#99 Scapegoat


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Chapter 1

Jess Harper groaned softly and then tried to open his eyes. He could smell damp and he could feel he was covered by a course blanket...then his eyes finally flicked open and he surveyed the scene before him with deep shock and foreboding.
Instead of his bed at the Sherman Ranch and Relay he seemed to be in a cold damp cell...but why and how had he got there?
He raised his head from the pillow in order to see around him a little better and then sank back immediately yelping in pain. His head felt like it might split open at any moment. His mouth was dry with the metallic taste of blood and he ached all over. Even worse his mind was a complete fog; he hardly knew who he was, much less where he was.
Then a rough voice on the other side of the bars yelled loudly, “Prisoner’s awake Sheriff.”
Jess raised his head more cautiously this time and looked over to where a redheaded Deputy stood watching him and chewing baccy. His pale ugly face strangely familiar.
Jess tried to swallow and ran his tongue over his dry lips before saying, “What in hell am I doin’ in here?”
The Deputy glanced down at him slyly and said, “Well dontcha remember? We brought ya in for bank robbery and murder.”
Then a tall rangy man in his forties loomed into view from behind the deputy and stared coldly at Jess.
“What’s up, can’t remember huh?” and he sniggered and gave his Deputy a sideways glance.
“I know I dang well I ain’t robbed a bank or murdered anyone,” Jess said aggressively. “What I don’t know is why I’m being framed.”
“Oh, you can keep that story up as long as you want,” the Sheriff growled, “won’t do you any good boy. The Judge will be by any day now to try you...so you’d better start makin’ things right with your Maker, because you’ll be seeing him soon enough.”<!--more-->
Jess absorbed this information and then said, “I want a lawyer, wire Benson over in Laramie will ya.”
The Sheriff turned to his Deputy. “Uh did you hear the prisoner say something Clem?”
“No sir not a thing,” the redheaded Deputy said sniggering.
Then Jess had a flashback...he was lying on the floor of a bank, his hands cuffed and the Sheriff was there with Jess’s gun in his hand...Jess had opened his mouth to yell out a warning but he was too late. The Sheriff opened fire killing the teller outright, before sliding the Colt.45 back into Jess’s holster and turning a rifle on him. Then the redheaded deputy, Clem, had thrown some notes at the Sheriff before heading for the door with the rest of the haul.
He vaguely remembered being released from the cuffs and the Sheriff yelling, “I’ve got one of them, the other escaped with the money,” before everything went blank again.
“It were you,” Jess said, his steely blue eyes narrowing, “you and that damn Deputy robbed the bank and you killed the teller. I saw ya!”
The Sheriff looked down, “Damn it,” he muttered.
Then turning to Clem said, “I think the prisoner needs to rethink things, don’t you?”
Seconds later Jess was cuffed and beaten ferociously by the two men and in his dazed condition was unable to fight back; although he gave it his best shot.
When he came around much later, he could hear a heated argument going on in the outer office between the Sheriff and an elderly woman.
“I’m telling you the man needs to see a doctor son and if you won’t fetch him I will!”
“Aw Ma, stop interfering. You’re worse than that dang wife of mine,” came the laconic reply.
“I don’t care if you’ve got this whole wretched town running scared, I’m still your mother and you’ll do as I say, Marty!” came the angry reply. “And what’s more why aren’t you off hunting down the other lowlife that got away with all the money...tell me that!”
The Sheriff sighed deeply, “I’m doing the wanted posters right now iffen you’d just let me get on with it Ma.”
“Well, I should think so. And as to that poor cow of a wife of yours...well I don’t know how Myra puts up with you really, I don’t!”
There was the sound of a door slamming and then silence.
When Jess awoke again, he once more heard voices this time an elderly man was speaking. “Your mother seemed to think your prisoner was quite sick,” the man reiterated, “I really think I should check him over Sheriff after all, it is his right...no matter what he’s accused of doing.”
“He lost all his damn rights when he shot down that bank teller, Earl Abbot, in cold blood.”
“Even so...”
“Uh, maybe the Doc’s right Clem broke in, “after all we don’t want the prisoner to croak before the trial, do we, Sheriff?”
There was a gusty sigh and then the Sheriff said, “OK you win doc,” and moments later the balding elderly doctor was let into the cell.
“The prisoner had a nasty fall,” the Sheriff explained as the shocked doc viewed Jess’s bloody battered form. “And uh, resisted arrest,” he added for good measure.
“That’s what yer calling it now is it?” Jess muttered groaning and clutching his belly where he had received a kicking from the Deputy.
“Don’t believe anything he tells you.” the Sheriff said sternly. “I’ll be just outside, holler when you want out doc.”
Once he’d gone the pleasant looking doctor gave Jess a weak smile, “I’m Doctor Lovell and you are?”
“Harper, Jess Harper. I’m a rancher from Laramie...just passin’ through town. I ain’t no bank robber doc I promise you that.”
“I’m not here to judge you, young man, merely to treat these injuries,” then he sucked in a breath as he began to check out the multiple wounds and abrasions.
Afterwards he looked closely at Jess’s bloodshot eyes...shining a light into them and checking the pupil reaction.
“Tell me do you feel slightly groggy, like you might have been drugged?” he asked.
“Hell yes,” Jess agreed, “I can remember some things, but others are just a blur.”
The doc nodded thoughtfully and then, “How on earth did you come by these wounds?” he asked when he finally sat back after cleaning Jess up and bandaging him as well as he could.
“I kinda disagreed with the Sheriff’s account of the bank heist and he didn’t like it any too much.”
The doctor was warming to the seemingly sincere young man who had almost unflinchingly tolerated the medical ministrations. “So, what is your version?”
“That the Sheriff and Deputy robbed the bank,” Jess said quietly.
Doctor Lovell sucked in a deep breath and frowned, “Surely not. Goodness, I know he rules the town with a rod of iron and well...maybe doesn’t always stay within the letter of the law; but murder and bank robbery, I just can’t believe it.”
“Well, you’d better because I was there,” Jess snapped. “I figure they drugged me and took me there to be their dang scapegoat. The teller was shot by the Sheriff with my gun. And you can bet odds on it that they’ll find some of the stolen notes in my wallet too...hell it’s a set-up Doc. You’ve gotta believe me!”
The doc just frowned and looked down. “I don’t know...this seems a step too far even for Sheriff Cain.”
When the doctor remained silent, Jess said, “So what does he do that ain’t uh, strictly the letter of the law?”
The doctor sighed, “He runs a protection business. Folks pay him so much a year to keep themselves safe.”
“Garldarn it, safe from what?”
The doctor shrugged, “Robbery, arson, rustling...it seems that the folk who refuse to pay up, are the unlucky ones,” he added, raising a significant eyebrow.
“But dang it that’s terrible and everyone just accepts it?”
The doc nodded, “This is a small town, in the middle of nowhere, folk just daren’ t stand up to him they live in fear...or if they’ve got any sense they get out.”
“Right, so if he’d been suspected of robbing the bank, nobody would dare say anything would they?”
But before he could reply they heard steps advancing and Jess grabbed the doc’s arm and said, “Please doc wire Mort Cory for me, the Sheriff over in Laramie, tell him Jess Harper’s in trouble and I need him here pronto...please!”
Doctor Lovell nodded, “Yes I will, I promise, don’t worry son.”
Then the Sheriff burst in, “That’s long enough Doc ain’t no point in bothering too much, he’ll be swinging at the end of a rope by next week. I just had word the Judge is on his way.”

Chapter 2
Jess lay on the bunk in his cell pondering the events of the last day or so, his memory gradually returning. How he had ridden into the one-horse town hot, tired and thirsty; on his way home from a successful mustang sale. He’d carefully placed a good half of the money from the sale in his boots, but half was still in his wallet when he entered the down at heel old saloon on Main Street. He’d been careful not to flash the money about and was just relaxing at the bar when he’d been joined by the redheaded Deputy. The guy had been very friendly and welcoming and had stood Jess a second beer. Now he realized that must have been when he drugged him, slipping something into his drink. He vaguely remembered feeling drunk as a skunk and the Deputy saying to the bar keep, “I’ll take him over to the cells to sober him up.”
Next thing he remembered it was early the following morning and he was lying on the bank floor helplessly watching the Deputy and Sheriff rob the place. The Deputy heading off with the stash before the Sheriff gave the alarm and arrested Jess, saying his Deputy had gone after his accomplice. The Deputy had returned later, saying the other robber had gotten clean away with the money.
As Jess was marched out of the bank at gunpoint by the Sheriff the barkeep amongst the avid crowd that had gathered, called out, “Hey ain’t that the hombre Clem took in drunk and disorderly last night?”
Sheriff Cain had nodded, “Yup, but he sobered up real quick so we let him go...and now this!” and he shoved Jess onwards, tutting in annoyance.
Then later that day they had laid into him and the doc had eventually been called.
Now lying on his bed, he wondered if the old doc would do as he asked and send for Mort. Because if not he figured he was done for, with the Judge due any day now and the evidence stacked against him.
Then he became aware of voices without and realized the door between the cells and office had been left ajar. He scrambled up from his bed and went over to listen.
He heard Clem the ugly redhead saying in his raspy voice, “Well I dunno Marty, I reckon it ain’t a good plan to stash the money in the safe here.”
“So, what’s the alternative? Me take it home for my old Ma to find or Myra, that interfering wife of mine huh? Or maybe you’d like to put it someplace in that room you rent. Oh yeah that would be a real smart move,” he said sarcastically.
“Is that fall guy’s mustang money with the stash?” Clem asked changing the subject.
“Yup and I put some of the new bank notes in his wallet for the judge to find,” Marty replied. “We’ve set him up pretty good. He’ll swing for the murder of that teller alright and then there’s all the evidence against us, gone for goo once he’s dead.”
Jess could barely contain himself on hearing this, and might well have yelled out in anger, but for the office door opening, and another person joined the two lawmen.
Unbeknown to Jess, this was young Davy from the telegraph office, but all soon became clear to him.
“Davy what do you want, we’re busy,” the Sheriff asked gruffly, throwing Clem a quelling glance.
“The doc asked me to send a wire over to the Sheriff in Laramie on behalf of your prisoner sir. I thought you should know I have a reply.”
The Sheriff looked furious, “What? You sent it without consulting me first!”
“I’m sorry Sheriff, I thought you were OK about it, from the way the doc spoke...anyway I got a reply,” he repeated and handed it over to Marty.
“Any answer to the wire?” Davy asked innocently after a minute.
The Sheriff looked down at the brief note, ‘Tell Harper on our way STOP signed Sheriff Mort Cory and Acting Deputy Slim Sherman.’
“No, it’s too dang late they’re on their way,” the Sheriff spat angrily.
“Just get out of here!” he added and the youngster dived out of the door at speed.
“Damn it, now what?” Clem asked anxiously.
“We vamoose today! I know this Mort Cory of old, and he won’t leave any stone upturned, trust me. The guy’s like a dog with a bone. Nope we’ll just hafta change our plans and head for the border right away; instead of after the trial.”
“What if the prisoner talks? They’ll really know what we’ve done and we’ll be scuppered,” Clem squawked.
Before he could answer, the door opened again and a stout, grey haired, miserable looking woman entered.
Marty cussed under his breath and said, “Goddamn it... now what...”
“Yes Myra, what is it now?” he asked turning to his wife.
“You didn’t leave money for the housekeeping,” she said frowning at him.
He dug out his wallet and peeling off some notes handed them to her.
She just stood there staring at him.
“There,” he said giving her a little push towards the door.
Then, “What is it now?” he asked in exasperation.
“You’ll be home tonight, honey?” she said with a faltering smile.
“Sure... sure,” he muttered and pushed her out of the door, closing it firmly behind her.
“Well?” Clem repeated, “What if the prisoner talks huh, Marty?”
Marty Cain fixed him with an evil grin, “I figure the poor prisoner will be so dang worried about his trial that he’ll decide to end it all! We’ll leave a note saying we’ve had fresh evidence and we’re heading out looking for his accomplice. By the time they realise we’ve gone for good we’ll be miles away. And I’ll have seen the last of that useless wife of mine too,” he added gleefully.
“Come on Clem,” he said, “let’s get to it. We’ll leave another note by the prisoner saying he just couldn’t go on,” he added warming to his theme.
Back in his cell Jess looked desperately around him for something to defend himself with ...but there was nothing.
He was ready for them; and stood his ground when the two men burst into his cell.
“I figure this is the end of the road for you Harper,” Marty spat, “put your hands up and come over here so I can cuff you,” he added.
“Why so you can slit my wrists and leave me to bleed to death on my bed? I don’t think so,” Jess snarled. “You want me dead yer gonna hafta shoot me...and then explain that away if you can. Soon as a shot goes off folk will be through that door to investigate. You wouldn’t even have time to rig an alleged escape. So why dontcha call my bluff and try it?” he added; looking one hell of a lot more confident than he felt.
“He’s got a point Marty,” Clem muttered.
Marty let go an expletive, staring at Jess in consternation. Then he brightened and quick as a flash he pulled a knife and before Jess had barely registered it, he threw it with deadly accuracy catching Jess in the shoulder...and just seconds later he was cuffed and prone on his bunk.
Then Marty leaned in and gave him an evil grin, “Sorry about this Harper, I kinda liked your style...but you’ve got to go my friend,” and again using the knife he made to slash Jess’s wrists.
He just made one cut when the men heard a commotion in the outer office and both stared at each other in horror, fearing being caught in the act. “Leave him, he’s in a bad way anyway...he won’t last,” Clem said quickly putting the suicide note on the floor by the bunk before heading for the cell door.
The Sheriff looked down once more and decided his partner was right, Jess was out cold and his shoulder and wrist bleeding profusely.
Back in the office the barkeep, Les Peters, was holding tightly onto a tired old drunk, who was hiccup-ping and looking blearily around him.
“Old Sammy is drunk and disorderly again Sheriff, shall I take him through to the cells?”
“No!” the Sheriff hollered. Then more calmly, “No thanks Les, that won’t be necessary, Clem will take him,” he said passing the cell keys to his Deputy, figuring old Sammy would be too drunk to notice Jess’s predicament. “Put him right at the end cell...and give him a bucket in case he throws up,” he added.
Once Clem had taken the drunk away Marty suddenly realized this could work to his advantage.
“Uh, I’m glad you stopped by Les. Harper, the bank job prisoner, has just given us some more info on his partner. So me and Clem are heading out to see if we can locate him. We’ll be gone a couple of days I should think...maybe a week.”
“OK Sheriff. So, what about the prisoners?”
“Oh, I’ll leave the door on the latch and call by Bert Higgs to Deputize for me on my way out,” he replied, the lies falling so easily from his lips.
“Righto Sheriff good luck, ”and Les wandered back over to the saloon.
The Sheriff watched him go and headed off to the wall safe to retrieve the bank money and stuffing it in his saddle bags yelled out to Clem who was in the cells checking on Jess.
“All OK out back?” he asked.
“Yup Sammy sleeping like a baby and by the looks of all the blood, Harper’s probably gone already. You got the money out of the safe yet Sheriff?”
“Yes, all sorted out. Canada here we come!” the Sheriff exclaimed gleefully, and the two men made their way hurriedly to the livery, A few minutes later galloped out of town at speed.
Les Peters watched them go from the saloon door and then disappeared inside. Moments later he came out once more and retraced his steps back to the Sheriff’s office; bearing old Sammy’s wallet. It still contained a good few dollars and Les was worried about keeping it safe in the saloon. He entered the office door and wandering over to the Sheriff’s desk placed the wallet on top. Then he peered around him...if he could just walk in off the street so could anyone else. He knew that sometime Deputy Higgs lived a few miles out of town and it would be a while before he was in place. So, he decided to go out back to the cells and hand Sammy his wallet, or at least shove it through the bars of the cell if he was out for the count.
He saw Jess the moment he entered the cell block and stared in consternation before turning on his heel and tearing across the road crying out for the Doc to come pronto.

Chapter 3
Slim and Mort made good time riding to the little town of Buzzard and arrived just a couple of days after Mort had received the wire saying Jess was in jail and to come pronto.
“I guess it was kinda lucky that I’m on my leave right now,” Mort said as they rode into the dusty little town.” Although I don’t know what Kate will have to say about me heading off to bail Jess out of trouble we had plans,” he added ruefully.
Slim shook his head sadly and said, “I’m having to pay the Jackson boys to mind the spread, but I guess he wouldn’t have sent for us if it wasn’t really important Mort.”
“Yup I know that,” the ruggedly good-looking Sheriff said, smiling at Slim, “and I guess me and Kate can put that ol’ hunting trip on hold for a few days.”
They dismounted in front of the Sheriff’s office, hitched up and surveyed the rundown town. The place seemed almost deserted with just a couple of women entering the ramshackle mercantile and a few horses tethered outside the only saloon. Apart from that there was an undertaker, livery; bank and doctor’s office and that seemed about all. Several shops were empty and boarded up and the whole atmosphere of the place was one of neglect.
“Well, I can’t see how he could have gotten into too much trouble here,” Mort said dryly, “it ain’t nothing but a one-horse town.”
Slim chuckled, “Well that wouldn’t stop Jess...but I can’t for the life of me think what he could have done that would have landed him in jail. Unless he spent all the mustanging money on whiskey,” he added rolling his eyes.
They entered the Sheriff’s office and immediately Deputy Bert Higgs swung his feet from the desk, and put his newspaper down.
Mort eyed the man and his deputy’s badge dubiously and said, “I’m here to see Sheriff Cain.”
“Ain’t here Sheriff,” Bert said, “he took off after a bank robber...be gone a week or so he said.”
Mort sighed at having to deal with the monkey rather than the organ grinder and surveyed the overweight shabby looking deputy.
“I’m Sheriff Mort Cory from Laramie and this is Deputy Slim Sherman. We’re here to see the prisoner Jess Harper...maybe you could show us to the cells?”
“Sorry, no can do,” Bert said happy to be able to deny the wishes of this rather officious looking Sheriff and his Deputy.
Slim, who had been impatiently waiting to see his pard snapped, “Well why the hell not?”
Bert turned on the tall blond Deputy and said, “Because he’s dead, that’s why mister. He done killed his self...just yesterday. Same day as the Sheriff rode out. He was here alone but for an hour or two and decided to take the quick way out.”
Slim had turned pale and was obviously deeply shocked so Mort intervened and said, “What are you talking about man, are you saying he committed suicide?”
“Yup that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Bert replied now enjoying his role as the bearer of bad news.
Slim felt dizzy and gripping onto the desk for support, said, “No I don’t believe it he wouldn’t do that.”
“Well in my experience,” the Deputy pontificated, “a man will do almost anything to escape the noose.”
“The noose...he was to be hung?” Slim whispered.
“Yup, he done robbed the bank and killed the teller. Judge due any day now.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Slim muttered.
Then the deputy dug about in the desk drawer, and came up with a scrap of paper with a pencil-written note on it and passed it over to Slim.
It said, ‘I’m real sorry for what I done. May God forgive me, signed Jess Harper.’
Slim stared at it for a full minute and then passed it over to Mort, “It’s not his handwriting,” he said, “it is way too neat...and not his signature either.”
Then staring angrily at the deputy said, “So are you going to tell us where the hell he is?”
“Like I say he did away with himself, go check out the cell if you don’t believe me. I uh, ain’t had time to clean it up yet,” he added looking slightly shame faced and tipping his head towards the closed door to the cells.
Mort and Slim moved as one and entering the cell stood in consternation at the blood-stained bedding and further stains splattering the floor and nearby wall.
Slim gagged and thought for a moment he might lose his breakfast and Mort stared in alarm at the scene and cussed softly.
Slim turned as Bert Higgs entered, “Like I say it only happened yesterday and I’ve been kinda busy,” he said again feeling pretty bad at the state of the cell.
Slim ignored his excuses and said, “Where is he?”
“His body man,” Mort said angrily, “where is it?”
“Oh, I see…could be still at the doc’s place, over the road. Or the undertakers on the edge of town. Try the doc first,” he added helpfully... feeling kind of bad now as these men were clearly deeply upset at the demise of their friend.
Doctor Lovell ’s housekeeper answered their loud knocking and stared in dismay at the Sheriff and his Deputy, standing before her and both looking distressed.
“Yes, what can I do for you?” she asked anxiously.
“Sheriff Cory Ma’am and Deputy Sherman,  we have urgent business with the Doctor.”
“I’m sorry gentlemen but Doctor Lovell is out on a call. Can I help at all or would you care to wait? He should be back shortly.”
“Thanks, we’ll wait,” Mort said entering, followed by Slim.
The housekeeper, Mrs Goodbody showed them to the parlour and offered coffee.
Both men declined, feeling sick to their stomachs with the tragic news of their friend. But as she turned to go Slim called her back, unable to wait any longer he asked, “Excuse me ma’am but do you have Jess Harper’s...uh remains here?”
Mrs Goodbody who was slightly hard of hearing just heard the name Jess Harper...and said, “Why certainly, do you wish to see him?”
Slim swallowed hard and said “Yes please, if that’s OK?”
“Certainly, this way gentlemen.”
She pointed to a door standing ajar at the end of the corridor, “In there, gentlemen,” she said and turned back to her kitchen.
The men exchanged a charged look and walked down the long corridor to the door and then steeling themselves Slim gently pushed it open and entered.
The dimly lit room was empty save for a narrow bed in the centre...on which Jess reposed.
They walked over and looked down at his deathly white countenance, looking strangely relaxed and peaceful.
Slim was moved to tears as he put out a gentle hand and laid it on Jess’s chest.
Then the unthinkable happened…
His eyes flickered open and he grinned up at his pard, “Well you sure took yer time,” he croaked.
Then looking beyond Slim, to where Mort was looking deeply shocked added, “Better late than never huh.”
“Jess... Oh God we thought...” and then Slim couldn’t go on.
“Huh, what’s up?” he asked looking from Slim to Mort and back.
“They told us over at the jail that you were dead,” Mort supplied.
Jess raised a quirky eyebrow and said, “Well that don’t surprise me none. I guess you can’t believe what most folk tell ya in this Goddamn town.”
Meanwhile Slim had moved over to the window and was staring out with unseeing eyes, filled with unshed tears.
Jess whispered, “Is he OK?” and tipped his head towards Slim’ s ramrod straight back.
“He will be, give him a minute,” Mort whispered back, “the dang deputy showed us your cell...he hadn’t cleaned it up and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It sure looked like you’d bled to death.”
Jess cast his mind back to his last few lucid moments. How the Sheriff had thrown the knife and it had slammed into his shoulder, downing him. Then the botched attempt to slash his wrists. That had been interrupted by someone calling out in the office and the deputy Clem saying, ‘leave him, he’s in a bad way, he won’t last.’ Then he woke up in the doc’s office. Someone must have found him he realized and thanked the Lord.
Then Slim came back and sat down on the edge of the bed, “Who in hell did this to you Jess and why?”
“It was the Sheriff...Sheriff Marty Cain and his Deputy Clem somethin’...”
“But why?” Mort asked, “Why would a Sheriff do this to you and where is the bastard?”
“Because he dang well robbed the bank, killed the teller and then laid all the blame at my door...that’s why! I found out what he was up to and he didn’t want me talkin’. As to where he is, probably half way to the dang Canadian border by now I should think!”
Mort took off his hat and scratched his head before returning it and saying, “I think you’d better tell us everything from the beginning Jess.”

Chapter 4
Once the doc returned, he was able to confirm that although Jess’s injuries had been life threatening, he was now on the mend. As long as he rested and took care of himself, he could be released into his friends care in a few days. The doc finished with, “He should be able to sit a horse in two or three weeks.”
“This is crazy,” Jess exploded from his hotel bed, “I can’t be lyin’ around here all the damn day while those no-good hoodlums are hightailing it out of the country!”
“Just take it easy Jess, you’re in no state to ride yet and Canada is a hell of a step away, we’ll catch up with them...eventually,” Slim said.
“Anyway,” Mort added, “we can’t leave town until we’ve cleared your name. As far as the Town Council are concerned their elected Sheriff jailed you for good reason...and you only have the word of that drunk in the jail, er Sammy? That it was actually the Sheriff that did this to you, robbed the bank and took off with the proceeds.”
“So why don’t you damn well go and find another witness. Hell, there must have been someone in town that saw something. The thing is they’re all running scared,” Jess added angrily. “The doc will tell ya that.”
“I’ve put up posters all around asking any witnesses to come forward. I don’t see there’s much else we can do until the Judge lands. He may be able to help,” Mort said.
“Or not,” Jess replied morosely.
Once Jess was up and around again, he, along with Mort and Slim went to the Sheriff’s office to have a few words with Deputy Higgs.
“Well sure he was a kinda difficult man,” he admitted hesitantly, “and yeah, he did offer added security to some folk, but that ain’t a crime. And as to him robbing the bank, why that’s madness. Hell, he’s out tracking your accomplice now,” he added glaring at Jess. “Come to that why aren’t you back in jail seeing as how you’re well again?”
“Still recuperating.” Mort said quickly, “and in my custody until he’s 100% ...or until the Judge arrives anyway.”
“Well, you won’t have to wait any longer,” a tall distinguished looking man said as he entered the office. They all turned to see the kindly face of one Judge Myers. He was well known to all at the ranch to be an honest and a fair Judge and they were instantly relieved, knowing that Jess would get an impartial hearing.
Jess had just got to the end of his sorry tale when the door opened admitting a shy looking young lady, who glanced hesitantly around her.
“We’re kind of busy in here right now Ma’am,” Deputy Bert Higgs said officiously showing off some in front of the Judge, “so if you wouldn’t mind calling later.”
She turned to go and then turned back and looked over to the friendly looking Judge and said diffidently, “It was about the Bank robbery... you see I witnessed the whole thing and I wanted to give a statement.”
Jenny Jones explained how she had been a little late for work that morning and was in a small anteroom at the back of the bank removing her coat. From there she had seen the Deputy and Sheriff manhandling her fellow teller, Earl Abbot, and forcing him to open the safe. From her hiding place she was able to see through a crack in the door and witnessed the Sheriff shooting Earl with Jess’s gun and then replacing it in his holster. Deputy Clem White then took the money and headed out the door; supposedly following Jess’s alleged accomplice.
The Judge commended her on coming forward. Then he asked to interview the drunk, Sammy.
He was able to give a useful statement too and said he had indeed seen the gruesome body of Jess, covered in blood as he passed the cell. He said he had also heard the Sheriff and Deputy making arrangements for their flight from the country...along with the haul from the bank heist.
Then the Doctor was called on to make a statement explaining exactly what he had told Jess about the Sheriff’s protection racket and the lawman’s fate was sealed.
“It looks like you have no case to answer to Mr Harper,” the Judge intoned. “So, it just leaves me to wish you all the best of luck with catching these men. I can promise you they will be judged most harshly for their heinous crimes. And not just of murder and bank robbery but all their previous wrong doings as well. Plus, I shall make it my personal business to help find a good strong lawman to bring law and order back into this sorry place.”
So it was Jess, Slim and Mort rode out the following morning trailing Marty Cain and Clem White.
The small town, off the beaten track lay approximately sixty miles south of Laramie, so they decided to head for home first. To advise those who needed to know of their whereabouts for the next few weeks and to collect some provisions for the protracted trip.

