# 63 Ain't Quittin'

Ain’t Quittin’

Patty Wilkinson

Thanks to Quickdraw Jess for Title screen cap.

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

Chapter 1

Jess Harper dragged himself up the saloon staircase, aided by his sweetheart Millie Johnson, before coming to a halt by her bedroom door.
She hastily unlocked it and then supported him as he lurched across the room, finally coming to rest on her comfortable feather bed, where he crashed down, falling into a state of semi consciousness almost immediately.
Millie peered down at the face she knew and loved so well. The sweep of dark lashes causing a shadow on his deathly pale countenance, the first signs of a bruise beginning to form below his right eye, and a dribble of dark red blood at the corner of his mouth from a split lip. His dark wavy hair fell untidily across his forehead and his general appearance was dusty and disheveled.
Millie sighed deeply before heading off to her little kitchen to fetch a bowl, water and cloths to tend his battered face.

It had started off as a typical evening in the Laramie saloon where Millie worked.
Jess had stopped by as he was in town collecting some lumber and as it was pretty late in the afternoon decided to stay over and return to the Sherman ranch and relay first thing in the morning.
“I reckon Slim will have a moan,” he confided, “but heck, there won’t be enough light left to start workin’ on the fences when I get back anyway.”
“Well you won’t get any arguments from me cowboy,” she said with a loving smile.
Then she looked past him as someone entered the dimly lit bar.
“Oh no,” she whispered under her breath.
Then turning to Jess said, “Don’t look now, but Hank’s just walked in.”
Jess ignored her and turning glared into his adversary’s dark cold eyes.
Hank Slater was with his ramrod and a couple of hands from his ranch, the Flying B and they all looked slightly the worse for wear already, although it was still early in the evening.
“Well looky here, see what the cat’s dragged in,” he said half turning to his ramrod Charlie Dyke, “that Texan scum Harper.”
Jess just glared at him, before turning away, back to Millie.
“Just ignore him please Jess, don’t make any trouble,” she whispered, before taking a deep breath and walking down the bar to serve the men.
Once they had a whiskey apiece they continued calling the odd jibe down towards Jess’s end of the bar, but he steadfastly ignored them knowing what would happen if he lost his temper yet again.
He just sipped his beer and chatted quietly with Millie forcing himself to ignore the increasingly lewd comments coming their way.
When it became obvious that Jess wasn’t going to bite, Hank upped the ante by moving along the bar and accidentally on purpose knocking into Jess, spilling his beer down his shirt front. Charlie moved in to stand at Jess’s back ready to restrain him if the Texan should suddenly let fly with his fists.
Jess whipped around towards Slater at once and would have retaliated, if it hadn’t been for old Tom the barkeep, looking fearful, “Not again,” he muttered, “garldarn it Jess!”
Jess knew Tom was worried about his bar being wrecked yet again, this not being the first altercation Hank Slater had instigated in his campaign to force Jess into a fight, well force him out of town, truth be told.
Jess turned furious eyes on the man he’d begun to dread meeting.
“What the hell is it with you Slater?” he spat. “I ain’t done nuthin’ to you, what do you dang well want of me huh?” Jess’s deep blue eyes flashing almost black with anger.
“Why Jess boy, I ain’t gotten anything against you.” Slater replied suddenly the avuncular buddy even slipping an arm around the cowboy’s shoulders which Jess shrugged off looking even more annoyed.
“Nope I ain’t gotten anything against ya personal like.” Then he pushed his face in close and spat. “It’s just that I hate bastard southern filth in general and yeah, maybe you’re right you in particular, iffen I’m real honest. You know why too Harper, you dang well ruined her life,” he whispered for Jess’s ears only.
Jess just stared at him shaking his head in bewilderment, what was it with this guy, he was talking like a mad man and he turned back to his beer, knocking it back in one and acknowledging the little nod of thanks Tom gave him.
He ordered his second, but just stood contemplating it, suddenly feeling slightly lightheaded and nauseous.
Slater watched him and winked at his ramrod who was still at Jess’s back.
But then Hank Slater went a step too far.
As Millie came from behind the bar to collect some glasses from the tables, he lurched over and grabbing her tried to kiss her, holding her in a vice like grip, “Come on my dear, how about a little kiss,” he slurred.
She squirmed and elbowed him hard in the chest making him gasp with pain and shock but that was nothing to the next shock he was to get.
Jess’s fist smashed into his face throwing him several feet across the bar and he fell hard on his back looking up at the dark-haired cowboy in shocked disbelief before all hell broke loose.
It was Sheriff Mort Cory firing a single warning shot that finally brought the free for all brawl to a swift close
He sighed deeply as Jess stood there swaying slightly, blood dripping down his chin.
“Who threw the first punch?” Mort asked a harassed looking Tom.
The barkeep merely gestured towards Jess, “But he was sorely tried Sheriff, Mister Slater there was molesting Miss Millie.”
Mort hid a grim smile, before turning to face Hank Slater who was now being supported by his ramrod.
“What’s wrong with you, got a death wish?” he asked gruffly.
Slater merely scowled at Jess, “It was him as started it Sheriff needs locking up, the man’s as mad as a box of frogs...ain’t right in the mind I tell you!”
“Now hear this Mister Slater, iffen there’s to be any locking up around here it’s gonna be you and your cronies. Now I suggest you and your men call it a night and I don’t want to see you back in town for the next two weeks understand?”
“Why you can’t do that man I’m on the town council and am due some respect from the likes of you!”
“I respect them that earn it,” Mort said laconically, “and I won’t be tellin’ you again, Mister Slater.”
The men muttered under their breath but finally left.
Then Mort turned to face his good friend and sighed deeply, shaking his head as Jess was looking pretty rough and more than a little drunk too.
“Take him up to sleep it off will you Millie,” he said quietly, “I’ll call in the morning,” and with that turned and left.
Early the following morning Mort visited as promised.
He rapped loudly on the door and after a few minutes Millie opened it, hastily pulling a robe around her.
“So, how’s our hero then?” asked Mort sarcastically.
She shook her head. “Not good Sheriff, he’s been throwing up half the night, I don’t think you’re going to get much sense out of him for a while.”
“Uh, we’ll see about that,” said Mort and wandered over to the bed and peered down at Jess’s recumbent form, now sleeping deeply.
After a moment the Sheriff shook him roughly awake.
“Wha...what in hell, aww it’s you Mort.”
“Yes it’s me, garldarn it Jess what the heck’s gotten into you lately?”
Jess just groaned looking pained, “Do ya have ta shout?” he asked grabbing his head with both hands, “I’m, dyin’ here Mort.”
“What made you hit the bottle last night then?” asked Mort taking a seat on the end of the bed and viewing his friend sternly.
“I… I didn’t, heck I only had a couple of beers, and that bastard Slater spilled one of ‘em.”
Mort frowned and looked at Millie for collaboration. “That true?”
She nodded, “Yes Mort he’d not long come in just the two small beers and like he says Slater spilt half of one of them, I just can’t understand it. Heck you and I know he can down a bottle of Red Eye and still stand and take notice, there’s something very wrong here.”
“Uh, you could be right Millie,” the Sheriff said looking thoughtful.
Jess glared at them both then. “I am still here ya know...And yeah Mort, I can’t figure it either...unless...”
“Huh unless what?”
“Maybe someone spiked my drink, that ramrod of his, Charlie, was at my back. I figured he was just ridin’ shot gun in case I lashed out at his boss but it would have been easy enough to slip somethin’ in my drink.”
Mort looked reflective for a moment and then sighed deeply.
“Are you saying you were drunk or drugged when you lashed out at Slater last week in the livery or the week before in the saloon again? Garldarn it Jess I’ve cut you some slack over this, but you really are trying my patience.”
Jess just groaned and looked like he might chuck up again and Mort stood up quickly.
“OK this is your final warning, anymore trouble and I’ll have to ask you to stay out of town, in fact you won’t be welcome here for a week or so, understand?”
Jess just turned hurt eyes on his friend but said nothing.
“Look, folk are beginning to talk Jess. Saying as how you’re out of control and I’m excusing it because we’re buddies. You have to see this from the law’s point of view and I have to be seen to uphold the law, no matter what savvy?”
“Sure I get ya loud and clear Sheriff, it’s me that’s bein’ wronged here by that maniac Slater. But he’s a big landowner and on the town council so I figure you’re gonna side with him ain’t ya?” Jess spat angrily.
Then it was Mort’s turn to look angry.
“That’s not true and you know it. I’ve banned him from town too. But I don’t like to see you acting this way Jess. I just can’t figure what’s come over you lately. Now just get off home and sort yerself out huh?”
With that he marched out, slamming the door behind him.
Jess swore softly and clutched his head groaning.
“Well that’s you told,” said Millie succinctly. “I’ll go put the coffee on OK?”
Chapter 2
Jess drove the buckboard containing the fencing lumber slowly into the Sherman Ranch yard later that morning.
Slim Sherman, the tall blond ranch owner marched out of the barn as he heard his buddy arriving and greeted him with a raised eyebrow.
“You finally made it back then? I was expecting you yesterday Jess. What’s up, got settled in Miss Millie’s room and forgot where the door was um?” He asked as he checked out the lumber, turning to grin at his friend.
Jess jumped down and pulled his hat down hard, effectively covering his battered and bruised face.
“Yeah, somethin’ like that,” he admitted.
The tone of his voice made Slim turn and really look at his friend properly for the first time.
Then he leaned forwards and tipped Jess’s Stetson back and saw his buddy’s face. He sucked in a shocked breath, his expression one of compassion, quickly followed by anger.
“Goddamn it Jess you’ve been brawling again what in hell has got into you lately?”
“Look it weren’t my fault Slater was….”
“I might have known it! This is what, the third time in as many weeks that you’ve been in a fight with Hank Slater, why Jess? The man’s a pillar of the community, looked up to by most folk, you’re really not doing your reputation any favours by alienating him you know.”
“Or yours either,” Jess said, his eyes narrowing, “It wouldn’t do to go upsetting a big landowner like him would it Slim, wouldn’t be good for business would it?”
“It’s not about that Jess. I’m worried about you; your reputation, folk are starting to say...” Then he clammed up realising he’d probably said too much.
Jess, who had been unhitching the team from the buckboard swung around and glared at his best friend.
“Say what exactly?”
“Go on Slim, you started this, so what are they saying?”
“Just that you’re turning back to how you acted when you first arrived here. They can’t get a civil word out of you and you’re all fired up ready to take on the world and they’ve got a point. You did draw on young Peter James just last month.”
“Because he dang well drew on me first Slim, hell you were there, I had no choice. He’d have killed me else and I figure that was down to Slater too, the kid was on his payroll.”
“Well he’s not on anyone’s now and won’t be for the foreseeable,” said Slim quietly.
Jess just shook his head, “I shot him in the leg Slim, and that was more than he deserved, he was out to kill me. I could have killed him but I didn’t and there ain’t a court in the land that would have said I was in the wrong iffen I had!”
“I know that Jess, but you must see how it looks, all these shoot outs and fights and you’ve been as ornery as they come of late too.”
“Well sure I have. It looks like everyone’s against me including you and Mort.”
“That isn’t so Jess we’re just concerned for you.”
“Oh sure,” said Jess sarcastically.
Slim took a deep breath and tried to be patient, as was his nature...generally.
“Now go wash up before Miss Daisy sees you, you’re a mess pard.”
If Jess was feeling a tad guilty then, that was nothing as to how he felt some time later.
Daisy Cooper their middle aged, well-loved housekeeper had called her boys in for morning coffee.
She paused with the coffee pot suspended in mid-air as Jess entered and slumped down at the kitchen table.
“Why Jess dear what ever happened to your face?” She cried in shock.
Jess’s hand flew involuntarily up to his bruised cheek and black eye before throwing her a lopsided grin.
“Kinda got into a little ruckus down at the saloon,” he said now giving her a sheepish look.
“No,” she said putting the coffee pot down heavily, “not again Jess, you promised to keep out of trouble. We really don’t want young Mike getting wind of all this, er… unrest in town do we dear?”
Jess merely grunted.
“Well it’s a good job he’s back east for the summer with young Davy and his family,” said Slim quickly, “because he surely doesn’t need to see you like this Jess. And Daisy’s right, you promised her you’d keep your head down until all this unpleasantness with Hank settles down.”
“Unpleasantness!” yelled Jess staring at his friend with angry eyes, “Is that what ya call it! Dang it Slim the man will see me run out of town iffen he gets his way or even better dead maybe, gettin’ folk like young Pete James to do his dirty work for him.”
“Come on Jess you’re exaggerating, Hank doesn’t want you dead. I don’t believe he put the James boy up to it either. He was just drunk and trying to prove a point to those wild friends of his. He merely thought he’d look big if he took you on and won, that’s all.”
Jess just shook his head wearily, still feeling hung over and in no mood to argue the point.
“What I don’t understand is this sudden vendetta against you Jess?” said Daisy thoughtfully. “He was never a good friend, but you seemed to rub along alright, up until his parents died that is.” And she looked saddened remembering the tragic buggy accident that had killed Hank’s elderly parents outright, just a few short months ago.
Then she turned thoughtful eyes back to Jess. “It was when he came back from Denver after breaking the news to his young sister, that everything seemed to alter between you two,” she said thoughtfully, “Did you know Louisa Slater dear?”
Jess flushed deeply and looked down into his cup, refusing to answer.
Slim looked from Daisy to Jess and back and then said softly, “Oh yeah, he knew her alright.”
At that Jess could take no more and he lurched up from the table heading for the back door and disappeared out towards the barn at speed, then a few minutes later they heard Traveller heading off up the rise at a gallop.
“Oh my, that certainly hit a raw nerve Slim, whatever have I said?” asked Daisy looking agitated. “I really didn’t mean to upset him like that.”
“It’s OK Daisy,” said Slim reaching across the table and patting her hand gently. “You know how volatile he can be, especially when we dig things up from his past.”
“I know dear and especially at the moment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so tense and well… aggressive I suppose, angry and hurting. I hate to see him this way, but I was only trying to help,” she finished sadly.
Slim shook his head, “Me too Daisy, but I just can’t seem to reach him right now. “It’s almost as though he’s reverted back to how he was years ago, when he first moved here. Wary of everyone, trusting nobody and so angry and somehow vulnerable too, I dunno.” And he shook his head sadly, “I just don’t know what’s going on with him right now.”
“Well I imagine he feels everyone is ganging up on him, what you told me the other night about Mort reading him the riot act. Then that Hank Slater was turning folk against him, I can understand how Jess would be feeling a little lost...let down maybe.”
“And me?” said Slim looking upset, “Do you think I’ve let him down?”
She shrugged, “I don’t know dear, but I don’t think either of us is helping him too much. If only we could get to the bottom of what’s going on,” she sighed.
“Umm, you’re right,” he said sadly sipping his coffee.
“This Louisa, Jess was friends with her?”
“What? Oh yeah, they got real close for a while. Old man Slater was none too keen on the relationship. Didn’t care for Texans much, hatred left over from the war and one he passed on to his son. But even so, it seemed that as Hank grew older he put all that behind him. He got on OK with Jess on the odd occasion they met up in town, like the summer dances or stockman’ s meetings, they were reasonably friendly. Certainly no hostility, like now, that’s for sure.”
“What happened between Jess and Louisa then, this was all before Millie came to town and they resumed their friendship I imagine?”
“Umm yeah, way before that, Jess was a real one for the ladies back in those early days,” he said with a faint smile.
“You see, when he moved in here he figured my education was sadly lacking in the real important aspects of life and felt it was his duty to help me out some.”
“Oh yes, so what would those aspects be?”Daisy asked raising an amused eyebrow, “As though I can’t guess.”
Slim chuckled softly to himself, “Well let’s just say it involved many a trip to the saloon getting me versed in the ways of poker, strong drink and how to chat to all those pretty saloon girls.”
They exchanged a smile, “That sounds like the sort of ‘educating up’ Jess would be happy to help you with,” she responded her grey eyes twinkling.
“You aren’t shocked?” asked Slim quickly, suddenly remembering this was his housekeeper he was addressing.
But Daisy just smiled again, “You forget I had a son, who could be very much the young man about town, just as you and Jess are today,” she said. Then more seriously, “I’m glad he came into your life when he did. I think he was just what you needed to help you to...er what is it he says? Oh yes to lighten up some. I imagine especially after the loss of your dear parents and all the responsibility of raising young Andy, you really needed some time just for you to have some fun.”
Slim nodded, “You’ve sure got that right Daisy. He was a real good friend to me back then, still is, that’s why all this business is so darned hard to take.”
She nodded sadly, “I do understand dear. Tell me did Louisa’s Pa warn Jess off?”
Slim shook his head, “Nope that’s the funny thing, it was Jess who split up with her.”
“And so what became of the girl?”
“She was absolutely devastated, came to me and asked me to reason with Jess. But he was adamant, said it would never work out. Between you and me Daisy I figure she’d got him running scared. She wanted marriage kids the whole thing. Well he just wasn’t ready for that back then, it would never have worked, he was right about that.”
“She went away, to Denver you say?”
“Yup, her parents sent Hank after her but she refused to see him or have anything more to do with her folks either. I think maybe she wanted someone to blame for her split with Jess, so blamed her Pa. He went to bring her back, but she’d moved on and nobody knew where she’d gone. Then we heard no more of her until Hank went to find her to tell her about their folk’s death just a few months back. He managed to locate her alright, but she refused to return with him.”
“Surely she can’t still be angry with Jess after all this time?” said Daisy reasonably.
Slim just shrugged, “Like I say I just don’t know Daisy. I figure we never will. Maybe she’s said something about the past to her brother. Something that’s made him mad at Jess, I really can’t imagine what though. I reckon I’ll just concentrate on trying to keep Jess out of town for a while and I’m sure whatever it is will blow over in time.”
It was well after supper and Daisy had reluctantly retired for the night when Jess finally rode back into the yard. Slim went and put a pot of coffee on as soon as he heard him ride in and he was sitting out on the porch with a couple of cups when Jess crossed the yard after putting Traveller up for the night.
“I made you a coffee,” Slim said as Jess approached and held a cup up to him.
Jess stared down and for a moment Slim thought he might just walk past him. But then he sighed deeply and slumped down into his old rocker next to Slim and accepted the hot drink.
“Thanks,” he said quietly.
They sipped their drinks in silence, listening to the summer night time sounds and looking off to the distant moonlit horizon.
Eventually Slim turned to his buddy, “Look Jess I’m sorry for the way I was with you, Daisy too, she wanted to stay up to apologise. It’s just that I hate to see you this way, so dang edgy and strung out, talk to me pard. Please just tell me what’s going on?”
Jess sighed deeply again and then searched for the words, “I really dunno Slim, Hank said something to me last night. I’ve just remembered, he was callin’ me Southern filth but I figured that was just for the folk in the bar because he whispered somethin’ else, real quietly so as only I heard him. Somethin’ about, I knew why he was so dang mad, it was because I’d ruined her life? Somethin’ like that anyways.”
“Her life… who you mean Louisa ?”
Jess shrugged, “Your guess is as good as mine, but I figure that must be it after all this damn feud only started when he came back from visitin’ her over in Denver.”
“But why Jess, what in hell did you do to the girl huh?” Slim asked, looking perplexed.
Jess was suddenly angry, “What do ya mean, what did I do? I did nuthin’ except finish it and I figure I did her a favour doin’ that, it would never have worked you know that as well as I do.”
“Oh yeah, no arguments there Jess. But there must be something for her still to be so upset about it all these years later? Heck it must be five or six years ago, that’s a powerful long time to hold a grudge. There must be something you did to upset her?” Slim persisted.
“I told ya didn’t I?” said Jess gruffly, standing up quickly and glaring down at his friend, “There’s nuthin’ I’ve done to that woman… nuthin’ at all and iffen you know what’s good for you, you’ll just leave it Slim!” And with that he marched into the house without a backward glance.
Chapter 3
It was over two weeks later before Jess finally made it back to town.
There had been an uneasy truce between him and Slim, neither man wanting open antagonism but neither willing to back down and bury the hatchet either.
It was Daisy who finally convinced Jess to stay home for a while, hoping everything would have blown over by the time he rode back in.
However, he was getting more and more edgy as the days went on and Slim knew a lot of Jess’s thinly hidden anger and hostility was born of anxiety for Millie, mixed with a huge dose of frustration at not seeing her for so long too.
Jess kept seeing the way Hank had manhandled his girl and although he was aware it had just been a ploy to anger him, he still felt worried about her. Millie could look after herself he knew that, but even so, he should be there.
Slim suddenly broke into his thoughts as Jess lounged on the corral fence waiting for the Stage to roll in.
“Look pard, I know Millie will think you’ve done the right thing by staying away, she just hates seeing you get into fights you know that. Besides I think old Tom is kind of relieved too,” Slim said trying to add a little humour to the difficult situation.
“Umm well could be,” Jess said, “but I’m sure as hell riding in to see my girl come Saturday, and no one’s stoppin’ me,” he finished with a belligerent glance aimed at his partner.
Slim who was busy grooming the team for the Stage merely shrugged, knowing there was little point in arguing when Jess was in this mood.
It was the following Saturday evening when Jess lodged Traveller at the livery and made his way purposefully down Main Street and into the saloon. He had left the ranch early as he wanted to spend some time with Millie before the bar got too busy and had arranged to meet Slim there later in the evening.
As he had hoped it was pretty quiet and he ordered a whiskey and threw it back before ordering another and sipping it while chatting to Tom. After a while he said, “Where’s my girl I thought she was on early shift tonight?”
Tom slapped his head and delved under the bar, “I knew I’d forgotten something Jess she ain’t here, left you this.”
“What do ya mean she ain’t here?” asked Jess, his glass suspended halfway to his mouth.
“All in this note she left for you son. It seems Millie’s Ma has taken her sister Betty, the one that helps run the Boarding House, off on a break. She’s been kinda sick. Anyway, her other sister, Ivy, was left running the place and just can’t cope, she isn’t up to it Millie says. She’s gone over for a few weeks to look after the place.”
Jess put his drink down and stared at Tom in disbelief.
“So she’s over in Cheyenne?” he finally managed looking woebegone.
“Yup, all in that there letter boy, like I said.”
Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “I hardly need read it then Tom, seems you’ve told me pretty much everything. Millie’s Aunt Betty’s been sick, her ma’s taken her off someplace and so her Aunt Ivy’s runnin’ the joint and Millie’s fetched up to help, that’s the gist of it.”
Nonetheless he ripped open the pale blue scented envelope and started reading as Tom wandered down the bar to give him some space.
So immersed in the letter was the young cowboy that he never noticed Charlie Dyke, Slater’s Ramrod, wander over and stand next to him, before surreptitiously slipping something into Jess’s almost untouched whiskey.
After a moment Charlie called out for service and Tom came over looking dour at the sight of the ranch hand. He was then joined by Hank Slater, from where he’d been sitting in the shadows at the back of the room.
“I don’t want any trouble tonight Mister Slater,” Tom said hesitantly as he topped up the big man’s glass from a bottle on the bar.
At the name Jess’s head shot up from where he’d been deeply engrossed in Millie’s love letter. He swiftly pocketed it and took his drink up knocking it back in one, before throwing Slater a jaundiced look.
Things were just getting better and better he thought morosely. First his girl had gone AWOL and now Slater and his crony were here ready to make his life even more miserable he assumed.
He sighed deeply, “Well you won’t get any trouble from me Tom,” and took himself off to the other end of the bar to await Slim’s arrival.
After a moment his pard’ s girl, Lily, wandered over from where she’d been serving another customer, and gave him a sympathetic smile.
“She really didn’t want to go you know Jess, what with all this business between you and Slater, but she felt she had to. Seems this Aunt Ivy runs a tight ship and it looked like Peggy and Betty would be coming back to a Boarding House and no guests iffen she was left to her own devices.”
Jess gave her a grin, “As bad as that?”
“Worse, have you ever met Aunt Ivy?”
“Nope can’t say I’ve had that pleasure yet,” he said.
“Umm well you really don’t want to she’s a typical maiden aunt. Apparently, a couple booked in the other week, who weren’t...well actually married,” she whispered, with a wink. “It seems old Ivy threw them out on the street. They had no place to go and it was pouring with rain, according to Millie’s letter they weren’t any too happy I can tell you!”
“I guess not,” said Jess with a chuckle, wondering secretly what the chances were of sharing his girl’s bed, should he decide to visit. The more he thought about it the more the idea appealed. They weren’t too busy at the ranch and God knows I ain’t any too popular around here at the moment he thought, the way Slater had been bad mouthing him to anyone that would listen. Yeah maybe he’d just wipe the dust of Laramie off his boots for a while and go visiting he thought vaguely.
“Would you like another drink Jess?”
When he didn’t react Lily said patiently, “Jess, did you hear me?”
“Do you want another whiskey?”
Jess considered the question long and hard as he peered over to where Lily now appeared somewhat blurry around the edges.
“I ……er… I’ll just have lemonade,” he finally managed.
She raised a quirky eyebrow, “What, on the wagon are you? That’s not like you to stop at two whiskeys on a Saturday night Jess.”
A while later he was hunched over his drink, wondering mildly as to why he felt like he’d just downed a bottle of Red Eye when Tom wandered over.
“Are you OK Jess?” he asked, glancing at his friend with concern.
“Yeah, sorta... so when did ya start puttin’ real rats in that ratified whiskey of yours then Tom?” he slurred.
Before Tom could answer Slater and his Ramrod walked over and stood either side of Jess.
“Oh dear me,” said Slater conversationally, to the bar in general, “looks like our friend Harper here has overindulged…yet again.”
“Shut it Slater,” muttered Jess aggressively, now two parts drunk and in no mood for the burly rancher’s snide remarks.
“Drowning your sorrows I suppose. I reckon you’re kind of mad your girl’s walked out on you, eh Harper?” Slater continued in a falsely pleasant manner, as though addressing an old friend.
Then in the same loud, patronizing voice, for the benefit of the now crowded bar said, “Miss Millie reckoned she was real sorry you’d split up and that you’d taken to the drink. But then she kinda forgot all about you after a while, seeing as how I was keeping her warm in that nice big bed of hers. Just the other night it was and you back at the ranch, doubtless missing her Jess?”
Then he stood back expectantly, waiting for Jess’s reaction.
It took a few minutes for the sarcastic comments to penetrate Jess’s befuddled brain.
What had that no hoper just said? Something about Millie’s bed…he’d been in Millie’s bed? He knew he was being played for a fool, knew dang well there wasn’t a grain of truth in the filthy lies, but he couldn’t help it. He had to get Slater to shut the hell up. He had to protect Millie’s good name.
He went to swing at the smug self-righteous face that was swimming before him.
He raised his fist...and then as though in slow motion crashed to the floor out cold.
Slim and Mort rushed forwards from where they had been frozen to the spot having entered the saloon just moments before. They had stood, watching the drama unfold and now were galvanized into action.
Slim elbowed Slater out of the way and knelt down by his pard, gently turning him over to look at the sickly pale features, a slick of sweat on his brow.
“Jess, Jess buddy wake up,“ Slim said urgently, slapping his face, but to no avail.
“What in hell have you done to him Slater?” Slim swore looking up at the smirking face above him.
Slater just shrugged, “It isn’t anything to do with me. Is it Charlie?” He asked turning to his Ramrod for confirmation.
Before he could reply Mort strode forwards, “Tom is there any chance his drink could have been spiked?”
Tom looked thoughtful. “I dunno for sure Sheriff, but that Charlie Dyke stood right next to him earlier on tonight when Jess was reading a letter from Millie. I thought it was kinda strange at the time. He’d gotten the whole bar to stand at, as it was real quiet then, but there he was, standing right beside Jess.”
“That’s crazy,” broke in Slater, “He just wanted serving it is a bar you run here isn’t it? No laws as to where you stand...huh?” he asked turning angry eyes on Tom.
“Uh, but there are laws about tampering with folk’s drinks,” said Mort seriously. “We had our suspicions last time Jess had a run in with you two. Now me and Slim are taking him over to the docs and I don’t want you two to leave town until he’s been checked over!”
Slim and Mort carried a still unconscious Jess across the street and hammered on Doc Sam Baker’s door, which was answered moments later by Mrs. Braddock his housekeeper.
She looked from Slim to Mort and then down at where they were supporting a very sick looking Jess and her hand shot to her mouth.
“Oh my,” she said hauling the door open wide to let them in, “poor dear Mister Harper, is he badly hurt?”
Slim gave her a faint smile, knowing how old Ma Braddock had a real soft spot for Jess.
“Badly enough Ma’am is the doc in?” he asked quietly.
“Of course, bring him in here gentlemen,” and she opened the consulting room door before hurrying off to find the doctor, leaving the men to place Jess carefully on the examination couch. Their good friend Doc Sam breezed in a few minutes later, his handsome features set in a grin, which quickly faded when he saw the state of Jess
“Oh no,” he said softly, “has he been fighting again Slim? I thought you were keeping him out of town until this business with Hank Slater was settled.”
“No,” said Slim urgently, “he hasn’t actually been fighting Sam, but we think Slater may be involved though, we’ve a pretty good idea his Ramrod spiked Jess’s drink.”
“No, surely not?” said Sam looking surprised as he gently took Jess’s wrist and felt for his pulse. He looked thoughtful and then continued to examine the dark haired cowboy as Mort and Slim looked on. Then he listened to his heart for so long Slim got quite worried.
“Is he OK Sam?”
The doctor just shook his head, “Difficult to say yet Slim.”
Then he examined Jess’s eyes and shone a light in them and tutted at what he saw, causing Slim to look even more anxious.
“Tell me was there any drunken behaviour, slurring, staggering that kind of thing?” Sam asked.
Mort nodded, “Yes, but Tom confirmed he’d just had two small whiskeys and then moved on to lemonade.”
A few minutes later Carrie Baker, the doc’s pretty daughter and nurse joined them.
She looked down at Jess, who she adored, being a close friend, and sighed deeply, “What do you think it is Pa?”
“I’m not sure yet honey, but his breathing is pretty shallow, heart beat irregular and his eyes not reacting, pupils are pinpoint…what does that suggest to you?”
The nurse looked thoughtful,” It could be an overdose of something, poisoning of some kind?”
“Good girl, ha, we’ll make a physician of you yet,” he said with a proud smile.
“Er…can we have that in English,” asked Mort testily, “has his drink been spiked or not?”
Just then Jess groaned and started to come around.
Carrie was at his side in a minute as he put a hand up to his forehead and groaned again, “Goddamn it my darned head,” he croaked.
Then a look came over his face that Slim was way too familiar with and moments later Carrie was holding his head as he was violently ill.
A while later he lay back on the pillows apologising profusely to the pretty young nurse.
She smiled down at him good-naturedly, “Well it isn’t the first time you’ve chucked over me Jess and doubt it will be the last,” she said patting his hand affectionately, before going to fetch a cloth to clean him up.
“How are you feeling now?” asked Sam.
“Cold,” whispered Jess, “real cold and my chest feels like my horse is layin’ on me.”
“Uh let’s get this right…there is pressure in your chest, vomiting, slurring of words...plus the shallow breathing and irregular heart rhythm...yes gentlemen a definite case of a drug overdose. I would think something like Chloral Hydrate, which mixed with alcohol, can be lethal...literally, you’re lucky to walk away from this Jess.”
“Oh yeah,” he muttered, “I feel real lucky Sam,” and he swallowed hard, looking really poorly, his complexion pale, with an almost green tinge to it.
“So, in theory the person that did this could be up for attempted murder?” said Slim looking extremely upset.
“In theory being the important words,” said Mort sagely, “Even with Tom’s evidence we can’t prove that it was Dyke or Slater who did this to Jess.”
“Well dang it we can’t let them get away with it either,” spat Slim, suddenly losing his temper.
“Hey take it easy Slim,” said Sam mildly, “how about we mosey along to my office, let the boy sleep it off huh?”
“I just don’t get it,” said Sam, as he took another sip of the bracing coffee, provided by Carrie. “Why has Slater got this vendetta going on with Jess? They’ve never been big buddies, but the things he’s saying about him, well it’s just not right,” he finished shaking his head sadly.
“The worst of it is some folk are actually paying attention to him,” said Slim, “and the way Jess has been acting lately, well that hasn’t helped any, he’s been so dang ornery and easy to rile.”
“Umm,” said Sam thoughtfully, “You can hardly blame him for that, way folk have been treating him.”
“Yeah, I need to try and keep him out of the saloon, but it won’t be easy, with Millie working there. What do you think Mort?” asked Slim.
“No,” said Mort, suddenly looking angry. “We’ll keep Mister Slater out. I’ve just about had enough of him wielding this alleged power he seems to think he has, just because he’s on the town council and a land owner. Well he’s gonna find out it cuts no ice with me. Him, Dyke and the rest of them from the Flying B spread are all banned from the saloon until further notice,” he said decisively.
“Well that’s real good of you to see things that way Mort, thanks,” said Slim, looking somewhat appeased, “but it won’t stop him badmouthing Jess around the town.”
“Uh well I shall be paying our Mister Slater and Charlie Dyke a visit in the morning and throw the book at them; don’t you worry Slim. If anything else happens to Jess they’ll be seeing the inside of my jail, no matter what, I’ve just run out of patience.”
They sipped their coffee for a while and then Sam said, “I still can’t figure the why of it all.”
“Me neither,” said Slim, “unless...”
“Unless what?” asked Sam.
“Well unless it’s something to do with Louisa.”
“Huh, who’s she?”
“Louisa, that’s Hank Slater’s sister, she left town before you came here Sam. It’s ever since Hank went to visit her in Denver and told her about their parents dying. Well it’s since then he’s been baiting Jess every chance he gets.”
“Hey didn’t Jess and Louisa have something going, way back when he first landed here?” asked Mort, ”Her old man was none too pleased about that as I recall,” He said with a chuckle, “And then…”
“Jess threw her over and she left town,” Slim supplied.
“Yeah, that’s right, real pretty little thing too,” said Mort reflectively, “I wondered why Jess finished it that way?”
Slim just shrugged, “Wasn’t the marrying kind back then.”
“Ha, so you mean he is now?” asked Mort laughing, with the others joining in.
Then the laughter suddenly stopped as Carrie raced into the room looking distraught.
“Pa, come quickly, it’s Jess he’s vomiting blood.”
Chapter 4
It was some time before Jess was well enough to leave the doctor’s care. The poison had damaged his stomach lining and although there was no permanent harm he was quite sick for a while.
He was lovingly nursed by Carrie and the doc kept a wary eye on his patient, knowing Jess of old. Especially how he had a tendency to slip under the wire and discharge himself if he wasn’t watched carefully.
Sam also knew how angry Jess was about the whole sorry business. Even though Mort had visited and said he’d really laid into Slater and Dyke he was aware that Jess still wanted his revenge.
Sam and Jess were sitting in the doc’s parlour sipping an after-dinner coffee, a week or so later, when the discussion turned to Jess’s problems with Slater.
“The last thing I want you to do, young man, is go gunning for Hank Slater,” Sam said, as Jess asked when he could be discharged.
Jess opened his mouth to protest, but Doc Sam raised a hand to silence him.
“OK Jess I know you’re really mad at the way he’s been treating you lately but believe me you won’t be doing yourself any favors by taking him on. Firstly, you’re way too weak to win any kind of fight right now. And secondly…well the word on the street is that Slater was making out you were the villain of the piece and he’s got one or two folk believing him.”
“And you...do you believe him?” asked Jess looking belligerent.
“No, of course not Jess. I’m just telling you how it is, that he’d been badmouthing you to any that would listen.”
Jess looked furious, “Well what the hell’s he been saying Sam?”
The doc looked uncomfortable, “That you’ve got a drink problem, been hitting the bottle and then blaming everyone else for it, especially Slater. Also, that you’d been harassing him over selling that plot of land adjoining the Sherman spread and his place, said you’d been threatening him, if he doesn’t sell.”
“What!” Jess exploded, “I ain’t even had anything to do with that. It’s Slim who had been negotiating and all that’s been done through old Benson our lawyer!”
Sam just shrugged. “Well that’s what he told folk and some believed him. That’s why I think you need to cool off some Jess. Just stay put at the ranch until everything blows over? I figure it won’t be long now. Mort has spoken to him.
He won’t be in town for a while and folk will forget all about it pretty soon. Like I say, you just keep your head down for a while?”
“I can do better than that,” said Jess bitterly, “I can get the hell out of Laramie altogether.”
“Jess, buddy don’t be this way. I’m trying to help you here. I know for a fact that Miss Daisy and Slim are worried sick about the situation, they just don’t want to see you get in any more trouble, ‘tis all.”
Jess sighed deeply, “Yeah, I know and I’m just feelin’ kinda let down that folk are taking his side over mine. Dadgum it, it was only a couple of months ago I was the damn hero of the hour after foiling that bank job, deputizing for Mort. Now I’m just about as popular as fleas on the house cat!”
Sam gave him a weak smile, “I really don’t want you to head off anywhere Jess and I’m darned sure Slim won’t either.”
Jess finally grinned at his good friend, “Well don’t go frettin’ then Sam because I’m only goin’ as far as Cheyenne to see my girl for a spell. I told Slim when he visited yesterday. Now I just need a clean bill of health from you buddy, how about it Sam?”
It was a couple of days later that Jess finally rode out with the doctor’s blessing.
He headed out early, Traveller trotting purposefully down Main Street and out of town. But then Jess turned away from the main route to Cheyenne and set off across country heading for the Flying B Ranch.
He reined in at the deserted yard and hitched Traveller to the rail near the ranch house before striding over and banging a tattoo on the old door.
It was some time before it was hesitantly pulled open and old Mrs. Pritchard. Slater’s poor downtrodden housekeeper stood peering short-sightedly out.
She smiled when she saw who it was, “Why Mister Harper, how are you dear?”
Jess who had got himself all fired up to punch the lights out of Slater as soon as he answered his door stood there looking slightly wrong footed.
