Abandoned (by Effie)

 

Summary:  Jess thinks Slim has abandoned him.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (subject matter)
Word Count:  32,362


 

It had been some months since Jess’s fatal, final showdown with Charlie Cole and the gang from Texas. Jess was now fully fit and back to his old self. He was now not only fully accepted by the people of Laramie and his neighbors, but was even highly respected and held in some awe. Mort Corey, the Sheriff, had developed a soft spot for what he described as “a good boy”. It drove Jess mad, as with what he had been through, he was hardly a boy and wouldn’t have described himself as one.

Slim Sherman, who owned the ranch, Andy, his younger brother, and Jonesy — who all lived on the Sherman Ranch — were never finished, trying to keep Jess’s feet firmly on the ground. His appetite for joshing with Andy continued. Occasionally, Slim and Jess would stalk around each other, hackles raised, like two fighting cocks. Always ready to fly at each other and stick their spurs in. Jonesy continued to complain about Jess’s talent for getting himself knocked about but Jess knew that Jonesy liked smearing him with his miracle cures, and Jess endured it as best he could, as it kept the old man happy, and if he were honest, knew it did him no good whatsoever. Jess was young and strong and that, coupled with his fighting spirit (plus a couple of days laid up in bed), soon cured him.

All in all it had been a good winter. The ranch was thriving, and except for the occasional banter which sometimes swiftly changed into fierce confrontation, the Sherman Ranch was a happy place to be. The only cloud on the horizon was the new owner of the neighboring Lindoe Ranch. He was trying to claim what was perhaps the best stretch of the Sherman Ranch. The land was the hilly country to the north, with its small lake and river; it was Andy and Jess’ favorite fishing spot and swimming hole. The area was well wooded, green and full of game. It was no wonder the newcomer from the East, with seemingly a successful business behind him, lusted after this piece of land. He had offered Slim twice its value but Slim loved that corner of his range and refused to sell. Up there the mustangs ran free. It was where Slim and Jess got their lumber and game for the pot. They also spent a lot of time managing it, planting young trees and enriching the prized mixed woodland.

It was “the jewel” of the whole ranch, and no matter how he much was offered, Slim would never part with it. The Easterner was not going to take “no” for an answer. He had changed tactics by claiming that the land was not part of the Sherman Ranch. He demanded to see the deeds and documents held in Cheyenne to such an extent that Slim had been requested to attend a hearing, along with his entitlement, in Cheyenne. He was due to go that Sunday of that week.

That was when Jess appeared for an early supper, dressed in his going-to-town clothes. He’d met some of the new ranch hands from the Lindoe place, the outfit that was giving Slim such a headache. Being new, they were enjoying getting to know each other. Jess enjoyed their easy, light-hearted banter; it had brought freshness to what he sometimes felt was a boring and hum drum existence.

Yes, Slim was his pard, the rock he totally relied on, 100%. He kept the whole place together, with his steady hand and strong honest ways. Jess regarded him like his big brother. But Slim, at times, could also be like a strict judgmental father, always nagging, complaining and criticizing him.

Jess put this down to the heavy responsibiity of bringing up his young brother, trying to keep the ranch together, as well as running the relay station. All the while trying his best to see that Jess didn’t fall foul of the law with his wild reckless ways. Jess was always willing to fight anybody’s battle, as long as it involved a good bit of physical action. Jess wasn’t frightened of spilling his own blood and certainly wasn’t frightened of spilling anybody else’s.

He knew and felt guilty, that he sometimes caused Slim a lot of aggravation. But he was young and longed to do the things young men did. He was a lover of action. Hunting, any kind of adventure which involved a bit of danger. At the moment, he was restless. It was the beginning of spring. He felt the spring fever and yearning in his bones. He wanted to be free, to gallop after the sun to see where it led. Instead, he settled for a night’s poker with the Lindoe ranch hands.

*****

“Where ya goin’ all dressed up like a turkey dinner?” sour old Jonesy remarked.

“To town. I’ve got two months pay and a poker game with the Lindoe boys.” smiled Jess in eager anticipation.

“Well thanks!” said Slim “and them squaring up for a fight over “the jewel”.” It was their nick- name for their favorite bit of land. “Just the kind of support I need. Ya never think, d’ ya!”

“Ah, go on, Slim. You know it’s just a bit of fun. A night out! You won’t play poker. You hardly go out. A fella needs a break. You know damned well that if it ever comes to a showdown with them, I’ll be alongside you no matter what,” Jess retorted quickly. He was ready for a heated argument.

“Well, if you’re planning to shoot them sometime soon, maybe it would be easier if you didn’t know them,” said Jonesy, getting in his two cents worth.

“You old devil, Jonesy. Always looking on the dark side, not happy unless I’m shooting somebody or coming back full of holes,” replied Jess.

“Now hold on. Jonesy meant nothing of the kind, and you, damn and blast your hide, know it,” Slim broke in quickly. “You know the problem.”

“Well what’s the problem?” asked Jess.

“I’ve got to go to Cheyenne day after tomorrow. You must remember!” said Slim. “I’m relying on you to be here. In one piece, able to take care of things. I could be gone a week, maybe longer.”

Jess put his head back and laughed. “Is that all! How long do you reckon it will take me to lose two months pay.”

“Depends how you lose it,” said Jonesy. “Seems to me it could lead to one of your blood- lettings.”

Jess put his head down, getting angry at the old gunfighter history crack. It was rearing its head again, stopping him dead in his tracks. It always did.

His past was ever with him, no matter how hard he tried to live it down. Many folk, even old Jonesy, never allowed him to forget it.

“Look Slim. I promise, there’ll be no gun play; if they want my money so bad, I’ll let them take it, but I may have to break a nose or two, just to keep my hand in.” Jess joked, trying to lighten the dark mood.

Well, I suppose it’ll be okay. I just don’t need something else to worry me. I’ve really got enough,” complained Slim.

“I know, pard. I’ll come with you, if you think it would help,” replied Jess.

“No, Jess! Just be here. Take good care of things, like you promised.”

“I’ll do just that. You have my word on it, pard. Anyways, I’ll see ya all later, at breakfast at the latest. We can divide up my winnings,” said Jess, grinning broadly.

“Not if you lose that frilly shirt. Where did you get a shirt like that? Don’t know why you play poker; you’re no good at it,” Jonesy continued to moan.

Leave him be,” Slim laughed softly.

With that Jess picked up his hat and began to strap his gun belt on.

“Hope you remember what you said about blood- letting,” said Slim grimly as he watched Jess tying his holster down low, just above his right knee.

“I meant it,” said Jess. “You know how I feel, Slim. I just feel safer! Anyways, I feel naked without it. I promise I’ll be back in time! OK?”

“Will you bring me back some bull’s eyes from the store please?” Andy asked.

“Sure will. Any more orders?” Jess quipped.

“Just get back early,” said Slim

“Yeah. In one piece. My liniments running mighty low,” added Jonesy.

With that, Jess roughed up Andy’s hair, playfully punched Slim on the arm and exited the door.

*****

Jess arrived at the saloon a little later than he’d planned. He quickly dismounted. He gave one of the young boys, who always hung around the hitching rail waiting for a job, Traveler’s reins.

“Take him down to Jeff’s livery for me, Jimmy,” said Jess. “Tell him he needs a good rub down, hay net and maybe some hot mash. Tell him I’ll settle up later. No better not. Give him that and this is for you.” Better pay up while I’ve still got some money, thought Jess.

He then walked into the saloon. The Lindoe boys were up in the corner, already around the big table, engrossed in their cards.

“Didn’t think you’d be coming,” said Don, looking up and seeing Jess.

“You’re going to a dance?” asked one of the others, in a sneering voice. “Got yourself all prettied up to play cards?”

“Anyone want a drink?” said Jess ignoring the jibes.

“Well! Working for that Slim Sherman, he doesn’t get to go out much. He keeps a tight rein on him. So this must be a real big deal! Escaping are ya?” laughed Dave.

“Are you gonna let me take your money offa ya or do ya want to jaw on about my private life all night, ladies!” Jess could feel the hair on the back of his neck, as it began to stand up. He was fed up of being the subject of open season for whoever wanted to poke fun at him. He also realized that they had hit a sensitive spot. He was fast becoming a ranch hand, with no prospects and little else going for him. It was a feeling he hated. Jess liked Slim, enjoyed working for and with him. They were a good team.

He also loved young Andy, who had fast replaced the young brother Jess had lost. He also had a lot of time for Jonesy, who knew, so much about so many things. Jess knew the old man had a soft spot for him, even though he complained about Jess” wild, willful ways. He knew the old man was genuinely concerned about his welfare, and didn’t like to see him get hurt. But he hated the impression folks had, that Slim had him under his thumb, had him hogtied and only had to say “jump” and Jess would reply with “how high, sir?”” It was beginning to rile him and he couldn’t see a way out of the problem.

“Okay Jess how many do you want,” asked Willie, breaking into Jess” thoughts.

“Two,” replied Jess. He checked his cards again. He was holding the 3, 4, 5, of diamonds, not bad; maybe, with luck, chance of a flush. He tried to keep his face straight, but felt a chill run down his back as he picked up the 2 and 6 of diamonds. He sighed and listened to the others. Don and Mike took a card apiece and folded in disgust.

“Raise you ten,” said Clay.

Jess wondered if he was bluffing. He’d got a flush; it should be okay. It would beat a full house, three’s, four of a kind, could only be beaten by a better flush or a royal one. Not much chance of that he thought.

“I’ll cover that and raise you fifteen,” said Jess, quietly thinking how fast his money was melting away. He was going to be home mighty early at this rate.

“Okay! Cover that and I call! What ya got?” asked Clay.

Jess flipped his cards, one by one — 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 in diamonds — and leaned back with a contented smile. He watched Clay lay his cards down. His heart stopped. He felt as if he were choking for breath. It wasn’t possible. He’d never seen anything like it before, the cards were beyond reckoning: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 in hearts.

“Sorry, kid!” laughed Clay and slowly collected his winnings.

Jess swallowed hard, well aware that the others were watching him. All with sly grins and Don with a beaming smile on his face.

“I’ll have another drink!” Jess called across to the barman.

“Sure you can afford it on your wages?” smirked Don. “You play mighty soft for somebody with your rep.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” snarled Jess, getting pissed off. He’d lost most of his money — had only won two small pots — and knew he was going to lose face with his new found friends if things did not improve.

“Well, you know the rough, tough, fighting mad Harper. First in, last out. Big, bold and bad! You don’t play your poker like that. Watching the pennies and the dimes all the time.”

“Yeah, Jess, why don’t you throw in with us? Good wages, great food. A boss who really looks out fer ya. Great gang of wranglers to have fun with and the crack is good. What do you say?”

“I’ve got a good boss!” Jess replied.

“Yeah, a mean, hardnosed slave driver. You hold down two jobs. Ranch hand, stage coach wrangler, why you even ride shotgun sometimes. You have to go hunt your own supper. Sounds like a really soft billet to me and I don’t think,” remarked Mike, who had turned to the others and smiled.

“How much does he pay you anyways?” questioned Clay.

“Not enough by the way you’ve been picking through this game,” Don said with a smirk.

This is getting too much thought Jess. It was getting near the truth and made him feel uneasy. They seemed to know so much about the conditions on the Sherman Ranch.

He wasn’t too happy with the wages and how hard he had to work for them. He knew Slim tried his best and treated him as generously as he could. He stayed in the ranch house with them, ate at the same table as them and was treated like one of the family. He’d never enjoyed such comradeship and consideration like that before.

Slim had even moved him and his duds out of the bunk house and into a bedroom in the ranch house so that he could take care of Jess when he’d been shot by the Taylors. He’d never moved back. Yeah, he was happy there. But he hated to think that they all thought he was at Slims beck and call. He’d have to think of a way to show them he was his own man his own boss.

The evening wore on. Jess finally had to throw his hand in when his wallet and pockets were empty.

“You’ll have to buy me the next drink, boys,” he said. “I’m flat broke, cleaned out. In fact I can’t pay for what I’ve already had.”

“That’s not a problem. Our boss is picking up the tab. This is on him,” Mike said.

“”Why didn’t ya say? I don’t like being beholdin’ to him. I don’t know him,” said Jess with some annoyance.

“Now, now, Jess, don’t get your feathers ruffled,” said Mike.

“I’m not! I’m not looking for trouble,” said Jess. “Just like to pay my own way.”

It was at that moment that the fat hit the pan. Trouble reared its head.

“Got 4 Jacks,” Clay said, with a huge grin on his face.

“You lyin’ bastard.” You can’t have! I’ve got one,” shouted Mike.

“Hang on,” said Jess, “count ’em.” He quickly gathered the cards and raced through them. 53! “53!” said Jess. “No wonder I’ve been dogged all night. You no good, low down, cheating saddle tramp. I should stomp your head in!”

With that, Clay’s elbow shot out and smacked Jess across the nose. Blood immediately splattered across the table and down the front of Jess” new shirt. Jess saw stars and his eyes watered, the adrenaline spiked in his body. His heart sang.

The months of hard work and drudgery, was going to end in some exhilarating exercise. His favorite kind! A good ding dong, furniture breaking, gouging, scratching, biting, crunching, no-holds barred, bar room brawl. All the ribbing, mickey taking, nagging and criticism that Jess had had to put up with this last two months was about to be healed as he took his frustration out on the ranch hands.

Not to be left out, some of the young bloods, who hero-worshipped Jess, joined in. Soon the whole saloon was filled with eleven men, cursing and swearing, as they swapped punches, broke chairs over each other and generally broke the place up. Jess was in the middle of it, swinging hard at anybody who was in his way, one of the young boys was at his back. It was Ged, the blacksmith’s son, who was watching out for a sudden attack from behind.

Ged was laughing and said, “We always get to have some fun when you’re in town, Jess!” At that moment, someone fell half-way down the stairs, onto a table, which collapsed. He was followed by his attacker, who dived after him and brought the banister rail down with him. Finally, Mort Corey, the Sheriff, walked through the batwing doors and saw the riot.

“Okay! Boys, that’s enough. You’ve had your fun.” Mort raised his shotgun and covered them. They slowly stopped, except Jess, who was still blinded by the raging red mist that always took over and blinded his senses in any fight. He swung a last punch, which unfortunately caught Billy Tait, the Deputy, in the mouth. “That’s it, Harper!” said Mort.

“Sheriff, it wasn’t just him; it was the Lindoe boys as well,” said Cookson, the saloon owner.

“What about these others?” asked the Sheriff. He nodded towards the bloodied town boys.

“They just got caught up in it; it was mainly Harper and the ranch hands, and it started over cards.”

“Well I guess nobody got shot, so that’s something. Makes a change, eh, Harper?” said the Sheriff.

“Yeah, Harper,” growled Clay, “told you, you were getting soft. Big boss don’t like ya to shoot folks.”

With that Jess made a lunge at Clay, but stopped when he felt a gun poke him painfully in the middle of his back.

“That’s enough, Harper,” growled the Sheriff. “Are you going to make an official complaint, Cookson?”

“Sure am; an example needs to be made. I’m sick of always having to clear up the mess these cowpokes make. One in particular needs to be taught a lesson,” Cookson growled and he glared at Jess.

“You the one to teach me?” snapped Jess. Again Jess felt a stab of pain in the back as he was prodded by the shotgun.

“Who do you want to cite?” asked the Sheriff, knowing, with a sinking heart, what was going to come; and the trouble it was going to cause.

“Harper! He started it! That Mike, Don and Clay as well, but Harper, he’s the main one.”

Jess put his head down, and shook it slowly; he knew that wasn’t strictly true.

“You don’t believe that, Mort, do you?” pleaded Jess.

“It’s Sheriff to you, Harper! This is business. Don’t expect our friendship to save you from the law. You and the others, you’re all under arrest. Drop your gun belts and irons,” said Mort.

With that, they dropped their gun belts, which Billy, after glaring at Jess and pushing him aside, picked up.

“I hope for your sake, Harper, I haven’t loosened a tooth,” Billy griped.

Jess wiped his arm across his face. He smeared the blood and further ruined his new shirt. Damn, thought Jess, I just got it. I’ll have to keep it for work. He smiled as he thought what the others would say when they saw him muck out the horses in a frilly shirt.

“You can wipe that smile offa your face,” stormed Mort. “You’ll not think it’s so funny when you’re up in front of the Judge tomorrow. Now git moving,” growled Mort, as they slowly began to move out of the saloon.

Jess turned to Cookson, the saloon owner. “Thanks, Cookson, for an enjoyable and interesting evening.” He aimed a mouthful of blood and spit at the spittoon. He missed; he splattered blood all over the sawdust covered floor. Again Jess felt a gun prod him in the back.

“Git goin’! Just can’t let it go, can ya, Jess? I sometimes think you’re a mad dog or maybe as mad as a box of frogs,” said Mort to the back of his sometime young friend.

With that, Jess smiled. Well it wasn’t too bad; at least Mort had called him Jess. He’d think of a way to wheedle round him. With that, Jess exited the saloon and followed the others down to the jail.

*****

At first, there was a lot of joshing at the jail. The Sheriff made them wash their wounds out at the horse trough in front of the blacksmith’s. The cold night air and near freezing water began to sober them up. Jess was the butt of their jokes again, and he took it as best as he could. They laughed at his bloodied frilly shirt, splashed water at him so that he ended up soaked. He felt himself shivering in the freezing wind.

Finally, subdued, they quietly trooped back inside. By this time, Cookson had been and gone. They were marshaled in front of Mort’s desk to listen to the charges made against them. All of them were to be charged with breaking the peace, affray and damage to private property. Not too bad, thought Jess, five dollar fine, tops. He was then shocked to hear Mort say, “In addition, you Harper, will be charged with common assault, for your attack on Clay and assaulting an officer of the law.”

“But Sheriff!” Jess appealed.

“No, Harper, tell it to the Judge,” yelled Mort. “You attacked Clay, which kicked all the ruckus off! If anything, they’ll get away with just damage to public property, as they were acting in self-defense. We all saw you smack Billy in the face. So how you have the nerve to claim you’re innocent, I’ll never know.”

Jess was suddenly and unusually for him struck dumb. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t feel able to apologize. Then his smart mouth took over. “Well, can I get a coffee Sheriff?” he asked.

“No, in tarnation! You damn well can’t. You still think this is a big joke. You wait “till Slim hears about this,” said Mort.

That remark brought hoots of laughter from Lindoe’s men. Jess felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise again. He clenched his fists and was about to fling himself at them when Billy grabbed him from behind, and held him in a bear hug.

“Right, you lot, into the cells, I don’t care who’s bunking with who, just get it done, ladies.” Mort followed them and banged the cell doors shut locking them in.

“How about some supper, Sheriff?” yelled Clay.

“Another word out of you and you’ll be missing breakfast,” snarled Mort, and turning to Billy, said, “Okay, Billy, bring Harper through here.”

Billy released Jess from his bear hug and pushed him forward through the door at the back of the office; this had a small dark passage, with two doors facing inwards at opposite sides. One door was ajar and Mort indicated, with his head, that Jess was to go in. Billy gave him a push between his shoulder blades, and suddenly Jess found he was in a tiny cell, no more than 8 feet by 10 feet. Any light which came in was from the lamps in the office.

