Two Miserable Weeks (by Maria Luisa)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  23,100


The sun was shining with a vengeance. Jess shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He thought it might work for a while, until the line moved forward, which he hoped would happen soon. Eventually, the lady in front of him stepped ahead. He shuffled, looking up at the sky. It wouldn’t be much longer before Mose yelled his fool head off.

The brake lever of the stage coach had broken, and the ride back to Laramie would be delayed. Jess needed to send a telegram to the stage line office to let them know about it, and he wanted that wrapped up before catching up with Mose at the blacksmith’s. He should’ve known something wasn’t right from the chills that’d bothered him all the way through to Cheyenne. Riding shotgun in that condition wasn’t ideal, but he’d kept going, though he’d wearied of Mose’s constant nattering.

Hot and shivering at the same time, he began to sway, and the other people, waiting for their turn, stood staring at him. At first he didn’t notice that the town noises and the voices around him were fading. As his vision narrowed, he tried harder to stay focused on the telegraph office’s door, which was seemingly shrinking.

The assortment of men and women in line were nodding and pointing at him. A man with a big farmer’s hat asked if he was all right, but Jess didn’t hear him. With his face tingling as well as his tongue, he was no longer able to think straight, much less speak coherently. A final sway and Jess Harper crumpled to the ground.

“He passed out!” cried a woman. The others looked on in puzzlement. Passersby crowded close to the fallen man, some offering advice.

“Give him space. Let him breathe.”

“He’s coming to.”

“Let him lie, just unbutton his shirt.”

An old gentleman started in on a rant. “That’s what happens when young men spend too much time in the saloon.”

“He’s not drunk. I can smell alcohol a mile away,” said a woman next to the elder man. Conversation fragments reached Jess’s ears as if from a long distance. Surprisingly, he found he was the topic of the townsfolk’s chatter, and they weren’t just talking; someone was poking at his shoulder. He would’ve liked to say he was fine, but all he could manage was a groan from his numb lips. The broad back of the farmer leaning over him shaded the sun, and that was a blessing. “Don’t,” said Jess at last to the silhouette, not knowing how to get out the jumble of words in his head.

“Hey, mister, what happened? How you feeling?”

Jess drew his breath and tried to rise. Why on earth was he lying in the street?

“Easy, young man, nice and easy,” the farmer said.

The man guided Jess to the porch in front of the telegraph office, where he sat down on the boardwalk. A woman leaned forward with a glass of water in one hand. She then touched him on the brow, “He’s burning up! You shouldn’t be walking around, don’t you know that?”

Jess felt confused. Did he really go down in the street like they all were implying? It looked that way. Leaning his head on the post of the porch, he turned respectfully to the lady, “Thank you, ma’am, I feel better now.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. Is there anyone in town we can get for you?”

“No, ma’am, thank you. I’m going to see the stagecoach driver as soon as I send my telegram.”

“You can’t even stand, let alone go about your business.”

Jess didn’t have to reply, because Mose pushed his way through the group, “What happened? Was he in a gunfight?”

“Ha, some gunfight. Just give me a minute, Mose,” said Jess, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.

“Have you sent the telegram?”

“Not yet.”

“Mister, he passed out in the street. The least you can do is to let him recover some,” said the woman, the empty glass still in her hand.

“Is that right, Jess?” asked the driver.

“Seems like it.”

Mose frowned, “What should we do then?”

“I’d take him to the doctor if you ask me,” intervened the woman.

Jess looked up into her eyes. “Thank you, ma’am, but we’ve a stagecoach to drive to Laramie. Mose, see about the passengers and meet me at the blacksmith’s. I’ll be there after sending the telegram.”

“Get out the money. I’ll send it.” Mose cut the conversation short, tipping his hat to the lady, who turned around and marched away, complaining about stubborn young men too self-confident for their own good. Eventually, Jess stood up. He made his way across the street, walking very carefully, as every step of his boot heels on the packed dirt resounded in his throbbing head.

*****

“Jess, for Pete’s sake, you think this is the first brake lever I broke?” asked Mose, getting in everyone’s way and not being of much help.

“No, I don’t. You’re pretty good at damaging stage line property. You sure you can manage?”

Mose gave Jess a sidelong glance, “I can manage. The question is: can you? I better ask for another shotgun. You best stay in town and rest up.”

“There ain’t no one else to ride shotgun, Mose. Why else would I be here? I’ll bed down in the livery for a bit. Call me when you’re done,” and to the blacksmith, “Don’t be too long.” When Mose checked out from the workshop, he found his partner on a fresh bale of hay under a clean blue blanket. The liveryman said it was a gift from a lady. “What is it about ladies always finding and tending Jess Harper when he’s doing poorly? They never find me,” the driver grumbled whimsically.

Almost two hours behind on its schedule, the stagecoach was finally ready to roll. Checking on horses and harnesses had never seemed so endless. When it was finally over, Jess stood, coach gun in hand, while Mose hoisted the strongbox to the front boot.

“That’s something I haven’t seen before,” said one of the passengers, “A young man watching as an old driver does all the work.”

Jess stared blatantly at the people standing by the coach. There were two men and a woman, no couples. The female was tall and fit, the type who’d know how to land a punch if she wanted to. The gentlemen were probably businessmen still not accustomed to the west. “All right, folks, get on board,” the driver’s voice broke painfully into Jess’s guessing game, “First stop in twelve miles. We’ll be in Laramie after sundown. Don’t worry, though, road agents don’t like working at night. Jess, climb up.” It was against the stage line policy to talk about robberies, but that was something Mose tended to forget.

“Shut up, Mose; the last thing we need is these folks to cross the bridges before they’re even built,” said Harper through his chattering teeth.

“Don’t fret about the passengers; you brace yourself instead. We’ve an eight-hour ride ahead, and I don’t think you’re going to enjoy it one little bit.”

“Nice of you to remind me, Mose,” said Jess, well aware of what lay ahead.

“If you had listened to me, you’d stay here in town.”

“And let you down, leaving you with maybe an overnight ride and two thousand dollars on board? Slim would’ve my hide.”

“I’m not sure he won’t have mine, given the shape you’re in.”

“Quit your fussing, will you? I’ll be fine. Let’s move.”

The first stop came quickly. Jess climbed down off the box and grasped the wheel to keep his balance. The metal was warm, but it was nothing compared to his heated skin. Jess Harper was beginning to have second thoughts about his choice to take on that ride, but he kept his mouth shut, since there was nothing he could do about it.

The next stretch was miserable. Jess needed all his strength to just stay awake, and he came close to failing a couple of times. The coach hit a pothole, and if not for Mose grabbing him one-handed, Jess would have plunged headlong to the ground. Cursing at the state of the road, the driver reined in and pulled the brand new brake lever. The stagecoach abruptly stopped, and passengers’ angry words of protest rolled out of the windows.

“Why the heck did you stop?” Jess asked drowsily.

“You kidding? Jess, you were falling.”

The shotgun rider bent forward and brought his hands to his head.

“Enough of this. You ride inside and I ain’t listenin’ to no argument.” Mose didn’t wait for an answer. He bypassed his ill friend and stepped down easily, for an old codger. “Folks, I got a sick man up in the box. He can’t ride up top no longer. He’ll travel to Laramie inside the coach if it’s all right with you.”

“And if it wasn’t all right?” asked the woman.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but he can’t ride shotgun no more. He was falling off the stagecoach right ’fore I stopped. Come on down, Jess. Need any help?”

Needing help to get down from the box sounded even worse than having to ride inside with the passengers. Jess slid to the ground, feeling all his joints jerk. He leant against the wheel for support. Mose reached out a hand and touched his neck, “Jess, you’re burning,” he murmured.

“Fever?” asked the woman, “I won’t travel with him so close to me. I’m sorry; I’ve children and grandchildren at home. I won’t risk carrying this illness with me.”

“I understand, ma’am, but he’s down with some mountain fever. You don’t have to be afraid.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then you don’t understand.”

“Couldn’t we leave him here, with a blanket and some water? The next stage will pick him up,” said one of the men, neglectfully.

“Leave him on the trail? Alone? Look, mister, I don’t know where you’re from, but here we don’t leave no one behind. It’s getting late. Jess, you need to get in. Come on, bud,” said Mose.

“All right,” the lady replied, “He gets inside, and I’ll ride shotgun.”

“What?” Three voices exclaimed in unison. As for Jess, he could just whisper, “Mose.”

“I’m afraid I can’t oblige, ma’am. You didn’t pay the premium, and if I get to have a passenger riding with me, it’d better be one of the men,” said the driver.

”Don’t look at me,” a Mr. Worman said, “I’d never figured out why people want to ride up there.”

“Me, neither,” added the other man.

“Well, it’s up to you. If you can’t oblige, we won’t move at all,” said the lady, tightening her scarf.

“Come on, guys. Do you really want to be stuck here in the middle of nowhere and sleep the night off? I need this stagecoach to roll. We’ve lost too much time already,” said Mr. Worman.

Mose couldn’t make up his mind. On the one hand, there was Jess needing help, but on the other hand, there was a woman who meant trouble. One more look at his friend and Mose decided that maybe the company men wouldn’t chew him out once they met the lady, and he’d make sure they had the pleasure.

“All right, ma’am, you can ride with me. Can you shoot?”

“You bet.”

“Mose,” a more distinct sound with a hint of growling came from Jess.

“Forget it, buddy; just get in the coach. Come on.”

Shaking with chills and nearing collapse, Jess surrendered to Mose and found himself aboard. The seat wasn’t comfortable, but it was still better than the box. He sat facing backward, opposite to the two gentlemen. He stretched one leg, nestled in the corner by the window, and hunkered down with no intention of moving for the rest of the journey.

“What do you think he has?” asked one of the passengers.

“I don’t know. Could be anything.”

“We should’ve asked the driver to ride with him.”

“And take turns on the box? Mrs. Trenton wouldn’t agree. You feel like arguing with her?”

“I suppose not.”

Jess opened his eyes. At first, he was confused, but he soon recognized the passengers and asked, “How long to the Sherman ranch?”

“What did you say?”

“How long will it take to the Sherman relay station?”

“I don’t know. Ah, wait, isn’t it the last stop before Laramie?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I can’t answer your question. Can you, Mr. Worman?”

“We had a delay of at least an hour and a half. We should arrive in Laramie at nine pm, you should be at the Sherman ranch in three hours, I guess.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Do you feel any better?”

Jess shook his head weakly. He was too exhausted to keep talking. He had three more hours to go, and his gunbelt was giving his back a hard time. He unbuckled it and placed it to his left on the seat. The men were watching him carefully.

“Don’t worry, I don’t shoot at gentlemen. Mostly,” Harper said, with as much ruthlessness as he could muster.

“Glad to hear that.” No further comments came from the passengers, or perhaps Jess stopped registering them. The wheels, the wind, and the horses filled his ears, as the swaying stagecoach took care of his drowsiness.

The section they were riding was the loneliest part of the trail, and, for that reason, the least favorite among the drivers. Many problems could occur, from wreckages to holdups. As far as Mose remembered, no Indian attacks had ever taken place there. Mose stopped to allow Mrs. Trenton to light the lanterns. He didn’t feel he needed them, but she’d been fretting since sundown. The driver had just given her the gun back when a rattling of scattered rocks made them both turn toward the flank of the hill. A few words, along with the fact that the stagecoach wasn’t moving anymore, startled Jess awake.

“The other side, ma’am.” That was Mose’s voice, a frightening edge in it. Whether she followed the driver’s suggestion or not, the lady on the box shot once but missed her target. The passengers jumped in their seats.

“Yes, ma’am. That’d be better for you, but I’m happier this way,” a muffled voice came from the left of the stagecoach as an approaching rider dismounted.

“Now you’ll put down that scattergun of yours and climb down. Not you, driver. I can’t believe they’re hiring women now,” the man giggled to his partner still sitting in his saddle near the coach’s leaders.

Jess saw his traveling companions peering from behind the curtain. They moved to their left when the outlaw opened the door on that side of the stagecoach. The twilight gave everybody a distorted view of the surroundings, and Jess couldn’t see any better than anybody else. He took his gun, pulled his legs up, and crouched on the seat, while the businessmen got out as they were told.

The bandit threw a look inside but didn’t see Jess. The Texan turned his head to the window and did his best to avoid making any other move. Mose wasn’t in sight. Thanks to the lantern, Jess saw the hem of the lady’s skirt and both of the outlaws. What if there were more than two? Don’t even think of it. The bandit on horseback was the one talking, while the other backed off from the coach at maybe five feet from Jess. “Driver, throw down the box. Dan, take care of these folks.”

Listening to the business men pleading, Jess decided he had to take a chance. He hoped both the darkness and the surprise would help to scatter the outlaws, allowing the passengers and Mose to take cover. In the back of Jess’s mind, there was the fear that his stunt might be more hazardous than useful. But what would the alternative be? The coach would be surrendered to road agents without even a fight from the legitimate defender, the shotgun rider — that he was too sick to do his job never occurred to Jess as an excuse.

Urged by those feverish thoughts, he gathered his strength and sprang into action. The minute he leapt from the stage to the ground, hollering at Mose to jump and firing his revolver at the same time, Jess took in every detail of the scene before him. The late evening’s starlight had never been brighter. The outlaw’s horse pranced. The rider struggled to control his mount and shot twice, before disappearing unharmed among the trees by the road. One bullet only scratched Jess’s arm, but the bandit on foot took a slug in his shoulder. Both men lost their sidearms, and Jess jumped his opponent before he could get back his revolver. Mose recovered the shotgun and crawled under the team, ready to fire. Mrs. Trenton rolled under the coach, and the businessmen ducked behind the rear. The leading outlaw didn’t come back. The second one, though he was bleeding abundantly, got the better of Jess but heard Mose’s threat, “I got you covered, mister.” The man promptly shielded himself behind Harper’s body and snaked out of the lamp’s glow. He then rounded up his horse and went after his companion. Neither Mose nor Jess could see enough to shoot now, and the driver hit the lantern with the barrel of his gun — it wasn’t doing anything except making them easier targets. Harper stood still and Mose whispered, “Jess, are you hurt?” and to the others, “Come on, folks, get on board, now!”