“Where is he?” He finally managed, his eyes flashing angrily.
However, Mrs. Pritchard knew Jess of old. She was also a close friend of Daisy’s so believed the young man’s bark to be worse than his bite as her friend had often said.
“If you mean Mister Slater, he’s away on business along with Mister Dyke can I be of some help?” She asked giving him a motherly smile.
Jess just shook his head, suddenly feeling weary, “Nope I reckon not Ma’am,” he said touching his hat and turning away.
But she put out an impulsive hand and grabbed hold of his arm, “Mister Harper…Jess, please, you don’t look too well, why not come in, have a coffee and a chat um?”
Jess looked down at her properly and was suddenly shocked at how much the woman had changed, how old and tired she looked, but then it was a while since they had met. He remembered visiting Louisa at the ranch occasionally and how Mrs. Pritchard was the only one to show him any kindness. He had whiled away many an hour sitting in her kitchen waiting on Louisa prettying herself up for him, knowing he would not have been made as welcome at her parents table.
Now he took pity on the elderly, obviously lonely, woman.
“Well, that’s mighty kind of you, thank you Ma’am,” and removing his hat he followed her into her domain at the back of the house.
Once they were settled with their coffee she took a sip and viewed his speculatively over her cup, “This is just like old times, isn’t it dear, you and me here away from the family.”
He grinned back at the memory and then sobered, “I figure I’m even less welcome right now,” he muttered.
She frowned, “Yes, I’ve heard how Hank has been making your life so unpleasant; he really is a difficult man.”
“You said it,” muttered Jess darkly, “He nearly did for me this time Mrs. Pritchard.”
She took a sharp intake of breath and looked shocked at that piece of news, “So it’s true, you were poisoned in the saloon by Hank? I had heard rumours, but I couldn’t believe he would stoop so low.”
“Yeah, it’s true alright, least-ways I figure he got Dyke to do it for him.”
Bertha Pritchard shook her head sadly, “Unfortunately Charlie will do anything Hank tells him to, pretty much like the rest of the staff, if they want to keep their jobs that is,” she finished quietly.
Jess just shook his head in bewilderment, “So why do ya stay, I know you were very fond of the old folk, but now they’ve gone… well?”
She shrugged and then threw him an honest look, “I’ll tell you why Jess, I made a promise to his Ma, that if anything ever happened to her I’d stay and keep the house for him and more importantly be here if ever Louisa returned home.”
Jess’s head shot up, “You think she will?”
The old lady shook her head sadly, “I wish I knew. There is something terribly wrong about her staying away for so long Jess, I don’t know what but I’m so worried about her.”
“Well Slater saw her a few months back didn’t he?”
“Yes, and he was in a dreadful state when he returned, but wouldn’t tell me what it was all about, and then he started all this awful business upsetting you.”
Jess looked down smiling grimly at the understatement.
Then said, “So why didn’t Hank or his Pa go find her, bring her home sooner?”
“Oh, they tried on several occasions but just couldn’t find her. It was merely good luck that an acquaintance of Hanks was on business in Denver and ran into her, it was him that gave Hank her address. And even when she saw him, she still refused to come home.”
“Well she’s a grown woman, it’s her choice.”
Mrs. Pritchard merely shook her head, “No choice about it. I’m pretty sure there is something wrong, I feel it in my bones, I always have.”
Jess finished his coffee, really wanting to get on his way, but Ma Pritchard hadn’t finished with him yet, as he was to tell Slim many weeks later.
“I was wondering if ...well if you could possibly go and see her find out what the problem is?”
Jess’s head shot up, “Yer kiddin’ me,” he said gruffly. Then more gently, “I’m real sorry Mrs. P but I really don’t feel I owe Hank Slater any favors and it certainly ain’t my place to sort out his sister’s problems either.”
“Oh Jess, just for old time’s sake, you and Lou were so close once. And after all, it was you breaking up the relationship that led her to fleeing in the first place.”
Jess said nothing, just looked down, feeling wretched. Sure, he had been pretty mean to her at the time, but he just couldn’t face being tied down that way and now he felt so darned guilty. He’d let her down, in the worst possible way he knew that.
But Bertha Pritchard wasn’t beaten yet, “Maybe if you could get to the bottom of her problems you and Hank could sort out your differences, couldn’t you dear,” she said giving him a pleading look.
Jess cussed lightly under his breath, “Look I’ve been real sick Ma’am, an’ I’m on my way to Cheyenne to see my girl, take some time out to get well again, you understand, dontcha?”
She nodded, “Of course dear, but when you’re rested feeling more yourself, you might consider going…maybe?”
Jess sighed again before finally giving her a reluctant smile, “Gee you sure know how to grind a guy down,” he said softly. “Give me the address and I’ll think on it but I ain’t making no promises.”
Chapter 5
He rode into Cheyenne that evening and settled Traveller down at the livery, ensuring he was being well looked after. Then he marched purposefully down Main Street and gave the brass knocker of Mrs. Peggy Johnson’s Boarding House a cheerful rap.
He wondered if it would be Millie or her famously fussy Aunt who opened the door as he stood there with a broad welcoming grin on his face. He was feeling kinda pleased with himself that he hadn’t wired ahead and was looking forward to the delight in his girl’s eyes when she finally saw him.
That was why it was such a dang shock when the door was dragged open to reveal...Hank Slater standing there.
“What in hell?” Jess cussed his eyes opening wide in shock.
“Ah, Harper at last,” the beefy rancher said with an evil grin, “I figured you’d be looking up your girl sooner or later, so what kept you? Old Charlie was a tad heavy handed with that potion he dropped in your whiskey huh?”
“Goddamn it, come here you evil bastard!”
Jess grabbed hold of the rancher’s shirt front dragging him out onto the street before laying a haymaker to his chin that sent him sprawling.
The tall man lay in the dirt rubbing his chin and looking peevish, “Well that really wasn’t called for you know,” he said finally.
“Oh no?” replied Jess, now getting into his stride and diving at Slater he dragged him up before letting fly with another punch to the face, causing his nose to bleed copiously.
The ruckus had attracted quite a little group of bystanders and although Slater tried to retaliate Jess was way too fast and strong and downed the older man once more, where he stayed in the dirt…refusing to fight anymore.
“And you leave my girl alone or by God I’ll kill ya Slater,” he spat furiously.
There was a general muttering from the crowd and then they parted to allow a diminutive grey-haired woman through.
“What ever is going on?” She cried sharply, “Mr. Slater what on earth are you doing down there?”
Then turning dark angry eyes on Jess said, “And who pray is this...this person?”
Slater slowly got to his feet and brushed himself down before ambling over, keeping the elderly woman between himself and Jess.
“Well I’ll tell you Ma’am,” he said politely, “this here is the famous ex-gunslinger, Jess Harper your niece’s beau.”
Then turning said with an evil glint, “Harper meet Aunt Ivy.”
Before either could react, Millie burst through the crowd and ran to Jess’s side.
“Jess!” she gave a little cry of delight and then she turned to see the bloody state of Hank Slater and her face fell, “Oh no,” she whispered, “not again.”
“What in damnation is he doin’ here Mill?” Jess asked looking furious.
“Not here,” she said quickly, “come on in and I’ll explain everything.”
They went and sat in the back parlour whilst Ivy fussed around Slater in the kitchen, bathing his face and throwing Jess a black look as she passed.
Once the door was closed Jess sank down in an armchair and Millie sat opposite looking distressed.
“It’s all Aunt Ivy’s fault,” she explained. “She’s been so horrible to our regular clients that they’ve all moved out, save for Slater and Charlie Dyke. They told aunt they were here on business. Told her he was visiting his lawyer regarding a land sale he was considering over in Laramie, that parcel of land that Slim wants to buy I guess. So, it kind of made sense to let them stay and…”
She suddenly clammed up looking down and flushing.
“And what sweetheart?” he asked softly.
“And I thought if he was here then he wouldn’t be riling you. I imagined it would make things better for you,” she whispered looking up at him uncertainly.
“Of course, you don’t know what the bastard did to me, why I’m so dang mad do you?”
She looked confused, “No what Jess?”
He explained, sparing no detail as to how sick he’d been.
“Sam said it was a sedative, it can make you sleep, or if given enough makes you sleep real deep, so as it seems like yer dead, folk have been buried alive after an overdose,” he said with a frown. “I was lucky. If it’s mixed with alcohol, it just makes you real drunk and then sick to yer stomach.”
“Oh Jess, I’m so sorry,” she said leaping up and going to sit on his knee, “I’d no idea.”
“Yeah, well, how could you? But I sure as hell ain’t leaving any drinks unattended while he’s under the same roof I’ll tell you that,” he said with a rueful grin.
“You’ll still stay, and you don’t mind he’s here?” she asked looking relieved.
“Uh, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t mind, but heck we can’t have your old Ma goin’ bankrupt can we honey and he won’t be stayin’ forever anyway.”
“No once his business is completed he’ll be on his way I’m sure Jess.”
“What business is that I wonder?” Jess said, “Uh I figure the only business he’s gotten in mind is to continue to make my life hell, but I figure it’ll be worth it iffen I get to see my girl?” and pulling her close he kissed her deeply.
That was how Aunt Ivy found them when she burst in on them sometime later.
“Well excuse me!” she said throwing them a haughty glance.
Jess gently pushed Millie from his lap and stood up extending a hand.
“Pleased to meet you Ma’am and I’m real sorry we had to meet that way,” he said tipping his head towards the road where the fight had occurred.
She ignored his hand and threw him an unfriendly look. “I suppose you’ll want a room Mister Harper?”
Jess usually shared Millie’s room when he visited and her lovely Ma and Aunt Betty turned a blind eye, but Jess had a feeling Aunt Ivy wouldn’t be quite so accommodating.
Dropping his hand to his side he said quietly, “Yes Ma’am I’ll be staying a week if that’s OK?”
She merely sniffed and moved off, “This is a Boarding House Mister Harper, I’ll go and prepare the top floor back for you.”
“Huh,” said Jess looking surprised, “I thought you only had the two rooms let out right now?”
“Take it or leave it Mister Harper.”
Jess turned to Millie for support, but she just shrugged, “He’ll take it aunt.”
Once she had bustled off Jess turned questioning eyes on his girl.
“That’s miles away from your room are you crazy?”
She merely grinned and said, “And Aunt Ivy has chosen the room next to mine, so I figure the further away we are the better, I’ll come up to you once she’s asleep OK?”
He pulled her close again, “Very OK,” he whispered.
It was later that evening when Aunt Ivy again burst in on the couple.
“I could do with some help in the kitchen Millicent,” she said firmly, “and I think Mister Harper should be made aware of the house rules too.”
Jess was still choking over Millicent, but quickly sobered and gave Millie’s aunt his full attention.
“I run a very clean house Mister Harper; absolutely no fraternizing with the staff, no firearms in rooms and boots to be left outside your door is that clear?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he said making a supreme effort to keep his face straight and figuring obeying two out of three wouldn’t be too bad.
A little while later he kissed Millie goodbye and said he’d see her about midnight.
He had decided having to actually sit around a supper table with Hank Slater was just a step too far right then and opted to eat at Miss Gina’s coffee shop over the road. Then spend some quality time in the saloon with his old buddy Sheriff Doug Masters.
By the time the two old friends were half way down a couple of beers Jess had filled Doug in as to what had been going on between him and Slater over the last few months.
“Heck Jess I thought you were sweet on Slater’s little sister at one time… what was her name Lil …no Lou, Louisa wasn’t it?”
Jess nodded, “That was a long time ago though Doug, we split up, she wanted stuff I wasn’t ready for. She got real upset. But that was ages ago like I say. I can’t figure she’s still real mad at me. She chose the life she wanted and accepted I wasn’t gonna be part of it, last I heard anyways.”
“Well Slater sure is mad or seems to be from what you’ve told me Jess. To be honest with you I figure he’s gotten off real lightly after everything he’s done to you. Not to mention him spending time with your Millie there too.”
“Well he is staying at her Ma’s place sleeping under the same roof, doesn’t that bother you none?”
Jess grinned, “I figure you ain’t met Aunt Ivy have you Doug?”
Chapter 6
It was well after midnight when there was a gentle tap at Jess’s door and he threw himself out of bed and padded across the room, dressed only in his cut down, snowy white long johns.
He pulled the door open cautiously and admitted Millie, wearing nothing but her robe and a big smile.
She looked him over appreciatively and giggled, once he had kissed her thoroughly.
“What?” he asked standing back, a smile on his face but one quirky eyebrow raised in question.
“Those,” she said gesturing to his pristine shorts, “so how come you always have freshly laundered underwear whenever we, you know… meet up huh?”
“Well I’ll tell ya,” he chuckled, “see I save ‘em just for you.”
“Sure, I always pack a spare pair and save ‘em especially for you, just in case I get lucky”, he said with a mischievous grin.
Her eyes widened in disbelief and the she burst out with laughter, “Jess, you really are cheeky,” and then she was in his arms, Slater, Aunt Ivy and the whole world forgotten as they embraced tenderly.
“So ya think we’re gonna get away with this then?” he asked her much later, as he kissed the top of her head and she snuggled into his arms in the comfy large bed.
She giggled, “Oh yes I reckon. You see I know darned well aunt will check on me, so I put some pillows in the bed, looks just like I’m asleep, she’ll never know, don’t fret. As long as I’m up and back in my bed by six o’clock, when she comes to wake me it’ll be just fine.”
“Well I guess we don’t wanna waste a minute of our time together then?” he said softly, raising a questioning eyebrow, tipping her chin with a finger and moving in for another kiss.
Dawn was breaking and the first light filtered in through Jess’s bedroom curtains waking him.
He yawned and stretched and then looked around him to see the other side of the bed empty.
Then he remembered Millie’s words of the night before, she had to be back in her own room for when her aunt came by.
Thank goodness her Ma would be back in a few days he thought reflectively. Then he and Millie could spend some longed for precious time together. But first there was breakfast to face with not only the redoubtable Aunt Ivy, but also Slater and Dyke and he sighed deeply before going to wash up and shave.
When he got down to the dining room Dyke was already putting away bacon and eggs and merely raised his eyes from his plate for a moment to nod at Jess before resuming stuffing his face at speed. Jess watched him in morbid fascination for a few minutes before pouring himself a coffee and settling down. Then a few moments later they were joined by Aunt Ivy and Millie.
“Good morning Jess, did you sleep well?” asked a playful Millie.
Once Jess had recovered from choking on his coffee he nodded, throwing her a wicked grin, but luckily Aunt Ivy didn’t notice.
She actually seemed far more preoccupied with the fact that Hank Slater’s breakfast was cooling fast and he was nowhere to be seen.
“Where on earth is Mister Slater this morning?” she asked the company in general. Then after getting no reply continued, “Someone really needs to go and knock on his door, I fear he has overslept.”
She looked to where Charlie was still demolishing his breakfast and her niece making eyes at the dark-haired cowboy with trouble written all over him and sighed.
“I’ll go then shall I?” she said with a martyred expression, before marching from the room.
She tapped lightly on the door of room number two and called out. However, when there was no answer she opened the door a little and peered into the dim interior.
The ear-splitting scream seemed to reverberate around the house.
All three seated at the table below exchanged a horrified glance before standing as one and tearing up the stairs two at a time.
Jess was the first on the scene and took in the shaking, white faced Ivy, pointing at a figure lying on the bed...
Jess, along with Millie and Charlie, who had now caught up, peered at the bed in shocked disbelief.
Hank Slater lay in a pool of blood, Jess’s hunting knife sticking in his chest, he was quite dead.
Millie turned horrified eyes on her lover, “Jess?”
“Mill, I never did it I swear.”
Then it was Charlie Dyke’s turn to speak.
He fixed shocked eyes on Jess, “That’s your knife Harper, I’d know it anyplace. Arapaho ain’t it, looks like you’ve gotten one hell of a lot of explaining to do boy. I’m fetching the law.”
Jess just stood there as though frozen to the spot and didn’t even react when Ivy nearly fainted and Millie helped her to a chair and fetched some water.
Then just minutes later Jess heard Doug’s familiar deep tones as he ascended the stairs, “I’m telling you Dyke this better be important, not had my first coffee of the day yet ya know,” he said somewhat testily.
Then he was inside the room and immediately took in the situation.
Millie’s old auntie white as a sheet and shaking, Millie an arm around her and Jess standing irresolute… staring down at a figure on the bed, looking like he might run at any moment.
Doug peered down at Slater’s body with Jess’s hunting knife sticking in his chest and all became clear, no wonder Jess looked like he was about to bolt, caught red handed, who wouldn’t.
Then his good friend turned deep blue eyes on him and said quietly, “It weren’t me Doug, I swear it weren’t.”
Their gaze locked and Doug looked into his friend’s very soul and knew in his heart he was telling the truth.
But he was a lawman and this was damning evidence.
“If you didn’t do it...then who did buddy?” he asked softly.
Jess just shrugged and looked over at the only other possible suspect, “Charlie, do you know anything?” he finally asked.
“Not guilty Sheriff,” said Charlie ignoring Jess and addressing Doug, “I was with that cute little redhead over at the Last Drop. You saw me didn’t ya. I only got back ten minutes ago and went straight to the dining room for breakfast.”
Doug sighed deeply, “That’s the truth of it Jess, he went off with her late last night and I saw ‘em together having a coffee not long ago at Gina’s Café. How about you, where were you last night?”
Jess flicked a glance over to Millie. Then with his mouth set in a firm line he just looked down refusing to reply.
Millie couldn’t bear to see him this way and she leapt up from where she’d been comforting her Aunt, “I’m sorry Aunt Ivy, but I have to tell the truth.”
Then turning to Doug said, “He was with me last night, I went to his room and was with him all night.”
Ivy suddenly flushed an angry red and stood up glaring at first Jess and then Millie before turning to Doug.
“The child is lying,” she said firmly, “I myself went to Millie’s room last night, just to check on her and she was sleeping like a baby and was still that way when I went to waken her first thing. She’s lying Sheriff to protect this…this gunslinger. Just arrest him and have done with it why don’t you?”
“Yeah, why dontcha arrest him Sheriff?” asked Charlie Dyke turning hard eyes on Doug, “Because he’s your friend maybe?”
Doug sighed deeply, He’d been through so much with Jess in the war, they went way back, had history and there was nobody...just nobody he’d rather have at his back than good ol’ Jess Harper. But he was a Sheriff, with a duty to perform and sadly he turned to look once more into the eyes of his old friend.
“Jess,” he said quietly, “that man’s got your hunting knife sticking in his chest, what in hell am I supposed to think?”
Jess just shrugged, “My boots with the knife in ‘em was outside my room in the corridor, anyone could have taken it.”
Doug just shook his head sadly, “I’m gonna have to take you in Jess, you know that don’t you.”
Jess was pale and sweating and he stared at Doug in shocked disbelief for a full minute, a muscle flicking in his cheek, his right hand clenching and unclenching, before he finally made his move.
His gun was drawn in the blink of an eye and pointing at the Sheriff.
“I can’t let ya do that Sheriff,” he said menacingly.
Then almost in a whisper, “I can’t do it Doug, can’t be locked up waitin’ on a rope again...not after last time.”
*See#13 The Silver Lady
There was a stunned silence before Millie gave a little cry of shock, “Jess?”
He flicked a glance beyond the Sheriff and saw tears beginning to run down her cheeks and felt his heart might break clear in two.
They exchanged a look of shocked disbelief at what was happening to their world, as it rocked on its very axis.
He finally whispered “I’m sorry,” before turning his attention back to Doug and Charlie Dyke.
“Drop your guns,” he spat angrily, rage directed at his own actions as much as anything. Jeez was he really doing this a little voice in his head gasped.
When Doug failed to respond Jess cocked his .45 and said darkly, “I mean it Doug.”
The Sheriff sighed deeply before throwing down his gun, quickly followed by Charlie doing likewise.
Jess stooped and picked them up, shoving Doug’s in his own belt and aiming the other at the men, a gun now in each hand.
“OK hit the deck, on yer belly,” he snapped.
Once they had complied he turned back to Millie, the look in his eyes heartrendingly sad, “I’m so dang sorry,” he said again.
“Hush, it’s alright,” she whispered, “go Jess, stay safe.”
He just nodded and pulled his hat down hard to hide the despair in his eyes, then he was gone.
They heard him thunder down the stairs, the door slam and then the clatter of a horse galloping away.
Doug scrambled up, tore across to the window and peered out, “Goddamn it, he’s taken my dang horse,” he cussed before turning and running from the room.
Jess rode hard for the best part of an hour, before finally pulling the big buckskin up and gently patting his neck.
“I’m real sorry to do that to ya old boy,” he said softly.
He figured that with it being a Sunday morning it would take Doug some time to get a posse together.
He sat and took stock. He had nothing bar the clothes he was standing up in, no jacket, bedroll or supplies. But the very worst of it was that Traveller was back at the livery.
He’d paid old Bill up until the end of the week and he knew his horse would be well cared for, but dang it Bill wasn’t a charity and couldn’t keep the animal indefinitely. Eventually he’d be sold off to the highest bidder.
Jess gave a groan of despair before turning Buck off towards the distant mountain range, knowing he could hole up there for as long as he needed to escape the posse. He knew he could just disappear without a trace and he was damn sure Doug knew it too. He hadn’t spent all that time with the Arapaho without picking up a trick or two about how to evade anyone tracking him.
It was later that day when he saw two things that were to set his heart racing.
Firstly, way down below him on the Laramie road he could just make out a buckboard bearing a coffin, wending its way slowly towards Laramie, driven by Charlie Dyke. He was taking his boss on his last journey, back to the Flying B Ranch, to be laid to rest with his Ma and Pa. Jess cussed under his breath. The murder would be the talk of the town and iffen Slim and Daisy hadn’t heard about it yet, well they sure as hell would soon.
That was when the enormity of what he’d done really hit home. Slim would be so dang mad at him. Furious that he’d run. But there again Slim knew what it had been like for him last time. When he was imprisoned...waiting for the gallows after he’d been framed for a murder he hadn’t committed. Slim had been with him at that time and seen how he had suffered. Seen how he’d had to say goodbye to Daisy and young Mike. Slim had stayed with him up until the eleventh hour. Jess had felt the rope around his neck and he was literally seconds away from death when the reprieve came through. No, he couldn’t have faced that again or put everyone he loved, back at the ranch, through all that again either and certainly not Millie. Surely Slim would see that...understand?
It was late afternoon when he saw the posse far off in the distance, going in completely the wrong direction, disappearing from sight after just a few minutes. He gave a grim smile, wondering if Doug had deliberately led them away and figured he wouldn’t put it past him. Anyway, he wasn’t about to be found and he turned the big buckskin in the opposite direction, heading for the cover of distant pines at the base of the mountains.
Although it was high summer the weather had turned inclement and as he made his way towards the rocky outcrop the storm clouds rolled in and the heavens opened. Within a few minutes Jess was soaked to the skin, his shirt and vest offering little protection against the elements. As dusk fell he finally made it to the relative shelter of a pine forest and set up camp, such as it was.
He had managed to find some dry kindling at the base of the pines and got a rather sulky fire going. Then he sat almost on top of it, his soaking clothes slowly steaming. He had no luck in finding any game and finally made do with some jerky he found in one of Doug’s saddlebags. Then with no bedding, save his saddle for a pillow he settled down to try and sleep...as the storm raged above...the pines offering a little shelter at least.
Chapter 7
The following morning waking up to sunshine cheered him a mite, but not for long as the events of the previous day came flooding back to him and he cussed long and loud.
“And not even a cup of dang coffee to start the day,” he lamented to the old Buckskin, tethered nearby. The horse merely tossed his head and showed the whites of his eyes at the cowboy’s obvious displeasure and Jess had a stab of longing to have his good old horse at his side. “Goddamn it,” he spat as he leapt up and kicked at the embers of last night’s fire... “I’m gonna have ta go back for him!”
It was three days later when he slowly made his way towards town. He figured the posse would have given up by then. Also, the word wouldn’t yet have gotten around to those lowlife scavengers the Bounty Hunters. Although Jess had no doubt that wanted posters would be distributed shortly. Then the world and his dog would be chasing after him he thought bitterly.
He rode to a small thicket of trees, just outside town, off the main road and waited until the small hours of the morning before leading the old buckskin in and making straight for the livery.
Well there’s one thing old boy he said softly to the horse as they made their way in, at least this will be the last dang place they’ll be lookin’ for me only a crazy man would come back here.
He opened the barn door which creaked alarmingly, but nothing stirred within save a few of the horses who raised their heads, ears flicking inquisitively.
He quickly made for Traveller ’s stall and was greeted by a low welcoming whinny.
“Didn’t think I’d abandon ya did you boy?” he said softly, caressing the animal’s velvety nose.
Once he was sure his horse was OK he took a deep breath and walked over to the old buckskin and took him to his usual stall before removing his saddle and giving him a brisk rub down.
It was when he came out of the stall to claim his horse that he heard a movement in the shadows.
He drew his gun in the blink of an eye and called out gruffly. “Show yourself, or by God I’ll blast yer head off.”
After a moment a diminutive figure came hesitantly forwards, his hands raised in submission, looking white and shaken, “It’s only me Mister Harper, sir.”
Jess looked into the wary eyes of young Freddy the stable lad and suddenly remembered how the kid slept in the barn at night.
He quickly holstered his iron.
“Jeez, I’m sorry boy,” he muttered. “I er kinda borrowed the Sheriff’s horse, I brought him back, came to fetch Traveller.”
“I see sir. Do you want me to saddle him for you?”
Jess just nodded and then went to feed the big buckskin before wandering over to where Traveller was ready to go. Then he noticed the bulging saddle bags the youngster had just thrown across the horse’s back.
Jess fondled his horse’s neck before asking, “So where did they come from Freddy?”
“Miss Millie brought ’em over from the Boarding House, said as how you’d left in kind of a hurry, but you’d be back for your horse and you’d need your stuff. Said I should keep it safe for you sir. She said it was our little secret and I wasn’t to tell anyone.”
Jess’s heart missed a beat, gee his girl sure knew him so damned well, knew he’d just have to come back for ol’ Trav, no matter what and he smiled to himself, God he loved that woman.
Then he sobered realising he was putting young Freddy in a real difficult position here, iffen he was caught aiding and abetting a known felon.
He turned sad eyes on the child who was now waiting for his next instructions.
“Do you know about what they’re saying I’ve done to Mister Slater boy?”
“Yes sir. I do, but I don’t believe it any Mister Harper…you wouldn’t kill a man that way I just know it.”
“Thanks,” said Jess softly, “I really appreciate that. But I’m real worried about you Freddy, iffen they find out you helped me escape. You saw me and didn’t tell the Sheriff, well you’ll be in real big trouble son.”
“That’s OK,” the boy said with a grin, “Miss Millie and I figured that’s how you’d be thinkin’ so she says you’re to tie me up. That way we can say you got the drop on me and I’ll be in the clear see.”
Jess just shook his head, “Well I dunno Freddy...”
“It’s OK Mister Harper really it is just don’t make it too tight and Bill will be in first thing he’ll find me in an hour or so.”
Jess had finally been persuaded to do as the boy suggested and walked Traveller quietly out of town on the back road and was miles away by dawn.
He’d resisted the urge to call in and see Millie...knowing he’d have put her in a difficult position too, if it was discovered that he’s visited and she had not raised the alarm. But gee it was so dang hard to walk on by when she was so near.
As he’d been travelling most of the night he made camp in the mountain foothills to the west of Cheyenne, once more, from where he had a good view of the trail and any one approaching. He figured the posse would be called out again as soon as young Freddy was discovered. However, as the day progressed he had gotten more and more weary and finally fell into an exhausted sleep about noon.
He had been thinking about the note Millie had put in with his supplies in his saddle bags. It had been an incredibly moving love letter telling him how much she cared. How she completely understood his dilemma and how she would be true to him. And she would wait no matter how long it took to clear his name. He’d smiled grimly at that notion.
“And how the heck am I gonna do that sweetheart?” he had whispered under his breath... Then her next sentence really got him thinking...’Maybe you should pay Louisa Slater a visit. All the trouble between you and Slater started after his visit to her. She might be able to tell you something?’
He had tipped his Stetson back and scratched his mop of unruly hair, could she have a point? Did Lou maybe know someone who bore her brother a grudge, enough to kill him? It sure was a long shot but then what else did he have?
It had been shortly after that, still clutching Millie’s note in his hand that he fell into an uneasy slumber.
He awoke with a start an hour or so later sweating and his heart pounding in his chest.
He looked warily around him, but all was fine. Traveller quietly cropping the grass from where he was ground tethered a few feet away. The surrounding countryside spread out below him completely devoid of man or beast alike.
He took a deep breath and tried to calm down, but garldarn it that dream had been so damn real. He wiped his shirt sleeve across his perspiring face and sighed deeply. “Jeez,” he muttered softly.
He was lying in the dark and was suddenly awoken by an ear-splitting scream followed by another and another...he tried to get up but there was something weighing him down, like a lead weight on his chest. He fought it with all his might, the screams getting more and more frenzied.
Then he finally burst free from the invisible restraints and was dashing across his room at the Boarding House and down the corridor to Slater’s room from whence the intermittent, but now weaker, cries were still coming.
He crashed the door open practically taking it off its hinges before staring in horror at the scene being played out before him.
Slater was lying on top of Millie forcing himself on her and she was practically hysterical, weeping and calling for Jess over and over.
Then blackness descended around him and the next thing he knew he was standing beside the bed his hunting knife embedded in Slater’s chest and Millie was yelling, “No...no, oh God Jess, he’s dead.”
Then he was wide awake, “Jeez,” he said again, shaking his head as though to try and clear it of those terrible visions. He could see Millie, white and shaking and practically fainting with shock and Slater lying motionless in a pool of blood. God, it had been so dang real.
He took some more deep breaths and felt like he might well throw up.
Then a terrible thought struck him….
Could he have done it? Killed Slater in cold blood? Had he perhaps had one of the terrible nightmares he occasionally suffered from and walked in his sleep to Slater’s room and killed him?
He shook his head. “No,” he cried out loud, “I’d know, surely I’d know?”
He had walked in his sleep once before, not long after his beautiful fiancée, Maria, had been shot dead in front of him. He’d been half crazy with grief and one night had made his way to the barn. He was standing by Traveller’ s stall when Slim had found him and led him gently back to his room, explaining about it all the following day but Jess had no recollection of it at all.
He’d been so rattled by Slater’s persistent vendetta against him all these weeks... Then suddenly seeing him at Millie’s place could it have tipped the balance of his mind? Had he committed a crime of passion in his sleep?
He buried his head in his hands, the full horror of the situation flooding through his body and mind. He was done for. Maybe he should just ride back into town and pay the consequences for what he had done?
He lay low for the rest of the day and night, not daring to hunt or light a fire lest he alert a search party and on the second day he finally made his decision.
He mounted up and turned his horse, not back to Cheyenne to give himself up but towards Denver, to find Louisa Slater and try and get to the bottom of the whole sorry business.
He knew deep in his heart that he could never kill in cold blood, awake or asleep, with a troubled mind or not, it just wasn’t in him. And so iffen he hadn’t killed Slater, then who had? One thing was pretty damn sure he thought grimly as he rode out at dawn, he sure as hell wasn’t gonna stop until he found out. “You ain’t quittin’ Harper,” he said firmly to himself as he kneed Traveller off to a brisk trot...heading for Colorado.
As he rode out the one thing on his mind were the folk back at the ranch... Surely they would know by now. What would they be feeling, had they given up on him? Hell did they hate and despise him? The thoughts went round and round in his brain like rats in a trap as he rode on in the heat of the day his heart breaking as he thought of those he loved. Feeling that he had somehow betrayed their trust in him by going on the run...but what choice did he have?

Chapter 8
Sheriff Mort Cory was not having a good day....
Just that morning he had received a wire from Sheriff Doug Masters explaining about the murder of one Hank Slater and how Jess Harper was the main suspect. Then it went on to say that he was on the run and should be apprehended if seen in the area. Doug had also added, less formally, ‘Jess is no fool, doubt will show up in Laramie-stop-Regards Sheriff Doug Masters.
“Umm, I doubt it too,” said Mort later to Lon his Deputy, “but I’d better get myself over to the Sherman place and tell ‘em.”
“Ain’t nobody there boss,” said Lon quickly. “Slim’s gone over to Blackthorn delivering a couple of mustangs and Miss Daisy’s visiting her youngest sister in St Louis while young Mike’s away for the summer. There won’t be anybody home but the Jackson boys minding the shop. Slim told me he’d be back end of the week when I saw him in the bank a few days ago.”
Then looking deeply saddened, “I just can’t believe it boss, not Jess. I know that Slater’s been giving him a hard time lately...but he wouldn’t stab him that way, he just wouldn’t.”
Mort shook his head, “It seems like the evidence is overwhelming, his hunting knife in the guy’s chest. Jess was there in the same house and had the motive. The only other person around was his ramrod, Charlie Dyke, and he’s got a rock-solid alibi. The place is locked at night and old Ma Jefferson, Millie’s maiden aunt, is a real light sleeper, she’d have heard if anyone had broken in.”
“Did the Sheriff say all that in the wire?”
“Nope, I’ve just had old Mose in, full of it. He’ll be down in the saloon filling everyone’s heads with his own version of events by now I’ve no doubt,” said Mort grimly.
Then he scraped his chair back and standing up put on his hat pulling it down hard before making for the door.
“Mind the place will you Lon, think I’ll just take a walk down to the saloon, see what’s happening.”
As predicted Mose was holding court in the Laramie saloon and receiving free drinks from an avid circle of folk enjoying the tit-bits of information on the scandalous piece of news.
“I can’t believe it and I dang well won’t,” Tom the barkeep said staunchly. “He’s been framed that’s what it is. It happened before with that woman they called the Silver Lady, if you remember? You mark my words, someone’s set him up.”
“Well it sure don’t look any too good for him, with him runnin’ off that way,” said Mose, accepting another drink with a nod of thanks.
“Well I always thought he was a bad ‘un,” said a pompous looking young man who was a clerk at the bank. “Once a gunslinger always a gunslinger, that’s what I say. Can’t see why the Sheriff employs him as a deputy, I really can’t.”
There was suddenly the sound of someone clearing their throat and all the men turned to look into the eyes of Mort Cory, blazing with anger.
“You can’t then Mister Jarvis?” asked Mort turning on the now flushed clerk.
“Seems to me you’ve kind of changed your tune. I seem to remember you being really happy to have him around when he stopped the Bank being robbed just last month.”
He stared hard at the young man who blushed more deeply and looked down unable to meet the Sheriff’s furious gaze.
“And as fer you Mose Shell I thought you were his friend! He’s sure ridden shotgun for you more times than I care to remember and often just out of kindness because someone was sick and he didn’t want you to make a trip without some back up.”
Mose looked down, “I ain’t sayin’ as how he did it Sheriff, just said it weren’t looking any too good for him ‘tis all.”
“Umm, well I suggest you all keep your options to yourselves and as far as I’m concerned Jess is innocent until proven otherwise...now go about your business.”
It was the following afternoon when Tom burst into the Sheriff’s office looking mighty perturbed.
“You’d better come down the saloon real quick Sheriff. Slim Sherman’s arrived back in town early and there’s been kind of a ruckus with some of the hands from the Flying B.”
Mort could hear the fight half way down the street and even before he got there a chair came flying out of the door narrowly missing him.
He exchanged an exasperated glance with Tom before marching in to the mayhem beyond the swing doors.
After a moment he discharged his rifle and then lowered it, aiming at the dirty, bloodied punters now scattered around the bar.
The Sheriff sighed deeply and then addressed the amassed company, “OK so you all done in here?”
There was a mumbled assent, with much embarrassed shuffling of the feet and the odd nod.
Then from the back of the crowd Slim Sherman pulled himself up to his full height and marched up.
“Well I sure haven’t Mort, there’s men in here slandering my partner and I want them dang well locked up for it!”
Then one of the Flying B wranglers came forwards and threw Slim a furious look. “It ain’t you that’s lost your job Sherman. Thanks to your murderin’ bastard partner we’re all out of work and the flying B on the market, so don’t give me any rubbish about slander!”
Slim leapt forwards and would have landed another punch if Mort hadn’t quickly intervened.
“Look Slim, we need to talk in my office,” he said, firmly grabbing his friend by the arm and brooking no argument.
Slim saw he meant what he said and roughly pulled away before stooping to pick up his hat and ramming it on his head followed the Sheriff out.
“What! You’re telling me you believe Jess did that?” he asked five minutes later once they were in the privacy of the Sheriff’s office.
Slim had been seated in front of Mort’s desk but now he leapt up and started pacing around the room looking agitated.
“Look all I’m saying is I had this wire from Doug over in Cheyenne. Jess’s knife was in Slater’s chest. He was heard to say he’d kill him if the man messed with Millie, just the night before the alleged murder. There were no other suspects and his alibi didn’t hang together. Millie said she was with him all night, her Aunt said not.”
“Come on Mort, you know Jess and Millie of course they were together why wouldn’t they be?”
“I dunno, a real strict maiden aunt riding shot gun maybe?”
“And you really think that would stop Jess...and anyway….”
“What Slim?”
“He’d never do that, kill a man in cold blood and then go and calmly eat his breakfast afterwards, it doesn’t make sense.”
“I see you’ve been talking to Mose.”
Slim nodded, “Yup, he felt it his duty to fill me in on everything and then those idiots from the flying B landed and started bad mouthing Jess. Mort I’d hardly got my head around it all and then that...”
“And so you reacted with your fists?”
Slim looked down, “Yes, but I was sorely tried you know?”
“Sure I do buddy. But I’m real sorry Slim, I think you’re gonna have to consider the possibility that he just might be guilty.”
“Is that what you think?” asked Slim looking incensed.
