly syrupy voice... looking coyly up at Jess.
Mr Molesworth introduced him and she too weighed him up. Obviously very happy with what she was seeing she said, “You must come in at once and meet my dear Gilly. That’s Gilly with a G,” she added, “so much classier than a J don’t you think young man?”
Jess just stood there gaping at her.
“Come along my dear... don’t be shy,” she added grabbing Jess shirt sleeve, “Gilly will be absolutely delighted to meet you!”
Jess reluctantly entered the house thinking he should try to be accommodating, although he really wanted to go and tend Traveller’s injured leg.
He figured he’d just say hello, pick up the cash for the horse and then go find someplace to lay his head, the barn being favorite. But he hadn’t come up against the likes of Henrietta Molesworth and her daughter before that was for sure.
He was amazed on entering the rather rundown ranch house to find the interior completely different. No expense had been spared on the décor from the swish velvet drapes to the modern expensive couch set before a large imposing fireplace. To the left was a glass cabinet containing several ornate china dolls, all looking balefully out into the room. Jess stared at them with distaste thinking they looked kinda creepy, but Ma Molesworth followed his line of vision and sidled up beside him.
“I see you’ve discovered my Gilly’s passion for dolls,” she said, “she really can’t wait to be a mama herself now of course,” she said sweetly, peering up at Jess.
Jess ran a finger around his shirt collar thinking it had suddenly gotten kind of warm in there.
“So, she’s getting married soon then?” He asked hopefully.
“Oh, not just yet, but I’ve a feeling she will be really soon dear,” Ma Molesworth replied with a sickly grin in his direction.
Jess cleared his throat, “Uh about the payment Mr Molesworth?”
“Oh yes of course, come into my study.”
“Once you’ve done your business do come back into the parlor Mister Harper,” Mrs Molesworth trilled, “Gilly is just getting changed. She wants to look her best for you.”
Once the transaction was completed Jess heaved a sigh of relief. Just his horse to tend to...maybe a bite of supper and he could escape to the barn.
Mrs Molesworth was lying in wait for him by the study door and grabbing him with an unexpectedly firm grip escorted him through to the parlour where she stood back and said proudly, “This is my daughter Mister Harper....Gilly...!”
Jess wasn’t sure what he was expecting, some giggling shy young girl maybe? But certainly not this stout woman in her mid-thirties, looking as Daisy would have said, as mutton dressed as lamb. The frock was a flouncy pink number with numerous bows and she wore another large one in her hair...looking kind of like a little girl at a Sunday Social so he thought.
He gave her a weak smile and said, “Howdy Gilly, I’ve just brought a new horse by for your Pa.”
She jumped up from the couch at once and tore across the room looking eagerly up into his eyes...reminding Jess of a bouncy pup pleased to see its master.
“Yes, I saw you from my window,” she said breathily, “she’s very pretty.”
He nodded acknowledging the fact and then Ma Molesworth dived in and said, “Just like you my darling daughter...don’t you agree Mister Harper?”
Jess gave her a weak smile, “Sure,” he said quickly, “real pretty. It was great to meet you, Miss Molesworth. But I’ve gotta go tend my horse now, he’s pulled a muscle.”
“Oh dear, yes of course,” she said moving back a tad. “I’ll come with you, help you,” she added with a huge smile.
Jess groaned inwardly...but what could he say, with her Ma and Pa smiling happily at him?
If he’d thought having her breathy giggles just inches from his ear as he bent to apply the cold compresses to Traveller’s injured limb rather disconcerting...well that was nothing compared to her behavior at supper.
Ma Molesworth blatantly bombarded Jess with the most intimate of questions...which he would normally have side stepped, leaving the enquirer in no doubt of his anger at the intrusion. However, he was a guest in their home. Plus, the ink on the check, for a substantial amount for the Palomino, hardly dry yet. So, he curbed his natural instincts and tried to remain pleasant... if distant.
“Yes Ma’am, I do have a regular girlfriend. No Ma’am we ain’t actually booked the Church yet, but we have an understanding,” he had made that very clear. “Yes Ma’am, I am a partner in the Ranch and Relay.” Then in reply to Wilber’ s question, “Yes sir I guess we make a reasonable living. “But he refused to be drawn on actual annual turnover. It was when Ma Molesworth started asking him how many children he would like, that he drew the line.
“Uh excuse me Ma’am, but it’s been a kinda long day. I think I’ll just mosey on out to the barn and bed down for the night.”
She had leapt up from the table at that literally barring his way, “Oh no you won’t,” she cried, and then collecting herself said more quietly, “we wouldn’t dream of it would we Wilber?”
“Gilly here will show you to your room,” she added tipping her head towards her now flushed daughter.
She got up at once and showed Jess out of the parlor and along the corridor to the sleeping accommodation.
“This here is Ma and Pa’s room,” she said. Then further along the corridor she stopped and said, “and this is mine...right next door to yours Jess.”
“Ah, right, well thank you Miss, goodnight,” he said quickly making for the sanctuary of the room...but she pulled on his sleeve before he could get inside.
“I’m a light sleeper...if you should need anything, in the night that is,” she added with a coquettish glance up at him from beneath her lashes.
He looked down at her and gulped before thanking her and assuring her that he’d be just fine, before he finally made his escape.
He turned the key in the lock and lay back against the door his heart beating nine to the dozen. Hell, where did that woman get off, he wondered.
He was up at first light and disappointed to see that Traveller’s leg was still kinda warm and he figured he’d have to stay a tad longer.
Over breakfast he told Wilber that he’d noted that there was a fence down on his ride in the previous day.
“I’d really like to fix it,”” he said, pay you all back for letting me stay on until my horse is fit.”
“Well thank you kindly,” Wilber said, “truth is I haven’t been any too well these last few months, I guess the place has gotton kinda rundown.”
“Glad to be of help,” Jess said. And it gets me away from your dang wife and daughter he thought privately.
“Oh, I can come and help you,” Gilly said leaping up from her chair.
But Jess had, had enough.
“Thank you, kindly Miss, but I work better alone,” and he left the room hurriedly...unaware of the look of despondency in Gilly’s eyes as she collapsed back down in her seat.
But her mother was already planning her future.
“Don’t worry about that my dear he’ll come around. You’ll see, once we work our magic on him. Let’s go and plan supper...and then we’ll decide what you’ll wear,” and the couple left the table, their heads together.
Wilber shook his own head sadly. How had it all come down to this he thought...his only daughter being foisted on a complete stranger? But he knew it was what his Henrietta wanted and what she wanted she always got he reminded himself and God help him if he interfered in any way.
Jess spent most of the morning out mending the fence. Then he moved on and found a small river with an abundance of fish. So, he whiled away the rest of the day fishing. Then after a substantial meal threw the others back in as he knew Ma Molesworth had promised a slap-up meal that night.
At the dinner table Gilly threw him a sorrowful glance, “I brought you a picnic lunch out at noon, but I couldn’t find you,” she said in her breathy little girl voice.
“Oh, sorry about that,” he replied smiling at her and looking anything but.
The delicious meal was duly appreciated. Jess even agreed with Ma that yes Gilly did look lovely in her new gown. But as the evening wore on it was obvious that he was completely unmoved by her wonderful daughter and wasn’t about to propose anytime soon.
In the end mother and daughter retired for the night their seduction attempt, unsuccessful.
“It’s all down to you now Wilber,” Ma Molesworth whispered as she went off to console her dejected daughter. “You know what to do...so make sure you do it and don’t you dare let me down,” she spat, before sweeping from the room.
Once they’d gone, both Jess and Mr Molesworth breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the older man grinned at Jess, “Care for a spot of whiskey, I’ve got some real good stuff?”
Jess nodded enthusiastically, “I don’t mind if I do thanks.”
Jeez but it sure hit the spot he thought as he accepted his second glass of the lethal brew.
Then he was aware that old man Molesworth was staring intently at him. He cleared his throat and then said, “Look here ...Mr Harper...uh Jess may I call you that?”
“Well sure.”
“Good and I’m Wilber,” he said sipping his drink thoughtfully.
“Well Wilber, somethin’ on yer mind?” Jess asked expansively; beginning to really relax as the strong drink worked its magic.
He nodded, “You see son I’ve got a proposition for you.” He took a deep breath and sitting forwards in his fireside chair said, “If you will marry my daughter half of this ranch and land is all yours.”
When Jess just gaped at him, not believing what he was hearing the older man upped the offer.
“You see boy I’m real sick...and so I guess you’d inherit the lot pretty soon...the old ticker you know? Doc says it won’t hold out much longer... and I need to see young Gilly settled.”
“Well, I’m real sorry to hear that,” Jess said at once. “But...marriage you say? Hell, I ain’t ready fer that yet. Even if I were I told ya I’m spoken for, got me a wonderful gal back in Laramie.”
Wilber was now well into his third glass and he brushed that aside...as he topped up Jess’s glass.
“But my Gilly is a lovely girl... would do anything for you.”
Then he sat back as if making a decision and said, “Why not try before you buy huh Jess? So-to-speak? I’m sure my Gilly would be real accommodating. Then once you’ve seen how loving she is...well I guess you’ll forget all about that gal in Laramie.”
Jess looked horror stricken.
“What are you crazy? Let me get this straight. You’re sellin’ your daughter’s virtue ...and to a complete stranger, because you’ll think I’ll up and marry her the next morning?” He asked.
Wilber looked kinda embarrassed but said, “I guess that’s about the size of it son...”
Jess just shook his head, “Hell Wilber I don’t want any part of this. What if I’d been the kind of guy to take advantage...huh? Someone who’d mess with your daughter then hightail it out the next day?”
Wilber shrugged, “I guess I’m just desperate.”
Jess just shook his head, “Ain’t there any guys in town?”
“I don’t think so, it’s kind of a long way for suitors to travel you know?”
Jess thought of the twelve miles into Laramie that he and Slim rode regularly to see their girls and just shook his head.
“Well maybe she could get a job in town? Teaching or maybe at a haberdasher’s,” he said vaguely.” They often have living accommodation over...she could make her own way...make friends. That’s a good way to meet a husband...A dang sight better than this way,” he added gruffly.
Wilber shook his head, “I’m sorry to say her ma won’t allow it...she says that most of the men in town are wasters not good enough you know?”
“And I am I suppose?” Jess spat angrily, “Hell Wilber you don’t know a darned thing about me.”
“I’m a good judge of character,” Wilber said quietly, “you’re a good man alright...too good for my Gilly probably,” and he sighed. “Can’t say I didn’t try huh?”
They retired to bed soon after that. Wilber staggering somewhat and Jess dreaded to think what kind of reception he would receive from his harridan of a wife.
He was just relaxing into a peaceful sleep when he heard a tap at the door...and then Gilly calling him. “Jess... Jess are you still awake?”
He tensed and lay perfectly still until he heard her finally make her way back to her room and the door close. Then he lay there listening to the silence for another hour or so.
Once he was sure the household were all asleep, he quickly dressed. Then sliding the window open he climbed through and made his way quietly over to the barn.
Traveller was surprised, but pleased to see his master.
Jess checked out the damaged leg, happy to see that it was pretty much healed. He saddled up and led him quietly out of the barn and walked down the track to the main road. Then he mounted up and walked slowly through the moon lit night, relaxing more and more with every mile he put between himself and Miss Gilly Molesworth....and that was the last time he had seen Gilly and her Ma... Now he dreaded the inevitable meeting but finally fell into an uneasy slumber.

