The Pickle Story (Joyce)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  72,400


 

Laramie circa 1933 – As told by Polly Williams Black

Hi, my name is Polly Williams Black and I’ve been asked to tell you a little story my grandpa Mike Williams told us many years ago.

Grandpa Mike had to have been one of the most interesting people I have ever known. Why, even his start in life was fascinating. See, grandpa came west with his mother Bell and his father Lance way back in 1870. At the time, the west really was what you might call ‘wild.’ Small towns dotted the map here and there, with only a few actually being big enough to be called cities. Indians still roamed the hills and would on occasion come down and cause no end of trouble. Of course, sometimes they had a right…but I won’t go into that. Towns and cities were different too. Nothing like today. Saloons and dance halls outnumbered other business, even in the smallest of towns. And drinking yourself blind was a habit many had, in addition to losing everything gambling. Yes, the west really was a wild place back then. It sure was for grandpa Mike.

None of us knew our great-grandparents. We don’t even have pictures of them. You see, back then, while on their way through Wyoming, a band of Indians attacked grandpa Mike’s wagon one night, killing both our grandpa’s parents and leaving our grandpa Mike, at the tender age of eight, an orphan. Before they left, they burned everything, so that not even a trace of grandpa’s young life could be found. Grandpa told me once that he really missed not having a tangible link to his past to show others. Something that has always made me very sad.

Grandpa spent a good portion of that night alone in the dark, hiding near the trees close to the burned-out wagon, his dead parents directly in view. It must have been horrible for a child that young. Grandpa Mike said he crawled up under some bushes at the base of a large oak and cried himself to sleep.

Early the next morning, a band of Chinese entertainers came upon the remains of the wagon and found grandpa Mike, still asleep. They left him there while they kindly buried the remains of the man and woman. Grandpa Mike said he woke and saw the Chinese men as they finished the graves and was scared to death. In his mind, he thought they were Indians come back to finish him off, even though they never saw him. By this time, he was fevered, and so the Chinese men put him in their wagon and moved on. It wasn’t long before their wagon broke a wheel and they found themselves in need of help. One of them decided to go for help after sighting a nearby ranch. That ranch just so happened to be the Sherman ranch, about two miles from where this happened and a total of twelve miles outside of Laramie. 

Grandpa Mike told us he didn’t recall much about going to the ranch. By the time they arrived at the Sherman ranch, grandpa Mike’s fever had spiked and he was delirious. Next thing he knew, he woke up in bed with Slim and Jess sitting next to him. They introduced themselves, and well, the rest, as they say, is history.  

Less than a year later, Slim and Jess adopted grandpa. The adventures he experienced as he was growing up have always fascinated me. Sadly, grandpa has passed, so it fell to me as the eldest to relate some of his adventures as he told them to me and my siblings. Grandma asked me to write down all the stories I could remember grandpa telling. Grandpa Mike wanted those that came after him to enjoy them as much as he did telling them. And as much as he’d complain about us children crowding around him to listen, he did enjoy it. I was intrigued and started rattling my brain to come up with the most interesting ones possible, never giving it a thought of what a chore it would become. The most detailed one I could remember had to do with the After Summer Festival in Laramie. It’s still held to this day, only now it’s called a county fair.

I have a few pictures of both the ranch and the family. I have to laugh when I look at the only picture where they’re all standing together. Slim stood 6′ 3″ and towered over them all. He had broad shoulders, a thick chest, blond hair and eyes the color of a beautiful blue sky, Grandpa always said. And I will have to admit, Slim was one of the most handsome men I have ever seen. Robert Matthew (Slim) Sherman had inherited the ranch from his own parents after their death. A year later, he came across a drifter and gunfighter by the name of Jess Harper making himself at home on his land. The two couldn’t have been more different. Like night and day to look at, that is. But deep inside, they became closer than brothers. Jess was much shorter than Slim, he being only 5′ 11″ and that with his boots on. Like Slim, he was muscular, trim, without an ounce of fat on him, with dark wavy, almost curly, hair and crystal blue eyes that made you sit up and take notice, grandpa Mike said. Grandpa said he had boyish features that seemed to attract the women like bees to honey. He also had an engaging smile and a deep baritone voice together with a jovial laugh that made everyone around him bust up. It was something they all enjoyed. So much so that grandpa said he and Slim would often try and find something to make the man laugh just so they could hear it.

I might pause here to let my readers know that Slim had a little brother who lived with them for a time. His name was Andrew Sherman — Andy for short. He was every bit as handsome as his older brother even though, oddly enough, he more closely resembled Jess. His hair was light brown showing flecks of red in the bright Wyoming sun. He was lean and muscular, with brown eyes rather than blue. He never reached the height of his bother, he being only 6″ when he passed away some eighteen years ago. He’d been a doctor, and according to all I’ve heard, a very good one.

It didn’t take Slim long before he decided that just being a business partner wasn’t fair to his friend, so he made Jess a full partner, with a share of the ranch, even changing the brand as proof. Although Slim’s little brother Andy held a share also, neither he nor Slim considered it his, as Andy never liked ranching. His first love was the medical field. So in truth, the ranch was split three ways. By the time the events I am about to relate took place, Andy had already moved out of the house and was practicing medicine alongside his friend and Sherman family physician, Seth Andrews. They served not only Cheyenne, Pixly and Laramie but every little town and ranch in between. Grandpa always laughed and said that with the way Jess used to get himself hurt, having a doctor in the family came in handy. Andy would often visit, sometimes staying up to a month at a time. During those times, he’d pitch in and helped with the chores and what not. He’d also take the time to observe Jess closely. Of course, that had to be from a distance, as the one-time gunfighter didn’t like being examined by a doctor and so would often do his best to put on a show of feeling just fine, even though at times you just knew he was about to keel over, grandpa told us with a laugh.

Grandpa Mike lived at the Sherman ranch for eight months when an exhaustive search for family members turned up nothing. It was sad really. No one had even heard of Mike Williams or his parents. All along, Slim and Jess had been planning on adopting the young boy they affectionately called, Tiger. Jess having never been a father and with Slim’s slight experience with only raising his younger brother, the two felt ill-equipped to raise the boy. Yet they both loved him and would do anything for him. So it was then that they sent word to the local judge with the idea of officially adopting him. Soon a circuit judge was due to come around and inspect the house and the men to be sure they’d make good parents for the boy.

Grandpa said Slim and Jess were beside themselves with worry. They feared the judge might not approve of an all-male household, might not see them as fit to provide a proper home for a growing boy. And to be honest, grandpa said the house, barn and every other structure around were in bad need of painting. That’s why what happened next made it all the more interesting. Almost like it was meant to be.

It just so happened an older woman by the name of Daisy Cooper got off the stage the morning of the judge’s visit. It seems she was on her way to what she thought was a new business and a new life. Just prior to her husband’s death, a man had sold them a store in Sherman, Wyoming. Not only was there no store, there wasn’t even a Sherman, Wyoming, not then anyway. There is now, and a nice little town it is to. Daisy Cooper had been swindled. The sheer shock of that realization sent the poor woman into a tizzy and she fainted dead out.

Amazingly, what started out as bad news turned out to be the best news of all. Once Mrs. Cooper recovered, Jess told her about the judge and of their dilemma. Daisy, knew just what to do. They got grandpa Mike all cleaned up and in nice clean clothes. Then she quickly looked around, and though not knowing the place well at all, began to tidy up. Once the judge arrived, Daisy went to work on him as well. She told him that the two men and boy were as close as brothers. As it turned out, that is exactly what the judge wanted to hear.

So, grandpa Mike said, a few days later Slim and Jess rode into Laramie, signed the papers officially adopting grandpa Mike. Daisy, as she was called, took a position as cook, housekeeper and eventually surrogate mother not only to grandpa, but to Slim and Jess as well. This group of mismatched strays had become one cohesive loving family. Thankful to have found each other.

The adventures they faced living in Wyoming have become a source of pride and entertainment for our whole family, and we look to Slim and Jess as our great grandparents and to Mrs. Daisy Cooper as a loving aunt, as she came to be called by grandpa Mike.

The story you are about to read was related to me directly from grandpa Mike, when I was all of twenty-three and has me laughing to this day. It is the story that appeared in our local paper after Charlie (Charles) sent it in under the ‘of local interest’ column. When my husband opened up the Sunday paper, there it was taking up a full page and a half. At first I was a little annoyed. After all, this was our family business and no one else’s. But pretty soon, I softened to the idea, realizing that as much as we enjoyed these stories, so might others. So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and enjoy.

 

The Laramie Chronicle,

Of Local Interests

Laramie, Wyoming Summer 1934.

 

The Williams home looked like most on the tree lined streets of Laramie. Mike Williams, grandpa to six grandchildren and soon to be a great-grandpa, was sitting in his favorite rocker in the living room while the children played and the adults talked. We had all gathered for a family feast. His own children, four in all — three of which were married with children of their own — started showing up early in the day to help their grandmother with preparations. It was a beautiful bright sunny summer’s day. The family had struggled through a terrible winter and the warmer weather just begged to be enjoyed and celebrated. So it was that Martha Williams, grandma to most, decided that a family reunion was called for. Grandma Martha had been busy in the kitchen all morning long and now took a rest, while the eldest of the family girls took over. I smiled as I saw grandma sitting under the large oak in the front yard sipping ice tea and talking to relatives and neighbors alike.

Grandpa, well into his eighties with arthritis and a bad hip plaguing him, decided to stay inside. That, of course, was more of an excuse than anything else. His favorite baseball team was playing and he didn’t want to miss it. He sat facing the radio listening, his back to the ornate fire place now cold, it’s services no longer needed till winter. All was well until one of the grandchildren raced in, and finding grandpa sitting, decided to join him.

My grandparent’s home was filled with all kinds of antiques. Grandma Martha would drag grandpa all over in search of something she had her heart set on. He didn’t mind really. It got him out of the house at least, and gave him a chance to drive their new Ford. Grandpa loved driving. Said it was almost as good as riding a horse…almost. Like his older brother Jess Harper, grandpa never liked to just sit. Except, of course, when his favorite baseball team was on. Then it would take an Act of Congress or a stick of dynamite to move him, grandma once said.

My middle son, Jacob, always loved to hear grandpa’s stories and would pester him endlessly till grandpa Mike gave in. In truth, grandpa really didn’t mind as he loved talking about his life in Laramie at the Sherman ranch. Jacob always wanted to hear about our long-deceased relatives of the heart, Slim and Andy Sherman, Jess Harper and, last but not least, Daisy Cooper.

I’ll have to admit as I sat writing, I too enjoyed hearing about those long passed. Another character way back then went by the name of Jonesy. Jonesy had been a long-time friend of the Sherman family, even living with them for several years. But by the time young Mike came along, Jonesy had already passed.

For as long as I can remember, grandpa Mike had an oddity sitting in the middle of the mantel above the fireplace. It was a small wooden structure that looked for the world like some kind of giant insect. I can remember it always looked unfinished somehow. Now, I’d been at my grandparent’s house many times, and although I wondered about it, I never got the chance to come right out and ask about it. Something always seemed to get in the way. But this particular day, my youngest son Ben decided to do just that. While the others gathered round, Ben climbed upon a chair and took the little object down and brought it over to grandpa Mike. “Grandpa, what is this?”

Grandpa smiled, and taking it carefully from the child’s grasp, gently turned in over in his own. The memories this little contraption brought back almost brought tears to his aging eyes. At that time, it was common for most to have displayed on their mantels noteworthy items, i.e., family photos, metals from either the war or other things that marked special events or times in their lives or nostalgic décor, such as stagecoaches, buckboards and/or a covered wagon, some turned into night lights. But here at the Williams household, this little collection of pieces of polished wood meant far more to our grandpa than all those items put together and had therefore earned a prominent and honored place, right in the middle of the mantel. Grandpa continued to turn it over in his hands, examining it with pleasure.

“C’mon, grandpa, what is it?” Mark begged.

Grandpa looked down at the curious faces surrounding him and chuckled. This here, boys, is very, very special. It reminds me of the time I spent with my brothers, away back when I was just about your age, Ben”.

“You mean Slim and Jess?” Ben inquired, his eyes sparkling, knowing all along that it was.

Grandpa nodded. “That’s right. My family in Laramie, at the Sherman ranch.”

Grandpa Mike never referred to those at the Sherman ranch as his adopted family. To him, they were his family. Like Slim had told him once, they were all meant to be together.

Young Mark leaned against his chair and looked at the wooden object and shrugged. “But what is it?”

“This, lad, was an invention that caused quite a stir back when I was comin’ up.”

Grandpa got up, with some difficulty and ever so carefully placed it back on the mantel before returning his chair.

“Wasn’t uncle Jess a gun fighter, grandpa?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, and uncle Slim was his partner, huh, grandpa,” Mark supplied.

“Not in gun-fighting,” Ben answered with a hint of authority to his sour tone. “Whoa, hold it there. You just asked me to explain what that thing is. Now do you want to know or don’t you?” Grandpa all but growled.

Grandpa was good with kids, but like most old folks, sometimes his age and their enthusiasm and excitement got under his skin, and his temper would show. But it would never last. It did serve to stop all the questions, though. At least for a time, so he could explain.

Grandpa Mike smiled down at their eager faces. The boys, girls and even the adults loved listening to the exploits of Slim and Jess. Most especially Jess, it seemed, for after the story, the children would run around the house and yard pretending to be their long passed relations. I should know; I was one of them. I was always the one to play Slim, most probably because I was a lot taller than my siblings and cousins back then. And like my long past relative, a lot calmer with a head of blond hair to match.

By the time grandpa started to explain, children as well as adults had gather round him, with the exception of grandma and Aunt Nellie Ross; they were all too busy cooking and filling the house with the most scrumptious smells, making everyone hungry. Don’t know about the others but I was glad for the distraction, as my stomach had already begun to growl in anticipation of a great meal.

“Alright, alright just settle down and I’ll tell you what that thing is and how it came to be.”

Once the clan quieted down, grandpa leaned back in his chair and began.

“It was the close of summer back in 1874….”

*****

Daisy’s Garden

We’ve all had ‘em; no one likes ‘em. You know, those days where just nothing seems to go right. So it was with members of the Sherman ranch that summer afternoon. Since Daisy Cooper came to be a part of the Sherman household, things had run fairly smooth. Chores were done as usual. Mike did his homework and got most of the answers right. Slim and Jess worked as hard as ever, each doing the work of two. And of course. Daisy Cooper worked alongside the rest of the family to make a comfortable and presentable home for them all. In fact, so impressed was the judge after first meeting her that he felt the household suitable for raising young Mike Williams and granted the adoption right then and there. Again, that’s how grandpa Mike came to live at the Sherman ranch. Slim and Jess were certain had it not been for Daisy’s presence, the judge would have refused them out-right.

Not only was Mrs. Cooper’s (Aunt Daisy to Mike) housekeeping exceptional, but her talent in the kitchen soon became widely known. For his part, Jess loved her fried chicken, while Slim was partial to her chicken and dumplings. And the three would virtually fight over a piece of her apple pie. So it was that cooking, baking and canning came to be an important part of life at the Sherman ranch. For not only did they need to feed the family, but until the stage line was put out of business by the railroad, they also had to satisfy the appetites of hungry passengers. As expected, Daisy’s efforts in the kitchen always received high praise. So it wasn’t unusual to find a rather large well-maintained vegetable garden just outside the kitchen’s back door to one side of the house.

Each year, Laramie played host to what was once called the End of Summer Festival. What had started off as a small gathering of locals had turned into a town celebration with farmers and merchants plying their wares; ladies, their home cooked specialties and sewn items; gardeners, their prize fruits and vegetables; and of course, the streets were filled with games of all sorts to delight children and adults alike. And like most country fairs (for it could be called nothing less), there was always, but always, contests — most popular for the ladies being the baking and canning contests. Whoever was lucky enough to win one of these received a blue ribbon, a certificate, and a crisp five dollar bill along with bragging rights till next year rolled around and the whole thing started all over again. Like most members of the community, the Sherman ranch fit right in. All loved this little celebration and each year they eagerly planned and looked forward to it.

Slim and Jess always started out looking at the latest gear, then they’d meander over to check out some of the stock. And always, but always, they’d end up at the shooting range doing their best to outdo each other, along with the locals, to win themselves a prize. Sometimes as much as a thousand dollars, all put up by the town fathers to promote the Laramie End of Summer Festivities. Not just Laramie, but people from Cheyenne, Pixly and some as far away as Sweetwater would flood the little western town as they do even now.

This not-so-little celebration had, from the very start, been a boom for Laramie. Most times, Laramie brought in more revenue in that one weekend then all year round with the saloon, merchants, livery, bath house and hotel being the biggest winners. Most, like the Sherman household, made a weekend of it and stayed overnight at the hotel — a real treat to the youngest member of the household. Mike would stay up talking, filled with excitement for what he’d seen or was going to see till his chatter got on everyone’s nerves and he was forced to go to bed.

“Yes sir, those were good times, kids, real good times,” grandpa said, his smile reflecting the joy the memory brought with it. “Like most women…” grandpa continued.

Daisy enjoyed shopping and, like the boys, would spend whatever she’d managed to save during the year at the festival. Every year, Daisy could be found putting up apples, berries and peaches for pies and jams. After, she would work tirelessly baking an assortment of pies and cakes. During the week before the festival, the little ranch house was filled with the smells of Daisy’s labors. The tantalizing scent of fresh baked pies and cakes hung in the air, making everyone hungry. Once they’d arrive at the festival, she’d supervise as Slim and Jess carried these sweet treats into the town hall to join the rest of the women of the Laramie Women League’s contributions. Most times, she’d win some kind of prize for at least one or two of her creations. Last year, her apple butter won first prize and she brought home a blue ribbon and a nice crisp five dollar bill together with bragging rights. The boys really didn’t mind this kind of thing, as Daisy always made double, leaving them at home for the family.

“During the month before and after the festival, we all looked forward to Aunt Daisy’s cookin’.”

Though the League sponsored most of the contests, there were always dissenters. Some felt certain contests — such as the shooting competition, the knife throw and wrestling match — only promoted violence. So it wasn’t unusual to find several women standing around watching the participants, shaking their heads and wagging their tongues about the indignity of it all. Though, like Jess pointed out one year, ‘they might complain, but you won’t ever see a single one of ‘em argue about the money’.

The only thing that seemed to get under Daisy’s skin was the one contest that eluded her every single year: the canning contest. Precisely, that of pickles. For some reason, the Sherman housekeeper and surrogate mother seemed fixated on winning that category more than all others. Every year, she’d fret and work to pickle either cucumbers, watermelon or string beans, and every year in that category, she’d fail to win even an honorable mention. Instead, she’d stand with everyone else and watch as the reigning pickle queen, Mrs. Eleanor Brooks, walked away with the Grand Prize. Secretly, deep inside, Daisy Cooper wanted nothing more than to dethrone Eleanor. That would be her greatest triumph.

To that end, this particular year Daisy planted three extra rows of cucumbers. She looked after and pampered those little plants like they were her children, coaxing them to grow just a little larger each day. The garden may have looked too large for a family of four, unless of course you considered the way Jess put away the food when he was really hungry. Like Slim and Mike, Jess loved vegetables, almost much as he loved his meat, and Daisy always made sure her garden was filled with plenty of her family’s favorites — squash, string beans, butter beans, peas, carrots, cabbage, corn, tomatoes, onions and okra, in addition to her much beloved cucumbers. This year in particular, she worried about the attention the black birds were giving her garden. Most especially her cucumbers.

In addition to her housekeeping and cooking skills, Daisy was also a smart agriculturist. Most would simply dig up a stretch of Wyoming land, toss in a few seeds and water them without paying any more attention till harvest time. Daisy’s garden, on the other hand, was surrounded by two-by-fours and kept immaculately free of weeds, trash and such. To that end, it wasn’t unusual to find either Jess or Slim, together with young Mike, on all fours, ridding it of weeds and the like. But there were problems too, as anyone dedicated to gardener knows. Daisy had to contend with the little crawly pests who found her garden as attractive and tasty as did her family.

Relying on her father’s wisdom for the past two years, Daisy had started companion gardening before it became popular, and had been very successful. Knowing that if she wanted to keep the worms and such away from her beautiful tomatoes it was important to plant next to them a vegetable or flower that the worms hated. For example, one year, in order to protect her eggplants, she planted a row of string beans near them. Worms hate string beans. So in addition to the delicious legumes, her eggplants were protected. She did the same with her tomatoes and other vegetables the little crawlies loved so much. Yes sir, Daisy Cooper took great pride in her garden and was way ahead of her time.

All gardeners complain about something. In addition to the crawlies and flying pest, Daisy complained about the dirt. Her cucumbers most especially gave her no end of worry. She was picky and wanted to keep them from lying directly on the ground too long. So it was that she asked Slim and Jess to build her something to keep the vegetables off the ground as they grew.

That very night, while enjoying their coffee out on the porch in the crisp evening air, the two set to work to find a solution to Daisy’s garden problem. Finally, they hit upon an idea and were up hard at work before breakfast the next morning. Grandpa Mike woke to the sounds of hammering and sawing with the occasional laugh thrown in.

If asked to describe her favorite things about working at the ranch, Daisy would most always say that watching and listening to her two employers — her boys, as she called them — working together was something she always enjoyed. When the two hit upon something they both liked, they were like one well-oiled machine, each in turn working hard, laughing, ribbing each other mercilessly and enjoying every minute of it. And more often than not, they ended the day’s work with a little horseplay. All to Daisy chagrin, most especially if they decided to do so in the house.

Finally, when no more hammering and sawing could be heard, Daisy stepped out to inspect their work and was shocked. Pleasantly, that is. In her garden stood four six-foot long three-sided wooden boxes with holes cut in the top of each about six inches apart. Each box stood several inches above the ground on legs spaced exactly ten inches apart, looking like some kind of giant insect. Out of each hole stood proudly one of Daisy’s cucumber plants. This, as Jess explained, would allow them to grow while at the same time keeping them off the dirt like she wanted. In addition, the boys had spread Daisy’s special pest paste (as they called it) on each leg, effectively preventing any little crawlies that didn’t recognize the other plants from consuming her efforts.

As for the flying pests who often drew a bead on Daisy’s garden, Slim drew her attention to four tall polls situated on each corner. At the very top, tied securely, hung a strip of brightly colored material. As it swayed and flapped in the summer breeze, it would scare away those pesky feathered thieves. At least, he hoped. All very good ideas and, from a distance, quite amusing. They’d just finished explaining when Slim suddenly asked, as if noticing for the first time. “Daisy, why so many cucumbers?”

Now cucumbers were not ordinarily a staple of the Sherman household. As a matter of fact, other than finding a few scattered here and there on salad at the local café, the only other member of the family that actually liked them was young Mike. Mike loved pickles.

“I’ve decided to put up pickles this year,” she announced with a smile.

Jess paled and his stomach took a turn as did Slim’s. “Okay. But why so many?” Slim managed to ask, a little weakly.

“Well, if you’ll recall, last year I entered the pickle contest and lost to Eleanor…”

“You gonna enter again?” Jess interrupted, his tone matching his partner’s.

“Land sakes, no,” she laughed. “These are just for us. But last year, I lost so many to those black birds I decided to plant extra,” she explained.

The two ranchers recalled years prior when Mrs. Eleanor Brooks seemed to always, but always, walk away the winner — with the prize money, blue ribbon and bragging rights which she took advantage of for far longer. Much to the annoyance of her fellow contestants. Most especially, one Daisy Cooper to be exact.

It hadn’t taken the boys long to learn that Daisy Cooper was a woman with high aspirations and one that didn’t give in easily. Each year she entered that tent, she’d come away with all kinds of ideas. Most were mentally lost on the way home, or discarded as just a dream of sorts, but for some reason no one could fathom, she continued to be fascinated with pickles. She just couldn’t get over the fact that, for eight years in a row, this slight little old woman had won hands down in that particular category and Daisy wanted to be next. It seemed to be her goal in life to dethrone the reigning pickle champ if it was the last thing she ever did. There was only one thing wrong with her goal — Daisy Cooper, good at so many things, couldn’t produce a decent pickle if her life depended on it. For eight years running, she had entered that contest and lost. But she never gave up trying. And that’s what bothered the two ranchers.

Recognizing this, and recalling the pain they’d suffered year after year consuming her pickles, they did their best to encourage her to stick to what she did best — baking and putting up jams. When it came to baked goods especially, they couldn’t keep enough around the house. And Daisy was one of Mr. Marvin Hill’s best customers. Marvin Hill, owned the only apple orchard in all of Laramie, a little more than ten miles from the ranch. Daisy Cooper and Mike made the trip several times during the harvest season and would buy bushels of apples, pears and other items too hard to come by in Laramie.

Eleanor Brooks and Miss Daisy Cooper might sound like mortal enemies? came an inquiry from one of the adult members of the family. Amanda Jennings, Mike’s sister in‑law found grandpa’s stories of Slim and Jess just as fascinating as the children.

“Oh, no. Nothin’ could be farther from the truth, Amanda,” grandpa explained. “They actually liked each other very much. Until they stepped into the ring, you might say, and faced the judges with their homemade concoctions. Then it was all out war, no holds barred,” grandpa said with a laugh.

So it was that Daisy set about nursing and pampering her cucumbers like a mother hen. Even becoming overly protective to an alarming degree.

“What do you mean, grandpa?” Charles Williams asked, taking a seat next to his wife to listen.

Grandpa Mike gave the growing group a heavy sigh. “Well now, if you’ll just stop askin’ and listen you’ll find out. Oh, and is everybody here now, so’s I don’t have to repeat everything I say?” he asked. In response, everyone nodded and grandpa continued.

*****

Bird’s Away

It was closing in on the date for the Festival and excitement ruled. Plans were being made for each member to have a full share and a good time. Soon, summer would be over and the dark clouds of winter would loom heavy and menacing over the Laramie mountains. Even though all looked forward to the festival, they also knew that winter preparations had to be made first. With so much work to do, for a time the boys forget all about festivals and pickles and such, until…

“Jess, look,” Slim shouted as they entered the yard one afternoon. On and off during the day, they’d been hearing gunshots off in the distance. Alarmed at first, their fears were soon eased when a passing neighbor explained that he’d seen Daisy reloading the double-barreled shot gun as he rode past that morning. The three had a good laugh. It wasn’t unusual for Daisy to blow away a few birds for having the nerve to take a nibble from her garden.

As good as the boy’s invention was at keeping her cucumbers off the ground, it was terrible when it came to avoiding the birds, black birds in particular. As a matter of fact, they all got the distinct impression that the birds kind of looked at Daisy’s garden as their own personal table, set up and kept clean just for them, the flapping cloth nothing more than an invitation to feast.

As they worked, they couldn’t help but to recall with peals of laughter the time they decided to teach Daisy how to use a gun. They got the idea after Jess had spotted an advertisement in one of Daisy’s discarded women’s magazines of a woman wearing a small unobtrusive gun belt beneath her dress which held an equally dainty looking derringer close to her shapely form. The ad had read, ‘for protection and peace of mind’. However, they soon learned that not to allow Daisy to use a pistol was more suited to their protection and peace of mind. Her first lesson confirmed Slim’s suspicions. Daisy was a terrible shot. But if that wasn’t bad enough, she actually enjoyed firing the gun.

“I don’t get it,” Jess whispered to Slim after her first lesson. “How is it she missed every single can? It’s as easy as hittin’ the side of the barn, for Pete’s sake,” Jess had growled.

Slim’s response was immediate and forceful. “Hush, will you? Don’t give her any ideas.”

“Aw, Slim,” Jess groaned.

“No, I mean it. If we come home to find holes in that barn, Mister. you’re the one who’s gonna fix ‘um.”

Behind him Mike heard his son‑in‑law laugh. “Oh come on, dad, she wasn’t really that bad, was she?”

“No. Worse,” grandpa Mike told him. “That afternoon, I came home from school and watched my brothers’ give Daisy a lesson. Remember me tellin’ you about how my brothers’ invented the outside shower?”

“I do,” Allan piped up“No one had ever seen such a thing before, huh grandpa?”

“That’s right.”

“How’d it work?” Mary asked, having never heard of an outdoor shower before.

“Well, they built this really small house like enclosure with a single door. As a matter of fact, they made two of ‘um, side by side, so’s two people could take a shower at the same time. Then Slim got a hold of two big barrels — where he got ‘em I have no idea. Anyway, after smearin’ the insides all over with tar so they wouldn’t leak, they punch a bunch of holes in the bottom of each. Then Jess made something like a door that covered the holes. Slim affixed a rope to it and they secured each above the open top of each enclosure and fixed it so’s all you had to do was to pull the rope and the little door coverin’ the holes would slide away and you could take yourself a right nice shower. The only downfall was that you had to climb a ladder to refill the barrel every so often. And that wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It was a two-man job, with one handing several full buckets of water up to the one standing on the ladder till both barrels were filled.”

“Sounds complicated,” Mary added.

“Yeah, I guess in a way it was. But it worked. I tell you, wasn’t nothin’ in the world felt better on a hot summer’s day then to strip off, step into that contraption and pull that rope.” Just the memory alone made grandpa smile.             

“Grandpa, build us one, huh. Please grandpa, please,” erupted from the youngest members of his audience. 

“No. Now stop. You wanna hear this story or don’t you? And we don’t need no outdoor shower; we got us one in the house,” grandpa said, sternly.

Again silence reigned and we sat and listened. All except young Ben, who figured his grandpa needed help. “You’d come home from school…” he prompted, nodding his head toward the old man with a raised eyebrow.

Grandpa smiled. “Thank you, Ben. Yep, I’d just come home and wanted to watch as Slim and Jess gave Aunt Daisy her shooting lesson. But I was told I had to watch from inside the house…” 

“Inside?” Ben inquired giving his grandpa a real puzzled look.

“’Cause Slim and Jess figured that was the safest place for me to, fear that if I was outside, I stood a better chance of gettin’ hit than the cans!”

Everyone laughed at that.

“They’d already given up on trying to teach her how to use a .45. Now she was using Jess’ rifle. I recall Jess remindin’ her to prepare for the kick, and had just put it up to her shoulder (he got up to demonstrate with his cane), got it secured just right and, blame, she fired.”

We all laughed as grandpa’s face turned red and he busted up.

“To this day, I can still see the look on Slim’s face. She’d been aimin’ real good at the cans Jess had set up on the top of the corral fence. At least they thought she did. But the shot went wide, reeeaaal wide. The gun kicked her good and she staggered backswords into Slim. Slim instructed her on how to load another shot and she tried again. This time, not only did the shot go wide, but it veered to the right. At first we didn’t know what she’d hit until I noticed a funny sound comin’ from the side of the house near the kitchen door. From inside, I ran around to the kitchen and peeked out the back door. Aunt Daisy had shot a hole clean through both shower barrels,” he laughed, “Needless to say we didn’t have a shower for a few weeks. Slim had found the right size barrel in a catalog we had layin’ round. But because it was a special size, it had to be ordered from the store in Cheyenne and we had to wait for it.”

After the laugher died down. “How’d she do after that?” Mary asked still giggling.

“There was no after that. Slim and Jess decided it was better to let her go ahead and use the shotgun. So, one afternoon after checking fence, they rode in to find…” 

Daisy sitting in a chair near the garden wearing her summer bonnet with the shotgun resting in her lap. Her special project was just beginning to sprout and had attracted the unwanted attention of many of the flying locals. As they dismounted, Slim started to walk up to her, but Jess caught a glint in her eye that he didn’t like and reached out to pull his partner back, advising caution.

“Careful, pard. She don’t look too happy,” Jess said, doing his best to sound as serious as possible.

Slim just smiled and shook Jess loose.

Daisy heard and turned to look at the two as they approached. “Oh, I’m quite happy, Jess. But those crows won’t be if they keep trying to eat my cucumbers,” she spat, lifted the barrel and pulling both triggers. The shotgun blasted into the air, sending buckshot over a good portion of the yard. One crow wasn’t as lucky as the others. Its headless body tumbled down to land with a slight thud near the garden. Another victim of cucumber Daisy.

“Wait a minute, grandpa. I thought you said Slim’s invention scared the crows away?” Allan asked, a little confused.

“I said it took care of the black birds. I didn’t say nothin’ about no crows. Somethin’ about crows none of us thought about. They’re as smart as a whip and brave too. Slim’s idea worked for the black birds, but it did just the opposite it for the crows. I kinda figured they felt Slim had set those polls up just for them. Kept their neighbors away so’s they could eat their fill whenever they wanted.” Grandpa Mike laughed and stretched his back. “Yes sir, many a Wyoming crow met their end at the hands of cucumber Daisy that year.”

Both men stared down at the unfortunate creature and scowled. A moment later, the fierce hunter stood, smiled and ushered the two into the house for the evening meal. But before moving to follow, Jess reached down to remove the dead bird, only to have Daisy stop him.

“No, Jess. Leave it there for a time. Give the others something to think about,” she advised.

On their way inside, Slim spied their trash barrel with several black feathers sticking out of its top and he shuttered. Daisy had been busy, it seemed. With their appetites slightly jarred, they entered the house seriously hoping Daisy had fixed something without feathers for supper.

They always had a good time at supper — bantering between Slim and Jess, Daisy telling how her day was going, Mike’s sharing his school days’ experiences. And of course laughter over Mose and sometimes his passengers rounded out the meal.

“After, Slim and Jess did their best to help me with my homework. It was arithmetic. Always hated figurin’. Slim had a lot of schooling under his belt, but Jess didn’t. He’d only got through the fifth grade.” Grandpa Mike paused for a moment, realizing how that must have sounded to the youngsters and amended his statement. “But that didn’t mean Jess wasn’t smart. Oh no, ‘cause he was. For me, fractions were the worst. If I’d get stuck, it wasn’t unusual for Jess to reach over, pull what was left of Aunt Daisy’s cake or pie over to us and use it as a teaching aid. Cutting into it to show what half, three quarters and a fourth would look like. It was a stroke of genius, Daisy declared, encouraging Jess — that is, until both Jess and Slim devoured a good percentage of the lesson,” he laughed.

We all joined in the laugher. That was one of the things we loved about grandpa’s stories; we almost always ended up laughing at something or other.

Finally, with the meal over and the dishes washed and put away, Slim and Jess took their coffee outside to finish off the day sitting out on the porch as was their habit. Just before they’d left the house, Jess had spied Daisy taking down her cookbook and looking at the pickle recipe section. His eyebrows came together, and that one that always seemed to be pointing north stood at attention; he swallowed hard recalling her many previous attempts and failures.

Later, out of earshot, Jess whispered, “You really don’t think she’s gonna go through with this, do you?”

Slim careened his neck around to try and see through the window curtain. “I sure hope not,” he whispered back. “Don’t think my stomach can take much more of those acid cucumbers,” he said, shaking his head. “But, if that garden is any indication. I’d say we’re in for another summer of sour stomachs and trips to the outhouse.” Slim cringed, remembering the summer before last when Daisy tried her skills at pickling. Then it had been watermelon. Both remembered the night they’d forced down one piece too many and spent the majority of the early morning hours racing each other to the facilities out back — at one point, entering at the same time and thanking the good Lord above, they’d put in a two holer. Both took care of business while doing their level best not to look at one another in the process.

*****

The Horror Begins

A week later, if they’d had any doubt about Daisy entering that pickling contest, they didn’t after stepping into the house one afternoon. The whole place smelled of pickling spices. Daisy had virtually every table and flat surface covered with clean white cloth. Large pickling jars stood in waiting on the kitchen table, counter and in front of the cupboard. On the stove, echoing the promise of sour stomachs to come, stood two large pots bubbling away. The very thought of what lay ahead made the two ranchers shudder. But for the sake of peace and their Daisy’s good temper, they’d give in. They’d do their best to put on a happy face. No matter how many times their stomachs turned.

Though to be fair, Daisy wasn’t the only one in the Sherman household with the competitive spirit and they knew it. Put Slim and Jess in the right setting and look out! They loved competing against one another as well as against those they knew well. Last year, Slim, Jess and Mort Corey stood up against one another at the shooting range. While Slim came in a close second, Jess had taken first place and had walked away with six hundred dollars. Unfortunately, he’d lost most of it to the house when he engaged in a bit too much celebrating and got a little too tipsy for his own good. He would have likely lost it all had Slim not convinced him to give it up. He came home with less than half his winnings and woke the next morning with a headache as big as all outdoors.

This, though, was different. This wasn’t just a matter of satisfying egos and stuffing pockets. This was far more important. Stomachs were involved. And for some reason that still remained a mystery, Daisy just couldn’t get the recipe right. But instead of throwing in the towel and admitting defeat, she kept trying. Last year had been her worst attempt ever. Finally, admitting defeat, she vowed never to try again. Much to her family’s relief.

Slim had reminded her of her last defeat and of the promise she’d made herself. And to her credit, a little while later she’d all but given up the idea. As a matter of fact, she’d decided to go into town with the boys and ask if Mrs. Brooks, the leading queen of pickling, would like her cucumbers, as she had way too many. Slim was sure he had her convinced and was fairly confident of her stance once they pulled into Laramie.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

As it turned out, that trip confirmed their worst fears. Slim and Jess stood outside the Sheriff’s office and watched as Daisy went into the local mercantile directly across the street. The two turned absolutely pale when a short time later they saw her leave with an armload of spices, jars and a jug of apple cider vinegar.

“Not to fear,” she said, later. “I have the recipe just right this time,” she announced.

“Ah huh, that’s what you said last year,” Jess mumbled under his breath, eliciting a sharp jab from Slim’s elbow.

Once they arrived home and after Mike and Daisy were in the house, the boys discussed their options while unloading the buckboard. Neither man wanted to hurt the old woman’s feelings. But the idea of consuming her pickles over the next few months was a horror neither wanted to face. Her pickles tasted as if they’d been sitting in lamp fluid and smelled…well, the smell couldn’t be explained. Though for some reason neither man could fathom, Daisy didn’t seem to notice.

“Why don’t we look on the bright side,” Slim suggested. “Maybe she does have the recipe right this time.”

But the Texan was doubtful. “Ah huh, you wanna take that chance?” he asked as he swung a sack of flour over his shoulder.

Slim said nothing, just shook his head, as he followed his partner inside, his arms filled with the fruits of a big Laramie shopping trip.

Jess had started to take the last arm load into the house when he suddenly stopped, almost causing Slim to collide with him. “You know,” he said, thoughtfully, “there just might be a bright side to this after all…”

“How’s that?” Slim interrupted, struggling to maintain his grip on the packages nearly knocked from his grasp.

“This time you get the hole that pinches,” Jess said, and hurried in through the open door before Slim could think of a retort.

That night after they turned in, Jess rolled over and addressed his defeated partner. “I thought you said she’d given up the idea?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Well, what happened to change her mind? Mister, I’ll talk her out of it,” Jess sneered. He could already taste the sickening flavor of Daisy’s eighth attempt.

“How was I to know Mrs. Brooks was in there?” Slim all but snapped forcing himself to keep his voice down.

Eleanor Brooks had just started her own shopping when Daisy stepped into Miller’s store. At first the two were very cordial, complementing each, until Daisy offered to give Mrs. Brooks her cucumbers. Then all went to hell in a basket, Mrs. Miller later told Slim and Jess. Brooks refused the kind offer, telling Daisy that she wouldn’t think of using her cucumbers for her pickles. It wasn’t so much what was said, Mrs. Miller told Slim, but how it was said that set Daisy off. The damage was done. Daisy’s face turned red with fury and she ordered the spices and a large jug of vinegar.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” Jess growled.

For a moment not a word was uttered from the next bed.

“Slim?”

“Oh, shut up. Go to sleep,” Slim growled and turning on his side, his back to his partner and said nothing more.

“I figured as much,” was Jess’ last whispered comment before doing the same.

*****

Eleanor Pays A Visit

Next morning, both tried to go about winter preparations as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But thoughts of kerosene pickles, sour stomachs and frequent trips to the outhouse had put a damper on their desire to attend the festival that year.

Even so, they did make a good show of it for Daisy and Mike’s sake. And speaking of Mike, he had his own agenda when it came to contests. Last year, he came within a hair of beating the local apple bobber when after so many dunks his left ear starting hurting and he had to admit defeat. Mr. Miller felt so bad he gave Mike a nickel as a consolation prize. It was a nice gesture and the family appreciated it. But Mike had his eyes set on the real prize this year — the Miller’s new fangled apple peeler was up for grabs and Mike wanted that thing bad. He’d watched with bated breath as Mrs. Miller demonstrated the new invention. That night, dreams of not having to sit and peel apples played out in his head, chasing away any bad dreams or nightmares he might have had.

Two weeks away from the festival Slim and Jess had yet to practice for the shoot. Every waking hour, it seemed, was spent with winter preparations and planning on how to avoid Daisy’s pickles. That little dilemma still hung over their heads like a dark cloud.

Out in the north pasture, the two were hard at work repairing the fence a neighbor’s cattle had destroyed when they’d spooked during the last thunderstorm. They ran like the devil right through their southern most fence, destroying a good portion of it — knocking the carefully placed fence posts down like they were mere toothpicks and raising the tempers of both ranchers.

“Dadgummed Dickerson cattle. Doubt they’d even make good steaks,” Jess grumbled into the soft breeze while driving a nail into yet another fence post. He’d missed and had hit the same thumb twice already. Now, bloodied and throbbing, it mirrored his mood. About a hundred yards away, Slim was in very much the same position. Though he didn’t know it yet, he was soon to find himself surrounded by the enemy. An enemy that had never lost a battle.