“Nope, I reckon not, but it sure isn’t looking good for him Slim if only he hadn’t run that way.”
Slim looked down shaking his head, “You can’t blame him after last time?”
Mort shook his head sadly, “That sure was a bad time...for you all.”
“Yeah and so maybe he just didn’t want to put us all through that again?”
Then he sank his head in his hands.
“Daisy, Mike I’m going to have to tell them sometime. Look Mort this will destroy them. Daisy’s like a Ma to him and young Mike idolizes him, Jeez what a goddamn mess.”
There was a pause whilst Mort poured them both a shot of Red Eye, pushing a glass across the desk before knocking back his own.
“So what are you gonna do?” he finally asked, “Because I really don’t want any more trouble here in town Slim.”
Slim looked up then and swallowed hard before replying.
“You won’t be getting any Mort, I’m heading off after him.”
“You’re what!”
“You heard,” said Slim swigging down his whiskey and standing up.
“What about the ranch, Miss Daisy and the boy?”
“The Jackson boys are good for another couple of weeks, longer if needed and Daisy and Mike aren’t due back until school starts back end of next month. I’ve got time.”
“So you know where to look?”
“Maybe,” said Slim looking slightly guarded.
“Umm well I don’t wanna know. What you get up to is your business Slim. But friends or not I’d have to go find him and arrest him if I knew where to look understand?”
“Yeah, well it’s a good job you don’t know then isn’t it Mort?” Slim said with the ghost of a smile.
Mort gave him a sly wink in return, “Sure is,” he said quietly.
Slim moved to the door but turned back when Mort called to him.
“Good luck...”
Slim just nodded and marched out of the office and purposefully down Main Street making for the livery and Alamo.
Chapter 9
When Slim arrived in Cheyenne late in the afternoon he went straight to Sheriff Masters’ office, wanting to get as much information as he could before he set off after his buddy.
He found Doug with his feet up on the desk reading the local paper, but he jumped up and went to shake Slim’s hand when he entered.
“Hey, I wondered how long it would be before you showed up Slim,” he said with his lopsided grin. Then sobering quickly said, “The boy’s sure done it this time buddy.”
Slim sank down on the chair Doug gestured to and removed his hat, running a hand through his blond locks.
“Don’t I know it! Damn it Doug what possessed him to run that way?”
Doug sighed deeply before reaching for the whiskey bottle in his desk drawer and pouring them both a good measure.
“He didn’t have much choice with the odds stacked against him the way they were. His knife in Slater’s chest and goddamn it Slim he’d even pledged to kill the guy iffen he messed with Millie and half the town heard him say that. I’d have had to arrest and charge him.”
Slim took a swig of his drink, before asking the question he’d been dreading all the way over.
“Do you believe he’s innocent Doug?”
The Sheriff’s head shot up and he fixed Slim with his dark brown eyes, “Why sure I do. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him.”
Slim let out the breath that he hadn’t realised he’d been holding, “Thank God,” he muttered.
“I’ve known Jess one hell of a long time Slim, seen him on both sides of the law even apprehended him and had to sling him in the cooler once years ago,” he said with a little chuckle.
But then he looked serious again, “But there’s one thing with Jess he’s pretty much always truthful, and if he says he didn’t do it, then he didn’t and there’s something else too.”
“Yeah, I can always tell, those odd times he has stretched the truth some, lied, then I’ve known it. Nope he looked me in the eye and said he didn’t do it. But the thing is Slim, proving it. Like I say the evidence is stacked against him.”
“I figure I’m going to have to find him and see if we can work out what happened, I figure I know roughly where he’ll be heading,” said Slim quietly.
“Yeah, well at least he won’t have too much of a head start on you.”
“ I thought all this happened over a week ago?”
“Oh, it did but the dang fool came back for his horse didn’t he, just a couple of days ago.”
“I know mad or what! He came back in the dead of night, returned my old Buckskin he’d taken and took Traveller, crazy idiot,” he said grudging admiration shining in his eyes. “It just never occurred to me he’d take such a risk, or I’d have guarded the critter.”
Slim shook his head, “Him and that ol’ horse,” he said softly.
“Anyway, I went through the motions of getting a posse up, but he’d gone to ground in the foothills someplace, couldn’t for the life of us find any tracks.”
Slim just nodded, “That’s Jess, if he doesn’t want to be found then he won’t be.”
“And you think you’ll have any better luck?”
Slim shrugged, “I don’t know Doug, but I’ve got to try, I owe him that, he’s my partner and best buddy, I can’t just walk away.”
Doug nodded, “He looked goddamn awful Slim, when he drew on me. I was mad at him, sure I was, but, well a bit of me felt real sorry for him.”
Slim bowed his head and took a deep shuddering breath before finishing his whiskey, the two men contemplating the dreadful situation in silence.
“How’s Millie taken it all?”Slim asked after a minute or so.
“Not too well, haven’t seen her recently. She’s holed up at the Boarding House until her Ma lands back later in the week. Then she’ll head home to Laramie, the girl needs her friends around her right now.”
“I’ll stay over at her Ma’s place,” said Slim thoughtfully, “tell her I’m going to do what I can.”
Soon afterwards Doug’s Deputy arrived to take over the night shift and Slim and Doug retired to the Last Drop for a couple more drinks before Slim made his way over to the Boarding House.
Once they were at the bar with their drinks Doug grinned at his friend, “I figure you’ll need a couple of stiff drinks before you meet Aunt Ivy, she sure ain’t the easiest.”
“So I’ve heard tell from Mose.”
“Umm...she was the one that scuppered Jess’s alibi. Well he wasn’t gonna say anything, I could tell, thinkin’ of Millie’s reputation. But Millie stood up for him and said she’d been in his bed all night. Trouble is she’d done too good a job of hiding it from her Aunt, the old pillows down the bed trick.”
Slim smiled at the notion... “And so her Aunt really did believe she was telling the truth when she said Millie was in her own bed.”
“Umm that’s it and that’s what she’s prepared to swear to in a court of law and of course folk will see it as Millie just trying to protect her man.”
“I guess.”
“Uh talking of Mose he’s late in tonight, usually propping up the bar by now if he’s got an overnight Stage stopover.”
Then another couple of drinkers entered and Doug pulled his hat down hard and muttered, “Hell not more of the bastards.”
“Huh?” Slim asked looking in the direction of the newcomers.
“Bounty Hunters, can almost smell ‘em. Had a tip off he was back in town to fetch his horse I figure, this is the third lot.”
Slim threw them a hard look, but they were busy ordering drinks, and then Mose came in and made a bee line for Slim and Doug.
“Well howdy Slim, I thought you’d be showing up to help Jess out of his bit of trouble,” he said with masterly understatement.
Slim just nodded but said no more.
“You’re as good a person to flush him out as any,” he continued in his penetrating voice, “I figure you’ll know just where to look then Slim?”
The Bounty Hunters heads both shot up at this little tit bit of information and they peered over at Slim and his friends with interest.
“Hush will ya Mose,” said Slim in a stage whisper, glancing over at the Bounty Hunters again before rolling his eyes at Doug.
“Well I was only sayin’,” continued Mose even more loudly, “as that you’re such good buddies you’ll track him down and help him sort all this trouble out huh?”
“Mose, just shut the hell up!” spat Doug.
“I was just a sayin’ is all,” said Mose now looking deeply wounded and he sank his whiskey and called for another looking a mite sulky at what he perceived to be the cavalier treatment by his old friends.
He finished his drink in silence and then left, looking a mite sheepish by then.
Once he’d gone the two Bounty Hunters took a seat, never once taking their eyes off Slim and Doug.
“That’s it,” said Doug softly, “you can’t go after him now buddy they’ll be following you every step of the way and you’ll lead them right to him, if your notion as to where he is, is correct.”
“I know it,” said Slim looking angrily down into his whiskey, “and by the time I’ve shaken them off Jess’ ll be long gone, I’ll never find him. But there’s still something I could do for my pard, go and visit his girl try and help her some.”
Sometime later Slim made his way to Peggy Johnson’s Boarding House, wishing fervently that her steadfast caring influence would be in residence by now. However, it was not to be and a diminutive grey haired elderly woman answered the door.
“Yes?” she said looking less than friendly.
“Er I was looking for a room please Ma’am,” he said politely, removing his Stetson and giving her his most charming smile.
“And you are?”
“Sherman Ma’am Slim Sherman.”
Her expression hardened at this piece of news, “You are from the Sherman Ranch and Relay in Laramie?”
“Yes Ma’am.”
“Then I’m sorry Mister Sherman I can’t help you, good evening,” and she made to shut the door.
Just then there was the sound of someone tearing down the stairs and a moment later Millie burst out of the house and threw herself into Slim’s arms.
“Slim, thank God you’re here,” she cried, looking up into his kindly, concerned eyes.
Then she turned to her Aunt.
“I’m sorry Aunt Ivy, but Slim is a dear friend of mine and he will be staying here as long as he wishes. If you are not happy with that maybe you should think of returning home? I can manage quite well until Ma and Aunt Betty return.”
“Well…I never after all I’ve done for you! You ungrateful child,” her Aunt cried, turning a nasty shade of puce.
“I’m sorry Aunt, but I cannot see you treat my friends this way.”
Then she cast a glance up and down the street seeing one or two folk stopping to stare.
“Shall we go in?” she asked pointedly casting a glance towards the onlookers.
Aunt Ivy who hated any sort of commotion agreed at once and they retired to the Boarding House parlour.
“So what can I do for you Mister Sherman?” Ivy asked once more assuming her officious attitude, away from the onlookers.
“A room for the night please ma’am,” Slim said politely, and then more firmly, “And some time alone with Millie to discuss some private business.”
“I see, private business is it Mister Sherman? Well I’ll go and prepare your room and leave you to it then,” she said sarcastically, casting them both a black look.
They sat down on the sofa and once she had gone Slim impulsively grabbed hold of Millie’s hand and said, “Are you OK Millie? I know Jess really wouldn’t want you to be going through all this darned worry alone.”
“I know that too,” she said squeezing his hand and then letting go and getting up to pace the room.
“It was horrible Slim, seeing Jess’s knife in Slater’s chest and then poor Jess looking so lost and fearful. I just wanted to hold him...and then he drew on the Sheriff and there was no turning back.”
“You think he did the wrong thing then?”
“Goodness no, he had no choice Slim,” she said turning to him, “what with all the evidence looking so bad and my beloved aunt helping none,” she added rolling her eyes.
“Jess was with you?”
“Yes of course he was, what do you think Slim?” she asked smiling for the first time since his arrival.
Slim grinned back… “Nothing less I guess.”
She sighed deeply at the memory of their passionate love making and then came and sat down beside Slim again.
“Did you hear he came back for Traveller?” she asked.
He nodded smiling down into her beautiful eyes, “Yeah, Doug told me…crazy fool,” he whispered, “he loves that dang horse.”
“I know,” said Millie softly, “that’s why I left him supplies and a note at the livery; I knew he’d be back for him.”
Then she went on to explain about her suggestion that Jess track down Louisa Slater to see if she could shed any light on recent events.
“You think maybe someone had it in for Slater, enough to want to kill him?”
“I don’t know,” she said looking suddenly very small and sad, “but it’s all we’ve got Slim. This vendetta with Jess started after he returned from visiting her so maybe something happened there. Maybe someone was out to kill Slater and get revenge on Jess too?”
“But why, the only person that might hold a grudge against Jess would be Louisa herself, they didn’t finish on very good terms. But surely she wouldn’t want him dead and why would she want to harm her brother?”
Millie shrugged, “I don’t know, but maybe that’s what he’s got to try and find out.”
“Do you think he’ll go… and more to the point how will he find her? Denver’s a big place.”
“That’s easy,” and Millie went on to explain how Jess told her he’d visited the Flying B just before he came out to see her. “Ma Pritchard is really worried about Louisa, wanted Jess to go visit check on her.”
“And was he going to?”
Millie shrugged, “He said he might, after all they were very close at one time and if she’s in some kind of trouble he said he felt he should help her, but not until after our visit was over. Oh Slim I miss him so much,” she said and started crying softly.
Slim put a comforting arm around her, “Me too honey,” he said softly.
Slim was still holding her close and whispering words of kindness and comfort when the door flew open and Aunt Ivy marched in looking enraged.
“Good grief girl, no sooner has that terrible gunslinger run off than you’re canoodling with another man have you no shame?”
Slim looked furious and leapt up from his seat.
“Millie and I are old friends and she’s very upset! Sure, I’m comforting her and if you had an ounce of compassion you’d have done the same,” he said staunchly. “I’m extremely fond of Millie and her Ma and I would never do anything to betray that friendship or the one I have with Jess!”
Ivy was completely wrong footed by this tirade of anger and she backed off immediately.
“I... I see Mister Sherman well I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood the situation.”
“You sure did,” said Slim firmly, walking across and opening the door for the woman, “Would you mind?” He asked pointedly standing by the door.
“Of course not,” she said walking stiffly to the door desperately trying to regain some dignity. “Supper will be on the table in ten minutes exactly,” was her parting shot.
Once the door closed behind her Slim glanced over to Millie and they both fell about giggling like naughty children, all the tension of the situation they were experiencing making them almost hysterical with laughter.
“Poor woman,” Millie said eventually when she’d recovered from her fit of the giggles, “I guess she just doesn’t understand men too well!”
They sat down again and Slim looked thoughtful, “Did you see Louisa’s address?”
Millie shook her head, “No why?”
Slim went on to explain how the presence of the Bounty Hunters had ruined his plan to try and follow Jess.
“I figure now I’ll go back home and talk to Ma Pritchard. Make sure everything’s OK at the ranch and then take the railroad down to Denver. That’ll get the Bounty Hunters off my back and I might just meet up with Jess there. Like you say it’s a long shot, but it’s all we’ve got.”
“Dear Slim I knew I could rely on you,” she said smiling through the tears that had formed once more.
“Come on,” he said kindly, “lets’ go and eat supper we don’t want to upset your aunt again.”
Millie rolled her eyes, “Thank goodness Ma is due home soon, that’s all I can say. “
Chapter 10
About the same time that Slim and Millie were sitting down to supper Jess was finishing his. He was sitting by his campfire enjoying the last of the coffee supplied by Millie. He took a last sip and sighed, he was going to have to risk going into a town to get some basic supplies and more importantly he needed to wire Slim.
He knew the very place, not too far from where he was currently camped. He had left Cheyenne behind him and had been heading south for Denver using the old Arapaho and Cheyenne Indian trails through the mountains. It was far more circuitous than travelling along the main trail down below him but much safer. From his lofty vantage point he could see anyone advancing on him and simply melt into the open countryside of the mountain behind and above him. It was slow going though and the trail tortuous and winding in places and he was glad Traveller was so sure footed.
The small cow town he was intending to head for was lawless and wild...But it’s one redeeming feature was that its inhabitants didn’t give a cuss as to who or what a man was. As long as his money was good there would be no questions asked. He fingered the dark beard he had let grow as a disguise and wondered what Millie would make of it. His heart lurched at the thought of her and he looked bleakly out across the camp fire to the plains below wondering what she was doing, was she safe? Was she missing him as much as he was her?
The following morning, he set off early for Bedrock and made it by mid-morning. Riding into town he looked no different than any other dusty, weary drifter. He decided he’d just call at the mercantile to stock up with basics, send a wire to Slim and then head out again. No time for a decent wash in a hot tub or night in a hotel bed...if such niceties existed in Bedrock, which he very much doubted.
It was when he was ordering his coffee, ammunition and a few other odds and ends that the first seeds of doubt were sown as to the wisdom of his entering the town.
On the wall behind the counter was a Wanted poster with a clean shaven Jess Harper scowling down at him. He thanked the Lord for his beard and just hoped the storekeeper was as short sighted as he looked. He hurriedly concluded his business and rode off down Main Street to the telegraph office on the edge of town.
Tethering Traveller to the rail outside he took a quick glance up and down the street before entering the small shabby office.
“That it sir?” asked the clerk looking surprised. “Don’t worry-stop- I ain’t quitting-stop- Jess”
Jess just nodded and threw some coins on the counter and marching out, stood on the sidewalk for a moment.
Then something caught his eye at the other end of the street. The little balding, storekeeper with the eyeglasses was talking animatedly to a tubby elderly man and then Jess heard his agitated tone as he spoke, all the time grabbing the others arm and pulling him along.
“I tell you it’s him Sheriff...come and see!”
Then a glint of sunlight caught the Sheriff’s badge as he ambled forwards, picking up speed at the shopkeeper’s insistence.
Whoa… Sheriff…Bedrock had gotten a Sheriff?
Jess vaulted over the hitching rail and was in the saddle spurring Traveller on to a gallop in the blink of an eye.
For a heavy man the Sheriff moved with amazing speed. Chivvying as many bystanders as he could rally in the moment he, and a cohort of five others, were mounted and giving chase within a few minutes.
Jess felt a bullet whistle past his ear and several others skimming around his fast retreating form.
He looked back and saw the posse advancing and cussed under his breath.
“That’s too dang close for comfort,” he whispered as he urged Traveller on to greater speed.
Then one of the next hail of bullets found its mark at the top of his left arm, but still he galloped on, the searing pain merely making him more desperate to escape.
He finally chanced another backwards glance and was relieved to see the margin had widened considerably and by the time he reached the foothills they had given up completely and were heading back to town. Jess figured the overweight Sheriff’s heart wasn’t really in the chase. Now he’d been seen to go through the motions he could retire back to the saloon with a guilt free conscience.
Once he was sure he was up and clear he reined in and patted Traveller’ s neck, the horse sweating, shaking his head and blowing some, “Thanks boy,” he said lovingly, “you saved my bacon…again.” He took his bandana off and made a makeshift bandage to try and staunch the bleeding from the top of his arm, pulling it tight with his teeth. Then he continued at a more sedate pace, feeling nauseous from the throbbing pain in his arm and still somewhat breathless from the chase.
The further on he rode the more slowly he went until Traveller was eventually just going at a measured pace as Jess fought to stay in the saddle the pain and blood loss making him feel dizzy and sick.
“Goddamn it Harper you’ve only been winged,” he muttered through clenched teeth.
The bullet was firmly lodged in the muscle at the back of his upper arm and he had no way of removing it. Even if he had his hunting knife he thought grimly, it was impossible to see what he was doing at the angle of penetration...Nope he needed a doctor and sooner rather than later he uncharacteristically admitted to himself.
“Well that ain’t gonna happen, ain’t no help to be had in the middle of nowhere,” he said to Traveller, who merely flicked his ears and carried on walking at the slow rolling pace he’d kept up for the last hour or so.
By the time he’d reached his campsite he was in a bad way. He slipped down from his mount and stood holding onto his saddle horn for support for a moment. Then taking a deep breath reached for his canteen and took a good swig, pouring some water over his parched face. The sun had been beating down mercilessly all the way back and he was completely drained.
The water, although tepid, revived him some and he found the strength to pull off his saddle and tend to Traveller’s needs before collapsing down on his bedroll beside the remains of last night’s camp fire. He knew dang well that it would be much colder when the sun went down and he should really set a fire. He heaved himself up and then after a moment fell back down, rolling on his back, out cold.
When he came to sometime later he was shivering violently and his head was pounding. It was a moment before everything came flooding back to him. The stabbing, pulling his gun on one of his best buddies and running, leaving Millie and all he loved. Then the way he’d been recognised and chased culminating with the bullet to his arm.
The moon was up casting a ghostly light around the camp and he glanced down at the blood sodden arm of his shirt and felt sick to his stomach. He gradually levered himself up and stood swaying for a moment before going to fetch clean dressings from his saddle bags, thoughtfully provided by Millie.
Millie, goddamn it, would he ever see her again he thought mournfully as he pulled off his shirt and started the painful business of tending his wound.
Once the task was completed, as well as he could, he slowly lurched over to the remains of his fire. After finding some kindling from the day before, he got it going and crouched over the warmth wondering whether to bother brewing some coffee. But then feeling rather nauseous again just collapsed down onto his bedroll.
He was now sweating profusely, his head and arm seemingly throbbing in accord and he felt dizzy and completely drained. He knew all the signs so well, knew he should be keeping warm, drinking plenty of fluid and most importantly have the bullet removed and the wound dressed properly. How he wished he was home with Daisy and Doc Sam in attendance. But that wasn’t going to happen he was here all alone and nothing or no one could help him now.
His last thoughts as he fell into an exhausted slumber were of Millie...was this the end of the road?
Dawn was breaking and he was in that strange half waking half sleeping state when he became aware of a strange smell. It was a mixture of animal furs, chewing tobaccy and whiskey.
Then as he became slightly more awake he could hear something or someone breathing heavily close to him.
Jess’s eyes shot open and he was staring straight into the rheumy old eyes of....
“Denver…Denver James, why I’ll be damned... what are you doin’ here?”
“Ha, I might say the same of you Jess Harper. You’re a long way from home and lookin’ kinda beat up and bloodied son, iffen you don’t mind me a sayin’ so.”
He looked up into the concerned eyes of his friend Denver James, mountain man, fur trader and moonshine distiller. Then Jess looked past him to see his boys Cody and young Mick, all three men in their usual attire of grubby fur hats and buckskins.
“Howdy Jess,” chorused the young men.
Then Cody bent over him, “You’re lookin’ mighty poorly Jess boy, you ain’t bin eatin’ bear have ya?” he asked with a loud guffaw. This was a standing joke between them all as Jess had been invited to share their bear supper a few years back and had been violently ill for days after ingesting the semi rancid, fatty meat.
“No I ain’t been eatin’ bear,” said Jess gruffly, in no mood for their teasing, “got me shot iffen you wanna know.”
Denver inspected his friend carefully, noting the blood sodden binding and offered to check it out.
“Looks like ya stopped one from the back Jess boy, it’s not like you to be runnin’ away from a fight.”
“Yeah, well iffen you’ve gotten a wanted poster out on ya and it’s a Sheriff and posse doin’ the chasin’ I figure it’s probably the best option,” he said dryly.
Denver scratched his head and threw Jess a quizzical look, “I do seem to recall seeing a poster on ya back a way, just figured it was an old one.”
“Nope, I’m wanted for murder in Cheyenne,” said Jess quietly, “but I didn’t damn well do it Den.”
Denver gave him a toothless grin, “Well, if you say not son, then I’ll believe ya. And anyways even iffen you did, I bet the bastard was askin’ for it?”
Jess opened his mouth to protest his innocence and then thought better of it, what the hell. Denver skated precariously on the wrong side of the law most of the time and it didn’t matter to him what Jess had or had not done. Jess was a friend he trusted and that was all that mattered to old Den and his boys Jess thought with gratitude.
“You’re in need of some good doctoring Jess,” Den said after having inspected the wound carefully, “and you’re in luck, got Kate with us back at the camp.”
Jess gave a sigh of relief and thought of Kate yup she sure was a fine woman.
At nearing fifty Kate Munroe 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. Being legendary for having frequently outdrawn any troublemakers in the saloon she and her husband had owned back in Texas. Now a widow she had adapted well to her new life up the mountains in Wyoming with Denver and was as good at shooting the four-legged critters as she had been the two legged so she had once proudly announced to Jess.
Kate Munroe was a distant cousin of Denver, but a very different kettle of fish. She was a strong independent well-educated woman, with more than a little knowledge of herbal medicine and right then just the person Jess needed. After her husband had died she sold their saloon that she had run and moved to the Laramie Mountains with Denver and his boys and had never regretted it.
Jess had known Kate when he was growing up back in Texas and had a very good, if complicated friendship with her, Kate having had an affair with Jess’s Pa at one time. However, it was Mort Cory who was the only person Jess and Slim figured would be able to tame Kate and make an honest woman of her, but so far he’d had no luck. Sure, they had a very close and loving relationship when she visited town occasionally, but she refused to commit to him. She preferred her life up the mountain, ruling Denver and his boys with a rod of iron and enjoying life as a Mountain Woman. * See #56 Kate Munroe’s Secret and *#62 Three Rode Out.
Jess was brought out of his reverie by Denver saying again, “I said so do you think you can ride boy?”
“Sure, I can,” came the quick-fire answer. But once he had been pulled up by Cody and stood swaying, his head swimming it soon became clear that he was really unwell.
He was eventually persuaded to ride double with Cody on his big tough buckskin, Mick leading Traveller on behind, whilst Denver headed towards his well-hidden camp.
When they arrived, Kate came running out of the cave where they were holed up and cried, “Where in tarnation have you been Denver, I’ve been waitin’ on those mushrooms you promised me to fry up for breakfast this last hour.”
Then she stopped in her tracks as Cody brought his mount to a standstill nearby and his brother Mick helped a near unconscious Jess down.
“Jesse, is that Jesse Harper?” she asked, using Jess’s old childhood name, the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly and looking so sick making her forget he preferred Jess now.
“It is indeed,” said Denver as he strode over to where Jess was looking near collapse.
“Kate…thank God,” Jess muttered before keeling over, Cody and Den catching him before he hit the deck and half carrying him over to the campfire where they laid him gently down on an old blanket.
“What happened to him?” asked Kate kneeling down beside the now unconscious Jess and tenderly brushing his dark curls from his damp forehead, “The boy’s burning up.”
“Stopped a bullet back of his left arm in deep ,infected I’d say,” said Denver casually.
“The back you say?” asked Kate flicking a glance up at the big man.
“Yeah, seems he was runnin’ from a posse, said they thought he’d murdered a man back in Cheyenne.”
Kate’s eyes opened wide in shock, “No I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it or not, the boy’s dang sick, so can you fetch that lead out then Kate, because if you’ve a mind to maybe you should do it while he’s out cold?”
It was over an hour later when an exhausted Kate sat back on her haunches having removed the bullet and dressed the wound, she sighed deeply.
“That sure was a nasty one,” she said addressing Denver who was on the other side of the fire sipping a coffee liberally laced with Moonshine.
He shook his head chuckling, “Amazing how dang feisty he was considerin’ he’d lost all that blood an’ all.”
Cody wandered over and grinned down at his Pa, “It took the three of us and a half bottle of your best brew to get him to keep still in the end,” he laughed.
“That’s no laughing matter,” said Kate angrily, “the poor boy was in a lot of pain and it didn’t help him any with you sittin’ astride him forcing whiskey down his neck whilst yer Pa there sat cussin’ and a laughin’ on the side lines.”
Denver grinned over at her then, “Quit yer frettin’ woman, you got it out didn’t ya.”
“Umm, no thanks to you,” she muttered as she wiped Jess’s burning face with a cool cloth. “Now get off the lot of you, go and find something for supper and give me some peace. And bag something decent, don’t you dare come back with squirrel or ‘coon. A nice doe...or plump rabbit I can make some broth from, for the boy here.”
Cody and his Pa exchanged a pained glance but went off quietly knowing better than to argue with their cousin. They might be kinda petticoat bossed on occasion Denver thought, but it was worth it for their Kate’s meals that was for sure.
It was the following day before Jess was well enough to sit up and take notice and have a proper talk with Kate.
Denver and the boys were off hunting for the pot again when Kate came over with a coffee for Jess.
“I figured you’d be missing your strong brew,” she said with a smile, “think you can manage it?”
“You bet,” he said resting back against his saddle and taking the cup from her gratefully.
She sat down opposite him and took a sip of her own drink before casting him a concerned glance.
“What’s all this about you being chased by a posse boy?”
Jess looked over and gave her the ghost of a smile, “Seems the law has finally arrived in Bedrock, I didn’t know.”
“That’s not what I meant Jess and you know it, you’re on the run for murder. So, did you do it?”
Jess looked down into his coffee for a long time and then said softy, “You have to ask?”
She shook her head looking a mite embarrassed, “I guess not. Unless… well some hombre hurt someone you care for deeply like Millie maybe?”
Jess sighed deeply and then opened up and told her the whole sorry tale.
“You’re right in a way,” he concluded, “that’s what they’re sayin’. That it was a crime of passion. Half the town heard me say I’d kill Slater if he messed with Millie again, so they just assumed that’s what happened.” Then he told her of Slater’s unrelenting vendetta against him as well, that being thought to be a possible motive.
“Umm.” she said thoughtfully, “so you had the opportunity, the motive and with your knife in his chest the method. It looks like an open and closed case doesn’t it?”
Jess nodded. “I guess it does.”
“Except for one thing,” she said looking deeply into his eyes.
“Huh, so what’s that?”
“You said you’re innocent and I believe you and I’m damn sure Doug Masters and everyone back at the ranch will too. So all you need to do is prove it.”
He gave a hollow laugh, “Sure simple ain’t it?”
“You got a plan boy?”
Jess explained that he was going to talk to Louisa Slater to see if she could shed any light on her brother’s enemies.
“It was a bad business when that girl left town dang near broke her ma’s heart,” said Kate forcefully.
“You knew Ma Slater then?”
“Yes, remember a few years back when I was renting the old Benson place?”
Jess threw her a dark look, “Like I’d forget it?”
“Yes…well anyway, I struck up a friendship with Mary Slater. I figure she was kinda lonely with Louisa gone. Her elder son Peter had moved back east…fascinating boy. He was a chemist you know Jess, like his pa had been before they moved to Wyoming, very bright. He had a room full of chemicals always making strange smells and explosions,” she chuckled, “drove Mary mad. But of course she missed him when he’d left.”
“A chemist you say like his Pa?” said Jess thoughtfully.
“Yes, old man Slater came into some money and decided to go back into ranching like his Pa and Uncle had done and moved here to Wyoming for a new life. But young Peter obviously inherited his Pa’s interest in science and went back East to train properly eventually.”
“Well that’s why Hank Slater was so dang good at spiking my drinks. He had picked up some knowledge from his brother and Pa. It was somethin’ called Chlo…Chloral…er…Hyd somethin’?”
“Chloral Hydrate, that’s a powerful sedative,” said Kate at once, “The silent killer they call it...folks have been known to be buried alive with an over dose of that. It fools even doctors, looks just like a body is dead, but really they are deeply sleeping or unconscious.”
“Yeah, Doc Sam told me about it...seemed to think I should be glad I was just poisoned and not buried alive,” he said with a grim smile.
“You really did have cause to hate him then Jess?”
“Sure, but not to kill the bastard in cold blood Kate!” He exploded.
“OK simmer down boy I said I believed you, didn’t I?”
She leaned over and topped up his coffee cup before continuing her narrative.
“Like I say she missed young Lou something fierce especially after the letters stopped.”
“She wrote letters?”
“Yes, apparently she corresponded with her Ma at first although never gave an address, said she was staying with a newly married old school friend. Then she had a massive bust up with her and moved out. A few months later the letters just stopped and her Ma never heard from her again.”
“Her Ma blamed me for it all didn’t she? Big bad Jess Harper throwing her sweet innocent little daughter over.”
“No, she didn’t actually, she told me she rather liked you. But James her husband didn’t and she just had to toe the line,” Kate sighed, “The only thing that made her Ma feel better was that Louisa had inherited a fortune from her Godmother, she was quite a rich woman you know Jess so at least she could afford to live well in Denver, I imagine.”
“Don’t I know it,” muttered Jess darkly.
“You did?”
“Sure...it was after we’d been together a few weeks, she started hintin’ about getting’ engaged havin’ young ‘uns and all. Well Kate you know me I just wasn’t ready for all that stuff and anyway….”
“What Jess?”
“I didn’t really love her enough. Sure, she was a swell kid and we had a good laugh together and all…but marriage and kids?” He shook his head sadly. “Anyway, not wantin’ to hurt her feelings I just said we’d need to save up, see how things worked out in a few years. That’s when she told me she’d gotten all this money in the Laramie Bank and we could get wed next week! Well that was when I had to tell her straight Kate.”
Jess sighed deeply, “I didn’t wanna hurt her, but I weren’t about to marry a girl I didn’t love, so I told her. Told her straight, it had been fun, she was a wonderful girl, but I wasn’t the marrying kind.”
“So she took it badly?”
Jess shook his head, “She’d been around her Pa a mite too long and was of the opinion that every man has his price. She said that iffen I’d marry her I’d be real rich. I mean real rich Kate, could buy us a big spread live high on the hog and maybe in time I’d learn to love her.”
Kate looked shocked to the core, “Jeez, so what did you do?”
Jess threw her a quizzical look, “What in hell do ya think? I said thanks but no thanks and headed for the hills. Well a trail drive down in Texas actually. By the time I landed home she’d gone and I’ve never seen her since.”
Chapter 11
It was several days before Jess was well enough to continue on his journey and much of his time was spent talking with Kate. He had known her since he had been a kid, she was an old family friend and knew Jess pretty much as well as anyone, better than most.
They talked about life back on the panhandle, about how happy Jess had been at the Sherman spread but mostly about the hell he was currently facing.
Jess shook his head and stared sadly into the fire before sighing deeply.
“Garldarn it Kate will I never learn?”
“What do ya mean Jesse?”
He flicked her a slightly irritated look at the use of his childhood name but let it go.
“It ain’t the first time I’ve been in this position.”
“What?” she gasped sitting up and taking notice from where she was seated on the other side of the campfire preparing the supper.
“Yup, did you ever hear tell as how my Uncle Seth died?”
She shook her head, “Nope I didn’t even know he was dead. But no sad loss, the man was an utter bastard!”
Jess gave her the ghost of a smile, “No arguments there and that was what I said long and loud around Laramie when he landed at the Relay a few years back.”
“Yeah, he’d gotten himself into debt and had a card sharp gunning for him, thought I’d come up with the money to bail him out.”
Kate looked mutinous, “Well I sure as hell hope you didn’t give it to him. When I think what he did to your family, young Francie in particular,” and she shook her head at the memory.
“What do you think?”asked Jess throwing her a hard look.
“So what happened how did he die?”
“With my knife in his chest,” he muttered.
“Yup I bad mouthed him, just like I did Slater for all to hear, even Mort Cory. Then he ended up with my knife in his chest. And before ya say it, no it weren’t me, it was the card sharp he owed. Seth had stolen my knife, turned it on the card sharp…but got fatally stabbed in the fight that followed.* See #51 Wanted Dead or Alive
“It wasn’t your fault then was it?”
“But don’t ya see Kate it was my dang temper that got me in trouble then too.”
She gave him a motherly smile, “That’s just the way you are honey. Sure maybe you should try and rein it in some, sounding your mouth off that is...but….”
“But what Kate?”
“But don’t ever lose that fire in your belly boy. You stand up for what you believe in, stand up for yourself and your rights. I reckon iffen you stopped doing that well you’d stop being Jess Harper and that would be a crying shame.”
He was silent for a long time and then finally gave her a warm, loving smile.
“Thanks Kate that helps...a lot.”
As the group of mountain folk packed up to move on the following day he felt kind of sad to be saying goodbye.
“Denver, you never said as to what you were doin’ holed up here,” he said as the tough old man threw some saddlebags and gunny sacks on his pack mule.
“I’ll tell ya Jess boy, see we did some trading down in Denver and the Sheriff there didn’t take too kindly to it...ran us out of town and confiscated my bottles. Well I wasn’t havin’ that. So me and Cody went and liberated them one night after the deputy on duty had dozed off. I think that kinda riled the Sheriff when he found out the following day, so we thought we’d lay low fer a while iffen you get my drift,” he said tapping his nose.
Jess smiled, “You think you’ll be OK now?”
“I reckon, we’ll just stay up on this old Indian track until we get to Laramie, do a mite more trading and then head back to the mountains. Then I’ll get the old still fired up again.”
Jess looked thoughtful and then reaching in his vest pocket he pulled out some coins and handed them over.
“Drop by the Relay will ya Den, take a bottle for Slim huh?”
“Sure, sure I will boy, any message?”
Jess looked down for a minute or so and when he looked Denver in the eye, the old man was struck by the deep sadness he saw there.
“Just tell him I will be home someday to share it with him, tell him to save my share huh?”
Den just nodded and patted Jess’s arm before turning away to finish packing the mule...his old eyes suddenly tearing up, his expression sorrowful.
It took Jess another week to make it to Denver and by then he was feeling more his old self. The bullet wound was healing nicely thanks to Kate’s excellent care and herbal medicines and he was feeling quite optimistic.
He had been relieved to see that Louisa’s address was several miles outside town. A small spread on the edge of a much bigger ranch. As he rode past he wondered fleetingly who owned it and just hoped whoever it was hadn’t happened across any of the many Wanted posters he had ripped down from trees on his ride over.
Now he was here and about to question Louisa he felt suddenly wary. What if she refused to see him or speak to him. After the way they had parted he couldn’t really blame her? But there again, he’d had to be the one to take control, knowing full well that their relationship would never have worked. They were both way too young and from different backgrounds. Nope he’d never have fitted in with the Slaters and it was just fortunate that he’d had the guts to walk away saving them both heartache he figured now, with hindsight.
He rode into the small neat yard and noticed the well-tended vegetable patch and a house cow grazing in the meadow beyond and wondered what kind of life Louisa lived there. Maybe she was married he thought suddenly. She must be what now...twenty-two or three. She had been younger than him, that he remembered. Another reason not to rush into marriage he thought dourly, heck it must be four or five years since he’d clapped eyes on her.
He tethered Traveller to the hitching rail by the porch. Then pulling his hat down hard took a deep breath before he marched up to the front door and rapped loudly.
He heard the sound of raised voices from within and then the door was flung open and a tall man stood there wielding a shotgun, aimed at Jess’s belly.
There was a shocked silence as Jess looked up into the eyes of…Hank Slater.
“What in Hell...Goddamn it you’re dead!” he finally managed.
Slater lurched forwards ramming the shotgun hard into Jess’s ribs. “Well it sure doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing,” he spat. “Or you’re seeing a ghost Harper?”
Jess had given a yell of pain when the rifle had been thrust into his ribs and a moment later someone came from behind Slater pulling at his arm.
“Leave him Hank, don’t hurt him please.”
Jess’s head shot up.
“Hello Lou,” he gasped.” it’s been a long time.”
