# 10 The Mountain Adventure

#10 The Mountain Adventure


Patty Wilkinson

(Some strong language, adult themes and violence)

Chapter 1

It was early Fall in Wyoming and all the residents of The Sherman Ranch and Relay Station had been busy preparing for the winter storms to come.

Slim and Jess the ranching partners and best friends had spent the last few weeks bringing all the stock down from the high ground to the safety of the lower pastures and had returned to the ranch, hot tired and dirty most nights. But now the weather had changed again and it had turned bitter cold, making them glad they had persevered and got all the animals safely down.

Daisy their long term housekeeper, general fount of wisdom and loving motherly support was there with a hot meal, clean clothes and a kind word for the boys when they arrived back exhausted and hungry each night.

Little Mike Williams the youngest member of the group was growing up fast and he longed to be able to join the men on the round up, but they still felt him too young and found him extra chores to do around the ranch house so that he felt he was helping. Indeed his input was very important to the ranchers, saving them from the time consuming, mundane chores at the end of a hard day and they made sure Mike realized that.

They had adopted Mike several years ago after his parents were killed in an Indian uprising and they aimed to make the boy’s time at the ranch as happy and fulfilling as they could, to make up for the tragic early start to his young life.

Out of the two young men it was Jess Harper, ex gunslinger and drifter who had the deepest bond with the boy, as he too had had a tragic childhood, when his family were killed in a horrendous fire set deliberately by the Banister Gang. Jess had only been fifteen years old when it happened and he went on the drift desperately seeking retribution, but was never to find the gang as a youngster.

Instead he found trouble as he gained the reputation of a fast gun and all the problems that brought. He had fallen foul of the law, been in jail and even been at what Jess described at the ‘business end of a rope’ at one time, although after escaping, he was later proved innocent of the hanging offense.

However all that had changed once he drifted into the Sherman spread and made friends with the owner Slim Sherman and his younger brother Andy and eventually after many conflicts, laughter, fun and also testing times, a true and lasting bond was forged between the two men. Jess put his gunslinger weapon up for good, and they were now best buddies as well as business partners.

But they were totally different characters, with Jess being more volatile,quick tempered and wild where as Slim was more staid and always considered his options carefully, but the two were united in their loyalty to their family and friends and their understanding and empathy for the others point of view, if not always agreeing with it……..

Right now Jess was not happy, not happy at all, as he joined Daisy and Slim around the breakfast table. He was shivering and sat nursing his coffee looking a picture of dejection.

“Hey what’s eating you partner?” asked Slim sitting down opposite him and digging into the bacon and eggs Daisy had just passed across.

“Have you seen that garl darn weather,” spat his friend,” it’s been snowin’ Slim and it ain’t even October yet for goodness sake!”

“Oh is that all,” replied Slim grinning across at his friend, “I always forget how delicate you Texans are when it comes to a Wyoming winter,”he laughed aiming a playful swipe at his buddy’s head.

To his surprise Jess jumped up and said angrily,” I ain’t kiddin’ Slim I’m real sick of this Goddamn place,” and grabbing his coat from the hook by the door he marched off to the barn.

Daisy and Slim exchanged bewildered looks.

“What’s gotten into him?”said Slim in surprise,” I was only joshing him.”

Daisy looked worried,” he’s not been himself for a few days now,” she said.

Just then a sleepy looking Mike came to join them at the table.

“What’s all the shouting about?” he asked looking from Daisy to Slim and back.

“Oh just Jess sounding off,” said Slim reaching over and tousling the boys blond mop, “nothing to worry about Tiger.”

“I guess his leg is bothering him,” said the boy sagely.

“His leg?” asked Slim.

“Sure where he got that rifle bullet, top of his leg, told me the other day it aches something fierce in the cold weather and today is real cold,” said the boy casually.

“I should have realised that,” said Daisy,” I thought he was limping yesterday, try and find him some light work today Slim, get him to rest up.”

He turned and gave her a rueful smile, “Oh yeah; like he ever listens to me,” he said, “I guess what we could really do with is a break, we’ve been working none stop lately and I figure we’re plumb worn out, I’ll go and have a word with him”, he finished and giving Daisy a cheery grin left the table.

As he crossed the yard to the barn he noticed there was just a thin sprinkling of snow, but the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky and he figured they had a few weeks grace still before the snow was with them in earnest. It was still bitter cold though and he was glad to escape to the comparative warmth of the barn.

Jess had obviously been dissipating his temper in physical activity and Slim was pleased to see he had already mucked out all the loose boxes and was now grooming Traveller, his horse.

Jess had abandoned his jacket as he had worked up a sweat doing his chores and now he stood in his blue shirt and denims his back turned to Slim as he tended to the horse.

Slim studied his partners back and tried to see what sort of mood he was in, but then he heard him talking gently to his horse as he went about the job of brushing him down and figured his temper spat was over. One thing about ol’ Jess he thought smiling to himself, there was plenty of thunder and lightening, but the sun always came out from behind the clouds real quick and Jess rarely sulked or held on to a grudge for long.

He wandered over and said softly,” Are you over your strop now pard?”

Jess spun around as he had been so engrossed in his task he hadn’t heard his friend’s approach, and gave him a sheepish grin.

” Sorry about that Slim,” he said,” guess these ol’ winters just creep up on me and I forget how much I hate ‘em,” he said apologetically.

“Its not that bad is it?”asked Slim and then he noticed Jess absentmindedly rubbing the top of his right leg.

“Is you leg bothering,” you he continued.

Jess immediately dropped his hand and said, “Oh I’m fine.”


“I guess it’s hurtin’ some,” he admitted,” It’s this darn cold Slim, seems to get in my bones,” he said with a weak smile.

Slim plonked himself down on a convenient bale of straw and surveyed his friend and then after a minute said gently,” guess you had a bit of a rough ride last summer Jess, with Vicky and all that happened.”

He was referring to Jess’s life being turned upside down when he fell for the estranged wife of an outlaw and murderer. Whilst on the run the ex husband had viciously attacked Vicky, with the result that she returned to her kinfolk back east, leaving Jess devastated.*See Reprisal.

Jess turned from his task of grooming his mount to look at Slim, but just nodded in reply.

“You haven’t been to town in a while,” continued Slim,” I know Millie from the Saloon has been asking after you, why don’t we ride in, the Harvest Dance is coming up soon.”

“No,” said Jess quickly.

“Why not pard?” asked Slim surprised.

“Because dances mean datin’ girls and I just don’t want to get involved with anyone right now” said Jess gruffly.

“Jess I’m not asking you to get married, just have a few dances with Millie or Carrie,” he continued looking concerned, ”this ain’t like you.”

Jess turned on Slim at that.

”Hell you know what I went through with Vicky, how upset I was…still am, that she decided to stay back East, well maybe I just don’t want to put myself through all that again Slim…..well not yet awhile anyways ,” he finished sadly.

Slim took off his hat and raked his hand through his blond hair before replacing it firmly and looked anxiously over at his friend.

” Yeah, I’m sorry,” he said softly,” guess I’ve been a bit thoughtless.”

Jess just shrugged.

”It’s OK,” he said before returning to his task.

Then after a while he turned back to his friend, and said thoughtfully,” tell ya what pard. if you fancy a change of scene why don’t we take off for a few days, you’re always saying you’d like a crack at some Elk up on the mountain , guess we’ve got a week or two before we get some snow fall that really means it, what do ya think?”

Slim beamed at him.

“Hey that’s a great idea, we can get the lads from the Harrington spread to cover the Relay and feed the stock, and taking off for a week, might be just what we need, a few nights in the big open and not a steer in sight,” he said laughing,” I’ll go and tell Daisy get her to put up some food for a trip, set off at first light tomorrow, OK? “

Jess returned his friends infectious grin, “OK by me,” he replied happily.

That evening at supper they were discussing the trip and Mike said for the third time, “I still don’t see why I can’t come with you Slim?”

“Because,” said the tall blond rancher patiently”, the snow will be down deep pretty soon and that means no school, so I’m not letting you miss lessons while you are still able to get in. Time enough for learning to hunt next summer during the holidays, OK? “

The boy looked down at his plate … “I suppose so,” he muttered.

Jess gave him a sympathetic look at that.

“Tell you what Tiger,” he said, “when ol’ Slim bags his Elk, I’ll make sure we bring back the antlers for your room, how would you like that?” and the boy instantly cheered up.

“Wow, that would be great, thanks,” he beamed, and peace was restored within the household.

Chapter 2

As they had agreed, they set off at first light the following day, but not until after eating, as Daisy had insisted in getting up early and cooking them a good breakfast before they rode out.

Once the meal was over the two ranchers sat back replete

”Gee thanks Daisy,” said Jess,” that was real good. You don’t fancy coming along instead of Slim do you, reckon your cooking is one whole lot better than ol’ Hard Rock’s here,“ he said grinning across at his partner.

She beamed back at Jess.

”Get along with you,” she chortled, glad to see her favourite ‘son’ was back in his usual good humour.

Just then Mike appeared sleepily from his room, still in his nightshirt.

“Hey what are you doin’ up so early Tiger?” asked Jess pulling the boy to him and giving him a friendly hug.

“Just wanted to remind you about my antlers,” he said grinning across at Slim.

“Oh yeah,” he said,” no problem, of course Jess here will probably get a bear, so we could skin that too if you’d like?”

At that, the young boy’s eyes lit up in delight.

“Oh Slim don’t tease the boy,” Daisy admonished.

“Heck, whose teasing,” he replied,” I seem to remember Jess is mighty good at shooting bear and it’s his favourite meal too, so I hear.”

Slim was referring to a bear Jess had once killed and then been invited to dine on , by his hunting companion, an old Mountain Man, and had been sick for a week.

“Aw, Slim don’t remind me of that,” he said sorrowfully,” guess I’d rather be eaten by a bear, than be forced to eat it again,” he said laughing.

“That’s quite enough of that,” said Daisy quickly,” if you see any bears at all, well, just high tail it in the opposite direction please, I want you both back in one piece,” and with that the ranchers went and saddled up and with a cheery wave were soon on their way towards the distant mountain range.


They made good time and were camped up at the mountain foothills by dusk. There was a small stream running alongbeside them, coming down from the mountain and the water was cool and sweet and the men and horses made the most of it. After a chilly start the day had warmed up and the weather held all the promise of a late Indian summer.

They had eaten a good meal provided by Daisy and were now stretched out by the warming camp fire under the stars. They seemed incredibly bright as Jess looked up at them and the moon looked huge.

He turned to Slim where he was also lying on his bedroll by the fire also looking up at the night sky, and said softly,” do ya think Vicky is looking up at those same stars tonight?”

Slim looked back at his buddy.

” I guess it’s possible, yeah.”

He knew how Jess had hoped his relationship with Vicky would have worked out, how he would have married her tomorrow if she hadn’t refused him because of her ill health, and returned back East.

“I hope so,” said Jess softly before rolling over and falling asleep.

Slim lay awake, a little longer listening to the night time sounds, an owl and somewhere a long way off the mournful call of a lone wolf, before he too fell asleep under the chill starry sky.


The following morning they were up early and on their way at first light again and were soon walking their mounts carefully up the steep rocky trail amongst tall pines. The sun had come out and held welcome warmth.

Jess stopped and turning in his saddle waited for Slim to catch up and as he reined in they both surveyed the spectacular scenery.

“You know it’s not a bad ol’ country,” said Jess grinning across at his friend.

“Thought you hated the Goddamn place,” said Slim returning the grin.

“Well that’s just the cold I hate,” smiled Jess, “the place itself is OK I guess.”

“Just OK?” said Slim in mock severity,” sure beats Texas, all you got down there is miles of sand and Cactus”.

“Yeah, but at least its warm sand,” laughed Jess as they kicked their mounts on up the mountain.

They had ridden for over two hours when they saw the first signs of Elk or Moose, Jess who had been riding with his eyes fixed on the ground suddenly reined in, slipped from the saddle and squatted down.

“What ya got pard?” asked Slim reining in Alamo.

“Spoor, looks quite fresh too, I figure if we head for that ridge up yonder we’ll get a good view of the valley below, reckon that’s where we’ll find ‘em,” he said talking softly.

The two men led their mounts over to the ridge and after hitching them and removing their hunting rifles from their scabbards they made their way stealthily towards the tree line at the top of the ridge.

Squatting down they peered down and sure enough there was a small herd of Elk slowly making their way down the valley towards a river. There was a magnificent bull elk leading his small harem of females and calves.

“Must be rutting season,” said Jess softly,” don’t often see the ol bull elk with a group of females like that unless he’s thinking of going courting.”

Slim smiled at Jess’s quant turn of phrase,” guess this old boys courting days are over,” he said quietly as he aimed his rifle.

He had the animal perfectly in his sites when suddenly a shot rang out and the beautiful creature fell dead as the rest of the herd scattered.

Slim’s head shot up and he turned to Jess, looking angry,” thought we agreed I’d have first shot,” he said.

“Hey, whoa there,” said Jess quickly,” weren’t me partner,” and held up his rifle that had been lying on the ground beside him.

“Then who….. “

“Look,” said Jess pointing down the valley at the recumbent animal, and as they watched a diminutive figure strode towards the creature.

“What the ….”gasped Slim.

“Looks like a kid,” said Jess,” lets take a closer look,” and with that they returned to their horses and quickly headed down the steep path to the valley below.

By the time they rode up, the small person dressed in buckskins topped off with a fur hat, was trying to haul the large bull elk onto a wooden litter attached to small pony, with little success.

“Looks like you could do with a hand there son,” said Slim as he reined his mount in.

The child jumped up from the task and levelled the rifle at Slim,” back up there mister, I don’t need no help and I ain’t your son.”

Jess rode up and taking in the situation slipped lightly down from his mount and addressing the child said softly,” it’s OK boy we ain’t about to hurt you, we only want to help.”

Turning angry green eyes on Jess the child pulled off the fur cap, allowing long, beautiful auburn locks to escape, falling down around her shoulders, “And I ain’t a boy,” she shouted.

“Yeah, I can see that,” said Jess grinning at her, “feisty little thing ain’t ya…so how old are you, 9…10?”

“I’m 11 actually,” she replied haughtily.

“That old huh,” said Jess still grinning across at her.

“So, how old are you?” she asked challengingly, her arms akimbo.

“Old enough to know better than to start arguing with a lady……no matter what her age,” said Jess still smiling.

“But,” he continued,” I have to say it, there ain’t no way you’re gonna get that big ol’ elk on that litter without a bit of help, so unless you’re planning on skinning him and eating him right here, then I think you ought to let us help ya.”

The girl stood there looking from Slim to Jess and back again, then she seemed to come to a decision,

“OK then mister but no funny business, this is my elk, shot fair and square and I’m taking him home to my Ma, understand?”

Both men nodded gravely and then went to her assistance.

As it turned out, once the elk was finally dragged onto the litter, the little old pony huffed and puffed so alarmingly that Slim finally took pity on him and hitched up Alamo and eventually the small hunting party made off for the child’s home, high up on the mountain.

After half an hour or so, they approached a clearing among the pines, and a small log cabin came into view.

As they reined in outside the place a small, dark haired girl of about six ran out and hugged the other child. She had tear stains on her face and said quietly,” she’s worse Kate, I’m real worried…any sign of Pa?”

Kate shook her head, “No, but look what I shot, guess the larder’s full again Amy.”

The diminutive Amy turned her huge brown eyes on Slim and Jess and then down at the elk.

“Who are those men?” she whispered.

“Just some ol’ hunters, come over from Laramie way,” her sister said, and then remembering her manners she turned to them and said,” well thank you Jess, Slim appreciate your help.”

Jess and Slim exchanged amused looks as they were obviously being dismissed.

“Just a minute little lady,” said Jess,” if your Ma is sick maybe we should have a word with her, set her mind at rest that you are OK.”

The child looked undecided, but just then there was a weak call from the house.

” Kate, Amy who are you a talkin’ to…is your Pa home? “and then there followed a hoarse coughing fit.

Slim and Jess gave Kate another look and she finally nodded her consent and the two men entered the cabin.

There was a sulky fire in the grate and a woman was sitting before it in her night gown, with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She was once a handsome looking woman thought Jess as he contemplated her, but childbearing and the hard mountain life had taken its toll and she looked old before her time. Jess felt an instant bond as the tired defeated look in the woman’s eyes reminded him acutely of his own Ma at that age.

She looked up in fear as the two ranchers entered, and Slim said quickly, “It’s Ok Ma’am, wemean you no harm, my name is Slim Sherman and this is my partner, Jess Harper, we run a Ranch and Relay Station over in Laramie , we’ve just been helping out Kate here, bring an elk home that she bagged.”

The woman’s expression changed to one of relief, “Oh thank God,” she said.

“Food supplies low?” asked Jess giving her a concerned look.

She nodded,” down to a bit of dried meat and a few vegetables,” she said,” my husband was just about to replenish the larder when he was called away.”

“Has he been gone long?” asked Slim sensing the woman’s worry.

“Yes,” she said softly,” too long, two……… nearly three weeks.”

“Gone far?” asked Jess, “could he have had an accident?”

At that she looked even more distressed… “Oh I hope not she replied…it…well its kind of difficult.”

Jess said nothing but gave her a sympathetic look and after a few minutes the woman obviously decided to confide in the strangers.

“Its out eldest daughter, Ellie May, she’s…well she’s what you’d call head strong.”

At this Kate let out a huge sigh,” she ain’t head strong Ma she’d down right wicked and wilful,” she said angrily.

“Hush child,” the mother said tiredly,” this is grown up talk you don’t really understand yet.”

“I understand our Ellie May upped and took off with Homer Jackson and they ain’t even wed.”

“Hush child, I won’t tell you again, go and fix your sister something to eat…and some coffee for these gentlemen,” she continued and after another huge sigh the child left the room.

Once she had gone the woman gestured for the ranchers to sit and then said in a defeated voice,” she is right of course. Ellie is wicked to run off like that, that’s why her Pa has gone to fetch her home… but I’m so worried, I’m wondering if Homer and he have had a fight… or worse,” and she began to weep quietly.

Seeing her that way Jess was again reminded of his Ma, sitting by the fire weeping because there wasn’t enough food to go around, as his Pa had drunk away all his pay.

He sank to his knees beside the woman and gently took her hand.

”You didn’t tell us your name Ma’am,” he said softly.

“Jane, Jane Hudson,” she replied quietly.

Slim smiled gently down at her,” that’s a fine old Mountain Family name,” he said.

She smiled weakly up at him glad of the distraction, “yes there have been Hudsons trapping on this Mountain for generations,” she said and now there are only a handful of Mountain folk left.

“Yes, I remember my Pa telling me all about the Mountain Families when I was just a little kid, no older than Amy, told me about the Mountain Men Rendezvous over in Laramie. All the trading and hard drinking,” he said grinning,” said it was a real good time for everyone.”

She smiled nostalgically.

“That’s right, Wes , my husband , he remembers the tales his grand pappy used to tell him about that,” she said smiling back and as her face lit up, Jess thought she looked almost beautiful and then he remembered he was still holding her hand and removed his gently.

She looked down at him and gave her sad smile.

” So I was telling you about Wes… I wonder, well…. …I suppose it is a real cheek, but could I ask for you to look out for him as you go hunting, and send him back home if you see him?”

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance and then Slim gave a tiny nod.

“Well I reckon one of us should go and have a look for him, just in case he has found himself in some trouble,” said Jess gently.

“Oh I couldn’t ask you to do that,” she said at once,” it’s too much of an imposition.”

“Sure it’s not,” said Jess smiling at her,” tell you what, iffen you don’t need that pappy elks antlers, well I know a youngster who really would like them, could we do a trade, my time for the antlers?”

She grinned at him,” that sounds like I get the best of the deal but thank you Mr Harper I appreciate it.”

“Jess,” he said softly.

She smiled down at him where he was still kneeling beside her,” Jess,” she said, holding his look a fraction longer than necessary.

Slim coughed,” so you’re going are you Jess?”

“Well I’m the best tracker out of the two of us, and I guess you’d be better at helping out around here. That elk needs butchering for a start…...or do Kate’s talents run to that too?” he asked, turning to Jane and giving her a cheeky grin.

She smiled back,” no that would be down to me,” she replied, and then started coughing again.

“Figure you had better go back to bed Ma’am and I’ll fix you some broth,” said Slim slipping easily into the roll of carer.

“Better listen to him Jane,” said Jess laughing,” he’s a real strict nurse and I should know.”

She looked from one to the other and then said quietly,” thank you so much, both of you, I really do appreciate what you are doing for us,” and getting up she turned to go back to bed, and giving Jess an especially warm smile, disappeared into her room.

Jess and Slim went outside and as Jess mounted up he said,” you don’t mind me going do ya Slim? “

“Heck no,” replied his friend,” anyway, the way you were looking at that lady I guess it’s safer.”

“What do ya mean safer?” asked Jess giving his friend a hard look.

“Oh you know what I mean Hot Shot…what is it about you and married women……are ya never gonna learn?”

“I don’t know what your talkin’ about,” said Jess sounding angry now,” if you must know, she reminds me of my old Ma.”

“Sure she does Jess…sure she does,” replied Slim grinning at his friend.

“Aw, Slim,”said Jess,” will ya stop it.”

Slim continued grinning, “Anyways I reckon she took a fancy to you too, so I guess the sooner you high tail it out of here and find her husband and bring him on home, the better.”

“OK,” said Jess smiling back now,” have fun and don’t forget to keep those antlers for Mike.”

“Will do, watch your back pard,” said Slim and with that Jess spurred Traveller off through the dense pines.

He knew roughly the direction to head in as Jane had suggested he try an old abandoned log cabin about an hours ride away, off in the backwoods. That was the first place Wes had decided to look for his daughter and Jess figured if he had moved on he would be able to track him from there.

It took him longer than he expected to find the place and it was almost dark when he rode in.

Hitching Traveller to the post near the door he walked softly over and peered in through one of the grimy windows, but the place was empty.

On entering he could see signs of recent occupation and also it looked like a fight had taken place with the odd sticks of furniture the place boasted, either knocked over or broken.

Then on picking up a fallen chair he saw a pool of blood on the dirty floor and more between that and the door, like a body had been dragged along. Looking outside he could just make out the tracks of what looked like three horses heading up the track in the opposite direction to which he had come.

Guess I’d better bed down for the night and follow them at first light, he said to himself and went to take care of his horse.

Later after a scratch meal he bedded down in front of a crackling fire and lying down on his bedroll thought back to the days events.

His heart bled for Jane Hudson, he knew that look of fatigue and despair so well from his childhood, and the poverty and fear as his drunken violent Pa dominated the large family. As he closed his eyes and tried to sleep he wondered what Wes Hudson was like, was he a kind loving father and husband or a drunken, bad lot like his Pa.

Jess knew in his heart that his Pa hadn’t been all bad, and had been driven to his lifestyle by various circumstances, but he still could never forgive him for what he had done to his Ma.

Now remembering that look of down trodden defeat on the face of Jane, he very much feared Wes was similar to his own Pa, but he sure hoped not.

Chapter 3

The following morning he was up early and soon on the trail of the three horses and was pretty well able to track them even though the way was rough and stony

Jess had been taught to track by an Arapaho Indian friend and he was almost as expert as the Native American himself .

Every so often he would dismount and check the signs, but he was confident he would find his quarry, even though the tracks were old. He was able to see his way forwards as there was virtually no other trail they could have taken the mountainside being so steep, with a sheer drop on one side of the track.

As he carried on up the mountain, the landscape suddenly became familiar to him and he realized he was on the way to Tobias and Rebecca Finnegan’s cabin.

Jess had first met Tobias and Rebecca the previous year. The Mountain folk had found Mike near the lake on Sherman land, after he had had a bad spill from his pony. Mike was suffering from amnesia after the accident and was unable to tell them where he lived and so instead of taking the boy to the Law they had abducted him. Rebecca was in her late thirties and was desperate to be a mother, but she had never been blessed, and as the longing for a child took over, she had ignored her conscience, and fled with the boy. Then they treated him as their own for several weeks, until Jess and Slim had finally tracked them down. *see The Runaway

Although initially furious at the abduction, the partners had finally forgiven the couple, understanding particularly the desperate need Rebecca had to be a mother and now, they were all good friends. Tobias and Rebecca occasionally visiting Mike and the others at the ranch when they came to Laramie on their fur trading trips.

Recently the couple had been blessed with their own fit, healthy baby son and their lives were complete.

Jess decided that even if the tracks didn’t lead directly to Tobias and Rebecca’s place he would still call in for a quick visit and to meet the newest member of the family, knowing what a warm welcome he would receive.

He knew, also that Rebecca, being half Arapaho, had a great gift for healing and a large store of herbal, Indian medicines and Jess thought if one of the party were injured, as he suspected, then that is the first place they would have visited.

Within the hour he found himself advancing up the familiar track to Tobias and Rebecca’s place and he remembered the completely different circumstances of his last visit when he had been sick with worry searching for Mike

As he rode up to the cabin this time, a similar scenario to his last visit enfolded as Tobias came out of the ramshackle cabin wielding a heavy old hunting rifle aggressively. However this time as soon as he recognized Jess, his face was wreathed in smiles and throwing the gun to one side he ran up to Jess and practically pulling out of the saddle gave him a huge bear hug before calling out in the direction of the cabin.

” Rebecca, look how’s come a visiting!”

Then pumping Jess’s hand he said, “Sure is good ta see ya Jess, you come along in now,” and Jess found himself propelled into the tiny cabin.

As soon as he entered Rebecca was there, the baby on her hip, which she quickly passed to her husband before running across and giving Jess a hug and kiss on the cheek.

” Jess dear it is so good to see you,” and then looking behind him,” is Slim or Mike with you.”

Jess quickly explained that Mike was in school, but Slim was with him and how he had left him at the Hudson’s place.

At the mention of that name Tobias looked concerned and then standing back he revealed a recumbent figure lying in the old cot beside the fireplace that had been Mike’s when he had stayed there. Looking more carefully into the rather dim corner he could make out the body of a middle aged man lying under a blanket, sleeping.

“That’s ol’ Wes Hudson,” said Tobias quietly,” been real sick and Rebecca has been nursing him. Young Ellie May is around the place somewhere too. Off day dreaming no doubt,” he said indulgently,”a real one for her dreams and romance is their Ellie.”

“So I hear,” said Jess dryly,” but her Ma is worried sick Tobias, says Wes has been gone over two weeks.”

“Well yes I guess he will have been,” said Tobias looking cagey…”he got into a bit of trouble you see Jess boy and well I guess I’d better tell you all about it , can you stay and visit a while?”

“Well sure,” said Jess,” I’d like to, but I figure we need to get Wes back home as soon as he is well enough, as I say it looks like Jane has got the same illness and Slim is caring for her right now, but I figure she’ll feel a whole lot better when she gets her man home.”

Just then the company were alerted to the fact that the youngest member wanted some attention.

He was still sitting up in his Pa’s arms but he cooed and stretched his arms out to Jess.

Grinning Jess looked at Rebecca, “May I?” he asked shyly.

She looked amazed,” why surely, and with that Jess took the baby and held him confidently and started chatting to the little chap who sat there mesmerized by his new friend with the sparkling deep blue eyes.

The baby cooed and laughed happily away and Tobias turned to Jess and said,” well I never did, fast gun, ex gunslinger and look at him Rebecca he’s a natural…who’d have thought it”

“Come on then Jess where did you learn to handle babies like that, or is there something you ain’t been telling us?”

Jess grinned back,” well I’ll tell ya Tobias, last year I was staying up in our old line cabin and it was a fearful bad night and there came a fierce banging on the door and it was a young wife from one of the top mountain cabins, trying to make it to town…....and well, she was in labour.”

Rebecca looked shocked,” in labor, oh my, what did you do Jess?”

He smiled back at her, “well I delivered the baby of course,” he said laughing,” I’d delivered enough calves and foals, figured it couldn’t be that different.”

“And was it?” asked Tobias giving him a wicked grin.

“Oh Hell yes, it was different alright;” he said smiling broadly.

“Anyways, I figure lookin’ after one is real easy compared with delivering one. Nothing to it,” he continued, “just a case of feeding and watering ’em and cleaning ‘em up some, every now and again.”

Then looking down at his new friend, he hastily handed him back to Rebecca,” figure he’s in need of some cleaning up right now,” he said…” and I never did quite get thehang of that.”

Rebecca laughed heartily,” show me the man who has,” she said as she removed her young charge from the room to tend to his needs.

Tobias gestured for Jess to join him at the table at the other end of the room so that they wouldn’t disturb Wes as they talked and after pouring them both a generous measure of his home made Moonshine, he started to relate what had happened over the last couple of weeks.

“You see it happened this way,” he said,” Ellie May has been stepping out with the Jackson boy for a couple of months and she took it into her head that they should run off together. Well the boy is young and easily led and I reckon he figured it was a good idea at the time. Anyways they figured her Pa would make for the old cabin, you told me about, and so they went in the opposite direction and camped out in the wood for a while, until they started a squabbling and falling out and Miss Ellie there wasn’t so sure it was a good idea anymore, “he said pausing for breath.

“Anyways, her beau decided they needed a few home comforts, so they back tracked to the old cabin and that’s where Wes caught up with them a few days later. Boy, he was mad and I mean real mad, he went in there and wrecked the place and darn near did for the Jackson boy too.

Anyways he came to his senses. Realized the boy needed doctoring real bad and brought him along here. Becky fixed him up real good, but I figure that was theend of the big romance, Ellie said it was all over, and the boy went home to his Ma and Pa a wee bit older and wiser. So Wes and Ellie were just about to head for home, last week and Wes got real sick, with a bad chest, coughing and wheezing something fierce. Anyways Rebecca’s been treating him, that’s why he’s out of it now, had some strong herbs to make him sleep. He’s on the mend…… a couple of days and you should be on your way…..and in the meantime,” he said replenishing Jess’s glass,” guess we’ll just have a good old visit.”

“Wow that’s some story,” said Jess with a low whistle,” so he gets kinda violent, this Wes then,” he asked, hoping his fears were not going to be realized.

“What, Wes,” said Tobias his eyes merry with laughter,” Hell no Jess, he’s a big softy, that is until someone hurts his family and then well, that’s another matter. He cares dearly about Jane and his girls and he was just so dang mad that the lad had…well you know, messed with his precious daughter.”

“Sounds to me like she made most of the running,” said Jess cynically.

“Oh yes indeed, I’ve no doubt. But don’t you go telling Wes that, he won’t hear a word said against any of his girls. Sorry as I am to say it, if that young madam doesn’t change her ways, well I reckon she’ll get herself in the family way and then he’ll just have to face the truth.”

“That bad eh, but it won’t come to that will it…with her Pa on the case and all?” asked Jess wondering what this young lady was like.

“Oh you ain’t met our Miss Ellie May,” said Tobias chuckling,” you just wait and see Jess boy.”

Jess didn’t have too long to wait, as five minutes later the door burst open and an older version of Kate the marks woman with attitude, tore into the house waking her father and causing general mayhem.

”Hey there Tobias I’ve just seen a rattler, mean looking as they come,” she cried loudly and then stopped in her tracks as she saw Jess.

She advanced, smoothing her auburn tresses and pulling her dress down so even more of her cleavage was on show. Then she flashed her big green eyes at Jess, before lowering them demurely and saying, “Oh I’m sorry I didn’t know we had company.”

Tobias beamed over at her and giving Jess a hearty slap on the back and said,” Heck girl this ain’t company, this here is Jess Harper and he’s more like kin.”

Ellie May sashayed her hourglass figure over to Jess and looking up at him seductively.

Then she said, in a breathy voice,” Oh Mr Harper….Jess, I’ve heard so much about you.”

Jess gave her a disbelieving look and said,” you have?” rather faintly before looking at Tobias for support.

Tobias turned towards Wes Hudson who was now sitting up and taking notice.

“Wes this here is Jess Harper and he’s here with news of your Jane and the girls,” he called over.

At once the man stood up on unsteady legs and made his way towards Jess anxiety etched on his face.

“They’re Ok aren’t they?” he asked urgently.

“Now stop your frettin’, said Tobias at once,” Slim Sherman is looking out for Jane and the girls while Jess here has been a lookin’ for ya.”

Jess was quick reassure the man.

“I have to tell ya she’s sick,” he said,” , but the girls are fine and Slim is looking after her and the children.”

“Sick you say?” said the man looking distraught.

“Well I guess she’s had the same thing as you have, but figure she’ll be on the mend now,” said Jess kindly.

“You think so,” said the man obviously still deeply concerned and then looking from Jess to Tobias,” and this Slim, he’s OK?”

“Sure he’s OK,” reassured Tobias.

Just then Rebecca re-entered the room and said calmly,” you couldn’t wish for more decent people than Jess and Slim, rest assured she is in good hands Wes.”

At that Wes turned to Jess and said,” I’m deeply humbled Mr Harper and I apologize if I seem a bit surly, ‘tis just the worry you understand?”

“Sure I understand,” said Jess warming to the man at once,” and as soon as you feel up to it we’ll head back to your place to set your mind at rest.”

“Thank you kindly,” the older man said before returning to the cot by the fire and Rebecca hurried off for some more herbal medication.

Jess spent a pleasant afternoon catching up on news with Rebecca and Tobias and after supper he retired to sleep in the barn.

“I’m sure sorry we can’t offer you a proper bed Jess,” said Tobias,” but what with Wes on the spare cot and Ellie on the couch, I’m afraid that’s us full up, but it’s plenty warm in the barn and lots of clean sweet hay, so reckon you’ll be comfortable enough.”

“Oh sure I will,” promised Jess,” I’m bushed anyway, guess I could sleep anywhere,” and went off happily enough to bunk down with Traveller.

As he had said, he was pretty tired and he went off to sleep quickly, lying on his bedroll, with his saddle as a pillow.

It must have been after midnight when Traveller gave a little warning whinny and he heard somebody stealthily entering the barn.

In a flash he drew his Colt and jumped up.

“Hold it right there,” he called out and reaching up to the lantern hanging on a nail on the beam just above him, he struck a match and lit the lamp. As the warm light illuminated the barn he saw Ellie May standing by the door in a thin nightdress with a shawl around her shoulders.

Jess relaxed and putting his gun back in his holster said more firmly than he meant to,” Didn’t your Pa ever teach you not to creep up on people, sure fire way to get yourself shot.”

