Love and Loss (by Effie)

 

Summary:  Love and Loss incorporates the original story “Betrayal” and continues the narrative and completes the story.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count: 20,563


 

Betrayal

The young Texan dismounted, and after tying the reins of his horse to a low growing branch, stood still and listened. The woods were some ways off from the ranch steadings where he worked as a wrangler, and for all the times he had been there, he had never seen a soul. It was impossibly still; nothing moved, except from far off, came the call of a hunting hawk mewing its challenge into the silence. It was breath-stopping as he stayed still and listened to the lack of sound; except for the sough of the wind through the high canopy of leaves, all was as silent as the grave. He breathed in the heady, heavy air, full of the damp, pungent musk of rotting leaves, and raised his eyes to the sunlight, which spear-filtered through the trees, patterning the woodland with golden lance-like shards of light, which caused the dappled indigo moss shadows in the deep hallows. This place was deep within the forest, and except for the murmuring winds in the sky-high branches, all sound was smothered. It was a place for whispers and stealth, a lonely, secret arbor, almost as untouched as it was when the world first took breath. A place unvisited, forgotten and lost, and this is where Jess met and courted the lovely Marie Sinclair.

She was the only daughter of the owner of the big cattle ranch where he worked, of the owner Archibald Sinclair. It was a huge spread some ways south of Billings. The Sinclairs were a big and well-established family, originally from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands and were expert with cattle. They concentrated on improving their stock with the introduction of the Herefords and Aberdeen Angus, the small tough black steers which were so highly sought after by the gourmets from the east.

Marie was a little older than he was, but that never crossed his mind. He had finally met her at a ceilidh, which had been held to celebrate a successful summer’s droving. All the families and ranch hands from far and near had attended, and it was the first time that Jess had heard the skirl of the bagpipes and seen men dance lightly, in the kilt, over crossed swords.

The air was filled with a frenetic excitement and Jess, forgetting his usual shyness around women, had dared to ask Marie to dance. That night seemed like a dream now, for Jess could dance. It was one of the ways his mother had kept her brood amused. She herself had loved to dance, and had taught her family well; it had been a great time, full of laughter and fun.

Marie had partnered Jess all night, much to the dismay of her mother and annoyance of her father. She did not care; her usual beau was down in Rochester buying breeding stock, and Jess could dance. He was also easy on the eye and did not clump on to her feet, or put his large boots through her dress.

That evening was the start of their clandestine meetings. For her, it was dangerous and fun, knowing that her father, with his narrow minded, judgmental Presbyterian ways, would probably tie her even more firmly to her mother’s apron strings. Jess would no doubt be horsewhipped and then get kicked up the trail with whatever meager pay was owed him.

She did not care; this was not the first time she had dallied and spun her net. She was an only daughter, surrounded by brothers, ranch hands and treasured by her father; they had spoiled her all her life. Now they all held their breath as she played and teased them all to distraction. She had turned into a beautiful woman and had found how men would fight for her favors. She led her father a merry dance and he raged, threatened and thundered that it was worse than having a pedigree three-year-old filly surrounded by a herd of young stallions.

So Jess waited. He ran his fingers over the entwined initials of J/M, which he had carved into the big old oak tree where they had met. Suddenly there was movement. It was the darting, fluttering wings of some small birds caught for a second in flight, in the spear-like shaft of sunlight, and there she was. She was wearing her habit of palest green silk velvet, and brown boots, and as she glided towards him, she took of her top hat, veil and gloves. She allowed them to drop to the fern-clad moist earth. She held her small hands out to him, and he took them and they were lost in his. He raised them to his lips, and she opened her palms and he kissed them delicately and then took her into his arms. She melted into his body and he buried his face in her russet colored hair. It smelt of summer, of the flowers and herbs, which filled his senses as he rode through the garlanded meadows of the high country. Her musky perfumed, vibrant body, made his head swim, and he knew he loved her. He loved the air she breathed, the ground she walked upon, her velvet-soft, buttermilk skin, her cat-like green, golden eyes, and her soft, warm, generous mouth that so easily curled into a smile.

“I love you,” he murmured into her ear, his lips catching on the golden orbs, which hung from them.

“Of course, all you boys do,” and she laughed softly.

“I am serious,” he said, softly, trying hard not to show his hurt. “Are you making fun of me?”

“No, Jess, but we hardly know each other,” she replied.

“We have known each other for always. Before we met, we knew each other. When we first met, it was if we had known each other forever,” Jess said, his voice full of emotion, and echoing the love he felt for her.

“What a lovely thing for you to say and think, Jess. I never knew that a boy like you could be so romantic,” she murmured, and she hung her head and looked at him through her downcast, long, soft, moth- winged lashes.

“Will you come away with me, and marry me?” he asked huskily.

“Where to and when?” was all she said. Her voice now was a little harder with surprise, and she pulled away from him.

“Tomorrow or the day after. We’ll head south for Texas, or maybe Mexico,” he went on in boyish excitement.

“My father, brothers, the clan would follow us. They would run us to earth. They would hunt us down like wild animals. I’d be dragged back. My father would buy me a husband, and you, my darling, would be left to feed the buzzards, crows and ravens.”

“No, it won’t be like that. I don’t think your father would be so cruel to spoil your chance of real happiness, to ruin your life and make you hate him.”

“Jess, my father has my life planned out for me. I’ll never make you understand; it is the way he is,” Marie answered.

“But this is a new world. I thought he came here to break free from all that?” Jess went on pleading, trying to understand.

“My father was free; he has always been free. He came here for land. The islands and highlands were not big enough for his plans, and ambitions,” Marie tried to explain.

“So you agree with him? You’d allow yourself to become a pawn, to be sold, so that your father can gain another million acres of land, which is not his to own?” Jess choked out bitterly, feeling his temper rise.

“Jess, you are making me so miserable. You have suddenly asked me to run away and get married. Am I not allowed to be frightened or to ask questions?”

“Don’t be frightened; I can take care of you. We’ll be happy. We’ll escape these Montana winters and live in the sun, maybe near a beach. Would you like that, to live by the ocean?” Jess said, his voice, once again, becoming eager and excited.

“Not really; I have seen the sea,” was all Marie said with a sigh.

“Well, what shall we do? I’ll never leave you. I’ll never let you go. Even if you stay here and your father makes you marry that stuffed shirt from the Triple X, I’ll follow you. You’ll never be free of me. You must know that?” Jess said, his voice choked up as he pleaded with her, and made exaggerated attempts to make her realize his sincerity.

“Oh, Jess, just hold me please. I need to think.”

“Marie, we can’t stay too long. It will be dusk soon and they will come looking for you.”

“I know, Jess. Will I see you again tomorrow?” she murmured.

“Yes, I’ll try, we need to make plans.” He looked down at her. She nodded, and he held her lightly as she became kitten-soft in his arms, he bent down to kiss her. She raised her softening face to him and kissed him sadly, feather-brushed upon his lips.

With that, she turned and smoothly moved away, slowly picking up her discarded things as she glided through the trees. She turned once more towards him and gave him a wan smile. Her russet hair and the deep verdant foliage of the dark woodland, her secret place, framed her cameo perfect face. Then she turned and wraith-like she was gone, swallowed up in the fathomless shadows and the sunlit pools of green. He stood and watched her go, his eyes like those of a mortally wounded deer.

Jess sighed; she seemed changed, because suddenly there was no fun in her. The girlishness and mischief had all gone, and she was a woman, sensible, mature and knowing far more than his own, near twenty, summers. He felt like following her but knew that would only bring on an angry exchange. She had chosen this place. She had told him that this deep, seemingly unvisited woodland had been her playground, and refuge, since she had been a little girl. She knew every tree, every hollow, every sett and every foxhole. She did not want them to run the risk of being seen together, so she had let him into her secret, no one else knew of this place, they would always be safe here. They could come and go separately, and at long enough intervals, that their comings and goings, would never overlap.

At the time and since then, Jess had accepted her demands without question. He did not even wonder how she had managed to mount her horse, she always rode sidesaddle, and he laughed, as it was a vanity thing, but Jess wondered how she managed it. Now he began to wonder how she always seemed to have their meetings so intricately planned. He realized that she was the one who was laying the course of their relationship, and he was being led along, like a bull with a ring through its nose.

However, he was not long out of his boyhood. A time filled with bone-grinding poverty, a home and family lost in an inferno, and then he had been swept away, in youthful passion with his friends to follow a blue flag, to fight in the blood-drenched fields and mud of a civil war.

Marie was his first love; she was beautiful, soft and fragrant like a magical creature from a storybook. He could not believe that someone like her would take his calloused hands, scar-marked body, and with her love, try to heal the deep wounds of memory, which woke him shuddering, and sweating, in the desolate hours before dawn. He loved her, he needed her, and he would never let her go. With those thoughts in his head, he turned towards his horse, undid the reins, and after returning the big animal’s greeting by gently pulling its ears and clapping its neck, he swung into the saddle, and let it sure-footedly pick its way back to the open meadows, of the high ranges.

*****

He rode into the stable yard as the sun touched the darkened blue peaks to the west. He led his horse into the stable to be greeted by Christie, one of the older wranglers, who delighted at poking fun at him and taking his money whenever they played poker.

“Howdy, young’un. You’re late; old Cookie has been hollering for you.”

