Bonnie Jean Armstrong (by Effie)

 

Summary:   A Jess Harper story.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (subject matter)
Word Count:  52,761


 

 

Please note that I write for an adult audience, so this tale contains descriptions of a romantic nature. It also contains passages of violent behavior, so if you are easily distressed, please do not read.

For the others, the tough girls, I hope you enjoy.

Finally I would like to dedicate this piece of blood, sweat and tears to all the other fanfic writers who do as I do — toil hard to keep the legend of the iconic cowboy alive. A man who did not cheat, lie or steal. A man of honor who fought and died for family, land and honor, and went on to become the American with a gun.

I salute all these writers who through their integrity, originality, and honest endeavor work so hard to keep the spirit of this myth alive.

And best wishes and happy birthday to the ever-young cowboy – – good health and continued happiness, Your LORDSHIP…….

 

Jess lost his heart when he first saw Bonnie Jean Armstrong at the dance, which was held behind the church. It was the usual type of country romp, with the women folk spending days cooking and baking. The men laid the floor and the youngsters — both the girls and the young bucks — decorated the trees with homemade streamers, and had begged and borrowed every hurricane lamp in the town to light the dance floor — all the nooks, crannies, tables and stage — for the coming jig. The band was the Laramie Rant, who, if a little out of tune, were always loud and kept a good beat going.

The atmosphere was as ever lively; the fiddlers made the old folks’ feet tap, as their knees and old bones were no longer up to the rigors of country dancing. They were happy sitting together like a chattering of starlings vying for attention. They also were busy watching, and many a reputation was destroyed as they reviewed the gossip which was current, and was very often a figment of their colorful imaginations.

Slim and Jess had planned to stay over at the hotel, as they did not want to risk their horses’ legs on an unlit trail like tonight; although the air was balmy, the soft cloud cover meant that there was no moon, and the shadows between the buildings were as dark as a pit. The two friends knew that out on the trail, it would be difficult to see beyond their horses’ ears, so their mounts were now quartered comfortably in the livery stables and they had nothing else on their minds except some fun and a good laugh.

“See her, Slim?” Jess shouted into his friend’s ear. “The one in the white dress, sitting over at that big table the corner. She must be with her kin.”

“You mean that pale girl with the black hair?” Slim yelled back, trying to make himself heard above the music and the caller.

“Yeah! She’s gorgeous,” Jess bellowed back.

“A mite too lean for me, and she looks very young and very small. She might be only a kid. Cradle snatching, are we? You looking for more trouble?” Slim laughed.

With that, Jess punched Slim’s arm.

“Ouch, Jess, that hurt,” yelped Slim.

“Good, I meant it to. I’m glad that you don’t like her, ‘cos I saw her first and she’s mine,” replied Jess. With that, he nodded a goodbye to his big friend and made his way over toward the corner. He was already too late, as one of the Railton crew had gotten there before him and was leading her on to the dance floor.

She was like a picture from a storybook, thought Jess. She was dressed in a gown of white silk chiffon over rustling taffeta, and it was delicately decorated with a pattern of green ivy leaves and trimmed with dark green velvet. She wore it slightly off the shoulder, flounced around the low-neck line, and with puffed sleeves .She had an ivy green sash around her waist, tied at her back with a large bow with long streamers which almost touched the ground behind her. In her raven black long hair, which was piled on her head in a mass of waves with wispy curls fringing her neck, ears and forehead, she wore a large comb decorated with white silk flowers, like jasmine, and soft dark green-jeweled leaves.

She held her head high and Jess was left breathless as he caught sight of her long slender neck and her nape, which was covered with the palest of soft down-like hair.

She floated past him, and her green eyes were fringed with impossibly long black lashes like those of a doe. She looked shyly at him from under her demurely lowered brow.

He stood as if struck by lightning, and watched her as she moved lightly like a swan over a lake to take her place on the other side of the dance floor.

“Take your partners for ‘The Virginia Reel’,” the caller shouted out in a six-acre voice, and the music started again with discordant notes as the musicians decided which key they were all going to play in.

“Move, young fella, or else you’ll get trampled,” the caller warned.

Jess suddenly felt himself being pulled off the dance floor. It was John Barnes, Mort’s deputy. “Watch out, Jess, you’re gonna get stomped,” he said with a laugh.

“Want a drink?” Barnes continued.

“Yeah! That sounds good,” Jess replied with a nod of his head. He did not turn away; he just stood transfixed as he watched her float around the room. He finally turned his head away when John thrust a drink into his hand.

“Seen something you fancy?” enquired the deputy with a smile.

“Yeah! The girl in the white and green dress,” Jess murmured.

“You’ll have a lot of competition.” John grinned. “She’s new, only just got back from the east and everyone’s in love with her.”

“I like a good chase; that doesn’t frighten me,” said Jess.

“Yeah! We all know that. It’ll be entertaining to watch. Things are never dull when you’re around; it’s been a bit quiet of late. A pity you’ve come in a new jacket and shirt.”

‘Don’t start, John,” said Jess. “I just want to dance with her and maybe talk a mite.”

“Yeah, I reckon you’ll be in a line and there could be some pushing,” warned John.

“Well, if it comes to that, you’ll not mind if I push back.”

“No, I don’t mind,” laughed John. “It’s not my head that might get kicked in. It’s gonna be a fun night after all.”

“It will be okay!” answered Jess as he handed his empty glass back to the deputy. “Music’s stopping; I need to be gone,” Jess cried out as he began to move away.

“See you, cowboy! Watch your back,” John Barnes shouted after him.

“Always do!” Jess flung back over his shoulder as he strode swiftly across the room.

Jess quickly made his way over the dance floor, ignoring shouts of greeting from some of the drover kind he drank, gambled and fought with. She had arrived there before him, and was sitting, rearranging her gown. As he approached, he found what seemed like a dozen or so unfriendly, cold eyes watching him. He was suddenly aware of his old jeans, sun faded blue shirt, and his face began to turn red. He became acutely embarrassed as he realized that he was blushing for the first time since he had been knee-high to a grasshopper.

He just made it in time as he felt someone give him a gentle push in the small of his back. He half-turned and found that it was Billy Baxter, who gave him a nod and a friendly smile. Jess turned to the girl, and as the band struck up, “Leaving Cheyenne,” he managed to stammer, “Would you care to dance?”

On hearing the unsure request, she lifted her head and her green-jeweled eyes looked softly into his.

Jess felt as if he had been kicked in the chest by that hard-mouthed paint Slim liked. He could not get his breath — she had taken it away.

He watched and waited as she ran the tip of her pink tongue over her soft moist lips and then she smiled. Her teeth, like the rest of her, were small and perfectly formed, dazzling white and even. Her lips were now slightly parted and she gave him another ghost of a smile.

He held his hand out and she took it, and found that it was lost in his large one. He slowly raised her and led her on to the dance floor; he could feel her hand slightly tremble in his. It was so soft and warm, and felt like a small-injured songbird.

Jess heard the rustle of her silk taffeta underskirts and looked down to see her dancing slippers were of green velvet too. Jess, who was never awkward or clumsy — as his Pa had said, he had been properly put together — felt like a lifeless lump of clay.

He was not aware of the dance — which was one of his favorites and which had caused him so much pain in the past — but that was now forgotten as he tried to dance as gracefully as he could, leading her and supporting her as they swung around the floor. He was terrified of standing on her toes or putting his foot through her gossamer like dress

Thank God, he thought, that he had left his spurs hanging alongside his gun belt and iron in the church porch where the ladies were selling raffle tickets and taking care of the coats.

He knew that they were being watched, as the other dancers gave them lots of room and never once bumped into them. The old crones were finally silenced as they watched the well-matched, handsome young couple, who were so alike in build and color, and who seemed to fit together like a hand in a glove.

The music changed to a waltz; without a word, she raised her arms. He took her hand and then, with his hand across her back, they whirled and swung around the floor to The Laramie Rants version of a Viennese waltz. Afterwards, he could not remember what he had danced to; his senses had been filled with her flowery perfume and his eyes dazzled by her peach cameo flawless skin and her vibrant eyes, which shone like starlight.

Finally, a big, young blood tried to break them up.

“Come on, Jean, you’ll want your supper. Mother sent me over to rescue you,” the youngster said, his voice sounding like a challenge, and his eyes narrowing as he frowned at Jess. He went to take his sister’s arm, but she brushed his hand away and huffily said, “No, Johnny, my friend will escort me over. Will you get him some supper too please?” With that, she turned to Jess and gave him a dazzling smile, which lit up his whole world.

“You know, we’ve never spoken; I don’t know your name,” Jean said in a shy voice and lowering her eyes. Jess saw a flush of color creep into her cheeks.

“Jess! Jess Harper, ma’am,” he murmured as he took her arm and guided her back towards her table, where her kin were all still watching him.

“Jess. I like that name. Sure it is not Jesse?” She gave a little laugh.

“No ma’am, and not James either,” he replied.

“Lovely.” She gave a small giggle. “You have got a sense of humor and you’re quick- witted as well,” she returned quickly

Jess was quite shocked that a young lady would speak to him like that. He felt as if she was making fun of him, and it was more akin to what a mature, experienced woman — even a working girl — would say. He did not expect it from what he thought was a mere slip of a lass.

Finally, they reached the table in the corner. He found that a chair had been located for him, and he sat down a little puzzled but still in a dream-like state — totally bewitched, and lost in the spell that the young Jeannie Armstrong had woven and had caught him.

He never knew what he said, and could not remember any of the conversation. He only knew that he must have sounded like an idiot. He stammered, and did not seem to understand what they said to him. He thought he did, but he obviously did not. Later he realized that they had a strange accent, which seemed to make sense, until he discovered that his replies did not. Jean just looked at him, smiled and gave the tiniest shake of her head. Her father just stared at him, then gave a snort and ignored him. Her mother gave him a quick glance and dismissed him, while her brothers simply followed their father’s lead.

Finally, the tortuous supper was over. Jess was relieved as he had found it almost unbearable to be in the company of so many folk who all looked at him as if he were the town fool.

He was saved when the discordant fiddles started scrawling again; this time it was a polka.

“Come on, Jess, before anybody else asks me. It will be the last one, as we are setting off soon. We are staying with friends just outside Laramie, as it is too far to get home tonight, especially with no moon.”

Jess got up in a daze; he took her hand again and obeyed her request as he swung her out onto the dance floor. They twirled and burled round to the exciting rhythm of the polka. As soon as it had begun, it was over. Jess and Jean were breathless; they were both smiling and their faces were flushed with the fun of the polka, and Jess once again escorted Jean back to the family table.

Her parents had gone, and all her kin stood up as they approached. Suddenly, Jess felt overwhelmed; these men were wiry — tall rangy men who all seemed alike. They were big-boned, with hard craggy faces and sharp features. They all had their sister’s brilliant eyes, but there was no softness in their faces as they looked at him with narrowed eyes, not unlike a pack of timber wolves examining their prey.

They seemed to tower over him, and it was obvious that they were trying to scare the pants off him. Well, he thought, it had been tried before by bigger and better men than these weird-talking cowpokes; as long as they came at him two at a time, he’d be able to take them and teach them some old-fashioned manners.

Jean interrupted his thoughts as she whispered shyly to him; she did not want her brothers to overhear her comments. “Jess, will you please take me out to the surrey? My parents are waiting for me.”

“Sure thing,” said Jess, who suddenly realized what a dumb saddle-tramp he must appear to her family. He helped her on with her shawl, very aware that her brothers were watching his every move. He then escorted her out to where her parents were waiting for her in their surrey. He found that they were not alone, as her brothers followed closely behind them.

“Will you come riding with me, please?” Jess asked quickly as he realized how soon she would be gone.

She gave a small smile and again looked at him through lowered lashes. “Yes, of course,” she replied.

“Where do you live?” he hastily questioned her.

She put her head back and laughed, and the diamond brooch on her green velvet choker sparkled in the soft light from the oil lamps. “You know my name. Just ask and you will find me. Everyone knows where we live.”

Jess had no time to answer her as they came up to the surrey and he handed her up into the carriage. “Goodnight, Miss Armstrong.” he stammered. “And goodnight to you, Ma’am, and to you, Sir.” He took of his hat, remembering the manners his father had beaten into him when he had coached Jess on how to address his elders and betters.

“Goodnight, Jess,” Jean trilled. Her father grunted and her mother simply graciously inclined her head in his direction.

With that, she was gone in a cloud of swirling dust, flanked by Mr. Armstrong’s sons on their plunging horses that were keen to be off.

Suddenly Jess found that he was totally on his own; he turned and went back to prop up the bar at the dance. He looked for Slim, guiltily thinking how he had abandoned him in his pursuit of Jeanie Armstrong, but Slim had gone. Jess stood at the trestle table, which served as the buffet bar, and picked at what was left of the pies and dainty cakes. He grunted to himself as there was only lemonade to wash the food down with, and that was well diluted and tasted worse than water.

He paid little heed to what was going on around him as his head was filled with thoughts of the beautiful girl. He could not get her out of his mind. She was not only beautiful, but clever, sharp and spirited like a young filly — the kind that kicked off at the first feel of a saddle. Any filly that did not do that did not make much of a ride. She had everything, and she was perfect.

He only had to find out which spread she and her kin lived on, and then he would go calling. Jess knew that it was nowhere near the relay station, so it must be further west, up towards the high ranges. He wondered how he had never heard of any Armstrongs, but then he did not know all the ranches, as Slim kept a short lead on him as much as he could. He did not get to drift as much as he would have liked. He only knew that some of the ranches in the high country ran sheep and they all seemed to specialize in breeding horses.

The green grass of Wyoming was ideal for rearing all types of livestock, but Jess only knew the cattlemen and, of course, the stage coach handlers. He also knew a few lawmen, as he and Slim were often called to volunteer whenever Mort Corey was forming a posse. The sheriff in Cheyenne also liked to lure Jess along when he needed a fast gun to back his play. Jess knew that she would be easily found as Mort and the telegraph office would know the family.

The dance was slowly winding down, and he felt obliged to ask a few of the girls he knew to dance, including the sisters of his friends, who laughed as he danced with some of them who were really so young that they were still in pig tails.

He did not want to go back to the hotel too early, as he might get dragged into a poker game, which he could not afford. If he went straight to his room, he knew that he would not sleep. He decided to hang around and see if Slim would drop by looking for him. He finally danced the last dance with Ged’s young sister, much to her brothers’ amusement, and then it was time to drift back to the hotel. He collected his spurs, gun belt and pistol, and when he had finished putting them on, he found that the lamps and torches were being doused. Suddenly, the whole area was looking dark and empty.

Time to go, Jess thought, and he crossed the dance floor, calling goodnight as he left to some of the others who were collecting the debris from after the dance. He went down the alleyway which led back to the main street where his hotel was, but never made it.

Out of nowhere, Jess suddenly felt someone pull the sleeve of his jacket so hard that it was half torn away from his shoulder. The strength and hold on his sleeve swung him around into a fist that smashed into his eye and cheekbone. He tried to swing his other fist at his attacker, but he was caught off- balance and took another blow, this time to his mouth. He could do nothing; his mouth filled with blood. Finally, his arm was freed, but Jess’ eye was closed and he was trying to fight blind. Blood filled his mouth and he could not get his breath as its iron-tasting stickiness was choking him.

He willed himself on as he despairingly thrashed out. He landed a few as he felt the painful jar in his newly-healed arm, but he was fighting a losing battle. His arms were grabbed, and Jess fought on with his feet; he felt his foot sink into something soft and he heard a screaming curse as his feet were kicked from under him.

Jess sagged in his attackers’ hold, as he was winded by being punched in his midriff. He was slowly losing consciousness when he felt he was being allowed to drop to the ground. He vaguely knew what was coming, so he curled up to protect his ribs from the kicking that he knew he was about to get.

Jess didn’t feel it, as suddenly his world exploded in scarlet and a thousand shining shards broke through the red mist that blocked his sight. Someone had broken a bottle over his head. He felt himself letting go, and he began the slide down into the black nothingness, which was as welcoming and as familiar as an old friend.

Mort Corey and his deputy John Barnes found Jess sometime later. They had been on their last round before turning in when they had heard a sobbing groan from up the alleyway, which led from the main street to the space at the back of the church. They found Jess trying to stand; his arm was stretched out, hanging on to the wooden wall for support.

“Come on, Jess, let’s give you a hand,” Mort said kindly, shaking his head. “You live hard, son,” he went on. “If you are not giving someone a thrashing, some one’s giving you one. Get hold of him, John; we’ll take him over to the office, get him cleaned up and check him over. If he looks really bad, we’ll get Dr. Broxton to take a look at him. You got him, John?” The sheriff and his deputy half carried and half dragged Jess over to the jail.

*****

Slim knew nothing of this; he had spent his time at the dance with Julie and had then accepted her offer of supper. Jess was so entranced by the beautiful Jean that he had never once glanced to see what his pard was doing, so Slim had decided to go with Julie. She was always a reliable and willing partner. Slim had decided he should behave with a little more dignity and responsibility now that he was becoming a well-established rancher within the area of Laramie, so he steered well clear of all the attached girls, which could have ended in a fight.

I’ll set a good example to that hellion pard of mine, he thought as he straightened his tie. He would leave the furniture breaking to Jess, who seemed to enjoy that as much as dancing. He did not seem to mind the occasional night- – and sometimes days — in Mort’s cells, drinking his coffee, gossiping and eating all he cakes his many female admirers left for him. Jess could look after himself, but Slim sighed when he got back to the hotel and found that the rooms that they had taken were empty.

Just hope he has not got into trouble, Slim thought, thinking of the winter feed to be brought in and the three mares in foal. He needed Jess fit and able to help out, not banged up in jail or lying in the doctors’ dispensary, being sewn and patched up.

Anyway, he thought, if it had been anything serious, he would have heard by now. Slim thought that he was probably tucked up in one of the saloon girls’ beds; they were always quick to offer Jess one, as long as they could share it with him.

Slim grinned to himself and wondered whose turn it was. Jess always laughed and said he was doing his stallion bit; he would have decked Slim if he had called him Romeo — far too sissified for the top man that Jess saw himself as.

Slim tormented him and said that he hoped that they would never find out that he practiced all his sweet talk on his beloved mares first. With those thoughts making him smile, Slim hit then hay and was soon asleep.

The following morning, Slim washed, dressed and went down for breakfast, with the smell of bacon calling him. He went into the dining room to hear that the sheriff had Jess in jail. Slim refused his meal and said he would eat later; he had to get across to the jail. He quickly went over the street, narrowly missing a pack of barking dogs which were chasing a wagon that was hauling a half ton of lumber, and finally he crashed into the sheriff’s office.

Mort Corey was nowhere to be seen, so Slim called out. “You got Jess in here, Mort?”

“What’s the panic? Yeah, Slim he is through in here,” the sheriff replied as he came through from the back, drying his hands on a ragged towel.

“Is he O.K? Is he under arrest?” an anxious Slim asked.

“Yeah, he is alright and no, he is not under arrest. Should have been but no one has filed a complaint. ‘Sides, it looks like he got the worst of it for a change. We found him in the narrow alleyway leading to the church. Someone — or a few enraged girls’ beaux, kin or father and sons — gave him a good hiding. He’s okay, or so he says, but, Slim, keep an eye on him. He’s been unconscious; someone cracked a bottle over his head. Not the first time for you or him after a dance, but it can be dangerous. You remember that youngster who got a crack on the head falling off a wagon? The Doc said that’s what killed him, although he looked fine for a couple of days. Then suddenly he was gone.”

Slimed smiled and sat down as he listened to the sheriff fussing on about his pard like an old mother hen.

“You’re right, Mort. I thought that he was tucked up safe with one of the saloon girls. I went to Julie’s for supper and went back to the hotel. I never thought he would get into trouble, as he had his new duds on. I guess he will moan at me for leaving him.”

Mort grinned at what Slim had said and handed him a coffee.

At that, Jess walked in from the back, trying to tame his ruffled hair as he came. Slim looked at him in surprise as Jess looked awful. His eye was closed and it had turned black and, purple. His lip was cut and swollen, and he had a gash on his cheekbone just below his eye, which was still weeping blood and really needed a stitch to close the open wound. In fact, his face was so blotched there was hardly a spot that was not reddened; he had certainly taken a pummeling.

Jess’ new shirt gaped open down the front, as there were no buttons left on it, and his new jacket — which he had saved up for months to buy — had the sleeve almost torn out of the shoulder.

“Morning, Slim!” Jess gave a huge smile, followed by a groan and “Ouch, damn it all to hell.”

“You watch that tongue of yours, young fella; this is a lawful establishment. I may still lock you up for a day or two.” Mort grinned.

“Sorry, granddad,” Jess muttered.

“You all right?” asked an anxious Slim. “Your clothes must have offended them as well, as they have taken a hammering too.”

“Slim, I am in love.” Jess grinned again, then worked some of the ache out of his jaw, and carefully ran his tongue over his cut lips.

Mort groaned and shook his head. “Oh no, Jess, that’s all we need!”

“Please no, Jess; it will be as bad as you having a broken leg,” his best friend said as he remembered the other times Jess had been involved with a girl, and had just about managed to escape with his life.

“You not pleased for me?” questioned Jess.

“Yeah, pard, but is the young lady in love with you this time?”

“Dunno! I just know that I am, so don’t start about the other times,” warned Jess. “I feel great; I feel that I could wrestle a bear, chase the sun forever. I feel ten feet tall.”

“That’s nothing new,” said Mort. “You always carry on as if you were ten feet tall and can fight anything. That’s why so many tough guys like to try you out.”

“Well, you can double that now in spades.” Jess carefully smiled and went across to pour himself a coffee.

“Looks like it is serious.” Slim smiled. “I reckon we’re in for some ride. He’ll be going of his feed and walking into doors, and we’ll get no sense out of him.”

“When did we ever get any sense out of him? I must have missed that,” grinned Mort with a shake of his head.

“I’m not listening to you two; you’re just jealous,” the young would-be lover replied.

“Of course we are. We just need some more aggravation; it’ll be worse than having fleas,” Mort stated.

Jess just glowered at the sheriff as he gingerly tried to sip the hot coffee.

“I need to get my jacket repaired, and not with old Jonesy’s dog stitches. Do you think that Julie would do it while we were having something to eat over there? You’ve not had your breakfast yet, have you, Slim?” Jess continued.

“No, I came straight over here when I was told that you were in jail.”

“Thanks, Slim. Shall we go? You coming, Mort?” Jess turned to ask as he made for the door.

“No thanks, son. I have had more than enough of you for today; my nerves ain’t what they used to be. But wait, you haven’t told us who the lucky young filly is. I suppose you do know her name,” questioned Mort with a wry grin.

“I thought that you were never going to ask,” snorted Jess.

“Come on then, what is she like?” Slim asked and gave Mort a quick wink.

“She’s just perfect — very slim, and small with long black silky hair. Her skin is the color of magnolias and her eyes like spring, all dewy and bright. She’s got a lovely smile and she reminds me of one of those Arab mares over at the Lindoe place. Exquisite, tiny hands and feet, so fragile you feel that you could almost break her in two if you held her too tight.”

“Okay, we get the picture. She’s beautiful, she’s perfect. But what’s her name.”

“Jeanie Armstrong, bonnie Jean.” Jess breathed her name softly with a sigh.

“You’re not serious!” cried out Mort, his voice rising.

“Why, Mort? You know her? Got her picture on a poster with a price on her head?” Jess joked.

“No, I don’t know her. I know of her kin, though. They’re a big family; I think that there are six boys and she is the only girl and she is the youngest. The Armstrongs are very well established; they have huge flocks of sheep up in the high ranges where it is too cold for cattle, and the old man’s passion is horses. The whole place is enormous, and there are a number of families who live and work up there as well. Many of the men live out with the sheep, guarding them from the wolves and anything else that likes a young lamb or even a mutton pie.”

“So you reckon they’re wealthy, Mort?” Slim remarked, as he poured himself another coffee and refilled Jess’ cup.

Mort held his hand up and refused. “Yeah. They do as they like, take whatever they want. They have friends in high places, or so folks think. The daughter Jean has been back east at school and such like. She has just returned, so that is why no one knows her. The family also has kin back east, Kentucky way; they breed horses, and are well known in the trade,” Mort went on with a smile as he watched the expression on Jess’ face.

“You’ve sure picked yourself a peach, Jess, a pedigree filly.” Slim grinned at his friends’ surprised face.

“Yeah, I know. I have an eye for quality, or so you say, Slim, and she is a dream,” Jess went on with a grin.

“You’ve picked yourself a parcel of trouble, son. I can’t see old man Armstrong welcoming you with open arms,” Mort growled.

“How do you know?” Jess quickly replied. “I could just be what he is looking for — a young stallion, strong, well-put together, fast with a lot of bottom. I could only improve the breed.” Jess laughed.

“We’re talking about his young daughter — she can only be 19 or so — not a coaching horse,” the sheriff said seriously.

“So you think that there’ll be a problem?” Slim said, all laughter now gone.

“Yes I do, and lots of it,” replied Mort.

“Will you two stop? She’s from a rich family, and has been east. So what? As long as she loves me, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Please be happy for me. Don’t spoil it. I had a few dances with her and got to have supper with the family. We went over to where her parents were waiting for her in their surrey. I asked her if she would like to go riding with me, she said yes, and then she was gone, that’s all.”

“Well, what happened to your face then?” asked Slim.

“Don’t know. I was going around the back of the church when these bastards jumped me. I landed a few good ones but there were too many of them. It could have been worse. I don’t know who they were or why they set about me.”

“I bet it was her brothers or some of the Armstrong hands,” Mort commented.

“You don’t know for sure,” said Jess, “but, see, you have started making trouble between us already. I’ve never met her brothers before the dance. Anyways, Slim, you know that there is always somebody or other in Laramie looking to give me a hiding.”

”Yeah, I suppose; must have been a few of them. You’re sure that you’re not hurt?” murmured Slim, shaking his head as he looked at his pard’s bruised face.

“I’m fine, stop fussing. I’m starving! Are you coming to eat with us, Mort?” Jess repeated his invitation to his friend the sheriff.

“No thanks, Jess,” said Mort, shaking his head. “I think I’ll stay here and enjoy some peace and quiet. I reckon when you start riding the high country, they’ll be lots to do, one way or the other.”

“Don’t worry, Mort; they can only kill me once and I’ll not let that happen. It’s been tried before, as you know. I only want to court her, and with her parents’ permission, especially her dad’s. If I do it right, there can be no problems, don’t you think?”

“Well, I hope you are right, son,” Mort reluctantly agreed.

“So do I, Mort,” Slim muttered darkly. “We’ve the rest of the winter feed to get in, the three mares about to foal, stock to be brought nearer the home pastures, as well as the relay station to take care of. I hope that you are not going to be off chasing after this Jeannie like a love sick loon all the time,”

“I’m going up there once, as soon as my black eye has healed. I’ll wait until things have eased off. You should know by now that I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch. I just want a chance to see if anything comes out of all this. She might not like me in the daylight; you never know. Girls are as skittish as young fillies. I just want you to help me and not make it hard for me. Will you, Slim, and you, Mort? Please?”

“Of course, Pard,” Slim assured him and Mort nodded his head. “Whatever makes you happy, you deserve a break. I’ll be there for you; you know I will,” Slim reassured his young ranch hand with a smile.

“Well, that’s all I can ask for,” Jess replied. “Are we going over to Julie’s now? I’m starving, could eat a horse.”

“You’d never eat a horse,” said Slim. “You might ride like an Indian but you are no Apache.”

“I thought you said that you were in love?” laughed Mort. “You should be off your feed.”

“Shows you’re wrong,” replied Jess. “I’m in love, not got the measles or mumps. I’ve never felt better. We going Hard Rock?” Jess gave his pard a friendly punch and indicated the door with a nod of his head.

“Well, we’ll see. Wait ‘till old man Armstrong sees you off with a backside full of buck shot. You’ll be off your food then,” Mort began to call after them as they headed for the door.

“I ain’t listening to any more of this; you’re making me nervous,” Jess called over his shoulder as he followed his boss through the door.

They exited Mort’s office and headed over to Julie’s, where Jess came in for more baiting, as Jess’ success with the glorious Bonnie Jean had set tongues wagging in Laramie well before breakfast time. Julie repaired his jacket and questioned him, as she could not understand how Jess had been roughed up. She laughed as she said all that he had done was dance with her, eat supper with her family and escort her out to the family’s’ Surrey.

He had never got to kiss her, hug her and he had not even got his face slapped. It had been a most restrained encounter, because like Slim, Julie knew that when Jess was attracted to a girl, he became painfully shy, and the more he liked them, the more awkward and tongue-tied he became. It was going to be a long and tortuous courtship, as Slim knew from past experiences whenever his pard had that said that he was in love.

Finally, they set off for the ranch. Jess had had his face studied by everyone who had met him as he had gone to buy Andy some of his beloved bull’s-eyes. Old Joe at the livery stable had had a laugh and agreed that courting was hard. Jess was getting tired of all the laughs at his expense, and he was beginning to feel the effects of last night’s buffeting. He was beginning to feel sick and suddenly felt as if the very life had been sucked out of him.

*****

At last the two friends set off for the ranch, and cantered through the late morning sunshine, which filtered through the trees making a lace work pattern on the trail. Autumn was in the air all ready, and they both relished the sharp freshness of the pine-tasting breeze, which was settling down, from the high places where a dusting of snow made the highest slopes look like frosted lambskin. Slim’s conversation was, as always, about his anxieties about the weather and the coming of winter, and the urgency of being well prepared. Jess was looking forward to the mares delivering their foals, and talk of his new love was forgotten.