“I’m sorry,” she said,” I didn’t think.”

“Is something wrong,” he asked more gently, “is your Pa worse? “

“Oh no,” she said advancing on him, “I was just kind of lonely, felt like a little company,” and coming to stand in front of him she rested a familiar hand on his arm and looked up into his surprised blue eyes.

“Thought you might be feeling a mite lonely too cowboy,” and with that reached up and kissed him lightly on the lips.

Jess’s initial impulse was to respond and he kissed her back for a split second before coming to his senses and pulling back he said,” whoa there ,what are you doin’? “

“Well what does it look like I’m doing Jess?” she asked with a knowing smile on her face and with that she moved over to where his bedroll was spread out and lay down beside it.

“Guess I’ll join you for a spell,” she said in a sultry voice.

“Oh no, you won’t,” said Jess quickly.

She pulled a little face, “well that’s not very friendly,” she said, ”what’s the matter?”

“Well I’ll tell ya,” said Jess angrily,” call me picky, but I kinda like to choose for myself who’s goin’ ta share my bed and that don’t include very young girls, especially when their Pa is asleep just next door.”

“What’s up,” she said with a secret smile on her face, “don’t you like the ladies Jess?”

“Oh sure,” he responded and then under his breath,” too darned much at times,” and then continued,” sure I like the ladies, but like I say, not young girls, and especially ones like you Ellie May.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said crossly,” and how old do you think I am anyway?”

“Well let’s put it this way,” he said giving her a wicked smile,” I guess your little sister Kate has gotten more common sense than you have.”

“What!” she shouted,” I’ll have you know I’m nearly 16 and my Ma was married and pregnant by 16. “

“And is that what you want,” he said giving her a sad look,” to spend all your life working and start raising babies, while your still pretty much a kid yourself.”

“No I don’t,” she said,” what I want is to meet someone handsome and romantic who will whisk me away from this boring old mountain, to town where I can see a bit of life.”

“And so where do you think your goin’ to find this prince who’ll whisk you off for your fairy tale life?” he asked sarcastically.

Lying back her arm flung across his bed roll she gave him another seductive look, “well I guess I’ve found him Jess,” and patting the space beside her said softly, “you coming back to bed then?”

Jess felt uncomfortable, he had had enough of her antics he was tired and annoyed with himself as he was more than a little stirred by her forward behavior and decided it was time the temptation was removed.

Leaning forwards he grabbed hold of both hands and pulling her up he easily picked her up and carried her to the barn door, “No, I ain’t,” he replied, “but you are, goodnight Ellie,” and with that he put her down outside the barn, none too gently and firmly closed the door behind her.

After a few minutes he heard her return to the cabin and he sank down on his bed roll again, all I need is more female trouble he thought darkly, and the sooner he was out of here and back on his hunting trip the happier he would be, he decided.

The following morning when Jess went in for breakfast he was relieved to see there was no sign of Ellie and he sat down with Tobias and Rebecca to enjoy the meal as Wes was still asleep.

After they had finished eating Tobias excused himself as he had some animal skins to work on and so Jess sat down to enjoy another coffee with Rebecca. After a few minutes they heard the baby crying and Rebecca went and fed him in her room and then brought him back to the table.

“You look tired,” said Jess,” shall I take him for a while?” and she gratefully handed him over.

“Thank you Jess,” she said softly,” I had a bad night, something woke me up,” and then after a minute she gave him a speculative look,” I guess you were woken up too? “

Jess blushed and looked at the baby for a few minutes before meeting her gaze.

“Yeah I was,” he admitted,” and I figure you know who by, too.”

She just nodded.

“Nothing happened,” he said quickly” I sent her back to bed… I wouldn’t do that, not with a kid like that, you know that don’t you?” he said softly.

“Yes I know,” she said,” of course I do, and I know what a little mischief maker she is too. But her Pa don’t Jess and if he finds out what’s been happening, then it won’t be Ellie that’s at fault…not in Wes’s eyes anyways.”

“Well maybe someone wants to tell him what his daughter is really like before it’s too late,” said Jess with feeling.

“Oh I don’t think she is that bad,” she said cheerfully” she is just a little flirt.”

“Rebecca,” said Jess firmly,” she is one heck of a lot more than a flirt, she wanted to stay with me last night. I darn well had to pick her up and chuck her out, that’s more than just a little mischief maker, trust me.”

She looked shocked,” then Tobias is right, he said she was a wrong ‘un…….poor Jane and Wes it will break their hearts if she goes bad, I know it will.”

“Well lets put it this way,” said Jess gently,” not all men are as understanding as I am and I guess she’ll find herself in real big trouble some time soon, if someone doesn’t rein her in, and to be honest iffen she was my daughter well I’d be makin’ her see sense before it’s too late.”

She nodded sagely;” I think you are probably right Jess, but I guess it’s not our problem thank goodness,” and they exchanged a warm smile as the baby cooed and laughed.

“You’re no trouble to ya Ma are you boy?” Jess said softly.

Just at that moment Ellie May walked in and seeing Jess with the baby in his arms her heart stood still and she looked at him with a rapt expression on her face and sitting down next to him said,” So you like babies then Jess?”

Jess and Rebecca exchanged an amused look,” Some, I guess,” he said, smiling down at the little boy.

“I hear you have a boy of your own,” she continued looking adoringly at him.

Jess just nodded and said nothing and then the tension was lifted as Tobias breezed in demanding more coffee and Jess was able to chat to him, leaving Ellie just to look on and admire her quarry.

And that was exactly how Jess was beginning to feel like a hunted animal as she spent all her time just trying to sit near him or hanging on his every word and he couldn’t wait for the time to pass when Wes would be able to ride and he would be out of there.

Chapter 4

The following morning Wes professed himself well enough to travel and with Rebecca and Tobias’s blessing they set off after breakfast. The couple gave Jess a particularly warm send off with lots of messages for Daisy,and Mike back at the ranch and they promised to visit Jane and Wes in the next week or two.

They made good progress and Jess figured they would make it back to the Hudson’s place well before sunset. As he rode along though he kept getting a strange feeling that they were being observed and every now and again he would rein in Traveller and cast a glance behind him or around through the dense pines , but he could see nothing.

After a while he relaxed and with Wes leading the party Ellie and Jess followed him riding together and chatting. Jess was pleasantly surprised when she turned out to be good company, when she wasn’t trying to flirt with him and she entertained him with tales of her little sisters exploits, especially young Kate who seemed to get herself in as many scrapes as Mike did.

They were about an hours ride away from the Hudson’s place and he had just been laughing at something Ellie had said when two rifle shots rang out from somewhere just above them and Jess fell from Traveller like a stone. Ellie screamed and Wes turned his mount and was just in time to see the bushwhacker look down from his vantage point above the track and then kick his horse off at speed. Wes fired a couple of shots but they went wide and he figured he needed to help Jess rather than pursue the attacker.

Jumping down from his horse he ran over to where Jess had fallen, his unconscious form was now cradled in Ellie’s arms.

“Oh Pa, I think he’s dead,” she said in an anguished voice.

Wes looked down at Jess. He had a wound to the temple which was bleeding profusely and another to the upper arm, he was deathly pale, but on close inspection was still breathing, but deeply unconscious.

Wes took his bandana and cleaned the head wound, “I reckon he’s just grazed,” he said, the bullet hasn’t gone in, looks worse than it is.” and then he turned his attention to the arm wound and bandaged it tightly to stop the bleeding.

Then with Ellie’s help he half dragged half lifted Jess up onto the tough looking Cob Wes was riding and then he jumped up behind and supporting Jess’s still unconscious body they moved on again with Ellie leading Traveller behind her.

When they finally arrived at the cabin, Slim came running out and was shocked to see the state of his buddy.

“How in Hell did this happen?” he asked, before even introducing himself and grabbing hold of Jess he helped Wes get him down from the horse and carried himto the couch in the cabin.

“Bushwhacked,” said Wes succinctly,” back on the trail a way, got him in the head and arm. I patched him up some but figured it better we just rode on and got him back here.”

“Sure, sure,” muttered Slim quietly and then turned to Wes.

”Sorry I’m Slim Sherman,” and offered his hand.

Wes shook it firmly.

“Wes Hudson and I guess you’ve met the rest of my family. I really appreciate you staying here and lookin’ out for them Mr Sherman.”

Then looking around, “say where are they?”

“Don’t worry they’re all down at the stream, kids having a swim and Ma doing some washing, they’ll be back shortly.”

“Right,” said Wes thankfully,” lets see to your partner.”

Just then Ellie came in from where she had been caring for the horses.

She smiled vaguely at Slim and said hello, before running over to the couch and kneeling down by Jess, looking at his still form.

Wes turned to Slim, “guess our Ellie May has taken a shine to Jess there,” he said, smiling indulgently.

“Yeah, figures,” said Slim softly, and inwardly thinking, ‘how in Hell does he do it…what is it with him and women?’He’s completely out of it and still he’s got a female drooling over him, and he shook his head in grudging admiration tinged with envy.

Then looking down at his buddy he forgot his jealous thoughts and was immediately filled with fear.

Jess looked really pale and his breathing was shallow and laboured. It appeared that what he thought of as a manageable injury could be something very much more serious.

“How long has he been like this?” he asked Wes.

“About an hour or so,” he replied.

Slim went and found a bowl of cool water and some cloths and started bathing his friend’s face.

After a while he finally started to come round, groaned and then gradually opened his deep blue eyes peering at Slim like he had never seen him before.

“Hey pard, you OK… .it’s me, Slim,” he said softly.

Jess looked around the cabin and then back at Slim and after a few minutes the light of recognition finally shone in his eyes.

” Slim, how ya doin’?” he said weakly.

“One hell of a lot better than you,” replied Slim with a rueful smile.

“Yeah, got myself shot up some.” he said softly, before groaning again and putting a hand up to his head.

“Head aching?” asked Slim gently.

“Something fierce,” said Jess,” and I feel real sick.”

Wes went for the bucket just in time as Jess was violently ill.

Afterwards he apologized profusely.

”It’s OK Jess,” said Slim softly, “ feeling kinda dizzy too?”

Jess just nodded and then grimaced as the simple gesture caused even more pain.

“What’s up with him?” asked Wes as Jess closed his eyes again against the pain.

“Got him self a real bad concussion after that bullet wound to his head,” said Slim.

Wes looked impressed.

”Jess said you were real good at doctoring, he convinced me you would care for my Jane real well, anyways.”

Slim looked back at him with a rueful smile.

“I guess it’s having Jess around,” he said,” the amount of times he gets beat up, or shot, you kinda pick it up from the Doc.”

Wes smiled,” I used to be that way, a bit of a hell raiser, but guess I’ve settled down some now I’ve got five kids and one on the way.”

“What?” gasped Slim looking amazed,” I thought you just had these three girls.”

“No, grown up twin boys too,” he said proudly,” and Jane in the family way again.”

No wonder she looks so exhausted and beaten thought Slim secretly, but offered his congratulations.

He glanced down at Jess who was lying with his eyes closed but he could tell by the faint frown that he had heard the conversation and was feeling the same as Slim.

Just then there was a commotion outside and suddenly Jane and the girls were there.

Jane launched herself at Wes, delighted to see him and after a fond embraced stood back and said sternly,” and where have you been all this time Wes Hudson I do declare, off you go to find your wayward daughter and I have to send out a search party for you.”

Then she saw Ellie May and hugged her and after a minute pulled back and grinning over at Slim said, cheerfully,” and so where is the search party?”

Slim gave her a worried look and then gestured to the couch and she suddenly saw Jess for the first time.

She ran across the room and knelt by the couch, taking his hand as he opened his eyes.

” Jess,” she whispered “what happened?

“It’s OK,” he said softly,” just got shot up some,” before closing his eyes and drifting into off again.

She looked up at where Slim had come to stand beside her.

”He’s really bad?” she whispered looking anxiously back at Jess.

“Yeah,” said Slim softly,” guess he ain’t the best right now.”

He remained deeply asleep for the rest of the day and it wasn’t until after supper when the household had retired to bed that he finally woke up again.

Slim and Wes had pulled in an old cot from another room so that Slim could sleep in the large main room with Jess and keep an eye on him.

Slim had been sitting by the fire with a coffee, when Jess woke up and turning to his friend, smiled and said,

“Hey sleepy head how are you feeling?”

“Ish felt besher,” responded Jess.

Slim gave him a surprised look as Jess’s speech was so slurred,” hey buddy you sound like you’ve been on Wes’ s hill whiskey are you OK?”

“Watcha sayin’? “slurred Jess,” Ish no’ been drinkin’”

“I know pard,” said Slim giving him a concerned look,” but you sure are slurring your words. I figure that head wound is a mite worse than we first thought.” Then more quietly,” gee I wish Doc Sam wasn’t so far away in Laramie, we could sure use his advice right now.”

Slim was referring to Doc Sam Baker their doctor and good friend, but he was too far away to be any help and so Slim figured it was down to him.

“Still feeling sick and dizzy?” he asked.

Jess nodded,” havin’ shruble sheeing too,” he responded.

“Trouble seeing?” asked Slim looking even more concerned.

“Yesh, kinda blurry.”

Slim went and fetched him some water and after he had drunk some settled him back on the pillow.

”Try and sleep Jess, I guess we’ve just gotta sit it out. I figure Sam would say for you to rest and the injury will heal eventually,” Slim said reassuringly.

Jess just nodded slightly and closed his eyes again, but it was the start of a long night for both of them as Jess became more and more restless and agitated, cursing the vicious headache that was making him so querulous. And although Slim could see he was trying hard to be strong he knew he must be feeling really bad as Jess rarely fussed too much when he was ill.

Half way through the night though he was practically beside himself, the pain in his head was so bad.

Slim suddenly remembered he had some of Rebecca’s medicinal herbs in his saddle bag and he left his friend for a few minutes while he brewed them into a tea. On returning he helped Jess sit up and held the drink to his lips.

“Here drink this down buddy it will help you sleep,” he said softly.

To his surprise his partner did as he was asked without a murmur and half an hour later he finally drifted off into a deep sleep and Slim sighed in relief. It had been real hard for him seeing Jess suffer that way and he just hoped to goodness his partner would be more his old self in the morning.

The following morning Jess was still out of it when Slim joined Jane and Wes and the children around the breakfast table.

Jane had been in to look at Jess and had cleaned his face up with a cool cloth, but he hadn’t stirred at all and she had exchanged an anxious glance with Slim.

Now the meal was nearly over and after the children had left the table to do their chores, Slim said quietly to Wes, “did you get a look at this bushwhacker, and why do you think he shot Jess, heck he’s not even from these parts?”

Wes gave him a steady look at the mention of the shooting.

” I think I know who it was,” he said softly, looking from Slim to Jane.” I guess it was Homer Jackson, sure looked like his pinto as he rode off anyways.”

“Homer,” gasped Jane,” Ellie’s beau, surely not, why ever would he do such a thing?”

“Ex beau,” said Wes, “and jealously I guess. He saw Jess and Ellie together and he must have figured he was the new man in her life. You know our Ellie,” he said sorrowfully,” so fickle, always off with a new man the moment she ditches one, well I reckon she decided to play with fire once too often.”

“Only it was my best buddy that got burnt,” said Slim angrily.

Wes nodded.

” I was going to ride out and try and find him today, take him in to the law. Once his Pa knows about this well, he’ll help me, Jackson is a good man and he’ll be that mad, trust me Slim, the boy will get his just rewards. I’ll ride out this morning, do you want to come? “

Slim considered the offer for a minute and then declined it.

” No thanks. I guess you’ve got the situation covered and the way I’m feeling right now…well I might be tempted into taking the law into my own hands. Besides I think Jess needs me here right now, he’s real bad Wes.”

“Well I’m truly sorry to hear that Slim,” the mountain man replied. “Jane here will give you all the help you need,” and with that he went and got ready to depart for the Jackson place.

Sometime later Slim and Jane were sitting back down at the breakfast table, enjoying a final coffee after seeing Wes off on his mission, when Slim looked over to his buddy on the couch and was pleased to see him stirring.

But then Jess suddenly sat up and got off the couch staggering a little.

“Hey pard, take it easy,” said Slim getting up and walking towards his friend.

Jess cast him a look, but didn’t seem to recognise him and he looked flushed and very agitated.

“Hot,” he said loudly,” too darn hot in here,” and made for the door.

Slim and Jane exchanged a concerned glance before Slim hurried towards Jess.

However, before he got to his side Jess had collapsed on the floor and his whole body started jerking and bucking in a terrible convulsion.

Slim and Jane looked on horror stricken as Jess continued to fit for several minutes. After a few moments Slim threw himself down on the floor by his friend, but knew he couldn’t do anything but wait for the traumatic event to finish.

Eventually the jerks and muscle spasms became less and he finally fell back deeply unconscious.

“Oh buddy,” said Slim softly looking down at his friends limp body,” what in Hell has happened to you?”

Then he cast his mind back to the war and he had a recollection of one of the men in his platoon being shot in the head and the subsequent fits he had endured, until he finally died of bleeding in the brain several weeks later.

“Oh no,” he thought,” please God no.”

Jane had rushed to his side and with a reassuring arm around Slim she said softly,” shall we get him back on the couch?”

Slim nodded and they lifted him back onto the couch and Jane once more wiped his sweating face and chest while Slim just sat back and watched a look of abject misery and fear on his handsome face.

When Jane had completed her task she sat back on her heels and looked over at where Slim was seated on a chair on the other side of the fire place.

“You have seen this another time, you knew what to do didn’t you, so has Jess had these sort of fits before?” she asked quietly.

“No,” said Slim,” I guess it’s the head wound he’s suffered. I have seen it before though, in the war…one of my men, he died from it Jane, his brain was damaged by the bullet, he had that slurred speech, lost his sight and then the fits…..until he died,” he finished his voice thick with emotion.

She looked alarmed,” has Jess had those symptoms,” she asked, “the slurred speech and eyesight problems?”

Slim nodded,” last night, real bad.”

She gasped turning pale.

“What about this trooper of yours, how bad was the head wound?”

Slim thought about it.

”Oh pretty bad I guess, but the Doc fixed him up OK in the end. We all thought he’d pull through until the fits started. I remember the doc saying, he might have the odd one or two fits, but if it got more than that, well likelihood was, he’d either have the seizures for life and they’d eventually kill him.”

“Well then Slim, the bullet just grazed Jess, he’s not as badly hurt as the trooper was. And he’s only had the one fit. I think we need to keep him real quiet, sedate him with some of Rebecca’s herbs maybe, and give him time to heal,” she said trying to look positive.

Slim gave her the ghost of a smile.

”Hey, I guess you talk a lot of sense,” he said softly,” as soon as he comes around we’ll get some more of that herb tea down him and when he starts creating…well, guess we’ll know he’s on the mend.”

“That’s the spirit,” she said smiling across at her new friend,” and from what I’ve seen of Jess so far, I guess he’s a fighter, I reckon he’s in with a good chance,” and with that she went off to prepare the medicine.

Neither of them had seen Ellie, hovering in the doorway and she had seen everything from the onset of the convulsion to the conversation between her Ma and Slim.

Now she came running into the room tears streaming down her face and she threw herself on Jess’s recumbent form sobbing hysterically.

”Oh my darling you’re going to die and it’s my fault,” she sobbed loudly.

Slim was so angry he could hardly speak.

”Yeah, it is all your fault,” he spat, “but he ain’t gonna die, and if you can’t be any help then I suggest you leave, you’re just making matters worse.”

And after taking one look at his angry face, she fled from the room still sobbing uncontrollably.

Chapter 5

Over the next few days and nights Slim and Jane sat with Jess and kept him pretty well sedated. When he did wake up, his speech was so slurred as to be almost unintelligible and he hardly seemed to recognize anyone.

Slim became more and more worried and even considered taking the long ride back to Laramie to fetch the doc. However on the evening of the third day Jess awoke while Slim was just thinking of turning in, and for the first time his eyes had the light of recognition in them.

“How are ya feeling,” asked Slim softly, coming over and sitting on the edge of the couch by his partner.

“Bit better,” said Jess quite clearly.

“Well thank goodness for that,” smiled Slim in relief,” I was beginning to think you’d started talkin’ Japanese.”


“You know like those traveling circus people that landed at the Ranch with Mike.”

“Yeah,” said Jess impatiently,”I know what Japanese means, I just don’t know why you think I’m talkin’ it.”

“Well, it’s your speech,” explained Slim,” it’s been so slurred, we could hardly understand you, and you haven’t seemed to recognize me either.”

“Oh I knew it was you,” said Jess softly, “just couldn’t see you too well.”

“What, not at all?”

Hardly, no.”

“Gee, Jess that’s awful, can you see me OK now?”

Jess gave him his cheeky grin,” ‘fraid so, every ugly inch of ya “.

They smiled at each other,” guess you’re on the mend buddy,” he said softly. “Now you just behave and do as I tell ya, and maybe we’ll get you home in one piece.”

“What do ya mean?” asked Jess,” I’m OK.”

“The Hell you are Jess, you had a fit, don’t you remember? “

“No, I don’t.”

Slim shook his head sadly,” well maybe it’s for the best that you don’t, but you sure have been poorly and you ain’t right yet,” and with that he went and fetched the herbal medicine.

Jess sniffed it suspiciously; “this smells like one of Rebecca’s god awful concoctions,” he said.

“Just get it down you, and stop your complaining,” said Slim grinning at him.

“What’s so funny?” asked Jess angrily.

“Nothing,” said Slim gently,” it’s just kinda good to see your ornery side again.”

Although Jess was indeed on the mend it was going to take a lot longer than either of them realized then, for him to be back to full strength.

The following day he was again exhausted, but at least his speech and vision seemed intact and Slim felt it OK to leave him for a little while.

Wes had returned from his mission, seeking Homer Jackson, and reported that the lad had been severely dealt with by the law and on Wes’s evidence they had already imprisoned him for a lengthy sentence. Now Wes was able to relax some, and he suggested he and Slim spent a few hours hunting while Jane kept an eye on Jess.

“After all, you don’t want to head home with just those old antlers,” said Wes laughing.

Slim had agreed and then he suddenly became aware of the passage of time, and he said thoughtfully,

“Jess and I should be on our way back by now, can’t expect the neighbours to mind the Relay for ever and Daisy will be fretting too.”

“Not without cause,” said Wes casting him an amused look,” guess ol’ Jess there ain’t goin’ to be ready to head out anytime soon though.”

Slim agreed,” I reckon not but I kinda hate to leave him.”

“Shucks, don’t you worry about him,” smiled Wes kindly,” we’ll take care of him like he was one of our own, besides I guess I owe you both, seein’ as how you looked after my Jane.”

Then thoughtfully,” and poor old Jess only got into this mess because of my family.”

“Well yeah,” I suppose said Slim quietly.

“No suppose about it,” said Wes firmly,” there is bad feeling on the mountain Slim, real bad feeling about my Ellie May. Folks are saying it’s her wicked ways were the cause of all this. Jess bein’ shot up and Homer landing in jail, well they’re putting the blame, all at the door of my girl”. Then he gave Slim a sad look”, and I guess I can see their point,” he admitted,” figure my little girl ain’t quite as wonderful as I once thought. But it’s hard you know Slim, real hard admitting that to yourself.”

“Don’t feel too bad,” said Slim gently, “guess it ain’t easy bringing up girls, especially out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“That’s right,” said Wes,” that’s why I’m thinkin’ of sending her off to stay with kin.”

Just then they heard the sound of a movement deep in the forest, “could be some of those Elk your hankering to get in your sites,” said Wes with a grin and all family problems forgotten the two took off after the game.


Meanwhile back at the cabin Jess had eaten a little breakfast and had fallen asleep again almost at once.

An hour or so later Jane heard him stir and went and sat on the edge of the couch beside him.

“How are you feeling? ” she asked kindly.

Jess smiled up at her, his deep blue eyes beginning to regain their usual sparkle.

” OK thanks Jane,” and then more softly,” but you’re looking kind of tired, I’m sorry I’ve caused so much extra work for you.”

She looked down into his kind eyes and she suddenly felt incredibly moved, and tears sprang to her eyes.

“Hey, what’s up?” asked Jess quickly,” did I say something to upset you, I didn’t mean…”

“No,” she broke in quickly,” it’s just me; ignore me Jess I guess I’m kind of over emotional, women get a bit foolish that way when they’re expecting.”

Jess gave her an intense look, “are you not happy about the baby then?” he asked softly.

“Oh yes,” she said at once, then…”no… oh Jess I don’t know, all I can think of is that it is another mouth to feed and I just don’t know how we will manage, and she started to weep in earnest.”

“Sweetheart, don’t,” said Jess softly, her weary troubled face again tugging at his heart strings as he remembered his Ma.

At the endearment her eyes opened wide and she stopped crying and after a few minutes and gave him a weak smile.

” Oh Jess,” she said softly, “you are so kind and understanding, I know its silly but I feel like I’ve known you for ever. You do really understand me don’t you?”

“I guess,” he said gently,” I can see you’re worn out from all those kids and the hard life up here and all the worry. Sure I can understand, it’s the life I lived as a kid back on the panhandle, I guess you never forget that kind of suffering and poverty.”

“I knew it,” she said softly, “you really do understand… I just wish Wes would. I love him Jess, with all my heart, but sometimes, well he drives me mad. We keep having these children and all he says when I worry is, ‘the Lord will provide woman’, drives me crazy,” she finished with a little laugh.

Jess smiled back.

“I guess the important thing is that you love each other,” he said softly,” there wasn’t a lot of love in our house. I guess if there had been, things would have been a bit easier on my Ma.”

She gave him a little smile, “that’s who you think of when you look at me isn’t it Jess, your Ma? “

“I guess,” he said softly and then saw a hurt look on her face.

“Hell when she was young I mean,” he said, “the memories I have of her……well she was only your age, she died when I was only 15.”

“I see,” she said as once,” I’m so sorry Jess.”

“Well it was all a long time ago,” he said softly.

She smiled down at him and suddenly he looked so vulnerable and young she couldn’t resist brushing his unruly hair back and she leaned over and kissed him gently on his forehead., before pulling back and giving him a tender smile.

He smiled back,” what was that for?” he said softly.

“Just because…… “

“Ma! What are you doing? ”screamed Ellie from where she was standing by the door.

Jane leapt up,” nothing child, don’t be silly and you’ve no right creeping up on folk like that.”

“And you’ve no right kissing Jess,” cried the girl before running off crying.

“Oh Lord,” said Jane with feeling, “what ever will that girl do next, I’d better talk to her,” and she marched off leaving Jess feeling somewhat bemused.

She returned sometime later looking even more exhausted and flopped down by Jess again,” Kids,” she said, “they drive you crazy”.

“Tell me,” said Jess gently.

“Oh one of them thinks she’s a boy and all she wants to do is shoot things…. I ask you Jess who would want to marry our Kate?”

“Well,” said Jess grinning back,” figure it would be kinda interesting being married to a character like your Kate, though I guess she’s a mite young for me at the moment.”

Jane smiled at that and continued, “and the other one thinks she’s in love with every man she meets…including you Jess and I apparently have just ruined her life…so what do you think of my eldest daughter?”

“I figure she’s a mite young for me too,” he said honestly,” and I’ve already told her that.”

She looked more serious,” tell me the truth Jess has she made a play for you?”

He was silent for a moment and then looking deep into her anxious eyes, said, “Yes, yes she has Jane.”

She sucked in a quick intake of breath.

“Nothing happened,” he said quickly,” I sent her back to bed; she came into the barn in the night, at Tobias and Rebecca’s place.”

She looked down embarrassed for a moment.

” I’m so sorry Jess, “she said,” I’d no idea things had gone this far with her. I knew she was behaving badly with theJackson boy, but at least she knew him……but to proposition someone, well, someone she had only just met, well that is just plain sluttish,” she said bitterly.

Jess said nothing to that; there was nothing he could say. After a few minutes he looked across at Jane where she had moved to sit close to the fire peering into the flames in despair.

“Did you put her straight about us,” he asked after a few minutes,” the way we were before?”

“I tried to, but she wouldn’t listen,” she said wearily.

“Like me to talk to her?” he asked,” I would hate for her to say anything to Wes, for him to get the wrong idea about us……. he would be getting the wrong idea wouldn’t he Jane,” he said softly.

She looked deep into his eyes and then sighed.

“Yes, of course,” she said softly. “I can’t pretend I’m not attracted to you Jess because I am, but I wouldn’t risk my marriage, and for all my moaning I guess Wes and I are good together. That’s not to say iffen I’d seen you first, well “………….…she said with a small wicked grin.

Jess gave her a cheeky wink, “send your daughter in, Mrs Hudson,” he said lightly,” and I’ll try and talk some sense into her.”

A little later Ellie May came in looking sulky and sat down by the fire casting a glance over at Jess.

” Ma said you wanted to see me,” she said after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” said Jess softly and patting the edge of the couch said,” Come here Ellie I need to talk to you and I’m feelin’ kinda tired I can’t talk too loudly.”

She looked concerned and came and sat beside him,” can I get you something? “

“No, I’m OK thanks…….. Ellie, what you saw between me and your Ma, it was a kinda private moment and I wouldn’t want you or your Pa to get the wrong idea.”

“Go on,” she said,” it’s hard for me to understand why my Ma was kissing you though.”

Jess gave a deep sigh and tried again.

“Sometimes it’s real difficult being grown up,” he said softly, “you have all this responsibility, like your Ma has for all you kids and looking after your Pa and the new baby when it arrives and I guess she copes real good,” he said smiling at the girl.

She frowned, “yeah, I guess so go on.”

“ But sometimes, well its kinda comforting to have someone there just for you,to listen to your problems and I guess that’s what I was doing with your Ma this morning, being there just for her,” he said softly.

“Listening to her and understanding….. and well, she really appreciated that and, just for a minute there, we felt real close. But……. just for a minute, it’s your Pa she loves and that’s the end of it…..now do you understand what I’m saying?” he asked gently.

“I guess so,” she said quietly”, it was just seeing you together that way. I reckon I was just jealous, I’m real sorry Jess.”

“Jess!” she said again fearfully as he had suddenly collapsed back and his eyes closed.

“Ma,” yelled Ellie, “come quick, its Jess.”

Jane ran in and was just in time to see Jess’s body go into spasm and he started fitting again.

”Oh God, no,” said Jane,” he’s having another seizure,” and all they could do was watch in alarm as he lay there the convulsion shaking his whole frame.

It was over in a few minutes though and he came around almost at once and when he spoke Jane was relieved that he was not slurring this time.

“What happened, “he asked looking groggy,” did I have another of those turns? “

Jane nodded,” I think you’ve overdone it Jess, it’s my fault I shouldn’t have been burdening you with my problems.”

“Hell, you’re no burden,” he said gently,” I’m fine now really.”

Then he looked at Jane and said urgently,” Please don’t tell Slim, I know he needs to get back to the ranch and he’ll never leave if he thinks I’m bad.”

Jane shook her head gently,” I can’t lie to him Jess, he has a right to know.”

“No please,” he said, “you don’t understand, we are business partners, we’ll both stand to lose everything we have if he don’t get back to the ranch. If he gets stuck up here and the weather closes in for the winter, well that’s the end of our business, not to mention Daisy and Mike’s home….. please Jane, don’t say anything.”

After a minute she sighed and then nodded.

“OK, but Jess, you must promise to look after yourself and do as I say, I have to get you fit and well again.”

He nodded.

”Sure, sure,” and then they heard the return of the hunters and the next hour or so was spent in hearing about their adventures.

That evening when the others had retired, Jess broached the subject of Slim returning home without him.

“I guess you’d better get moving,” he said,” now you’ve gotten your trophy”

He was referring to the handsome Elk, Slim had shot that day and which had been butchered and laid ready for transporting back, in several large gunny sacks.

“I know the weather has turned colder, but that meat won’t keep for ever, sooner you can get it back for Daisy to lay down the better”.

“You trying to get rid of me buddy?” said Slim with a friendly grin.

Truth was Jess wanted him out of there in case he succumbed to another seizure as he knew Slim would never leave him if he knew he was still so sick.

“No,” he said laughing,” just don’t wanna be eating rancid meat all winter.”

“OK,” said Slim giving him a speculative look,” but are you sure you will be OK here….. you look kinda rough tonight partner.”

“Oh I’m fine, just sick of bein’ fussed over by all these women folk,” he said with a cheeky wink.

“Yeah, that’ll be the day,” said Slim laughing, “can’t get enough of the women folk fussing you, that’s the truth of it,”he finished.

Then,” OK buddy I’d better head off tomorrow and figure another week should see you OK to ride?” he asked.

“Yeah sure,” said Jess looking away,” I’ll be fine by then.”

Slim hadn’t noticed the look in Jess’s eye, as he was throwing another log on the fire, but if he had looked over he would have seen the worry etched on his partners face as Jess wondered if he would, actually ever be well enough to ride out.

The following morning after a hearty breakfast Slim made ready to leave, but when the time came he had a real problem walking out and leaving his best friend.

Jess was still looking exhausted and although the wounds had started to heal well, Slim could see he was still far from healthy.

“I don’t know what Daisy and Mike will have to say when I ride in without you,” he said sorrowfully.

“Oh just tell them I’m being held against my will be four dangerous females,” he said winking at Amy the youngest, who giggled back.

“Well I would partner, but with your track record I hardly think she’d believe it was against your will,” said Slim with a smirk.

Then more quietly, he said for Jess’s ears only, “seriously pard are you sure you’re OK?”

“Sure I’m sure,” said Jess smiling back,” now will you get out of here and give me some peace,” and with that they shook hands and Slim lit off, his heart heavy, knowing that Jess was joshing to hide his true feelings.

After Slim had gone Jane appeared with some of Rebecca’s medicine.

“Aw, no not that god awful stuff,” moaned Jess.

“Jess,” said Jane firmly, “you promised, now do I have to ride after Slim and tell him the truth? “

“Give it here,” he said quickly and taking the cup downed it in one.

And that set the agenda for the next week, Jess, mostly, being the exemplary patient and Jane bullying him if he wouldn’t rest or take his medication, with the result being, that by the end of the following week he had suffered no more of the seizures and felt strong enough for the journey home at last.

Chapter 6

The morning of his last day, after breakfast, when the children had left to do their chores, Wes and Jane asked to speak to Jess on an important issue. They took their coffee to the main room and all sat around a blazing fire as the weather had turned very cold.

