#62 Three Rode Out

Three Rode Out

Patty Wilkinson

For Linda Darland

(Some strong language, violence and adult themes)

Chapter 1
Mort Cory, Sheriff of Laramie lay back in his office chair, feet on his desk, as he perused the latest copy of the Laramie Sentinel.
His hat was tipped back slightly showing a good head of iron grey hair and his rugged features were relaxed into a happy grin.
“Well I’ll be,” he muttered to himself, “ain’t there nothing that little lady can’t do?”
The object of his admiration was one Arabella Holmes or Widow Holmes as she had been dubbed when she first landed in Laramie just six short months ago.
She had arrived on the Stage one morning in early summer. Alighting from the coach and peering inquisitively around her at the town she had heard so much about, but never visited.
Mort who was taking his ease on his old rocker outside his office saw her immediately and after a few minutes wandered over.
“Can I help you Ma’am, you’re looking kind of lost if you’ll excuse me for sayin’?”
“Oh, good morning Sheriff,” the bright eyed, diminutive woman said smiling up at him.
“I do believe you must be Mort Cory, I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Why spot on Ma’am and you are?” he asked now staring quizzically down at the shapely, middle-aged matron, with the beautiful smile and twinkling grey eyes.
“Oh forgive me,” she said with a girlish giggle, “I am Arabella Holmes, well Bella to my friends,” and she offered a dainty hand.
“Pleased to meet you Mrs Holmes,” said Mort wondering as to how she knew him.
“Ah, I expect you are wondering how I know of you Sheriff?” she said smiling up at him mischievously, aware that her insight was on the ball.
“Err call me Mort please, I guess I was yes Ma’am.”
“Bella remember,” she said with a tinkling little laugh, “Oh dear I really shouldn’t tease a man of the law, should I?” she said, giving him a little mock frown and wrinkling her nose delightfully.
“I am….” then she broke off as a rather anxious looking Tom emerged from the saloon.
“Tom, dear there you are, I thought you’d forgotten me!”

The barkeep from the Laramie Saloon grinned widely at that, “Forget my little sis, never.”
The couple embraced warmly and then she pulled back, patting her big brother’s arm reassuringly.
“It’s quite alright anyway Tom, the Sheriff here,” she said turning her beautiful smile on him once more, “Err Mort, I mean, has been looking after me beautifully.”
Mort had actually felt himself flush up at that, and then the vision of loveliness had bustled off down the street, taking her brother’s arm and chatting away nineteen to the dozen.
Now six months down the line it was fall and Mort was reading the results of the Women’s Group, Pickling and Bottling Competition and was delighted to see that his Bella, as he now fondly thought of her, had won practically every prize.
He was suddenly aware that someone had quietly entered the office and was peering down at the paper over his shoulder. He quickly folded it and threw it down on his desk, but not before there was a shout of gleeful laughter in his ear.
He turned to see the slender handsome face of his good friend and occasional Deputy, Jess Harper, practically exploding with mirth.
“So tell me Mort, what’s your favourite method fer picklin’ then, vinegar or brine…huh?” He asked removing his hat and running a hand through his dark wavy hair before replacing it at a jaunty angle.
“Less of your cheek Jess Harper and how come you know so much about the subject come to that?”
“Ha, I guess you can’t live with Miss Daisy around the place without pickin’ up a trick or two when it comes to cookin’,” he said referring to the ranch housekeeper Mrs Daisy Cooper.
“Uh, that ain’t what Slim said last time you cooked him supper, said you darned near poisoned him.”
“Hey, that weren’t my cookin’ Mort; it was the Moonshine we downed with it.”
“Umm…well I can see how that wouldn’t have done him much good,” Mort agreed, knowing that Slim Sherman, Jess’s partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay wasn’t a heavy drinker.
“So, what was the occasion anyways?”
“I guess we were kinda celebratin’. We’d brought all the stock back down for the winter and I happened on old Denver James along with his boys Cody and Mick, up the mountain a ways.”
“Uh, doin’ some trading were they?”
“They sure were. So I got us a few bottles and me and Slim decided we’d better just try it. See if it was the real stuff,” Jess grinned knowing that illegal trading of hill whiskey was one thing Mort generally turned a blind eye to. Not being averse to a glass or two himself.
Mort chuckled at that, “Well I sure hope you’ve some left for when I visit come Thanksgiving, but don’t you dare quote me on that young man.”
“Sure, sure don’t fret. It was just too good an opportunity to miss what with Daisy off visiting her sister. I guess you know what she thinks about Moonshine in the house Mort.”
“Oh yes, so how is the dear lady, a good trip?”
“Yup, I reckon so, did some early Christmas shopping over in Cheyenne and set the world to rights with her Violet-Ann, but I guess she’s glad to be home. It’s Daisy sent me over actually Mort.”
“Yeah, she’s throwin’ a little supper party come Saturday night, wondered iffen you and Miss Bella could make it?”
“Why sure,” said Mort his weather-beaten face lighting up in pleasure, so what’s the occasion?”
Jess shrugged, “Dunno, unless it’s somethin’ to do with the fact that we’ve gotten us a glut of veggies from her plot right now. Been eatin’ marrow like there’s no dang tomorrow, darned well sick of the things.
Mort laughed at that news, “Whatever the reason Bella and I will look forward to it, good food and company, what more could we want?”
“A drop of Denver’s brew maybe?” said Jess with a cheeky wink as he got up from where he’d been slouching in a chair opposite the desk and made for the door.
“Away with you,” the Sheriff laughed waving a hand at his buddy.
“I’ll tell Daisy that stuffed marrow is your all-time favourite then shall I Mort?” was his parting shot, “an’ you can’t wait to swop pickle recipes too!”
He dodged out of the door just before Mort’s heavy wooden paperweight was hurled after him.
Then Mort settled back in his chair and shook out his paper once more, a huge grin on his face. Bella’s company and a social evening at the Sherman Ranch to look forward to, life just couldn’t get any better.
Once his friend had disappeared down the street Mort relaxed back in his chair again and let his mind wander back over the last few months.
He had made it his duty to go over to the Saloon at the first possible opportunity to check that Tom’s sister Bella had settled in well and was greeted by the lady herself serving behind the bar.
“Well it sure didn’t take old Tom long to get you singing for your supper,” he had said with a grin as she came over to serve him.
She smiled up at him, her grey eyes twinkling in merriment.
“On the contrary Sheriff, I offered. It’s the quickest way to meet a few new people I thought and I do so love to socialize.”
“Uh, well I’m not sure you’ll find too many of Tom’s regulars are the socializing kind,” he said with a chuckle, “more like miserable old barflies.”
“Oh not with me around,” she said cheerfully, “moping and crying in the beer just isn’t allowed from now on.”
“I can well believe that Ma’am,” Mort said with another little laugh, “I know just seeing your smiling face is enough to raise a man’s spirits.”
“Well thank you Mort that’s very sweet of you.”
It was one hell of a long time since anyone had called Mort sweet, if ever, and he must have looked kind of dazed.
“Why Sheriff you’re looking positively peaky,” said Bella leaning over and peering at him intently. “How about you and I take a small glass of Red Eye over to the corner table there and set the world to rights umm?”
So that’s how it had all started Mort remembered now. One drink had led to another and then she had made her way off back behind the bar. But that had been the start of their regular evening drink together, talking over the day’s events. Then he had asked her out to supper and the summer dance….and well now they were walking out and real happy in each other’s company.
Mort removed his hat and threw it on the desk before raking a hand through his greying hair and sighed deeply. Sure they were happy, but was it enough? Did Bella want, no need, more from him? Should he get things on a more permanent basis; Hell should he propose?
It had been a long time since dear Grace, the former Mrs Mort Cory, had passed over in childbirth and now Mort felt completely out of his depth. Even the art of romancing the ladies was an utter mystery to him. When he was a young man, in Grace’s company, it had all seemed to come so easily to him. Of course they had been old friends, even attended School together, back in Denver so there was no shyness or awkwardness
Then there was Kate of course…his dear friend Kate Munroe. But she had made it more than plain that although she was happy for Mort’s friendship, and even more on occasion, she certainly did not need or want a more formal relationship. Mort sighed at the thought of Kate, but eventually turned his thoughts back to dear Bella.
He knew little of Bella’s past. She seemed somewhat reluctant to discuss it, just saying that her future was here in Laramie, maybe with Mort, left unsaid. However, her eyes spoke volumes and Mort couldn’t fail to notice that.
She had been married to an innkeeper back in New York that much he did know. They had apparently spent many happy years working together which has suited Bella’s sociable outgoing nature. Then after her ‘dear Harry’ had passed over she decided to throw her lot in with her only brother and confirmed bachelor Tom. She had also been left quite well off and had invested in a small house on the edge of town. However, she still spent most of her time at the saloon helping Tom out. She had also joined the Laramie Women’s Group and been made most welcome by the good wives of the town.
One night, a few months back, Mort had been sharing a bottle with Jess and Slim and had got a tad merry. His state of inebriation had made him unusually open and liberal and he’d finally asked their advice about romancing the ladies.
“It’s all in the kissin’ Mort,” Jess had said his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. “You kiss ‘em real good and you’re halfway there.”
Slim had intervened at that.
“Don’t listen to him Mort, with a lady like Miss Bella you’ve got to take things real slow and easy. Wine and dine her, tell her how wonderful she is, complement her on her hair, her dress, perfume that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, and then get to kissin’ her real good,” Jess had added with a chuckle.
All that had been a few months back and now things had moved on apace…and Mort really thought he should make a move. But would she want to be hitched to a Sheriff? Maybe it was time he passed his Badge and the well-being of the town onto another, but that would be so dang hard for him to do and he sighed again.
He knew Lon, his Deputy, wasn’t looking to take his place yet. He had a young family and if anything would work fewer hours if possible as his young wife hated him doing the night shift.
But there was always his nephew Brett, his older brother’s boy. Brett had wanted to deputize for Mort since he was knee high to a grasshopper, but his enthusiasm far outweighed any skills he might have. But then just a couple of years ago the greenhorn youngster had matured and been taken on as Deputy over in Cheyenne under the guiding hand of Sheriff Doug Masters.
Then just a few weeks ago he had asked for a transfer to work alongside his uncle Mort and he was due to start shortly. So maybe I can begin to let go of the reins just a tad Mort thought. See how the boy does and then Lon could take over as Sheriff…maybe next year? Sure, it was one hell of a big step for him to relinquish his role, but Bella was worth it he thought with a wide smile.
Meanwhile, as Mort was daydreaming, Jess Harper made his way purposefully down Main Street and turned into the Laramie Saloon. He paused for a moment after pushing through the bat wing doors whilst his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, and then his face lit up as he saw the object of his desire, Miss Millie Johnson.
The dinner time rush had long since passed and it only took Millie a moment to spy him and hurry over.
“Why Jess Honey, I wasn’t expecting you today,” she said with a large welcoming smile before leaning over the bar to peck his cheek.
“I’m runnin’ messages for Daisy; she needed some stuff from the mercantile and sending out invites to supper too. Think you can ask Tom for Saturday night off?”
She looked up excitedly from where she was drawing him a beer, “I can ask, but I think it should be OK, he’s always got young Betty and Gloria to call on if we girls want a night off.”
“Well that’s just dandy because Daisy’s askin’ Lily and Miss Bella too.”
“Gosh, quite a party so what’s it all in aid of?”
“I dunno,” said the dark haired cowboy looking bewildered, “I figured she wanted everyone to help eat all the stuff from her plot that she can’t pickle or bottle, but ya know, I think maybe it’s something else?”
Then Millie suddenly remembered a conversation between herself, Daisy and Bella at a recent Woman’s Group Meeting and gave a secret little smile.
“You know you could be right cowboy.”
“Huh, heck you know something dontcha Millie?”
She just smiled more broadly and tapped her nose, “Women’s stuff Jess and don’t interfere!”
“Hell, as though I would,” he said looking wary, “No siree I don’t wanna know iffen you women are hatchin’ somethin’ up.”
Then after a moment he looked even more suspicious, “It don’t involve me in anyway does it?”
“No, you’re quite safe Jess, us women are on a mission, but it doesn’t include you so rest easy.”
His face relaxed into a cheerful grin at that piece of news… “Talkin’ of restin’ easy, ain’t you due a break round about now?”
She nodded, “I sure am.”
She turned to the good-natured barkeep with a little smile, “OK if I go on my break Tom?” she asked and was answered by a cherry grin and wave as he was busy with a customer.
“So what do ya wanna do, step across to Miss Molly’s for a bite to eat or have something upstairs in your room?” he asked hopefully cocking a suggestive eyebrow.
Millie knew that if she invited him up to her place there would be precious little eating of dinner involved, but there again a girl could miss a meal occasionally she thought mischievously. Then winking at her beau nodded, “I guess we could do that, have a coffee or something?”
Jess needed no second bidding and taking her arm whisked her away from the bar and up to the sanctuary of her cosy room.
He unlocked Millie’s door and stood to one side letting her pass through before following her in. Then kicking the door deftly shut with his foot he took her in his arms, all thoughts of coffee immediately flying from their minds as they embraced passionately.
A good while later Jess lay on his side in Millie’s big comfortable bed, resting on his elbow as he looked down lovingly into her beautiful face. She looked satiated and drowsy and he thought he had never loved her so much.
“All I’m sayin’ is that it’s been too darned long since I saw you Millie. Since we could you know, had some time together, damn it you know what I mean… had some good lovin’.”
“I know honey, but you’ve been sore pressed to get those darned horses broke and then had to get all the stock down before the winter storms, I understand that.”
“Sure…but it just don’t seem right leavin’ my best girl alone these last few weeks.”
“Jess quit fretting, it’s alright and you’re here now…”
He ran a gentle finger down her cheek and looked thoughtful, “Of course iffen me and Slim were to build in the south pasture, we could have our own place. Once we were Wed we could lock the door on the world and his dog and make sweet, sweet love any old time we wanted.”
Millie sighed, letting herself enjoy that delightful prospect for a moment before she came back to reality.
“And what would you pay for all the materials with Jess? You know you’ve had two bad years on the run. What with you bein’ hurt so bad last year and couldn’t do the mustang breaking. Then the floods earlier this year when you lost those prime breeding heifers. I figure you’ll only just make ends meet come the end of the season.”
“Well you just let me worry about that sweetheart. God knows I’d work my butt off and then some to provide for you…you do know that dontcha Mill?”
“Sure I do,” she said reaching up and kissing him on the lips and tenderly running her fingers down his naked torso, before falling back on the pillow.
“Well then….”
She gave him a tiny smile and then said, “There’s something else you haven’t thought through cowboy.”
“Oh?” he asked throwing her a quizzical looks his expressive eyebrows shooting up….
“Well you know all this talk of locking the door of our own little home and making love all the livelong day?”
His face relaxed into a happy smile at the thought. He leaned in and kissed her deeply before whispering, “Yeah…so what about it?”
“Well there’s something that kinda tends to go with the territory of all this love making,” she said with another secret little smile.
He said nothing, just looked at her in fascination for a moment and then said softly, “So what would that be sweetheart?”
“Babies Jess.”
“Huh,” he asked looking wary… “babies?”
“Yes, I know you’re careful, real careful, but even so if we were to be living together as man and wife. Then it would just be natural to…well you know with all that lovin’ you’re talking about… it’s inevitable that a little one would turn up before too long….”
Jess looked kind of bewildered for a moment but rallied well….
“Heck we want a family don’t we though Millie, we discussed it, three maybe four young ‘uns?”
“Yes I know and of course I do, but now Jess…right now?”
He shrugged, “I dunno, not thought on it too much I guess.”
“No…well I have and I figure neither of us is ready to be tied down to that kind of responsibility…not just yet anyway.”
Jess let out the breath that he didn’t realise he’d been holding and grinned down at her… “You’re sure of that?”
“I’m, quite sure.”
He gave a tiny sigh of relief and then kissed her again…“I guess it wouldn’t harm to practice some more though eh….err bein’ real careful that is huh…huh Millie?”
Things were just getting real interesting; Jess was to profess later to Slim, when there was a knocking on the door.
“Just ignore ’em they’ll go away,” he whispered in her ear.
“Millie…Millie are you there?”
Jess sighed deeply, “She’s kinda busy right now Lily.”
There was a stifled giggle from the other side of the door.
“I’m sorry you two but Tom says can you come down and help him reckon up the takings for the week Millie, he needs to take them to the bank…Says you’ve had a ‘two hour break now and that should be enough for anyone, “she quoted in Tom’s gravelly voice. “Besides ya know he can’t add up for toffee,” she added in her own pleasant dulcet tones.
Jess chuckled at that in spite of the situation and sighing deeply rolled away from his girl.
“Better jump to it sweetheart, I figure we are kinda pushin’ things.”
“Tell him I’ll be right there,” Millie called before reluctantly going off to wash and dress.
“Well you sure took your time,” growled Slim. The tall blond rancher scowling as Jess rode into the Ranch yard sometime later.
“Don’t you start,” Jess muttered swinging down from the saddle and allowing Traveller, his mount to take a welcome drink from the trough.
“So what have you been up to?” Slim asked again, now leaning his lanky frame on the coral fence and scrutinizing his buddy.
“Garldarn it Slim I had to do all Daisy’s shoppin’ not to mention seein’ Mort and the girls to invite them to this party Daisy’s so all fired about havin’ …these things take time you know.”
Slim’s light blue eyes twinkled at that, “You asked Lily and Millie then?”
“Said so didn’t I, and your girl seemed real excited, asked me to tell you special as she was looking forwards to it…”
“So… after you’d told Lily about it, you asked Millie huh?”
“Yeah, I just told ya that,” said Jess brusquely, now beginning to look a tad guilty…knowing what was coming next….
“Millie was on her break then?”
“Yeah, we spent a little time together…so how did you know?” he asked looking wary.
Slim merely reached across and flicked Jess’s shirt where the buttons were done up wrong in his haste to dress….and winked at him before wandering off to the barn
Jess chuckled and shook his head as he led Traveller into the barn, behind Slim. He put the Bay into his stall where he stripped him of his tack and started brushing him down, just as Slim wandered over.
After a minute he looked up and cast his pard a sheepish look.
“OK so maybe I did get a bit carried away with my girl, but hell it’s been a long time Slim. We ain’t done nuthin’ but work flat out these past few weeks and well…a man has his needs ya know.”
