Word count: 8050
Jess Harper looked out from the barn and stiffly stretched. Before him, the big spread was crowded with cowboys. Many horses were romping in the pasture beyond the corrals. Saddles were thrown across the fences in neat rows. A trail drive would soon follow the end of the roundup, and the men were getting ready. They were busy fixing their gear, tending to their mounts and bargaining for items.
The activity reminded Jess of a fair or a rodeo, with the bitter smoke coming from the forge lingering in the air and all those people strolling, waiting for something that was yet to happen. When they were done for the day, he’d need to keep an eye on his crew and prevent them from horsing around too much. However, that would wait. Now, Harper was looking for the rancher. He must be the big man waving from the porch of the sizable house.
This cattle and horse sale might be Jess’ best accomplishment since finding a job on the Sherman ranch. The responsibility weighed on him more than he thought it would. He was tense, but he didn’t notice it until he rode into the buyer’s property. The horse he was straddling, though, seemed to be well aware of his rider’s unease, and Jess was happy to turn him loose in the corral before he became any more skittish.
“Healthy and well nourished, that’s how I like them,” the rancher said.
“We waited for the rain so that they’d have something to eat along the way,” Jess replied.
“Was it you who broke those horses?”
“You sure have a way with those critters. It looks like you knew what I wanted.”
Jess nodded, bracing himself for another pat on the back, and then accepted the tacitly implied invitation for dinner that was part of the trade. The smell coming from the kitchen was promising, and in any other circumstances, Jess would’ve enjoyed the meal. This time, though, he couldn’t stop fidgeting with his napkin since he’d taken a seat at the table. He wondered how long it’d take before the talk turned to money. Jess wanted to obtain the highest possible price, but the buyer he was dealing with was too experienced to let him even think that was going to be an easy task.
“I do like them well nourished, but I didn’t expect to see them that fat. You can’t charge me more just because you let those critters eat their fill.”
“You’re heading north, right? How much grass do you believe you’ll see this time of year?” asked Jess.
From there, the dickering was on, and Jess went all in with every argument, making counter offers to the man’s low-balling bids. Then, as suddenly as it came up as a topic, the deal was finalized. In the end, Jess was drained. When he realized that the cattle and horses were finally sold, he drew a deep breath, shook hands with the rancher and signed the bill of sale on behalf of Slim Sherman. Then, sipping the whisky he’d been offered, Jess relaxed. The price wasn’t the highest, but it was good enough to make his boss wind down and enjoy his ranch for a while.
The liquor worked its way through his fatigue. The dining room suddenly seemed too hot. The buyer, hardly managing to hide his grin, bid him goodbye, and Jess went outside. From the corral came a soft neigh. He patted the pouch in his pocket, paused and listened to the horses.
A strange feeling came over him, a wish to be working with those horses again. It was the struggle that Jess Harper liked the most. The satisfaction from the trade was quite new to him and he had trouble enjoying it for what it was. It made him feel important — a top hand riding for the Sherman ranch — but it worried him, too. What if he got used to that idea, and then had to give it up for some reason?
The horses ambled toward their trainer, but he turned his back to them. They sensed he was somber but couldn’t identify the source of that feeling any more than Jess himself. He just turned a good profit from those horses, and it was time to move on. He was entitled to satisfaction. Jess couldn’t deny the sense of fulfillment. However, a vague worry that he might lose everything that he earned marred the thrilling night with a hazy fear.
Jess regretted his decision to spend the night in the bunkhouse the moment he stepped inside. The door was open but not enough to let the steaming air out. The three hired cowboys acknowledged his presence, so Jess walked to their bunks in the crowded building.
“Mr. Harper, we’d like to have a word with you.”
“I told you to call me Jess,” Harper said, picking up a blanket.
The boys glanced at each other and let one of them speak.
“It’s about the job. We want to quit and carry on to Fort Steele and Medicine Bow.”
Jess let go of the blanket. Surprised as he was, he didn’t let it show. He wanted to hear more, but they didn’t explain further. “Slim wants you to ride with me and meet him on our way back to Laramie.”
“I know, Jess. We had a deal with Sherman, but things have changed.”
“In what way?”
“Jeff and I have found a new job that will take us north, and we need to leave tonight. The boy will be going back with you, though, so he’s decided.”
The cowhand wanted to sound confident and matter-of-fact, but his voice quavered. The kid restrained himself to a nod. Jess was in a double-bind: should he stick with Slim’s plan or let the men go? “You should have told Sherman you wanted to move on.”
“We didn’t know then. We spoke with some of the men here. Many ranchers are getting good land up north, and more cowboys will be needed there,” said Jeff.
“There’s no reason to rush. A two-day delay won’t matter, I guess.”