Jess sat on the comfortable, smart sofa in front of a roaring fire, one hand rubbing his painful chest. He stared morosely at where Hank had slumped down on an armchair, the rifle still aimed at Jess, even though he had taken his six gun.
A few moments later Louisa bustled in, carrying a tray of coffee, much to Jess amazement, and set it down on a nearby table. But there again her Ma had always been one for good manners and hospitality, offering Jess food or drink even in the middle of a huge argument with Louisa’s Pa.
“For goodness sake put that gun down Hank and drink your coffee,” she said with asperity, passing a cup to Jess.
Jess took it and then glared at her brother, “How did ya do it then?”
“Do what?” asked Louisa looking puzzled.
“Rigged his own death, with my goddamn huntin’ knife in his chest so as I’d be hung for his murder,” Jess spat.
Louisa nearly dropped her cup, “You did what?” she squealed turning to glare at her brother.
“Well it’s all he damn well deserved, way he’s treated you!” Slater responded furiously.
“So?” Asked Jess, ignoring the slur, that Slater had just made, “how did ya do it?”
Hank threw him a chilling smile. “‘Twas real easy iffen you know how. I just wore a couple of padded out undershirts...soaked ‘em in rabbit blood and then put the knife in. It was just stuck into the padding at an angle...sure looked like it was in my chest though huh?”
“But dang it Slater the darned Doc and undertaker must have certified you dead?”
Slater tapped his nose, “Well that’s where brains beat brawn Harper. I merely made a solution of Chloral Hydrate at the correct strength to put me out but not kill me. Heart rate and pulse were slowed right down and it didn’t take too much to kid the Doc or the undertaker, both of them practically senile. I got Charlie to remove the knife so they didn’t see it hadn’t penetrated and then it was just a case of getting the paper work all signed and sealed.”
“But I saw your coffin, being taken home. Charlie Dyke drivin’ you.”
“Nope what you saw was a coffin full of rocks, I’d jumped ship just after we left Cheyenne and made my way here to see my little sister,” he said turning to grin at Louisa.
At her name Louisa gave a little cry. “Why Hank, why did you do that to Jess? He could have hung for your murder!”
“I told you,” he spat, “because of what he did to you...It’s time he paid, “he said picking up the rifle again. “And God knows iffen I’d known all about it before he’d have paid a dang sight sooner. It took Ma and Pa dyin’ before you told me the truth,” he finished bitterly.
“What truth...what are you talkin’ about?” asked Jess. “Dadgum it I just threw her over. It’s not a damn hangin’ offence,” he muttered under his breath.
Louisa leapt up from the sofa where she had been sitting beside Jess, “No she cried, you can’t kill him for that, all that will happen is that you’ll hang for his murder are you mad Hank?”
“Oh no, don’t worry I’ve got it all worked out sis. It’ll be just like I promised you, with the money from selling my ranch we’ll go west to California. Make a fresh start...only difference being that he’ll be in a grave in your home pasture, where no one will ever find him and I couldn’t have done it because everyone thinks I’m dead already don’t they?”
Louisa who had seemed reasonably calm at Jess’s unexpected appearance now suddenly became distraught, “Please Hank, just leave him alone you can’t kill him, you just can’t!” she sobbed.
Her brother lowered his rifle and stared over at her tear stained face.
“Garldarn it. I don’t believe it,” Slater muttered, “you still love the bastard don’t you, even after everything he’s done!”
“He didn’t know,” she cried in alarm, “Hank he didn’t know about it. I never told him!”
Jess had just about reached the jumping off place now, rifle or no rifle.
He jumped up from his seat and grabbed hold of Louisa’s shoulders glaring at her. “What the hell am I supposed to have done?” he roared.
Just then the front door slammed and a cute child of about five, with dark curly hair, ran in. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the stranger standing holding Louisa’s shoulders and feeling the tension in the room suddenly looked fearful.
Jess immediately loosed his grip and Louisa turned to smile at the child and he grinned back running into her open arms.
Then Slater turned his malicious gaze on Jess.
“Harper meet your son, James...”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he looked into the child’s deep blue eyes and then up at his Ma.
Chapter 12
“Please, we can’t talk now in front of the boy… later,” she said and hurried the youngster out of the room.
Once she had gone Jess eyed Slater warily, before he moved towards the door.
“And where in hell do ya think you’re goin’?” asked Slater angrily.
“To feed and water my horse,” said Jess gruffly.
“Well make sure that’s all you do because this rifle’s going to be trained on your back all the time Harper.”
Jess just turn weary eyes on him, “With what she’s just said do you really think I’m about to go anywhere until I hear the full story?”
Slater looked kind of sheepish, “I guess not go on then.”
“Thanks,” said Jess sarcastically and marched from the room.
He took Traveller over to the barn stripped him of his tack and then started rubbing him down, all the time his mind going round and round in circles as he recalled the time when he and Louisa Slater had been stepping out…….

He was sitting around the breakfast table with Slim and Jonesy, an old family friend of the Sherman family. Jonesy had moved in to take over all the ‘domestics’ after Slim and Andy’s Ma had passed over and he sure ran a tight ship.
“Well I can’t see what the girl sees in an ornery drifter like you,” said Jonesy reflectively as he poured himself another coffee.
Jess took that in good part as he usually did with Jonesy’ s banter.
“Well I guess it’s so dang long since you kissed a girl you wouldn’t understand even if I tried to explain it to ya, “he said with his cheeky grin.
“Huh?” asked Jonesy, looking slightly wrong footed by this verbal attack.
“I think what he’s trying to say is that Miss Slater finds him real interesting and kinda likes him kissing her too,” Slim chuckled.
“Yup, I’ve always said it,” Jess confirmed, “it’s all in the kissin’”
“Umm...well you just make sure her Pa doesn’t catch you kissing her,” said Jonesy darkly, “that man sure does detest southerners and you in particular.”
“Yeah, well some folk have long memories, as far as the war goes,” Jess muttered suddenly losing his good humour.
“Not all of us buddy”, said Slim smiling over at his friend.” Where are you taking her today?”
Jess immediately recovered his good mood at the thought of his date, a smile lighting up his whole face, “We’re goin’ to the lake for a picnic. She said she’d wait for me up on the road by her place at eleven.”
“So she’s sneaking out behind her parent’s back now is she?” Jonesy asked throwing Jess a sour look.
“Nope,” he responded curtly, “her Ma knows alright and anyway she is eighteen for goodness sake!”
“Umm…well you watch your step young man you’re way out of your league mixing with those Slaters, it’ll all end in tears, you mark my words,” and he stood up and wandered off to the kitchen.
“Hey where are you off to?” asked Slim looking surprised, “Me and Jess usually wash up on a Sunday.”
Jonesy merely snorted, “Going to put up some cold chicken and biscuits for this here picnic ain’t I.”
Jess grinned across at the old man, “Gee thanks Jonesy. I owe you.”
It was later that Slim caught up with Jess in the barn and stood watching him as he groomed old Patch before harnessing him up to the buggy.
Jess turned and grinned at his friend, “What?”
“I was just thinking Jonesy talks a lot of sense you know Jess, maybe you should, well kind of take it easy with young Louisa.”
“Come on you know what I mean, if you start messing with her you’ll have her Pa and her brothers to answer to.”
Jess looked puzzled and then the penny dropped, “Dadgum it Slim I ain’t about to do anything like that. I respect the girl and darn it we’ve only been goin’ out a few weeks, it ain’t like were promised or anything.”
“Umm… I guess she wouldn’t object any if you were promised though. The way she looks at you Jess…well.”
“Slim will ya stop it, I ain’t about to go gettin’ engaged to any woman and definitely not Louisa Slater. Sure, I like her… a lot but like I say its early days.”
This conversation was to come back and haunt him later, as he remembered the warnings of both Jonesy and Slim.
Meanwhile back at the Slater spread young Louisa was ensconced in her room with her best friend Mary.
“I just don’t know how to get him to propose,” she said looking over at her rather buxom friend. Mary spent an inordinate amount of her spare time reading slushy romantic dime novels and thought herself to be an expert on all matters of the heart.
“Well according to this story I’ve just read, for a man to commit he must be in a physical relationship. Once he has….er, you know, slept with you, well then he’ll feel honour bound to marry you. It’s real easy,” said Mary casting her friend a wicked grin.
“Um, it may be from where you’re sitting,” said Louisa stoutly, “but saying and doing are two different things you know Mary.”
“Sure I know that, so are you scared then?”
“No... well not really, it’s just, well what if I got pregnant, Ma and Pa would kill me and Jess too.”
“How far have things got?” asked Mary looking fascinated.
“Well you know... kissing and he’s held me real close, talked real romantic...started to get well, really passionate. But then he’s always pulled away, made some excuse. He’s a real gentleman you know Mary, he’d never force himself on me.”
“But he’s interested; I mean he wants to?”
“Oh yes, he wants to alright,” she replied with a secret little smile. “But like I say Pa would go crazy if we did that.”
“But don’t you see he’d really have to marry you then wouldn’t he and it’s what you want most in the world isn’t it?”
Louisa clasped her hands together and looked dreamily across at her best friend, “Of course it is, you know that. Oh Mary I love him just so much” and she almost swooned at the thought of him.
“Well then,” said Mary looking business like, “we’ll have to decide what you’re going to wear today to make yourself irresistible to him, won’t we!”
Both girls giggled prettily and started turning out Louisa’s wardrobe, seeking the ideal outfit for the seduction.
It was not until they were seated on a rug at the side of the lake that Jess discovered the full extent of Louisa’s ensnarement.
Sure, when he picked her up he had been aware that she was lookin’ different. Her eyelashes thick with some kinda goo and her cheeks looking unnaturally rosy, but then girls were always messin’ with their faces and hair so he didn’t pay much attention. She smelled wonderful he had thought though as he whisked her light frame up into the buggy and he felt his heart miss a beat at the anticipation of the afternoon before them.
He had spread the rug down at the lake’s edge, the cool breeze wonderful after the hot drive over and they had sunk down on it. Jess casting an eye over the water and wondering if Louisa might like to try a little fishing later.
When he glanced back at her his eyes opened wide in surprise and travelled down to the delectable expanse of cleavage on view, before quickly looking away. The look of admiration had not been lost on Louisa though and she hid a little smile. She had removed her shawl to expose her brief snowy white, off the shoulder blouse, the first two buttons seductively unfastened.
She sat back pretending to enjoy the view, whilst subtly hitching her skirt up to expose more than a glimpse of shapely leg and then threw Jess a knowing smile.
He glanced back and cleared his throat, not being quite sure what was going on with her unusual behaviour.
“You OK?” he asked arching a puzzled eyebrow.
“Uh- huh, never better,” she whispered in what she hoped was a seductive drawl.
Jess just shook his head slightly and thought,’ women, damned iffen I can understand ‘em’ before suggesting they ate.
It was much later that Louisa lay back in the warm afternoon sunshine, to sunbathe and a moment later Jess followed suit.
After a while she leaned up on her elbow and gently traced a finger down his cheek.
His eyes snapped open and he was surprised to see the intensity of her gaze.
Well what’s a guy to do he thought and gently put a hand behind her head, pulling her down towards his waiting lips.
It was obvious from the start what Louisa wanted but with Jonesy and Slim’s warnings still ringing in his ears he wasn’t about to start anything up with the girl, that was for sure. But Jess hadn’t bargained for Louisa’s single mindedness.
He finally realised they were reaching the point of no return...and knew he had to call a stop.
“What’s the matter?” she asked as he pulled back, breathing fast, his eyes full of longing.
“This ain’t right,” he said quietly, “just back off will ya Lou.”
“What?” she asked looking shocked.
“We can’t do this, it ain’t right,” he repeated. “you’re young and well you ain’t experienced.”
“I’m a virgin; you mean, “She said hotly, “is that it?”
“I guess,” he muttered, “and we ain’t going no further Lou, it’s not like we we’re engaged or anything.”
She smiled at him then, “But we could be...could be married then it would be alright wouldn’t it?”
He shook his head. “It’s early days Lou let’s just see how we get on OK?”
“But I want you now,” she gasped and pulled him down towards her again her eager mouth seeking his.
It was the following week when Louisa once more brought up the discussion of marriage.
They were sitting in her parent’s parlour; her Ma and Pa having gone visiting friends and her brothers also out.
“It feels like we’re an old married couple sitting here together doesn’t it?” she said playfully, casting him an amorous look.
Jess hid a shiver of unease and gave her a weak smile in response.
“We could be you know,” she said hopefully.
“Look Lou, we talked all this through the other day and apart from anything else I can’t afford to get hitched let’s just take things slow and see how we feel in a year or so huh?”
“A year!” she exploded, “I can’t wait that long Jess and anyway money’s no object.”
His head shot up at that news. “Huh?”
“You don’t know do you?” she said teasingly.
Jess was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable.
Sure, she was a great girl real bright and pretty. Heck physically she sure set his heart racing...but marriage...to anyone, well it just weren’t gonna happen, not now, maybe not ever.
“Don’t know what?” he asked warily.
“That I’m a very well off young lady, thanks to my wonderful Godmother. I’m rich Jess.”
“Oh?” He replied looking less than impressed. He wasn’t particularly interested in money and he sure as Hell weren’t about to be kept by a woman either.
“Don’t you see, we could be married next week,” she said jumping up and looking thrilled at the prospect, “Please Jess it would be wonderful,” she enthralled beaming down at him.
“I doubt your Ma and Pa would see it that way,” he said dourly.
“Well that doesn’t matter, we can run away… elope. Jess it would be such fun.”
His mind was in turmoil, she was a great kid sure she was and he was real attracted to her but marriage?
He knew he would hurt her, but he had to be honest, there was no other way.
He stood up and walking over took both her hands in his own.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, real sorry, but I don’t wanna get married. Not now, maybe not ever. I…well, I just don’t love you enough for that.”
Her mouth dropped open in shock and she stared at him for a good minute before pulling her hands free and crying. “No! You don’t mean that, Jess please. Let me buy you a ranch, a big spread better than the Sherman place. We’d be happy together. I’d make you happy you’d learn to love me in time, please I’m begging you,” and she started to cry pitifully.
He pulled her close caressing her hair, “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
After a moment she jerked herself free.
“How could you,” she yelled suddenly furious, “after we’ve become so close...how could you do this to me!”
He just looked down unable to answer her, “I’m so sorry,” he repeated.
“Go! Just go!” she screamed.
After a moment he picked up his hat from the table and walked to the door where he paused, looking back.
She had sunk down onto the sofa and refused to look at him.
He sighed deeply and left.

That was the last time he had seen her. She had left Laramie the following week and never saw Jess or her parents again. She had managed to avoid the various visits by her Pa and brother, until Hank had finally tracked her down to inform her of their parent’s sad demise.
There was a noise outside the barn and then Slater marched in.
“Supper’s up,” he growled.

Chapter 13
The meal was a sombre occasion, with little small talk from the adults. However, Jess took pity on the youngster and soon engaged him in lively conversation once the child was over his initial shyness.
Louisa looked on, her expression one of delight as Jess joshed and gently teased the child.
“I like animals Jess do you?” asked the youngster grinning across at his new friend.
“Sure I do, so have ya gotten any pets James?”
“Jamie, call me Jamie,” the boy said quickly, “Mama does.”
“Well?” Jess asked his head on one side and his expression one of kindly interest.
The child reeled off a list of animals from a puppy through to a pet racoon, which lived out in the barn.
“Well ain’t that great, Mike back at the ranch has got a pet ‘coon,” he said animatedly.
“Mike,” asked Louisa, suddenly turning pale, “you have a son Jess?”
Jess glanced over at her, “Yeah, well adopted, he’s a great kid just turned ten and bright as a button. Real good at the ranch work too, he’s a real help to me now,” he continued.
“I see,” she said quietly, before dropping her gaze to her food which she merely pushed around the plate for the rest of the meal.
Once they had finished eating Louisa took Jamie off to bed with the promise that he could show Jess his small menagerie the following morning.
“Kinda taking your responsibilities a tad late ain’t ya Harper. The kid’s survived the first five years without you.”
Jess’s head shot up, “What the heck are you getting at Slater?”
“You know damn well,” replied the big man. “Jeez I could swing for you Harper comin’ in here and acting like you’re the kid’s best friend after what you’ve done!”
The two men were squaring up to each other when Louisa hurried back into the room.
“Lou, what in hell’s your brother talking about me and the boy huh?”
“Nothing,” she said quickly, her glance flicking over to Jess and then back to her brother.
“Why don’t you go into town, have a drink or two, to relax you?” she said turning back to Hank.
“What and leave that lowlife to ship out as soon as my back’s turned?” he spat.
“I told you I wasn’t going anyplace until me and Louisa had talked,” said Jess equally aggressively.
“Well maybe I want to be involved in this talk too, “Slater replied.
Jess just shook his head, “This ain’t anything to do with you Slater. This is private between me and your sister, now just butt out.”
Slater opened his mouth to protest, but then Louisa advanced on him looking furious, “Just go out and give us some space for goodness sake,” she said crossly, “You want me to sort all this out don’t you Hank?”
Slater sighed deeply, but finally made for the door, snatching his hat from the stand on the way.
“OK, but just you make sure he damn well takes responsibility for what he’s done. It’s time he started acting like a Pa and he should be thinking of making an honest woman of you too for God’s sake Lou,” and with that he slammed out of the room and moments later they heard him galloping out of the yard.
The room was suddenly deathly silent. The only sound the coals shifting in the grate.
Jess’s eyes were wide with shock...sure he’d heard the jibe before, ’meet your son,’ but thought it was just Slater and his warped sense of humour, because the boy did have an uncanny resemblance to Jess.
“What in hell is he talking about?” Jess asked frighteningly quietly.
Louisa took a deep breath and pulling herself up to her full height finally looked him in the eyes.
“Why it’s obvious of course, you just have to look at the boy to see he’s your son.”
Jess’s jaw dropped and he stared at her in bewilderment for a moment before erupting.
“Are you crazy? How do ya dang well make that out then?”
She ignored his outburst completely and asked the question that she had been agonising over since the mention of Mike.
“So are you married?”
“Huh? No, no I ain’t married why?”
“The boy er, Mike, you adopted him?”
“Yeah, he needed a home and me and Slim provided it for him at the ranch but what’s that got to do with anything?”
She just shook her head the relief making her feel almost light headed.
“You like children then Jess?
“Sure I do, well enough,” he replied looking mystified.
“And Jamie, you like him?”
“Sure he’s a great kid…but Louisa what is all this about, I ain’t his Pa, where did Hank get that idea from?”
“Me,” she said softly, “because you are his pa, or have you conveniently forgotten that picnic by the lake?”
Jess flushed up looking embarrassed, “That was kinda down to you weren’t it?” he said brusquely.
“I loved you… wanted you and I still do,” she said coming towards him.
Jess backed off some from where he’d been standing near the fire, “Whoa there,” he said quickly, “I think you need to have a lesson in the birds and the bees girl, iffen you’re thinkin’ you got pregnant that day.”
She looked down, now her turn to look embarrassed but Jess continued.
“Sure, we got kinda carried away. We kissed and I held ya real close sure I did, but if you remember later, I backed right off. I told you it weren’t right.”
She hung her head at that blushing furiously but said nothing.
“Even after you started all the kissin’ again beggin’ me to love you...I refused didn’t I? Told you again you were too young and inexperienced. Heck I got real mad with you in the end, you must remember that!”
She just gave a tiny nod.
“It ain’t easy for a man to be put in that situation Lou. You didn’t realise how close I was to caving in, doing what you wanted. I’m only human, of course I wanted it too...But when I took you home you were still a virgin Louisa I never laid a finger on you that way and you know it! Don’t you?”
Then she broke down, hiding her face in her hands as she wept bitterly.
Jess just looked on, unprepared to get any closer to her, thinking she was pretty damn crazy iffen she thought she could dupe him that way.
She finally recovered her composure and sank down on the couch and after a minute he joined her, although leaving a chaste space between them.
“That’s what it’s been about. This dang vendetta your brother had against me ever since he visited. He found out you’d got a kid and you told him it was mine?”
She just nodded the tears welling up again, “I’m so, so sorry I didn’t think he’d try and take it out on you, I just thought he’d make you marry me.”
“You did, did ya? Well you don’t know me any too well then Louisa iffen you thought that. And why did you think I’d own up to being his Pa, you know that’s impossible don’t you?” he asked looking bewildered. Surely the girl wasn’t so ignorant that she thought you could get pregnant from kissing?
She sighed deeply, “Yes I know that. I just wanted you to be the father so much I got to believing it over the years.”
“Who is he, who is the real father?”
She looked down, unable to meet his eye and then finally answered, “It’s not important.”
“Well sure it is, so why didn’t he marry you?”
“Because…because he was already married”
Jess’s head shot up. “Boy you sure don’t do things by halves do ya? First you get pregnant without being wed and that after an affair with a married man,” and he shook his head sadly. “Heck Lou, how did you get yourself in a mess like that...huh?”
She jumped up again and turned on him, “It was all your fault!” she cried.
“How do you make that out?”he asked looking incredulous.
“Because if you’d just eloped with me like I wanted none of this would have happened.”
He shook his head, “It weren’t right Lou. Not for you and not for me either. You were just a kid back then, not ready for marriage and look what happened, just because I threw you over you ran straight into the arms of the first guy as looked at you twice didn’t you?”
He hadn’t meant to be so harsh, maybe part of him was feeling responsible for her. He should have let her down more gently...given her some hope and his bitterness was now born of guilt.
She just looked down, again refusing to reply.
“Look I’m sorry, really I am but why Lou, why did you do it? If you were so in love with me what made you go with another guy so soon? Because if young Jamie is five, I figure you didn’t hang around too long grieving over me.”
“Stop it, stop it,” she cried, again collapsing down beside him in tears.
He sighed deeply and then put a tentative arm around her shoulders and after a moment she rested her head on his chest and sat quietly sobbing, the hot tears soaking his shirt.
Eventually she pulled herself together again and sat up, “I’m sorry I’m acting like a little fool.”
He said nothing for a moment and then kindly, “Do you want to tell me about him?”
She nodded, “I came to stay with an old school friend...when you, you know, you finished it.”
“Go on,” he said quietly.
“She was newly married. I hadn’t ever met Peter, her husband. That first afternoon he came in to supper and Jess it could have been you. The same,” and she reached up and caressed his unruly curls, “the same dark hair, same beautiful dark blue eyes he was just so handsome except….”
“Except… for what Lou?”
“Except he wasn’t you and it took me a long time to work that out. He was deceitful whereas you are honest and truthful.” She gave him a wan smile, “sometimes a little too honest. He was unfaithful and you are steadfast and loyal... He was different in so many ways...but I always made excuses for him, tried not to see it when he was weak and underhand...I just didn’t want to see it I suppose.”
“He sounds like a bad lot so why did you go with him Louisa, why?”
She shrugged; “He swept me off my feet, constantly there, so attentive, showering me with gifts and compliments.”
“And the guy was only just married?” asked Jess looking bewildered.
“It was a mistake, a terrible mistake, Julia told me. As soon as they were wed, she realised she didn’t love him. She didn’t want to sleep with him either. She was terrified she’d get pregnant and then she’d never escape him. Didn’t want him near her and was afraid to make love I reckon.”
“And you weren’t I suppose,” he said with asperity.
She threw him a calculating glance, “It’s a bit late to be jealous now Jess.”
He sighed, “I ain’t jealous. I’m just tryin’ to understand what you were playin’ at, going with your friend’s man and a guy like that too.”
“Because he reminded me of you,” she cried again, “he looked like you, his voice was even like yours. I used to close my eyes when we were making love and pretend it was you,” she whispered.
“Oh Lou,” he said softly and took her in his arms, “I’m so damn sorry.”
Once she had recovered and sat back he poured them both a stiff drink and then sat back contemplating her.
“You’re gonna have to tell Hank,” he said finally. “He can’t go on believing I’m Jamie’s Pa.”
Her head shot up and she nearly spilled her drink, “I can’t Jess I just can’t tell him it’s Peter Greene he’ll think the very worst of me.”
Jess shrugged, “Well I’m sorry Lou, but right now he’s thinkin’ the very worst of me and I ain’t gonna put up with it no more. Either you tell him or I do.”
Chapter 14
It was Mose who delivered Jess’s wire from Bedrock.
He remembered it just as he was about to set off from the Relay after changing teams. He went through the usual palaver of checking all his pockets before finally producing the telegram like a rabbit from a hat.
“I knew I had something for ya Slim, so do you know anyone down Bedrock way?” he enquired raising a questioning eyebrow.
“Nope can’t say as I do,” Slim replied before thrusting the envelope into his vest pocket and turning to lead the old team into the corral.
“I’ll be on my way then,” said a rather subdued Mose, looking disgruntled at being deprived of some potential gossip.
Slim just raised a hand in parting and disappeared off with the horses leaving Mose with no alternative but to drive the team off out of the yard and up the rise at speed, scattering chicks as he went.
Once he had gone, and the dust was beginning to settle in the yard Slim took the wire out of his pocket and ripping the envelope open surveyed the brief content. “Don’t worry-stop- I ain’t quitting-stop- Jess “
He smiled and gave a sigh of relief, thank God his buddy was still alive and well and most importantly he wasn’t about to give up. Whether he meant he wasn’t quitting his partnership at the Ranch and Relay, or he wasn’t quitting on trying to prove his innocence, Slim wasn’t sure. But either way his buddy’s tenacity and strength of spirit had come to the fore yet again.
“Not quitting, he’s not quitting,” said Slim to himself...his face breaking into a huge grin.
After this news he was more determined than ever to go down to Denver to try and meet up with his pard. However inopportunely he’d had word that one of the big bosses from the Overland was due a visit and knew he had to be around for that.
So it was that he was still at the ranch a few days later when a motley group of riders made their way slowly into the yard, pausing by the trough to water their dusty mounts.
It was late afternoon and Slim had been just thinking on starting supper when he spied the men, as he walked from the barn, and picking up one of the spare rifles he kept there wandered across the yard.
He was only halfway there before Denver James turned around and grinned at him.
“Howdy Slim,” he said, and then eyeing the rifle, a twinkle in his eye “Hey you wouldn’t begrudge us some water for our horses would ya?”
Slim beamed across and hurried over, quickly placing the rifle down by the trough before taking Denver’s outstretched hand.
“Good to see you Den, boys,” he said turning to encompass Denver’s son’s in his smile.
“I’m here alone right now, can’t be too careful,” he added nodding to the rifle.
“I guess not, especially with Jess being hunted down by every dang Bounty Hunter around. I figure they might think to look here maybe?”
The thought had indeed occurred to Slim and he was thankful that Mike and Daisy were still away at least.
“You’ve heard about all that business then?” he said his face clouding.
“Heard, why sure we have, straight from the horse’s mouth,” Cody chimed in.
“Huh?” Slim asked looking puzzled.
“Bumped into the boy down in the hill country east of Bedrock,” said Denver.
“You did,” asked Slim beside himself with relief. “He’s OK...coping I mean?”
Den shook his head, “He was in a bad way Slim a real bad way. He got himself shot up some by a posse. Went into Bedrock, thinkin’ it was the lawless dump it always has been only to find they’d doggone well gone and got a Sheriff!”
Slim’s eyes were wide with shock, “But he’s OK Denver he is not hurt too bad huh?”
Denver beamed at him, “Nope, you know ol’ Jess he soon bounces back, besides Kate was on his case. You know Kate, you daren’t not get well real quick what with all those garldarn Injun remedies she’s so fond of.”
“He was hurt badly, you say?”
“Stopped a bullet, Kate said it nicked a blood vessel he bled like a danged stuck pig.”
Slim grimaced and then looked even more upset, “Oh no!”
“What’s up Slim?” asked Denver noting that the tall rancher had turned kinda pale.
“This is my dang fault. He went into Bedrock to send me a wire, he knew I’d be real worried.”
“Come on now Slim talk sense sure he did that, but he went for supplies too, said he’d run out of coffee and ya know the boy, can’t function without the old gut rot.”
Slim threw him the ghost of a smile, “You eaten yet?”
“Nope, can’t say as how we have, have we boys?”
Cody and Mick confirmed it.
“How about you stay over in the bunk house, have some supper with me, I’d be glad of the company,” said Slim giving them a genuine smile then.
“Well that’s real neighborly of ya Slim thankee kindly.”
“Did you say Kate was with you?”
Denver chuckled, “Don’t you worry about ol’ Kate, I figure she’s visitin’ with the Sheriff tonight.”
Slim grinned back, “Well I reckon that’s mighty neighborly of her too,” and the men retired to the ranch to sort out supper.
It was later when Denver gave Slim the bottle of Moonshine from Jess along with his message. “Just tell him I will be home someday to drink it with him...tell him to save my share huh?” At that Slim felt deeply moved. He shook his head looking unbearably sad, “Sure I will,” he said softly.
Then Denver produced another bottle, “And this one’s from me and I figure we should crack it and drink to young Jess’s safe return home huh?”
“Amen to that,” said Slim fervently.
At about the same time Jess was still trying to comfort Louisa.
They were still sitting in the front parlour when suddenly there was an almighty crash. The front door burst open admitting a tall rangy man with dark wavy hair. He had a rifle in his hands and a wild look in his deep blue eyes.
He advanced upon them and it was pretty obvious that he was inebriated.
“Why have you been telling your brother that some no hoper called Jess Harper is Jamie’s father?” He spat angrily, thrusting the rifle in her face. “I’ve just come from the saloon and he told me.”
Then suddenly focusing on Jess, he took a step backwards and slurred, “And who in hell are you?”
“I’m that no hoper Jess Harper,” he said with irony, “and put down that dang gun before ya shoot someone.”
The man swayed slightly and threw Jess a dark look before turning back to Louisa and once more pushing the gun at her. “Well I’m waiting woman what dang lies have you been telling your Hank, then huh?”
But Louisa never had a chance to answer.
Jess grabbed hold of the barrel of the gun wrenching it out to the man’s grip and tossed it down before throwing a haymaker to Greene’s chin and sending him sprawling.
Then he bounded over and dragging him up by his shirt front smashed a fist into his face, another blow to the belly finishing the man and he fell to his knees, out cold.
Jess turned his quizzical gaze on Louisa, “I take it that’s Peter Greene then?”
It was some time later before Greene came around spluttering and cussing.
“W...what did you do that for?” he stammered throwing Jess an angry look.
“Where I come from we don’t tend to scare the livin’ daylights out of our women folk by stickin’ rifles in their faces,” Jess said looking equally furious. “And since you ask, no I ain’t Jamie’s Pa you are. God help the kid. Now I suggest you get off home and sober up some.”
He staggered to his feet throwing Jess another black look but seeing the wrath in the young cowboy’s eyes decided to back down.
He made to grab his rifle, but Jess kicked it out of his reach, “Oh no you don’t,” he growled, “just get the hell out of here before I really lose my temper.”
Greene just gave him a derisive snort and turning to Louisa snarled, “I’ll see you later,” before lurching towards the door.
One he had gone Jess turned to see Louisa physically shaking, “Hey are you OK?” he asked solicitously, before striding over and holding her close. After a moment he released her and looked deeply into her eyes. “Does he make a habit of upsetting you this way?” he asked curtly.
“Er…no not really...well sometimes maybe….”
“Tell me Lou has he ever raised his hand to you hurt you?”
When she looked down and bit her lip, but did not answer, he knew the truth of it.
“Goddamn it I’ll kill the bastard,” he swore making for the door.
“No,” she cried quickly coming to her senses, “please Jess no! Aren’t you in enough trouble already without this. Peter’s very influential in town, you go upsetting him you’ll have all the town against you just leave it please!”
He gave a grim smile at that news, no change there then he thought fleetingly, remembering the tough time he’d had over in Laramie.
At her outburst he had stopped in his tracks the internal struggle as hard as any he could remember. All his instincts were to go after the low life and smash his fist into that self-righteous face again until he begged for mercy, begged Louisa for mercy after what he’d done.
He stood there his breath coming in harsh gasps as he tried to control his furious anger.
Come on Harper get a grip he said to himself. Then he recalled his recent conversation with Kate. How he had told her of the trouble his wild temper had gotten him into in the past. Hell, how he had threatened to kill folk before, in anger, and then been accused of their murder later and here he was in exactly the same position again, would he never learn?
He shook his head sadly and then turned to Louisa, “I’m sorry, you’re right he’ll keep.”
They went and sat back on the couch feeling pretty much drained after the recent drama.
“Tell me, when did he start being this way with you?” Jess asked.
She shrugged, “Pretty much since I told him I was pregnant with Jamie I guess.”
Jess shook his head, “He wasn’t about to up and marry you then?”
She looked down and flushed. “He won’t Jess. Julia, my friend, his wife, gave him a divorce. She’s happy with someone else now. Peter visits us when, well when he’s a mind to.” she said blushing even more. “He won’t marry me though, give the boy a name and so as far as I’m concerned he isn’t his Pa, he certainly doesn’t act like one.”
Jess looked perplexed, “Why Lou...why do ya let him treat you that way you’re worth more than that.”
“I don’t know. Habit I suppose, I live here rent free and he does look out for us me and Jamie, keeps us safe.”
“How is he around the kid,” asked Jess suddenly fearful, “he doesn’t….ya know hurt him too?”
She shook her head, “No well not physically. He ignored him when he was a baby tried to pretend he didn’t exist. Now the child’s older he bullies him. Always wanting him to learn to fight, do an adults work around the place he goes mad if the boy falls over and cries, says he’s to act like a man.”
“ Lou, he’s what...? Just turned five years of age he’s still a little kid.”
She shrugged, “I know and I’ve had enough. That’s why I’ve been making secret plans to move to California. I’ve a good friend who is going out west with her husband and brother. They’re going with the wagon train. I’ve still got all my Godmother’s money and I’ve bought a wagon. I’m going to head out with them at the end of the month...or I was.”
“Go on so what happened to your plans?”
“Hank came and told me about Ma and Pa dying that way,” she gave a little sigh and closed her eyes swallowing hard.
Jess took her hand and held it gently, “I’m real sorry about that Lou.”
She just nodded and then continued… “It was when Hank was here that he found out about Jamie and I told him he was yours.”
Jess looked bewildered, “But why Lou? I still don’t understand why you’d say that. You do know that’s impossible don’t ya?” he asked again, unable to believe otherwise.
She nodded, “Yes I know but heck Jess it was bad enough admitting I had a child out of wedlock without also telling him the father was a divorced man who refused to marry me and a complete fool and bully as well.”
“So you lied and said Jamie was mine,” said Jess bitterly. “Have you any idea what hell my life has been lately, because of that huh? Thanks to your brother’s little scam I’m a wanted man with a noose waitin’ on me and that ain’t no fun I can tell you Lou.”
“I’m sorry, really I am. I didn’t think. I’d no idea he’d be so aggressive towards you. Like I said I just thought Hank would frogmarch you over here and make you do the right thing.”
Jess’s jaw dropped. Was she crazy…do the right thing? When the kid weren’t even his? Did she still think he owed her something for finishing their relationship, what over five darned years ago?
“Then I got to thinking,” she continued, “maybe we could go out west together. I thought I’d wait, not make any definite plans until I knew how you felt about me…us, that is,” she said playing her trump card. She’d seen how Jess had taken to young Jamie so maybe he’d move out with her, bring young Mike too if that’s what he wanted, she thought vaguely.
Jess just gaped at her thinking she was now, way beyond crazy.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, “but I loved you Jess, so much.”
Then their gaze locked and she whispered, “And I still do,” she admitted yet again.
He had managed to sidestep the comment the first time she had said it, but now it had to be faced and he stared back almost mesmerised as she slowly moved in for a kiss.
But before he could retreat out of range there was a loud cry from Jamie’s room.
She sighed and the moment was broken.
“You’d better see to the boy,” he said getting up abruptly, “it’s time I turned in anyway.”
He stopped at the door and turned back, fixing her with his steady gaze, “Tomorrow, you tell Hank the truth or I will, ’night Louisa,” and he headed off purposefully towards the bunkhouse across the yard.
Chapter 15
The following morning Jess slept in late and Hank and Louisa were already at the breakfast table when he walked in.
He marched over to Hank and putting a hand out barked, “Give me the damn key Slater.”
Louisa who had been pouring out coffee put the pot down quickly and looked up at Jess in surprise.“Jess, whatever is it?”
“Ask that dang brother of yours,” he said bitterly, “he’s only used some handcuffs to secure the door on Traveller’s stall.”
“What,” she gasped, “Hank why did you do that?”
“Didn’t want your sweetheart taking off did I,” Hank said with an amused glance at his sister and studiously ignoring Jess.
This incensed Jess and grabbing hold of Slater’s shirt front hauled him out of his seat, “I said give me the goddamn key!” he yelled.
He did as he was told at once and as soon as Jess let him go sat back down, muttering, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
“What if there’ d been a fire,” Jess said still looking furious, “my horse wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
Slater just shrugged and returned to his breakfast as Jess marched out of the room.
But he paused at the door and turned back. “Oh, and one other thing Slater no matter what you think of me I told ya I wasn’t goin’ anyplace and iffen I give my word I keep it, and you know that dontcha?”
Slater finally looked Jess in the eye, and said rather shamefacedly, “Yeah, I know that.”
Once Jess had liberated Traveller and tended to his needs he carefully replaced the handcuffs and key in his vest pocket before returning to the ranch house.
He sat down at the table and cast a glance over to Louisa, “Well have you told him?” he asked briskly.
“I’ll get you some breakfast,” she said quickly, ignoring his question and avoiding eye contact.
“Lou,” he said softly, “you have to, for me, please.”
She sighed and then finally looked at him, “Yes of course, you’re right,” she replied.
“Told me what,” Slater growled, “what’s going on?”
He listened intently to what his sister had to say and then he glared at her.
“What!” he yelled in fury. “That fool Greene from the ranch over the hill? Are you crazy girl, he’s a divorced man what were you thinking of?”
