What Happens When A Man Forgets His Hat? (by Maria Luisa)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word count:   30,100


The rider was taking his time. The moon was rising and would soon be shining its silvery light on the sparse trees and bushes of the range. Laramie was four miles away in an easterly direction and by the time the dawn would be heralding the beginning of another day in Wyoming, Jess would be at the ranch, his horse in the corral and he would be telling Slim of the plans that he had heard being made as he had been slipping back to the stables. He was not supposed to even be near there. It was one of the unwritten rules he had gone along with when he’d agreed to stay on at Slim’s relay station and give ranching a try.

Mixed memories were now running freely through his mind. He had decided to stay over, which he knew would get him into trouble with Slim, but he had had a pleasant evening — that is until he had overheard the four men plotting and making plans to take over the land around Laramie.

Jess had been riding shotgun for the stage coach company that day and his run from Cheyenne had ended in Laramie. There hadn’t been any trouble, but Jess could feel the tension still pulling at his gut. He knew it wouldn’t go away so easily the moment he jumped down of the coach, so he opted for the saloon before he went back to the ranch. In the alley, beside the livery, he threw a look through the open window of the laundry to see if Beth Sharp was where she often stood, the place full of steam, and sweat making her hair stick to her skin. She was there, only this time she was tidily dressed, her hair was well combed, yet the boiler was on. The great, almost empty room was waiting for some special laundry and the smiling girl nodded and smiled at Jess; she invited the young man into her own personal kingdom of lye.

*****

First then, it was the bath. Beth dragged him to a tub where there was plenty of water waiting — hot enough to soak any man with a leather hide. Jess had entered the laundry mostly attracted by the water, but the girl’s smile had proved irresistible. Beth had closed the window and left him with a towel and a bar of soap which was still in his hand when she startled him. Instinctively, Jess reached for his gun holster, hanging from a chair nearby, but Beth prevented him by moving the chair and he felt lost, a sudden emptiness spread inside him, like it always did when he was defenseless. The emptiness would have soon been filled with action, if his assailant hadn’t been a pretty young woman.

While he had dozed in the tub, Beth had been over to the café and had prepared a dinner for two. She had already started cooking it in the afternoon, because she liked to be prepared. Jess put on his clothes and accompanied her to where she lodged; it was a little room in the two-story store. Nobody saw them. The spicy kitchen aroma mixed with smoke from the chimneys and dusk moisture fragrance entered the room with them. Before she uncovered the tray, Jess doubted whether he should stay or not, but once he saw the thick steaks with potatoes and chocolate rice pudding, the only doubt left was whether to ask for coffee right then or wait until later. He had his coffee, with a slight addition of whisky, for what he thought was the glorious end of his night out. He was wrong. Beth hadn’t even started yet.

Slim had made it clear. No riding to Laramie on working days, unless for supplies or company matters or, God forbid, unforeseen troubles with the law. Working days lasted twenty-four hours, so the saloon should have only seen Jess once a week, if that.

Slim had hoped it would be enough to calm his nerves and make for a peaceful life, keep his business running smoothly and his new ranch hand out of danger. The man had a quick temper and his attitude got him into trouble head first, and something always gave Slim the idea that trouble could easily come in shape of a woman.

Slim saw how Jess reacted when a beautiful gal, traveling to Rock Springs, stopped at the Sherman Ranch. One minute he was sweating and cursing through his teeth, fighting with harness traces, and the next he was vaulting over the corral fence, when he could have walked through the open gate very much easier. Jess’ behavior was becoming predictable to his employer as Slim found him to be someone he could trust and value, and if he wanted a girl and romance in his life, Slim wished for the best for his new ranch hand.

“Are you serious?” Jess had asked.

“I am. No drinking, brawling, fighting, and you know what — that’s unless it’s Saturday night. And even then, you should keep yourself only to a little drinking. I don’t want a swearing, hung-over hand, crawling around the yard on Sunday morning. As for the other activities, you possibly won’t be here on Sunday or any other day, if you’ve been shot, so will you, please…” Slim couldn’t go on with his preaching. He was feeling he was getting older by the minute and was quite surprised by his new hands sudden answer.

“I will. By the way, I didn’t know that you knew what could be so dangerous around these parts.”

“Wait until you meet Beth Sharp and you’ll see.”

During this exchange, both men were smiling, like at some sort of a joke neither of them had understood completely. Yet Jess agreed like a man who means what he says, and keeps his word.

Eventually Jess met Beth Sharp. It was at the store and he couldn’t stop wondering about all the stories Laramie folks were gossiping about her. She was supposed to have been married, ran away from her husband, been kidnapped by her father’s rival in business and ran away from him. Running away was all the town folks would agree upon and she was actually running from telling the truth about herself, always confusing and mixing things partly true and partly untrue into a more convenient story. That Jess didn’t know about. All he could see was a young woman in her late twenties, occasionally working at the store or sweating over the hotel laundry beyond a tiny window that looked out on to the alley beside the livery stables. She didn’t appear so dangerous then, with pulled up sleeves and muddy hair pasted to her forehead. She didn’t appear even nice, except for her eyes; they could stop anyone she wanted, keep them where she wanted, and she knew that very well.

No one in Laramie thought she would ever get married. Laramie citizens admired her ability in love affairs. Somehow, she managed to avoid any complication with town folks. Women had no reason to complain. Beth accepted gifts from passing-through riders only (having them stripped off their weapons first) and she often consoled the lonely residents, but she played by her own rules. Nobody had ever been able to change her mind or make her do anything she didn’t agree to do. To be still alive, she had had to be either lucky and a good judge of character and situations. By all means, she wasn’t an honest woman and the only danger in knowing Beth could be that of falling in love with her, because once a man had seen into the depths of her eyes, he was often smitten and lost. Then again, she had learned to be on guard and cast that power of hers only for fun. Fun — that’s what she thought of when she saw Jess for the first time, not knowing that she would fall in love with him the moment he helped her down from the stool after she had been reaching the high shelf at the store. Had she known, she would have shut her eyes, and let him go; she did not want to see a little fun in their playground cause his death. Because death was waiting its turn in Laramie, and it could be for him or her, or both, but one certain thing was neither of them were about to have fun.

So Jess had stayed in Beth’s room. He later explained his lateness to being tired as he had been riding for days and Slim had believed him. He said that Jess had earned and deserved a bath, a good dinner and a chat with Beth. However Slim did not know that what had happened with Beth could hardly have been described as a chat.

She had allowed him to sleep for some time. Then she approached the bed, bent over him and kissed him on his lips. Everything she did looked like it was being done for a secret purpose and anyone would have been left wondering about that purpose. She didn’t have any purpose other than enjoying the present. Concentrating on every single breath, she could promise the whole world in just a look and deliver it in a kiss. Perfectly relaxed, Jess had her world revealed and delivered, only he didn’t remember it after that night and that was the gift and the tragedy of Beth’s life. Only one condition was asked for all the love and attention she could give him that she had not been able to give others and that was that he would forget and she could go on and be forgotten.

That night was for Jess one out of a dream. He was gladly tired, relaxed, clean, and warm and fed. Beth who was responsible for at least three of the dreams was standing by the bed, questioning a question not spoken. How do you answer a question like that, averting your eyes? Jess matched her questioning look and didn’t judge her actions. He willingly got into a sitting position to make room for her, but she pushed him down. She kept looking into his eyes. That should have made him feel uneasy, but it didn’t. She seemed to be searching for something and he would be glad to help her find it, if he only had known what she was looking for. Suddenly she broke off the search and brushed her hair on his cheek. Her long hair hung unbound and free and covered his face and shoulders and under its shelter he answered her questions with his kisses. He couldn’t have said how long their love-making had lasted; what he did remember was the sweetest torture of being guided and stopped and then let free. He felt that he had been tortured, he felt like that he had been used and then rewarded and spurned, and he wasn’t sure if he would like to experience it again soon; he felt so foolish.

The thought of having been manipulated crossed his mind as he thought what had happened back in her room. His hat — he had forgotten his hat. Where? In the laundry, they’d bid goodbye and Jess, hidden by the shadows and careful not to make any excessive noise so late at night, went back to the laundry, looking for his Stetson.

He walked quietly by the stables and then he heard them talking. There were three or four men inside the livery, their muffled voices reached Jess through the window in the laundry. The town appeared to be deserted; the good Laramie folks were all asleep. Only these four were well awake and busy. It would be some time before they found out that there had been a witness. He was a cowboy and a gunfighter, who now was extremely worried at what he had heard. These conspirators had roughly wakened him from his dreaming of Beth He suddenly felt heavy, slow, impotent and frustrated. What he had learned left him at a loss for ideas. He waited for what it seemed ages until the barn had become silent; the men had probably sneaked back to their respected rooms at the hotel and the house at the end of Front Street. One of the voices was certainly the banker’s. Jess, shoulders hunched, went to take his horse. On the trail out of Laramie, he started recalling every word by word that he had heard. Did he make it out right? Was there anything that would’ve possibly been misunderstood? Would he be able to explain all this to his employer? Would Slim believe him?

*****

“You will have to explain to me one day how you managed to punch cattle up from Texas not knowing how to swim“, Slim said, amused by his partner’s actions at the creek. Recent rainfalls had filled the river, and along with snow melting higher in the mountains, it was in full flood and running fast, deep and dangerous. Jess was guiding his horse back and forth on the bank, looking for an easy path.

“I don’t trust those rocks. Don’t want my horse hurt by a rolling stone,” was the dry answer. Then Jess looked back at his friend and softened. “I’ve prayed to all the Gods of Fording that when they quit on me, I’ll be roped to my horse. So, if he drowns, I will go with him. “

“Glad he didn’t, otherwise I would have had to do all this by myself,” replied Slim, referring to their round up of his small herd. They had left Ben in charge of the relay station and went out to the range, where the Sherman herd was just starting to grow in number and weight.

“Besides, I‘ve never driven cattle that much,” Jess added, although he wasn’t asked. That in itself was something new to Slim. “The trail boss didn’t want me to because of my Colt, only my rifle.”

“I wonder why,” said Slim to himself, but kept his answer to a laconic “Why?”

“He thought my gun meant trouble.” And that would have been the end if Slim hadn’t pushed a little.

“What else did you do, besides driving cattle, I mean?”

They had crossed the river by now and set up temporary camp on the opposite bank. New ash leaves were still green and the little bushes weren’t making even the slightest show of leaf, but the white oaks nearby, although young, were already dark green. Jess unsaddled his horse. He put a lot of effort into and concentrated on rubbing his mount down so much that he was distracted and did not think what he was saying.

“Did things like wrangling, escorting freights, scouting or drifting and hunting.”

“Anyone else worried about your gun?” Slim tentatively asked.

“Horses didn’t care a dime; they got along with me perfectly. Freighters certainly did count on my skills.” Jess wanted to end the conversation, as he was unsettled by the curiosity of his tenacious new friend. Then again, out of nowhere, came the real interesting part.

“I’ll tell you one thing, though, never was keen on rustling and stealing and raiding.”

The last had been said with some energy, yet the meaning was certain for Slim. Had Jess fought rustlers or robbers? Had he been involved in some gang’s activities that he didn’t like? He had been in the war, on the other side, and Slim knew how many troubles those soldiers had met on their way back to everyday life. That alone couldn’t have justified lawbreaking in Slim’s orderly world, but the need to survive, lack of hope and justice stretching between extremes, getting farther than ever apart, could have beaten down the strongest character. The war and its aftermath had been hard on everyone, but on some, harder than the rest. Jess had enlisted at sixteen and this mere fact made for a few questions on what such an experience could have done to a kid; furthermore, if there had been a family somewhere in Texas, Jess never mentioned it, ever.

So Slim was reasoning about the past while Jess was worrying about the future. They drank coffee in silence and left for home. The place was unusually quiet. Mr. Jones, aka Jonesy, foreman, and Andy, Slim’s kid brother, were in Saint Louis making arrangements for the boy who was going to attend an eastern school next semester. They weren’t supposed to be back for at least two weeks.

“Any news, Ben? Letters or messages?”

“Nope, Slim. Coaches been and gone, horses were fine; they are resting in the barn now. Anything else?”

“Nothing else, Ben, thank you. We’ll be soon be at your place for the hay. Jess, here, is looking forward to hay making.”

“Just to learn how to beat the Grim Reaper with his own weapon,” interrupted Jess, stepping onto the porch.

“I hope you won’t meet anything of the likes of it anytime soon, Jess; besides, you’ll need a little training. Did you ever use a sickle before?” asked Ben walking towards his horse.

“Sure never did, but I’ll learn sooner than later, with the proper reward.”

“Being what?”

“A day off fishing in your stream. Slim ate all the trout in his lake; he had to, once he discovered what it tastes like and he had to wait for me to fish it for him, since he didn’t know how,” threw out a smiling Jess.

“Don’t brag about your luck, you professional fisherman afraid of the water,” joked Slim, reaching the front door.

“Well, Slim, bring Jess over to me and we’ll have him practicing at cutting hay. Then all of us are going to have the best fishing ever, if you start becoming a better fisherman right away that is,” said Ben.

Jess laughed entering the house and Slim followed, not missing Ben nodding at him, telling, brief and silent, that Jess was all right. Slim felt a warm wave growing inside, because he, for one, liked his new hand. The impression of Jess being a no-good drifter had changed a lot from the unfriendly beginning. He admitted the possibility of a relation based on mutual respect, and he started thinking of Jess as a man worthy of his esteem. Now he ended up wishing Jess would stay, as he was fast becoming the best among his few friends.

It hadn’t happened in a week. It took a little time for the two to adjust to each other. Both men were used to not allowing anyone too close for different reasons. Slim was instinctively cautious and Jess had been let down too many a times. They’d both survived a war and got on living in a harsh environment. The rancher tried his best to live up to his dead father’s dreams for him, and seeing to it that Jess did not to get killed or crippled, as he was always willing to do anything which was challenging and dangerous.

First step was living under the same roof. The very first night Slim thought it hadn’t been much of an idea, for Jess tossed and turned half the night. Eventually Slim asked him about his restlessness and the answer was brisk as always: “This bed is too soft.”

 From then on, Slim started with what he was best at doing, which was giving. Jess got experience in what he was worst at doing, such as accepting. Now it was time to shift in turn. Jess was ready to accept Slim’s friendship and willing to participate in making the Sherman Ranch the greatest outfit in the territory. It wouldn’t likely become the biggest, unless it could have been made from loyalty, generosity and sprung out of good, animated arguing, for in that case it would be soon be the largest ranch in the west.

*****

Slim had listened to Jess’s tale of overhearing the plans that were being made by the four men who were planning to buyout and take over the valley and all the surrounding land in the Laramie area. The two friends had been into Laramie and had told Mort, and Slim had been and reported all that had happened to the Cattlemen’s Association. The days passed, until after a day of branding the yearlings out on the range, they had come back to the ranch to find that that there was still no news from Laramie. Jess had slammed the door in annoyance, while Slim simply grunted and wearily sat down.

“Still no answer,” said Jess, tossing his gloves onto a chair.

“Give them their time, pard. It’s not like they haven’t anything else to do.”

“Seems to me somebody doesn’t have this high on his priority list. Do you trust them?”

“I have to. For matters like this one, who else can I turn to but the Association? Besides, without any evidence, I have to be careful, asking for general information, you know.”

“What your Association will do will depend on how many head you have and how many acres you own. No, I was thinking about the territorial marshal. They have to know something. You can’t start a thing like this without talking, and the more you talk, the sooner you’ll have the voice spreading. They are forming an army on the border, Slim. Lawmen can’t help but notice that.”

“You can’t be sure, Jess. The men you heard could be only four old ranchers tired of having their critters rustled up. They probably want to teach someone a lesson. I‘d rather let the law take charge of such a problem, though; that’s why I wrote to the marshal.”

“That simple, uh? Slim, they were talking about water rights, purchasing public land, denying accesses. They want you and your neighbors out of there. They’ve already tried to buy you out — you told me that — now they’re changing their plans.”

What Jess was saying sounded reasonable enough. Danger was real. Four men planning their expansion would need some protection; they had had enough power because of their money, their stock and the land they already owned. From their point of view, their expansion was the next logical step; small ranchers and farmers were an obstacle to their general progress and ambitions. After the war, the prices had risen. Large stock coming from Texas had been trailed to the northwest and there the critters had fattened up beyond all expectations. It was good country; Slim had been trying to convince Jess of that not that long ago. A gang well organized could get small farmers to leave in so many ways. A war shouldn’t be necessary and Jess was just voicing Slim’s thoughts.

“They aren’t just four old men, Slim; they’re organized. They have men, gunfighters maybe, and there’s the banker. He may not want you in trouble, but he’s in no position to bargain; it’s you or him.”

“I should try to buy the range up to the spring, then we’ll see about water rights. But I can’t afford the expense; I know that, even without checking with the bank.”

“Even if you’d been able to buy, they could always buy up the land all around and lock you into your ranch.

“Anyway you look at it, I’m the loser.”

“That’s why you should attack before they attack you.”

“I’m not starting a war, Jess; besides, whom should I attack? We don’t know anyone out of the four mysterious men in the barn.”