“Yes, but the man we talked to will get us a job if we go with him now. He’s trailing cattle to Medicine Bow, and then he’ll start his own spread,” Jeff’s friend said.
“Who offered you the job? Can I talk to him?” Jess asked.
“He’s out with the herd right now, waiting for us.”
The discussion was getting nowhere, and Jess wished he could just forget about it. They wanted to go, and they’d leave as soon as they received their pay, one way or the other. It could be now or the morning after. Anyway, it wouldn’t make a big difference to Jess to not have the whole crew with him. He could still count on the boy, and it wasn’t such a long way to meeting Slim. Jess made up his mind, paid the cowhands and wished them good luck.
He went to sleep at last. In the middle of the night, there was a commotion. Noises were coming from the barn. Someone shouted and a gun was fired. The sound of hoof beats carried away the turmoil. Jess jumped out of his bunk, his gun in his hand. He peered through the window, but whatever happened was already over. He lay down again, the money pouch between him and the mattress. Later on, he dreamed of a lump in his stomach.
Slim Sherman was looking forward to leaving Medicine Bow. He wondered how Jess would have managed starting up the stage line’s new office. With his pard’s temper, it was a safe bet that the whining clerk would have been rolling in the street within the hour.
The rancher smiled at the idea as he urged his horse on. He was eager to learn about the sale. It wasn’t the first time that Slim had entrusted his friend to sell cattle on behalf of the Sherman ranch, although the other time it wasn’t such a big sale. Slim also wondered if he put too many demands on Jess. Since he had arrived and accepted the job on the ranch, Jess took more and more responsibilities. At that point, Slim couldn’t figure how he might keep on operating both his spread and the franchise without his pard’s help. Was it fair to ask him to share so many troubles for just thirty a month?
Well, Slim could always raise his ranch hand’s wages, and there were other options, too. Slim began to think about making a real business partner out of his friend, and the thought brought a smile to his face. He just needed to find the right words to tell Jess. Otherwise, the idea of settling for good would scare the former drifter to death.
Sherman was in such a good mood that he probably felt more disappointed than he should have when he arrived at Medicine Butte and didn’t find Jess. There was no sign of him or the others. What could be keeping them? The trail wasn’t bad and the weather was nice. Did Jess have trouble with the crew? It couldn’t be anything that he wouldn’t be able to handle, right?
People who didn’t know better might figure that Jess ran away with the money, but to Slim, that was simply inconceivable. There was yet another possibility to take into consideration, but he didn’t want to even think about it. As it happens with bothersome ideas, he left the meeting place fearing what he wouldn’t allow his mind to imagine.
When he saw four riders coming his way, Slim sighed with relief, but the feeling didn’t last, because Jess wasn’t among those men. The riders were wandering around as if they were searching for something.
“Howdy, mister. Going to Fort Steele?” asked one of the men/
“Not exactly, why do you ask?” Sherman replied.
“I’m a deputy sheriff. My name’s Slocum. These are Dewy, Johnson, and Cole, from Medicine Bow. Where are you from?”
“Laramie. I’m Slim Sherman. I run a ranch and relay station out that way.”
“We’re after a band of thieves. They’ve assaulted and robbed cattlemen between Fort Steele and our town.”
“I’ve been in Medicine Bow, and I didn’t hear anything about it.”
“There could be four or more; we don’t really know. Look Sherman, it isn’t safe to travel alone, especially if you’re carrying money.”
“I’m looking for my partner. He sold cattle and horses near Fort Steele. We should’ve met at Medicine Butte.”
“Was your man alone?”
“No, he shouldn’t be. He would be riding with three cowboys. Have you seen them?”
“Nope. Come with me, I’ll show you something.”
Slim couldn’t figure what that was all about. His horse was reluctant to move, and he had to spur his mount a little more than usual to get him going.
Not far from there, at the foot of a small hill, there was a grave. It was recent. There were marks all around: boots, horseshoes, blood, sandy tracks, as if someone had dragged something heavy, a body, perhaps. Both men dismounted and Slocum resumed his explanation.
“It might be another robbery. They assault and kill their victims, but they sure don’t waste time burying any corpses.”
The sight of the grave was bad enough, but Slim was shocked when he saw what else was there. Laying on the ground, half way between the trail and the grave, was a pocketknife that resembled the one Jess was carrying. Slim bent over to pick it up, and his heart sank when he touched the wooden handle with the familiar initials carved on it.
“What brought you here?” Slim asked.
“We thought our men were hiding in a ranch ten miles south of Ft. Steele, one of the few places that hadn’t been alerted yet. We went to the ranch, first. The owner was hiring cowboys.”
“That was the place where Jess should be herding our cattle. Was he there? The name’s Harper.”