The window of the cell was high up in the wall, near the ceiling, through which only three stars were visible. Jess turned as Mort slammed the door closed. Unlike the barred cages outside, this was solid. The door itself, made of steel, had a grill which opened and closed from the outside. Jess stood and began shivering with shock. He was being treated as the most dangerous of outlaws.

It was only a barroom brawl, after the usual card game, which ended in a fight. A few broken chairs, tables and the banisters; hell, we didn’t even break the big mirror or any of the windows. He sat down on the bunk, which felt as hard as a rock. The pillow smelt as if mice had been nesting in it. The blanket wasn’t even as big as the one he used under Travelers saddle. God! It was cold.

He wondered what had happened to his jacket. Then he remembered someone trying to pull it, to pin his arms down. He’d get it back in the morning. It was the only decent jacket he had and he certainly couldn’t afford another. He fumbled around, trying to get adjusted to the dark and finally made it on to the bunk.

He laid down. Immediately, all the bruises, pulled muscles and stretched ligaments started to protest at once. So he sat up and propped himself up against the cell wall. He wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and thought of tomorrow. Facing the Judge was going to be terrible, with all the townsfolk, who until yesterday thought he was their savior, watching.

He’d almost single-handedly broken Charlie’s gang from Texas. It had cost him dear, as he still had the scars and would take them to his grave. What did Mort say about him? A vicious mad dog, as mad as a box of frogs. Where did that come from? He’d never heard that one before. Yeah, it was going to be bad! Yet Jess knew it was nothing to the raking he was going to get from Slim.

What a mess he’d made of everything. He was a feather-brained idiot, only interested in himself and his own ideas of fun. He’d have to keep his mouth shut and take it. He could rely on Slim getting him out of the fix he was in. He always did. Slim was always around, ready to pick up the pieces, carry him home and help him back on his feet. He’d have to borrow some money from him against his wages, as he was cleaned out. Except for Slims anger and the court appearance, things would work out ok. He’d be back on the ranch by the afternoon so Slim would have plenty of time to get back to Cheyenne.

Next day, things did not get any better. Jess awoke in the gloom of the tiny cell, stiff and cold. He could hear the others outside in the main jail block, which overlooked the office, laughing and joking. He could smell coffee and bacon and wished he were out there. He knew the potbellied stove would be fired up and the place would be warm. He never knew this part of the jail existed. Jess had never been held anywhere as secure as this before. He wondered why he had been singled out. At that moment, the outer door opened. The noise increased; Jess heard the grill being pushed to one side.

“Here, Harper! Breakfast!” With that, Billy passed Jess a tin mug of coffee, and then two end crusts, which had been soaked in fat and contained no ham.

“Where’s the ham, damn and blast your miserable hide?” shouted Jess.

Billy laughed. “Clean forgot about you, Harper. You’re lucky to get any bread. Judge should be here pronto. He wants on the early morning stage to Denver, so you’ll not have to wait long.” With that, the grill was snapped closed and he was gone.

As Jess finished his coffee, the door opened again; there stood Billy rattling a pair of handcuffs.

“Will we need to put these on you, or are you coming quietly?” sneered Billy.

I’ll come quietly,” sighed Jess, the pit of his stomach suddenly began to feel cold and shaky.

*****

He said nothing to the others as they trooped into the saloon, where the court was usually held. The bar didn’t look too bad. A few less tables and chairs. The banister rail was partly missing. It could have been a lot worse; nothing was broke that couldn’t be fixed. As he tried to work out a figure for the damages, he realized that Slim wasn’t in the court. The first stage must have reached the relay station ages ago. Slim had had enough time to get here on Alamo. What about Traveler? Jess looked around for someone to ask, but they all averted their eyes. So much for the kindly, generous folk of Laramie.

Jess spent the morning leaning forward, his arms resting on his thighs and his hands clenched in front of him. He kept his head down as he listened to the Judge lecture them about irresponsible, wild behavior; that would not be tolerated anymore. The West must calm down and get ready to receive civilized people who were coming from the East; they wanted to make homes for themselves and families out here in Wyoming. Unfortunately, they were being driven away, by the outrageous, violent behavior of a few who had no respect, either for themselves or for the law. God! thought Jess, this was getting serious. He could end up in the Cheyenne jail for years. Where the hell was Slim?

Finally, they all pleaded guilty and were asked if anyone had anything to say in their defense. Jess stood there, shocked at Slims absence and bewildered at his pard who seemed to have abandoned him. Slim had never let him down before. Jess suddenly felt very alone again. He was very aware of his disheveled, bloody and bruised looks. Even though he’d tried to cover the worst of it with his jacket, he knew he looked like a real saloon brawler; that wasn’t going to help.

The Mayor, whom Jess had never even spoken to, asked if he could have a word with the Judge in private. The agony continued as the court was adjourned for ten minutes. Jess wondered at what was being said. He racked his brains, wondering how he was going to get out of this mess. Jess had no money and he had been relying on Slim being in court to pay his fine. He also felt guilty for not being at the ranch that morning. He’d promised Slim and it was only now that he realized how badly he’d let him down.

Eventually, the Judge re-entered the saloon, followed by the town mayor, and the court proceedings resumed.

“The accused will rise. As you have all pleaded guilty, all that remains is sentencing. Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Yates, Mr. Swales and Mr. Stocker, you’ll be fined 10 dollars or five days in jail to be served here in Laramie. Mr. Harper, I would like to serve you with a custodial sentence of six months, mainly for your attack on Mr. Tait, the Deputy. Also you have a long history of disturbing the peace and generally causing trouble. However, on hearing a plea from the Mayor, who carries the wishes of the people of Laramie, I sentence you to a fine of fifty dollars or three weeks hard labor, to be served here in Laramie. You are all to pay ten dollars each towards the repair of the damage you caused. Court costs of two dollars each. Sheriff, remove your prisoners. The case is closed. The court is adjourned.”

Jess stood there astounded. He furtively looked around, and saw some of the friendly faces he knew smile and nod. A wave of emotion overtook him. He fought back the tears which threatened to unman him. Goddamn it! He’d have to leave Wyoming if he shed any tears. But he did feel like howling like a dog. He felt so ashamed of his crazy behavior of last night. He now had the mayor coming to his rescue, but not Slim.

“Come on, Harper,” growled Billy.

Jess knew that he was going to come to blows, or even worse, sometime in the near future; even now, after all this time and all that had happened, between Jess and Billy’s nephews, the Taylor boys, the Deputy would still not let it go. He still bore a grudge over some girl or other taking off with Jess at a dance and dumping the Deputy.

Jess followed the others down to the jail. They went playfully, thumping each other’s backs and calling out to him. Words he chose to ignore, which normally would have led to an exchange of blows.

In the office of the jail, they were met by Mr. Lindoe, but no Slim, so Mr. Lindoe, who was due in Cheyenne with Slim for the hearing, was still there to support his ranch hands.

“Ok, boys! Hope you’re ready to do some work, got a lot to do after dinner. How much do I owe you for this worthless pack of coyotes?” His voice was loud, full of his own importance. “I’ll include the damages in that and something for the widows and orphans of the town.” They all crowded round him, all talking at once. Behaving like a pack of daft school kids. Some school kids! They’d taken two months pay off him. How much more was it going to cost him, Jess thought. With more laughter, they all went and exited the door. Suddenly the office fell silent.

At last, Mort Corey turned towards Jess. “Well, Harper, what’s it to be? Are you paying the fine or is to be 21 days hard labor? I warn you it won’t be pleasant. In fact, it’ll be the toughest thing you’ll have to face. Working out on the street, the jail, the school house and the church. That’s the easy part, because I’ll have to keep you cuffed and in leg irons. It’s all down in the regulations. Okay, son, what’s it gonna be?”

“Hard labor, Sheriff. I’ve got no money,” said Jess so quietly that Mort had to strain to hear him.

“I’m sorry then; there is nothing I can do. I can’t lend it to you. It’s more than my jobs worth. But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll go over and get you some dinner. I’ll not do anything official yet. We’ll see if Slim turns up.”

“Does he know?” asked Jess in misery.

“Yup, bound to! Mose probably killed those horses trying to get to him in time.”

“Thanks, Sheriff! I sure appreciate it,” murmured Jess.

“Okay son,” said Mort. “Can you be trusted to stay here? Sit awhile. Get yourself a coffee while I go over to Julie’s and order it. Anything in particular you want?” Mort asked kindly, suddenly aware of the droop in Jess” shoulders and his face, which showed his despair. “You are okay, son?”

“Yeah, Sheriff.” Jess put his head down, and began to feel emotional again. There was nothing of the ruthless, hard riding young gunman, whom Mort had come to rely on when he formed a posse. Jess could take insults. They made him fighting mad, but made him strong. He was, however, afraid of kindness and especially pity. It drove a stake through his heart. He couldn’t handle it. It unmanned him, and his friend the Sheriff was doing his best to show his sympathy for him. He knew the hard times which lay ahead for Jess. But even so, it was hard for Jess to take. With that, Mort stood, and walking by Jess, gave the young man’s shoulder a squeeze and walked out the door and was gone.

At that point, the deputy walked in, and Jess waited for the snide comments as he steeled himself for more confrontation. Instead he was amazed. Billy went into one of the cells and dragged out two mattresses. He then disappeared into the back, where Jess had been locked up last night. He came back, went outside and returned with a pile of clean bedding and blankets. Those went through to the back as well. Then he came in and took two lamps off the wall. The deputy ignored Jess and never looked in his direction. Jess watched all the activity bemused, and without thinking, got up to get another coffee.

“Don’t try it, Harper!” shouted Billy Tait, and he came charging through from the back. He pulled up fast, when he saw Jess was holding his tin cup in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. “Gee! I’m sorry Jess!” he said.

“Yup, I just bet you are.”

With that Mort returned. “You’ve done what I said?” Mort glowered.

“Yes Sir!” said Billy.

“Water on to heat?”

“Yes Sir!”

“Well, get out and do something useful,” said Mort.

“Right,” continued Mort, “in the back in the cell opposite, there’s a tub of hot water, towels etc. waiting. Get yourself cleaned up. My shaving stuffs in there as well; use that. Mrs. Jackson’s sending some of Pat’s duds over. He’s roughly the same size as you, or thereabouts. They’ll do till we can get some of your own stuff.

“Maybe Slim will bring me some in,” Jess murmured.

“Yeah”, said Mort. “He’ll maybe do that.”

“What’s happened to Traveler?” Jess asked. “I’m a mite worried about him.”

“I’ll take care of him. Do you want me to ride him? Give him some exercise?”

“Would you do that, Sheriff?” said Jess.

“Sure thing; it will make up for what I have to do to you, son.”

“Yeah, I remember the last time. I’ve still got the scars to prove it,” Jess lamented.

“Now, Jess, how many times do I have to apologize? You’re making this mighty hard for me,” Mort complained as he shook his head sadly.

“You’re making this mighty hard and mighty painful for me. I may have forgiven, but I’ve not forgotten. Anyways, I like tormenting you and Slim. Seeing you both squirm.”

“You can be an evil young varmint without trying too hard. You’ll be the death of me,” Mort, said shaking his head.

“Come on, Sheriff, take it easy; it won’t be a laugh, but it’ll be okay. Don’t worry; just do your job. Don’t baby me and make it fast; don’t drag it out. I’ll try and not give you any grief. Just hit me on the head if I do. I’ve brought this all on myself. Slim didn’t want me to come. They cheated me out of two month’s pay; I blame it all on myself. I can’t get away with it every time. At least you’re not at the docks as I have to get a slug cut out of me, or anybody else,” smiled Jess, trying to lighten the mood, aware that his friend Mort was finding the situation of having to jail his young friend difficult to handle.

Later, Jess, after taking a bath and changing, was stretched out on the office chair, rocking backwards and forwards, having a cup of coffee. Jess listened to Mort jawing on the sidewalk. He finally came in; he had a bottle of whisky in his hand’..Here, Jess, have a slug of this in your coffee; it’ll settle you down for a nice siesta. I’m locking you up in the back; it’ll give you some privacy from all the noisy gossips who’ll want to drop in and report their cats missing and such nonsense just to get a look at ya. You’ll not be in there much, as you’ll have a lot of work to do,” Mort rambled on. “Do you fancy doing some paperwork?”

“Who? Me?” said Jess. “Save time, Sheriff; tear it up now. Will you thank Julie for me that was a swell meal? That apple pie? To die for!”

“Here, Jess, take another slug in your coffee,” said Mort.

“You trying to get me drunk?” grinned Jess. He was never very good with strong liquor, it didn’t take much to put him under the table or make him fighting mad.

“No! Just trying to keep you quiet. I’m going over to the blacksmiths to get the chain lengthened on the cuffs you’ll have to wear. I don’t want you getting your wrists mangled again. I’ll try and make it as easy and as painless as I can,” said Mort, sadly.

“I know Mort, thanks anyway, and for God’s sake, stop babying me. You’ll have me crying next. Anyway, it might not happen; Slim might still come.”

“Yeah, Jess, he might,” said Mort. “Time to go. Want anything else?”

“Yep,” grinned Jess, “my horse, my gun and my freedom.”

Mort just smiled, gave Jess” arm a shake, and led him through to the back. The tiny cell looked even smaller as there was a table and chair in it. There were two lamps hanging on the wall and another lamp on the table. The bunk was piled high with two mattresses and made up with clean sheets, pillows and blankets. Jess turned to look at Mort, a surprised grin on his face.

“I thought I said…” Jess began to protest.

Mort interrupted him. “I know, I know. I’ve not to be nice to you, but you’d do it for me. I think you got a raw deal. You think you come across as a regular hard-nosed tough guy. I know you; you like little kids, silly women, furry critters and big daft horses. We all know you sleep with your horse’s bit and bridle under your shirt when you and Slim are out on a round-up and it’s so cold that you wake up frozen to the ground. You’ve a heart of gold. It’s going to be no Sunday hayride when you’re out there working all day.”

“I know,” said Jess huskily. “But you’ll be there to keep an eye on me, so it won’t be all bad.”

“Get in there and get some shuteye,” ordered Mort. “You look terrible. I don’t want to be accused of beating you up.”

“Do you think you could?” This time Jess laughed when he saw the expression on Mort’s face.

“Just get in there and get your head down, you look just as I know you feel.” Mort replied.

Jess smiled and gave Mort a gentle punch on the arm. “Thanks, Mort,” he said in a low voice. He went through into the cell and Mort closed and locked the cell door.

Jess did as he’d been ordered. He pulled off the borrowed clothes down to his long johns and slipped under the flannel sheets. It felt like heaven. His head swam with the whiskey and his body felt warm and relaxed after the huge meal and hot bath he’d had. He let go, and soon all that could be heard was a soft and gentle snore. It was at that point that Slim came through the office door.

He walked into Mort’s empty office. The cells were empty. What had happened? He put the big package down on Mort’s desk — Jess’ working duds. He had listened with shock at what had happened. His worst fears were realized. Damn and blast the young idiot. He was just glad and relieved that he was not waiting outside the Doc’s office, while Jess was getting a slug cut out of him. Or, facing a charge of manslaughter or worse. He’d been given twenty one days hard labor, damages and costs. Well, thought Slim, he knew how Jess felt about being locked up. He’d heard about some of the rough times Jess had when he had locked horns with the law in the past.

Jess had been in jail and still found it difficult to talk about it even now. Slim knew that it was going to be some ordeal for Jess and his heart went out to him. He was a quick tempered, proud man, who was easily offended. Jess didn’t eat humble pie. When he apologized, he meant it. Slim knew from the past that it was hard for Jess to keep his head down and his mouth shut. He seemed to attract aggravation and sorry was a word he hardly used, but when he did, it was said with honesty and sincerity.

Slim would hate to see Jess” spirit broken or diminished in any way. Jess could easily be left a silent and embittered man. Jess was always in your face, laughing. He delighted in mocking Slim, pulling his leg and trying to get his big, stern friend to lighten up and laugh. Jess was full of the joys of spring and Slim dreaded what was going to happen to him. He was bitterly disappointed that he wouldn’t see him. But he had to get to Cheyenne today. It would mean hard riding, and leaving Alamo at the next relay station and changing horses from then on.

Slim turned and left; there was nothing else he could do. He only hoped that Mose had got all the details of Jess’ sentence right and that Jess was not on his way to jail in Rawlins or Cheyenne. Slim felt that Jess had let him down badly. He also thought that he must bear some of the responsibility for some of this latest trouble. He’d neglected him so much that Jess turned towards Andy. Jess played with him; they swam and fished together while Slim always had something more important to do. He should have found time. He could have found time to go into Laramie with Jess. But he was angry that he’d taken up with the Lindoe crew; that was his fault too. He’d left Jess to go and seek other company. Danged if he knew now what he’d found so important that he couldn’t find time to have hung out with his best friend.

Slim thought of the letter he’d left for Jess, explaining how he’d had to fix a broken wheel before he could get away. That was why he wasn’t at the hearing. He told him where he would be bunking down in Cheyenne. It looked like this business was going to drag out for maybe three weeks. Lindoe was making further enquiries, demanding paperwork which seemed to have disappeared during the war.

Slim promised to get back soonest and immediately if his pard needed him. Jess just had to wire him and he’d hightail it back. He didn’t mention how disappointed and angry he was. Slim knew that Jess would know anyway, and would be champing at the bit to get out and back to ranch, as he’d promised. He’d left it at that. He didn’t want Jess to get any hint that he was sorry for him. Slim knew how any show of pity drove Jess inward and dampened his spirit for days.

Yeah, sighed Slim to himself, Jess was hard to handle at times, like a skittish colt ready to flare up and buck at the slightest thing. But he had a well-developed sense of the ridiculous and could fall about laughing, usually at Slim. Sympathy and pity unmanned him every time. Well, thought Slim, he’s going to have his hands full this next three weeks, curbing his temper and keeping his hands to himself.

All these thoughts were torturing Slim as he rode out of Laramie, but then Jess was a grown man really, well able to take care of himself. Maybe a short time in jail would cool the devil in him. I shouldn’t be thinking like this, thought Slim. Jess, probably doesn’t care. He’s been in tight spots before and handled it. Anyway, Mort would watch his back. Mort had a lot of time for Jess. He’d keep an eye on him. I can’t do anything now anyway, thought Slim, trying to square his conscience. He rode away towards Cheyenne, leaving Jess locked up, thinking he’d been abandoned by his best friend.

*****

Mort Corey came back in the afternoon; he’d been to the blacksmiths and done a tour of the town, talking to folk here and there. All the gossip was of Jess and what was going to be a very public punishment. Mort had told them in no uncertain terms that he’d tolerate no name calling, taunting or clod throwing.

He warned them, that Jess had a long memory and they would, in the end, have to face him, maybe have to pay for their few moments of fun at his expense. On the whole, there were no arguments as they listened and thoughtfully went on their way. He then went back to the jail to see how the land lay.

It was all quiet. He felt the coffee pot and bustled about making a fresh pot. Finally with a sigh, he went through to look in on Jess. He peered through the grill, which he’d left open, into Jess” brilliant blue eyes. He was laughing at him.