The male passengers obeyed. Mose grasped his coworker by the shoulders and did his best to get him on the coach. Jess ended up flat on the stage’s floor. Mrs. Trenton put aside her worries and climbed up after him. The driver got up on the box and let out a cry. Soon enough, the horses hauled the stage like they were trying to snatch it from the blazes of hell.

*****

Everybody thanked the Lord when the coach finally rolled into the Sherman ranch yard. Slim was ready with a lamp. The first thing he noticed was the shattered lantern. “Howdy, Mose. I thought you were lost for good. You’re late even on your new schedule. I got word from Robinson,” said the rancher as Jonesy showed up behind him.

Mose climbed down, and what Slim saw on the driver’s face added a whole new dimension to his worries. “What happened? Where’s Jess?” a question he should’ve asked in the first place.

“Inside. Two baddies tried to hold up the stage. Jess hit one of them and they both rode away. I don’t think Jess was shot. He was already running a fever, though.”

With his stomach cramping in knots, Slim opened the stage door with far more force than necessary, “Anybody else hurt?”

“You work for the Company, right?” asked Mr. Worman.

“I do.” Slim turned to get to the other side of the coach, where he could get a glimpse of Jess’s face instead of his boots.

“Does he work for you?” insisted Worman pointing at Jess.

“He does.”

“I hold you responsible for all that happened. You sent a sick man to ride shotgun. Then this here lady took his place and had us all almost killed.”

Slim was only half-listening. He maneuvered the lamp to better check on Jess. “Hey, pard?” asked Slim, hoping for an answer that didn’t come.

“Did you hear a word that I said?” nagged Worman.

“I did, but let me take care of things first, will you?”

“You’re late, mister. It’s way past time for taking care of things.”

The passenger was vexing, and Slim was tempted to retort, but he’d regret it later, so Jonesy intervened. “Go get some water, Slim. Jess, wake up; you’re home.” When Slim came back with the water, he heard a female voice.

“Mr. Worman, will you stop complaining? We’ve enough trouble as it is. You can report to the stage line office in town, if we ever make it, that is.”

“Slim? Should I unharness?” Mose stepped in between, checking on the horses.

The rancher was pressed with all the things he needed done, “Of course, Mose. Take them to the corral, Jonesy will help you. No, wait, Jonesy, get Andy,” said Slim letting Jess’s head rest on the coach floor. “I’ll help you, and then we’ll all ride into town; Jess needs a doctor.” Sherman thought for a moment about the lady riding shotgun, but he couldn’t get his head around it. Jonesy didn’t need to be told twice and went in the house. Slim couldn’t risk leaving his brother and Jonesy at home with two outlaws on the run, especially if one of them was hurt. Andy knew something had happened, but when he got on board and saw Jess on the floor, he feared the worst. “Jess!” the boy shouted, getting closer to his friend and stomping on Mr. Worman’s feet in the process.

Between the salesman’s yelps and the boy’s fright, Jonesy had his hands full. “Andy, sit down, please, and don’t bother Jess or anyone else.”

Slim and Mose climbed up on the box and the stagecoach rolled out of the yard. Little did they know that the two marauders were hiding on the hill by the house. The next morning they’d move farther north, still on Sherman property. The wounded man needed some time to recover.

*****

Mort Cory stood on the boardwalk as the stage arrived. Mose enlightened the sheriff. The passengers disembarked, stiff-legged and grim-faced. They weren’t happy when Mort asked them to stop by his office to give an account of the events. The three passengers waited impatiently for the sheriff as he watched Jonesy and Slim help Jess out of the coach.

“Do you want to try and walk?” Slim asked.

“Where?”

“To the doctor.”

“I ain’t going to the doctor,” said Jess defensively.

“You either walk or we carry you,” said the sheriff.

“Two against one? That ain’t fair.”

“Yeah, if you say so. Come on, Jess. Folks, I’ll be at the office in a moment.” Sheriff Cory reached out and grabbed Jess by the uninjured arm.

Mrs. Trenton had just finished telling the lawman about their adventure. She was walking briskly in the street, her thoughts still in Mort’s office. The sheriff threw Mose a concerned look when she said she was riding shotgun at the time of the hold up. Fortunately, he didn’t question her further, but from the look in his eyes, she knew he’d figured out that the ride had just gone out of control. Still very nervous, Mrs. Trenton found herself at the doctor’s door; she needed to check on the sick guard. When nobody answered her knocks, she entered the hallway. A young girl carrying a bucket came in from the back door. She hardly nodded in acknowledgement and disappeared to the left. Male voices resounded in the confined space beyond the thin wall. One of them was shaky. “Stop laughing. This ain’t funny.”

“No, Jess, tick fever isn’t funny,” said the doctor, inspecting his patient’s punctures, “but you should get over it fine. Unless you Texans have trouble fighting those little bugs.”

“We Texans can take the bite of the most dangerous snakes on earth. It’s just your stupid ticks we can’t handle so well,” replied Jess, leaning on one elbow. After that nightmarish ride, he was slowly getting back to feeling like he’d survive.

“You’ll see. You won’t catch it twice, isn’t that right, doc?” asked Slim.

“That’s right,” answered the doctor, patting Jess’s shoulder, “I can keep him here until his fever breaks, which should be in a day or two. He then should take it easy for a couple of days.”

The rancher pondered the physician’s words. “I can always deck him if I need to.”

Jess lay down again. “That’ll be sure cure, eh, doc?”

A hint of a smile graced Mrs. Trenton’s angled face. She tapped the door and entered, not waiting for an invitation.

“How is he, doctor? Hope it’s nothing contagious.”

“No, ma’am. You can go home. There’s nothing for you to worry about. Anything else I can do for you?” asked Doc Beckett, both surprised and annoyed by the intrusion. Mrs. Trenton brushed his question off, her attention suddenly focusing on Slim. “Are you related?” she asked, confused by the familiarity between the young men.

“We’re not, ma’am. Jess works and lives on my ranch, but he’s no kin.”

Slim gave Jess a nod as he recognized Mrs. Trenton, but his partner didn’t get it. The Texan, though, started to listen carefully when the lady mentioned an incident that occurred between Slim and a neighbor, not a long time back. “I didn’t mean to accuse you of anything that day, Mr. Sherman. I hope you don’t resent my son. I would’ve come and talked to you, but I needed to leave for Cheyenne, instead.”

Slim shook his head, “No, ma’am, it was just a misunderstanding. Elk Meadow is still on Sherman land, as I’ve already told Mr. Trenton. The property line is marked by the trees beyond the lake. Besides, we put a lot of effort into repairing fences, don’t we, Jess?”

“We sure do,” Jess answered softly. Mrs. Trenton looked at the two of them. She wished she could believe in Slim Sherman. He sounded sincere, but she knew better than to trust a rancher. She was fed up with cattlemen who seemed to always have it their own way when it came to rights of pasture.

“Well, Mr. Sherman, that’s good to know. All I want is to live in peace.” She then turned to Jess, her countenance cheerful, even though a load of bad memories and new fears weighed heavily on her heart and mind. “I owe this young man. It was a bit foolish of him to try and take them down that way, but it was worth the trouble. I can count myself lucky; my money’s still where it belongs.”

Jess frowned. Exhausted as he was, he made an effort to acknowledge that sort of praise. “You don’t need to thank me, ma’am. Thank the driver instead.”

“I’ve already done that. I was surprised I didn’t raise his bristles by missing my target.”

“Why would you?” asked Jess, as the doctor prompted him to swallow an awfully bitter drink. Grimacing, Jess added randomly, “Will you do me a favor, please, ma’am?”

“If I can.”

“Don’t ride shotgun anymore. I mean, you did just fine, but it’s too dangerous.”

Mrs. Trenton turned suddenly serious, “Are you saying it’s too dangerous for a woman?”

Jess was baffled. This wasn’t leading where he thought it would. He tried to explain. “I didn’t mean to say you haven’t what it takes, ma’am. It’s just that it don’t sit right with me that you had to do it.” He spoke so softly and his face was so troubled that Mrs. Trenton’s irritation faded.

“Well, I’m going home now. Mr. Sherman, you’ll let me know if you need anything over at the ranch. We don’t live so far apart.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Trenton, I’ll do that,” said Slim as she walked out, but it was only his good manners that kept his curiosity in check, preventing him from asking more about that infamous ride with a lady shotgun.

“Is that Mrs. Trenton? Our new neighbor?” whispered Jess, as soon as she exited the door.

“You just met her, Jess.”

“I didn’t know it was her.”

“What was that talk about her riding shotgun? Care to fill me in?” Slim asked with a raised eyebrow.

Jess closed his eyes and let out a troubled breath, “She really is as tough as her son. She was afraid she might catch the fever, traveling with me inside the coach.” He rubbed his sore eyes, and then asked, “Hey, is it everything sorted out with Trenton?”

“I showed him the maps. He wasn’t quite convinced, but at least he didn’t shoot at any more cattle,” answered Slim, looking perplexed at the memory of the farmer stampeding the herd.

“He shoulda known better than that. How did he think the meadow was his?”

“He and his mother were told that their homestead reached the lake. It wasn’t clear that the limit was the line of trees. They are quite touchy about their rights.”

“Well, we better build some real good fences up there, ’fore they get downright mad,” Jess sighed.

“I went so far as telling them we may agree on a canalization to provide water if needed.”

“You think that’s what they were after in the first place?”

“What you mean? That Trenton made that ruckus on purpose to push me to agree on the ditch? I don’t think so, Jess. They really are obsessed with cows ruining their crops.”

“So they live by the saying ‘attack, and may the devil take care of the rest’,” concluded Jess, sitting up very carefully.

“I’ve never heard of that one. Looks like you invented it,” smiled Slim, leaning against the medicine cabinet the doctor was tidying.

Gazing at Jess scraping the bottom of his energy barrel, Doc Beckett put an end to the conversation. “Time for you to shut up and sleep. Come on over here; the cot will be better than that board.”

Once settled in bed, Jess fought weakly against the blanket the doctor spread on him. “Dadgum, I’m hot.”

Sam Beckett accomplished his task and laid a wet towel on Jess’s forehead. Without another word, he threw a blanket on the second bed. The rancher gratefully agreed on staying. The doctor dimmed the lamp, and, leaving the room, muttered to himself, “A woman riding shotgun. That’s something I’d like to see.”

Jess was fading fast, but before he fell asleep, he said a few concerned words to his friend. “Slim, you watch out for those hard cases. They’re still out there.”

“Andy and Jonesy are in the boarding house. Mort will go out at dawn with a search party. If nothing else gets in the way, we’ll be back home by tomorrow afternoon. Quit your worrying, pard.” Slim repressed a yawn and sat on his bed. He wished he was as confident as he sounded.

“Night, Slim,” whispered Jess, taking the rag off his head and letting it fall across his chest.

*****

The next day was uneventful. Although Jess looked more strained than rested, he insisted on being taken back to the ranch when Jonesy came and visited early in the morning. The sheriff came back to Laramie in the afternoon without finding any signs of the outlaws. Nobody reported anything out of the ordinary in the neighborhood, and Slim couldn’t afford another night at the boarding house for Jonesy and Andy. Although Jess’s fever hadn’t yet broken, Slim decided to have all his people where they belong. For that reason, he borrowed a buckboard, and they all headed for the ranch. Jess seemed to be recovering well from his illness once he got back home, and he resumed his chores in just a couple of days.

Everything looked to be back to normal, save that Mort would leave Laramie to sort out some trouble up north. There had been two serious mine accidents, and the miners were on strike. Mort had been appointed a U.S. Deputy Marshal, because additional law enforcement was needed to help control the crowd. From what he’d been told, too many people were at risk of getting hurt. The sheriff left instructions for young Mr. Pembroke, his deputy. Mort feared that the guy didn’t have all the qualities required for the job, but one can’t be too particular with the best men in town too busy with their own lives. Jess called in sick, for instance, just as the sheriff needed him most. Paul Pembroke was an honest fellow, but he was eager to show off, and sometimes his choices were frankly questionable. Also he wasn’t as strong-minded as he wanted to look, and that was Mort’s first issue with his deputy. As long as it was about routines, Pembroke was as well-trained and efficient as he could possibly be, but would he be able to make decisions under pressure? Mort wasn’t sure. However, everybody needs a chance to grow professionally. Sheriff Cory just hoped that deputizing Paul wouldn’t be met with fatal blunders. Before he left, Mort sent one last word to the ranchers and farmers around town to keep their eyes open, because those no-good robbers still hadn’t been found.

*****

Had Slim been at the ranch, he could prevent his friend from going out to the north pastures. The rancher, though, was on a cattle buying trip to a nearby spread, and Jess couldn’t stand another day without riding. On his way, Jess Harper met with the stagecoach from Casper. The driver told him that a stretch of fence had fallen off. Since it was so close to the Trenton place, it could only mean trouble. Jess dreaded to think what would happen if any cows strayed into the farmer’s crop fields, so he set his mind to reaching the place and checking the damage. Slim had built a line shack to store some old repairing tools close by. Those would come in handy, now.

When Jess realized what he was looking at, he chastised himself for not being more cautious at first. Somebody had been there. A night camp had been set up. From where he stood, Jess could see the shack door open. A good section of fence was definitely down. Some old railing had been used as firewood, and a young cow had been butchered. Jess estimated a small herd of maybe fifteen head had disappeared. He found cattle and horse tracks pointing north to the Trenton farm. It seemed he couldn’t get the cows back without taking the chance of running across those responsible for that mess. Could they be the villains who’d tried to rob the stage? What if those no-goods were now taking shelter on the Trenton place? Someone should’ve checked on the new neighborsbut nobody had time for that, thanks to Jess’s fever. Speaking of which, the Texan had been out of sorts all day. He’d hoped that riding his horse, feeling the wind in his face, would make it better, but it didn’t. So what happened next would feel forever like he was caught in a delirious nightmare.