At last, when they had got to the top of the hill overlooking the ranch, Jess reined Traveler in and pulled up.

“What’s wrong pard?” Slim called out.

“Nothing. I just want a breather. I’m feeling a mite tuckered out. Last night’s ruckus is catching up with me. I’m sore and am suddenly dizzy, and I think that that crack on my head is biting back. Just want a bit of a rest, that O.K., pard?” Jess answered as he undid his canteen from its holding lashings and took a long drink from it.

“You should have stayed a couple of days with Mort,” Slim muttered. “Nothing is that urgent.”

“Don’t like jail cells, even when the door is not locked and I am only a guest. Slim, you are wrong; as soon as the hay is in, I want to go visit the high country. I want to see bonnie Jean and her pa.”

“Yeah, I know. Jess, just take it easy, please,” said Slim. “Don’t go at it like a bull at a five-bar gate.”

“I don’t do that!” Jess replied his voice rising in indignation. “You know damned fine I don’t.”

“Maybe not with women,” laughed Slim. “But with everything else, you do.”

“That’s not fair. Why do you always try to make me out to be reckless?” moaned Jess.

“That’s simple because you are. I am worried that you are taking on more than you can chew with these Armstrongs. Look what happened last night.”

“You don’t know that it was them,” replied Jess, “I don’t even know who it was.”

“Well, I can guess!” growled Slim. “Have you had enough rest now? Do you feel like going on? Jonesy will have our dinner ready.”

“Didn’t get any rest!” Jess complained, “with you raking me with your spurs again.”

“I didn’t mean to have a go at you. I’m just worried about what you may be riding into and I just want you riding back in one piece.”

“I can take care of myself,” Jess muttered quietly putting his head down.

“Yeah? Well, by the look of you,” replied Slim, “it doesn’t seem that you are making a particularly good job of it.”

“I’ve had enough of your belly aching,” said Jess. “I’m the one hurting and should be moaning, but it is you that is raking on and complaining as usual. Let’s go before we really start to argue. I’m too tired to fight with you today.” With that, Jess, with a squeeze of his inner thighs, urged Traveler forward.

Slim quickly followed on Alamo, and the two rode down the hill towards the ranch house together. Slim could swear that he could smell one of Jonesy’s puddings steaming away; he hoped that it would be spotted dick.

Slim glanced at his friend and was about to ask him if he could smell the rich spices, when he noticed the film of perspiration on Jess’ forehead. That worried him because Jess rarely complained about his hurting. “Feeling better, Jess?”

“No! Getting moaned at by you makes me feel low,” came the growled answer.

“Well, I’m sorry, pard,” Slim retorted sharply, “but you know how I worry.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. I find it hard to handle and it does not help my confidence any. I want you to stand by me, encourage me, and not keep sowing seeds of doubt in my head. That will sure as hell slow me up, and one of these days get me killed,” Jess grunted.

“Okay then, pard, we’ll play it your way,” retorted Slim. “I’ll try and keep my mouth shut and just pick up the pieces as usual.”

“I don’t normally end up in pieces.”

“You don’t have to count them,” said Slim with a small smile as they rode into the yard of the relay station together.

The two men stopped their horses in front of the hitching rail outside the porch, and began to dismount. Jonesy watched them from behind the lace curtains in the door. He caught a brief look at Jess’ face and saw how slowly he dismounted; he was obviously feeling some new hurt. Jonesy went straight out of the door, his normally easy going drawl lost, and his voice was raised in anger.

“You two go to a dance or a prize fight?” the old man shouted. “I can tell who came of worst.”

“Hush up Jonesy,” Slim exclaimed. “Quick, get a hold of him; he’s going to fall.”

Jess’ legs had started to buckle under him as his feet hit the dirt, and it was only Jonesy’s quick reaction, taken without question or argument, which stopped Jess from slumping to the ground.

“Ah, Jess dear boy, what’s the hell been happening to you again?” asked Jonesy.

“It’s nothing. I’m just feeling a bit dizzy; got a crack on my head,” Jess tried to explain in a tired voice.

“Come on, Jess, let’s get you inside,” Slim said as he and Jonesy helped Jess into the house.

“Let’s take him through; he needs to lie down,” Jonesy ordered.

“No, please, I’ll be alright by the fire,” Jess groaned.

“You’ll do as you are told,” muttered Jonesy in a threatening voice. “I’ll get you some soup and then you can get some sleep, that’s what you need; you’ll feel better after that. Slim, there’s some Mulligan, mashed spuds and biscuits in the kitchen. Help yourself; I’ve some doctoring to do.”

“Thanks, Jonesy. You sure you don’t need some help with getting him settled?”

“He needed your help when this happened. You weren’t around, and you’ve not got a mark on you. How come you let this happen?” Jonesy continued. “I thought you two watched out for each other?”

“I thought that he was O.K.,” retorted Slim. “He was with this girl all night.”

“She do this?” Jonesy asked as he helped Jess off with his shirt.

“Course not; don’t talk daft,” Jess tiredly said.

“No? I think maybe her brothers did, or their ranch hands,” Slim said defiantly.

Jess slowly and painfully turned his head towards his pard. “Are you going to start that again?” and his voice started to get heated. “I’m going to have to take you outside.”

“Not today you won’t,” Slim replied. “You rest easy and let Jonesy take care of you. I’ll go settle the horses, get something to eat, then I need to go check that new bull we bought the other week. I’ve not seen it for a day or two. I’ll tell Jonesy all about this latest bit of bother that you have got yourself into.”

“You can, Slim; I hope to be asleep by then. I’m glad I won’t have to listen to your tall stories, and I’ll tell Jonesy the truth when I wake up.”

“Right, you two. You get going, Slim; I’ll get Jess something to help him sleep, a bit of soup and a steak for that black eye. Is it as painful as it looks, Jess?” the old man asked kindly. “You really could do with a stitch in that cut.”

“No, Jonesy, I don’t want any dog stitches in my face.”

“Ungrateful varmint,” Jonesy grumbled as he turned away and headed for the kitchen.

“Told you, Jess. He’ll have you as good as new in a couple of days, just raring to go.” Slim laughed as he stood up and hitched his chaps up a mite.

“Not if you are around tormenting me. Just let it be, please, Slim,” Jess pleaded in a tired voice.

“Okay, Romeo. You tell Jonesy in your own good time and I’ll keep my eyes peeled for trouble. Get a good rest. We’ve got all this feed to get in and your girls will be needing you soon. I’ll leave you in peace, pard. Try and get some sleep.”

“See you when I see you, pard, and thanks.” Jess called as Slim went quietly through into the living room; closing the bedroom door behind him.

*****

A little later, Slim left Jess to Jonesy care, and after filling up with Jonesy version of Irish Stew, went out on to the range to check on his stock. He knew from experiences that the old man had a lot of time for his young ranch hand, and he enjoyed practicing his so-called doctoring skills on him. Jess was his usual patient; even though he was an excellent horseman, he was often on the receiving end of some four-legged creature’s rage.

It was not often Jess asked for Jonesy’s help; more often than not, he fought off the old man’s well-meaning attention. Jonesy soon discovered that as soon as Slim had gone, Jess seemed to make a speedy recovery. He was still a bit dizzy and sore where he had been kicked, but he was full of excitement and was desperate to tell the old man about the new love in his life. Jess did not really need any doctoring; he had been playing possum.

The old man shook his head, and with a sigh, he sat, nodded, and listened to Jess’ boyish enthusiasm as he described his newfound dream.

“Well, Jess, she sounds great, and it is good that this time she only has two legs,” joked Jonesy.

“What do you mean by that?” snapped Jess who wanted to be taken seriously.

“I’ve never heard you go on about a girl like this before,” Jonesy said. ”It is usually some new horse you have found, like that black brute of a stallion which nearly killed you.”

“He never did. I’d have ridden him in the end; it was you and Slim turned him out,” Jess began to rage as he felt his hackles beginning to rise.

“Well, if you want to believe that…”

“God damn it, Jonesy,” fumed Jess. “You won’t take me seriously; every one today has made fun of me.”

“Most men, when they are mooning on about a girl, leave themselves wide open to be made fun of. Why do you think that you should be treated any different?” replied Jonesy, shaking his head.

“Just thought that you would understand, but there again, it’s probably been so long since you were in love that you have forgotten how it feels,” Jess carped on at the old man.

“No, son. You’re wrong,” Jonesy said sadly. “You never forget what it is like and I have never forgotten.”

“I’m sorry, Jonesy; that was uncalled for, straight out of a cellar,” said Jess shame- faced. “I don’t deserve your care.”

“You’re right there!” the old man spat out bitterly. “I’ve wasted a lot of my time on you. I don’t know why I bother. Next time you need brought back from the dead, go and get one of your so-called friends to do your doctoring,”

“Oh no! Jonesy,” Jess quickly replied and held his hand out to the old man who had turned away. “I’m sorry; I know that if it wasn’t for you, at worst I wouldn’t be here. I find it hard to tell you how I feel, but I know that I owe you my life and that I will never ever be able to thank you enough. I try to repay you by watching out for Slim and Andy. You know that I would die for them; it is the only way I can repay you for all you have done for me. Please stop this; I will always need you. I wanted Slim out of the way so I could tell you about Jeannie Armstrong. I wanted your opinion without Slim’s usual doom and gloom advice. Please, forgive me; please listen,” Jess pleaded almost with a sob in his voice, which had become even more rasping with the emotion he felt that was coursing through his veins and that was threatening to choke him.

“Okay, son! I’m sorry I made fun of you,” said Jonesy as he turned back and sat on the edge of Jess’ bed. “What do you want to tell me?”

“I don’t know,” said Jess. “Jeannie doesn’t know how I feel and I don’t know what to do.”

“Well, if I were you, I’d wait ‘till the black eye and all the bruises are gone. They could upset her mother. I’d go and talk to her pa, and get his permission to take her buggy riding and such like. Take her flowers, candy and just listen to her; just take it easy and become her friend, then see how things go. Yeah, and take an interest in all her family and what they do. Try and become their friend too.” Jonesy stopped to take a breath.

“Sounds like a lot of hard work,” Jess said, shaking his head.

“It’s like hunting, son. You know all about that.” Jonesy grinned. “You bait your trap, maneuver them into a blind canyon, take ‘em by surprise, and show them that you pose no threat. Keep your head down and watch your back. Yeah, Jess, it’s just like hunting. When you have ‘em bridled and hogtied, you show them whose boss.” With that, Jonesy threw his head back and gave one of his laughs, which sounded more like a donkey braying.

At that, Jess laughed too, and the old man finally held his hand out which Jess took and shook, relieved that the old man had seemingly forgiven him.

“You’ll help me then?” the young ranch hand questioned the old man.

“Sure, I will, son; I’ll make sure that I have plenty of my potions ready. Fathers and brothers can be mighty rough with fellas who come courting their women folk. I’ll get something for that black eye. Pass me your shirt; I’ll put it in the wash and then sew some more buttons on it. You need anything to help you sleep?”

“No thanks, I’ll have me a rest and then I need to go out and check on the mares which are about to drop their foals. They are going to be beauties.”

“These ones out of that Akhal-teke? See, I’ve remembered the breed.”

“What about his name?”

“Got me there, son. Just know that you get to use him for not putting Lindoe’s son in jail for nearly killing you.”

“Forget about that. He was only a spoilt, daft lad, and he didn’t. And I get the use of Kamal. Well worth a few weeks in bed.”

“Glad you think so. Aged me beyond my years, but you’ll not remember; spent most of the time unconscious,” Jonesy went on, remembering the dark days when he sat by Jess’ bed and watched him fight for his life.

“Forget it, Jonesy. These foals will make top-class riding stock; the officers will be fighting for them and the rich ranchers too. A great horse — good-looking strong. I’ve told you about them before, haven’t I?” an excited Jess explained.

“Yeah, Jess, just about a million boring times.” Jonesy laughed and took the shirt that Jess passed to him, and then went to look for something to put on Jess’ eye.

*****

The days passed quickly and Slim watched anxiously as Jess, painfully tried to do his share of the ranch work. He was aware that Jess was working every hour God sent to get all the planned chores done, so that he could chase after his chosen dream with an easy conscience. Jess had let Slim down once before, and it had almost been the end of their friendship. But as it had worked out, it had only strengthened the bond, and now Jess always did his level best to be there at Slim’s side whenever the need arose. He was totally reliable, and whenever he was overdue, it was Slim who fretted and paced the floor until he came back, usually with some tall tale to tell, or some new lump taken out of him.

During all the bustle and seemingly disorganized haste of getting the winter feed in, Jess’s girls, as he always called them, dropped their foals, in secret, of course in the middle of the night. Jess was ecstatic; they were everything that he had hoped for. He could barely stand being apart from them and spent hours with them and their mothers, talking to them and beginning the gentling of them, which was what Jess was famous for; his schooled horses were as gentle as kittens. Slim had almost unmanned him by telling him to choose one for himself. Jess could not say anything as his throat was choked with emotion. He just went back into the stables to be with them again, to talk softly to them and their mothers and try to decide which one he would be keeping.

Finally Jess’ face lost all signs of his beating, except for a small scar on his cheekbone. Jonesy caught him checking his scars in the mirror and had smiled to himself, and thought of the fun he was going to have at his favorite’s expense. Jess was not one who cared how he looked. He liked to feel fit and be clean, but anything else was too sissified to be bothered thinking about.

“Do you think it looks bad, Jonesy? I don’t want her mother to think that I am some kind of barroom brawler, some hard case.” Jess moaned and turned away from the mirror.

“So you don’t think that you are a barroom brawler? You’re not some hard case who’d prefer a fight to his dinner?” the old man snorted. “You don’t care about that; you’re just frightened you’ve got your pretty face messed up,” old Jonesy said with a laugh.

“Get out of here, Jonesy; you know better than that,” Jess whipped out.

“No I don’t,” Jonesy continued. “Don’t you worry about your looks and women. They love a scar or two. Makes a fella more interesting.”

“Well, that’s good to hear.” Jess laughed and poured himself a coffee.

“Yeah, Jess. You just need to pull of your shirt of and they’ll be all tearing each other’s hair and eyes out, fighting to take care of you. I remember Mort telling me how they were all baking for you when you were in jail, and you play the poor innocent hurting sick…”

Jones got no further, as Jess went to grab him. The old man was a wily old devil and he had watched Jess as he had wound him up. He had been slowly moving towards the kitchen door, as he was enjoying tormenting Jess as he repeated what Mort Corey had called him; when he saw Jess make a dive for him, he moved fast and was through the door, which he slammed in Jess’ face.

Jonesy laughed and walked straight into Slim.

“What are you up to?” asked a puzzled Slim, as he rarely saw the seemingly miserable old man laugh.

Before he got an answer, the kitchen door was nearly torn off its hinges and a fuming red faced Jess charged out.

“Whoa up there, Jess. What’s chasing you?” Slimed pealed out with laughter.

“That old buzzard, he’s never finished baiting me.”

With that, Jess made a grab for Jonesy, who laughed again and slipped behind Slims’ back for protection.

“Hold on, Jess.” Slim pushed his pard back. “What has he said that has got you as mad as a wet cat.”

“He said that I was worried I’d got my face messed up; he called me pretty and he thinks I am a peacock,” Jess continued to rage.

“I caught him posing in front of the mirror,” Jonesy mockingly replied

“You’re a damned liar, I told you.” The rest of Jess’ answer was lost in Slim’s trumpeting laughter.

“How old are you now, Jess?”

“Don’t you dare start on me; I‘ve been raked enough. I’m going to see Traveler and the mares; I need someone sensible to talk to,” Jess complained as he began to turn away.

“Yeah, we all know,” Jonesy went on. He could not help himself as he said, “You’ll be practicing your sweet talk, getting ready to corral that poor young lass — Bonnie Jean, did you call her?”

“Jonesy, let him be,” Slim laughed, “or you might end up on your back with him doctoring you.”

“That’ll never happen,” Jess growled. “I’d put that old critter out of his misery. Waste of time doctoring him. He’d been a horse, I’d of put a bullet in him years ago.”

“Now stop it,” complained Slim, worried that the funning was getting a might too serious. “You’ve been like a dog with fleas for days now. You look all right. You’d scare no one now, and that scars nothing, will not show when the scab is off it. Why don’t you take a couple of days and go and look up the Armstrongs? Who knows? They might even let you get close to their precious filly.”

“You think I look O.K.?” Jess asked still anxious.

“What did I tell you, Slim?” Jonesy snorted. “He’s still on about his face.”

With that, Jess made another grab for Jonesy, who still cowered behind Slim’s back. Slim caught hold of Jess, and began to drag him away.

“Come on, Jess,” Slim said, “leave him be. We’ll get a coffee and sort out this trip. You’ll need a second horse and maybe a couple of days.”

“Yeah!” Jonesy shouted at their retreating backs. “She’ll not want a tired, worn out saddle-tramp turning up.”

Slim laughed. “Jonesy, stop it!” He pushed Jess through into the kitchen.

“Slim, as God is my witness, I’m going to kill that evil old devil one of these days; he’d be worth hanging for.”

“Yes, Jess, of course you are. Now are you making the coffee or am I?” enquired Slim.

“No, I’ll make it. You can’t make coffee to save your life. When you do, it is undrinkable. Outta the way; let me do it.”

As Jess began to fill the coffee pot, the door was opened and Jonesy came in.

“Shall I make you two some coffee as yours is undrinkable, and I have some cake which needs coffee to wash it down?”

The two friends looked at each other and started to laugh. Jess picked up a dishcloth and flung it at the old man, who deftly caught it.

“Thanks, Jess; I’ve been looking for that all morning.”

*****

Slim lay wide-awake listening to the gentle snores which came from his pard who lay dead to the world just a few feet away from him. He watched the silver moonlight shimmer soft through the gap in the curtains, catching the dust particles as they floated and drifted in the still air.

He turned over yet again, trying to be a quiet as possible as he knew the flurry of temper that would flare up from the usually happy- go-lucky youngster if his sleep were disturbed. Slim smiled at the thought, as he knew that out on the trail when they camped surrounded by what sometimes seemed like every wild beast on the planet, Jess seemed to sleep with one eye open and both ears. The slightest sound or even change in wind direction had him on his feet, gun cocked and in hand, in less than a blink of an eye.

He sighed as all of his thoughts were centered on Jess and what could lie ahead of him. He worried as he remembered in times past the way Jess had had his heart torn from his chest. He had allowed a beautiful face, a slim ankle and a dazzling smile to make him forget caution; in fact, to throw it to the wind as he allowed himself to be drawn away, chasing his romantic dreams and his hopes for a future home, a wife and children chasing after chickens in a sun-filled yard.

Slim remembered when Jess had only been with them for a few months, and it had been a very hard time adjusting to having such a volatile, restless and prickly young man upsetting the usual placid and dull routine of small ranch life. At best, it was a humdrum existence of back-breaking hours spent tending horses and half-wild cattle, as well as the demands of shattered passengers enduring the torture of a stagecoach ride. The miles of fences which were forever going adrift for no reason he could ever think of. He also had the constant worry and uncertainty of living in an immensity of land and its weather, which threatened the men who fought to tame the lawlessness, and the ever-present, watchful natives with their coal black expressionless eyes and silent brooding watchfulness. Andy’s growing menagerie and neglected homework, coupled with keeping old Jonesy happy, were the very least of his problems. Since his father had died, the responsibility of developing the ranch as a business had robbed Slim of much of his early manhood, as he had found it hard to bear alone. He often felt like the old sailor whom he had read about at school, who had been condemned to wear a dead albatross around his neck, Slim knew just how that felt.

It had been after his fight with the Carlin gang and Jess’ unexpected help and then agreement to stay on and work for him that had changed his life. The first two years had been traumatic, and Slim would never forget moving a dying Jess into this bedroom, and then spending hours trying to help and will Jess on as the young drover fought against losing his arm and maybe his life.

It had been Jess’ fight with his old Owlet gang, whose leader wanted to kill Slim for shooting his young brother out of the saddle, which led to Jess being accused of riding with the gang of outlaws. That had been the start of the two years of misery they had all had to go through at the hands of the deputy, whose complaint against Jess had been that he had stolen his girl of him.

Slim also found out how Jess had such a huge heart: he was steadfast in his loyalty and would bear the scars of a branded arm until the day he died. He had suffered and kept his teeth shut as he as it had been deliberately burnt in an effort by Charlie, Jess’ one-time friend, to find out where Slim was.

It was the old rancher Whitehead and his son who had told Slim how they had found Jess lashed to a tree, left to die in the sleet that howled though the pines, after he had been used for target practice by Billy Tait’s nephews. He had been accused of helping Charlie and his gang, and Mort Corey had left him guarded by Tait’s nephews, who had decided to help their kinsman extort his longed for revenge.

Slim only knew of this when he’d heard from the others how Jess had been accused and left with the Taylor brothers. He was on his way across the parade ground when in the half-light he’d seen a limping, bedraggled horse following a buck board and stop outside the garrison sick bay. Slim sighed as he remembered that he had recognized the horse as being Traveler. He had slipped in the soft snow as he had raced across to the buck board, he had been screaming inside as he had seen the blooded rain dripping from the wooden flat bed.

Jess was only just alive, and Slim had been sickened that he was not allowed treatment in the sick bay. The injured Laramie men had shouted out in protest when Jess’ body was carried in, and so Jess was treated and billeted in the guard house.

Mort had finally arrived as Jess was finding his feet and arrested him. He had sworn Slim in as a deputy and had given him the onerous task of bringing Jess in. Slim still felt sick to his stomach when he had had to cuff his friend who was still so weak, so weak, in fact, that after only a few miles Slim had had to ride up behind Jess to stop him from sliding out of the saddle.

The two of them had made it to the Whitehouse ranch house just as Jess’ body was convulsed with shivers, and Mrs. Whitehouse had done what all women did when they had a sick Jess to tend to — she suddenly turned into a fluffy broody hen. He was put to bed, warmed, cleaned up and finally fed. Slim decided to go out on the range and meet up with the rancher, as he needed to borrow his buckboard to get his wounded prisoner back to Laramie. He thought of Jess as that, as it was the only way he could his duty.

When he came back with the rancher and his men, they’d found the ranchers wife locked in the cellar, screaming like a banshee, a sobbing Pauly with a smashed knee, and Cole with a neat close pattern of three bullet holes in his chest and one between his eyes. Charlie had lain on the landing with his brains splattered all over the lime washed wall, glistening in the soft lamplight which shone from Jess’ bedroom.

Slim had thought at the time of how Jess could be so fun loving, devil-may-care and generous. He did not have anything of any value but Slim knew that he would give any man in need half. He was always scrupelessly fair in a fight, and first to protect his friends. Slim now realized that there was a blackness in Jess — a stoic, unbending, ruthless and fearsome man — and Slim hoped that he would never meet him, or find him to be his enemy. He had seen the evidence when he saw the bodies of the two men whom Jess had ridden with and who at one time he had counted as his friends.

The weeks and months had passed and Slim had watched unable to help as he saw the whole incident had hurt Jess spiritually more than physically. He had felt so betrayed, because for Jess there was no crime worse than betrayal. Charlie was a few years older than Jess, and he had taken him under his wing during the war, and had treated him like a kid brother. He had helped him survive the war, the butchery of the blood-drenched mud that they were forced to live and fight in, the putrid wound which had almost killed Jess and then the time they spent caged up as prisoners of war. Jess had been marched off to a military jail in the north after being accused of attempted murder in a failed escape, which Jess thought had been a success, as 43 Texans were never recaptured. He had that thought he would never see Charlie again, until after trailing four thousand head of cattle up the Chisholm with Christie, he had run into his old friend and had helped him take a bar apart in Abilene which was selling rotten whisky that was tearing men’s guts out.

It had been Charlie who had helped him to recover from the death of his first love Marie. He had nursed him back to health, and Jess had stayed with Charlie and had gone on the Owlet trail with him and his gang, until he had been caught and jailed.

Slim sighed as he remembered how Jess had unburdened himself, and told the tale, on the last night they were camped out after rounding up cattle. It had been so cold that they lay frozen to the iron hard ground, under the endless eternity of a star strew sky. He had lain shivering, listening to Jess’ memories and some of his experiences before he had fetched up at the Sherman ranch.

His relationship with the one-time gunfighter and reformed outlaw had become a strong bond that had almost been destroyed when Slim, through the usual lack of communication, had left Jess to serve a sentence in Mort’s’ jail. It had taken Jess’ almost suicidal actions that had saved Slim’s life to heal, renew, and make that bond even stronger.

Slim had been amazed how Jess had dismissed the hard labor, the hassle with the Lindoes, and had claimed that it was all worth it as they now had use of Lindoes magnificent stallion to cover their mares whenever there was a need.

Slim let out a huge sigh and felt himself shudder at the thought of his pard riding off tomorrow, chancing his luck after all that had happened to him in town, and completely ignoring the lessons of the past. He was riding away just as if he were going to a Sunday school picnic.

He rolled on to his back, gazed up at the ceiling hoping to see the faint grayness of pre- dawn. He had not slept yet and he yawned. He closed his eyes and as he listened, he became aware of the heavy silence. He knew that Jess was awake and he lay in the blinding darkness and waited for the mocking voice.

“Well, old worry guts, happy now that you have got me awake?” the rich deep timbre voice growled quietly out of the grayness.

“I’m sorry; I’ve just been thinking of all the troubles you have had caused by women.” Slim tried to explain, as he felt foolish for his restlessness at keeping Jess awake.

“Not that old chestnut. I don’t want to talk about Billy Tait; I’ve told you how I could not kill a mad man after him claiming that I had ruined his life by stealing his girl friend. I still do not know how that happened, I had one dance with her and I never even knew her name. Slim, don’t ask me about Marie either. She’s gone and I have drawn a line in the sand and want to forget.

“Okay then, what about Mrs. Bentley, Captain Bentleys’ wife?” said Slim, still wanting to chase the dark days down.

“Slim, you started that whole mess. If it hadn’t been for you making me go to the bank, I would never have had a run-in with the guys who were holding it up. You know now that I came back concussed, full of Mr. Penn’s’ brandy that had been poured down my throat by his foreman Jack Rider. You took one whiff of me and nearly broke my jaw and ran me off. It was left to old Jonesy to give me my pay and help me. You knew how Snee and Keith Massey from the wagon train found me, robbed and left for dead, with only my shirt and pants. I will never forget how they and Audrey cared for me.”

“You make it sound so innocent and simple. You’ve left out having lost your memory for months, fighting with some mustangers, getting an arrow through your leg, jailed and being found guilty of murder, and you left out the fact that Mrs. Bentley was married,” a grim stern Slim reminded his friend.

“Yeah, I know, I know, and I always knew that it was wrong,” Jess quietly admitted. “But there was not much more.”

“All I can remember was the hellish time waiting for you to turn up, then spending what I thought were your last few days before they hanged you, just being with you, and it was me who was falling apart. I will never ever forget walking you up that street, you limping, hands cuffed behind your back, on your way through the crowed street on your way to the scaffold.” Slim felt a shudder coarse through his body as the stark memories flooded back.

“You think that I don’t remember? Do you think that I will ever forget? I still get nightmares. I saw her with her husband, all sunshine and light, her head back laughing, not a tear in her eye as she had come to see me hang. Slim, I felt such a danged fool. I will never forget trying to climb the steps up the noose, one step at a time, as my leg would not support me. My last thoughts were of getting there without being carried like a coward to my death. I didn’t want to be remembered like that. Sure, I was frightened. I was shaking but I did not want to die branded a yellow, no good saddle-bum. Selfish of me I know, but you know what was drummed into me as a kid — strength, honor and courage. I wanted to die the way that I have tried to live,” Jess tried to explain, his voice low and trembling with emotion.

Slim listened and did not answer, as he knew how his pard was reliving what he thought were his last moments on earth. After a few moments, he quietly replied. “I know; I watched. I saw your struggle until the sun blinded me. I remember the old sad padre saying something about, ‘walking in the valley of the shadow of death’, and the hangman putting out his hand to help you up the last few steps. Then the next thing you were being hauled backwards by the sheriff, and you fell into Mort’s arms.”

Jess laughed, “You were crying?”

“No! Damn you, it was the sun,” growled Slim, and suddenly he wanted to hit the youngster who delighted in making light of anything really serious. Jess’ humor was born of those who are destined to spend a life battling the law, the weather, the hangman and anything else that was thrown at them.

“Well, if you say so, Slim,” the mocking voice said out of the gloom.

“I never want to go through that again,” Slim said, his voice serious and full of despair.

“You think that I do? Every time it rains or the wind is shivering from the North, I am reminded; my leg has never been the same, and it aches something awful. Anyway, what’s all this to do with not sleeping? Why you worrying about it all now? It is yesterday’s news!”

“I’m just worried about these Armstrongs. I have found out a bit about them and it’s not good news; they are a rough crowd.”

“What have you found out?” Jess wanted to know his voice becoming serious.

“They’re from Arkenholm, the place the Douglas’ were all massacred, in the old country, on the border.”

“So? I have never heard of them, so what is the story?”

“Nothing really except it is a place where thieving, rustling, taking men and women as hostages is a way of life. The borders invented blackmail, paying for protection and lifting whatever they could. You would have fitted in well there,” said Slim, having a poke at Jess and his reputation.