Chapter 3
Jess and Slim were awoken at first light by the sound of frenzied barking coming from the barn.
“What the Hell?” Jess gasped.
“I left Blue and Buttons in the barn last night,” Slim said leaping up from his bed and looking around for his pants, “I didn’t trust that Brown guy not to take a horse when my back was turned.”
Jess cussed angrily and seconds later wearing just pants and boots they headed across to the barn, guns in hand.
Jess yanked open the door and both men tore inside, but stopped in their tracks at what they saw in the dim early morning light filtering in from the open door.
Brown was in Alamo’s stall, still clasping a bridle but lying on his back with Blue on top of him growling fiercely whilst Buttons barked furiously and capered around.
“Call it off,” Brown almost squeaked, “get him off of me!”
Jess wandered over and after enjoying the scene for another moment or so finally called Blue to heel.
The big wolf/dog cross came at once and sat beside his master, his tongue lolling and looking to all the world like he was laughing at a good joke.
“Goddamn it, that critter attacked me,” Brown said belligerently before dragging himself up, “I should have damn well shot it.”
That infuriated Jess and he levelled his Colt at Brown, “You do that and it’ll be the last thing you ever do Mister,” he replied, his eyes flashing dangerously.
Then Slim came forwards, “So what were you doing with my horse Brown?”
“Oh, for God’s sake I was just borrowing the critter,” Brown spat angrily.
“They hang horse thieves in these parts,” Jess said laconically staring at him.
“So, what is the all fired hurry to get to Laramie anyway?” Slim snarled. “I told you the road was impassable right now.”
Then the men heard a discreet cough behind them and turning saw the Rev Jenkins standing there.
“I can tell you exactly why he needs to get to Laramie gentlemen,” he said.
“I warned you Padre!” Brown snarled.
“I just don’t care anymore,” the lanky man said, “go ahead and kill me if you want to...do your worst ...it’s of no consequence to me now. It never was, it was just the women I was afraid for.”
Then turning to Slim and Jess he said, “This man is wanted for murder and robbery. He and his two friends robbed a bank in Denver a week ago. They are all on the run...split up and were supposed to meet up in Laramie and divide the money up. That’s why he’s so anxious to get there, he wants his share.”
At that Brown went for his gun, but Jess had him covered and he took the gun before pushing him roughly aside.
“So how do you know all this Padre?” Slim asked, once Jess shoved Brown’s iron into his own waistband.
“I saw a wanted poster before I traveled here. It didn’t mean anything to me until I came upon Brown just before we left Cheyenne. I was waiting in line, at the telegraph office and I overheard this man sending a wire saying he’d meet the others in Laramie. Well, I suddenly recognized him from the poster. But before I could say anything the Stage arrived... I looked around and saw the Sheriff’s office across the street...next thing I knew Brown had his gun in my back and threatened to shoot me...and the women too if I didn’t just get on board and shut up. He must have seen me looking at him and then heading for the Sheriff’s office. Well, what could I do?” he said. “When we arrived here, he said the women and boy would be hurt if I didn’t keep quiet,” he added.
“Nothing you could do, until now I guess,” Jess said as he wandered over to Traveller’s stall. There he plucked a pair of handcuffs from a nail and wandered back to Brown.
“Put yer hands out,” he growled.
“Why...what are you going to do?”
“What does it look like?” Jess said snapping the handcuffs in place.
“What! You believe that dumb old Bible basher over me?” he asked angrily.
“Any day of the week,” Slim said, “come on you’re staying over in the bunkhouse until we can get you to the law. We’ll see what you’ve got to say for yourself in front of Sheriff Cory.”
They left him in the bunk house, handcuffed to an iron bedstead, with Mose guarding him after agreeing to take it in turns to watch over the miscreant.
Jess was the first to enter the ranch house but stopped in mid stride as he saw the reception committee of Daisy, along with Mrs Molesworth and Gilly standing together and looking anxious.
“Oh, Jess dear is everything alright?” Daisy asked coming forwards.
“Yes, fine Daisy,” he said squeezing her hand, “just a bit of a problem with Mr Brown. I’ll tell ya later,” he added as Ma Molesworth advanced on him.
“I knew it! Didn’t I darling?” she said turning to glance at her daughter, “I knew it was the Sherman spread where Jess Harper lived. “We thought you’d moved on,” she added beaming up at Jess now and admiring his scantily clad tanned torso. “We are just so very pleased to see you again aren’t we Gilly?”
“Oh yes Ma really pleased,” Gilly agreed in her breathy little girl voice, her eyes widening as she too gazed in awe at Jess’s well toned muscles.
Glancing over Daisy wondered if the daughter was about to swoon. But then Slim and Rev Jenkins came in and the moment passed as the truth about Brown finally came out.
“So, his name is Carl Carson of the Carson gang Rev Jenkins said...with a price on his head for murder and robbery.”
“To think we shared a coach with him,” Widow Molesworth shuddered.
“But we’ll be quite safe now Mama,” Gilly trilled, “Now Jess is here to look after us.”
Slim gave Jess a peeved look, before saying dryly, “Yes Ma’am you’ll be safe as houses with Jess on the case.”
“Slim...” Jess muttered glaring at his pard.
“So, you’re not married yet I see,” Mrs Molesworth said with a tight-lipped smile, her eyes calculating.
“Uh, soon, real soon,” Jess said much to the surprise of Slim and Daisy...not to mention Mike who had just woken up and had entered the room, rubbing his eyes.
“Gee Jess are you gettin’ married, when did that happen?” he asked with interest.
“Uh go wash up for breakfast Tiger,” Jess said quickly diving over to the boy and slinging an arm around his shoulders and leaning down to his ear.
“Just hush up,” he whispered urgently, “now git.”
“I was only askin’,” Mike said mournfully as he returned to his room...yawning and wondering at the strange antics of grown-ups.
It was after breakfast that Jess received some wonderful news.
Ma Molesworth had settled down by the fire along with Gilly and she patted the couch near her, “Come and sit a while Jess we have so much catching up to do.”
Jess looked hesitant, “Uh...I’ve chores,” he said weakly.
“Nonsense,” said Slim, slapping him on the back, “you go catch up with your friends Jess, Mike and I can take care of the yard chores.”
Jess threw him a murderous look, but never the less took a seat on the couch and glared at his pard again.
However Slim didn’t seem to be in any rush to go about the mornings work and smiled benignly at the ladies.
“So, lots of news then since you last met, I expect,” he said cheerfully.
Ma Molesworth threw him a tragic look, “Well the loss of my dear Wilber of course...the love of my life,” she said clasping her hands together and looking bereft.
Jess nearly choked at that, imagining the poor guy had probably been nagged into an early grave.
“His heart you know,” she continued, “he wasn’t a strong man...and sadly all he left us were debts.”
Again, Jess raised a questioning eyebrow, dang it if anyone had bankrupted the family it was her with her spending on all those expensive and frivolous items in the ranch house.
However, before he could dwell on the matter, he became aware that she was now sounding much more cheerful.
“So, our good news is that the Wedding is planned for next month,” she concluded happily.
“Huh?” Jess asked wondering if he’d missed some vital piece of information and he had somehow agreed to marry the girl.
“So, who’s the lucky man?” Slim asked looking equally puzzled.
“A lovely gentleman named Clem Atkins...ranches just north of Laramie. Do you know him?” Ma Molesworth asked innocently.
Jess and Slim exchanged a charged look... Hell old Clem Atkins had been a confirmed bachelor all his adult life until he hit his late forties that is, when he finally decided to get hitched so he could have a son to help with the ranch work. However, after no luck with the local women he decided to try for a mail order bride.
The first one turned out to be in her late fifties and as Clem had made it known his desire for a family, she was quickly rejected. The second was more promising and lasted a good month before she ran off with a snake oil salesman. Then the one just last year was a real peach according to Jess. Young, nubile and pretty as a picture... but one look at Clem and she had run for the hills, never to be seen again.
Now Gilly passed a photograph across to Jess, “This is him,” she said happily.
Jess took the picture and stared at a man who bore very little resemblance to Clem and must have been taken many years ago he figured. Heck were cameras actually invented back in the days when Clem had dark hair and all his teeth he wondered. He looked at the handsome stranger staring back at him with the sparkling grin and head of dark curls and tried to equate it with the greying, chubby face of old Clem Atkins. Hell, he must be pushing sixty now Jess figured.
“Uh very nice,” he managed before passing the picture over to Slim and grinning as he registered his buddy’s shocked expression.
“So, where did you two meet?” Jess asked.
“Oh, we haven’t yet,” Gilly declared. “Mama found him in the paper...a lonely-hearts advertisement, so romantic,” she said clasping her hands together and looking dewy eyed. “He said he had nothing but love to offer the right little lady...and a happy home for our offspring,” she sighed blissfully.
Well, that’s about right Jess thought, old Clem had precious little to offer. The ranch was rundown, the stock sickly and his bank account as dry as his poor parched land.
“I shall reside with my sister Lucy in Laramie,” Ma Molesworth said gleefully “then I’ll be on hand to help out when the little ones come along.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it all worked out,” Jess said weakly, “and I uh wish you the best of luck,” secretly thinking they’d dang well need it.
“Oh, look Gilly dear,” her mother simpered, “I do believe Jess is a tad jealous. You missed the boat with my Gilly young man,” she said giving him a playful slap on the arm, “I expect you’re regretting it now.”
Slim finally took pity on his pard and jumping up he said, “I’ve just remembered Jess I really need your help with a little job in the barn,” and the two men gave their apologies and exited quickly before more could be said.

Chapter 4
They managed to negotiate a pretty wide berth between themselves and the ladies for most of the day, blaming their absence to having vital chores to attend to, along with guarding the prisoner in the bunk house. Here they partook of a scratch lunch. However, when Jess’s stomach could hold out no longer, they finally arrived at the supper table ready to be necessarily sociable but at least well fed.
They endured Ma Molesworth’ s endless chatter and the lovelorn glances that Gilly occasionally shot Jess. It appeared that her imminent betrothal had obviously not completely extinguished her feelings for Jess, so Slim noted. Both men gave a deep sigh of relief when the woman folk all turned in for the night.
“I’ll go over to the bunkhouse and let Mose get his head down,” Slim said, “and maybe you could take the following watch guarding the prisoner Padre?”
“Certainly, old chap, we don’t want that dreadful man causing anymore mischief,” Rev Jenkins agreed. Slim smiled at him in thanks and then said, “You can do the last shift until dawn OK Jess?”
Jess nodded and once his pard had left he poured the Rev another coffee and they took them over to the fireside chairs. Then he went back to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of Red Eye and wiggling it at the Padre said, “Care for something to liven that up some?”
“You know I think I would,” the older man said smiling, “it would keep the chill out I imagine?”
Jess nodded, “Yup sure hits the spot on a winter’s evening.”
The two men enjoyed their drinks in silence for a little while, before the Padre turned to Jess and said, “I’m so pleased to meet up with you and Slim...I’ve heard so much about you both in dear Joshua’s letters.”
“You have huh?” Jess asked throwing him a less than happy glance. He guarded his privacy jealously and hated the thought that possibly Josh had betrayed a confidence...although on reflection he very much doubted that.
Rev Jenkins seemed to realise his gaff immediately and said quickly, “Oh my dear chap he hasn’t told me any details of your life, other than the fact that you are good friends.”
Jess threw him a smile at that, “He’s a great guy.”
“Um...he speaks very highly of you too. In fact, he told me once that he’d had more thought-provoking spiritual and philosophical discussions with you than with any other, in or out of the Church community.”
Jess chuckled, “Well I guess I tell it like it is. Sure, me and old Josh have some real good arguments...er I mean discussions, usually down at the creek while we’re fishin’.”
“Yes, he said as much and I guess you’ve put him straight on a few matters too.”
“I have?” Jess asked looking surprised.
“Oh yes he admits himself he was pretty much a uh...greenhorn when he landed here from Philadelphia, but it was talking to folk like you and Slim that helped him find his feet. Helped him in numerous other ways too. It must be good to have that kind of friendship,” he added rather wistfully.
Jess nodded and then reaching for the bottle topped up their cups before saying hesitantly... “Tell me Padre what did you mean this morning when you said to that no-good outlaw that you really didn’t care anymore if he killed you...did you mean it?”
Rev Jenkins took a slug of his coffee and then looking intently at Jess said, “Oh yes I meant it alright.”
“How is that so?”
The Padre sighed, “It’s quite simple my boy...I have lost my faith and I feel like there is nothing left for me in this world...Brown...uh Carson that is, would have done me a favor if he had dispatched me today.”
“Hey that’s no way to talk,” Jess said looking shocked to the core, “you can’t mean it?”
“Oh, I mean it alright. I actually tried to kill myself before I came out on this trip. But I even bungled that,” he said bitterly. “A parishioner found me just in time, persuaded me to put the gun down and seek help.”
“What... you were gonna shoot yerself?”
The Padre nodded looking down, before peering over at Jess, “I feel so terribly ashamed at admitting it but yes.”
“Well, there must have been a dang good reason,” Jess said stoutly.
The older man nodded, “I lost my beloved wife...that’s the crux of the matter Jess and I’m just totally bereft without her... I can’t carry on alone.”
“Sure, you can,” Jess said looking almost angry...then more quietly, “It’s tough at first, but you’ll get through it...eventually.”
“You know that for a fact do you Jess?” the Padre said sadly, shaking his head. Sure, the young man was trying to be kind...he had a good heart just as dear Joshua had told him. But what did this rough and ready young cowboy know of true love...of bereavement?”
Almost as though Jess had read his mind he said quietly, “I know a hell of a lot about losin’ a person you love...been there myself. I lost my fiancée a few years back. She was gunned down in front of me in the saloon...so don’t think I don’t know anything about it,” he added bitterly.
“My dear chap I’d no idea, Joshua never said?”
“Why would he? It was way before he landed here anyway. Sure,” he said quietly, “Rev Myers, the guy before Josh, was a big help... Miss Daisy too; but it was Slim that got me through it all. See I was just like you in some ways Padre.”
“Bill, please Jess call me Bill.”
Jess topped up their cups again and tipped his towards the Padre, “Bill,” he said.
“Well, I guess I took the long way around. I didn’t try and shoot myself...But I sure gave up on life. I hardly ate or slept, just worked myself into the ground and refused to talk about her...about my Maria. See I thought I could outrun this thing called grief. Figured I could ignore it...keep running away and it would all stop. That terrible black pit of dread and horror you’re stuck in... but it don’t,” he said staring hard at the Padre, “It don’t go away. The only way out is to ride on through it. You can’t go around...over or under... you just hafta ta face it head on and accept she’s gone.”
The padre was watching him mesmerized, “Go on,” he whispered.
Jess took a deep breath reliving those dark days. “It was Slim, like I say, that made me face up to it in the end...See it happened this way: (Extract from #1 Loved, Lost Survived)

Slim arrived at the lake as the sun was at its height and quickly saw Traveller hitched to the no trespassing sign and Jess leaning back on the big old log, his hat down over his eyes dozing in the noon day sun. The scene took his breath away as it was exactly the same as that fateful day over 5 years ago when they had first met and Slim had thrown him off the ranch. Knowing what he now had to do, the irony of the situation was not lost on Slim.
He hitched Alamo near Traveller and walking up to Jess leaned over and tipped his hat back. Jess grinned up at him in welcome and Slim had a glimpse of his happy go lucky partner as he had been before the tragedy.
Sitting down beside him he said quietly, “Jess we have to talk.”
“OK,” Jess responded, “I’m listening”
Slim drew a deep breath and said calmly, “I’ve been thinking…… maybe it’s time you moved on.”
Jess sat bolt upright his eyes wide open in amazement, “W...what?” he stammered.
Slim continued calmly as though Jess had not spoken, “I’ll buy your half of the partnership of course, can get to the bank tomorrow and pay you back in full. And maybe it would be easier if you went soon, while Daisy and Mike are away, I can explain for you... say your goodbyes.”
“And what if I don’t wanna go?” exclaimed Jess.
“Hell, Jess you’ve been gone in here,” said Slim tapping his head,” for weeks, you don’t talk, you’re never around anymore, mentally you’ve already gone.”
Jess took all this in and shaking his head sadly he looked over at his partner and best friend, “Are you saying you want me to go?” he asked quietly.
Slim turned away from him and looked out to the lake to hide the tears forming in his eyes, “Yeah,” he said brutally,” I want you to go.”
He forced himself to look back at Jess and the hurt bewilderment in his eyes. Gradually the look changed and hardened and his chin came up and Slim saw a stubborn glint in his friend’s eye, was this Jess getting up and dusting himself off at last he thought?

Jess looked him in the eye, “Well I ain’t goin’,” he said firmly “and I don’t buy it that you want me to go either Slim. So why don’t you just tell me what this is all about, ’cos sure as Hell if you want me gone, you’re gonna have to get your shot gun out again like last time,” he finished.
Slim looked over and knew he couldn’t go on with the lie anymore, and sighing deeply he began, “Well it’s like this Jess, Doc says your real sick, all this grieving has taken it out of you and he doesn’t reckon you’ll make it through a Wyoming winter. Reckons the first time you get a soaking or are out on the range in the snow you’ll get sick with pneumonia or something and die on me. I’m not having that on my conscience Jess. You need to take your stake money and head back home to Texas where it’s warm and you can rest up, and get away from all the sad memories you have here.”
Pausing for breath he looked over at Jess to see his reaction.
He still had his stubborn look on and said, “I ain’t in that bad a state, I’m still pullin’ my weight and doin’ a full day’s work ain’t I?”
Slim turned angrily back to him, “Hell, have you looked at yourself recently Jess? You’re a wreck, you’re skin and bone your belly’s practically touching your backbone. You’re so damn exhausted you can barely mount Traveller in the mornings! Look at yesterday if it hadn’t been for that wise old horse of yours God knows where you’d have ended up.”
“Well, I still ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Jess repeated stubbornly.
Slim had a thought, the Doc had said to try and get Jess to open up and talk about his feelings maybe that would help.
“So Jess,” he said, “talk to me, tell me how you’re feeling right now,” he suggested.
Jess’s eyes opened wide in amazement again and then the look turned to anger as he leaped up, turning to face Slim and said, “OK, OK, I’ll tell you how I’m feelin’! I’m feelin’ exactly like I have every day since it happened. It’s like I’m at the bottom of a dark, dark pit, in a real dark place Slim and I can’t get out and I can see I’m hurtin’ you and Daisy and Mike, but it’s like I’m paralyzed and I can’t help it. And I got this lump in my throat an’ I can’t eat, an’ I’m scared to sleep because I have these God damn awful nightmares where I see her dyin’ time after time. My heart aches like it’s broke into a thousand pieces, an’ my best buddy has just kicked me in the guts sayin’ he wants to be rid of me!”
Slim just waited silently for him to go on.
“And all the time, all I can think of is Maria, needing her and wantin’ her so bad I can hardly breathe, an’ now I’m seeing things, seeing her, Slim, like she’s really here with me and I figure all this grief is driving me plum crazy,” he stopped yelling and finished quietly, “an’ I’m scared Slim, real scared,” he finished, his hand shooting up to his mouth to stifle a sob as his head bent, all his anger spent.
This time Slim sprang towards his friend and engulfed him in a warm embrace and held him firmly until the shuddering sobs and trembling stopped and he walked him over to the log, where Jess sank to the ground, his arms resting on his knees, his head in his hands and Slim sat down beside him, a concerned look on his face.
“Now you just listen to me Jess,” he said calmly, “You’re not goin’ crazy. All these feelings are part of the natural grieving process, the stages you have to go through. The only problem is I think you’re stuck buddy and you need a hand to move on.”
“What”, responded Jess, “‘grieving’ process, stages, what the Hell you talkin’ about Slim, sounds like you’ve been reading one of Andy’s medical text books again,” he said with a wry smile.

