Atonement (by Helen C)

Summary:   Jess is haunted by the past.
Category:  Laramie
Genre: Western
Rated;  PG
Word Count:  24,200


 

Jess carefully edged himself along the side of the building, his iron in his hand. Johnny Lewis was dangerous and had the local townspeople in fear of their lives since he had been spotted in the area, and, fast as he was, Jess knew he’d need to be on his toes to get the drop on him. That’s why Mort had asked him along. His reflexes were lightning quick and he had accuracy to match. He’d need it. You didn’t tend to get second chances with desperate men like Lewis. He and Mort had trailed him to the McCrory place 15 miles north of Laramie and now he was holed up in a derelict barn on their property, the McCrory’s safely in the house with instructions to stay put until it was over. There was a price on Lewis’s head, but that didn’t matter none to Jess; too many people had fallen victim to Lewis’s callousness and he just wanted an end to it. He and Mort intended to take him in and set him before a judge; still, they both knew that Lewis would have something to say about that and, inevitably, it would likely be settled by a bullet right here.

Now Lewis was cornered. Mort had headed around to the rear of the barn and Jess had the front covered. Trouble was, there were too many places to hide in a barn — dark places where you couldn’t see them but, if you stood in the doorway with the daylight behind you, they could sure see you and pick you off as easily as a tin can on a rock. Nope, they’d either have to wait him out or risk it and go in there after him. Jess grimaced and pulled back the hammer on his .45. He had never been big on patience. It was a calculated risk but one he was prepared to take. He was confident enough in his keen eye and reflexes that he would see Lewis before the fugitive had a chance to take him out. He edged closer to the door and listened for any rustling, shuffling, breathing, any sign of exactly where Lewis might be. But all he could hear was his own quickened breath. Lewis hadn’t eluded the law all this time by being careless. He had to make a decision. There was too much work to be done at the relay station to waste time here waiting for Lewis to make his move. It was time to finish it, once and for all.

He and Mort had a plan. If he gave Lewis more than a second’s look at him as he headed into the barn, the temptation might get the better of Lewis and force him to take a shot at him, and it would enable Jess to locate where exactly in the barn he was. It was risky, but Jess was confident that he could get out of the way fast enough to avoid the bullet, spot Lewis and get Mort in to swing the odds in their favor. He took a deep breath and then made his move.

Mort Corey was thinking along similar lines at the rear of the barn. He had been in this situation any number of times before, but the adrenalin that was pumping through his veins was the same now as it had been the first time he had gone out to bring someone in, knowing that it so easily could be him taking a fatal bullet. He had seen it happen enough times to deputies and members of posse’s who had ridden out with him. It was the risk of wearing the badge. Still, Mort Corey was heart-sore every time he had to carry a good man, trussed and slumped over a horse, back to his kin and then see them buried in the ever-expanding Laramie cemetery. He knew the younger, more impulsive man who had ridden out with him this time would already be in position. In Jess Harper and Slim Sherman, well, there weren’t two men in all of the territory of Wyoming he would trust more with his back. He hated to ask them but Lewis had already killed his Deputy, Bill Evers. Jess had volunteered this time, and much as he hated to place the likeable young man’s life in danger, well, secretly, he was glad to have him with him. There wasn’t anyone faster or sharper with a gun than Jess Harper when he needed to be. And that was the unique thing about him; fast as he was, he wasn’t trigger-happy. He only used it when he had to, and that was good as far as Mort was concerned.

Mort eased open the rear door a crack and slipped inside, closing it again behind him, gun drawn at the ready. If he had it figured right, Jess would try his best to attract Lewis’s attention his way to allow him to get in unnoticed. Still, he wasn’t taking any chances; as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he scanned his surroundings, looking for any sign out of the ordinary, any signs of life that didn’t belong there. There was nothing. At the other end of the barn, the door suddenly opened and he saw Jess make his move, his silhouette standing out starkly against the glare of the early afternoon sun. He could tell what Jess was trying to do — draw Lewis’s fire so that he would give away his position and allow them to close in on him. It was a risky move but Mort had seen Jess try it and succeed a dozen times. But Lewis was smart. He had obviously realized their intent and hadn’t taken the bait. At the other end of the building, Mort saw Jess edge away from the light source and watched it gradually extinguished as Jess eased the door shut. Mort blinked as his eyes adjusted to the heightened gloom. There were still mini-shafts of light streaming through the cracks and Mort could just make Jess out, merging in and out of the shadows. He needed to keep sight of him, watch his back as Jess would his. Mort edged forward, following the plan.

Jess had figured that Lewis would probably be too smart to fall for the ruse. Still, it had been worth a try to maybe smoke him out. He looked up towards the hayloft and the rafters. Yeah, there were any number of places Lewis could be up there, a good vantage point from which to pick them off. But it would also be his own trap; even if he got one of them, there would be no way to get down without being taken out by the other. Besides, Jess figured if either one of them had a mind to go up and look, he wouldn’t even get halfway up the ladder before being shot in the back by Lewis, whom Jess was convinced was hiding somewhere down here just waiting for one of them to try. Nope, Jess knew exactly how men like Lewis did their thinking and had told Mort so when they were planning how this would go. They would neither of them give Lewis the satisfaction. Jess continued on his route towards the south side of the barn, on the opposite side to Mort heading north, both making for the entrance to the barn that the other had entered in, alert for any sign and sound that didn’t originate from the other. Lewis was patient; Jess had to give him that. They had both seen him come in here and there were only two ways in and out, and they had them covered so there was no question that he was in here. But where the heck was he? Jess felt the sweat trickle down the back of his neck. It wasn’t that it was that hot; in fact, in the dark and dingy barn, it was pretty cool, but Jess was getting tired of this game of cat and mouse. He and Mort had almost reached the opposite ends of the barn and there was still no indication of where Lewis could be. If he didn’t make his move soon, they would have to resort to Plan B, which Jess didn’t relish. Torch the barn; smoke him out. Jess didn’t much hold with the idea. There was a risk that Lewis would be burned rather than be taken alive and, murderer or not, nobody deserved to die that way. He knew that from personal experience.

He had now reached the rear entrance of the barn, the one that Mort had entered from a few minutes before. He stood a few feet away his back to the door and scanned the room once more. What had he missed? He had checked all the stalls; there weren’t any other places he could hide. He looked down towards Mort, who was gesturing up towards the hayloft. Well, it was the only place left to look. Maybe he had figured Lewis wrong. Maybe he had just been desperate enough to head high and think about the consequences later. Jess shrugged and gestured to Mort to cover him while he had a look. He was more nimble than the older man and had more chance of dodging the bullet that was likely to come his way once he started to climb the ladder. But he didn’t get his foot on the bottom rung before things began to happen. All of a sudden he was bathed in a sudden shroud of light as the barn door opened behind him. He turned, lightning quick, his finger already pressuring the trigger. But instead of being met with the retreating figure of Lewis making good his escape out of the door, the figure was a much smaller one — one of a child. Jess froze. He couldn’t make out the features of the child, the aura of the sunlight around him casting his features into silhouette but giving him an almost angelic like quality. Was it a he? From the size and shape, he figured it was — had short hair — and, now he could just make out breaches as his eyes adjusted. He was maybe six or seven years old, no more than that. The boy just stood there; didn’t move. Why didn’t he move?

“Jess, look out!”

As if in slow motion, Jess became vaguely aware of a movement behind and below him. What could be below him in a barn? His increasingly muzzy head was struggling to understand what was happening. As if in slow motion, he turned and saw the figure emerge from the trap door that had opened up and was aware of the gun pointed right at him. Jess was aware he still had his gun in his hand but it was as if, suddenly, he had forgotten what it was or what he needed to do with it. He saw the grinning face of the man, as he squeezed the trigger, heard the thunder of the discharge, closed his eyes and waited for the bullet to consign him to darkness.

“Jess? You alright? You’re shaking like a leaf.”

He came back to himself to see the concerned face of Mort Corey in front of him. He still had his gun in his hand but Mort was right; his hand was shaking so bad he couldn’t have used it right then, if he tried. Jess was confused. “Mort, what happened?”

“Well, that’s what I was going to ask you? Lewis nearly got the drop on you.”

Jess turned to see the body of the fugitive, his feet still dangling over the side of the trap door he had emerged from. A bullet hole square between the shoulder blades. Of course — why hadn’t he thought of that? Many of these old barns had storm cellars underneath that also doubled up for extra storage space. Lewis had been there all the time just waiting his moment.

“You get him Mort?”

“Yeah, I got him Jess; otherwise, he would have gotten you. Sure he was fast but you’re usually much faster. It’s not like you to freeze.”

Before Jess could answer, Jeb McCrory appeared at the barn door, breathless and white as a ghost. He looked at both men, wide-eyed, and then to the body lying just beyond them.

“Now, Jeb, I thought I told you all to stay in the house until one of us came to tell you it was safe. That’s the quickest way to get a bullet in you, come crashing in like that.” Mort didn’t mean to sound so harsh but seeing about one of the best friends — a man could have almost got a bullet and do absolutely nothing to try and save himself — had him ill at ease.

“I’m sorry, Sheriff; It’s my young’un, Saul. One minute he was there, next minute I turned my back and he was gone. This is where he likes to play, and with that Lewis fella around, I just had to come lookin’ and then I heard the shootin’ and…”

“Alright, Jeb. Your boy did show up — nearly got Jess here killed and himself in the process. He went off running that way.” Mort gestured towards a copse of trees behind the house where the boy had turned tail and ran to when he had seen the Sheriff kill Lewis. Mort regretted that a young boy had to see something like that. Still, he was young enough to forget. “Reckon he’ll be a little shook up and will be wanting his Ma but he’ll be alright. You can tell Laura it’s safe to come out now. We’ll be riding out shortly.”

McCrory tipped his hat and ran off in the direction his boy had taken a few moments before. He was a simple man; family had come late in life to him and he struggled to make ends meet if the disheveled state of his property was anything to go by. And now he had almost lost the most precious thing he had — his only son. Mort knew Jess wouldn’t want anything to do with the reward money. Nope, the sheriff had a good idea where the money would be put to much better use.

He turned back to his young friend who was still trembling, his face white as a sheet. “Jess, I’ve never seen you this way before. Now, you gonna tell me what just happened?”

“I dunno, Mort; I wish I could. I mean, that kid, I could have killed him. I turned around and I was so close to squeezing the trigger and…..”

“Yeah, and if it had been anyone else but you, Jess, that kid probably would be dead by now. But your reactions are just as quick when it comes to stopping yourself from shootin’ someone as they are when you have to pull the trigger.”

“Yeah, maybe….” Jess wasn’t convinced; there was something about this that had shaken him to his very core, unlike anything he had ever felt before. Yet, at the same time, there was also a sense of familiarity, as if there was something at the back of his mind, a remembrance that he couldn’t quite reach. It didn’t make sense. None of it did.

Mort clapped him on the arm. “Come on, let’s get Lewis back to Laramie. When we’ve completed all the paperwork, I’ll buy you a whiskey in the saloon. Help steady those nerves.”

Jess replaced his gun in his holster without replying. It took two attempts to get it back in, his hand was shaking that much. Mort regarded him worriedly as they worked to wrap a blanket around the body. Jess was shaking so much he couldn’t even tie the knots to secure it. The sheriff gently took the rope from the younger man and completed the job, sending him instead to fetch Lewis’s and their own horses ready for the journey back.

The journey back was just as worrying. Jess seemed to have retreated deep within himself. The intense young man never had been much for small talk but over the past few years, the foundations of a strong friendship had been laid and Mort liked to think he knew as much about Jess as the young man allowed anyone to know. He had seen Jess fired up, had seen him at his most mischievous, even seen him with his defenses laid low by a pretty girl from time to time, but he had never seen him like this. Mort knew enough about Jess to know that he had faced death enough times not to be afraid of confronting his own mortality. No, whatever it was that had him spooked like this, it was much more than this and it had something to do with young Saul McCrory. Before he and Jess had ridden out, the boy had emerged with his father — a little shook up but none the worse for his ordeal — but Mort had noticed that Jess couldn’t look at him. In fact, when Jeb had tried to bring the boy over to say “sorry to the Sheriff for bustin’ in on them”, Jess had ridden off ahead with Lewis’s body, mumbling that “the boy didn’t need to see that slung over a horse.” Mort got the sense that, whilst he couldn’t argue with that sentiment, it was a convenient excuse not to have to face the boy. There was something else going on.

By the time they got back to Laramie, it was dusk and they were both exhausted from the afternoon’s events and the long dusty ride back. Jess took Lewis over to the undertaker while Mort headed straight back to the Sheriff’s office to complete the paperwork. He was just finishing up, feeling more than ready for that whiskey, when Jess came through the door. Without saying a word, Jess removed the silver deputy’s star that had been pinned to his chest and placed it on the table in front of the sheriff. Mort automatically opened his desk drawer, picked up the badge and placed it in there, all the while, not taking his eyes off the younger man who still appeared to be in a state of shock.

“Jess, everyone freezes at some point, it’s normal….”

“No, that ain’t it, Mort… I……” Suddenly the animated Jess was back, as if something had been triggered, his pupils darting back and forth as if he were trying to pluck at some dim distant remembrance that refused to reveal itself.