Jess was feeling nervous as he thought maybe Ellie May had told her father about the close relationship that had developed between Jess and his Jane. So it was with some relief when Wes gave him a serious look and said,

“ I really don’t know how I’ve got the nerve to ask you this Jess, after all you’ve been through, but…..well, we need to ask you, is it possible you could help us out with our Ellie May?”

Jess looked from Jane to Wes and back and feeling very uncomfortable said,” Well in what way?”

“Well,” said Wes looking deeply concerned, “we really need Ellie off the mountain, I figure the way things are after everything that has happened…… she really ain’t too popular. Upset too many folk and we’re a small group of families here Jess and feelings go deep, when people are hurt.”

Jess said nothing just looked on and waited.

“So,” continued Wes finally,” we want her to go to kin just north of Laramie…and we were wondering iffen you’d take her for us on your way home, seeing as how I really don’t want to leave our Jane right now, with her being in the family way and all.”

Jane couldn’t look him in the eye and it was obvious that she wanted no part of asking Jess.

After a minute or two he said, “Does she know, and does she want to go?”

“Oh sure,” said Wes,” all she’s ever wanted, since she was a young woman, was to get down off the old mountain. The kin she’ll be going to, well maybe they’ll be better at curbing her head strong ways than we have been,” he concluded sadly.

Jess’s immediate instinct was to say no. The last thing he wanted was to spend time out in the wild with that little trouble maker.

Then he looked across at Jane’s tired pale face, and remembered about her worries. About the extra mouth to feed, and how with Ellie gone the stresses would not be as great, emotionally or financially for the family and he knew what he had to do…to do for Jane alone.

“Jane,” he said softly and waited until she finally met his eye,” and is this what you want too? “

She looked from Wes to Jess and gave a tiny nod; “please,” she said softly, her eyes looking into the dark depths of his.

For a moment it felt to Jess like they were alone in the room and somehow he knew she felt the same, as they connected at a deeper level. Then he tore his gaze away and looking back at Wes, and said, “sure, I’d be glad to help you.”

Later when Wes had gone about his chores and they were alone again, Jane turned to Jess.

”You didn’t have to do that you know, I do realize how difficult it will be for you and I just want to say how much I appreciate it.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” he said softly,” I’m doing it for you, you know that don’t you? I just hope it helps some.”

“Oh it will,” she said, “you’ll never know how much, I’m beholden to you Jess.”

He shook his head, “No,” he said gently,” no you’re not.”

He reached out for her hand to her and then Amy ran in to the room and the spell was broken.

The following morning they were all packed up and ready to go soon after first light .Jane had provided an early breakfast and then Ellie disappeared to collect a few last minute items. She had packed extremely lightly as the family didn’t have a spare mount for her and so she and Jess were going to have to ride double on Traveller. Her worldly goods had therefore been brought down to all that would fit into two saddlebags.

When she returned a few minutes later Jess had to hide a smile as she looked about two dress sizes larger. Grinning at her, he said quietly,” looks like you’ve filled out some since breakfast.”

She gave him an annoyed look,” wearing all my clothes ain’t I,” she said crossly,” you don’t think I’m leavin’ my best dress here do ya?”

Jess just shrugged and exchanged an amused look with Wes, but said nothing.

Pretty soon after, that they were all ready to leave and the whole family came out to say goodbye.

There were tears and laughter. Finally Jess shook hands with Wes and then bent and kissed Jane gently on the cheek and whispered,” take care of yourself sweetheart,” before hopping up on Traveller and pulling Ellie May up behind him he kicked his mount on down the mountain and in the direction of home.

They had been travelling for an hour or so when a shot rang out, the bullet hitting the ground just in front of them and reining Traveller in, Jess swore.

“What in Hell…” as a woman stood in their path with a shot gun aimed at Jess’s belly.

She was dressed in typically shabby mountain clothes, an old brown dress a fur jacket and topped off with a rather incongruous mans’ Stetson. She was in her late thirties and had blond hair tied back, but it was her steely grey, furious eyes that Jess noticed first.

“Where are you takin’ that floozy?” she shouted angrily.

“Watch your mouth Ma’am,” said Jess equally angrily,” and what is it to you?”

“Well I’ll tell ya,” cried the woman, “this here slip of a girl is the reason my boy Homer is banged up in jail, the way she treated him, well it’s nothing more than shameful.”

Jess suddenly let fly with the full fury of the Harper temper.

“The reason your boy is in jail is because he bushwhacked me and darn near killed me,” he spat. Then pointing to the still angry scar on his head, I guess it’s a good job your boy is such a lousy shot because another inch to the left and we wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation and your son would have hung.”

She drew back, white with shock, but then seemed to rally.

”None the less it was this girl that drove him to it,” and then looking closely at Ellie, who had remained silent with fear, said,” Well, dang me, is the girl in the family way?”

Jess hid a smile knowing that Ellie looked a bit that way with all the layers of clothes.

” No she ain’t,” he said firmly.

The woman tossed her head and then looking back at Jess said, “so you’re takin’ her on are ya mister?”

“No I ain’t,” said Jess, impatiently,” and I ain’t got time to sit here chatting to you all day either, now will yer get out of the way or do I have to climb down and move yer?”

The woman reluctantly moved to the side of the track allowing them to pass and then as a parting shot she shouted after them as they disappeared down the trail,” she’ll bring you nothing but sorrow mister, nothing but sorrow,” as Jess kicked Traveller on to a trot.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” muttered Jess to himself, but just kept riding.

He continued muttering to himself and cussing softly as they rode down the mountain until he was suddenly aware of muffled sobs coming from behind him and could feel Ellie shuddering as she held onto him.

“You OK?” he asked half turning, but she just nodded.

“Guess we’ll stop for a break when we hit the stream, just along here,” he said cheerfully, but got no response.

After another ten minutes they reached the stream and Jess dismounted and on helping Ellie down was shocked to see her tear stained face and red puffy eyes.

“Hey, don’t take on so,” he said softly, “yer can’t really blame the woman you know. I guess you can’t ride rough shod over people’s feelings without some come back…yer know Ellie?”

She nodded sadly,” I guess,” she said,” I never thought, didn’t realize he was so upset.”

“No…well, I guess you have to put it down to experience and try and learn from it,” he said softly.

She looked deep into his friendly blue eyes,” I wouldn’t ever treat you like that Jess, I really wouldn’t,” she said earnestly.

“No…well you ain’t gonna get the chance,” he said firmly,” I’ve already told you, at 15 you’re way too young for me Ellie. If I was you I’d forget about boys for a while, just think about the new life with your kin folk and try and make a go of it huh?”

She nodded vaguely, but he knew her heart wasn’t in it.

They filled up their canteens and watered Traveller, before heading on down the mountain and made it to the lower foothills by dusk.

All day a chilly wind had been blowing and there were big grey storm clouds billowing on the horizon.

Jess looked across and said quietly,” looks like a storm is brewing and we really need to get home before the snow, figure we’ll camp here and head off at first light.”

He set about tending to Traveller’s needs while Ellie collected firewood and they were soon settled by a blazing fire with a hot meal and after eating in a companionable silence they got ready to bed down for the night.

Jess had his bedroll and saddle on one side of the fire and put another one on the other side for Ellie and they were soon lying looking up at the stars. After a while she turned to Jess and said,” it’s kind of lonely over here you know Jess, and I’m real cold too, could do with someone to cuddle up to.”

“Don’t you start,” he said firmly,” I don’t want any of yer messin’ Ellie and I mean it. I promised your Ma and Pa I would deliver you safely and that’s all, you understand?” and with that threw her over another blanket.

After a while she said very quietly,” its Ma isn’t it Jess, you like my Ma.”

Jess heaved a big sigh, “sure I like your Ma…and your Pa and all you kids…even you, but will ya shut up an’ let a man sleep now?” he finished wearily.

After that she was quiet and a little while later Jess could hear her rhythmical breathing and knew she was sleeping.

He lay awake long afterwards thinking about her last words though,” it’s Ma isn’t it?” and as Jess thought about it, he knew there was a grain of truth in what she had said. Ellie’s Ma had become a mite more important than she should have been, and he finally fell into an uneasy sleep, wondering why he always seemed to find himself in these sort of situations, ones that he could never win.

The following morning when Jess awoke, the camp site had been transformed into a winter wonderland with a light dusting of snow and it was bitterly cold. He hurriedly threw some logs on the fire and went and shook Ellie awake.

”We’ve gotta have a quick breakfast and get moving,” he said, “snows down and more to come by the looks of it.”

Ellie yawned and stretched and then looked like she was about to turn over and go back to sleep. But Jess had no time for her nonsense.

”Come on girl, get the coffee on, while I tend to the horse, we’re outta here as soon as we’ve eaten, OK?”

“Oh Jess, what’s your hurry?” she yawned.

“I’ll tell ya what,” he said, “don’t know about you, but I ain’t about to freeze to death on the trail in the middle of a blizzard, now will ya get yourself outta your pit and get movin’?”

They were finally underway within half an hour and as Jess had predicted the snow started falling thick and fast.

As they came down from the shelter of the foothills on to the exposed plain the weather became worse and Jess took out his slicker and gave it to Ellie to wear.

“What about you?” she asked.

“I’ll be fine,” he said pulling the collar of his sheepskin jacket up and his hat firmly down before remounting and kicking Traveller on, into the storm.

They had been traveling for several hours when it became apparent to Jess that they were not going to make it back to the ranch by nightfall. Over the last couple hours he had heard the mournful cry of several wolves as they had left the mountain in search of food, and he really didn’t relish the thought of sleeping out again, in the snow with the added fear of a wolf attack.

He reined in, and decided to cut across land to an old line cabin on the edge of Sherman land, figuring they should just about make it by nightfall, and after a long hard ride they finally arrived just as dusk was falling.

When Ellie dismounted she looked pale and tired and Jess realised how much the ride had taken out of her.

“You OK?” he asked with a concerned look.

She nodded and he led her into the old cabin and after a minute located a lamp and on lighting it the small room was illuminated.

“It ain’t much,” said Jess,” but it’s warm and dry and there are plenty of logs there by the fireplace. Can you start a fire while I tend to Traveller?”

“Sure, she said and I’ll start the meal too.”

“Good girl,” he said beaming at her before turning to tend to his horse.

When he returned from bedding down Traveller, on entering the cabin there was a welcoming fire burning and the smell of beans cooking.

They ate the meagre meal and then he brewed them some good hot coffee.

Jess was exhausted and he knew Ellie felt the same and looking across at her, as she sat before the fire, he could see she was shivering and he went and fetched the half bottle of Red Eye from his saddlebag and poured a splash into their coffee cups.

She sipped her coffee gingerly and then looking at him, said giggling, “Why, Mister Harper, I do declare you’re trying to get me drunk”.

He smiled back.

“It will warm you up,” he said, “what Jonsey used to call medicinal whiskey.”

She took another sip and then said,” who is Jonsey?”

“An old guy, used to live at the ranch with us, he’s back East now with Andy, Slim’s kid brother, he’s at college there,” he said proudly.

“So who lives at the ranch now?” she asked.

“Slim, Mike, the boy we adopted a few years back and Miss Daisy”.

“Miss Daisy?”

“Yeah, she’s our housekeeper, we’ll sort of Ma really, makes sure we all behave, wash behind our ears,” he said laughing,” that kinda stuff.”

She gave a little sigh of relief, “so she’s an older woman then?”

“Oh yeah, but don’t let her hear you say that,” he said with a grin.

Ellie was looking deep into the fire.

“What are you thinkin’?” he asked gently, wondering if she was missing her folk.

“About us,” she said turning her huge green eyes on him and giving him an intense look.

“Oh Ellie,” he said sighing deeply,” there ain’t no us”.

“But there could be,” she said brightly,” see, all the boys I’ve been with are…well just boys,” and then casting him another lovelorn look, continued,” I need an experienced man in my life and I guess you’re real experienced aren’t you?”

Jess hid a smile, and just nodded.

“I guess, but relationships are about how you feel about someone, about caring for them. Not about….well, what you’re talking about, not just about the act of making love…it’s much more than that.”

She thought about what he had said.

”I guess I wasn’t really in love with any of those boys,” she said sadly,” or them with me…they were just using me.”

He nodded gently, knowing the truth would hurt her, but figured it was a lesson she needed to learn.

“That’s why it’s good to wait, until you find the right person,” he said softly,” and I mean someone your own age Ellie. I don’t wanna hurt you, but you really are just a little girl to me, a very funny, sweet one, but a young girl none the less and I just couldn’t do what you want, it just wouldn’t be right, you must understand? “

She just nodded and a while later said she was tired and curled up on one of the old cabin cots, pulled up to the fire. Jess went and found another blanket and tucked her in,” ‘Night,” he said softly.

But she said nothing, merely huddled deeper under the blanket and so Jess, turned and stretched out on the other cot and after a few minutes he heard her crying very quietly, but he knew there was nothing he could say or do to help, as he was the prime cause of her misery.

The phrase,’ gotta be cruel to be kind.’ came to mind, but as he lay there he felt terrible and maybe he’d been just too cruel ,he thought, and it was along time before he finally fell into a restless sleep.

The following morning Ellie looked flushed and tearful and refused to look Jess in the eye and said she wasn’t hungry when he offered to cook her some breakfast.

However he had more important things on his mind than a few hurt feelings, because as he opened the cabin door he was appalled to see a fresh fall of deep snow. It had drifted half way up the lean to barn door and he had to spend a good half hour digging his way in so he could feed and water Traveller and the effort left him sweating and exhausted. He was shocked at how weak he still was after his recent illness and as he came in and slumped down on the cot shaking, Ellie shot him an anxious look.

“Jess, you look terrible, she said,” you’re not going to have one of those fits are you?” she asked looking really frightened.

He gave her a weak smile,” no, I’m OK sweetheart,” he said, softly,” just a bit out of condition I guess, all that lying around while you girls waited on me hand and foot,” he laughed trying to make light of the situation.

Ellie saw through that at once and said, “can I get you anything?”

“No, I’m fine, but we have to get out of here, start heading back, there is more weather on the way and we can’t risk getting snowed in here.

Ellie secretly relished the idea; I don’t know,” she said,”sounds kind of romantic to me.”

“Well you wouldn’t think it romantic starving to death, which is what would happen if we were stuck here all winter,” he said angrily,” just pack up will ya Ellie, we need to head out right now.”

She ducked her head,” I’m sorry Jess, I’ll be ready to go in a minute,” and she started packing up their stuff, while Jess just sat trying to get his breath back, waiting for the shaking to stop.

After a few minutes he felt a little better and he helped her carry the saddlebags out to Traveller who was already saddled up and ready to go.

Jess helped Ellie up and then started leading the horse away from the cabin and through the deep snow.

“Ain’t you riding?” asked Ellie in surprise.

Jess shook his head, “no, too much strain on the old fellah under these conditions,” he said softly.

“Do you want me to walk?” she asked.

“No you don’t weigh much,” he said,” you’re OK for now, but if it gets much deeper than I guess we’ll both have to walk a while.”

Chapter 7

They had been going for about an hour when it started snowing again and the lying snow had drifted with the strong wind that had sprung up. Jess could see Traveller was blowing some and his pace slowing and he looked up apologetically at Ellie,” do you mid walking for a while sweetheart?” he asked gently.

She jumped down as onceand continued plodding along behind Jess, his form sheltering her some from the snow which was now lashing down angrily as the wind blew it hard into their faces.

Jess figured they were about an hour from the ranch when he heard Ellie give a little gasp and turning he saw her stagger and fall in the deep snow. He was quickly at her side and pulling her up he picked her up and gently placed her back in Traveller’ s saddle.

“I’m OK really,” she protested,” I don’t want your lovely horse to suffer…. “

“He’s fine,” said Jess smiling up at her,” I guess the snow will be a bit lighter shortly when we hit the Laramie road.”

Sure enough within 10 minutes they were on the road and although it was deeply rutted making the going hazardous at least the snow was less deep and there were no drifts to contend with, and Jess plodded on leading Traveller slowly homewards.

He was totally exhausted by the time they were on the final approach to the ranch and had fallen several times, but somehow managed to drag him self up again and so it was with great relief that he rounded the final bend and walked down the hill into the stable yard.

It was mid afternoon and beginning to get dark already and when he saw the welcoming light in the window and the smoke issuing from the chimney he felt he had never been so glad to be home.

All of a sudden the door burst open and Mike flew out swiftly followed by Slim and Daisy and all three stopped dead in their tracks as they saw a weary Jess leading Traveller with the young girl up in the saddle.

Mike turned to Slim and beaming said,” you just bagged an old Elk Slim, but Jess has bagged a girl,” his eyes sparkling with laughter.

“So he has,” said Slim darkly, wondering what trouble his partner had fetched up in this time. Surely he hadn’t succumbed to this child’s wily charms he thought, before dismissing the thought at once. Even Jess with his ability to end up in unsuitable liaisons wouldn’t be that down right foolish, he thought, would he?

Then all thought was pushed from his mind when Jess staggered, and as Slim rushed forwards he fell into his arms, completely drained.

“Hey, steady there buddy,” said Slim as he supported Jess and helped him into the house, settling him on the couch before going back out to help Ellie down from Traveller.

Daisy smiled warmly at her, “you look frozen, my dear, come along in,” and with that she ushered the girl into the ranch house while Slim went to take care of Traveller.

When he returned Jess was still spark out on the couch, but he opened his eyes as soon as Slim entered and sitting up quickly, said urgently,” Trav? “

“He’s fine, fed watered and rubbed down, warm blanket on, OK? “

“Thanks pard, “he said relaxing back down on the couch.

“What’s going on Jess?” asked Slim in a whisper, jabbing a thumb towards the kitchen where Daisy was chatting quietly to Ellie May, while she brewed some coffee.

Then in an even more urgent whisper, “you ain’t been messin’ with her have you Jess, Hell she’s only a kid.”

“What do ya take me for,” asked Jess angrily,” sure I haven’t been messin’ with her!”

“OK, OK simmer down, I’m sorry, of course I know you wouldn’t…it’s just, well, what is she doing here?”

“It was her Ma,” said Jess weakly,” she asked me to bring her, they wanted her off the mountain after everything that has happened, she’s to stay with old George and Betsy Potts, some distant cousins of Jane’s I think ,” he said vaguely.

“What the couple that owns the haberdasher’s in Laramie?”

“Yeah, that’s them; they live just north of the town, but own the shop too.”

“Well, shouldn’t get too many gentlemen callers in a haberdashers,” said Slim grinning.

“Yeah, I guess that’s what her Ma thought,” said Jess returning his friends grin.

“Umm,” said Slim thoughtfully,” well I’m surprised you took her on Jess, can’t have been an easy journey, what with that crush she’s got on you and all. “

“We managed,” said Jess gruffly.

“Umm,” said Slim again,” wouldn’t have thought you’d have volunteered though, that is unless you wanted to help out….. Jane…..maybe?”

“Well, maybe I did,” he replied,” nothing wrong in that is there?”

“No, I suppose not,” said Slim giving him a knowing look.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I noticed you and Jane seemed kinda close, is there something you’re not telling me pard?”

“No there ain’t…. there is nothing going on, if that’s what you mean, I was just helpin’ her out, Wes too”

“OK, if you say so”, replied Slim with a wicked wink.

“Well I do say so, and will you let it lay Slim.Anything there was…might have been…. that is,” he clarified, “well it’s over. I won’t be seeing her again, so just forget it OK?” he said looking really emotional.

Slim took pity on him at once.

”Sure,” he said softly,” I’m sorry….how are you feeling now anyway?”

Before he could reply Daisy and Ellie came in and Mike burst in from the barn where he had been sitting giving Traveller an apple at Jess’s request.

He came and bounced in and immediately cuddled up to Jess on the couch.

“Gee it’s good to have you back Jess,” he said,” we’ve missed you something fierce. Slim said as how you’d got all shot up and we were real worried.”

Jess gave him a warm hug, ”oh I’m fine now Tiger,” he said softly.

He introduced Ellie and they were soon all chatting like old friends.

Ellie had been recounting their recent adventures in the snow and she said,” I was real worried this morning, when Jess had dug out all the snow by the barn, he came in all shakin’ and I thought he was going to have yet another of those dreadful fits.”

Slim’s head shot up at that.

“What do you mean yet another, he’s only had one,” he said, throwing Jess a concerned look.

“Oh no,” piped up Ellie,” he had one the day before you left, I was so frightened.”

“Jess,” said Slim turning on his friend, “why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you wouldn’t have left me,” said Jess quietly,” and I couldn’t have risked us both being stranded up there. Hell Slim you know what would have happened to this place if we’d been away all winter.”

Slim nodded.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” and then looking from him to Daisy and back,” but are you OK, you’ve not had any more of those turns?”

He shook his head,” no, I haven’t, honestly.”

Daisy looked across at him.

”I think you will be alright dear,” she said softly, with her kind smile.” The brain is a funny old thing, doesn’t like being shaken up. I imagine the force of the bullet grazing you caused the initial fit. Then another trauma or sometimes emotional situations can cause another small fit, if the brain hasn’t completely recovered. What were you doing at the time of the second attack?” she asked out of interest.

“He was with my Ma,” said Ellie coldly,” they were….”

Jess gave her a sharp look and she faltered and finished quietly,” they were just talking that’s all and then he was talking to me…about, well something……. and that’s when he was suddenly taken bad.”

Jess looked down, blushing deeply and Slim, realizing his embarrassment quickly changed the subject. Then after a while Daisy and Ellie went off to fix supper and Jess settled down for a nap.

It was much later after they had turned in for the night that the two friends had a chance to talk properly.

“So are you sure you are OK Jess?” said Slim as they settled down in their beds for the night.

“Yeah,” said Jess softly,” guess it wasn’t exactly the restful trip we planned though, eh Pard?”

Slim smiled back,” no, I guess not, figure the winter will be kinda uncomplicated after the last few weeks any way.”

“Umm, we gotta get Ellie May delivered first I guess. The way the weather is right now, I can’t see that happening anytime soon, so let’s hope she ain’t as big a bunch of trouble as I think she is.”

Slim grinned across at his friend,” you and me both, Partner,”he said,” you and me both!”

As it turned out Ellie May was exceptionally well behaved and couldn’t do enough to help Daisy do chores around the place, and it took the friends a while before they realized what she was up to.

“Guess, she wants to stay here Pard.” whispered Slim one cold snowy morning when she had once again offered to clean out the barn,” and it just ain’t gonna happen, as soon as this snow eases , she’s off to town.”

“Oh yeah,” agreed Jess,” and I’ll drive her and make sure she’s delivered, and get a chit signed…no return,” he said smiling at his friend.

Chapter 8

As it happened the weather cleared within the week and one evening at supper time Jess told Ellie that the roads would be safe for travelling in the morning and they would make an early start.

The girl’s face was a picture of misery and she started prevaricating, she was needed to help Daisy put down some preserves and she had promised Mike she would teach him some of the old mountain songs.

“Enough,” said Jess loudly making everyone around the table jump.

Then he took a deep breath and said more quietly,” we’ve been through all this a hundred times Ellie, I promised your Ma and …..”

“Oh well,” she cut in angrily,” if you promised my Ma, well then I guess you’ll do anything to honour it.”

Jess started again, showing infinite patience that he was far from feeling.

”I promised your Ma and Pa, that I would deliver you to your kin and that is exactly what I’m gonna do. Now if you’ve finished eating go and get packed,” he concluded giving her a hard look.

With that she fled from the table in tears to the room she had been sharing with Daisy, slamming the door behind her.

Slim looked across to where Mike was looking pale and frightened.

”Go to your room and do your homework, will you Mike,” he said quietly, and the boy got up at once and ran to his room, unable to understand why his best friend was so angry.

After the youngsters had gone, Daisy and Slim looked over at Jess who was looking deeply into his coffee cup.

“You were a bit harsh there weren’t you buddy?” asked Slim gently.

Jess flashed him an angry look, but said nothing and then after a few minutes murmured,” I guess maybe I was, but darn it Slim, you know how devious she can be, let her stay another week and she’ll never go. Apart from anything else we can’t afford another mouth to feed right now, you know how tough things were last year.”

“I think what Slim means is you could have been a little kinder dear,” said Daisy softly,” after all she is only a child.”

“The Hell she is,” said Jess hotly…”you’ve no idea Daisy,” and then seeing the hurt look on her face he apologised for cussing.

“It’s alright Jess I can see you’re upset, put please dear, go and put things right with her, I think she really looks up to you and she seemed so distressed.”

Jess gave a deep sigh and then after a minute he reluctantly rose from the table and went and knocked on the bedroom door and on hearing a muffled ‘come in ‘he entered leaving the door ajar behind him.

He went in and sat down on Daisy’s bed and looked over to where she was packing a small case Daisy had leant her.

“I reckon you don’t have to wear all your clothes this time,” he said lightly.

She just nodded and continued with her task.

After a few minutes he said softly,” I’m real sorry Ellie; I guess I was a bit hard on you back there.”

She stopped what she was doing and came and sat down beside him on the bed,” it’s alright,” she said quietly looking down.

Then she grabbed hold of his hand and holding it she looked up devotedly into his surprised eyes.

”Please give me another chance Jess,” she said,” I could be a good wife to you. I’ll be 16 soon, I could give you lots of beautiful babies, you like babies I saw you with Rebecca’s. We could be a proper family, live out here on the ranch,” then leaning over she kissed him passionately on the lips.

Jess all but fell off the bed as he leapt away.

“What in hell are you doing Ellie,” he shouted.” I thought we’d already had this conversation, I’m not interested.”

“Please, I’ll do anything, anything you want, right now, we don’t have to wait to be married,……we could be so good together…you know?” she finished seductively.

“No,” he said firmly,” will yer just leave it Ellie,” and with that he stormed out of the room.

He had left the door open deliberately as he had a feeling she might act the way she had, and now as he re entered the main room and saw the shocked expression on Daisy’s face he knew she had heard every word.

“Still think she’s an innocent child?” he said angrily, before heading out to the barn to settle the horses for the night.

When he got back an hour or so later Ellie had retired to bed and Slim and Daisy were sitting by the fire with cups of coffee. As Jess entered the room Daisy stood up and patting Jess’s rocker invitingly she said,” Come and get warm dear, it must be awfully cold in that barn,” and went and fetched him a cup of coffee.

Jess sat down in his chair and after accepting the coffee, said,” I’m sorry Daisy I was rude to you and I didn’t mean it, I was just kinda rattled.”

“I understand,” she said softly,” and it’s I who owe you an apology. Slim tried to explain the situation to me, how she had…well, made advances towards you, but I guess I just didn’t want to believe it. She seemed such a quiet innocent child, but I see the situation now. And I’m truly sorry Jess, it must have been really difficult having her around all this time, I’ll make sure she is ready to go first thing tomorrow and no excuses.”

“Thanks Daisy,” he said softly giving her his warm smile and shortly afterwards he retired to bed exhausted and dreading the confrontations of the next day.

The following morning when he woke up he heard Slim whistling and banging about the room as he dressed.

After a few minutes he sat down at the end of Jess’s bed and said,” Mornin’ sleepy.”

Jess just groaned and turned over again huddling under the blankets.

“Hey wake up, I wanna talk to you,” Slim tried again.

“I’m asleep,” muttered Jess from the depths of his bed.

“Jess!” yelled Slim,” will ya wake up. “

“What?” asked the still recumbent Jess.

“Well I was thinking, would you like me to deliver Ellie for you?”

Jess sat up fully awake now, his blue eyes sparkling,” that would be great,” he started and then,” Slim you can’t, the Overland boss is due today for your monthly meeting.”

“Oh dang it, I clean forgot,” said Slim,” well we could keep her one more day….”

“Oh no,” cut in Jess, “she’s goin’ today, I’m not going through all that fussin’ and frettin’ again, no I promised I’d deliver her and I guess it’s down to me to do it.”

True to her word Daisy had got Ellie May all ready to go by first light and when Jess came in for breakfast after tending the horses Ellie was sitting meekly at the table finishing off her breakfast, her case packed and ready by the door.

Jess grinned across at Daisy and gave her a wink, before pouring him self a coffee and accepting the plate of bacon and biscuits she passed to him.

After a couple of mouthfuls he turned to Ellie and said cheerfully, “All packed then?”

She just nodded looking down at her empty plate.

Slim then bustled in from the kitchen with his breakfast and sitting down beamed at Ellie.

”I expect your kin are really looking forward to seeing you,” he said.

“Umm,” she muttered.

The two ranchers exchanged a look and concentrated on finishing their breakfast in silence.

Daisy smiled at the girl.

” I often pop into Betsy and George’s shop,” she said cheerfully” and so we will be able to keep in touch.”

The girl smiled for the first time,” thank you Miss Daisy,” she said softly.

“And you must write home to your folk too,” said Daisy, “they will want to know how you are faring.”

She looked a little embarrassed.

” I ain’t too good at writing,” she said quietly, “didn’t get a lot of schoolin’ up on the mountain, just what Ma could teach me, my letters and some ciphering, but I’m not much on spellin’”

Daisy gave her a kindly look.

”Then I shall help you dear. I write to Rebecca every month or so and we can put a little message for your Ma and Pa in with that.”

The girl smiled again at the older woman.

” Thank you,” she said softly “you are so kind”, she finished, a look of childish pleasure on her face.

Jess cleared his throat.

“I guess we’d better be off,” he said, rising from the table.

Ellie said her tearful goodbyes, before Jess handed her up onto the buggy, and jumping up himself he clicked the team out of the yard at a fast trot.

It was still early morning by the time they entered the little haberdashery on Main Street and Betsy ran from behind the counter and gave the girl a warm hug.

“Oh you are here at last,” she said warmly,” and Mr Harper too, ”turning to Jess,” how very kind of you to escort the child.”

Jess gave her a weak smile,” oh no trouble Ma’am,” he said softly, tongue in cheek.

Ellie gave him a disbelieving look, but nobody noticed as George bustled in from the back room and added his thanks to his wife’s, pumping Jess’s hand and beaming at him and then at Ellie in welcome.


Daisy visited a couple of weeks later and was pleased to see how well the girl had settled in to the routine of working in the shop. But she only spent a little while in her company and did not see the whole picture. To all intents and purposes Ellie May appeared to be outwardly cheerful, but that belied the truth.

Betsy and George Potts were middle aged and their family were grown and had fled the nest so they had time to devote to Ellie May and her needs. It was obvious to Betsy at once, from things her cousin Jane had said in her letters, and then her own observations, that the girl was far from innocent, in fact quite shameless, and she was determined that she should change her ways while living under her roof.

There were very few men clients who visited the shop. Then after work every evening Ellie was escorted home to the small spread the couple owned just out of town. Therefore she had no opportunity of meeting or socializing with the opposite sex. In fact the only socializing she had at all was at Church on Sunday or to the occasional Church social, heavily chaperoned by Betsy.

She had pleaded with her guardians to be allowed to attend the Saturday night dances held in the town, as she knew Jess and Slim often went, but to no avail as Betsy considered her far too young for such events.

“Oh no dear,” she said firmly,” whatever would your Ma say, there is sometimes strong liquor at those affairs. The Saloon girls often attend too and they turn into quite wild times, oh no definitely not.”

Ellie could imagine the ‘wild times’ Jess undoubtedly enjoyed with the Saloon girls at the dances and her heart ached at the unfairness of it all.

After a few weeks Ellie was beginning to think she had fallen out of the frying pan into the fire and regretted her decision to agree to leave the mountain. At least she had had some freedom there to go out with whom she pleased and the more she thought about it the more she missed Homer Jackson.

She had initially hated him for what he had done to Jess, but the more she thought on it, the more she felt how much he must have cared for her to be in such a jealous rage. It was completely out of character for him to have acted that way she knew, and she often found herself day dreaming about him. Thus it was that she decided to start writing to him in prison and with Daisy’s help she began corresponding regularly with him. At first he had been wary, but after a while a new and genuine friendship sprang up between them and at last Ellie had something to think about other than mooning around thinking of Jess.

The winter turned to spring and then early summer and Ellie continued to write to Homer and a strong good lasting relationship was gradually being forged.

Daisy continued to visit the girl and help her with her correspondence and Ellie even visited the ranch occasionally and Jess and Slim were pleased to note that she had changed and was very much more chaste and sensible.

Slim and Jess had been on their usual Mustang drive and the corral was full of wild, prancing beasts waiting to be broken and sold on later in the summer. The stock had gone back up to the higher pastures and the men spent long hours riding fence to make sure all the animals remained safely confined to their land. So the general routines of the ranch continued. Occasionally interspersed with the odd stock buying trip or deputy duty for their friend and Sheriff Mort Corey, and over time the partners forgot all about their ill fated hunting trip of the previous fall.

That was until Daisy received one of her monthly bulletins from Rebecca saying that it was nearly time for their annual fur trading trip to Laramie and would it be alright if Wes and Jane accompanied them for their usual visit to the ranch, where they would park their covered wagon in the home pasture and visit for a week or so. Daisy was delighted at the prospect of meeting Wes and Jane and also the new baby boy that had been born to them in the spring, and after due consultation with Jess and Slim, she wrote back inviting them with pleasure.

Chapter 9

So it was that one morning in early summer two old covered wagons rattled down the track and into the yard of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station. Slim came running out of the barn, closely followed by Jess and they welcomed their visitors warmly.

Tobias and Rebecca, with her toddler, climbed down first and there was much hugging and hand shaking and then Wes and Jane were there surrounded by their brood of children. Jane came shyly towards Jess and held out the new baby to him,” this is Joshua,” she said proudly,” our new son.”

Jess took the baby gently from her and looked down into his sleeping face.

”He’s beautiful,” he said gently before looking back at Jane and smiling warmly at her.

She held his gaze a moment too long before turning to Slim and beaming at him in welcome and then Daisy was there and begging to hold the new baby and they all went cheerfully into the ranch for some of Daisy’s excellent coffee.

Kate sidled up to Jess.

”It’s real good to see you an’ Slim, but I was hoping to see Mike, you told me so much about him,” she said.

Jess gave her a friendly grin,” oh he’s at school right now sweetheart, but he’ll be back on the afternoon stage and he can’t wait to meet you too and show you all his critters.”

The child smiled broadly, “that will be great,” she said enthusiastically and Jess exchanged an amused look with Jane, over her head.