The stampeding cattle had pushed their way in and around two large oaks, one of which was of considerable age and had died a long time ago, leaving a large opening in its side which made it a perfect home for honey bees. The overly large hive had already been disturbed early that morning by the stampeding cattle, and now it seemed this walking mountain with the sun on his head had come around to finish them off. The constant loud noise of the giant hitting the wood had put every nerve on edge, leaving the bees in a nasty mood.

For his part, Slim had heard the gentle hum as he approached, but paid little attention to it. He had it in mind to take a good portion of honey home once the job was done. It wasn’t unusual for either him or Jess to come upon a hive filled with honey. The whole family delighted in the sweet treat and the boys were very gentle in their approach, not wanting to destroy the hive. As a result, most times they came away with no more than one or two stings, if that.

It was close to noon and Slim had built up a good sweat. For some reason, unlike his partner, Slim’s britches always seemed to bag in the seat. And moving back and forth between the two trees as he worked, he’d somehow managed to rip a good sized hole in both his pants and long johns, effectively exposing a good portion of his right butt cheek. Nothing to write home about or be concerned with — except today, that little opening and the white skin beneath would prove to be his undoing. It being the perfect target for outraged honey bees. Slim was about to have a rather painful reminder of how protective a swarm of angry bees could be.

Every once in a while, Slim would glance over at his partner. The sound of hammering echoed loudly against the boulders just a few hundred feet away. He smiled when he heard his pard cuss a particularly stubborn nail. Slim was still smiling as he left the fence to remove another broken post. But as he hefted the last post, he inadvertently bumped up against the old tree trunk, as he had done several times before. Thinking nothing of it, he continued with his task and laughed aloud when he heard Jess yell out after hitting the same thumb for the third time.

The two had a running bet. Whoever finished first would have the privilege of having the first and last piece of Daisy’s pie. They’d seen her put Mike to work the night before peeling apples, so they knew what to expect. They could already taste that sweet heavenly apple pie.

“Only one more to go, Jess. You’d better hurry up,” Slim yelled as he carefully put the post in place. For the bees, it was one thing to see humans around their home, even to thrust a hand in once in awhile. They’d put up with it for the sake of peace, you understand. But when two hundred plus pounds of human standing almost as tall as the tree they were in decides to knock them around, well, there’s a limit.

The leader, a slightly rounded fellow, gave the signal. Slim, still smiling having just bent down to retrieve the hammer he’d inadvertently dropped, effectively exposed his snow white skin through the hole in his britches. Well, it was a target not to be missed.

At the other end of the fence line, Jess stood glaring at the offending tool, his thumb in his mouth as he cursed to himself. So intent was his concentration that he neither heard his pard swear nor did he notice Slim’s locomotive approach till the tall blond was right on top of him. Slim, arms flailing and screaming like a banshee, barreled into Jess’ left shoulder almost knocking him over as he ran past, not even slowing down. Jess glared at his partner as the big guy plunged head first into the lake.

“What the heck?” Jess started, then turned to stare wide eyed at the object of Slim’s distress. A growing pulsating black cloud was following his partner.

Jess didn’t have time to think. By the time he realized what was happening, it was too late and he matched his partner’s yell, then joined him head first in the lake. The mighty splash together with the yelling disorientated the swarm, and after a few laps around, the bees finally disbursed and returned to their hive, confident that they’d taught those disrespectful humans a lesson they’d not soon forget.

Laughing, grandpa said, “Jess told me later that he could have sworn he saw ‘em smile.”

Only after they’d made sure the bees had returned to the hive did either man dare to venture out. If it had been a full-blown summer’s day, the cool lake would have felt wonderful. But it wasn’t. The wind that had picked up as they worked now carried with it a chill. Nothing actually cold, you understand, but being tired and soaked through the cooler air got to them and they found themselves shivering as they made their way to shore.

And that would have been that, had it not been for the fact that the bees had also disturbed the horses, and horse sense being as it is, they took off back to the ranch as fast as their legs would carry them. As a result, our two dripping cowboys stood throwing out a line of expletives that would have made the most experienced saloon girl blush before reluctantly trudging their way home. Their boots filled with water made squashing sounds as they walked. The water forced over the top a constant reminder of what had happened. Water ran from their clothing, their angry red faces glistened in the sunlight as water dripped from hair hanging over their foreheads and trickled down their backs, adding to their misery and heightening their disgruntled mood. As a result, they growled and grumbled to each other. On the way, Jess had to stop ever so often to regroup as it were. He’d hurt his right shoulder a few weeks earlier, and being Jess, had not followed the doctor’s orders. He’d taken on too much, and as a result, had re-injured it. Slim had tried to tell him that Jeb would come over and lend a hand, but Jess stubbornly said no while unloading the buckboard, insisting that he was fine and could do the job. Now Slim glared at him. He was paying for his stubbornness, Slim knew. And rightly so, he felt, though he said nothing. For Jess to take a swing at him with that bad shoulder would only make things worse. Besides they were almost home.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Daisy had just finished her first jar of pickles and was in the middle of transferring cucumbers to another when someone knocked. She’d started to call for Mike, then realizing he was outside, she quickly made her way through the living room to the front door, wiping her hands on her apron as she went.

Peeking through the window, she could hardly believe her eyes. Standing right there on her front porch was none other than Eleanor Brooks, her main rival. In her right hand, she held a bag. A bit stymied, Daisy opened the door and stammered a greeting before inviting the woman in. “Why Eleanor, what brings you out this way?” Daisy asked, closing the door quietly behind her.

“Oh, nothing in particular, Daisy dear, just out for a little joy ride and decided I’d pay a visit. I do hope I haven’t caught you in the middle of something,” Eleanor said as she made her way past Daisy and into the kitchen as if she’d been doing it all her life. Her eyes immediately fell to the half dozen empty jars lined up neatly on the kitchen table.

“Why Daisy Cooper, you’re putting up pickles,” Eleanor said, clasping her gloved hands together in mock delight. As if she didn’t know. The smell alone was proof of that. The whole house smelled of vinegar and allspice. Just that morning, Slim had made the comment that he hadn’t seen many wild creatures near the ranch house as they usual did of an early morning. Jess had laughingly said it was because the smell of vinegar had chased them off. Slim, who’d given his partner an annoyed glare, effectively put an end to any further comments on the subject.

Behind Eleanor, Daisy slipped in quietly to stand next the stove.

“May I try one?” Eleanor asked. Without waiting for an answer, she picked up a fork and thrust it in an open jar removing a nice large pickle.

With her back to the sink, Daisy watched nervously. If ever there was a good judge of pickles, it was Eleanor. Daisy watched her expression, her eyes in particular. But Eleanor was a professional and gave away nothing. She’d served as judge of the pie and cake contest a few years back and so knew how to hold a poker face.

Saying nothing, Eleanor munched away, until finally after clearing her throat turned to Daisy, with a smile.

Daisy could hold back no longer. “Well, what do you think?”

“They’re…they’re nice, dear. Yes, very, very nice.” In truth the poor old woman wanted to gag. Whatever Daisy did to those poor cucumbers should have been a crime, she thought, but said nothing, her poker face in full view.

“Well, they’re just for the family,” Daisy said, meekly. She had no desire to spar with the reigning pickle champ in her own kitchen. She’d save the fighting for the judges’ tent two weeks from today. If she decided to enter the contest, that is.

“Very nice indeed,” Eleanor added, her smile growing into a grin. Then as Daisy watched, Eleanor put the sack she been carrying down on the counter and pulled out a jar of her own pickles.

“Why Eleanor, you shouldn’t have really,” Daisy said, doing her best to sound as sincere as possible.

“It’s no bother, really, dear. I know how much Mike enjoys good pickles. Why don’t I leave these for him?” Eleanor said, giving Daisy another fake smile as she turned to leave.

“I can’t compete with yours,” Daisy said, her voice somewhat low, dodging the insult. “Like I say, these are just for the family…not to enter the contest,” Daisy repeated.

“Oh, but you should, dear,” Eleanor said sweetly. “You should.”

Daisy smiled. “No, no, I’ve decided no more contests for me,” Daisy said, shaking both hands in the air for emphasis. “I’ve entered six times and I’ve lost six times in pickles alone,” Daisy said, politely.

“Seven,” Eleanor corrected, politely.

“Seven,” Daisy whispered, fighting back the desire to knock the woman across the room. Then realizing she’d be the one to clean up the mess, decided against it. After all, Eleanor Brooks wasn’t worth the trouble. Daisy simply returned the fake smile with one of her own as she escorted her uninvited guest to the door.

Standing in the open door, Eleanor suddenly paused and turned to Daisy. She had advice to give and she wanted Daisy to know it. “You know, you might try adding just a pinch more allspice,” She turned, starting to leave again, then a thought came to her; she stopped and turned to Daisy once more. “And perhaps you could let the vinegar boil just a few seconds longer. And use fresher cucumbers. Soak them in cold salt water to crisp them up a bit more. But…” She hesitated. “They’re nice, very nice,” she said and finally crossed the threshold to the porch.

Daisy nodded and returned the bogus smile as she watched Mrs. High and Mighty descend the two steps to climb back into her surrey and leave. Daisy was livid. Of all the nerve to ride all the way out here just to criticize and stick her nose in where it didn’t belong. Daisy turned and slammed the door — and cringed as the she heard the glass vibrate; she sighed heavily with relief when she realized the glass was still intact. Then she huffed back into the kitchen. Spying the jar of pickles Eleanor had left, she promptly picked it up, and walking outside, opened the jar and dumped the contents into the trash barrel just outside the back door. She’d use the jar for her own pickles; no sense in wasting it, she smiled wickedly.

As a result, she hadn’t heard Slim and Jess enter the yard. But she did hear the shower. Stepping past the back door and into the yard, she spied both boys, their clothes hanging limply over the shower doors as wet as they were.

“I’ll bring you some towels,” she stammered, puzzled by the sight.

“Thanks, Daisy,” came the chattered replies.

A moment later found Slim and Jess sitting at the table wrapped in warm blankets sipping hot coffee. Slim had taken several stings to his face, neck, hands, and of all places, that end that don’t wear a hat. And Jess’ left thumb was swollen twice its size. Blood swirled around the blackened digit as it soaked in a basin of ice water. The nail he was sure to lose, Daisy knew. In the middle of the table stood a large bottle of calamine lotion which Daisy liberally painted on Slim’s bee stings. In the process, Slim reached up to scratch, only to be reprimanded by his nurse.

“No, now Slim,” Daisy said, pushing his hand away. “Don’t. I’ve gotten the stingers out and this should sooth the pain a bit,” she said as she found two more stings on his neck right under his left ear. “How on earth did you get so many?”

“Yeah, and where’s the honey?” Mike asked, a little perturbed that his brothers would go to all that trouble without bringing back a single drop.

“Mike,” Daisy scolded.

Grandpa had begun to chuckle. “Oh, you should have seen ‘um. There Slim sat, hair hangin’ in his face, a large red blotch on his left cheek where bees had stung him several times and had begun to swell all covered in pink lotion, and Jess with his left hand soaking in a pan of cold water, his thumb turning black, blood swirling around it. Both sat with their feet in pans of hot water to try and ward of the chill and keep from catching their death.” Grandpa laughed aloud. “Lord, they were a sight!”

But instead of laughing, his audience just sat staring at the old man, wondering how on earth he thought such a thing could possibly be funny. But the next words out of grandpa’s mouth brought laughter to them all.

“It was only after Daisy’d finished with Slim’s face and hands that she turned her attention to the south end, only to have Slim give her a firm, ‘NO’. But Daisy had her ways,” grandpa Mike said.

“Now Slim, you know I used to be a nurse during the war. I’ve seen it all, young man,” she reminded.

“Well, you haven’t seen all of me,” Slim growled. “I can do it, Daisy,” he insisted.

“Slim Sherman, you can’t do this yourself. You can’t see the stings and certainly couldn’t get the stingers out, much less put on the lotion. Now stop being so stubborn, stand up and turn around,” she ordered. But Slim didn’t move. Instead he glanced over at Jess. “Jess can do it,” he suggested, eliciting a shocked expression from the other man.

“Me! No sir. I like you, pard. But I ain’t that brave,” Jess said, all the while doing his level best not to laugh. He started to pull his hand from the basin only to have Daisy scold him.

“Jess Harper, you leave that hand right where it is till that water gets warm. Then I’ll refill it with more ice.”

Jess nodded sourly, then looked over at his partner. “Why not use a mirror?” Jess suggested. Then he stopped to fight back laugher when the image of his partner as big as a tree standing in his all together, trying to get the mirror just right so he could paint pink lotion on his red buttocks. It was just too much, and like it or not, Jess busted up.

And that’s all it took for grandpa and his audience. Child and adult alike laughed till tears ran down their cheeks.

“And so,” grandpa continued. “Like or not, right there at the table, Daisy pulled down Slim’s pants far enough to reveal three bad stinks, dug the stingers out with the needle she’d been using, then slathered the pink stuff on ‘em. I swear I don’t ever remember seein’ Slim Sherman’s face as red as it was that day,” grandpa laughed, “almost as red as the butt cheek Daisy was paintin’.”

Again, grandpa’s listeners busted up…me included.        

*****

Mose To The Rescue

At supper, Daisy told the boys of Eleanor’s visit. She was still fuming and made no bones about how she felt. “Made me mad enough to enter that contest anyway, she did,” she spat, while passing a bowl of mashed potatoes around.

Slim’s heart dropped and Jess paled. He had to think fast. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it, Daisy.” “

Don’t let her get to you,” Slim soothed.

“Yeah, after all, didn’t you, say you were gonna enter that jam makin’ contest?”

“Yes. I’ve just put up six new jars of blackberry and gooseberry jam this morning,” Daisy said with a nod, confident of a win.

“Well, see there, you got nothin’ to worry about. ‘Sides, your cannin’ is always number one with us, Daisy,” Jess assured her, at the same time trying to avoid the panic crossing his partner’s face.

“That’s right, Daisy. Mrs. Brooks’ jams can’t hold a candle to yours. As I recall, she hasn’t won a single thing in that category,” Slim reminded her, all the while hoping to ease her mind and chase away any desire to enter her pickles.

“Why thank you, boys.” Daisy got up, gave them both a pat on the head and started to clear the table. “You boys go ahead outside. I’ll bring your coffee directly,” she said, humming as she worked, her good humor re-stored.

*****

In Laramie, like in most small towns, gossip was and still is the number one pastime. It didn’t take long before half the town heard of Mrs. Brooks visit with Daisy. And once Mrs. Miller joined the rest of Laramie’s fine upstanding womenfolk at the local Women’s League, the news spread like wildfire. Of course, none of this was widely known to those on the outskirts of town. But that was no problem. All they had to do was to drop a word or two at the Overland Depot and Mose Shell, along with the other two drivers, would spread the news like embers from a fire. And they say men don’t gossip!

So it wasn’t long before Mose let the boys know he’d heard a rumor that Daisy was going to join the canning contest that year.

“What? Now wait just a minute. Didn’t Daisy tell us at supper last night she wasn’t going to enter?” Slim asked Jess who stood next him his eyes big with disbelief.

“Sure did,” Jess stammered.

“You must have heard wrong, Mose,” Slim said, all the while praying he was right.

“Well, I don’t know. Reckon that could be. You know how women folk like to talk.” Mose chuckled, then nearly paled when he realized he had a woman passenger. Swallowing hard, he went to the stage door, and opening it, he assisted an older woman and gentleman out, all the while hoping his passengers had not overheard that last comment, most especially after Daisy had stepped out of the house to greet the passengers.

Once Daisy made the offer of fresh coffee and cake, she went back into the house followed by the two passengers. It was only then that Mose called Slim and Jess over. Standing on the opposite side of the coach out of sight, he pulled from the box a large jar of all things, pickles.

Slim all but fell over. “Oh Lord, Mose. Not you too,” the tall rancher whined.

“No. Now jest you hold your tongue. It ain’t what you think,” Mose said, and unscrewing the lid, tilted the jar towards Slim. “Go on, try one; you ain’t gonna believe it, Slim,” he encouraged. Jess wrinkled his nose and took a step back. If Mose did the same to him, he was heading for the barn, no questions asked. Ever since the subject of pickles had been raised, his stomach had been doing flip flops. He held his breath and watched as Slim’s long fingers removed a large one and hesitatingly took a nimble. If Jess was waiting for a sour look he got none. Instead, Slim’s face registered surprise, even pleasure.

“Hey,” Slim started, then stopped to swallow. “Now this is a pickle,” he said with a smile, and handed it for Jess to try. But his partner wouldn’t even touch it. Instead, he leaned close, locked his teeth around a small portion of it and bit down. The old man and Slim watched with delight as surprise registered on the other man’s face.

“Who made these?” Jess asked a little too loud, eliciting an equally loud, “shhh” from both men, for fear Daisy might hear.

Mose smiled and turned the jar around so they could read the label. “Mrs. Bells Pickles,” Slim read aloud.

“Well, this here Mrs. Bell could teach our Daisy a thing or two bout picklin’, couldn’t she, pard?” Jess offered, taking the rest of the pickle out of his partner’s hand and finishing it off in two bites.

Slim couldn’t say. He’d reached in and retrieved another and was in the process of filling his mouth with a bit of heaven.

Mose had yet to say a word. Then all three smiled. Each mind working in unison.

“Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?” Slim asked Mose.

“If you mean switchin’ these here pickles with Miss Daisy’s,” Mose turned to look behind him just to make sure, then turned back to Slim, “you betcha.”

Slim thought for a moment, then a forlorn look came over him and he shook his head. “No. No, we couldn’t do a thing like that,” he said, between munches.

“Why not?” Jess asked, his mouth bulging with pickle. “What do we have to lose?” he asked, and was instantly sorry. He remembered all too well what he’d lost and how many times he and his partner had lost it about this same time last year.

“’Cause if she ever found out, it would kill her, Jess. That’s why,” Slim insisted.

“Her or us,” Jess mumbled under his breath. Slim heard but said nothing. Besides, he knew his partner didn’t really mean it. Like himself, Jess loved Daisy.

“She ain’t never gonna know, fellers. See I got it all figered. I kin pick up the pickles over at Johnson’s in Cheyenne. Bring ‘em over to that little old abandoned shack right off Tates Pass and leave ‘em. Then all you got to do is pick ‘em up, bring ‘em back here and switch ‘em,” the old man said with a grin, proud of himself for thinking up such a scheme.

But Slim wasn’t convinced. “Only one thing wrong with your little plan, Mose. What are we gonna do with Daisy’s pickles?”

“We could always post someone out at the pass and hand ‘em out,” Mose suggested.

Slim thought that over.

“Who?” Jess asked.

“Anybody,” the old driver shrugged. “Could even give ‘em to the passengers’,” Mose said.

“We’re supposed to see to the passengers’ safety, Mose, not kill ‘em,” Jess sneered, finishing off his second pickle and reaching for a third.

Slim grinned and fought back the urge to laugh, nodding in agreement.

“Nah, it’d sorta be like a…welcome to Laramie gift,” Mose said.

“More like a get out of the county surprise,” Jess continued.

His partner was on a roll and not ready to stop just yet. But Slim had started to see how this just might work. Finally, after one more pickle, he agreed. Then he stopped and shook his head no again.

“What?” Both Jess and Mose asked.

“How you gonna get these pickles, Mose?” Slim asked.

“I’ll buy ‘em. I gotta stop no more than a few doors down from Johnson’s Mercantile anyways.” Then it dawned on him and Jess too, and a dark cloud replaced their hopeful joy.

Slim nodded, and shoving his hand into his pockets pulled out two dollars. Not nearly enough, he gathered. Jess did the same and came up with a dollar fifty more. Mose searched his own pockets, adding another two to the pot. Then he said he knew for certain that his shotgun, Hank Downs had at least five dollars on him he could borrow. And once they’d pooled their funds, they figured they could purchase at least a dozen jars.

“What if she makes more than a dozen?” Slim asked. “What then?”

“There you go, thinkin’ the worst agin,” Jess growled, shaking his head.

They thought for a moment until a smile split Jess’ face and he offered. “Well, you know how clumsy I am,” he chuckled, his eyebrows dancing.

The driver and rancher looked at him and smiled.

“And so it was settled. Among the three, they figured they had a good plan goin’ and they’d not be subject t’ Daisy’s pickles,” grandpa told his attentive audience.

*****

Johnson’s Mercantile

Two days later found Mose heading for Johnson’s Mercantile in Cheyenne with only one thought in mind — pickles. Though more than sixty miles from the Sherman ranch, he felt uneasy and kept wanting to look around should someone see him enter. It didn’t take long before he realized how foolish that was. Of course he’d be recognized. He’d been on this same run for years. He was as well known in Cheyenne as Laramie and every place in between. So shrugging aside his misgivings, he stepped inside. The store only had a few customers. The woman standing at the counter didn’t look familiar until she turned around and Mose nearly hit the floor. Standing directly in front of him was none other than Daisy’s arch rival, the queen of pickles herself, Mrs. Eleanor Brooks.

Mose’s eyebrows took a leap and he side-stepped, his head turning, desperately searching for something or someone to focus his attention on and pray he’d not be recognized, but it didn’t work.

“Why Mose Shell! What brings you to Johnson’s this fine morning?” she asked cheerfully.

“Ah oh, howdy Mrs. Brooks,” Mose said, tipping his hat. “I…ah, I was just gonna check and see what they got in the way, of ah…” He had to think fast. Mrs. Brooks was no fool; she’d see right through his little scheme and the whole thing would be ruined. “Tubes,” he stammered rather loudly without meaning to, smiled and touching his fingers to his hat and pushed past the puzzled woman.

“Tubes?” Mrs. Johnson mouthed, clearly confused.

Mose waited till Mrs. Brooks was well out of hearing distance before approaching the counter.

“Pickles, ma’am. I need all you got,” he told her.

Mrs. Johnson’s eyebrows came together. “I thought you wanted tubes?”

With his attention split between the storekeeper in front of him and the pickle queen looking at items behind him, Mose wished the floor would just open and swallow him alive. Then he’d not have to deal with this situation. He felt trapped between heaven and hell. He had to be careful, very careful.

“Ah oh, yeah, well, I ah…I changed my mind,” Mose said, looking up at the mirror directly behind Mrs. Johnson. His relief was almost palatable when he heard the little bell ring over the door and saw Mrs. Brooks leave. “Yes, ma’am, I’d like pickles, all you got,” he repeated with a broad smile. Then plunging his hand deep into his pockets, he began pulling out all the money he could find.

Mrs. Johnson just stood and stared at the old stage driver as if she hadn’t heard right. Then reaching behind her, she pulled a large jar off the shelf and sat it on the counter in front of the old man and reached for the tongs to serve him.

Mose looked down at the jar and a wide grin bent his stubbled face. But his next question stopped the pour woman cold. “How many jars you got, Ma’am?”

“Jars? Ah, well,” she started and turned to take count. Then turning back around to face her customer, she announced, “We have eighteen.”

“Oh good. How much are they’s a jar?” Mose asked.

“Ah, seventy cents,” she stammered.

After talking it over with Slim and Jess, Mose figured they’d only need about twelve jars. But he hoped to get more just in case.

“That do just fine, ma’am.” Mose paused for a moment, then announced. “I’ll take ‘em all.”

“All?” she stammered. What on earth would a stage driver want with eighteen jars of pickles? But as her husband always told her, never question a customer. ‘It’s our job to serve not to pry’.

“Er, ah, I mean,” Mose stammered nervously, not realizing how the very sight of Mrs. Brooks had shaken him. He cleared his throat yet again. “I’ll take whatever this here will buy, ma’am,” he said. Taking both hands, he cupped them and shoved the bills and coins toward her.

Not sure what to think, the matronly woman carefully sorted through the bills, counting as she went. “Well, at seventy cents a jar, Mr. Mose, looks like you’ve got enough for exactly fourteen jars,” she told him. “But I’ll throw in an extra jar free to make it an even fifteen.”

“Oh thank you kindly, ma’am,” he stammered still somewhat distracted.

“All right then, Mr. Mose, that will be fifteen jars.”

The old stage driver smiled, clearly relieved and pleased. “Ah, that’ll do just fine, ma’am. Thank you.” Mose watched happily as Mrs. Johnson gathered the jars and carefully placed them in two wooden boxes.

He couldn’t explain why, but Mose felt like a thief expecting any minute to be caught and handed over to the…who he didn’t know? He’d be glad when this was over. There was still that little matter of switchin’ ‘em with Miss Daisy’s. But neither he nor the boys had thought that far ahead. Just how they were gonna remove Daisy’s pickles without her knowing, they didn’t know. But they’d gone this far. They couldn’t turn back now.

Mose, his arms laden with boxes of pickles, made his way back to the coach, and together with Hank Dawson, stood deciding where to place them so that they’d not only be safe, but out of sight as well. One thing for sure, his back was gonna tell him about this come mornin’, he knew. Thankfully, their passenger load was light. On a nice day like this, they usually had a full coach. But today they only had two — a rather portly gentleman, clean shaven and well dressed, and his equally well-dressed dainty looking daughter. Both were heading for Laramie and had stepped out of the depot moments before Mose and Hank had decided where to stash their tangy treasures.

The heavy-set man was eager to explain that he and his daughter had come from back east with a desire to see the west. He had relatives in Laramie and couldn’t wait to see them. He also explained that he and his daughter were unaccustomed to riding in stagecoaches. Mose was shocked. He’d never met anyone who hadn’t ridden a stagecoach at least once. But this man looked to be of some importance and most likely had his own coaches and such. At least, he acted it, though he was very polite. As Mose assisted the young lady into the coach, the man rattled on about his desire to see the real west, as he kept calling it.

“We’ve heard so many stories about Indians, wild animals, gunfighters and such,” the young lady told him, sticking her head out the window, all but knocking off her hat in the process. Her excitement mirrored her father’s.

“Ah, yes ma’am, we got ‘em,” Mose told her.

Then just before he stepped into the coach, the portly man turned serious eyes on Mose and asked in whispered tones. “Sir, we aren’t in any danger, are we?”

“No. No sir. That’s why we got Hank here. He’s a crack shot.” Mose smiled confidently, and with a gesture, indicated that the man should step into the coach.

“Now, if just make yourselves comfy like, we’ll be pulling out directly,” Mose told them and stepped away from the stage. He caught a last glimpse of the man inside, his large hand on the girl’s shoulder, wearing an encouraging smile. But the young lady had a worried look and stuck her head out the window again.

“Ah, excuse me, sir?” She addressed Mose, just before he climbed aboard.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You said your friend is a good shot?”

“Sure is, ma’am; you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about,” Mose assured her.

“You mean,” she swallowed hard, “you’re going to kill them?”

“Have to. See, if you just wing ‘em, it makes ‘em awful mad,” Mose said, and stepped past the window to climb into the box, leaving his passenger with her mouth open.

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Hank told her with a smile. “We ain’t seen Indians in oh, got to be at least a week or so for sure.” He smiled and climbing up took his seat next to Mose.

The crates of pickles were too heavy and too large to fit beneath the box. They had thought about putting them on top with the rest of the luggage, but feared they might break. So they had carefully placed them inside, under the seats, tucking them as far back as possible. The portly gentleman sat just behind Mose while his daughter, a trim very nicely dressed well-arranged woman with a dazzling smile, took command of the seat directly opposite. Her brilliant red hair tightly coiffed sat in a bun atop her head with an equally nice if not dainty looking off white hat decorated with some kind of blue bird feathers sticking out one side of it. Mose slapped leather and the team jerked into motion; the coach, pickles and all, rattled out of Cheyenne.

As the coach bounced and swayed along the dusty Laramie road, every so often the clanking of glass against glass could be heard. It was obvious that something was not too well tied down. If the sound bothered the two passengers, they didn’t say…and the coach rolled on. Mose and Hank exchanged concerned glances, but said and did nothing.

At the ranch, Slim and Jess worked side by side in preparation for a hard winter to come, all the while discussing how to solve the problem of the pickle switch. Jess was enthusiastic, but Slim worried. He’d titter between relieved excitement and abject terror, fearing what might happen should Daisy find out. This was turning into a real cat and mouse game for sure. How to gather all Daisy’s pickles, haul them to the shack without breaking any, switch ‘em and hall ‘em back, all under Daisy’s watchful eye? Each time one would think of something that might work, the other would throw a snag in it and they’d start all over again. Bottom line: they were getting nowhere fast.

Though Daisy had yet to catch on, she did notice that something wasn’t quite right. It seemed every time she looked out, she saw the two men hunched together, talking in what looked to be whispered tones. Then every once in a while, they’d look back toward the house and stop, only to resume again a moment later. She shrugged and continued working on her pickle brine. Finally, when she felt it was right, she went to the garden, examined her crop and carefully began to harvest the last of her cucumbers, smarting each time she thought about Eleanor’s unannounced visit.

“Well, we’d better think of somethin’ before Mose gets back,” Jess told his partner as he mucked the last stall.

“I know, I know, Jess. But I can’t think of a single thing. She guards those danged pickles like a dog guardin’ a bone,” Slim said, shaking his head.

As it turned out, it was Daisy herself who supplied the answer. Once finished, the two went inside for the noon meal, and much to their dismay, in the middle of the table displayed prominently stood a plate filled with a sampling of Daisy’s pickles.

The boys approached the table with caution, pulling out their chairs like they were going to the gallows. Jess swallowed hard, and reaching for a piece of fresh baked cornbread, tried to ignore the pickles all together, as did Slim. It didn’t work, of course, and pretty soon their plates each sported a nice shinny pickle.

Daisy sat across the table wearing a triumphant smile, waiting for her efforts to be recognized and enjoyed.

They’d only just decided that, like it or not, they had no choice and lifted one to their mouth to start to dig in when young Mike spoke up. He wrinkled his nose, and looking around, asked point blank.

“Aunt Daisy, have you been making Jonesy’s liniment again?” Mike asked, sniffing the air.

Puzzled, Daisy shook her head. “No, dear. Why do you ask?”

“Cause somethin sure smells awful,” Mike told her as he picked up the source of the smell and drew it close to his nose. “It’s the…” he started with surprise.

“Good pickles, huh Mike,” Slim interrupted quickly with a smile, his cheeks bulging with pickle doing his best to fight the urge to run to the back door and relieve himself of the foul thing. Still, his eyes flashed a warning as did his partner’s. Mike understood, and after giving a reluctant smile, took a carefully planned bite. In imitation of his older brothers, Mike gave his Aunt Daisy a smile, and lying through his teeth, told her how good they were.

After lunch, the two men and boy headed outside to resume the chores. Once away from the house, Slim squatted down and placing large hands on Mike’s shoulders explained. “Tiger, you know we don’t hold to lying. But at the same time, we don’t want to hurt Daisy’s feelings. You understand?” Slim asked.

The little boy nodded his understanding. And the subject was dropped. For the time being anyway.

A few miles away, the stage continued to rattle its way to Laramie. Although Mose had intended to keep an eye out for the little shack where the pickles were to be stashed, he was like every other driver and loved to show off. He liked demonstrating his skill to anyone interested enough to ask and brave enough to watch. Here sitting at rapt attention was two greenhorns just waiting to learn the ways of the west. And what better way to do that than on a stagecoach. Mose was in his element.

As a result, the old stage coach driver became a little too enthusiastic and the four-up responded eagerly. Along the Laramie road, a sharp turn a few miles ahead meant that the driver would need to slow his team to make the curve safely. But Mose, in his attempt to show off, forgot and took the bend a little too fast. And yep, you guessed it. The coach began to sway back and forth alarmingly, coming dangerously close to tipping over. Fighting will all his might a moment later, he thought he had gained control, but he’d miscalculated and the stage tilted back the other direction, almost unseating Hank who had white-knuckled the steel railing next to him. The coach left deep groves in the soft Wyoming soil. Shaken by his own foolish actions, Mose slowed the team until he was finally able to carefully bring the coach to a stop.

His first order of business was his passengers, then he’d check out the coach. He quickly climbed down to offer his apologies. A stage driver foolish enough to wreck a coach was in for more than disciplinary reproof. This could cost him his job out right. Mose was nervous as he turned the handle and opened the door, fearful of what he might find. Thoughts of the little shack, pickles and anything else that might have entered his aging brain went right out the proverbial window.

Inside, the two looked like they’d spent the night in the poky. The young lady, her beautiful well coifed hair now hung askew, framing her now pale face, hat to one side and breathing hard. She looked up at Mose through the open door.

Her father, like herself, shaken but without injury, straightened his suit and gave a Mose a most unwelcome glare. “Mr. Mose, is this how all stagecoaches are driven?” he asked, doing his best to untangle his feet from the packages that had been pushed into the middle of the cab.

Moses’ eyes immediately fell to the two large wooden crates. Shoved out of their hiding place, they now stood dead center in the stage and he paled. “Ah, well, yes sir. See, we gotta make time, for, ah, for the others so’s they can get to where…” He swallowed hard and left the rest of his sentence hanging as the distinctive odor of pickle juice rose from the floorboards and filled the air. Looking down, his eyes grew big as a large puddle began to grow under the ladies dainty boots.

“Ah, I hope I didn’t hurt you none,” Mose offered. “Hank, we need to move this here cargo back to where it belongs,” Mose snapped.

Lifting her head, the young lady wrinkled her nose and asked. “What is that smell?”

“What? Oh, that,” Mose said. Thinking hard, he added. “Skunks, ma’am. We got a lot a’ skunks round here”

“Doesn’t smell like skunk to me. More like, well, I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but…”

“Oh, it’s skunk, believe me. Now if you folks don’t mind, we’ll get goin’ soon as me and Hank tie down these here boxes agin. Hank boy, come on,” Mose shouted.

“Excuse me, folks,” Hank said, and taking the lady’s hand carefully, assisted the young lady out of the coach to stand next to her father. The near-accident was forgotten in light of the beauty surrounding them. Still the Eastern-born man was now more than just a little interested in what a Wyoming skunk looked like, most especially since it smelt like of all things, pickles! He would have pursued the subject, but both he and his daughter were too busy admiring the beautiful countryside as the men worked to secure the crates once more.

From inside the coach, Hank handed Mose the broken pickle jars through the window on the opposite side from where the passengers stood waiting. Mose tossed the broken jars into the bushes and continued to help Hank. Finally, with the crates back where they belonged, they assisted their passengers aboard once again. Mose breathed a sigh of relief as he climbed back into the box. The old stage driver wasn’t sure which he was happiest for — the fact that he’d been able to stop the coach before it tipped over or the fact that the young lady, for whatever reason, was completely unaware that her expensive white leather boots had almost come in dangerous in contact with a ‘Wyoming skunk.’ Once more, Mose slapped leather and the coach rattled on.

However, Mose in his enthusiasm and honest desire to give his passengers the best ride of their lives — most especially since this father and daughter were looking for the thrills of the west — soon forgot about his delicate cargo and near disaster, and again pressed his team to the max. Thrilled to see the Sherman ranch in view, he at least had enough sense to slow the team before starting down the slight slop that spilled out into the relay station’s yard. Good thing too, since parking the coach in Daisy’s living room would have most assuredly cost him his job, not to mention seriously damaging his friendship with the Sherman lot.

The clatter of the coach drew Slim’s attention, and soon he was yelling for his partner. Inside the barn, Jess responded, throwing his rake down, happy for a break from mucking the stalls and hurried out.

By the time Jess reached the coach, Slim was already assisting a very pretty young lady down. Her dainty white boots had barely touched the ground when a rather portly gentleman exited right after her with a look that told everyone to stay clear of the lady. Jess scowled and went to fetch the new team while Slim escorted the young lady and gentleman upon the porch. Then he returned to lead the exhausted four to the corral where they’d soon be pampered and allowed a good meal and rest. He’d just made it back to the coach to help his partner in hitching when he became aware of a very strong all too familiar odor.

“Mose?” He started.

The old stage driver waited till his passengers accepted Daisy invite and disappeared into the house before explaining.

“Broke a couple of jars on the way in,” Mose drawled, pulling out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“Wait, wait a minute, Mose. Did you forget? You were suppose to leave ‘em in that old shack a ways back,” Jess reminded.

“Dadburnit! You’re right. I plum forgot,” Mose moaned, shaking his head as Jess reached in and pulled a box from under the seat.

“Yeah, and I know why,” Slim growled.

Mose just gave the tall rancher a hard look.

Jess shook his head. “Anytime, there’s a pretty gal aboard you come unhinged.”

“Aw, c’mon now, fellers, don’t go frettin’. Alls I gotta do is take ‘em back on my next run. Ain’t no reason to get your dander up,” the old man whined.

“Oh no. Take a look, Mose,” Jess snapped, and pointing past the driver, drew the old man’s attention to a very official looking buggy standing just to one side of the main corral.

The mere thought of sinking is teeth into one of Daisy’s pies had dulled Mose’s senses, causing everything else to fade into the background. Now, the color drained from his weathered face as he recognized the superintendent’s rig. Its large silver clad plate with ‘Overland’ carved ornately into it glistened in the noon day sun, and the old man swallowed hard. “Fletcher?” he asked, timidly.

“That’s right, Mose. Mr. Fletcher has had Slim corralled most of the mornin’, goin’ over the books. He’s timin’ the coaches too. So you ain’t gonna have time to get shuck of these here pickles,” Jess told him.

Mose sighed, and shaking his head, gave Jess a rather sour look. “Reckon that puts us in a real pick…” He let the rest of the sentence hang and closed his eyes hard, regretting the phrase.

Jess, forced back his anger, his mouth sat in a straight lined and simply nodded.

“Well, what are we gonna do with these here pickles, if we can’t unload ‘em back yonder?” asked Mose.

“Better yet, how are we going to do anything with Fletcher here?” Slim whispered, forcing his own anger back.

The three men stood silently looking down at the ground, trying to decide what to do, when suddenly Jess snapped his fingers and looked up at the two smiled wide. Then he point to his partner. “Slim, you go back in there and keep Daisy, them passengers and most especially Fletcher busy,” he chirped.

“What are you gonna do?”

“Just do it, will you?” Jess snapped.

“How?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one with all the schoolin’. Think a’ somethin’. C’mon Mose.” And turning to the old driver, Jess whispered something to him Slim couldn’t hear.

Confused, and without a clue as to what his partner was up to, Slim shrugged and went back inside, all the while trying to figure out what he was going to do to keep everyone inside while his partner put his plan — whatever it was — into action.

Since Jess had given him no time limit, Slim was desperate to do make some excuse to keep everyone indoors. Fletcher at first didn’t seem to be a problem, as most of his attention rested on perusing the books. And it seemed neither did Daisy and the passengers, as they were enjoying her pie and coffee. When the gentleman seemed bored, Slim discovered that all he had to do was to mention how he and Jess had bagged the buck whose head hung above the coat rack near the door. Slim had to think quick as that thing had been put there by Slim’s grandfather before Slim was even a flash in the pan. In truth, he had no idea of where it came from or who bagged it. Lately, he thought, sadly, it had been one lie after another. Both he and Jess were gonna have some tall explaining to do with Mike after all this.

But the situation had taught the tall handsome rancher something he didn’t know — under pressure and in an emergency, he wasn’t a bad story teller. And an emergency this was! He was glad for the subject, because it gave him an excuse to go near the front window to steal a glance outside. No one noticed his change in complexion or how large his eyes grew when he looked out to found the coach missing!

Following Jess’ instructions, Mose had climbed back aboard and pulled the coach over near the barn. Then from there the two had quickly removed the cartons of pickles and hid them under a mound of discarded gunny sacks at the very back in one of the unused stalls.

Next, the two set to work cleaning the coach, ridding it of that horrible smell. They use Daisy’s special lemon cleaner, the one she used when cleaning the house. Mose spied the jar, and although it crossed his mind to ask Jess when and how he got it outta of the house, he decided to leave well enough alone and just scrub.

Slim, about to go hoarse and running out of story, nearly fainted dead away when Fletcher closed the ledger and stood up. Worse yet, he was heading for the door!

“Ah, Mr. Fletcher, was everything all right, ah, with the books, I mean?” Slim stammered nervously.

Isaiah Fletcher, a big heavy-set man with a full head of graying hair and a beard to match, looked more like Santa Claus then a representative of Overland. Now, he turned and smiled. “What’s the matter with you, Slim? You got ants in your pants or somethin’?” he chuckled. “The books are fine. With Daisy keeping ‘em, I don’t know why I even bother to look.”

“Oh, that’s good. Well, where are you going? Daisy just put on a fresh pot of coffee,” Slim asked, desperate to buy time and keep Fletcher inside, away from the now missing coach.

Fletcher laughed, his considerable stomach jiggled in response. “Just gonna have a look at the…” He stopped mid-sentence, and looking back at Slim, asked, “Where’s the stage?”

Then before Slim could think of a reply, Fletcher was out the door and standing on the porch. Swallowing hard and drawing his hand over his mouth nervously, Slim took a deep breath, gathered his courage and stepped outside. Standing beside Fletcher, he followed the man’s gaze. And there standing next to the barn stood the coach with Jess and Mose standing beside it beaming.

Fletcher walked to the coach with a question. “What are you two doing?”

“Oh ah,” Mose stammered then went silent, not knowing how to explain and looked at Jess to bail him out as the whole idea had been his in the first place.