Louisa just hung her head in shame.
“What would Ma and Pa say?” he continued looking scandalized.
“Look quit giving her a hard time,” said Jess quietly, “it ain’t gonna change anything.”
“Just butt out Harper, she’d never have had her head turned this way iffen you’d just stuck with her.”
Jess didn’t even dignify that with an answer.
Then Hank cussed under his breath, “I was talking to Greene last night, telling him about Harper landing here. I got a bit drunk,” he admitted casting his sister an uncomfortable glance.
“I know,” she said, “he came around shouting the odds, was real mad at me.”
Hank immediately looked contrite, “I’m sorry; he didn’t threaten you or anything? He was drunk as a fiddler’s bitch.”
Then he suddenly remembered who he was talking to, “Er… sorry Lou, so you were OK?”
“Yes, thanks to Jess he looked after me and threw Peter out.”
“Thanks, I owe you Harper,” Hank said grudgingly.
“Yeah, well you can show your appreciation by riding into Cheyenne with me and explaining to Sheriff Masters as to how you rigged your own death then,” he said dryly.
Hank Slater’s expression hardened. “Oh no I think not; you’re on your own with that one Harper. I’ve arranged to go out west with my little sister, not rot in jail, for obstruction of justice, or whatever the Sheriff decides to charge me with.”
Jess looked outraged, “Well I sure as hell ain’t gonna hang for a crime I didn’t commit,” he said hotly. “You’re comin’ to Cheyenne with me Slater any which way…but sure as hell you’re comin’.”
Slater suddenly looked furious he glared at Jess and then pushing his chair back, stood up and backed off, the expression in his eyes now murderous.” I said I wasn’t heading back with you Harper now seeing as how you aren’t the boy’s Pa I’ve no further use for you so I figure you’d better leave.”
Jess stood up from the table in one fluid movement and backed off some too, glaring at his adversary, “I figure you’re gonna have to make me then Slater, because I ain’t ridin’ out without you.”
Louisa gave a little cry of fright as this new drama unfolded, “No, Hank leave it please!”
Then she turned to Jess and tried to reason with him, but neither man paid her any heed. Save Jess told her to go back off out of the line of fire.
She did as she was bid and stood looking on, trembling and fearful.
“I ain’t drawin’ on you Slater,” Jess said gruffly, “I want no part of this. All I’m askin’ is for you to come and clear my name.”
They stood for a moment longer and then Slater finally went for his gun, but Jess had drawn on him and had him covered before the tall rancher had even slapped leather.
Louisa gave a little gasp of shock at the speed of Jess’s draw but he merely walked over to Hank and after removing his gun stuck it in his own belt, before taking the handcuffs out of his vest pocket.
“Put your hands out,” he spat and Slater did as he was told at once, still reeling from the speed of Jess’s lightning reactions.
It was Louisa who spoke first, “He could have shot you,” she cried, “are you crazy Hank?”
Then turning to Jess she said quietly, “Thank you,” throwing him a grateful look.
“Heck Lou I ain’t about to kill the fool, I need him alive he’s all I’ve got to prove my innocence.”
Then he turned to a shamefaced Slater, “And that’s why you’re gonna stay cuffed until I get you to town because I sure ain’t gonna risk that again. Next time you might not be so dang lucky,” he said before turning away and holstering his gun.
Slater slumped down on the couch looking a defeated man, “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Sure you are,” said Jess sarcastically, “now I’ve got the drop on you.”
“No really, I was wrong to do that to you. I was just so dang mad you know? Lou being my little sister and all I wanted was to get my own back on you.”
Jess just nodded, sort of understanding some, jeez iffen it had been Francie….
He turned to Louisa, “We need to talk,” and he tipped his head towards the porch.
She got up at once and followed him out leaving Slater looking desolate.
“These folks, friends of yours that are going out west can you still travel with them?” he asked once they were both seated on porch chairs.
She looked puzzled and then said, “Yes of course, I haven’t said anything to them about you anyway, they are expecting me as planned why, would you come with me?” she asked her face suddenly hopeful.
He shook his head sadly, “No Lou we were over years ago, you know that. It wouldn’t have worked then and it won’t now, I’m real sorry.”
She hung her head trying to hide the hurt in her eyes.
They both sat in silence for some minutes and then he sighed deeply, really not wanting to do this, but feeling he had no choice.
“Look iffen Hank is right and he does end up in jail well then I’ll see you to the wagon train so you can meet up with your friends huh?”
“You would, you’d do that for me?” she asked, hope once more back in her eyes. As she was secretly thinking that it was a long trip. Maybe… just maybe she could make him get close again.
He just nodded and then said, “Where’s the boy?”
“At a friend’s house, he’ll be back for supper Mister Mitchell will bring him home. Davy Mitchell is his best friend he’ll miss him,” she said softly.
“Your heart’s set on going west though?” he asked now wondering if she was having second thoughts.
“Oh yes,” she said at once, “definitely, I can’t stay not with the way Peter is around young Jamie...we have to go. And he scares me now too Jess, last night he really frightened me,” she repeated with a little whimper.
“Hey it’s OK,” he said softly, “But Lou, iffen we’re going to make it by the end of the month we’ll have to set off tomorrow. We need to go to Cheyenne to get this dang charge dropped first can you be ready by then?”
“Yes, yes I think so, everything is packed ready to go. We just need to pack it in the wagon. But I’m frightened Jess, of what Peter will do if he finds out.”
“You weren’t gonna tell him?” He asked looking startled.
She shook her head. “No why should I?”
“Well dontcha think he deserves to know, the boy is his son after all.”
She shook her head, “No he lost the right to call him that when he started bullying and scaring him half to death. He had his chance to wed me and he didn’t take it. Besides, you’ve been more of a Pa to him in the short time you’ve been here than he ever was,” she said stoutly.
He just shook his head, “Well It’s your decision.”
It was not one that sat well with Jess. But there again he figured he’d got enough on his plate delivering Slater to Cheyenne and then getting to the Wagon Train on time and he really didn’t need any other complications. Besides what he’d seen of Peter Greene he was a bullying drunkard, he’d had his chance with Louisa and blown it so what the hell.
They worked hard all day packing up the wagon and there was no sign of Peter much to Louisa’s relief. However, it was young Jamie who was to give her a hard time when he returned back from his friend’s house to see the wagon packed and ready to go.
“Mama are we are leaving soon?” he asked looking tearful, “I’m going fishing with Davy and his Pa next Saturday.”
She knelt down and took the child in her arms. “I’m afraid it is tomorrow Jamie but we’ll write to Davy once we’re settled in our new place huh?”
Unsurprisingly this did little to pacify the child and Louisa looked over at Jess in consternation as the youngster looked close to tears.
Jess, used to dealing with Mike and his youthful problems, stepped in quickly.
“Hey champ, I was thinkin’ on going down to that little creek of yours out back, try my luck at getting a few fish for supper, wanna show me the best place?”
The child looked up and sniffed before struggling manfully with his emotions. “I guess,” he whispered.
“You want to show me where your gear is stashed,” he asked, “and have ya got a spare pole for me huh?”
The child grinned then, his good humour suddenly returned.
“Sure I have,” he said and wandering over to Jess took his hand and led him of towards the barn.
“I’ve got one Mama uses you can have that and the fish are biting real good right now Mister Harper.”
“Jess,” said Jess softly.
The boy looked up and grinned again, “Jess,” he said proudly.
Jess turned and winked at Louisa before making his way over to the barn, with a much perkier youngster beside him.
That was just the start of the relationship with Jamie, which the child was to recall with fondness all his life.
That evening after the youngster and his Ma had retired for the night Slater looked over to where Jess was pouring himself a last coffee before turning in.
“You’re enjoying this aren’t you,” Slater said bitterly, “my nephew seeing me in cuffs this way you’ve humiliated me in front of the boy Harper.”
“You should have thought of the consequences when you set me up for a murder trial and then decided not to lift a finger to help me prove my innocence,” Jess replied equally bitterly. “Now I suggest you turn in and get a good night’s sleep, we’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
“In these?” he said lifting his hands up and throwing Jess a pained look.
“You’ll manage,” he replied throwing the older man a dark look before retreating to the bunk house with his coffee.
Chapter 16
They set off at first light, the heavily laden wagon containing all their worldly goods, including young Jamie’s pet racoon and puppy, his pony along with Slater’s horse tied on behind.
Slater driving the wagon, his face set in a surly frown, Jess riding beside and keeping a weather eye open for trouble of any kind.
They had to travel on the main route as the wagon could not be taken up the narrow winding Indian trail and it was so heavily laden it went little above walking pace.
Jess was constantly on the outlook for other travellers, a wary eye especially looking out for possible bounty hunters.
The strain made him edgy and short tempered as he kept a constant vigil and when the odd wagon or Stagecoach passed by he rode on the nearside of Louisa’s wagon, keeping his head well down and nobody paid him any heed.
They finally drove into Cheyenne late one afternoon and this was the time Jess had been dreading, just waiting for some trigger happy main chancer to open fire on him or at least try and arrest him. The trees on the route into town were still bearing wanted posters displaying Jess’s image and he was feeling decidedly nervous. However, his fears were unfounded and Main Street was bathed in a late afternoon heat haze, most folk sitting out the scorching weather behind closed doors.
Slater reined in the wagon by the Sheriff’s office and after Jess had instructed Louisa and the boy to stay put for a few minutes he escorted Slater into Doug Master’s office.
His old friend was sipping cold lemonade and perusing the local paper. With his feet up on his desk and seemingly with not a care in the world, Jess thought as he grinned over at the Sheriff.
Doug’s head had snapped up as Jess entered, pushing Slater roughly before him, but it was a moment before the situation really hit him.
“Slater,” he gasped, “My God, but you’re dead and buried!”
Jess shoved the still handcuffed Slater onto the chair opposite Doug’s desk and the tall man sank down looking defeated.
“Well I guess he ain’t Doug,” Jess replied, “and so I figure I ain’t no murderer either huh?”
Doug jumped up from his chair and went and pumped Jess’s hand a broad grin on his face. Then he turned a mock glare on his old friend, “Hey you turned your dang gun on me and stole my good old buckskin!”
Jess chuckled seeing the twinkle in his buddy’s eyes.
“I didn’t have too much choice there Doug and hey, I brought your Chief back good as new didn’t I? Even gave him a good feed and rub down.”
Doug shook his head, grinning again in spite of himself, “That you did boy… that you did.”
Then he turned his attention to where Slater was still looking morosely down at his feet.
“Come on,” Doug said dragging him up from his seat. “I’ve got a cell just waitin’ on you and a little later you can tell me exactly how you managed to pull the wool over the eyes of a Sheriff, Doctor and dang Undertaker! You’ve got a lot of explaining to do. Trial judge will be by in a couple of days and we’ll see what he thinks of your shenanigans Slater.”
“Hey, it’s a tad more than shenanigans Doug,” Jess said hotly from where he was now sitting on the corner of the Sheriff’s desk watching the proceedings, with folded arms and a somewhat jaundiced eye. “I could have hung! As it was I got shot by a posse outside Bedrock. That’s enough for the Judge to lock him up for a spell ain’t it?”
“Sure, sure it is,” said Doug in that patient tone that so reminded Jess of his pard Slim and he felt a wave of homesickness for them all back at the ranch.
“Jeez,” he said suddenly jumping up, “I’ve gotta wire Slim and Slater’s sis and her boy are waitin’ on me too.”
“Whoa,” said Doug turning back from where he’d just locked the door of Slater’s cell.
“You’re not going anywhere without me right now buddy. Unless you want some edgy sharp shooter to back shoot you and claim the bounty, huh?”
Jess cussed, before looking up at his good friend and sighing deeply. “You’re right Doug I ain’t come this far just to be gunned down by some greedy bastard out to make a fast buck.”
The Sheriff called for his deputy in the back to mind the prisoner and fetching his hat he joined Jess.
They stepped outside and Jess introduced Louisa and Doug and then after helping her down from the wagon along with young Jamie they made their way down the street to Millie’s Ma’s Boarding House.
Peggy Johnson, Millie’s Ma, stood back in shock when she saw Jess standing there flanked by the Sheriff and a beautiful young lady and sweet looking little boy.
“Jess oh my dear,” she said her eyes registering concern and affection in equal proportions.
“It’s OK Ma,” he said quickly, reaching out a hand to her, “it’s OK,” he repeated, “I’m innocent, Slater isn’t dead, he’s over the street in Doug’s jail.”
“Oh thank God,” she whispered, suddenly turning pale. “I never thought for a moment that you’d done it…even after Ivy told me everything. I just knew you couldn’t have but we’ve all been so worried.”
“Thanks Ma and I’m sorry you’ve been frettin’ real sorry,” he said softly, and then peering behind her. “Mill, is she still here?” he asked, a look of hope in his deep blue eyes.
“I’m sorry dear no, she went back to Laramie just a few days ago but she never gave up hope. The last thing she said before she left was, “He’ll be back Ma don’t fret.”
Jess felt deeply moved and just squeezed her hand, before Doug coughed and reminded them both that they were still on the doorstep.
In her usual resilient way, Peggy gathered her wits about her and showed Louisa and Jamie up to their room so that they could rest before supper.
Then she joined Jess and Doug in the parlour to hear all about the dreadful scam that Slater had been responsible for and the reason behind it.
She shook her head in horror as Jess described what his life had been like whilst on the run and about Slater’s false accusations.
“Well the child really is as cute as a button Jess,” she said with a little smile, “and he certainly favors you.”
“Ma,” he said looking deeply shocked, “you don’t believe that do ya?”
She winked at Doug, her usual wicked humour back in place again, “No my dear of course not,” and then felt terrible for teasing him when she saw his stricken expression and quickly changed the subject.
“At least you did me a favour. Ivy said running a Boarding House was way too stressful for her and she won’t be back thanks goodness.”
He grinned at her then, “Yeah, Millie said as how she was practically bankruptin you, not to mention the way she...”
“What dear?”
Jess had been about to say the way she had kept him and Millie apart, but then remembered Doug’s presence and thought better of it, figuring it was probably not a subject to share with company.
“Oh nuthin,” he said quickly and stood up, feeling suddenly bereft and just wishing he could see his girl there and then.
“I need to wire her, tell her I’m fine.” he said softly, “I’ll be back for supper OK?”
“Of course dear and take care won’t you?”
“Don’t worry Ma’am,” Doug said kindly, “I’m not letting him out of my sight until the word hits the streets that he’s a free man.”
“How do ya propose to do that?” asked Jess once they were marching down Main Street towards the telegraph office.
“Well I’ll tell ya.” Doug replied, “Once you’ve wired ‘em all back home that you’re not facing a necktie party we’ll just mosey along to the saloon. I figure that’s as good a place as any to get the word out. Even better if old Mose Shell is in there, the world and his dog will know it before sunrise,” and laughing the two made their way off to send the wire.
Once the wagon and horses were safely lodged with old Bill at the livery the two men marched purposely over to the Last Drop for a few drinks before supper.
The bar was pretty full with it being a Friday and also payday for many and as Jess and the Sheriff walked into the place the lively, noisy atmosphere was suddenly stilled. Conversation ground to a halt and all just stared in amazement at their Sheriff openly accompanying a wanted murderer into the saloon.
A big beefy rancher who had been first to volunteer to ride posse after Jess had lit out, was the first to speak.
“What in hell do ya think you’re playing at Sheriff?” he asked furiously, “that man’s a wanted killer.”
“You think so do you Robson?” asked Doug conversationally.
Then another man protested, “That’s Jess Harper wanted for the murder of Hank Slater it sure is,” he said nodding to those around him to make his point.
The Sheriff turned amused eyes on Clive Plumley an over fussy member of the town council and real stickler for the letter of the law.
“Well I’m glad you noticed that Plumley,” Doug said, “because I think here and now is a real good place to put the record straight, tell you all some good news,” he continued looking around the bar. “Jess Harper is guilty of no crime as Hank Slater isn’t dead at all. In fact, it was an elaborate scam to try and deliberately discredit Jess here.”
“Sure he ain’t,” came the sarcastic reply from one Clint Brown, troublemaker and drunkard.
Doug threw him a steely glance before repeating. “Like I said Slater’s alive and well, if maybe a tad unhappy,” he said winking at Jess. Then turning to the saloon as a whole again,” And iffen there’s anyone else that wants to call me a liar, by all means go and check out my jail, which is where you’ll find the prize bastard.”
At once the bar became noisy with people congratulating Jess and offering to buy drinks for both men. With Brown slinking off to the far end of the bar with his drink and throwing black looks all around.
It was a little later when things had calmed down some and Jess and Doug were enjoying a quiet drink at a corner table that Mose Shell came into the bar.
He looked around and then made a bee line for the couple.
“Why Jess Harper as I live and breathe, ”He said chuckling and pumping Jess’s hand, “so it’s really true what Mrs Johnson’s just been a tellin’ me?”
“Well that depends as to what yarns she been spinning ya,” Jess said with a broad grin.
“Ha, ha,” laughed Mose enjoying the joke, then he looked more serious. “That little girl of yours has been frettin’ something fierce, not to mention Slim.”
Jess sobered immediately, “I guess so, but I’ve just wired both Slim and Millie, sayin’ I’ll be back just as soon as I can, “and he went on to explain that he was escorting a lady over to the Wagon Train at Fort Bridger.
“That’s a powerful long ride son must be a kinda special young lady to go all that way,” said Mose throwing his friend a speculative look.
“Umm, I kinda owe her,” Jess muttered looking down. “Anyway, I’ll call in at Laramie and see my girl and Slim on the way through.”
“Well if you’re buddy’s still there that is,” said Mose looking thoughtful.
“Huh, what do you mean, not there, why wouldn’t he be?”
Then Doug slapped his forehead, “That’s right, Slim was over here a while back, lookin’ to try and trail you but some dang bounty hunters got wind of it so he had to back out. He said he was going home to check on everything and then ride the railroad to Denver to try and hitch up with you there.”
“The hell he did,” muttered Jess, “the dang fool,” although the warmth in his eyes belied his harsh words.
“It’s OK,” said Mose quickly, “some Overland business came up and he hasn’t left yet. Your wire should arrive in time to stop him heading off to Denver…so you heading back soon then?”
“We sure are,” said Jess, “first thing tomorrow we’ve gotta get to the wagon train by the 31st. and I really need to lay over in Laramie for a couple of days so we need to get moving.”
“Umm...and if you know what’s good fer ya I’d get movin’ now too son. Ma Johnson was lookin’ down the street for you and muttering about your supper bein’ in the cat iffen you didn’t show soon,” said Mose winking at Doug.
Jess looked alarmed and throwing back his beer in one stood up and moved towards the door at speed, “Thanks Mose. It will take us a few days to get home what with everything bar the dang kitchen sink in that ol’ wagon, tell Slim I’m on my way when you see him tomorrow huh?” And with that he dashed off.

Chapter 17
The little party set off the following day after Louisa had spent some time with her brother in the jail, telling him of her plans.
“I know how you feel about Jess Harper,” she said, “but he’s always been good to me. Even when he threw me over that time, it was for my own good, I can see that now. And it was I who was in the wrong telling you all those lies about him being Jamie’s Pa and I’m truly sorry for that Hank really I am.”
“No don’t be,” he said sighing deeply, “I’ve gotten my comeuppance after the way I treated him, poisoning his drinks, bad mouthing him all over town. Now this last stunt, he didn’t deserve all that and it’s down to me. I shouldn’t have just accepted it, I should have talked it through with him, heard his side of things.”
“Well it’s over now and you’ll just have to pay the price and I am so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
He shook his head, “I figure you need to put the boy first and get the hell out. I really didn’t take to that Peter Greene, the further from him you and my nephew are the happier I’ll be.
“Me too,” she agreed.
“Garldarn it, I just wish I wasn’t banged up in here though. Gee Louisa, that’s a swell little boy you’ve got there I’m so dang proud of him. I just wish I could be around to be a proper uncle to him right now. How will you manage…will Harper really escort you?”
She nodded, smiling for the first time since she had arrived at the jail, “Yes Hank and then when I meet up with Molly and Roger they’ll look out for me. Molly’s brother Ben will drive the wagon for me; we used to get on really well when he were all kids together. As for Jamie, I’ll talk to him about you every day, I promise. I’ll keep your memory alive until you can join us. Then I think you’ll be the perfect person to help me bring him up, if you want to?”
“You know I do sis. Look after yourself and maybe iffen you’re gonna be spending some time with Harper you can work you womanly charms on him and get him to drop the charges huh? Sooner I can join you and young Jamie the better.”
As Louise left the jail and made her way down to the Livery to meet up with Jess and Jamie, a little smile played around her lips. I’ll use my womanly charms alright she thought to herself. And who knows maybe she wouldn’t have to ask for Ben’s assistance driving her wagon to California after all!
It became quite obvious to Jess after the first day that Louisa had plans for him.
It was the way she held eye contact a tad too long and sat up real close on the wagon seat. Not to mention the heady perfume and immodest amount of cleavage on show.
He had merely squared his shoulders and set about the business of driving the overloaded wagon safely. Then when she had cuddled up way too close for comfort he had called Jamie out of the back of the wagon and placed him strategically between them much to Louisa’s consternation, although she hid it well.
All the time they had been on the road he had kept his eyes peeled for any sign of danger as well, all too aware that his face was plastered about the countryside on the wanted posters. That, along with Louisa’s flirty advances, was making him decidedly edgy and he was relieved when they hit the halfway mark.
“I figure it’s nearly supper time,” he said turning to smile at her over Jamie’s curly mop of hair, “shall we make camp here and I’ll go get us something for the pot huh?”
He had parked the wagon in an ideal spot, just off the trail and close to the banks of a large fishing lake. But he decided to take the hunting option, as he really needed a break away from Louisa constantly making sheep’s eyes at him.
What was it with some women, he thought peevishly as he marched off to bag some rabbits for supper. Had he not made it clear that he wasn’t interested? Obviously not clear enough he concluded as he aimed his gun at a hapless young rabbit, nailing it with ease.
He’d told her straight hadn’t he? It wouldn’t have worked back then and it sure as hell wouldn’t now and anyway he had Millie in his life now didn’t he.
Of course, Millie! He’d simply talk about Millie all evening, that should do the trick and with a gleam in his eye and grim smile he turned and headed back to the camp.
When Jess returned, however, he found that his work was cut out entertaining young Jamie. The boy was suffering from a bad dose of homesickness already and Louisa seemed unable to pacify him.
Jess had suggested he take Jamie for a walk around the lake whilst Lou got started on the supper, hoping the exercise would calm the tearful child down some and maybe even tire him out so they all got a decent night’s sleep.
He had chosen the campsite well and the surrounding countryside spread out around them as far as the eye could see and Jess figured he would spot anyone riding in long before they could do any damage, in day light anyway.
As he walked with Jamie he told him a little of the journey ahead of them and what to expect on the Wagon Train, believing a lot of the child’s worries were born of fear of the unknown.
“We’ll stop over in Laramie for a couple of days and stock up on supplies,” he said “I’ll introduce you to Bert who runs the livery he’ll take real good care of your team. Then after that we’ll call in at the ranch too. You can buddy up with Mike for a while…he’s a swell kid you’ll like him.”
“I will?”
“Sure you will and what’s more he’s got a pet ‘coon too, I told ya before remember?”
The youngster’s face broke into a broad grin for the first time since they’d left Cheyenne, “That’s great Jess, I guess I really will like him.”
“Yup, and after that we’ve gotten a real long adventure drivin’ over to Fort Bridger and catchin’ up with that ol’ Wagon Train.”
“But I won’t know anyone,” the boy said his lip trembling once more. I really wish Uncle Hank was going with us too, you’ll be going home won’t ya Jess, not coming all the way with us?”
“No, I can’t boy, got my ranch to run and folks there depending on me see. I reckon your Uncle will be let out of the jail before too long and then he’ll join ya.”
“But I still won’t know anyone at first,” the child persisted.
“Well, heck sure you will, well almost, ‘cos I’ll tell ya all about them on the ride over.”
The child’s eyes opened wide in surprise, “You know them Jess, the folk on the Wagon Train how so?”
“Well not all of ‘em Jamie, but the folk as works on it, sure I do. I’ve worked for Mister Chris Hale, the Wagon Master a few times, scouted for him so I can give ya the low down on everyone.”
“Gee Jess you’re real special, I guess you know just about everyone in Wyoming dontcha?”
“Umm...not all of ‘em,” he said ruffling the boy’s hair, “but there’s quite a few as know me,” he said to himself, remembering those dang wanted posters.
“See there’s Mister Hale, he runs the whole show a great guy. He runs a good tight ship too, so you and your Ma will be real safe. Then there’s Duke and Coop, they’re off scoutin’ most of the time...well that’s what they tell Mister Hale...but I wonder sometimes,” he said looking thoughtfully off across the lake. Remembering some of the fun times he’d had off with Duke. Especially when their scouting duties had taken them into a town with plenty of saloons and pretty girls gee those were the days he recalled fondly.
“Who else Jess?”
“Who else will I meet?”
“Yeah, well there’s old Charlie Wooster, he’s the cookie like a grand pappy he is. Talks real fast, umm and don’t make a lot of sense most of the time,” he muttered.
“Nuthin’, come on Jamie, I figure your Ma will have supper ready by now, let’s get a wiggle on huh?”
After the meal was over Louisa took a much more cheerful Jamie off to bed.
Jess lay down on his bedroll by the fire with a final coffee. Before settling down for the night although it was still quite early, with the sun just setting. But he was kinda beat and also wanted to get underway as early as he could; just counting the hours before he could be in Millie’s arms again.
He kept having a vision of the shocked horror in her eyes when Slater was presumably lying there dead and Jess had turned his gun on Doug and made his escape. She’d stuck by him though, as he’d known she would. He smiled at the memory of finding his saddlebags waiting for him and the wonderful love letter. Jeez it had been Millie that suggested he should seek out Louisa and try and get to the bottom of what had happened. He sure owed her, his smart, beautiful loving girl.
He looked up as Louisa sank down on the blanket beside him way too close for propriety Jess thought fleetingly as he moved over a little to give her room to get comfortable.
“You were miles away,” she giggled then gesturing to the pot beside him said, “Can you spare me a cup?”
He paused for a moment before grudgingly pouring her a drink and passing it over.
“I was just gonna turn in,” he said briskly, “we need an early start tomorrow.”
She looked down slightly wrong footed and gave a little sigh, and when he looked across at her properly he saw that she had fixed up her hair and makeup and changed into an even more revealing dress.
“Look, Lou,” he started deciding he must call a halt to this lascivious behaviour here and now before things got out of hand.
But she put a finger to his lips and stopped him, “Please Jess, I just wanted to thank you, for all you’ve done for us. For little Jamie in particular, he simply adores you, you know.”
“Yeah, well he’s a great kid.”
He was aware that after she had removed her finger from his lips she had moved her hand downwards and it now rested on his thigh…the warmth of her hand almost seeming to burn him though his denims.
“Look Lou I was just gonna turn in,” he said again casting her a firm look and brushing her hand away from where it had crept even further up his thigh.
“What’s the rush honey,” she asked softly, “why don’t we just sit here and watch the sunset over the lake it’s real romantic don’t you think?”
He felt a shudder run down his spine and a feeling... of what? Foreboding, menace even, as he looked out to the blood red waters of the lake as the sun’s dying rays were reflected on its still surface.
When he turned back to her she was just inches away, her eyes looking intently into his and then a second later she moved in and kissed him long and hard…molding her sensual body to his in a way he found hard to resist for a second or two as he returned her passionate kiss. But then he suddenly came to his senses and pulled roughly away.
“What the hell are you doin’ Lou?”
“I thought that was more than obvious,” she said looking slightly affronted, “and don’t tell me you don’t want to Jess, you surely couldn’t get enough of me in the past, really liked it if I remember rightly,” she said licking her lips and looking like she might well move in on him yet again.
“Yeah, and like I said the other night that was then and this is now. Will you get yourself off to bed Lou, I told you I wanna get to Laramie as early as we can tomorrow.”
She looked slightly put out then realising her feminine wiles were not working on him and turned back to gaze sulkily at the lake.
“I don’t know what all the rush is about,” she pouted, “what’s so special in Laramie anyway, we’re just stopping to get supplies aren’t we?”
“We’re stayin’ over, I’ll book you in the hotel,” he said flatly.
“Why?” she asked still peering out at the lake.
“Because I need to see my girl,” he said quietly, “I’ve been missin’ her somethin’ fierce and with this trip out to the Fort it’ll be a while before we can get together and…”
But she broke in before he could finish, “You’ve a girlfriend?” she cried her head snapping back to face him. “I didn’t know you were seeing someone, you said you weren’t,” she spat angry now.
“I said I weren’t married not that I wasn’t datin’. Millie and I have an understanding Lou and you’d better just accept that. Because iffen you can’t then I reckon I ain’t about to make the trip with you.”
She jerked away from him almost as though he’d slapped her, “I …I just didn’t know,” she repeated.
“Yeah, well you do now,” he said dryly.
“So why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I didn’t figure it was any of your business until you started foolin’ around that way. Heck Lou I ain’t made you think there was any chance, of us getting back together have I?”
She just looked down blushing and refusing to answer.
“Well have I?” he asked irritably.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head and still refusing to look him in the eye.
“Well then,” he said quietly, and they lapsed into silence watching the spectacularly beautiful sunset.
After a while he said more kindly, “Why don’t you just get off to bed. We can forget all about this huh?”
She was just getting up to leave when they heard the noise of a rifle being primed behind them and Jess jumped up drawing his gun only to see a tall stranger, dressed in black with evil dark eyes boring into him. He had the drop on Jess a rifle aimed at his belly.
“That’s real good advice young lady,” the man rasped, “unless you wanna see me blow your man’s head off that is,” and he gave a chillingly mirthless laugh.
Jess just stared feeling furious that he’d been caught out that way.
“Yup Harper it’s the end of the line for you. I had thought of taking you in alive for the Bounty but nah, maybe not. That old poster said dead or alive and I figure you’d be a mite easier to handle dead. You’ve gotten quite a reputation there boy and I ain’t havin’ no Texan gunslinger getting the better of me, now throw you’re weapon down.”
Jess just glared at him without replying, but after a moment did as he was bid.
“So iffen you need a word with your Maker I suggest you get on your knees and do it now boy!”
Jess just stood his ground looking defiant returning the stranger’s glare with a furious one of his own.
“I didn’t do it,” he spat, “I’ll ride back to Cheyenne with you, you can see the Sheriff. He’ll tell ya. The man I allegedly killed is alive and well in Doug Masters’ jail. And who in hell are you anyways?”
“Grimly, Chad Grimly you may have heard of me. Bounty hunting is my profession Mister Harper as you’ve doubtless guessed by now.”
The tall man thrust a hand inside his vest and bringing out a folded poster shook it out revealing Jess’s face the expression as forbidding as the one on his face now.
“This is out of date then huh? Is that what you’re saying?” He drawled.
“That’s exactly what I’m sayin’,” Jess yelled, his temper suddenly getting the better of him.
The man in black merely shook his head sadly before turning his attention back to Louisa.
“You still here,” he snapped, “git in the wagon girl or do I have to make you?” and he took a pace towards where Louisa still stood. She was staring at him transfixed like a rabbit looking down a Winchester barrel, and didn’t move as he advanced upon her.
Jess instinctively leapt forwards to stop him and Grimly retaliated by thrusting his rifle deep into Jess’s belly making him fall to his knees gasping in agony.
Then he grabbed hold of Louisa and pulled her towards him, holding her firmly, “Pretty little thing ain’t ya,” he whispered.
Suddenly a voice barked, “That’s enough let the girl go!”
Grimly pushed Louisa aside and spun around to look behind him and in that split-second Jess lurched forwards and grabbed hold of the rifle wrestling it off the Bounty Hunter before crashing a fist into the tall man’s face and sending him flying, landing several feet away.
Then he sprang after him dragging him up and trading several more punches before the intruder collapsed in a bloody heap, dead to the world... out cold.
Jess stood up slowly and peered across the camp, where Louisa was now being comforted by a tall blond man.
He peered through the twilight at the figure for a few moments and then his face broke into a delighted grin, “Slim, hey Slim, that you?”
The tall rancher put Louisa gently aside and then strode over to where Jess still stood bloodied and panting slightly after the fight
They shook hands and then Slim pulled him into a warm bear hug before pulling back and scrutinizing his buddy.
“It’s good to see you Jess,” he said softly.
Jess threw him an anxious look, “So yer not mad at me Slim, turning my gun on Doug that way and goin’ on the run and all?”
He shook his head, “I guess not, you didn’t have much choice did you pard and I figure…” and he stopped speaking looking supremely moved.
“And you figure what Slim?” Jess asked softly.
“Just that I don’t think any of us could have gone through all that again.”
Jess knew immediately that he was alluding to, the prospect of the gallows once more.
“No,” he whispered and both men exchanged a heartfelt look, as they remembered those terrible dark days when they really thought Jess would be hung for a murder he did not commit.
Suddenly their thoughts were interrupted as Jamie clambered down from the wagon and ran into his mother’s arms crying pitifully.
Louisa comforted him and then a few minutes later he pulled free and ran over to where Jess was now resting on a rock, rubbing his belly, pain from the rifle blow making him feel decidedly queasy.
The youngster ran into his arms crying again, “Jess, Jess did that bad man hurt ya?”
Jess held him close and the said softly, “Nope I’m OK champ... don’t you fret any.”
All the time this little scene had been playing out Slim had been watching with shock in his light blue eyes.
After a moment he threw his buddy a quizzical look and said, “Are you going to introduce me then Jess?”
“Sure, sorry pard...Slim this is young Jamie, Louisa’s son.”
Then as she advanced he smiled at her.“Are you OK now sweetheart?”
She nodded and looked at Slim, “You’ll remember Slim Sherman my best buddy and business partner. “Ha yeah and hero of the hour,” Jess added giving Slim a cheeky wink.
“What are ya doin’ here anyway pard?” he asked. “Not that I ain’t real pleased to see you,” he added.” I reckon you turned up just in the nick of time. Our friend there,” he said nodding to where the Bounty Hunter was groaning and just coming around, “was just thinking of dispatching me.“
Louisa gave a little cry of shock, “He really would have done?” she whimpered moving to Jess’s side and throwing her arms around him.
“The hell he was!” said Slim angrily marching over and kicking the recumbent man.
“Get up you aren’t hurt, if Jess really meant it you’d be out cold ‘til sun up,” he spat.
Jess looked on rather enjoying this uncharacteristic display of temper, a protective arm around Louisa’s shoulders.
Chad Grimly got groggily to his feet, “You’re hindering a man of the law in the execution of his business,” he growled glaring at Slim.
“Ha you’re no more a law man than my old horse,” Jess spat, leaving Louisa and wandering over.“You’re a goddamn Bounty Hunter I can smell ‘em a mile off even before you told me and in my books they’re no kind of a lawman, in fact they’re more like vermin.”
“What if I am after the reward on you,” Grimly snarled…throwing Jess a venomous look, “I’m helping the Sheriff out ain’t I? Seems to me that Sheriff in Cheyenne was a mite lax letting you escape in the first place, but then I believe you’re buddies. Another reason as to why I was gonna take you in dead rather than alive make sure the job was done proper this time.”
“Why you low life son of a bitch!” Jess spat balling his fist and looking like he would down the man again.
“Easy Jess,” said Slim dragging him away.
Then Slim pulled a paper out of his vest pocket and fixed the Bounty Hunter with a steely gaze, “Well it’s a good job that I happened along when I did then,” he said, “or it would be you facing the business end of a rope around your scrawny neck.”
“Huh...what are you talking about. I’m just doing my duty,” the man blustered.
“Just read it,” Slim said thrusting the paper at him. “That’s a letter from the Sheriff of Cheyenne signed by the circuit judge stating Jess is a freeman.”
“Mose brought it over,” he said turning to Jess, “apparently the judge landed just after you left and Doug sent it across with Mose on the early morning Stage, gave it me just as I was leaving, he thought it might come in handy.”
“Well he thought right,” said Jess snatching the letter back from the Bounty Hunter and placing it carefully in his own vest pocket.
Then he cast Grimly a dark look, “OK satisfied now?”
The tall man looked very sheepish, “See I’m just doing my job right...I didn’t mean no harm mister.”
Jess opened his eyes wide, an incredulous look on his face, “Is that right, well I sure as heck wouldn’t wanna be around ya if you did,” he spat looking like he was getting ready to thump him again.
“OK Jess, I reckon you’re all done now, huh?” Slim asked a gentle restraining hand on his partner’s arm, knowing the signs that Jess was about to get all fired up again.
But no, he merely shrugged Slim’s hand off and turned away, “Git out,” he muttered, “and if I see you again Grimly you sure as hell will wish I hadn’t …get it!”
The tall man just nodded and grabbing his hat from where it had been lying in the dirt he made for his horse at speed, without a backwards glance.
Then Louisa ran to Jess and threw herself at him, “Jess thank God he’s gone,” she cried dramatically.
Jess suddenly remembered the circumstances in which the Bounty Hunter had found them. Lou doing her best to seduce him, garldarn it, no wonder he hadn’t heard the man approach.
He gently pushed her away, suddenly feeling exhausted and irritated in equal measure.
“The boy,” he said quietly, nodding over to where the child was standing biting his lip and looking forlorn, “This ain’t helping him any seeing you taking on so Lou. Why don’t you put him to bed and we’ll see you in the morning huh?”
She threw him a wounded look but turned away and did as suggested.
Jess sat down beside the embers of the dying camp fire and stirring it into life put the coffee pot on, whilst Slim tended to his mount. He returned a little later with his saddle and bed roll and slumped down beside Jess.
Once the men were both stretched out on their bedrolls with a coffee apiece, Slim threw his buddy a speculative look over the rim of his cup.
“You got anything you want to share with me then Jess?”