A little while later, the mountain men parked up the wagons in the home pasture behind the ranch, and Jess and Slim went to chat with Tobias and Wes.

“I was wondering if you minded iffen we leave the children and women folk here with you while we take off on our trading trip?” asked Tobias getting straight to the point.

“ Truth is both my Becky and Jane there, are pretty bushed traveling all this way with the young babies, in fact Jane would have stayed at home if it hadn’t been that she wanted to spend time visiting with Ellie May seeing as she ain’t seen her girl since last winter.”

“Why sure,” said Slim at once,” I’m just sorry we haven’t got room in the ranch to sleep you all…there is the bunk house but it is a bit basic.”

“Oh bless you no,” said Tobias at once, “we’ll load all the furs up onto one wagon and take that and leave the other one here for the women and kids to share, they’ll be plenty comfortable.”

So it was agreed, and they prepared the wagons ready for Tobias and Wes to continue on to Laramie to start their trading, the following day.

That evening all the residents of the ranch house were invited to a cook out in the home pasture as guests of the two visiting families.

There was a huge fire with traditional home made mountain food cooked over it followed by some of Miss Daisy’s hot apple pie. She also provided some delicious home made lemonade, but the men decided to opt for some of Tobias’s potent hill whiskey and as the evening wore on the laughter became louder and the tall tales became taller as they relaxed and enjoyed the good company.

By the end of the evening Slim and Jess, who were not quite as used to the exceptionally strong brew as their guests, were so relaxed they could barely stand and had to support each other along the somewhat torturous path across the yard, back to the ranch house. Luckily all the women and children had retired so didn’t see this interesting spectacle. However Daisy was left in no doubt as to their state of inebriation as she lay in bed listening to them banging about in the room next door and smiled grimly to herself, imagining the state they would be in come morning.

The following morning as Daisy had predicted Slim and Jess were very subdued. Both refused a cooked breakfast and as Slim went off to the barn to start on the chores Jess sat at the table with his head in his hands looking white and shaky.

“Are you alright dear?” asked Daisy solicitously.

He groaned and then lifting his head from his hands whispered,” any more coffee Daisy?”

She went and fetched him some and with a little smile said,” its lovely having the families to stay, and all that merry making last night, well it was just like one of those old fashioned Rendezvous I’ve heard tell of.”

Jess raised his eyes from his coffee cup and gave her a blank look, before suddenly jumping up and dashing from the room and out of the kitchen door, heading for the outhouse muttering,” need some air.”

She shook her head sadly; it was a family joke that Jess couldn’t stomach hill whiskey, but he still enjoyed drinking it, if not the after effects.

A little later that morning the Stage rushed in. Slim and Jess went across the yard to change the team and

Mose smiled down at the pair.

” Good grief what’s up with you two today?” he asked cheerfully.

Slim gave him a bleary look,” hill whiskey,” he muttered.

The old Stage driver gave him a sympathetic grunt, “umm.”

Then jerking his thumb to where Jess was leaning over the corral fence looking more dead than alive,” never learns old Jess do he?” he grinned.

Slim shook his head and gave Mose a weak smile back.

”If I was as ill as he was last night guess I’d sign the Pledge,” he said, chuckling.

Just then Mike ran out with his school bag over his shoulder and looked up at the tall rancher,” aw Slim do I have ta go ta school today, I wanna stay and play with Kate.”

“You know you do Mike, now climb aboard before you make Mose late.”

The youngster cast a glance across at Jess, as he got up on the Stage.

“Is Jess OK, he looks kinda funny”, he asked inquisitively.

“Oh he’s fine,” said Slim exchanging an amused look with, the old driver,” at least I guess he will be by the time you get home tonight.”

“Ah well, great to be young,” laughed Mose and with that he cracked the reins and the team hustled out of the yard.

Later that morning Tobias and Wes drove the second covered wagon out of the pasture and driving through the yard pulled the team to a halt and jumped down to say their farewells.

They both looked surprisingly bright eyed and cheerful and surveyed their friends with an amused chuckle.

“Our ol’ home brew a bit strong for ya then?” asked Wes giving them a sympathetic grin.

“Could say that,” agreed Slim.

“Guess you won’t be wanting this then,” said Tobias, offering a jar full of the golden spirit.

Slim grinned at him and accepted the gift.

”I guess we can keep it for medicinal purposes eh Jess?” he said smiling at his friend’s white face.

“Yeah,” he agreed,” thanks, Tobias,” and with that the men drove off saying they would be back in a week.

Slim took the gift and put it safely in the barn, knowing Daisy wouldn’t want illicit drink in the house, with Jess casting him a baleful look.

The ranch household and guests settled down to a companionable routine with Rebecca and Jane enjoying Daisy’s company. Daisy in turn, as well as having other women to chat to, a great treat for her living in an all male household, also had the joy of fussing over the babies and was in her element.

One morning Daisy was entertaining the younger children in company with Rebecca and Jane wandered out into the yard in search of Kate.

She found her with Slim sitting up on the corral fence; watching Jess on the back of a big brute of a Mustang. As she came over to watch she could see how he was already sporting a gash to his face, after a fall, and his denims were filthy after several other spills where he had landed in the dust.

She leaned on the fence next to Slim and glancing down he saw the look of anxiety in her eyes as the big horse bucked and dived with Jess barely holding on.

Slim smiled down at her in welcome and then said quietly,” he’s alright you know Jane, this is what he does for a living, he’s used to falling, don’t look so worried.”

Just then the big horse bucked Jess violently off and he flew in a perfect arc over the animal’s neck before falling hard and winding himself.

He lay unmoving for a minute, before Slim jumped down from the fence and ran over to him.

Turning him over gently he saw Jess’s eyes flicker open and he gave him a tired grin.

”I guess this is getting to be a habit,” he said,” that dang horse had chucked me off three times now… “and then regaining his breath said more firmly, “give me a hand up partner, time I showed him who’s boss.”

Slim helped him up and in a few minutes the horse was caught and Jess had jumped lightly up in the saddle again.

Slim resumed his place next to Jane and Kate and noticed, where as Kate was grinning from ear to ear and yelling out words of encouragement, Jane was pale and looked really shocked.

Turning to Slim she said,” surely he’s not getting up there again, that brute will kill him.”

“He’s fine, I told you,” said Slim gently,” he’s used to it.”

She still looked unconvinced though and Slim could see her flinch every time Jess nearly came a cropper again.

After a while the bucking and prancing became less and less and eventually Jess was able to trot the horse around the corral as he responded to his commands.

Grinning broadly he finally jumped down and removing the saddle and bridle he loosed the animal to run free before walking over to the others.

Slim grinned back,” one down nine to go,” he said cheerfully.

“Aw Slim don’t remind me,” he said ruefully,” just let me recover from these bruises before I start on the next Bast……” then he remembered ladies were present and gave Jane an embarrassed smile,” excuse me Ma’am,” he said quickly.

“Before I start on the next one…say 10 minutes?” he said laughing up at his friend.

“Jess you’re bleeding,” said Jane softly, pointing to the livid cut to his cheek bone.

“I’m fine,” he started.

But Slim broke in,” no she’s right pard you’d better let Daisy have a look at that it’s kinda deep.”

“It’s alright,” said Jane at once,” I’ll do it for you, come on,” she said walking purposefully towards the kitchen door.

Slim and Jess exchanged a look before Jess meekly followed her into the kitchen.

She quickly poured some cool water into a bowl and finding some clean rags in Daisy’s medicine bag told him to sit and she gently started bathing the cut.

It was the first time they had been alone together, although Jess knew Daisy and the others were just next door in the main room. However he still felt deeply affected by her close proximity and knew the feelings she was stirring up were ones he shouldn’t be having. But the closeness he had felt back on the mountain came flooding back. Then as she looked deeply into his eyes, as she finished her task, he knew she was feeling the same.

She put the bowl and cloth down and then with her finger gently caressed the old scar from the bullet wound on his temple.It had healed now and there was just a faint silvery scar to remind him, and she said tenderly,” are you OK now Jess, not had anymore of those seizures?”

“No, I’m fine,”he said,”……well…… “

“Well what?” she asked looking worried.

“Well, my heart’s pounding fit to burst,” he said softly,” but that’s because you are standing way too close for comfort.”

She looked shocked and then realized he was joking.

” Jess Harper,” she smiled,” you are a terrible flirt.”

He grinned back and was relieved to see his ploy had diffused the situation between them.

She backed off a little, knowing why he had said what he had, and also knowing she shouldn’t be feeling that way about him.

“I’d better check on the baby,” she said quickly and with that, went and joined the other women, while Jess still sat in the kitchen breathing deeply, and wondering, what the Hell had happened there?

After a little while he returned to the corral to start breaking the next horse.

“Are you OK?” asked Slim giving him a quizzical look,” you look a mite flushed.”

Jess looked down and blushed even more.

”Sure I am,” he said crossly,” are we bronc bustin’ or chattin’ all afternoon?” and with that he strode off to select the next horse, leaving Slim looking after him with a bemused expression on his face.

They settled down to breaking the next horse, a big black stallion with trouble written all over him, but Jess got stuck in as usual. Apart from the odd glance at the ranch door to see if Jane would be joining them again he tried to put the feelings he had had in the kitchen out of his mind and concentrated on the job in hand.

He suffered several more nasty falls before they had to break for supper and he figured it would be a long and difficult job taming the Mustang Mike had called Black Magic.Although the only magic spell Jess was hoping for was to actually stay on the big critters back for more than a few minutes.

By the end of the afternoon he was feeling battered bruised and filthy dirty and wandered off to the old outdoor shower to clean up before supper.

By the time he arrived at the table all the others were seated, and as had become the custom since the arrival of their friends they had put the kitchen table up against the one in the main room so that they could sit around and enjoy the evening meal together.

Jess came in, looking clean and tidy, his black hair still damp from the shower, and taking his place between Mike and Amy, apologised for his late arrival.

“Oh that’s alright dear,” said Daisy beaming across at him,” I’d rather you late and clean, than straight from the yard.

”Then turning to Rebecca and Jane said,” you wouldn’t believe the amount of dust and mud this young man trails around behind him, anyone would think he spent all his time lying in the dust instead of on the backs of the Mustangs.”

“Sure looks like it too sometimes,” said Slim with a grin, but Jess just ducked his head and took all their joshing good naturedly.

Then he gave his partner a weary smile,” well it sometimes feels like it too, that’s for sure,” he said.

“I’d like to have a go,” piped up Kate,” it looks real good fun.”

“No,” said Jane loudly, and then as everyone turned a surprised gaze upon her she said more quietly,” err I mean noKate, it’s far too dangerous, you saw how poor Jess was hurt today, its terrible that he should have to go through that,” and then blushing deeply looked down at her plate.

There was an embarrassed silence and then Daisy quickly changed the subject and they all started talking about the proposed picnic trip to the lake which had been planned for later in the week.

After a minute Jess stole a glance at Jane and was surprised to see her blinking a tear away, but shortly after that, one of the babies started crying and then the meal was over and everyone went their separate ways. The women to put the younger children to bed, Mike and Kate to play out for a while and Slim and Jess went to see to their evening chores, bedding the stock down for the night.

The weather had turned warm and sultry and the horses were restless as they fed and watered them and when they came out of the barn Slim cast an eye up at the sky, “could be a storm brewing,” he said,” sure is warm.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jess, “don’t like it like this, makes me feel kinda restless.”

“Uh, I know what you mean,” said Slim turning to smile at his friend,” like waiting for something to happen, not sure how bad it’ll be, but you get that feelin’ its going to be real bad.”

Jess grinned back,” except in this case it won’t be bad,” he said,” ‘cos we sure need some rain.”

“Guess you’re right there pard,” agreed Slim as they returned to the ranch house for a last coffee before turning in.

Chapter 10

Jess was worn out after tussling with the mustangs all day and fell asleep quickly, but several hours later he awoke and then started tossing and turning, the oppressive heat in the room making it impossible for him to get back off to sleep again.

After a while he got up and pulled on his denim jeans, but not bothering with his shirt and boots he left the bed room silently, let himself out of the house and went and sat out on the porch, in search of some cooler air.

Sitting down on one of the old rockers he tipped it back and put his feet up on the porch rail relaxing back and felt the cool night air, with the slight ripple of a breeze, blow across his naked chest cooling him off. He sat there for a while luxuriating in the blessedly fresh air, when he suddenly heard the sound of a baby crying.

Sitting forwards and swinging his feet down he listened hard as the sound got progressively louder and he peered across the yard to where the sound seemed to be coming from.

It was a clear moonlit night, and the soft glow of the moon made it easy for him to pick out the figure of Jane as she walked past the barn on her way from the home pasture, baby Joshua in her arms. She was talking to him and rocking him gently but all her attempts to quieten him were failing and the little fellah seemed to be in some distress.

She walked on to the corral fence, looking out to the far horizon, her back to the ranch busy trying to quieten the fractious child and she didn’t hear Jess’s approach until he stood behind her for a second before calling her name quietly.

She sprang round and said,” Oh Jess, you startled me.”

“Sorry,” he said softly,” is there something wrong with the little fellah, he seems kinda upset?”

“I don’t know,” she said,” I’m at my wits end with him, he’s been fed and changed, but he just keeps hollering and I was disturbing all the others in the wagon, so thought I’d bring him out here for a while.” she finished in an exhausted voice.

Jess noticed she had thrown a shawl over her nightdress and her dark wavy hair hung lose, framing her face making her look ten years younger, but she also looked tired and he felt a sudden wave of compassion.

“You’re worn out,” he said softly,” here let me take him for a while.”

She handed the child over thankfully and Jess took the little bundle, resting the baby’s head gently on his shoulder and rubbing his back.

After a moment he turned to Jane and said, “he’s a mite warm, Jane can I loosen, this shawl a little?”

“Sure,” she said, and as Jess pulled the shawl free and the cool night air touched his delicate skin, the child stated to quieten.

“Guess he was just too hot,” he said smiling across at her;” same with me, couldn’t sleep for the heat, that’s why I have been sitting out on the porch.”

She gave him a rueful smile.

”Of course,” she said, “you are probably right. The truth is he was so small and sickly when he was born I guess I’m a bit over protective, he really doesn’t need that thick shawl tonight.”

The baby was settling well and so Jess said,” why don’t you come and sit on the porch for a while, until he goes back to sleep,” and they went over and sat down and let the cool night air wash over them.

Jess sat back down in the rocker, one bare foot up on the rail and gently rocked the baby who was lying on his chest his soft downy head settled just below Jess’s chin.

Jane looked over at his bare dusty feet.

”You’ll have Daisy after you, walking dust all over her clean floor,” she said smiling and he nodded.

Looking across he noticed she was barefoot as well, “you too,” he grinned.

“It feels good,” she said,” we went barefoot all summer up on the mountain when I was a child growing up.”

“Same for me on the panhandle,” he said, smiling gently across at her and then looking out to the horizon his expression changed and he said softly, “winter too, if we couldn’t get any hand me downs from kin.”

She cast him a shocked look, but he didn’t notice, just continued,” first new pair of boots I ever had was when I joined the army. Hell, I loved them boots,” he said softly,” wore ‘emuntil they fell apart,” he said, suddenly turning to grin at her and catching the look of sadness on her face, said quickly “It was OK ,when I was a kid I mean, guess what you’ve never had you didn’t miss.”

The baby was now completely relaxed spread out with one little star like hand lying on Jess’s bare chest and he absentmindedly bent down and kissed the top of the child’s downy head. The little one gave a huge yawn and closed his eyes, totally comfortable and at ease.

Looking across at him Jane found the sight of him cradling her baby son incredibly moving, and she also felt a stirring of desire which she immediately tried to quash.

“Rebecca’s right,” she said lightly” you are a natural, have you never thought of having a family yourself Jess?”

He looked up quickly,” sure I have, when I find the right woman,” he said, softly.

“And you never have? “

“Sure, a couple of times…but well, it didn’t work out.”

“Oh what happened?”

After a long time he finally met her questioning eyes,” well one died on me, and the other lady, well she got real sick, moved back East, said she wouldn’t have me once she got ill, nothing I could say as would change her mind,that was just last year… and well….I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“Of course, I’m so sorry,” she said quickly and they lapsed into silence for a little while.

After a few minutes he turned and smiled at her again.

“Mike and your Kate are sure hitting it off,” he said, “guess he’ll really miss her when you have to head off.”

She smiled back at him,” and Kate will miss him, in fact we will all miss being here, it has been lovely visiting with you all. Seeing how well you are too,” she said smiling across at him,” don’t forget when we met last time I spent all the time nursing you. It’s just great to see you as you really are, so vital and fit,” she finished, giving his toned muscles a covert glance.

He didn’t notice the look, but chuckled.

“Yeah I was kinda beat up wasn’t I and thank you again for nursing me so well, I really appreciated it.”

She suddenly looked deeply into his eyes, “I enjoyed caring for you, you know that,” she said softly.

Then more quietly still,” today, when I was tending you, it brought it all back the way we were then, the ……the same feelings…...”

Jess felt a sudden spasm of desire for her, seeing her sitting in the moonlight looking so lovely, with her hair falling softly around her shoulders and he just wanted to take her in his arms, but he knew it was so, so wrong and he forced himself to back off.

“Hush,” he said quickly.

She gave him a questioning look.

“If we don’t talk about it…the way we’re feeling, then we can pretend nothing is happening between us,” he said very softly,” we can pretend we are just good friends…and that’s what we have to do Jane, because no good can ever come of a man coming between man and wife…….. and God knows, I’ve learnt that,” he whispered.

Then more firmly,” you love Wes, you told me that and these feeling we have for each other they are just close friendship, you understand……..nothing more, that’s how it has to be.”

She looked down for a while before looking across at him,” you are right,” she said finally,” and I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything,” and then smiling softly at him,” blame it on the moonlight.”

He returned her smile warmly.

” I guess this little fellah is sound asleep now, I’ll walk you back to the wagon,” and they got up and walked slowly back across the yard to thehome pasture gate.

As they reached the pasture he gently handed Joshua back to her, after tenderly kissing the top of his head and saying,” now you be good for your Ma.”

Then he stood back and looking at Jane, saw she had tears in her eyes and was deeply affected.

He leaned forwards and gently took a wayward strand of her hair and tucked it behind her ear, before saying very softly,” goodnight sweetheart.”

Jane found the simple action as erotic as if he had kissed her and it took all her will power, not to call him back as he walked away.

As he reached the yard he turned back to see her still standing there watching him, and he raised a hand in a farewell salute before walking across to the ranch and back to his lonely bed.

He slept badly and couldn’t wake up the next morning.

“Will ya get up Jess,” said Slim for the third time, fast losing his temper with his recumbent buddy, “come on pard, there is work to do, darn it, ya can’t sleep your life away.”

“Why not,” muttered Jess sleepily, before turning over and burrowing more deeply under the covers.

Slim barged out leaving the door open and ten minutes later Jess felt a little hand on his shoulder shaking him awake.

“Wah,” he groaned.

“Miss Daisy said to tell ya your breakfast will be inside the cat, iffen you don’t get up right now,” said the diminutive person standing by the bedside and as Jess finally forced his eyes open he saw Jane’s beautiful green eyes peering back at him from her 6 year old daughter Amy.

The child grinned at him, “I don’t think she was kidding Jess,” she said with a little laugh.

“I doubt she was honey,” he said softly and then swinging his legs out of bed he said more firmly,” scoot, go tell Miss Daisy I’m getting’ dressed right now OK? “

“OK,” she beamed and ran off closing the door behind her as Jess staggered up looking around the floor for his clothes.

Five minutes later he sat down at the breakfast table and was surprised to see he was the only member of the household there.

“Where is everyone?” he asked Daisy stifling a yawn as she placed his breakfast in front of him, alongside a cup of strong coffee.

“Why Mike has gone to school and Slim set about the chores hours ago,” she said chuckling to her self,” you are an old sleepy head today Jess, it’s gone nine o’clock you know.”

“No kidding,” he said quietly before taking a swig of the hot coffee.

“You don’t sound very remorseful,” she said giving him a quizzical look.


“You don’t sound very bothered Jess,” she said patiently,” leaving poor Slim to do all the chores.”

Jess sighed deeply,” Oh well I guess I am Daisy, but the truth is I’m plumb tuckered, was awake half the night, too dang hot to sleep. Had to go and sit out a while, sometime after midnight.”

“Um, I thought I heard voices,” she said giving him a speculative look, “was that Jane I heard?”

Jess blushed and looked down into his empty cup.

“Anymore coffee?” he asked changing the subject.

Daisy fetched the pot and held it suspended above his cup without pouring it and after a minute Jess gave another big sigh.

“Yeah, it was Jane, little Joshua was playing up, wouldn’t sleep so she was walking in the yard with him.”

“Oh dear,” said Daisy at once,” he’s not sick is he Jess?”

“Nah, he was fine,” said Jess easily,” I sorted him out.”

She raised an eyebrow, “you are good with all the children,” she said smiling,” little Amy adores you, she’ll miss you when they move on,” and then looking at him with a soft expression in her old eyes,” guess her Ma will too.”

“What do ya mean?” said Jess defensively.

“Oh nothing dear,” she said giving him an innocent smile and he finished his breakfast and after thanking her escaped out to the yard.

“So you finally made it out of ya pit,” said Slim irritably.

“Sorry partner,” said Jess giving him his best little boy smile,” guess I was kinda bushed, didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Slim gave him an appraising look,” oh really,” he said.

“Yeah it was too darn hot,” replied Jess quickly,” and before you ask, Jane was only chatting to me because Joshua couldn’t sleep either…OK?”

“Sure,” said Slim looking surprised, but before he could say he didn’t even know Jane was up too, the morning Stage rattled in down the track.

Old Mose jumped down and grinned at Jess and Slim, before patting his shirt pocket,” gotta wire for you boys,” he said,” from Cheyenne.”

Slim took the message from their friend and read it quickly, before looking across at Jess, “of dear,” he said, “guess this ain’t gonna go down too well with the women folk.”

“What is it?” asked Jess.

“Says Tobias and Wes met a guy in Laramie that gave them some good contacts over in Cheyenne and they have gone up there trading, say they will be another week.”

Jess rolled his eyes,” I figure Jane and Rebecca will have something to say about that when they get back,” he said with a grin. ” Say how much of this here ‘trading trip’ to ya figure is business and how much drinkin’?”

Slim shook his head knowingly, “your guess is as good as mine, so who’s going to break the news to the wives? “

“Toss ya?” said Jess quickly.

Slim smiled across, “OK, but with my coin, I’m not risking your two headed one again,” he said laughing.

In the end it was Daisy that told the women about the news of their errant husbands, as shortly after the Stage left the storm finally broke. Jess and Slim were busy moving the horses into the barn and securing the property and surrounding out buildings, as the wind got up driving the rain hard and causing some local flooding around the corral area.

The visiting families were over in the house when the storm broke and so all were safe and dry and when Slim and Jess finally landed back at the house, Daisy had imparted the news and the initial disappointment was over.

“Oh well,” said Rebecca philosophically,” lets just hope they have done some good business and not drunk all the proceeds celebrating on the way home.”

Jess was watching Jane closely and could see she was putting a brave face on, but he knew she needed the reassurance of an attentive husband back, and knew why, and his heart went out to her. He thought it better not to offer any comfort though, knowing of their emotive relationship and didn’t want to do anything to inflame the situation, so he just took himself off to check on the stock again.

As he left the room, he was unconscious of the fact, that Jane’s sad gaze followed him out, and both Daisy and Slim noticed and exchanged a worried glance.

The storm blew all day and it was the following morning before the sun came out again and Daisy and Jane made plans to go to Laramie to visit with the Potts and Ellie May, as Rebecca had kindly offered to look after the children.

Chapter 11

It was early morning and Jess and Slim were in their room arguing in heated whispers.

“I told you I’m too dang busy to go,” said Jess for the third time, glaring angrily at his buddy.

“And I told you the new Deputy Superintendent for the Stage line will be on the Stage today and I need to be here Jess, after all even though you are a Partner in the business, it still says Sherman Ranch and Relay Station on the sign and I guess that’s who he will expect to meet.”

“Oh very nice, pull rank on me why don’t ya,” snarled Jess.

“I don’t mean it that way, and you know it,” replied Slim patiently.

Jess just looked down all his anger suddenly gone and he wiped his hand across his face and said quietly, “Yeah I know buddy.”

“So what’s this really about,” asked Slim gently, giving his friend a concerned look.

” I thought you’d be glad to have a break from the bronc bustin’ and take Daisy and Jane to town.”

When he received no response from Jess he continued.

”Once you’ve loaded all Daisy’s supplies you can go over to the Saloon for a few hands of poker while they do their visitin’…don’t see the problem,” he said again, giving Jess a quizzical look.

Still not getting any reaction Slim scratched his head and then said softly,” unless you’re trying to avoid Jane…is that it Jess?”

Jess blushed and turned away, suddenly busy with tidying his clothes up off the floor.

Slim strode across the room and grabbing hold of Jess’s arm he swung him round to face him, his face flushed with anger,” please tell me there is nothing going on between you two,” he said.

Jess wretched his arm away and said gruffly,” there’s nothing going on.”

Slim seemed to ignore him and continued in a low thoughtful voice.

” I knew it when you first met. I said, ‘yeah you go lookin’ for Wes it would be safer’, saw the way she was lookin’ at you then …and you her.”

Jess growled” stop it Slim.”

“Yeah,” he continued again ignoring Jess,” then the way she nursed you, then comin’ here, Hell Jess you were out with her half the night….. just talking….…you expect me to believe that!”

“You can believe what you damn well want!” said Jess furiously and stamped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

He stopped in his tracks as his eyes met with Daisy’s anxious ones.

“Why Jess, whatever is the matter?” she asked.

“Nothin’,” he said quickly, pulling himself together,” just me and Slim foolin’ about ya know?”

“Sounded a lot different to you joshing with each other,” she said seriously,” you would tell me if there was something wrong wouldn’t you Jess? “

“Sure,” he said softly,” I’ll go and hitch up the buckboard, we’ll go to town whenever you’re ready,” and he strode out of the house, pulling his hat down firmly.

Half an hour later they were on the Laramie road and Jess was finding it all less of an ordeal than he’d imagined. With Daisy’s cheerful presence the two women chatted happily away and he was able to concentrate on just driving the team, with the odd comment thrown in.

Jane seemed less emotional and didn’t do, or say anything to reveal her feelings, and Jess started to relax. After all they had come to an agreement the other night, that they would act as though they were just friends and that was exactly what she was doing. She was treating him like a brother, with the odd teasing comment thrown in and he was able to join in the general laughter at his expense and the journey went quickly.

When they arrived in town Jane went directly to her cousin’s haberdashers to meet up with Ellie May and Daisy and Jess did the shopping. Once all the supplies were packed up on board Daisy turned to go, before stopping and turning back,” Oh Jess dear , I’m sorry, would you like to visit with Betsy and George Potts, I’m sure you would be welcome.”

Jess gave her a horror stricken look seeing his poker school and beers disappearing over the horizon,” No,” he said loudly, then more quietly,” err that is no thank you Daisy, I’ve made arrangements to meet up with some friends, might have a bit of business to do, you know?”

“Yes dear I know,” she said smiling benignly at him,” we’ll be ready to go home at five; should we collect you from the Saloon, or will you meet us at the shop?”

Jess opened his mouth to reply and then gave her a sheepish smile;” I’ll pick ya up,” he said and giving her a cheeky wink turned in the direction of the saloon.

As he walked into the dim interior he saw Tom the owner and old friend wiping glasses behind the bar.

” Hey there Jess, not seen you in a while everything OK?”

“Sure,” said Jess,” we’ve got company stayin’ been kept pretty busy, that an’ bronc bustin’”

Tom gave him an understanding look and passed him a beer over,” just make sure it’s the broncs that get busted and not you Jess,” he said with a grin.

Jess returned the grin, thanked him for the beer, and then wandered over to a table where a couple of neighbours and Mort Corey the sheriff were sitting around playing cards.

All three beamed a welcome and Mort said,” got time for a couple of hands Jess?”

He smiled at the company and said,” sure have,”and pulling up a chair he was soon dealt in and the game continued with the friends enjoying good beer and good company.

They had been playing for about an hour and Jess was on a winning streak, when Mort had to excuse himself to go and check on something in the office,” won’t be long folks,” he said,” just deal me out of the next round.”

The bar was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday afternoon and there were just a few cowpunchers slaking their thirst with cold beers and a couple of hands from the Flying H ranch who had been getting stuck into the whiskey all afternoon. The hands from the Flying H had a bad reputation in the town and Jess and Slim had, had several run ins with them at one time or another, but Jess was so busy concentrating on his card hands that he hadn’t even noticed them.

As Mort left he raised an eyebrow at their language and as he passed said,” simmer down you two, guess you’ll have gone home to sober up by the time I get back,” and left the saloon with a stern look.

The two hoodlums gave him a sour look and then caught sight of Jess.

Once the sheriff had disappeared they decided to have some fun before leaving, and coming to stand behind Jess one of them, Pete, said in a loud voice,to his friend Gus,” Guess they don’t care who they serve in this bar anymore. Harper, here, has a load of them filthy Mountain folk hitched up at his place.”

Jess turned to give them an angry glare,” shut it,” he snarled.

Gus turned back to Pete, “Well I heard tell that the men folk had left to go trading’ and Harper and Sherman had the women all to them selves, now that’s what I call real cosy.”

“I told you to shut it,” said Jess, now clearly incensed with rage as he kicked his chair back and stood up to face the pair.

“Guess you’re gonna have to make us,” drawled Gus who was easily a head taller than Jess and several pounds heavier. However the uneven odds didn’t bother Jess in the slightest and he threw a punch which landed on Gus’s jaw sending him flying backwards where he hit the bar and collapsed to the floor. Pete took one look, down at his friend and seemed undecided as to whether he should fight or run, but Jess made the decision for him and landed a haymaker to Pete’s chin sending him sprawling.

He then leaned over and dragging up the still dizzy Gus by his shirt he landed another punch, but Gus retaliated and caught Jess a nasty blow to the chin and followed it through with one to the belly which sent him sprawling, and as he lay there, he kicked him viciously catching Jess just above the eye with his boot. He lay there for a minute, rolling in pain before he got his second wind and staggering up, he laid into Gus with a swift right and left to the jaw and the man fell unconscious on the bar room floor.

Staggering and panting Jess turned on Pete,” any other comments you’d like to make about my personal life, while ya can still speak?” he asked, blood pouring down his face from the cut above his eye and a cutto his cheek..

“No….no siree Jess,” whimpered Pete, leaning down to help his partner up and turning towards the door to go.

Then all the company noticed Mort Cory standing by the door cradling his rifle in his arms with a stern look in his grey eyes.

Turning to the barkeep he said,” Any damage Tom.”

“No, none that I can see,” he said,” ‘cept to these two.”

Mort nodded with a faint smile,” guess you should have gone home when I suggested it,” he said gruffly,” now git and I don’t want to see you two back in here for a couple of weeks,” and with that the pair slunk out.

Mort walked over to Jess where he had just picked up his hat off the floor and rammed it back on his head.

“You OK Jess?” he asked.

Jess just nodded.

“Come on over to the office,” he said quietly, and after giving him a surprised look Jess followed him out of the saloon and over the street.

Once they were in the office, Jess said,” what’s this about Mort; you ain’t arresting me are you?”

His friend turned and smiled at him,” Hell no,” he said,” those hombres deserved all they got and more.”

“No,” he said ,”I just noticed you were in town with Daisy and if I don’t patch up your face some she’ll have an attack of the vapours , seeing you this way, you look plumb awful Jess.”

“Yeah, well they look worse,” he muttered.

Mort chuckled and went about the business of sponging the worst of the blood off Jess’s face.

After a while he said gently,” so why did you get so all fired up mad Jess, you’ve been taunted worse than that before, but ya don’t usually explode so quickly.”

Jess was silent for s few minutes and then said softly,” I just didn’t like what they were implying about me and Slim hitting on the women folk, or their attitude to the mountain folk, for that matter. They are all real good people Mort, you know that.”

“Yeah, sure I do,” said Mort trying to calm his friend down.

After a while Mort said he had done all he could to clean up his buddy and they went back over the street to continue their card game.

Finally it was nearly five o’clock and Jess took his winnings and made to leave the bar. Mort gave him a quizzical look, “for someone who is a good $20 richer than when he got out of bed this morning you ain’t looking too happy son,” he said cheerfully.

Jess gave him a baleful look,” yeah, well I’ve gotta explain about this now,” he said pointing to his face,” and you know what Daisy is like about fightin’ guess I’m gonna get a real hard time all the way home.”

Mort looked at his friend’s face, the livid cut above the eye looked painful and the eye socket itself was fast turning an interesting shade of purple, while the cut to his cheek also looked very nasty.

“Well that’s women folk for you,” said Mort dryly.

Jess just nodded and strode off to pick up the buckboard.

When he arrived outside the haberdashers he pulled the rig up and looked hopefully about him, but it was obvious that the women were still within the private quarters of the shop. After a minute or two, Jess jumped down and grabbed a young lad who was racing by.

“Hey,” he said giving the child a friendly smile,” will ya do a little errand for me?”

“What’s it worth?” asked the snotty child.

Jess sighed and flipped him a coin,” go in there,” he said, indicating the shop,” and tell the ladies that Mr Harper is waiting on the buckboard out side for them.”

“Harper, buckboard, you got it,”said the boy cheerfully and went about his task.

After a few minutes Daisy and Jane emerged and Jess pulled his hat firmly down over his eyes before jumping down to help them up.

Once they were settled Jess got up and was just about to click the horses on when Daisy said firmly,” Jess look at me.”

He ducked his head and looked in her direction and she very gently took hold of his hat and tipped it back.

There was a deep intake of shocked breath from her and Jane as they saw the full extent of his injuries, after a moment Daisy gave him her no nonsense look,” Jess have you been fighting?” she said.

“Well, you see it was this way”…….. said Jess

Just then Mort hailed them and ran over the street towards the buckboard, and he touched his hat, “Miss Daisy,” he said warmly and then turning to Jane,” Ma’am.”

“Why Sheriff, how are you?” smiled Daisy.

