Trail Fever (by Cherry May)

Summary:  Events in this story loosely follow my other story, “Unmistakable”.
Category:  Laredo, Laramie Crossover
Genre:  Western
Rated PG
Word Count:  50,150


 

Sherman Ranch, Wyoming

Jonesy dumped out a pan of dishwater, scaring the chickens. Slim Sherman stopped beside him on his way to the barn. “Good breakfast, Jonesy.”

Jonesy harrumphed. “Your new hand didn’t seem to think so. Picked at it like it was poison.”

Slim looked across the yard at the hand in question, the young drifter Jess Harper. He and Andy were harnessing up the team for the morning stage. “He’s hardly new anymore, Jonesy. Been here for quite a spell.”

“Just the same, you’d think he’d be used to my cookin’ by now and show it the appreciation it’s worth.”

Slim patted his old friend on the shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad. Jess hasn’t been eating much of anything lately. I noticed the other day in town he didn’t even finish his piece of pie at the café.”

“On a diet, is he?”

Slim shook his head, troubled thoughts filling his mind. “No, something more serious than that, I think. Jess is getting trail fever. It’s been a long time coming, too. I’m hard pressed to remember the last time he seemed happy.”

Jess’ light laugh carried in the early air in response to something Andy said. Jonesy shook his head. “Doesn’t seem too upset. Why, just the other day, him and Andy put salt in my coffee.”

“It isn’t something plain to see, but you can tell every time we’re out on the trail together. Doesn’t matter where we’re heading; he always looks like he wants to go just a little farther.”

Slim’s words rang in his own head as the day wore on, for he was constantly reminded of them as he spent time with Jess. The young man was restless and sparked arguments over nothing until Slim told him to go cool off. Sullenly Jess complied, looking hurt and relieved at the same time.

A telegram arrived for Slim the next day on the noon stage. He smiled in relief, for this was actually good news for a change. Jess, putting up the spent horses as the stage rolled out, asked, “What’s got you so happy?”

Slim held up the slip of paper. “How’d you like to see Texas again, Jess?” Slim had hoped the mention of Jess’ home state would produce a favorable reaction from the younger man. It didn’t.

“Just about like I’d like to see the inside of Yuma,” he groused. “Why?”

Slim ignored Jess’ surly comment. “This is a telegram from the company saying that they need more guards on a shipment that’s coming out of Amarillo. Interested?”

Jess threw an armful of harnesses over the corral fence. “That’s a long way just for guardin’, Slim. What is it that’s so important they ask for men from all the way in Wyoming?”

“I guess just because it’s coming back here to Cheyenne. I don’t know what it is that they’re carrying, Jess, but they want the best. I recommended you for the job.”

Jess studied Slim for a long moment. “Slim, we’ve come a long way, but do you really trust me that much?”

Slim nodded without a shadow of a doubt. “I do, Jess. I’d trust you with my life.”

The dark-haired man’s mouth jerked as if he were in hidden pain. He turned away sharply.

“What is it, Jess? You look as though your foot’s been stepped on by a mule.”

“Nothin’. It’s nothin’, Slim.”

Slim didn’t believe him for a second but didn’t press the matter. “So? What shall I reply?”

Jess turned back around, his face similar to the mask he had worn when Slim had first met him, completely guarded and shut off. “Yeah. Tell them yeah, I’ll do it.”

“Fine. You’ll leave the day after tomorrow.” Slim watched Jess head into the barn. There was just no understanding that one.

Two days later Jess was packed and on the stage. He waved at Andy, who looked so glum his face could bring on a rain storm.

Jess smiled to himself as the stage pulled out, feeling a bit of elation to have the country moving past him. He was the only passenger besides another cowboy, a friendly blond man with a huge grin. They were down the road a spell when the cowboy introduced himself. “Howdy there, name’s Trampas. Comin’ from Medicine Bow on a job for my boss. Man’s taken a notion to send me to Texas on some special trip.”

“Jess Harper, doin’ the same as you, I guess.”

Trampas slapped his thigh. “What are the odds of that? Us two gents goin’ to the same place, and on the same stage too?”

Jess quirked a brow. “Yeah, strange.”

“You know,” Trampas began, “coincidences like that don’t just happen. Once I knew of this fella who….”

*****

3 Days Later

North of Tucumcari, New Mexico

Jess was getting tired of traveling. He hated to admit it, but somewhere in the middle of Colorado while riding over rocky mountainous roads he had come to this realization. A little break from the ranch had sounded wonderful, but now as he was out in the New Mexico desert he realized that building fence sounded like a picnic compared to the damage the seat was doing to his lower back.

“Stage stop, everybody out!”

Jess sighed in relief with the other passengers, most of which looked softer than himself. All but Trampas seemed like desk clerks. Jess wasn’t sure what to make of the man riding across the seat from him. At first his incessant chatter had nearly driven Jess to jump over and strangle the man, but soon Jess realized that he enjoyed the man’s humorous tales.

The stage pulled into the yard and Jess was jumping out before it was completely stopped, wanting to stretch his legs as soon as possible.

“Whoa there,” the Trampas commented as he too stepped out, once the coach was safely still. “You’ve got nerves.”

“Yeah, and they can’t take no more of that seat.”

“Ha, ha!”

Jess shook his head at the cowboy, but a small smile fought to be shown. The two made their way over to the pump, washed their faces and hands, after which they entered the stage station. After eating a mediocre meal, too soon they were required to board the stage once again, this time with a new passenger, a young man with dark blond hair.

“Howdy,” he greeted. “Name’s Obadiah Smith—”

“OBIE?!” Jess shouted.

“Who—Jess!” The two men shook hands enthusiastically. “You old sidewinder! Where have you been keeping yourself?”

“Been workin’ on a little ranch outside of Laramie. What about you?”

“Oh, you know, this and that. You look good, Jess. Still as skinny as a beanpole, but good.”

“It’s all that clean mountain air, Obie. You ought to try it sometime.”

Obie sat back in his seat, grinning broadly. “Jess Harper, settling down. I’d never believe it if I didn’t hear it from the man himself, and still I ain’t so sure it’s true.”

“Yeah, it’s true…for now anyway. The old itch is still plaguin’ me.”

“That how come you’re all the way out here?”

“No…well, not exactly. My boss runs a relay station. He sent me down here on company business.”

“What kind of business?”

“Can’t tell you, Obie. Sorry.”

“I ain’t offended.”

Trampas studied the interaction. At first he was bemused by the encounter, delighted at the chance encounter of two long-lost friends, but he soon decided that the meeting seemed almost too chance-like. As the trip continued, the feeling grew. Obie Smith was very friendly…too friendly. Jess explained to Trampas how the two of them used to work together. Though he didn’t delve into details as to what kind of work that was, Trampas had half a notion it involved guns.

Trampas knew as well as anyone else on the coach that Jess was involved in some sort of secret mission for the stage company, something that almost always involved large amounts of money. Obie displayed more than a passing interest in Jess’ life, especially in his career with the line.

Trampas liked Jess a lot for having just met the man a week earlier. They were similar in backgrounds: both had grown up in Texas before joining the Confederate cause, and then drifted west again. They were both on their way to becoming respectable citizens, but Trampas knew how easy it was to veer off the straight and narrow after traveling the hoot owl trail for too long.

Obie’s unexpected appearance and dangerous aura made Trampas concerned for his new friend, but he could do nothing about it. His stop soon came in a small town called Sweet Springs, about a day’s trip from Amarillo. Trampas watched the stage pull away, waving at Jess with a sense of dread building over his head like a dark cloud. Something just didn’t feel right.

*****

Trampas almost laughed in relief when the stage pulled into town a few days later, for riding shotgun was no one other than Jess, alive and well. The slender man jumped down from his high seat with a hand extended. Trampas took it warmly, saying, “Say there Jess, funny meeting you here.”

“Trampas, to you, everything is funny.”

“Ha, ha! You got me, Jess. You takin’ on passengers? Looks like you’re pretty full.” Indeed the coach was almost full…with dangerous-looking men.

Jess rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease tension. “I don’t know, Trampas. This is what you might call a ‘special’ trip. Might be better if you were to wait until the next one comes through.”

“Come on, Jess,” Trampas pleaded. “That’s what the ticket man said, but I just got to get back to Medicine Bow, pronto. Got some important stuff to get back to the boss, and it’s burnin’ a hole through my pocket. Don’t like to carry this much responsibility for too long. Kinda wears on my sunny disposition, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Got the same feelin’ myself. Let me talk to the boss.” Jess had a quick but animated conversation with one of the passengers, a man in his sixties. He returned quickly. “Seems the Judge’s name throws some weight around, even all the way down here. He said you could ride so long as you give me your gun. He’ll feel safer that way.”

Trampas reluctantly gave up his shooting iron. “I’ll just ride up top.”

“Suit yourself,” Jess said. “Gonna be hot.”

“I’ll survive.”

A couple hours later, the coach entered the desert…and it was hot. Trampas wiped his forehead with one arm. “How much longer before we get a stop?” he shouted.

Jess smirked over his shoulder. “A while yet. How’s that sunny disposition of yours coming? Still glad you took this stage?”

“Very funny,” Trampas muttered, though he doubted Jess could hear him.

Little did they know, it was about to get much hotter.

*****

The stage entered an outcropping of rock, small buttes rising up on the both sides of the trail. Trampas felt uneasy at this development, but it was the only clear trail through the country. Jess was squeezing his rifle as well, his black gloves stretching tight over his knuckles.

Trampas was opening his canteen to take a sip when suddenly the water vessel went flying out of his hand, knocked away by an unseen force. “What—”

“AMBUSH!”

Trampas grabbed for his pistol, forgetting that it was safely stowed under Jess’ feet. “Jess! Give me my gun!” Jess didn’t hear Trampas, as he was too busy firing his rifle at attackers. “Jess! Let me help—”

Trampas’ call was cut short as he was catapulted through the air as the stage hit a recently-dug trench in the road. He helplessly flew forward with Jess and the driver off the top of the coach. Trampas felt horrible pain as he struck the ground before he felt nothing at all.

*****

Texas Panhandle Country

“Seems to me like a different company could take on this assignment. How come we had to ride all the way from Laredo when there is at least two, maybe three different Ranger outfits closer’n we are?”

Chad covered his eyes with a gloved hand. “Oh, Reese, we’ve been over this a million times. We were over this way after those bank robbers. Only makes sense for us to trail after these other outlaws since we were so close by.”

A large man on a buckskin horse trotted toward the two arguing men from the rear of the group. “You both ought to put a lid on it. We’re gettin’ close to Sweet Springs.”

“That’s what you said an hour ago, Joe.”

“You two are slowin’ us down by forcing your horses to walk into the wind you two are makin’ from all your jawin’.”

Despite all of the “wind,” the three Rangers made it into Sweet Springs in a couple more hours. The town, though small, was full to the brim with people milling in the streets who parted before the approaching lawmen. Women grabbed at their children, pulling them close, while men nervously fingered their guns.

Chad looked around, feeling the mood of the town start to rub off on him. He pulled at his collar as a chill passed over his shoulders. “Something’s sure got this town spooked, guys.”

Reese pointed off to one side. “There’s the sheriff’s. Let’s go see what’s goin’ on.”

The three men dismounted in front of the small building with bars on the windows. A grim-faced man greeted them inside, a tarnished badge on his chest reading “Sheriff”. He nodded in greeting before saying, “Y’all them Rangers after that gang outta New Mexico?”

Chad held out a hand to shake. “At your service, Sheriff.” Feeling his hackles rise, he looked over one shoulder to see people peering through the window. “Say, what’s going on here?”

The sheriff grimaced. “What’s goin’ on is that you’re too late.”

Joe pushed his hat back on his head. “How do you mean, too late?”

“I mean that there was another hit, this time just a few hours outside of town. The stage was wrecked, passengers killed, and the entire special shipment was stolen.”

“Special shipment?” Reese asked. “What was it?”

“Apparently something so valuable that the company hasn’t told anyone yet. I think they’re just trying to keep the panic from spreading.”

Chad looked at the people outside. They looked panicked enough, knowledge of the shipment or not. “Were there any survivors or witnesses?”

The sheriff nodded. “Only one, a guard from the stage. He stayed conscious long enough to tell us what happened. Somebody dug a trench in the road but camouflaged it well enough that it wasn’t seen until it was too late. Next thing he knew, there was bullets flying and people dying. He caught one in the chest and played possum until they rode off. After he told us this, he went under and hasn’t come out of it yet. Doc ain’t sure he’s gonna make it.”

Joe shook his head in reluctant amazement. “How did they pull it off? That thing must’ve been well-guarded, if it was as valuable as you say.”

“According to that guard, they had a couple inside-men. One was a passenger they picked up, right here in my town! If I’d have known, I woulda…”

“Anybody know their names, what they look like?” Reese questioned.

The lawman pulled out a piece of paper from his desk and read from it. “The passenger was a cowboy who’d been here in town for a couple of days on ‘business’. Still trying to get a hold of the rancher who he was supposedly dealing with. He went by the name of Trampas, was medium height and build, blond hair and blue eyes.”

“Trampas, you say?” Reese asked. He turned to Joe. “Say, wasn’t that the name of that nice fella who came down to Laredo once? The one that rode down to Mexico lookin’ for those train robbers with us?”

Joe slapped his leg. “Shucks if I ain’t almost forgot about that boy! Surely he wouldn’t be messed up in somethin’ like this.”

“Well, I guess we’ll have to find him to see,” Reese’s odd voice rasped. “What ‘bout that other one?”

The sheriff swallowed hard. “Him I already know. His family was sharecroppers not too far from here until they was burned out when he was just a kid. Most of them killed, the Lord rest their souls. The boy went kind of wild from there on. Last I heard, he was cleared for a stage robbery, but apparently the judge was misled, ‘cause he sure enough looks as though he’s at it again.” He held out the piece of paper. “Harper’s his name. Jess Harper.”

All three rangers were stunned at the announcement. Joe was the first to get his voice. “Jess Harper? The gunfighter? Haven’t heard about him in quite a spell. Figured him to be dead.”

Reese squawked, “Well, course he is. He got it over in Colorado, didn’t he?”

Chad looked reflective and lost in a memory. “Jess,” he murmured. “Oh, Jess, what have you done…”

The sheriff looked sharply at Chad. “You know him?”

Chad blinked and came back to the present. “We rode together for a while. That was at least a couple years ago, though. Haven’t heard from him since.”

“Well, you’ve heard about him now. Apparently both he and that Trampas fella rode off with the gang after the robbery.”

Chad shook his head, troubled. Joe noticed this easily. They had been pards for too long for Joe not to recognize the sorrow on Chad’s youthful features. He watched sadly as Chad muttered something about checking on the horses before leaving the building.

“What’s got into him?” the sheriff asked brusquely.

Reese was also affected by Chad’s sudden mood swing. “Got too much heat,” he said roughly, warding off the local law’s curiosity. “We’ll be headin’ out to where it happened, if you’ll just point us in the right direction.”

The sheriff picked up a rifle. “I can just show you where it happened.”

Joe pulled his hat low on his forehead. “Thanks, but we’ll take it from here.”

The man shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

The three men rode out almost an hour later after procuring supplies. They didn’t know how long they would be out on the prairie, and the panhandle was mighty lonesome country to go far in without plenty of food and water. A few hours later they came upon the wreckage. One horse lay dead in its traces, apparently shot after being injured. Other than that, there was no sign that life had once been present. All the bodies of the dead guards had been taken back to town. The three men dismounted and started to grimly search the area for clues.

Joe found what appeared to be a trail leading off to the east. “Chad, I think I found which way they’re headed.” He continued to look at the hoof prints for a moment before realizing that he had gotten no response from his friend. He glanced over to see Chad kneeling on the ground, his hands holding something dark. Joe walked up beside the smaller man and noticed that he was holding a black Stetson. Joe squatted down beside Chad, keenly noticing the tight mouth and pain-filled eyes of his pard. “Somethin’ special ‘bout that hat, Chad?” he asked quietly.

Chad jumped a touch, as if he hadn’t even noticed Joe’s approach. “It looks like…well, it looks just like the kind of hat Jess used to wear.”

Joe’s brows knit together as he pushed his hat back on his dark hair. “Just how close were you to this Harper, Chad? You haven’t talked ‘bout him much before.”

Chad shrugged. “I guess we were about as close as Jess would let anybody become. He was a strange one, pretty jumpy and never trusting anybody. Not unlike somebody I know…” Chad’s green eyes had a slightly humorous tint for just a moment. Then they clouded again in sorrow. “He was wild, tough, and anxious for a fight. But he wasn’t bad, Joe, not like the mangy dogs we’ve been hunting these years we’ve been rangers.” He looked at a blood stain on the hard road, still present from no rain to wash it away. “I just can’t figure him to do something like this. He may have toed the line of the law once or twice, but always just to get by, to live. I just can’t figure him to…murder and betray…”

“Then don’t figure it. Just be a Ranger. Leave the figurin’ to the law. Right now the law needs us to catch up to the sidewinders that done this. We’ll get some answers then.”

*****

Trampas opened his eyes blearily, his head aching so badly he wanted to trade it for a different one. “Must’ve been quite a night,” he thought. “Boss-man’ll have my hide if I’m in the jailhouse….” However, he wasn’t in any type of jail he had ever seen, for this one did not have a roof.

A man with messy wavy hair and a black eye appeared over him, his mouth moving. It took Trampas several beats to realize that he was talking to him. He was saying, “Trampas, come back to me, come on….”

Trampas squinted, trying to place the man’s face. Then it came to him. “Jess! We sure must’ve had a great time last night. Funny how I can’t remember a thing about it, but those are the best ones, ain’t they?”

“Shh, Trampas, you’ve got to stay quiet. You’ve got to shut up for once, please, Trampas.”

Trampas almost quipped back with something witty until his mind cleared enough to really look at the man before him: Jess looked terrible. He had bruises coloring his tan skin as well as a split lip and a gash on his forehead that was still bleeding sluggishly. Scrapes covered visible skin and his clothes were torn and dirty. Trampas looked as best as he could at his own clothes and noticed they were in the same state. Shifting his attention back to Jess, he noticed that his new friend’s body was tense, his eyes furtively glancing over his shoulder.

Memories of what actually happened slammed into Trampas like the ground that had knocked him unconscious. “Jess,” he whispered, “what’s going on? Where are we?”

Jess opened his mouth to answer when two mean-looking men materialized to flank him on either side. “Alright, Harper. You’ve had long enough. Time to get movin’ again.”

“Just a minute,” Jess snapped. “He’s still out of his head.” He blinked extra hard at Trampas, who took it as a hint.

“Hee, hee, hee,” the blond man giggled. “Jesse, Jesse, you’re the best ol’ pal a boy like me could ever have. Woohoo! What a time we had last night.”

“Boss don’t care, Harper. Get him ready, or he gets it.”

Harper glared at the man with such hatred Trampas expected him to drop dead. The man took a small step back from the force of the stare, but quickly recovered. “I’ve had just about all I can take out of you, boy. You mind your ways,” he slammed a boot into Trampas’ unprotected side, “or he gets it. Got it, ‘Jesse’?”

Trampas gasped like a landed fish, the pain in his ribs threatening to make him vomit.

Jess leapt to his feet, snarling like a wildcat. “Leave him alone!”

“We will, so long as you do like we tell you,” the man taunted.

Jess’ hackles lay down, so to speak. “Fine. Help me get him to his horse.”

“That’s your job, sonny. Better get it done if you don’t want blondie here to get some more.”

The two men walked casually away. Harper cast one last visual dagger in their direction before kneeling beside Trampas.

“Jess, who are they? What do they want?”

Jess lifted Trampas’ shoulders, saying, “Some old ‘acquaintances’ of mine…robbed the stage.”

Trampas grabbed a fistful of Jess’ blue shirt, forcing the man to look him in the eyes. “Jess, you didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?”

Jess’ avoidance of the question screamed guilt. “Let’s get you on that horse before they come back over here.”

“Jess…”

“Come on, Harper! Get that boy loaded!”

Jess hauled Trampas to his feet, who felt like his head was splitting open like a ripe watermelon. “Jess,” he groaned, “I don’t think I can….”

“You’ve got to,” Jess growled back. “Or you’ll be dead.”

Trampas was only a little taller than Jess, so when the black haired man started to half-carry Trampas over to one of the horses, his mouth was close to Jess’ ear. “Why am I alive at all?”

“It’s on account of me. I grew up in this country; know it like the back of my hand. They want me to guide ‘em across Texas to Mexico.”

“What do they need me for?”

Jess’ blue eyes burned with such fierceness that Trampas felt a chill pass down his spine, though the temperature had to be close to breaking the top off the thermometer. “They need you,” he answered while boosting Trampas into the saddle, “to keep me in line. So long as they got a gun pointed at your back, I don’t got no choice but to do as they say.” Trampas could hardly understand Jess’ last words, as the young man’s voice seemed to be almost strangled from the rage burning inside.

*****

Later that night, the outlaws set up camp. Trampas could do no more try to keep from throwing up. The day had been tortuous, and he knew from his symptoms that he had a serious concussion. Every step of the horse had been pure agony, and he wished he could have fallen into unconsciousness again; at least then he didn’t have to feel anything. Jess helped him as best as he could, but most of the time he was forced to ride at the front of the group to act as a guide.

Now, when Jess came over check on Trampas, another man shoved him away. Jess snarled dangerously, but backed down as soon as the man’s pistol pointed at Trampas’ head. A couple outlaws laughed at the spectacle, their voices a pain to the injured man’s ears. Trampas wished he wasn’t so helpless, but for now he could do nothing but grip the ground every time dizziness swept over him.

The sun had sunk below the horizon, but the outlaws chanced a small fire for coffee and supper. They made Jess do most of the work, and Trampas could tell from the stiffness of the young man’s body he was about to lose control. Things only got worse when his “friend” Obie Smith came over. He approached Jess rather congenially, but Jess’ response was the exact opposite. Trampas couldn’t make out what Jess said, but he guessed it to be something offensive.

“Now, Jess,” Obie said, unruffled. “I been tellin’ you. This is your kind of work, not that back-breakin’ stuff you been doin’. I been talkin’ to the boys; they agreed that if you do your job right, you’ll get a cut of the poke once we get down to Mexico.”

“Like blazes, I will. I know what I’ll get once I get down there.”

Obie spread his hands. “Oh, come on, Jess. I’m real sorry we had to go to the methods we did to get you to come along with us, but we figured before that you would be real obligin’. Couple years ago you would have done this job without no complainin’.”

Trampas felt a sick feeling add to his already considerable discomfort. It was just as he feared: Jess wasn’t the whitest lily in the field. However, Jess’ answer offered a bit of reassurance.

“Sure, Obie. Maybe a simple job of guidin’ or some such. But I would never take no murderers no place, except for maybe to jail…or to boot hill.”

Obie smiled, but it held contempt. “That where you plannin’ on takin’ us, Jess?”

Jess’ face looked absolutely evil in the firelight. “I’d say you could bet your life on it, Obie, but you already have.”

A look of fear passed over Obie’s face, but it was gone in a moment to be replaced with one of triumph. “You’re gettin’ soft, Jess. That blond cowpoke over there is the proof. The Jess I knew wouldn’t let some feelin’ like friendship cloud his judgment like the Jess I’m seein’ right now.”

Jess’ legs spread as he adopted a gunfighter’s stance, though he was not armed. “You want to see how soft I am, Obie? Probably not as much as you think.”

Obie scoffed, mostly for the benefit of the silent observers. The entire camp’s eyes were on the pair. “Not tonight, Jess. Just wouldn’t be fair, you bein’ all tired from the long day you’ve had. ‘Sides, we still need you to get us to Mexico. No, it’ll have to wait until a better time.”

Jess smirked and twitched his head in a small, tense movement to the side. “I can’t wait, Obie.” He then turned a stalked over to where Trampas was lying and stretched out beside him like a watch dog at the foot of his master’s bed: companionable, comforting, but always alert, always dangerous.

*****

The next day’s sun rose too soon for Trampas, but the night spent on an unmoving surface had helped him recover some. The day was spent in monotonous travel across the endless waving grass, moving as quickly as the horses could handle…but it was faster than what Trampas could handle. He couldn’t keep anything down, and his dizziness and nausea never subsided. His head pounded harder than the horse’s hooves and he wondered if he would survive this ordeal, threat of a bullet or not.

Finally, the sun was starting its travel down the western sky. Trampas sighed; relief was in sight. Jess and a couple outlaws had headed off from the main group to scout ahead. Suddenly they appeared on the top of a hill at a fast clip.

“What’s goin’ on?” Obie demanded irritably. They had been a long time without fresh water and all the men were getting dry.

An outlaw named Peterson reported, “A bunch of folks in wagons. There’s at least five or so of them, freighters.”

“Who are they?”

Jess was sitting quietly in the saddle, slouching against the horn. “Why should you care?”

Obie sent him an angry look. “Shut up, Jess. Peterson, I need to talk to you.”

The men dismounted. Jess went to help Trampas sit on the ground and gave him a drink, talking quietly. “I don’t know Obie’s got in mind, but we can’t be more’n a day or two from Mexico. Time’s runnin’ out. These folks in wagons might give us the break we need.”

“How, Jess?”

He received no answer, for a man wordlessly came over to Jess and grabbed him by the collar and dragged him over to a horse. Jess cast a worried glance in Trampas’ direction before mounting the horse without being forced. “Obie, what in tarnation are you doin’?”

Obie stood beside Jess’ horse, smirking as a man took a strip of rawhide and tied Jess’ wrists together and then to the horn. “We’re goin’ for some water, boy.”

“Why do I gotta come along?” Jess growled, his last word cut off in a grunt as the man jerked the bonds to make sure they were tight.

Obie looked like a cat that had just caught a canary. “I don’t like the idea of leavin’ you here with your buddy. Might be tempted to try somethin’ while the odds are a tiny bit more in your favor.” He turned away from the fuming Texan to Peterson. “Mel, you stay with scramble-brains there. Keep him company, huh? We’ll be back in a few hours.”

Peterson nodded. While some might worry that Obie had ideas on leaving him behind to cut down on division of shares, Mel Peterson was not a man to be tricked. No man had crossed him and lived to tell about it.

Soon the small party had vanished on the horizon. Trampas stayed as he was, his mind furiously working. Peterson was sitting off to one side on remains of a buckboard wagon. He would glance over at Trampas from time to time, but mostly seemed consumed in his stogie and his whittling knife.

Trampas stood up, and Peterson tensed. “Now, hold on there,” Trampas said easily. “Just stretchin’ my legs, tryin’ to get my bearings back from this knock on the head.”

Peterson shrugged and watched Trampas for a while, but as he saw the way Trampas staggered about like a man at sea, he soon became absorbed in his whittling again.

Trampas’ balance was actually off, but not as much as he put on. He stumbled to the ground, his hand conveniently landing on a broken piece of the wagon tongue. Trampas found his feet again, the impromptu club held behind his leg.

Peterson never saw it coming. Trampas belted him as hard as he was able, feeling vindicated serving out headaches this time rather than receiving them. He confiscated the man’s gun and took the folding knife for good measure. He then went as fast as he could to one of the horses and got on board. He grabbed the reins of the other remaining horse and set off in a fast trot in the direction the others had gone. He hoped he could find them before dark, for it would be very easy to get lost out on this landmark-less land.

After an hour’s journey, Trampas started to worry. It was getting dark, and it seemed as though the watering hole was much further than it had seemed when the men had ridden in earlier. Worst of all, his head was swimming again, and he found he could hardly stand to look ahead at the seemingly moving horizon.

When he started to slip from the saddle, he couldn’t stop himself. He jolted to the ground with a cry of pain. The stars above danced in a maddening jig, and he closed his eyes. If he just rested for a moment, he could get moving again, find the wagon train, and get some of those people to help him rescue Jess… Just a moment’s rest…

*****

The three rangers had followed the trail for a couple days, and were seemingly getting nowhere closer to finding the outlaws. In fact, the trail was starting to get cold, even though they were loath to admit it. Following a group of horsemen across sweeping grass was no easy task, but with the rangers’ crude knowledge of the area, they were able to follow the most likely pattern of travel by way of watering holes and creeks. Occasionally they would find a bunch of tracks together, and then none at all, only to find some again.

Finally, the rangers experienced a real break for the first time since starting out. In the distance, they spotted a cowboy leading another horse. Perhaps he had seen the outlaw gang, or at least had better knowledge of the area on where they might be heading next. They loped over toward the cowboy, who was looking at the ground, his head sweeping back and forth as if searching for something. He jumped in alarm at the sound of their approach and spurred his horse away. Without a word passing between them, the rangers all did the same and took off in pursuit of the fleeing man. Chad’s black horse, Amigo, was the fleetest of foot and caught up with the man’s run-down cowpony easily. One look at Chad’s drawn pistol and the man stopped quickly. Joe and Reese caught up shortly to hear the man ask incredulously, “Rangers?!”

Not an uncommon reaction to hearing that one had just been caught by the law, especially when one was doing something wrong, but strangely the young man grinned so hugely Joe thought that he might split his sun-burnt face.

“Boy, am I glad to see you fellas!”

“Trampas!” the three rangers all seemed to say at once. Once the handshaking and back slapping was out of the way, the blond man quickly fell into a quick sum-up about what had happened, finishing by saying, “They’ve got Jess! You’ve got to help me save him! Who knows what they’ve done with him.”

“Jess?!” Chad shouted and grabbed the man’s arm.

“Yeah, Jess Harper. I owe that boy my life. I’ve gotta find him!”

“You say he’s being held against his will?” Chad asked, daring to hope.

“Of course he is! Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said this whole time? I escaped and was tryin’ to catch up with them, but I’ve been off my feet these last few days from the wreck and lost their trail.”

Joe watched the interaction, happy for Chad and his news that Harper wasn’t what the sheriff had made him out to be. “There’s a waterin’ hole not too far from here. You say they was headin’ toward water last you knew?”

“Well, yeah, but surely they wouldn’t be there now,” Trampas answered.

“But it’s a place to start,” Chad exclaimed. “Let’s get going!”

The cowboy eagerly followed. “Yo!” he yelled.

“Yo?” Reese muttered as he rode along.

*****

They found the watering hole, but no one was there just as Trampas had predicted. However, Joe found fresh tracks there, as well as the signs of the wagon train Trampas had mentioned. The horsemen’s tracks headed in the opposite direction than the wagon train, making the trail easier to follow.

After most of a day, the rangers and their extra recruit followed the trail. Trampas was still recovering from his concussion, but the symptoms seemed to be easing. That, or his determination was overriding them. Every moment that passed weighed heavily, but finally, around dark, the saw smoke in the distance. A small line shack with several horses tethered outside stood next to a creek.