“What is it, boy?” Mort was concerned. He had never seen Jess like this before.

Jess thumped the table in frustration. Whatever it was that had almost resurfaced, it had gone again, deeply submerged within his sub consciousness, out of reach.

“Forget it…”

“Well, how can I when…”

“I said forget it.” It came out more harshly than he had meant it to, but Mort Corey knew Jess Harper well enough to know when to push and when to back away. And now was the time to back away. Whatever was eating him, the Harper defensive barriers were well and truly up and nothing he, Mort Corey, was going to say or do right now would bring them down.

Mort just nodded. He got up and reached for his hat that was hanging behind the door and placed it on his head. “I’m going for that whiskey now. Can I buy you one?”

Jess swallowed and shook his head. “No, I think I’m just going to go home, Mort. Slim and Daisy’ll want to know how things turned out. No sense in leaving Daisy worrying any longer than she has to be.”

“Alright, Jess. Give Mrs. Cooper and Slim my best.”

“Sure.” Jess headed to the door. He got to the doorway and then stopped. As if considering for a moment. “Mort? About what happened today? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything to anyone.”

“Jess, you know me better than to ask that. And besides, I don’t know what happened. I can’t tell what I don’t know.”

Jess nodded in acknowledgement and made to leave.

“But Jess? Whatever it is, boy, don’t let it eat at you too long. Whenever you’re ready to talk, I’ll be waiting, no matter what.”

Jess carried on out the door without looking back, Mort’s words echoing in his head the whole way back to the relay station. ‘Whatever it is, don’t let it eat at you too long’. Whatever it is…he needed the answer to that question himself.

*****

The young man’s heart was racing. He was holed up inside the building, sweat trickling down the back of his neck, the smell of stale sweat, ripe in his nostrils. His own sweat, soaked deep into the fibers of his gray tunic. The heat was stifling but it wasn’t just the heat that had the sweat pouring off him. It was fear — abject, unadulterated fear. The adrenalin was pouring through his veins and he could hear his own heartbeat throbbing in his ears. He tried to quiet his breathing; however, what with that and the pounding in his ears, he was sure he would give himself away. There was the rustling sound again. There was someone out there. No doubt about it. He clutched his rifle, and with slippery hands, fumbled with the bolt. He needed to be ready. He was the best shot there was; everyone in his unit knew it. Still, true as that may have been, he was still human, and he may not have admitted it out loud to anyone, but he was afraid. The sound was louder now, coming from right outside the wooden shack. He couldn’t be sure – could have been a twig snapping – yet, so too could it be a rifle being primed, right outside the door. There was nowhere to run. He waited in the gloom, facing the door, ready. As the door gradually eased opened, the streaming sunlight almost blinding him, the silhouette appeared and he squeezed the trigger….

“Jess…..Jess? Wake up.”

Jess woke up with a start, staring, panting and drenched with sweat. Gentle, unseen hands pushed him back.

“Whoa, easy there, pard. That must have been one helluva dream.”

It took Jess a moment to regain his bearings. It had seemed so real…What had seemed so real? He concentrated on slowing his breathing, and as he regained his focus, he turned to see the worried figure of Slim, perched on the edge of his bed, his face a mask of concern for his friend.

“You alright?”

Jess nodded and swung his legs over the side of the bed, and ran his hand through his damp hair. “Yeah,” he panted. He didn’t sound that convincing.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“About what?”

“Well, whatever it was that had you yellin’ like that. Scared Daisy half to death.”

Jess started. “Daisy?”

“Yeah, she’s gone to fetch you some water. Figured you’d need it when we could eventually rouse you. It took a while Jess. We thought you were sick or somethin’.”

Jess shook his head, still trying to calm his breathing enough to convince them he was all right. It was one thing to wake Slim up but quite another to have woken Daisy, who slept on the other side of the house. He didn’t want her worried. He became aware of a light filtering into the room as Daisy approached from the parlor with a lantern in one hand and a glass of water in the other. The small lady’s face mirrored Slim’s concern as she handed Jess the water and watched him gulp it down with shaking hands, more of it spilling down his front than going where it was intended. He handed back the glass and gave a wan smile. “Thanks Daisy. Sorry I woke you. You go back to bed. I’m alright.”

Daisy looked at Slim and he nodded to her as if to reassure her that he would take care of Jess. “Alright, Jess. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Jess watched her go. He hated to see Daisy look so worried, especially when he was the cause. He rose on unsteady legs not able to disguise their wobble as Slim jumped up to steady him.

“Hey, where do you think you’re going?”

Jess looked at the disheveled state of his bed, his blankets and cover sheet flung onto the floor, his pillow looking like it had taken a fair pummeling; the base sheet on his bed soaking wet and sweat stained. Whatever had caused all this, he couldn’t now remember what it was but it had been enough to terrify him in his dreams and leave him feeling more than a little disturbed now he was awake. What he was also very conscious of, though, was the overpowering smell of stale sweat in his nostrils and the need to rid himself of it at all costs.

“Goin’ to take a shower, cool off some.”

Slim raised an eyebrow, “In the middle of the night?”

“Yeah, in the middle of the night. Then I think I’ll bed down in the bunkhouse. Don’t wanna disturb you or Daisy anymore.”

“Jess, you don’t have to do that.”

“Yeah, I do. You go back to bed Slim. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah. Like you say, must’ve been just a bad dream.”

Slim nodded and patted his younger friend on the back. He didn’t look convinced but he knew better than to argue with Jess. “All right Jess. See you in the morning. Try to get some sleep, huh? Busy day rounding up steers tomorrow.”

Jess, nodded silently, grabbed his clothes draped over the chair where he left them and a towel from the washstand, and headed out the back door of their room leading out to the yard. The cool air on his sweat soaked chest felt good as he headed towards the shower house. He stood under the icy cold water for far longer than he usually would, scrubbing his skin raw to rid himself of the odor that was still strong and pungent in his nostrils. An hour later, he lay on his back wide-awake in the bunkhouse. Despite the scrubbing, the smell was still as pungent as ever.

He was lying there still when the first gray light of dawn broke in the sky, unable or unwilling to attempt sleep anymore. Still greatly troubled from the night’s experience, he grabbed his clothes and dressed. Maybe a hard day’s mustering would help him work through whatever it was that was lurking at the back of his mind, just beyond his reach.

Daisy watched out the kitchen window as Jess headed across the yard to the corral to saddle up for the day’s round-up. She turned back to the table where Slim and Mike were finishing up their breakfast and regarded the untouched plate of bacon and cornbread where Jess had been sitting a moment before. She had been concerned to see Jess sitting there with a faraway look in his eye as he had distractedly played with his food. From the dark circles under his eyes and pale pallor that stood out starkly against his unshaven stubble, she could tell that, despite his assurances to her that he had, he hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep after the nightmare or whatever it had been that he had experienced during the night. From the state of his bed each morning, Jess always had seemed to experience vivid dreams and Slim had confirmed to her that Jess was apt to talk and travel a lot in the night. It had been something that he had accepted and gotten used to and even managed to sleep through.

However, what had happened last night was far different. Daisy couldn’t forget the blood curdling and despairing screams that had come from the young man. There was nothing much that either of them could make sense of aside from the repetitive and despairing cries of “No……!” It had taken some minutes to rouse Jess, and whatever it had been that had disturbed his dreams, still appeared to be doing so in his conscious state. And now all he had to go out and do a full day’s work on was three cups of strong coffee and his own stubbornness.

Slim looked up from his coffee and regarded the worried expression on Daisy’s face. Without asking, he knew exactly what was bothering her. It was bothering him too. He looked over at the young boy gobbling up the last remnants of his hot cakes. Mike had been blissfully unaware of the night’s events. Daisy had always said that that boy could sleep through a tornado if he was tired enough and last night had been no different. He was glad. Whatever it was that was affecting Jess, he wouldn’t want a curious boy pestering him about it. They had to tread carefully if they were going to get to the bottom of it all, so it was better if Mike was kept out of it. “Hey Mike, stage will be in soon. Why don’t you go out and start preparing a new team. I’ll be out to help shortly.”

“Sure, Slim.” The boy grabbed at a piece of corn bread and was soon out of the door, clearly pleased at the confidence shown in him. He was growing up fast and proving to be more than capable around the place. Daisy smiled gratefully at Slim’s perceptiveness. “Thank you Slim. It makes him feel so good when you get him to take charge of the stage.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s growing up fast — too fast!” Slim clasped the little lady on the shoulder. “Besides, I had an ulterior motive. Figured you had things on your mind you couldn’t discuss with Mike around.”

Daisy patted the young man’s hand and turned back to the window; Jess was now mounted and was riding out, to be joined by Slim once the stage had been through. “Oh Slim. What on earth was all that about last night?”

Slim watched his friend ride out and sighed. “I don’t know, Daisy. He says he doesn’t remember.”

Daisy turned to Slim. “You don’t think he’s telling the truth?”

Slim shook his head. “I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s lying exactly but something’s definitely got him spooked. I mean, I’ve had to wake Jess up before from dreams where he was yellin’ but usually he just rolls over and goes back to sleep again, and the next morning he can’t remember a thing. This is different. This time he didn’t want to go back to sleep, as if he was afraid of what he would face if he did. And that’s something new.”

Daisy looked again at the discarded food. Whatever it was, it was enough to kill his appetite and it took a lot to do that to Jess Harper. A real lot. “Any idea what it could be, Slim?”

Slim shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I guess there’s still a lot about Jess that we don’t know. He had a lot of history before he came here, Daisy, and I’ve always figured that he would tell us what we needed to know when he was ready to tell it.” He looked at her worried expression. By the looks of her, she hadn’t had much luck getting back to sleep afterwards either. Well, that was three of them. A familiar sound greeted his ears; the stage was approaching. Slim gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze as he grabbed his hat. “Try not to worry, Daisy. I’m sure whatever it is bothering Jess, a hard days muster will help him work it off and he’ll be hungry enough to eat your pantry bare come supper time. You’ll see.”

Daisy smiled weakly. It was a nice try but it wasn’t going to stop her worrying all day. Especially as the trail grub she had prepared for both boys for their lunch was still sitting on the table where it had been left. As she handed his to Slim, as well as the younger man’s, it didn’t escape either of them just how distracted Jess must be right now to not even think of food, nor how worried the other was about him.

*****

It was a pretty uneventful morning. The plan of action had been to round up 50 head of steers for a buyer who was coming through in the next few days. Aside from his being a little quieter than usual, there was no sign at all of Jess being distracted by anything other than the task at hand, and the events of the night before were soon relegated to the back of Slim’s mind as he and Jess put in a hard and productive morning’s work. By the time the herd was rounded up and fenced in, and from the growling in his stomach, Slim knew it was past lunchtime. With the horses tied up and grazing, Jess had headed off on foot down to the river to refill both of their canteens while Slim retrieved both their lunch packs from his saddle bag and sat down beneath the shade of a tree to take a well deserved break. Never one to stand on ceremony, Slim tucked into the roast chicken and corn bread packed for him by Daisy, enjoying the warmth of the spring sunlight on his face. Drowsy from the combination of the interrupted night, the morning’s exertions and the full stomach, he must have nodded off. He wasn’t sure how long had passed until his nap was rudely interrupted by shouting. Slim jumped up with a start. Jess was running towards him calling his name.

Slim ran down towards his pard who was out of breath from obviously having run all the way back up the hill. “Jess, what is it?”

“Did you see the kid?” Jess’s eyes were darting back and forth, scanning the surrounding hills.

“What kid?”

“The McCrory kid. Dark hair, about six years old? He had to have come this way. You must have seen him?”

Slim was confused. What was he talking about? From this vantage point at the top of the hill, you could see for miles around, and it was all open ground with no sign of anyone, let alone a boy.

“McCrory? Wasn’t it the McCrory ranch where you and Mort caught up with Lewis? Why that’s 40 miles away, Jess. What would the McCrory kid be doing all the way out here? It doesn’t make sense.”

Jess was looking agitated. No, it didn’t make sense. Didn’t change the fact that he had seen him, though, right there in front of him down by the river, plain as day. And now he had just disappeared into thin air. That didn’t make sense either.

Slim looked at his friend, worried for him, “You sure it was the McCrory kid?”

Jess scanned the horizon, looking for any sign of the boy, that he wasn’t losing his mind. It was pointless; the boy couldn’t have moved that quickly. He, distractedly, ran his fingers through his damp hair. “I dunno, Slim. I thought it was. I guess I must have been mistaken.”

Slim clasped his friend’s shoulder. He tried to sound as up-beat as he could to disguise the worry he was feeling for him. “Well, if there is a kid on the loose out here, we’d best have a scout around see if we can find him. Not the best country to be running around in on your own. Come on, let’s ride back down to the river, pick up the canteens, and see if we can pick up any tracks.”

Jess had entirely forgotten about the water. What on earth was wrong with him? The smell of stale sweat enveloped him again threatening to make him gag. It had never bothered him before. Why was it so overpowering now? He nodded. He knew Slim was only humoring him. They both knew they wouldn’t find any tracks. There were none to be found.