Slocum uncorked his canteen and took a long swallow.
“I haven’t heard of him. Anyway, something happened there two nights ago, but we couldn’t talk to the rancher. He’d already left with most of his crew. A cowboy told us that three to five men took off from the ranch and headed south. He didn’t know why. I guess they were the ones we’re looking for. We found some tracks and followed them here.”
Slim Sherman was about to develop one nasty headache. He was trying to put the puzzle together, but too many pieces were lost, and the knife was the only piece he didn’t want to fit. “Those men you’re after, have they ever stolen cattle?”
“Rustlers? I wish that was all they were. These men seem to be ruthless murderers as well as thieves.”
“What are you going to do with them?” Slim asked.
“We’ll catch them, what else? You’ve got a problem with that?”
“I might have. I need those thieves alive, if I want to discover what happened to my partner. This knife is his.”
“I hate to tell you, Sherman, but we might be after a different gang altogether. You have four men and some money missing, and I have a grave. Whatever happened here, it looks like your cowboys had a reason to disappear. Come on, let’s go.”
Slim faced the grave. He refused to believe that Jess could be under that mound of earth, but there wasn’t time to dig it up and check. Slocum might be right; burying corpses wasn’t anything like the gang’s ways. If Jess had tangled with them, they certainly wouldn’t have had an easy time of it. By no means would they have honored their opponent with a grave.
So Slim reluctantly joined the posse. Better with them, knowing constantly what they were up to, than anywhere else. Whomever they were trailing, they seemed to have a connection with Jess. And if it was Jess riding ahead, he wouldn’t be missing much longer, because he was doing nothing but making it easy for them to track him.
The well-worn trails led far from there. The landscape ahead was an array of good, vast, and untouched land. A mountain range rose in the distance and circled the horizon all around. Maybe their hunt would end there.
Not many people could tell about falling into a nightmare and waking up to a shattered reality as often as Jess Harper. Jess and his one-man crew, the young cowboy, had decided to ride through the hills. That would’ve saved them miles. The boy chatted endlessly. Now and then, Jess bothered to say something, but he wasn’t interested in conversation. They’d been attacked so abruptly that Jess didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.
From then on, Jess’s memories were spinning in his head. First, it was a lariat around his chest, pulling him off his saddle and dragging him. The roper was a black silhouette on top of a steep slope. Dirt filled Jess’s eyes; he couldn’t breathe; his horse got spooked. The rope tightened on his ribs.
God only knew why the boy dismounted. His horse took off, too, leaving them totally exposed. Another man aimed his revolver at the kid and shot him before he could free leather. The rope loosened a little. Jess tried to stand, but the boy fell on top of him. They crumpled awkwardly, and Jess smashed his head against a rock on the ground.
When he came to, the rope was gone; so was the money. He wished it were as easy for the blood to vanish. Jess’s shirt was soaked with it; he took it off. It looked as if the kid had lost every drop in his body. The boy saved his life twice, because their attackers sure thought they both were dead. When Jess could stand again, he started digging. The grave first. Then he hid his shirt under a large stone.
By the time he was finished, the sky was dark. Jess fought the fog in his shocked mind and found a prayer. Faint stars were looking down at him as he was looking at the grave. He rarely felt as lonely as he did on that long night. He hardly knew the boy’s name, so he couldn’t even carve it on a piece of wood saved from his campfire. He tossed the knife: it was as useless as his hands.
Jess left at dawn. He couldn’t go back to Laramie, not without that money. He hoped Slim would pick up his trail. At the same time, he hoped that wouldn’t happen before he found the money. What he lost had taken a year’s work at the Sherman ranch. It wasn’t just a matter of bad luck, not with that pang of guilt in the pit of his stomach, which was a constant reminder that maybe he could have done something to prevent the attack.
Jess was riding his horse wearily, his mount sensing that something wasn’t right. He tried to concentrate on reading the trail, but the flashbacks of what happened the day before haunted him. He couldn’t help thinking that someone knew what he was carrying and which road he would take. Everybody on the buyer’s ranch knew he’d sold cattle and horses. His crew knew he was carrying the money back to Slim.
An innocent talk might have reached the wrong ears and cost the boy his life. When his eyes welled up, Jess cursed; getting emotional wasn’t right, not for a man in his position. Besides, he thought with bitterness, it was only a matter of time before something at some point would drive him away from the Sherman ranch. Because that was just the way of things.
Jess wasn’t sure about the tracks anymore. He’d slowed down quite a lot since noon. His horses — his own and the boy’s mount that he was leading — needed water. It would be good to let the animals rest, but that would give the killers even more advantage. He hadn’t worked out yet what he’d do if he found those men, but he figured he’d have a plan when the time came. He reached a creek and let the horses drink. He also needed something to eat.