“You’re telling me?” cried Slim looking momentarily angry… “I haven’t seen Lily either you know!”
But then he relented and reaching over gave his buddy a light punch on the arm.
“So the girls are OK then?”
“Sure lookin’ forward to Saturday…and Miss Daisy’s cookin’ I guess.”
“Good, that’s good,” said Slim vaguely.
Then looking over at his friend said, “You know what Jess…. I’ve been thinking…”
“Oh yeah, well I sure hope this thinkin’ of yours don’t entail any more work Slim, ‘cause I’m plumb tuckered out. We’ve got all the stock down, harvested all Daisy’s fruit and veggies, and got all the outbuildings ship shape fer the winter and….”
“Jess hush up, just listen to me will you?”
“Go on.”
“That’s just what I’m saying, we’re pretty much ahead of schedule with all the jobs so I figure we can cut ourselves some slack and take some time out.”
“You do?”
“Why sure…Now Lily’s got a few days holiday owing so I thought I might spend the beginning of the week over in Laramie with her.”
“OK I ain’t got a problem with that Slim.”
“Then you’re riding shotgun on that big wages run next Thursday, aren’t you?”
“So why don’t you stay over Thursday night and spend Friday and Saturday with Millie? I’ll meet you Saturday afternoon. We can have a few hands of poker in the saloon and then take the girls out to the dance later, deal?”
“Sure, sounds good to me Slim,” then he laughed, “I don’t know, Daisy’s supper party this week and dining out next week too…we’ll be runnin’ to fat pard,” and he returned to grooming his old horse with renewed vigor.
Chapter 2
The following Saturday Daisy’s proposed supper was well underway, the gathered company sitting around a table groaning under the weight of good food and drink. Jess had even managed to sneak in some of the Moonshine, cunningly decanted into an old cider flagon.
The Sherman Ranch house reverberated to the sound of laughter as Mort Cory related the latest shenanigans of their local defrocked preacher. He had a fondness for sharing the Gospels by way of his inebriated impromptu sermons, in the saloon, which usually ended in a fist fight. “Lord love the man,” the Sheriff chuckled, “he’ll lead us all from the ways of the Devil if he darned well near kills us in the process.”
“Well thank goodness we have a proper Minister in Reverend Wesley,” said Daisy with feeling.
Rev Joshua Wesley and his family had moved to Laramie just a few years back. He had proved a great hit with all, especially the ladies of the Town with his good looks and kindly approachable way.*See #40 The Secret Admirer.
“I know dear Agatha is so happy he is to marry her and Edgar,” said Bella referring to a mutual friend and casting an arch look over in Mort’s direction.
“I so love a wedding,” sighed Lily. “I always end up crying though.”
“Umm…me too,” agreed Millie, “they are just so romantic” she said dreamily, “I wonder who’ll be next?” she added with a sideways glance towards where Daisy and Bella sat looking expectantly over at Mort.
However, the good Sheriff was quite unaware of their scrutiny and was in a happy world of his own as the Moonshine slowly wove its magic.
Jess who was in a less advanced stage of intoxication ran a finger around the starched collar of his best shirt and cast Slim an anxious glance. Slim returned it feeling equally wary as he always was when the subject of Matrimony was on the agenda.
“Err…coffee?” he said with sudden inspiration, “I’ll make it Daisy that was a wonderful meal…”
Then the subject was dropped as everyone congratulated Daisy on her delicious offering.
It was much later as they sat around the dining table sipping their coffee that the subject of Agnes’s nuptials was reprized.
“So, are you buying a new outfit for the Wedding next month Bella?” asked Millie innocently.
There was a pause as if Bella were thinking her answer through carefully before she finally replied.
“No dear, I won’t, you see I shan’t be here.”
At that Mort’s head shot up and he peered down the length of the table, where he had been seated opposite Bella a look of profound shock on his weather- beaten countenance.
All eyes were upon Bella and then swivelled down the table to Mort.
“Wha…what did you say my dear?” he asked through the rather hazy, moonshine enhanced world, he was currently residing in.
“I said I shan’t be here Mort honey, I intend to return back East you see…things well…just haven’t worked out for me here. The way I would have liked anyway,” she added before fixing him with a penetrating look.
All eyes again flicked back to Mort, like they were watching some strange tennis match being played out before them. Daisy, Lily and Millie astounded at this new turn of events which was not part of their original game plan. That had been to merely encourage Mort to make a move and ask for Bella’s hand, not to completely bamboozle him into it this way.
Slim and Jess who had not been party to the ladies’ wiles just looked on in fascinated horror at Mort’s discomfort. It didn’t take them long to figure out what Bella’s game was however, and both felt a pang of sympathy for their friend. Hell, he stood no chance Jess thought secretly…like a little ol’ lamb to the slaughter…yes siree.
Jess fleetingly thought of his own recent brush with the prospect of marriage. Then he sighed with relief that Millie had been sensible enough to acknowledge that neither of them we ready yet. But old Mort there, he glanced back to his friend, well maybe Bella was just what he needed right now.
Mort was however still struggling to make sense of the proceedings. He had absolutely no idea that his beloved’s impending departure had anything to do with the fact that she was desperate to become his bride and was trying to force his arm some.
He looked askance of her, “Leaving…leaving Bella…. how could you?” he asked, now looking deeply hurt, his current inebriated condition rendering him unaware of the audience of onlookers scrutinizing his every move.
Bella looked down demurely, “I really didn’t think you’d be that bothered Mort,” she said lightly. Her head bowed, hiding a tiny gleam of suppressed hope in her eye that he was maybe finally taking the bait.
Mort suddenly staggered to his feet holding tightly on to the table for support before roaring, “Bothered! Bothered woman? Of course I’m bothered!”
Bella turned innocent eyes on him at this and said artfully, “I really didn’t know Mort.”
“Well Hell…of course I’m bothered after all I’m gonna marry you aren’t I!”
Slim and Jess visibly flinched at that and ducked down in their seats slightly.
Hook, line and sinker Jess secretly thought….that was it. Mort had been well and truly reeled in and landed.
“Oh Mort dear,” said a now flushed and animated Bella, “is that a proposal?”
Mort looked kind of dazed but grinning from ear to ear said happily, “Yup I guess it is Bella…iffen you’ll have me?”
For her reply she simple jumped up from her chair and ran to him and next thing the happy couple were embracing fondly amongst much clapping and cheering from the amassed company.
It was much later that evening that Slim drove the happy couple home, along with Lily and Millie, as he planned to stay in town for a few days.
Jess had embraced Millie passionately in the kitchen before she left. The couple having disappeared back there on the pretext of washing the coffee cups.
He finally released her and looked down with a twinkle in his sparkling blue eyes.
“Heck who’d have thought it,” he said lightly, “old Mort finally gettin’ hitched again.”
Millie grinned up at him, a secret smile playing around her lips. “I know, so who’d have thought it,” she agreed.
Something in her eyes alerted him to the subterfuge, “Hey this were all planned weren’t it…you women were all in on it, the poor guy didn’t stand a chance,” he finally admonished.
She giggled, “No we weren’t…well not really. Yes, we had planned to turn the conversation around to Weddings, but we never expected Bella to come out with what she did.”
“So, you mean she really didn’t have any plans to leave?”
“No silly of course not,” she laughed.
Jess moved towards the door and pretended to call out to Mort…before Millie grabbed his arm and pulled him back into her embrace.
“Hey cowboy, you just leave it, you hear…this will be the making of the Sheriff.”
He grinned down into her earnest face, “So what’s it worth for me not to spill the beans then…huh, huh?”
She giggled again, “Well let’s just put it this way, you know how you’re staying with me later in the week after you’ve done your riding shotgun stint for the Overland?”
“Yes”…he said guardedly.
“Well iffen you want a real good time… I mean a real good time,” she said cocking a suggestive eyebrow to emphasize what she was saying, “Then you say nothing to Mort…OK?”
He looked down at her, an expression of shocked disbelief in his deep blue eyes, “How can someone so sweet and innocent looking be so dang devious?” he asked in bewilderment.
“I had a good teacher,” she tossed back at him.
He shook his head in mock despair before taking her in his arms again and kissing her very thoroughly.
All that had been several days ago and now as he jumped down from the Stage coach and stretched after the long journey from Cheyenne he remembered their conversation and smiled to himself.
“So, what’s a ticklin’ you then? On a promise tonight are ya son?” Mose asked as he joined him on the sidewalk by the bank.
Jess turned and grinned at the Stage driver, “Yeah, somethin’ like that, so are we gonna deliver this strong box or what?”
Once the pay role had been delivered safely to the bank for payment out the following week, Jess turned and made purposefully for the Barbers and bath house. He soaked happily in a hot tub for an hour or so and finished off with a close shave and haircut, before changing into clean, smart clothes.
He finally helped himself to some of the barber’s aftershave and splashed it liberally about his face, wiping the excess down his shirt front, before pulling on his vest. He then fished in his pocket and threw a few coins on the counter for old Eddie.
“Thanks buddy, I feel almost human again,” he said flashing the middle aged balding barber his charming grin.
“Seein’ Miss Millie then are you boy?” the other asked returning the smile.
“Sure am…and runnin’ kinda late,” he replied jamming his Stetson in place before turning for the door… “Thanks Eddie, much obliged,” and he left at speed.
He entered the dimly lit Laramie Saloon and striding in looked around him before ordering a beer.
“So, where’s Millie?” he asked Tom, once he had taken a good draft of the cold drink.
“Upstairs purtyin’ herself up for you Jess, lookin’ forward to your visit I guess.”
Jess grinned, “Thanks fer givin’ her a few days off Tom I appreciate it I really do.”
“Yup well I’m glad you’re happy son, because I ain’t. That gout of mine is sorely tryin’ me…gonna have to get extra help I reckon, doc says as how I need to put my leg up…rest it some.”
Before Jess could commiserate, a vision of loveliness in a red dress trimmed in black lace shimmied out from the back and quickly made her way around to the young cowboy.
She reached up and kissed him lingeringly on the lips, much to the delight of the few early drinkers already propping up the bar. Then she pulled back and took a good long look at her beau.
“Why honey I do believe you’ve spent as much time preparing for our date as I have. Look at you, clean white shirt, string tie….” then she ran a lingering finger down his cheek, “close shave and haircut, oh my… I am honored. Um- um…and you smell divine!”
“Aw Millie, shush,” he said casting an embarrassed glance around him as one or two ribald comments came his way.
“So, you ready huh?”
“Sure am, night Tom and thanks again,” she said turning to her boss, “you are OK?”
He nodded, “Sure, have a good time, you deserve a break girl.”
Jess had booked a table over at the hotel and once they were seated and had ordered their meal he turned concerned eyes on Millie.
“Do you think Tom will be OK with him being kinda sick an’ all?”
“Oh sure, he’s not too bad, just likes the fuss we girls make of him….and anyways he’s got his sis Bella ridin’ shot gun on him for the next few days, so don’t fret, she’ll take him in hand.”
He grinned over at her, “I bet!”
“So, what are we doing on this holiday of yours?” she asked grinning across at him.
“Well I’ll tell ya…got it all planned out. We’re havin’ us some dinner and dancing’ here at the hotel tonight. Then tomorrow I’ve booked old’ Bert’s hire rig to take you out on a picnic…gotten Miss Molly to fix up the food an’ all…then come Saturday is the dance …”
“Heck Jess you sure did well fixing everything up and we’ve been invited to Mort’s place for supper tomorrow night too!”
“Garl darn it Millie we are gonna spend some time …err…. alone together…you know, ain’t we?”
“Sure we are honey, but we have to see other folk too, besides I think Mort has some stuff he needs to discuss with you, real important.”
“Huh,” asked Jess his head shooting up, “what kinda stuff?”
“Oh you, quit frettin’,” she giggled.
“It’s all right you sayin’ that Mill. But when you’ve ridden on the wrong side of the law the number of times I have well even if I am a changed man I guess I still feel kinda edgy when I hear a Sheriff wants to talk to me real special.”
She just laughed again, “So what are we eating huh?”
The following morning, they set off early for their picnic by the lake.
Jess hurried old Maggie, Bert’s hire mare along at a cracking pace and once they were well on the Laramie road Millie turned to smile indulgently at him, “So are we calling in at the ranch to say howdy on the way?”
“Hell no,” he said quickly, “you’d get stuck into talkin’ recipes with Daisy, Slim would figure I could do a few chores and Mike’s on school holiday this week, he’d wanna tag along on the picnic too,” he chuckled referring to his young ward, Mike Williams.
“Well would that be so bad?” she asked raising a questioning eyebrow in his direction.
“Too right it would,” he said reaching out and taking her hand and squeezing gently… “I want ya all to myself today.”
They were experiencing yet another wonderful Indian summer’s day with the sun rising in a deep cobalt blue sky, promising another scorching interlude.
By the time they were settled on a rug beside the lake, their picnic along with the old horse in the shade of some nearby trees, it was indeed very warm.
Jess was just thinking how tempting the sparkling blue waters of the lake looked when he was suddenly aware that Millie was unbuttoning the pretty yellow dress she was wearing. He watched mesmerised as she stood up, letting the dress drop to the ground, quickly followed by her under garments…. She laughed at the expression of shocked disbelief that was quickly turning to lust in his eyes, before she turned and ran towards the lake.
She turned at the edge and called out, “Well come on Jess, it ain’t like it’s the first time we’ve been skinny dipping together, you comin’ in…or what?”
He had ripped his shirt off and was busy unbuttoning his pants almost before the words were out of her mouth and was shortly chasing her into the icy waters of the lake.
They splashed and cavorted in the cool waters for a while before he finally held her in his arms. Their icy cold lips meeting and they stood in the shallows kissing before finally returning hand in hand to the warmth of the blanket on the shore.
They collapsed down, both dripping icy water and laughing. After a moment Millie lay back and relaxed. “Gee how old were we last time we did that together,” she chuckled, “eight, maybe nine years old?”
He settled down beside her resting his head on his hand, looking down into her beautiful sparkling eyes.
“Yeah, we were so young and innocent then weren’t we, just little kids playin’ around.”
She nodded, “That we were…… just children.”
“Umm…but iffen I remember rightly we had the common sense to take towels that time.”
“Ha, yeah, but we’ll soon dry off in this sun,” she said dreamily, closing her eyes.
He reached over to where he’d thrown his blue shirt and picking it up, he dried her dripping face very tenderly with it…..then gave his attention to the rest of her body, the friction of the coarse material sending spasms of pleasure through her and a moment later her eyes opened wide…..as she looked up at him…..her lips parted, her gaze burning with desire.
He threw the shirt aside, the light of passion reflected back at her from his own eyes….as he leaned in and kissed her…before pulling back and smiling down.
“I figure we ain’t those innocent little kids no more,” he said softly.
“I guess not,” she agreed and putting a hand behind his head, pulled him back down to her waiting lips….
The sun was dipping in the west when they finally made their way back to town feeling satiated and drowsy after an afternoon of love making.
However once washed and changed they got their second wind and made their way cheerfully down Main Street to Mort Cory’s place.
The Sheriff had a small house just a block down from his office, setback off the street down a quiet track, with a yard and corral to the rear.
They knocked lightly on the door and a moment later a flushed pretty looking Bella hauled it open a welcoming smile on her face.
“Come in, come in my dears,” she said beaming at them, supper’s all but ready and Mort just washing up.
Jess entered his friend’s familiar bachelor residence and stood back in amazement….
“Jeez, what is this place and what have ya done with Mort’s ol’ dump?” he asked grinning and looking around appreciatively.
“Oh, just a few little womanly touches,” Bella said looking pleased as the young couple surveyed the lace table cloth with the best china and silverware set off with a vase of pretty wild flowers.
The saggy old leather sofa had been transformed with a bright patchwork cover and cushions and the brass surrounding the fireplace gleamed.
A moment later a freshly shaven Mort, wearing a smart dark suit and string tie entered, giving Jess a slightly sheepish smile.
“Well don’t you look the purty one,” whispered Jess as an aside, for his buddy’s ears only.
“Just you watch it Jess Harper,” the Sheriff hissed, “you’re lookin’ kinda petticoat bossed yerself!”
Jess ran a finger round the starched collar of the crisp white shirt Millie had insisted upon and adjusted his black tie a little before grinning back at his friend, “I guess maybe they’re worth it though huh Mort?”
The meal was excellent, every bit as good as Daisy’s cooking Jess had to admit and he voiced his approval after his second helping of Plum pie.
“I figure Mort sure is a lucky guy marryin’ you Ma’am, that was just wonderful,” he said as he pushed his plate away, feeling replete.
Millie smiled ruefully at the comment knowing that her cooking skills left a lot to be desired.
She sighed deeply and threw Jess a woebegone look, “The last time I cooked for you I nearly poisoned you, didn’t I?” she said sadly.
“Oh yeah, you did too,” he agreed, remembering the terrible belly ache he’d suffered the following day.
But when he saw her flinch at his words he leaned over and took her hand across the table and said lovingly, “You sure makeup for it in other ways though sweetheart,” the deep adoration in his eyes plain for all to see.
Millie looked down blushing prettily; aware that he was alluding to the afternoon’s love making and quickly changed the subject.
“So, have you two set a date yet?” she asked turning innocent eyes on Bella.
The two women exchanged a secret smile, “You know we have my dear, the week before Christmas.”
“Hey you don’t hang about do ya Mort?” said Jess looking surprised.
“Well when you get to our age I figure it’s better not to hang about,”said Mort laughing and pouring Jess another glass of hill whiskey.
“Didn’t you want to speak to Jess about something dear?” Bella asked raising a questioning eyebrow, “Millie and I will leave you to your whiskey and go make some coffee,” and the two ladies left, chattering animatedly.
This was the moment Jess had been dreading all evening and he took another slug of his drink, before casting a wary glance at the Sheriff.
“Look if it’s about that fight I had in the saloon with Pete Smith from the Big Horn spread I can explain, he was real drunk and took the first swing and anyways I paid Tom for the damage
“Hey steady Jess, it’s not about that, from what I heard later the bastard deserved it, way he was disrespecting Millie and my Bella….”
Jess looked thoughtful for a moment, trying to remember any other recent misdemeanors, but none came to mind.
Unless skinny dipping was an offense now…and anyway Mort didn’t know anything about that.
Eventually he gave up, “OK so what have I done then Mort …huh?”
“Well nothing….as far as I know anyway…why what have ya done?” the Sheriff asked peering over at his friend only just managing to conceal his mirth.