The men lay on their stomachs on a rise to spy. “That them?” Chad asked.

Trampas peered intently. “Yeah, I think so. Obie rides a grey.”

“There’s one down there,” Joe confirmed, his eyes the sharpest out of the group.

“We’ll go in tonight, once it’s dark,” Chad planned.

*****

At about midnight, the rangers raided the shack, taking out the sentry easily. However, about that moment one of the outlaws came through the door for an unknown reason. He shouted and went for his gun. Chad’s bullet took him out, but then the rest of the outlaws were aroused. They started crashing around in the dark interior, trying to get their bearings.

“We’re Rangers,” Reese’s voice boomed. “Come out with your hands up!”

A couple gunshots answered, and Reese was forced to take cover behind a barrel. One of the outlaws took up position at the window, poking out the barrel of a rifle, but Joe grabbed it and yanked both it and its owner out onto the ground. They starting scrabbling in the dirt, and another outlaw tried to take a shot at Joe. Trampas dropped with his rifle. More cries echoed over the prairie as Chad emptied his revolver into the doorway.

The outlaw Joe was fighting with pulled a knife and slashed in a wild arc toward Joe’s neck, nicking his collarbone. He reflexively put a hand to the wound, and in the darkness, the outlaw wrongly assumed that he had cut Joe’s throat. He came in closer to finish the large ranger, only to have his knife hand forcibly moved toward himself. It was over in seconds.

Chad and Reese had charged into the shack and had successfully subdued any of the outlaws left. A quick call-out confirmed that Joe was the only one in their party wounded. A few of the outlaws lay groaning, and several more lay dead.

Chad lit a lantern, and yellow light spilled into the small room. Trampas came in, one hand on Joe’s arm in case he should need assistance. Joe politely reclaimed his arm with a half-smile in the blond cowboy’s direction, saying, “Thanks, but I’ve had worse.”

“Jess! Jess, where are you?” Chad called.

“He ain’t outside,” Trampas informed.

A low laugh was heard over the loud breathing of the four men. One of the outlaws had propped himself against the wall, a bullet hole in his chest. Trampas looked over at the man before cussing loudly. The rangers started at the abrupt vulgarity coming from such a genial young man.

Chad asked nervously, “What was that for?”

Trampas’ eyes were blue fire as he glared at the man. “That’s Obie Smith! He’s the leader of this band of murderers.” Before anyone could stop him, Trampas was across the room with his hands gripping the collar of Obie’s shirt. “Where’s Jess?!” he shouted almost incomprehensibly.

Obie just laughed, inciting more wrath to pour from the blond man. He shook Obie so hard the outlaw’s head thumped against the wooden wall. Chad and Reese rushed over and pulled Trampas away, though not without a considerable fight. They pushed him into a chair. “Settle down,” Reese commanded. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“We’d better, and fast,” Chad said tightly, “’cause I’m not too calm myself.”

Joe held a bandanna against his wound and grimaced as he lowered himself onto a wooden crate next to Obie. “You’d better tell these gents what they want to know before their kettles boil over.”

Obie pressed a hand against his own injury. “Ain’t gonna matter. They ain’t gonna like what I have to say.”

“Say it anyway,” Trampas grated.

“After we loaded up on water, we come back to camp where you and Peterson were supposed to be waiting. When the boys found out what you done, they all just sorta got mad. I couldn’t hold ‘em back, ‘specially not Peterson.” Obie leaned forward, his face ghastly pale. “After that…I personally sold Jess’ soul to the devil himself.”

Trampas sat back in his chair, a stunned look on his face. Chad’s reaction was the complete opposite. He howled in rage, requiring both Reese and Joe to drag the Southerner out of the building completely.

Meanwhile, Obie fell back against the wall, spent after his dramatic story. Trampas stared at him, trying to disbelieve the outlaw’s story. “It’s not true,” he whispered to himself.

“If it ain’t true, then where is he now? We sure as heck didn’t let him go.”

“Where…where is his…”

“What, his body? There isn’t one. He’s gone. You’ll never find him…never find him.” Obie laughed sadly, a strange gurgling sound, and blood appeared on his lips. “Jess and I were like brothers once…You and me…we both paid him back real fine for bein’ a friend to us. Some gratitude we’ve got there, blondie.” He gasped a bit, and Trampas could have sworn to see guilt on those waxy features. “You know your Bible? What I done…comes close to what Joseph’s brothers…done when they sold…him off for silver…all to protect their own…worthless souls…”

Trampas opened his mouth to question what the outlaw said, but it was too late. Obie fell over on his side, dead. As he did, a bag fell out of his shirt and spilled its jingling contents over the floor…silver coins.

*****

Earlier

Jess gritted his teeth, outrage filling his every pore. Being tied to a saddle horn was one thing, but to be forced to leave Trampas alone with that killer was almost too much for him to handle. However, if just to keep Trampas alive for a few more hours, he’d behave. He didn’t know how much longer it would be before this strange drama would play out. Surely Obie wouldn’t have much use for the two cowboys in less than a day or so.

His musings were interrupted by the sighting of the waterhole and freighter’s train. The main group halted while Obie trotted ahead. He spoke to a tall man, presumably the leader of the outfit. The man glanced over their group, his gaze resting on Jess. He obviously asked about the bound man, and Obie pointed to himself before pointing off vaguely in one direction, and the words ranger and prisoner were barely discernible from the distance. Jess felt his face redden when he realized that Obie was impersonating a law officer. He was more clever than Jess gave him credit for. Any queries for help from these people would be dismissed as the lies of an outlaw.

Obie signaled over his shoulder for the rest of the band to come forward. A few of the men dismounted with their canteens while another untied Jess from the horn before yanking him to the ground. Jess landed awkwardly on his side, dust filling his eyes and mouth, his bound hands making it difficult to maneuver. The man laughed lightly before leading the horses away to the pond.

Jess coughed and tried to right himself. A hand on his arm made him shy away and almost topple over again, but the hold was firm. “What did you do to them, son? Rangers are tough, but that was uncalled for.”

Jess relaxed when he realized that the voice belonged to the leader of the freighters, not one of the outlaws. He tried to scrub some of the dirt out of his eyes. “Rangers?” he scoffed. “You wouldn’t believe me, I reckon, if I told you that fella you was just talkin’ to was the thief, not me.”

The man’s voice was warm and friendly. “I suppose not, son, but nice try. Here, let me wet my kerchief here…”

A damp cloth rubbed at Jess’ eyes, clearing away some of the grit. Jess was obliged, but embarrassed nonetheless. After a few moments, the rubbing hand stilled, and Jess chanced to open his eyes blearily. Through blurred vision he could make out a middle-aged man. “Thanks, mister. I owe you.”

“Don’t worry about it, son,” the man said friendlily. “Just wanted to help…” The man stopped mid-sentence, and his eyes roved over Jess’ entire body. His face paled as though he had seen a ghost. “What…what is your name, son?”

“Harper, Jess Harper. Why?”

“Where are you from?”

“Panhandle country, long time ago. Been around some since then. Say, mister, how come…”

The man’s hand reached out and grabbed Jess’ jaw. Jess tried to jump away, heart racing, but the man’s grip was powerful.

“Your eyes…hair…just the right age…”

Jess felt fear and adrenaline surge through him. He managed to free himself the man’s grip, but the sudden release made him fall onto his back. He rubbed at his jaw, feeling where finger-shaped bruises were forming. “What the dickens is wrong with you, mister?”

The man was studying him with great curiosity and awe and didn’t seem to hear what Jess had asked. He continued to stare at Jess until the outlaws returned and threw him back onto the horse. Chills raced up and down his spine, for the man’s gaze was unnerving and penetrated to the marrow.

He still felt the effects the leader’s eyes while they rode away, back toward where they had left Trampas. What they found when they got there made Jess’ heart rise with hope. “Trampas is free!” He couldn’t help but laugh at the situation, something that sparked anger in the men. They dragged him down and held him. Peterson sneered in Jess’ face, but Jess only returned the leer. “I seem to have forgotten which way’s Mexico, boys. Looks as though y’all are gonna have to find it your ownselves.”

Jess saw stars as a fist crashed into his jaw, and his neck twisted painfully to one side. His head was forced forward again, only to be wrenched in the other direction with another strike. Blood filled his mouth, but joy was all he tasted. Trampas was in the clear. Laughter spilled through his lips with the crimson fluid. Guilt lifted from Jess’ heart, and he barely felt the next blows.

Peterson became frustrated with Jess’ strange reactions to the abuse and grabbed a partner’s knife. He dug the tip under Jess’ jaw, silencing his mirth. “Listen here, boy,” the evil man grated. “We’re gonna track down your little buddy, and then I’m gonna cut out his heart and make you eat it.”

Jess just smirked. “He’s got a nice head start on you fellas, and with the law on your trail, I don’t think you got the time to be messin’ around with a lost cowboy.”

Peterson growled and pressed the knife even harder into Jess’ vulnerable throat. “I’m gonna kill you…”

“Wait!”

Everyone was startled to see several riders only a few yards away, their pistols drawn. Their approach had not been noticed by the tense group, and now the outlaw band was covered. Peterson reacted to their arrival by pulling Jess forward and around as a human shield, the knife jostling at his throat. Jess grunted as a stream of blood dripped from under the blade as it cut even deeper.

“Hold it, hold it,” the leader placated.

Jess couldn’t turn to see who it was, but he recognized the voice: it was that unnerving freighter from the waterhole. What could he want?

“What’s your business, mister? Ain’t nothin’ for you to do here,” Obie stated loudly.

The stranger dismounted and stepped into Jess’ periphery vision. “I’ve got some business for you, son, if you’d just calm down a moment.” He spread his arms wide. “I don’t mean you any trouble, so long as you comply with my request.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?”

The man smiled disarmingly. “I’ve seen plenty of lawmen in my time, son. You can’t fool me.”

Obie crossed his arms. “What is that supposed to mean? We’re rangers and…”

“You are not lawmen of any kind, nor is that boy your prisoner. It is pretty obvious to me that you are on your way south, but not to any town to turn in this boy.”

Obie blew out a breath. “Fine. You got me. What do you want?”

“What do I want? It’s really very simple. I want to help you.”

A murmur swept through the outlaws. “What do you mean?” Obie demanded.

The stranger signaled one of his men forward. “Smith here will show you the fastest way to the border.”

“What…? What’s the catch?”

“I know what you’ve stolen. Word spreads like wildfire out here. I’ll buy it from you.”

Obie snorted. “You got that kinda cash handy?”

“I do,” the man sincerely replied.

“Show me.”

The stranger opened the saddlebag slung over his arm. Obie’s eyes bulged as he took in the gold coins. “Mexican gold…”

“Is it sufficient?”

“Heck, yes!” Obie eagerly hooted. He moved to take it, but the man stopped him.

“I will buy your loot, on one condition: only that you’ll consider my other business proposition. It would only make you more wealthy.”

Greed was any thief’s strongest emotion, and Obie responded in kind. “Lay it on me, stranger.”

The man strode directly over to Jess and stood before him, those eerie, haunting eyes taking in every feature. Jess stiffened as the man’s hand touched the bruises that his own fingers had placed there a while before.

“Well?” Obie questioned. He too seemed unnerved by the stranger’s odd behavior.

“How much?” the man asked.

“How much for what?”

“For your young friend here. I assume you have no further use for him, since he was in the process of being murdered when I rode up. How much would you take for him?

A shock flew through Jess’ tense body, and he swallowed hard, causing more blood to course down his neck. The man noticed this and gently pushed the knife away. Peterson was too stunned to notice.

“You…you want to…to buy Jess?! But…but why?!”

The stranger’s face took on a cunningly sinister smile. “Let’s just say I like the way he looks. Tell me, young man, have you ever seen such blue eyes? A rare feature, that.” Nausea threatened at the back of Jess’ mouth.

Obie stared, his mouth open. “I…I…”

A jingling leather pouch appeared in the stranger’s hand. “Will this do?” He tossed it at Obie, who caught it reflexively.

The outlaw forgot his disbelief as the cold money struck his palms. He looked at the silver inside, a smile on his face.

“Obie…,” Jess whispered. He couldn’t believe what was happening.

“Sorry, Jess,” Obie apologized, strangely sincere. “Look at it this way — at least you’ll still be alive.”

“Obie! They’re Comancheros! They’ll…”

A handkerchief was knotted tightly around Jess’ mouth. “There you go, mister,” Peterson crowed gleefully. “Gift-wrapped just for you.” His ugly face loomed in Jess’ sight. “This is better’n the killin’ I had planned for you, buddy-boy. These folks will keep you nice and miserable for a lot longer than I have the patience for.”

Panic flooded Jess’ veins, and he felt the need to flee. No one was holding him anymore…and a horse was standing nearby, the reins draped over the saddle horn. Jess shouldered Peterson aside and leapt astride. He kicked the horse as hard as he could, and the startled animal bolted. Shouts sounded behind him, but Jess didn’t hear them. All he cared about was that horizon. A life as a Comanchero slave was no life at all. He’d rather die escaping than have that future ahead of him.

As he waited for the rifle to sound, for the bullet to strike home, his thoughts were filled with those of Andy and Jonesy, of the ranch and Traveler, and…of Slim. “Oh, Slim,” Jess thought mournfully. “Thanks for the best time of my life. I’m sorry I was such an ornery cuss. Please, forgive me…”

A rope dropped around his body and snatched him from the saddle. Falling almost head first, his skull struck something unyielding with a terrible crack. His vision faded to darkness and peace claimed his heart. “Goodbye, Slim…Goodbye…”

*****

Sherman Ranch, Wyoming

A week had passed since Slim had received a telegram from the stage line reporting that Jess Harper, shotgun guard, had been officially reported missing after a robbery. It was suggested that Jess had been involved with the crime, something the Sherman family had refused to believe. Nothing could be done but wait for news.

Andy was riding home from school, but his mind was far from his arithmetic homework. The stage would be arriving at any minute, but he knew he shouldn’t get his hopes up. However, as he topped the hill, he spotted the red coach down in the yard…and even from the considerable distance, Andy could see a man in a blue shirt standing next to the driver, Mose. “Jess,” he whispered, and spurred his pony down the road.

A smile was creeping over his features, but as he cantered into the yard, something made him pull his horse to a skidding halt. The man wasn’t Jess at all, but a blond man holding a wooden box. He was talking to Slim, who was holding his arms stiffly at his sides.

Andy dismounted, his heart in his throat. He walked slowly toward the two men.

Slim saw him coming. “Andy…Jess is…” His voice wavered, and Andy almost ran at the sight of his brother’s face. His smooth friendly features hadn’t been this contorted since Andy’s father had died.

The stranger turned toward Andy, who instantly recognized him as the jovial cowboy who had passed through some days earlier. His face was anything but happy now; his typically smiling mouth was set in a hard line.

“What… Jess is what?” Andy asked, not wanting to look but felt irresistibly drawn toward the box. His eyes fell upon the contents, a familiar black Stetson and gun belt, and a sob rose in his throat. “No, it can’t be! That’s somebody else’s stuff!”

Slim grabbed his little brother into a fierce hug as the poor boy soaked Slim’s shirt with tears. Slim felt like doing the same, but felt required to be the adult in the situation. “They looked and looked for him, Andy, but they couldn’t… They had to give up the search… but Mr. Trampas here found these…,” he could hardly say his name, “Jess’ things.”

Trampas stared at the items in the box, his face a hard mask. “I just wish I could’ve…that I hadn’t…”

Jonesy appeared from the doorway, having observed everything. “Why don’t you come inside, mister. Got some hot coffee on the stove.”

“Jess loves coffee,” whimpered Andy.

Trampas went rigid at the words. “Thanks, but after all I’ve done, I don’t think it would be proper for me to take anything more from you.”

Slim, though grieved, could not stand the thought of another man blaming himself for something that was not his fault. “Trampas, Jess wouldn’t want you to pass up a cup of Jonesy’s good coffee, even if you kicked his dog.”

A stiff laugh was shared by all but Andy. Mose liked Jess immeasurably, but he couldn’t blame this young fella for his disappearance. “I can’t think of a better way to remember that Texas twister than to drink coffee.”

Trampas relaxed a little and allowed himself to be led into the house. Looking at the comfortable surroundings, he could almost feel Jess’ presence. He received a tin cup graciously and half-heartedly raised it in salute with the others. Any good feelings generated from the gesture were crushed as Andy ran into his room and slammed the door.

Jonesy poured more of the steaming brew into Trampas’ cup. “Don’t take it too hard, mister. Jess led a dangerous life. He understood the chances…and someday Andy will, too.”

Slim swirled his coffee around. “Mr. Trampas, you don’t have to be gentle with me by continuing the story that Jess is just ‘missing’. I know what the reality of the situation is, so…where’s he…buried?”

“We back-tracked those outlaws’ trail more times than I can remember, making larger sweeps every time. You can’t just hide a fresh grave, not out there…but somehow, they did.”

Slim put down his cup, for his hands were too shaky. “Do you…do you think this Obie could’ve lied?”

“How do you mean?”

“The things you told us he said. ’He’s gone…never find him.’ It almost sounds as if Jess…if maybe…they didn’t kill him?”

“How could that be? Dying men don’t lie.”

“If he’s bad enough, a man would lie to get past the pearly gates,” Jonesy entered wisely.

Slim turned toward the doorway leading to the room he’d shared with Jess. “I just thought, I don’t know, like I’d feel something. Like when my folks died, I felt something in my heart die with them. I can still feel Jess. I can still feel him…”

Trampas hardly heard Slim’s musing because he was too busy with his own. They had searched the entire area thoroughly until the rangers had been called back to Laredo. There was nothing more they could do. But that silver…those wagon tracks. There was no documented wagon trail in that area, yet a small train just happened to pass through. On his trip back to Wyoming, Trampas had taken the opportunity to borrow a fellow passenger’s Good Book. Joseph’s story was now burned into his mind. A caravan…silver…betrayal. But what could he do? He didn’t dare get these good folks’ hopes up only to dash them against the rocks again. He looked at Jonesy. “Do you have some paper I could use? I need to write a letter.”

*****

After their failure to locate Jess, even if it was just to find his body, three rangers returned to duty as was expected of them. However, the memory of their inability to help Chad’s old friend hung over them like a dark cloud. One day, a couple months back into the job, something came their way that drove away the storm, if just a little.

Chad and Joe walked briskly into Parmalee’s office, a letter in the shorter ranger’s hand. “Cap’n, we’ve got to talk to you,” Chad announced.

“What is it now? You two want another pay advancement? No.”

“Sir,” Chad continued undaunted, “we have reason to believe that not 100 miles west of this location, there is a smuggling operation that freights illegally over the river into Mexico.”

Parmalee grimaced. “Are you serious?”

Chad held out Trampas’ letter. “Here’s the proof, Cap’n. A letter stating the suspicion that items stolen from the Overland Stage Company are being smuggled through this operation and that…human trafficking may be involved as well.”

“This letter is almost five weeks old, old news…” Parmalee looked up from the paper. “Wait a second. This isn’t about smuggling. It’s about that gunslinger friend of yours who decided to go on the wrong side of the law and paid for it with his life.”

“What ‘bout the fact that the stolen goods from that stage robbery were never recovered?” Joe reminded.

“Yeah, Cap’n. Those outlaws happened to lose Jess and that secret shipment at the same time.”

“That secret shipment isn’t so secret anymore, it seems.” Parmalee said, his voice grave. “I just got a message from headquarters. That shipment was deeds to parcels of land all along the border of this state and Mexico. The owner had come forward, willing to sell out his land to the government in exchange for ranching property in Wyoming. Almost as soon as those deeds were stolen, people from the Rio Grande country have been coming forward with deeds for the same land claiming ownership to that property. Without the stolen deeds the government has no way to counter their claims.”

“A courthouse didn’t keep any records of ownership?” Chad asked.

“It burned in a Comanche raid almost ten years ago. The owner was on his way with the only existing deeds to Wyoming to view the desired property and to make the exchange when the robbery occurred. He was killed along with everyone else on that coach, except that cowboy Trampas…and your gunfighter, Harper.”

“Who we believe to have also been taken by the smuggling operation,” Chad resubmitted.

Parmalee held up a hand. “Whatever. If you want to keep your childish dream about him still being alive, fine. Just don’t let it get in the way of your job, which is to get out there and get back those deeds. If that land falls into the wrong hands, smugglers will have free rein to trot back and forth across that border. Now get going!”

*****

Some time had passed since that brisk meeting with Parmalee, but the rangers were getting close to their target. They had traced most of the illegal documents to one concentrated area. A huge ranch dominated a good portion of the land bordering the disputed parcels, and Joe had drawn the short straw on who had to go interrogate the residents while the other two rangers followed up on other leads.

The gates of the ranch called Diablo’s Arroyo stood tall and foreboding, but Joe rode through without hesitation. He reached the main ranch yard after a few hours’ ride and stared at the huge operation spread before him. Adobe structures were without number, and huge corrals full of animals spread across the landscape.

Joe rode his horse unhindered to the largest adobe house, but he could feel unfriendly Mexican vaqueros’ eyes on his back. He dismounted before going and knocking on the door. A young attractive woman opened the door cautiously. “Who are you?” Her voice was flat, like she was forcing herself to be polite.

Joe removed his hat. “Ma’am, my name’s Riley, and I’m from the Texas Rangers. Is your husband around?

She stared at him suspiciously but opened the door further. “Why don’t you come inside, have something to drink? I’ll send a boy for my husband.”

Her tone and body language made Joe feel uneasy. Her words sounded civil, but her fierce eyes were sizing him up like a prize horse. Still, he felt like he should take her up on her offer if he wanted to get a chance to see her husband. He entered the cool house, grateful for the respite from the sun. As he stepped past her, she leaned out the door and said something quickly and quietly to a vaquero, who went trotting off.

She gestured toward a chair at the kitchen table. He sat down while she went over to a counter to get a clay pitcher. She stirred its contents with a long spoon before pouring some into a cup. “I hope you like sweet tea,” she said in a polite voice, though perhaps a little too syrupy. Was this woman flirting with him? Joe shoved the thought aside. She was probably just a lonely woman with little interaction with the outside world. He tried to smile friendlily at her, but her eyes were fixed on the cup that she held out.

He accepted the cup and took a drink. It had a pleasant herbal taste, sweetened with honey, but as he looked up to see her staring him down like a hawk at a mouse he decided that he should get back to business. “Ah, ma’am, when’s your husband coming?”

“Who?” she asked.

Joe choked on his drink. “Ma’am, you just said…” Suddenly, everything felt very wrong. He clambered to his feet, and this change in height allowed him to see out the back window. There, parked in orderly lines, stood several freight wagons. The words of Trampas’ letter came to him in a rush. “Smugglers!” He turned to leave but tripped over the chair. He caught his balance, but his head was swimming. It was hot today, but Joe was used to the heat…what was wrong with him? He wavered and was forced to lean against the table. “Ma’am…what have you done…to me?”

She took a step forward. “You look ill. Why don’t you sit down?”

“No, thank you. I’m fine. I’ll have to call on your husband another day…if you have one…?” He tried to get to the door but felt himself getting more light headed by the second.

She appeared in front of him like an apparition. How did she get there? “You do look terrible, Mr. Riley. Why don’t you come down to the cellar and cool off?” She took a few steps toward him and he felt himself take the same amount of steps backward.

“No…thanks…I’ll just be…be goin’…” His vision swam, and his mouth tasted bitter. “Drugged!” his befuddled mind exclaimed. “Stay…’way…”

She kept coming toward him and he kept backing away. A broom was in her hands, and before he knew what she was doing, she rammed the handle right between his short ribs. His breath exploded from his lungs and he fell backward into open space before his body crashed onto an uneven surface. Even in his dazed state, he realized he was falling down a flight of stairs. He finally slid to a stop at the bottom, and through graying vision, he could see the woman silhouetted in the doorway above. She smirked down at him before slamming the door. The loud sound was an assault his frayed senses couldn’t take. The darkness of the room claimed him at the same moment his consciousness left him.

*****

Joe Riley groaned miserably as his head swirled like someone was stirring his brains with a spoon. His equilibrium was off, but he could have sworn that he was upright rather than lying down like he felt he should be. He attempted to move and became violently aware that he was indeed standing when his whole body lurched forward, only to be caught by his shoulder sockets. He grunted in agony before feeling a rising fear in his chest when he realized he had been suspended by his arms from the ceiling, his considerable weight pulling against the bonds that held him there. He scrambled to get his feet under him properly and was relieved that he could get some of the pressure off his shoulders.

Once that was accomplished, he tried to get a glimpse of his surroundings, and for a brief but terrifying moment, he thought he was blind. He could see nothing but complete darkness pressing in on him, but out of the corner of one eye, he spotted a line of light. This line grew as the door to the top of the stairs eased open. Joe turned his head away from the beam that scorched his eyeballs. A man and a woman, judging from the sounds of their steps on the staircase, approached him with a lantern.

Joe buried his face into one of his arms, his eyes screwed shut against the light. The man and woman stood a few steps away silently for several minutes. Finally, one of them spoke.

“This was a mistake,” the man said, but Joe got the feeling the statement wasn’t directed at him.

“I don’t think so,” came a calm response.

Joe recognized the voice as the woman that had, well, captured him. A chill went down his spine while at the same time he could hear his pards’ laughter. “You got caught by a woman?” Chad’s drawl was so real in his head that Joe in his confused state almost believed that his friend was there. He defended himself to the imaginary specter. “She drugged me…with sweet tea!”

The two strangers laughed at him, and Joe’s mind snapped back to reality. “He’s a little slow, don’t you think?” the man asked.

“He is a ranger, so he can’t be too incompetent,” she answered.

“True…but still. He fell into your trap easily enough.” The man sighed. “A Ranger. This is asking for trouble, Maddie.”

“Yes, but just look at him, Cliff. Daddy’s going to be so pleased.”

Joe felt a hand run over his abdomen, and he jerked away as best he could. “Hey, this bear’s got some fight in him,” Cliff hooted. A rough hand buried itself into Joe’s hair and forced his face out from the protection of his arm. He squinted into light, but he was becoming used to it. He wished he wasn’t. Maddie and Cliff, apparently brother and sister, were staring at him like a hunk of meat on a hook, which is exactly what he felt like right now. Maddie was holding the lantern, lifting it up while Cliff forced Joe’s head back.

“He does have a nice face,” Maddie commented, and Joe felt sick.

Cliff snorted. “You throw yourself after every single one we bring through here. I can see why you like this one, though. He does have a nice physique.” Once again, Cliff’s intrusive hand ran over Joe’s chest and shoulders. Joe threw himself against the ropes and Cliff’s hand in his hair, but both proved too much for him in his weakened state. Desperation fueled him and he struck out with his knee. Cliff fell away, nearly ripping out some of Joe’s dark hair, making a sort of gagging sound.

“Dear brother, you are a fool,” Maddie said, but she sounded pleased. Her eyes dragged over Joe’s body with such longing that Joe felt himself transported to a similar situation not too long ago…only the woman was eating black licorice and wearing a funny hat. “Yes, I think I got us a real prize this time.” She gave Joe one last look that sent heat climbing to his cheeks before grabbing her brother’s collar to drag him up the stairs, him moaning and wining the whole way. The door slammed shut, but Maddie had left the lantern on the bottom of the stairs, either out of forgetfulness or kindness…but Joe couldn’t imagine it being the latter. Either way, he was grateful for the light. He glanced around his prison and noticed that he was indeed in some sort of cellar. Looking above, he could see that he was tethered to the beams of the floor above by thick ropes, once again reminding him of Linda Littletrees. At least this time he still had his shirt. The memory gave him such a sickening feeling that he forced his mind to think of something else, like escaping.

After about an hour of yanking on the ropes, Joe was about ready to give up. He had even gone as far to try and climb the ropes to reach the knots on the ceiling, but his hands were pulled too far apart for that to work. He could almost reach one wrist with his other hand, but evidently his captors were too clever…or too experienced…for that to work. Smugglers! He should have known.

His arms were starting to go numb, all the blood running out of them. He gave one last yank, but that only caused pins and needles to shoot into his fingers. Finally he gave it a rest. His head sagged until his chin rested against his chest. “Oh Chad,” he breathed. “Reese…where are you?”

******

“It’s been three days, Chad.”

“I know, Reese.”

“Three days since he went off alone after losing that stupid bet.” Reese glared at his partner suspiciously. “I don’t suppose you had anything to do with him loosing that bet, did you?”

Chad’s eyes were full of innocence. “Who, me? Certainly not!” Still, a bit of guilt swept over him under Reese’s scrutiny. “Well…”

Reese waved his hands dismissively. “It don’t matter now. What matters now is finding that ornery critter before it’s too late.”

“Right.”

“So let’s go!”

“Right!”

*****

Joe slouched against the dirt wall, feeling pretty sorry for himself. Sometime close to his first encounter with the brother and sister duo, a couple vaqueros with guns came down into the dark abyss. One took out a huge knife and approached the ranger, a toothy grin on his face. Joe shifted lightly on his feet, ready to fight, but the Mexican only cut the ropes. Joe wondered about rushing them, but when his arms fell to his sides, they were completely numb and useless. He resigned himself to glaring at them. They just smiled and left, taking the lantern with them, leaving Joe alone in utter darkness.

How long had it been since he had seen the sunlight? It was impossible to tell how fast time went by down in the hole. It felt like days, but who could know? Time seemed to stand still, even after he slept…or was he even sleeping or just closing his eyes for a while? It was impossible to tell.

Every once in a while the door would open and one of the Mexicans would appear holding a shotgun. The show of force was unnecessary; Joe couldn’t stand to look at the glaring light, let alone try to attack someone standing in it. Another person would set down a clay plate and cup on the bottom step. Then they would stand there until he ate and drank whatever they contained. The food wasn’t that bad, actually, and typically consisted of fried beef and biscuits. The drink seemed to be just water, but it was spiked with something. He would finish his meal and the door would close, but it seemed like only moments later when the door would open again with more of the same fare. Strangely enough, his belly would feel empty like he hadn’t eaten in hours. Each time this happened, he had a bitter taste in his mouth and a slight headache. He tried just taking a few sips of the drink, but it didn’t seem to matter. Just a little bit was all it took and he would wake up sprawled awkwardly on the stairs, stiffness adding to the usual headache. The routine was terribly confusing on the ranger’s mind, for it felt as though he were constantly eating without ever becoming full.

After waking up again after the meal routine, he decided he’d had enough of their game. He crawled up the steps as quietly as a panther and put his eyes to the crack under the door. The bright light hurt a little, but he grew accustomed fairly quickly. Through the inch under the door, he could see people’s feet walking around. He smelled food cooking, so he probably only had a few moments until they would be coming down with his dinner…or breakfast…or whatever.

