Dependence (by Helen C)

Summary: This story takes place approximately six months after the events of the episode “The Replacement.”
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  53,200


 

Disclaimer: I have never (thankfully) been affected by the affliction described in this story nor have I ever been to the place where it is set. Whilst I endeavored to do as much research as I could, please accept this for what it is, a piece of fiction, and allow for creative license if you feel there are any inaccuracies. P.S. Feedback would be great, in whatever way, shape or form it comes – it’s vital to, hopefully, make me a better writer.

 

 

It had been a long time since Knute Duncan had felt a sense of belonging, since he had felt his own man. Six years in his brother Johnny’s shadow had done nothing for his self-esteem. Mute since the head injury he had received during the ill-fated escape attempt from the union prison camp; it had been assumed that, along with his voice, Knute had lost his wits. But they had been there all the time, waiting for an opportunity when he would be able to use them. When he would need to use them. He had done so that day in Laramie to prevent a lot of killings; rode the wagon across the street to stop Johnny hurtin’ anyone else. And if his friend Jess Harper hadn’t have stopped him, Johnny would have finished off what he had started all those years before in the prison camp. Killing him, his own brother.

Since that night, all those years before, not one word had passed Knute Duncan’s lips; He had been silenced as a boy, at a mere 15 years old, his voice yet to break; a boy fightin’ in a man’s war where he hadn’t belonged. But Knute Duncan had had to grow up awfully fast. Still only 22 years old, his piercing blue eyes reflected the haunted look of one much older.

After burying his brother in the Laramie cemetery, accompanied only by his friend Jess Harper, Knute had headed home to Texas. Jess and his partner Slim Sherman had offered to let him stay on at the ranch to earn some money to help set him on his way but Knute had refused. He had spent years being dependent on his brother; he hadn’t wanted to exchange dependence on one individual for another. He knew that Jess had felt some sense of responsibility toward him, especially as it has been his bullet that had killed Johnny but Knute didn’t hold that against him. Johnny had been too eaten up with hate for there to have been any other outcome. He hadn’t been able to explain it to Jess but he had hoped he understood. No, Knute had decided that it was time to light out on his own for the first time in his life. So he had decided to head back home, to Abilene. He hadn’t been back since the day he had followed his older brother to war. His folks had been long dead when he had ridden off with Johnny, and another brother, Mitch, had already been killed at Vicksburg, but he had a vague recollection of an aunt and cousins and so he had headed there to seek them out.

But, when he had got there, he had found that a lot could change in seven years. He found no sign of them or anyone who had even heard of them. What he had found, though, was something entirely unexpected. He had found his voice.

Doctors, Johnny, even Knute himself, had assumed that his muteness had been caused by the physical damage he had received at the hands of his older brother. But with Johnny, the key to his psychological trauma, now out of his life for good, Knute had found words again. It had been gradual at first; his voice sounding thick and woolly to his own ears, his words often not coming out the way his brain instructed. Still wearing his grey confederate jacket, and slurring his words, many assumed he was just another pathetic wretch who couldn’t cope with life after the war. He had lost count of the amount of towns he was run out of – people telling him they didn’t want his kind there. It certainly hadn’t been the homecoming he had been expecting or hoped for.

But then his luck had finally changed. Or so he had thought. Down to his last silver dollar, he had run into Clint Jackson in Sweetwater. Jackson had recognized the younger brother of Johnny Duncan, a man he had fought with during the war and had watched in amusement as the young man had desperately tried to make himself understood at the local saloon. All he had wanted was a meal and a bed for the night. Somewhere to lay his head and try and ease the nauseating ache in his head; an all too frequent legacy of the beating he had received years before. Beyond that, he hadn’t known what he was going to do to support himself. He had reflected miserably that Johnny had been right; he couldn’t take care of himself. If he had thought that life was bad with Johnny; then it wasn’t any better without him.

He had resigned himself to spending another cold Texas night in a barn somewhere, with that familiar gnawing emptiness in his belly, when Jackson had stepped in. Knute hadn’t stopped to ask questions; even felt an affinity for the man who wore a brace on his leg and loped with a pronounced limp; he knew what it was like to be ‘damaged’. But if he had taken a step back and had seen the true intent behind the honeyed words and the false smiles, he would have run a mile and never looked back. Instead, he had been grateful for the heaped plate of stew and the hot coffee that had been thrust in front of him. If he had known back then what that meal would have cost him he would have happily spent the remainder of his life drifting, isolated and alone. But Knute Duncan had spent a lifetime being dependant on those stronger than he. And Clint Jackson was quick to recognize this and take advantage. He had taken Knute under his wing and had fed him, clothed him and had listened patiently as Knute had stuttered and stammered through the recent events when, finally, Johnny and the others who had taken the oath all those years before, had tracked down their  ‘nemesis’ Paul Halleck, culminating in the showdown on the main street of Laramie. Knute had failed to notice the dangerous glint of recognition in Jackson’s eye as he mentioned the name of the man who had finally brought an end to the hate that had festered in Johnny Duncan for all those years. Jess Harper.

And now, six months later as he waited by the main Laramie road; waiting to signal his new mentor and the gang he rode with, to alert them of the impending arrival of the stage, Knute Duncan failed to make the link with the story he had told Jackson those months before and the fact that he now found himself back in Wyoming territory. Because Clint Jackson had made Knute Duncan finally feel like a man. And the medicine he gave him made him feel strong, and dulled the ache in his head.

*****

Knute took a deep breath as the thunder of hooves alerted him to the imminent arrival of the stage coach, the adrenalin, as well as ‘something extra’ coursing through his veins, providing him with the strength and the courage he needed to do what he was about to do. He stood and waved his arms, signaling to the others lying in wait that their quarry was on its way. Then he moved down closer to the road and got into position.

As he rounded the bend, Mose saw the young man gesturing wildly at him from the side of the road. He looked to be in distress. Wes Seagar, riding shotgun with him, tensed. They were carrying the stage line payroll to Cheyenne and were only a few hours outside of the Sherman Relay station. To him this smelled rotten. Mose started to rein up the horses, preparing to stop.

Wes grabbed his arm. “Now hold on Mose, it could be a trap.”

Mose snorted “Now simmer down son. Nobody knows what we’re carrying ‘cept us, Slim & Jess, Gray Hanson and Jim Morgan. Now this here young fella looks like he needs some help and I reckon it won’t hurt none to stop and see what’s up.”

He tugged on the reins and brought the team to a halt. The young man stepped forward, his eyes wide and unnaturally bright. Seagar gripped his carbine, all his senses on high alert. To him, this just didn’t smell right at all.

“Th…Thanks fer ssss…stopping mmm…mister,” the young man stuttered “I bin’ waitin’ here fer quite a ss…spell, hopin’ that sss…someone would ccc…come along. Mmmm….my horse got sss…spooked by a rattler & threw me then bolted. Ya th…th…think you can give me a ride?”

Mose looked at Seagar. His face was unreadable but he was still gripping his carbine tightly. The boy, for that was all he looked to be to Mose, looked kinda familiar but he couldn’t rightly remember where he’d seen him before. Besides, if he did know the boy he felt sure he’d remember a stammer like that.

“Where’ya headin’, son?”

“Cheyenne mm… mister. I got kin there.” Knute lied.

Mose looked back to Seagar. He was scanning the surrounding area; it was obvious he still wasn’t convinced. He, however, was paid to be suspicious and despite thinking that he was perhaps a little too paranoid at times, Mose was glad he had his back.

“Well, Laramie is closer son. Seems to me you’d be better to head back there. There’s a Relay Station about a couple hours ride back that a’ way. I’m sure Slim Sherman or Jess Harper’d sell you another horse.”

Knute winced at the sound of the latter man’s name. Jess was his friend. He didn’t want him involved in this. Little did he know that that was just what Jackson had in mind. Knute had to think fast. Heading back to Laramie was not part of the plan. The stage was headed to Cheyenne and he needed to be on it for the plan to work. Otherwise Jackson would be angry with him, and wouldn’t give him what he needed.

“Well I th…th…thought of that mm… mm…mister but I ff… ff… figured it was better to keep going fff…ff… forward than to backtrack. Besides, I don’t got no mmm…mmm…oney. Everythin’ I had was in my s…s…saddle bags. He bolted off down the Cheyenne road and I fff…fff…figured that the s…s…stage would be along eventually and mm…m…maybe I could hitch a ride along and we’d catch up with my horse. If’n not, then I know mm… my kin ff… folk could s…s…stake me the ff…fare when we get into Cheyenne.”

Plausible as the boy’s story seemed to Mose, Seagar was still not buying it.

“Sorry son. We ain’t takin’ no passengers on this run.” There was something about the unnatural brightness of the boy’s eyes, the flush of his cheek that didn’t sit right with him.

“Now Wes, let’s not be downright unfriendly. You know, there ain’t gonna be another stage along for another day or so. We can’t leave the boy alone to fend fer hisself. He already looks like he’s been in the sun too long as it is.”

Seagar took a deep breath, scanning the surroundings. There were any number of places someone could be hiding if this was a prelude to an ambush. All his instincts were telling him that there was nothing right about any of this. That old fool Mose was too trusting for his own good.

Up behind the rocks, Jackson was getting impatient; it was taking too long. He had deliberately chosen the Duncan boy for the task for a number of reasons; with his thickened, stuttering voice he would most likely draw the most sympathy and in turn, the least suspicion from the hapless driver and his guard. And of course, there was the little matter of who he was and what he meant to a certain party with whom Jackson had some unfinished business. He was bait.

He didn’t see any sign of any curious passengers leaning out of the coach windows; impatient to know why they had stopped. Which meant they might just have struck gold; the stage wouldn’t be running without passengers unless they were carrying something real important. Especially on a Saturday. Financial gain wasn’t what this was about; well, not for Jackson anyway, but if there was something valuable on that stage, well, then that was just an added bonus. And it would certainly help pay for some of the ‘supplies’ he was going to need to keep Knute and the rest of them men ‘loyal’. And of course, it went without saying, what he had planned for Harper.

Finally, and after what seemed to take an age, with a satisfied nod, Jackson noted the boy climbing up top with the driver, but not before surrendering his iron to the guard who still had his carbine trained on him. That didn’t matter none to Jackson; it made no odds whether the stammering fool had an iron or not. From all that the boy had told him, he had already figured he had no stomach for killin’. Still, he would have preferred him to be inside the coach when the shootin’ started. He didn’t want the boy hit in the crossfire. He wanted him alive as he still figured too importantly in his plans. He’d just have to tell the boys to be extra careful with their aim. Satisfied that things were in motion he signaled to his men, to mount up. They had a rendezvous with a stage to keep. Things were going according to plan.

*****

Jess Harper was on edge. He had spent all morning trying to break what was proving to be an unbreakable buckskin. Most would have given it up as a bad job by now and set it loose but stubborn as it undoubtedly was, they didn’t come much more stubborn and ornery than Jess Harper. Especially when he was worried. He needed something to take his frustrations out on and the buckskin was the perfect quarry. And Jess had the bruises to prove it. “What the hell could have happened to Mose?” he wondered for the umpteenth time in the last couple of days.

The first they had known of any problem was when the stage run back from Cheyenne had failed to show the day before. You could usually set your watch by Mose but the scheduled time had come and there had been no sign. They hadn’t been too worried at first. It was conceivable one of the horses had thrown a shoe and it wasn’t unheard of to have an unscheduled stop for one of the passengers to empty the contents of their stomach when Mose took a bend too fast, as he was oft to do. But after two hours, Slim had been worried enough to head up to the top of the ridge to see if he could see any sign of a dust trail; anything that would tell him the stage was on its way. But there had been nothing. No sign at all. Both he and Jess had reached the same conclusion. That something sinister had to have happened. It had been too late to do anything that evening but it had been a tense time at the supper table with neither Slim nor Jess in the mood for small talk. What had been carried on the stage had been a secret; only known to a select few. Not even Daisy knew what was being carried when the stage had stopped briefly at the relay station to change teams. Once supper had been over they had sat on the porch trying to come up with a plausible and innocent explanation as to why the stage hadn’t returned. But try as they might, neither of them had been able to come up with anything that didn’t point to foul play. Which meant that, potentially somehow, somewhere there was a leak.

They had gone through all those who had known about the pay run aside from them both. There was Mose himself; he had worked for the stage for years. He was an ornery and downright frustrating old cuss at times but he was as honest as they came and both Slim and Jess were fond of the old goat. There was no way he could have been involved. Then there was Wes Seagar. Slim and Jess had known him for years. He was a good man, an ex lawman from Rapid City and a good friend of Mort Cory’s. It was hard to believe that he could be behind anything like this. Jim Morgan was the Bank Manager. He had opened the bank before dawn on a Saturday morning to ensure security and that no one else knew about the shipment. He had run the Laramie bank for years and was a well-respected family man and citizen of the town. He wouldn’t jeopardize everything he had built to pull something like this. That only left the head of the stage line in Cheyenne, Gray Hanson. Slim knew Gray well; he couldn’t believe that he would have anything to do with robbing his own payroll. Jess had cautioned him that it’d been known to happen before but Slim just didn’t buy it. Jess didn’t know Gray like he did. There was just no way he would risk everything that way; not when the payroll was only a fraction of what the business was worth.

So the only other explanation they had been able to come up with was either an accident or opportunist attackers who had struck ‘lucky’. They had quickly ruled out the former; the Laramie – Cheyenne road was dry as a bone and had been for weeks; no chance for ruts to harden up in the hot sun after a rainy spell. Besides, Mose was too good a driver for that to happen. He knew that road and all its bumps and curves like the back of his own hand. Nope, neither of them could figure it out. So Slim had resolved to ride into Laramie the next morning and wire the stage office in Cheyenne to find out what had happened. As it was, there was already a wire waiting when he got there. Gray Hanson wanted to know why the hell the stage hadn’t shown up in Cheyenne on schedule.

Slim had come back shortly afterwards accompanied by Mort and a small posse and had filled Jess in on what he knew; that the stage had never arrived at its destination and Mort had volunteered to take some men and head down towards Cheyenne to see if he could find any trace of the coach or its driver and guard. Jess had felt sick to his stomach. Both Mose and Seagar were well-respected and popular figures in Laramie. Especially Mose. He had been the stage driver for years and he couldn’t imagine not seeing the likeable old fella round anymore. He had wanted to ride with the posse but Slim had asked him to stay at the ranch with Daisy and Mike. If there were bushwhackers around, and with many of the town’s menfolk riding the posse, he didn’t want to leave them unprotected. Much as he had wanted to ride out and join the search for Mose, Jess had understood the sense of it and had reluctantly agreed. But he never had been much good at waiting and had been eventually shooed out by Daisy when his pacing had become too much for her to bear.

Jess sighed and gathered up his lariat. He had been at it for a good few hours now and all he had succeeded in doing with his heavy-handed approach was make the buckskin more skittish and add to his own growing frustration. He climbed over the corral fence and, as if in triumph, the buckskin snorted. Jess turned and regarded his nemesis; his coat all lathered, eyes wild. He may have won the battle but not the war. Jess wasn’t done with him by a long shot. “You’ll keep,” he muttered.

He was just about to make his way back into the house to get some of Daisy’ home made lemonade to quench his thirst, when his sharp ears picked up the sound of riders coming. He turned to look towards the road winding its way down into the Relay Station from over the ridge, his heart in his mouth, his hand fingering his iron instinctively. It sounded like multiple riders. It could be Slim, Mort and the posse returning. They’d only been gone a few hours and wouldn’t be coming back so early unless they’d found what they had been looking for. Still, his finger hovered over his iron just in case…Jess never assumed anything.

As the riders cleared the rise, it was confirmation to Jess, that, yes, it was, indeed, the posse returning. His sharp eyes counted the number of riders. Slim had taken a couple of spare horses from the corral for Mose and Seagar, if they were alive but, from this distance, Jess couldn’t see any extra men sitting in the saddle. Instead, he noted at least one riderless mount being led. At the sound of approaching horses, Daisy appeared at the door.

“Jess. Is it Slim?” She asked expectantly.

Jess turned, seeing his own worry reflected back at him. “Looks that way, Daisy.”

“Is Mose with them?”

“Can’t tell yet. Where’s Mike, Daisy?”

“He’s in his room, doing his homework.”

Jess nodded. “Make sure he stays there, Daisy, will ya? Just until I know what’s up?”

Looking at the serious expression on the young man’s face, Daisy didn’t need to ask any more. It was clear that Jess was expecting the worse and that he wanted Mike shielded from it. As someone who had seen more than his fair share of horrors at a tender age, if the worst had happened, well, Jess didn’t want the boy’s last memory of the loveable old coot to be seeing him trussed up and slung across the back of a horse. She nodded silently and scuttled back into the house.

Jess watched as the riders came closer, the thunder of their hooves reverberating in his ears. Through the dust cloud eddying around them, his eyes struggled to find what he was looking for; to see the evidence of what they might have found. It wasn’t long, though before his keen eyes penetrated the dissipating dust and found what he had desperately hoped they wouldn’t see. One of the horses was being lead by the Sheriff, a shrouded bundle tied across the saddle confirming his worst fears. He hoped that Mike would do as he was told for once and stay put. He really didn’t want the boy to see this, especially if it was Mose.

*****

As the posse finally rode in, Jess couldn’t take his eyes off the trussed figure across the front of the handsome sorrel. He felt sick to the stomach to think that after all these years of riding the Cheyenne – Laramie stage, this could be how it would end for Mose. He realized with regret that he didn’t even know his last name.

“Jess.”

The dark haired young rancher looked up at the grim faced sheriff. Mort was by no means a young man but Jess had never seen him look this old, this haggard.

“Mort” He acknowledged the Sheriff, his friend. “That Mose?” He gestured towards the body. He knew it was the only way to bring it back. Still, it was an undignified end for anyone, let alone someone he thought such a great deal of.

“No it ain’t,” a familiar but strained voice piped up. “But I wish it was, trustin’ ol’ fool he is.” Jess started, his heart in his mouth. While his attention had been drawn to the body draped over the sorrel, he had failed to notice Slim come riding up from the rear of the posse. He had now dismounted and was helping the figure who’d been riding double with him, down off the back of Alamo. The relief Jess felt was palpable. It was Mose. Looking bruised and battered, and none too steady on his feet, but very much alive, which meant the shrouded figure on the horse had to be…..

“Seagar?”

Mort nodded wordlessly. Jess had never seen him look so defeated. He felt a pang of sorrow for his friend. Wes Seagar and Mort had been good friends; Seagar had given up the dangers of being a lawman in the Dakotas and had brought his wife and young sons further south for a better life. He had told Mort that he had wanted the chance to see his sons grow to manhood and Mort had told him there was nowhere better than Wyoming to do that. And so he had heeded his friend’s advice and had bought a ranch outside of Laramie to give them the life they had always dreamed of, riding shotgun for the stage occasionally for some extra money. But now his sons had been robbed of their father and his wife a husband. And it would fall to Mort to break the news.

“What happened?”

Mort slowly dismounted, gesturing towards Slim who was supporting Mose and slowly helping him towards the house.

“Let’s talk inside.” He turned to his deputy who was still mounted ahead of the half a dozen other men who had ridden out with them. “Evers, you and the others water your horses and head back into town. Take Wes’ body to the undertakers. I’d prefer to do it myself but I’ll have to stop and break the news to Sally and the boys and I don’t want the boys rememberin’ their pa that way. You other men stop off at the office later on and Bill’ll give you your pay. Oh, and Bill? Send Doc Webb back here for Mose as well, will ya? I reckon he’ll be stopping here for a while.”

Evers nodded silently and rode up to take the reins of the sorrel carrying the body of the man they had all come to greatly respect. He turned and headed over to the water trough, the others following. Mort led his horse over to the hitching rail and Jess followed, leading Alamo. They tied up the horses and followed Slim into the house. He had already settled the stage driver onto the leather day bed and was setting a coffee pot and three cups on the table. Daisy was already tending to Mose, busily trying to examine the numerous cuts on the old man’s face. Unable to hold back his curiosity any longer, Mike had silently emerged from his room and was hovering in the doorway looking wide eyed at the old stage driver he had always enjoyed funnin’ with. To see him so beat up and bruised was disturbing to him. Slim looked up as Jess and Mort entered.

“Coffee, Mort?” The older man nodded tiredly, removing his dust-ridden hat and sat down at the table.

Jess looked from one man to the other. Both seemed to be having difficulty making eye contact with him, and Slim had yet to say a word to him. He was chomping at the bit to find out what had happened to leave Seagar dead and Mose badly beaten and he got the distinct impression that there was something about all this that he, in particular, was not going to like.

“Is Mose gonna be alright?” piped up a small voice.

“Oh sure I am son, I’ll be right as rain in no time, takes a lot to floor an ornery old goat like me.” They were brave words and they were solely for the boy’s benefit but the swollen face, labored breath and sheen of perspiration on the old man’s face indicated that he was more in need of doctoring than Daisy was able to provide.

Jess looked at Slim again but he was now sitting staring at the bottom of his coffee cup as if somehow that held the answer to what was, clearly, troubling him. Jess had had enough of this.

“Hey Tiger, why don’t you do me a favor? Alamo’s tied up at the hitchin’ rail out there. Why don’t you take him into the barn, feed and water him and give him a good rub down? Maybe then Mose’ll be feelin’ a bit better, huh?”

Mike looked over for confirmation from Slim. It was his horse after all. Slim nodded.

“Go on Tiger, I’d sure appreciate it. He’s had a hard ride. Water Mort’s horse too while you’re there.”

“Alright. I hope you’re feelin’ better soon, Mose.” He turned and headed towards the door.

“Now don’t you worry ‘bout me, son; I’ll be up and ridin’ the stage again ‘afore ya know it.” The wracking coughs that overcame him belied the show of optimism for the boy’s benefit. It would be a while before Mose went anywhere.

Daisy had finished her ministrations to his face and was now trying to undo his shirt to see what damage lay beneath. She suspected broken ribs but Mose batted her away. The eternal bachelor was not used to such fussin’, even if it was from someone he admired, like Miss Daisy. Besides, he was rapidly tiring and there were things he needed to talk through with the boys before the sleep he so desperately needed claimed him.

“Now Mose, you’d better let me take a look at those ribs. They’ll need some binding.”

“They’ll keep Miss Daisy. Thank you kindly for takin’ care of me. Much obliged.”

Daisy looked up for support from Slim and Mort but she didn’t like what she saw reflected back in their eyes. She had seen the body on the sorrel and had drawn her own conclusions as to who it was but she had the impression it was more than the death of Wes Seagar and the beating of Mose that was bothering them, not that that wasn’t bad enough. She got the distinct impression they were waiting to talk things through and that she was in the way. Mose needed to rest but it was clear he wasn’t going to until he had said what he needed to.

“Alright, I’ll leave it to Doc Webb.” She addressed Slim “Now I’ll leave you men to talk but don’t tire him out too much. I’ll go and see how Mike’s getting along.”

Slim smiled weakly, grateful for her perceptiveness “Thanks Daisy.”

Jess, who had still been hovering by the door, opened it for her, patting her arm as she exited. She looked back at him, concern reflected in her eyes.

He tried to smile reassuringly but truth was he had been feeling more and more uneasy. He didn’t like the fact that none of them seemed to be able to look him in the eye; Slim, Mort, not even Mose. He closed the door and turned back to Slim and Mort, both seated at the table.

“Alright. Now is someone gonna tell me what the hell’s goin’ on?”

*****

“No, Mose, you must be mistaken. It could’na been Knute. Last I heard he was headed back home to Texas. Don’t make no sense he’d come back this way.” Jess’ tone was harsher than he intended but hearing that a young man he considered to be a good friend could be involved in something like this was too much to bear.

Slim was holding up a glass of water to the old man’s lips. He had insisted on relating the story before he would rest but it had clearly taken it out of him; a fresh sheen of perspiration had broken out on his face and his pallor was a worrying shade of grey. Slim hoped the doc would get here soon. Mose had survived two nights out exposed to the elements which showed the mettle of the man, but he needed doctoring and plenty of rest and he wasn’t going to get any all the while Jess was interrogating him.

“Ease off will ya, Jess. I don’t like it anymore than you do but if Mose says it was Knute, then I believe him.”

Jess shook his head; he was in denial. He had heard what Mose had said, and he knew that he had nothing to gain from lying but he was still having a hard time believing it. Knute Duncan may have had a rough ride in life following in his brother Johnny’s shirttails but he had proven time and again that he had no stomach for killing and this just didn’t sound like something he could ever be mixed up in. Jess just couldn’t figure it.

Mose had relayed the story of how they had picked the boy up, despite Seagar’s concerns, which, in hindsight, had been merited. But he’d had no way of knowing that at the time. The boy had looked familiar to him but he had struggled to recall where he’d seen him and, besides, he was sure he would have remembered a stammer like that. The chirpy old driver had attempted to make small talk but the boy had appeared to withdraw into himself and Seagar had been too busy looking out for the trouble he had been convinced was coming their way     They had only been going a short while before they had seen it; the dead horse lying across the middle of the road. This stretch lay between a heavily forested section of the Laramie to Cheyenne stage route; on either side they were shrouded by the imposing pines that sheltered riders and passengers from the burning sun and gave welcome relief on the hottest of Wyoming days. But it also meant that if something or someone were to block the road, there was no way around it. And that made it an ideal place for an ambush.

Mose had reined up the horses, and for what had seemed like an age, but what could only have been a matter of seconds, the three of them had taken in the disturbing sight before them. Mose had assumed at first, and had vocalized the opinion, that it must have been the boy’s and that the rattler had done more than spook the poor creature. However, Seagar had quickly discounted this; the way the horse was lying; it didn’t look like it had just lain down and died; the positioning was too contrived; too deliberate. Seagar had closely scrutinized the boy’s increasingly pale face for any reaction that would give him a hint of whether this had anything to do with him but all he saw there was the horror of seeing the horse, his horse, laying there like that.

Seagar had climbed down, his hand gripping his carbine tightly, to take a closer look. The horses were snorting and fidgeting; something was, clearly, disturbing them. Mose had put this down to seeing one of their own stretched out so unceremoniously across the road ahead of them but it had soon become clear that it was something else entirely. As he drew closer to the carcass, Seagar’s worst fears were confirmed. The creature, which had been positioned with its back to them to obscures its horrific injuries, had had its throat cut. Seagar barely had time to contain his own horror and shout a warning to Mose before the first gunshot had rung out. It had missed its target, barely, as Seagar had desperately scrambled for cover, screaming at Mose and the boy to get down under the stage, as he unhitched the petrified horses, to stop them from bolting with the stage, but the first shot was soon joined by a volley of gunfire that seemed to be coming from all directions. Seagar had done his best to shoot it out with the unseen attackers and from his position with the boy under the coach, Mose had tried to return the gunfire with his shotgun but they were easy pickings and he was soon out of cartridges. There were just too many of them and they had the protection of the trees. For Seagar in particular, there had been nowhere to hide and he had soon succumbed to multiple gunshots, all from cowardly and unseen gunmen.

Once the gunfire had stopped and he had realized that this probably meant that Seagar was dead or at least incapacitated, Mose had tossed out his empty firearm in surrender, more so to protect the boy than himself. It hadn’t taken long for the unseen assailants to emerge from the cover of the dense forest to claim their ‘prize.’

It had seemed too well coordinated to be an opportunist attack. Three of the men went straight to the dead horse and removed its carcass, dumping it unceremoniously to rot at the side of the road, the creature’s blood leaving a sticky pool in the dry dirt, providing a haven for the blow flies that had hungrily gathered to feed. Another couple had ridden off to round up the frightened team and two more had dragged Seagar’s body and had taken it into the dense forest, out of sight. Mose, who had never been quick to temper (something he had always credited to remaining an eternal bachelor), had felt the anger rising in him to see a brave man like Wes Seagar treated with such lack of respect. All this while, the boy, who had taken cover next to him watched wide-eyed and silent; his pale face, covered in a sheen of sweat, his body trembling uncontrollably. Mose had figured it was shock. He didn’t blame the boy. He had seen some sights in his time; been through some scrapes but never had he had felt such a sense of finality as he had felt then. He wondered why he and the boy had even still been alive; and how much longer that state of affairs would last. He had lain there waiting and wondering how it would all end.

He hadn’t had to wait long. As if wanting to make an entrance, the ‘ringleader’ had appeared, looking very pleased with himself, emerging from the shelter of the trees; an arrogant swagger to his loping gait, exacerbated by the leather brace he wore. As he had caught sight of the man, he had felt the boy stiffen next to him. He had assumed it was fear.

And then had come the final blow to Mose; the one that had made him feel that it should have been him lying there dead instead of Wes. The man had come over grinning at them both and ‘invited’ them to come out from under the coach. It was then that he had congratulated the boy, ‘Knute’ he had called him, on a job well done and had given him his ‘reward’. The sweating and shaking had suddenly made sense as the boy had clutched at his prize and had run into the shelter of the wood to satiate his need. And that was when Mose had remembered where he had seen the boy before. You didn’t forget a name like Knute.