Jess just shrugged and looked expectantly at the older man, “So what then?”
Mort took another sip of his drink and then looked over at the dark haired young cowboy he’d come to look upon as one of his dearest friends. He was difficult yes, ornery definitely…troubled and hard going sometimes too. But a man would have to look far and wide to find as loyal and honest a friend, one that had your back and could be counted on through thick and thin. One who would lay his life on the line for you.
“See thing is Jess, I’m in need of a Best Man, someone to stand up for me at this here wedding and I kinda wondered iffen you’d do me the honour?”
Jess had picked his glass up and now he sat with it suspended half way to his mouth as he stared at the Sheriff in shocked disbelief.
After a moment he put the glass back down on the table and swallowed hard, a huge lump suddenly in his throat, making speech impossible.
He swallowed again and finally said “Me…. ya want me?”
“Said so didn’t I?” replied Mort with a huge grin.
“What about Slim, I mean you’ve known him way longer than me….and he’s well…. more deservin’ ya know?”
Mort just shook his head, “Look son it’s you I want and Miss Bella’s gotten other plans for Slim.”
But Jess was not to be deflected and just sat there looking stunned.
“You wanna do it don’t you?” Mort asked after a moment.
Jess just nodded, “Sure I do I’d be honored Mort real honored…it’s just…“
“That you don’t feel worthy, that it?”
Jess just shrugged, “Somethin’ like that yeah,” he whispered.
“OK now listen up and listen real good. You are probably the best friend I’ve got in this town. You’re worth a hell of a lot more to me than all the dignitaries on the Town council, the Mayor and that dang pretentious Bank Manager…all of which would like the role I know. But you Jess have ridden with me, watched my back and saved my sorry hide more than a few times and I rate you real high. Now I ain’t ever gonna say that again…it’s said and that’s it…Goddamn it man, will ya stand for me huh?“
Jess grinned hugely and leaping up he grabbed the Sheriff’s hand and shook it firmly, “Sure I will Mort, I’ll be real honored to stand for you.”
They both turned as the women folk returned bearing the coffee tray.
“Well thank goodness that’s all settled,” said Bella playfully, “Millie and I thought we’d have to spend the rest of the evening out in the kitchen waitin’ on you making up your mind young man,” she said with a little giggle that took the sting from her words.
Jess flushed a little at that, “I guess I’m just not used to folk treatin’ me that way,” he said softly.
“Well more fool them then, you’ll be ideal and that leaves Slim for me.”
“Oh didn’t Mort say? I’m going to ask him if he’d walk me down the aisle, with Lily and Millie here as bridesmaids so quite the family occasion. Who knows it could be you two next,” she said coquettishly, before busying herself with the coffee cups.
Chapter 3
The following day was Saturday and Jess and Millie spent the morning in each other’s company, but she offered to work the afternoon, so that Tom could go and put his leg up in the backroom, the gout attack really bothering him.
“You don’t mind do you honey?” she asked peering up into Jess’s deep blue eyes, only you’ve got that card school this afternoon anyway, so you won’t miss me. He’d pulled her close and kissed her deeply. Then looked lovingly into her eyes, “As long as you dance every dance with me tonight I figure I can let you go for an hour or two,” he said smiling down at her.
“Oh you,” she laughed swiping him gently across the chest before she waltzed off to tell Tom he could take his ease for the rest of the afternoon.
She found him already in the room at the back of the bar, his foot up on a stool and his sister Bella fussing around him.
“Ah Millie,” Bella greeted the pretty brunette, “thank you for helping. Lily is out front and will give you a hand. I’m just going to help Tom tally up the weekly takings and then maybe you’d accompany me to the bank with them later?”
“Sure I will,” agreed Millie.
“You usually go just before they close at four don’t you Tom?” she asked.
“Yup...but I dunno about this, I really don’t want you girls taking all that money across get Mort or Jess to walk over with you, will you?”
“Sure honey stop fussing,” said Bella, rolling her eyes at Millie behind his back.
Millie exchanged a smile with the older woman and then went back to the bar and spent her time alternately serving beer and whiskey to thirsty punters and watching her beloved lose a good week’s wages at poker.
The group consisted of Slim, Jess, Mort and Doc Sam Baker the town physician and all were having a lively time, with much banter and high spirits.
By the time four o’clock rolled around Millie could see Jess was on a winning streak and was loathed to disturb him.
Likewise, Bella saw that Mort was happy and relaxed and exchanged a glance with the younger woman.
“I figure we don’t need to bother them huh? We’ll be there and back before anyone notices we’ve gone, “said Bella.
Millie cast Jess one more look and saw the grin appearing across his handsome face as he won yet another hand.
“I guess Jess’s luck has changed and I really don’t want to pull him out now. Sure, we’ll go on our own, but take a shawl Bella, the weather looks to be closing in. There was a real mean wind when I went out the back earlier.”
The two women easily passed a dozing Tom and carrying the heavy bag of the weeks takings walked off down the street, both wrapped warmly in their heavy shawls.
“Looks like we could be in for some early snow,” observed Bella casting an eye up to the iron grey clouds blowing in.
“I can’t believe it,” uttered Millie remembering back to the skinny dipping and lovemaking in the warm sunlight just the day before, then flushed slightly at the memory.
Bella picked up on that immediately and smiled, “You love him very much don’t you my dear?”
Millie nodded, “Does it show?”
The older woman smiled sagely, “Oh yes, on both your accounts, he clearly adores you too.” Then more quietly, “Love is wonderful first time around, for the young, but it is just as good, just the same for us older folk you know Millie dear. I really think I love Mort just as much as you love your Jess…we are both truly blessed are we not?“
The women entered the bank just as a customer was leaving and the tellers were getting ready to close for the day.
The officious little bank manager looked up, his mouth curving down in displeasure. “We are just about to close Ma’am hurry along, if you please.”
Bella ignored his somewhat cavalier attitude, and merely beamed across at him, “I’m sure your teller here will be glad to bank the takings from the Laramie Saloon, they are quite sizable you know.”
Mister Butler, who had been out of town for some time and had not had occasion to meet Tom’s younger sister now changed his attitude as he realised Millie was standing patiently by.
“Ah…of course, the weekly takings and Tom, he’s sick I believe?”
Before Bella could reply, the bank door flew open admitting two rough looking men, masked up, their guns pointing at the women.
“We’re here for the pay roll,” said the tall redheaded man who was waving his gun in Millie’s face, “right now, or the women are dead,” He yelled menacingly
The bank manager turned to the young teller. “Get it Stubbs,” he spat, seeing how the ladies were in real danger.
The young man’s hands were shaking so much he couldn’t move the dial on the combination safe. A moment later the other robber, a callow looking youth strode over and back slapped him viciously across the face, “Git to it,” he spat angrily.
The young man did his best, but in the end, it was the manager who had to take over and open the safe, pushing the strong box across to the two men.
“Take it for God’s sake, just don’t hurt us,” he cried.
The red headed man then turned his attentions to Bella, “And I’ll take that bag you’re totin’ too Ma’am,” he rasped.
“The Hell you will,” she said staunchly, “we worked hard for this and I’m not about to give it up to the likes of you young thugs.”
Then she turned to the dark haired skinny young man, “Does your ma know what you’re up to?” she asked.
They were never to know why it happened.
Maybe she just hit a nerve, but the outcome was that the youth shot Bella and as Millie rushed to her aid he shot her too. Then panicking both men hurriedly tied up the manager and teller, before fleeing via the back door of the bank.
All the time this grizzly scene was being played out gunshots were issuing forth from the street.
Mort’s head shot up as the first shots rang out, “What the hell?” and he threw his hand of cards down on the table before making for the door, swiftly followed by Slim, Jess and the doc.
The two Ford brothers, Jed and Cal were galloping up and down Main Street firing off their Colt.45’s randomly, terrifying passers-by with the general mayhem they were causing.
“Garldarn it,” Mort cussed, “iffen I’ve told those kids to behave once, I’ve told ‘em a hundred times. This is the end of the road, I don’t give a damn how dang important their Pa thinks he is, they’re seein’ the inside of my jail for this and no mistake!”
“Gotta catch ‘em first ain’t ya,” remarked Jess grinning broadly at Mort’s irritation.
Mort strode off into the centre of the street and fired off a couple of shots, but it just seemed to embolden the boys to even greater high jinks, now shooting out the window of the Barber’s Shop.
At this Mort was looking apoplectic with rage and Jess decided to take some action.
Thinking quickly, he removed the lariot from a nearby horse and the next time Cal passed within range neatly roped him, pulling him from the saddle where he hit the ground hard. Then he marched over and dragged him up roughly by the rope.
“What in hell do you’re think you’re playin’ at?” Jess spat angrily.
Before the kid could reply, his older brother Jed was at their side. He dismounted and threw Jess a dirty look.
“Hey hold hard there Mister Harper, we was just having us some fun, no cause to go laying into my little bro that way.”
“No cause!” Yelled Mort furiously, striding over, “Look at the damage you’ve done, not to mention scaring the law abidin’ citizens of the dang town half to death.”
Cal was still squirming at the end of Jess’s rope and it soon became apparent that he was two thirds drunk.
Now Slim came forwards shaking his head sadly, “I just don’t get it, your Pa’s a rich man, you two want for nothing and yet you’re always in trouble. So, what was it all about this time huh?”
Jed looked down sulkily and said nothing.
Jess pushed Cal hard in the chest and he fell to the side walk, now incapable of standing on his own. Then he turned his attention to the older boy and grabbing him by the shirt front said dangerously quietly, “My partner asked you a civil question…so answer it.”
After a moment Jed said, “It were this guy we met over at the Last Chance Saloon,” referring to a low dive on the edge of town.
“That figures, I might know you’d drink in there,” said Jess morosely, “so go on this guy you met?”
“He said he’d stand us a bottle of Red Eye a piece iffen we’d shoot the town up at four today.”
“Oh?” said Mort suddenly looking interested, “So who was this guy, what did he look like?”
“Dunno, a stranger in town, said he was just passin’ through, big man, red hair….and got his kid brother with him, real skinny with black hair and one hell of a temper on him too.”
“Go on,” said Mort, “temper you say?”
“Yup, he wanted to go with one of the working girls, big Betty. She said he’d have to wait as she’d a client due in…well he just lost it. Said as how no goddamn whore dictated to him and back slapped her real hard. Then Gloria jumped in and tried to stop him and he was real rude to her an all. He said women were all dang evil, spawn of the devil he said. Well he was chucked out then and I didn’t see him no more.”
“OK son, you come along with me, I figure you and your brother can cool your heels in my jail for a spell.
Brett, Mort’s nephew finally wandered over then from where he’d been viewing the proceedings from the side lines.
“I’ll see to them shall I Unc, it is your day off remember?”
The men returned to their card game and Mort sank down happily in his seat.
“I think it’s going to be real good having young Brett around to take the strain, give me more time with Bella. “
Then he looked around him thoughtfully, “Come to that where are Bella and Millie? I thought they were working the bar for Tom?”
Jess wandered over to where Lily was in sole charge, “So where’s Mill and Bella?” he asked, “Have they abandoned ship and left ya high and dry on your own sweetheart?”
To his surprise she didn’t return his grin but looked a tad worried.
“I don’t know Jess, they went to bank the takings a good half hour ago and they’re not back yet.”
Jess immediately looked concerned, “Maybe they’re holed up in the bank still, all that shootin’ could have spooked them some?”
He returned to the card school and filled Mort in and a few minutes later the two men strode purposefully down the street to the bank.
They were immediately suspicious when the door was ajar a good half hour past closing time and pushing their way in they paused on the threshold and stared aghast at the carnage within.
What appeared to be a blood- stained bundle of rags on the floor, in the dim light filtering in from the street, was the prone body of Bella and collapsed across her lay Millie…both apparently dead.
The two men stood there a moment longer totally horror stricken before dashing over.
Mort fell to his knees and stared into the face of his beloved, drained of all colour and deathly still…her face strangely young and beautiful looking in repose.
Whilst Mort remained immobile as though frozen to the spot, Jess very gently lifted Millie’s body from where it lay across Bella’s, as though she had somehow desperately tried to shield her from the bullets.
He took her in his arms, shaking and staring down into her face white as a sheet, rocking her gently and whispering her name.
“No…oh dear God no…not again,” he muttered holding her close and seeing the blood covering the front of her white blouse stain his own blue shirt. He grasped her even closer, almost as though he was willing his heart to beat in place of hers.
Then after a moment a miracle happened, her eyes flickered and opened, “Jess….is that you?”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes in silent prayer for a brief moment before replying, “It’s OK, sweetheart, I’m here…it’s OK.”
Then he looked up and saw some curious bystanders pushing their way into the bank, wondering why the door was open way past closing.
“For God’s sake, stop gawking and go fetch the doc ….and Slim, they’re in the saloon,” he yelled.
It was probably only a few minutes before Slim, Doc Sam, Brett, Lon and a few others stormed into the bank, but to Jess it seemed like hours.
He had pulled his bandana off and pushed it into Millie’s shoulder where the blood seemed to be sluggishly oozing from, but as he pressed it down she had cried out in agony.
“I never knew,” she whispered, “all the times you’ve been shot up this way…I never knew how terribly painful it is, its hurts Jess…it really hurts.”
“Hush, sweetheart, don’t try to talk, it’s OK. Sam will be here soon, he’ll sort ya out. Don’t fret honey” and he held her close again tears in his eyes.
Finally, Sam and Slim were there, Sam first looking at Bella and shaking his head sadly, before he turned to Millie where he did a quick examination.
“Take her over to my office buddy,” he said quietly, “I’ll deal with her in a moment, but right now I need to talk to Mort.”
Jess nodded and then looked over at Slim and slightly inclined his head towards Mort. Slim gave a tiny nod back. Then he leaned forward and squeezed his buddy’s shoulder, ”ll be over as soon as…I can yeah?”
“Sure,” said Jess softly before picking Millie up, as though she were made of fine bone china. The crowds parted to let them through, gasps of shock coming from them as they saw the blood covering Millie and her chalk white face contorted in pain.
Sam gently pulled Mort up and guided him to a seat.
“I’m so, so sorry,” he said gently, “she’s gone Mort, beyond any help I can give her.”
Mort just stared at him in shock, as though he was speaking a foreign language.
Then Slim went over and sat down beside his old friend, “Let’s get you home huh Mort?”
Before he could reply there was a murmur of discontent coming from the direction of where Brett had been untying the bank manager and Teller, who had been thrown unceremoniously behind the counter before being bound and gagged.
After a moment, Mister Butler the officious manager strode over to where Mort was still sitting looking perplexed and started ranting at him.
“What are you doing sitting around here Sheriff, shouldn’t you be off hunting the felons down, I’ve had my safe cleaned out you know!”
“Goddamn it man, the Sheriff has just lost his woman,” spat Slim, suddenly furious, jumping up and glaring at the galling little man.
Butler looked totally unmoved, “He’s still the law isn’t he? I expect something to be done and at once, we’re talking about a lot of money here young man!”
Slim glared and was about to silence the infuriatingly pompous and unfeeling little man, with a blow if necessary, when Mort suddenly seemed to spring to life.
“Leave it Slim,” he said quickly seeing the light of battle in his buddy’s eyes. “Mister Butler is quite within his rights to expect some action on my behalf,” and he stood up quickly heading for the door, then paused and returning tenderly covered his beloved over with her shawl, then with one final heartrendingly sad look he walked away.
He met Lon, as he was going out. The young Deputy took in the situation in one quick glance. The irate little manager fussing and posturing, Brett looking uncertain and Slim mighty furious. Then he finally cast his eyes down to where Bella lay, her body now covered with her shawl, by a grief-stricken Mort.
“I’ve a dozen good men waiting to ride posse,” Lon said quietly, “I can manage on my own boss.”
“No. that won’t be necessary son, I need to do this,” said Mort firmly.” Brett you stay and mind the office, get the Undertaker over and make the arrangement for me huh. Oh Hell, and can you tell Tom too?”
“Sure I will Unc, but wouldn’t you rather stay here, I can go?”
Mort merely shook his head looking stubborn.
Slim moved forwards to join the men in the street waiting to ride out but again Mort turned back to his old friend.
“No Slim, you stay here, Jess will need you, especially if, well if she doesn’t make it. I’ve plenty of back up here and we’ll find those bastards iffen they’re out there I promise you that. Tell Jess that huh?”
Slim and Brett broke the news to Tom together and he was absolutely beside himself with grief, “I should never have let the girls take the money. Should have insisted they ask Mort or Jess to walk along, I told them, told them to do that. Garldarn it my sis always was as stubborn as a mule,” he cried, before sinking down in his chair head in hands.
Lily who had entered the back sitting-room bearing a coffee for her employer exchanged an anxious look with Slim.
“It’s true,” she said softly. “Millie could see Jess was on a winning streak and dear Bella didn’t want to bother Mort either. They thought they’d be back before anyone noticed they’d gone.”
Then she promptly burst into tears, the weight of the events overwhelming her.
It took Slim sometime to calm his girl down, but eventually she was persuaded to go and lie down for a while and Tom closed the saloon as a mark of respect.
Slim was shown into the doctor’s house by his elderly housekeeper Mrs Braddock, her face etched with concern.
“He’s in the parlour,” she said quietly, “poor lamb, the Doctor and Miss Carrie are still working on dear Millie, it’s been a long time Slim.”
Slim realised that the ‘poor lamb’ she was alluding to was his buddy and knowing what a soft spot Mrs Braddock had for Jess, he gave her the ghost of a smile.
“Thanks Mrs B I’ll go through shall I?”
“Yes my dear do and I’m sure the doctor will be along shortly, mercy it can’t be too much longer surely.”
Slim entered the well-known room quietly and surveyed his pard for a moment, sitting on the leather sofa, his head in his hands, his whole persona one of wretchedness.
After a moment he felt embarrassed at intruding on his buddy’s private hell that way and gave a little cough to make his presence known, before striding over and taking a seat beside him.
“Jess…how are you doing?”
His partner’s head shot up and he looked completely lost Slim saw at once, his countenance almost grey and his eyes dull and defeated.
“How do you think?” he muttered irritably. Before lurching up out of his seat and stalking moodily around the room, his fists shoved deeply into his denim’s pockets. He finally came to rest by the window and peered out listlessly.
“Jess, it’ll be OK, it won’t be like Maria….”