Slim blushed a little and said” Well actually, yeah, plus stuff I’ve learnt from Daisy and the Doc,” he admitted.
“Well come on,” Jess responded, "what are these stages I’m supposed to be goin’ through,” he asked looking quizzically at his friend.
“Well, first there’s shock and denial when you can’t figure the persons dead, like when you kept hanging onto Maria in the Saloon”, he replied, looking at Jess and wondering if he should have mentioned that.
Jess just looked thoughtful though and said, “Yeah, guess I kind of thought while I was still holding her and talking to her that she’d suddenly wake up an’ it would all have been just a horrible mistake and the Doc would have come along and patched her up,” he finished sadly.
Then there’s anger too Slim continued, with a sideways glance at his partner, guess we’ve seen some of that. Although in your case it’s kinda hard to tell if you’re grieving or if it’s just your natural ornery streak,” he said with a wry smile. The ghost of a smile crossed Jess’s face and he nodded slightly in acknowledgement of the truth.
Slim leaned back against the log and looked up at the sky for inspiration, trying to remember exactly what Andy’s book had said.
“Then there’s unfounded Guilt he continued, where the person feels guilty because maybe they feel they haven’t been nice enough to their loved one, or maybe they feel they haven’t told their loved one they care…”
Jess broke in his voice full of irony, “Or maybe they feel they haven’t stopped some maniac from rushing into a bar and filling their loved one’s chest full of lead,” he said, dead pan expression on his face.
Slim, decided to ignore the sarcasm, and in an equally dead pan voice replied, “Yeah, that too.”
“’Cept, in my case it ain’t unfounded, ‘cos I really am guilty,” he said, “I should have stopped him Slim, even Mike said I should have kept her safe,” he finished sadly.
“Jess we’ve been over this a thousand times,” said Slim angrily, “there was nothing you could have done, Maria ran in front of you to take the bullet, you couldn’t have stopped her and as for Marcus, it was cold blooded murder, you couldn’t have out-drawn him because he already had his gun in his hand when he walked through the door!
Then he went on more gently, “When you promised to keep Maria safe you were expecting a fair fight, God knows Jess you’d give the devil himself a fair fight. But I guess Marcus just wasn’t working from the same book as you. He was crazy Jess, for a man to behave that way he just had to be.”
“You’ll be askin’ me to forgive him next,” Jess broke in.
“No, not forgive, not yet anyways, but maybe understand, ‘cos if you don’t this bitterness is going to eat away at you Jess.”
The dark head nodded, but whether acknowledging Slim’ s words or agreeing with them he could not tell.
Slim continued, “Now I guess you’re stuck in this dark pit of depression and we’ve gotta figure a way of getting’ you out buddy. Tell me about seeing Maria,” he continued, “is she here now Jess?” he asked casting an eye around the lakeside.
“No, she’s not here now,” Jess said sarcastically, “You don’t think its real do you Slim? You think it’s all in my mind,” then more quietly almost to himself, “Well maybe it is all in my head, but she seems so dadgum real I feel I could reach out and touch her,” he murmured.
“Guess it doesn’t matter if she’s a real spirit come down to see you, or just your imagination really Jess, what we’ve got to figure is why you’re seeing her and I guess it’s ‘cos your brain won’t accept she’s dead.”
Jess replied angrily, “I know she’s dead Slim, for GOD’S SAKE SHE DIED IN MY ARMS,” he yelled. Then more quietly, “I visited her at the Undertaker’s... Charlie’s place, her face was ice cold. I carried the coffin and lowered her into the ground, are you trying to tell me I don’t know she’s dead?” he asked incredulously.
“No that’s not what I’m saying said Slim patiently, “what I’m saying is there’s a big difference between knowing she’s dead and accepting she’s dead”, he said, “Once you can really accept it and let her go, then maybe you can get out of this nightmare hell you’re living in and move on.”
Jess sat quietly looking over the lake mulling over Slim’ s words.

Finally, he turned to Slim and responded, “Hell when did you get to be so wise?” he asked smiling.
Slim was relieved that the atmosphere had lightened and, in his smile, he had glimpsed his old friend, hidden from him for so long.
“I think you need to go to the grave,” he said to Jess, “go up and visit her and while you’re there read what you put on the headstone buddy, it might help.”
Jess nodded his agreement and the two lapsed into silence as they sat admiring the view of the lake in the early autumn sunshine.
After a little while Jess broke the peace and looking over at Slim, he said, “I’ve been thinking Pard, it’s getting kinda chilly in that ol’ bunkhouse now fall’s here, would it be OK if I moved back into my old room?”
A broad grin lit up Slim’ s face and leaning over he tipped Jess’s hat down over his eyes and laughing said, “Thought you’d never ask Hot Shot!”
That evening as the weather had turned chilly, they sat in front of a blazing fire to enjoy their coffee after supper. Jess looked deep into the flames and played over the conversation they had by the lakeside that afternoon. He was amazed how just talking through his problems had helped so much, and whereas he knew he had a long way to go, he felt that just maybe the healing had begun.
He knew how very hard it had been for Slim to suggest he leave. Those words, “Yeah I want you to go”, so painful for him to utter, and how it was a completely unselfish gesture, wanting only to save his friend from further stress and pain.
Now looking over at him he said softly, “Thanks Pard.”
Slim raised a quizzical eyebrow, “What for?” he asked.
“You know damn well what for,” Jess replied smiling.

Jess stared into the fire... almost having forgotten he had company as he had relived those dreadfully dark days. Then he glanced over at the Padre and saw the tears coursing down his cheeks... “Bill are you OK?”
“Oh yes my boy...I am now...I think I will be anyway. I can’t thank you enough for sharing that with me.”
Jess just shrugged, “I guess it would be a hell of a waste iffen we couldn’t share stuff that’s helped us in the past...I reckon I just hit lucky with Slim having my back that way.”
The Padre nodded, “Indeed...it really seemed to help you talking things out.”
Jess nodded. Then he topped up their coffee cups from the pot, added a splash of whiskey and settled back in his seat.
“So, tell me Bill, what was your wife’s name ...and how’d you meet huh?”
It was the wee small hours of the morning before the Padre had talked himself out. There had been some anger, many tears and even the odd chuckle...and now he was completely drained.
“Come on,” Jess said grinning at his new friend, “I’ll walk you over to the bunk house, I figure it’s time I relieved Slim and took the next watch...you look like you need to hit the hay.”
“Oh, thank you Jess,” the Padre said, “goodness, look at the time, I’d no idea.”
Then quietly, “Just one more thing...what did you put on the grave. Slim said it would help you to remember what you inscribed on it?”
Jess put a hand to his chest, “In my heart always and forever...see it made me realise I hadn’t lost her...not really Bill, because she’ll always be just here.”
The other man nodded, “Yes...you’re right, of course...thank you,” he said softly and the two of them finally made their way across to the bunkhouse.