At seeing the disgust on the old man’s face to see one so young so dependent, and another so willing to take advantage, Clint Jackson had smiled sickeningly and said

“Now what shall we do with you….”

And that was when the beating had started. Everything after that had been a haze of pain until, alerted by the darkened bloodstains in the road, and the festering carcass of the horse at the side of it, Mort had ordered the posse to spread out and sweep the forest for any signs of Mose and Seagar.

As Mose had exhaustedly finished relating the past day’s events, holding back the part about Knute’s drug dependency, not knowing how on earth to tell Jess, in particular, that last part, Mort had wondered in disgust how many had travelled that road since the attack and not questioned the obvious signs that something sinister had occurred. It was a sign of the times. He had misled his friend Wes; Wyoming wasn’t the safe place he had led him to believe. And that had cost him his life. And Mort had to live with that and remember it every time he saw Sally and the boys. He had sighed and had made his excuses. He had put it off long enough. He had a house call to make. He had told Slim that he would wire the Sheriff in Cheyenne and alert him to be on the look out for the gang. They shouldn’t be hard to spot driving a Grand Central Overland Mail stagecoach. If he needed to get another posse up and ride out to rendezvous with his Cheyenne counterpart he knew there’d be no shortage of willing volunteers once the news about what had happened to Seagar and Mose got out.

The Doctor had arrived a short time afterwards and, in addition to the numerous cuts and bruises, had confirmed several broken ribs and a fractured collarbone. Jess had always been fond of Mose but as the list of injuries went on, he gained a new found respect for the old goat for surviving the way he had. While he didn’t vocalize this, he was glad to have Mose safe under their roof, but he couldn’t help but wonder why he had been left alive. It meant that he could identify them if he saw them again. For an attack that, otherwise, seemed to be so meticulously planned, so clinically executed, it didn’t add up and it bothered Jess as to what it might mean.

The Doc had advised that Mose wasn’t to be moved for at least a week so they had settled him into Mike’s room for the duration. Of course, he had protested that he would be up and around in no time but secretly, if he had to be anywhere while he was healing, he was glad it would be under the care of Daisy Cooper. By the time he was bedded down, it was late; Mike had been happy to bunk in with Slim and Jess and had been long since packed off to his bed. Even Daisy and Slim had made their apologies and had retired for the evening but Jess couldn’t sleep. Things were still turning around in his head; the implications of which were beginning to unravel in his mind. There were only a few of them who had known about the payroll and it wouldn’t take long before word got out in town about Knute. After the events of six months before, most of the town had gotten to know the name Duncan. And it wouldn’t take long before the link was made back to Jess, himself. Even though he had been in Laramie for three years and had proven himself time and again, there were still those who found it hard to forget he had stepped on the wrong side of the law for a while and you could bet they would be quick to remind everyone again. He knew Slim and Mort were thinking it too. Oh, they hadn’t said it out loud, they didn’t have to, and he knew that neither of them would believe it themselves, but they wouldn’t be able to stop others saying it and he knew they’d only be able to defend him for so long. Before he had retired for the night Slim had pleaded with him to “Get some sleep, and we’ll figure out what to do in the morning.” But, of course, they both knew he wouldn’t be there.

Jess had waited until the house was quiet. While the doc had been examining Mose, he had gone and packed up a few things on the pretext that he was setting up the cot for Mike in the room that he and Slim shared. He had used the back exit of the room to deposit his bedroll and a few supplies in the barn, saddling Traveler at the same time. Now it was time to get going. Grabbing some of Daisy’s newly baked apple cakes he made his way to the door. He’d have to make do with them and some jerky for now and buy whatever else he needed in the towns he was likely to pass through. Jess had never considered himself to be sentimental and, as he later rode on into the night, he spent time reflecting why he had taken this last step but he was glad he had; it had given him hope. He stepped in to look at Mose one last time.

He quietly opened the door, the late night moonlight shedding enough light for him to see the bruised and battered face of the old man as he slept. He felt the bile rise again. Someone was gonna pay for that. He turned to leave but was stopped by a soft voice.

“That you Jess?”

He went back inside and closed the door to. “Yeah Mose, sorry if I woke ya.”

“Can’t sleep son?”

“Nope. You go back to sleep, Mose, I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Jess didn’t want to get into conversation with the old stage driver. If he did, he’d never get away.

“You’re going after him, ain’t ya?”

Jess sighed. “Yeah Mose, I gotta. I don’t have no choice.”

The old man tried to shift himself into a sitting position and grimaced.

“Hey easy, Mose, I don’t want Daisy to come runnin’.” He helped adjust the pillows so that Mose was more comfortable.

“Thanks son. You think the town folk’ll blame ya?”

Jess glowered. Well, that sealed it. If even Mose had made that link it would soon be all over town. “Maybe. But that ain’t the reason. I know Knute and I can’t believe he’d be a part of somethin’ like this. Not willin’ly anyway. I gotta find out how it is. I owe him that much and if he’s gotta be taken in, I’d a’ soon it was me doin’ it than some posse from Cheyenne who’d shoot first and ask questions later. And then there’s the little matter of makin’ someone pay for what happened to you and Seagar.”

“You don’t think you should leave it to the law? These men mean business?”

Jess smiled as reassuringly as he could. “Don’t worry about me, Mose; you know I can take care of myself.”

It didn’t alleviate the worry chiseled on the old man’s face; there was part of it that he had held back in his relaying of the story. He hadn’t quite known how to tell Jess that his young friend was in the grip of a dependency that he wasn’t sure he or anyone else for that matter, would be able to break. And anyone who could do that to another human being wasn’t someone who an honorable man, like Jess, could even begin to fight. Not unless he stooped to their level, and Mose feared for his young friend. It was well known that Jess wasn’t long on temper and he didn’t think it would do him any good right now to tell him about the drugs. He’d need his wits about him to trail the thugs, not be blinded by anger. He’d find out soon enough how it was. Still, he needed some hope.

Jess turned to go and made it as far as the door but Mose stopped him once more.

“Jess?”

“Yeah, Mose?”

He chose his words carefully. “Those men may have some hold on the boy coz I could tell he didn’t have no taste for what they were doin’. ‘Afore they left me there, well, I weren’t none too clear in the head but I do remember the boy comin’ back over toward me. I guess I musta passed out for a spell. But when I came to again and was alone, I found a full canteen under my arm. Reckon that saved my life.”

Jess nodded silently. “Thanks Mose. Be seein’ ya.” He didn’t give the old man a second chance to stop him. He had to be making tracks.

Mose lay there for some time, unable to get back to sleep. It was partly the discomfort of his wounds, but more so the final parting words of the young man he had gained a strong respect for. “Be seein’ ya.” He desperately hoped that was a promise the young man would be able to keep.

*****

It had been two days since the stage hold up and Knute was still struggling to come to terms with what he had seen, done and become a part of. Despite being exposed to the horrors of war at such a tender age; wanton violence disturbed him deeply. He hadn’t had a chance to develop much feeling for the guard but he was sorry he was dead. He was sorrier still for the old fella who had at least tried to be friendly with him. But what had disturbed him the most was seeing the horse; his horse; the one given to him by Jess and his friend Slim Sherman, lying there dead like that, its throat so cruelly slashed. It brought back the nightmares of the war. The terrified screaming of the horses as cannons had fired and shards of metal had seared into their exposed flesh. It was strange; he had been able to blot out the cries of the wounded and dying men but he had never been able to blot out the horses and for years, he had woken up drenched in sweat, screaming silently. It had been at times like that, he had been glad he’d been mute. At least he hadn’t had to explain to Johnny. His brother had despised him enough as it was.

They’d ridden hard for the rest of the day after leaving the old man alone to die in the forest. He’d been beat up awful bad and Knute didn’t hold up much hope for him. He wondered why they hadn’t just shot him like the other man. But he had come to realize that Jackson seemed to get a kick out of being deliberately cruel. He had promised Knute that he would ‘take care’ of his horse. But of course that little phrase could mean two entirely different things and Knute had found that out the hard way. Jackson had certainly ‘taken care’ of his horse in the most barbaric manner he had ever seen. When he had asked him why he’d done it, Jackson had grinned manically, saying that he’d needed something to get the stage drivers attention and that  “A fallen tree was so unoriginal”; besides, a bullet would have drawn too much attention. He had seemed proud of the inventiveness of his plan but when he had seen the look of fear and despair on Knute’s face, Jackson’s demeanor had suddenly changed from the carefree dandy to be replaced with a dangerous glint in his eye. He had cautioned Knute. “Not to get too sanctimonious with me, Knute boy, coz you’re in deeper’n you can get out of without me to help ya. You need me, boy, so you’d best learn not to bite the hand that feeds ya” and then he had headed off to get his chow, his laughter echoing in Knute’s ears.

He was right; Knute had reflected miserably, he was in too deep. He had spent the last six months or so getting involved in any number of Jackson’s shady deals. It had started off just being on look out as Jackson and the gang worked their way up from Texas, always hitting the small towns that had little or no ability to defend themselves and certainly no law to speak of, but now it was progressing way beyond what Knute was able to stomach or wanted to be a part of. Oh yes, Jackson picked his targets well. And he always knew where to obtain the ‘special supplies’ he needed; the special supplies that ensured the loyalty of his men.

He lay back against the rock dejectedly. The nauseating ache in his head and the increasing cramps in his stomach a stark reminder that his next ‘feed’ was overdue. Jackson knew just how to keep him waiting and desperate enough to do anything he wanted before he gave him what his body screamed out for, what it had come to need. Aside from Jackson, the others pretty much left him alone. They were all too busy getting liquored up anyway, a dangerous cocktail of intoxicating substances that sapped them of their reason and was gradually robbing them of their humanity.

Knute thought back to the hold up again; the stagecoach had held what had appeared to be an unexpected bounty for them — a strong box carrying a substantial amount of money. He had wondered about that. What had the holdup been about then, if they hadn’t known about the money? From what Knute had come to know about Clint Jackson, he didn’t do anything that wasn’t planned to the letter.

They had removed the strong box and then two of the men had driven the coach away where the plan was to abandon it so any posse coming up looking from Cheyenne would find it and be kept busy trying to backtrack looking for the lost driver and stage guard. The two men were then to leave several false trails to ensure Jackson and the others could make a clean break without fear of pursuit. In the mean time, Jackson and the others had followed an old trail across the mountain and then down alongside the Laramie River into what Knute figured was Colorado territory, still careful not to leave any tracks behind them. Now they were holed up in a remote canyon with the entrances and exits covered. It was obviously a place they had used before. Knute wondered miserably how he could have been so naïve; he had thought that once he had been free from Johnny he could be his own man; but now he was more dependent on the whims of another than he had ever been with his brother.

*****

Slim Sherman sat at the table sipping his mid morning coffee. Despite suspecting his pard would already be gone when the household rose the next morning, it didn’t stop him from being worried sick about what Jess would be riding into. Before he had headed to his bunk for the night he had tried to talk to Jess out on the porch but his younger friend had been insistent that he needed to get to Knute and find out what was going on before a posse did. Slim understood that; he had only spent a few days in the silent boy’s company but Knute just didn’t seem to have an evil bone in his body, in spite of being in his bitter and war damaged brothers shadow for all those years. Despite his lack of communication, Mike had really taken to him and had taken pride in showing him all his critters, and, in his silent way, Knute had seemed to revel in spending time with the boy and, especially, seemed to have an affinity with the countless animals on and around the Sherman ranch. Slim would never forget the boy’s expression when he and Jess had presented him with the sleek looking bay, freshly broken. He didn’t think Knute had ever been given anything in his life and had taken some convincing that the horse was really his. From then to the time he had finally ridden out of the Sherman ranch, headed for Texas, he had spent more time tending to that horse than anything else. No, whatever mess Knute Duncan had managed to get himself into, he would have laid down easy money the boy wasn’t exactly there willingly.

He was disturbed from his reverie by Daisy coming in from the yard, carrying her empty laundry basket. “There’s a rider coming in, Slim; I think it’s Mort Cory.”

“Thanks, Daisy.”

She nodded silently and went to put her basket away before heading in to check on Mose once more. Slim sighed. She was as worried about Jess as he was and had been none too pleased with him when she found out that Jess had left during the night. As if he could stop Jess doing anything he wanted or needed to do badly enough. Jess was impulsive and not long on temper but Slim understood the power of friendship and the reasons why Jess absolutely had to go after Knute. He would do no less for him or for Mort if it came to it. Slim just wished he could have waited a little longer for Mort to round up another posse to light out after the attackers, one which Slim, himself, very much intended being a part of. Mort would be none too pleased to hear about Jess either when he broke the news. Slim sighed, draining the remainder of his coffee. He supposed he’d better get it over with.

Mort was just tying up at the hitching rail when Slim stepped out onto the porch, a bundle of posters under the sheriff’s arm.

“Slim” the older man acknowledged him. “How’s Mose this morning?”

“Still sleepin’ last time I looked. Daisy’s just in with him now. You want some coffee?”

“Depends on who made it. If it was you or Jess, I’ll pass.”

Slim grinned. Despite being a self-confessed coffee connoisseur, Jess sure made a lousy brew and his own wasn’t much better.

“Don’t worry Mort, Daisy made it. Come on in”

Mort nodded in satisfaction, as he followed the taller man into the house.

“You got mug shots there?” Slim referred to the several scrolls that the sheriff was carrying as he made his way into the kitchen to retrieve the coffee jug.

The sheriff seated himself at the table “Yeah, there’s a few new ones that have come in lately as well as some old ones I thought I’d get Mose to take a look at if he’s up to it. It’s a long shot but we might strike lucky. The fact those men weren’t wearing masks means they are either incredibly stupid or incredibly arrogant. And Mose said he got a good look at the ringleader.”

Slim had returned from the kitchen and poured the sheriff his coffee, refilling his own cup at the same time.

“And if Mose is able to make an identification, what then?” He was keen to know what action they would be taking. And keen to go after Jess.

“Well, I’ll wire Dan Logan in Cheyenne and let him know who he and his posse are lookin’ for. He’s waitin’ for word from me.”

“But you’re goin’ to get a posse up as well, aren’t you, Mort?”

“No Slim, not right now. Looks like the gang headed south, and they’re probably in Colorado by now; we wouldn’t even know where to start lookin’. Dan and his men are going to scout the border, see if they can see any signs of ‘em’ and I’ll put the word out to all the other sheriffs in both territories.”

Slim was incredulous, “Now hold on a damn minute Mort, Mose is lyin’ in there all beat up, Wes Seagar is not even in his grave yet, and you’re gonna just do nothin’?”

Mort winced at mention of his friend; last night’s visit to his widow and sons still at the forefront of his mind. “Now simmer down Slim. I’d expect this from Jess but not from you. Now I want justice for Wes and Mose as much as you do but we’ve got to be realistic; that gang had a two-day head start on us by the time we found out what had happened and they could be anywhere by now. All I can do is see if Mose can positively identify the ringleader and then put the alert out throughout Wyoming and Colorado territories. They’re bound to strike again at some point and when they do, we’ll be better placed to act. If I round up a posse now, all we’ll be doin’ is chasin’ ghosts and leavin’ the town exposed and you know I can’t and won’t do that.”

Slim ran his fingers through his hair distractedly. He understood the sense of what Mort was saying but he had relied on them being able to ride out after Jess and maybe catch up with him before he rode into something he couldn’t handle.

Mort was concerned to see how stricken his friend looked. He suddenly realized something. He hadn’t seen Jess yet.

“Where is Jess by the way?” One look at the young rancher’s expression told him all he needed to know. “Oh hell.”

*****

“Of all the foolhardy, idiotic…….what on earth possessed you to let him go it alone Slim?”

Slim had just finished telling Mort where his younger, more impulsive friend had gone and, as predicted, Mort hadn’t taken it at all well.

Me let him? Oh come on, Mort, it’d be easier to stop the wind from blowin’ than it would‘a been to stop Jess from goin’ after Knute; you know that. Besides,” he added accusingly, “I thought we’d be ridin’ out after him.”

Daisy Cooper came charging out of the room, where the injured stage driver was being cared for, alerted by the raised voices.

“Will you, please, keep your voices down, there’s a sick man in there in case you had both forgotten?” She looked from one to the other; Slim pacing up and down the way he always did when worried about something; the sheriff plonking himself down at the table once more, shoulders slumped, shaking his head in frustration.

“I take it you’ve just told Sheriff Cory about Jess?”

Slim nodded silently as he, too, slumped down at the table, absentmindedly reaching for Mort’s posters.

“And you’ll be getting up a posse to follow on?” Daisy continued. Neither man looked up; Slim was gazing intently but unfocusedly at one of the posters and Mort was staring absently into space.

“Slim?” she persisted. Slim just sighed, his eyes momentarily meeting hers, before looking away again, shaking his head dejectedly.

Daisy was aghast. They couldn’t leave Jess to face those men alone surely? She grasped her hands in front of her distractedly. “But Sheriff, you can’t just…”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cooper, but Jess being gone doesn’t change things. Like I told Slim, there’s no tellin’ where those men could be by now; they’ve got too much of a head start on us. Mose awake?”

“Well, he is now, after all the commotion, but I don’t want….”

“I won’t keep him long, Mrs. Cooper.” Mort snatched at the posters, more than a little fed up with his authority as sheriff being questioned, but the concern mounting for the young ranch hand fuelling his need to get a positive identification on the lead attacker. He headed in to see the wounded stage driver before she could argue further.

*****

Jess had only ridden a few miles before he set up camp. He knew he wouldn’t be able to pick up the trail at night but he wanted to get far enough away from the Relay station so that he could get an early start without being challenged or stopped. He knew Slim hadn’t wanted him to go but he had understood all the same. It would have been harder to explain it to Daisy and Mike.

He had spent most of the night though, staring into the campfire trying to wrack his tired mind for any clues as to what had made Knute go rogue. The boy had always been easily led but he was no killer; it just didn’t seem like something he would get involved with. The way he had it figured, someone had to have some kind of hold over him but he couldn’t figure what that could be. As the first gray shards of dawn had appeared in the east, he had packed up his bedroll, swilled the last of the coffee he had brewed for himself and kicked dirt over the fire before mounting Traveler and heading out to try and pick up the trail.

It hadn’t taken long before he had found the location where the holdup had taken place. The horse’s blood still staining the road had dried up; the blowflies long since moved on. The corpse had been removed later on but Slim had positively identified it as being the black bay given to Knute before he had left the Sherman Ranch. It had been a magnificent beast; Jess had broken it himself. He was sickened to think anyone could do that to so beautiful a creature. When he thought back to Knute’s reaction when he and Slim had gifted it to the boy, he just couldn’t reconcile the fact Knute could willingly have been a part of any of this.

It had been three days since the attack but the tracks were still there if you knew what to look for, and Jess Harper was an experienced tracker. He figured there were at least 10 separate horsemen as well as the coach and its team. He wondered what had become of the coach. That wasn’t something that would be easy to hide. They would have had to have abandoned it somewhere. The horses though, would be useful to them. But they also had the Sherman brand on them so if they had tried to sell them on; Jess would be able to track them that way or at least identify the gang if he found them in possession of them.

After several miles he came to the fork in the familiar road. To the left the road to Cheyenne continued; to the right, the trail headed down across the Colorado border to Fort Collins. Jess dismounted and bent to examine the tracks. A number of the horses and the coach appeared to have taken the Fort Collins road, but not all of them. He frowned. That road was regularly patrolled by the army, it didn’t make sense to him that they would head that way; especially if the alert was out that a stage had been held up and one of its guards murdered. He checked the Cheyenne road but the only clear tracks he saw didn’t tally with those he had been trailing.

No, neither of these seemed right. He scanned the surrounding hills. Up and over the ridge to his right was the Laramie River running across the border into Colorado. It took an experienced horseman but if you could find a route across the ridge and down, it might be passable. On a hunch he decided to back track and see if he could find a way up. After an hour of searching his patience was rewarded and his sharp eyes picked up what Clint Jackson had counted on him seeing, the very faint tracks of the broken shoed horse that Jess wouldn’t have failed to have spotted amongst the tracks in the soft dirt.

Jess nodded grimly and spurred Traveler on up and over the rise, unaware of the trap that Clint Jackson was waiting to spring.

*****

Mort Cory emerged from the room, his expression grim.

Daisy Cooper had been getting more and more impatient. The sheriff had been in there for over an hour and she was concerned that Mose was in no condition for such a lengthy interrogation and she was now way beyond being able to contain her displeasure.

She got up from where she had been darning yet another pair of Jess’ socks. She had lost count of the times she had told him to clip his nails to prevent him from putting countless holes through the toes. But it had always fallen on deaf ears much to her exasperation.

“Well about time, I was just about to come in there and remove you both myself.”

The sheriff sighed. “I’m sorry Mrs. Cooper but it had to be done. We would have been much faster if this poster had been on the top of the pile instead of the bottom.”

She put her darning down and walked over to the table where Mort had set the poster in question down.

“Mose has managed to make a positive identification?”

Before Mort had a chance to answer, Slim emerged from Mose’s room.

“He’s sleepin’ now, Daisy. I’m sorry we tired him out but it had to be done.”

Daisy was leaning over to the look at the poster laid out on the table.

“Clint Jackson: AKA “The Gray Ghost” Wanted for murder and robbery in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado” she read out.

“Well, you can add Wyoming to that now,” confirmed the Sheriff. “This sidewinder has gradually been working his way north, robbing and killin’, recruitin’ his band of desperados as he goes. And he’s not that particular who he kills. Whoever or whatever gets in his way.”

Daisy looked aghast. And this was the man Knute Duncan was allegedly riding with, and who Jess had gone after.

“Oh my,” she sat down at the table, her hand over her mouth as she tried to take it in.

“Oh Sheriff, don’t you think you should get a posse up now you know who you are after?”

She looked over to Slim for support but he just shook his head and turned away, frustration written all over his face. It was clear that he and Mort had already had that conversation in light of this latest development.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Cooper. Getting the identification doesn’t change the fact that Jackson and his gang could be anywhere by now. I doubt that Jess will be able to do what no lawman across three states has been able to do for the past few years. Jackson has the ability to disappear from sight and I’ll bet after a few days of following false trails, Jess’ll be back with his tail between his legs. No, we’ll just have to wait for him to surface again and then we’ll be ready. Now I’d better get back and wire Dan Logan and let him know Jackson has made it up as far as Wyoming.”

Daisy knew there was no point arguing, she could see the sense in what the sheriff was saying but she also knew that Jess wouldn’t give up and he would keep looking until he found Knute, even if he was ‘chasing ghosts’ as Mort had called it. Ironic since they now knew the man they were looking for had been earned the alias ‘The Gray Ghost.’

The sheriff replaced his hat and rolled up the poster. For a crippled man, you’d have thought he would stand out in a crowd, but Jackson sure had an uncanny ability to disappear and stay one step ahead of the law. They were going to have their work cut out if they were ever going to get justice for Wes Seagar and Mose and retrieve that payroll. The thought of his friend reminded him of the other reason he had come out to the Sherman ranch.

“Oh, Mrs. Cooper, Wes Seagar is being buried this afternoon, at 3 o’clock. Sally asked if you and Slim would come?”

“Oh of course Sheriff, but someone will have to stay here with Mose. Slim, perhaps you can ride in and pick Mike up from school and be there to pay our respects? I’m sure most of Laramie will be there. I know Jess will be sorry he couldn’t be.”

“Sure, Daisy,” Slim confirmed, “Tell Sally I’ll be there Mort. I’ll see you out.”

Daisy watched out the window as the tall young rancher and the sheriff shared a further exchange before the older man rode off. From Slim’s resigned gait as he crossed back over from the corral, she could tell he was as worried as she was. As he entered back into the house she practically pounced on him.

“Oh Slim, what on earth is Jess riding into? We both know he won’t stop until he finds that man.”

Slim sighed as he slumped down at the table “I know Daisy. That’s what I’m afraid of.” The thought of what Jess was riding into and knowing he was powerless to do anything about it had him feeling more useless that he had ever felt before.

*****

The trail had been surprisingly easy to follow. He supposed that whomever he was chasing hadn’t reckoned on anyone finding it; instead relying on the number of false trails that had been set to keep any pursuers busy. It never occurred to him that his finding the trail had been all part of an elaborate plan set in motion long before the stage hold up with one purpose in mind; to get to him.

If Jess hadn’t been so focused on getting to Knute he would have taken the time to enjoy the scenery. He had thought he knew Wyoming territory like the back of his hand but he hadn’t known about this old trail that paralleled the Laramie River as it meandered south. It sure was the long way to get down into Colorado territory but if someone wanted to disappear it was a sure fire route to ensure you weren’t followed. Still, Jess reflected with satisfaction, there weren’t many who came as stubborn as he was and his attackers would have reckoned without so determined a pursuer. But that was where he was wrong. Clint Jackson had Jess Harper dead to rights. Jess had been the best tracker in their regiment and if anyone could find the camp, with a little help of course, it was him.

He had been on the trail for three days when the river and the trail wound their way down out of the mountains into what he assumed, was now Colorado territory. He wondered, for the umpteenth time, who had created the trail and for what purpose? Maybe there had been some old forgotten mine workings? He hadn’t seen any sign but then again, he hadn’t exactly been looking. One thing was for sure though. Whoever he was trailing knew about it. And most likely came up to Wyoming this way too.

It was towards the end of the third day that he spotted the encampment down below in the middle of the canyon. Surrounded by bluffs and close to the river, he could see why they had set up there. It was well defendable. It would be very difficult for anyone to ride in unseen, nigh on impossible in fact. And they would have counted on that.

He slowly dismounted and reached for the binoculars from his saddlebag. He wanted to see if he could spot Knute. He lay down and scanned the camp, searching for any sign of the boy. But before he could spot his young friend, he saw someone that made his stomach turn cartwheels. The pronounced limp and the leg brace were unmistakable. Hell, if Clint Jackson had him…..his thoughts were interrupted by the cold steel against the back of his neck.

“Hold it right there Mister, if’n you wanna live to see another day.”

Jess lowered his binoculars, raising his hands, as he was relieved of his sidearm by his unseen assailant.

“Well, Abe, looks’ like ol’ Clint was fussin’ ’bout nuthin’; this fella ain’t gonna give us no trouble after all.”

“I reckon yer right there, Ged. On yer feet, mister, real slow. ‘Ol Clint’s ‘bin expectin’ ya”

It was then that Jess realized he had ridden into a trap. He had taken the bait; hook line and sinker, as Clint Jackson had known he would.

*****

As he rode down into the encampment, flanked by his captors, Jess reflected on what had brought him here. Could all of this really have been an elaborate ruse to get him here or was it just coincidence? If the former, it would explain how Knute had gotten mixed up in all of this. Jackson would have recognized Johnny Duncan’s kid brother almost immediately. Of all the people for Knute to have run into, why did it have to be him?

Before they had ended up in the prison camp, there had been a bloody skirmish with the union army that they had been destined to lose. It had been an ill prepared and ill-advised assault from the outset; they were out gunned and out manned; the victims of a gun ho captain who thought he knew better than the general who had issued the orders to hold position until reinforcements arrived. Their unit had been cut off from the rest of the confederate troops, holding position further back on the ridge and the union army had them outflanked on both sides. Their only chance had been if a small band of brave men had volunteered to try and get through the enemy lines unseen and try and reach the reinforcements. Jess had quickly volunteered. That was back in the days when he’d had a cavalier attitude towards life and death. And besides, he had rationalized, if he was going to die that day, he’d have rather died takin’ it to the Yankees than wait for them to come callin’. As a sergeant, he had been told to select two men to take with him and had chosen Johnny Duncan and Clint Jackson for the job. They were both deadly with a gun and even deadlier at taking someone from behind with a knife to the lungs or the throat. War for them had just been an opportunity to hone and refine their killing skills. Neither, though, had been entirely happy being chosen for what was sure to be a suicide mission but Jess had convinced them that at least that way they had a chance. And they’d be heroes if they could pull it off. That kind of thing didn’t matter to Jess but he knew that would appeal to the egos of both men.

They had set out and had made surprisingly good progress, catching many of the young and inexperienced Yankee sentries by surprise, permanently silenced by knife wounds to the lungs, their mouths wide open in silent screams as they died almost instantaneously. However, with tragic irony, their progress was to be halted by their own army. As they stealthily made their way through enemy lines, the might of the confederate army was unleashed upon them as the cannons opened up. The three dived for cover as the world exploded around them. When it was all over Jess had wondered how on earth he had come out unscathed, as he had surveyed the carnage around him; what had once been men and horses torn apart by grapeshot. He couldn’t see Duncan or Jackson and figured they couldn’t have survived such a bombardment. He still wasn’t sure how he had. His liberty was to be short lived however. Before he could get back to his own lines, he had been spotted by a union burial detail and as he had tried to run had been shot in the shoulder. He had been taken to the prison camp along with all the other survivors of his unit. As he had recovered in the camp hospital he had been reunited with Johnny Duncan. He hadn’t fared as well as Jess; he had been hit in the face by the grape shot and had lost an eye. Then, several days later, he saw Clint Jackson wheeled from the ward from which few emerged alive. He hadn’t been expected to survive; his right leg ruined by the grape shot that had slammed into it. They hadn’t even bothered to amputate; convinced he would die anyway, but somehow Clint Jackson had clung onto life, and even more miraculously gangrene had not had a chance to take hold, ironically the lack of hygiene in the field hospital proving to be his saving grace. As he had been left there to die, no one cared about the maggots that had hatched in his rotting flesh and fed greedily on the necrotic tissue. And so, when he had been found still breathing two days later, despite receiving little or no care, he was moved into the main ward and the decision was made that if he had survived this far, there was little point taking the leg, which was sure to kill him anyway.