When he was close to reaching the edge of the Sherman property, the air carried the sound of hoof beats. Climbing on a trail, just below the crown of rocks that circled the hilltop, Jess stood in his stirrups to glance over the boulders. Three riders appeared, galloping along the ridge, one after the other. A lone gunshot rang out and Jess instinctively ducked down. The first rider went for cover in the direction of the rocks that walled Jess’s trail uphill. Either the stranger took a bullet from the man chasing both him and his friend, or he risked to have his neck broken jumping off the ridge. Jess was halfway through dismounting when the rider swooped down over the cliff. The man didn’t do it on purpose — he was as dumbstruck as his horse — but the results couldn’t be more disastrous. One of his mount’s forelegs connected with Jess’s back and sent him flying down the slope where he rested unmoving. The pistol he’d freed from his holster landed near his feet. The whole thing didn’t last but a few seconds; Jess Harper must’ve drawn the winning ticket in the bad-luck lottery.

What resembled a ghost rider stayed in his saddle a bit longer and rolled on the ground next to the Texan. The man picked up Harper’s gun and quickly made it to the top of the hill, aiming at the back of the passing by pursuer. Tim Trenton would no longer chase anyone off his land that day or any other day: he fell from his saddle, his journey over. The outlaw carefully approached Trenton. The farmer looked to be dead. The shooter went back to collect his horse and threw Jess’s gun to the ground. “That serves you right,” muttered the bandit, recognizing the man he wrestled with when he and his friend tried to hold up the stagecoach. The fellow had gotten in the way one time too many and had just got what he deserved.

*****

Mrs. Trenton feared it, fought it, and knew it. There was blood on Tim’s horse’s rump. Her son was good at riding just as he was at farming, and it was unlikely he could be thrown. She hitched up the buckboard and loaded it with blankets, a rope, two canteens of water, and her shotgun. Then she picked up her two grandchildren and her daughter-in-law and went in search of Tim.

Mrs. Trenton could smell the trouble before she saw it: cattle wandering down the hillside dividing her property from the Sherman’s. A bulky shadow mooed. They were nearer than it seemed. Tim was lying on his back when she found him. His hands were cold and he looked unnaturally relaxed. His mother was sure he was breathing. She had to believe, otherwise she could never hoist Tim’s big frame onto the buckboard, even with her daughter-in-law helping some. It was late evening, but in the dimming light Mrs. Trenton saw a second figure laying on the slope. The man raised a hand. Mrs. Trenton took two steps closer and was sure it was the shotgun rider — the ranch hand from the Sherman relay station. She felt a stab of pure hate that froze into a lump of hard stone in her throat. Too concerned for her son, and pushed by the need to get help, she ignored the other man and hurried back to the buckboard.

Dusk was settling over the Sherman ranch. Another day was gone, and they hadn’t had any news about the stage robbers. Jess was God knew where, and that made for another quiet and tense night. Sparse clouds were hopefully bringing some rain, which Slim was eager to get. The air was already dragging a wet veil, and the sky was tinged with streaks of dark purple so often announcing bad weather. Slim was about to finish his evening chores in the barn. The night was ready to fall but hadn’t quite descended yet. That kind of fading light always conspired to detract from reality, leaving Slim Sherman in a state of wistfulness. It was usually the time he indulged in his own dreams and memories. When he had all his stock bedded down, Slim went outside, closed the corral’s gate and frowned at the speeding carriage pulling into the yard.

“Whoa there! What are you trying to do? Drive your wagon to pieces?” His voice sounded harsher than he intended. The buckboard didn’t come to a full stop, but it slowed down enough to let Slim figure out it was Mrs. Trenton driving. She was in trouble. “Harper shot my son at Eagle’s Crest.” She tore off one sleeve to uncoil the reins wrapped around her wrists. “Your cows were wandering on our land. Need the doctor and the sheriff.” Looking briefly into the wagon to check with her daughter-in-law, she urged the team on yelling, “Your ranch hand is still there.”

The wagon lurched out of the yard before Slim could reply, too shocked to say anything or ask the right questions. He went back to the barn and saddled up a horse. Kelly, the stagecoach driver, saw Jess that afternoon on the trail heading to the north pastures. Slim hoped that Jess didn’t tangle with Trenton. The farmer could be a difficult man to deal with, as Slim experienced first-hand when they argued over Elk Meadow. That time Trenton fired his gun to stampede the cattle off what he considered his own land. Maybe he didn’t mean to hit anyone, but shooting just a few feet off the ground was more of a threat than a warning.

When the shack was in sight, Slim thought someone was trying to gentle a horse a short distance from the cabin. Coming closer, the rancher picked out his partner struggling to get in the saddle. Jess didn’t acknowledge his friend’s arrival. He carried on stubbornly with his attempts, without much success.

“What’s going on, Jess? Were you thrown?”

“No,” was the answer in between muffled coughing fits.

“Then what?” asked Slim dismounting. A ghostly glow emanated from the rocks along the trail. Some moonlight filtered through the clouds that were now piling up in the sky. Slim sensed more than he saw it that something wasn’t right. He was afraid to ask, but he had to know.

“Jess, Tim Trenton was shot. Did you two fight?”

The Texan didn’t make out what his friend was talking about. He once more missed his attempt to mount and Slim caught him, helping him to the ground. A strangled cry came from Jess when his back made contact. Slim could feel the heat coming off his friend’s body in the grip of a relapse — they don’t call it “saddle back fever” for nothing. Slim brought over some water and stood, waiting for his pard to recover enough to talk.

“Slim, the herd. I rounded up some, couldn’t find the others.” Jess sat up and struggled to untie his bandana, keeping the most relevant piece of information for last, “There were three men on the range.”

Slim frowned even more, “Did you recognize any?”

“Nope.”

The rancher tried to digest the news. “Jess, I said Trenton was shot? You hear me?”

“I heard a shot.”

Slim squatted down and let out a heavy sigh, knowing Jess wasn’t going to like what he had to say.

“Tim Trenton was shot. His mother told me you did it.”

Harper quit his fiddling and looked at his partner in shock. “Hell, no!” he uttered, shaking his head in denial.

“All right, pard, I’ll take your word for it.” Slim tried his best to sound reassuring, but wondered how many people in Laramie would be as convinced as he was. Then, not wanting to leave any loose ends, he asked, “How did you hurt your back, anyway?”

“That horse. Kinda stomped on me.”

“How?” prompted Slim, afraid to admit that Jess, running a high fever, might not have total control over his memories.

Jess realized he’d better come up with some clarity in his telling. “Someone was here, Slim,” he said, looking around, “I found the cabin lock broken. They butchered a heifer and made a fire outta fence rails. Cattle went astray and I followed the tracks. When I was about to the crest, I saw three riders, heard a shot, and then one of those horses was jumping onto my head. Never seen the likes of it.”

Jess paused and shook his head. “I can’t remember anything that ain’t mixed up from then on. I saw Mrs. Trenton, but I thought I was dreamin’ about the stage ride.” Jess looked up at Slim, wishing he was still asleep. In that case, his bad dream would soon end.

Slim reached out and pulled his friend’s arm.

“We go back to the ranch?” asked the Texan.

“You wanna get soaked?”

“Nope.”

“We’ll spend the night in the shack, then.”

Slim patted encouragingly on Jess’s shoulder, and the two cowboys made their way to the cabin.

*****

Sheriff Cory had every reason to be concerned about the mining area. His town, however, was just as demanding. He would later admit that he’d seriously underestimated the problem. It wasn’t just the deputy, and it wasn’t just about the law either. It was a mood, a bad climate that’d gotten hold of Laramie, after a few strangers showed up with the sole purpose to stir up trouble. What seemed just mischief at the beginning soon became malicious gossip, the kind that turns citizens one against the other.

One of the prattlers was Mr. Worman. He wasn’t a man of action, but he thought he had a solution for every problem. He talked everyone’s ear off about his adventure on the stagecoach trip. He filled out a complaint to the stage line Company for the delayed ride, and he was especially hard on Jess, who Mr. Worman thought had risked everybody’s lives with his gunplay. Everyone knew Jess shouldn’t be blamed for anything that happened during the attempted robbery, but his past and present deeds were sometimes put in a bad light, mixed with the endless and futile discussions in and out of the saloons.

Unfortunately, Mr. Worman wasn’t the only troublemaker that upset Mort’s sleep. The other two were known as Spencer and Finnegan, and they were out of a job since the coal company fired them because of some illegal trade. They hadn’t done anything against the law since they arrived in town, but it was just a matter of time. Mort Cory turned them down when they applied for the job as deputies, so they extended their interest to the surrounding areas. They rode to the Sherman ranch, but Slim couldn’t hire them. They had no experience with cattle and horses, couldn’t drive a four-team, and were just a little too enthusiastic at shooting guns.

 Since then, they locked horns several times with both the sheriff and various ranchers. They bore a grudge against Jess in particular. As the acting event judge, he banned them from the New Year’s Eve race for cheating. So whenever Mort needed extra help, he turned to Jess rather than the newcomers, even if he was busy as a beaver helping Slim with the ranch and the relay station. The fact that Jess let them no-accounts stew in their own juices didn’t help their bitterness any.

Both Spencer and Finnegan were in town when Mrs. Trenton rushed into Laramie. Tim was still alive, but he didn’t last longer than the desperate procedure performed by the doctor. The rumor that Jess Harper had murdered Tim Trenton spread all over before Tim’s mother even spoke to the deputy sheriff.

“Isn’t that enough?” asked Mrs. Trenton, almost reading through Pembroke’s thoughts.

“Why don’t you go and have some rest, Mrs. Trenton?” he suggested, adding more cartridges to his gun belt. “It’s dark and stormy,ma’am. Tomorrow morning, we’ll see what to do. Besides, Tim was shot in the back. I can’t think of Jess shooting anyone in the back.”

“Forgive me, Mr. Pembroke, but everybody knows that Mr. Harper has a questionable past. I was grateful when he made those outlaws run, but he’s a gunfighter and a man can’t change that. One of his kind killed my husband back in Kansas.” Mrs. Trenton’s angry words reached anyone standing in the street.

Spencer and Finnegan were among the most indignant. Either Pembroke would form a posse to find Jess Harper, dead or alive, or they would see to it themselves. More or less, that was their plan, and they wouldn’t have any trouble finding followers, because everything was against Jess, even the caliber of the bullet the doctor retrieved from Tim’s mortal wound. The vast majority assumed it was Harper who had killed Tim Trenton over a fight involving trespassing cattle.

As for Mrs. Trenton, the slightest doubt never crossed her mind. Her rage was there for everyone to see. She didn’t have any room for pity, either for the dead or the living, as rage was her only guide. It had her so worked up that it showed through her twisted features. She wanted Jess Harper to pay by morning. That he might’ve been already dead or on the run never occurred to her. She wouldn’t have her child buried before a sentence was carried out. She wouldn’t listen to anyone about fair trials and a jury. She was as good a juror as any — even better, because she knew exactly the amount of harm that was brought to her family. She wouldn’t reason, because she didn’t need any reasoning. What she really needed was a compassionate friend who could help her to let it all out without judging. Mort Cory might’ve been that friend. Pembroke? Not even close.

Tim’s mother walked past the crowd escorted by Mike Lander, a salesman at the mercantile and Trenton’s friend, heading for the funeral parlor. The onlookers fell silent but didn’t clear out. They felt involved and wanted to do something, because something had to be done about Harper. Pembroke only told them to go home and closed the saloons, but the men lingering in the livery stable dismissed his request saying ‘Yes sir’ under their breath.

*****

If Sheriff Cory had known what was going on in town the night Tim Trenton died, he would run back to Laramie in a hurry. By midnight, there were about eight men around the lamp in the old livery. Some were leaning on the posts, and others were sitting on crates. They were commenting on the news, an air of tension around them. It was a remarkable fact that they’d found a couple of leaders so willing to take care of everything. The Laramie citizens didn’t realize they were dealing with a couple of silver-tongued low-lifes who had their own personal reasons to lead the mob.

“Sherman won’t let Harper be put on trial. The man rides for the brand, so to speak. What if it was Sherman that ordered Harper to go after Trenton?” asked Finnegan.

“What kind of nonsense is this? Sherman wouldn’t do anything like that,” said the postmaster.

“Yeah, it’s easy to be law-abiding when the law always rallies around you. Did you forget what happened with Ben Parkinson’s son?” replied George Spencer.

“Wait, Sherman was never accused of anything. The Parkinson boy did it all by himself,” pointed out the postmaster.

“Whatever. But didn’t you notice how close the sheriff and that man Sherman have become?” asked the butcher.

Spencer shook his head, “Sherman doesn’t bother me. It’s Harper. How come the sheriff hires him day in, day out? Ain’t there enough men in town? Men who can shoot if necessary, but ain’t so trigger-happy as that Texan?”

“That’s right, George. Hardly seems fair that Harper ends up with two jobs while we’re struggling for one, does it?” said Finnegan from under his hat.

“I really don’t understand Cory, but that has to finish. Harper won’t get away with what he did,” said George Spencer. He couldn’t believe he was being offered a chance to see both Harper and Sherman in a tight spot. If he was asked what he meant to do to carry out his will to pay back those ranchers, he wouldn’t answer right away, but he wasn’t one to back off when a lesson had to be taught. Finnegan played along with his long-time friend, knowing that Spencer would take both the glory and the shame, wherever this might lead them. To Finnegan, it wasn’t anything more than a joke. He wasn’t interested in having a bigger role in it, unless it came to really lynching Harper. In that case, Finnegan would do his part gleefully.