“Hi, Sheriff! Coffee made yet?” a smiling Jess asked.

“Any minute now,” said Cory, unlocking the cell door. “Can I come in?”

“Be my guest; couldn’t stop you anyways, not enough room in here to swing a cat, never mind take a swing at you.” Again Jess laughed, he then went on more quietly and said, “Any news from Slim yet?”

“Sorry, son, no. He’s been here. I think, because there’s a parcel been left on the desk. Got your old black hat atop of it; must be your clothes.”

“I wonder what happened to my new one,” Jess asked. “Can’t afford to lose it.”

“Most likely at the saloon. I’ll send Billy over there. Have you seen him?”

“I think I heard him a short time ago,” replied Jess. “He was riddling out the stove it seemed like.”

“Well you stayin” abed all day?”

“Yeah, I think I will, it really is comfortable, thanks again. Mort, I think I’ll marry you.”

This caused Mort to laugh. “Will you stop this joshing? You’re supposed to be getting punished. Not having a holiday,” the sheriff complained.

“The way I work for Slim, anything will seem like a holiday. You’ve kept this place back here quiet. What’s it for?” Jess asked.

“It was the original jail, but was too small. I keep it for my own use, so feel honored. You’ll not be feeling so pleased about everything in a few days time,” the sheriff answered.

“Come on, sheriff, coffee!” demanded Jess, who ignored that remark knowing full well that working in the public gaze in chains would be no picnic. He was dreading it already, cringing at the humiliation that he would have to face.

The sheriff turned, leaving the cell door open and walked away. Jess got up and quickly pulled on his pants. He headed for the utilities to see to his toilet.

“Are you coming through, Jess, for your coffee?” shouted Corey.

“No Id better not,” replied Jess “That would really set the tongues wagging, to know I had the run of the place.”

He went back to his cell, put on the borrowed shirt which he left unbuttoned as it was too small for him. He lay on the bunk, the pillows stacked up against the wall, so that he could sit up and rest against them, so freeing the chair for Corey.

“You look comfortable,” remarked Corey as he walked in. “You remind me, of a cat. Always have done; whenever I’m out at the ranch, I sometimes see you on your chair in front of the fire. Just like a cat.”

“Yeah. Wish I were there now.”

“You will be soon; let’s get this over with no fuss or trouble,” the sheriff stated.

“Suits me fine! Just one favor. Try to keep that Billy away from me. I don’t want him cuffing me. He’ll say something and I know I’ll not be able to keep my hands offa him,” Jess went on. “I don’t know why he still goes for me. I’d thought he’d had enough of my hide. His nephews certainly took a good lump; can’t figure it!”

“You know it was all caused by you dancing off with his girl. She finished with him after that.” laughed Mort.

“I never even knew Billy had a girl,” Jess replied.

“He may have thought so, but she must have thought she had you,” grinned Mort.

“Well, I never noticed,” replied Jess with a grunt.

“Don’t let him hear that; it’ll only make him worse,” said the sheriff. “I’ll go and bring up supper. Anything special you want?”

“Steak rare, just show it the griddle; eggs hard, and crisp fried “tatoes, piece of pie, lump of cheese and a pint of hot coffee,” replied Jess.

“Got your appetite back?” the sheriff remarked.

“Yeah, got to keep my strength up!” laughed Jess.

“Yeah boy, you’re going to need it and more.”

With that the sheriff went out, again leaving the cell door ajar. Jess got up and pulled it closed until he heard the lock snap.

*****

Next morning, it was a subdued Sheriff who unlocked Jess’ cell. Dawn was coming up. It was best to be at work, before the sun got up high and it became too hot, and folks were about.

“You awake, son?” Mort, enquired quietly.

“Yep. Have been for hours.”

“Shoulda’ given you more medicine.”

“Bad enough having to slap on paint, without having a hangover as well,” said Jess, getting up and going for a wash.

“Coffee’s ready and your breakfast will soon be here. Are you coming through?” Mort asked.

I’ll come and get my coffee. That’ll be all. I’ll eat back here,” Jess said

“As you like,” replied Mort.

Jess was dressed in his old working duds. He walked through to the office to get his coffee just as Billy walked in through the door; Billy slapped leather with a yell. “That’s far enough; back up, you chicken livered lump of rebel scum!”

Jess ignored him and turned his back on him and filled his coffee mug. “Want some, Sheriff? asked Jess.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Mort replied.

Billy sheepishly holstered his iron and lightly said, “I’ll take one, Harper.”

“Yeah, you’ll be wearing it if you do!”

“Now, now, fellows, easy, easy!” said Mort. He could feel the tension between the two men. He could have cut it with a knife. Jess sat on one of the chairs, beside the stove his legs crossed and the seat tipped back. He insolently watched Billy through his blue eyes, which were like slits and glittered with threat; there was no laughter in his face which was set hard, like a rock. He sipped his coffee. His eyes never wavered away from the Deputy, even for a second. He was ready for him. He just wanted him to make the first move.

“What do you want?” snapped Mort to his Deputy.

“Come to see the fun. Thought you might need some help chaining up this lump of trail dirt,” smirked Billy.

“Enough of that! Get out and go and get our breakfasts. Make sure it’s hot, then clear out. I’ve given you your job list for today. I don’t want to see your sorry behind here or around Laramie.”

“But Sheriff, you’ll need me to help,” Billy said.

“That’ll be the day! I’ll blow my own brains out if I need you. In fact, they’re looking for a Deputy up at Flagstaff. You’d be better off up there, if you can’t take orders from me!” shouted Mort

Billy Tait turned to go and headed for the door.

“Morning, Billy!” Jess smirked innocently.

“Damn it, Jess! Will you leave it? You’re getting him riled, and it will only make him worse,” Mort moaned.

“Yeah, Sheriff, sorry.” Jess grinned. He stood up and got another coffee and walked back to his cell to wait for his breakfast.

Breakfast was eaten in Jess’ cell in companionable silence. Both men were lost in their thoughts, both more than a little apprehensive as to how the day would go.

“Right, Jess. Reckon it’s about time. You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Jess replied.

“We’ll start with the leg irons. You’ve only got about two feet ‘tween the fetters. You’ll not be able to climb ladders, so painting tops of buildings is out,” Mort joked.

“Yeah,” said Jess, “I’ll have to watch I don’t trip and break my neck as well.”

“Oh, you’ll get used to ’em. You can’t chop lumber, or break stones. They’ll slow you up, but they’ll stop you doing any back-breaking work,” the Sheriff joked.

“Yeah, and I can’t run or get on a horse,” Jess replied.

“That’s the idea,” Mort remarked and bent down to fix the first shackle to Jess” ankle.

“Hold on a minute, Sheriff! I want to change my boots. These new ones will get all scuffed up with these irons around them,” Jess pointed out to the Sheriff.

As soon as Jess had changed his boots, Mort locked the shackles on. “How they feel, son? Mort inquired anxiously.

“Tight, but not too bad. Can’t move much, can I?” said Jess through clenched teeth.

“Well, that’s the maximum permitted. I guess that’s the idea.”

“Better not wear my jacket,” said Jess, taking it off. “I’ll get too hot; I don’t want to give folks anymore entertainment than needs be.”

“You’ll be surprised, Jess. I don’t think you’ll have much of an audience. A lot of folks felt you got more than you deserved,” Mort remarked.

Jess made no comment. He took his jacket off and tossed it onto the bunk, then turned and silently held his wrists out to be manacled. Mort quickly and efficiently snapped the cold steel around Jess’ wrists, which still bore the scars from being cruelly tied up with rawhide not that long ago.

“Dammit, Jess, I forgot. I’m going to get some kinda protection for them. Still look tender to me,” Mort stated.

“Quit babying me Sheriff; it’ll be ok,” Jess muttered.

“Right, let’s get going.”

Jess walked up the street, carrying a wooden bucket, rags, canteens of water, a trowel and brushes. Mort kept an eye on Jess, who had trouble walking. He stumbled and would have fallen couple of times if Mort hadn’t grabbed him. He was getting better, as he kept up a constant stream of complaints and curses. Mort knew Jess well enough, that as long as he was moaning, he wasn’t feeling too bad. When he went quiet, that was the time to worry.

They were met by the Minister, who produced more buckets of water and rags. Jess couldn’t understand what all the stuff was for. He thought he was going to paint the picket fence, which went all around the church, and everything that Jess could reach.

“Well son, before you put any white wash on, the fences needs washing. Then all the old, loose paint needs to be brushed off. Use the trowel to get rid of the weeds around the base and then you’ll be ready to paint,” the Minister explained. “I want them really good and white.”

Jess listened, speechless. The task seemed huge. He found moving around awkward. It was going to be a long and difficult job. Suppose that’s what’s meant by “hard labor,” and he smiled to himself. He was going to be busy. He had the jail and the school house to do. Mort had promised him to Jeff at the livery, to use his expertise to repair his harnesses and tidy up the tack room. He also needed to repair the furniture and banister at the saloon, as he couldn’t pay his share of the damages. He didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. He’d paid no mind to Mort’s warning and now he knew what he’d meant

“Sheriff, you’ll have to take the lid off the paint tin. You took my knife offa me.”

Mort did as he was asked, then turned to Jess and said, “Well that’s it then! I’ll see you about eleven; we’ll go for dinner. You’ll be here?”

“I’ve given you my word. That’ll keep me here, more than these chains will,” said Jess sternly.

“I know, son,” Mort replied and turned and walked off.

Jess watched him go, thinking, how he’d given his word to Slim and almost immediately broken it. Well, he was paying for it now and he realized how bitterly he regretted letting Slim down.

So Jess started. He hated painting. It was one of the jobs on the ranch which never seemed to get done. It was a slow job; because of the shackles, he couldn’t get down to do anything properly. He just couldn’t move his chained ankles apart enough to balance. He tried everything and ended up kneeling. After a bit, he thought he’d try something else. He’d sit. Then he discovered he couldn’t get up at all. So he just shuffled about and got on as best he could.

It was a slow and painful job. He decided to do the pickets in threes, but with all the washing, brushing and weeding, by ten o’clock, he’d only managed to does one set. He’d not been able to touch the backs. Jess was a man of action. He was strong, fast and athletic, and being unable to move with his normal ease was driving him mad.

Finally, he decided to sit for a spell, which he awkwardly managed. Then he thought, what the hell, and he lay down, and stretched out. He pulled his hat over his eyes to keep the sun, which was getting hot, out of his eyes. He could feel the steel cutting into his wrists and wondered how he was going to get up. He felt trapped, strung out like a tethered goat.

Suddenly a young voice piped up. “Mr. Harper, my Ma sent me over with some coffee and cake.”

Jess immediately struggled and sat up. He tilted his hat back and saw two little boys, one about eight the other ten, obviously brothers.

“Well thank your Ma kindly, men,” smiled Jess. “What’s your handle? You seem to know mine.” As he took the cake and coffee from the boys, he saw they were blushing with pleasure at being called men.

“I’m Spud and he’s JJ; we’re the Goodwins,” said the taller of the two boys.

“Anymore at home?” Jess asked.

“Yeah there’s Josh and Tom. They both know you; they’ll be over this afternoon if Pa lets ’em away. They gotta finish their chores first.”

“You done yours?” Jess asked with a smile.

“Yeah!” they both chorused.

After that, the morning seemed to fly by; with a lot of laughing, the boys tugged and pulled and helped Jess up. He gave Spud a brush to do the back of the pickets. The other little guy collected all the weeds and put them in the bucket. All the time they were working, the three kept up a conversation, which had Jess laughing

Mort was coming around the back when he heard the laughter and Jess’ deep, husky drawl saying something, which he couldn’t make out but which brought hoots of laughter from two small boys. One was brushing off the old flaky paint, the other was washing them down, and Jess was awkwardly following them slapping on the paint.

“You’ve not got very far,” said the Sheriff.

“I wouldn’t have got this far, had it not been for these two young men who saved me. They found me flat on my back unable to move,” Jess smiled.

“Yeah, Mr. Corey, we thought he was dead,” said Spud. “Ma sent us over with some coffee and cake and he didn’t move “‘ill we spoke to him.”

“Was it the word coffee that saved him d’ya think?” asked Mort grinning.

“Well, maybe,” said Jess. “Spud and JJ, you’d better be getting back. Take the mug and plate and tell your Ma she’s saved my life. Thanks for your help! You want to shake on it?” With the clashing of chains, Jess held out his big hand and solemnly shook hands with the two young ones, who blushed with pleasure.

“Can we come back this afternoon?” they chorused.

Jess looked at Mort, who nodded with a smile.

“Yeah. Would be a pleasure, now scat.” Jess said

“Told you, Jess. You like young’uns,” Mort said smiling.

Jess put the lid on the white wash, stood up and stretched.

“How’s it been then?” Mort asked.

“Don’t ask, just let’s go and get something to eat. I need to get out of this sun; with it and all the white wash, I’m going blind,” said Jess, his cheerful banter gone, to be replaced with a voice full of misery.

They went back to the jail, Mort not oblivious to Jess’ stiff and seemingly painful gait. He still marveled at Jess’ talent for making the best of things; he knew Jess didn’t want any audience and to be made a spectacle of. It looked like he was going to be made into one anyway, as the towns young’uns had taken matters into their own hands. Well, better than the town’s no-goods, drunks and saddle tramps, who would have delighted in Jess” disgrace. The youngsters would keep Jess distracted from the boring and uncomfortable job he had to do.

Mort was right. When he went back to bring Jess in for supper, he laughed when he saw the painting gang had swelled to seven young’uns and three teenagers, who regarded Jess with awe and as their unofficial leader. Mort recognized them as a pair of the young crowd who’d got involved in the fight which was causing Jess all this grief. It seemed they’d come prepared.

The big lads were at the side of the church and it looked ready for painting. Some of the woodwork was showing though the old paint. The picket fence down one side and half way around the back was done; there was not a weed to be seen.

Jess, was sitting on a stool, which was the perfect height for the job, with even an old blanket folded over it. Mort could hear his husky drawl as he was talking to the young boys. He painted, never lifting his head. Spud was doing the backs of everything and it seemed they took it in turns to paint. The ground around them was littered with canteens, apple cores, empty plates, two jugs which had held lemonade and two empty coffee pots. Mort stood, hands on his hips and shook his head. He thought, this young Harper could fall in a river and come up with a salmon under each arm.

“Well boys,” Mort called out, “time to go.”

Jess looked up then smiled. “You’re gonna have to give me a hand. I can’t move,” he said.

Mort laughed when he saw Jess” little gang, get hold of him and pull him up. The big boys came over and stood around Jess, looking for the entire world like his bodyguards. Mort pitied anyone who’d fancy their chances at joshing Jess with this crowd around him. Mort continued to grin as he listened to Jess telling them to tidy up after a job, about putting the stuff away and doing it right.

“I’ll bring back Pays stool tomorrow,” shrilled a little boy. “He said to keep it while you need it. Pa says you’ll ruin your knees being on ’em all day.”

“Thank your Pa for me,” said Jess, “Tell him I’ll be able to walk tonight; I’ll see him around.”

With that, everything was tidied away and Mort and Jess turned and walked back towards the jail.

“Can’t believe what you’ve done today.” Mort said shaking his head in disbelief.

“Yeah, I know, Mort. Good, aren’t I?” Jess smirked, the old cockiness returning. “I’m gonna charge those women. What’s the going rate for child minding? I bet they got a lot done today with me looking after their kids.”

“Oh yes! They’ll have been busy making cakes and pies to keep you the poor innocent lamb fed and happy tomorrow. There’s a cherry pie and a thing called a meringue, waiting at the jail for you. Just in case you get a mite peckish afore you turn in. One of the big lads has been chopping lumber, so the boiler is getting mad hot for your bath. The blacksmith said you’ll need a good soak as you’ll get stiff tonight. I sure hope all this doesn’t get back to old Judge Lewis. It’s upset him no end. How are your wrist, son? Ok?” Mort kept up this conversation all the way down the street.

“Fine, Sheriff. Don’t fuss! I’m careful; they’ll be ok. I’m lucky having you and all the folk looking out for me. It shows what they think of my sentence. The cakes and everything, real nice. The lads have kept me from going mad. We’ve had such a laugh. The old place will be unrecognizable in a couple of weeks,” replied Jess as he carefully picked his way along the street.

“Don’t brag too much, Jess; next time I’ll see you get real hard labor. My house, yard fence and stables all need fixing,” Mort joked.

“You’re mad, Mort, You don’t have to do that. Just ask me anytime if I’m not punching cows for Slim, fencing, painting, riding shotgun, mucking out, or shooting bad guys for you…..maybe even courting. I’ll give you a hand, and you don’t have to feed me pies or keep me chained up to do it,” Jess joked. He then turned and took Mort’s arm; he stopped and said, “Heard anything from Slim, Andy or Jonesy yet?

“No, son. I’m sorry,” Mort replied.

Jess put his head down and slowly walked on. He ignored the friendly folk, who smiled at him as he went down the street, his every move accompanied by the clash of the chains. His thoughts were with his friends back at the ranch, especially Slim, and he wondered why they seemed to have abandoned him. It made him feel cold and alone. It was hard to stomach.

*****

So the days passed. The main street in Laramie was fast becoming unrecognizable as the church, the schoolhouse and the jailhouse all got painted by Jess and his gang. The hitching posts all got fixed. The town’s folk, especially the women, all spoilt Jess completely. He laughed at their jokes, ate all the cakes, instructed the kids on fishing, hunting and horse wrangling. Showed them how to knock in nails. Told them how lucky they were to have families that loved them. He talked cattle and horses with their dads. Swapped war stories whilst all the time getting on with the painting.

Mort had never expected the work to get done. It was a task he’d thought of on the spur of the moment. He expected the fencing at the church and maybe the schoolhouse. But he was overcome with the energy and intensity Jess put into everything. His enthusiasm seemed to be catching. Everyone seemed to be getting on with painting jobs that hadn’t been done for years.

Mose, the stage coach driver, joked, he’d nearly driven through Laramie; he hadn’t recognized the place. Jess looked pleased. Mort knew, however, how much the young man ached to hear from Slim. He was now talking of moving up to Canada, to maybe start again. Mort was sorry for him and didn’t know what to say or suggest. He thought it’s be best left ’til Slim got back from Cheyenne and then wait and see what would happen.

Jess’ mood had changed. He seemed to realize that he was not going to hear from Slim. He’d been abandoned. But in typical Harper fashion, he seemed to grit his teeth and get on. He stopped asking about Slim and got on as best he could.

Mort knew how the young man hated to be chained and fettered. He kept to his cell, often closing the door behind him as he knew Mort was loath to do it.

On the Tuesday morning, after breakfast, Jess came through for a final coffee with his ankles shackled and one wrist manacled. Mort had taken to releasing Jess in his cell. He always tossed the chains under the table ready for the next day. Jess had decided to put them on himself.

“You after my job now, eh, Jess?” Mort said and smiled at him.