“What’s he want?” Jess questioned.

“Dunno, search me. You go see him, before he bursts a gut. I’ll see to your horse,” Christie ordered.

‘’I thought you’d be for Texas. Ain’t that what you said the last time you stole five dollars off me?” a smiling Jess replied.

“Lost that. Will be going soon, before the snows. Just need to lift some more fools’ money, and I’ll be gone, like the geese.”

“Well, it’ll not be mine. See you and thanks.” With that, Jess ducked out into the lengthening shadows of dusk.

He opened the cook’s door and went into the shack. Except for the big house, it was the most comfortable place on the ranch. It was always filled with the smells of good things to eat, was always warm. This was the place that the old cook liked to show off his doctoring skills; he always kept you until you could walk again. Rumor had it that he had been a surgeon’s mate on the orlop deck of a Royal Naval frigate, and could lop off arms and legs with the best of them. The hands laughed and called him ‘Butcher Bob’. He only answered to Cookie.

“Am here, Cookie. Where’s the fire?” Jess called out as he entered the butcher’s shop.

“Get in here, you young devil, me lad. I told you I wanted to check that shoulder before you went off,” the cook loudly complained, “I’ve kept you some supper too. Must have been out in the sun too long to be bothered by a worthless varmint like you.”

“Thanks. It’s okay, honest; it’s nothing. Just a bit stiff,” said Jess, dreading being pummeled by the old man.

“Yeah, I saw that nothing. You trying your Comanche horse gentling, showing off, and what does that bonehead do? Throw you against the barn door, and serves you right. Get your clothes off. I’ve got some dog fat ideal for aches and pains.”

“Ah, no, Cookie, please!” Jess pleaded, dreading the thought of dog fat. He couldn’t be going to use real dog fat, Jess thought, as he felt his stomach heave at the thought of it.

“Get them clothes off! Why in the name of all the saints can you never do as you’re told? Your Pa must never have taken his belt to you. Get on with it before I take a soup ladle to you.”

Jess knew that this was one argument that he was not going to win, so he slowly and stiffly took of his vest and shirt, and sat down on the stool that the old man had kicked towards him.

“You’ve been with her agin!” the cook said and he shook his head.

“What d’ya mean?” Jess protested innocently.

“You heard me! You’ve been with Miss Sinclair again. How many times do you need telling?”

“How d’ya know?” Jess asked quietly as he hung his head and bit his lip. The cook had started to firmly massage the dog fat into his shoulder, which was already black and blue from bouncing off the barn door.

“Can smell her on your clothes. Boy, you are playing with fire. How old are you? Nineteen, maybe going on for twenty? About time you were growing up and getting some sense.”

“But Cookie I love her. I want us to have a home. I want her to have my son. I never realized until now how lonely I was until I met her. I had nothing.” Jess suddenly let his feelings spew out, as his usual stoic self-control was swept away on the tide of pent-up emotion.

“Maybe, son, you’ll be lucky and get a woman who is not sick to the stomach when she looks at your ugly face, and maybe she’ll give you a son and tend house. But it won’t be Marie Sinclair. She is an exotic bird; you’ll never find her nesting with a sparrow.”

“You don’t think much of me, calling me a sparrow,” Jess protested.

“Well, a sparrow hawk, that do you?” And the old man laughed.

“But I love her,” Jess dejectedly repeated himself.

“Okay son, but does she love you?”

“Of course she does, she kissed me,” Jess replied.

“Yeah! But did she say she loved you?” the old cook asked quietly and he kindly held out Jess’s shirt and helped him on with it.

“I think so; I can’t remember,” Jess said miserably.

“She didn’t, did she, son? You’d never forget that, the first time she told you that she loved you.”

Jess was devastated, and he agreed by nodding his head. “You’re right. I don’t think that she ever did.”

“She’s not for you, Jess; she never was and never will be. The sooner you understand this, the better it will be for you. At the moment, you are playing with fire. The Sinclairs and her intended, the Macgregor, are hard ruthless men. They would have you dead and buried. Your name forgotten within the week and they would not lose a second’s sleep. There would be no questions asked. They have friends in high places and can buy whatever justice they need,” the kindly cook went on trying to warn Jess.

“I can’t let her go; she’s my life,” Jess said quietly.

“Well son, you may pay for her with your life.”

*****

Jess did not sleep; his shoulder ached all night. His head and his heart pounded and churned as he picked over what the old cook had said. He would ride out again, late as usual, and he would wait in their hidden, deep shadowy place, where he knew he would be safe. He would try to get some truth out of her. He would try to get her to declare her love. If she didn’t, he did not know what he would do. He would not want to live without her, he knew that.

So again, he waited in the deep dark greenness. The place was familiar now, with the sun’s shards flashing on the occasional butterfly or bird as it flitted through. This afternoon however, the silence was broken by the soothing sounds of innumerable bees, dancing their attendance around their queen, as they groomed her and fed her with the hard won nectar of their countless journeys. Suddenly, before he was fully aware of what was happening, the clearing seemed to be silently filling, with the men he recognized from the Sinclair and MacGregor ranches. Jess went immediately for his gun, but as he did so, he felt a sharp pain in the middle of his back. It could only be a carbine being pushed into his spine.

“Hold it, lad, unless you want that scatter gun to tear you apart,” the Segundo growled in his singsong accent of the outer islands. Jess felt himself break into a cold sweat, as he slowly lowered his gun, and then felt whoever was behind him, take it out of his hand. They all stood, and watched him, their narrowed eyes glittered, and their flat planned, big-boned faces all stared at him, with the killing intensity of feral wolves.

“Tie him up, boys; we’ll take him back. Mr. Sinclair and the MacGregor will want to watch. See how much backbone and nerve he’s got when we take a stock whip to him. Impudent young pup.”

With that, they pulled Jess’s arms back and savagely wrenched them, and tied them at his elbow and wrists with rawhide. They then threw him over his saddle like a sack of grain and tied him on.

For Jess, he had little memory of the journey, except that the whole horrendous ordeal was made worse by a whiff of her perfume. She had been nearby all the time. She had witnessed his humiliation; she had seen him being dragged away as if a worthless steer, bound for a bullet between the eyes.

He remembered being dropped from his horse and dragged by his collar across to the corral railings. Without ceremony, they cut the rawhide from him and then ripped the clothes off his back. He tried to fight, he kicked as best he could, until a pistol had glanced off his head, and had knocked him senseless. He came round to find himself spread-eagled against the corral five bar gate. He tore at the rawhide that bound him, but could not move. Without ceremony, the blacksmith was chosen to flog him. From the first blow, all the breath was knocked out of Jess’s body. He could not scream or beg if he had wanted to, he had no breath left.

His whole world became one of pounding lashes that flayed his back and cut into his very soul, until finally his knees buckled, and the blood-setting sun and purple streaked sky turned black and Jess slipped away.

*****

He was aware of nothing except hands that gently dressed the wounds on his back. The bitter tasting, warm milk that was spooned down him, which always brought back the darkness…until at last he opened his eyes, and he groaned. He was lying on his back staring up into the face of Christie.

“How long Cookie before he can ride?” Christie asked.

“On his own, ten days or so,” was the reply.

“He won’t be on his own; I’m taking the kid back to Texas with me. He can come and punch the cattle up the Chisholm with me.”

“Well, five days will do it.”

“Cookie,” Jess called weakly. “Where is she? Where was she?”

“You still aching for that bitch vixen, that hell cat?” the old cook answered with a scowl.

“You know, Cookie,” Jess said weakly.

“Well she was there, cold-blooded bitch, watched alongside that vicious bastard she‘s got engaged to. You saw that Christie, that little smile; she’s the one that needed flogging,” the old cook stormed on.

“She betrayed me,” Jess said with a sob in his voice.

“There, son, don’t take on so; you’ll hate her soon enough.”

“I want to kill her. I thought she loved me,” Jess said through gritted teeth.

“Well, there you go — love and hate. The horns on the same goat. You can live with hate, son; it will keep you fighting. However, lost love is a killer; you would shrivel up and die. Hate is better,” the wise old man said.

“Yeah,” Christie agreed, “She’s let you go; she has chased you off. You need to get away before she has you killed.”

“But, she betrayed me,” Jess murmured and he turned his head towards the wall, not truly believing what she had caused to happen. She had taken them to their beautiful secret place and allowed them to take him, to flog him. He softly repeated himself again and the others had to lean forward to hear his words.

“She betrayed me.”

“Of course she did, son. We all knew she would.”

*****

Remorse

She watched a fly, which was trapped between the lace curtains and the windows, its iridescent wings wildly beating against the glass as it hysterically buzzed its alarm, as it sought to escape.

She readily identified with it. She had frantically struggled for the past two years to avoid an arranged, loveless marriage. Well, not really a marriage, more of a contract, an amalgamation between two powerful men who had empire building aspirations. She was just a building block in their ambitious dreams of a destined future of power, beyond the laws of civilized society and state.

She was forced to gasp as her dressmaker pulled the laces of her stays even tighter and she fought for breath as she held on to the tall brass bedposts that went with the heavy, dark mahogany furniture and ornate oil lamps, of the best room in the hotel.