“It’s just a good job it’s high summer and not too busy at the ranch,” Slim said thoughtfully, “So the Jackson boys will just have to come over to change the stage and feed, water and tend the horses.”
“Did Mike and Daisy get off to Cheyenne?” Jess asked, knowing they were due for their usual summer holiday with Daisy’s sister.
“Yes, they went last week sent their best to you and hoped the sale had gone well,” Slim replied.
Jess’s face clouded, “It had, until those no-good bastards stole half the sale money,” he exploded.
“Only half of it at least,” Slim said with a faint smile. “Rest in your boots?”
Jess nodded, “Yup I rammed in all I could, but there were a powerful lot of notes Slim, couldn’t squeeze it all in. I knew I should have gotten a check.”
“Uh-uh, nope last time we took a check from that guy Wiseman it darned well bounced, it was cash or nothing Jess. Heck the old man is loaded, just doesn’t like parting with his money. Rather keep it under his mattress than in the bank too.” he added with a grin.
“No, neither do I,” Jess said angrily, “all the dang blood and sweat it took to break those mustangs on time and all fer nuthin’.”
Mort, ever the peacemaker said, “Look we’ll get your money back stop your fretting Jess.”
Then reining in he said, “I guess this looks as good a spot as any to camp for the night, huh?”
Jess immediately started arguing that they should carry on until dusk. However, it hadn’t escaped Mort’s notice, or Slim’ s, how pale and tired their buddy looked. Heck the doc had seriously suggested that he rest for another few days...but of course Jess refused to listen. Now he sat his mount awkwardly and by his drawn expression was clearly in some pain.
“Well, it’s alright for you young bucks, but I’m kinda tired riding in this heat,” Mort said, although both Slim and Jess knew that Mort could probably out ride them any day of the week.
“OK Mort you can quit bein’ so dang tactful...I admit it I am kinda beat,” Jess said with a rueful smile.
They made camp and Slim rustled up some beans while Jess and Mort took care of the horses. But once they sat down to eat Jess merely pushed his food around the plate and then abandoned it and just drank the strong coffee.
“Not hungry?” Slim asked casting him a wary glance, expecting a bitingly sarcastic reply, but he just looked down and said, “Sorry...”
Mort raised an eyebrow and said, “You sure?”
But again, he just nodded and passed his plate over for Mort to scrape onto his own after checking Slim didn’t want anymore.
“Guess I’ll turn in,” Jess said and a few minutes later he was wrapped in his bedroll and sleeping beside the fire.
Mort went over and sat beside Slim, after pouring them both another coffee said, “He’s pretty bad, isn’t he? Do ya think we’ll be able to persuade him to rest up for a few days when we hit Laramie?”
“Are you kidding, when he’s on the trail of the no hopers who robbed him blind, no way.”
“Uh I thought not. Oh well maybe I’ll be able to talk Kate into riding along with us. It’s not the hunting trip I’d promised her, but at least we’ll have some time together,” he said wistfully.
“That would be swell,” Slim enthused, “for you and for Jess too. I reckon she’s the only person that can get him to behave,” he chuckled.
Mort grinned, “Well they go way back to his panhandle days don’t they and I guess nobody knows him as well as my Kate. Yup she’ll soon knock him into shape,” he added.
Kate Munroe lived up the Laramie Mountain with her distant cousin Denver James and his sons Cody and Mick Moonshiners and Trappers. The relationship was purely platonic and born of mutual need.
Kate had run a saloon on the panhandle, but when her beloved husband Charlie died, she had needed a change of scene and headed for the mountains; which she declared were her spiritual home. In exchange for a comfortable safe billet with the James family she supplied wisdom, good healthy meals, and her expertise with herbal and Indian medicine; should anyone become sick.
She had run a tight ship back in Texas and ruled the Saloon with a rod of iron and was well respected. Jess often said she could out shoot, out ride and out drink most men and it was true.
She had known Jess as a child and they had a very strong bond due to a situation that occurred way back then. It was a secret that neither of them ever discussed these days, but would bind them together forever. (See # 56 Kate Munroe’s Secret).
Mort had agreed to meet up with Kate at the cave by the Sherman Lake and she was waiting there when the three men rode in the following day.
“You got my message then,” Mort said as he jumped down from his mount and strode over to his woman looking delighted to see her. Taking her in his arms he kissed her long and hard before releasing her and smiling down into her sparkling dark eyes.
“Let me go you great lummox,” she said, but grinning none the less.
Then turning to Jess and Slim said, “Howdy boys, good ta see ya.”
Jess looked over to the diminutive, buckskin-clad figure with the white blond hair and deeply tanned beautiful face, and thought she just didn’t age. She looked pretty much as he remembered her from years ago.
He slipped down from the saddle and gave her a hug, and kissed her cheek then Slim did likewise.
Once the welcoming was over, she scrutinized Jess and said quietly, “I hear you’ve had a rough time of it boy.”
Jess just nodded, “Kinda...some bastard robbed me, and all the good folk of Buzzard, and we’re on their trail.”
“Yes, Mort said in his wire...”
“So, are you up for it my dear, care to tag along?” Mort asked hopefully.
She sighed deeply and rolled her eyes, “Well I guess the sooner I help ya track down these hoodlums, the sooner we can have our hunting trip huh?”
Mort looked overjoyed.
Then she turned to Jess and said, “Anyways somebody’s gotta knock this boy into shape. I can see yer ailing Jess and I’m gonna fix you up ...yup real good,” she added grinning at him.
Jess turned even paler, “I thought you might say that,” he said weakly.

Chapter 5
As it was, he was spared Kate’s ministrations for a little while as she advised him to see Doc Sam Baker over in Laramie before they started their trip up north.
“You need to see a professional boy, after the time you’ve had, check with him that you’re up to riding that darned far.”
Jess reluctantly agreed until he remembered he’d be able to fit in a visit with his best gal Millie if he stayed in town and he smiled inwardly.
“Uh, OK I guess yer right Kate,” he said innocently.
Slim and Mort exchanged a perplexed look but said nothing...maybe Kate had even more of a hold over Jess than they thought.
So, it was agreed Slim would ride out to the ranch to check all was ship shape and tell the Jacksons of his protracted absence. Meanwhile, Jess, Mort and Kate would stay the night in town before catching up with Slim the following day.
They left their mounts at the livery and Mort said, “You’re welcome to stay the night at my place after you’ve seen the doc, Jess.”
“Uh...that’s real good of you Mort,” Jess said glancing over to where Kate was passing the time of day with Bert, the livery owner “but I don’t wanna cramp yer style...three is a crowd huh?”
Mort flushed up, but then grinned and punching Jess lightly on the arm said, “I kinda hoped you’d say that. I’ll walk ya over to the doc’s though.”
“No need,” Jess said quickly, seeing his plan to skip the visit altogether fading fast.
“Ha, not so quick Jess. Kate warned me you’d try and wriggle out of it. I’m coming with you and telling the good Doc exactly what you’ve been through too,” he said fixing him with an uncompromising look.
Sometime later Sam put his stethoscope down and smiling at his old friend said, “OK you can get dressed now Jess.”
‘Sam looked thoughtful as he moved behind his desk. Jess settled on the seat opposite and asked, “Well?”
“I expect you know what I’m going to say, you should rest up for a few weeks before you attempt such an exhausting trip.”
Jess opened his mouth to argue, but the doc raised a hand, “But, knowing you, that would be a complete waste of my breath. So, I’ll give you a good blood tonic and just have to rely on Kate to make sure you don’t overdo things.”
Before he could reply there was a discrete knock on the office door and Carrie, the doc’s pretty young daughter popped her head around the door, “Sorry to interrupt Pa but Dave Watkins is here and saying his Anna’s in labour.”
The doc jumped to his feet, “We’re all done here my dear,” and grabbing his bag rushed towards the door.
“I’ll see you later Jess,” he threw over his shoulder, “you must stay the night, catch you at supper,” and he was gone.
Jess turned to smile at Carrie and then noticed how pale and unhappy she looked her eyes puffy as though she’d been crying.
“Hey are you OK sweetheart?” he asked once her Pa had left.
“Sure,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “I’ll uh go make up the spare bed.”
He came forwards and said gently, “No need. Thanks anyway, but I’ll probably stay over at the saloon.”
She looked at him properly for the first time then and said, “Oh dear you don’t know do you?”
“Huh, know what?”
“It’s Millie she’s left to go help her Ma out at the Cheyenne Boarding House for a few weeks, it was all arranged if you remember?”
Jess nodded, “Hell yes, but that’s not until next week, ain’t it?”
She shook her head, “No, should have been last week, but she hung on another few extra days when you were late back from your mustang sale. Then she just had to go; her Ma really needed the help. She said she’d write.”
Jess cussed lightly under his breath, feeling totally gutted.
“I’m sorry,” said Carrie looking even more woebegone.
He took a deep breath and pinned a smile on his face, “Heck it ain’t your fault...and anyway it’ll give us time together to catch up and you can tell me why you’re looking so down in the mouth huh?” he said kindly.
She went off to make them some coffee and once they were settled on the couch together, in the cosy parlour, she said softly, “It’s me and Mitch, we’ve split up.”
Jess looked genuinely upset, “Heck I’m real sorry honey, I thought you two were on track to the altar?” he added with a questioning look.
She nodded, “Oh we were. He asked me to marry him a while back but well I couldn’t give him an answer and I guess he just got tired of waiting.”
Jess raised an eyebrow, “Couldn’t? Why not Carrie, I thought you loved the guy?”
“So did I,” she said miserably, “but not enough I guess.” She sighed deeply, “You see he just wasn’t...” and then she paused looking down.
“Wasn’t what sweetheart?” he asked softly.
She continued staring into her lap for a full minute before looking up, her dark brown eyes swimming with tears, “He wasn’t you,” she finally managed.
He sucked in a shocked breath and then said gently, “Hell Carrie there was never any future for us, you know that.”
“Not when I had that silly crush on you when we first moved here,” she agreed. (See#3 The Doctor’s Daughter) “But later when I was older, I thought we had a real chance of happiness together.”
Jess shook his head, “You know that ain’t true. Sure, we got kinda close for a while, but if you remember I sent you away didn’t I. Your Pa agreed with me; going back East to do your Midwife’s Training was what you needed. Then when you came back home things had changed, you know that. I hooked up with Millie again...and it got real serious.”
“I know,” she whispered, “and even though Millie is my best friend and I feel so terribly guilty talking this way, I just can’t get you out of my mind Jess. It was always you...always will be...”
“No,” he said firmly, and then more kindly, “It didn’t work out back then and it wouldn’t now, you understand that don’t you...”
“But why, I’m older now, the age difference doesn’t matter so much does it?” she said looking pleadingly up into his face.
“Apart from the age difference there is the fact that I’m in love with Millie. Even if I wasn’t it could never work because you get way too upset when I get myself into hot water... Way I live you’d be forever worryin’ about me. Hell Carrie, you get even more upset than Miss Daisy and God knows she can be dang clucky.”
“Only because she cares,” Carrie said stoutly.
“Yeah, I know it,” he said looking down slightly embarrassed. But then he rallied and said, “Heck we shouldn’t even be talking this way.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” she whispered.
She looked so wretched his heart melted, “Hey come on, cheer up honey and quit talkin’ about it all huh. You make me real nervous,” he said forcing a grin, “and I’d hate to lose one of my best buddies,” he added.
She finally gave him a watery smile and said, “Me too, because you really are a wonderful friend Jess and if we can’t be more, then I guess I’ll just have to settle for that.”
Then he had a thought, “You know Carrie I really don’t think any of this is about me or Mitch...it’s you. See, I don’t think yer ready to settle down yet.”
“You don’t?” she said looking angry, “so what makes you think that?”
“Well, you enjoy yer work dontcha?”
“You know I do... I live for it…the best thing I ever did was getting my Midwife’s qualification. It would be perfect if only Pa would give me more responsibility,” she added sulkily.
“So, you’d be prepared to give it all up to keep house fer yer husband, look after all the kids?”
She looked surprised, “Well I don’t know, I guess I hadn’t really thought any further than the wedding.”
“Well maybe you should,” he said dryly, “because I can’t see Mitch, or any man around here being too happy to have a wife swanning off to deliver babies at all hours of the day or night. A wife not there to fix supper...or look after a man’s needs after a hard day,” he added for good measure with a raised eyebrow.
She flushed a little at that and then said softly, “I never thought about all that.”
“Well maybe it’s time you did and real good huh sweetheart. See I think you’ve got one heck of a lot to see and do before you settle down...don’t you?”
Before she could reply the door opened and, Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper stood there wreathed in smiles.
“Why Jess dear how lovely to see you. I met the doc down the street and he said you were staying the night. Now how does chicken and dumplings sound for supper dear?”
It was much later when Carrie had retired to bed that Doc Sam and Jess sat by the fire enjoying a final glass of whiskey before retiring.
They sat in companionable silence sipping their drinks for a while, before Sam turned to Jess and said, “Did Carrie tell you she’d broken it off with Mitch?”
Jess nodded, “Yes she did.”
Sam sighed and then looking over at his old friend said, “And did she tell you why?”
Jess merely nodded.
“Uh, I’m sorry if she’s embarrassed you,” he said quickly. “But you know my little girl once she sets her heart on something...or someone, she’s kind of hard to rein back in.”
Jess smiled at that, “Don’t I know it.”
Sam looked back into the dying embers of the fire. “I know why you think it wouldn’t have worked...and I guess you’re right,” he said, “but it’s a doggone shame, I couldn’t have wished for a better son-in-law.”
“Thanks,” Jess said softly, “but you know as well as I do, she’d never have a moment’s peace wed to me. I guess I ain’t the stayin’ home, bathing the baby kinda guy. Not right now anyways.”
“You’re right of course...and you did the right thing helping me to convince her to go back East to college,” he added. “Even though that was really hard for you at the time...wasn’t it?” (See#17 Wanted in Texas)
Jess took a deep breath and nodded, “You know it was Sam, I guess I loved her too, but it wasn’t right, never could be.”
He sighed and then said, “Actually Sam I don’t think she’s ready to settle down with anyone,” and he repeated the conversation of earlier that day.
Sam looked thoughtful when he’d finished and said, “Yes, I knew she really wanted sole responsibility for the pregnant ladies in town...and she’s right, she has the experience now. I’ll talk to her first thing and tell her she may run her own clinics from now on and attend all births single handed, unless she asks for my help. So that should keep my little girl happy.”
He topped up their glasses and then said, “And now you have Millie and she’s just perfect for you. She sure takes all your... uh, little adventures in her stride,” he added.
Jess grinned back, “I guess it’s because we grew up together...she’s gotten kinda used to me over the years.”
“Maybe you should just leave Slim and the Sheriff to round up those outlaws,” the doc suggested hesitantly, “and you take yourself off to Cheyenne and recuperate with Millie for a week or two?”
Jess smiled and shook his head, “Well that’s mighty tempting Sam, but I figure Mort will need my help to find those lowlifes. See it takes someone that knows the old owl hoot trail to track their sort.
Sam shook his head, “I suppose you’re right...just don’t tell Carrie you’re heading off for the backwoods to Canada and still not one hundred percent fit at that.”
“Okay, I won’t, if you won’t,” Jess said with an engaging grin and they clinked glasses and swigged back the remains of their whiskey.

Chapter 6
Early the following morning Mort, Kate and Slim met up with Jess and they set off heading due north. There had been a sighting of the Sheriff and his Deputy heading Laramie-way a while ago both still using the excuse that they were on the trail of a bank robber.
“See they’d no idea that you’d survived that vicious attack Jess and had exposed them for what they really are,” Mort explained.
“Even so they didn’t pass through Laramie so I figure they’d maybe called in at the Trading Post if they were thinkin’ on going north on the old Indian trails,” Jess said thoughtfully. “Figure we’ll stop by Billy-Joe’s place huh?”
They arrived an hour or so later and Billy-Joe was delighted to have so many customers.
“Good to see ya Jess, Slim... and then he saw the Sheriff and Miss Kate bringing up the rear. “Why Sheriff, Kate, quite a party,” he said happily.
Mort quickly explained the situation and Billy-Joe was able to confirm that yes, a man wearing a Sheriff’s badge who was called Marty had been there. Also his deputy who was referred to as Clem by the Sheriff, although no surnames had been used.
“They said they’d traveled up from a town called Buzzard and were tracking a bank robber,” Billy-Joe continued, “But it didn’t ring true somehow.”
“No?” Jess asked.
“No, see thing is the red headed guy...uh Clem, bought a load of mining gear, a pick, shovel and then he wanted a pack mule too.”
Mort threw him a quizzical glance, “So did you have one to sell him?”
Billy-Joe chuckled, “Well actually, as it happens, I did. Remember old Jack Dunne, the miner?”
They nodded.
“Well, he died a while back and left me Clancy in his Will.”
Slim let out a guffaw, “What, that useless old ass of his? Gee I thought he liked you Billy-Joe!”
Billy-Joe grinned back, “Me too. So anyways this Clem seemed happy enough to take him off my hands.”
“Well, that’s good news,” Mort said, “if they’ve gotten Clancy in tow, they’ll still be down the trail aways.”
“Sure…he’ll slow ‘em up some,” Jess agreed.
Then he wandered over to where Kate had been trading with Billy-Joe’s pretty wife Matilda...
Jess eyed the pile of herbs and spices laid out on the counter suspiciously.
“Looky here,” Kate said excitedly. “Tilly has gotten all the herbs and seasonings I need for my special tonic for you.”
Jess looked even more suspicious, “She has huh.”
Tilly grinned at her favorite customer and said, “And seeing as it’s for you Jess dear, I’ve added some extra dried figs free of charge.”
They made good time and found themselves just south of Casper three days later and that’s where they were to have a big surprise.
The tracks although old had been quite easy for Jess to follow. There had been no bad weather of any sort and Clancy’s diminutive hooves, often digging deep into the soft ground, were easy to spot.
“I guess he was puttin’ up quite a fight,” Jess said tipping his hat down towards the pockmarked ground where the stubborn mule had clearly been balking yet again.
It was just a few minutes later when Jess reined in looking puzzled.
The others followed suit and Slim said, “What’s up Pard?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, but it looks like they’ve split up. See here...one horse carries straight on, and the other leading Clancy seems to be heading due west towards Dakota.”
Mort looked thoughtful, “Well that kinda makes sense, maybe one of them...uh Clem was it... has decided to go east and head for the gold in the Black Hills. Kinda greedy though ain’t he?”
When the others looked skeptical, he added, “Don’t forget he still thinks you’re dead Jess and there are no incriminating witnesses. He could just say he decided to quit being a deputy and was going to try his luck at mining.”
“It would be a good cover too, just in case he was being pursued and didn’t Tilly say he’d bought some Henna?”
“Henna?” Slim asked
“Ladies use it to enhance and darken their hair. He could be using it to cover up all that bright red hair, what with that and a new career, I guess he thinks he’ll be well disguised; even if their cover is blown,” Kate said.
“Well, it’d take a dang sight more than a change of job and some dang hair dye to put me off the trail,” Jess said angrily.
“Um, if you’re going to be on his trail,” Mort said, “see it looks like we’ll have to split up if they have done.”
“I propose you and Kate follow him and Jess and I will carry on towards the border,” Slim said.
“How come” Mort asked, “I think maybe I should be around to make sure he doesn’t bluff his way out of things.”
“Yeah, but if he’s over the border you won’t have any jurisdiction will ya Mort? It’ll be out of your designated patch,” said Jess. “But me and Slim can just take off our deputy badges and go get him as private citizens, if needs be.”
“Uh, I guess you’re right,” Mort conceded. “But just be careful, both of you...this is one wily character.”
“So are we Mort, so are we,” Jess said with a chuckle.
So it was Kate and Mort took off heading for Dakota, Kate first ensuring that Jess take his tonic regularly and rested when he felt tired.
“Yes Ma,” Jess has said with a twinkle in his eye.
Now as she and Mort made camp that evening, she wondered how her dear friends were faring.
She set about making a fire and had the coffee brewed by the time Mort had fed and watered the horses.
“Gee this is nice,” he said as he settled down beside her. “I guess Slim and Jess are two of the best friends I’ll ever have, but it’s nice to have you all to myself at last.”
She smiled in agreement and then said reflectively, “I hope that cheeky whippersnapper behaves himself and heeds my words.”
“Oh, he’ll be fine, Slim will make sure he takes the medicine,” Mort said.
Then gently removing the coffee cup from her hands he leaned in and kissed her, at first tentatively and then more and more passionately.

It was just three days later when they finally apprehended the villain.
They actually heard him before they saw him loudly berating the stubborn mule as he once more refused to budge.
They were heading through a rocky pass between two steep mountains and as they rounded the bend, they saw a tall skinny dark-haired man raising his whip to the mule and cussing loudly.
Mort quickly dismounted and aiming his rifle at the outlaw said, “OK hold it right there White.”
“Huh,” the man put the whip to one side and said, “who the hell are you and what do ya want?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya,” Mort said with a cheery grin, “my name is Sheriff Cory and I’m here to arrest you for the robbery of the Buzzard bank; conspiracy to arrest an innocent citizen for the same, and also collusion with another for the attempted murder of a prisoner in your care.”
“That weren’t murder he committed suicide,” Clem retaliated before he had time to think things through. ‘What?’ he suddenly said to himself, ‘attempted’ murder...hell Harper had survived?
“So, you do admit that you are Clem White former Deputy of Buzzard Colorado then?”
“Maybe,” the other said gruffly, his beady eyes darting around him for an escape route.
“Only I wasn’t sure seeing as you’ve dyed yer hair,” Mort said with another grin.
“Ain’t a criminal offense, is it?” he said belligerently.
“Nope that isn’t,” Mort agreed, “but you’ve got one hell of a lot of other crimes to answer to. Now throw down yer iron; you’re coming back to Buzzard with me, White.”
Once White reluctantly tossed his gun down Mort went across and handcuffed him while Kate tended to the terrified mule.
“It weren’t me. I’ve done nothing wrong,” Clem rallied, suddenly furious at his plight.
“So, I guess we won’t find the best part of five-thousand bucks in your saddle bags then,” Mort said already investigating and coming up with the booty almost at once.
“Plus, we have the little matter of several sworn statements and folk happy to give evidence against you waiting back in Buzzard. Mount up... and quit cussin’ there’ a lady present,” he added winking at Kate; who he knew could probably out cuss both him and the prisoner.
Then once they were back on the trail, he was delighted to note that Kate had worked her magic on the recalcitrant Clancy and he was trotting happily alongside Kate and her mount.
“How the heck did you do that?” he asked her later that day as they made camp the prisoner already tied to a nearby tree.
“Just a little of my special horse sweetener,” she said chuckling and showing Mort a mixture of herbs and nuts, mixed with honey. “Calms them down see...then a touch of my horse whispering to relax him did the trick. He was just scared ‘twas all,” she said grinning. “He’ll be fine now.”
Mort shook his head in disbelief...was their nothing his Kate couldn’t turn her hand to?
“Let’s git this prisoner back to town and then take that hunting trip,” he said taking her hand and looking deeply into her eyes.
“Why Sheriff I thought you’d never ask,” she chuckled batting her eyes at him before grinning and saying, “And about time too old man...I guess we need some down time together huh.”

Chapter 7
If Mort and Kate’s tracking had been going well it was not so for Jess and Slim.
Now that he wasn’t encumbered by his partner, and Clancy, the obstinate mule, it seemed that Ex Sheriff Marty Cain was speeding along at a great pace. He was however becoming lax and didn’t tidy up or try to disguise his camp sites or even keep to the old Indian trails. Now he was on the main road heading towards Montana and Coulson and didn’t seem any too bothered as to who saw him. Maybe he was still sticking to his story about chasing bank robbers the men thought...knowing that he didn’t know Jess had survived and could easily land him in jail with all the evidence against the renegade Sheriff.
The pace was grueling and several times Slim begged Jess to take it easy and rest up, but he steadfastly refused.
“What, and let that lowlife escape, are you crazy Slim?” Jess replied angrily.
“Come on Jess, you know what Kate said.”
“Dang it, never mind Kate. Come on Slim there’s another couple of hours before dark, quit talking, let’s go.”
It was the following day when they finally saw the fresh tracks before them and knew their quarry couldn’t be far away. This was endorsed when they came across the embers of a camp fire.
“An hour, maybe two ahead,” Jess said looking overjoyed.
They had been riding for less than an hour when they heard a distant, single shot fired. They looked at each other in surprise and carried on with renewed speed. Then sometime later they heard a horse heading in their direction and quickly dismounting they took cover beside the rocky road, ready to stop the outlaw in his tracks when he rounded the bend a few yards in front of them.
Moments later they saw Cain’s old buckskin limping along and looking very sorry for himself.
Jess jumped out from his hiding place and was easily able to catch the critter. Then on closer inspection said, “He’s lame Slim, got a badly pulled muscle on his nearside front leg...can’t be ridden for a good while that’s fer sure.”