“How do ya know that?” Jess said turning his furious yet vulnerable eyes on his pard, “How do you know?” he repeated in an almost inaudible whisper before sinking back down on the sofa.
“Millie’s a fighter and it was just a shoulder wound. Maria was different that bastard shot her in the chest,” Slim said remembering Jess’s beautiful fiancée who had died at the hands of an ex-lover in front of Jess, some three years earlier.*#1see Loved Lost Survived
Jess just looked down seemingly exhausted, “The blood Slim, there was so much goddamn blood,” he whispered.
The indisputable evidence was all over his shirt front and Slim sat quietly, not knowing how to comfort the man who was his dearest friend.
It was a good hour later before an exhausted looking Sam joined them, all that time Slim had born Jess’s ranting and angst. Accepting him in his raw emotional state and just trying to stay with him offering nothing but unconditional understanding and support.
Sam threw Jess an uncertain look before making for the whiskey decanter on his desk and pouring three stiff measures, which he duly dispensed to his friends before relaxing back in his chair.
Jess had stared at him, barely breathing ever since he had entered and now growled, “Well…for God’s sake Sam, say somethin’!”
Sam sighed deeply before looking over at his good friend, “It’s hard to know exactly what to say Jess. She’s holding her own right now but I’d be lying to you if I said she’s going to be fine. The fact is I just don’t know. She’s lost way too much blood after the shooting and more during the operation. I have seen folk survive….but…” and he shook his head looking sorely troubled, “I can’t offer you too much hope…..I’m truly sorry.”
Jess realised he’d been holding his breath all the way through Sam’s speech and now he let it go.
“Can I see her?”
“Sure, but don’t tire her, just a little while huh?”
Jess just shook his head angrily, “Hell iffen you think I’m leavin’ her even for a minute you’re crazy,” he spat. “I’m staying with her until she’s well again,” his burning eyes leaving no room for argument.
Slim and Sam exchanged a knowing look before Sam finally responded.
“I guess there’s no point in arguing then Jess, off you go, I’ll come check on her shortly.”
Jess nodded and strode towards the door before stopping and giving Slim a heart wrenchingly vulnerable smile, “Thanks pard,” he said softly, “for…you know?”
When doc Sam finally returned to his patient and hour later he opened the door quietly and stood back surveying the scene before him with a huge smile on his handsome features.
Jess had removed his gun belt and boots and was stretched out on the bed holding Millie tenderly in his arms…both of them fast asleep.
After a moment Sam wandered over and very gently took Millie’s wrist checking on her pulse. He was delighted to feel that it was much stronger and she now had a healthy pink tinge to her previously deathly white face.
He shook his head in wonder as he looked down at the young couple amazed at what the power of love could do, where science and medicine failed.
It was the following day before Millie was well enough to sit up and take notice.
She had woken up feeling a lot better, the pain had eased and she even managed a little breakfast. Afterwards she had chatted softly to Jess as he sat by the bed.
“You’re looking real smart,” she said, noticing the starched white shirt he was wearing.
He looked down at it, “Oh yeah, it’s one of Sam’s. Ma Braddock insisted on taking mine to wash…probably scrubbin’ it as we speak.”
He was silent for a moment and then said softly, “It got covered in your blood.”
She looked shocked by that, “Really I was hurt that badly?”
He just nodded, “I thought I was gonna lose you at one point,” he said very quietly and then he realised that she didn’t know about Bella.
He was at her bedside day and night, and so it was he who had finally broken the terrible news of Bella’s passing to her.
She was understandably distraught at the news, and Jess held her gently as she wept.
“If only she’d just given in and let them have the takings,” she cried.
“I know, Tom reckons she was real stubborn, wouldn’t let folk push her around.”
“But look where it got her,” she whispered sadly, “So how’s Mort taking it?”
Jess shrugged. “I dunno he rode out with a posse yesterday, ain’t seen him since. But you know Mort and his sense of duty, said his job had to come first. He rode out and left young Brett to make the arrangements. But even so I guess he’s hurtin’ real bad. Hell Millie iffen anything had happened to you ….” and he reached forwards from where he was perched on the edge of the bed and held her close again.
A few minutes later she looked suddenly very thoughtful.
“What’s up sweetheart, you feelin’ sickly again?”
“No, no. It’s not that Jess, it’s just, well did anyone actually see the men ride out of town?”
“Dunno I guess not, why?”
“Well I never heard any sounds of horses after they left. It was deathly quiet after the shooting finished. I guess that’s why you didn’t hear us being shot at with those kids shooting up the town?”
Jess nodded, “Yeah, so you think they might still be holed up somewhere in town, not ridden out at all?”
“Could be?”
Later while she was sleeping, Jess strode purposefully down to Mort’s office and was just in time to see the Sheriff and an exhausted and dispirited posse ride back into town.
Mort sank down behind his desk and ran a hand across his weary face…. “Nothing.” he said, “We’ve searched high and low…not a trace.”
When Jess shared Millie’s idea with Mort, Lon was dispatched to the livery. After quizzing old Bert he returned with the news that there were two horses in his livery belonging to a couple of strangers. Closer questioning did indeed reveal that the horse owners matched the bank raider’s description to a tee.
“Why in Hell didn’t the old fool speak up earlier?” snapped a furious Mort.
“I guess you rode out so fast nobody gave a description out Unc,” said a fair-minded Brett, “we never considered they’d still be here. Once the Bank manager had confirmed the men sounded the same as the men who’d bribed Jed and Cal to shoot up the town you lit off after them didn’t ya?”
“Umm…well come on son what are ya waiting for? We’re gonna turn this old town upside down until we find them!”
Meanwhile deep in the cellar of a boarded up old shop, just two doors down from the bank, Chas Dean and his younger brother Kurt were laying low.
They had hit upon the plan by chance when the big red headed Chas had been checking out the rear access to the bank the night before their raid. He noticed loose boards covering a dirty old cellar window and further inspection led to the discovery of a small, dank space with just enough space for the men to hide in for a few days. They had carried in water and food under cover of darkness and then proposed to make a run for it once things had settled down some.
Now as they heard the noise of heavy boots tramping around just yards from their hiding place their blood ran cold with fear.
“Ain’t nothin’ back here Pete…all boarded up see, a rat couldn’t git in there. Come on, let’s head back to the Sheriff’s see iffen anyone else has had any luck” and the sound of the boots receded leaving the two robbers sweating but triumphant.

The morning of Bella’s funeral, the following day, dawned cold and cheerless.
Slim, who had gone back to the ranch once it was clear Millie was out of danger, drove Daisy in. They met up with Millie, Sam and Jess in the saloon before the service, along with many other mourners as Bella had been very popular.
Mort was putting on a brave face as he stood at the bar with a small whiskey, to keep the cold out, which Tom had insisted upon. But anyone could see he was a broken man.
Millie’s arm was in a sling and she still looked really peaky, so Daisy thought, but the young woman had insisted on attending.
“How are you feeling my dear?” Daisy asked solicitously.
“Lucky to be alive I guess Daisy; can it really be that we were all at the ranch just a short time ago planning the wedding? Now this, I just can’t believe it.”
“Poor, dear Mort,” said Daisy sadly looking over to where the Sheriff was accepting heartfelt condolences from yet another friend.
There was standing room only in the Church later. Then at the committal in the churchyard Mort was flanked by Brett, Tom, Jess and Slim as he stood by the graveside hat in hand paying his last respects.
Afterwards the men folk went back to the saloon and Bella’s many friends, from the Women’s Group, convened in the Church Hall to spend some time in remembering their good friend and gossiping a little too, truth be known.
Mort stood at the bar looking resolute, his face registering neither grief nor any other emotion, as folk came and went commiserating with him.
Jess personally thought he should get well and truly drunk to help kill the pain, whereas Slim was more of the opinion that an early night and hot drink would be more fitting.
However, neither man voiced their opinion and just watched helplessly as Mort seemed to be acting as though everything was happening to someone else and he was merely a concerned bystander.
In the end Jess could stand it no longer and told his old friend there was a bottle of Red Eye with his name on it waiting back at the Sheriff’s place and how’s about they go crack it?
It had been arranged that Daisy would stay with a friend in town as Mike was spending the Weekend with a pal and so Jess and Slim were able to bunk down at Mort’s and keep an eye on their buddy.
As the evening wore on and the level of whiskey in the bottle lowered, it became apparent to the ranchers that their good friend intended to take the whole business in his stride. He just sat quietly drinking and throwing the odd comment into the conversation which had been predominately about the merits of his new hunting rifle, with no mention of his beloved.
Whereas Slim felt slightly puzzled at this strange behaviour Jess was almost indignant, it seeming to him like Mort didn’t care or more likely couldn’t face the bitter truth of his loss.
Hell Jess reflected. He knew all about that……and then some. He knew that grieving couldn’t be sidestepped or driven out by hard work and trying to ignore the situation. That’s just what he had tried to do after he had lost his beloved Maria. He’d worked himself into the ground. Hell practically killed himself, refusing to eat properly until he was so weak and sick he could barely sit a horse.The memory made him shudder involuntarily and he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Jess, are you OK?” asked Slim seeing his buddy’s discomfort.
Jess’s head jerked up and he looked at Slim and then his glance slid across to Mort.
“Sure…sure I am,” he said quietly.
“But I don’t figure you are…are ya Mort? Said Jess huskily, “You’re tryin’ to kid us all you’re just fine. Tellin’ yourself that everything’s OK and it ain’t, it surely ain’t, is it buddy?”
Mort was very still for a moment before retaliating.
“This ain’t about how you see it son it’s about how I do. Right now, I’m about as mad as I can be and can’t see anything else, can’t see past that, you understand?”
“Mad,” asked Slim gently, “how so?”
“Mad at her of course!” he spat… “Why did she do that?” he asked turning anguished eyes to his buddies. “Why didn’t she just let them have the goddamn money?”
He lurched up from his chair and after filling his glass to the top with a shaking hand turned to look at his good friends.
“I’m sorry iffen you’re expectin’ to see the grievin’ betrothed, but I just can’t be that. Not right now anyway,” and with that he retired to bed leaving Jess and Slim feeling deeply saddened for their old friend.
Once he’d gone Jess grabbed hold of the whiskey bottle and holding it aloft raised his eyebrows to his friend.
Slim gave him a small nod and offered his glass over, “Why not, we may as well get smashed on Mort’s account, shame to waste good whiskey anyway.”
Jess grinned at his partner’s out of character response, but refilled both their glasses anyway, before settling down in his chair in front of Mort’s crackling fire.
After a while Slim looked over and sighed lightly, “Before…you were remembering how it was with Maria weren’t you.”
Jess head shot up and he looked momentarily troubled but then seemed to relax a little.
“Yeah, I guess I was. I figure iffen it hadn’t been for you I’d never have made it through.”
“Yes, me and old Doc Johnson too, not to mention reading up on grieving in young Andy’s medical books,” Slim said with a grim smile.
“You got me talkin’ every dang thing out didn’t you?” Jess said looking almost embarrassed at the memory.
“Well the doc reckoned you’d die of a broken heart if something wasn’t done,” said Slim softly, “You were so darned skinny back then Jess, working yourself into the ground and barely eating. The doc said you’d not last a Wyoming winter, first chill you caught would have seen you off to your Maker.”
Jess stared deeply into the fire remembering that terrible time, “I guess I just didn’t wanna live no more……not without Maria in my life anyway,” he whispered.
Slim nodded, “I know pard, but you made it through and now you’ve found Millie and life’s good isn’t it…huh?”
Jess grinned at his friend, “Sure is yeah.”
Then he leaned over and punched his friend lightly on the arm, “Thanks for making me see sense back then Slim.”
“So, all that talking about how you felt and all really helped did it buddy?”
Jess grinned again, “Hell no! It was when you tried to turn me off of the ranch sayin’ as how the doc said I was too sick and weak to survive a Wyoming winter, I had to prove ya wrong didn’t I!”
Slim chuckled at that, “Whatever, you managed to get through it, that’s all that matters.”
Jess nodded, “I’m worried about Mort though. I figure he’s kinda like me in many ways, he’ll just try and ride it out, instead of facing it head on.”
“I think you could be right pard, we’ll just have to watch his back, be there for him, that’s all we can do I guess.”
“Yup…an’ finish off this whiskey too,” agreed Jess with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes, “it can’t be a proper Wake unless we get rotten stinkin’ drunk Slim.”
Chapter 4
At first light the following morning, the men were awakened from their slumbers by an insistent hammering at the door.
Jess and Slim were still in the parlour, fast asleep in their armchairs and it was up to Mort, staggering from his bed to see who was about so early.
He finally dragged the door open and stood there in his red flannel nightshirt glaring at his caller.
“Yeah…so where’s the dang fire?” he muttered, squinting at the visitor with bleary eyes.
Jess and Slim had finally been roused and they too staggered towards the front door at the sound of raised voices.
“Goddamn it,” Jess muttered clutching his head, “what’s all the ruckus about?”
Old Davey Southern a farmer, or sod-buster as he was known locally, stood there, hat in hand looking slightly apologetic.
“Gee I’m sure sorry to disturb you folk so early, but see thing is I’ve had my Clyde and Samson stolen last evening and I think you need to get on the case Sheriff.”
Jess and Slim exchanged a mystified look.
“Clyde and Samson?” asked Slim.
“My heavy plough horses, hell they’re everything to me, “he said now turning back to Mort.
“My livelihood, best friends too…you just gotta do something Sheriff.”
Jess groaned and holding his stomach turned back indoors thinking of seeking out the coffee pot.
Mort too was in no mood for dealing with lost, stolen or strayed horses.
“Go see my deputy, office opens at nine,” he muttered before making to close the door.
But old Mister Southern was having none of it and quickly inserted his boot to prevent the door closing in his face.
“No Sheriff Cory, hear me out,” he insisted, "What I didn’t say was it were those guys that robbed the bank as took ‘em. The ones on that there poster, red headed man and the little runty one, it was them who took my boys, saw ‘em plain as day.”
Mort’s attitude changed completely, “So why didn’t ya stop them man!”
“Well sure I tired. Martha heard them moving about in the barn, just before sundown it was. I went out, took a couple of pot shots at ‘em but my old eyes aren’t what they were Sheriff, one minute they was right up close, I saw them clear as I can see you. Then they hightailed it off. By the time I’d got my 12-bore primed they were heading off up the hill, takin’ the old Cheyenne trail I reckon.”
“Slim, Jess git yourselves ready we’re heading off after them, that’s iffen you can leave the ranch for a spell?”
The ranchers exchanged a glance again and nodded.
“The Jackson’s are in town for Bella’s funeral, I guess they can see Daisy home and the two boys can mind the spread for a week or two,” Slim said thinking on his feet.
“Mike’s OK, Billy’s Pa will fetch him back home tomorrow,” Jess chipped in. “Yup I guess we can go with ya buddy, just gotta go see my girl, tell her I’m heading out.”
“So, we’ll meet up at the livery, in say an hour?” suggested Mort, “I’ll get us some supplies.”
“And a posse?” asked Slim.
Mort shook his head, “Nope I think this may be kind of a long haul. I’ve got the best dang tracker I’ve ever known,” he said tipping his head to Jess, “and another good man covering my back,” he continued smiling at Slim, “I figure that’s all I’ll need to get the job done.”
It took Jess several minutes to raise Tom from the saloon and he guessed the old barkeep had sunk a few in memory of his sister the night before too.
“Jess…it’s kinda early ain’t it?”
“I know Tom and I’m, real sorry to disturb you, but I have to see Millie, say goodbye. I’m riding out shortly. I think we may have a lead on those bastards that hurt her and did for your sis.”
“The hell you have, well that’s great Jess! Yup go on up son she ain’t about as yet.”
When Millie finally opened the door, she stood there in a short white nightdress, the buttons opened at the neck revealing a seductive glimpse of cleavage, her dark hair charmingly tousled framing her face. Her expression was at first drowsy and then excited when she saw who was standing there, her eyes opening wide in surprised pleasure.
Jess thought she looked absolutely irresistible….
“Jess Honey,” she whispered and holding the door open wide allowed him to enter, before closing it and looking deeply into his eyes, “I wasn’t expecting you this early, thought you were keepin’ Mort company?”
“I was but somethin’ came up, I’ve gotta ride out within the hour,” and he explained everything to her.
They were still standing near the door when he finished his story and he quickly removed his boots and gun belt before following her into her room, as per her house rules.
He paused in front of her fireplace and glanced longingly over at the warm bed she had just vacated.
After a moment her gaze followed suit and she looked back at him raising a questioning eyebrow.
“So, how long did you say you had?” she asked.
He grinned back down at her. “Long enough, I guess,” he replied, before taking her in his strong arms…his lips seeking hers hungrily.
Afterwards she lay in his arms as he absently caressed her arm, below the dressing still covering her shoulder.
“You sure it don’t hurt no more?” he asked for the third time.
“Quite sure, Doc Sam says I’ve got real good healin’ flesh, so don’t you go worrying. I’ll be just fine. You just go find the men that did for poor Bella…huh?”
“Sure, I will sweetheart, I promise.”
“But Jess, don’t get mad will you? You know real mad. It isn’t worth getting in trouble for. The law will deal with them huh?”
Jess knew just what she meant, “It’s Ok Mill, I won’t go doin’ nuthin’ stupid, but I can’t say the same for Mort that guy is sorely tried and hurtin’ real bad.”
“Like you were after Maria?” she asked softly.
He looked into her kind understanding eyes and knew he could trust her, “Yeah,” he admitted, “I guess so…just like that. I figure he needs some folk at his back, watchin’ him. I’d hate to see old Mort get caught up in anything.”
“Like he might be thinking of killing Bella’s murderer?”
He looked slightly shocked at that notion, then said thoughtfully, “Yeah, maybe. Love and loss can turn a man’s head, make him do… feel things he’s never known before, so yeah, maybe you’re right.”
He was just wondering if he had time for a quick coffee to help ease his aching head and churning stomach, from the strong whiskey he’d imbibed the previous night, when he heard some riders in the street below.
He reluctantly pulled himself out of Millie’s warm bed and peered down to see Mort astride his big Buckskin and Slim on Alamo leading Traveller.
“Oh Hell,” he cussed lightly, “gotta go sweetheart.”
He threw his clothes on and only paused long enough to give her one last smouldering kiss before heading off at speed.
“About time,” said Slim gruffly throwing his buddy Traveller’ s reins, “So what kept you?”
Then he took a closer look at his pard’ s appearance, satiated, dreamy looking and messily dressed.