Chapter 5
The following morning the Padre was profusely apologetic to Slim. “I’m so sorry my dear chap, Jess and I got talking last night and I completely missed my turn to guard the prisoner.”
Slim smiled at him across the breakfast table, Jess already having filled him in a little as to what had transpired the previous evening.
“That’s OK Reverend don’t think any more of it,” he said kindly.
“Please call me Bill,” the Padre said beaming at him, “and I must make amends. Maybe I could help Jess with the chores and you take the morning off?” he suggested.
Slim glanced over to Jess and seeing a slight nod turned back to the padre and said, “Well thank you er...Bill, I’d appreciate that.” Then he noted how different he looked, the haunted look gone from his eyes and replaced with one of enthusiasm and interest. Jess’s little talk seemed to have helped the older man Slim mused.
Then Jess heard Gilly and her Ma making their way towards the kitchen, Ma Molesworth’ s high-pitched voice complaining bitterly at the cold and Spartan conditions she was enduring.
Quick as a flash Jess drained his coffee cup and made for the back door, “You ready Bill?” he asked as he shrugged on his warm jacket.
“You wrap up warm Jess,” Daisy called from where she was working at the stove, “you’ve still got that nasty cough.”
“Yes Ma,” Jess said winking at Bill as he made his way through the door and to the bliss of the Molesworth free zone of the backyard.
The two men worked well together feeding the stock, milking the house cow and checking on the wood supply, however later that morning disaster struck.
Jess had been splitting some logs for the cook stove and asked Bill to bring another few logs over from the store near the barn. Bill did as he was asked and then noted that some branches had come off a huge pine over in the nearby home pasture and decided to go and investigate further. He thought he’d see if he would be able to haul them over to add the quickly diminishing log supply.
Jess had his back to him and was intent on his task, until he heard a splashing noise and a cry for help.
Turning he ran towards the cries and then stopped in his tracks as he saw Bill covered in mud and splashing about in the duck pond just near the home pasture gate. His dark suit and coat completely covered in reddish mud and his Padre’s hat that he always wore, floating nearby. The area was completely covered in snow and the Padre had marched across the thin ice covering the pond, being completely unaware of its existence until the ice gave way and he fell into the freezing water and was quickly soaked to the skin.
Jess was at once galvanized into action and hiding a grin hauled the older man out. Then he stood back in surprise...as he noted the thatch of dark curly hair that had been hitherto hidden by his Padre’s hat. Gee the guy was nearer to his late thirties to forty rather than fifty odd, as Jess had originally thought. But then he realized that his new friend was shivering and draping an arm around his shoulders he guided him back to the house to change.
Once Bill was ensconced in Slim and Jess’s room and the bath in place ready to be filled up, he looked around him in despair. “Oh, dearie me, I only have my best suit to change into and that’s in the bunkhouse with all the other luggage,” he said shaking his head.
“Look don’t worry about that,” Jess said, “I’ll find ya some old duds of Slim’ s. They should fit OK. I guess you don’t want to be wearing your best stuff around the ranch.”
“Oh, most kind,” Bill said looking more cheerful.
Then Slim entered with the rest of the hot water to fill up the tub and the two friends left the Padre to bathe in peace.
The man of God had been pretty much ignored by Gilly and her Ma, as had Mose, both of them obviously not being marriage material...but all was to change shortly.
As the Padre entered the parlor both women stared at this rather good looking, dark haired man entered.
“Why Reverend Jenkins you look...uh so different,” Ma Molesworth declared loudly, “so much younger I do declare, don’t you think so Gilly?”
Bill looked rather bemused and merely said, “Maybe the clerical garments are rather severe looking and aging...being black no doubt,” he added vaguely.
“So, are you staying long in Laramie?” Widow Molesworth inquired hopefully.
“Um...that depends on circumstances,” the Padre said quietly, before excusing himself and going off to continue helping Slim and Jess in the yard.
When coffee time came around, they were all ready to get back into the warmth of the house, including Mose who had been guarding the prisoner.
Jess stuck his head around the bunkhouse door and said, “Coffee’s on Mose, I guess we can leave this no-hoper to his own devices for a few minutes,” he added, tipping his hat to where Carl Carson was lying still handcuffed to the iron bedstead, pulled up by the window.
“He ain’t going no place,” Mose agreed, “in fact he done cut his darned wrist tryin’ to wiggle out of the cuffs.”
Jess immediately entered and went and inspected Carl for himself. He shook his head when he saw where the criminal’s wrist was indeed bleeding slightly.
“You’ll live,” he muttered.
“Come on Mose.”
“I’ll come back over and fix up your wrist after coffee,” he said over his shoulder as he and Mose left.
“You got the key for the cuffs?” he asked Mose as they wandered back over to the house.
“Nope, Slim said to leave it on that hook on the back of the door, save us passin’ it back and forth between us.”
“Uh, OK...I guess that’s safe enough,” Jess responded.
Back in the bunkhouse Carson stared bleakly out at the yard from his position near the window. Then he gave a little gasp as he spied the kitchen door opening and someone moving quickly across to the distant outhouse.
He stared out of the window and a few minutes later the woman made the return journey.
As soon as she was within hearing distance he cried, “Miss can I get some help please?”
Gilly stopped in her tracks, looking around her.
“Over here Miss, in the bunkhouse...hurry...please,” he added urgently.
Gilly glanced back towards the house and then, intrigued to see this notorious criminal at close quarters again, decided to investigate by herself and moved off towards the bunkhouse.
She put her head around the door and said, “What’s the matter Mister Brown... er I mean Mister Carson?” she added boldly.
“Ah, come in little lady,” the killer said pining an encouraging smile on his face. “Please my dear I need your help...my wrist,” he added, “it is hurting real bad.”
She came in a little further and indeed saw that there was some blood on his wrist.
“If you could just remove the cuffs for a moment and bandage it up, I’d be most obliged,” he said with another sickly smile, “You can use my bandana.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said looking worried, “won’t Slim or Jess attend to you?”
Carson gave a hollow laugh, “It was Harper that did this to me. He don’t give a damn Miss; just as soon see me bleed to death before I get a trial I reckon.”
“Oh no, I can’t believe that,” Gilly said coming over and now staring down at the older man with compassion in her eyes.
Carson gave a convincing groan, “Please Miss, bandage it before they get back, key’s just on the back of the door there.”
Gilly may have been something of a gullible fool where men were concerned...but she was a kind hearted one and as Carson groaned again, she hurried to fetch the key.
It only took Carson a split second to reach down for the knife concealed in his boot, once his hands were free.
“OK little lady, we don’t want any screaming or I’ll hafta kill you...understand?”
Shaking from head-to-toe Gilly nodded dumbly.
“Right, you and I are taking a walk over to the barn...saddle a pair of good horses and hightail it out of here. Once we get to Laramie, I’ll let ya go...but any yellin’ and you’re dead-meat. You got that?”
Gilly nodded again and the two made their way out of the bunkhouse and hurried to the barn.
Back in the house Jess sipped his coffee appreciatively, before saying, “By the way Daisy the prisoner’s gone hurt his wrist...it’s bleedin’ some can I borrow your medical basket... I’ll fix him up after I’ve finished this.”
“But of course, dear... In fact, I’ll go and attend to him right away,” Daisy said getting up and heading for the cupboard where she kept her medical supplies.
Jess sighed and rolled his eyes at Slim.
“It’s OK he ain’t about to bleed to death,” he said to Daisy.
“None the less he is in our care,” she said looking anxious.
Jess sighed and drained his coffee cup, “OK I’m goin’ don’t you fret Daisy.”
He pushed open the bunkhouse door and stared in dismay at the empty cot, the handcuffs discarded on the floor nearby.
He cussed loudly and turned on his heel making for the house when he noticed the barn door was ajar and quickly retraced his steps.
He pushed the door open wider, his Colt drawn...but as the door creaked there was a movement within and Jess was able to make out the figure of Gilly standing in front of Carson, his knife to her throat.
“Throw the iron over here Harper...now!” he added when Jess merely froze.
“Come on, I ain’t fooling drop the gun and kick it over here,” he barked.
Jess looked into Gilly’s terrified eyes and finally complied.
“OK good, that’s good,” said Carson, bending down to pick up the gun.
He then slid his knife back into his boot and levelled the Colt at Gilly’s head.
“OK we’ve got us one horse saddled,” he said tipping his hat to where Buck stood patiently in his stall, saddle in place...you saddle up another one Harper, this little lady is coming with me.”
“The Hell she is,” Jess yelled angrily.
Carson pushed the Colt hard against Gilly’s temple, “Don’t let me hafta prove I ain’t kiddin’ Harper.” Then he gave a spine-chilling laugh, “I reckon a bullet through the head is a mite cleaner than havin’ to slit her throat...but either way she’d be just as dead...and that’d be down to you Harper...so dang well move it!”
Jess sighed deeply and reluctantly walked towards the nearest stall where his beloved quarter miler Snowbird was moving restlessly about.
“Uh...good choice,” Carson said looking pleased, “that’s one nice little quarter horse...you’re pride and joy huh Harper?”
Jess just glared at him, “She’s real light footed, be better in the snow than most,” he growled, “just don’t push her and she’ll get you to town.”
“Well, that’s all I want and I’ll be on my way and you can fetch the lady from there.” Then he threw Gilly a speculative glance, “Of course a woman like this, so dang desperate to get hitched...well I guess she’d do just about anything for a man. I might just keep her. Take her along with me. Might be kinda fun,” he said with a salacious glance at Gilly.
“Shut yer filthy mouth,” Jess yelled.
Carson just rolled his eyes, “Ever the clean-livin’ hero of the hour huh Harper? I guess you’ve changed some since you were running with gangs down in Texas then? Our paths crossed, but I reckon you don’t remember me.” Then he laughed, “clean livin’... Ha, don’t kid me,” he spat. “It wouldn’t surprise me iffen you didn’t already know yer way around this little lady.”
Jess really lost his temper then...but when Carson dragged Gilly closer and again threatened to blow out her brains Jess just got on with the job in hand.
Once Snowbird was saddled up and the pair were about to depart, the barn door opened again admitting Slim wielding his rifle. But he soon put it down, leaning it against the wall when he realized the situation and the mortal danger Gilly was in.
Both cowboys stood aside as Carson led the mounts out, Gilly still at gunpoint.
“Hell Jess, why Snowy,” Slim hissed, “you love that darned horse.”
“You’ll see,” Jess whispered back as the two followed Carson and Gilly out and watched the outlaw mount up.
However, it was clear that Gilly was no horse woman and Jess came forwards to help her up into the saddle.
“No funny business Harper or I’ll shoot the pair of ya,” Carson snarled.
Jess just nodded but as he leaned in to help her up, he whispered. “As soon as you hear me whistle you kick this old horse and get him away from Carson...OK...just keep going up the rise, until we fetch ya.”
She just nodded...looking terrified.
Once up in the saddle Carson covered her and the couple set off. At first at a sedate walk and then as they moved on Carson upped the pace to a lively canter.
That’s when Jess put two fingers in his mouth and emitted an ear-piercingly loud whistle.
Snowbird immediately came to a standstill, almost catapulting Carson from the saddle, but he held on for dear life...as Gilly headed up the rise at speed.
He was just about to let off a shot when Jess whistled again and this time Snowbird reared up and threw Carson before whinnying loudly and clattering back towards her nice warm stall.
Slim turned and ran back to the barn for his rifle while Jess dashed across towards where Carson lay in the dirt...But then as he was just a few yards away Carson rolled over, sprang up and fired off a shot, catching Jess...at almost point-blank range. He gasped in agony clutching his chest and sank to his knees, falling forwards as though in slow motion.
Then Carson turned his gun on Slim, but the shot went wide and Slim retaliated...hitting Carson squarely through the heart.
For a few moments there was deathly silence and then the ranch house door burst open and Ma Molesworth let out a frantic scream, followed by a volley of barks from Blue.
Jess’s beloved wolf dog tore across the yard to where his master had fallen and after sniffing at him started whimpering before hunkering down beside him nudging at the lifeless body...with his nose...trying to awaken him.
Slim strode over and looked down grimly at the pool of dark red blood staining the pristine snow, before kneeling down and gently turning his partner over.
Jess’s face was ashen his lashes making dark shadows on his paper white cheek...that Blue was now attempting to lick.
“Git away boy,” Slim said gruffly, reaching for Jess’s wrist and desperately seeking a pulse... but nothing.
He was vaguely aware of a small crowd around him and glancing up he saw Daisy’s anxious eyes peering down at him, the Padre, Mose and young Mike looking on.
“Is he…?” Daisy faltered.
“Can’t find a pulse,” he whispered, his own face now almost at pale as Jess’s.
Daisy gently pushed him aside and knelt down in the snow beside who she thought of as her beloved middle son and placing two fingers on his neck searched for any sign of life.
After a moment she was rewarded by the faint fluttering of a pulse. She took a deep breath and whispered, “He’s still with us, bring him inside dear.”
Once he was carried inside by Slim and the Padre, Daisy fussed around organizing her medical box and asking for a little space to work on her patient, who now reclined on the parlor couch. Seeing young Mike’s pale, fretful face Slim took him to one side.
“Can you saddle up your pony and go fetch Miss Molesworth back?” he asked. “We told her to wait up the rise until we fetched her.”
“Yes...but Jess...he’ll be, OK?”
“Sure he will Tiger...and I know he’d want you to take care of Buck and especially Snowy...put ‘em back in their stalls and rub them down real good. And er...Mike... don’t worry huh?”
The child shrugged, “I’ll try,” and then he was gone.
Mose came over, “Reverend Jenkins and me will see to burying that no hoper Slim and finish off the chores, you just rest easy and look after Jess huh?”
Slim nodded his thanks and then turning back to the Padre said, “You’d better go with Mike Bill, I figure Gilly will be real frightened and upset.”
Once the men had gone, he turned to Ma Molesworth and noted that she was still standing staring at Jess looking deeply shocked.
Then her gaze turned to Slim, “My daughter...my dear Gilly....I must find her,” she said gathering her skirts and looking wildly around her.
“Calm down Ma’am,” Slim said quickly, “the Padre will bring her back safely. Maybe you could brew some coffee huh? I figure your daughter will need something warming when she gets back.”
She finally dragged her gaze away from where Jess was still looking more dead than alive and nodding made her way slowly to the kitchen.
Slim turned his attention back to Daisy, “How is he?”
She shook her head, “Not too good dear. The bullet went straight threw at least, and as far as I can see missed any vital organs, but it’s too soon to tell. The worst problem is the awful blood loss. It seems to be slowing a little now though. If you will help me to get his shirt off, I’ll clean the wound thoroughly. Then apply a dressing and just hope the bleeding stops.” She looked up at Slim and whispered, “I so wish Doc Sam was here though.”
“He’ll be OK,” Slim said firmly, “he’s in good hands with you Daisy. Come on let’s get started before he comes round and starts cussing for Texas.”
She allowed herself a small smile at that, knowing the truth of it and hurriedly set to work on her patient.
The dressing to Jess’s shoulder was tightly bandaged and his left arm up in a sling. This would hopefully stop him from attempting to do anything more taxing than sit in his rocker Daisy hoped...but right now bed was the place for him.
He had come round halfway through the painful procedure of having the wound cleaned with neat alcohol. Although he’d been stoic throughout Daisy could see how much it had taken out of him as he rested back, still deathly pale and now with a slick of sweat on his brow.
“I think maybe you should rest in here, by the fire for a little while dear,” she said kindly, “where I can keep an eye on you...just try and rest.”
However, as Jess closed his eyes the front door burst open admitting a frantic Gilly.
“Mike told me Jess has been shot!” she cried loudly, “Is he alright?” Then spying the object of her desire, she ran across the room and threw herself on his chest crying hysterically.
Jess let out a cry of pain and Slim grabbed Gilly by the waist and pulled her clear, “Please Miss don’t take on so....and give him some space huh?” he added crossly.
Just then Ma Molesworth flew into the room and grabbing her daughter pulled her into a warm embrace both women now crying uncontrollably.
Jess groaned and said something very rude under his breath and Slim turned his gaze on their beloved housekeeper, “Daisy do something,” he pleaded.
Daisy pulled herself up to her full height and said firmly, “I’m sorry ladies but I must ask you to leave. I have a very sick patient here, who needs quiet and rest. Maybe you’d care to take your coffee to your room Mrs Molesworth,” she continued. “And then take a little nap maybe, I’ll call you when lunch is ready.”
For once widow Molesworth didn’t argue or complain merely said tight lipped, “Of course.”
“Come along my dear,” she added taking Gilly’s hand, “I see we are not needed here.”
“Oh Mama, I want to nurse him,” Gilly cried, valiantly trying to escape her mother’s grasp and return to Jess’s side...but Daisy was too quick for her.
“That will not be necessary my dear,” she said, her eyes brooking no argument, “I am a qualified nurse, Jess is quite safe in my hands...you go and rest. You must be exhausted after your ordeal,” she added in a kindlier tone.
Once the women had gone Jess breathed a sigh of relief, “Thanks Daisy.”
She smiled and brushed his tangled black hair from his forehead, “You just rest dear.”
Then turning to Slim whispered, “And you make sure he does, I’ll go and put the coffee pot on.”

Chapter 6
Surprisingly Jess bounced back from his injury very quickly and got his strength back within the week.
Daisy put it down to the fact that he had stayed resting in bed as she had requested. A first as far as her recalcitrant patient was concerned.
“I’ve never known him to behave so well,” Daisy whispered to Slim one evening as they were brewing coffee together in the kitchen.
Slim tipped his head towards where Gilly and her Ma were hogging the fireside seats. “That’s your answer,” he said softly, “Jess is a prisoner in our room. He daren’ t come out for fear of Miss Gilly practicing her nursing skills on him.”
Daisy smiled, “Well it’s certainly done the trick, he’s so much better already...another few days and he’ll be able to sit up in a chair.”
“Um...if he can find a vacant one, Slim muttered, casting a glance around the corner to the parlor where their enforced guests were filling the space. “How much longer is this darned snow going to keep them here?” he added moodily.
Daisy cast a glance out of the frosty kitchen window and sighed, “It certainly doesn’t look like its thawing,” she said, “goodness Slim this could last for weeks and we’re running short of some supplies already.”
“Well, if things get bad, I can always go out and try and scare up a deer or wild turkey?”
“No dear you don’t understand, its basics like flour ...sugar and uh...coffee.”
Slim threw her an anxious glance then, “Heck things really are serious then...living in a confined space with Jess...and no coffee,” and he shook his head. “We’ll just have to pray for a thaw and really soon too,” he said with feeling.
It was another week before the thaw set in and by that time Jess was out and about. He was now able to tackle a few light chores and spent most of his spare time dodging the attentions of Gilly and her Ma.
“I guess you’re the hero of the hour,” Slim said smirking as the two sat in the sanctuary of the barn mending harnesses one afternoon.
“How come?” Jess asked frowning, “It was you that dispatched Carson.”
“Ah yes, but you were badly injured ‘in the process of protecting dear Gilly,’” Slim said in an approximation of Ma Molesworth’ s jarring tones.
“And that’s good, is it?” Jess asked looking skeptical.
“Apparently so. I reckon Ma Molesworth hasn’t given up on you as potential husband material,” Slim added with a chuckle.
Jess rolled his eyes and cast a glance through the partially open barn door, “Dang it when’s it gonna thaw?” he asked irritably.
Eventually their prayers were answered as the icy conditions gave way to warmer spring like weather. The pristine snow turning a muddy brown and everywhere the sound of running water as the ice and snow slowly melted.
There was a collective sigh of relief from all as they finally made their way to the recently repaired stagecoach. All except Gilly that is, who only had eyes for Jess as he marched over to the coach and helped the passengers on board. Then her misery turned to joy as she saw the dark-haired cowboy join Mose up on the box.
“Oh,” she gasped looking ecstatic, “Jess is joining us on the trip.”
“Yes,” said the Padre, “apparently Miss Daisy was most insistent that the doctor check Jess over. Mose wanted some company too. I think he’s worried that the poor roads might damage the coach again,” he added.
“Oh, I hope not,” Ma Molesworth cried in her loud voice. “After all we are already late for your meeting with your beau, Mister Atkins,” she reminded her daughter.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Gilly said looking less than enthusiastic.
“You are committed to the man don’t forget my dear,” her mother reminded her.
Yes, she too had conjured with the idea of having Jess as a son in law...but a recently overheard conversation had now completely finished the idea.
She had been in the parlor early one morning and unaware of her presence, Slim and Jess had been chatting in the kitchen.
“Are you sure you feel up to going to town?” Slim had asked sounding concerned.
“Are you kiddin’?” Jess replied, “Turn down the chance of spending some time with my gal are you crazy? Nope I’m definitely going tomorrow, come Hell or high water...Jeez, I can’t wait to spend some time with Millie...and don’t expect me back on the afternoon stage either,” he’d added with a wink.
“Alright...but just the one night, pard...we’ve got a lot of work to catch up on here you know.” Then their voices faded as they made their way out of the backdoor leaving Ma Molesworth feeling devastated. It was no good... the boy was obviously in love with another. Gilly would just have to make do with Clem Atkins and hope he was a reasonable sort of chap.
As the roads were so bad Mose had decided to take the Stage just as far as Laramie and then take advice about the state of the Cheyenne road.
“Well, if you don’t have a long trip ahead maybe you could drop us at Mister Atkins ranch, it isn’t far out of your way,” Ma Molesworth had said in her direct way.
“I suppose I could,” Mose said reluctantly, then as an aside to Jess whispered, “Anything to be rid of the old trout.” He actually went past the end of the track leading to old Clem’s ramshackle place, so an extra half mile would make no difference he thought.
Sometime later he swung the coach into Clem Atkins down at heel yard after an uneventful journey.
At the unaccustomed sound of the stage in his yard Clem hurried out of the ranch house and stood scratching his chest and looking slightly bemused.
He wore a filthy undershirt faded to a soft pink and his equally filthy denims were held up by braces. He wore a battered old Stetson over his long straggly grey locks, set at a jaunty angle and sported a good few days of grey beard to his double chin.
His blue eyes twinkled up at Mose as he brought the team to a halt.
“Say, what are you doin’ out in these parts Mose? I ain’t a dang relay station ya know,” he added grinning up at the pair on the box.
“Got a delivery for ya,” Mose said succinctly.
“Uh-huh, seems like you ordered a bride from the lonely-hearts page?” Mose asked grinning.
“I did?”
“Sure, dontcha remember?”
“I guess I do. Must have been one of those nights after a skin full,” he added with a sheepish look.
“Well, whatever, you’ve got one and I ain’t takin’ her back,” Mose added hotly. All the time Jess sat there chuckling to himself.
Then their banter was rudely interrupted by Ma Molesworth’ s shrill tones from the depths of the coach, “Well gentlemen, is someone going to help us alight?”
Clem frowned and raised an inquiring eyebrow, “Dang it...what the hell was that?” he asked.
“That,” replied Jess unable to keep the grin off his face, “was yer future Ma in law.”
Before Clem could reply Jess jumped down from the box and dragging the coach door open offered his hand to Widow Molesworth.
She alighted quickly, followed by her daughter and stood in consternation as they registered the barren land as far as the eye could see. Then nearer at hand noted the straggly chickens pecking listlessly in the yard...and then the dilapidated house, with peeling paint and filthy windows.
Finally Ma’s gaze came to rest on Clem, and looking horror stricken she turned to Jess.
“This is Clem Atkins?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Jess confirmed.
Then turning to Clem, he said, “This is Widow Molesworth and her daughter Gilly...your intended.”
Clem’s face lit up when he saw Gilly and he couldn’t believe his luck.
“Well, howdy little lady, come along in and let’s get to know each other,” he said with a sly wink in Jess’s direction.
Gilly looked from Jess to Clem and back and couldn’t remember a time when life had seemed more unfair.
“Come along my good man fetch our bags,” Ma Molesworth said briskly to Clem. Then chivvying her daughter to get along she made her way towards the house. He would be a challenge of course she told herself...but she’d soon lick Clem Atkins into shape and then her daughter would be off her hands for good.
Jess had a momentary feeling of compassion for poor Gilly. Mose must have been feeling the same, because before he climbed back up on the stage he said, “We pass by twice a day Miss... early morning and afternoon...you need to go anyplace just wait at the end of the track and I’ll pick ya up.”
She nodded her thanks.
“And maybe I’ll see you in town sometime Jess?”
He nodded cheerfully and then leaning forwards kissed her chastely on the cheek, “Yup, me and Slim get in most Saturdays. Bye Gilly and good luck,” he added before vaulting back up onto the box.
Then Ma Molesworth called out, “Do come along dear,” and sighing deeply Gilly rolled her eyes and plodded off towards her new home.