It didn’t change the fact that the leg was a ruined mess; great lumps of flesh gone forever; the bone shattered in several places, never to be properly set. And it had left him with a legacy of pain and the need to wear a brace just to be able to walk. In the weeks and months that had followed he had become more and more consumed by bitterness; fuelled by the steady stream of opiates he had rapidly become addicted to, to try and dull the pain. And he had honed in on Jess as the target for that bitterness. He held Harper responsible for him being the cripple he now was, for choosing him for that mission in the first place and he swore somehow, someday, he’d make him pay.

And now, as they entered the camp, Jess reflected, it seemed that payday had finally come.

*****

 It didn’t take long for Jackson to emerge from an elaborate shelter that had been constructed from canvas tarpaulin and wooden poles.

“Well, well, if it isn’t my old friend Jess. It’s been a long time. Now how long has it been?”

He gestured for Jess to dismount. Jess did so, not failing to notice the attention that one man in particular was paying to his trusted mount.

“Not long enough Jackson.” he was in no mood for small talk. And remembering what had happened to the bay. “Anything happens to that horse and I’ll make sure you get the same.”

“Now, now, Jess is that any way to talk? Thad here only wants to watch him for ya while the two of us parley some. Now what say you and me take a walk?”

 

Jess looked around at the henchmen that had gathered, at least two rifles already trained on him, many of the others fingering their irons nervously.

“Don’t ‘spose I got much choice?”

Jackson smiled sickly, exposing several rotten teeth, “Well, no, seein’ as you mention it but I always feel it’s polite to ask, don’t you? C’mon, I’m itchin’ to show you somethin.’”

With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Jess followed. With him now here, he had a feeling that Knute might have outlived his usefulness. He hoped for the boy’s sake that he was wrong.

*****

Slim was out working the forge, fighting to keep his mind on the job, to keep the ranch and the relay station going while he waited for news. He had never felt so powerless in all his life. He had known it would be futile to stop Jess from going after Knute. He knew all about the power of friendships’ and allegiances forged with men you fought alongside and how it was hard to believe that they could have gone rogue. He had learned that the hard way with Whit Malone. And so he understood that this was something that Jess had to do. But gol darn it, to know that Jess was out there, alone somewhere facing someone like Clint Jackson and his men, and not be able to do anything about it, was more than he could take. Jess could handle himself well but not against those odds, not from what he had seen and heard so far. Slim had seen a lot of killing in his time; life in the West was brutal and sometimes it was survival of the fittest; kill or be killed, but what Slim had seen done at the stage hold up was just killing for killings sake. They had counted 15 bullets in Wes Seagar when maybe the first one or two would have been fatal shots. All from unseen assassins under cover of the trees. They couldn’t even have an open coffin for him for his sons to say one last goodbye. And then there was the horse, the brutal and unnecessary slaying of such a magnificent creature. How could you reason or expect a fair fight from men who did things like that? There was no humanity in those actions, and it was that lack of humanity that Jess, unknowingly, was riding to face. And Slim knew unswervingly that his pard wouldn’t give up until he found Knute and those he was riding with, because the way Jess saw it, Knute would be depending on him. The same way that Jess depended on Slim….

Slims heart and head were fighting a constant battle for supremacy; the heart was all for lighting after his pard to help him find Knute and get to the truth of the matter but the head was putting up one hell of a defense with some considerable assistance from Mort and Daisy. The truth was maybe 18 months ago he would have just gone; and to hell with the consequences but now there was Daisy and Mike to think about. The stage line business still needed to be managed and they couldn’t afford to lose that; not to mention the fact that, with no telling where Jackson and his men were, it didn’t do to leave Daisy and Mike there alone. Besides, with rumors of sightings of Jackson and his men all along the Colorado border, there was no way to know where to start looking. Still, that hadn’t stopped him almost setting out that morning. After a sleepless night worrying his way through every possible scenario he had gotten up, left Daisy a note on the table, and had Alamo saddled and ready all before day break. But he was foiled when he had come back to retrieve his rifle and some shells. Daisy had been waiting inside, shotgun at the ready, pointed right at him when he had come through the door. She had been all of a quiver, saying she had heard a noise and thought they had intruders; how she was so afraid that it might have been the Jackson gang. He had calmed her down, but not before Mike had emerged, yawning, from his room to see what all the fuss was about. By then the opportunity had been lost. When she had finally gone back to her room to get dressed for the day, he had remembered the note but it had gone. Slim gave a wry smile. Oh yes, Daisy Cooper was very cunning, he had to give her that. No wonder Jess had chosen to leave in the middle of the night

Even Mort was no help. When Slim had, again, suggested setting up a posse of their own, the sheriff had immediately thrown cold water on the idea; Dan Logan from Cheyenne was already searching the border areas with his men and the soldiers from Fort Collins were playing their part. All they would succeed in doing would be to leave the town exposed to attack. No, it was exactly what Jackson would want, to have them ‘chasing ghosts.’ Slim saw the sense in what both Daisy and Mort were constantly saying but he didn’t have to like it. Because it meant he couldn’t do anything to help Jess.

Slim cursed; it was the fourth shoe he had ruined that day. His mind just wasn’t on the job; almost every waking moment was wondering where he could be; had he caught up to them; was he even still alive? His mind worked over time and the not knowing was driving him crazy. He was sidetracked from his frustration by the sound of hoof beats. As he looked up, he saw the unmistakable form of the sheriff riding in. As well as being the purveyor of the law in Laramie, Mort was also a good friend to him and Jess. Whereas Jess often got frustrated with Mort’s insistence on following the law to the letter, Slim had always believed in the clear line that Mort had drawn between the badge and his duties as a friend. But now Slim was getting to know how Jess felt at times; especially when that badge got in the way of helping the best friend he had ever had.

 The sheriff had been a steady visitor for the past 4 days or so, keeping them updated with any developments, and, Slim suspected, to make sure he wasn’t about to do what he had tried this morning. Not that Mort ever had much to report. There hadn’t been any further reports of activity from the Jackson gang; nor, more worryingly, any news of Jess.

He was glad Daisy and Mike weren’t there; seeing their faces grow more and more disconsolate as the sheriff came and went with no further news was almost more than he could bear. The Doc had finally agreed that Mose could be moved back to town and they had taken the stage in to accompany him and get him settled.

He put the flawed shoe he had been working on into the water to cool off and removed his apron, walking towards the older man as he dismounted and tied his horse up to the hitching rail.

“Mort.” He acknowledged his friend.

The older man exhaled heavily. Every day he rode out there, he saw the hope in Slim Sherman’s eyes diminish further. He hated that he had no further news for the young rancher, Mrs. Cooper and young Mike. He knew how much Slim wanted to go out after his young friend but there was still the ranch and the Relay station to run and without Jess, Slim Sherman was doing the work of two men. Sure Bill Bates was helping out with the stage but that couldn’t go on forever, he had his own ranch to run.

“I’m sorry Slim, still no news on Jess. I’ve had the word out to all the sheriffs on both sides of the border but no one’s seen sight nor sound of him.”

Slim shook his head. “I just don’t get it Mort. He had to have passed through some of these places, he can’t have just disappeared.” He didn’t want to think of what the alternative could have been; that Jess had encountered the gang and had come off second best and was lying dead somewhere. It was something they had both considered but neither had wanted to voice out loud, especially not within earshot of Daisy or Mike.

“I know how you feel Slim but Jess can take care of himself. Wherever he is you can be sure he’ll have a plan. Don’t you worry about that. He’s one of the most resourceful young men I know.”

Slim smiled weakly. He was grateful to the sheriff for the words. Even if neither of them were beginning to believe them anymore. “I appreciate you coming out and keeping us updated, Mort. That all you come out to say?” He walked back over with Mort to his horse.

“No, it wasn’t. I got word from Dan Logan in Cheyenne. They found the stagecoach. Or what’s left of it. Soldiers on patrol from Fort Collins found it at the bottom of a ravine just across the border. It was pretty smashed up but no doubt about it. In light of the discovery, General Somerville has agreed to increase patrols in the area. If Jackson and his men are around there, they’ll find ‘em. Thought you’d like to know.”

Slim nodded as the Sheriff mounted his horse once more. “Thanks Mort.” He patted the horse’s rump and watched as his friend rode off. He appreciated Mort taking the time to ride out and let him know but they both knew that the army wouldn’t find any further sign of Jackson or his men. Clint Jackson was a master at disappearing. They didn’t call him the ‘Gray Ghost’ for nothing.

*****

As they made their way through the camp, Jess tried to take in as much as he could. It always paid to familiarize yourself with your surroundings if you were going to need to make a quick getaway. He noted the makeshift corral over to his right where the one called Thad had led Traveler. He recognized four of the other horses tied up in there as those that had made up the stage team.

It hadn’t escaped Jackson’s attention, however, that he was taking careful note.

“Now Jess, I hope you’re not already lookin’ for ways to leave us coz I kinda hoped you’d be enjoyin’ our hospitality for quite a spell. In fact, I was bankin’ on you joining our merry little band. I seem to recall you’re quite a shot. I could sure use a man like you. Would certainly make it worth your while?”

“And what makes you think you’d have anythin’ I’d be interested in?”

Jackson gave another of his sickening grins “Well, I don’t think, Jess; I know I have somethin’ that you’d be interested in because it’s what brought you here to me in the first place. Now, isn’t that right, Knute?”

As they rounded a rocky outcrop by the river, there he was sitting with his knees hitched up to his chest, sallow faced, trembling uncontrollably but very much alive. Suddenly oblivious to Jackson and his henchman Jess gave a cry of relief to see the boy. As soon as he had known it was Jackson he was dealing with he had been fearful for the boy but now he was just so grateful to see him.

“Knute. You all right, boy? Have they hurt you at all?” The boy didn’t look right, like he was in shock or something. Or maybe he was just so surprised to see him. He shook his head in response.

“Now, now Knute. Is that any way to greet an old friend? Cat got yer tongue?”

“Leave him alone Jackson. I mighta known he went along with that hold up against his will.” Jess couldn’t be sure but the boy looked sick. He needed to get him away from this place. And especially Jackson.

“Oh yeah, of course. Thank you fer remindin’ me, Jess. I take it the old stage driver was the one that identified young Knute here and set you on your merry way to find me?”

“He was lucky to survive. If it hadn’t been for the canteen that….” Jess stopped himself, noting the sudden fear that passed across the boys face, realizing that it could cause trouble for Knute, but Jackson laughed and continued.

“Oh, you mean the one the boy left fer him? Of course I knew about that.” He directly addressed the boy whose eyes were as wide as saucers. “Oh, Knute, do you really think I would’a let you slip the canteen to the old man if I hadn’t wanted you to? No, give me some credit, Jess. It was always my intention that the old man would live; in fact, I counted on it — just roughed him up enough to get yer attention. I’m not a cold blooded killer after all.” The muffled snorts and chuckles from his men belied that last statement.

“Try tellin’ that to Wes Seagar’s widow ‘n sons.”

Jackson sat down gingerly against the rock, wincing as he did so; it obviously pained him to be on the leg for any length of time, “Seagar…Seagar….” He was toying with Jess and it was all he could do to stop himself from launching himself at the maniac but he knew he’d be pumped full of bullets before he and Jackson had even hit the ground and that wouldn’t help Knute any.

Jackson grinned again “Oh, you must mean the guard? That was….” He searched for the right word…“unfortunate.” But now his voice took on a more menacing tone. “I guess that’s just a burden of responsibility yer goin’ to have to live with Harper.”

Jess looked at him sharply, it didn’t escape his attention that Jackson had reverted to calling him by his last name and he didn’t like the sudden change of tone.

“Whadd’ya mean I’m gonna have to live with?”     

“Well, if I hadn’t have wanted to see you so badly, Harper, that guard would be livin’ and breathin’ right now, playin’ with those little boys, lovin’ that pretty wife of his…”

“Shut up Clint.” Jackson had no right to talk about Sally and the boys like that.

Jackson continued, his tone getting more dangerous. “But of course, there’ll be no pretty wife fer me, will there, Jess? You saw to that.”

“What are you talkin’ about Jackson?” Jess didn’t like where this was headed.

“I gotta spell it out, Jess? I gotta show you?” he screamed, gesturing wildly to one of his men who pushed Jess down onto his knees in front of him as he fumbled at the buckles of his brace and pulled up the leg of his pants to expose the horrifying ruined mess that had once been his leg — great ulcerated chunks of flesh rubbed raw by the brace, the only thing that kept him on his feet. He grabbed Jess’ head and thrust it towards the monstrous limb. Jess almost gagged at the acrid smell that emanated from the ruined flesh.

“Now you take a good look at yer handy work, Jess.”

The anger dissipated as fast as it had arrived, and he let go of Jess’ head leaving him to dry retch in the dirt. Jackson replaced his brace and buckled it up as Jess recovered, trying to regulate his breathing once more. As he staggered to his feet, he took stock of the faces around him. It was clear this was the first time that any of them had seen the ruined leg, and it was truly an appalling sight. He looked down at Knute, the boy was trembling uncontrollably and there was something about his eyes that disturbed Jess; he didn’t look right at all, and he still hadn’t spoken a word. He had to tread carefully as it was clear that Jackson was teetering dangerously on the edge of sanity, if he hadn’t already fallen over entirely.

“All right Clint. You got me now; you can do whatever you want with me, but the boy ain’t done you no harm; you got the money from the stage so you can go wherever you want and I’ll come with you. Just let Knute go and I’ll promise I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

Suddenly the charming Jackson was back again. “Oh, yeah, again, thank you for remindin’ me, Jess; I had almost fergotten about that money. Now that was an extra bonus. I must admit, it was a pleasant surprise to find that; that’ll buy us plenty of supplies to keep us goin’. Won’t it, Knute; plenty of medicine to keep those nasty headaches of yers at bay, huh boy?”

At the sound of the word ‘medicine’, Jess noted a sudden change in the boy’s demeanor; he seemed to perk up all of a sudden. Jess didn’t like it one little bit.

“What’s he talkin’ about, Knute?”

The boy looked from one to the other; from his friend to the one who could give him what he needed. Jess noted, with a growing sense of alarm that the boy seemed to be hanging on every word; like a dog watching and waiting for a scrap to be thrown his way.

Jackson joined in “Now come on Knute boy. Jess is askin’ you a question. It ain’t polite not to answer. Lost yer tongue again, boy? Shame, coz I bet Jess here was real surprised to hear you was talkin’ again. A real bonafide miracle, eh, Harper? And now we even gotta cure for the headaches too, eh, boy?”

Jess could sense the anticipation in Knute, he was hanging on Jackson’s every word and he could tell that Clint was reveling in every minute of it.

“Well, Knute, maybe we should show ‘ol Jess here how good a cure it is, huh? ‘Coz I reckon it’s right about time for yer next dose.”

Jackson produced a syringe from his pocket and held it out towards the boy. Jess watched in horror as Knute leapt forward and snatched it greedily, running back to his place by the rocks to administer the ‘medicine’ he had come to rely so strongly on. Jess gave a sharp cry and leapt after his young friend to try and stop him but his world exploded in pain as he was hit from behind with a rifle butt and he crumpled, motionless to the floor.

As he watched the pain numbing medicine enter his vein and let the euphoria take hold, Knute looked dispassionately at the man he knew to be his friend lying motionless on the ground, blood running down the back of his neck and dripping into the dust. Part of him knew it was his fault and that he should be sorry, but right then, all he could think of was that, finally, he would start to feel better again; nothing else mattered.

As if on cue, Jackson piped up. “Feelin’ better, Knute boy?”

The boy nodded vigorously.

“Well, that’s good boy, that’s real good. Now I reckon coz of old Joe’s carelessness with his rifle there, poor ol’ Jess is gonna have a nasty headache of his own when he wakes up. Now as someone who knows what it’s like to have such a sore head, what say we spare ‘ol Jess’ sufferin’ and give him some medicine right now? That aways, when he wakes up he won’t be feelin’ so poorly. Reckon’ it’d be the right Christian thing to do.”

The fact that Jackson’s men were sniggering completely bypassed Knute; all he could think of was that Jess was his friend and if the medicine could prevent him suffering then that was fine by him. It sure made him feel better. He nodded and watched detachedly as one of Jackson’s henchmen rolled up his sleeve and sent the poison flooding into Jess’s veins.

Jackson smiled sinisterly in satisfaction as he administered his own dose. Oh yes, pay day had come and he was going to make sure he got his money’s worth from Jess Harper before he had finished with him.

*****

Jess hovered on the edge of the abyss for what seemed like an eternity. Every time he felt like he might be heading for the surface something or someone would send him plunging into the depths once more. He tried to recall what had brought him to this; he vaguely remembered an explosion of pain and then darkness but beyond that were just jumbled images and sounds that seemed to merge into each other. When snippets of lucidity did come, he was aware of shadows passing above him — hushed tones; and sometimes, maniacal laughter. It was the stuff of nightmares. Somewhere in the depths of his addled mind, he tried to rationalize what had happened. Had he been hurt? But the more he tried to think, the fuzzier his brain became and the louder the rushing in his ears. It was just easier to float on the brink of the twilight world between awareness and the yawning expanse of nothingness. And he realized he was content to do so.

But gradually clarity started to return; instead of the buzzing in his ears; he started to hear sounds again; his eyes started to focus once more and when they did; the concerned face of a boy swam into view. Someone he thought he recognized.

“Jess?”

He tried to move but the movement sent waves of nausea through him and he lay back panting. He closed his eyes, trying to concentrate on keeping whatever lay in his protesting stomach right where it was.

He felt a hand lift his head and something was pressed to his lips. Instinctively he turned away.

“C’mon Jess, you gotta take some water. It’ll do ya good.”

Jess shook his head. He was still trying to clear his head and recall where he was and what had happened to him. He opened his eyes once more and, as he was finally able to focus, he remembered.

“Knute?” he croaked.

The relief on the boy’s face was clear. “Yeah, Jess. It’s m…m…ee. I s…s…ure am glad to s…s…ee you awake at last.” Despite the effort it took for the boy to formulate the words, the Texas twang was unmistakable.

Wretched as he was feeling, Jess managed a wan smile. “It’s good to hear your voice again boy.”

The boy nodded happily “You too, Jess. Fer a s…s… pell there, you had m… m… me real worried.”

Jess tried again, and this time managed to get himself propped up on his elbows. Again, he had to close his eyes for a few seconds and focus to overcome the dizziness before he could open them once more and try to take in his surroundings. They were in some kind of makeshift shelter; he was lying on a crude cot, dressed in just his underclothes. He could see his jeans and his shirt draped across a line of twine that had been strung from one pole to the other. Knute saw where his attention was drawn.

“I washed ‘em as b… b… est I could in the river.” He grinned. “Reckon the way yer s… s… mellin’ the rest of you could use a b…b… ath too.”

It hasn’t escaped Jess’ attention that he smelt kinda ripe. He was still trying to remember what had led to his being here. He suddenly recalled the blow to the back of his head and instinctively reached up; expecting to find a wound, a bandage, something…

“You rememberin’ w… w…what happened?” Knute’s expression had taken on a more serious tone.

Jess nodded. “Someone hit me. That what had me laid out?”

Knute seemed to consider for a moment, as if trying to decide how much to tell him. Even with his still foggy mind, it didn’t escape Jess’ attention.

“Yeah, Jess. I’m real s… s… sorry ‘bout that. They s… s… shouldna hit you like that. D… d… didn’t think it would have you laid up s… s… o long though.”

Jess looked at the young man sharply. “Well, how long has it ‘bin Knute?”

The boy hesitated, looking round nervously.

“Knute? I said how long has it ‘bin?” Jess could feel the panic rising. He tried to rise further out of the cot but it was too much for his protesting body and the bile that he had been doing his level best to keep at bay suddenly rose in his throat. He turned to his side just in time as his spasming stomach ejected what little water Knute had been able to get into him. The exertion reduced his vision to pinpricks of light as he struggled against the waves of dizziness that overcame him. He had never felt so weak. He was in no position to argue as his young friend eased him back down on the cot and held the canteen up to his lips. He took a few slow slips and swallowed, not wanting to repeat what he had just been through, again, in a hurry. He realized however, whatever had had him laid up, and he was beginning to have his suspicions on that, he clearly hadn’t taken any sustenance in quite a while and needed the fluids. He opened his eyes as Knute started to withdraw the canteen but before he could do so fully, Jess had reached out and grabbed his arm. As he had lain back, panting, struggling to regain control of his weakened body, the image had suddenly come back to him, of what had led to his being slugged.

He gritted his teeth, struggling against the waves of dizziness and nausea that once again threatened to consume him, and leant forward, bringing his other arm across to hitch up the boy’s sleeve. The tell tale bruising and scarring confirmed his worse fears.

“Oh hell Knute, what have they done to you?” The boy struggled out of his grip, stumbling backwards, shocked at the sudden ferocity with which his friend had taken hold of him. Jess fell back, his energy finally spent. With rapidly diminishing vision he saw the boy look up as someone entered the tent, his face a mask of fear, but he was too tired to look for himself as finally he allowed the darkness to overwhelm him once more.

*****

As his senses returned again, he was conscious of a presence in the tent with him. He was aware of a pungent smell that assaulted his nostrils. Instinct told him it wasn’t Knute; he didn’t know how or why he was so sure but he decided to play possum a bit longer until he could figure who it was and whether they were a threat.

However, his unseen visitor had already seen through the ploy.

“I can tell from yer breathin’ that yer awake, Harper.”

He knew that voice. It was unmistakable. So it hadn’t been an elaborate nightmare after all. He should have known that was too much to hope for. He opened his eyes, resigned to the fact that Clint Jackson had him where he wanted him. A cursory glance around confirmed he was alone with his captor.

His head felt clearer than it had last time he had awoken but in every other aspect he felt worse. Much worse. It was as if, before, everything had been numb, disconnected somehow, but now the numbness had been replaced with pain in every fiber of his being. Jess tried not to show it; didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but Jackson didn’t miss a trick. Besides, he was an expert on the subject.

“Hurtin’, Harper?”

“Go to hell” Jess spat, through clenched teeth.

“Now that ain’t no way to be, Jess, after I’ve been takin’ such good care of you an’ all.”

Jess didn’t take the bait; he wasn’t interested in playing any of Jackson’s games

“Where’s Knute?”

“Oh, he’s around. Probably takin’ care of that horse of yers. ‘Bin doin’ that a lot when he ain’t ‘bin takin’ care of you. Nah, ‘ol Knute dern’t go far.” His voice took on a sinister tone. “Not when he’s got everythin’ he needs right here.” From out of his pocket he had taken out a glass syringe full of clear liquid and was now toying with it, holding it up to the light, letting the contents run up and down the glass teasingly. Jess could feel his heart start to race and he realized he had broken out in a cold sweat.

Jackson grinned manically. “Hungry, Jess?”

Jess swallowed against the dryness in his mouth, his words belying what, to his horror, he truly felt. “Not for what yer sellin’, Jackson.”

“Oh it ain’t fer sale, Jess; why no, to you it’s free of charge. Ain’t heard you complain none before now. In fact, you’ve bin’ real willin’”

Jess struggled to sit up, fighting against the rising nausea and the excruciating cramps that seemed to be invading every inch of his body. With shaking hands he hitched up the sleeve of his undershirt, the tell tale pin picks and bruising over the vein confirmed it.

“You bastard…” Jess tried to launch himself at him but, despite his crippled leg, Jackson ably pulled away. Jess’ legs buckled under him and he collapsed unceremoniously to the floor, panting.

“Now Jess, that weren’t very smart was it? Why, you ain’t go no strength in you. Here, let me help ya.” He reached to help him back onto the cot but Jess shied away from him. It took all his reserves of strength but he managed to pull himself up and lay back panting on the bed. The cramping in his stomach and the fire in his veins was becoming intolerable. He curled up in the fetal position, trying to find a way to counter the pain, no longer caring what Jackson thought, just focusing on trying to find a way through each spasm as it rocked his entire body.

Jackson regarded him with a warped satisfaction. “Yes sirree, the crampin’ sure is bad, ain’t it? I can’t tell ya how much I feel fer ya right now and I wish I could tell ya it’ll get better but, well, I’d just be lyin’, Jess, and I just can’t do that to ya. But truth is, only way yer gonna feel better, is if’n I give you more of this. ‘Coz I’ve spent the last ten days gettin’ ya nice and dependant.”

He held up the syringe once more. “Yep, it was a risk givin’ ya so much in so short a spell, but, well, I got plans fer ya, Jess, and I ‘bin waitin’ a long time for this. Guess I’m gettin’ kinda impatient in ma old age.”

A battle was waging within Jess, the battle of mind against body. His body was crying out for the drug that Jackson had been feeding him for the past 10 days; that had him residing in a twilight world of half awareness and nightmares. And then he had gradually reduced the dose so that awareness had begun to return but had his body protesting for the substance that it had quickly assimilated and grown reliant on. No wonder he felt so weak; he had probably had little or no food in all that time. Jackson had him exactly where he wanted him, vulnerable and weak.

“I’m gonna kill you.” He spat between chattering teeth. It was pure bravado. He was in no shape to do anything and they both knew it.

Jackson sat back down on the stool next to the cot and stretched his crippled leg out in front of him, grimacing once more at the pain.

“No, Jess, yer not gonna kill me. Ya wanna know why?” He looked down dispassionately at the pain filled blue eyes that met his and started to hitch up his own sleeve. “Coz, you can’t kill a man twice.”

Jess was mesmerized as he watched Jackson slap at the hideously scarred arm to raise the abused and partially collapsed vein enough to receive the precious liquid.

“That’s right, the man that Clint Jackson was died that day back in ’64; killed by the hand of Jess Harper. Ever since then, The Gray Ghost has been lookin’ for him. Lookin’ to make him suffer, like he’s suffered; make him feel the same pain he did; and take his life away the same way that he took Clint Jackson’s life away.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the euphoria of the opium coursing through his veins took full effect. When he opened them again, the pupils were completely dilated, giving him a demonic look.

“Yes sirree, Jess, by the time I’ve finished discreditin’ you, you ain’t gonna have a friend left in the world and you’ll wish you died that day with old Clint, I can promise ya that.” He got up and started toward the tent flap.

Jess squeezed his eyes shut against the pain that had enveloped his entire being, his breath coming in tortured gasps. “You’re mad,” he managed to stammer as he tried to breathe through the spasms of agony.

Jackson stopped and looked down at the man hunkered up in a ball on the cot.

“Maybe, but I hold all the aces, Harper, and in another hour or so, you’ll be beggin’ me to give ya what you need. And then you’ll be mine. And that’s when the real fun starts.”

Jess closed his eyes again and gritted his teeth as another spasm of pain wracked his tortured body, and tasted blood as he bit through his own lip. When he opened his eyes again Jackson was gone, leaving him to his own misery and pain.

*****

Slim couldn’t understand it; there had been reports of robberies all along the border — mercantiles and the odd small bank — but the gang had never gotten away with much, if anything, to speak of. But they had a ruthless reputation. Five people had been killed in as many weeks and on separate occasions the names ‘Jess’ and ‘Harper’ had been mentioned. No one had been able to make a positive identification as the raiders had taken to wearing scarves over their faces and besides, no one really knew Jess in any of these towns, but it just didn’t add up to Slim; it just wasn’t something that Jess would do. And why would men who had gone to such trouble as to hide their faces, make such an obvious mistake to call one of them by name? No, it smelled to him as if someone was deliberately trying to sully Jess’ name. Mort felt the same way; but word had gotten out that Jackson had fought in the same unit as Jess during the war, and everyone had known about the links with Johnny and Knute Duncan after the showdown in the Laramie street six months before. They had conveniently forgotten how Knute Duncan had prevented a lot of killings from happening that day. Slim had been particularly grateful that the young man had saved him from having to face his pard out there on that street.

He sighed as he tied Alamo up at the hitching rail outside the hotel and then headed down the street towards the Laramie mercantile store. Despite his concerns for Jess, life still had to go on and Daisy had sent him into town to pick up some supplies; but he was getting increasingly angered by the attitudes of some of the townspeople; people both he and Jess had considered friends. What he saw reflected on many of their faces as they walked past, was suspicion; disdain, even fear. And that was from those who did him the courtesy of looking him in the eye.

Things had come to a head a few days before when he had last been in town to pick up some papers from the stage office. A wire had just come in for Mort, informing him that the bank had been robbed in the Colorado town of Glendevey and the teller had sworn that one of the men had referred to one of his accomplice’s as ‘Jess’. Of course, the wire was marked for Mort’s attention only, so naturally, the whole town knew about it before he did.