“You ready to get that Ranger’s food to him?” Maddie’s voice asked, and Joe couldn’t keep from gritting his teeth in repulsion.

“Sí, señorita.”

“Alright, here it is. And make sure he drinks all of this. The patrón will be here soon, and I want that beast ready and waiting.”

Two sets of Mexican-style boots jingling his way, Joe stood up quickly. He heard the bar slide back on the other side and was forced to do the only thing he could: he put both hands on the door and pushed as hard as he could. A cry rang out as Joe fell into the kitchen, the door crashing into one of the Mexicans holding the food while the other scrambled for his weapon. Joe got to his feet quickly and tackled one of the Mexicans. His hand went to the man’s waist, finding the knife that the man had used to cut Joe down earlier. The man was small and slight, and Joe easily overpowered him and finished the fight permanently. He whipped around, the knife dripping blood. The second vaquero had recovered and was holding a pistol in one hand.

“Señor, I think maybe you should give me that knife, and we’ll forget what you just did, huh?”

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Sure, I’ll give it to you.” Faster than the eye could track, he flung the knife across the room where it sunk to the hilt into the man’s arm. He cursed in agony, but Joe didn’t wait around to listen. He was out the door in seconds, the first Mexican’s gun in his hand. However, the sight that greeted him outside made him skid to a stop on the bare dirt. At least ten mounted men waited outside in a semicircle, and all were armed to the teeth. Most of the men were Mexicans, but a few were gringos. One in particular sat tall in the saddle; Joe got the immediate impression that he was the patrón of which he had heard Maddie speak.

The woman stepped through the door behind him, but kept a safe distance. “Howdy, Daddy,” she greeted, her voice strained. “He’s a trouble maker, but prime merchandise, so I thought I would keep him around until you got back.”

Her father shifted, leather creaking. “He kill anyone?”

“Just one of the vaqueros, but he deserved it for being stupid.”

“Hmm…” The man’s eyes were colder and more calculating than any of the other crazies Joe had encountered so far. They took in every aspect of the ranger to the degree that Joe bet that his weight, height, and age were perfectly determined.

A man five or so years older than Joe came forward, his face ugly in the sunlight. Joe recognized him from his wining voice. “Pa, he ain’t worth the trouble. He’s a Ranger,” Cliff informed while smiling devilishly at Joe.

Maddie shoved her brother. “Shut up, Cliff. You’re just sore because he beat you even when he was tied up.”

“Silence, both of you,” their father barked, and even Joe’s heart skipped a beat at that commanding tone. The man turned his ghostly-grey eyes upon the ranger again. “Put down that weapon, boy.”

During the distraction, Joe had brought the pistol up to bear on the boss. “I don’t think so. I could drop you before your men could get off a shot.”

The man shook his head slowly. “I bet you could.” Then, he jerked his head a little to the side, and Joe realized too late that it was a signal. A bullwhip snaked out and wrapped around Joe’s wrist and yanked his arm to the side. Several men were on the ranger in a blink, striking him in the legs and forcing him to the ground. Someone stomped on wrist while prying his fingers open, taking the gun. Joe felt his anger multiply tenfold. It took a lot to get him mad, but once somebody did…there would be trouble. He bucked as hard as any bronco and threw off one of the men. He rabbit-punched the nearest throat while grabbing the same person’s shirt to yank him head first into the face of another cowboy. They collided but fell on top of Joe, adding to the weight already across his legs. More men came from all sides, adding to the fray. Finally, somebody had the mental capacity to do the simple thing: a gun barrel clipped Joe across the jaw, and immediately, his movements slowed. The men clambered off of him and hauled him to his feet. Joe could hardly do anything as someone grabbed his hands and tied them behind him. After this was accomplished, two men stood at his side, holding his arms tightly.

*****

Randall Jamison slowly dismounted and walked over to the ranger. He stopped a couple steps away and studied the man. He was a prize catch: good looking,—not like that had much to do with where he was going—tall, muscular, and then some! The man’s body was built like a prime bull, all brawn and hardly a gram of fat.

The ranger had recovered from the blow he sustained and was breathing like the bull Randall had mentally compared him to. Great puffs of air came from his nostrils, none being able to escape through his tightly clenched teeth. His eyes were very dark, but even more so since his pupils were dilated in rage. Physical characteristics aside, the young man reminded Randall of a certain recent acquisition. “What’s your name, boy?”

The ranger lowered his head like a beast about to charge and said through his teeth, “Private Joe Riley, Company B, Texas Rangers.”

“Hmm…,” Randall nodded and jabbed the ranger under the chin with the handle of his quirt, forcing him to tilt his head back. “Not too mouthy, but plenty of spirit. I like that.”

Cliff sidled up next to his father. “He is at that, but just take a look at his physique. He’ll be worth more for that, not his spunk.”

Randall raised a brow, knowing exactly what his son was up to. He was trying to cover up his distaste for keeping the ranger now that he knew his father approved of the acquisition…and was trying to take credit for the capture. He tried to show some bravado to impress his father. Stepping forward, he grabbed the ranger’s shirt collar on both sides and yanked it open, popping a few buttons. The ranger’s eyes widened at the affront, but he remained rigidly still. Cliff sounded like an auctioneer. “Just take a look, Pa. He’ll fetch a great price! He’s the biggest one we’ve gotten in a long time.”

Every muscle as tight as a bow string, the ranger twisted away from Cliff, only remaining where he was due to the men’s hold on his arms. “I ain’t no animal,” he growled, “and I won’t be poked and prodded like one.”

Cliff looked to his father, silently asking permission to punish the man for his outburst. Randall shook his head. “Thank you for your demonstration, Cliff, but I’ll take it from here.”

Cliff walked away dejectedly while his sister smirked at his back. Randall turned around and walked toward a long, low building, and the men holding the ranger followed, pulling him along. Randall pulled out a big key and unlocked the padlock on the door. The men entered and the ranger was forced to lay face down next to the wall. While one of them kneeled on the base of the ranger’s neck, effectively pinning him, the other took a shackle attached to the wall by a short chain. The ranger thrashed around a bit, but the moment the shackle snapped around his ankle, the ranger’s tension evaporated with a sigh and he went still. The same man took a small knife out of his pocket. “Steady, big boy, I’m just gonna cut off them ropes.” He did so, and at Randall’s direction, the other carefully rose from his position and together they trooped out of the building, leaving the boss and captive alone.

The ranger slowly raised his body off the dirt floor and seated himself against the wall. He attempted to stretch out his long legs, but the chain was too short. He resigned himself to keep that leg bent at the knee, giving him a casual look. He stared up at Randall, a mixture of confusion and distaste on his handsome face. “You realize how much trouble you’re gonna get yourself into if you keep me here? I’m a law officer.”

Randall sat on a stool. “You’re just a ranger. Most of you fellows were, or still are, thieves and murderers, with no family to care for them. You’ll hardly be missed.”

“The state might feel that way, but we rangers take care of our own.” The ranger crossed his arms, which made contact with his bare chest. His face reddened and he tried to do up the buttons that hadn’t been ripped off.

“A fine, strapping young man like you, blushing at his one of his finest features being shown off? I’m surprised at you,” Randall chuckled.

“A man has a right to show his body to who he chooses,” the ranger said, sounding a little preachy.

Randall leaned forward, his gaze pulling the ranger’s upward. “You’ve got no rights anymore, boy, and no choices…except whether or not you’re going to accept your fate. Now, most of the boys that come through here find their lives to be in a sorry state to begin with. Most are outlaws, ex-cons, drunken cowboys. Their lot in life was pretty bad to begin with. The places we send you off to, well, they might not seem like heaven, but you’re fed and clothed and given a place to sleep at night. You might even say that I’m a good Samaritan, saving the down-on-his-luck traveler.”

The ranger shook his head disbelievingly. “That what you tell yourself at night when you’re tryin’ to sleep?”

“I sleep like a baby, and you will too. That stuff my daughter’s been fixing for you,”—this drew a reaction: the ranger’s head flung back with a rebellious glint in his eyes— “you will keep drinking it every night. That little mixture keeps you safe and sound…”

“Makes me controllable?” the ranger interrupted.

“That is a good word to describe it, yes.” Randall stood to leave. “You seem like a good man and are probably very talented at what you do. I’m sorry I have to trade you off across the river, but business is business. Who knows, maybe a ranger will get me a better price? Never mind. Get comfortable. It’ll be a few days before I make another trip.” He strode away, about to leave until a thought pulled him back. “Watch out for Jimmy. He’s my, uh, nephew. He’s a little out of his head. If he tries to talk to you, just ignore him. Good bye, ranger.”

*****

The door slammed, but unlike his previous prison, there was light enough to see his surroundings. He was in what he assumed had been a stable, or perish the thought, a building constructed for sole purpose of what it was being used for now.

Joe unhappily jerked at the chain keeping him against the wall. Now he was really stuck. He cursed himself for not trying the break sooner, but it was too late for regrets now. He could only hope that Chad and Reese were nearby, coming to find him.

He stretched out, and before long he dozed off. Sleeping anywhere at any time was something he was very good at. However, his mind kept jumping to horse auctions he’d been to…and suddenly he saw himself in the round pen, being paraded around on a long tether by Mr. Jamison… He woke up in a sweat, breathing hard.

Joe sat up and put his back against the wall, his arms going around his legs in a defensive position he hadn’t adopted since childhood. If Chad and Reese didn’t find him soon… He knew what it was like to be penned up, forced to do things you didn’t want to do. From experiences at the reservation when he was with the Comanche to the times he had been in jail before becoming a ranger, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to lose his freedom again. He’d go insane. It was a predetermined inevitability.

His dark thoughts were pushed aside when he heard a whisper of movement coming from a far corner, sounding like a rattle of metal on dirt. Another prisoner? “Hello?” Joe whispered, not wanting to draw attention of anyone outside.

Joe’s heart leapt in his chest as a shadow rose from the floor, seeming to grow before Joe’s eyes until it was almost man-size. Was it just his imagination? No, something was over there. Joe could swear he could hear something, someone breathing. “Hey, there, who…who’re you?”

No response, and Joe gave up. Perhaps he was going crazy already. He settled back and tried to ignore the prickling on the back of his neck, the feeling he always got when he was being watched. The outside door creaked open and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned to see Maddie walking in with a tray holding what Joe assumed to be his supper. The sight of her turned his stomach. Such loveliness concealed a sinister mind.

“Hello there, Ranger,” she cooed and set the tray on the floor and sat on the stool. “How are you faring? You liking this place a little better than where we had you?”

He refused to look at her, afraid that she’d see his fear. Yes, the mighty Joe Riley was afraid of a woman. Men he understood, but women… Who knew what she could be scheming? She was far more dangerous to him than the boss of this outfit or bumbling Cliff.

She seemed perfectly aware of his avoidance and his reasons for it. “You don’t have to be afraid of me, honey. I won’t hurt you. Cliff wants to hurt you, real bad, but Pa won’t let him. I won’t let him either…”

He couldn’t help himself from glancing up at her, and she triumphantly beamed at him. “I have to apologize for my brother’s strange display out in the yard today. Before the war, he was a slave dealer. He knows how to make a sale.” Her eyes fastened on his exposed chest where the material wouldn’t stay in place. Her voice became husky. “If I could, I’d buy you myself…”

Joe tried to divert her attention by crossing his arms, but that seemed to only excite her further. She seemed to snap out of it and continued. “But Pa wouldn’t hear of it. Besides, we have to get you over the border as soon as possible, and I surely don’t want to live over there.” Her face became sad. “Such a pity, you being so handsome and all. In a couple years, there won’t be hardly anything left of you, working in those mines. That’s what Daddy plans on doing to you, you know. There’re ex-Confederates down there who ran there after the war and started a couple mines, gold, tin, and the like. Mexicans don’t like to work it for them, so they buy up pretty little boys like you.”

Her story was interrupted when the noise Joe had heard earlier sounded again. He looked sharply in the direction, and Maddie laughed at his reaction. “Don’t pay any attention to that. It’s only Jimmy, my Aunt Florie’s little boy. He’s loopy, which is such a shame, because he is so cute. He gets my heart going.” Her hand fluttered over her chest to demonstrate, and Joe had the feeling that the woman’s cousin wasn’t so ‘little’ like she described him. “He disappeared a long time ago, when he was very, very young. We think that Comancheros got him. Anyway, just a few months ago, my Daddy found him again, not too far from here, and bought him back. It’s a shame though because, believe me, that boy is completely off his rocker. He forgot who he was.” She turned toward the corner and called, “Jimmy! Jimmy, why don’t you come over here, hon!”

The rattling noise sounded again as the shadowy figure somehow wedged itself even further into the corner. Maddie waved a hand dismissively. “He doesn’t seem to like me very much. Don’t know why. Oh well.”

Joe knew perfectly well why. The man-hungry female had probably tried to force her affections on the boy, and if he truly was out of his head like she said he was, anyone like Maddie would probably launch him into a fit. Joe felt like screaming like a crazy man himself if it would keep Maddie away. “Why is he in here?”

“Dear Jimmy tries to run away quite a bit, and tries to hurt those who care about him and himself. We keep him here to keep him from doing any of those things. That little box over there is where we put him when he gets really bad.”

What had probably been a stall at one time had been adapted into a cage to hold a messed-up, most likely abused, kid. Joe felt so hot he thought smoke might come out of his ears. “You witch. You keep a poor scared kid in here? You and your family are the crazy ones. You should be locked up in here, not him!”

Maddie’s face reddened dangerously. She stood up abruptly, knocking the stool over. “Oh, really? That’s some thanks I get for keeping you alive. Cliff wanted to kill you. Maybe I should have let him.”

“I’d rather be dead than have to sit around and listen to you prattle on like a woman without a brain in her head.”

Her hands became fists and she shook them in Joe’s direction. “Ooh! Juan, Domingo, get in here!”

Two Mexicans appeared, one who had a bloody bandage on one arm — the one Joe had stabbed hours before. “Yes, señorita? You want something?”

She pointed one long finger in Joe’s direction. “He insulted me. Hit him!”

If she wasn’t threatening him, Joe would have laughed at her spoiled display. However, as the two vaqueros approached him, both wielding quirts, he knew he should have been a good little captive and kept his mouth shut.

Hit him they did. He tried to defend himself, but the chain was so short he could do nothing but try and knock out their feet. Every time he’d try and reach one of his attackers, the other would assault him from the other direction.

Finally Joe gave up the fight. He couldn’t do it anymore. Seeing this, Maddie called for a stop. He lay flat on his stomach, and at her approach, the men stood on his arms so he couldn’t move. “See there, ranger? You’ll be a good boy now, won’t you?” She stroked his sweaty hair, and even in his defeat, he still had enough defiance to jerk his head away. One of the Mexican’s raised his quirt, but Maddie stayed his hand. “Tsk, tsk,” she crooned. “I think Mr. Riley’s had enough for today. He’ll sleep well tonight, I think.”

They left him alone in his misery. He’d had worse before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The quirts hadn’t cut through his shirt, but any bare skin had lacerations decorating it. The cuts weren’t deep, but rather the bruises that covered him were what bothered him the most. He couldn’t move at all without feeling them penetrate to his core.

His supper had been left abandoned by the stool, and Joe wished he could reach the drugged drink. He hated to think of taking the easy way out, but he just hurt. His pride hurt, his body hurt, and his heart hurt. Where were his friends? Why couldn’t they save him from this hell? How much longer could he take the humiliation and degradation?

*****

Somehow he managed to find a comfortable enough position to enable himself to sleep. Another auction dream haunted him, only this time as he ran around the round pen Maggie was chasing him with a quirt in one hand and a pitcher of sweet tea in the other. He startled awake, heart pounding, causing every ache to throb.

The moon had risen, its silvery light making the low building glow weirdly. Joe looked around the room before his eyes settled on the little box where Jimmy supposedly lived. A stab of sadness penetrated Joe’s self-pity. The poor kid, if he really had been taken by the Comancheros, probably had never known anything but abuse and harshness.

Joe tried to get settled again, but the physical inactivity of the last few days made him fidgety. He sat up carefully and leaned lightly against the cool and comforting adobe wall. Leaning his head back, he looked up at the ceiling and realized that he could see the stars through large cracks in the thatch-like material. Good thing it doesn’t rain much, he mused. The last thing he needed was to get wet.

He didn’t even realize that he had dozed off until he startled awake by a noise. He thought it was that same rattling from before, but he couldn’t be sure since he had just woken up. Joe wondered if Jimmy was as wild as Maddie had said he was…and somehow, he doubted it. If he and Jimmy were both being held in here, they were in the same boat, cellmates in a sense. Joe decided to take the chance that Jimmy wouldn’t attack him. “Jimmy,” he said as loudly as he dared. “Jimmy, you don’t have to be afraid of me. I won’t hurt you. We can be friends, if you want.” He listened for a while, his ears straining, but he heard nothing but sounds from outside. “I don’t believe what Maddie said about you. I bet she’s the crazy one, not you.”

Joe was about to give up on getting a response until almost two feet away from him, he heard a great shuddering sigh. “What the…,” he nearly yelled but cut himself off. A shadowy figure moaned and shuffled away, the now familiar rattling sound following. Joe guiltily called after him. “Wait, Jimmy, it’s okay. You don’t have to be scared. I didn’t mean to yell at you. Just surprised me is all.”

The figure stopped and turned to face Joe. He took a few shuffling strides forward, and it was finally revealed to Joe what the rattling noise was. The poor boy had shackles on his ankles, and every time he moved, the chain connecting them drug across the floor. Joe swore angrily under his breath. “Hey, Jimmy, how ‘bout you comin’ back over here where you was before? I liked the company. I bet you did too, and that’s how come you was sittin’ here with me.”

Jimmy, for who else could it be, took a few hesitant steps. As he did so the moon beams dragged over his body, giving Joe a tiny glimpse as to what he looked like. He was around six feet tall and slight, and seemed to be hugging himself tightly. Joe gave an inviting wave toward himself, wondering if Jimmy could even see it. The boy must have been able to, for without hesitation the boy came forward quickly and seated himself in front of Joe, Indian style. His ability to maneuver in the fetters made Joe boiling hot, for if Joe had tried to do something like that he probably would have fallen on his head, meaning that Jimmy had probably been restrained in this manner for a long time. He forced himself to take a couple deep breaths before speaking so his voice would be relaxed. “Jimmy, my name’s Joe Riley…uh, it is Jimmy, isn’t it?”

Jimmy’s body seemed to curl in on itself as he started to rub his face against one knee.

Joe was a little disturbed by Jimmy’s actions. What was the boy doing? “Ah…Jimmy, can I help you with anything?”

Joe had to keep himself from moving away as Jimmy suddenly invaded his personal space. Maybe the kid was a little out of it after all, for Jimmy was diligently rubbing his face against Joe’s hand like a dog wanting a pat. “Jimmy, I’m not sure I understand…” Then he felt it: a gag was tied around Jimmy’s mouth. Joe quickly felt for the knot and untied it. He carefully pulled the strip away, for it stuck a little. Even in the darkness, Joe could see that it was being held to Jimmy’s skin by dried blood.

Jimmy sat back and breathed deep through his mouth like a man who had just come up for air while swimming. Then he ducked his head and spit on the ground. “Blood…somebody blood…didn’t want to swallow it.” His voice was so quiet and raspy, Joe wasn’t sure if he understood him correctly. Did he really mean that he had someone’s blood in his mouth? But why? A chill went up Joe’s spine. Maybe Maddie was right…maybe Jimmy was dangerous.

Jimmy hawked up some more dark phlegm and spat it out. Then he seemed to gather saliva in his mouth and rinsed his mouth. He spit that out too. Then he wiped his mouth on his shoulder before finally becoming still. Joe and he stared at each other for a while, though both could hardly see the other.

After some time, Joe decided to try again, since Jimmy seemed to be finished with his strange display. “Jimmy, my name is Joe Riley.”

“Hi,” Jimmy acknowledged simply. Joe was startled to hear that the boy’s voice was actually very mature sounding.

“Do you…do you feel better now? After…that?” Joe pointed at the ground where Jimmy had been spitting.

“Heck of a lot better. Thanks for gettin’ that off.” Once again Joe was surprised by Jimmy’s adult tone. He sounded like a regular Texas cowboy, not at all like a raving lunatic the Jamisons had made him out to be.

“Why…?”

“I bit ol’ Cousin Cliffy when he tried to put me in the box. He had Domingo gag me to keep me from doin’ that anymore.”

Joe peered at Jimmy through the gloom. “Jimmy, why didn’t you just take it off yourself?”

“Do you think I’m cold or somethin’, holdin’ myself this way? They got me all bundled up like a baby so I can’t hurt them,” his voice faded to a whisper, “or hurt myself…”

Joe slowly reached out and touched Jimmy’s shoulders. Sure enough, there was canvas material wrapped around the boy, keeping his arms crossed and pinioned to his chest. “Jimmy, I can take it off for you, if you want.”

Jimmy seemed to shrug, but it was hard to tell with the way he was restrained. “They’ll just put it back on again…”

Joe felt his ability to keep from questioning the boy failing. “Jimmy, you don’t seem crazy to me. Why do they keep you locked up in here?”

“What do you know about me?”

“That you were taken by the Comancheros as a boy and were with them until you were rescued a few months ago. That’s what Maddie told me, anyway.”

“Maddie,” the boy said like a curse. He spat on the ground again, but for an entirely different reason. “She comes in here and tries to, you know, kiss me…”

“It’s not uncommon for a girl to give her cousin a kiss,” Joe tried to comfort.

“It’s not that kind of kissin’,” Jimmy growled. “And she ain’t my cousin.”

“Wait, what? But they said they found you and bought you back.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what they said. It ain’t true.”

Joe was confused. “Then where did you come from?”

“I…I don’t know… It’s all hazy…I just know that those people ain’t my kin.”

“How do you know?”

Jimmy shook his head. “They just ain’t.”

Joe leaned forward. “When I was a boy, I was taken by Comanches. My family was killed. I don’t really remember them, because my mind doesn’t want me to remember it. It was just too sad for me or somethin’, so my mind just kinda erased them. I only remembered my name. Can you remember anything, Jimmy?”

“About when I was a kid?” His voice sounded scared. “Nothin’…nothin’ at all. Why can’t I remember?”

“What’s the furthest back you can think of? Maybe that will help you remember the rest.”

Jimmy looked up at the ceiling. “Riding…riding fast. I was with other people. They had me tied up…I needed to get away, but I fell…”

“Comancheros?”

“No…somebody bad…had to stop them from doin’ somethin’…can’t remember.” His took a ragged breath. “Uh…Randall got me…I think…and now I’m here. Some lady came up sayin’ that I was her long-lost son…that ain’t true though.”

“How do you know?”

“You’d just know if someone was your ma, wouldn’t you? She’s plumb outta her head. You jus’ wait and see.”

“Jimmy, I’m a Texas Ranger. Do you know what that is?”

“Just ‘cause I don’t remember nothin’ don’t mean I’m an idiot.”

Joe laughed a little. “Okay, sorry. Other rangers are nearby, lookin’ for me. Once they come, we’re gonna get you outta here, alright?”

“Sure you are. I’ve seen what happens to the men that come through here. I reckon that’ll happen to you too.”

“I swear it, Jimmy.”

Joe’s assurance seemed to sway Jimmy. He nodded slowly. “I don’t want to get my hopes up…but I’ll help you, if I can.”

Joe smiled. “That’a boy, Jimmy…”

“On one condition,” Jimmy interrupted.

“Yeah?”

“Please, please, don’t call me Jimmy. It…hurts.” He shuddered.

“Uh, okay. What do you want me to call you?”

“Anythin’ but that.”

“How ‘bout…Johnny?”

“No.”

“Jack?”

“Better.”

“Texas Jack?”

“Shut up.”

*****

Joe and “Jack” spent another hour talking. Joe liked the boy immensely and was frequently reminded of Chad during their conversation. However, there were at least a couple definite differences between the two young men. First, Chad had a whimsical and musical vocal quality, while Jack’s voice was rough, like someone much older. Chad was also rather lighthearted, even during serious situations, while Jack had an extremely pessimistic attitude, though Joe could hardly blame him for that.

Joe talked Jack into letting him remove the canvas sheet wrapped around him, even though Jack seemed afraid to do so. “They’ll just put it back on…,” he muttered as he turned around to allow Joe access to the cords tying the back. Even with his hesitation, he seemed like a child anticipating Christmas, for he could hardly hold still long enough for Joe to get it off. When the last cord loosened, Jack thrust out his arms, sending the canvas flying. He leapt to his feet, waving his arms around like a man trying to flag down a stage. Joe laughed a little at the sight.

“Feels good, huh?”

Jack whirled around. “You have no idea. They usually let me out a few times a day, but this just seems so much better ‘cause you did it, I think.”

Joe had a quick thought. “Come over here, Jack. Maybe we can get a clue about what you did with your life before you came here. Maybe it’ll help you remember some of your life before this.”

Jack sat beside Joe, skepticism showing in his body language. “How you gonna do that?”

“Let me look at your hand, Jack.”

Jack crossed his arms. “Why?” he asked stubbornly.

“I ain’t gonna do anythin’ to you, boy. Just want to feel it.”

“You’re a crackpot,” Jack muttered, even as he held out his right hand hesitantly. Joe took it lightly so Jack wouldn’t feel trapped and started to feel Jack’s palm. “You must have a workin’ job. Your palm’s kinda thick and rough.”

“I usually wear gloves when I’m really workin’.” Jack gasped. “How…”

“See? It’s workin’. It’s bringin’ some back.” Joe thought of something else. “You in the clothes they brought you here in?”

“Yeah.”

“What kind of boots you got on?”

“They took my boots, but the ones I had were like any other cowboy’s boots.”

“Well, you ain’t a farmer then.”

“I know that.”

Joe smirked and continued his exploration. He ran his thumb over Jack’s knuckles and laughed a little.

“What?” Jack demanded hotly.

“You must be a scrapper. Your skin on your knuckles is as broken up as Reese’s.”

“Who’s that?”

“One of my pards. He likes a good brawl more’n anythin’.”

“Nothin’ feels better than givin’ some loudmouth a good deckin’ in the teeth. When you can’t use fists, teeth’ll do. Cliffy’ll prob’ly get rabies and we’ll have to shoot him. Too bad.”

Joe shook his head humouredly. “You’re the one with rabies, Jack.”

A moonbeam was shining directly above Jack’s face, making it look skull-like. When he displayed a feral grin while snapping his teeth, it was a truly frightening sight. Joe feigned alarm and threw an arm up in protection.

Jack did not take the joke well. Reflexes took over as he yanked his hand away to pull at something at his hip that wasn’t there.

Both men froze. “What…what jus’ happened?” Jack sounded very young and scared.

Joe, though his vision was impeded by the darkness, knew that he had never seen anyone move so fast in his life. He felt nausea creep into his throat and he swallowed hard. “Let me check one last thing, Jack.”

Jack held out the same hand. Joe focused on Jack’s thumb…and found what that he was afraid of. Jack’s thumb pad was heavily callused. A similar callus was located on the inside of Jack’s pointer finger. This combination could only mean one thing. “Jack…”

“You startled me…and I couldn’t even stop myself, like I didn’t even think ‘bout what I was doin’,” Jack stammered. “What does it mean?”

Joe guided Jack’s hand to touch his thumb and finger, where he had matching calluses. “I’m a lawman, Jack. Usin’ a gun’s what I do for a livin’.”

Jack sat feeling his own fingers with his left hand. “I don’t feel like I’m a lawman…but what am I? An outlaw? A…bushwhacker? A…mur…mur…”

“Don’t even say it. Like I said, I’m a lawman. I know a killer when I see one. You ain’t one.”

Jack hunched over his hand and rocked.

“Jack…”

“I’m tired, Joe. My head hurts.”

“It’s okay. We can talk tomorrow, if you want.”

Jack nodded before curling up on his side, his back to Joe. Joe opened his mouth but thought better of it. Jack needed his space, and Joe felt like he’d done his share in adding to the boy’s misery for the night.

*****

Jack had not stirred since their conversation had ended badly, a few hours later. Joe could not tell if the boy was sleeping or just ignoring him, but either way the ranger did not say another word to the poor confused individual lying a few feet away.

Joe watched the dawn light creep into the building, the early morning beams playing over the dark places. His body ached from Maddie’s cronies’ enthusiastic punishment the day before, along with being stuck in the same position for so long. He finally decided that he had to stand up and stretch or he would become permanently stuck in a cramped position.

He grunted as every muscle in his body seemed to seize up at the same time, but he soon had the kinks worked out by turning, bending, and pulling. “Ahhh,” he couldn’t help saying as he raised both arms over his head.

“You always this noisy in the mornin’?” a groggy and sleep-filled voice asked.

“No, but usually I don’t spend the night sittin’ against a wall with a snorin’ kid next to me, keepin’ me awake.”

Jack rolled over, allowing Joe full view of his face for the first time. Joe was completely taken aback at the sight. If Jack showed any sign of being aware of Joe’s shock, he gave no sign. “I don’t snore, and I ain’t hardly a kid.”

“No, you’re not,” Joe agreed. In the dark, all Joe could make out of Jack’s appearance was that he was lithe and slender and a bit shorter than the lanky ranger. He had guessed the boy to be around twenty, and only because of his deep voice. However, in the light of the morning, Joe could now see that Jack was probably not too far in age behind Joe. While Jack’s features were boyish and youthful, there was a hard quality around his eyes and mouth, like he spent a lot of time glaring…which he was currently doing.

“What?” he growled.

Joe rubbed his face, comparing his days-old stubble to that on Jack’s jaw. “You’re just…older than I thought you was.”

“How would you know how old I am?”

“I don’t. How old are you?”

“Twenty-five, or somethin’.”

“Did you just make that up, or did you remember?”

Jack pulled himself up and rested his arms on his knees. “I don’t know. It’s like stuff comes when I’m not thinkin’ on it, but when actually I try to remember things it’s like lookin’ into a dark room with no lamp.” He rubbed his hair, mussing it more than Joe thought possible. “I was dreamin’… I was out in a pasture. This fella rode up on a big horse, and he smiled real big at me. I felt like I was…home.”

Joe felt glad for Jack while at the same time grieved for him. Unless something happened soon, Joe would soon be carted off to who-knows-where and Jack would be trapped in a living nightmare indefinitely, possibly to never find his memories.

Restlessly, Jack jumped to his feet, the shackles on his ankles clanking. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“I’m with you there, Jack. You got a plan?”

“No…but if we could get that leash off’a you, we’d stand a chance.”

Joe braced himself against the wall and kicked out his leg, snapping the links. “Think if I do this enough, it’ll come out?”