“Umm…on second thought don’t answer that,” he said with a wry grin before kicking Alamo off to a trot after Mort. Jess took up the rear, his stomach reeling in protest as Traveller broke into a lively jog.
It was only a little over ten minutes later when Jess reined his mount in. Sliding from the saddle he lurched to the roadside where he fell to his knees, retching and groaning as his stomach relinquished its contents.
A short while later Slim and Mort realised their buddy was no longer with them and turned and headed back.
Both men sat their horses looking down at Jess pale and shaking. Slim with a look of amusement tinged with sympathy in his eyes whereas Mort looked completely unmoved.
After a minute or so he said impassively, “You done then?”
Jess scowled up at him, a look of misery in his dark eyes. “I guess,” he muttered getting shakily to his feet and wiping his sleeve across his sweating countenance.
“Well come on then,” said the Sheriff gruffly, “ain’t got time to stand around here waiting on you son” and he kicked his horse off to an easy lope towards the Southern spread.
Slim grinned down at his buddy, “That’s you told then Jess.”
The dark haired cowboy glared off towards where Mort was fast disappearing in a cloud of dust.
“Garldarn it we was drinkin’ to the memory of his woman, you’d think he’d be a bit more sympathetic.”
Slim shook his head at his friend’s logic, but just passed his canteen over without comment.
Jess took a good pull of the cool water and looked for a moment like he might chuck again, but then swallowed hard and the moment passed.
“How come you’re so darned perky anyhow?” he finally managed.
“Stuck to the one bottle, well a third of it that is, I told you it was a mistake to crack that bottle of hill whiskey Jess…jeez that’s strong stuff you could strip the paint off of the barn door with it.”
Jess merely sighed deeply and remounted throwing his buddy a look more in sorrow than anger and clicked Traveller on to a steady gait…followed a moment later by Slim.
They landed at the Southern farmstead five minutes later and as they rode in Davey who had finally made it home riding his old Mule came out to greet them, followed by his elderly wife Martha.
“I’ll show ya the tracks,” said old man Southern taking them over to the back of the property. “See here and here, you can’t miss my horses, got them real big hooves.”
“And real slow moving too I’d guess?” asked Jess sliding down from the saddle and surveying the tracks made by the huge beasts.
“Oh yes, they will go up to a gallop, but not for too long, built for strength and stamina, not fer sprinting’ about the place like that fancy Quarter horse of yours son.”
A smile flickered across Jess’s face at the mention of his beloved Snow Bird. “No I reckon not, but there again I figure Snowy wouldn’t be much good at pullin’ one of those big old ploughs you use,” he replied with a grin.
“So, are we tracking or chatting?” asked Mort tetchily.
Jess bit back a sarcastic comment, knowing his friend was hurting, so just winked at Davey Southern before climbing back up into the saddle.
Then old Martha marched over.
“Good morning Sheriff, Mister Sherman, Mister Harper, why it’s so good of you to come out this way to look for our dear horses, we’ll be truly lost without them and that’s a fact.”
Mort decided not to waste time saying they were actually more interested in apprehending a pair of bank robbers and a murderer to boot.
“You’re welcome Ma’am,” he said politely, “we’ll find them if they’re out there don’t you fret.”
She smiled her thanks and then turned her attention back to Jess.
“Why I declare Mister Harper you’re looking mighty peaky, what’s the matter dear?” She asked surveying Jess’s almost grey complexion and the way he was crouched over his mount, one hand massaging his aching belly.
Slim noted that Mort was itching to be off so said quickly, “He’s fine Ma’am, just a touch of indigestion, that’s all.”
“Indigestion?” echoed Jess indignantly once they were out of earshot, “I’m dyin’ here and you say I’ve got indigestion? Heck she looked like she was gonna make some coffee Slim…we could have stayed a mite longer.”
“You think so?” asked Slim tipping his hat to where Mort was fast disappearing, following the horses huge hoof prints in the soft dust.
“Umm…maybe not,” Jess agreed a resigned look in his deep blue eyes.
It was about an hour later when they came to the river and the tracks disappeared that Jess’s tracking ability came to the fore and it wasn’t too long before he picked then up again half a mile downstream.
The outlaws obviously assumed they had now duped any would be followers and made no attempt to hide their tracks.
“They look to be making for the mountain foot hills,” said Jess looking out to the distant peaks, “a good place to hole up until the dust settles.”
“Yup,” agreed Mort, “as long as they don’t stay put up that dang mountain too long. I figure the Indian summer is well and truly over. We’ve got us some stormy weather in the offing, snow even maybe,” he finished casting his eyes to the dark clouds billowing in from the north.
Slim nodded in agreement, “It sure has turned chilly…yeah we might get snow before the week’s out.”
“Oh wonderful,” muttered Jess sarcastically. The Wyoming winters were the bane of his life and he threatened to move back to Texas every year when the wild weather rolled in.
All at the ranch took it with a pinch of salt now, knowing he would never leave them, but the weather did make him miserable, as Slim well knew.
“Oh well at least those old critters won’t be settin’ too fast a pace.” Jess said now, a smile lighting up his slender face, “I figure we should catch up with them by noon tomorrow, sooner maybe.”
“Why choose a pair of old cart horses like them?” asked Slim looking bemused, “They’re hardly get away horses.”
“Well with the guard Mort put on the livery I guess they couldn’t get their own and old man Southern’s place is the first spread you hit on the road out of town. I figure iffen they’d walked that far anything on four legs would have looked good,” Jess replied with a wry grin.
Mort nodded in agreement, “Yeah, I figure if they’re heading for the border eventually they’ll ditch the heavy horses and pick up a couple of good riding mounts….but we’ll get ‘em before that,” he said firmly, the light of battle in his troubled grey eyes.
They set up camp as night was falling. In fact, Jess figured Mort would have been happy to ride on through the darkness, but both Slim and Jess drew a line at that.
Jess had eventually taken him to one side for some plain talking.
“Look Mort I know you’re real upset about all this business. Millie could have been killed too, and there’s nuthin’ I wanna see as much as for that bastard to hang for what he did to your Bella, you know that dontcha?”
Mort just glared at him stony faced, “And so what’s your point?”
“My point is,” said Jess now feeling annoyed, “that I ain’t about to ride on in the dang pitch-dark Mort…risk my horse bustin’ a leg, or fallin’ down one of these gullies and breakin’ my neck. It’s too damn dark to see the tracks anyways, so will you just see reason? We’ll pitch camp here and head off at first light…huh?“
“He’s right,” said Slim wandering over from where he’d been scanning the area for a good spot to settle for the night, “come on Mort, let’s just rest up some OK?”
Eventually the Sheriff was convinced to set camp, but he was very distant and quiet all evening, just peering into the camp fire and refusing to talk much or eat supper. In fact, it was only Slim who could manage any food whilst Jess and Mort emptied the coffee pot a couple of times between them.
Eventually Mort turned in early saying he wanted them on their way at first light.
Jess and Slim continued talking softly long after Mort’s gentle snores could be heard, ebbing and flowing in the still cold night.
“You feeling better now?” asked Slim solicitously, turning to peer at his buddy in the dim light emanating from the fire.
“I guess,” he said softly, “some.”
Slim just shook his head in bafflement, “So why’d you do that Jess? Get drunk as a skunk, you know damn well that hill whiskey doesn’t agree with you in any quantity.”
He just shrugged… “I dunno.”
“Oh come on Jess, you can do better than that, this is me you’re talking to now. It was about Maria wasn’t it?”
Jess looked deeply into the fire for so long that Slim thought he wouldn’t answer…But then he finally looked up, his eyes misty and saddened.
“ I reckon it brought it all back, yes,” he replied quietly, “Mort bein’ so cock a hoop about the Wedding plans an’ all. Then nuthin’, suddenly she’s lyin there in a pool of blood, just the way Maria was…” and he gave a shuddering sigh.
Slim nodded and gave his buddy a compassionate glance, “I can see how you’d feel that way Jess. But you and Millie, you’re OK aren’t you?”
Jess’s head shot up at that, “Hell yeah, sure we are. This ain’t got nuthin’ to do with me and Millie Slim. I loved Maria and I guess I always will, but that don’t mean I don’t love Mill. Jeez she’s everything to me buddy, you must know that?”
“Sure…sure I do Jess.”
Mort awoke to the sound of the softly murmuring voices of his friends, but it took him a while to tune into what they were saying.
“It was about Maria wasn’t it?”
“I reckon it brought it all back, yes,” the rest spoken so softly Mort couldn’t hear every word, but he got the gist. A stab of pain searing his heart at the words, “lying in a pool of blood…just the way Maria was….”
Of course, of course his good buddy had suffered terribly too. Hell, he’d experienced everything Mort had at first hand and now nearly lost his beloved Millie too.
“She’s everything to me buddy, you must know that,” Jess had continued.
“Sure…sure I do Jess”, Slim said.
Mort could bear it no longer he rolled over and sat up peering across the camp fire at his friends.
“Hell Jess I’m so dang sorry,” he said, “I’ve been acting like a complete jerk. Sure I’m hurtin’ something fierce. But so are you boy. Goddamn it that could have been Maria’s death all over again.”
Slim and Jess’s heads shot up, not having been aware that Mort was privy to their private conversation but rallied well.
“That’s OK Mort,” said Jess quietly.
“No…no it ain’t buddy I’ve been real ornery with you. Slim too,” he said turning to encompass the tall rancher in his speech.
“I’m really sorry, the way I’ve been, it’s just…” and he stopped words failing him.
“Sure,” said Slim quickly, “we know Mort and we’ll nail the bastards, no matter what it takes, you know that don’t you?”
The older man threw him the ghost of a smile, “Of course I do,” he said softly, “they haven’t got any chance against us three,” and with that he lay back down.
“‘Night all,” he murmured, sounding much more like the old Mort they knew so well.
“Night Mort,” they responded before settling down as well.
A chill wind whispered around them and somewhere far off in the distance a lone wolf gave a mournful cry as they pulled their bedrolls tighter around and slept on.
Chapter 5
The following day dawned freezing cold and Jess was glad he’d got his sheepskin jacket as he pulled the collar up against the chilly breeze, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed the dark advancing storm clouds.
“At least we ain’t had any rain or snow yet,” he said cheerfully as the men mounted up. “I figure those big old critters should be pretty easy to track.”
Mort again seemed edgy and insisted they ride out after a scratch breakfast and then continued a brisk pace throughout the morning refusing to stop for a break.
“You said that it would be nigh on impossible to track ‘em when the weather closes in,” muttered Mort angrily, when Jess had suggested a stop at noon for coffee.
He peered over at his good buddy and saw the desperate look in his eyes telling of the strain he was feeling, Gee the guy seemed to have aged by ten years recently Jess thought secretly.
Then Slim intervened. “I guess ten minutes or so won’t make any difference Mort and I figure we could all do with a hot drink, it’s darned bitter out here.”
Once they we sipping the scalding hot liquid Jess and Slim exchanged a look before Slim addressed Mort with something the ranchers had been worrying about since they’d set out.
“So err…Mort what are you thinking on doing when we catch up with them?” asked Slim casually.
Mort’s head shot up and he looked momentarily puzzled and then furious, “Why arrest them and bring them in for trial of course, what in Hell do you think huh?”
“Look it’s just that we’re worried about ya buddy,” Jess chipped in, “We can see how dang mad you are. Goddamn it you’re only human Mort.“
Mort sank his head in his hands for a moment before sighing deeply and looking up at his old friends.
“OK, I understand you’re concerned for me and yeah, I guess I wouldn’t be human iffen I hadn’t had a few black thoughts about these two. But I guess I’m a Lawman through and through and I’ll do my duty…God willing.” Then he looked slightly embarrassed, “But if it gets to be kinda…well too much I’ll maybe distance myself some, let you two take charge, OK.”
“Sure Mort, that sounds just fine,” said Slim giving him his honest open smile, then he turned to Jess and saw the light of battle in his eyes, ’Oh no, please don’t let Jess go getting into trouble, ’he thought fleetingly, knowing how angry he had been at Millie’s attack. He opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it, no point in upsetting his buddy. And heck he was way more in control and rational than he used to be, wasn’t he? Slim thought hopefully.
The attack came when they least expected it. By their calculations the outlaws should still have been a good ten or fifteen miles ahead of them, or Slim would never have insisted on that camp fire. As he said later, it must have been the smoke from that which alerted the two men to the fact that they were being followed.
One minute they were riding through a steep narrow gully, Slim leading, closely followed by Jess and Mort, when suddenly pandemonium broke out.
Several shots rained down on the men, the first one hitting Slim square in the shoulder and he fell from his horse like a stone lying motionless in the dust.
Mort and Jess were able to react to the initial attack though, both diving from their saddles and returning the shots. Mort ran to the cover of some nearby rocks and continued to fire whilst Jess dived and rolled landing next to Slim.
He quickly covered his buddies still body, shielding it with his own as he too returned the fire.
It soon became obvious that although their attackers had the benefit of surprise that was the only thing going for them. Their shots went wide and were haphazard in the extreme, leading Jess to think they were either short sighted or inebriated.
It was only a matter of time before the big red headed man stuck his head above the rocks a mite too long and Jess got in a shot to the arm, the man’s rifle falling down the gully clattering to the bottom. After that it was only a few seconds before the small runty man accompanying him threw his gun down and both men made their way down the mountain path, hands held high in surrender.
Mort went off to meet them, pushing them roughly against the ravine wall and cuffing their hands behind their backs. Then he made them lie on their bellies whilst he tied their legs tightly together. All this had been done in tight lipped silence and after a final black look at the pair he marched over to where Slim had fallen.
Jess had very gently turned him over and gasped in shock at the blood covering his partner’s shirt, before gently undoing the buttons and stemming the flow of blood with his bandana.
“What’s the damage?” asked Mort glancing down in concern.
“Dunno, hard to tell. Seems he hit his head on a rock that’s why he’s out cold…but it don’t look good Mort…this is one hell of a lot of blood.”
Mort hunkered down beside his friends and after a moment Slim’s eyes flickered and opened.
“Wha…what in Hell happened?” he mumbled.
“That dang murderer is what happened to you Slim. I guess we’ve found our bank robbers!” said Mort.
“Never mind about that now,” said Jess quickly and turned to Mort.
“Get the bandages and my canteen will ya Mort?”
Then looking down to his best buddy, “Jeez you’re a mess Slim, bullet went straight through but you’re bleedin’ like a dang stuck pig. I’m gonna have to bandage you real tight.”
“Well tell it like it is Jess, don’t spare my sensibilities any will you?” Slim muttered dryly.
“Never mind just do your worst,” he replied as Mort returned with the dressings and some whiskey to clean out the wound.
Once the job was finally completed Jess turned to where Mort was looking on.
“OK so now what? Start back to town or rest up tonight. Slim sure needs the doc…but that’s one hell of a ride back.”
Mort nodded, “And I guess we’ve got this to contend with too,” he said, looking upwards as feathery snowflakes started to gently float down.
“Goddamn it, that’s all we need,” muttered Jess. “I figure we stay then,” and he looked around for suitable cover.
Then his gaze alighted on the two outlaws.
His eyes narrowed and he stood up slowly and started to walk over to them.
“Jess?” Mort warned standing up and following him, an anxious look on his weather-beaten features.
Jess ignored him and strode over stopping in his tracks when he saw the two men clearly, now sitting with their backs to the rock face looking as miserable as sin.
“Well I’ll be,” muttered Jess bitterly “I might have known it when they said a red headed bastard with a runty kid that it would be you Chas,” he spat glaring at the big redheaded man.
Then he turned to the skinny dark haired hombre and said nastily, “As I live an’ breathe, Kurt.
We’ve caught us the Dean brothers Mort,” he said glancing over to where the Sheriff stood warily by.
“OK, which one of you no good lowlifes downed my buddy?” he spat.
Chas raised his chin and with a smug look drawled, “I guess that was down to me. I always was the best darned shot in the family.”
Jess sprang forwards and back slapped him viciously across the face causing the big man’s lip to split and bleed copiously, much to Jess’s satisfaction.
Then he looked up pondering for a moment before saying sarcastically, “Oh no this ain’t the whole family though is it, you’ve not got ol’ Jake with you no more have ya…’cos he’s dead ain’t he?“
Kurt gasped but said nothing while Chas flushed and looked down.
“Yeah, I remember now,” Jess continued relentlessly, “you abandoned him didn’t ya? He was keeping look out on that job you pulled in Denver…but when the law arrived you left him standing there to die in the crossfire while you two hightailed it off.”
Then he turned his irate gaze on Mort, “That’s what they’re like these Dean Brothers they don’t even look out for their own. As for him, “Jess growled giving Kurt’s leg a vicious kick,” he ain’t hardly human the way he treats women.”
Then it was Mort’s turn to get angry, “’Twas you wasn’t it, that gunned down those women?”
Kurt just looked down, his bland face devoid of all emotion.
“Why you little bastard !” Mort raged lunging forwards but Jess intercepted him grabbing his arm and pulling him back.
“Take it easy Mort.”
Then he turned his eyes to the heavens, where the snow was coming down more quickly now drifting in little flurries in the light wind, “I guess we need to find shelter huh…for Slim especially.”
Mort shook Jess’s restraining hand off and then cussed before turning back to the men.
“Alright, so where are you holed up, is it far?”
They arrived at the entrance to the cave just five minutes later and Jess slipped down from Traveller where he and Slim had ridden double. Jess taking his buddy’s weight as he lay back in his firm grasp, semi-conscious. He hauled Slim down beside him, just as Mort ran over and supported him on the other side. Once Slim was settled leaning back on a rock by the cave entrance Mort roughly pushed the prisoners on inside.
The mouth opened up into a huge cavern rising up to nearly fifty feet, light filtering in from a large cleft in the roof. It went back a good twenty-five feet and there was ample room for the horses to be hitched at the far end of the cave out of the inclement weather.
Jess followed on, supporting Slim, once he had got his breath back, and was pleased to see old man Southern’s two heavy horses taking their ease at the back of the huge cavern.
He gently helped his buddy to lie down near the cave entrance, beside the remains of a fire and then disappeared back out to fetch Slim’s bedroll. On his return he made him as comfortable as possible and then set about rekindling the fire and setting up camp.