It was approaching dusk by the time they rode back into the yard and tied up their horses in the corral. After what they had both known would be a fruitless search for the boy, Jess had withdrawn further into himself. Slim had offered to ride into Laramie that evening to check with Mort if there had been any missing children but Jess had told him not to bother. They both knew there weren’t going to be any. They had spent the remainder of the afternoon mending fences on the north boundary of the ranch. Jess had refused the offered lunch pack and it remained unopened in Slims saddlebag.

Daisy was on the porch to greet them as the rode in. Slim could tell just by looking at her that she had spent the whole day worrying and waiting for them to both come back. He wished he had better news for her. Wouldn’t help Daisy any to hear Jess hadn’t eaten a thing all day.

As they dismounted, tying their horses at the corral, Mike came running out of the barn to greet them. He looked up to both young men and missed them when they weren’t around.

“Hey Jess, Slim. Want me to see to your horses?”

Slim smiled. He would have laid good money on Daisy having put him up to that. Twelve year olds just weren’t that perceptive. Nope, it took the wisdom of Daisy Cooper to figure that they’d both be tired and sore and would appreciate such a gesture. Still, he fully expected Jess to refuse. Didn’t matter how tired he was, Jess never saw to his own needs before those of his horse.

Still, there was a first time for everything.

“Thanks Mike. Give him plenty of bran in his feed. He’s done a good days work.” Jess handed the small boy the reins, then started towards the house.

It was clear that Mike had expected a knock back too, but now he looked as if he was going to burst with pride at being awarded such a privileged task.

Slim was taken aback. “Thank, Mike. Don’t be too long. I’m sure Daisy’ll have supper ready any time now.” He handed the reins of his own mount to the boy, his gaze firmly on the back of his partner as he headed towards the house. His concern mounting as he followed.

Daisy watched as the dark-haired young man approached. It was plain to see from his hunched shoulders and slow and weary tread that he was worn out. As he drew near, she noted with dismay that he cast his head lower as if unable to look her in the eye. Surely he wasn’t going to enter the house without acknowledging her? As he drew level, she reached out her hand to his arm. “Jess?”

He looked up momentarily at her as if he was afraid to meet her eye, lest she see something there he didn’t want to be seen. “Evenin’, Daisy.”

Before she could say anything else, he had gone into the house.

Daisy looked despairingly into Slim’s eyes as he drew level. His grim faced expression said all that she needed to know. Jess was still deeply affected by whatever it was that had occurred the night before. This was something more than a simple nightmare. Slim patted her arm. “Come on, Daisy, let’s go inside. Whatever’s cookin’ in there smells real good.”

As they entered the house, Jess was already coming back out of the room he and Slim shared with a towel slung over his shoulder. His eyes fixed firmly on the ground.

“Supper’s almost ready, Jess? Chicken pie and potatoes?” Daisy did her best to sound light and up-beat. It was far from how she was feeling.

Jess hesitated in the doorway, his eyes still firmly planted on the ground. “Just gonna clean off this cattle dust first.”

This was unusual. Ordinarily, it was as much as she could do to get them all to wash up their hands before eating. For Jess to want to go and take a shower before supper, well, this just wasn’t like him at all.

“Well, alright, Jess. I’ll have supper on the table when you get back.”

It was a full half hour later and they were still waiting – Slim, Mike and Daisy, sitting around the table waiting to eat, the food rapidly growing cold. Slim’s patience was wearing thin, and not just from the hunger pangs gnawing away at his stomach. Daisy had gone to a lot of trouble to cook this meal and had clearly spent the day worrying about Jess, and now he couldn’t even do her the courtesy of putting in an appearance.

He got up purposefully and strode towards the door.

“Slim?”

He turned to see the worry stricken face of the little lady regarding him.

“Be careful with him.”

He nodded grimly and continued out onto the porch. He’d try for her sake, except, right now, he wanted answers and Jess was going to give them to him. He had a hunch where he’d be.

His hunch was correct. As he headed across the yard, he could see the dim light emanating from the bunkhouse in the growing twilight. As he entered, a bare-chested Jess was sitting hunched with his knees up to his chin on one of the far bunks, a blanket drawn up to mid torso level. His skin was red and raw as if he had been trying to unsuccessfully scrub away something unseen. He was staring away into space and appeared not to have even noticed Slim.

“We’re all waiting on you for supper.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“Well, you coulda said somethin’ instead of making us all wait for you. Daisy’s gone to a lot of trouble; Mike’s near falling asleep at the table.”

As he drew closer, Slim could see that Jess had indeed scrubbed himself raw. There were welts appearing on his arms and chest. And that was just what he could see. As frustrated as he felt with Jess for leaving them all waiting at the supper table, for having Daisy as worried as she could be over him, this was rapidly replaced by concern for his friend.

“Jess, what have you done to yourself? What is it that’s eating at you? C’mon, let’s go back into the house, get some of Daisy’s balm to put on those sores.”

Jess just shook his head.

Slim ignored the growling of his stomach and tried a different tack. “Daisy said Mort stopped by today. Was telling her what happened with Lewis out at the McCrory place.”

The reaction he got wasn’t what he had expected. The lethargy was replaced with agitation, the intense blue eyes filled with fear. “What did he say about that?”

Slim was taken aback. This swinging from one extreme to another scared him. He sat down on the edge of the bed “Well, more than you did, pard.” He thought back to the night before, when Jess had ridden back in. They had all been more than a little relieved to see him back in one piece, especially with how unpredictable and dangerous Lewis was. When pressed, all Jess had said was that “Lewis wouldn’t be doing any more killin’.” Both he and Daisy had surmised what Mort had now confirmed, that Lewis hadn’t been taken alive, although neither had pressed him for more. Sometimes it was necessary to kill someone. Didn’t mean anyone had to like or revel in it. Jess certainly didn’t but neither did he avoid it when it came to taking responsibility for what needed to be done.

Despite the cool night air and his friend’s semi nakedness, Slim noted that Jess was sweating again. He continued, “Mort just came over to let you know that he had decided to give the reward money to the McCrorys, seeing as Lewis was taken on their property. He figured you’d support that, especially as Jeb McCrory has been down on his luck lately; it will help him some to get back on his feet again.”

Slim looked at the dark haired younger man, his intense blue eyes standing out even more against his pale face, the pupils darting back and forth. What wasn’t he telling him?

“That all he said?”

“As far as I can make out. Daisy didn’t mention anything else. Why? What else is there Jess?”

Jess considered. What else was there? He wished he knew, but it wasn’t rational. Yet, it was something; something that right now he could neither begin to explain nor understand. Not without Slim thinking he was crazy. Or maybe he already did think that. He couldn’t blame him. He had been wondering that about himself. Seeing boys in the middle of nowhere with no trace of tracks; of odors that, no matter how much you tried to rid yourself of them, refused to be washed away.

“Jess?”

He looked up at his friend, seeing genuine concern reflected in the taller mans eyes. He sighed. “Nothin’. There’s nothin’ else, Slim.”

Slim regarded Jess closely, scanning the younger man’s face for the truth of the matter. The fact that those brilliant blue eyes quickly looked away told him all he needed to know. He was hiding something. Maybe not deliberately lying, but he was being evasive and Slim had already resolved to ride into town the next day to seek out Mort Corey and find out exactly what it was that happened at the McCrory place. He suspected it would help explain what was happening to Jess and how they could begin to help him deal with whatever it was.

When he got back into the house, Mike had been packed off to bed, his half eaten supper still where he had left it. He had just been too tired to eat having waited so long. Daisy was busy clearing the pots in the kitchen. Slim ran his hand distractedly through his hair, picked up his plate and went to speak to her.

“He staying in the bunkhouse tonight?”

“Yep.”

“Whatever’s bothering him, it has something to do with capturing that fugitive, hasn’t it?”

Slim sat down at the kitchen table and started to pick at the cold pie. Hungry as he had been, now it came to it, he realized he just didn’t have the stomach for it anymore. “What exactly did Mort say?”

Daisy turned from the dishes and poured out a steaming cup of coffee and offered it to Slim, which he accepted gratefully. She sat down beside him. “Well, he didn’t say anything, really, aside from what I already told you. In fact it was more what he didn’t say. He asked if Jess had said anything about what happened. When I said no, just that we had assumed that Lewis had been killed, he just nodded. I got the impression he wanted to tell me something, yet, for some reason, he couldn’t.”

Slim contemplated as he sipped his coffee. Yep, judging by Jess’s reaction earlier and now what Daisy had told him, it seemed that Mort would be able to shed some light on what was happening to Jess right now. He made up his mind to take action.

“Slim? What are you thinking?”

“That I’m going to ride into Laramie in the morning and talk to Mort. See if we can get to the bottom of all this. I don’t think Jess will like it, but I’ve got to go into the stage office to pick up some papers anyway, so what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Don’t worry, Daisy; I’m sure it’ll all work itself out.”

He wished he could sound more convincing but, the truth was, he wasn’t sure himself.

*****

It was to be another disturbed night however before Slim could even begin to determine how to help his young friend. He must have been more tired than he had thought as it had taken Daisy a while to rouse him. He emerged from a deep slumber to see her anxious face hovering over his.

He blinked at her, confused. “Daisy, what is it?”

“Oh, Slim, it’s Jess.” Daisy was wringing her hands distractedly.

He was instantly alert, instinctively reaching for his pants and shirt before Daisy had a chance to explain more. As he scrambled into his clothes, he could hear what she meant; he could hear his partner’s voice, shouting hysterically. It sounded too close to be coming from the bunkhouse.

As if to answer his quizzical look, as he hurriedly pulled on his boots, Daisy explained. “He’s out there in the yard, dressed only in his under-garments; he appears to be looking for something or someone. I can’t quite make out. I didn’t know whether to go out there myself or….”

“You did the right thing, Daisy. Mike awake?”

“I don’t think so. No”

“Alright, you stay in here. If Mike wakes up, keep him inside. I’ll see to Jess.”

He didn’t know what was going on with his friend, but in his increasingly fragile state of mind, he couldn’t guarantee Jess wouldn’t be dangerous. He wasn’t about to take any chances. And, as worried as she was for the younger man, he could tell Daisy was thinking the same thing.

“Be careful, Slim”

He nodded, grabbing a blanket from his bed and headed out to see exactly what he was dealing with.

Daisy was right; Jess did appear to be looking for someone. He was staggering up and down the yard, at first his despairing shrieks sounding unintelligible, but as he cautiously approached he could make out the words, “Where are you? Show yourself!” Slim scanned the yard. It was a cloudless night, the moon showering them with enough light for him to see anyone or anything out of place. There was nothing untoward.

He edged towards his friend slowly. Jess was a man you approached with caution. Even in this agitated state. Especially in this agitated state.

“Jess? It’s me, Slim.”

There was no response. Jess was now just standing by the water trough, motionless. As he drew alongside his friend, he could see that, even on this cool spring night, Jess was drenched in sweat.

“What do you want from me?” Jess’ cry was pitiful, his face contorted, fists clenched by his side. At first Slim had thought it a response directed to him, except now that he could see his face, he knew the truth of it. Jess wasn’t even aware he was there. His eyes may have been wide open but it was clear from his unfocused glassy stare that he was not awake.

Slim had heard about this. Of people doing things in their sleep and having absolutely no memory of it afterwards. It was usually an indication of a troubled mind, which certainly explained Jess right now. He also knew that you had to be careful not to wake them when they were in this state. It could be dangerous. Despite the sweat covering his friend’s bare chest, he was shivering. It was a cool night and the last thing they needed on top of everything else was for Jess to get pneumonia as well.

He gently placed the blanket about his friend’s shoulders and started to guide him back to the house. He knew Daisy would be far happier with him bedded down in his own room where they could keep an eye on him. The younger man, in his dream-like state did not resist; instead, all the anguished tension that had seemed to have him in its grip a few moments before had seemed to dissipate. By the time they had slowly made their way to the porch where Daisy was waiting with a lantern, so relaxed had the sleeping man become that Slim was practically carrying him.

Daisy too, had seen this before. During the war, she had guided many disturbed young men, reliving unimaginable horrors, back to their beds. Between them they guided Jess onto his bed, wrapping him tightly in blankets to ward off the chill night air. His eyes were now closed and he appeared to be sleeping relatively peacefully again. For now.

They both sat silently for a moment, watching him sleep, neither knowing what to say to the other to ease their anxiety. It was Slim who made the first move. He had already made up his mind to keep vigil for the rest of the night. No point them both missing out on sleep. “You go back to bed, Daisy. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Oh Slim. I’ve seen this before. You have too, haven’t you? Do you think it’s something to do with the war?”

Slim had his suspicions but he wasn’t sure yet. He needed to talk to Mort first.

“I don’t know, Daisy, but whatever it is, I have a feeling it might get worse before it gets better. These things don’t tend to go away unless you face them head on. Only Jess can do that, if he’s able to. We might have to help him with that. Now I’ll ride into town first thing and talk to Mort. Let him sleep as long as he can, and when he does wake up, just tell him I’m on stage business. All the work that needs doing tomorrow is round here so try and keep him around, at least until the first stage has been in. Hopefully I’ll be back by then. Might be an idea to send Mike over to the Simmonds place for the day, just until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Daisy looked alarmed, although didn’t question him. Whatever Slim had in mind, she trusted it was the right thing for Jess, for all of them. “All right, Slim. I’ll do my best. Good Night.”