“Oh just fine Ma’am,” he said cheerfully,” thanks to Jess here, he has been helping me out with my Sheriff duties, helped me round up a couple of drunks, ‘fraid he got beat up some in the process, just checking to see he is OK.”

Daisy turned and beamed at Jess, “why didn’t you say you were helping Mort dear,” she said quickly,” I thought you’d got caught up in one of those dreadful saloon brawls you seem so fond of.”

Jess gave Mort a weak smile ,” thanks buddy,” he said softly, and then louder, “yeah, I’m fine Mort, just let me know if you need anymore help,” and with his friend chuckling away to him self, Jess hustled the team out of town at a fast trot.

When they got back to the ranch Daisy asked Jess to come and sit in the kitchen while she tended his wounds. As usual he made light of his injuries, but Daisy insisted. All three entered the ranch and Rebecca and the children greeted them home as they had been just about to start on supper as a surprise for Daisy. She beamed at the assorted company,” just let me tend to this wounded soldier,” she said laughing in Jess’s direction,” and then the kitchen is all yours.”

Rebecca looked really shocked, “Oh Jess your poor face,” she said, “are you OK?”

Jess hated all the fuss and just kept repeating he was fine and disappeared into the kitchen with Daisy. He was sitting on a chair while Daisy cleaned the wounds when Jane came in;

” OK if I put the coffee on?” she asked “Slim has just come in and said he’s got a fierce thirst on him.”

Daisy grinned at her, “that sounds about normal,” she said.

Then turning to Jess she got out the spirits bottle and said,” I’m just going to have to clean these cuts out dear, they are deep and quite dirty, hold on,” and with that she dabbed some of the strong liquor onto the wounds.

The pain was agonizing and Jess closed his eyes against it and gritted his teeth. When he opened them again he saw Jane staring at him looking white as a ghost, with tears in her eyes. He looked away quickly, but not before Daisy had noticed and turning she saw how awful Jane looked too.

“Jane are you alright dear?” she said softly,” you are awfully pale”.

Jane recovered herself quickly, “yes of course,” she said ,” I just hate to see anyone in pain that way ,I always get upset, I’m so silly, one of the children hurts them selves and I all but faint…so silly,” and with that she turned back to the task of brewing the coffee.

“Well it’s not silly to care about someone dear,” said Daisy softly, before returning to her task.

After a few minutes Jess was able to escape to his room and a while later Slim joined him to get washed up for supper.

He looked over at his buddy and with a cynical look said,” so what really happened pard?”

“Got into a bar fight,” grinned Jess ruefully.

Slim smiled back,” guess you owe Mort one,” he laughed and went to get washed up, giving his friend a wicked wink.

Chapter 12

The following day was Sunday and the proposed day for the lakeside picnic. Everyone was up early and the chores done in record time so they set off by mid morning.

Jess, Kate and Mike rode horses, Kate borrowing an old ranch horse, and Slim drove the buckboard with Rebecca and Daisy up with him and Jane and the younger children happily in the back, along with the picnic baskets and rugs.

It was a bright warm morning and the lake was looking at its best when they arrived, with small white horses bobbing on the sparkling blue surface. There were pines surrounding the lake giving adequate shelter from the hot sun and the small party quickly made camp in their shade, a large blanket in place and the food ready for serving later. The women folk and younger children made them selves comfortable on the rugs and Kate and Mike asked to go off exploring.

“OK Tiger,” said Jess,” but not too far, and be back as soon as the sun’s high for lunch.”

“I will,” promised the boy and the pair ran off up the track in the direction of the old cave, a little way up the hill.

Jane looked after them indulgently.

” It’s good for her to have someone her own age to play with,” she said smiling at Jess,” and Mike is such a nice boy, a credit to you all.”

“Thanks,” said Jess softly and then looking over to Daisy said,” Slim and I are just doin’ a spot of fishin’ Daisy, we’ll be in hollering distance,” and tipping his hat to the ladies walked off with Slim and their fishing gear, chatting together and sharing a joke as they went.

Suddenly Amy piped up,” can I go with Jess Ma?”

Jane looked uncertain,” I’m not sure they’ll want a little girl tagging along,”she said.

Daisy called to Jess and he jogged back,” did I forget something?” he smiled.

“Just little Amy,” said Daisy smiling back.

“Do you mind?” asked Jane looking at him shyly.

Jess beamed down at the little girl.

“Sure I don’t mind,” he said, “come on sweetheart, I’ll show ya how to catch fishes for your Ma,” and with that he took her hand and they retraced their steps to where Slim was waiting.

A happy morning ensued and after a couple of hours Slim, Jess and Amy returned with a good catch of fish to cook over the fireand Amy was practically beside herself with excitement as she had caught her first fish.

“She’s a natural,” laughed Jess on telling Jane all about it on their return,” you must get Wes to take her with him, she loves it.”

“Yes I will,” she said and giving him a warm look, said,” thank you for taking her Jess.”

He smiled back;” I like her company,” he said simply, before going to help Slim set the fire.

A little later Daisy said,” Now where has that boy got to, I thought you told him to be back by now Jess?”

Jess looked up at the sun,” guess it’s not quite noon yet,” he said,” but I’ll go and find him, reckon he headed for the cave.”

As he stood up to go Jane followed him,” can I come with you,” she asked smiling, “don’t forget Kate is with him and if they’ve got into a scrape, it’s most likely her fault, she’s probably been climbing trees again and got stuck,” she said laughing.

Jess smiled back and indicated the way up the steep stony track to the cave.

When they got there they caught their breath after the steep climb and turned to look at the wonderful view of the lake spread out before them.

Jane looked down, a faint flush to her cheeks after the climb and her eyes sparkled at the wonderful vista laid out in front of her.

She turned to Jess smiling,” it’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“Yes,” said Jess, “beautiful,” but he was looking directly at Jane not the view.

She blushed and looked away;” we’d better find those children,” she said quickly.

Jess shook his head as if trying to shake some sense into it and said,” sure lets try the cave first.”

They entered the mouth of the cave and looked around, but it was only a small space and it was obvious they weren’t there.

Jess turned to leave but Jane stood there by the mouth looking out and then turning to him and looking at his injured face said,” I felt terrible when I saw the state you were in yesterday you know.”

He grinned back at her,” well I felt pretty terrible myself ,”he said making light of it.

“Don’t,” she said suddenly.


“Don’t joke about it…..you really don’t know how important you are to me do you?”

He looked at her in concern,” Jane please…….”

“Hold me Jess, just for a moment; please I need to feel your arms around me,” she whispered.

He stood there just staring at her not knowing what to do or say, suddenly wanting her so much……

He walked towards her and pulled her close and leaned down and kissed the top of her head gently, just like he had done before with baby Joshua, then he leaned down and placed a finger under her chin so that she looked up into his eyes and he saw such a look of devotion his stomach flipped, he leaned forwards about to kiss her….. when suddenly he heard Mike shouting and a second later he burst into the cave just as the couple jumped apart.

“Hey Jess,” he said cheerfully,” sorry we are late, we thought we saw a deer up yonder and Kate and I were stalkin’ it, but guess it was only and ol’ jack rabbit after all.”

Then Kate burst in,” Hi Ma,” she said cheerfully,” what are you doin’ up here I’m starvin’ is lunch ready? “

Jess exchanged a burning look with Jane before gathering himself and clapping Mike on the shoulder and saying,” come on then Tiger, lets go eat,” and the four of them walked on down the hill back to the lakeside.

Jess couldn’t eat and he couldn’t even look in the direction of Jane such was his emotional turmoil.

Slim could sense something was wrong and knew that look, in Jess’s eye, of old.

After lunch he said quietly to Jess, “You look like you need some time out of here pard, let’s take off for a while.”

Jess just nodded.

They cast a glance at the others and Kate and Mike were employed tidying up the camp and the adults and younger children were all dozing.

Slim went over to Daisy who opened her eyes at his approach.

“Jess and I are just going over the hill a while, see if there are any deer to scare up for supper, won’t be long,” he said.

Daisy gave him one of her knowing looks and then looked over to where Jess was leaning on a tree looking slightly dazed.

“Yes good idea,” she said quietly and then softly, “keep an eye on him Slim, I think he needs a friend just now.”

He just nodded and wandered off and they disappeared among the pines, unnoticed by the others.

Once they had cleared the camp, Slim looked across at his best buddy and said softly,” right so what happened?”


“Jess, this is me you’re talking to, I know that look, if nothing happened, then it darn near did, now are you gonna tell me?”

Jess turned to his best friend, despair written all over his face.

“It’s kinda difficult,” he said softly. “I guess we’ve just got too close, it started off just being real good friends, shared kind of past, you know…but now, well guess it could get out of hand.

“So what are you gonna do?”

Jess looked anguished… “Oh pard…. I …,” but he lapsed into silence, spreading his hands in a gesture of indecision.

“You can’t go down this road Jess, you must see that?”

“Sure,” he said looking sick.” I just wish to God Wes would come back and then it would all be over, guess she’ll forget about all this once they’re back on the mountain.”

“Yeah, well in the meantime I figure you need to make yourself scarce; you could take some of the green broke mustangs over to Cheyenne,” he suggested.

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, “good idea Slim,” he said quietly,” I’ll go next week”.

Jess turned and smiled,” thanks partner,” he said softly” and sorry I’ve been kinda hard to live with lately.”

Slim smiled back at him,” well you’re never the easiest,” he said grinning,” but guess we’re used to you now,” and laughing the two returned to camp.

Chapter 13

When they got near to the camp they could hear voices calling and on arriving a few minutes later they saw there was obviously something wrong

Jane and Rebecca were running around calling Amy’s name, while Daisy sat and tried to pacify the crying babies, and as soon as they caught sight of the men Jane ran over.

She was white as a sheet and said,” Amy…is she with you?”

“No,” Jess responded,” last I saw of her she was spark out beside you.”

Slim quickly took charge of the situation.

” Daisy, you and Becky stay here to mind the babies, she may come back in a few minutes, I’ll go up the track to the cave with Kate, Amy said she wanted to explore up there when Kate mentioned it.”

Then he turned to Jess.

“Why don’t you go down to where we were fishing buddy, she might have wandered back there.”

“Sure,” said Jess, then, “where is Mike?”

Daisy looked distracted,” I don’t know he was here a minute ago, helping us search.”

“I think he went over towards the fishing pool too,” said Jane, “I’ll come with you.”

They dispersed in various directions still calling the little girl’s name.

As they hurried down to the lake Jess said,” it will be OK, don’t worry.”

But Jane was almost hysterical.

“It’s all my fault,” she said,” I should never have fallen asleep like that Jess.”

Before he could reassure her, he suddenly heard someone shouting and rounding the bend in the track he ran down to the lakes edge and was horrified to see Mike struggling in the water just a few yards from the shore.

He had obviously got into trouble and was yelling hysterically and thrashing about in the deep water.

Jess tore his hat off and pausing only to remove his boots and gun belt, dived into the freezing water and struck out for the drowning boy.

When he reached Mike, he held him close and reassured him before swimming back to shore supporting the little boy’s weight.

When they landed Mike was coughing and spluttering but kept pointing back to the water.

“What is it Tiger?” asked Jess, gasping for breath himself.

“Amy”…the boy finally said, choking again, “Amy in lake…I tried, Jess….too deep.”

Jess and Jane exchanged a horror stricken look before he ran over to the lake edge, again diving into its freezing depths.

He swam strongly to the point where he had rescued Mike and then dived down to the bottom. It was pitch black in the icy depths and he just had to feel around desperately seeking any sign of the young child. After a few minutes he felt his lungs were bursting and shot back up to the surface and took a few deep breaths before diving in again…

On his fifth attempt he finally felt some soft material, but it was pulled out of his fingers by the strong current running along the bottom of the lake.

He desperately tried to locate it again and finally his fingers brushed the material, that was Amy’s dress, and this time he grabbed hold of it firmly and pulling it towards him, finally felt the fragile cold body of the missing child in his arms.

He shot to the surface with his precious cargo and swam to the shore, now absolutely exhausted.

He dragged himself ashore and suddenly Jane was there helping him and then she took the child from his arms and stared in agony at the lifeless little body.

Jess was retching and coughing up the water he had swallowed and it was a minute before he took in the situation.

Jane had staggered to a nearby rock and was holding the little body tightly in her arms, rocking to and fro, the tears streaming down her face and moaning in utter despair.

Jess dragged himself up from the ground where he had been lying panting and completely spent, and went over to Jane, looking down at her and the child.

Jane looked up into his deathly white dripping wet face; “she’s gone,” she whispered harshly.

“No!” Shouted Jess in agony…”no she ain’t”, and with that he sat down on the rock next to her and took the cold still body from her arms.

He lay the little girl across his knees, face down and started patting her on the back, between the shoulder blades, at first gently and then more roughly. After an agonising minute the child suddenly started to cough and retch, her whole little body going into a spasm as she threw up the water she had swallowed.

Jess started vigorously rubbing the child’s back, desperately trying to warm her up even though he was shaking violently himself with a mixture of cold and emotion, all the time talking softly to the little girl, to reassure her.

After a moment Jane seemed to come out of a trance.

”Here, Jess let me take her,” she said and held the cold child closely to her warm body, weeping silently as she looked from Jess to the child whispering,” oh thank God ,thank God…oh Jess,” and she reached out a hand to his arm.

He covered it with his and they exchanged a look of such intensity that Jess felt tears forming in his own eyes.

After a moment he turned to Mike who had been standing back watching the train of events, terror in his big blue eyes and Jess called him over.

“Are you OK Tiger?” he said softly, pulling him into a gentle hug.

“I guess,” said the shivering child,” I’m sorry Jess, I saw her fall just as I came round the bend, she was on the big rock, trying to cast a line only I guess she threw it so hard she lost her balance. I went straight in…but she was crying and thrashin’ about somethin’ fierce Jess,” said the boy turning frightened eyes on his friend,” I just couldn’t hold her and she went under and then I swallowed a load of water and then you came….”he finished breathlessly.

“Hey Tiger you did good,” said Jess through chattering teeth and started rubbing the boy’s back to try and warm him up as he looked almost blue with cold as well.

That was how Slim found them few minutes later. He quickly took in the desperate situation and helped the group back to the camp where he threw fresh wood on the fire and went off to find extra blankets from the buckboard.

The women helped the two children to strip off all their wet clothes and they huddled by the fire. Mike was already bouncing back, but little Amy looked almost blue with the cold and she still hadn’t spoken since her ordeal.

Jess was modest though and refused to strip off more than his shirt and denims and that hidden behind a blanket. Slim wished they had packed some of Tobias’s whiskey when he saw his buddy shaking with the cold, but had to be content with stoking up the fire to try and warm him some.

After a minute Daisy came over to where Jess and Slim were seated and said softly, “Slim I’m really worried about little Amy, she was in the water far too long, she can’t seem to speak an dshe is so cold, I think you need to ride for Doc Sam, get him to meet us at the house.”

Slim gave a concerned nod.

”Sure, I’ll go now,” and giving Jess a worried look, said,” I’ll need to take Traveller. Do you think he’ll let me ride him, he’s the fastest horse we’ve brought today.”

Jess smiled back faintly at his partner.

” I’ll come and give you a leg up, ”he said, “figure he’ll be OK if he hears my voice.”

Shortly afterwards they broke the camp and headed back to the ranch a much more subdued party than the one that had set out.

When they arrived back it was early evening and Daisy put Mike to bed with some of her special cocoa and some cookies and he was fast asleep in minutes after the ordeal of the day.

Nobody else felt much like eating, so Rebecca took Kate and the babies back to the covered wagon to settle them for the night while Jane and Amy stayed in the ranch house waiting for the Doc.

Jess dragged in the cot from Daisy’s room, that Mike used occasionally if he was ill. He put it close to the fire for Amy and lifting her gently from her mother’s armshe tucked he up.

” OK sweetheart?” he asked smiling at her and was rewarded by a tiny smile, but still she refused, or was unable, to speak.

He exchanged an anxious look with Jane, but said nothing as the Doctor had arrived.

Sam breezed in, inhis usual cheerful manner, followed by Slim and quickly assessed the situation. He saw Jess looking white and shaken, Jane, the mother, obviously worried to death and thenthe small child on the cot, looking pale and fragile.

Turning to Jess he said softly,” how long was she under for Jess, do you know?”

He shook his head,” at least 5 minutes…maybe more.”

Sam sucked in his breath, but said nothing as he went over to examine the child.

He checked her over thoroughly and had been chatting to her all the time but with no response, other than Amy’s wide eyed stare.

He took the adults to one side and said to Jane,” may I speak frankly in front of your friends here?”

“Of course,”” she said quickly; please just tell me …what is wrong?”

“ I have to be honest with you Jane,” he paused and said softly, almost to himself, “ I sure wish your husband was here for you,” before he continued.

”Well this is real hard for you ….but there are two possibilities, she may be in deep shock, in which case she will eventually start talking again ..as soon as she feels safe, with someone like yourself…or your husband. Then he sighed deeply and took her hand gently.” Or, I’m afraid her brain may be harmed for good, she may‘not be herself’……. ever again, ” he said sadly.

Jane looked shocked.

“No, Oh God please not that, ”she said quickly”, you mean her brain might be harmed…she ’d be simple?”

Sam took a deep breath.

”In the worst possible case, yes, but that lake is real cold, I guess old Jess here is a testament to that,” he said with a faint smile, ”and I’ve heard of children who have survived and recovered from worse than this, because the cold seems to protects them…but as I say we have to wait and see in Amy’s case,” he finished softly.

It was Jess she turned to, running into his arms and sobbing uncontrollably and he held her close, gently patting her back as he would if comforting Mike, and the others went out onto the porch to see Sam off, giving the couple some privacy.

“Tell Jane I’ll be back first thing” said Sam turning a worried face to his friends. “I guess she’s going to take this real bad, but it looks like she considers ol’ Jess there a good friend and I figure that’s just what she’s in need of right now.”

Slim nodded but secretly thought, what about Jess, how would he cope with this, knowing his feelings for Jane, not to mention how fond he had become of Amy.

Meanwhile inside the ranch Jane had finally managed to control herself and pulled gently away from Jess.

“You’re shaking,” she said,” come and sit by the fire, you must still be chilled.”

He shook his head,” I ain’t cold,” he said softly.

She considered what he had said and gave him an intense look,” oh Jess,” she whispered.

He went and squatted down by the cot and held the little girls hand.

”Hey there sweetheart, cat got your tongue?” he said softly, but the child just stared back at him and then at her mother, before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.

Just then Slim and Daisy came back into the house and Daisy said,” Jane dear I’ll fetch some blankets and you can sleep on the couch beside Amy, be here for her when she wakes up,” and with that she bustled off to prepare the bed.

“You look done in pard,” said Slim softly to Jess, “why don’t you turn in, I’ll sit up with Amy for a while.”

Jess looked up and across at Jane and saw the look of despair on her face as she watched the child sleep, and he turned back to his friend and with a weary smile.

”No it’s OK Slim, guess I’ll just doze in the rocker for a little while,” he said softly.

After Daisy and Slim had retired to bed Jess and Jane chatted over a last cup of coffee. He was seated on his old rocker, pulled up close to the cot and fire and Jane was seated on the couch by the window. Suddenly she put her head in her hands and started to weep softly.

Jess leapt up and went and sat next to her, putting a protective arm around her.

“Sweetheart, don’t ,”he said softly, “she will be OK, just give it time,” but looking over at the beautiful sleeping child, his heart was breaking too.

Through the weeping she suddenly sounded angry.

”Damn Wes,” she said, “why isn’t he here when we need him….trading ,”she muttered ,”off on the town with Tobias more like.”

“Hey,” said Jess gently,” do you want me to head out tomorrow, go and find him?”

“No”, she said quickly,” don’t leave me Jess, I couldn’t bear that just now, please don’t go anywhere,” she said in panic.

“Hush,” he said softly holding her closed,” I won’t leave you I promise.”

Holding her so close, he could feel her heart beating through her thin dress, as fast as his was, and he could smell her perfume, his senses suddenly dizzy with desire.

He slowly brought a hand up to her cheek and caressed it with his thumb, wiping a tear away.

She looked up into his deep blue eyes and sighed softly.

“I didn’t thank you for all you have done today,” she whispered,” if it hadn’t been for you she would have died, for sure.”

“Don’t,” he said softly, “don’t even think that.”

He looked deeply into her eyes and very slowly brought his head down and found her lips and brushed them gently with his own, before withdrawing and looking intensely into her eyes again.

What he saw made his heart skip a beat, her eyes were huge and ached with longing and after a few seconds she leaned forwards and kissed him back, at first gently and then more passionately. He felt the shock waves reverberate through him as he kissed her back and he held her closer, feeling her soft body relax against his taught muscular one.

For a split second he almost lost control, such was his need, but then he remembered where he was…and the situation and knew it was wrong.

Very gently he pulled back from her and said softly,” no Jane this ain’t right.”

“I just need you,” she whispered,” need the comfort of a loving body next to mine, is that so wrong?”

“I guess we’re both pretty strung up,” he said softly, and then more firmly,” I don’t want to take advantage of you Jane….of the situation.”

She sighed,” you are right of course,” she said,” I’m just so mixed up…I’m sorry Jess.”

“Hey, there is nothing to be sorry for,” he said and then,” let’s get you tucked up, try and sleep and I’ll wake you if there is any change OK? “

She nodded , “I don’t deserve you as a friend ,”she said softly,” thank you so much”, and she lay down as he covered her with the blanket and walked back over to the rocker, where he slumped down emotionally and physically drained.

The following morning Jess awoke to Jane and Amy still fast asleep and he got up quietly and entered his bedroom to wash up for breakfast. Slim was shaving and turned when Jess came in.

“Hey you look rough buddy,” he said quietly,” how was it last night any change.”

Jess just shook his head and gave his friend a despairing look.

“No change,” he said softly.

Slim looked at his friend and could see he was pretty near the edge.

”Why don’t you do as we decided,” he said softly,” head off for Cheyenne and trade the green broke mustangs, I’ll look out for them here.”

“No,” Jess almost shouted, and then more reasonably,” no, she needs me right now Slim, I can’t leave her.”

Slim shook his head sorrowfully,” OK if you think you can handle it buddy,” he said softly.

Jess said nothing just strode over to the wash stand and started to clean up.

After a few minutes he looked over at his friend.

“It ain’t like you think Slim,” he said,” it’s just that, well with Wes bein’ away an’ all…… “

Just then there was a light tap on the door and Daisy popped her head around.

“Sam is here,” she said, I think he would like a word with you both.

They entered the main room and Jess was surprised to see there was no sign of Jane.

Sam gave him a concerned look,” she’s over in the wagon,” he said, “Joshua needed feeding, and I’d like to take the opportunity to speak to you alone,” he said quietly.

They went and sat around the table while Daisy brought in coffee and filled their cups before sitting down with them, all eyes on Sam.

“It’s not good news, for little Amy,” he said softly, jerking his head to where the child was lying staring up at the ceiling. “There isn’t an easy way to say this, but it pretty much looks like the damage is permanent.”

Jess sucked in a sharp breath, looking shocked to the core, and Daisy reached out and took his hand squeezing it gently and giving him a look of deep understanding,” I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

Jess swallowed and then after a moment,” Are you sure Sam?”

“Sure as I can be, the mind is a strange old thing, she could still be in shock, but to be honest it doesn’t look good Jess.”

“Does Jane know?” asked Jess looking over at Sam.

He nodded,” but I don’t think she believes it, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about Jess, can you speak to her, the sooner she accepts it, well the sooner she can move on, help the child as best she can….or…”

“Or what?” asked Jess.

“Well, some parents just can’t cope with this sort of brain damaged child; they decide…well, they decide to put them in a home.”

Jess shot up from his chair, “No,” he yelled, “no they would never do that.”

Sam exchanged a look with Slim and Daisy and then stood up and went to stand by Jess who was now standing looking down at Amy, tears in his eyes.

Sam put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

”Take it easy son,” he said softly.

Jess just continued to look down at Amy and after a while Sam made for off.

“Just give me a call if there is any change, or you need me,” he said to Slim and with one last sad look at Jess he left.

“Jess”…said Slim.

“Don’t say anything,” replied Jess without even turning,” I told ya, I’m staying here Slim, she needs me more than ever now,” and with that marched off to the barn to start his chores.

Daisy came over and patted Slim’s arm.

“Just leave him dear, he has to find his own way through all this and he is right, Jane needs a friend right now,” and with that she went off sadly to start the breakfast.

Jess went back to the task of bronco busting and took Kate out to watch and Rebecca took charge of little Joshua freeing Jane up to spend the day sitting with Amy.

“I just don’t understand it,” she said to Daisy,” she seems to understand what I say to her, but she just won’t speak.”

“It’s still early days,” said Daisy wisely, “she is obviously enjoying having your sole attention, and maybe she will come round in time.”

“Thank you Daisy,” said Jane softly reaching out to hold the older woman’s hand, you are such a comfort to me, I don’t know what I would have done without you all here to help me…especially Jess,” she said softly.

Daisy gave her a gentle smile,” you are very fond of him aren’t you?” she asked.

Jane just nodded,” maybe too fond Daisy,” she said softly,” he has been such a good friend to me, we are so close…sometimes well,” she couldn’t go on as tears started running down her face.

“Sometimes you are tempted to take things too far?” asked Daisy softly.

She nodded sniffing and giving Daisy a shy look,” yes” she said” I am.”

“And what about Jess?” asked Daisy softly.

“He has kept it all together, behaved as a true friend should and a perfect gentleman,” she said quietly, “it’s me, that’s at fault.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself dear,” she said kindly,” it is understandable to start relying on others, especially with Wes being away for so long.”

Then thoughtfully she continued,” I would hate to see Jess hurt though, maybe he should go and find Wes and bring him home, I think he needs to know what has happened and I think you need to deal with this as a family too.”

Jane turned her tear stained face up to Daisy.

”Yes,” she said quietly, “you are right, and I have been selfish where Jess is concerned. I’ll ask him to find Wes and then we’ll make our way home and start to come to terms with everything that’s happened, together as a family.”

Then smiling weakly she said again, “thank you so much for being so understanding and patient with me.”

Jess spent all his working hours out with the mustangs and amused Kate along with Slim’s help. His free time he spent relieving Jane sitting with Amy while Jane tended to baby Joshua.

That evening he sat with the young girl on his knee reading one of Mike’s books to her and she seemed to be really enjoying the experience, leaning with her head on Jess’s shoulder her eyes bright with enjoyment as he read the story, giving the different characters funny voices just like he did with Mike.

Daisy looked on and said softly to Slim, “I can’t believe that child is simple; there must be something else wrong.”

It wasn’t until everyone else had turned in, that night, that Jess and Jane were alone together and were able to talk openly.

Jane very much had Daisy’s conversation in her mind and she knew what she had to say to Jess, she was going to ask him to ride out in the morning and find Wes and bring him back. As much as she didn’t want him to go, she knew it was the right thing to do. For all his faults she loved Wes in her own way and no matter what, she had made a promise to him and knew that is where her future must lie.

Before she could broach the subject though, Jess said he needed to speak to her.

Amy was fast asleep and Jess came and sat next to Jane on the couch and taking her hand said softly,” Jane I’m riding out tomorrow to find Wes and bring him back, you must know it’s the right thing for me to do.”

She looked deeply into his eyes at that.

”Yes,” she whispered “it is right, but what changed your mind?”

He looked down and after a few minutes looked back at her.

”It was Kate,” he said softly,” she called me Pa today, just by mistake …..but it got me to thinkin’. I ain’t her Pa, Jane, or this little ones,” he said nodding down at Amy…”or your husband, and I figure I was in danger of forgetting that …So that’s why I have to go. I have to find Wes and bring him back here…where he belongs with you.”

All the time he had been speaking she could see he was getting more and more agitated,until he jumped up and walked to the fire place where he leant on it, as if supporting himself, resting his head on his arm, struggling to gain composure.

She got up and ran to him and rested a hand lightly on his shoulder.

” Jess?” she said softly.

He turned round, looking down at her, tears in his deep blue eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” she said softly.

He just gathered her to him and held her close for a long, long time, before kissing her gently on the top of her head.

” I’m going to turn in,” he said quietly, “got a long ride tomorrow, but just tap on my door if you need me…if there is any change in Amy…OK?”

She nodded and he pulled gently away from her, before walking over to his bedroom door, where he turned and gave her such a sad smile it nearly broke her heart. She would have run to him and begged him to stay had he not disappeared into the room closing the door quietly behind him.

He leaned against the door his breath coming in harsh pants as he tried to calm himself. Looking into the dim room he shared with Slim he saw his buddy was fast asleep and after a few minutes he collapsed on his own bed fully clothed and lay there looking into the dark feeling completely empty.

After a while he fell into a fitful sleep and then into one of his god awful nightmares he still had about his time in the prisoner of war camp. He awoke sweating and terrified and was surprised to see he hadn’t woken Slim, as he usually did with his screams, but his buddy was still snoring quietly in his bed.

Jess desperately needed a drink and he got up and let himself silently out of the bedroom and went to the kitchen and drank his fill of sweet water from the pump.

It was as he turned to go back to his room that he saw Jane lying on the couch, very quiet, but somehow he knew she was still awake, and he walked over and looked down at her.

She was wide awake and as soon as he saw her he just knew he couldn’t leave her again that night.

She smiled gently up at him as he lowered himself down on the couch next to her, taking her in his arms, stretching out beside her, holding her close,


That is the way Slim found them the next day, when he woke up at first light, fully dressed and their arms entwined around each other, fast asleep.

He walked over and gently shook Jess awake, and said softly, ”I figure you might wanna get up before Daisy and Mike do,” before walking quietly into the kitchen to brew some coffee.

After a few minutes Jess joined him in the kitchen, sat down at the table and cast his friend a look that said, ’don’t ask me about it…ever’

Slim looked back at Jess and just gave a brief nod in acknowledgement , the two friends knowing each other so well that no words had to be spoken.

Slim poured out two coffees and passed one over and then said lightly,” so when are ya heading out partner?”

Jess gave him his gentle smile,” after breakfast I guess, you know the way Daisy creates iffen we start the day on just a coffee.”

His buddy smiled in agreement, “so where are you going to look?”

“Well, they are supposed to be in Cheyenne, so guess I’ll try the saloon and the jail, bound to be in one place or the other,” he said with a bitter smile.

After breakfast Jess went off to saddle Traveller and then he walked him back to the house where Slim and Daisy were standing on the porch to see him off. He shook hands with Slim and kissed Daisy’s cheek and was just about to mount up when Jane and Amy came round the corner of the house.

“You’re not going without saying goodbye are you?” she said softly.

Jess gave her his shy smile.

“ I thought it might be easier,” he said softly, for her ears only.

He leaned forwards and kissed her chastely on the cheek, but his eyes burned and told another story.

“Goodbye,” he said quietly and then bending down to where Amy was standing by her Ma he said,” bye sweetheart , take care of your Ma, “ and turned to mount his horse.

Amy stared at him her eyes huge, and then after a second she ran after him, throwing her arms around his waist.

” No…no don’t go Jess, don’t go away,” she shouted and then started crying uncontrollably.

He immediately bent down and took her in his arms,” hey sweetheart, it’s OK, it’s OK, ”he said softly.

He looked up at Jane who had clapped her hand to her mouth and was obviously deeply shocked,” oh thank God,” she whispered after a moment,” she’s alright Jess, she’s alright!”

Jess picked the child up and carried her back into the ranch and sat with her on his knee as he sat on the couch, Jane next to him and Daisy and Slim looking on anxiously.

“What’s been going on honey?” he said softly.

The child had stopped crying and then looked from Jess to her mother and back before replying.

Between sniffs she said quietly,” when I fell in the lake I was so scared and when Jess pulled me out I kinda forgot how to talk, it was like my head was all dizzy and I wanted to speak but I just couldn’t, remember how.”

Then she turned her face to her Ma.

”Then you spent all your time with me instead of baby Joshua and it was just like it used to be and I was the baby again and it was so nice,” the child said starting to cry gently again. “You’re always so busy now Mama, you say wait a minute Amy the baby needs feeding or bathing, or a story and it’s like I didn’t matter anymore.”

Jane sucked in a shocked breath, “oh darling,” she whispered, ”I’m so sorry.”

The child sniffed and went on.

”And then Jess spent special time with me,” and turning her huge eyes on him she said softly, “I love you Jess you are my very best friend.”

Jess swallowed hard and looked back at the little girl in his lap and hugged her to him and said softly,” and I love you too Amy.”

Then the child looked even more upset, and said,” it was great for a while and then I could see how upset you all were because I couldn’t talk…because I wouldn’t talk,” she admitted,” and I figured if you knew I’d been pretending, then you would be real cross with me…and then when Jess was riding out just now……well, I didn’t care anymore if you were cross…’cos I just don’t want him to go away,” she said and started crying again in earnest.

Jess held her close rocking her gently and then said softly,” listen to me Amy, I ain’t goin’ far, just over to Cheyenne to fetch your Pa back, you want to see him now don’t ya?”

She nodded vigorously,” and you’ll be coming back too,” she whispered, “you’re not going away for good?”

Jess shook his head,” no I ain’t going away for good; I’ll be back in a few days…..OK?”

“OK,” replied the tearful child and gave him a watery smile.

“Now you be a good girl for your Ma and I’ll be back real soon,” and with that he passed Amy over to her mother and with a last smile at the couple he left the room and a few minutes later they heard Traveller leaving the yard at a fast trot.

Chapter 14

As Jess rode away his emotions were so shaken up he didn’t dare even think of the scene in the ranch, or the night before with Jane, he just rode blindly on trying to think of nothing but the rhythmic rocking motion of the horse and the wind on his face.

He made good time and arrived at Cheyenne by late afternoon, and immediately rode to the livery to feed and water Traveller and to his surprise the first thing he saw as he entered the yard was Tobias’s covered wagon.

He went inside the stable and quickly located the owner.

” Do you know where the men who own that wagon are?” he asked urgently.

The old man smiled across at Jess,” friends of yours?” he asked.


The man knew Jess of old, he always stabled his bay mount with him and he admired the way the cowboy looked out for his horse, always checking that the animal was treated right.

He smiled again, “well I’ll tell ya son, one of them is in the jail…and the other I can’t rightly say, just paid his bill and rode off on his horse the day of the trouble.”

“Trouble?”echoed Jess looking worried.

“Guess you’d better ask the Sheriff,” the man replied.