“Well, Mr. Fletcher, in summer while the passengers are enjoyin’ Daisy’s pie and coffee we, ah, we move the stage over here and clean it up a bit,” Jess said, his smile growing. “Makes for a nicer ride,” Jess added, giving Slim a wink.

Slim said nothing, just watched open mouthed as Fletcher approached the coach and peered inside. Jess and Mose held their breath. A second later, Fletcher pulled his head out of the coach. “Um, smells like fresh lemons,” he said, approvingly clapping Jess and Mose on the back. “Well sir, this I’ve got to report. You’re the only relay station that takes the time to clean the coach. Very impressive,” he said, and looking once more inside nodded again, “impressive indeed. Well done, boys,” he said, and left the three men watching his back as he returned to the house.

Once out of sight, the three men, their legs nearly buckling, gave out loud relieved sighs.

Later, after the coach had left smelling fresh and clean with happy passengers, full of Daisy’s pie and coffee, Jess explained where he’d hidden the pickles. That was all well and good, Slim told him, but now they were back to square one. How to switch the pickles?

*****

The Switch

That afternoon found Slim in the barn looking down at eight pickle jars waiting for Jess to bring the last four. So far they’d tried sending the pickles with Mose, who ended up breaking two jars plus cracking one.

Getting Daisy to leave the house that day had been a real challenge. He and Jess had put their heads together but neither man could think of a single legitimate reason why their housekeeper-slash-surrogate mother should leave. Every idea they came up with had cracks in it as big as the ones Mose put in that last jar. Amazingly enough, it was Mrs. Brooks herself who handed them the answer on a silver platter, so to speak.

Slim had run into the pickle queen while in town the day before as he finished filling Daisy’s grocery list and was laughing about how much coffee the Sherman household consumed. It was while he was talking and joking around with Mr. Miller that Mrs. Brooks brought up the subject of baking. She’d overheard Mrs. Miller mention something about baking with coffee, and being the perfect eavesdropper, she just couldn’t keep her nose out of their conversation. When she mentioned that she had the perfect coffee cake recipe, Slim’s ears perked up. Daisy loves to bake and he knew she’d been wanting to get a closer look at the Brooks kitchen. The Brooks were a very well known family in Laramie. Eleanor Brooks always bragged about her home, most especially her kitchen. And knowing how much Daisy loved to share recipes, Slim decided to use their housekeeper’s love of cooking and her desire to see the Brooks kitchen to persuade her to pay Eleanor a visit.

So that night, with the idea firmly in mind, Slim brought the subject up, doing everything he could not to look at his partner in the process. He knew Jess would have found the idea ridiculous at best. “I bet she’d love to know how you make those fried round cakes, Daisy,” he told her.

Daisy had a flare for inventing new and interesting ways of turning the most ordinary foods into something special. Her latest idea was a big hit around the ranch, and whenever the boys thought of breakfast, Daisy’s fried cakes came to mind. Knowing how tempting the subject of seeing the Brooks home was, Slim waited anxiously for her reply.

“Well, I’m not sure about that.”

Then Jess spoke and made her mind up for her. “Coffee and cakes, huh. Sounds good to me,” Jess said.

“Yes. Yes it does, doesn’t it,” Daisy muttered softly, more to herself than anyone else, clearly thinking.

“Yeah. And didn’t you say Mrs. Brooks paid you a visit without bein’ invited,” Jess added, catching on to his partner’s plan and finally seeing the wisdom in what Slim was trying to do.

They could almost see the wheels turning. And so as Slim hoped, the next morning Daisy prepared to pay Eleanor a visit, but found she couldn’t get away till after the noon stage had come and gone. That’s when Slim and Jess, along with Mike’s assistance, put operation pickle switch to work.

At the sound of the door opening, Slim jumped, his heart took a leap as he turned to find Jess entering the barn, his arms full of the last of the pickles with Mike trailing behind.

“Well, here’s the last of ‘em,” Jess said. “Close the door, will you, Tiger?”

Slim nodded as he took the pickles from his partner. Jess was wearing a sour look. “What’s the matter?”

“I…” Jess shook his head and closing his mouth tight drew in a deep breath, “I don’t know, pard. Just don’t like this.”

Slim agreed and nodded his understanding. “I know what you mean. I don’t like foolin’ Daisy either,” Slim agreed.

“It ain’t just foolin’ her that’s eatin’ at me,” Jess said, looking around at the store-bought jars of pickles partially covered with burlap. “Just makes me feel kinda dirty, you know?”

Slim smiled, remembering the kind of background his partner had and how much he’d changed. If people only knew and could see him now. “I know. But I don’t see any other way,” he said looking around. “Where’s the bowl?”

“Oh, I forgot. I’ll…”

“Seems you’ve been forgetting a lot lately,” Slim noted.

“I reckon. You know, Slim, maybe we should just go on and leave it be,” Jess suggested.

A little taken back, Slim gazed in disbelief at his friend. “You don’t mean to tell me you actually want to eat those kerosene cucumbers?”

“No. No, ‘course not. Just don’t wanna be hurtin’ Daisy’s feelin’s, that all,” he grumbled.

Slim couldn’t blame him there. It was one thing to fool Daisy, but quite another to have to consume something he could hardly get past his nose. Then added driving the point home, he said, “You sure don’t want a repeat of last year, do you? I lost count of the number of trips you made out back. Not to mention how many times I saw you hanging onto the door emptying your stomach in the dirt,” he told his partner.

“Well, what about you? I seem to recollect the two of us makin’ a run for the outhouse. And as I recall, pard, you didn’t make it. And it was me had to go runnin’ back to fetch you a clean pair of under…” Jess reminded wrinkling his nose at the ugly memory.

“Okay, okay,” Slim interrupted, his eyes closed and his cheeks flushed at the memory of that horrible night. “Okay. So do you really want to go through that again?” Slim asked, knowing full well the answer.

The shorter man shivered. “No.”

But Slim wasn’t about to drop it now. “And what about Mike. You remember?”

“All right, all right.” Jess didn’t need more convincing. “I get it. I’ll go get the bowl. You start unscrewin’ them jars, and peelin’ off them labels,” Jess growled and left the barn. He returned a moment later bowl in hand, giving it to Slim. “Sure hope Daisy’s gone long enough for us to get this done,” Jess said to no one in particular as he started to dump pickles into the bowl.

“She should be. It’s a good two hour trip there and back, not to mention the time they’ll spend talking. Should take care of at least five hours, if not more.”

“Or fightin’,” Jess said, causing both men to laugh at the thought. “Okay, that gives us plenty of time. Might as well get started. Slim, open that side door, will you? This dang pickle juice is makin’ my eyes water.” then looking around. he asked “Say, where’s Mike?”

“Told him to clean up his room, then go out to the edge of the road and keep watch. He’s to let us know if he sees Daisy coming,” Slim said as he forced another lid off.

“You sure usin’ Mike’s a good idea?” Jess asked, knowing how bad their young ward was at keeping a secret. They’d already stretched the truth to the breaking point. It wouldn’t take much to unravel the whole thing.

“I know that,” Slim shot back. “But we gotta have a lookout. ‘Sides, I gave him fair warning. Didn’t take much. I just reminded him of how sick he got last year, and that did the trick. Don’t think we have to worry about him spillin’ the beans this go around,” Slim said confidently, smiling as he continued unscrewing jars while Jess did the same with Daisy’s pickles. That done Slim started to fill Daisy’s jars with the store-bought pickles only to have his partner stop him, a large pitcher of water in one hand.

“What’s that for?” Slim asked.

“We gotta clean these here jars out don’t we. Or do you want Daisy wonderin’ why her pickles have a funny after taste?”

Slim had to admit that was smart thinking. And taking the pitcher from his partner, he began to wash out Daisy’s pickle jars.

A few minutes into the switch,  Mike appeared at the door, carrying two glasses of Daisy’s lemonade.

“Mike, what are you doing away from your room?” Slim shook his head as if to clear it. “And post?” Slim asked, electing a chuckle from his partner his hand plunged deep into one of the store-bought pickle jars.

“Thought maybe you and Jess might want somethin’ to drink,” Mike said, sitting the glasses down within reach.

“Thanks, Mike,” they said in unison.

“I’m sorry, Tiger. Guess I’m just a little spooked about all this.” Then feeling a little guilty, Slim wanted to impress upon Mike why they were going to such lengths to trick Daisy. “Mike, now you do remember why we’re doing this, don’t you?” Slim asked.

“Sure,” the young man said. “You don’t want to eat Aunt Daisy’s pickles and you don’t want me getting sick again,” he answered. Then he turned and hurried back to his post to watch the road, per Slim’s instructions.

It took close to two hours to make the switch. That done, they breathed a sigh of relief. Their next task — how to rid the barn of the smell of pickle juice should Daisy decide to pay a visit or milk Essie, like she did the other morning, and question the smell? Then what to do with all those pickles?

“We could throw ‘em out,” Jess suggested.

Slim shook his head. “Naw, too chancy.”

“We could feed ‘um to the hogs.” Jess suggested again, sure he’d come up with the best solution, but his partner shot that one down as well.

“What’d those hogs ever do to you?” Slim smiled.

“Well, we gotta do somethin’ with ‘em.” Jess stopped when a fly landed on one of the stalls right smack dab on the board where Jess had just wiped off Daisy’s pickle juice. When it did move for a moment, Jess took a closer look then looking up at Slim, wide eyed he announced.

“It’s dead!”

Slim rolled his eyes. “Here I’m trying to solve a problem and you’re making jokes,” he mumbled.

“Well, Daisy’ll have more than a passel of questions if she comes in here and finds these here pickles,” Jess pointed out. Then looking over at the jars, he shook his head and started to laugh.

“What?”

“Never in all my born days did I think I’d be standin’ in the middle of a barn takin’ pickles from one jar and puttin’ ‘em in another. See what you turned me into?” Jess’ laugh grew louder.

Then it was Slim’s turn to chuckle. “Yep, and never in my born days did I ever expect to see Jess Harper make it to the facilities out back faster than he could draw his gun,” Slim dropped the chuckle and laughed out loud at the other man’s expression.

“It was either that or be forced to swallow another dose of Daisy’s elixir,” Jess shivered.

Picking up the last of the jars, Slim turned serious again, his brow furrowed. What to do with all those pickles? And just as important, how to keep Daisy from finding out what they’d done. The question hung in the air as heavy as the smell.

“Hey, what about them bores in the north pasture we been tryin’ to get rid of?” Jess asked, glancing over at his partner.

“What about ‘em?”

“All’s we gotta do is take these here pickles out to ‘em,”  Jess chuckled, “Bet we’d never seen another bore as long as we live,” he laughed. “It’d save us money too,” he told the blonde rancher.

“How do you figure that?”

“Simply. We wouldn’t have to shot ‘em. We’d save on bullets.”

But Slim was in no mood. The longer they tried to find a place to stash Daisy’s pickles, the more worried Slim became and the funnier things seemed to Jess. “Stop,” Slim glared at his partner, “will you just stop and help me figure out what to do?” Slim snapped. He was tired, covered with pickle juice and worried sick that Daisy might walk in and catch them red handed any minute.

They were still trying to figure out how to rid the barn of the smell, when the last stage rolled in. Mose jumped down from the box and announced he had a full coach, effectively putting operation pickle switch on hold.

“Ah swell,” Jess scowled, “and us smellin’ like pickles.”

“Why don’t you get the new team while I see to the passengers,” Slim suggested, tossing down the rag he’d been using to rid himself of as much juice as possible and headed for the door.

Mose had been right. The coach was packed — three men and two women. As he helped each woman down from the stage, Slim wondered how in the world Mose had been able to stuff so many people into one coach. And better yet, why in the world they’d put up with it. Had it been him, he’d have waited for another stage. Then, with the last of the passengers unloaded, Slim directed them inside.

“There’s hot coffee and fresh biscuits, butter and jam waiting for you inside, if you like. You’re welcome to wash up and relax before the coach pulls out in about fifteen minutes folks,” Slim told them with a smile.

One lady about Daisy’s age stopped just short of going inside, and tilting her head back, sniffed the air. Then wrinkling her nose looked at Slim. “Smells like pickles,” she said.

“Oh, oh well, we get a lot of skunks around here this time of year, ma’am. Probably one passing through,” Slim said and immediately regretted it. The older woman looked directly at him and huffed.

“Skunks? Young man, I’m old enough to know the difference between the smell of skunk and pickles. If there’s a skunk around here, then it’s been eating pickles,” she said and turning followed the last of the passengers into the house with a huff.

Slim had no idea Jess had been close enough to hear what he’d told the old woman until he turned around to find his partner only a few feet from his back.

“Skunks! Really, Slim? Couldn’t you think of somethin’ better n’ that?” Jess said, handing him the reins and shaking his head he started to unhitch the old team.

Slim said nothing, just went to work. Mose stepped off the porch after having his coffee and went over to where Slim was checking the lines. “You boys take care of your little problem?” he asked nodding his head toward the barn.

“Yeah, Mose, we did. Got us another one though. One none of us thought of,” Slim told the old man as he patted the strong neck of the lead horse directly in front of him. The horse had been resting and now was rearing to go, moving his feet nervously.

“Easy fella, you’ll get your run soon enough,” Slim, said with a smile.

“What problem?” Mose asked as Jess came around to join the two.

“What to do with all of Daisy’s pickles?”

Mose smiled. The old man’s expression told them he’d been thinking.

“Well, don’t just stand there. If you know a way we can get rid of ‘em, say somethin’,” Slim demanded.

“Lookie here, you got yourselves twelve jars of Miss Daisy’s pickles to get shuck of…”

“We know how many we got,” Jess interrupted impatiently.

Then while Slim gave out an exasperated sigh, Mose told them his idea. “I could take them pickles and…”

“Bury ‘em,” Jess suggested his eyes twinkling with mischief, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

But Slim was in no mood and let his partner know it in gruff tones. “Jess, will you shut up! Go on, Mose.”

“No, you can’t do that. ‘Member last year, you two fellers decided to dig yourselves a hole out back and stuff half a jar in it? Ain’t never seen a dog so sick in my life as poor old Buttons. Come staggerin’ round the barn lookin’ like he done swallowed a gallon of…”

“Mose!” Slim all but shouted. Time was against them. Daisy was due back any minute and that smart-mouth passenger could step out of the house any second.

“Why don’t I go in and tell the passengers we’re gonna be another ten minutes or so? In the meantime, you two kin load up them pickles, and after I drop these folks off in Laramie,  I kin hand out the jars as gifts on my way back to Cheyenne.” The old stage driver smiled a half toothless grin, pleased he’d come up with what he thought was a perfect plan. Problem solved.

But neither Jess nor Slim were convinced.

“It’s perfect. The way I see’s it.” Mose continued to explain how he could give the jars out as prizes for ridding all the way from Cheyenne to Pixly. “Be a sorta welcome to Pixly present,” he said smiling widely.

“Daisy’s pickles?” They both said.

“More like welcome to Boot Hill,” Jess mumbled under his breath as the passengers began to leave the house.

Slim turned on his partner sharply and growled. “What is it with you today? You swallow joke book or something?”

Jess said nothing, just gave Slim a slight grin and turned his attention back to Mose and the passengers.

“Ah, folks, we have a little problem. There’ll be a short delay. No longer than about ten minutes, tops,” Slim told them, prompting them to turn around and go back inside.

“Well, come on. Let’s start packin’ ‘em up. Looks like you got pickles to haul, Mose,” Slim said, looking over at his grinning partner.

Once the last of the boxes were loaded with pieces of cloth stuff between the jars to prevent them from rattling and breaking — they hoped — Jess went inside and announced that the stage was ready to pull out. A few minutes later with the last of the passengers aboard. Mose waved goodbye, and he and the pickles were off. Problem solved.

Slim had to admit he felt right proud of Mose for thinking up such a wonderful idea and for himself and his partner for putting the plan into operation. Now, at least they’d be able to chow down on something that would set easy on the stomach and wouldn’t send him and his partner running to the outhouse at all hours. Smiling, Slim went back to work.

He was still smiling when he looked around and found his partner missing. Next thing Slim knew, he smelled smoke and recognized it as coming from the barn. Alarmed, he started to yell for Jess. Then he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Jess coming out of the barn, a bunch of brambles in one hand burning brightly, waving them in the air, smoke following him and swirling around his head. Puzzled he hurried over.

“What on earth are you doing?” Slim asked, stepping back out of the man’s way.

“I recollect my Ma had to rid the house of the smell of Pa’s moonshine on afternoon. This was how she did it. Seems smoke will cover up almost anything. Even Daisy’s pickles,” Jess said, and kept waving the smoking brambles in the air.

Slim smiled. He had to admit Jess had come up with the perfect solution to rid the barn of pickle smell. Clapping a hand on his partner’s shoulder, the two men smiled at their success and continued with winter preparations.

As it turned out, Daisy didn’t get back from Laramie till close to supper. When she pulled in, she was flustered and mad as a hornet. Jess met her along with Mike and took control of the team while Slim hurried round from the back of the barn and over to assist her down.

Once her feet touched the ground, Daisy started straightening her dress, and turning, she scowled at the road she’d just left as if it had something to do with her bad mood.

“What’s the matter, Daisy?” Slim asked.

Sitting in the living room that afternoon, grandpa Mike laughed aloud, and shaking his head, explained.

“We didn’t see Aunt Daisy mad often.” He paused and looked around at his audience. “But little ‘uns, this was one for the books. I recollect standing beside Jess while Slim tried to calm her down. Her hair was fallin’ in her face, and she was breathin’ hard, like she’d just run dead out from Laramie instead of ridin’. She stood beside the buckboard, brushing the dirt from her skirt and grumbling about Mrs. Brooks. Somethin’ about her kitchen, kittens and cakes, I think. She just ignored Slim’s question and went right past us and started getting supper ready.” 

“What made her so mad?” I asked.

“Don’t rightly know, Polly. See, Aunt Daisy and Mrs. Brooks never did see eye to eye on much. Although they were friendly most of the time, put the two of ‘em together in the same house, especially Mrs. Brooks’ house, and look out. Well,” he started to laugh, “don’t know exactly what happened. But I’d sure loved to have been a fly on wall that day,” he chuckled.

“Huh? Why would you want to be a fly, grandpa?” Ben asked, totally confused.

I reached down, and tapping him on the shoulder, shushed him and promised to explain later. That satisfied him for a time and we continued to listen and enjoy every minute as grandpa continued.

*****

Another Switch

Most of that evening was spent listening to Daisy recount her visit with Mrs. Brooks. All through the story, Jess wanted to laugh. So did Slim. But he knew better and hoped his partner did too. The last thing they needed was for Daisy to find out what they’d been doing half the afternoon — that she’d been tricked and the pickles that were so delicious were actually store bought.

Earlier that week, Slim had told Daisy that he and Jess had to go into town to pick up more wire and a few other things to make last minute repairs in preparation for winter. Right away, Daisy started working on a list of things she’d failed to get when she had stopped at Miller’s. Slim took the list and he and Jess climbed aboard the buckboard and headed out.

As Slim drove, Jess reached over and snagged Daisy’s list from his partner’s pocket and began to read. “Good Lord,” he exclaimed looking over at Slim. “Did you see this?”

Slim smiled and nodded that he had. “And we thought she got everything the last trip.”

“The woman’s a shoppin’ fool,” Jess said, stuffing the list back in Slim’s vest pocket.

The ride was a pleasant one. It was just one of those days that made you just want to stay outside. You know the kind — not too hot, not too cold. Though the leaves had changed and most trees were going bald, still, as Jess always said, ‘no land prettier than Sherman land’. Slim had to agree with that.

“Sure smart of your Pa to settle in this spot, Slim. Ain’t no place better,” Jess said with a smile.

That statement warmed Slim’s heart. Every since he’d made Jess his partner, he’d been doing everything he could to get the man to realize that this was his home and that he, Mike and Daisy were family. Slim had lost track of how many times he’d told Jess that he was like another brother to him, Jess never disagreed and even referred to Slim as such. But Slim always felt uneasy. Deep down inside, he worried that Jess would get the itchy foot and head out to the wide open someday.

Slim smiled and clucked the horses on. “I agree,” Slim said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“All except winter,” Jess added and they laughed. Jess always hated being cold. He was strictly a warm weather guy.

The rest of the ride was spent talking about the last of the repairs to be made before winter stopped them dead in their tracks. Slim had ridden fence a few days ago and spotted at least one cow that looked as if she were about to drop. It was late in the season, but like Josiah Davis always said, ‘better late than never’. They’d check on her on their way back.

As they turned onto main street, they could tell something was about to happen. Everywhere, stores were preparing for the upcoming festivities. Slim slowed the buckboard to a crawl and handed over the reins to Jess. He’d see to Daisy’s list while Jess took the buckboard over to the Livery and Tool and picked up the heavy supplies.

Slim had just walked into Miller’s when he came face to face with none other than Mrs. Eleanor Brooks herself. Eleanor, it seemed, had run out of supplies at the last minute and so was in the process of waiting for Mrs. Miller to fill her order when Slim walked in.

“Mrs. Brooks,” Slim said, tipping his hat.

“Why Mr. Sherman, how good to see you again. I trust your family is well?”

Slim smiled and told her everyone was fine. Standing there waiting to be acknowledged, he recalled the first time someone referred to his family a few years back. At first he’d been taken back by the expression, knowing that only two of the Sherman’s lived on the ranch and the rest were mismatched strays as some had referred to them. That statement had ended with Slim punching a fellow citizen square in the jaw for showing disrespect to Jess and Mike. But, as the years past, everyone had accepted those living on the ranch as members of the same family. They didn’t bother to say anything about Daisy, thinking she was just a housekeeper. What they didn’t know was that Daisy fit right in and had become a valued family member herself.

Mrs. Miller stuck her head out from behind the curtain separating the main store from the attached warehouse and announced. “It might be a little longer than expected. Gus has to move some boxes out of the way. I do hope you folks don’t mind waiting?” she explained.

Everyone in the store told her they’d wait and watched as she disappeared once more behind the curtain. It was then that Mrs. Brooks turned to Slim and smiling sweetly asked, “Mr. Sherman, have you seen my ribbon collection?”

Slim had no sooner started to open his mouth when the elderly woman took the large album she held under one arm, and laying it atop several jars of pears and spiced apples, opened it and began to turn the pages, recounting each blue ribbon win.

It was official. He was trapped with nowhere to run. All he could do was to listen, smile and nod as she explained each and every ribbon she’d carefully affixed to each page, one after another. When finally she came to the last, she closed the book, and with a look of profound sadness, held it tight against her chest as if it were gold.

“I know I’m just being a silly old woman. But, whenever I get down and missing my Henry, I pull out my ribbons and look at them.” She sighed and ran her hand along the closed album as if stroking a cat. “I don’t know, it…it gives me comfort somehow to know that there is at least something I can still do in this life that pleases people. You know what I mean, Slim?”

Slim looked at her and he smiled. “Yes. Yes, ma’am, I do.”

Standing there in the store that day, Slim began to feel a tinge of guilt. He’d just been given insight into this woman’s past. The whole ordeal changed the way he felt about pickles all together so that by the time Jess joined him, Slim had made up his mind.

“You get everything, pard?” Jess asked.

No answer.

“Slim? Slim, did you fill Daisy’s list’?”

Again, no answer.

“Slim? Slim, pard, you okay?”

“Wha…what?”

“Boy that must have been some daydream. I’ve been talkin’ to that thick head of yours for some time now. Somethin’ wrong, pard?” Jess asked, sounding concerned.

“Oh yeah, I got everything, Jess. And you’re right…there is something wrong.” Slim told him, his brow furrowed looking back at Miller’s store, sounding as worried as he felt.

Jess noticed Mrs. Brooks as she left the store and crossed the street but he thought nothing of it. But the look on his pard’s face was unmistakable; something had happened. “What’s the matter?” Jess asked again.

“Jess, you know when we were talkin’ about how those contest don’t really meaning much?”

The dark-haired man nodded. “Yeah, I remember. Why?”

Slim straightened his back and taking a deep breath. “Well, they do. To some folks ,they mean a whole lot. We were wrong, Jess. Just plain wrong,” Slim told him, his eyes fixed on the woman who’d just left. “Jess,” he said, pointing to Mrs. Brooks as she stepped upon the boardwalk across the street, “that woman just lives for that contest. To have her lose to a store bought pickle…” Slim paused, and shaking his head, added, “I just couldn’t live with myself.” Then looking down into the confused face of his partner, he added, “And before you say it, neither could you.”

Jess nodded his understanding. “Okay, I agree. But what are we to do about it?”

Slim shook his head slowly. All of a sudden, Jess had a sinking feeling come over him and he eyed his partner with the utmost suspicion. “Slim…Slim Sherman, you ain’t thinkin’ what I think you’re thinkin’, are you?” As Jess asked the question his stomach took a turn.

“Yup,” Slim nodded then. “Think we can get Daisy’s pickles back?”

Jess shook his head. “Mose says them kerosene cucumbers are spread all over between here and Pixly. Ain’t no chance of gettin’ back.”

Slim tsked and nodded. “I was afraid of that. Only one thing to do then,” he said.

Jess wasn’t sure he was going to like this. “What?”

“We’re gonna have to get Daisy to put up more pickles…her own this time.”

Jess swallowed hard. This was worse than he thought. “And just how are we gonna do that?”

“Only one way, Pard. We gotta eat up all those store-bought pickles…”

Jess eyebrows took a leap. “Now wait a minute. Why can’t we just give ’em away like we done with the others?” Jess asked.

“’Cause Daisy’s got to see us enjoying them so much she’ll want to make more, don’t you see?”

Jess was crestfallen and slumped against the side of the buckboard shaking his head. “I gotta tell you, pard. My heart ain’t in this.”

“Well, Jess,” Slim said, clamping a hand down on his partner’s shoulder, “t isn’t your heart we need. It’s your stomach.”

A thought suddenly occurred to him and he felt even worse, his eyes growing big. “Slim, dad gum, Mose bought fifteen jars…”

Slim simply nodded then added with all sincerity. “Aren’t we glad he broke three?”

That night, they put operation pickle switch in reverse. Between Jess, Slim, Mike and Mose, they had to consume a dozen jars of pickles in less than two weeks. It wasn’t going to be easy. But it had to be done.

That night supper consisted of fried chicken, potatoes, peas and, of course, pickles. Both Slim and Jess took two apiece, and handed Mike the biggest one they could find. They’d told him of their plan just before they went inside.

It wasn’t an easy task, though. No matter how much you like something, too much of anything, even something you love, isn’t good. But they went through with it anyway. They had to consume all the pickles in time for Daisy to make a new batch and enter the contest. And they had to do it so Daisy would see.

Around the living room, Mike heard his kin chuckle. “You mean you ate all twelve jars of pickles?” Ben asked.

Grandpa Mike, smiled and nodded. “Yep. But you gotta remember, I had help.”

Next morning Daisy had the boys’ lunches ready as they were going to ride fence and would be gone most of the day. And as always, she made sure they had enough to eat. Before they left, Slim reminded Daisy to include several of her pickles. She did and watched as they mounted and left the yard…a smile on her face, happy and content, that her efforts were being recognized and enjoyed.

Eight days later, tired out and sore, Slim and Jess dragged themselves to the table for the evening meal, which of course included pickles. Everyone had been cooperating and Daisy’s pickles were disappearing rapidly.

As they sat about to enjoy their meal, Daisy told them with more than just a little surprise. “Do you know, I went to get some pickles for your lunch this morning and we have only one jar left,” she smiled.

“Yeah, we know,” Jess said sourly. As far as he was concerned, if he never saw another pickle it would be too soon.

“I know you’ve been eating a lot lately. But, now I’ve got to get busy. Don’t know where I’m going to get more cucumbers. I’ve used all of ours,” she said, shaking her head.

Jess stole a glance at Slim.

“Well, Jess, has to go into town tomorrow, Daisy. You could go along and pick some up from the Miller’s,” he suggested.

“Yes. Yes, that’s a good idea. I’ll just do that,” she said, and rising from her place, she mumbled something about needing more pickling spice and needing to check the vinegar jug.

*****

The New Batch

Slim smiled as he heard the buckboard enter the yard and hurried out to help Jess unload. Rob at the Tool Store had just received their order for several pieces of new equipment, and it virtually filled the wagon. While Jess and Daisy were gone, Slim took the time to clean out the last stall in the barn. It would be the perfect place to stash the new equipment until it was needed. It took a good deal of time for the two to unload and put everything away just so. Slim might not be the best at packing, but he sure knew how to arrange things so that he could find them later. Now the boys could work on their own axles, even make new wheels if push came to shove. It was a good feeling knowing that they didn’t have to run into Laramie for every little thing at the drop of a hat. Or have passengers waiting like they had to do last year when Mose came in with a split wheel. That time, the passengers waited for several hours for he and Jess to go to Laramie, pick up the wheel and have it graded before they returned to put it on.

It was close to supper and while Slim had been corralled into helping Daisy inside with several small projects, Jess finished up in the barn. While he worked, he talked things over with Traveler and Alamo. Something he did more often than not.

“You boys have it made, I tell you. All’s you gotta do is eat and sleep. Carry Slim and me around when we need it, then go back and do it all over again. We, on the other hand, we have to…” His playful reverie was interrupted by the sharp twang of metal against metal; supper was ready. Funny, he used to look forward to supper. But lately, whenever he thought of eating, the first thing that came to mind was pickles.

Winter was closing in fast. The days were getting shorter and shorter. By the time supper was ready, it was already almost dark. Jess sighed. Soon he’d be forced into his thick long johns and winter coat, doing everything he could to ward off another cold, icy Wyoming winter. “Why the heck I didn’t go east when I had the chance, I don’t know,” he mumbled to himself. Then he had to admit that the ranch of Slim Sherman and his was worth a little chill here and there.

Daisy had worked all day on her new batch, filling the house once more with the scent of vinegar and allspice. Supper as usual was good and talk around the table was all about the upcoming festival. Mike was excited about the apple bobbing contest. He’d practiced endlessly holding his breath as he plunged his head into the horse trough out near the barn. Even though Daisy had scolded him and reminded him of the ear aches he’d suffered last year, it didn’t work. Their young ward was determined to win that apple peeler if it was the last thing he did that summer. To this end, Mike had an idea that would keep his ears safe. It would insure that he won that apple bobbing contest hands down.

The last time Dr. Andrews had been out at the house was over three months ago after Slim had sprained his ankle when he’d fallen off the barn roof he and Jess were repairing. The injury wasn’t bad, just enough to keep him off his feet for a week or so and to cause Jess to grumble for at least that. Before he left, Mike had mentioned to him about the upcoming contest and how he wanted to win the apple bobbing contest real bad. But he told the family doc that every time he got his head wet, his ears would ache, especially the left one. Dr. Andrews thought for a moment, went out to his carriage and came back in a few minutes later carrying a small case. Then, while all watched, he removed an old stethoscope he often carried, and cut one of the rubber tubes into two pieces and handed them to Mike.

“Here you go, Mike. Now if Aunt Daisy doesn’t mind burning each end shut, you can put one in each ear. That should keep ‘em nice and dry for you,” the doctor said, giving the youngster a big smile.

Mike appreciated the doc’s invention, but he had a worried look. “What’s wrong, Mike?” Seth asked.

“Well, what if Mr. Miller says I can’t put ‘em in my ears?”

Seth looked at the young boy and smiled. He had treated everyone at the ranch many times and knew the little boy well. “You just tell Mr. Miller that this is doctor’s orders,” he said.

That did it. Mike took the two pieces and handed them to Daisy with a wide grin and a profound thank you for the doc.

“Did it work, grandpa?” Jacob asked.

“Sure did. Looked kinda funny with those little black tubes stickin’ outta my ears. But it kept ‘um dry as a bone. I could keep my head under water for as long as I could hold my breath,” grandpa told his audience.

At least twice a week, both Slim and Jess set up targets several yards away from the house and practiced in anticipation of the shooting competition. Both were virtually tied. And Daisy was feeling confident herself, certain she’d hit upon just the right recipe. The boys tried not to think about what that would mean and kept busy with winter preparations.

Four days before the festival, Slim was corralled into fixing Mike’s closet door while Jess worked on shoeing the last of the horses. It was the end of a bright summer’s day. The boys had worked hard on Daisy’s list, which had kept them close to home.

“How that woman can find things to do is amazing,” Slim muttered to himself as he dug into the small burlap bag for another nail, stabbing himself with several in the process. Repairs around the house had put the tall rancher in a bad mood. He’d planned on a fishing trip before the festival. Even bragged to Jess and Mike how he was going to catch a mess for supper the night before they left. So far, he hadn’t even gotten past the front door, much less the other side of the Laramie road. Daisy seemed to find more and more to keep him inside and away from his beloved lake. “Just teeming with bass,” he’d told Jess just that morning.

Outside, Jess had his own problems. Slim had come in the other day with a limping Alamo. The horse had thrown all but one shoe. Add to that the fact that two other horses needed at least two each. That had kept him outside working under the shade of the barn’s overhang since breakfast. Hot and miserable with his face bent over the hot metal, beating it into shape, his back hurting from being in one position too long. Jess was in no mood for more trouble or bad tempers, his own being on the short end. So it was he sighed and grumbled under his breath when he caught sight of Harland Starks pulling into the yard.

Harland Starks owned a ranch neighboring the Sherman’s, some eight miles to the south. Starks had had it in for Jess from day one. As far as he was concerned, a leopard can’t change its spots, he’d told Slim. ‘Once a gun slick, always a gun slick. Just another no-account drifter livin’ by the gun’, he complained to Slim after he found out Jess was his partner. For years after, Slim had done everything he could to ease the man’s mind about Jess, but nothing had worked. Things had finally come to a head one afternoon when several of Starks’ cattle had broken down a fence that divided the two ranches and had crossed over onto Sherman land. Jess had been riding fence and came across the downed fence. It hadn’t taken long to find the strays. The S/H brand cattle and Starks were having themselves a good old time, munching away on the sweet green grass on the Sherman side. So being a good neighbor, Jess cut out the sixteen steers and herded them back across the fence line onto Harland’s land where they belonged, before making repairs to the fence. But, when Harland found out, he was furious and rode out to the ranch to have a faceoff with Slim’s ‘hired gunman’ as he called Jess.

Early that evening, Jess came home slumped over the saddle. Slim was by his side in an instant. The man virtually slid from the saddle. He was having a hard time getting his breath and could hardly move. Alarmed, Slim sent word with Mose to have the doc come out. Daisy examined the cowboy. Jess had multiple scraps and several ugly bruises to his left side. It was obvious he had broken at least two ribs. His legs were badly bruised and he was sporting what looked like a bad scrap near his left temple.

When Jess was finally able, he explained that while herding Starks’ cattle back over the property line, someone had spooked the remaining herd and Jess had been caught in the middle. Before he lost consciousness, he’d seen Harland standing upon a small rise looking on. The man made no attempt to help the Texan, and when Jess came to, it had taken all his strength just to pull himself into the saddle and head home. “But,” he said, clinching his teeth against the pain, “I got the cattle back where they belonged. Didn’t get to the fence, though,” he groaned.

Slim could care less about the fence. His partner could have been killed. The very fact that Starks hadn’t come to his aid infuriated the Laramie rancher. When Mose came in on the late afternoon stage, Slim left word with him to have Mort come out.

“By the time Starks showed up, Doc Willkie was already inside treating Jess. And Slim was fuming,” grandpa said.

Starks rode in a little while later, dismounted and angrily approached Slim, who stood on the porch having just come from inside. The light next to the door shown round Slim’s large frame as he stood on the porch.

“Sherman,” Harland started, “I don’t appreciate you sending your hired gun out to fetch my cattle. I kin do that without his help,” the man snapped. “And I don’t…”

Slim held his hand in the air to shut the man up. It worked, and Harland stood glaring at the rancher. Slim had more concerns than Harland’s cattle. His partner was being treated for several potentially serious injuries and Slim wanted to know what happened. Jess had told him his side; now he wanted to hear Harland’s.

Slim quickly pointed out that Jess had done the man a favor by herding his cattle back home. But, Starks didn’t see it that way. He was sure that in some off- handed way Jess was up to no good.

“What are you getting at, Starks?” Slim demanded.

“Just this, Sherman. I ain’t blind. I can see. That danged gun slick’s up to somethin’; I know it. Maybe thinkin’ on increasin’ the Sherman herd a bit maybe,” Starks sneered.

“We don’t steal. We’re not rustlers. Jess got hurt bringing your cattle back. At the very least, you could acknowledge that,” Slim snapped, his anger close to the boiling point,

“Ain’t no fault of mine if your hired gun can’t stay in the saddle,” Starks sneered and spat chewing tobacco on the ground near the porch.

“That did it. That was the last straw. Slim stepped off the porch and his fist connected with the man’s jaw, sending Harland Starks tumbling from the side of the porch out into the yard. Since then, outside a seeing the man once in a while in town, he rarely came around. That’s what was so surprising about him showin’ up the way he did.”

While Jess recovered, Slim confided how Starks didn’t cotton to the Sherman’s either. The man had even accused Matt Sherman of shady business dealings, but could never prove it. It had all come to a head one morning when Starks rode onto the ranch, accusing Matt of stealing one of his bulls. It was the middle of a long summer and several cows were heavy with new ones, Slim told him. One cow in particular had given birth just over the property line after some of Starks cattle had destroyed part of the fence separating the two properties. Matt Sherman had yet to discover the downed fence. The two men squared off and Starks came away with a bullet in his shoulder along with Matt’s demand that he never set foot on Sherman land again.

“Seems he’s had it in for us ever since,” Slim told his recovering partner. “Best leave him be,” Slim suggested.

Now, Starks stopped his wagon right smack dab in the middle of the yard. Jess untied his apron as he walked out to greet the man, his hand outstretched in friendship.

As expected, Starks ignored the hand. When it came to Harland, one had to be ready for anything. Their insufferable neighbor didn’t even bother getting down. Just sat there looking around, then asked for Slim.

“Mr. Sherman’s inside. What can I…?”

“Get him,” Starks said. It was more of a demand than a request.

To tell the truth, Jess had no idea what Daisy had Slim doing, but he wasn’t’ ready to drop everything to disturb his partner when he was standing right there and could most likely take care of whatever Starks wanted. Jess opened and closed his fist, a clear indication that he was irritated. He was hot, tired and sore, and in no mood for the likes of Harland Starks. Starks had that effect on him from the first time Jess had laid eyes on the man. He was rude, arrogant and high minded. Seems he’d do just about anything to get his way, whether his way was right or not.

“Look, Mr. Starks, if you just tell me what you… ”

Neither man had heard the back door open nor had they seen Slim step out. But Slim was close enough to hear Starks answer.

“I didn’t come all this way to talk to no hired hand, especially a gun slick. Now get Sherman out here,” Starks demanded.

Jess was about to answer when Slim suddenly stepped up beside him and laid a restraining hand on his partner’s shoulder.

“First off, he has a name; it’s Jess Harper. And he’s no hired hand, Starks; he’s my partner and part owner of this spread. And the next time you refer to him as a gun slick, I just might let him prove to you what he once was. Now what do you want?” Slim growled. Like Jess, he was in no mood for the likes of Harland Starks, today or any other for that matter. And being locked inside making one repair after another had left him in a sorry mood, his temper about as short as his partner’s.

“Saw one of your cows this mornin’ lookin’ like she was about to drop any minute,” Starks said, and catching Jess’ eye, spat tobacco juice within a foot or so of the man’s feet.

“Yeah, we know. We saw her this morning. We planned to take care of her and the rest of the herd come morning. What’s it to you?”

“You got some fencin’ down near Falls Point. That makes it my business, Sherman. Just want to keep things nice and easy betwixt us. Don’t want to be havin’ to shoot no Sherman cattle,” he said around a chaw and spat part of the wad at Slim’s feet.

Beside him, Slim saw Jess tense and he automatically squeezed his partner’s shoulder — his silent gesture to keep calm. Even though he himself would have liked to have torn the blowhard apart.

“Why are you telling me now? Why not yesterday or the day before?” Slim asked.

“Ain’t my place to keep track of your herd,” Starks snapped. “Just a friendly reminder. Any of your cattle cross to my land,” he paused and stared hard at Jess, “they be meat for my table,” he said.

Slim closed his hand on Jess shoulder hard enough so that Jess knew not to say a word. Starks slapped leather and deliberately pushed his team forward so that when he turned, Jess would be forced to move or get hit. Slim knew Jess wasn’t about to move, so he quickly pulled Jess out of the way and the two watched as Harland left the yard.

As soon as he was out of sight, Jess turned an angry eye on his partner.

“What’s the matter with you, Slim? That no good son of a…” Jess stopped mid‑sentence. He’d been doing everything in his power not to use profanity as he promised Daisy a few weeks back and had been doing real good. “I coulda took him easy; he would have…”

Inwardly Slim smiled at his partner’s self-control. But he was also aware that Jess didn’t know Starks like he did. “Ah huh, and got yourself killed,” Slim turned serious.

“What do you mean? I coulda…”

Slim turned Jess around and pointed to the ridge just beyond the last oak tree that stood outside the first corral to the right of the entrance to the yard. Though it was late in the day, enough sunlight filtered through the trees so that a shadow could be seen standing near a large sycamore at the very top of the ridge. Jess was losing his touch, Slim thought with a smile.

“Starks always brings back-up. Buck was standing up there with a clear shot of both of us. Had either one of us moved…” Slim let the sentence hang. No need to explain further.