Jess looked across at his friend...his cup suspended half way to his mouth, his expression wary, “What sorta thing would that be then Slim?”
“Like the little matter of Jamie maybe?”
“What about him?” asked Jess suddenly on the alert.
“Come on Jess, don’t make me have to spell it out. You’re his Pa aren’t you? That’s what the vendetta with Slater was all about. Louisa told her brother that Jamie was your son and Slater was real mad because you’d forsaken her and the boy.”
Jess sat bolt upright spilling his coffee, “Is that what you think of me...I’d abandon my own son!”
“Heck no buddy not knowingly, but well if she didn’t tell you?”
“She didn’t tell me because I ain’t his Pa,” Jess yelled. Then suddenly moderating his tone to a furious whisper, aware of Louisa’s proximity in the Wagon just behind them, “I ain’t his Pa,” he repeated.
“Well she acts as though she’d like you to be,” Slim said with insight, “and Jess he sure does favour you, same deep blue eyes same dark curly hair,” he said with a smirk.
“Slim will you stop it. Yes, you’re right, that’s what she told her brother and that’s why Hank was gunning for me, did all those things but it’s not true, she lied to him.”
“Sure it’s not Jess, if that’s what you say,” Slim said throwing him a guileless smile that Jess knew was totally phony.
Jess sank back just staring into the fire not wanting to lose his temper with his buddy especially after everything he had done to help him that night but he was pushing it.
He took a deep breath and then said, “The kid’s Pa is a bad lot named Peter Greene. He’s a neighbour, was married to Louisa’s friend, the one she ran to when we split up. She had an affair with him and the result was Jamie.”
Slim looked astonished. “Why? Why would she do that, have an affair with her friend’s husband it doesn’t make sense?”
Jess just shrugged, “Who can figure why women folk do anything? She said the marriage was doomed from the start, according to her friend. She said she’d made a terrible mistake.”
He sighed deeply, shaking his head.
“Lou was on the rebound from me and just fell for him I guess. Then his wife had high tailed it and they got a divorce, so he was a free agent by then.”
“So why didn’t he up and marry Louisa, if she was carrying his baby?” Slim asked looking far from convinced.
“Well he’d just been through one marriage and didn’t wanna dive straight into another,” said Jess with feeling, “You can kind of understand that. But he still should have made an honest woman of her if she was carrying his child,” he agreed.
“What?” asked Jess beginning to feel he’d really had enough of it all now just wanting to rest his weary bones.
He rubbed his belly that was still bothering from where the Bounty Hunter had struck him with the rifle barrel and sighed deeply.
“What are ya talking about Slim?”
“Well unless he knew the kid really wasn’t his and that’s why he refused to marry her?”
Jess looked puzzled, “Well if that’s true who is the dang father then?”
Slim just stared at him for a good minute before the penny dropped.
“ No...Slim I told you, I ain’t havin’ this laid at my door.”
“But hear me out Jess. Maybe she lied about it all. Did she say you were the father when you first turned up on her doorstep?”
“Well yeah but...I denied it of course.”
“Maybe she thought that by agreeing with you saying this Greene was the Pa well you’d relax and stick by her, help her out as an old friend. Then once she’s got you where she wants you she’ll start laying on the charm, cooking your favourite dinners and finally offering herself. You know what a woman can be like if she’s after catching a man Jess. And she’s sure as hell got that look in her eyes. You want to think on it all again, maybe he is your boy after all huh?”
Jess groaned with frustration, “Sure you’ve got that one right, she’s been makin’ those sheep’s eyes at me ever since we left town. I’m not stupid Slim. I’m sure she’d like us to get back together, give her child a name but that’s only because his real father is a drunken slob. I’m a slightly better bet.”
“Or she could have lied like I say. Jess the kid is the spitting image of you and only she knows for sure who the real father is.”
Jess was practically tearing his hair out in frustration now.
“Goddamn it Slim, the kid ain’t mine because I never slept with her!”
There was a shocked silence as Slim took this news on board and he finally threw his buddy an astonished look, “You didn’t?”
Jess looked down flushing slightly.
“OK I know it’s kinda hard to believe with my reputation but it’s true. She kept going on about kids and settling down and well it scared me Slim. I wasn’t ready and neither was she.”
“And you really didn’t?” Slim said again, a smile hovering around his lips.
“Said so didn’t I,” said Jess gruffly, “now can we leave it Slim, I’m real beat.”
“Sure,” said Slim softly, “and I’m sorry Jess, for doubting you it’s just...”
“I know, I know,” he said tiredly, “he’s the spittin’ image of me.”And then he gave his buddy a cheeky grin. “Real cute kid ain’t he though…huh?”
Slim beamed at him and nodded and both men finally lay back on their bedrolls ready for sleep.
Jess was just nodding off when Slim broke the silence.
“One thing though pard….”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You step real easy around that woman, because she’ll have you roped and hogtied before you can say Jack Robinson.”
“Anyone ever tell you, you fret too darned much?” Came the sleepy reply.
Chapter 18
The following morning both men were up early and leaving Louisa and the boy still asleep they made their way down to the lakeside to wash up and fill the water canteens.
Jess had stripped off his shirt and was washing when Slim noticed the nasty looking dark bruising to his partner’s belly.
“Jeez that looks really painful Jess, are you OK?” Slim asked solicitously.
“I’ll live,” came the usual laconic reply.
“Looks like you could use some of Daisy’s arnica,” on that he continued.
Jess’s head whipped up at the mention of Daisy’s name. “Gee, so are they back then Slim?”
“Sure are and can’t wait to see you. They landed just in time to hear the good news that you’d been vindicated and were on your way home,” he said with a cheerful grin.
“Well thank God for that,” said Jess sincerely. “That they hadn’t heard I was in line for another necktie party that is. I figure Daisy couldn’t have gone through all that again, never mind the boy.”
Slim nodded, “Er and don’t use that term Jess, you know Daisy doesn’t approve.”
Jess just grinned and figured it would be so darned good to see them all back at the ranch.
Slim seemed to read his thoughts, as he so often did, and said, “We could make it back home by tomorrow night if we get a wiggle on huh?”
Jess looked down suddenly quiet and wandered over to a rock by the waterside, absently rubbing himself dry with his shirt before looking over to where Slim had joined him.
“Jess, what is it?”
“I was kinda thinkin’ on laying over in Laramie for a couple of days. We need supplies for the journey and well I need to see Millie, Slim. Try and make it up to her for all I’ve put her through lately. I’ve really got to see her before we head off.”
Slim sobered at the news, “We’ve not had a chance to talk properly. I figured Louisa was on her way to join the Wagon Train when I saw the wagon so heavy loaded, but Jess where do you fit in?”
Jess focused on the distant shores of the lake unable to meet his friend’s anxious gaze.
“I said I’d escort her as far as the Fort,” he mumbled.
“The Fort…what you mean Fort Bridger, but that’s what...two hundred odd miles away Jess are you crazy?”
He shook his head and said quietly, “She ain’t got nobody else Slim, what with Slater bein’ in Doug’s jail and likely to be there for the foreseeable.”
“Oh yeah,” Slim broke in “aren’t you needed to give evidence?”
Jess shook his head, “I gave a sworn statement. Doug said that would be just fine, he knew I needed to get away from there, get home.”
“Umm but you’re not though are you Jess? You’re going on this crackpot mission all the way to the Wagon Train rendezvous and for why, because of some sort of crazy sense of obligation? You don’t owe her anything buddy! She’s lied and it was because of that your life’s been hell these last few months or has her pretty face made you conveniently forget all that huh?”
Jess leapt up from the rock, looking annoyed now.
“It ain’t got anything to do with her ’pretty face’,” he said sarcastically. “If you must know, yeah I do feel kinda responsible for all this. You see Slim, she went with that lowlife Greene, because I’d thrown her over. Maybe I should have been a bit kinder to her, let her down more lightly? I just dunno. But I do know that Greene’s got a look of me and that’s what attracted her said she could kinda pretend it was me.”
Jess’s anger had dissipated now and was replaced by contrition, “Hell Slim I felt so dang bad when she said that,” he whispered turning pleading eyes on his buddy willing him to understand.
Slim hung his head, thinking it all through and then turned back to him.
“I can kind of understand what you’re saying. But Jess, you’ve got to be sensible here. There are still hundreds of wanted posters out on you it would be suicidal to ride all that way, anything could happen.”
“Yeah and I could take a fall off a mustang and be trampled to death too. Like I say Slim you worry too dang much, besides I’ve got my pardon from the Judge ain’t I?” he said with his lopsided grin.
Slim just swore softly under his breath and Jess’s head shot up at the uncharacteristic bad language.
He pulled on his shirt and then he slapped his buddy on the back, “Come on Slim it’s real quiet at the ranch right now, you said so yourself, and I’ll be back in plenty of time for the fall round-up. What do ya say, huh?”
Slim just shook his head grinning at his pard in spite of his misgivings.
“I’m not worried about that...It’s your safety that’s bugging me Jess.”
“Quit frettin’ Slim, I’ll be just fine.”
“OK, but you run it past Mort first, check where the wanted posters are and if he’s heard of any more of those dang Bounty Hunters on your trail...OK Jess?”
“Sure, sure come on pard, let’s wake Lou and young Jamie. The sooner we get goin’ sooner I’ll see my girl,” and he marched off purposefully towards the wagon. Slim stood shaking his head and smiling after his buddy.
They arrived in Laramie mid-morning a couple of days later and Jess drew the wagon to a standstill by the livery with Slim, riding Alamo and leading Traveller, drawing up nearby.
Jess jumped down from the wagon and then lifted Louisa and young Jamie down as Slim wandered over.
“You’ll want to go sort out that, er bit of business then Jess?” he said with a sly wink.
Jess flushed a little and looked from Slim to Louisa and back, before replying. “I...um guess I need to help Lou out with the marketing for the trip, show her around,” he said, manfully trying to sound enthusiastic.
But Slim kindly took pity on his buddy, “No, you get off Jess I can show Miss Louisa around.”
Then he smiled across to the pretty woman, “We’ll be just fine won’t we.”
Louisa was feeling somewhat miffed at this new turn of events, but then decided to use it to her advantage. A little competition, that was what Jess needed to bring him into line she decided.
Then she turned the full beam of her radiant smile on Slim and took his arm, looking adoringly up at him, “Why I’d be delighted,” she crooned, “I so love you tall strong ranchers.”
Then turning to Jess said somewhat dismissively, “Yes off you go Jess, Slim and I will be just dandy together.”
Slim exchanged an amused look with his pard over her head, but neither man responded.
“OK, see ya later,” Jess said without turning a hair as he made off towards the saloon.
“Oh and Jess we’ll meet up at Miss Molly’s Cafe at noon er all of us yeah?”
Jess just raised a hand in acknowledgement and strode off down Main Street. Good old Slim he thought happily, that’s just what Lou needed to see, him and Millie together and then she’d quit her silly games.
He strode happily into the dim interior of the Laramie Saloon and a few moments later Tom the barkeep came out of the back room to serve him.
“Why Jess Harper...that really you… welcome home,” he cried excitedly as the young rancher leaned on the bar grinning at him, “and back all in one piece, praise the Lord.”
“Yup, more or less,” Jess agreed, looking around the semi deserted bar. “It’s kinda quiet in here where is everyone?”
“It’s early yet Jess not gone ten, folk will be in come lunchtime, if its company you’re after?”
“Umm, well one person’s company that’s for sure. Come on Tom where are you hiding my girl huh?” he asked a twinkle in his blue eyes.
The penny suddenly dropped, “Yes of course, er sorry son she’s not here right now.”
Jess’s grin faded and he looked suddenly lost, “Not here… please tell me she ain’t hightailed it back to her Ma’s place in Cheyenne Tom?”
The older man chuckled, “No don’t worry Jess, it’s her day off is all, she went off down to the mercantile and she’ll be….”
Jess dashed out of the bar at speed heading down Main Street.
“…she’ll be back soon,” Tom finished shaking his head and picking up another glass to polish. “Young folk today so dang impatient,” he muttered to himself.
Meanwhile Louisa and Slim had put her list into the mercantile and then had a wander around town whilst her order was attended to. As they passed the Barber’s shop Louisa looked at her son’s curly locks and then over at Slim. “I wonder,” she said hesitantly, “would you mind taking him to have a cut? I do declare if his hair gets much longer the folk on the wagon train will think I am Ma to a little girl.”
“Aww Ma don’t,” said Jamie looking horrified.
Slim chuckled and ruffled the boys hair, “Sure come on Jamie.”
Then he turned back to Louisa, “You’ll be alright?”
“Certainly,” she replied, “I’ll just take a look over there,” nodding to the haberdashers across the street,” I’ll catch up with you two later.”
When she came out of the shop she stood for a moment admiring the new gloves she had bought and then something caught her eye. Jess was across the street, laughing and holding the hand of a pretty dark-haired woman, the couple having just emerged from the mercantile.
Jess had rushed in and seen Millie just turning from the counter, she had looked up and seen him by the door and the couple’s gaze had locked. Then she gave a little cry of delight and tore across the space between them and straight into his arms, much to the amusement of the shop full of customers.
Jess had held her tightly before releasing her and suddenly becoming aware of the audience, indulgently watching their every move.
That was when he had taken her hand and rushed her from the shop and down the street towards the saloon. Then just before they reached it he pulled her down the alley that led along the side of the building. The couple paused for a moment knowing they were at last away from any prying eyes and being totally unaware that indeed Louisa was standing just across the street and watching their every move.
They stood so close and then Jess put a hand up and caressed her cheek, before finally taking her face between his hands and leaning in for a kiss. At first so sweetly gentle and then more passionately as he held her more firmly one hand now caressing her back. Then he had pulled gently away and taking her hand they had continued on down the alley.
Louisa moved quickly across the street and was just in time to see them disappearing through a door at the top of the fire escape at the back of the saloon and sighing she slowly retraced her steps.
Once inside the saloon Jess reached up for the key above the door lintel of Millie’s room and let them in, turning and locking the door behind him.
“Alone at last,” he said softly.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she whispered, “after everything that happened” then her beautiful brown eyes were suddenly brimming with unshed tears.
“Millie? Mill don’t sweetheart, it’s OK now I’m back everythin’ will be just fine from now on I promise.”
“I thought it would be like last time,” she sobbed, “I couldn’t bear that Jess not again.”
“I know...come here,” he said pulling her close and kissing the top of her head. “I’m so sorry.”
She looked up at him then. “Heck it’s not you that should be sorry. It’s that Hank Slater I hope that old Judge locks him up and throws the key away!”
“Millie, that ain’t like you,” he said giving her a searching look.
“No well maybe all this has changed me,” she said bitterly turning from him and making her way to the big old couch by the fire and throwing herself down.
Jess prudently removed his boots and gun belt as per Millie’s house rules before padding over and sitting down beside her.
“Are you mad at me?” he asked after a minute.
Her head shot up at that, “No, no of course not just….” she sighed, “I don’t know Jess. I’m fearful I suppose, scared for you.”
“Come on honey, there ain’t no call for that, I’m just fine. Back in one piece and it’s all over and done now.”
She took a deep breath and turned to smile at him. “Yes, of course, so can you stay for a little while, I’ve got the day off.”
“Yeah, Tom said so and sure I can, in fact I can stay tomorrow too, iffen you want that is?” he said diffidently.
She beamed at him then. “Of course I do, that’s swell I’ll ask Tom if I can take some holiday, I’m owed a few days.”
“Just one thing I said we’d meet Slim and Louisa for dinner at Molly’s place, is that OK?”
She frowned for a moment. “Louisa? What you mean Louisa Slater, so you met up with her like I suggested then?”
“Umm.” he said not really wanting to go into details right then.
He gently caressed her cheek, “We don’t have to go yet a while though.”
However, for once Millie was not to be deflected by Jess’s romancing.
“What’s she doing here?” she asked suspiciously.
Jess sighed deeply, “She’s headin’ west on the Wagon Train, meeting up with them at the Fort.”
Millie’s eyes opened wide in astonishment, “What all alone?”
Jess looked down and sighed, “Er not exactly no.”
“Jess, what aren’t you telling me?”
“OK, OK I said I’d take her and…… “
“What!” Millie yelled. “Are you crazy, with every bounty hunter in the country after you.”
“Hey have you and Slim been comparin’ notes, that’s just what he said.”
“Yes, because he’s got some basic common sense which is more than you have Jess!”
“Aww Mill, don’t get mad at me please... I can explain really I can.”
“Well go on then, I’m waiting.”
Jess rolled his eyes and then lay back on the comfortable couch knowing he had to be straight with her, “OK Millie, it all happened this way...”
An hour later, after tears, accusations and finally understanding and forgiveness, Millie lay in Jess’s warm embrace.
“I understand as to why you feel you need to go and especially with little Jamie to keep safe. It’s just oh Jess who’s going to keep you safe?” She asked looking near to tears again.
“Me,” he said softly, “like always, just trust me Mill, it’ll be just fine you’ll see.”
The meal with Slim, Louisa and her son was rather strained, with the two women walking real easy around each other, Jess and Slim at a loss as to how to play things. It was only young Jamie who seemed to be having a good time, the recent grown up haircut giving him a new confidence.
“I sure wish Uncle Hank could see my new haircut,” he piped up, “he’d think I looked real grown up, wouldn’t he Ma?”
Louisa gave him a sad smile, “I’m sure he would dear,” she said quietly, “now eat your sausages up before they get cold.”
Slim and Jess exchanged a grin, thinking how like Mike the youngster was and then Slim had an idea.
The situation between Jess and Millie hadn’t passed him by. He had noted her slightly swollen eyes, from crying he guessed. He noted the way that Jess constantly seemed to try and reassure her by the odd glance or touch. The couple holding hands under the table at one stage, when she looked like she might well cry again. They needed some time and space to work everything out Slim decided. Heck they’d both been through so dang much it was bound to put a strain on their relationship.
He cleared his throat to get their undivided attention. “I was er wondering if you’d like me to drive you over to the ranch today Louisa?” he said, casting a quick glance from her to Jess and back, trying to gauge their reaction. “We’ve got all the provisions on board now and I kinda thought it would be more fun for the boy than the hotel, give him a chance to meet up with Mike, maybe do a spot of fishing, before you head off?”
Jamie was the first to react. “Ma, say yes please! I really want to meet Mike and his racoon too,” he said his eyes sparkling and looking really happy for the first time since their journey had begun.
Louisa looked at her boy and couldn’t refuse him. Besides what was the point of hanging around town and intruding on the obviously close and loving relationship between Jess and the beautiful Millie? Nope, Louisa was no fool and she knew when she was beaten, for the moment at least.
“Yes, thank you Slim, that would be lovely,” she said graciously.
Jess heaved a sigh of relief and winked at Millie but said nothing.
However as both men went over to the counter to pay Jess whispered, “Thanks pard I owe you.”
“I figured maybe you and Millie could use some time alone, looks like all this has hit her pretty badly,” Slim said softly.
“You sure ain’t got that wrong,” Jess replied, before they returned to the table to escort the ladies out.
Jess did indeed spend all his time with Millie trying to calm her ragged nerves by being attentive and loving and spoiling her something fierce as she was to tell a friend later. But the fear of his proposed long journey still kept coming back to haunt her, aware as she was of the dangers of more Bounty Hunters seeking him out for the generous money that had been on his head.
Jess really didn’t want to leave her when Saturday rolled around, the day he had promised to return home and spend some time with Daisy and Mike before he had to leave again.
He was aware of how shaken up she had been after witnessing the terrible drama that had taken place at her Ma’s Boarding House and all he wanted to do was to make everything better for her, but logically knew he could not, as worried as she was about the proposed journey.
It was when they were lying in her comfortable bed, early on the Saturday morning, Jess holding her in a loving embrace that he made the decision to go and visit Mort. Hoping his friend would have something to say to allay her fears, but sensibly decided to say nothing until he’d sounded the Sheriff out.
He absently kissed her hair before saying softly, “I reckon I’d better get movin’ sweetheart, I hadn’t better push it too far with Slim. I ought to show my face, do a few chores before I take off again.”
She gave a little sigh but said nothing. Jess knew it wasn’t her style to fret and fuss, or to beg him not to go but he also knew dang well that was how she was feeling.
“I was thinking…”he said softly
“Umm?” she asked shifting her position to look at him properly. The light of hope in her eyes he noted, his heart beating faster as he knew he must disappoint her.
“There’s a dance tonight ain’t there, how about me and Slim ride over and we spend a bit more time together, before I go huh?”
She immediately tried to put to one side the feeling of disappointment she felt that he was not saying he would stay, wouldn’t make the ill-fated trip. At least they would get to spend one more night together she thought with a sudden feeling of pure joy, in spite of everything else. She reached up and kissed him gently on the lips, “Yes.” she whispered, “I’d like that.”
Then he tenderly brushed her cheek with his thumb before taking her face in his big hands and kissing her passionately and soon all the worry and fear were wiped from their minds as they made sweet love one more time.
It was still quite early when Jess strolled into Mort’s office and wandering over to the stove helped himself to a cup of the Sheriff’s bracing coffee.
“Well help yerself why don’t you?” said Mort, his eyes twinkling from where he was sitting feet up on his desk, reading the local paper.
“Want one?” Jess replied and at Mort’s nod poured another cup and carried it over, placing in on the desk before straddling the chair opposite Mort.
The couple had enjoyed a drink together in the saloon the previous night but had not discussed Jess’s proposed trip in any detail.
Now Mort scrutinized his buddy from over the rim of his coffee cup before saying quietly, “You’re still all set on this crazy journey then Jess?”
“Huh, what do you mean crazy?” asked Jess looking slightly aggrieved. “Don’t you start Mort, I’ve had all this from Slim and Millie I thought you’d be a bit more rational.”
“I am, dang rational,” said Mort hotly. “It ain’t me that’s proposing travelling miles across open countryside, at a snail’s pace with a woman and kid in tow and a Bounty on my head.”
“Come on Mort, you know dang well I’ve got a pardon from the circuit judge, those posters ain’t valid anymore.”
“Well try telling that to the likes of Chad Grimly, who are happy to shoot first and ask questions later Jess!”
“Hey Mort that was a one off there won’t be any more like him around.”
“You think not? Well I sure hate to disillusion you buddy but there are one heck of a lot of posters out there offering good money to all comers, for one Jess Harper, dead or alive.”
“How so,” asked Jess suddenly looking annoyed, “did you and your deputies go stickin’ them all over then?”
“No of course not it was some of the boys from Hank Slater’s spread, the Flying B. The ranch was put on the market after you er, allegedly, dispatched Slater and there was a lot of bad feelings Jess, one heck of a lot. In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if it ain’t some of them as will be on the lookout for you.”
“But haven’t you told folk around here that I’m innocent?” Jess asked.
“Well sure I have, there was a notice in the Sentinel, plus notices all around town but those men are gone now Jess, many looking for work elsewhere, they may not have heard the news.”
Jess cussed softly under his breath. “ I just don’t have any choice about this Mort, I have to help them. I promised.”
“There are always choices in life son just think it through real good, that’s all I ask huh?”
Chapter 19
Later that morning Jess finally rode into the ranch yard. As soon as he dismounted the ranch house door flew open and a little blond whirlwind, followed by a smaller dark haired one ran out. Mike was the first to arrive and ran straight into Jess’s open arms and was spun up in the air and around before being brought down to earth where he was given a huge bear hug.
“Gee I’m so glad to see you Jess!” the boy said excitedly, “I’ve missed ya something fierce.”
“Me too Tiger, me too,” then he looked over the youngster’s head, to see Jamie standing on the porch looking longingly at the loving scene.
Jess immediately called him over and the boy too ran into Jess’s arms and he held him close, both boys now nestling in his warm embrace.
That was how Daisy, Slim and Louisa found them when they too emerged from the ranch house a few minutes later.
Jess looked over the boy’s heads at Daisy and then gently disentangled himself from the youngsters before moving towards the elderly housekeeper, his eyes never leaving her face.
Then she was in his arms and he held her tightly, “I’m sorry Daisy, so dang sorry to have worried you,” he whispered urgently.
“Hush dear,” she said softly, her old eyes brimming with unshed tears, “you’ve nothing to be sorry for and you’re home now, that’s the main thing.”
It was some time later after they had enjoyed some of Daisy’s wonderful pie and coffee, that Jess and Slim had time to catch up on their news in the barn as Jess tended Traveller.
Jess was busy grooming his horse and said quietly.” Daisy knows I’m heading out to the Fort on Monday?”
“She does and she’s none too happy about it either Jess. She wants me to try and talk you out of it.”
Jess bowed his head and took a deep breath, but didn’t make any comment, merely continued grooming his mount.
“What did Mort have to say about the situation then Jess?”
“Nuthin’ much,” he said, avoiding eye contact with his friend.
“Jess, just tell me?”
He sighed lustily and turned from his task. “OK, he agrees with you, thinks half the Flying B wranglers will be gunning for me. But he’s overreacting, it’ll be just fine Slim and anyway, I’ve promised her now.”
“Jess will you stop being so dang pig headed. I’m sure she can buy in some help to get her there, she’s rich enough isn’t she?”
Jess shrugged, “I guess not, she’s put all her money into that big wagon, the rest saved for when they hit the Wagon Train and for the journey. Then they’ll need to buy a place. I think she’ll be kinda short, I figure she was hopin’ Slater would go in with her on buying a spread.”
“How long do you think he’ll get?” Asked Slim thoughtfully
“Dunno, depends on the judge. I just told it how it was in my statement. I wasn’t about to start lyin’ to get him off Slim, not after what he’d done to me, to all of us for goodness sake and my Millie especially.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know pard,” said Slim sadly, punching Jess’s arm gently before wandering off.
At supper Jess broached the subject of them going to the local dance.
“Do you mind Daisy?” he asked considerately.
“Not at all dear, you and Slim get off and enjoy yourselves, after all it will be a while before you get the chance again,” she finished quietly.
Then recovering her good humour, she smiled over to Louisa, “We’ll be just fine won’t we dear.”
Slim suddenly felt rather guilty at not asking Louisa, he had hopes of seeing his girl Lily, if Tom would let her off work early. And obviously Jess would be escorting Millie, but even so, good manners demanded he ask her.
“No thank you, I’ll stay and keep Daisy company,” Louisa said quickly. She had seen enough of Jess and Millie together to know how devoted they were and there was no chance of her coming between the pair. Nope she sure didn’t want to be sitting around like a wallflower all evening watching love’s young dream she thought bitterly.
However, once she saw the men all spruced up in their Saturday night finery she almost regretted her decision. Jess was looking devastatingly handsome she thought. He was dressed in a sparkling white shirt, string tie, and brocade vest. A dark frockcoat over dark pants and highly polished Sunday best boots, all topped off by a smart dark Stetson finishing the ensemble. Slim was dressed in similar attire and Daisy hit the nail on the head when she said, “Oh my! You boys will certainly cut a dash at the dance tonight!”
Jess had insisted on putting the boys to bed and sitting with them for a good half hour telling stories and swapping banter before heading off.
“Thank you,” said Louisa as he emerged from Mike’s room where both boys were sleeping, “I know Jamie really loves all the attention you give him. I think he’s missing his friends dreadfully and his Uncle Hank too. I really appreciate you spending time with him Jess.”
He just winked at her, “Well he’s a great little kid,” he responded quietly.
Then both men turned to Daisy kissing her on the cheek, before taking off, riding out of the yard at speed with a rowdy, spirited, “Yahoo!” as they left.
Once they had been riding along in silence for a while Slim said, “I feel kinda bad leaving Louisa home, she looked a bit sad when we rode out.”
“She’ll be OK,” Jess said briskly, “Lou and Daisy get on well, they’ll be swapping recipes and knittin’ patterns, or whatever women folk do fer fun,” he added vaguely.
Slim just gave a snort of laughter. “I guess,” he said.
Then sobering, “You know Jess, I get the impression that Louisa is angling for you to put in a good word for her brother, maybe get his sentence shortened?”
“Ha, she’ll be lucky,” Jess replied, “after what he’s done. So why would I wanna do that huh?”
Slim shook his head, “She needs him to help her out when she arrives in California, help look out for the boy too.”
Jess looked slightly troubled by that, “I can understand she’d want someone around for the boy. And young Jamie seems real fond of his Uncle, and Slater thought a lot of the boy too,” he said thoughtfully, remembering how embarrassed he was at being cuffed in front of the child. Then he shrugged. “Too late now anyways, the Judge will have passed sentence and Slater will be in prison already.”
Then he spurred Traveller on to greater speed, “Come on Slim, we don’t wanna be late for the girls.”
They spent a very romantic evening with their respective girlfriends at the alfresco dance which was so popular with the young folk of the town. A small dance area was set up just at the end of Main Street with a wooden dance floor, a bar and tables set all around, the whole place looking magical with fairy lights around and the night stars above it.
The evening finally drew to a close and Slim looked over to where Jess and Millie were entwined in each other’s arms on the dance floor, moving dreamily to the strains of the band playing one last slow, romantic tune. Then he turned his attention back to his girlfriend, “Do you want to head off Lily?” he asked with a warm smile.
She nodded and then a moment later Jess and Millie wandered over.
“We’re off,” said Slim, “are you two coming?”
“Sure,” said Millie, “coffee at my place?”
It was sometime later that they were all settled by Millie’s cozy fireside.
Slim had been watching the couple closely all evening. The long loving looks they had exchanged, the way Jess had hardly let Millie out of his sight and seemed to be holding her hand or had a protective arm around her all evening. It was almost as though he were somehow trying to reassure her that all would be well. But Slim knew that it very well might not be.
Now he noted that Jess was very quiet, still holding Millie’s hand as he looked sadly into the fire and at that moment Slim could bear it no longer.
“You’re not going Jess, I won’t let you.” he said firmly.
Jess’s head shot up from where he’d been deep in thought. “Huh?”
“This trip with Louisa, it’s a dang suicide mission Jess. I talked to Mort earlier and he reckons you wouldn’t make it. Some sharp shooter would be on your case try and take you in or worse.”
Jess suddenly looked furious and glancing from Slim to Millie and back said, “Shut up will ya Slim, you’re gonna upset Millie.”
“And you’re not I suppose,” blurted out Slim, “going on this crackpot mission?”
“Don’t,” Millie cried, “please don’t argue not tonight.”
“Slim?” said Lily turning to her usually placid lover, “what is it?”
“What is it?” Slim exploded, his sudden temper all the more shocking as it was so uncharacteristic, “I’ll tell you what it is Lily. My partner there isn’t content with worrying us all half to death with his recent antics dodging a rope again. Oh no now he’s got to act the hero and go on this stupid trip and most likely get his dang brains blown out along the way!”
“Slim!”Yelled Jess gently pitching Millie from his knee and standing up to tower over his buddy, “What in hell’s gotten into you?”
“You and your crazy ways...you’ve put us all through misery once, isn’t that enough Jess?”
“Goddamn it Slim, none of that was my fault. I didn’t ask Slater to persecute me that way...or frame me for his death either. What was I supposed to do, just put my hands up and go quietly? Because if I had done I’d have hung for it, been dead and buried by now and we both know it!”
Slim looked down and then looked Jess in the eye. “Yeah, I agree, you couldn’t help that. But you can now Jess. You can be sensible and stay home, until all this business with Slater is over and folk know you’re innocent.”
Then he turned to where Millie was quietly weeping now. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to her, to us all?” he yelled, his voice breaking with emotion.
Jess looked down at Millie his face a mask of pain, “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to upset you this way it’s just that I’ve no choice.”
“Sure you have,” declared Slim stoutly, “I’ll take Louisa and the boy.”
“You can’t do that pard,” Jess said “she’s my responsibility.”
“No, no she’s not Jess, your responsibility lies right here.”
Then without a word Slim got up from his seat and taking Lily’s hand, led her from the room. At the door he paused, “Night.”
Jess just stared over at his best buddy, not knowing what to say, “Night Slim,” he finally managed.
Early on the Monday morning the wagon was all ready to go, the team harnessed with Alamo hitched on behind and Louisa and Jamie already aboard. Mike had left for school and so it was just Daisy and Jess standing on the porch with Slim.
He leant forwards and kissed Daisy tenderly on the forehead, “You take care you hear and make sure Jess here doesn’t slack any,” he added, trying to make light of the charged atmosphere.
“You take care too dear,” Daisy said, hugging him close and then turning towards the door. “I’ll go in I hate goodbyes,” she said softly.
Once the two men were alone Jess turned concerned eyes on his buddy.
“You don’t have to do this you know Slim, it ain’t too late to change your mind.”
“I know, but I want to if it keeps you safe it’s worth it.”
“Thanks, I owe you big time for this pard.”
Slim just shrugged, “The way I see it I’ve got the best deal. I end up keeping company with a real pretty girl and you end up painting the outhouse and shower for Daisy.”
Jess finally grinned at his buddy, before shaking him warmly by the hand. “Take it easy pard, watch yer back huh.”
“I will, bye Jess.”
Jess found Daisy brewing a pot of coffee in the kitchen when he went back into the house.
“Did they get off alright dear?” she asked kindly.
“I reckon so, young Jamie was a bit tearful, but he’ll be OK, he’s a tough little cookie.” But decided not to mention the tears and passionate kiss he had received from his Ma.
Daisy smiled, “He’d grown really fond of you Jess, his Ma too I believe,” she said quietly, throwing him a speculative glance.
“Yeah, well it’s a good thing old Hardrock has taken over then,” said Jess dryly.
“Umm,” Daisy said, “I agree, I feel that young lady definitely had designs on you dear.”
“Plans for you Jess and maybe ones your Millie wouldn’t have been too happy about.”
“Right I see what you mean,” Jess said grinning at her, “Yup, you could be right Daisy, I figure she was kinda tryin’ to return to the way we were, but it wasn’t gonna happen.”
“It’s that little boy I feel sorry for, he’d grown so fond of you Jess and a boy like that surely needs a man around to learn from, it’s such a shame about his Uncle...”
“Hey Daisy don’t you start, I’ve had enough of Lou tryin’ to get me to let Hank off the hook. But I couldn’t even iffen I wanted to, which I don’t, because the judge will have passed sentence by now...So...any pie to go with this coffee?” he asked with his most charming smile.
Jess was able to put off the dreaded painting for the first day, saying he had urgent business to attend to out mending fence on the East pasture, but he knew he could not put off the inevitable forever.
The following day he decided to bite the bullet and get on with the task, figuring the sooner he started the sooner it would be finished. Then if he played his cards right he might be able to dream up a reason to go off to town mid-week and catch up with Millie for a while.
He had managed to paint up to the top of the shower in the yard by standing on a strategically placed old orange box. However, when it came to the outhouse he needed the small ladders to reach the top. He banged about in the barn for some time before locating them in the dim depths of the hay loft. He marched back out into the sunlight and surveyed the task ahead, paint brush and pot in hand. Yup easy he thought happily, I’ll have the job done by sunset and tomorrow I’ll go over to town. We sure are in need of some fencing wire he thought chuckling to himself.
Whether it was because his attention was wandering and dwelling on Millie’s many attributes, or he was just rushing to get the job done he would never know. However, the outcome was the same. He failed to notice that the top step of the ladder was badly damaged with woodworm. As soon as Jess put his full weight on it, there was an ominous creaking sound and then the rung snapped in two sending Jess crashing down to the dirt several feet below. It wasn’t a particularly long drop, but he fell badly, twisting his knee. The one that was always bothering him he realised at once. He’d been shot up near the knee once and then had a bad fall from a mustang several years ago straining the ligament around the kneecap and ever since it had bothered him upon occasion.
Now he lay their cussing loudly, furious at his bad luck, the paint spreading in a huge white pool beside him adding insult to injury now he’d have to pay out for another pot he thought angrily.
Daisy had heard the tremendous crash of the ladder falling and came dashing out of the kitchen door a look of consternation on her elderly features.
“Oh Jess dear whatever happened?”
He sighed and tried to get up, but then gave a yelp of pain and lay back again.
“Garldarn it Daisy, I’ve twisted my bad knee again. I fell off the dang ladder. I thought Slim had fixed that shaky rung.”
“Well obviously not dear,” she said surveying the broken ladder and then reaching across to help him up.
Once she had helped him inside she said briskly, “Take your pants off dear and I’ll get a cold compress on that knee at once, it may just stop the swelling a tad.”
“Aww, Miss Daisy do I hafta?”Jess replied, sounding remarkably like Mike, Daisy thought hiding a smile.
“Yes you do Jess, unless you want to be in even more pain than you are now.”
Then she took pity on him, “Why don’t you go in your room and put your swimmers on, then I can tend to your knee more easily umm?”
Jess gave a sigh of relief and limped off to find the old cut down denims that he wore at the swimming hole, whilst Daisy hurried to draw some icy cold water from the well. She chuckled to herself as she went imagining that Millie never had too much of a problem parting Jess from his pants.
Later she sat back and viewed her ministrations, a perfectly tied bandage holding the cold compress in place.
“I really don’t know why you make such a fuss about stripping off Jess,” she said playfully, “I am a qualified nurse you know and old enough to be your Ma.”
“I know Daisy,” he said flushing a little, “it just don’t feel right strippin’ off in front of a lady, that’s all.”
“I know dear and I’m only teasing you. Your decorum does you credit.”
“It does?” asked Jess looking rather wary, not quite sure what Daisy was saying.
But she merely smiled at him, “How about a nice cup of coffee and you must keep that leg up for the next few days, no more work for you for a while Jess,” she said sombrely. “And Slim only gone a couple of days,” she added, as she bustled off to make the drink wondering how on earth her beloved surrogate son seemed to be such a magnet for trouble.
Jess quite enjoyed his enforced break and milked it for all he was worth, sitting in his rocker whilst Daisy and Mike waited on him hand and foot.
However, by the second day the novelty had well and truly worn off and he was feeling bored and a little restless, even though a neighbour’ s son had come in to do all the chores and change the Stage teams so he really had nothing to gripe about.