As Slim had ridden in, he had seen an angry crowd gathering outside of the sheriff’s office, with Mort standing on the porch trying to calm them all down. At the front of that crowd had been Kel Johnson. He was one of those men who reveled in stirring up trouble and Slim wasn’t a bit surprised to hear him shouting the loudest. “And what I wanna know sheriff is when are you gonna accept that Harper’s trouble? He always was. People like him don’t change.” After more than a week of building tension, with no way to release it, Slim had seen red and had launched himself at Johnson. It had taken three of them to pull him off but not before, he noticed with satisfaction, he had done a fair bit of damage to Johnson’s face. It had been the distraction that Mort had needed to disperse the angry mob but it hadn’t stopped the sheriff laying down the law to him about his job being hard enough as it was trying to defend the reputation of one friend, without another trying to get himself thrown in jail. Slim gave a wry smile; Mort would have done it too, to make him cool off, if it hadn’t been for Daisy and Mike being left alone.

His mind wandered back to Jess again, as it was oft to do. He wished he knew where he was right now and what was going on in that head of his. Slim couldn’t believe he would be riding with Jackson. Not willingly anyway. He knew he had some loyalty to the men he had ridden with during the war but Johnny Duncan had proven to him that it wasn’t healthy to let the past dictate your present. He couldn’t see why Jess would just throw away the good life and friendships he had built in Laramie after drifting for so long, just to re-engage in some past allegiance that could only ever hold him back.

And then there was Mort; with Duncan and Jackson being implicated in the hold up that killed Seagar and injured Mose, and Jess having known about the payroll, the other lawman in the territory had all come to the same conclusion; that Jess Harper had gone rogue. And it was putting tremendous pressure on Mort whose credibility with his peers was on the line. He didn’t know how much longer he could defend the young man with all the evidence that was mounting against him. They needed to do something; Slim didn’t know what, but anything was better than just waiting and allowing Jess’ name to be continually dragged through the dirt as it was. The supplies forgotten, and sick to the back teeth of people crossing the street to avoid him, he headed towards the sheriff’s office.

As he got to the door, Ben Sanders from the telegraph office was coming out. He obviously hadn’t expected to see Slim and his expression was one of surprise.

“Howdy, Ben. Any news?”

“Slim…I ….er…think you’d better talk to the sheriff.” He hurried out and as Slim watched him head back down to the telegraph office, he could already see Kel Johnson and a bunch of others cross the street to intercept him. Slim went inside, his mouth suddenly dry. From Sander’s expression and his reluctance to tell Slim himself, the content of that latest wire had to have something to do with the Jackson gang. And specifically Jess. Slim headed into the office. A grim faced Mort was taking down two of the rifles from the gun rack as he entered.

“What was in that wire Mort?” The sheriff looked up, a pained expression passing across his face to see the young rancher.

“Now Slim, what are you doin’ here? I thought I told you the other day to stay outta town for a while?” He had retrieved a box of cartridges from the drawer and was now loading both shotguns

“Mort, I’m goin’ stir crazy waitin’ back there, hearin’ all these rumors about Jess and not bein’ able to do anythin’ about it.”

Mort sighed, and stopped what he was doing for a moment. “Well, it looks like you’re gonna get your chance, coz they’re not rumors anymore.”

“Whadd’ya mean?” He didn’t like Mort’s expression one little bit.

“The Jackson gang has struck again. They held up the Cheyenne bank. No one knows how they got in; the army have been watching the road up from Fort Collins and Dan Logan has had men regularly watching all the other routes in from the South, but they still managed to get in and hit the bank. Killed Jack Webster the Bank Manager and wounded Lon McGarry, one of the tellers. McGarry got a good look at the man who shot him. It was Jess.”

Slim was incredulous. “Oh, now c’mon Mort, you don’t believe that Jess would…”

“I’m sorry Slim” Mort interrupted, “Jess is well known in Cheyenne  – all the while there was no positive proof he was involved in any of this, I could hold the dogs off but now Jess has been officially identified I can’t protect him anymore. Dan Logan has set up a posse and is chasing them westward; looks like they’re comin’ our way. I’m gonna round up every able man I can find and we’re gonna see if we can intercept them before they disappear. Logan’s already wired the General at Fort Collins to send his men up to cover that route, just in case we miss them and they head south at the Laramie fork. I’m sorry Slim. I held them off as long as I could.”

Slim swallowed against the dryness in his mouth. Whatever they were saying, he still couldn’t believe it of Jess. But with the might of two posses and maybe the army bearing down on the gang, Jess was sure going to be short of friends out there. He looked out of the window and saw a gathered crowd heading down the main street towards them, Kel Johnson at its head. Word had already gotten out.

He turned back to the sheriff.  “I’m comin’ with you, Mort. If Jess is with them, I want there to be a fightin’ chance of bringin’ him in alive.”

Mort nodded grimly. They’d have their work cut out on that one.

*****

They had passed via the ranch on their way out to intercept the gang; Slim needed to retrieve his shotgun and some shells and it was a last chance for them all to water their horses. There wasn’t time to tell Daisy much other than a very quick appraisal of what had happened and for Slim to tell her to take Mike and ride over to the Simmonds place. He didn’t want them there at the ranch alone if men like Jackson were around. Daisy agreed but had made a mental note to herself if she was ever challenged on this, that she hadn’t agreed to stay there. Mike would be safe at the neighbor’s ranch but she intended to be at home when they got back. She figured they would need her to be.

As they road down the Cheyenne road, past the spot where the holdup had occurred, there was an odd sense of anticipation in the posse. There was excitement that, finally, they were going to be doing something to end the reign of a man who had gained such a sense of notoriety across several states, but there was also fear; because the men they were after didn’t care who or how they killed. What they had done to Wes Seagar had been savage and there were those who had been having second thoughts, now the reality of what they were riding towards hit them. But what made this even more disturbing for them all was that Jess Harper was with the men they were riding against. None of them knew what had made Jess go rogue but it was hard for some, despite the weight of evidence, to forget what the intense but likeable young man had done for the town over the past three years. That and the fact that they all knew how fast he was with a gun. If it came to it, there wasn’t one of them who wanted to face him. And for Slim and Mort in particular, there was the conflict between their friendship for the young man and the sense of duty to the town, which both Sheriff and rancher were silently, struggling more than a little with. For both of them, it brought back painful memories of that day on the Laramie main street six months before when they had been forced into a similar situation. And now history was about to repeat itself. They would soon know just how much of a repetition it would be.

They kept up a frantic pace; knowing that the gang would be more than matching their speed trying to make good their escape with Dan Logan and his men hot on their trail. Slim’s mind was working overtime as to how he could try and get to Jess before anyone else and before the shooting began. But so far he was coming up blank and they were running out of time. After three hours of hard riding they came to the Laramie fork; this was where the road branched off in two directions; south, into Colorado and down to Fort Collins, and east, continuing onto Cheyenne. Mort signaled the posse to a halt. Slim immediately dismounted and checked the ground for tracks.

“Looks like we beat ‘em to it, Mort. I can’t see any tracks to indicate a lot of riders have been through here recently.” He scanned the surroundings. Up to their right, the Laramie Mountains loomed, they paralleled the road south down into Colorado. The gradient wasn’t too steep that they couldn’t take the horses part ways up and get into position and wait for Jackson and his men. It would give them a good view of what was coming up from Cheyenne with plenty of time to be prepared.

However, Slim couldn’t figure Jackson’s intention. He had stayed one step of the law this amount of time by being smart, by not being predictable. If he was coming this way, he would have known that there was bound to be a contingent from Laramie riding out to meet them and that the cover afforded by the steady incline up into the mountains would offer a posse a perfect position to pick them off from. South would be no good either with the army watching the road. So Jackson had to have something else up his sleeve. The question was, what?

The other men had started to dismount and many were watering their horses as best they could from their canteens. It was just after midday and the heat of the sun had intensified. Slim started walking back the way they had come, his eyes scanning the gradual incline of the mountains up above them, still trying to get into the mind of Clint Jackson. Mort frowned as he watched him. He knew that Slim was beside himself with concern for Jess and he wished he could say something to console him but the truth was he didn’t see how either of them were going to protect their young friend once the shooting started. As he watched the young rancher, he saw that something had appeared to catch his eye and he had started to scramble up into the rocks, his eyes cast upwards.

“Slim? What is it?”

“Mort, come over here, I think I’ve found somethin’”

The sheriff looked down the road, trying to figure how far away Jackson and his men could be if they were still headed in this direction. Mort figured they couldn’t be more than an hour or two away with the time that it had taken them to get here. They still had some time. He dismounted and walked over to the bottom of the incline that Slim had started to scale.

“What’ve you found?” Several of the other men had also come over to see what was up.  Slim pointed upwards to the tree line three quarters of the way up the escarpment

“Up there. See?”

Mort followed where he was pointing, squinting against the sun clearing the ridge, which was beginning to beat directly down on them.  “What am I lookin’ fer, Slim?”

“See those trees? Look over to the right.”

Mort looked to where Slim had directed him. He had to look hard but could just see what Slim was referring to. It looked like a trail emerging and meandering up through the rocks. Just below the tree line was what remained of several other trees and a slick muddy scar. There had clearly been a land slip in recent times which had taken out a few of the trees and now had them toppled unceremoniously further down the mountain side. Bill Evers, Mort’s deputy came up to join them.

“That musta happened a couple of months back when we had that torrential rain for three days. Took out part of the mountain. Well I’ll be darned. I’d fergotten all about that trail.”

“You know where it leads Bill?” Mort was still craning his neck to see if he could follow it as far as his eyes would allow.

“Yeah, heads up over the mountains and then down to parallel the river, right down into Colorado. It’s an old miners trail. I only know about it coz’ my father used to tell me about the mad old coot who claimed he struck gold up there back in the 40’s. Created a mini gold rush but it soon turned out to be a fool’s errand. What they found up there weren’t gold at all. It was pyrite.”

“Fools gold?” Mort vaguely remembered the story.

Evers nodded. “Yep, they call that trail Finns Folly, after ‘ol man Finn who started it all. But it ain’t ‘bin used fer years. Eventually takes you down to Colorado but it’s a long hard route and there just ain’t no call to use it anymore. Most folks would have fergot all about it.”

“Well, someone’s ‘bin usin’ it and recently too. And I’ll lay easy money that this is how Jackson and his gang have been gettin’ in and out of Wyomin’ without bein’ seen.” Slim had climbed back down and in his hand he had a few dark strands of what looked like horse hair. “They’ve done a pretty good job of clearin’ their tracks down here and for a ways in but they haven’t been as careful further up and there are plenty of signs that horses have been up that way lately. From what I can tell, one horseman has been back up there as recently as the last day or so, probably someone they left behind to clear their tracks to protect their route in and out.”

He held up the horse hair “Found these caught on some of the gorse bushes and there’s plenty more. That’s why there were no signs of Jess in any of the border towns when he first went lookin’ for Knute. I reckon he found this trail and tracked them back to wherever they were holed up.”

Evers looked doubtful. “Well, from all I’ve heard, it’s a rough trail, Slim, and it woulda only gotten rougher after all those years abandoned.” Many of the others murmured their agreement.

Slim was getting frustrated. “Don’t you see? This is where they are headed for, and we’ve beaten ‘em to it. For the first time, we are one step ahead of the Jackson gang. Now if we can position ourselves at strategic points up on either side of the trail, we can take ‘em. We’ll have the cover of the rocks and can have them surrounded before they even know what’s hit ‘em. We’ll have the element of surprise because they won’t have expected for us to have found the trail.”

“What about our tracks Slim?” Slim could see that Mort was coming around to his way of thinking. This was a real opportunity and one they had to take.

Slim had already formulated a plan on that. One that would allow him to get to Jess before anyone else could. “Johnson, you and Charlie take the horses far enough back up the road towards Laramie and out of ear shot and wait there until your hear the shootin’ stop. The rest of you climb up the trail and take positions at strategic points either side; try and clear your tracks as you go, and I’ll clear all traces of us here and for a ways further back up the road. Mort, I’ll hide out down here by the start of the trail. You get somewhere up high above and, everyone else, you make sure you’re somewhere where you can see both and Mort and me. When they’ve all gotten past me, and are midway to Mort’s position, I’ll signal and he can tell them they’re surrounded and to drop their weapons. If they don’t, and they wanna shoot it out, well, then we’ll give ‘em what they want.”

As he finished he noticed the strange expression on Mort’s face. The plan had come to him so suddenly he had just rattled it off out loud. But Mort was the sheriff and he was in charge and none of it was going to happen unless it had his endorsement

“If that’s all right with you Mort?” he added the disclaimer.

All eyes were on the sheriff as he considered. He had already seen what Slim intended. It was no accident that he wanted to be the one to clear the tracks because it meant he could get potentially get to Jess before anyone else could and he understood that. Aside from the ulterior motive, he really couldn’t fault the plan. Still, he had a position to maintain.

“All right Slim, I’ll concede that it’s a good plan, but just remember who’s wearing the badge here. And that goes for all of you. No one starts firing until I give the word. Understood?”  They all assented silently. Slim nodded his acquiescence to the sheriff and was heartened to see the corners of the older man’s mouth twitch just enough for him to know that he had his full support.

“Johnson, Charlie, you round up the horses and get them out of sight and stay put until someone comes to get you. If not, you give it half an hour after the shootin’ stops and then you head back to Laramie.” He didn’t need to elaborate on what that eventuality might mean. They all knew the stakes. “Bill, take 5 men and head around to the north side of the trail and stagger positions about every 12 feet or so. The rest of you, we’ll do the same on the south side. Everyone, make sure you have good cover and plenty of ammo. Stay out of sight until I give the word. And good luck”

As they all started to move into position, Johnson started to grumble that he was going to miss all the action but he was soon silenced by Charlie Barnes.

“Oh, heck, Kel, stop yer blathering; you know you’ll be as glad to be as far away from the shootin’ as I will when it all starts happenin’ and there’s no use sayin’ otherwise” Everyone laughed at Johnson’s thunderous expression but he didn’t argue any further. It broke the tension.

“Slim?” he turned to see the serious expression of the sheriff as he regarded him closely.

“Yeah?”

“Just be careful.”

Mort had seen his intent and understood what he was attempting to do. Jess was his friend too and Slim was giving him the best chance he could.

“You too Mort” He turned and made a start on clearing the tracks as the sheriff climbed up into position. His keen ears could already hear the thunder of hooves in the distance. They wouldn’t have long to wait.

*****

As they rode out of Cheyenne, Jess reflected on how he was ever going to get out of this. He was relatively well known in Cheyenne; there was no doubt that he would have been recognized by someone, especially as he had been forced to shoot one of the tellers who had drawn a derringer on him. He’d made sure he only winged him but still, that wouldn’t matter none to the posse who were sure to be on their trail, especially as Jackson had needlessly shot the Manager. The man had handed over all the money but still Jackson had cold bloodedly shot him in the stomach and sentenced him to what Jess knew to be a slow and painful death. And now with them heading North West, the Sheriff was bound to have wired ahead to Laramie that they were coming. As sure as he was of the posse following them, he was even more positive that Mort would be riding out with one of his own to intercept them; friend or no friend, he wouldn’t have a choice.

It was pure adrenalin that was keeping him in the saddle though. In the four or five days since he had been allowed to emerge from his opium fuelled stupor, he had been fed a diet of biscuit and beans, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the 10 days or so he had received little or no sustenance other than what Knute had tried, mainly unsuccessfully, to feed him. Jess had always been lean but now his jeans and shirt were literally hanging on him. Worse still the effects of his last fix were wearing off. Jackson had deliberately kept him ‘wanting’ since the day before to ‘keep him honest’ as he had put it.

They had been keeping up a brutal pace for three hours and Jess was wondering who was going to collapse first, him or his horse. Traveler was still tied up in the makeshift corral back at the camp and instead, Jackson seemed to have selected for him the oldest and mangiest creature he could find. It clearly wasn’t used to the pace and had already dropped a fair way back from the others, despite his best efforts to urge it on. With an empty gun and no canteen, and in his weakened condition, much as he hated to admit it, his best chance was to try to keep up with Jackson and the rest of his men. He reflected bitterly that, right now, he was as dependent on Clint Jackson as Knute had become. He’d hardly seem the boy since he had come out his stupor. It seemed Jackson had been deliberately keeping them apart, another way to control them both. He knew Jess wouldn’t try to escape without taking Knute with him, not after coming all that way, and keeping them away from each other made what was virtually impossible anyway, twice as hard.

And now, as they fled the pursuing posse, he needed Jackson in order to survive and they both knew it. But the horse clearly had other ideas and despite his best efforts to spur it on, it ground to a halt and plain refused to carry on. Jess desperately tried to consider his options; it was getting harder and harder to think straight. In the distance he could hear the thunder of hooves as the posse gained ground.

He looked ahead at the riders rapidly disappearing into the dust cloud kicked up by their galloping mounts, as they left him further and further behind. He squinted as, out of the cloud a rider emerged heading back towards him. It was Jackson. As he got closer and saw the spreading smile on his face he realized that this had been his intent all along.

“Well Harper, I don’t know who I should put out of their misery first, you or your horse. Looks like you lucked out there.” The look of triumph on the crippled madman’s face, as he reined up his horse was sickening. Before Jess could respond, Jackson had pulled out his iron and sadistically shot the horse in the head, the creature collapsing heavily to the ground, complete with rider. He would have been trapped under its body if pure instinct hadn’t made Jess roll clear.

Jackson looked down at the unfortunate creature, still twitching, in its final death throes, “Poor ‘ol fella, but, I just never could stomach seein’ anythin’ suffer like that. ‘Coz I reckon I know what it feels like.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Jess spluttered as he staggered to his feet.

“Well, yeah Jess, I did. You see, that posse is gonna be catchin’ up real soon and I wanna give ‘em someit’ to distract ‘em and well, yer just the thing.”

Jess scanned the surroundings. Even though he knew he was innocent, there was no way he was going to make the posse believe him, and that was if they stopped to ask questions first. They were just as likely to shoot him as take him in alive. And that wouldn’t help Knute. No, he had to keep out of the posse’s way if he could. There was a rocky outcrop about half a mile away. He might be able to make it, hole up there. But Jackson saw his intent.

“Oh Jess, now that’s ambitious. A man in shape, well, he might be able to make it in the time you got before the posse gets here, but right now, lookin’ the way you do, I wouldn’t hold out much hope. Tell ya what I’m gonna do, though.” He started to fumble at his gun belt. I’m gonna give you a sportin’ chance. I’m gonna leave you with 6 bullets for that empty gun of yers. But you gotta go find ‘em.”

One by one, he tossed them, in different directions and then the grin that he had been wearing on his face disappeared, his tone menacing. “Even if’n you only find one of ‘em, then I’ll have given you more of an honorable way out than you ever gave me, coz even if you do manage to avoid that posse, pretty soon the hunger’s gonna be on ya, and believe me, when that takes hold, I mean real hold, then you’ll think a bullet’ll be a blessin’ to ya.”

Just as quickly as it had disappeared, the grin was back. “So long, Jess, its ‘bin fun havin’ y’along for the ride. Now don’t ya worry, I’ll take care of ‘ol Knute fer ya, ya can be sure of that.” He spurred his horse on with his good leg; the other splayed out awkwardly to the side and left him there, alone, to face the might of a posse and the pain of his withdrawal. It had been Jackson’s plan all along.

“JACKSON!!!!! I’LL KILL YOU!” Jess screamed, desperately, after him. From the eddying dust cloud he heard the maniacal laughter and a disembodied voice call back

“You can’t kill a ghost Jess, remember?”

Jess tried to clear his mind; tried to think. He was out of options. Hearing the thunder of hoof beats behind him growing ever louder, he realized time was short. He scrabbled around for the bullets; his keen eyes easily spotting them, thankful for the fierce sunlight that glinted off the shiny metal. He managed to find them all within a few minutes before he started to run for the rocks. It was expending energy he didn’t have but it was the only chance Jess figured he had. And by default, the only chance Knute had.

*****

It had been a tense wait for all but, after an hour, their patience was rewarded. The advance party of the Jackson gang rode up cautiously, evidently looking out for signs of anyone coming down from Laramie to intercept them. From his position hidden behind some rocks, Slim tried to see if Jess was with them but he couldn’t see his pard. It didn’t look like Jackson was with them either. He strained to hear what was being said to see if he could pick up any clues as to his whereabouts.

“Thad, Lee, you head down south and set a trail, ride yer horses around some so’s if’n that posse does come down from Laramie, they’ll follow, an’ the Cheyenne one’ll likely do the same. Lay low for a while and then back track in a day or so. We’ll see you back there.” The two men did as bid and turned south, towards the Colorado border to set one of the many false trails that had constantly kept Jackson and his gang ahead of the law that hunted them.

More riders had arrived and as he dared a look, Slim saw that Knute was one of them. The boy kept looking behind him nervously but Slim couldn’t see any more riders coming up the road. He still couldn’t see Jackson or Jess amongst the men and he worried about what that could mean.

The temporary leader had clearly noticed that Jackson was not amongst them.

“Where’s Clint?”

“He stayed back aways to take care of Harper. Shouldn’t take long. He’ll be along in a spell” There were guffaws of laughter, as if the men were sharing some private joke.

Slim noted the expression on Knute’s face. It was clear that the boy shared his growing concern for his friend. And it also meant that Jess was no longer exactly in league with Jackson, if he ever had been.

“All right, let’s start headin’ up the trail. Clint knows the way. ‘Ol Knute here can wait for him and take his turn at clearin’ the tracks.”

“You think that’s a good idea, Ged? Boy might run off and get the law and he knows how to get to the camp. Clint wouldn’t be too happy if that was to happen.”

“Now, don’t take on, Nate; ‘ol Knute here ain’t goin’ nowhere coz he ain’t had his medicine yet today, have ya, boy?” Slim watched as the boy shook his head, involuntarily licking his lips as he was reminded of his overdue ‘feed.’

The one called Ged laughed. “An’ Clint’s the only one can do the dispensin’, an’ ‘ol Knute knows it, don’t ya, boy? Now you get down off that nag of yers and get outta sight until Clint comes along.”

“Well, ya think you oughta take his iron, Ged?”

“Oh heck, Nate, he ain’t got no bullets in it. And even if’n he did, I doubt the boy’d know what to do with it. Reckon that medicines startin’ to fry yer brains.” There were more guffaws of laughter. “Now c’mon, let’s get goin’.”

Slim ducked down out of sight as the men entered the trail and passed close to where he was. So, that confirmed a few more things. They wouldn’t have given Knute an empty gun if the boy was with them willingly. And it was clear from what they had said about ‘medicine’ that they had some kind of hold over him. Slim was beginning to suspect what that was. Now they were out of earshot of Knute, as they passed by him, Slim heard the one called Ged whisper to the one called Nate.

“It’s all part of the plan, Nate. Now Clint’s taken care of Harper, it’ll be the boys turn. He don’t need him no more. Reckon he’s got somethin’ special planned.” He started laughing and was joined by his co conspirator.

Slim waited until they were far enough ahead before he dared move. That confirmed it. Somehow as far as he could figure, Knute had been used to get to Jess, for reasons that were not yet clear to him. But now Jess and Jackson were somewhere alone together. Which meant that Jess was in danger; if he was, even, still alive. His sense of urgency growing, Slim made a decision. It wasn’t exactly part of the plan but he had to get to Knute. He looked back up the trail to see the retreating riders. He grimaced. He didn’t want to give the signal until Jackson had arrived. If they started shooting too soon it would alert him to the danger and then he wouldn’t have a chance to find Jess. But if they didn’t move soon, the advantage would be lost. If Jackson’s men got to the higher ground beyond where Mort had taken position, then they would have the upper hand. Slim turned back and saw that the boy had started to lead his horse up towards his position, obeying orders to tie it up out of sight before starting to clear the tracks. Slim made his decision. He had to take the chance.

As the boy got parallel to him he whispered.

“Knute? It’s Slim Sherman. I’m here to help. Keep facing the way you are. I don’t want them to know I’m here. All right?”

Knute’s eyes widened as he heard the voice. He did as he was told and continued to look the way he had been going, watching the riders as they headed up the trail. As they passed, a craggy outcrop, he caught a quick glimpse of a head popping up as someone adjusted position, before disappearing out of sight again.

“Now tie your horse like you were goin’ to. If they look back I don’t want them to get suspicious. Then come back and stand by the rock as if you are looking out for Jackson coming up the road, all right? Just give a slight nod if you understand?”

Knute did as asked. Slim Sherman was Jess’ friend. If anyone could help him, it was Slim, if it wasn’t already too late. With shaking hands he tied up the horse to the trunk of a thickened gorse bush a short ways up the trail and then walked back to where Slim was positioned. He stood with his back to him so that he could see up the trail as well as back to the road. Slim looked up the trail. The riders were about half way towards Mort’s position. He didn’t have long.

“All right Knute. Where’s Jess?”

“I dunno S… S…Slim. His horse went lame I thh… th… ink. W… w… wasn’t a good horse. Jackson m… m… musta s… s… stopped w… w… with him.”

“How far back?”

“I dunno…about 10 miles or s… s… so….m… m…maybe m… m… more.”

“Is he hurt?”

“No….b… b… but…”

“But what, Knute?”

“He’s n… n… not in very good s….s… shape.”

The boy didn’t elaborate but Slim had already surmised that Jess couldn’t be in very good condition if Jackson was alone with him. People like Jackson didn’t face people like Jess unless they were sure the odds were firmly stacked in their favor.

“How far behind was the posse?”

“I dunno, S… s… slim. M… m…maybe half an hour or an hour at m… m… most.” he clutched at his head.

“You all right Knute? You hurt?”

“Head hurts…need m… m… medicine.”

Even from behind, Slim could see the boy was shaking and he had already concluded it was more than just fear. And he realized they couldn’t afford to wait for Jackson any longer. They had to make their move now if they stood any chance of getting to Jess before the Cheyenne posse got to him; if it hadn’t already.

“All right Knute. We’re gonna get to Jess, don’t you worry. Now there’s gonna be a lotta shootin’ in a moment. I want you to keep your head down and don’t come out until it’s all over. All right?”

The boy nodded wordlessly and headed behind a rock, clutching his aching head.

Slim looked back up the trail. The riders were almost to Mort’s position. It was time. He stood and raised his arm. There was no turning back now.

*****

As predicted, they weren’t going to give in without a fight. The words “You’re surrounded” had hardly left Mort’s mouth before a bullet ricocheted off the rock an inch from his head. He ducked for cover and then there was nothing but a cacophony of gunshots echoing out amongst the rocks. The first volley from the well-positioned posse had four of them out of their saddles straight away before they had a chance to take cover, the panicking equines stampeding the bodies as they desperately tried to get away. One of the petrified creatures stumbled in its bid to escape back down the trail and broke its leg, it shrieks echoing in Knute’s ears, taking him back to the those terrible battles that still haunted him in his dreams. He tried to cover his ears in a vain attempt to drown out the terrible sounds and ease his aching head. As he rocked back and forth trying to block out everything and everyone around him, he failed to see the approach of the rider coming up the road; failed to see him dismount and surreptitiously approach, his face a twisted mask of fury.

The surviving members of the gang had scrambled for cover but there was really nowhere to hide as they were surrounded by men who had the advantage of higher terrain; it was harder to shoot up at someone who had the cover of rocks than it was to shoot down at someone who had hardly any at all. Some had tried to head back down the trail but Slim’s plan had been too good. If one man missed, there was another waiting either side of the trail a few feet further down to pick them off. Jackson’s arrogance that no one would ever find their trail had been their undoing. That and the elements; the landslide had given away their secret thanks to the sharp eyes of a young rancher desperate to clear the name of his friend.

There was a sense of euphoria amongst the members of the posse as they gradually emerged from their positions to check for any survivors. With the exception of Matt Needham, one of many local ranchers, who had received a scratch to his upper arm, they had all emerged intact. But Slim couldn’t share that euphoria as he still didn’t know where Jess was or even if he was still alive.

As the acrid smoke cleared and the others started to check the bodies for survivors, Mort started to climb back down towards Slim. He had noted that there hadn’t seemed to be any sign of Jess either and had surmised, from the reactions of the boy, that Slim had taken a risk and told him to take cover. He wanted to know as badly as Slim did what had become of Jess and figured the boy might have some answers. He watched as the tall figure of the young rancher emerged from behind the cover of the rock and started to head up towards him. However, with a growing sense of horror he realized that there was someone else who didn’t belong there. He saw the horse first, abandoned further down the road. He scanned the rocks at the bottom of the escarpment for anyone who wasn’t part of their posse; who didn’t look right. Then he saw the movement, a limping form, iron drawn, coming around the rock behind Slim, the grey jacket almost camouflaging him against the granite. Mort swallowed, his mouth dry, Slim couldn’t see him. If he called out, it would alert Jackson as well as Slim and he didn’t think the young rancher would be able to turn in time. He scrambled down the rock, his sense of desperation growing; he didn’t think Jackson had seen him. Or maybe he didn’t care. Seeing the expression on his face and the sense of urgency in the sheriff’s step, Bill Evers looked up from the corpse he had been checking and saw what had Mort all fired up. His quick assessment of the situation drew the same conclusion as Mort. Sherman didn’t stand a chance and there was not a thing either one of them could do about it.