Jess looked around. There was a trail winding through the woods on the mountain. From there, he might see something that would help his search. He left the horses beside the riverbank and set out for the trail.
The old settlement looked abandoned except for a thread of smoke from the chimney of a cabin. There were no horses around. A mule, thin and decrepit, was munching near a trough from which a trickle of water leaked through a groove. A small man was standing at the cabin entrance, the red of his shirt bright in the dark of the doorway.
“You can come out of the bushes. No point in staying put,” the man shouted.
A black dog passed Jess by and ran to the cabin where the man gave him a treat.
“I meant you, fella, not the dog. I know you’re alone. I saw you heading up the trail.”
The little house was the only structure still standing. The silence was deep except for the natural sounds of the forest. Apparently, the man with the red shirt lived there with a mule and a dog for company. He didn’t have a gun, just a knife at his belt. The old man and his dog scrutinized the stranger. At least the dog looked fit, if not beautiful. Jess stopped when the critter bared his teeth.
“Howdy, I’m just passing through,” Jess said.
“Don’t you have a shirt?”
“Not as pretty as yours, I haven’t.”
“I don’t see many drifters with blood trickling down their neck near here. I’d say it was trouble.”
“That’s right. My name’s Harper. You don’t mind if I look around?
Looking at the cabin, Jess asked, “Do you live here alone, mister?”
“You can call me Red. I’m not alone. Meet Punch and Beau, my family.”
“I figure Beau is the dog.”
“Aw, don’t you think he deserves a better name? Punch is perfect for my dog.”
“Have you seen anybody round here in the last couple of days?”
“Are you a lawman?”
“No, I’m not.”
“So, why are you asking?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Who are you looking for?”
“I’m not sure, I barely saw them.” Jess didn’t want to reveal too much. He hadn’t decided yet if he could trust the man. As it seemed, Red was having the same doubt.
“Maybe I did see someone,” the old man finally admitted. “They showed up last night. For all it’s worth, I have a claim on this mine. When I came here, many prospectors were already moving south. I stayed; it meant fewer competitors. Unfortunately, it also meant less gold.”
“Then you’ve seen them?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Last night it was almost dark, and Punch did a hell of a job at keeping them away. Between my dog and my rifle, we had them scattered downhill. I thought they wanted to kill me.”
“Where did they go?” Jess’s glance wandered down the valley.
“I don’t know, Harper. What did they do to you?”
The words came out unguarded. “They killed a cowboy and robbed my boss’ money. I’d sold cattle on his behalf.”
“I wish I could help you, but these mountains can be a good place to hide. There are plenty of mine camps like this one.”
“Which way to the nearest one?” Jess asked, with a feeble note of hope in his voice.
“There’s a trail starting from that narrow valley you can see down there. It takes you close to the pass, but it’s very difficult from a certain point on. Nobody rides that trail anymore, if they can help it.”
“Could they take it in the dark?”
“If it was dark and if I didn’t want to camp in the open, that’d be a good trail. It was made for pack mules and horses, at least for the first few miles, that is.”
Jess felt the pain in the pit of his stomach urging him on. “Thank you, Red. I’ll have a look at that trail.”
“You can’t do it alone, whatever it is that you’re going to do.”
“Maybe not, but I have to find them.”
Red scratched his short pepper-and-salt beard, “That boss of yours must be a good one.”
The tracks were now so confusing that the posse decided to split up. Slim scouted the trail leading to the far end of the basin. Slocum and his friends headed for the creek. The first man finding something would shoot a gun to warn the others. When Slim heard a sudden shot, he turned around and froze.
Jess saw four men coming his way. For all he knew, it could be the gang approaching. He found a place to hide, but, in his haste, he didn’t collect the horses. The men moved closer, spreading around Jess’s hiding place. He didn’t recognize any of them, but the only clue he had about his attackers was a pair of spurs with dangling jingle bobs.
They passed him by quite close but didn’t see him. They reached the clearing where both his horses were grazing, and there they stopped. Jess shifted position quickly. The animals, wary about the newcomers, shied away, ambling toward their master. The horses found him, and the men shot once.
“All right. You better come out with your hands behind your neck.”
“I will. Don’t shoot; I’m not looking for trouble.” Jess didn’t resist them when they disarmed him.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“My name’s Harper. Just drifting.”
“With two saddled horses?” they sneered.
“The man riding that horse was killed.”
“You bet he was killed. Maybe you killed him.”
“I didn’t kill him. I buried him. Who are you, mister?”
“We trailed you from that grave, Harper. We’re after a bunch of murderers. I’m Chris Slocum,” said the deputy, showing his badge.
Jess relaxed a little. “I’m trailing them, too. They robbed me and killed the boy riding with me. I work for the Sherman ranch near Laramie.”