Jess gave him another anxious look,” yeah, I better had,” he said,” see tomy horse will ya mister, good rub down and extra rations as usual, “ and flipped him a couple of coins.

“You’ve got it son “, said the old timer leading Traveller away and smiling to himself, you just can’t help liking a boythat’s good to his horse he thought to himself.

Jess made directly for the Sheriff’s office and was relieved to see a friendly face when he went, in Lon, Mort Corey’s deputy, who was standing in for the usual sheriff who was sick.

“Why Jess good to see ya,” said Lon getting up from where he was lounging with his feet on the desk, “what brings you to these parts?”

Jess shook his friend’s hand and then took the proffered seat.

“Think you’ve got a friend of mine banged up in your jail,” said Jess getting to the point right away.

Lon scratched his head, “well I’ve got three,” he said,” there’s Gus and Pete from the Flying H, but guess they’re no friend of yours,” he said grinning.

Jess nodded grimly in agreement.

“Then I’ve got a mountain man, been here trading. A guy called Tobias Finnegan, would that be who you are after?”

Jess nodded, “just Tobias, you ain’t got Wes? “

“Wes,” asked Lon looking mystified, “nope I ain’t seen any Wes, just this Tobias. He got into a fracas with Gus and Pete, well you know how ornery they can be, particularly with strangers.”

"So can I see him?” asked Jess urgently.

“You can have him,” said Lon with a grin,” iffen he’s sobered up that is. All I need from you is the promise that he won’t get in anymore trouble, taking him back to Laramie are you? “

“Yeah,” confirmed Jess.

“Well I’ll hang onto the other two for another day and that should see you well on your way. I guess you don’t need any more hassle from those two hombres Jess, ‘twas only a little while ago you knocked some sense into them, figure you don’t wanna have to do it all over again!”

Jess grinned back at Lon,” you’re right there,” he said,” I’ll just take Tobias off your hands,” and with that Lon went and fetched him out of the cell.

Tobias threw Jess a relieved but sheepish grin, “Howdy,” he said softly

Jess just nodded and once Tobias had been signed off from the Sheriff they left and walked across the street.

Tobias made towards the saloon, but Jess put out a hand out to stop him, “Oh no,” he said firmly,” coffee for you,” and turned him in the direction of a small café.

Once they were sitting with the steaming cups in front of them Jess looked over at his friend.


Tobias gave a deep sigh.

”I guess ol’ Wes and I have been pretty stupid,” he started, “we did our trading over at a ranch couple of miles north of here got firearms, ammunition and a fine big Pinto stallion too. Well we got back here a few days ago and that’s when things went kinda wrong. Wes and I decided to do some celebrating, sank a few beers, chatted to the Saloon girls, way ya do and then a couple of days down the line we met these two men in the saloon.”

“Go on,” said Jess deadpan.

“Gus and Pete they were called, said they were friends of you and Slim…… and then….”

Tobias suddenly looked embarrassed,” they said they figured that Wes should know that they had been to Laramie and they had heard tell that you were fooling about with his wife.”

Jess sucked in a breath and just stared at Tobias.

“Well, I knew there was no truth in it Jess,” he continued,” and so would old Wes if he had of been sober, but well…… as it was he tore the bar apart and then started in on Gus and Pete …and then he panicked and lit out on the Pinto, leaving me to carry the can,” he finished ruefully.

Jess had turned pale and took another deep breath.

”So why did he do that?” he asked.

“Wes has a record, been banged up a few times , was a bit of a Hell raiser before Jane and the kids an’ all….so he figured if the sheriff got him in the jail he’d darn near throw away the key.”

“That’s crazy,” said Jess, Lon “wouldn’t do that.”

“Yeah, well as I say he wasn’t rational, not thinking straight…..he was so dang mad I guess he’d have killed you if you’d been around Jess,” he said with a look of deep concern.

Jess gave a low whistle.

“ I can’t help that,” he said softly,” I’ve come out to find him and bring him home, there’s been trouble, Amy’s been real sick and he’s needed,” he finished soberly.

“Well, I’m right sorry to hear that Jess,” said Tobias sadly,” but I know old Wes, he’ll have headed for the hills and gone on a bender, we had plenty of the home brew stashed in the wagon, for a bit of extra trading. I figure he’s holed up somewhere with that….. and you really don’t wanna find him right now Jess, not the mood he’s in. I guess he’d as soon blow your head off as offer you the time of day.”

“Like I said, I can’t help that, I promised Jane and Amy I’d bring him back and that’s what I aim to do, now do ya know where he would have headed?” he asked calmly.

Tobias shook his head again, “Jess, please see reason, don’t go after him ….”

Jess cut in quickly.

”He’s needed back home that’s the only important thing, now are you gonna make life easier for me Tobias, or do I have to find him myself.”

Tobias gave a huge sigh.

”I guess he’s headed due west,” he said ,” there was a place we camped on the way in, a cave and plenty of shelter, he said then it would be a good place to hole up in if ever we needed to make ourselves scarce for any reason.”

Jess nodded, “I’ll head out at first light.”

“I’ll rent me a horse,” said Tobias.

“Oh no,” said Jess firmly, “you ain’t coming, do I have to remind you, you have responsibilities back at the ranch, Rebecca is sick with worry about you.”

Tobias shook his head sadly.

”I guess I’ve been every kind of a fool,” he said softly, “I’ll head off first thing; tell them you’ll be along with Wes as soon as you can.”

“That’s more like it,” smiled Jess,” now I don’t know about you, but I guess I’m more than ready for a nice cool beer”, and the pair strode across the street to the saloon.


The following morning Jess was ready to head out at first light and as he made his farewells to Tobias he said, “don’t say anything to the others about the reason Wes headed off alone, just say he got in a scrap, don’t tell them he’s gunning for me.”

Tobias shook his head looking anxious.

”I guess there is no need to worry the women folk,” he said sagely,” but I reckon I should say something to Slim, you may be in need of some help out there Jess boy, guess you’ve never seen Wes when he’s riled.”

Jess cast his mind back to the way Wes had beaten up the Jackson boy when he found out he had been fooling around with Ellie May and swallowed.

” I figure maybe I have,” he said quietly.” Even so, don’t say anything to Slim yet, give me a couple of days to get him back and if we ain’t there then, well I guess you’ll need to say something.”

It took him a couple of hours to get near to the place Tobias had described, a cave set in the hillside with a fast stream flowing just below it and he dismounted Traveller and walked him slowly, towards the site.

As he got closer he saw a large Pinto hobbled and grazing quietly near the stream, but there was no sign of Wes.

Jess swallowed hard and licked his dry lips, feeling wary and very nervous, not knowing what to expect.

After a minute or two of indecision he finally called out Wes ’s name and then he saw the huge bear of a man inthemouth of the cave, he staggered out, obviously the worse for drink and Jess stood his ground waiting for the man’s reaction.

He came out of the cave blinking in the sunlight and then caught sight of Jess standing there, “Jess,” he slurred and after a minute,” Jess boy is that you?”

Jess drew a deep sigh of relief and moved forwards.

“Yeah, you OK buddy?” he asked gently.

The effort of walking out of the cave had obviously been too much for the huge man and he leaned back against the rock behind him before slowly sliding to the ground.

”Been better,” he said quietly, blinking his bleary eyes up at Jess.

Jess lowered himself down beside Wes,” been drinkin?” he asked conversationally.

“Yeah, some,” came the slurred reply, “got me real mad…. can’t…. can’t seem to remember why now,” he said with a chuckle and then closed his eyes and either passed out or fell asleep, Jess wasn’t too sure which.

Standing up he went and collected some wood and after setting a fire close to the mouth of the cave he put some coffee on to brew.

After maybe an hour or so Wes seemed to rally and Jess fetched a cup of his strong coffee and put it to the man’s lips. He drank thirstily and asked for more. Once they were sitting by the fire with their drinks Wes suddenly seemed to sober up and cast Jess a wary look.

He cleared his throat and then looking across to where Jess was sipping his coffee, he said thoughtfully,” it’s all coming back to me now, met some friends of yours from Laramie, in the saloon, Gus an’ Pete I think they was called.”

“Ain’t no friends of mine,” said Jess quietly, sensing a change in the atmosphere.

“No, no maybe not,” said Wes reflectively.

Then looking closely at Jess said, “they had some real disturbing news for me Jess boy… .said as how you were fooling around with my Janie….now that ain’t true is it?” he asked giving Jess a hard look.

Jess thought back to all that had happened between himself and Jane, how he had slept beside her the night before he had ridden out, holding her close in his arms.

They had talked long into the night sharing and confiding in each other and he had felt closer to her than any other living soul and as intimate as if he had actually made love to her.

He still didn’t know why they hadn’t done so. Maybe it was the presence of Amy, asleep in the room with them, or maybe Jess still felt he couldn’t betray Wes. Whatever the reason he knew the answer to  Wes’ s question was,’ no, I haven’t.’But he just couldn’t say it, as he felt as guilty as if he had committed the act.

He stood up and walked to the edge of the stream before turning back and looking Wes in the eye.

”No,” he said softly,” but I wanted to and I guess that’s just as bad.”

Wes’s head shot up like he had been hit and he stared in shock at Jess.

“What about Janie,” he finally said softly, “did she want it too?”

Jess just nodded his head sadly and said nothing.

Suddenly Wes let out a primeval scream of anguish and leaping up launched himself at Jess felling him with a single blow.

Jess staggered up from where he had fallen, but made no attempt to protect himself as the giant bear of a man tore into him sending another fist to Jess’s jaw. He rode with the punch but still just stood there his arms by his sides, now bleeding profusely from a split lip.

“Fight me Goddamn you,” yelled Wes furiously,” I’m gonna kill ya, but it ain't gonna be cold blooded murder.”

“I ain’t fightin’ you,” whispered Jess.

The big man came at him again jamming a ham like fist into Jess’s belly throwing him to his knees and as he fell Wes kicked him hard in the chest and then the groin and he rolled on the floor in agony retching with the pain.

“I said fight me goddamn you”, he yelled again and hauling Jess up by his shirt front he laid into him again with a right and left to his chin which sent him flying backwards where he hit the ground with a sickening thud and passed out cold.

Wes walked over to him sweat pouring down his big face and pulled him up again as if he was a doll and then thought better of it and threw him back down again before marching off back to the cave and his stash of bootleg whiskey.

He was unaware that Jess had fallen badly and was lying in the dirt with blood streaming down his face where he had come in contact with a sharp rock as he landed, if indeed he would have cared.

When Jess came around a couple of hours later the sun had shifted and it was directly overhead beating down relentlessly on his aching head.

He sat up gingerly, but there was no sign of Wes and so he painfully dragged himself the few yards to the stream and kneeling at the edge washed the cool water over his bleeding head.

Then he drank his fill before falling down and rolling on his back, unconscious once more.

When he awoke the next time it was dusk and he was aware of someone picking him up and carrying him to lie beside a crackling fire. Then he was pulled up into a sitting position and a cup with whiskey in it was held to his lips.

”Here drink this Jess boy,” rasped Wes,” it’ll help with the pain some.”

Jess drank and then started coughing and choking.

”Steady,” said Wes gently, “take it real slow boy,” and Jess drank a little more before lying back against the rock behind him.

Wes patted his shoulder and squatted down beside him.

”You alright,” he asked looking frightened,” God, Jess I thought I’d killed ya ,”he whispered,” dear God how did that happen?”

“Guess you were kinda mad with me,” said Jess softly,” and I figure you had good cause.”

“Not cause to lay into you so fierce boy,” he said shaking his head sadly,” you sure are one Hell of a mess,” he said quietly, “I’m so sorry, so very sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Jess softly. “I was just tryin’ to be a good friend to her Wes and I guess it got a little out of hand, she needed you and you weren’t around, so she turned to me,that was all really.”

Jess lay there wracked in pain and there didn’t feel to be any one bit of him that wasn’t hurting, he groaned quietly as he shifted position, trying to get comfortable and Wes flinched at the sound and offered more whiskey.

Jess took another mouthful before asking to lie down and he stretched out by the fire and fell asleep almost at once.

When he came to again Wes was sitting looking into the fire a cup of whiskey in his hands and as soon as he saw Jess was awake he helped him to sit up and passed him a cup of the home brew.

“We have to talk, ”he said softly,” I want to know all about it, what’s been going on.”

Jess’s heart missed at beat and he just gave Wes an anguished look.

“Like I told you,” he said softly, “I was just there for her when she needed someone.”

Then the big man started to talk quietly, looking down into his cup.

” I guess a lot of this is my fault,” he said,” when you stayed with us last year and you were hurt so bad, I could tell then there was something special between you two. A sort of closeness…and I asked her about it after you’d gone and she just said, you listened to her, understood things.”

He looked across at Jess, bewilderment in his eyes.

” I tried to understand what she wanted, and then I figured maybe it was just the pregnancy, women get funny notions when they’re pregnant,” he said with a deep sigh. “I guess I shouldn’t have brought her with me, but she wanted to see Ellie May. Then Tobias and I went off, let rip a bit if truth be known, I’ve been playing around getting drunk and stuff when I should have been at home with my family.”

That was when Jess told him briefly about what had happened to little Amy and Wes went white as a sheet.

“She’s OK,” he said for the second time, “you are sure she is OK?”

Jess nodded reassuring him.

“I should have been there for her,” he said softly.

“Yes you damn well should,” said Jess with feeling.

“You were there,” he said looking over at Jess and expression of deep sadness in his eyes. Then he came round the fire and squatted down next to Jess again and said fearfully,” don’t take her away from me Jess, dear God, please don’t take her from me…I’ll change I promise.”

Jess felt so moved he couldn’t look the older man in the face.

“It won’t come to that,” he said softly, “ever…..it’s you she loves, just get back to her and show her you feel the same.”

Wes nodded and topped up Jess’s cup.

”Sure, ”he said, “I’ll head out tomorrow”, then looking at his friend,” what about you?”

“Think I’ll stay here,” he said softly,” rest up a bit, don’t figure I could sit a horse right now anyways.”

Wes cringed remembering the vicious kick he had given Jess to the groin.

“Hell,” he whispered again,” I’m so sorry about that.”

“Will ya quit sayin’ you’re sorry,” said Jess with the ghost of a smile,”I guess I’ve kinda beenout of order and I got what I deserved, so I reckon we’re even.”

The following morning Wes was up at first light and ready to ride out soon after, he looked at Jess who was still lying by the fire with his second cup of coffee.

“I sure don’t like leaving you like this,” he said, for the third time that morning.

“Just go will ya , give me some peace and quiet ,”said Jess grinning at his friend.

He still stood there looking down, “what shall I say, where you are?” he asked.

“Oh just tell ‘em you darn near killed me and then left me in the middle of nowhere,” he said sarcastically.

“Oh Jess,” said Wes looking the picture of dejection,” if Jane ever knew what I’d done to you I guess she’d leave me on the spot.”

“Well she ain’tgonna know,” said Jess quickly, “not from me anyways. Just tell them back at the ranch that I’ve gone to speak to Peterson, north of Cheyenne about the order for the green broke mustangs, say I’ll be home in a couple of days. Oh and Wes, make sure you’re gone by then…I’d rather not see Jane and the kids…just….. well…. just say good bye fromme OK?”

Wes looked down at Jess and said softly,” they mean a Hell of a lot to you don’t they Jess.”

Jess felt so choked he couldn’t speak; he just looked down and nodded.

“Thank you for looking out for them,” he said softly before reaching down to shake Jess’s hand.

They shook and then Jess said softly,” probably better we don’t meet again Wes, way things are, just take care of her, yeah?”

“I promise Jess boy,” he whispered before mounting the Pinto and riding off at a fast trot.


When he arrived back at the Relay Station he was surprised to see Tobias emerging from the stable leading the changeover team for the Stage that was due.

Tobias greeted his friend with relief.

“Thank goodness your back,” he said as Wes jumped down from the Pinto,

“Jane’s been real worried and then looking past Wes, where is Jess?”

Wes looked embarrassed.

”It’s a kinda long story,” then changing the subject he said, “so what are you doing changing the horses?”

Tobias hitched the team to the corral fence and both men leaned against it looking out at the horizon, their backs to the ranch, as they talked. Neither of them noticed Jane come out from the ranch and stand just behind them. She moved quickly towards the men and then something in her husband’s tone and demeanour made her hold back.

“Slim’s off in town with the Sheriff ,”he replied, “the deputy is off in Cheyenne and Mort Corey needed some extra help for a few days and so Slim asked if we would help out here, until Jess got back.”

Wes ’s face clouded.

”How long for?” he asked gruffly.

“Until he gets back, a couple of days, why what’s the problem?” he asked. “ I figure we owe him anyways seeing as how they’ve made us so welcome here.”

“Yeah, yeah of course,” muttered Wes,” just that I promised Jess we’d be off tomorrow.”

Tobias’s eyes narrowed.

“Have you and Jess had a fallin’ out then,” he asked curiously, “surely you ain’t paid no credence to the tales those hombres in the Saloon were spinnin’ us,” he said giving Wes an astonished look.

Wes looked down and then said quietly,” I heard it from the horse’s mouth, Jess said…… well , never mind what he said, but I guess there ain’t no smoke without fire, iffen you get my meaning?”

“What!” said Tobias looking stunned,” you mean…Jess and Jane …have been…”

“No,” shouted Wes quickly” they ain’t , and they ain’t gonna be either, we’ve sorted it all out…but I promised ol’ Jess I’d be movin’ on …we’ve gottago Tobias.”

“So where is Jess,” asked Tobias again, giving his friend a wary look,” have you hurt him?”

Wes looked down and flushed up looking acutely uncomfortable.

“We got into a bit of a fight yeah,” he said softly.

“So why didn’t he come back with you?”

“Not fit to sit a horse right now.”

“What! What in God’s name have you done Wes, I thought you’d learnt your lesson with the Jackson boy!”

Then he looked puzzled.

“Hang on a minute, I’ve seen Jess fight he could take you on easy, he’s damn fast and powerful too…so how come he ain’t fit to ride?”

Wes hung his head and looked even more embarrassed.

”I was so dang mad at him,” he said,” I laid into him…real good…but he wouldn’t…..”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“Fight back, he just stood there and took it all Tobias, I ain’t never seen anything like it, he wouldn’t back down, just stood there and took the beating…. I….God forgive me, I just couldn’t stop, I thrashed him real good Tobe, real good, thought I’d killed him,” he finished in a whisper.

Tobias’s face had turned ashen, “where is he,” he asked.

“Out in that cave we spotted between here and Cheyenne,” he answered.

Just then both men spun around as they heard a noise behind them and they saw Jane standing there, a hand up to her mouth stifling the little cry she had made, as she listened to what Wes had been saying.

“Jane,” said Wes quickly,” how long have you been there?”

“Long enough to hear everything Wesley Hudson!… .How could you do that to him… .he’s done nothing but help this family while you have been off gallivanting and he has done nothing to be ashamed of either… “ and with that she ran off towards the wagon crying.

The two men exchanged looks…

”It seems like you’ve got one hellava lot of humble pie to eat friend,” said Tobias giving his buddy a worried look,” and guess you’d better start now.”

Wes gave Tobias a nod and marched off in the direction of Jane, feeling just about as bad as he could ever remember.

Wes and Jane spent all of that afternoon and most of the night sitting and talking. After supper they sat by the camp fire in the peace of the home pasture ,long after the others had retired for the night, and they were as honest with each other as they had ever been in all their years of marriage.

Jane had tried to explain the attraction she had towards Jess. Their shared childhood experiences and the way he made time to listen to her, and the way he made time for the children too. Showing Amy how to fish and letting Kate watch the  broncbustin' and even to the night when he had helped sooth the baby.

Wes listened to it all in silence and then said,”I figure I could spend more time with the kids, do things with ‘em…I’ve always thought that was your place Janie, but Hell iffen you want me to help more then sure I will.”

Then she told him about Amy’s accident, and how Jess had swum down for her five times before finally locating her and bringing her to shore, nearly drowning in the process himself. Then brought her back from the dead with his quick actions, and Wes was moved to tears.

Much later, when they were feeling closer than they had done for years, she admitted to her feelings for Jess.

“I know it was wrong,” she said,” and I don’t know how it happened, I guess it was just seeing him so kind and concerned for us all. I read more into it than I should have done and …well reacted in a way I’m kind of ashamed of now….. But he never took advantage of that Wes, never, even though, God forgive me he could have done.”

Wes took a deep shocked breath and swallowed hard, “it came to that?” he asked softly.

“But nothing happened,” she said, giving him a pleading look,” I promise you Wes.”

Wes looked across at his wife of 18 years and gave her a sad smile.

“I guess maybe we’ve both got a lot to be sorry about,” he said,” but perhaps now we can start again , move on …together?”

“Yes,” she said softly,” no matter what, we have the family and responsibilities and we have each other and we must make it work Wes, we have no choice.”

He leaned over and took her in his arms.

” Oh Janie,” he said softly,” I thought I’d lost you for good.”

“There are just two things, before we move on from all this,” she said softly.”We stay until Jess returns and I have some private time with him to explain everything…I guess we owe him that at least.”

Wes nodded sadly.

”We sure do,” he said softly…”and when I think what he did for our little girl…….”but he couldn’t finish and Jane held him close as they sat by the fire looking up at the clear night sky, thankful for the chance they had to move forwards.


Meanwhile Jess was sitting by a similar camp fire looking up at the same stars and wondering about his life and how he had gotten into this recent sorry mess. In his own way, he had somehow felt that he had deserved the thrashing he had received from Wes, even though he was not actually been at fault. But then as Slim would have said,’ ol’ Jess has his own code of honor and its one hell of a lot different from everyone else’s.’

Not that he didn’t respect Jess for the way he was, because he purely did, he just found his profound sense of right and wrong and loyalty, complex and sometimes completely perplexing.

Jess lay there thinking about Slim and what his reaction would be to the latest,’ chapter of errors’ as he referred to Jess’s exploits.

He was feeling a little better and figured he would head home in the morning. He had actually enjoyed his enforced rest in a way, spending his time doing some fishing in the stream below the cave and had also indulged in more than a little of the bootleg whiskey Wes had left him.

Now he raised a cup filled with the strong brew and said softly to himself, “purely for medicinal purposes

Daisy “, with a chuckle as he knocked it back and then spread out on his bedroll by the fire, falling asleep in a matter of moments.

The following morning he was up at first light but feeling a little worse for wear decided to turn over and sleep a little longer and rejoiced that Slim wasn’t there to read him the riot act and after a lie in, and a couple of strong coffees, he finally saddled up Traveller and pointed him in the direction of home.


As Jess rode into the yard later that afternoon he was surprised to see Wes leading a teamof horses out of the corral ready for the afternoon Stage.

He slid down from Traveller and nodded curtly to Wes, “you still here then?” he said quietly.

Wes gave him an embarrassed look.

” I’m sorry,” he said, “I know I promised, but Tobias agreed with Slim that we would mind the Relay for him while he was in town helpin’ the Sheriff out, he asked if we’d stay until you got back.”

“Yeah well I’m back now,” said Jess darkly.

Wes looked down and then back at Jess, “well there is somethin’ else too… .it’s Jane…”

“She’s OK isn’t she ? ” Jess butted in quickly, a look of concern clouding his face.

“Yeah,” nodded Wes,” but she’s refusing to leave until she’s seen ya, so we thought we’d head out first thing tomorrow, iffen that suits ya?”

Jess’s heart was pounding and he really didn’t feel up to facing Jane, didn’t know if he’d be able to control his feelings for much longer. While he had been looking out for her and the family, when Wes was away, he could pretend to himself that he was just acting as a caring friend, but since his conversation with Wes, back at the cave, he knew he had to face the truth of his real feelings for her.

Just then Wes broke into his thoughts.


“Yeah”, he said quietly,” of course, stay until tomorrow and thanks for doing the Relay, I appreciate it.”

Just then Daisy walked out from the ranch and came over to the corral where Jess was still holding onto Traveller and as she came towards him her smile of welcome froze as she saw the black eye and deep cut to his cheek bone.

“Oh Jess,” she whispered” whatever happened to you dear.”

Jess ducked his head and pulled his hat down more firmly.

”Don’t go takin’ on Daisy,” he said calmly,” hit a bit of trouble on the trail, nothin’ to worry about, just got beat up some that’s all,” and then wearily,” guess it’s not the first time.”

Daisy gave him her old fashioned look and then smiled kindly at him, “doubt it will be the last either dear,” she said.

Then turning to Wes she smiled benignly at him.

“What would you do with him eh Wes,” she said.

Then taking Jess’s arm gently, said,” come on inside, I’ve coffee on, and a fresh pie just out of the oven.”

Jess returned her smile,” sounds real good,” he said quietly, “I’ll just put up Trav and then I’ll be right in.”

It was when he was rubbing down his horse that he heard a slight sound behind him and turning saw Jane standing there.

As she took in the full extent of the bruising to his face she sucked in a deep breath.

“Jess, I am so sorry,” she gasped,” and Wes is absolutely mortified at what he has done.”

Jess’s heart was beating so hard he wondered if she could hear it, but he tried to act naturally and turned to her’

“It’s Ok, it’s over now, forgotten.”

She came closer resting a hand on his arm and he felt shock waves at her touch and looking down into her deeply concerned eyes he just wanted to hold her close and not let go.

“We need to talk,” she whispered,” but not here, later when we won’t be disturbed, tonight when the others have retired,” she said softly.

Jess just nodded and he felt like he was in some kind of dream, unable to see or think straight. He tried to back away, gently disengaging his arm from her grasp, but he just couldn’t move and he stood there transfixed, nothing mattering but the green depths of her soulful eyes.


“Yes,” he said softly,” tonight, I’ll sit out on the porch, like I did the night Joshua couldn’t sleep.”

Even as he said it he knew it was wrong, he knew it would be so difficult for him, but he felt mesmerized and all he could think of was being close to her again, smelling her perfume and holding her in his arms.

Then the spell was broken as they heard the afternoon Stage rushing in and the banter between old Mose the driver and Wes, who was changing the team. After a moment the shrill sound of Mike’s voice joined in and then he was in the barn tearing towards Jess and throwing himself into his arms.

As he embraced the boy Jane saw him grimace in pain as the youngster hugged him tightly and she knew that the beating he had received at the hands of her husband extended to far more than just his face.

After Mike had run back to the ranch with his school books and a note for Daisy from the teacher, Jess stood there absently rubbing a hand across his lower belly the pain so intense he felt nauseous.

Jane cast him a worried look and said,” he whopped you real bad didn’t he Jess, did he kick you there,” she asked nodding to where his hand was still resting..

He quickly dropped his hand to his side and just nodded.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, “he always did fight dirty.”

Jess gave her a faint grin, “so do I, “he said quietly, “sometimes it’s the only way to win.”

They stood staring into each others eyes transfixed, and then they were disturbed again, this time by little Amy.

As she entered the barn and saw Jess a look of pure delight lit up her face.

“Oh Jess “she said joyfully,” you’re back!”

“See Ma,” she said turning to her mother,” I said he’d be back, ‘cos he promised”

“And you always do what you promise don’t you Jess?” she said turning shining, candid green eyes up to her hero, her mother’s eyes thought Jess fleetingly.

He smiled down at the child.

”It’s real good to see you sweetheart,” he said softly, reaching down to give her a hug.

The child hugged him back beaming and then said, ”Aunt Daisy sent me out, said your coffee was ready.”

Jess smiled, knowing Daisy really wanted to take a closer look at his injuries and clean him up some if truth be told.

“OK, I’m right behind ya,” he said laughing down at the small girl, then turning to Jane he said, “you coming in Jane?”

She shook her head,

”No thanks, I’m supposed to be helping Rebecca with the food, you and Mike and Daisy are all invited to a farewell supper down in the home pasture tonight, Slim too if he is back in time,” and with that she gave him a warm smile before walking back to the wagon.

Meanwhile Amy put her warm little hand in Jess’s and said,” I’ll come in with yu Jess, but figure I’d rather have milk and cookies like Mike than coffee,” she confided with a little giggle.

Jess looked down at his small friend and wondered if she would ever know how much he would miss her when she drove off with her folks in the morning.

“Come on honey,” he said softly,” let’s see what we can rustle up for you.”

After Daisy had ministered to his ‘war wounds’ as she liked to call them, Jess took himself off for a shower in the old outdoors contraption he and Slim used.

Daisy had made a fuss of cleaning up the abrasions to his face, but he had lied and said that was all that was wrong.

Now as he soaped himself down in the shower he dreaded to think what she would have said if she had seen the full extent of his injuries. The kick to his chest was purple and black and the obvious mark of a boot could be seen, then he also had a livid bruise to his stomach where Wes had punched him, but the worst injury, by far, was the vicious kick to the groin he had received and the bruising spread from the top of his leg across his lower belly and the pain was so bad he felt sick. The ride home had been excruciating and even now he felt weak and nauseous.

He dried himself off quickly and then wrapping the towel around him sprinted across the yard and into the room he shared with Slim.

When he entered he was surprised to see his partner in there washing up for the proposed supper.

“Hey Jess,” he said beaming at his friend, “sure good to see you!”

Then he saw the bruising to his buddy’s face,” gee you look like you’ve been in trouble,” he said softly.

“Don’t start,” said Jess,” just had it all from Daisy.”

Slim chuckled.

”That sounds about right,” he said softly and carried on with his ablutions.

After a few minutes he turned to say something else to Jess and then he stood there looking at his friend in shock.

Jess had let the towel fall and was searching for clean pants in his draw, but he turned when he heard Slim’s low whistle, “what in Hell happened to you?” he gasped.

Jess gave him a resigned look.

“Wes happened to me,” he said “or his fist anyways.”

”What , Wes did this ?”he said angrily

“Yeah, but look Slim, don’t start frettin’ about it…guess I deserved it and we’re even now, it’s all done with.”

“The Hell it is,” said Slim furiously,” have you seen yourself Jess?”

“Well I can sure feel it,” he replied with the ghost of a smile.

“Jess this isn’t funny,” said Slim.

“I know it ain’t , I’m the one on the receiving end remember ?”he said gruffly, “just leave it Slim, it’s all sorted out.”

Slim shook his head sadly.

”He must have been powerful mad at you, to lay in to you that hard,” he said quietly.

Jess just nodded,” yeah, he was.”

Then Slim remembered coming into the main room early on the day Jess had ridden out to bring Wes back, and how he had stopped in shock when he saw Jess with his arms entwined around Wes’ s wife. Lying beside her on the big old couch, her head resting on his shoulder, fast asleep, for all the world looking like a pair of lovers, except that they were still fully clothed.

Slim still didn’t know if they were lovers or not and he knew Jess wasn’t about to tell him either, but he figured they were way beyond friends and knowing Jess’s unusual sense of honor, that he would have admitted this to Wes ifhe had asked.

Slim shook his head again still looking at his friends painful injuries and said, “you and trouble Jess, you’re like a goddamn magnet.”

But that’s all he said on the matter, and they were soon discussing work and the trading of the mustangs as they finished dressing.

Shortly afterwards they headed off for the home pasture with Daisy and Mike and were soon tucking into an excellent meal cooked by Rebecca and Jane.

As last time the men finished the evening sitting around the fire, long after the women folk and children had retired, passing around the bootleg whiskey.

This time however, Jess drank very little as he wanted to keep a clear head for his liaison with Jane. The others teased him a little when he said he didn’t want a repeat performance of last time, when he had been sick and hung over for a couple of days, but he took it good naturedly, and the moment passed as the other men became more inebriated and loud.

Slim however, had no such inhibitions and was well away by the time the party split up and Jess also noticed Wes had to be helped up by Tobias and supported as he made his way back to his wagon.

Jess did the same for Slim, constantly shushing him as he threatened to break into song as he staggered across the yard and into the house.

Jess removed his buddy’s boots and then as he fell onto his bed he covered him over with a blanket and whispered,” sleep well partner”, but Slim was already completely out of it.

He quietly left the room and let himself out of the house taking a seat on one of the rockers on the front porch to wait for Jane, his heart already thumping in anticipation.

All evening he had watched her covertly, longing to be alone, but hiding his feelings by hardly speaking to her at all. Rebecca had remarked as to how quiet Jess was and he had flushed and just said he was a little tired after his long ride that day. However Jane caught his eye and the look said everything he was feeling, and his stomach flipped as he sat and waited for the party to end so that he could be with her at last.

Now the time was nearly here though, he became more and more nervous, he knew nothing could come of their relationship. Jane was returning to the mountain in just a few short hours, but even so he longed for her company if only for a fleeting few minutes, longed to tell her how he really felt, longed to just hold her one last time.

He was so deep in thought that he didn’t hear her approach and she stood in the shadows for a few minutes watching him.

Her husband was a good ten years older that her and she had been with him almost since childhood and she knew a lot of what she had felt for Jess had just been infatuation as the young, handsome cowboy had paid special attention to her, listening to her thoughts and showing an interest and understanding that she had never experienced with Wes.

Then the feelings towards him had gradually changed and deepened from, infatuation, to a close friendship and then to much more. After he had rescued Amy and then had spent the night on the couch with her, she had longed for him, wishing him back, all the time he was away searching for her errant husband, missing him dreadfully.

Then with Wes’ s return they had talked properly for the first time in years and had come to a new understanding and had pledged that they would work hard at their marriage.

She knew that was the right thing to do, what she had to do.

Now watching Jess sitting on the rocker a brooding expression on his handsome features she was completely lost. All the ideals of a fresh start with Wes gone, and all she wanted was to be with Jess, hold him close feeling his protective warmth wrap around her once again.

After a second he looked up and seeing her standing there got up and walked across, taking her hand gently and whispering her name.

“Thought we might go for a little walk,” he said softly, mindful that Daisy had heard them talking on the porch last time.

She nodded and they walked off towards the creek, hand in hand.

It was only a ten minute stroll away and Jess often fished from a big rock on the edge of the water and that is where he made for now, the two of them sitting on the rock looking out at the moonlit scene.

With Jane beside him in the moonlight, the place was transformed for Jess and as he cast a quick glance at her he saw her eyes sparkling and a faint flush to her cheeks and felt a sharp frisson of desire.

After a few minutes she turned to him and said softly,” I had to see you before we left Jess, Wes and I have talked properly for the first time in years…and well, we have promised that we will try and make a go of things”.

Jess felt a stab of pain in his guts, so intense it stunned him.