But one other person had seen what was about to unfold. Knute had finally removed his hands from his ears and had begun to take stock of what had just occurred; these were men he had spent the last six months in the close company of and now they were all dead. He shuddered, partly from shock but more so from his growing need. Reminded of his duty, despite the fact that he had now been ‘freed’ from his obligation by the posse, he cast his eyes back down towards the road. And that’s when he spotted the horse. He knew it straight away. Which meant Jackson was somewhere around. He tried to call out but right when he needed it, Knute’s voice let him down again. He looked around in panic and that was when he saw him, coming up behind Slim, his gun drawn. He looked up and could see that the sheriff and his deputy had spotted him too and were trying to hurry down to warn him, neither of them close enough to risk a shot themselves. If they missed, that would kill Slim just as quickly as it would if they tried to call out and warn him. But right now, from the expression on his face, it was clear Jackson was blind to all but his quarry.

Knute licked his lips, desperately trying to clear his head of the need and think what Jess would do; what he would want him to do? Slim was his friend and Jess’ only hope, if he was still alive. He knew how much that friendship meant to Jess and how it would destroy him to know that Slim had been killed trying to help him. He just wouldn’t be able to live with it. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat, his mind suddenly made up as he saw Jackson pull back the hammer, his iron aimed squarely between Slims shoulder blades. There was only one thing he could do.

It was as if everything was suddenly happening in slow motion. The first Slim knew that anything was wrong was, out of the corner of his right eye, he saw a flash of gray emerge from the rocks. As he turned he saw Knute Duncan heading straight for him his face a mask of terror, his mouth open in warning.

“SLIM!!!!!!” he yelled. It was odd, Slim was to reflect, later on, the first thing he had thought, was that the boy had suddenly lost his stammer, but then he had suddenly realized what was happening as Knute came between him and the one who had just pulled the trigger. The boy’s eyes widened in shock as it took him in the back and he fell forward. Almost instantaneously, a shot rang out from higher up and Slim saw his assailant propelled back against the rock and collapse to the ground. He looked up to see Bill Evers with his shotgun still aimed at his attacker. Just in case. Mort was still hurrying down towards him, the rest of the men all stood watching as if they were in some strange amphitheatre, watching the tragedy unfold before them.

Still in shock at what had just happened, Slim turned his attention to Knute, and gently turned him over, gathering him into his arms. Pain filled eyes looked up at him.

“Slim?” The stutter had completely disappeared. Slim remembered Daisy telling Mike a story that whatever ailed a person in life left them before they crossed over. There were no impairments in the afterlife.

“Yeah, I’m here Knute.”

“Jess. I let him… down…. He was a… good ….friend to me and… I let him… down.”

“No….”

“I couldn’t stop them…couldn’t help him…”

“You have helped him…you’ve given us the chance to find him…”

“He ain’t had no… medicine… today…. He’ll be needin’ it….he’ll… get sick without it.”

“We’ll take care of him Knute…….”

Knute coughed and frothy blood welled up on to his lips as he struggled for breath.

“Tell… Jess…. I’m… sorry.”

“What for?”

“Fer gettin’ him into this… mess. I didn’t… know… that’s what Jackson… wanted.”

Slim looked up at the concerned face of Mort who had now arrived. He shook his head silently at his friend to confirm what the sheriff had already surmised. “He knows that Knute.”

The boy shook his head, closing his eyes against the pain. “I didn’t… see that was… what… Jackson… wanted all… along. I failed…him.”

“No Knute, that’s not true. You’ve been a good friend, because you saved Jess’ and my friendship not once, but twice. You saved it that day back in Laramie when you stopped us having to face each other on the street. And you saved it today by stopping that bullet for me. And I’ll never forget that. And neither will Jess.”

Knute opened his eyes once more, but they no longer seemed to be focusing. A ghost of a smile appeared on his face as he whispered, “I guess I’m not all bad then?” His pupils fixed as he sighed a last breath and his head lolled to the side.

Slim swallowed as he closed the boy’s eyes. “No, Knute, you never were.”  

 He laid him down gently and then got up to where Mort had a gun trained on Jackson. Despite the massive hole in his chest and the blood dripping out of his mouth, Clint Jackson was still alive; but not for much longer.

 Filled with grief and fury for what had happened to Knute, and his fear for Jess, Slim was unable to hold back. He reached down and grabbed him by his jacket and virtually pulled him to his feet, causing Jackson to splutter blood all over him.

“WHERE’S JESS?!” Slim screamed at him.

Jackson coughed up more blood as he started to laugh

“In hell…”

Slim threw him back at the rock again. “I said, where is he, Jackson?”

Jackson coughed again, his breathing coming in gasps now as he started to drown from the blood and fluid rapidly filling his lungs.

“I left… him… out there… to shoot it out… with that posse… chasin’ us. You’re too late Mister…. Harper’ll be so mad with need he’ll kill anyone or anythin’ in his way to get what he wants. …And only I got that…….”

He patted his breast pocket and then was wracked by a final spasm.

Slim reached down and shook him again “Where? Where did you leave him?” but Jackson was now beyond his reach. He let go and let the body slump back down against the rock. Clint Jackson had been wrong. You could kill a man twice. And they wouldn’t need to do it a third time.

He looked over to Mort who was looking down sadly at the boy. While the sheriff’s back was turned, Slim reached down into Jackson’s breast pocket. His fingers closed around the undamaged object and he grimly pulled it out, and, without inspecting it, placed it in his own jacket pocket.

*****

Slim’s heart was in his mouth at the prospect of his pard facing the might of a posse on his own. Jess was pretty good at taking care of himself and could acquit himself well against almost anyone, but not the entire might of a posse bearing down on him. And especially not in the state of mind he was likely going to be in if what Knute and Jackson had told them was true. Slim had seen what opium dependence could do to a man, even after such a short period of time. If Jess was in the early stages of withdrawal then it was likely he wouldn’t be thinking straight, and the sheriff from Cheyenne wouldn’t know that. He didn’t know Jess; didn’t know that he wouldn’t kill if he absolutely didn’t have to; he didn’t know that he had been deliberately dosed with opium against his will and he didn’t know that Jess was as much a victim in all of this as anyone. Nope, the Cheyenne posse would go in shooting and that would force Jess’ hand to shoot back; and maybe even kill someone if it came down to them or him. And even if he did make it out alive, there would be no defending that; whatever mitigating circumstances there were. It was clear that Mort was thinking exactly the same thing he was, if the grim expression on his face was anything to go by. Things weren’t looking good for Jess right now and his only hope was that they would get to him on time.

Mort had sent Evers and the rest of the posse back to Laramie with the bodies and those of the dead fugitive’s horses they had managed to round up. Slim had given them instructions to make sure the body of the boy was treated separately from the others. Knute deserved a decent burial. He didn’t much care what happened to the rest.

As they galloped down the Cheyenne road, they were met by a contingent of Logan’s posse coming towards them. They reined up briefly to exchange information, Logan’s deputy confirming their worst fears. A few miles back the posse had spotted someone headed for the rocks and the sheriff and a few men had gone after him, leaving what remained of them to continue the pursuit of the gang. With Slim screaming at him that they had no time to waste, as he spurred ahead on Alamo, Mort briefly apprised the men of what had happened at their end and sent them off to liaise with Evers, before heading after his young friend.

It was the gunshots that alerted them to the fact things were already well in motion. As they rode in, Sheriff Dan Logan from Cheyenne was in position with what remained of his posse fiercely exchanging gunfire with the unknown assailant high up in the rocks. They had him pinned down and Mort could see that, while four of them were attempting to draw the gunman’s fire, two others were working their way around to get behind him. They had arrived not a moment too soon. Jess, for they had to assume it was him holed up there, would be kept too busy with those drawing his fire from the safety of the rocks to see those coming up behind him. And even if he did manage to turn quickly enough to get one, the other coming up from the opposite side would be sure to take him. He and Slim quickly dismounted and signaled to the sheriff to hold his fire and stop the advance of the other two men.

Mort nodded grimly to his counterpart. “Dan. I need you to hold your men off. That man you’re firing on; he’s not part of Jackson’s gang.”

“Well, that’s Jess Harper, Mort. He was positively identified as being part of the gang who held up the Cheyenne bank. He was the one who shot and wounded Lon McGarry.”

Slim stepped forward, “Alright so it was Jess Harper at that hold up. I can’t explain it right now, but he wasn’t part of the gang. Not in the way you think. And sheriff, if Jess Harper intended to kill McGarry, then you can be sure he wouldn’t be alive right now. I’ll bet he was only winged?”

It was clear that Logan wasn’t buying it and didn’t appreciate this challenge to his authority by the grim faced young man, whether he was a friend of Mort Cory’s or not. He knew Sherman from his infrequent visits to Cheyenne but not well enough to allow the younger man to tell him how to do his job. “Maybe, but, why did he run when we rode up; why didn’t he just come quietly….?”

Mort interrupted. “Because I’ll bet you didn’t give him a chance.” He looked around at the faces of the men Logan had brought with him, clearly not happy that their action was being spoiled. “Who fired the first shot Dan?”

Logan grimaced. “Well, McClintock did. As we rode up we saw Harper on foot. I shouted for him to stay where he was but he turned tail and ran towards the rocks, so McClintock shot after him.” It was clear from his expression that he hadn’t entirely approved of the man’s actions. That was the trouble with posses; sometimes you had to take what you could get to make up the numbers but some of these men were way too trigger happy for Mort’s liking. They had a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ mentality. That was why he was always glad to have Slim Sherman and Jess Harper at his back when he had to hunt someone down. It didn’t sit well with him, though; that the younger man was the one he was now charged to bring in. It certainly wasn’t something that Mort relished.

“I can’t be sure but I think McClintock might have gotten lucky. I think maybe Harper was hit.” Logan finished.

Slim looked sharply towards Mort. If that was true, they needed to get to Jess, and fast. “Look sheriff, I don’t have time to explain things to you but you gotta let me go up there to him. Granted, I don’t think he’s himself right now, but Jess is no killer. All’s he’s doing is defendin’ himself and if he’s hurt… ”

“Well, he’s wounded two of my men already…..” Logan protested, petulantly.

Mort jumped in. “Yes, Logan, wounded.  Believe me, I’ve had that boy along on more posses than I can count and if he shoots to kill, then that’s exactly what happens. But he doesn’t kill unless he really has to, and right now, you and your men are putting him in a position where he’ll have little other choice and I can’t let that happen. Slim here’s right. There’s been enough killin’ today. Jackson and his men are all dead about 10 miles west of here. Did it not once occur to you why they might have left him behind?” Looking at Logan’s blank expression Mort shook his head and sighed, “All right, Dan, I didn’t want to do this but I can see you’re not gonna let us go up after him until I tell you exactly how it is with that boy.”

He gestured to Logan to follow him away from earshot of his waiting men.

Logan regarded the serious expressions of his counterpart and the young man who accompanied him. He had a great respect for Mort Cory. His reputation as a lawman was second to none and well known throughout the territory. He followed.

They walked a few feet away, Mort wanting to ensure that what he was about to tell Logan would be for his ears only.

“Alright then, Dan. Harper went after the Jackson gang because a friend of his was with ‘em, maybe against his will. I don’t know the whole story yet but it looks like it was an elaborate ruse to get to Jess and he took the bait. From what I can tell, to protect his friend and try and get him away from Jackson, he had little choice other than to ride with him. But Jackson was dosin’ his friend, Knute Duncan, with opium and far as I can tell he somehow managed to do the same to Jess. Before he died, Jackson took great pleasure in tellin’ us that he’s been withholdin’ the dose and just abandoned him out here alone to shoot it out with you. Jess Harper is tough and it takes a lot to send him over the edge but I’ve seen what opium withdrawal can do to a man. And if he’s wounded as well, then the way he’s likely feelin’, he’ll be in no shape to reason with anyone. Maybe not even Slim and me, but we’ve gotta take that chance.”

Slim was still having difficulty coming to terms with what Jackson had told them. If they were able to get him out of this, he felt heart sore just thinking about what his pard would still have to endure. Not to mention they’d have to tell him about Knute and that it’d all been for nothing. Slim made a mental note that it’d probably be best to keep that last from him until they had gotten him through the worst of it. And that was IF they could take Jess alive. There was no taking Jess Harper anywhere he didn’t want to go. Slim had learned that the hard way in the three years he had known him. He swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. No, it didn’t do to think that way. They’d get Jess back safe. They had to. The alternative was just too appalling to consider.

“Alright, Mort. I’ll pull my men back; let you and Sherman go in but if he starts shootin’ I’ll…”

“No Dan. Your work’s done here. I need you to clear out. Take your wounded men into Laramie; the doc there’ll patch ‘em up. I don’t think Harper‘ll come out if he knows you’re still here. He needs to hear you go.”

Logan didn’t look convinced but he had known Mort Cory long enough to know when to argue and when to concede the point. He trusted his judgment and it was clear that he knew this man and how to handle him. He also knew what opium could do to a man. Anyone who had served in that god-forsaken war and had spent long enough in or around a field hospital did.

“Alright, Mort. I’ll send the wounded men into Laramie and the rest of us’ll head for home. I’ll get one of my deputies to rendezvous with your deputy; let him know what’s up and to come lookin’ for you if you’re not back by sundown and to send the rest of my men home. Hope things turn out all right. I’ll wire you about the paperwork in a day or two.”

Mort nodded in acknowledgement, shaking the other man’s hand. It didn’t escape Slim’s attention that Logan’s body language and expression indicated that, despite the verbalization of his hopes for a positive outcome, he didn’t seem convinced there would be one. The sheriff turned to rally his men but Mort stopped him.

“Oh, and Dan. What I told you about the opium? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t share that with anyone?” Logan nodded grimly in acquiescence. Slim was grateful to Mort for that. When he was feeling better, Jess wouldn’t want the whole of Wyoming territory knowing what had happened to him, unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. He didn’t want to give Jess any excuse to move on, not after all this time, and knowing the younger man like he did, he didn’t think Jess would feel he had any other choice. And he didn’t want to even start thinking what that would do to the both of them; let alone Daisy and Mike.

He and Mort watched as the two wounded men were helped onto their horses, both suffering nothing worse than flesh wounds to their limbs, and Logan and his men rode out. Slim wondered what Jess was making of it all from his position high up in the rocks. Did he know they were there? Was he even lucid? The fact that he had stopped shooting when Logan and his posse had, and had made no attempt to shoot as they rode out, easy targets as they were, gave Slim cause for hope. But this was quickly dashed by the realization that Logan had said that Jess had maybe been hit. Maybe he wasn’t conscious or even….

“Slim?”

He was shaken out of his dark thoughts by Mort. He looked up toward the rocks where the shooting had been coming from when they had first ridden up “Sorry Mort, let’s get this over and done with.”

Automatically, he unholstered his .45, checking what he already knew. There were still three bullets in the chamber. He didn’t need any more than that. He hoped he wouldn’t need any.

Slim scaled the rocks to the left hand side of where he assumed his pard to be. Mort had stayed at the bottom of the escarpment. He had called out several times to Jess; to let him know it was him and not to shoot but there had been no response. After a heated discussion Mort had grudgingly agreed to stay put and allow Slim to try it alone first. As close a friend as Jess had come to be to him as well, Slim had pointed out that, right now, in the state of mind he was likely in, to Jess, Mort would be, first and foremost the law. It would be the badge he saw first. Mort had agreed to hang back but only for so long before he came up looking; just in case things didn’t go as planned. The older man hadn’t had to spell it out. Slim knew exactly what he meant by that and what Mort would have to do if the plans did go awry.

Slim tried again “Jess? Can you hear me? It’s Slim. I’m comin’ up. You don’t need your iron right now. There doesn’t have to be anymore shootin’.”

He instinctively reached to his jacket pocket. It was still there where he had put it. Much as he hoped he wouldn’t need to use his gun, he wanted to use this even less. It made him feel dirty to even have it on him but he’d use it if he had to as bargaining power, to get Jess out of there alive; to get him home. There was still no answer. His hand hovering over his deliberately reholstered iron, he edged forward.

As he rounded a large boulder, he saw him. Jess was leaning against a rock, with his gun pointed right at him, biding his time. His face was covered in a sheen of perspiration, his dark hair plastered against his ashen face, his eyes unnaturally bright and Slim was disturbed at how gaunt he appeared to be. The darkened bloodstain just above the knee of his left leg confirmed that McClintock had, indeed, scored a lucky hit. Jess had made no attempt to stem the bleeding, a sure sign he wasn’t thinking straight. But Slim knew it wasn’t the blood loss that had his pard looking so wretched. It was clear that Jess was in the throes of rapid opium withdrawal if the way he was shaking was anything to go by. He needed to get him away from here. The gun pointing directly at him, however, was a stark reminder to Slim that he couldn’t afford to look too far beyond the here and now.

“Well you don’t look so good, pard. You wanna put that down and let me take a look at that leg of yours?”

“You wanna tell that posse to back off?”

“They’re gone Jess. It’s just you and me.” Slim didn’t like lying to him but he didn’t think it a good idea to mention Mort right now. He might have more luck with Jess if the younger man thought he was on an even footing. He hoped the sheriff would keep his word and stay put. Jess didn’t need any surprises right now; especially with the way his trigger finger was shaking.

“You look like you could use some water.”

He had brought his canteen with him, figuring Jackson wouldn’t have left Jess with anything except his craving, and he had been right. Slim had never been a vengeful person but seeing Jess like this and knowing what the next few days would most likely bring for him, he wished he could have made Jackson suffer ten times as much as Jess was going to go through. He hadn’t deserved the swift death he had been given.

“You gonna give me that canteen, or you just gonna wave it in my face?”

Despite himself, Slim grinned. “You gonna drop that gun?”

Jess shook his head. “I like it just fine where it is.”

Slim knew this wasn’t going to be easy but now wasn’t the time to enter into a stubbornness contest with Jess. He needed water and there was no way he was going to put his gun down right now. The paranoia was opium fuelled; Slim knew it was nothing personal. He had to tread carefully.

“Alright.” He tossed the canteen towards Jess, landing it a half a foot in front of him. Jess leaned forward and reached for it with his left hand, all the while never taking his eyes or the gun off his friend. He shuffled back to the rock he had been leaning against, hitching his knees up to balance the canteen between them, grimacing as the exertion and movement sent ratchets of pain through his wounded leg, not to mention the increasing muscle cramps that were enveloping every part of his body. He worked the lid off with his free hand, the task made all the more difficult by the tremors that wracked his entire body. He gulped back the water, much of it missing its target, spilling down his front. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve before replacing the lid, with difficulty, and throwing the canteen back to Slim, the .45 still aimed at his partner.

“Thanks” he muttered.

Slim nodded in acknowledgement, scrutinizing his friend’s expression for any sign of who or what was in control, Jess or the opium. “What now, Jess?”

For the first time, Jess took his eyes off the taller man and scanned the surrounding rocks. He swallowed. “You come here alone, pard?”

Slim took an intake of breath. It was good to hear Jess call him that. It meant that the drug hadn’t won yet. He didn’t want to deliberately mislead his friend but he needed to try and do this alone. He hoped that Mort was still waiting out of sight at the bottom of the rocks.

“Yeah Jess, I’m alone. There’s no one else here.” He lied. “I’ve come to take you home.”

“You mean take me in.” The bitterness in the younger man’s voice took Slim by surprise; he had just called him pard, and now this. That was the unpredictability of what opium dependence could do to you. It stabbed at his heart to think that this was what Jess thought of him right now, as a captor, not a friend. Still, he had sense enough to know that it was the withdrawal from the powerful opiate that was heightening Jess’ sensitivities and robbing him of his ability to control them and to rationalize. If he were thinking straight, Jess would know it was only a formality, after all that had unfolded over the past few weeks, to put him before a judge. But, Jess wasn’t thinking rationally and he probably didn’t know that Slim knew about the opium. He couldn’t put if off any longer. If he was going to help his pard he had to level with him.

“We caught up with Jackson and the rest of the gang.”

It had the desired effect. Grabbing his wounded leg, he managed to shuffle himself to a standing position, leaning against the rock, panting from the exertion. Slim made to move forward to help him but he still held the gun on him, pulling back the hammer in warning. Slim stopped in his tracks.

“Where is he? Take me to him.”

Slim hadn’t failed to notice the sense of urgency in Jess’ voice, the hunger in his eyes, but he misunderstood his intent. “Well, I know he’s hurt you pard, but you don’t gotta worry no…….”

Jess shook his head impatiently. “I said where is he? I need to see him” He lurched towards Slim, almost losing his balance, the wound in his leg spilling fresh blood out over his fingers at the exertion. He was sweating profusely and was shaking more intensely.

Slim looked around hastily. He hoped Mort‘s patience was intact and that he was still at the bottom of the rocks. If he came looking at the wrong time, it could all go wrong. He needed more time. He still had an ace in the hole and needed the time to play his hand.

“Whadd’ya need to see him for, Jess? What does Jackson have that you need?”

“Nuthin’. We just have some unfinished business, s’all.”

Slim reached into his pocket. It was time to play his hand. “You mean this?”

Jess regarded the syringe in his partners hand, hungrily, desire flooding through his veins. It made Slim nauseous to see that kind of reaction from his friend.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Took it off that scum Jackson’s body.”

Jess licked his lips, his addled mind trying to take this news, and what it meant to him, in. “He’s dead?”

“Yeah Jess, and far quicker than he deserved for what he’s done to you.” He gestured to the contents of the syringe, the clear liquid sparkling as the late afternoon sun caught the glass. It hadn’t escaped Slim’s attention that Jess just couldn’t take his eyes off it. And it sickened him.

“He’s been pumpin’ you full of this, hasn’t he?”

Jess didn’t respond, but the unnatural brightness of his eyes, the flush of his cheek and the uncontrollable shaking was evidence enough of his growing dependence on the drug.

Slim shook his head in disgust. “Yeah, well, he won’t be able to hurt you with this poison anymore.” He replaced the syringe back in his jacket pocket.

Jess didn’t like the feeling of desperation that gripped him as the syringe disappeared from sight. Part of him tried to fight the anger that was rising in him but that part of him was fighting a losing battle as the need, the want, the growing dependence, tightened its grip. He couldn’t control the anger nor disguise the malice in his voice.

“You killed him?”

Slim shook his head, “No, but I wish I had pard, ‘Coz he didn’t die slow enough.”

Jess worked desperately to stem the desire; the weakness of need. He had seen others addicted and had even despised them for it, for being too weak to fight it, for giving in to their craving. But now he was finding out the hard way, how easy it was to judge when you didn’t understand what it was like to want something so badly that you could think of nothing else. To be so consumed by your need that you’d do anything to satiate it. Anything. Even kill. He tried a different tack, smiling weakly.

“It’s alright, Slim, you don’t have to worry. I can handle it. It ain’t controllin’ me or nuthin’.”

It was almost as if he was trying to reassure himself, not just his friend, standing there before him. Jess was confused. He knew that the man before him was the best friend he had ever had. Yet right now, he couldn’t fight the hate that was rising in him for being the one to come between him and what he needed to quell the uncontrollable desire that was coursing through his veins.

Slim looked at his friend skeptically. “Well, maybe I’d be more willin’ to believe that, Jess, if you put that gun away. And from where I’m standin’ you really don’t look like a man in control. You look goddamn awful.”

Jess snorted sardonically. “Yeah, well, in case it escaped your notice Slim, I gotta bullet in me and leakin’ blood’ll do that to ya.”

Slim wasn’t going to argue with him. And it hadn’t escaped him that Jess had ignored the reference to the gun. He just wanted to get him out of there. He tried again.

“Well, why don’t you put up that gun and let me bind the wound for you. See if I can at least stem the bleedin’?”

It seemed to do the trick. Jess appeared to consider for a moment and then made to re-holster his gun. “Alright.”  He sighed.

It was too easy. Slim shook his head. “No Jess. Toss it over there.”  He had to be sure this wasn’t just a ploy. There had been too many occasions in the past where Jess had seemed to back down from an argument, only for Slim to suddenly be flattened by one of his right hooks when he least suspected it. He wasn’t going to be suckered again. Even in this condition, he knew that Jess could still beat him on the draw if he had to. Slim had kept his own iron holstered all this time. He’d known that Jess was never going to trust him otherwise.

From Jess’ reaction, Slim’s caution had been merited.

“Don’t you trust me?”  He spat.

“You know I do Jess. But right now you’re not thinkin’ straight. If you were, you wouldn’t be so paranoid as to have had a gun on me in the first place.”

“Yeah, well, havin’ a posse shootin’ at ya kinda makes you that way.”

“No arguments there. But I ain’t part of that posse. I’m your friend and all I wanna do is help you.” He looked for any sign that he was getting through to Jess. But the gun remained where it was. Slim sighed. The opium may have sapped Jess’ ability to reason but it had done nothing to subdue his stubbornness. If anything, it had only exacerbated it.

“Alright, then. I’ll trust you to keep the iron in your holster.” It was taking a risk he knew, but Jess was losing blood too quickly and the sun was already well out to the west. They were running out of daylight and Slim wanted to get him home sooner rather than later.

Jess nodded, and, as if he had read Slim’s mind, confirmed, “Don’t worry. I won’t try anythin’; I know it wouldn’t do any good anyway.” Seemingly as good as his word, he re-holstered his side arm.

Ordinarily, Slim would never have questioned Jess’ word or his integrity. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances. Still, he had little choice other than to take the chance. He took off his neckerchief and worked to bind the wound as quickly as he could, looking up every few seconds to make sure his pard intended staying true to his word. As he pulled the knot tight, Jess grimaced.

Slim looked at him with renewed concern. “I don’t think it’s in too deep. Hit bone. You in a lot of pain?”

Jess nodded, his eyes closed. “Some.”

“Well I’m sorry pard. There’s nothin’ much I can do about that for now. You think you can walk? I need to get you down to my horse. We’ll have to ride double.”

Jess nodded “Yeah, I think so.” He opened his eyes. An idea had just come to him. Slim was concerned about him, and maybe he could play to those concerns. Part of him knew it was wrong to take advantage of Slim like that but the need for the drug was gradually taking over his thinking and he was rapidly losing the strength to fight it anymore. “The pain’s pretty bad, though, Slim. Maybe it‘ll make the ride back easier if you give me some of what’s in that syringe. Just to tide me over.”

Slim stiffened. He shook his head. “No Jess, you don’t need that.”

“Well, no, I don’t need it, Slim. Might just help some is all.” His expression belied the words, his eyes reflecting a desperation that Slim had rarely seen in Jess.

Slim rose, putting his hand out to help his pard to his feet. “I’m sorry, Jess, I don’t like to see you hurtin’ but I can’t let you have this. Not even a little.” He gestured to the syringe, which he had, again, retrieved from his jacket pocket. “We’ll leave it to the doc to decide what to give you when he takes the bullet out.”

It hadn’t been what he had wanted to hear. Suddenly Jess was unable to control the craving any more. Slim had what he wanted, what he needed, and he was going to get it. He slapped Slim’s hand away in anger.

“Well who made you the high and mighty, makin’ decisions for others? Who d’ya think y’are tellin’ me what I can and can’t have?”

Slim knew it wasn’t Jess talking. He was losing his battle against the pull of the drug and he needed to get him away from here before he lost all reason.

“Now come on Jess. You know that’s not the way it is. It’s your need for this that’s got your talkin’ this way. You may think you’ve got it under control but right now it’s controllin’ you. That’s why I can’t let you have it.”

“What the hell do you know about it?” Jess had managed to stagger to his feet now and was lurching threateningly towards Slim who had retreated a few steps back. Jess didn’t look to be far from collapse. This was one time that Slim hoped he would. He didn’t want to have to hit him but if things kept going the way they were he didn’t see he’d be left with much choice.

“You don’t got no right to make decisions for me. Now you give me that, or so help me I’ll….. ”

“You’ll what Jess? Shoot me?”

Jess swallowed, struggling to separate the pained expression on his pard’s face from the all-encompassing need that had him gripped like a vice. If it came down to a choice though, he didn’t feel right now that anyone or anything could stop his desire for that clear liquid. Not even Slim. Lightning quick, even in this condition, he drew his weapon again. “If I have to.” He whispered.

Despite the weapon on him once more, there was enough lack of conviction in Jess’ words to give Slim hope that he was still making headway. “No. I don’t believe that Jess. I can’t believe that you’re that far gone that you’d do somethin’ like that. Not to me. Not to anyone. You’re not a killer. You can fight this. I can help you. You gotta fight the craving, pard.”

It seemed he was definitely getting through to him. For a moment Jess lowered the gun again. His shoulders drooped and he lowered his head, lifting his left hand to rub distractedly through his hair, shaking his head as if trying to clear the thickening opium fog that was clouding his judgment.