“I must be gettin soft,” Jess growled, and shaking his head, untied the heavy chaps that protected his legs and slung them over his shoulder. “See what’s livin’ with you has done to me?” Jess teased, only to have Slim cup his ear with a friendly swat, causing Jess to duck as he headed toward the barn.

Next thing Jess was half running to the barn.

“Where you goin’?”

“You heard what Starks said. We got a fence to repair and cows to move.” When Slim didn’t respond, Jess added. “Or you want ‘em shot?”

That did it. “Start saddlin’ for me, will you? I’ll go tell Daisy we’ll be late for supper.” Then Slim suddenly had a thought and turned back to his partner. “On second thought. You go tell Daisy, and I’ll saddle for us,” he said, and walked briskly past his pard. Inside, he feared Daisy might find another job for him. It had been like that all day. As soon as he’d finished on job, she’d find another.

*****

Where’s Mamma?

It would take a good hour to reach that part of the pasture Starks mentioned. The last time they’d seen that part of the herd, they’d counted at least twenty head, three of which were heavy with new ones, including the one Starks mentioned. They had a feeling she was the one Starks was talking about. The last time they’d left town, they did look for her, but saw no cows at all and figured they must have meandered back toward the house.

This particular summer had been long, hot and dry. The long summer drought had a grip on the land and had cost most cattleman dearly. No less the Sherman ranch. They had lost thirty head since it started. Any new ones born was a cause for celebration and protection. That was one reason why Slim had decided to leave them be for the time being. Most especially the one cow in particular. He didn’t feel she’d make it back before giving birth and he didn’t want her stressed. They’d kept an eye on her. Starks telling them that she was near Falls Point came as no surprise. They saw her as they came back from town. She looked well and appeared to be making her way back home behind the rest of the herd.

They’d gotten some relief when a few days of good summer rain soaked into the thirsty ground. They could only hope for more. Just that morning Jess had commented on the fact that the clouds building over the mountain range looked heavy enough for a good down pour. Neither of them thought they might be caught in the middle of a summer storm, but the closer they got to the meadow where the cows had been seen, the angrier the clouds looked, and off in the distance, thunder could be heard. If this was any indication, they were in for a long hard winter.

“You bring your slicker?” Slim asked, half smiling.

“No. And before you say it, neither did you,” Jess shoot back playfully.

Though the purpose of their ride was serious, the ride itself was pleasant and offered them time to enjoy the beauty of their land. It also gave them time to think of the many things they were grateful for. The most important being their friendship. Jess had been Slim’s partner now for eight years come December. It had never ceased to amaze the ex‑drifter how much he had changed, and even more, how much he liked being what he now was…a rancher, with a family and a place to call home. For the first time in his life, he had a stake in something important, something worth building. As they rode together, every once in a while, Jess stole a glance at the man riding next to him. How grateful he was to this tall drink of water to have given him the chance to prove himself. Slim Sherman really was the brother Jess had always wanted.

A clap of thunder loud enough to cause the horses to pause shocked him out of his day dreaming, bringing him back to reality with a jolt. But it was more than the sound; the wind had picked up as they neared the clearing, carrying with it a scent that set the horses nerves on edge. The men drew up and sat still listening…for what, they didn’t know. A sound, a mummer carried on the breeze. Perhaps the fluttering of leaves, maybe the slow rolling thunder barely perceivable, carried something only an animal could sense. Whatever it was — be it sound, a slight movement in the distance or an inborn sense of danger — they didn’t know…but the horses sure did. It took some doing to keep them calm and on the right trail. Slim’s Alamo wanted to bust out and run the opposite direction as did Jess’ Traveler. Most unsettling of all, the men didn’t know why.

The remnants of the dying sun danced across the waving grass casting long shadows in its wake. A beautiful sight ordinarily, but something unnerving was forcing its way into this serene scene. Something in the shadows, unseen, menacing and frightening. Now for the first time, as they slowly made their way into the pasture, they began to feel uneasy, like they were being watched. As if eyes were looking at them from hidden places.

Both men moved forward carefully as if each step of their faithful steeds could be their last. They had ridden this area many times before and in similar conditions but, something…something was different this time. They spied the fence. Harland was right. A large portion had been knocked down and trampled. Too large for the two to make repairs now, especially this late in the evening. Slim nudged his horse forward, but he stopped when he noticed Jess had yet to move. He turned round and looked back at his partner. Jess, his keen senses alert, sat stark still, every fiber of his being at attention. It was as if he were standing, facing one of his many foes, waiting, watching for the slight moment that would tell him that he must act and act now. But he wasn’t facing a human. Or was he? That’s what made this situation all the more unnerving. His entire body tingled.

“What?” Slim got as close as possible to Jess and asked again. His own voice loud in his ears. The sound of the tall grass bending to the commands of the wind was gentle. But it did nothing to ease the eerie feeling. A feeling neither man could explain. Slim asked again a little louder this time. “Jess, what is it?”

“You hear that?” Jess said, his eyes darting here and there over the distant landscape. The tall golden grass waved danced in the wind. Tree limbs bending and swaying as if keeping time with the grass. Ordinarily a beautiful picture. But not now.

Slim looked around. “Hear what? I don’t hear anything,” Slim said.

Jess nodded. “That’s what I mean. I don’t hear nothin’ either. Not a bird, not a cow, not even a crow,” he said, his eyes never leaving the meadow as he searched for…what, he didn’t know.

Slim could have teased him for that. ‘A crow is a bird, pard,’ he would have said. But not today. Not now. “You’re right,” he acknowledged. “Like somethin’ scared everything off.” Then realization set in and he nudged Alamo forward. “We’d better find out what before we lose what light we have left,” Slim said, his concern growing.

They weren’t the only ones. Both Alamo and Traveler had their ears set high, slightly forward, eyes searching, nostrils flaring. A second later and the horses began to shy away, forcing both men to struggle to keep control.

“They got a whiff of somethin’ they don’t like,” Jess shouted and suddenly cringed at the sound of his own voice. As if shouting would alert some unseen evil to their location.

Slim nodded and pushed his steed forward. Riding side by side, they soon moved away from the cover of the trees and found themselves in a small clearing at the edge of the meadow. In the dying sun, they could just make out a large white object moving just ahead, part of it hidden by the tall grass. Then that sound. There it was again, carried by the wind. Recognizable now. It was the sound of a cow’s bellow. Fear forgotten, they moved steadily forward toward the moving white object. A clasp of lightening provided just enough illumination for them to make out the object in question. A calf, not more than an hour so old, lay struggling to get to its feet. Its bright white markings stood out in sharp contrast to a mostly black body and the tall golden grass that surrounded it.

Overly excited Slim started to rush forward only to have Jess grab hold the sleeve of his jacket and pull, stopping him in his tracks.

“What?”

Jess sat stone still, his eyes searching the ground just ahead of them. “Look,” he said, and pointing to the ground around the little calf, he directed Slim’s attention to several large tracks covering the ground, something heavy enough to push down the tall grass as it went. The horses, now close to panic began to pull back, their eyes wide with fear. It was too dark now to tell what kind of animal might have made those tracks. But one thing was certain, their horses knew and didn’t like it one bit. Again, the men found they had to fight for control.

“There’s something around here they don’t like,” Slim shouted over the den of the now increasing wind.

“They ain’t alone,” Jess said, although he knew his partner couldn’t hear him.

Quickly they moved the horses to a nearby tree and tied them securely. As a precaution, Jess also hobbled them. The last thing they needed was to be left a foot, caught out in the open by a raging storm with whatever made those tracks.

Both men instinctively pulled their guns. Slim followed his partner’s lead and examined every inch of the area before moving to render assistance to the new life. In the dying light of day and with the tall grass being so dense, it was hard to discern what might have made such tracks. Another animal obviously, but what? A bear, no. For one thing, the tracks weren’t that big and they’d never seen nor heard of a bear in this area. Their examination turned up nothing discernible. While Jess stepped away from the calf, Slim holstered his gun and knelt beside it.

Whatever it was had obviously scared the rest of the herd off, and from the looks of things, they’d headed back home kicking up chunks of Wyoming grass and dirt as they went. The one cow, being too heavy with her new burden had not been able to follow. Instead she’d given birth then and there.

His partner’s voice buffeted by the wind sounded strangled and carried a tone or urgency. “Jess, bring me a bedroll,” Slim shouted.

Jess rushed back to where they’d tied the horses, and undoing his own bedroll, hurried through the tall grass to his partner. Slim was on his knees now with the calf struggling in front of him, still half covered with after-birth and shivering. Quickly, Slim swiped his hands over the small trebling body to rid it of as much blood and mucus as he could before wrapping the blanket around it.

While Slim worked, Jess became aware of something else. Where was mamma? A moment later, Slim saw that Jess had move away. A slight movement near a cluster of old oaks had drawn his attention from his partner and the new arrival. As he drew closer, the wind again carried an eerie sound. Though unsure as to what had caught his eye, his keen senses told him to move with caution. Finding the young life, both men had holstered the guns. But now following his instincts, Jess pulled his and stepped carefully forward toward the dark shadows of the cluster of trees. The giant oak’s limbs swayed in the wind, leaves fell like raindrops covering the area around him. And with it came that same eerie sound. A sound that sent chills down his spine.

He wasn’t the only one. Slim could just make out the uncanny sound and he shivered. Though worried about his partner, Slim continued to sooth the frightened animal as he continued to rub as much of the mucus off as possible. No matter their circumstances nor their surroundings, the very sight of new life brought a smile to the rancher’s face and he felt a close connection to the land that only a new life could bring. He loved this land, his home, his family and the life he shared with them. A new life was a symbol of all they’d accomplished and hope for a bright future. As a result, he couldn’t help but continue to talk in low comforting tones as he tended the creature and started to secure the blanket around it. So small ,Jess’ bedroll covered it completely with room to spare. It was obvious baby had come a little sooner than expected. The result of being scared, he thought. But it appeared healthy enough. Sure had enough fight in him as it struggled against Slim’s attempts to secure the blanket. A new bull would make for a much better herd come spring, he was thinking, when all of a sudden a single shot rang out as he lifted the calf into his arms. He jumped almost dropping it.

Slim looked up in the direction of the sound. Across the field in the waving grass, he could just make out Jess picking his way slowly back, his head down wearing a dejected look, the barrel of his gun still smoking, his face ashen. Had they not been under threat of an unknown danger, Slim would have teased Jess about not being the hard-hearted gun slick he often portrayed himself to be. But now was not the time. And at any rate, Jess didn’t look like he could stand to be teased right now anyway.

As Jess drew closer, Slim ventured a guess. “Mamma?”

Jess nodded and shoved his gun back into its hostler hard. “Yeah. I know what made them tracks now,” he said.

Slim looked up repositioning his hold on the little animal in his arms.

“Lion… a big one. Looks like mamma drew it away. Must have heard us comin’. Didn’t get a chance to finish its meal,” Jess said looking around nervously.

Finding a mountain lion in these parts was cause for concern. “Let’s go,” Slim said, and started walking to the horses.

Slim and Jess didn’t get back in time for supper. In truth, neither man was hungry. Both spent the night in the barn tending to the new arrival. Fortunately, they had a cow whose calf had not survived and mamma was heavy with milk. It didn’t take long for the new baby and his adopted mamma to get acquainted. The little calf, scrambling out of the blanket so lovingly wrapped around it, nuzzled up to the cow, its nose sniffing out the milk, and finding a tit, latched on and enjoyed its first meal. Both cow and baby happy as could be.

“What happened to the calf’s real mamma, grandpa?” young Ben asked.

Of all of the children, I think Ben must mirror the personality of Slim’s little brother Andy the most. If it is an animal in distress or in need of something, Ben is right there. He can’t rest until he’s sure all is well.

Grandpa Mike looked down into those tender blue eyes, and reaching down, gathered him into his arms and smiled. “I’ll tell you a secret, Ben. For all the rough and tough looks Jess Harper could get — and he had a lot of ‘em. Why, he could just look at some folks and scare the pant’s plum off ‘em. But inside, like Slim said once, Jess was just a marshmallow. Like you, he loved animals. So did Slim,” he said with a smile.

“But what happened to Momma?” Ben insisted, even though we could all tell grandpa didn’t relish the idea of telling his young grandson the sad truth.

Grandpa Mike took a deep breath and holding the child close, began to explain. “You remember when old Chester got hit by one of them tin wagons?”

The little boy nodded. He’d been there when the little dog ran out into the street. The driver did everything to avoid hitting the animal, but to no avail. The front wheels of the milk truck ran over the dog’s middle, fatally injuring him.

“You recall how bad he was hurtin’?” Grandpa asked.

Again, Ben nodded, his eyes’ downcast. “Yeah, and you and Dad took him out in the woods and…” He couldn’t say more. He knew what had to be done, but knowing didn’t make it any easier.

“Well, son, that’s what Jess had to do to Momma. She was hurt awful bad. And back then, it was too far to go to the vet. As a matter of fact, Laramie didn’t even have one then. There was nothing they could do. So Jess gave her a very special gift; he stopped her suffering.”

The youngest said no more, just cuddle in grandpa’s arms.

“In a way, I guess she gave her baby, and Slim and Jess a special gift too that day.”

“What was that, grandpa?” Mark asked.

“Recall that odd sound they were hearing? It was mamma crying out. If she hadn’t done that…well, things might have turned out a whole lot different.”

Everyone nodded and grandpa continued.

“Well, both were tired out next morning from sleepin’ in the barn and watchin’ the little calf all night. Aunt Daisy had a big breakfast all ready for ‘em when they finally came in. I had already eaten and was out in the barn, watchin’ the new arrival as it tried its legs. It sure was a wobbly little thing. Didn’t take long before Aunt Daisy joined us. We all just stood there watching for the longest time. Sure is fun to watch a new life get started,” grandpa said with a smile.

“What took you so long?” Daisy finally inquired.

“Looks like we got us a lion problem,” Slim told her.

Immediately, Daisy’s hand went to her mouth in alarm. “Oh, Slim. Are we in danger?

“Naw, I don’t think so, Daisy. That meadows way out in the south part of the ranch, near the foothills. We should be all right. But we’ll keep an eye out just the same. As a matter of fact, come morning, Jess and I are going to go back and set some traps, just in case.”

They watched and laughed as Jess sat in the straw next to the calf. The calf, still a little confused, decided that sucking on one of Jess’ fingers wasn’t at all as good as his adopted momma’s tit.

“Sides he couldn’t get a thing out of it,” grandpa said, eliciting a laugh from us all.

Mountain lions weren’t much of a problem around Laramie. Most stayed up in the high country away from cattle and people alike. Except when they got a taste of blood. It was a source of real worry for a lion to be this close. Since it had made a kill, they could be in for real trouble, though they didn’t want to mention that to Daisy. Jess was right when he told Slim at breakfast that he thought it best to move the last of the herd closer to the ranch and away from the foothills till the danger passed. Slim agreed. Then, if need be, they’d have to go after the lion. That could take several days and several men.

That night, Jess kept tossing and turning with thoughts of mountain lions and dead cattle playing out in his head. He wasn’t alone. Slim’s mind kept going back to the day he and his partner came upon a fresh lion kill. That had ended badly with both men getting pretty much mauled. They eventually got the upper hand and killed the lion, but it took weeks for them to recover from their wounds. And now, laying in the dark room, the tall rancher was determined not to have a repeat. So by the time the sun lit the room next morning, Slim had made up his mind. He and Jess would take several traps and set them.

And that’s exactly what they did. Right after breakfast, the two loaded the buckboard with traps and headed back to the pasture to set them at the edge of the meadow. As it turned out, momma’s body provided enough meat to lure the lion, they figured. Then they’d move the small herd back down closer to the ranch. It had taken the better part of a day to find and round the last of the herd, so that by the time the two came home, it was late and they were exhausted.

Thoughts of festivals, apple bobbing, shooting ranges, and yes, even pickles didn’t disturb them. They didn’t even bother taking the last of the coffee out on the porch as was their habit. They were just too tired. After supper, the two headed for bed. Slipping beneath the blankets, they were out like a light.

*****

Festival, Here We Come

Early Friday morning, the Sherman family downed an unusually large breakfast, and after cleaning up, rushed to get things in order. The night before, Daisy supervised as Slim and Jess very carefully placed her pickles in the back of the buckboard. Right after breakfast, they’d also add her other contributions — jams, jellies, cakes and pies — everything “just so.” Now the two hurried to the barn to ready their rifles. Rumor had it the prize for sharp shooting this year was nine hundred dollars. Just the thought of winning that kind of money had renewed their excitement.

The boys’ invention to rid Daisy’s garden of pests, at least most of them, had proved so successful that they hardly gave the little plot of land much notice as they scurried about, getting ready for the joyous weekend ahead. Soon everything was ready and the little family climbed aboard and headed to town.

As they drove, Slim wondered how many others had decided to get a jump on things and spend Friday night in town. They sure didn’t want a repeat of last year. That year, they ended up staying at Ma Smallies’ Boarding House since the hotel was full up. Though grateful for a place to sleep, they were more than just a little put off by Ma’s clientele. Mostly old men spending their waning years nodding off in rockers inside and out. At supper, Mike had made the observation several times and just couldn’t understand why the old men could eat chocolate and he couldn’t before a meal. Finally, it got so bad that Slim had to take the boy outside and explain what those stains around their mouths and on their teeth really was. As a result, Mike remained silent and dropped the subject. the idea being as repulsive to him as to the rest of the Sherman family.

“What do you mean, grandpa?” Young Ben asked.

Grandpa Mike smiled. “Well, er ah. Your mother will explain later,” he said skillfully skipping over the subject.

Thanks a lot, grandpa.

All through the week, Mike had been bothering Jess to make him a smaller version of that ‘garden thing’ as he called it. He was planning on planting his own little garden and wanted his sprouts protected too. Finally, Jess consented and promised to make him one as soon as the festival was over. That’s when Mike came up with the idea of asking Jess to make a miniature one. When Jess asked why, he said he wanted to show it to his friend’s. He was so proud of his brother’s invention. So, at the last minute, Jess worked on and finished a much smaller version and handed it to Mike Thursday night. Mike was delighted. Come Friday morning as they were getting ready to leave, they had to wait till Mike carefully wrapped it in a pair of long johns and placed it in his carpet bag, securing it safely in one corner.

Like most children who are excitedly looking forward to something, Mike talked endlessly about candied apples, apple peelers, bubble gum, and the most important of all, the greased pig contest. He was sure to win, he said. For a kid who loved getting dirty, this was right up his alley. He’d practiced endlessly during the weeks before the festival, much to Daisy’s chagrin. Each day right after school, he’d hurry to do his chores then he’d race over to his friend Gab’s house to practice with Mr. Foster’s new litter, coming home later with cuts, bruises, covered in dirt, mud and, well, you get the idea. It was also the time when Mike took more baths then he had in his entire young life. And never complained once. He was certain his practice would pay off and he’d come home the winner.

Turning down main street was a treat unto itself. The whole place had been transformed from a typical western town into a place filled with an explosion of color. A carnival-like atmosphere permeated everything. It seemed anything and everything that stood still long enough was covered with one kind of decoration or another. All kinds of colorful flags and streamers hung and swayed in the soft summer breeze from anything that would hold them. A true education in gaudy. They couldn’t wipe the smiles from their faces, but they flat fell out laughing when they reached the hotel and found the three horses tied at the hitching post sporting a nice new curly ribbon at the base of their tails.

Slim had been directed to park to one side of the entrance to main street along with an assortment of carriages, wagons, surreys and horses of various breeds, colors and sizes. But when he told the young man handling the parking what he had to unload, the man let him pull right up to the hotel. Slim turned the reins over to Jason and he hopped down. Then, after assisting Daisy down, he and Jess, arms loaded with cakes, pies, and of course, Daisy’s pickles, followed her down the colorful street and into the tent that housed the cooking and canning contests.

“Well,” Slim started, looking around and stretching his back, “I suppose we’d better get our rooms before the hotel fills up.”

“Sure hope they got a couple left,” Jess commented. He wasn’t far from wrong either. It looked as if the whole of Laramie was there, in addition to at least two other towns. They’d already seen at least six people they knew who lived in or around both Cheyenne and Pixly.

“From the looks of things, it’s going to be a pretty busy weekend. You mind sleeping in the same room with Mike, Daisy?” Slim asked.

“No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I fully expected it,” she smiled.

They had planned to come back for the carpet bags, but before they knew it, Laddy Webster was there, luggage in hand. Laddy was born and raised in Laramie. He was always a little slow, and when his folks died, the town just kind of took him in. He did odd jobs around town and was liked by all. During the festival, he’d carry baggage to and from the hotel for a small fee. Slim and Jess didn’t mind. Laddy followed them into the hotel and waited till they paid for their rooms

The Laramie Hotel and Bath House had, for the most part, been untouched by the color brigade, save for the three horses out front. Not too surprising. The establishment was owned and operated by Pert Bridges, a small older man who liked to give the impression that he was above them, all no matter their position in and around town. Why, Slim and Jess couldn’t figure. The man was all about money. He ran his business with an iron first and his employees into the ground whenever he felt he could get away with it.

It had always amazed them in a town growing as fast as Laramie how Pert, with all his rules, policies and such, managed to stay alive so long. Though he was most likely in his forties, he looked much older. Jess once made the comment that it was all that worrying the man did over every cent that came into the place that had him looking beyond his years. And Slim had to agree. Pert’s every thought was of his establishment and would go to great lengths to make sure everything was perfect. As far as his patrons were concerned. as long as they paid up front, they were welcome to do as they pleased once they stepped foot outside of his door. But come time for them to return to their rooms, they’d best not have been in a tussle, drinking or have with them a lady of the evening. Else Pert would kick them out, no questions asked. Once when in town, Jess got jumped by three mongrels; Pert had refused to let him come through the lobby because of his condition and the state of his clothes. Slim near came unhinged and demanded that Pert go for a doc while he half carried his near unconscious partner into their paid-for room.

That alone had earned the small man a sizeable reputation for being an overly tidy penny pincher. Whether it was deserved or not, most just accepted him for what he was and enjoyed his cozy rooms and prompt service. Whenever they were in town and in need of a bed, they’d most often head for the Laramie Hotel.

“Grandpa, what’s a penny pincher?” A small voiced asked.

Grandpa Mike smiled. “Someone who’s very cheap with money,” he explained and that was enough to allow grandpa to continue.

Like every place else, the hotel was buzzing with excitement. Everywhere they looked, they saw something new. The whole placed smelled of lilac and roses. They were sure to find a sprig of lilac atop their pillows, as was his wife’s habit. A nice touch really, Slim thought. It was obvious Mrs. Bridges and her staff had been hard at work.

Slim stepped up to the highly polished front desk and rang the bell. Mrs. Bridges answered the call. Pert’s wife was a large woman who had a china doll face, making her appear much younger than her husband, and even though her size was a source of gossip, all wondered what she’d seen in the little man to attract her attention. She was well educated and had a gentle personality that was most pleasing, unlike Pert. Jess once said Pert could make a badger cry. How he’d roped a woman like Hanna into marrying him had always been a wonder.

Right behind his charming wife stepped Pert. As usual, he gave the two a hard look. The hotel owner had butted heads with Slim long before Jess came into the picture. Just something about cattleman he didn’t like, Slim told Jess once, warning him.

“Don’t know why. Our monies as good as any,” Slim thought and slapped down a couple of dollars for the rooms. Then, after collecting their keys and giving Laddy a half dollar for carrying their bags, they made their way upstairs.

“Sure don’t look like Laramie no more,” Jess said, pausing at the window of their shared room to gaze out at the colorful flags and streamers.

“That’s for sure,” Slim agreed.

There were so many things to see and so many homemade goodies to delight everyone, no matter their age, it was mind boggling.

“Aunt Daisy, can I go now?” Mike asked, excitement dancing in his brown eyes.

“Yes, yes of course. But remember, come supper, you’re to meet us over at Molly’s. Five o’ clock and no later,” she reminded. With one quick nod, the smallest of the Sherman lot was off like a shot, meeting up with friends for adventures unknown.

“I’d best get over and make sure everything’s set up properly,” Daisy mumbled to no one in particular.

They were very pleased to see that Laddy had taken the buckboard and parked it where he was directed. Next thing to do was to find out which way they were going to go. Standing outside, the two ranchers stood surveying the scene before deciding on which direction to go first. Just standing and watching, trying to figure out what was where, was fun in itself. Each building had been transformed into an array of colors so that it was hardly recognizable. As they stood and watched, Slim laughed and pointed to Mort’s office. The jail now looked more like a den of iniquity then the upstanding station of law and order, with all kinds of streamers and babbles hanging from the sign out front. Even the announcement and news board had been covered in bright paper and sported a few well-placed streamers on either side. The faces of those on wanted posters staring back didn’t seem quite so menacing amidst all that color.

The festival had yet to begin when from across the street they heard shouting and looked up to see old man Warner chasing two little boys down the boardwalk and into the dusty street, their hands and face covered with chocolate after having stolen one of his creations. Mr. Warner was the only baker in town and had a reputation for making the most delicious candies around. Jess shook his head and smiled, recalling how he and his brother’s would often lift a few of his Ma’s creations before the rest of the family had a chance to sample them.

Tables sat outside businesses on main street displayed an array of things to entice potential buyers. Even the saloon had gotten into the act and had a table right outside with two of its prettiest gals sitting, waiting for customers to taste Sam’s new whiskey’s and Sarsaparilla’s. Of course the extras need no advertising.

“Am I wrong, pard? Or did this here doin’s start on Saturday last year?” Jess asked, looking up and down the street seeing so many items already on display.

“No, you’re right, Jess. Guess like the rest of us, they want to get an early start,” Slim said, and moving away from the hotel pulled at his partner’s shirt sleeve to follow.

Miller’s Mercantile had its best on display, as did the new tack shop just down the street. Mr. Barnes had been talking about the new tack he’d picked up and was now showing it to a small group that had gathered around. The new Livery owner fancied himself a real connoisseur when it came to leathers and loved talking about them whenever he could get a listening ear. Along with the others, Slim and Jess stood watching and listening as he explained how each item was used back east and how it could be put to good use in Wyoming as well. The pride in his son’s eyes was obvious. It was a family business with Hamish Barnes running the Livery and his eldest son the new shop. What caught Jess’ eye was an ornately tooled saddle on display inside the shop. Leaving Slim, he went to have a closer look.

Slim had just picked up a new bridle when he heard Jess call. Joining his partner, he too was impressed with the fine tooling. Like everyone else, all year they’d been scrimping and saving for this day. But now that it was here, both were having second thoughts about forking so much out at one time and decided to look around before making a final decision. A wise thing to do under the circumstances, as so many often bought the first thing they saw and learned to regret it as the festivities wore on. Still, Slim could hardly take his eyes off that saddle, Jess noticed. It was very similar in style to the one Mr. Bookman had in his store. Every time they’d come to town, Jess could count on his partner stopping at least once to gaze at that saddle displayed conspicuously in his front window.

Jenkins, Mort’s deputy, had been put to work filling a large area dug out the day before with buckets after buckets of water, making a large mud hole. A necessity come Saturday morning when the greased pig contest took place.

*****

Friday Late Morning, Jess Meets His Idol

There was only one thing that bothered Slim about this year’s festival, aside from Daisy’s pickles, that is. The last time he and Jess were in town, Mr. Baker over at the Assayers Office had been trying to convince Mort and others that they should hold a quick draw contest. Slim knew Baker didn’t like Jess and would bring up his partner’s past whenever he got the chance. He’d been a thorn in Jess’ side ever since he’d come to Laramie. Bakers’ attitude only got worse once Slim made Jess a full partner. He recalled Jess’ comment after he told him he was going to make him a full partner and part owner of the ranch.

After the shock wore off, Jess questioned “You think that’s wise, Slim. I mean just think of Baker and…”

“Baker doesn’t live here and he knows nothing about you except what he’s heard. And before you say it, neither does anyone else,” Slim shot back, effectively putting an end to his future partner’s objections.

Whenever Jess spelled Mort or worked alongside him, he knew to look out for Baker. Even found his name in the local newspaper once after he had to defend himself against an outlaw. The article had been scathing and was meant to put Jess in a bad light, to breakdown the trust others had developed in Jess. It had been written by a new writer who knew little or nothing at all about Jess, but who had been talking to Baker. He wanted to make a name for himself and felt this was the best way to get his employer’s attention. It did that all right. Josiah Cummings, the paper’s owner, was furious. He knew Slim and Jess well. As a matter of fact, he was the one who printed that short article along with Jess’ picture, praising his actions during a particular dangerous hold-up about four years back. That article had been seen by Jess’ sister Francie and had resulted in a happy reunion between the two siblings, adding another limb to the Sherman family tree.

Once Josiah discovered what his assistant had done, he demanded the young man collect all the papers he could and destroy them. In the meantime, Josiah printed a retraction, praising the changes Jess had made and that honesty and integrity were a whole lot better than relying on a gun to make a point. He wanted folks to understand that Jess Harper used his expertise only under the direst of circumstances, and that because of his skill and discernment in the use of his weapon, Laramie and the surrounding countryside were a whole lot safer. The End of Summer Festival would NOT be holding a fast draw contest. When Slim read the article aloud to the family one night, the inevitable red face followed. Jess has always been easily embarrassed. Slim merely smiled and slapped his partner on the back.

It seemed ever since Josiah Cummings had posted that little bit about Jess and mentioned some of the changes he’d made, becoming a model citizen and all, Slim and Mort just couldn’t seem to stop praising him. At first he just smiled and shrugged it off. But, now… Now it was becoming embarrassing and he told them so.

“Well, I’m sorry, Jess. But it’s true, pard. Laramie’s a whole lot better because you’re a citizen,” Slim said, smiled and gave his partner a playful punch. He just couldn’t get over the amazing changes this one time gun slick had made. Whether he liked it or not or even would admit it, Jess Harper had finally become domesticated.

Ignoring his friends, Jess stepped over to the bulletin board and began to read aloud some of the upcoming events.

“Greased Pig Contest,” he read aloud. “Anyone brave enough to hold and bring the squirming creature to the judges table for at least three minutes wins a prize — a blue ribbon and a dollar. And all the soap needed to rid their bodies of all that dirt and grease.” He laughed.

“Elmer’s Pie Eating Contest.” That was always a big winner. The one lucky enough to come off the victor in this one came away with a free pie, a blue ribbon and bragging rights for the year, in addition to a quick trip to Miller’s for a new shirt. Not too far to go since the contest would be held right outside the mercantile. When things really got hot and heavy, those towels draped under their chins just didn’t hold.

“The Sharp Shooting Contest.” After posting a twenty dollar entrance fee, the best shot could pocket an eight hundred dollar prize and bragging rights. Both Slim and Jess were entered in this one.

“Bobbing For Apples.” This one was always a favorite among the kids. A new fangled apple peeler was the prize this year together with a blue ribbon.

“Rope Knotting Contest”. A blue ribbon and rope burns went to the proud winners.

“Bull Riding.” Was also a big hit with the crowd. The prize — fifty dollars and your life.

“The Raw Egg Throw.” Was always a hit with everyone literally. No monetary prizes, but the winner could come away with a lot of laughs.

In addition, there was the Ax Throwing Contest. Slim was entered in that one. The prize, thirty dollars, bragging rights and a bottle of liniment.

And the last big event of the day, The Horse Race. Jess and Dodge were entered in this one. The winner would walk away with five hundred dollars, free oats for a year and bragging rights sometimes for even longer. The contest and the money had been put up by none other than Jess’ sworn enemy, Burford Hannon. Hannon was the second man in town that had it in for Jess. Jess had caught Hannon in a dishonest card game when he was subbing as sheriff and ordered him never to play poker in Laramie again. After he’d told Mort and Mort, respecting Jess’ decision, had put his foot down as well. Hannon was not allowed to play poker in Laramie. Whatever he did outside of town was his own business. But he couldn’t come yellin’ that he’d been cheated.

These of course were the main events; they didn’t include all the other attractions, like balloon blowing, hot potato tossing and many more too numerous to mention. Then again, there was what the ladies were looking forward to most: the canning, jams, jellies and baking contest. Next to that was needlepoint, quilting and other various crafts. All more than a body could see in just one weekend, much less to list on three sheets of paper.

Slim and Mort smiled as Jess finished reading aloud and turned back to them shaking his head.

“Sure glad Josiah printed a retraction and let folks know there’ll be no quick draw contest here in Laramie. Like Jess said, having a contest like that would attract every gun slick between here and Cheyenne,” Slim commented.

“Already has,” Mort told them as the three shared a beer in the saloon later that day. Jess, whose attention had been caught by the new saloon girl, suddenly stopped looking and turned to Mort instead. “What do you mean, Mort?”

“Ah, a scrawny looking fella by the name of…” The Laramie sheriff paused in thought, “Something, ah, Jack,” he said, sipping his beer still unsure as to whether he got the name right.

Jess had just taken a sizable swallow and now almost choked, his face turning red as he struggled to get his breath with Slim slapping him on the back.

Once he was finally able to breath, Slim asked, “You okay, Pard?” half laughing.

“Cac…” Jess gagged for a moment, cleared his throat, and looking at Mort through watery eyes, asked, “Cactus Jack?” Jess sputtered the question, his eyes wide with surprise.

The Laramie sheriff nodded. “Think so. Why? You know him, Jess?”

Jess coughed a few more times and nodded that he did. A slow grin pulled at the corners of his mouth. “You could say that. In his day, he was a wild one. He’s the one I used to look up to,” his grin turning into a smile as he absently turned the mug around on the bar, leaving wet circles as it went. In his mind, he saw the man in question. The way he moved and walked. Like a cat on the prowl. His steely eyes could stop a body cold. Jack’s lightning fast draw had done just that on more than one occasion.

Mort was astounded. “That? You looked up to that?”

“Well, you gotta remember, Mort, that was a long time ago. Was a time when just walking down the street would cause me to shudder at the sight of ‘im. I ain’t seen Jack in close to…” Like the sheriff before him, Jess paused to think. “Sixteen years, I reckon. I imagine he’s changed a mite,” Jess commented, still moving his beer from one hand to the other, seeing the man in question, tall and strong in his mind.

Mort laughed, and came darn close to choking himself, “Oh, he’s changed all right. He’ll be at the festival, no doubt. You’ll get a chance to get reacquainted then.” Mort smiled, then slapped his hand down on the bar. “Why don’t you fellas come with me and I’ll give you those posters I told you about?”

Jess flipped Sam a couple of coins and the three left the saloon. They had no sooner reached the jail when Mort put a hand out to stop Jess and pointed to a figure leaving Molly’s Café across the street.

“There’s your gunfighter now.”

Jess looked, took a step forward and his jaw dropped, as did Slim’s. Both stared at the man leaving the café. Slim’s eyes grew big as Jess squinted to make sure he was seeing right.

“That’s a gun slick?” Slim stammered and started to grin; a laugh cried to be let loose deep within, the bars of restraint barely holding to keep from hurting his friend.

For his part, Jess was stunned. “What the hell?” This emaciated fellow looked nothing like the Cactus Jack he’d known years ago. That man was a fearsome force to reckon with. Just the sight of the man struck fear in most. The gun fighter Jess remembered looked nothing like this man. Jack had always been proud of the way he was put together. He stood straight as an arrow, his clothes always clean and pressed, like he’d just stepped out of a picture book. He’d never think of showing his thin sharp features to the public without a shave and with every hair in place. Like most slicks, he wore his gun slung low on the thigh, as did Jess. Jess, an ex‑gunslick himself and now successful rancher, continued to stare in disbelief.

This man was unshaven, sporting a sparse beard. His clothes looked like they’d been slept in. And he was so thin it was a wonder he could keep his gun belt up, his hips looked to be non-existent. Jess swallowed hard and got a good look at those steely eyes as the man crossed the street and passed right in front of them heading for the saloon it appeared. Eyes that once sent chills through you, that unnerved the most threatening man were now clouded and sunken, dull in fact. And too, Jess noted as he passed ,that his back was somewhat bowed and his gate was no longer straight but he wobbled as he went. He didn’t recognize Jess — just walked on by without acknowledging the men at all. That too was out of character for Jack, Jess told them later.

“Wh… what happened to ‘im?” Jess asked, staring at the man’s back as he disappeared down the street, swallowed up by the growing crowd.

“Age, I guess,” Mort replied.

“Promise me somethin, pard?” Jess asked, his eyes following the direction in which the shallow figure had went as if unable to look away.

“What?” Slim asked, allowing the laugh he felt coming to finally escape, but only slightly.

“If I ever start lookin like that, shoot me, will you?”

The tall rancher chuckled. “You’ll never look like that, Jess. And besides, you’re not a gun slick anymore, remember?” Slim smiled and laid a gentle hand on his partner’s back giving him a slight push toward the door.

Inside Mort took a seat, pulled the wanted posters out of his desk drawer and handed them to Slim. Glancing down Jess took the first one and read. “ ‘Wanted: Vernon Shaw Dixter, for murder, robbery and rape. Jasper, Cheyenne and Sweetwater. Thousand dollars, dead or alive.’ Phew, how longs this one been on the run?”

“As far as I can tell about six months. Oh, he’s a slippery one, to be sure,” Mort said as he closed the drawer.

That’s when Slim glanced down and read aloud the name Frank Wallace. Wanted dead or alive, for robbery and murder, the poster said.

Slim held the paper in his hand and raised his head deep in thought. “Frank Wallace. That name sounds awful familiar.”

“It should. Frank and his gang of no-accounts are the jokers that darn near destroyed that little town out near Pixly,” Mort told him. Then he reached over and took the poster from Slim, folded it and put it back in his desk.

“You don’t want it posted, Mort?” Slim asked in surprise.

The Laramie sheriff shook his head. “No need. From what I hear, Frank and his gang haven’t been heard from in several years. I kind figure they either split up or simply decided to quit the business.” Then changing the subject, he asked, “You two decide on which events you’re gonna try this year?” Mort asked.

Slim nodded. The Laramie rancher had thrown so many axes he felt his arm would fall off and so decided to rest a few days before they left. “I think I have a good chance of winning this year,” he said confidently. Last year, Slim had lost to a newcomer to Laramie and was determined not to allow that to happen again. Daisy had rubbed his arm and shoulder with her special liniment in order to relax the taxed muscles the day before and he was feeling much better.

“That’s good. How about you, Jess?”

“We’re both entered in the shootin’ contest. But the one I’m looking forward to is the race. I’m entered with Barnard Losee’s mare, Flash. She’s a real beauty and fast as lightntin’,” he drawled his admiration and growing affection for the animal showing through. Jess loved horses more n’ most.

Slim wore a sour look, not lost on Mort.

“Something wrong, Slim?”

“Yeah, this one,” Slim said, jerking his thumb in his partner’s direction. “Remember me telling you about him taking a bad fall a few weeks back?”

Mort nodded that he did. He’d come out to the ranch to ask for Jess’ help with a cattle drive rumored to come through Laramie. Although thankfully, they never did. “That shoulder still bothering you, Jess?”

“No,” Jess snapped.

“Yes,” Slim snapped right back.

Mort gazed at Slim, his eyes dancing.

“What Jess isn’t going to tell you is that shoulder of his is almost as bad now as it was when he first hurt it.”

“It ain’t neither,” Jess interrupted with a growl.

“No?” Slim said, turning to look into the other man’s eyes. “Then what kept you up half the night moanin’ and groanin’?”

“Jess, why not let the doc have a look before you race, huh?” Mort suggested.

“’Cause I don’t need to. All’s I need is a little lineament,” Jess insisted.

Slim shook his head. “See what I mean?”

They shared a laugh, and after inviting Mort to join them for supper at Molly’s, the two left the office and hurried across the street, being mindful not to get flattened by the many carriages, buggies and wagons making their way into Laramie. As they made their way down the boardwalk, Slim again attempted to reason with his partner. “So, you’re really gonna race with that shoulder?”

“Said I was didn’t I?” Jess growled back, Then a sound caught his attention, and looking up, he laughingly pointed towards Ma Smallie’s Boarding House. Ma Smallie was a heavy-set German woman who owned the only boarding house in Laramie. She was doing her best to remove an equally overweight man who’d obviously had a little too much to drink off her porch with only the use of a broom and a booming voice.

Slim laughed. “Should we go lend a hand?”

“Naw, that’s Mort’s job,” Jess said with a smile and absently rubbed his shoulder. “’Sides, I think she’s winnin’,” he said.

The Laramie sheriff huffed. “She don’t need my help. I’ve seen her get rid of ‘em with no more than a knitting needle and a boot,” he laughed.

Slim looked up just in time to see the heavy-set drunk tumble head over heels from atop the porch to land with a thud in the soft Wyoming dirt. He struggled to regain his footing then staggered off, as far away from Ma Smallie and her broom as he could.

All last week, Jess had been working on timing. Slim held Jess’ watch and timed his partner as Jess raced the beautiful chestnut mare Losee had lent him. Bernard Losee owned a small but well equipped horse ranch just outside Laramie. He’d acquired the two-year old mare a short time ago, but had yet to get around to fully training her. So when Slim came around looking for a horse as a gift for his partner, Slim spied the mare. At first Slim was a bit taken back. This horse was far too expensive. He’d saved only one hundred and fifty. Bernard Losee didn’t have to say it, the look of disappointment on Slim’s face was clear, even though Losee had yet to say a word about the mare.