“Yeah, Sheriff. I know you hate doing it as much as I hate wearing ’em. So I thought, why make two people unhappy. Anyways, I see it like this: these fetters don’t change me none, slow me up some, but don’t change the real me. Folk’s realize that, I’d do this job chained up or not, so it don’t matter. Don’t mean nothing.” With that, Jess got his coffee. “Want one, Sheriff?” he asked.

“OK, son, I’ll join you,” said Mort. All the time, Mort watched Jess enjoying his coffee. Jess then put his tin mug down and expertly got hold of the cuff and snapped it around his wrist. “Ouch!” yelled Jess “Caught myself a good ‘un.”

“Serves you right; nothing but a danged show off. Are you ready, you no good young devil?” laughed Mort, and with that, they exited the jail together.

So it went on, day easing into day. Mort was relieved that there had only been two bits of trouble. The first happened early in Jess’ sentence. The Lindoe crew rode in one afternoon as he and his gang were working around the church. Cole led the insults. “Look here, boys! The famous gunman met his match with a bucket of white wash,” jeered Cole. The others, of course, laughed and hooted, making their horses dance about in excitement.

“Not so big now, Harper! Got you well and truly corralled. I can’t wait to tell the trail hands over in Cheyenne. Happen they might want to mosey on over for a look see,” Cole continued to snigger.

Jess” face hardened, his eyes glittered and became like slits. His jaw became tense and he scowled at Cole in the dark and dangerous way that normally made men back down. He then felt the tug of the chains on his wrists. He had no choice but to put his head down, and got on with the painting and ignored him. One day he promised himself, he’d have a real reckoning with this crew.

“Hey, Cole! Guess we could sell tickets,” Bert laughed. Cole kneed his horse forward, which caused its shoulder to brush against Jess and made him overbalance. Jess hit the ground under Cole’s horse. At that point, Cole was struck in the face by a clod of earth, thrown by the weed pulling blacksmiths son Ged. It was quickly followed by a fusillade of clods.

The horses bucked and shied away. One of the riders was thrown against the picket fence and Bert was forced to dismount and help him to his feet and then to remount. Jess by now had also been helped to stand and called out, “I’ll see you all in a couple of weeks. Two at a time accommodate ya?”

The trail hands, were still trying to calm their horses as the odd clod of earth was still finding its target.

“Come on, boys! Let’s leave the jailbird; we’ll get to him later.” With that, Cole and the boys started to turn away.

“So long, boys,” Jess shouted. “Don’t tell me that that wasn’t fun.” He laughed as he watched them head out of town.

“You ok, Jess?” Ged asked

“Sure, fell on my backside, so my prides taken a bit of a knock. Everything’s ok, though. Nobody’s been hurt. Even the picket fence doesn’t need mending. I guess they feel worse than me. Getting run off by a shower of clods. It took five of them and a horse to put me on my butt. So I reckon that round was mine. Thanks to your artillery.”

With that, the boys began to laugh and joke around, excited by their brush with the Lindoe crew. It would be a great tale to tell when they got home to their folks.

The other ruckus that would go down in the Jess Harper legend happened when he was working his way up the street. The old place was losing its down-at-heel image, as the old weathered boards began to look spanking new under their fresh coat of white wash. Jess and the boys were doing the front of Dr Broxton’s surgery. It was getting towards dinnertime; Jess had had his coffee and usual feast of cakes.

He was beginning to feel tired as he’d been hard at it since six a.m. He simply wasn’t concentrating as he had to be careful how he moved. He took care not to jolt the handcuffs that would take the skin off his wrists. He also had to move cautiously, as the leg irons he wore not only restricted his movements but made tripping up and overbalancing really easy. He had the usual group of youngsters with him, and this morning, one of the fathers. He’d been talking about horse breeding with them. He was especially interested in what he’d heard about racing back east, about the line breeding and study of the stud books that went into the thoroughbred horse.

Jess, who loved horses, didn’t think that there was much call for thoroughbred out west. They were very fast, temperamental, but were finished after three miles and were not a robust horse. However, he was listening hard to what Al Meehan was saying about race horses when he turned round, stepped back and caught the edge of the bucket of white wash. It flipped up, arching its way across Jess and splattering everyone within eight feet or so. Jess fell over. As he lay on his back, he felt the cold paint soak into his clothes. He was covered. His face, hair and all down his front was white. He wiped his arm across his eyes and then rolled over and got up on all fours. Until this point, there was only silence and the odd curse. This was suddenly broken by peals of laughter from Jess. He slipped from his doggy position and rolled on his back again and finally struggled into a sitting position.

He couldn’t get up as he was helpless with laughter.

The street suddenly came alive with people, as they came out to see what was causing the ruckus. They quickly picked up on what was happening and joined in with Jess’ laughter, which by this time had been pulled to his feet by Al Meehan and Michael Inglis.

“Come on, Jess,” said Al. “We’ll get up to the horse trough and get cleaned up.”

Jess, who was still trying to control himself, went up the street with the other two “white- washed” men to the trough outside the livery stable. The scene which greeted Mort Corey when he rode down the street to fetch Jess for his dinner made him wonder what would happen next.

Jess was pouring pails of water over himself. He was dripping from head to toe and was surrounded by an equally wet group. Mort rode across just in time to see Jess, throw a bucket of water over Al Meehan, who with a curse, charged at Jess and knocked him into the trough. Jess surfaced in the trough, sat there and began to laugh. Again, everyone joined in the laughter.

“You ready for your dinner, you young varmint? Can’t turn my back on you for a moment. You’re gonna cost me my job,” complained the serious Sheriff. “Meehan, you put him in there. Get him out!” continued the Sheriff.

With that, Jess was helped out of the trough and stood dripping and grinning.” I’ll be right with you, Sheriff,” he said.

“You can sit outside the jail ’till you dry out a bit. I’ll have to see if I can find you something else to wear. I can’t believe what a torment you are. I’m never going to get any peace. What with you and your gang running out of paint, and even worse, something to paint.” With that Mort dismounted and walked up the street with Jess to the jail, leaving Jess’ gang of helpers throwing water over each other.

“You’ll not be getting so spoilt, now you’ve sent their young’uns and husbands home in that mess,” remarked Mort.

“You’re wrong, Mort, I’ve livened up their lives these last few days. They’ve tried out all their new recipes on me,” laughed Jess.

“Well, that was a waste of time. You’d eat anything, even if it were crawlin’ away.” Mort retorted

“Yeah, you’re right,” Jess replied. “Anyways, the young’uns will still look out for me. You don’t seem able to,” Jess laughed, goading Mort.

“Why, you young varmint! I’ve a good mind to lock you up for the rest of the day,” Mort grumbled.

“Is that a promise? That would be great. I’m exhausted. I need a good dinner, a hot bath and a siesta. You’ll keep the place quiet for me?” Jess went on.

With that Mort punched Jess lightly on the arm. “Stop it! You’re pulling my tail and I’ll bite,” Mort laughed.

“Well, be careful, as I’ll stick my claws into yer hide,” Jess replied, “Can we get roast ribs or maybe chicken and dumplings? Mort!”

“Thank God, we’re here. Will you stay here and dry out. I’ll go and see what Julies got, OK?” Mort replied.

Jess sat on steps of the curved boardwalk outside the jail and stretched out in the sun.

Mort walked away towards Julie’s restaurant. Jess called out after him, “Tell her I want cherry pie and custard for pudding.”

Mort didn’t turn, but walked on smiling and shaking his head. Some punishment this is turning out to be, thought Mort. Yeah but it was. Jess still hadn’t heard neither hide nor hair from Slim. Mort had watched Jess” face change and his shoulders slump in misery when he thought no one was watching. He knew how desperate Jess was to hear from his friend.

Time was passing, and although Jess appeared cheerful and his usual lively self, Mort could feel, almost touch, the feeling of loss and helplessness that hung about Jess when he thought that he was on his own.

Some of the women folk of Laramie recognized the forlorn vulnerability in Jess. They, being ever sensitive creatures, tried to show their support and sympathy for him by keeping him and Mort well supplied with their home-made delicacies. Mort joked about them, and Jess ate them uncomplaining. Mort said Jess was getting fat and Jess agreed with him. The Sheriff knew for all their kindness and cakes, for all his care and companionship when he was able, it was for Jess no compensation because Jess felt completely lost, alone and abandoned.

The end of the twenty one days was not going to be as easy as they’d planned, as Mort got the news that he was wanted over in Cheyenne as a witness, in a long drawn-out case of cattle rustling. He’d be gone from Thursday morning to Friday evening of the third week. This was when Jess had been promised to sort out the harness and tack room for Jeff at the livery stable.

“I’m sorry, Jess; I promised I wouldn’t let Billy, damn his eyes, take care of things. But I’ve got no choice. You don’t have to do this job; it’ll keep. You can stay in your cell for the two days; that should give you some protection,” said Mort anxiously.

“Naw,” Jess said. “I want to help Jeff; his harness and tack room are a nightmare. I’ll be okay. I’ll keep my mouth shut and my hands off of Billy. I’d rather be busy, anyway, than stuck in here. I’ll be ok. Never fret; you’ll be back before you know it.”

*****

It wasn’t okay, Billy was a brute. As soon as Mort was gone, he’d taken Jess across to the livery stable, pushing him along the street, digging the rifle into his back and causing him to stumble. All the time he kept up a long string of insults and threats. Jess thought he must be getting old, as he walked with his head down trying to ignore him. He was careful as he didn’t want to stumble and give Billy something else to make fun of.

Not long ago he would have torn Billy’s tongue out, and to hell with the consequences. He couldn’t, as he’d promised Mort not to cause trouble and make a rotten situation worse. He’d also given his word not to try and escape or to antagonize the Deputy. Jess decided to wait. He had a big score to settle with Tait, the Deputy. He carried the scars from when Tait’s nephews, the Taylor brothers, had tied Jess to a tree and used him for target practice. Yeah, thought Jess, that was going to be settled in the near future.

Billy chased off Jess’ usual crowd of helpers, being as nasty and as cruel with the young’uns as he had been with Jess.

“He’ll have to learn you about harnessing and mending in his own time, not in jail time. He’s a prisoner and not allowed visitors,” snarled Billy.

“See ya, men,” Jess shouted to them as they ran away. As one, they all turned, waved and called out their goodbyes.

“Bet that made you feel ten feet tall, Billy,” said Jess. He just couldn’t help himself.

“Get in there.” Billy smashed Jess between his shoulder blades with the butt end of the rifle stock. Jess stumbled wildly through the door and fell over the old tack box, which stopped him from measuring his length on the dirt floor. “I’ll be back with your dinner.” With that, he banged the door so hard that it shook the dust from the rafters. Jess heard the bolt and locks and knew he was in for a long miserable day sorting out the mess.

Billy came back with his dinner. He grinned as he put it down. “I’ve made it myself. Thought I’d save the county ten bits,” he laughed.

Jess looked down at four rounds of thick, dark bread. The crusts were curled up; there was no butter. Hunks of what looked like dark, burnt meat. No, he thought, I’m not eating that. With a sigh, he picked up his coffee; of course it was almost cold.

Jess realized then, how lucky he had been to have had Mort as his jailer. Mort treated all his prisoners decently. Yes, he’d spoilt him and he knew why. He shuddered when he thought how different things would have been if Billy Tait had ridden herd on him for the twenty one days. He’d be okay. This was only going to be forty-eight hours; he could handle that.

Billy Tait sat watching Jess, through narrowed eyes. His face looking ominously dark and vengeful. Jess ignored him, just sat and sipped the cold coffee. Billy was tense and Jess could almost feel him bristling with anger.

Billy was wound up at not being able to chain Harper up. He’d decided he was going to have a bit of sport anyway. He was surprised Harper had not gone for him. Perhaps jail time finally knocked the fight out of him. He picked up a piece of rope and went over to Jess. “Put out your wrists!” he snarled

Jess looked up questioningly into his eyes and without thinking held his wrists out. Billy looped the rope through the chain. Then, taking the end back to where he had been sitting, tied the ends together with a reef knot. He then reached up to a rope, which dangled from a block that was suspended from the middle of a rafter. He tied the end of that with a bowline to the looped rope running from the chain on Jess’ cuffed wrists.

All the time Jess wondered what he was playing at. Then he realized he was going to be jerked off his feet. He made a lunge at Billy. His chained ankles stopped him and he crashed down, and was winded by the fall. At this point, Billy laughed. He backed over to the wall and heaved on the rope. Jess cried out as he was whipped into the air at the end of the rope.

His arms were nearly wrenched out of their sockets and the flesh was once again torn from his wrists. Billy heaved until Jess, who was writhing and thrashing around in mid-air, was some ten feet clear of the stable floor. He let go, and Jess fell heavily. His legs, hip and shoulder took the full force of the fall.

Billy had just got started. “Wonder what they’d think of the boy hero now? Wait till they hear him screamin’ fer me to stop,” snarled the vicious Billy. His face, a mask of hatred and vengeful spite. Again Billy lifted him into the air. Jess” shoulder muscles, tendons and nerves were screaming in protest and he could feel an agonizing pain in his shoulder as a muscle tore. He could feel blood beginning to flow down his arms, from his flayed wrists. He gritted his teeth and held back the scream he could feel rising along with the vomit in his throat. Again, he was dropped

“Billy…argh… you’d better make the most of this, cos when I get to you, you’ll wish…argh…you… were dead.”

Billy just laughed and once more swiftly heaved Jess into the rafters and dropped him. By this time, Jess was almost unconscious. Billy finally pulled Jess up once more, until he was standing on tip toe, supported by his wrists and arms. He was hanging from the rafter. Billy then took a rolled and tied up soaking wet towel. It was an old prison trick, to give a man a beating without leaving much of a mark but inflicting an enormous amount of pain. Billy got on with the job. His thin cruel face filled with excited enjoyment.

“This’ll teach you to steal other folks’ women; she’d promised me. She’d promised me, till you came along. With your laughing and fancy dancing.”

Jess didn’t listen. He was concentrating on keeping as quiet and as still as he could. His world was filled with the explosive blows that knocked the breath out of him. He felt as if he was spinning and the floor was heaving under his feet.

He was knocked from side to side by the heavy beating he was taking; he’d bitten his tongue and lip. He coughed and splattered blood down his chin and chest.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, Billy stopped, probably frightened that he’d gone too far as Jess’ head was hanging down onto his chest. He’d finally blacked out, as his pain filled world had imploded into darkness and silence. For Jess, it was a familiar place where time had no meaning, there was no thinking, and best of all, no feeling.

Billy Tait loosened the rope until Jess” feet were on the ground. He left him there, semi-conscious with his arms still held chained and roped above his head. He was left like that till mid-afternoon when Billy came back. He carried a bucket of water. He lowered Jess down and pushed him on to the old bench to sit. He took the rope off. Jess looked a mess

“Want a drink?” asked Billy.

Jess nodded. He was given the dirty coffee mug full of water. He gulped it down, spilling some of it on his bloodied shirt and making it look even worse. Jess thought that this was too much, as he gulped for breath. His body screamed out with pain and he felt as if he’d been torn apart by two mustangs going in opposite directions. He then got a shock which smashed the breath out of his body; Billy had picked up the bucket of water and thrown it over him.

“That’ll bring you round a bit. Okay? You’ve got three hours left. Get on with your work!”

Billy then turned and went, again banging and locking the door behind him. Jess sat with his head down. He was in excruciating pain. He couldn’t do much, given that every movement caused agony, his damaged muscles, tendons and nerves protested in agony. So he decided to just sit there. He leaned against the wall and let his body take a rest. He must have passed out again or dozed off as it was sunset when Billy returned. The fiery ball that was slowly disappearing behind the clap board houses had turned the town blood red and the deep shadows in between the buildings purple.

“OK, tough guy, time to go.”

He dragged Jess to his feet; he could hardly stand. Jess suddenly felt very cold and his bruised, pain wracked body was stiff and unbending. It didn’t want to move and neither did he. He staggered out, holding on to the door jamb for support. Billy, in some alarm, grabbed his arm and helped him. Slowly they made their way down the street until they got to the jail. He pushed Jess into his cell, where there was a bowl of cold water on the table, a piece of sack to use as a towel and a bucket on the floor for his toilet.

Without any comment, Billy followed him in; he unlocked Jess” handcuffs and leg irons, and turning, said, “Get cleaned up, I’m going for your supper.”

Jess just nodded, and gritted his teeth. He licked his bitten lip and tasted the blood, but it had stopped bleeding. There was not much else he could do.

He washed his face. Then he turned to his wrists; they were a mess. He needed a Doctor, salves and clean bandages. He knew Billy would not bring him anything for them, so he bathed them as best he could and gingerly patted them dry with the sacking. He thought of tearing up the sheets to make bandages, but didn’t want to give that bastard Billy another excuse to take a lump out of his hide. The brute came back with supper.

“Sorry, Harper, kitchen was closed. You’ll have to make do with cold makings,” Billy Tait said and set the dinner and coffee down. He picked up the bowl of bloodied water, went out and clanged the metal door shut, locked it, and snapped the grill closed and slid the bolt across it. The supper was cold pork, not much more than congealed fat and beans. Jess drank the lukewarm coffee, but again left the pork and beans. He knew that the food was Billy’s cooking. Julie never produced food like that. It was Billy’s usual swill. His clothes by now had dried on him. He managed with some difficulty to pull off his boots. He was aching all over, his body screaming in protest as he blew out one lamp and carefully climbed into bed.

At least Billy hadn’t thought of wrecking that; it was soft and supported his aches and pains. Jess lay, moving occasionally as he searched for a more comfortable spot. He hugged his ribs and kept himself warm by planning what he was going to do to Billy in the not too distant future. He finally let his thoughts of the many ways he’d like to torture the Deputy and how best to kill him slowly go, and Jess finally slept.

Jess woke up with a start, as the cell door was flung open.

“Get up Harper, you lump of jail scum. Yer breakfast’s waiting.” With that, Billy Tait dragged the blankets off Jess. “Get yer boots on, unless you want to spend the day in bare feet.”

Jess slowly dragged on his boots. He broke out in a sweat as the pain inflicted by yesterdays violent outburst from the Deputy, caused waves of dizziness and nausea to nearly overwhelm him. He sat with his head bowed, trying to stop from being sick as Billy put on the fetters. Even through the leather of his boots, he could feel the irons bite deep as the Deputy closed the ratchets tight.

“Right, now your wrists!”

Jess held them out. He had managed to pull his sleeves down to give them a bit of protection. He gave a quick intake of breath as the steel bit into his shredded wrists. The Deputy squeezed the steel bands together so that the cuffs could not be moved, one way or the other. He’d not forget he was wearing handcuffs today, as already he could feel the steel bite deep.

How much more of this have I got to take, he thought. He knew he would hang on, as he wanted a piece of Billy Tait’s hide. The thought of that would keep him going through the day. Billy then brought in breakfast.

For once it looked okay, except, of course, along with the coffee it was stone cold. In no time at all, he was hauled over to the livery stable. Jeff saw him coming and called out. But Billy turned and called back. “He’s to see no one, you included. Just keep your beak out. He’s got a lot of work to do. No time for jawing!” With that, he once again pushed Jess through the door and locked and bolted it. Jess looked around for somewhere to sit and heard Jeff at the door.