Meanwhile Mort had frogmarched the prisoners to the side, well away from the horses and the camp where Jess was now setting the coffee pot on the fire. They were in the darkest corner of the cave which felt dank and cold, much to Mort’s satisfaction. The Sheriff cuffed their hands to the front so they could eat later and then produced some shackles from his saddle bag and chained the two men together, then roped them to a large boulder before turning blazing eyes on them.
“OK you two, I don’t wanna hear a peep out of ya. I reckon if I can manage to forget you’re here then we might all just make it through the night peaceable,” Then he threw them a bitter look, “Just don’t rile me,” he growled before striding over to the camp fire.
Jess passed him a coffee before glancing over to his partner. Slim was now stretched out by the fire and seemed to have fallen into a deep sleep.
Mort followed his gaze and then said softly, “Probably the best thing for him Jess. If he sleeps a while maybe that wound will close up.”
Jess nodded looking distracted for a moment. Then he turned anguished eyes on his buddy. “By God iffen he don’t make it,”he said before stopping and looking back into the murky depths of the cave where the two outlaws were sitting silently.
“Hey take it easy Jess. I thought it was me that was gonna go off the rails. I can’t cope with you too, it’s hard enough keeping myself in check.”
Jess ducked his head, “Sorry…sorry Mort, just sounding off ’tis all.”
Once their coffee was finished Jess rose and collected all the canteens. “Guess I’ll go fill these up; we passed a spring a half mile or so back.”
Then he turned his gaze on his old friend, “You’ll be OK?”
Mort sighed, “If you mean am I gonna strangle them with my bare hands while you’re gone…no I’m not. And yes, I am alright. Now get off with you while that tracks still passable,” he finished with a tired smile as he nodded to where the snow was now falling thick and fast.
Jess had just filled up the last of the canteens, kneeling by the small spring, when he heard the unmistakable sound of a colt being cocked and then a deep voice said, “Stand up real easy boy and turn around…unless you wanna see yer brains splattered far and wide that is.”
Jess froze and then very slowly straightened up and turned.
He stared at his adversary for a moment and then his handsome features relaxed into a warm grin.
“Well that’s sure one Hell of a way to greet an old friend Den,” he said.
Denver James holstered his gun and gave his buddy and old sparring partner a toothless grin.
The elderly man was dressed in his usual garb of buckskins, a rather battered looking ‘coon hat setting off the whole outfit which was rough and filthy. Denver James was a real character, an old Mountain Man, who now spent most of his energy in producing his famous Moonshine rather than trapping as he had done in the past. He lived up the Laramie Mountain along with his two sons, Mick and Cody.
“Why Jess Harper, I’m real sorry! Heck what are you doing in this neck of the woods? Kinda late in the season for you to be up the mountain ain’t it boy, kinda chilly for your Texan blood too I guess…huh?”
“Well you sure ain’t got that wrong,” admitted Jess pulling the collar of his jacket up against the freezing wind. “Come up chasin’ a couple of no good murderin’ cussed outlaws, wanted for the Laramie Bank job a while back.”
Denver took this on board, “So you git ‘em Jess?”
“Oh yeah we got ‘em alright, holed up in the Church Cavern,” he said as the cave was known locally.
“Yeah, I knew there were strangers about. I figured I’d just give ‘em a wide berth can’t be too careful this near to the ‘business,” he said tapping his nose. By the ‘business’ Jess knew he was referring to the family’s illicit Still producing hill whiskey and run by himself and two boys.
“So, it’s in these parts then?” asked Jess with interest never having visited Denver’s winter headquarters.
“Might be,” said Denver again tapping his nose sagely, “But I guess you’re a mite too friendly with the law for me to tell you exactly where we set up camp in the winter, seein’ as it’s kinda over the shop know what I mean?”
“Oh, I know what you mean alright,” replied Jess with a grin, thinking that his buddy had a point with Mort just back in the cave.
Mort was a good sort, not opposed to a drop of the hill whiskey himself on occasion, so he mostly turned a blind eye to Denver and his illicit Still. But well, if confronted with it then his lawman ethics would have to win through Jess figured……or would they? Then he remembered how fond Mort was of Denver’s second cousin twice removed, Kate Munroe, and figured even at these close quarters the Sheriff would walk away and say nothing.
“So, is Kate at the winter camp with you?” asked Jess referring to that distant cousin, who had moved in with the mountain men a good few years ago after the demise of her husband. Jess and Kate went way back to his childhood on the Texas panhandle and he was very fond of her, for a variety of reasons. *See #56 Kate Munroe’s Secret.
At nearing fifty she was a handsome woman with white blond hair, deeply tanned unlined skin and startlingly deep blue eyes. She was also a larger than life character like Denver. Having frequently outdrawn any troublemakers in the saloon she and her husband had owned back in Texas. Now she had adapted well to her new life up the mountains in Wyoming and was as good at shooting the four-legged critters as she had been the two legged, she had once proudly announced to Jess.
However, Mort had only met her a few years back when she joined forces with Denver and the feisty middle-aged woman and Mort had become close friends. In fact, Jess remembered now, more than close friends. Hell, at one time he’d thought that Mort and Kate would get it together, really make a go of things, get hitched even. But no, both were too set in their ways and stubborn. However, Jess knew that they were still very close, with Kate staying with Mort on the odd occasion she came to town.
“She sure is,” Denver replied,“ off on a huntin’ trip over the other side of the mountain right now Jess boy, but I’ll give her your regards huh?”
Jess was awakened from his reverie by Denver’s response.
“Yeah, that’d be good thanks Den.”
“Are you gonna be around here long? This snow could be really meaning it ya know son. It’s a tad early in the year, but you never can tell with this ol’ place. That’s a nasty northerner behind it,” he said pulling his collar up and his grizzly old hat down a little against the icy wind.
“Nope, we’ll be off as soon as my pard is feelin’ more like it. One of the bastards caught him in the shoulder and he ain’t feelin’ any too good right now to be honest Den.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that boy. Give ol’ Slim my best.”
Then his eyes narrowed and he threw Jess a calculating look.
“So, would you be in the market for a bottle or two? “He asked the wily old bird never slow to try and make a fast buck, “Keep the chill out, medicinal purposes too,” he said encouragingly.
Jess didn’t have to think too long and hard and the transaction was soon done to their mutual satisfaction.
He made his way back to the camp with the full canteens along with the bootleg whiskey and went at once to check on Slim.
He seemed to still be in an exhausted sleep, the dressing to his shoulder free of any fresh blood though and Jess relaxed a little.
Mort wandered over from the back of the cavern where he’d been tending the horses.
“Is everything OK out there?”
“Sure, dang cold though. It’s snowing still with a northerly behind it. Old Denver James thinks it might be a problem iffen we don’t get down the mountain pretty soon,” Jess replied casting his sleeping buddy an anxious glance.
“Well Slim isn’t going anywhere for a day or two, maybe longer,” said Mort thoughtfully, “not unless he wants to risk bleeding out again, it’s real nasty that wound Jess.”
“I know it,” said Jess softly, kneeling down by his buddy and pulling the blanket more firmly around him, “We’ll just have to sit it out until he’s stronger.”
Then Mort suddenly seemed to come alive, a light of interested in his eyes for the first time since Bella’s sad demise.
“Denver James you say….so was Kate with him?”
Chapter 6
Slim has slept through supper and Jess had produced a scratch meal for himself and Mort, just throwing the prisoners some jerky and a canteen. They gave him a baleful look but knew better than to rile him having witnessed the Harper temper earlier
Now Jess and Mort sat beside the fire, a glass of whiskey apiece thinking their own thoughts.
Mort was in a dilemma. He really wanted to see Kate…but another part of him was feeling guilty as hell.
Why oh why hadn’t he shared his plans for his betrothal to Bella with his dear friend? Heck she was more than just a friend Mort admitted to himself…Kate and he were …well on intimate terms…real intimate…on occasion. And that was where the problem lay as Mort knew. They were just a couple who met up occasionally, had a good time together; no strings attached and then went their own separate ways on the surface. But he knew it went far deeper than that, as far he was concerned anyway.
That was the way Kate wanted it. She said she couldn’t be tied down to any one man again, not after her beloved Charlie had passed. Sure, she knew all about Mort’s Grace passing over and his baby stillborn son. Knew he was looking for something more from her too…but she just wasn’t prepared to commit again.
So why did he feel so blamed bad that he’d not told Kate his exciting news. He’d had a good few weeks to ride up the mountain and seek her out, but something had stopped him. And now Bella was dead, his life in tatters and he couldn’t even turn to Kate for sympathy and understanding, knowing how hurt she would be that he’d kept his nuptials a secret from her.
He sighed deeply, hell if anyone knew about keeping secrets it was Kate he thought sadly, letting out another lusty sigh.
“Mort are you OK?” asked Jess, concern in his deep blue eyes.
“What’s up buddy…thinkin’ of Bella?”
Mort ducked his head and then looked over at the younger man, “Nope, Kate.”
“Hell Jess don’t say it like that. If ya must know I was just feelin’ kinda bad that I didn’t tell her about me and Bella, felt like I was kinda cheatin’ on her I guess. I know we didn’t have an understanding as such, but well I figure she saw me as the man in her life…when she wanted me that is,” he said with rueful look.
“Oh, she knew alright,” said Jess quietly, “I told her myself.”
“You did? Asked Mort looking surprised, “When …why?”
“I thought she should know. I bumped into her on a Mustang trip a few weeks after you’d popped the question.”
“Ah, so that’s why she hasn’t been to town in months or to visit me,” said Mort, the truth suddenly dawning, “So how did she take it?”
Jess shrugged, “Kind of surprised I guess and hurt that you’d said nuthin’.”
“Garldarn it, I never meant for that to happen.”
“I know buddy and so does Kate. She was fine after I’d explained. I said you were real busy in town, got a lot on, trials to attend and the like.”
“Made excuses for me you mean?” said Mort looking even more sheepish.
Jess shrugged again, “Just trying to save her feelings, ol’ Kate means a lot to me, you know that.”
“Sure…sure I do Jess and to me too,” he said softly and the men fell silent again, sipping their whiskey and peering into the flickering camp fire, once more alone with their thoughts.
The following morning Jess checked on his pard as soon as he woke up and sat back a grim look on his handsome face at what he saw.
Slim was flushed and sweating, rolling around on his bedroll with a high fever.
Jess immediately stripped him down to his undershorts and then bathed his body in cool water before checking out the wound.
What he saw made his mouth go dry and his heart pound. The deep wound looked to be badly infected with an angry red, ragged edge to it and Jess knew at once his buddy desperately needed the skill of a doctor to treat him.
He was just pondering the problem when Mort loped into the cave from where he’d been out to check the weather conditions.
“I guess Denver was right, that tracks nigh impassable right now. I figure we’ll just have to tough it out until the weather changes. I reckon it’ll thaw in a few days, too dang early for it to have set in proper.
Then he was suddenly aware that Jess hadn’t replied and was kneeling down by his partner, just staring down ay him in dismay.
He had cleaned the wound again, with some of the spirit, hating to see Slim’s agony, but knowing there was no other way. Then he had re bandaged the damaged shoulder, so when Mort glanced over all looked to be just fine, with Slim once more sleeping.
Mort glanced from Jess, to Slim and back again and then saw the look of anxiety in his friend’s eyes.
“Hey Jess, what’s up, he’s OK isn’t he?”
Jess finally dragged his gaze away from Slim’s, now pale, sweating countenance and shook his head.
“No Mort he ain’t…he really ain’t.“
Mort had brewed some coffee and it was a good half hour later when he finally persuaded Jess to leave his buddy to sleep and come over and drink it.
“Look Jess I can see how concerned you are, but believe me there is absolutely no way we can get him all the way down to the Docs. We’d dang well kill him in the process!”
“Well I figure he’ll die anyway if we stay here,” Jess countered.
Mort gave a low whistle, “He’s really that bad?”
“Said so didn’t I!” Jess spat. “Hell Mort, I know about gunshot wounds, don’t I? I’m a darned expert,” he muttered darkly.
It was then that Chas Dean made a dreadful error of judgement.
Being unaware of the drama unfolding at the front of the cave he yelled out irritably.
“Any chance of some breakfast back here, we’re damn well starvin’!”
That was like a red rag to a bull and Jess was up and across the cave like greased lightning and had back slapped Chas viciously across the face before Mort could move a muscle.
He finally gathered his wits together and marching over eventually managed to haul Jess off his victim.
“Goddamn it Jess, will you simmer down, this isn’t gonna help Slim any!”
“Maybe not…but it sure in Hell’s makin’ me feel better,” said Jess looking down with contempt at the now cowering Chas Dean.
Mort finally persuaded him back to the camp fire, but the ruckus had woken Slim.
“J…Jess?” He whispered and the dark haired cowboy was at his side immediately.
“I’m here pard. Are you OK, do ya want some water?”
Slim shook his head, “Wh…what’s all the yelling about?”
“Nuthin’…nuthin’ Slim just you rest up some huh, you ain’t so good right now.”
Slim raised a quizzical eyebrow, “You don’t say,” he whispered.
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “Feelin’ pretty bad huh?”
Slim groaned softly, “Yeah I am. I need to see Doc Sam I reckon.”
“Yeah, I guess you do at that pard. Look you just settle down, take a nap and leave it to me OK?”
Slim nodded weakly and a moment later he fell back into a restless sleep.
Once he was certain his buddy was out of it Jess checked his gun and then shrugged into his sheepskin jacket that had been drying by the fire.
Mort’s head shot up, from where he’d made a start on heating up some beans for everyone’s breakfast.
“So where in tarnation do you think you’re going?” he asked looking irritated.
“To find Kate I figure she’s the next best thing we’ve got to the Doc, her herbal medicines sure brought me back from the brink once.”
Mort stared hard at his friend for a moment and then transferred his gaze to the cave mouth.
“Are you crazy?” he asked inclining his head to where the snow was once more spiraling down, the north wind whisking it into a white frenzy. “Ol’ Trav would lose his footing after a few yards in that, see sense Jess.”
“I ain’t takin’ my horse,” he said grimly, “goin’ on foot.”
“Well that’s even worse,” exploded Mort… “Hell it’s practically blizzard conditions Jess, it will take you God knows how long to make it up to Denver’s camp…if you make it up that is.”
“Well I’d better get started then hadn’t I?” said Jess fastening his jacket and pulling his hat down hard before reaching for his rifle.
Mort just shook his head, knowing there was no arguing with Jess when he was like this.
He tried his last shot, the guilt card.
“So, you’re leaving me up here with a sick man and two killers to sort out on my own are you?”He asked belligerently.
“That’s about the size of it yeah,” said Jess aware of the Sheriff’s ploy. Then more gently, “I will be back Mort I promise you, but you’ve gotta see I can’t let Slim down.”
Mort sighed deeply. Then after a few minutes deliberation he finally capitulated, “Sure, I guess I can see that. Just watch your back huh.”
Jess nodded and after one last glance over at his pard he turned and made for the cave entrance.
Outside the wind was howling and the snow was flung against his face stinging his eyes and making it almost impossible to see where he was going. But he once more pulled his hat down hard and set off for where he’d last seen Denver.
The going was tough and he stumbled and fell a couple of times on the steep icy track on the way to the spring, but once he arrived he looked around trying to get his bearings.
When Denver had left him, he’d been heading further up the mountain and Jess figured the camp would be quite a goodly way up, furnishing it with a panoramic view. He chuckled to himself at the thought, knowing Denver was a crafty old devil and would want to see any strangers advancing on his illicit Still, well before they saw him.
He scrambled up the track for a further hour or so, the going hard and dangerous with a steep drop to his right and the mountain face to his left. The track went spiralling upwards, occasionally opening out onto a plateau where he could have seen for miles he knew if the weather hadn’t closed in so completely.
He wondered if Denver and his boys were abroad in such dire conditions, but imagined they’d be hugging their hearth and possibly even enjoying some of their hard labours in the form of the Moonshine. Then he got to thinking about Kate and just hoped to God that she was back from her hunting trip and not holed up miles away on the far side of the mountain. Hell, this hostile environment was no place for a woman he thought. Why couldn’t Kate have just seen sense and settled down with Mort where she’d have been safe and cared for in her later years? But oh no Kate was far too stubborn and fiercely independent, as he knew of old.
Maybe it was because he was worrying about dear Kate and her problems? But what ever the reason he let his concentration wander for a few seconds… but that was enough.
He missed his footing on a particularly treacherous stretch of the icy track and pitched over the edge…falling, down…down…down, crashing against a tree trunk before he finally came to rest in the deep snow some twenty feet below.
The pristine snow gradually stained a bright blood red near Jess’s head as he lay motionless.
It was several hours later when he finally came around groaning weakly. He was soaking wet, freezing cold and every inch of him seemed to be crying out in pain. He was lying on his front and as he moved his head slightly an agonising pain shot through his temple where it had come into close contact with a tree branch on the way down.
Very cautiously he moved his limbs and then struggled to turn on his back, but the effort brought him out in a cold sweat and he passed out again for a few minutes.
When he came around again he was able to make some sense of what had happened. The snow had finally ceased falling and he could peer back up the mountain from whence he had fallen. He gave a low whistle, feeling amazed that he hadn’t actually broken anything. That was when he tried to sit up and fell back in agony. Jeez, the pain in his chest was excruciating. He probed the area gently with a hesitant hand and gasped in pain again…nope, busted nuthin’ save a few ribs he guessed, grimacing in pain.
Then he looked around him desperately until he saw what he was searching for, his rifle. Hell he sure felt vulnerable stuck out on this ledge with nothing to protect him save his hand gun. That wouldn’t afford him too much protection if the buzzards started down on him…not to mention wolves or cougars. Hell he’d need something with some range to stop them in their tracks he figured and right now he was dinner on a plate for any passing critter.
He finally saw it, just sticking out of the snow a matter of a few feet away and he painfully crawled towards it, the effort almost making him faint again from the pain in his head, “Come on Harper git a grip,” he spat angrily and a moment later he had the barrel in his grasp.
Once he had the weapon back in his possession he sank back in the snow and decided on his next move. He looked up from where he’d fallen and knew there was no way he could ever climb back and then looked over the edge of the ledge and saw there was another drop of six feet or so, before he was back on a trail, albeit much further down the mountain from where he’d started.
He cussed long and loud before very carefully lowering himself over the edge and jumping the last few feet, to land on his back in the icy snow once more. He dragged himself up and dusted the light snow off before getting his bearings. He figured the track would eventually meet up with the other and he would just have to start again from scratch. Then he peered up to the heavens and realised that there was probably only a few hours of daylight left. He cussed again knowing that night time would mean a death sentence. The temperature would drop and he was already cold and wet, with no means of making a fire this was it…unless….