Bernie smiled and stepping up to Slim put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Slim, you want that mare for Jess, don’t you?”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, but I can’t afford her. You got another you could sell?” Slim asked, doing his best to pull his focus from the beautiful animal.

“Not like her I don’t. But I tell you what. Before you fork over all you got, why not take her home, let Jess finish her training and see how he likes her. Then we’ll talk business. What do you say?”

Slim hesitated for a moment. Then he looked into the face of his friend and smiled wide. “You gonna be at the festival?” He suddenly asked.

“Plannin’ on it. Why?”

“You do know that Jess has insisted on joining the race. Might want to race her, Bernie?”

“I think that just might be the trainin’ she needs,” he said and smiled wide.

Standing out near the porch watching and timing the mare’s speed, it seemed as if horse and rider were made for each other. It was a shame, Slim thought, to have to hand her back to Bernie. He dearly wanted to give his pard a gift with true meaning. None better than a horse. Traveler, Jess’ favorite mount for many years, was getting on and would not be around for long.

While the boys practiced outside, inside Daisy worked tirelessly on her own project…pickles. Carefully examining and cleaning each pickle jar, then placing them just so into two large wooden crates. When she’d finished, she stood and looking down at her work and smiled, satisfied she’d done her best. She’d also cleaned, polished and labeled her blackberry jam. But she was proudest of her pickles. She was certain to win this year. “Look out, Eleanor,” she mumbled as she worked. Thoughts of walking away with first prize caused her to smile even wider, a wicked glint in her eyes. Seeing Eleanor Brooks knocked off her throne was something she’d secretly dreamt of.

Young Mike had his own agenda. He’d been practicing holding his breath and was up to close to three minutes and had sunk his teeth into so many of Daisy’s apples his mouth was sore. As a result Daisy had him cut away his tooth marks and peel each one carefully in preparation for two pies, one for home and the other to enter the baking contest. Mike didn’t mind. Come Monday, he’d let the apple peeler do the work. He was sure to win.

*****

Cactus Jack

The gunfighter walked slowly down the crowded boardwalk, briefly looking into windows and tipping his hat to the ladies as he went. He’d only been in Laramie once before. Then it was nothing more n’ a dusty dot on an old beat up map. But now, now the place was jumpin’. This End of Summer Festival had drawn a crowd he had not expected. He was here on business, and for the first time in his life, he was almost sorry for it. It would be nice to be able to just sit back, breath in the cool autumn air and throw back drinks with friends, if he had any. A gunfighter doesn’t collect many friends. But he had more than his share of enemies. He smiled as three children ran past him, almost colliding into another man as he stepped out onto the boardwalk from a nearby store. Getting involved in community activities was something he’d never allowed himself to do. It would have been something new and different for a gunman nearing his mid-thirties. The thought of his age made him smile. Never in his born days did he ever dream he’d reach thirty much less thirty-five. Most gunslicks he’d known barely made it past twenty something’.

He’d only known one other. A gun slick by the name of Elmer Slade. He was thirty one and was found dead in his hotel room one night. The doc said it was most likely his heart and all the stress of facing down one killer after another that done it. He knew what that was like. To face death every time you came into a new town was enough to give you more than gray hair, he knew.

The hotel’s restaurant might not have been the best, but it sure beat beef jerky, hands down. As he stopped to gaze at a crowd of people across the street, his attention was drawn to a small group leaving the little café. He’d seen them before. But now he took a closer look as one member looked particularly familiar. He searched his brain to recall the name. A few minutes later and it came to him. “Jess. . . Jess Harper,” he muttered. He recalled the man and how the two had shared a drink once in a saloon in Clearwater, Texas. At that time, Harper had been lookin’ to make a name for himself. Told him he’d always looked up to him. “Who the hell looks up to a gunfighter, except…? That was it!” He all but shouted. “Abilene, Texas. Jess Harper was one of the gun slicks that took down that no account Joe Gordon. Now there was a true piece of human scum if there ever was one,” he thought to himself. He also remembered how young and how incredibly fast the man had been. Secretly, deep inside, he hoped he’d never have to face his gun. Now here he was in Laramie. And with what looked to be close friends or even family maybe. Whatever it was, the Harper he’d met some time back looked a lot different from the man that now stood chatting with the lady and a very tall blonde-haired man.“Yes, sir, Jess Harper,” he muttered aloudHe hadn’t realized he’d been heard until an older man coming towards him said, “You lookin’ for Jess? Just saw ‘im. Cross the street,” the old man informed.

A gun slick can never be too careful, he told himselfHe wasn’t getting any younger and this Wallace wasn’t getting any less wanted. A thousand dollars was just what he needed to make a fresh start. He continued to watch the scene across the street. No siree, this Jess Harper sure didn’t look much like a gunfighter anymore. No, this man looked more like a member of the community and a respected one at that. His eyes seemed clued to the three adults and little boy as they stood chatting. He’d seen several men slap the gun slick on the back and smile as they passed him in the crowd. This one-time gunslick looked for all the world to be a well-liked citizen. What happened next confirmed it. From across the street walked the sheriff. Cactus Jack watched as the sheriff joined himself the group, talking and laughing. He was sure he’d not have to worry about Harper’s speed anymore. Jess Harper, so fast and deadly, was no longer a gun slick. Inwardly, he breathed as sigh of relief.

Jack continued to watch as Harper and those with him moved away from the café and were now headed down the street. For a moment, it looked as if the four of them would cross the street, so Jack stepped back into the shadows. He continued to watch as the little group split up. Looked like the old woman and kid were headed to the hotel while Harper and the tall man headed to the saloon. The sheriff, however, was called away and disappeared in a dead run down the street.

The Bulls Head appeared to be the bigger of the two saloon’s in town. And like every other place he’d seen or been in, it was crowded. Jack had learned a long time ago that crowds could either be good or bad, depending on how his man acted. After letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, he pushed his way inside, actually bumping up against Harper.

“Excuse me, gentleman,” he said as he scooted past Harper and came to stand near the piano. He was glad no one was playing; he hated piano music, most especially the kind popular in saloons. Leaning up against the piano, his eyes scanned the crowd for Wallace.

Jess hardly noticed the man; he was too preoccupied with Sunday’s race to care about Jack or anyone else for that matter. He’d been trying to convince his increasingly worried partner that he could race without further injury. But so far he hadn’t come up with anything plausible Slim would buy.

The Bulls Head was really jumping. Slim walked to the back to secure a table, leaving Jess at the bar to order their drinks. Several men said hello to Jess and Sam acted as if he knew the man well. Cactus Jack, standing near the piano, shook his head in amazement. He pulled his attention away from the ex-gun slick Jess Harper and got down to business. He stood watching, examining every face, waiting for anything out of the way. Although wanted posters could be most accurate, they could also be way off he knew. Now as he stood watching, he reviewed in his mind the man’s features. If his man was in here, it could prove to be his undoing. It would be hard to make a stand in a crowd like this. But he was a professional and his aim was sure.

Jess returned with two beers, holding them high above the heads of other patrons in an attempt to make it over to where Slim sat without spilling any. A moment later and Dutch brought over a small basket of peanuts. They glanced at each other and smiled. At the time, Peanuts weren’t something most were used to seeing in Wyoming. Peanuts had become popular in the south a long time ago, even before the civil war. And now with the cost of hauling items stabilizing, they’d become a welcome distraction for saloons and drinking holes west of Cheyenne and everywhere in between. So naturally, Sam felt it might be a good thing to try them at the Bulls Head. Always looking to save money,  Sam came to realize that serving free peanuts was actually a good thing. A money-making idea, if you will. Sitting and eating peanuts naturally made one thirsty. Peanuts plus thirst satisfied by drinks equaled more revenue. And that made the barkeep/owner smile wide. So it was that the two ranchers talked and enjoy their cool beer and peanuts and the carnival atmosphere that seemed to permeate every inch of Laramie.

It was well past dark now and the walls in that little room felt as if they were closing in on him. Despite the doctor’s advice, Wallace decided to take a walk. He didn’t intend to go far. Just down the street and maybe, if he felt well enough, over to the saloon. A nice cold beer sounded real good right about now. No need to fill his gut with food; it’d just come back up as it had for the past several days. As he neared the bar, the events of the past few days and his life flooded back to him. Confiding in someone was never his style. But he was glad he’d confided in doc Willkie. Knowing his time was short and he’d be leaving behind a wife and two small children, he had to tell someone. So in the quiet of the doctor’s office, Wallace confided in the old medic. Willkie was struck by the man’s honest desire to care for his family. Yes, he’d made mistakes, he freely admitted. But now, now that there’d not be time to make it up to them; he wanted to leave something behind. Something that would let them know that he did love and care about his wife and children. So, with tears in his eyes, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and with a trembling hand handed it to Willkie.

At first Willkie refused to open it, much less read the note it contained. But then the pleading in his patient’s eyes got to him, and putting on his spectacles, he opened and read the single page. It was a will. Wallace had worked for the railroad three years past, and in that length of time, had saved every cent he’d earned. He had it tucked away, hidden in a pocket of his saddle bag. He asked Willkie to take it and see to it that his wife and children got it once he passed. Willkie sadly agreed. Then before his patient left, he reminded him to take the medicine as directed and not miss a single dose. Wallace agreed, gave the medic a smile and left.

As Wallace stepped out of Willkie’s office, he was struck by the beauty of this land. It was as if he was seeing it anew. An odd thing, really. What with death riding on your tail, your mind opens up to the freedom and love of things around you. The carnival atmosphere was everywhere. He smiled as three young children ran past him, dodging wagons and laughing at one another. One little dark-haired boy had a stick he was pretending was a gun and he drew it as quick as he could from his trousers; after aiming it at another, he yelled bang and his friend fell, mortally wounded. Looking up, he smiled then laugher burst out and they ran around to repeat the same again and again.

It was sad really. As if they were playing out the last moments of his life. The Laramie streets were still busy with merchants carefully positioning their wares and patrons milling around eager to buy. The night air was cool, a great relief from the days blazing heat. It felt good. So far he’d been lucky. But his luck couldn’t last forever, he knew. Either the disease or someone looking to make a name for himself and fill his pockets would cause his end. Of that he was sure. He hadn’t seen Jack nor had he even heard of the man. And even if he had, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Willkie had ordered bed rest and medicine. He’d also sent someone to the saloon while he was in his office. He was surprised when Sam showed up with a bottle of his best whiskey. And he was more than just a little touched when doc Willkie told him what it was for.

“Don’t be downing this, young man,” the doc had said as he carefully filled the little dark brown bottle with a clear liquid. I want you to mix a teaspoon of this into a shot of whiskey first, then down it. The stuff I’m giving you tastes god awful. Only one way I can think of getting it down a man,” the old doctor had said. His kindness and sense of humor made Wallace smile in spite of the diagnosis.

“Back in that time, consumption was a deadly disease. It claimed a lot of lives as it does to this day. Only now days, the doctors know more about it and are able to treat it proper. It’s not the death sentence it once was when pour old Wallace had it,” grandpa said.

“What is consumption, grandpa?” Mark asked.

“It is a very bad sickness.” I explained.

“Didn’t you tell us that’s what killed Slim?” My husband asked.

Grandpa smiled sadly and shook his head no. “That’s what Jess had when he was in his late seventies. Slim nursed him till the end.”

“What happened to Slim, grandpa?” Ben asked, his tone had changed from one of enthusiastic excitement to one of sadness.

I would have loved to have met our long lost relatives of the heart, as grandpa Mike always called them.

“Slim lived into his early eighties then he went to bed one night and,” grandpa shrugged, “just never woke up,” he explained. “We never knew why.”

“I bet it’s cause he lost Jess,” Alan added.

Grandpa Mike smiled at that. He’d told us all how enduring their friendship was. They’d fight with and for each other, to the death if need, be so strong was their love for one another. They were truly brothers of the heart, as grandpa often said.

“Could be,” he smiled. “Slim always spoke about Jess in glowing terms. Those sky blues would twinkle when he’d tell us some of the situations he and Jess had gotten into. One of the funniest ones I think, was when someone mistook Slim for Jess and Jess had to try and teach his partner how to fast draw.” Grandpa laughed aloud. “One of these days I’ll tell you about that,” he promised. “But now let’s get back to Frank Wallace and Cactus Jack.”

“A week, maybe two. Provided you listen to your doctor,” Willkie had said. In truth, Wallace felt his time was much shorter. He hadn’t told the doctor about the bouts of fever and blinding pain he’d suffered over the past few months. Nor had he mentioned coughing up blood. But he was sure Willkie knew, for he was a very good doctor he’d been told. It didn’t matter anyway. With a price on his head, he was fair game, for professional and hotshot alike.

At only twenty-two, Frank Wallace was the youngest in a family of eight to go against the law. He’d started off a petty thief, but soon the desire and need for money had driven him to larger, more dangerous and lucrative pursuits. Holding up banks had netted the outlaw a good sum over the past three years. Always somewhat of a momma’s boy, he’d sent a portion of his ill-gotten gains to his Ma back in Texas. After sending a good portion to his wife. Then he squirrel away the rest. He also took great care to make sure his mother, wife and children never knew where he’d gotten the money. As a matter of fact, he had actually come close to giving up the life once he’d met and fell in love with a young lady a short three years ago. He begun to think it worth it to give himself up, face the judge and work off his sentence in prison. But his last robbery destroyed that plan. He and his partner had entered a small bank in Bridgeport Louisiana with intentions of robbing it. His partner, a much young man, was proud of his prowess with the .45 and loved to show off. But this time was different. Several patrons were in the bank doing business. It had always been Frank’s way to wait till it cleared out before they made their move. He’d never cost a life before and he was bound and determined not to start now.

But his young partner had other ideas. While the bank was still half full Moore made his move, pulling his gun and firing into the air causing everyone to jump and look in his direction. Frank could have flattened him then and there. But the next thing he knew Frank was holding a sack open while the man behind the countered stuff it with notes. Behind him, he heard a slight scuffle. But he was so intent on watching the man and the two women in front of him that he failed to take note of what was happening directly behind him.

By the time he turned around and caught a glimpse of a deputy sheriff standing in front of the bank, it was too late. What happened next happened so fast it was almost hard to recount. Wallace saw Moore aim, a deadly smile on his face. The man loved killing. Wallace shouted at him to stop, but he cursed his partner and started to pull the trigger. A moment later and two shots rang out. So close together they sounded as if they were one. Moore went down a second before the deputy. But from the angle, it looked as if Frank had been the one who shot the lawman.

After, Wallace grabbed the bag and ran. He’d been on the run ever since. A month later he learned that he had been charged with the killing of the deputy and a reward had been issued. How he hadn’t run up against a bounty hunter before now he didn’t know. Perhaps it was just plan blind luck or perhaps his bounty wasn’t large enough, for he had no idea of how much he was worth. Add to that, for the past year and a half, he’d been getting sick on and off. And now he knew why. Still, he figured that dying a slow death was preferable to swinging at the end of a rope.

He quickly spied Sam as he stepped into the saloon and went to the very end of the bar. He hadn’t expected the saloon to be this busy on a Friday night. And yet, he realized the next day was the start of their festivities. After a brief conversation, Sam had just served Wallace. He’d seen the man when he first rode in and took note of how pale and stricken he appeared. It was more than obvious the man was very ill. And now as he stood ordering his drink, he didn’t look much better. Even after seeing the doc, Sam decided. As a matter of fact, before he’d even taken his first swallow, he’d started coughing and Sam handed him a small towel when it looked like he was about to upchuck right then and there. He coughed and brought up what looked like a dark liquid with traces of what appeared to be fresh blood. The concerned barkeep had just offered to have someone accompany him back to the hotel when from somewhere near the piano they heard someone call out the man’s name. Frank looked up, then a single shot rang out and Wallace dropped to the floor.

At the hotel down the street, Daisy had already gone to bed as had young Mike. She’d heard the shot. But with all the celebrating, shouting, laughing, shooting into the air, she thought nothing of it. And after making sure that Mike had not been disturbed, she rolled over and went back to sleep.

Shocked, the steady hum of conversation suddenly stopped and women screamed. All turned to look in the direction of the man now lying dead on the floor as did Slim and Jess. Jess immediately pulled his gun and pointing it at Jack and ordered the man to drop his, while Slim made his way over to Wallace.

Jack said nothing, just let his gun drop to the floor and looked up at Jess, his eye’s cold and hard. Sam had already hurried around the bar and was now kneeling beside the body examining it. With Jess and everyone looking on, he pulled the man’s jacket away from his side — Wallace wasn’t wearing a gun. So if Jack was going to say he acted in self-defense, that wouldn’t hold water.

No one saw anyone leave the saloon, but someone must have, because a moment later Mort Corey came in, gun in hand pushing his way through the small crowed that had gathered around the dead man. Jack stood stalk still, waiting. Slim, who’d collected the bounty hunter’s gun, now handed it to Mort.

“What happened here?” Mort asked, his voice strong and unusually loud in the now near silent saloon.

Sam looked up at the sheriff, then glanced over at Jack who still stood silent.

“This here fella,” Sam said, pointing to Jack, “just pulled his piece and gunned down Mr. Steele here.”

Now for the first time, Cactus Jack spoke up. “The man’s name is Wallace. And I was only doin’ my job. The man’s wanted sheriff,” he said, his voice equaled the look on his face — stone cold, like he’d just killed a dear or rabbit instead of a human being. Slim, Jess and Mort stiffened as the gunman reached into his pocket.

“Easy,” Jess ordered.

Jack locked eyes on the ex-gunfighter turned rancher and smiled. They watched carefully as he removed a folded piece of paper and handed it to the Laramie sheriff.

Mort took the paper and immediately knew what it was before he even unfolded it. He’d seen enough of them in his time. He could tell by the size, the large black print, so dark it could be read from the back. He was right. It was a wanted poster for a Frank H. Wallace.

“You’re a bounty hunter?” Jess said, his voice reflecting not only shock but disgust.

“You gotta do what you can in this life to get by, son,” he said.

“Bounty hunter,” Jess muttered aloud to no one in particular. This man he once looked up to, to emulate and had admired, had just been knocked from his pedestal. Jess felt sick to his stomach.

“How many of you saw what happened?” Mort asked those gathered around.

A few hands went up. Slim and Jess raised their hands as well. Suddenly, Jess spoke up, his voice always deep, seemed even more so now. “He wasn’t packin’, Mort,” he told the sheriff. “And from where we were sittin’, he made no move to defend himself at all. He’d just turned to look in the direction of Jack when he called his name,” Jess said, his eyes glued to the man he once admired, now nothing more than a killer. His right hand twitched and began to tremble. No one noticed. But Slim did. The tall rancher moved closer to his friend, placing a calming hand on his shoulder.

“And then he was shot,” Slim added.

“He’s a wanted man. Says so right there,” Jack defended. “Wanted dead or alive,” The gun slick-turned-bounty hunter added, calmly pointing to the wanted poster Mort still held. Frank’s face clearly displayed.

“The point is he wasn’t armed, Jack. That makes it murder, plain and simple,” Mort told him. Reaching for his arm, he said, “You’re gonna have to come with me, son.”

“Murder!” Cactus Jack was aghast. He’d never heard of such a thing. In most places, he would have at least received a few nods of approval. He realized bounty hunters were not always liked, even though they did serve a purpose. But he’d never heard of one being arrested for doing his job. And that for murder of all things.

“All right. I’ll need any who saw what happened to come to with me. I’ll take your statements. It’s far too late to wake Judge Booker.”

Slim stole at glance at his partner. But Jess’ face was unreadable. Slim simply nodded. He and Jess, along with Sam and a few others, followed Mort as he escorted his prisoner down the boardwalk to the jail.

The Laramie jail looked and smelled like most jails. It was dark in the cell room and smelled of body odor, puke and piss. Though both Mort and his two deputies did their best to keep it clean and fresh, with so many accepting their invitation for at least a nights stay especially during the festival, it never stayed that way. Right now, a long-time resident was sleeping it off in one of the cells.

While the witnesses waited in the main room, Mort locked Cactus Jack up, the keys dangling and clicking together in his hand as he left the room. Cactus Jack called after him. “I’ll be out by morning, Sheriff. You’ll see. You got to call to hold me for doin’ my job.” Mort ignored him and closed the door. He’d heard that before many, many times. It had always amazed Corey, no matter how horrendous the crime. Even with a smoking gun in their hand, they always claimed to be innocent.

Before his eye witnesses even sat down, Mort was taking their statements. Mort wrote as fast as he could, even asking Slim to give him a hand. Together they were finished in record time, the fate of a once powerful gun slick sealed.

*****

Justice for Wallace

The atmosphere in the Bulls Head was one of relieved excitement. No one liked a bounty hunter. So when Mort took hold of the man’s arm and started to escort him out, a loud applause rose.

The man Jess once looked up to evaporated into nothingness in his eyes. He no longer felt the man worth even a second glance, not to mention his admiration.

“You wanna go back in and finish those beers?” Slim asked as they stepped out of the sheriff’s office.

Jess shook his head, his thirst forgotten in light of what happened. “Naw, you go ahead, pard. Think I’ll just go over to the Livery and look in on Flash,” he said. The sight of his idol being dethroned had had a profound effect on Jess.

If Jess was going to say more, he didn’t. They watched in silence as three men carried the lifeless body of Frank Wallace, aka Steele, out of the saloon and down the street to the undertakers.

Though always open, the Livery looked deserted tonight, but Jess knew better. He was sure Webber was around somewhere. He moved over to where Flash stood calmly munching on her supper. “Hey girl,” he said softly as he ran a gentle hand down her face to cradle the soft nose in his palm. He hadn’t heard Slim enter the barn. So it was that he was startled when heard his name.

“Jess?”

“Slim! Thought you were goin’ back to finish off that beer?”

Smiling, the tall rancher walked over to where his partner was stroking the horse. “Naw, right now I’d rather be in here with you. You sure you’re okay?”

Jess looked back at the beautiful animal and nodded. “Yeah. Just kinda sick to my stomach,” he said and turning to look at Slim straight on. “You know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Slim nodded. Reaching into his pocket, he offered a lump of sugar to the mare, who took it gratefully. “Yeah, I do.”

“You’re such a liar,” Jess chuckled, his eyes twinkling.

Slim always made out that animals were just that — animals — and shouldn’t be anything more or less. And yet, Jess knew better. Over the years, he’d seen the glint in the man’s eyes when he petted Alamo or offered Traveler an apple.

Jess turned back to gaze at the horse. Hurt shoulder or not, he was gonna do his best to make Barnard Losee proud. Losee was good man. Slim and Jess had known Bernie for a number of years now. With rumors of the railroad buying out Overland, Slim and Jess had talked at length about what they would do once the railroad took over. And after many hours of long discussions, agreements and disagreements, the two had finally decided to concentrate their efforts on raising cattle. But whenever they could, they’d also work horses. And it was in this vein that Bernie’s name came up. Barnard Losee was an honorable man who produced the finest horse flesh around. It was because of this that Slim had paid a visit to the BL&D ranch early one Sunday afternoon. His partner’s favorite mount, Traveler, was getting on and both he and Jess had seen the telltale signs of his slowing down. No longer could he keep up with those younger than he nor could he carry his partner for hours on end like he’d done in his early years.

Slim knew the attachment his partner had with this animal was a strong one. He also knew that any horse he found could never replace the love and devotion of that particular animal. While on the drift for some five years, Jess’ only companion and close friend was his horse. He talked to Traveler like another human. Still, some eight years later, when upset or saddened, he could always find his partner out in the barn, talking to his favorite mount. The thoughts of losing Traveler deeply sadden him. On several occasions, Bernie had seen this as well, so that when Slim approached him about the purchase of a mount as a gift for Jess he was not at all surprised.

His partner had been using one horse after another from their stock to do his chores, looking for just the right one to enter in Sunday’s race. Slim knew Jess was worried about a mount for the race. He’d singled out a large bay from their stock and had been grooming him for several weeks. Even so, Slim knew Jess wasn’t exactly set on using him to race. He’d take him out several times a week, and when he returned he’d almost always have second thoughts. The animal not living up to his standards. Grumbling, Jess would put him back among the rest. Then, after having several days of second thoughts, out he’d come again. That went on for several weeks. So when Slim mentioned this new mount Bernie wanted to get some exercise, Jess was more than willing to oblige.

“Jess Harper, don’t tell me you’re still planning on entering the race with that shoulder?” Daisy questioned, somewhat surprised. She had thought Slim had been able to reason with his stubborn partner.

“Why sure, Daisy. ‘Sides, the horse does all the work. All’s I gotta do is hold on,” Jess drawled as he reached for his second helping.

Slim knew better than to argue, especially once Jess got a look at Losee’s horse. “You eat any more of that chicken and your horse won’t be able to move,” Slim teased.

Jess just grunted and sunk his teeth into another piece of fried chicken. After supper, he hurried to the barn with Slim and Mike right on his tail. “She’s a real beauty, ain’t she?” Jess said, his eyes sparkling with delight at the mere sight of the animal.

Slim couldn’t argue with that. Secretly, he hoped to win at least one of the contests. He had yet to talk price with Bernie and so had no idea how much he’d have to be out for his partner’s gift. But from the look in his partner’s eyes, Slim knew that if Jess had to give up this animal, he would be crushed. Slim was determined not to disappoint him. Come hell or high water, Slim was gonna get this animal. Losee was a reasonable man. He was sure he’d be able to make some kind of an agreement with the man. At least, he hoped.

Jess said very little as they made their way back to the hotel that night. And Slim knew why. Seeing someone dethroned that he once admired had shaken the ex-gunfighter to his core. Though try as he might, Slim could not fathom why. For that, he reasoned he’d have to have been a gun slick himself. He shook the thought away. He’d comfort his partner as best he could under the circumstances. And try and understand as best he could.

Like all of Pert’s rooms, theirs was clean and fresh. A sprig of lavender lay atop each pillow and bed warmers were still in place. Slim removed them both and sat them just outside the door on the small table provided for that purpose. It felt good to crawl into a nice warm bed. The chill in the night air was a stiff reminder that winter was right on the heels of a very hot summer.

Before they turned in, someone shoved a note under their door. It wasn’t addressed to either of them in particular. Slim opened it and read it aloud while Jess dressed down. It was from Mort.

He wanted them to know what had happened to Cactus Jack. Slim stopped reading and read the rest to himself. This was something he’d give to Jess in the morning. His partner didn’t need to know this now.

“Well, go on. Why’d you stop?” Jess asked, as he pulled the covers up around his shoulders.

“Ah, it’s too danged long to read it all. We can read it tomorrow. Night, pard,” Slim said, and slid under his own warm quilts, saying no more. But he took the note to bed with him, he hoped without Jess’ notice.

*****

Saturday Morning. The Festival Begins

As Slim splashed away during his morning ablutions, he hoped Jess would have forgotten about the note shoved under their door the night before. But, sadly, he had not. He hated to give the note to his partner. Jess had at one time admired, even idolized, Cactus Jack.

Mort had written the note and either him or one of his deputies had shoved it under their door. It read: Sorry to have to tell you this, but when I went to deliver Jack’s supper I found him dead. He’d hung himself with his belt while I was out chasing drunks sometime between seven and eight. I am truly sorry, Jess. And it was signed with Mort’s strong hand.

Jess didn’t mention the note till after he’d finished shaving and was dressed. He was just buckling his belt when he asked what was in the note shoved under the door the night before about. Slim swallowed hard and handed it to his partner and watched carefully. It was one thing to see this man he once admired to be knocked from his throne, but quite another to find that the man had taken his own life.

Slim watched Jess carefully. Jess read the note, then without a word folded it and left it on the washstand. Then grabbing his hat, he turned to Slim.“You comin’? Daisy and Mike will be waitin’,” he asked.

Slim wasn’t sure how to exact to his partner’s nonchalant reaction. So he simply smiled. He took his own hat and the two left.

They’d only gotten half way to the café when Slim pulled at his partner’s shirt sleeve. “You alright, pard?” he asked. He couldn’t fully understand his reaction.

“Why wouldn’t I be? Look, Slim I liked, even worshiped, Jack at one time. But one more bounty hunter planted and pushin’ up flowers is a good thing, I say.” They continued to walk for a spell when Jess spoke up again. “’Sides, I kinda reckin’ old Jack had rather go out his way than swing at the end of a rope. But, after breakfast, I need to talk to Mort.”

The morning air was filled not only with excitement but also was heavy with moisture and a slight breeze that held a defiant chill, causing everyone to pick up their pace as they hurried to Molly’s. The atmosphere of excitement that had begun long before the festival, but was heighten, now that it had actually begun. Walking into the café, they discovered they weren’t the only ones. The place was busier than ever. They found a table near the door, a place Jess usually did not like, but had no choice this morning, as virtually every table was filled. A quick look at the menu and their orders were placed. Although both men loved Daisy’s corn cakes, this morning Molly’s pancakes won out all around. Though they all tried to relax, Saturday was filled with such expectation that breakfast was eaten in haste as everyone was anxious to roam around and see what was on display. Daisy headed to the Woman’s League tent where her own contributions were carefully placed and up for sale. Mike had his own agenda and had begged to be on his own. And after getting the okay, the youngest of the Sherman lot race down the street to meet up with friends. Daisy may have headed for the Woman’s League tent, but her desire to check out Miller’s new batch of material won out and she hurried across the street to the mercantile first.

To Slim’s surprise, Jess was upbeat and talkative at breakfast. If Jack’s suicide had affected him at all, it didn’t show. Jess had on his best poker face, Slim surmised.

Their first stop was the jail. Mort was sitting behind his desk, a look of total frustration on the Laramie sheriff’s face. He looked up as the door opened and smiled at the two men as they entered. “Hi Jess. I…ah, I’m sorry about the news,” he said shyly.

“Yeah. Well, it ain’t about Jack’s death that I’m here, Mort. How much was Wallace worth?” Jess suddenly asked.

That question took the sheriff back and Mort stammered. “Ah, well, let’s see,” Mort said and opening the desk drawer and started to rummage around, looking for the poster.

‘Ain’t you still got that poster Jack handed you last night?” Jess asked.

Mort looked up at his friend and smiled. “Yeah, guess in all that’s been going on, I forgot all about it,” Mort said and got up to search the pocket of the jacket he was wearing the night before. ?There it was in his inside pocket. He took it out and unfolding it announced. “Looks like he was worth a thousand dollars. Why?”

“Well, I was just thinkin’. Since Wallace is dead, kilt by Jack and with Jack not gettin’ the money anyway, well, why can’t you give that money to Wallace’s wife?”

Mort thought for a moment while; behind Jess the smile on Slim’s face just kept growing. “Well, yeah, I guess I could do that. You know I went through Wallace’s saddle bags. He’d told doc that he had some money put away in there along with a note with his wife’s name and where she lived. The three hundred and twenty dollars together with this thousand,” he clicked, “should come pretty in handy with three children to look after.”

Finally, with that settled, Jess followed his partner as Slim stepped off the boardwalk and meandered down the busy street toward Miller’s Mercantile. A table set just outside the main window was filled with all sorts of items. Jess spied Daisy inside talking to another woman and looking at the new patterns and materials. Jess elbowed Slim and nodded toward Daisy.

Slim followed his partner’s gaze and smiled. Daisy Cooper was a born shopper.

Both Jess and Slim looked over the items. Jess had just started to pick up an item when he heard Slim.

“Hey, look over there,” Slim said, directing his pard’s attention to a small crowd gathering down the street. Curious, the two headed for it. As they drew closer laugher and murmurings could be heard, money was being passed about and wagers were being made in hushed tones. Women were standing at a respectful distance, wagging their tongues and shaking their heads, though each wore a smile, they noticed. And every once in a while the whole crowd burst out laughing.

“Come to watch Mike try?” Mr. Harrison asked joining the two.

“Mike!” Jess and Slim uttered in unison. That did it.

After pushing their way into the crowd, they found themselves at the edge of a large mud hole containing several of Mort’s little piglets. The terrified porkers raced around doing everything they could to avoid the hands that kept trying to catch them, each one squealing to high heaven in the process. Grinning wide, Jess pointed to Mr. Hazleton at the far end of the puddle where Mort was keeping the rest of the piglets. He was holding a wiggling male; he reached down, and grabbing a handful of axle grease, smeared it all over the wiggling creature, making it almost impossible to hold on to. Like the rest, it slipped out of his grasp to land with a splash in the puddle like its siblings. It did its best to run for cover before one of the little boys grabbed it.

Inside the mêlée were two extremely dirty young boys. each doing their level best to catch and hold onto the slippery animals, attempting to bring at least one to the judge’s table. Smiling, Slim and Jess stood and watched. Pretty soon, they too were caught up in the fun and excitement, laughing and shouting along with everyone else. Mort stood at the opposite end, all smiles watching and laughing with the others when he spied his friends. Pushing his way through the throng, he made his way over to them.

“Looks like you found your calling, Mort,” Slim laughed.

“Not to mention the smell,” Jess added and waved a hand into the air as if doing so would rid the area of the smell of a dozen or more little stinkers, not to mention the flies.

They continued to watch as boy after boy took their three minutes in the mud trying desperately to catch and hang onto an animal that was as slippery as the mud they were standing in. The little terrified creatures would squeal and kick and wiggle violently until it finally freed itself and ran away as fast as its little legs would carry it, only to be chased again by another boy doing his best to do the same as the first. It was as exhausting to watch as it must have been to participate. They laughed as boy after boy gave up in less than two minutes, leaving covered with mud and smelling like…well, pig.

Still smiling, the two ranchers searched the crowd for Mike.

“There, over there,” Jess said and pointed to a small familiar figure entering the mud hole. Mike Williams was all smiles as he felt certain he could win. After all, he’d been practicing.

The two stared at each other. It didn’t take long before they were shouting encouraging words to their ward. Mike stood inside the enclosure till Mr. Hawkins gave him the go ahead. Hawkins was directing the whole affair standing in the middle of the puddle almost up to his knees in mud. It was Hawkins job to see to it that the little pigs didn’t gather in one corner and not come out. So with a big stick and a booming voice, he’d yell and slap the mud. As if all the shouting, laugher and a thousand hands trying to snatch and hang onto them wasn’t enough to scare the daylights out of the poor little creatures. As they watched, Mike had let two go past him already.

“C’mon, Mike, grab one,” Jess shouted.

Finally, Mike made his choice, and grabbing hold of one of the fattest little pigs, he held on for dear life. The little black-and-white spotted piglet squealed and twisted its body around and wiggled. Kicking violently, it easily slipped out of Mike’s grasp. Like so many before him, Mike stumbled as he reached out to grab another and found himself face first in the muck.

“Mike, get up. You can do it, come on now show ‘em what you got,” Slim shouted, now caught up in the fun.

Again, Mike forced himself up and staggering to the side, shaking his head and spitting mud, selected another victim. Then running as best he could, kicking up mud as he went, the heels of his boots slinging mud in the faces of those foolish enough to get too close. Though not quite as big as the first, it was, however, just as determined to get loose and gave it all its little body had, at one point hooking a little split hoof between the buttons on Mike’s shirt ripping it wide open. On lookers Slim and Jess shook their heads. Would Daisy actually believe that a pig did that?

By now, a fairly large crowd had gathered, and Dennis, one of Mort’s assistants, was having a hard time keeping the on-lookers from placing bets. “This here’s fur the young ‘uns. We don’t want no bettin’,” he shouted till his voice was near gone and still money was being passed.

Slim caught a glimpse of Jess passing a dollar to one of the men taking bets. “Jess Harper,” he scolded. Then when no one was looking, Slim passed the same man an equal amount. Neither man said a word, just looked at each other and grinned. Inside the rink, the action was hot and heavy. There was six determined boys ranging from six to ten all covered with muck doing their best to hang onto six equally dirty, terrified and determined piglets. So far no one had even come close to holding one long enough to get it to where Mort stood waiting to announce a winner.

Jimmy Huggins had almost made it before the little creature kicked its way out of his arms opening a small gash just above his elbow. Blood mixed with mud and gunk ran down his arm. Still excited Jimmy gave everyone a wide toothless grin and dove for another pig while on the sidelines his father did his best to get his son’s attention.

“That cut needs tendin’,” his Pa shouted.

Finally, with the help of a few on-lookers, they were able to extract the injured boy, whose father promptly dragged his son kicking and screaming to doc Willkie. Young Jimmy’s plea, “I woulda won, Pa,” echoed as they went. As it turned out, this festival guaranteed a good amount of business for the local physician. If it wasn’t children with cuts and bruises to tend, it was adults with broken bones, black eyes and sick stomachs to look after. “And they call this fun,” the Laramie physician once grumbled.

Not about to give up, Mike again made another selection. Only this one was a little smarter than its siblings and started running the opposite direction before Mike could even make a play for it, right between another boy’s legs. Mike, his focus solely on the pig dove for it knocking the boy down in the process. Neither boy seemed to care. As a matter of fact, Mike’s knocking the boy down had actually given him an advantage. His little body flying over Mike’s back to land directly in front of one of the terrified porkers whom he scooped up before the little piglet had a chance to decide which way to run. Now both boys did their best, struggling against the mud and gunk, to bring their little wigglers to Mort.

They continued to watch as Mike did his level best to hold onto the pig he’d caught, finally, deciding on just holding on instead of trying to carry the little wiggling thing over to Mort until he got his footing. Once he was sure he could make it, he started out. only to lose his footing and the pig less than halfway across the mire to Mort. All watched as Mike went down face first in the muck for the second time. as did the other boy directly behind him.

Slim and Jess stared, but when young Mike didn’t move as fast as they thought he should, Slim, driven by concern, hopped over the fence and laboriously made his way over to the boy, his boots sinking deep into the gunk as he struggled toward Mike. Amazingly enough, as Mike went down, he’d reached out and caught another pig by the hind leg and was doing his best to pull it into his arms when Slim reached him. He ignored Slim’s shout, being determined to hold on to the little pig no matter what.

With half the crowd shouting encouragements and the other half demanding that Slim get out, they watched as Mike struggled to get up all the while holding tightly to the little pig, doing his best to make it over to Mort, barely hanging onto the wiggling little creature. In the meantime Slim decided to give up and get out and was slowly making his way over to his partner, his hand outstretched for assistance. Jess on the other hand, wasn’t about to assist his muck-covered partner and moved back as Slim neared him, causing onlookers to laugh aloud and those near to move back as well.

“Easy, pard,” Jess called, half-laughing, still moving back.

“I am. I…” Slim never finished the sentence before his feet slipped from beneath him and down he went. Mike finally made it to Mort before losing his grip on the little foot, and plopping down, watched as the little terrified creature jump upon this newcomer and scurried over him and away from grabbing hands, leaving little hoof prints all over Slim’s back and neck. The crowd roared with laughter, including Jess, who by now was holding open one side of the fence to allow Slim to exit. Slim, blowing the mud from his nose and mouth, his boots making sucking sounds as he pulled one foot after the other out of the mud. The feel of the sticky stuff was one thing, but that smell.

With the roar of laughter filling the air, Mike Williams was declared the winner and was handed his prize, a blue ribbon and a dollar. All shouted and applause erupted from the crowd. Mike, with a smile splitting his muck covered face, tediously followed his big brother to the side of the puddle and out. The crowd that had been so eager to gather and watch now parted like the Red Sea to allow the two to leave. No one wanting to get close enough to wear any part of Mort’s puddle.

Jess called from a distance. “Why don’t you two go and cleaned up?” he suggested and ducked as Slim tried unsuccessfully to grab an arm. He watched and laughed as the two made their way down the street, clearing the boardwalk as they went with everyone holding their noses. A second later and the two disappeared into the bath house, two more victims of the End of Summer Festival. As Jess watched them go, he doubted that even Mike would object to a bath this time.

Jess leaned up against one of the hitching posts laughing till tears ran down his face. He could only imagine the look on Pert’s face should his partner and Mike decide to take their baths inside their hotel rooms!

After Mike and Slim finally got themselves cleaned up, Mike headed for the tent at the end of the street where several young boys and girls had gathered, eager to show off his prize. Inside was a child’s delight, with handmade toys of all kinds on display. Mike quickly spied Jess’ war game and proudly pointed out who carved it and that Slim had painted each one. After seeing all he wanted, the youngest member of the Sherman household turned to leave. Dangling out of his back pocket was the pint-sized version of Slim and Jess garden invention.

The boy hadn’t gone far before two well dressed men stopped him and asked what was hanging from his back pocket. Mike pulled it out, and showing it to the men, proudly explained what it was and that his brother’s had made it. Impressed, the men asked if they could borrow it for a few hours and promised to return it before the day’s festivities were over. Mike agreed and told them that he would be at the hotel by six that evening. The men agreed to bring the ‘garden thing’ back and Mike sprinted off in search of more adventures.

“So that’s what that thing is, huh, grandpa?” Ben spoke up.

“Yup. That’s what that thing is,” grandpa said, smiling widely.

As noon rolled around, the family once again met up at Molly’s. Daisy was all a twitter, the pickle contest was coming up first thing tomorrow morning and she was already nervous.

“You will be there? Won’t you?” She asked.

“Of course we will, Daisy,” Slim assured her as he picked up the menu and began to read.

“We always are,” added Jess. Talking into his menu as he read, “Unfortunately,” he said under his breath only to have Slim kick him hard.

“Ouch!”

“Um, what, Jess?”

“Oh, nothin’, Daisy,” Jess told her reaching down to rub his bruised shin, at the same time throwing a hard glare at the man directly across from him.