She was in a daze, as her dressmaker and mother fussed and gaggled about the size of her waist, which should not be any more than nineteen inches. Anything bigger would have been shameful. She ignored it, the anxious carping, as she knew that her waist was a lot smaller. They would soon find out when the silk, satin dress was dropped over her head.

This past year, since the nightmare, turbulent time of her engagement, she had been overwhelmed with guilt and grief as she had been made to betray, and then watch the young cowboy who had stolen her heart being captured and cruelly flogged.

She had never been allowed to see him. She had not even dared to enquire after his well-being. His name was never ever mentioned. It was as if he had dropped off the edge of the world.

She had tried follow to him, as she refused to eat; she became weak and so was unable to do so. She fell prone to violent headaches and vertigo, which kept her abed, unable to move her head in case the dizziness made her sick. She was frightened of turning her head; the thought of food repulsed her and she was kept alive by a consommé of chicken, brandy and, sometimes, beef broth. When she was well enough, she would sit out on the verandah, swathed with comforters and shawls. Slowly, she recovered her strength, but she had lost her girlish softness. She was now wraith-like thin, gaunt with porcelain fragility, which increased her vulnerability and gave her the air of being a soul lost.

She felt desperate and trapped, as the day she was dreading and had fought to avoid was looming ever nearer. It was as if she was watching a forest fire slowly and relentlessly coming towards her, to cruelly overcome her, and choke and burn her alive. In a few days’ time, she would be Mrs. Ewan MacGregor. She would become part of her husband’s establishment and be lost as a person in her own right. She would even loose her own name. Her opinions would be those of her husband and she would be expected to perform as a supportive wife, the bearer of his children, and be, at best, purely decorative: at worst a silent drab – unseen, forgotten, beyond reproach and lost to the world.

She was young, vibrantly alive and heart-breakingly beautiful. Her skin, which her mother hysterically insisted she protect from the sun, was like a cream cameo, which was enhanced by her dark, russet hair and the tawny, gold-green eyes, which were fringed with impossibly long, thick butterfly winged eyelashes.

Ewan Macgregor, whom he father had insisted was the perfect match for her, was some sixteen years her senior. He was a very wealthy man who owned nearly as much land as her father and whom her father thought would make a powerful ally in his own cattle empire ambitions. She had been brought up to understand her place in a male-dominated society, where her only role was to achieve a prestigious marriage that would bring even more power and influence to her family. She had always been treated as something precious to be protected, guarded from life and the attentions of the young men from every background, who’d sought her favors. A mere smile or friendly nod caused jealously and bloodletting from the bunkhouse to the saloon, to the sprawling, rich, ranch houses.

The Sisters of Saint John, an ancient teaching and nursing order far away to the East in Troy, near the motherhouse at Flushing, New York, had cosseted her.

The sisters’ ambitions were to educate their girls to become perfect wives. She could recite the Catechisms and all the great mysteries off by heart. She could sing, play the piano and her embroidery was delicate and beautiful. She could speak French, read Latin, draw, and paint in a very tight and self-conscious manner, which gave evidence of her narrow upbringing. She could also play bridge and all the other games favored in the grand salons, and talk mindless nonsense in a mannerly fashion for boring hours on end. But she could not cook, make a bed, bind up a bloody wound, scrub a floor, turn a sheet, and the idea of her saddling a horse was too horrific to imagine. She could sit a horse, knowing what a pretty picture she made in her velvet habit and top hat and veil, and was always carefully escorted around the hunting field as many young ladies from a wealthy background were.

She knew she was like a fish out of water, gasping for breath out here in the West and she knew she was not fitted for the life of a rancher’s wife, out on a still widely untamed frontier. She could not understand why her father thought that she could be.

Her parents had, like a lot of their countrymen, left the cold, wet, gale-lashed island that killed the weak and made the strong either fight the elements or leave for the new worlds of opportunity. Archibald Sinclair had worked all the hours God had given him and he had, with the support of his wife, built one of the largest spreads in Montana. He banked at the Bank of Scotland and Coutts in Billings and he did his deals in the Gaelic. It included much drink to be taken, palms of hands to be spat upon before shaken. His word was his bond, his personal honor held in the highest esteem and his family was expected to obey him and live by his code.

Marie had come from the convent in the East at last, hardly knowing her father, brothers and even her mother, as she had been only seven when she had been sent to the sisters of St. John. She had come home and her family was kind enough, but there was no warmth amongst them. They would have died for her, but they never praised her, held her close nor offered her comfort when she was hurting. Whenever she tumbled from a horse or stuck an embroidery needle into her finger, her tears were greeted with loud laughter and cruel remarks about how soft and useless she was. Many nights she cried herself to sleep in her lavender-scented bed, with fine linen sheets and feather mattress, and longed to run away.

She longed for someone to look after her, to love her and protect her and thought her prayers had been answered when she had sat on the verandah one morning, drinking her hot chocolate out of her mother’s fine Meissen china and nibbling tiny Maids of Honor. She had been idly watching a small group of drovers who were working with some green broke quarter horses, when one especially caught her eye. He was not as big as the other raw boned, gangly men were. He had a lithe compactness about him. His movements were spare, superbly controlled and effortless. He was immediately at one with his mount and seemed to get it to do his bidding with the minimum of fuss and effort.

She had watched him for some time, until at last he dismounted with the slow, languid grace of a stretching cat lying on a turf roof in the sun, its eye intensely never leaving the plump pigeon within its reach. He had then turned and had looked straight at her, their eyes had met and he had given her the broadest smile. His teeth had flashed white in contrast to his sun tanned and windblown face.

Her heart had stopped as she was overcome with the warmth of his smile, which held out such an invitation for the future. She could not look away as she simply stared, and drank in and memorized his face. She would always remember it, hold it close in the quiet hours of the night as she waited for sleep to come and wing her away.

He was dark haired, had a longish face with high cheekbones and had the full curved lips of youth. His eyes were a miraculous blue, black heavy fringed with thick, long lashes. He was lean, and she knew he would be whipcord strong and unyielding like rawhide.

Her heart fluttered as she thought she saw the sunrise in his face; with all the promise of a fresh young day. The moon glint was in his eyes; with the stars light full of their mysterious gloaming. She could not breathe as she was overwhelmed with the warmth and softness of his gaze.

She lowered her head as she felt her body begin to color and grow warm from the tips of her toes to the very crown of her head. A soft, gentle shiver ran through her and she felt suddenly so very much alive, so aware of every insect that crawled and hummed amongst the rose trees, which grew in the border of the verandah. She trembled with excitement, which caused her blood to pound through her body and she began to softly pant for breath, as if she had just run through a hay meadow, jeweled with the poppy, lupin, blue bonnet and purple vetch.

She finally met him at a grand ceilidh, which her father held for everyone in the neighborhood at the end of the summer. The cattle had gone to market; all the hay was gathered into the barns or stacked for winter feed. The cows and calves were in the low pastures ready to be taken in when the winter white hit the land with its iron fist.

The country dances were wild affairs that in the old country would last for days and it wasn’t much different over here in the new world. There was always some bloodletting and youngsters could be found lying in their own vomit against stable walls or around the horse troughs.

Marie had slowly gained confidence and now delighted in flirting. She enjoyed seeing her father seethe with anger, his face becoming mottled, red with pent up rage. She scorned her brothers’ protests and told them that she was just doing what they did outrageously, as they chased and danced with every available and comely girl.

She had been sitting, rearranging her skirt, her feet were tapping to the jig, “Round the house and mind the dresser”, when she found herself looking at some old, worn, black boots which had been polished for the occasion. She had quickly looked up into two, shining, violet-blue eyes, which shone with such tender softness down at her. She felt her breath catch in her throat and her cheeks become warm. He never said a word. He just gave her a small, boyish grin and held his hand out. She took it and it was immediately lost in his as he drew her on to the floor of the barn which had been decorated with all the fruits of the woods and fields. The wild, frenetic burling of, ‘Mind the dresser’, had gone and the accordion, fiddles, tin flutes, and bohrans broke into a slow and melodic, wistful waltz. He drew her to him and she melted into his arms.

She remembered little of what he had said. She was just lost in a trance-like state of music, swirling color and light. She found herself in the strong arms of a young man who was alive with all the strength and confidence of youth and she had felt so at one with him, safe and secure, in what was a warm and caring embrace.

That meeting and the feeling of their hearts beating as one, led them to the darkling, secret bower, deep in the moss-ferned floor of the dank, pungent, woodland. A place full of deep, innumerous, indigo shadows and spear-like shafts of light, through which the occasional bird and moth glinted as they fluttered on rainbow wings through.

One early evening, as they picked their way through the green gloaming and dark, winding, mossy glades, he had laughed and playfully ducked as a hunting owl had silently floated past them on wide, white ghostly wings. The musk-scented, still air had stirred slightly and in a light-winged blink, the owl had gone.

She had tried to contain a shiver as like many of her people she was very superstitious, and had been told of the tales of owls who were the foretellers of death. A tear had formed and had softly wetted her cheeks. He had cupped her leaden-eyed, despairing face in his hands and had kissed her tears dry. He had held her tightly and had murmured that he would always be there to hold her close, not only in this moment of her fear, but for the rest of their lives.