Jack squatted beside where the chain was bolted a wooden beam set into the adobe. “This wood seems old, but hard.” He stood back up. “If you just had something to whittle away at it with… Wait, I got it. I’ll jump one of the guards when he comes in and get his knife, and hide it in my pants. Then…”

“Wait, Jack. You could get…”

“What, hurt?” His eyes widened, and Joe thought he could see madness in their depths. “I’m hurtin’ every minute I’m here. What if…what if somebody’s out there lookin’ for me? I’ve got to know who I am, where I come from. If I don’t, I’ll go crazy. I’m almost there already, you know.” Jack looked away, his mouth twisted. “You jus’ don’t know what it’s like, knowin’ that you belong someplace else but havin’ everybody tellin’ you that you belong here. The day before yesterday, Cliffy came in to take me off to Florie’s place, that woman who thinks she’s my ma. I just couldn’t bear goin’ there again. I went loco, I mean, I couldn’t even see right. It was like I couldn’t hold it in no more. I set into him like a grizzly into a calf. It weren’t pretty.” He sighed hugely. “Them things Maddie said ‘bout me…they was true. I do need to be wrapped up sometimes, if just to protect me from myself…”

“Jack, listen to me. You’ve been through hell. Nobody could expect even the strongest man in the world to stand up to what you’ve had to deal with and take it with his head high. Don’t believe a word they say to you. They’re tryin’ to break you down, make you into what they want you to be. But believe me when I say that I’m gonna get you out of here, if it’s the last thing I do. I swear it.”

Jack smiled faintly up at Joe. “Sure, but try to hold on to your hide long enough to arrest the whole sorry lot of them. I’d like to see them chained up for a change.”

“You got it, kid.”

“I’m not…”

“Would you rather I called you Texas Jack?”

Jack’s glare could have killed a mule.

*****

Jack’s plan might have worked had only one or two guards entered that morning. When Domingo opened the door, Jack attempted to subdue him by throwing the canvas sheet over his head. When Juan came rushing in after, Jack hit him with one fist so hard the man flew backward and crashed into a wall, knocking him out cold. Jack hopped over to Juan’s prone body to search him for weapons. Unfortunately, there were no firearms, so he resumed his odd gait away from Domingo, who had recovered and was pulling a leather reata from his belt. He shook out a loop and started to walk toward Jack slowly, smiling devilishly. Jack was not to be caught easily, as Domingo threw his loop and missed.

Joe stood tensely, watching the display. He had tried to talk Jack out of the foolhardy plan, but the kid was not to be deterred. On the other hand, Joe admitted to himself that he probably would have done the same thing.

Joe’s deductions about Jack’s past were right about one thing: the kid knew how to fight. Juan had not stirred since being struck once, a testimony to Jack’s fighting ability. Joe didn’t count on Jack getting close enough to Domingo to try that trick again. Even now, the vaquero was slowly making Jack’s running room smaller and smaller. Jack finally hobbled right over to Joe and pressed against Joe’s much larger frame.

“Ah, chico, that’s no way to play,” Domingo chided. “Your mamá, she wants to see you. She outside waiting. Don’t make her upset, hijo. She very sick, no?”

Joe straightened threateningly and protectively. Domingo’s eyes widened and he kept his distance. “Gringo, get that chico away from you or I come to you again with your old friend.” One hand stroked the quirt that hung from his belt.

Joe was not to be put off. He held his ground while putting one hand behind him to rest on Jack’s arm.

Like a western gale, Maddie came striding into the shed with several more hands. “What is going on in here?” she demanded. Her eyes fixed on the two men against the wall. Jack shrunk behind Joe’s back. “Jimmy, what are you doing? Come out from behind that…ranger.”

Joe was shocked when Jack started to comply. He shoved the kid back. “Leave him alone. He ain’t done nothin’.”

She ignored his command. “Jimmy, get over here this instant! Your mother wants to see you! You need a shave and washing up.”

Joe looked down at Jack. His eyes were full of uncertainty. “She ain’t my ma, she ain’t my ma, she…”

“That’s right, Jack. You keep sayin’ that.”

“You!” Maddie screeched, as if noticing Joe for the first time. “You’ve done this! We had him to where he trusted us, and you’ve poisoned him against us!”

Cliff chose this moment to stroll into the place like a king entering his courtroom. “I told you it was a bad idea to keep him, sis, but you got caught up in those brawny arms.”

“Shut up, Cliff! Get your useless cousin away from that man and get him cleaned up. Aunt Florie’s pining for him.”

Cliff glared at her back but did as he was told. He signaled to the vaqueros and together they spread out to make a human fence. Jack became more and more agitated the closer they got, and Joe was hard-pressed to keep the boy behind him. He wasn’t sure why he was holding onto the boy; it wasn’t like he could keep Jack from them forever. He just couldn’t hand him over to those bloodsuckers.

“Better just let him go, ranger,” Cliff sneered. “We’re gonna get him anyway. Better for you to help us out. It’ll go easier on you if you do.”

Jack’s head was turning back and forth frantically, and suddenly he darted toward a gap in the line. Joe snatched at Jack’s arm but missed as the boy was agile, even in his fetters. His easily scuttled around the men’s outstretched arms, chain rattling the entire time, and Joe got the sad impression that this had happened numerous times.

Eventually, Jack was backed into a corner, his eyes wild and panting heavily. The entire time he said nothing, making him seem all the more like a frightened animal. Joe had never felt more helpless in his whole life. He wanted to shout encouragement, but what help would it be? Jack was confused enough as it was.

Domingo had better luck this time with his reata and caught one of Jack’s arms. Jack shrieked like a trapped rabbit, but that was the only resemblance to the gentle critter as the kid charged the Mexican. He was over him in half a second and awkwardly hopping toward the door. He only made a few strides when the rope went tight, for though Domingo had been knocked down, he had maintained his grip. Jack’s running room had finally ended. He desperately tried to loosen the rope around his wrist but he didn’t have enough time. Cliff and the remaining two men rushed to restrain him. He howled and twisted but was quickly forced into the canvas jacket once more. His teeth snapped within a hair’s breadth of Cliff’s arm, but the supposed-cousin was prepared and slapped Jack’s mouth with enough force to whip his face to the side.

“ENOUGH!” a voice boomed.

Everyone froze to see Randall Jamison standing next to his daughter. Maddie looked pale and nervous; no doubt that during the entire fiasco, she had been given a good talking-to by her father.

Randall flicked one finger toward himself and the spell was broken. Jack was dragged forward, but he by no means came willingly. He continued to kick his feet and attempt to bite those holding him, but they were too strong. They stopped in front of Randall, who looked down at the young man. “Jimmy, stop this at once.” His voice was quiet but firm. Jack continued to struggle, though perhaps not as greatly as before. “Jimmy,” Randall chided, “I won’t say it again.”

Joe was sure that his mouth fell open when Jack simply quit. He sagged against the vaqueros’ hold, his head down in what looked like shame. “That’s better,” Randall said and patted Jack’s dark hair. Anger rose in Joe’s chest as he forgot his situation and took a step forward, but was stopped by the chain. His movement drew Randall’s attention. “Ah, Mr. Riley! Good morning. My, my, but you look rather haggard. Didn’t you sleep well?”

Joe refused to answer.

“Did little Jimmy keep you awake? Jim, son, that wasn’t very polite of you.”

Jack’s head seemed to sag even further. “Sorry, Uncle Randall,” he murmured, stunning Joe as if he had been slapped in the face.

Randall beamed proudly at the apology, but his predatory eyes were on Joe, taking in the ranger’s reaction to Jack’s compliance. “You could have gotten Mr. Riley into trouble, Jimmy. Why did you go to see him?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did you talk about?”

“N-nothing.”

Randall’s face reddened in anger. “You didn’t just stare at each other all night, Jimmy! What did he say?”

Jack’s head came up, his eyes full of hate. “Nothing!”

Randall’s eyes bulged at the unexpected defiance. He glowered at the young man, but Jack’s glare remained steady. Randall raised a hand and slapped Jack soundly on one cheek, following with a backhand on the other.

Joe charged forward and nearly fell when the chain snapped tight. “Leave him be! You want to know what I told him? Why don’t you ask me, I’ll tell you! I told him that you’re a dirty, worthless, son of a mangy cur, hounding him like that! He ain’t your nephew, cousin, son, or any other kind of relation! You wonder why he don’t remember you? Because he ain’t never met you before you brung him here! You’re tellin’ him lies and confusin’ him, all so you can play your silly little games. That’s what I told him! That you’re all frauds!” Joe’s voice dropped in volume before continuing. “And I also told him that my company knew where I was goin’. Did you fools think that I was the only one out here? That the others wouldn’t come lookin’ for me? You’re wrong, dead wrong.”

Randall listened to Joe’s outburst with a calmness that just barely concealed his anger. “Jimmy, do you believe what this man says?”

Jack’s face turned toward Joe, who nodded encouragingly. “I…”

“Well, do you?” Randall demanded.

“I don’t know,” Jack whispered, but everyone in the room heard him.

Randall’s jaw worked in displeasure, but he shoved his feelings aside and gently finger-combed Jack’s hair. “Well, believe it or not, your mother is here, and she wants to see you. Try and be nice?”

Jack’s face was a picture of confusion as he nodded blankly. Joe’s heart sunk. Just what had they done to the kid that he gave in so easily? Joe had really believed that he had gotten through the lies and had Jack believing that he didn’t belong there.

Domingo brought over a chair and the two men holding Jack put him in it. Maddie came forward and started to wash Jack’s face with a cloth, something Jack didn’t appreciate. He looked as though he wanted to lash out, but one look from Randall and he sat like a statue. Maddie proceeded to give Jack a shave, being surprisingly gentle…but then Joe remembered that Maddie had fawned over her “cousin” just the day before. She made him sick.

Randall had come to Joe’s side unnoticed. “Well, ranger, you’ve made a real nuisance of yourself.”

“Sorry to be a bother,” Joe replied sarcastically.

“Careful,” Randall admonished. He reflectively watched Maddie lather up Jack’s face with shaving soap. “Nice looking boy there. Bears an uncanny resemblance to Florie’s son.”

Joe gaped at him. “What?”

“Three or so months ago, I came across someone who had a problem on their hands. That boy,” he pointed at Jack, “was the problem. Can you believe that they were going to just throw a prime lad like that to the buzzards? I coerced them into selling him to me for a pouch of silver.”

“I think you might have been cheated. He’s kinda skinny.”

Randall turned his haunting grey eyes on Joe’s face. “I’ll make enough profit off you to make up the difference,” he said coldly. “No, I wasn’t buying whatever-his-name-is for the same purpose I’m selling you. I bought him for the way he looked. Like I said, he bears an uncanny resemblance for my nephew, James Fowler, my sister Florie’s son. He was kidnapped or killed years ago, and poor Florie never got over it. She was on the edge of insanity. But then I found this mixed up kid, who looks just enough like a grown version of Jimmy. Florie was convinced in an instant. Jimmy, as we now call him, was not…”

“I’m real surprised.”

“When we found him, he fell from his horse and hit his head. His memory was patchy at best after that, so it didn’t take much to make him believe that he was Jimmy Fowler. Things were going rather well, but gradually, Jimmy started to behave like you see him doing now.”

“You can’t expect to believe that it’s possible to completely work over a man’s mind and have no problems,” Joe exclaimed incredulously.

“My methods of persuasion were beginning to work on him again. That is, until you showed up. He must have heard that we had a Texas Ranger in the cellar up at the big house, because he kept trying to go down there. That was when he started acting like a wild animal. He bit Cliff so hard they couldn’t get him off.”

“That boy is kinda feisty, ain’t he?”

Randall stared fiercely down his nose at the ranger. “Laugh all you want, but as soon as they got him off, he grabbed a gun and tried to shoot himself. Think it’s funny now?”

Joe’s heart fell to his boots. “No, it ain’t funny. But you remember this, you dirty snake, if somethin’ does happen to that boy it won’t be his doin’, it’ll be yours. You’re drivin’ him crazy.”

“No, you are. He was fine before you came along.” Randall smiled cunningly. “Maybe what you said is true, about this area being full of rangers, all looking for you. I can’t be too careful. That’s why I’m organizing a special trip, just for you. You ever been to Mexico, Riley? You’ll like it, I’m sure. You’ll be seeing it soon, probably before tomorrow’s dawn. So, enjoy Texas while you can. This is the last day you’ll ever see it.”

*****

Joe leaned against the wall with one hand. Randall story was a lot to take in, but it all made sense. It would explain Jack’s mental upheaval as well as his abhorrence of the name “Jimmy”. After witnessing Randall’s violence toward the young man, Joe had no doubt that the man’s “methods of persuasion” involved brutality. Jack was probably forced to respond to the name Jimmy or be punished.

Joe watched with heightening trepidation as an older woman stood timidly in the doorway. Jack’s canvas jacket that bound his arms against him had been removed, but he had been safely manacled to the wall by one wrist. The vaqueros had cleared out, leaving just the Jamisons. Randall went over to the woman and gently took her arm. “Florie, I’m afraid that Jimmy isn’t feeling very well today, but he wants to see you.”

“Every boy needs his mother when he’s sick,” Florie said, and Joe felt a pang of pity for the middle-aged woman. Though she looked fine physically, she seemed completely oblivious to her surroundings. She didn’t even seem to notice that her “son” was restrained. Her only focus was on Jack himself, who was seated with his back against the wall and his head in his hands.

Though she posed no physical threat to the young man, her claim to motherhood of him was more than his already damaged mind could take, Joe reasoned. “Hello, Jimmy, honey,” Florie said in a voice that made Joe’s heart melt. A thin and fragile hand touched Jack’s hair, trying to smooth its waves. Every muscle in his body went rigid, though he remained rooted to his seat on the ground.

“Jimmy, say hello to your mother,” Randall commanded.

“Hello,” Jack mumbled.

The interaction continued in a similar manner. Florie would say or ask something, and Randall would order Jack to respond. Fifteen or so minutes had gone by when Florie said, “Jack, I want you to come live with me at my house.”

Jack’s head came up, as did Randall’s. “What?” the young man asked.

“I know your uncle is just trying to take care of you until you’re better, and you’ve been so very sick, so I agreed to let him. But you seem to be feeling better today, so I want you to come with me. I can take care of you. You are my son, after all. You need your mother’s touch.”

Randall put his hand on Florie’s shoulder. “Florie, are you sure about this? Jimmy isn’t really…”

“Isn’t really what? He looks fine to me. Just a little thin, but I’ll get that fixed up in no time,” she said, and conspiratorially wrinkled her nose and grinned at Jack, who stared blankly at her. “He’s my son, Randall, and I’m no invalid. Why does he need to stay here with you, anyway?”

“I didn’t want to have to tell you, Florie, but you know I could never keep any secrets from you,” Randall started to say. “Those Comancheros…well, I didn’t exactly buy Jimmy back from them. I took him, stole him away in the middle of the night.”

Florie put her hand over her mouth in fright. “What! Are you telling me that those evil men might try to take my boy away from me again?”

Randall nodded sadly. “Yes, so I need to keep Jimmy here where I can protect him…but you can come stay in our house in the mean time, to be closer to him.”

Jack’s face turned dark at hearing the lies. He looked conflicted, his mouth working as he fought to keep words from spilling out.

Florie smiled at Jack, her mind somewhere else. “I was too late once. I tried to save him…was too late…” Her watery eyes looked down at Jack. “I held you in my arms, praying the breath would return to your body, that I could make your eyes open again.”

Randall stared in shock. “Florie, Jimmy isn’t dead, he’s right here before you.”

Florie’s hand trailed down Jack’s cheek before cradling his jaw in her hand. “So he is…” She and Jack gazed into each other’s eyes for an indeterminable amount of time. Finally she released her hold and rubbed her arms, shivering. She wandered outside in a daze. Randall watched her go, his face genuinely grieved. Even with all his faults, the man did truly care about his sister. He followed her slowly, his hands clasped behind his back.

*****

Joe and Jack were left alone in the building. Outside, sounds of preparation penetrated the adobe walls. Joe felt a building sense of dread fill his stomach. It wouldn’t be long before the smugglers came for him, and Jack would be left alone. With Jack’s state of mind, this could prove to be very dangerous. If he didn’t get away from these people soon, Joe feared that Jack would be lost to them forever. “Jack,” Joe whispered urgently.

Jack’s head came up slowly, and Joe was dismayed to see a vacant glaze on the young man’s countenance. “Oh, hi, Joe. You still here?”

“Yeah, kid, but not for long. Listen to me. Whatever those people tell you, it ain’t true. You’re not one of them. Your own body tells us the truth.”

“You mean my gunfighter’s hand? My killin’ hand?”

“Whatever you want to call it, Comancheros wouldn’t let you play around with guns.”

Jack gazed up at the ceiling. “They would if I was one of them.”

“Jack, you can’t think like that…”

“Joe, I like you a lot. You tried to help me learn ‘bout who I might’ve been…but now, I ain’t so sure I want to know anymore.”

“Jack!”

“Check your pocket, Joe.”

What? Confused by the sudden change of topic, Joe felt his pants pockets and was shocked to feel a small pocket knife stowed there. “How…” Then he remembered the moment earlier when Jack had stood behind him. He wasn’t hiding at all, but slipping Joe a weapon. “Jack! This is the break we need!”

Jack shook his head. “Joe, there ain’t no way. You saw what happened earlier…I ain’t no good. I’d just slow you down. You see your chance, you take it. But don’t go ‘round tryin’ to find me. It won’t be worth your time…and you’ll only get yourself killed tryin’ to save a worthless shell of a man who ain’t worth savin’.”

Joe pointed at Jack sternly. “Jack, I ain’t leavin’ here without you. We’re in this together.”

“No, we’re not. Joe, can’t you see that I’m taken care of here? So long as I do as they say, I’ll be treated like their own. Maybe I’ll just try and forget that I really ain’t little Jimmy…it shouldn’t be too hard. My mind’s pretty soft as it is.”

“Jack, no…”

“It was real nice meetin’ you, Joe. You’ve given me somethin’ to remember, to look back on sometime.” Then he wrapped his arms around his knees and put his head down, hiding his face. Despite his best efforts, Joe could do nothing to get the boy to raise his head again.

*****

The freight wagon rolled slowly along, accompanied by three men on horseback. Above on a grassy knoll, a man watched with a spyglass. Though the wagon seemed innocent enough, he knew that this was not the case. It was his business to be able to identify the innocent from the guilty. He was a Texas Ranger.

A lone rider approached the group on a little bay gelding. The party halted to watch him come. “Howdy there,” the man’s bass voice called out.

“Something I can do you for?” the leader of the band asked.

“Yeah, I reckon there is,” the man replied. “You can uncover that wagon and show me what you’re haulin’.”

“And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m a Ranger…and you’re covered.”

Low laughter carried across the plains. “Yeah, like I’ll believe that.”

The ranger waved one hand in the air. A split second later a bullet struck the ground directly in front of the leader’s horse. The rifle report crashed over the quiet prairie a few blinks later, signifying that the sniper was a good distance away…and a very good shot. The leader got his horse back under control with some difficulty.

“Just cast down your guns, and we’ll make this as quick and painless as possible,” the ranger commanded, his drawn pistol backing his words. The men hesitantly complied. “That’s good, nice and easy. Now, roll back that canvas and let’s see what’s under there.”

Once the cover was thrown back, the ranger commanded the men to step away. He rode up beside it…and was disappointed. Inside were only barrels of flour and other food stuffs, as well as a long box that could only be one thing.

“We’re on our way to our mother’s. Our brother was killed in Laredo.”

The ranger shook his head. “I’m sorry for your loss. You have the apologies of Company B for bein’ held up here. It’s just what with all the smugglin’ that’s been goin’ on ‘round here, we’ve got to check every wagon that comes through here.”

“No problem, Ranger. Just doin’ your duty.”

The wagon rolled on after the men collected their guns. Reese turned and flashed a signal with a mirror to Chad that all was well. Chad flashed back once, signaling all-clear. Reese smiled at that. Maybe he’d have a chance to take a little break in the shade. He wished this whole mess would clear up soon, for he missed his shady spot in front of the barracks back in Laredo. The thought reminded him of Joe, who regretfully was still missing. They knew that he had headed this direction to visit the Diablo’s Arroyo Ranch, but so far those people had checked out with the local law as upstanding citizens.

Yes, Laredo was a long way off, both figuratively and physically, and they probably wouldn’t see it for a while yet. “Wait…,” he murmured as a thought struck him. “Laredo’s a long way off… Those fellers said their brother was killed in Laredo. If that were the case, he’d be stinkin’ to high heaven by now!” In his haste to signal Chad, he almost dropped his mirror, catching it at the last moment.

On top of the hill, Chad was trying to make sense of Reese’s signal. It was just a lot of random flashing and waving. Finally, Reese gave up with the code that he himself had developed and resorted to old-fashioned pointing. “Something’s wrong with that wagon, it would seem,” Chad muttered to himself. He got off his belly and switched positions. The wagon was moving at a good rate, but it was no match for a bullet. Chad squeezed off a couple shots in front of the team while Reese galloped toward them. This time the men must have realized that the gig was up and took defensive positions.

Chad picked off one of the drivers as he pulled a gun on Reese, who had managed to find a little cover behind a fallen tree. The other men had gotten inside the wagon, its thick sides shielding them from the rangers’ fire. One popped up to try and take a shot, but Reese clipped the edge, sending splinters into the man’s face. He ducked down again.

The team of horses nervously started to move forward, and Chad remembered a tactic that they had used in another similar situation. “Oh Joe,” he murmured, “I sure could use your help and that sharp eye…” He started firing rapidly at the horses’ hooves, causing them to spook and change direction…right into a gully. Chad watched with wide eyes as the wagon hit a boulder and upended its contents, including the men riding in it.

Chad leapt aboard Amigo and flew down the slope, joining Reese at the crash site. Reese was already searching the wreckage for survivors. One man crawled out from under some crates before collapsing on the ground, looking like a ghost, completely dusted in flour. The other men were either unconscious or incapacitated with broken limbs.

Chad casually slung his rifle over one shoulder while standing beside Reese. “How’d you know it was a smuggler’s rig?”

“On account of that,” Reese responded while pointing toward what appeared to be a coffin. It had broken open a little when it had fallen on the ground. “It weren’t stinkin’ yet.”

Chad gaped at his partner. “’It weren’t stinkin’?’ Sometimes that happens, Reese, like when a fella hasn’t been dead for very long!”

Reese cast his eyes up, annoyed. “They said they was totin’ him back for buryin’, all the way from Laredo.”

It made sense now. “Good call, Reese. You used those little brains real good this time.”

“Thanks, Chad — D’ohhh, you…”

Chad had put a safe distance between himself and the stocky ranger. “Well, come on Reese. Let’s round up that team and get those worthless coyotes loaded up.”

The team had only gone a short distance with the now-rickety freight wagon that had miraculously managed to keep both its axles intact. Chad and Reese worked together to round up the saddle horses, and once they had completed that, they hoisted the smugglers into the wagon and tied them together with their lariats. The one Chad had killed they slung over a saddle and tethered the horse to the tailgate.

Chad dusted off his hands, glad that chore was over. “Let’s see what these boys were tryin’ to sneak off here. That box looks like it could fit rifles real nicely.”

A handy smuggler’s rifle barrel was used to pry off one of the boards. Reese peered inside, saying, “Let’s see here…Whoa!” He jerked his head up so fast the back of his head connected with Chad’s shoulder, nearly knocking the slender man over.

“Watch it, Reese! It ain’t gonna bite.”

Reese’s face was white as he did some sort of strange ritual that involved pulling his ears and licking one finger before swiping it across his forehead.

Chad watched with his mouth open. “Reese, what the heck are you doing?”

“Wardin’ off this poor feller’s spirit.”

“What? This is…”

“A real coffin! With a real body!” Reese squeaked. “And I busted it open!” He continued to make bizarre signs in the air.

“Oh, Reese,” Chad groaned. “You and your superstitious ramblings… You’re the one who says there aren’t any jinxes. You remember old Cletus, don’t you?”

“Yeah, and I got stuck with the jinx, if you recall.”

“That’s a bunch of bull, Reese. We’ll just patch this pine box up real quick, and the poor guy won’t even give a care. He’s already seeing his reward, and one little bump in the road won’t disturb his rest any. C’mon, find a hammer or something.”

Reese wandered off, rambling to himself and continuing his odd rituals. Chad shook his head, watching the older man. Then he turned back to the box…and curiosity got the better of him. Maybe this was an outlaw that he might recognize that might just so happen to have a reward on his head. Money for the poker tables!

He leaned in real close, trying to see. “Chad…,” a voice whispered.

Chad gulped and jumped back, his head swiveling this way and that. “Reese? Did you say something?”

Reese waved a hand over his shoulder, his back to Chad. “Nothin’ you’d take seriously, I bet.”

“No, I just heard somebody say my name! Didn’t you call me?”

Reese turned around quickly. “Oh no! His spirit is here!”

“What?” Chad’s voice cracked in spite of himself.

Reese ran over and grabbed both of Chad’s shoulders. “Resist him, Chad! Don’t follow him!” He shook the younger man as if that would help.

“Reese! Get your hands off me!”

“No, I won’t let go of you, pard, never!” His hazel eyes looked imploringly at the sky. “Restless spirit, please leave my friend alone! He’s done nothin’ to you! If you must stay in this world, please go haunt the man that killed you!”

Chad struggled against his friend’s grip. “Reese, have you gone loco? Let go! There ain’t no spirit!”

“Chad…,” the voice sighed again.

“EEP!” Reese screeched before grabbing Chad desperately in a fear-induced embrace.

“Reese!” Chad choked, his breath forced from his body, both by fear and by Reese’s enthusiastic hold.

“Hold on, Chad!”

“Can’t…breathe!”

“Restless spirit, release my friend!”

“Reese…can’t…breathe! Let go’a me!” Chad was wheezing now. He kicked out at Reese’s shins. Reese staggered at his friend’s assault, trying to regain his balance, but Chad was frantically struggling now. Finally, Chad went limp in Reese’s arms in an attempt to get Reese to let go. The sudden shift in weight tipped them both over and they crashed fully on top of the coffin, shattering the lid completely.

The both rolled off like the wood was burning hot. “N-n-now look what you done, Chad,” Reese stammered.

“Me? You were suffocating me! What was I supposed to do?”

“I thought the spirit was trying to take your soul,” Reese argued.

Chad rolled his shoulders, sore from landing on the boards. “It must’ve just been the wind. We were both so jumpy anyway…”

“Right, just the wind,” Reese agreed, though he sounded unconvinced.

Chad dusted off his clothes, trying to look brave and unaffected. “Well, don’t just stand there. We’ll find some wood and patch up that coffin, and then cart everybody, dead or living, to the nearest town.”

They both turned to leave when they heard a low thumping noise. Their backs went rigid. “Did you just hear that, Chad?”

“No, I didn’t hear anything.”

“Yes, you did. I can tell by lookin’ at you.”

They both slowly looked over their shoulders…and almost jumped into each other’s arms as the box shook slightly.

“Chad,” Reese whispered, his mouth barely moving.

“We gotta see what’s in there,” Chad murmured.

Reese swallowed hard but pulled his pistol bravely. Chad nodded, and they both sneaked over to the coffin, their necks pulled as high as possible to enable seeing inside from the furthest distance.

Chad was the taller of the two, so he got the first glimpse. “What…no, no, it can’t be!”

Reese peeled one eye open, for he had shut them in fear. “That looks like…”

“JOE!” They took the last few yards in a short dash.

It was Joe Riley, all right, looking just like when they had last seen him…well, almost. He was pretty banged up and dirty…and too still.

Chad touched Joe’s neck desperately, searching for a pulse. It was there, but very slow. He nodded to Reese grimly. “He’s alive, but look at the shape he’s in. He looks like somebody did a dance on his face.”

Sure enough, Joe’s face was bruised and cut, matching his torso where it showed through his torn shirt. He was awkwardly set in the box on an angle, partly because his shoulders were too wide to fit lying flat, and partly because the box had taken quite the tumble. His hands were tied together with rawhide and rested on his stomach, swollen and purple.

Reese was already doing what Chad planned on doing, and that was to pull out his knife and cut the cords. Reese and Chad both took a muscular arm and rubbed around his wrists to get the circulation flowing again. “I’m sorta glad he’s out for this,” Reese said. “I bet he’d have almighty pins and needles right now!”

Chad agreed. “Probably not just in his hands, but all over. Look at the size of this box! Either of us would have a hard time fitting in it, let alone Joe!”

Reese nodded. “It might take us a pry bar just to wiggle him outta here, and a lot of axle grease.”

“Poor Joe, all slicked down like a greased pig at the fair!”

Despite Joe’s condition, they shared a laugh, voicing their relief that their best friend was alive and found.

“Well, he ain’t goin’ to get outta here on his own,” Reese said once Joe’s hands had turned a healthy color.

“It’ll probably be easier to just break up this box than lifting him out of it,” Chad decided.

Chad pulled Joe’s shoulder over while Reese worked on breaking out one side of the box. Once he had finished, the rangers pulled Joe’s large body out to the bare ground. During the entire procedure, he had not roused at all.

“What do you think is wrong with him?” Reese asked. “He sure is out cold.”

Chad scratched under his ear. “It is strange; I mean, he was awake just a few minutes ago. Enough to get our attention, anyway.”

“Do you think we should move him? He might be hurt inside or somethin’.”

The younger ranger shrugged. “I would say no, but we got these other fellas here. Some of them are hurt pretty bad.”

Eventually duty won over in their decision, and together they managed to get Joe into the wagon next to the outlaws. Chad sat in the back with Joe’s head on his lap, shooting a deadly look at one of the smugglers when the filthy man snickered at the caring display. “Laugh while you can, filth, but if my friend doesn’t pull through, I’ll personally give you the same treatment you gave him. Then we’ll see who’s laughing.”

The man stared back, trying to look impervious to Chad’s threat. “Better listen to him, bub,” Reese advised. “I’d hate to have to clean up after him again. That last one…that was nasty.”

Chad cackled evilly. “It was, wasn’t it? Heehee…”

None of the outlaws made a sound for the rest of the trip.

*****

They made it into a small town called Llanura around dusk. After the two rangers handed the outlaws over to the local law for safe keeping, they hurried Joe over to the doctor’s office. Together they staggered under the ranger’s substantial weight until they rested him on the doctor’s examining table.

Dr. Barnes was a middle-aged man with kind eyes, but currently his face was set in a grim mask. “I’d like to ask you boys some questions.”

“Shoot,” Chad urged anxiously.

“You say you found him in…a coffin?”

“Yeah, he was tied up in there. He was awake when we got to him, enough to call my name and move a little, but then he went under. He hasn’t moved since.”