It being so close to noon, the place was filling up fast. “I think I’ll have stew,” Daisy said.

“Sounds good to me,” Jess said, Slim nodded as did Mike, before announcing that he shouldn’t eat much as he was entered in the pie eating contest over at Miller’s.

“That’s not till tomorrow. I think you’ll empty out by then,” Jess told him.

“Oh, dear. Mike, I wish you wouldn’t,” Daisy exclaimed.

“Why, Aunt Daisy?”

“Because most come away wearing more than they eat,” she pointed out. “Took me half the day and near a whole box of lye to soak out last year’s stains,” she said, shaking her head.

“Daisy’s got a point, Tiger. Why don’t we go get you another shirt before you start in to eatin’ them pies?” Jess suggested.

Around the table, all heads nodded in agreement. Especially Daisy’s.

Lunch, while good, couldn’t hold a candle to Daisy’s cooking, they all agreed, making the old woman blush. Still, they had to admit Molly’s café was one of the best eating places in town, save for the saloon that is. And there they figured, after a few rounds of Sam’s special whiskey, you didn’t much care what you ate.

The rest of the day was spent walking around and looking at the many items up for sale. Seems every store and service had their best on display.

Next contest was bull riding. Daisy opted not to watch this one. Last year she’d watched as another doctor from Cheyenne joined Dr. Willkie to assist with giving aid to those foolish enough to try this contest. Although she was worried about Jess riding in the race, she was, however, glad he had not decided to ride one of Jack Harland’s bulls.

Slim, Jess and young Mike hurried to take a seat and watch. It didn’t take long for the first contestant to be thrown halfway across the rink by a very angry, very large bull. This went on and on for several minutes, until a young man about Jess’ age took his turn. Slipping his hand under the rope tied about the animal, he got a good hold and indicated that he was ready. The very angry bull burst out of its holding pen and bucked hard as it had done before. Only this rider wasn’t as easy to throw from its back as the four others before him. Still, the bovine did its best.

Everyone watched in amazement as the young man was jarred and jerked from one side to another, yet still held his own. It might have been just a three minute ride, but it felt much longer as they watched this one bull try to dislodge the man atop his back. Said man, seemed to have been glued in place. Finally, with the shot of time up given, the young man slipped from the bull’s back and ran to the safety of the side of the rink and out. The audience erupted in shouts and applause.

And to Willkie’s amazement, his services were not needed this time.

*****

Apples and axes

Stepping out of the café into the sunlight, they stood for a moment trying to decide what to do next. Jess glanced at his watch. The apple bobbing contest would begin in one hour. Still, they headed over to Miller’s. With the streets lined with everything from bridles to teas, there was so much to see; it would take them far longer than that to see even half. They could at least look while on their way to Miller’s.

By the time they arrived, a small group had already gathered outside the store. Just to one side of the store front, at the bottom of the stairs, stood two barrels filled with water. The contestants lined up in front of each and waited for Mr. Miller to give the word and the contest would begin. The boys stood laughing and teasing each other, as boys do. Slim, Jess and Daisy stood waiting anxious to watch Mike try and win his prize. Daisy wasn’t sure how good this new apple peeler was, but she knew how badly Mike wanted it.

The concept was an easy one. Whoever was able to snag the most apples within the two minutes would be declared the winner.

Finally, Mr. Miller dropped six apples into each barrel and sounded the start of the contest with a loud shout. The first to try was Jerome Hasskle. He had good form, everyone agreed, but splashed a lot. He’d thrust his head in, sending water over the edge of the barrel then he’d pull it out for a breath and would shake like a dog, forcing onlookers to move back for fear of getting wet.

Next was Herman Marks. The Marks were a new family to Laramie, having come all the way from California. Jonathan Marks had said he and his wife Bell felt California was just getting too crowded. So they decided to move out to Wyoming where a man had elbow room, he told Jess once. Slim laughed aloud and shook his head as did Jess. Eight-year-old Herman was not good at this at all and kept coming up for air like he was drowning. Jess knew what that felt like. Though he couldn’t imagine why anyone would deliberately do such a thing. “Ain’t no prize worth that,” he said to himselfHerman’s biggest problem — he kept his eyes closed. “Can’t get no apple like at,” Jess drawled, causing both Slim and Daisy to shake their heads in response.

Of the two Jerome, seemed to be best, having snagged at least two apples while his opponent was more concerned about getting a good breath. Standing on the boardwalk in front of the store and out of harm’s way was Mr. Miller, who with pencil in hand kept score. When their turn ended, it was Jerome three, Herman one. That meant that Mike had to snag four apples for the win.

Mike stood patiently waiting his turn with Daisy, Slim and Jess watching along with everyone else. With a dripping Jerome and Herman standing at a safe distance, they watched as Adam Foster and Mike took their turn while Mrs. Miller began passing out towels.

“Hey, wait, wait a minute,” came a shout from the back of the crowd as Mr. Foster made his way to the front pushing through the crowd, everyone looking at him.

“What’s them things Mike Williams got in his hand?” He asked.

Mr. Miller quickly spoke up. “They’re to protect his ears, Mr. Foster. Doctor’s orders,” Miller explained and that was enough to satisfy Foster and anyone else who might object. Without anyone noticing, Slim laid a gentle hand on his partner’s shoulder…just in case.

Mike positioned the little rubber ear plugs in his ears and took his place, as did Adam, and waited for Mr. Miller to give them the word. Miller stood with one hand high in the air, then dropped it with a shout and two boys plunged their heads down into the water with such force so as to shower the onlookers, which included Slim, Jess and Daisy. All three stepped back quickly.

A loud shout went up when, after a second dipping, Mike pulled his head out, dripping wet, his hair plastered down framing his face, with a nice big juicy apple in his mouth, his second. Quickly, Mr. Miller took the fruit and Mike went at it again. Adam had yet to snag one, spending most of his time chasing the elusive fruit around the side of the barrel, never really getting a good hold. Mike had learned to corral the elusive fruit against one side of the barrel so’s he could get a good hold.

On the sidelines, Slim, Jess, and Daisy watched as Mike pulled his head out, a nice large apple stuck in his mouth. Mr. Miller took hold and added it to Mike’s count.

“That’s three for Mike Williams and one for Adam Foster,” Miller announced.

“Come on son, you can do it,” a shout came from somewhere behind them. Most likely Adam’s father or uncle.

Mike only needed one more for the win. His family, like Foster’s, watched, shouting encouragements.

To be honest, most were more than a little surprised that Adam had been allowed to compete. Mrs. Nellie Foster was as stickler for keeping healthy and watched her menfolk like a hawk. Slim remembered one year when young Adam, Mike’s senior by a year and a half, and Mike, had went out to pick blackberries. The Foster’s were over at the ranch, paying a visit after Slim, who’d broken his leg while he and Jess were felling trees, was recuperating. He, Jess, Daisy and the Foster’s were sitting out on the porch enjoying Daisy’s lemonade when Mike and Adam came running back with their hats filled with blackberries. Daisy, along with the rest of the Sherman lot, was overjoyed; Slim, Jess and young Mike were anticipating a nice big berry pie as Daisy carefully took the hats and disappeared into the kitchen.

But, instead of being joyful and congratulating the boys as had Slim and Jess, Nellie was worried and chastised her son for not being more careful. She was overly concerned about the number of scratches he’d received while picking the luscious fruit.

“Ain’t no way to pick berries without gettin scratched,” Jess drawled as he watched Mrs. Foster gently wash each scratch with cool water and apply a thick layer of calamine lotion. Slim caught Jess’ eye and shook his head, all along doing his best not to laugh aloud.

“You’d have thought that boy had been attacked by a mountain lion the way she’s carrying on,” Slim whispered, as Mrs. Foster continued to paint her son’s scratches with the pink liquid.

When she finished, she offered to treat Mike’s scratches as well. But Mike just smiled and shook his head. “No, ma’am, I’m all right. Never heard of anyone gettin’ sick from blackberry pickin’.” No one said a word, although they were all thinking along those lines, even Mr. Foster. As all knew, Mr. Foster never agreed with his wife on the subject of injuries, most especially minor ones.

As they watched, Slim looked around the crowd and soon spotted Nellie Foster, towel in hand, waiting to one side behind a group of women. He elbowed his partner and nodded in her direction and the two looked back and shared a smile.

A moment later and Mr. Miller announced the winner. “Mike Williams will you step up here, please?”

Mike, all smiles and dripping wet, climbed the six steps to stand next to Mr. Miller and the four apples he’d snagged within less than a minute. He accepted his prize — a brand new-fangled apple peeler. He couldn’t have been happier. His family shouted, whistled and joined in the applause with the rest. Standing next to Jess, Daisy had a nice a towel and a nice dry shirt at the ready.

Next was the ax throwing contest. Slim was entered in this one and all talked about his skill and gave him as much encouragement as they could, not to mention elbow room. The contest was being held right in front of the Livery, and already a crowd had gathered. Outside, less than a hundred feet from the double barn doors, stood two very large stumps with another situated atop it, one side facing outward with two large white circles and a large red bulls-eye painted right in the center.

Slim was tense. After all, there was fifty dollars on the line. All watched and waited, cheering quietly for their favorite. Jess noticed wagers being passed and dug deep into his pockets to place his own bet. He had a better chance than most, he felt. After all, he’d watched for hours as his partner practiced tirelessly out near the barn every afternoon.

Daisy and Mike stood to one side. However, Mike was still too excited with his prize and just couldn’t concentrate on anything else. So instead of insisting that he stay, Daisy allowed him to take his prize and show it to his friends.

“Just make sure you bring that thing back in once piece, young man,” she ordered. “We’ll be meeting at Molly’s for supper around five. Don’t be late,” she warned.

“Okay, Aunt Daisy,” Mike chirped and joined three other boys just outside the crowd.

Slim slipped on his gloves, picked up the ax and waited for Mr. Webber to give the signal. A moment later, Webber’s high pitched voice yelled out and the contestants eyed the stumps in front of them.

Marcus was the first to throw. His style was good, Jess had to admit. But he was way, way off, the ax kicking up the dirt as it missed the target completely.

Slim was up next.

“Go on, pard. Show ‘em how it’s done,” Jess encouraged.

Then with his eye fixed on the center of the bullseye, Slim took a deep breath, pulled back, and using all his strength, swung, then let go. All held their breath as the ax turned over and over in the air and landed on its edge a few inches from the center, taking out a large chunk of wood before it stopped. Slim was off by a good three inches. He had two more tosses to go, though, and was way ahead of Marcus, who stood looking on, a plug of chewing tobacco budging from one side of his jaw.

Again, Marcus took aim, pulled back, swung high, let go. And again, miss the stump completely. Jess suppressed the urge to walk over and show Marcus where the target was. But he couldn’t help laughing. Slim recognized his partner’s laugh and at the same time heard Daisy’s scolding reprimand. Slim, his eye fixed on the stump, his brow furrowed with concentration, pulled back and let go the ax again. A split second later, the head of the ax landed dead center. A whoop erupted from the audience behind him and he breathed a sigh of relief. Jess started to approach his partner hand outstretched when Mr. Webber, always one to be exact, said that he felt it would only be sportsmanlike to allow Marcus to give it one more try. Of course, Slim was willing, but Jess objected, until Slim silenced his partner with a look. Jess backed down but gave Marcus a hard, ‘I’ll dare you later’ glare.

Marcus, none too sure of himself now but pleased that the Livery man was giving him another chance, took his position once more, drew back and swung. His ax too hit what looked to be dead center. A slight moan came from the throws of onlookers, with only a handful applauding, then dead silence.

It was close. So close in fact that Webber had to take a measuring line to check the distance from ax head to the center. Finally, with everyone holding their breath, he declared Slim Sherman the winner by a mere fraction of an inch. With a shout of triumph, Jess bolted forward and threw his arm around his partner’s shoulders. After that, several others shook his hand till his arm was sore. Webber came out from behind his desk and presented Slim with a crisp fifty dollar bill and a blue ribbon.

“Drinks on me,” Slim shouted, and he along with a river of men, headed for the saloon.

Daisy and Mike, along with several other women, just looked on and shook their heads. In the saloon, Jess snagged a table at the very back, as was his habit, and he sat with the proud winner downing a cool beer. Laramie and the Cannon Shot saloon in Cheyenne were about the only two drinking holes where one could actually get a cool, if not cold brew, and in this heat, they enjoyed their drinks, downing two before coming up for air.

They hadn’t been there long before one of Jess’ poker buddies asked if he’d like to join in a game. Or course, Jess said yes, and Slim pulled up a chair to sit next to his pard to watch. As he watched, Slim began to admire his partner’s skill. Even under the influence of a few beers and several shots, Jess was still playing better than those around him. Two other men had joined the game already in progress when one man decided that folding was better than losing his shirt, while the other continued, confident that he could beat Jess.

Jess raised the bet and waited for others to make their move. Soon, those around the table folded, leaving only Jess and the newcomer to finish the hand. When all was said and done, Jess came off the winner, soliciting a slap on the back and a smile from Slim. As he gathered his winnings, Slim heard someone call Jess a cheat. And that’s all it took. The next thing he knew, Slim found himself sprawled on the floor with Jess on top of him. Jess scrambled off and reached down to assist his partner up when someone from behind hit him hard, sending him catapulting over Slim and into several men looking on. After that, it seemed half the saloon was involved in fisticuffs. Slim and Jess finally found themselves back to back ready for all comers. Jess, one eye turning back and with blood dripping from Slim’s nose, had just pulled back to deliver a hard blow to the jaw of another miscreant when a shot brought the whole affair to a halt.

Men, women and anyone conscious or sober enough to know what was going on, looked up at Mort who stood in the middle of the saloon, gun in hand. “That’s enough,” he demanded. Then turning to Sam he asked, “Who started this?”

“As far as I can tell, sheriff, it was that fella over there next to the winda,” Sam said, indicating a rather disheveled heavy-set man about Mort’s age. “Jess here, Jacob, Miles and Candy were playin’ poker. Looked like Jess here was winnin’. Then all of a sudden, this here fella calls Jess a cheat. Next thing I know the whole place just sorta went to hell in a basket,” he said. Though Mort tried hard, he couldn’t help but smile. Sam Commings rarely ever swore, and when he did, you knew something was really off kilter.

“Alright. Who’s the pot belong to?” Mort asked.

A man about Slim’s age pushed his way through the men and admitted that the pot most likely belonged to Jess.

“What were you holding, Jess?” Mort asked.

“Full house, just before that fella over there,” again indicating the man near the window that Sam had just pointed out, “started shoutin’ that I was cheatin’,” he growled.

“Most of you men know, Jess. You know he doesn’t cheat. How much was in the pot, Jess?”

“Close to three hundred, I reckon. Don’t recall what the last bet was, though.”

“I do,” came a voice from behind the crowed and a small hand rose among the men. Doris strolled to the front of the crowd as men moved aside to allow Sam’s newest saloon girl to come forward.

“Oh, what was it?” Mort asked.

“It was ten dollars. From that fella over there,” she said, and again, pointed to the man near the window.

Mort shoved his gun inside its holster, bent down and collected the money from the table and started counting before handing Jess three hundred and ten dollars.

“Now you men, get this mess cleaned up. What are the damages, Sam?” He asked.

“None, sheriff. Just a few spilled drinks is all.”

Mort nodded and turned his attention to Slim and Jess. “Count yourselves lucky. Now go sleep it off,” he told them sternly.

“Wha…what about ‘im?” Jess slurred.

“I’ll take care of him. Now go on,” Mort insisted.

Jess stuffed his winnings in his pocket and the two made their way to Molly’s, weaving only slightly to join Daisy and Mike for an early supper then to bed. Daisy smiled at her men as they took their seats. It was more than obvious they both had had too much to drink. Rebecca came around and filled their cups with hot coffee. “Coffee,” Daisy smiled. That and a good night’s sleep will put all to rights, she knew. The two had cleaned up as much as possible before going to meet the rest of the family. Though by the time they took their seats, you could tell they’d been in a scuffle. Around the area of Slim’s nose, you could tell he’d not done a very good job of clearing away all the blood. And Jess’ eye was swollen shut and turning blue. Daisy dipped her napkin in her glass of water and handed the cloth to Slim. Slim smiled, took the cloth and finished cleaning up the traces of blood around his nose.

During the course of supper, the two had done their best to act as normal as possible and were only slightly aware of slurring their words occasionally. Then, with the meal over, the four headed up the street to the hotel and to bed. As they entered, Daisy congratulated Mike for not commenting on the condition of his brothers. The little boy just looked up at his adopted aunt and smiled.

From the chill in the room, it was obvious that a Wyoming winter was right on the heels of summer. Daisy had ordered extra quilts, and just before they were ready for bed, a knock at the door told her that her order had arrived, delivered by Pert himself no less. She was glad Slim and Jess had already closed their door. Had the snooty hotel owner seen the shape they were in, he would most like have thrown them out. Bed warmers removed and with the quilts in place, they snuggled down to a good night’s sleep, no matter the noise outside.

*****

Kerosene Cucumbers

“Next morning, all during breakfast, Aunt Daisy was nervous as a cat surrounded by a pack of hungry dogs. . . ” grandpa started only to be interrupted by Mark.

“Why, grandpa?” Mark asked.

“’Cause she really wanted to win that contest. She wanted to see Mrs. Brooks knocked off her high horse and brought down to her level for once,” grandpa laughed.

I could tell by the way Ben was looking at his grandpa that he was about to question what a high horse was. But I beat him to it. I tapped him on the shoulder and promised to tell him later.

A short distance from the hotel stood several women outside the tent near the end of main street, all anxiously awaiting the time for judging to begin. First up was canning, then pies and cakes. Unlike the pickling contest, Daisy stood quietly by, her skirt still nicely pressed and intact. Mrs. Jamison and Mrs. Hartford were this year’s judges. Mrs. Garner’s strawberry jam, took third price, while Hanna Davidson came in second for her peach preserves and Daisy’s blackberry jam took first place. Daisy beamed at that. Up next were pies. This was Slim and Jess’ favorite. Knowing whether Daisy won or not, they knew she’d left samples at home…always making double.

“Eleanor Brooks might have been the pickle queen, but when it came to jams, jellies and most especially pies, no one could dethrone Daisy Cooper. This was her eighth win in that category,” grandpa Mike said proudly.

“Congratulation, Daisy,” Slim said and planted a kiss on the old woman’s cheek, as did Jess.

“Well, thank you both,” she smiled. Then a thought came to her and she asked for the second time. “You are coming to the pickling contest, aren’t you?”

“What? Well, sure Daisy,” Slim said.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” added Jess. Like the pies, everyone had a chance to sample the offerings. They really didn’t mind too much. Except this year, the pies, cakes and jams were up before the pickling contest. That meant only one thing — they’d not have anything sweet to wash away Daisy’s pickles.

Daisy, like the other contestants, was a nervous wreck. The women had worked and dreamed of this day all year long. It was an odd sight, really. For here stood sixteen or twenty of the towns fairest, all of whom knew each other and would gladly stop a bullet to protect one another. Yet when the time rolled around for someone to judge who was best at some domestic venture, these placid little ladies all, turned on each other like a pack of hungry wolves, blood in their eyes, each and every one. Something about bringing home that silly piece of blue cloth that made their whole world a happier place. And gave them rights to bore the heck out of anyone they saw throughout the year with stories and recipes, whether asked for or not.

Of course, to be fair, it wasn’t all about the women. The men too had their own little agenda when it came to bragging rights, Daisy once reminded Slim and Jess when the two got a little too uppity for their own good. All year long, Slim and Jess and soon even young Mike looked forward to the Sunday Shoot. The prize, Daisy had to admit, was a good one. Last year it was a thousand dollars. This year it was nine hundred. The women shook their heads, not understanding how so much money could be won simply by filling a target full of holes when on their side winning for the best food item or something you could wear and enjoy was a whole lot better and made perfect sense.

But, be that as it may, her two older boys were looking forward to it. Like the many women who nervously watched and waited for the judges to hang that little blue ribbon around or near their offerings, Slim and Jess, just couldn’t wait to take aim at those little targets and walk away the winner.

Standing, waiting to be admitted into the judges’ tent, Daisy smiled to herself as she recalled last year’s festival. Slim and Jess had worked so hard practicing, cleaning and checking the sights on their rifles and such till she finally resorted to hiding their guns so that they could concentrate on eating a meal rather than on constantly checking them.

Jess had walked away with the prize last year¼gleaming at the thousand dollars now resting in his account at the bank. Slim had come in a close second, but his aim had been off due to the fact that he was fighting a bad cause of the creeping crude, his mind being on more than the targets swaying in front of him. She shook her head as she recalled admonishing Jess not to laugh when in the middle of the shoot Slim had to put his gun down and make a mad dash for the facilities out back. Later, Jess did try to make his losing partner feel better by assuring him that he would most likely have won had he not been locked up out back reading nasty sayings carved into the walls of Laramie’s outhouses. It didn’t help and the two ended up in a mock fight, rolling playfully in the dirt once they got home, horse play being the calming salve for Slim’s brittle nerves.

But, today…today was Daisy’s turn. Her heart was all a flutter as she stood chatting with her friends and fellow contestants outside the tent. She’d pause occasionally to look around for her family. They’d all promised to be there, as they were each year. She wanted everyone to share in her joy when she walked away with that blue ribbon and saw the stricken face of her loser, Eleanor.

Inside the saloon, Slim and Jess sat and worked on their second beer of the day, each putting off the inevitable and each dreading sitting in that hot tent watching as two old men went from jar to jar, tasting pickles one after the other. Both shook their heads in wonder at the idea.

“Who made them judges anyhow?” Jess asked, sourly.

Beside him, the tall blond finished his beer and huffed. “What makes any man a pickle judge?” he drawled. Both putting off going where they knew they should be, each eyeing the clock as if doing so would make it slow down or even stop. “Well, we’d might as well get it over with,” Slim said finally, eyeing his partner.

Jess downed the last of his drink, and nodding, forced himself up to walk dejectedly behind his friend. Outside, the two stopped to allow their eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. But just as they started to step off the boardwalk and head in the direction of the judges tent, Slim came up short almost causing Jess to plow into him.

“You know we really aren’t being fair,” he said authoritatively.

“Wh… what do you mean?” Jess stammered.

“Well, look at us. Every year we go through the same thing. Hating the idea of joining Daisy. Hating to sit there and watch till the judging’s over and pattin’ the winner on the back and huggin’ the losers. And yet, that poor woman never fails to show up to watch us shoot. I’ve seen her cover her ears and watch,” Slim said.

Jess nodded. His partner was right. Daisy never failed to lend support to whatever they were doing. So it was they walked down the street with a little more enthusiasm, their step a little lighter. At the tent, they pushed through the crowd and came to stand next to Daisy. The old woman’s smile was worth the effort. Mike joined them at the last minute, after showing off his prize to his friend’s.

Slim slipped past Jess and Daisy, saying he’d go ahead and save seats. The place was already packed with family, friends and onlookers watching and waiting to see who would carry away the prize for that year’s best pickle.

Daisy, Jess and Mike moved along with the crowd and found their way inside their eyes scanning the crowd in search of Slim. Finally spotting him, the three made their way down the aisle, excusing themselves as they went. They glanced about to see Mrs. Brooks take her seat just to one side of the first row. Daisy took her seat, wringing her skirt nervously. At the last minute, Mike changed seats preferring to sit on the other side of Slim, feeling that would either give him a better view or an easier escape since the end of that row opened up to the outside.

“Oh, I’m too excited to sit,” Daisy exclaimed, and started to rise.

“Well, you’d better,” Jess advised, “before your rip that skirt plum off,” he teased.

“Jess is right, Daisy. Best sit down and try and relax,” Slim added with a smile taking her arm, gently pulling her back down.

Daisy sat and licked her lips nervously. In front of the audience were three tables set end to end, forming one long table, each covered with a white tablecloth. Atop each table sat jars of pickles, all carefully lined up. Behind the display, two older gentlemen talked and watched the crowd. Daisy knew them well. Mr. Hawkins Sr. and Mr. Bradmore both sat on the town council and both had very discriminating tastes. They’d been judging this particular contest every since it began. Directly in front and to their left sat Mrs. Brooks, equally nervous. She had some real stiff competition this year, what with Mrs. Manners and Mrs. Turner entering at the last minute. They had won several contests over the years, but had yet to win in this particular category. Mrs. Brooks was worried because she’d sampled their entries and found that she actually liked them better than her own. Mrs. Brooks, they learned later, would go from neighbor to neighbor, visiting (or so she claimed) and tasting her competitors’ entries. A sneaky tactic, Daisy had to admit. It was a stroke of genius checking out those that would run against her, one she herself should have thought of, she’d told Slim and Jess later, causing both boys eyebrows to raise to attention. Daisy Cooper, the competitor, was nothing like Aunt Daisy, loyal housekeeper and surrogate mother to the Sherman household.

Like Mike, Jess sat and fidgeting. Slim felt more like he was in church then at the festival. Finally, when he could take no more, he elbowed his partner. “Sit still, for Pete’s sake, will you?”

Jess said nothing, just gave him a hard glare. Slim had just turned to reprimand Mike as well when suddenly a hush fell over the crowd as the two judges removed the lid from first jar. Carefully, they plunged a fork in, and pulling out a nice big pickle, examined it closely. They checked for firmness, color, smell and lastly taste, each taking a well chosen bite. This contest, like most food competitions, nearly brought Jess to his knees with laughter, he once voiced to Slim. Slim had never seen the humor in the situation until his playful partner pointed it out.

“You’d think they were lightin’ a stick of dynamite,” Jess had whispered. At the time, Slim had found it so amusing he finally had to excuse himself and step outside in order to gain control, laughing as he went. And now again, they sat watching along with everyone else. Both knew what to expect, knowing that win or lose, they’d be taking those kerosene pickles back home to rest aside the other eleven jars. That meant one thing and one thing only –sour stomachs and nightly trips to the outhouse in all kinds of weather. Still, they sat fighting back laughter.

You could have heard a pin drop as the two judges turned from the audience and discussed their findings, writing them down on pieces of paper before moving onto the next jar and doing the same. Jess, sat like the others and watched, shaking his head. Of all the odd things he’d seen in his twenty-nine years, this had to be the strangest of them all. The two men were very serious and handled the vegetable with extreme care. Finally, Jess could take no more and leaning toward Slim whispered, doing his best not to laugh aloud. “How on earth can you get THAT serious about a cucumber drownin’ in a jar of vinegar and spices?”

For his part Slim, had been thinking the same thing, and like his partner, had to fight to keep from laughing, though he couldn’t help but smile. And like it or not, a rumble deep inside begged to be let out.

They’d gone through six jars so far and Daisy’s was next. She held her breath as the lid was screwed back on the other jar and the judges unscrewed the lid on hers. She wasn’t the only one; both Slim and Jess were holding their breath as well, both cringing as they knew what to expect, feeling genuinely sorry for both men. Mr. Bradmore was the first to plunge his fork in and remove a nice big one, then it was Mr. Hawkins’ turn. Both men stood facing each other as before and examined their respective pickles closely. Then finally, they sunk their teeth into the sample.

Watching carefully, the two ranchers could have sworn they saw the men gag. But they were professionals and kept a poker face, although Jess thought he noticed Mr. Hawkins completion change from a nice healthy ruddy hue to downright pale. Slim heard Jess snicker and elbowed him again, adding a stern, “don’t you dare,” look to go with it. Then he heard his partner clear his throat and knew, like himself, he was about to bust.

The two men set the pickles aside and went to wash their hands like they did after each sampling. But this time, they talked as they soaped up. Slim took particular note of their expressions as they shook their heads, each wore a sour look. He sincerely hoped Daisy didn’t notice. Finally, after sampling the rest, they picked up the blue ribbon, and draped it over Mrs. Brooks jar. Daisy was crestfallen. Once again Mrs. Brooks had won. Her ninth win. The audience erupted in applause.

The four stood up and Slim put his arm around Daisy and gave her a tight squeeze. “Ah, I’m sorry, Daisy,” he told her.

Jess did the same only added a little kiss with it.

“Oh, that’s all right. As long as my family likes my pickles, that’s all that really matters.” Then after smiling at Eleanor, Daisy lowered the boom and very nearly brought the two men to their knees when she announced. “And you’ll be happy to know I made a double batch this time. So you can have pickles all through winter,” she told them, beaming from ear to ear as she stepped over to congratulate Eleanor.

Slim and Jess walked over to the rows of pickles. Jess looked at Daisy’s jar and shaking his head asked. “Now what do we do?”

Slim sighed.

“Hey, think we could switch ‘em? Take one of these here jars?”

“In front of the whole of Laramie? You wanna get strung up for pickle stealing? Face it, pard. We got no choice,” Slim said, and picking up a fork, he thrust it into Daisy’s jar and removed a large pickle, handing it to his partner before doing the same for himself. “Learn to love ‘em,” Slim told him with a sigh.

That night, with growling stomachs, the two slipped beneath the covers and after a fashion fell asleep.

*****

Sunday – Races And Dirty Faces

Jess had a real good feeling about this race. He’d practiced for hours every chance he got. And that, together with his new mount, made him feel sure he’d win. Or at least he had a darn good chance of it. The only fly in the ointment was that danged shoulder. Saturday night, he’d snuck away to apply more of Elmer’s healing salve to it in hopes of easing some of the pain so he could at least sleep. But come morning, it was as stiff as ever. Shoot, it even hurt just gettin’ dressed. Racing was going to be a real challenge, he knew. But, like most times, he wasn’t about to admit it. Jess Harper had always been good at hiding his feelings; he was an expert at the poker face and could fool most. Except one — Slim Sherman by name. It was as if Slim had crystal ball or something, like he knew what he was thinking before even he did. So that morning after struggling to get dressed, he put on his best poker face and met the family for breakfast. Slim, Mike and Daisy had already dressed and were waiting for him at the café a little ways from the hotel.

Molly’s was already crowded, with everyone wanting to ease hunger before starting their day. Jess stood for a moment looking until he spotted Slim waving across of sea of heads. It was going to be a rough day, he knew, but one he was prepared for.

Watching Jess approaching the table, it was obvious to the tall rancher that his partner wasn’t feeling his best, no matter how hard Jess tried to hide it. He was sure Jess didn’t know it, but he was favoring that right shoulder. Even so, Jesse took his seat without a word and picked up a menu.

“Hey Jess, look,” Mike said excitedly and handed one of the festival’s schedules to Jess. Slim noticed Jess didn’t bother to take it with his right hand, but awkwardly reached out with is left.

“See, it’s got Mr. Landry’s pig races right at the top,” Mike said with glee then added with more confidence than he felt, “I’m entered.”

Jess looked up from the schedule at Slim and Daisy. Both shrugged. “You mean to tell me you didn’t get dirty enough in that pig pen? You want more?” Jess asked.

“Aw Jess. I’m going to win.”

“Oh, and how do you know that?” Slim asked, accepting a coffee from Molly’s waitress.

“’Cause I know the pig,” Mike said, proudly and accepted a glass of milk, smiling up at Molly’s youngest daughter. “’Sides,” he added to the relief of his family, “you don’t have to get dirty. You just have to make sure your pig comes in first,” he said.

“A pig race, grandpa?” Mark asked his tone mirroring the confusion of the rest of us. This was one I’d never heard of.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one. How do you get pigs to race?” I asked.

Grandpa smiled, and after accepting a glass of tea from grandma, I asked him to hold the answer while I helped grandma pass tea around to everyone. This was one thing I genuinely wanted to know. So after everyone had been served, I took my seat again and nodded to grandpa Mike to continue.

“Okay. You see, a pig race is almost like a rat race, without a piece of smelly cheese at the finish line. Little piglets are always very skittish. Scared of everything and hate to be touched or held. That’s why it’s so much fun to try and hold one who’s greased.”

I glanced over at my husband, my eyes growing large. We both knew the boys were going to want to try their hand at holding a greased pig sooner or later. Later, I hoped.

“All you had to do was to tap ‘um on the butt with a stick and they take off like a shot,” grandpa explained.

Across the table Daisy smiled and shook her head. This little tow-haired boy reminded her so of her little nephew back in Boston. Mike and young Dean were the same age, even looked somewhat alike. They sure had the same disposition and temperament.

Breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs and everyone’s favorite, pancakes. Soon all four tucked into their meal. Though breakfast was good, it did little to ease Slim’s worry. He was more concerned than ever about Jess. Said race was set to begin at three o’clock. For more than a week, he had been trying to reason with his younger partner about being careful of that still healing shoulder, but all he said so far had fallen on deaf ears. And now as they sat about eating the first meal of the day he couldn’t help but notice how Jess held his right arm stiffly. Daisy too had her doubts, and had done her best to reason with him. But like Slim, it was like talking to a brick wall. Jess had his mind made up. It was race or else.

They finished their meal and stepped out onto the boardwalk. Daisy and Mike headed down the street, Mike, insisting that Daisy come with him to see where the piglets would be racing. The men smiled as they watched the two make their way through the already crowded boardwalk towards Mr. Landry’s house. Jess laughed at how Mike almost stumbled in his excitement to show his adopted Aunt where he was going to win the prize.

Slim turned back to his partner. He’d try one more time to reason with him. “Jess…” he started.

But Jess knew what Slim was up to and beat him to the punch. “Slim, I know what you’re going to say and it ain’t going to make no never mind. So you might as well save your breath, pard,” Jess said sternly.

Though a little taken back, Slim swallowed hard. Still he spoke calmly with as gentle a voice as he could muster. “I know. But what if you win this race and come away with that shoulder so badly damaged you’re never able to use it again? You going to tell me then that the race was worth it?”

Jess thought for a moment. And for the first time, Slim had a glimmer hope. Jess was thinking it over at least. And think it over he was. But not enough to drop out.

“That ain’t going to happen, Slim,” Jess said, firmly.

“It’s not?”

“No. No, it ain’t.”

“Look, Jess. Why don’t you let me ride?” Slim suggested, even though he really had no interest in racing. But if it meant saving his partner, he was willing to try.

Jess stopped and stared at the tall rancher. “No way. You got a good fifty pounds on me. Sides, you’re taller…

“What’s that got to do with it?” Slim asked, astonished.

“A lot. Everything! See, Slim, Flash is used to me ridin’ her.”

“So?”

“She wouldn’t understand you,” Jess said and turned to follow Daisy and Mike, only to have Slim grab an arm and pull him back.

“You telling me you know how to talk horse?”

“Dang right,” Jess said, and hurried away before Slim could offer a retort.

Slim sighed and turned to follow his partner down the boardwalk toward the pig races, shaking his head as he went. He’d done his best to reason with the man. Now he knew nothing short of his own body telling him to stop would work. He’d be at the finish line, ready to pick up the pieces as always. Having Jess Harper as his best friend wasn’t easy. But most times, he had to admit, it was worth it.

Mr. Landry had cordoned off a good portion of his front yard and sectioned off the course the pigs would follow. Each contestant would chose a pig, each pig was designated by a different colored ribbon tied around its neck and the boys were given a long stick to tap their little rumps to guide them down the race course.

Jess stood to one side and Slim saw him shake his head. “What?”

“Gotta be somethin’ awful wrong with this,” Jess said, looking at the little piglets.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, just look at ‘em, Slim. It’s one thing to be lined up and hit in the butt,” Jess suddenly glanced around to see who might be listening and finding none continued with his observation. “With a stick, but to do it while lookin’ like some silly pork dandy…” he said and again shook his head.

All Slim could do was to laugh. “Now there’s a race you could win. And you don’t even have to ride ‘em,” Slim said, saw the shocked look on the other man’s face and busted up. “You with that bum shoulder and…”

“Will you just give it a rest for once? I’m going to ride and that’s the end of it.” Jess’ tone had an edge to it Slim knew well. There simply was nothing else to be done. Slim finally gave up. Jess suddenly noticed someone missing and looked around to make sure he wasn’t mistaken. “Slim, where’s Daisy?”

“She went over to Miller’s to get Mike a new shirt, maybe even a pair of pants.” Slim told him. Then noticing Slim’s confused, Jess looked reminded him of the pie eating contest that evening after supper.

On the porch sat, Elizabeth Landry. Mrs. Landry had been confined to a wheelchair for the past six years and looked forward to this festival every year since. She watched with a smile as Melvin Landry took little piglets, one at a time, from Mort, and very carefully placed them in a holding pen next to the race course. Slim and Jess, along with Daisy, who showed up at the last minute sporting a new shirt and pants for young Mike, stood looking over the edge of the pen with their young ward. There were six cute-as-a-button little piglets mulling, oinking and grunting, rooting around the edges of the enclosure. Each appeared as if they were looking for a way out.

“Hey, ain’t I seen that one before?” Jess questioned, pointing out a little white and black spotted piglet wearing, of all things, a very large pink bow.

“Oh, yeah she’s the one I almost caught. I think the sheriff put too much grease on her,” Mike said, very seriously.

“Ah huh,” Slim and Jess said collectively, looking at each other with a smile. This was going to be fun. Slim only hoped Daisy would enjoy it as much as he and Jess would. He had a strong feeling she was still smarting over her pickle lose. So with a gentle hand on her shoulder and a smile, he tried to cheer her. Then he whispered in her ear, “No one can make jam like you, Daisy. No pickle could stand up to that,” he said and gave her shoulder a little squeeze.

Daisy looked up at this tall drink of water, this blonde man she’d come to regard as her eldest son and smiled. How she loved this new family. Slim, calm, gentle and, oh so handsome. He was the backbone of this little family, the one who could always see the best in folks. Mike, with his ever present little boy ways, his questions and very astute observations, always made them smile. And then there is Jess. Getting to really know Slim’s young partner had taken some time. But it was well worth the effort. For all his faults, his quick temper, his habit of jumping to conclusions before thinking things through, using his fist before his head, his extremely fast gun and his troubled past, still, deep inside, he was one of the most gentle, talented and trustworthy men she’d ever known. Then there was Andrew (Andy) Sherman, Slim’s younger brother. She’d only met Andy a few times when he came for a visit. He was now a successful doctor working alongside their own family doctor, Seth Andrews, in Cheyenne. But every once in a while, he sneak away and pay his family a visit. Like his elder brother, Andy was muscular and tall — not as tall as Slim, but close. He had an engaging smile and a wicked sense of humor, she discovered. She enjoyed his visits and looked forward to them very much.

Though Andy loved Slim, he regarded Jess and little Mike as his brothers as well. Mike adored him and would often go to great lengths to do whatever he could to skip school to be with Andy. Even playing sick one year. Of course, Andy caught him in the act. But, instead of being reprimanded as he should have been, there was simply a lot of hugs and laughter. Suddenly, with a sharp shout, Daisy was brought back to the present.

“Chose your pigs, boys,” Mr. Landry’s shouted. The boys were to chose their racers and set them on the starting line.

Mike reached down and scooped up his wiggling little racer, the very one Jess had pointed out before. Placing it carefully on the starting line, he held its little shoulders and waited for Mr. Landry to start the race. Each boy, six in total, did the same.

“On your mark, get set,” Landry said. Then half laughing, “GO!”

And the six boys let go of their piglets. The little pigs, scared to death, went in all directions. It took some doing for the boys to collect and get their racers going in the same direction with only sticks to assist them. Once they did, they continued to use their sticks to encourage the piglets to run for their lives…and they did.

Daisy had made the astute observation that she thought the enclosure was a little too short and flimsy. It didn’t take long before she was proved right.

Surrounding the little race track, children and adults alike shouted and laughed as the boys did their very best to keep their little pigs moving in the right direction. Then the inevitable happened. Larry Aim’s piglet was the first to escape, jumping over the edge and landing with a plop at the feet of one of the lookers who quickly scrambled to catch the little thing for fear it would run into the crowded street and meet its end under someone ones foot, human or horse or most likely a wagon wheel. The man returned the little squealing racer back where came from. So, with the little one back on course, the shouting and laugher continued. No problem.

Or so they thought.

Mike was doing very well and his little piglet was obeying his gentle pokes. The race was close to the finish with Mike’s little pig in the lead when suddenly someone leaned too far over and knocked one side of the race course down. Suddenly, with one side of the enclosure flattened, it was every pig for himself and the little squealing, squirming piglets saw their chance and took it. Landry’s shouted for help, as did Mort, who owned the little racers. Everyone watching including Slim, Mike, Jess and even Daisy did their very best to catch as many as they could. And for the next few minutes, it was absolute mayhem.

Though they were pigs and only six at that, you would have thought the territorial prison had let lose its prisoners the way men were shouting and women screaming. Women held up their skirts while men scurried and dove here and there to try and capture one of the escapees. Slim finally got hold of two while Jess captured one, stuffing the little guy in his shirt while trying to catch another. Mort finally found two hiding near the corner of the house, while the last little guy made a mad dash across the busy street near the Overland offices. The unexpected intrusion of the little squealing invader spooked the horses, causing them to pull away, breaking their ropes and darn near pulling down the hitching post as well. They took off up the street while the little piglet scurried under the boardwalk only to have two men hit the dirt and go after him. Shoot, you’d have thought they were going after gold they way they acted. Jess was too busy laughing along with most of the others but still held onto his little porker.