“We know that. We also know that three cowboys should’ve been with you. You all were supposed to meet your boss yesterday and bring him the money from the cattle sale. Where’re the others?”
Jess’s mouth went dry. They must have met Slim, but Slim wasn’t there. How was he going to convince them he was telling the truth? “The other two cowboys quit the job and went north.”
“You were coming down that mountain. What’s up there?”
“I found a trail.”
“Sure you found a trail, Harper,” Dewy replied, scornfully.
Slocum and Johnson looked at each other. Jess wasn’t surprised that they wanted to search him. He knew he should let them, but it went against the grain to submit without a fight. Cole stepped back, not comfortable with the way things were going.
“Where’s your boss’ money, Harper?” the leader demanded.
“I don’t know.”
Dewy hit him in the face so fast that Jess didn’t see it coming. He fell and struggled to his knees.
“Don’t kid me, Harper!” shouted Slocum.
“I told you I was robbed!”
Slocum drew his revolver and aimed it at Jess. “I say you know where to find that money. You ran away. You didn’t go and meet Sherman, remember?”
“Mr. Slocum, maybe he’s telling the truth,” said Cole.
“Shut up, Cole. Ain’t I supposed to know how to handle a thief and a killer?” His men had better be learning something from their boss.
Jess was looking at Slocum. He never averted his eyes, although inside his soul quivered. He was dangerously close to losing control, but he needed to act like a man, not a child. On his knees, his heart racing, a sense of despair clouded his wounded pride, and a dull sadness numbed his inborn defiance. “I’m trailing those killers. I’m going to get Slim’s money back.”
Further, up the trail, another gun was ready to fire. Red felt much taller than he was, aiming his rifle at the man who had the drop on Jess. Punch bravely bared his teeth.
“I’ve got you covered, mister. Drop your guns. All of you.”
It was good to know that someone was on his side, Jess thought with relief. Yet Slocum might figure that Red was one of his accomplices, and that was the other side of the coin.
Slim was almost at the creek. He thought he saw something in the distance and he didn’t like what it seemed. His horse was racing; his mind was racing faster and wilder. The dark hair, the jacket, and the chaps: everything looked like Jess. Slim desperately wished he could prevent what he feared was happening and drew his gun to try.
Slocum cocked the hammer and glanced at the cliff. Two gunshots exploded in unison, right after Slim fired a warning. Jess dove to the right and lay motionless. The rest of the men took cover. They fired upward without paying attention to Sherman. Slocum backed off, holding his hand against his chest, blood oozing from a small wound across his wrist. Dewy and Johnson went up the stream after Red, and Cole stood still, waiting for orders.
“Hold your fire! Stop it!” Slim shouted, getting down from his horse and aiming his Colt at Slocum. Frantic, he knelt by his friend’s side, trying to assess the damage. Jess wasn’t moving, but he was breathing. Hard to believe it, he hadn’t taken a bullet. A splintered rock that broke off from the bigger ones on the riverbank must have knocked him out.
Slocum stared at Slim and Jess, the thought of having killed an innocent man hobbling through his mind.
Slim was mad. He re-holstered his gun and untied his bandana. Blood poured from a gash above Jess’s temple. Keeping his friend’s head still to apply pressure, Slim discovered another injury at the nape of Jess’s neck. The rancher freed one of his hands and searched his friend’s pockets for either money or documents but found none. Then his anger erupted. “What’s got into you?”
“He was hiding. He acted like he was guilty,” said Slocum.
“Look in his pockets! Can you see any money? Did you even bother to ask him?”
“Sure we did!”
Jess barely registered the exchange, but he recognized Slim, although it was very unusual for his boss to snap that way. Even through the thick cotton filling his head, Jess knew that wasn’t a good sign. Moreover, Slim searching his pockets for the stolen money took this nightmare to a completely new level. Jess stirred and tried to catch his pard’s attention.
Slim greeted his friend with relief, but also noticed Jess’ pained expression. “It’s all right, pard. You’ve been out a couple of minutes. I was trying to talk some sense into these men. I met them where you lost your knife. We’ll get everything sorted out soon.”
“It was a trap, Slim. The boy was killed and the money’s gone. Don’t let them go after Red. He was trying to help me.” Jess was ashamed to admit, even to himself, how shaken he felt. The robbery, the boy’s death, and the face-off with the posse hadn’t been as hard to handle as it now was to talk with Slim. Jess hated to show his weakness to his friend, although he knew that Slim would honestly try to understand.
“I’ve got the picture, pard. Do you know how many there are?” Then, turning to Slocum, Slim said, “Call off your crew before they do any more damage.”
Everybody was quiet. Cole was bandaging his boss’ hand.