She also remembered how he had said he could fill his life, content and happy just watching her. He loved watching her breathing and walking and sometimes just turning and smiling up at him. For him, no matter what lay ahead for them — maybe his life would be long — but long or short every moment, he’d said, he wanted to spend it with her, and every moment he did, he would remember and treasure.

She knew she would never feel at home in his world, but she was past caring. She had fallen in love. Every waking hour was filled with thoughts of him. She counted the seconds until she was back in his arms and her days passed in a dreamlike state. All this unnoticed by her family, or so she had thought. Now, she knew she had been watched and when her meetings with Jess had become more frequent and longer, her father had finally lost patience.

The day Jess had asked her to marry him and go South with him was the day, at dinner, that Archibald Sinclair could contain himself no longer. He had exploded into a tirade of abuse, incandescent with rage. He called Jess, his character, family and Texas some vile things, unforgivable and unforgettable. He was without compassion, sensitivity and, only intent and demanding his own way. He was prepared to ride roughshod over whatever displeased him and interfered with his plans and commands.

No one else’s needs, personal wishes and dreams were important to him. He radiated controlled aggression and strength. His rage made his body taunt and he seemed to swell to gigantic proportions. He had become a giant and a gigantic bully.

She had cowered in front of his fury, unable to speak, unable to defend herself or her precious love, Jess. His demands were terrible and the consequences were worse. She had to accept Macgregor’s offer of marriage and agree to marry within the year. He would be visiting them that night to offer her his name and a part in his life.

However, her father also insisted that she lead him, her future husband, and their men to her sweet, secret place in the woods, where Jess and her had explored their love and had felt so safe. She would be made to watch them capture him. Her father grimly vowed to kill Jess if she did not give way to his demands. He vowed to have his body torn apart by horses and then buried out on the range. His grave would have no marker and her father would have the cattle driven over it, so there would be no trace, except, maybe in the spring. His resting place would be marked by a jeweled drift of wild flowers, the ground made richer by his remains as they became one with the earth.

She lowered her head to hide the anguish from her mother and Mrs. Robinson, who were feverishly sewing her bodice, sleeves and skirts into place. She felt sick as she remembered the memory and image of him as they cruelly manhandled him, tied him to the corral gate, and then flogged him. It filled her head with the sounds and pictures that tormented her and gave her nightmares.

Jess had tried to make it as difficult as he could. He had fought and kicked out, but from the first lash, which cut into his lean frame and had drawn blood, she’d seen him shudder, as the breath was knocked out of him and he struggled to stay upright and silent. His hands had curled into tight fists as his back was flayed, laid open and ran with blood. The sound of the stock whip hitting living flesh would stay with her forever and be, for her, an ever-recurring horror, which would leave her screaming into the dawn.

His head had slowly sunk onto his chest, his fists had relaxed and his knees had buckled, but the punishment had continued. Marie never saw how much more Jess had had to endure as she had watched sickened, as suddenly her world began to spin, blood red and she had fainted.

“You are very quiet for a bride, Miss Sinclair,” the dressmaker had remarked.

“Come my dear, take a look in the mirror now, we’ve finished,” her mother said. Deep down she knew how her daughter was feeling, but she also knew any show of sympathy would not help. Her care would only cause tears to flow and who knew how long they would last.

Marie slowly moved over to the mirror. She did not recognize the wraith-like, delicate creature that shimmered before her, reflected in the ornately carved, golden mirror. The cream silk dress had been finally covered with the finest silk chiffon, which supported the embroidery of thousands of seed pearls and crystals. The pattern was of the flowers of Scotland, the heather, thistle, harebell and woodland primrose. It was a work of art and all it did, as far as she was concerned, just gave evidence, not of her father’s pride in her, but of his own wealth and importance.

Her mother showed her the tiara that her father had had commissioned. It had been made like a coronet in white gold, pearls and white sapphires. Her mother had trilled and boasted that Aspreys, the court jeweler, had made it in London. She had looked at it dully. She wanted away. She just wanted to lie in a tartan plaid on a bed of heather, which would fill her head with its delicate scent. She wanted to lie under a canopy of a velvet, indigo sky full of a mystery of stars, lulled by a moaning wind that soughed its song through the pines. She yearned to lie, more than anything, in the arms of the sweet boy she had betrayed.

She now knew that she did not want a big, sprawling, empty house with wide verandahs and large, soulless windows. She did not want diamonds, pearls, carriages, servants, tea parties, hunt balls, and trips to cities to shop and collect bib-bobs, which she did not want.

Marie now knew she wanted kindness, gentleness, warmth and safety. She wanted love — to be loved; she yearned to be loved by the young cowboy who had almost died for her, Jess.

Marie sighed, letting her thoughts still dwell on her lost love. She looked out at the street reflected in the mirror, the ugly shapes of dried out clapboard buildings were softened by the golden sunlight. A group of some nine riders was dismounting outside the saloon and she caught her breath as she watched one of them slowly, so slowly and with such controlled grace, dismount. Only one rider ever dismounted like that. Only one rider wore a black Stetson, pulled low over his face. It was, it could only be, Jess.

She quickly raised her hand to her mouth to hide the little involuntary gasp she gave. The sun’s westering rays caught the large ruby of her engagement ring. It flashed on her finger like a large droplet of blood. She hated it, as it would always remind her of that day when Jess had spilt so much of his blood for her. She knew now that she would have done the same for him.

She felt her heart begin to race and her knees begin to buckle, and then she remembered that he’d said that he would always be there for her. He’d go to the ends of the earth, go hungry, lie, cheat, steal, turn outlaw – there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her.

He’d always hold her close to him, always in his heart, for as long as it beat in his chest. She would always be part of him.

She began to tremble, she began to hope… Had he come back for her?

Are you feeling faint, my dear?” her mother asked. “It’s been a long, tiring afternoon and you are still not strong,” her mother said, gently, alarmed at how pale her daughter had become. “Shall we take tea, my dear?” she continued kindly.

“Yes, please mother,” Marie answered faintly. “Can we open the windows please? I’d like some air.”

Mrs. Robinson immediately responded to her request and Marie went, stood, and watched the group of drovers tie their horses to the hitching rail.

She saw him again.

Yes, it was definitely Jess.

She watched as she saw him tie his horse’s reins to the rail and bend to loosen the cinch. He then effortlessly vaulted over the rail, took the three steps onto the walkway outside the saloon in one graceful bound, and disappeared into the saloon with the others.

*****

The Reunion

“Charlie?” Dave asked, “Does the wind never stop screaming in this hell hole of a place.”

“Sometimes, I reckon,” Charlie replied as he sat with his back to the roaring fire, luxuriating in its warmth.

“Well, it’s danged near driven me loco, what with the wind howling through them darned trees and the sound of that accursed river. I’m going loco,” Dave complained on.

“Aw, quit gripping,” Paddy said darkly. “Tis better than polishing a saddle with your butt for weeks on end.”

“I’ll take the saddle,” was the quick reply, and Dave began to get red in the face.

“Now you two,” Charlie interrupted the two members of his gang. “It won’t be for long. We agreed to watch Jess’ back for him; he wants to see his girl again without her family getting hold of him and half killing him like before.”

“You think he will ride with us if she stays with her family?” Dave wanted to know.

“Said he would. He’s always been as good as his word, never known him to back off once he’s set on doing something,” Charlie said. “You got the coffee on. Is the stew heated up yet? They’ll be in soon and will want their supper; be ready to eat anything that doesn’t move.” He continued to toast his back against the fire. He was like the others a Southerner, and like a lizard, he needed heat to keep him moving. He hated the weather in Montana, the huge endless empty land where the wind screamed across the plains down from Canada and the icy wastes, bringing with it blinding snow, and an air stream like a frozen whetted knife that cut through the body right to the bone.

The door of the ramshackle log cabin was flung back, causing the smoke of the fire to once again swirl, acrid and blue, around the rough living space, to finish up reeking black the rafters in the roof.

“Jess, for all that’s all that’s holy, close that darned door!” Paddy called out.

“Nice way to greet a man that’s got his tail frozen off watching and keeping your worthless butt safe,” Jess growled.

“Ignore ‘em, Jess; it’s their turn now,” Clint said as he came in behind Jess. Two Moons, who had been a scout in the same platoon that Charlie had led during the war, followed him.

“Anything out there?” Charlie quickly questioned the three who had kept watch.

“Nah! Plenty of critters in the woods, but no sign of any two legged varmints. It’s cold, though; brass monkey weather!” Jess quickly responded as he cupped his hands and blew into them.

“Get yerselves some coffee, boys; yer dinners coming soon. You got that stew ready yet, Paddy?” their leader called out.

“Just putting the dough balls in; can’t eat stew without dumplings,” the Irishmen answered his hands already covered with flour.

“Well get a move on,” Clint moaned. “Okay, Dave, Pauley, Cole, get out and take a scout around; we don’t want any surprises. I’ll come looking for you later.”

With that, the three others who had been slumped on their saddles and what had passed for furniture moved out. They exited after shrugging themselves into sheepskin jackets and one had a buffalo skinned coat which weighed the earth and was alive with fleas.

Once again, the door was blown open by the gusting wind which filled the rough cabin with eye smarting smoke. The door slammed shut at once, dulling the sound of the banshee screaming wind and the thunderous noise of the river.