He raised his rifle and let off a volley of shots. Maybe, just maybe Denver would hear and come and investigate. He trudged on for a few more yards before everything started to turn black once more. He eventually fell to his knees and collapsed again in a dead faint, the head wound finally taking its toll.
When he awoke he was wrapped in a warm blanket covered in a heavy bearskin. The room seemed to be in darkness. But then after a few minutes his eyes became accustomed to the light and he was able to make out a huge fireplace with a fire crackling away, the shapes of four figures sitting before it talking quietly.
He tried to sit up, but the pain in his head and chest made him give an involuntary cry and he fell back down again.
A moment later a lamp was lit and the reassuring figure of Kate Munroe wandered over and smiled down at him.
“Well howdy Jessie boy, so how are you feeling now?” she asked kindly, using his childhood name.
“Kate…Jeez it’s good to see ya. It’s Slim as needs help he’s holed up back at the Church Cavern with Mort and a couple of prisoners. He was shot up real bad Kate, can you go see him… I’m kinda worried.”
“Sure, sure boy,” she said kindly kneeling down beside the cot he was lying on and gently brushing his wavy hair back from his forehead. “As soon as it’s light I’ll go check him, now how about you, how are you feeling now huh?”
“OK,” he whispered putting a hand to his chest. Then he withdrew it and threw Kate an anxious look, “Did you bandage me up?”
She nodded, “You’ve got a couple of ribs stove in son. A nasty gash to the head too, figure you’re a mite concussed. I reckon you could be headin’ for a chill too lying around in those soaking duds as you were.”
Jess put another tentative hand under the blanket and then flushed up, he was totally naked.
“Hey was it you saw to me Kate?” He asked in trepidation.
“Sure it was Jessie, stripped ya off, rubbed ya dry and tended your wounds too.”
“You did?” he yelped.
“Well sure, Honey heck I’ve known you since you were in diapers, it isn’t a problem boy,” she said with a chuckle.
“Well I ain’t in diapers now Ma’am,” said Jess firmly, “and I’d be obliged iffen you’d give me my pants back.”
She gave a huge guffaw, slapping her buckskin clad thigh, but wandered off and returned with his dry clothes and Denver in tow.
“So how are you feeling then Jess? ’Twas lucky young Cody heard you firing off your rifle and went to investigate. A mite longer and you’d have frozen solid boy.”
Jess was getting mighty tired of being referred to as boy, son and Jessie, but there again Kate and Denver had a good few years on him and his Ma had always taught him to respect his elders so he took a deep breath and kept his mouth shut.
Then Denver’s boys Cody and Mick loomed up behind their Pa.
“Jess…you OK?” asked Cody with a broad grin, “Got yer self in kinda a pickle out there didn’t ya?”
Jess groaned inwardly, Hell sure he was grateful, but all he wanted to do was put his pants on in privacy and go to sleep.
“Thanks Cody I guess I owe you,” he said with the ghost of a smile.
Kate finally took pity on him and shooed the others away before draping his clothes on an old chair by the bed.
“Sure you can manage?” she asked with a wicked wink.
But Jess’ expression was enough to make her back off.
“I’ll go fetch you a coffee with a drop of comfort in it boy, help you sleep,” she said cheerfully.
When she returned he’d put on his underclothes and was laying back against the pillow looking pale and drawn.
“There you go Jess, that’ll fix you up,” she said smiling as she passed the coffee over to him, liberally laced with moonshine.
Jess accepted it from her sniffing appreciatively and took a sip, as Kate sat down on the chair beside him.
“So…Mort’s with you, you say?”
Jess was awake and ready to return to the cavern at first light, but Kate wouldn’t hear of it.
You’re sick boy, got a real bad head injury there, bruised ribs too, you really don’t want to be wandering about out there in this dang awful weather. I think you should stay abed for a couple of days.
Jess had just about come to the end of his patience.
“Look Kate I really don’t give a damn what you think. I’m going to check on my partner. Now are you coming to help me out or not?”
She glared at him for a moment and finally capitulated, being well acquainted with the Harper stubborn streak.
“I’ll git my medicine bag,” she muttered and marched off.
When they set off shortly afterwards Jess was relieved to see that the snow had already started to thaw.
“The track should be passable in a day or two,” Kate said cheerfully, as she strode along beside Jess her deep blue eyes twinkling and her whole persona being one of health and well-being. She was a mighty fine woman for a lady of her middle years Jess reflected and wondered absently what Mort would say when they turned up. But then his thoughts turned to Slim and he increased his pace an anxious expression on his slender face.
As soon as they arrived at the cavern he ran over to where Slim still lay on his bedroll and threw himself down by his side.
“Slim, pard how are you doing?” he asked, but Slim seemed to be deeply asleep. Then Jess noted the dying embers of the fire and felt a twist of anger at Mort for not having tended it to keep Slim warm.
He suddenly sensed all was not well and standing up he walked slowly towards the back of the cave calling out to Mort, thinking he was feeding the horses… but nothing. Then he spun around to peer into the darker recesses of the cave to check on the prisoners….and gasped in shock…they were gone.
“What the Hell?“
Then Kate called him.
“Jess get yourself over here will you, we need to build this fire up. Slim is really cold and then I want you to help with the medication.”
Jess strode over, his mind in turmoil, where in blue blazes was Mort and what had he done with the prisoners?
Once the camp fire was crackling merrily Jess and Kate turned to the task of tending Slim’s wound.
Kate skillfully dispensed with the dirty dressings and then sat back on her heels and surveyed the raw suppurating wound.
“Well this is kinda nasty ain’t it?” she muttered to herself, before delving into her medicine bag and retrieving a small pot containing a foul smelling ointment and started applying it liberally to the wound.
Jess reeled back in disgust, “What in Hell’s name is that Kate, smells like something died.”
She gave him a grim smile, “One of nature’s finest sharp shooters. You could say it’s the Jess Harper of the plant world,” she said with a chuckle. “It don’t take no prisoners where these nasty old bugs are concerned see, it kills off all the bad stuff so Slim here can heal.”
“If you say so,” said Jess looking unconvinced.
“OK that’s the wound dealt with, we need to change the dressing and reapply every two to three hours. So now we need to treat the internal troubles.”
“A wound like this upsets a body. I guess he’s been kinda feverish, sickly feeling?”
Jess nodded.
“Right so he needs a few doses of my pick me up, herbal again, but will get him feeling a bit more like his old self. Jess boy can you wake him and sit him up and we’ll get the first dose down,” she said shaking a brown bottle vigorously.
Jess gently shook Slim and when that didn’t work he did it again rather more energetically and called his name.
“Hey Hardrock, wake up, Miss Kate’s come a visitin’ wants to give ya some of her herbal,“ he was going to say muck, but stopped just in time, “err…stuff,” he amended vaguely.
Slim was finally roused and gave a faint smile when he saw his pard and Kate looking anxiously down at him.
“OK Slim, just a drop of medicine to help you feel more like,” said Kate kindly, as Jess raised him up and supported his buddy.
The smell of the contents of the bottle made the cowboy’s eyes water and Jess recoiled and cussed lightly under his breath.
“Open wide Slim,” said Kate with asperity, seeing the stubborn look, something akin to his partner’s, suddenly manifest itself on Slim’s usually placid features.
Once the deed was done Jess relaxed his buddy back down on his bedroll and pulled the blanket around him.
“OK now pard?”
“Sure,” whispered Slim.
Then turning to Kate, “Thanks,” he said softly, knowing in his heart that no matter how foul Kate’s medicines were they always did the trick.
Then Jess broached the subject he’d wanted to ever since he entered the cave.
“So where in Hell are Mort and the prisoners Slim?”
Slim rolled his head and looked vaguely around, “I dunno.”
Then he remembered, “Oh yeah…they woke me up, there was one Hell of a ruckus. It was that Kurt. He started baiting Mort about, well everything you know and old Mort lost it. I mean hell he was so all fired mad Jess!”
Jess looked anxious, “Mad enough to do something stupid?”
They exchanged a glance, “Maybe, I guess you’d better go after them, they’ve been gone a while.”
“But gone where for goodness sake?” said Jess looking bewildered.
Slim just shook his head, “To find a tall tree maybe?”
Jess sucked in a deep breath, “You think?”
“Dunno, but like I say you should go find him Jess, I’ll be fine here with Kate,” he whispered before closing his eyes and drifting off again.
Jess had almost forgotten Kate’s presence and now he glanced across at her.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Jess just stared at her open mouthed for a second before scrambling up from where he’d been kneeling next to his partner.
“Ain’t got time Kate, I’ll explain later,” and with one last glance down at Slim’s pale face he made for the cave entrance.
He knew logically that they couldn’t have been going up the mountain as he and Kate would have passed them on the way down.
He skirted around the cave and peering down into the fast melting snow and was finally able to see three sets of tracks heading, as he had thought, down the mountain track. The tracks were leading towards a small pine wood, halfway down the mountain which had a stream running through it he remembered. He and Slim had camped there a few times whilst out hunting. The tall trees that had afforded them shelter would also be ideal for a lynching, he now thought in consternation.
His head was pounding and every so often he had to stop and take some deep breaths to ease the dizziness and nausea before again taking off at a brisk pace, his heart beating fast at the thought of what he might find. He slithered and fell a couple of times in the now slushy snow…but all he could think of was that he must find Mort before he did something he would regret forever.
Hell this wasn’t like Mort, ever the professional law man. His feelings always kept well in check no matter what the issue. But there again Mort had never been in this position before and as Jess had said, who knows how a man would act when sorely tried as Mort had been?
Then he remembered back to when his own beloved fiancée, Maria, had been shot dead in front of him and how he’d instantly killed her assassin. If that had not been the case and he was put in Mort’s position, might he not have taken the law into his own hands too? As that thought struck him he increased his pace, now sweating and shaking in dread at what he might find.
He came across them down by the stream, both the prisoners standing close to the Sheriff, still manacled, Mort with his rifle trained on them.
“OK,” said Mort gruffly, “We’ve been away far too long, I need to get back and check on my buddy, so I guess this is the end of the road we’ve found….”
“Mort!” Jess yelled and hurried forwards glancing from the prisoners to Mort and back his expression one of shock, “Mort what in Hell are you doin?”
Mort swung around to see his friend, “Huh? Oh, howdy Jess. Look I’m real sorry I left Slim it’s just that we had some business to attend to that couldn’t wait,” he said turning his rifle back on the prisoners.
Jess inched his way forwards and gently tipped Mort’s rifle downwards, “This really ain’t the way buddy,” he said softly.
Mort’s head shot up and he looked puzzled, “What are you talking about Jess?”
“No you first,” Jess said quickly… “you were sayin’ somethin’ about this bein’ the end of the road?” he asked his gaze flitting from Chas to Kurt and back again to Mort.
“Huh? Oh yeah, the end of the road, that’s it, we’ve found the saddle bags with the money from the bank heist, so I was just about to go back and check on Slim,” he said casually.
“Wha…what?” stuttered Jess, suddenly losing the plot.
“Well we had a kinda bust up back at the cave,” Mort said softly, walking away from the prisoners a little and speaking for Jess’s ears only. “That Kurt really started to rile me. Hell I reckon he’s plumb loco you know Jess, he was bragging about…” he took a deep breath and finally continued, “about killing Bella…said he wished Millie had died too!”
“He said what!” Jess exploded turning to glare at the younger man now standing with his brother looking defiant.
“Leave it Jess…just simmer down!” said Mort quickly.
“Well that’s rich coming from you,” Jess retaliated. “It looks to me like you brought ’em out here to finish things, so where do you get off preachin’ to me Mort?” he asked angrily.
“I did what?” Mort asked looking shocked.
“Well you were gonna string ‘em high, or shoot ‘em weren’t ya?”
Mort just gaped at him for a moment and then looked shocked, “Hell no…we came out here to get the money like I told you. They’d hidden the saddlebags from the robbery real close to the stream. Chas was worried that when the snow thawed the creek would be swollen and overflow to those rocks, over yonder, where he’d hidden the bags.”
Jess looked from the saddle bags slung over Mort’s shoulder to the swollen stream.
“But, you were sayin’ that Kurt was riling’ ya something fierce before?”
“Yes he was. That’s when Chas decided to try and calm things down some. I reckon he thought iffen I was on a mission to find the money I’d leave his kid brother alone and as it happens he was right. So shall we get back Jess, I figure Slim will be getting’ a tad cold…huh?”
Jess looked down feeling mighty foolish and kinda embarrassed.
“I’m sorry Mort, I was wrong I shouldn’t have thought that of you.”
Mort looked at him long and hard. “Don’t be,” he said after a few moments, “Iffen Chas hadn’t intervened that way…well who knows… I guess even lawmen are only human,” he said giving Jess a little punch on the arm. “Come on let’s get back to your partner.”
Chapter 7
As soon as they arrived back at the cave Jess went immediately to check on Slim.
“He’s just fine Jess sleeping like a baby,” said Kate grinning at the young cowboy as she stood up from where she’d been seated beside her patient. Then she looked past Jess and saw Mort just entering the cave with the prisoners at gun point.
She said after a little gasp of surprise, shocked to see Mort looking so drained and seeming to have aged since she last clapped eyes on him, but then gathered herself, “Howdy Mort,” she said.
The Sheriff stopped in his tracks and just stared at his old friend for a moment before finally acknowledging her, “Kate…howdy, long time no see….”
Neither moved and there was an embarrassed silence which Jess picked up on at once.
Marching over to the Sheriff he said gently, “Why don’t you and Kate catch up buddy, I’ll deal with these two,” and he roughly pushed Kurt and Chas to the back of the cave and started to tie them up once more.
Mort came forwards and nodded when Kate gestured to the coffee pot and then they settled down by the fire.
After a moment’s silence Mort said softly, “So how’s Slim now?”
“Much better already,” she responded, “if he rests the next couple of days I figure he’ll be strong enough to ride out by the end of the week. As long as he takes it real slow,” she qualified.
“Good, that’s good,” replied Mort and then there was an uncomfortable silence once more.
As the silence lengthened Kate finally said, “So why didn’t you tell me Mort, about you and Mrs Holmes…huh?”
At the mention of Bella’s name Mort flinched a little and his eyes softened.
“I dunno,” he said quietly, “I was kinda busy in town I guess and….”
“Bull,” said Kate robustly, “Too busy to come and tell the woman you said was a kindred spirit? The one you implied would be welcome at your hearth side…maybe even move in permanent with ya?”
“And you turned me down flat,” retorted Mort crossly.
“Uh, that’s as maybe,” replied Kate with spirit, “but I still thought we were friends Mort Cory!”
“Well so we are,” he said, now turning wretched eyes on her before ducking his head.
“So,” she persisted, “am I invited to the happy day then…huh?”
When he didn’t reply, but still sat with his gaze cast down she became slightly irritated.
“I can scrub up real well ya know Mort. I ain’t always in buckskins. I’ve got me a real smart Sunday dress and a hat to match too.”
Mort sighed lustily and finally looked across at her, thinking fleetingly what a handsome woman she was.
“You’re not invited because there isn’t gonna be a wedding,” he finally managed.
Shock, surprise and then concern flitted across Kate’s striking features, followed by anger.
“Don’t say she’s thrown you over,” she finally managed…looking mortally offended on her friend’s behalf, “I just don’t believe it crazy woman!”
Mort continued to stare at the ground before finally raising deeply saddened eyes to her, “No Kate she ain’t …she’s dead.”
But before he could elaborate Slim groaned and awoke, Jess hurried over and Kate just stared at Mort looking aghast.
It was shortly afterwards, when Mort had excused himself saying he needed some air that Jess filled Kate in on Bella’s sad demise.
“And you say it was that son-of-a-bitch”? she said nodding towards Kurt at the back of the cave, “that did it?”
Jess just nodded, “He injured my Millie too.”
Kate looked dismayed, “Badly Jess?”
“Bad enough, but I guess she’s on the mend now, but it could have gone the other way,” he said bitterly, casting Kurt an evil glare.
“They’ll string him up…there are witnesses…evidence against him?”
“Oh yeah,” said Jess quietly, “he’ll swing alright.”
It was later that night before Jess and Slim had the chance to talk over recent events.
Kate had offered to stay a while to keep an eye on Slim and change his dressings regularly and she had turned in shortly after supper, saying she would awake at midnight to check on her patient.
Mort and Jess had sat up drinking the odd glass of Denver’s brew, chatting, until the Sheriff too decided to turn in, while Jess offered to take first watch.
Now Jess sat on the other side of the fire watching Mort and Kate sleeping, their bedrolls a chaste distance apart wondering if they would be able to reclaim their former friendship. He knew Kate had been deeply hurt by being cut out of Mort’s life. He also knew Mort himself was finding it real hard to look to any future, let alone one that might include Kate.
He recalled the night of Bella’s funeral and how he and Slim had talked about the dreadful time after Jess had also lost his fiancée and how Slim had helped him through it all. Now his mind drifted back to that time once again, the recent events making it seem like it was just yesterday.
He remembered back to how he felt after he’d lost Maria. His world had been a dark, dark place….as though he was trapped in some dreadful pit, to which there was no way out. God knows he had tried to deal with the situation, working himself into the ground in the desperate desire to destroy, or at least bury, all his past memories and feelings. Almost as though he could out run them as he rode out every day taking on the relentlessly hard work with no thought to his health or well being. He had literally worked himself into the ground and it was in this state of near collapse that Slim had finally managed to get him to sit and talk about the situation.
That had been the turning point. Jess had finally stopped running and faced his grief head on…Hell it hadn’t been easy, probably the hardest thing he had ever done, discussing his raw emotions with his best friend. Letting out all the anger and pain …the floodgates finally opening as the grief poured out of him. But that had been the gateway to his healing and although it took time, with many a backwards step in the twists and turns of coming to terms with his loss…he finally made it.
But even now with Millie’s love and his own strength and resolve to move on from those sad days…even now, the situation he currently found himself in had the power to kick him in the guts.
Seeing Millie hurt that way and Mort’s raw grief had brought it all back and he was feeling kinda edgy and not a little depressed.
He was looking deeply into the fire and sipping his coffee when Slim awoke.
Slim suddenly felt much better and he sat up and was just about to speak when he saw the look of bleak despair in his friend’s eyes.
“Jess…you OK pard?”