“Are you okay? Son?” the old man asked softly. “I can’t get into see you. He’s got the keys, the stinkin’ yella bastard.”

“It’s okay, Jeff. I’m fine; just stay away and you’ll not get us into any trouble,” Jess called out weakly.

Jess then tried to mend tack. He was slow, as every move was causing him to hurt. But he worked on the harness, as it helped to pass the time. He also tried moving around, generally easing the stiffness out of his bruised joints. One of his ankles was giving him trouble and he’d twisted a knee when he’d been dropped. He was going to hobble around for a bit. His wrists were a real mess and they oozed blood over his Levis and the harness.

Jess thought he was lucky he’d not broken anything. He’d had a broken leg in the past and knew how hellish painful that was as the bones ground together. So the morning passed until Billy brought in yet another disgusting dinner. It was the usual vile fare; only a starved coyote would eat it, then would slink off and be sick.

Jess again drank the cold coffee and left the rest. He again listened to the insults and threats the Deputy flung at him. He was still being accused of running off with the Deputy’s intended. A rotten thing to have done, but Jess still could not remember the girl or the dance. He certainly had never made any promise to any girl. Well, not in Laramie. He couldn’t talk to the Deputy about it. He wouldn’t listen. He was too full of rage. The only thought in Billy’s head was vengeance and how to hurt and maybe cripple Jess. Well, he’s not doing too bad a job of that. He’s well on his way to getting a pound of flesh off of me.

Jess thought and shook his head and got on as best he could. He finally had to stop, as he was exhausted and too sore to work on. He’d not done as much as he’d been asked. But what he had done was right and he’d sort the rest out later with Jeff. It was almost dark when Billy came for him. He again, roughly manhandled him across to the jail. The light was on in the jail this time. Billy opened the door and pushed Jess through ahead of him, into the surprised arms of Mort Corey, the Sheriff.

*****

What in the name of God has happened?” said Mort as he caught hold of Jess and helped him into a chair.

“Nothin’, Mort,” declared Billy. “He fell, that’s all. I didn’t lay a finger on him.”

“Right, I’ve ordered supper. Seems you’ve not been getting it from Julies,” said Mort briskly. “Give me the keys.” He held his hand out for the keys to Jess” chains. “Go and get the Doc. I want him here pronto!” By now, Mort was shouting, as he saw how drawn and pale Jess looked.

“You still here? Get going!” Mort again shouted at his Deputy.

Jess sat with his head down. He didn’t have the strength to lift it and look at Mort. He sat forward holding himself, hunched up, obviously in pain and hurting some.

“Come on, son, let’s get you loose. Let me get a good look at you.” Mort bent down and quickly removed the leg irons. He did this with some difficulty as they were locked on so tight that it had caused the ratchets to jam. On removing the cuffs, Jess had gasped and groaned. The cuffs came away blood stained. Jess’ sleeves were stuck to his wrists. The Sheriff tossed the cuffs to one side and cursed.

“What in tarnation was he doing? The filthy bastard. He’s gonna be sorry he was born,” growled Mort.

“He’s mine,” said Jess softly. “Leave him be. He’s mine.”

“Ok, son, we’ll talk about it later,” Mort squeezed Jess” shoulder, which brought another gasp of pain. Here, git this down you.” Mort gave Jess a tumbler full of brandy.

Jess tried to sip it, but it made him wretch. “Any coffee, Mort, please?” said Jess weakly.

“Yeah, son. Sorry, should a thought of that straight away.” Mort poured it out, put in loads of sugar and gave it to Jess. At that point the Doc walked in, followed by Billy.

“Get out the back, Billy, and hurry the boiler along, I want the tub ready soon,” ordered Mort.

“What’s happened here?” the Doctor asked as he took note of the state Jess was in. “I thought you had had a simple fall, young fella. Come on, let’s have a good look at you,” Dr. Broxton said kindly.

“I’ll get him through the back; it’s a bit small, but it’s comfortable enough. It’s my bolt hole. We’ll be able to get him into the tub when it’s hot; that’ll help,” said Mort.

The two men then helped Jess up and through to the back. Mort left the Doc to get on with his examination of Jess; hurts. He returned to the office to wait for his Deputy. However, the Doctor came in after twenty minutes or so and shaking his head and told the Sheriff about Jess” injuries.

“Jess has told me what happened! Sheriff, he’s mighty lucky he’s not lying in there with broken arms, legs and goodness knows what else. He’s been torn up by your Deputy and I’d not like to be in his boots when Jess is fit again. That’s all I can tell you. I’ll be back in the morning to dress his wrists, bandage his knee and ankle. He needs rest. Try and get this laudanum down him. Though from past experience, you’ll be wasting your time. Maybe brandy or whiskey will do the trick. Oh and another thing. Get rid of that Deputy. I’d hate to see that young man in there hung for murder or jailed for manslaughter. Well, that’s it. If you need me, you know where I’ll be. See you in the morning,”

With that, the Doctor left. Mort had listened and realized that his worst fears had been realized. As soon as his back was turned, Billy Tait had made a cowardly attack on a defenseless man. Mort sighed and got up. He collected two mugs, the coffee pot and the bottle of brandy. He then went through to see Jess. He found him lying on the bunk, with his arm across his face, pretending to be asleep.

“Come on, son, you’re not fooling anybody,” said Mort kindly. “I’ve brought you some coffee and brandy. Supper’s on its way. Your favorite. Are you going to tell me what went on?” asked Mort.

“No! I can’t talk about it yet.” Jess slowly and painfully tried to get up and Mort reached out and gave him a hand. “Thanks, Sheriff, I’ll try and eat some supper. You’ll have to help me into the tub, and then you can get me drunk!” Jess muttered in a deep husky voice.

“Sounds like a good plan to me. Wait a moment.” Mort had heard Billy come into the office and went back in to see him.

“Tubs ready and scalding hot,” Billy said in wide eyed innocence.

“Billy I want you to go collect your duds. I’ll send your pay over when Julie brings supper. Then I advise you to clear out of Wyoming. Get up to the Yukon. Better still, go sign on a ship. Put a thousand or so miles between me and you, ten thousand between you and him in there. Clear out and think yourself lucky you can still sit a horse and walk.” Mort said grimly.

“But Sheriff, I only…” started up Billy.

“No buts. What you done was attempted murder. That badge you wear protects you. Leave it on the desk, along with the Winchester when you go. You’re a sorry excuse for a man. Now clear out! If I find you in Laramie tomorrow, you’ll be dead. I’ll shoot you down as the mad evil bastard you are. Get outta my sight.” Mort watched him, as his Deputy slowly did as he was ordered.

“Tell Harper we’re not done yet,” Billy Tait snarled.

“You are in Wyoming.”

The Sheriff moved after him. The Deputy got to the door just as it opened and the supper was brought in. After supper, which Jess hardly touched and which was eaten in silence, Jess said he’d like to go and lie in the tub.

Mort helped him off with his boots as Jess was in too much pain to bend much. “Need a hand with your duds?” asked Mort, concerned to see how awkwardly Jess moved and stumbled around.

“No, I’ll be ok. Give me ten minutes and then you can fetch me a drink; that’d be real swell,” said Jess. Mort did just that and was surprised to find Jess up to his neck, eyes closed, steaming away, with his clothes on.

“What are you doing,” Mort asked and handed Jess his coffee, strongly laced with brandy. Jess couldn’t answer, as after taking a mouthful, he choked and spluttered when the fiery brew hit the back of his throat. At last he gasped out, “Thought I’d do two jobs at once. Seemed like a real good idea at the time.”

“You’ve no clean duds left?” exclaimed the Sheriff, shaking his head.

“Well, I’ll just put on the dirty stuff.”

“You can’t. Julies got ’em away to wash; took ’em tonight with the supper plates. Anyway Jess, you’ll not need them. I’ll get you some stuff, vest and all, that’ll do. Doc says you’re not to get up tomorrow. So you’re staying in bed like he ordered. He’s to see you in the morning.”

“I’ve no choice in this? Jess asked.

“No! You take back your word and I’ll chain you to the bed. Your choice! You’re officially mine until Tuesday or until you can sit on a horse; you’ll not be released until you can,” said Mort sternly, determined that Jess will be as well as he could make him before he released him.

“No time off for good behavior?” Jess said and lowered himself even deeper into the water.

“Definitely not,” Mort said grimly.

“Well I’ll be good. I’ll stay and you can tuck me in. Or maybe Julie, and some of the others?” grinned Jess.

“No! I couldn’t stand the cat fighting and all the cakes and carrying on. Doc says you need rest.”

“Ok Sheriff! I’ll do as I’m told,” Jess said, still grinning at Mort.

“That’ll be something new! Anyways, aren’t you getting outta there? I don’t like leaving you; you could fall asleep and drown. That’s all I’d need.” Finally Mort allowed himself a grin

“Well, if you can get me something to spare my blushes, I’ll be right with you. My skin looks kind of wrinkled,” Jess smirked. With that he got hold of the edge of the tub, and with Mort’s help, got up and slowly and painfully climbed out.

Next day being Saturday, Laramie was busy with the country folk who came in for supplies. Jess lay in bed and heard the constant buzz of conversation out on the street and in the office. He smiled to himself and thought how lucky he was that Dr Broxton had ordered bed rest. He knew that Mort would see that he stayed in bed.

The Sheriff, even though he was one of Jess’ friends, was not to be trifled with. He was not a man to challenge lightly, as he’d go for you, with either fists or both guns blazing. So Jess resigned himself to a quiet comfortable day dozing and he tried hard to forget the Deputy Billy Tait.

The Doctor had been in and given him another thorough going over. He’d got several pulled muscles. But because of his general fitness, nothing was torn. He’d got a badly sprained ankle, some knee ligament damage and a badly bruised body. All the injuries needed were rest and gentle exercise.

His wrists were a problem. The Doc wanted them to scab over quickly. But this was going to take time, as he was forced to keep them bandaged to fend off infection. On the whole, Jess had been lucky. It was painful, but he felt that he was on the mend already. He couldn’t wait to get back to the Sherman Ranch. He’d decided to pick up the few things that were still there and he would be on his way.

He would say his “goodbyes” to who was there, and if Slim wasn’t, well that’d be too bad. Slim had shown how much he rated him by abandoning him. Jess was cut up about it. He’d always counted on Slim being his pard, his best friend. To stand by him, through hell and high water. A man to ride the river with. To watch his back.

How wrong he’d been. He was going to be on his own again. It would be tough, but he’d been on his own before and he’d get used to it again. The last year at the Sherman Ranch had been a dream. There had been some rough spells and some nightmare times. But on the whole, it had been about the happiest time of Jess’ life. It was gonna be hard riding away. But he felt that he wasn’t wanted anymore; it was best he rode on before he was maybe chased off.

Mort broke into his thoughts by coming through with a steaming mug. “Coffee, Jess? Do you want a cake, pie, or a biscuit? You’ve got another meringue thing and a cheese cake. What do you fancy?” Mort asked with a grin on his face. His face and shirt were covered in crumbs. He enjoyed the continual treats that were delivered to the jail

“Just coffee please, Mort. I’ll never get into my pants at this rate,” Jess said with a smile.

“They say the way to a man’s heart is by his stomach. The women are sure trying their hardest,” Mort replied, laughing.

“Yeah. Well, it’s killing me,” Jess answered.

“Mr. Lindoe has been into see you. I told him to come back tomorrow. I didn’t think you’d be bothered to see him today.” Mort said.

“You thought right,” replied Jess. Wonder what he wants? So he’s back from Cheyenne. Wonder what happened?

“Is there any word from Slim? Mort?” asked Jess his voice turning quiet and low.

“No, sorry, Jess. I don’t know what to say.” Mort sadly shook his head.

“Well I guess that’s that. I’ll be moving on as soon as I’m able. I might give Canada a look see. Believe it’s still a bit wild up there. Maybe there’s work for a gun-toting ex rancher like me.” Jess stated his face reflecting his sadness and feelings of loss.

“Oh, yes, you’d be right at home with the Sioux and the wild, mad Scots; they’d have you eating those haggis things and tossing those cabers and drunk as a coot within days. The aggravation would have you hightailing it back here within a week. Maybe even with a Red Coat after your hide.”

“It would be exciting,” Jess answered.

“Maybe. Why don’t you stay?” Mort went on. “Give it a few weeks and then be my Deputy.”

“With my record? I’ve no chance. Maybe ride with a posse now and then or even a stand-in Deputy for a week or so. But a permanent job? The powers that be would never stand for it. Don’t even try, Mort. I’d really like to give it a go. I’d love to. But it would cause too much trouble. Might even cost you your job. With my history, I’ve missed my chances of doing anything like that.”

“Yeah, son, suppose you’re right. But you’d have made a heckuva lawman, even Marshall in time.” Mort thoughtfully remarked.

“Thanks, Mort,” said Jess huskily “Think I’ll try some of this new fangled cheesecake. You having some?” With that, Mort nodded and went out to get the cake.

Next day found Jess up and dressed. He was a mite embarrassed and touched by the way Julie had cleaned and laundered all his clothes. He felt very awkward when he thanked her. Jess was sitting in the office, nursing his tin mug, when Mort finally came in.

“Well, Sheriff?” said Jess.

Mort looked up startled at the formal address.

“When do I get to go?” Jess asked.

“Well, this is your last day as a prisoner. Tomorrow you can stay, as you still need to rest. Tuesday, the Doc says if you feel ok, and after he’s had another look at you. You can go as long as you don’t do anything daft and take it easy.” The Sheriff replied.

So what do we do today?” Jess continued.

“Nothin’! Sit on the porch and entertain folks as usual. You’ll not make a break for it?” Mort replied grinning.

“Naw. Mort, why would I run away from you? Talking of biting my nose off to spite my face! I’d be back to square one, and you’d be looking for somewhere else for me to paint!” Jess replied laughing

“Okay, then, Lindoe is coming in to see to see you and the Mayor too, so you’ll have plenty of company,” Mort said

“Will you go over and see Jeff for me? Tell him I’ll be over on Monday and finish the tack as promised,” said Jess.

“Yeah, of course, son. That’s another thing. The saloon job’s finished, Mr. Cookson is pleased with the new banisters and chairs you fixed. I forgot to tell you last night; he’s sent some bottles over to help celebrate your freedom.”

“Great! Doesn’t want me in the saloon celebrating?”

“Would you?” Mort laughed.

“Guess not,” Jess replied. “Keep them for medicinal purposes. I’ve drunk enough of your strong liquor; it knocks me out too easily.”

“Whatever you say,” the Sheriff retorted.

“And another thing — any chance of some really strong cheese? I’m fed up with all this sweet stuff now. My teeth are dropping out,” Jess moaned.

“Please, son, don’t pass that on to anyone. The place will be full of crates of the stuff, and we will be overrun with rats before we can think,” Mort said quickly.

“What’s the big deal? Place is usually full of rats anyways,” Jess joked.

“Tarnation, son! You and that smart mouth. No wonder you get into trouble.” Mort grinned and shook his head.

“Yeah, I know, and there’s always someone trying to shut it with a good punch. I wish it was stuck on someone else’s face,” Jess replied with a smile. Then went on, “Well, Mort, this is my last day.”

“Yeah, son, at last,” Mort answered with a grin.” You almost made it in one piece!”

“Whoa, Mort. Enough said. Can’t say it’s been a pleasure, but on the whole, it’s been okay! That’s been down to you. I’ve had a few good laughs, stuffed my face with cake. And well, Laramie, I’ve left my mark on the place. It’s really white. Thanks to you, Mort. I owe you a lot.”

“Now, now, son, stop being nice to me. I’m as much a softy as you can be. Great thing is, we got it done and we’re still friends,” Mort responded.

“Yeah, you’re right! But it looks like I’ve lost one. Never thought I’d lose him this way,” Jess said sadly, thinking of Slim and the others out at the ranch.

“Okay Sheriff, get the cuffs out. One last time,” said Jess, and he got up. “Where do you keep “em? I’ll do the honors. We’ve got to keep your reputation as a hard-nosed Sheriff. You know the one. How he rode his friend hard, stuck in his spurs, made him slave all day, kept him in chains like a wild thing. Come on where are they?” Jess was by now laughing at Mort’s face. “It’s your last chance,” he continued. “Next time — and please hear me God, there’ll never be a next time — it’ll take at least four of you to get it done. So what’s it to be? I’ll not sit outside like a free man if I’m not.”

“OK, Jess, you win.” Mort went over and took the leg irons and handcuffs out of the drawer. “Since it’s your last time, I’ll make it official; I’ll do it. You’re an evil young varmint. Now hold still, in case I take a lump of skin offa you; it’s a bit thin in some parts.” With that, Mort shackled and fettered Jess.

“Happy now?” asked Mort.

“No Mort, I hate being chained up like this. Not happy, just satisfied. We did it right.” With that, Jess gave a lopsided grin, and held out his hands. The Sheriff took them and then he and his prisoner and friend shook hands.

So Jess” last day as a jail bird was spent sitting on the porch. He tilted the chair back and rocked back and forth. His hat was pulled well down over his face and he talked to all the folks as they stopped on their way by. The little boys played around. Their big brothers came too. Finally Jess got them organized for the day, by suggesting they go fishing.

He said he was sick of beef and he was sure they could catch enough trout for everyone to have a good fish fry. They all trooped off for poles, their ears ringing with all the instructions from Jess. He thought they’d be lucky to catch anything, as it was the wrong time of day.

 He’d meant to teach them to tickle trout, but knew now he wouldn’t get the chance. At least Andy knew how. The thoughts of his leaving Laramie were dragging his spirits down. He knew he’d been at fault, but he’d never expected Slim to abandon him. It was a bitter pill to swallow and it made him choke.

The day wore on; some of the men dropped by. Asked how he was, and then talked cattle, guns, hunting and fishing. Finally, they drifted off and Mort handed a coffee out to Jess as Lindoe appeared.

“Coffee, Mr. Lindoe?” asked Mort.

“No thank you, Sheriff. I’ve come to see Harper here; I do not intend to take up much of your time.”

Jess looked up at him and slowly allowed his chair to come to rest. He waited for what the Easterner was going to say. He didn’t like him, as for the first time that day, he became aware of the cuffs and leg irons. He made him feel uncomfortable. He felt the ranch owner, with his eastern accent and haughty look, was looking down at Jess as some kind of low-life, a saddle bum who lurched from one barroom to another. Hired out his gun and was no stranger to the inside of jails.

Jess was then taken aback and couldn’t believe what Lindoe was saying when he listened to the haughty New England accent.

“Harper, I’ve got a proposition to put to you,” he began. “I’ve seen, and have heard, how well you’ve served your sentence. It could not have been easy for you. In fact, it must have been extremely difficult. Never the less, highly commendable. My grandson is with me for another four weeks. He goes to England to finish the rest of his education and my son thought it would be a good idea, if the lad spent a few months here with me. It has been a disaster, a huge mistake. He’s spoilt and willful. I allowed him to mix with the ranch hands and now he’s running amok.

Jess listened, not really understanding what the man was raking on about. What, for instance, was “amok”, he thought.

“I want you to take him in hand.” Lindoe continued.