Slim watched her as, lantern in hand, she headed through the door, closing it softly behind her. Even without the lamplight, there was still enough light from the full moon outside for him to make out the features of his sleeping friend.

Under his covers, Jess had begun to stir, his pupils beneath their lids flitting back and forth, an indication that he was dreaming again. He started to mutter, unintelligible words, their meaning lost as his subconscious mind struggled with whatever it was that it had held at bay for so long. Slim was now convinced that the only way forward for Jess was to face whatever it was, whatever had been buried so deep that it had been long forgotten and, as he suspected, had now been triggered by recent events at the McCrory ranch. If his hunch was right, Mort Corey would be able to confirm the suspicion that was growing in Slims mind.

*****

It didn’t matter where he ran, where he turned, all he saw was that face, staring at him with its strange look of pity, never uttering a single word. It was completely irrational. The boy couldn’t have been any more than six years old, yet Jess was afraid, afraid to the very core of his being about why the boy was here and what he wanted with him. He had tried reasoning with him, begging him to leave, yet, still the boy refused to budge, never saying a word, just staring at him with those deep brown eyes filled with an impenetrable sadness.

The boy held out his arm to Jess, his eyes staring, never wavering. Jess shook his head, “No, leave me alone.” The boy persisted, the sadness growing in his eyes. Jess couldn’t look away; he was rooted to the spot, mesmerized. As he looked into those haunting eyes, an image appeared — a man, dressed in gray, crouched down, rifle raised. Not a man at all, no more than a boy, really. His face filled with fear. But, there was something about him, something familiar. As if he had seen him before. Sudden realization dawned as the young man pulled the trigger and Jess screamed, screamed as he had never screamed before.

*****

Slim had not slept for the remainder of the night. There had been too many things going around in his mind, memories triggered by what he suspected his friend was going through. Guilt could do terrible things to a man if left unchecked. Jess had remained pretty animated during the night, sporadically calling out, periodically throwing off his covers, only to have them dutifully replaced by his friend in the cold early morning hours. However, he hadn’t awoken at all. As dawn had broken, Slim, still dressed from the night’s activities, checked on the darker haired young man, satisfied himself that he was now resting more peacefully and headed out the back door to the corral, saddling the first horse he came to. As the sun started to rise over the horizon, he was already well on his way to Laramie. He’d wake up Mort if he had to.

As it was, he didn’t have to. As he rode into town, Mort was already opening up the Sheriff’s Office. And he didn’t look all that surprised to see Slim. He acknowledged the grim faced young man. “Slim. From the look on your face and the early hour, I would say this isn’t a social call.”

Slim nodded as he dismounted and tied up his horse “I gotta talk to you, Mort. You got anyone in there right now?” He gestured into the jailhouse.

“Nope, quiet night last night. Come on in. I’ll get the stove going and put some coffee on. You look as if you need some.”

*****

It was an hour after breakfast time. Mike had been packed off to the Simmonds place without incident. The promise of a day without chores was too good an opportunity to pass up and he hadn’t been about to question the whys and the wherefores of the matter, instead, gratefully accepting the rare treat and heading off on his own horse for a day of fishing and swimmin’ with his young playmate Billy. Daisy had assumed that Slim had headed off early as he had said he would and hoped he would be back by the time Jess stirred. Otherwise she didn’t know what she was going to say to him or how she alone could keep him here if he had a mind to go off anywhere. The truth was, much as she loved Jess — and yes, she really did love him as if he had been her own son, loved all of them — she was more than a little afraid of what he might do in his current state of mind if last night was anything to go by.

She thought about going and checking in on him but thought better of it. She didn’t want to risk waking him if he was still sleeping. Best to let him get his rest. Wouldn’t hurt him any to sleep a little longer for once. She headed off to the henhouse to collect some eggs for Jess’s breakfast when he did wake up. It had been over 24 hours by her reckoning since he had eaten anything and he would likely be ravenous.

It was from there she heard the blood-curdling scream. It chilled her blood to the very marrow. She dropped her pail, smashing the contents and ran out into the yard in time to see Jess, sobbing, heading full pelt across the yard. Still dressed in just his underdraws; he was heading across to the corral. She called out to him but he seemed oblivious to everything around him as if he was trying to escape something, someone. She watched in dismay as he grabbed some rope and jumped on one of the horses, not even bothering to grab a saddle and rode out as if the very devil himself were at his back. It had all happened so fast. Daisy sobbed. There was nothing she could do except wait until Slim came back and send him after him. She hoped against hope he wouldn’t be too late.

*****

Slim gratefully accepted the coffee from Mort. The man wasn’t just the Sheriff; he was a good friend. Slim had taken a few minutes to gather his thoughts whilst Mort had gotten the stove going and had heated up the coffee. Now it was time to speak his mind.

It was the Sheriff though who spoke first. “You’re here because of Jess.” It was a statement, not a question.

“You’re not surprised?”

The sheriff sat down behind his desk and sighed. “No. I figured it’d only be a matter of time before you came knocking at my door. Not sure what I can tell you, though.”

Slim put his coffee down on the desk and leaned forward in his chair. “Well, you can start by telling me exactly what happened the other day because it’s triggered something in Jess, and if I’m right about what it is, he’s going to need his friends. And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.” He proceeded to tell Mort what had been happening since Jess had returned from the McCrory place, about the nightmares, the sleepwalking and the appearance of the ‘phantom boy.’ All this time, Mort had listened, rubbing his chin contemplatively. When the boy was mentioned, he nodded his head as if this confirmed something to him too. He got up and poured himself another coffee, offering another to Slim. He shook his head.

“What is it Mort?”

The sheriff took a sip of his coffee. “He said he thought it was the McCrory kid?”

“That’s right. Why?”

“He say what this kid looked like?”

“Not really.” Slim wracked his brain “About six years old. Dark hair I think.”

Mort nodded. “You sure it was dark?”

Slim wasn’t sure where this was leading. “Well, yeah, that’s what he said but I didn’t see the boy.”

Mort was now deep in thought “No…”

“Mort, what are you getting at? And what the hell happened to Jess? What aren’t you telling me?”

Mort considered for a moment and then seemed to come to a decision. “Alright, Slim, I promised Jess that I wouldn’t’ tell anyone what happened, but I also told him I couldn’t tell anyone what I didn’t know. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure exactly what did happen, although a few things are beginning to slot into place, and if I’m right, well, it’s one promise I’m going to have to break for that young man’s own good.”

And so Mort related the story of how they had cornered Lewis in the derelict barn, how they had gone in there to flush him out but had reckoned without Lewis’s ability to go to ground when he needed to. Slim listened intently to the entire story; things starting to make sense as Mort got to the part about the boy. “And if it had been anyone other than Jess, I don’t think Saul McCrory would be alive today.”

“Yeah, and if it hadn’t been for you, Mort, neither would Jess.”

Mort nodded. “I’m just glad I was there. I don’t usually hold with shooting a man in the back, but I wasn’t about to bring as good a friend as I’ve got back to you, Mike and Mrs. Cooper trussed up and slung over a horse. Although I’ve spent the last day or so puzzling over what made him freeze like that. I mean, sure it must have been a shock to almost kill a young boy like that, but as quick as Lewis was coming up through that trap door, Jess should still have been able to have got Lewis before he got him. But he didn’t even try.”

Slim stood up and drained the remainder of his coffee before replacing the mug on the desk. He turned to look at Mort. “Did Jess get a good look at that McCrory kid?”

“Not really; just a silhouette in the doorway, enough to tell from the size that it was a small boy but not really any features.”

“But you did?”

“Well, not until later. After the shooting, the kid took off but Jeb McCrory brought him back later to apologize to Jess for almost getting him killed. Jess had already ridden off, though.”

“The boy didn’t have dark hair did he?”

“Nope. As fair as any child I’ve ever seen. Whoever or whatever Jess saw or thought he saw — aside from the fact that he was 40 miles away with dark hair — it couldn’t have been the McCrory kid.”

That sealed it. The theory that had been formulating in Slim’s mind was looking more and more as it could be a definitive explanation. He had heard enough of Jess’s vivid dreams over the years to know that Jess had been through more than his fair share of trials and tribulations. Some he knew about. However, he suspected there were many more he didn’t know about. As Jess never seemed to remember anything in the morning, Slim had always kept what he had heard to himself. But the silhouetted child in the doorway had somehow reactivated a long dormant memory in Jess, one so traumatic that it had been buried so deeply it was as if it had never happened. Except recent events were bringing it back to the surface, in pieces that didn’t fully make sense, but sooner or later, the pieces would suddenly all slot into place and Jess would need help to face it, come to terms with it, and live with it.

“You got much on today, Mort?”

“What you got in mind?”

“I want you to go get Doc Webb and ask him to come out to the ranch. I’ll see you back there. Daisy’s on her own with Jess. If I’m right in what I’m thinking, she won’t be able to handle him on her own if it all comes flooding back” He was already out the door as Mort shouted after him.

“If what comes back?”

He had already mounted Alamo and was riding away as he called back cryptically, “The war.”

Mort grabbed his hat and shook his head — that god-forsaken war. Nine years over and it was still hurting so many people.

*****

Jess had ridden for miles before he’d had any sense of how he’d come to be in this situation, on a saddle-less horse, in nothing but his under draws. Yet, even now a semblance of awareness had returned, his situation paled in comparison to what he had remembered, what he had done. In his increasingly vivid dreams of the past day or so he has been transported back to a time and place that he thought he’d buried deep enough. However, the sights and sounds of that time had invaded not only his dreams but also his waking hours to such intensity that he had thought he had been going mad, experiencing visitations from the forlorn boy and strong odors. He had never believed in ghosts before — seeing was believing as far as he was concerned — yet, he couldn’t argue with the boy that he now saw everywhere he turned: that sallow face, those penetrating brown eyes, the wide-eyed shock as the bullet took him square in the chest. His bullet.

Jess sobbed as the memory hit him once more like a sledgehammer and, urged the horse forward again, in a desperate but futile attempt to escape the past that had finally caught up with him.

*****

Slim rode into the relay station just in time to see the Eastbound stage heading out. Daisy was outside, waving it off, but there was no sign of Jess. She turned to see him riding in and gestured at him wildly. Immediately he could see there was something wrong.

“Daisy? Where’s Jess?”

“Oh, Slim. I’m so glad you’re back. He rode off about an hour ago. I couldn’t stop him. I just couldn’t stop him.” Daisy’s anxiety was written all over her.

Slim jumped off his horse alarmed at how distressed she was, but needing to find out what had happened as quickly as he could. He guided her over to the porch and seated her down on the rocking chair, kneeling down beside her. “What happened, Daisy?”

“Well,” she contemplated, “Jess hadn’t gotten up yet, so I went to the henhouse to get some eggs. I wanted to cook him a good breakfast when he did wake up. While I was in there, I heard the most blood-curdling wail of despair I have ever heard, Slim. I didn’t even recognize that terrible noise; I certainly didn’t think it could have come from Jess. But I guess he had another nightmare. Next thing I know, he was running across the yard to the corral. Before I could stop him he had ridden off on a horse. He couldn’t have been in his right mind because he wasn’t wearing anything other than what he’d been sleeping in.” She sobbed, “Oh Slim, I’m so afraid for him.”

Slim cursed his timing. If only he hadn’t taken so long talking things through with Mort. He had been afraid of this. The full horror of what had happened had come back to Jess and he had done the only thing he had could think to do and that was run. Trouble was, nothing ever got solved by running. Jess needed to face this head on and he needed help to do it. “Which way did he go, Daisy?”

She pointed towards the ridge that Jess had headed up and across. “I don’t think he knew where he was going, though. Oh Slim, come nightfall, he’ll freeze if you don’t find him.”

He clasped her arm as he got up. “Don’t worry, I’ll find him. Mort Corey and Doc Webb are on their way. When they get here, we’ll go after him.”

Daisy was confused, “Doctor Webb?”

“Yeah, I figured we’d need him. In the state Jess is likely in, I doubt he’ll come easy. We may need the doc to give him something to keep him quiet until we get him back here.”

Daisy nodded and sniffed, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief

“Don’t worry, Daisy. I can’t explain now but I think I know what we’re dealing with. If I’m right, well, Jess is going to need our help but, in time, he can get through this.”

Daisy nodded weakly. All she wanted was Jess back. “There’s some clean clothes for him on his bed. He’ll need them.”

That was Daisy, always thinking of practicalities. He went and retrieved the garments and a blanket and filled up a couple of canteens. Jess would likely need some water by the time they caught up to him.

*****

His trail hadn’t been hard to follow and it was clear from the direction he had taken and the speed with which he was taking it that Jess was not thinking rationally. If he had been, he would have had more thought for both himself and his horse. It was testament to Jess’s ingrained horsemanship that he had remained on his mount through the treacherous rocks and bluffs he had negotiated this long, particularly as Daisy had said he hadn’t taken a saddle. As they scaled the rocky incline, Mort and Slim had filled the Doc in with as much as they knew. They didn’t have all the pieces in the puzzle yet, but they had all reached the same conclusion that almost shooting the McCrory boy had triggered a memory of some traumatic event from Jess’s past, maybe one he had previously blocked out entirely. Now he was trying to outrun something that, try as he might, he couldn’t escape. The Doc had agreed with them both that it probably had something to do with the war. These things usually did.