The eight riders might not have a strategy for what to do next, but the men who’d spent the evening in the saloon helped them come to the ultimate solution. They were still chatting about the big news when they collected their horses to get back to their respective places. It might seem like just small talk, but that was enough for the soon-to-be-vigilantes to get rid of whatever restraint they’d left.

“Can you figure what the Trentons are going through? They settled down no longer than six months ago, and they’re still struggling,” said one of the newcomers from inside a stall.

“I don’t think Harper did it, but even if he did it, he must’ve had a reason,” said a man with a red moustache, shaking his saddle blanket.

“Neither do I think that Harper killed Trenton, and at any rate, taking it out on Jess like a bunch of avengers won’t help Mrs. Trenton and her family.” The postmaster threw away the straw he was chewing. He’d had enough of their talk.

“That’s where you’re wrong, mister. Those people need to know the law is on their side. Everyone in town needs that. The Trentons never missed a charity call since they settled. Don’t they deserve justice?” asked Spencer provocatively.

“They sure do, but Harper might’ve killed Trenton in self-defense,” said Red Moustache.

“Do you know anyone who shoots a man in the back in self-defense? Come on,” drawled Finnegan, “Trenton was the kind to protect his possessions, that’s all. Maybe he had a temper, but what about Harper? He’s a gunfighter, isn’t he? Everybody knows that. And I’ll tell you this: I’ve been watching that hombre. He would do anything for Sherman. Maybe this time he just exceeded some. Didn’t you know that Trenton and Sherman argued last week?”

“I just know that Sherman is a good guy who wouldn’t keep any gunfighter on his payroll. Slim can be particular when it comes to the law,” said the postmaster before leaving the group. The butcher followed, but the rest of the men gathered in the street between the sheriff’s office and the funeral parlor to let everybody know they were at the ready.

The deputy tried to figure out how to manage the situation. He couldn’t go against the townsfolk’s judgment because he knew he couldn’t control them. Whatever doubt was left about Trenton’s killing, Pembroke was in no position to sustain it. What he’d learned working around Mort was that the sheriff always had an answer. It usually came quick and easy. Never was there a time Pembroke had seen Mort showing uncertainty, especially in front of the citizens. But Paul didn’t have any answers — only questions that nobody wanted to be asked.

When had this mess begun to unfold? Was it when Kelly announced in the middle of a saloon that Jess Harper was riding to the north pastures, apparently to that deadly appointment with the farmer? Was it when George Spencer assured Mrs. Trenton that the whole town would do anything to make Harper face justice? Either way, the deputy sheriff’s lack of decision released the mob’s willingness to fight, and the good Laramie men, far from trying to control their instincts, were pushing each other. None wanted to be considered less determined in the task at hand. They’d find Harper for Mrs. Trenton. As for what would happen next, they would keep their options open.

The final stroke against Pembroke’s ability to handle his job came from a night rider bringing a dispatch from Sheriff Cory. The two villains who held up the stagecoach were probably part of a bigger gang that’d split up not far from Casper. When the deputy sheriff told the people in the street about it, he wasn’t rewarded with much enthusiasm.

“All right, folks, since you’re still here, you might as well listen to this. Sheriff Cory wrote me that the men we’re after are thought to be setting off to the Badlands. They’d holed up there before with the rest of their gang. In Rock Springs, the sheriff has already managed to form a small party and we need to pitch in.”

“When will Sheriff Cory be back?” asked Finnegan.

“By tomorrow at the latest.”

“Then let him arrange a posse, so that our town won’t go without protection,” said Spencer.

“It’s unlikely Laramie will be put at risk, George. They’re wise enough to avoid towns, but chances are that they’re still roaming around here. We might catch them without the help from the Rock Springs folks. Remember, one of them was wounded.”

“I’m not that eager to have to fight them on our own,” replied another man puffing on a cigarette.

“It’s only two, Randy. We shouldn’t have a problem with it.”

“You’ve just talked about a gang. There must be more than two.”

“Finnegan, you don’t want to go, just say it and stop that nonsense,” snapped the deputy. Turning to the others, he added, “Not to mention they could’ve had a part in Trenton’s death.”

“No, I doubt that, deputy,” said Spencer, “If Sheriff Cory’s right, they should be gone from Laramie by now. No point in going after them. Besides, we all know what happened to Trenton. We should go after Harper, just like Mrs. Trenton asked. What’re we waiting for?” A murmur of approval broke out.

Pembroke turned to Spencer, “As long as I’m in charge here, we won’t be taking orders from Mrs. Trenton. Let’s get going, just as Sheriff Cory asked.”

At these words, no more than three or four men parted with the main group, taking the deputy’s side. The rest of them stood silent, staring at the riders getting ready to leave. Paul Pembroke headed for the livery and faced the troublemakers with their last unavoidable question.

“Deputy, aren’t you going to do anything about Harper? Because, if that’s so, I must tell you Mrs. Trenton’s friends might take matters into their own hands,” Spencer growled ominously.

The deputy didn’t know what to do. He’d gotten orders, which he would obey, but he also had to do something about Harper. Paul might not be inclined to believe Jess was guilty, but then the ranch hand would still have to be taken in and questioned. Pembroke hated even the thought of being the one to go and arrest him. Jess and Slim were friends, and Pembroke needed Mort’s experience and guidance more than ever. He’d borrow just a little time and hope for the best. “You, and those who think they’re Trenton’s friends, will not do anything, and that’s an order. I’ve gotta go. I suggest everybody to go home and pray for Tim’s soul. We’ll see to Harper tomorrow, as soon as either Mort Cory or I am back.”

The self-appointed vigilantes that opted to go and get Jess, instead of following the deputy outnumbered by three to one the small group led by Pembroke. The feelings toward the man they thought had killed Tim Trenton had changed from disbelief to open hostility, and then into hatred in a matter of hours. The deputy’s refusal to take action against Harper — who was supposed to be alive, as Mrs. Trenton witnessed — made them all the more angry. Nothing short of a miracle would save Jess Harper if he’d survived Tim Trenton.

They headed for the Sherman ranch first. By the time they’d left the relay station — where all they found was an old man and a boy — they were no longer thinking on their own, their brains set in one dull collective will. It didn’t seem weird to them that Tim’s mother was driving her wagon along with the posse, steeling herself against the chilly and misty night. She would do whatever it took to avenge her son’s death, because that was the only idea that kept her going. If she did keep going, so would the posse.

*****

The night at the shack was too short for Slim and Jess to actually rest, yet long enough to get on their already frayed nerves. Oddly, for the close friendship they’d established over time, their silence was grim and restrained rather than trusting and relaxed. Jess dozed off, but it was an uneasy slumber, barely succeeding in getting rid of the tick fever and his dark thoughts. Though the first light should’ve been approaching fast, the clouds were delaying the new day’s break out. Jess awoke to see his friend standing in the doorway.

“It’s still dark,” said Jess evenly.

“It’s raining,” replied Slim, removing himself from the entrance and sitting on a stool. From there, he could hardly see the leaves of the sparse trees dripping. Slim had spent the last hour deep in thought while repairing the fence at a feeble lamplight that was washed away more times than he cared to count. Now, he concluded, Jess was in a very bad position. He’d been seen on his way to the north pastures and later at the site where Tim had been shot. Everybody knew there’d been an argument between Slim and Trenton. The homesteader had gone to the Land Office to have his 160 acres reassessed. Slim had willingly promised to build a ditch and share the lake water just to have Trenton giving up the unreasonable fight. On top of all that, Mort Cory wasn’t in town, Slim mumbled to himself.

“Slim, I have a gut feeling,” said Jess, startling his friend.

“What?”

“The Trentons should’ve arrived in Laramie by now. If that woman repeated what she told you, I’d expect Pembroke to come and get me.”

“Could be, but she didn’t see you shoot, right? You’ll explain.”

“Slim, I’ve been wanted before.” An odd silence surrounded them — even the rain had stopped falling for a while.

“So what?”

“So, I’ve never happened to find any good fellas all that eager to listen to my explanations.”

“It’ll be different now.”

“Why?”

“Why, you’re a local now, and you’ve served as a deputy. You’re a respectable man, Jess.”

“Slim, you just don’t understand,” replied the Texan, rubbing his forehead.

“Would you care to elaborate?”

“They might get even tougher with me for them reasons you just mentioned.”

“What’re you saying, that you’d better be off running away?” asked Slim finding Jess’s reasoning hard to follow.

“I might be thinking just that.”

They stood up at the same time — Slim from his stool and Jess from his makeshift bed — and headed outside to tend to their horses. Jess’s fever had broken yet again, and, even if he felt stiff and tired, his mind was clear. Slim, on the contrary, feared that all his certainties were slipping away. Jess had forced him to look at something he didn’t want to consider. The Texan had grown on the townsfolk as much as on his employer. If the Laramie citizens were convinced that Jess was guilty of murder, they might be really mad at him for not truly giving up his gunfighter ways. Betrayal usually goes with stricter punishment, just to make an example. Jess would be even more vulnerable than any other citizen because, to some of them, he was still an outsider.

“You really want to run? Jess, can’t you see that’s the stupidest thing you could do? Besides, you’re talking as if Trenton were dead.”

“With my luck, I’ll lay odds he’s dead.”

“Can’t you remember anything else about yesterday?”

“No, just those riders, a shot, and that horse on the cliff.”

“Could they be those stage robbers?”

“Can’t say; might be. Or rustlers stealing your cattle.”

“And Trenton would try to stop them?” asked Slim looking doubtful.

“I don’t know Slim,” said Jess, “Everything’s so vague. The only sure thing is I was there.”

Slim couldn’t find anything else to say. It was around sunup, and it was time to take care of the remaining strays. “You feel like riding?” he asked.

“Sure,” was the dry answer, but Slim wasn’t fooled. “Let me see,” he said, getting closer.

“What?”

“Let me see your back.”

Jess lifted his shirt slightly, and Slim gasped. The bruise was black and blue from the Texan’s shoulder blades down.

“Let’s take care of them strays,” Jess said, cutting Slim short and tucking in his shirt tail. Slim didn’t miss the way his friend was favoring his side.

“I thought it was your back aching.”

“Pain shifted.”

Sullen as the sky, off they rode, in search of the heifers. They found some by the lake, but Jess wanted to have a look at Eagle’s Crest. The place where Tim Trenton had been shot held back some elusive secrets. “I’m going on. I bet those heifers are in the corn field, sure as hell,” said he over his shoulder.

“All right, I’ll go with you, then,” replied Slim, not entirely convinced.

“No, you go back to the shack and do a better job with that fence. It didn’t seem to me such a great fix.”

“You think you coulda done better in that light?”

“Maybe not, but, from you, Slim, I always expect the best,” said Jess half-smiling.

“You’ll want to come down quick, whether you find the cows or not, understood? We need to be back at the ranch for the morning stage, and then we’re riding to town.”

“All right, boss, I’ll catch up soon,” Jess answered, spurring his horse.

*****

The day had started out misty. Now there was a hint of pink to the south-east, with the rest of the sky covered in grey and heavy clouds. The wind took a break and left the air stale with the smell of rotten bark. Slim Sherman ambled down the hill, working the young cows, and saw people by the cabin. He couldn’t say how many men there were, but they certainly set his internal alarm off. Most of all, Slim wondered why a buckboard stood right in front of the shack, with its two-horse team already turned toward the Laramie road. It could be Pembroke, but if so, he’d chosen to do things in style by taking a posse like that with him.

The men at the shack stared at the oncoming rider. They waited for him to reach the foot of the hill, and then the group came forward to meet him. Slim reined in and was soon encircled by riders and escorted to the small corral by the cabin — they rode so close that their stirrups were bumping into his. None of them talked about the reason why they’d come. By the time they all dismounted, though, Slim had figured out enough to be puzzled. Pembroke wasn’t there, and the buckboard was Mrs. Trenton’s. George Spencer, with his inseparable friend Finnegan, seemed to be in charge.

“Is anybody going to tell me what’s going on here?” asked Slim hastily.

“You’ll forgive us for being rude, Sherman, but none of us is in a good mood, with all that’s happened to the Trentons. Tim died in his mother’s arms and we’re here for his murderer — Harper,” said Spencer, waving a noose.

Slim felt like the sky had fallen down and crashed on him. The wind kicked up again. “Where’s the deputy?”

“Mort Cory wanted him to go west in search of those good-for-nothing robbers, and Pembroke didn’t have the time — or will — to take care of this. But we have both.”

“Sheriff Cory’s in town? I don’t see anyone of you with a badge.”

“We don’t need any. We’ve brought a higher authority with us. Mrs. Trenton has a special interest in seeing the job done.”

“What job? Where’s Mort?” asked Slim, unwilling to believe.

“He’ll be back today. Mrs. Trenton wouldn’t wait that long. She’s entitled to do what she wants with Harper, and we all know she can carry on what she begins,” said Finnegan, sending Slim over the edge.

“You’re sick, Finnegan. Mrs. Trenton, please, accept my condolences…”

“Stop it now, or else…” Finnegan hit Slim with the rope.

“Else what? I’m talking to you guys. How can you say that it was Jess who killed Trenton?” shouted Slim, not holding out any hope but trying anyway.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Sherman. Harper was there, Mrs. Trenton saw him. You came here, you must know where to find him, and you better tell us now,” threatened Spencer, running out of patience.

Slim ignored him, still trying to catch the others’ attention. “I asked you a question, folks. This is a lynching you are about to commit. Can you live with it for the rest of your life, just because you listened to these two?” Slim was overwhelmed by random voices. He spoke louder, and they calmed down enough to let him be heard.

“Mrs. Trenton, what exactly did you see at Eagle’s Crest?” asked Slim.

They cleared a little, allowing him to look at the lady as she spoke. “I saw a man, not even thirty yards from Tim. I walked close enough to see it was Harper. Then I moved out of there.”

Slim sighed in relief; she’d just confirmed Jess’s version, at least the part he remembered. The men exchanged looks, and a murmur waved through the small crowd.

“Believe me, I’m sorry, ma’am. Just answer my question, please. Did you see Jess shoot Tim?”