As Jess’s mind cleared, he became restless. He rolled to his right and slowly got up. “Slim, we have to hurry. They could be up on the mountain. We should try the trail Red talked about.”
“Who’s Red?” Slim looked up instinctively.
“The one who shot the rifle. How many are we?”
“Six in all, Jess.”
“From what I can remember, we outnumber them. I made sure no one followed us when we left the ranch. They were ahead of us, waiting. They shot the boy and knocked me out. The other two left right after the sale. I let them go.”
Slim sighed. “It probably wouldn’t have made any difference if you hadn’t.”
“Really?” asked Jess, but he already got his answer.
After a few poignant seconds, Slim added, “How about the sale, anyway?”
Jess smiled but his small attempt didn’t reach his eyes. He looked at Slim: the glare was gone, replaced by the usual friendly countenance. Jess made a promise: he would get Slim’s money back.
The track brought them to the mine that Red mentioned, but all they found was an extinguished campfire. The ashes were still warm. Picking at them with a stick, Jess found his money pouch. He threw the thing away and kicked the rocks around the fire ring. A rock hit Johnson’s ankles.
“Damn it! What’s the matter with you?”
“You really want to know?”
“Be quiet. They might still be near,” said Slocum.
Jess couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice, “They sure were when they heard the shooting.”
Jess left the circle of men and leaned against a tree trunk. Slim approached him. They were all tired, but Jess looked like he had suddenly aged. “You all right?”
“It wasn’t your fault. You know that, don’t you?”
“We could have caught them, if I’d started sooner.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. That money’s cost too high a price already.”
“And we’re supposed to pay more. Slim, how long can you go on trailing them?”
“I haven’t thought about it. It’s bad enough as it is. Maybe we should go back to Laramie and report to the sheriff.”
“I’m not going back with you.”
“No? What’s your plan, then?”
Jess sighed and brought his hand to the back of his neck.
Slim softened his voice. “We should agree not to pay too much for that money.”
Jess made an effort to focus. As for his mood, not all his crankiness could hide how depressed he was. “They don’t know the territory.”
“Neither do we.”
“If they did, they wouldn’t have run into Red the way they did.”
“What do you think they have in mind?” asked Slim.
“They stirred things up real good around these parts. They should know by now that someone is after them.”
“Do you think they don’t know where they’re going?”
“I only know that they’re trapped on this mountain. They heard the shots. They can’t go back. They need to keep going and find a way down to the valley. It’ll be slow going. We can still catch up with them.”
Slim and Jess were so engrossed in their talk that they didn’t see Slocum coming.
“You may be right,” Slocum agreed. “What about you guys follow them, and we ride to the pass through the plains? As Harper says, it’ll be slow going on this trail, and we might arrive at the pass well before you do.”
The two partners looked at each other. It seemed so strange that a good idea might come from Slocum. Jess nodded to his friend, and they agreed with the deputy’s arrangement. They didn’t always need to talk to understand each other’s thoughts.
As Jess predicted, the descent toward the pass was very slow, and tense as well. Slim and Jess steadily lessened the distance between them and the gang. The men ahead were trying to cut their own trail. There had been no beaten paths since the last mining site.
By the time the trail became easier, Jess figured the fugitives knew that someone was after them. If they saw the posse leave, they probably were even more confused. Jess was counting on that. Suddenly, a rifle shot echoed across the valley.
“They’re getting nervous, Jess.”
“That’s fine, as long as they don’t find a cave to hole up in.”
The two friends hid behind a fallen tree. Branches, still green, provided cover for their horses.
“If they did, it’d only take a little longer. It could even be good for us. It might give Slocum more time to reach the pass,” said Slim, once he found a place from which to fire.
“Watch out. The next one could be more accurate,” answered Jess.
They didn’t have to wait long for the next shot.
“Not too bad, is it Slim?”
“You mean the cover? Not bad, at all. What if they leave one by one and the guys from the posse aren’t there to welcome them?”
“I thought you were the optimistic type. Can you keep them busy? I’ll try that shortcut.”
Slim threw a worried look in the direction Jess was pointing. “Pronghorn might make it. You and your horse are no pronghorn.”
“I just need to move them away from those boulders. When they do that, you can race and bring me my horse.”
“Race, eh? I may need to grow wings.”
“They’d look good on you.” Jess said, grinning at his pard.
Slim was about to ask something but thought better of it; Jess needed all the fire support he could give him.
Leaping and rolling down the rill, Jess made it to the end of the shortcut. Scattered rocks and thick bushes were either protecting him or hurting him, Slim wasn’t sure of which.
Jess saw three men sneaking alongside the boulders. From there, they couldn’t see him, and Jess took another chance to approach them from behind. When Slim saw his friend in a relatively safe position, he mounted his horse and raced, with Jess’s bay in tow.