“Talk to the sheriff, to the Gazette, to the hotel manager, let Laramie know as much as possible, spoil their plans. It won’t do any good playing defense, not with people like that, Slim.”

“I don’t know, Jess. I understand what you’re saying, but think about it. What should I tell those you mentioned? I sure can’t get around accusing ghost people.”

“Maybe you’re right. There’s an option, anyway. They were collecting a crew, that I heard for sure. We should be on the alert and check out any newcomer from now on. The sheriff might be helpful. Whoever is coming against us, he could frighten them off. If the law isn’t enough, we could try a little of our own.

“What do you mean, exactly?” Slim said, afraid of having understood too well.

Jess looked at his friend as from a great distance, then growled, “You know what I mean.”

Slim’s forehead got wider, like every time he was facing something he wanted changed, but couldn’t. “No, Jess, no,” he said shaking his head, long after he had stopped talking.

Jess now looked downwards and sighed. “It may come a time when we won’t have a choice; better be ready.”

“You sound eager.”

“I not. I’m not eager to fight, Slim. I just want you to be ready for what may come. I’m ready. I’ve been for a long time… Anyway, aren’t you hungry? I’m starving. “

How Jess could change his mood so fast always puzzled Slim since they had first met, but certainly they needed a little cheering up and it was supper time after all. They were sitting at the table, in the dim light coming in from the windows.

“We didn’t get the fire going in the stove, Jess. The stew will be cold.”

“It’ll do, but the coffee? How do we make it?”

“Go get the firewood and I’ll set the table. We’ll have coffee pretty soon.”

Jess smiled a shy smile that didn’t match his previous eagerness. Slim was always figuring what was missing with Jess. To show friendship to a man who often might appear a complete stranger wasn’t wise, Slim thought, yet Jess let him learn everyday a little more of what he kept so private, and doing so, he had become more familiar. Slim should have had known what was it that could take Jess away from his new job and his friend. Wherever it was for Jess, it didn’t look like a place he enjoyed being.

The rest of the night Slim and Jess never returned to the subject they had tried to examine so methodically for the last few days. Even in the middle of a war, men can be heard talking like they were safe at home, provided they are not immediately risking their life. It was during these times that they bonded and became friends, as close as brothers.

That night two different young men experienced brotherhood between them for the first time and they chose that time to talk about women.

*****

“Slim?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been thinking”.

“Don’t worry, you may recover, you’ll get used to it.”

“Aw! Shut up.”

They were waiting for the afternoon coach to come in. The Association had answered with a long, polite, but not very meaningful letter in which it was said that the majority of the associated ranchers agreed and were wishing to preserve and possibly get larger open ranges where they could graze their herds. The market was prosperous and it was a must to get the best from it as long as the good times lasted. It was the Association policy to try to avoid any conflict between ranchers. Small and great property owners all had to join forces to make this possible, and if there had been any trouble relating to trespassing or steers straying, it was limited and it was not the intention of the board Association members to take sides. It would be better to let the law take care of those matters instead. They invited Slim to report to them any problems, reassuring him they would be listening, yet praying him not to stop in cooperating in their main purpose: that of raising steers and selling them to the market for the highest profit.

The marshal office was less talkative, yet more clear and intelligible. There had been notice of a concentration of professional crew, meaning gunfighters, near the Colorado border. Still no action, though, and that was left to the lawmen to investigate. It seemed those men were about to be hired as a private army against rustler gangs. If that was the case, it would be important for everybody to be vigilant and to cooperate with the law before the situation got out of hand.

“I’ve been thinking about the stage line company. How will this open range matter affect company business? Will the stage line let this happen?”

“You’re talking like we already had been conquered, Jess. The stage line will not be affected that much, in my opinion. Coaches will be granted a pass through. Whoever controls the range will also provide relay horses, and coaches will roll safer with all those mercenaries surveying the territory.”

Slim had hesitated introducing the mercenaries matter and Jess didn’t react.

“By the way,’ Slim continued, “how long the stage line will be in business? Two, five years? Within a few years, more railroad tracks will bring more trains and stage lines will be reduced to little stretches only, to complement the transportation by train in less accessible areas.“

“That’s why you are aiming for a little improvement as a stock breeder?”

“Yeah, and horses, too, I aim to do some improvement in that department also.”

Slim was smiling at Jess, who grinned at his friend. The new hand had proved to have very good knowledge of horses and Slim still wondered how much work could be done with doubled forces. The situation at the ranch before Jess’ coming was not one to be compared with the present, because now struggling from dawn to sun down was starting to show some sense and results.

Mose, the coach driver, made his usual impressive entrance into the ranch yard and the procedures of changing horses had started soon after, along with the usual banter.

“Jess, I have a message for you.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s from Miss Sharp. She said you’ll understand. She wanted to know how you liked the chocolate rice pudding. She will get you more, if you liked it. I think I understand; it’s pretty simple!”

Passengers, all from Laramie, and Slim had been listening. Jess blushed, embarrassed. Moses and discretion did not ever meet each other. Jess’ answer was unintelligible, something like ‘go get your coffee’, but made of consonants only.

“Well, what should I tell her?” Mose was very amused and wanted to share his fun with the others present.

“Tell her you are a nosy old man and I don’t talk to people like you.”

“No need to get riled up, Jess, I was only asking. She was very eager, you know. That’s why I agreed to bring the message.”

Mose talked as if he took offense, but turned grinning to the passengers, and the annoying bunch with their sniggering laughs went inside to get coffee.

With the passengers onboard again, the driver, suddenly serious, talked in a low voice.

“At the previous station, they told me they saw smoke among the trees, not far from the trail. They sent over a hand, but there were no Indians to be seen in miles. From the tracks, it could be seven or eight men who set camp there, but then there wasn’t any. They hadn’t left for long, though.”

Jess and Slim looked at each other, fearing what that could mean.

“Thank you, Mose. Jess and I will be watchful. They could be hunters or drifters, more likely. Anyway, that’s something we can handle. Report to the stage line office and to the sheriff, will you, please?”

“Sure will, Slim. Thanks for the coffee. So long, boys.”

The boys were at the corral, after tending to the horses. Jess was sitting on the fence, while Slim was leaning his long frame against the post.

“Shall we go and have a look?” Jess said abruptly, after a pause during which both men had been thinking.

“Better stay here for now, just in case those people are going to pay us a visit. I don’t feel right to leave the ranch right now. Tomorrow morning, if everything is all right, we should get to town and talk to the sheriff.”

“All right, then. It’s a deal.”

Slim and Jess got on with the rest of the daily chores, each of them with his own worries cautiously kept to themselves. Jess, in particular, was starting to get tense. Waiting for the events wasn’t his usual way. Not knowing whom or what they could end up fighting wasn’t helping either, and he winded up chopping so much wood that he cursed at himself when it came to piling it up in the woodshed.

That night, just to lighten the mood, Slim started what surprisingly became an interesting conversation. “So, you liked it?”

“What?”

“The chocolate rice pudding, you liked it?”

“You too, Slim?” Jess made a face like the mere idea of talking about that night could turn the pudding into an acid noxious poison.

“Why, it’s only a dessert, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, only a dessert,” Jess echoed, giving nothing away.

Slim smiled, reassuring his friend he wasn’t going to judge or criticize his behavior. Somehow Jess let go a little and recollected his meeting with Beth.

“I can’t believe you ventured into Beth’s room. I think not many men have been so bold.”

“How is it that you people are so particular about Beth? She’s only a poor girl with an issue, if I have to say so.”

“What do you mean? Is something wrong with her?”

That was exactly what Slim had thought, after having heard about one of Beth’s recent adventures. She has been the girl of one of the hands in a ranch nearby for a spell. He wasn’t a gentleman, and that was an understatement. He mistreated and humiliated her, but she never complained. When he left without a word, she went to the café and stayed there for hours, drinking the only one cup she had ordered. At dusk, she went on the street and waited for the time the saloon got crowded with thirsty men. She had been smiling all day, as Slim had been told. She waited till someone, half drunk and half asleep, noticed her and invited her to go with him, which she did.

“I hadn’t the slightest knowledge of any of that. She had been nice with me, no dirty language and such things. You know, the other ladies don’t allow you to forget they are working. They see to that all the time. Beth was different. She didn’t talk at all, for instance. She was so quiet and demanding and delicate at the same time.”

“You’ve gotten to the conclusion she has an issue because of that?”

“Yes, I have, because a girl like that shouldn’t be like that, I mean, she’s not a lady. Why has she to behave like one?”

“She’s not a lady? What are you saying?”

“I mean, she could be an honest woman and not a lady, find a husband, raise a family.”

“I don’t understand you talking about ladies, Jess. That’s how you call prostitutes?”

“Yeah, that’s the name. Honest women are women; the others are ladies, at least that’s how it works in Dodge City, didn’t you know? How old are you, Slim, twenty-eight? Didn’t you really know?”

“No, I didn’t, but I’m not so interested in the subject. I rather know why you think a girl has an issue if she behaves like a lover. She could be in love with you, couldn’t she?”

“No, she couldn’t. She doesn’t know me at all. We talked nonsense a couple of times, that’s all. I felt so strange, though. I would have liked to stop her, but I didn’t know how without forcing her to stop what she seemed to enjoy so much.”

“Well, now that you know that, it’s up to you.”

Jess nodded and they turned out the lamp and went to the bedroom, where Slim gave in to the temptation to tease Jess a little more. “For the records, I’m almost twenty-nine. Since you are so well informed, have you made any comparison? Between Dodge City and other places, I mean?”

“Nah, I ended up there soon after the war had finished. It was my first job as a drover. It was a rough drive with bad weather, stampedes and all. I fell sick. I couldn’t eat — just cough and drink water. I never seemed to have enough of it. The trail boss found me a place to stay and it was with those ladies. It took me some time to recover. They mothered me in every possible way. I felt I would’ve gotten crazy. I have still nightmares of one of them putting a washcloth over my face.”

Slim grinned at the thought of Jess surrounded by a bunch of “ladies”.

“If you had pneumonia, as I figure, the washcloth might have helped. I heard of it being used in those circumstances.”

“I understand, but it was suffocating me.”

“There are worse nightmares than being surrounded by caring women, Jess,” Slim said, mind set to tease his friend to the breaking point.

As a matter of fact, Jess suddenly appeared distracted, his eyes focused in the distance. He went to his bunk and rolled under the blanket. “Yeah, there are worse nightmares.”

*****

Laramie was well planned to satisfy the needs of residents and those who lived on the range a few hours from the town. There were people doing errands, loading and unloading buckboards, women wearing skirts spinning along the dusty boardwalks, scruffy men waiting outside the barber’s and smoking cigarettes. It was a lively scene and so right for a spring morning.

Slim and Jess had left the ranch very early. During the night, nothing had happened and they hoped the sheriff would reassure them, telling them that everything was under control: no strangers or unoccupied men loitering in town or camped outside the town limits. Things, however, were about to turn out a little differently.

“Not one of them is wanted, sheriff?” Jess was asking.

“Not one is wanted, Jess, I checked them.”

“What are they doing here? Did they tell you?” Slim’s turn to ask.

“They work for that big spread in the south, what’s the name, I can’t remember. Anyway, they have to report to their boss about the trail heading for Montana, so they have to check with local ranchers about fences, water and such things.”

“Check with local ranchers? Are you teasing me? There is not enough open range left for the GY Bar cattle to be grazed, sheriff, and you know that. Did they already meet those local ranchers? ‘Cause I didn’t see their dust, only been told about their camping.”

“They’d just arrived, Slim. I suppose they’ll check with you and the others. Have you heard from the Association?”

“He’s heard from it, but not enough,” Jess answered, looking out of the window.

“What are you going to do, sheriff?” Slim said, feeling as if he was drowning in uncertainty.

“I’ll wait and see what they are really up to. A friend of mine wrote to me. Some time ago, a crew from the same outfit lynched a man in Kansas. He was a rancher. They said he had rustled cattle. A man who was working for the spread told where his boss had hid the steers, and after a while, he had been found dead. The rancher had had some fences were torn down and the drovers were trespassing all over his land. Someone said he was only trying to roundup his own cattle.”

“Who did it?” Jess asked abruptly after a minute of heavy silence in the sheriff office.

“They have been to trial and found not guilty.”

“Who were they?” Jess continued, a little on the edge now.

“Drovers mostly, but there were also professionals, killers I mean, but they hadn’t faced the court, because they weren’t in the lynching party. They were only employed in that private little army hired to protect the cattle.”

“How many?” Jess asked, his voice was terse.

“There were four in court. The whole crew was of about fifteen.”

Slim joined Jess by the window. The same scene as before, with carriages, horses, passersby aiming for something or meeting someone. Neither of them could speak. A man is blessed with a small spread and he works hard to maintain it and improve it. He nurses calves and foals like little children, he goes out in all kind of weather, he feeds his livestock when the snow wipes out the land he is familiar with. He rounds up and brands critters to let them gain weight and mature in the grassland and then everything is threatened. He has to prove his right; he has to fight for his own ranch as if it was a prize to be won. Those were more or less Slim’s thoughts and Jess thinking was full of sympathy.

“We need to talk to your neighbors, Slim. We have to start getting ready. How many men we’ll be likely to find?”

“Not enough. But there are good fighters. We should schedule some patrolling and help each other with the chores. The hay, remember?”

“Wait a minute, boys, what are you talking about? Fighters? Patrolling? It hasn’t happened yet. If anything does happen, you’ll report to me. I’ll have the marshals alerted as soon as necessary.”

“We’ll report and then? Before the marshals arrive, we could be all gone to hell.” Jess was on the verge of losing his temper. Slim pleaded with him to put on the brakes, but was aware that Jess would not agree to wait as Mort wanted them to.

“Listen, you let me know exactly what you’re going to do and with whom you aim to do it, and I’ll wire the marshals. My only wish is for us not to make a fool of ourselves.”

Slim and Jess had been gone for almost an hour and the sheriff was shuffling through paperwork on his desk. He reached for his cup of coffee and went to the window. About time for the stage coach to leave, so he would go out and have a look on the street. It was a bright and breezy morning. Given that when a man has to make a decision, the weather has always to have a say, the sheriff took his hat and decided to not wire the marshals for the time being.

*****

Slim took a seat across from the bank director and opened his books on his desk. It was no big deal, just a check on how he was doing and a little planning on the future mortgage payments.

“Mr. Sherman, have you ever thought about selling the ranch?”

The question has been so sudden that Slim figured he had imagined it, he was so upset because of his current fears. “No, I haven’t, Mr. George. Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason. I’ve been told of some ranchers join actions in order to grow business, and there are investors, even from abroad, who are very interested in buying. You could make a profit and stop worrying about mortgages.”

“As much as I‘d like to stop worrying about that, Mr. George, I honestly couldn’t even think of selling. It was my father’s wish was for me to keep the ranch and make a good spread out of it. It’s my wish, too. I have a hired hand now, a good one, and I thought about breaking and selling horses as being a bigger part of my business. The market is strong — there is always a big demand for good mounts — so why couldn’t I take my chance at that?”

“I understand, Mr. Sherman. You should have your chance, but sometimes it’s a matter of size. You’d need to grow much more to get that chance, to compete with those ranchers and investors I mentioned.”

“Why, Mr. George? I’m not afraid, I don’t ask for anything but what I can earn, which will be enough. I don’t like to compete with those much wealthier than I am and they shouldn’t like to compete with those worse off, if you ask my opinion.“

The banker was tracing little circles with his pencil, his breath just a little faster than usual. He sighed and got on with the books, without paying much attention.

“All right, Mr. Sherman. Your finances are in order. Let me know if you need any more advice or counseling. I’ll be glad to be helpful.”

Slim didn’t mention his idea of buying more land to include the springs feeding his creek and lake. Something about the bankers’ behavior suggested he wasn’t going to be of much help.

*****

Jess went to the saloon while Slim had his meeting at the bank. Seven men, new to the town, were eating and drinking. “Howdy, folks, enjoying our hospitality?”

“Howdy, are you from the welcome committee?” The gang laughed out loud.

“Just checking out, being curious. Why would anyone be happy to spend more than a night in this here place? Not much goes on, you know?”

“We’re here on business and you’re wrong about dull; the town is not so bad.”

“What kind of business?”

“You were right. You’re being curious.”

“Do you think you’ll be telling if I buy you a drink?”

“I can’t promise that. You start to oblige us with telling us who you are.”

“Name’s Harper, Jess Harper.”

The name wasn’t unheard to the leader of that dangerous bunch, but it matched with some troubles in Kansas and in Texas, the gang chief seemed to remember.

“Well Mr. Harper, you’ve just earn yourself the right to buy us a drink, and ask for the best. You seem a guy who should know how a good drink has to be.” The whole bunch was in a very good mood and ready to have fun at the expenses of Jess, yet their eyes were scrutinizing him. They were used to evaluate every man as a potential ally or enemy, and this one could’ve been both.

“Bartender, hand over the bottle. Harper, you’ve been very nice and we’re going to treat you with a piece of news about us. It may do us some good.”

“I’m all ears.”

“First thing first, tell us something about this town. You sounded like you were complaining.”