As they reached the top of the bluff they had been scaling, they saw the horse, standing alone, grazing on the sparse and less than adequate vegetation that was growing there. His coat was lathered from its exertions. For a moment, Slim felt sick to his stomach. The rocky incline they had made their way up was nothing compared to the steep drop that waited on the other side. But then he spotted him — closer to the edge than he felt comfortable with — yet, there was Jess, about thirty feet away, sitting on a narrow lip with his back to them. Slim couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t seem to be aware of their presence. Again, not like Jess. If he were himself, no one would be able to come up on him unnoticed. Ever. Still, right now Slim needed the odds to be in their favor if they were going to get Jess away from here.

He signaled to both men to lead their horses and his own further back down the rocks and out of sight. Then Slim went after Jess’ mount. The horse gratefully allowed itself to be led down to the other horses and away from the mad man that had been riding him.

He crouched down next to his companions; the Doctor, not dressed for the cross country ride he had just been compelled to make, mopping the beads of sweat that had gathered on his hairless forehead, and the grim faced sheriff, as worried about the young man sitting so perilously close to the edge of the bluff as he was.

Mort spoke first. “What’s your plan, Slim?”

Slim had been wondering that himself. He would never have thought that Jess would do anything to harm himself but in the current state of mind he was in, he didn’t want to push him over the edge. Literally. “Go up there alone. Try to talk to him, I guess. See how far gone he is.”

“What do you want us to do?” Mort looked at him expectantly.

Slim considered for a moment. He wasn’t used to this turn around. It was usually him asking Mort that question when they rode out together to trail someone, except this situation was very different.

“Well, I’m going to try and get him talking. See if I can get him to tell me what made him run, if he’s lucid enough. Doc, I want you to be somewhere where you can hear what we’re saying but out of sight. Alright?”

“Sure, Slim.” The Doc puffed, clearly not used to such a hard ride.

Slim turned back to the Sheriff. “Mort, I want you to stay out of Jess’ sight but keep an eye on where I am. I’m going to try and get him away from the edge. I don’t reckon Jess’ll come willing so I’ll need you to get around behind him so that between us we can overpower him.”

Mort didn’t look convinced. “Well, Slim, you know as well as I do that it takes more than two people to get the drop on Jess.”

Slim did know that. He had been dropped by more than one of Jess’ right hooks in his time. And Jess was liable to come out fighting if they tried to take him anywhere he didn’t want to go, that was for sure. He regarded the Doctor thoughtfully who was, once more, mopping the sweat from his forehead. He looked up to see both men looking at him. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Slim would have found his expression downright comical.

“Well, don’t look at me; I’m a physician, not a pugilist.”

Before the doctor could put his handkerchief back in his pocket, Slim had snatched it out of his hand and handed it to Mort. “And that’s precisely why we brought you along, Doc. You got any chloroform in that bag of yours?”

“Well, yes, but I don’t think….” It was clear the Doc didn’t approve of where Slim was going with this.

“Look, Doc, Jess Harper is the best friend I’ve got, probably ever will have and I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave him here to face whatever it is that’s eating him, all alone. I’d rather he came willingly ‘cept I’ve known him long enough to figure that it’s more likely we’ll have to do it the hard way. Whatever pain he’s in right now, I figure it’ll be better for him if it gets numbed for a while. At least until we can get him back home. Now, you going to get that chloroform or do I have to go get it myself?”

The doctor looked at Mort for support, although it was clear he wasn’t going to get any. The sheriff clearly didn’t like it either, but he knew the dark haired young man as well as Slim and knew he certainly wouldn’t make it easy for them. He had lost count of the occasions that the young man had accompanied him to take in a wanted man and it clearly didn’t sit well that now he was the one they now had to take in.

The doctor sighed, shook his head in resignation, retrieved his bag from where it was tied to the back of his horse and removed the small vial of clear liquid.

Much as he hated to admit it or see the drug used in a way he usually abhorred, Doc Webb was sensible enough to know that it really was the only way. His instructions to the Sheriff were, nonetheless, explicit.

“Place three drops — no more than that — on the cloth just before you need it; too early and the drug will lose its potency. Then place it tightly over his nose and mouth so that he breathes it in and don’t take it away until he goes completely limp.”

Mort nodded grimly and placed the vial in the breast pocket of his leather vest and headed off to get in position, hoping it wouldn’t have to come to that.

Slim took a deep breath and headed up to approach his friend. Jess hadn’t moved, staring out over the wide expanse, unmoving.

“Jess? It’s me. It’s Slim.” There was no response. No movement. Slim edged closer. “Jess. I want to help you, if you’ll let me.”

“Can you make him go away?” His voice was hoarse, and even though he still had his back turned, Slim could see that he was shaking uncontrollably.

“Who, Jess? Make who go away?”

“The kid. He won’t leave me alone.”

Slim looked around. Not to look for the phantom he knew he wouldn’t see, more to check on where Mort had gotten to. He saw a movement in the rocks over to his left. “Well, I don’t think he’s here now, Jess. Why don’t you come back here, let me take a look at you.”

Jess shook his head, back still turned; still facing out over the yawning expanse. “If I turn around, he’ll be there. I can’t turn back, Slim; can only go forward…” He stood up and edged closer to the rim.

Slim swallowed; his mouth dry. He had to think fast. “Well, that’s right, Jess. You can’t turn back and undo what’s happened, but neither can you keep running from it. Comes a time when you have to stop and look it squarely in the face, whatever it is.”

Jess looked down. The sheer drop was dizzying. He closed his eyes and instantly regretted it. There were those doleful brown eyes again, staring, judging…. He sobbed and clutched his head, shaking it despairingly as if trying to dislodge the image that kept coming back time and again every time he closed his eyes, and, more increasingly, was still there even when he opened them.

Slim was alarmed at how close to the edge his friend was getting and made to move forward.

“You can’t help me, Slim. No one can. Please, leave me alone.”

“Sorry, Jess, I can’t do that. I know you’re hurtin’ right now, but I’m not ready to give up on you. Now come on.”

He held out his arm and waited to see what Jess would do. For a while, there was silence. Jess remained motionless staring out over the featureless expanse, fighting to steady his breathing. He was still too close to the edge for Mort to be able to make his move.

“You don’t know what I’ve done, Slim.” Jess was shaking his head miserably.

Slim turned and signaled to the doc to quietly come forward. He wanted him to hear this. “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea, Jess.”

“Then you’ll know I’m no good.”

“No, Jess. I don’t believe that. And neither do you.”

Jess turned, his face anguished. He couldn’t hold back any longer. “But I killed him, Slim. Me. He was just a kid, only a little kid. And now he won’t leave me alone.”

It was as Slim had suspected. It wasn’t any easier having the truth of it confirmed. Still, hearing Jess say it was the first step in helping him through it.

“Jess, I know you. You’ve never killed unless you had to. If you killed that boy, then it was because you were in position where you felt you had no other choice. You’d no more intentionally kill a boy than I would. It was an accident, Jess, a tragic, terrible accident.”

Jess shook his head. ”Every time I close my eyes, Slim, he’s there. I can’t get away from him. I gotta do penance for what I did.”

“I’d say you’re already doing that, pard. I reckon you’ve been doing it in your dreams at least these five years I’ve known you.”

“Well, it ain’t enough, Slim. He wants somethin’ else from me. And I gotta give it to him. A life for a life.”

“No, son, that’s not the way it is.” Doc Webb had heard enough. It was time to make his move. “I know what the boy wants.”

Jess looked confused as the Doc stepped into view, “Doc, what are you doin’ here?”

“I asked him to come with me, Jess.” Slim explained. “Mort told me what happened with the McCrory kid. I know you asked him not to. And believe me, I had to wring it out of him, but I had to find out what happened in that barn that had you screamin’ the house down, seeing kids out in the middle of nowhere. You forget — I was in that war too. So was Mort, and the Doc here. We all saw and did things that we’ve spent years trying to forget, to block out of our minds, some things so terrible that, for a time, we succeeded. And then something happens that brings it all back. I’ve shared a room long enough with you to know that’s how it was for you. And I was glad you never seemed to remember anything. But sooner or later something triggers these things back to the surface and then the only way to atone for what happened is to face them square on. That’s what you gotta do now, Jess. And we’re here to help you, right, Doc?”

The Doc nodded, genuine concern mirrored on his face. “That’s right, son. You can’t run from this. I’ve seen too many young men destroyed by their own guilt. You have to conquer it. I can help you do that; we all can.”

It seemed as if they were starting to get through to him. Jess had moved far away enough from the edge now. Slim noted that, if he needed to, Mort might just be able make a grab for him. It was risky but it could be done. Slim risked a glance to his left. He couldn’t see him but hoped Mort was ready to make his move.

“What do I need to do? Every time I close my eyes, he’s there, I’ve told him I’m sorry a thousand times ‘cept he just stares and reaches out to me, likes he’s tryin’ to pull me down with him.” Jess’ tone was pleading, despairing, desperate for answers.

The Doc considered for a moment. “And that’s when you wake up?”

Jess nodded, trembling all over.

“Then you have to let him reach you.”

Slim looked questioningly at the doctor. The older man looked deadly serious.

Jess looked at him panic stricken, shaking his head. “No, I can’t do that. I can’t.”

“You must, Jess. You want him to leave you alone, don’t you?” The Doc persisted.

Jess nodded, struggling to control his breathing.

The Doc sensed he was making progress. “Well, you have to give him what he wants. I know you’re afraid, Jess. And I understand. However, to conquer your fear, first you have to face it square on. From all you’ve said, I don’t think the boy means you any harm, but you have to take the chance and find out what he wants. And you can’t do it here. Come back with us now and we’ll help you get through this.”

Unconsciously, Jess had edged further forward as he considered what was being asked of him. Slim couldn’t tell if the Doc had gotten through to him or not, but he could see that there was now enough room for Mort to get in behind him. And Mort had seen it too. He made his move.

Jess saw the movement but, in his weakened and exhausted state, his reactions were too slow to do anything about it. Before he knew what hit him, Mort had grabbed him from behind wrapping his right arm around Jess’s midriff, pinning his arms to his sides as he brought the drug soaked cloth up with his left hand and pressed it against Jess’s nose. “Sorry, boy, but it’s for your own good.”

Slim leapt forward to assist, but the struggle didn’t last long.

Jess wondered for a second why his friends had betrayed him — well, he was a killer, after all; he deserved nothing less — before his eyes rolled up under their lids and he knew no more. Slim rushed forward to gather the limp form of his friend in his arms and, between them, he and Mort gently laid him down on the ground while the Doctor bent to check on him. He wanted to make sure Mort had followed his instructions to the letter and not given him too much. Satisfied at the steady pulse and breathing, he instructed them to carry him back to Slim’s horse. They wrapped him in a blanket and, once he had mounted, lifted him up to Slim, the taller man cradling his pard securely in front of him. The journey back would be a slow one, but, he assured Slim and Mort, Jess wouldn’t know a thing about it and the chloroform would hold any dreams at bay until they could get him home. For that Slim was grateful; grateful that his pard would sleep easy, but also that he wouldn’t wake to give him any trouble on the way back.

*****

It was late afternoon by the time Daisy spotted the riders coming in; her heart in her mouth as she counted the horses. There were four. However, one was rider-less. Did that mean that they had found his horse but not Jess? Her mind was working overtime, thinking of the young man out there, vulnerable, exposed. She chastised herself for thinking too far ahead. Wait until they rode in, she told herself. Then she would know for sure.

As they got closer Daisy could make out the squat form of the doctor taking the lead. Riding behind him was Mort, leading the unsaddled mount. And behind him she could see the tall erect figure of Slim, one arm on the reins. The other clasped around a gray bundle in front of him. As they got closer still, her heart leapt. Emerging from the gray shroud were two bare legs and now she could see the unmistakable dark hair, head flopped forward. It was Jess. Daisy ran forward to greet them. Mort had already dismounted and had gone over to assist Slim.

“Slim?” Daisy was alarmed to see the younger man appeared to be unconscious, though she could see no visible sign of injury to his head or face. What was there beneath the blanket, though, that she couldn’t see?

Mort held Jess steady whilst Slim dismounted; Slim noted the alarm on the small lady’s face and was quick to reassure her. “He’s alright, Daisy; he’s just out. Easier to get him back this way is all.”

Slim eased his friend from the saddle, gently hauled him over his shoulder and started to the house, the Doc going ahead to open the doors, Daisy scuttling after them. Mort took the horses over to the water trough for a well-earned drink before following.

Inside, Slim eased the sleeping man onto his bed, and then backed away as the doc bent down to check on his patient. He watched as the Doc gently lifted his eyelids and then felt the young man’s wrist for a moment. Then, after a cursory examination of the welts and sores on his torso and arms from the excessive scrubbing, he grunted in satisfaction and drew the blanket up over him, signaling for Slim and Daisy to join him out in the parlor. Slim turned to follow him, yet Daisy seemed reluctant to move. Her eyes fixed on the sleeping face of the dark haired young man she was so fond of.

Slim took her arm and gave her a reassuring smile. “Come on, Daisy.”

She nodded. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She obediently followed, but it didn’t escape Slim’s attention that she deliberately left the door open.