“Stow it, Slim, or else I may have to teach you some tricks on how to defend yourself.”

”By you? You are the one who is always covered in bruises or full of holes. Seriously, it seems that they were from there and the family is still very strong in the area. I’m just worried that they could just be another bunch like the Sinclairs. I think I will come with you and watch your back pard.”

“You sure as hell will not. I’d be the laughing stock of Laramie if they heard on the wind that I had to take you courting,” Jess said, indignation making his voice rise.

“You still going? After what’s happened to you in town and what I have just told you?”

“I can look after myself.”

“You do not seem to make a good job of it; you’re fast running out of your nine lives.”

“Well, it will be worth it. I’ve told you that I am in love, and this time all the brothers and all your border ragamuffins, gypsies, thieves and murders will not stop me. If she’ll come, I’ll have her away before the next new moon.”

“Where will you go?” said Slim, shocked and struggling with what he had just heard. He had always dreaded hearing these words.

“Don’t know, Slim.” Jess laughed. “It’s a big country.

*****

Jess had set of for the high country some time after dawn. He had felt guilty about leaving Slim, who he knew had not slept the night before, so he had done as much of the ranch work as he could before he left.

He also knew that Slim was upset as he had left him with the impression that he was planning on leaving the ranch. He had not meant it to sound so serious, as Jess knew that he would never find another place such as this that he could call home. He was made to feel part of a family, needed and loved, even though such words were never ever said. Their actions spoke louder than words. Words are the easy part; actions talk different, Jess thought, as he knew that he owed them his life.

He rode at an easy pace, for once not relishing the chorus of birds which were excitedly welcoming the coming day. The land throbbed vibrantly with the bursting of renewed life as summer was in full swing in a glory of color and trees, which flounced their extravagant finery in the warm breezes.

Jess hardly noticed as he was excited, but also a mite worried as to what reception might be lying in wait for him. He realized that he had hardly said two words to Jean Armstrong, and he was getting anxious as to what he was going to say. He smiled to himself; he was getting tongue-tied even at the thought of it.

He felt no better about being around her brothers and father; he knew that they thought that he was the town idiot, as whatever he had said it had just sounded like gibberish.

Her mother, however just looked at him and sadly dismissed him as a stable boy amongst gentlemen, only fit to muck out stables and feed the hogs.

Ah well, he thought, I’m on my way now and I dare not turn back. Slim and Jonesy would die of laughter, as his sheepish return would make them split their sides with unmerciful joy.

He’d never be allowed to forget it; that is, until some other drama took its place. I’d be better blowing out my brains here, he thought.

He arrived early in Laramie and swung by the sheriff’s office. He dismounted slowly, with his usual controlled grace, and before entering, he blew out the wick of the hurricane lamp, which lit Mort’s office entrance.

He found Mort leaning back in his chair, stretching and yawning. He’d obviously spent the night in one of the old cells at the back, which were comfortable and Mort’s private demesne. Jess remembered that Mort was on his own at the moment as his wife had gone up to Newcastle to visit her sister and ailing mother.

The sheriff was, as always, pleased to see him, and readily agreed to go with his unlikely friend across to Julie’s for breakfast.

“May have to tip her out of her bed, as I’ve not heard that damned Rhode Island Red yet. Would like to wring its scrawny neck.”

“I saw and heard it as I rode in; he was chasing his harem into the orchard back of Mrs. Norman’s,” laughed Jess as he listened to his friend’s plans for the rooster, which was the most hated critter in Laramie.

Mort noticed how nervous Jess seemed; he had been around his young friend’s life for much of the time the reformed gunman had been in Laramie. He had been with him through some of the worst times — the posses, the gunfights, a harrowing ordeal when Mort had thought Jess would lose his arm, court cases and even a short prison sentence served in Mort’s jail. The sheriff had never seen Jess seem so nervous. Well, thought Mort, that’s what love can do to a man.

Jess was no exception; he had hardly got started on his romantic adventure and he was obviously already suffering. Mort shook his head to himself as he thought, what the hell is he going to be like in a couple of month’s time?

“You okay, Jess?” Mort finally asked. “Not hungry now?” He watched how Jess chased his bacon and fast cooling eggs around his plate.

“Yeah, Mort, I am just a mite nervous. I’ve been thinking I might not even get near the place if they are as rough as you and Slim make out,” Jess admitted with a quiet grin.

“That could save a lot of trouble, son,” Mort replied.

“Yeah, I suppose,” Jess answered, “but I have got to give it a try, I’d never forgive myself for not taking the chance. You never know; she might feel the same way about me.”

“Well, you can only hope. I heard old Bent Nose Bill say that there were steers jumping over the moon last night up in Willow Springs.”

“Aw, stop that Mort!” Jess moaned. “I need you to tell me that Jean and her kin are going to welcome me with open arms.”

“Sorry, son, that I can’t do!” Mort exclaimed. “Just be prepared for the worst and you won’t be disappointed; anything else will be a welcome surprise.”

“I think I’ll go and save time and blow my brains out now, have already been thinking about it,” a miserable Jess groaned.

“Oh no, you won’t. Far too messy, give me a ton of paperwork, and I would have that pard of yours tearing my throat out. Get out of here, boy, Traveler and the high country are a waiting. Get going; I’ll see to your other horse. I’ll give you till moon rise, and if you’re not back, I’ll come and hunt you or your body down. That okay, son?”

“Yeah, thanks, Mort. Well, I guess I’d better be moseying along.” Jess stood up and put his Stetson on.

“I’ll get the tab,” said Mort when he saw Jess start digging deep into his pockets.

“Thanks. I wonder how many breakfasts I owe you?” He and the sheriff shook hands.

“You always pay, not always in money, but there are other ways which I value, more than a few dimes.”

“Thanks anyway.” Jess smiled, nodded towards Julie and made for the door.

“Good luck” she called to his retreating back.

He tipped his hat to her in salute and exited the door. He swung lightly on to Traveler, and turning his horses head west, headed out of Laramie. His going was watched by many of the town’s folk and this made him feel even worse as he realized that he and Jeannie had become the subject of gossip. He was in love, and already for a private young man like Jess, it was fast becoming a nightmare.

*****

Jess rode out of Laramie on a trail that was new to him. It was like many around the town, soon leading into softly rolling wooded country, which was a haven for wildlife, and full of the scents and surprises he associated with the land around the town. The trail took him way to the west and he was soon slowly climbing through the aspen, silver birch and then the spruce, which covered the slopes. Traveler was going at his usual easy ground-covering pace and Jess began to relax and enjoy the ride.

He knew roughly where he was going, as the instructions from Mort were clear. He knew that he would be on Armstrong land soon, as the ranch was perhaps the biggest spread in that part of the state. It covered much of the high country and wooded lands between the tree line and snow line up in the mountains. He could also see, far off into the distance, signs of fencing, which looked well maintained, not like the rough jumble of odds and sods, which made up much of Slim’s fencing, but the decent fencing cost money and that was always in short supply on the Sherman ranch. Jess smiled ruefully; he was never going to amount to anything other than a wrangler-come-odd-job man on the wages Slim paid, but then Jess got something from Slim far more valuable than money.

Jess finally came across the gate, which barred the entrance to the ranch. It was a simple single rail, framed by the title of the ranch and a warning of what would befall would be trespassers. It was easily opened and closed, and without dismounting, Jess went through easily and quickly.

He had not gone more than 500yards when he heard a rifle shot, and saw grass and soil lift up no more than a couple of yards in front of his horses feet. Jess quickly turned and another shot rang out, this time from a different direction and thudded into the tree trunk alongside him.

Jess pulled Traveler up, raised his right hand well clear of his holster, and waited. He did not have long to sit cursing to himself, as within what seemed to be seconds, two horsemen crashed out of the undergrowth between the trees. He did not recognize them, but he knew the type, as he was almost like them. They were lean men, a mite taller than him, with hard faces which looked as if they had been tooled out of tanned leather.

Both of them holstered their rifles with practiced ease and kept him covered with their army-issue colts, which never wavered in their hands.

“Where do you think you’re going, boy?” the older one growled.

“That’s my business,” Jess spat back. “Not yours to know.”

“Hey, Pete! We got ourselves a strange varmint here,” the older one continued to growl. “Doesn’t understand what I said.”

“Reckon he must be a cow puncher,” said Pete and he grinned at Robby. “They’re pretty stupid.”

“Okay, let’s give that another go. Where do you think you’re headed, boy?” a red-faced Robby asked.

‘Same answer!” Jess said.

“Okay, we’ll have your guns. Keep your hands up and away from them and maybe we will not have to shoot you. I’ll cover him, Pete; you get his hardware.”

With that, Pete urged his mount forward and disarmed Jess, who was seething with anger. He never expected to be caught out in such a way, just like any tenderfoot who did not know his way around a corral.

He never thought that the trail and entrance would be so closely guarded; after all, they were not the Keyhole gang, and he began to wonder why there was almost a small army working the spread. Why was there such a close guard kept on the place? What had they to hide? What did they have that was so special?

His thoughts were quickly interrupted when Robby ordered him to drop his reins.

“Either that or we can rope you — you choose,” the older man said and he smirked at Jess, daring him to be stupid.

“We don’t want to have to chase you all over these mountains, if you make a break for it,” Pete said, backing Robby’s play.

Jess said nothing; he simply dropped his reins. He knew well enough when it was time to fight and when to let go and wait for the right time.

Now was certainly not the right time. He was in strange country and did not know it well enough to give it a try; anyway, there was not enough room to run. He was out-gunned and had been captured by two men who appeared to be totally ruthless. There was a hardness about them. There would be no hesitancy; they’d shoot him down like a stray dog.

So Jess simply backed off; he dropped his shoulders and tucked his chin in. He would deal with them whenever he met them when the odds were more in his favor. He did not allow anyone to take his guns without making them regret it by paying for their foolishness by spilling some of their blood. He would make sure that they would think twice before they tried it again.

Pete took the reins and Traveler obediently allowed himself to be led along the trail, followed by Robby who kept his colt trained on Jess’s back. He was lead along a trail darkened by the high trees which filtered out the sunlight, and they took no chances as they had ordered Jess to lock his hands behind his head.

Finally, the trail widened, the trees thinned, and suddenly the land opened up once again to the immensity of the great wide open where the land disappeared, and seemingly joined up with the sky somewhere beyond in the shimmering distance.

Nothing in the vast emptiness moved except what appeared to be miles high in the blinding cerulean blue-sky; eagles swung, dipped and drifted in lazy circles, as they rode the thermals of the malevolent sun, which sucked the air dry.

Jess noticed how short the grass was and how it carpeted the range to the far horizon and on forever. He was finally led towards a cleft in the low hills, turning away from the open range and moving on until he saw grouped together in the distance a spread of roughly built low ranch buildings, standing and spread about in a disorderly fashion. Not what he expected from the high-toned Armstrongs.

Finally they arrived at the low built rambling bunk house which looked as if it had, like an old gnarled tree, been there forever.

“Get down.” Jess was ordered. He did and was hustled into the low, rough, primitive-looking building. He caught his breath as the stench of old cooking smells, unwashed bodies, leather and tobacco almost choked him.

The dimly lit room was obviously where the drovers lived and ate, as the walls were peppered with innumerable nails from which were hung pelts of every kind. A number of flea-bitten coats of buffalo, sheepskin jackets, hats of all descriptions and what looked like part of an armory of small arms, rifles of various kinds — some well oiled and new, others well oiled and ancient — all decorated the blackened walls.

He was amazed as there were pictures of what looked like family, old newspaper articles and a target with what looked like tiny arrows stuck into it between the wires, which divided it up, filling what space was left on the logged spaces. He knew this was where the men who had no home lived together, and he saw through the smoke fumes several men lounging around taking their ease. A couple were eating at a long planked table; an older man with a twisted leg and head like a grizzly was bent over a cooking pot which hung from its crane over the fire. As they entered, a drover turned and looked at him. He had grey eyes, which were narrowed, yellow-flecked and suspicious, that gave no hint of welcome or hospitality.

“What you got there?” the drover snarled, his voice carrying the chill of the northern snows.

“A cowpoke, Red, slinking in, trespassing; thought you’d best see to him,” Robby said to the big man who Jess thought was obviously the ramrod.

Red nodded to one of the others who was sprawled in a makeshift wooden chair which had once seen life as a barrel.

“Tom! Go up to the big house and tell Mr. Hutton we’ve picked up a stranger wandering about the range. What’s your handle, boy?” the ramrod demanded to know.

Jess bristled, as he did not want to say, but he thought that it would come out in time, as he knew that they would probably enjoy beating it out of him.

“Harper, Jess Harper,” he simply said.

“Okay Tom, get going and don’t call on that fire-eating piece you’ve got hidden.”

“Hear that, Red?” Clay, one of the ranch hands who had been stuffing his face, said, “You two done gone caught yerself a big fish.”

“You ever been in Abilene?” Clay looked at Jess suddenly his languid body alive with interest.

“Yeah,” Jess replied but said no more.

“He’s a gunman, Red. I saw him gun down two or maybe three men in Abilene a few years ago. I wondered what had happened to him; he only looked like a kid at the time.”

“Your gun still for hire?” Pete asked.

“You still as fast as you were?” Clay wanted to know, feeling brave with all his friends around him.

“Why? Do you want to find out?” Jess retorted, feeling the hair on his backbone rising.

“I may do just that; you’re not much good with your fists,” Robby joined in the banter.

“So, it was you the other Saturday night?” Jess snarled. “How many of your compardres were with you to hold me down? I knew that you were not on your own.”

The big raw boned drover laughed.

“Enough! Just wanted to slow you up a mite. Looks like we failed or you heal real quick.”

“I’ll not forget,” said Jess. “We’ll need to get together and give it another go. Maybe you won the fight, but you didn’t win no war. Make it daylight and in the open. I know you would not want to get the reputation for being a yellow-livered coyote who fights in dark alleys and needs his friends to help stomp on a guy.”

“Yeah, I’ll oblige, Harper,” said Robinson, “but no gun play.”

“I promise no gun play,” replied Jess, “as long as you remember you owe me a new shirt and a new jacket. So if you want me to keep my promise, come carrying 20 dollars. Okay, boy?”

By now, all the other men were laughing, listening to this exchange and enjoying hearing the bully Robbo’s bluff being called.

“Want a coffee, Harper?” asked Clay.

“Yeah, don’t mind if I do,” replied Jess.

“Get him a coffee, Robbo,” ordered Clay, and Robinson did what the foreman had instructed. Jess had worked it out who had attacked him after the dance.

Jess sat and drank his coffee. He had just finished when Tom opened the door and came in.

“You’ve to take him up to the big house. Mr. Alan says to keep his guns, but bring them with you.”

“Okay, Harper! You heard what the man said. Get mounted and we’ll take you up to the Armstrongs house. Seems you were half-expected after all.”

*****

Jess mounted, relieved that at last he was away from the threatening atmosphere of the drovers’ living quarters, and with Clay and Tom on either side of him, he rode away from the bunkhouse.

After a few miles, which they rode in companionable silence, they left the shelter of a small bluff, and after riding through aspen, juniper and mountain ash, Jess saw the trees give way to a sheltered valley.

He saw what he had first expected — the Armstrong home, which was a fine house, built in the early colonial style of three stories with a wide verandah, which went all the way around it. It had a grand wide entrance, with large double doors which were embellished with fine tracery and supported the imported etched glass. Six steps led up to the covered entrance, which was flanked by the verandah. It was a house from a different world, certainly like no ranch house that Jess had ever seen.

He saw stables, corrals, and barns all a little way of from the house and all well painted and in good order. He was amazed as the stable block even had a clock tower complete with a clock and a copper cockerel; as a weather vane on the top. All around the house the land was laid out with lawns, flowerbeds and trees, some of which were in flower, and on the far side of the huge expanse of grass, a man was sweeping the lawn with a broom. To the north and by west, there was a thickly wooded stand of mixed woodland to give shelter to the house and grounds from the fury of the winter storms. It all looked so well looked after, and nothing like the ramshackle buildings which housed the ranch hands. It smelled of money, thought Jess, lots of money.

He had not seen any sheep since he had left Laramie; he thought that they ran huge herds up here in the high grasslands, but he had only seen cattle, the usual white faced Hereford first crosses which Slim bred.

He could not understand why he had an escort wherever he went, and he still bristled at being made to ride unarmed. They had not returned his guns and he was being treated more like a prisoner or an unwelcome intruder, rather than an expected guest.

Finally they closed up to the large house and Jess was led around the back. This annoyed him and he felt his face muscles clench and eyes narrow with what he took to be another insult. He dismounted and a wrangler took charge of Traveler and led him away. Jess was taken through a door with ‘Office’ inscribed on a polished brass plate.

Inside was no office that Jess could recognize as it was furnished with large leather armchairs, patterned carpets and walls on which were hung paintings of horses, sheep and prize cattle. Behind an enormous oak desk, which was cluttered with shiny brass inkstands, penholders, lamps and family pictures, sat Jeannie Armstrong’s formidable father. High on the wall behind him was the stuffed head of a snarling grizzly, its yellow teeth reflecting the image of the man below it.

“Well, young fella me lad, what brings you up here, without as much as a bye your leave? Been sent to spy and report back about my kingdom? The English down on the plains would dearly love to know my business.”

“I’ve come to see you, sir,” Jess replied, now feeling at a huge disadvantage standing before such a powerful and well-dressed man. The clothes which Jess were wearing, the rancher would have his men use to clean up tack or maybe buff his boots. He also felt uncomfortable because already the man was using strange words, which made little sense to Jess.

“Well, laddie, ye kin sees me. Now what?” was the bemused and irritated reply from the forbidding rancher.

“I’d like your permission to take your daughter out riding and such like,” Jess went on choking on his words in haste.

“I thought you might. Do not like ‘the such like’ bit, son. My daughter told me that you might call. Can I ask why?”

“Well…” said Jess, suddenly unsure of how much of his feelings he should reveal to this powerful man. “I kinda like her and I think that she likes me.”

“How do you know? You hardly said two words to each other at the dance,” said Jeanie’s father as he eyed him with suspicion.

“I know, sir; I just feel as if I have known her for years,” Jess said softly, his words honest, sincere, and sounding so youthfully lame to the older, worldly wise man.

“This sounds serious, lad. I don’t want you wasting your time, but what can a lad like you offer someone like my Jean?” Mr. Armstrong asked quietly.

“Well, I am only just getting started, and my friend and boss Slim Sherman has offered me a partnership. Nothing is solid yet; that’s all for the future. I came by a thousand dollars a time ago and put that into the ranch. We bought a good Hereford bull and a Galloway, as Slim wanted to breed some blue grays. I’m also keen on horse breeding and such, and we have some good crossbred stock, some Appaloosa and Frisians in them. I have also a part-bred Arab mare and we have the usual mix of quarter horses and Morgans.” Jess could feel that the rancher was not impressed, so out of pure desperation he mentioned the Akhal-teke and went on to describe the foals, which had just been dropped.

Immediately Jess saw the old man’s eyes seem to light up and his old whiskered head rose with interest. He seemed to become even larger in his seat as he turned his head towards Jess to catch every word he said about the horse.

“Hold up, laddie! That’ll do. I’d best warn you Jean is not keen on the west. She has her heart set on blue grass country or even further east. She doesn’t ride and she is like her mother.” With that, the rancher threw his head back and laughed. “No son, she is not a typical rancher’s wife; she is purely decorative. Will talk you stupid about so much nonsense it makes your head spin, what with hats, bib bobs, flower gardens, Chinese cooks and velvet portieres worth a king’s ransom surround you, none of it worth a damn and none of it makes any sense. Take her riding, but you will need a phaeton; she fell of a pony as a child and you’ll not get her on another. You’ll stay to lunch? My boys and me would like to hear more about this Akhal-teke.”

Jess could not believe it. He’d been invited to lunch when he’d been expecting to have his guns thrown at him and sent packing up the trail. Lunch? Now what was that? he thought. Sounded like food, maybes dinner.

Mr. Armstrong was obviously keen to hear about Mr. Lindoe’s stallion and Jess tried to remember everything he had been told about it when first Mr. Lindoe had offered him its services. He remembered lying in the doctor’s small treatment room, still fighting the pain after being shot by Lindoe’s son, and it had been some time before he realized what a huge and valuable offer Mr. Lindoe had made.

“You want a drink, lad?” Mr. Armstrong’s voice pulled him back from his memories.

”No sir. A mite early for me yet,” Jess replied quickly as he needed to keep his wits about him if he was going to eat with the Armstrongs sons, Jeannie and her disapproving mother.

“Well, let’s go through to the house; they’ll be all gathering to wait for us. They’ll not start without me.” Armstrong by now had heaved his massive frame out of his chair; for the first time, Jess noticed that the framework for the well-padded armchair was made of the horns of the long horn and bison.

He went hesitantly after him, his confidence ebbing quickly as he felt so over awed by the whole establishment, and now he did not know what to expect from Jeannie’s brothers.

He had since thought that they had been behind the beating he’d taken a couple of weeks ago. He’d not said anything to Slim, but he thought that he was right as usual and he had had enough of Slim’s humorous comments, which always accompanied “I told you so.”

He knew that nothing could be said or done about it all, but it could lead to an unbearably tense meal. Jess knew that once again he was going to end up looking and sounding like a fool.

“Come on, lad,” Armstrong said as he turned and saw that Jess was lagging behind. “They’ll not bite.”

Jess said nothing, but smiled weakly and thought “No! They’ve already had a chunk outta me.”

Jess followed the rancher through huge oak doors, down a long carpeted corridor until at last they came to a huge hallway, with a polished round table in the center. Jess could not take his eyes of the large bowl of flowers in the middle of the table, and thoughts of his mother and her love of flowers quickly, like a kingfisher, flashed across his memories.

Armstrong quickly took charge and introduced his wife, who he called Mariah. Jess took her offered hand, bent low, brushed it with his lips, and gave a shy bow.

“You know my daughter Jean.” He laughed as he saw the young wrangler’s face go scarlet.

“Of course, he does, Daddy; you’re being silly,” trilled the young girl who was dressed in a fresh, starched, green gingham dress and looked like a picture.

Her hair was flowing down her back, and was brushed away from her face and held in place by a green velvet bow. She had a thin golden chain around her neck from which was suspended an emerald crucifix which shone against her swan white neck and décolletage.

Her smile dazzled him and her eyes were full of fun and seeming excitement as they held his in their thrall. She again took his breath away, and Jess hardly heard her father introduce her brothers. He was only aware of the strong grip of their hands as they all shook with him. He could hardly breathe. The only times he could remember being like this was when he had been wounded, and had been swimming up from a dark drugged stupor, unable to focus or to know where he was, or how he was.

“Well you’ve met the lads — Angus, John, Willy, Donald and Douglas. It’ll take some time to sort them all out and get to know who is who,” Armstrong went on proudly, looking at his tall, rangy sons. Hard men all, who so far had simply listened, watched and said nothing.

“Well, Hutton,” said Mariah Armstrong, “are we going to eat or are we going to be forced to stand here all day listening to you?”

“Sorry, dear,” said Armstrong meekly as his wife took his arm and lead him towards the dining room door.

Jess turned, unsure of himself. He had never been in a situation like this before. Jean, however, saved him, as like her mother she followed her lead and took Jess’ arm and led him into the room.

His eyes widened at the sight of the long dining table, which was laid out for lunch. He had never seen anything like it, even in his wildest dreams. He did remember, with a stab in his heart of loss and regret, when he thought of his mother’s pride and joy, which were her cherished special linen cloths. She cherished her silver and crystal cruet set and matching napkin rings, and his brow darkened, as he knew that his father had sold them off to pay a gambling debt.

The table was covered with a snowy white damask cloth, just like his mother’s, and the silver shone in the light of what seemed to be innumerable candles. Down the center of the table, besides the candelabra, there were piles of fruit that he did not recognize and small arrangements of fresh flowers.

These sheep men certainly do not live like us cowpunchers, thought Jess. They did well at the ranch to have a checkered cloth, which served for all meals, and their plate was blue and white delft. That was down to Jonesy’s efforts and had little to do with Slim and Jess who would have eaten out of the frying pan if they had been allowed to.

Finally, they were all seated and the meal got underway. It was similar to the normal ranch food — a thin vegetable soup with warm fresh bread, large steaks with all the usual trimmings, sour creamed potatoes as well, and an apple and sponge pudding which Jean described as Eve’s pudding.

It was during the meal that Jess was questioned at length about his Arab mare. The men all knew the qualities of the Arab and said that some of their stock was part Arab. All of them became silent and gave Jess their full attention when described the stallion Kamal, the Akah-Teke that Jess had use of to cover his mares.

He told them of the reputation of the breed. They were an ancient line from the mountainous regions of the Indian frontier. They were the mounts of the frontier tribes that the British army had never managed to conquer; the fierce hill tribes had ridden them through out that region’s blood-drenched, violent history and their mounts were famous as a warhorse.

The animal was strong, tough and resilient, very much like the men who rode them, and it was claimed that they could cross deserts and go without water for days at a time. The Akhal-teke were not a huge horse, but like the Arab, looked tall, as they were long legged. But unlike the Arab, they carried their tails low and did not have the Arabs delicate beauty. The coats are an unusual color, not unlike buckskin, but with a golden caste to it, which shone like molten gold in the sun. Like all the horses from the deserts lands, they were hard to handle and did not suffer fools. They are hot-bloodied, feisty and temperamental, and some men called them a night are, “a bit like a hell spitting, wild woman that no whip or chain can gentle.” Jess blushed to the roots of his hair as he realized that his coarse words had no place in such a fine setting with high-toned ladies present.

“A true horseman’s horse,” said Jess as he tried to hide his embarrassment, “but once they have taken to you, they are faithful and will carry you through fire and flood without flinching.”

”Aye,” sighed Hutton Armstrong, “sounds just like the horse we need, and I always wanted a woman like that but never found one. Ouch! Sorry, dear. You know, Jess you’d be surprised at the kick you can get from a well brought-up lady… I am sorry, my dear; I was only funning.” Armstrong and his sons laughed.

He looked at Jess, his eyes narrowed and glittered in the candlelight and he gave a wolfish grin. “Did you say where I could get me one, son?” he asked.

“No sir,” said Jess. “I only know of one and I know that his owner would never part with him, but I do know a few women like that,” Jess replied with a laugh as he tried to lighten the intense mood.

Jess saw that, as he was describing Mr. Lindoe’s valuable stallion, the brothers were exchanging knowing looks and Jess knew that they were probably already planning to search for the horse.

“I only know that Mr. Lindoe brought him over from Europe and that he paid a king’s ransom for him,” Jess hurriedly went on. “I know Slim would never ever be able to afford a piece of horse flesh like him if he ever came on the market, which I know he never will.”

“How come a two-bit outfit like yours can get him so easy?” Douglas Armstrong asked.

“It’s a long story, and not one that I know Mr. Armstrong would like me jawing on about. It’s a private arrangement ‘tween him and me. I can’t say no more.” Jess looked at Jeannie, his eyes pleading with her to help him out of the corner that he had got himself backed into.

“Now, Daddy, forget about this horse. You have just bought that half-mad black stallion you’ve called Danny Boy that is trying to kick down the stables. You have that wonderful Morgan that sires some magnificent foals, and what about Napoleon, the big English thoroughbred that you love more than Mummy or me? Or are you telling Mummy and me lies when you brag about them?” Jeanie sparkled as she teased her father about his stallions.

“Now, now dear, this is men’s talk. You don’t fuss yourself with it,” her father said and then he turned to Jess and continued by saying, his voice full of wonder and need, “A horse that can cross a desert, with hardly any water — now that’s something.”

“Yeah, Dad,” piped up Angus, “He’s probably part camel.”

With that, they all laughed.

“You’ll have to introduce me to this Lindoe. I’d like to see this horse for myself,” Hutton Armstrong continued, hating to let the subject drop.

“Sorry, sir, I can’t do that,” Jess replied.

“Why, lad?” Armstrong answered, his voice turning dark.

“Yeah,” said Willy, the biggest of the Armstrong sons, “that’s not very friendly.”

“I can’t ‘cos he’s moved back East when he had some problems with his son.”

“So how do you get in touch with him?” Armstrong continued to question Jess.

“I wire him or see his ramrod.”

“As simple as that!” the old rancher remarked and looked questionably at Jess.

“Yeah. That’s how all the arrangements are made,” Jess ruefully went on, now desperate to finish talking about the horse.

“So where is the horse now?” Angus Armstrong, yet another of the rancher’s sons, asked.

“Don’t know,” Jess truthfully replied. “I have always taken the mares to him. When he is not at stud, I do not know where he is, I just know that he is very well cared for and has his own wrangler who is always with him.”

“So how could I get to use him?” asked Armstrong.

“Not sure, “said Jess. “You’d maybe have to go through the head wrangler. He takes care of the ranch now that Mr. Lindoe is back East.”

“Well, you surely did well for an ordinary cowpoke, landing a plum stallion so easily and now buggy riding with my own prize filly.”

“Oh Dad, stop it.” Jeannie laughed, not in the slightest upset at her father describing her as a filly.

“You don’t seem very eager to help your neighbors share in your luck,” the eldest son Willy growled, his voice cold and threatening.