Now Slim needed Jess’s fire support, and Jess was ready. He fired, each shot taking him closer to the fugitives, but he was still missing his targets and that was getting on his nerves. Jess reached the boulders and had a glimpse of the gang’s horses. Two riders galloped away. The others were just three tiny dots all the way down the valley. Slim brought his friend his horse.
“All right, big fellow, it’s up to you now,” Jess said, mounting up and putting his rifle back in its scabbard.
Clods of dirt thrown by his horse’s hooves, his mount’s mane, and his hat — everything was flying. All his senses were alive, all his energies unleashed. Jess was in that state of excitement quite common and very much needed in a battle. He fought all his life; he was a brave soldier.
Slim had one question on his mind: why should his partner always be the one to take his courage in both hands without so much as a thought about the consequences? Slim heard two bullets whistling close. Finally, Jess’s slug found its mark, hitting one of the riders.
Jess and a fugitive were now riding side by side. Ahead of them, another man reined in and turned around shooting. Jess lunged and tackled the one he was flanking off his saddle. They rolled on the ground and drew their guns.
By the time he recognized Jeff, one of the dead boy’s friends, Jess had already fired. Instantly, he regretted it, but then everything seemed to fit into place, and he shook off that feeling of remorse. The boy’s murder looked even more wicked and vicious, if that were possible. Still on his knees, Jess stared at the other man. Betrayal added to the shock of the killing, and that realization made Jess feel twice as detached.
Slim hit the shooter before he resumed his run. Now there were only two left, and they seemed too far away already. Slocum and his men caught up, eventually. Slim was anxious to swap his horse with the boy’s, led by Cole.
As for Jess, everything looked fine with him, except for a weird expression on his face. He didn’t answer when Slim asked him if he was hurt. Jess shook his head and that was all Slim could get from his friend. Slocum issued an order to round up the horses of the three fallen fugitives and carry on the hunt, with Slim leading the group.
They caught one of the last two men when his horse collapsed, but immediately going after the other would kill their own exhausted mounts, so they packed it in. The robber they captured had a lot of money in his pockets and boots. A piece of a bill of sale was in his vest pocket. He tried in vain to keep his jacket on, but they yanked it off his shoulders.
There are not enough layers of clothes to cover a man when he is scared. Cold sweat and goose bumps were his last and awful feelings. Before the prisoner even realized what was coming, Slocum shot him in the middle of his forehead. Slim and the others watched in disbelief.
“Is that your way to take care of justice, Slocum?” asked Slim.
“You wanted them alive until you found Harper. You found him, didn’t you? Besides, you killed three, if I remember right.”
“They had their guns in their hands when that happened.”
“Whatever you say, Sherman. I won’t argue with you.”
Slocum never lost his arrogance. Yet he realized that perhaps he taught his men too tough and premature a lesson — which could be even tougher if they knew the truth about him. Nobody would know that he’d left the posse’s camp two nights before, during his guard shift, and met his partner in crime so close to the bunkhouse where Jess was resting after the sale.
Slocum meant to collect his payoff for the protection provided to the robbers in the past few weeks, but this time, the gang leader disagreed. The crooked deputy avoided being shot, but not by much. He managed to ride away while they took off from the ranch. The next morning he was determined to find them and kill them.
Jess was right when he said they would pay a high price for that money. When a man tangles with evil, he can’t come out of the fight with clean hands, even though he’s guided by the right principles and a fair attitude. Slocum was evil, and Jeff had stabbed both Slim and Jess in the back. It hurt, so they were cautious around each other, as cautious as they would be with a frightened or injured horse.
But Jeff wasn’t the only issue they needed to get over. Slim had to confront Slocum about the right amount of money taken from Jess.
“Look Sherman, it’s not so simple. The posse members take a percentage of whatever money is retrieved.”
“They need their pay because they did so much.” Slim snorted.
“They helped you find Harper, didn’t they?”
“And you almost had him killed. Thanks for your help.”
“Too bad you aren’t grateful, Sherman. Anyway, you can still come to Medicine Bow and settle things with the sheriff’s office. There were other victims, you know. You’re looking mighty greedy.”
“I’ll see that this money gets back to the owners, even if I have to bring a Pinkerton Detective over to Medicine Bow.”
When Slocum heard Slim mention the Pinkerton Agency, he relented and allowed the rancher to keep most of his money. The way Slocum acted got Slim suspicious. He wanted to share his doubts with Jess, but his friend seemed to be miles away. Jess didn’t take part in the discussion and kept a rigid stance throughout it. He was thinking about the one who got away, figuring it must have been Jeff’s partner, whose speech in the bunkhouse still echoed in his ears.