Mort was coming through the door as they all converged on the parlor. “He alright?”

The Doc nodded and sat down at the table, instinctively reaching to his breast pocket for the handkerchief that wasn’t there to mop his perspiring brow. Suddenly reminded, Mort reached into his vest pocket and withdrew the soiled cloth and vial. The unmistakable smell of chloroform filled Daisy’s nostrils. The Doctor glared at the Sheriff and snatched at both items. He obviously hadn’t entirely approved of their methods. “Poor Jess”, Daisy thought, but understood all the same. Jess could be hard to handle at the best of times.

She regarded all three men, the strain of the day’s events telling on all their faces, the trail dust covering their clothes. What was she thinking? Worried as she was and desperate to find out what more they could tell her about Jess, that was no excuse for being downright inhospitable. “Well, where are my manners? You all look as if you could use some coffee.”

Before any of them could respond, she had scurried into the kitchen to fetch the coffee pot and three cups.

Mort called after her, “Thanks, Mrs. Cooper, but I oughta be getting back to town.” He turned to look through the open door where the young man was sleeping, his face turned toward them, “Tell Jess I…”

“Don’t worry, Mort, he won’t hold it against you. Jess isn’t one to hold a grudge…well, not for too long anyway. ” Slim grinned. Mort grinned back. It broke the tension. Mort turned to head back out the door as Daisy came back through, carrying the steaming coffee on a tray.

“Oh, Sheriff?”

“Yes Ma’am?”

“Would you mind stopping by the Simmonds place on your way? Mike’s there and I think it might be a good idea if he stays there another night or two — just until Jess is feeling better?”

The Doctor, who had been sitting silently, trying to cool off, acquiesced. “I agree. Considering what Jess told us earlier, I don’t think it will help him to have a young boy around him right now.”

Mort nodded. “I’ll do that. Doc. Mrs. Cooper. Slim.” He acknowledged them all. “I’ll stop by tomorrow if I can. See how things are.” With one last look into the sleeping mans room, he turned and headed back out the door to his horse.

Slim called after him. “Thanks, Mort. Be seeing you.”

Daisy had gone back out to the kitchen and had retrieved a plate of apple cakes. She had needed something to keep herself busy while she waited and baking always seemed to help. She placed the cakes on the table and was heartened to see both the Doc and Slim reach hungrily for one. She hoped that later on she would see Jess do so too. She had set some aside especially.

She sat down and poured herself a cup of coffee. What the Doc had said about it not helping Jess to have a young boy around worried her. She looked at Slim expectantly.

He knew she needed an explanation, except he still wasn’t entirely sure what the Doctor had intended to do with Jess before Mort had sprung into action. He still needed some answers himself. “Doc?”

Doc Webb looked up, the partially eaten cake halfway to his mouth. He sighed and replaced the cake onto his plate. “The effects of the drug will soon wear off and he will either awaken or drift into a natural sleep. However, once the natural sleep state takes over, the dreams will likely start again and if he doesn’t face up to his fears, they will heighten in intensity until…”

“I understand, Doc.” Slim interrupted him, anticipating what the Doctor was going to say which he didn’t want Daisy to hear.

The Doctor nodded gruffly, took a swig of coffee and reached for his cake once more. “When he does awaken, he’s likely to be a little disoriented. It’s a side effect of the chloroform; best that someone be there with him. Get as much water into him as you can. He’ll likely be dehydrated too.”

Slim nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”

Daisy was losing patience. They were skirting around the issue and she wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. She knew all about the side effects of chloroform and she also knew that the Doctor’s words were veiled. That wasn’t the real reasons the Doctor wanted there to be someone with him. Nor, that he had directed that ‘someone’ specifically to Slim.

She couldn’t hold back any longer. “Now will one of you please tell me what happened out there today before I lose my patience entirely? If we are going to help Jess face whatever it is that’s haunting him, it’s best all round if we both know what it is.”

The Doctor looked at Slim, obviously not prepared to make the decision himself. Slim shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “Sorry, Daisy. I’ll tell you what I know. Doc might have to fill in the blanks though, there’s still parts of it I don’t understand.”

And so Slim explained to Daisy that somehow, somewhere, as best he could figure, Jess was convinced that he had killed a child. Or maybe it was almost killing the McCrory kid that had played tricks with his mind and he was replaying over and over again what could have happened. This last Slim had added hopefully. The Doc had shaken his head at this. No, it had definitely happened sometime in Jess’s past and likely the incident with the McCrory child had reawakened the dormant memory.

“Poor Jess,” Daisy murmured. Guilt was a terrible thing to live with. She knew that herself. “You said he has to face his fear. What do you mean by that?”

The Doctor considered for a moment. “Well, since the memory returned to him, he’s been having visitations. He has been seeing a boy, presumably the one that was killed. At first, it was in his dreams while he was asleep but the visitations soon progressed to his waking moments. That was evidently what he was trying to run from, but running will not help him. He has to stop and confront his feelings.”

Slim still wasn’t sure he understood. “You mean confront the boy? That’s what you were trying to tell him on the bluff?”

The Doc took another swig of his coffee. “Yes and no. The boy doesn’t exist. Not in the way he thinks. The boy symbolizes his feelings of guilt and his need to confront, accept and atone for it. He is no ghost, no apparition. Merely a tool conjured up by Jess’s own troubled mind to try and make him finally face what he has locked away for so long.”

Slim was having trouble coming to grips with this but Daisy was beginning to understand. The mind could play terrible tricks when faced with something so traumatic, so dreadful. The battle Jess is fighting is with himself, not the boy?”

“That’s right, Mrs. Cooper.’ The Doc nodded vigorously, “Jess said that in his dreams the boy was reaching for him but he was too terrified to face him. The boy symbolizes forgiveness. I am convinced that, if he takes the boy’s hand, he will learn to accept and live with the guilt of what happened and learn, in time, to forgive himself. If he doesn’t, he’ll be running forever and it will destroy him.”

Slim tried to take it all in. He wasn’t sure he understood, nor would he ever understand it fully; still, what was pretty clear was that somehow they would have to try and help Jess face what he could only describe as being an unimaginable torment. To look into the eyes of a child whose life he had taken and ask him to forgive him; to forgive himself. He exhaled. “You seem to know a lot about it Doc?”

The Doc sighed. “Yes, well, I spent two years working in an asylum outside of Baltimore after the war. Saw many young men who were still running and would never stop doing so.” He shook his head sadly. “There are wounds that run far more deeply than those you can see on the surface. And some just never heal.”

“Well, that’s not the way it’s going to be for Jess. We’ll make sure of that.” Daisy was on her feet; her jaw set determinedly, her small fists clenched at her sides, the knuckles white. Slim had been feeling dejected at what his friend had been going through, still had to go through, but if Daisy could be strong then so could he. Jess was as tough as they came and if anyone could get through this, then he could.

“Alright.” The Doctor rose. “Well, I can see that he is certainly in good hands. There’s nothing more I can do here. I’ll take my leave of you. Thank you for the refreshments, Mrs. Cooper. I’ll stop by in a day or so, see how you’re making out.”

“Thank you, Doctor. And I’m sure Jess will thank you himself when he’s feeling better.”

The Doc nodded. He admired the staunch lady’s confidence, even if he didn’t entirely share it. Those two years in Baltimore had been what had sent him west in the first place. He also knew what it was to run.

“I’ll see you out.” Slim accompanied the Doc to his horse. The Doc sensed it was something other than courtesy that brought him out.

Slim waited until the older man had mounted his horse. He certainly wasn’t a natural horseman that was for sure. “Alright. Doc, tell me straight. You think he can come through this?”

The Doc shrugged. “That’s up to Jess and whether you and Mrs. Cooper can help him find a way to face his feelings. If not…well…this might help ease things a little.” He reached into his bag and pressed a small vial into Slims hand. Slim didn’t need to look to know that it was laudanum.

He shook his head and gave it back “Thanks all the same Doc but Jess won’t be needing this. We’ll make out all right. See you in a few days.”

The Doc sighed in resignation and then smiled. He had to admire the stoicism of the young man and the older lady. He sincerely hoped that on this occasion he would be proven wrong. To see just one young man face and conquer the demons wrought by that terrible war would go some way to helping him face his own guilt over all those whom he had been unable to help conquer theirs.

*****

Jess’ mouth was dry, so terribly dry. He tried to lick his lips but they felt cracked and brittle. He tasted salt. And something else, sickly sweet. He tried to remember where he was but his mind was fuzzy. There were flashes, vague recollections, images that came and went, yet nothing made sense. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere the image hit him like a sledgehammer, square on, and he sat up with a start, gasping, eyes wide open.

“Jess?”

He struggled to calm his breathing. He felt a soft arm on his shoulder.

“Jess? You in there, pard?”

He looked towards the source of the voice, to see the concerned eyes of his friend, regarding him, from his position perched on the edge of his bed. From the dimming light in the room he figured it must have been near dusk.

“Slim?” His voice sounded hoarse, cracked, to his own ears.

“You know where you are?”

Jess nodded. Whatever had happened, and he was a little fuzzy on that, Slim clearly thought he was loco. He had a vague memory of standing atop a bluff looking down… “You bring me back?” He was so parched, his throat hurt.

“Yeah. And Mort and Doc Webb. You didn’t make it easy for us, though.”

Jess swallowed, considering. He was lucid now, except there were gaps and plenty of them from the last day or so. “Am I going mad?”

“No, Jess. You’re not mad” There had been hesitation. No disguising it. “Here, drink some of this.” Slim held the glass up to his friend’s lips. Jess took it himself with shaking hands and gulped it down. Slim immediately filled another glass for him from the pitcher at the side of the bed and Jess emptied that too.

“You reckon you could eat something? Daisy’s keen to get some food inside you if you’ll take it?”

Jess shook his head. He wasn’t ready for that. He closed his eyes. Trying to remember what had been happening… But all he saw was that face. And there was that odor again, enough to make him gag. He quickly opened his eyes again and distractedly rubbed at his mouth.

“You still seeing him?” Slim murmured softly.

Jess looked at the taller man sharply. How did he know what he could see? Why couldn’t he get his mind to work properly? He shook his head as if to dislodge the cobwebs that were gumming up his mind and rid himself of the powerful odor invading his nostrils.

“Your head will clear in a while; side effects from the chloroform. Doc says it’s normal.”

Jess frowned, trying to remember. Chloroform?

Slim noted his expression and once again interjected. “Yeah, sorry pard; like I say, you didn’t make it easy for us.”

Jess glowered. Well that explained a few things. He cast aside the blanket covering his midriff and swung his legs over the side of the bed, his hands gripping the side of the bed as a wave of nausea swept over him.

“Hey, where d’ya think you’re going?”

“Shower. Clear my head a little.” And try to rid himself of that odor.

Slim shook his head sternly, “Not right now, Jess. We gotta talk first.”

“I ain’t big on talk, Slim.”

“Well, alright, don’t talk then, but you’re going to listen, and I don’t think you’ve got the strength right about now to argue. But just in case you do, well, I’m just about tired and ornery enough from chasing you all day to knock some sense into you. Now you gonna make me?”

Slim stood, fists clenched at his side, ready to block off exits if he had to. It wasn’t often he got so uptight and frankly, Jess had already figured that if he did try and stand he was going to make an almighty fool of himself when he crumpled to the floor again. And besides, there wasn’t anything Slim could say to him that was any worse than what awaited him when he closed his eyes. He swung his legs back onto the bed drawing his knees up to his chest and waited.

Slim clearly had expected more of a fight and he went to the door and closed it. He knew that Daisy would be desperate to see Jess awake and lucid, but he needed to try him first.

*****

The door opened and Daisy looked up expectantly from her seat by the fire where she had been busily darning, waiting for him to emerge. However, from Slim’s stooped gait, she could tell that he hadn’t been successful. She had figured from the time that he had been in there that Jess had awoken and that Slim had wasted no time in relaying the Docs theories to him.

He flopped down at the table, running his fingers through his hair. “Of all the stubborn, hard-headed….”

Daisy reached over and touched his arm gently. The gesture was enough.

Slim sighed. “I’m sorry, Daisy. I just can’t seem to get through to him. The only one who can help Jess is Jess and he just won’t see it.”

“Want me to go talk to him?”

Slim shook his head. “He’s gone to take a shower, wake himself up. He doesn’t want to sleep anymore. Says he’s slept long enough today, but I know it’s because he can’t face the nightmare. He can’t hold sleep off forever, Daisy. And the only way he’s going to sleep and not dream is by feeding him narcotics. ‘Cept that stuff is addictive. Doc tried to give me some laudanum for him before he rode off, but I refused him. Said Jess didn’t need it.”

Daisy nodded her approval, “You did the right thing, Slim. Yes, so many young men have been reliant on opiates since the war, to dull the pain. And not just the physical pain; the sort of hurt that lies buried deep inside that nothing or no one can touch. But it’s not the answer; yes, it makes you numb for a while, but it never truly takes the pain away. It just gives you the excuse not to face the things that are haunting you.”

She looked up from her darning at the fair-haired man, seeing how worried he looked. “No, we both know that Jess knows better than that. He’s always been one to take responsibility for his actions and this will be no different. Be patient with him, Slim. He needs some time and space to figure it all out for himself and I think we should to give it to him.