Jess’s head shot up and he glanced across at his buddy, “Yeah I guess…it ain’t me as stopped a slug, so how are you feelin’ now Slim?”
“Much better thanks, I figure Kate’s worked one of her miracles again.”
Jess smiled, “That’s real good.”
After a pause Slim asked, “Any of that coffee going?”
Jess grinned at him, “Sure,” and pouring a cup he passed it over.
As he moved closer Slim saw the dressing to his temple.
“Hey what have you been up to pard?”
“Aww, nuthin’ just took me a little tumble down the mountain. But Kate fixed me up real good,” he said dismissively.
Slim guessed his partner was making light of it, but knew he hated fussin’ and frettin’, as he called it, so said nothing… But then he again saw that look of wretchedness in his eyes.
“It’s not that which is hurting is it Jess?” he said softly. “All this has brought it back hasn’t it…Maria and everything you went through…huh? I’m right aren’t I?”
Jess just nodded miserably, refusing to meet his eye, “I guess,” he said quietly.
Slim sighed deeply, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well it was all a long time ago and me and Millie, well we’ve got something real special, you know that, it’s just…”
“It’s the unfairness of it all,” said Slim softly, “Maria dying that way…when she had everything to live for?”
Jess ducked his head and then looked over to Slim, “Yeah, I guess that’s it and somethin’ else…about this Kurt. Mort says he was taunting him, about killin’ Bella. It’s like he’s got no remorse at all Slim. Hell…that’s so dang wrong,” and he took a long steadying breath.
Then he turned to Slim, “Kate reckons you’ll be fine to ride by the end of the week…yeah?”
“Yup, sure I will, maybe tomorrow, why Jess?”
“Just gotta get out of here Slim deliver the prisoners in one piece and let the hang man have his day, the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”
“Does Mort feel the same?”
Jess just shrugged, “It’s kinda hard to tell what Mort’s thinkin’ right now Slim….”
They rode out just a couple of days later with Kate’s blessing. She had promised to visit Mort when she came into town in a few weeks to pick up some winter supplies.
The couple said a brief farewell as Slim and Jess sorted out the prisoners, tying them tightly to Samson and Clyde, Mister Southern’s big old cart horses.
“You think Mort’ ll be able to mend a few fences?” asked Jess, nodding across the camp to where the Sheriff and Kate were in deep conversation.
Slim shrugged, “I dunno, women can be kinda unforgiving when treated that way, but Kate’s sensible and real fond of Mort, maybe they’ll work it out. I sure hope so,” he said turning to smile at his pard.
“All I’m saying is I think you need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling,” said Kate, searching Mort’s face, her expression one of deep concern.
“You must be feeling devastated,” she continued, “but to hear you talk, it’s almost like this love of your life has simply moved back east…not died tragically Mort!”
Mort refused to meet her eye, and just said sarcastically, “Well I’m sorry iffen I don’t fit the bill when it comes to mourning Kate, but I guess we’re all different.”
She sighed lustily, “I guess so, look after yourself, huh?” she said softly, before reaching up and kissing his cheek tenderly.
The trip home was uneventful. The Trial took place just two weeks later and Chas was given an extended prison sentence for aggravated burglary and shooting a lawman, as Slim had been wearing a deputy badge. Whereas his brother Kurt was sentenced to hang for the murder of one Bella Holmes and attempted murder of one Millicent Johnson.
The trial itself had been harrowing for Millie who had to give evidence and for Jess too, especially when he once more witnessed Kurt’s callous lack of remorse. In fact, he was furious and would have knocked some into the young man given half the chance.
Mort had been given some well-earned leave after the trial, and the prisoners were in the custody of his nephew Brett and Lon who was Acting Sheriff during Mort’s break.
It was the night before the hanging and Jess had landed in town earlier in readiness for the execution the next day. It wasn’t that he was ghoulish or gained any pleasure from seeing another suffer that way, but he just felt a deep-seated need to see justice done.
When he arrived at the Sheriff’s office he was surprised to see Kurt’s cell was empty and looked askance of Lon.
“He’s over at the doc’s place escorted by Brett, seems he’d managed to get hold of a knife, tried to finish it before the hangman could do his job.”
Jess gave a low whistle, “Is he hurt bad?”
Lon grinned across, “Nope I caught him just in time, a cut wrist, and the doc will be able to patch him up.”
“Good,” said Jess nastily, “It would sure be a shame for him to cheat the rope.”
Lon just shrugged, “I guess, but you know it must be kinda hard waiting on that Jess. I reckon you can understand him wanting to find a way out huh?”
“Oh yeah,” said Jess bitterly, “I know alright…been there myself ain’t I?”*See #13 The Silver Lady
“Err, yup, sure sorry Jess I forgot,” said Lon looking embarrassed.
“Yeah well,” and Jess just shrugged moodily, before turning back to the Deputy. “Thing I just don’t understand is how a man can be like that, killin’ an innocent woman in cold blood that way?”
At that moment there was a call from the cells beyond the office and Lon got up and opening the adjoining door said, “Yeah, what’s up Chas?”
“Can I speak to Harper a moment…please?” he asked sounding almost deferential to Jess’s surprise.
He nodded to Lon’s questioning glance and strode over to the cells.
“Yeah what do ya want?” he asked abruptly.
Chas sighed deeply, looking down before meeting Jess’s steely gaze.
“To answer your question I guess, or at least try to.”
Lon wandered back to his desk leaving them to it and eventually Jess said, “OK go on then, I’m listenin’.”
“See my kid brother had kinda a hard life….and…”
“No kiddin’,” spat Jess furiously, “so that gives him the right to gun down women does it? Don’t tell me he was bullied as a kid…never gotten over it huh?” he spat.
“Look just listen will ya please, it means a lot to me that I try and explain to you, make it right by Kurt some…if I can.”
Jess just shrugged but remained leaning on the cell bars and said nothing, obviously waiting to be convinced.
“See it was this way…our Ma….,” he swallowed deeply before looking up at Jess, “Well she was no good Harper a real bad ‘un. She never wanted me, or the kid, couldn’t wait to get shot of us, school, or a relative in the holidays. See we cramped her style some.“
“Oh?” asked Jess raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Yeah, she was a whore. Oh a real high class one, but none the less earned her living lyin’ on her back and what’s worse she enjoyed it, enjoyed bragging’ about it to my Pa too.”
Jess gasped in shock, “What kinda man would put up with that?”
“A crippled one, he had a bad accident, couldn’t work no more, so it was up to Ma to earn the money.”
“Even so…flaunting it that way?”
“Yes, I know, pretty bad eh? I figure Ma or Pa were what you’d call real good role models. But that’s what Kurt was brought up on. He saw the way Ma was and even as a little kid he knew…knew what it was all about,” he said shaking his head sadly at the memory, before continuing. “He heard the way the punters talked about her too, so darned disrespectful.” He sighed again. “So that’s the way he was brought up to think of women. In his mind they are all uncarin’, un-feelin’ and worst of all just to be used as sex objects. Used and discarded as the mood took him.”
Jess looked down, “I guess maybe he did have kind of a rough start, but that don’t….”
“What excuse him? No, it doesn’t Harper, but maybe it answers your question as to why…huh? It was what that Mrs Holmes said, that set him off. She asked if his Ma knew what he was up to. Well any mention of Ma sends him into a rage, always has done.”
Jess considered that, “Yup, maybe I can see as to why he did it. He’s kinda crazy too ain’t he?”
Chas just nodded, “Yes he’s all of that. Ma walked out on us when I was fifteen, Kurt just turned ten. Pa was dead by then and so it was just me and him. I did my best,” he said turning pitiful eyes on Jess, “really I did Harper but it weren’t easy I was just a kid myself.”
Jess nodded really beginning to understand some now.
“Then he discovered the grog at about fourteen and whores pretty soon after and I guess he’s been keepin’ the Devil company ever since.”
Jess nodded, “Umm, you’re right there. Have ya told the Sheriff this, Mort Cory that is?”
Chas gave him a sorrowful look, “Oh yeah, but he weren’t real interested.”
Jess threw him a hard look, “Well would you be iffen it was your woman in her grave?”
Chas bowed his head, “No I guess not.”
They were silent for a moment and then Chas said finally, “He hangs tomorrow, maybe that’ll help the Sheriff some and iffen it’s of any consequence, then I‘m real sorry Harper, for what he did to your girl too.”
Jess took a deep breath and from somewhere deep inside himself he was able to find a grain of forgiveness, for Chas anyway if not his crazy brother.
“Thanks;” he said softly, “I appreciate you saying that,” and shortly afterwards he left.
Chapter 8
The days turned to weeks and still Mort failed to come to terms with his sad loss.
He had become taciturn and curt with his staff even young Brett who was a much loved nephew. He steadfastly refused to even speak of Bella. And he was distant and hostile towards even his closest friends if they tried to help him in any way. Insisting he was just fine.
“He ain’t though is he?” asked Jess of Lon, one chilly winter’s afternoon, “He really ain’t coping is he?”
They had been discussing Mort’s latest behaviour. He had decided to take time off and had isolated himself in his house refusing to see anyone.
“Says he’s got a bad head cold, doesn’t want disturbing,” said Lon looking miserable, “But I’ll tell you Jess he ain’t sick, not physically anyway purely sick at heart.”
“Is he still refusing to talk about her?”
“Yup, ain’t visited the grave either, it’s like she never existed.”
Jess sighed deeply, “I guess it’s time for some plain speakin’.”
Lon rolled his eyes, “Well good luck buddy, that’s iffen you get past the front door that is.”
When Jess had been knocking for a good five minutes to no avail he lost his temper.
“Garldarn it Mort will ya open this goddamn door before I kick it down!” he yelled.
After a few minutes the door was dragged open and Mort stood there. He was looking unkempt with a good three days growth of beard, his clothes looking like he’d been sleeping in them and his countenance surly.
“What in hell are you playing at Jess? Can’t a man be sick in peace without the world and his dog knocking his door down,” he spat angrily.
“Oh, quit yer fussin’,” Jess said firmly pushing the Sheriff aside and marching in before closing the door behind him.
“Well come in why dontcha,” muttered Mort sarcastically before shuffling back to his fireside chair.
“Thanks nice to see you too,” replied Jess equally acerbically as he followed him in.
He looked around the room remembering how it had sparkled from Bella’s attentions, had been neat as a new pin. Now it was fusty looking, a layer of dust covering everything and a clutter of unwashed plates and cups covering the dining table. There were also several empty whiskey bottles dotted about the place and Jess figured they probably accounted for Mort’s disheveled appearance.
He wandered over and plonked himself down on the other fireside chair across from the Sheriff and gazing over said with feeling, “Jeez you’re a mess buddy and so is this dang house.”
Mort’s head shot up, “Well nobody asked ya to come,” he returned bitterly.
Jess just took that in his stride, “Coffee?”
When Mort ignored him and just gazed back into the fire so Jess went off to the kitchen to brew some.
On his return Mort hadn’t moved an inch and barely seemed to be aware of Jess’s presence.
He went and put the cup down on the side table at Mort’s elbow and then sat down again and sipped his own drink.
After studying his old friend over the rim of his cup for a few minutes he took another sip before putting it down on the hearth and saying quietly, “We need to talk Mort.”
After a minute or so Mort seemed to remember he was there and glanced over, “We do…about what?”
“You know dang well what about Mort. About Bella and this whole sorry business, hell it’s over three months since Kurt Dean was hanged. There really ain’t no point in brooding on it. It’s time to move on Mort.”
At that the older man’s head shot up and he looked furious, “And who in hell gave you the right to preach to me you cheeky young whippersnapper? You really don’t understand what I’m going through!”
The air was suddenly charged with emotion, the silence almost tangible.
Then Mort closed his eyes tightly and bowed his head, “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I shouldn’t have said that. It was uncalled for….”
“Damn right you shouldn’t,” said Jess momentarily furious.
But then he took a deep breath and forced himself to relax.
“Look it’s because I’ve walked this road that I know somethin’ of what you’re going’ through Mort. Sure, folk are all different and deal with stuff in their own way, I know that. But it just ain’t working is it Mort, you’re just not coping any too well are ya?”
When the older man remained silent, Jess forged on.
“You’re real difficult to live with right now buddy. I reckon Lon and Brett are pretty near walking out, the way you’ve been around them. Yelling’ at them and all these extra hours you’ve been insisting on. Workin’ them into the ground…you too, for what? Dang it Mort you even threatened to jail a kid for whistling too darned loud the other day. Hell, it would be funny if it weren’t damn well tragic!”
Mort just stared at him with unseeing eyes, then shook his head and made an effort to engage.
“So, what do you want me to do, start weeping and wailing, declare my undying love for the woman….to all in sundry…huh, that what you want?”
“It ain’t the woman…Mort, its Bella,” Jess said ignoring his outburst, “Say it…… Bella.”
Mort’s head dropped to his chest, “I can’t,” he muttered, “Dang it I can’t Jess.”
“Sure you can and there’s somethin’ else you can do too.”
When Mort looked at him Jess felt a shiver run down his spine at the abject misery in his friend’s eyes. But this was the way it had to be, he knew that. There could be no more sidestepping the grief. Mort had to face it, just as Jess had needed to.
“There ain’t no easy way to deal with this Mort,” he said softly, “you’ve just gotta face it out buddy. You can’t hide behind your anger. Can’t use your job to try and bury it and you can’t hide away in here drinkin’ yerself half to death either it just ain’t the way.”
Mort eventually gave a deep shuddering sigh, “OK,” he said finally, “so what is the way…huh?”
It was an hour later when a washed and shaved Mort wearing clean clothes rode through town with Jess.
Five minutes later they reigned in at the burial ground on the edge of town and hitched up their mounts by the cemetery gate.
“You want me to come with you?” asked Jess.
Mort looked at him for a moment his face tense, pain lines etched around his mouth and eyes.
“No…it’s OK son, I guess this is something I have to do for myself isn’t it.”
Jess watched as his old friend walked slowly across the graveyard to Bella’s last resting place. Saw him kneel by the grave…and then saw his shoulders begin to shake and the raw emotion finally issued forth…the healing process had begun.
It was a slow process but gradually Mort began to reclaim his old life and with it a new inner strength to shield him from the knocks life had in store for him.
At first it had hurt him deeply when Brett resigned as his deputy. The position of Sheriff in a small town in Iowa having come up for grabs.
The two were sitting in the Sheriff’s office when Brett had broken the news.
“Is it me son?” He asked when he heard the news “Is it because I’ve been kinda hard to live with lately. OK well a real bastard iffen we’re being honest.”
The young man’s face was shocked for a minute, but he quickly regained his composure.
“Heck no Unc…I realized you were just goin’ through a bad spell, Jess explained it all to me.”
“Oh he did, did he?” asked Mort with a grim smile.
“Sure, told me and Lon you just weren’t yourself, but you’d be just fine given time and I guess he was right. You’re back to being my favourite Uncle again,” he said with a grin.
Mort’s face softened, “Well Jess does talk some sense occasionally,” he admitted with a genuine smile now.
“So why are you going then?”
“Well things have changed haven’t they? I know after you…after you and……”, he floundered.
“It’s OK boy you can say it, after me and Bella were Wed you mean?”
“Yes sir. Well I know after that you were gonna take more of a back seat, leave things to me and Lon. But well now things are different, you won’t be retiring will ya?”
Mort tipped his hat back and thought deeply, “Well, I guess not…no.”
“And that suits Lon real well too Unc. He says with the new baby and all he really ain’t ready to be Sheriff. But I need to take that step, so there you are, I guess everyone’s happy…yeah?”
“Well I guess so iffen you put it that way,” Mort agreed.
“And there’s another thing Unc. You see I’ve been courting this swell girl Kathy and was kinda thinkin’ of popping the question and a Sheriff’s pay would come in real useful!”
Mort threw him a genuine grin at that and shook him by the hand, “Congratulations boy!”
“So…err, it’s the Spring Dance tonight and I was thinking of taking her, do you feel up to minding the shop if I get off early?”
“Why you young whippersnapper,” Mort chuckled, “Go on, off you go. And have a swell time you hear me,” he called after him as the boy ran from the office, needing no second telling.
Once Brett had gone Mort sat back in his chair and smiled to himself. Maybe his life did have a future, not the one he had expected …that was all gone…It would be different sure, but different could still be pretty darned good…eventually, he reckoned.
After a while he pulled his hat down and sauntered across the office and let himself out of the door and sat on his old rocker. He remembered this had been where he was sitting when dear Bella first walked into his life all those months ago and gave a little sigh.
Then his chin came up and he took a deep breath as he surveyed Main Street and folk bustling along on their way to the dance. His people, his town, yes, the Sheriff was back and folk would rest easier in their beds knowing it.
It was a couple of months later and Jess and Millie were walking down Main Street on their way back to the Saloon after a pleasant night of dancing. Both feeling happy and enjoying the stroll through the warm summer evening.
“How’s Mort doing now?” asked Millie turning concerned brown eyes on Jess.
He smiled down at her, “Oh I figure he’ll be just fine. It takes a lot to keep old Mort down ya know.”
“He’ll be fine thanks to you,” she said softly, “he told me all about that day you went and gave him a good talking to…said it finally set him on the right road again.”
“Well I’m glad,” said Jess softly.
Then he paused, “Hey we’re right by Mort’s place why don’t we call in on the way home for a coffee, I figure he still gets kinda lonely in the evenings.”
Millie nodded happily and taking his arm they turned off Main Street and wandered down Mort’s narrow track.
The lamps were all shining out and as they came closer they had a good view of the front parlour and stopped in their tracks.
“Well I’ll be!” said Jess grinning broadly and tipping his hat back, “It looks like Mort’s got company.”
Sitting at the dining table, plain to see from the track were Mort and Kate Munroe, sharing a joke and by the looks of it a good meal too.
Millie and Jess exchanged an amused glance.
“I figure old Mort ain’t feelin’ too lonely after all,” Jess said with a grin, “come on sweetheart,” and taking Millie’s hand they retraced their steps….
The way back was a long hard one for Mort. His grief often returning when he least expected it…making his life a roller coaster of emotions. But gradually he began to heal and eventually he could think of Bella with love and remember the happy times they had enjoyed together.
In years to come when Mort was to look back on those dark days he was to reflect that it was his good friends Kate Munroe and Jess Harper who had helped him through that terrible experience and he would never forget all that they had done for him, true friends indeed.
The End
Thank you for reading.

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