They pulled into Laramie shortly afterwards and Jess made his farewells to Mose and the Padre and headed straight for Mort Cory’s office.
He found the Sheriff with his feet up on the desk, coffee cup at his elbow and deeply engrossed in a book.
He put it to one side as the door opened admitting Jess and glanced up at his old friend.
“Well, I’ll be! If it ain’t Jess Harper; as I live and breathe,” he said, his rugged face wreathed in smiles, “long time no see huh.”
Jess advanced on him and shook his hand warmly before slumping down in the chair opposite the desk, and taking up the novel Mort had discarded.
“Yer real busy I see Mort,” he said cheekily.
“Ah well there’s been dang little to do around here,” he replied, “what with most folk snowed in. So, I’ve taken to buying the odd two cent novel from the store,” he said looking a tad sheepish. “Gotta do something to stop me going stir crazy. So, how’s it been up at the Relay...snowed in with passengers so I hear?”
Jess filled him in on the goings on of the previous few of weeks concluding with the death of Carl Carson. “That’s why I’m here,” he said, “I’ve got all his papers for you. “We buried him back at the ranch...but I can give you a statement as to how he met his end.
“That’s fine,” Mort said, “and you say it was the Padre that tipped you off as to who he really was?”
Jess nodded, “I guess Carson was vaguely familiar to me too. He said he’d seen me back in Texas... uh in the old days,” he added rather sheepishly.
Mort gave him a kindly smile, “Back in the bad old days eh Jess? But that’s all behind you now.”
“Sure, but there’s always some bastard wantin’ to dredge it all up again,” he said bitterly.
Then taking a deep breath, “So, you heard anything of the gang Mort, seems they were to rendezvous here in Laramie according to what Rev Jenkins overheard.”
Mort nodded, “Oh yes, I’ve heard and seen too. It must be what...three weeks ago now the gang leader, eldest brother Spike Carson hit town. I guess he had no choice the snow was coming down real bad and his horse came up lame. I figure he meant to keep a real low profile...what with a murder charge on his head ...but he just couldn’t resist the pull of the saloon and the whiskey bottle. It was Lon spotted him, remembered the mug shot on the poster. So, we went in the saloon to arrest him...but he drew on me.”
“I’m guessing you were a tad faster iffen yer still alive to tell the tale,” Jess said with a bitter grin.
Mort nodded, “We took him across to Doc Sam’s office, he lasted a couple of days but he couldn’t save him.”
“What about the other two ...any sign?”
“Nope, but if they had further to travel, they could still be on their way here. We’ve been keeping an eye open for them...but nothing yet,” he concluded before picking up the wallet and letters Jess had passed across the desk.
“Have you looked at this stuff belonging to Carson?” Mort asked.
When Jess said he hadn’t Mort started methodically checking it out. After a few minutes he looked up from a letter written in an almost illegible hand. “This is kinda hard to read...I figure Spike wrote it on his death bed.”
Jess’s quirky eyebrows rose in surprise, “So what does he have to say?”
Mort read it again and then looking up said, “The gist of it is that he’d written to Carl Carson, his younger brother Davy and also to their cousin Con; the rest of the gang in other words.”
“Go on, so what was so important to have to write them before he died?”
“It seems after the bank raid they all split up to escape the posse and Spike, being the eldest just happened to have all the money.”
Jess grinned, “Perk of being a big brother I guess.”
Mort smiled back. “Anyway, according to this letter it’s buried someplace on the old Benson spread back of your ranch.”
“But that place has been abandoned for years...how come he even knew about it?”
Mort shrugged, “Maybe he was just passing and it seemed a good spot. I guess he didn’t want to carry that amount into town. Anyway, Carl had already wired him earlier hadn’t he, saying to meet up here.”
“Well go on then Mort where’s it buried? We can go out and pick it up.”
“Not so fast Jess...that’s the whole point of the letters.”
“Spike wrote to Carl, Davy and Con, each with a clue as to where the money was hidden. Carl here got told the Benson spread and that it is buried near a large pine. I’m guessing Davy and Con will each have another clue...and just like a jigsaw puzzle, put all the clues together and bingo...you’ll find the buried money.”
Jess tipped his Stetson back and scratched his head, “But why go to all that trouble, why not just tell them all where to find it?”
“Because he didn’t trust them, he figured once they knew where it was, well they’d all race to be the first to find it...winner takes all see?”
Jess shook his head sadly, “Whatever happened to honour amongst thieves eh Mort?”
Mort shook his head chuckling, “So all we have to do is wait until they turn up...get their clues and then we can go dig up the prize, like you said.”
“As easy as all that huh?” Jess said.
“Well with a little help from you and Slim maybe?” Mort said hopefully.
“So, what do we need to do?”
“This letter that Spike sent the others says they are to meet up at the Last Chance saloon on the edge of town and be real careful not to be seen in the town. Well, that makes sense seeing as I had apprehended Spike. So, I guess we need to leave a message with the barkeep at the Last Chance and say the others are to meet up at the old Benson spread and to let me know when they’ve hit town too.”
“Um, well I reckon I’d better talk to Bawdy Bill, Jess said with a grin, “I figure you ain’t any too popular out there right now.”
Bawdy Bill ran a shady establishment on the edge of town and with its watered-down whiskey and rigged card tables it sure was a place to miss. It was frequented by the town’s lowlife, drunks and those in need of a little entertainment from Bawdy Bill’s illicit whore house. However, the advent of the new editor of the Laramie Sentinel had brought a long-needed clean-up to the town. The town council had urged Mort to clamp down on the prostitution that was rife in the area and now many of the previous businesses had gone to earth. Likewise, Bill had needed to pretend his girls were purely serving beer and that in turn had affected his business and income when word got around that Bill’s place was now squeaky clean.
“Uh, yes maybe it would be better coming from you,” Mort agreed. “That guy gives me the creeps anyway. Jeez it beats me why anyone would drink in a place like that.”
“Off the beaten track, away from the prying eyes of the law,” Jess said with a chuckle. “There’s one hell of a lot goes on down there ya know Mort and I don’t just mean those rough ol’ workin’ girls either.”
“Well until I can find a good reason to close the whole place down all that will have to wait. We’ve got more important things to worry about right now Jess.”
A short while later Jess made his way down Main Street to the Laramie Saloon with a heavy heart... Gee he sure wanted to spend the next day or so with Millie but now it looked like he’d have to help Mort sort out the Carson Gang before he could indulge in some good lovin’.
It was especially difficult for him as his girl was so pleased to see him after their enforced separation due to the dadgum awful weather.
“Oh, honey I thought you’d be able to stay over,” she said sadly as they sat holding hands at a quiet corner table.
“I’m real sorry, but these guys could arrive at anytime and they’re a tad too close for comfort, once they head over to the old Benson spread. I sure wouldn’t wanna see Mike or Daisy in danger.”
“Oh no of course not,” she said quickly, “you must go....and I’ll see you real soon, huh?”
“Just as soon as I can,” he agreed leaning in to kiss her tenderly.
He got up to leave and then turning back said, “By the way if a Ma Molesworth joins the Women’s Group...don’t believe a word she says about me, OK?” And with that he strode of with a cheery wave.
“Jess... Jess?” but he’d gone.
He reined in at the Last Chance Saloon and tethered the hire horse he’d rented from Bert at the livery; took a deep breath and marched into the dim interior.
The smell of sour beer and sweat assaulted his nostrils as he peered into the dimly lit bar.
It was still quite early with just a few barflies in attendance and Jess strode over and rapped loudly on the counter for service.
A while later the bleary-eyed barkeep Bawdy Bill slouched in and said sullenly, “Well what do ya want?”
“Well, your full attention would be kinda nice.” Jess barked.
The fat, scruffy man looked up and as soon as he realized it was Jess Harper standing before him, his demeanor changed immediately. His surly expression was transformed into obsequious smile.
“Mister Harper good to see you he said, “what can I do for you...a drink...or one of my young ladies maybe? Big Bertha is free,” he added nodding to a voluptuous middle-aged hag at the far end of the bar. She was currently smoking like her life depended on it and knocking back a large glass of gin...but she broke off to waggle her fingers at Jess and threw him what she considered to be a seductive smile.
Jess gave a faint shudder and tipped his hat to her before turning back to Bill.
“I don’t want nuthin’ to drink,” he growled, “just you to do somethin’ for me....and the Sheriff.”
“Oh right,” said Bill and hiding his disappointment, pinned another fawning smile on his face, “at your service of course.”
Jeez he thought privately he’d do any dang thing the ex-gunslinger wanted. He’d seen his fast draw way too often to mess with Jess. This was one guy he sure wanted to keep on the right side of. The Sheriff too dadgum it.
“OK you listen up good. There will be a couple of guys landing here any day now...called Carson...they’ll be looking to meet up with a guy called Carl Carson...you got that?”
“Meeting with Carl Carson...yup got it.”
“Well, he won’t be meeting them here. You tell ‘em that they have to meet him at the old Benson spread...tell ‘em where to find it OK?”
“Meet at the old Benson spread. Yeah, you got it Mister Harper...sir.”
“Soon as they leave, you go tell Sheriff Cory....right away yeah?”
“Yes sir...right away!”
Jess threw him a hard look, one hand resting on his gun butt. “And you never saw me right... I wasn’t here...that message came from Carl himself, OK?”
“OK...yes sir I’ve got it. You just leave it with me,” Bill said now shaking slightly, a slick of sweat on his pale flabby face.
Jess gave him another hard stare and then turning on his heel left.