“Well, I can’t really find anything outwardly wrong with him, except for a couple broken fingers.”

Reese winced. Just what had Joe been up to these last few days?

The doctor looked at Joe’s eyes, pulling up the lids. “His pupils are the same size, which means there probably isn’t a head injury, but they are incredibly dilated. Does your friend like to drink?”

“Well, sure…” Chad cut himself off. “Wait, you think he’s drunk?”

The doctor put his hand under his chin. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t be the first time I get a man in here who was unconscious like this because of one too many at the saloon.”

“Joe is not a drunk, Doc. It has to be something else.”

“Hmm…” Dr. Barnes leaned in close to Joe’s face. He opened the ranger’s mouth and sniffed. Grimacing, he concurred with Chad’s defensive statement. “Yes, his breath does not seem to be tainted with the odor of alcohol…but there is something strange there.” The doctor took out a white handkerchief and, curiously, wiped Joe’s teeth. He examined the cloth closely. “Mmhm…it’s making sense now…”

The doctor absently handed the cloth to Reese, who could see nothing but a few dark specks of something on the white cotton. Dr. Barnes pulled a mirror out of his jacket pocket and gave it to Chad. “Flash some light from the lamp with this into your friend’s eye when I open it, please.” Chad silently did as bidden, and even from his position, he could see that his friend’s pupil did not react to the change in light. The doctor nodded again, then pulled out a dark bottle from a shelf. He opened the lid and tentatively sniffed the contents. “Phew! Let’s try this, son…open your eyes now…” The doctor waved the bottle’s mouth under Joe’s nose, but the large man did not respond. “Well, that’s not surprising at all, I should think,” the doctor muttered to himself.

Reese was still studying the handkerchief. “Doc, what does this all mean? How come he won’t wake up?”

“Your friend’s circumstances led me to my prognosis, and his symptoms only finalized it.” He held up a hand, ticking off his fingers as he listed his thoughts. “First, you found him concealed in a coffin, bound. Secondly, he has been unconscious since for an extensive amount of time for no apparent reason. Thirdly, his breath has a peculiar odor and small pieces of what appear to be herbal material coat his teeth. Fourthly, his pupils are dilated to an extraordinary size and do not respond to light, and lastly, he did not respond to these smelling salts.” He held up his five fingers. “All point me to believe that your friend is drugged and was being smuggled out of the country…probably to be sold into slavery or some other illegal transaction.”

Slavery. The word struck Chad like a knife to his heart. Sure, he had been on the South’s side during the war, but he had never owned slaves, nor felt any real emotions one way or another toward the men that did. The slavery issue was just somebody else’s problem, and he didn’t really care. He didn’t have to care…but now, the enslavement of humans became all too real as the offense it really was. That Joe was almost sold like an animal at market was a thought that made Chad light-headed. It was only by sheer coincidence that Reese and he had run into the smugglers who had taken their friend. If the men had been traveling one little mile in any direction from where the rangers had been, it would have proven to be the end of a man’s freedom.

Reese broke into Chad’s dark ruminations. “So, if he’s just drugged, then he’ll come outta it, right?”

“I should think so. What good would your friend be to anyone in this state?”

“When do you think he’ll wake up?” Chad asked.

The doctor shrugged. “Since I don’t know what they used, I really can’t say. He could wake up in a few minutes or in a few hours.” He started to gather up some things into his bag. “I’m sorry I can’t wait around for him to open his eyes, but those boys you brought in over at the jail need tending.”

“I’ll go with you, Doc,” Reese volunteered, and Chad looked at him gratefully. “You just stay here with our pard, huh?”

“Thanks, Reese,” Chad breathed.

“Don’t mention it,” the older ranger murmured before following the doctor out.

*****

A good hour had passed before Joe showed any signs of life. Chad nearly fell out of his chair when the larger man’s head fell to the side, his mouth twitching slightly. “Joe, pard, can you hear me?”

“Jack…” Joe’s voice was weak but audible. “I’m gonna…get you…out…”

“Joe…Joe, it’s me, Chad. You’re safe now. Wake up, pard.”

Joe’s eyes popped open, but he immediately covered them with an arm. “The light! Oh, the light…can’t stand the light…”

Chad quickly dimmed the lamp until it was barely lit. “That better?”

“Chad,” Joe rasped. “Is it really you? I’ve seen you, but you weren’t really there…”

“I’m really here, pard. We found you in a smuggler’s wagon earlier today and brought you to a doc’s office. That’s where we are now.”

“Where’s Jack?”

Chad shook his head. “I don’t know who you mean, Joe. You were the only one we rescued.”

Chad was forced to pin down the muscular man when Joe tried to get up from the table. “I’ve gotta find him. I promised I would find him…”

“Calm down, Joe! We’ll go just as soon as you’re a little steadier on your feet.”

Joe nodded glumly and stopped fighting. “I promised him I would bring him out. That poor kid…”

Chad didn’t have the foggiest notion about who Joe was talking about, but decided to wait and ask when Joe was more oriented. Just then the door slammed open. “JOE!” Reese happily crowed.

Joe painfully held his head in his hands. “Oh, Reese…”

“Joe, we was thinkin’ you was gone for good!”

“I might wish I was, if you don’t lower your voice, Reese.”

“Oh, sorry,” Reese apologized, his voice dropping dramatically. “Reckon your head is achin’ a little, huh?”

“Yeah, just a mite,” Joe confirmed. “Those scumbags drugged me…again. I shoulda fought it more, shoulda tried harder…”

Chad sympathetically placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “What exactly happened, pard?”

Joe sat up slowly, and Reese helped him swing his legs over the side of the table. “I went to ask some questions at that ranch—Diablo’s Arroyo—when a…gang of smugglers jumped me. They held me there for a few days and were sending me to Mexico. Then you two found me…thought you never would.”

The emotional relief on Joe’s face made Chad want to embrace his friend. He prompted Joe to continue by asking, “Who’s Jack? You seemed worried about him.”

Joe rubbed a dirty hand over his equally dirty face. “Oh, Jack… He’s a messed up, confused, hurtin’ kid. Those Jamisons bought from somebody just ‘cause he looked like a relative of theirs’ that had been killed some years back. One of the women thinks that he’s her son.”

“Can’t he just tell them who he is? I mean, surely he doesn’t just go along with it.”

“That’s just it. He doesn’t know who he is. He hit his head or somethin’ and he got real confused, and he’s startin’ to think that maybe he’ll become who those people want him to be. They beat him if he don’t act like they want him to.” Joe looked down at swollen fingers and knuckles covered in dried blood. “I fought for him, tried to help him escape. He wouldn’t do it. They pinned me down and forced the drug into me. He just watched, didn’t do nothin’.”

Chad tried to comfort his friend. “Joe, the human mind is a fragile thing. It doesn’t take much to push a man over the edge, especially someone that got hit in the head or has been abused like you say Jack has. We can just hope that when we catch up with those smugglers, he won’t be too far gone.”

“Speakin’ of,” Reese spoke up, “them yahoos we captured are just about finished gettin’ patched up over at the jail. Reckon you might want to come over and identify them, Joe, when you’re ready?”

“Let’s go now.”

“Shouldn’t you rest a little longer?” Chad implored.

“I’m fine.” Joe’s face told both rangers that he would not be stopped.

Over at the jail, Joe quickly identified the men as those working at the Jamisons’ ranch, but one, in particular, caught his eye. “Well, seems the tables have turned now, huh?”

Chad recognized the man Joe was calling out as the one that had been the leader of sorts. The man sneered at Joe. “Shoulda killed you when I had the chance, ranger. Would have, too, if you weren’t so pretty. My sister would have given me all sorts of grief if I didn’t give her the chance to play with you, sonny.”

Joe’s lips curled over his teeth, a wild look Chad hadn’t seen in a long time. He recognized the warning signs and quickly pulled Riley over to one side. “Joe, I know you’re sore, but try and stay calm about this. He’s not worth it.”

Joe’s dark eyes remained on the prisoner, but he heeded Chad’s warning. “You’re right, Chad. He just gets my hackles up.”

“Who is he?”

“Cliff Jamison.”

“One of the Jamisons?! Do you know what this means, Joe?”

“We’re gonna have us a big problem” — he pointed to himself — “the minute he steps outta that cell.” Joe’s hands clenched into fists, despite his two misshaped fingers.

“Besides that. His pa isn’t gonna be happy.”

“I’m a witness to their doin’s. I’ll testify against them, and if that don’t work, I’ll go out to their ranch and finish it, personal-like.”

Joe’s promise scared Chad, for the Southerner knew that Joe meant it.

*****

The rangers received word that the Randall Jamison was coming for his son, and if the lawmen wanted to remain alive, they would release him. Of course, that wasn’t an option. The Diablo riders came in full force, but the rangers were ready for them. The battle was brief but costly for the smugglers. Three men were cut down in the first charge. Two men tried to sneak in through the back of the jail, but the sheriff was waiting there with his shotgun, bringing the death count up to five.

Joe was on top of the saloon, putting his rifle skills to good use, forcing the remaining riders to take cover. The men below were struggling to keep up the fight, and Joe knew that a cease fire would be called soon. He was disappointed that Randall himself had not been seen. He would have liked to have faced the boss himself, but there would be time for that later.

“Ah, there it is,” Joe thought as the smugglers started to throw out their guns and raise their hands. Chad and Reese quickly gathered the men and herded them into the already crowded jailhouse. Joe returned Reese’s wave with his rifle, and turned to descend the ladder to the ground below. When his feet touched the ground, he felt a presence behind him.

“Hello, Ranger. I would say it was good to see you again, but that would be a lie.”

Joe spun around to see the man of his worst nightmares. “Jamison.”

Randall smiled, his hands cradling a huge shotgun. “Why don’t you put down that rifle, boy? I got you covered.”

Joe considered his options, but reluctantly lowered the long weapon to the ground. “What’re you tryin’ to pull, Jamison? It’s finished. We’ve got most of your men and your son.”

“Yes, but I’ve got one last ace up my sleeve.” With that declaration, men came from out of the shadows, all with guns drawn. “I have you.”

*****

Reese slammed the cell door behind the last outlaw. “Well, that plan didn’t work out so well for you fellas.”

Chad was thoughtful. “Doesn’t seem like such a crafty smuggling outfit to just throw away men like that.”

“If they want to hand over their help, let them. The state can always use more free labor at the quarry,” Reese cackled.

Chad looked out the window. “Where’s Joe? Didn’t you say he was on his way over?”

“He looked that way, at least he was comin’ down the ladder last I saw. He ain’t comin’ now?”

“No, can’t see him, but the sun’s shining right in… by all that’s holy!”

“What? What is it?” Reese surged across the room to see something that hitched his breath in his throat.

Across the road stood a large stable with a loft. The door to the loft was open wide and a rope was threaded through a pulley attached to a beam. The rigging was normally used to haul up bales of hay, but now… One end of this rope was clutched by a tall stranger, and the other end was tied around Joe Riley’s neck. They stood in the doorway together, Joe’s hands tied behind his back, silhouetted by the darkness behind them.

“Rangers!” the stranger called. “Come out where I can see you. I’d like to parlay. If you don’t, I may be forced to do something rash.” To back his words, he bore down on the rope, pulling it taut and forcing Joe to rise on his toes.

Chad and Reese remained as they were for a moment and discussed their options. Regulations stipulated that they were to never bargain with lawbreakers, even in situations such as this. Reese put away the indecision plaguing both of their minds with a terse oath. “Regulations can go to blazes. He’s got our pard!”

They both stepped onto the porch of the jailhouse, hands held away from their firearms. Chad shouted up at the man. “What do you want, mister?”

“I want my son,” the stranger said, identifying himself as the elder Jamison.

“And why should we give him over?”

“Because if you don’t…” Jamison hauled further on the rope, and Joe was pulled alarmingly close to the edge of the loft door, teetering between life and death.

Chad looked up at Joe’s darkening face, at his gasping mouth and wide eyes. Chad knew what he was obligated by his oath to the state of Texas to do…but he’d be cursed if he could do it. “Reese, get that devil his spawn.”

“What?”

“Bring Cliff out here!”

Jamison smirked. Reese led an equally smug-faced Cliff out onto the porch, one fist bunched in the man’s shirt and the other sticking a pistol in the smuggler’s neck. “That’s just fine, ranger,” Jamison taunted. “Send him over or I’ll kick your boy right out this door! This rope’s tied off in here, so don’t think that shooting me will keep him from stopping his fall real suddenly.”

Reese growled and shoved Cliff so hard the man nearly fell on his face. He caught himself on the hitching rail. “Take it easy.”

Chad pushed the outlaw further into the wood and pulled his Colt. “Alright, Jamison, you let him down from there or I’ll fill your son with lead. He won’t have a rope to stop his fall…straight into hell.”

“You do, and your friend will follow him.”

Chad hesitated. He loosened his grip and allowed the vile man to begin his long walk across the yard to the stable.

“Don’t do it…Chad… Don’t give in…to them…,” Joe wheezed. “They’ve got to be stopped…” His words were cut off when Jamison jerked on the rope, cutting off Joe’s air nearly to suffocation.

“Shut up, boy, unless you want to die,” the man threatened.

“I’m…gonna die…no matter…which way this…swings…” Joe’s toes were on the very edge of disaster, his body extended over open space, held up only by the rope. Any man in the same position would have been terrified out of his mind, but not Joseph Riley. His piercing brown eyes drilled into Chad’s, telling him what he must do. Chad shook his head no, silently pleading with his long-time friend. Chad cursed as he watched Joe take one last shuddering breath.

“What’s he doin’?” Reese whispered. He was not unaware of the emotional yet voiceless exchange.

Chad gathered his nerves before answering. “Throwing out his last bluff.”

Joe leaned out, and as a horrifying image, his long body swung into open air, held up only by his neck. His face turned a terrible red color, but not as dark as Jamison’s face as his bargaining chip took himself out of the equation. He was distracted enough not to notice that he was still gripping the rope. He was a strong man and had been able to pull up on the rope when Joe’s feet still touched the floor. However, Joe weighed on the higher side of two hundred-fifty pounds. When this considerable weight fully transferred to the rope, the smuggler baron was jerked off his feet and flung headfirst through the door. His feet caught on the edge, flipping his long body to slam into the wall before his descent was completed on the hard-packed dirt below.

Without Jamison’s counterweight, Joe started to drop. Despite the high speed that Joe was falling, Chad was even faster. He desperately aimed at the pulley above Joe’s head, praying for accuracy, and fired all six bullets into the apparatus. Meanwhile, Reese was charging across the street, moving quicker than thought possible. Chad’s aim was true; the pulley shattered in an explosion of splinters and Joe’s fall continued unhindered. Chad’s heart seized as he realized that the rope was too short, that Joe wouldn’t reach the ground before the slack gave out…but Reese was there! Somehow, someway, he caught Joe, with only inches of rope remaining. There they were, Reese’s arms wrapped around Joe’s knees, holding him as high as he could. Chad was at their side in seconds, panicked but hopeful.

“Get upstairs,” panted Reese, who was struggling to stay balanced. “Cut…it.”

Chad climbed into the loft faster than a squirrel up a tree, a knife already in his hand. He found the rope tied off to a rafter and cut through it urgently. Finally it snapped free, and with a prayer on his lips, Chad raced back to his friends.

Without the rope semi-supporting Joe, Reese was having a terrible time holding the man up. Joe folded at the waist as soon as the rope went slack and hung over Reese’s shoulder like a feed sack…a very heavy feed sack. Reese was losing his ability to keep upright just as Chad arrived. The Southerner caught Joe as Reese leaned forward, and together they lowered their pard to the ground. Chad ripped off the noose as soon as he could, and tears threatened at the sight of Joe’s bruised throat. After Reese cut off the ropes binding Joe’s wrists, Chad rested Joe’s head on his lap and tried to rouse him. Something was wrong… “Reese…he’s not breathing!”

Reese scrambled forward until he was at Joe’s side. “Lay him flat,” he commanded, and Chad hurried to get out from under Joe’s head. He watched in amazement as Reese firmly pushed up and down on Joe’s abdomen, mimicking the breathing cycle. Chad could hear air moving in and out of Joe’s mouth, and he nearly cried out in victory when Joe gave a small, raspy cough and started to do the cycle on his own.

“That’s it, boy,” Reese said, his countenance uncharacteristically softened. “Just keep pushin’ that air around.”

By this time, several townspeople had rushed into the street, noticing that the fight seemed to be over and it was safe to come out. The doctor rushed forward, bag in hand. “Not you again,” he murmured at Joe in a scolding tone. “Thanks, boys, I’ll take it from here.”

The rangers gave the doctor some space, and suddenly remembered the rest of the gang. They ran behind the stable together, but Cliff and the others were already gone. “Huh, some family,” Reese muttered. “The pa risks everything to save his son, but the ungrateful whelp run off without returnin’ the favor.”

“Speaking of…,” Chad said, and they returned to the front of the of the stable and found Jamison’s body as it had fallen. Chad crouched beside the man, but without checking for a pulse, he knew that he was dead. The man’s neck was bent at an awkward angle, broken when he had fallen almost directly on his head. “Ironic…he’s the one who ended up getting the short drop and sudden stop, when Joe was the one with the…” Chad trailed off, uncomfortable with talking about Joe’s near death.

Reese nodded, understanding what Chad was unable to say. “I know what you mean.”

They both started for the doctor’s office, directed there by a little girl in pigtails. “Seems like we were just doing this,” Chad commented. “Poor Joe’s had some bad luck lately.”

Reese thumbed over his shoulder at Jamison’s prone body. “At least that part of the deal is over. All that’s left now is to clean up.”

Chad was struck with a thought. “Say, Reese, how did you know what to do for Joe? I mean, that was incredible!”

Reese glanced over at Chad cryptically. “I’ve been around, Chad. Maybe I’m not as dumb as you’re always sayin’.”

Chad stared at the older ranger in shock, who ignored Cooper and entered the doctor’s office with a proud set to his shoulders.

*****

“You rangers are taking over my office,” Dr. Barnes complained good-naturedly. “I will be glad when this whole nasty affair is over!”

“I don’t want be here, Doc, but you won’t let me leave,” Joe painfully rasped.

“Shh! You must rest your throat! It’s only been two days! I need to observe you to be sure your wind pipe doesn’t collapse.”

“It ain’t hardly…”

“Ah-ah-ah! Shhhhh! It’s close enough to collapse for me to threaten to gag you if you don’t start listening to my instructions! If you want your voice to return to normal, you will do as I say.”

Joe opened his mouth but realized that it would better serve his own purposes if he did as ordered. His throat was still swollen and incredibly sore. Also, the doctor, though kind and helpful, was a decent sized man and looked as though he could carry out his threat of forced silence if Joe continued to press the matter.

The door burst open, announcing the arrival of Reese and Chad. Dr. Barnes gave his patient a piercing glare that nailed him to the wall, to which Joe quickly responded by covering his mouth with a hand. The doctor nodded approvingly but kept his eyes sharp as a hawk.

“You two,” he said in a commanding tone. “You will only ask Mr. Riley questions that can be answered in yes and no, and you will not say anything humorous or insulting that would hinder his ability to remain silent. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” Chad saluted, ready to do as commanded. Directly following the incident, right after they knew that Joe was being taken care of, they rushed after the outlaws. The men had split up, a few going one way, and two more going another. Chad and Reese caught up with the larger group the next day, and after surprising the smugglers, captured them without contest. Unfortunately, Cliff Jamison was not among them. They wearily trooped the additions to the bursting jailhouse back to Llanura that evening. The sheriff was out of his head trying to keep almost twenty men contained in his three-cell building, but had wired the higher-ups to come pick them up. They would be moved out in a day or so.

They had rushed over to the doctor’s office but had been shooed out after only allowing a glimpse of their sleeping partner. Now it was first thing in the morning, and the two rangers had acquired prior permission from Dr. Barnes to visit the injured lawman.

Reese and Chad quickly went over to where Joe was seated on a horsehair lounge chair, remarking to each other on how well their friend looked. His color had improved, and the bruises from his imprisonment with the smugglers were fading. His neck was another matter: a red rope burn encircled his throat like a collar right beneath his jaw. However, it could have been much worse. Randall had pulled the rope tight and high on Joe’s neck before Joe swung out, so his jaw took most of weight. This positioning had probably saved his life, but it didn’t mean that his airway hadn’t been bruised. His whistling breath could be heard throughout the room.

Reese got his friend caught up on ranger business. “We caught us a few more smugglers, Joe. Didn’t hardly offer any fight. You didn’t miss out on much.”

“Cap’n Parmalee sent us a wire,” Chad inputted. “Says we’re to keep cleaning up the area until there isn’t a smuggler left for a hundred miles.”

Joe looked as though he wanted to say something, but with one murderous glance from the doctor, he stayed frustratingly silent. He performed a series of gestures that Chad could vaguely identify as Indian sign language, in which Chad was not proficient enough to understand. Reese and Chad looked helplessly at each other and shrugged. Joe grunted in anger, kicked off his blanket, and got up.

“No, no, Mr. Riley! Lie down this instant,” the doctor fairly screeched, but Joe was not to be deterred. He scrambled across the room in his long johns, the others following in his wake.

“Joe, you really ought to be restin’,” Reese cajoled.

The doctor set himself in front of the large ranger to stop him, but Joe had reached what he had been aiming for: the doctor’s desk. He snatched a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote out something frantically: find Cliff? Other family around? Jack?

After Chad deciphered Joe’s spelling and bad handwriting, he did his best to answer the questions. “Cliff is still loose out there, and no, we didn’t find any more Jamisons. Also, no sign of this Jack kid yet.”

Joe’s sock-clad foot thumped on the floor irritably. He pointed at the two rangers, held up one hand and forked two fingers over it, and then pointed to himself. He then pointed toward the west and pantomimed holding the reins of a horse while riding.

“Wait…,” Chad said while watching Joe go through the same serious of signals again. “Oh, no, you’re not going out there. Not yet.”

Joe shoved the protesting Dr. Barnes aside while reaching for his pants. He yanked them on, following with his Concho-decorated boots. He looked around for a moment, but could not locate his shirt.

“Looks like you’ll have to stay here. Can’t have you runnin’ ‘round half-naked,” Reese joked.

Joe rolled his eyes expressively before studying the three men before him, sizing them up.

“Now Joe, you know you won’t fit into anything Reese or I have,” Chad reminded, feeling relieved.

Joe’s brown eyes turned toward the good doctor. Dr. Barnes heaved a huge sigh in defeat. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of the law. My wife mended up that faded calico shirt of yours, though it really belongs in the rag pile.”

A few moments later Joe was reunited with his favorite old shirt, a store-bought calico that had once been a fine red but had long since faded to a rosy pink from many hours in the hot sun. He wriggled into it and buttoned it up, seeming to take great joy in covering himself, something Chad didn’t miss. His eyebrows climbed high when Joe fastened his shirt nearly to his bruised neck. “’Fraid of getting a sunburn, pard?”

Joe merely grunted. He scribbled something out: Doc—gotta go. Wont talk 2 much. Gotta find frend. Promised.

Dr. Barnes threw his hands in the air. “Fine, fine! Do as you please. But don’t blame me if you whisper the rest of your days!”

*****

They reached the gates of the ranch around noon. Joe, as promised, had remained completely silent, but it was a brooding, worried absence of speech rather than one medically prescribed. The rangers dismounted for a moment to eat a cold lunch, sandwiches for Chad and Reese, and soft biscuits smeared with molasses for Joe. Even these he had difficulty swallowing, but he painfully managed. He gulped down some water, coughed sharply, and then mounted the rented horse with a sense of urgency. Chad and Reese struggled to clean up and follow, for Joe had already taken off at a stiff trot.

“Chad, just who is this kid we’re goin’ after?”

“I don’t really know, Reese. Some other fella that was being held there with Joe, I guess.”

“You think we’ll find him? That gang has probably pretty-well cleaned the place out by now.”

Chad considered Joe’s rigid posture. “You’re probably right, but Joe won’t believe it until he sees the evidence. He’s like a bloodhound when it comes to things like this; just won’t give it up.”

The rangers’ arrival at the ranch did not go unnoticed, but there were only a few people, mostly harmless old Mexicans, left on the place. The three split up to search the buildings.

Chad rode up to a small adobe house. He could hear a woman humming inside and through the window, he caught a flash of gingham. He called out in his most charming voice, “Hello in there! Hello?”

Just as predicted, a woman appeared in the doorway. “Why, hello there. Who might you be?”

Chad grinned and doffed his hat. The young lady was beautiful. “My name’s Cooper, ma’am, Chad Cooper. I’m sorry to have to barge in like this, but do you know anyone by the name of Jamison?”

Chad couldn’t be sure, but the woman seemed to pale a touch. “Well, of course. Randall Jamison owns this place. I’m his daughter, Madeline.”

Chad dismounted in a rush and held his hat over his heart. “Pardon me, ma’am, but I think we might need to step inside, maybe sit down?”

Madeline covered her mouth with pretty, white hands. “What? What’s happened?”

“Ma’am, really, I think you ought to come in here…”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Chad gaped at her, startled at her abruptness. “Well, ma’am…”

“I just knew this would happen!” She slapped her hands on her apron in anger. “I just knew they couldn’t keep breaking the law and get away with it!” She stepped closer to Chad. “You’re a lawman, aren’t you? I can tell about these things.”

“Yes, ma’am, I am…”

Her hands up prayer-like, she supplicated, “Please, Mr. Cooper, I know it was wrong for me to stay silent, but he is…was…my father! I couldn’t turn in my own father!” She started to cry in great loud sobs.

Chad looked on helplessly. He hated it when women did that. “Come on inside, ma’am. Sit down…there, that’s better.”

She snuffled a bit before turning her bleary eyes on Chad. She smiled through her tears, a strange smile Chad couldn’t begin to fathom. “Why don’t you pour us some of that sweet tea over there? I think I could use a cup.”

*****

Maddie smiled as the young man rose and crossed the room to the counter. What grace! What charm! He was so cute…just like that little cousin of hers. So what if her father was dead? She could continue her own smuggling ring…but with different motives than muscle for a mine. Surely somebody could see the value for beauty that she did. This Cooper was not lacking in that department. His curly hair, those green eyes! Those sensuous lips! It was enough to make her mouth water.

He carried two cups over to the table, setting one before her before seating himself beside her. She lifted the cup with a shaky hand and feigned a sip. “My…my father’s…favorite…”

A long-fingered hand gently clasped her wrist, and Maddie felt a thrill go up her spine. “I’m sure he’d like for us to share it in his memory,” he comforted in that wonderful, southern drawl. She felt hot all over.

“Please…,” she whispered in her most helpless voice. “Try some…it will make me feel better.”

*****

The woman leaned toward Chad, her lips parted as he raised the cup in a toast. It seemed bizarre to be saluting the man who had just been killed breaking the law with the man’s own daughter. But who was he to judge? The poor girl couldn’t pick who she was related to. It was highly probable that she was just as much as victim as ol’ Joe had been.

“Drink it,” Madeline practically panted. Suddenly she didn’t seem so grieved, but rather more…obsessed?

Her eyes were flickering over different parts of his body faster than he could track. To put her off, he took a drink. “It’s good, real good.”

“Thank you,” she sniffed. She took another sip and he followed suit.

*****

“Hey, Joe, look what I found!” Reese held up Joe’s gun belt complete with his pistol, his knife, and his hat. “They were all in that little shed over there. It’s like a regular general store in there.”

Joe accepted the items gratefully. He had missed the familiar weight on his leg, as well as the shade from his hat.

“You seen Chad anywhere?” Reese asked.

Joe shook his head no, his face showing his concern.

“Haven’t seen him for a while,” Reese muttered distractedly as his eyes roved over the farm yard. “Wait, there’s ol’ Amigo over there,” his pointing finger indicating the direction.

Sure enough, the handsome black gelding was standing hipshot next a modest-sized adobe house. Joe took off toward the location, Reese struggling to keep up. They had almost reached the structure when the door came open. Chad stepped out, squinting at the bright sunlight. He noticed his partners and quickly closed the door behind him. “What’s the hurry, gents? Did you find something?”

“Jack ain’t here,” Joe roughly whispered.

“Mmmm… Say, pard, you’re not supposed to be talking.”

Joe rolled his eyes and looked past Chad at the house.

“Ah, no, there wasn’t anything in there,” Chad answered the silent question.

Joe was skeptical. Chad looked…strange. Slightly flushed, he was fidgeting with his stampede string. Something wasn’t right.

Then, oddly enough, Chad yawned. Then he folded in on himself, only barely catching himself against the adobe wall. Joe was at his side in moments, as was Reese. “Let’s get him into some shade,” Reese said, and together they half-drug the slender ranger around to the backside of the house where the building provided a shadow.

“I’m fine,” Chad protested, but his words were a bit slurred and his eyes closed.

“Right,” Reese said sarcastically. They lowered Chad down until he was seated with his back against the wall. The older ranger looked into Chad’s face, and then used both thumbs to pry Chad’s eyes open. Then he sniffed at Chad’s breath.

Joe was a bit dumbfounded as to what Reese was doing. “What?”

“He’s actin’ just like you when we found you in that coffin. The black part of his eyes are real big, and his breath smells funny.”

Joe took a whiff himself. It was the same smell that was always on his own breath when he woke up after being drugged. “Maddie…”

“Who?”

Joe ignored Reese’s question and charged around to the front of the house. He entered without knocking, but after a quick search, found no one.

She must have snuck out while they were caring for Chad. His sensitive ears picked up a sound in the distance, and he raced outside. Almost out of sight was a single rider, galloping pell-mell…and what appeared to be a woman’s skirts were flapping in the wind.

Joe considered Amigo standing there, ground tied, and realized that she must have tried to catch the gelding. The black was several yards away from where he had been before, but she must have given up fast trying to mount him. Chad’s horse was high spirited; Maddie’s skirts had probably spooked him. Joe noted the bay he had rented was missing.

He glanced back over Amigo. He could catch up to her easily on the fleet mount, but then he thought more rationally. Tracking was his forte, and she couldn’t go fast in this heat for too long. They’d catch up with her easily enough. A thought struck him: what if she was on her way to meet up with the rest of the gang? Perhaps Cliff would be there…and more importantly, Jack!