“So, Cain’s afoot,” Slim said the light of battle in his eyes, “come on Jess, we’ve got him!”
They had only ridden a few hundred yards when they saw a body lying in the middle of the road.
They both dismounted and drawing their weapons they advance slowly on Cain.
But moments later they stared down in consternation at the body of...a complete stranger!
Jess was the first to come to his senses and holstering his iron he knelt down beside the elderly man who was groaning quietly and clutching at his bloodstained chest.
“What happened?” Jess asked softly.
The old timer opened his eyes and stared at Jess in terror, but then realizing he meant no harm he sighed deeply and said, “‘Twas a stranger...stopped me to ask directions to the nearest town I told him and then he called me back, I turned and he damn well shot me,” he gasped.
“Garldarn it why would he do that,” Slim interjected angrily.
“Wanted my horse mister, his had come up lame...so he took my, Beauty. Prettiest dang horse you ever did see,” he added, his old eyes fading now. “A white blaze and four white socks, real pretty.”
His head lolled back and Jess thought he was a gonner but then he rallied.
“He’s headed for Charity about ten miles east of Coulson...he needed supplies he said.” Then more firmly, “Tell my granddaughter, young Ellie...tell her what happened mister,” he implored grabbing Jess by the shirt front, “You look out for her please...she’s a good girl. Got a Great Aunt, lives down in Laramie...she’s to go there. Tell the Sheriff at Charity, tell him...what he did to me...” and then he breathed his last.
Jess’s eyes flashed darkly with anger, “Oh we’ll tell him alright, dontcha worry on that score.”
As they had no means of transporting the body of the old timer to town, they dug a grave by the roadside and on checking his pockets found his name was Sam Brown.
Then Jess tended to the buckskin as well as he could, removed his tack and set him free, knowing that he would be unable to keep up with them with the injured leg.
“With any luck he’ll take it easy and find a wild herd to run with once he’s fit again,” Jess said patting the old horse’s rump gently.
“Well let’s go nail that bastard,” Slim said mounting up.
It was late afternoon when they rode into the small mountain town of Charity. They were hot, tired and dusty. The place looked deserted and about as lively as Buzzard had been; so Jess thought.
They went over to the livery and saw a young boy who said he’d take real good care of their mounts. Then as they were leaving, Jess saw a pretty bay mare in the end stall, bearing a white blaze and four white socks. He nudged Slim and said, “Looky here Slim.”
Then turning to Joey, the stable lad said, “Uh, that’s a real beauty, who does she belong to son?”
The boy looked saddened, “She was old Doc Sam’s, he was the local doctor. Well, sorta…he was retired I guess; but still tended folk if they needed it. A real nice guy. He was murdered today. Who’d do that kinda thing?” and he shook his head sadly.
“So, who brought the horse in?” Jess asked urgently.
The boy looked surprised at his interest but merely replied, “Why the Sheriff from Buzzard...uh Cain I think he’s called, yup Sheriff Cain. He witnessed the whole thing see. There were two men, and he saw them kill Doc Brown. He went to challenge them and one of them shot his horse from under him. Jeez, I can’t believe that, can you?” he asked in outrage.
Slim and Jess exchanged a glance and Jess said dryly, “Nope I really can’t.”
The boy missed the irony and continued, “Anyway these men turned tail and rode off when they saw the Sheriff. You see he’s been hunting them down since they robbed the bank down in Buzzard.”
“You don’t say,” Slim said.
“Yes mister. Anyways, the Sheriff had to take poor Sam’s mount seeing as he was left afoot. Seems he told the Sheriff he believes that these men will show up here sometime as they must be all out of supplies by now said it was just a waiting game.”
“He did huh,” said Jess his anger mounting, “So where can we find your Sheriff boy?”
“Down Main Street on the right by the Golden Nugget Saloon.”
“I don’t believe it!” Jess yelled once they were out of earshot. “The damn audacity of the guy!”
“Um, let’s just hope he hasn’t convinced the Sheriff,” Slim said looking anxious.
They found the office alright with the words ‘Sheriff Dean Hanson’ in big letters over the door but there were no lights on and the place was locked up for the night.
“Just great,” said Slim, “now what?”
“We go find that bastard Cain and arrest him of course,” Jess said, “and I guess the best place to start is the saloon.”
They had asked the barkeep about the whereabouts of the town Sheriff, and a visiting Sheriff called Marty Cain although the words ‘Sheriff’ stuck in Jess’s craw when referring to Cain.
The barkeep just looked blankly at them and shrugged.
That’s when Jess nearly lost his temper and said, “Fer God’s sake man this is only a two-bit town, you must know where Sheriff Hanson and his visitor might be?”
The man sighed deeply and then sent a boy who had been skulking in the backroom to try and find the Sheriff.
Jess and Slim were just finishing their second pint of beer when a deep voice behind them said, “OK drop your weapons and turn around real slow.”
Both men ignored the order but turned to see a burly, elderly, red faced Sheriff, with a steely expression in his eyes; and his rifle turned on them.
“Lose ‘em I said or I’ll drop you where you stand,” he growled menacingly.
Jess and Slim exchanged a glance and then did as they were told.
Then the Sheriff turned to a man standing in the shadows behind him and said, “So are these your prisoners Sheriff Cain?”
“Goddamn it, Sheriff will ya listen to us!” Jess cried angrily.
Slim and Jess were now in the Sheriff’s dusty old jail, Cain and Hanson on the other side of the bars and the elderly Sheriff getting more impatient as time went on.
“I’ve listened all I’m gonna for one night.” he replied, “Fact is, this here Sheriff Cain is a genuine Sheriff; whereas you two are merely a pair of ranchers acting deputy...allegedly,” he added darkly.
“Exactly,” said Jess, “and so do you really think a rancher would shoot a guy’s horse from under him? Anyway you’ve checked our saddle bags and we ain’t got that Bank money.”
“You could have stashed it some place,” Cain said.
“So could you,” snapped Slim.
“What’s more iffen we had shot your horse how come we didn’t shoot you too huh? I guess iffen we had actually killed Brown in cold blood like you say, then we wouldn’t want any witnesses.”
Cain looked uncomfortable and merely blustered, “I was too quick for you...opened fire and you high-tailed it away after you shot that poor old timer.
Slim shook his head, “How many times! We didn’t kill him; we came across the body and gave him a decent burial. That’s how come we landed in town after you did. Your horse went lame...we know, because we found him and according to Brown you killed him for his horse...which is now in the livery!”
“Look, gentlemen this is getting us nowhere. Yes, Mr Harper I will wire the Sheriff’s office in Laramie to get them to verify your story,” said the now exasperated Sheriff Hanson, but other than that, I have to believe a law man over you two, that’s just the way it is.”
“Even though all the evidence is stacked against him!” Jess yelled.
Hanson ignored him and turning to Cain said, “I’m sorry Sheriff but I must be seen to cover every avenue. If you’d care to stay at the Boarding House down the street for a couple of days, I’m sure we can clear all this up. After all, murder is a powerful serious crime and I have to be sure as to who I can trust on this one.”
“But Sheriff the accusations these men are making are ridiculous surely you can see that, as if I’d rob the Bank in my own town...me, a respected lawman!”
“Yes, yes,” said Hanson, “quite so, but you are in my town now Sheriff and I would ask you to comply. As soon as I hear back from Laramie, we will be able to go ahead with the trial. I just ask you to be patient for a few days.”
Once Cain had stormed off, Jess called Sheriff Hanson back.
“Look Sheriff whether you believe us or not it is dang well true and when we came upon Brown, he was still alive. He asked us to look out for his granddaughter... er... Ellie. He said she has an aunt, who lives in Laramie ...she’s to go there, Brown said. Can you tell her that; look out for her...we kinda promised we’d do that.”
Hanson looked very thoughtful, “Um... thank you Mister Harper...and uh, I’ll send that wire first thing tomorrow.”
Once he’d left Jess stared after him for a good minute before erupting in fury, “Damn knuckle headed son of a bitch, can’t he see that bastard Cain for what he is!”
“Apparently not,” Slim said sinking down onto one of the hard cots.
Jess continued muttering oaths and pacing around the cell until he really started to get on Slim’ s nerves.
Close as he was to Jess (hell they could have been brothers), he still found it kinda uncomfortable being enclosed in a confined space with him when he was this angry.
“Jeez I’ve got a good mind to call that useless lump back in here and tell him what I think of him,” he said now clasping the bars and peering out into the dim light beyond the connecting door.
“Well, that wouldn’t be very smart,” Slim said quietly, “it would completely scupper our case and maybe he wouldn’t send that wire.”
“What do you mean our case?” Jess bellowed, “We don’t have a case to answer! It’s that lowlife waste of space, Cain, who has a case against him!”
“Jess will you just simmer down,” Slim shouted back losing his temper now. “This attitude really isn’t helping you know!”
Jess was silent and then taking a deep breath collapsed down on his own bunk. After a minute he looked up and whispered, “Sorry Slim...I just don’t like being confined. Ya know?”
“Yeah, I understand,” Slim said softly. “Come on let’s turn in get all rested up for round two huh?”
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “You got it,” he replied.
Cain returned the following day trying to blacken Jess and Slim’ s characters and urging the Sheriff to make arrangements for an immediate trial and subsequent hanging. However, when it became apparent that Hanson wouldn’t be moved, Cain once more stormed out and they didn’t see anything of him after that, much to Hanson’s relief.
It was on the third day that Sheriff Hanson entered the jail and opened the door saying Slim and Jess were free to go.
They followed him into the outer office and Jess said belligerently, “So you believe us now do ya?”
“Uh, yes and I am sincerely sorry gentlemen...but that Sheriff Cain was so dang convincing. I actually received a wire from a Judge Myers and he has filled me in on everything pertaining to this case.”
“Good, so maybe you’d like to accompany us to arrest him?” Slim said pleasantly as he buckled on his gun belt.
“Iffen he’s still here,” Jess muttered darkly. “Damn it he could be over the border by now,” he continued more loudly, “after your bumbling attitude! So, where the hell is he? Still in town? He’d better be,” he added ominously, when the Sheriff didn’t reply.
“He checked out yesterday morning Sheriff, and left no forwarding address,” said the Boarding House clerk.
They marched over to the livery and found young Joey.
“Yes, Sheriff, I saw that Sheriff Cain early yesterday morning, he said he wanted Doc Brown’s horse saddled up, said he was going on some business for you.”
“He did, did he?” Hanson growled.
“Yes sir, said you’d told him it was OK to borrow the horse. “Did I do wrong?”
The elderly Sheriff sighed deeply and said, “No boy, not you...it’s me that’s been a complete fool.”
“Well, you won’t get any argument there from me,” Jess growled angrily as he went off to saddle up Traveller.

Chapter 8
Cain had over a day’s head start on them, plus he was now being exceedingly wary and had covered his tracks well.
“This is no damn good,” Jess said, reining in once more when he realized…they had been following a false trail yet again.
They had immediately headed out of town and taken the old Indian trail and Jess’s hawk eyes had picked up his tracks after a mile or so. But then he had lost and found them several more times...and his frustration was growing by the minute.
“At least we know the general direction he’s heading in,” Slim said hopefully. “Maybe if we just keep heading for the border, we’ll find the trail again.”
“Yeah, or until we run into another Sheriff that takes his side,” Jess said morosely.
“Well, that isn’t going to happen,” Slim said with a cheerful grin. “Sheriff Hanson gave me the wire he received from Judge Myers. That should convince anyone else that’s thinking of believing Cain’s lies.”
“It better had,” Jess said sullenly before riding off again, his eyes glued to the ground.
Later that afternoon he swung down from his mount and squatted down examining the ground closely.
They had picked up Cain’s tracks with Beauty’s distinctive large hoof prints a few hours ago.
“What’s up?” asked Slim looking down from the saddle.
Jess tipped his hat back and frowned, “He looks to be turning back on himself I can’t figure it. He took a left through that gully and now he’s heading south again...going back the way we’ve come.”
“Why the heck would he do that?”
“Beats me,” said Jess looking around him as though the answer would suddenly jump out from behind one of the rocks.
Then he snapped his fingers, “Of course, he must have stashed the cash someplace. Remember Hanson went through his saddle bags as well as ours.”
“He’s heading back to town then, to pick it up?” Slim asked looking surprised.
“It sure looks that way...or nearby anyway.”
“So why didn’t he just pick it up on his way out of town?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, maybe he wanted to make sure he’d given anyone following the slip first. After all he wouldn’t want us to find him retrieving his stash and who would be expecting him to turn back towards town again?”
“Then what ’ll he do? He must know we’re on his heels...so he can’t come back up this way or we’d nail him,” Slim said thoughtfully. “So, what would you do in these circumstances, Jess, huh?”
“I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this dang mess in the first place,” Jess growled. Then more calmly, “I figure maybe I’d lie low for a good while, until the posse had gotten bored and gone home.”
“I guess we just have to keep following him until we find his hide-out.” Slim said.
“Yup, should be real easy, that,” Jess said surveying the miles of rocky terrain surrounding them peppered with mines, caves and hidden gullies, “yup real easy,” he said dryly as he remounted.
They were still following the tracks heading towards Charity, when the storm hit. It really looked like he was going all the way back to town...but why? Jess pondered as he pulled his hat down hard and his jacket collar up against the roaring wind.
“I reckon it doesn’t matter where he’s heading right now,” Slim said as he rode up beside Jess, “because he’s going to have to take cover and we are too Jess, this looks to be one hell of a storm rolling in.”
Jess was all for arguing, but once the torrential rain started beating down, he knew his pard was right, they had to find someplace to ride it out.
It was a good half hour later and they were both soaked to the skin when they finally found a cave and deep rocky overhang that would provide shelter for both themselves and their mounts.
Once the horses were tended Jess poked about at the back of the cave and found a stash of reasonably dry logs and kindling.
“Hey looky here Slim,” he called out, “we’re in luck...”
Slim wandered over and grinned, “Gee that’s good,” then more thoughtfully, you don’t suppose Cain was here?”
Jess shook his head, “Nope this ain’t been touched in years. Look there’s cobwebs all over it, probably Indians left them.”
Then he kicked at the pile and as he had thought…a rat ran out, closely followed by another and the critters tore out of the cave and into the deluge beyond.
“Great company,” Slim said looking disgusted, “reckon there’s anymore?”
Jess grinned and said, “Best not disturb them Slim, we might need some for supper if this storm keeps up.”
Slim shuddered and rolled his eyes, “Just make the fire up will ya, I reckon we’ve got enough beans and bacon left for supper,” he said, casting a glance out towards the cave mouth where the storm was still raging.
An hour later they were sitting in their undershorts, each with their bedroll around their shoulders and the rest of their clothing steaming gently before the fire. They had finished supper and now were sipping their coffee and looking into the depths of the fire as it crackled away comfortingly.
Slim glanced across and noted the intent look in his Pard’ s eyes and said, “What are you thinking about Jess?”
“Huh? Oh, that pretty little Ellie Doc Brown’s granddaughter. I sure hope she’ll be OK.”
Jess and Slim had visited the girl, once they were released from jail. They had found her at her grandfather’s house way out on the edge of town. They had spoken of her grandfather’s last minutes and his desire that she should move to Laramie to live with her Great Aunt. She had confirmed that it had always been planned that way should anything happen to her beloved grand pappy, and she seemed quite resigned to the fact.
“Are you gonna be OK out here on your own, in the meantime,” Jess had asked as they made their leave...feeling kinda bad at abandoning a young sixteen-year-old out there alone.
“Quite alright,” she had said demurely. “Mr and Mrs Baxter just down the track, look in regularly and I often eat with them. Besides I won’t be here too long. You see Mr Fadden from the mercantile has relatives in Laramie and he’s always said I may accompany him in his wagon, with his wife, whenever he visits... So I’ll be alright, really, I will.”
Now looking at Slim he said, “I sure hope she’s OK and can make that journey to her aunt’s real soon...’tis awful lonely for a youngster out there.”
“A real coincidence her aunt living in Laramie, Slim said thoughtfully. “I wonder if we know her?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, but sooner she gets there, the happier I’ll be.”
Slim nodded, “She was a tough little thing or wanted to look that way anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
“Oh, come on Jess you must have noticed the way she was looking at you, she just wanted to appear real grown up.”
“To impress you.”
“You’re loco.”
“I am huh, well she sure perked up when you said we’d look in on her when she arrived in Laramie; would show her around the town.”
“Hell, I was just bein’ neighborly, I felt sorry for the kid.”
“Well, I know that, and so do you...but I reckon young Ellie doesn’t,” Slim said with another chuckle.
Jess merely scowled at him and pulling his bedroll around him more securely said, “I don’t know about you but I’m beat. I’m turnin’ in,” and moments later he was out like a light; snoring gently.
The following morning the storm was spent and they made their way towards Charity at first light.
As they rode in a few hours later they were surprised to find the place even more deserted than usual and the Sheriff’s office all locked up.
“What’s goin’ on?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow, “Has all the action around here made folk sit up and look for a quieter town.”
Slim grinned at the quip and then said, “One place we should be able to find out,” and he headed for the saloon.
They entered the bar to find that equally deserted and the barkeep polishing glasses in a somewhat desultory way.
“Where is everybody?” Slim asked once they’d ordered some beer.
“Haven’t you heard? Doc Brown’s young granddaughter’s been abducted and everyone’s out looking.”
“I knew it,” Jess snapped, “I knew she wasn’t safe left there all alone.”
The barkeep looked surprised at that outburst and said, “She was used to it Mister. She was alone often enough when the Doc was busy working all hours of the day and night, before he retired. Besides nobody here would harm a hair of her head and we get precious few strangers in these parts,” he added throwing them a baleful glance.
Jess ignored the look and said, “Has that Sheriff Cain been back to town, do you know?”
The barkeep looked surprised, “Why no, he was proved to be a fake according to Sheriff Hanson and wanted by the law...so why would he come back?”
“Why indeed,” said Jess quietly and returned to drinking his beer.
Once the barman had wandered off, Slim turned to his pard and said, “You don’t think Cain has got anything to do with this do you Jess?”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno, but I aim to find out, come on Slim drink up, let’s go.”
They arrived at the Baxter spread a half mile from Doc Brown’s little house and after tethering their mounts Slim rapped a tattoo on the front door. When there was no reply, they looked around the place. There were chickens wandering around the yard and smoke issuing from the chimney and so it seemed pretty clear that someone was home.
They were just turning back towards the door to try again when an elderly lady, with white hair, wearing a bright floral apron and wielding a rifle came into view around the side of the house.
The vision so reminded Jess of Daisy that he couldn’t help but grin at her.
His enchanting smile somewhat flummoxed the old lady and she lowered her rifle a tad looking slightly perplexed and said, “Yes, what do you want?” in a surprisingly strong firm voice.
“Well, iffen you’d put down that rifle we’d feel a whole lot more comfortable for starters,” Jess said flashing her another smile.
Then Slim came forwards, and showing her the deputy badge said, “We’re Deputy Sheriffs’ ma’am…over from Laramie and we wondered if you could answer a few questions about the abduction of Miss Brown?”
The lady waved the gun towards the door and said, “You’d better come in gentlemen.”
Once the introductions had been made, she settled back in her old rocker and said, “My husband Frank and I feel just terrible about all this business. Frank is out now with the posse, searching...been two days since they rode out,” she added looking anxious.
“Go on ma’am,” Slim said kindly.
“You see we blame ourselves. This Sheriff rode in... well, he said he was a Sheriff. He wore a badge said his name was Sheriff Cain.”
Jess jumped up from his seat looking furious, “I knew it. I just knew it!” he cried loudly.
Mrs Baxter looked startled, staring up at this handsome, yet volatile young man.
“Simmer down Jess you’re not helping any,” Slim snapped.
Then turning back to Mrs Baxter said, “Please go on ma’am.”
Once she was sure Jess was settled down again, she continued, “As I say, we blame ourselves. You see, this Cain called here wanting to know the whereabouts of Miss Ellie. He said he was the one who had found Doc Brown and apprehended the murderers and he just wanted to be sure Miss Ellie was safe; and to tell her of her grandfather’s last words. It all seemed so reasonable. Now Frank blames himself for not accompanying this Sheriff but he was busy butchering the pigs; so, he just told him where the doc’s house was and to tell Ellie she is expected for a meal later that day. Then when she was late Frank wandered over to fetch her and found Ellie and Patch missing.”
“Patch?” Jess asked.
“Her pony dear a little buckskin…she loves that critter,” she added sadly.
“Anything else,” Slim asked.
“Oh yes, Frank said it looked like there had been a fight of some sort, china broken, chairs upturned and a valise with some of Ellie’s clothes gone too. Well of course Frank rode into town at once and that’s when we heard the news and found out that this Sheriff Cain was bogus and he’d had two real deputies jailed for the murder.”
Then she looked surprised, “That was you two boys?”
Jess nodded, “Yes ma’am and that Sheriff Cain is a real bad lot, wanted for murder and bank robbery back in Buzzard as well as killing Doc Brown for his horse.”
The poor woman looked like she might well burst into tears at this and both men felt suddenly very sorry for her.
“We just didn’t know,” she whispered, “we don’t get into town too much and the last we heard this Sheriff Cain was a hero. I am so, so sorry.”
“Didn’t Ellie tell you about it all,” Slim asked, “after all we visited her a little while back and she knew all about Cain being trouble and how we’d been framed by him.”
She shook her head, “No… you see dear we hadn’t seen Ellie for a few days, she hates it when Frank is slaughtering the pigs for market, so she stays away. She was due over for lunch the day Cain arrived as Frank had nearly finished the job.”
She sighed, then went on, “But we always check there is smoke coming from her chimney, we can see it easily from here and once we see that we know all is well...or we thought we did,” she added sadly, “I really am sorry,” she said again.
“Don’t be,” Jess said sincerely, “you’ve been a real help ma’am and we’ll find young Ellie and bring her home safe and sound, you’ll see.”
“What did you tell her that for?” Slim asked angrily once they were riding away and out of earshot. “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep Jess.”
“Oh, I aim to keep it alright,” Jess said, “or die trying,” and with that he urged Traveler on to even greater speed.
Slim looked after him, shaking his head before he kneed Alamo on to join his pard.

Chapter 9
They had been riding a few hours in the blazing heat when they saw a posse of riders heading their way.
Jess turned and frowned at Slim and said, “What in hell are they doing coming back to town...unless they’ve found her,” he added suddenly grinning. “Come on Slim, let’s go see.”
As they got closer, they were able to see the dispirited company of men riding slowly heads bowed and no sign of young Ellie.
Sheriff Hanson reined in when Slim and Jess approached, removing his hat and wiping his hot sweating face with a kerchief, before nodding to them.
“Harper, Sherman, good to see you...any luck in locating Cain?”
Slim shook his head, “We tracked him going back towards town and then were told Ellie had been abducted and I guess the smart money is on him having taken her; for some reason.”
Hanson replaced his hat and considered the information before saying, “I can’t see as to why he would do that?”
“Well neither can we,” Jess barked, “but it sure looks that way. And anyway, what are you doin’ back if you ain’t found her?”
“Trail went cold. It was that storm washed away all the tracks.”
“So, you’re just giving up?” Jess asked looking incredulous.
“Well what else do you expect me to do boy,” the elderly Sheriff said tetchily, “I can’t go gallivanting around the countryside on a lost cause. I’ve got me a town to run...and these men hafta get back to work too.”
“So that’s it then?” Jess asked bitterly.
“I’m sorry, real sorry, but yes that’s all I can do. Uh, but should you manage to locate Cain, or indeed young Ellie, then I’d sure appreciate you bringing them back to town. A lot of folks are real worried about young Ellie and that bastard Cain will hang for the murder of her grand pappy too.”
Jess opened his mouth to reply with some choice words indicating his thoughts on the Sheriff’s attitude.
But Slim quickly hushed him and said, “Sure Sheriff we’ll be in touch once we find them,” and he quickly ushered Jess off, before he could vent his feelings on the elderly Sheriff and posse.
Once they were out of earshot Jess said, “Why did you shut me up... huh?”
“Because you yelling the odds at them wouldn’t have made any difference and wouldn’t have helped any,” Slim said reasonably.
“Well, it sure would have helped me some,” Jess said dourly, before urging Traveler on to a quick trot.
They rode onwards through the blistering heat, hoping upon hope that they would see some sign that they were on the right track. But the unforgiving open countryside spread out for mile after mile before them...nothing visible save the constant heat haze and scrubby landscape stretching out as far as the eye could see.
By the end of the third day of riding in the scorching heat both men were feeling weary and exasperated, as there was no sign that anyone had passed that way.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Slim said as he reined in and sipped the last of the water from his canteen.
“So, what are you saying...we give up too?” Jess said angrily.
Slim just sighed and shrugged, “It’s impossible buddy they could be anywhere.”
Jess looked furious, “Have you forgotten how he knifed me and left me to bleed to death...not to mention getting us both banged up in jail back in Charity.”
“Yes, I know, I know,” Slim said quietly.
“There’s something else too... something that you don’t know about.”
“When the town’s folk back in Buzzard came forward after Cain had been exposed for the low-life he was, they told me something else about him. It seems he also had a reputation with the ladies. A woman told me that he demanded sexual favours from lone females in return for protection. Those who didn’t comply mysteriously left town or had their property fired or would lose their job. They’d be forced into poverty as Cain told folk not to have anything to do with the victim.”
Slim looked deeply shocked, but said nothing.
“Jeez Slim what the hell do ya think he’s getting up to with an innocent little sixteen-year-old girl huh!”
“I... I didn’t know,” Slim said looking stunned. “Sure, we have to find them, but where do we look Jess? You must see it’s impossible...no sign that anyone has passed this way in weeks. What with the wind constantly blowing the sand and dry earth about, we can’t see anything.”
Jess shrugged, “I dunno where we look. But if they did pass this way they’d be in need of water, just like we are now. Let’s head due north huh. We passed a big lake when we rode out before, if they’ve stopped for water, we may pick up some tracks in the mud at the lake edge...worth a try anyway.”
A few hours later Jess sighed contentedly as he took another draft of water from his canteen and wiped his chin grinning at Slim.
“Told ya didn’t I? Plain as day...those big old feet belonging to Beauty, and those smaller ones must be Ellie’s pony.”
“I don’t get it,” Slim said looking perplexed, “they seem to be riding away from the cover over on the mountain foothills. Surely that would be the best place to lie low?”
“You’re right,” Jess concurred... “unless...”
“Unless they’ve decided there’s safety in numbers. Maybe he’s decided to try and hide in a big town like Coulson? They sure look to be heading that way.”
“But why would he do that?” Slim asked. “That’s crazy.”
“Could be he’s going to change his appearance, pretend to be someone he ain’t. That could be why he took Ellie... to use her as part of his cover pass her off as his daughter maybe? Then he just lies low and waits for us to go plumb crazy looking for him and eventually give up. Once we’ve headed home, he rides for the border.”
“Well at least we’ve got some tracks to follow now,” Slim said happily, “so let’s just see iffen your theory hangs together huh.”