Two of them had talked, but the one who did the questioning appeared to be the leader.

“I haven’t been here long enough to start complaining, but it won’t take much longer.”

“So you can’t help us with some smart advice, uh?”

“I can advise, yeah. Not to drink the sheriff’s coffee is on top of the list.”

“That bad, uh? Have you tasted that coffee recently?”

“You mean, have I been in jail? Not here, not recently.”

“The boy’s brilliant, isn’t he, buddies?”

“Sure he is, let him go ahead.”

“I thought it was your turn to talk about yourselves.”

“Your story is more interesting than ours. Don’t spoil our fun; it ain’t polite. Where are you from?”

“Texas. The Panhandle county.”

“What brought you so far north?”

“I’ve been drifting, mostly.”

“Come on, boy, you’re teasing us. Can’t you say anything more without being asked? What’s the use of being so secretive?”

“No much use. That’s why you should start keeping your word; otherwise, I’ll keep the bottle.”

“All right, since you put it that way. You’re quite susceptible, did you know that?”

“Whatever it means, I’m not; give me the bottle.”

“All right, fine with me.” The leader went to a table, far from the counter, and nodded to Jess, who came over.

“I’ll tell you something. There’re going to be some changes around here. I mean, some fences will be rearranged in a more convenient way. We saw those fences, not in very good shape. We’re here to help some. Want to join us?” The gang, all attentive, made eyes signals.

“Can’t. I’ve been saving some. That’s why I’ve been here for so long. I’ll get my wages and head out to California, maybe.”

*****

Slim made his way to the saloon, feeling they were running out of time. They should’ve already been riding to their neighbors and bringing them up to date. His jaw almost fell off when he saw Jess, his partner and friend, sitting at a table with the very men they were supposed to be fighting.

Slim nodded to the bartender and read there the same look that was common all over town. How could a level-headed rancher so dedicated to his father heritage take a chance with the likes of this new ranch hand with all the trouble that he promised to bring? He could see his good name and his ranch go downhill. But the bartender knew better and conveyed something more: here was Jess, another young man grown wild, grinning at a fistfight with his peers, and looking feral and fatal when facing real danger, but until now he always lacked a friend who cared and who would watch his back.

The above-mentioned friend stopped in his tracks, listening to what Jess was saying about California. His friend looked as at ease as Slim could never be, laughing and drinking with his companions.

“Not now, Slim, I’m having an interesting conversation.”

“Who is he?” asked the gang chief.

“He’s my boss. I’ve spent much time in educating him, but he learns slowly. I feel he’s going to be engaged in a new session pretty soon.”

The bartender looked contemptuously at the bunch and seemed to wait for Slim to say something that could end the nonsense. Slim’s unease lasted till Jess glanced at him sideways. Then he understood he had to play along in Jess’ game.

“Come on, Jess, we’re done here. Back to backboard and to the ranch.”

“Can’t you see I’m busy, Slim? Anyway, I’m coming to join you at the café. The menu says chicken and dumplings, if I read it right.”

Slim, smiling, reached for Jess. He paused, the same smile on his face. Then abruptly he tapped Jess’ hat from his head and, taking advantage of the surprise, disarmed his friend. He would never have succeeded in this maneuver if Jess hadn’t let him. Jess had been caught off guard by Slim only once before.

“You’ve got ten minutes. I’ll be at the café.” Slim handed the Colt back to Jess and left without looking back, hoping he had been believable.

“Who was being educated, young friend?”

“He just needs some encouragement, that’s all; I gotta let him win some times.” Jess jiggled inside at the thought of how Slim had acted in accordance with his own plans.

“Do you want us to reinforce your lessons?”

“Nah, he’s all right, for a rancher.”

Now the gang relaxed a little, just enough for Jess to make his move.

“You had been here long enough to save us some time. Do you know the ranchers and farmers near here? We did some checking. It seems there are not many people who could stand up and fight. There’s an old man, a widow and a handful of farms and ranches. Did I miss anyone? “

“No, you didn’t. They haven’t seen much trouble in these parts. They don’t know where to start, if it comes to defend, let alone to attack.”

“No gun play here, uh? You have to be sorry. Did you have any good meals from your employer?”

“The place is so run down that that employer of mine would like to see it burnt to the ground, just to be free from its sorry state.“

Jess suspected he was overdoing things at this point, but he felt carried away with his blustering which was quite effective.

“Cattle? We haven’t seen many.”

“Some cattle, nothing worth dying for, in my opinion, but, what exactly are you up to?”

“Come on, boys! We’ve had enough of a good time here. Our friend has to go, don’t you, Harper? Thanks for the drink.”

The bottle was empty and the gang members stretched out of their chairs. Jess stayed some more, then headed for the café.

*****

The newcomers were on the porch when Beth crossed the street with her laundry basket.

“There she is! She could use some help, boys. That basket looks heavy.”

Two gang members walked over to the girl and lifted the basket from her arms. They walked with her side by side, talking loudly and forcing her to move very close to them. One of the two put his arm around her shoulders, while the other one encircled her waist. It was a pitiful sight, because she didn’t react, walking as if she did not care. Jess stopped on the boardwalk in front of the café and felt so sad. The shame he still carried in his soul for the way he had conducted himself with Beth was renewed by what was going on in the street. He didn’t wait any longer.

“Hey mister, shouldn’t you ask for permission, before taking Miss Sharp for a walk? “

Both men turned and stepped back from Beth. Since Jess had gotten them pretty used to his easiness, they thought he was still joking and answered with only a hint of doubt.

“Who should we ask? Her? You? Harper, you should have told us that Beth was your girlfriend. Man, you need to see that your fiancée stays in check. We may have to give you some advice.” Then, turning to Beth he said, “You see, girl? You made your man unhappy. Besides, how long will he be yours? No further than tonight, I’m afraid. What do you say?”

“I said you should ask for permission. I didn’t hear from you yet,” Jess interposed.

“Are you serious? Jess, come on, we were only horsing around.”

“Well, you’re done now. By the way, permission denied.”

The two were genuinely disconcerted but relented and backed to the saloon door. Slim was still inside the café, but looked out of the window when he heard Jess’ voice.

Jess reached Beth. She seemed not really aware of what was happening and let Jess come along with her. He collected the basket which on the ground and guided her by the elbow. They entered quietly into the laundry and there she stopped.

Jess was by her side, looked at her and waited for her to speak. He started to talk after a while and rushed to the end of his speech, fearing he would not make any sense.

“Beth? I’m here to help you. I’m not so sure that is help that you need, but I want to help, anyway. You just tell me what you want me to do. It feels so strange watching you like this. Aren’t you angry? Couldn’t you try to stand your ground out there? Talk to me, please. Why don’t you talk to me?”

He could have waited till next month, but Beth didn’t talk. Her eyes welled up, while the rest of her face appeared relaxed. Jess stared at her, his concern showing in his eyes.

Was it the eyes? Was it his voice? Or was it the fact that here was a man totally oblivious of himself and determined to treat her like a human being and a lady? Whatever it was it caused the most terrifying turmoil Jess had ever witnessed.

She crumpled onto the floor, crying loudly in no recognizable words. She brought her arms over her head and started rolling on the floor boards. She went on quite a spell. Jess had seen women showing a wide range of emotions before. He had seen them grieving, getting hysterical, turning themselves upside down in revulsion in front of cruelty or deeply enjoying their vengeance, but he hadn’t seen anything like this before; ever.

Jess knelt beside her and touched her cold hands. She slowed down a bit and gradually stopped her wild thrashing around. Jess caressed her hands, still cold, scratched and crazed by lye. When she moved them from her head, Jess smiled at her, a tentative smile brought on by the scare she gave him. Then she talked. It was a flood, a wild creek, a water fall, a thin rivulet, only a single drop, but the stream was flowing and seemed that it would never end.

*****

Jess and Slim were getting back to the ranch. They had postponed their visits in the neighborhood because it was almost dark and they had some chores left at home. Slim was driving the buckboard and Jess was sitting in a slumped position by his friend side, his hands clasped.

“Did you have fun?”

“I’m pretty worn out, Slim. You don’t have the slightest idea of what I’ve been through. Thanks, anyway, for going along with me in the saloon.”

“You let me take your gun, didn’t you?”

“What do you think?”

“Nothing; been around you for some time and know how your reflexes are.”

“There are more of them, Slim.”

“They told you that?”

“Almost. They’re holed up in some secluded hide, waiting. They can’t be seen in town, ‘cause they are wanted, at least that’s my guess.”

“Any hunch on where they could be hiding?”

“Not a clue, but you should be asking about when they’ll come out of the hole, because they’ll join their friends and there will be trouble, Slim, a lot of it. “

“What was going on in the street with Beth?”

Either Jess was more upset about Beth than he could bear, or he trusted Slim, because he answered, reporting Beth’s story just like he had heard it. Slim wasn’t the one you had to pray to not talk, He was naturally discreet.

“I don’t know, really. They were treating her like she was cheap and I couldn’t allow it. In the laundry, she broke down. It was scary, Slim. I’ve never seen anything of the like and I thought I’d seen the lot. She cried and hollered and rolled on the floor. I thought she had gone mad for sure. When she had got a grip on herself, she started talking. She didn’t tell me everything, just the headlines, but what I learned is awful. She thought she had been kidnapped by her father’s former partner in business. The man and his wife traded fabric and clothes. She had to work for them and they didn’t let her rest unless she fell asleep at her desk. When the couple’s earnings became low, the wife suggested Beth should befriend their customers to make them buy their stuff. She tried and escaped. She traced her father and that’s the real awfulness in the story. Her father wasn’t happy to see her. He told her he had agreed to send her with the couple; in fact, he had received money for that. He added he wasn’t surprised by the traders’ idea. She should have consented and gained some earnings in return. She was a beautiful girl and would be worth the investment; he should have had that thought himself. She ran away. Since she’d seen her father for the last time, she has been trying to prove him right, she said, only the earnings are not so profitable.”

“What a story, Jess. I can’t understand the last part, though. Why she said she has been proving her father right?”

“I can’t understand either, Slim. It might have something to do with being betrayed. Rather than lose the love of her father, or what she thought was love, she wanted him to be right.”

“Why then did she run away?”

“I’ve been asking her. She answered she was ashamed and she couldn’t suffer to be a bad girl just to prove her father right”

They did the last stretch to the ranch in perfect silence. The night was warm. The dry spell they were having was great for the hay, which they would start harvesting in the morning. After the dark, all the scents stole up from the grass, trees, horses, blossoms and rocks baked by the sun blended together and one breath of that air could make a man happy to be alive. Slim and Jess didn’t know, but that would be the last nice and quiet night for quite a long time.

*****

Two relevant things took place in Laramie and its surroundings after that day. Beth changed her clothing and the ranchers started to organize their defense from the approaching cattle barons.

*****

All Miss Sharp wore now were dark blue dresses. She seemed to be grieving, indeed. She had been tailoring her own clothes for years. Her father had taught her. She could make a piece of no value muslin look like precious silk. She couldn’t deny her father’s one opinion she was a beautiful girl, and the most expensive dress in the world couldn’t make her nicer. With her clothing, she changed her attitude. No more hanging around the saloon or the café, but long sessions of needlework in her room. She bought some canvass and made pictures of the trees out of her window. Then, when she was fed up with trees, she closed her eyes and brought Jess’ face to her mind. She asked the ladies dress shop to try her skills at tailoring, wanting to leave as soon as possible the hotel laundry. Her hands had been punished enough. Her boss at the general store noticed her laughs sounded less false and her eyes smiled at Jess only.

Slim and Jess went and visited their neighbors. They’d never expected to find so many friends so keen on helping each other. The Sherman Ranch owner and his pard soon became the leaders of the movement involving men, older people, women, children and pigeons. People should have been startled by the adding of this unusual recruit to their colorful little army, as it was Elijah’s idea, the youngest of the Andersons. He pushed himself into the middle of a group of arguing men and said out loud he could provide an information service that would beat the fastest horse they had. It took some time to convince them it wasn’t a joke. The pigeons could cover the distance between ranches in a time from half an hour to one hour at the worst and they never failed to make it to their loft. The only one problem was that the message receiver had to be at the Anderson place. Fortunately, the ranch was in a central position in the neighborhood. The men didn’t know how to consider the boy’s suggestion. They tried to figure all the laughable situations they could think of. What about pencils and little leaflets? How and when to feed a pigeon? How and where to carry him, in order to have him to carry his message? Young Eli hadn’t stopped explaining yet and the men’s laughing was reduced to unsure smiles, the frowns tearing at the side of their lips, vanished; it could work. They could form teams of two or three men and they would have to survey the range and the properties’ boundaries. If anyone of them needed help or wanted to signal something strange in the area he was covering, he could send a message to the Anderson ranch, where there would’ve always be fresh horses and one spare team or two ready to intervene and possibly surprise the enemy. That would have meant letting women and children take care of the hay and the many other chores, which were men’s business. A sure consequence would be for tools to be always in the place they were expected to be found and for meals to be often cold and not so tasty. Nobody complained, though, and the little Laramie range war started softly and quite happily, with springtime’s mildly warm air, perfumed by hay dried in the sun and stocked in the barns.

*****

Soon after the ranchers of the valley started with surveying and protecting their pastures and fences, news of huge herds heading to the territory reached Laramie, causing lively discussions about the rightfulness and the wrongness of the large cattle herds grazing through the high plains. Some people feared wild cowboy crews coming into town, shooting and drinking, brawling and gambling. Some people secretly hoped for a little cheering up and maybe make some money out of them as they usually came with their pay eating holes in their pockets. They all were waiting for what would happen next.

*****

The gang that Jess had been drinking with came back to Laramie and started visiting the ranchers and farmers, offering compensation for the damage the herds had caused. The locals hadn’t been easy to deal with: they refused to be compensated or to give permission for the cattle grazing. As for fighting, they didn’t appear so eager or ready yet, which confirmed Jess’s comments in the saloon. The ranchers dug their heels in, which was going to be a huge obstacle not only for this first drive, but for the future, regular ones. Cattle barons didn’t want this bur under their saddle every time they wanted to move their herds and ordered their crew to find a permanent solution. The crew members weren’t told to kill, but to constantly sabotage little ranchers and farmers by damaging fences and burning down barns, line shacks and lean-tos. They should also find a way to frighten and scare people. Fear can be more persuasive than real danger, at times.

The problem was that every time they decided where to hit, there seemed to be some of the ranchers waiting for them. No gang could get near enough the fences, the corrals, the line shacks with their hay, or the water holes with their precious content without being spooked and eventually sent running from rifle shots. They were not eager to fight but readiness wasn’t an issue with the valley inhabitants.

Slim and Jess struggled, like many others, to keep up with their chores at the ranch, living up to the stage lines demands and the defense of the one and only wealth they had at hand — the land. Even if it was Slim’s possession, Jess acted like it was his own; it was also his future. Jonesy and Andy were overdue, according to their letter, Andy had to be tested for a scholarship and the exam would be held at the end of the month. So, as much as Slim might want them at home for many good reasons, he couldn’t have his brother’s chance of a great future education ruined. Meals at the Sherman Ranch were going to be a mournful and tasteless experience.

They had just finished stocking hay in the barn and were saddling their horses to get to the Anderson’s place for their turn at keeping watch. Usually they didn’t team up together, because each of them might be better at leading different teams and getting them ready for the task. Having been in the Army, they knew how to take orders and, remembering their commanding officers, they soon learned how to give them.

“Slim, how much will it take for them to get tired of being fooled like this? I’m worried that they will get mad enough to do something really wild. Up to now, we’ve lost some cattle and a barn. It could be worse from now on.”

“It’s already worsened. Mrs. Wright is all packed and ready to go back east. They scared her to death. I can’t figure it, Jess. They should have had something sorted by now. Their boss may run out of patience.”

“You think their boss could fire them and let us alone?”

“If they get fired, there will be someone to replace them, someone even more ruthless,” a worried Slim murmured.

“I wish the marshals were here to take charge of all this. I’m worried for the others. They seem to believe this is so easy. I don’t want them to get shot just for being careless and easy going, you know?”

“Talking about easy going, you looked like that when you took a shot at that big clumsy rider.”

Jess smiled, remembering his shot at the big man’s hat. They’d given their opponents colorful nicknames and learned to sort them out by their behavior. This one was very big and slow. Jess had said he was going to give him a chance; otherwise, he felt as if he was at a shooting gallery. After the shot, he had to take cover and jumped behind the rock he had already chosen. While he did all that, the big man was still reaching for his hat in the sand.

“That one is a real sorry kind of an outlaw, Slim, but the others aren’t even nearly that slow. I wonder what they’re up to now. They haven’t much spare time. I’m heading to town tonight, if you don’t need me. I would like to hear some news. Some of them could be washing down their disappointment in the saloon.”

“I don’t know, Jess. Anyway, you may see Mort, since we hadn’t the chance to send him a message today. He may know by now how long it’ll take for the marshals to arrive. I don’t know either how long we can go on like this. Lack of sleep is taking its toll.”

“All right then, it’s a deal; don’t wait for me for supper.”

“Why, it’s a shame that you won’t taste the last of our dry biscuits.”