Daisy was in the kitchen washing the supper dishes and Mike at the kitchen table wrestling with his Math homework and so Jess took the opportunity to sneak out and go and check on the horses.
Dusk was just falling as he limped across the yard and entered the barn. He stood for a moment as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light and he inhaled the wonderful aroma of hay and warm horse before wandering over to Traveller’ s stall.
“Missing your buddy, fellah?” Jess asked as he absently fondled his horse’s nose and glanced over to Alamo’s empty stall, wondering how Slim was faring.
It was half an hour or so later as Jess was grooming Traveller, that his horse lifted his head and gave a little whinny of welcome.
Jess glanced behind him to where he had left the barn door ajar, expecting to see Mike standing there but nothing.
He turned back to his horse, but Trav again whinnied and then started moving restlessly in his stall. “What’s up boy?” asked Jess and then with one hand on his colt.45 he cautiously made his way out to the yard.
In the fading light he could just make out a horse drinking thirstily from the trough, the rider slumped in the saddle as though almost asleep or semi-conscious maybe.
Then as Jess advanced he was able to make out the horse and rider Alamo and Slim!
He increased his pace, limping over as fast as could and put a gentle hand on Slim’s leg.
“Pard are you OK?” he queried peering up at his buddy then a moment later Slim slumped forwards in a dead faint.
Jess took his weight as well as he was able and then yelled for Daisy to come out and help him.
Somehow, they managed to half carry, half drag the semi-comatose cowboy to the couch and then Jess sent Mike off to tend to Alamo.
The youngster had looked near to tears as he surveyed the big, usually vigorous, rancher lying so pale and still.
“He’ll be OK Tiger,” Jess promised, “see to Alamo; give him some food and a good rub down huh?”
The boy nodded and wandered off disconsolately to do as he was bid, whilst Jess turned to Daisy for guidance with the patient.
She had gently unbuttoned his shirt to expose a gunshot wound to the shoulder.
“Oh my, it looks nasty Jess; we could really do with Doc Sam to tend to this wound.”
“Well he ain’t here and you are Daisy, so I figure you’re gonna have to give it your best shot. From the amount of blood on his shirt I don’t reckon he’d last until the doc got here.”
“I fear you are right Jess. Go and fetch my medical basket will you dear and then help me get him on the table. I’ll need you to hold him down. Although hopefully we’ll have finished work on him before he comes around again he seems very deeply unconscious.”
Daisy was pretty near right and she had finally dug out the bullet and managed to stitch up the gaping wound before Slim finally started to stir.
He groaned and his eyes flickered open as he looked around him in fear and trepidation, “Lou...Jamie?” he whispered.
“You’re home Slim, back at the ranch, you’re safe buddy,” said Jess softly.
Then Slim turned his head to try and focus on his partner, “Jess...what am I doing here?”
Jess just shrugged, “You got me pard you rode in tonight all shot up, what happened huh? Louisa and the boy are they OK?” he asked, fear suddenly gripping him.
“Yes, yes I guess so,” Slim gasped. “at least they were last time I saw them.”
“What happened?”
“It was that guy you told me about Greene...Pete Greene that was it.”
“What about him Slim, was it him that did this to you?” asked Jess his pulses beginning to race and one hand clenching above his colt .45 his body practically taking over, knowing exactly what he wanted to do next. Go and find that low life and render ‘an eye for an eye,’ as his friend, the old Parson, Holy Joe would have said.
“Jess dear, I think we should let Slim sleep,” Daisy said softly, taking hold of his arm and drawing him away a little.
“Sorry Daisy, I can’t do that,” Jess said turning back to Slim.
“What happened buddy, tell me is she hurt, are they in danger?”
Slim rolled his head on the pillow Daisy had put behind him.
“Yeah I reckon so Jess he’s desperate to get them back. He’s real mean and a drunkard to boot. He was really aggressive towards Lou and the boy too.” He gave a bitter laugh then, “He said he loved them, needed them back. But heck, I didn’t see much love Jess. He hit her, sent Lou flying and would have done the same to the boy, iffen he hadn’t moved real fast. I went to tend to Lou. I needed to be sure she was OK before I knocked nine bells out of the bastard. Excuse me Ma’am,” he said casting Daisy a sheepish glance.
“Go on,” said Jess impatiently.
“I was just about to smash his face in and that’s when he shot me! Garldarn it, I didn’t even see he was toting an iron. It must have had a derringer hidden in his vest or someplace.”
Then Slim started coughing, almost breathless after his long diatribe.
“Jess please just let him rest,” Daisy entreated.
“Sure, I’m sorry, but just one more thing Slim. When did he get the drop on you and where was he heading?”
“It was a couple of days ago, just past Rock Creek. Once he’d downed me he loosed Alamo and took off with the wagon heading back to his spread in Denver I reckon. My good old horse came back and found me at first light and I’ve been riding ever since. Jeez I’m sorry I’ve let you down Jess,” he finished closing his eyes in exhaustion.
“You ain’t buddy,” said Jess softly, laying a gentle hand on Slim’s chest, “You just rest up some huh. It’ll be just fine...don’t fret.”
It was some time later before Jess and Daisy had got Slim to bed. And finally Mike, once he had been allowed to cuddle up and chat with Slim for a few minutes beforehand.
“So will it?” Daisy asked as she eyed Jess over her coffee cup as they sat before the dying embers of the fire later that night.
“You told Slim it would be just fine,” she repeated, “will it Jess dear? Just what are you proposing to do?”
“Well heck Daisy what do ya think, go rescue her of course.”
“When?” she asked softly, knowing there was no earthly point in arguing.
“First light,” he said briskly, “I’ll call in on the Jackson boys explain everything, get them to cover the Stage for a while longer and then go via Laramie and send Doc Sam out for Slim. I figure Greene and Lou will be someplace between Laramie and Cheyenne by now, I’ll head off in that direction anyway.”
“Jess do be careful, what with those wretched posters still up and you’re far from over that nasty accident to your knee. And there’s something else...”
“What Daisy?”
She was silent for a good minute trying to think how to voice her worries without angering him.
“It’s that temper of yours dear,” she finally managed, “please don’t let it get you in trouble again.”
“Umm...you mean don’t blow Greene’s head off?” he said bitterly.
“Jess, dear really!” Daisy gasped in consternation.
“Gee I’m sorry Daisy that was out of order. I’m just so dang mad at what he’s done to Slim, not to mention Louisa and the boy, I figure he deserves his comeuppance, don’t you?”
“Yes dear, I do indeed, but please Jess let the law deal with it, don’t meter out revenge yourself.”
Jess just gave her a tired smile and said he was off to bed, with the early start on the morrow.
It was Slim who finally talked some sense into him.
He was ready to go and went and sat on the edge of Slim’s bed to say his farewells.
“You take it real easy pard,” Jess said looking into Slim’s pale drawn face. “The Jacksons will be over in time to see to the noon Stage and will look out for the place until I get back OK?”
Slim gave a small nod, knowing his buddy was all fired up and nothing would stop him until he’d smashed his fist into Greene’s self-satisfied face.
“Jess, listen to me,” he said urgently, “when you catch up with him lay one on him for me sure, but then just take him in will you? Don’t open up on him, he’s a drunkard he wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of outdrawing you. It would be tantamount to murder.”
“Yeah, I know,”” said Jess quietly. “I’d figured as much myself. It was just a lucky shot with you,” he said with a small smile.
“Yeah, and the fact that I was so busy picking up Lou I didn’t even get a chance to draw on him,” said Slim sadly.
Jess sobered at that, “Bastard,” he whispered furiously, “he’ll pay for that Slim, he ain’t gettin’ away with what he’s done to her or you. I’ll get him throwed in jail and the dang key buried I promise you that!”
Chapter 20
He rode out soon after and it was later that morning when he bumped into Mort Cory just as he was leaving the Doc’s place.
“Hey whoa there, what’s your hurry Jess?” Mort laughed as the young rancher cannoned into him.
“I’m on a mission Mort and I don’t have no time to waste,” said Jess brusquely.
“Well I reckon you can spare me a minute or two of your valuable time,” Mort said mockingly.” I need a quick word and you look like you could use a coffee too Jess, you’re looking a mite peaky.”
“I ain’t peaky I’m damned mad, iffen you must know,” Jess said once he was seated in the Sheriff’s office. Then proceeded to explain what had happened to Slim and Louisa.
“So you’re riding off half-cocked and going to have it out with him I imagine?” Mort said dryly.
“Somethin’ like that yeah any objections, Sheriff?” he said in a faintly derisive tone.
“None whatsoever as long as you intend to take him in and let the law deal with it.”
Jess bowed his head. “I guess so, once I’ve knocked him about some.”
Mort sighed and shook his head, “This isn’t exactly what you need right now Jess, not with the ink hardly dry on your pardon. The last thing you want to do is to ride into town with a corpse in tow. I know it would be a fair shootout,” he said raising his hand to silence Jess. “But any which way you really don’t want to get in any more trouble right now and if I know Slim he’ll be thinking the same way.”
“OK, OK I ain’t thinkin’ of drawin’ on him anyway Mort, he’s a sad drunk and wouldn’t stand a chance, so keep yer hair on. But I need to take him in, figure he’s on his way to Denver. Could be at Cheyenne by now, so I’ll let Doug sort him out OK?”
“Yup, that’s fine Jess and I’ll wire him, tell him what’s happened alright?”
Jess smiled for the first time since he’d entered the office, “Yeah, that would be good, thanks Mort and I’m sorry iffen I’m kinda surly today…it’s just, well I’m real worried ya know?”
“Sure I do and good luck Jess.”
“Thanks,” Jess stood up and limped over to the door.
“You been falling off mustangs again?” asked Mort with a chuckle.
“Nope dang ladders paintin’ fer Daisy,” came the rueful answer.
Mort sighed, “Women folk, they can be real hard task masters can’t they buddy.”
Jess nodded with a faint smile, then, “What did ya want to see me about Mort?”
“ I nearly forgot. I had a wire from Doug Masters. It seems the Judge was called away on important business before he had a chance to try Hank Slater, so you could still speak up for him. If you’ve a mind to that is Jess. Seems to me that young lady could do with her brother out of the jail right now to keep an eye on her huh?”
Jess just nodded, “Maybe, so long Mort.”
It was still early morning when he left town. He rode hard all day without stopping, until the light was finally fading and he made camp for the night. He was half way to Cheyenne and knew he must catch up with the wagon within a day or so.
The following morning, he arose at dawn and took off without even brewing a morning coffee and his resolution finally paid off when he saw the wagon pulled up by the side of the road and a thin curl of wood smoke floating up into the clear blue morning sky.
He drew Traveller up to a slow walk as he entered the camp, ready to draw if he needed to, one hand resting on the butt of his colt.
He drew level with the wagon and then rode on beyond it and saw the camp fire and a lone figure sitting huddled before it...But the man made no move when Jess rode over and indeed showed no awareness that he had a visitor, as Jess dismounted and walked over to peer down at him.
After a few moments he cleared his throat and Greene squinted blearily up at him.
Jess realized in that moment that the tall rancher was spectacularly drunk.
His slack mouth fell into a contorted bitter smile and his watery eyes looked Jess up and down in distain, “Harper isn’t it,” he slurred, “to what do we owe the honour?” he asked before hiccuping several times.
Jess just looked down at him in disgust, “Where is she?” he spat angrily.
But before Greene could answer there was a disturbance behind him and a minute later Jamie jumped down from the back of the wagon and hurled himself at Jess crying hysterically.
“Jess, come quick its Ma she’s dead, she’s dead and he killed her!” he cried staring over at Greene in terror.
“It’s OK boy, I’m here now,” said Jess holding him close for a moment before casting Greene a black look and following Jamie.
Greene was obviously too far gone to react to the accusation Jess realized as he joined the boy at the wagon.
He climbed the steps to the back and stood on the threshold for a moment allowing his eyes to accommodate to the dim light within.
Then he saw her huddled down on a bedroll at the far end of the wagon, a blanket partially covering her naked body. As he advanced his eyes opened wide in horror and he nearly gagged at what he saw.
Her body was black and blue, covered in livid bruises and scratches like she’d been attacked by some kind of wild animal and her temple had a deep gash, the blood making her pale, almost grey face look even more ghost like.
Jess exchanged a look with the youngster who had scrambled in beside him.
“Greene...he did this?” he asked in horror.
Jamie just nodded and sniffed, wiping a sleeve across his tear stained face, too upset to speak.
Jess gave him a gentle pat on the arm before telling him to stay where he was, whilst Jess ventured closer to Louisa’s side.
He carefully covered her nakedness with the blanket and then taking her wrist felt for a pulse but there was none.
He closed his eyes tightly; his face a mask of pain, his breath coming in ragged gasps the nausea rising once more within his throat.
He turned back to where the boy was now crouched by the wagon entrance, looking petrified.
“She is, isn’t she Mister Harper...Jess. She’s dead, my Mama’s dead?”
The way the youngster reverted back to use his babyhood name for his Ma pierced Jess’s heart like a knife.
He shook his head sadly, wanting so much not to have to answer...not to tell the boy the truth.
Wanting to just put off that dreadful moment of affirmation, he tried to find a pulse one more time, and gently put a hand to her neck praying, hoping for some kind of miracle...
And then it was there, the miracle. It was faint oh so faint and fragile but there was a pulse.
He took a deep shaky breath and then turned back to the boy, “No Jamie she ain’t, go find some water son, your Ma’s still with us...just.”
Once Jamie returned, Jess very tenderly bathed his Ma’s face and after a short while the cold water revived her and her eyes flickered and then opened.
She gazed at Jess for a second and then recoiled screaming in terror, “Get away, get away from me,” she spat.
“Hey, sweetheart, it’s OK. It’s me Jess,” he said softly.
She still shrank away from him, fear and loathing in her eyes.
“Lou,” he tried again softly, putting a gentle hand on her arm, “I won’t hurt you honey you know that.”
She stared at him again, almost as though trying to figure out who he was and then she burst into tears, finally allowing him to hold her close.
Much later she pulled away from him, still sniffing and sobbing quietly.
“What in hell has he done to you?” Jess asked quietly.
She glanced over to the far end of the wagon where Jamie was sitting hugging his puppy for comfort the dog whining softly, the charged atmosphere making the critter fretful.
“I wouldn’t let him…you know?” she sighed and looked at him beseechingly, begging him to understand without her having to spell it out for him. “He forced me Jess, he attacked me and then forced me,” she whispered. So quietly Jess had to lean down to hear her properly.
As the truth dawned his eyes opened wide in horror.
“The hell he did,” he growled before standing up and charging from the wagon.
When he reached Pete Greene, the lanky rancher was blissfully out for the count, an empty bottle of Red Eye at his side, but that didn’t deter Jess any.
He realised he was still holding the canteen from when he’s been bathing Louisa’s face and now he emptied the icy contents over the recumbent man.
He sat up immediately, gasping and spluttering.
“Wha...what’s goin’ on?” he managed peering up at Jess…but that was all he had time for.
Jess dragged him up by his shirt front and smashed a fist into his face sending him reeling across the camp site then he strode over and continued to rain blows on the big man until he begged for mercy.
“Why in hell should I show you any mercy,” Jess roared. “You didn’t show Louisa any.”
Greene’s eyes opened wide in surprise, “Goddamn it, she’s my woman it’s her duty to please me. She just got what she deserved, surely you understand that Harper. What’s all the fuss about?”
“What...what’ d you say?” he whispered, unable to believe his ears. Then rage took over, “You bastard,” he cried his hands suddenly around the other’s throat.
It was the frenzied barking of Jamie’s puppy that brought him to his senses and he released his hold and stared down at the sweating, almost blue face of his adversary.
Jess was panting, his expression furious, sweat pouring down his face, his features dark with wrath. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, desperately trying to calm himself. Then after a moment he neatly flipped Greene over onto his belly. Then pulling the handcuffs he’d used on Slater out of his vest pocket he roughly handcuffed Greene’s wrists behind his back. Then he dragged him over to a nearby pine tree and left him lying semi-conscious whilst he went to fetch his rope from Traveller. When he returned he tied him tightly to the tree and then stood looking down, still panting slightly from the recent conflict.
A moment later Jamie sidled over and took Jess’s hand, “I guess my dog doesn’t like Uncle Peter any too much,” he said quietly glancing over to where his puppy had finally quietened down and was chewing on a bone she’d found.
Then looking up at Jess, “You neither huh?”
“You could say,” Jess replied with bitter irony.
“Me too,” said the youngster, now looking near to tears, “He did real bad things to Mama, you know Jess?” he said, a tear finally brimming over and trickling down his face.
He brushed it angrily away, “Gee...I’m sorry,” he muttered.
“What for boy?” asked Jess kneeling down beside him and putting a protective arm around the child’s shoulders.
The youngster looked down and then whispered, “Uncle Peter used to get mad at me, said real men don’t cry.”
Jess pulled Jamie close looking over the boy’s head to the wagon where the poor battered body of his mother lay, “Oh they do boy, they do,” he said softly, blinking back tears of his own.
Then he held him close as the child sobbed, his heart almost breaking at the terrible things he had witnessed.
A while later he finally came to a hiccuping sniffing halt. “I’m sorry,” he said again brushing his sleeve across his nose and face, before turning pitiful eyes on Jess.
“Hey, it’s OK buddy and you feel a bit better now dontcha, huh?”
The child thought about it. “I guess I do Jess yeah.”
“Good boy, now look we’re gonna have to make tracks just as soon as I fix up your Ma some. Why don’t you water Trav for me and then saddle up your pony, get ready to go huh?”
The boy nodded OK and went to do as he was bid, whilst Jess fetched his saddlebags containing medical supplies and turned back towards the wagon with a heavy heart.
When he was once more at Louisa’s side his heart missed a beat. She seemed to have deteriorated since he had seen her barely ten minutes before and now her breathing was labored and she had a sheen of sweat on her flushed face.
“Lou can ya hear me?” he asked softly.
After a moment her eyes opened and she again pulled back in terror, before relaxing when she saw who it was.
“Where is he?” she finally managed then pulling herself up on her elbow gave a little cry of fear. “Jess you haven’t killed him have you?”
He shook his head, “Nah... he’s OK just roughed him up some. We’ll take him into Cheyenne let Sheriff Masters deal with him. Right now I’m more concerned about you sweetheart,” he said giving her a compassionate look.
She fell back on the bedroll, relieved that at least Jess hadn’t landed himself in any more trouble on her behalf.
Then she looked fearful again, “Slim oh God. I think he killed Slim!” she cried almost hysterically as the memories came flooding back.
“No,” he said gently holding her close, “it’s OK, really he’s fine. Shot up some, but he’ll be alright, I promise. He’s home and safe, so don’t fret.”
She finally relaxed back again and took a deep shuddering breath. “Thank God,” she whispered.
“How about you?” he asked looking concerned.
“I feel really strange,” she said, “sort of sick and dizzy, shaky too,” and her eyes closed again.
“Lou, wake up listen to me you’re feelin’ this way because infection is settin’ in from all those scratches and cuts.”
Her eyes flickered open again. “Umm… what?”
“He hurt you real bad honey, you’re covered in bruises, scratches some deep cuts all over and I need to clean you up...real good or it could become serious, real serious, you understand me?”
“I can’t let you see me,” she whimpered starting to cry again. “I feel so ashamed so embarrassed.”
“Hush honey, it’s alright there’s no need. Heck Lou iffen there was any other way, but the Doc’s over in Cheyenne, a good seven or eight hours away. You can’t wait that long, you have to have these wounds cleaned up and bandaged now, do you understand?”
She nodded, tears streaming down her face again. “Go on, do what you have to,” she finally managed.
It was a close-run thing as to who was the more exhausted and emotionally drained by the time Jess had finally completed the painful and humiliating task. He did his very best to preserve her modesty as much as he could, but the job had to be done and he did it to the best of his ability.
Once he was finished he sat back, sweating and feeling more than a little sick himself. The abrasion to her head was particularly worrying and needed stitching and Jess was concerned that she might be badly concussed. She had been displaying some of the symptoms and he knew she needed a doctor as soon as possible.
He smiled down at her, trying not to show his fear. “That’s my girl,” he said gently, “all done now. You try and get some sleep huh and we’ll be in Cheyenne before you know it.”
They set off shortly afterwards with Jamie riding his pony and looking a tad more cheerful. Greene, on the other hand, was not. He had been out cold when Jess went to check on him and had been revived by having yet more icy water chucked over him. Now he was mounted on a rather reluctant Traveller, who had shown his disapproval by stomping around some. But he finally behaved and allowed himself to be tethered behind the wagon, Greene still handcuffed and now tied down to the saddle horn.
“You try any tricks...and you’ll be doin’ me a favour,” Jess said as he finished binding Greene to the saddle. “I’m kinda lookin’ fer a good excuse to kill you right now...so I shouldn’t step out of line if I were you.”
The tall rancher said nothing, just bowed his head as Jess strode off.
He checked on Louisa one last time and was relieved to see her sleeping soundly and he finally set off for Cheyenne, just praying that he was able to make it before he did something to Greene that he would live to regret.
They paused to rest the horses and have some food in the late afternoon and Jess was just wondering if they should make camp there or forge on until it was dark when the decision was taken out of his hands.
Jamie had been sitting with his Ma and now he jumped down from the wagon and flew over to Jess crying in fear, “Jess come quick, it’s Ma she looks real funny.”
Jess told the boy to wait outside and entered the wagon to see Louisa thrashing around on her cot the fever having taken hold again.
Once he had spent an hour or so tenderly bathing her face and limbs with cooling water, she seemed a little better, but Jess knew there was no time to waste, she needed a doctor and as soon as humanly possible too. There was nothing for it but to drive through the night, if she had any chance of survival he figured, knowing how quickly the fever could take a body.
He went back out to the makeshift camp and tended both Traveller and Jamie’s pony before loosing them off, knowing both would follow the wagon at their own pace. Then he put Jamie to bed in the back of the wagon and finally made a last check on Louisa and found her resting quietly.
Once outside the wagon again he made his way to where he had tied Greene up and grabbing hold of him dragged him up and pushed him over towards the wagon. Then he tied him to the back of it and made off towards the driving seat at the front.
“Hey what’s your game?” yelled Greene, now reasonably sober, but very hung over. “Where’s my mount?”
Jess turned back and glared at the lanky rancher. “He’s walkin’ loose along with the pony, we’re travellin’ all night and I want him to make his own way. I ain’t having him rode by you and maybe losin’ his footin’. Now just shut yer filthy mouth an’ quit moanin’ or so help me I’ll leave you tied up out here for buzzard bait.”
Greene just swallowed hard but didn’t reply knowing full well that Jess wasn’t joking.
They drove on through the dusk and as night fell Jess jumped down from his seat on the wagon and started leading the horses at an even slower pace the road having deep ruts that could be treacherous in the dim moonless night.
The wind had gotten up too and Jess shivered a little as he limped onwards, his damaged knee throbbing, the deep ache shooting up his thigh, making him feel queasy. But still he strode manfully on through the gathering darkness, the only sound, the wind whispering in the surrounding trees and the horses plodding onwards. Every so often he would pause and check that Traveller and Jamie’s pony Jody were keeping up, before limping onwards as fast as he was able.
It was in the wee small hours of the morning when the storm broke and torrential rain soaked Jess and Greene within moments. The prisoner started cussing and calling for Jess to take a break and let them shelter.
Jess was round the back of the wagon in moments and grabbed Greene by his shirt front hauling him up, one fist balled ready to strike him.
“Shut the hell up,” he spat angrily, “you wake the kid up and I’ll deck you! Now quit griping or so help me you’ll be arrivin’ in Cheyenne in a box. I can find a high tree and got me plenty of rope. You’re gonna hang anyways so I could just as easy save everyone a lotta trouble. You understand that?”
Greene nodded, suddenly looking fearful. Would this volatile, edgy ex gunslinger really lynch him? He wasn’t sure and didn’t feel like finding out either.
“Huh?” Jess yelled leaning in and glaring at him.
“Yes sir. I understand,” said Greene visibly quaking.
“Uh, OK then,” said Jess more calmly turning on his heel and returning to the team.
The driving rain quickly turned the rutted road into a muddy quagmire and Jess had to lead the horses even more carefully and was pleased to see Trav and Jody had taken the higher grassy route running parallel with the road, but with none of its dangers.“Always said that good old horse of mine was real smart,” he muttered to himself as he trudged on in the filthy weather.
The first time he fell he was all but trampled by Boy, the largest of the draft team of horses. But he managed to roll away, before dragging himself up from the mud, cussing loudly. His knee protesting and he gagged with agony as the pain shot up his leg making him nearly pass out.
The horses had finally come to a standstill and stood blowing and shaking their heads as the rain still lashed down.
Jess got his second wind and finally hobbled over to them and then once more grabbing hold of Solomon’s halter lead him slowly forwards, Boy balking and then finally taking his share of the weight and forging onwards through the worsening storm.
The second time he fell, he lay prostrate in the deep mud for several seconds before he managed to rally. He finally dragged himself up and this time the team continued and he had to use all his strength to catch up with them, much to Greene’s amusement.
Now as he grabbed the halter it was the only thing keeping him upright and he cussed softly at the burning agony radiating from his knee.
Chapter 21
The first fingers of dawn were just penetrating the deep cloud cover when they finally made it into Cheyenne.
He had hitched the horses to the back of the wagon once more and Peter Greene was still roped to the wagon, looking in almost as sorry a state as Jess, soaked to the skin and bone weary after the long walk.
Now as they made their way down Main Street there was nobody abroad to witness the odd assembly making their slow way down towards the Doc’s house.
Jess pulled the horses up outside Doc Lloyd’s place and staggered over the sidewalk before hammering loudly on the front door knocker.
After a few minutes his housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, pulled the door open cautiously and peered out.
It took her a moment or two to recognise that this filthy dirty, soaking wet man was actually one Jess Harper, who in all honesty she had a real soft spot for.
“Why Mister Harper whatever is the matter my dear you look dreadful,” she said once the penny dropped and she realised who he was.
“It ain’t me Ma’am,” he said quickly, “I’ve got a lady in the wagon, been attacked and she’s in a real bad way is the doc in?”
“Why yes my dear I’ll fetch him,” and the good lady hurried off.
Doc Lloyd came to the door a moment later and registered the look of pain in his old friend’s eyes. But before he could say anything Jess grabbed hold of his arm and marched him around to the back of the wagon, “Please come quick doc. It’s Miss Slater, that was staying here a while back, she’s been hurt and real badly too.”
The two men managed to carry a semi-conscious Louisa into the Doc’s consulting room and settle her on the couch.
“She will be OK?” Jess asked anxiously as the old medic fetched his bag and cast his eyes over his patient, before shaking his head gravely.
“She’s been badly assaulted,” the doc said, “and it looks like there is some infection in these nasty lacerations...uh...that head wound,” and he sucked in a deep breath and shook his head. “It’s not looking very good son, but you leave her with me and pop back this evening I’ll be able to tell you more then.”
Jess turned to go after throwing Louisa one last compassionate glance, but the doctor stopped him.
“What about you Jess you look dreadful, is that old knee injury playing up?” he asked as he noted how unsteady Jess seemed on his feet.
“Some,” he agreed, “but I’ll be OK doc. I’ve got me some business with the Sheriff.”
“Umm, well you rest up after that young man. I’ve told you before you were lucky to get the full function back after that bullet wound and the subsequent falls from various mustangs...you just take it easy huh?”
Jess was barely listening as he had other things on his mind.
“Doc, I’ve got Louisa’s son with me, young Jamie, he’s a great kid...but real upset about his Ma...I was wondering if maybe Mrs. Hudson could look out for him? Just for today until we know if his ma will make it or….” he faltered here looking down and then continued, “or not?”
Mrs. Hudson had already gathered the boy up and had him in her kitchen warming himself by the fire and when the doc and Jess asked her to look out for him she was more than happy to oblige.
When Jess entered the kitchen, Jamie ran over to him, “Where’s Ma, is she alright Jess?”
Jess hunkered down by the boy so that he could look him in the eyes.
“You’re Ma’s pretty sick right now Jamie and she needs to rest, but Doc Lloyd here is going to look after her real good OK?”
“I guess,” said the child looking tearful.
“Now I’ve gotta go see the Sheriff, and I want you to be a real good boy for Mrs. Hudson here and I’ll be back later OK Jamie?”
“You…you will come back for me Jess?” The child said his lip quivering.
“Sure, sure I will, now you take it easy Jamie...and I’ll be back to check on ya later I promise.”
Jess gave him a big hug and then stood up touching his hat to Mrs. Hudson, “Thanks Ma’am.”
She smiled in return and took the boy off to find some milk and cookies, Jamie feeling safe with this large kindly lady and so Jess was able to take himself off with a clear conscience.
Once outside again Jess picked up Greene from where he was still tied to the wagon, looking half drowned Jess noted with pleasure and limping heavily he frogmarched the lanky rancher across the streets to the Sheriff’s office.
Jess burst in unceremoniously, pushing the still handcuffed Greene before him.
Doug shot up out of his chair almost spilling his coffee at the unprecedented intrusion so early in the day.
“What in hell? Oh, it’s you Jess,” he said recovering his composure and sinking back into his chair.
But when he glanced back at his old friend he was immediately on the alert.
It wasn’t just Jess’s muddy, drenched appearance, or the fact that he was obviously in a lot of pain, limping badly...it was the look in his eyes…naked fury.
“Jess, what’s up buddy?”
Then he transferred his gaze to the man Jess had roughly pushed through his door minutes before, looking equally unkempt and exhausted, his eyes warily darting around the Sheriff’s office.
“Who’s you’re friend then?” he ventured when Jess just stood there panting slightly, his grip on the man’s arm vice like.
“He ain’t no friend of mine,” Jess spat, “I’ve arrested him for attempted murder, assault and rape,” he said gruffly. His eyes never leaving Greene’s face as the other looked down now blushing furiously and looking exceedingly uncomfortable.
“Well, those are mighty serious accusations Jess,” said Doug, looking deeply concerned.
“You think I don’t know that?” Jess spat angrily, “and iffen its proof you’re after Doug I can give you all you damn well want...because this man, Greene, Peter Greene is gonna give you a full statement admitting to it all, ain’t you!” Jess said his expression brooking no arguments.
The other just looked down shivering slightly but nodded.
“Huh… I didn’t hear ya,” Jess growled.
“Yes…yes I’ll give a full statement!”Greene confirmed loudly, before collapsing down to his knees unable to stay upright any longer.
Then Jess looked over at Doug again, “And my pard Slim Sherman is seeing Mort Cory as soon as he can, to give a statement, he’ll be wiring it over sayin’ as how this bastard shot him.”
Doug looked shocked, “Shot you say, but he’s OK?”
Jess nodded, “He will be. More than can be said for young Louisa Slater. He worked her over real good and then he forced himself on her Doug. She’s with the doc now, but he don’t hold out much hope. So you see I figure maybe you could find some accommodation for Mister Greene here huh? Because iffen you don’t git him outta my sight real quick then I don’t think I can hold out much longer Doug.”
Doug’s expression had gone through shock, to disbelief and then finally anger as the atrocity of what Greene had done hit home.
Hell, he knew the Jess of old and the miracle was that his buddy hadn’t sent Greene off to his Maker already.
He turned stony faced to Greene and without another word hauled him up and taking his arm led him to the cells.
When he returned a few minutes later he found Jess slumped in a chair looking pale and shivering.
“You look in a bad way buddy,” he said softly.
“Had to walk through the night,” Jess said quietly, “she was real sick Doug, thought she wouldn’t make it here at one point, so I had to keep going.”
“That knee of yours playin’ up too by the looks of things,” said Doug gently. “You’re a mess buddy. How about I take ya home, get the Misses to feed you up some and then you get in the hot tub and a nice soft bed huh?”
Jess smiled wearily at his good friend, “That sounds real good to me, but your Jenny might just prefer it if I went in the hot tub before she feeds me,” he said with a tired grin.
Both men stood up and were about to leave the office in the capable hands of one of Doug’s deputies when they heard a noisy altercation coming from the cells.
“What the heck’s going on now?” Doug muttered before turning back and swinging the door between the office and cells open and entered, closely followed by Jess.
Hank Slater, who had been asleep when Greene was brought in, was ranting furiously about why his sister’s ex- lover was incarcerated.
“By God if you’ve hurt my little sister,” he fumed and then seeing Doug enter turned his attention to the Sheriff.
“What in hell is this low life doing in here Sheriff?”
Then he saw Jess standing behind Doug and his expression became even more concerned, “Harper where’s Louisa, is she alright?”
Playing for time Jess said. “Are you still here Slater I thought the Judge would have made it back by now and tried you?”
“Trials in a few of days,” the Sheriff supplied.
“Never mind about all that,” Slater interjected, “I want to know where my sister is and what this no hoper is doing banged up in your jail Sheriff. Well is someone gonna tell me huh?” He asked turning angry eyes on Doug and Jess.
Jess pulled Doug to one side and said in an undertone. “You’ve gotta tell him Doug and let him see her, the way Doc Lloyd was talking he might not get another chance.”
It was once Doug and his deputy had taken Slater off to visit his sister that Jess decided he couldn’t stay upright any longer. He limped off to the staff sleeping quarters which were basically one of the cells, albeit the accommodation had a more comfortable mattress than the regular cells. To be honest he was past caring where he laid his weary head and wasn’t even bothered that he hadn’t eaten for what seemed like days. All he wanted was the blessed peace of sleep and hopefully an end to the agony now shooting up and down his leg.
That was where Doug found him an hour or so later on his return from the doc’s place. Slater was so incensed at what Greene had done to his sister; the Sheriff had been forced to separate the two men, putting Greene down in the solitary confinement cell in the vault of the Jail house, for his own protection. Word had already gotten around the streets and Doug really feared there might be trouble from a lynch mob. He just hoped the Judge was back on schedule and would be able to try both men within the week, although he imagined the outcome would be the same. Greene would hang for his crimes anyway.
Now the sheriff stood staring silently down at his friend a look of concern on his handsome features. Jess was laying deathly still and looked pale, almost grey, his muddy, wet clothes adding to the picture of general malaise. Doug was of a mind to wake him up and get him stripped of his wet things but then he seemed to be sleeping so deeply he decided against it and merely covered him with a warm blanket and left him to rest.
When Jess finally roused himself, it was nearly supper time and it was the smell of coffee that woke him.
Doug was in the cell once more looking down anxiously at his buddy, but the look of deep concern cleared from his face once Jess awoke, yawned deeply and then peered quizzically up at his friend.
“Is that for me?”
“Sure,” said Doug passing over the steaming mug of hot coffee, “get that down you Jess and then get yourself out back to clean up. The wife’s been busy cooking up a storm and there’s a place set with your name on it buddy.”
Jess beamed up at him and accepted the drink taking a restorative sip...and then suddenly the trials and tribulations of the last few days came back to him. “Hell have ya heard how Lou’s doin’. I said I’d look in tonight and see how she is.”
Doug slumped down on the other bunk across from Jess and studied the floor for a few minutes before turning his deep brown, soulful eyes on his old friend.
“Not good Jess, not good at all, it seems like that bastard Greene may be answering a murder charge as well as everything else.”
Jess peered up at him feeling totally stunned. “Goddamn it, no Doug really? I know the doc was real worried, but he always is kinda cautious I just thought he was over reacting some.”
“Uh, looks like it could go that way. It seems that head wound was a lot worse than the doc originally thought, she’s got a real bad concussion and taken a fit or two.Doc says anymore could kill her.”
Jess just groaned and turned even paler, muttering an oath under his breath.
“How’s Slater taken it?”
“Not good, as you can imagine, but it’s that little kid, Jamie that I feel sorry for. He just doesn’t know what’s happening and that’s a fact.”
Jess shook his head and then putting his half empty cup down he dragged himself up from the bunk and made for the door.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” asked Doug looking perplexed.
Jess half turned, “Gonna wash up like you said. Then go fetch the boy, he needs someone he knows and trusts right now and I guess that’s down to me.”
Eventually Jess was persuaded to go to Doug’s home as planned but Jamie was made welcome there too, much to Jess’s relief.
The youngster took an instant liking to Jenny with her kind calm manner and also the Master’s two young sons. Once the meal was over he went off happily enough with her to bed down in a spare room, accompanied by much banter and laughter from the two older boys.
When she returned sometime later she beamed at Jess, “He’s fast asleep, poor little mite, he’s certainly been through it lately if what Doug tells me is true.”
“It’s true alright,” said Jess bitterly, and then remembering his manners said, “Thank you Jenny, for all you’ve done for the boy, me too that was a real swell meal.”
“You’re welcome,” she said exchanging a smile with her husband, “after all you are one of Doug’s closest friends.”
Jess just looked over at his buddy and smiled.
“What are we going to do about you?” she continued.
“Come on Jess, don’t play the innocent with me, you’re in real pain from that knee injury aren’t you. You can hardly walk.” Jenny insisted.
“I’m OK,” he said quickly dipping his head.
“Tell the truth and that’s why you haven’t booked into Peggy Johnson’s place yet too, isn’t it? You know that’s she’ll fuss and fret until you see the doc.”
Jess had to smile at that notion, “You know me too well Jenny.”
Then turning to his buddy said playfully, “Ain’t you got any control over your woman Doug?”
“Nope, I ain’t, not when she’s on a mission looking out for folk. She just won’t quit until you’ve seen the doc Jess, so I should just give in gracefully,” he said with a chuckle, punching his buddy gently on the arm.
The following morning Jess knew he had to admit defeat when he arose from Doug and Jenny’s couch to find he could barely walk.
Jenny gave him a purposeful look over breakfast, “You are going to the doc’s today then Jess?”
He sighed deeply and exchanged a pained look with Doug before reluctantly agreeing.
“I reckon so, I need to book us into Peggy’s place, see if she’ll mind the boy and then I’ll go over yeah. I need to check on Lou anyway,” he said softly.