Charlie coughed and spluttered as he looked around the sparsely furnished room, and thought of Jess and the problem that festered in the boy’s guts. He thought that Jess was, like many young men in love, following a dream, some fantasy that had no real substance, and like fog, would burn off in the harsh reality of the midday sun’s heat. This cabin would be the start of the rot; it needed more than cleaned out. It was not the place to bring a young woman from a prosperous ranch to.

The wind continued to moan its lament through the trees. Two Moons and Clint hunkered down in their blankets and leaned back on their saddles, they quietly smoked and told each other tall tales of bears they had hunted and had eaten. Charlie watched Jess; he had got himself a coffee and was now sitting at the rough-hewn table with his colt laid out on an oily rag. He began half-cocking it, working the ejector and dropping the cartridges one by one onto the cloth in front of him.

“You’re never finished working and cleaning yer piece,” Charlie remarked, “Never remember you being so particular in the bad old Army days; had to nearly kick you into doing it then.”

“Yes! I was a lazy young bastard. I ain’t going to be caught without my iron again and it’ll be clean,” Jess grimly replied as he cleaned each cartridge, which he had refilled himself.

“How will you get the news to her that you’re back?” Charlie asked.

“She’ll know I’m around after the way we broke a few heads last night in the saloon.” Jess looked up at Charlie and gave him a lopsided grin caused by a swollen and bruised cheek and jaw.

Jess turned to rubbing down and polishing the finely honed bone grip of his 45 and then began to continuously work the action; to make sure that it was perfectly sweet and as smooth as silk.

“So you’re going to meet up with her?” Charlie insisted on knowing.

“Yeah! I’m gonna to our place in the woods, hope it is as I remembered it. Just need to ask her why: I thought she loved me,” Jess said quietly as he reloaded his gun, flicking the gate with his finger.

“You sure she’ll be there? You know women,” Charlie remarked with a tired frown on his old weathered face.

“She’ll be there and that’s it, Charlie; I really don’t know women. I still cannot believe what she did,” Jess said sadly, as he cocked his iron and eased the hammer back down again.

“So you just want us to make sure none of her kin or her pa’s ranch hands are raking around?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah! Charlie, I don’t want them to get a grip on me again.”

Charlie could understand why. He had caught sight of Jess’ back, and although the scars were fading, he knew the boy would carry them to his dying day. He also knew the muscles in his shoulders were still tight; they had not loosened up yet, and they were still healing as Jess tended to hunch his shoulders now. It was as if he expected a blow at anytime; the boy had never held himself like that in the past.

Jess was now working his gun in and out of his holster, which was worn and slippery with use.

Charlie had watched him grease it and had heard that Jess was quickly gaining the reputation as a fast gun. He had a hard ride ahead of him, and Charlie could only wonder and pray for the youngster, who seemed to be prepared to ride right straight into the bitch wolf’s den without fear, confident of his own ability to win the day. He slowly shook his head; the graveyards and open range were full of the same type of youngsters who thought they were immortal. Charlie hoped that Jess would be as good as he obviously thought he was.

“I hear that she’s getting married soon,” Charlie went on as Jess now turned his attention to his old Henry.

“Yeah! I know; I got one of the saloon girls talking. There is going to be a dance and dinner for all the neighbors out at the ranch the night before. I’ll have seen her before then,” Jess said as he peered along the sight of his rifle looking for anything which could distract his eye. He removed a scrap of animal hair from it and could not think how it could have got there.

“So if it doesn’t work out, you’re still coming on the owl hoot?” Charlie asked.

Jess stopped wiping the barrel of the Henry down with the oily rag, looked up, and glared at Charlie. “I said I would. If she doesn’t come with me, you’ve got me and my gun, like I promised.”

“I need someone steady,” Charlie mused as he watched Jess who was now reloading his rifle.

“Guess so; you know best. Just need to see how things turn out. I have this place to fix up a bit in case she comes with me, so we’ll just have to hold fire on that.”

“It’ll take more than a greasy rag, boy,” Charlie remarked as he saw Jess take his rag over his knife.

“Ain’t that the truth?” Jess laughed as he pushed his knife back into his sheath, which was down the inside of his boot.

He then turned towards Paddy who was bending over a big pot that was craned over the fire. “Come on, Pad, where’s the damned dumplings?” Jess called out.

“Yeah! You keep movin’, Irishman; stay still, I eat you,” Two Moons joined in.

“I’ll help him,” Chris agreed.

“Yeah! And you can count me Charlie, Paddy, Dave, Parker and Cole in on eating your tough worthless whisky soaked hide.” Jess and the others laughed.

*****

The storm raged all night. The wind beat its wild wings against the stout logged walls of the ruined cabin and the rain came down the chimney, causing the fire to protest in uncontrolled spitting and sizzling. They tried to keep the gloomy space lit by flaming torches, which themselves flared and died down in the winds eddies. They had closed the shutters on the empty window spaces, and they added to the cacophony of noise with their continuous slamming and rattling. The whirling whistling gusts were filled with the sweet smelling odor of wood smoke, which along with the tobacco stench gave the place dim smokey visions of warped figures that seemed to change in the ever-shifting atmosphere. The gang occasionally choked and spitted as they gasped for air in the thick smoke reeked atmosphere of the cabin. It was as if a giant hand was grasping their faces and throats and was intent on smothering them.

The only thing that saved them was the draught that spun in from under the door and caused tiny dust devils to whirl and ballet across the dry dusty floor, bringing with them fresh air for their smoked raw throats.

Finally, they awoke to an eerie silence and a sunrise that was laced with watery fire, which tinted the big soft white wooly chunks of delicate clouds; shell pink. They in turn spun across the sky bathing their deep purple shadows across the high lands from one horizon to the other. The gang set off as one towards the Sinclair standing trees that protected the ranch house and steadings from the ravages of the North wind, and it was in these dark and shadowy forests that Jess hoped he’d find Marie waiting.

On the instructions of Charlie, the others peeled off to go and pick their cover to keep watch and guard against any uninvited visitors to Jess’ secret tryst with the hauntingly beautiful girl.

“This is far enough Charlie,” Jess whispered. The silence was making him keep his voice low. “I’m going to walk in from here. You’ll see to my horse? There is food in my saddle bag.”

“Sure, son; you take care now. Watch yer back. You know the signal if hell breaks loose?” Charlie murmured anxiously, as he peered in to the darkling depths of indigo shadows.

“I’ll be ok! See ya when I see ya and thanks,” Jess said

“Good luck, son. Go get her!” And Charlie smiled.

Jess turned to go and murmured more to himself than to Charlie, “I don’t know if I want her.”

“What was that you just said, you young devil? Don’t tell me you’ve dragged us all this way…” Charlie began to rage.

“It’s nothing, Charlie.” With that, Jess silently slipped through the shadows and into the darkness of the wooded cover.

He moved slowly, stealthily like a cat. He studied the moss covered spongy ground and softly stepped over and around downed branches. He knew standing on one could cause a crack like a rifle shot that would alert every creature whether it be man or beast that there was an intruder in the forest.

It was all becoming familiar to him again as he smelt the sweet pungent tang of damp earth and the occasional hint of wild anemone and orchid perfuming the still air. The woods were as verdantly dark as he remembered them. The trees were ancient and clawed for light as they thrust their branches skywards and interwove to close and make a canopy of patterned sunlight; which occasionally stuck fingers of light like swords thrust down towards the forest floor. Through these shards of intense sunbeams, the occasional bird skimmed through, with just a flash of lapis wings that stirred the still air and caused the tiny-jeweled insects to waver in the turbulence.

Jess felt his insides begin to quiver and a slight shiver ran through him as he realized he was not only excited but was also more than a little apprehensive at meeting her again. It had been almost a year since he had left her in the woods with all the hopes she would come away with him in tatters. Her father’s cruel beating had smashed his dreams out of him.

It had been Christie and the other drovers who had dragged him back to life. He knew his emotions were mixed. He was unsure of her and of her feelings, as she had never ever said that she loved him. He still felt very foolish, as he had worn his heart on his sleeve. He had told her of his longing and need for her and that he was he prepared to do anything for her. He felt that she had taken his heart and like a gift she did not want had torn it apart.

He had grown up in these months since then; he had lost his youthful innocence and trust which even the war had not managed to destroy. Nevertheless, he was excited as he had never forgotten the feel of her downy skin and soft warm body, with its mysterious and tantalizing curves and hidden warm places that offered so much pleasure. He remembered her lustrous catlike eyes with their fluttering moth fringed lashes. Her berry colored lips that were moist and warm and tasted of honey dripped fruit. He smiled as he remembered her playful anger when he had described her as a warm soft dove. She had shivered and melted like a newborn kitten into his arms and had deliciously tinkled with laughter as he had nibbled her fine jaw line, and kissed the nape of her neck. All the time he had drunk in the perfume of her lustrously cascading hair, and he had kissed and teased her, his lips had tickled her tiny shell like ears and he had whispered sweet silly dreams and nonsense to her.

He had completely lost his heart. His usual watchful caution was washed away in the flood of youthful excitement and confidence, as he allowed himself to be lured, trapped and taken by her father, the MacGregor and their ruthlessly viscous ranch hands. He would never forget, and already he thought he might be putting his head through the same noose. Could he ever wholly trust her again? He had been as good as his word as he had nearly died for her, and he was not sure if he could do it again.