He took a deep breath, swallowed hard before he replied.

“Good, I’m glad things are going to work out for you.”

“Really?” she whispered.

“Sure,” he said softly,” I just want you to be happy, that’s what friends want for each other ain’t it.”

“Oh Jess,” she said quietly and jumping down from the rock went and stood with her back to him looking out to the horizon.

After a second or so he followed her and gently turned her around to face him.

“What is it?” he said softly.

“I feel so confused,” she admitted, “I’ve pledged myself to Wes, promised him and I know I have no choice in the matter really, but….”

“But ….. what?”

“But being here with you, I thought it would be easy to say goodbye, but it’s not…..Jess I want you so badly,” she whispered.

He looked down into her beautiful green eyes brimming with tears and his heart was pounding as he looked at her lips and then very gently lowered his mouth to hers, kissing her deeply. He gave a low moan and then pulled away ,before resting her head on his shoulder, stroking her hair and whispering in her ear,” I want you too sweetheart, you’ll never know how much.”

Then he pushed her very gently away from him and looking deep into her eyes he said quietly, “but I made a promise to Wes too.”


“I promised him I wouldn’t take you away from him…and you know what Amy says, I never break a promise,” he said, trying to keep his voice light even though his heart was breaking.

“Oh Jess,” she whispered.

He pulled her back into his warm embrace and held her tightly their hearts beating as one, until he leaned forwards and kissed her again, firmly and deeply. His mouth moved down to her neck and she arched her back groaning in pleasure as his hands pulled her even closer so that she could feel every inch of his muscular body warm and hard against her soft yielding one. Then he did what he knew he must and walked away......


Jess was lying in his bed, staring up at the ceiling and reliving all that had happened just a few short hours ago.

It was still early and he was aware of Slim snoring gently in his bed, across the room.

Jess turned over onto his side, hugging his pillow, his eyes open, looking bleakly into space.

“You and your goddamn conscience Harper,“ he whispered to himself, before rolling out of bed to start the day’s chores.

After he returned from doing the early morning jobs, he came in for breakfast and was not surprised to see Slim looking pale and fragile at the breakfast table requesting coffee only.

“Hey what’s up pard,” he said slapping his friend on the back, “had a little too much good cheer last night did we?”

Slim turned a bleary eye on his friend,” ah huh …and how come you didn’t?”he said resentfully.

“ I just thought better of it,” replied Jess looking innocent.

“Uh, more like you had bigger fish to fry,” mumbled Slim to himself.

Before they could enter into an argument about that however, they heard the sound of the wagons in the yard and knew their friends were ready to depart.

Jess suddenly looked stricken and Daisy looked across at him.

”Jess are you alright dear?”she asked anxiously, noting his sudden pallor.

“Sure,” he said, giving her his shy smile,” just sad to see ‘em go that’s all,” he said softly.

Then they were all outside shaking hands and offering good wishes for a safe journey.

Among all the mayhem Jane found herself next to Jess and looking into his deep blue eyes said softly, ”Jess, remember what Amy said, the day she started to speak again…what she said to you?”

Jess remembered exactly what she had said, “I love you Jess, and you are my very best friend.”

“Yes,” he said I remember.

“Well,” she said softly,” her Ma thinks the same.”

They exchanged a look of burning need and passion.

” Me too,” he whispered,and leaning forwards kissed her gently on the cheek, but his hand went up to her neck, and caressed her so gently it brought tears to her eyes, although nobody else noticed the small intimacy.

Then Slim handed her up onto the wagon and with many more cheerful farewells the wagons pulled out of the yard, up the hill and away back to the mountains.

Jess stood watching until they were out of sight and then marched over towards the barn, his back ramrod straight, every inch of his form crying out leave me alone.

Slim looked after him before turning to Daisy.

“He isn’t right Daisy, I figure he’s got himself a mite too attached to those folk,” he said casting the older woman a concerned look.

She returned his look, “I know what you mean Slim,” she said softly”, but I think he just needs time.”

Slim nodded sadly and said,” yeah, maybe,” before taking the older woman’s arm and heading back towards the house.

Jess made himself scarce for the rest of the day and turned in early after supper. Slim came into the room shortly after still suffering from his hang over and seeking an early night.

Jess lay there his hands laced behind his head looking up at the ceiling remembering, Kate’s warm smile and laughter as she had watched the bronco bustin’, Amy’s trusting warm little hands around his neck as she had tearfully wished him goodbye. The warm feeling of baby Joshua’s downy head resting on his chest the night he couldn’t sleep….…and then all that had gone on between himself and Jane and his heart ached, for what could have been, if he hadn’t made that promise to Wes,’ no I won’t take her away from you.’

Slim glanced across at him,” you OK?”

“I guess…….I will be.”

Then after a while with a little smile Slim said, “beats me how you do it Jess, got three members of the same family after you this time. First Ellie May had the hots for you, then little Amy thinks you’re wonderful …..and then there is Jane….”

“Shut up,” said Jess angrily,” will ya Slim, just leave it!”

“Well, it sure is a record,” said Slim quietly…..”even for you.”

Jess turned angrily to his buddy,” you know what Slim, you could sure learn a lot from little Amy.”

Slim gave him a surprised look,” oh what?” he asked.

“Like how not to talk for a few days” said Jess …….”give us all a break!”

He was rewarded by Slim chucking his pillow at him, which he fielded and threw forcefully back, catching Slim full in the face and he fell back on his bed with an exaggerated groan.

“It sure was a wise move staying off the hill whiskey,” he said glancing across at Jess,” guess I’ll do the same next time.”

“Won’t be a next time,” said Jess.

“Sure there will, they’ll be over next summer, stop over for their trading trip,” said Slim, giving his friend a puzzled look.

“No they won’t,” said Jess very quietly, “Wes and I agreed……they won’t be back.”

Slim gave a low whistle as he took this information in and then giving Jess an intense look he said,” because of Jane?”

Jess just nodded but couldn’t meet his buddy’s eyes.

“So where did you get to last night?” asked Slim casually


“I woke up, went for a drink and you were nowhere around. “

“Outhouse,” said Jess in a dead pan voice.

“Nope…went there too.”

Jess said nothing just lay on his back looking up at the ceiling.

“You were with her weren’t you….Jess?”

Jess just gave a deep sigh and said nothing.

“So did you…have you…ya know?”

Jess leapt off the bed and hurled himself at Slim, grabbing him hard by the front of his shirt and dragging him up, the other hand balled into a fist as though he would punch his friend, his breath coming in rasping pants obviously fighting hard to get control….. Finally he just pushed Slim back on the bed before turning and throwing himself back down on his own, muttering,” none of your Goddamn business.”

Slim took a deep breath and was completely shocked by Jess’s reaction, but after a few seconds he pulled himself together and said softly,” sorry pard, I guess you’re right.”

Jess turned his head to look at Slim, “sorry,” he said softly, ”I figure I’m just a mite touchy right now, where she’s concerned.”

“Would it help to talk about it?”

Jess shifted on the bed, sitting up and pushing a pillow behind him and giving Slim a quick look said softly, “she told me she loved me Slim, just before she left…how could she do that to me, say that and then just walk away?” he finished his eyes full of pain.

Slim shook his head sadly.

”I guess she wanted you to know how she really felt, but she had to go… you know that Jess, she’d made a promise to Wes.”

“Yeah, I know,” he replied quietly.” I know she had to go, just doesn’t make it any easier though.”

Then he looked over at Slim,” figure I’ll take off at first light.”

Slim’s head swiveled round to look at his partner,” please tell me you’re not going to the mountain,” he said urgently.

“I’m not heading for the mountain , no,” said Jess in a resigned voice,” thought I’d take a couple of those green broke mares over to that guy in Cheyenne, they’re eating their heads off, might as well trade them sooner as later.”

Slim gave a small sigh of relief.

“Yeah, that makes sense,” he said, “we should get a good price for ‘em.”

“I figure, then I’ll finish off breaking the others when I come back, should be away but a couple of days.”

“OK pard,” said Slim, but his eyes were closing and in a minute he drifted off to sleep, gently snoring, but Jess lay long into the night just staring into the blackness.

When Slim awoke at first light Jess’s bed was empty and he realized that he had already left for the selling trip and he just hoped he’d be feeling a little better on his return.

Chapter 16

Jess made good time riding to Cheyenne, even though he had the two green broke mares to lead and he arrived at old Bert Johnson’s place by late afternoon. As he rode in Bert emerged from the ranch house and called a welcome and coming over to Jess he gave the horses an appraising look.

Jess jumped down and they shook hands before starting their transaction. The elderly man cast an experienced eye over the horse flesh, one a small Bay and the other a rather showy Palomino.

“Um, nice Jess,” he said softly, “very nice,” and then turning to look at the younger man,

“and yer broke ‘em yourself?”

“Sure,” said Jess grinning at the rancher,” still got the bruises to prove it.”

Bert smiled,” gave you a hard time then did they son?”

Jess stroked the Palomino’s nose, remembering Mike had called her Gold Dust, and wondered idly if she would live up to her name.

“Well, you know, typical females Bert, but guess we got there in the end. This little lady has got some spirit, needs a tight rein and the Bay over there is very gentle, could put yer granny up on her.”

Bert gave Jess a toothless grin, now that would be interestin’ if my old gran was still with us,” he said chortling away to himself.

Now Jess could see he had got the old timer in a good mood he figured it was time to talk turkey and so he told  Bert what he wanted for the pair, which was way over what he expected to get, and as usual they met somewhere in the middle, with both parties happy with the deal.

“Will ya come in and sit a spell,” asked Bert once the deal had been struck,” figure Mrs Johnson could find some supper for ya.”

“Well, thanks Bert,” replied Jess, suddenly having a memory of Mrs Johnson’s inedible fare, “but I’ve got a thirst on me, figure I’ll ride into Cheyenne for the night before heading home, he said, carefully stuffing the wad of notes Bert had given him into his vest pocket.

“As you like son,” replied Bert amiably, “take care an’ watch yer back,” he said and he waved to Jess, before leading off the two mares, the light of a good deal done shining in his old eyes.

When Jess arrived in town he went straight to the Livery and left Traveller with his old friend there with the usual instructions to take care of his mount, a good rub down and extra rations.

“You’ve got it son,” said the old man as he led Traveller away, pocketing the coins Jess had flipped him.

He walked straight to the saloon; he was hot and tired after the long ride and was also suddenly, feeling really down. While he had been leading the mustangs he had to keep his wits about him and then he had enjoyed the banter and business with old Bert, but now with nothing else to think about his mind returned to the mountain folk and he wondered how they had got on and whether they were back home, and what Jane was doing.

‘Shut up Harper, before you drive yourself crazy,’ he said to himself and entering the bar ordered a whiskey and knocked it back in one. It hit the spot and he could feel its welcoming warmth begin to infuse his tired body and relax him.

He tossed the barkeep a couple of coins and taking the bottle retired to a table in the corner. He poured himself another glass of the liquor, but just sat looking at it. Getting totally drunk seemed like quite a good idea, at that moment, but he knew he would live to regret it and wondered if life would be easier if he just got a hotel room, had a bath and retired for the night.

He was still pondering the problem when a voluptuous, brassy blond saloon girl sidled over to him and sat down.

“Buy me a drink mister,” she said giving him a forward look. Jess had noticed her eyeing him up ever since he entered the place and he had studiously ignored her, but now he took pity on her, guess we all have to make a buck he thought to himself.

He looked across and threw her a coin, thinking she would move off. She got up and taking the money beamed at him and came close throwing an arm around his neck. Her cheap perfume overpowering and making him want to gag.

“You don’t look too happy cowboy,” she said in a sultry tone,” would ya like to come with me and I’ll cheer you up some?” she asked cocking her head towards the staircase and her room above.

The way he was feeling right then the last thing he wanted was to spend time with a working girl, any way he had never had to pay for it and he wasn’t about to start now, all he wanted was to hold Jane in his arms again, feel her sweet lips on his ….

He dragged his thoughts back to the present.

” No,” he said firmly, “guess I wouldn’t be very good company right now.”

“Oh come on honey,” she insisted slipping easily onto his knee and snaking her arms around his neck again, “bet you could show a girl a real good time if you had a notion to.”

Jess felt weary and miserable and his patience was running out, he turned angry eyes on her.

“Which bit of no don’t you understand lady?” he hissed.

She jumped down from his knee and cussed him, before turning and marching over to the bar where she slumped down on a bar stool, saying loudly to the barkeep,” looks like the cowboy don’t like girls then Abe.”

One or two people chuckled at her comment, but Jess merely pulled his hat down and ignored her, knowing she was just angry because her pride had been hurt.

The little outburst had caught the attention of a couple of men further down the bar though and one of them stood up and walked down to Jess’s table and said in a loud voice for all the bar to hear.

”Oh he likes girls alright, don’t ya Harper, especially when they’re married to someone else,” and Jess looked up into the sarcastic face of Gus Tyler from the Flying H.

He gave a weary sigh.

”I seem to remember I had to knock some sense into that sad excuse of a brain of yours a while back,” said Jess,” don’t make me have to do it all over again Tyler.”

“Figure I owe you,” said Gus menacingly,” seeing as how I was banged up in jail, not long since, just for telling the poor fool of a husband a few home truths. Yeah, reckon I owe you a bullet in the chest Harper.”

“Don’t be a fool Tyler,” said Jess quietly, “you couldn’t outdraw me on your best day and we both know it.”

Pete, Gus’s partner came up behind him,” he’s right Gus, just let it lie.”

“Can’t do that,” said Gus.

Then giving Jess a mean look,” I’ve been wantin’ to get you for a long time Harper, you and your holier than thou attitude, act all respectable now you’re a partner in the Sherman place. Do ya killing hiding behind a Deputy’s badge now, but I remember you when you were just a no good gunslinger.”

“That was a long time ago,” said Jess quietly, “now just mind your friend there, he talks good sense so just back off Tyler.”

But Tyler had the light of battle in his eyes fueled by an afternoon of whiskey drinking and he wasn’t about to back down now and so he decided to goad Jess into a fight.

“So what was she like in the sack, that mountain woman you’ve been keeping company with? “he asked loudly.

Jess sprang up from his seat, “I’m warnin’ ya Tyler,” he said furiously.

Everyone in the bar suddenly scattered from the line of fire as Gus stepped backwards, taking the gunfighter stance , his hand resting just above his iron, his eyes narrowing to slits as he scowled at Jess.

“So,” said Gus getting into his stride, “I had heard tell it was the daughter you were beddin’ little Ellie May, but then she looked like a bit of a handful to me. So I guess ya decided on her Ma, good choice Jess, I like an older woman myself.”

“Shut it,” yelled Jess, now beside himself with rage.

“Why, what are you gonna do, draw on me ?” spat Gus.

“No, I ain’t that’s down to you Tyler,” he replied angrily.

He watched the man’s eyes and saw he was going for his gun but Jess had drawn and fired before Gus’s weapon was half way out of his holster.

Jess deliberately aimed to wound only, and Gus grabbed his arm where the bullet had penetrated, falling to his knees in pain as his buddy went to his aid.

Jess was shaking with anger and marching up to the older man he dragged him up by his shirt front and threw him forcibly into a chair, and leaning down so his face was just inches from Gus’s whispered menacingly, “you bad name me, or any of my friends like that again Tyler and you won’t be walkin’ away from it…understand?”

Gus nodded,” yeah, I understand,” he replied looking terrified.

Jess stood up, gave the assembled company a black look and pulling his hat down hard marched out of the saloon and across the road to the hotel.


The following morning he figured he ought to have a word with the Sheriff before riding out and he walked along to the office and entering was pleased to see that Lon from Laramie was still there.

“Well, howdy Jess,” he said cheerfully, “come to give your side of last night’s little fracas have ya?”

Jess sat down and pushed his hat back,” yeah, guess I have,” he said quietly.

Lon beamed across at him, “no need,” he said,” I was along shortly after the event and got statements and everyone, said you were provoked by Tyler. The barkeep said it was a miracle you didn’t finish him there and then, way he was riling you.Even his friend said he told Gus to back down, but he was way beyond reason. Anyways it was him that drew on you Jess, so nothing to answer for, OK buddy?”

“Yeah, thanks Lon,” he said.

“So what was it about, you and Slim having those folk from the mountain staying with you like last time?”

Jess nodded, “yeah, except he got kinda personal this time.”

“Um,” said Lon quietly, “so I heard tell.

” Then thoughtfully,” one of the family, a youngster would she be called Ellie May?”

“Yeah that’s right,” said Jess,” Ellie May Hudson, daughter of Jane and Wes, they’ve been staying over at the Relay.”

“I thought that name rang a bell,” said Lon, “I’ve had a wire about her, couple of days ago from Mort, seems she’s missing.”

Jess’s head shot up,” what do ya mean missing?”

Lon rifled about his desk looking for the telegram and finding it said,” yes here we are Ellie May Hudson 16 years, missing from foster home of George and Betsy Potts, Laramie, believed to have been abducted on or shortly after Saturday 18th August.”

Jess gave a low whistle,” do her folks know? “

Lon scratched his head,” dunno Jess, guess you’ll have to ask Mort that, he’s in charge of the case.”

Jess jumped up at once “I’ll do that,” he said, “are we all done here Lon?”

“Well sure, but do ya want to press charges against Gus Tyler, after all he was the one to call you out.”

Jess paused for a moment and then said,” Nah, but you can tell him to keep out of my way, ‘cos I won’t be aiming to just wound him next time.”

Lon gave him a lopsided grin,” guess I didn’t hear that Jess”.

Jess returned his smile,” yeah, guess ya didn’t Deputy, be seeing ya,” and with that he returned to the Livery and a few minutes later rode out at a fast trot, heading for Laramie.

As he rode hell for leather, back to Laramie his thoughts were in turmoil. He knew there had been some conflict between Ellie and her parents about her coming back home. Wes had been adamant that she had not given her new life enough time and she must persevere with the constrictions of living with George and Betsy.

Jane, he knew, had been more reasonable and had finally said if the child couldn’t settle to her new life by Thanksgiving, then maybe she should come home.

However from what Lon had said it looked more like the girl had been taken away rather than run away and Jess was desperately worried about her as he knew her parents would be.

When he got to Laramie he went straight to the Sheriff’s office and bursting in, said” what’s all this about Ellie

May, then Mort?”

Mort’s head shot up from where he had been sitting at his desk looking at some paper work.

“Well, Good Morning Jess”, he said briskly giving him an amused look.

“Sorry,” he said after a moment,” howdy Mort how are ya doin’”

“Just fine,” he said giving his friend smile, “so ya want to know about the Hudson girl?”

Jess just nodded looking anxious.

“It appears she ran off from the Potts place on Saturday night, they had said she couldn’t go to the dance. Well she went off to bed in a huff, like young girls do, and they thought no more about it, until next morning she didn’t come down for breakfast, and they reported her missing to me.”


“And so I checked it out, she did go to the dance, spent most of the time with Denny Peters.”

Jess took a deep breath, “what that low life?”

“Now Jess I know he’s a bit strange but…..”

“Bit strange, the man’s a total scum bag, the way he’s always leering around the Saloon girls, fair gives Millie the creeps, had to warn him off more than once.”

“Well, the man’s had a funny life I guess, never married and lived just with his Ma all those years before she died…sen thim a bit odd in the head I guess, but figure he’s harmless enough.”

“You do eh…anyway what would she want with him he must be what…40, 45 older than her Pa.”

“Yes, well I thought it strange too. So I went out to the Peter’s place and saw him, no sign of the girl, he seemed as surprised as I was to hear she was missing.”

“So what have you done about it?”

“Well”, said Mort stroking his chin,” not much I can do Jess, you know I’m struggling here what with Lon still over in Cheyenne. I had hoped Slim would give me a hand again, but he said you were off delivering horses and he couldn’t leave the relay.”

“So…what’s happening?” Jess asked again, beginning to get angry.

“Well, I’ve asked around, seen the Potts and wired all the local Sheriffs to keep an eye open, but my guess is she’s found a mount from somewhere and headed back home. Probably having a tearful reunion as we speak….. I’m just waiting on a reply from the Sheriff over at Rawlins. If she headed off should be home by now, let’s just wait and see,” he finished trying to pacify his friend.

“Um”, said Jess, still not looking happy,” I’ve got to pay some money into the bank and then I’m going for a couple of beers before heading home, will ya let me know if you hear anything Mort, before I head off?”

“Sure will,” said Mort grinning at him,” in fact I’ll even join you for that beer; guess you’ll be paying seeing as how you’ve just struck a deal on them Mustangs!”

Jess grinned back, “never miss a trick do ya Sheriff, ”he laughed as he marched off.

It was an hour or so later when Mort joined him at the bar, where he had been enjoying some light teasing with Millie, saloon girl and good friend. He turned to Mort as he entered with a broad grin on his face, but quickly sobered when he saw the grim look in his friend eye.

“What’s up Mort?” he asked lightly,” you don’t look like the sort of man who is just about to enjoy some free drinks.”

Mort ignored the banter and gestured for Jess to leave the bar and come and sit over at a table.

Jess ordered another couple of beers and exchanging a puzzled look with Millie went and followed Mort over to the table in the corner.

“What is it?” he asked softly as he pushed the beer across to the Sheriff.

Mort looked into the amber liquid for a few minutes before taking a deep pull at it and then replacing the tumbler on the table he said quietly, “bad news I’m afraid, Jess. I’ve just heard back from Rawlins, no sign of the girl at all. Parents are absolutely distraught…. well her Ma is anyways.”

“Oh”, said Jess, noting something in Mort’s voice that sent a frisson of fear down his spine, “what about her Pa? “

“Well, that’s what I have to tell you Jess. Wes is sick, real sick, Sheriff reckons he won’t make it. “

Jess’s head shot up,” how so?” he asked his voice gruff with emotion.

“Got mauled, cougar, real bad the Sheriff said, touch and go as to whether he’d make the night,” he finished sadly.

Jess hung his head before downing his beer in one and standing up abruptly, pulling his hat down hard.

“Now where are you off to in such a garl darn hurry?” asked Mort, looking anxiously up at his friend.

“To check out Peters again,” said Jess,” I don’t believe that story he gave you, and then I’ll go on up the mountain , she if I can track her, if she has taken a horse, she may have gotten into some trouble on the way.”

Mort shook his head wearily, before taking a Deputy badge out of his vest pocket,” if you’re all fired determined to go, then take this, might help you get the information you want .”

Jess took the badge and pinned it on.

”Thanks Mort,” he said softly, “and could you get Mose to let Slim know, tell him I’ll be back just as soon as I can.”

“Sure,” said Mort kindly,” and Jess…”


“Take it easy…no rough stuff with Peters, as I say he’s just a bit odd.”

“Yeah, yeah, OK, see ya Mort,” and with that Jess strode out of the saloon and off to collect Traveller, before heading for Denny Peters place.

As soon as he arrived he could tell the place was deserted.

There were a few scrawny looking steers in the pasture alongside the ranch and some chickens running around the yard, but no sign of human occupation at all.

Jess was just fixing to leave when he heard a rider approaching and looking out to the trail saw old Bob Bennett from a neighboring ranch ride into the yard and rein in his ancient Cob.

He got down slowly and painfully, his rheumatism obviously giving him hell , thought Jess sympathetically, and it was a few minutes before the old man registered that he wasn’t alone in the yard. He quickly pulled his rifle out of its scabbard and trained it on Jess, “what you doin’ here mister?” he said gruffly.

Jess took a pace forwards, “it’s me Bob.” he said quietly,” Jess…Jess Harper from the Relay.”

The old man peered myopically across at Jess for a minute before putting his gun up and grinning at the younger man, “gee sorry Jess,” he said apologetically, “guess my sight is getting worse than I thought, didn’t recognize you there for a minute.”

“That’s OK Bob, I’m after Denny, not seen him have you?”

“No sirree, that’s why I’m here Jess, to mind his stock, taken that young niece of his off to work in…err Rawlins, I think he said. ”They left this morning.”

“Niece?” asked Jess in surprise, “didn’t know he had one.”

“No nor did I,” replied the old timer,” I remember he did have a sister, moved out East, 15 no twenty years since, must be her girl.”

“What did she look like?” asked Jess suspiciously.

“Well, now I didn’t see her up close, long reddish hair, nice little figure on her, sorta curvy, ya know?”

“Oh yes,” said Jess darkly,” I know… .her eyes Bob, did she have these real cute green eyes?”

“Well, now I can’t be saying,” replied the old timer,” way my eyes are now Jess, couldn’t say at all.”

“Think hard Bob, could it have been the young girl that has been working over at George and Betsy Potts place?”

He scratched his head, “now let me see, I did have occasion to go in there a while back, needed a new shirt…there was this cute young thing in there, I guess it could have been the same girl, but why would he want to pass her off as his niece Jess?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” replied Jess bitterly,” but I aim to find out,” and calling out his thanks, he hopped up on Traveller and left the yard at speed.

He figured that if they had only left that morning he had a good chance of catching them before night fall. That’s if they were indeed heading towards the mountains.

He had no problem tracking the old buckboard, he knew Peters drove, out of the ranch and onto the main road, but after a few miles the wheel marks were indistinguishable from all the others that had passed that way. He knew however that if indeed he was heading up to the mountain pass then he would have to take the narrow track just past the lake and he was overjoyed to see that his theory was right and the wagon tracks were clearly discernible again.

As he rode along he tried to imagine what Peters’ game was. Could it be that he was just doing a favour for the young girl taking her home to her folks, or was there a more sinister reason? Jess knew he had a liking for young women and had propositioned Millie more than once and he had explained in no uncertain terms that Millie was purely a hostess and did not offer the sort of favors that the man was asking for.

Then he remembered seeing him with the blond saloon girl in Cheyenne, and he spurred Traveller on to a gallop as he suddenly hada very bad feeling about the man’s intentions.

He also knew in his heart that Ellie May was probably far from blameless and had doubtless flirted with Peters a little to get her way of a free ride home, but he was pretty sure that would have been as far as she meant it to go and she would have no real interest in a man that age. Denny Peters looked a good ten years older than he was, with his paunch and balding head he was certainly not the sort Ellie would normally go for, Jess thought wryly and realized for the first time how desperate she must be to get home.

He tried to not let himself dwell on how Jane must be feeling as the thought made his heart ache with pity and worry.

Then he wondered how Wes was, if he was dead or alive…..

Chapter 17

Jess had made good time and as soon as he realized the direction the buckboard was heading in he struck off across country, knowing that they would probably camp for the night in the foothills. From there on they would have to leave the wagon and use the team as saddle horses to continue up the mountain and he figured he knew pretty much where they would make camp and simply headed straight there.

Sunset was approaching as Jess crested a hill and looking down at the valley below and finally saw the buckboard, with the horses hobbled and grazing nearby. Then he saw the smoke from the camp fire drifting into the cool evening air as he looked down, taking in the peaceful scene.

He adjusted his seat in the saddle and pulled his hat down hard trying to keep the setting sun out of his eyes, peering down for any movement and then he heard it…….. a blood curdling scream.

There was something of the wounded or trapped animal about it. It hardly sounded human, he thought, but suddenly he knew in his heart that it was.

Squinting down again he saw a couple just beyond the camp fire on the ground, seemingly fighting, and the scream echoed across the valley again, followed by a girl shouting,” No, no , please no!”

Jess spurred Traveller into a fast gallop and arrived at the camp in a matter of minutes and without even reining his mount in he dived off, hitting the ground running and leapt onto the back of the big man who had the young girl pinned to the ground.

Jess dragged him off and slammed a fist so hard into the man’s face that he flew through the air landing several feet away. He ran over to him and hauling him up, threw another couple of punches as the larger man weakly tried to retaliate. Jess merely parried the punches and then gave a forceful punch to the stomach followed by one the back of the neck and he fell like a stone, unconscious and bloody.

Jess turned and walked over to where Ellie May was still lying, whimpering and shaking with shock.

He looked down, shaken and furious, horrified at what he saw. The girl had red marks across her face where Peters had slapped her and her dress and under garments were practically torn from her. He immediately went over to the fire and picking up a blanket brought it back and gently covered the youngster, carefully draping it around her shoulders. Then he squatted down beside her and said softly,” it’s OK Ellie, I’m here everything will be OK now”

She turned a tear stained face to him,” Oh Jess thank God” she whispered.

“Honey, did he……because….. I’ll kill the bastard.”

“No,” she said quickly,” no he didn’t you got here just in time.”

Then she turned a deathly shade of white and was violently ill.

Jess held her hair back and offered a comforting arm around her shoulders and after a few minutes she recovered, apologising profusely.

“Its’ alright honey,” he said softly, “you’ve nothing to be sorry for,” and then even more quietly, almost to himself, “but maybe I’ll just kill the bastard anyway.”

Once she had finished Jess went and got his canteen and gave her a sip of water.

“Alright now?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Look,” he said gently,” I think we’d better move off. There’s an hour or so of day light left, figure we can make another couple of miles, camp up in the foothills OK?”

She nodded.

“Ok, go get cleaned up at the stream and, have you more clothes?”

She just nodded again.

“Get changed then sweetheart,” he said gently,” and as soon as you are ready we’ll head off.”

He stood up taking his canteen with him and emptied the icy consents over Peters’ unconscious head.

He spluttered and then finally came to.

“Harper,” he whispered looking terrified, “don’t hurt me no more …please I’m begging ya.”

Jess looked down on him with contempt.

”People like you; well it would almost be worth hanging for…iffen I did what I’ve a mind to right now.”

Peters caught sight of the Deputy badge Jess was wearing…. and said shakily, “now as a man of the law, you wouldn’t be thinking of taking the Law into your own hands would you.”

“Don’t get smart with me, “Jess spat,” I’m taking one of your horses for the girl ta ride, leaving one for you to get back to Laramie. When I’m done helpin’ her out I’ll bring your horse back. Make no mistake, the Sheriff and I will be visiting later, for you to give account for your behavior, and by God you had better be there when I come calling,” he finished angrily.

Peters just nodded, and after giving him a black, look Jess strode off.

They made camp just as dusk was falling and Jess soon had a cheerful fire going and coffee brewing although neither of them could stomach anything to eat.

After a while Jess said softly,” do you want to tell me about it?”

She gave a small sigh and looked across at him and then came over from her side of the fire and sat close, her head resting on his shoulder, looking into the fire and started talking in a low sad voice.

“Well you know as how I really wanted to go back with the family and Pa said No, as how I should try the new life a little longer?”

“Yeah,” said Jess softly.

“Well, I was so mad that the day after they set off for home I lit off to the dance, sneaked out, hoping you or

Slim would be there and I could get you to fix it for me to go back.”

“Anyways,” she continued,” you weren’t there and then I struck up a conversation with Denny. He was so kind, like someone’s Pa and said, he was going to Rawlins on business and how he’d take me along.”

“Go on,” said Jess quietly.

“Well he reckoned I’d be missed, and he was right and Sheriff Corey came looking for me, but I hid in the outhouse…then after a day or so we headed out.”

“He was fine honestly Jess, ”she said turning her wide green eyes on Jess, ”I didn’t flirt with him or anything , if that’s what you’re thinking.”

To be honest Jess was wondering, knowing the way she had played up to him in the barn after only a quick introduction, that first time they had met.

She seemed to read his thoughts.

”That was different, ”she said with a sad smile, “you were young and good looking and exciting. Before you, all I had known were the mountain boys and they were such a dim lot, and no threat, and you…..were well…a bit dangerous.”

Jess was angry, “do ya see,” he said,” do you see now; why I was so mad at you when you made that pass at me… I could just see you trying it on with the wrong person and…well…..what nearly happened tonight, happen to you. I was just shit scared for you, can you see that now?” he asked desperately.

She looked down and nodded,” yes, I can and I am truly sorry and I have learnt my lesson, I promise,” she whispered.

A little after that, exhausted ,after all the emotions of the day, that they turned in, Ellie May lying next to Jess, terrified of being alone,and it wasn’t until the following day that they talked properly again.

Jess had brewed some more coffee and was sitting looking deeply into the fire wondering how he was going to break the news of Ellie May’s Pa to her. He felt he should prepare her for her father’s death and he had a deep feeling of doom as to what they might find when they reached the homestead.

Ellie awoke and watched Jess for a few minutes before saying quietly”, what is it, Jess…..it’s Ma ain’t it?”

“Huh? “asked Jess hoping to buy time, totally caught off guard.

“It’s Ma,” she repeated,” you think she’s going to be mad at you for bringing me back.”

Jess gave a sigh of relief, before remembering what he really had to say to Ellie and finally looked across at her and said sadly, “no sweetheart , it’s nothing to do with your Ma….it’s your Pa.”

“Yes,” she said quickly,” I know he will be mad at first, but you don’t know the whole story Jess. See I’ve been writing to Homer all the time I’ve been away and we’ve come to an understanding we’re getting married as soon as he gets out of jail and I think Pa will be happy about that.”

“Where will ya live?” he asked looking worried knowing the Hudson homestead was already full to the rafters.

She grinned across at him.

“Oh Homer and I will move in with his kid brother and Ma,” she said happily.

Jess remembered the harridan they had met on the road when they were leaving the mountain and he gave her an astonished look and said, “well good look with your Mother in Law, figure you’ll be needing it.”

She smiled back, “oh she’s not so bad, just protective of her boys is all.”

Then giving Jess a concerned look said softly, “Homer is so very sorry for what he did to you. He wants to see you to apologies properly, he could have killed ya Jess and he is truly sorry,” she finished sincerely.

The talk of death reminded Jess of what he had started saying and now he tried again.

“Listen honey, I have to tell you something real bad and… I guess there is no easy way to say this, but it’s your Pa, he’s been hurt Ellie, hurt real bad.”

She gave a little whimper, her hand flying to her mouth as if to stifle a sob. She had gone deathly pale again, but after swallowing hard finally said,” tell me.”

“I don’t know much,” said Jess softly, “Sheriff from Rawlins sent a wire over to Mort and said your Pa was in a real bad way, been mauled by a cougar.”

At this she dropped her head into her hands and started to weep quietly.

Jess leaned across and pulled her to him, holding her tightly and stroking her hair, talking to her gently to calm her as he would have done with Mike. After a little while she composed herself and they broke camp and continued on their journey.

They were walking their horses through a narrow boulder strewn pass when the accident happened.