Slim took the opportunity to move in closer. “That’s it. Now, put the gun down Jess. Let me help you. Let me take you home.” Jess was shaking and sweating ever more profusely and Slim had no idea how he was even managing to stay on his feet. He could tell the withdrawal was getting worse by the minute and hard as he was trying, Jess was close to losing the battle against the craving that was rapidly consuming him.

He shook his head, this time in denial of his friend, as he raised the gun again, his voice pleading. “Please, Slim, I’m hurtin’ real bad inside. Just let me have a little huh? Just a little, to numb the pain? I’m beggin’ ya.”

Slim couldn’t bear to see him this way; it reminded him of some of the pathetic wretches he had seen during the war; begging and pleading for their next fix; to take the pain away. But it was a vicious spiral of self-destruction because after a while the pain of the original wounds was long forgotten; it was the body crying out for the drug itself that ultimately caused the pain when it left the system; and the only way to cure it was to have more. No, he didn’t want to see Jess get into that cycle of misery and despair. It was going to be painful and hard but the withdrawal had to be total and it had to start right now. It was what Daisy called tough love. He might not see it right now, but eventually, Slim hoped Jess would thank him for his seemingly tough stance.

“No, I ‘m sorry, Jess. I can’t let you have it. Now, c’mon….”

“Why you….” Wide-eyed and lightning quick Jess had lunged. He was on him and had wrestled him to the ground before Slim had even realized what had hit him. Despite the blood loss and everything that he had been through these past weeks, to have him looking so thin and haggard, Slim was amazed at the strength the younger man had. It took all his energy to wrestle Jess over onto his back and knock the gun out of his hand. But Jess didn’t even notice. In the struggle, the syringe had been wrested out of Slim’s grasp and had landed undamaged on the ground. Jess already had his sights set on it. Nothing else mattered.  Almost devoid of energy now, the exertion of the struggle with Slim having sapped him of what little remained of his strength; it was all he could do to crawl towards his goal.

Still stunned at the swiftness of the attack, and that it had happened at all, Slim took a moment to realize what Jess was doing. When he saw the syringe on the ground and Jess edging ever closer to it, he sprung into action. He got to it just before Jess’ outstretched fingers were able to make contact with their precious goal, and kicked it away, this time the glass shattering as it contacted with rock, the precious fluid seeping out into the dust. Jess howled in despair like a wounded animal his face contorted into a rictus of animalistic rage. He grabbed hold of Slims leg with an almost unnatural strength and pulled it out from under him. It took Slim by surprise that Jess could have any strength left at all and before he knew what had happened, he landed flat on his back, momentarily winded. When he managed to get himself to a sitting position, he was facing a .45 pointed right at him, wielded by a Jess now devoid of any reason. He was shaking so badly that Slim could only assume that it was adrenalin and what was left of the drug in his veins that was keeping him standing; that and a good dose of the famous Harper stubbornness. It was the only part of the Jess he knew that seemed to be left there in front of him. Sure it looked like Jess and it sounded like Jess but right now, it wasn’t the Jess Harper he knew. It wasn’t his friend.

“Ya should’na done that, Slim.”

Slim cursed himself for not tossing the gun away when the younger man had been disarmed. Everything had happened so fast, though, he really hadn’t had much chance. But, there was now no telling what Jess would do. He could be volatile at the best of times but through no fault of his own, he was no longer in control of what he was doing.   He was conscious of his own gun still in its holster, his eyes drawn down to it. Jess had not thought to disarm him. But why would he? He knew he could outdraw Slim. Even in this condition.

Slim shook his head. “Jess, listen to me, I’m sorry I had to do that. I had no……”

“Shut Up!” Jess screamed.  With shaking hands gripping his .45 he pulled back the hammer. From there, it seemed to Slim that everything happened in slow motion when in fact it was over in a few terrible seconds. Mort suddenly appeared behind Jess, emerging from the protection of a large rock, his weapon drawn.

“Jess, put the gun down!” The sheriff called out in warning.

Slim called out, his own voice sounding thick and heavy to his own ears “Mort, No!” He could see what was about to happen and was filled with horror. Too late, Jess lurched round, drunkenly, his gun now on the sheriff. Mort took one look at the expression on the young man’s face, full of hate, devoid of any reason. He had a split second to make a decision and did the only thing he could in the circumstances. He pulled the trigger.

Slim’s eyes widened in shock as the bullet found its mark and Jess was propelled backwards against the rock and then slid down, crumpled in a heap on the dusty ground, motionless. Mort had already re-holstered his iron and had hurried over to the prone form before Slim had even been able to move.

He bent and placed his hand on the young man’s chest.

“He’s alive.” He confirmed to the white-faced rancher who was still trying to take in what he had just witnessed. He gently lifted the unconscious young man and nodded in satisfaction.

“Took him in the shoulder. Bullet passed clean through.” He put his hand to the back of his head to lay him back down again and frowned. “Looks like he may have hit his head too. Still, maybe that’s a blessing, will keep him out long enough for us to get him back. Come over here and help me bind his shoulder. Leg will need rebinding too.” His voice was matter of fact, devoid of emotion.

Slim was incredulous. The shock was wearing off, to be replaced by anger. How could Mort be so clinical, to shoot as good a friend as he had, and then be so cool about it? He couldn’t hold back the anger that was rising, fueled by his desperate concern for his pard.

“Mort, what the hell d’ya do that for? You didn’t have to shoot him.” It was like a nightmare, seeing Jess lying there, motionless, blood pouring out of him.

“You think I wanted to do that? I had no choice, Slim. What do you think it would have done to him, once that poison was cleaned out of his veins to live with the knowledge that he had killed you? Or even just wounded you? It would have destroyed him. Not to mention what it would have done to Daisy and Mike.” Mort had removed his own neckerchief and was busily wrapping it around Jess’s shoulder to stem the blood flow from both entry and exit wounds.

It didn’t escape Slims’ notice that the older man’s hands were trembling. He was clearly more shaken then he was letting on. Slim regretted his harsh words but he still wasn’t going to let Mort off that easily. “He wouldn’t have shot me Mort. Not Jess. He’s not that far gone.” He muttered petulantly. The blood from the leg wound had seeped through his previous makeshift bandage. Slim gently removed Jess’ own neckerchief from his unconscious pard and tied it tightly over its soiled predecessor.

“Well, I couldn’t be sure of that, the way he was threatenin’ you and then turned on me. And I didn’t want to see the lives of four people I happen to care a great deal about destroyed. Now let’s concentrate on getting this young man home for some doctorin’ and we can talk about the whys and wherefores later.”

Slim nodded. The adrenalin was leaving him and he was suddenly as fatigued as he had ever been. They still had a long ride back to the ranch and he’d need all his energy for that. He went to help Mort lift Jess but suddenly noticed his pard’s .45 lying on the ground. He’d need it when he was feeling better. He bent to pick it up. As he lifted it though, a fresh bout of nausea flooded through him. It was too light. He checked the chamber to confirm what he had already suspected and had instinctively known once he had picked up the weapon. Jess appeared to have been out of bullets; had been wielding an empty gun. He’d need to check the other three chambers when he got back, didn’t want to alert Mort that there was anything wrong, but when he eventually did so, expected his fears to be confirmed. As far-gone as he was, Jess’ inbred gunmanship would have still been intact. Which meant that he would have known the gun was empty. Slim didn’t even want to consider the implications of that. He resolved to keep that revelation from Mort as he stuck the gun down the front of his jeans and bent to help the sheriff gently lift his partner.

*****

Daisy Cooper was beside herself with worry by the time she heard the sound of horses approaching. The rest of the posse had passed through hours earlier, stopping off to water their horses before heading into town. With the amount of bodies slung across the backs of their mounts and the weary looking men who were still able to sit their saddles, she had concluded that it had been quite a shoot out. When she hadn’t been able to make out Slim or Mort amongst the riders, her eyes had been drawn to the shrouded bundles that had, just a short time earlier, been men, the bile rising in her throat. Seeing her stricken face, Bill Evers, Mort’s Deputy had been quick to reassure her. Slim and Mort had ridden off to go after Jess. Daisy’s heart leapt to hear news of the young man she had been beside herself worrying over these past weeks; she knew he wasn’t the fugitive they were making him out to be. Whatever the reasons for him riding with that band of desperados, well she knew they had to be good ones. Jess wouldn’t just turn rogue. But her relief at hearing all three men were still very much alive, or at least had been a short while ago, was short-lived when she saw the expression on Evers face.

At her insistence he had told her that the deputy from the Cheyenne posse who had been sent to rendezvous with them had told them that Jess had been holed up on a bluff and had been shooting it out with the men who were tasked to bring him in. Slim Sherman and Mort Cory had ridden into the heated exchange not a moment too soon because Dan Logan and his men had been just about to start their final assault and if Harper had carried on shooting the way he was well…he had just gestured at one of the horses, carrying its silent passenger, reluctant to say the words out loud. Despite his actions of late, Jess Harper had a lot of good friends in Laramie and he at least needed his day in court. Not one of them wanted to see him shot down by a posse; especially not one with them on it. Daisy said a silent prayer that Slim and Mort’s timing had been so impeccable. Whatever was going on with Jess, if anyone could get through to him, it was Slim and it was good to know that he had Mort at his back.

It had been dusk when Evers and his men had carried on their way to Laramie. Concerned that she was there alone, Evers had offered to stay there to ensure her safety but Daisy had refused, asserting her confidence that Slim and Mort would be back soon and that they would be bringing Jess with them. Bill Evers had smiled weakly. He had to admire the lady’s faith but he had seen what that poison had done to the men they had had to kill that day and he suspected that Jess could be in the grip of that same insidious concoction. He couldn’t think of any other reason that Jess Harper would try to shoot it out with an entire posse. He couldn’t be sure how much of the Jess Harper they had all come to know and respect was left but he kept that fear to himself.

Now she stood on the porch desperately trying to make out how many riders were coming in, lantern in one hand, shotgun in the other, just in case. In the moonless night, it was impossible to tell who the riders were until they were almost up to the house. But there were only two of them. She made an assumption. Where was Jess?

“It’s alright, Daisy, you don’t need the shotgun, it’s us,” the familiar but tired voice of Slim Sherman called out. Against the backdrop of the well-lit house, and with the lantern in hand, they could clearly see her, even if it was too gloomy to make them out. Relieved she leaned the rifle against the side of the house. She had never been comfortable with using firearms. Slim and Mort had reined up outside the bunkhouse; all she could see were their silhouettes as they climbed down off their mounts. She wondered why they weren’t coming straight to the house.

“Daisy, bring some blankets and your doctorin’ kit, will ya?”

“Why? Oh Slim, are you or Mort hurt?”

“No, we’re fine Mrs. Cooper but Jess is…” Mort didn’t get the opportunity to finish. As her eyes got used to the gloom, she could now see what they were manhandling from across the front of Slims horse; the prone form of the young man who had been gone all those weeks.

“Oh Slim, bring him into the house.”

“No Daisy, gotta be the bunkhouse; I’ll explain later. Now will you bring your kit, Jess needs you.”

Daisy Cooper didn’t need to be told twice.

As Slim carried Jess into the darkened and seldom used bunkhouse, Mort fumbled around for the lantern hanging by the door and lit it, so there was at least a little light to see what they were doing before Daisy came back. He wasn’t entirely happy that they were going to leave him here; he and Slim had had a fairly heated discussion on the way back about that. Despite his strong bond of friendship with both of them, Mort was and always would be, first and foremost a lawman, and it would be expected that he would take Jess into the jail, even if it was just a formality until the circuit judge could come and revoke the warrant that had been issued against him. Despite the mitigating circumstances, which he was sure the people of Laramie would understand, once they heard the whole story, they would expect this. He couldn’t be seen to be giving Jess special treatment. Slim had snapped back that, as sheriff, since when did he care what the towns folk thought when it came to making the right decision, especially when it came to a man’s life? This had cut Mort to the bone but he had known that Slim was probably still more than a little in shock at what he had had to do to get Jess back there. However, he couldn’t argue that Jess was in no shape to go any further than the Relay station that night. And besides, Slim had asserted that Jess wouldn’t want everyone to know about the opium, it would be just the excuse he needed to ride off again, when all this was over, and never come back, and that would certainly happen if he went through the painful and very public withdrawal he would have to go through in the Laramie jail. Mort had sympathized but felt that it was the opium that had fueled Jess’ uncharacteristic behavior and if folk didn’t understand that, it would make it harder to vindicate him. Slim had just sighed and told Mort that they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. For now, Jess needed doctorin’ and they’d let the Doc decide in the morning if he could be moved or not. Finally Mort had conceded. He had known as well as Slim what the doctor would most likely say anyway.

Slim had gently laid Jess down on one of the cots and they were carefully removing his clothes when Daisy arrived back with two more lanterns and her medical kit under her arm. Slim took the lanterns from her and set them up to provide maximum light for Daisy to work with. As the layers and soiled wrappings were peeled off she could see two distinct wound sites, to the right shoulder and just above the left knee. From the exit wound she was pleased to see that there was no bullet to dig around for in the shoulder, although she would need to check for any foreign bodies in there like pieces of clothing that would breed infection. She was satisfied that the wound looked pretty clean; which meant it must have been tended soon after it happened. She looked at both Mort and Slim questioningly; eagle-eyed Daisy Cooper hadn’t failed to notice that there seemed to be tension between them. She’d find out about that later. She next turned her attention to the leg. That looked messier and she would have to work on that first, get the bullet out.

Slim looked at her worried expression as she examined the leg. “You think you can get that slug out Daisy?”

She shook her head, unsure. “I don’t know Slim. I would prefer if Doctor Webb did it. Can’t Mort ride in and…?”

Slim interrupted her “Sorry, Daisy. I think the doc will have his work cut out in town right now. Besides, I think we need to do this now. While Jess is out.”

Daisy looked down worriedly at the young man lying motionless on the cot; his ashen face drenched in sweat. She instinctively reached down and touched his face, expecting to find his skin aflame with fever but she was surprised to find him cool and clammy to the touch. She was worried about what that might mean. He didn’t appear to have lost too much blood, Slim and Mort had done a good job there, so what had him looking so pale, wretched, and frankly, emaciated?

“Slim, is there something else you’re not telling me?” She looked from one to the other, convinced they were hiding something from her. She saw the surreptitious glance between them that confirmed that there was definitely something they were hiding from her.

“Well, we think Jess might have hit his head when …” Slim stopped himself, unwilling to admit just how Jess had received the head injury but Daisy hadn’t failed to notice the stricken expression on his face as he had stopped himself; nor the way that Mort had suddenly been unable to look her in the eye when she had turned to him to finish what Slim had started. This was getting nowhere. If she was going to help Jess she needed to know it all. Still, first thing first, she needed to get that bullet out.

“Sheriff Cory, I set some water to boil on the stove, would you go see if it’s hot enough for me? I need to get to work on that bullet and the probe needs to be sterilized.”

Mort nodded silently, grateful for an opportunity to get away from Daisy Cooper’s eagle eyed scrutiny for a few moments.

Jess gave an involuntary groan; worried that he was starting to regain consciousness, Daisy turned to her medical bag and reached for the small vial that she kept there for emergencies.

“Slim, lift his head a little, I want to give him a few drops of this to keep him quiet.”

She waited for him to do as asked but he didn’t move. She looked up at him in exasperation, “Slim? What’s the matter with you?”

“I’m sorry Daisy, you can’t give him that.”

Daisy looked up at the pained expression on the steadfast young man’s face and frowned. What on earth was going on?

“Now Slim, why ever not? The bullet has hit bone; it’s going to be very painful if we don’t make sure he stays unconscious. You wouldn’t want Jess to suffer that amount of pain if he didn’t need to, surely?”

Daisy was alarmed at the expression that now passed over Slim’s face, anger, bitterness, despair, one after the other, in a matter of seconds.

He sighed. “No Daisy, of course I don’t want him to suffer, but he’s gonna anyway over the next few days and there’s not a damn thing that any of us are gonna be able to do to ease that sufferin’. We’re gonna have to be cruel to be kind and that has to start right now.”

She looked down at the dark haired young man, his hair plastered to his forehead, the cold sweat creating a translucent sheen on his pale, chiseled features, his body beginning to tremble as he started to make the slow, steady ascent back to a semblance of consciousness.

“Slim, what on earth are you talking about?”

“I’m sorry, Daisy,” he gently took the vial of laudanum away from her, “but the reason Jess is lookin’ as bad as he is right now is ‘coz he’s in withdrawal. He’s been pumped so full’a opium these past weeks that if we hadn’t found him when we did, we coulda lost him forever. And now we’ve gotta clean him out and that’s not gonna go easy for him — nor for us. But it’s gotta be done and it has to start right now.”

He gestured to Mort who had just arrived back carrying the steaming bowl of water.

“Now Mort and I’ll help all we can, but for Jess’ sake, you’d best get to work on that leg now before he comes to anymore than he already has.”

It wasn’t often that Daisy Cooper was speechless but to hear that one of the three young men she had come to look upon as a son was in the grip of an addiction to one of the most powerful opiates there was, was almost beyond her comprehension. But looking down at the tremors that were already starting to envelop him, the clammy skin, and his translucently pale visage, she couldn’t deny the truth of it. She recognized it for what it was; she had seen it enough in the war. And she also knew that Slim was right. They had to get the bullet out now before the tremors and Jess’ slowly returning consciousness made it impossible to do so. She nodded silently and with her own hands trembling at the prospect of what they would face in the days to come, she doused her probe in the steaming water and began the delicate procedure.

*****

“Well done, Daisy, that’s a fine job of doctorin’”

Daisy wiped the sweat off her own brow as she finished up the evening’s ministrations by binding the shoulder wound. It had taken almost an hour of probing and tugging to get the bullet out of his leg. Thankfully, it hadn’t taken long for Jess to pass out entirely as the blinding pain had penetrated the fog of semi-consciousness he had been gradually returning to, consigning him to merciful oblivion for the duration of the crude but necessary surgery. Daisy had been thorough; she had wanted to make sure no pieces of debris were still left in there to risk infection. Jess was going to have enough to deal with over the next few days without that.

As she covered him up with a blanket, his torso and leg swathed in bandages, she looked down at the young man, her heart aching to think of what he was about to go through.

“There, he looks like he’s resting comfortably for now. It’s late and you look all in Slim, why don’t you go into the house, supper just needs heating up on the stove. You too Mort, you’re more than welcome to stay the night?”

Slim didn’t respond; he couldn’t take his eyes off his stricken pard. Mort looked at him to see if the invitation was going to be supported by the rancher but there was no sign he had even heard what she had said.

He smiled weakly “No thanks, Mrs. Cooper. I need to get back into town, relieve Evers and see what’s been happenin’ while I’ve been gone. I’ll stop by in the morning, see how things are and I’ll bring Doc Webb out with me.” With a final look at the young man on the cot, he shook his head, sadly, and without a further word to Slim or to Daisy went out to unhitch his horse and head for home. When Slim didn’t even wish the sheriff farewell, Daisy’s determination to get to the bottom of what had Jess lying there with two bullet wounds, gathered momentum.

“It was the sheriff that caused that shoulder wound wasn’t it? That’s what’s causing the tension between the two of you?”

That had the desired effect to shake him out of his reverie. Slim looked at the determined lady standing before him. She never ceased to amaze him with her ability to hone in on the truth no matter how hard he or Jess tried to shield her from it. How she had guessed that though, the lord only knew.

“Yeah….” He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Suddenly he felt too defeated to say anything else.

“I thought so. The Slim Sherman I know would never allow a friend to leave without thanking him or wishing him well on his journey. I hate to think what must be going through that poor man’s mind riding back to Laramie with one friend fresh in the grave, another lying sick and wounded and worst still, a third treating him as badly as you just did.”

Slim was incredulous. He hadn’t been expecting that.

“He shot Jess, Daisy. He could have killed him. I can’t just let that go.”

“Yes, and if Jess was in the state that I’m imagining he was in, looking at him now, then I am sure that Mort Cory had no choice other than to do what he did; to protect you and to maybe stop Jess doing something that was going to be irredeemable.”

She looked to the young rancher for confirmation. Slim sat down on one of the other bunks dejectedly, his head in his hands.

“You weren’t there Daisy. For an awful minute, I thought he’d killed him. I just saw the bullet hit him and the look on his face as he fell was…like…” he struggled to find the words…“Like we’d betrayed him.”

Daisy sat down beside him and patted his arm “That how he hit his head?”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, he fell back against a rock.”

“Well, you certainly didn’t betray him; either of you. When Jess is feeling well enough to figure it out, he’ll know, if he doesn’t already, just what good friends he has. It’ll be a tough few days, but he’s strong and he’s got a lot of people around him who care enough to get him through.”

Slim shook his head, trying to dislodge the image that kept replaying itself in his head. “I know Daisy. I hear the truth of what you’re sayin’ but every time I close my eyes, I see Mort firing and his bullet hitting Jess and I just can’t seem to see past it.”

Daisy looked at him sternly. “Well you must. Because right now, whether you care to admit it or not, you are as much in need of Mort’s friendship as he is yours. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have no other choice but to shoot a man who has been as close a friend as Jess has been to him. It must have been churning him up inside every moment that he was here helping hold Jess down while I removed that bullet from his leg. Granted that wasn’t the sheriff’s bullet but it might as well have been.” She looked for any sign that she was getting through to him. Slim just sat there with his head in his hands.

“And another thing I’ll bet you haven’t considered. I’ll bet he shot Jess so that you didn’t have to? He probably didn’t want the two of you to have something like that between you and I for one am very grateful to him for that.”

That did it. Slim shook his head in defeat. He couldn’t help giving a tired smile. “Alright, Daisy. I guess you’re right. I just need to focus on one thing at a time right now, and that’s gettin’ Jess through the next couple days and I reckon’ if ever there’ll be a test of friendship that’ll be it. Once I get him through that, then I’ll get to Mort. One thing at a time, alright?”

Daisy regarded the young man seriously. It wasn’t quite what she wanted from him but it was a start. The strain of the past few weeks, particularly today’s, was etched on his face and she didn’t want to push him beyond what he was able to cope with right now. What she did know was that he needed a proper meal and sleep. She made up her mind that she would sit the night shift with Jess so that he could get both.

“Alright, Slim. Now, why don’t you go inside and heat yourself up some stew and then get some rest, you’ll be no good to Jess if you keel over. I’ll sit with him tonight.”

Slim shook his head determinedly “No Daisy. I’ll take some of that stew, but I’ll have it here if that’s all right with you? I’ll sit with Jess tonight and when Mort brings the Doc tomorrow I’ll make arrangements for one or both to help with the vigil. This is one you’ll have to sit out.”

It was Daisy’s turn to argue. “But Slim, I know it’ll be hard going but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before or can’t cope with?”

Again Slim shook his head. “This is different, Daisy. Those men you nursed in the war, they were strangers; they didn’t really mean anythin’ to you. But Jess is likely to say and do things that he’ll regret. And when he’s back to himself again, he’ll remember those things. And if he said those things to you, he’d never forgive himself and I don’t want to give him any excuse to leave once all this is over. For his sake, you gotta stay away. That’s why Jess has gotta be here and not in the house or in the jail where everyone’d know about it. For Jess’ sake, I gotta take control of this one. You understand?”

Daisy did understand. That was the cruel thing about opium withdrawal; the terrible physical pain and need the drug imposed on its victim as their system tried to purge itself of its vice like grip made them say and do terrible things to try and get one last fix. But it was like a possession, the person within could hear themselves say those things; see themselves do those things, despite not wanting to; but have no power whatsoever to hold back. And once they were clean, they would remember everything. Like Jess would remember. And she knew how that would tear him apart.

“Alright Slim, I’ll go get you that stew. But in the morning, I insist that you ask Mort and the Doc to sit with him while you get some sleep. We got a deal?”

He got up and walked over to her and patted her arm. “Sure Daisy. It’s a deal.”

She placed her other hand on his and smiled reassuringly at him, more proud of him at that moment than she had ever been. She turned and headed to the door before he stopped her.

“Daisy?”

“Yes Slim?”

“How did you know that it was Mort who shot Jess?”

She smiled “Oh. Lucky guess. That, and the fact that that shoulder had to have been bound almost straight away after he had been shot. It was too clean and there was too little blood loss for it to have been left for any while.” She turned to leave again and without turning back “Oh, and the fact that it was Mort’s neck scarf tied around his shoulder.” With that, she was gone.

Slim smiled. Daisy Cooper could give the Pinkertons a run for their money with her detective skills.

After she had delivered his meal, Slim bolted the door from the inside and, with a heavy heart retrieved the rope he had brought in from his saddle, and had secreted under one of the bunks until Daisy had retired for the night, and reluctantly secured his pard to his bunk. Just in case. He then turned his attention to Jess’ .45 which was still tucked down the front of his jeans. He checked the three remaining chambers to see if his suspicions had been correct, the clenching feeling in the pit of his stomach intensifying as his fears were confirmed. The gun was empty. He looked at his sleeping pard trying to take in the implications. There was no way he wouldn’t have known.

*****

Daisy had just finished preparing a breakfast tray when she heard the horses approach. Slim hadn’t emerged from the bunkhouse as yet and she was anxious to check on both young men. She was glad that Mike was staying with the Simmonds’; it was probably better he stay away until Jess was recovered.

As she went out onto the porch, Mort and the doctor were tying up their horses at the hitching rail outside the bunkhouse.

“Oh sheriff?” Daisy called out, and gestured for him to come over. Mort passed a brief exchange with the doctor, who carried on toward the bunkhouse while he crossed the yard over to the house.

“Mornin’, Mrs. Cooper.”

“Come on inside for a moment sheriff. I’ve got some fresh coffee brewed. You look like you could use it?”

Mort looked back towards the bunkhouse, clearly torn, but you didn’t say no to Daisy Cooper and besides, the Doc needed time to assess Jess, and Mort realized that the tension over there right now would be bad enough without him adding to it.

“Thanks, Mrs. Cooper. That’d be fine.” He removed his hat and entered the house as Daisy nodded in satisfaction and headed into the kitchen   He had a feeling this was the prelude to a famous Daisy Cooper lecture. He had heard about these from Slim and Jess but had never been the recipient of one before now. Still, in the last few weeks he had buried one good friend and was now at odds with two others. The world as Mort Cory knew it had changed drastically and the boundaries between the roles of sheriff and friend had been stretched to the limit. As he sat, wearily, at the table, the badge pinned to his chest had never felt heavier.

Daisy bustled in and thrust a plate of bacon and hotcakes in front of him as well as the steaming cup of coffee. Despite the wonderful aroma buffeting his nostrils, Mort held up his hand in protest. “Mrs. Cooper, really, I couldn’t I…”

“Now sheriff, I’ll have no arguments. It’s no way to start a day without a decent breakfast inside you and from the look of you; you’re certainly in need of that coffee. Trouble sleeping last night?”

Yes, the boys were right; you really couldn’t hide much from Daisy Cooper. Still, the face that had looked back at him earlier that morning as he had shaved really hadn’t been one he had recognized himself. The past few weeks had certainly taken their toll. He smiled weakly. “Alright Mrs. Cooper. I guess I am a little hungry, and I always appreciate a cup of your coffee.” He started to tuck in.

Daisy nodded in satisfaction, as she sat down opposite him   “Good, that’ll give me a chance to talk to you. I was hoping you could clear a few things up for me.”

******

Mort was just finishing up the last of the hotcakes, washing the last mouthful down with the remainder of his coffee.

“And that’s all there is to tell really, Mrs. Cooper. I don’t know all that went on between Slim and Jess before I…well, before I did what I had to do. But I really don’t believe I had any other choice.”

It hadn’t been easy telling Mrs. Cooper that he had shot the young man that she looked upon as a son but she had listened and hadn’t judged.

“I know Sheriff; I know you did exactly what you felt you had to do and I am sure Jess will see it that way when he’s feeling better.”

Mort shook his head sadly “I wish I could be so sure of that, Mrs. Cooper. I thought Slim would understand but…. …”

“Oh sheriff, he does, truly he does. He’s just so worried about Jess right now, that he can’t see anything else. But whether he cares to admit it or not, right now, he does need a friend and I am hoping that wedge between you isn’t too deep that you can’t be that person. Even if he might not seem to appreciate it?”

“Well, Mrs. Cooper, that’s partly why I’m here. I figure you’ll need some help with Jess and with someone needing to be in the bunkhouse with him at all times, that leaves you vulnerable here in the house. So, if you’ll have me, I’ll be taking my turn with Jess and keepin’ an eye on things here. If that’s alright with you?”

Daisy was a little taken aback. She didn’t feel she needed anyone watching out for her but it did mean that with Mort taking his turn, Slim could at least get some rest.

“All right sheriff, I’d be pleased to have you and I’m sure Slim would appreciate the gesture. But won’t you be needed in town?”

“No, that’s fine; Evers’ll have it covered. He knows where to find me if anythin’ happens. I’m hopin’ the people of Laramie will have the good sense to behave themselves after everythin’ that has happened of late.”

“Well, that’s just fine sheriff. Now, I wonder if you could do me a favor? Could you take this jug of coffee and cups out to Slim? I am sure he could use a cup right about now and perhaps Jess might be able to take some if he’s up to it? I had better put a fresh pan of bacon on, I’m afraid you ate what I prepared for Slim. Tell him I’ll bring it out shortly.”