Chapter 7
“So let me get this straight … the Carson Gang are meeting up just across the Home Pasture at the old Benson spread?” Slim asked looking pained. “That’s kind of close to home isn’t it Jess?”
“Well, I didn’t dang well organize it,” Jess protested, “it was already in that letter Spike wrote to Carl Carson... Anyways as soon as they land Bawdy Bill is gonna tell Mort and he’ll ride over to arrest them...he just needs a helping hand from us, that’s all.”
“And are you sure Bill will tip Mort off? You know what he’s like.”
“Oh, sure he will,” Jess said with a grim smile, “because he knows dang well what’ ll happen to him if he don’t.”
Slim looked into Jess’s eyes and gave a slight shudder. When he spoke that way it reminded him so much of the raw, tough young man who had ridden in all those years ago. He had been so full of angst and pain...so wary. How it had taken him so long to put down those stakes and decide to stay.... But even now after all that time he could still get that restless look in his eyes and occasionally, just for a split second, appear to be every inch the gunslinger he had once been.
“Yeah well, I’ll be a whole lot happier once this business is dealt with,” Slim concluded before he marched off to the barn to start on the chores.
“And you think I won’t?” Jess said angrily to himself, before sighing and following his pard.
It was just two days later that Mort Cory rode in shortly after dawn.
Jess showed him in and nodded to a seat at the breakfast table whilst Daisy went off for an extra cup. She had already been informed of the situation. At her request, and as a precaution, Mike had been shipped off to stay with a school friend for a few days. Now she looked anxiously at the Sheriff.
“I do hope you are going to be careful out there. I hear the Carson Gang are wanted for murder...so they will be terribly desperate,” she said fearfully.
“Now don’t you worry your head Mrs Cooper,” Mort said kindly, “it will all be over before you know it. The outlaws in jail where they belong and hopefully the good folk of Denver will get their money back too.”
“Well let’s get to it then,” Jess said draining his cup and getting up. “They may start getting suspicious if they land and there’s no sign of Carl.”
“But what are you going to do?” Daisy asked looking puzzled, “Carl is dead, isn’t he?”
Slim grinned at her. “Well, that’s where Jess’s murky past comes in handy Daisy. See he came across the Carson Gang back in Texas in the uh...bad old days...Carl remembered him from then. So, it stands to reason his brother and cousin will remember Jess too, or his reputation anyway,” he said with a sideways glance and smirk in Jess’s direct.
“OK, OK get on with it,” Jess growled.
“So, it will be quite believable when Jess says Carl was shot down by the law...Jess was there, helped carry him to the docs and Carl gave his part of the clue to him...said he could have his share of the money.”
“But won’t they object to that?” Daisy asked looking uncertain.
“Probably,” said Jess with a cheeky grin, “but it’ll be too dang late by then. Mort and Slim will see to that. I’ll try and get their clues right away...but if they won’t talk then I guess we’ll just hafta go dig it up and then Slim and Mort can show themselves, job done,” he added cheerfully.
Then seeing that she still looked upset he pulled her into a warm embrace and hugging her tightly whispered, “It’ll be just fine Daisy, you’ll see.”
Shortly afterwards all three rode out.
They rode across the river at the bottom of the Home Pasture. Then made their way stealthily on foot to the ruins of the old Benson place and were rewarded by the sight of wood smoke wafting up into the clear early morning sky.
They crept closer and saw Carl’s younger brother Davy and cousin Con sitting around the campfire sipping coffee and looking pretty despondent.
“I figure they think they’ve been stood up,” Jess whispered with an evil grin, “time to make their day huh?”
Mort nodded, “Take it real easy Jess, we’ve got your back,” he added as Jess broke cover and sauntered over to the two men.
As soon as Jess approached them both men went to draw on him...but with his lightning-fast reactions Jess had them covered before they could even slap leather.
“Hey mister, what’s yer business?” Con drawled.
“I could ask you the same,” Jess spat, “this is private property.”
Con looked back to the crumbling edifice of the Benson ranch house and said, “I don’t see nobody complaining.”
Then Davy peered across and said, “Don’t I know you? Uh... Harper... Jess Harper that’s it...I guess you know my brother Carl. You seen him around here?” he asked.
“Seen him and helped bury him,” Jess said succinctly, “that’s why I’m here...fer his share of the takings.”
Davy just stared at him in horror, “What, Carl’s dead?
Jess nodded, “I guess he didn’t heed Spike’s warning to keep his head down...same dang Sheriff that shot Spike did for Carl too.”
Davy shook his head looking shocked to the core...then rallied a little.
“What, he gave you, his share? I don’t believe it!”
“Well, you’d better because I’ve got the vital clue...neither of you is gonna get a penny iffen you cut me out,” Jess said reasonably.
Con had been silent all this time, now he turned to Jess, “Hang on I thought I heard you’d changed...sold out on the old ways and gone straight?”
“Where’ d you hear that shit?” Jess asked angrily.
Con shrugged, “I read it in a paper someplace...said you’d helped the Sheriff here abouts...worked as deputy?”
“Are you crazy?” Jess yelled. “Sure, I tried that way of life for a while. But come on...a dollar a day when I can have all the money I want, just for the taking? Oh, sure I convinced folk for a while back there. But nope I guess once a gunslinger always a gunslinger.”
Back in the undergrowth behind him Slim and Mort exchanged a glance and Slim shivered. Sure, his buddy was putting on a good performance...but it sounded so dang convincing it made his blood run cold.
He glanced back to the scene before him.
“Well?” Jess growled angrily. “Are we gonna share our clues and divide up the cash or what? Because I fer one don’t wanna be around these parts any longer than we need. That dang Sheriff is way too handy with his gun for my liking.”
That seemed to stir the others into action and they nodded, “Sure but you go first Harper...and no funny business. Jess disclosed the clue regarding the pine tree.
“I know the one he means it’s just over there beyond the house,” he said.
Once in place the other two revealed their clues.
“Head due west from the tree,” Con said.
Followed by Davy, “for ten paces.”
The men did as they were instructed, and then while Jess and Davy looked on Con dug deep into the cold ground.
Eventually his spade made a dull clang as it hit the metal bank box.
“Got it,” he cried excitedly grinning up to Jess and Davey.
“You sure have.” Jess said pulling his gun and leveling it at Davy’s temple. “Now drop yer gun real slow Con,” he barked.
But when Con panicked and went for his iron Mort and Slim were suddenly there.
“Drop it if you know what’s good for you son,” Mort drawled.
Con rolled his eyes and dropped the gun and Davy did likewise.
Mort cuffed them and led them away followed by Slim and Jess.
After a minute Slim turned to his pard, “Are you OK?”
Jess looked away and nodded, “Sure why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh no reason,” and they made their way back to the horses.
Once they were back at the ranch, Mort having left with the prisoners and a very much relieved Daisy brewing coffee; the two men went out onto the porch. Slim really needing to speak to Jess alone.
“What’s so important you can’t say it in front of Daisy?” Jess asked irritably.
Slim swallowed hard and then said. “It was just this morning...the way you were talking to those guys, well it was real convincing Jess. Does... well does a little part of you still think that way?” He asked...almost apologetically.
Jess turned to him looking as angry as Slim had ever seen him.
“What do you think?” He yelled before turning on his heel and marching over to the barn...every inch of his back view saying just leave it right there mister.
It was much later that night that Slim dared to broach the subject again.
Jess had taken off riding fence for the rest of the day. Then he’d hardly spoken a word throughout supper before mooching out to the porch.
When he was still out there an hour later Slim shrugged into his warm jacket and snagging a half bottle of whiskey and two glasses from the kitchen made his way out onto the porch.
His pard was sitting in one of the old wooded seats, feet up on the rail and looking off to the snow-covered mountains. He was wrapped in his thick coat, the collar up and an unfathomable look in his deep blue eyes.
“Mind if I join you?” Slim asked softly as he took the other seat and waggled the whiskey bottle, “Drink?” He added.
Jess nodded and accepted the offered shot glass.
“Daisy was worried about you, she’s just turned in and I promised to come and see what was wrong,” Slim said honestly.
Then when Jess merely sipped his drink without replying Slim tried again.
“Look I’m sorry if you thought I doubted you today. But I have to say you really do put on a good act Jess.”
“And that’s all it was!” Jess said furiously. “It was just an act Slim, nuthin’ more. Do you really think so little of me? What did ya think I was gonna do, turn my gun on you and Mort and hightail it with the cash? Go back on the owl hoot trail huh?”
“No, of course not, but your attitude...well something is sure bothering you,” Slim said stoutly.
There was a long pause before Jess threw back the last of his drink.
“Well, if you must know it didn’t sit well lyin’ to them that way. Sure, they’re a bad lot, need to be behind bars...hung if the murders are proved. But I just didn’t like deceiving them that way. It didn’t sit right Slim...you know?”
“Honor amongst thieves, was it?” Slim said with a weak smile.
“I guess somethin’ like that.”
Slim gave a relived sigh, “Well I guess I can sort of understand that.”
They lapsed into silence and then Slim said softly, “But sometimes...that old life beckons huh? Oh, I don’t mean the trouble you got in, but living in the big open...the sort of friendships...you get in gangs the loyalty...watching another’ s back...all that stuff? Doesn’t a little bit of you miss all that Jess?”
He was silent for so long that Slim thought he would refuse to answer. Then looking across at his pard he saw he was deeply moved.
So, he just topped up his pard’ s glass and waited patiently.
Finally, Jess said softly, “If I’m honest...yeah, I do miss the big open occasionally…but not the gangs Slim. I’ve got all the friendship I need with you,” he said sincerely, “all that I’ll ever need. I reckon you understand me real good too. When that old wanderlust comes over me you agree to me taking off hunting, or lookin’ for broncs ...and I appreciate that Slim I really do.”
Slim just nodded but said nothing for a moment.
Then quietly, “Is that why you haven’t set a date with Millie yet then Jess...afraid to commit?”
“Hell no...it ain’t that way at all Slim. It’s Millie that’s takin’ her time. See she knows me better than anyone and she figures I’d feel tied down right now iffen I couldn’t take off the way I do sometimes. She says she sure doesn’t want me disappearing off on some adventure or other and leavin’ her with a house full of young ‘uns afoot to look after alone.”
“Well, I can understand that,” Slim said, “she’s a smart gal your Millie...I’ve always said that.”
He nodded, “And real understandin’ too.”
Slim chuckled, “I’d never have put Millie down as a reluctant bride though...but I guess she’s got a point.”
Jess nodded, “I guess it’s down to me to convince her I really am ready to settle down. Well pretty soon anyway,” he added with a cheeky grin.
“Ha! I know of one potential bride who sure isn’t reluctant,” Slim said with a chuckle. “I wonder how Miss Gilly and old Clem are shaking down together.”
Jess nearly choked on his whiskey, “Aw Slim don’t,” he said laughing. Then sobering, “The sooner those two are wed the happier I’ll feel,” he added firmly.

Chapter 8
Unbeknownst to Slim and Jess right then, there was probably nobody in the whole of Wyoming who was a more reluctant bride than Miss Gilly Molesworth.
Widow Molesworth had stayed a matter of days before saying she really must check on her sister Lucy back in Laramie, “And make the arrangements.” she had said in an aside to her daughter.
Seeing Clem was buttering yet another biscuit at the breakfast table Gilly took her Ma off to the kitchen, to talk in private.
“You can’t leave me here alone with...with that man,” she whispered urgently.
“Oh, come along my dear he’s harmless enough. It’s not as though he’s going to force his attentions on you...mores the pity,” she added with a sigh. “No, you must stay here alone and well...get to know him properly,” she said with a meaningful smile.
“Ma...please he’s well...so old.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers my dear, how many times have I told you that? You’ll be married and have some standing in the community...a rancher’s wife...you’ll be something special.”
All I’ll be is a dogsbody, Gilly thought as she looked around the shabby kitchen with its greasy rusting stove and cracked old sink.
“Don’t argue dear, I’ll see the Reverend Wesley and confirm that date for next month. I’m quite surprised I didn’t receive a reply to my letter before we left home,” she murmured absently.
Once her mother had left, Clem turned to Gilly and gave her a gappy smile, “Well my dear just the two of us and we have things to settle.”
Gilly steeled herself for what was to come. Up to now he had been the perfect gentleman...goodness he hadn’t even held her hand or pecked her cheek. Maybe now all would change she thought with a feeling akin to horror.
“Yes, just us two,” she agreed, “Er what do you want to discuss Clem?”
“Well, I really don’t want to be too forward...but I think we need to talk about our future.”
“Yes,” she said meekly swallowing hard.
“I’ve been thinking that maybe...well I’m a gettin’ a tad long in the tooth for a family.”
Well, that’s darned right she thought privately, but just smiled encouragingly, “Go on Clem.”
“So iffen you are of a mind then maybe we could just settle down and become well...partners. Married of course if that’s what you’d like. But I see you as more of a companion cum housekeeper, than a wife. Uh without the wifely duties,” he added flushing up some. “Just like good friends, see?” he finished somewhat hesitantly.
Her eyes opened wide in surprise and she took a moment or two to register this bombshell. It was good news...wasn’t it? She had absolutely no inclination to share his bed. But on the other hand, she hardly wanted to spend her life as an unpaid and unfulfilled skivvy to this man. Heavens she was no spring chicken and if she really wanted to have children before it was too late, she must end this relationship and seek another.
“Well, what do you say?” Clem prompted.
Heck if she turned his idea down flat, he would doubtless get her Ma onside to try and persuade her...better to play along until she could formulate a plan.
“That sounds reasonable,” she said pinning a smile on her face. “Now about a new cook-stove, if I am to be using it regularly you really need a new one Clem dear.”
Clem’s heart sank. He really thought if he declared he didn’t want a family or any intimacy she would vamoose as quickly as she had arrived. Leave town taking that damn mother of hers with her. OK he thought she was a nice enough woman...pleasant even and he had no wish to hurt her feelings. But if what folk said was true and a woman finally turned into her mother as they aged...well dadgum it...he wanted no part of Miss Gilly Molesworth if that were to be the case. No siree. But he’d just have to look for another way out he thought and before that Widow Molesworth got the banns read too.

Meanwhile back in town Widow Molesworth rang the bell of Reverend Josh Wesley’s house next to the Church and stood back expectantly.
She was surprised and a little wrong footed when the door was opened by Reverend Bill Jenkins, her fellow passenger on the ill-fated coach. Looking flustered she said, “Why Padre it’s you! I was expecting to see Reverend Wesley.”
“Yes, Ma’am please come in,” Bill Jenkins said smiling at her. “I do believe my colleague is over in the Church I’ll go and fetch him if you’d care to take a seat,” he said showing her into the pleasant parlor. “Dear Mary, the Reverend’s wife, is out at present, but I could make you a drink...some coffee perhaps?”
“No need, just fetch the Reverend please,” she said in her usual brisk way.
“Certainly,” but he paused by the door and said, “I trust you are well and fully recovered from our difficult journey?”
She gave him a regal nod of confirmation.
“And Gilly she is well too?”
“My daughter is spending some time with her intended,” she replied haughtily.
Bill looked shocked at that news...but just mumbled something and went off in search of his good friend Joshua.