Slim didn’t look convinced. The memory of Jess perched so perilously close to the edge of the bluff, the words “I’m no good” still so fresh in his mind. “But what if he runs off again, like he did today?”

“I don’t think he will Slim. I think what happened today has shown him that there really is nowhere to run from this. Sooner or later, he has to face it, and despite what he may have said to you, I think he knows that. And he knows that this is the best place to make his stand: where he has people that care and will help him through. I think that we need to trust Jess will take the right path when he is ready and he needs to see that we have faith that he will.”

Slim considered. Deep down, he knew Daisy was right. He just hated seeing his friend suffer in this way. He had seen and done things himself during those turbulent years that he had done his level best to put behind him. That was what war did to people and you sometimes did terrible things just to stay alive. What Jess was now going through could just so easily have been him. Slim sighed in resignation. He really couldn’t argue with Daisy’s logic.

“Now it’s getting late. and by my reckoning, Jess isn’t the only one who has hardly slept these past few nights. You look clean worn out. Why don’t you try and get some sleep? I’ll wait up for a spell, watch out for Jess, and I’ll call you if there’s anything you need to know.”

She had risen from her chair and was standing expectantly by him now, almost daring him to argue with her. He smiled and rose, squeezing her shoulder as he did so.

“Alright, Daisy. I’ll try and get some shuteye. But you call me right away if…”

“Good night Slim.”

He gave her a peck on the cheek and graciously retreated to his room, mentally resolving to do no more than doze a little, just in case. However, he had underestimated just how much adrenalin had kept his tired body going these last few days and his head had no sooner hit the pillow than he had slipped into a deep and much needed sleep.

Five minutes later, Daisy put her head around the door and listened to the slow and steady breathing that told her what she needed to know. She nodded in satisfaction. What she had told Slim was partly true. Jess did need some time to figure things out for himself, but not before she had said her piece and she needed to do that without interruptions. She was sure that Slim would forgive her the deception. And besides, he did need the sleep. Well, that was one of them taken care of; now, for the other.

She retrieved the tray she had earlier prepared from the kitchen, and the lamp she had just lit and crossed the yard, the light filtering underneath the door telling her exactly where the dark haired young man had gone.

Inside, he was sat on a bale of hay, oiling his saddle. She was heartened to see that he had pulled on a pair of jeans and an undershirt, even if he was still barefoot. It was a cool night and she regretted not placing her shawl around her shoulders before coming out. From the way his body tensed, she could tell that he was aware of her presence, though he didn’t look up. That was all right. It was no less than she expected. She hung her lantern on a hook by the door and then walked over and set the tray down next to him and waited. He still didn’t look up. He took a deep breath and shuddered, as if he was trying to conjure up courage to speak; yet still he remained silent.

“I got tired waiting for you to come in so I decided I would have to come to you.”

Still he said nothing, but she noticed he was rubbing the saddle harder, his knuckles white from the exertion. Jess was stubborn and there were times when she found this exasperating. However, not that she needed to do it often, but Daisy Cooper could have taught all three of those boys a thing or two about stubbornness. She wasn’t leaving there until he had talked and she knew that there wasn’t a darned thing Jess could do about it. He knew it too.

“Well, that’s a well-shined saddle. You planning on going somewhere with it?”

“I can’t stay here”

“Why Jess?”

He shook his head, trying to find the words. “I can’t… I’m no…”

“Good?” She finished his sentence for him. “Well, if that’s the way you feel, perhaps you should go. I’m surprised at you, Jess Harper. I never thought you were one to wallow in self-pity.”

She hated to sound so stern with him, but tough love was what he needed. It was harder still to keep the hard demeanor when she saw the anguished look on his face as he finally met her gaze. It was clear he hadn’t expected such a harsh response from her either.

“But Daisy, you don’t know what I’ve done…. what I am. I don’t deserve to live for what I did.”

“I’ll tell you what I know, Jess Harper. I know that in war things aren’t black and white, that fear and the need to survive at all costs makes people do things they never thought they would be capable of; I know that too many young boys went off to war full of excitement and patriotism and were soon faced with the brutal reality of its horrors; I know many of those boys didn’t come home and those who did were forever marked by what they saw and did. I know that many innocent lives were lost, not through deliberate malice, but by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; I know that guilt is the most destructive emotion there is and the only way to counter it is to find a way to forgive yourself. And I know that whatever happened in the past, no matter how traumatic, cannot be changed. All you can do is atone for it in the way you live your life now.”

Daisy looked for signs that she had gotten through to him. He sat head bowed again. She could tell from the way he was trembling that he was fighting to keep his emotions at bay.

“Why now, Daisy? Why after all these years is he haunting me?”

Daisy sat done next to him and placed her hand on Jess’. “Nobody fully understands the working of the mind, Jess, least of all me. But it’s been buried deep all this time, waiting for its moment to resurface. It just needed a trigger.”

Jess closed his eyes and the silhouetted image of the McCrory boy suddenly flashed before his eyes. Or was it the McCrory boy? The sudden stark reminder had him on his feet, breathing heavy.

He felt a small hand on his arm.

“And I think you know what you have to do to make him go away.”

Jess nodded silently. He knew, although knowing was one thing. Doing it another. He shuddered.

“And I also think that you know deep down that what you’re seeing isn’t really that boy. He’s been at peace for a long time now. Somehow, your mind has twisted things around and got you so mixed up that it’s got you running from the very thing you need. The boy is forgiveness and it’s your own deep-rooted feeling that you need to be punished for what you did that is preventing you from reaching out for that forgiveness. And it’s making you run from the people that care about you. People who don’t think any less of you than they did before all this happened.”

“But I can’t be let off that easily, I can’t. I took a life. He had his whole life in front of him and I took all that away. You weren’t there, Daisy. You didn’t see. There has to be some punishment.” Jess moved over to one of the stalls, holding onto the rail for support, finding it harder to stem the rising wave of emotion that threatened to envelop him.

“Oh, Jess. No, I wasn’t there, but I do know you. If a man kills someone in cold blood, then the law will punish him. But this wasn’t in cold blood; you were little more than a boy yourself, scared, surviving on your instincts, for days on little or no sleep. You forget, I nursed many young men who needed to talk to someone about what they had seen and done, in desperate need to try and make sense of it all. It was fear, confusion, fatigue and the need to survive that made you pull that trigger, and you can’t carry that guilt with you for the rest of your life. You have to forgive yourself and move on for the sake of those who didn’t make it out. For the sake of that boy and for the countless faceless others, you have to do this and live a full and rich life. Otherwise, their sacrifice truly was for nothing.”

She regarded the young man, back turned to her, still leaning on the stall for support, struggling to control his emotions. She wasn’t finding it easy herself. Still, it had to be done. No, she wasn’t there but she knew him and she knew that however these tragic events had unfolded, there had been no deliberate intent on his part. He needed to hear this and she was one person he couldn’t and wouldn’t have run from.

She headed back towards the door and then turned back towards him; time to play her final card. “Now, if you want to finish shining that saddle and ride out of here in the morning, then I guess there is nothing more I can do or say to stop you. All I ask is two things. That you don’t ride out of here on an empty stomach,” she gestured over to the plate of apple cakes on the tray, “And that you try to find a way to forgive yourself. And when you do, you find a way to let us know you’re alright.”

She was taking a risk, she knew. She had given him a way out, an option to leave if he still wanted to. Slim wouldn’t have approved and that was why she had wanted him out of the way. But Daisy Cooper believed in taking gambles and she had faith in the young man. It hurt her more deeply than he would ever know to see him in such pain, but she had absolute faith in his strength of character, in the young man she had come to know, respect and care so very deeply for over the past three years. Now, though, it was up to Jess. She had done all she could.

With all the restraint she could muster, she marched up behind him, leaned up and gave him a quick peck on his cheek, coarse with two days worth of stubble, and then retrieved her lantern and headed out of the barn and back to the house, not looking back. Not trusting herself to, with the tears that were welling up in her eyes.

If she had, she would have seen the dark haired young man, hands still resting on the rails for support, head turned, watching her until she had long disappeared into the house. He saw the dim glow, from the lantern she had left burning in the window, as if she was showing him that there was a beacon of light to lead him out of the dark places. As he stared at the lantern, another image appeared next to it: a silhouette. A small boy, arm raised, gesturing. Jess swallowed. He knew what he had to do. With legs that threatened to buckle every step of the way, he made his way to the bunkhouse.

*****

Slim woke with a start. He rubbed his head. What time was it? The delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee, bacon and hot cakes made him salivate, breakfast time already? Why, that meant he had slept the night through. He looked over to his left and noted the empty bed. He cursed as he remembered Jess. He had only meant to doze for a short time. He jumped up, still fully dressed and headed straight through the parlor into the kitchen where Daisy was busy cooking for, it appeared, a small army. By the look of her, she didn’t appear to have had much, if any, rest.

“Jess?” He asked, expectantly.

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Slim, I’ve been afraid to go and look. I was waiting for you to wake up.”

She looked at him pleadingly. He knew what she meant. He didn’t like to think of what life would be like without the likeable young man around. Oh, he could be fiery and downright frustrating at times, but he had brought with him the most abiding friendship Slim had ever known. Still, Daisy was counting on him to go see and from the amount of bacon sizzling in the pan, she was hedging her bets on him still being around. He hoped she was right.

He headed to the barn first. Jess wouldn’t go anywhere without his saddle or his horse, Traveler. If they weren’t there, then he didn’t need to look elsewhere. He took a deep breath as he opened the door, allowing the early morning sunlight to stream through, as he scanned the area. There was the saddle, sitting on the hay bale where it had been left the night before. He made his way over to one of the rear stalls to look for further assurance. Hearing the approach, the handsome bay put his head over the stall and whickered. Slim patted him affectionately on the neck, his stomach doing somersaults of relief, “Hey boy, am I ever pleased to see you. Now let’s go see where your master is.”

Daisy was watching out of the window as the tall young man tentatively entered the barn. She waited nervously for him to come out again, watchful for any physical sign of what he had or hadn’t found in there. After what seemed like an age, but was only a minute or so, he came out and strode purposefully across the yard. Her heart soared. If his horse had been gone, Slim would have come straight back. Instead he was now heading for the bunkhouse. She turned back to the stove with more of a spring in her step than she had had for days, and turned the bacon. Jess didn’t like his too crispy.

Slim quietly opened the door to the bunkhouse. He was still nervous about what he was going to find. After the way their conversation had ended the night before, he wasn’t sure that anything he had said had been responsible for Jess still being here. He supposed that it was possible that Jess had figured some things out for himself, yet somehow he had the feeling that Daisy had played her part. From the way that she had hurriedly packed him off to bed and the dark circles she now wore beneath her eyes, he figured that his hadn’t been the only lecture that Jess had received. Still, it didn’t guarantee that Jess was going to be in any better state of mind this morning than when he had left him last night. Especially if he had gone through with his assertion to not get any sleep.

Slim scanned the room looking for his pard. He couldn’t see him on any of the bunks. He frowned. Well where could he be? He was just about to turn and leave when something caught his eye. Something white sticking out from underneath the end of one of the bunks. Slim slowly walked over to get a better look. As he got closer he realized what it was; a foot. He bent down, and there was Jess, underneath the bunk, as if sheltering himself, protecting himself from something. From the gentle rise and fall of his chest, and the calm expression on his face, he was sleeping peacefully. And there was something else; something that confirmed to Slim that Jess had faced his fear; faced his guilt, and had started on his journey of self-forgiveness. Having shared a room with Jess for years, he had noted that the young man usually slept with one or both arms flung out to his side. However, now they were clasped across his chest, fingers entwined. He was going to be all right. Slim grabbed the folded blanket from the bunk and draped it across his sleeping friend and smiled.

“Sweet dreams, pard.”

*****

 The recovery was a gradual one. Jess never discussed what he faced alone that night and Slim and Daisy never asked. They figured it was personal and if Jess wanted to talk about it, they would be there to listen when he needed them to be. If not, well, they were just glad that he had come through it and was still there with them. Of course, things could never be the same as they were before. You didn’t go through something like that without it leaving an indelible mark. Jess was prone to periods of melancholy and would ride off to be alone sometimes, but they knew that it was all part of coming to terms with what had happened to him. Whenever a trip to Cheyenne or north to Sheridan was required, it was Jess who volunteered to go and Slim was happy to give him the space he needed.

Mike had returned after a few days, none the wiser that there had been anything fundamentally wrong and, at first, that had been challenging for Jess. Even though Mike was much older than the child he had killed, still it served as a painful reminder of the young life that had been ended before it had had a proper chance to start. Slim had tried at first to keep the boisterous boy away from Jess, but Daisy had said that it wouldn’t help Jess any to do so, would only hinder his recovery. And she was right. Difficult as it was at first, Jess soon learned to enjoy being around the boy again without the painful feelings it had initially evoked.

It was several months later, the end of a long summer’s day that had seen both Jess and Slim mending boundary fences around the property. It had been hot tiring work and Daisy noted that they both looked exhausted when they returned, but Jess appeared weighted down by something, had been increasingly withdrawn this past day or so. He had played around with his supper, his appetite non-existent, and had excused himself and had gone to sit out on the porch. Slim and Daisy had exchanged worried glances. It had been a while since he had been this withdrawn and they were concerned about what it could mean. They packed Mike off to bed, and then, after helping Daisy with the dishes, Slim went out to join him. He sat down silently, sensing that Jess had something he needed to get off his chest, but knowing he had to be the one to initiate it.