“I can only tell you to ask his wrangler.” Jess went on mildly. He did not have any intention of telling them the story of how Mr. Lindoes’ son had nearly killed him. He’d been shot and it was only the fact that he wore a large silver buckle that had diverted the bullet that had saved his life. Even so, it had been a bad time and he did not want it aired again.

“He’ll know more about the plans for the horse than me,” Jess said, now beginning to squirm in face of the constant probing and mild threats.

“Forget it, boys,” the rancher said. “Jess here is not much use to us. We’ll just have to make our own enquiries, see what that fetches up; could be kinda interesting.”

“Well, now you have done with all this horse talk, perhaps you would join us for coffee in the lounge, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Armstrong graciously asked Jess. “Jean will need to collect her hat and shawl and the boys have many other things that they need to be getting on with.”

With that, she rose from her chair and all the men quickly scrabbled to their feet. Jess was caught by surprise and felt awkward as he nearly pushed his chair over. Mrs. Armstrong gave him a withering look of disapproval, and then taking her husband’s proffered arm, turned away and began to glide across the room and through the door.

The Armstrongs waited until their parents backs were turned and immediately surrounded Jess.

“You gonna help us find this stallion; you will, if you know what is good for you,” threatened Alan Armstrong, who suddenly seemed to be the leader and spokesman for the feral group.

“Don’t see how I can,” Jess replied and now began to make tracks to follow the older couple out.

“Think hard, boy,” one of them snarled as Jess turned away, listening to the sniggers from the tightly knit group of brothers. He did not answer, as by now Hutton Armstrong had turned and, with an inclination of his head, silently urged him to follow. Jess breathed a sigh of relief and quickly went through into the lounge. The big double doors were closed and the Armstrongs sons were left outside with their heads close together, obviously planning their next move in acquiring the services of the valuable stallion, the Akhal-teke, Kamal.

The next half hour was torture as Jess was constantly questioned about the stallion. He tried his best to give away as little as possible; however, he knew that already he had said too much.

He also waited for them to ask him about his own background and knew that, sooner rather than later, when they checked him out in Laramie, Cheyenne and Abilene, they would get all the stories that followed him around and dogged his chances of ever really being able to put roots down — that was until now.

It would certainly be the end of his courting Jean, as her father would be more likely to put a bullet in his brain, and if he didn’t, her brothers would.

Finally the door opened and Jean glided in. She still wore the white and green gingham dress, and now a short velvet jacket. On her head she wore a fine straw sun bonnet with an outrageously wide brim and long green streamers which fell from a large bow somewhere around the side of her face. She made sure that he would know that she was a lady as she wore snow white gloves.

“Are you ready, Jess?” she asked as Jess stood tongue-tied, drinking in the image of this glorious creature from a story book.

‘Sure am,” he awkwardly muttered.

“Don’t go far, Jean. Jess needs to be heading back soon if he is to get to Laramie before dark,” warned Hutton Armstrong. He stood up and led them out on to the verandah; they went down the steps to where a surrey had been brought round. A wrangler was holding the horses’ heads, and Jess helped Jean into her seat and then took his own place. He picked up the reins, saluted her father, clicked his tongue to the horses and they moved of smartly down the long tree lined drive.

*****

At last, Jess,” Jeanie said, “we get to talk.” She put her head down and gave a little laugh.

“Yeah,” he replied, “but now I don’t know what to talk about.”He smiled, the corners of his eyes creasing up and hiding the white lines left where the sun had not burnt his skin.

“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get me out here and now you’re going to pretend that you are shy?” she said in a gently mocking voice.

“Well, I’m kinda shy,” Jess admitted, “especially with a girl like you.”

“What’s so special about a girl like me?” Jean demanded to know.

“You don’t know?” Jess replied. “Don’t you ever look in the mirror?”

“So you think I’m pretty?” This time she gave a girlish giggle, which made Jess want to smother her moist lips with kisses.

“Maybes a little,” Jess muttered quietly as he tried to regain his breath.

“Only a little? Well, Jess Harper, you need specs,” Jean trumpeted with a scornful laugh.

“I suppose that maybe I do,” Jess said quickly, “Where do you want to go? In fact, there is nowhere. It’s all open grass land except for over there.” Jess inclined his head towards the woods and what looked like a spur in the land, which seemed to lead towards a valley between the hills.

“I don’t care,” Jean said, “go where you like. It is hard to get away from here. Anyway, Daddy will be having us watched.”

“Does he not trust me?” Jess asked.

“No! He trusts no one. He’s not given you your guns back, has he?”

“No, not yet, but I’ll not leave here without them,” Jess growled.

Jean put her head back and laughed. “Oh Jess, you sound so fierce. We’ll just have to wait and see. It is so nice that you’ve come all this way out here to see me, but you will have trouble with Daddy and my brothers until they can trust you.”

“I think that you have got that right,” said Jess. “Maybe he will go easy on me if I talk horses to him.”

“Yes and tell him where that stallion is which you have got him all fired up about is kept. My father seems really keen on it; he’ll not rest until he has got his hands on it.”

“I can’t, Jean; it is easy to find, but I cannot tell him. I kinda gave my word and I have already said too much.”

“Never mind, you will have to find another way,” Jean said.

By this time, they had followed the trail around the spur of land and were entering a small valley. It had a stream which busily gurgled its way alongside the edge of the woodland, whose lush margins stretched out for miles receding into the sun-softened distance.

Jess was surprised to see that some of the valley was divided up into paddocks made by fine milled sawed fencing and five barred gates, all in excellent condition and all painted white, a real mark of wealth, which he had guessed at by the finely furnished house and the dressed stone work.

In one field, there were well over one hundred steers; some were Herefords and first crosses not unlike those to be found on the Sherman ranch. All were all mostly short horn but there were some long horn as well as some shaggy long haired reds with very short legs. Jess wondered what they were as they had a mighty spread of horns as well.

“I didn’t know that your dad kept cattle; I thought he was a strictly sheep man. I thought it would be too cold up here for cattle in the winter.” Jess went on thinking aloud as much as anything else. “Do you bring them in the winter?”

“Questions, questions and I do not know the answers. You will have to ask the men folk. I do not know where they lift the cattle from. I just know we eat a lot of beef; Dad is not keen on lamb as he has worked with them all his life and he thinks that they are stupid and he does not like the smell of sheep.”

“So your Dad buys them in to butcher, just for the beef?” Jess continued to question her.

Jeanie laughed and said with a smile, “You will have to ask my brothers. I just know that we eat a lot of beef, all through the winter…. and maybe some lamb in the spring and very occasionally an old ewe. I just know that we have a lot of cattle up in the hills and thousands of sheep.”

Jess’s heart began to pound and his throat suddenly felt very dry as he realized that he was probably looking at the remains of a herd of rustled cattle, stolen to keep the Armstrongs and their ranch hands in beef. That was why they were so suspicious of him, and their welcome was like a side of bacon sent to old Levi on a Saturday.

He quickly turned the surrey round. He would have risked checking on some of the brands, but not with Jeanie beside him and maybe a rifle trained on his back. He knew that if he were caught, no matter how innocent it all looked, he could be up to his neck in trouble, and at the very least, be accused of snooping.

“Why are we going back so soon?” Jeanie demanded to know as she hung on to the side armrests and her hat as he swung the rig around in a tight circle, causing the dry yellow ochre dust to rise and almost blind them.

“No, it’s just that the sunlight is moving out of the valley and you will soon feel the cold.” That was the best excuse he could think of. He only hoped that she did not notice that the sun was still sailing high in the sky and the valley was bathed in brilliant sunshine.

“You are looking after me.” Jean simpered.

“I’ll do my best! Is there anything else out here I should know about that may be after your beautiful hide?” Jess laughed.

“Oh, just about 40 odd ranch hands, the wolf packs, a cougar and maybe the odd bear… I don’t know what else,” Jean replied.

“Well, that won’t be a problem. As long as they do not come in huge numbers, I can fight, and my bite is pretty good too,” Jess bragged with a wry smile.

Jean threw back her head at this and laughed. “I’ll make Daddy give you your guns back. I would not like to see you die a long, slow, painful death, although it could be interesting to see if you could eat a bear faster than it could eat you. Yes, it could take quite a while. You need your guns.”

“Yes, you are right there,” said Jess, “One bullet that is the fastest way — clean and quick, almost without knowing, like a goose on the wing. That is how I want to go.”

“Jess, is this how you sweet talk all the girls? All we have talked about is beef cattle and you killing stuff with your bare hands and teeth, and how you want to die. I thought that you would be telling me how pretty you think I am, and how you cannot live without me,” Jean teased.

“I thought that we had done that?” Jess murmured shyly.

“Well, not really; you just told me to look in the mirror.”

“That’s what I mean!” Jess teased, beginning to enjoy the banter and beginning to feel a little more in control. “We’ve dealt with the beauty bit.”

“Have you nothing else to say?” Jean asked tartly. “Do you not think I am charming?”

“Don’t know you well enough to say that,” he replied. “You’ve got pretty good teeth for a filly going on 18, maybe 19.” She gave him a sharp prod in the arm and he said, “Ouch,” and laughed.

“You describe me as if I was a horse,” she said, raising her voice.

“I know more about horses than I do about women,” Jess joshed. “You move pretty well and you have a nice even gait, smooth and long.” He laughed again as she prodded him again.

“You are also highly strung, probably have a good pedigree and your face is turning pink, so you have got a temper. I’d not expect that in a well-bred filly.”

“When are you going to kiss me?” Jeanie demanded to know.

“I hold the reins, so it will be when I am good and ready, and when I am sure that there is not a rifle trained with a bead on my back.”

“So you are a coward,” Jeanie teased him.

“Yeah! As yellow as they come. I don’t like to be controlled easy and I do things my way. Besides, you told me that your Dad would be having us watched. Maybe you want me to get shot. I’m surprised; I’d thought that I would have lasted longer than our first buggy ride. Do you not want a second?”

“Of course I do,” Jean said with a sniff. “I’m sorry, Jess; you’re right. I do want to get to know you better and find out all your secrets and have fun, but we will have to be careful,. Dad said you needed to set off early as you’d not want to be on the trail at nightfall. Besides he wants you gone so he can go and look for the horse you have told him about. So we need to get back.”

Jess shook the reins and urged the horses on, alarmed at what he had just heard.

“You will be back soon, Jess?” Jeanie shyly asked.

“Yeah!” he replied, “If you want me to. I help out at a ranch and relay station so I do not have much time, especially at this time of the year.”

“Of course I do,” Jean said. “I want to hear all about Abilene, the war and all the stories my brothers have told me about you. They have been busy collecting all the gossip from far and near. I also want to be the first to know where Kamal is hiding.”

“It’s not a pretty story,” Jess said quietly, ignoring what she had said about the Akhal-teke.

“It’ll be exciting. I’ve heard about you and the Texas gang that came to raid, and that you used to ride with them. My brothers know all about the trouble you had with the deputy Billy Tait. I’d love to hear it all, your side of things. And were you actually in jail, twice?” Jeanie went on breathless with excitement. “I have never met anyone like you to really talk to.”

“Well maybe when you know me better,” Jess murmured softly and sadly, as he realized that his reputation had again caught up with him. “I find it hard to talk about, as it was a painful time for me and I want to try and forget. I’ll not make any promises, but maybe sometimes in the future I will tell you.”

“I’m sorry I asked,” Jean said as she saw how suddenly Jess had turned serious; all the fun and laughter had gone. “I hope I have not upset you,” she added, bowing her head and clasping her hands tightly together.

“No, Jean,” Jess replied. “I’ve done a lot of things of which I am not proud. I have lived hard and never dodged trouble or taken the easy way out. I have spilt a lot of blood, not all of it mine, and I am trying to live down my reputation and straighten out. You’ve not upset me, but it just makes me think that I am not good enough for you.”

At that point, Jeanie moved in closer to Jess and put her arm through his. “Don’t be silly. My Daddy and brothers have a lot to live down too; they are wild, ruthless and sometimes lawless. It is my mother and I who are the civilized ones. Without Mummy, they’d all be living wild out in the woods with long hair and beards birds could nest in. They would be chewing tobacco, brewing their fiery poison and I dread the think what else.” Jean pulled a face in disgust at the thought and laughed.

“Yeah, I suppose. I reckon that they would still have thousands of sheep and herds of mysterious cattle. I don’t know them and have never heard any tales about them,” said Jess.

“That’s because you live on over on the far side of Laramie,” replied Jean. “We’re nearly back, Jess. Don’t let’s talk about this and my Dad’s mysterious cattle anymore. Do you really like me?” she whispered softly.

“Yes, Jean,” said Jess. “I can’t get you out of my head. I wake up thinking about you and my dreams are full of you. Is that what you want to hear?”

“I do, Jess,” she replied. She lowered her head and then said in a voice as soft as a grey mist at dawn, “I’ve waited ages for you to come to see me. I thought that you had forgotten about me.”

Jess’s heart melted and he explained, his heart pounding at her words. “I didn’t come because I had a black eye and I’d cut my face. I looked a mess and I didn’t want to frighten your mother or you into thinking I was some kind of barroom brawler.”

“Oh Jess, how awful,” Jean gasped. “You can’t tell, except for that tiny little red scar. How did you do it?”

Jess laughed and remembered what Slim had said. “I walked into a door.”

“Oh, you fool.” Jean joined in his laughter, “I’d have kissed it better.”

“Thanks,” Jess replied. “I’ll take that as done.”

Jean then removed her arm as they came to the turn behind the barn, which lead them up the avenue of flowering bushes to the wide turning circle in front of the grand house.

Jess stopped the rig and quickly jumped down to help Jean alight. As he did so, Hutton Armstrong came out of the house and nodded to the wranglers who were standing with Traveler. They don’t want me to hang around, Jess thought.

“Your horse has had some grain and a rub down,” said Armstrong. “Nice looking animal; fast by the looks of him.”

“Yes sir, he’ll do. Thanks for looking after him.”

“Well, you’ve a ways to go, laddie, and you need him fit. Your rifle is its holster and your gun belt and iron is over the horn.”

“Thanks, sir,” was all Jess said. He then reached up, took his gun belt, buckled it on, and immediately felt better.

By this time Jean had joined her father.

“Daddy, Jess will be back whenever he can get the time off to come over. You will tell the ranch hands that he is welcome and expected,” Jean instructed her father.

“We’ll take it easy, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it none. I’ve a horse that Mr. Harper might like to throw his leg over sometime; nobody else seems to be able to. Serves me right to buy an unbroken stallion that has spent its life chasing its mares all over Montana,” said Armstrong. “Would you like to give it a go, laddie?”

“Yes, sir,” Jess replied. “I’ll try and gladly.”

“Well, see you soon,” said Armstrong.

“Goodbye, Jess,” Jean called out. “See you soon?”

“Now what kinda talk is that? And you a young lady,” her father said.

“So long,” said Jess, and taking Travelers’ reins, hopped into his stirrup, threw his leg over and softly lowered himself into the saddle. He then lifted Traveler into a canter, touched the brim of his Stetson in goodbye and started up the grand drive towards Laramie and home.

*****

Jess cantered easily away, this time without an escort. His head was full of the day’s events and he was excited and fearful at the same time, He felt that he had left himself wide open to some serious trouble, as he had talked too much about Kamal, the wonderful Akhal-teke.

He remembered the looks the brothers had exchanged. They did not need to say a word; he just felt their menace and veiled threats, which promised violence and danger in the future, and his skin crawled.

On the whole, they were not huge men, or even heavily muscled. They were a mite taller than he was and had the look of horsemen about them, in as much as they were wiry, lean and immensely strong. He’d tangled with their kind all his life. He was very like them. He could easily have been one of them, because he too had a lean and hungry look and Jess knew that such men were dangerous.

He also realized that Jean, perhaps innocently, had allowed him to stumble across that blind canyon. It was an ideal place to hide their stolen cattle. Jess was convinced that they kept themselves in beef by rustling and he was positive that he recognized some of Slim’s best beef stock.

Maybe only on a small scale by their standards, but Jess knew that small spreads like Slim’s could not afford to lose good breeding stock when they only just managed to survive from one crisis to the next. Every cow was precious. The loss of a small number through weather, lack of grazing and natural ailments was all part of ranching, but to lose animals due to rustling would be, for many, the last straw.

Jeannie had laughed at the comments he had made when he had seen the cattle. The Hereford crosses and blue grays could have easily have been of the Sherman, Blacks or Baxter’s ranches. She’d regarded them as lunch which her brothers provided, and Jess knew how many animals it would take to keep such a large ranch with so many wranglers, almost a small army, fed. He also knew that sheep and cattle for him did not mix. It was unheard of. That went for the men who herded them, so somewhere in the hills and hidden valleys there were even more men, their families and who knew what else. One thing Jess was sure of — maybe sooner rather than later, some of the Armstrong boys or their men would cross swords with him. If not over Bonnie Jean, it would be over the cattle he had seen and thought that he recognized.

Jess realized that he was only being tolerated as a means to an end. The target of their ambition was Kamal, the stallion that he now bitterly regretted describing. He would be welcomed back to see Jean, and they would use her as a as a way of finding out the exact whereabouts of the horse and nothing else. He hoped that what she had said had been meant sincerely and she would be strong enough to defy her father and brothers, but he now began to wonder if Jean was just playing him like a fish on a line, letting him run and then reeling him in for her amusement. A simple distraction, enjoying toying with him, as she knew she could. She knew that he was like many of her beaux in the past, blinded by her beauty. If not, he knew that as soon as they had what they wanted, he would be run off their range at best, but more likely be carried off by Slim and Mort.

The idea of an unmarked grave which horses and sheep had been driven over was also high on the cards. The big wide open was exactly that. It rivaled the oceans as the best place to get rid of a body. The high lonesome ranges and empty deserts had soaked up blood since the beginning of time. Jess knew that, with the exception of three or four friends, his disappearance would go unremarked and be simply put down as another cowpuncher who’d been a victim of a harsh and unforgiving land.

All these thoughts occupied Jess as he rode away from the Armstrongs’ magnificent house, and he was soon approaching the ranch hands quarters before he’d finished his depressive thinking. He frowned when he saw four riders come from behind the barn and stop their horses on the trail; they blocked it and waited for him to stop.

“Hold up Harper,” called out one. “Robbo here hasn’t finished with you.”

“I guess he’s not,” Jess shouted back. “He’s brought enough of you to help. I can accommodate you. Will two at a time be okay?”

There was a fair-haired wrangler with them. In fact, his hair was so fair it was a silvery blond. He had very pale blue eyes, almost colorless, and a very white skin. He was obviously from the icy cold regions where the sun slept for months of the year. Of course, he was called Whitey, Jess guessed correctly.

“I’m not with them,” the pale man called out. “I’m from your neck of the woods. I’m a gentleman come to see fair play.”

“You think that three to one is fair play?” Jess shouted back, surprised at the southern drawl.

“You’ve got it wrong, Harper. Robbo will give you a chance to get even. I also hold your twenty dollars and I’ll see that you get it no matter what happens,” the southerner replied.

“Will pay the costs of burying you.” A swarthy dwarf-like man laughed and then spit a long wad of tobacco juice towards Traveler’s feet, which caused the big bay to shy away.

“Steady, boy, you’re fine,” Jess soothed Traveler. “Okay, I’ll take the money for some new duds and you can save yourself a few days of grief. Leave my horse out of it; mess with him and you’ll make me angry.”

“You’ve a mighty high opinion of yerself, Harper,” snarled the brutish Robbo. “Out here, gun slicks are knocked down pretty easy. They are not so big without their six guns.”

“You really want to try?” said Jess and he slowly dismounted, his slow measured movements taunt with hostility. “Remember when they carry you back to the bunk house that you could have walked away.”

“No gun play, Harper!” called out Whitey.

“I know. I gave my word; don’t need a gun to; to stop him.” With that, Jess began to unbuckle his gun belt. I must be stupid, he thought. He got no further as suddenly, as his hands were busy undoing the buckle of his belt, Robinson slapped leather and drew his gun.

Jess was fast; he dived to his left and he rolled pulling his gun free as he went. With speed difficult to follow, he fanned his gun with his left hand. Robinson screamed out with pain, as his gun was torn from his hand and he was left with a hole drilled; dead center through it by Jess’ .45.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.” It was Whitey calling to Robbo’s two pards, who looked at each other and then put their hands on their saddle horns.

By now, Jess was standing and called out to Robbo. “You want some more?” he asked, then inclined his head to the other two and challenged them by snarling at them. “You boys want a piece of this?”

The two of them remained silent; they just swiftly gave a small shake of their heads and had their horses back up. They looked at each other, then watched Jess uneasily.

“Damn you, Harper!” choked out Robbo, “I think you’ve crippled me.”

“You’ll do! Why does a sheep man need a fast draw? Sheep don’t seem to give much trouble.” Jess went on. “And I’ve never heard of them stampeding.”

“Happy now, Robbo? Have you had enough? You are a low-life lump of cheating Yankee shit. Harper was well within his rights to have put a bullet between your horns. I would have done.” With that, Whitey spat at the dark-faced bully who was nursing his bloody hand.

“Shut your mouth,” Robinson groaned. “Give the saddle-bum his twenty dollars. It’ll cost him more than he’s got, sooner than he thinks.” With that strange comment, Robbo turned away, and with his hand now wrapped up in his bandana, he mounted his horse.

“I’ll be seeing you soon,” the big man threatened, and with that, he pulled his horse around and kicked it on after the others who had ridden away back behind the barn.

Whitey stayed. “I’ll ride with you to the main gate,” the pale man said.

Jess by now had remounted Traveler and Whitey pulled up alongside him.

“Here’s your twenty dollars,” Whitey said. “I had a lot of drinks to buy to get it. He’ll not let it go; you’ll have to watch your back.”

“That’s not a problem,” said Jess quietly. “I’ve grown up watching my back.”

“You want me to ride with you?” Whitey asked again.

“Sure, glad of the company,” said Jess. “You might be able to answer some questions that have been making me itch. I’m curious. Jean doesn’t seem to know a hoof from a horn; she knows nothing.”

“Well, I’ll do my best,” said Whitey. “What do you want to know?”

“That small blind valley, up behind the big house — what’s kept up there?” Jess asked.

”Beef cattle, mostly waiting for slaughter. They feed the whole ranch, keep us all in beef; we all live high on the hog up here,” laughed Whitey when he saw the expression on Jess’s face.

“I live on a ranch and we cannot afford to eat beef. We only get to share when a neighbor or we lose a cow. We live on chickens mostly that have been mowed down by the stage; beans and pork has to do us.”

Whitey just shrugged his shoulders. “Well, come work here with me. You’d get plenty of beef to eat. It is a good valley, sheltered and the horses are kept there in the winter. Now they are out on the high lands, where they get to run free.”

“So where does all this beef come from?” Jess demanded to know. “You’ve still not said.”

“I don’t know,” replied Whitey. “I’m not in the Armstrong brothers’ inner group, born of wrong blood. I just know that we have a lot of beef stock coming through, we have few calves, and that is all I know. I do not ride with them, so God only knows from where they get their cattle from. Just know that it tastes great.”

“You look after the horses, so where are they kept?” Jess wanted to know.

“They’re up on the high ranges as well,” Whitey began to explain. “Of course, there are several down in the home paddocks as well, for the wranglers and family use.”

“Good stock?” Jess wanted to know.

“Yeah!” Whitey replied, “He’s got a great Morgan stallion, a lot of quarter horses and many foals out of an English thoroughbred which is a fantastic horse as well. I dunno why he is creating so much dust over this here Akhal-teke. We do not need a hot blooded horse around; he just bring us nothing but grief”

“Well, he is a fantastic horse as well,” commented Jess. “You wait until you see him. We’ve had some great foals out of him; the prices we got for them fed us and the stock through the winter.” Jess sighed and then went on in a quieter voice. “I guess I should not have blabbed my big mouth off about him.”

“I’ll not say anything,” Whitey responded. “I try to not get involved with all the shenanigans which go on up here. I’m only up here until I can get me a grubstake pulled together, then am following the geese home. The winters up here are killers, seem to last for seven or eight months, make old men outta young ‘uns. I need to tell you something, Jess. I wasn’t going to but I reckon that you need to know, since I see how taken you are with Miss Armstrong. You need to be careful. She looks a lass but she is well into her twenties. She is no delicate spring chicken. A few years back, she caused an almighty fight between some of the hands. She played them off one against the other, had them tearing strips off of each other; it was a bloody, knock down, dirty bit of fighting until they went for their guns and one of them — a nice kid; his mother’s a widower woman who worked in the kitchen up at the big house — got his head blowed off. The other one later lost his leg. Seems it never healed properly and turned bad, so it had to come off. God only knows what happened to him. Well, she was sent east to her kin there, and there were smoke signals that there was a kid. Where the child is or if there ever was one is anyone’s guess. Well, it’s a long shot ‘cos no one really knows — and no one would dare ask. As you see, she is back and the whole place is holding its breath, waiting to see what’s gonna happen next. You watch your back and tread soft,” Whitey finished softly, with a shake of the head and a sigh.

“Why you telling me all this?” Jess asked, his face darkening and his eyebrows knitting together in a frown.

“’Cos of a girl called Francie, and her little brother called Jess that she spoilt,” Whitey said sadly. “She meant a lot to me.”

“You knew Francie?” Jess quickly, asked his face flushing red at the mention of her name.

“Sure did!” Whitey smiled. “She was my first love and I lost her.”

“When was this?” Jess questioned him.

Before the war,” Whitey replied. “I was stupid. At the first shot I was off, never got to say good bye properly. Your Pa was watching me like a hawk. Us Texicans should have kept out of it. I slunk back and she and, in fact you, were all gone to hell. You know what happened to her and the rest.”

“Yeah, some,” murmured Jess. “I still miss her.”

“Well, she missed you.” Whitey laughed. “She bored me stupid with tales of her wild little kid brother; seems you were a handful even at ten. Picking fights with the biggest kid in town, wanting to have a go fighting bulls Spanish style, and that damned Harper pride got you many a licking from your old man. Took off. Was it 16 or there abouts?”

“Yeah,” said Jess, “about then.”

“You never wrote did you?” Whitey questioned Jess.

“No, Whitey, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t,” Jess replied. “I did a lot of things I could not tell her about.”

“You seem to be getting yourself straightened out,” said Whitey. “Don’t hear tell about you so much these days. I thought you’d been hung, as I don’t see that ugly mug of yours so much now, snarling at me from a wanted poster, no — not for a year or so anyways.”

“I’ve been lucky,” Jess grinned. “I fell in with a rancher and we kinda work well together. I think he sees me as a challenge, I need saving, maybe. Or maybe as an entertainment — keeps him distracted. Besides ranching and running a relay station, he’s also got a kid brother. The two of us get on really well and we torment the goddam life outta Slim. Thinking about it, he would not dare kick my ass up the trail as Andy would want to come with me. I like horses and working the place with him, and I feel that I am starting to belong. I don’t have to worry so much about some gunslinger, like me, pulling his iron on me, out to make a rep for himself or maybe thinking that the price of five grand still stands. I’ve friends in Laramie, even the sheriff now; that would make Francie laugh.” Jess grinned fondly as he thought of his big sister who had mothered him and loved him.

“She’d be mighty proud,” murmured Whitey with a sad smile. “Well, this is as far as I go, Jess. Think about what I have said. You know where to find me if you land in trouble, I’ll not be able to do much, but I’ll do as much as I can.”

The two Texans shook hands.

“Thanks, Whitey, I sure appreciate that. I hope nothing comes of it.”

“So do I,” grinned Whitey. “I’d hate to be mixed up in any kind of fight that brought grief to Francie’s little brother.”

“So would I! Especially if you get to bury me,” laughed Jess. “I’ll see you around, maybe in Laramie; I’ll buy you a drink.”

“That would be good,” said Whitey. “Look forward to it. See ya, cowboy!”

“Yeah! See you…what you called? Shepherd, shepherdess or such like?” Jess called out after him with a laugh.

“Watch that mouth, Harper!” Whitey shouted over his shoulder as he wheeled his horse around and with a final wave set off towards the Armstrong spread.

*****

Jess finally rode down the hill through bright sunlight into the relay station yard. His newfound happiness was now fading as he grimly realized that he was fast becoming ensnared in a real lair of wolverines that already looked as if they would like to tear his guts out.

The beautiful girl whose fairy tale looks held him captive in her web seemed to be as dangerous as her aggressive-looking brothers.

Jess was at a loss. He did not want to discuss with Slim and Jonesy what he had found out or what he had seen. He could not report his suspicions about the rustled beef cattle, not until he had quietly investigated their own and their neighbors’ tally. That would be the time to involve Slim. He knew that Slim would not take anyone stealing his prized beef cattle lying down. Mort Corey and Slim’s thundering broadsides would kick him into action.

That meant a posse, other ranchers up in arms as they checked their herds and Jess would be in the thick of it. He would find himself the center of the whole swarming mess, and in the end, it could all come to nothing. So Jess decided to keep his mouth shut on his suspicions, and even more so on Jean’s less than angelic reputation. Jess knew that once Slim and Jonesy got wind of it, they would delight in needling him and making his life hell with their tormenting laughter. He would just have to shut his teeth and take it; it would provide a valuable lesson as it would exercise his self-control, which was very thin at the best of times. He also knew that if their roles were reversed and Slim was in a similar situation, he knew that he would show no mercy, and it would not be long before chairs, cups, saucers and plates were being used as weapons and smashed into a million pieces. The living room would look as if a tornado had screamed through it. The last time it had taken several pails of water and the use of the poker all, delivered with fierce glee by Andy and Jonesy to break them up.