It was only then that Jess’ little pig saw its chance. Its sharp little hooves tore an escape hole in Jess’ shirt and plop — you guessed it — off it ran. Mr. Bridges shouted to Mort that he had what he thought was the last one, when Jess shouted that he’d lost his and the race, so to speak, was on again. Six little boys, poles in hand, stood staring out at their friends, family and neighbors as the whole of Main Street it seemed to erupt in total chaos. One onlooker saw his chance and dove head first into the Wyoming dirt, certain to catch the last little pig, everyone watching. When the little guy made a quick turn and slipped past the man’s groping fingers, its little pink butt cheeks and wiggling tail sped past two women crossing the street wearing confused expressions, most likely trying to figure out why everyone seemed to be looking around them, laughing hysterically. Then it happened. Said escapee decided that hiding under the skirts of one of the women was the way to go and so skittered under Mrs. Brooks deep purple silk frocked shirt. Her friend, the prominent Mrs. Aaron Fields, screamed to high heaven as Mrs. Brooks joined her and suddenly broke into a dance that would have made the most accomplished Irish jigger jealous. Finally, the little guy must have felt in mortal danger of being stomped, so it made another quick turn and scooted from under all that material. Its little legs flying, the piglet sped past a few other ladies, who saw nothing but a blur, to wiggle under the boardwalk. Out of reach. Or so it thought.

Jess finally saw his chance and drove head first like the man before him and grabbed the little stinker by the left hide leg. That little pig was his. When he managed to stand once more, Mr. Landry took charge of the pig.

“After this, Mort,” Jess said, slightly out of breath, “the bacon, better be free.”

That’s when Mort handed Jess a half dollar. Now he knew why everyone was so intent on catching Mort’s little piglets.

“I don’t get it. I mean I wouldn’t want the piggies to get hurt either. But why was everyone so excited. It was only a half dollar?” He asked.

Grandpa looked down and smiled tolerantly, knowing that his grandchildren, like myself, only knew what we read or heard from radio stories. Other than that, we really knew very little of what it was like back in the late 1800’s.

“You see, Alan, it was different back then. Back in 1875, a dollar went a long way. Some folks worked all week just for a dollar or two,” grandpa explained.

I had heard that before. But looking around at the children, I almost laughed as every eyebrow shot up. I think that’s why we cherished our grandpa Mike so much. Listening to his stories was like turning a page in a living history book.

Then grandpa surprised us all when he asked. “Did you ever wonder how Slim got that scar on his face?”

We had only one picture of Slim by himself and it is a close-up. We could tell there was something on his cheek that kinda looked like a scar. But if you’ve ever seen photos from way back when, you’ll understand why we weren’t sure. It could have been a scratch in the lens or a fold. But now we were about to find out.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” grandpa laughed. “While everyone was doin’ their best to hang onto their little squirming piglet, like I said, Slim had already caught two.

All the goings on at the greased pig contest had let loose a boat load of water after one of Mort’s assistants turned over the two troughs that had stood next to the greased pig corral, sending water running down the street right past Mr. Landry’s place, and out past Miller’s store and so on. Slim, doing his best to hang onto his catch, wasn’t paying much attention to where he put his feet, and before he knew it, he slipped and went down like a sack of potatoes. And when he did, one of his little captives saw his chance and escaped, only to run head long into Jess’ leg, causing Jess to reach down and snatch him up by his little curly tail. The other one saw his chance and ran across Slim’s face. Jess looked down at his partner and started to laugh until he saw blood.

“Slim?”

The little piglet’s hooves, sharp as a knife had opened a gash on the rancher’s face from one side of his nose clean over his cheek almost to the jaw. As a result Slim had a curtain of blood running down his cheek and over his jaw. But being the trooper that he was, he’d managed to reach out and grab hold of the little squirming, squealing creature by one hind leg before it got completely away.

Quickly, Jess took the piglet Slim was holding. “Here, give me that little guy and go see doc Willkie. I just saw him and Ben Mires headin’ to his office.”

It was only then and after putting his hand to his face that Slim realized he was hurt. So while Jess did his best to hang onto a handful of squealing pigs fighting to get loose, Slim headed for the doc’s.

Once all the little squealers were caught and corralled, it was up to Landry to try and figure out the winner. Jess didn’t envy the man his job. Before him stood six little boys, each one vying for the win. Finally, with Jess looking on Landry, couldn’t decide and so gave each boy the prize. Like the rest, Mike was thrilled.

“You be sure and hang onto that, Tiger.”

“I will. Can I go and show my friends, Jess? There over at Mr. Hawkins’ place.”

“You don’t want to come to the doc’s with me and see about Slim?”

“Oh he’s okay. Aunt Daisy’s with him. Please Jess?”

Jess smiled and nodded his okay and Mike took off like a shot.

By the time Jess reached the doc’s, Slim and Daisy were just leaving. Doc Willkie had decided not to try and bandage the scratch. But had treated it instead, painting it with some kind of concoction that made Slim look as if he were trying to make himself look like an Indian and just forgot to finish. Willkie did however stitch a small cut on the rancher’s arm though that he didn’t even know he had until he and doc noticed his shirt sleeve was turning red.

Jess took one look and laughed. But Slim wasn’t laughing, his arm ached and the scratch on his face burned like fire. It was closing in on noon and soon the big event of the day would begin. Everyone adult and child alike looked forward to the annual Horse Race. It was the highlight of the festival.

Daisy left Slim in the care of Jess and took off to visit with some of the womenfolk while Slim and Jess decided to stroll around and see what else they could find. This particular year the whole of Laramie seemed to be in a festive mood. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Out in front of the alley leading to the back of several stores stood a booth of sorts with a makeshift counter sporting several darts. Behind the huckster, a wood wall stood with several balloons attached to it. The idea, the man told Slim, was to break at least three balloons and the prize was his.

The two look at each other and smiled. How hard could that be? So, Slim stepped up, laid down two bits, and picking up his three darts, he took aim. It didn’t take long till he discovered that it was a lot harder than it looked. Slim laid down another two bits before gave up.

They walked down the boardwalk toward the saloon. Right now, the Bulls Head looked more like Miller’s store, what with tables outside. Bottles of Sam’s best whiskey were on display and two of their prettiest saloon gals offered small samples. Like other merchants, for sale signs were everywhere. Inside, like in most places, it was packed. There were a few tables left untouched and the two made their way to one of them after ordering a beer each.

Sliding in the chair next to his friend, Slim shook his head. “Never knew how hard it was to break a balloon with a dart,” he huffed then turning a sour eye to his friend, “cost me four bits to find out.”

Beside him, the shorter dark-haired man laughed, reaching for his beer. “There’s a trick to it, pard,” he said, and downed a good long swallow as did Slim.

“And I suppose you know it,” Slim stated sarcastically.

“Yep,” Jess leaned into his elbows toward his friend and partner, “you gotta finish…” he held up three fingers for emphasis “at least three beers and a bottle,” he grinned.

Beside him Slim frowned. “I don’t see how gettin’ drunk could help at all,” he commented.

“It don’t.”

“But you just said¼”

“Don’t help to break the little buggers, but scares the hell out of Cornelius when you draw back that dart, so that he just gives up the prize without askin,’” Jess laughed.

Slim could see the logic in that, and after nodding, joined his partner in laughing.

By the time they’d finished their beers, it was time to meet up with Daisy at the hotel again. The pie-eating contest was being held just down the street right in front of Miller’s Mercantile. A long table stood covered with a crisp white cloth and six chairs stood with their backs to the store and their front to the street so all could watch and enjoy.

“I’ll bet you Miller’s in on this,” Jess growled. He’d wanted another beer, but turned it down as he had a race to run a little later and had to keep his wits about him. Besides, they had to be there for Mike.

“Where’s this pie-eatin’ contest going to be held again?” Jess asked, squinting against the sun as they stepped out of the Bulls Head.

“Over at Miller’s. Like last year.”

“It figures,” Jess said sourly.

Slim gave his young partner a puzzled look.

“Right in front of the best place in town to get a clean pair of pants and shirt,” Jess said.

“Well, I’ve got Mike’s,” Daisy said, causing both men to jump.

“Daisy. Don’t do that,” Jess snapped.

Daisy said nothing, but Slim snarled at his partner. “You’re just on edge because of that race. Don’t take that aching shoulder out on Daisy.”

Nothing more was said as they made their way down to Miller’s mercantile. Mike was already there, waiting excitedly.

Just like Jess thought, the whole thing had been arranged and backed by Miller’s Mercantile. Outside the store stood a large sign advertising the annual pie eating contest. Just to one side of the tables stood Mrs. Miller alongside Mrs. Hartford. The Hartfords were a very important family in Laramie. Melvin and Bertha Hartford sat on the town council and were two of the judges sitting on the pie, cake and jam contests. They had put up the pies for the contest.

“It would have to be blueberry,” Daisy muttered with a cringe.

Slim gave their surrogate mother a tight hug. “Relax, Daisy. It’s only once a year and besides, Mike can always use another shirt,” he told her with a smile.

The old woman returned the smile and nodded. And besides, it was all in fun. She was glad it was being held after lunch. At least Mike could down a good healthy meal before filling up on all that pie.

The pie eating contest was open to both adult and child alike. In the seven chairs were four adults and three children. Mike, Jamie Foster and Harold Brown occupied the children’s section, while Ray Banns, Oscar Hartford, newcomer Harold Hicks and Jason Marks sat with their hands tied loosely behind them. In front of each stood a large freshly baked blueberry pie.

“This is going to be fun,” Jess muttered aloud.

Slim smiled and added, “As much fun to watch as to eat.” He chuckled. But standing right next to him, clutching Mike’s new shirt and pants, Daisy said nothing. All she could see was her little Mike, slathered with blue stains covering his face and ruining his clothes, even though she knew the fun he and the on-lookers would have, ‘Why blueberry, for Pete’s sake?’ she thought to herself.

Jess noticed Daisy’s scowl and gave her a gentle winking and a raised eyebrow that told her to ‘lighten up’.

It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather. As a result, the Sherman lot had to fight for a better position in which to watch young Mike. And soon Mr. Miller gave the word and the pie eaters began.

Everyone watched as adult and child alike bent their heads and began to quickly devour their pies. Bertha’s son Oscar virtually dove into his, forcing the delicious fruit and its juices to spill out over the sides. Already making a good start to a real mess, everyone else attacked their pie with as much enthusiasm, except for Banns who acted as if he was doing his best to stay as clean as possible. An admirable feat, but not very winner-worthy in a pie eating contest, where getting as messy as possible was half the fun. Mothers of the contestants stood nearby like Daisy, clutching a clean shirt, cringing as their children eagerly dug into the pies. After all, a dollar and a blue ribbon were at stake.

Both Mike and Jamie were center eaters, while two others decided to start from one side and make their way to the center. Brook Barnes had made it almost past dead center when suddenly, out of now where it seemed, the newbie Harold Hicks pushed his face deep into the center of his pie and was forced to come up for air, blowing a stream of blueberry juice from his nose as he forced air out so he could breath, eliciting a collective loud howl and laugher from the onlookers.

Jess, noticing that young Foster was a few bites ahead of Mike, began to shout. “C’mon, Mike, you can do it.”

Slim joined his partner in shouting for Mike to “just do it.”

At first, Daisy just stood and watched. Then to her family’s surprise, she too began to shout for Mike to win. “You can do it, Mike,” she shouted.

“C’mon, on, Tiger!” Jess shouted as did Slim. Daisy’s sudden involvement heightened their excitement.

The contest lasted for a good five minutes, with everyone doing their best to outdo the other in scarfing down as much pie as fast as humanly possible. A few minutes into the contest, it was Mike Williams and Brook Barnes in a neck and neck battle, both chewing as fast as they could. Then suddenly out of nowhere, Brook was disqualified when he spat out his pie and start to take another bite. Now it was Mike and Harold. For a time, it was neck and neck and then, Mike just stopped.

“Mike? Mike, what’s wrong?” Slim asked, stepping forward so as to get a closer look and not having to shout.

“Mike?”

“Slim, I feel sick,” Mike mumbled. Everyone could tell that the young boy was doing his best to hold it together. He didn’t want to embarrass himself by upchucking in front of everyone. Jess and Slim hurriedly took him to the nearest outhouse and allowed Mike to rid his stomach of Molly’s blueberry pie, officially ending Mike’s position as contestant in the Miller’s Annual Pie Eating Contest.

The whole family felt bad. As they stood with Mike in the alley behind Miller’s, they could hear the goings on out on the street in front of the store. They all heard when young Harold, the new kid in town, was declared the winner. He and Mike had been in a one-on- one race before Mike started feeling sick. Though Mike was disappointed, he was in for a real surprise and possibly a long enduring friendship.

When Slim and Jess with Mike in tow came out from the alley, they were met by Mr. Miller. The large crowd that had gathered in front of the mercantile was beginning to disburse. Mrs. Miller, together with two friends, was in the process of cleaning up the mess, scrapping out what was left of the pie and lifting off the table cloths. They’d have to soak them in lye water to rid them of the dark blue stains. Still, they knew, not all the stains would come out. Those cloths, they knew, would end up as Willkie’s bandages.

Mr. Miller stepped forward and asked how Mike was feeling.

“I’m okay, Mr. Miller. Sorry,” Mike said, his head down. Like it or not, their little guy was embarrassed. Jess laid a gentle hand on Mike’s shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze.

“Were you really sick, grandpa?” Alan asked.       

Grandpa Mike looked across at Alan and nodded. “As a dog,” he said with a laugh.           

“Well, I’ve got a surprise for you, young man,” Mr. Miller said, and stepping aside they saw Harold Hicks standing there with the blue ribbon in one hand and the dollar in the other.

He stepped forward and smiling addressed Mike. “I kinda figure we both won this here prize. See, I got sick too.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t quite make it behind the store,” a tall thin man said. “Avery Hicks,” he said, and extended his hand to both Slim and Jess, then tipped his hat to Daisy.

“My, ah, my son felt a little bad about winnin’ the way he did so, he, ah…. Harold?” he said, turning to address his son. The young boy stepped forward.

“Yeah, I kinda figure we both won, Mike. So here’s, your half dollar and the blue ribbon,” he said, handing Mike a half dollar and the blue ribbon.

“I…I can’t accept that,” Mike stammered.

“It’s okay, young man,” a nice looking young woman said. “When Mr. Miller found out what my son wanted to do, he gave us another blue ribbon. You’re as much a winner, Mike, as Harold,” she assured him.

With that, Mike accepted the money and the blue ribbon.

“After that, Harold and me were best friends for life,” grandpa said.

“Still?” Alan asked.

“Yep. Harold lives over in White Water, so we don’t get to see each other too much these days. But he writes regular. Got himself four grown children and a boat load of grands,” grandpa chuckled.

*****

The Race

The contestants gathered to one side of Main Street as onlookers lined both sides waiting, all wagering for their favorite horse and rider. The course had been the same for years, starting from the south end of Main Street through the middle of town past the Jenkins place and out to a huge hundred-year oak that stood proudly marking the halfway point. Then they’d go around the tree and head back into town entering the north side and beat it to the finish. A long white sash was stretched across Main Street from one side to the other to designate the finish line. The total course ran a little less than two miles.

Ten minutes before the start of the race, the racers and their mounts took their places and waited for Mort to fire the shot that would signal the start of the race. Each horse, it seemed, was as excited as its rider, prancing and stomping, moving their heads up and down. Whether you were into racing or not, you couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the horse flesh on display. The most beautiful of all, both Slim and Jess felt, was Losee’s mare. Without saying a word, Slim looked from Jess to Daisy and back. Rider and horse looked as if they were made for each other. Deep inside, Slim hoped Bernie would give him a price he could afford. Jess had already fallen in love with the beautiful animal and the mare had bonded with him. It was obvious the horse responded well to Jess’ commands. The animal appeared to enjoy obeying. She had grown as fond of Jess as he had of her. She’d come up to him and lay her head over his shoulder to nibble at his pocket for the treat she could smell hidden inside. Beauty, speed and agility aside, Slim couldn’t get the fact that his partner was throwing caution to the wind. That shoulder the doc had told him wasn’t gonna stand too much stress. He’d try once more to reason with his stubborn friend.

But before he had the chance, the man he’d been searching for all day stepped up beside the tall rancher. Bernard Losee had been a day late, having had problems to deal with at his ranch. Slim understood that. Seeing that the race was about to start, he excused himself and approached Jess.

Looking up at his friend, it was obvious Jess should not be riding. He may not have known it, but that right shoulder was still sagging. He’d often hold his arm close to his body as it was weaker and needed the support. How on earth he was going to ride at all, much less in a race was beyond the logical thinking of Slim Sherman. Still he had to try. Slim touched Jess’ leg, drawing the man’s attention to him. “Jess, I wish you’d reconsider,” Slim said, sincerely. “You still got time. Let me ride, huh?” Slim pleaded, “Please?”

Jess looked down into the worried eyes of his friend and smiled patiently. “Slim, I’ll be okay. You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about. Look how good I did when I was at the house and you were timin’ me, huh,” Jess cajoled.

Slim nodded, but then. “I know. You did real good. But Jess that wasn’t a real race. You only went from the main gate to the barn and back again. And don’t forget, on at least two occasions, you were up most of the night with that shoulder givin’ you fits.”

“Slim, I…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence as Mort shouted for everyone to leave the racing area as the race was about to begin. Slim had just made it back to where Mike, Daisy and Losee were standing. Then, with a smile on his face, Mort fired the starting shot and the race was on.

Shouts and cheers erupted from the onlookers as six horses raced down Main Street, kicking up chunks of dirt as they went. Mike, now washed, clean and sporting his blue ribbon given him by his new friend Harold, stood with Aunt Daisy and Slim to one side of the boardwalk, nervously anticipating the return of the racers and hoping to see Jess out in front. On the opposite of the street stood Mr. Hickenson, a photographer who made the long trip from Cheyenne to Laramie each year to cover the events and to take family pictures, had his camera all ready for the winning shot, whoever it might be. The Laramie town fathers paid him well, in addition to collecting a good sum from the locals wanting pictures of themselves, families and friends, with an occasional animal thrown in for good measure.

Slim had just turned to address Losee when someone Losee knew called to him from the boardwalk. Losee turned and gave Slim a shrug. “Looks like you and me’ll have to have a chat about that mare once the festivals over, Slim. I’m sorry. It’s business, you understand?”

Slim smiled and nodded that he did, and watched as Losee joined the man across the street. The man talking in exaggerated, animated terms almost made Slim laugh. His mind had been on things other than his partner. He was more worried now than ever before.

Outside of town, the racers had just neared the first bend in the road. Nathan Hicks was coming up close behind Jess, who was only third in line to take the lead. With Flash yet to get up to full speed, the sound of the mare’s hooves beating against the well worn road sounded like music to ex-gun slick’s ears. The horse’s strong muscles pulsating beneath his legs, Jess’ mind took him back to the first time he’d given a horse its head one summer when he was a small boy. That had been an exciting accident — one he had never forgotten.

That summer morning he’d been playing with his older sister Francie at the edge of the road that led up to the main ranch house of the family their parents worked as sharecroppers for. They found a horse unsaddled, just standing to one side of the road. It was as if the animal was just waiting for someone to ride him. Jess, a boy who always loved horses, couldn’t resist, and after much begging, persuaded his sister to give him a hand up. He smiled when he recalled that summers day. His bottom had no sooner hit the back of the horse till it reared and would have sent him flying had he not quickly leaned forward and grabbed a hand full of mane. Not content just to rear, the beautiful black horse took off like a shot. Holding on for dear life, the powerful animal’s mane beating him in the face, nearby trees became a blur as he whizzed by them. Fear replaced by sheer joy as Jess held on. It was as if he were flying instead of riding on the back of an animal. The powerful animal raced down the main entrance to the ranch and didn’t stop till it reached the back where the stables stood.

Mr. Schuben, the ranch owner, on seeing the horse and rider coming, had it in mind to stop it. But the animal was coming too fast; instead, he found it safer to plaster himself up against one side of the barn instead. Horse and rider flew past him like a shot. The horse finally skidded to a stop, sending a spray of Texas dirt to cover one side of the barn a mere few inches from where Schuben stood, his arms over his head, eyes closed tight. Jess, only seven years, old slide down to the ground smiling wide…until he saw Mr. Schuben standing up against the barn. He could almost feel his father’s strap and he steeled himself to the inevitable.

But Isaiah Schuben was a kind man and was impressed that a boy that young could have managed to stay on the horses back with only a hand full of mane to hold onto. Pushing himself from the barn wall, he brushed at the dust on his pants as he made his way over to where Jess and the horse stood. The horse, breathing hard and tossing its head up and down, its large dark eyes followed the man as he approached.

“You alright, young fellah?” Schuben asked as he stepped up close to Jess.

“Ye…yeah, sir. Nice horse you got, Mr. Schuben,” Jess said with a smile, though his heart beat loud in his ears and he felt his legs might fail him, leaving him flat in the Texas dirt. He just knew he was in all sorts of trouble.

A moment later and their attention was drawn to the sound of someone running toward them. Francie Harper, her heart beating as if it were about to leave her chest, rushed up to where the man and boy stood. She quickly grabbed hold of her little brother’s hand and breathlessly offered her apologies. “So…sorry, Mr. Sch… Schuben.”

“You’re the Harper young’uns, aren’t you?”

“Ye…yes, sir. We saw the horse out in the field and well, my…my little brother Jesse wanted to sit on him, so I…” She swallowed hard and tried again. “I’m really sorry, sir. Jesse here loves horses and can do most anything with ‘em. All he wanted to do was to go for a ride, sir. We didn’t mean no harm, honest.”

The man his eyes twinkled, he smiled and shook his head. “That was my fault ,young lady. And this here is Jasper,” he said stroking the powerful neck. “He got away from my boy this morning. I was just about to go lookin’ for ‘im when young Harper here brought him back to me,” he said. Then looking around, he turned back to the pair and gave a wink. “At least, that’s the story I’m telling’.” Then he turned his attention to little Jesse, who stood petting the horses belly. “Pretty impressive, young man. Jasper’s the kinda horse you don’t sit. He loves to run, anytime he figures he can get away with it. I’m surprised you were able to hang on.”

Francie looked at the man and smiled, then taking Jesse by the hand, she pulled him away, all the while thanking the man. Grateful that nothing bad had happened and that neither she nor her brother were in trouble, they hurried to the main entrance then home. Nothing more was said of Jesse’s impromptu ride. But he never forgot it.

It felt like he was flying, just like now, he thought as he rounded the bend and saw the old oak come into view. All he had to do now was to circle the oak and head back for the win, the last leg of the race. And to be honest, he was glad for it. His shoulder was about to make him burst out crying. It burned like fire and was getting worse by the minute. As much as he hated to admit it, Slim Sherman was right again. He could barely hold onto the reins. The fingers of his right hand turned numb and his shoulder sagged. At times, the pain was so bad he felt he was going to lose his stomach right then and there. But he fought it off and the race went on.

Like the doc, Slim had warned Jess that his shoulder needed care. And now as he suffered through the race, in his mind Jess heard those words over and over. His shoulder ached something awful now, its weakened condition causing him to have to compensate with his left hand and arm. Skill forgotten, all he could was to concentrate on staying in the saddle. He prayed he’d be able to cross the finish line. Then he could let go and take care of his shoulder later, he reasoned. Thinking so deeply he hadn’t heard nor seen the Starks’ boy coming up fast on his right. He had gained on Tim Matthers and was only seconds from taking the lead. As he pressed, Jess squinted, shook his head to clear it and squinted again. And there it was — Main Street. He felt as if he was seeing it for the first time and pressed his steed forward, locking his feet tightly around her, the muscles of the powerful animal under him pulsated in time to his own heartbeat; his love for this horse had grown strong –almost as strong as his love for Traveler.

Again, Jess shook his head. What was wrong with his eyes, he wondered, not thinking that pain can cause all sorts of problems. He hadn’t heard Newt Starks as he proceeded to make his way up next to him. With his eye sight blurring, Jess failed to see the short whip in Newt Starks’ hand as he brought it up then down hard on his injured shoulder. He might not have seen it, but he sure felt it.

Newt had been ordered — all but threatened by this father — to make sure Harper didn’t win at all cost. “Do whatever it takes, boy. But don’t let that gun slick cross the line,” he’d demanded. Over the course of the race, Newt had done his best to catch up with Harper but until now hadn’t been able to so. Why now, he wasn’t sure. Only that Harper wasn’t lookin’ too good and was maybe too tired to finish. Whatever the cause, his whip proved true, hitting the rider across the back of his right shoulder again and again. The whipping and the pain it caused did nothing to stop the Texan. What Newt didn’t know was that it only made Jess even more determined to win and built in him an anger that could only be eased by plastering his fist up against the young man’s head once they stopped. With the finish line in sight, Newt’s attacks became more furious and his strikes even harder. Finally, after several more blows, Jess had had enough. Turning slightly, he dislodged his right boot from its stirrup, and aiming at the young man’s left leg, Jess kicked as hard as he could, his blow landing like a hammer against the boys shin.

Newt cried out and veered to his right hard. His mount, not used to racing, began to faultier and finally stumbled, throwing Newt free, causing the boy to roll over and over. His horse, breaking its neck, slid to a stop and lay still, the dirt settling all around the downed animal. Newt was now as mad at the horse as he’d been at Harper and began striking the now dead animal. Finally, realizing he had a good long walk ahead of him, he stopped and stomped forward, cursing every step; blaming Jess for the death of his horse and losing the race, he hurried on. He would get even he vowed.

A moment later with everyone looking on, Jess crossed the finish line to the shouts and cheers of onlookers, friends and family alike. Slim rushed forward as soon as Flash slid to a stop. Flash, her powerful withers trembling, her muscles finally coming to rest. She still tossed her head in the air as if to say she wasn’t finished yet. Without sounding too silly, Slim could have sworn he saw her smile. Grabbing her bridle, Slim looked up at his partner.

“Congratulations, pard,” Slim shouted sincerely.

Whether Slim noticed right off or not he didn’t know. But Mort sure did. “Jess boy, you all right?” Mort asked as the crowd now gathered round the winner, still shouting and cheering.

“Jess, I knew you could do it, if anyone could,” old man Summers shouted, waving a handful of winning bills in the air.

Something was wrong. “Jess?” Slim said, now taking the reins from limp hands, “Pard, come on down. You won, Jess,” Slim said, his smile growing. But Jess didn’t move; he appeared dazed. “Jess?”

The crowd, now recognizing that something wasn’t quite right, settled down to a low murmur, all eyes on the winner.

“Jess, you okay?” Mose asked, a frown replacing the smile that seemed painted on since the race began. The old stage driver had laid five bucks on Jess to win. He was going to take his winnings over to Molly’s. He could already taste the steak and smell the rolls. But now worry for his friend crowded everything else out.

“Jess?” Slim reached up, and taking the rider by the arm, gave him a tug. It was only than that Jess seemed to come to himself. He looked down into the worried face of his friends and smiled, then slowly dismounted. Jay from the Livery came over to take Flash and see to her needs while congratulating Jess on a perfect win, slapping him on the back. Though the slap hadn’t been hard, it caused Jess to stagger.

“Jess?” Both Slim and Jay reached out to steady the man.

He smiled wide. “I won. I really won, Slim. That Flash. What a horse,” he said, coming back to himself, it seemed.

Slim smiled wide, glad his partner was back and apparently none the worse for wear. He would soon learn not to be so sure. For as soon as the crowd dispersed and pictures taken, Jess, who’d been standing near the sheriff’s office, nodding and smiling when the last well-wisher clapped him on the back, all of a sudden staggered back and crashed into the wall with loud gasp. The pain felt like hot steel running through his shoulder. It took his breath away. And shocked the well-wisher, who simply stood staring, wondering what he might have done to have caused such a reaction.

Instantly Slim, Mort and Daisy were at his side. “Jess?” Slim called, but again the winner seemed dazed as before and said nothing.

“Hank,” Mort yelled, “bring a chair out here,” he ordered.

“I think we need more n’ chair, Mort. I’m gonna get him to doc Willkie’s,” Slim said.

Daisy nodded.

“Here,” Mort said, and stepping in front of Daisy, he excused himself. Together they got Jess up and on his feet, and although he walked slowly between them, neither man felt Jess knew what was really going on or was aware of his surroundings. Then just before they reached Willkie’s…

“Hold up, Mort,” Slim said, and looked straight at his partner. “Jess, you gonna be sick, huh?” he asked. He got no answer, not that he fully expected one. But Jess did give him the ghost of a nod and two leaned him over not a moment too soon. Whatever Jess had consumed before the race now spilled out at the base of one the many bushes that lined the doc’s residence-slash-office. Not once, but twice before they finally reached the stairs leading to the doc’s front door did Jess’ stomach settle to a degree that would allow them to help him inside without messing up the doc’s office.

It didn’t take a genius to determine what was wrong with his patient. After all, Jess had been warned. “Get him onto the table in the last room to the right down the hall, gentleman,” doc ordered.

“Daisy waited patiently. The only indication of distress was the fact that she’d wring her skirt. Slim, on the other hand was a pacer. He’d pace back and both. Aunt Daisy told me later that she finally had to insist that he stop and sit before he wore a hole in the doc’s rug,” grandpa Mike chuckled. 

“Was Jess hurt real bad, grandpa?” Mark asked.

“Fraid so, Mark. The doc said that hurt shoulder, though not fractured, had several muscles torn along with some tendon damage. When with Slim’s help, they got his shirt and all off. Well, that’s when they saw the bruises made by Newt’s whip.”

“What the…” Slim started.

“Slim, hold him for me will you?”

“Sure doc. Jess, pard, can you hear me?” Slim asked, his voice gentle.

The man still had a dazed look to him, but did manage a weak. “I…I won?”

Slim smiled and assured his dazed partner that he had. It was only then that Slim discovered that what he thought were just bruises were far more. They were burns. “Pard, can you tell me what happened out there? How’d get these burns, huh?” Slim asked and was surprised when another voice answered instead of Jess.

“I can,” Nathan Hicks informed, and stepped into the room, surprising them all. He was ushered back to the exam room after he told Mrs. Willkie that he had information about Jess that the doc should know.

Slim and the doc looked up at the young man. “It was Newt Starks. I saw him pull out his whip and beat Jess over that shoulder every time he got close enough. Hit him pretty hard several times; thought for sure Jess was gonna come outta the saddle. But he held on,” he said shaking his head. “Sorry, it weren’t me that won. But glad it was Jess,” he said, then turning to the doc, added, “He is gonna be all right, ain’t he, doc?”

“He will if he does what I tell him from here on in. Okay, Slim, you can lay him down now. I’ll call you when I’m finished.” And with that, Slim left the little room and walked with Hicks out into the waiting room where both Daisy and Mrs. Willkie sat waiting.

“Sounds like the doc was mad at Jess. Can’t understand why though?” Alan asked. Young Alan was often content to just sit quietly and listen. But now he found his voice and wanted to know why a doctor was mad at a patient, of all things. He might not have expressed it, but we all knew by the tone of his voice.

“’Cause Doc Willkie was the type of doctor who took pride in his skill and didn’t like to see his work messed up. And believe me,” grandpa laughed, “if anyone could mess up a doctor’s work, it was Jess Harper.”

By the time Slim and Hicks reached the front room, Slim was fit to be tied. He wanted to go straight away and find Newt Starks. But Nathan wisely calmed him down. “I know how you feel, Slim. Believe me, I do. But, you got a partner in yonder that needs your clear thinkin’. We’ll take care of Starks. You stay here and I’ll go fetch the sheriff, you hear?”

Slim finally saw the wisdom of those words and backed down enough to give Nathan a nod, then he took a seat beside a very worried Daisy and proceeded to explain what had happened to Jess and why Nathan was going to fetch the sheriff.

Outside, they could still here the cheers, shouts and pops of firecrackers going off in celebration of the win. The Sunday race had been the highlight of the festival and was enjoyed by all. Most were pleased that Jess had won and were busy pocketing their winnings, while others were sour faced, and went away licking their figurative wounds.

Inside the doc’s office, the dying sun cast odd shadows against the walls through the thin lace curtains. Daisy, had been conversing with Mrs. Willkie about one thing and another all along watching Slim as the worried rancher paced back and forth until they heard the distinctive foot falls of the old medic coming down the hall toward them. Doc Willkie had been injured in the war and had a wound that caused his left leg to lag a second behind the right. As he entered the front office, Slim and Daisy quickly turned to him, anxious to hear news of their friend.

“Doc?” Slim started.

“Well, surprisingly, it isn’t as bad as I thought. But he’s sure stressed the muscles to the max. I’ve put it in a sling. And I want it to stay there. No excuses. That shoulder needs at least a month and a half to rest and heal. Takes a good time for tendons to knit back together. He’s torn virtually half the tendons away and stressed those muscles to the max. He’s also torn a few muscles in his forearm,” Willkie explained.

That came as a surprise. Slim never thought of the arm being damaged.

“Doc, would you say being beat with a whip could have caused that damage?” Slim asked.

Without thinking twice, Willkie nodded that it could. “It sure didn’t do it any good, I can tell you that. It’s not so much the beating, but the fact that when you get hit like that, you automatically pull away, or jerk to the side. With Jess’ shoulder being in such a delicate condition, it’s not surprising at all. Why? You thinking of calling Mort in on this, Slim? If so, you got my backing,” the doc assured him.

“You bet I am,” Slim said firmly.

“Mr. Hicks has already gone for the sheriff,” Mrs. Wilkie informed her husband.

Wilkie nodded.

“I’m gonna meet him half way,” Slim said.

“Doctor, when can we see him?” Daisy asked.

“I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Cooper, why don’t you go in and sit with him? He’s resting right now. Might as well leave him here, at least until he wakes up on his own or until Slim gets through talking to Mort,” the doctor suggested. “Whichever comes first,” he smiled.

“Okay, Slim?” Wilkie suddenly asked. Something in the way the tall rancher looked had alarmed him.

“Huh, oh yeah, I’m fine. But if I run into Newt before Mort, he’s not gonna be,” Slim said, in a menacing tone.

“Slim?” Daisy knew how Slim felt; he and Jess were more like brothers than friends.

Slim’s whole demeanor changed, and leaning over he whispered something to her no one else could hear. Whatever it was, it must have made the old woman feel better. She just smiled and patted his arm, then followed the doctor down the corridor into the room where Jess was sleeping.

“I haven’t given him anything just yet. He’s sleeping from pure exhaustion right now,” Wilkie said before leaving Daisy with his patient.

It wasn’t hard to find Mort Corey; he was waiting for Slim at the bottom of the steps that led to Willkie’s residence.

“How is he?”

“Doc says he’s gonna be alright. As long as he does what he’s told, that is.”

“You think he will?” Mort asked, a twinkle in his eyes.

“He will, if I have to hog-tie him, I promise you that,” Slim told him, then turned serious. “Did Nathan find you?”

“He did. Said he’d better before you got out of doc’s office, found Newt and beat him to a pulp,” he chuckled.

“You got that right.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about him. He’s already been charged and is resting his heels in my jail as we speak.”

Slim was surprised. “That was fast. Where’d you find him? Downing a beer over at the Bulls Head?”

“Nope. A couple of Jess’ buddies hauled his sorry behind in my office before the chair I was sitting in got a chance to get cold,” Mort chuckled. “That’s when Nathan told me what he’d done.”

Slim only nodded than returned to the doc’s office to find Dr. Wilkie giving her some medicine for Jess.

Just then, Jess came ambling down the hallway, adjusting the sling to a more comfortable position as he went. Jess stepped into the front room and came up short when he saw the two dark brown bottles in Daisy’s hand. Jess hated taking medicine more than most. But knew when it came to Daisy, he had no choice.

Slim gazed at his friend. He looked a lot better, Slim decided. Wilkie had explained that pain can do odd things to a body. That’s why Jess appeared to be out of it when he won the race and most especially as Slim and Mort half manhandled him to Willkie’s.

“How long do I have to wear this thing, doc?” Jess asked, stretching his neck from one side than the other. His voice belaying the fact that he’d just come to himself.

“Till I tell you you can take it off.”

Jess sighed and gave the old medic a sour look, while Slim and Daisy smiled.

“Anything else, doctor?”

“Yes, get this boy in bed and give him a teaspoon full of this one,” he said,  indicating a much bigger bottle with what looked to be a pink liquid, “and this to help him to sleep without pain.” Wilkie said. Then turning to his patient, he added in a determined tone, “No arguments, Jess. You don’t want me to tie that shoulder down do you?” He asked.

Jess just shook his head as he made his way to the door. Both Daisy and Slim noticed his unsteady gait. Slim was about to ask when the doc volunteered, in a rather low whisper. “You might want to steady him a bit, Slim. Don’t want him falling over and messing up my work again.”

Slim smiled, and walking past Daisy, took his friend’s elbow, ignored the look and the three left the doc’s office.

As they reached the hotel, Mr. Hickenson, the photographer, and Alec Morrison, the head of the town council, stood waiting, voucher in hand. Before either, Slim, Daisy or Jess knew it,  they were surrounded by townspeople. Everyone wanting to get a glimpse and shake the hand of the winner.

Slim hoped this little reception wasn’t going last long. Though Jess looked a lot better, by the time they’d reached the hotel, Jess looked as if he were about to fall flat. Finally, to the rancher’s relief, Morrison handed Jess the voucher and indicated that they should get ready to have their picture taken. Slim was right; just as soon as the picture was snapped and the flash was shot, Jess suddenly slumped to one side.

A hush fell over the crowd and they all looked at the winner. “He hurt his shoulder,” Slim explained. “Doc wants him in bed,” he said. He carefully swung Jess’ good arm around his neck and assisted the winner upstairs to their shared room, leaving the crowd and their mummers behind them.

Once they reached the room, Slim pulled down Jess’ bed. Getting Jess to go to bed wasn’t too hard. He was exhausted and longed to lie down. But his stubborn friend refused to take the laudanum the doc had given Daisy.

“Jess,” Slim growled.

“Don’t need it, Slim. All’s I need is a little nap.” He said.

Slim sighed. As expected, it didn’t take long before soft snoring could be heard. Slim slipped out of the room and went to visit Daisy.

“How is he?” she asked.

“Well, he refused the medicine, but he did lie down and is out cold. You know, I still don’t think he realizes he won,” Slim said, shaking his head.

Daisy smiled. “As much pain as he was in, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is a stubborn one to be sure,” she said.

“Well, you ready for supper?” Slim asked.

“I was just about to ask you the same question.”

“Where’s Mike?” Slim asked, looking around.

“I saw him making his way over to Molly’s a few minutes ago. He’s probably waiting for us there.”

Molly’s was once again crowded. Not as bad as at breakfast and lunch, but close to it. As they entered, several patrons turned their heads and smiled. “Where’s Jess?” most asked. Slim simply explained that the winner was cutting timber at the hotel.

Slim took a seat, grabbed the menu and began to read. “What have you been doin’, Tiger?” Slim asked their young ward.

“Me and Mark was… “

“Were,” Daisy corrected.

“Were, looking at the pigs and puppies over at Mrs. Moore’s house. She’s sure got…”

“Has,” Daisy corrected again.

“Has a lot of ‘em,” Mike said with a smile. Then, as if noticing for the first time, he asked, “Hey, where’s Jess?”

“He re-injured that shoulder. He’s at the hotel asleep,” Daisy explained.

“Oh.” Mike said, but you could see and hear he was disappointed.

Super went well, with both Daisy and Slim finishing their meal along with a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries, a real treat. About the only time they got ice cream was at Molly’s and then mostly during the festival. It was too expensive and time-consuming to make all year round, although once in a while at home Daisy would press Slim and Jess, and even little Mike into churning the custard mixture on summer days. Slim often joked that that’s why he and Jess had gone to so much trouble to build an ice house. Everyone loved ice cream.

“Boy, Jess is really missing out,” Slim commented, lifting a spoonful of the sweet treat to his mouth.

“Um,” Daisy nodded, her own mouth full, then, “I do hope he listens to the doc this time and gives that shoulder enough time to heal.”

Slim nodded.

Finally, with their meal over, they stepped outside and split up. Daisy headed over to the millinery displays to check out the new winter patterns again while Slim made his way over to the leather goods store once more. If he couldn’t afford the saddle, he could at least look at it. That was free. But when he arrived, he was saddened to see the display devoid of the one item he longed for. Mr. Bookman waved from inside the shop and Slim nodded and smiled back, then turned to leave. The little bell above the door rang, drawing the rancher’s attention back to the shop as the proprietor stepped outside.

“Can I help you with something, Slim?” He asked.

Slim smiled and shaking his head, “No. No, Harold, I guess not.” But the look in his eyes betrayed the desire of his heart Bookman knew.

“You lookin’ for that saddle?”

Slim smiled and chuckled nervously; he hadn’t realized he’d been that obvious. “Yeah, yeah, guess I was. Looks like you sold it huh.”

Bookman nodded. “Sure did. Man bought it for a present for another fella.”

Slim whistled. “Lucky fella.”

“He sure is. Can I help you with anything else? Got some real good lookin’ tack I just finished a few days ago.”

Slim smiled and shook his head. “No, no thanks, Mr. Bookman.”

The Leather Goods merchant watched as Slim slowly made his way back down the boardwalk and he smiled. If he only knew who’d bought that saddle. The leather merchant wanted to tell him so badly. But he’d been sworn to secrecy and didn’t dare. He continued to watch until Slim crossed the street and disappeared into Miller’s mercantile. Bookman slowly went back into his shop, confident that Slim would find out soon enough.

Being careful not to be seen, Jess carefully pulled the curtain back before stepping out.