“Yeah, it’s a shame those biscuits haven’t fed the chickens yet. I could use a little change: their eggs for your biscuits.”

They went on with their tiring routine. Luckily, nothing had happened. None of the teams had seen anyone or anything all day. Slim and Jess went their separate ways at dusk.

Jess Harper went to the sheriff’s office, but Mort was dining at home, so Jess went to the saloon. There they were. Not the whole gang, which Jess thought was of about eighteen men, just the three talkative ones that Jess had already met. They didn’t wait long to join him at the counter.

“Howdy, young friend, still hanging around? That boss of yours still not paid your wages?”

“No reason to hurry up. California won’t be going anywhere. Besides, I’ve started to find this town quite interesting.”

“Ah! I know what you mean — that beautiful gal with the laundry basket. You should be proud of yourself. She keeps herself in check. My buddies tried to ask her out, but she turned them down. Maybe tomorrow we will pay her a visit at the laundry, just to see if she has changed her mind.”

“You won’t do anything of the kind. You let her alone, understand?”

“I meant to do you a favor. Anyway, we may have to deal with something more important tonight. Say, Jess, what are you doing, you and your boss, on the range these days?”

“Nothing worthy to talk about — hay, cut it, stack it, truss it, make bales, things like that. A boy could do the whole job pretty well.”

“Isn’t that exactly what they are doing, Jess?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Letting the boys have all the fun with that miserable hay while the grown up gallivant the hills sharpshooting.”

“I don’t really know. We don’t have boys at the ranch. By the way, we had some shooting. Trespassing issue, you know; there were warning signs everywhere, but someone can’t read, I guess.”

It was more difficult than Jess had thought. Not only wasn’t the man giving anything away, but also he was becoming suspicious, wanting to get Jess to talk about what was going on with the ranchers.

“I’ll get back to the ranch. Let’s keep in touch.”

“Yeah, you bet.”

*****

Jess sneaked into Mort’s office, dimly lit by a lamp on the sheriff’s desk to provide the lawman a little light to read his newspaper.

“Evening, sheriff.”

“Jess. Anything to report?”

“Nothing at all. Have you heard from the marshals?”

“They should be here by the day after tomorrow. The newspaper says cattle are moving fast. There has been some trouble right after the border crossing — ranchers stampeding the steers and fighting the incomers, maybe shooting at each other. I hope nothing like that is going to happen here.”

“We try not shoot at each other, but we are tired, Mort, and the guys are not used to this sort of thing. They may underestimate the risks. On the other hand, if the goings on get really tough, they could be forced to fight.”

“I agree, Jess. When have you become so wise?”

“I saw a lot, Mort, I’ve been there.”

“I knew you were experienced, and I’m glad to see you’ve learned from what you saw. Not many people can say that.”

If the lamp had been brighter, Mort would had have seen Jess blush. The young gunfighter would always need the approval of more mature men and a part of him would always doubt if he really deserved it.

“Jess, I saw Miss Sharp today. Two of them were at the general store. They had news from their boss. Miss Sharp was behind the counter. They hadn’t seen her. They’re meeting their boss right here in Laramie tomorrow morning.”

“What could it mean?”

“I don’t know, Jess, but I suspect the man is very upset. He can’t figure out the failure of his plan, I think.”

“If he brings in more men, Mort, we won’t be able to stay with your plan.”

“I hope not, Jess, and I’ll stick to our plan. We’ll let them go free for the marshals to bring them in. Their authority is beyond argument. I hate to say that, but it’s the only way to end this once and for all. I wish I had sent for them earlier.”

Jess sighed. “You know, sheriff, I have a hard time believing what I have just heard with my own ears.”

“Well, believe it. I’m sorry, boy. Where are you sleeping tonight, Jess?”

“I’m planning to go back to the ranch. Tomorrow will be another long hard day.”

“All right, I’ll lock up and do the rounds for the night myself. Goodnight, Jess, keep in touch.”

“Goodnight, Mort, will do.”

Sheriff Cory locked the office and called Jess back in a hushed voice.

“Ah! Say, Jess, how are the pigeons doing? I suppose they are fine and still up for it.”

“They are great, sheriff; I wish I could fly sometimes. They help a lot. Truth to be told, we couldn’t have got as far as we have without them. Elijah is so proud of them.”

“Good for him. ‘Night Jess. So long”

“Night, Mort.”

The two parted. Jess headed in the direction of the livery stable. Mort went home on the opposite side of the street. Jess remembered he didn’t eat, but concluded it was too late to make up for it. He wasn’t paying much attention to his own hunger pangs, engrossed as he was in the news and the worry about the next few days.

They waited till Mort’s sounding strides on the wooden boardwalk came to an end in front of a door, which had been open and closed soon after. Jess almost made it. When he was facing the hotel laundry entrance with a quick thought of his recent bath, three men jumped out of the alley and dragged him into the dark, where he lost his Colt.

He took several blows before he could start fighting back, but the three weren’t even close to being tired as he was. He kicked and punched pretty blindly, but from the grunting he heard he must have hit someone. As for his own pain, it hadn’t kicked in yet, but his breath was heavy and difficult, and his strength was fading fast because there always was something trying to keep him down, pinning him to the ground or smashing him against something hard. It was pitch black and he knew he could have recognized his attackers’ identity as his previous drinking companions if they had started talking.

Which one of them did.

“Can’t you take him down without me having to shoot him? How on earth have you got this job?”

“You try to handle this wild cat, then talk.”

By that time, Jess had been subdued. A strong arm was squeezing his throat, while another man was hitting him in the ribs. He tried to free himself from the one at his back with his elbow, but he missed his target and hit the barn wall instead. This got him really mad. Mad at his weakening body and at the cowardice of his attackers. Mad, because they had welcomed him at the saloon like he was one of them and it had been so easy to let them believe it. Mad at himself for having thought he could manage them and get information without being spotted. He kicked the one in front of him with all his might and unbalanced the one at his back. The third one wouldn’t have known where to aim, given the darkness, and Jess tried to escape, but they caught up with him fast and doubled their attack. Now the three of them were hitting him and Jess knew he could last no longer. They didn’t only want to beat them living day lights out of him, though. They wanted to talk as well and Jess didn’t know which was the worst.

“What were you talking about, you and the sheriff? What about pigeon? What’s the meaning of that?”

It wasn’t his first choice of a question, but he couldn’t resist, because that pigeon talk could have been some sort of code they were using.

“We were joking, we joke a lot.” Jess was so out of breath that even if he wanted to add something more scornful, which could have them really wanting to murder him, he couldn’t have made it.

“Who’s Elijah?”

“A prophet”.

That was it. One boot connected with his back and the one who had questioned Jess took a handful of his hair. Either he talked in a low voice or the whistle in Jess ears was increasing in volume.

“Listen well, this time. What are you doing up there? How do you manage to be where you shouldn’t be at all, uh? What the hell pigeons have to do with it?”

“I can’t understand your questions; you sound a little crazy; maybe you drank too much,” Jess answered in a murmur, his voice slurred.

“Tell me or you won’t survive the night.”

Jess’ entire body was getting stiff and sore. Bruises were swelling where he had been hit. The pain brought back some energy and Jess hollered his answer.

“No!”

The fight hadn’t been heard by anyone in town, but a girl. Beth was getting into bed in her attic over the store and heard a commotion under her window. Jess didn’t do it on purpose, but he had tried to run away right behind the building, as it seemed the shortest way out of that dark alley. She looked into the street and understood someone was in trouble. She recognized the last voice she heard as Jess’ and started into action.

She opened up her window without making any noise and launched the pitcher and basin she had on her nightstand. She heard muffled, startled voices and hoped she had not hit Jess. She threw something else and went for the stairs, calling for help.

The attackers let go of Jess and disappeared. Beth went to the rescue, with her heart pounding in her chest and fear of what she was about to find. Mr. and Mrs. Stone took their time to come over, exiting the front door which was carefully locked with three locks.

Jess was feeling weak and stood with his head down; he was leaning against the building wall. He didn’t have the energy to even try and make the slightest movement. One of his fading sensations forced him to pay attention. It was a hand, –a cool, small one — on the back of his neck. A voice was asking him to say something, but he couldn’t. Strange sounds were echoing in his head, and then one male voice brought him back to consciousness. Someone was urging him to try and stand up. They were supporting him. He could feel their hands under his arms. Voices were confusing and mixing one with the other. People were forcing him to move. Tomorrow he could carry a load of rocks up the Laramie Peak if they wanted him to, but not now, please, not now. Mr. Stone and Beth dragged him inside the store, where Mrs. Stone put a blanket on the floor. Jess lay unmoving and Beth asked for another blanket and some water. Mrs. Stone gave her what she needed and patted her shoulder, and then the couple went back to bed with the front door relocked.

Beth found Mrs. Stone’s shawl and put it on, then knelt beside Jess and bathed his bruised face and hands. He was asleep or unconscious. He was breathing regularly, even though not deeply. Every now and then, when attempting to shift his position, he moaned a little, but didn’t wake. In the middle of the night Beth, who was napping, became alert at the sound of his voice. Not moaning softly now, but anxious, as he did not recognize where he was, he did not remember what had happened. She reassured him and helped him to clear his mind a little, without forcing him to talk or listen too much. She made him drink and he was grateful. He didn’t realize he’d been so thirsty. Both of them went to sleep, the girl curled up in her borrowed shawl and the young man sprawled on the rough blanket that barely spared his sore back from contact with the hard boards.

Mrs. Stone found them still on the floor, when she came downstairs to open the store. She gently woke Beth and stood a little watching the young man. He didn’t notice he wasn’t alone with Beth anymore. He seemed to have recovered a little, but he sure was in need of a lot of rest. That rest, though, he would have to have it somewhere else. The room was flooded with sun light from the great windows from the floor to the high ceiling, sure sign that the sun was up and had been for some time. Jess looked at the brightness of the new day, and then awareness struck. He was in the general store and somehow he had overslept in that very place. Beth was urging him, even if gently, to get up. With great effort, he lifted himself on one elbow and the immediately his world tilted and the sun lost it brightness and he felt dizzy. Beth supported him and, with her help, got him to his feet. The dizziness was masking the pains he had endured all night.

“Do you feel like some breakfast, Jess?”

“I could use something to eat and maybe a, pot of coffee just for me,” he answered slowly, still supporting himself on the counter.

“Come along to the café, then, I’ll get you your coffee.”

They exited the store and found themselves in the sun. Somebody had washed the boardwalk. Jess squinted and had to lean against the wall, feeling sick.

Sheriff Cory left the office to have his own breakfast and spotted the two young people struggling on their way to the restaurant. He hurried and stopped in front of the two. “For God’s sake, what happened to you?”

Jess looked at the lawman, as he still leaned against the wall. “Three men, those I met in the saloon. They asked me about the pigeons we were talking about last night. I really had them pissed off.” Notwithstanding his fragile state, he still had some sparkle in his eyes when he had made that last statement.

“Are you heading for the café? Because I’m going to have breakfast with you and in the meanwhile share some information. You sure you haven’t broken any bones?”

“No broken bones, sheriff, only a headache the size of Texas and some stiffness. I’ll keep going, though, it’s the only way. Slim will be mad at me.”

“Not if he knew what you’ve been through. Give the guy some credit, Jess.”

“I give him credit, but I’m needed there and you know that.”

Sitting at the table, Jess didn’t feel hungry, but ate something just hoping it would do him some good. The coffee, strong and very hot, seemed to make it where the rest of the meal had failed.

“The GY owner will be on the morning stage. I’ll keep an eye on him and his men. When you feel up to it, mark my words, when, you reach the Anderson ranch with my deputies, just keep up the good job. I’ll wire the marshals.”

“Your deputies, Mort?”

“One of them will be you; anyway, the other is Matt Shepherd.”

Jess had expected Mort would deputize more than two men, but that was that. The major surprise for Jess was that Mort had asked him. Mort had smiled at him and said he always thought he could do well with the right motivation and a star pinned on his vest. Jess wasn’t one who could find the right words when anyone praised him. His main motivation had been just to stay alive through endless troubles. He had been so used to be addressed as a no good saddle tramp that he had started believing it himself. As for pinning a star on his vest, that was touching the unthinkable. The young new deputy smiled with embarrassment at the sheriff and his smile promised that he would do his best.

“Sheriff? Can you lend me a gun, please? They took mine.”

“No problem, deputy.”

Jess stayed in town, waiting for information about the GY boss and his men, but they went to the Association place and seemed to stay there forever.

Jess was saddling his horse. He was right — moving around was doing some good for his stiffness and soreness; as for the headache it was beyond help. Beth caught up with him at the stables.

“Jess, I should try and find out something to help you and the others. I could catch the stage coach and make it to your ranch and let you know if anything is going on.”

Jess smiled. “It’s not my ranch, Beth. Anyway, I don’t want you to be even near those men, understand?”

The girl had proved to be one capable to take the initiative and Jess liked that, but having her mixed up in this mess wasn’t at all what he wanted.

“Jess, I could be helping some. I don’t mean to end up in trouble to make it all worse. I don’t want you to be worried about me. I can manage, I promise.”

“Talk to the sheriff, then, and mind you, I’ll check with him, so I’ll know if you did as you’ve been told.”

His tone had been a little hard, but Beth understood the reason for it and smiled. She took off for the sheriff’s office, while Jess galloped out of town.

*****

There were people in Laramie to whom the shining morning wasn’t smiling. At the Cattlemen’s Association, Mr. Gibson was totally black — from his hat, through his suit and to his mood. The white shirt made his face only look yellower. He wasn’t used to having to look after the jobs he had ordered. He paid his crew to have his problems solved, not to have to come in person to sort out what the crew had messed up. He was giving his top hand a piece of his mind. He might not being swearing — he was too educated to do so — but the steel in his eyes and the ice in his polite words could have made anyone of his employees feel low.

*****

“I’ve been holding on a conversation while traveling on that stage coach. There was a drummer who seemed pretty well informed. Any idea where he could have found out all that interesting news? You have been staying here for, how long, let me see, two weeks. You should know what they ate on Wednesday rather than Thursday by now. The ranchers aren’t as many as you are, but it seems they are ahead of you all the time. Why do you think that is? Don’t tell me, I’ll let you know first. They have two good leaders, that’s why. What have you done with those leaders? Oh! I forgot, you didn’t even know about Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, did you? What do you know about this rotten place, uh? Where to find a drink and good company? I know about that, also. I know you were not so lucky about that subject as well. ‘Cause the gal you’ve been chasing seems to be Jess Harper’s girlfriend. That’s a matter of taste, I guess. You would be surprised if I told you who I get that one from. It’s impressive how much information one can find out in a little town like this and you could have done so. Too bad I had to cover all these miles just to come here and tell you what you should have found out for yourselves. Take the banker — he has not had your opportunity, but he has been more active than any of you. He’s been the most scheming banker I have ever met.”

The ramrod listened to the complaints from his boss and of couldn’t reply. He didn’t know what to say to Mr. George or anyone else at the moment. Mr. Gibson always made it look like the truth was all on his side and you were just a stain on the table cloth. One word in your defense and you could feel the stain growing before your eyes and Mr. Gibson’s initial disagreement reached the top grade in the scale of fury. He could have then thrown away the table itself, never mind the meals you could have cooked for him. You couldn’t handle it in any way other than take cover from the flying dishes, as he continued to rip into you.

“Mr. Gibson, I know we were a little too soft at the beginning. You yourself had told us to try to gentle them. They had been able to cover pretty well the whole valley. I think I will get the chance to discover how they did it from that Harper fellow. Last night we gave it a start, but we got interrupted.”

“What you did last night does not even resemble anything I want you to do with that Harper fellow, my friend. You have any ideas yet?”

“Yes, Mr. Gibson, I mean, no, I’m not sure I follow you. What should we do about Harper? He’s not a rancher.”

“Of course not, but he’s one of the leaders. We can’t stop Sherman. He’s an associate and we can’t kill a rancher anymore after what had happened in Kansas. Harper isn’t a rancher, though. When you hit Harper, Sherman will have to worry about himself and his other partners as well, and their little army will become a lot less confident and eventually stop fighting.“

“Mr. Gibson, what will the marshals do? You said they have been alerted.”

“They were, but we have put some trouble under their feet. They should be late. In fact, they shouldn’t be here for at least another three or four days. By then, we’ll have our herds spreading all over and one grieving Mr. Sherman, because, when I say you’ll hit, I mean you’ll hit hard. Understand?”

“You mean you want us to kill Harper? It could take some time. He’s one hell of a fighter and a very good gun. I can only think about ambushing him and that would need some men to take care of it.”

“You’re beyond hope, my friend. There’re other ways, less expensive and more effective.”

*****

He wasn’t Mr. Gibson’s friend. That was the only sure thing. When he exited the Cattlemen’s Association, he saw Beth Sharp shutting the sheriff’s office door behind her. The sight didn’t leave him at all happy and confident.

*****

The girl had been warned not to leave the town. Mort Cory said he would see to that. What was going on was none of young girls’ business, not even the ones with a soft spot for his new deputy. He had said it with a little smile and Beth then had smashed the door closed as she had flounced out.