Jess’ mouth dropped. Was he hearing things? Mort coughed and backed into the office biting his hand to stop himself from laughing out loud.

“Pardon me, Sir, can you please repeat that?” Jess asked.

“I want you to take him in hand, teach him some manners. Do things with him. Like how to ride western style. How to rope, hunt, fish, all the things you men do out here. I’ve always been too busy running a business to do such things well. The ranch hands have only taught him how to deal from the bottom of a deck of cards, get drunk and draw fast. He can’t do anything properly except draw a hand gun and that will get him killed. I want you to spend the time he’s left here teaching him western ways and western manners. I’ll keep the hands away. I know you have a problem with them, especially that hothead Cole. You can live in the ranch house, and unless you want to ride over the range, you’ll not see much of them,” Lindoe explained

“Well,” said Jess. “I don’t rightly know. Sure I can teach him stuff, but will he want to learn?”

“That’s up to him. At least it will be better than what’s going on at the moment. I’m really desperate. I don’t know what to do for the best. You seemed to be getting along with the youngsters really well, so I thought you’d may be able to do some good. I think maybe that this could be my last chance.” Lindoe explained.

“Well, if you really think I’ll do any good…” Jess said, not really convinced.

“You’ll give it a go then, Harper? Lindoe asked.

Jess got to his feet, aware of the clanking of his chains and felt his face flood with color. “Yes sir, Mr. Lindoe.” He held out his cuffed hands. Lindoe took his hand with a strong grip and said.

“I thank you. You’ve not asked how much; I’ll pay for the month. How does seven hundred dollars and another three hundred as a final bonus suit? It will be paid no matter what. I just want him on that stage coach, heading east, with as little trouble as possible. When can you start?” Lindoe demanded to know.

“Two days time. I’ve promised to sort out the tack room. Tuesday, I’ve got to go out to the Sherman ranch. So I could ride over Wednesday. Would that suit you, sir?” replied Jess.

“Excellent! Do you need anything now?” inquired Lindoe.

“No sir, but I thank you kindly,” said Jess. He stood and watched as Lindoe nodded to Mort and exited the door, and then headed toward the saloon

“Get in here, Jess!” Mort ordered briskly.

Jess moved as fast as his chained ankles would let him through the door into the office and perched on the side of Mort’s desk.

“Can you believe that? A thousand dollars for riding herd on a sixteen year old.” said Jess

“You are being paid to keep a kid out of trouble, that’s what I can’t believe. What’s this guy heard? I wonder if he’s got you mixed up with somebody else. What a laugh; wait till Slim hears about this.” Mort snorted with laughter. Then stopped when he saw Jess’s face.

“Exactly, Mort; I really will have burnt my bridges when he finds out, but I reckon they’re burnt now anyway. I’m sick to my stomach with this. But a thousand bucks… it’s against my principles to turn that down. If I’d still been at the ranch, look what we could have done with the money. A top class bull or stallion. Some good brood mares, or decent stabling, and maybe, even a decent stove,” Jess moaned on miserably.

“Come on, Jess boy. Things could be okay. Slim will be fine,” said Mort, trying his best to be cheerful.

“Do you really think so?” Jess replied, his husky voice low and somber. Then, with a clash of chains, he got up and moved to the stove. “Is the coffee still drinkable? Do you think your prisoner could have some of your hard stuff that you keep for medicinal purposes only?”

“Now you’re talkin’; won’t take a moment.” Mort got up and went out of the office and returned with a bottle of the spirit of life.

*****

Later that afternoon, Mort was lying across his desk. His head was cupped in one hand. He watched as his young friend tried his best to get drunk. It was not working, as Jess was getting more and more miserable.

“What in hell’s name am I gonna do, Mort?” questioned Jess. “I just seem to be getting deeper and deeper into trouble. How will I get out of this? I’m really hogtied now!”

“Don’t know son!” said Mort

“And where in hell is this damned Mayor? What in tarnation will he want?” said Jess. “Mort, you’d better get yerself together. He’ll not be happy seeing you like this. I could easily take you, and I’m as weak as a kitten. I’ll get you some coffee.”

Jess got up and poured Mort a mug of strong brew that had been stewing for hours. Mort drained it and nodded his head for a refill. “Hang on, Jess, I’m going out the back; I’ll make myself sick. Work’s every time.” With that, Mort slowly got to his feet. He shook his head as the strong booze turned his stomach.

“Want a hand, Mort?” Jess asked anxiously, as he watched Mort stagger and he got up to follow him out.

It was at this point that the Mayor walked in. He was surprised to find the two men about to walk through to the back, seemingly absorbed in a serious talk.

“Well I’m sorry to break up your activities. I hope it isn’t anything too serious. I just wanted to wish Harper here good luck, as I’ve heard he is leaving Laramie. Thanks for all you’ve done in the past. It will not be forgotten and I’m not talking about the whitewash. It’ll not be the same place without you. It has been an honor knowing you, son. I hope you’ll shake my hand on it.” With that he put out his hand, which Jess took in both of his, as his wrists, being held together with the chains, made shaking hands awkward.

“Thanks, Mr. Mayor, Sir,” said Jess, his voice full of emotion. “I want to thank you, for what you did at my trial. I’d be breaking rocks someplace else, if it wasn’t for you and the folks of Laramie. I’m not leaving straight away. In about a month, I guess. Thanks again, Mr. Mayor, Sir.”

“Well that’s something. Might still see you around. Keep out of trouble, young man. Well, I’ll go. Thanks again and goodbye, Jess. Day to you, Corey.” With that, the Mayor was gone

“That’s it, Mort! Get these cursed fetters off me. I’ve had enough of this. It’s driving me mad!” With that outburst, Jess went and tried to punch the wall.

“No! Jess you’ll wait ’til it’s time to turn in. I’ll unchain you and lock you up for the night and tomorrow you’re free. Debt paid. It was what you wanted. I’ll not have you messing me around, changing your mind and driving me loco,” Mort raked on at Jess. “Sit down and get a drink, or get outside and be miserable out there. I’m gonna stay here and try to sober up. Just in case you really go mad and try to jump me. Do I need my iron?”

“Now, you’re really being loco. Ignore me,” said Jess, “I’m just so mixed up. I’m ready to hit out at anything. If you need to deck me, watch out for my nose.” With that, Jess sat down and reached out for the bottle. He put it to his mouth and took a long slug, which made him pull a face. Jess usually drank whiskey, and the fiery drink always seemed to burn down to the bottom of his boots, and he drank it down like vile medicine.

The sun was disappearing behind the hills bathing the town in a golden light, when Mort finally got up and stretched.

“I’m gonna go for supper. Want yer favorite? Mort asked.

“Suppose,” Jess replied, his voice sounded even more wretched. Mort shook his head and exited the door.

Jess sighed. He got up and went through to his cell and lie down. He was nearly free. So why did he feel so awful? He was dreading meeting Slim, but on the other hand, anxious to do so. Why hadn’t Slim been in touch? He’d just left him in here to rot. What was keeping him away? He’d always thought that he and Slim were really close. He’d always felt that. Now, he didn’t know any more. He couldn’t believe he could have been so wrong about anybody.

But there it was, as plain as day. Three weeks, stuck here. No word from Slim, Jonesy or Andy. They could’ve sent a note with Mose, the stage coach driver. But he’d heard nothing. He felt as if he’d been groping around in the dark, totally abandoned and ignored by the folks he’d adopted as his new family. Thank God, he thought, he’d had Mort, whose easy going persuasion had got him through this last three weeks.

Anyway, fate had taken a hand and had offered him a way to leave the state with enough money to make a fresh start. He’d try Canada; maybe his gunfighter reputation had not got as far as there yet, and he’d be able to try and build a new life there.

Nobody could blame him for grabbing at the chance with both hands. But he still felt as though he was stabbing those he cared for most in the back. It was a feeling that made him sick to his stomach. He lay on his bunk and lashed himself with contempt at the way he was planning on running out on his best friend.

“Supper’s here, Jess! You coming through?” Mort called out breaking into Jess’ thoughts.

“Yeah! On my way!” replied Jess. He moved slowly and carefully through to the front office, as usual accompanied by the jangle and clash of chains. That was something else that had got him down. It was bad enough being locked up but, being chained, his every move restricted, noisy, uncomfortable and demanding care, along with the noise of the chains every time he moved had his nerves on edge. The only thing that held him back, from going into one of his red mist, berserker rages was kindly Mort and the fact it had only been twenty one days. Now it was as good as over. Even so, he felt that he was fast coming to the end of his tether. He dragged himself through the office door and slumped down into the chair.

“I’ll eat in here tonight. If that’s okay?” he said.

“Come here, Jess, I’m taking these chains off you. I’m sick of seeing you like this. It’s time, don’t ya think, son? To hell with it being a mite early. To hell with what the busybodies and old women might say,” Mort grumbled and went to get the keys.

“Yeah, it’s time. I’m sick of having to wear ’em. I’m sick of the whole sorry mess now!” said Jess and he held his wrists out. “I don’t know how much longer I could have stood it, Mort,” he said quietly.

“Now, now, son. You know what you’re like. You can take most stuff if you have to,” said Mort as he quickly took off Jess’ cuffs and leg irons, and threw them into the drawer. “That’ll make you feel better,” Mort commented and went on, “Come on let’s eat. We make a miserable pair. You should be over the moon. Not long now and you can walk through that door. Free again.”

Yeah, Mort, you’re right. Walk through the door, to what? Jess replied. “Punch cows, hire my gun out?”

“That I don’t know, son. Just don’t go back to your gunfighter days. You’ll have no-one to watch your back. You’ll be on your own and next thing we’ll hear is you’re in trouble or up on Boot Hill somewheres.” Mort Corey shook his head. He didn’t know what to say to Jess anymore. He just wished he could get hold of Slim and try to talk to him.

Jess broke the silence. “Yeah. I know it will be hard after being at Slam’s. I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen, and have got used to being spoilt this last year. I’ve made some good friends and maybe a few enemies. I’ll not hire out my gun again; that’d be letting you and Slim down. I’ll be a good boy, Sheriff.” With that, Jess gave Mort a quick grin and then tucked into his supper.

Jess spent his last night locked up in his cell. Even, after all he had drunk, he tossed and turned. His bruises ached, his head ached and he was as miserable as a cat left out in the rain. He couldn’t sleep and morning seemed a long time coming.

The blood red angry dawn sky bled into a glorious morning, and Jess was free. He had his breakfast, which he hardly touched. The doctor came and redressed his wrists. Finally it was over. Mort gave him his gun belt and iron. He also loaned him fifty dollars.

“Wish I’d had this three weeks ago,” Jess commented ruefully, and shook his head.

“Yeah, son, it would have saved a lot of grief,” replied Mort. “But look at the Main Street — unrecognizable.”

“I know, Mort.” Jess looked up and grinned. “Make sure you keep it that way.”

“Will surely try, son. Need anything else?” the Sheriff asked.

“How much do I owe for Traveler” enquired Jess.

“Nothing; let the county pay,” replied Mort

“Will you do me one last thing please, Mort?”

“Sure, anything,” Mort replied, wondering what was coming.

“I need a bag of bulls’ eyes for Andy. Maybe some store bought toffee for the youngsters. I can’t face going over there yet. Would you do that for me?” Jess asked quietly. His head down as he buckled on his rig.

“Sure, son,” Mort said, unhappy at the misery which hung about Jess like a rain cloud. He felt sorry for him, but he was at a loss as to what he could say that would bring him any comfort. Only Slim could do that.

“Well, thanks again, Mort, for everything. Could I stay here for a couple or more nights? Would I be in the way?” Jess wanted to know.

“Yeah, if you want to. Why don’t you come and stay with me? You’d be mighty welcome,” Mort offered.

 “You said something about curtains getting washed, your sister visiting. It would be hellish! I want some peace. I’d rather be in the lock-up,” Jess said with a sigh, “but thanks for the offer.”

“I’ll stay over with you. Good excuse to get out of the place,” Mort laughed. “The Doc will be pleased to keep an eye on you anyways.”

“Sure, that’s fine. Well I best be moseying along; my gang and Jeff will be waiting for me. See you dinnertime.”

“Yeah sure, Jess.” Mort nodded his head. “I’ll come and collect you. We’ll go to Julie’s. That ok?”

“Sounds fine, don’t really care. I’ll see you, Mort!” With that, Jess strode out the door. A free man at last.

The day passed quickly enough. The tack got repaired and soaped. The tack room cleared out and organized. The place smelled of leather, horse liniment, saddle soap and polish. Everything was organized and orderly. Jeff pretended to be put out by saying he’d never find anything. The smile on his face put paid to that bit of grumbling. Jess was pleased that the old wrangler was happy, as he always cared for the horses and treated Traveler like a pet. Jess had wanted to help him out for a long time.

Finally, he took his gang swimming. He’d never forgotten falling in the river and being pulled ashore by Slim. He’d learnt fast after that. He and Andy had a lot of fun as he learned. He was keen that the youngsters would learn to swim and was surprised and pleased to find that they all could.

“Well!” Jess said. “That’s great, but you’ve got to learn swimming with your clothes on. When you fall in, you are usually dressed. So learning to swim in your clothes could save your life one day. With all the rivers around here, it’s only a matter of time.”

“My Pa would whup me!” cried out JJ.

“No he won’t,” Jess laughed. “Tell him to come and see me. You can blame me. It was my idea. Anyways, we’ll be dry by the time we get back.”

The youngsters were still not sure and milled around looking at each other and then at Jess.

“Come on, will ya. See, I’m even keeping my new boots on!” Jess joked, then shouted. “Last one in carries me back.” With that he ran and dived into the river, followed by all the young’uns, who yelled and hollered and followed him in.

Late that afternoon, a tired Jess slumped in the chair by the stove. Mort looked up and scratched his head. He frowned and put the question. He feared the answer. “Please don’t tell me you’ve been tangling with someone. You’ve not been gone that long. The county can’t afford to put you up again. Not for a bit anyways. What happened? Why are your clothes like that? Who did it?”

“Nothing and nobody tangled with me. I tangled with the river,” grinned Jess. He looked at Mort and laughed. “Took the boys swimming; we kept our duds on. They gotta learn; I nearly drowned cos I couldn’t”

“You’ll get no more cakes, when their mothers see ’em,” a relieved Mort answered.

“That’s no bad thing. It was nice while it lasted. I need to get fitter and get in shape,” Jess murmured

“Jess, Slim’s back from Cheyenne. Just heard from Mose this afternoon,” Mort said quietly.

“Has he been over? Any word?” Jess quickly responded.

“No, son. Sorry,” Mort shook his head and closed his accounts and record book.

“Well, that’s that. I’ll deal with that tomorrow. Are you ready for supper, Mort?” Jess enquired. “Swimmin’ sure makes me fair hungry.”

“Yeah. Here or at Julie’s?” Mort said and watched Jess as he poured himself and Mort a cup of coffee.

“Here, I reckon,” said Jess his voice low and hardly audible.

“Still not ready to go out and meet folks?” Mort knew how difficult Jess was finding meeting up with ordinary folks again. These last weeks, he’d only spoken to those who’d made it their business to seek him out, to talk to.

Jess felt awkward about meeting the others. He still felt mighty guilty and humiliated by the whole sorry affair and he shook his head. He’d decided to lie low, until he could leave Laramie in a cloud of dust kicked up by Traveler as he and the big horse lit out for the relay station and the Lindoe Ranch.

Jess was up early. He collected Traveler who looked fine, but like himself, unfit. He slowly swung up into the saddle and headed out to the Sherman Ranch. He’d listened to Mort telling him to be patient. Let Slim do the talking. Try and keep your mouth shut and don’t lose your temper, he’d said. Jess knew Mort’s advice was sound. But, boy, it wasn’t going to be easy.

He finally rode down the hill into the yard and he’d tied Travelers reins to the hitching post beside the veranda, where he and Slim had sat many a night jawing and putting the world to rights. His knee was complaining about the twelve mile ride. The rest of his muscles were also letting him know that he wasn’t as fit as he looked.

Jonesy opened the door and walked out and greeted him with his usual sarcasm.

“Back again, boy? Look like you’re hurting some. Nothing changes, do it,” he moaned.

“Yeah, and it’s good to see you too” quipped Jess.

“Jess! Jess! Is it really you?” Andy came running out of the barn and flung himself at Jess, who stumbled backwards.

“Go easy, Andy,” scolded Jonesy. “You’re too big to go chargin’ into folks.”

“He’ll never be too big. I’ve got your bull’s eyes. Bet you thought I’d forgot.”

Jess laughed and gave the boy a hug. “Look in the saddlebag.”

“Not before supper!” Jonesy called out after the boy who went hunting the bull’s eyes.

“Where’s Slim?” Jess asked looking around.

“Out on the North fence; half the herd’s on its way to Montana. Him and the Baxter boys are rounding ’em up and fixing the fence. You coming in or standing out here all day?” Jonesy went on.

“Coffee sounds good,” said Jess and followed Jonesy into the house.

At last, they were sitting at the table. Jess gave Jonesy an account of what had happened and of how he’d spent his jail time.

Jonesy shook his head. “The dirty, lousy, coward. Good riddance. Leave Billy be, Jess. Isn’t normal for any man to do that to a defenseless man, hoss or dawg. He’s gotta be off of his head. Damned madman. Mort shoulda killed him.” Jonesy could be a real red-necked Attila the Hun when riled. “You really okay, son? Not want me to give you a rub down? I’ve got some new stuff,” Jonesy asked Jess anxiously.

“No, Jonesy, I’m fine. The Doc’s seen to me. My wrists will be slow to heal up. Just need to take it easy. I’m just here to collect my stuff. Say goodbye and I’ll be gone. Outta your hair for good,” Jess explained.

“Now wait a minute! Where are you goin’? And why?” Jonesy exclaimed. His voice full of surprise, and concern.

“I kind of got the idea Slim didn’t what me around. I thought he’d be there, moaning at the court case. I got sentenced, then nearly got sent to Cheyenne for six months. You must know I did three weeks hard labor. Chained up on the main street, painting.” Jess recounted the facts.

“Yeah! I heard from Mose, son.” Jonesy sadly shook his head. “Musta been hard on you.”

“Sure was.” Jess replied. “I coulda’ got out of it, if Slim had been there and lent me the money to pay the fine. I didn’t have a dime. I’d been cheated out of all my pay. Ever heard of two flushes — same numbers, mine diamonds, Cole’s hearts — in one hand? Nigh on impossible! Anyways, I couldn’t pay it. Mort wasn’t allowed to help either. I couldn’t wire you or nuthin’. I was locked up and I was stone, cold, flat broke. I had to do twenty- one days hard labor. I got a thrashing off the Deputy too. I never heard hide nor hair from anyone. Great way to treat a pard.” Jess shook his head and lowered his gaze. He didn’t want Jonesy to see his face. “So I’m going. I still can’t believe he left me in jail, Jonesy.”

“You got it wrong, son.” Jonesy went on and explained.