Chapter 10

They passed a graveyard on the hillside as they rode towards Coulson early one afternoon and Jess paused and reined in closely followed by Slim.
“Know what they call that place?” Jess asked.
“They call it that because most of the folks there died with their dang boots on.”
“What, you mean in a gunfight or some such, rather than sick in bed?” Slim asked.
“Yup...it’s a rough old town Slim, and if Cain wants to hide out with no questions asked, I reckon this is the place to do it.”
However, when a couple of hours had passed and the two men had visited every boarding house and lowlife saloon in the town, they were beginning to feel slightly less convinced.
“I just don’t get it,” Jess said as he sidestepped yet another fistfight as it spilled out of a saloon onto the board walk.
“We saw their mounts in the livery so they have to be around here someplace.”
But Slim’ s attention was elsewhere.
“What about that place?” he said nodding to a large edifice just down Main Street. “Maybe he’s gone up market, he can sure afford it.”
They entered the smart Hotel, Slim thinking how out of place it was in the ramshackle old town.
They made for the reception and a clerk popped up from behind the desk and beamed at them.
“You would like a room gentleman?” he asked hopefully.
“We just want some information,” Jess said quickly. “We’re looking for an old friend traveling with uh, his daughter,” and he described Cain and Ellie.
“No, I’m sorry sir…no one of that description. We just have the Doctor and his daughter staying here... a doctor Brown?”
Slim and Jess exchanged a grin and Jess said, “Uh, didn’t I say he was a doc? So, what room?”
“We don’t usually disclose that information sir.”
Jess leaned over and placed a couple of notes in the clerk’s top pocket, “But today you’ll make an exception huh?” Jess asked pleasantly.
“Oh yes sir, top of the stairs and along the corridor adjoining rooms, three and four. But Miss Ellie’s room is always locked, so you’re better trying number three. Strange that,” he said almost to himself, “very protective of his daughter...such a pretty young thing,” he mused, “but very quiet.”
Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance and thanking the clerk made for the stairs, taking them two at a time.
They stormed down the corridor and Jess hurled himself at Cain’s door, practically knocking it off its hinges.
The two men burst in just as Cain leapt from his bed, where he’d been reclining, and made a dash towards his handgun on a side table. But Jess was way too fast for him and threw a haymaker that sent him flying across the room in the blink of an eye.
Seeing that his pard had things in hand, Slim made his way across the room and unlocking the adjoining door released a tearful Ellie. She ran into Slim’s arms saying “Oh thank God!”
Then both their attention was taken as Cain howled in agony and pleaded with Jess for mercy.
Slim was across the room in two strides and looked in consternation as Jess now had Cain pushed hard up against the wall, his forearm across his throat. Cain was turning blue and spluttering as Slim grabbed hold of Jess and tried to pull him away.
Then Ellie was beside him, “Please stop she cried, I don’t want you in trouble because of all this, please let him go before you kill him!”
Jess looked down at her.
“Are you alright?” he asked, still keeping his grip on Cain.
“Yes. Really, he didn’t hurt me... not too much anyway.”
“He...he didn’t...you know, touch ya?”
She looked puzzled and then flushing prettily said, “Oh no, nothing like that...he just slapped me a couple of times when I tried to escape.”
“He did huh?” Jess said menacingly.
“Damn it, Jess, will you ease up!” Slim yelled.
Jess finally relinquished his hold on Cain and he fell to the floor in a dead faint.
“Oh my,” squeaked Ellie, “is he dead?”
“Nah, just passed out Jess said cheerfully, “don’t fret...he’ll be just fine. After all we want him nice and healthy for when he faces the rope, don’t we.”
They arrived back in Charity a few days later and handed Cain over to Sheriff Hanson. The elderly Sheriff was embarrassingly grateful and again apologized profusely for the way he had taken Cain’s word over that of Jess and Slim.
“Just dang well see justice is done now we’ve brought him in,” Jess said irritably. “You’ve got plenty of evidence that he murdered young Ellie’s grand pappy from me and Slim, plus young Ellie’s statement.”
The girl had told the Sheriff how Cain got drunk one night and was bragging about how he had murdered her grandfather, saying she would be next if she didn’t behave herself.
But it was finally Cain himself who admitted to the murder when on the stand, plus all the other evil deeds including robbing the bank back in Buzzard. The Judge had cross examined him and suddenly Cain had lost his temper and the truth came tumbling out. “Sure, I did all those things he shouted angrily...and I don’t give a damn.”
Then there was a cry from the public gallery and a stout middle-aged woman stood and cried out desperately, “Marty no! You don’t know what you’re saying!”
“Silence in court,” intoned the Judge.
The proceedings continued and it was only a matter of time before Cain was found guilty on all charges and he was sentenced to death by hanging the following day.
Again, the woman shouted out and ran to the prisoner crying hysterically.
“What are you doing here woman?” Cain yelled angrily.
“When you wired your Ma back in Buzzard, she told me where you were and I had to come and find you Marty...please tell them you lied...say you’re innocent!”
“Get out of here you, stupid woman,” Cain cried hotly. “You can’t change anything now.”
She grabbed his hand and said urgently, “Marty...please...we were good together once, weren’t we?”
He sighed and nodded and then pulled her into a passionate embrace and kissed her ardently, before the Sheriff tapped him on the shoulder and led him away.
The events had been watched by Slim and Jess and they listened with interest when a kindly woman came over and put an arm around the now weeping woman.
“Don’t take on so,” she said sympathetically. “You know the accused, do you dear?”
The woman nodded, “Yes my name is Myra Cain...Marty is my husband.” Then she looked over to where Slim and Jess stood nearby and throwing them a murderous glance said firmly, “And he is innocent, he’s been framed.”
Regardless of Myra Cain’s desperate pleas for her husband to be released, the hanging went ahead as planned at six the following morning.
The whole town turned out to witness the event as old Doc Brown had been a very well-respected citizen of the small township.
Even Jess and Slim attended the hanging, which they rarely did.
“But I guess I’ll make an exception in Cain’s case,” Jess said wryly to Slim, “I wanna be sure he’s quiet dead,” he had added with a grim smile.
From her hotel window on Main Street Myra Cain watched the proceedings and swore her revenge as the rope was placed around her husband’s neck. She closed her eyes and listened to the whooshing sound as her husband was strung high, the crowd gasping as Marty’s life finally ended. Then with tears streaming down her face she muttered, “You’ll pay for this...you’ll pay dearly.”
Once it was all over the Sheriff requested a meeting in his office with Slim and Jess.
“You gentlemen will be riding out today I imagine?” he started, looking somewhat sheepish.
“We do have a ranch to run,” Slim replied rather acerbically, “we’ve wasted far too much time here already,” the words thanks to you, hanging on the air, but left unsaid.
“Of course, of course,” the Sheriff said looking even more uncomfortable. “But you see gentleman I have...well a favor to ask of you.”
“You have?” Jess asked in astonishment, completely taken aback by the gall of the guy.
“You see the thing is...well, you are heading for Laramie and young Ellie needs to get there to stay with her aunt...and I sort of suggested to her that you might be willing to escort her?”
“Now hang on just a minute,” Slim said hotly, “you might have asked us first!” Then added, “I really don’t think it’s proper for two single men to have a young girl like that put in their care...and besides like I say, we need to get home pronto...she’d just slow us down.”
“Yeah, Slim’ s right,” Jess butted in. “No way Hanson...sorry but she’s just gonna hafta wait for that elderly neighbor, Mister Fadden and his wife to drive her in next time they’re visiting that way.”
“No can do I’m afraid Harper. He died just two days ago, bad heart it seems. So poor Ellie is stranded here unless you can help her out?”
Jess shook his head again, knowing just how taxing young girls could be, “Sorry Sheriff.”
Just then the door flew open and a bright-eyed Ellie, her dark hair gleaming and heart shaped face wreathed in smiles entered. She was dressed in her best clothes, carrying a valise and burst in declaring happily, “I’m all ready gentlemen...shall we go?”
They set off for Laramie a few hours later.
Jess had tried to reason with her explaining that they were in a real hurry to get home and the pace would simply be too much for her and her pony; the elderly buckskin Patch.
But Ellie just laughed that off, declaring that she had been riding before she could walk and her pony might look small and old but he was tough and could easily keep up.
Then Slim had tried...
“Look er... Ellie this is kind of difficult, but well maybe your aunt wouldn’t approve of you having two single gentlemen escorting you. It’s quite a way you know and we’ll be sleeping under the stars...she might feel that not quite proper?” he suggested with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh nonsense,” she said cheerfully, “I’m sure my aunt will be glad I’m in such safe hands. After all you are both Deputy Sheriff’s aren’t you so what could be more fitting? I’m sure we will get along just fine. After all I already feel you are like two kindly uncles,” she added smiling sweetly at them.
Slim wasn’t fooled for a minute, hell, he’d seen the way she had been looking at his pard ever since they had first met... ‘ha uncle indeed’ he thought.
“I’m sorry honey, but it just ain’t practical,” Jess was saying.
That was when she had turned away and played her trump card when she started crying softly.
As she already guessed neither could bear the sight of a pretty female weeping and they caved in almost at once.
However, Jess felt he had to make his point and insisted on them riding hard all day and only stopping to eat and rest in the late afternoon.
Once the scratch meal had been consumed, they lounged around the camp fire as the sun slowly slipped behind the distant mountains. Sipping a last coffee before turning in they stretched out on their bedrolls, saddle for a pillow and chatted quietly.
Thinking back to their conversation of earlier in the day Jess said thoughtfully, “So who is your aunt then Ellie, maybe Slim and I would know her?”
“I shouldn’t think so she is an older lady, my great aunt really, Grandpa’s sister Edna... Edna Matlock.... you know her?”
Jess nearly choked on his coffee, “What Widow Matlock?” he asked.
“Uh yes well she is a widow, Uncle Jack died years ago when I was a baby...so you do know her?”
“Oh yeah, I know her alright,” Jess said with feeling.
“So, um...when did you last see your aunt?” Slim asked quickly hoping to change the subject slightly.
“Oh, not for years, I can hardly remember her. She was a tad strict I think and read me lots of Bible stories. But of course, that was when I was a little girl. I expect she will treat me more as an adult now,” she said brightly, “I’m sure we’ll have lots of fun together.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Jess muttered to himself, but a hasty kick on the leg from Slim shut him up, and he lay back and closed his eyes.
However Slim and Ellie chatted on for a while longer, the excitement of camping out under the stars making her uncharacteristically forthcoming.
After a while she glanced over at the now sleeping Jess and before she thought about it, she said almost to herself, “He looks so young and innocent.” And then blushed with embarrassment...hoping Slim hadn’t heard her little faux pas.
However Slim had heard alright and decided now would be a good time to put Ellie straight on one or two things pertaining to his buddy.
“Well, I can assure you he isn’t either,” he said firmly. He’s old enough to be your Pa you know Ellie, never mind a, what did you say...a ‘kindly Uncle’?
She flushed again and looked away.
But Slim wasn’t done yet.
“As to innocent well he sure hasn’t been that for many a year,” he said now with the hint of a smile. “Nope, old Jess is far from inexperienced believe me...”
Ellie just smiled politely and then yawning said, “I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight, Mr Sherman.”
Then he took pity on the youngster and giving her a proper smile said, “Goodnight Ellie and don’t forget what we said it’s Slim and Jess ...right?”
She nodded and returned the smile, “Goodnight Slim,” and she cuddled down under her blanket...secretly smiling to herself.
Heck did Slim think she was going to be warned off that easily? Jess was absolutely perfect in every way and she was determined to bewitch him on their journey to Laramie no matter what Slim thought.
Slim slumped down next to his buddy, casting him a glance as he settled himself down for the night. Jess was sprawled on his back one arm thrown out above his head and the other protectively across his chest. Yes, he agreed he did look kinda young and innocent in sleep but Slim knew better.
Then he frowned...what the hell would Widow Matlock make of all this he wondered sleepily.
Jess and Slim had been introduced to Edna Matlock by Daisy a few years earlier. She had recently moved to town and was quick to join the Church choir and Daisy’s Women’s Group.
When she was introduced to Jess, on a rare occasion that he was accompanying Daisy to Church, her first words were, “You are a good God-fearing boy I hope Jess,” and she looked intently into his eyes.
“Do my best Ma’am,” he had replied touching his hat and smiling at her...charming the elderly matron.
However, it wasn’t long before Edna had Jess’s true measure...when she learned how he frequented the saloon and was dating a saloon girl. Then as to how the couple had a scandalous relationship. Keeping the kind of company that should, in Edna’s book, only be reserved for married couples. That along with his less than salubrious past had made him the ideal candidate for her to convert him to the ways of the Lord. To lead a sinless and good life, instead of the one he currently led of debauchery, in her view.
Jess of course took all the nagging, Bible bashing and constant hectoring in his stride by ignoring her onslaught and avoiding her whenever possible. However, everyone at the ranch knew it would only be a matter of time before he lost his temper with the annoying, dominant woman and that was something Daisy dreaded.
Jess was very popular in town, especially with the females in the Women’s Group and Daisy hated to hear their newest member constantly putting him down. More to the point so did the other ladies, and Daisy knew it wouldn’t be long before Edna was ostracized for her comments regarding Jess and his lifestyle.
So it was that Daisy had taken Edna to one side and told her in no uncertain terms the feelings of herself and the group regarding Edna’s bigotry.
“After all my dear,” she had finished, “remember the words of St Paul, ‘And now these three remain, Faith, Hope, and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.’”
Edna had looked shame face, “You are so right Daisy...and I have shown Jess precious little of Christian love. Maybe I should just accept the boy the way he is...not try and convert him?”
“I think that would probably be for the best,” Daisy had agreed with a kind smile. “He is a good man and in his own way loves and honors our Lord. Maybe we should leave him to do things as he sees right.”
Now as Slim drifted off to sleep he wondered what old Widow Matlock would make of that ‘Casanova’ as she had once referred to Jess escorting her beloved niece across miles of wild countryside. With only another single man to act as chaperone...and he shuddered slightly...as he settled down for the night.

Chapter 11
The following morning dawned bright and sunny with the promise of another scorching day ahead. Jess suggested they get underway as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day, with a break at noontide and then carry on once the heat was past its peak.
Surprisingly Ellie seemed to have lost her sparkle and instead of hanging on Jess’s every word and watching him closely she seemed quite withdrawn and disinterested in the day’s plans.
Slim smiled inwardly, it looked like she had taken onboard his veiled warning regarding Jess and he sighed with relief.
Jess however seemed to be just as unaware of her disinterested attitude as he had been of her attention and flirting and merely went off to check on the horses.
They finally reined in beside a fast-flowing river, with plenty of tree cover around and decided that would be the ideal spot to escape the noontide heat.
It was then that Slim realized there was more bothering Ellie than just their conversation of the previous evening. As she dismounted, she staggered a little clutching onto her saddle for support.
Jess was the closest and was at her side in seconds, supporting her.
“Hey take it easy sweetheart,” he said gently. “Are you OK?”
She had a slick of sweat on her brow and her face was deathly pale.
“No,” she whispered, “I feel a little faint...”
Jess quickly picked her up and carried her to the shade of a large aspen and Slim rushed over with a bedroll and she was swiftly made comfortable.
Then Slim offered her a drink from his canteen which she accepted before laying back and closing her eyes.
“Ellie, are you alright?” Slim said softly...but there was no reply.
“Dang it she’s out for the count, it must be the heat,” Jess whispered...looking down at her anxiously.
Then turning to Slim said, “I told ya it was crazy lettin’ her ride along...females are always trouble out in the big open...can’t take the pace.”
“We don’t know that for sure Jess, she could just be sick.”
Jess cussed, “Damn it that’s even worse,” he said softly.
They left her to rest and set up camp in the shady dell beside the river.
“Oh well one good thing,” Jess said grinning at his pard, “at least we get to do some fishing.”
“I don’t know how you can be so darned heartless,” Slim said, “the kid could be really sick...fainting that way.”
“You think?” Jess asked suddenly looking concerned.
He turned back and went and squatted down beside Ellie who was now awake and looking around her anxiously.
“Hey Ellie, how are you feeling now...got a tad too hot?” he asked kindly.
She stared at him for a moment and then clutched her stomach and groaned softly.
“Are you sick?” Jess asked as he and Slim looked on helplessly.
“Yes...uh no,” she whispered, “not really...just you know...” and she flushed with embarrassment... shrugging, “just women’s stuff.”
“Just women’s stuff?” Jess asked looking blank and turning to Slim for support.
“You know,” Slim whispered.
“Oh yeah,” Jess replied after a moment the truth finally dawning.
Then turning back to Ellie said, “Uh...right....um well you take it easy huh...I guess we’ll camp the night...so you can uh...rest up some yeah?”
“Thank you,” she whispered closing her eyes again and just praying they would go away and leave her in peace.
Jess stood up and moved away followed by Slim.
“She’ll be OK,” he said casually...as he went in search of a suitable pole to use with his line.
Slim merely rolled his eyes and went to brew some coffee for the girl, thinking maybe a small shot of redeye would ease the pain some.
Ellie seemed much more her old self by suppertime and apologized profusely for holding them up.
“I’m just relieved you’re feeling better,” Slim said kindly, whilst Jess just concentrated on frying up the fish supper.
Once Ellie was tucked up for the night Slim and Jess sat sipping coffee laced with whiskey and looked off towards the river sparkling in the moonlight.
“Told ya,” Jess said, “nuthin’ but trouble females on the trail.”
“Well, she can hardly help it can she?” Slim said, feeling rather sorry for the youngster.
“I guess not,” Jess agreed, “but sooner we offload her onto Ma Matlock the happier I’ll be.”
“Um...but will Ma Matlock be happy?” Slim said with the hint of a smile. “You know the way she feels about you Jess. So, what’s she gonna say when she realizes her precious great niece has been sleeping under the stars with Laramie’s very own Casanova huh,” and he chuckled.
“Aw shuddup Slim,” Jess said flapping a hand at him, but grinning none the less.
Under the cover of darkness Ellie listened in. So, Jess had a reputation as a ladies’ man, did he? Well that just made him even more attractive she thought and she settled down to sleep and hopefully dream of her hero. The fact that he couldn’t wait to ‘offload her’ onto her aunt was merely another challenge to be met she decided as she drifted off to sleep. She’d just have to show him she was indispensable.
The following morning, she was awake and up before the men and already had the coffee on and breakfast underway before they roused.
“Hey you didn’t hafta do this,” Jess said later sipping his coffee appreciatively.
“The least I could do after holding you up yesterday,” she said smiling into his eyes.
“Well heck that wasn’t your fault,” Slim said quickly, “you couldn’t help feeling...uh...under the weather.”
She blushed prettily at Slim’ s euphemism and looked away before glancing back at Jess and saying, “I’ll try not to be too much trouble in future.”
Now it was Jess’s turn to flush up and he realized she must have heard their conversation of the previous night, “I’m sure you won’t be,” he said quickly, avoiding her gaze.
Round one to me she thought happily as the men commenced eating the delicious breakfast...Now I just need to prove I’m really mature and sensible for my age she decided... But she had no idea her plan would come together quite so quickly.
They were riding through a narrow steep-sided gorge with high rocky cliffs on either side when Traveller started playing up.
Jess had taken the lead as he had ridden that route before, and now he put a gentle hand on Traveller’s neck and said, “Easy boy, what’s botherin’ you huh?”
But then before he even had a chance to look around him three things happened almost at once. Slim yelled a cry of warning as a huge cougar, on the cliff top, pounced on Jess’s back catapulting him out of the saddle and Traveller reared up in terror and bolted.
As Jess hit the ground the cougar grabbed his left arm in its jaws and started worrying it, all the time growling ferociously.
Slim threw himself from the saddle and took aim at the big cat ...but wasted valuable seconds as Jess rolled over and over trying desperately to pull free from the critter.
Then at last he got a clear shot and the huge creature screamed in pain before finally relinquishing its prey. Then after writhing in agony for a few seconds more, lay still...dead.
Slim and Ellie tore to Jess’s side and looked down in horror at the badly mauled arm.
Slim was the first to jump into action and squatting down beside his pard he gently helped him up and half carried him to the shade at the side of the track.
“Take it easy buddy,” he said softly, “he’s dead now...it’s OK.”
“Trav?” Jess whispered, his good arm gripping the bloody remains of his shirt and wound ... “He’s, OK?”
“Sure, he skedaddled off out of trouble, he’ll be down the track aways, don’t fret Jess. Let’s get you cleaned up and then I’ll go fetch him.”
Meanwhile Ellie had run back to her mount and now appeared carrying a small black leather case. “It’s alright Slim you go and get the horse. I can look after Jess.”
Both men stared up at her in shock.
“Er, that’s good of you Ellie, but he’s hurt pretty bad I think I should deal with it,” Slim said quickly.
“Well by all means you can help,” Ellie said quickly. “But I have been trained in how to clean and dress wounds of this type. My dear Grandpa was teaching me to be his nurse,” she added, opening the bag and withdrawing a phial of cleansing spirit and some clean dressings and bandages.
She spoke in such a self-assured manner that Slim sat back on his haunches saying, “OK Ellie, just tell me what to do.”
Jess opened his mouth to argue, but one determined look from Ellie quelled him.
Then she expertly cleaned and dressed the wound, bandaged it firmly and even produced a square of dark cloth that she neatly fashioned into a sling.
Slim had held the patient’s arm firmly during the painful procedure and Jess had manfully kept quiet. His usual colorful oaths silenced in deference to the young girl.
Once it was all over Slim looked at his pale shaking buddy and made a decision.
“I’ll go fetch your old horse and then I guess we’ll camp for the night, you really don’t look any too good.”
Jess again looked like he would protest long and loud but merely said gruffly, “I’m OK now.”
“Slim’ s right,” Ellie said quickly, “Grandpa always said you couldn’t be too careful with animal bites. If you’re too active it can cause all sorts of problems, like life-threatening infections. No, I think you should rest today Jess really, I do.”
The concerned look in her beautiful brown eyes and authoritative way she spoke made Jess hesitate for a moment.
Then she beamed at him, “That’s all settled then,” she said happily. Once more the youngster, now her nursing duties had been completed.
When Slim returned with Traveller a few minutes later it was clear Jess was in no fit state to ride any distance.
He had staggered over to his mount and then stood beside him for a moment steeling himself to get up in the saddle...the pain in his arm now throbbing and sweat running down his back.
“Need a leg up?” Slim asked kindly wandering over.
Jess shook his head and taking a deep breath did his usual hop up to the stirrup and settled in the saddle uneasily, collecting the reins in his good hand.
Then turning to Slim said quietly, “There’s a good place to camp about a mile down this track with water and plenty of tree cover,” and with that he moved off at a slow walk.
Slim stared after him feeling apprehensive and figured his buddy was feeling pretty bad. Then he noticed Ellie watching him and threw her an encouraging smile, but she wasn’t fooled for a minute.
“He’ll be alright you know. I did a good job. But he must rest. Grandpa was always adamant about that; the odd times we treated a bite from some wild critter.”
“You really know your stuff don’t you,” Slim said admiringly.
“Grandpa was a great teacher,” she said with a winning smile before mounting up and following Jess on down the track.
It was later that evening that Ellie’s skills were once more discussed.
She had insisted on changing the dressing after supper and declared the wound to be showing no signs of infection.
“Thanks honey,” Jess said once he was laid back comfortably against his saddle coffee mug in hand. “So is this what you wanna do when yer grown up...uh that is...older,” he amended when he saw her hurt look.
She recovered from the slight quickly and said, “Oh yes. Grandpa had put savings aside to send me back east to do my training when I’m eighteen.” Then she suddenly looked alarmed, “Goodness I hope I can still go?”
“Can’t see why not Slim said cheerfully, “didn’t you say that you inherited everything in your grandfather’s Will, so you’ll be quite a wealthy young lady. I’m sure you’ll be able to afford the training alright.”
“I just hope great Aunt Edna approves.”
Jess and Slim exchanged a worried glance, but Slim said quickly, “I don’t see why not, it’s a very worthy profession and you’re really good already, clearly got a talent for it.”
“Yup,” Jess agreed, “you’re a natural,” throwing her his cheeky grin.
Her heart swelled with pride and love. He liked her he really did she thought joyfully. So what if Slim had implied Jess was too old and experienced for her. Well, we’ll see about that she thought and put her mind to working out how she could lure Jess into her life and make him fall for her.
She used all her feminine wiles on the last leg of the journey back to Laramie. From hanging on Jess’s every word and treating him with almost reverence to subtly flirting with him. A moment of overly long eye contact, and batting her lashes at him to girlish laughter at any joke, he might make. That, together with requests for help with anything that would bring Jess physically close to her.
Slim watched Jess tighten Patch’s girth for Ellie, as she stood way too close. He smiled inwardly as he observed this rather gauche attempt at seducing his pard being played out.
“There ya go,” Jess said before turning away.
“Oh, thank you so much.” Ellie gasped a little breathlessly, “You’re so strong Jess...it was just too stiff for me.”
He just muttered, “OK,” and went off to mount up...completely unaware of the lovelorn glances that were following him.
Jess sure hadn’t done anything to encourage her Slim knew as he too mounted up. In fact, his pard still seemed to be quite oblivious to the situation and merely said Slim was imagining things.
Slim sighed softly… nope it would have to be down to him to let the child down lightly, before she got in too deep and was really hurt.
That evening was the last night they would be camping out and there was a party-like mood in the camp. They had finished supper and were sitting chatting around the camp fire when Slim decided to nip Ellie’s notions of a romance in the bud, as he had planned.
“Gee it sure will be good to get home won’t it, Jess.”
Jess replied as Slim had known he would, by saying, “Sure will, I can’t wait to see Millie,” his eyes sparkling in anticipation.
Slim flicked a quick glance over to Ellie and saw her mouth drop open in shock.
But she recovered quickly and said casually, “Millie?”
“My gal,” Jess said happily.
Then turning back to Slim said, “Jeez, Daisy and young Mike will be home soon too, we’re gonna hafta work our butts off gettin’ everythin’ shipshape at the ranch,” he added.
Then in deference to Ellie said, “Excuse me...work real hard I meant.”
“Daisy...?” Ellie asked really beginning to think Jess’s reputation as a Casanova was well deserved... “Another uh...friend... and Mike,” she added weakly... “your son, is he?”
Slim chuckled, “Nope, old Hotshot here only has time for one gal at a time. No matter what folk think,” he added softly for Jess’s ears only.
“Daisy is our housekeeper,” Jess said belligerently casting Slim a black look.
Ignoring the look Slim continued, “Mike is our young ward. Jess and I adopted him a few years back when he fetched up at the ranch in a bad way. He’d been orphaned after an Indian raid on the wagon train. So, well... we reckoned we’d give him a home.”
“Best thing we ever did,” Jess added now having regained his good humor, “you’ll love him Ellie, he’s a great kid.”
Ellie’s emotions were all over the place. First she was dipped down in despair at the idea of Jess having girls galore...Then up again on a high as she realized who Daisy and Mike really were... Down again at the thought of this Millie...But once more her heart soared... as she realized, she would be introduced to Mike and Daisy...maybe even welcomed as a guest at the ranch on the odd occasion. Surely Jess would wake up to her feelings for him. Yes, she was sure he would dump this Millie once she was able to make him fall for her...wouldn’t he?
They rode into Laramie around noon and left their mounts at the livery.
“Sure Miss, I can look after yer pony for a while, got some good grazing out back,” Bert said treating her to a toothless grin... “You come by and visit whenever you please,” he added as he saw how fond the child was of her mount.
Jess and Slim walked Ellie down Main Street carrying her bags and chatting to her…but it was clear the youngster was visibly upset.
After a moment Jess came to a halt and peering down at the pretty young girl said gently “Hey what’s up honey?”
She blinked away the tears and said in a small voice, “I don’t know anyone here...not even my aunt really.”
“Well, you know us dontcha?” Jess said grinning down at her.
“I’ll...I’ll still see you sometimes then?” she asked hopefully.
“Why sure,” Jess said expansively, “You can come visit sometime, meet Mike and Daisy,” he said vaguely. “And we get into town most weeks, so bound to see you around.”
“We’ll go put in a good word with Doc Baker too,” Slim said quickly, thinking the sooner the young woman had something else to concentrate on other than her love life, the better things would be.
They had already discussed the possibility of her continuing her training with the doc and Slim figured it would be the ideal solution.
Get her away from the somewhat overbearing presence of her great aunt for a few hours a day Jess also thought secretly.
Her aunt’s house was a large three-story affair on Main Street with a good view of the comings and goings of all the town’s folk; and she took full advantage of it. She was aware of who went into the saloon and how frequently Jess and Slim’ s visits noted particularly. She also noticed who attended the doctor’s surgery and spent many happy hours speculating on the reason for their visits. And of course, folk visiting...or being escorted to the Sheriff’s office always intrigued her. If she should inadvertently mention any of this to her friends from Church or the Women’s Group she would quickly add, “Of course I am just concerned for their welfare.”
Now as Slim rapped on the large shiny brass knocker, she hurried to the door with an expectant smile on her face as she saw her beloved brother’s grandchild, Ellie standing there. However, the look changed to one of inquiry and ill concealed hostility as she took in Jess and Slim standing a little behind Ellie.
“Ellie how lovely my dear,” she said reaching a protective hand out and pulling the youngster to her in a quick embrace.
Then she looked up at the cowboys and said, “Mr Sherman...uh Mr Harper what are you doing here?”
“I wrote you to say I hoped I could come and live here didn’t I aunt, Ellie said quickly,” as per Grandpa’s last wishes. You replied saying you knew of the arrangement and would be pleased to see me?”
“Oh yes, I am my dear, of course. I agreed to take you in if my dear brother passed before me. But I thought you were traveling with an elderly neighbor and his wife; A Mr Fadden?”
“I was originally,” she agreed, “but sadly he passed away just recently. So as Slim and Jess were riding this way anyway, they agreed to see me safely home,” she said throwing Jess a loving glance.
“Indeed,” her aunt replied coldly, noting the over familiar use of their Christian names. “I uh think we will keep this to ourselves my dear. It’s not ideal for a child to be traveling alone with um...young men,” she eventually said. Although Jess figured that was not her first choice of words, when describing him at any rate.
Ellie flushed up angrily at being referred to as a child, but said nothing.
Slim frowned at this and said, “I can assure you Mrs Matlock, your niece was in perfectly safe hands with us.”
She sniffed taking in Jess’s bandaged arm and then said with a mean little smile, “Well at least she is all in one piece.”
Slim put down the valise on the step and passed Ellie her saddle bags and ignoring her aunt said, “We’ll be in touch about the doctor Ellie.”
Then tipping his hat to Ma Matlock, said, “Good day Ma’am.”
Jess too touched his hat and said, “Ma’am...” before grinning at Ellie and saying, “See ya soon honey,” and the two marched off.
“I think not,” Ma Matlock said quietly as she ushered her great niece inside and shut the door firmly.
“See I told you she wouldn’t like it,” Slim said ruefully.
“Awe what the hell, who cares...come on Slim, let’s go get a cool beer...I’m dyin’ of thirst here.”