“I didn’t.”

“No, you didn’t. Can you see, ma’am, this isn’t affecting just you and your family, but also mine and the whole town? Only you can stop it.” Slim didn’t want to let know he’d spoken with Jess. At the same time, just looking around, he realized how badly his words rang in his audience’s ears, especially Mrs. Trenton’s. It looked like he was trying to give his ranch hand a way out at all costs.

Tim’s mother stared at the group, stood up and shuddered. “I’m on my way to pick up the suit that my son will wear to be buried. You’ll excuse me if I don’t give a darn about the town or even your family, Mr. Sherman. You were the ones who didn’t want us to live here. Now I’ve figured it all out and I’m sure that you managed to change the property line. Then you agreed to give us access to our water. Oh, how kind of you. No wonder your ranch hand, being what he is, wanted to settle things once and for all.” She hiccupped and almost lost her balance, brushing a stray strand from her forehead. Then she lowered her voice, pointing her forefinger at Slim, “Unless it was you who ordered him to take action, in which case you should share in the punishment.” She grabbed the box seatback and sat down clumsily.

“I’ll be damned, if that don’t add some juicy details. I knew you’d wind up strung with your own rope, Sherman,” said Spencer. The other men growled their approval.

“That’s not true, Mrs. Trenton,” said Slim, shaking his head, “And if your judgment wasn’t clouded by your pain, you’d see eye to eye with me and with the Land Office.” Once again Slim had to raise his voice to cover the others. The situation was even worse than he thought.

“Never mind my pain, Sherman, I’ve never been so in control,” Mrs. Trenton giggled nervously.

“Let’s stop this nonsense, shall we?” groaned Finnegan, and then turned to Sherman. “Where is he? Have you seen him?”

“He will be where you least expect him to be,” answered Slim, without knowing what the heck he was saying. Finnegan punched him in the stomach, and Spencer clasped his hands and tied them to one of the corral posts. Slim tried to make a stand, but he knew better than to put up a useless fight.

Since Slim wouldn’t talk, Spencer sent some of his henchmen scouting the pastures up along the trail to Eagle’s Crest, and then he joined the others on the road to Casper. Finnegan stayed and keep watch. If Jess was on his way to the cabin, he wouldn’t stand a chance against Spencer and his men, unless he chose the Lodge Pole Grove. He’d reach the road further away and maybe avoid the ambush.

No matter what, it won’t take him long to eventually show up, Slim thought with a sickening feeling.

*****

Jess Harper had just got the heifers out of the cornfield, but he didn’t enjoy his accomplishment very long. Three riders topped the hill he was about to climb with the critters. None of them was Slim, and that was all Jess needed to know. Confused memories from the day before added to his already crap mood. Whether it came from his time as a drifter or just out of pure instinct, he knew he had to slip out of there.

He hid behind a stand of cottonwoods, and he swiftly reached the rear of the Trenton’s barn. He then lit out for Lodge Pole Grove and the Casper road, leaving the heifers behind. Riding on, Jess would think what to do next. For quite a while, it almost looked like they hadn’t followed the forest trail. The pine needles muffled their horses’ stomping. Then human voices reached Harper from everywhere, bouncing from tree to tree. The Texan realized he’d better think quickly because those riders were catching up fast.

Jess spurred his horse to a canter, minding the tree branches that seemed to fly at him. He had to admit he’d chosen a predictable path, but, with the hill out of the question, there weren’t any other options enabling him to go back to Slim’s hut. Jess Harper’s first thought had been for his friend. Everybody, though, would think he was trying to run off to Casper.

Tired of ducking twigs, Jess soon began to hope he could find a fork off that trail. To the south, the forest bordered a watershed, near the bottom of which the road was a thin brownish line. The problem was that the previous night’s rain caused a landslide where years of grazing cattle had worked on loosening the soil. The slope was much steeper than he remembered, and Jess reined in sharply. He’d never risk such a speedy ride on such terrain. Debris from the slide, roots, rocks, and pine limbs littered the place while clumps and holes were hard to see in the desolation. Suddenly Jess heard a crack and a scream sound from back down the trail. Seemingly, someone managed to ride into a tree. Jess muffled a sneer. He needed to decide whether to keep going or change his plans. He dismounted and tested the ground beneath him. He could walk, leading his horse by the bridle. If Jess was lucky, the pursuers would go straight on the forest trail, and that would lead them north to the point where he was heading. If he wasn’t lucky, well, no time to think about it, anyway.

Jess’s horse yielded to his master, and both of them — slipping and holding on to each other — progressed carefully and steadily. The cabin was just a couple of miles beyond the next hill. However, Jess’s luck ran out when one of the riders came close to the rim of the watershed and looked below. The man immediately called out to the others, and they started not so carefully down the slide. How many more steps before Jess could mount up again? Eventually, the ground got quite even and the green of the pasture was no longer covered in black loose soil, so Jess hopped in the saddle, eager to put some more distance between him and his pursuers.

Shots rang out from the chase. The Texan didn’t expect that they’d shoot from that far, but then he couldn’t know they were just signaling to their partners on the road. Jess saw the second party coming his way, and in one second, knew the shack was lost to him. If he kept riding like he was, he’d run into them very rapidly. Two riders — the incident in the forest might’ve taken care of the third — were on Jess’s heels, still shooting randomly. After reaching the lowest level in the basin, Jess had his way blocked both to the road and to the east, where a land barren with sparse outcrops offered no way of an escape. Both paths were upward, and that alone led to only one conclusion: he was trapped. Jess swerved to the left, knowing that he could only delay the inevitable. His angst rose considerably, as his predictions of the night before were soon to be fulfilled. The posse was riding on Sherman’s land, and Slim must’ve met them. If not even Hard-Rock Sherman could stop them, then none of Jess’s explanations would do any good.

The Texan jumped from the saddle and knelt next to the tallest outcrop, his rifle in hand. The pursuers spread along the line of boulders, and Jess had them all around him. He barely got off two clean shots, as they ran for shelter behind the surrounding rocks. Although Jess fired from a good vantage point, he was greatly outnumbered, and it was just a matter of minutes before they were too close to handle. They came forward from the opposite sides of his cover. While Jess shot at one of them, another man jumped him. Jess lost his rifle in the fight. The first assailant picked it up and smashed it against the rock. Suddenly there were four men, and then five or more, but Jess stopped counting. They took his revolver and held him, wanting to punch the very life out of him.

Jess Harper had been roughed up in his troubled years on the drift. It’d been some time, though, since he got into a fight for his life with people he knew quite well. These men were no strangers; they were Laramie citizens with whom Jess had exchanged at least some jokes — with some of them he’d even played poker. Nevertheless, they were excited to the point where they could murder him bare-handed, had they had a chance to keep on beating him any longer. Spencer reached a better position uphill to observe the scene from afar. That was the closest to the action that he’d ever come, and he sighed with relief for not being shot. Here was George’s big moment: he caught Trenton’s killer. Spencer would certainly be better at telling the story than at making it. The town of Laramie would be forever grateful, and his entire life would take a turn for the better. He could afford to be generous, until he brought Jess Harper to Mrs. Trenton, for the sentence to be executed. Spencer shot once, and his henchmen stopped.

Jess didn’t even recognize his enemy. He’d tried to fight back, but he’d been soon overwhelmed and knocked over with a sick weakness to which he couldn’t resist. Only half conscious, Harper was hoisted onto his horse and tied to the saddle horn. He was barely aware of the direction they took, but he was alive, both eager and afraid to know what they might want to do with him. It started raining again. The angry pelting made his multiple bruises burn. His stomach reminded him of his last meal — yesterday’s breakfast — a thought which made him feel even sicker and beyond exertion.

As they approached the shack with Jess in tow, Slim hunched forward; the wait was over. Finnegan kept the rancher covered all the time. Sherman couldn’t attempt anything, not even talk to Mrs. Trenton, who was still seated on the box.

Jess had had a very rough time, judging from his rugged and dirty clothes, his bruises, and his broken rifle set across Spencer’s saddle. Tim’s mother took no notice. In an awkward contrast to both Slims’ and Mrs. Trenton’s feeling, the self-appointed posse greeted Finnegan cheerfully, as if they’d already accomplished a meaningful part of the job at hand. Too bad that three of them were wounded and hardly able to ride. “You were quick,” said Finnegan, welcoming them back.

“He tried to run off,” replied Spencer, setting the prisoner free, “Get down, you coward.” The other men got off their saddles.

Jess neither answered nor resisted when Spencer secured him to the buckboard rail. Jess saw only then that Slim was also tied within fifteen yards from him. “Why did you take Slim? What do you think he did?” asked the Texan, yanking the rope in frustration. “Was that Pembroke’s order? Where is he?”

“Never mind Pembroke. It was our idea to help Mrs. Trenton get justice, since nobody else would,” answered Spencer. “You might want to know Tim Trenton died.”

Jess didn’t react, as if he already knew, which only looked like another piece of evidence of his guilt. He turned slowly to Mrs. Trenton, who was staring at him silently.

Slim prompted his friend, shouting, “Tell ’em, Jess! Tell ’em what you’ve seen.”

Jess breathed slowly. He was so close to toppling over, that he needed to pay attention to the slightest movement, “I didn’t do it,” he swallowed. “I know you all think I killed Trenton, but it ain’t true. I’m sorry, ma’am. I was there, all right, but I wasn’t the only one.” His words sounded weak and pathetic to his own ears.

“Some excuse you found, Harper,” grinned Spencer, signaling to the others to keep quiet, “Unfortunately, we don’t have the patience to let you entertain us.”

“Dammit, Jess, tell ‘em what you saw yesterday,” cried Slim, who’d never stopped trying to break free, since they brought Jess in.

Harper hung onto the buckboard rail, “I was about to crest from this side, and I saw three men.” He looked up and nodded at the hills; his audience quit the hubbub. “They were riding in a row on top of the ridge. I didn’t recognize them. Heard a shot, and then a horse was on me. I didn’t know Trenton was there.”

“Look at Jess’s back,” said Slim, “There’s a horseshoe shaped bruise, and it looks angry, too. Have you ever been kicked? You should recognize the signs.” The rancher observed the others’ reactions. He needed to reach out to them. Jess was right; they weren’t interested in any explanation, which could make them even angrier. Someone got close to the Texan and lifted his torn shirt. “It’s as Sherman says”, stated the man — the clerk from the mercantile –not leaving the prisoner’s side.

“He could’ve hurt himself some other way — even his horse could’ve done that,” said Finnegan, walking to the buckboard.

“Why would Jess stay here, if he killed Trenton? Wouldn’t he hightailed it right away?” Slim shouted above raising voices.

“If it wasn’t Harper, then who did it?”

“You heard it from Jess; there were three men. We already know one of them was Trenton…”

“And the others? Who might they be? Maybe the ones who held up the stagecoach?” said the clerk, sparking a crossfire of questions.

“Don’t start on that again. Those no-good robbers are way too far by now. Isn’t that why Mort Cory sent out Pembroke?”

“Maybe they were still here. How’d you know?” said the clerk.

“Pembroke told us that the whole gang is expected near Rock Springs.”

“Maybe, but those two could’ve stayed.”

“But we all know that the fight was about the cows trespassing, don’t we?” bellowed Finnegan to silence the ones who were having doubts.

“What? Who told you that?” boomed Slim, exasperated, “Yes, the cows trespassed, and that was because somebody took down the fence. Somebody camped here two nights ago,” Slim smiled bitterly, “They even butchered a heifer. We found the shack door cracked. Jess was at Eagle’s Crest to roundup the strays. What’s so hard…?”

“What’re you trying to make us believe? That you and Trenton were getting along just fine?” interrupted Spencer.

“That’s nothing to do with what happened to Tim. As far as Jess and I are concerned, things have settled,” said Slim, standing his ground. He’d almost disengaged the post from the railing — the post itself was ready to give way.

“Well, let me hear from Mrs. Trenton about it. Ma’am, how were things between you and Sherman?” asked Finnegan.

“They didn’t want us here. They tried to get us out by messing with the Land Office, ‘cause they’re ranchers,” said Tim’s mother. Emotionless and rigid, she held on to the seat tightly, her eyes low. The clerk gave her a long and questioning look.

Slim struggled to keep his anger at bay. “That is completely false, ma’am, and you know it.”

“Stop trying, Slim,” said Jess, “She ain’t listening.” His legs didn’t want to cooperate anymore. Now he knew why Pembroke wasn’t there. Jess also wondered how the deputy handled Trenton’s killing. Did he even know what these men were up to? Harper had never wished for the sheriff to show up as much as he did now.

George Spencer didn’t want the discussion go any further. He shoved away and grabbed Jess’s arm, the prisoner’s broken rifle in his other hand. “Sherman,” he busted out. “You asked why your partner didn’t run away. Because he knew you’d protect him, that’s why. Just like the deputy, and the sheriff, for that matter. But we’re fed up with you all, ain’t that right, boys? Harper won’t get away with this. As for the Land Office, we know they pull every trick in the book.” Spencer examined his men. It was nearly noon, and the posse members looked different than the night before. They hadn’t slept or eaten, and they’d been in the saddle for hours. They’d chased Harper, a gunfighter as dangerous as they come, and three of them were wounded. They didn’t need any more discussions to keep up the fight, because the more they talked, the less they’d honor the promise to Mrs. Trenton.

Spencer turned to the woman, the only person who could really get a hold on the gathering. “Mrs. Trenton, would you like to speak before we give Harper what he deserves?” Spencer didn’t release the prisoner’s arm. The woman bent toward Jess, looking at him with coal black eyes — not so much due to her iris, but to her enlarged pupils.

“Do you understand what was done to us?”

“I reckon I do,” answered Jess.

Lander didn’t miss the sadness in the captive’s statement.

Tim’s mother shook her head, and her face lit up with an eerie smile. Jess couldn’t put it into words, but he felt what she was trying to convey, and it chilled his blood. In her heart. she’d killed him already, and herself with him.