At last, he saw her. She was sitting on the stump of a newly felled tree, and Jess could see the recovering undergrowth that had been torn apart by the tree being dragged away. She was not aware of him so he stood hidden in the shadows and drank in her picture like beauty. She had changed; her top hat, veil and velvet habit had gone, to be replaced by a divided skirt and fringed soft buckskin jacket. She wore boots of the softest leather, made by Jones of London, and her silk lined leather gloves were by Dents. He did not know this. He only knew she looked stunning. He knew no one else who looked as beautiful as she did in what was regarded as western garb.

He saw how she was even smaller than he remembered and she seemed to have lost her soft, round girlish looks. She could have easily been mistaken for a young boy, as she seemed to have the skinny and boney frame of a youth before he started to fill out. Her face was still beautiful with those dazzling clear eyes and moist lips, but her cheeks were hollow and her jaw line sharply chiseled. He began to move towards her and she heard and was suddenly aware of his presence.

“Jess you’ve come,” she called softly as she arose and moved towards him.

“Of course, you knew I would,” he gently replied. They stood close to each other, both of them frightened of putting their hands out to greet the other.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yeah, getting there,” he replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Jess. My father forced me to tell. He was going to…” was all she managed to say before Jess abruptly broke in with,

“Don’t explain; it hurts too much to talk about!”

“But Jess, you need to know,” she continued.

“I just know that I would have never done that to you,” he continued bitterly. “I would have done anything for you, and I probably still would, but I have had to pay a high price for knowing you. You never ever even once said that you loved me.”

“Oh Jess, please don’t hate me. Please hold me. You said you loved me, that you’d die for me,” she tearfully choked.

“Yeah! I know, and I nearly did,” was all he said. “You are still gonna marry him?” he demanded to know.

“Jess, I have no choice; my father has tried to kill you once. If he finds you again, he will. I know he will, and I think he would rather see me dead than married to you. I have no choice, I am so frightened,” she said.

“So where does that leave us?” Jess answered grimly.

“I want you to take me away. You once said you wanted to.”

“But why, Marie? You know I have only the rags I stand up in, a gun and a horse. Why would you want to now, after all that has happened, and after what you have just said?” he asked.

“Because I love you, my darling. I love you; you must know that. I have waited so long for you to come for me.” Slowly her eyes brimmed with tears, which spilled down and gently wetted her pale cheeks.

“That is the first time you have ever said that you loved me. Is it worth it now? Do you really want to see me dead? Your father hates me; he has even cut down the tree I carved our initials on,” Jess bitterly pointed out. “Where would we go? I don’t think we could run far enough,” Jess continued.

“I don’t care; I just want away. The Sisters of St. John would be better than staying here. I might even manage to get back home to Achiltibuie,” she spluttered out, convulsed in tears now.

Jess could take no more; she had finally said she loved him, but now he thought she was getting love mixed up with desperation and need. He felt so sorry for her; she had so much compared to him who had nothing, yet she was in torment. She was prisoner of her time. She was not allowed to choose the man she would marry, and she was not even allowed to be with the man she loved. She was like a beautiful exotic bird kept in a cage or kept chained to a perch. Pampered, fed, spoilt, kept beautiful, but never less like the heads of the magnificent beasts on her father’s walls, simply a trophy at worst, and at best a wonderful artifact to be traded. He gently drew her to him and held her shaking and melting in his arms. Her tears wetted his faded blue shirtfront and she clung to him and sought his strength and love.

Jess held her and suddenly he realized that the girl he was holding, who was clinging to him as desperately as if she were drowning was not the girl he loved.

She had been a shimmering dream, fading now in a golden mist of soft bittersweet memories. The girl he held now was like a stranger. The life, fun and joyous temptress was gone and the new Marie was merely a husk, a gray shadow of that gay delicious creature that had filled his senses and had stolen his heart. Marie was real; she was like a rose in a bed of nettles and did not belong out here on the frontier. Although he had loved her, she had not even, at her strongest, been able to defy her father. She had allowed him to be taken and almost killed. She was now so contrite and so unashamedly guilt-ridden.

He felt sorry for her but deep down in the depths of his soul he could not forgive her. She had caused the death of his young dreams and aspirations; they had foundered on her lack of real care and concern for him. She said that she’d loved him but was too frightened of her father to defend him. If her father had such a hold and control over her, why had she encouraged him and spun her web and ensnared him, knowing what her father would do when their affair came to light? He felt used, and thinking back he realized what a callow youth he had been, to allow a pretty girl to lead him around by the nose with the promise of a stolen kiss or a swift hug in the shadows.

He cringed when he thought of all the things he had promised her. How he had sworn and promised to love and protect her for as long as he lived. How he would ride to the ends of the earth for her, he would always be there for her, and he would carry her in his heart. Now as he held her and she clung to him, he felt trapped. She would never survive on the frontier; sharing her life with his would kill her. She had been a dream, his first taste of love — young idealistic, full of hope with no regard for the dangers or difficulties which would lie in wait to challenge them. He had dreamt of days filled with laughter, children and a life lived in the sun. He now realized that was all it could ever have been — a dream.

Her father had known that and had shattered that for them both. Picking up the pieces was impossible; it was as painful as having a bullet cut out of him or an arrow hammered through his flesh. He now knew she would never be his wife. There was nowhere he could turn a dollar to support her, and even more heart breaking was the fact he knew he no longer loved her.

She was still beautiful, but she had lost her dewy freshness, energy and life-giving sparkle that had attracted him to her in the first place. Not only that, he had been changed; the innocent, fun loving boy had gone. He had been cynically lost in the buffeting hardships of living hand to hand, jowl to jowl with the tough hard drover kind.

He had been cheated, beaten, lied to and his natural warmth and empathy had been taken advantage of. Jess had been forced to develop a hard impenetrable shell to prevent his vulnerable personality, which was so easily hurt; his innate kindness and gentleness was now well guarded. He had quickly grown up to be a man who could not abide fools, who was guarded and suspicious and who would never back down.

He always faced into the wind and never turned his back on any danger no matter where it came from. His growing reputation as a fast gun earned him a certain respect and protection, for men tended to walk soft around him. He had gained the ranks of the young hell-bound gunfighters, a result of a civil war that left many, like him homeless and roofless.

Jess’ dream of a life with Marie would have been the answer to his prayers as he sought somewhere he could call home. Now the harsh glaring light of reality dashed it; they may have shared a strong mutual attraction, which came with youth and first love, but it had, for him, died. When he had been faced with the truth of his position, he realized Marie was not from his world and he knew that he would never fit into hers.

Their foolish intense attractions had lasted all of seven months and their marriage, if it were ever to happen, would never have lasted. He continued to hold her trembling body close to his and he felt her heart pound in rhythm with his own. He felt an awakening feeling of despair wash over him as he felt that he had contributed to her misery with his youthful desire and pledge of undying love. He had opened his heart to her and had promised her the earth, sun and stars and she had foolishly listened and believed in his heartfelt declaration of love until death. She was now paying for all their youthful foolish hopes; as she realized that what they had dreamed of and fantasized could never ever be.

Jess lashed himself with contempt; she was falling apart in his arms because it seemed that he was about to turn and walk away from his promises. At that moment, he decided he would help. He held her close and began to plan what he would have to do to help her to escape.

Finally, she pulled away from him and he looked down into her tear-stained face, which carried a look of hopelessness and haunting loss. He now realized that she too had paid dearly for their dangerous liaison. Jess then decided to keep his word. He would find a way. He was determined to help her return to the East and maybe even her own folk in Achiltibuie.

*****

A Promise Kept

“Well where is she?” Charlie called out in a low voice as he saw Jess slide out of the shifting dark shadows.

“She’s gone back for now.” was all the young Texan said.

“So what now? Are we going on the owl hoot, getting away from here before they get wind of us?” Charlie asked anxious to be away.

“No, I’m going to go back for her.” Jess murmured.

“You want to die, kid? Do you think they will stand around and let you”? I thought you had learnt that they are serious; they don’t play around. They’ll kill you if they see you anywhere near her.”

“Yeah, I know, Charlie, I haven’t forgotten the last time they got a grip on me, but I just have to,” Jess murmured.

“Then in the name of the devil, why?” Charlie demanded to know as he leaned across his saddle and watched the young cowboy tighten the cinches on his horse’s rig.

“Because I made a promise.”

“What’d ya mean, you promised? We all promise the earth when we’re young and daft; don’t mean we have to keep them,” Charlie grunted with a shake of the head.

“Maybe for you, Charlie, that’s O.K., but not for me; I was brung up different,” Jess murmured.

“You need some sense knocked into you. Just seems you are asking for trouble. You’ll not be happy ‘til you get yourself killed,” the irritated older man said.

“Well, maybe you are right, but I’ve still got to help her,” Jess said to the older man, as he took of his Stetson, then wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and jammed his hat back on low over his eyes.

“Well what are you gonna do? Got anything in mind yet? She’s getting married in a couple of days; you’re leaving it a bit late,” the outlaw pointed out.

“I know, I know, now quit riding me, I’ve got to think. Will you still help me?” Jess asked anxiously as he pushed Traveler round as he made ready to mount.