That smashing door haunted the sheriff for days and he would have had done anything to relive that scene and call Miss Sharp back when he still had had the chance.

*****

Jess and Matt, the other deputy, were at the Sherman ranch, which was now deserted. They had met on the hill behind the relay station. They were going to take care of the stage coach, before moving on to the Anderson’s place. Each of them hoped the coach driver would deliver some good news about the marshals’ arrival. The marshals appeared to be the last resort, because the threats were going on and on, and none of the ranchers had been summoned to the Association and Slim’s letter to Mr. Gibson hadn’t been answered.

It wasn’t the marshals coming news that made Jess’ blood freeze, though. It was an anonymous letter that had been addressed to him.

“Matt, isn’t it your duty as well to protect innocent people? I can’t believe you’d let a girl fall into those killers’ hands. Are you really saying you’re not coming?”

Jess was upset, ready to fight everything and everyone. He couldn’t stop moving, pacing up and down the barn. In his anxiety, he wouldn’t hear any reasoning. He only wanted to get on his horse and fly where he felt he was needed.

“Let’s admit they are who you think they are. Can’t you see that is what they want you to do? We have to report to Sheriff Cory and get a posse, then we’ll go to the meeting place and see what they want with you and the girl. What do you think this is all about, Jess? Why them? Why Beth? And what has it to do with you?”

“Listen, I have no time to play this investigation game with you. You’ve read the letter. They don’t joke. Look at my face, Matt. Can you figure them doing that to Beth? Well, I can and I sure won’t stay here and wait for a posse. Besides, what posse do you think Mort Cory will put together, with all the valuable men out here?”

“You seriously think we have to go there and save her? Only two of us? Without any back up? Without talking to the sheriff first? You are crazy, Harper. I won’t let you do it. Let us find Sherman and the others at least, and then we’ll decide what to do. One thing, though, Cory has to know, the sooner the better.”

“The only craziness here is about us running out of time arguing. Don’t you see? How do you figure you can stop me? Don’t try, Matt. You’ll just get a hiding for nothing.”

There wasn’t the slightest possibility of a compromise between the two young deputies. Neither of them, overwhelmed by fear for Beth’s predicament, would have admitted he was going to make possibly the biggest mistake of his life.

“Do what the hell you want, Jess Harper! Isn’t that what you always do? As for myself, I will go to town.”

“Don’t be too long finding that posse, because if you do that, you’d better call for the undertakers instead.”

In the argument, neither of them remembered the pigeon in his little wooden cage in the barn. The bird was cleaning his feathers, all his little mind concentrated on his task, far from the angst and the rage.

Beth was taken from the laundry. She had suddenly seen them. They had silently entered her chosen purgatory on earth and had gotten nearer and nearer. One of them clubbed her on the head with his gun butt and she went down like a broken doll. They passed her through the small window facing the alley to accomplice while they exited one at a time, without being noticed — another nail in Sheriff Cory’s idea that Laramie was the safest place for her.

They rode to the chosen secluded location and set themselves down to wait. They wouldn’t have long to wait. Mr. Gibson had promised that Harper would be coming as soon as he’d received the letter in which they had warned him to come alone if he wanted them to keep the girl alive.

Beth regained consciousness soon after they reached the place they had chosen for Jess Harper to show up. She was laying on the ground, blindfolded, her hands tied behind her back. A large stain of dried blood was covering half her face. As soon as she regained her senses, she had been trying to figure out why they had taken her. Was it some sort of revenge? What was the reason for that obstinate silence they were keeping, all this just to bully a girl for ignoring them? Jess had stopped them in town and they had assaulted him, but for different reasons, apparently. With all what was happening between the local ranchers and the owners of the approaching herds, her abduction just didn’t make sense. She was hurting badly, but the unanswered questions filling her thoughts made her hurt even more.

The place was perfect. A ruined cabin out on the prairie, the semi-demolished building was in the middle of a depression, circled by low hills. They left Beth in front of the derelict entrance door and left. The roof was gone; the doorway and ruined wall was the only part of the building still standing. She tried to follow their horse’s hooves beat, but her position didn’t allow her to hear at a great distance. She slowly stood up, leaning against the scratched wood. She tried then to free her hands, but the rawhide would make it hard work.

The sounds she could hear were only natures. Birds, swishing grass, buzzing bees and no storming leaves, because there weren’t any trees nearby. The hot breeze was coming in waves, not slowed down by towering trees. She put all her might in trying to free her wrists, using sharp stones to help. She smiled softly thinking about her last name. She had never been in need of something sharp, both strictly and figuratively.

Jess Harper was riding his horse like he wanted to race the wind which, seeing the determination in both rider and mount was easy to imagine.

The letter said she would die when the sun went down. Come alone, they said. Jess was sure he knew who they were, but how many of them there would be there, he couldn’t guess. As for the end of all this, it was all mixed up in his mind. They didn’t ask for money. Were they trying to separate him from the others? He was doing just that. Did they want to drive him away from the Sherman ranch? He was doing that also. Did they want to split the two deputies? That was if they knew about him wearing a star. What a start as a lawman, arguing and refusing to go along with his colleague. Were they going to kill Beth? Why? Were they just bluffing? Did they want to kill him, too? When did he become such a dangerous enemy? The place where he was ordered to meet them was the worst for anyone who wanted to get near a girl hostage and try to free her. He didn’t have a plan. Not even a plot, except to arrive there before the sun was leaving the valley. Where to find Beth? Would he be able to see her from a safe distance, so that he could plan what he was going to do? They couldn’t know that he would really come alone. They surely had taken position on the hills close to the little valley. That’s what he would have done.

Jess dismounted before reaching the crest of the hill. He got to his knees and belly, rifle in hand, and looked into the valley. The sun would set in a few minutes; it would appear almost dark then, in contrast with the sun light still lighting the crown of hills. A little blue figure caught his attention. Beth, alone, a blindfold over her eyes and hands behind her back, was struggling. She was trying to free herself. She looked fine, from his point of view. He realized she was his one and only target. He could think about all the rest later, if he were still alive. There wasn’t anyone else near the ruined little building. No sign of armed people watching the valley. The hills across from him were the only hiding place for a sharpshooter, likely more than one. He didn’t have the time to ride the hills and try to catch them from behind. He was alone. He would risk all by coming from the front. Would he be able to give Beth a chance? After his wild ride, he now felt the warm air oppressive. His forehead was sweating profusely, his breath faster than usual, ready to start into action. Beth needed her hands free, for what he was planning. Hopefully she would make it before the shadows reached her.

He would fly down the hill, hidden by the flank of his horse, so no target could be seen in the uncertain light. He could reach her and lift her into the saddle without even slowing down; he could shoot back and force his horse to go back to where he had first started, out of their bullets’ reach. They would need a kind of a miracle, but his mount could turn around on a coin and his opponents hadn’t proved to be accurate shots yet. Funny, how easily a man can fool himself when he runs out of hope.

Beth’s hands were now free and she discarded the blindfold. She looked around and saw one devil of a horse launch down from the east. At the same time, shots started from the hill to the west and she took cover under the door arch. There didn’t seem to be any rider on that horse, but someone shot back at the hills right before a stuck out arm grabbed her and threw her across the saddle. Flying onto the horses back and being deafened by two rifle shots coming from close bushes, half way up the hill from which the other shots had come, was only a matter of seconds.

When Jess lifted Beth onto his horse, he levered on one stirrup and stood fully upright to bring up the girl. In that split second he became a good target for the two behind the bushes, Illusions can’t compete with hopes. He fell sideways without even knowing what had struck him, and Beth, holding desperately onto the horse’s mane, rode away, just to be thrown by the animal on the verge of exhaustion at the far end of the valley.

*****

“I liked that, ‘twas fun. I’d like to do it again.” one of the shooters said while approaching the dropped rider.

“It’s not like we can always count on beautiful girls and young enemies in the middle of a crisis. Mr. Gibson was right, though. Harper didn’t disappoint us.”

The gang boss stopped beside Jess’ unmoving body. He was saying what he was supposed to be saying. Different from his companion, he hadn’t liked it at all. He couldn’t forget how Mr. Gibson had treated him and how he felt used, just like the ranch hand at his feet. Only he was still standing in one piece and the ranch hand was not and that was good. Yet, at the bottom of his thoughts, there was regret. He had liked Harper. His irreverence, his readiness at talking back, his courting Beth Sharp, the way he had answered about Elijah being the prophet while they were ganging up on him unmercifully. The way he had gotten down that hill like the devil himself, putting everything at stake to save the girl, unsuspecting or passing by what they were really up to. He had two holes in his left side, one in his lower chest and one a few inches under. His left arm was also wounded. His vest was torn and something was shining through the fabric.

“That’s a real surprise. When did you find the time to become a lawman, boy?”

The tin star was bent and stained with blood.

“What in tarnation have we done, taken down a deputy sheriff? It’s not the same as taking down a supposed rustler!”

“They won’t bring us in. Let’s clear out.”

“And the girl?”

“Let’s go find her.”

Jess had heard the voices as coming from a great distance. He was lightheaded, not remembering what exactly had happened or when. His recent deeds were blurred. His parting with Matt, Beth in the bottom of the valley, the sun going down on her, the hard ride and the shots, his unending fall into darkness. If Beth wasn’t there, she could make it. His horse was strong and would go straight to the Sherman ranch. He would have saved her, but they were going after her and Jess couldn’t do anything to prevent them. He knew he needed help. He was badly wounded. He knew it from his total lack of strength. Something inside him was so torn apart that the only peace would come from another shot right between his eyes. They hadn’t done that, though. They had left with the purpose of getting Beth Sharp back and that thought was tormenting him more than the pain he was feeling.

*****

Beth hit the ground hard enough to stop her breath for several painful seconds. When she could make it to her feet, she was trembling so hard that her teeth were chattering. She miraculously had stayed in the saddle, while Jess, with an agonizing shout, had fallen. After what he had just done for her, she was rewarding him by running away as fast as she could. When she saw three riders coming in her direction, however, she made up her mind and looked for Jess’ horse. He needed help and it was up to her to find it. The horse was calming down not too far away. She hoped not to frighten him further and walked to his side, trying to relax a little, murmuring incoherently. The good horse let her come closer and seemed to appreciate her gently rubbing his neck. She praised him incessantly to let her into the saddle, and she finally accomplished her task. She turned the horse towards civilization, at least to what she knew as civilization. She gave free rein and spurred the animal, hoping he would have had some spare energy. One would think Jess’ horse knew what he was needed to do, because he galloped fast in the direction of the road to the Sherman ranch and on to Laramie.

*****

Mose was late. The stagecoach was late. The mail was late. The driver was mad. He should have been at the Sherman relay station two hours earlier. At the ranch, they were anxious to know about the marshals who were eventually coming. They had been slowed down by some trouble knowingly provoked, but now they were planning to be in Laramie by that night. The day after they would reunite all those who were defending their legitimate rights and were gathered at the mouth of the valley, blocking the livestock from being driven through the Laramie basin. They were coming with a company of fifty men and were planning to arrest all those scattering the cattle all over the prairie on orders of the cattle barons.

The rider was about to cross the stage coaches’ path, and launched at high speed towards the road, coming down the hill. The rider wasn’t wearing britches. Was it a woman? Blue dress, auburn long hair. Beth Sharp. What was wrong with her? The daylight was fading and Mose wasn’t sure of his sight when he saw three riders after the girl. He reined in and pulled the brake lever. He took up his rifle; the girl was close now and badly upset. Mose fired a warning shot and the riders changed direction but didn’t really slow down. Maybe even bad luck runs out of tricks sometimes. Anyway, there were riders coming from the Laramie direction and at the head of them was Slim Sherman. He and his team were riding to meet the stagecoach, which could have been held up, especially on account of the mail and the possible marshal’s message that it could carry. Someone had cut the telegraph’s wires. Something was going on and the coach could have been part of it. Seeing the riders coming, the three in pursuit of the girl shied away and cleared out. Nobody thought to trail behind them, at least not before getting the long-awaited news and make sure that Beth was all right, and to find out what had happened to her.

Slim Sherman was tired as he had never been. He feared they would soon lose control of the band who were scattering all over their land. The cattle moving at the valley mouth would be soon trespassing. He hadn’t seen Jess for hours, which only increased his worrying. They needed the marshals by their side or they’d better call it quits. If he hadn’t been so wrapped up in his thoughts, he would have seen what the others were already examining. The mount Beth had been riding was Jess’ horse. Miss Sharp, dress torn, dusty and bloody, let herself down and slid to the ground. The men came watching close, their main purpose forgotten, for the time being.

“What in blazes had happened, Beth? Why are you riding Jess’ horse?”

The animal was covered with foam, snorting nostrils and thrashing his head up and down. One of the men unsaddled him, putting Jess’ gear on top of the coach and rubbed him down with a handful of grass, then made him drink just a little water.

“Let her rest a little, Slim. The poor girl is wounded, can’t you see that?” Mose was cleaning the blood from her forehead pouring water from his canteen. Beth asked for a drink, and then urged them to listen to her.

“They abducted me. I suppose it was to get to Jess. He came for me and helped me, but they shot him.”

“They shot Jess? Where is he, for Christ sake, where is he, Beth?” Slim asked a hint of panic in his strained voice.

“A ruined cabin, in the middle of a valley, in that direction, the sun was still up when I left. I couldn’t go back to Jess; they were hunting me. I don’t know how he is. They had two good shots.”

Beth was sobbing now, not able to stop. Mose helped her to her feet and escorted her to the coach.

“I’m following you with the stagecoach, Slim. I think the place she was referring to is the old Cameron place. Nobody lives there anymore. It has to be about five miles.”

They started off to the Cameron place. Mose lit a lamp and set the team at a smart pace.

Beth shivered when the coach reached the little Cameron valley. She couldn’t think of getting off the coach. Her head felt like it was exploding and her legs wouldn’t move. She heard all what was going on outside, though, and her heart broke.

Slim got off his horse and the rest of the men except Mose kept themselves apart. They wanted to give Slim his space. A man needed space when he may have to fight with Heaven, if he found his pard dead.

It was almost dark. Only a dim light pervaded the place, promising to fade, like the life of Jess Harper.

The wounded man was breathing, but weakly, and his heart was beating, but his pulse was erratic. His left side looked caved in and a huge, dark stain spread on the front of his shirt. Slim went close to his friend and knelt beside him. He talked in a small voice, not even knowing if Jess was still with them.

“Did they think you were a damn bison that they had to do this to you?”

Slim let out a strange sound, half moan and half laugh, and then came a sob. Mose squeezed his shoulder and Slim slowly got his self control back.

“It’s bad, Mose. It’s awful. I don’t know how he made it up till now. I can’t see if the bleeding has stopped, either.”

Mose came closer with the lamp, while Slim took the canteen and his neckerchief. He started barely touching Jess’ skin, fearing he would cause more damage by cleaning the two nasty wounds. The bleeding had stopped, but Jess had lost so much blood that it was a miracle he was still alive. There weren’t exit wounds, so the damn bullets were still deeply inside him.

“Can we move him, Mose?”

“We certainly can’t leave him out here. Come on, boys, give us a hand. We’ll get Jess on the coach and make him comfortable, then go back to the Sherman ranch. One of you should ride to town and call out the doctor.”

It was good that Mose took charge, because Slim felt like he couldn’t think anymore.

They had him lying on the floor of the coach, held by Slim and Beth. The girl helped to lift Jess’s legs. Someone had told her it was good for the circulation. He was shivering at times, but his temperature was rising. Even though they tried to make him drink, they couldn’t get him to swallow any water. He was stranded in a place from which he would have a hard fight back, if ever.

The rest of the night had been a bad, long dream for Slim. Jess was handed from his friends’ care to that of the doctor’s, but Slim had had to assist both of them, the doctor and patient. Doctor Samuels was a big man with a tender heart. When he was attending to his cases, as he called them, he would let himself go, cursing such bad names to everybody who had caused so much useless pain. Often, well-raised women in Laramie would be forced to leave the sick room. Once he had thrown a loaded gun into the fireplace, causing an explosion. Since then, whoever called him out would carefully hide the weapons before they let him in.

“I’ll do my best, Slim, but it may be not enough.”

Slim nodded. Doc Samuels had covered half his face and what little had remained of his hair with a gauze scarf, in addition to the apron over is big belly. No need to add germs to Jess’ wounds.

*****

The marshals had arrived and were shown to the bunkhouse, without Slim having said a word. The officer in charge had been informed about what had happened recently and told Slim of his regret and apologized for coming later than he had planned. Sheriff Cory, Matt Shepherd and three others had gone after the kidnappers and gunmen. They would probably camp for the night and continue their hunt at dawn. Beth Sharp, after having received medical attention, had been sent back to town with Mose.

The doctor was huffing behind his gauze mask. He had had to stop and resume his work so many times that Slim doubted he would ever finish it. Two of the Anderson’s boys and himself were ready to hold Jess, if he started moving, but he just winced a couple of times.

“Don’t think about coming to, son; it wouldn’t be fun,” the Doctor murmured.

Doc Samuels worked hard for another couple of hours, extracting bullets, repairing the internal damages, cleaning the wounds as carefully and meticulously as he could. Finally, he had bandaged all what was in need.