“I didn’t do it, ma’am. You’re wrong. I wish you could see it but understand you wouldn’t, even if you could,” said Jess, and this time Lander was impressed with the sincerity in Harper’s tone.

The clerk, however, was the only one to notice. That was it. Spencer let go of Jess and nodded to Finnegan. Slim felt his heart freeze, cutting his breath short. He needed to stop what was about to happen, at any cost, even if it meant to die trying. He almost didn’t recognize his own voice, because of the whir in his ears. They wouldn’t listen, but he had to do something. “You are about to make the worst mistake of your life. There’s still time to stop it. Mort’s due in town today, right? And you can take it before him. We’ll go with you.”

“Oh, come on, Sherman, can’t you see that we don’t trust you, your deputy, or your sheriff? We’ll settle this here and now!” Spencer took the noose from Finnegan, and threw Jess’s broken rifle into the carriage.

Then all hell broke loose.

The horses hitched to the wagon spooked. They bucked and darted forward — the lines weren’t tied. Slim snatched the post from the ground, and with his hands still bound to it, flagged it around. The other horses took off and their riders stood bewildered. Jess was pulled so violently that he was hurled in the air. The rope tightened on his wrists. He gathered what was left of his strength to get on board. Mrs. Trenton fell over the box and found herself next to Jess. Spencer, for no sensible reason, took aim at the carriage, but it was already out of sight down the road. He turned and saw his posse scattered, all chasing after their mounts. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Spencer wasn’t ready to see all his work ruined in such a ridiculous way.

Slim Sherman freed himself and threw the log away. He put his hands up, eyes wide with shock. Spencer fired, hitting him in his side. Sherman took the round and stepped backward before he fell across the broken fence. Not even then George Spencer realized it hadn’t been Slim spooking the horses.

On the runaway buckboard, Jess needed Mrs. Trenton’s help, but she huddled in the corner under the box, staring at him as blankly as before.

“Untie my hands, will you,” Jess pleaded.

No reaction. Meanwhile, the tongue came off the neck yoke and started hitting randomly at the horses’ legs, making them even more skittish.

“Please, ma’am. I can stop the wagon if you free my hands.”

She frowned, but that was all.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, come on.” Having recovered from his awkward climb aboard, he just wanted to end the dangerous ride. After a straight section, the road was narrowing and winding. It wouldn’t be long before the wagon crashed, either against the rocky wall on one side of the road or down the slope to the other. Jess didn’t know how else to get the woman’s attention. She seemingly wanted to have them both killed, along with the team. He’d never felt so useless but made a final attempt, “The rest of your family need you. You can’t let them down right now. Please, help me quick!”

They were being jarred from side to side in the wagon’s bed, and the horses were relentless. Perhaps they’d finally stop on their own accord, but it was unlikely, given the kind of abuse they were getting from the wagon shaft. Jess turned and looked at the poor beasts, still trying to free himself without success. He gazed at the woman and hoped she could be touched by his silent prayer. She looked at him, a bit less astonished. After what seemed an eternity, Mrs. Trenton tentatively reached out and began pulling at the knots. The woman had strong hands, yet her fingers slipped and struggled to unfasten the ropes. She finally made it, and Jess readied himself to do his part, but at the next bend, the buckboard skidded. They both were thrown out. The wagon and its team got out of the road rolling upside down.

At the line shack, the posse rounded up their mounts, though sporadic claps of thunder made the horses nervous and the soft grass made them less inclined to care about their riders. The shooting of Slim Sherman brought the majority of the vigilantes to their senses. Mike Lander tended to Slim’s wound, with the help of his injured fellas. Fortunately, nobody suffered life-threatening harm, Slim included, because what they knew about doctoring was very limited. They carried him into the cabin and worked at stopping the bleeding. Slim came around, remembering all too well and too soon. He grasped somebody’s arm without saying anything, but Mike understood. “Those runaway horses can’t race forever, don’t worry.”

“Don’t you worry,” mocked him Slim, trying his best to sit up, in spite of the burning in his side and the dizziness in his head.

“You better stay put, Sherman, or you’ll lose even more blood.”

“Why do you care so much about me now? Where’re your…”

“We found them all. What do we do now?” interrupted a redheaded lad, perhaps not even sixteen years old, popping in after collecting the horses.

“Good question, eh?” said Slim, praying he’d be strong enough to stand.

Mike ignored Slim’s sarcasm and answered the boy, “I don’t know, but let me tell you, I’m signing out of this, and you better do the same. Where’re Spencer and the other one?”

“I don’t know. I thought they were here. Maybe Dennison knows; he caught their horses for them.”

“Get Dennison,” ordered Mike, and they all gathered in front of the shack. Three were missing: Spencer, Finnegan, and a troubled middle-aged fella who’d tried his hand at many different trades without succeeding at any.

*****

Jess Harper and Tim’s mother landed on an incline covered in sagebrush. The horses lost their balance and flipped with the carriage downhill. The wreckage site turned quiet, except for the anguished neighs of the horses. Jess sat up and looked around. Other than a few new scratches, he came out just fine, all things considered. His eyes lingered on the dark and dusty figure to his right. She lay face down but quickly climbed to her knees only to bow as if in pain soon after that.

“You all right?” asked Jess. She didn’t seem to be suffering from any apparent injury. Jess couldn’t help but feel shy and even embarrassed around that woman, and under present circumstances he had many a reason to feel less than confident. Mrs. Trenton lifted her face to look at him, and Jess once again couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. Hatred? Disgust? Pain? Need of comfort? Sympathy? All those feelings seemed to be evident in Mrs. Trenton features. “I’ll see to your horses. You stay here.”

She sat on the ground, rocking back and forth, her eyes shut.

The team was in bad shape. The two horses were tangled in the harnesses, one on top of the other. Jess began to unfasten the buckles while he spoke softly to calm them. His own misery put on hold, he worked to get the top horse back on her feet. Jess stuck out a leg and pulled by the collar, his back and right side protesting fiercely. With the help of the lines, Harper moved the critter’s rump enough to relieve the pressure on her companion. It took some more goes, but finally the lucky mare was up and about. Still whispering, Jess soothed her and assessed her injuries, which fortunately were minor. When she relaxed a little, he let her loose. As for the other horse, Jess wished the accident had been serious enough to kill him on the spot. The animal’s cries were fading as was his strength. Jess kneeled by him, knowing he couldn’t do anything to comfort him. Harper missed his iron, the only means to end the beautiful gelding’s pain. Jess always shared in horses’ suffering out of natural compassion, but this time, it hurt more than usual, because those animals had probably saved his life.

Jess Harper stood up, fighting the need to just lie down and sleep. He turned to Mrs. Trenton to tell her the news. “The mare is doing good, just a little lame, but the bay…” Jess shook his throbbing head.

Mrs. Trenton squinted and straightened her dress, “Kill him”, the words strained through thin lips.

“How?” demanded Jess, a tweak of desperation in his voice. He wondered how long it’d take for the posse to catch up. He might still hang, but Slim might be getting the same treatment. Jess had very few options. “I’m going back, you coming?” he finally asked and reached out a hand to help the woman to her feet. Surprisingly, she took it, and they both climbed the slope, the mare treading with them.

When they hit the road, they saw riders coming. “Here we go again,” said Jess, exhausted. The only consolation was they didn’t look any better than he. Worn out as well, and some battered, too. Mike Lander dismounted and greeted Mrs. Trenton.

“I didn’t know what to do, Myra. Things got outta hand. What happened? Are you hurt?” he asked, glaring at Jess.

“The wagon tongue got loose,” answered Jess, since Myra didn’t speak, “The other horse can’t make it. Have mercy for a change and put him out of his misery.”

Lander was mortified, and went over to the wreckage to do what was needed, not uttering a word. The shot rang through the area, and Jess jumped. He was astonished, to say the least, when Mike got back to the group and handed him his horse bridle. Harper stared at them all. He couldn’t see Slim, nor Spencer for that matter. He’d missed being hung by a hair, and, although it might still happen, he felt a strange mix of relief and resignation. Were they just kidding? Was this a weird kind of a joke? The new hand Jess was dealt was making his head spin.

“You’ll ride with us to town, Harper. I don’t know if you killed Tim, but I’m not so sure now as I was last night. Also, Spencer shot Sherman, and I want no part of that.”

A wave of boiling rage washed over Jess. He grabbed Lander by the collar and cried, “But you are part of this. You all are in this just the same.” Harper shoved the clerk away, wanting to fight until the light of the day would be swallowed up and the night take over.

Two of the others seized him and struggled to restrain him, but Lander stuck his manicured hands out to make them stop. “Let him go,” he said, setting his vest straight, “Sherman’s going to be fine; it’s just a scratch.”

Jess brushed the two men off. “If something, anything happens to Slim, I’ll gun you down, all of you. I promise,” he gasped out.

“In your position, that’s not so smart a thing to say, Harper. Maybe you killed, Tim, after all. You might want to know Tim was my friend, just like Sherman is yours.”

“I didn’t kill Trenton. Ain’t got no reason to, and whoever says differently is either a liar or a plumb fool.” Jess’s words of complaint died on his lips when he looked at Myra Trenton caressing the mare.

 Lander looked, too, and asked, “Was she hurt in the wreckage?” and then to Mrs. Trenton, “How you doing, ma’am?”

She didn’t answer and kept rubbing the horse. Jess stepped back and said, “She lost a son, a good horse, and nearly her mind. How’s she supposed to be doing?”

“She’s coming to town as well; she needs to make arrangements for the funeral. Is it safe to ride the mare?” asked Lander.

“Mount that horse now and I’ll cut you down,” growled Jess.

“All right, then, I’ll ride double with you, Skinny,” said Mike, walking to one of his party — a young man that Jess didn’t know. Lander helped Mrs. Trenton on his own horse and turned to Jess. “I don’t think Spencer will be around for a while. He’s unlikely to bother you or Sherman any further.”

“How do you know?” asked Harper, tightening the cinch of his saddle.

“Because he ran away after he shot Sherman. He’s a good-for-nothing, whether he tries to do good or bad.”

“I was about to be hung and my partner was shot. Spencer’s skillful enough for me,” Jess grumbled in barely controlled fury. Lander didn’t reply and mounted behind Skinny. Mrs. Trenton threw an inquiring look at the Texan. Her features had softened, and the signs of terrible grief were beginning to show via her grey and hollow cheeks.

*****

Jonesy was in a dilemma. He was cleaning the barn when the posse arrived at the ranch several hours ago. Through the ruckus that followed, all Jonesy managed to find out was that Tim Trenton had died, and that they were after Jess. The old man asked about Pembroke, but nobody explained why the deputy was missing. Finnegan wanted to bring Jonesy and Andy along, to keep them from calling on their neighbor ranchers for help. Spencer, though, had decided a young fellow, the blacksmith’s shop boy, would stay over until they were back.

Jonesy was now debating whether he should go to town for the deputy, or head out to the line shack where he thought Slim and Jess should be. The coach had just left and the fellow had run off, dejected by the old man’s lecture about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. Alone at the ranch with Slim’s kid brother, Jonesy feared that he couldn’t be of much help to Slim and Jess until Pembroke or Sheriff Cory got back to town. But Andy couldn’t be kept at home any longer, so Jonesy decided to hitch up the wagon, and they hit the trail to the north pastures.

“Why didn’t we leave sooner? I would’ve disarmed him, if you’d helped,” said Andy, angrily.

“Don’t yell at me, boy. You could’ve been killed just as well. Besides, it was our responsibility to tend to the stage and the passengers.”

“You think about coaches and passengers at a time like this?”

“Slim and Jess, they can take care of themselves. Then again, I think you know why things had to be the way they were.” The last remark froze Andy, who deep inside knew that Jonesy was right. They drove on in silence, each of them alone with their own worries, and the last thing they would expect was to meet the vigilantes not even five miles from home. They were coming back and Jess was with them. Jonesy pulled upon the ribbons and waited for them to approach.

“Hi. What’re you doing here? Where’s Charlie?” asked Lander.

“I sent him home after a good larruping,” answered Jonesy. Spotting Jess and not Slim was both a relief and a new source of troubles. Andy stood up, no longer able to get a hold of himself. “Jess, what happened?”

The ranch hand almost gave in to the urge to jump on the wagon and hug the boy, “Hurry up. Get out to the shack, Jonesy. Slim was shot, but that’s all I know.”

“Wait until Sheriff Cory hears about it,” said Jonesy, chagrined.

“We’re taking Harper to town and wait for the sheriff,” said Mike.

“You got it, eventually,” Jonesy replied bitterly, “If anything happens to Jess…”

“I know; you’ll gun me down. Come on, guys.” Mike Lander led the way. Jess set his horse in motion but stopped next to the buckboard. “Jonesy, you got some extra water with you? In spite of all this rain, I’m as dry as a bone.”

“Sure, Jess,” answered the old man, lending him one of the canteens he brought. Harper gulped down almost half the contents.

Revived, Jess let the feeling spread through his body, giving him the strength to fight a little longer. As much as he wished he could trust Lander and the new course taken by the lynch mob, he wouldn’t have any of it.

*****

When Mort Cory returned to Laramie in the late evening, he found Lander sitting outside the sheriff’s office, a rifle on his lap. The sheriff nodded to the man from the street. The town looked quiet. Lander stood up and addressed Mort. “Evening, sheriff. May I come in? I need to talk to you.”

“Fine,” answered Cory, entering the dark room. He lit a lamp and motioned the clerk to a chair, taking a seat at his desk. Lander put down the rifle and scratched his right forearm before he began. There was nothing that could shake the feeling of shame. “Tim Trenton was killed.”

The sheriff bent forward.