By the time they had enjoyed a beer or three at the saloon, and later the undivided attention of their girls.It was noon the following day before they set off to visit Mort and Doc Sam.
They finally managed to drag themselves away from their loves as they were needed to work.
“We really need to get home anyway,” Slim said to Jess.
“As soon as we’ve caught up with Mort and you’ve see Doc Sam too, that is,” he added.
They discovered Mort, feet up on his desk, sipping a coffee and reading the local paper... but he glanced up and grinned as the men entered.
“Well, howdy,” he said cheerfully, “so the wanderers return huh.”
Then said, “Sure help yourself,” as Jess gestured to the coffee pot on the stove.
Once they were seated, Slim said, “So how did it go? Did you and Kate find that no hoper Clem White?”
“Sure did,” Mort said, “picked him up real quick and once he was in jail we took ourselves off on that hunting trip I’d promised her.” His eyes twinkling at the memory.
Slim and Jess exchanged a knowing glance and then Jess said, “I dunno why you don’t just up and marry her Mort...you know you want to.”
Mort shook his head sorrowfully, “Not for lack of asking, but she’s just plain stubborn, likes her independence too dang much.”
“Don’t we all,” Jess said chuckling.
“Um well you do,” Slim retorted, “it’s just a good job Millie is the patient type.”
Jess looked uncomfortable for a minute before changing the subject.
“So, Clem White is languishing in the Laramie Prison, I guess?”
“Yup and will be for some considerable time,” Mort said cheerfully.
“And your man…Sheriff Cain was hung for murder I believe?”
Slim nodded, “And the rest... attempted murder of Jess, not to mention that bank heist...killing that teller. But yeah, he was hung for murdering the local Doc and stealing his horse that was the last nail in the coffin.”
“Then dang it, if his wife didn’t turn up and plead for mercy.” Jess interjected. “Crazy woman...after the way he’d treated her and all.”
“No accounting for women’s logic,” Mort said and they all fell silent reflecting on the truth of it.
Then after a moment Mort noticed Jess cradling his wounded arm, having dispensed with the sling because it got in the way; as he’d said irritably to Slim just that morning.
“What have you gone and done now?” Mort asked raising a questioning eye brow.
“He decided to play tag with a cougar,” Slim said grinning.
Mort rolled his eyes, “I do declare you could keep Doc Sam in business single, handed,” he said chuckling.
“Hey this ain’t no joke,” Jess said frowning, “it hurt like hell.”
“It was lucky we had a rookie nurse with us,” Slim said, “she patched him up real good.”
Then he went on to explain all about Ellie and having delivered her safely to Ma Matlock.
Mort grimaced, “I bet she had something to say about her beloved great niece being escorted by Jess here,” he said gleefully.
“Uh- huh,” Slim agreed and threw Jess a playful glance, “But ol’ Hotshot here behaved himself.”
Jess stood up abruptly getting tired of the constant ribbing from his buddies.
“Speakin’ of which we told her we’d go put in a good word with Sam. She wants to carry on with her training with him,” Jess told Mort.
“Hmm, so what will old Ma Matlock have to say about that I wonder?” Mort said to himself once the pair had left.
“Positively not my dear that is no job for a well-bred girl like you! Maybe helping the teacher out, with the little ones, in the schoolhouse if you really feel you must work? But don’t forget you are quite wealthy now with your dear Grandfather’s inheritance. I had planned that you could spend your time helping me to throw little soirees and invite the important town’s folk, introduce you around.”
“Soirees?” Ellie asked looking flummoxed.
“It’s from the French, meaning an evening party. Really my dear we are going to have to brush up on your education regarding the finer things in life.
When Ellie remained silent, her aunt said encouragingly, “You are a pretty child and maybe once you are older, we can invite some suitors to our little gatherings. A nice boy from one of the better families,” she added almost to herself.
“You don’t understand Aunt,” Ellie burst out, “nursing is my chosen career. Grandfather had it all mapped out for me; how I should assist him and then attend nursing school back east when I turn 18. And as for choosing my boyfriends, I can do that perfectly well myself...in fact...” But then she fell silent, instinctively knowing any relationship with Jess would be frowned upon by her aunt.
“In fact, what my dear?” her aunt said, fearing the worst.
“Oh nothing,” Ellie said quickly.
Her aunt shot her a penetrating look, but said no more on the subject. If the child had become infatuated with that scoundrel, Jess Harper, then it would be short lived as she intended to keep a close eye on her great niece...very close indeed.
Meanwhile over in Sam’s office the doc was inspecting Jess’s cougar bite.
He glanced up at where Slim was watching the proceedings and said, “My word Slim have you been taking secret lessons from my Carrie? This is as perfect a dressing as I’ve seen in a long while.”
That was when the men explained all about Ellie and their request that she might find some work with the doc.
He looked thoughtful for a moment and said, “Actually this just could be the answer to my prayers. Since I’ve given Carrie the extra responsibility of being in charge of the maternity side of the practice, I’ve found myself rather short staffed. Nobody to assist with minor operations or care for patients in the hospital bed, if she’s out on a case. Well, my housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, helps where she can, but I really need a skilled nurse. She had been trained by her grandfather you say?”
“Yes, he was the local Doctor until that bastard Cain shot him for his horse,” Jess said angrily.
“The poor girl,” Sam said sympathetically...then he turned his attention to the wounded arm.
After a few moments he grinned at Jess, “Excellent, no sign of infection and healing well, the young lady did a very professional job of cleaning it out.”
“Spent enough time doin’ it,” Jess said irritably, “she changed the dressing every dang day.”
“Very good, not only efficient but thorough too. I like the sound of her already, so when can she start?”
“Uh, there may be a problem there,” Slim said, “see she’s Widow Matlock’ s great niece.”
“Oh, I see,” said the doc frowning slightly.
“She’s already up in arms because we escorted her home,” Jess said looking annoyed, “like we’d hit on a sixteen-year-old kid.”
“Um well Edna Matlock has her own set of principles,” Sam said grinning. “But don’t fret I’ve got her measure. I’ll instate the young lady just as soon as she’d like to start. And what’s more she’s welcome to live-in during the week. That should give her a break from that old tyrant,” he said with a chuckle, “Uh, not that you heard me say that,” he added looking from Slim to Jess, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Now then,” he said, “keep this dressing on for another couple of days and rest the arm, Jess. Then keep it covered with your shirt and keep it clean until it’s completely healed, you hear!”
“I hear ya Sam,” Jess said, “but what are we gonna do about Ma Matlock huh?”
“Don’t you worry about that I’ll go and visit her myself. It’s probably best if you and Slim keep out of the picture though. We don’t want Widow Matlock thinking her precious niece is being led astray by you wild pair.”
Slim sniggered at that and Jess rolled his eyes.
“Come on then pard, let’s get home and start working through that list of chores Daisy left pinned up in the kitchen,” Slim said.
Back in her bedroom at her aunt’s house Ellie peered down the street and saw Jess and Slim leaving the house they had pointed out as belonging to Doc Baker. So, they had kept their promise after all she thought with a little gasp of pleasure. Then the joy turned to despair as she saw them turn away from her aunt’s house and set off briskly for the livery. Then some minutes later they rode out of town at a brisk trot. They weren’t going to call on her after all...and she thought that her heart might break.
“Well, I quite see your predicament Doctor,” Edna Matlock said as she poured Sam another cup of coffee. “And you say you feel young Ellie has exceptional talent as regards nursing and would be a useful addition to your staff?”
“Well, if the nursing she did after Jess Harper was attacked by a mountain lion is anything to go by, yes I do,” the doc said sincerely.
“Big cat bites are notoriously hard to treat and often end up infected,” he added, “But thanks to Ellie here he is making an excellent recovery.”
He nodded over to where Ellie was sitting demurely beside her aunt on the sofa, “Well done.” he said smiling at her.
She grinned at him, whilst her aunt merely sniffed, not at all happy with the close and personal relationship her niece must have had tending that ex gunslinger and she shuddered slightly.
Realizing his error Sam said quickly, “Of course much of our work is around ladies and children presenting with differing ailments,” mentally crossing his fingers as he remembered just how often Jess visited with a variety of injuries from gunshot wounds to broken limbs or worse, along with many other Laramie men.
“There would be ample opportunity for her to assist me in minor surgery too,” he said beaming at Ma Matlock, “and that would be most advantageous to her when she starts her nurse’s training proper back east.”
“Well, I really don’t know if it’s a suitable job for a vulnerable young girl. Widow Matlock was nobody’s fool and she continued, “All those fights in the saloon and folk shooting each other, rough characters the lot.”
“But all in need of Christian charity and help in their misfortune surely?” He said playing his trump card. “Why I have heard nurses referred to as angels of mercy so often, it really is a most fulfilling career you know dear lady.”
As he thought, he had finally found Widow Matlock’ s Achilles’ heel.
“Well if you put it like that, I suppose it is a calling, almost like being a Nun,” she said thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” Sam said smiling at her once more, “and I can assure you Ellie here will come to no harm under my roof, chaperoned as she will be by my dear daughter and housekeeper Mrs Hudson. Who I believe you know?”
“Oh, she would live in?” she asked looking unsure once more.
“Just in the week, to better assist me, if that would suit you, Ellie?” he asked turning to the youngster.
“Oh, golly yes, absolutely...uh I mean yes thank you Doctor Baker that would suit me very well.”
“That meets with your approval too Mrs Matlock I do hope?” Sam asked giving her his most sincere smile.
She sighed, “Well I suppose so.
But before she could say more Ellie was hugging her and whooping for joy.
She started work at the Doctor’s place shortly afterwards and from day one she hit it off well with Carrie. Although there were four years between the girls, they had so much in common. Both had lost their mothers at an early age. In fact, both parents in Ellie’s case. Then both had shown an interest in nursing from a young age and had been encouraged to train...By her Pa, in Carrie’s case and Ellie by her beloved Grandfather, who she still missed terribly.
However, it wasn’t too long before Carrie realized that their early losses in life and love of nursing weren’t the only things, they had in common...as it soon became clear that Ellie was infatuated with Jess.
When working with Sam she was quiet, attentive and very professional. But after work the two girls relaxed together and during the week shared a bedroom. So, it wasn’t long before Carrie noticed that Slim and Jess came up in conversation on an extremely regular basis. Not a day went by when Ellie didn’t speculate as to whether the two would be riding into town...or how they were spending their day at the ranch.
Once she discovered Carrie knew Slim, and Jess even better, she had long drawn-out conversations asking all about Jess. His background, things he liked to do, how wonderful he was, but she never touched on the area of girlfriends as she really didn’t want to admit to herself that he was seeing someone.
After a while Carrie finally lost patience with Ellie’s constant moping around the place, continually peeping out of the window; just longing for a glimpse of Jess.
It was especially upsetting for Carrie as she was frequently reminded of her stupidly talking out of turn when she had told Jess why she had broken up with her last boyfriend ... “because he wasn’t you,” she had said.
Now she cringed at the memory how could she have been so idiotic? Heck, she knew Jess loved Millie and nothing would ever change that. Plus, Millie was her best friend. Oh yes Jess had been kind and explained the situation patiently to her...yet again...and he was right of course. Even if they had gotten together, she would never have a moment’s peace of mind for worrying about him.
She shook her head and gave a rueful little smile. And now poor young Ellie was going through the same torment of unrequited love. Although she seemed oblivious to the fact that it was unrequited and really believed she could get Jess to love her.
“Well, what do you think?” Ellie said breaking into Carrie’s thoughts.
“I said do you think Slim and Jess will be coming to the fall dance next week?”
The girls were sitting in the front parlour together putting the finishing touches to a dress Ellie had made for the dance. It was of a shimmering scarlet material with a low-cut neckline and tightly fitting bodice; that Carrie secretly thought was way too old and daring for the youngster. However, when she had challenged her about it, Ellie had merely grinned and said, “Well that’s why I’ve been making it here of course...Aunt Edna would have a fit if she saw it.”
Then she had produced a dark sensible shawl and said, “See, I’ll wear this over it so if Aunt spies on us as when we’re heading out, I’ll look all prim and proper. Then once we arrive, I can take it off.”
Ma Matlock had only agreed to Ellie staying over at the Doc’s for the weekend to attend the dance on the understanding that she would be chaperoned at all times. Also, that the Doctor himself would see her safely home.
Now Ellie said impatiently, “Well do you think they’ll go?”
“Uh, yes, they’re sure to but Ellie, Jess will be with Millie. They do have an understanding you know...he really isn’t a free agent anymore,” she said hoping to let the youngster down gently.
“Oh tsk, you worry too much,” Ellie said cheerfully. “All is fair in love and war you know.”
Carrie just rolled her eyes...well she’d done her best to explain the situation, but it clearly wasn’t working... So, Ellie would just have to see Jess and Millie together and then she really would get the message she thought with a sigh.
The last dance of the summer was held in a clearing just on the edge of town. There was a pretty little covered dance floor with seating and a bar behind, all set amidst tall pines...a beautiful spot for alfresco entertainment.
Jess, Slim and their dates Millie and Lily where already there sitting at a table just beyond the dance floor and they all moved over pulling up extra chairs when the Doc, Carrie and young Ellie arrived.
Introductions were made and Jess beamed at the two pretty girls and said, “You both look swell, don’t they Millie?”
She nodded in agreement and smiled indulgently at her friend Carrie and the young girl.
“Lovely to meet you Ellie,” she said kindly, “Jess has told me all about you.”
Ellie nodded. Barely able to meet Millie’s eye, but gave Jess a secret little smile, before whispering, “It’s good to see you too,” although her glance was aimed at Jess rather than Millie.
Before they had left for the evening Carrie had been shocked at just how very alluring Ellie looked in the rather immoderate, tightly fitting red dress. Thinking it to be a totally imprudent choice for a young girl, she knew she must do something. She had finally persuaded Ellie to borrow a wrap in a matching red that she pinned around Ellie’s shoulders with a broach.
“Now don’t you dare take that off,” she warned, “or Pa will get mad at me letting you out in a dress that’s way too sophisticated for you.”
Carrie had already toned-down Ellie’s bright make-up...and now she had to deal with this.
The youngster sighed, “Honestly Carrie you’re worse than Aunt Edna...I’m only trying to look pretty for goodness sake.”
“You are already, without the revealing dress and painted face. Really Ellie you don’t want folk to get the wrong impression, do you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked pouting slightly.
“Oh, you know…you don’t want to look fast...uh...easy...you know? Didn’t your Ma explain all about dating men...the birds and bees?”
Ellie looked uncomfortable, “Sure, of course I know all about the birds and bees...But surely men like women to look nice?”
Carrie frowned and shook her head, “There is a difference...between nice and oh...up for anything!”
But then her Pa called up the stairs that if the girls had finished preening then it was high time they were on their way.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Carrie said irritably, “look we’ll talk later Ellie, there’s a lot of stuff about dating guys that you really need to understand... But in the meantime, just keep that wrap on huh.”
“Oh alright, I promise,” Ellie said as she followed her new friend out of the room...adding “spoil sport,” under her breath.
Now as she watched Jess talking to Millie, she noted how his eyes sparkled. Also, how they lingered slightly on the soft curve of her breast exposed by the low-cut red and black figure-hugging gown and regretted her promise to Carrie already.
But then the fun of the dance was underway and she found herself enjoying the experience of her first Laramie dance immensely. She was even asked to dance by one or two youngsters of her own age and once they were approved as being decent young men by the Doc, she waltzed off around the dance floor with them.
The men were all drinking beer and Lily and Millie shandy...or beer diluted with lemonade as Ellie was to understand. But the Doc insisted she only drink Sarsaparilla. However, she longed to be grown up like the others and once Millie and Lily were off dancing and the Doc preoccupied chatting to a friend, she managed to take several good swigs of the forbidden drink from Millie’s glass...and found she loved the warm glow of confidence it gave her.
Maybe that was why she was spurred into action when the ‘ladies excuse me’ dance came around.
She soon learned that this was the dance where a young woman could ask a man to dance, simply by tapping his current partner on the shoulder and she would be forced to relinquish her dance partner to the other.
She noted Millie was laughing and shaking her head as she returned to the table after being usurped by a variety of maiden ladies all wanting a dance with the ever-popular Jess.
“Don’t you mind?” Ellie asked looking shocked.
“Why should I, it’s just a bit of fun,” Millie replied gaily before going off to refresh her now empty glass. She frowned slightly...gosh she must be thirsty tonight she thought as she wandered off to the bar.
Ellie was up and across the dance floor in seconds. Then she was in his arms, breathing in the clean smell of soap, with just the hint of leather...and he was holding her gently as they glided around the dance floor. But then her joy was short lived as yet another woman claimed him.
Once the dance was over, he noted Ellie standing nearby looking despondent and taking pity on her whisked her back onto the dance floor.
But then the music suddenly changed to a slow romantic number and he wondered if he should take her back to her seat. Then glancing down at her and seeing the look of rapture on her face he decided to see the dance out. Gee she was only a kid and this was her first proper dance in Laramie the least he could do was to make her feel special he decided.
He held her close, but very gently and made polite conversation, but was slightly startled when she laid her head on his chest and cuddled up closer.
He looked over to where Millie was sitting and threw her an anxious glance as though to say ‘help’...but she merely giggled and turned back to her conversation with Lily.
Then he was suddenly aware that Ellie was speaking to him.
“I said you’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you.”
“Oh...uh right,” he said feeling even more uncomfortable.
“But you’re happy at the Doc’s place, enjoying the work,” he said hopefully.
She agreed she was, “But there’s more to life than just work isn’t there, Jess?” she said in what she thought was a seductive voice.
“Well sure,” he said, looking over to the band and praying the slow number would end soon.
“It would be nice to see more of you,” she added.
Then when there was no response she said, “And Slim too of course... we had fun on the journey over didn’t we?”
He sighed with relief, “Sure you must come over to the ranch sometime and meet Daisy and Mike,” he said vaguely.
“Oh, I’d just love that,” she gasped again looking up into his face with undisguised adoration.
But then the dance finished and he led her back to the table feeling mightily relieved.
Shortly afterwards he turned to Millie, “It’s kinda hot here ain’t it, shall we take a stroll?” he suggested tipping his hat towards the cool depths of the surrounding pine forest.
They left a few minutes later and watching them head off to the privacy of the nearby tree line Ellie turned to Carrie and said hesitantly, “Where are they off to?”
“I guess they just want a bit of a break from the music, a change of scene, you know...” she said lightly.
“What do you mean?” Ellie asked looking mystified.
“Oh, for goodness sake! They’ve just gone off for a kiss and a cuddle in peace,” Carrie said irritably.
Then an old school friend Pete came over and took her off to the dance floor so Ellie was left alone for the first time that evening. Lily and Slim were dancing, the Doc having excused himself for a few minutes to chat with a patient at another table.
How could he, Ellie thought near to tears. How could he go off canoodling with that Millie when he’d been so romantic on the dance floor? How he’d held her close and said he wanted to see more of her...for her to visit the ranch and meet the others. Well, that was proof enough he was interested in her, wasn’t it? So why had he gone off that way. It was the allure of that sexy dress Millie was wearing, she was sure of it. Without a second thought she unpinned the broach and allowed the shawl to fall away, exposing the low-cut, scarlet gown and her nubile young figure to perfection.
At a nearby table Chas Ward was two parts drunk and looking at another sad and lonely night by himself. The thirty-year-old might have been handsome but had a bad reputation as being a womanizer of the worst kind. Now that word had gotten around town, none of the nice girls would go within a mile of him. So, he had to take his pleasure with the working girls out at the Last Chance Saloon... a low dive on the edge of town.
Now as he saw what he’d thought to be a rather prissy stuck up little bitch at the Doc’s table divest herself of the shawl his eyes lit up. Jeez the kid had one hell of a figure...and with Harper and Sherman out of the way he decided to take his chance.
Ellie was just adding more lipstick and rouge to her face when the man appeared at her side.
“Well, hello little lady so where have they been hiding you?” he asked beaming at her.
She looked up into his handsome face and blushed not knowing what to say, “I’m new in town,” she whispered, “I’m working over at the Doc’s place, my name’s Ellie.”
“Pleased to meet you I’m Chas,” he said his eyes twinkling appreciatively.
“Well, my dear, would you do me the honour of stepping onto the dance floor for the next dance?” he asked smiling quizzically at her.
She glanced about her...but Slim and Lily were now at the bar with the Doc all with their backs to her. Surely one dance would be OK. Then she remembered Jess and Millie out in the woods, doing who knew what, and decided she’d make Jess jealous. Ha when he came back from his little walk, he’d find her in the arms of another man. So how will you like that Jess Harper she said to herself? She smiled at this would be suitor and said, “I’d be delighted too,” taking his offered arm.
He was an excellent dancer funny and kind and she relaxed in his company. After the dance he sat her down at his own table and poured her a glass of whiskey from his bottle.
She opened her mouth to say I’m not allowed and then closed it again. Hell, if she was going to look the sophisticated woman in time for Jess’s return she might as well go whole hog she figured and she sipped the bitter drink, shuddering as it went down...
It was only a few minutes later that she began to feel warm and happy without a care in the world. She was having the time of her life with this kindly older man and she relaxed and happily drank down the next glass he poured.
“Uh, you’re looking kind of warm my dear,” Chas said solicitously, “shall we take a little turn just over there...it’s much cooler near the trees.”
She considered the idea and then decided it was perfect... if she was strolling with this handsome older man near the entrance to the woods when Jess came back with Millie, he was sure to notice and realise what he was missing, she decided.
As she stood up a wave of dizziness and nausea overtook her and she staggered a little.
“Hey take it easy honey,” Chas said warmly. “Come on the cool air will soon have you feeling better,” and he led her off towards the woods.
Ellie began to regret the decision to go for a walk almost at once as she began to sober up a little. But Chas was holding her arm firmly and refused to take no for an answer when she suggested they turn back.
They were now at the edge of the dark woodland and as Chas urged her forward, she began to have a feeling of deep foreboding which increased as he grabbed hold of both arms and pulled her into a determined embrace.
“Ow, you’re hurting me,” Ellie squawked.
“Oh, come on darling, don’t go all cold on me now,” Chas slurred. “You don’t come dressed up like a tart, and made up that way unless you wanna fool around some do you, huh? Now just come here,” he added angrily and he kissed her hard and pushed her down to the grassy bed below a large pine tree.
Jess and Millie heard her screams as they made their way slowly back from their little lover’s tryst.
“What the Hell?” Jess yelled as he crashed through the undergrowth towards the screams...as they got louder and more terrified.
He broke through the bushes and paused for a split second taking in the scene. Ellie was on her back, Chas on top of her...forcing his attentions on her and cussing loudly as he told her to ‘shut the hell up’...one hand now covering her mouth.
Jess leaned down and grabbing Chas by the shoulder dragged him off Ellie and spinning him around sent a fist crashing into his face with all the speed and accuracy of a bullet; and doing almost as much damage. Blood spurted from his nose as he crashed unceremoniously to the ground and then tried to crawl away.
“Not so fast,” Jess snarled dragging him up and throwing another haymaker to his jaw this time splitting his lip.
Meanwhile Millie had pulled a shaking tearful Ellie up and was supporting her as they both watched in horror as the grim act of retribution unfolded.
When Jess went to drag Chas up once more, Millie cried out, “No Jess that’s enough, you’ll kill him!”
Then everyone seemed to arrive at once. Slim was suddenly at his side and said, “She’s right buddy...I guess you’ve taught him a lesson, now leave it huh.”
Then the Doc was there taking charge of a distraught Ellie, “My dear are you alright...he didn’t uh... force you?”
She shook her head, “He tried to but Jess arrived just in time.”
“Thank God,” muttered the Doc. “I only left her alone for a little while,” he said looking around at the others, clearly distraught.
“I’m so sorry,” Ellie cried, “I shouldn’t have gone with him...” and then she doubled up and was violently sick.
“Goddamn it, you’ve gotten her drunk,” Jess yelled furiously and would have taken another swing if Mort Cory hadn’t arrived at that very moment.
“Attempted rape...again,” Slim said turning to Mort who immediately took charge.
He handcuffed the prisoner who objected profusely. Now he had the strength of the law to protect him from Jess Harper he suddenly became brave.
“She was asking for it...look at her...and she drank my whiskey happily enough. I didn’t dang well force her into anything!”
“Goddamn it she’s just a kid; didn’t know what she was getting into, you can see that!” Jess roared and made to attack him again...but Slim was too quick for him and again restrained him.
“You just come quietly,” Mort said angrily. “It’s clear that you got the child drunk in an attempt to have your way with her and just took advantage of her youth and innocence.”
When Chas again cussed at that Mort really lost his rag.
“Anymore of your lies and insolence and I might just leave you here for Jess to meter out your punishment. I can easily turn a blind eye you know. It’s my night off and I might just go back to the dance,” he added making to a walk away.
“No! Please, Sheriff, I’ll come quietly.”
Then he sighed deeply, “And nope it weren’t this young lady’s fault. It was all my doing.”
“Sorry Miss,” he added for good measure... before Mort bore him off to the jail.
The group made their way slowly back to their table and the Doc suggested as it was getting late, they call it a night. But before they left Slim and Lily went off for one last dance. The Doc said he must just finish his conversation with one of his favorite patients and Millie and Carrie disappeared off to powder their noses.
“Just watch out for her will you Jess,” the doc said quietly, “I’ll only be a moment.”
Ellie was sitting huddled at the table, her wrap once more in place and a look of despair in her eyes.
Jess stood close by looking moody. His hands thrust deep into his pockets as he watched the dancers.
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?” Ellie finally managed looking up at his ramrod straight back.
Jess turned slowly and she saw the icy look in his dark blue eyes.
“Oh, I ain’t mad at you, I’m dang furious,” he growled.
She flinched almost as though he had hit her...and then whispered, “Why?” Then more angrily, “It’s not as if you care about me!”
“Hell of course I care,” he shouted. “Why do you think I’m so mad? Anything could have happened to you out there! Damn it Ellie you’re real pretty, you don’t need to wear dresses that are way too old for you...or paint yer face up that way...you’re perfect just as you are.”
“You really think so?” she gasped. Her world suddenly spinning on its axis.
“Sure,” he said now giving her a kindly smile, “you’re a great kid.”
“I’m not!” she shouted plummeting to the depths again, really angry herself now. “Can’t you see that I’m not a kid, I’m a woman and I love you...that’s why I did all that stuff to make you jealous!”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked incredulous, “Now hold on a minute here,” he said very quietly after a moment. “When did I ever give you the impression, I was lookin’ for a relationship with you. Hell, you know I’m seeing Millie.”
“But I thought...I thought...”
“What?” Jess challenged.
But before she could reply the Doc strolled over.
“Right my dear I think it’s time we made tracks,” he said completely unaware of the charged atmosphere. Then saying farewell to Jess, the Doc bore Ellie off on his arm.
She turned back just once as she was hurried away and threw an anguished look...back to where Jess still stood staring after them.
That’s when Millie and Lily returned.
“What’s going on...why were you yelling at poor little Ellie just now...she looked awfully upset?”
“Tell ya later,” he muttered...and collecting his smart Sunday-best frock coat from the back of his chair said, “So we goin’ then?”
As per usual after a night out they congregated in Millie’s rooms above the bar in the saloon, for coffee and to chat about the evening.
The men had divested themselves of their guns and boots, as per Millie’s house rules, and had also shucked their heavy frock coats. They now lounged in front of the fire dressed in their sparkling white shirts and brocade vests and dark trousers, looking every inch the smart men about town. Jess had loosened his string tie and opened his shirt and was looking far from happy as he sat back on one of the squashy armchairs with Millie perched on the arm.
“So go on then,” she said, once they all had a coffee apiece. “Tell all...”
“Yes, so what’s this about?” Slim asked from the sofa where he had an arm slung casually around Lily; her head on his shoulder.
Jess looked down, “I dunno, I just lost it with her. I guess it was because I was worried about her...dang it, if we hadn’t arrived when we did Mill...” and he just shook his head.
“I don’t understand why she acted that way,” Millie said. “According to Carrie she’d promised to wear that shawl as a cover up and not to paint her face anymore...what made her change her mind I wonder?”
They sat in silence until Jess let out a deep sigh, “I guess that was down to me, it was all my fault,” he said quietly.
“What do you mean, Jess?” Slim asked frowning slightly.
“Uh, well thing is, she said she did it to make me jealous. Seems she thinks she’s in love with me dang it,” and he looked down shaking his head.
“Well sure she is,” Slim said irritably, “I tried to tell you that back on the trail but you wouldn’t listen.”
“Goodness I could have told you that,” Millie said rolling her eyes, “Why, Carrie told me the other day that you are all Ellie ever wants to talk about.”
“Well, I didn’t know did I?” he exploded.
“That’s only because you wouldn’t listen to me,” Slim said again in frustration.
“Anyway, Carrie said she’d deal with it,” Millie said, “I didn’t want to embarrass the girl by saying anything to you.”
“So now what?” Jess asked in exasperation.
“Don’t worry cowboy, Carrie’s going to have it out with her tonight,” Millie replied. “She’ll get over you don’t fret,” she added. Then she caught Lily’s eye and the pair collapsed into giggles.
Taking pity on his pard Slim took a bottle of whiskey from the mantelpiece and poured some into Jess’s coffee and said, “Look at it this way Jess, you’re sure to get five-star treatment at the Doc’s next time you’re shot up or hurt with young Ellie on the case.”