He didn’t need to wait long.

“Slim. I’ve been thinking of that boy again these past few days.”

Slim exhaled, his suspicions confirmed. “Yeah, I figured that was what it was. You’ve been kinda restless the past couple of nights.” It was a worrying setback.

“All this time, all I could remember was that it happened. Not how, where or why, or even what happened afterwards. I figured maybe I might never know, ‘cept, things started coming back, just bits and pieces at first, but now I got all the pieces fitted together and I gotta tell it to someone.”

“You sure you want to? You’ve come so far, Jess. Might set you back again?”

Jess swallowed and shivered, despite the warm evening air. “Maybe, but I don’t think I can keep it all inside any more. I think I’d feel better if I get it out in the open; while I remember. Better get Daisy out here. I don’t think I’m gonna wanna tell this twice.”

Knowing how introverted the younger man could be, he knew what a big step this was for Jess. He squeezed him on the shoulder “Alright, Pard, I’ll go get her.”

His courage almost left him as she came out of the house, followed by Slim. He hadn’t realized just how much what she thought of him mattered to him. He could have been sat there stark naked and he wouldn’t’ have felt more exposed than he did now under her watchful gaze. She had a way of seeming to see right inside you. You certainly couldn’t lie to her. Jess had too much respect for her to even try.

He rose and offered her the rocking chair, which she gratefully accepted. He strode forward and looked to the porch rail for support, his hands gripping tight as he mustered up the courage to lay open his soul.

“Jess, you don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to. If it’s too painful..?”

He turned, to them, determination flashing in those vivid blue eyes. “No Daisy. I gotta do this. Mike asleep?”

Daisy nodded. “Yes, I checked on him a minute ago. I doubt he’ll wake up.”

“Good. I don’t want him hearing this. Ever.” He looked from one to the other to make sure the message had got across.

Slim assented. “No arguments there, pard; the only person he’ll hear it from is you if and when you think the time is right.”

Jess nodded in satisfaction and commenced his next rite of passage.

It had been May of ‘64; he hadn’t even reached his 21st birthday yet. He found himself just west of Chancellorsville lined up to take part in what was to become ‘The Battle of The Wilderness’. It was to be the first action he had really seen since joining up, aside from a few minor skirmishes, and he had been filled with a strange mix of excitement and dread. They had advanced through the thick scrub and undergrowth and had pushed the Union soldiers back. He had been filled with a strange feeling of exhilaration as they advanced so quickly, picking off the retreating rear guard of Union soldiers. But in his excitement at the seemingly easy victory, he had run too far ahead, and in the thick undergrowth and woodland, had become separated from the other men in his unit.

“Suddenly all the bravado was gone and I realized I was alone,” Jess explained, “I can hear and smell and taste the place like it was yesterday. The crickets were so loud in my ears, it was like they were right there in my head; the sweat pouring off of me from the humidity, the exertion and the fear, the salty taste on my lips, the stench of stale sweat from marching in the same clothes for days in the heat.”

Jess screwed up his face at the memory. Daisy and Slim shared a knowing glance. That explained the scrubbing himself raw and dislike of clothes when he was in the grip of the nightmares.

Jess continued, a faraway look in his eyes, as he was transported back to that time.

“After a while I got so turned around and disoriented, I couldn’t tell which way I’d come nor which way to head back to our own lines. I couldn’t call out in case I was heading towards the enemy; all I could do was pick a direction and head in it, hoping I’d find my way back to my unit. I could hear sounds of battle and yellin’ and screamin’, but they seemed to be coming from every direction and the crickets were so loud it was hard to pinpoint anything. After a while, you’re so scared, you’re seeing trees get up and move towards you; any minute I was expecting a bullet to come out of nowhere at me. And then I saw it….”

He went silent for a moment as if having to gather his thoughts into some semblance of order, his pupils darting from side to side. He had started to tremble and had to put his arm out to the rail to steady himself. Slim leaned forward to help his pard, but Daisy reached out to stop him, silently gesturing to hold back. It wouldn’t do to break his chain of thought now. He needed to continue.

Jess swallowed against the sudden dryness in his mouth and licked his lips; tasted salt again.

“There it was. Right there in the middle of the thick woodland. A trappers hut I guess. And all I could think of was that I’d be all right if I could get inside. Could wait things out until it got dark and I could find my way back. Stupid. Was the first place anyone woulda looked, but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was so full of fear and paranoia that it became a beacon of safety to me.”

He shook his head, judging his younger self with the luxury of hindsight. Daisy and Slim waited patiently in silence. They could both feel the tension building, see where this was heading, but Jess needed to tell it in his own time. After a minute or two he had composed himself enough to continue.

“If I’d ‘a remembered my training, I would have left well enough alone, but all I could think of was to get inside. Away from those crickets, the heat, go somewhere where the sun couldn’t beat down on me and I could cool off some. I approached cautiously and I must have listened outside the door for an age, trying to block out the crickets so I could hear if there was anyone inside. Eventually I summonsed the courage to go in. Kicked the door open and was ready to shoot at anyone or anything that got in my way. But the place was empty aside from old discarded furs. They didn’t smell so good, but it was somethin’ to lie down on. So I positioned myself facing the door so’s I could get anyone who tried to come in before they knew what hit ’em.”

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard; he felt his courage wavering. Now it came to it, he didn’t think he could look either of them in the eyes. He gripped the rail again and looked out towards the setting sun in the west; the way it cast the shadows over the hills, the patterns of light it wove as it sunk ever lower. He was aware of them both now, either side of him; a small hand taking his left hand, reassuring him, another firmer hand squeezing his right shoulder. He looked from one to the other. They both stared out towards the sunset silently. They were giving him the strength he needed. He swallowed against the lump rising in his throat.

“I didn’t mean to doze off, but I guess I did for a spell, let my guard down. Suddenly, I was awake, my heart pounding in my ears so loud I thought it was gonna bust right outta my chest. There was someone outside. Right outside the door and I had let ’em’ sneak up on me.” He gripped the rail even harder, the whites of his knuckles standing out starkly. Daisy squeezed his hand again reassuringly and she felt the tension ease slightly.

“I realized how stupid I’d been. I woulda maybe got the first person who came through the door, but after that I’d be a sittin’ target, they could shoot holes through the shack and I’d never get outta there. I figured they knew I was inside, and they were just biding their time to come get me. It seemed like an age I sat there, with my finger on the trigger, just waitin’. And then finally they made their move. The door opened. I’d been in that darkened shack for a while and the sudden shafts of light almost blinded me. It all happened in a split second, but everythin’ seemed to slow right down. I saw the shape and just squeezed the trigger, and saw the ignition as the flint hit the powder and the ball took him square in the chest and launched him backwards.”

Despite the late evening’s warmth, Jess shuddered as if chilled to the marrow.

“I just sat there, waiting for the others to come and finish me off, but no one came. All I could hear was the crickets getting’ louder and louder, like they were taunting me, accusing me, or somethin’. I knew I had to get up and take a look, make my move, but it suddenly occurred to me that, I coulda killed one of my own, maybe out lookin’ for me, to take me back. I was scared to go see, but it was the only way out so I had to face it. But it was worse than I could ever have imagined. Because what I’d killed wasn’t no enemy soldier, not even one of my own, but a kid.” He sobbed. “A little kid, no more than 6 years old, with a gaping hole in his chest and those eyes staring up at me.”

“Oh Jess….”

Not pity — he couldn’t take that right now. He needed to finish. He turned away from them both and walked away to the end of the porch. Daisy turned and sat down on the rocking chair, heartsick for the young man. She had suspected it had been something like that, but hearing it didn’t make it any easier.

“I dunno, I guess the realization of what I’d done made me crazy. I could hear this blood-curdling screamin’ like I’d never heard before and then I realized it was comin’ from me. And I just took off and ran like I’d never run before, not caring who’d see me or hear me, just prayin’ that a bullet would come flyin’ and finish me off. And I guess I almost got my wish.”

He turned back to see the Daisy dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. Slim standing white faced where he had left him. It was as he thought. They were horrified. At what he had done. He didn’t blame them. He was nearly done now. Just a little more to tell and then it was over.

“I dunno how long I ran, but all of a sudden, out of nowhere there was this strange, sucking sound — it’s the only way I can describe it — and it was as though everythin’ kinda stopped for a second and then I was blown clear off my feet. Next thing I remember was waking up in a field hospital in Chancellorsville with a ringin’ in my ears from a burst eardrum and a concussion. I was found by a burial detail a day after the battle. They woulda buried me there and then if I hadn’t come to enough for them to realize I was still alive. But I’d lost three days. And totally blocked out what happened at that hut.”

“Until you and Mort faced off with Johnny Lewis and the McCrory kid got in the way?”

“Yeah, Slim, until then. So now you know it all. Now you know who and what I am.”

“Yes, Jess Harper. I know who you are, and I know what you are and I’m every bit as proud to know you as I ever was.” Daisy was on her feet now.

Jess was confused. How could she say that; after what he had just told them? He turned to look at her, not sure what to make of it all. “Daisy, I don’t understand; you just heard what I did. How can you be proud of me for that?”

“Oh Jess, don’t you get it? I’m sorry for what happened to that boy, I’m sorry for you that you’ve had to live with the guilt of what you did when you were no more than a boy yourself, because, without knowing it you’ve carried that with you, deep down for all these years. But I’m not sorry that you did what you had to, to survive, because if you hadn’t, then I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to know you. And call me a selfish old woman, but I’m not sorry you’re still here. So many young men didn’t come back from that war, so very many.”

Jess knew she referred to her own son as one of those many.

“And I don’t think it’s wrong of me not to be sorry that you two did.” She felt the reassuring hand of the taller young man on her shoulder. He regarded the younger man, and moved towards him.

“She’s right, Jess. Nothing can ever change what happened to that boy. It was a terrible thing, but so many terrible things happened during that war, evil things and inhuman things. No one could ever accuse you of being either evil or inhuman. What you did was out of pure survival instinct. Yet, without knowing it, it shaped how you’ve done things since. If there was anyone I was more confident in of not pulling the trigger if he didn’t have to, it’s you. And from what Mort said, the McCrory kid still livin’ and breathin’ is testament to that. I don’t know what that boy was doing in the middle of a battle and I guess we’ll never know, but if it hadn’t been your bullet — and I wish for your sake it hadn’t been, — then my guess is it would have been someone else’s. But wishin’ it happened differently isn’t going to make it so. Seeing someone in silhouette in a doorway when you’re crouched down and they’re stood up, well, it’s hard to judge the size of someone. There’s no way in the split second you had to make a decision, tired and scared as you were, that you could have figured this wasn’t anything other than someone out to kill you. And your instinct kicked in. Sorry as I am that the boy died, he didn’t suffer. But you’re my friend and you have suffered. And despite whatever else you might be thinking, I’d say you’ve served your penance.”

Slim placed both hands on the young man’s shoulders, and looked into this piercing blue eyes. Jess was stubborn, but so could Slim be when he needed to be. And Jess had been punished enough. He had talked and they had listened. And not judged. And now Slim was telling him it was time to move on.

“I don’t know what to say…I…”

Daisy chipped in. “You don’t need to say anything, Jess. Remember, the people that care for you the most will judge you for the man you are now, not the tired and frightened boy you were in the past. The best way you can atone for the life that was lost is to make the life you have now count. As you have been doing for the past few years, as you have enriched the lives of others by choosing to share it with them. Good Night.”

Before he could respond, she had gone into the house. It was late and she would be up before them all to be sure they had a good breakfast inside them before the day’s work began. As perceptive as ever, Daisy Cooper always knew the right things to say and how to get the last word so as to leave him thinkin’ on it.

Jess swallowed. He was drained, both physically and emotionally from the trauma of the past few weeks, from bearing his soul more than he had ever done to anyone in his life yet right now, despite all that, he felt ten feet tall.

“G’night, pard. Don’t wait up too long. There’s plenty of work to keep you honest tomorrow.” Taking her lead, Slim clapped him on the shoulder and followed Daisy inside.

Jess stayed on the porch for some time, enjoying the cool breeze on his face, purging himself of the last of the pent up emotion that he had struggled to keep at bay for so long. When he was done, and the fatigue threatened to overwhelm him, he turned to go inside, to rest easier than he had for years. As he moved to the door, he thought he heard a sound. He turned sharply; it couldn’t be…the laughter of a small child? He scanned the moonlit yard, his keen eyes alert for anything out of the ordinary. But there was nothing there. “Just an animal,” he assured himself, or his tired mind playing tricks. He turned and headed back into the house, closed the door and taking one last look out of the window, blew out the lantern and retired to his room. No sooner had his head hit the pillow than he fell into a deep and refreshing sleep. Outside, the young boy beamed. The smile lit up his little face. In his dreams, Jess saw it too and smiled. Satisfied that his job was done, the boy giggled and ran off to play.

Jess Harper never saw him again.

***The End***

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Many thanks to Cat Hicks for all her assistance, and being such a patient and encouraging beta reader.

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