“He was shot in the back. His mother found him at Eagle’s Crest and saw Jess Harper lying nearby. She thought Jess shot her son in a fight over trespassing. Cattle were all over her place by the time she got there. She brought Tim to town but he was dying,” Lander paused to rub his eyes with both hands. “Many of us wanted to go and get Harper. Mr. Pembroke just wanted us to go home.” The clerk spoke fast, and the sheriff had the impression that Mike had thought things through and carefully prepared what to say. “When the deputy received your orders, he rode out with a group of maybe four men. The rest of us, with Mrs. Trenton, went to the Sherman place first, and then on to the shack where we thought Sherman and Harper might be.”

Mort Cory had forced himself to listen without interrupting, but at this point he couldn’t help it, “Where are Slim and Jess now?”

“I’m getting there, sheriff, I’m trying to tell you everything in order, and it’s not easy.”

“Well, make it quick.”

“We found Sherman at the cabin below Eagle’s Crest and stopped Harper a little farther. Spencer was somehow in charge. It’s not that he was chosen or anything.” The clerk looked away. He was reluctant to admit what he’d been involved with, but he recovered and said, “I wanted Harper to pay for shooting my friend. I had no doubt that Jess was guilty.”

“So, you gathered a lynching party.”

“I swear I didn’t think we should hang Harper. Spencer, though, was bound and determined to do so.”

“What happened to Slim and Jess?” Mort asked with a low, cold voice.

“They’re fine, more or less. Mrs. Trenton said that Sherman wanted to boot them out of their spread. She also said Sherman was plotting in agreement with the Land Office, but Tim had told me otherwise. She looked confused.”

“What happened?” asked Sheriff Cory, from cold to icy.

“The horses spooked. Mrs. Trenton drove her buckboard, but she couldn’t control her team — and Spencer shot Sherman. Harper was tied to the Trentons’ wagon, and both he and Myra were thrown farther down the road. One of the horses died from the incident. Then Spencer, Finnegan, and Metz fled. We caught up with Harper and brought him to town. Sherman wasn’t seriously wounded, and we left him at the shack with Mr. Jones, who was heading there.”

“Where’s Jess?”

“In a cell. Didn’t you notice the front door wasn’t locked? He’s sleeping, I checked on him an hour ago.”

The sheriff took the lamp but changed his mind. He drew a sheet of paper and a pencil from beneath his desktop and retrieved a candle from the shelf near the stove, “Write down the names.” Mort lit the candle and headed for the cells. Jess slept peacefully — maybe too peacefully, as far as Mort was concerned. The sheriff bent over the bunk and shook his shoulder to wake him up. “Jess?”

Harper frowned, turned his head away from the light and breathed deeply. After Mort’s second attempt, Jess made an effort to acknowledge him. “Howdy.”

“So, what scrapes did you happen to find yourself in this time?” the lawman whispered.

Jess collected his thoughts that were still grazing around in his head and said, “Trenton died.”

“I know that. What can you tell me about it?”

“They thought I killed him. I was gathering strays and was thrown from my horse, over at Eagle’s Crest, hit by another horse. There were three. I think one of the men was Trenton. The other two might be those stage robbers.” Jess rose to his elbows, struck by a sudden thought, “Slim? How is he? He was wounded, did you know that?”

“So I’ve been told, but I’ve just arrived, Jess; I haven’t seen him.”

“Jonesy was about to get to the shack when we started off to town. You seem to know a lot for someone who’s ‘just arrived’.”

“Lander was waiting outside. He told me they rode together with Spencer, and they wanted to get you.”

“Get me? Is that what he said? They darn well wanted me dead. Spencer wouldn’t listen to reason, and Mrs. Trenton was clear out of her mind. She insisted Slim cheated about their property limits, and that we didn’t want them here.” Jess sat up slowly and threw his legs off the bunk.

“That horse did a mighty fine job,” said the sheriff sitting next to Jess.

“It wasn’t just that horse, Mort; they were pretty accurate, too.”

The sheriff put his hand on Jess’s forehead. “At least the fever’s gone.”

“What’re we going to do now?” asked Jess, and the candlelight caught his pained, hunted look.

They would wait — that would be the answer. They would be waiting until Pembroke came back from Rock Springs, so Mort decided to keep Jess in jail, mostly for his own protection. In the next few days, bits of the puzzle started to fit together. Jonesy came in to town for groceries and brought news from the ranch. Slim was doing a lot better and would likely be back to work in a week.

It was a five-day wait, and Mort kept himself busy summoning the wanna-be vigilantes one by one. Each of them claimed they never meant to do any harm; they just wanted to help the deputy who clearly had too much on his plate. They blamed Spencer for the group detouring from an honorable course of action. Most of them, clearly prompted by Lander, submitted a statement that, after Slim Sherman was shot, they brought Harper to town without so much as harming a hair on his head. Mort was simmering with frustration. The only one he could detain was the blacksmith’s shop boy, for holding Jonesy and Andy hostage. Besides, after Jonesy lashed out at him at the ranch, the shameful lad was afraid of sticking his nose out of his workplace. He clearly learned his lesson.

Jess had to listen to almost everything, simply because he couldn’t move away from what was being said. Little by little, his shaken feelings became more detached. Mort didn’t say anything but noticed Jess’s change in attitude. Quiet and restrained, the Texan looked like he might be back to drifting as soon as Mort let him out.

Eventually, Paul Pembroke and his party returned to Laramie, and the deputy reported to Sheriff Cory in his office. “In the end, we had thirteen men arrested. Some hoodlums never reached the Badlands. We found three of them way before we got to Rock Springs.”

“How did you catch them?”

“We waited until they camped at night, the day after we left town. One was wounded in his arm. You remember what Jess Harper said about a little braid? This here had one tied to his hat. We caught up with Sheriff Bonin and you know the rest.”

“Did you manage to question them about the stage hold up and Trenton’s death?”

“They didn’t admit to anything up front, but Sheriff Bonin bluffed, accusing them of Trenton’s killing outright. It turned out that the wounded one told his buddy what he’d done with Jess’s gun at Eagle’s Crest — shooting Trenton, that is — and this fella wanted to swap that information to get himself off a murder charge.”

“Anyone confessed?”

“Not yet, but Bonin said that what we have might be enough to prove Jess’s innocence.”

“Then you oughta be mighty pleased the hanging didn’t take place.”

Pembroke frowned, “What hanging?”

“Didn’t you see Spencer round up a band of fourteen men? They headed for the Sherman ranch to get Jess. They took Mrs. Trenton with them, too.”

Pembroke blanched. “That must have happened after I left Laramie with my team. I told Spencer to go home and let the law handle Tim’s death. I also spoke with Mrs. Trenton. I explained to her we’d take care of her problem when you got back to town. It was only a matter of hours.”

“Not for her, and neither for those men. It almost ended up in tragedy. Slim was shot and Jess was captured.”

The deputy looked at Mort with a mix of guilt and regret. “I’m sorry, sheriff.”

“Didn’t you know that they met up in the livery stable and discussed the subject of Jess Harper’s punishment?”

“I told them to clear out and go home. I ordered the saloon owners to shut down,” Pembroke said, bewildered.

“I know that. How was Mrs. Trenton? Was she angry?”

“As she was expected to be, after what happened to her son. I told her Jess Harper wouldn’t shoot anyone in the back.” Paul’s confusion was escalating.

Sheriff Cory showed no mercy. “Anger might not be the right word to describe Myra Trenton’s state. Spencer, Lander, and the others thought you didn’t want to see things through about Tim’s killing. They organized a lynch mob to find Jess Harper. Slim Sherman tried to stop them and Spencer shot him.”

Pembroke was staring at his superior slack-jawed. Mort concluded, “Jess has been here since Lander and his men brought him back to town. They changed their minds after Spencer shot Sherman. By the way, Spencer, Finnegan, and Metz vamoosed. I’m going to let Harper go back to the ranch now, and you’ll write down everything that occurred before and after you left Laramie. Then we’ll see if we can press charges of any kind.”

“I’m sorry for what happened, sheriff, but how could I have prevented it? I got orders from you.” Pembroke was trying to convince himself as well as the sheriff, but Mort wasn’t going to forgive so easily.

“As we come to that, Pembroke, are you sure there wasn’t a better way to handle this?”

“I told you. They’d been loitering all night, and I sent them home, as I needed to set out as you asked.”

Mort shook his head, “Couldn’t you deputize Lander, for instance, and send him to Rock Springs? You could stay here and keep an eye on Spencer and the others. Did you really think they’d go home as you ordered? You tried to sit the fence, but that never works.”

The sheriff gave his deputy some time alone. Pembroke had a lot to think about. Mort Cory didn’t ask him to resign, but the deputy knew he’d messed up for good without the older man actually saying it. Pembroke had had a chance to straighten things out when confronted by Spencer before setting off to Rock Springs, but he’d dismissed his insight, opting for what felt more comfortable. He sat the fence, and that almost cost innocent lives.

The sheriff met Jess in the street. The ranch hand was all geared up to head back home. Mort had told him the outcome of Pembroke’s mission, but Harper hadn’t seemed much interested in what Mort had to say.

“You’re free to go, Jess.” The sheriff sighed. “Even if there isn’t a confession. Tell Slim I’ll call on you before long, as I need you to sign some papers. Tell him I hope he gets better soon. And you two, try and stay out of trouble,” pleaded Mort, patting Jess’s horse.

“Like we had a choice this time,” said Harper drily.

“I know, Jess, but this is important. Let the dust settle for a while, and things should get back to normal. I mean it, Jess.”

“I won’t be seeking a vendetta, Mort, if that’s what you’re worrying about. Work has piled up, and I’ll be too busy catching up on it.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear, Jess. Try to relax. So long.”

“So long, Mort.” Jess spurred his horse and rode out of town.

Mort Cory watched him until he was out of sight. If Mort knew one thing about Jess, the former gunfighter was about as relaxed as a tightly coiled spring. Harper might look calm and in control, but, given the right push, he would leap like a wildcat.

*****

What Jess said about the work piling up was no exaggeration. The chores had been neglected for over a week. There were fences to be mended, horses to be shod, and stock to be checked, just to name a few.

Jess told Mort he wouldn’t seek revenge, and it was the truth, but that didn’t mean he could accept what’d happened so easily. He simply wouldn’t know whom to target first. Spencer and Finnegan had vanished. Lander had almost gone as far as saying he saved Jess’s life after the wreckage, and the others were only a blurred and hurtful memory. Should he take his anger out on half the town? It was Slim’s town, too, after all, and Slim should be the most upset. At the end of the day, Jess was accused of nothing he hadn’t done before in his troubled life — although never in such an unfair fight. But Mrs. Trenton accused Slim of cheating and bribing to get the farmers out of their land. If that didn’t destroy Old Hard-Rock’s faith in a just world, Jess didn’t know what would. And that was precisely why Jess was mad. Slim was quietly making his way back to health and he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge at all.

A couple of days after he was released, Jess was riding back home when he saw the sheriff on the trail to the ranch. The two friends met in the yard and went in the house for a cup of coffee. “How are things doing, guys?” asked the sheriff setting aside a stack of papers he brought with him.

“Not too bad, Mort,” answered Slim, “Jess says we’ll never catch up, but I say we will, and we’ll even have time to go fishing later in the season.”

“Oh you think so, do you? If you really wanna bet, be sure you don’t have to break the piggy bank for coins,” replied Jess.

“Cranky as always, Jess?” asked the sheriff, amused.

“Only when he tries to talk to someone. Must be because he’s been on his own a lot lately. We don’t see much of him these days,” said Slim, turning serious.

“Well, I’m glad you’re both here now. I met with the circuit judge this morning. He read all the reports. As you know, we have the testimony of one of the men at Eagle’s Crest. He didn’t actually see his friend shoot Trenton because he was riding ahead. The witness, though, says his friend bragged about shooting Trenton with Jess’s gun while Jess was unconscious.”

“Did they say why Trenton was chasing them?” asked Jess, looking into his cup.

“Nope. They just said that Slim’s cattle were roaming — but my guess is they were rustling –and Trenton was mad enough to swallow a horn-toad backward. So he lit on after them.”

“How does that affect Jess’s position?” asked Slim.

“Well, the judge thinks the testimony is sincere. That fella wants to clear his name from the murder charge. They both eventually admitted they were at Eagle’s Crest,” answered Mort.

“Did you tell the judge about Mrs. Trenton’s allegations regarding land rights?” asked Slim with a hint of nervousness.

“I did. He didn’t wait for an appointment but went straight to the Land Office. Nobody supported Mrs. Trenton’s version. On the contrary, the manager said that you, Slim, had gone out of your way to suit the Trentons’ needs by allowing them to dig a ditch.”

“Too bad she thought it was some kind of compensation.” Slim stared into space, quietly sipping his coffee, “How’s she doing? I sent a card, as we couldn’t come to the funeral.”

“I don’t really know, Slim.”

Jess stopped rolling his cup between idly hands and looked at the hearth, clenching his fingers into a fist. He was jailed at the time of the service. He might’ve asked Mort to let him attend, but he couldn’t trust himself to be close to the very people who wanted him dead.

Slim watched Jess’s uneasiness and kept on talking. “Will she stay? I mean, they’d need to hire a hand, and I don’t think they can afford it.”

“I heard that the young Mrs. Trenton wanted to go back to Kansas. She still has an uncle there. I figure the two women won’t get along now that Tim has passed away.”

Slim nodded in agreement.

“How’s Mrs. Trenton supposed to handle the farm all alone?” asked Jess, getting up.

“I don’t think she will, Jess. She might be leaving, too,” said Mort. “Anyway, it’s going to be tough for her after all that’s happened.”

“Figured it might be,” replied Jess, reaching the door. How he wished not to be in that conversation, or any conversation concerning the past ordeal. Having learned what he wanted, he thought of a way out. “I got something to finish in the barn. So long, Mort, and thanks for bringing good news for once.”

“Jess, when will I see you in town? You may be interested to know that I no longer have a deputy.”

Jess turned back, with a ghost of a smile, “Did you fire him?”