No! He thought as he slowly dismounted. “Less said…” With a sigh, he opened the door and walked into the living room to be met with…

“Hail and well met, pale Romeo.” Jonesy smiled a mischievously; he enjoyed showing of his book learning.

“About time,” said Slim. “Mort’s going out tomorrow to look for your body.”

“Yeah, he’s already told me,” replied Jess. “Disappointed are you?”

“No, just relieved,” joshed Slim. “Good wranglers are as hard to come by as chickens teeth.”

“Yeah,” said Jess, “especially one that will work for next to nothing.”

“You get your grub,” Jonesy reminded him. “What more do ye need?”

“Is that what you call it?” Jess replied. “I bet you haven’t kept me any supper.”

“Wrong, Harper,” laughed Slim. “I was about to finish it all off, but Jonesy wouldn’t let his blue-eyed boy go hungry.”

“Aw, stow it, Slim; I’m tired. It is a long way out to the Armstrong place,” Jess said wearily. “You’ve really kept me some supper Jonesy?”

“Yeah,” said the old man, “you’re just back in time. Andy’s varmints were about to get a treat.” With that, he placed a plateful of steak from which the blood and juices were still oozing out of and were getting mixed up in the mashed potatoes that had been pan fried until they had gotten a brown crust on them — Jess’s favorite.

“What a mind reader! Anyone tell you that you are a genius? I have been dreaming of this for the past three hours,” said Jess with a smile like a Cheshire cats splitting his face almost in two.

“Easy to read your mind, Jess,” grinned Slim as he watched his pard tuck into his steak with the delight of a starving grizzly that had just killed a two-year-old elk. “That’s about the only thing you will really eat.”

“He eats apple pie and cheese,” piped in Andy.

Jess did not reply; he just lifted his head and nodded and smiled up at Jonesy, who poured him some coffee.

“Thanks, Jonesy, this is swell.”

“About time someone on this ranch realized what a great cook I am,” quipped t old man.

“I do, Jonesy,” protested Jess, “you know I do.”

“You’re such a liar,” laughed Slim. “Anyway how did the courting go? Did you get your face slapped? Were her brothers friendly? Her ma talk to you? Her pa threaten you with a twelve bore? Come on, talk; we are all dying to hear.”

“Sorry,” said Jess. “I’m plain tuckered out; it’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”

“Aw no! Come on, Pard,” moaned Slim. “We’ve been dying to hear your tales.”

“Sorry, Slim,” Jess said as he leaned back in his chair, turned, and called out to Jonesy who was rattling the pans in the kitchen. “That was great, Jonesy. You save me any pie?”

“Coming right up, boy.” Jonesy shuffled out of the back with the famed apple pie and a hunk of cheese balanced on top of it.

“So you are not going to say?” asked Slim, still desperately curious as to what had happened up in the hills.

“Not tonight,” Jess laughed. “All your raking me and tormenting has knocked the wind outta me; you’ll have to wait until the morning! Okay, pard?”

“I suppose we can wait, eh Jonesy?” Slim grumbled, “It had better be good, though.”

“You are in for a big disappointment.” Jess murmured. Then he turned to Jonesy, grinned, and began to eat his pie as he gave Slim a sly mocking smile.

“I’m going to knock your head off, boy.” Slim threatened.

“Not in here you’re not,” Jonesy said as he picked up the poker from the fireplace.

“Now, now! Slim! Who has got a nasty temper?” laughed Jess. “It’ll do you good to wait.”

With that, Slim gave a grunt and stood up.

“I’ll guess I’ll go see to poor Traveler, while you stuff your face,” Slim declared as he gave in.

“Thanks, pard!” Jess laughed. “Don’t make any noise when you come in, as I’ll be dead to the world and do not want to be woken up with your clumsy stomping around.”

“Yeah, looks as if you need some beauty sleep,” Slim called over his shoulder as he went out the door.

“Want your teeth knocked out?”Jess shouted after him as he slammed the door behind him.

“Well Jess, how did it go?” Old Jonesy asked.

“Just okay, Jonesy; I think she likes me. Her kin were all excited to hear about the stallion. That could cause some trouble, as they were really too keen to hear about him. We had some dinner. They have a huge house full of fancy doodahs and suchlike. We went for a short buggy ride and that was that.”

“Sounds boring, especially for you,” Jonesy quietly remarked with a little smile.

“Yeah, it was kinda. Anymore coffee?” Jess replied as he thought of the unfriendly welcome, the threatening brothers, the suspicious beef herds, the dark looks and veiled threats and finally the bloodletting with the fearsome ranch hands.

No way was it boring. Anyway, thought Jess, at least I got my twenty dollars for some new duds and I have met Whitey. He was already looking forward to a chinwag with the Texan who had known his sister and had remembered him and his family from all those years ago. Jess finally stood up and took his cup, saucer and plate through into the kitchen.

“Thanks again, that was great,” smiled Jess. “Now if there is nothing else, I’m gonna hit the sack before Slim gets back in. Goodnight old man; see you in the morning.”

“Less of the old man, ye young devil,” Jonesy said with one of his rare smiles. “It’s good to have ye back son.”

“Thanks. Will you please tell Andy when he comes in there that there are some bulls eyes in my saddle bags? I clean forgot. Good night.”

With that, Jess finally headed towards the bedroom. His head was spinning, full of unanswered questions about the strange way of life he had fallen in on up on the high plains.

*****

Next day Jess told Slim a lot of nonsense, the kind of information that would keep Slim happy and not give him any cause to worry. He had enough anxiety without adding Slim’s worries to his own. He also knew how his boss worried about every damned thing and at times, Jess smiled to himself, he could be a real old woman. His continued fussing, anxiety and concern often made Jess overly cautious, and one day was going to rob him of his confidence and speed. Jess was always telling him to back off and give him space, and certainly with Jeanie and her kin, that was what Jess wanted most of all.

After taking a lot of teasing and humiliating banter from Slim, which Jess took with jaws clamped firmly shut as it seemed to make his pard relaxed and happy, he finally managed to make tracks by offering to go up to the backcountry and check the fences. It was where much of the beef and breeding stock roamed up to, as it was a might cooler; there was more shade and the grass was greener. He’d also be able to check them all over in peace without Slim’s curiosity being aroused, as he would be needed to stay close to the relay station and deal with coaches as they journeyed through. Jess wasn’t very sure of the exact head count, but then they never were. He knew roughly, given the losses due to the weather, natural causes and the occasional mountain lion, he knew how many there should be.

When he got there, the first thing that struck him was how few part-bred Herefords there were. Maybe they had wandered over to the other side of the range; they were given to doing that.

He started to count. One steer that was definitely not there — was an old cow that always produced fine calves as regular as clockwork. Jess spent the day counting and looking for her, but she was gone.

He finally turned for home, shocked to realize that since the spring roundup, they were short of at least nineteen fully-grown top beef stock steers, not including the fine old breeding cow, one of Jess’ favorites. He was at a loss as to what was the best plan of action.

He decided the best way to deal with it all was to wait until the next time he met up with Whitey and question him some more. Maybe he would get him onto his side as there did not seem to be much love lost between him and the Armstrongs.

He would also find an excuse to go over to the Baxter, Black and Jackson ranches and find out if their head count was as down as much as Slim’s appeared to be. The whole situation was turning into a nightmare. Jess had promised to go out again to the Armstrongs ranch at the end of the week and already he felt his loyalty being sorely tested. He never thought that there could come a time when he might have to choose between Slim, the ranch, and another way of living if he were to follow his heart. The situation had not really arisen yet, but the thought of it was already beginning to torture and depress him. He only hoped he could keep his feelings from showing as he did not want to start Jonesy and Slim worrying about events that might never happen. There could be an easy answer to the missing cattle. Perhaps there was a fence down somewhere and they had strayed; if that was what had happened, they would eventually turn up.

Jess hoped and prayed that this would be the case.

*****

The days went by. Slim became puzzled at Jess’s eagerness to ride the fences and check the stock. At best, it was a lonely job and Slim knew that the young wrangler preferred the crack and banter with the stage coach drivers and, of course, he loved working with the horses.

He would spend hours schooling the best of them to sell to the many riders who liked a well-schooled, mannerly horse for their womenfolk and children to ride. He was also building up a good reputation with the Army because Jess knew that the cavalry officers liked the big, strong, English thoroughbred type.

The thoroughbreds were handsome and athletic, much like Traveler, who could turn on a dime and leap like a cat. He was also powerful and fast, and had saved Jess’s bacon on more than one occasion, when a good sprinter was all that could get Jess out of range.

Slim also was concerned that Jess did not seem to be as interested in the new foals. He did not neglect them, but neither did he sit with their heads in his lap, babying them, as he usually did when any new foals arrived.

Slim could just not understand it, as these foals were so special and had been eagerly awaited by them all. Slim remembered how ecstatic Jess had been, and how he had been “over the moon, ‘when Slim had told him to pick one out for himself. He had sacrificed his own yearnings to please his pard and now it seemed that Jess was not overly pleased.

Yeah, thought Slim, something is not right. He just hoped it would be nothing major and Jess would unload his troubles sooner rather than later.

Over the next few days, Jess managed to get to the nearest neighbors — the Baxters and the Blacks — to check out their herds. He found it was the same tale there. Both ranches had lost stock, and in the case of the Blacks, the grizzled old rancher was ready to go to war when he had found out that one of his best young bulls had gone.

Jess listened to the ranchers complaining, and watched their head scratching as they tried to think what had happened to their stock, but he kept his suspicions to himself. He decided he’d try to get Whitey to help him find out just how involved the Armstrongs were, and if the signs he had picked up, along with their strange attitude towards him. was a smokescreen for their rustling. He knew that if he had kept his mouth shut about Kamal, he would probably not been invited back to the ranch. Jess, although he loved the thought of Bonnie Jean, knew that she was toying with him, like a cat does with a field mouse, just interested in pleasure and fun. He hoped that he would not be treated like a mouse when his beautiful kitten got bored with him. He smiled ruefully to himself as he thought how much that would delight Slim and Jonesy if they ever found out.

He began to make plans to go and visit Jean again, and felt the feral wolf-like parts of his physic begin to stir. The pleasure at the thought of seeing Jean again was now tarnished by what he felt he was discovering about her brothers. He knew that the time he would have to tell Slim and Mort about his suspicions was rushing towards him like a stampeding herd of longhorns when they picked up the smell of water. He was dreading that. He would have to choose whom to follow, what to do, to keep quiet or tell all. It was going to be the hardest and most bitter decision of his life.

Jess began to drop hints to Slim that he would like a few days away. He had worked hard at everything he could find that needed doing. He had even painted the barn door, which needed it now that it had been repaired after the fire; it was a chore he hated more than getting a tooth pulled or his hair cut. Slim had laughed as he drew his hand through his hair, for he knew how his pard hated painting.

He teased Jess by saying that the way he was throwing himself into all the chores, it would be a waste of time him going courting as he would be too tired to get out of the saddle by the time he got to the Armstrongs spread. Slim told him to go if he had the energy and had walked away chuckling.

Jess kept his head down and his mouth shut, and began to mull over in his mind his plan of action. He was angry with the so-called sheep men, who lived out on the edge of the range on their huge holdings, which stretched into the mountains and the high pastures. They lived like lords, above the law, thinking that they could cherry-pick the best of cattle belonging to the smaller ranchers. He did not believe, as Jean would like him to, that it was slaughtered to feed the ranch. He reckoned that they had collected a decent herd of well-bred cattle, which was fast becoming the basis of their own cattle-rearing ambitions. The herds would be well hidden in a valley deep inside Armstrong range, well out of sight of any drifter or local cattleman who may be riding through. All had been gained by the hard work and years of careful management by small ranch owners like Slim. He knew how his boss scrimped and saved to buy the occasional well-bred steer in order to improve his herd. It had taken time, and Jess knew the sacrifices they all made. It was reflected in their closet, as Jess had little to wear other than his working duds, and he knew that Slim was the same. They were kept clad by Jones’s continual repairing. He felt his temper begin to rise when he thought of all the hard work every one on the Sherman Ranch put in. It was driving him mad. He felt that the Armstrong men were all sniggering and laughing at him as he tried to court their sister, the joke made even funnier as they fed him prime beef probably from Slim’s herd.

At last, Slim told Jess that he was as skittish as a cat on a hot tin roof and he was getting hard to live with. He told him to get going for the high country, for the sooner he was gone, the sooner he would be back.

Jess did not need a second telling, and after the usual raking from old Jonesy and Slim’s sly humorous digs at him, Jess saddled one of the ranch horses, and leading Traveler, he set out for the Armstrong spread.

He swung into Laramie and almost immediately caught up with Whitey, who had come into town to pick up supplies. He had a wagon full of goods and Jess was taken aback at the huge load of goods — enough to feed a small army.

Whitey saw Jess and waved his hand.

Jess called to him. “Got time for that drink?”

“Yeah, sure, but can’t stay for long; need to be back before dark,” Whitey replied.

“Well, let’s get to it.” Jess dismounted, and after tying up the two horses, followed Whitey into the saloon.

“You coming visiting again, Jess? You want to tangle with them again, boy?”

“Guess so, if that is then only way to get to see Jean. She makes it hard to stay away. I also need to sort something out which has been tormenting the backside of me.”

Whitey led the way across the saloon and found a corner table, while Jess bought a couple of beers and carried the whiskey bottle over to the table.

At first, their conversation was all the usual ranch stuff, about how slow work was going because of the weather. The moans about the long hours, poor pay and aching muscles. Finally, Jess turned the talk to the suspected rustling, and Whitey sat with his head bowed and listened. He never said a word until Jess had finished. Then he muttered, “Well, I guess they’d be caught out sometime; they have ridden their luck for years. I’m just sorry that it’s you that found out, Jess.”

“Yeah? But I will not be on my own. I just need the herds’ whereabouts, I’ll report to Mort Corey and he will ride over, check it out. After that, the law will take its course.”

“You think it will be that easy?” asked Whitey.

“Why shouldn’t it be? I’ll take a look-see myself, so I can tell Mort where he’ll find the cattle. Do you know where they are?” Jess asked sharply, demanding to know.

“Yeah. Maybe I will manage to slip away and come with you. You’ll need someone to watch your back, as them hills and ranges are awash with herders keeping watch, and little gets past them.”

“Thanks, Whitey,” said Jess. “I’ll get to the Armstrongs and I’ll walk soft, promise. When I decide to make a move, I’ll tell you. You’ll be around?”

“Yeah. I look after the horses so I am always around the barns and stables. I’ll be easy to find. I’ll be taking care of your horse so you’ll have an excuse to flush me out.”

By now, they had finished their beers and were getting ready to make a move.

“Want a whiskey chaser?” Jess asked, pouring one for himself and throwing it to the back of his throat.

“No, better not,” said Whitey. He watched with amusement as Jess pulled a face as the raw liquor burnt his throat. “I need to be hitting the trail. I’ll see you soon. Take care now, son. Thanks for the drink; we’ll have a proper go at it next time.”

“That a promise?” smiled Jess.

“Sure is,” With that, Whitey was gone.

Jess sat and thought over what would be the best plan of action. It would never do to turn up at the ranch with Whitey; that would raise eyebrows and start tongues wagging. Jess knew cowboys; they lived solitary lives and were ever watchful, and loved gossip. Their two and twos always made ten. What they did not know, or were not sure of, they made up. They would have a field day if he rode in within an hour of Whitey. He would have to spend the night in Laramie. Jess liked the idea, as he could look up Mort; maybe they would get to eat together at Julies’, and make a night of it. He’d be gone early in the morning and he would keep his suspicions to himself. What Mort did not know would not do him any harm.

Everything went as Jess had planned. After an early breakfast, he was on his way. He wanted to spend as much time as he could with Jean, and hopefully on a buggy ride, he’d perhaps get wind of the missing cattle. Certainly the longer he had, the more chance he had of finding them.

Mort again had said he’d come looking for him if he seemed to be away longer than Jess had planned, but Jess asked him to steer clear as he hoped he would not be gone for long. He said he would get word to him if, one way or the other, he were in trouble and needed him.

Jess arrived at the bunkhouse at the Armstrong ranch and was greeted without comment, rather like an unexpected dump of snow in June. He was again escorted up to the big house by one of the wranglers; this one had a pocked-marked red complexion, evidence of spending much of his life out on the plains. He had thick black coarse hair which grew low on to his forehead in a widow’s peak. His face was slightly swollen in lumps and looked as if he had recently been in a fight. Jess also noticed that the muscles of his forearms would do credit to a blacksmith. A dangerous man, Jess thought; one to be avoided at all costs.

Jess could feel the man’s tiny rat-like eyes watching him, waiting for one wrong move from Jess. That would give him the excuse he needed to drag Jess out of his saddle and give him a kicking. Jess wondered if they had already met in that dark alley, where he had had a sample of this crew’s hostility.

Maybe he was one of Robbo’s friends and he was out to help even up the score, or maybe they always treated strangers who came a calling this way, whether on business or to try and court Bonnie Jean. With these thoughts not far from the back of his mind, Jess rode on.

He suddenly felt really vulnerable and exposed. He had asked Mort to hold fire and keep his distance, and now he had no one else to blame but himself for riding all alone into the lion’s den. The lion, however, was not at home; only the cubs.

*****

Jess went up the steps of the huge impressive ranch house and was shown into the Armstrongs lair, where the cubs were sprawled around in over-stuffed button backed chairs. He was greeted politely enough, but was equally politely ignored, as none of them stood up or took his proffered hand.

Their arrogance made Jess’s heart race and his hackles rise as he waited, hat in hand, for their sister to appear. He stood feeling foolish among the brothers who watched him with various expressions on their faces. Jess could feel his face begin to turn red as he recognized the contempt and total lack of respect they had for him. He knew he would have to find a way of changing their ideas about him, if he were going to have any kind of relationship with their sister.

Jean finally appeared and, yet again, he felt the very breath he breathed being choked out of him; he found the first glimpse of her in those first few seconds made his head swim and his heart pound.

She was well aware of the effect she had on him, as it was the same with most men, and she gave a knowing kittenish little smile as she held her hand out in greeting. “Good morning, Jess, so lovely to see you again,” she said formally. Her voice was full of merriment as she saw his discomfort when she had walked in.

“Morning…Jean,” he stammered out, cursing to himself as he did so.

“Well, what have you got planned for today?” she trilled as she turned to her brothers and said.

“Have you any suggestions?”

“None that I could repeat in front of you, sis!” laughed the youngest brother called John.

“He could take us all out to see that Kamal,” Amos said.

“He’ll not do that without some persuasion, and wee Jeanie does not like bloodletting,” Angus remarked with a smirk.

“Now behave. Jess has to work; he cannot afford to fight with you all, so stop it,” Jean sprang to Jess’s defense.

He put his head down, as he felt even more humiliated that he had allowed a slip of a girl to do his fighting for him.

“Well, how about showing us sheep men how to break a horse? Dad has just bought a stallion off some mustangers; it needs someone to throw a leg over it.”

Jess thought that this might be a good opportunity to show these dastards what he was all about. he, however, did not want to appear too keen, and so he said, “I don’t know. Do you not think your father should be here?”

“No, I don’t think he will mind, as long as someone can break him,” Angus went on. “You cowpokes have the reputation for being horsemen, but if you think it will be too much for you, forget it. We’ll get the buggy brought round and you and Jean can go for a drive.”

“Oh no!” said Jean. “I’d love to see Jess ride Daddy’s new horse. None of you can.”

Darn it, Jess thought, already having second thoughts about it all, especially if none of these men could stay on the brute. It would be great if he could break the wild stallion, but he knew all about them. They were usually half a ton of young muscle ready to go on the rampage, already half-mad by being kept away from the mares and being penned up after running free all their lives, and made even worse by having idiots like himself trying to throw a leg across them.

Jess knew that one day his job might kill him, and he used to laugh and say that the day that he was frightened to throw his leg over a horse was the day he would hang up his boots and take up preaching. It was the thought of fear that bothered him, and today the thought of being made to look an even bigger fool in the eyes of the beautiful Jean only added to his unease.

Besides that, Jess didn’t like to break a horses’ spirit like a mustanger or bronco buster did. He did not want a horse to hate him or be frightened of him. Jess had been brought up near Comanche country, and knew how valued a horse broken the Comanche way was. For all their savage, fearsome ways, this tribe gentled their horses, which would then follow them around like dogs. It took time, but it was well worth it, and it was the way Jess liked to work. Not today, however. He would have to try to break this horse bronco style — not pleasant and could be a bone cracker for him, as well as a spirit-breaking tragedy for the stallion.

“Well, anything to oblige,” Jess replied. “We can go for a drive this afternoon.”

“That’s if you are still standing,” smirked John.

“Now stop that,” Jean scolded and smiled at Jess. “Well, are you ready? This will be fun.”

The brothers led the way out, through the French windows, around the verandah, down the steps and across the lawns towards the corrals.

Jess followed on with Jean. She took his arm but he felt very much like a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Before they arrived at the corral, the sound of an enraged stallion filled the morning air. Two of the brothers were already there and were trying to get a saddle on the ferocious horse. Its screams of rage made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and bristle. It is going to be some fight, he thought as his stomach muscles started to clench. So much for taking it quietly and gently with the minimum of noise and fuss, he thought. Jess knew that the horse would be like a tightly coiled spring, ready to explode as soon as Jess tried to put his foot in the stirrup.

The barn door opened, and the stallion danced out, dragging Whitey and the youngest Armstrong along like rag dolls.

Jess recognized the fierce animal immediately. It had filled out some; its neck muscles were stronger and made its head seem smaller. Its hindquarters were immense. It looked like a horse that would be able to gallop forever, and it was certainly the king of the prairie. Slim had turned the stallion loose when Jess had tried to break it once before, and he had been flung against the barn doors trying to break it. Slim had said it was not worth risking getting killed, as it would always be trouble, the stallion was born to run free. So while Jess was recovering from his fight with the black brute, Slim had turned it loose.

Jess watched the big animal. It seemed in a great mood, as it tossed its head with excitement and bounced along with a tiny cantering stride, with all the fever of its youth singing through its veins.

I’ll be lucky, thought Jess, if I can get on him. He could easily bolt, clear the fence and be half a mile away before I could pull him up, that is, if I am still astride him. Anyway, we’re going to have some ride as we fight each other. It is going to be a strength-sapping, back- breaking pull. I’ll probably end up flying through the air. As long as the brute doesn’t roll on me or stomp me with his sledgehammer hooves, I should be okay.

Jess pulled his Stetson down even harder and went towards the horse. Whitey and John Armstrong did their best to hold the screaming stallion, as it screwed around and tried to bite them. Finally after much pushing and chasing the horse around, accompanied by the yells and advice from the Armstrongs and the other wranglers — which did nothing but make the already excited animal even more skittish — Jess was finally up and mounted.

“Keep out of trouble,” shouted Whitey.

“Troubles underneath me,” Jess yelled back as the big animal took a sideways leap, which almost crunched Jess’s leg against the rustic poles. The stallion then continued to buck and screw wildly in mid air, at times landing with its nose between its front legs. Jess was hurled around in the saddle like a boneless body, and knew that the uneven battle would not last long as he felt his arms being pulled out of their sockets. He could feel the immense power of the animal as it bunched its immensely strong hindquarters for yet more acrobatic bucking, and then took off to screw around again high in the air.

Jess nearly came off as the stallion landed and he clung on for dear life to the horn and the horse’s mane. The reins had been wrenched from his hands and now hung down dangerously close to the animals’ front feet. Jess was afraid that the horse would get its feet tangled and come crashing down with him underneath. He let go of the horn, leaned out and forward, and tried to grab hold of the reins.

It was at this point that the black hearted brute again tensed its muscles and arching its back, again leapt into the air, followed on with more enormous bone jarring bucks and twists. It finally landed with all its feet close together, not so different from the many other times, just much more violent and extreme.

Jess had nothing to cling to but fresh air. He was catapulted off.

The grass, trees, sky, poles, rails and dirt swung across his eyes in a swiveling, spinning jumble. He instinctively tucked his head in to protect it from the fury, which still spun above him. He bounced and then the ground jarred into him sharply, as his world continued to whirl around him in chaos.

At least the brute has not rolled on me, thought Jess as he tried to catch his breath, which had been knocked out of him. Jess tried to sit up when suddenly the maddened stallion turned and gave him a parting kick on his left leg and then continued its sideways controlled contortions across the corral. Jess lay and watched it as it finally stood on the other side of the corral quivering. Its coat was foam flecked and glistened with sweat; it still spitted foam, barred its teeth and rolled its eyes wildly showing white, a dangerous sign in any animal.

“You okay, son?” It was Whitey.

“Wait!” Jess breathed. “Let me get my breath back.”

The horse now stood calmly, its sides heaving as it rested and caught its breath.

Whitey and John Armstrong helped Jess up. The pain in his left leg was not the worst of it; Jess felt as if he had been rolled and stomped on by a stampeding wild beast that had only begun to show its strength.

“You gonna go agin?” asked John with a small mocking smile.

“No, he don’t,” yelled Whitey. “That leg of his will be useless for a day or two. You damn well know it! You want to get him killed?”

Jess stood between the two men. His leg was completely numb and would not bear his weight. He knew he would need a stick to support him and to help him walk. He also knew he would not be able to ride for God knows how many hours.

“Leave it!” said Jess. “I’ll get back to him when I am able. He has won the first round but the fight is not over.”

The Armstrongs, with a shrug, turned aside, and with Whiteys’ support, Jess limped over towards the corral rails as the others all melted away.

Jean and her brother, the dour Angus, were waiting for him by the five barred gate.

“Are you alright, Jess?” she asked with a kittenish smile. “I didn’t think that you would fall off!” With that, she tossed her hair back and gave a little laugh.

It was then that Jess realized that for all the charm and beauty this girl had, she did not have it in her heart. She must have known how dangerous it was to break an animal like the powerful stallion in such a crude way.

Jess had not fallen off. He had been thrown off as he had tried to save the horse from getting its legs tangled in the reins and maybe injuring itself.

Her description of him; ‘falling off’ was perhaps one of the worst insults that could be hurled at someone like Jess, who had spent most of his life in the saddle. He would have thrashed anyone who would have dared say he’d fallen off a horse. Yet this girl, because of her bewitching hold over him, had dared to and then had laughed at him.

It was all getting too much. He felt as if he was trapped in a spider’s web, and as he tried to untangle himself, the worse it was getting. He had allowed himself to be snared by this pretty girl and was now cornered by her brothers. His common sense had warned him about trying to ride a horse that had been wound up into such an excitable rage. His pride, however, had gotten the better of him, and now he was paying the price with every painful step he took.

Whitey finally came to his rescue with a walking stick he had fashioned by cutting down a shepherd’s crook. He knew that the kick that Jess had suffered had been on his muscle and had probably touched a nerve. Jess would have no feeling or strength in his leg for some time, and would not be fit to ride for some hours.

“Thanks, Whitey, that’s perfect. I’ll come over with you; I need to ask you some advice about my horse. He’s got a cough.”

Whitey looked questionably at Jess. It was the first that he had heard of it, but the look on Jess’ face warned him to keep quiet.

“Okay, Jess,” said Whitey, “come on over and you can get cleaned up at the same time.”

“Yeah, thanks that would be swell,” replied Jess. He began to painfully hobble along with Whitey, who kept a hold of his arm, and he watched Jean turn and watch him. She then spoke to her brother and their laughter rang in his ears. Jess could guess what she had said, and he clenched his teeth so hard he thought that he was going to break his jaw.

It was a little later, late morning, and Jess was sitting comfortably in a well-worn chair in the tack room, enjoying the heat from the stove, which was bringing some relief to his damaged leg. He felt very much at home with a tin cup of coffee in his hand, and the smell of saddle soap, liniment and leather filled his head with memories of surroundings of a place that always felt safe and familiar.

He planned to have another round with the stallion at about dawn the next morning, while the whole ranch was hopefully still asleep. He also suggested that if all went to plan, and he wasn’t sent packing, Whitey might point him in the direction of the hidden herd. He and Jean could have a ride out to have a look at it that afternoon. He would recognize the brands; he knew exactly what he was looking for. They had changed the subject and were talking about the Panhandle and the huge Goodnight Ranch down there when Angus pushed the door wide and stalked in.

“You got yourself cleaned up yet, Harper?” he said with a laugh. “You sure did eat some dirt.”

“How much did you eat when you tried to ride him?” Jess growled, “Or haven’t you tried yet. He’s a mucho bronc, more than a handful. I can understand why you haven’t tried yet.”

“Who told you that?” Angus demanded angrily. “Damned herdsmen; don’t know how to keep their mouths shut!”

“No one told me,” said Jess with a laugh. “You just don’t look to have the makings of a horseman.”

“You do, I suppose,” Angus spat out, his face becoming rigid with fierce, fanatical fury.

“Yeah,” Jess drawled, “more than most.”

“Talks cheap.” Angus snarled. “We’ve still to see the proof.”

“Just give us time,” Jess said, his voice becoming darkly dangerous.

“I’ll not hold my breath,” Angus muttered. “I’ve been told to come and fetch you for your lunch, but I think that you fit in here better. Anyway, think you can walk that far?”