“Slim didn’t take the stage to Cheyenne. He had to repair and change a wheel. Then he took Alamo and rode into Laramie to see you. He didn’t know you’d be freed if you’d paid the fine. Mose got that all wrong. He took you your clothes. When he couldn’t find you or Mort, he left a note and some money. He wrote the note in Mort’s office and left it and the money on your hat. He’s upset you never wired him or sent message with Mose. You never asked him for his help. He thought your sentence carried no chance of a fine. He thought you’d accepted that, and were ok with it. You know how you get on and do, if you have to. Slim thought you were being your usual bullish stoic self.”

“That damned Deputy!” Jess raged. “I heard him; he woke me up raking out the stove. Must have stolen my letter and money. The bastard! I was in the little lock up in the back. Never knew about it. Always thought it was some kinda store or something. It’s really quiet back there, real solid and secure. I was dead to the world. Never heard Slim. Only heard the stove being rattled. Woke me up.” Jess shook his head sheepishly.

He’d already made up his mind; he wasn’t going change it now. He then looked up and went on in a strong voice. “Anyways, Jonesy. It don’t matter none now. I felt bad about letting Slim and all of you down. You’ve always said it. I’m no good at this reliable, responsible stuff. You know what I’m like more than most. I couldn’t get word to you. I was locked up. I was in jail, remember. You’re always telling” me Slim would be better off without me and my troubles. Yeah, and I’m a bad influence on Andy,” Jess said. “So I’ll collect my stuff — ain’t got much, just my good gun really — and go.”

“No, Jess please! You can’t! Andy cried out.

“I’m sorry, Andy. It’s for the best. You’ll soon forget about me.”

“Are you not waiting to see him?” Jonesy retorted sharply. “Just taking off!”

“Yeah!” Jess snapped. “It’s a mess. I’ve been stupid. Slim’s mad at me. I feel bad ‘cos I’ve let you all down. Broke my word. I don’t deserve to be here. I’d best be gone. I don’t want to argue with Slim. I don’t want to fight him either. I’ve got the chance of making a lot of money this next four weeks at the Lindoe place. That will sting. So it’s best all round if I go. I’ll never forget you, Jonesy, or your miracle cures; you always did your best for me. I never really thanked you before. Will you shake on it?” Jess held his hand out.

Jonesy turned on him and slapped his hand away.” No, I’ll not shake on anything with you. You darned young fool. You lousy, no-good saddle tramp. You be off! Like as not get yourself killed. There’s no need. This’ll upset the apple cart no end. It’ll be me picking up the pieces again. Go on then, if that’s what you want. I hope you get your fool head blown off.” Jonesy mumbled on, then picked up the coffee pot and went into the kitchen sniffing.

Jess put his head down, and then went through to the bedroom to collect his stuff, followed by a weeping Andy.

“Come on, Andy! Stop this!” Jess rebuked him. “I’ll write to you and maybes if I get settled, you’ll come visit me. Like regular folks do. Do you promise?”

“I don’t know why you have to go,” wailed Andy. Me and Jonesy want you to stay.”

Jess, his voice beginning to break up as Andy’s tears unnerved him, declared, “We’ll always be friends.”

“Yeah Jess, you’re my best friend.” Andy put his arm around Jess.

Jess found it hard to handle Andy’s tears, and Jonesy’s anger. He knew it would be hard, but never thought it would so heart wrenching. He hurried to collect his stuff. Again he felt as if his guts were being torn out when he found all his clothes had been mended and laundered.

I need horse whipped for causing all this grief, Jess thought. I really am a fiddle-footed, no-good saddle tramp. I don’t deserve to be around decent honest folks, the way I’ve treated them. He hurriedly packed his saddle-bags. He went through to the living room and took his plated .45, which he’d put aside when he’d given up his gun-fighting ways.

He would need it, he thought. Finally he checked to see if Jonesy was around, but he’d made himself scarce. Andy followed him outside. Jess turned one last time to the tearful boy. Gave him a quick hug and then swung up onto Traveler. He pulled his hat down low over his face. Then took a quick glance around to check if Jonesy was watching. He wasn’t.

“Well, I’ll be seeing you, Andy. Don’t forget me.” Jess said softly, and kneed Traveler on. His eyes were blinded by unshed tears and his ears were full of Andy’s heartbroken sobs.

He cantered up the trail towards Laramie and the Lindoe Ranch. He was in a daze of misery. I’d rather have a broken leg than go through this. It’s gonna finish me off, Jess thought. What a mess it had all been. Slim hadn’t got a straight story. That damned old fool Mose; never did listen. He hadn’t known he’d no money and all the rest. Anyways it was too late now. He’d never forgive himself for letting Slim down. He felt gut shot. He was so ashamed of himself. It had taken all this time to get through to him. Slim hadn’t abandoned him. He had abandoned Slim.

He was suddenly aware of a horse galloping fast, coming up from behind. He turned as he and Traveler were nearly knocked over by Slim and Alamo charging at his shoulder to stop him.

“Damn you, Jess!” yelled Slim, “You’re a gutless, saddle tramp. Can’t face me. Just skulking off with your tail ‘tween your legs.”

Slims instant attack, caused Jess” hackles to rise and he immediately forgot his need to apologize. He still felt very bitter about being left in jail to do twenty-one days hard labor, even though he’d admitted to himself, that no one was at fault, but himself.

“Don’t you dare start, Sherman. I’ve had a bellyful of you and your complaints. If you’d been thrown in jail, I would have made more of an effort to see you. Just to check you were okay!” Jess shouted back, his face growing dark and full of resentment. “Don’t start trying to lay this on me. I didn’t go starting a fight, hitting a deputy, wrecking the barroom and breaking my word,” snarled Slim, well aware of the threatening and dangerous scowl he was getting from his one-time best friend.

“There you go!” growled Jess. “Always thinking the worst of me. Not ever listening to my side of things. Well, you’ll not get it from me. Ask Mort Corey; he’s been with me all the way. So have most of the folk in Laramie.”

“Here we go again. Playing the poor injured, innocent party — same old story. Things don’t change, do they” Slim sneered

“I didn’t say I was innocent!” By now Jess wanted to smash his fist into Slim’s sneering face. “I was out of order. I was made the scapegoat. I just didn’t get away with it this time. I didn’t have to go through twenty-one rough days if you’d been there for me. I didn’t deserve that. Lindoe was there for his hands. Where were you?”

“I’m not as familiar with Mort’s jail as you are.” Slim couldn’t help having a nasty dig at Jess. “I never knew he had a special lock up in the back.”

Jess was in a rage. “I didn’t know either. You didn’t try very hard to find me. Too interested in a bit of land. In one hundred years time, it will still be there, we won’t. Anyways did he get it?”

“No, he didn’t! Blast his eyes!” Slim spat out.

“Well, you should be happy!” Jess said in his irritating mocking voice.

“I believe you’re going to work for him? Gonna paint his place white?” Slim sneered.

Jess, had he been able to, would have rammed his fist into Slim’s mouth. It was a crack straight from below the belt — a reminder of how Jess had spent his twenty-one days chained up, painting Laramie. He slowly let his breath out, but his eyes narrowed and glittered dangerously. He had to put some miles between them. He could feel his anger taking over and he was ready to erupt into his usual berserker madness.

“It’s been nice jawing with you. I’ve got to get on my way. Mort’s keeping supper for me,” Jess, said as civilly as he could.

“So this is it?” replied Slim.

“Yeah. There’s too much hurt on both sides, I guess. I told you I was trouble. I told you I’d give it a go. Well I have. It just didn’t work out,” Jess said.

“Well, if that’s how you feel, after all we’ve been through, you go. I’ll not try to stop you or come after you this time. I’ll not pull you out of any more scrapes. Just go if that’s what you want. We’ll all get some peace.” Slim didn’t wait for an answer. He just pulled Alamos head around, dug in the spurs and took off for the Sherman ranch.

Jess’ anger subsided; he sadly watched the back of his friend disappear round the bend and into the trees. He was gone. Jess sighed. He’d played it all wrong again. He pulls his hat hard over his face and murmured “Vaya con Dios, pard,” and urged Traveler down the trail toward Laramie.

*****

Next day, Jess started a miserable four weeks with the Lindoe brat. From the first moment, it was war between them. It started with the boy’s attitude towards Jess. He spoke to him as if he were a servant, a field worker even. At first, Jess couldn’t believe what he was taking from a boy, whom he’d never met and who was only fifteen. He addressed Jess by his first name and ignored his outstretched hand.

“Glad to make your acquaintance, Harry,” Jess had said. He’d held his hand out in greeting.

Harry had ignored the friendly gesture and said, “Right Jess, what are we going to do today? I want to do some fast draw and shooting practice. I’ll see you outside the main corral in, let’s say, half an hour. Get my rifle and sort out a decent hack for me.” Harry had turned and gone up the veranda steps into the house. Jess stood as if struck by lightning. He shook his head. He couldn’t believe his ears. Jess did go round to the main corral and sat on the edge of the water trough and waited for his new charge to turn up. Harry finally sauntered up with one of the ranch hands, almost an hour late.

“Where’s my rifle and horse?” were the first words out of Harris mouth. “You get them, Bill; Jess here must have forgotten.

“Bill, I reckon I don’t need you,” said Jess, beginning to bristle, “and neither does young Lindoe here. You got something you wanna do?” Jess asked Bill. Bill nodded and walked away, sensing trouble for young Harry.

“I wanted him to help me,” Harry moaned.

Jess ignored him and simply said, “Get in the barn now!”

“Why?” Harry answered back.

Jess simply took Harry by the scruff of the neck and dragged him into the barn.

“What do you think you are doing? My grandfather is going to hear about this. You’re employed to teach me, not drag me around,” yelled the young boy.

“Shut yer mouth,” snarled Jess and pushed the boy through the doors. He followed the lad in and pinned him to the wall.

The lad tried to push Jess away. Jess put his forearm across the lad’s throat and gave him a quick kick on the shins.

“Stand still, you little brat! You listen and listen up good. We need to get something straight,” Jess growled threateningly. “You call me Mr. Harper, get it. Only my friends call me Jess. You do as I say. We do what I want. You do not turn up late. You do everything for yourself. Do you understand? You’ll listen good. You’ll work hard. You’ll keep your ideas and wants to yourself. Finally, you’ll keep your mouth shut. Do you comprehend?” By now, Jess was quivering with rage. He’d have to give this boy a thrashing, that’s what he needed, with a couple of lengths of pigging string.

Harry was a fool and came back with. “I’m on holiday. I’ll do what I want. You’ve got to teach me this western rubbish. Only the things that I want to do. My grandfather is paying you well.”

“I’m to teach you? You do not have a choice. You do as I say or I kick your butt. Want to start now. Another thing, your grandfather doesn’t pay me enough,” shouted Jess.

“No,” grumbled Harry. “I’m going to tell my granddad.”

Jess raged on. “Go ahead! Tell your pa; tell your ma, tell your ranch hand friends, the local pastor, the sheriff, the 7th cavalry, the barman, the Apache chief, White Eagle. I don’t care. You’ll do as I say or you’ll be on crutches by the end of the week. Want to say anything else.”

“No.” said Harry.

“I can’t hear you!” shouted Jess.

“No!” Harry shouted.

“I still can’t hear you!” Jess yelled as his eyes narrowed.

“No! No! No!” shouted Harry going red in the face.

“You talking to me? Are you talking to me?” Jess asked quietly. His eyes glinted and his face looked dark and dangerous. He stared intently at Harry, daring him to say no again.

Harry dropped his head and quietly said, “No, Mr. Harper.”

“Good! I think you understand. Well, we’ll start your education with the most important thing you need to know out here in the West! Can you guess?”

“How to draw fast and shoot people, Mr. Harper? Like you do!” said Harry suddenly all excited.

“No! And I do not shoot people, unless they are shooting at me. It is about caring for your horse and saddle. Do you have a problem with that?” Jess muttered, unhappy that Harry knew about his reputation.

“No, Mr. Harper!” Harry replied.

“Good! Well, first you need to go and get a shovel, a wheelbarrow, pitchfork and a bucket. I’m gonna” teach you how to muck out the stables.”

So the days went slowly by. Things did not get any better. Lindoe’s grandson was more than a handful. He was not really interested in anything to do with the ranch. He thought fishing was boring and laughed at Jess’ primitive fishing pole.

He even dared to remark that Jess’ way of catching trout was cheating, as he didn’t use a fly. Jess had risen to the bait. He retorted that he fished and hunted to eat. He wasn’t interested in stuffing fish and game and hanging ’em on a wall.

Harry only seemed interested in shooting game and was not interested whether it was in season or not. He showed such an interest in six guns that Jess stopped wearing his rig. He did not want to teach the youngster or give him any chance of handling his gun. Harry was fascinated by the .45s, shoot-outs, and gun duels.

Jess found the boy rude, arrogant and very hard to get along with. It took all of Jess’ good humor and patience to keep from giving him a good hiding. Jess had had a few of those from his pa and others. They had made him stronger, and taught him to behave with respect for others.

Jess had been a wild young critter and his father had the old fashioned way: spare the rod and you spoil the child. He spared no one — child, dog, horse and anyone else who he thought needed teaching a lesson. Jess had turned out just like his Pa.

Time passed slowly. Jess thought he would never do anything like this again, not even for a gold watch. Harry continued to be as rude and awkward as he could get away with. Harry was obsessed with guns. Jess ignored his demands to go hunting. He tried to explain that, unless he was prepared to practice long hours to become a first class shot and walk miles tracking a wounded animal to put it out of its misery, Jess would not take him. Jess hunted for the pot as a way of survival. He killed game as fast and as painless as possible — on the wing, he called it. That was the way Jess wanted to go hunting.

It took great skill, which could not be learned overnight. He tried to get the boy to understand that life, especially when it was young and new, was a great gift. It was not to be taken lightly. Jess hadn’t killed without feeling remorse, grief and guilt which hung around him for days. It was a deadly business; some men couldn’t stomach it, and others reveled in it and enjoyed it.

Most thought it was a necessary evil, part and parcel of the fight for survival in a cruel, brutal land. Jess was rarely frightened, as he was supremely confident in his own ability, but he hated the feeling killing a man gave him. He felt it diminished him. In the end, it proved little, except that he was the faster gun. It didn’t make him right.

Jess saw Harris eyes glaze over as he tried to explain. Harry wanted to kill. So Jess tried to make his aim accurate. The Lindoe boy lost interest in shooting cans after an hour, but Jess did his best. He made him ride side-saddle, trying to improve his balance. He taught him to ride with long leathers and how to use the pommel.

He explained the need to go soft around horses. You didn’t greet folks by waving your arms and shouting. It might not spook your horse, but it might spook theirs. He showed him how to take care of his horse, tend to its shoes, hooves, curry combing, washing down, cleaning out the mouth, nose, ears, rubbing him down, and dealing with the main and tail. Harry listened but didn’t seem to understand that all this care, even talking and crooning to your horse, made it happy; made it good to be with. You only got out of a horse what you put into it — that was Jess’ idea about most things. Not just horses.

Harry and his horse must have been giddy many a day as Jess made him ride around the corral. Jess didn’t feel confident enough to let the boy out on the range. He knew a half ton horse could be as willful as Harry, and if it was out of sorts, could take off and run for miles. Probably dumping and stomping on Harry just for fun.

That would cause no end of trouble. So every night, when they went into supper, Harry was almost too tired to eat. Jess wasn’t too far behind him. Mr. Lindoe beamed when he saw how much his grandson had quieted down. Jess didn’t want to break his illusions. The boy wasn’t any better behaved. He was just plain tuckered out.

Finally Jess decided to take Harry out on the trail for a couple of days. They’d go up on the high pastures, camp out and try to spot some game. He planned on taking Harry above the trees to the snow line. Go really high; it would be an experience for him to be out in the big wide open, up in the snow in the summer.

It was during this period, that Harris true colors came to light and Jess realized he was wasting his time. He moaned and complained continually, about the long hours in the saddle. He never once commented on the wild beauty of the high places.

Jess found being with him torture; the whole sorry situation was coming to a head, as Jess was getting to the stage he couldn’t be bothered talking to the boy. The first evening Harry caused a ruckus when he brought the wrong wood back for the fire.

“Don’t you know dry wood from damp?” Jess said, irritated at the small pile of wet wood Harry had collected. “You know it’s difficult to light and it smokes.”

“So what!” replied Harry “I don’t need to know this stuff. I’m going to be civilized. Live in a proper house, not a wooden shack. Our garden shed back home is better than most of the ranch houses round here.” Harry laughed at that and continued, “I’ve even seen the dust blow through the gaps in the clapboards. There’s as much dirt inside, as you’ll find outside. Anyway I’ll pay someone to chop wood for me.”

Jess listened and couldn’t be bothered answering him. He didn’t tell him that a smoking fire aroused the interest of Indians. He should have got some of the young bucks off the reservation to give him a scare by chasing him. He just could not be bothered. Harry would have fallen off his horse, breaking something most likely.

The evening wore on and Harry continued to do as little as possible. He wasn’t interested in this “Western Rubbish”. He was only interested in guns, even though he did not to practice at target shooting.

“I’ll manage to kill what I’m aiming at. I’ll get close so I can see the whites of their eyes,” Harry stated when Jess asked him how he was going to bring down a stag without learning to shoot straight. Jess gave little involuntary shudder at this, as he knew Harry was referring to men, not deer or antelope. That evening, Jess decided to cut the trip short and go back the next day. The boy was totally uninterested on being out on the trail. Jess thought of the youngsters back in Laramie. They’d have given their front teeth as well as their back teeth to be out here with him. Yeah, he thought and it would have been fun.

After a supper of biscuit and beans, Jess had given up the idea to bag a couple of rabbits. Let Harry eat canned food, like city folks. They turned in after seeing to the horses. Jess made him rub his horse down and told him to check it was tied up properly. Jess had spent the afternoon showing how to do ½ hitches, reef knot, slip knots, bowlines and double hitches. Good knots, which kept stuff secure, but were easy to undo. He’d long since given up trying to teach him how to use a lariat.

Finally, they settled down for the night. Jess lay awake, occasionally stoking the fire. He lay on his back, trying to count the stars in the Milky Way, as sleep was proving to be impossible. He spent the night watching the stars in the Plough spin around the Pole Star. His mind continued to stray back to how he was going to miss Slim, Andy, even old kindly Jonesy, and the calm, relaxed Sheriff Mort Corey.

He bitterly regretted what had happened. He wished now, that he’d told Slim how bad he’d felt about letting him down. Now he’d never get the chance to set everything right between himself and Slim. Jonesy had said that Slim had felt betrayed; that was hard to stomach. He’d like Slim to know this was the most miserable job he’d ever had. Twenty-one weeks hard labor, without the beating from Billy Tait, would have been easier. It was the chance of a thousand dollars, a new start. That had made him take it. But Jess was paying dearly for it. His conscience never let him alone.

Morning finally came, the high country lost its grey, silvery look and was filled with a golden rosy glow, as the sun heaved and clawed its way up into the deep blue sky. It came with another blow. Harris horse was gone.

“I showed ya how to tie the knots!” Jess shouted. “Took me all day.”

“Must have got it wrong,” replied Harry. “Anyway, we’ve got your horse. We’ll easily catch mine. You’ll ride him down and I’ll pack up camp.”