Ellie May was leading and Jess just behind her and as the pass opened out a little he kicked Traveller onto catch up with her, it was then that the coiled Rattler spooked his mount sending him shimmying at an angle before rearing and tipping Jess off.

He had been miles away, wondering what sort of reception they would receive on their arrival at the Hudson place, and caught off balance he fell badly and was thrown onto a rockyout crop, his chest smashing against the rock with a sickening thud.

As Traveller galloped past her Ellie turned and seeing Jess’s plight turned her mount around and trotted back.

At that precise moment Jess rallied and looking around him suddenly saw the cause of his predicament, the massive Rattler was now slithering towards him at a fast pace.

Ellie threw herself from her horse and was running towards him as he yelled urgently at her.

“Ellie, no, stay back!” at the same time drawing his Colt and firing several shots at the creature which bucked and writhed on the ground just inches from him.

Jess fell back, sweat pouring down his face, and groaned as the full agony in his chest kicked in once the immediate danger had passed.

Ellie ran over, making a detour around the remains of the snake and fell to her knees beside her friend,” Oh Jess,” she whispered,” are you alright?”

He pulled himself up to a sitting position, one hand gently exploring the damage to his chest. His shirt was ripped and he was bleeding a little and by the crushing pain he felt every time he took a breath he figured he had two maybe three broken ribs. The pain was now making him feel dizzy and he shook his head to try and clear it.

After a few moments he was aware that Ellie was still peering down at him a look of consternation on her pretty little face.

With a big effort he looked into her concerned eyes and said quietly,” I’m OK sweetheart, can ya catch my horse… .figure he’ll just be a little way down the track.”

She nodded and returned five minutes later leading Traveller and as she jumped down he said,” should be some bandages in the saddlebag.”

She helped him remove his shirt and then bound his chest tightly as he instructed her.

He lay back fastening his shirt and looking across at her said, “thanks, you’re a good little nurse.”

She smiled shyly back, then looking worried she said,” it looks awfully bad Jess are you sure you can ride.”

He gave her a weak grin,” figure I don’t have a lot of choice,” he said softly and with her help he finally remounted and they set off again at a sedate pace.

It was late afternoon by the time they entered the yard of the Hudson place and at the sound of the horses Jane came running out. As soon as she saw who it was a hand went to her mouth and she just stood there rooted to the spot a look of utter relief on her face.

“Ellie, oh thank God,” she said as Ellie leapt from her horse and into her mother’s arms.

Jane embraced her tightly, and then looking over the top of her child’s head, mouthed, ‘thank you’, to Jess, their eyes locking.Such a look of such understanding and love passing between them that Jess felt a spasm of something akin to desire, so strong it took his breath away.

His heart was pounding and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t even speak; he just sat Traveller looking down, lost in those beautiful green eyes, unable to utter or think straight.

After a few seconds he pulled himself together and slipping down from his horse he walked over and said softly, “so how’s Wes?”

Her expression changed to one of deep concern,” he’s still alive,” she said quietly, then urgently, “Oh Jess it has been so terrible. The Doctor from Rawlins has visited a couple of times, fixed him up real good, but he won’t eat, just lays there getting weaker and weaker, I’m at my wits end…. “

He gave her a look of such sympathy and understanding that tears sprang to her eyes.

On seeing that Ellie said,” don’t fret Ma, Jess’s is here now he’ll know what to do, won’t you?” asked the girl giving Jess a look of total confidence.

He exchanged a slightly amused look with Jane, “well, I sure will try and help,” he said gently and the trio entered the house.

Wes was asleep; having drunk one of Rebecca’s herbal potions, and so Jess said he would talk to him later. As they were leaving the bedroom Jane suddenly noticed Jess’s blood stained shirt.

” Oh Jess you are hurt, why didn’t you say something?”

Ellie piped up, “he had a real bad fall back on the trail Ma, a Rattler spooked his horse, figure his ribs are broken, the bruising is something fearful already.”

Jane took him to the kitchen and asked him to remove his shirt while she busied herself collecting cool water and fresh bandages and Ellie went off to find her sisters as it was nearly supper time.

He unbuttoned his shirt, and she gently removed the blood stained bandages and gave a little moan of distress as she saw the full extent of his injuries. She very gently started cleaning the wound and at her touch Jess felt his heart pounding in his chest again, and he started shaking. She replaced the bandage with a clean one and then suddenly became aware of his trembling,” Jess, you’re shaking, are you OK?” she said with a worried look.

“Yeah,” he said with a small smile,” told ya before, the affect you have on me when you stand way too close.”

He was referring to the time when she had been tending a head wound after a mustang had thrown him, and he had said that as a joke, to defuse the growing emotional situation between them both.

Now though they both knew he wasn’t joking, and she leaned across and stroked his face gently, her eyes shining with love.

Jess remembered the last night before she had left the ranch, how he had held her so close, and then the next day when she had said she loved him, just before she left. It had left him feeling bruised and utterly confused and now looking deep into her eyes; he didn’t know what she wanted….. needed from him.

“Do you think I should leave?” he said very softly.

Her head jerked up and she looked across at him, her face suddenly flushed,” no,” she said too loudly and then more calmly,” no Jess please stay…… just for a while… I couldn’t bear to lose you again so soon.”

“I don’t want to complicate things for you and Wes, make things worse.”

“You won’t, I just need you so much right now….. am I being selfish?”

He shook his head, “no, of course not.”

But deep inside a little voice was saying,’ you can’t do this Harper, just walk away.’

She gave him her warm loving smile, “it’s so good to see you again,” she said softly, when we drove off the other week, I thought I would never see you again.”

“Is that why you said …..what you did? ” he asked softly.

She gave him a startled look and then said, “I guess so yes….I just needed for you to know how I felt, that it was real and if it hadn’t been for my commitment to Wes, the promise I had made, and my family….well I guess things could have been different.”

He looked down fighting for control, all he wanted was to pull her close, feel her warm embrace, kiss her gently and then…… and then Amy dashed into the kitchen hurling herself at Jess hugging his legs and looking up at him, her little face wreathed in smiles.

“Oh Jess she said happily, you are back, I knew you would come I just knew it!”

Shortly afterwards Jane set about cooking the supper and having made Wes’s first she was about to take it to him when Jess said,” let me do that.”

She thankfully relinquished the dish and said,” Good luck, maybe you can get him to eat something because I sure can’t.”

When Jess entered the bedroom, he saw at once that Wes was awake but the look of the man shocked him deeply.

He seemed a shadow of his former self and his right arm and chest were swathed in bandages. But it was the look in the man’s eyes that disturbed him most.

He came in and smiled.

”Hey Wes,” he said softly, “how ya doin’? “

Wes looked over, “Jess, Jess boy is that you?”

He lifted his head from the pillows to peer into the dimly lit room.

“Sure, I brought your Ellie May home”

He lay back a look of profound relief on his face,” thanks friend,” he said softly,” I’m in your debt that’s for sure.”

“Brought ya some supper too,” said Jess felling embarrassed and wanting to change the subject.

Wes shook his head, “ain’t hungry.”

Jess put the tray gently down on the night stand,” mind if I sit a while?”

Wes gestured for him to sit on the chair by the bed.

Jess sat and then said quietly,” got to eat Wes, get your strength back.”

“Ain’t no point,” said the older man looking up at the ceiling,” I ain’t gonna make it, might as well go sooner as later.”

“Don’t talk like a fool,” said Jess angrily,” you ain’t no more gonna die than I am.”

Wes just shook his head and said, “I’ve made my mind up to it Jess, that’s the truth of it.”

Then turning a baleful eye on him said, “anyways, thought you’d be glad ta see the back of me, guess she’s all yours now Jess and the young ‘uns too.”

“Oh no,” said Jess furiously, “you ain’t doing that, they’re your kids and your wife Wes, they ain’t my responsibility.”

Wes’s head spun round to look at Jess, extreme shock registering in his eyes.

”I thought that’s what you wanted,” he said gruffly.

“Well ya thought wrong,” Jess spat,” if ya think you can just turn your face to the wall and die, leave everyone else to pick up the pieces then you’ve got it wrong, ‘cos I sure as hell ain’t going to be around.”

Wes looked up at the ceiling again, a puzzled look on his face, trying to make sense of what he was hearing, “so you don’t want my wife,” he said softly after a while.

Jess swallowed hard and closed his eyes, then opening them again he looked at Wes and said quietly,” no I don’t ….I just want you to get better.”

Then after a pause,” now are you gonna eat this Goddamn food or do I have to force it down you?”

Wes gave him the ghost of a smile,” pass it here,” he said and after a minute started to eat, at first slowly and then with obvious enjoyment.

Jess gave him a small smile.

”Eat all that up like a good boy and you can have some apple pie,” he said.

Wes smiled back and then reaching out patted his arm gently,” thanks Jess,” he said softly, but they both knew it was nothing to do with the promise of apple pie.

Jane was obviously relieved that Jess had got him to eat,” however did you manage it?” she asked.

“Oh just had to get a bit tough with him, told him a few home truths” Jess replied with his shy smile.

She smiled back, but he detected some hidden tension all through the meal, and it wasn’t until the children were in bed that they had a chance to talk properly.

Jane entered the living room from the bedroom, “sleeping like a baby and looking better already,” she said with a sigh of relief, “the doctor said once he started eating again, it would be only a matter of weeks before he was completely healed.”

Jess nodded.


She looked deeply into the fire as she sat in her arm chair opposite Jess and after a few minutes he asked softly,

“what’s the matter Jane?”

She shrugged, but wouldn’t look at him,” nothing.”

Then he saw the tear slowly snake down her cheek and getting up off the couch he went to her side and squatting down beside her, gently took her hand.

” Jane?”

“I heard what you said to Wes,” she said quietly.

He sucked in a deep breath, “did the kids hear?” he asked urgently.

“No,” she said,” they had gone into the yard to wash up.”

He exhaled the breath,” thank goodness, they’re too young to understand,” he said.

“Did you mean it …about not wanting us?” she asked, looking at him for the first time since they started talking, her eyes misty and sad.

“Oh, sweetheart,” he said softly,” how can you ask, you know how I feel.I’d take you on tomorrow, all of you, even Ellie May’s future mother in law,” he said with a weak grin.

“Then why did you say those things, you sounded so….so harsh” she whispered.

“Had to, I hated lying to him, but I had to try and shock him out of this state he’s gotten himself into. I figure he’d lost the will to live, I just had to give him something to live for, something to fight for….you

He took a deep breath before continuing.

“And if I sounded bitter, then guess that’s how I was feeling. It’s hard for a man to go against everything he believes in… .everything he wants. In the end I did it for you though, because I figure you need Wes as much as he needs you. You made your decision back in Laramie to go with him, try again, and that’s what you have to do, no matter how I feel.

“Jess,” she whispered.

Jess realised he was still holding her hand, just like he had done that very first day they had met and she had been so ill.

He got up and wandered over to the fireplace, leaning on the mantle and looking deeply into the flames.

After a moment she got up and came and came and stood behind him, “Jess?”

He turned and looked down at her, “yeah?”

“I’m sorry, for what I said, I know how you really feel, it’s just that everything has been so hard, what with

Wes’ s accident and then Ellie disappearing, I’ve been out of my mind with worry… I just don’t know what I’m saying and I really do appreciate everything you have done for me….and Wes.”

“Come here,” he said softly and held her in his warm embrace, her head resting on his shoulder, his hand gently caressing her back.

Then, after a few minutes he pushed her away and whispered,” go to bed now will ya?”

She gave him a questioning look.

“Please,” he said softly,” I need to turn in. I promised I’d go hunting with Kate at first light.”

She gave him a quizzical look,” that’s not the real reason is it?” she asked softly.

He just shook his head, “ no, but please just go,” he whispered and she kissed him gently on the cheek before she turned and left the room quietly, leaving him watching her retreating back, a look of despair in his eyes.

He threw himself down on the couch where he was to sleep, sank his head into his hands and gave a deep shuddering sigh, ‘why in Hell am I putting myself through this,’ he asked himself for the hundredth time.

He couldn’t stay with her, but the need for her was driving him crazy, equally he couldn’t leave either, not yet anyway, just a couple of days he said to himself, that’s all just a couple of days and then I’ll go.

Chapter 18

He was up at first light to go hunting with Kate, as promised, even though his ribs where hurtinglike hell. He needed time away from Jane though, her presence making him ache with longing, the voice inside his head telling him he must go home, but something else refusing and the conflict was all too much and he needed some time out from it all.

After a sticky moment when little Amy wanted to come with them, they finally headed off when Jess had promised to take her fishing that afternoon.

Once they were away from the homestead Jess said casually, “so did your Pa finally kill the Cougar? “

It had suddenly occurred to him that Jane would be less than pleased at him taking her daughter hunting with a killer cougar still abroad.

“Oh yes,” said the child, “Pa said he was going to cure the skin for my room as a memento.”

Jess wondered at the sort of mind set that would value the skin of an animal that had all but done for her Pa, but there again, Kate was kinda unique he smiled to himself.

They enjoyed a good few hour’s sport together killing enough game for the pot as fresh meat and also some for Jane to lay down for the next few weeks, until Wes was able to hunt again. Jess was very conscious that he was an extra mouth to feed, in an already large family, and shot some extra to cover that.

Anyway, he thought to himself as he rode back, he couldn’t eat much, way he was feeling about everything. He smiled to himself knowing what Slim would say if he was here, the way he so often had to Daisy in the past, ‘the boys lovesick again, Daisy, guess we’ll all be eating well for a few weeks on his rations.’

Suddenly he longed to be back at the ranch away from all the complications here, but as he dismounted on their return and felt the searing pain across his chest he knew he shouldn’t be riding any distance before his ribs had healed some.

He leaned against Traveller for a moment his eyes closing as he fought against the pain and wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.

Then suddenly Jane was at his side, supporting his weight and helping him into the house, Kate by her side looking worried.

“He has been Ok,” she said softly, “just went kinda funny now when he dismounted.”

Jane helped Jess into the main room and he sank down on the couch," I’m sorry,” he said weakly”, I’m OK really.”

“Sure you are,” said Kate, giving her Ma an old fashioned look,” guess he needs some of Aunt Rebecca’s herbal” she said with a wicked grin, before Jess swatted ineffectually at her.

“Anything but that,” he said weakly, giving the child a wink, before stretching out on the couch,” guess I’ll just rest up a while,” he said quietly, before falling into a restless sleep.

He woke up again at lunchtime, but refused any food and Jane cast him a worried look. Then after a little while he got up and asked where Amy was.

“Playing in the yard with her doll,” said Jane, “why?”

“I promised to take her fishin’ after lunch,” he said.

Jess, you’re not up to it, just rest.”

“I’m fine, anyway fishing is hardly tiring,” he said with a grin and went off to fetch a delighted Amy.

By late afternoon Jane decided to walk down to the creek to meet them. When she arrived she stood undercover of some bushes and watched them for a few minutes, smiling at the scene before her.

As she watched Jess patiently showed the child how to cast a line and she was surprised at her young daughter’s skill. She heard their banter as they laughed and chatted to each other in perfect harmony. Then she saw the little girl catch a fish and the delight of them both as she proudly placed it on the growing number in the keep net, which was the afternoons catch.

After that the little girl strolled over to where Jess was sitting fishing and threw an arm around his shoulders obviously completely relaxed and happy in his company.

Suddenly Jane couldn’t bear to be apart from them any longer and she walked towards them calling hello.

Amy turned and ran towards her Ma a look of pure happiness on her little face.

“Look what we’ve caught Ma,” she said proudly, displaying their catch.

After she had duly examined the fish and pronounced them wonderful she glanced over at Jess and exchanged an amused look.

” I had no idea my daughter was so talented,” she said.

“Oh yes,” laughed Jess returning her smile, “guess you’ll never go hungry with this one around.”

“Talking of going hungry, it’s nearly supper time,” she said.

“Oh Ma, do we have to go back, me and Jess are havin’ such a good time.”

“Hey honey, you heard what your Ma said, anyways we’ve got to clean these fish up, a good fisherman always cleans his fish for the cook.”

“Oh really, can I help,” she asked with a pleading look.

“Well depends on your Ma,” he said, “iffen she’ll let you use a sharp knife, ya need a real keen blade to gut fish well”.

“I think she can be trusted,” said Jane smiling at her young daughter.

The child beamed up at Jess,”” see,” she said proudly ,”I can be trusted with a real sharp knife, after all I am nearly seven you know Jess.”

“Oh really”, he said seriously.” In that case, let’s go to it,” and the small party made their way home.

The fish were duly enjoyed by the whole family, but during the meal Jane noticed how little Jess ate and he seemed quiet, a hand occasionally rubbing his chest and she knew he was in some discomfort.

After supper, once the children were in bed, she said softly, I need to check that wound Jess.

He said he was fine as she had expected, but she insisted and so reluctantly he came and sat at the kitchen table while she removed the old dressing gently. What she saw caused her to take a quick breath and looking down Jess saw the cause of her distress as the chest wound was clearly infected.

“Oh dear, I’m so sorry,” she said,” I should have cleaned it out more thoroughly yesterday; I just couldn’t bear hurting you.”

“It’s OK,” he said softly.

She went and fetched a whiskey bottle and pouring a stiff measure into a glass she gave it to him to drink, before pouring some more into a bowl and taking a clean rag, she prepared to do what she must.

He drank the whiskey down in one and then she began the hard task of cleaning out the raw wound with the spirit.

Jess merely closed his eyes and gritted his teeth although the pain was agonizing .After a few minutes he looked into Jane’s face and was upset to see she was pale and perspiring, the act of inflicting the pain, albeit of necessity, obviously seriously distressing her.

Finally it was over and she slumped down on the chair beside him looking drained.

Jess went and fetched another tumbler and poured them both a generous measure of the Moonshine, before passing one over to Jane.

“Here you look like you could use this,” he said gently.

She nodded her thanks and sipped the strong liquid, gratefully.

After a while she said Jess needed to lie down and as he was feeling increasingly dizzy he agreed that it might be a good idea and they retired to the big room and he stretched out on the couch which he had been using as his bed.

Jane left the room for moment to check on Wes and returned carrying a pillow which she placed behind his head before covering him over with a blanket.

“Thanks,” he said softly, “so are you gonna read me a bedtime story now?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

She smiled back and sat down on the edge of the couch and brushing his hair back gently, she felt his forehead,

“you’re very warm,” she said,” I hope you’re not getting a fever.”

“I’m OK”

“This reminds me of the first time you were here,” she said softly,” when you were so sick after Homer shot you.”

“Yeah, you always seem to end up nursing me,” he said, “it’s getting to be a habit.”

“Well you’re always getting beat up, or shot,” she said, with a small smile,” it must drive Daisy mad.”

“Oh she’s used to it, three of us in the house usually one of us in some mess or another,” he said lightly.

She looked concerned;” if you were mine I’d worry about you all the time.”

Jess’s heart was pounding again as he looked deeply into those lovely concerned eyes, and he thought to himself, not for the first time, that he was in danger of forgetting that fact…..he wasn’t hers and she didn’t belong to him.

Then he figured that the combination of two tumblers of Moonshine on a practically empty stomach and the close proximity of Jane was maybe not a good idea, but suddenly he just didn’t give a damn.

She brushed his hair gently back again and said very quietly, “what do you want of me Jess?”

He looked into her eyes so full of love and concern and looking down he took her hand and said, his voice husky with emotion,” I want to take you by the hand and lead you deep into the woods, and I want to lie with you in the moonlight … .and make sweet love to you all night long, until we fall asleep in each others arms ………and then I want to wake up and do it all over again.”

All the time he had been speaking he had been looking down to where he was holding her hand, but when he finally looked up she saw such a look of love and burning passion inhis eyes it took her breath away.

She gave a little gasp of shock and looked deep into his dark blue eyes, but couldn’t find the words to reply, she felt so incredibly moved……and there was such a lump in her throat she couldn’t have spoken anyway.

Jess smiled across at her and said softly, “well you did ask me.”

She knew he was trying to lighten the mood, to make it easier for them both.

He closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath, and when he opened them the passion had receded and in its place his blue eyes were twinkling with mischief.

“Of course, you could just give me a kiss goodnight,” he said playfully.

She gave him the ghost of a smile before leaning forwards, her lips searching for his. He kissed her so gently and with such sweet tenderness she felt shock waves shooting through her body and just wanted to go on kissing him for ever.

Eventually she pulled back and looked deep into his blue eyes and saw they were misty and unfocused for a moment before he collected himself and said very softly,” goodnight sweetheart,” and she reluctantly rose and left him alone.

Jess had a bad night unable to sleep until he finally fell into a fitful doze in the early hours of the morning.

When Jane arose at dawn and drifted into the room he was still fast asleep, clasping his pillow to his chest his face looking very young and vulnerable in sleep.

She bent down beside him longing to take him in her arms and hold him close, but instead contented herself with pulling the blanket ,which had fallen away in his restlessness, back over him and then she went into the kitchen to brew him some good strong coffee, just the way she knew he liked it.

When he came to the breakfast table some time later he looked more than a little hung over and she hid a smile as she passed him the coffee, which he took with a grateful smile.

Once Amy and Kate joined them at the table, followed by Ellie May the conversation was loud and lively, as always, and she again hid a smile as she saw Jess flinch when Amy laughed loudly right in his ear. He took it all in good spirit though and none of the youngsters were aware of his aching head and sick stomach.

After they had left to do their chores, Jane poured him another coffee and sitting back down beside him, said,”are you OK Jess?”

He nodded and then looking embarrassed said, “about last night, I guess I was out of order.”

She placed a finger on his mouth,” hush,” she said softly, “you have nothing to be sorry for, I asked you something and you gave me an honest answer……. that’s all.”

He just nodded and said,” thanks, I guess we’ve always been honest with each other haven’t we…… and you know I’d never do anything to hurt you or your family.”

She nodded,” yes I do.”

“It’s just that it’s so dang hard for me, you know….. I figure as soon as I can ride I’ll have to be moving on, otherwise………….”

She covered his hand with hers, “yes I know,” she said softly,” but just a few more days, let’s give ourselves that.”

He looked down to where her hand lay on his and gently held it,” yes he said, a few more days.”

He kept himself busy over the next few days, helping out around the ranch, spending time with the girls, even minding the baby, and sat chatting with Wes during the evenings.

He treated Jane with kindness and respect and if she hadn’t caught him covertly staring at her once or twice, a look of deep sadness in his eyes, she would never have known his true feelings.

There was also the odd occasion when they glanced at each other, their eyes locking for that moment too long, or their hands brushed and she felt a frisson of desire almost like a shock wave, shoot through her.She knew he was feeling the same and knew he wouldn’t be able to carry on controlling his feelings for very much longer and then he would head off home.

On the evening of the third day he excused himself after supper saying he needed to tend to his horse. Jane was concerned when he had been out for a while and she eventually went to seek him out. She entered the barn and saw he was still grooming Traveller, his coat gleaming in the dim light of an old lantern hanging above the stall.

He turned when she came in and gave her his shy smile of welcome.

She took in the scene and then said quietly, “you’re leaving aren’t you Jess?”

He just nodded.

”Yes, at first light.”

“Were you going to tell me?”

“Sure,” he said a look of pain in his eyes,” you didn’t think I’d just run out on you …. did you? “

“No….no of course not and I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done, you’ve helped us all so much.”

Jess said nothing just smiled warmly at her again.

Then very softly she said, “why?”


“Why have you done so much for me Jess?”

“You know why,” he said his eyes deep blue eyes burning, because……

“Because what Jess? I want to hear you say it ……. just once.”

He walked over to her and took her hand.

” Because I love you,” he said, softly.


Dawn was breaking as they sat together at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and holding hands, talking softly.

They had shared their most intimate thoughts, and feelings, just as they had when they slept on the couch together back at the Ranch, after Amy’s accident, and they felt incredibly close.

They had decided it would be less distressing for the girls if he was just to head out without saying goodbye, knowing that his going would leave a huge gap in their lives.

They finished their drinks and then Jess looked down and took a deep breath, before getting up and slowly walking to the door.

He picked up his hat and pulled it down hard, a nerve twitching in his cheek being the only sign of emotion.

He looked back to where she still sat at the table, her hands hugging her empty cup.

“See me off?” he asked with a gentle smile.

She got up and followed him into the barn where his horse was saddled and ready to go, and he turned and took her in his arms one last time.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said softly, holding her close and caressing her hair.

“There is nothing,” she whispered back, “just goodbye.”

He sighed deeply.

”Look after yourself…….you and Wes it will be OK? “

“Yes,” she said,” it will.”

He walked Traveller out of the barn and hopped up into the saddle, looking down at her one last time.

She put a hand on his thigh and he held it for a moment, looking deeply into her eyes.

” You take care Jess.”

He just nodded and finally tore his eyes away from her face and kneed Traveller on to a walk.

As he reached the end of the track he turned to see her still standing there by the barn and he just knew without having to see, that that she was crying.

He raised one hand in a farewell salute, which she returned and then turning Traveller towards home he kicked him on to a trot……. into the new day.


He arrived home a couple of days later, in the afternoon, and as he rode into the yard Slim walked out of the barn to greet him and then Daisy ran out of the kitchen door just as he slipped down from the saddle. Slim beamed at him and grabbed his hand shaking it in welcome.

Then he turned to Daisy.

”So he’s back then Daisy, said he was going to sell those two mustangs over in Cheyenne and he’d be back in…what two days? That was, now let me see, about two weeks ago? I guess you’ve got some explaining to do pard,” he finished looking quizzically at his friend.

“Aw Slim, will ya let a body see to his horse and get a cup of coffee down him before you start your moaning”?

“Quite right Slim,” said Daisy kindly,” let the poor boy come in and have some food and drink and then he can tell us all about it.”

“Thanks Daisy,” said Jess thankfully throwing an arm around her waist and walking her back into the house, followed by a grinning Slim.

At the door he paused and then nodded over to his horse,” good rub down and extra oats,” he said and Slim, gave him a gentle cuff, before going off to bed down Traveller for him.

During supper Jess regaled Mike with stories about the hunting and fishing with Kate and Amy, and also about the cougar that had nearly done for Wes. Then about how Kate was having the skin for her and Amy’s room and Mike thought that was really great and when was Jess going to kill him a cougar for his room.

After the youngster had gone to bed though the conversation became more sombre, when Slim asked about the mission Jess had been on, trying to locate Ellie May, when she had been abducted.

Jess told them how he had double checked Peters place and finally tracked the couple to the foothills of the mountains. Then he tried to play down what had happened once he caught up with them, for Daisy’s sake, not wanting to upset her, but she was more astute than he gave her credence for and she was well aware of what could have happened to the young woman.

When he told the story, she looked shocked and said,” Oh Jess he didn’t…….you know…. harm her did he?”

Jess was quick to reassure her,” I got there just in time,” he said, grimly.

“Thank God,” she whispered.

“I guess there is a bit of unfinished business,” replied Jess,” I told him Mort and I would catch up with him on my return and we’d figure out what would happen to him.”

Slim drew in a deep breath.

”I don’t think that’s gonna happen pard,” he said.

“Really and so why not Slim?”

“Well I saw him in town a while back, buying up the general store, reckoned he was going on a long trip but……… the state of him…well I was surprised he was able to consider riding anywhere.”

Jess just looked down.

“He was in one hell of a state Jess,” said Slim quietly,” was that down to you?”

Jess went very quiet,” yeah, guess it was,” but then throwing Slim a defiant look, “but he sure as Hell deserved it Slim.”

Slim gave him an understanding look,” I imagine he did, yeah.”

Daisy quickly changed the subject,” So you say Wes was really sick then?”

“Yeah, sure was. He mauled by a big cat, I helped Jane change the bandages once or twice, gee he was in a real mess, figured he wouldn’t make it at one stage, but once he put his mind to it he bounced back. Doc reckons he’ll keep the arm at least, even if it is never quite as strong as before.”

“Well thank goodness for that,” said Daisy.

Then shaking her head sadly, “it’s Jane I feel sorry for, poor little Amy nearly drowning, then Wes taking off when he was needed, Ellie May running off, she must have been beside herself with worry about them all.”

“Yeah,” said Jess quietly, looking deep into his empty coffee cup.

“So how was she when you left?” asked Slim giving his friend and appraising look.

Jess continued to look down, but he flushed slightly as he just said,” OK.”

“She appreciated all you’d done though, I expect,” continued Slim refusing to let the matter drop.

Jess glanced up at him and Slim recognized that guilty look.

“Yeah, now can we leave it Slim, I’m kinda tired,” and with that he got up and excused himself, saying he was going to check on Traveller.

When he had gone Daisy gave Slim a reproving look,” you shouldn’t tease him like that,” she said softly,” and what ever he gets up to….well it’s none of our business.”

Slim looked down sheepishly,” sorry Daisy, it’s just that he is so easy to wind up…I can’t resist it sometimes.”

“I know dear, and it’s not me you should be apologizing to it’s Jess, I think he’s been hurt badly this time.”

He sighed,” yeah I guess you’re right. About me apologizing anyways,” and he gave her a kind smile before following Jess out to the barn.

He walked in quietly, but Jess spun around as soon as he heard him.

“If you’ve come in to ask me any more fool questions you can forget it Slim,” he said harshly,” I ain’t in the mood.”

Slim gave him an apologetic look,” sorry pard, I didn’t mean to upset you, I was just kidding around you know that.”

Jess just grunted, but said nothing.

“She’s really got to you hasn’t she?” he said softly.

“You could say that,” he replied quietly.

Slim reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

“I really am sorry,” he said.

After a few minutes Jess’s expression finally softened.

“Yeah, I know, forget it,” he said giving his friend a sad smile…”lets have a shot of old Tobias’s Moonshine, feel like a nightcap to cheer me up,” and with that the two friends retired to the ranch for a quiet drink, or two, before bed.


It was a couple of months later when the letter came from Rebecca. It was late September and almost 12 months to the day when the two ranchers had set off on their ill fated hunting trip, and had first met the Hudson Family.

Daisy and Rebecca had corresponded religiously every few months since they had first met, and everyone enjoyed Daisy reading out the latest news from their friends on the mountain. Today was no exception and as Mose had brought a letter on the morning Stage, Daisy opened it to read as they sat down for a well earned coffee after all their early morning chores.

She regaled them with all the latest happening with Tobias and Rebecca and how the youngster was walking and talking now, full of energy. Then Daisy continued reading silently to herself.

“Go on then,” said Slim a broad grin on his face,” what else?”

Daisy cast him a worried look and then glancing at Jess she continued quietly, quoting from the letter. I now have some sad news, Wes, Jane and the children have left the mountain, and moved to California where they have gone into the trading business with Wes ’s cousin. After Wes ’s terrible accident, his arm was never right and so the family decided to move west for a new start….

Daisy paused here and again looked over at Jess and what she saw made her heart ache, he looked completely broken, white as a sheet, and he quickly wiped a hand over his face before excusing himself, and striding quickly out of the room.

Daisy and Slim exchanged worried looks,” go on,” he said softly.

As you know Daisy dear, it has always been a hard life up on the mountain and I think Wes felt he owed it to Jane to try and make a better life for them all. The children will be able to go to school and Jane will not be as isolated and will soon make new friends I am sure, although I will miss her something fierce. We were always such good friends as you know, and because of that I am passing her letter to Jess on to you, to pass on to him, if you will dear.’

Daisy passed the enclosed envelope to Slim….”will you? “

“Yeah,” he said softly leaving the table.

He found Jess where he knew he would, talking to Traveller as he groomed him. As Slim entered he saw him freeze, and he could tell from his friends back that he really didn’t want company just then, but he still stood his ground.

After a moment Jess turned and looked at him, his eyes unnaturally bright.

Slim said nothing, just gave Jess the envelope,

Jess threw him a questioning look.

“From Jane, better read it pard,” said Slim, turning and leaving.

As soon as Slim left, Jess sat down on a bale of straw, his legs suddenly turned to jelly and unable to support him.

He stared at the envelope, with simply, Jess, written on the front, for a full minute before opening it. Finally he tore it open and read the contents over and then read it again, until every sentence was engraved on his heart. Then he returned it to the envelope and put it carefully in the inside pocket of his vest, where it would remain for many years.

He stood up slowly and walked out of the barn to where Slim was busy mending some tack.

Jess leaned on the corral fence beside him and said quietly,” I think I’ll go check the fences up on the North pasture for a while.”

Slim shot him a concerned look,” want some company?”

Jess just shook his head,” no thanks pard, back for supper,” and he strode off to saddle up his mount.

Jess was very quiet and withdrawn for a while after the letter and Daisy and Slim knew better than to ask about it. However one evening a few weeks later Slim and Jess were on the porch having a final coffee before turning in, when the subject came up.

Jess looked over to Slim and said quietly,” thanks for not asking me about it Slim.”

He just shrugged,” none of my business, like you said,” he replied.

Jess looked a little sheepish,” yeah, sorry about that.”

“Guess you were right anyway, a man needs some privacy.”

Jess took a deep shuddering breath,” anyway,” he said softly,” guess I know there is no hope now, she’s making that new start in California and I’m… .well I’m happy for her.”

“You don’t look very happy.”

“Yeah, well these things take time,” he said with a small smile…” I will, be happy for her….. one day.”

“And so in the meantime..... come on Jess it’s been weeks now you can’t carry on moping this way. “

Jess knew the truth of it, garldarn it he had to make an effort to pull his life together again, he knew that.

“Well, in the meantime I thought you and me might ask those two new saloon girls to the Harvest Dance next week, what do ya say pard?” asked Jess, surprising his buddy yet again, with the unexpected answer.

“Yeah, sound real good to me,” he replied happily.

Then after a pause, “you know what Jess, you could have saved yourself one Hell of a lot of trouble and heartache if we’d just gone to the Harvest Dance last year instead of your dumb idea of a hunting trip.”

“Dumb idea… I seem to remember you jumping at the chance.”

“Yeah, but what did it bring us both…bucket loads of trouble that’s what…just like I always say, one foot in trouble and the other in a barrel of axle grease……..that’s you.”

“Aw Slim, will ya stop your moaning, you’d be real bored without me to spice up things around here,” he said grinning across at his friend.

Slim leaned over and gave his buddy a playful swat, which he neatly dodged, thank goodness his friend was on the mend he thought privately.

“Yeah, guess you’ve got a point at that pard,” he said laughing, with Jess finally joining in….

The End

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