“Suppose. I don’t think that you are that crazy that you’d take on all that crew on your own, but then you can never tell with you young ‘uns with no brains.” Then Charlie smiled. “Yeah we’ll help you; be something to tell my grandchildren.”

“You married, Charlie, got kids?” Jess exclaimed with surprise. “I never knew.”

“What! Me married? Are you mad? Women more trouble than they are worth. Just spoil a man’s life. Ain’t natural to be hog-tied to a woman,” Charlie said with a laugh.

“I think maybe you could be right.” With that, Jess swung smoothly into the saddle and gently kneed Traveler on. The horse twitched its ears back and moved easily forward, picking its way delicately through the mossed ferned floor of the forest.

*****

Two days later, Charlie’s gang were quietly making ready for their surprise visit to the Sinclair ranch, where the dance was to be held. The ranchers and neighbors from far and near had all been invited, and it seemed that all the population of the area was going to be all gathered under one roof. After much discussion and not without much argument, Jess had decided it would be safer to strike when all Sinclair’s friends and drovers were in one place.

He knew that he would find them all in the big main barn some ways of from the house. They would all be relaxed after eating well at Sinclair’s lavish spreads, which almost always caused the tables to collapse under the weight of food and the never-ending supply of expensive imported wine and malt whisky.

Sinclair prided himself on his generous entertaining, for in every other way he was a mean, hard man well known for his ruthless cruelty to man and beast. He did hold fast, however, to the old ways of highland hospitality, a tradition that guaranteed safety, food and shelter to anyone who came under his roof. Jess knew of this from the stories his old granny told him, and he was gambling on Sinclair’s highland pride to keep him safe.

*****

The gang worked hard at making their weapons ready, making sure that they had enough ammunition for their side arms, and even checking on anything that might be needed if the worst happened and anyone got shot. Paddy kept himself busy hunting and making sure that there would be enough food to tide them over until they could ride and find supplies.

Jess, however, scurried around like a hen that had lost its head. His only concern was to try to make the cabin as tidy and as clean as possible, because it was here that they would spend their first few hours together as they waited for the rest of the gang to return and regroup.

The cabin had been a substantial dwelling of its type in years gone by, but now due to the lack of use and neglect, it was almost a ruin. Jess had become more and more aware of this, and grinned to himself as he felt that it was as rough and unkempt as he was. They were well matched, for like the old cabin, which could just about keep the rain at bay, and with its earthen floor, glassless windows and its darkened smoke reeked walls, was not a place for a fair lily like Marie. Her fragile, porcelain beauty would be the only light in this hovel of darkness that Jess was planning on bringing her to, and maybe he was not the right match for a girl from a rich ranch house. Was his Spartan life one he could ask such a girl like Marie to share?

He was well aware of this and was anxiously planning of perhaps heading west towards Miles City or southeast towards Bear Creek to find somewhere more comfortable for them to hole up while her father’s men scoured the country for them.

He would have to hold fire to see if she would actually have the courage to flee with him. Would she grasp this opportunity to escape that he was risking his life to give her, or would she remain, rooted, cowering behind her mother, afraid of her father’s wrath, and the vengeance of her well-established fiancé the MacGregor?

He dismissed any idea of them having a future together now, as in this past year as he had grown up; he had come to realize what a romantic fairy tale they were chasing. He would, however, remain true to his word, and try and wrestle her from the clutches of her dominating father and a loveless marriage of convenience. All these thoughts constantly hammered through his head as he tried with little success to turn the tired old ramshackle cabin into a warm comfortable bolt hole for Marie.

Finally, as the sun was slipping behind the western hills and coloring the rugged land with its golden glow, the gang set off for the dance. Jess was anxious that they were going too early and they all would be discovered, but Charlie had reasoned that twilight came quickly, and cast deep purple shadows over the rolling landscape, where an army could move in and out of the shadows without ever being discovered.

“Hell!” he had exclaimed, “the Sioux have done it for generations.”

There was a new moon, and its slight feather form gave little light, the range was changed into an alien landscape, one of mystery and darkness. Jess had worked these ranges, and was familiar with them, he knew that the trail was well marked and would be easy to follow. It led them through stands of aspen and young oak, and twisted and snaked ribboning out ahead of them like a gray serpent.

The close-knit gang moved with practiced fluidity, like water around low-lying pebbles in a mountain stream, their approach was measured, and careful, and they saw nothing but the white-faced cattle; that slowly raised their heads to watch them as they rode past.

Charlie had listened to Jess’ plan and had thought that the youngster was taking an enormous gamble, but he also knew his men who, like Jess, had been molded in the furnaces of war. He knew that they were ruthless and would not hesitate to kill if it came to a firefight; he had every confidence in them, and knew that with Jess they were a force to be reckoned with.

Finally, they dismounted a little way of from the barn, which, was the only thing in the wide darkness that throbbed with light, life and laughter. The night was filled with loud raucous voices, which shouted to each other over the discordant music of a valiant country band. There was a clapping of hands; stomping of feet and above the merriment there could just be heard; the tinkle of glasses as toast after toast was proposed.

The atmosphere was one of gaiety, and exuberance as the ranching folk threw themselves into the celebrations, which would last until just before the wedding ceremony itself. It would continue immediately afterwards and the revelers would go on for days, certainly until the wine and food was exhausted.

The party sounded very relaxed, they never anticipated any threat to the celebrations and were confident in being guests at the biggest party since the end of the war; any attack at such a prestigious affair was unthinkable and would be the actions of a very brave man, or a very foolhardy one.

Charlie gave a signal, and his gang split up and slipped away to their preplanned positions. Clint and Dave moved silently and with panther-like agility climbed into the hayloft, where they took cover. They held their rifles at the ready so immediately had the revelers below covered in their crossfire. Two Moons left the horses that Jess and Marie would make their escape on, and led the rest away. Pauly, meanwhile, had found the gun belts and rifles unguarded on a trestle outside the barn doors, and on Charlie’s instructions, had thrown them down the well which lay in shadow over by the corral.

At last, they were all in position; the few windows, which were not barricaded, were all covered, and Paddy and Charlie, were left to guard the huge oak doors. The signal came that they were all ready and it was just up to Jess to make his move.

Jess stood looking up at the enormous forbidding doors and felt his mouth suddenly go dry. He ran his tongue over his lips and felt his senses spike with the rush of adrenalin. His stomach began to knot and he could feel the palms of his hand begin to sweat, and through his heightened senses, he heard the scurrying of rats along the side of the barn; running as they sought shelter from the intruders on their ground.

“Okay Charlie, I’ll see you later I hope,” Jess whispered softly, “and thanks.”

“Get going afore you change your mind; the horses will be waiting,” the gang leader replied and he gave Jess a friendly nudge on the arm.

With that, the young cowboy moved slowly with cougar-like grace towards the doors. He pushed them and they swung wide open; Jess was suddenly bathed in the silver light of a hundred or so hurricane lamps, and brightly colored Chinese lanterns. He stood a solitary figure, very still and silent against a background of a blue-black sky, lit by the Milky Way and Orions’ Belt.

He stood all unarmed and he stood all alone.

The figures that were burling around in front of him were suddenly aware of the cold air from the outside swirling through the heat-filled barn, and they turned to check the doors and saw him. They slowly stopped and pulled away from the dance floor to join the milling crowd around the edges. One by one, the musicians stopped playing and the crowd became hushed. As one they stared, unblinking, some eyed him with surprise, but mostly their intense glaring; narrowed eyes; sent a message of hostility and hate, to the young drover who had once worked alongside them.

At the far end of the barn, the whole Sinclair family and their many powerful friends sat around a laden table. They had heard the disturbance, and as one, they all turned around, with granite like faces, eyes hard and cold, glittering with malice, lips thin, snarling, feral and deadly, the tightly knit pack glared at him with murderous intensity as he moved forward to stand in the center of the dance floor.

Archibald Sinclair and the MacGregor slowly rose to their feet, and with deliberate aggression, walked towards Jess.

He saw a flash of heron blue; it was Marie, who ducking away from her mother’s restraining outstretched hand, swiftly and easily, moved in behind her father. Her mother quickly followed her, but was too late to stop her taking up position behind her raging parent.

“What do you come for?” Sinclair bawled out, his huge face already purple and florid with outrage. “Are you looking to fight?”

“I’ve come to dance; I’ll take a drink of your wine and step around the floor with the bride to be,” Jess said, his challenging voice loud and clear for everyone to hear. “Isn’t that the tradition? I loved your daughter, and you took it out of my hide. I think you owe me one dance for the blood I spilt.”

“Hospitality demands that I don’t harm you whilst you are under my roof, but hear me good. If tomorrow I find you on my range, I will kill you.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it, it will do. I will be waiting, so when you come for me, come like a man, alone, and I will fight,” Jess growled his voice rising.

“I’m not a gunman, and neither is MacGregor. I will be simply clearing the trail scum, and the vermin which you are off my property.”

“Well, this time I will not be on my own, and you will find how much we scum can deal out when there is enough of us,” the young Texan boldly vowed.

“Enough, Harper, you were always a hothead, just like your grandfather. Yes, Harper, I knew you as soon as I saw you. I let you work for me just to see if I was right, and I was right; you are just like old man Gunn. Our families were from the same flow country and we have fought each other for generations; you’ve inherited your hot blood through your mother. She was a lioness when she was roused, a true Sutherlander. Strange she married the Saxon Harper; I always thought she’d have stayed with her own kind. You’re a Gunn alright — take what you want, and fight to the death for what you believe in, and what is closest to your heart. That sound like you?”