Jess’s face, however, lit up a little when he finally had the money back in his hand, minus a fair amount for the posse. For Slim, not even his friend’s obvious relief was such a big reward after all he’d witnessed. At sundown, the whole group left.
Jess was trailing behind. It wasn’t clear whether he didn’t want to ride with the posse or he had trouble staying in the saddle. Slim slowed down to a walk. “Do you want to take a break?”
“Why? No reason to be on the trail longer than needed.”
“Jess Harper’s eager to go back home. That’s something new. Shall we go and visit with your friend Red? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like hunting tonight.”
Jess nodded. Slim’s little attempt at a lighthearted conversation failed to break through his misery. Jess needed to let go, but he couldn’t stop the train of thoughts running wild through his mind.
If those killers had succeeded, they would have stolen his partner’s ability to stay in business, but also Jess’s own place in the Sherman household. The incident had him thinking that maybe Slim wouldn’t trust him anymore. It had him thinking that he wasn’t fit to live at the ranch. And if it wasn’t enough that his own mind was making that suggestion, there was the boy’s bloody mask to reinforce those thoughts.
Now Jess was going home, a place he feared he might not be returning to, and Slim was talking as if nothing had happened. Jess didn’t know what to think anymore. He nodded again and smiled briefly. That was enough for Slim to understand what was causing his partner so much inner trouble. The rancher nodded back, and, spurring his horse on, said over his shoulder, “We’ll be over all that’s happened soon, I hope.”
The camp was quiet. Jess woke up slowly with the comfortable feeling of something warm against his back. He heard two hushed voices talking.
“Either yours is a very sensitive dog or he’s looking after his breakfast,” Slim said, eyeing the way Punch had draped himself over Jess’s right shoulder.
Jess fought the will to go back to sleep. He lifted his head and recognized the dog sharing his bedroll. “Hi, Punch,” Jess mumbled.
“I know Punch. He will have Harper for breakfast,” said Red, sniffling.
Slim chuckled. He stood from his seat by the fire and sauntered over to Jess, holding a cup of coffee, which he placed on a flat rock beside his friend.
“Ready to go?” Slim asked.
Not fully awake, Jess cast off the blanket, startling the dog. Slim didn’t wait for an answer and went back to the fire. Punch jogged along with the rancher and they wrestled playfully. Red was still sitting on his stool, protesting he didn’t want a reward for his hospitality.
The cool air brought Jess out of his sleep. He reached for his coffee and tried to remember if he had a pencil with him. He should find a piece of paper and draw a map for the boy’s relatives, just in case they wanted to trace his grave. Jess doubted there was anybody in the least bit interested. The boy had been riding with that no-good Jeff for quite some time. That wouldn’t have been the case if he’d had a family somewhere.
Maybe Slim was right. They’d be over all that happened, but it’d take time. Jess knew how a posse could wind up acting outside the law. He knew that a single day of misfortune could seal a cowboy’s fate. He knew there weren’t so many people to trust in this world. Yet, he felt twisted inside, as he used to feel when he was much younger and inexperienced.
His past life had taught him a lot as to how and when to spur into action. What he never learned was how to deal with the aftermath. He couldn’t even name some of the feelings that’d been gnawing at him for years. How is anyone supposed to handle something without a name?
Slim would agree on that and would be able to put a name to what was tearing his friend apart, if only Jess would let it show. Jess looked at Slim and considered telling his boss about the boy. Who else but Slim would understand why Jess couldn’t get the kid out of his mind, and most of all, why Jess was blaming himself for the boy’s death. It didn’t come to that, though, because Slim did exactly what was required to help his pard out of trouble. In fact, the rancher spoke in that bossy tone he used every time he wanted Jess to quit tangling up with his thoughts.
“Jess, bring your cup over here; there’s some coffee left. And get ready to leave. I’ll take you at your word about staying on the trail no longer than needed.”
Listening to the nearby stream sloshing undisturbed, Jess took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He drank his almost cold coffee and stood up. “Coming, Slim.”
Jess was desperate to go back to the ranch. The fear of losing where he felt he belonged had driven him after the stolen money. Now the same fear was urging him to return to where he needed to be. Slim’s words implied that he’d never lost his right to live at the Sherman ranch. For that reason alone, Jess was afraid he’d never be thankful enough. He would be surprised to know that the fear of losing his best friend had driven Slim to despair as well.
Slim Sherman let go of the dog, settled things with Red, and waited for his partner to saddle up. The old man watched as they went down the hillside. Harper was right. Here was a decent boss. The ranch hand wasn’t bad either, although he must be one to handle with care. Overall, it wasn’t so strange that those two had become friends, somewhere along the way.
Beta read by Sally Bahnsen and Jay Goldammer