“I can walk as far as I need to,” Jess said through clenched teeth, and stood up stiffly, catching his breath as his leg trembled beneath him. He picked up his hat, and as he jammed it on his head, he turned to his new friend and said, “Thanks, Whitey, for the stick. I’ll check on my horse later.” With that, Jess followed Angus up towards the ranch house. He was very aware that Jean had made no effort to check on his leg or how he felt. It was blindingly obvious that she was losing interest in him.

Well, that was okay, Jess thought. He was fast losing interest too.

*****

Lunch was a quiet affair as, with the exception of Angus, all the other Armstrong males were missing. The conversation was boringly pleasant enough, and Jess found little to say as the two women chatted on about fashion, who was pregnant, who had had a baby, carpets, curtains and how difficult it was to employ a cook who could bake or make a decent soufflé.

Angus ignored them and Jess, and concentrated on eating. It was then, as he wracked his brains for something interesting to say, that he realized how far apart his and Jean’s worlds were. He listened as the two women planned a long visit east to catch up on civilization; this comment sent them into gales of laughter and a broad smile from Angus, who looked at Jess and snorted.

“You’ll not forget to do some shopping for me?” Angus asked.

“Of course not, dear, I like to see how handsome all my boys look in decent clothes.”

“Yes, mother,” said Jean. “We all know your motto: ‘clothes maketh the man’.” Jean laughed and her eyes slid towards Jess.

He put his head down to hide the color that was flooding into his face.

The only way of describing, Jess’ togs were that they were paid for and, thanks to Jonesy, they were clean.

The meal continued and proved very uncomfortable and painful for Jess as he felt that he was being laughed at and baited.

The Armstrongs, Jess decided, were as different from him as the sun was from the moon. With Jess, what you saw, you usually got. The Armstrongs were far more complex; their manner and speech hid much of what they thought. Jess only knew of the gossip about Jean from Whitey, and now he began to believe it. The father and brothers were secretive, distrusted strangers, guarded against trespassers, and Jess had been lucky so far as they had curbed their outward show of aggression towards him from the start. But they had not discouraged their ranch hands from taking some of his skin. They were obviously used to living above the law and did not take kindly toward anyone who said no or who would not play their game.

At last, the meal was finished and Jean went to collect the shawl she felt she might need for the afternoon buggy ride. Angus stood with Jess on the verandah; he found it difficult and painful to stand and could feel the cold sweat caused by the throbbing ache in his leg beginning to soil the back of his shirt. He clenched his teeth and fought against the temptation to collapse into one of the cushioned rattan couches which furnished the verandah.

He hated being in the company of Jean’s eldest brother and could think of nothing civil to say to him. Anything Angus said to Jess came out as a question. He rudely wanted to know where Jess was from, he asked about the places he had seen when he had blown across the south and west as a drifter on the wind. He was questioned again about Kamal and his condition and his whereabouts. Jess found it exhausting; it was like the moments before a fight as you seized up your opponent. He felt that the older Armstrong brother was testing his nerve, as Jess was civil enough, but fenced the questions and kept the answers vague.

At last Jean appeared, making her usual entrance and watched with amusement as Jess’ manner changed from the hard-riding wrangler to a shy callow youth who tried to hide his face as it flushed with a pleasure over which he had no control. He suddenly felt struck dumb and rooted to the spot as Jean danced down the steps and towards the waiting phaeton.

“Better help me up, Angus please,” Jean said. “I think that Jess may need a hand as well; his leg does not seem to be of much use.”

Jess bristled as he hobbled as best he could; he felt his whole body stiffen as the hairs on the back of his neck stood proud.

“Bit like him,” her brother laughed as he helped her settle into her seat.

“Now, now Angus, you are naughty,” Jean said with a smile. “That was so rude.”

“Yeah,” replied her brother, “but true.”

By now, Jess was seated beside Jean and could feel the rage inside him continuing to build up and make him tense. One more insulting or challenging comment and Jess knew that he would be unable to stop himself. He could feel the red mist gathering, and already he was getting ready to grab Angus by the throat and smash and grind his face into the gravel and make him eat dirt as he choked and gasped for air.

“Well, Jess, are we going? Or do you want to listen to Angus all afternoon?” Jean gaily asked.

Jess did not say a word; he just collected the reins, clicked his tongue, called out “Walk on,” as quality said and they were off. He did not speak, just concentrated on getting the horses set at a smart pace up the trail towards the high country where Whitey had told him he would probably find the rustled cattle.

“My, Jess, we are travelling fast; I’m getting covered in dust. Do you know where you are going? We have not been up here before,” Jean said sharply.

“Yeah, I’m gonna look at cattle!” Jess replied.

“Why?” Jean enquired.

“I’m a cattle man and I am interested in cattle,” Jess grunted.

“I thought that you were interested in me?” she said with a pout.

“Yeah? About as much as you are in me,” he replied sharply, feeling his anger towards her resurface.

“Oh, Jess, whatever do you mean by that?” she asked in her best kittenish voice.

“You saw how I was flung of that damned horse you were all so keen to have me ride, and you saw how it liked to have kicked my head in. I got no help from you or your kin. I don’t remember if any of you asked if I were okay. You just made me look foolish by saying I had fallen off, when you all could see that I was trying to save the horse from stepping through the reins and crashing down. It took one of the hands to help me; I got nothing but laughter from you and your brothers.” Jess’ anger and hurt finally burst through the floodgates and he could not control his bitter words from gushing out.

“You expected me to brush you down? I do not do that to my brothers, and certainly not to common wranglers I hardly know. I was not brought up like that. I am used to people caring for me, and keeping me safe from unpleasantness. I like you enormously, but do not ask me to deal with dirt or blood.”

“Why are you out West? You do not seem to have any feeling for it,” Jess pointed out. “One thing you learn out West is how to look out for each other; without that, we’d be lost. I’m lucky I have friends who watch out for me.”

“Well, I do not see myself living out here,” Jean replied. “I will move back East. I miss the theater, the opera, and the civilized way of life. Why, even the food out here is vile — nothing green, meat with everything, the only difference being is how much. Your beloved gravy and biscuits looks like dog vomit…ugh!”

“Do you like apple pie?”

“No, too heavy, I prefer Eves Pudding.”

“So who ever you corral out here, you would expect them to move east as well, and give up their western ways?” Jess enquired.

“Of course!” she said and tossed her clouds of black hair back. “I am going to enjoy making you into a presentable gentleman. Daddy will buy us a wonderful sporting estate, a decent stable with lots of wonderful horses for you, and I will make heads turn as we make a grand entrance to some embassy ball or other — me on your arm, my brave handsome cowboy.”

“I’m sorry, Jean,” Jess muttered. “You’d never make me domesticated, never mind presentable. My way of life is a million miles from yours. I feel naked without a gun on my hip; I need horses around me as there is nothing worse than being left afoot.”

“You wouldn’t try, even if I said I loved you?” breathed Jean.

“But you don’t love me. You think that by saying you love me, I’ll tell you where to find Kamal. Well, you are wasting your time; I’d never tell you even if I knew.”

“So you don’t know?” Jean said in a waspish voice. “I’ve been wasting my time.”

“I think I know. it is no secret really; most of us ranchers, who have business with the brand know.”

“Why don’t you tell me? You can trust me!” Jean said softly, once again becoming kitten like as she nestled into Jess’ shoulder.

“I’ll tell you, but I do not trust you; we’ll call it a test. We’ll see how much you love me, or I am only being used to find Kamal. I knew as soon as I described the horse to you father that I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“So you think that you are only here because my Daddy wants to know where this horse is.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Oh Jess, you are so suspicious. So where is he?”

“I am putting my life in your hands, so we will see how it pans out. The horse is out on the southern rim of Lindoe’s spread. They have a building out there and a small ranch house. It is used on their hunting expeditions. The horse is stabled at night, and he’ll not be taken easily; And if he is, you’ll have the Lindoe crew to deal with –and me.”

“Oh, Jess you sound so stern. It is only a horse,” Jean trilled with a small laugh.

“That is what I mean. You’ll never understand me and my world. You easterners and folks from the old world are as different from me as the moon is from the sun. We do not steal from our neighbors or anyone else. It is not a fairy story when I say that we hang horse thieves, rustlers and murderers. So keep the whereabouts of Kamal to yourself, if you don’t want to see some of your family dancing at the end of a rope.”

“My my!” Jean laughed, “you must be kept busy, what with all the rustling that goes on around here.”

Jess ignored that last remark; being hung, as he knew very well, was not to be taken lightly. It was an awful, a savage way to die. He shuddered at the memory of seeing a friend of his having his head torn off as they tried to hang him.

He continued up the trail until he steered the buggy around a sharp outcrop of sandstone rocks, jutting out from the well-wooded slope, and he saw what he was looking for. A herd of what looked like Hereford crosses placidly grazing. He pulled back on the reins and dropped them “Whoa up, boys,” he called to the well-matched duo who pricked their ears up.

“Come on, Jean,” he said as he tied the reins to a low branch. “I need to walk and try and get some feeling back into my leg. I suppose you think that that is funny too,” he muttered as he limped around to help her out of the buggy. She made no comment; she just opened her tiny parasol and stalked ahead of him, without a second glance or a word.

They walked on in silence, until at last she said, “How much further? My feet are beginning to hurt!”

“We’ve only come about a mile,” Jess said, “but I suppose that is something else that you do not do — walk.”

“Why are you being so beastly, Jess?” Jean complained.

“I’m not,” he replied. “I’m just treating you like ordinary folk. You are spoilt and it makes you hard to get along with you. Come on, there’s a tree over there; you can sit in its shade and wait for me. Oh yeah, my leg is a mite better, if you are interested.”

“Well, my feet aren’t. I am so glad that your leg is better as you will have to carry me back,” Jean retorted.

“Is that a fact?” Jess grunted. “Don’t hold your breath.”

“I thought you southerners were all gentlemen,” was Jean’s angry reply.

“I’m from Texas, and we treat ladies as we find them. I do not allow them to make me look a fool or take advantage of the fact that I am naturally good mannered, but only in the right company.”

She started to rage at him, so he finally turned away and left her in the shade of the fir tree, and slowly limped away towards the cattle.

He was convinced that they were some of their breeding stock and his question was answered as one of them, with much blowing and head shaking, shambled up to him. It was the old cow who dropped a fine calf every year like clockwork. She had come over to see if he had anything for her. He hadn’t, of course, but he did the next best thing. He baby-talked to her, scratched in between her ears, and generally petted her.

Jess finally leaned across her back, taking the weight of his numbed leg and she lowered her head and began to graze. He studied the other cattle that were close by and caught their brands. The two letters, which ran together as SR, were on some of Slim’s best breeding stock. He knew that was going to cause all kinds of trouble as Slim would not sit still and allow anyone to steal his best steers, and Jess was looking at six of the best. All of last year’s profits for which they had all sacrificed a new pair of boots, a sheepskin coat, a new wagon, and even Andy did not get the new saddle he had been promised.

Jess sighed. That was all he needed to know and he turned to go and collect Jean and then make his way back to the big ranch house.

He limped back to where she was still sitting as pretty as any picture, but like her brothers, she was probably as rotten to the core as they were. She watched him approach. He felt his heart quicken, and his breath become fast; she could still drive his senses mad.

“I suppose I will have to walk,” was all she said in greeting.

‘Yeah,” Jess grunted. “It’ll give you an appetite.”

“I suppose. Did you find what you were looking for?” She put her head to one side and gave him a dazzling smile.

“You know I did,” he gruffly said.

“Happy now?” she answered with a laugh. “Are you going to hang us all?”

“That’ll be up to the law,” Jess said sternly. “That will be up to Sheriff Corey.”

“Don’t tell him,” Jean said, no longer smiling.

“Got to; you know I do,” Jess replied. He was so angry that he could not look at her.

“Why?” She went on to ask. “Daddy will give you your cattle back. Why do you want to cause so much trouble?”

“Look, Jean, don’t you understand? I’m not causing trouble. I did not steal anyone’s herd. All I wanted to do was to get to know you, and look what a mess that has turned into. In every way, I cannot sit and eat at your father’s table, and eat his food, knowing what I know now. It makes me an accomplice, as bad as him and your brothers.”

“But nobody — the law or anyone else — would know if you don’t tell them.” Jean still did not understand just how seriously rustling was. Maybe it was the ways of the old country, and she still thought it was acceptable to lift others folks cattle, horses and sheep, to tell lies, cheat and live beyond the pale. It seemed that the ways of the West meant little to her and her family as they rode roughshod over others’ feelings and stole property as if it did not matter.

“I’d know,” Jess simply said. “I will be fit to ride tomorrow, and even if I’m not, I’ll be gone, and I’ll not be troubling you again.”

“Oh no, Jess!” she cried out. “I didn’t steal your cows; we can still have some fun.”

“No,” Jess said quietly. “But you didn’t think it wrong that your brothers did.”

“They’re my brothers and my Dad,” was all Jean said, “What did you expect?”

“Yeah, and I was someone daft enough to allow himself to get carried away by your looks. You are beautiful, you sure are, but then so is a rattler in its own way.”

“I do not know what you mean,” Jean said haughtily and stuck her chin into the air. “More of your homespun, cowboy nonsense, I suppose.

Jess ignored her and she gave him a smile so full of malice that it made him catch his breath. She was indeed a beauty, but like Whitey had described her history to him, dangerous as a bitch wolf.

*****

Jess tried his best to avoid staying the night, but Mrs. Armstrong would not hear of him leaving; the evening was drawing in and it was no time to be on the trail. He had reluctantly agreed with her and he knew she was right, as Laramie was some ways off and he was not as fit as he thought.

At supper, all the men were absent and Jess was left alone with Jean and her mother, who was all mannerly good grace and charm. She enquired politely about his injuries and agreed that life out west was not only hard but also dangerous. She said it was very much a man’s world where women, except for family-rearing and domestic chores, had no place and did not really fit in.

She laughed when he agreed that women played third fiddle to a man’s horse, pards and guns. What about his dogs? she asked with a smile, and he nodded and said that women made themselves miserable if they thought that they could be much more.

Jess then said gallantly that there were always the exceptions. Mrs. Armstrong agreed and knowingly pointed out that these women could cause nations to go to war and men willingly die for them. Jess looked puzzled at that and she lightly asked him if he had never heard of Helen of Troy.

The evening went on in this lighthearted manner and Jean remained very quiet. She kept her eyes downcast, and looked very young and heartbreakingly vulnerable. It was later when he mulled over what Mrs. Armstrong had said that he realized that she had been trying to warn him of allowing himself to become captivated by her exquisite daughter.

At last the evening drew to an end. Jess gave a sigh of relief, as he was desperate to retire and hit the sack. He needed sleep. His efforts to walk with a numb leg had been exhausting, and so too was the company of the two women who were like prickly pears. He felt that he had been fencing with them all evening as they cunningly and coyly questioned him. He had parried their inquires as best he could, but by the time the evening was over, they had found out more about him than he would have liked them to know.

He only knew that they were from the old country and had run sheep, a mixture of Kendal Roughs, Swaledales and Herdwicks, which they had brought over with them, as they could with stand the extremes of temperatures on the high plains and mountains. Of Jean, he had learnt nothing except he knew she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He also knew she had not one ounce of sympathy or compassion for anything or anybody.

She’d never once enquired after his hurts, never offered her arm, and had treated his injuries as a joke, something to be scorned and laughed at. She liked Jess — she had even said she loved him — but only as an escort, maybe a possession to be brought out well-dressed and very presentable to accompany her to her balls and soirees. She was right; they did make a handsome couple. But Jess was no lap dog to be kept shampooed and polished, to be paraded as some kind of fashion doodah. No matter how rich it made him, or how big the house and how fine the stables , Jess knew he would always belong out on the range, galloping hell for leather after a stampede, lying beside a fire in the blackest of nights, teeth chattering, marveling at, and trying to count, the stars in the Milky Way.

He loved the easy cowboy life. He had always lived as best as he could, facing danger or threat with an easy acceptance, confident in his own fighting ability with fist, rifle or handgun.

He’d never leave Laramie; it had become his home, where his friends and new-found family were. Jess would never desert them to follow the dream-like Jean east. She was just that — a dream — without substance. She was a living portrait, to be admired, remembered as a stunning image, but to be left hanging on a wall. Jess grinned at these thoughts and he knew he was right. Jean was not for him.

They finally said their ‘good nights’ and Jess was shown to the guest room, much to his surprise. He thought he would be bedded down in the bunkhouse, or even in the servants’ quarters. He knew little of old world manners or hospitality.

He was taken aback, as it was luxurious room, one that Jess had never dreamed of. He had never slept or been in one such as this, not even the hotel room where he had said his farewells to the lovely Audrey Bentley.

He admired the linen sheets, the merino wool blankets and the soft, silk covered coverlet which seemed to be filled with down. All the bed coverings matched colorwise and were trimmed with satin and lace. Jess never realized that people could have such luxury and he wondered at the beautiful things.

At first, he felt uncomfortable climbing into the midst of such finery; however, he quickly forgot as his body was enveloped with softness and the scent of lavender. He quickly fell asleep as his aches and pains were supported and comforted by the wonderful bed.

Jess was in a deep, dreamless sleep when his instincts told him he was not alone and he could sense something moving across the room. He was right as he opened his eyes and saw Jean move like a breeze across the barley and come and stand by his bedside and look down at him. She was carrying a candle in a crystal candlestick, which cast a soft glow over her golden flawless skin. She looked very young — ridiculously young — and defenseless. The rattlesnake was gone, the kitten was back, and he felt his heart lurch and hammer in his temples.

She was wearing a full-length pale, silvery green, silk chiffon nightdress and a flounced lace trimmed wrap to match. The nightdress flowed transparently about her slender body and fell like mist over her round breasts. Her nipples pushed against the chiffon, hard and strawberry pink, and Jess caught his breath and felt his blood rise and race through his veins. Her green cat-like eyes glittered in the candle light. She parted her full moist pink lips and ran her pointed tongue over them.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said in almost a whisper.

Jess propped himself up on his elbow and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, you cannot sleep here,” he said sternly.

“I know, but will you talk for a while?” she murmured, “Then perhaps I’ll feel more sleepy. When I am on my own, I just lie and think about all the things you have said about me. Am I really so rotten?”

“Come on, Jean,” Jess said, “sit down. I never said that you were rotten; those are your words, not mine.”

She did as she was told, and Jess sat up in the bed, pulled the silk coverlet up, and wrapped it around her shoulders. It was then that he noticed that along with the heady scent of her perfume was the unmistakable odor of brandy. She had been drinking. He wondered if she needed some Dutch courage to help her to his bedside.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked her.

“About you and me,” she replied. “Do you really not like me?”

“Jean, I love you, I will never forget you, especially that very first time I saw you,” Jess answered. “You fair took my breath away. You still do, you know you do, but it is not enough — well, for me it is not — because I do not like you, your family and the way they look at life and how we live out here.”

“Do you not even want to kiss me?” Jean said in a faltering voice, unbelieving of what she had just heard. “We never have you know.”

“No, Jean, I said when I was ready,” Jess whispered, “I now know I will never be ready. You cannot build a life on a kiss. I am saying no more; I have hurt you enough. Do you want to talk about anything else?”

“Not really,” she went on quietly, “but you can tell me about your horses if you like. Is it true that on the trail you sleep with your horses bit under your shirt to keep it warm for him in the morning?”

“Yeah,” laughed Jess, now on familiar ground. “How would you like a cold bit of metal forced into your mouth first thing?”

“Oh, Jess,” the kitten in Jean reawakening said. “I think you are nicer toward your horse than you are towards people.”

“Maybe so,” Jess began to explain. “They do not lie, steal or cheat. My horse is brave, loyal and never asks questions. Whatever I do is okay by him. He does not care what I look like, he trusts me, loves me, yeah, he loves me for me. I think the same way about him.”

“He is lucky,” Jean murmured.

“So am I,” Jess replied.

Jess continued with stories of the horses he had known. and of some of the adventures and scrapes he had gone through with them.

After a while, he saw she was not listening and presently he saw that slow heavy tears were falling from her bent head and down on to the coverlet.

“You must think I am a terrible fool to cry,”[i] she said, “but I just can’t help it. I thought that you really liked me.”

She lay down weakly beside him and put her head on his pillow. She took his hand in both of hers and held it to her breast, then she closed her eyes.

Jess looked down at her beautiful face, which had suddenly become gentle and pretty as all the hardness and waspishness had gone. He felt guilty as he saw the tears trickle down past her tiny ears and into her clouds of raven black hair. He leaned gently over her, and cupping her chin in his large hand, he brushed a kiss onto her forehead, and he saw her eye lashes flutter like butterfly wings. Her body started to shake with heavy sobs so Jess lay down beside her and slid his arm under her shoulders. She turned towards him and clung to him, holding him tightly as she continued to sob.

“Will you make love to me Jess, please?” She begged.

“No, Jean,” Jess muttered, his voice thick with emotion. “You’d regret it in the morning, so just let it be.”

With that, she moaned, but her sobs became softer and at last, the brandy did its work. She relaxed and her breathing came slowly and almost silent. Her pink mouth was slightly open and her long thick eyelashes were wet with the tears, which now ran slowly down her cheeks. She had let Jess’ hand go but now she clutched his nightshirt.

She was lying on top of his bedclothes and the night was becoming very cold. So he tugged the sheets and blankets gently from underneath her with his free hand and spread them over her. He then pulled the coverlet up over their shoulders and licking his thumb and forefinger doused the candle.

Jess lay in the dark, gently cradling her until he had to strain to hear her breathing. She was finally sound asleep and he breathed deeply and relaxed. During the night, Jean twisted uneasily several times, and murmured broken sentences, which made no sense. Each time he calmed her by stroking her face and hair with his hand, and he wondered what night horrors were disturbing her as again she called out.

Before dawn, when the moon had slipped behind some blue-black clouds and caused them to fly glitter edged across the sky, Jess got up, wrapped her in the coverlet, and carried her back to her own bedroom down the hallway. She did not figure in her plans, He had that devil of a horse — which he thought probably remembered him — to break, and then he wanted to put some miles between them.

Besides, he did not want the Armstrongs to get wind of where their little sister had spent the night.

*****

Jess got back to his own room and quickly dressed; he put on his gun belt, jacket and picked up his hat. He quietly went out through the French windows, as he knew that they would not be as securely locked as those at the main entrances would be. He made his way silently through the wide moonlit yard, which was now paling as the dawn pushed out of the east. Jess could clearly see through the grey light of night’s ending the sheen on the streams and ponds that drained from the hillsides and encircled the ranch house. The dark trees were taking form and the trail lay like a white ribbon that twisted away towards the dull shapes of the corral fences, bunkhouses and barn where Whitey was waiting for him.

Jess slid around the side of the stable block and called out as quietly as he could, “Morning, Whitey.”

“Don’t have to whisper, Jess; we’re too far from the bunkhouse. Sides, they’ll not hear. Been out all night with the Armstrongs. Seems they found out the whereabouts of the Lindoe stallion and they went for him. Got him as well.”

“The bastards. Any trouble?” Jess demanded to know, his guts tightening as he dreaded the answer.

“Yeah, plenty!” Whitey said with a shake of his head. “The Lindoe foreman got killed, and young John got winged and captured. The sheriff has him in jail by now”

“What a foul up,” Jess groaned. “Who killed Roger Turnbull?”

“Believe it was John, a young devil if ever there was one, a real hot head, but his father’s money will stop him swinging. What do you want to do?”

“Break that damned fool mustang, or try. I’ll go and see if I can catch Kamal. He’ll be with the other horses out on the range, best place to hide him. I’ll turn the mustang loose. He’ll head for the high places; we’ll not see him or his mares again. He’ll have had his fill of men, and then I’ll hightail it back to Laramie on Kamal. I’ll get the sheriff to pick up Traveler; he is going to have to come up here to sort out the rustled cattle. By my sainted aunt, what a mess.”

“Tall order, boy,” Whitey remarked. “How’s the leg holding up?”

“Well enough,” Jess replied, “That black hearted brute will be tired after yesterday. I’ll see how it goes, talk to him gentle and nice. Who knows? Could be easy. Sometimes it is.”

“Yeah?” Whitey laughed, “Hope for your sake you’re right. Anyway, he is saddled and waiting for you. You ready?”

“As ever as I will be,” Jess said with a boyish grin, “Is the coffee on?”

“Yep! Be ready soon.”

“Okay let’s go!” With that, they excited the tack room and went down to collect the stallion from his loose box. Whitey led the big horse out with no fuss. This morning he was a different horse, and as the sky had now lost its velvet blackness and the sun, which was still hidden behind the distant hills, turned the sky gold and pink, Jess had time to admire the wonderful young stallion. He spoke to him softly as he ran his hands over his fine coat, quieting any trembling as the mustang flattened his ears and snorted as he drank in the man smell that he hated.

Jess put his arm over its neck as Whitey led the mustang around the corral. Jess turned away from him and walked away, and the horse was curious and tried to follow. Jess then petted the horse, scratching all parts Jess knew a horse loved to be scratched. The mustang stopped trembling and relaxed as Jess continued to talk to him as he stroked and constantly touched him, whispering softly to him. At last, as the sun’s first strong rays flooded the early morning sky, Jess put his foot into the stirrup, heaved himself up and lay across the saddle. The big horse quivered but stayed still. It then slowly turned its head towards Jess, grunted, and sniffed his dark hair. Whitey slowly began to lead the horse around the corral. After what seemed an age, Jess swung his leg over and took up the reins. It was all too much for the mustang and he began to buck. Not the bone-jarring, skyward leaps of yesterday — more subdued and without the violence. Jess held on as best he could, but he had little strength in his leg. After a particularly violent swerve, he was catapulted off and bounced down by the barn door.

“You Okay?” Whitey shouted and went after the still bucking mustang.

“Yeah! I think so! This darned leg,” Jess complained. “Bring him over. I’ll start again. Nearly had him.”

The whole performance was repeated again and again until when the sun was well up, and Whitey and Jess had finished all the coffee. The stallion at last began to move smartly around the corral.

“You’ve got him, Jess!” Whitey shouted with glee. “By jiminy, you got him. I’ll get my horse; you’ll want company.”

“Sure do, but what about your job?” Jess called out to him.

“Got my pay in my bedroll,” Whitey explained, “I’m hitting the trail. I don’t want to get involved in all the trouble that is coming. Just want a job, a peaceful life; think I will head for home. I ain’t looking for no war.”

“I’ll talk to Slim,” Jess said. “We always need an extra hand at this time of year; you can get yourself together until you are ready to swing south.”

“Like he did for you?”

“Yeah, something like that I suppose,” Jess replied ruefully.

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Whitey said, and with that, he led his horse over to the corral gate and opened it. Jess gently squeezed the mustang, and the intelligent animal set off smartly, knowing what was expected of him. They set off in the early morning brightness to look for the stolen Kamal.

Jess rode along and thought, even more sickened about Jean than he had been before. He had trusted her, had appealed to her better nature, but immediately and without scruples, she had let him down, had betrayed him, and had told her father of Kamal’s probable hiding place. She must have reported their conversation to her father as soon as they had returned from their buggy ride. It was no great secret, as folks in Laramie knew the whereabouts of all the good horses. He had also let Mr. Lindoe down, as he had promised to keep word of Kamal to himself; he hadn’t and now Roger was dead and Kamal maybe gone too.

Roger had been a good friend. Jess had learned a lot from him, as he had always been happy to help and share his knowledge about horses. He had recognized the horse lover in Jess and had spent a lot of time with him. Jess felt that he had had a hand in Turnbull’s killing, and he vowed that he would make damned sure that they paid heavily for Rogers’s death.

All these thoughts were going through Jess’s mind as he and Whitey galloped over the open range. He followed his fellow Texan as he led him through pine-covered slopes, across small valleys full of what he thought were more stolen cattle. He wondered where the sheep were, as he had never seen any in all the time he had been coming up to these high pastures. At last they fetched up at a lush valley where the grass grew as high as the horse’s knees. It had been divided into large enclosures by white painted paling fencing. Whitey pulled up and turned to Jess and commented.

“If he’s anywhere, he’ll be here, as it is not too far from the main ranch fence, so was easy to drop him off when they had caught him. No doubt they will take him down to the main corrals when the hunt for him is over. It is easy, as once you have cleared the fence or taken it down, it is a clear run into Laramie. I suppose you will have a go at jumping it.”

“Yeah, maybe,” grinned Jess “but let’s find Kamal first.” With that, Jess took out his field glasses. He didn’t need them for almost immediately Whitey called out.

“What’s that over there? Looks like a golden critter.”

“That’s him!” Jess yelled back. “Beautiful, ain’t he?”

“Can’t tell from here!” Whitey replied.

“Okay,” said Jess, “Take it easy, we don’t want to spook him.”

With that, they quietly cantered their horses over. They got through the gate and made double sure that it was closed, and suddenly they were almost alongside Kamal.

“Fine looking beast, ain’t he. You were right Jess.”

“Yeah, I told you,” Jess replied. “Let’s see if we can catch him.”

It was all too easy. Kamal was used to people around him. He was used to being admired and petted and enjoyed the attention. Jess did not have any treats for him as hunting for a horse had been the last thing on his mind and he had come empty-handed. He did not need anything as Kamal, with much head shaking and blowing, came cantering up towards them in an uncoordinated and playful sideways dance. He whinnied and tossed his head and then stood quietly and watched them with his large brown intelligent eyes, just waiting to be admired.

Jess dismounted and quickly took a piece of rope out of his saddle bag; he quickly made a hackamore about the horse’s head and gave the ends to Whitey.