“I’m very sorry Mrs Molesworth but I cannot book a wedding without talking to the proposed bride and groom first,” Reverend Joshua Wesley said for the third time.
“Now if you will excuse me, it’s nearly time for my prayer meeting,” he added, getting up from his seat and giving Ma Molesworth a tight smile.
She sighed deeply, “I am a very good friend of Padre Jenkins you know,” she said, as though that would solve everything, “I’m sure he will vouch for the validity of my daughter’s engagement.”
“I’m sure he would,” Josh said moving to the door and opening it, “but unfortunately I still need to see the bride and groom before any service can be considered.”
Once he had finally closed the door on an outraged Widow Molesworth, Bill emerged from the kitchen, “Trouble?” he asked, offering his friend a cup of coffee.
Josh nodded and led the way into his study where they both made themselves comfortable.
“You could say so. Is the daughter anything like her mother?” He asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“On the contrary,” Bill said flushing a little, “I found her quiet charming. “I really can’t believe that terrible woman has left her daughter at the hands of that old man either,” he added stoutly.
“Old Clem is safe enough. Pretty rough and ready, but a gentleman, she’ll be quite safe with him,” Josh said quickly.
“All the same I don’t like the idea of her being stuck out there, in the middle of nowhere,” Bill said darkly.
Josh looked up from his coffee and threw his old friend a shrewd look, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were a tad infatuated by this Miss Gilly,” he said with a smile.
“Joshua...what are you saying!” Bill responded hotly. “Have you forgotten…I have not long lost my dear wife?”
“Oh, my dear chap I’m sorry,” Josh said immediately contrite. “But it’s been a while now ...and wouldn’t she want you to be happy again?”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Bill said gruffly. “I’m merely concerned for the girl’s welfare that’s all, so let that be an end to your silly notions.”
“Of course,” Josh said softly...but a little voice said ...um I believe you doth protest too much old friend.
Meanwhile back at the Sherman ranch Daisy was rushing around preparing for a visit later that day with Slim, Jess and young Mike still at the breakfast table.
“Hey Daisy, come and sit down a spell and have another coffee yer makin’ me tired just watching you,” Jess said grinning over at Slim and rolling his eyes.
“No time dear if we are to be at Marion’s by lunchtime to help with the party preparations. Oh, and Jess dear can you help yourself to some cold cuts from the larder for your lunch. I really don’t have time to pack it up now.”
Then turning her attention to the youngest member of the family said, “Come along Mike let’s get you sorted out. We need to pack your best clothes; Aunt Marion wants to see what you’ll be wearing as Page Boy.”
“Aw Aunt Daisy, do I hafta?”
“But of course. If Slim is to give the bride away he will be in his Sunday best too and you don’t want to let the family down, do you?”
“I guess not,” he said with a huge sigh and sliding down from his seat followed Daisy out of the room.
“Jeez if there’s this much fuss at the engagement party what’s the dang wedding gonna be like?” Jess asked looking scandalized.
“Um, well you just count your blessings you’re not involved. You can spend a nice relaxing day mending the north pasture fence,” Slim said with a wink.
“So how come you got tangled up in it all?”
“Well Marion is one of my oldest childhood friends...I’m the nearest thing to a brother she’s got I reckon. So, after her Pa died, she asked me to give her away at her wedding someday. So of course, I agreed. I just didn’t think it would come around so quickly,” he added with a grin. “She met Daisy at the women’s group a few years ago and became good friends and so that’s how Mike got involved too,” he added.
“Well, you have fun,” Jess said draining his coffee cup and getting up from the table, “and you’ll be home tomorrow night, right?”
“Yes...and you will make it back for the late afternoon Stage won’t you Jess? Mose can go straight through at noon for once...but you’ll need to be back before sundown.”
“Yeah, yeah, quit fussin’ you just go enjoy yerself. I’ll mind the shop,” and calling a cheery farewell to Mike and Daisy he left for the north pasture.
He was halfway there when he realized that he’d forgotten the cold cuts for his noon snack... “Garldarn it,” he muttered to Traveller, “looks like I’m on short rations today boy.”
By early afternoon, having worked nonstop since his arrival, the job was now finished. He patted Traveler and on mounting up headed back towards the ranch at a leisurely trot.
That was when he saw a plume of smoke spiraling up into the clear winter sky.
“Looks like we’ve got folk trespassing on Sherman land,” he said to his mount, “but there again iffen they’ve got the coffee pot on I’ve a mind to forgive them,” he said with a chuckle and he kneed Traveller on towards the distant camp.
As he rode into the camp three scruffy looking mountain men arose as one...rifles at the ready...but then relaxed just as quickly.
“Why if it ain’t my old friend Jess Harper,”
Denver James said giving him a toothless grin. He was flanked by his two boys, Cody and Mick, who also smiled up at Jess in welcome.
He quickly dismounted and shook hands with his old friends before his gaze turned to the stew-pot over the crackling fire.
“Not eaten yet?” he asked.
“Nope care to join us Jess?” Denver said quickly. “It’s Mexican stew nice an’ hot an’ spicy as you like it,” he added grinning happily in Jess’s direction.
“Well, I don’t mind if I do, thanks,” Jess said quickly joining them around the camp fire.
Once they were digging in Jess said, “So what brings you down the mountain Den?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya Jess boy, see we were getting’ kinda low on vittles and I had an itch for some good fresh meat, deer and the like, maybe a turkey or two.”
“You did huh?” Jess asked glancing over to where Denver now seemed engrossed in the food on his plate.
“You wouldn’t have been over to Paradise on this here little hunting trip would ya?” Jess asked, knowing dang well that Denver had been poaching on Sherman land...yet again.
“Well see, the thing is Jess boy... I don’t rightly think of Paradise as belonging to you and Slim,” he said already being one step ahead and deciding to try and defend himself, before Jess came in with the attack...albeit only a verbal one. “Nope I think of it as the Lords...full of His bounty for us all,” Denver said piously.
“You do huh?” Jess said frowning.
“Uh...and anyway I thought I’d treat you boys to a little surprise...there was nobody home this morning so I left a couple of bottles back of the barn, knowing how Miss Daisy ain’t too keen on the Moonshine,” he added with a sly wink.
Jess considered this...the stew was excellent...and now he could have a warming drink on his return home...life was looking pretty rosy, yup he’d overlook the transgression...this time anyway.
He grinned over at Denver and said, “Thank you, that’s real neighborly of you Den... and uh...enjoy the meat huh.”
Then returning to his nearly empty plate added, “This is real good ...what meat is it?”
Denver threw him a huge grin, “Why it’s yer favorite Jess...bear!”
Denver had tried to convince Jess that the time he’d been sick for a week after he’d eaten bear last time was just unlucky...the meat had been tainted. Whereas this stew was freshly made and full of herbs and spices that would ease the digestive processes anyway.
Full of herbs and spices to disguise the rancid meat Jess thought later that night as he lay groaning and chucking up...wishing fervently for a quick demise.
He finally fell into a deep slumber around about dawn...but was then rudely awoken just a few hours later by someone hammering at the door.
“Goddamn it...can’t a guy just die in peace,” he muttered putting the pillow over his head.
But the relentless pounding had now moved to the kitchen door and he could ignore it no longer. Hell, what if Slim and the others had been involved in an accident of some sort he suddenly thought.
Without further ado and dressed only in some red faded, cut down under shorts he manfully staggered to the door...one hand grasping his painful stomach.
He wrenched the door open and gazed out bleary eyed...and finally focused on an irate looking Mose.
“Aw Mose what’ d ya want, I’m dyin’ here,” he said clasping his belly more firmly and now beginning to shiver as an icy blast hit his semi naked body.
Mose immediately looked contrite, “I’m real sorry to hear that Jess...but see I’ve got a visitor come to stay and I couldn’t leave her freezing out here in the yard now could I? “Stepping to one side he revealed a wide-eyed Gilly standing beside him. Her gaze quickly averted from where she’d been admiring the view of the tightly fitting faded shorts... then traveled up to Jess’s face and she gave him a weak smile.
Jess stared at her looking horror stricken. He was dreaming, wasn’t he? It was that dang stew giving him nightmares...calm down he told himself...you’ll wake up in a minute.
“Well, ain’t you gonna ask her in,” Mose prompted, “she’s got luggage...stayin’ a while I imagine,” he said helpfully.
“What?” Jess managed staring from Gilly to Mose and back.
“Please Jess, I’ve nowhere to go,” Gilly said tearfully.
He swallowed hard and grabbing the nearest thing at hand to cover his modesty, which was Daisy’s floral apron, he opened the door wider to admit them both.
“Suits ya,” Mose said a twinkle in his eyes as he noted the hastily clutched apron.
Jess threw him a look that would have felled a weaker man but Mose just took pity on him.
“Why don’t you go put some clothes on Jess, and I’ll make us all a nice coffee.”
When he returned, fully dressed, a little while later Mose and Gilly were sitting at the kitchen table, steaming coffee cups before them.
Jess sank down at the table and accepted a cup of the strong brew from Mose.
“There ya go son get that down you,” Then peering at him more closely said, Jeez you look dang rough...tie one on last night did ya?”
Jess threw him a baleful glance before sipping his coffee. Then after a second, he turned even paler and made a dash for the kitchen door heading for the outhouse.
Mose watched his progress with interest before turning back to Gilly.
“I guess yer host ain’t quite himself this morning Miss,” he said cheerfully.
When Jess returned looking pale and shaken Mose grinned up at him, “Not too well then Jess... so what’s up huh?”
“It’s Denver’s cookin’,” he finally managed.
“What that old beggar,” Mose grinned, “Hell Jess don’t tell me he’s been serving you up bear again...you know you can’t stomach that.”
“I didn’t know, did I?” Jess spat angrily, “He covered it up with Mex spices...could have been any darned thing.”
“Oh, you poor love,” Gilly crooned patting Jess’s hand lovingly, “I think we should get you back to bed.”
Jess looked horror stricken and growled, “I’ll be OK Miss Gilly, I’ll just rest up on the couch by the fire a while.”
“Right, I’ll be on my way,” Mose said, “I’ll change the team myself,” he added looking hard done by.
“No!” Jess said quickly, “No, I’ll give ya a hand Mose,” and the two left Gilly happily tidying the kitchen.
Once they were in the yard Jess said, “What the hell’s she doin’ back here?”
Mose shrugged, “Dunno. I guess it didn’t work out with Clem. She was waiting at the end of the track for the Stage first light this morning...all her bags and stuff around her...said she wanted to be dropped off here.”
“Well, where’s her Ma? Dang it!”
“Back in Laramie with her sis Lucy Sutton, been there a few days now, left that Gilly on her own at Clem’s place.”
Jess just shook his head in disbelief.
“Well can’t ya take her to her Ma’s sister’s place in Laramie?” he persisted
Mose shrugged, “I offered, but she said no... didn’t wanna see her Ma... and I guess you can’t blame her, can you? I mean would you wanna stay with Ma Molesworth and that Lucy Sutton?”
Jess just shook his head, but said nothing. He knew Ma Sutton was the bane of Daisy’s life. Always making trouble in the Women’s Group...a more disagreeable woman would be hard to find, Daisy had once said.
When the horses were ready to go Jess turned troubled eyes on Mose.
“Hell, what am I gonna do, Slim and the others ain’t due back for ages yet.”
Mose shrugged, “I guess you could just take to yer bed...pretend yer real sick...she won’t be able to talk to you iffen yer asleep.”
Jess sighed deeply, “Well there won’t be no pretendin ’ needed that’s fer sure,” and he turned toward the ranch, a look of resignation in his deep blue eyes.
“Oh, there you are,” Gilly chirped happily, “come along in Jess dear and you just relax on the couch and I’ll make you comfortable.”
Jess weighed up whether he could risk returning to his bed and shutting the door on her? But no maybe that would be worse if she actually found her way into his bedroom...that’d be asking for trouble wouldn’t it...his befuddled brain argued.
Sighing deeply, he allowed himself to be propelled towards the couch where he stretched out with Gilly fussing around him... covering him with a blanket before scurrying off to the kitchen.
She returned sometime later with a bowl of icy water and a clean cloth and proceeded to wipe his clammy face before rinsing the cloth out and placing it on his forehead. The gesture was actually quite soothing as by now his head was pounding and he eventually relaxed and fell into a deep restorative sleep.
The door banged open an hour later admitting Mike, followed by Daisy and Slim. But they stopped in their tracks when they saw Jess lying curled up on the couch. Slim was just about to check on him when Gilly emerged from the kitchen wearing one of Daisy’s aprons, a dab of flour on her flushed cheek.
Daisy recovered first and said, “Oh Gilly...uh, you’re back...what a nice surprise.”
“Oh no, she ain’t gonna sleep in my room again, is she?” Mike whispered to Slim.
“Hush, don’t be rude,” Slim whispered back...then in his usual voice, “Er lovely to see you Gilly, so to what do we owe the honour of this visit?”
“I... I thought I might stay a little while,” she said looking close to tears, “you see I really haven’t anywhere else to go.”
“So, things didn’t work out with Clem then, my dear?” Daisy asked, getting straight to the point.
That’s when the flood gates opened and Gilly started crying softly.
“Come along… don’t fret dear, of course you can stay until we can sort things out,” Daisy said kindly, throwing Slim a glance for his approval.
“Yes of course,” he said quickly... albeit slightly half-heartedly.
“Aw!” Mike said none too quietly.
“Uh, Mike dear you go and change out of those good clothes,” Daisy said quickly, “and then you can help Slim carry the spare bed into my room for Miss Gilly to use.”
Mike perked up at that and then cast a glance to where Jess was still lying immobile.
“Is Jess sick?” he asked looking over at Gilly.
“Yes dear, he’s suffering from food poisoning I think,” she said casting a loving glance in Jess’s direction. “He’s been awfully poorly...he ate some bear I believe and it’s upset him terribly.”
Slim and Daisy exchanged a knowing look, Slim fighting to keep a straight face...Jess’s history of consuming bear and the outcome was legendary in the family.
“Come along my dear I think we could all use a nice cup of coffee,” Daisy said gathering Gilly up and turning towards the kitchen, “I’m dying to see what you’ve been baking too,” she added.
Once they had gone Slim sank down beside Jess’s recumbent form and gently slapped his arm, “Come on Jess speak to me I know you’re not asleep.”
Jess’s eyes sprang open and he looked reproachful, “I was until you dang well started crashing about,” and he rubbed his arm as though mortally wounded.
Slim chuckled, “I saw you stir the minute Mike barged in. Admit it you’ve just been keeping your head down waiting for Gilly to leave. So, what’s going on there anyway?” he added.
“How should I know? One minute I’m dyin’ after that bastard Denver poisoned me...again...next thing I know she’s standing there with all her dang luggage sayin’ she’s come to stay.”
“Looks like marrying old Clem was a step too far even for her,” Slim whispered.
“I’m surprised her Ma ain’t frogmarched the pair of ‘em down the aisle by now,” Jess said with a weak grin.
“I guess we’ll find out what’s going on sooner or later,” Slim said, “Daisy’s with her now...probably interrogating her as we speak,” he added grinning.
“So that’s it really Daisy....when I saw Clem was so very old, I was having second thoughts and then when he said he wanted this sham marriage, one in name only,” she added for clarity, “and no children...well I just had to leave. I just daren’ t go to Laramie or Ma will make me go back, I know she will...and I have nowhere else to turn. I have no money of my own for a hotel. Ma just gives me a small allowance you see,” added looking embarrassed.
Goodness the woman was well into her thirties and had not a shred of independence Daisy thought sadly.
But then Gilly was speaking again.
“There is something else Daisy,” she said looking flushed and tearful once more. “You see I love Jess...I have since the moment I first cast eyes upon him...and now…well after nursing him today I’m absolutely sure,” and she looked like she might well swoon.
Daisy mentally rolled her eyes and decided it was time for some plain speaking. Goodness she thought…if the girl had really had to nurse Jess, then her patience would have been sorely tried and she doubted she would be looking quite so dewy eyed.
“Look my dear,” she said patiently, “I’m sure you think you love him...but you really don’t know him at all.”
“Oh, but I do!”
“No, you really don’t Gilly because if you did, you’d know he is promised to Millie Johnson. They were childhood sweethearts and have a shared history. She knows and understands him completely. What you don’t realise my dear is that Jess is a very complex and private person. It really is impossible to fully know him on such a short acquaintance.”
“Well, I’ll get to know him,” Gilly persisted, “and for him to know me too. We could be so happy together,” she said clasping her hands and looking like a lovesick teen.
“And what of Millie?” Daisy said firmly. “Do you really think you could come between them...and would you want to?” she added. “If you love him as much as you profess to do...then isn’t his happiness the most important thing?”
Gilly looked crestfallen, “I…I don’t know what to think,” she whispered.
“Look dear I have found in life that the most unexpected things happen if you are patient and just wait. Maybe Mr Right is out there just waiting to meet you. But to meet him you must be independent...your own woman. I do believe that has to come before any liaisons of any kind. You must know and trust in yourself first before you can look for a marriage partner. It’s a big step not to be taken lightly you know,” she added.
Then Mike burst in saying the bed was in place in Aunt Daisy’s room ready for their visitor and could he have some milk and cookies please.