“Please stay here,” Jenny said quickly, “we’d love to have you wouldn’t we Doug?”
The Sheriff grinned and nodded in agreement.
“And dear little Jamie is having such fun with our two, I think they’re taking his mind of things,” she continued.
From the bumps and bangs and muffled laughter ensuing from above Jess saw that she was probably right.
After assuring himself that the boy was indeed happily settled with the Masters he finally made his way painfully across the street to Doc Lloyds place.
Mrs. Hudson showed him in, her old face creased into worry as she saw how badly the young cowboy was walking and she bustled off to fetch the doctor at once.
But not before Jess had called her back. “Lou? Miss Slater that is... how is she Mrs. Hudson?”
“Not well I’m afraid my dear…not well at all,” and she turned to fetch the doc.
The elderly doctor straightened up from where he’d been examining Jess’s knee and tutted before casting him an anxious glance.
“Well you’ve really gone and done it this time son,” he said quietly. “You say you took a tumble from the step ladder and twisted it some and then instead of resting it real good for a few weeks you decided to walk through the night on it and you thought that was sensible?” he asked adjusting his eyeglasses the more to glare at Jess.
“Look you know dang well I had to do that doc. You saw the state of Louisa. She was in real need of your services.”
“Uh, I know boy, and I shouldn’t be so hard on you. But you see Jess I know you of old and iffen I don’t lay it on the line well then you’ll just ignore my advice and go your own sweet way as per usual.”
Jess sighed deeply, “Which is?”
“Your advice doc...”
“Yes I see...well bottom line is you stay off this leg and I mean in a chair, leg up for at least two weeks or……”and he shook his head and tutted again.
Jess looked up, his eyes opening wide in alarm, “Or what doc?”
“Or there is a very real chance that the joint will lock and that your career with horses will be over and I mean over Jess. You won’t be able to sit a horse much less break those darned mustangs you seem so keen on.”
Jess sucked in a shocked breath, “No kiddin’ fer real doc?”
“Oh, I’ve never been less in the mood for kidding young man. I can almost categorically say you listen up and behave or you can say goodbye to working with the horses for good and all. Do I make myself clear?”
“Chrystal,” Jess whispered.
“And what’s more I figure you need to stay here in my hospital bed you’ll need daily treatment if you want a favourable outcome.”
“I can’t stay,” Jess said looking troubled, “I need to look out for young Jamie.”
“Nice try Jess, but you and I both know the youngster is in the excellent hands of Doug and Jenny Masters and their brood, so no harm will come to him. It’s his poor Ma that is in need of ‘looking out for’ as you put it.”
Jess turned to the Doc, a shadow of pain flitting across his handsome features. “Mrs. Hudson said she was bad. You don’t think she’s gonna make it do you Doc?”
“Well…I can’t really discuss another patient, you know that Jess.”
“Come on Doc. I know how bad she was when I brought her in, that’s why I walked all night to get her here iffen you remember. Just tell me huh, is she gonna make it...or not?”
The doctor just shook his head sadly. “It doesn’t look like it no.”
“You’ve given up on her then?” Jess said angrily.
“It’s not a case of that, the poor woman has been badly traumatised, beaten to within an inch of her life and she’s lost the will to fight back. Without that then, no my boy she just won’t make it.”
Jess sighed deeply and then looking the doctor in the eye said, “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll do what you want, rest this dang leg even put up with this treatment you’re talkin’ of on one condition.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re in any position to go laying down the law son.”
“Please hear me out Doc...all I want is to spend my time here with Lou…please.”
“Well I don’t know, that’s quite irregular you know.”
“Look Doc, you may have given up on her but I ain’t quitting. Just give me a chance… what harm can it do huh?”
Chapter 22
Jess peered down into Louisa’s pale delicate face, the bruising now fading, but the memories not so much Jess surmised.
He had spent the last twenty-four hours keeping a vigil at her bedside and had even persuaded the good doctor to allow him to bunk down on a cot in the corner of the room. So far however he’d had no chance to talk to her as she seemed to sleep her time away. On the one occasion she had woken, her eyes had opened wide in fear until she recognised him, sitting so still in the dimly lit room.
“It’s OK sweetheart,” he had said quickly, “you’re safe. He’s in the cells and can’t hurt you no more I promise.”
She just peered up into his concerned eyes. “Jess?” she whispered, before falling asleep again, her hand clasped gently in his.
That night she took another fit and the doc looked distracted. He was too concerned with his patient even to ask Jess to leave the room as he looked helplessly down at the young woman who was slowly slipping away from him.
It was the following morning before she finally came around her eyes glancing around the room in a dazed fashion, before finally resting on Jess, dozing in a chair pulled up beside her bed.
She studied his pale drawn face and stubble of beard and wondered vaguely why he looked so rough, was he ill? Then she had a fuzzy memory of him carrying her to the wagon. Then at their arrival at the Doctor’s house in Cheyenne, remembered a muffled conversation between the doctor and his kindly housekeeper. “Mister Harper needs attention doctor; I believe he has a severe knee injury.” And the deep baritone reply from Doc Lloyd, “Well it’s hardly surprising Mrs. Hudson, the boy has walked miles through the night in that dreadful storm to bring the patient in, it’s no wonder he’s in such a bad way.”
Now as Louisa continued to observe him he finally groaned and opened his eyes, one hand automatically going down to massage his painful knee as he focused on her, giving her a friendly smile when he realised she was awake at last.
“Mornin’ sleepyhead, how are ya feeling?”
She ignored the question and said softly, “Never mind me, how’s your knee? You look like you’re in real pain Jess?”
He grimaced and then gave a little chuckle, “It’ll be just fine the doc’s making sure of that. How about you huh?” he asked again, taking her hand and looking deeply into her concerned eyes.
She blinked then, and he saw the tears welling up, before she grasped his hand and said huskily, “I’m done for aren’t I Jess. I’m not going to live am I?”
His expressive eyebrows shot up, “Heck what makes you say that sweetheart?”
“The doctor I heard him telling you after I’d taken that fit. He thought I was out of it, but I heard him, heard everything Jess,” she said straining to sit up and then falling weakly back on the pillows.
“Hey, take it easy,” he admonished, settling her back down and pulling the covers over.
He sighed deeply and then fixed her with his no nonsense look that she remembered so well from their early days together.
“Now you listen up. What did I say to the doc, after he’d said he didn’t think you’d make it? That you wouldn’t last did ya hear that too?” he asked.
She gave him a weak grin then. “Oh yes, you said, ’not on my watch she ain’t!’ she replied in a good imitation of Jess gruff tones.
He returned the grin and took her other hand holding it tenderly, “And I dang well meant it,” he said softly. “I ain’t gonna let anything happen to you while I’m around, so you’d better just get used to the idea and stop feelin’ sorry fer yourself and start getting well OK?”
The tears that had been threatening for the last few minutes finally spilled over at this ‘tough love’ and coursed down her pale cheeks. “I want to really I do,” she whispered, “But I don’t think I can.”
“Look, sure ya can,” he insisted, “you’ve just gotta have a dream and something to live for and I’d have thought young Jamie were a pretty good place to start huh?” He asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“How is he?” she finally managed.
“He’s just fine, missing his Ma something fierce. But he’s gettin’ on real good with the Sheriff’s boys and he’s handling it all real well, you should be proud of him Lou.”
“I am it’s just that I couldn’t even bear to think of him. I knew he was safe and well Mrs. Hudson told me. But the thought of losing him, leaving him an orphan...” and she dissolved into noisy sobs.
Jess just held her hand until the weeping finally ceased before he continued.
“Well he ain’t gonna be an orphan because I ain’t gonna let anything happen to you. So come on Lou, what’s your dream, what do you want to live for, apart from seeing young Jamie again huh?”
She thought long and hard, before fixing him with a wistful gaze, “You,” she whispered, “for us to get back together again and go west, start a new life in California like I’d planned to do.”
Jess sucked in a deep breath, wondering why he hadn’t seen this coming. As it was he was completely shocked and startled by the idea and the look must have been clearly visible on his handsome features, as a moment later Louisa squeezed his hand.
“It’s alright Jess, I understand you are committed to Millie and there is no place for me in your life now and it was unkind and unfair of me to ask that, especially after all you’ve done for me and Jamie.”
When he didn’t reply, but just looked down, his awkwardness obvious, she continued, “I overheard the doc telling his housekeeper that you were so sick with that knee because you walked for miles to bring me here. You saved my life then Jess and I can’t ever thank you enough.”
“Sure you can,” he said softly, “by getting well and taking off on this adventure out west huh?”
She nodded, “If only...”
“What?” he asked patiently, just praying she wouldn’t beg him to go with her again.
She just shook her head... “No I can’t ask you it’s too much to expect.”
“Go on,” he said warily, wondering where all this would end.
“I was wondering if you could,” she sighed deeply before forging onwards, “if you could speak up for my brother. If I had Hank by my side I think I could find the strength to move on and it would help Jamie so much to have his Uncle with us too...”
Then she looked over at where Jess had an unfathomable expression in his deep blue eyes.
“No, I’m sorry it was too much to ask after all he did to you,” she finished sadly.
Jess remembered back to just a few short months ago when Hank had persecuted him after his return from visiting Louisa, furnished with the knowledge that she had an illegitimate child. He had virtually turned half of Laramie against Jess, by his lies. Not to mention spiking his drinks and the terrible consequences that had for the young cowboy. Then to how he had faked his own death, falsely incriminating Jess and leaving him to be hung for a crime he hadn’t committed.
Jess’ mind was in turmoil...how could he forgive all that far reaching, vicious vendetta. Then his thoughts turned to his sister Francie. Would he maybe have acted in a similar manner in the same circumstances? He wondered….
“Jess, please tell me what you’re thinking?” Louisa broke into his reverie and he knew she needed an answer.
He opened his mouth to deny her. To say yeah, sure it was too damn much to expect. But then he had a vision of the doc’s concerned face as he checked over his patient the night before.
“One more attack like this and I really don’t think her heart will stand it. I’m afraid it’s going to take a miracle,” and he had turned sadly away.
What if Jess held that miracle in his power now? All he had to do was say yes, go see Doug before the trial and drop all charges. It was so easy. Then maybe, just maybe Louisa would have something to live for and her damaged mind and body would begin to heal.
His head came up and he opened his mouth again.
“I...I guess I can do that Lou,” he finally managed.

It was two days later before Jess finally persuaded Doc Lloyd to let him walk across to the Sheriff’s office and as he entered Doug jumped up from his seat in an instant, his hand hovering over his gun, before he saw who it was and relaxed back in his chair.
“Hey you’re a bit twitchy ain’t ya Doug?” Jess said giving his old friend a broad grin. “Kinda strung out huh? You ain’t been off tippin’ the jug without me have you, upsetting that lovely wife of yours into the bargain?”
“No, I haven’t been tipping the jug as you so poetically put it Jess,” he replied somewhat acerbically. “If you must know I’ve trouble from some of the town’s folk thinking they can take the law into their own hands and string up that no hoper Greene, before the judge has even clapped eyes on him.”
“Uh, well I’ve kinda got some sympathy with them,” Jess said casting his old friend a cheeky smile. “Anyways it’s a foregone conclusion ain’t it. He’ll hang won’t he?
“Oh yes no danger of that,” Doug assured him. I’ve been doing some checking on him. Apparently he’s wanted for murder down in Texas. Pulled the same stunt with another poor hapless woman, but she died. So he’ll definitely swing Jess. Once I confronted him he confessed to it all…then asked to see the Padre, to make his peace I suppose.”
Jess just grunted, but made no comment.
“As to your friend Hank Slater he should get a good long sentence for what he did to you too. Not to mention wasting the Law’s time and upsetting old Doc Lloyd and the undertaker. Yup we can safely say you won’t be bothered by Slater again Jess, not for a good few years anyway.”
“Yeah, well that’s what I came to talk to you about Doug. You see I want you to drop the charges, I want him to go free.” said Jess settling himself down on the edge of the Sheriff’s desk, taking the weight off his bad leg.
Doug nearly fell out of his chair.
“You want what! Am I hearin’ you right Jess? Gee I knew you were kinda sick but I thought it was your dang knee not your mind...what in hell are you talking about huh?”
It was a good half hour before Jess could convince him that no, he wasn’t plain crazy and yes, he really did mean for the guy to walk free and yes, he would square it with the doc and the undertaker.
“Well I suppose you know what you’re doing Jess. And if it’s true what you’re saying, that this could really turn Louisa around, help her recover? Well then, I can forget the time-wasting charge and sort it with the Judge for you too. Just as long as he really does go to California and I don’t clap eyes on the guy again...ever!”
“You can be sure of that,” Jess said with feeling, now deathly serious, “he’ll go alright and do right by Lou and the boy too. Or he’ll have me to answer to,” and with that he limped off to sound out the undertaker and Doc Lloyd.
It was the following day and the day before the judge was due into town to preside over the trial of one Peter Greene, for the attempted murder and rape of Louisa Slater. Also, to read the riot act to Hank Slater and doubtless let him off with a caution after Jess’s plea for leniency.
It had been Doug Masters who had first broken the news to Slater as Jess was once more ‘under house arrest’, as he termed it over the street, still receiving treatment and rest at Doc Lloyd’s office.
Hank Slater couldn’t believe his ears when he heard the good news of his reprieve thanks to Jess speaking up for him and looked dang near to breaking down as Doug told Jess later. Doug also explained exactly why Jess was prepared to drop the charges, feeling that it would aid Louisa’s recovery.
Hank had been heartbroken at the idea of losing his only sister. His nephew being effectively left an orphan with his natural Pa hung. His Ma dead and only surviving relative banged up in jail for the foreseeable. Now thanks to Jess Harper it seemed that his sister had been given something to live for and by all accounts was rallying well, and Hank himself was to be given his freedom.
Slater had never had such a mixture of emotion. Relief, deep remorse for what he had done to Jess and an overwhelming feeling of penitence, desperately wanting to make up for the way he had treated the young cowboy. How could he have got the man so wrong and he was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of the way he’d acted.
Meanwhile Jess too was on the mend and able to attend the trial, once Judge Knowles finally arrived in town. Jess had come across the young Judge, from back East, once before when he and Slim had needed to answer accusations made by a temporary housekeeper,* See #48 The New Housekeepers. After Jess’s initial feeling, that the young man was rather pompous and inexperienced, he had actually found him to be very fair and meticulous in his dealings with both accused and accusers alike and Jess knew both Greene and Slater would get fair trials.
Knowles had been introduced to Jess at the Sheriff’s office prior to the trial and the Judge had grinned at Jess.
“No need for introductions Sheriff, Mister Harper and I are old sparring partners are we not?” He said with a wink.
Jess acknowledged the banter and said, “It sure is good to see you Judge Knowles, I’ve gotten something we need to discuss before the hearing.”
As it was the Judge took Jess’s plea for lenience to heart where Slater was concerned and agreed to let him off with a conditional discharge when he heard of poor Louisa’s dilemma.
The trial of one Peter Greene for attempted murder, violent attack on a female rape and the previous murder charge were again dealt with efficiently. After listening to the Judge summing up the jury had no hesitance in confirming the man guilty as charged and he was sentenced to hang at the end of the week.
After the trial Slater came and found Jess and offered his hand.
“I really don’t know how to say it Harper but thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m just so dang sorry for everything I put you through,” He said looking deeply embarrassed.
Jess finally shook the offered hand but cast the other a dark look.
“This don’t mean I’ve forgiven you for everything you did. Or forgotten it either, but I can be civilised about it for Lou’s sake.”
Slater just nodded, “I don’t deserve any more than that, Jess and thank you. It’s just so amazing the way Louisa has fought back, thanks to you, the doc says she’s almost well again, thank God.” Then the older man swayed a little and looked as though he might collapse.
“You OK?” asked Jess, suddenly feeling a tad sorry for him.
“I’ll be fine, just had me a real bad belly ache last few days all the worry I guess.”
“Umm, well I sure hope you’re gonna be well enough to travel before Friday,” said Jess, “because the doc’s agreed to sign off Louisa as long as she takes it real easy. But I’ll tell ya Slater we’re leavin’ before the hangin’ she don’t deserve to be caught up in all that, the boy neither...so I’ll be drivin’ them out Thursday at the latest.”
And so it was they made their way slowly out of town, early on the Thursday morning, passing the gallows that were dominating Main Street. Jess and Hank Slater were up on the wagon seat. Jess driving and Louisa made comfortable on a bed inside the wagon along with young Jamie for company.
Jess had tried to shield the boy as much as he could from Peter Greene’s grizzly fate because even if the child was slightly afraid of his ‘Uncle Peter’, particularly after the vicious attack on Louisa, he was none the less a huge part the child’s past. Jess knew the youngster would be very distressed if he knew what was to befall Greene.
Jess had managed to sidestep the question of what would happen to ‘Uncle Peter’ for hurting Jamie’s Ma, knowing that he was only a kid and really didn’t want to be made aware of the public hanging to take place shortly. That’s why he had hustled him quickly into the back of the wagon, in the hope that he wouldn’t see the scaffold, urging the child to look out for his Ma. Then he had slapped the reins and ushered the two heavy horses out of town as quickly as he could.
The night before Jess had enjoyed a last drink in the saloon with Sheriff Masters. Both men had imbibed rather heavily and were now paying the price, Jess observed ruefully, as he noted a rather pale looking Doug sitting on the bench outside his office. Jess drove out of town giving his buddy a final wave as he passed by and then he cast his mind back to the previous evening….
“Are you alright with this then Jess, driving Slater and the others back to Laramie?” Doug had asked throwing his buddy a quizzical glance.
“Ain’t got a lot of choice,” said Jess succinctly, “I need to get Lou and the boy out of town before the hanging, they really don’t want to see that. And as for Slater he’s pretty sick according to the doc. He’s got a real bad belly, could be an ulcer or somethin’. Any road he didn’t feel up to handling the team of heavy horses so it’s down to me…as far as Laramie anyway. They’re on their own after that Doug I need to git home, what with Slim hurt and all.”
“Sure you do,” said Doug softly, “and it beats me as to how you’ve found it in your heart to forgive that bastard after all he did to you Jess.”
“Oh, I ain’t forgiven him,” Jess said his eyes flashing darkly with anger, “I’m just puttin’ up with him fer Lou’s sake. But make no mistake Doug he ain’t forgiven for all he put me through. Not to mention how upsettin’ it was for the folks back at the ranch when I had to go on the run that way.”
“Me too,” said Doug quietly, “can’t say it was the best day of my life when you drew on me and lit off with my horse, that was all down to that bastard Slater too.”
Jess looked down and flushed slightly before shaking his head and looking his friend in the eye. “I am real sorry about that Doug you know how it was though?”
“Sure I do Jess...and don’t worry I forgave you for that a while back,” he said giving his friend a light punch on the arm, “but I guess you could buy the last drink, just to show you’re real sorry huh?”
Jess had chuckled at that and shaking his head wandered over to the bar to buy the drinks.
Chapter 23
The going was real slow, although the storm clouds had cleared and they were enjoying the usual scorching summer weather, so the road was much more passable.
Hank had made a couple of abortive attempts at light conversation, but Jess had remained stony faced and taciturn, so the older man had lapsed into silence as they made their way mind numbingly slowly along the Cheyenne to Laramie road.
The moody silence between the two men might have lasted for the entire journey if it hadn’t been for what happened next.
One minute they were driving slowly along and the next there was the blood curdling sound of an Indian war party in full cry.
Jess’s head shot up as he saw a small band of about half a dozen braves painted up and looking real dangerous.
“What in hell!” he cussed as the braves galloped towards them, shooting flaming arrows as they came.
“Goddamn it they’re tryin’ to burn us out!” yelled Jess, “Here take the lines Hank,” he said thrusting the reins in the older man’s grip, before making a grab for his rifle and opening fire.
It was obvious that the lumbering heavy horses pulling the full load wouldn’t stand a chance of out running the renegades and Jess half turned to Slater and yelled, “Pull ‘em up by the rock face yonder,” tipping his hat to where the road opened out, the left side being flanked by a high rock face.
By this time there were a couple of burning arrows embedded in the canvas cover of the wagon and it was quickly alight.
As soon as the wagon drew to a standstill Jess threw his rifle to Hank and yelled, “Take cover and hold ‘em off,” before he turned and entered the now blazing wagon and found Jamie and Louisa screaming in terror. The child already having loosed off his pets the moment the wagon had stopped and they had made their escape.
He quickly grabbed hold of the child and carrying him roughly under his arm dragged Louisa up from where she was still huddled on her cot and forcefully dragged her out of the back of the wagon and away to the lee of the rock face some yards behind them. They crouched down behind some bushes and watched in horror as the whole of the wagon cover was now ablaze.
“Stay down back here, don’t move,” Jess shouted at them before joining Slater who was still taking pot shots at the now retreating Indians.
Jess fired off a couple of rounds, catching one of the withdrawing Indians in the arm...before they disappeared over the ridge.
Hank turned surprised eyes on Jess, “Why have they high tailed it?”
“I figure they think we’re pretty much done for, lookin’ at the state of the wagon,” he replied nodding over to the remains of the now smouldering canvas, “They just wanted to slow us up some not kill us. This is young White Crow’s idea of fun and games. Well he’s dang well overstepped the mark this time,” he snarled.
It was some time before they managed to douse the remaining flames and review the damage. Louisa and Jamie having emerged from their hiding place, viewing the devastation before them.
By some quirk of fate although the top of the wagon was burnt beyond repair, most of the contents were salvageable, due to being carefully packed much of it in tin chests.
Once Jess was sure that the conflagration was completely out and Lou and Jamie had suffered nothing more than a nasty scare he whistled up Traveller. He had cut him loose when he rescued Louisa and the boy from the wagon and he was now grazing quietly some distance away along with Jamie’s pony.
Hank Slater was just about to thank Jess profusely for saving his sister and nephew when he saw he was preparing to ride out.
“Where are you going?” asked Hank looking perplexed. Surely their hero, as he was now beginning to think of Jess, wasn’t riding out and abandoning them?
“Where do ya think,” spat Jess, “I ain’t gonna let that bastard White Crow get away with this.”
“You know him?” cried Louisa looking more than a little shocked.
“Sure I do and his Pa Chief Yellow Wolf and I’ll tell ya something. If you’re thinking what I’m gonna do to White Crow is bad just you wait until his Pa hears about this!”
Then he turned to Hank.
“Make camp here Slater, I’ll be back before sundown,” and with that he spurred Traveller off to a spirited gallop.
He found the recalcitrant group of young renegades all semi-comatose, lounging around a brightly burning camp fire a few miles down the trail. They had obviously been high on some form of spirit, moonshine Jess surmised, and were now suffering the after effects.
White Crow raised bleary blood shot eyes upon Jess as he rode in but was far too slow to act as Jess threw himself from his mount and advanced on the young brave, his fists balled and murder in his eyes.
“Why you miserable excuse for a human being,” and then he cussed long and loud really laying into the young brave verbally, before dragging him up and throwing a well-aimed punch that sent the youngster flying backwards.
The other young Indians were also in an advanced state of inebriation and were hardly even able to stand, much less fight and Jess was feeling frustrated that he couldn’t dissipate his anger on them in a good old free for all fist fight.
White Crow had just got shakily to his feet and was wading in manfully, but about to receive more of the same from Jess when both men heard the sound of hoof beats advancing quickly. Just moments later Chief Yellow Wolf, flanked by two of the elders of the tribe advanced upon them their faces dark with wrath.
Jess stood back from where he had been just about to lay another haymaker on Yellow Wolf’s number one son and straightened up, turning angry eyes on the old man.
Yellow Wolf reined in his skittish paint and raised a hand in welcome and peace and Jess tipped his hat back and squinted up into the familiar eyes of the older man, returning the gesture of peace.
“Greetings Blue Eyed Warrior,” he said formally, addressing Jess by the name he had been given many years ago by Yellow Wolf and the tribe. The white man was held in great respect by the chief and all Shoshone people, for his prowess as both a fighter and horse whisperer.
“Greetings Yellow Wolf, come to sort out this boy of yours I hope because he dang well needs it!” Jess said angrily.
The old Indian sighed and looked deeply saddened and embarrassed, then gestured to where there was still the slight dark stain of smoke in the deep blue sky from the wagon fire.
“We saw smoke, rode this way and have seen your friends and the destruction to the wagon. The boy will be severely punished I promise you,” he said turning to cast his son a look of utter disgust.
Then he said something to the boy in his own language and the young man threw him a look of askance.
The old chief spoke again more harshly this time and young White Crow walked reluctantly over to his pony and after a second turned and led him back to Jess handing him the reins.
“Huh?” asked Jess looking from Yellow Wolf to his son and back.
“The pony, my son has had him from a foal, he is his most prized possession, he wishes for you to have him, to try and make amends for what he has done.”
Jess very much doubted that but knew this was part of the punishment the chief had chosen for his wayward son. He also knew to refuse the gift would be an insult to the old man. After a moment he nodded his thanks.
Then Yellow Wolf removed a small leather pouch from his belt and threw it over to Jess. “This is for your friends, to pay for the wagon.”
Jess looked inside the purse at the gold and shook his head, “This is way too much.”
The old man just dismissed the comment with an impatient wave of his hand and again Jess just thanked him, knowing it was unwise to offend the old man by refusing his gifts.
“Please I am feeling badly,” the old man sighed again, looking very much his age, Jess thought with a stab of sympathy.
“Hey Yellow Wolf, none of this is your fault. The problem is the grog. These kids have all been drinkin’ and the red man can’t take it, turns ‘em kinda loco... these young bucks anyways.”
The old man nodded sagely, “You speak the truth. They have bought firewater from the mountain dwellers and it has turned their heads. White Crow will not partake of the white man’s poison again. Or he will forfeit the right to be called my son,” he said fiercely.
“Well hopefully that’ll make him see sense,” Jess agreed, “and maybe I’ll have a word with old Denver and his boys tell ‘em not to sell anymore liquor to your young men OK?”
“Thank you, Blue Eyed Warrior, we leave in peace?”
Jess nodded, “Sure I reckon so,” and leaning up to where the chief still sat his horse shook hands.
“Thank you,” the Chief said, still looking deeply ashamed and turning he called to the shambling group of still slightly drunk braves to “come pronto” and they finally rode away, White Crow riding double and the picture of remorse.
Jess turned to look at the paint pony with the brightly coloured blanket and feathers in his bridle and smiled ironically. Just what we dang well need at the ranch another darned horse he thought and shaking his head he led the animal off back towards the camp site where the Slaters were waiting on him.
When he rode back into the camp sometime later he was surprised to see how calm Louisa seemed as she sat by the camp fire sipping a coffee.
The Slaters all jumped up as Jess rode into the camp, Louisa and the boy obviously relieved to see him all in one piece and looking kind of pleased with himself too.
“Gee Jess that’s a swell pony,” young Jamie enthused.
“Thank goodness you’re alright,” Louisa said running towards him and taking his arm as he dismounted, casting her a cheeky grin.
However, Hank Slater looked less animated, “What happened Harper? You caught up with them I see. What are they going to do about this mess?” he continued tipping his hat towards the still slightly smoking wagon.
Without missing a beat Jess removed the money pouch from his vest pocket and threw it across to Slater. “That should compensate you and then some.”
Hank Slater opened the pouch and gave a low whistle, “And the pony?” he asked squinting up at Jess.
“For me, an apology from Chief Yellow Wolf and a promise it won’t happen again. It seems young White Crow and his buddies got kinda fired up on ol’ Denver James’s Moonshine and decided to wind up a few palefaces for fun. Anyway, the Chief is on his case now so that’s an end to it.”
“Really?” asked Slater sarcastically.
“Said so didn’t I,” Jess spat throwing him a dark look, “the Chief gave me his word on it.”
“OK, OK,” said Slater raising his hands in submission.
Jess gave him another quelling glance before turning back to Louisa, “Any more coffee in that pot then?” he asked winking at her.
They decided to stay put for the rest of the day to make sure the wagon was still roadworthy and to rest the team after their fright too.
Hank Slater and Jess worked on the wagon in comparative cordiality for the rest of the day. Hank was still trying to make amends for his previous despicable behaviour towards Jess and the young cowboy merely trying to be affable for Louisa’s sake.
The outcome was that they all enjoyed supper later and once young Jamie had been put to bed sat on sipping coffee by the camp fire amicably enough.
After a while Hank cast a glance at his sister and she gave him a slight nod before he turned to Jess.
“Uh…Louisa and I had a long talk when you were off chasing those dirty no good redskins,” Hank said.
Jess swallowed back the retort that Chief Yellow Wolf was actually a trusted and respected friend but in the interest of their fragile goodwill merely turned enquiring eyes on the big man, “Oh?”
“Yeah, you see we’ve decided not to go to California after all. But return home to the ranch. It seems the sale fell through and Charlie Dyke has been keeping the place ticking over for me, just waiting on instructions. Now what with the way everything has turned out we can go back again and hold our heads up. That no hoper Peter Greene is dead and we can pass off Louisa as a widow.
“Really,” asked Jess, now it being his turn to sound sarcastic. “So you want me to lie as well do ya?”
Slater just shrugged, “I kinda thought you’d want to protect Louisa’s reputation, especially with the boy being the image of you. You wouldn’t want tongues wagging now would you Harper…huh?”
Jess looked furious but didn’t raise to the bait.
Louisa walked over to Jess who had gotten up and wandered off a ways and now stood regarding the view across the prairie.
“It’s you that we are concerned about,” she said softly, putting a gentle hand out to caress his chest before withdrawing it and looking up into his stony gaze as he turned to look at her.
“How do you feel about us staying Jess will it, well will me living so close to the ranch come between you and Millie?”
His eyebrows shot up and he shook his head in surprise, then replied quietly, “Nuthin’ could come between me and Millie...especially not you Lou, so don’t go worryin’ on that account.”
“I see,” she said and slid him a guarded look before she turned away and returned to her place by the fire looking sadly into the flames, knowing that this was definitely the end of all her hopes and dreams for her and Jess.
“Well that appears to be all settled then,” said Hank heartily and raising his coffee cup grinned at Jess. “Here is to good neighbours and Jess, I really intend to be one this time I promise you.”
“Yeah,” said Jess softly as he returned to the fire and raised his wary eyes to Hank and Louisa, “well let’s just hope so. There’s something else too Slater, you’re gonna have to make it right with Sheriff Masters, he was thinking you were heading to California, I reckon he won’t be any too impressed when he hears you’ve changed yer minds.”
“So if I do that, you’ll be OK with it, bury the hatchet huh Jess?”
Jess shrugged, “I guess I can try, yeah.”

Hank Slater had duly sounded out the Sheriff and he agreed if Jess was able to live with that then so could he. With the stipulation that anymore trouble from Slater would be dealt with swiftly and harshly, with no second chances.
They had all been home for a while and the Slaters had settled well into their old home much to the delight of Ma Pritchard the elderly housekeeper at the Slater place. She had welcomed Louisa home like she was her own daughter and young Jamie a long-lost grandson and they were soon happily settled in. Jamie especially being cock- a- hoop at living in close proximity to Jess and especially Mike, who he had gotten on so well with during his brief stay at the Sherman spread.
Back at the ranch Slim breezed into the kitchen where Jess was lounging at the table a coffee cup at his elbow.
“You’re early pard, get everything? I wasn’t expectin’ you back for awhile,” Jess said.
“Uh, it looks like it,” Slim said hiding a smile, “so have you done anything but drink coffee since I went to town for the supplies?”
“Sure I have,” came the indignant reply, “been hangin’ out the washin’ if you must know, with Miss Daisy off helpin’ deliver Ma Pattison’s latest she left me in charge of the laundry.”
“Is that so,” asked Slim, now grinning at his buddy, “I don’t suppose you’ll have any time for a second coffee and to take a look at the Sentinel then?” he asked proffering a copy of the Laramie local newspaper.
“You know I never read that rag. The editor’s a charlatan and cheat, writes nuthin’ but lies,” he said, none the less making a grab at the paper before offering Slim the coffee pot and refilling his own cup.
“What’s so interesting anyways?” asked Jess shaking the paper out and perusing the front page.
“Can’t miss it Jess right there in the headline,” ‘Town Worthy Sets Record Straight Once and For All’”
“Just read it Jess.”
Mister Hank Slater well-known town councillor and local businessman who has recently returned to his ranch in Laramie has rescinded all his previously contentious comments regarding neighbour Jess Harper. Mister Harper, partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, who frequently acts as Town Deputy for Sheriff Cory was disparaged and criticized by Mister Slater on many previous occasions. Now Mister Slater wishes to put matters right. He wholeheartedly and completely rescinds all comments regarding Mister Harper’s alleged heavy drinking, womanizing and underhand business ventures. Indeed, Mister Slater was adamant that Mister Harper is an upright and highly respected citizen and he thoroughly regrets the fact that he might have lead others to believe otherwise.
The article went on in the same vein for several more paragraphs and eventually Jess threw the paper down and gave his buddy a deadpan look.
“What’s up Jess, he’s cleared your name I thought you’d be pleased.”
Jess just shook his head, “So this is supposed to make everything alright is it? All the pain and trouble we suffered. Not just me Slim, you, Daisy and the boy when I was forced to go on the run. Words are cheap, ya know.”
“Yeah, I hear you Jess but I figure he’s done all he can to make amends.”
Jess just sighed looking down at the paper again. “Yeah, maybe you’re right Slim and I suppose I can try and forgive him in time...it’s not just that, it’s all the other folk.”
“The folk that believed him Slim. Ones I thought were my friends and they turned against me that’s what really hurts.”
“But most folk stood by you, you know that Jess.”
He just shrugged, “That’s as may be but I won’t forget it Slim. Somethings you just can’t forgive and forget.”
It was several months later before matters were finally resolved.
Jess had been deputizing for Mort yet again although he took some persuading to take on the role after what he perceived to be a betrayal by some of the town’s folk.
However Slim was busy with Relay business, having meetings scheduled in Cheyenne and the Jackson brothers said they were more than happy to cover the Relay. Also, Lon, Mort’s deputy, was sick and so Jess knew it would look kinda churlish if he didn’t help Mort out.
As it happened that was to be a real doozy of a weekend when the Travers Gang decided to hit town.
Now as things went the Travers weren’t the worst of gangs. They were just large rowdy boys who had the occasional need to shoot up a town, but thankfully not too often. Even so their presence was dreaded by every lawman in Wyoming, Mort Cory included.
“Look Jess, I’ll understand iffen you don’t wanna help me out, what with that ol’ Travers gang on the stampede right now. But I’ve just gotta get Jarvis over to Denver for his trial and Lon bein’ sick an’ all, ” and he came to a halt, looking hopefully at his buddy.
“OK Mort you win, just shut the hell up before you have me in tears,” Jess joshed.
It was midway through the Saturday afternoon when they struck.
Firing off their guns at any target they fancied from the barber’s shop window to the Livery sign expecting no come back.
That was until Jess strode out into the middle of the street looking madder than all get out, toting his rifle, a murderous look in his eyes.
“Git yer sorry ass over here Thad,” he said addressing the leader of the Travers gang.
“Why Jess, it’s good ta see ya,” he said giving a little mock salute.
Then peering down from the height of his mount said sarcastically, “Why Jess boy, tell me you ain’t wearin’ a badge!”
“Wearing it and upholding it Thad, so you just get yer gang together and head on out because there ain’t gonna be any fun here for you today. Or any other day whilst I’m the law around here if you git my drift?”
Thaddeus Travers looked down at his old acquaintance warily, noting the stony look in the dark blue eyes and figured it just wasn’t worth it. Old Jesse there was fast, real fast on the draw and so what was the point of dying just for a bit of fun?
“OK Jesse, don’t go gettin’ yer britches in a ruck,” he said with a friendly grin, “me an’ the boys will be goin’ now. Leave you to your nice quiet peaceful town OK?”
“OK”, Jess agreed and watched with flinty blue eyes as the group moved off.
Minutes later there was just their dust, a rebellious “Yee-haw” and volley of shots echoing down the empty street left as a reminder of their presence.
Once the outlaws had ridden out, his friends came up to pump his hand and even the well to do local business owners professed their thanks too.
However, it was the citizens who had listened to Hank Slater’s lies, but now revised their opinion of Jess and humbly apologised, that meant the most to him. Folk who now saw Jess as he really was. One who could turn his back on the likes of the Travers Gang. Old acquaintances they might be but he could still condemn their actions and put Laramie first. Yes, that was what made them turn and ask for his forgiveness that afternoon, the fact that yet again he’d proved that he was totally loyal to their town and they trusted him completely. And that was what Jess needed to hear.
It was several weeks later when Slim and Jess were enjoying a rare whiskey out on the porch, after a hard day, that the subject came up again.
“You’ve been holding out on me pard,” Slim said with a grin, “Mort was telling me yesterday about the Travers Gang landing when I was out of town a few weeks back and as to how you handled it.”
“Weren’t nuthin’,” Jess said quietly.
“Oh, but I think it was though Jess. He also said that afterwards there was a whole bunch of folk who wanted to apologise for thinking badly of you after Hank Slater had been bad mouthing you?”
Jess dipped his head. “Yeah, that was the case.”
“OK then Jess how do you feel now huh? Have you forgiven the town for treating you so badly?”
He was silent for a while as he looked off to the distant hills, then he turned to his good friend. “You know I guess I have Slim, bearin’ a grudge just makes you feel bad yerself...and anyway….”
Slim leaned forwards looking deeply into his buddy’s eyes. “Yeah Jess…anyway….?”
“Anyway, they took me down to the saloon and bought me drinks all night didn’t they. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I was so dang hung over. Or had such a great night,” he said turning sparkling eyes on his buddy, “Sure I forgave them. Dadgum it, why wouldn’t I?”
Slim just shook his head in disbelief, and chuckled, “Sure, why wouldn’t you Jess…why indeed.”
The end
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