“That’ll hold him,” Jess said excitedly. “We’ll get the saddle and bridle on him and get outta here.”

“Can’t believe how easy that was. You’re riding your luck, Jess. Maybes we will make it,” Whitey said as he quickly looked around.

“Yeah, glad we took the chance,” Jess went on as he got the saddle of the mustang and put it on Kamal. He then went on and readjusted the bridle and bit; he washed the bit down and dried it on his shirt and the big horse accepted it without fuss. The head rope was removed and Jess quickly and smoothly mounted him.

The mustang made no effort to chase off. He seemed content to stay with the other horses and was very curious about the other stallion. He sniffed him and laid his ears back. Jess knew if they were left alone together, like many young bucks, they would soon be fighting. So he got the big golden stallion moving and Whitey rode alongside him, and the big black mustang with much head tossing and snaking, followed on.

Jess and Whitey cantered over to the gate, went through, and then continued on skirting the edge of the pine trees. The valley was slowly opening up and Jess could see in the distance the fence which marked the edge of the Armstrong property. It was a brilliant spring afternoon, the air was sharp and clear. Just ahead over to Jess’s right, there was a small grass covered hill which rose sharply to a little rounded summit. The pine trees flowed around its base like the sea around the rocks on a beach. Jess and Whitey had now left the bigger trees and were cantering through sections of young feathery pines only slightly taller than their heads. Jess could clearly see the hill. He watched and was shocked to see a black distant silhouetted rider framed against the bluest sky. He was standing tall in his stirrups, frantically waving his arms.

From the trail to the right, suddenly Jess could see and hear the clicking of iron shod horses as a group of riders were galloping at a neck breaking speed towards them.

“Come on, Whitey,” yelled Jess. “We’ll have to make a run for it.”

“Go on,” Whitey shouted back, a wide grin showing his gleaming white teeth. “I’ll keep up best I can! See you in Laramie.”

“Probably see you in hell!” Jess shouted back and he touched Kamal’s side with his spurs and took off. Whitey followed on, as did the prized mustang.

The young pines on each side of the trail were really too thick and low growing to be galloped through — so much so that they could have easily unseated a rider — but Jess, reckless as ever, ignored that and dug his spurs in and punched his way through. He flung a look over his shoulder and the chasing pack was so close he could see a gloating grin on one of their faces.

He decided then that he would make a run for it and try and take the fences as they came. He thought that if he broke Kamal’s neck and his own in trying to escape, it would be better than tamely rolling over and giving in.

Whitey and the mustang galloped on not far behind him and every time he turned to check on them he saw that Whitey was grinning and laughing as if he was enjoying the chase as if it was some sport. They were at last out of the trees and galloping for the main fence. Jess could see it coming up fast, and without thinking, squeezed his legs tightly into Kamal’s side. The fence lay ahead, a plain five and a half high rustic pole barrier designed to keep the horses in the enclosure. Jess had no reason to think that his horse could jump it; he was an athletic animal but Jess did not know if he could jump. He knew a horse would dare just so much and no more — he knew that from his own Traveler — and this horse had already had had a tough day. He had been ridden hard from where he had been stolen, and now with not much rest, he was being ridden hell for leather through the pine trees which whipped as he stormed past on to the open range. Now he was facing the big fence which encircled the Armstrong ranch.

These thoughts flashed through Jess’s mind in a second, and as quickly were gone. Jess leaned forward and squeezed. Kamal never missed a stride; he never faltered. He put in a short stride and a long one, and gathered the immense power of his hind quarters beneath him and launched himself into the air. He seemed deaf to the shouts that were now filling the air and the commotion of the following wranglers as he jumped clear. He did not even scratch the paint work.

Jess nearly came off when they landed, as Kamal stumbled and buried his nose in the lush grass, and Jess slipped out of the saddle and on to the skirt around Kamal’s shoulder. He clung on for dear life with the horn in one hand and a handful of Kamal’s golden mane in the other. The reins hung down, swaying dangerously close to the horses galloping feet. As like yesterday, Jess was terrified the horse would put his foot through them and bring them both crashing down.

Jess still had one leg half across the saddle, and bumped heavily against Kamal’s side. He hauled himself back into the saddle, inch by inch as a warning twinge from his damaged leg warned him that it would not take much more of this. He leaned and stretched out along the horses’ neck, and holding on with all his strength, Jess reached the reins. He gathered them up, and heaving back, finally managed to slow up Kamal’s mad, head-long dash. He leaned forward and patted Kamal’s neck, for it was only thanks to his splendid courage that he was still free and now on the Laramie side of the fence.

He turned and looked back to see the big mustang sail over the fence just like the great horse he was. He then galloped off giving the occasional buck as he went, his ears flat and his tail flying like a flag. Jess shook his head; he was glad that he would not have the job of tracking him down, but he knew deep in his heart, that the mustang would never been seen again.

The chasing riders had now turned towards the gate; they were not going to risk their necks jumping a fixed fence. It seemed they had no interest in Whitey, Kamal and himself were their targets. They would want Kamal alive and unhurt, and would not care how they took him; they were going to cut off his escape to Laramie.

He watched Whitey and lifted his hand and waved to him. “OH! God no!” he shouted out.

He watched, his heart in his mouth as he saw that Whitey had lined up his horse, and with a flash of his teeth, he smiled and nodded to Jess. His horse was facing the fence and Whitey was measuring the distance; he kneed his horse on. The horse went at a smart pace gamely enough. He rose to it bravely and then caught the top rail with his forelegs. Whitey was catapulted out of the saddle. Jess watched him hurtling downwards and heard the crash of the horse as it somersaulted and landed upside down on top of him. Jess’s heart thudded in his chest as he saw the flurry of chestnut legs threshing in the air as the horse pitched over. It rolled over, and continued rolling backwards and forwards in a frantic effort to get up. Finally it got to its feet and galloped away after the mustang, it went with a good deal of head shaking and yawing from side to side, none the worst for the death giving fall.

Jess flung Kamal round and galloped back; he leapt out of the saddle and limped to Whitey’s side. He felt sick, as if he had been kicked in the stomach. It had been a terrible, bone-breaking fall which put it into the killing class. He had never known a man walk away from having half a ton of horse fall and roll on them.

Whitey lay loosely on the ground with one arm out stretched; his eyes were closed and there was a trickle of blood coming from his ear and from the edge of his mouth. His horse had fallen and had rolled onto Whitey’s chest and abdomen. Jess quickly knelt beside him, Whitey was semi-conscious; blood was sliding frothing from his mouth, choking him as the sharp ends of his broken ribs tore his lungs apart. He was dying before Jess’ eyes.

“How are you, pard?” Jess asked, trying to catch his breath.

Whitey did not open his eyes; he just held out his hand to Jess and groaned. With that he coughed, the splattering blood covered his own chest and Jess’ shirt. Jess knew that his friend was drowning in his own blood. Jess took his hand, which felt lifeless, and then he sat down and pulled Whitey into his arms. He knew if he kept him raised it would help him breath.

“Jess!” Whitey breathed, “I’m broken up inside.”

“Hold on, don’t try to talk,” Jess murmured. “Help is on its way.”

“Hope it is for you, too late for me.” The hurt cowboy coughed up more blood.

Jess saw how his eyes were becoming vacant and he knew Whitey was fading fast as he lay in his arms.

“Jess….” he managed to breathe. “I’ll say ‘lo to Francie for you.”

Jess gripped his hand tightly to his chest as Whitey’s head rolled against Jess’ shirt. With a gentle shudder and soft low sigh, Whitey was gone.

Jess laid him down and marveled at how death had ironed the lines from his face. Whitey could not have been more than eight or nine years older than Jess, yet he had looked like an old man. Jess gently stroked the vacant eyes closed and stood up and looked around. He saw that the wranglers that had given chase were now through the gate and were galloping towards him.

He stood and waited; suddenly they were all around him. The mingled smells of hot horse and leather filled his nostrils. He could hear the swish and thud of galloping horses and the occasional sharp click of iron-shod hooves striking against each other.

They ran him down, allowing their horses, even forcing their horses to gallop over him; there was ten seconds of battering, bumping, blundering chaos, during which Jess could not think or move. He could only feel his body being kicked and beaten into the grass as he curled up and tucked his head in to protect it from the hammering hooves.

When it was all over, he lay on the ground; he felt limp, weak and numb. He was unable to get up, unable to even lift a hand when he felt water — or was it rain — running over his face. It cannot be rain, he thought, as the sun was blinding him. The water continued to fall on to his face and trickle into his hair. The drops felt so heavy on his eyelids that the effort of opening them felt like lifting Pikes Peak. Through a slit in his water sodden lashes, Jess could see a man staring down at him. He was the one emptying the canteen of water on to him. Jess was unable to move and caught sight of the others standing looking down at them. One was Robbo and the other was the one with the jet black hair and widow’s peak, the murdering kind.

Robbo came over and stood beside Jess’ prone body. He bent down and roughly knocked Jess’ face from side to side. Jess tried to smile, but not a muscle twitched. He couldn’t speak. Robbo straightened up and said over his shoulder, “He’s been knocked out.” He then turned back to Jess. “You nosey bastard!” He kicked him. Jess felt a hot stab in his side. “All this is your fault. We’re gonna teach you to mind your own business.” He kicked Jess again.

Jess’s darkening world grew darker as he slowly lost consciousness. He lay there, unable to speak or move, and he saw the foot being drawn back again for the third time. It seemed to take forever as he watched it coming towards him growing bigger and bigger as it blotted out the sun and the darkening world, until at last it was all that Jess could see.

He kicked Jess in the face, and for Jess, suddenly all the sunlight went and he finally fell into blackness.

*****

Te first sense to return after being unconscious, as Jess knew by experience, was hearing. He lay there; his eyes closed in still blackness, slowly becoming aware of his surroundings. His face, body and head ached and he did not try to move, as he did not want to risk making the excruciating pain any worse.

He was aware of the silence, and then he heard the faint sound of horses breathing. He must be in a stable or a barn. He finally opened his eyes and found he was in a loose box, lying on a bed of straw. The gloom of the dusty stable was only lit by the sunshine which came through the chinks in the stable doors. Jess lay quietly and watched as if in a trance as the sunbeams turned the floating dust into a mesmerizing ballet of light.

He finally turned gently on to his side and drew his knees up to his chest to try and ease the pain in his ribs and stomach muscles. It was then that he was aware of the clash of chain. He stiffly looked down and saw that his right ankle had a heavy chain wrapped and padlocked around it. The end of it stretched up to a ring in the wall where it was also padlocked. He lay back; he would be going nowhere, even if he had a crowbar and the strength to force the ring out of the wall, as it was too well bedded into the rough stone work. The Armstrong’s had at last shown their hand. The huge ranch they had was obviously the result of years of raiding their neighbors’ stock from far and near. The Lord only knew what else they had thieved over the years.

He lay and bitterly thought about Whitey. His last memory of him was of holding him as he choked and coughed up blood from his shredded lungs.

Few men survived a horse falling and rolling on them, and Jess felt he had been responsible as it was his blind determination to find the missing steers and then go after Kamal that had caused his friend Roger’s and Whitey’s deaths. They had paid the price for his determined actions.

Jess remembered Angus and the sheep man who had given chase coming up and surrounding them. He had looked up and thought Robbo was coming to help him with Whitey. He had been wrong, because it had been the brutish man who had kicked him in the face.

He lifted his hand to his face and felt the dry blood from the newly healed scar which had been reopened. His eye was watering and was half-closed. He thought how Jonesy would laugh and make fun of his battered looks, that was if he ever saw him again.

He closed his eyes and tried to relax and recover some of his strength, but he was tortured by the way Whitey had died, Jess knew he would be a long time getting over it; he certainly would never forget and he would never forgive the Armstrong’s and their crew for causing it.

He heard the staple lock on the door being pulled back. It was Angus and two of the younger brothers whose names, Jess feeling weak and wounded, could not remember.

“You cow pokes are nothing but a damned nuisance,” snarled Angus. “Can’t stay on a hoss.”

“You’ll….be sorry…you said that,” Jess muttered darkly, angered at Angus’ callous words.

“All I have heard from you, Harper, is threats,” the Armstrong man said. “Don’t think you have any teeth.”

Angus Armstrong then turned to his brothers. “Okay, Don, give him his food, then stay and see he gets cleaned up. Dad wants to see him, but he doesn’t want the women folk to see him like this.” With that he turned on his heel and left his two brothers to tend to Jess.

The two of them carried out their brothers’ instructions, treating Jess as roughly as they would an animal needing controlling He kept his teeth tightly clenched as they dragged him to his feet, and brushed him down with brutal efficiency. It was as if his battered body was waiting for a signal, as every dull ache, hoof mark and spectacular bruise sprang to vicious, stabbing life. He drew his breath in sharply as his bruised ribs sharply protested against the rough handling. “Argh,” he moaned softly.

Don took a wet cloth and tried to get rid of the dried blood on Jess’ face. He carelessly wiped his face and laughed when Jess winched when he caught Jess’s eye with the rag.

Jess had always treated even his worst enemies with compassion when they were hurting, and thought the rough treatment, which caused his injuries to bite back, was not the normal way of the cowboy. Jess, like others like him, treated the creatures in his charge with care and compassion, even putting the frail, weak calves in sacks and bedding them down in the wagon, and giving them back to their mothers care at the end of the day. These men were ruthless, and their cruelty had a coldness which caused Jess to fear for his life.

Don pulled him savagely round to check his side and the violence of Don’s actions made him feel sick, and suddenly it was as if the earth moved. He found himself reaching out to cling to the stable wall for support as he felt the floor begin to slide from underneath him and the walls spin around like a whirly gig at a fair. He shook his head, as he tried to clear it. One of the Armstrong’s saw how his legs began to buckle, and caught him and eased him down on to the straw.

“Lay still, Harper,” he said gruffly. “I’ll get you a drink.”

With that he handed, Jess a cup of warm coffee, laced with whiskey. Jess drank it; the fiery liquid made his split lip smart and throb. “Thanks,” was all he could manage to say.

“Don, you’d better go tell Dad that we have done our best, but he still looks a mess. He needs a clean shirt, levis, and even his chaps are covered with blood. We can’t take him up to the house like this,” Angus said shaking his head.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Don replied. “You staying?”

“Sure am. Going to keep an eye on Harper here and I need to look in on the stallion.”

“The hands are still out looking for the mustang you let go, Harper, you damned fool. We should have put a bullet into you the first time you came up here sniffing around,” Angus growled at Jess.

“You’ll never see him again; he’s hightailed it into the Bow range. Anyway, if by luck you catch him, you’ll be able to ride him back; that will be a first for you all,” answered Jess through clenched teeth.

“You still want to fight, boy?” Angus snarled, “Not had enough?”

“Take this chain off of me and we will get to it,” Jess challenged.

“Oh no,” Angus laughed, “I like you just the way you are! You’ll do fine. Jean will want to see you, so I must not ruffle you up anymore or else she will not recognize you. We will wait ‘till tomorrow. If you can stand, we will give it a go.”

“It’ll be a pleasure,” Jess spat out, his rising anger making him feel stronger.

It was at this point that Hutton Armstrong walked into the stable block, his six acre voice booming.

“In here, Dad,” Don called out.

Jess got hold of the rough stone wall and hauled himself to his feet. He limped slowly towards the stable door dragging the chain behind him as he went. It allowed him to go as far as the door and then brought him up short. Angus stood and watched him with a grin. He turned as his father bustled in; the rancher’s face was mottled red and purple with temper. His eyes were like slits in the firing positions of an old fort and glittered dangerously in the low sunlight which came through the door. As usual. he was all powerful toughness. His face was rigid with fury; even the usual scowl and look of contempt was frozen into a vindictive stone mask-like mass of murderous brutality and hate. Jess looked at him and felt his skin crawl, as he realized that his man had murdered and pillaged from the time he came into these hills so that he could build his empire, and that could only be done by a man who possessed a fierce, fanatical ruthlessness. It was such a man who now held Jess prisoner.

“Well, lad, ye did not think much of my hospitality, the way you have spat on it,” snarled Hutton Armstrong.

“I came honestly to court your daughter. It was you who soured the ground, feeding me with beef stolen from my boss and neighbors. I didn’t steal Kamal; I was taking him back.”

“You should have kept your nose out; we’re all going to pay a high price for your snooping, that right Dad?”

“Shut your mouth, Angus,” Armstrong growled.

“Yeah, my friends already have,” murmured Jess.”

“It was his doing, siding with you,” Armstrong retorted angrily. “Anyway, I’ve still got you. Right then, tomorrow we go into Laramie to get John. We’ll also clean out the town of the do-gooding busy bodies that poke their noses into my business. You know them, Harper! Friends of yours! How a gunman of your reputation ever got involved with the likes of them beats me. Suppose it takes all kind.”

“You’d never…understand,” Jess stated wearily.

“I’m not interested,” Armstrong spate out. “You’ll be coming with us!”

“I’ll not back your play,” Jess stated angrily.

“Don’t expect it. You have turned soft!” Armstrong said and the two brothers laughed.

“No,” their father continued, “you’ll stand with us, your gun will be empty and we’ll use you as a shield. It’ll slow them up and give us some protection.”

“Don’t count on it,” Jess said. “I’ll give you some advice. If I get a chance to fight, and stand with my friends, go for me first, as I aim to pick you all of one by one.”

With that, Jess contemptuously spat at Hutton Armstrong’s feet, his spittle catching the front of his boot. The rancher reacted immediately and caught Jess by surprise as he punched him in his stomach and followed through with a vicious right to the side of his face. Jess’s legs buckled and he slowly crumpled to his knees. He tried as hard as he could to grab the stable door to stop himself from collapsing on to the straw strewn ground. He just made it, and pulled himself slowly upright again. He stood with his head bowed and muttered, “Real tough, ain’t you, Armstrong. You come straight outta of a dung heap. You only hit a man when he’s chained up and been ridden over by your ranch hands. Want to give me my iron and we’ll try it again? You can leave me chained to the wall, which will slow me up none, not one second,” Jess snarled.

“We’ll save that until tomorrow, and then we’ll see how tough you are when you have watched your fiends gunned down in front of you.”

“I will die beside them; I can live with that and I will die with that,” murmured Jess.

“Brave last words, Harper; let’s see if you can live up to them.”

Armstrong then turned to his sons and said, “Feed him, leave him in here. He can’t go anyplace. Tomorrow tie him to his horse and we will take him into Laramie; it’ll give us an edge. If he gives you any trouble, pistol whip him. Seems he has no sense so he can’t have any feeling. You boys got that?”

“Yeah,” they chorused.

“Another thing!” their father said, “Shorten that chain. He’s got enough play in it to use it as a weapon against you. Also when he’s been fed, tie his hands behind his back, elbows too. Use rawhide, do it right. I want him to a have a rough last night, get no sleep. That’ll knock the fight outta him.”

“Yeah, Dad,” Dan said. “Leave it to me; it’ll be done right.”

Armstrong nodded, turned on his heel and was gone.

“Okay, Harper! Cover him, Angus; shoot him if he tries anything! Come on, tough guy, back up, right against the wall.”

Jess painfully did as he was ordered until he was standing at the far side of the loose box. Don followed him after giving his gun to his brother. He then unlocked the padlock from the wall ring and pulled the chain through until it was tight against Jess’ ankle and then relocked it.

“That’ll keep you safe, boy!”Don sniggered. “See you supper time.”

The two brothers then left and Jess then slowly lowered himself on to the straw. He lay parallel to the wall as there wasn’t enough play in the chain to allow him to sit up with his back against it. He closed his eyes and tried not to think of what lay ahead, but he had to plan. He knew there was no chance to get away from the chain. His best chance would be on the ride in; he would have to be ready and prepared. He was torturing himself thinking about Slim, Mort, Whitey and Roger Turnbull and how he was going to try to get free and save his friends when he heard the main stable door open.

“He’s along there, miss, in the middle box,” a man’s voice, which Jess did not recognize, called out. “I’ll wait here and keep my eyes skinned; we don’t want to get caught. Please, Miss Jean, don’t stay long; the boss will have my hide for this.”

“Of course,” came the coquettish reply. “I’ll not be long.”

The stable door opened and there she was, silhouetted against the western sun; its golden pinkish light flooded the stable and made her outline shimmer in its blinding light. Her perfume wafted in filling the air with the scent of a mountain meadow in spring time when it was carpeted with the glories of the young year.

“Hello, Jess,” she softly said.

Jess awkwardly eased himself up on to his elbow.

“Hello, yourself,” he replied sternly as he watched her and noted that her eyes slid downwards from the intensity of his gaze.

“How are you? Are you badly hurt?” she replied.

“Been better.” He tried to say lightly and he gave her a grin, which was a lopsided affair, as Jess discovered half his face was so swollen it felt stiff and sore. Probably black and blue into the bargain, he thought. So what? It was about time she knew that this was not a game, and her father and brothers played for keeps. They took no prisoners.

“I’m sorry, Jess,” she said, “Why couldn’t you just have told them where the horse was and this would not have happened, and we could still have fun, and you could come east with me.”

“No, Jean, we were not having fun! You played me like a fish on a hook. You loved the attention and the way I fell apart when I saw you, I still do. It amused you; that was your idea of fun and you enjoyed getting me to tell you where Kamal was. You enjoyed tormenting me, giving me glimpses of rustled cattle, especially my boss’. You must all have been laughing your guts out. Did you enjoy what you did to the two wranglers? Did you think I would not find out? You enjoying yourself now? Two men dead, your brother in jail, I’m chained to a wall, black and blue from your brothers’ horses kicking and will probably be joining my friend Whitey tomorrow in an unmarked grave out on the prairie. You still having fun?”

“No, Jess!” Jean protested. “I didn’t think it would turn out like this. I’ll admit I took advantage of your feelings for me; I loved it. I thought that you really loved me, and I was so upset when you would not sleep with me, you would not make love to me. You left me to go and break that silly big horse.”

“So you thought that I was easy, someone you could push around.” Jess went on bitterly. “You thought I would roll over, forget my friend and all I owe him. You think that I sell what little honor I have left cheap? I bet it was organized that your kin would find us in bed together; that would give them an excuse to kill me with no questions asked.

“I suppose so, Jess,” she said and tears began to roll slowly down her cheeks. “I see now how wrong I have been, I am so sorry.”

“You got that right.” Jess said, “Stop that crying; you know that does not work for me. Anyway the tears are for yourself, not for Whitey, Lindoe’s foreman, his widow and four children, or for me. I can’t move from here, and I have not seen you try to free me, help me or give me a drink of water or any comfort, and you say you love me. I do not think that you would help me even if I was bleeding to death.”

“Oh Jess! I’m sorry,” Jean said and carefully began to pick her way over the straw towards him. “I’ll come, if you still want me. I think you do; I can tell by your voice.”

“No!” said Jess, his voice hard and angry. “Stay there; I don’t want you near me. Tomorrow, if I get the chance, I’m going to kill as many of your brothers, and even your father, if I can; as that is what they will be trying to do to me and my friends. I can do it; I am better, faster than them, and I have killed before.”

Jeanie realized that she was no longer toying with a good-looking callow youth; he was in his own way as ruthless as her father and brothers.

Suddenly, Jess saw her face harden. It had the same uncompromising toughness as her father and brothers. Her eyes narrowed and her body became very tense.

“I hope they kill you,” she spat out. “I hope you die on the streets of Laramie with your friends. I hate you.” With that, she began to turn away.

“You’ll probably get your wish; I hope it makes you happy,” he called out after her.

Well, thought Jess, that is the end of that. He would always remember her for her for exquisite beauty, elegance and grace. It dazzled him and it had stolen so much of him, but she had a black heart. She did not give or share; her delight was in the cruel mockery as she spun her web, tied men in knots and got them to dance and bend to her every whim as they were blinded by her beauty.

Jess realized he was probably one of many. He knew that he had little chance of escaping, but he would go down fighting as best he could. He would make it as hard as he could for them, no matter how much it cost him.

He hoped that he would be able to protect Slim, if not die with him and his other friends.

At least he would not be smothered and himself destroyed by the petty coats of the black hearted Bonnie Jean. It was enough that he had given her his heart to tear; she would not have his soul as well.

*****

She flounced out, banging the loose box door behind her, and he dimly heard voices then the sounds of the bolts being slid back into place and the faint sound of a padlock finally clicking. He was going nowhere, even if he could escape the chain.

Jess allowed himself to groan softly, and gingerly lowered himself back onto the straw and closed his eyes.

Supper finally came, a meager offering of cheese, bread and coffee; the coffee was hot and Jess fought the food down as he needed it to give him some strength for what lay ahead. The coffee helped as it softened the hard stale bread, and he was able to wash it down with his favorite brew.

The Armstrong brothers returned sometime later, flinging the door back and roughly carried out their fathers’ instructions. Within a matter of a few minutes, Jess had had his hands tightly bound behind him. He fought the cheese from spewing down his blood soiled shirt as his elbows were lashed together to stop him from slipping his hands and arms over his feet to leave his bound wrists to his front, and maybe give him a more comfortable night in the torturous rawhide.

Jess put up no struggle; it would have made the bindings tighter and he would have probably given them another excuse to give him a thrashing. He needed to save himself for tomorrow.

“I think we’ve got him tamed,” Alan pointed out.

“Yeah.” Angus nodded in agreement. “These cowpokes with their big reps and bigger mouths are usually all talk.”

“I thought you were a tough guy, Harper?” laughed Don. “Seen no sign so far, ‘cept you can get a hoss to leap.”

Jess kept his teeth clenched and stayed silent. He prayed that he’d get a chance to ram their words down their throats tomorrow. For now, he had enough to cope with, chained to the wall and trussed up like a turkey roast. It was going to be a long hard night. He had been through many like these in his short violent life, and he knew that he could hang on until the next morning. He would try and relax and maybe be lucky enough to sleep, willingly his body to ease itself and gather strength for the morrow.

“That’s it,” Angus remarked with a smirk. “I hope that you’ll be comfortable.”

“See you at dawn; bet you’ll be awake.” Don grinned and laughed with his brothers.

“You made a swell job of that. Good job that he is on a horse tomorrow. Guess he’ll not be able to walk,” Alan nodded.

Jess stayed silent and just hoped that he would get his chance to prove that he was not the callow youth they thought he was.

At last, the three brothers left, banging and bolting the stable door and Jess was left alone in the darkness of the loose box. He slowly and painfully slid down the wall at his back and lay down. He closed his eyes and tried to blot out the memories of Whitey dying in his arms and also of the beautiful green-eyed beauty who had tormented and teased him. She had ensnared him in her web and had finally betrayed him without conscience or apology. She was confident that his feelings for her would protect him from his anger and his vengeance.

He lay there until suddenly the door was unbolted and flung open. He must have been asleep or had passed out with the pain and exhaustion as he could remember nothing after closing his eyes and thinking about Jean and her treachery.

It was Robbo and the dead-eyed, black haired killer with a yellow face like a cadaver. Robbo unshipped his gun and covered him whilst the one with the killer looks came and unlocked the padlock which kept the chain tight around Jess’ ankle. He then got a grip of Jess’s jacket collar and hauled him to his feet. Jess’ blood screamed as it coursed through his body, renewing his circulation, and he stumbled with stiffness as the man dragged him across the straw strewn floor towards the door.

“Okay, Earl!” Robbo said, “Hold on to him; he’s as cunning as a bitch fox.”

“I got him good,” was Earl’s reply as he twisted his hold on Jess and dragged him choking across and out of the loose box.

They went down the stable and went into the tack room; in there was washing gear, a lavatory and his breakfast; bread, hot ham and two cups of coffee.

“You got a feast; we don’t want you passing out on us.” With that, Earl let go of Jess and took out a fearsome-looking knife and cut Jess’s arms and wrists free. Jess broke out into a cold sweat as he hugged his wrists and tried to move his stiff shoulders.

The herdsman laughed. “Some tough guy,” Earl sniggered, “But then he’s only good for punching cattle; nothing like pushing thousands of woolies who have no brains, and need proper herding.”

“Get cleaned up, Harper; you’ve not long! We’ve a date in Laramie,” Robbo stated and perched himself on the edge of a grain bin, his iron trained steadily on Jess.

Jess hated being watched as he had a quick wash and used the utilities. He took time to soak the rawhide on his wrists and then; biting his lips, he pulled out the rawhide from the deep corduroy mess it had made of his wrists, and they began to bleed.

“Got anything to bandage with?” Jess asked.

“No, just horse stuff; they’ll do. It ain’t that deep. Pull your vest over ‘em; they’ll be fine,” Robbo growled.

Jess had no options; he sighed and did just that. His body carried many scars and the worst of them were his wrists. The thin skin just covered sinew, blood vessels and bone; there was no fat tissue and healing was slow. He took a deep breath and then fought to get the salty ham down and keep it down, as much of it was fat and pretty rank. He was thankful that he had got enough coffee to wash the thick cut, salty, stinking food down.

“Okay, Harper! That’s enough! Time to go!” Robbo commanded, “Tie his wrists, Earl.”

With that, the sheep man who looked like a dead man tied Jess’s wrists together in front of him, again with the thin rawhide. Jess felt his breakfast threaten to surge up again and spew out down his front, as the rawhide bit deep into the bloody stripes on his wrists.

Earl took him by his arm this time and manhandled him out of the door, along the stable block and out of door into the blinding sunlight.