He stepped back inside the house, looking for any tips as to where she was going. The place was in disarray, like somebody had been packing. A sweating cup of tea stood next to one that had been knocked over. He dipped one finger in the brown liquid where it spilled across the table and tasted it. It was the same sweet tea as usual. He wondered briefly why she let Chad get away, but then a thought occurred to him: Chad had probably been enraptured by the woman’s beauty, and being crafty, she had noticed this. She probably made up some yarn about being innocent so Chad wouldn’t arrest her. Perhaps she had only reached this plan half-way through their little tea party. The cup still standing was very full, like someone hadn’t drank hardly anything; that was her cup. Not wanting Chad to pass out, she most likely “accidently” knocked over his cup to keep him from drinking too much. However, her plan of being unofficially pardoned by the law was foiled when it was realized that not only was Chad not alone, but he also didn’t handle the drug well, tipping off her deceit. Her only choice was to allow him to leave the house and create enough of a diversion to allow her to escape.

After he finished deducting his idea, Joe returned to his two partners, shaking his head at the sight. Chad was sprawled against Reese’s shoulder, his mouth open in a snore. Reese was trying to rouse the slumbering young man by patting and pinching his cheek.

“Not gonna help,” Joe rasped.

“I know,” Reese groused. “Just thought I’d try. He fell over real sudden-like. Landed on my shoulder.”

Joe just grunted. More than likely Reese had directed his friend’s head to rest there. The older ranger was softer than a feather mattress when it came to his partners.

Reese gave up his attempts and lowered Chad to the ground before standing and dusting off his pants. “Find anyone in there?”

Joe flicked his chin in the direction Maddie had ridden away. “We’ll catch up.”

Reese nodded. “Somethin’s struck me funny. How come Chad just took a drug? Didn’t he know what he was doin’? He shoulda arrested whoever was in there, not take a spoonful of medicine from him.”

“Not a ‘him’.”

Reese’s eyes bulged for a second before his bullfrog-esque laugh carried far. “You’d think Chad would learn one of these days.”

Joe smiled, but a bit of guilt dampened the mood. He really should have warned Chad and Reese about Maddie. Chad could have gotten hurt, or worse, taken like Joe had been. Joe had let his pride get in the way, for he was embarrassed about his own encounter. On the other hand, he hadn’t believed that the girl would have still been here, not with everything that had happened.

Reese couldn’t conceal a smile when Chad started to drool in the dust. “Poor fella…we really ought to carry him inside or somethin’.”

Joe cocked a brow before pushing his hat lower on his forehead. “Got better things to do, like gettin’ the horses ready.”

“You know, I think you talk more now than you ever do because the doc told you not to. Contrary cuss, huh?”

“You know me, Reese. Always right chatty.”

“HA!”

Joe’s spurs jingled as he trekked away.

*****

Chad opened his eyes blearily to see nothing but a mass of coarse black hair. It was rubbing against his face as whoever it belonged to moved rhythmically. “What the devil?” He tried to straighten, as he was hunched over uncomfortably, but the movement set his head to spinning and he nearly toppled…right off his horse. A hand grabbed his arm.

“Easy, there, pard,” Reese’s familiar voice croaked. “You gotta come off it slow.”

Chad rubbed his eyes, terribly confused and just a little sick feeling. They were out on the prairie, moving slowly in the shimmering heat. “Where…,” he tried to say, but his throat was dry. Reese handed him a canteen, and he gratefully drained a few swallows from its supply.

“We’re followin’ the — haw haw — lady that bamboozled you, Chad.”

“Who?” Chad played dumb.

“Joe said you say that.”

Chad looked around. “Where is Joe?”

“Up ahead, trackin’. You were comin’ out of it, so I slowed down with you so you wouldn’t go fallin’ off Amigo like a greenhorn. You were movin’ around too much.” Reese’s eye took up a mischievous glint. “You know, it’s been kinda nice ridin’ along, just me and Joe and him with a hurt voice and all. Leaves me to do all the talkin’.”

Chad rolled his eyes. He knew now why Joe went ahead. It was the same excuse as always: he needed silence. “How long have we been riding?”

“Better part of the day. That little gal’s a pretty good rider. She’s stayin’ pretty far ahead.”

Chad mulled over the information. He kind of hoped that she would elude them, but at the same time, she could be involved…but Chad had a hard time believing that. She just slipped something in his drink because she was scared.

*****

The night fell over the two rangers just as the prairie turned to more barren territory. Joe emerged from the darkness like a wraith. He dismounted quietly, beckoning the others to do the same. He led them forward, and his muscular arm caught Chad at the last moment as the earth crumbled beneath his feet. He gasped when he realized that they were standing on the very edge on a mesa. “What…?”

Joe clapped a hand over Chad’s mouth rudely before pointing downward. Below, tucked into a little cluster of boulders, a small fire burned. A silhouette passed before the blaze now and then, and the outline signified that the person was wearing a dress.

Chad’s heart fell a little at the sight, but Reese’s reaction was the complete opposite. “That’s some good trackin’, Joe,” he roughly whispered.

“We’ll keep watch on her, make sure she don’t slip off.” Joe’s voice was still pretty rough, but a day of lonely tracking with no one to talk to had probably expedited the healing.

They went back to the horses, and Chad recognized Joe’s buckskin horse. “Hey, you found Buck!”

Reese answered for Joe, used to doing all the talking. “Yeah, they left him out in one of their pastures. Lucky for us he came up for a drink at the windmill. Never saw a horse more happy to see a man.”

Even now the large gelding was nuzzling at Joe as the man unsaddled him. Joe smirked over his shoulder at Chad. “Glad to see you up and goin’, Chad. Feelin’ better?”

“Hm,” Chad grunted. “You tease all you want, but you were out of it a whole lot longer than I was. Looks like I can hold the stuff better than you can.”

Joe crossed his arms. “It took three grown, big men to get that stuff down me, and it weren’t mixed in no tasty drink. All it takes is one pretty-faced vixen to get you caught, Chad. You’re a sucker for the petticoats, boy.”

Chad felt color creep into his face and was grateful for the darkness. “I’d give you some more bruises to add to your lovely collection, but we’ve got a job to do.”

Joe gently put a hand on Chad’s shoulder. “Don’t get riled, pard. Shouldn’t have buffaloed you. She’s real tricky. Could’ve been any of us.”

“You speaking from experience?”

Joe hedged around for a moment before muttering, “Might be I am.”

Chad grinned, and all was forgotten and forgiven.

*****

The pattern continued over the next few days: they kept a safe distance from Maddie Jamison, who steadily rode northeast. She was indeed a good and proficient rider, resting in the heat of the day and traveling until it was almost dark. They were making amazingly good time daily.

Eventually, they came to a well-traveled trail. “Joe,” Chad enquired, “isn’t this the Fort Stockton road?”

“Reckon so, Chad.”

“What?” Reese questioned loudly. “That means we’re less than 100 miles from New Mexico!”

“You’re figurin’ right, Reese,” Joe answered in a flat voice.

“What’s Cap’n Parmalee going to say?” Chad was nervous. They had been trailing the lady for a long time. What if she was just running away, not meeting up with the gang?

“Don’t see any telegraphs around here, do you?”

“No, but…” Joe’s closed-off features were enough to silence even Chad. He wrote off Joe’s sour mood to the long trip and the disappointment that they had not yet reached their goal. He also knew that Joe was becoming more and more worried about that kid, Jack. Joe was even talking in his sleep, something he almost never did, usually saying things like “I’m comin’, Jack” or “don’t do it, Jack!” or just simply calling the boy’s name over and over. Reese and Chad, aroused by the noise, would just silently and sadly look at each other. They both knew the odds of finding Jack had been killed, or even worse, completely out of his mind. However, Joe was not oblivious to the chances either; it was this that fueled his desperation.

Within the next evening, they had reached the town of Pecos. Maddie stayed a couple nights in the hotel, giving the rangers a chance to rest their horses and themselves. Joe tirelessly watched the place where the fugitive woman was staying and had to be practically dragged away by either Reese or Chad so that the large man would actually rest. His “rest”, however, was only some time spent in their room staring at the ceiling.

Finally the woman left, continuing in the same direction, this time accompanied by a couple desperate-looking characters. How far was the Jamison’s reach? This quest was becoming outrageous.

“Joe,” Reese began after another day spent on the trail. “You know if we go much further, we’ll be in New Mexico.”

“Yeah, I know, Reese.”

“We ain’t got the law behind us there.”

“I know!” Joe barked, but added in a guilty voice, “Sorry, just a little tired, Reese.”

Joe began to unsaddle Buck, but Chad grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him away. “You’re not tired, Joe, you’re near spent. You can’t go on much further. Besides, the horses are almost done in.” He swallowed before continuing, treading carefully. “What exactly are we doing out here? We’re way out of our jurisdiction, Joe.”

“You know why I’ve got to keep goin’, Chad. I promised that boy…” Joe dropped his head, exhaustion shadowing his handsome face. “I know it ain’t hardly enough…just words…but…well, you don’t have to keep comin’, you guys, if you don’t want to.”

Reese kicked a rock. “Dadgumit, Joe! You think we got coal for hearts?”

Chad smiled. “Reese says it plain, Joe. We’re not going to leave you to do this on your own. We’re with you all the way.”

“Thanks, pards, but I can’t ask you to follow this through if it goes into New Mexico…or beyond.”

“I think I can speak for Reese when I say that we’ll play the hands we’ve been dealt. We’re holding onto your card for a while yet.”

Joe gratefully shook hands with both of the rangers, relief filling his chest. With the knowledge that he had these two backing him, he slept soundly and silently all night long.

*****

Dusk of the next day found the rangers overlooking a small farm next to the Pecos River. The place was dirty and small, but obviously occupied. No sign of Maddie and her escort, but sweaty horses stood in the corral, one of which looked like the horse Maddie had stolen.

“I’ll check around back,” Joe said after the group had watched the house for some time. “You two keep watch. I’ll try to get a look inside.”

Reese and Chad did as commanded and watched Joe trot his horse in a wide circle around the spread. He soon disappeared behind the barn, only to reappear on foot to dash across the open space to the shadows behind the house.

Reese murmured, “Don’t seem like nobody’s home. You’d think there’d be a lamp on or somethin’.”

Chad disagreed. “Someone’s here. I can feel it. But it’s just too…quiet.”

A shrill scream rent the air like a banshee’s call, and the horses reacted in fear. “It ain’t too quiet now!” Reese yelled as he struggled to get Cactus under control.

“No kidding! Come on, let’s get down there!”

They reached the porch steps, dismounting with guns in hand, just in time to hear crashing from inside the house. Neither ranger had time to respond as a thin woman came charging out of the house, a huge butcher knife in one fist. “You stay away!” The woman looked to be completely out of her head, her hair askew and maniacal eyes gleaming.

“Now, ma’am, just take it easy…”

She shrieked in rage and charged the rangers, but at the last moment, Joe Riley appeared from the doorway and grabbed the woman’s wrist. She howled and clawed at him like a wild animal, her knife hand effectively contained by Joe’s strong grip. They spun around for a few seconds before Joe clipped her in the jaw with his free fist. She slumped the porch floor boards, stunned but not completely unconscious. “Jimmy,” she breathed, her voice a far cry from its earlier harsh quality.

Joe threw the knife away before grabbing both of her arms to drag her over to a porch post. He tied her to the wood with a nearby rope. Finishing the job, he straightened to look coolly at his two partners. “It’s about time you two showed up.”

Chad couldn’t help but laugh at Joe. “We just knew you could handle that wildcat all on your own.”

Joe glared at them, his hand touching the scratches on his face and neck. “Wildcat is right. She was goin’ for my throat in there.”

“Don’t worry, Joe,” Reese comforted. “We would have rescued you if it got too bad.”

“How much worse could it get?” Joe asked.

“Not much,” Chad quietly replied, looking at the frail woman.

Joe set his hat back on his head before crouching beside the woman, turning her face to the fading sunlight. He took a sharp intake of breath. “Mrs. Crawford!”

“You know her?” Reese asked incredulously.

“She’s Randall Jamison’s sister, the lady who thinks Jack is her son. I knew she didn’t live too close to their ranch, but I didn’t think she lived all the way out here on her lonesome. She’s messed up in the head, but when I saw her before she weren’t actin’ this way…” He stiffened as a thought struck like a thunderbolt. “If she’s here, maybe Jack is too!”

“Let’s see if we can find out!” Chad exclaimed. “Reese and I will look around out here.”

Joe nodded and headed back inside. The place was wreck. Joe had been sneaking around the back when Mrs. Crawford had come out the back door to fetch water. She had seemed completely normal then, but as soon as he had told her who he was, she starting screaming and launched herself at him. He had staggered under her attack into the house, trying to keep her from seriously injuring either of them. When the woman leapt on his back, clawing at his face and neck, he had staggered back into the kitchen table, falling onto it and breaking it. She had writhed out from under him and struck him with a table leg before rushing out the door to confront Chad and Reese. Joe had been stunned for a moment before being able to go out and “rescue” his partners.

Now, he surveyed the mess and wondered what had made that woman so all-fired loco. He lit a lamp and started a search of the house, gun at the ready, opening doors and looking in cupboards for any clues. Going back into the kitchen, he realized his knife was missing. It must have been knocked from his special pocket during the melee. He looked around, coming to the conclusion that it was under the destroyed table. He kicked some splintered pieces aside before lifting the tabletop from the floor to look under it.

Not only did he find his knife under there, but something far more interesting as well. There was a little round hole in one of the boards, too perfectly round to be just a knothole. Joe flipped the table away, not caring when it crashed into the pie safe, and got down on his hands and knees. He looked into the hole but didn’t see anything but darkness. However, when his head got close to the floor, he could hear something below the boards…a whisper of movement. “Hello, Jack? Are you down there?” he called.

“What are you doing?” Joe looked up to see Chad standing in the doorway. “You gone loco with that woman outside? Talking to the floor?”

“There’s somethin’ down there.”

Chad looked skeptical, but at that moment Reese joined them and said, “Sometimes in these old ranches they had little hidey-holes in case of Comanche raids. You might be sittin’ on a trap door.”

Joe stood and together the three men cleared away all the broken pieces of furniture, confirming Reese’s prediction. A small square door was cut into the floor, almost invisible to anyone not looking for it. Joe felt a sense of dread building in his stomach as he stuck a finger into the hole and pulled the door up, revealing a gaping pit as dark as night. The door’s hinges creaked as Joe let it drop, and all jumped nervously when it hit the floor with a bang.

Feeling the uneasy aura that had settled over the room, Chad whispered “You suppose there’s something down there?”

“Flip you to see who goes first,” Reese replied, subdued.

“Wait.” Joe pointed to the side. “Here’s a lantern. Let’s lower it down on a rope.”

“Great plan,” Chad agreed. The hole seemed to have an unearthly sense of evil coming out of it, though Chad had been given no reason to suspect it to be anything other than a root cellar.

In no time the rangers had the lantern lit and tied to Reese’s lariat. As Joe lowered it down, all leaned over to watch it go. Its cheerful yellow light struggled against the gloom, and so far the rangers could see nothing. The room seemed to be completely empty. Finally, the lantern touched the dirt floor with a quiet clank.

Reese lay on his stomach, poking his head into the hole. “Why, there ain’t nothin’ down here. Don’t know what’s gotten you two so riled up—AH!”

“What is it?” Chad shouted.

Reese sat up, looking embarrassed. “Probably just a rat or somethin’.”

Chad rubbed his hands on his pants. “Just the same, one of us ought to go down there.”

Reese pulled out a coin. “Call it, Chad.”

“Heads.”

“Alright, that means I’m tails,” Reese said, and flipped the coin. It bounced off his hand to go flying down into the pit.

“Well, I guess that means Joe’ll be the one going,” Chad muttered, peering down where the coin had fallen.

Joe crossed his arms. “Just how do you figure that?”

“Why, it wouldn’t be fair if Reese or I were to go. Then we could change the results of the toss to go in our favor! No, you better go, keep things fair.”

Joe rolled his eyes. “You two are yellower than a meadowlark’s belly.” He’d show them who the brave one was. “Be ready to pull me up in a minute.”

Joe sat on the edge and put his legs down in the hole. Swallowing hard, he braced his hands on either side of the opening and levered himself down.

“Be careful, pard,” Chad said.

“Thanks, I’ll try,” Joe said sarcastically. He hung by his hands and carefully dropped next to the lantern, almost knocking it over. He untied the rope quickly and held the light aloft. It was even creepier down here than it looked from above. Cobwebs were hanging from the floor above, and though the lantern was a good one, its light didn’t eradicate the darkness. It was impossible to see where the walls of the cellar were, giving Joe the impression that he was in a huge cave.

“You see anything?” Reese yelled, and Joe jumped a little.

“Give me half a chance to take a look around, Reese,” Joe answered crossly. He looked around, turning in a complete circle. He gathered up his bravery and walked forward, finding one end of the cellar. The walls were bare dirt, complete with roots and worms. He followed the wall around, finding nothing but a few pieces of garbage and rocks. At the opposite end of the cellar, Joe found some signs that the underground room was in use. Next to a bookshelf full of cans and junk stood an old rickety chair with a small stool next to it, on which sat a book. Joe held the lantern close. “Mother Goose: Children’s Rhymes and Fairy Tales,” he read aloud.

“You say something, Joe?” Chad asked.

“No, there ain’t nothin’ here,” Joe answered. “Tie that rope off to somethin’. I’ll be up directly.”

He held up the lantern to look at the shelves, finding nothing but cans of peaches and tomatoes and a couple old crates.

Chad came back over from where he was tying off the rope to a post braced in the door frame. Nothing nearby had seemed strong enough to support a grown man and Chad didn’t fancy hauling Joe up himself, so he improvised.

“Ready to come up, Joe?” Reese asked.

“Just about.” Joe turned back toward the chair and stool. Something just seemed terrifying about the hole, even when he had decided there was nothing strange about the cellar. Who kept a chair and book in a black pit? Leisure reading just didn’t go with the atmosphere. He walked over to the stool and squatted down next to it and held the little book up to the light. There was nothing special about the worn copy. Joe opened the cover, peering at the cover page. Inscribed in barely legible print, a few words caught his eye. “To Jimmy, from your mama,” he read silently. Jimmy!

He flipped the book shut, wondering…. Then his heart almost stopped when he heard the clanking from before, like metal dragging…like ankle shackles. Joe stayed stock-still, concentrating. Where was the sound coming from? “Jack?” he whispered harshly, but there was not reply. He had searched every inch of the cellar, except…

Joe held the lantern low, searching. He soon found what he was looking for. On the hard dirt floor in front of the shelves was a long scrape mark, a bit of loose earth around it. Joe put the lantern on the floor again and took the side of the shelves in both hands. Pushing gently, he eased the shelves along the groove on the floor, surprised when they slid easily. Behind the shelves was a small hole carved into the dirt wall, just large enough for a….

Chad and Reese waited in the kitchen for Joe, their hands on the rope ready to steady it…but their friend was not appearing. “Joe,” Chad called. “Are you there?”

No answer. Chad looked at Reese, who nodded briefly. Chad lowered himself into the hole in the same manner that Joe did, landing lightly. He spotted Joe immediately in the light of the lantern. “Joe, what’s going on? Didn’t you hear me?”

Joe didn’t say anything but instead remained as he was. Chad walked forward. “We don’t have time for any games, Joe,” he said, reaching Joe’s side in an instance. “If you’re trying to scare me…” Chad’s words died in his throat to be replaced by a cry of shock. “Lord have mercy….”

Inside the hole was a small, dark figure, huddling against the wall. Joe reached out a hand, but the person flinched away, clutching his chest. “Jack,” he said in the gentlest voice Chad had ever heard him use. “Jack, it’s me, Joe. We’re just gonna help you outta there. Don’t be scared, we won’t hurt you.”

Joe, gently but firmly grasped the boy’s arm and gradually pulled until the arm was away from his chest. “C’mon out of there, bud. Let’s get a look at you.”

Jack, Chad presumed, allowed himself to be pulled out of the little grotto, leaning heavily on Joe’s arm. Joe half carried him to the stool, seating the weak figure. Chad crouched beside the two, holding the lantern. “Blast it all, Joe, he’s not a kid at all. This is a grown-up man!”

The man covered his eyes with dirty hands.

“Hush, Chad. Can’t you see you’re scarin’ him?”

Chad dropped his voice to a whisper. “Well, see for yourself!”

Joe leaned in closer and with a couple fingers pried the man’s hands away. Hooded eyes stared at him with unveiled terror. “Easy there, Jack. We’re gonna get you outta here. Understand?” The young man nodded, but seemed unsure. Joe smiled. “That a boy. Jack, do you remember me? It’s Joe.”

The young man shook his head and looked down, teeth worrying his lower lip. “Joe?”

“Yeah, it’s me. I came for you.”

Chad shifted his weight, and the movement grabbed Jack’s attention. “Who’re you?”

“My name’s Chad Cooper, and I’m…”

“Who?”

“Chad Cooper…,” Chad answered patiently, but then a memory tickled in his mind. Did this young man seem familiar? “Have we…met?”

A drastic change came over Jack. He stood rapidly, his back rigid, but his body was weak and he toppled. Joe caught him before he fell. Jack dug his fingers into Joe’s shirt and closed his eyes in pain. “You…you… My head hurts.”

Joe whispered, “Chad, why don’t you climb up now. Then we can pull him outta this hellhole.” He looked down at the thin man who was weakly leaning against him. “Besides, there’s somethin’ ‘bout you that bothers him. Might be best if you stayed away from him, at least for now.”

Chad felt mildly put off. After all, what had he ever done to the young man? He was just trying to help. Still, he saw the sense in Joe’s words and athletically shimmied up the rope. He was met by Reese, who asked, “What the blazes is goin’ on down there?” He peered down and saw the young man. “Is that…?”

“That is Jack, yes.”

“That ain’t a kid. He’s got a beard!”

“I know…but I think anybody younger and smaller than Joe qualifies as being a ‘kid.’”

Reese nodded with a smile. “Yeah, I reckon you’re right.”

After Joe looped the rope under Jack’s arms, Reese and Chad pulled him up. Chad grabbed one arm and helped the young man out the rest of the way. Jack limply laid on the floor and covered his eyes with his arm.

They threw the rope back down for Joe, who was up in moments.

“Hey, Jack, there’s a bed over here. How ‘bout you layin’ down on it? You can sleep some, if you want.”

A small nod was the only response received. Joe helped Jack over to a small bedroom, the shackles on Jack’s ankles dragging across the floor loudly. From the kitchen, Chad and Reese could hear Joe talking softly as he helped Jack lay down.

“I promised I would come to find you. I kept my promise, Jack. Now I’m gonna get you home.”

Chad blinked. This was a new development.

“How you gonna do that? I don’t even know my own name. All I know is…Jimmy.”

“That is not you, Jack. That’s a made-up lie.”

“If I ain’t Jimmy, then I’m nobody.” A ragged breath was heard. “Could you bear bein’ nobody? I can’t bear bein’ nobody, Joe. It weren’t on account of Jamison workin’ me over so I’d do as he said, pretend to be that kid. No, it was all me. I couldn’t take knowin’ that I don’t have a name or a place in the world. In my head, I could see me as a kid and them Comancheros cartin’ me off to who-knows-where. I could see that woman as my ma. That’s why I didn’t want you to come find me, Joe. Before you came, I could forget that I was nobody. Now I’ll always be rememberin’.”

Rustling fabric indicated that Joe was covering Jack with a blanket. “You’re not a nobody to us, Jack. Come mornin’, you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe.”

“Holler if you need anything.”

Joe exited the room and closed the door, but as an afterthought, left it half-open. “Don’t want him to feel trapped,” he murmured. “He’s been through enough.”

Chad looked fully into Joe’s face. “Pard, let’s step outside for a minute and talk.”

Joe smiled tiredly. “I thought you might need to vent off a little.” He sobered. “First I need to see about Mrs. Crawford. You fellas should take another look around outside. Maddie and her boys might be nearby.”

“Closer than you think.”

Time seemed to freeze as the three rangers realized that they were surrounded. Maddie Jamison and the two men were stationed at windows and doors, guns drawn and ready. The lawmen had been too distracted by the events inside to notice what had been going on outside. Hesitantly they all raised their hands.

Maddie smirked, her pretty lips twisting. “That’s just fine, boys. My-my-my, just making yourself to home, aren’t you?” She sauntered inside, her hips seductively swaying. “Why, Mr. Riley! Whatever happened to your neck? Looks something terrible.”

Joe’s face darkened at the mention of the still-healing rope burn.

Maddie turned to Chad next. “Oh, hi there, honey!” She trailed the barrel of her cocked pistol down Chad’s jaw. “I was so disappointed that we couldn’t have gotten to know each other a little better back at the ranch, but you know how it is.”

Chad gritted his teeth. He had been duped, and blast it all, Reese and Joe were right. “Don’t know how I could have been fooled. Pretty faces don’t do well to cover twisted minds…and yours is positively wriggling like a dirty earthworm.”

Maddie had been enjoying Chad’s speech until the last bit. Her teeth bore in a snarl, and before Chad could react, she slashed him on the cheek with her nails. He gasped and put a hand to his face, startled to feel blood.

“Hm-hm-hm,” she chuckled mirthlessly. “You really are more of a thorn in my side than your big friend there. I was just going to kill all of you, but now I think I might need to make one last trip to Mexico. Let’s see how long your pretty”—her invasive gaze made Chad feel horribly exposed—“perfect body stays as such down there working for my friends.” She turned to her men and barked, “Take them outside. Tie up the pretty one but shoot the others. We’ll bury them in the creek bank.”

“But Maddie, those other two will bring more money. They’ve got more muscle.”

Maddie’s eyes flared in anger, but then she reconsidered. “I suppose you’re right. Get them ready; we’ll leave now, while it’s dark.”

A man came in and disarmed the rangers, throwing the guns off to one side of the room. The other man had entered to cover the rangers while the first cut off lengths of rope from the one they used to climb into the hole. He started with Joe, who because of his musculature seemed like the biggest threat, and tied the ranger’s hands behind his back.

Chad looked at Joe, but the big man shook his head. Best to just do as they said. Mexico was far away. Their chance would come.

Their chance came much sooner than expected.

“Drop your hardware, boys, or I’ll drop you.” The command stopped all activity cold.

All turned to see Jack standing in the doorway, a pistol in his right hand and his legs spread as far apart as his shackles would allow. Jack’s entire posture screamed gunfighter, from his stance to his hardened eyes. Speaking of those eyes…so familiar. Why..?

Meanwhile, the outlaws had recovered from their shock. They jerked their guns up, turned, and fired toward the thin figure.

What happened next was faster than the eye could track. Jack threw himself to one side, fanning the hammer and firing so fast the explosions were like one long thunderclap. The rangers fell to the floor, trying to get out of the line of fire.

Then, all was silent. Chad chanced to raise his head to see Jack standing over him, his gun smoking. Jack grimly twirled the pistol, ejected the spent cartridges, and stuck the gun into his waistband in movements as reflexive as they were deadly.

Chad slowly got to his feet, amazed at the speed and accuracy of the man’s gun skills. “Jack, that was…,” he started to say when shock coursed through him so hard the blood left his head. “It can’t be…”

Reese was untying Joe, who asked, “What?”

The pieces were falling into place faster than Chad could make sense of them. Why hadn’t he noticed before? “You’re…”

Jack looked toward Chad, and as lightning blue eyes fell on Chad’s face, one little movement confirmed Chad’s revelation: one of Jack’s eyebrows quirked up in the center in a very unusual manner. Chad only knew one person in the world with such an expression. “It’s you! Jess, it’s really you! I thought you were dead!”

“Jess!?” Joe and Reese both said at the same time.

“Yeah! Jess Harper!”

Jack, or Jess, jerked and blinked like whiskey had been flung into his face. “What did you call me?”

Chad stepped closer, realizing why he hadn’t recognized Jess before. The Jess he remembered hardly looked like the one that stood before him now. This Jess was emaciated, his hair long and shaggy, a week’s beard on his face, and completely dirty, no doubt from living in a pit for who knows how long.

“Jess, it’s me, Chad! Remember? Jess, I’d given up on you…we all had.”

Jess staggered while putting both hands to his face.

Joe called out, “Watch it, he’s goin’ down!”

Chad tried to catch Jess in his arms, but the man was dead weight and took them both to the floor.

Joe, now free, came forward with Reese. They gently turned Jess over until he rested on his back. He was unconscious. “I think it was too much for his mind to handle,” Joe murmured, “hearin’ his real name and seein’ you, Chad. That must be why he got a headache when you were with him before. His mind was tryin’ to remember and it hurt.”

“All this time,” Chad marveled, “he was with those smugglers, forced to be someone he wasn’t. Who could have guessed?”

“Speakin’ of,” Reese interrupted. They all heard a horse galloping.

“Maddie!” Joe exclaimed. “Chad, stay here with Ja…Jess. We’ll get after her. C’mon, Reese!” They were gone in a flash.

Chad sat helplessly beside the man he had searched for, mourned for, and now found once again. How could this have happened? Such coincidences didn’t seem natural. He didn’t consider himself a religious man, but under these circumstances… His green eyes briefly searched the darkening sky out the window. “Thank you,” he whispered before finding the strength to pick up his long-lost friend and return him to bed.

*****

Chad had just finished dragging the bodies of the men Jess had shot outside when he noticed that Mrs. Crawford was as they had left her, tied to the post. Not sure what to do with her, but certain he couldn’t leave her out there in the dark, he carefully released her. She got to her feet weakly. “Hello, young man. Be a dear and escort me to my room, would you? I’m dreadfully weary.”

Chad, though confused about the situation, offered his arm. She accepted, and he led her to the other bedroom. She went as meekly as a lamb and lay down fully clothed. Chad put her feet up and covered her with an afghan. “Thank you, young man. You are very nice. Good night.”

“Good night, ma’am,” Chad said as he closed the door. On a second thought, he shoved a chair under the knob. The woman was loco, after all.

After that, he put a chair beside Jess’ bed, intending to keep vigil, but the events of the day had worn him down, and he dozed off.

Footsteps in the kitchen brought him fully to awareness. He pulled his pistol but relaxed when he recognized Reese’s distinct bass voice. Chad rushed out to meet them. “Shh, he’s still out. Probably exhausted.”

Joe unbuckled his gun belt wearily before sinking into a chair. “Maddie’s in jail. We caught up with her and turned her over to the local law.”

“I for one am feeling much better now that she’s put away.” Chad touched the scratches on his cheek, which had scabbed over but still stung. “She’s downright crazy.”

Joe started to get up. “I should take a look at that.”

Chad pushed him back down. “It can wait. Why don’t you two go get some sleep? I can put your horses away.”

Joe smiled at Chad’s kind gesture. Chad wasn’t exactly selfish, but he wasn’t the first to volunteer for anything either. “Thanks, pard. We’ve been ridin’ most of the night.”

“Don’t mention it,” the southerner said before going outside to do what needed to be done. After the horses were bedded down in the barn, Chad found a shovel and decided to bury those men. The day would get hot before they could get them anywhere to properly identify them. This was as good a place as any.