“He resigned,” answered Mort, and Jess had a look as if he thought it was the same. “Oh Jess, before I forget, you need to read and sign these for me, will you?”

Jess went back to the table and looked at the stack of paper, “All of them?”

“Yes, Jess, read and sign, please.”

Jess took a pencil from Slim’s desk and put his signature at the bottom of the papers, “I trust what you wrote, Mort. I don’t need to read them all.”

The sheriff glanced at him, and then at Slim. Jess was outside in a blink of an eye. The rancher got up and brought some more coffee from the kitchen. “Mort, how did you deal with the lynch mob?” The way Slim uttered the words ‘lynch mob’ said plenty about how he felt.

“It wasn’t easy to find proof, and the judge’s advice was to not overdo it. Anyway, they’ll pay a fine for disturbing the peace and assault. No news about Spencer and Finnegan. We may try to convict them for instigating the lynch mob, but, be prepared; we don’t have much of a chance there. No one is coming forward to support our case. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”

“I had no illusions in the first place. Besides, what I’m really concerned about doesn’t lean toward justice. I’d like to talk things through with Jess, but you saw him.”

“Still worried sick, eh? At least he’s still here. I thought he might be thinking about moving on.”

“He didn’t want to leave me in this hardship, but I’m sure he’s thinking about it.”

“You figure he might want to get even with Lander and the others? In his own way, I mean.”

“I don’t really know, Mort. He doesn’t talk, and he doesn’t seem to be planning on anything other than work. But with Jess, anything is possible. I can only try and keep an eye on him.”

“Well, keep trying, Slim; he just needs a friend, and you’re his best choice.”

“Thanks, Mort.” Pulling the papers on the table, Slim asked, “Where do I sign?”

“There, at the bottom, Slim. Neither of you care to read what you’re signing?”

Slim smiled at Mort, and the lawman gathered his folder, retrieved his hat and left.

*****

While Slim and Jess were busy coping, the town took action. The Daily Independent newspaper issued a campaign about justice and abuse of legal authority in the Territory. The discussions were fervent, and the Woman’s Club started a project aimed at improving the knowledge of the justice system. Mrs. Trenton was intentionally left out of the picture. She recovered from her trauma enough to function and was selling her farm equipment with the clear intent of leaving Laramie. Lander said she was about to join a wagon train to California. The church organized socials to promote friendship and harmony, but Slim and Jess didn’t show up. They had their own issues to work out.

“I’ve told you before, Jess. Let me take care of this. I’m not an invalid.”

They were smearing creosote on poles as well as other fencing materials, and Jess had shoved Slim away from a stack of wood, wanting to move it all by himself. “Why don’t you go and help Andy in the barn, since you’re all fired up?”

“For Pete’s sake, Jess, knock it off. You act like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders,” said Slim, giving way to his frustration.

“And I’ll tell you something, it’s heavy,” was Jess’s reply. He didn’t even try to conceal his bad mood. All at once, a steady drizzle began to drum on the tin roofs and Jess swiftly gathered the tools to keep working under the lean-to. “Fine, that’ll sure help. Dry wood never comes too easy in Wyoming,” muttered he, cleansing his hands with a rag.

“Jess, will you stop for a minute? We need to talk.”

“I’ve had my fill of talking, Slim, with Mort, Pembroke, and all the others.”

“But I haven’t. I need to talk, because I can’t sort things out on my own. And neither can you.”

“I don’t need to.”

“Well, I do. I need to figure out how to go to town without one of us getting hurt. I need to know how to end this madness and get our names cleared without a fight. I…”

“Oh you want all that, do you? How much of your dignity are you willing to sacrifice, Slim?”

“As much as it’ll take to get it back through forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness ain’t my greatest strength, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“But you have enough strength to allow yourself a step or two in that direction, don’t you?”

“Why should I? How can you be so willing to shrug it off like it was nothing? They shot you, they were out to kill, and they will get away with it with a fine. I can’t change that, but don’t ask me to accept it.”

“Can’t you see it, Jess?” said Slim, sitting on a bench, “We need to find a solution together, because we were in this trouble together. For the first time, it wasn’t something that threatened one or the other of us. They did what they did because of our friendship. They thought we were plotting and killing as a team, and they teamed up against us.”

Slim paused, trying to decide whether his words hit home. Jess was listening intently; he had to give that to his pard, and this encouraged Slim to keep reasoning.

“If we can’t agree on what we’re gonna do, you’ll be on the move in no time, because you can’t keep fighting your personal war alone, while I deal with our ordinary ranch businesses. Yes, they will pay a fine; that was the decision, and it still stands.”

“Slim, you make it sound so easy. Men out here are called out on their doings for much less than what they did to us.”

“We were falsely accused, Jess. We don’t need to defend ourselves because we didn’t do anything. You’re behaving like you’re on your back foot, and you’ve no reason to act that way.”

“I’m acting like this because you were shot, and you could’ve been killed, and I sweated for five days, waiting for Pembroke to come back and tell what happened. Did you even think what’d it be like if Pembroke didn’t find the killers? I’m not inclined to forgive Lander and company, oh no. And you know why? Because they wouldn’t understand.” Jess paused and looked away before he continued. “When I had to deal with Dixie Howard or Ed Caulder, I couldn’t be more at odds with them, but, when the chips were down, we respected each other, and understood each other in a way.”

Now Jess was finally drawn into the discussion and Slim knew they’d broken the invisible wall of silence.

“I see your point, Jess. You’re talking about strong individuals — although not good –resourceful and intelligent, compared to a lynch mob that took Spencer as a leader. Try to see it that way: they wouldn’t understand if you fought them, either.”

Jess brought his hand behind his head, and stretched, “Can you see now why this has been eatin’ at me?”

Slim looked at him from his seat against the wall, then he stood and made his way over to his friend, nodding, “I can see that, Jess, believe me I can see that very well.”

“I thought I’d found a place where I was considered one of their own. Thanks to you and the work at the ranch, I also found a way to mixing with people again, after drifting for so long. And now, look how it all turned out.”

Slim almost held his breath. Just as the rain washed down the dirt from the slope, revealing the rocks underneath, now Jess was exposing the underlying reasons that he couldn’t let go of what the townspeople did to him.

The unwarranted attack from men without wits nor courage nearly destroyed his fragile faith in finding his place in the world. There was still a little spark of faith, though, and Slim hoped those very men, after rummaging through the ashes of Jess’s past hurts, would stoke a healing fire.

Three days later, Slim and Jess were given an opportunity to begin mending the relationship with the townsfolk. They were both working at removing fallen rocks, which were blocking the road to Laramie. It wasn’t Jess’s idea of how they should be spending their time, especially now that they were almost ready to harvest the hay.

“Like I was sentenced to a rock pile,” Jess said, splitting a large stone with a well delivered blow from his pick.

“Look, Jess, we have company,” replied Slim, straightening up and rubbing his back.

The riders came forward at a steady gait. Among them there were some of the mob members, but also citizens who didn’t participate in that endeavor. Jess had no way to escape the encounter. Whatever the newcomers’ purpose, he was forced to stay and face them. Mike Lander was still the leader — maybe he was enjoying it. They stopped and dismounted at a distance, not wanting to put pressure on the two ranchers.

“Howdy, we owe you an apology and an invitation,” Lander began.

“Keep it short; we need to clear the road before the stage comes,” said Slim, eyeing Jess at his side and not missing the way his friend clenched his fists around the pick handle. This wasn’t looking promising.

“We paid our fine, and some of us had to pawn either our saddles or our guns to do so,” continued Lander.

“I feel so sorry for you,” sneered Slim.

“Well, that’s not important. What we came to say is that we were utterly wrong and we praise the Lord He didn’t allow things to get even worse. We don’t have any excuses, except for only seeing what we wanted to see.”

Slim leaned on the handle of his shovel; their words felt like a small amount of balm on a blister. “I hope you really mean it. Otherwise, nothing you say will ever be worth anything.”

“Tom, pass on the scabbard,” said Lander turning and reaching out a hand. “Harper, we thought you could use a 30-30. It arrived yesterday from Cheyenne. Let’s see how you like it. We can change it with something else; you just say the word.” Lander offered Jess the scabbard. The leather was beautifully carved. It was evident they had spared no expense.

Slim dumped the tool and took the rifle from Lander, since Jess didn’t want to let go of the pick. The ranch hand’s face was unreadable. It was one of those times when showing his emotions would be either too dangerous or too hurtful. Slim lowered the arm and tossed the rifle at Jess, who caught it by reflex. Slim watched his friend closely, curious to see what would happen next. Jess held the rifle at arm’s length, one-handed, like it was something repulsive. Then something changed, very rapidly. Jess pulled the rifle toward his chest and grabbed it with his other hand. This simple gesture bore an almost unbearable pain, but it was just a moment, and, when it passed, acceptance was in its place.

“We expect you to attend the party on Saturday,” said the postmaster.

“What party?” asked Slim.

“There’s going to be a surprise for you guys, and the whole town is working hard on it.”

“All right, thank you, we’ll be there,” said Slim, still a little unsure about the new possibilities this meeting might carry.

“Well,” said Lander, “That’s all we wanted to say. We‘re glad to find you in good shape. So long.” They mounted up and were soon out of sight behind the hill.

Slim and Jess stood silent, stunned at the sudden change in the townsfolk’s attitude. Jess was still holding the new rifle, and Slim stepped closer to get a better look at it. The Texan took the gun out of its scabbard, and the two friends quietly admired the beautiful Winchester model. Slim looked Jess in the eye and smiled encouragingly, “Are you keeping it?”

“I’ll try a shot or two, and then I let you know.”

“Will you come to the party?” asked the rancher.

Jess looked everywhere but at Slim, and then rested his eyes on his friend’s, “Yeah, but I hope you understand the cost.”

“How much?”

“You already paid, Slim, for the both of us.”

“When?”

“When you grabbed the rifle.”

“Forget it, Jess. Let’s see to this rock; we need to move it.”

Jess went to his horse and tied the new rifle to the saddle. Coming back, he froze a few steps from Slim. In the tangle of twigs dragged down by the sliding rocks, there was something as dreadful as a bad dream.

“Step aside, Slim.”

“What is it?”

“Step aside,” Jess yelled and drew his six-gun. He fired all his bullets into the thing and reached for another round.

“Dadgum, Jess, what is it?”

“A tick nest.” Harper’s disproportionate reaction was on full display, “You think they’re gone?”

“I think so, Jess, along with half of Wyoming,” answered Slim, starting to see the funny side of it.

By the time they’d finished removing the smaller rocks from the road, the westbound stage showed up at the bend. Mose stopped to congratulate them on the good job.

“I’ve a special delivery for you,” said the driver handing a letter to Jess, “See you at the ranch. Ain’t you coming along?”

“Sure, Mose, we’ll head through the pastures.”

While the stage passed on, Jess had a fleeting vision of Mrs. Trenton behind the curtains, but he thought he’d been mistaken. Once again, just like at Eagle’s Crest, he was wrong. Mrs. Trenton was onboard, heading for South Pass City to catch up with a wagon train to California.

Later on, before lunch, Jess paused for a minute by the barn to open the letter. Slim was coming from the corral with one of the horses. “Who’s it from?”

The ranch hand was holding the paper with both hands, like it weighed a ton, “It’s from Mrs. Trenton. She’s moving on.” Jess handed the letter to Slim. The rancher took the folded sheet and read the few bold lines. She apologized unreservedly. She wished that Tim had had a brother or a friend like Slim or Jess, because in that case her son might still be alive. She argued that Tim might’ve made a very bad decision at Eagle’s Crest, and a good friend would’ve talked him out of that fatal ride. The two pards both felt her pain. They thought of the night when the stage was attacked. It seemed like a thousand years ago, but it was just over two weeks. They silently wished Mrs. Trenton good luck and her name was never mentioned again.

When they entered the house, Jonesy had lunch ready. Pacing back and forth, he told the news about a census man who had come to the ranch. “An assistant marshal was here early this morning and asked us everything about the household.”

“Then you told him the story from the beginning two hundred years ago, since you were there,” said Jess, cheekily.

Jonesy slapped him with his pot holder. “Why, we weren’t even here then,” he replied with a hint of frustration in his voice.

“All right, Jonesy, tell us what you told the marshal,” said Slim, giving Jess a sidelong glance.

“Well, he wanted to know how many people live here, and what every one of us does. Andy was smart at describing the life at the ranch, but when it came to determining who Jess was and what he does here, the marshal had to go back to his instructions. Finally he came up with something, and he was satisfied.”

Slim and Jess didn’t get the point of all the happiness. Andy was holding back a piece of paper that was to be shown at the right moment, to not ruin the surprise.

Jonesy nodded and Andy cleared his throat. “One of the pages with all those instructions slipped from the marshal’s folder, and here’s what Jonesy and I learned. Listen to this: ‘Under whatever circumstances, and in whatever numbers, people live together under one roof, and are provided for at a common table, there is a family in the meaning of the law.’ How does that sound?”

Slim tussled his kid brother’s hair, taking his time to savor the words; they couldn’t come at a better moment. “See, Jess? What have I told you? We are family. We can overcome anything, as long as we are together. Agreed?”

Jess was stuck somewhere between the words ‘circumstances’ and ‘family’, and slowly came back to the room he’d called home for the last year and a half. “Sure, Slim, I’m with you, whatever the circumstances.”

The family ate lunch at the common table, and then everybody got on with their chores. Jess took his rifle to the bed room before catching up with Slim. Forgiveness, acceptance, and the fact that they would do everything together finally sank in. Jess remembered something very confusing that his mother told him once — something about being greater through being smaller, or maybe it was about doing more by doing less, he wasn’t sure. What he did know was that he would give up part of his larger-than-life attitude, but in return he would have all that he cared for well secured in that ranch house. Even the law said that he belonged at the Sherman ranch. With a hint of a smile, Jess Harper went back to work.

***The End***

(edited by Sally Bahnsen, Pat and Jay Goldammer)

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