“You really should tell him. Put the poor man out of his misery,” Bookman advised.

Jess gave the merchant a shocked expression. “Ain’t you heard, Harold? A little misery’s good for the soul,” he chuckled.

“You ain’t lookin’ too good, Jess,” Bookman observed.

“Yeah, ain’t feelin’ too good neither,” Jess admitted.

“Maybe you should go back to the hotel and lay down for a spell,” Bookman said.

“That’s just what I’m gonna do, soon as Slim’s outta sight.”

Harold Bookman had known the two ranchers for some time and just laughed it off. In the back room, he’d just found the right crate for the saddle and had been in the process of stuffing paper around the gift when he glanced up to see Slim in the window. Jess had ducked in the back room. Slim never knew his partner was in the shop.

“Well, I think you’ve got time. Just saw him go into Miller’s. You want I should go with you?” the leather merchant asked. He was concerned. Jess really didn’t look well at all.

“Thanks, Harold. But I think I can make it.”

Even so, Bookman watched as Jess made his way down the boardwalk, paused at the general store to make sure Slim wasn’t looking, then continued. His rather unsteady stride was a concern to the leather merchant. Finally, when he was out of sight, Bookman went back inside.

*****

Suspicions

The family didn’t leave town till late Monday afternoon. Both Slim and Daisy agreed that they should let Jess sleep as long as possible. That was okay with Mike. That meant another day’s worth of eating out and playing with friends he rarely got to see except when he came to town with either Slim, Jess or Daisy.

So, late Monday afternoon the family headed back to the ranch. Even so, the ride home was not going to be easy. No one knew why Sunday afternoon Jess looked and felt almost as bad as he had when he first laid down. They had no idea Jess had a pre-arranged appointment with the leather merchant after the race. It would be months before Slim discovered how Jess had been able to pay for that saddle and make arrangements for its delivery. All under the supposed, watchful eye of his pard.

The ride home seemed a lot longer than the ride to town three days earlier. Though some rather unexpected events had taken place, still all in all, it had been a very successful and enjoyable End of Summer Festival. Slim had won most of the contests he entered and was coming home with a good portion of his winnings, along with a bit of a headache from overdoing the celebrations at the Bulls Head the night before. Mike too had won at least two of his contests, making him smile wide and eliciting almost constant chatter nearly halfway home. But the best part, Mike had to admit, was making a new friend. And Jess, well Jess had won all right. But he was paying for it as he’d been warned. And Daisy, well, poor Daisy. She had her heart set on winning that pickle contest this year, but again, like before, Mrs. Brooks edged her out, along with so many others. But she had come home with at least two blue ribbons and ten dollars for her other contributions. Slim assured her that when it came to canning and baking, no one — not even Eleanor Brooks — could hold a candle to her. Slim hoped that made her feel better, and from the smile on her face, he was sure it had.

It was almost dark by the time the little family pulled into the yard. Slim parked as close as he dared to the front porch without taking it off. From the pain killer Dr. Wilkie had given Jess, Slim was certain that he’d have to carry his partner inside. In the back of the wagon, Jess sat slumped against several boxes. He’d done his best to fight off the drug, but it had won out before they’d even reached the edge of town. He kept telling Slim with all sincerity that he would be fine and perfectly able to make it on his own once they got home. Both Slim and Daisy knew better. By the time they’d reached the edge of town, Slim had slowed the team and handing Daisy the reins. He removed the blanket kept draped over the back seat, and reaching round, tossed it over his partner. Though not yet winter, the slight breeze did carry a chill. And like Daisy had said, a chill was the last thing Jess Harper needed right now.

“Keep an eye on him for us, will you, Mike,” Slim asked. Mike nodded that he would. But he too was tired out and close to falling asleep himself. His excited chatter had slowed as they neared home, so that by the time they pulled into the yard, Mike too was fast asleep.

Bumping along, Daisy couldn’t help but catch the smile pulling at the corners of Slim’s handsome face. “Slim Sherman, what are you up to?” She asked.

“Huh. Oh, I was just thinking how I’m going to surprise Jess with,” then he suddenly realized that his partner was directly behind him and he turned to look. No worries — said partner along with their young ward was out cold. “That horse I got from Losee.”

“You don’t mean the one he raced do you?”

“That’s the one.”

Surprised, Daisy exclaimed, “Slim, that’s wonderful!” rather loudly, prompting Slim to shush her. “I didn’t think Mr. Losee would ever part with that horse.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure he will. But he gave me the impression that he might be willing to for a price,” Slim told her. In truth it was the price he was worried about.

“Mike, Mike,” Slim called.

The little boy slowly raised his head, and forcing sleepy eyes open, looked up at his adopted brother. “Come on, Tiger, we’re home,” Slim said. Jumping down, he took the little boy’s arms and lifted him from the buckboard.

“Don’t you want me to help you with Jess? He’s sound asleep,” Mike said, looking back at Jess, who was by now, nearly on the floor.

“I am afraid old Jess is beyond your help just now, Mike. Why don’t you go help Aunt Daisy down?”

“Okay.”

Slim climbed into the buckboard and shook his partner’s shoulder. “Jess? Jess, pard. We’re home. Wake up. Need to get you inside and in bed. Jess?”

Jess struggled to open his eyes but they quickly slid shut.

“Jess,” Slim raised his voice. And Jess responded, drunkenly forcing his eyes open and searching weakly for a hand hold. “You think you can walk for me, pard?”

“Sch… schure I can,” Jess slurred.

Jess hadn’t got as far as the tailgate before his eyes slid shut again.

“Jess? Jess Harper!” No response. This time, Slim knew there was nothing to do but carry him; he reached over, and taking an arm, pulled the other man up and over his shoulder. With one arm holding Jess’ legs, Slim carried him through the open door and inside.

“Oh Slim, mind that shoulder,” Daisy cautioned.

“I will. Only way to get him inside, Daisy,” Slim said, huffing and puffing under his burden.

With Daisy holding their bedroom door open, as carefully as possible Slim laid the injured cowboy atop his bunk. He’d see to getting his partner ready for bed once the buckboard was emptied and put away. It was only after Slim turned around to leave that he noticed a large wooden box standing just to one side of the wash stand. He was more curious then surprised, but had not time to investigate.

He had no idea they’d accumulated so much until he started clearing the buckboard of its load. He carried all the food stuffs in first so Daisy could put them away proper, then he returned for everything else. It took a while, and as he worked, he heard the soft munching of Flash. He stopped, walked over and handed her a lump of sugar, stroking her head as she enjoyed her treat.

“Sure hope you can stay, girl. You got a cowboy in there that loves you,” Slim said, smiling at those gentle black eyes.

By the time, Slim was done and inside, Daisy had Mike in bed and was in the middle of getting the house ready for the night, closing the shutters over the window in the kitchen and pulling the thicker inside curtain closed on the back door.

“I’ll take care of the rest, Daisy. You go on and turn in. You looked tuckered,” Slim advised.

Daisy gave her eldest son a playful sour look. “What a thing to say to a lady. And no, I am not tuckered. I am dead on my feet. Like you,” she observed with a smile.

“Yeah, well soon as I locked the front door and close the shutters, I’m gonna get Jess ready and turn in myself. Night, Daisy,” Slim said, and disappeared into the room he shared with his partner.

Jess hadn’t moved an inch. Slim wasn’t gonna bother undressing him. Not tonight. He was just too tired. He’d remove the man’s boots, jacket and vest. It wouldn’t hurt for Jess to sleep in his clothes at least for tonight, he reasoned. Besides, doing anything more would be like trying to undress a wet noodle. By the time, Slim was finished readying Jess for bed, he was tired out. Getting Jess awake enough so as to move him from the top of his bunk had been more of a chore then unloading the buckboard, he felt. The cowboy had awakened enough so that Slim could at least maneuver him into his bunk and under the quilts. While he worked, Slim had noticed the confused look Jess had given him, but decided that to try and find out why was just too much tonight. For his part, the last thing Jess recalled was seeing the blurry underside of his partner’s pants. Why, he didn’t know. And why the heck was he upside down? He would have questioned it further, but the laudanum won out and again and he slept.

As Slim dressed down, he eyed the box once again, but was too tired to bother opening it. He slipped beneath the warm quilt and fell asleep almost as soon as his head it the pillow, even sleeping through his partner’s snores.

Monday morning came with Daisy’s prized cock announcing it loudly.

Slim popped an eye open and was blessed with the mornings blazing sun blasting into the room through the all-too-thin curtain. Most of the time, he’d close the shutters, but last night, it didn’t even cross his mind. Now he was paying for it.

A slight movement in the next bed caught his eye and he turned to look at his partner. Jess was on his left side, facing away from Slim.

“When are we gonna fry that damned feathered alarm clock?” Jess growled sleepily.

Slim rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Can’t. That’s Daisy’s prize rooster, you know that,” he growled back, his own voice still rough from sleep.

“Well, he ain’t mine. I’ve been waiting for three years to see how that danged walkin’ alarm clock would fry up. I’m just about out of waitin’ time.” Jess groaned and repositioned his head to go back to sleep.

“Hey, Jess?”

“Hmm.”

“What is this?”

“What is what?” came the graveled reply.

“This big old box that’s taken up half the room. You know anything about it?”

“I might. Why don’t you open it and find out?” Jess replied, the grin sliding across his face out of Slim’s view.

Slim sighed, and going to their shared closet, he rummaged for a moment then came back, hammer in hand.

“You be careful with that thing,” Jess warned.

“Thought you said you didn’t know anything about it?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I might,” Jess corrected and was now on his back, his head resting on the pillow as he watched his partner. This was something Slim had wanted every since he saw it in the Leather Goods store months ago. Slim couldn’t pass Bookman’s without stopping and admiring the saddle. Purchasing this for his partner was one of the reasons why Jess wanted to win that race so badly.

By now, Jess had managed to get out of bed and, although he felt a little sick to his stomach, he ignored it. He now stood at the foot of Slim’s bed wearing a big grin as his partner carefully work the nails loose from the lid of the box.

“What have gone and done?” Slim asked, laughter in his tone. Next thing he knew, Daisy and Mike had opened the door and now joined his partner in watching as he continued to pry the lid loose.

Slim, setting the lid to one side, removed the mountain of hay and crumpled up paper to reveal another box — white with a large red bow affixed to it. Slim started to lift the lid, but Daisy stopped him.

“Look at the card first, Slim.” She smiled and glanced at Jess, who stood waiting.

Beside her, Mike could hardly contain his excitement. Unlike Daisy, Mike had no idea what the crate contained. But in his childish mind, because it was big, it had to be good.

Sunday night, just before the family left for supper, Jess had confided in Daisy, swearing her to keep his secret. Slim knew Daisy was checking on Jess, but he had no idea what was taking so long. He had not heard the soft whispers, thank goodness. Though concerned at first, Jess was finally able to assure her that he felt well enough. And besides, he had a prearranged appointment with Bookman he could not break. When he told her what he was up to, she nearly screamed with delight.

“Oh, Jess, Slim is going to be so pleased. I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” she’d said.

Slim picked up the card, and breaking the seal, he opened it and read. His face flushed a little and he looked over at Jess, who just continued to smile.

“Well? Is it so personal that you can’t read it aloud?” Daisy asked.

Slim shook his head and handed the card to Daisy. His eyes filling with tears, she took the card and read aloud. “To one of the best friends a man could ever have. Enjoy, pard. Jess.”

Even more puzzled now, Slim sniffed and reaching down into the crate, untied the bow and lifted the lid from the white box. Then as he peeled back the thin white paper covering the gift, he gasped with delight.

“Jess! Jess, I…I don’t know what to say,” Slim stammered.

“You don’t have to say nothin’, pard. But it would be nice to get that box out into’ barn so we have more room,” Jess said. Slim may not have noticed the change in the man’s voice, but Daisy did.

“Jess, dear,” she said, her tone catching Slim’s attention, “you really need to g…” She never got a chance to finish the sentence before they both saw Jess sag.

“Jess!” Slim shouted and rushed over to grab an arm before the man hit the floor. Then while Daisy pulled down the bedding a little further, Slim help a very woozy Jess back to his bunk.

“Wh…” Jess swallowed and weakly mumbled, “what happened?”

“You near passed out. That’s what happened. Now you stay put, you hear,” Slim ordered. “And Jess. Thank you,” Slim said with a smile.

Jess smiled and nodded before closing his eyes. He slept most of the day after that little episode, and Slim, as quietly as possible, removed the box and his gift to the barn.

After placing the new saddle atop one of the saw horses, all Slim could do was stand back and admire the thing. He’d lost track of the times he’d pulled out his wallet to count his money, only to discover he didn’t have enough. But now, thanks to his partner, here it was, right in his own barn. He couldn’t have been happier. His heart swelled with appreciation for the man that went out of his way to surprise him. Later that morning, Slim hoped he’d get a chance to return the favor, so to speak. Barnard Losee was due at the ranch before noon. Slim prayed Losee would give him a price he could afford.

Returning to the house, Slim quietly performed his ablutions. Overland was struggling, fighting with the railroad for service. He and Jess had talked in length about the possible demise of the age of the stagecoach. Though they had yet to settle on what they might do when that event took place, they were at least thinking about it. Both knew what the loss of income would mean. They often stashed away as much as they could in hopes of fending off the hardships of the winter months. And no less this year. In addition to saving for the festival, the two had stashed away whatever they could to help them through the winter. Their little nest egg rested in a small jar hidden down in the bowels of the cabin in a small room located just under the floorboards of their room, at the foot of Slim’s bed.

They had gotten the idea to build an emergency hideaway of sorts after almost losing the house two years ago when a tornado destroyed the barn and nearly took down the house while Slim, Daisy and Mike huddled in the root cellar. Jess had nearly lost his life when he was caught in the open on his way back to the ranch. He’d got no further then the first corral when he saw the twister take the barn. Hiding in among a group of trees, he was shielded when part of the barn door was blown his way, got tangled in among the trees and covered him, protecting him from the rest of the limbs, rocks and timber being blown about. They had found him when Jess came staggering into the yard. He was cut up and had a bad bang to the head, but thankfully he was alive.

The little hideaway wasn’t very big, just large enough for the family and some cots and supplies. Enough to keep them for no more than a few days. The little room had one lamp and a small supply of lamp oil. The trap door was covered by one of two colorful rugs in their shared room.

Storm clouds had already begun to gather over the mountains; soon winter would be upon them. They were already getting a taste of what they were in for as soon as the sun dipped behind the mountains. The wind would blow its icy breath, causing everyone to scramble for warmer clothing and sending Slim to the woodpile to chop more wood for both the fireplace and cook stove every morning.

That morning, like most, Slim had gotten an early start and was done staking wood for both the kitchen and the rest of the house by the time Daisy had breakfast on the table. The aroma of bacon, biscuits, gravy and eggs filled the whole house. He was amazed how Jess could sleep through it, knowing how much his partner loved his food.

Breakfast was eaten in haste as Slim wanted to get a head start on work. Winter was right on their heels, and even though they’d finished winter preparations, there was still a lot to do. With Jess laid up for who knew how long, Slim had it in mind to work close to home. As much as he hated to do it, he’d be forced to ask for help from neighbors and friends in checking the ranch, moving cattle and such.

First task, to make sure enough hay was stored for the winter. That would take up a good portion of the morning, he knew. Then he’d tackle staking the rest of the fire wood in back of the barn, out of the weather. Wyoming winters were notorious for being icy, cold and wet. That thought made him smile. His partner’s first winter out west had been a really bad one. Jess always hated being cold, and as a drifter, had always shied away from any state notorious for rough winters. And here he settles in one of the worst, Slim laughed to himself. He had to admit, he was glad he did. It was hard to imagine life without Jess Harper to share it.

“Daisy, Daisy.” came a rough voice from the boy’s shared bedroom.

Quickly, Daisy put her sewing aside and hurried to the room, to find her middle son (as she often called him) standing rather unsteadily at the foot of Slim’s bed. He looked haggard and pale. “Jess? What are trying to do?”

“Got to get outside,” he said painfully.

“Outside? I should say not. Now you just turn right around and get back in that bed. You know what the doctor said,” she told him and was by his side, taking his arm. But Jess wouldn’t budge.

“Daisy. . .” A wave of dizziness hit him and he stopped to swallow, trying to keep his stomach where it should be.

“Jess, you can’t go out,” she insisted.

“Got to,” he managed.

“And why?”

“’Cause I got me a date with the outhouse,” he said sheepishly.

“Oh. Well, there’s a chamber pot right under the bed…”

“No!” he interrupted. “I can make it. If you’ll just get Slim to give me a hand,” he said his voice strained.

“Jess… I, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Well, neither’s takin’ care of business in the middle of the bedroom,” Jess snapped. Although to be honest, he didn’t mean to. He knew Daisy understood.

“I don’t know where Slim is right now,” she explained.

“Then I reckon I’ll just have to…”

“Here, put your hand on my shoulder. I’ll help you,” Daisy instructed.

The idea of having Daisy, a petite older woman, helping a grown man to the facilities out back was more than just embarrassing; it was downright shameful. He just couldn’t allow it.

“Daisy…”

“Or do you want me to help you on the chamber pot?”

A moment later and she was slowly walking beside Jess, her arm around his waist with his hand on her shoulder to steady himself as they made their way to the outhouse.

They’d just reached the door when they heard Slim call.

“Daisy, Daisy, what are you doing? Why didn’t you call me?” Slim asked as he hurried toward the two.

“Slim! I wanted to, but I didn’t know where you were. And Jess just couldn’t wait any longer,” she explained.

“That’s okay, Daisy. Here, I’ll take him,” Slim said, taking Daisy’s place.

As it was, Bernie didn’t show up for close to two weeks later. He’d sent a message to Slim explaining that he was delayed due to unavoidable circumstances. When he mentioned it to Jess, Slim could have sworn he saw his partner smile. And Slim knew why. Any extra time Jess could spend with Flash was worth it.

The days had grown short and the nights, longer and colder. Soon winter would be upon them. They had been discussing the upcoming storms late one afternoon when they heard the sound of horses entering the yard. Slim, being close to the door, opened it to find two well-dressed men standing on the porch. No one recognized the men except Mike, who rushed to the door with an excited squeal. These were the two men who had asked to borrow the copy of his brother’s invention.

“I forgot all about you. Did you bring my garden thing?” He asked.

One of the men smiled, and pulling it out from a pocket, handed it to Mike.

Slim invited the two inside out of the increasing wind, whereupon they introduced themselves as Morgan Blaine, the younger of the two, and John MacMillan. They told the family that they were representatives of the Holt Investment Company of St. Louis and had been sent out west to search for new items that had yet to be discovered. And it was for this reason that they were interested in the ‘garden thing’, as Mike called it, making young Mike smile from ear to ear, as did the rest of the family. All accept Daisy, who for some odd reason, was very stand-offish. Both Slim and Jess got the feeling that she simply wanted the men to leave. Still, she disappeared back into the kitchen.

With supper almost ready, she’d made a fresh pot of coffee and was now pulling cups and saucers from the cupboard and handing them to Slim, who quickly set the table, all the while taking note of Daisy, who, for some reason, looked almost, well…scared.

Without sharing her misgivings, the Sherman’s surrogate mother, being distracted for whatever reason, failed to cover her hand with a towel and got quite a burn when she took hold of the hot coffee pot.

“Ouch!” she cried.

Jess peeked around the corner, but Slim was by her side in an instant. “Daisy, are you all right?” Then taking note of the way she held her hand, he knew instantly and quickly pulled her over to the sink, where he began pumping frantically, running cool water over her hand all the while asking, “What happened?”

“Oh, Slim. I’m…all right. Really. Go on and tell our guests to come to the table.

But Slim had his doubts. They rarely saw Daisy rattled. “Daisy…are you sure?”

“Yes, yes of course, now go on, please,” she pleaded.

So a short time later found the little family sitting around the table with the two men. Both Slim and Jess noticed how uncomfortable Daisy was as they discussed their interest in Slim and Jess’ invention. The idea Blaine and MacMillan suggested was that they submit an offer to their company to manufacture the invention. As a result, they would give Slim and Jess a down payment of some fifteen hundred and a percentage of all sales thereafter. All they would need was a small sum to start the process. Good faith money, they called it. That was when Daisy went pale.

“Oh, I am sorry, gentleman, I didn’t introduce Mrs. C…” but Daisy quickly rose, saying she’d forgotten the pie and disappeared into the kitchen.

Slim followed to help, and once out of the hearing of those at the table, asked her what was wrong? She explained that she did not want to be introduced, but did not explain why, promising to do so later.

No one said anything about it, and after a few cups of coffee and a slice of pie, the two men left, after eliciting a promise from Slim to think it over. They would be back the next day to find out what they had decided. As soon as they were out of sight, both men turned to Daisy.

“Daisy, what’s wrong?” Jess asked.

Slim took her by the arm and directing her to the table asked her the same question.

“Nothing really,” she said, but she was still a little pale and Slim felt her tremble.

Jess went into the kitchen and brought out the last of the coffee, pouring both Daisy and Slim a cup and refilling his own. Slim noticed how Jess’ hand shook, but said nothing. They were both too concerned with Daisy.

Then, for the next hour or so, Daisy sat and explained what had happened to her before she came to live at the ranch. The two men, so familiar and their offer so uncanny, had brought back a memory she wished she could forget, she explained. Though Daisy had been with them for many years now, she had never fully explained what had happened to bring her out west. Until now that is.

“A little over eight years ago, I lost my dear husband. But the year before, we were approached by a man who wanted to invest in an invention George had made some time earlier.”

“What was that, Daisy?” Slim asked.

“I had a small business. I made shawls and comforters while George tinkered around inventing one thing or another. George loved trains and spent a lot of time riding and researching them. He and several friends would often gather in the late evening, much like you boys, and they’d talk about trains. George told me that every time he rode the train, it seemed to be unstable somehow, and the track made an odd clicking noise. He explained that each section of track butted up against another and it was at this intersection where the track seemed to be unstable. So George began to try and find a way to solve the problem.” She sighed, her eyes beginning to tear.

“Take your time, Daisy,” Slim encouraged gently.

Daisy wiped away the tears and continued. “Well, for almost every waking hour for the next four months, George worked on solving the problem. He came to me late one night and said he had been approached by the railroad and asked to show them his ideas. Oh,” she said, “he was so excited. You could just feel it. Like a little boy with a new toy,” she chuckled. Slim and Jess smiled. The woman’s love for her now deceased husband was obvious. It made them feel warm inside, but sad at the same time for her. “Well, he met with the engineers and officials. And Slim, Jess, they were so impressed. Here, this small town man, nothing but a merchant had potentially solved a problem they themselves had been working on without success. In so doing, they said, this little piece of squared metal would save not just thousands of dollars, but lives as well. He was so happy.”

“You must have been so proud,” Slim said.

“Oh, I was. Yes, indeed I was proud of my George. Then about a week later we…” She paused, and that same uncertain look came over her. The look she had when those two men paid them a visit.

“Daisy, what? What is it?” Jess asked. Daisy was twisting her apron nervously.

“The railroad offered to pay George a total of twenty-nine hundred dollars for his idea. It was an amazing about of money,” Daisy said. “We had never had so much money. We had such wonderful plans for it. George was going put all but two hundred dollars in the bank. We’d use the two hundred for living expenses and to add on to our business,” she said.

“Then a few days before George was to meet with the railroad officials again, two men showed up. They said they were from the investment department of the Union Pacific. Well, to make a long story short, they said the railroad needed a good faith deposit, they told us.” She sighed, and looking up into Slim’s kind eyes, she smiled sadly. “We emptied out our savings, all but fifty dollars — that’s what I used to catch the stage west. They said they had a business they’d like George to handle for them in addition to the railroad invention. George was very ill by then and had been making plans for…” She couldn’t finish, but held her head high and taking a deep breath. “He never wanted me to stay back east. The winters in St. Louis are very rough…”

“Colder than here?” Jess questioned. He couldn’t imagine a place colder than Wyoming, except maybe Alaska.

“Oh, much worse, Jess,” Daisy said.

“Anyway, the man said he had a business that he wanted to sell in Sherman, Wyoming, and he thought we might be interested. We were of course. And before I knew it, this man was drawing up a bill of sale and writing out a deed for the store. We bought the store, even giving him extra to stock it.

“The dressmaking business in Sherman, Wyoming?” Slim offered.

She nodded. Then began to cry. Holding her tight Slim could feel her shake. “Yes. Then a few days later I…I lost my dear husband and came out here. We had given that man every penny we had. The rest you know,” she said, wiping away a few stray tears.

“Daisy,” Jess said, gently, taking her hand, “you didn’t seem to take too kindly to those two men. Any reason why?”

Daisy looked up at Jess and clearing her throat she wiped away the tears with the edge of her apron. “I…I can’t be sure, you understand. But when this MacMillan offered to buy your invention, it reminded me of something. It seemed like only yesterday.”

“Well, that makes sense, Daisy.”

“No there’s more. Something else,” she interrupted.

“What, Daisy?” Slim asked.

“The man that offered to buy George’s invention. He looked just like this MacMillan.”

Jess leaned back in his chair as did Slim. Mike had already been sent to bed and now was asking for a last glass of milk.

“Oh course, dear. Then, it’s right back to bed with you,” Daisy told the youngster.

One look at his aunt and Mike knew she was upset about something. He drew close, and looking up at her with those big eyes, he asked. “Aunt Daisy, why are you crying?”

Daisy looked down into that cute little face and smiled. Then wrapping her arms around him, she assured him that all was well. “I’m okay. Now go and finish your milk, dear, then go back to bed.” Once Mike was done and in bed, Slim turned back to Daisy.

“Daisy, are you saying you think this MacMillan is the same man that swindled you and your husband?”

“That’s just it, Slim. I can’t be sure. But he looks and sounds the same. The name is different though.”

“What was the man’s name?” Jess asked, and fought back a grimace. He’d been up most of the day and his shoulder was telling him about it.

“I’ll never forget it. It was Masters, Buck Masters. I remember because we had a neighbor by the same name. A very nice family,” she said, then fell silent, deep in thought.

“Daisy, you think maybe…you just have the two of ‘em mixed up?” Slim asked.

It was a logical question, but it brought a jab from Jess to Slim’s chest. Said jab was too much movement for the injured cowboy’s shoulder and he paled.

“Jess?” Slim started.

“I’m okay, Slim,” Jess said. Then half-=muttering to himself, he added, “Sure wish there was some other way of tellin’.”

Then it came to her. “Maybe there is,” she said, “yes, maybe there is.” Getting up, she went to Slim’s desk, pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and came back to the table. “This Masters had a perfect L shaped scar on the back of his right hand. I know because it was rather new and had begun to raise, like most deep cuts do,” she explained. “George and I commented on it and he told us it had happened several years earlier. But it looked a lot newer to me.”

Slim and Jess exchanged glances. Then Slim spoke up. “I do recall this MacMillan wearing gloves. Don’t recall him ever taking them off. Do you?” he asked, directing the question to his partner.

Jess sat for a moment silently thinking, then shaking his head. “No. No, don’t think he ever did.”

Slim leaned forward and taking his cup and coffee pot in hand refilled his and asked if the others would like the same. Both Jess and Daisy refused.

“Well, then we’ll just have to get ‘im to take ‘em off, won’t we?” Jess said, then paled again. This time Slim rose, and taking an arm, insisted that his partner turn in. Amazingly, Jess did not object, an indication of just how bad he was feeling. A few minutes later, Slim returned to Daisy, who he found in the kitchen cleaning up. “I think we should alert Mort of your concern before we meet with them again.”

And Daisy agreed.

Early the next morning, Slim was preparing to ride into town when he spied a rider coming down the road. He paused and watched as Bernard Losee cantered into the yard.

Slim smiled wide as he approached his friend.

“You act like someone’s on your tail that shouldn’t be there, Bernie. Any reason why?” Slim asked, half laughing.

“Naw, just giving this new one a taste of what he can expect,” Losee laughed. “You kinda look a little on the raw side, Slim. What’s wrong? You worried about getting that mare for Jess?”

Slim sighed heavily. “Didn’t get much sleep last night for one. And yeah, I guess part of it is the mare. Traveler’s gettin’ on. Won’t be long before he loses his best buddy. Bernie, he’s fallen head over saddle for that mare and she for him,” Slim told him. “You want some coffee? Daisy just put on a fresh pot.”

“Naw, thanks, though. I gotta be getting back soon.”

“Why don’t we step into the barn, outta this wind?” Slim suggested. It had turned down right bitter.

“Now that I will do,” Bernie said, smiling wide as he tied his mount to a hitching post to one side of the barn.

Once out of the weather, Slim explained what had transpired the day before and that Daisy had her suspicions and he was planning on riding into town to fetch Mort. That’s when Losee surprised him.

“Mort’s over at the Sanders place. Ben had a couple of horses stolen. He caught the men and held ‘em for Corey.”

“Good. I won’t have far to go then. Now about that mare, Bernie. How much you asking for her?”

Losee smiled. Then he moved from the door and walked over to look at Traveler, pulling out a lump of sugar and offering to the old horse. Traveler took it gratefully. Then Losee turned back to Slim.

“Slim, you know I count you and Jess among my best friends. And I can see that this old boy’s not long for this world. So, let’s just say a hundred and her first foal. And we’ll call it even,” he said with a smile.

Slim was surprised and greatly relieved. So much so, in fact, he felt like hugging the man. But he gave the man a big smile instead, nearly shook his hand off.

*****

Daisy’s Revenge

Before he left, Losee finally consented and the two shared a coffee and a piece of Daisy’s pie…the last piece. Sorry, Jess. But once he finds that Flash is actually his, somehow Slim didn’t think he’d mind losing a piece of apple pie. Losee also promised to give Mort Slim’s message regarding their two visitors. That way Slim wouldn’t have to leave the ranch. Bernie knew he was worried about leaving Daisy and Mike alone with Jess laid up.

With the coffee and pie finished, Bernie waved goodbye and headed back home. He’d stop and give Mort the message first. Slim appreciated Bernie’s suggestion. Slim’s decision to work close to home was based on two facts: one, his stubborn partner might try and get back to work before the doctor released him, and number two, whatever could go wrong would and at the worst possible time.

It took a lot longer than Slim figured stacking hay for the winter in the loft. Last year, they’d run out too soon and had to make several trips to Mr. Schwartz’s place for more. It was exhausting and freezing. When they were finished, the next day they both came down with colds and found themselves confined to bed for nearly a week. Didn’t matter much, though. It was just before the first big snow of the season and they couldn’t do much outside anyway. They hated the fact that that chore landed on Daisy and Mike. But their dear housekeeper wouldn’t allow either of them to step a foot outside, fearing they get worse.

Mike came back earlier from visiting his friend a few miles down the road and was sitting with the family, excitedly telling them of his adventures when they heard a knock at the door. And before they knew it, the two visitors from the night before stepped in. After what Daisy had told them, everyone except Mike was on edge.

“Why grandpa?” Mark asked.

“’Cause after what Daisy had told us, we suspected that at least one of our visitors was a no-account crook,” grandpa said.

Jess, who’d recovered enough to sit at the table, excused himself and went back into the bedroom — for what they didn’t know, though Slim suspected. A short time later, Jess returned with a decided bulge in his sling.

The two men took a seat at the table along with Daisy and Slim. MacMillan began right away to telling them that he had received a telegram the night before, an answer to his own, requesting permission to purchase their invention for the price he mentioned. Slim had to fight the urge to show his surprise. They all knew that was a bald-face lie. For one thing, the telegraph operator Dutch Hayes never worked past five. And even if he did, they never knew any answer to be faster than a day or two at least, unless it was from Mort or some other law enforcement officer. Slim glanced around at Jess and Daisy. Both wore their best poker face.

As usual, MacMillan wore his dark brown gloves. The man gave away nothing. They never did know if he had recognized Daisy or not. At any rate, they had to get him to take those gloves off so Daisy could see his hands. While Jess and Slim sat wondering how to do just that. Daisy had an idea and left the table. A moment later, she was back with a pot of coffee in one hand and a pitcher of milk in the other. She sat the coffee down and Slim and Jess thought she was going to do the same with the milk, only instead of sitting it down carefully as they supposed, she purposefully poured it over Macmillan’s gloved hands. Everyone, most especially MacMillan, jumped back.

“Oh, I am so sorry, Mr. MacMillan. Please forgive me,” Daisy pleaded and quickly went to wiping up the mess. Then she turned to the man and insisted he give her his gloves. But the man hesitated, as they suspected.

“I’ll clean them. If you don’t, they’ll shrink and you’ll not be able to wear them…please,” she told him.

“Grandpa?” I started. “Milk doesn’t do that. Does it?”

Grandpa Mike smiled. “You and I know that and so did Slim and Jess, but MacMillan didn’t. And even if he did, Aunt Daisy was a good actress. So he begins to pull off them gloves and guess what?”

“He had a scar on his hand,” Ben said.

Everyone nodded and grandpa Mike smiled wide. “That he did, Ben, that he did.”

Daisy looked over at Slim and Jess and nodded. Right about then, Jess asked about Macmillan’s partner, while the man wiped his hands on the towel Daisy handed him.

“Thank you for asking, Mr. Harper. Mr. Blaine’s back at the hotel. Poor man woke up feelin’ poorly this morning and just got worse as the day wore on, I’m afraid. He’s resting, I imagine.”

“I am sorry. Please wish him well for us, will you, Mr. MacMillan,” Daisy said graciously.

MacMillan agreed and Slim left the table and moved over to the fireplace where he retrieved his shotgun.

“You know, MacMillan, we never did get a chance to introduce Daisy here. Her last names Cooper. You might know her from St. Louis some years back,” Jess said, watching every move the man made.

Though they couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if Macmillan’s ruddy complexion suddenly lost a few shades.

“Recall George and Daisy Cooper? You took their last penny and sent them on a wild goose chase out west to a shop that was never built in a town that didn’t even exist. You remember now?” Slim growled.

Daisy suddenly became aware of Mike who was standing near the couch behind Slim. “Mike, dear. Why don’t you go to bed now? I’ll be in directly and finish that story for you, please,” Daisy suggested.

“Mike…” Slim started.

“Yes ma’am,” Mike said and started to go into his room.

“Look folks…you, ah, you got me mixed up with someone other fella,” MacMillan stated.

“Mr. MacMillan…” Daisy started, but Jess interrupted.

“Or is it Buck Masters?” Jess said, his voice seemed deeper than usual and carried a menacing tone.

The man turned, giving Jess an icy stare. “Mike,” the man shouted, drawing Jess’ attention momentarily away from him.

Before Slim even had time to react, the man had upturned the table sending coffee, milk, and dishes everywhere, not to mention Jess sprawling on the floor. The injured man cried out in pain as his still-healing shoulder connected hard against the floor. Jess’ scream and the sound of the table, not to mention the man’s barreling in Slim’s direction, put a new twist on invited guests. But suddenly, before the man even reached Slim, the front door flew open and Mort Corey’s voice boomed out into the room.

“All right. That’s enough. Don’t move, Masters,” Corey ordered.

Masters stopped cold, but still held his gun.

“Drop it. Or I’ll drop you where you stand,” Mort’s tone brook no argument.

Then from behind Master’s, near the up turned table, Jess’ voice came loud and clear. “I got a gun trained at your back and my partner’s got one at your side. You’ll be dead afore you even hit the floor,” Jess drawled.

The man’s gun hit the floor with a clatter. And Daisy, who’d been plastered up against the wall near the kitchen, finally relaxed enough to move away.

Slim, gun still pointed at the man, moved past him to where Jess was trying with some difficulty to get up.

“I got him, Slim,” Mort assured the rancher, allowing Slim to put the rifle down and help Jess to his feet.

“You got no call, sheriff,” Masters started, “these two were planning on robbing me.”

“I know all about you, Mister. Some eight years ago, you swindled a nice family out of their life’s savings. And you came back to do the same again. Well, the buck, as they say, stops here. You are under arrest for attempted fraud and attempted murder…”

That got everyone’s attention. “Murder,” the three murmured.

“Tie him up, Slim,” Mort ordered, then turning his attention to Masters again, added, “You thought you killed your partner. He’s alive. Over at the doc’s with a bad headache. He’s pressed charges against you, Mr. Masters.”

Slim had helped Jess to his feet, and now he was settled in his favored rocker. The whole family was relieved. What surprised them even more was what Mort told them before he took his prisoner to jail.

“Miss Daisy, Masters here has a warrant for his arrest for fraud and murder…back east.”

“I thought you said Blaine’s alive, sheriff?” Masters said, his voice strained as Slim had taken no pity when he tied the man’s hands behind him.

Everyone stared at Mort. “He is. I didn’t say anything about anyone else. Masters here killed another man three years ago,” Mort explained, then turned to Daisy once more. “How much this yahoo take you for, Miss Daisy?” He asked.

Stunned Daisy didn’t answer right away, but just stared.

“Daisy?” Slim said.

Then as if coming to herself, Daisy stammered. “A little over two thousand, sheriff.”

Mort then turned back to Masters. “Well, I think the bounty on this monster just might cover that and more.”

A moment later and Mort shoved the miscreant out of the house onto the porch. Jess struggled to get out of the chair and walked outside with Slim. The three watched as Mort forced the man to mount the horse he’d borrowed from Sanders.

“Slim, you pay me a visit with Miss Daisy first part of next week and I’ll have a draft all ready and waiting.”

Slim nodded. “We will.”

Later that night, Slim told Jess of Losee’s visit and said something about having his hands full but that he’d be coming back. Slim almost laughed at the look on the man’s face. Jess was sure Losee was going to take the mare back. Jess said nothing, just nodded and headed for the door.

“Where you going?” Slim asked.

“To say goodbye,” Jess said, and left the house.

Daisy turned angry eyes on her eldest son. “Slim Sherman, I have watched you and Jess play tricks on each other, tease and taunt each other pert near to death over the years. But this, this is the first time I have ever seen you treat Jess Harper with such cruelty. You know how he feels about that horse. Why would you do such a thing?”

“She was really mad, huh, grandpa?” Ben asked.

“Mad as I have ever seen her, Benjamin. I was peekin’ outta of my room and listening. I knew something was up when I saw Slim smile.

Slim was still smiling when he took Daisy’s arm. “C’mon, I don’t think you wanna miss this,” he said, and gently directed her to the barn.

“Can I come too? Please?” Mike asked, standing just inside his bedroom door.

“Sure, come on, Mike,” Slim said and the three hurried to the barn.

The lamps flickered as Slim opened the door. But instead of finding Jess inside, he surprised them by coming around the back of the barn to the front with their milk cow in tow.

The look on Slim’s face said it all.

“Dang cow got loose again,” Jess said, his voice a little on the angry side. “We gotta do somethin’ bout this, Slim. Elswise we’re gonna be without milk and butter one day,” he advised.

“I agree. Thought we were gonna say goodbye?”

Jess said nothing more, just gave his partner a confused look and stepped inside the barn.

Daisy was as confused as Jess as she stood beside Slim and Mike.

The three walked to the stall where Jess always housed Flash. He was totally taken back when he found a large blue bow tied around the horse’s neck.

“What the…”

Slim smiled wide. “Look at the card.”

“What?”

“The card, Jess. Look at the card. It’s right there, pinned to the side of the bow,” Slim told him.

Jess turned back and plucked said card from the bow. And breaking the seal, he read aloud. “Turn about is fair play, pard.” And it was signed Slim Sherman.

Jess looked up confused. “Wh… what does that…?”

“Well, I got me a saddle and you’ve got yourself a horse,” Slim laughed.

Everyone busted up when almost as if on cue. Flash lifted her head and struck Jess’ jaw hard.

“I…I don’t know what to say, Slim,” Jess said, his eyes misting.

The mood was subdued happiness around the supper table that night. All realized that Jess’ beloved Traveler, though not being replaced, was at least being put out to pasture. She’d spend the rest of her days peacefully munching on green grass and accepting Jess’ offer of treats until they had to say goodbye.

Jess’ shoulder was giving him some pain, but he refused the medicine. He was just too excited and happy with Slim’s gift to sleep. And Slim was pleased as punch with his new saddle. In short, they all got what they wanted, except for poor Daisy. Eleanor Brooks once again had walked off with the one thing Daisy had worked so hard to get — that elusive blue ribbon for her pickles.

“But, like Slim said. He figured a little over two thousand dollars kinda eased the pain,” grandpa said, with a smile.

“Aw, grandpa, that was a wonderful story. . . ”

“Oh, that’s not all. A few days later during the first of many winter storms, we were sittin’ around the fire after supper, poppin’ popcorn while Daisy read the newspaper.”

“Well, I’ll be…” she suddenly announced.

“What is it, Daisy?” Jess asked, as he filled his mouth with popcorn.

“It says here that Mrs. Bell’s pickle factory had to shut down for an entire week last Sunday.”

“Oh, why?” Slim asked, adding his own hand to the bowl along with Mike’s.

“It says several customers complained about a batch of her pickles. Said they smelled awful and tasted worse,” Daisy informed. Then shaking her head, she added with all seriousness. “Poor dear. I wonder if I should send her my recipe?”

Slim and Jess suddenly realized that they might not have been as careful as they thought.

“Not another word was said. And Daisy never notice how much popcorn suddenly disappeared after that last comment,” grandpa said. “And, that was the end,” grandpa said, “of that.”

***The End***

Thank you to Kathy for being my beta reader.

Return to Joyce’s  homepage

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