Chapter 12
A few days later Mose drove the Stage into the relay station yard. Pulling the team to a standstill and jumping down from the box he strode over to where Slim and Jess were just emerging from the house to change the horses.
He waved a copy of the Sentinel in their faces and said, “Hey you seen the news? Looks like you’ve been playing the hero again Jess...according to this!”
“Give that here,” he said scowling and grabbing the paper from the old timer.
He looked at the lurid inch high headlines...Mercy Dash by Local Man Saves Damsel in Distress. Then there was a sensational account of the events of the previous Saturday evening. Describing Ellie as a nubile and desirable young woman who was also an heiress, having recently inherited a small fortune from her grandfather. It went on to say how she had been lured into the woods by an older man.
Jess stopped reading the shocking account and turning to Slim said, “Oh great all the no hopers in town will be stalkin’ the kid now; half of them hitting on her and the others after her money.”
“Who wrote that rubbish?” Slim asked peering over Jess’s shoulder.
“That Carl Mason again,” Jess said looking furious and referring to the Sentinel’s chief reporter. “Goddamn it I told him what I’d do iffen he wrote anymore lies about me...or my friends.”
“Well to be fair those are the facts,” Slim said reading the rest of the article, “but I guess it could have been put in a more restrained manner.”
“Hell, he don’t know the meaning of the word,” Jess cussed.
“Um...but I guess he sells papers though,” Slim said shrugging.
“Well, that’s your copy anyway,” Mose said, “so do you want it or not?”
“Oh sure, Jess said with an evil grin, we’re gettin’ kinda low on paper for the outhouse.”
They thought no more about it until a week later when Mort rode into the yard late one morning.
It was a chilly, early fall, day. The men had been off mending fence on the other side of the home pasture, in readiness for bringing the herd down later that month. They had just arrived back ready for a coffee.
Mort hitched his buckskin to the rail and went to meet the men coming back from the barn.
“Morning Mort what brings you here,” Slim said cheerfully, “the lure of Daisy’s coffee and apple pie? We were just heading in for some.”
When Mort didn’t return his grin Jess said, “Hey what’s up Mort?”
“Here on business,” he said succinctly, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this, but it’s Miss Ellie, she’s gone missing.”
Jess’s head snapped up and he looked shocked, “What do ya mean missing?”
Mort spread his hands out and shrugged.
“Just that she was last seen at the Doc’s house by Ma Hudson. She said Ellie was called out to tend a youngster. Some kid came with the message, saying it was from Bert saying, his stable lad young Billy had fallen from the loft was bleeding real bad.”
“Well why didn’t the Doc go?” Jess broke in.
“The Doc and Carrie were attending a difficult birth out of town. They left word they might be gone all night. Well, this was about seven last night, so Ellie felt she must go. Ma Hudson figured Bert would be there to watch out for her, so off she went.”
“Then what happened?” Slim asked.
“Well when she hadn’t returned by nine and there was no sign of the Doc either, Ma Hudson walked down to the livery and found it all locked up. She went round the back to Bert’s place and he knew nothing about it. They checked the livery and her horse Patch was missing too.”
“Damn it, Jess cussed, so what the hell are ya doin’ standin’ around here jawing for Mort! Why ain’t you out looking?”
Mort sighed and then said patiently, “I can promise you we are Jess. Lon is heading a posse as we speak looking around the area. But after that storm late last night there are precious few tracks to follow.”
“So, what are you doin’ here?” Jess persisted. “You want us to help look huh?” And he half turned to go fetch his horse from the barn.
“Yes, that would be great. But that’s not why I’m here...you see the thing is ...well I thought she might be here?”
“Oh?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
Mort looked slightly embarrassed, “Yes it was something Carrie said...that the child was kinda infatuated with Jess...so we thought maybe she’d ridden over to see you?”
“Well, she didn’t.” Jess said looking annoyed, “and iffen she had you can be sure we’d have fetched her back home pronto.”
“Yes, sure I knew that,” Mort said quickly. “Uh the other thing the doc thought was that well...maybe she’d paid the kid to bring the message so she could ride out without any questions asked?”
“But that’s a bit devious, why would she do that?” Slim asked.
“We thought maybe she was hiding someplace...so that Jess would get real worried and go looking for her. You know…attention seeking. Kinda like the other night,” he added.
“So, yer saying this is all down to me?” Jess said looking pained.
“Hey it’s not your fault Hot Shot,” Slim said with a faint grin, “you can’t help being irresistible.”
Jess just scowled at him and said, “I’ll go git my horse.”
It was nearly dark when they returned to town and called in at the Doc’s place to see if she had returned.
When there was no sign Mort looked resigned and said, “I guess I should go see Ma Matlock and tell her the bad news.”
“I just can’t figure why she’d take off that way,” Jess said. “I don’t buy it that she wanted to worry me...get my attention that way. Carrie’s set her straight about all that nonsense.”
“Yes, Carrie did tell her a few home truths,” Mort said, “didn’t go down too well, but I think she understands the situation between you and Millie now,” he said delicately. “She was rather upset by that news report too. But I told her it would all be over and forgotten within the week...and she seemed OK with that. Well, I think so anyway,” he added, “can never tell what these young girls are thinking.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Jess said with feeling.
Then he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! I know you thought that Ellie had arranged for that kid to call saying she was needed so, she could make her escape and hide out to worry me. But what if the lad was paid by someone else to deliver the message and she’s been abducted for ransom...huh? By someone that read that dang news report callin’ her an heiress.”
“Surely Widow Matlock would have said something to you by now Mort if that was the case, “Slim said.
“Not if she’d been warned that Ellie will be harmed if she squawks to the law,” Jess replied. “Why dontcha go check her out again Mort?”
“I think I will,” the Sheriff said looking thoughtful. “But first I’ll pay a call on my friend and neighbor, the Laramie Bank Manager and ask if Widow Matlock has made any large withdrawals in the last twenty-four hours.”
The Sheriff was back later that evening.
“You were right Jess... the manager confirmed several thousand dollars had been withdrawn from Widow Matlock’ s account. Money she was holding in trust for Ellie. Then when I visited and confronted her, she broke down and showed me the ransom note.”
“Goddamn it, I knew it!” Jess said looking furious.
Slim was equally upset, “Poor kid she’ll be terrified,” he said.
“Edna Matlock is to drive out and leave the money under that huge pine just by the turn off to Jackson’s Ridge at dawn tomorrow. Well, I figure we’ll be there a while before that huh,” Mort said with an evil grin.
They were all in place way before sun-up the following morning. They were hiding in the undergrowth a few yards from the drop off point...their horses tethered some way back.
“She was none too happy about the arrangements,” Mort whispered as they concealed themselves in the bushes, “but she came around when I promised we’d get Ellie and the money back.”
“Let’s just hope we do then,” Slim said somewhat pessimistically.
“I wonder who it is,” Jess said, listing a few possible suspects...
“Nah, half of them don’t have the brains for this kinda thing,” Mort said...then hazarded a few guesses of his own.
“Well, he’d better not dang well have hurt the kid,” Jess said bitterly.
Then Mort shushed him, “There’s someone coming,” he whispered.
Then Ma Matlock, driving her small buggy came into sight. She got slowly down and placed a large package under the tree; before looking around her cautiously.
“Go on get off home,” Mort said under his breath.
Finally, the elderly lady retraced her steps and drove off back to town as she had promised Mort she would do.
Then just moments later a diminutive figure broke cover and ran over to the tree to recover the package.
“What the hell?” Jess muttered. “It’s just a kid.”
All three men broke cover and had no problem retaining the cheeky looking lad with a shock of red hair, even though he struggled and cussed loudly.
“Well then Johnny are you going to tell me what all this is about?” Mort said stony faced.
“You know this kid?” Jess asked.
“Yup, him and his Ma have just moved into the old Perkins place on the edge of town.”
“That dump...it’s still standing, is it?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow.
“Barely,” Mort replied, “and I guess that’s why the kid’s been in trouble since day one; petty pilfering from the General Store mainly. Say’s his Ma’s got no money.”
Jess looked angry, “Hell my ma didn’t have no money either, but I didn’t go around stealing,” he said to the child. “Anyway, where’s Ellie huh?”
“You don’t really think a kid like this would have abducted her and written that ransom note, do you?” Slim asked looking flabbergasted. “Heck he’s only ten or eleven.”
“I’m twelve actually,” Johnny said looking proud.
“That old eh,” Jess said conversationally. “So old enough to take yer punishment like a man are you then?” he asked balling his fist and looking menacing. “And I don’t buy it that this is all down to you anyways. I guess you were the kid that called at the Doc’s place to get Ellie to the livery. But you’re working for a grown up ain’t you...so who is it huh?” he growled looking mighty scary.
The kid instinctively went and hid behind the Sheriff but said nothing.
“Look we’re wasting valuable time here,” Mort said.
Then turning to the child said, “OK Johnny tell us where Miss Ellie is will you...and who else is involved in all this huh?”
“Who?” he said playing for time.
“Dang it, you know who!” Jess yelled angrily. “Now where is she kid, and the guy that’s taken her. You’ve got two minutes to tell us before I beat it out of you.”
“OK...OK I’ll tell ya,” the child squeaked. “It were that Miss Ellie herself that set it all up. She’s hiding over at that old logging cabin... near a stream yonder,” he said tipping his hat towards Sherman land.
“But why would she do that?” Slim asked looking mystified.
“Dunno sir, she didn’t make a lot of sense was awful tearful...you know the way girls get?” he said looking for understanding.
“I know, so go on,” Jess said in a slightly kinder tone.
“Well, she made me take a note to her aunt and said she mustn’t see me. The note was asking for her to leave some of her stuff here and said I was to collect it after her aunt had gone. Said she hated Laramie, and folk would think real bad things about her after all that stuff in the paper. Heck, she said a lot of stuff Mr... I guess I don’t recall it all . I do know she was heading back home though...said she planned to live with some neighbors.”
Jess shook his head at the idea of Ellie heading all that way alone.
Then hiding the ghost of a smile, he said, “So what was in this for you kid?”
“She said she’d give me two dollars,” he said his eyes shining, then he sobered, “but I guess I won’t be getting it now.”
Then he turned to Mort, “Heck I didn’t know I was doing wrong Sheriff. After you were real mad at me for taking that stuff from the mercantile I decided to fly straight...like you said.”
Mort ruffled the youngster’s hair, “OK I believe you...so come on show us where Miss Ellie is hiding son”
As soon as they arrived at the cabin it was clear it was deserted.
“She was here Sheriff, I swear it,” he cried. “She wouldn’t go, she said that bag her aunt was bringing was real important to her.”
“But maybe not as important as not being caught out,” Slim said quietly. “Maybe she decided to head over to the big pine real early and saw us arrive, got spooked and rode out someplace?”
The boy nodded, “She did head out early, said she was going to wash up in the stream and she’d see me back here to collect the bag later.”
Jess was already looking around for tracks and picked up Patch’s diminutive hooves almost at once heading north towards the lake on Sherman land.
“Come on,” he said to the others, “looks like she was heading for the lake, but maybe she’s just kept on going if she did see us.”
Mort looked thoughtful and then said, “You know what Jess, I think you should go fetch her back on your own.”
“Huh,” asked Jess his eyes narrowing, “why me?”
“Because it’s clear that she adores you and will doubtless do anything you say,” Mort said with a grin. Then said, “But seriously, Jess, I figure if anyone can get through to the kid it’s you. The Doc and Carrie have both failed and so I guess you’re our last hope.”
Jess looked down shaking his head, “I dunno…”
“He’s right Jess,” Slim said quietly. “If we just drag her back, what’s to stop her heading out again? We might not be able to find her next time. Heck, think what could happen to her trying to go all that way alone!”
Jess rolled his eyes and muttered, “Goddamn it,” under his breath before saying, “OK, OK I’ll do it...dang it.”
“Good,” said Mort mounting up and gesturing for young Johnny to do likewise, “and I’ll take this youngster back home and tell Ma Matlock her niece will be home as soon as possible.”
“Hang on,” said Slim looking thoughtful. “I think once Jess has found her and hopefully talked some sense into her maybe she should come and stay at the ranch for a few days. It would give Daisy a chance to talk to her too. Also let all the hype in town about that Sentinel article die a death too.”
“That’s all supposing I find her,” Jess said irritably.
“Sure, you will,” Slim said.
“The tracks are clear enough,” Mort agreed, “you’ll have no problem, Jess. I’ll tell Ma Matlock that her niece is staying at the ranch for a few days with Daisy looking out for her. They’re good friends and I figure she’ll be glad Daisy will be helping to sort the kid out. I reckon Edna Matlock is getting a tad long in the tooth for all these shenanigans,” he added... “kids today eh,” he muttered rolling his eyes.
Jess went to mount up and then turned and came back to where a very woebegone looking Johnny was sitting his horse.
Jess opened his wallet and brought out a couple of crisp dollar notes and handed them over, “There you are kid...just a reminder that it’s always a good plan to do the right thing huh...”
“Yes sir!” the child said looking ecstatic.
“Its fer yer Ma for food for the table,” he said firmly, but then added, “tell her I said you could keep a few cents for candy huh.”
“Oh, thanks Mr Harper...thanks so much,” the child said his eyes alight with pleasure.
Then he and Mort rode out.
“You’ll be, OK?” Slim said now feeling a tad guilty at leaving his friend to sort the young girl out alone.
“You think this is all my fault dontcha?” Jess replied. “Hell, I didn’t encourage her any you know Slim!”
“I know that Jess...but Mort’s right, she’ll listen to you. I figure she’s heading out mostly because she’s heartbroken that she can’t, uh, be with you...you know?” he finished looking slightly embarrassed.
“Well, this is gonna be fun,” he answered as he mounted up.
“Just try and let her down lightly,” Slim called after him, but Jess merely flapped a hand in reply.
It was mid morning by the time he finally caught up with her. The weather had become sultry with black clouds forming to the east heralding a storm.
Jess turned back from scanning the horizon to Patch’s tracks in front of him and it was clear he was being ridden hard.
“Crazy kid,” he muttered to himself, “driving a horse that dang fast in this heat.”
He urged Traveller on up a small rise so that he could look down towards the distant lake and that’s when he saw it.
A pony down by the lakeside, head down cropping the grass. Yes, it was Patch alright and he sighed with relief.
But where the hell was Ellie? He scanned the lakeside and then up towards the distant cave above the lake...but no sign.
He urged Traveller on to a gentle trot and was soon dismounting and checking on Patch. The pony recognized Jess and Traveller from their trip over from Charity and gave a little whinny of welcome.
Jess quickly checked him over and patted him absently, his eyes surveying the surrounding countryside of tall grasses and scrub land for some sign that Ellie had passed that way.
He left the horses grazing and wandered off towards the lake and that’s when he saw her at the lake edge, lying face down, unmoving.
He rushed over and gently turning her over gasped in shock at the deep gash to her temple and paper white complexion.
“Oh sweetheart, what have you done?” he groaned.
She was deeply unconscious, blood splattered on her white blouse and still oozing gently from the head wound.
He dashed back to Traveller and returned with his canteen and some clean rags and washed the wound carefully before applying a makeshift bandage to stem the bleeding. Then he tenderly wiped the drying blood from her face with some cool lake water.
That’s when she cried out and came around staring at him in confusion. Then she shook her head and cried out in pain, before rubbing at her eyes and peering back up at him short-sightedly.
“It’s me, Jess,” he said softly, “it’s OK Ellie, yer quite safe.”
“I... I can’t see too well, you’re all blurry,” she whispered...then with a tiny smile, “But I’d know your voice anywhere Jess.”
“You’ll be OK,” he said quickly, “You’ve just had a real bad fall and cut yer head up some. A nasty bang on the head can make you not see too well. I figure you’ve got some concussion, but it’ll be OK soon,” he added again, sounding more positive than he felt.
“Yes,” she whispered, my head hurts something powerful, “and I feel kind of sick and dizzy.”
Just then the thunder that had been rumbling in the background for sometime suddenly crashed and lightening forked above them.
Jess thought quickly... the kid was in no fit state to sit a horse and it was a fair ride back to the ranch. He looked around him and saw that the path to the cave was only a few hundred yards away.
“We need to take shelter,” he said and picking her up set off for the steep track up to the cave...the horses following on.
When they arrived, he fetched her bedroll and helped her to lie down, before covering her gently with the blanket.
“Is that OK?” he asked frowning down at her.
“Very comfy,” she said with a tiny smile.
“If you’ll be alright, I’ll just go fetch the horses inside,” he added, “looks like there’s gonna be a humdinger of a storm soon.”
He returned a little later with the horses, to find her asleep. So, he settled them at the back of the huge cave and after tending them he returned and lit a camp fire from logs prudently stored in the back of the cave. Then settled with a coffee to wait for her to awaken again.
When she woke it was almost dark in the cave, the storm raging without...but after he’d spoken gently to her and reassured her, she sat up professing to be feeling a little better.
“You’d better take it real easy,” he said, “can’t be too careful with a head wound you know.”
She gave him a brief smile and said, “Yes, actually I do...”
He grinned at her then and said, “Well I’m real glad...so you wanna tell me all about it then?”
“It all happened so quickly, one minute I was sitting my pony and the next he reared, bucked and threw me. It was a rattler Jess, really spooked him. I was knocked out for a minute and when I came around, I saw it slithering away, and Patch had bolted. I tried to get to the lake to clean the wound and then next thing, you were there.”
“I figured something had spooked him,” Jess said nodding.
Then he took a deep breath and said, “Actually what I was askin’ was why did you do this Ellie? Upset yer old aunt that way...all of us. Surely you didn’t think you could make it back to Charity all alone?”
She looked stubborn then.
“You don’t know what it’s like Jess. OK I know I made a fool of myself at the dance and I’ll never behave that way again. But my aunt went crazy and I figure I’ll never be allowed out on a Saturday night again until I’m an old spinster and my life is practically over!” she said, her voice rising hysterically. He hid a smile figuring that if the nursing didn’t pan out as hoped then she’d have a good career on the stage.
Then he sighed...
“Look Ellie I’m real sorry about all this, but you’ve got to go back to town eventually, make it up to your aunt. Heck when she got that ransom note she didn’t know what to think.”
“I know, but I needed to get my inheritance back somehow if I was going to be living in Charity. I’ll explain and apologize too, really, I will.”
“And you need to apologize to the doc as well. He’s come to rely on you ya know. He’ll be missing your help.”
“Really?” she asked, brightening some.
“Sure, and I guess yer aunt ain’t that bad huh?”
“You don’t know her,” she said vehemently.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do,” he replied. “Now let me see, Jess continued...
… “You stay away from that Jess Harper...he’s a philanderer and ex gunslinger...a bad lot my girl. You keep away you hear?” he said, in a good approximation of her aunt.
She giggled, “She doesn’t really like anyone very much. Lily and your Millie are no better than they should be, working in that ‘den of antiquity.’ Carrie is way too flighty to be a nurse. The only folk she’s got a good word for are the Doc, a wonderful man and Slim, very hardworking.”
They exchanged a knowing smile and then Jess said again, “I’m real sorry honey.”
“What for?” she asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well,” he said looking a tad embarrassed, “I guess part of the reason you took off that way was because of me huh?”
She looked puzzled for a moment and then grinned at him.
“What, you mean that silly crush I had on you? Goodness I’m over that. Carrie explained everything to me...all about you and Millie. And anyway, you’re way too old for me,” she added, “I see that now...”
“I am huh,” he replied, feeling strangely insulted at being tossed aside so easily.
But then he caught her eye and soon they were both laughing uproariously.
The storm was still raging as dusk fell and Jess decided they should stay put and return to the ranch at first light. Ellie was clearly quite badly concussed and the ordeal of trying to ride through a storm just didn’t make any sense.
Then they sat and talked as friends for the first time and she was able to tell him a little of her past. How her parents had been killed in a terrible accident in their wagon when she was quite young. Having survived she went to live with her grandfather at just seven years of age. Her grandmother had passed away several years before and she had no older female relatives close by growing up.
“I didn’t have many friends either,” she said, “A lot of the town’s kids thought I was stuck up just because I was the Doc’s granddaughter but I was just shy really.”
He frowned, “That’s real sad, a kid needs friends growing up...and a Ma to talk things out with too I guess.”
She nodded, “Yes, I see that now... that’s why Carrie is so special to me. Almost like the big sister I never had,” and her face crumpled like she might cry.
“Hey Ellie don’t take on,” he said quickly. “So, why’d you up and run out on her iffen that’s the way you feel?”
She shrugged, “After the fool I made of myself the other night I figured she wouldn’t want to know me anymore.”
“No,” he said shaking his head, “Carrie’s bigger than that. She, of all people, knows it’s real easy to make a mistake. Heck when she was your age she was always messin’ up. What youngster doesn’t? It’s all part of growing up, learning from your mistakes. God knows I’ve made more than a few in my time,” he added grinning at her. “I think yer bein’ way too hard on yourself, you know that?”
“You think?”
“Sure do. Heck it ain’t your fault if you didn’t have a Ma to teach you all about how to behave around boys, do make up...and all that kinda stuff,” he said vaguely.
When she just looked unhappily at him, he grinned at her, “Hey don’t look so sad. I know just the lady to set ya straight...and you’ll meet her tomorrow.”
He brewed some more coffee...and as darkness fell, they turned in for the night.
At first light the following morning he was rudely awoken by the sound of Slim cussing at him.
Frowning he sat up, rubbing his eyes and trying to make sense of what was happening.
“Wha...?” he muttered squinting up at his lanky friend.
“I said what the hell are you playing at!” Slim repeated. “Good grief Jess you were supposed to talk some sense into the kid and bring her straight back to the ranch. What the heck is her aunt going to say if she gets wind of this...you all cozied up in here together all night huh...huh?”
Jess just gaped at him...trying to collect his thoughts.
However, Slim’ s rant had now woken Ellie, and as she emerged from her blanket, he saw her pale face and the bandage to her head and gasped in shock.
“Hey Ellie what happened?” he asked sinking down to crouch beside her.
“I had a really bad fall from Patch and Jess found me and looked after me real good,” she whispered. “Don’t be mad at him Slim, we didn’t come back because of the storm. Please don’t worry about me, I’m over all that silliness now anyway,” she added.
Slim flushed up some, and cast Jess a glance and saw him nod, and give him a subtle wink.
“Oh...uh right,” Slim stuttered, “So do you feel up to riding now Ellie? The storm’s all blown out.”
Ellie stayed at the ranch for several days and was a great hit with both Daisy and Mike.
Daisy spent several hours with the youngster discussing many issues that her dear Ma would have addressed had she lived. So it was that the young woman left feeling much more able to deal with some of the problems of life. From handling elderly disagreeable relatives; through to how to deal with the many emotions she would encounter as she grew up and fell in and out of love.
“I think these crushes are a practice for the real thing,” Daisy said sagely as she and Ellie sat on the porch shelling peas.
Ellie nodded, “I just hope when my knight in shining armor arrives, that he is as kind and thoughtful as Jess,” she replied wistfully.
“Oh, I’m sure he will be,” Daisy said cheerfully.
Then putting her bowl of peas to one side, she picked up her darning and said, “And hopefully will be a little easier on his socks too.” They exchanged a smile and then were laughing so much that Jess came over to see what all the fuss was about.
“What’s so funny?” he asked looking down quizzically at them but they merely flapped a hand in his direction and Daisy finally managed, “Nothing dear, nothing at all really.”