He looked around for a good place and found one where the dirt had been turned over recently. A garden, maybe? He shrugged and started to dig. Before too long his shovel struck something hard and hollow sounding. “Buried treasure,” he muttered humorously. He dug a little more and found a box of some kind. He pulled it out of the ground and dusted off some of the clinging soil. “Wait a second…” It was a strong box, exactly like the ones used on stagecoaches! The padlock had been broken off, so Chad opened it quickly. Inside were dozens of papers. It was the missing deeds!

*****

Later that day

The rangers had thrown ideas around and around, but no conclusion could be reached. They needed to return the papers to the state as soon as possible, but they were unsure of what to do about Jess and Mrs. Crawford. Both of their minds were in a fragile state. Finally, they came to an agreement: Reese would take the papers to the nearest courthouse where they would be safe. Meanwhile, Joe and Chad would set about finding a way to get help for the two people under their charge.

Reese rode away, waving as he did so.

Chad and Joe waved back before turning to stare at the small house, whose occupants were still resting in their respective rooms.

“What’re we gonna do, Chad?” Joe asked, his voice tired and breathy.

“I was hoping you’d know, pard,” Chad replied, just as worn out.

A jingle of harness announced someone’s approach, a man in an all-black suit in a buckboard. As he got nearer, Chad could identify the man by the small backward collar. “Pard, it’s a reverend.”

“Good afternoon, brothers!” the man called jovially. He was in his late-twenties, sandy-haired, and red-faced. “And how are you this fine day?”

“Fine? It’s plenty hot, Reverend,” Joe answered. How a man could be so happy on a day like today, he couldn’t understand.

“Whoa there, Milford,” the man said while hauling back on his reins. “Could I trouble you for a bit of water and respite from this hot sun? In Christian spirit and all that?”

Chad put his hands on his hips, unintentionally drawing attention to the cross-draw holster on his hip. The reverend gulped, his attention drawn to the fresh graves close to the creek. “Ah…trouble here, gentlemen?”

Joe crossed his arms. “Don’t sweat it, Reverend. We’re rangers.”

The man wilted in relief. “Phew! I was worried you might be desperate characters!”

“Hm,” Joe grunted. He put one foot on the buckboard’s floor and leaned his crossed arms on his knee. His added weight made the light rig tip. “You from around here, Reverend?”

The man looked uncomfortable as his balance was thrown off. “Why, yes I am. Just moved here, though. Making the rounds to meet the parish. My name’s Reverend Jamison.”

“Jamison?” Joe practically shouted while removing his foot, letting the rig spring back.

Once the reverend had regrouped after being shaken around, he inquired, “Yes, what of it? Do I know you?”

“Does the name Randall Jamison mean anything to you?”

“I have an uncle by that name. He was, uh, disowned a long time ago. He got into trouble. My grandfather would hardly talk about him. Why? Is he wanted? Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was…”

“If you’ve got an uncle by the name of Jamison, do you happen to have an aunt by the name of Florie?”

“Oh yes, of course. I was just looking for her farm. You wouldn’t happen to know where it is, would you?”

Chad gaped, completely flabbergasted. “Well, you’re on it, Reverend!”

“Really? Wonderful!” The man leaped off the rig. “Aunt Florie! Where are you?”

Joe and Chad watched the man trot to the porch, unable to believe what was happening. Florie emerged with an apron around her waist. The rangers had allowed her to cook for them, for she had been completely complacent, almost normal acting. It was as though her violent outburst had been a one-time incident. A mother-bear instinct, perhaps?

“Ronny, is that you?”

“Sure is, Aunt Florie. Been a long time!”

“Why, how wonderful. Come inside. I just made some gingerbread.”

Chad chuckled, drawing a quizzical glance from Joe. “It’s just funny,” Chad mirthfully said. “Would you have ever guessed that Cliff and Maddie have a reverend as a cousin?”

Joe considered this and couldn’t help but smirk. “I reckon it is a little on the funny side.”

The two rangers went inside to see Reverend Ronny seated at the impromptu table, which was actually the old table top on two empty barrels. He had a cookie in each hand and a cup of milk in front of him.

“Oh, Ronny,” Florie cooed, “did you meet these two young men? They are friends of Jimmy’s.”

“Jimmy?” Ronny put down his snack. “Little Jimmy? But Aunt Florie…”

Joe slashed a hand over his throat, cutting off the seated man, who confusedly backpedaled. “Ah…wonderful cookies, Auntie.”

“Glad you like them, Ronny. Take some to Jimmy, would you? He’s resting in the south bedroom.”

“What…?”

“I’ll show you, Ronny,” Chad put in quickly. Ronny followed Chad to the bedroom door, a perplexed look on his face.

“Silly boy,” Florie was saying to Joe. “He goes away to preacher school for just a few years and forgets which way south is.”

Chad closed the door behind them, shutting out the woman’s prattle. He turned to see Ronny staring at the young man sleeping in the bed with a look of amazement. “If I hadn’t been there myself when it happened, I would believe that Jimmy was still alive and lying in front of me.”

“Your aunt thinks this is her son, but he most definitely not. Your uncle, Randall, kidnapped this man as a substitute to try and save your aunt’s mind.”

Ronny was no longer the jovial and silly man from before. “I assume you’ve arrested Uncle Randall for this.” His voice was flat and resigned.

“Your uncle is dead. He died while trying to kill Joe, that man out there.”

Ronny sighed deeply. “Randall was the oldest in the family and well-liked in the community. But…he got Aunt Florie’s husband killed in some mixed-up affair. He was forced to leave this part of the country. That was shortly after Jimmy was killed in a Comanche raid. I fell down into a clump of brush, so they didn’t see me…but I’ll never forget it…” He was lost in memories for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, Uncle Randall never forgave himself for what happened to his brother-in-law and the effect his death had on his sister. I think this could be the reasoning behind what he did to your friend here. People do amazing things to relieve their guilt.”

“This may or may not come as a shock to you, but your uncle was essentially a shanghaier and racketeer. He bought Jess here from a gang of stage robbers. We thought Jess to be dead until only yesterday, when we discovered him in the possession of your aunt.”

Ronny’s mouth fell open. “How could she be keeping him? I mean, she couldn’t…”

“We found evidence in the barn that several men were living here, probably working for your uncle. Oh, and there’s this.” Chad flipped the blanket up that covered Jess’ feet, revealing bare feet and shackled ankles. “We haven’t had a chance to bust them off yet.”

Ronny fell into the chair, his face white. He winced at Jess’ emaciated body. “How is he? Is he alright?”

“That’s yet to be determined. To put it gently, your uncle went to extreme measures to make Jess into your deceased cousin.”

The reverend rubbed his face. “What happens next? Your friend will undoubtedly want to leave as soon as possible. Though I can’t blame him, I hate to think what that will do to Aunt Florie.”

“We’ve got to try something, though. Jess needs to get back to his own life.”

Ronny thought for moment before suggesting, “Maybe I could talk her in to coming to live with me. My wife is pretty close to expecting her first baby. We could use extra help around the place. Maybe, with time, I could help her remember that Jimmy…well, that this isn’t Jimmy.”

And so it was arranged. A few hours later, Florie was reluctantly saying her farewells to “Jimmy”, who lay motionless in the bed, his eyes staring blankly at her kind face. “You have fun becoming a ranger, honey! I know these two will take good care of you.”

She wiped a few tears from her lined face but went willingly with her nephew,

“That was too easy,” Chad commented as the two rangers stood on the porch.

“Yeah,” Joe sighed. “That was some yarn you told her ‘bout Jess joinin’ up with the Rangers.”

“Well, it’ll explain why he’s not here when she comes back.”

A clatter on the wood floor drew their attention. Jess was standing in the doorway behind them watching the rig drive away, his face an expressionless mask.

Joe and Chad exchanged a look and a deep breath. The easy part was over, getting Florie taken care of. Now came the tricky part: Jess.

“Hey there, Jess,” Chad began cautiously. “Feeling better?”

Stormy blue eyes watched the departing buckboard until it was out of sight. Finally they slowly fixated on Chad’s face. A small shrug was the delayed response to Chad’s question.

“I’ve got an idea,” Joe suggested with false brightness. “How ‘bout headin’ over to the barn and gettin’ them” — he pointed at the shackles –“off a you? Bet that would make you feel a whole lot better.”

Again only a small shrug, but Chad could’ve sworn he saw a small spark in those despondent eyes.

“Well, c’mon, then,” Joe gestured awkwardly. He started to walk away, Chad following. It was only until they were a few steps ahead did they hear the dragging chain behind them.

They reached the barn in an uncomfortable silence. Joe rummaged around for tools while Chad got Jess situated on a couple hay bales, his feet propped up. Jess said nothing, his gaze fixed on his feet.

“Here we are.” Joe carried a tool box over. He pulled out a file and went to work on the padlocks.

Chad watched the proceedings, noticing that Jess became tenser as Joe worked.

“Almost there,” Joe grunted, and one of the padlocks busted loose. He quickly went to work on the other one, and it too came free. At the snap, Jess’ whole body gave a great shiver. His eyes were wide and his teeth tight.

“Just a little more.” Joe had to pry the shackles open, as they had rusted closed. Finally, he got the disgusting objects off of Jess’ ankles, revealing bruised and raw skin. “There, how does that feel?”

Jess took his feet down off the bale, moving them far apart and stretching. Chad thought he saw a tiny smile. “You’re free, Jess. You can go wherever you want.”

Jess’ head came up at that. Before anyone could react, Jess leapt to his feet and bolted from the building, running like the devil was behind him.

Chad stared in disbelief. “Where’s he going?”

“He’s goin’ wherever he wants, like you told him.”

“Well don’t just stand there, let’s get after him!” Chad made to follow, but Joe grabbed his arm.

“Let him go, Chad. He needs to feel the earth movin’ under him again, I reckon.”

“What if he doesn’t come back? No boots or water, he’ll die out there. He’s not exactly thinking straight right now.”

“Then I reckon we can track him down. Let’s just give it a try.”

Chad threw his hands up. “Fine. We’ll give it an hour.”

“Meanwhile, we need to talk about what we’re gonna do with him.” Joe sat in Jess’ vacated spot on the bales.

“I don’t know, pard. He doesn’t remember himself. What do you do with somebody like that?”

Joe rubbed his chin. “You think that takin’ back to where he’s real familiar it would sort of ‘jar’ him or somethin’? Seein’ you brought a reaction, there’s no mistakin’ that, but it weren’t enough. He’s gotta be someplace he’s real used to, people he knows, maybe even loves.”

Chad scoffed. “You think Jess is married?”

“No, but people get attached to folks in other ways. Somehow me and you are friends, Chad. If you was outta your head, wouldn’t seein’ me or Reese help?”

“Maybe, seems like a good idea.”

“You got any idea on where Jess has been livin’ lately?”

“He left Texas pretty close after we parted ways, I think. That was right before I joined up with the Rangers. Shucks, Joe, he could’ve been anywhere.”

“Let’s think on what we do know. He was workin’ steady for the stage line. That’s a start.”

“Yeah, but for what line and where from? It could take time to find that out, Joe.”

Joe snapped his fingers. “You still got that letter from Trampas?”

Chad was already reaching for his wallet. “Yeah! Here it is.”

He scanned the contents. “Trampas doesn’t say anything about where Jess was working, but the envelope is postmarked Laramie, Wyoming.”

Joe pushed his hat back on his head and squinted skeptically. “Wyoming? That ain’t no pleasure trip, Chad. We try to take him back there, how we gonna explain it to the Cap’n?”

“Let me take care of that. We’ve got to help him, pard.”

Joe sighed hugely. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, but that don’t mean it’s gonna be easy.”

Chad smiled confidently. “Nothing worth doing ever is.”

*****

Run…gotta run…

The earth flew by under his bare feet. He didn’t feel the rough ground cut into his soles, nor the glaring sun above. All he felt was the wind in his face and the sweat running freely down his body.

Further…further…faster…faster…

He reached the top of a hill and took the other side in a few bounds. At the bottom was a lazy river. At the sight of the water, he stopped dead still. A memory gripped him like a vice…a boy…swimming lesson…and a tall man scolding them. But he wasn’t afraid of the tall man. He was nice, just teasing.

He shook his head and blinked. Who were those people? He gripped his forelock in frustration and sat in the loose sand. Jess…was that his name? It didn’t seem familiar. “Jess,” he whispered. “Jess,” he said louder. “Jess, Jess, JESS!” His final shout echoed vaguely in the little valley.

It did seem like a good name, better than Jack, and infinitely better than Jimmy… Unbidden, memories claimed him.

“What’s your name? It’s Jimmy! Say it! Say it!”

“No…”

Slap!

“Do as I say! Tell me your name!”

“I don’t know…”

Slap! Crack!

“It’s Jimmy! Tell me your name, Jimmy!”

“Ji…ji…jimmy.”

“Good boy, Jimmy. You may have your dinner now.”

Jumping to his feet, he waded into the river. His reflection glared back at him. He rubbed his chest, feeling the scabs and welts from the repeated beatings through his ragged shirt. Why was violence the only thing he could remember? Was this what life was like? Nothing but cruelty?

As the dark thoughts claimed him, he sank slowly until the water was up to his chin. It would be so easy just to let himself drift away…but then he heard the boy’s voice in his head. “That’s it, Jess, you’re gettin’ it!”

“This how you two round up those new calves?”

“Well, Andy was learnin’ me how to swim,” he defended aloud.

Andy! “Oh, Andy…” A confusing kaleidoscope of memories flooded his mind, washing out the morbid thoughts. He pulled himself up and out of the water and shook out his wavy hair. Andy would be crushed, he just knew, if he didn’t use his swimming lessons. “Don’t wanna drown…almost happened up at the Lolo…”

No, he wouldn’t drown. Not in water, not in darkness. He make it, somehow.

*****

He wandered back to the farm he’d run from. Those two men were waiting for him on the porch. The smaller one anxiously stood, but Joe, the one he’d met back at the Jamison’s, yanked the skinny one back down and growled something at him under his breath.

Joe thumbed over his shoulder. “Supper’s waitin’, Jess. Ready?”

He nodded, still reluctant to talk to them.

Joe stood and led the way, the skinny one following. Before entering, the skinny one looked back. “Coming, Jess?”

The skinny one had nice, friendly green eyes. What was his name? Oh yes, Chad. He felt as though he’d seen him before, but he couldn’t be sure. He felt like he could trust these men…and if they said his name was Jess, then he’d believe them.

“Yeah.” His own voice sounded strange and foreign, like now that he was “Jess”, and not “Jack” or “Jimmy”, it was entirely new and unfamiliar.

Chad smiled. “Well, come on in, then.”

He mounted the porch steps, noticing for the first time how painful his feet felt.

Chad said nothing to this, but just cocked his head invitingly.

They entered the kitchen together. Joe was serving up bowls of something hot.

He sat down before one. “Mulligan,” he muttered.

“How’s that?” Joe asked.

“Can’t get away from mulligan.”

Joe and Chad exchanged glances, as if unsure of what he was saying. He wasn’t really sure what he was saying either.

He tucked in, and before he knew what he was doing, he was putting the food into his mouth faster than he could chew and swallow it.

A hand on his arm made him freeze. It was Chad. “Easy there, Jess.”

The food turned to sawdust in his mouth. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He pushed the bowl away. “I won’t take anymore.”

The bowl was pushed back. “You eat as much as you can handle.” Chad’s face was open and kind, not hostile and cruel. “You’re as skinny as a bean pole, Jess. Can’t let you blow away on us.”

He searched for any sign of deceit, but was unable to find any on either of their tan faces. He carefully picked up the spoon and started in again, his eyes never leaving their faces. They watched for a moment before they too started to eat, their attention only on their stew.

*****

Later, Chad was rubbing salve on Jess’ ankles and feet. Chad chanced a glance up at Jess face, pleased to see that he was completely relaxed, sipping coffee. “I love this stuff,” he sighed.

“Yeah, you do,” Chad laughed. “Seems to me you’d always drink the pot dry before anybody else got a chance to have some!”

“Ornery, huh?”

“Ornerier than a coon in the garden.”

Chad’s heart leapt in joy as Jess revealed his unique grin, the gap in his teeth showing.

Joe emerged from Florie’s bedroom. “Found these boots. Look like they might fit you once your feet are healed.”

“’Course they will. Those are my boots!”

“How ‘bout that?” Joe grinned. “Now you’ll be set.”

Jess sobered. “When we leavin’?”

“As soon as you’re ready,” Chad replied.

He looked up at the ceiling. “Laramie…don’t seem to ring any bells…”

“It’ll come, Jess,” Chad comforted. “Don’t give up.”

“Chad, you knew me…before…”

“Mmm.”

“Did you know me very well?”

“Oh, sure. We were pards for a while.”

“How come we stopped?”

Chad started at the question. “Uh…well, I went one way, and you went another. It wasn’t a fight or anything.”

Jess seemed relieved. “Chad…,” he began, but hesitated.

“What, Jess?”

“What…what was I like? What did I do?”

“Do, Jess?” Chad looked at Joe for support, but the big ranger helplessly shrugged.

“Do for a livin’.”

Chad swallowed hard and hunched over his task of bandaging Jess’ ankles to hide his face. “Well, you punched cattle and stuff…”

“That ain’t all I done, is it?” Jess was staring at his hands. “These hands, Chad, they’re killer’s hands. Joe found that out back at the ranch, didn’t you?” Joe stared at the floor, hating himself. “Well, it ain’t no secret!” Jess’ pitch rose in distress. “I just killed two men faster’n a rattlesnake strikin’ without even tellin’ my body what to do! So don’t tell me I punched cattle for a livin’!”

“But you did, Jess! I swear it,” Chad said desperately.

“I don’t believe you. You two are Rangers, men of the law. You’d know ‘bout me if I was bad. Am I? Who am I, Chad? WHO AM I?!”

Chad stood up, feeling his temper rise. “You’re Jess Harper! Loyal, ornery, mule-headed Jess Harper! You’re the fella nobody wants to go against because they know that when you’ve got a good cause, you can be meaner than a mountain lion, and tougher, too. You like a good scrap, but who doesn’t? But let me tell you one thing, and you listen good.” Chad leaned in close to the still seated Jess, whose face was turning a dark color. Chad’s voice dropped to an intense whisper. “Jess Harper, you are not a killer.”

Jess stared back silently, his mouth a tight line. Then he burst from his chair and went to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

*****

The next day dawned with a promise of heat. Jess was up before either Joe or Chad, looking as though he had hardly slept. He looked back over the small farm with pain in his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be him…be Jimmy,” he muttered quietly.

Joe and Chad exchanged a sorrowful glance. Hopefully by the time they reached their destination, things would start coming back to Jess…so he could be Jess.

*****

The days of traveling rolled by as they passed through New Mexico. They stopped by a telegraph station, reporting to Captain Parmalee that they were “running down a lead.” Hopefully, they wouldn’t be dismissed when they got back, but if they were, at least they’d go together. Who knew what other opportunities were over the horizon? Still, the Rangers was such a good fit for both of them. They both hated to think of the possibility of getting kicked out. However, their friendship with Jess was worth the risk.

Eventually, they came to the railroad. They followed it to the nearest station and haggled over a cheap price for lawmen and their horses. Soon they were puffing along quickly out of New Mexico into Colorado.

Jess spent the trip forlornly staring out the window at the Rockies. He didn’t seem to be handling train travel well. He didn’t complain, but the rangers could tell he was in pain; his eyes would pinch closed, and he would often put his kerchief over his face during the day. He also was becoming more withdrawn as each day passed, eating little to nothing. Chad and Joe could do little to draw him out of his slump.

Finally, they reached Cheyenne, their last stop. The horses were rested and frisky, ready to be outside. Joe wished Jess would be the same, but he seemed even more moody as they set out west to Laramie, bright and early.

“Won’t be much further now,” Joe said to Chad while they rested in the shade of a pine along the trail. “I figure by tomorrow we’ll make it to Laramie.”

No one answered, so Joe made his declaration a second time.

“Sorry, pard, I heard you,” Chad apologized. “I’m just thinking…” His attention was focused on Jess, who was lying on his back on the ground, a wet handkerchief tied around his eyes to block out the light. He was terribly pale, his black hair contrasting alarmingly with his skin.

Suddenly, Jess rolled onto his hands and knees and vomited onto the pine needles. His stomach emptied quickly, but for a few moments he dry-heaved. Finally he sat back, his eyes pinched shut and breathing heavily.

Chad and Joe had helplessly stood by during the episode, but now that it was finished they gave Jess a drink and helped him wipe his mouth.

“Here, I’ll tie this wet cloth around your neck. It’ll help.” Chad put the wet bandanna inside Jess’ collar.

“Headaches…they’re…they’re gettin’ bad. Worse all the time.”

“Here, have some more of these powders that doc gave us.” Chad went to fetch his saddle bags.

“Don’t…help…”

Joe put a hand on Jess’ forehead. “Chad, he’s burnin’ up. He needs a doc.”

“How far did you say Laramie was?”

Joe helped Jess lay down while saying, “Probably another 15 miles or so. I’d hate to take him that far, though. On horseback, anyway.”

Chad fetched a blanket from his saddle, for though the day was warm, Jess was beginning to shiver. “How about one of us stays here with him while the other goes ahead? Maybe we could find a wagon or something to borrow.”

Joe stood quickly. “I’ll go.” He untied his blanket and jacket. “Why don’t you try makin’ a shelter for him? I think the light really bothers him.”

As Chad accepted the objects, Jess moaned behind them. “Joe…what’s wrong with him? Do you think it’s just from this long trip? Maybe we should’ve waited until he was stronger…”

“It’s too late for ‘what ifs’, Chad. What matters now is gettin’ him to shelter and a doctor.” Joe mounted Buck in an athletic leap.

“Right. See you soon…and Joe?”

Joe looked back.

“Hurry.”

*****

The day was hot, but thankfully, almost over. Andy finished up his chores, but he didn’t feel any sort of elation. It was only a few months ago that he would have gone fishing at this time, but without Jess around to go with…it just wasn’t any fun.

Traveler, Jess’ horse, stood in his stall, looking downcast and miserable. His black-tipped ears flicked toward Andy as the boy brought some grain. “C’mon, Trav,” Andy said as he poured the feed into the small bin. “Eat it up. Jess…Jess would be real sad to see you all skinny.”

Traveler nosed the grain but soon went back to staring over the stall wall at the barn door. “C’mon, Trav! You’ve got to eat! You’ve got to! You’re all I got left…left of…” Andy’s words were cut off as the tears started to flow. He buried his face in Traveler’s mane, trying not to cry. Big boys didn’t cry.

Traveler nuzzled at the boy sympathetically, comforting Andy. He sniffed and rubbed his nose with his sleeve.

“You alright, boy?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

Andy yelped and hit his head on the stall wall as he jumped in alarm. He looked out the open barn doors to see a stranger mounted on a big buckskin horse.

“I…I’m alright. Just got hay fever or somethin’.”

“I see… Your pa around?”

“Haven’t got one.”

“Your ma, then?”

“Haven’t got one of those either, I mean, they’re both dead.”

The man pushed his tan hat back on his head, and dark hair fell down by his eyes. “What have you got, boy? I need to talk to the person in charge here.”

Andy looked the man over. He was pretty big and mean looking. He had a big knife on one leg and a big gun on the other. Andy nervously gulped as the man adjusted the pistol to a more comfortable position. “Kid, I’m kinda in a hurry. You think you could find somebody I could talk to that’s, say, over the age of 20?”

“Uh…sure… Just hold on a second, I’ll go find someone.” Andy walked carefully by the large man, nearly bolting in fright as the man dismounted. The man was as tall as Slim but had way more muscle. Andy bet that this stranger could choke a bear with his two hands if he put his mind to it.

“I’ll just water my horse here, it that’s alright.”

“Uh, help yourself! Be right back.”

Andy burst inside and slammed the door. Jonesy nearly dropped the bowl he was stirring. “Andy, how many times to I gotta tell you…”

“Jonesy! There’s stranger outside!”

“So? We get a lot of strangers through here, Andy.”

“Yeah, but this one looks like a gunfighter!”

“That so? Hmm…” Jonesy put down the bowl to peer out through the curtain. “He sure is a big one, ain’t he?”

Andy joined him at the window. “He’s comin’ this way! What’re we gonna do?”

“Do, Andy? Why, we’ll open the door for him when he knocks. What’s got into you, boy?”

“He said he’s lookin’ for somebody in charge. Maybe he’s after Slim! Maybe…”

“Now who would be after Slim? For Pete’s sake.” Jonesy stole another glance. “He sure has that look about him, don’t he? Well, I suppose I’ll get my old scattergun out, just in case.”

The stranger knocked on the back door firmly but politely. “Hello?” he called.

“Just a minute,” Jonesy called. “Andy, open the door and stand out of the way. I’ll be ready.”

Andy fearfully swung the door open and stood behind it. Jonesy covered the stranger, whose hands shot up in the air at the sight of the double barrels pointed his way. “You’re covered, mister,” Jonesy toughly stated. “Speak your business.”

“What’s the matter with you? I ain’t no outlaw!”

“That’s what they all say. What do you want?”

The stranger started to move one hand.

“Hold it!” Jonesy shouted and thrust the barrel closer. The stranger’s hand returned to shoulder-height.

“I was just reachin’ for some identification. I’m a lawman!”

“Humph. Thought you was goin’ for that iron. Andy, check the man’s pockets.”

Andy fearfully reached toward the man’s hip pocket.

“No, not there. I keep my papers in my hat.”

Andy looked up. The man’s tan hat seemed miles above. He made awkward eye contact with the stranger during the same glance. “Uh…”

“Don’t worry, kid, I ain’t gonna bite. I’d take it off myself if that…grandpa over there would let me.”

“Who you callin’ grandpa?”

Andy quickly snatched the hat, though it took a little hop for him to reach it. “Here, Jonesy, don’t get mad.”

“Look through it, Andy. See if what he’s sayin’s true.”

Andy sifted through the different items inside the inner band. There was some paper money, a receipt of some kind, and a letter. “Joe Riley,” he read aloud, “Texas Rangers, Company B.” His eyes widened. “You’re a Texas Ranger?” Awe filled his youthful face.

“Sure am.”

“What are you doin’ all the way up here?” Jonesy demanded.

Joe Riley stiffened. “Ranger business, and I sure didn’t come all this way to jaw with folks. I only bothered you friendly people ‘cause I got a sick friend out on the trail about four miles back. I was just comin’ to see if I could borrow a wagon, maybe find a place for him to rest while I go for a doctor.”

The shotgun lowered as Jonesy’s mother hen instinct weaseled its way into the old man’s heart. “Sick? What kind of sick?”

“Fever, headaches…sick to his stomach, too.”

“Not sure I want that kind of sick ‘round here…”

“We won’t stay long,” Riley said softly. “We’re just tryin’ to get our friend to Laramie. He needs a place to rest up.”

“Why didn’t you come on the stage?” Jonesy was still suspicious.

“Like I said, he’s been sick. He needed some time away from people.”

“What kind of sick is that?”

“A bad-enough sick that he needs help in a hurry! Will you help me or not?”

Jonesy put down his shotgun. “I reckon we will. Andy, go show this impatient tin star where we keep the harness. Hitch up the buckboard while I get some things together.”

*****

They had the rig hooked up and down the road as quickly as Riley could push them. As they rode along, Jonesy considered the large ranger that trotted alongside them on his horse. He had a hard set to his face, but overall he didn’t seem too bad of a fellow. Perhaps it was just the stress of having a sick friend that was bothering him.

After a few miles, Riley signaled a stop. He stood in his stirrups and looked around.

“Well?” Jonesy asked.

“This is where I left them,” the ranger worriedly muttered. “There’s our blankets.” He searched the woods. “Chad? Chad! Where are you?”

A distant call and crashing in the brush announced someone’s approach. Jonesy watched as a slender man riding a black horse appeared from the forest. “Joe! Oh, Joe, I’m such a fool…”

“What happened?”

“He got up, said he was feeling better. Next thing I knew, he jumped on his horse and took off!”

Riley swore through gritted teeth. “We’ve got to get after him.” He turned to Jonesy and Andy. “Sorry ‘bout this. Thanks for your…help. We might still bring him by your place when we find him.”

The situation was terribly confusing for Jonesy. “Just what is wrong with your friend? What sick man wanders off?”

“Don’t have time to explain. Thanks again!” With that, both men were gone into the trees.

“Jonesy,” Andy began.

“Don’t even ask, Andy, because I don’t have a clue.”

*****

The last stage for the day rolled through. Slim unharnessed the tired horses and rubbed them down. His mind troubled: where is Jonesy and Andy? They had no reason to take the buckboard that he could think of.

He rubbed his forehead tiredly, wondering if the fine lines on his tan skin would be prematurely permanent. It seemed like he was creasing his brow perpetually these days. It wasn’t just Andy’s depression that was getting to the blond rancher, it was his own. Jess had been a huge help on the ranch, but that wasn’t why he missed that sassy cowboy. Slim had few real friends, and Jess had been the best of them.

A horse snorted behind him. He whirled, saying, “There you are…”

However, it was not the rig, but rather a lone rider. The man was hunched over the horn, his head down.

Slim asked, “Help you, mister?”

The man’s head jerked at the sound of Slim’s voice, and Slim was shocked to see that the man had a cloth tied over his eyes.

“Hey, are you alright?”

The stranger covered his ears as though Slim had shouted. Slim felt alarm course through him. What was the matter with this man? He looked terrible, what Slim could see of him. Thin bird-like wrists stuck out of frayed sleeves, and tangled black hair brushed his collar. Worst of all was the pallor of the man’s skin. And what was that bandanna over his eyes for? Was his blinded?

“Let me help you,” Slim suggested.

“NO!” The cry was hoarse but held fire. The man swayed further and reeled to the right. Slim scrambled to catch him before he hit the hard ground. He weighed nothing in the strong rancher’s arms as he lowered the fevered body to the ground and cradled the man’s shoulders so his head wouldn’t be in the dirt.

“Can’t…see the sun…hurts…,” the man murmured deliriously. Then his mutterings took a different track. “Don’t drown…gotta swim…Andy…”

“Andy?” Slim started at the sound of his brother’s name. “Have you seen Andy?”

“Andy is my friend… The big man…won’t let us swim…”

“Who? Who’s the big man? Is he with Andy?”

One feeble hand reached up and pushed the bandanna up, revealing bloodshot eyes…very blue bloodshot eyes. “No…no…he’s with me…” His back arched and his head flung back as he gave a great shriek of pain. “Help me…”

“I’m here,” Slim comforted helplessly.

The man stilled momentarily, cloudy eyes focusing for a moment. “You always are.”