His big hands were surprisingly gentle and caring and tried to cause little more pain than was strictly necessary. Jess had never complained; he seemed to try and talk once, but his mouth couldn’t form any intelligible words. It was only a strangled, feeble sound. The doc had petted his head like he would have done to a sick calf, resting a hand on his shoulder. Then he washed his hands again and went on with his job, twice as keen as before. He finished at last; they tucked Jess into his bed, and waited for the doc to say something reassuring.

“Let’s get him through the night, and then we’ll see. I can’t say more, Slim, I’m sorry.”

When all the people, except Anderson’s middle son, left the house, Slim let go a little and rested for a while on his own bed, listening carefully to his friend’s soft breathing. He had been awaken by an unknown voice to which he answered without even understanding what the question was.

“Try and see in the kitchen.”

“I already did. Mr. Sherman, here is a cup of coffee, it’s for you, I already treated myself and my men as well.”

Slim threw a look to Jess on his left. Seeing no change there, he had a better look at the stranger. He was the marshal, he remembered almost immediately.

“Thanks, marshal. I hope you and your men are comfortable. I didn’t have time to prepare for your arrival.”

“Don’t even think about it, Mr. Sherman. You already did enough. I just wanted to let you know it. You and your neighbors did a wonderful job, not letting them in without provoking more disorder. Now it’s up to us. We’ll need some help, though. Can I count on you ranchers to keep up the good work?”

“You can talk to Bill Anderson. Is he still here? We used his father’s ranch as a base. You could start from there. Should I come along in the morning?”

“No, thanks, Mr. Sherman, as I said, you did enough. You need to be here now.”

The marshal took a look at Jess. “What’s his name?”

“His name is Jess Harper. He’s been shot while acting as deputy sheriff.”

Slim felt so proud of his pard that suddenly he wanted the marshal to know everything about Jess’ role in their actions against the invaders. The marshal took a seat on a stool and listened to the events from the beginning, even asking for details, since the man talking seemed to need to tell his story.

“It made me wonder. For a guy who had been on the drift for so long, taking sides with us required a totally new way of thinking. He is trying so hard to settle down, I only hope he’ll live to make a home here.”

Slim had talked to himself more than to the marshal, with his last sentence.

The marshal stood and shook Slim’s hand. “I’ll keep you and your friend in my prayers, Mr. Sherman. I’m going back to my men now. Try and have some rest. Jess is already doing what’s best for him; he’ll be fighting hard to hold on.

Slim looked out of the window. He could hardly imagine the marshal praying. When did he find the time? Moreover, with the kind of a life he lived, did he still remember how to do it? Funny, how things can be different than they appear. Slim Sherman, law-abiding citizen and rancher, religious for the conventional part, careful not to disappoint what other people were thinking about him, couldn’t pray anymore, at least since his father had been killed. He would have pray now: for Jess to pull through the night, for himself to do anything his friend needed him to do to pull through, and for their friendship to be blessed with years to come.

They had just started to know each other and they both were astonished by the number of things they had in common, among the many differences they also had. He would pray for the marshals and all his friends and neighbors, for Mort Cory and his posse, for Beth Sharp and the Laramie citizens. He would pray for his ranch and for Andy, for Jonesy and all the good memories of his family. He had a lot to be grateful for. Having so much, he would agree to let go of something, if someone had asked him, but he couldn’t let go of Jess, he had become a brother like Andy was. Jess was the older of his two brothers, the one with the troubled past who needed to trust and to be trusted, the drifter who had forgotten how to live in a real house, but praised everything he’d found there. Slim tried praying. He started and failed. He tried again and failed even worse. He got up and changed the wet cloth on Jess’ forehead. His friend was murmuring something he couldn’t make out: mother, maybe, and something like socks or sucks. Slim petted his wavy hair, like Doc Samuels had done, then, searching for another cloth on the nightstand, he caused his tin, unfinished coffee cup to fall off onto the floor. Just a few drops spilled and a cataclysm took him over. He needed to get out, but came across the stool on his way. He kicked the stool and it wasn’t enough. He kicked the door that went bouncing against the wall and it wasn’t enough. He turned to the chest of drawers and toppled it over. It was heavy and it was, at last, enough. He stopped in contemplation of the consequences of his awkward fight with furniture and felt worse than before, with a pang of distaste that was new to him.

Slim went to where the chest lay on its side and, grimacing, lifted the drawers which had slid out of it. First drawer was Jess’ — a wallet, a belt, some bandanas and kerchiefs, socks and underwear, all carefully mixed. One piece of cloth caught Slim’s eye: it was a totally blue kerchief he had never seen before. There was a piece of paper folded inside. It slid out when Slim picked it up from the floor. It was a newspaper article; judging from the yellowish paper and worn folds it had been among Jess’ belongings for quite some time. Without thinking, Slim read it.

We already gave you concise notice of the tragic arson that destroyed Mr. Harper’s family last Tuesday night. You are all aware of the viciousness of the attack which had taken five innocent lives: Johnny Harper, 42, and his wife Charlotte, 36; their children Charles, 12, Ann, 10, John, Jr., 9, and Joshua, 4, who died yesterday from the burns. At the sheriff’s office we learned that the Bannister gang was supposed to be in this area. Other farmers reported some raiding on cattle, food and other equipment. We can’t make up our mind with the house setting on fire, though, unless it was aimed to get the attention of someone, such as land owners, who have main interests to protect here and were determined to fight gangs’ activities in order to do so. This way of seeing could be confirmed by the arson to have taken place at the assault’s beginning. Otherwise, the inhabitants should have had a chance of surviving. Young Jess Harper, 15, and sister Francis, 16, are the only survivors. They are saying that they had been awoken by cracking sounds in a house already full of smoke. The children are still in shock, but they’re sensible enough to report coherently what they remember of that terrible night. Unfortunately, we can’t tell you the culprits have been caught yet. We can only let those of you who had not attended know about the funeral service. The surviving Harpers were there, hand in hand. Francis fainted twice, maybe due to tiredness as she had nursed her little brother Joshua who had died after two nights and days in pain. The minister told the listeners about reconciliation and strength in the trying passages in life. Mr. and Mrs. Harper couldn’t save themselves and their beloved children, but were certainly being watching out for their remaining offspring, seeing that nothing bad would happen to them again and that was something the whole community should help with. In agreement with the preacher’s words, we are glad to announce Mr. and Mrs. Freemont, the store owners, foster young Jess and Francie at their home, since no close relatives seem to be living in this area. Francie will help Mrs. Freemont with the store and restaurant. Notwithstanding her brother’s claiming to be able to look after her, Mr. Freemont thinks Jess is too young to be fully in charge of a family and will start working as a cowboy as soon as he recovers from his loss. The writer himself would be happy to take him in at the newspaper, but young Mr. Harper turned down the offer, saying he wasn’t cut to be behind a desk. Whoever has seen him riding a horse could only agree. He is a very spirited boy, not so eager to reconcile, according to his own words. He told the reporter of this article that he will hunt those responsible for his family’s killing, even if it takes the rest of his life. The writer’s reflection is that this part of the country is getting full of early independent kids, too young to do a man’s job and too old to be left in the care of our charitable women. We all wish Jess Harper the best and hope he won’t find trouble behind next bend on the road.

*****

Would this night ever end? Slim approached Jess’ bed and looked intently at his friend. He seemed to be calm now. Too weak to moan and thrash around, he lay as Slim had left him after he had been dreaming of mothers and socks. Jess laid pale, black shadows under his closed eyes, and a sheet of sweat on his cheeks; he was the portrait of a very sick boy. Slim took one of his hands in his own and found his prayer.

Let him live, please, let him live, let him live. Please. Not for me or for Andy or for the ranch. Let him live for himself. Let him know he has saved Beth and done a lot to save this place as well. Let him know he found a home with us. Let him know it, please.

After Slim read the article about Jess’ family killing, lot of things came into place. Jess’ closeness to Andy, him getting furious when it came to defend the ranch and his inhabitants, his fight side by side with Slim against raiders sent by the Gibson ranch, his trouble with authority, his love for his independence, his loyalty and his trust, so difficult to win. What had happened to his family and what had followed immediately could explain a lot of Jess multi-faceted persona. What else did you find behind the bend, Jess? A war and several people taking advantage of your loyalty. You were a willing and brave youngster who thought that being good with a gun could make up and provide almost everything in life, yet so used to being scared and alone to doubt that a different way of life existed and that you deserved it.

Slim was still holding Jess’ hand when the sun rose. Jess would have been a painful sight for everyone, but not for Slim, who realized that his friend and brother had pulled through the night. He was still hanging on and no matter how difficult his situation still was that much had been achieved: the night had gone and the darkness with it.

*****

The Anderson ranch had become the marshal’s headquarters. All ranchers and farmers had reported into the new headquarters from where the plans for the defense of their range would be organized and planned.

The ranchers all thought that they were going to win their war. It looked probable with a company of fifty men who would be able to stop the herds entering the valley. Most of all it made the people of Laramie heed the dangers of the GY plans for the area, and how it would cost jobs and the livelihoods of the smaller farms and ranches. Good news began to travel, from ranch to ranch and by stagecoach to town. The Marshals finally had caught some GY men at the creek. Mr. Anderson and his sons captured the GY men in their line shack, and the Marshals had stopped the GY cattle. Mr. Gibson ordered the herd and trail crew back to Colorado where the rich cattle barons had to review their business plans.

*****

Sheriff Cory and his posse had captured the three men who had kidnapped Beth and shot Jess. It had been less difficult than Cory had thought, because one of the outlaws fell off his horse and broke his leg. The others had tried to help him, but, slowed down by stopping to try and help their pard, they had been caught almost without a shot. They were now all in jail, waiting for the trial. Beth Sharp had signed a complaint in which she stated the three in jail were the men who had taken her and shot Jess. She summarized what had happened that day concisely and completely. The defendant’s lawyer tried to make her see his point. She had seen the men who had abducted her (and she had seen two), not the ones who had shot the deputy. The kidnappers had left her blindfolded. She only knew they were three when they came after her in the Cameron valley, but those three she couldn’t identify, because they were too far away from her. Could it be the three were different men? Beth’s burning look promised to turn the lawyer’s papers into ashes and she answered she was sticking to her statement.

*****

Miss Sharp had had to wait for the doc to examine her; her head’s injury wasn’t so insignificant after all. Mrs. Stone kept her in bed for a day and a half, and then allowed her back in the store, where Beth tried not to think about Jess as she embroidered one of Mrs. Stone tablecloths. She was sitting by the window when two female customers came into the store.

“With that kind of wound? No, absolutely. My sister-in-law told me about her father who had a similar wound and they couldn’t do anything about it.”

“It’s a shame; he’s so young and it was his first day as a deputy sheriff.”

“It was his third.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes, I am, my dear.”

They saw Beth near the window and smiled with embarrassment before going on with their errands. After they had gone, Mrs. Stone approached Beth and said she had saw Doc Samuels hitch the rig. She suggested she would call him and ask him about Mr. Harper when he came back to town. Beth nodded and resumed her work.

*****

Bill Anderson had stayed at the Sherman ranch when all the others had gone away. He was a shy boy not suitable for action, so he had stayed to help Slim run the ranch and relay station. He only saw Jess once and he ran to the barn, so scared he might be witnessing Slim’s ranch hand dying and even more scared at the idea he would have to tell Slim.

Mr. Sherman looked so tired and depressed and Bill hadn’t seen him like this before. The rancher had been helping with the chores, but most of the time he had been with his friend, doing not much more than sitting with him and trying unsuccessfully to make him drink.

Doc Samuels came and saw Jess the day after Slim had remembered how to pray. His patient was still alive, but too quiet and motionless. The doctor had a pot with him. He handed it in Slim’s, and headed to the kitchen.

“I’ll wash my hands. You better pour a cup of my recipe and don’t put it on the stove; it’s perfect as it is. Come with me, then; we have your friend to wake up.”

Slim followed Doc Samuels instructions. He felt like he was moving in thick molasses. He hadn’t had proper sleep for days. It seemed to him that if he went to sleep, Jess would have lost his lifeline, even though he didn’t look that much determined to hold on to it. Except for slight occurring movements of his closed eyes, he laid completely still, with a bluish shadow on his lips and nails.

“You see that tinge? It’s very dangerous; we have to wipe it away somehow.”

As he was saying that, the doctor sat on Jess’ bed, his massive body weighed on the wooden structure. He scooped up his patient, sliding an arm around his shoulders, and bewildered Slim, who was planted in the middle of the room, cup in hand, by slapping Jess in the face.

“Weren’t you supposed to cure him, not to hurt him?”

The doctor didn’t even answer Slim but went on with his treatment.

“Come on, it’s been a long time since I had to do that to my newborn children, when they weren’t so interested in sucking. I had to bottle-feed them both; my wife had been very sick, giving birth to them. Come on, don’t be so precious. Hand me the cup, Slim.”

The doc skillfully lifted the cup to Jess’ lips with one hand, put the other under his chin and opened his mouth.

“Doc? Shouldn’t he be more alert to drink that stuff?”

“We can’t have him more alert than this for now. Let’s hope it’ll be enough.”

Jess surprisingly took some swallows of the mixture and the doc looked pleased. The wounded man, yet in doc’s awkward embrace, grimaced and his eyelids fluttered. Doc Samuels tried to make him drink a little more, then paused; he handed the cup over to Slim and got up.

“He’s a little feverish, to top it all, but carbolic acid has done good. You wondered what that odor was? I had washed all my apparel and instruments in carbolic. It helps a lot. I read it on a medicine journal. It came from Scotland.”

The doc understood Slim wasn’t listening about his new techniques and got back to talk about Jess’ conditions.

“It’s the consequences of the shock, I guess. You’ll make him drink at least three cups by tonight. Let’s hope it’ll do. I’ll see you two tomorrow and you’d better have got some sleep, if you want to be able to help your friend. Don’t you worry that much, Mr. Sherman; he’s alive. He wants to live; otherwise, he would have already given up. Don’t forget my prescription — three cups at least.”

“How could I forget the stink coupled with the color? It’s disgusting.”

“Never mind the color; it usually works, that’s what counts.”

Slim tried his best to do what the doctor had ordered, but he found it quite difficult. He was so intent in what he was doing, that he didn’t occur to him he was talking to Jess as if the man could answer him. It was late in the evening and Slim wanted his friend to take all that awful medicine so that he wouldn’t have to look at it anymore.

“I know I should hit you for your stubbornness, your stunt at rescuing Beth, your foolishness to do things on your own. I should, but I can’t slap you like Doc did. Look at you, you’re a mess already. Listen now, are you with me? Can I get on feeding you with this? It’s enough punishment, without you having to be hit by those who should take care for you. Come on, try and swallow, you don’t need to do anything else.”

Jess did just that. Then his breath became more labored and he tried to shake his head. He wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Slim stopped and stared at his friend, waiting for what was next.

Finally, Jess tried and managed to whisper, “Get off of me.”

Slim felt so relieved that he didn’t know if he was going to scream or punch his friend just to release the tension. He restrained himself to a frown mixed with a wide smile, but didn’t think of getting off the bed.

“Get off of me, please.”

Slim understood at last and his frown worsened. He hadn’t paid attention to Jess’ left arm. One of the bullets had hit there. It was a flesh wound, not as serious as the others, yet Slim was grasping that arm, keeping Jess resting on his chest like the doctor had done. The rancher let go of his friend, putting him down on the pillow. He still wanted to scream and shout for joy, but managed a brief sentence instead. “Hey pard, how you feeling?”

It was a short answer. “Stupid question.”

For the next twenty-four hours, Jess didn’t talk anymore; he simply slept as before but not as deeply. The doc brought out to the ranch his last pot of the loathsome recipe and Slim got much needed sleep.

Miss Sharp went to visit with Doc Samuels every evening. She wanted to know how Mr. Harper was doing. She pretended not to really know the ranch hand and the doctor pretended to believe she was only an acquaintance, interested in the fate of the man who had saved her life. She was healed and well, and was awaiting the trial as everybody in Laramie was, but not out of curiosity. She cared for Jess and she wanted the men who had almost got him killed to pay for what they had done. As for what she had been through, she didn’t really care. She, as usual, was acting like she didn’t really mind, but what had happened to Jess was an entirely different matter. She would have fought like a mountain lion with a cave full of her cubs to obtain justice, yet she wasn’t supposed to get it, at least not without paying a price that made her feel sick at what it was going to cost her.

Mr. Gibson hadn’t left without seeing that he hadn’t been mentioned in the offences against Beth Sharp and Jess Harper. His men had acted on their own, he said. As for the declared war against the locals, his men surely had misunderstood his orders and got carried away with their aggressive and murderous actions. Mr. Gibson was generous and sent the best lawyer he knew to defend his crew; one who would have thought he was guilty.