Chapter 9
It was at breakfast the next morning that Daisy had a brain wave and decided to share it. Her heart went out to Jess who was still looking pale and sickly. He had refused breakfast and now sat staring into the depths of his coffee cup.
“How are you feeling?” Slim asked kindly.
“A little better I guess...well iffen this coffee stays down,” he added woefully.
“You sure did spend a lot of time in the outhouse yesterday,” Mike said his eyes open wide in wonder, “I didn’t know folk could get that sick just on eatin’ bad food,” he added conversationally.
Jess groaned and swallowed hard, but said nothing.
“Mike dear if you’ve finished maybe you’d like to go and collect the eggs for me?” Daisy said subtly.
Gilly who had opted to sit next to Jess covered his hand with her own and peered at him with lovelorn eyes, “Oh you poor dear,” she whispered.
Daisy exchanged a glance with Slim and then took pity on Jess and said brightly, “I’ve some good news for you Gilly, an idea that I think could end your dilemma.”
The younger woman beamed across at Daisy, “You have? You’ve considered my offer to stay and help you out here Daisy?” she asked breathlessly. “You won’t regret it really you won’t. I know you’re not getting any younger,” she added recklessly, “and Mike must be very tiring at times. I could really take over of the lion’s share of the work and you can put your feet up and relax in your golden years,” she said with a winning smile.
Daisy took a deep breath and counted to ten before answering.
“I can assure you my dear I am not in my dotage yet and certainly not ready to relax into my uh...golden years as you put it,” she said firmly.
Slim and Jess had exchanged a charged glance and were having difficulty keeping a straight face by now...even Jess’s painful stomach forgotten for a minute.
“No dear you misunderstand me,” she continued. “I’m sure Slim and Jess will confirm that we couldn’t possibly afford another housekeeper, nor is one necessary,” she added rather waspishly.
“Yes, Daisy’s right,” Slim said.
Then turning to his beloved housekeeper asked, “So what was your idea Daisy?”
“Well, I remembered last night that a friend from the Women’s Group was saying that Miss Molly is looking for a new live-in waitress at her eatery. Good wages and your own little room above the shop,” Daisy said happily. “Your first real taste of independence so what do you say my dear?”
Gilly looked dismayed as her vision of moving into the ranch and trying to seduce Jess quickly faded.
“Dear me no, I couldn’t do a menial job like waitressing,” she said haughtily. “What would Mama say?”
“Oh, it’s a very pleasant place,” Daisy said quickly, “Why my good friend Mrs Potts and I go every other Thursday for tea and cakes. The Sheriff is a frequent diner too as is Reverend Wesley. Oh yes, it’s really a very nice café,” she finished.
“I don’t know,” said Gilly looking hesitant.
“Well, you’d better make yer mind up quick,” Jess said rising to leave for the day’s work. “A job like that won’t be around for long,” he added, “money and yer own place…I’d grab it,” he said before marching off to start on the morning chores.
“He’s right,” Slim added, “you think on it real hard Miss.”
“I’m going into town tomorrow,” Daisy said, “maybe you could join me and we’ll have a word with Molly…that can’t hurt can it dear?”
It was later that morning when the two ranchers were busy mending a broken stall door that they heard a buggy drive into the yard. Jess peered out of the partially open barn door and then carefully closed it.
“Who’s that?” Slim called from the depths of the barn.
“Shh,” Jess said marching over, “It’s that Ma Molesworth and her sister, Lucy Sutton. Ma Sutton’s handyman’s driven them over. They must have heard that Gilly skipped ship at old Clem’s place.”
Slim put his hammer down and moved towards the door but Jess pulled him back. “Where are you goin’?”
“Why to see what they want of course,” Slim said briskly. Jess shook his head, “No Slim you don’t wanna get involved. Daisy’s in there she’ll sort it out. After all this is all womenfolk’s business ain’t it.”
Slim looked undecided but Jess made his way back to the stall.
“Come on Slim let’s get this job done before this ornery critter makes a bid for freedom,” he said holding the new plank of wood ready for Slim to hammer in place.
Slim glanced over to the occupier of the stall, Harpy the ancient Mule. He was staring into the middle distance a wisp of straw dangling from his mouth and Slim grinned.
“Yep, I guess Daisy can deal with it and like you say we wouldn’t want this crazy critter to make a break for the hills.”
It was sometime later that the barn door burst open admitting Gilly looking desperate and with tears coursing down her cheeks.
She tore over to where Jess was standing and threw herself into his arms, “Please you have to help me she cried piteously...I can’t go back to that man I just can’t.”
Jess did the only thing he could do, he wrapped her in his warm embrace and said kindly, “It’s OK honey...don’t take on so.”
Seconds later Ma Molesworth strode in closely followed by her sister and Fred Loades her handyman.
“ Aha...so that’s it!” she said triumphantly. “A secret tryst, is it? I knew Jess Harper was smitten my dear...it’s just taken him some time to come to his senses.”
Jess gently pulled away from Gilly’s vice like grip and said, “No Ma’am you’ve got it all wrong.”
Then turning behind him called, “Tell her Slim.”
Slim came out of the shadows at the back of the barn and approached Ma Molesworth.
“Jess is right,” Slim confirmed. “No secret lover’s meetings...unless it’s usual to have a third party along.” he added with a weak grin. “We’ve simply been offering a roof over your daughter’s head until she can sort out her future...that’s all.”
Ma Molesworth’ s eyes narrowed, “I don’t believe you. I know Mr Harper was taken with my Gilly when he first met her two years ago...and now he’s going to make an honest woman of her at last,” she said firmly.
Jess muttered something under his breath that sounded rather like ‘in yer dreams’, but it was Slim who replied.
“Nope,” he said briskly, “you’ve got it all wrong. In fact, Gilly is starting a new job in town shortly...at an exclusive eating house and will have her own accommodation too. So, you see she’ll be an independent woman and not your worry anymore.”
Ma Molesworth flushed a nasty shade of puce and said, “Is this true Gilly?”
She took a deep breath and knowing this was her only chance said, “Yes Mama, it’s true...so you see I am off your hands for good.”
He mother shrugged and turned to leave, but stopped by the barn door and said, “Once all this silliness is over, you’ll find me at Aunt Lucy’s house,” and with that she swept out.
It would have been nice to think that it was the last any of them at the ranch would hear of Ma Molesworth and her sister, but sadly it was no to be…
Gilly kept true to her promise and accepted the job at Miss Molly’s and was soon enjoying her new found freedom to the full. Occasionally she would spend the odd evening moping about what might have been with Jess. But most of the time she enjoyed herself making her little room into a proper home and finding new friends. It was easy to do this mixing as she did with the customers on a daily basis and soon several of them were becoming more than just customers but real friends and she delighted in her new lifestyle.
As to her Ma, well she settled in well with her only sister and soon she too was causing mayhem at the Laramie Women’s Group.
Daisy had a new tale to tell of a snide comment or unpleasant manner every week when she came home from the meeting. The whole ambience of the meetings was changing, with the ladies being always alert waiting for the next unkindness from Ma Molesworth and her sister.
However, their reign of unpleasantness was finally curtailed one bright spring afternoon.
It was the annual judging of the ‘Neatest Sampler’ competition and Ma Molesworth was expecting to win...in fact it was a foregone conclusion she had whispered to her sister earlier in the afternoon.
The judge was a lady seamstress from out of town, so the good ladies knew there would be no bias. Miss Watson had spent over an hour closely scrutinizing all the excellent handiwork. Finally, the time came for the judging and all the ladies sat in happy anticipation of the outcome.
“Today we have a beautiful entry from one of our younger members,” Miss Watson said beaming at the eager faces around her, “and I’m happy to declare the winner is Miss Millie Johnson.” There was a gasp of approval and much laughter and applause as the popular member received her prize of a beautiful box of Candy with a bright pink bow. The second and third prizes were awarded to equal enthusiasm from the group while Ma Molesworth and her sister sat tight lipped.
Miss Watson turned her gaze on Ma Molesworth and with a beautiful smile said, “And our runner up award goes to our newest member Widow Molesworth,” this was greeted with slightly less enthusiasm...but none the less she was applauded and one or two brave folk congratulated her.
“Congratulations you say? Ma Molesworth ranted, “I have never been so insulted in all my life! This sampler was judged First by the members of the Cheyenne Ladies Group no less than two years ago!”
At that Miss Watson’s smile faded, “You know I thought I recognized the work,” she said quietly. “Well in that case my dear I’m afraid you are disqualified...samplers cannot be entered twice you know...it states that quite clearly in the rules.”
Then ignoring Ma Molesworth’ s gasp of fury, she turned to Daisy, “So Mrs Cooper I am delighted to offer the place of runner up to you...and congratulations again to our well-deserved winner,” she added for good measure...hoping that the widow woman would just leave quietly.
Ma Molesworth and her sister stood up quickly, “I shall never darken the doors of this Group again!” Ma Molesworth declared angrily.
Then she turned to where Millie was smiling at Daisy and offering her congratulations.
“And you girl can wipe that self-satisfied grin off your face,” the widow yelled at Millie. “If you had any sense, you’d concentrate on getting your intended ...that Jess Harper down the aisle instead of wasting your time on needlework.”
Millie’s head shot up, looking quite shocked.
“Oh yes I know all about him,” Ma Molesworth said slyly. “It’s not long since I caught him canoodling in the barn with my Gilly...and how many other women is he paying attention to?” she asked the group at large, who were now staring blankly at her.
“Yes, my girl if I were you, I’d get him wed as soon as you can before he strays again,” she said with another smug look, before she swept out of the group...never to return.

Chapter 10
It was a bright sunny Saturday morning in high summer just three months later that found Slim and Jess standing outside the Laramie Church dressed in their Sunday best.
Jess was pacing up and down looking anxiously about him whilst Slim looked on, a grin on his handsome features.
“Hey calm down will you Pard,” he said, “there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing to worry about you say?” Jess spat angrily, running a finger around the tight collar of his best white shirt. “Hell, I ain’t ever done anything like this before Slim. What if something goes wrong? The bride don’t arrive on time...or the dang ring gets lost huh?”
“Of course, she’ll arrive on time,” Slim said shaking his head and chuckling, “I’m just about to go fetch her and the bridesmaids...my duty as I’m giving the bride away,” he added looking delighted.
“Yeah, well go on then,” Jess said nodding to where a rig, beautifully adorned with flowers and ribbons awaited him.
“OK I’m going and you get yourself into Church,” Slim said, “you should be standing up at the top of the aisle at the altar waiting for the bride.”
“I know, I know,” Jess said moving off, still looking deeply nervous. Then he turned back, “It will be OK huh?”
“Sure it will Jess.”
Then Slim spied Daisy and Mike making their way along Main Street dressed in their finery.
“Ah Daisy there you are, go talk to Jess will you...I think he’s getting cold feet...all this wedding stuff has got him really spooked.”
“You leave him to me dear,” Daisy said with a smile... “off you go, you don’t want to be late for the bride.”

Meanwhile Millie stood in her neat little room above the Laramie Saloon and regarded her reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. She patted her newly set hair and checked her makeup. Then there was a light tap on the door and her best friend Lily sashayed in and stopped in her tracks, “Oh my Millie you look lovely,” she gasped.
Millie turned and smiled at her friend, “So do you,” she said, “absolutely perfect.”
Lily looked down at the pale lilac bridesmaid’s dress trimmed with pink ribbon and did a little twirl, “It really is pretty isn’t it,” she said joyfully.
“Slim’ s waiting for us downstairs,” she added, “if you’re all ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Millie said and the two girls left arm in arm, chattering cheerfully.

A burst of beautiful organ music alerted the congregation to the arrival of the bride and Jess stood and turned to watch her make her way slowly down the aisle on Slim’ s arm, followed by two stunning bridesmaids.
As she arrived at the altar Jess threw her an encouraging smile and then turned and winked at the bridesmaids...now things were happening he suddenly relaxed and started to enjoy the day.
Rev Josh Wesley came forwards and smiling benignly addressed the congregation, “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today in the presence of God, to witness the marriage of this man and this woman...”

Before he knew it the Church bells were ringing out and Jess found himself outside the Church once more standing next to Slim.
“See I told you there was nothing to it,” Slim said cheerfully as he watched folk congratulating the bride.
Jess glanced over to where Slim was looking and said with a grin, “I hafta say it, she made a real pretty bride didn’t she Slim...and she looks real happy too.”
“She sure does,” Slim agreed.
“But ya know what Slim,” Jess said a huge grin on his face.
“What Pard?”
“Well, I reckon the prettiest gal in the whole Church was my Millie. Heck she sure made a real swell bridesmaid, didn’t she?”
Slim looked over to where Lily and Millie were fussing over the bride, laughing and joking and turned back to Jess, “Yup Lily too...the loveliest bridesmaids I’ve ever seen...you made a pretty good job of being Best Man too,” he added.
Then the bride and groom made ready to depart for their Wedding Breakfast at the Laramie hotel, but they paused by Jess and Slim smiling happily, “Thank you so much for all you’ve done,” said Rev Bill Jenkins...then turning to his new bride said, “my wife and I are so happy.”
Gilly, with a G smiled back into her new husband’s eyes and agreed. Then said, “We’ll see you at the party,” and they were ushered off.
Jess beamed after them as they moved away and turning to Slim said, “It’s like you said Pard...nuthin’ to worry about...I reckon bein’ the Best Man is real easy...I gave them the ring and all right on cue... did you see that huh?”
“I did Jess, you were just great... Uh...just the speech to make now...”
Jess was still watching the happy couple and said idly, “Yeah.”
Then he was suddenly alert and his head spun around, “Speech...what speech huh?”
“Why the Best Man’s speech at the Wedding Breakfast, of course” Slim said smoothly as he moved off to catch up with Lily.
Jess’s eyes opened wide in horror as he ran after his friend, “What speech,” he repeated, “nobody said nuthin’ about a speech...Slim... hey Slim?”

It was much later that evening and the men and their girls were relaxing up in Millie’s room above the Saloon. Jess and Slim had divested themselves of their guns and boots and left them by the door as per Millie’s house rules. They’d also shucked their long smart frock coats and now lounged comfortably in front of the fireplace in their stocking feet. Jess had undone his string tie and unbuttoned his shirt collar and also the smart brocade vest and looked completely at home. Slim was looking equally relaxed as the girls went off to the kitchen to brew some more coffee.
“It was real nice of Bill to choose you as Best Man,” Slim said grinning over at his Pard.
Jess’s eyes lit up, “I really enjoyed it...even the speech once I got goin’,” he chuckled. Then sobering, “I guess it was because I put him straight about a few things...like ya can’t grieve forever...”
“You told him all about Maria then?” Slim said looking surprised. “I knew you’d had a good long chat...but...”
“Told him everything...including how you made me see sense back then,” Jess said sincerely, “I just passed the message on.”
“Well, I’m really glad you did Jess, I reckon Bill and Gilly are a match made in Heaven, just perfect for each other.”
Jess nodded in agreement. “Molly was quite the matchmaker too, insisting Gilly took her break every time Bill went in to eat,” he said chuckling.
They sat in companionable silence for a while and then Slim looked over, eyes twinkling, “So I guess it’ll be you next huh?”
Jess flinched slightly, “Uh sure...soon pard, real soon...but not quite yet huh?”
Good grief he’d been anxious enough just helping out at Bill’s wedding...how the heck would he feel if every eye was on him and Millie? Then he remembered how stunning she had looked walking down the aisle and how much he really loved her...and smiled to himself. Maybe just as soon as she agreed…he’d see Josh.
Meanwhile back in the kitchen the girls were enjoying a good post wedding gossip.
“Oh my, did you see what Ma Molesworth was wearing?” Lily asked rolling her eyes. “She looked more like she was attending a funeral than a wedding in that black coat and hat with the black veil.”
“I know,” Millie said giggling. “Apparently according to her sister Lucy, she was dressing as befitting the mother-in-law of a clergyman.”
Both girls laughed, “I reckon the old witch thinks Bill is an even better catch than Jess,” Lily said.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” said Millie with feeling, “because she sure wasn’t getting her hands on my Jess and anyway it’s obvious Bill and Gilly are perfect together.”
“So do you think you and Jess will ever get hitched?” Lily asked with interest.
Millie hid a little smile, “Oh yes,” she said softly, “but when I’m ready...which won’t be for a while yet. I wouldn’t say I was a reluctant bride,” she added grinning broadly, “just one that knows her man...and believe me as soon as Jess is ready for marriage I’ll know.”
Then passing the coffee tray over to Lily she snagged a bottle of Red Eye from the cupboard and smiling said, “I think our men would like something to liven up their coffee...let’s go and toast the happy couple...again!”
The End
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