Outside by the corral, there was a gang of herdsmen and Armstrongs checking on their mounts tack and girths and ignoring Jess as he was dragged out of the stable block. His horse was standing with his head down, almost asleep as his back leg was bent and his weight rested on three legs. The reins were tied to the hitching rail, and Jess’s hat and gun belt were hanging on the horn.

Earl, without ceremony, handed Jess his hat, and Jess, without comment, put it on pulling it low over his face. Earl then buckled Jess’s gun belt around his hips and then took out his .45 from the saddle bag and pushed it firmly down into Jess’s holster.

“It’s not loaded,” Earl smiled, “It’s just for decoration.” His brother heard and laughed.

Jess felt the hairs down his back rise, and it took all his control to stop himself from swinging his tied hands into Earl’s face. He would have to bide his time. He could wait, but Jess was coming to the end of his tether. He did not think that he could take much more taunting, kicking and pummeling. He did not have to impress the Armstrong women anymore with civilized, mannerly ways. He was a hard-riding gunman, reckless and dangerous, and he could not take much more of this. He felt his temper rising and he knew he would not be able to hold onto himself much longer. The red mist was rising and he knew he would not be able to control his temper for much longer.

“Okay! Mount up!” Robbo ordered.

Jess tried, but failed, Whitey had automatically helped him as Jess’s leg still had not much strength in it. Certainly not enough to lever his body into the saddle. He couldn’t, but before Robbo started to make fun of him, knowing full well that Jess could not mount in the usual way, Jess got hold of the horn, and using his upper body strength to help him, he vaulted into the saddle and settled his feet into the leathers.

“Right, Earl, rope him on,” ordered Robbo.

With that, Earl used a half hitch to rope Jess’s right ankle and passed the end under the horse’s belly to Robbo who tightly did the same to his left. Earl then took a length of rawhide and used it to bind Jess’s wrists to the horn of the saddle.

“Well done, lads!” It was Hutton Armstrong’s booming voice. “He’ll do like that.”

By now the whole gang was together, their horses were wheeling round, excited and ready to hit the trail. Robbo unhitched Jess’s horse, and then mounted his own and led Jess’s after the others as they slowly began to move away.

“Told you, Harper, I’m going to have a piece of your hide,” Robbo jeered.

“You’ve had more than 20 dollars worth,” Jess came back at him, “so I guess you owe me. I hope you’ll be around so I can collect.”

“Don’t know how you’re gonna,” the brutish man scoffed. “Time is fast running out for you!”

“We’ll see!” Jess growled through clinched teeth. “Don’t put any money on it.”

With that, Robbo dug his heels in and his horse set off at a fast canter and Jess’ horse followed.

The long ride into Laramie and whatever lay ahead had begun.

*****

After a bone-jarring ride for Jess, the Armstrong group finally arrived in the small town. The gang, eleven in all, rode up to the front of saloon, and milled around while the old rancher gave them their orders.

“There are too many of us.” Hutton Armstrong stated. “Robbo; you and Earl take Harper down to the stables. Keep your eyes peeled, and when you see us out on the street, come out sharpish and come and stand with us. Push Harper out in the front. We’ll hold fire ‘till you’re with us. Wouldn’t want that yellow-livered gunman missing out!” With that, they all laughed.

“How many holes do you think we’ll count when we’re through with him?” Angus smirked.

“Reckon we’ll see daylight through him.” Don replied.

“Remember, boys, we’re going to clean out the sheriff and all those who stand with him. You know who is going to go to get John, and you can shoot anything that gets in your way. Got the plan sorted out in your heads?”

They all called out and dismounted, and made their way into the saloon while Jess and his horse was led over to the livery stable. They walked the horses straight in, and Jess saw Jeff out of the corner of his eye duck nimbly out of the side door of the stable.

Robbo and Earl dismounted, and Robbo tied Jess’s horse to the loose box ring. He then took out a fearsome Bowie knife and cut the rawhide that was securing Jess’s wrists tightly to the horn; he then went on and did the same with the rope around his ankles.

“Okay, Harper, get down,” Robbo ordered.

Jess went to swing out of the saddle and saw that Earl had his back to him. He was busy with the other two horses and was leaving Jess to Robbo‘s crowding attention.

Jess slowly dismounted and favoring his left leg, leaned in towards his horse, pretending to be falling and he held on to the horn.

Robbo was paying no mind as he thought that Jess was too tuckered out, and for all his threats, had not the strength to carry them out.

He got a shock when Jess’s elbow smashed into his throat. The big man gagged and gasped for air and clawed at his shirt collar as he choked and his face turned purple and his eyes bulged.

Jess grabbed the choking man’s iron and delivered a crippling kick to his knee and then as the giant began to slide down, Jess hammered home a swift blow to the side of Robbo’s face with his Colt. The malevolent bully crumpled to the ground unconscious.

“Hey!” yelled Earl.

“Hold up!” snarled Jess. “Get on your stomach, or do you want drilled between the horns?”

Without a murmur, Earl did as Jess ordered, cursing and swearing and trying to turn his head to watch what Jess was going to do.

“Put your hands behind your head,” Jess growled. He then went over and stood over him and pressed the gun into the back of Earl’s neck.

“Now slowly take your knife out and bring it around to the back of your head.” Jess said. “Do it slow. Don’t make me nervous. You twitch and this gun goes off; it’ll blow your brains all over Wyoming. They’ll only recognize you from them fancy boots.”

Slowly, the yellow-skinned man took out his knife and held it tight against the back of his head. It was well honed; within seconds, Jess had cut the rawhide which held his wrists together. He was free; the rest of the rawhide was still buried in his wrists but they would have to wait.

“There, weren’t you a good boy,” Jess went on. “Now get up and stand against that post. Don’t try anything! You don’t draw enough pay to be a hero.”

Jess came up behind the post, collecting some rawhide strips that were hanging over the side of the stall.

“You know what to do,” Jess whispered darkly in Earl’s ear.

Earl did and meekly put his arms around the post.

“Hold your hands together. Let ‘em go and you’ll never walk again. I’ll take your knee caps out.”

Jess quickly looped the rawhide around Earl’s wrists and cinched it tight. He then quickly shoved Robbo’s gun into his belt, and using more rawhide, finished off binding the yellow man’s wrists with slip knots. He then took a length of the hated stuff and wrapped it a couple of times around Earl’s neck, and finally ordered him to open his mouth, he then stuffed a dirty piece of rag into his mouth, securing it with more rawhide.

The expression on Earl’s face was of thunderous rage. It was scarlet with temper. The powerful toughness and aggression was still there, but now there was an expression of murderous intent.

“There, boy, that should hold you.” With that, Jess glanced at the big man still sprawled out on the stable floor, seemingly dead to the world. He turned to go and make for the jail where he knew Slim and Mort would be.

As he reached the big double stable door, he felt a sharp blow just below his left shoulder. The force of the blow made him stumble forward and his weakened left leg made him twist; he fell forward, smashing his head against the big iron bolts and locks on the oak door. He felt his world begin to grow dim and he began to fall. He put out his hand to try and save himself, but there was nothing there to grab and Jess crashed down into blackness.

He woke up slowly, stiffly and painfully within minutes, and he shuddered as the pain lanced through him. Everything was very quiet except for the blowing, breathing and munching of hay from the horses.

At first he could not remember where he was or what had happened. He painfully levered himself onto his right elbow. He saw that Earl was still tied to the post and was writhing around as he tried to get free, but all he did was tighten the slip knots even more as he squirmed.

Jess was just in time to see Robbo trying to get to his feet and then he slowly crumpled over again and was still.

Jess tried to get up, but then there was a tearing pain in his left shoulder which shot through him in a shuddering white hot agony and which made him lie face down again.

He realized that there was something sticking in his back. It was a knife and he knew it could only have been Robbo. He felt carefully around his back with his right hand and his fingers feebly brushed against the hilt of a large knife. He cried out at the touch as white spears of light flashed in front of his eyes, the pain dazzled him and made his head spin. He felt the ground begin to fall away beneath him as sickness welled up and he fought to keep the foul tasting bile down at the back of his throat.

Jess had always been told never to pull a knife out of wounds as it made the bleeding a thousand times worse. He had seen for himself what could happen and he knew he could die if he pulled the knife out of his back, but he did not think; he just pulled it out. He then fought hard not to pass out and he struggled to cling on and fought hard to stay conscious. He could feel hot tears running down his face and he whipped himself contemptuously as he remembered what Jonesy had once called him ‘a cry baby’.

He lay there for awhile and looked at the Bowie knife, and he sniffled weakly as he felt the warm sticky blood slowly spread down his back.

He realized that he had been lucky, because Robbo had been lying down when he had tried to knife him; if he had been standing, Jess would probably be bleeding to death or even dead with the Bowie knife through his heart.

Jess struggled and finally made it to his knees, and put his hand out to try and get hold of the framework of the door and pulled himself to his feet. He swayed around; he knew that he had to stay on his feet because if he went down again, he’d not have the strength to pull himself upright. He used the barn door to support himself and he slowly went into the hot sunlit street — light headed, dizzy and dazzled by the fierce burning light.

The street was empty and seemed to stretch away towards the hazy shimmering horizon longer than he ever remembered. The boardwalk bucked and heaved and swayed in the gasping heat, and he had never noticed before now how uneven it was. It was his enemy because, with every footstep, the burning boards seem to reach up and savagely stab him in the back.

He staggered along, gulping for breath. He felt himself falling again and reached out towards the clapboards wall. He fought to keep his eyes open; they felt so heavy that the effort was draining what little strength he had left. He knew he could not close his eyes; he would be finished if he did. He spun heavily against the rough wooden wall and felt a scream gather in his throat, and he fought hard and managed to strangle it down. He stood and leaned against the sun warmed timber, resting his head against it, trying not to weep. He could not spare the time. He had to find Slim.

He pushed himself upright and tried to push on. His feet felt as if he was walking on a heaving deck and had to search around for somewhere solid to put his feet; his movements were so slow and hard to do. It was like trying to walk through deep snow.

He then felt something warm on his cold left hand. He looked down and it made his head swim; sharp daggers of light again flashed behind his eyes, blinding him. He shook his head to try and clear it, and he looked down and saw through a mist that there was blood running down his fingers and dripping on to the grey boardwalk.

He looked up again, along the street, and his head swam again as there seemed to be two of everything. He didn’t know if it was the heat or loss of blood; he only knew that the time for him was running out and his world was fast spinning out of his control.

He kept going, just reaching and putting one foot in front of the other. He had to think hard as he did it, as his mind kept drifting, and he was forgetting what he was trying to do.

He tried to concentrate and think of nothing else but putting one foot in front of the other, and getting down the street and finding Slim. He had to get there, so he continued to lurch and stagger along clutching on to walls, window frames hitching rails anything which was strong enough to support him. He felt his knees beginning to buckle and he knew that the dizzy weakness was winning and his legs became hollow.

He now cared less and less about the stabbing pain in every step. He just had to get there, or find some way to warn Mort and save Slim. He had to…he had to… just get down this endless street.

Suddenly someone came quite close.

“Jess?”

He stopped and carefully looked around. It was Jeff, who he had last seen going hell for leather out of the stable.

“Jess! I’ve been looking for you.” He put his hand out and touched Jess’s arm.

“Don’t…touch me,” Jess said thickly through grimly clenched teeth.

“Jess?” Jeff said and snatched his hand away. He looked at Jess more closely and then down at his fingers where he had touched Jess’s jacket. There was smears of warm blood. “It’s blood,” Jeff blurted out.

Jess nodded. His mouth was dry and he was exhausted, and all he wanted to do was to lie down and sleep.

“Look Jeff….go get Slim. Look for Mort. Tell them the…Armstrongs are in… town…come for John…gonna gun down anyone…who gets…in their way. Find them…warn them…for me,” Jess managed to get out weakly.

“I can’t leave you, Jess, not like this.”

“Get going, Jeff…please…you must,” Jess stammered. “Please.”

“I’ll get you some help…the doctor,” Jeff rushed on.

“Go…Jeff,” breathed Jess. “Hurry.”

With that, Jeff ran up the street and disappeared in the haze towards the sheriff’s office.

Jess leaned against the wall. He wondered what was keeping them and why did they not come. Jess watched for help coming; he did so with little interest as the blood dripped from his fingers onto the wooden walk way. It is going to take a lot of cleaning up, he thought as he saw all the blood which smeared the boards and wooden walls. He smiled to himself as he remembered that it was he who had whitewashed many of the walls when he had been Mort’s prisoner — was it two years ago now? he thought.

He could feel that all the back of his jacket was soaked with blood now. He couldn’t afford another one; he would have to try and get it and himself mended too. His mind drifted and he thought how he would like a standoff with the rogue Armstrongs. He began to let go and his head slowly began to drop onto his chest. He shook his head and fought hard with all the strength he had left and managed to lift his lolling head up with a jerk.

I have got to stay awake! he thought.

Things began to get fuzzy round the edges again, He licked his dry lips, but it did not do much good; his mouth was still dry and his lips felt cracked.

Jess sighed. Then he finally saw them; they were running down the street towards him. He felt tears of weakness well up in his eyes, he sniveled he must stop. It was Slim, Mort, and John Barnes all coming for him.

He put his hand out to reach them and began to sink to his knees.

“Catch him, John, quick,” said Mort.

They caught Jess as he slowly crumpled up and gave in to the dark place he knew so well.

They looked at each other in shock at the bloodied figure that hung helplessly between them.

“Go for the doctor, John. Come on, Slim, let’s get him over to the jail.” With that, Slim scooped the unconscious Jess up into his arms and carried his pard across the street and in to the jail.

*****

The doctor arrived at the sheriff’s office to find Jess sitting in a chair, an occasional tremor shaking his body and causing him to spill his coffee. His jacket was lying on the floor and was staining it with blood. He looked up slowly as the doctor walked in and Jess gave him a weak lop sided grin out of a bruised face.

“Taken on the Sioux nation by yourself again, boy?” the doctor joked, as it was always the best way of dealing with a hurting Jess.

“Yeah Doc,” Jess said weakly, “They had the…Cheyenne with ‘em…that’s what…made a difference.”

“He went after the Armstrongs by himself,” said Mort briskly. “I warned him, he wouldn’t listen to me. Wouldn’t have me coming looking for him. He’s done this to himself.”

“Okay Mort, you and Slim….right as usual,” moaned Jess, glowering at his friends.

“Right, Jess,” said Doctor Broxton, turning business-like. “A knife wound I’ve been told.”

“Yeah,” said Slim. “In his left shoulder, in the back.”

The Doctor started to rummage through his Gladstone bag getting his instruments out.

“I’ve had to deputize the blacksmith and Jeff. There are two guys up at the stables need riding herd on. They’ll do it. And one of the prisoners needs your doctoring.” Mort told the doctor.

The doctor just nodded and began to gently help Jess off with his blood soaked shirt. He had warm water to hand and began to gingerly clean up the ugly wound on his patients back. Jess sat, and leaned forward supporting himself with his elbows, on the front of Mort’s littered desk.

“Where’s all his bruising from, Jess?” asked the doctor.

“Got thrown of a horse…a couple of times…got trampled by some others…and kicked by a guy called Robbo,” Jess replied.

“He said he was going courting,” Slim broke in. “I’d told him to take it easy, but will he listen? Oh no! He went after the Armstrongs ‘cos he thought he had caught ‘em rustling. Then he went after Lindoe’s stallion which they had stolen. He’s also had at least two fights he will own up to. He’s green broke a stallion which had another go at killing him, and yes, he did some courting but he has changed his mind on that score. Would rather fight.”

“Ok…Ok…Ok!” Jess snapped back “So it didn’t…work out.”

“I’m gonna have to stitch this up, Jess,” said the doctor. “Will you be okay?”

“Yeah,” Jess said weakly. “Just do it fast, and get them out of here, Doc. I don’t want an audience.”

“Why?” broke in Slim. “We’ve all heard you holler, curse and cry before. What’s new?”

“Doc! Please,” Jess pleaded.

“Okay boys, you heard him. Just humor him this time, will you?” said Doctor Broxton, “It’ll only take a few minutes.”

With that they trooped out, and Jess was left alone with the doctor.

“Suddenly turned bashful, Jess?” the Doc asked.

“No. Can you get me…a box of .45 slugs,” Said Jess. “I need to load my iron. Slim and Mort would give me a hard time…and they would never let me… I want to be…ready…when the Armstrongs hit the street. I have…a score to settle with them.”

“You’ve no sense, have you, Jess?” said the Doctor, who shook his head as he pulled the drawer open and got Jess his box of shells out. He then got on with stitching up the wounds in Jess’s shoulder. He also had to put stitches in the torn muscles as well and Jess groaned loudly. He did not care if the Doc heard him as he had been down this trail with the Doc many times in the past, and Jess knew that the Doc would know that Jess was normally hard and never complained or moaned unless he was in agony.

The doctor got on with his work as Jess slowly and with trembling hands loaded his gun and belt with new slugs. The Doctor was just swabbing down the wound with raw spirit when Slim and Mort came back in.

“You okay, pard?” Slim asked anxiously, shocked at the mess that was Jess’s back.

Jess simply nodded and tossed the brandy down his throat. The Doctor had insisted that he drank it, and the strong liquor made him gasp and brought tears to his eyes. The Doc then went on and bandaged Jess’s shoulder. He also bandaged Jess’s arm across his chest so he would not be able to use his arm and aggravate the wound and maybe tear the stitches open.

“I’ve got a spare shirt in the back,” said Mort. “My Levis will be too big for you.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” said Jess. “A cowpoke could die of pneumonia in here.”

“Well, Doc, how is the young idiot?” Mort the sheriff wanted to know.

“As you see, Mort, a lot of bruising, a bit of nerve damage and a flesh wound, very painful. It will slow him up for a bit, but he will survive,” the Doctor replied.

“What does he need to do?” Slim quizzed the Doctor, “What’s your order for Jonesy/”

“Rest gentle exercise when he feels up to it. I’ll take the stitches out in ten days or so, but no riding or heavy chores until I say so.”

“You listening, Jess?” asked Slim.

“I need to go…..out to the Armstrongs and get Traveler,” Jess strongly declared, “I’m not leaving him out there.”

“I’ll be going out there myself tomorrow,” said Mort. “I’ve wired the marshals in Rawlins and they will be here in a day or two with the tumbleweed. We’ll collect the rustled stock and I’ll pick up your horse as well Jess.”

“No I’ll…… get him tomorrow,” Jess murmured his voice full o anxiety, “I don’t want to risk leaving him out there; they are vicious people.”

“Don’t get riled,” Slim said, “I’ll take Ged and some of the others and go and get him tomorrow. I’ll collect our stock as well. Will you come, Mort?”

“Yeah,” the sheriff replied. “On one condition — I don’t want Jess along.”

“Now…wait,” was all that Jess could say as Ged put his head around the door and called out.

‘The Armstrongs! They’ve hit the street.”

“Okay!” said Mort. “We’ll take the rifles; don’t want to get too close. They might back off when they see four rifles up against them.”

Jess started to get up and tried to tuck his shirt into the top of his Levis.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Slim demanded to know.

“Out there….with you and Mort.” Jess replied.

“The hell you are. You can’t even hold a rifle,” stormed Slim. “You can’t even stand.”

“This is my fight,” Jess growled and his face became dark with anger.

“How come? They didn’t rustle your cattle, steal your horse.” Mort reminded Jess.

“No maybes not…I know I have nothing much to steal…but Roger Turnbull and Whitey were my friends…and nobody takes my guns of me, stomps his horses all over me and leaves me black and blue… I warned them and now it is payback time and I aim to collect,” Jess said breathlessly.

“Jess! If you don’t stay here and keep out of it, I’ll lock you up. I swear to God I will,” Mort said in exasperation.

“Come on, Sheriff, we need to go,” John Barnes, his deputy, cried out.

“Ok! Stay there, Jess! I’ve warned you.”

“Do as he says,” Slim called out as he headed for the door. “For crying out loud, show some horse sense for once.”

With that, Jess sat down and shook his head in defeat.

“They’re worried about you, son; don’t take on,” said Doctor Broxton.

“That’s just it,” Jess answered. “I am worried for them.”

Jess got up and leaned against the desk for support.

“Where are you going now?” the doctor enquired, anxiety was all written all over his face.

“Through the back, Doc. Mort has his bed there; it is the softest in town.”

“Yeah, I know that you have used it a lot. I have spent time in there with you. So go no further, you hear?”

“I can’t walk any further.” With that, Jess went painfully through to the back, leaving the Doctor shaking his head and re-organizing his instruments and medical supplies.

Jess went past the cells, where John Armstrong was sitting on the bunk in cuffs and leg irons. Mort was taking no chances; he was doing his best to keep his prisoner behind bars.

Jess went straight down the passage and out the back door; he squared his shoulders and did his best to keep upright. He cut down the gap between the telegraph office and the store which would bring him out into the street, hopefully in between his friends and the rogue family. He went as fast as he could. now staggering and swaying as his strength quickly faded, and his weak left leg threatened to collapse under him. His breath came in painful gasps and he felt as if he were running up a mountain side. He didn’t realize how weak he was until he started out. It was too late now; he had no time left to double back and stand with Slim and Mort.

He struggled on, grabbing out occasionally with his right hand for some support to stop him from crashing down. He finally reached the corner of the building and stopped to try and get his breath back. He gasped for breath as he flattened himself against the wooden wall and carefully looked around the corner.

The Armstrongs were standing shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the street with the other four men behind them.

A brave and defiant position, but grouped together like that stupid, suicidal, Jess thought. He would not be able to fan his iron with his left arm bound to his side, but he still thought he would be able to hit at least four, or maybe even five of them, if he was fast enough, and they did not get him first.

It was going to be easy; the Armstrongs were rustlers, thieves, whatever you liked to call them, thought Jess, but it was obvious that they were not gunfighters. They had probably never been in a gun fight in their lives.

They did their rustling at night, with stealth and cunning, and they approached this gunfight with simple tough aggression. It would not be enough; they were sitting targets, and it was going to be a turkey shoot.

Jess moved slowly out into the middle of the street. He watched them. He saw the looks of surprise on their faces.

He heard the yells from behind him as Slim and Mort shouted at him and cursed him. He heard the usual comments of stubborn, mad, crazy, all the usual stuff. Jess was used to it. It was like water of a ducks back.

It had no effect on him, as this was one of the things he was good at, better than any man he knew, alive that was. The Armstrongs were finally going to meet the real Jess Harper, not the love-sick, tongue-tied callow youth, the cowpoke they had pushed around, sneered at, made fun of. They were going to meet the man whose face was once on posters, a gunman who was worth five thousand dollars dead or alive.

“Armstrong!” Jess called, “You still want me?”

“I’ve not come for you, Harper! Just my boy,” the old rancher shouted out in his huge voice.

“You’ve to take me first, you know that. Your son will take his chances in court and you and your sons will die here in the street. You ready?” Jess snarled, as he slowly moved towards them, cold sweat from his weakening body beginning to run down his face. His hand hovered dangerously close over his gun.

“You boys ready to die with your boss? Get going unless you want some of this,” Jess called out to the drovers who stood behind the rancher.

At that, the herdsmen looked at each other and began to back away.

“You men stand!” Armstrong ordered.

“He’s a gun slick! I heard what he done in Abilene; we don’t stand a chance.”

“He killed six or maybe seven there.”

“He’s a killer.”

With that, the sheep men backed off and quickly made their way of the street back to the saloon.

“Well, Armstrong, seems like the odds have changed. Just you and these four sons of yours; I’ll accommodate you when you are ready,” Jess called out his challenge.

Jess watched; he saw the sweat break out on Alan’s face, Don licked his lips nervously and he saw Angus glance at his father with something like a helpless, pleading look. They were all undecided and were waiting for their father to make his move.

The old man was no coward and suddenly went for his gun, but before it had cleared the holster, Jess’ gun was in his hand; and he had fired and put a bullet in the rancher’s gun arm. His sons were stunned and began to make a move.

“Right, stop there,” Jess shouted, “you’ve had your chance. I do not give second ones. Next man who moves will get a bullet between the eyes, understand?”Jess said strongly, but even as he spoke he felt his knees begin to buckle and his gun begin to waiver. His world was beginning to tilt and the ground moved as if it was rippling under him.

“Oh God! Not yet…please…gotta hold on, Jess thought to himself. He shook his head and tried to clear it and suddenly his hand began to tremble. The Armstrongs swayed in front of him and it looked as if they all had shadows swarming around them. He could not hold his gun up anymore, his legs began to feel hollow and he began to slip to the ground.

He had lost — they had won.

He then felt some one standing alongside him, he felt a strong arm around him, holding him up. It was his pard…Slim.

“Drop your gun belts,” Jess heard Mort’s voice say, sounding as if he were miles away. Slowly the voices got softer and more distant as Jess’s world turned into silent darkness.

*****

Much later, Jess slowly swam up from the darkness that had cushioned him. His mouth was dry and he was cold. He opened his eyes to darkness yet the place was familiar. He looked up and there against the darkness was a lighter darkness and in it shone three stars. He knew where he was; he was in Mort’s bed, and in the old cell at the back of the jail….and the door was closed.

 

EPILOGUE

It was some two weeks later and Slim’s buckboard was standing outside Mort’s office. The three friends were waiting to watch Mrs. Armstrong and her daughter take the stage to Cheyenne, and then onwards by train East.

Mort had their men in jail, and he was unhappy, as within days of the standoff, the Armstrong clan from New England and their cohort of lawyers came to town and took charge of the ranch and got ready for the court case. Already, the rumor was that there was no real evidence against the family, that they had rustled anything, their drovers who had carried out their orders had long gone — lock, stock and barrel. John would no doubt do some time for manslaughter, but it looked like the rest would walk.

Jess, who had been struggling when his wounds had become infected, had been very depressed and Slim had feared that they might lose him, as he seemed ready to let go.

Mr. Lindoe had gone some way to save the situation by giving Mrs.Turnbull a house in Laramie, and then Hutton Armstrong, on his lawyer’s advice, had settled a handsome sum of money on the widow, which would see that she and her children would have a secure future.

It was then that Jess said he would stay in Laramie and be there for her if she ever needed him. He said that was the least he could do for the widow woman, and he had turned his face from the wall and begun to get better.

Slim looked at his pard who still looked pale and gaunt, but he knew he was on the mend when Jess had joked about having a jail-house pallor, thanks to Mort and himself.

He was relieved when at last it seemed that Jess was finally digging in stakes in Laramie. He had waited patiently for this for some time; he never thought that it would take a widow and her children to keep him here.

At last Mrs. Armstrong and her beautiful daughter came out of the hotel; they were escorted by servants, admirers and anyone else who had nothing else to do. The stage was already loaded with cases and hat boxes of every shape and size, the larger cabin luggage had already gone to Cheyenne by wagon.

Jess watched; his right arm was supporting his left which was still in a sling in order to protect his wounded back. The Doctor had only removed the stitches that morning, and had redressed his still infected torn wrists.

Jess had been going crazy; Mort and John Barnes had tended to his every need and Mort had protected him from the wrath of the Armstrong clan, but now he wanted home.

Slim had said that Jonesy and the ranch was what Jess needed now, and so the doctor had removed the stitches. He warned Jess to keep off the horses, and keep away from fences, chopping wood, until all the redness and swelling had gone. Slim had said that Jess would have three of them who would ride herd on him, so the doctor had thrown in the towel; he knew when he was beaten.

Jeanie finally glanced across and saw him. He saw her stare at him, and again he felt his heart pump and the blood race through his veins. She still could make him feel weak and tongue-tied, and he did not know he was going to say to her, except maybe “Goodbye.” The beast in him still lusted after her, but his inner man did not want her.

She sashayed across the street, the warm breeze causing her petticoats to drift up with the hem of her green velvet dress and showed her slim booted ankle amongst the flounced lace.

He drank in her heart-shaped face, her emerald earrings, green ribbons and bows and her silly hat which seemed to have a feathered bird nesting on it, with its long tail feathers blowing in the wind. She was smiling at him. He cursed under his breath as he felt his face color up.

She walked straight up to him, gave him her sweetest smile, and slapped him hard across the face.

Jess was taken by surprise and staggered back into the wall; he stumbled and would have crashed down if Slim had not got a hold of him.

“Wow!” said Slim, “that must be Bonnie Jean Armstrong. You saw that, Sheriff. You going to arrest her?”

“Who me?” a shocked Mort said. “I ain’t that brave. You must have really made a great impression on that filly, Jess.”

Jess stood rubbing his cheek which bore the marks of her fingers. He didn’t deserve that, he thought. He’d not killed any of them as he had threatened.

“Yeah, you know how loveable I am,” Jess growled.

The two friends gave an amused grunt as they watched Miss Armstrong flounce with her head held high and her skirts and ribbons all dancing in the wind as she went with her escorts towards the coach. She never gave a backward glance as she was handed into the carriage to sit beside her mother.

Jess sighed; he was annoyed that the Armstrongs had got in the last blow, but he would have to let it go for now.

The three friends watched as the coach trundled out of town in a cloud of ochre colored dust; it was hounded by the town’s dogs who all gave chase in full pack song.

***The End***

Dedicated with thanks to our Barb, who has worked hard to make my stories readable, and to Gail who has always given me needed support. My sincere thanks. Also, of course for Jess and Lord Robert, as I can think of nobody else who could get themselves in such dire straits.

Aye yours, Effie….xxxx

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