Mort nodded and rose, replacing his hat on his head before taking the tray of coffee from her. “I’ll do that Mrs. Cooper.”

As he walked across the yard towards the bunkhouse, he tried to reconcile the guilt he felt for keeping that one last piece of information from her. It was true, he was here partly for the strong bond of friendship he had forged with all the inhabitants of the Sherman Ranch but there was another reason. As always, there was the balance between badge and friendship to be maintained. When he had gotten back to town the night before there had been a wire from the Circuit Judge. If Harper had been taken alive he was to be detained. If the Doc said he was fit to be moved, he had no choice but to take him in. As it was, he had suspected that Jess wouldn’t be going anywhere so, as far as Mort was concerned, he was under house arrest. Despite his promise to Daisy, he felt sure telling Slim this would drive the wedge between them ever deeper.

As Daisy watched the sheriff cross the yard, out of the kitchen window as she busied herself preparing another pan of bacon, she shed a silent tear for the young man who had been Jess’ friend. She had asked Mort what had become of the young man that Jess had gone searching for; who Mike had been so taken with when he had spent those golden few days at the Sherman Ranch. She thought back to the previous evening when the remnants of the posse had passed through with the shrouded forms slung so unceremoniously across their mounts and reflected that one of those sad bundles had been Knute; such a tragic waste of a young life. The only thing she could think to console herself with was that, for those precious few days six months before, Knute had learned what it had been like to spend time in a real home with people who genuinely cared for him and each other. It was small consolation but at least he had experienced it just once in his short and tragic life. The tears gathered momentum as she thought of what that news would do to Jess once they eventually told him. At least that had been one thing that Mort and Slim had been able to agree on, not to tell him until they absolutely had to.

*****

As Mort reached the bunkhouse, Slim and the Doc were emerging. The older man had a face like thunder and Slim didn’t look none too happy either. Mort sensed they had had a major disagreement about something.

“Now, you make sure you follow my instructions, Mr. Sherman, and when I come back to visit tomorrow, I don’t want to see the same scene that met my eyes when I arrived this morning. Is that understood?” He didn’t give Slim a chance to answer. “Now, I am going to step in and see Mrs. Cooper for a few moments and congratulate her on the fine job she did of tending Harpers wounds, before heading back to town. Good day to you, sheriff.” He acknowledged Mort before striding purposely across the yard towards the house.

Mort watched him go and then turned to Slim, raising his eyebrow quizzically. “You wanna tell me what that was all about?”

Slim shook his head tiredly.” Come inside, Mort, I’ll tell you in there. That coffee’d better be hot and strong. I sure could use it.”

Mort followed the younger man into the bunkhouse. Jess lay on the cot where he’d been left the previous night. He still seemed to be out for the count; his face covered in a sheen of perspiration and his body wracked with tremors. His wounds had been freshly bound and his leg had now been splinted. Seeing Mort appraising the young man’s condition, Slim explained.

“Doc thinks there may be a hairline fracture to the bone, that’s why he splinted it.”

Mort nodded. “He woke up at all?”

Slim shook his head “Nope. Doc thinks he has a mild concussion, that and maybe the sheer scale of what he’s been through lately. Probably a blessin’, though, as when he does wake up, Doc reckons he’s gonna go through hell and sleep won’t come easy to him, if at all.”

“He tell you what else to expect?”

Slim flopped down tiredly on one of the bunks. “Yeah, it’s a long list, Mort, and none of it pretty.”

Mort sighed. He had a pretty good idea of what was coming and his heart ached to think of what the next few days would bring for them all. “What had the Doc so fired up with you?”

Slim looked sheepish and gestured to the length of rope on the floor and the reddened mark around Jess’ wrist. “Doc took exception to that. Said it was barbaric. Guess I maybe tied it a mite too tight.”

Mort sympathized. He knew exactly why Slim had done what he had. Doc Webb was a relative newcomer to Laramie and didn’t know Jess Harper as well as they both did. Slim would have tied him down to prevent him doing harm to himself. In the coming days he suspected they would have to do so again.

Mort reached to his vest pocket and pulled out his cuffs. This was the ‘in’ he needed.

“Maybe these’ll be better. The Doc can’t argue with a Sheriff guarding a man under house arrest.”

*****

Awareness came back to him slowly. With each passing moment, however, he wished he could return to the comfort and security of the blackness he had previously resided in. He had no idea where he was or how he had come to be here. All he knew was pain; it felt like his entire body was on fire. Every fiber of his being was aflame; each tremor that wracked his body sending new waves of agony through every irritated nerve ending. He tried to move but the effort caused the spasms in his cramping stomach to intensify and he instinctively turned to his side, unable to prevent the bile that had rushed up into his throat from being ejected into the unseen bowl at his side, nor the involuntary dry retching that followed, leaving him exhausted. Eyes still closed he lay back panting. Gentle hands wiped at his mouth and face with a cool damp cloth.

“Easy, Jess. Try and go back to sleep.”

The voice was vaguely familiar but his mind was too addled with pain, to bother about who it might be. He wondered what had happened as his mind tried to unsuccessfully block out the cacophony of agony that imposed itself on him.

Slim looked down at his pard. It was late afternoon and he had managed to grab a few hours sleep while Mort had sat with him. He had not long relieved the sheriff when Jess had started to stir. Consciousness had returned but not yet full awareness. He doubted that Jess knew where he was right now but that would come in time. The doctor had warned that lucidity would come and go but the one constant would be the pain and the nausea. They would need to get water into him but it would be a battle to try and get him to keep it down. The tremors had increased and the doc had warned that they would get worse before they got any better. He couldn’t say how long that would be. It depended on how long the individual had been opium dependent and on the individual themselves. As far as they could figure, it had only been a matter of weeks for Jess but, still, opium tightened its grip on its victim quickly and once it had them, didn’t let go easily. Either way, they had a struggle on their hands.

Jess tried to turn on his side and hunched one of his legs up. Slim could tell he was trying to get into the fetal position to counter the intensifying cramps but his splinted leg was preventing him from doing so. He groaned in agony, whether from the pain in his leg or from what the retreating drug was doing to him, Slim couldn’t be sure. He gently tried to push him onto his back again.

“S’ok, Jess, I’m here pard. You’re back home. We’re gonna get you through this.”

“Lemme ‘lone.” The voice was barely audible, the eyes tightly shut as he tried to deal with the agony that was consuming him. Slim couldn’t be sure that Jess could hear him or was just merely reacting to the touch; he hadn’t failed to notice the way Jess’ body had tensed when he had touched him as if just the gentle push had sent renewed pulses of agony through his ultra sensitive pain receptors. Slim winced at being the cause of further pain to his friend but it couldn’t be helped if he was going to tend to his every need over the next few days. And, as he told himself for the first of many times over the next few days, he could and would deal with whatever came his way to get Jess through this. That was the power of unconditional friendship and he knew, unwaveringly, if the situation were reversed, that Jess would do no less for him.

*****

“Ya should’a just let me die.” It hadn’t been the first time in the last few days he had said this and Slim was sure it wouldn’t be the last. And it had certainly been testing his resilience that was for sure. The lucid periods had increased as the Doc had predicted they would but with them had come the acid Harper tongue. Slim knew it wasn’t really him talking; it was the drug as it had fought desperately against the efforts to make it relinquish its grip.

Slim had learned to ignore the comments but this had only served to enrage Jess further. Especially as the younger man had become more and more resentful as his strength and lucidity had returned.

“It give you pleasure to keep babyin’ and humiliatin’ me?” Slim had just emptied the bucket that had served a multitude of purposes over the past few days; for the first day or so it had sat by the side of the bed, with Jess unable to hold down much of the water that Slim desperately tried to get into him. Latterly, it had served as latrine. It hadn’t been dignified but with the way Jess had been behaving neither he nor Mort wanted to risk letting him out of the bunkhouse to administer to any of his ablutions.

The Doc had been back every day to check on his wounds and apply fresh dressings, declaring that the wounds were infection free and healing well. Jess had taken the opportunity to play to the doctor’s sympathies, begging for pain relief but these pleas had fallen on deaf ears; Doc Webb had seen enough of opium addiction in his time to know every trick in the book and Jess wasn’t going to fool him. Even Slim had been shocked at the cussing and expletives that came out of Jess’s mouth; words he had never heard him use before, nor ever would again. It had taken both Mort and Slim to manhandle him back onto the bed as he tried to launch himself, splinted leg and all, at the doctor and, despite their reluctance to use them, they had had no choice but to cuff him to the side of the bunk to stop any further unexpected outbursts. From then on, the Doctor had not objected to their punitive approach.

Slim set the bucket back down. Jess, sitting on the side of the bed, jiggled his left hand in the cuff. “Ain’t it about time you took these off of me?”

“Not all the while you’re still talkin’ about wantin’ to die.”

“I said you shoulda let me die. Not that I wanted to.”

“What’s the difference Jess?” He regarded his friend closely, the piercing blue eyes meeting his own. It was good to see the blue of the irises prominent once more. His eyes had been so dilated from the combination of the concussion and the addiction that it hadn’t looked like his friend. It was amazing how such a small detail could change the appearance of a man.

Jess considered his answer carefully. He still felt the need for the drug. The cramps and the tremors had dissipated; not entirely, but they were less intense than they had been and despite his lack of appetite for anything of any nutritional value, he had taken in some oatmeal and managed to keep it down. Slim had seemed pleased with that ‘progress’. For Jess, though, he still felt the desperate need to satiate a different appetite. He was just getting better at hiding it.

“Why are you doin’ all this, Slim?”

“I’d a thought that was obvious, Jess. ‘Cause you needed me to.”

Jess considered this, “After everythin’ I’ve said and done to you?”

Slim thought back to some of the things that Jess had thrown back at him the last few days; Jess had never been one to bear a grudge before but he had seemed to bring back every argument, every disagreement they had ever had since he had arrived at the Relay Station three years before, just to try and get a rise out of him. He had even sunk low enough to bring up their having fought on opposite sides during the war, something that had never come between them before. That was how he knew it was the drug doing all the talking.

“I knew it wasn’t you sayin’ those things, Jess. The Jess Harper I know would never have stooped that low. I guess I knew that, eventually, the real Jess Harper would gradually emerge. I still hope that.”

The opium was trying to play one last hand. Inside Jess Harper could hear himself say the words, knew that what he was planning was wrong, but he still lacked the strength he needed to finally overcome.

“Well, I sure wanna thank you, Slim. The truth is, I did wanna die for a spell there and with all the mean things I’ve said to you the past few days, I would’na blamed you if you had just left me to stew in my own juices. I know it ain’t been easy these past few days and I’m real sorry for what I’ve done but I reckon the worst is over now and I know it’d aid my recovery some if I could get outside and feel the sun on my back, and maybe wash away some of this sweat that’s got me smellin’ so ripe. You can trust me Slim.”

Slim scrutinized his friend. It had only been three days but Jess did seem more like himself. He knew what cabin fever was like when he had been forced to stay in bed for any length of time. There was always that period in the recovery where perhaps your body wasn’t strong enough to get up but your mind was alert enough to go stir crazy from boredom. Still, he had to be sure it wasn’t a ruse. There were no depths of deceit an addict wouldn’t stoop to if they wanted something badly enough. Slim considered; even if that was the case though, they were isolated enough that even if Jess were to try and make a run for it, he wouldn’t get that far; not with that leg of his; and he certainly wouldn’t be able to mount a horse. He decided to take the chance.

“Alright, pard. Not sure how we’ll do it with that leg of yours but maybe we can find a way of gettin’ you under the shower. And I know Daisy’ll be pleased to see you more like yourself. I’ll go get Mort.”

Jess felt a pang of regret at the mention of her name. He hadn’t seen her these past days and assumed that she was in town with Mike. He had been glad that neither had been around. The part of Jess that was still Jess hadn’t wanted them to see him like that and he had been grateful that Slim had evidently deduced the same thing. Still, this was his chance to get away and he had to take it. It would be more difficult with both Slim and Mort there but maybe he could work that to his advantage. Slim wasn’t wearing his gun belt but every time Mort had been in, he had been packing his iron. If he could somehow distract them both and get hold of Mort’s gun then maybe he could get away. He hadn’t thought as far ahead as where he would go or how he would get there but that didn’t matter none. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it. All he could think of right now was getting that iron.

A few minutes later, both Mort and Slim were either side of him, helping him outside for the first time in the three or four days since he had been brought home. It was the first time he had been on his feet and he had almost fallen straight down again when the blood had rushed to his head and the dizziness had washed over him. Slim had all been for abandoning the little sojourn to freedom but Jess had been quick to reassure both men that he was all right. All he could focus on was that one step to attaining his freedom. Besides, the stumble would work in his favor. If he did it again, they wouldn’t be suspicious….

Progress was slow but they had made it halfway across the yard when he decided to make his move. He had been pleased that they had removed the cuffs, both his ‘captors’ agreeing that they didn’t see a need for it and especially didn’t want Daisy to see him that way. He stumbled again, this time deliberately, and as both men moved to support him he grabbed Mort’s gun from his holster with his left hand and with his right arm, elbowed Slim in the stomach as hard as he could, causing his tall friend to crumple to the ground, winded. Jess wavered on his feet without the support of the two men on either side of him, his wounded shoulder protesting from the sudden exertion of the attack on his friend. He shook his head against the blackness that momentarily threatened to overwhelm him but managed to stay on his feet; the gun aimed firmly at the sheriff and his friend. Mort slowly sidled over to Slim, bending to check he was all right. Slim nodded and batted him away angrily, angry with himself for his own stupidity. He should have known Jess would try something like this.

The sheriff stood and faced Jess sternly. “Alright, Jess, you got my side arm. What now? You thought that far ahead?”

Jess looked around. The corral was still a fair distance to get to. He should have made his move later; given himself a better chance to get to a horse.

“Don’t get in my way, Mort. I’m leavin’ and I can’t let you stop me.”

“Alright, Jess. But how far do you think you’re gonna get, with that leg of yours? And I reckon that last move of yours could just’a bust that shoulder wound open. You’re not in any shape to go anywhere. You wouldn’t last five minutes.”

Jess wiped the sweat that had beaded on his brow with the sleeve of his undershirt. It was true, he hadn’t thought this through; he was dressed only in his under garments; his leg was in a splint and Mort was right, he could feel a tell tale wetness emanating from his shoulder but none of that mattered. He just wanted to get away.

Slim had recovered enough to lurch to his feet, the sheriff holding him steady until he was able to stand alone. A strange expression had come over his face; one that Mort had never seen before and hoped he never would again.

“Why, you don’t need to go anywhere to get what you need, Jess. ‘Coz its right over there in the house.”

Jess swallowed against the dryness in his mouth. They were stalling. They were waiting for him to falter and then get the gun from him.

He cocked the gun to let them know he meant business. “Shut up. I’m leavin’ and you ain’t gonna stop me.”

“Well I’m just tellin’ ya, you don’t have to leave here to get what ya need, pard. There’s a bottle of laudanum in Daisy’s medical kit. But you gotta go through her to get it.”

Slim pointed over to the porch where, unseen by Jess, the stricken form of Daisy Cooper had appeared, shocked at the events that were unfolding in front of her.

Mort looked at Slim worriedly; he could see what he was trying to do but it was a dangerous game to play.

“Think you can hold a gun on her Jess?” Slim persisted. “Are you willin’ to shoot her to get what you want? Coz that’s the only way you’re gonna get it.”

Jess looked over to the porch to where Slim had gestured. Seeing her there sent spikes of regret shooting through him. He didn’t want her to see him like this. This hadn’t been part of the plan. He turned away, unable, unwilling to look at her if he was going to go ahead with what he intended.

“Tell her to go inside; I don’t want her to see me like this.”

Slim shook his head. “Nothin’ doing, pard. You tell her yourself.”

Jess shook his head. “ I swear, if you don’t, I’ll….”

“What, Jess? What are you gonna do? Shoot me? Well, go ahead, coz there’s bullets in that one; its loaded and ready.  All’s you gotta do is pull the trigger.”

Luckily, Mort had been too distracted to pay attention to this last reference to bullets. He was too busy watching Daisy. Unseen by Jess, she had gone into the house again but had now emerged once more and was slowly making her way towards them. Mort saw her.

“Stay back Mrs. Cooper.” He was afraid that Jess would spin around and with that hair trigger…he wouldn’t mean to do it but there had been enough tragedy lately to last them all a lifetime.

“It’s all right Sheriff. Jess won’t hurt me. I can’t believe he would ever be that far gone to do that.”

Jess stiffened at the sound of her voice behind him. He didn’t want to face her. Couldn’t face her.

“Go away Daisy. I don’t wanna see you right now.”

“I know you don’t Jess but I need to show you something.”

“No, they’ll try to take my gun away. It’s a trick.”

“No Jess. They won’t, will you sheriff? Slim?” Both men shook their heads in acquiescence. “See Jess, they’ve given their word. If, once you’ve listened to me, you still want to go, no one will try to stop you. Alright?”

Jess was trembling, the gun still dangerously cocked. A battle for supremacy was raging within him and the next few moments would decide the victor. He slowly turned towards her, his eyes fixed on the ground.

It would have been an ideal moment to take him by surprise and disarm him but Daisy had given him their word and, besides, the gun was now trained on her. It was still a dangerous moment. Just in case they were considering anything, Daisy shook her head at both men in caution.

“That’s good Jess” She continued gently, “Now look at me, please.”

Unable to resist, he finally looked up to see what she held in her hand. “Is this what you want?”

Jess had to fight to fend off the counter attack that threatened to consume him; to make him grab at the contents of the vial that would at least, buy him the time to ride out and find what he really needed. He swallowed, desperately trying to fight for control. But this was Daisy. Why did she have to get involved? It would have been so much simpler if she could just have stayed away….

“Because, if the contents of this vial mean more to you than all of this” She gestured to the ranch and its surrounds “and all the people that live on it, then I’ll reluctantly let you have it. All you’ve got to do is take it? If that is what you truly want.”

Jess struggled to contain the hunger that the sight of the vial had evoked within him; the counter attack had been waged within and if he didn’t fight back now, the battle would be lost. Involuntarily he reached out with his left hand, the trembling intensifying but not just from the need that he was gradually beginning to overcome. He looked up into Daisy’s eyes and saw reflected there the unconditional affection that she felt for him; and the pain it caused her to see him this way. And then he looked at the iron in his hand pointed straight at her and with a suddenness that took his breath away, the clarity returned.

“I’m sorry!” He cried as he dropped the gun, his legs buckling as he was consumed by uncontrollable sobs. Slim and Mort leapt forward and caught him before he hit the ground.

Slim wrapped his arms around his inconsolable pard “I got him, Mort.” He gestured to Daisy who had also started to quietly weep, her relief that Jess had fought and won the battle, palpable. “You take Daisy into the house. I think the worst is over now.”

*****

Mort Cory escorted the Circuit Judge to the awaiting coach. He had arrived that morning from Sheridan for a specially convened hearing at the Sherman Ranch, and was now heading onto Cheyenne. Judge Matthew Henry was a judicious but a fair man and Mort had been glad that it had been he hearing Jess’ case. It had gone far better than he could ever have hoped.

Mort had been busy the past week since Jess had finally won his battle against the dependence on the powerful opiate; he had spent his time gathering evidence; had even ridden down to Cheyenne to interview witnesses with the full cooperation of Dan Logan, especially after his fellow lawman had heard the full story. The army had been sent into the canyon to clean up the camp and clear out what remained of Jackson’s men. They had been taken by surprise and some had tried to shoot it out, and paid the price but four were taken. In return for sworn affidavits as to Jess’ presence in the camp, where they had been carefully cultivating his opium dependence when the Colorado border robberies and murders had taken place, they were offered clemency and had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. There wasn’t one of them who, after one day in custody hadn’t wished for the rope instead as the withdrawal took hold after years of addiction.

Then the bank teller, Lon McGarry, had confirmed that Jess had shot him in self-defense when he had grabbed a derringer he had secreted under the counter, and had had to concede that, at the range he had been shot, if Harper had been shooting to kill, he certainly wouldn’t be around now to tell the story.

Then there was the matter of the shoot out with the Cheyenne posse. Dan Logan had attested that it had been his men who had shot first so, again, Jess had been acting in self-defense. Even though Harper could have given himself up at any time, the Judge surmised. But he agreed, in light of all that he had heard, that the powerful effect the drug had had on him had clouded his reason.

And so, with the support and written agreement of both Sheriffs from Cheyenne and Laramie, he determined that there was no case against Jess to answer and revoked the warrant.

As Mort closed the coach door, Judge Henry leaned out of the window.

“Oh, and Cory. I understand that young man is a friend of yours?”

“Well, yes but I never allow that to……”

“I know, I know Mort, simmer down. There’s no one I trust more to do the right thing than I do you. All I was going to say was from the look of that young man, and after all he’s been through, he’s going to need the support of his friends. No matter how tough it gets.”

Mort knew what he meant; there was still the matter of the town’s folk to deal with. But he already had something in mind for them.

He nodded “Thanks Judge, he’ll get it. Be seeing you.” He signaled the driver and waved the coach off before heading back into the house.

As he got to the porch, the door opened and the limping form of Jess emerged. He had managed to dispense with the splint, but it would take a while before the leg was fully healed.

“Well, how does it feel to be a free man again Jess?” Mort did his best to keep his tone jovial. While, his wounds were healing well and the physical effects of the withdrawal had dissipated, in the last few days a deep depression had settled over him. Doc Webb had warned that it was a natural part of the process but still, Mort hated to see the usually animated young man so withdrawn. He had hardly said two words in his own defense at the deposition with the judge reflecting to him more than a little sternly that he was lucky that Sheriff Cory was so thorough in the pursuit of his investigations otherwise there could have been a very different outcome to the hearing. When the judge had asserted that, for his own good, the people of Cheyenne and Laramie had a right to know the whole truth of what had happened, Jess had just shrugged his shoulders and said “Do whatever you need to do.”

“Just fine, Mort.” He didn’t look or sound very convincing. “I wanna thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

He nodded in acknowledgement to the sheriff and then limped across the yard headed to the barn where he had spent much of his time in the last three or four days since Daisy had allowed him any freedom to move around. Along with the four captives, the army had rounded up all the horses housed in the temporary corral in the canyon and as at least four of them had Sherman brands, they had been brought back to the ranch. And Traveler had been with them. The return of his horse had been the one bright thing to illuminate his darkened days and he had spent much of his time in the barn with his trusted friend. As he watched him cross the yard, Mort shook his head sadly and went into the house.

Slim and Daisy were in the midst of turning the temporary court room back into their cozy parlor. It had been a closed court for several reasons; Mort hadn’t been convinced Jess would get a fair hearing back in town after everything that had occurred of late. Most of the Laramie townsfolk were good people but there were a few bigots and it always seemed to be them who could shout the loudest. No they had none of them felt that Jess was strong enough yet, either physically or mentally, to cope with such exposure. And then there had been Knute. And that was the main worry.

Daisy was busily rearranging a vase of flowers on the table as Mort re-entered.

“Oh sheriff, we’re so grateful to you for everything you’ve done for Jess. It’s such a relief that he’s no longer being held accountable for all those dreadful things that happened.”

Slim snorted as he replaced the rocking chair by the fire. “Well, not by the law anyway.”

Daisy looked aghast. “Oh no, Slim, if you mean the people of Laramie, surely, they’ll accept the judges decree once they see it in black and white?”

“Yeah, well, they shouldn’t have to see a piece of paper to believe that Jess isn’t guilty of all those things they accused him of. Not after everythin’ he’s done for this town. You know, ever since he got back I’ve been scared that because of all this, he’d wanna leave for good, but the more I’ve seen and heard from the ‘good’ folk of Laramie these past few days, I can’t imagine what else I could honestly say to make him stay if he did have a mind to leave. In fact, I’d have half a mind to go with him.”

“Now Slim, you don’t mean that?” Daisy admonished. It really wasn’t like Slim to be so bitter.

“Don’t I Daisy? And what I want to know is what are you gonna do about it, Mort?”

“Slim!” Daisy chastised, “It’s not the sheriff’s fault, why he’s done….”

“It’s alright, Mrs. Cooper,” Mort interrupted. “Slim has a right to be upset. But the townsfolk look to me to keep order and I stand by every decision I made throughout all this Slim. I accept you might not like it but I can’t help that. Now if you’ll both excuse me, I’ll head back into town and post that decree. Let those who didn’t know it already that Jess is an innocent and free man. Mrs. Cooper, Slim.” He acknowledged them both and retrieved his hat from the hook before heading out to his horse tethered at the corral.

Slim slumped heavily down at the table; the euphoria at Jess’ acquittal eclipsed by the concern he still felt for his pard; and the frustration that he felt at not being able to penetrate the depression that his friend now resided in; a frustration that, yet again, he had taken out on Mort.

He looked up at Daisy Cooper’s stern face. “I know, I know, don’t say it Daisy.”

She said it anyway, “Oh, Slim. You still haven’t talked things through with him, have you?” She didn’t need to elaborate. He knew exactly what she meant; and it was true, he had been putting it off. There just hadn’t been the right moment but the truth was that lately, it seemed that whenever he needed him to be a friend, it was the badge that got in the way. He knew in his heart of hearts that Mort had been in an untenable position these past weeks; and having heard the evidence in the hearing it had become clear just how much Mort had put his reputation on the line trying to protect Jess.

He ran his hands through his hair distractedly. “I will talk to him Daisy, I promise.” He rose and crossed over to the door.

“Slim?”

He turned to look at her. He hadn’t realized just how much these past weeks had taken their toll on her.

“Don’t leave it too long with Mort. And go easy with Jess. He’ll talk when he’s ready.”

Slim smiled. She really was the most perceptive person he had ever known.

“I won’t Daisy. And I will.” He headed out the door and strode purposely across the yard towards the barn. He had already made his mind up to ride into Laramie later that afternoon to catch up with Mort. But first he had to talk to Jess. There were some things they needed to discuss and he couldn’t wait any longer.

*****

As he entered the barn he could hear the deep rich tones of his friend talking to his trusty mount. After the treatment Knute’s black bay had received at Jackson’s hand he hadn’t blamed his friend for being worried about what might have happened to his horse. But his relief had been palpable when the US cavalry had ridden in trailing the handsome bay and the other Sherman horses. And it had certainly aided his recovery to have something else to focus on.

That horse gets any sleeker, you won’t be able to keep a saddle on him.”

“Yeah well, he was pretty neglected there for a while.”

“Yeah I know pard. I’m real glad you got him back.”

As he continued grooming, Jess involuntarily reached up to rub his right shoulder.

“Shoulder troublin’ ya?”

“A little, not too much.” That probably meant it hurt like blazes. “Mort gone?”

“Yeah, he’s headed off into town to post the decree.”

“What’s between you two?”

Slim sat down on a hay bale, wondering where the heck that had come from. He hadn’t expected that when he’d come in here. “You have to ask?”

“I don’t blame Mort for shootin’ me, Slim, and neither should you. As far as Mort was concerned, I coulda shot either one of you, shape I was in.”

“What? With that empty gun of yours?” He hadn’t planned to bring this up so soon, more work his way up to it gently but Jess had given him the opportunity he needed.

Jess stiffened as he ceased his ministrations to his mount.

“C’mon, Jess, you think I wouldn’a noticed? I could see up the three chambers the whole time you had the gun on me and they were all empty.”

“Then how come you didn’t try to take me?”

“Coz I couldn’t be sure about the three chambers I couldn’t see. I know you usually only load 5, but in the shape you were in – I had no idea. I had a 50/50 chance – and I didn’t want to be wrong. I didn’t know for sure until I picked your iron up and felt how light it was after Mort shot you. Besides, I didn’t want it to come to having to take you.”

“Does Mort know?”

Slim shook his head “Nope. And he ain’t gonna. Reckon he feels bad enough as it is.” That was the first time he had admitted that out loud.

“Well, from what I’ve seen, you’re sure not helpin’ him feel any better.”

Slim was getting frustrated now. First Daisy and now Jess; but with Jess it was an avoidance tactic. He was trying to divert attention away from what was really important, what he wasn’t facing up to. The gun. And then there was Knute. He’d get to that.

He leapt to his feet. “This ain’t about me Jess, and it ain’t about Mort. It’s about you and why you put us in the position of havin’ to shoot you in the first place. I came in here for answers and I’m not leavin’ until I get them, even if I gotta pummel them outta you.”

Jess turned round, regarding his friend, his fists clenched to his sides, and for the first time in days, Slim saw something in those piercing blue eyes other than the dull apathy that he had been reflected in them. He saw a momentary glint, a flash of anger; a sign that the volatile Jess Harper they all knew and loved was still in there. But it soon disappeared. He sighed, and moved to the hay bale that his friend had just vacated.

“You ever been in a situation, Slim, where you knew what you were doin’ was wrong; but you couldn’t do anythin’ to stop it?”

Slim considered. “Well, I dunno, pard. Maybe in the war there were things that we were ordered to do that we didn’t feel quite right about but…..”