Chapter 13
It was now several months since the men had returned from their hunt for Marty Cain and they had been kept pretty busy on the ranch. Firstly, mending fence and making the house and outbuildings secure before the winter storms. However, they were still able to visit town on a Saturday night to see their gals though, and also made sure to check with Doc Sam that Ellie was happy and settled.
Then they were forced to stay away from town for a few weeks as they were kept busy bringing all the stock down to the lower ground for the winter. Once that was completed, they heard a neighbor was sick and so they volunteered to bring his stock down too.
So, it was when they set off for town one sunny Saturday afternoon, they were in high spirits at the thought of seeing their girls again, after so long away.
Meanwhile in the Laramie Saloon, Millie frowned and nudged Lily... “Oh no,” she whispered, “that Chris Dobbs is back again.”
“Don’t worry I’ll deal with him,” Lily said and marched off purposefully to serve the young man.
“It’s OK,” he said flushing up, “it was Millie I wanted.”
“She’s busy,” Lily said without missing a beat, “beer, was it?”
The rather callow youngster nodded and watched sadly as Millie bustled off into the back room to make some sandwiches for the bar.
Lily watched as Chris sipped his beer and looked miserably into space... and she took pity on the teen.
“Look Chris can I give you some advice?” she said.
“Sure...about Millie?” he asked hopefully.
“Sort of yes. You see you’re wasting your time, Chris. Millie has told you a hundred times that she’s really not interested in dating you. Apart from the fact that you’re way too young, she just happens to be in love with Jess Harper.”
“Well, I know that,” he said irritably, “but if she’d just give me a chance, I could show her I’m a much better bet than Harper. Hell, everyone knows he’s an ex-gunslinger always in trouble; probably get shot dead sooner or later with the life he leads. I don’t know what she sees in him anyway,” he added sulkily.
Lily sighed with exasperation.
“Listen up good kid,” she said firmly. “Millie is way too kind to tell you that Hell will freeze over before she’d date you but I’m telling you now. What’s more if Jess gets wind of you pestering her, you’ll live to regret it. Now he’s due in town today, so if I were you, I’d scram and leave Millie alone... got it!”
“I’ll kill him, I swear it,” the youngster swore “I’ll damn well kill him!” He swore again, before throwing back the rest of his beer and marching off in high dudgeon.
As he left, he cannoned into Mort Cory, just entering the saloon. But just glared at him and strode off down the street.
“What’s upset the kid?” Mort asked as he wandered over to the bar.
“Says he’s gonna kill Jess Harper and take Millie as his own,” Mose chuckled from where he was enjoying a long cool beer.
“Did he indeed?” Mort replied, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“He didn’t mean it, he’s just upset,” Lily said quickly, before fetching the Sheriff a beer.
Jess and Slim arrived shortly afterwards and Mose was full of the recent incident and all ready to tell Jess that he was on young Chris Dobbs hit list... enjoying the joke enormously. However, Mort jumped in before he could raise the issue and said, “Least said soonest mended huh Mose?” and silenced him with a steely glance.
Mort knew dang well how protective Jess was of Millie and he sure didn’t want anything to disturb his peaceful Saturday afternoon.
Once the men had enthusiastically greeted their girls, they settled down to enjoy a beer with Mort.
“Heard the latest?” he said conversationally, “Poor Tom took a nasty tumble in the bar last week and broke his arm.”
“Wants to take more water with it,” Jess said chuckling knowing that the barkeep rarely drank spirits.
“Hey this is no laughing matter,” Mort rebuked, “it’s a real bad break, Doc Sam sent him off to recuperate with his sister.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Jess said immediately sobering.
“What about the bar, the girls will be real hard pushed without him,” Slim said as he watched Lily and Millie dealing with the now busy saloon.
“Got some help in,” Mort said, “should be on duty later...in fact it was her dang fault that poor old Tom ended up that way.”
“Oh... how come?” Jess asked raising an eyebrow.
“Well, this woman...now what’s her name...uh... Mia...Mia Brown that’s it...new in town. Anyway, seems she came here seeking a job. Tom said he was looking for a cleaner and some bar work and he took her on for a trial. First job she does is wash and polish the floor behind the bar. Next thing you know Tom comes in all unawares and slips and falls real bad on his right arm!”
“Jeez, I’d have fired her on the spot,” Jess said shaking his head.
“Yes, me too,” Mort agreed, “but then he figured he’d be real short staffed with him away so took her on just temporary, I believe.”
“Hey wasn’t it a Mia Brown that Daisy was talking about the other day?” Slim said. “Joined the women’s group...big friends with Widow Dobbs, young Chris’s Ma?”
Jess just shrugged, “Could be. But heck Slim I don’t like the thought of our girls working here without a man to keep order if things get a tad lively.”
“All taken care of,” Mort said grinning at his friend, “Lon and myself are calling in on a pretty regular basis, especially at busy times and also at closing. Plus, we’ve got a rota of a few men who are on hand to jump in and call me if there’s any trouble...so don’t fret.”
Then there was a slight lull in serving and Millie came across to chat.
But she was suddenly aware that Jess’s attention was elsewhere.
“Dang it, who the hell is that?” he asked turning to her and looking aghast.
Millie turned to where a stout woman with bleached blond hair piled up in a fancy style and thick make up was just coming into the bar from the back room, smiling as she looked around her.
“That,” said Millie in a whisper, “is Mia Brown.”
“Jeez,” he whispered back and took another swallow of his beer.
Slim too was mesmerized by the brassy woman and noted her thick blue eye shadow and slash of bright red lipstick as she approached.
She sashayed over to Jess and leaning over the bar showing a vast expanse of white flesh and deep cleavage from her low-cut dress whispered, “Well hello handsome...”
Jess was rendered speechless and it was Millie who made the introductions; leaving the way too familiar Mia, in no doubt as to her long-term relationship with Jess.
Then Mia turned her attentions to Slim, before wandering off to serve some drinks.
“Well, I sure wouldn’t wanna get on the wrong side of her,” Jess said eyeing up the beefy forearms and chunky fist as she pulled a beer.
“She’s not staying,” Lily said coming over. “Once Tom gets back she’s history.”
“You don’t like her then?” Slim asked looking surprised as his Lily got on with everyone.
She shrugged, “I just don’t trust her... I’m sure she lied to Tom about having done bar work before. Mill and I have had to teach her everything since Tom left...and I figure she’s too old to learn new stuff anyway.”
Slim watched the woman now in deep conversation with Mose and said, “She doesn’t look that old...mid to late thirties?”
“Ha you’re kidding. Without all that make up she looks nearer fifty,” Lily said, “and there’s something else...she asks way too many questions, she’s really nosy.”
Slim grinned at that and tipped his hat over to where she was still chatting to Mose, “Well I guess she’s found the right companion then,” he chuckled.
Mort returned at closing time as promised, but there was no trouble, so after a quick beer with Jess and Slim he left to continue his nightly rounds.
The streets were pretty well deserted now, with just the odd drunk weaving his unsteady way home. Then he spotted somebody lurking in the shadows opposite the saloon and he wandered over, on the alert for trouble. However, he relaxed when he saw it was merely young Chris Dobbs. He was peering up to a lit window above the saloon bar...and as Mort followed his gaze, he was just in time to see Jess come to the window and pull the drapes together.
“So, what are you doing abroad so late Chris?” Mort asked peering down at the younger man.
The teen nearly jumped out of his skin and said, “Uh, nuthin’ Sheriff...I’m just out for a walk.”
Mort looked back up at the dimly lit window and then at Chris and gave him a quizzical smile. “She’s out of your league son and you really don’t wanna mess with Jess Harper’s woman, believe me. Now you get off home huh? Yer Ma will be fretting,” he added, for good measure.
The youngster flushed up and was about to protest, but when he saw the steely glint in Mort’s eye he said, “Yup, sorry Sheriff,” and turned and walked off in the direction of the home he shared with his elderly mother.
Meanwhile back in Millie’s cosy room Jess was snuggled up with his gal on her comfy sofa in front of the fire. One arm was around her and her head was resting on his shoulder.
“That Mia is an odd one,” Jess said conversationally.
Millie frowned, “She was all over you like a rash; I think she’s kinda smitten.”
Jess just chuckled and shook his head in disbelief.
Then thoughtfully Millie added, “It’s not like Lily to take a dislike to someone, is it? I mean the woman is kind of annoying, but she’s harmless enough.”
“Uh I guess so. Anyways I’ve got more interestin’ things on my mind than that Mia Brown,” he said, leaning in for a passionate kiss.
The following morning, Millie was up early and slipped quietly out of bed; and washed and dressed hurriedly before making for the door. But Jess awoke just as she was heading out.
“Where are you off to?” he called, then more sadly, “Hey you got dressed...”
She stopped in her tracks and turning back, went and sat on the edge of the bed...smiling lovingly down at him.
“I told you last night I’d have to get up real early and clean and tidy the bar before opening.”
“Aw... do you hafta?” he asked pulling her down into a warm embrace.
She returned his kiss and then pulled away, “Yes, I have to...and as I remember it, it was you that persuaded us to leave it last night.”
“Aw come on sweetheart,” Jess returned, “just five more minutes huh?”
“Ha!” she said getting up and marching to the door, “I know you and your ‘five minutes’ we’d still be in bed at noon. Anyway, it’s not fair to leave all the work to Lily.”
But Jess merely snapped his fingers looking hopeful, “Tom left you in charge...so why dontcha get that Mia Brown to do it huh; earn her money?”
“Nice try,” she grinned, “but she’s only part time. She doesn’t start until noon...and keep your voice down, her room’s only next door...she’ll hear you!”
Jess looked slightly alarmed at that and if the walls were so dang thin, he wondered what else the woman had heard last night.
But then his attention was drawn back to Millie.
“You just have a lie in. I know Slim intended too, and Lily and I will cook you both breakfast once we’re all done.”
When he still looked hard done by, she added, “Unless you’d like to help of course?”
At that he buried himself under the blankets and said, “See ya later.”
She grinned to herself and made her way out of the room and went off down to the bar where she could hear Lily making a start on washing the glasses.
It was just five minutes later when Jess heard the door open again and opening his eyes and grinning, he said, “Change yer mind did ya sweetheart?”
Then his smile froze as he saw who had entered the room.
“What the heck are you doin’ in here?” he said beginning to sit up.
Two shots were fired in quick succession; one slammed into his chest, the second catching his temple and he collapsed back on the bed.
Seconds later all hell broke out.
Slim was alerted by the shots; and tearing out of his room, he saw Mia Brown in her nightdress; standing in the doorway of her room and yelling blue murder.
She pointed to the open fire escape door at the end of the passage and screamed, “He went that way!”
Slim tore down the corridor; but there was no sign of the intruder, so he sprinted back to Millie’s room and looked on in shocked disbelief at the scene before him.
Lily and Mia were looking on helplessly as Millie lay across Jess’s seemingly lifeless form; weeping hysterically.
Slim pushed his way between the two women and then gently pulled Millie away before leaning over his pard. He noted the blood splattered bedding and the chest wound oozing slowly; the dark blood running in rivulets across his tanned torso. Grabbing the nearest thing at hand he put Millie’s nightdress over the wound and pushed down hard as he watched more blood trickle down Jess’s face from the head lesion.
Then turning to a still weeping Millie said, “It’s OK, don’t take on so, he isn’t dead Mill. The dead don’t bleed this way.”
Then looking beyond her to, Lily, he said, “Go fetch the doc honey.”
But poor Lily was frozen to the spot, so shocked she couldn’t move; until Slim said urgently, “Pronto Lily! He needs the Doc now!”
In the Doc’s front parlour both Lily and Slim were trying to comfort Millie.
“You don’t understand,” she sniffed, “if I’d just done as he wanted; gone back to bed for a little while…none of this would have happened.”
“Heck, you can’t blame yourself Millie, you weren’t to know there was a madman on the loose; gunning for Jess. And anyway, if it hadn’t happened this morning, he’d have done it some other time if he really wanted Jess dead.”
Then he added, “I just can’t think who would have wanted to kill him. He hasn’t upset anyone recently...as far as I know.”
Then Lily and Millie exchanged a glance.
“No,” Lily whispered, “he wouldn’t...would he?”
“Who...what?” Slim asked, looking puzzled.
“Yesterday in the bar young Chris Dobbs threatened to kill Jess,” Lily said.
“What!” Slim exploded, “Why for God’s sake, Jess hardly knows the kid.”
“He’s got a thing for Millie. You know what it’s like with teens, he thinks he loves her and wanted Jess out of the way. Then in a fit of temper he said he’d kill Jess. Mose heard him say it too...and we told Mort...but we all figured it was just bravado.”
Then the door opened and they all looked up hopefully, but sank back in resignation as Mort appeared instead of the hoped for Doc Sam.
“How is he?” Mort asked as he sat down in an armchair opposite Slim.
“Still in surgery,” Slim replied, “and it’s been way too long,” he sighed closing his eyes for a minute.
Then he looked over to Mort, “So any news?”
“No sign of any strangers in town. All was quiet when we went looking...what, just a few minutes after the shooting? There was nobody on the streets at all at that hour...I’ve left a posse still searching...but nothing so far.”
Then Lily reminded him of the threat Chris Dobbs had made the previous afternoon and Mort suddenly looked very thoughtful.
“I came upon him last night; looking up at your bedroom window Millie. I sent him off home with a flea in his ear; told him not to mess with Jess’s gal. He looked real troubled... I guess maybe he could have done it.”
“But he’s just a kid, what eighteen...nineteen?” Slim exploded.
“And one that is obsessed with Millie...who’s to say what a youngster would do in those circumstances,” Mort replied.
Just then the door opened and an exhausted looking Sam came in and flopped down on a chair looking pale and anxious.
“How is he?” Millie and Slim asked in unison.
Sam ran a hand through his hair and said, “Well he’s holding his own so far...it sure was touch and go for a while...but he’s stabilized for now.”
“He’ll be OK then?” Slim asked, holding his breath.
“Now I didn’t say that Slim, but he’s hanging on in there. The weapon used was a derringer and as you know they can be pretty unpredictable and the aim can be poor at distance. From the injuries I figure the attacker shot him from the door and so the bullets went off course some. One missed the heart by a good few inches ...the other just skimmed his temple. No major internal damage and I’ve sorted out the chest wound pretty good... As to the head wound well who knows...He could be fine in a week or two...or...”
“Or what Doc?” Millie whispered.
“Or he might not ever recover consciousness...I’m sorry my dear it’s just too soon to say...we can only watch and pray now.”
There was a stunned silence...but it was finally broken my Mort.
“A derringer bullet eh,” he said quietly.
Then Lily looked up and said, “Ma Dobbs has a derringer. She was showing it around at the Women’s Group just the other day; said she hadn’t ever felt safe since her husband passed, so she bought the gun.”
Mort sat opposite Martha Dobbs and said again, “I’m just trying to rule your son out of our inquiries Ma’am. But he was heard threatening to kill Jess Harper and now you say you don’t know what time he came home last night?”
The grey-haired woman shook her head anxiously, “Well no Sheriff, he likes to go off for long walks you see. He’s always been a bit of a loner and even worse since his Pa passed over,” she said looking bleak. “The Doc gave me some powders to help me sleep too...so I didn’t hear him get home.”
Mort sighed, “So where is he now?”
“Uh, upstairs...still in bed I suppose.”
She went off to call him and a good few minutes later the youth slouched into the room saying, “What now Ma I’m tired, can’t it wait?”
“No, it can’t young man,” Mort said rising as the boy entered.
He blanched at the sight of the Sheriff and said, “What do you want?”
“Chris, where are your manners?” his Ma rebuked him, before apologizing to Mort.
“The Sheriff is here making inquiries about a shooting last night. Apparently, Mr Harper from the Sherman ranch has been shot...really badly,” she added.
A fleeting look of triumph washed over the boy’s face before frowning he said, “So what’s it to do with me?”
“You were in the vicinity last night,” Mort said, “so can you account for your movements?”
“You know darned well,” the boy said sulkily, “you sent me home didn’t ya...about half past eleven I reckon...weren’t it, Ma?”
She merely shrugged, “If you say so dear.”
“I was asleep, Chris; took those powders the Doc gave me at nine and went to bed.”
“So, you don’t have an alibi then until about six this morning then?”
“No, why should I?”
“Because that’s when Jess Harper was shot and left for dead, that’s why!” Mort said angrily.
“Well, it weren’t me,” Chris said turning back towards the stairs.
“Not so fast,” Mort said grabbing him and turning him around. “It seems we have a witness. A lady saw the attacker fleeing and is prepared to give evidence. So, you need to come along to my office to see if Widow Brown can identify you.”
“What, Mia Brown?” Ma Dobbs asked, “She’s a friend of mine...was she hurt too?”
“No ma’am just kinda shook up, but she’s fine.”
Ma Dobbs turned to her boy, “Well go along with the Sheriff son, the sooner Mia sees you and says you weren’t there the better,” she said with an encouraging smile.
Mort turned to go, along with a reluctant Chris, but then he turned back and said, “By the way Ma’am I believe you own a derringer pistol?”
“Why yes,” she said looking surprised, “there’s no law against that is there Sheriff? It’s just for protection, now my Wilfred has gone.”
“No that’s fine, but I’d like to see it please.”
She looked puzzled and said, “Why yes, of course it’s here in my bag.”
She searched in her bag for a few minutes and finally tipped it up spilling the contents out...but no derringer.
“I don’t understand it,” she gasped.
“I think I do,” Mort said, “come on son,” and the two left, leaving Widow Dobbs looking fearfully after them.
Later that evening, back in the Doc’s hospital room, Slim reflected on the happenings of the last few hours.
He and Millie had been allowed to visit Jess and both had been overwhelmed by how sick he looked. His complexion tinged with grey as he lay unmoving, his breathing almost imperceptible. Even now several hours later Slim put a hesitant hand on Jess‘s chest, just to reassure himself that he was still breathing.
Doc Sam had finally persuaded Millie to return to work promising she would be the first to know if there was any change. She was most reluctant until he reminded her that she was in charge over at the saloon and Tom was relying on her.
“The best way for her to cope with it all,” he said confidentially to Slim later. “I know the Millie of old she’ll just get herself in a state sitting hour after hour at the bedside. It’s better she keeps busy.”
When Slim had merely nodded absently Sam had continued, “The same goes for you buddy. I think you should collect Mike from school and break it to him gently. Then take him home and inform Mrs Cooper too. After all, you don’t want Mose telling them, do you?”
“Heck no,” Slim had replied.
“Good, and tell Daisy that we are fine with the nursing right now, but maybe she’d like to come on by once he’s up and taking notice? She’s always so good at getting him to behave,” he added with a small smile.
“I’ll send word if there is any change,” the doc added, as he showed Slim out.
But of course, he might have known Slim would be back. As soon as he’d reassured Mike and Daisy that Jess was in good hands and on the mend; he had saddled up and returned to town.
Now as he looked down at his pard, so ill and helpless, he felt the sting of tears and he sighed closing his eyes tightly and swallowing hard.
Moments later he felt a light tap on his shoulder and looked up into the deeply compassionate gaze of young Ellie.
“The Doc says supper’s ready and you’re to go eat,” she said softly. But when he merely sighed, she gave him a tiny smile and added, “He also said I was not to take no for an answer; says you need to keep your strength up.”
Then she went and took a seat on the opposite side of the bed and gently taking Jess’s wrist commenced taking his pulse.
“He’ll be just fine with me,” she said once completed, “I know just what to do and if there is any change at all I’ll call, OK?”
Slim was momentarily surprised by her professional attitude and then reassured, smiling he said wearily. “Thanks Ellie, I know he’s in good hands.”
They were just finishing supper when there was a knock at the front door and Mrs Hudson went to answer it and returned with the Sheriff.
“Sorry to disturb you all, but I thought you’d like to know I think I’ve found Jess’s assailant.”
All eyes turned towards Mort as he said, “It looks like Lily was right about young Chris. The evidence is all stacked against him. He has no alibi for that time, his Ma’s derringer is missing and finally that Ma Brown is pretty certain it was him she saw running down the corridor in the saloon. So, looks like he had the opportunity, motive and means.”
“I can’t believe it,” Carrie said, “why I remember him from school, he was always such a gentle, kind boy.”
Sam exchanged a sad smile with his daughter, “Yes Carrie’s right, he was a sweet child.”
“I guess people change,” Slim said angrily. “If the kid really was besotted with Millie, who knows what lengths he’d go to try and claim her?”
“Well, I’ve known Martha Dobbs for years and she brought that boy up right,” Ma Hudson, the housekeeper, chipped in with feeling. Then speaking honestly, “But the lad has changed since his Pa passed over, got real moody. She was saying just the other day that she was real worried about him, always taking off at night and coming home at all hours.”
“Well, he’s going to be keeping me company for a while,” Mort said rising to go. “The date for the trial will be set once we ...uh...have an outcome,” he said vaguely, refusing to meet Slim’ s steady gaze.
“You mean whether or not my partner lives...or not?” Slim said angrily. “I guess that outcome will mean whether or not the kid hangs huh?” And with that he marched from the room.
Once he’d gone a rather troubled looking Mort asked, “Any change?”
Sam shook his head, “It’s not looking too good Mort,” he said softly away from his daughter’s hearing, “not too good at all.”