Slim’s jaw fell open, recognition starting to take hold. “It can’t be…”

Pure agony filled the thin man’s face as his body rigidly thrashed in a spasm. His eyes rolled up and his teeth ground audibly. “It hurts! Why does it hurt?! HELP ME SLIM!” he screamed.

Slim felt as though he were struck by lightning. A prayer became a hope as he desperately pushed the bandanna completely off the man’s face. It couldn’t be…but who else? “Jess,” he wept. “Oh Jess, you came home.”

Instantly Jess relaxed in Slim’s arms with a ragged sigh. Slim pulled his beloved friend close to his chest. He wept like a child and buried his face in the snarled mess that was Jess’ hair. “You’re home, pard.”

“Pard,” Jess breathed. “Pard…”

*****

Horses galloped into the yard. “What…,” Chad started to ask, disbelief on his face at the sight of the two men sitting in the dust.

Joe smiled softly. “I think Jess found home.”

They both dismounted and approached the huddled men. The blond man holding Jess looked up, his face streaked with tears. “Hello.” His voice was raspy and spent. “If you’ll give me a minute I’ll be right with you.”

Joe held up a hand. “No worries, friend. I take it you know Jess?”

The man looked down at Jess’ still, unconscious face. “He’s my best friend.”

Chad knelt beside the two. “Is he alright? He got away from me out in the woods.”

“He was with you? Who are you?”

“We can talk later,” Joe interjected. “How ‘bout we get this poor fella into a proper bed? It’s been a while for him.”

The man seemed to be ashamed that he hadn’t considered that. “Oh, right.”

Chad and Joe moved to help him, but he kindly refused. “Thanks, but I got him.” He cradled Jess into strong arms and led the way to the small house. Chad opened the front door. “In here,” the man directed by pointing with his chin. Chad pushed open the door to see a small bedroom with two single bunks. The tall man carefully lowered Jess to rest on the made-up bed. “There you are, Jess, in your own bed.” He tenderly removed Jess’ boots, his face paling at the sight of the bandages. “What happened to you, pard?” he moaned in sadness. He quickly covered Jess with a blanket.

Joe and Chad stepped out of the room, the man following and closing the door with a quiet click.

*****

Slim felt tired…exhausted. Crying for the first time in years could do that to a man. However, he remembered his manners. “My name’s Slim Sherman,” he introduced.

“My name’s Chad Cooper,” the man wearing a vest replied, “and this here’s Joe Riley.” The larger man nodded.

The door burst open. “Slim,” Andy shouted, “we met some Texas Rangers! Isn’t that their horses outside?”

“Rangers, this far north? Really, Andy?” Slim didn’t have time for games.

“No, really! Oh, hello,” Andy greeted shyly.

“The boy’s right,” Riley said. “We really are Rangers.”

“Yes,” Cooper agreed. “We were…”

Slim held up a hand. “Wait just a second. Andy, where have you been? Where’s Jonesy?”

“Here I am,” the old man groaned, entering the house with a hand to his back. “We just got back from a wild goose chase.” His attention was drawn to the two Rangers. “You two! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be looking for your friend?”

“We found him, he’s…”

“Hold it, everybody,” Slim commanded. “Some things need telling, but gently. Some of us here don’t know what’s happening, and it’s apt to be a shocker.”

Jonesy sat and crossed his arms gruffly. “What in tarnation is going on?”

Andy looked perplexedly at his brother. “What is it, Slim?”

“Andy, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am going to say to you. These men were bringing somebody to Laramie. This man was really sick and wasn’t thinking right. He came here, and at first I didn’t know who he was, because he looks really different. But then I recognized him.”

“Who is he, Slim? Where is he?”

“He’s in there, resting.”

“But Slim, that’s Jess’ room!”

“It’s all right, Andy. Jess won’t mind.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because…,” Slim choked as fresh tears filled his eyes.

“What?” Andy too felt tears threaten. “He ain’t dead, I know it!”

“You’re…you’re right, Andy. He’s here. He’s back.”

“He’s…” Andy could hardly contain himself as Slim slowly opened the door. It was like a dream. Andy pinched himself to be sure he was awake as he looked down upon his best friend. “Jess,” he whispered.

Sleepy eyes opened, eyes he’d missed. “Hey,” a tired voice cracked. “Hey, Andy.”

“JESS!” Andy leapt onto Jess, hugging and sobbing.

Jess didn’t say anything more, just held onto the boy like a lifeline. Slim was shocked to a tear escape from the eye of the toughest man he knew.

*****

Slim shut the door to the room, leaving the two in peace. “Alright,” he addressed the two Rangers. “Let’s have it. All of it.”

Riley held up a hand. “Let me try and explain.”

“Fine, go ahead,” Slim permitted.

“A while ago, we were searchin’ for stage robbers, the ones that robbed the stage Jess was ridin’.”

Jonesy interrupted, “That fella, Trampas? He was on that stage, too. He said that him and Jess were held prisoner by those sidewinders for a while.”

“Yeah, we found Trampas and got the outlaws who took them, but couldn’t find Jess. He had disappeared. A couple months went by. Durin’ that time we got Trampas’ letter, and it led us to think that Jess could still be alive, but taken by border-jumpin’ smugglers.”

“WHAT?” Jonesy shouted incredulously.

“No, really. But we couldn’t find proof they existed, until later,” Joe ducked his head a moment, “when I myself got caught by them.”

Slim and Jonesy exchanged a glance. This story was incredible, but to the degree that it held truth.

“While waitin’ to be carted off to Mexico, I met this kid. The leader of the smugglers was tryin’ to make this kid into his dead nephew to keep his sister from goin’ crazy from missin’ her real dead son. He was pretty mixed up. He couldn’t remember who he really was.” Joe looked sadly at the bedroom door for a moment before saying, “I was rescued later on by Chad and our other partner. We eventually tracked down the rest of the smugglers and found the kid…who was actually Jess. It was who Chad recognized him as who he was. I didn’t know who he was because I had never met him before, but Chad had.”

Chad took up the story. “I knew him back a while ago when we rode together. I still had Trampas’ letter, and that’s what led us back here. By this point Jess was becoming really sick, and he still wasn’t remembering much. His headaches bothered him to the point he’d throw up or pass out. That’s when Joe came to you people for help.”

Slim was amazed. “Little did you know that this is his home.”

Joe continued. “We had no idea. When he ran off, it looked like he had finally lost his mind. He was…he was put through a lot before we got him out of that place. Now I know his heart was just leadin’ him home, back to you folks.”

Slim thought back over the interaction in the yard. “He didn’t seem to know me at first. When I talked to him, and he acted like it was hurting him to hear me.”

“I think he gets those headaches when he sees something familiar,” Chad explained. “When he saw me and other things from his past, he acted the same way. I think his mind works too hard trying to remember or something.”

“Strangest thing I ever heard of,” Jonesy blustered. “But I reckon it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you got that boy back home, safe and sound.”

“Words can’t even describe how grateful I am to you. Jess is…well, part of the family,” Slim concurred.

Chad grinned, his face about to split. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear you say that. He’s needed somebody to look out for him for a long time. Hoo-ey, that boy is wild. Good to know that Jess is finally settling down.”

“Settled isn’t hardly the word for it,” Jonesy said.

“I reckon that’s the truth,” Chad laughed. “Jess is too wild to take a saddle too easy. But he’s got you folks to look after him, and that’s a comfort to me.”

“And it’s a comfort to us to know you were taking care of him all this time.” Slim indeed felt immeasurable relief.

“Don’t be too grateful.” Joe solemnly looked at the door. “Not sure we did a very good job.”

Chad sobered. “He’s right. What Jess went through…it wasn’t pretty. We didn’t get to him fast enough.”

“You got to him, and that’s all that counts,” Slim assured. “He’s tough, and we’ll help him get through this.”

“Shucks, with some of my liniment, he’ll be back on his feet in no time,” Jonesy confidently proclaimed.

“Jonesy, there are some things even your liniment can’t cure,” Slim disagreed, but with humor.

The bedroom door opened, drawing everyone’s attention. “Slim.” Andy’s voice quavered.

“What is it, Andy?”

“Jess is sick, real sick. He…”

Behind him, sounds of retching could be heard. Everyone was at the doorway in moments, nearly colliding in their hurry to get to their mutual friend’s side.

Jess was heaving over the edge of the bed, but since his stomach was completely empty, there was nothing but a bit of saliva and bile on the floor. Jonesy pushed through the group and rushed to Jess, his doctoring kit in hand. Slim turned to the Rangers. “Could one of you go for the doctor? There’s one in Laramie.”

Chad nodded. “Amigo’s faster than most horses. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” He was out the door in seconds.

*****

The remaining group crept into the bedroom, making the small room even smaller. Jess’ face was waxy and pale, his eyes hooded as he flopped back onto his pillow. He watched Jonesy skeptically as the old man pulled up a stool next to the bunk.

Andy retreated to Slim’s side, who put a brotherly arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Is he gonna be alright, Slim?”

Slim hated his own insecurities as he answered, “I hope so, Andy.”

“Hey there, Jess,” Jonesy gently greeted. “Remember me?”

Jess brows scrunched together, and for a brief moment, Slim was scared that his friend wouldn’t remember the man.

“Ah…Jonesy?” His intonation rose doubtfully.

“Sure enough, son. I’m just gonna take a look at you. That alright?”

“Sure…” He searched the room, relieved to see the familiar face of Joe, whose identity, at the time, was the most concrete in his foggy mind.

Jonesy pulled down the blanket and opened Jess’ shirt. Everyone in the room sadly surveyed the boney ribs and sunken abdomen, remembering the sufficient muscular padding that was there before. Jonesy’s voice was a little shaky as he asked, “You been eating regular, Jess?”

Jess’ eyes closed tightly, and Joe intervened. “I wouldn’t be askin’ questions like that, not now.”

Jonesy nodded, his face sad. He felt Jess’ forehead. “He’s got a fever, alright. His breathing is bad, too. Somebody get me a pot of water going on the stove.”

They did the best to make Jess comfortable with cool cloths and herbal compresses to place on the sick man’s chest and neck. He’d drift off to sleep only to be awoken with more nausea attacks, making it impossible to keep any fluids down.

A seemingly endless period of time later, Chad returned with the doctor. He shooed all from the room, despite protests.

The men paced the room like expectant fathers waiting for news. Finally, the doctor came out, his face grave. “It isn’t the worst case I’ve seen of dehydration and malnutrition, but it comes close.”

“What about his headaches?” Chad asked.

“I think I know what those are from. After the war, I was a doctor in a psychiatric hospital.”

“What’s that?” Andy inquired.

“It’s a hospital for people whose minds were hurt, rather than their body. These poor souls struggled with intense mental illnesses, brought on by the horrors of war.”

Slim’s brows shot up toward his hairline. “And you think that’s what Jess has? A mental illness?”

The doctor hesitated before saying, “Ah, slightly. The human mind is a unique entity. It can only take so much. Some people can take more than others, but Jess has to take on much more than most ever have to…because he’s taking it all on at once.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the reason he lost his memories in the first place is probably tied to the stress of what he went through. Sometimes the mind just shuts itself off to protect itself. But seeing you, Slim, brought him back to himself. However, I think it was almost too much for him. Jess, from what I know about him, has had a tragic life. His family was murdered, he was in the war and a prison camp, has had friends betray him, and has lived dangerously for a living. Then he has a madman torture him until he admitted he’s somebody he’s not. Add all these things up, that would be a pretty miserable life for anyone. The mind can heal some with time, so to any average person, perhaps it would be possible to push past these things. However, Jess is remembering all of these things, all at once, when before they were blessedly forgotten. His mind is under attack right now from his own wretched memories and any guilt he might feel.”

Everyone remained speechless from the doctor’s speech. After a few moments of silence, he continued, “Jess, is a fighter. He’ll get through this, but it could be rough. The best you can do for him now is to try and get him eating and drinking. That is crucial at this point. His stomach rejects anything it’s given because he’s not used to eating. I know you’ve all been trying your best, but Jess could potentially die from his lack of nutrients if he doesn’t get some soon.”

Jonesy stepped forward. “I’ll see to it.”

“I know you’ll take good care of him, Jonesy.”

The doctor left soon thereafter, leaving everyone to stew over his foreboding words.

Joe shook his head glumly. “Never in my life… This is crazy.”

Jonesy was already getting some beef broth ready. “I’ve nursed many a man with the stomach ailment. I’ll get him ship-shape in no time.”

The little man marched with his tray to Jess’ bedside. Jess looked glumly at Jonesy, causing the man’s breath to hitch in sadness. Jess’ eyes were so full of anguish, Jonesy wondered if Jess would ever really be back to normal. “How about a little broth, Jess?”

Jess’ voice was raspy, even more than usual. “I’ll probably just hurl it back up.”

“You’d better not,” Jonesy gently teased. “You always groused about my cooking, sure, but if you choke it all back up on my clean floor you’ll really get it.”

A weak smile flitted across Jess’ drawn features. He accepted a spoonful of Jonesy’s tasty and nutrient-filled broth. He ate a few mouthfuls, and then Jonesy would wait for a spell before feeding the man some more. The slow and careful eating pattern helped settle Jess’ stomach, and thankfully the meal stayed down where it was supposed to.

“There, how’s that?”

Jess sighed and slid back down his pillows. “Fine, I hope.”

“You’ll be back to coffee soon.”

Jess’ eyes lit up, the first time Jonesy had seen since he had come back.

“You just gotta get better first.”

Jess stared at the far wall as Jonesy left. Better? Easier said than done.

*****

Jess’ fever hung on for a few days, but he was beginning to keep down much of what he put in his mouth. It was the nights, however, that were a bane to the entire house. Jess’ sleep was full of nightmares, even worse than normal due to the fever. Hallucinations were not uncommon, causing for much confusion for the person staying up with him. The men of the house took turns sitting by his side, often pinning the thrashing man to his bed.

Chad jerked awake from a fitful sleep in the Sherman bunkhouse. He rubbed his face wearily. He hadn’t imagined how difficult it would be getting Jess back home.

Joe Riley entered the small building, coffee pot and cups in his hands. “You get any sleep, Chad?”

Chad yawned. “What time is it?”

“Almost dawn.”

“If that’s the case, then no.”

“This just can’t go on forever, can it?”

Chad stared at the floor. “I don’t know, pard.”

Joe handed his friend a cup. “You think the Cap’n’s wondering about us?”

“How should I know? He’s probably written us off for dead or desertion.”

The long-legged man sat in a bunk adjacent to Chad. “What’re we gonna do, Chad?”

“Do?” Chad swung his legs down and held out the cup for another helping. He had gulped the brew down in two swallows, he was so desperate for the energy it gave.

“Once we’re finished here.” Joe ground the heel of his hand into his red-rimmed eyes. “You reckon we’re still Rangers?”

Chad took in his friend’s haggard appearance. Was that nervousness in those steady features? “You worried about something, Joe?”

Joe leaned forward, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper, though no one was around. “Chad, I became a Ranger on account I couldn’t stay outta trouble to save my life. It were the same for you. Shucks, I don’t think we were even allowed to leave Texas on account of our pasts. If we ain’t Rangers, then we ain’t lawmen. And if we ain’t lawmen…what the blazes are we gonna do? Up here, outta Texas…”

Chad took in his friend’s almost panicked words and felt his own uneasiness rise. “Well, I guess we should’ve thought of that before running up here.”

Joe looked hurt. “You knew we had to do this, Chad. You wanted to do this, for Jess, our friend.”

Chad felt adrenaline surge as he anxiously got up to pace. “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Joe stood as well. “We knew the risks. You knew the risks. But Jess was in trouble. He needed help, our help, and you were more than willing take him home.”

Chad’s head was beginning to throb. “I know. I don’t regret it. I just wish there had been another way.”

“There weren’t no other way, Chad. But if that’s the way you feel ‘bout it, then you can just…”

“What, leave? Are you really saying this to me?”

“Are you really sayin’ that friendship don’t matter? That Jess don’t matter? That I don’t matter?” Joe’s eyes blazed brightly, and suddenly Chad was terribly aware of how large Joe Riley was. He loomed over Chad, his great chest puffed out and arms held rigidly at his sides.

Chad clenched his fists, but then let the air out of his lungs in a long sigh. “No, no I’m not. I’m sorry, pard. I’m just so…tired.”

Joe put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, his kind-hearted personality staying at the forefront. “I know you are, pard. So am I.”

Chad smiled weakly. “As soon as this is over, we’ll go back to Texas. Maybe we can get our spots back. I mean, who’d take our place? Our reputations are just so…”

“Awful?”

“I was going to say unbeatable, in courageous acts that is. The Cap’n will beg us to reenlist.”

Joe ruffled Chad’s hair like he was a little boy. “You always know how to cheer me up.”

Chad glared and tried to put his wavy hair in order. “Dag-nab it, Joe. Don’t do that.”

Joe grinned far too brightly for the unholy hour.

*****

A couple hours later found the men in the house, devouring a big breakfast of ham and eggs. Jess’ fever had broken during the night, so they all decided to eat in his room to give him company.

Joe cleaned up his plate. “Real good, Jonesy.”

The little man preened. “Now see there, you lot? There’s a man who knows real cooking when he tastes it.”

Chad rubbed his stomach and laughed. “He’s got a cast iron belly, him and Reese. I can’t tolerate Mexican chili, but they eat it by the gallon.”

“Reese? That’s your friend, another Ranger?” Andy questioned.

“Yep, Ol’ Reese,” Joe murmured. “Wonder if he made it back to Laredo?”

Jess poked his half-eaten breakfast with his fork. “What about you?”

“What about who, Jess?” Slim had been startled by Jess speaking. Though Jess had been recovering physically, he was remaining stubbornly silent about his emotional state, as was his way.

Jess’ serious gaze took in the two Rangers. “Are you gonna be leavin’ soon?”

Chad laughed nervously. “Well, I don’t know. You want us to leave, Jess?”

Slim stood. “I think we need to get the teams ready, Andy.”

“What? The stage don’t come for an hour.”

“Well then, you can both help with the dishes,” Jonesy said and herded the Shermans out the door, catching on to Slim’s hint.

Jess watched them leave, completely aware of the situation. He turned back to the remaining two. “Well?”

“Jess, we…,” Chad stammered.

Jess pulled at the blanket covering his legs, his face brooding. “I know you took a terrible chance on me, bringin’ me up here. You didn’t know what the dickens I had been doin’ before I wound up in Texas, but you risked your jobs to cart me up here. So…thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Joe said automatically. Then he shook his head with a snort. “Well, shucks, Jess. We wouldn’t have left you out there.”

“Yeah, Jess,” Chad put in. He looked over at Joe, the memory of their early morning discussion ringing in his ears. “We knew what we were getting into the whole time. You’re our friend. We’d do anything to help you get better.”

Jess swallowed hard and stared at his hands on his lap. “Then…go home.”

“Come again?”

He repeated, “Go home. I don’t mean it bad, but you don’t need to stay here. I’ll be alright. I’m home now, thanks to you. Now it’s your turn to do the same. Texas is your place, the Rangers your family. You should go back.”

The two Rangers gaped in amazement. It was as though Jess had been spying on them earlier. “Jess,” Chad began, “You sure…I mean, we don’t want…”

“I ain’t on my death bed, so there ain’t no need for you two to be hangin’ ‘round me like a couple buzzards waitin’ for me to kick off.” Jess’ mouthy sass had apparently returned with his memories, though Chad doubted that it was ever completely gone. Jess’ reputation with a gun was second only to that of his snarky tongue.

“Well okay, then,” Chad laughed, pretending offense. “We’ll leave! Just as soon as we can!”

Jess sobered. “I’ll miss you, both of you. I owe you my life, several times over.”

Joe offered his hand, and Jess took it. They shook warmly as Joe said, “Texas Jack, it has been a pleasure.”

Jess growled and bore down on Joe’s hand.

“Hey! You’re gettin’ some strength back.”

“I’ll be along to thrash you, just as soon as I get my feet under me.”

Joe retrieved his hand. It throbbed a little, for Jess’ grip had indeed returned. “I’ll be lookin’ forward to it.”

Chad held out his hand. “Easy there, Jess. I need this hand for poker and fighting.”

Jess smirked. “That ain’t all you use it for. Always the soft touch with the ladies, if I recall correctly.”

“Your memory isn’t what it used to be…OW!”

*****

The Rangers set out the next morning. Jess sat in a chair on the porch with a cocky salute to send them off. Chad grinned and waved back. “That’s the Jess I remember.”

Joe wasn’t sure. “You think he’s goin’ to be alright? You knew what he was like before all this.”

The tall blond ranger waving from Jess’ side gave Chad the answer to Joe’s question. “I think so. He’s got good folks to look after him now. Everybody needs somebody to do that.”

“Like you’ve got me to steer you.”

“And you’ve got me,” Chad returned.

Joe raised one eyebrow. “I always felt like it was kinda one-sided, pard.”

“What? When have I ever steered you wrong?”

“You’re kiddin’, right?”

Chad feigned outrage and spurred ahead, but stopped at the top of the hill and waited for Joe to catch up. Both Rangers hesitated and the knoll, their eyes memorizing the scene below. Slim was perched on the rail of the porch, talking with Jess. Andy was skipping about at his chores, and Jonesy was hanging up laundry.

“I’ll sure miss this place, those people,” Joe sighed.

Chad reluctantly turned Amigo toward Cheyenne. “Me, too. It’s hard to make friends, just to have to say goodbye.”

*****

“Those two mean a lot to you, don’t they, Jess?”

Jess watched the two Rangers until they were out of sight. “Yeah.”

Slim recognized Jess’ expression to be the perpetual mask that lately he always wore: stay out. The rancher eased to the porch floor with a sigh, intent to start the day’s work.

“Slim, wait.”

Slim did as bidden, reseating himself on the railing. “What is it, Jess?”

Jess’ gaze remained on the hilltop, but he seemed less distant. “Let’s…talk.”

Slim tried not to seem too eager. “Sure, Jess. What you want to talk about?”

“I don’t want to talk ‘bout anythin’, but I need to say it anyhow.” Jess’ eyes trailed slowly over to Slim’s face, finding reassurance in the man’s steady features. “I know I’ve been nothin’ but a real pain and a bull-headed cuss these last few…months. You’ve put up with more than a man should have to. Then this”—he cast a hand over his entire length, indicating his fragile state—“happened. You fed me, cared for me. All this for a fella who ain’t worth your time.”

“Jess, you were worth every minute, and don’t you go thinking otherwise. Those two men who just left, they see the worth in you. They proved that by what they did, bringing you back here.” Slim took a deep breath before continuing. “I see the worth in you, Jess. You’re my friend. Shucks, you’re the only real friend I got.”

Jess hedged about a moment. “You don’t know what it means to me to hear you say that… But why, Slim? I’m…I’m a bad man.”

“Bad? Jess, don’t say that.”

“You know how hard it was to come back to myself after forgettin’ all the things I done? I’ve hurt so many people, Slim…”

“Jess, that’s ridiculous. Sure, you’ve had to use a gun now and again. So have I. Though I regret it, I knew it was something I had to do, that I was in the right. You were protecting what you believed in, and the Jess I know would never believe in something that was wrong.”

Jess stared hard at his hands. “You really believe that?”

Slim smiled gently. “As much as I believe that the sky is blue.”

Jess blinked hard, and Slim could have sworn that the dark man was trying to hold back tears. However, when Jess looked up, his composure was completely intact. In fact, Slim could detect a hint of mischievousness in those electric-blue eyes. “Well, Slim, you might want to rethink that belief. Just take a look right now.”

“What…” Slim cast a look over his shoulder at the sky above. Sure enough, rather than a cheerful blue, the sky was a dismal grey with a hint of white puffy clouds. “Well, even I have faults, I guess.”

“If we’re gonna start namin’ them, how ‘bout we start at your unfailin’ cheery attitude. Why, it’s enough to make a man go bonkers.” Jess was on a roll.

Slim opened his mouth to spar back, but instead shook his head with a grin. “Good to have you back, Jess.”

Jess returned the smile. “Good to be back, pard.”

*****

A chair shattered the window of the Cactus Saloon and bounced out onto the street. Amigo spooked and crashed into Buck, painfully crushing Joe’s and Chad’s legs together. “Ouch,” Chad grimaced. “Old home-sweet-home, Laredo.”

Joe matched Chad’s expression with an eye-roll of his own. “Don’t know how I could miss it.”

They pulled rein in front of the captain’s office. “Well,” Chad said, taking a fortifying breath. “Here goes nothing.”

They entered the office, the familiar surroundings making it seem like they had only been gone days rather than weeks.

Captain Parmalee was seated at his desk, hunched over some paperwork of some kind. He glanced up at their approach, not seeming startled to see them at all. “Hello there. Hold on a minute.”

Joe and Chad shared a surprised glance. They had expected outrage, javelin-like glares, and lengthy speeches about how a Ranger was supposed to behave. This congenial greeting was not at all like that.

Parmalee finished a paper and set his pen aside. He folded his hands on top of the stack and stared at the two men, his face blank, which was more frightening than a menacing glare. When he opened his mouth, both men shrunk in terror. However, what he said was completely unimagined. “Have I ever seen you before? You look slightly familiar to me.”

“Ah…it’s us, Cap’n, Riley, and Cooper, reportin’ for duty,” Joe said uneasily.

A foxy smile graced Parmalee’s features. “Oh, yes. I remember now. You two got lost somewhere. How nice that you managed to find your way back.”

Chad could hold back no longer. “Well, it was like this, Cap’n…”

“QUIET!”

Joe and Chad jerked to attention stiffly.

Parmalee continued. “As I was saying, it truly is wonderful that you came back. We have been short on help around here. I was just saying to one of my men how hard it is to find good help these days. He should be around here somewhere, I think.” He got to his feet and walked around the two terrified young men and leaned out the door. “You! Come in here!” He returned to his seat, a wily expression on his face.

A man clomped into the office. “You called, Cap’n?”

Joe and Chad whirled. “REESE!”

“YOU TWO!” Reese grabbed his friends’ arms excitedly. “Where have you been?!”

“HOLD IT!” Parmalee’s command cut through any catching-up. The three snapped to alertness.

“Bennett,” Parmalee calmly beckoned.

“Yes, Cap’n,” Reese answered while stepping forward cautiously.

“These two think they want to come back to work. What do you think? Are we shorthanded around here?”

“Ah…” Reese looked uneasily between his friends and his commanding officer. “Well, they seem likeable enough fellas.”

Parmalee positively beamed. “That’s just what I thought! Bennett, I’ll put their duties under your supervision.”

“And what would that be?” Reese asked, confused.

The captain looked completely and utterly devilish as he leaned forward over his desk. “Stable duty. One. Entire. Month. Without vacation, and most definitely without pay!”

“But, Cap’n,” Chad tried to say, but Joe kicked his friend’s shin.

“What he means is, right away, Cap’n.”

“Good,” Parmalee purred. “Now get to it!”

*****

“Why did we want to come back here again?” Chad asked Joe as the Southerner hauled out another wheelbarrow load from the stables.

Joe forked out some fresh hay into a stall. “Pride of the Rangers, Chad…whatever that is.”

“Hey,” Reese interrupted as he entered the building. “Got a letter for you guys. All the way from Wyoming.”

Joe threw down his pitchfork, snatching the letter out of Reese’s hand. “It’s from Jess!”

Chad eagerly peered over Joe’s shoulder. “Well, open it!”

Joe did just that and began to read aloud, stumbling over Jess’ difficult handwriting.

Chad and Joe, howdy from Laramie.

Things are goin real good since you went back to Texas. I’m almost back to my awnry self, so Slim’s been tellin me. He finely let me outta the house yesterday long enuf to go see my horse. Trav was gettin real skinny. Andy says that he wouldn’t hardly eat nothin while I was away. Guess we look bout the same right now. It wouldn’t take a very strong wind to blow the 2 of us over. He was real glad to see me tho. I’m hopin he’ll get back on his feed real soon, same as me.

 I hope this letter finds you 2 Rangers back in Laredo, workin for the law. You fellas seem like a good team at keepin bad uns like me in line. Keep up the good work.

Jess Harper (not Texas Jack. Ever)

PS: Andy says he reckons to join up with you fellas and become a Ranger when he’s bigger, so long as I ride along with him. Ha ha, I said.

Chad grinned broadly. “That Jess, sure glad to hear he’s doing better!” He squinted at Jess’ nearly illegible script. “But I don’t know how you read that.”

Joe glared. “Some of us just didn’t have the schoolin’ like you did, Chad. Now hush up, there’s another letter here.”

Dear Chad and Joe,

Jess doesn’t know I’m sneaking in this note, but I just had to write a quick thank you. Words cannot express how grateful I am to the both of you for helping Jess find his way back. He went through too much, but he’s tough and starting to mend. Jess of course says that he is fine, but he would say that if he had no blood left in his body and two broken legs. Though he was pretty grumpy those first couple days after you left, he has gotten back to his usual sassy mood in no time at all; a quick visit from his friend Trampas sped up his recovery. They are two of a kind. Though I should be ashamed for saying this, I almost miss those first days of silence. Jonesy has forgotten his pity for Jess and they are back to getting into spats, but I think deep down he really likes that Texas twister we’ve got for a friend.

I truly hope that your captain has accepted you back into the Rangers. If he has not, I would be happy to write character references for you, even though they probably wouldn’t do much good. I’m sure there are some towns up here in Wyoming that could use good lawmen such as yourselves. Jess would love having you closer, as would Andy and I.

Thank you again,

Slim Sherman

Both Rangers sighed and let the letters’ words sink in. “This is it,” Joe said finally.

“What is?” Chad inquired.

“This is the pride of the Rangers…doin’ stuff like this.”

Chad smiled softly and genuinely and gripped Joe’s large shoulder. “You hit the nail on the head, pard.”

“You two,” a voice snickered.

“The two friends’ broke their moment with an annoyed look at their other partner. “What is it, Reese?” Chad demanded.

“You guys, gettin’ all sentimental.” He covered his mouth with his hand to hold in the mirth.

“Well, at least we got friends,” Joe growled. “All you got is the Cap’n.”

“Yeah, Reese,” Chad commented. “We’re not pards anymore since we’re off duty.”

Reese’s mouth dropped open. “You mean to tell me that we’re only pards when we’re workin’?”

“That’s what partners means, isn’t it, Joe?”

Joe nodded seriously. “Yep, that’s what it means, Chad.”

“Why you…,” Reese sputtered.

Chad and Joe both burst into chuckles, not able to hold in their mirth at Reese’s dejected countenance.

“YOU TWO!” Reese roared as he realized that he was being put on. He stalked out of the building shouting, “Get back to work!”

The Rangers went back at it, but somehow, it wasn’t as bad.

***The End***

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