*****

“Your Honor, we’re not going to minimize the defendants’ responsibilities about the skirmishes with local ranchers. They have already admitted their guilt. We’re not going to say they are innocent, but they acted out of zeal and attachment to their generous employer. They are riding for the brand, as we used to say. As for the so called kidnapping of Miss Sharp and the wounding of Mr. Harper, we need your attention for a little more time, please. We have already heard of the defendants quarrelling with Mr. Harper here in town. That was because of Miss Sharp and this is well known. How many young men had quarreled over a pretty girl in any of these little towns? No need for you to answer, Your Honor. In this unsettled country, youngsters like to play knights and damsels, because they lack more sophisticated social and cultural opportunities. Let them grow up.

“In the meanwhile, let us try to handle those of them who play a little too enthusiastically. I’m referring to Miss Sharp herself, Your Honor. She claims she has been kidnapped, but there aren’t any witnesses to her supposed abduction. No one in town had heard or seen anything. Not a scream, not a cry for help and not a sign of fighting, and in full day light, in a busy town like this, that is a lot to swallow.

“You have already heard, Your Honor, the hotel manager when he took the stand. It wasn’t the first time Miss Sharp left the boiler room and took off for what she thought was more important than her laundry. It could be a walk on the hills or a cup of coffee. When it happened last time, she had been let down by her fiancé. You already heard how Miss Sharp likes to socialize, Your Honor. Can we exclude she didn’t follow willingly the two men she claims had taken her? Let us not forget she stated to the sheriff she has been taken by two of these here defendants. Then someone else really hurt her, but she won’t admit that.

“She can’t prove the defendants testimony about being attacked by three unknown men while they were picnicking, because, if she does, she will lose any hope with Jess Harper. The defendants are just passing through. Mr. Harper is the only resident to show her some sympathy and a girl like this can’t give up her chance to get married. She checks every night with the doctor to be sure Mr. Harper is still alive. I understand you are waiting for the real interesting part, Your Honor. I’m getting to that. Mr. Harper was likely not a suitable match for Miss Sharp. She couldn’t know and even his employer might not know it yet, but the ranch hand whom we’re talking about, just deputized by Sheriff Cory for reasons quite frankly beyond my understanding, is a troubled young man with some past. You should know he has a record. He has been involved in a range war — a real one, not of the likes of this so-called Laramie range war, and he has served time for that. He is a man who has lived by his gun and, as you can certainly figure, he has many enemies. The three unknown men, who sent the anonymous letter, kidnapped Miss Sharp and shot Mr. Harper at the Cameron place; nobody knows them, except maybe Mr. Harper. Nobody can identify them, and nobody can identify the defendants as the shooters either.”

*****

That was the mood of the trial. An honest and good citizen could have found it embarrassing because of the shady reputations of the defendants and the victims: they were three wanderers, an oyster of a girl who nobody knew if she had a pearl somewhere inside her, so tightly closed she was and covered with mud, and a gunfighter turned ranch hand, who nobody knew anything good about. Slim, among the spectators in court, was on the verge of contempt of court. ort Cory was sitting beside him, did his best to keep Slim calm as he listened to his pard’s reputation being dragged through the mud.

“Do something, Mort, or I swear I’ll have that lawyer smeared with his ink from head to toe, or worse, if someone doesn’t stop me.”

“You won’t do anything like that. Let me do my job, be quiet and wait for your turn to take the stand.”

“In that case, I won’t wait here; I can’t breathe the same air as they do.”

Miss Sharp sat stiff and livid near the door. During the defense’s speech, she glanced around hoping to see some compassionate looks around the court. She thought she found it when she looked towards Slim and Sheriff Cory. She didn’t cry for help that day in the laundry, because people like her are too afraid that nobody would come. If Laramie citizens thought she was a closed oyster, they would be surprised to see how much more she could close up.

*****

After Jess had commented on Slim’s stupid question, he slept for another day and night, waking up a little when asked by the doctor or his pard to drink the remaining Dr. Samuel’s recipe or a much more welcome glass of water. Exhaustion, pain and dreams were the measure of his current state and he seemed to escape one just to fall into the others. Slim was by his side. He knew that and was grateful for his friend’s care. Loneliness was the fourth of his life’s experiences and was simply unbearable at the moment.

Three days after he had been shot, Jess could finally talk a little to his employer.

“What do you remember of what happened to you, Jess? Want to talk about it?” Slim asked soothingly.

Jess was lying flat on his back, listening to his employer talking with such sympathy; Slim was sitting on his own bed with a cup in his hands. It really felt strange for Jess, who spoke for a few minutes. “I received an anonymous letter; I can’t remember what day, Tuesday?”

Jess went on slowly, breathing carefully and often pausing. He didn’t want to get to the part concerning Beth, but when he did, Slim helped him by putting him at ease.

“She’s fine, Jess. You made it. She rode away and found us: Mose, myself and the other three. She led us to you. You remember anything after you’d been shot?”

Jess recalled he had listened to someone talking when he was down, maybe the guys who shot him talking about getting Beth back, but couldn’t say it. After murmuring something about being poisoned by that horrible medicine, he couldn’t help but fall asleep again.

The day of the defense speech in court, Mort Cory made a decision; the next day he would ride out of town with that lawyer in tow. At least, he would stop tormenting Miss Sharp. Sheriff Cory needed the man to see what he found and was determined to find: Jess’ six shooter. It appeared to be the only connection left between the defendants and what had happened to Jess. Mort had searched for that gun in every spot in town: the boarding house, the stables, the saddlebags and all the defendants’ personal effects, the saloon and everywhere else the men had been seen, but he hadn’t found what he was looking for. The gun could be at the Cameron’s ruined homestead, where he might find it. He would extend his search to the places he knew they had been, starting with the Cameron cabin and the clearing where he had caught the culprits. Even the least probable events can sometimes happen and Sheriff Cory was a determined man. The morning after, locking his office door, he made a second decision: he would send his deputy Matt Shepherd to search the lawyer’s room at the hotel. He had never thought about this before, because it’s not easy for a good man to think like an outlaw.

The same day Cory had taken his decision, Slim Sherman came back home feeling down and knowing his mood wouldn’t help Jess in his fragile condition. Anyway, he went into their bedroom to see how Jess was doing. Slim didn’t want to talk about the trial, but Jess asked and he couldn’t help but answer.

“They will probably be found not guilty for what they did to you two. That lawyer sent over by the GY outfit is really good. He could make people believe a fisherman isn’t fishing at all; he’s only trying to save the fish from drowning. He told the court there weren’t any witnesses to the kidnapping or to the shooting and nobody can identify the defendants as the culprits. He said that Beth probably followed them willingly out of town, where they all had been attacked by the three men. They were the ones who took Beth and shot you.”

Slim didn’t repeat all the details about the defense speech concerning Beth or Jess himself as a former convict. There would be time later to discuss that topic. Slim Sherman didn’t want to upset his friend any further. Jess was gasping, his right hand clutching the sheet over his chest, his eyes closed and his eyebrows knitted together.

“It’s always the same. Always. They didn’t do it, because nobody saw them do it. They can set a house full of children on fire, but nobody saw them. So nobody did that, but the dead themselves maybe. Only those who are seen, they catch them and put them in jail. There weren’t good lawyers around then, not one lawyer to be seen. I used to be like them, but without their luck.”

If Slim hadn’t read that old article and heard the lawyer in court, he wouldn’t have found any sense in Jess’ words. That’s why Jess had said them, maybe. He didn’t look like he wanted an audience; he was just sick, disappointed, frustrated, bitter at seeing how things were, and everywhere the way they were, there seemed to be no justice for poor people. He was also flushed, and struggling for breath, and Slim thought it certainly wasn’t good for his recovery. Slim didn’t know which was better — whether he should let Jess know he knew or question him so that he might go on talking. Sherman was between a rock and a hard place, so he picked up somewhere in the middle.

“What happened to your family, Jess?”

“They burned.”

Jess didn’t go on talking. His strangled answer filled the room with angst. Slim didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to take some of his friend’s pain away. Suddenly Jess faced him and asked abruptly, “Why you asking?”

Slim thought he’d better confess. “It was in a newspaper’s page in your drawer.”

Jess’ eyes grew wider. “Did you search my gear?”

“I never did such things; I only punched the chest, hard enough to pull out all the drawers.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because you were…you know.”

Jess lay down his head on the pillow. Hurt and tired as he was, it never occurred to him that Slim wasn’t there just because he was a human being who couldn’t walk away from another in pain. It was Slim’s choice to sit with him to try and comfort and the only reason Jess could think have was for friendship, pure and simple. Looking sideways, Jess saw his friend wanted to say more. “What else?”

Slim thought it was now or never. “That lawyer said in court that you have a record, that you’ve been in jail.”

A pang of anxiety squeezed Jess’ heart. Could he be that wrong? Could Slim be just waiting for the truth to come out? He would then get him packed and on the move him out as soon as possible? Anyhow, Slim knew and not from the one who should have told him.

“I haven’t told you yet.” Jess’ words were full of sadness.

Slim was aware of how much this conversation was costing Jess and wanted him to have a rest. He didn’t want to look like the one who needed to know at any cost.

“You’ve just told me, Jess, a few minutes ago, remember? You were out of line and gotten caught. That’s enough, unless you want to add something.”

Jess felt like he was suspended over a deep chasm. Slim’s tone wasn’t demanding or judging. It wasn’t even urging a much-needed explanation. It was just reassuring. Could he be that wrong? Jess was overwhelmed by emotions and physical feelings –shame for his past mistakes, sorrow for the loss of his family, throbbing pain all over his body, revulsion at the trial outcome, and a wish to hold onto the lifeline Slim had thrown him. He put his right arm over his eyes to hide his turmoil. Fortunately, he couldn’t sob because of his wounds. Soon he felt a pressure over his right arm. Slim’s hand didn’t force him to move. It just stayed there, soothingly.

“Jess, you’re not like those men. You’ve never been. Listen. Have you ever beaten a woman?”

Jess shook his head.

“Have you ever taken a woman anywhere she didn’t want to go?”

Another shake.

“Have you ever shot a man without giving him a fair chance?”

Jess swallowed and answered with great effort. “In the war, but I was ordered to do that.”

“You see? You’re not like them. Don’t you beat yourself for nothing, Jess.”

If Jess had had the strength, he would have hugged his employer, who still kept his hand on his arm, as if he could pass on some of his strength and hope. Somehow, the trust Slim was showing reached Jess, making him want to share his thoughts.

“They were talking about getting her back. I was a goner and couldn’t do anything else, but try and breathe.”

Suddenly Slim uncovered Jess face, pulling away his arm by the wrist, that was an extremely astonishing move and Jess was painfully startled. Slim urged, “What?”

“What what?

“What did they say? Did you hear them talking?”

“I told you, they were talking of chasing Beth.”

“So, you can identify them.”

“There were two of them, the ones I was talking to in the saloon, remember?”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

Jess was really stunned by that. “You didn’t ask me.”

“We need to let Mort know about it. Court is in recess tomorrow. Come Monday, there’re going to be some change in outlook. I can’t wait to see that lawyer’s face. Jess; we’ll make them pay. We can and we will. It won’t be like the other times, you wait and see.”

Slim stopped and watched his partner. “You need to rest, now, Jess, I’m sorry to have tired you so much. I was feeling really down too, when I got home. Now it’s different. Hope you feel a little better as well.”

“I’m in need of a shave.”

Slim smiled. “Can you wait till tomorrow?”

“Guess I can.”

“All right, then. Wait and see, and, while you’re waiting, sleep.”

*****

Mort Cory and the lawyer went to the range early on Saturday morning. They rode straight to the Cameron valley where the sheriff searched inch by inch the ruined stable and its surroundings. The lawyer paced nearby showing little interest in the annoying job. If Sheriff Cory needed to search to feel at ease, he should have his way. Mr. Dickson, the lawyer, wouldn’t stop him. They went to where they had captured the outlaws, to the creek, into the valley again, but couldn’t find any gun. At noon, the sheriff called it a day and headed for Laramie via the Sherman ranch. He was deeply sorry that he had deputized Harper in order to protect him after the beating; he feared that the GY men could still be after him. It hadn’t helped because in the end they had lured him into their deadly hands.

Before Sheriff Cory arrived, at the Sherman ranch Slim was trying to give Jess a shave.

“Stop squirming around or I’ll hurt you for sure.”

“It seems to me you’ve never handled a razor. I think I’ll keep my beard.”

“Your half beard, now. Don’t move.”

“Don’t touch my sideburns.”

“I’ll let alone your sideburns. I didn’t know you were so interested in your looks. I thought you were more the wild kind.”

“You’ve got to take care of what you have.”

“That’s right. With you around here, I’ll need to do more than that, though. I think I will do one cut or two, after all, so that I’ll have a more chance at the square dances.”

“Don’t you dare.”

Slim was in a very good mood. Looking out of the kitchen window early that morning, he had seen nothing but beauty. His ranch would be safe in his hands. The land his father had protected at the cost of his life would be there for them all to live on it, loving it, caring for and taking from it just what they need to maintain the cycle of caring and taking. It was so good the marshals had helped them to state their right to stay there, working the land and cattle like partners and not bosses. Talking about partners, Jess was feeling stronger. Still fighting, but it didn’t look like he would fail. It would be good for Jess to know justice would operate and the guilty would be sent to jail. It would be good for him to know his friends had made justice hear all the evidence before being blindfolded and sentencing the wrongdoers. Slim was going to ride to town later and tell Mort Jess could identify his attackers, at least two of them.

His ranch hand and friend was now quiet, trying to stay awake, but failing, with some remaining soap on his haggard cheeks.

Suddenly a voice boomed from the front door. “Anybody home?”

Jess, startled, turned to the right, reaching for his gun. His gun belt wasn’t hanging from the bedpost, though. He had been engaged in another kind of fight lately and his iron was nowhere to be seen. Jess bent on his left side, fully awake. He talked through clenched teeth. “What the hell got into all of you, messing around with your stupid questions?”

Slim looked at the scene near the shelf where he was washing the razor. Mort entered the room and both men stood watching their friend.

“I’m sorry Jess, I figure you were sleeping. How are you?”

Jess, still gasping, let go on the pillow, drained. Slim greeted the sheriff.

“Morning, Mort, I guess you’ve just asked your second stupid question.”

“I see, how is he?” Mort talked vainly in a hushed voice.

“Don’t ask Slim to give you a shave, Mort; you wouldn’t be able to arrest him for murder.”

“So you feel fine, Jess, back to your mocking self.”

“I’m not feeling like mocking, sheriff; really, it hurts like hell.”

“I’m sorry, Jess, forgive me. Fact is I haven’t good news for you, either. I stopped by to say I went to the Cameron place to see if I could find your gun, but failed. That gun has vanished. Never saw anything of the like. I searched everywhere — church and graveyard included. The lawyer is outside. He didn’t want to even dismount, but I asked him to wait for me. I have my reasons.”

Jess closed his eyes, too tired now to think about the trial and the relevance of his Colt. The voices faded and he slipped between sleeping and waking, soon after the pain had subsided.

“Mort, I was going to call on you today. Jess told me what he remembers of the shooting. After he fell, he came to a little and heard two of them talking. They were next to him. They wanted to chase Miss Sharp and get her back. There’s no need of the gun, I guess, at least for the trial.”

“Is it right, Jess? Did you hear them? He’s sleeping, Slim.”

“I know, it hasn’t been easy, Mort, and he’s still very weak, as you can see.”

“We need Mr. Dickson to know about what Jess heard. I don’t believe Jess can come to Laramie to testify, though. Do you think he can write a statement?”

“Get the lawyer. I’ll try to arouse him.”

When Jess opened his eyes again, he found three men at his bedside. The one he didn’t know was a Mr. Dickson, the defense lawyer. Mort and Slim made him handle a pencil and wanted him to write a testimony of the facts before and after he’d been wounded. The problem was he couldn’t concentrate and barely hold the pencil. Mr. Dickson’s voice was harsh, unpleasant and unsympathetic.

“I don’t think this is going to change the substance of the proceedings, sheriff. Mr. Harper clearly isn’t in any shape to testify. He can’t control his faculties. Between Miss Sharp and him, the accuser hasn’t much of a witness to show in court. Are you sure he can write?”

The spark was little, but Jess had a huge amount of rage to fuel what little fire was left. He arched his back and would have launched himself against the lawyer. That would have been the first step. What would have happened next he couldn’t have said. The only certainty was he failed miserably. He couldn’t get even halfway up. He let out a yell of pain and collapsed back on to the mattress. He pulled his right hand from under the blanket, it was wet and sticky, and then his head rolled sideways.

*****

The room was filled with Slim’s self-recrimination, his regret at letting things go downhill. He shouldn’t have let the lawyer in, aroused Jess, forced him to write. The bleeding had probably started when Jess had been startled by Mort’s arrival and sudden appearance in the doorway. The rest was really Slim’s fault. He pressed a clean compress the doctor had prepared over the old bandage and hoped Jess would ride this out as he had done before. For a day that had started so well, it was an unpredictable conclusion. For the two friends, it meant exhaustion, pain and dreams, and it was two more days before Jess, flushed with fever, spoke coherently again.

“I gave him a scare, did I?”

Slim’s shoulders hunched when he answered. “You did”, then added, murmuring his words, “He’s not the only one you gave a scare, Jess.”