Chapter 14
It was now three days since Jess had been shot and he was still deeply unconscious.
Millie had come over to sit with him, but now had succumbed to a nasty cold and Sam had to ban her from visiting for a while until she was better, much to her distress. However Slim had been a constant at the bedside having called the Jackson boys in to mind the spread until Jess recovered.
Daisy had been a regular visitor too and tried to hide her anxiety from Slim. However, both she and the doc knew that the longer this comatose state lasted the more hope was fading.
Now as Slim sat by his pard very early one morning talking softly, Doc Sam entered and said cheerfully, “So how’s the patient this morning Slim?”
The blond rancher looked up his eyes alight with hope, “I swear he tried to open his eyes last night, I was going to wake you...but then nothing,” he added sadly.
“Well, it’s a good sign,” Sam said checking Jess’s pulse, “he might just be starting to come out of it. And not a moment too soon,” he added sighing briefly.
Slim picked up on the doc’s manner immediately.
“He needs to come around as soon as possible, doesn’t he doc?” he said quietly.
“I’m afraid so Slim, he’s on borrowed time now; we really need to get some fluids and nourishment into him in the next day or so...or...well...” and he sighed again shaking his head.
Then slapping Slim on the back said, “Keep talking to him Slim, if he is beginning to wake up then that might just help.”
Kate Munroe had gone back up the mountain to her kin after her prolonged stay with Mort and their hunting trip earlier in the summer. Now as soon as her second cousin Denver James brought word that Jess was real sick, she returned to Laramie at once.
Mort spied her riding in as he sat on the porch bench outside his office, cleaning his rifle.
He jumped up at once as she rode over, slipped from the saddle and hitched up.
“Hey gal what brings you to town?” he asked, putting the gun aside and pulling her into a warm embrace.
Once she had disentangled herself and taken the offered seat on the bench beside him, she said, “Well I’ll tell ya Mort, I got wind of the fact that young Jesse Harper was real sick; thought I’d go give the doc a hand ya know.”
Mort smiled at Kate using Jess’s childhood name. But of course, she’d known him since he was a young ‘un back on the Texas panhandle. And she was real fond of him as well; although she wasn’t one to show her feelings too much as Mort knew.
“Hell, it sure is good to see you,” he said now, “even though it’s kind of a bad time for poor ol’ Jess.”
“Oh,” she asked, “so he’s real bad then?”
“Last I heard the Doc said he needed to come around from this here coma real quickly. He’s been way too long without any food or water. Slim reckons he’s coming out of it... but I dunno, I sure didn’t see any change in him last time I visited.”
Kate stood up quickly.
“Now where are you off to in such a dang hurry?” he said looking saddened, “I was just gonna offer you a coffee.”
“Later,” she called over her shoulder as she marched off determinedly, heading for Doc Sam’s office.
“Well, I guess it sure can’t do any harm Sam said smiling at the slim woman with her white blond hair; dressed from head to toe in buckskin and a determined gleam in her eyes.
He had a lot of time for Kate Munroe and her Indian medicine; not to mention her good old fashioned common sense, and strength of character.
Slim too was delighted to see her and a wave of relief passed over him. Sure, the doc was the top man when it came to medicine. But Kate knew Jess inside out and maybe she would figure how to get through to him Slim thought, as he stood up offering his bedside seat to her.
Well, he knew of old that Kate took no prisoners but nothing prepared him for the onslaught that was to follow.
“It’s time to git up Jesse boy!” she hollered. “Sun’s up and so should you be! Come on you lazy good for nothing...yer Pa’s off in the saloon again. That useless brother of yours Wayne has sloped off with his friends and yer Ma needs ya!”
Jess’s face remained impassive, his eyes closed.
“Hey! I said wake up, you good for nuthin’ kid!” Kate yelled.
Slim made to take a step forward and stop her haranguing his pard in this mean way; but Sam shot out a hand to stop him and nodded to where Jess’s head seemed to have moved slightly on the pillow.
“Francie wants you to change the baby’s diaper while she tends yer little brother. The young ‘un’ s bawling, he’s tumbled over again. Your Ma’s real upset too...nuthin’ in the pot fer supper. They need you to wake up boy...go help ‘em huh!”
Carrie had come in at the sound of all this yelling and now looked on in amazement as Jess seemed to be trying to open his eyes.
But after a moment or two he seemed to think better of it and lay still again.
Kate scowled at him and then looking up saw Carrie and said, “Can you run a message for me Carrie?”
The youngster nodded, “Sure thing.”
“Go down the street...and fetch me that dinner triangle hanging up outside the mercantile gal. Just tell old Ezra you need to borrow it huh.”
Carrie looked surprised, but a brief nod from her Pa sent her on her way.
Minutes later Kate stood up and holding the metal triangle by a length of rope started ringing it noisily...then she yelled out, “Supper’s ready!”
This time all eyes were on Jess as very slowly his eyes flickered and eventually opened to the astonishment of all standing around the bed.
It wasn’t a miraculous cure of course and he merely looked around him as though he didn’t know where he was before sighing and closing his eyes again. But it was the beginning of the end of his comatose state. That night he slept normally for the first time since the shooting, having been able to drink some water at long last.
Doc Sam secretly thought that Jess was beginning to wake up from the coma anyway, and maybe Kate’s antics had just brought the inevitable forwards a little. But he said nothing and merely joined in with the merriment that at last Jess was on the mend.
The following morning Slim was watching his pard like a hawk, hoping and praying that this morning he would actually speak and start acting like he knew where he was. Up until then he had merely gazed around him in bewilderment. Then just stared at Slim like he’d never seen him before. But he had at least drank some water with added sugar and his colour and breathing had improved slightly.
Now as his deep blue eyes flicked open, he stared straight at Slim and then after a moment he groaned and said, “Jeez Slim, what I’m I doin’ in here…”
Slim sighed with relief and then gave a bark of laughter... so overjoyed was he to have his pard back. Hell, the doc hadn’t said anything, but Slim knew he was worried about brain damage.
“What’s so damn funny,” Jess growled, “I’m hurtin’ somethin’ fierce here Slim,” he said rubbing the dressing that bound the chest wound.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Slim said quickly, “I’m just kinda glad to have you back.”
“Well yesterday you didn’t seem to know anyone. You were acting really strangely.”
Jess shook his head and then gasped in pain and closed his eyes for a moment. Then said, “I was asleep, weren’t I? Had this real bad dream about Kate yellin’ at me.”
“That was no dream; that really was Kate, she’s staying at Mort’s right now but she’ll be visiting later.”
Jess smiled and said, “Good ol’ Kate...but hell, she didn’t need to bawl at me that way.”
“Well, we thought she did. You see you’ve been out of it for days Jess and the doc was getting really worried, said you desperately needed some water...or, well things could get really serious.”
“I guess I am kinda dry and hungry,” Jess said thoughtfully, “any chance of a coffee and some bacon and beans?”
Slim laughed again and then said, “I figure you can have some water right now...and we’ll ask the doc about the other as soon as he wakes up huh?”
Once he’d had his drink Jess asked after Millie.
“Oh, she’s been sitting with you, but she’s got a real bad cold right now, so the doc banned her.”
“Aw, she’s OK though?” Jess said looking suddenly anxious.
“Sure, she was really upset about you. But as to her health, it’s just a bad cold Jess so quit worrying.”
“Go tell her I’m OK will ya Slim?”
“Huh, but it’s really early... not seven yet.”
“I don’t care I know the way she frets...go put her mind at rest will ya, please Slim?”
“Alright, I’m going... don’t go getting your pants in a ruck,” Slim said standing and smiling down at his buddy.
“I’ll go now and when I come back you can tell me exactly what happened. Although there’s no call for you to worry,” he added as he made for the door, “the culprit’s already in Mort’s jail.”
“Well thank God for that,” Jess said with feeling as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again.
Over at the saloon Slim had been knocking for several minutes before an apprehensive looking Lily opened the door a crack, Mia Brown just behind her looking on.
When Lily saw who it was, she opened the door wide and allowed him in.
Then she gasped and said, “Oh no...” and looked like she might faint.
“He’s not...?” but she could say no more.
Slim looked puzzled and then said quickly, “Heck no Lily, he’s fine. He just insisted I come straight over and tell Millie that he’s OK now. He came around properly this morning...insisted I come straight over.”
“Oh, thank God,” she whispered. And then she was in Slim’ s warm embrace.
“He’s just fine,” he said again  kissing her head tenderly on the top of her head.
“Hey honey, I sure hope you’d be this concerned if I was over in that hospital bed!” he added, with a hopeful grin.
She slapped him gently on the chest, and said, “I can’t even bear the thought of that Slim, don’t...”
He hugged her again and said, “Come on let’s go tell Millie the good news.”
Lily turned and said, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it Mia,” but the older woman had disappeared.
“Where’ d she go?” Slim asked looking mystified, “she was here a moment ago.”
“Oh, she hates men seeing her without her full make up on,” Lily said dismissively. “Anyway, never mind about her, let’s go see Millie. She’s still in bed and has an awful cough now too Slim but this will cheer her up!”

Over at the Doc’s house Mia Brown smiled winningly at Mrs Hudson as she stood on the doorstep.
“Uh would it be possible to see Mr Harper please?” she asked.
Mrs Hudson looked troubled, “Oh I don’t think so my dear, he’s still very sick and the Doctor’s orders were that nobody but Mr Sherman could visit with him.”
“Oh, but it was Mr Sherman that sent me, with a message from Miss Millie, I’m sure he’ll want to see me.”
Mrs Hudson waivered, “Well I don’t know. You see the Doctor is out on a call with Miss Ellie. Miss Carrie is out too...although she is due back shortly.”
“Maybe I could wait and you could ask Carrie when she returns? Millie was most insistent that I give him her message,” Mia said urgently. “She is rather poorly or she would come herself you know,” she added for good measure.
“Um, well I suppose that would be alright for you to wait,” Mrs Hudson said eventually, “It’s not as though I don’t know you,” she added with a kindly smile, having met Mia at the Women’s Group several times.
“Come along into the parlour, Miss Carrie will be home shortly. Now you must excuse me Mia dear. I’m just heating some hot milk for Mr Harper and making him some of my special porridge. My grandmother’s recipe,” she added smiling, before she bustled off to the kitchen at the side of the house.
Mia waited until she heard a distant door close and then arose and made her way out of the parlour and down the corridor towards the back of the house.
She recalled that Mrs Hudson had said only the previous week at the Women’s Group, what a trek it was from the kitchen to the extension at the very back of the house where the hospital room was located.
She was so busy on her quest that she didn’t hear the front door open and close as Carrie returned.
She saw the door clearly marked at the end of the long corridor and stealthily entered closing the door quietly behind her.
Jess appeared to be sleeping, his face still pale and a bandage swathed across his naked chest, another dressing to his temple.
She watched him for a few more seconds an unfathomable look in her eyes before removing the razor-sharp knife from the folds of her skirt and advancing upon him.
He opened his eyes just seconds before she was about to strike and managed to roll quickly to one side as he grabbed her wrist and fought to wrestle the knife from her grasp.
Carrie wandered down the corridor to check on her patient. But when she heard a muffled cry from within the room she advanced swiftly before wrenching the door open and staring in shocked disbelief at the scene before her.
Jess was still desperately trying to wrestle the knife from Mia Brown, who was cussing and fighting to gain control. Determined to finish what she had started... the fatal stabbing of Jess Harper through the heart!
Carrie gave an ear-splitting scream and tore across the room to Jess’s assistance. Grabbing Mia by an arm she pulled her around and attempted to force the knife from her grip.
But Mia fought back slashing the blade across Carrie’s arm...blood dripping from the gash almost instantly.
Jess desperately tried to pull himself up and out of the bed cursing at the terrible weakness that seemed to have possessed him since the shooting. However, he was now so antagonized at seeing Carrie hurt that he managed to drag himself up.
On seeing this Mia realized that it was only a matter of seconds before he overpowered her. Realizing she had no choice but to flee she turned and tore out of the room colliding with an alarmed looking Mrs Hudson on the way, before disappearing out of a back entrance.
Seeing Jess out of bed and on the edge of collapse and Miss Carrie bleeding and now crying pitifully, she allowed Mia to hurtle past her before going to assist them.
Jess was already by Carrie’s side however, and was attempting to staunch the bleeding; whilst trying to calm her down.
He held her close whispering softly that it was alright now...as Carrie sank into his embrace closing her eyes...as she felt his arms protectively encircle her...
Then amongst all the chaos, Doc Sam arrived and stared at Jess and Carrie in consternation. “What on earth is going on here?” he asked thinking the couple were in a lover’s embrace; until he saw his daughter’s blood-stained blouse.
Then he came forward and took over the proceedings. Once Mrs Hudson had composed herself, she was dispatched to inform Mort whilst the Doc and Ellie attended to Jess and Carrie.
The first Slim, still over in the saloon, knew of the attack was when Mort called asking to search the premises for Mia Brown.
Mort then of course had to explain that she had attempted to murder Jess and of Carrie’s quick intervention, and subsequent injury but out of Millie’s hearing.
One look at Millie, who was flushed and feverish with a terrible cough, was enough for him to decide not to tell her of Carrie’s injuries or Jess’s probable set back due to the attack. But he merely said Mia had caused a disturbance at the doc’s office and he needed to speak to her.
Slim left with Mort a little later, promising Millie he would look in on Jess and give him her love.
Now as Slim was striding down Main Street, with Mort accompanied by a posse of men, the Sheriff came clean and explained exactly what had occurred. “I just don’t get it…why the Hell would Mia Brown want to kill Jess?” Slim asked.
Mort shook his head, “Your guess is as good as mine Slim, but I’ve got a terrible feeling we might just have the wrong person in my jail for that shooting.”
It was still early morning when the town had been thoroughly searched without finding hide nor hair of Mia Brown.
Slim and Mort had visited Jess earlier and were relieved to see that he hadn’t suffered any further trauma after the attack. Also, that Carrie’s wound had looked a lot worse than it was and she was recovering well, under her father’s loving care.
“So, you have never met her before she landed in town?” Mort asked Jess again. “She isn’t an ex-girlfriend with an axe to grind then buddy?”
Jess merely rolled his eyes at that notion and said, “So why ain’t you out looking huh Mort?”
“Oh, we are looking Jess. We’ve turned the town upside down and I’ve got posse members on every corner keeping a look out. We’ll find her don’t fret.”
Then Slim turned to Jess and said, “When I went over to see Millie you said you’d tell me all about the shooting when I came back?”
“Yeah, well what’s to tell it was that Ma Brown of course Slim.”
Then turning to the Sheriff said, “But I thought she was in your jail Mort? Slim told me that the culprit was banged up in jail?”
Mort shook his head, “No Jess the person in my jail is Chris Dobbs...that’s who Slim was referring to.”
“What?” “Why arrest Chris Dobbs for goodness sake?”
Mort looked shamefaced at not having said something sooner on that Saturday night when Lilly had initially mentioned the problem.
“Well, it seems the kid had a crush on Millie... and then in a fit of pique threatened to kill you. Well we thought it was just a teen sounding off, but then you were shot. The kid had been hanging around town and his Ma’s derringer was missing... what were we supposed to think?”
“We couldn’t ask you,” Slim added, “after all you’ve only really been composmentis these last few hours.”
Jess looked pained, “Dang it Slim my heads hurtin’ bad enough without you spoutin’ the dictionary at me. What you sayin’? In plain English.”
“Sorry Jess its Latin for er... thinking straight. You’ve only been thinking straight and talking to me properly this morning. Then you insisted on me going to see Millie almost as soon as you came around.”
Jess looked chastened, “I guess Carrie bein’ hurt that way is my fault. I should have asked for Mort and made a statement right away.”
“Hey don’t beat yerself up,” Mort said kindly, rising from the bedside chair. “Hind sight is a great thing, Jess. Now you just rest up...we’ll find her sooner or later and bring her to justice don’t you fret.”
Later, Mort and Slim sat in the office sipping coffee and Mort said, “I just don’t get it. Where the hell can she be hiding? We’ve turned over every damn stone in the town. She can’t have disappeared into thin air.”
“Well, we’ve men at the livery and railroad and we’re going to check out the passengers on the noon stage. I guess there’s not much more we can do right now,” Slim said. Then thoughtfully, “I just can’t figure why she had it in for Jess ... it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Mort shook his head, “Nope it really doesn’t,” he agreed. Then brightening a tad said, “Well if Mia Brown isn’t suffering from unrequited love maybe it’s her daughter. After all Lily said she looked a lot older without all that war paint on and that fancy wig she wears. It could be her daughter that Jess has been upsetting?” And he threw Slim a playful grin.
“Who knows with Jess,” Slim replied returning the grin.
Just before noon the two men strode down Main Street to check out the Stage passengers. An elderly gentleman and young mother and son clambered on board and then another older woman hastened from the waiting room and went to board.
There was something vaguely familiar about her and Slim said, “Excuse me Ma’am,” and moved forwards to block her way.
Mia Brown sans her blond wig and thick makeup was barely recognizable. But the grey haired, ashen faced middle-aged woman now staring at Slim in consternation was very recognizable...as Myra Cain the wife of the disgraced Sheriff Marty Cain.
Seconds later she drew Ma Dobbs derringer from her skirts and would have shot Slim, had Mort’s reactions not been so quick. His hand shot out and he easily wrestled the gun from the startled woman.
He then grabbed her arm and said, “I don’t know what your game is Ma’am but I’m arresting you for the attempted murder of Jess Harper.”
The woman threw him a furious look, “Well I’ll tell you what my ‘game’ as you call it is. I’m merely getting justice! It was that Jess Harper who framed my husband for murder...and he was hung thanks to that no-good gunslinger. An innocent man died because of him and I am determined to have justice for my dear husband’s memory!”
“Yeah, well you come along to my jail Ma’am and you can explain all that to the judge in due course,” Mort said dryly, marching her off.
Sometime later Mort, Slim and the doc sat around Jess’s bed.
“I just can’t believe we didn’t recognize her,” Jess said to Slim.
“Well, I reckon she was pretty well disguised what with the blond wig and that war paint she wore all the time,” and he recalled Lily saying she didn’t like being seen without her make-up... well now he knew why.
“Plus, we were hardly expecting her to turn up here looking for vengeance,” Mort said. “From what I’ve heard, that bastard Cain led her a life of misery, going off with other women and ignoring her most of the time. Heck he’d even ridden off leaving her without a backward glance.”
“The woman is clearly suffering from delusions,” Doc Sam said thoughtfully. “She is just unable to see the real Marty Cain...and wants to cast the blame for all he did on somebody else.”
“It is poor young Chris Dobbs I feel sorry for,” Slim mused, “being falsely accused that way.”
“Um, that’ll teach him not to mess with my Millie,” Jess said darkly, much to the amusement of the others.
“It seems Myra stole the derringer from Ma Dobbs bag at the Women’s Group,” Mort said. “It was that piece of evidence that had really scuppered poor Chris Dobbs. It looked to be an open and shut case...as we all thought he’d stolen his Ma’s gun.”
“So, what will happen to her Mort?” the Doc asked.
“Uh well I guess she’ll have to go to the Laramie prison and await trial there. I really don’t have the facilities for holding female prisoners. Then it rather depends on whether Jess is going to have her charged or not.”
“Well, the woman is clearly not in her right mind,” the doc interceded.
“So that makes it OK to go around shootin’ folk and trying to stab ‘em, does it?” Jess asked angrily. “Hell, if you and Ma Hudson hadn’t arrived when you did Doc, well Carrie could have been hurt even worse. Not to mention her pullin’ a gun on Slim!”
“Yes, you are quite right,” Sam conceded, “she certainly needs some form of restraint I suppose.”
“Whether Jess wants her tried for attempted murder, or we just go for a lesser sentence due to her state of mind is irrelevant,” Mort said, “She’ll still have to await trial and go before the Judge whatever is decided.”
“Maybe a few weeks in the jail waitin on the Judge’s arrival will bring her to her senses and she’ll realise what she’s done,” Jess said quietly.
That night Slim figured he didn’t need to spend time watching Jess in the hospital room as he had improved greatly.
“I’ll be fine,” Jess had said when Slim broached the idea of him spending some time with Lily that evening and staying the night with her.
“Sure, you go ...and say howdy to Millie for me, tell her I aim to get sprung from here real soon.”
“Oh, you do, do you…and so what does Sam have to day about that?” Slim said with mock severity.
Jess winked at him, “He don’t know yet. But I figure Daisy can nurse me just as well as they can here...huh what do ya say?”
Slim threw him a quizzical glance, “Well from something Sam said, I rather thought you’d want to stay here a while and be nursed by Carrie?”
“What do ya mean?” Jess asked suddenly looking wary.
“Oh, just that she looked real comfortable in your arms after she’d been attacked and how very concerned you were for her?”
“Well sure I was. She’s a good friend ain’t she…I sure didn’t like to see her hurt that way.”
“OK, I believe you,” Slim said chuckling. “We’ll talk to Sam together and maybe he’ll uh...release you into my custody huh?”
Jess regained his good humor at that, “That’s more like it Pard!”
The following morning Slim made his leisurely way down Main Street feeling happy and relaxed after spending time with his best gal. As promised, he hoped to catch Sam before he left on his rounds and ask if Jess could be released into Daisy’s tender care.
He noted a line of restless passengers outside the Stage office and figured Mose was running late bringing the incoming stage from Cheyenne.
Then he noticed the large Tumbleweed Wagon parked outside Mort’s office and figured the prison had come to collect Myra Cain...AKA Mia Brown to transport her to the Laramie jail, just across the tracks to await trial.
Inside Mort’s office Ada Briggs, one of the prison officers along with a young rookie officer, Ginny Adams, were collecting the prisoner.
Ada was incredibly thin, nearer fifty than forty with a pale complexion and dark brooding eyes. She adored Mort and made no secret of it, constantly finding any excuse to visit the office, much to the Sheriff’s embarrassment.
Now as the prisoner was fetched from the cell by Mort, Ada quickly dispatched her into young Ginny’s care so that she could spend a few private moments alone with Mort.
The girl went to handcuff the prisoner, but Myra cried, “Oh please no... I will be mortified, please let me leave with some dignity.”
Ginny looked to Ada for guidance, but the woman merely wanted Mort all to herself and said “Never mind the cuffs just take her out gal, lock her in the wagon, I’ll be out shortly. Uh just got the paperwork to do.”
Once they had left, Mort quickly signed the documents releasing his prisoner and handed them over the desk.
But Ada merely relaxed back in her seat not making any effort to pick up the papers and said, “You still seeing that mountain woman then?”
“If you mean Kate Munroe, yes...yes I am,” he said stiffly.
She sniffed, “I’d have thought a man of the law would be kinda wary of her sort with her having that no-good Moonshiner, Denver James for a relation and all.”
Mort said nothing but merely pushed the papers further across the desk towards her, “I think you’ll find that all in order,” he said, rising and hoping she’d take the hint.
“Well, I guess you can’t see too much of her,” she said smiling slyly at him now, “she seems to spend most of her time up that mountain.”
Mort had now moved towards the door so she was forced to stand up too.
She sashayed towards him and said, “I call that a dang shame. I sure wouldn’t neglect you that way if you were mine,” she added, reaching out and running a seductive finger down his cheek.
But just seconds later her hand dropped away and she stared in consternation at Mort as they heard screaming and mayhem coming from the street.
Slim had paused by the Doc’s door when he saw the young prison officer escort Myra Cain out of Mort’s office. But instead of putting her directly into the Tumbleweed wagon they remained on the boardwalk.
“Please just give me a moment,” Myra said pitifully, “I feel rather faint...”
She did indeed look very pale.
“Oh, you poor thing...I think I’ve got some smelling salts,” young Ginny replied rummaging in her uniform pocket.
As soon as she was free of Ginny’s hold Myra looked around her and saw her way out...
Mose Shell, who was running a good half hour late, was galloping the four-in-hand down Main Street at breakneck speed.
Myra ran out onto the street just as he came level with her and threw herself under the horses.
She was killed instantly.
Mose tried to stop, pulling on the lines with all his might, but it was a good few yards on before the horses came to a shaking, snorting standstill. Nodding their heads in fear and frustration at such cavalier treatment.
Slim stood dumbstruck for a moment looking at the bloodied body of Myra sprawled in middle of the Street. There was total silence for a few seconds before bedlam erupted as folk cried out and started running toward her mangled form.
Mose had jumped down from the box and ran back, staring in horror at the remains.
“I couldn’t stop Goddamn it... I just couldn’t!” he said to Slim.
“It’s OK Mose, I saw everything,” Slim said quickly. “I guess she just wanted to kill herself. There was nothing you could have done; it wasn’t your fault.”

It was later agreed at a meeting with the Judge that Mrs Myra Cain had taken her own life while the balance of her mind was disturbed. Mose Shell was exonerated from any blame; however, Miss Ginny Adams was reprimanded by the Judge for not taking sufficient care of her prisoner. By not handcuffing her Myra had been able to run into the road and meet her death. He did however add that Miss Adams should not bear the full burden of responsibility.
No, he had intoned, that should rest firmly on the shoulders of Ada Briggs. She had received the papers from Sheriff Cory and from then on, she was fully accountable for the prisoner’s welfare. She should have been supervising the newly recruited Miss Adams taking the prisoner to the wagon. The judge castigated her but left the prison authorities to meter out her punishment.
The prison took the lax attitude very seriously and dismissed Ada Briggs from service without a reference. She subsequently left town, much to Mort’s relief.
As to Ginny Adams she was severely reprimanded, but allowed to keep her job. However, the young woman realized that she really wasn’t cut out for the work. Indeed, all who knew her declared that she had far too gentle a nature for the job. So, she handed in her notice and secured work as an assistant at the Laramie Ladies Dress Shop where she excelled.
However, some good did come out of the miscarriage of justice concerning young Chris Dobbs. He had been incarcerated in the Laramie jail for a few days when he succumbed to the dreadful cold that was doing the rounds and had laid poor Millie low. He was in fact so poorly, with a hacking cough, that Mort was forced to seek medical advice. Young trainee nurse Ellie was dispatched within the hour to see the patient, bringing cough medicine and some of Ma Hudson’s good chicken broth. From then on Ellie made it her duty to bring healthy sustenance for the prisoner and Mort looked on with amusement at the blossoming romance.
Sure, at first, she had been greatly biased against Chris, feeling as she did about Jess and assuming, like everyone else that he was guilty of the shooting. However, it was only a matter of time before she listened to his story and really began to believe him and indeed fall for the tall handsome young man.
The couple found they had a lot in common; as had both lost their fathers. They had also suffered the pangs of unrequited love and knew how painful that could be. Ellie was good for Chris and he gradually started to enjoy life again. Even though he had the totally unfair possibility of a jail sentence before him, his life was wonderful now Ellie was in it. He changed back into the boy he had been before his father’s sad demise and started making plans to improve the spread when he had his freedom once more. Heck, he was even making plans to add on extra rooms should he and Ellie settle down together in the future.
“I do believe you’re innocent,” Ellie had said one day and that was enough for him to fall in love with the beautiful young girl. Then it was Ellie’s turn to fall for the very special young man as he showed such courage in the face of adversity…
“You will step out with me when I’m freed?” he had asked shyly one day...and was delighted when she agreed with alacrity.
Myra Cain had been convicted of the crimes against Jess Harper and Chris was immediately exonerated and once free he and Ellie were inseparable. Even Aunt Edna was delighted about the romance and secretly hoped that it would make young Ellie forget about all that nonsense of going back east to train as a nurse.
Surprisingly it was Chris himself who insisted she follow her dreams as Daisy recounted at the supper table a few months after all the business with Myra Cain.
“I saw Martha Dobbs at the Women’s Group today,” Daisy declared, “and she said Chis has talked Ellie into doing her Nurse’s training before they get engaged.”
“Well good for him,” Slim said, “they’re both are way too young to settle down yet. I guess she can nurse for a few years as they save up for a place.”
Jess concurred remembering how he had encouraged Carrie to do her midwife’s training and how pleased she was in the end, even if she had initially hoped to settle down with him.
“He’s done real well,” he said now, “the kid’s got more sense than I credited him for.”
“Well, he must have some good sense, after all he fell for your Millie, didn’t he?” Slim said chuckling.
“Oh, now don’t go bringing that up,” Daisy said quickly, “least said soonest mended.”
Mike had been looking on and enjoying the conversation and now said, “Did you whop that Chris then Jess?”
“Would have done iffen I’d known about it,” Jess murmured darkly.
“Now, now,” Daisy said firmly, “we all know that fists aren’t the right way to make a point. Don’t we boys?” she asked raising an eyebrow in Jess’s direction.
Jess just sighed and said, “Yes Ma’am,” before turning to grin at Mike.
“Eat up yer supper Tiger and then I’ll thrash you at checkers,” he said changing the subject quickly.
It was several weeks later that the subject of Chris and Ellie was brought up again.
Slim, Jess and Daisy were enjoying a coffee in front of a roaring fire, Mike already abed.
“Oh, I bumped into Sam in town today,” Slim said, “It seems that he’s pulled a few strings and got Ellie a place at Nursing School in the New Year.”
“She’s very young to be going all that way alone,” Daisy said anxiously.
“That’s what her aunt said but apparently Sam’s fixed that too. She’s to lodge with some old friends of his, so she’ll be looked out for real well.”
“She’ll make a good nurse,” Jess said, “and I hope she’ll be workin’ for a while before she gets hitched. I still say she’s way too young to get married yet awhile.”
Slim sniggered at that and said, “So you’re an expert on matrimony now are you Hot shot?”
“Well, I’ve gotten enough dang sense not to rush into anything,” he replied belligerently.
“Oh yes I think we can safely say that,” Daisy replied with a touch of irony.
Jess was affronted by that remark and said, “Look here Daisy, marriage is a real serious business. A man can’t go rushing into it. There are things to consider...plans to make...pros and cons to be weighed up.”
“I just hope Millie doesn’t get tired of waiting,” she said sagely, “after all, with handsome young men like Chris Dobbs setting his cap at her...who knows... I mean her head might be turned by the attentions of a younger man.”
Jess looked shocked, “Huh... what are you sayin’ Daisy? Has she said somethin’ ... huh ... huh?”
Daisy turned away and winked at Slim before saying, “Well not as such dear no, not really...not as yet anyway.”
Jess looked very thoughtful and then draining his cup got up and made for the bedroom door.
“Hey Jess what’s up buddy?” Slim asked trying to hide a smile.
“Uh, havin’ an early night...got me some thinkin’ to do,” he replied before disappearing into the bedroom.
“Oh dear, I’ve upset him,” said Daisy looking contrite, “should I go and tell him I was only teasing?”
Slim grinned at her and pouring them both another coffee replied, “Nah, it’ll do him good to sweat a bit. Don’t fret, I’ll tell him in the morning.”
The End
Thank you for reading.

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

This contact form was created by Freedback.