Jess shook his head. “No, I don’t mean like that. I mean like, you’re trapped inside yourself but you got no control over what you’re doin’. You see yourself do things and ya hear youself sayin’ awful things but you can’t stop yourself. And the part of you that wants to is locked away, and you can feel yourself getting further and further away …I dunno if that’s makin’ any sense at all?”

Slim sat back down next to him clasped his shoulder.

“Yeah pard, I think it is…”

“That’s why I knew it was the only way that you were gonna take me in. I was hopin’ to make you mad enough to draw on me, before I could getta holda your gun, coz I dunno how much longer I coulda held out. And then when Mort showed up, I knew he wouldn’t have any choice but to shoot me.”

“Well you took a big risk pard.”

“Maybe, but I knew Mort wouldn’t shoot to kill. I was sure of that. Same as I was sure you wouldn’t have either. But you see Slim; I was no longer sure about myself. I didn’t wanna die but that would’a been better than the alternative. ‘Coz I couldna lived with myself if I’d killed you.”

He started to sob again, the tension of the past week enveloping him once more. The relief Slim felt was palpable as he put his arm around his pard’s shoulder and held him close. Ever since that day at the bluff he had been disturbed to think that his friend had wanted to die; that he had been so defeated by what had happened that he had wanted to give up on life entirely, but now he knew the truth; his conviction that there had still been enough of Jess there that day on the bluff to be sure that he wouldn’t have done what his young friend had feared, solidified. He knew, even if Jess didn’t, that he could never have killed him. But Mort had ensured that their friendship did not have to endure that test. Daisy was right; that talk with Mort did need to happen sooner rather than later.

He knelt down in front of his friend and looked into the bowed face of the younger man, his hands on his shoulders.

“Alright Jess, now we’ve got that one sorted. What about Knute?”

He shook his head and leapt up. “No Slim, I don’t wanna talk about that. I can’t”

“Why not, Jess? You’ve talked about the gun; why can’t you talk about Knute? Why won’t you let me tell you about him?”

“I said no” he yelled and ran for the door. Slim ran to cut him off closing the door before he could get there; glad that Jess was handicapped by his injured leg. Well, at least this was progress; in the space of a few minutes, he had gone from apathy, to anguish and now to anger. It meant that the numbness was dissipating and the feeling was coming back. That was good.

Jess was standing there, fists clenched at his side, trembling, white faced with anger.

“Get outta my way, Slim.”

“Sorry pard. I gotta tell you about Knute. It’s for your own good.”

Lightning quick, the Harper right hook arced towards him and it was pure reflex that had his right arm come across to parry the blow. Jess cried out as the jarring pain flared through his wounded shoulder and he fell back heavily on the floor. Luckily there was enough straw on the floor to cushion his fall.

He just sat there breathing heavily, rubbing his protesting limb. Slim looked down at his friend, dismayed. He hadn’t intended for that to happen. He reached down to offer the younger man his hand. Jess looked at it for a moment and then, as if in resignation sighed and allowed his friend to pull him to his feet and guide him back to the hay bale.

“I’m sorry, pard, I didn’t mean to hurt you. But, now, all I ask is that you just sit there and listen for a few minutes and then, if you never want to hear the name Knute Duncan again, then Daisy, Mike, Mort and me, we’ll respect that. But I reckon you’ll change your mind when you hear what I gotta say.”

*****

It was as Slim had thought; Jess had been torturing himself with guilt over Knute; had blamed himself for his death. He had asserted that he should have gone to Texas with him; helped to set him up but instead he had just let him go. Knute had depended on him and he had let him down. But Slim had set him straight on that. For the first time in his life, Knute Duncan had been responsible for his own destiny and he had needed to go out there and be his own man. What Jess had given him, however brief, was the first taste of freedom the boy had ever had.

It was tragic irony that in a state the size of Texas he had to run into the likes of Clint Jackson but that wasn’t Jess’ fault; the same way it wasn’t his fault that Jackson wasted no time in dosing the boy the same way he dosed all who crossed his path. No, Jess had done for Knute as much as any friend ever could or would. And Knute knew it. He knew what friendship meant. He had known it back them in the prison camp; knowing he would never have survived it had it not been for his camaraderie with Jess. And years later, he had remembered the power of that comradeship again when he had stopped two friends standing against each other in a gunfight on the main street of Laramie. And then finally, when that deep bond of friendship was threatened once more, Knute Duncan had stepped into the line of fire and took another man’s bullet. In doing so, he had saved not only Slim’s but Jess’ life too. Had he not, Slim doubted that Mort would have gotten to Jess in time.

Slim had shown Jess that he had given Knute more than he could ever have known; his freedom; his voice and his redemption. More than that, he had kept their, Slim and Jess’, friendship intact, not once but twice. And that was a priceless gift.

Truth was, though, neither Slim nor Jess knew just how much of a man Knute Duncan had really become. He may have held the appearance of a frail and scared boy, and with naivety to match, but he had been quick to recognize that Slim Sherman held the key to Jess’ future. All he could offer was a doorway back to the past, a past it was clear, that Jess had worked so hard to move on from. Yes, Knute Duncan had been more intuitive than anyone could ever have given him credit for. He knew about men like Johnny and Clint Jackson; men who were unwilling or unable to get over the war; who were unable to move on and get on with their lives. He had known six months back that that wasn’t how it was for Jess. He had made a life for himself — a good one — and Knute had recognized that. And that was why he had refused the offer to stay on at the ranch after Johnny’s death. Oh, how he had wanted to accept; how he had wanted a chance to experience what it felt like to have a proper home with love and laughter and all the things most take for granted. But he was a link to the past and he didn’t want to be the one to hold Jess back, to be a reminder of the bad times. And so he had proven the strength of his friendship by absolving Jess of any sense of responsibility he might have felt towards him.

Slim had left Jess alone with his grief after that, confident in the knowledge that the memory of Knute Duncan would go beyond the tragedy of his life. And now Slim was halfway to Laramie, one friendship healed, another in sore need of some doctorin’.

*****

As Slim rode into town he was surprised at how quiet it all seemed. It was Friday afternoon. Where was everyone? He dismounted outside of the sheriff’s office and tied Alamo up to the hitching rail. He checked the notices on the board, a few notices but no decree. He frowned. He tried the door but the Sheriff’s office was locked. He knocked and called out “Mort? You in there?” There was no response.

Slim couldn’t make it out. Usually Laramie was a hive of activity late on a Friday afternoon, typically full of men eager to spend their week’s earnings in the saloon at the poker table or just getting liquored up. For most it was the highlight of the week. But now it was like a ghost town. As he walked down the street towards the saloon, he saw Charlie Barnes, come out of the livery stable, heading in the same direction he was. He called out to him. “Hey Charlie, what’s goin’ on? Where is everyone?”

“Well, howdy, Slim. Thought you of all people would have knowed about it? Sheriff’s called a public meetin’ over in the saloon. Headed over there now meself. You didn’t know?”

Slim shook his head “No Charlie, I didn’t. Guess we’d best go see what it’s all about.”

Slim had never seen the saloon so jam packed full of people; especially those whom he had thought he would never see darken the doors of a drinking establishment. He snuck in, unseen by the sheriff and sat down at the back, intrigued to hear what this was all about. The sheriff was stood on a raised dais behind the bar and was flanked either side of him by Mose, his physical injuries now healed, and Sally Seagar, Wes Seagars widow. In his hand he had the piece of paper issued earlier that morning by the judge.

He held up his hands patiently, signaling to those assembled that he was about to address them. He waited for the murmuring to die down before he started.

“Thank you all for coming here this afternoon. I don’t need to tell you all that this town has seen its fair share of troubles lately, with the terrible loss of Wes Seagar” here, he acknowledged the stage guards widow, the gathered throng murmuring their sympathy “And the savage terrible beating experienced by Mose.” This time the gathered throng voiced their anger for what had been done to both men. Mort held his hands up again, pleading for their silence. “And I know how angry you all were; that anyone could carry out such an evil and terrible crime against our own. You all wanted justice, and that was understandable. But when that pain, that desire for justice turns a town against one of its own, that’s when the natural order of things breaks down.” Mort paused for effect, to see what the reaction would be. Slim looked around the room. From the confusion on many of their faces, as the murmuring rose again, many of them had failed to make the connection. But one voice piped up. “If you mean Jess Harper, why ain’t he here to defend himself. Why can’t he face us?”

Slim snorted in disgust. Kel Johnson. He might have known.

The Sheriff ignored him, instead holding up the piece of paper he had brought in with him.

“I have here a decree signed by Judge Henry that absolves Jess Harper of any blame for recent events.” At this there was uproar, people were incredulous that, with the weight of evidence, such a conclusion could ever be reached. A chorus of voices called out over each other.

“What about the hold up? It was Harper’s friend Duncan who was positively identified by Mose?” called out one,

“And what about Lon McGarry? Harper shot him!” cried another.

Mort stood there shaking his head sadly as he witnessed the hypocrisy and pomposity of people he counted as friends. With a few notable exceptions, here he glanced at Kel Johnson, they were mostly good people but sometimes they just couldn’t see farther than their own noses. And that was the way it was now. Under his withering gaze, many started to feel uncomfortable and gradually the room quieted again. Mort was highly respected and they would all, at least, hear him out.

“I have always been proud to serve as sheriff of this town. I count most of you as friends, but you all know that when it comes to upholding the law that is my first and foremost priority. I have always been rigid in that assertion. But I’m not ashamed to say that, that assertion has recently been tested to the limit. Because many of you and my fellow law enforcers were convinced that as good a friend as I have was part of a gang responsible for robbing and killin’ their way through a number of towns in this and Colorado territory. Now I know Jess; have known him for more than three years; have even deputized him on more than one occasion and many of you men have ridden on posses with him. You couldn’t have a better man to watch your back. And yet, when he needed us to watch his back, to believe in him, well this town certainly showed its true colors.”

People had now started shuffling uncomfortably. Many eyes fixed rigidly on the floor.

“Well, why did he ride off the way he did after the stage was held up?” It was Kel Johnson again.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to understand this Kel, but it’s a little thing called loyalty. When Jess heard that Knute Duncan had been identified as being one of those at the hold-up, Jess just couldn’t believe that the friend he knew could be involved with something like that. So he rode off to go and find out the truth. I know some of you evidently have short memories, but six months ago, that Duncan boy prevented a lot of killin’s from happenin’ right out there on the main street, at the risk of his own life. If Jess hadn’t have stopped him, his own brother would have killed him for getting in the way of his quest for revenge, just because the boy had no stomach for killin’. But I guess most of you have forgotten that? But Jess knew that that same boy couldn’t willingly have been a part of what happened that day.”

“That’s right, Sheriff.” It was Mose’s turn to intercede. “And I saw the way of it; that Jackson fella had gotten the boy so hooked on opium he could make him do whatever he wanted. The boy never did no killin’ and when they left me there to die, he came back and left me a canteen full’a water. Reckon he saved my life. Fer all he knew, at the risk of his own. Don’t sound like no killer to me.”

Slim looked around at the reactions. Some still needed convincing. Opium was a dirty word. Not something you talked about openly. He could see where Mort was going with this but, for Jess’ sake, he hoped he knew what he was doing.

“Thanks Mose,” The sheriff acknowledged the old stage driver. “So Knute Duncan was an unwilling participant in all of this. A boy damaged by the war, taken advantage of by a man who promised him medicine to cure his headaches, the legacy of a savage beating he had received at the hands of his own brother; that had silenced him for all those years. And Jess Harper had known that there had to be some other explanation behind the boy’s involvement in such a heinous crime.”

“But what about the money, Sheriff? Only a few of us knew about it. How did Jackson get wind of that?” It was Jim Morgan, the bank Manager. It was a valid question and many voiced that opinion.

“It’s a good question Jim,’ agreed the Sheriff, “and that’s what had us on the wrong track for quite a spell, but the truth is, Jackson and his men got lucky; pure and simple. They never knew about the money. They were after something else.” There were confused and some incredulous murmurs. Did the Sheriff really expect them to believe that? What else could they have been after if not the payroll?

“Alright, alright.” Mort held his hands up once more. “I can see I’m gonna have to tell it all. I just hope that I don’t live to regret this.” He took a deep breath.

“Clint Jackson set this whole thing up as a way to get to Jess. The long and the short of it is that Clint Jackson was one of many men who were unable to cope with life after war. Crippled in mind as well as body, he somehow got it into his drug-fuelled head that Jess was responsible for him being the way that he was. Bitter and twisted by pain and a powerful addiction, he was consumed by the need to make someone pay and that person, for reasons that he took to the grave with him, was Jess. He knew that he could get to him through the boy and that if the boy was identified at the hold up, Jess would go after him. That’s why Mose was left alive; to ensure his plan was enacted. And Jess took the bait. He rode into their trap and for ten days while you all thought Jess was riding all over creation robbin’ and killin’ with the Jackson gang, he was in fact, laid up in a hidden canyon held in a drug fuelled stupor while Jackson attempted to make him as dependant on the drug as he was.”

Slim noted the shock, horror and, yes, sympathy for Jess, on many faces as he scanned the room; the tide was turning.

Mort continued. “When he came out of the stupor he was vulnerable and totally at Jackson’s whim. And then came the robbery in Cheyenne. Weakened, sick and still thinking of his friend, whom Jackson constantly threatened to kill if he didn’t do exactly as he was told, Clint Jackson made sure that Jess was positively identified at the bank. He gave him a gun with just one bullet in it so that he wouldn’t try and shoot himself away from the gang. But Lon McGarry had secreted a derringer and would have killed Jess if he hadn’t shot back. Now you all know Jess Harper and how he can handle a gun?” There were plenty of nods and murmurs of agreement.

“At that range, if he had wanted to kill he would have done. But he was still in control enough to shoot to wound.” Mort looked around to see if his words were having any impact. He was encouraged to see that many had begun to look very ashamed.

“You all know that the hold up in Cheyenne was the straw that broke the camel’s back and as well as a posse trailing the gang up from Cheyenne, I set out with many of you in a posse to intercept them if they headed up this way. En route, Jackson abandoned Jess in the middle of a dry canyon with no water and an empty gun, throwing bullets for him to scramble after; leaving him there to face a posse that would likely shoot first and ask questions later. He had deliberately withheld the drug he had been forcing into him, that day, so Jess was already half out of his mind with withdrawal. As you all know, we intercepted the gang attempting to make clean their escape by way of an old abandoned miners trail that many of us had long forgotten about. We shot it out with the gang until they were all dead, including Jackson and the Duncan boy. But what you need to know is that boy saved Slim Sherman’s life.”

Here, those few who had seen Slim come in looked round at him and he nodded to confirm the truth of the sheriff’s words.

“He saw that Jackson had a shot lined up on Slim” Mort went on, “and the boy deliberately jumped in the way and took the bullet. I was there; I saw it happen. And before he died, all he could think of was his friend, Jess.”

A number of the women in the room were openly weeping now. Many of the men were shaking their heads in shame.

“By the time Slim and I got to Jess, he was wounded, and out of his head with need for the drug he had become so dependent on. He was fighting it all the way, but it was a battle he was losing.” Here he paused to take a breath; he was coming to the difficult part. Slim stood up, no longer concerned whether Mort knew he was there or not. He wanted his friend to know he had his support. But Mort didn’t see him, he had been transported back to that moment; something he had been trying to block out ever since it had happened. But he needed to face it.

“And then I had to make a decision that I hoped I would never have to make nor will ever have to make again. To protect the life of one friend, I had to shoot another. I had a split second to make a decision and I took one look at Jess’ face, in the grip of that terrible drug, a gun on Slim, and I shot him. God forgive me, I shot one of the best friends I have to save the life of another.”

He looked at the sea of white faces, many streaked with tears, and as he scanned the room, his met the clear blue eyes of the steadfast young man standing at the back, who nodded at him in respect. That had taken a lot of guts, to show the man behind the badge. Mort nodded back in acknowledgement.

“Never has this badge…” he referred to the star pinned to his chest

…“weighed so heavy on me as it has through these past weeks. To see one close friend cut down” — here Sally Seagar patted his arm with one hand, dabbing away at her own tears with the other —  “and watch two others go to hell and back as one went through the pain of withdrawal and the other sat there night and day to get him through it.”

He fingered the star again. “But I’ll tell you this, I have always believed in this badge and what it means, and I have always believed in the people of this town. But both of those beliefs have been sorely tested lately and that’s why I called this meeting. To find out whether I am right to feel the way I do right now or whether my faith can be restored.”

“What do you want us to do sheriff? You name it, and we’ll do it” If Slim hadn’t seen and heard it; he would never have believed it. It was Kel Johnson.

Mort looked around the room at the resolute faces before him. “You all share Kel’s views?” There were vigorous nods and assertions from all around.

Mort exhaled deeply. “Alright then. Here’s what I think. The reward for ending Clint Jackson’s murderous spree was a substantial one, to be split between Laramie and Cheyenne. Most of the payroll money was retrieved; I guess Jackson didn’t spend money when he could take what he wanted. So, our part of the reward is ours to do with as we see fit. I am sure you will all agree with me that for the most part, it would be best served used as a trust fund to help Sally and the boys get the ranch up and running?”

Again there were loud cries of approval. But now Sally Seagar took over. She was a quietly spoken woman, not used to speaking in such a public forum but if the sheriff could lay himself open, as he had just done, then so could she. She could especially do it for Wes and the boys.

“And Josh, Luke and me, we’re very grateful. It won’t bring back my husband or the boy’s pa, but it’ll go some way to helpin’ us live out our dream and I know that’s what Wes would have wanted. But part of me can’t accept all of this when there’s a boy lyin’ cold in his grave with no marker and nothing to account for the life that he lived and the way in which he died. And much as I miss my husband, I can’t help grieve for that poor boy as well. I know Slim Sherman gave the boy as good a burial as he could but I think we could do better by him. Give him a decent marker. And maybe on Sunday we could all gather at his graveside and give him the proper respect he deserves?”

The room erupted in unanimous cries of affirmation and many broke out in spontaneous applause. Slim felt the lump in his throat. He wished Jess could have seen this. Wished he could have seen the indelible mark that a young boy’s last gesture of friendship had left on them. His life may not have amounted to much but in death, Knute Duncan had taught an entire town a valuable lesson indeed. And in case he had needed reminding, it had taught Slim one too.

He made his way over to Mort who was trying to dislodge himself from the many who wanted to shake his hand. He had taken a gamble and it had paid off; he still had the faith of the townspeople. And they had started on the road to regaining his faith in them. He just hoped they would be able to earn back Jess’. And that he too could reconcile everything that had happened with the young rancher. He wouldn’t have blamed him though, if the young man had felt it had gone beyond that. And now his other young friend was advancing towards him. And from his grim expression, he still had some work to do to earn back that friendship.

“Well, you’re in the wrong profession sheriff. You ever thought of becoming a preacher?” Unable to keep up the pretence any more, Slim’s face spread into a wide grin.

 

The ice broken, Mort smiled back, relieved, “Very funny.”    

 The young man’s face suddenly took on a more serious hue, as they exited the saloon, both glad of the cool air on their faces “Mort, I want to apologize…”

 “Now Slim, you don’t…”

 “No Mort, I do. I’ve been meaning to say it for a while, it’s just that with everythin’ happenin’ the way it did…..well, what you said in there made me realize, sometimes you have to make the hard decisions for friendshipAnd you did that for Jess and me, even though I was too blinded by my own stubbornness to see it. You’ve proved to be as good a friend to me as Knute has been to Jess and I won’t forget that.” 

 Mort nodded, unsure of what to say, but glad the wedge between then was finally gone. “What about Jess, Slim? You think he’ll want to leave Laramie for good?”

Slim considered, thinking back to his earlier heart to heart with his younger friend.

“I dunno, Mort. I hope not but all this has left him feelin’ pretty exposed. I hope he’ll stay but I guess I’d understand if he did wanna leave.”

“Yeah,” Mort was replaying the events back at the bluff in his head again; that split second as he had squeezed the trigger; seeing Jess propelled back against the rock as his bullet found its mark and seeing the young man crumple to the floor. It was an image that had haunted him constantly ever since. Slim must have seen the pained expression on his friend’s face as they headed up towards his office.

“Jess doesn’t blame you Mort. He told me himself. He knows you did exactly what you had to. Maybe give it a few days and then come see him for yourself. Even if he does have a mind to leave, Doc says he won’t be in any shape to go any distance for a while.”

They were outside his office now, Alamo still waiting patiently where his master had left him. “Thanks Slim. I’ll do that. You wanna come in for some coffee?”

Slim shook his head as he untied Alamo and mounted. “Thanks but, I wanna get back, see how things are.” He didn’t have to say it; Mort knew what he meant. He had another friend who needed him and whom he was anxious to get back to.

He nodded silently as he waved his young friend off and reflected, not for the first time, nor did he think it would be the last, on how much he depended on the friendship of the two young men at the Sherman ranch. Despite all that happened, or because of it, he hoped it would endure.

*****

Epilogue

It had been two days since Slim had talked to Jess about Knute. He hadn’t expected for things to change overnight but he had hoped that it would bring Jess out of wherever it was he had mentally retreated to. But he had still seemed unreachable the next day. After breakfast, which he had barely touched, he had excused himself and had headed back out to the barn. Mike had tried to follow but Daisy had stopped him. They had been economical with what they had told him. He knew that Jess was mourning a friend and that he had been sick; there was no hiding that weight loss, and after not having eaten anything for so long it would take time for his system to tolerate anything more than small portions. With the entire town knowing what had happened, they knew that eventually Mike would need to be told the full story but both Slim and Daisy had agreed that it needed to wait until Jess was feeling stronger. He didn’t need the boy fussing after him.

And so, being Saturday, and at Daisy’s insistence, Slim had taken Mike fishing, as much for Slim’s sake as the boy’s. Recent events had taken their toll on Slim too and he needed to do something other than worry, and Mike needed some quality time with him after so long away from home staying at the Simmonds’ ranch.

It had been hard for Daisy too though. Since the day that Jess had held the gun on her, she had secretly been concerned that if anything was going to drive Jess away, it was what the memory of that was doing to him. Slim had been right to keep her from the bunkhouse while Jess had gone through the painful withdrawal but it had taken Daisy Cooper to finally make him realize what the drug was trying to rob him of and after a hard fought battle, he had successfully emerged the victor. But ironically, she now feared that it was his inability to reconcile this victory with what it had cost that was making him so withdrawn.

But both Slim and Daisy were wrong. There were things that neither of them knew about Jess Harper. The truth was, Jess had just needed time to talk things through, to rationalize his thoughts, to make sense of all that had happened in such a short space of time. But he needed to do it with someone who wouldn’t judge; wouldn’t offer an opinion; wouldn’t offer solutions. Wouldn’t, even with the best of intentions, influence his decision with any bias towards their own needs. There was a lot to work through; and Traveler proved to be a good listener.

The next morning Slim had rigged the buckboard early. He had told Jess that they were having a special service that day for Knute and the whole town was going to be there. He held back on telling him about the marker. He had travelled into Laramie the afternoon before, after the fishing trip. After the town meeting Joe Dobbs, the town mason had worked all night and the following day to get the job done and he and Slim had gone up the cemetery to put it in place. Slim had struggled to swallow the lump that appeared in his throat when he read the words for the first time. It was a fitting tribute. But he had known then that Jess had to be alone when he read it. So he wasn’t surprised the next morning when Jess had excused himself when he had brought the buckboard around front for Daisy and Mike. In fact, he was glad.

When they arrived back at the ranch, Jess was coming out of the barn with Traveler all saddled and ready to ride. It had been a while since the bay had been ridden and he looked eager to be out galloping with the wind rushing through his mane.

 Slim reined up the team and climbed down, instinctively turning to help Daisy down, Mike jumping down of his own accord.

He walked over to his young friend “Going somewhere pard?” He searched his friend’s gaunt face, the cheekbones still too pronounced for either his or Daisy’s liking.

“Yeah. There’s somethin’ I gotta do.”

“Need some company?”

Jess seemed to hesitate before shaking his head. “Nah, think I need to do this alone. Tell Daisy I’ll be back for supper.”

“All right pard. But don’t make me come lookin’ for ya. Reckon I’ve done enough of that lately.”

Jess nodded, for a moment a pained expression passing across his face, before he spurred Traveler on and headed off in the direction of town.

 As Slim watched him go, Daisy came scuttling over to him as Mike made good his escape towards the house before anyone found a chore for him to do.

 “Oh Slim, do you think you should go after him?”

 Why, Daisy? Don’t you think he’ll come back?” 

 Oh, it’s not only that. I just don’t think he’s strong enough to be riding anywhere yet.”

 “Don’t worry, Daisy. He’ll be back. I think Jess has learned that he doesn’t need to run anymore, maybe hide away sometimes, but not run.”

Daisy didn’t look convinced. “Even so…”

 “Besides, I’ve gotta hunch where he’s going and if I’m right, he’ll see the people of Laramie are worth waitin’ around for.”

“You think he’s going to see Knute?”

Slim nodded. “That’s what I’m hopin’.” He put his arm around her. “Now what say you cook up some of that famous fried chicken of yours for supper, and leave Jess to me? I’ll unhitch the team and put the buckboard away and then I’ll go after him. Make sure he’s all right. Deal?”

 She returned the hug, clasping him around the waist. “All right, it’s a deal.”

 *****

 Less than an hour later as he approached the Laramie Cemetery, on a hilltop just outside of town, he was relieved to see the lone figure standing there silhouetted against the gray clouds gathering overhead. He stood with his head bowed, unmoving.

Traveler was tied up patiently at the fence. As Slim dismounted, and tied up Alamo next to him, the bay whickered as if in greeting. Slim patted his neck.

“I know boy, we gotta give him some time. But I’m sure glad you brought him here.”

He slowly made his way up towards the gravesite, wanting to be sure Jess knew he was coming. Whatever private thoughts and emotions he was voicing and purging himself of, he wanted to give Jess the chance to compose himself before he got there. He had been exposed enough the past few weeks.

As he reached his side he put a gentle hand on his pard’s shoulder. He looked at the grave, covered in floral arrangements so tenderly placed there that morning by many of the womenfolk of the town. As he read the marker once more, the power of the words moved him as much as when he had first seen them.

 KNUTE DUNCAN 1849-1872

Devoted and loyal friend to the end

May we all learn from his example.

 Jess swallowed, trying to control the emotion in his voice. “You do this?”

 “Nope, townspeople did it. They thought it would be an appropriate use of some of the reward money; to give Knute the marker and the recognition he deserves.”

Jess shook his head. “His whole life, Knute never had a thing to call his own, not even people to care about him, and it takes him dyin’ for people to see just what he was worth.”

“That’s not true Jess. You cared enough to go after him. And Knute knew that. You gave him more than anyone ever did and I’m as sorry as you are that he’s lyin’ in his grave but in how he died, he gave something back to you, to me, to this whole town that we can never repay. But in placin’ that marker, well, it’s the people of Laramie’s way of showin’ that he didn’t die in vain and that they recognise they were wrong, about Knute, about you, about a lot of things. Some may not find it easy to say it out loud, and they might never say it, but in doin’ this last thing for someone who was your friend, well maybe it goes some way to start makin’ amends for what they’ve done to you. I know it’ll take time but I reckon it’s a step in the right direction.”

 Jess had a faraway look in his eye. “Maybe.” There was a lot to forgive but Jess had never been one to bear a grudge. Not for long anyway.

 “Now, you comin’ home? Daisy’s cookin’ fried chicken for supper with apple pie for dessert?” Slim had never known Jess to turn down either.

 Jess shook his head; he still had some things to talk through with Knute. “You go on, Slim, I’ll be along in a while.”

 “Alright, pard. But don’t stay too long. There’s plenty of work to help build up that appetite and you’re sure needin’ somethin’ to stick to those ribs.”

 Jess turned to him, an eyebrow raised. “Work? On Sunday?”

 Slim grinned impishly. “Yeah, well, there’s a certain buckskin that needs to be broke. I’ve been keepin’ him specially for ya.”

 Jess gave a wry grin. The first time Slim had seen him smile since before he’d gone riding after Knute all those weeks before. “Can’t see Daisy lettin’ me go breakin’ no horse with my shoulder an’ all?”

Slim laughed as he turned to walk away. Jess had turned a corner. It would take time, but he was going to be fine. “Guess not. Well, I’ll save him ‘til you’re ready pard. Reckon he’ll keep a mite longer.”

Jess smiled as he turned back to the grave of his friend “I reckon he will at that.”

 ***The End***

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

 Beta Read by Mary Brown

 Words cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel towards Mary Brown for the constant support, encouragement and quite frankly, endurance through this writing process, giving me the confidence and stamina to carry on when I hit a wall (I hit several) and for gently cajoling me, with reasoned arguments when my stubbornness (and fatigue) risked making some questionable and rather contrived plot development decisions. This has been the toughest story I have ever written and I don’t think I could have done it without her. She deserves a medal and a good rest! Thanks, pard.

 And I would also like to thank a certain blue-eyed cowboy who sent me some inspiration just when I needed it……

 Return to Helen C’s homepage

 

 

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