“You’re right there,” Jess angrily went on. “You’ll pack up camp. You’ll carry your saddle and gear out of these trees. Take your rope, haul him down, mount him and ride him back.” It would be a good lesson for Harry. Every cowpoke’s nightmare was being afoot. It’ll be something to tell Cole and the others.

“You know what us horsemen say about being afoot, Harry! Take a cowboy, even a tough Texan, off of his horse and leave him to walk in his high heeled boots and you might as well take yer iron and shoot the poor bastard. Now git.”

Harry did as he was told and went off, humping his saddle in sullen anger. Jess didn’t care. The boy had to learn if he wanted to be treated like a man, he must start behaving like one. Not the spoilt brat that he’d become, only interested in shooting and killing anything with fur or feathers. He did not want to hunt to eat, but for what he saw as fun and the thrill he felt when he saw the life force slip out of the eye and die.

He was going to be one of those men Jess detested, the kind that the killing and taking of life made them feel totally supreme and powerful. They would kill in cold blood, for no serious reason and without guilt or remorse, Jess was sick at heart and wondered how long it would be before Harry would try his gun hand out against a man.

Harry finally caught his horse and did all the chores Jess gave him. They headed back and arrived at the ranch late afternoon. Some of the ranch hands were milling around the stables, finishing up for the day. Jess was getting to the end of his tether with Harry. He wanted to give him a good hiding. Andy wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week if he’d behaved like Harry.

Jess had walked into the barn with Harry and their horses, to be greeted by the big slouching ape-like Cole.

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Here comes Saint Harper. Friend to all children, horses and old men. Not seen you around much. Fancy a game of cards? Aces and deuces wild. Could you stomach that? I’d be kind to you, leave you fifty dollars to pay for your next fine. What’ll it be, you yella, chicken bellied reb?” Cole mocked grinning as he taunted Jess.

“Leave it be,” growled Jess “You don’t want to tangle with me.”

“Ah yeah! Sherman doesn’t like you fighting and now Mr. Lindoe doesn’t, smirked Cole. “Looks like you won’t ever get any exercise.”

Jess felt himself become tense; his face turned hard like granite — dark, threatening and thunderous. His eyes narrowed and glittered in an ominously dangerous way. He ignored him and took Traveler through. He passed Cole and saw out of the corner of his eye Cole taking a swing at him with a doubled up lariat.

Jess ducked under the whipping leather and caught the burly arm on its backward swing. He threw Cole, who landed flat on his back, on the hard packed dusty floor, the wind knocked out of him. For a few seconds Cole didn’t stir. Then he crawled around until he faced Jess. He must have weighed in at two hundred and ninety pounds or so. He had matted black hair, which was thick and curly like a buffalo pelt; it curled over his ears.

A wild tangled beard which hid most of his face. He had little, black pig eyes, just like the wild boar, but without the animal intelligence. He pulled his gun and Jess” boot smashed into his hand, which sent the gun arching away into the bedding straw. Screaming and cursing like a stuck pig, Cole lurched to his knees and swung the doubled rawhide at Jess” face.

Jess stepped back, caught the lariat and dragged the big man towards him. He lifted his good knee and smashed Cole under the chin; he was again flung flat on his back, raising clouds of dust as he crashed down. Jess stood calmly and waited as the big man dragged himself slowly to his feet.

Cole then lowered his head, and with an animal scream of rage, ran at Jess, who side-stepped him and landed a haymaker on the side of Coles face. He followed it with a back hander to the other side. Cole was brought up standing, as Jess stepped forward and swung an upper cut at Cole’s jaw, which knocked his lights out. Cole’s arms dropped to his side. His knees buckled and slowly he sank to the ground and lay twitching flat on his face in the steaming horse muck.

“Thanks Cole, that was real stimulating,” snarled Jess. “Any of you want some of this?” asked Jess, who saw some of the ranch hands were standing with their jaws dropped open as they watched Cole get his promised licking.

Without a murmur, they quickly turned away and pointedly avoided locking eyes with Jess. Suddenly, except for the pole-axed Cole, Harry, Jess and the horses the barn was empty.

“Whew Jess!” exploded Harry.

“What have I told ya?” snapped Jess.

“Sorry, Mr. Harper. Will you teach me how to do that?” Harry appealed to Jess.

“You’ll do enough hurt with a gun,” growled Jess. “Anyways you’ll learn to fight when you go to your new foreign school. Them English will enjoy tearin’ the hide of the likes of you. They’ll teach you some manners! Right now, we’ve got to feed and take care of the horses. I need to check that back fetlock; it felt warm before. Let’s get to it.”

By this time Cole was beginning to shake his head and groan as he came to. Jess got hold of him and helped him to his feet.

“Do yer want to talk some more?” Jess grunted at him. “Or are we done.”

“We’re done!” Cole quietly replied, and holding on to the stall walls for support, made his way out.

“Come see to my horse!” Harry called after him.

Jess quickly gave Harry a crack across the head. “No, he won’t!” Jess shouted. “Get to it or else I’ll give you yer first lesson in how to handle being punched in the face.”

“Yes, Mr. Harper. Sir!” Meekly Harry took the saddle and blanket of his horse.

Time crawled by. Every day it seemed the task of trying to teach Harry anything got harder. Until, finally it was over.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lindoe. I’ve done my best with Harry, but I think he’s too stuck in his ways. He’s got the bit firmly clamped between his teeth. He sure has. That’s no mistake,” Jess said grimly, as he shook his head.

“Yes, I’ve watched you struggle. You are right, of course. If he were my son, I would put him in the navy. He needs to kiss the bosun’s daughter a few times. Anyway, he is on his way home tomorrow. Here is your pay and thank you for trying. I know you did your best. He wants to spend his last evening on the ranch with the hands, not his grandfather. That sums it all up, I think.”

Jess felt sorry for him as he accepted the envelope and shook his hand.

“It’s all there, as I promised,” Mr. Lindoe stated grimly.

“I know, sir. Thank you and good luck with him. Good bye, sir,” Jess murmured quietly. He turned away and went to pick up Traveler. He set of for Laramie as he’d planned, to have supper and a quiet night with Mort, before he set of for the North the next day.

*****

Jess and Mort ate at Julies. Mort listened sadly to Jess talking of the good times with Slim, Andy, and Jonesy. He listened as Jess said sadly that he’d still rather be at the Sherman Ranch than having to hit the trail again, even with a thousand dollars in his pocket

Mort listened to Jess telling him how he’d nearly drowned in the Lolo and how Slim had seemingly appeared from nowhere to save his hide. He made Mort laugh as he told him of Andy’s efforts to teach him to swim. Jess went on, listing the times Slim had turned up and saved his life or saved him from a beating. Jess never mentioned the times he had taken a beating or a slug saving Slim. Mort realized theirs was a strong bond.

It was tragic that it seemed to have ended on the trail with a lot shouting and angry words. So Mort listened to Jess, as he chased his food around the plate, not eating but pouring out his misery and regrets. He was listening to a broken-hearted boy who’d made a mistake and was now paying heavily for it.

Both men were too proud. Mort was at a loss as to what he could do to bring them together. It seemed too late, for he knew come tomorrow Jess would be setting of for Canada. He’d told Mort that he was now dreading it.

He’d be on his own again, on the drift. He’d be blown like a ship without a rudder from one town to another, trying to dodge trouble, Indians and bullets. He told Mort, he’d try, and maybe find, somewhere he could use his money to buy into a business. Mort didn’t say anything. Jess was no business man. He was the guy leading the point, hair on fire, hollering and driving on, giving little thought to the consequences. Good to have at your side in a fight. Totally reliable to watch your back. Would back you come hell or high water.

But business? No. He was as good at calmly dealing with people as he was at poker. Everybody in Laramie knew just how good he was at that. Mort just hoped he’d find someone to watch his back. He sure was going to need it.

The conversation tailed off and they sat in silence. Mort finally finished his coffee and broke it by saying, “Want to come on my rounds about town? I’d like the company. Get it bedded down for the night.”

“Sure, Mort! Why not? I’d like to see how you really earn your pay when you’re not shooting folks and locking them up,” smiled Jess in reply.

“Getting your sense of humor back. That’s a good sign, son,” Mort stated kindly.

“Now stop that!” laughed Jess. “You’ll have me bawlin’. I sure feel like it.”

The pair exited the restaurant and walked down the boardwalk together. Mort tried the doors and Jess kept a watchful eye on the dark alley ways and doorways.

Suddenly the bat wing doors of the saloon were flung open, spilling light into the street and Michael Ingles burst through and charged up the street towards them.

“Better come, Sheriff! That Lindoe kid is squaring up to Slim Sherman. He’s packing and is trying to pick a fight with him. He’s got the Lindoe crew with him as well,” Ingles gasped choking, out of breath from running.

“I’ll go in the front, Mort! See if you can take him from the side door,” yelled Jess already running for the saloon. He slowed up, when he reached it. He checked his gun, spinning the chamber, then carefully and slowly walked in, dreading what he would find. Slim was sitting facing the door at the middle table. At the back of him were young Harry Lindoe and the smirking Lindoe hands.

Damned fool, thought Jess. How many times does he have to be told — sit in a corner with your back to the wall. Slim used to laugh and answer, “I’m not a gunfighter, I’ve no enemies and I’m not wanted. I just keep bad company.”

“Are you listening, Sherman? You stole my grandfather’s land. I’m going to make sure you don’t live to enjoy it. Stand up and turn around you yellow land grabber,” yelled Harry Lindoe, as Cole and the others melted away from him, out of the line of fire.

“Turn round; I want to see the whites of your eyes,” Harry yelled again. His gun hand hovered dangerously low over his holster. Jess watched him as he freed the rawhide thong from around the hammer.

“I’m not going to fight you, son,” said Slim in a low calm voice. He looked up and saw Jess, as he moved to stand beside him.

“Hello, Jess,” smiled Slim. “I believe they’re friends of yours. Is he the one you were riding herd on? Teaching him manners?”

“No friends of mine,” growled Jess glowering at young Lindoe. “Just came with the job. A lousy job at that.”

“Don’t ignore me!” shouted Harry Lindoe. “I’m going to kill you, Sherman, whether you draw or not.”

Slim began to slowly stand up and turned round to face young Lindoe. Jess knew that Slim would not go for his gun. In that instance, Jess knew that he wouldn’t gun down young Lindoe either. This was one promise he could keep.

He just hoped that Mort would drive through and crash into the youngster. He only needed to play for time. He didn’t get it. He was distracted for a second as he looked at Slim. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harry go for his gun. He felt as if everything was happening in slow motion.

“Watch out, Slim,” Jess yelled, as he lunged at him with his shoulder. He knocked Slim flying, over the table and chairs as Harris gun exploded in a cloud of smoke and flames. Jess was thrown backwards, crashing against the screen in front of the salon door. The bullet had ploughed through the middle of Jess’ body.

“Argh!” Jess cried out. He curled up and around the pain that was burning and tearing through his middle. He lost consciousness. Jess had been gut shot.

Mort arrived and saw the smoking gun in young Lindoe’s hand. He crashed his rifle down on Harris gun arm.

“You no-good, murdering bastard. If he dies, boy, you’ll hang for this!” Mort snapped. He grabbed the youngster and flung him into a chair.

“Take him to the jail. Lock him up! Go find his grandpa,” Mort ordered Michael Ingles and Baxter. He then turned to see Slim cradling Jess as best he could in his arms. The blood was pumping out. Already it covered Jess” and Slim” shirt, Levis and floor.

“Oh God, Mort,” said Slim helplessly.

 “Best get him to the Doc straightway,” said Mort. “We’ll be faster. Save time. Need to move quick if we’re gonna save him.”

Some of the men went to help Slim, but Jess was slowly coming round and wanted helped up.

“Help me up!” he gasped. “Don’t you…argh…dare carry…. argh… me!”

“Okay, tough guy, let’s see ya try,” said Slim, still holding Jess in his arms. Slowly Jess crumpled up again and rolled his head into Slim’s chest as he lost out to the blackness that roared up and engulfed him.

Slim carried Jess over to the Docs, and was ordered to leave him on the dispensary table and to join the others outside. Slim could do nothing for Jess now but wait and hope and pray. Mort arrived soon after and Jess’ friends and acquaintances, who’d he’d ridden with as a member of Mort’s posses, all stood around and quietly discussed Jess” latest misfortune.

“This could be it. Looked a bad ‘un,” remarked Walter Hogarth. “Not many men live after being gut shot.”

“Damned shame. He’s only a young fella,” Willy Carson pointed out. “Real sound, good to ride the river with.”

“I know, Willy. A top man. He wasn’t even riding out with a posse or shot gun on the stage. Gunned down by a kid.”

“He never even got his gun out,” Walter continued.

“Jess wouldn’t gun down a kid. He could have taken him if he’d a mind,” Baxter said.

“He needed it; that boy is gallows bait,” Willy Carson forecasted.

“Shows you, you never know when it’ll hit you,” Baxter said sadly and turned to Slim. He gripped his arm and remarked sadly, “I’m sorry, Slim. This’ll be mighty hard for you. You being pards and all.”

“Yeah, thanks.” With that, Slim turned and walked away and Mort followed him.

“I can’t listen to that anymore, Mort. You know he’d left the ranch, was heading for Canada. He’ll have told you. I’ve not been around. I wasn’t there for him,” Slim went on gravely, his voice broken up with gut-tearing emotion. His head was down and Mort had to strain to listen to him. “My last words to him were full of anger. I wanted to hurt him. I called him names. I never even wished him good luck. I didn’t even say goodbye,” Slim went on, as he lashed himself, full of remorse and guilt.

“Come on, Slim, buck up. He’d be mad if he heard you. You’ve got to stay strong, for yourself as well as for him,” Mort quickly reasoned. “Jess is a fighter. He’s a Texan. They don’t give up easily. He’s had it rough since he was knee high to a grasshopper. He doesn’t give up, you know that. Let’s wait for the Doctor. The others have got him buried,” Mort went on trying to muster some hope for Slim.

“I know, Mort. Just look at all this blood. I’m covered with it as well,” Slim stated. “He’s taken some fearful wound, right in his middle. I’ll never forgive myself if he dies. I came into Laramie to continue our fight. I had no other reason to be here. I was looking for him. I wanted to fight.”

“Now, now, son. It’s not your fault,” Mort continued. “You didn’t reckon on the Lindoe kid. Nobody did.”

“I know now how Jess felt. I can’t lose him like this, Mort. Thing’s will never be the same again. Jonesy and Andy are both in bits. They’ve been blaming me for letting him go. But, except for breaking his legs, how could I stop him? Even then, he was so mad, he’d have probably crawled away,” Slim groaned his voice was full of anxiety.

“I know, Slim,” Mort said sadly. “I’ve been thinking on it. I’ll not talk about him as if he’s dead. I will say, though, that if Jess hadn’t been around, this last year or so, a few of us wouldn’t be standing around enjoying the soft Wyoming night air.

“I know, Mort, me included,” said Slim his voice full of emotion. “He was one of the best.”

“Stop that, Slim!” Mort said sharply. “He still is.”

The door of the dispensary suddenly opened and the light from inside lit up the dark street. It was the Docs assistant. “Mr. Sherman, the doctor will see you now,” he called out.

“Come with me please, Mort,” said Slim as he quickly headed for the door.

“Right behind you, son,” said the ever-faithful Mort Corey as they walked into the waiting room.

The doctor had worked hard, stitching and cauterizing a long and devastating wound, which went from Jess” middle up to his armpit. He’d just finished bandaging Jess’ chest; the Doc and his assistant were surprised when their patient opened his eyes and gasped, “Argh… this is…too… much!”

“Welcome back, Jess! Ready for visitors? I’ll not let them stay long,” the Doctor asked.

“Yeah!” murmured Jess weakly and he closed his eyes again.

The doctor went out into the waiting room and was immediately bombarded with questions from Slim, who’d just been allowed back in.

“How is he?” an agitated Slim demanded to know. “Does it look bad? Will he make it?”

The Doctor smiled and patted Slim’s shoulder. “Easy, son. He should be okay, with careful nursing. He’s a lucky young fella. I’ve seen a lot of him these past few weeks and this has got to be the worst. The bullet hit him dead center. It would have killed him if it hadn’t been for that big silver belt buckle — Mexican, I think he told me once. Well, it saved his life. The bullet got deflected, which made the wound worse, as it caused extensive damage. It gouged and tore its way up his right side, finally digging into the muscle and flesh underneath his armpit. I’ve done my best. I’ve stitched it, cauterized and extracted the bullet. He’s well bandaged and I think I’ve managed to stop the bleeding. I’ll come over and redress his side as often as needs be. You can see him for a couple of minutes, before I try and get some laudanum down him. He’s going to have a fearful belly ache, just as if he had been gut shot.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Slim managed to say, then he went on, “You’ll have a fight on your hands. He doesn’t like laudanum; says it makes him feel sick.”

“We’ll see,” replied the Doc, “He might be glad of it.”

The Doc turned away and they followed him into the surgery where they found Jess, still lying on the treatment table. He was very still; his eyes were closed and his face glistened with sweat. He was also moaning very softly, unaware that he had visitors. Slim looked at Mort anxiously, who was shaking his head, sorry for the young man.

How many times had Mort looked down on an injured, hurting Jess? It seemed that the fates enjoyed tearing lumps out of his hide, for Jess paid heavily for his mistakes. He rarely got away Scot free. Suddenly Jess opened his eyes and saw Slim’s anxious face staring down at him.

“You ok, Slim?” Jess managed to ask in a faltering voice.

“I’m fine, pard.” Slim replied, his voice equally shaky.

“Dammit and tarnation, Jess!” said Mort. “You gave us all a heckuva fright. Doesn’t do my nerves no good. What do you want done with that lousy no-good Lindoe kid?” He put his hand on Jess” tense shoulder and held it there until Jess relaxed.

“Send him…East,” sighed Jess.

Slim watched as he saw Jess” jaw tense and clench. Jess tried to suppress another groan and he rolled his head away, so Slim couldn’t see his anguish.

“Have you had enough now? Are you ready to come home?” Slim demanded to know. He knew Jess didn’t cope well with anyone showing him kindness or pity.

Jess couldn’t believe what he’d just heard, and felt tears well up behind his closed eye lids.

“Jess, are you and me going to be ok?” Slim continued.

“I can come home?” asked Jess as he struggled to get his breath.

“Of course you can! You always could. I was stupid to listen to you raving on. I really thought you wanted to go. Jonesy has been making you pies for days. I shoulda decked you,” Slim replied ruefully.

“Slim,” Jess said weakly and he disentangled his arm from the covers and reached out shakily towards Slim, searching for his hand.

“Hold on, pard, you’re gonna be okay,” said Slim gently, worried at his friend’s weakness and obvious struggle with the devastating pain.

“Slim,” breathed Jess. “I’m sorry, so sorry.”

“Yeah, pard, and so am I,” Slim replied quietly.

“Dya think I could have a cup of coffee? Jess asked faintly.

“I’ll see what the doc says.” With that, Mort went in search of the Doctor. As he left, he turned to see the two friends shaking hands. The past already forgotten. He smiled, as he realized that things would soon be back to normal at the Sherman Ranch.

***The End***

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