Mort Cory was furious when he came back to town after his day trip in search of Jess’ gun. He didn’t even recognize his deputy running towards his office.

“Sheriff Cory, sheriff! Come quick! I found it, in Mr. Dickson’s room. I left it there with the judge. There’s JH carved on the butt; you can hardly see it, but there it is nonetheless.”

Deputy Sheriff Shepherd was anxious to make up to the mess that had cost Jess so much. He knew he had let him down. He was still sure that neither of them should have had ridden to the meeting, and he should have tried harder to talk Jess out of his foolish idea of trying to free Beth Sharp alone. If he had known Jess Harper better, he would also have known that any talking would not have made any difference.

Mort Cory looked at Matt, then at the lawyer. While his deputy was excited beyond belief, Mr. Dickson was expressionless. The four of them went to the hotel and to Mr. Dickson room, where the judge and the accuser were gathered.

“This is Jess Harper gun. We all agree on that one, right?”

“Yes, Judge Mitchell, we agree.” Sheriff Cory answered looking around the room.

“It had been stolen from him when he took a bad beating the night before he had been deputized and three days before he had been shot, right?”

“That’s right, Judge Mitchell.”

“Nobody has seen it ever since, is that correct?”

“We searched for it, but didn’t find it, Your Honor.”

“Anybody want to tell me how this gun came to be here? This is your room Mr. Dickson. Any idea?”

“This is a hotel room, Judge Mitchell; anybody can get in — Miss Sharp, for example, or any other of Harper’s friends. Somebody brought the shooter here.”

“Are you saying some Harper’s friend brought the gun in here? What for?”

“To make a connection between the defendants and what happened to Mr. Harper. I’ve been set up.”

“Do you think I’m that dumb, Mr. Dickson? If someone wanted to connect the defendants with Mr. Harper through this gun, he should have placed it at the Cameron’s for Sheriff Cory to find it. As for the assault in the alley, it’s already evident who did it. They didn’t disguise themselves, as Mr. Harper reported to the sheriff. The only reason for this gun to be here is just to hide it. Now, Mr. Dickson, I really had enough of your deceit, I want the truth. We have three men who beat Mr. Harper and ran. Three days later, two of them, with the likely participation of their third accomplice, assaulted Miss Sharp in the laundry and took her to the Cameron place as bait, while Mr. Harper, summoned by an anonymous letter, went to the rescue, alone, with the only insurance of the star he was wearing. He saved Miss Sharp, but got badly hurt. I would like to know why the defendants wanted to kill Mr. Harper so badly. I have an idea, but I’m afraid it will be impossible to prove it. In court the accuser, Mr. Compton, will talk about this gun, you can be sure, Mr. Dickson.”

“There’s more, Judge Mitchell. I’ve just visited with Mr. Harper. Mr. Dickson was with me. Mr. Harper is very ill, but talked about what happened to him and told us he recognized the voice of two of the defendants next to him, when he had just been shot. They wanted to catch up with Beth Sharp who had ridden away on his horse after the shooting. They left him for dead and rode after the girl. The coach driver, Slim Sherman and others saw three riders after Miss Sharp. Jess is too ill to testify. He didn’t have the strength to write his statement.”

“That’s enough for me. Mr. Compton? Would you please write an account of what we have heard? I suggest you to be active and diligent in court on Monday. Sirs, I hope we have it all sorted out. See you in court. Mr. Dickson, it would be nice if you apologized to Miss Sharp, even though she probably won’t let you come nearer than one hundred yards. Goodnight.”

The judge left the hotel. He was more than six feet tall and had no spare flesh on his bony body. He loved his job, but he had never got used to the idea that everybody in court was wearing a mask. This time, the only two people facing their fate without a disguise were two troubled kids. He wouldn’t allow those kids to get hurt any further, just for not wearing a mask and being straight and honest.

Slim Sherman didn’t leave the ranch till the trial had finished. He didn’t care anymore about the proceedings and couldn’t leave his friend alone. Doc Samuels had come and gone, almost totally silent, at a loss of ideas and encouragement. He was too good a doctor and too sincere to say anything, but he feared for the young gunman’s life.

*****

Beth Sharp didn’t attend either. She suddenly felt cold. It was nearly summer in southern Wyoming and it was cold. She couldn’t find any warmth; she was shunned. Mrs. Stone was the only one who seemed to understand a little. Sheriff Cory was too busy, and at the Sherman ranch, things were looking desperate. She never thought of going there. She put away her newly discovered embroidering works and found an old dress among her gear. There was only coldness in Laramie for her; she was very much on her own. She was a cheap girl, bringing trouble to anyone who got involved with her. She wasn’t suitable for a respectable man to marry, she was unreliable and selfish, and she was a liar. She never knew what the judge thought about her and Jess Harper. Mr. Dickson never apologized. She was stuck to the portrait of herself she had heard painted at the hearing. She knew how to fight those kinds of notions, but she didn’t know how to fight the lies. If she had really believed to be something different, life proved she was mistaken.

It was early afternoon at the relay station. The stagecoach had already rolled through. The recent spikes of fever had left Jess totally worn out and low, but surprisingly lucid.

“Slim?”

A whisper would have been stronger.

“Yeah, Jess, I’m here.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Will you find out about Francie? One of my friends told me she had died of diphtheria. It was in a newspaper.”

“When?”

“Years ago.”

“Where?”

“Galveston.”

Jess was slipping away, slowly, not dramatically, but quietly. If he was regretting anything, he didn’t let it show. After a few minutes, however, he went on with his whispering. “Maybe she’s still living. I’d like someone to see she doesn’t end up like her brother.”

“You’ll find out about Francie, when you’re better, Jess, I’ll help you, don’t worry, rest.”

“I’ve been resting for days.”

Another struggling pause, then Jess talked again. “I don’t feel anything anymore, Slim, it is quite strange.”

Slim felt, instead. His angst reached an impossible level. He had seen dying people before and he had felt a wide range of emotions. He rarely had felt so much all at once and all in one. It was like a large part of himself was scattered in all directions. He would have done anything to make his friend feel again. He recalled the doctor slapping Jess’ cheek to arouse him to swallow the medicine. He now seemed beyond reach, of any medicine.

What should he do? He needed to do something. He couldn’t stay here and watch him die. He couldn’t talk and risk the lump that was growing in his throat burst out like an animal cry. He would have cut his tongue out, rather than let that happen. Slim couldn’t turn to the furniture again, either. Not this time. Jess hadn’t passed out, not yet, at least.

Time seemed to slow down a bit, as if to give them some space to tie loose ends without hurrying, or maybe giving them time to say goodbye, if they had the will to say the words. Slim was trying to find out how to deal with this suddenly dilated time. It was hot inside the room. Slim saw Jess’ temples muddy with sweat, where he had been in contact with the pillow. He felt the fabric and it was humid. Could a fresh pillow help the man to feel again? Could it help him to trust and live? Could it make up for a life lived without any cushion to soften his falls? Probably not, Slim, sat on Jess’ bed, and lifted his friend’s shoulders and pulled out the pillow from under his head. There was a fresh one at the foot of the bed, but Slim hadn’t thought to bring it over before. He stretched out a hand behind to reach the pillow and hugged Jess in one arm, not wanting to let him down until he had changed the pillow. Jess murmured something and sighed painfully. Slim stopped his reaching and rested his free hand on Jess’ shoulder, to try and find out what harm he had just done, and Jess weakly said the words which rocked the square jawed rancher and melted his tender heart.

“Slim, tell me about your pa and ma.”

Slim hugged his friend like he hadn’t held anyone so dearly before, except maybe his mother, before she had died. What was wrong with him? Then a small muffled voice asked murmuring into his neck. “What are you doing?”

The lump finally burst and the cry erupted. “Aw! Shut up!”

Jess, distressed by the cracking sound, tried to apologize, his voice almost silent.

“I never meant to annoy you.”

“You didn’t, Jess, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to yell at you, forgive me.”

“Let me lie, please. I’m feeling again; it hurts.”

“Sure, Jess, I’m sorry. I’ll lay you down.”

“I think I should get on my feet again real soon, I’m gonna have to be tending you….you sound like one sick rancher boss,” whispered Jess.

Slim laughed among the tears he didn’t know he had cried.

*****

It was another warm afternoon, the birds were singing outside the open windows, and saw one happy sheriff and a doctor arrive at the Sherman relay station.

“You rallied, son. You should explain to me how you did it, but not now. I’m more interested in getting you on your feet as soon as possible,” the doctor said to his patient Jess.

“Well what now, doc?”

“Plenty of rest, good food and not to worry. Let the rest of us do that for a spell. Talking about food, how are things doing in this place? Is there someone cooking regularly? I suspect not. That’s why I thought a little arrangement was needed, but the sheriff has something to tell you.”

“Glad to see you awake, Jess. Doc Samuels said it’s okay to you to talk to you about the trial now. The jury reached a verdict of guilty for two of them, those that you heard talking and Beth identified as her attackers. The third was as guilty as his fellows, but he has been set free for lack of evidences. It’s not bad, Jess, because the charges are serious. Beating and kidnapping a defenseless woman and shooting a deputy sheriff, among others, are serious crimes, not to mention the fight in the alley. You should have heard the judge after the jury spokesman read the verdict. He didn’t talk like a judge, in my opinion, but he was great. Mr. Dickson and the third man left town right after the sentence. I think we won’t see them around here anytime soon. The two convicted left our jail this morning, heading for Cheyenne in the tumbleweed. They were addressing Mr. Gibson with something unrepeatable.”

Jess was unusually quiet and relaxed. He had tried to shave on his own and the matter had gone on for a while, with shaving and resting, more resting than shaving, until Slim had taken the razor from his hand, before he committed suicide. He listened to his friends, more impressed by their tones than their words. They seemed to know about him more than he cared to tell them. They were trying their best to cheer him up, to make him feel important in their community, as they described him as a deputy. That was at least what Jess was catching in their speeches. They didn’t talk about Beth, though.

“How’s Miss Sharp?”He finally asked.

They sighed, unexplainably, as Dr. Samuels started to explain.

“She’s fine, Jess; she hopes that you heal soon. She’s got a plan. She wants to go back east. She’s saving for the trip. My wife will come to the ranch twice a week, until Mr. Jones comes back. She will bring you meals and she will see that you don’t overdo things as we all know how you can never rest. This way Slim should be free to run this place before it falls apart. With all that had happened to you ranchers this past month, I think you’ll have a lot to catch up with. Anyway, Miss Sharp will accompany my wife on some of her visits.”

Nobody added anything to what was said.

*****

Jess Harper got on his feet again. It hadn’t been as soon as he would have liked, but soon enough to make him dream to go with Slim and see how a new herd of mustangs on the range were faring.

Mrs. Samuels was at least twice as big as her husband and as straight in proportion. It wasn’t difficult to get along with her as long as she could get “Yes, Ma’am” as the only answer. After the first week, Jess didn’t listen to her anymore, just said “Yes, Ma’am” and followed all her directions. As a reward, he had an unending series of “Good boy, you’re doing great.” He knew he couldn’t win that battle.

Most of all, he knew it was awkward to waste energy for something he couldn’t change. The best and most surprising part, however, didn’t occur at the ranch. The doctor’s wife was telling everyone she couldn’t understand why everybody thought that Jess Harper was a wild one and a troublemaker. He was a young man who would always put up a fight with anyone trying to stop him from doing what he wanted to do, and at a time he wanted to do it, a stubborn man as you ever saw. It was beyond her comprehension. He was a very sweet boy, brave and compliant, who always ate what she ordered him to eat and went to bed at the time she ordered him to. Town folks exchanged knowing looks and started to feel more respect and tolerance for the wild Jess Harper.

Beth Sharp came and visited more than once. Jess walked bent forward a little. He would do so until the end of that summer. The couple could be seen walking around the ranch, resting under a tree, sharing snacks Mrs. Samuels insisted they took along, and they spent the time talking. They seemed to need to talk for a lifetime. They had a lot to talk about. They talked through their past, their present thoughts and their expectations of the future.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay in Boston?”

“Who can be sure of anything in this life? Let’s say I’m confident. My cousin’s children need someone who cares for them to look after them. Eliza’s health is so poor she can’t even kiss them before they go to school sometimes. She can’t afford a housekeeper, either.”

“Don’t you fear to feel it will be like being in a cage? You’ve been out in the west most of your life,”

“I don’t know, Jess. I need a change. I need a place where nobody knows me. Besides, a cage will do fine, as long as it’s safe.”

“Beth, nobody would like to live in a cage, even a safe one. I was forced to and it nearly killed me. I sometimes feel that I live in a cage on the Sherman ranch, anyway.”

“I know, Jess, but you love to live there. This place seems to be cut out for you and you’ve got friends. For me, it’s different. For a woman, it is very different.”

It was different and Jess could only imagine how much his situation differed from hers. “Do you think about the possibilities? I hope not, but if your cousin dies, you know, what will happen to her children?”

“I do think about it. I’ll be ready. I won’t let those children go through what I’ve been through. No way. I’ll know what they’ll need and I know I’ll be able to give it to them. I’m good at tailoring. I can do it at home, and look after the children; I will be able to support them.”

“Do you think that’ll be that simple? I grew up in a house full of children and my mother couldn’t have done anything like that, even if she wanted to or had the stuff required. It takes a lot of money to fed and put clothes on the backs of kids. That’s why we were always lacking something. If I had the socks, my brother did not, and if he was wearing the shirt, I would go without, just wear a vest or some ragged thing that should have been thrown out. What a pair, the two of us — enough to scare the crows, we looked like kids who had been abandoned.”

“How many brothers were there?”

“We were five.”

“My cousin has two children.”

“That’s better than trying to manage five.”

“Didn’t you like living in a large family?”

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, Beth; we were struggling, always struggling, as far as I can remember. I shared clothes with Chas because we were almost the same size. He was younger, but he would probably have grown into a tall man, taller than me for sure. Who knows?”

“Chas was a nickname for Charles?”

“Yes, it was. He was always pestering me. He was saying he had a name and not only a nickname and I was always saying that he didn’t.”

“Did you believe your name was a nickname?”

“You’ll be wondering about how many daft things I used to believe. I used to be so stupid.”

“You used to be?”And she laughed.

“Well, I’m not that gullible anymore, let’s put it that way.”

The talking was for the two of them, and for Jess in particular, part of the healing process. They did it right and they healed, almost, as much as it was possible for their emotional crippled feelings to be healed.

The day she left for good, Mose wanted a “u” bolt repaired and straightened by Slim. He said it was the franchisers’ responsibility to guarantee the safety of the coach and the passengers. So, Jess and Beth had half an hour to say goodbye. After she went away, Jess casually spoke to Slim about the driver, old Mose.

“You know, Slim, he’s not a nosy old man, after all.”

“Don’t tell him, or you’ll have Mose advising you about how to run your life.”

“I’ll live it alone then, Slim, for I already have you doing that.”

*****

The long, hot and dangerous summer had gone. Peace and order had been restored to at least as it had been before Gibson’s war. Local ranchers had resumed their hard, hazardous, time-consuming job. Slim and Jess had been out a few days to catch up with the horses that Slim knew were grazing on his land. They went back to the ranch with a string of five. The new mustangs were ambling into the corral, and Jess couldn’t help but comment. “They are the most beautiful animals I have ever seen.”

“Agree. When do you think you’ll start dealing with them?”

“Not yet. Let them get used to the place. Let them find a way to deal with us, before we start working with them. They have a lot to deal with, Slim.”

It was dusk. The dim and foggy light didn’t allow the men to look each other eyes in the eyes. Slim talked, still watching the horses. “And you? Have you dealt with it all?”

“What?”

“You got used to this place yet?”

Jess stood near his friend, watching those wonderful horses. He took a deep breath and answered in a pensive tone. “I have. I think I have.”

Slim smiled with satisfaction at their new mustangs, and at the young wrangler at his side, whom he knew would never really be settled and domesticated, but it would be enough, as long as he stayed, for the place would not be the same without him.”

“It’s a good country, Jess.”

“Yeah, it’s a good country.”

***The End***

Acknowledgments

I wish to acknowledge and thank all the writers whose work I have read and loved, and whose words and ideas have inspired me, and if you recognize any of them, I hope that you will forgive me for using them without your permission.

Without all the fanfics, I would not be able to tell my story. I only hope that I have managed to do Laramie and its people justice.

Effie edited this story, making it the best it was meant to be and she did it for the best possible reason: because I needed it.

All the mistakes are mine.

Yours very sincerely,

Maria

Return to Maria Luisa’s homepage

2 thoughts on “What Happens When A Man Forgets His Hat? (by Maria Luisa)

  1. This is the first one of your stories that I have read. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for sharing your talent. I was truly hoping that Jess and Beth would be married and would raise her sisters children along with their own. Together, they would be a force to be reckoned with

    Like

    1. Thank you, Denise, it’s been a long time since I wrote it. I opened the page to check on a detail in the story and found your kind words. I’m so glad you liked it. I couldn’t let Jess and Beth choose that path, as much as I would have liked it. I needed to go back to the Laramie we see on screen to be able to jump into another fanfic. Not that I am that productive. Thanks again, for reading and leaving your kind comment.

      Like

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