“Yeah! And it sounds like you too! But you seem to be more successful than me,” Jess snarled, shocked what he had just heard.

“Give yourself time, laddie. If my daughter wants to step around the floor with you, so be it. After that, we’ll wait until after the wedding and then the hunt is up,” Sinclair threatened, his voice dark and low, sounding like the deep-throated growl of a grizzle marking its territory.

“And you MacGregor?” Jess called out, “do you hunt?”

“Yes! Bringing you down like a stag will be a pleasure,” the portly man boasted as he glanced around for signs of approval.

Sinclair turned towards his daughter and nodded. He then proudly went back to his table escorted by his wife and Marie’s intended beau.

The bride-to-be turned and she beckoned with her head, and one of the servants pushed through the crowd carrying a tray on which there was a crystal goblet, whose diamond like facets sparkled in the soft lantern light. Jess lifted the wine glass and saluting Marie with it, he kissed it, and then tossed the blood red wine to back of his throat. He smashed the goblet on to the floor leaving it in a thousand, stabbing shards, which he then crunched and ground into the wooden surface with his boot heel.

He turned to her, and gave her a slight bow as he held out his hand inviting her to take it. The band broke into a slow, sad melody from the old country, “My love is like a red, red rose”, a waltz, whose tale was of longing and loss, and those sentiments, could tear a lover’s heart out.

She was shaking slightly and took his proffered hand. He raised her delicate trembling one to his lips and kissed it. He drew her lightly to him, and gently led her slowly around the open space, circling like a shimmering mirage, which caused the watching crowd to catch and hold their breaths; at the sight of the starred crossed beautiful young couple.

He bent towards her and whispered in her ear, and she looked up into his face, her eyes glassy, and brilliant with unshed tears.

Slowly they turned in time with the music; Jess kept them turning away from the middle of the floor and eased them against the crowd around the edge, who all watched them with an intensity usually kept for a dangerous wild animal; that was on the hunt.

At last, they came to the top of the barn, just beside the huge doors, which were slightly ajar. Jess once again whispered in her ear, and she nodded her head. He dropped his hand and snaked his arm around her waist and then they bolted for the doors, and suddenly they were swiftly through. The big doors crashed closed, and vibrated behind them, and they were gone.

Within seconds, there was shouting and screaming, and there was an instant rush for the doors. The sound of gunfire blasted the dying music into silence, and there was warning calls from the windows and hayloft as the gang warned the wedding partygoers to remain quiet and still.

There would be no racing, chasing, and hunting this night. Charlie’s gang would keep them penned down, and then with the skill long learned from their soldering days, they would beat a silent and orderly retreat, to be gone, lost and their group swallowed up in the cover afforded them by the deep forests, and the deeper darkness.

*****

Breathless, Marie and Jess found themselves outside in the cold night air, and he wrapped his arms around her and she shivered as he held her.

Charlie, muttered under his breath, and Jess knew that they had no time to talk; they had to ride. He went to help her mount the bay that Charlie was holding, and immediately knew that they had a problem. Marie also realized what she had to do.

“We’ll have to go by the house; I need to change. I cannot get far like this. I also need to collect a few things,” she gulped out. She was still breathless from the excitement of the last few minutes.

“I know you must, but you will have to be quick and, and then we will have to ride like the devil,” Jess hurriedly said, now anxious to get Marie away.

“Jess, I don’t think…”

“You’ll be okay; I’ll be with you,” was all he said as he swung into the saddle. He quickly took hold of the reins and kicked his horse round; Marie’s bay followed. They both galloped the short distance from the barn and steadings to the ranch house.

Jess helped Marie to dismount, he gave her a reassuring embrace, and she smiled wanly and disappeared inside the quiet, dark building.

Jess cursed under his breath; as he bent down to feel Marie’s horses’ sole. He had seen how the big animal, with its eyes rolling and nostrils flaring had stumbled. Marie had somehow hung on, but the horse had slowed, and in the short distance to the sprawling ranch house, it had gone lame. Now, unless there was some kind of nag nearby, they would be forced to ride double. Jess despaired his troubles were mounting already. He still had not told Marie of his change of heart, and as time passed, he was finding it more and more difficult. He knew that he might never be able to tell her, as the thought of breaking his word sickened him. He would just have to come to terms with finding a way to live with someone he did not love. He had shackled himself to her with a promise, and he would stand by that.

At last after what seemed to have been an age, Marie came through the doors of the deserted looking, dimly lit house. She was dressed in finest buckskin and was carrying a small carpetbag.

“Come on, Marie, we’ll have to ride double; your horse has pulled up lame. I suppose there is nothing around we could take?”

“Jess, I’m not having you branded a horse thief; my father would hang you. We’ll just have to make do,” Marie said, suddenly sounding confident and strong. With that, she gave him her travelling bag and he secured it to his own meager belongings. Without saying another word, keen to be off, he cupped his hands for her, and handed her into the saddle. He swung up behind her and with the silver crescent like moon now sliding down behind the pine trees they set off for the cabin.

He wrapped his arms around her and found that it was as if he was holding a little girl. The woman that he had fallen in love with had gone, and all that was left of her was the delightful tang of her heady musk perfume and her cascading, luxurious hair. She was not as he remembered her or dreamt of her.

She clung to the saddle horn and the horse’s mane; and he could feel that she was shivering as if she had been abandoned out in the snow. They finally cleared round the corner of the bunkhouse, when Jess saw the door swing open to reveal a man silhouetted against the bright lights from inside.

He heard a shout, but could not understand what the man had yelled, when suddenly he felt as if a sledgehammer had been smashed into his shoulder and left arm. He was flung forward on to Marie’s’ back, and her screams caused the horse to panic. It stretched its neck forward, and started to gallop dangerously fast along the dark trail. Jess felt his body become numb, as if all the life force had been sucked out of him. He vaguely remembered hearing a faint shot and dimly thought that it sounded like a shotgun.

He had been lucky; his back had been partially peppered with buckshot and the second barrel had missed. Even so, when the initial numbness wore off, the pain would be immense and already he could feel the blood running down his back and begin to wet his Levis.

Marie continued to scream, and he could not comfort her, as he had no breath left. He struggled to lean forward and gathered the reins to shorten them; he finally managed to grab hold of them and then leaned back in the saddle, his legs braced forward as he tried to stop the headlong flight of the powerful mustang. The frightened horse flung its head up, and to the side as it twisted, fought the reins, and bit. Finally, it skittered and plunged around and stopped, still rolling its eyes in panic and blowing saliva back towards them.

“Jess, Jess you’re hurt,” she screamed out.

“Hush, I’m fine. We need to get back to the cabin.” Jess said through gritted teeth. He tried to suppress a groan as he urged the horse forward again.

The ride back to the cabin was a nightmare. Jess now had a frightened horse to contend with, as the iron smell of his blood was unnerving the animal. He also had to fight hard to keep himself in the saddle. He tried to concentrate on what Marie was saying, but all she seemed to be was upset about the old cook, who had almost killed her as he took a shot at Jess.

He thought about the old cook as well, and hoped that it was not the kindly old ‘Bob the butcher’, who had always spoilt him, and had seen to his hurts. It had been he who had tried to warn him off being enthralled by Sinclair’s beautiful daughter. It had also been Bob who had nursed his battered body when her father had taken his pound of flesh. He ached at the thought that it could have been the old cook that Jess had always thought of as a friend.

He bit his lip; he did not want to give into the pain that was tearing him apart. Marie was terrified as it was, and he did not want to add to her fears.

He just clung on with every scrap of strength still left in his body. Until at last; it was only his stubbornness, and the will to hold on when every bit of strength had gone; that kept him in the saddle.

The night seemed to be getting darker and colder; and Jess’ teeth began to chatter. He felt hollow inside and was aware of his heartbeat that hammered in his head, and in his torn back. He felt so cold; the blood, which he could feel, felt like ice as it ran down his back. His body was occasionally racked by fearful shudders, which he was unable to control. He could feel himself becoming weaker, and he prayed he would manage to stay on the horse long enough to reach the cabin.

Finally, he became aware of a sound, as if from a thousand miles away; it was the faintest whicker of a horse; calling out to its own kind. It could only be one of the horses left behind and was now fresh, and waiting to take Jess and Marie on their coming flight, away from the coming fury of Sinclair and his men.

He then heard faintly on the pine tasting wind, the sound of the raging river, and through his dimming eyes, the dark outline of the cabin came into view; against the lighter darkness of the star lit sky and shadowed forest. Jess had made it; against all odds,….he had made it.

*****

The horse slowly made its way to the water trough, at the side of the cabin and put its head down to drink. Jess was too exhausted to stop it and slowly slid out of the saddle and held on, as without its support, he would have crumpled to the ground. His legs seemed to be made of jelly and trembled with the effort of holding him upright. He grasped on tightly, his knuckles showing white with the effort, as his world of nerve, tingling agony began to tilt and slide away.

“Help me.” Jess weakly called out to Marie, who had managed to dismount and was now busy trying to undo the rawhide knots that kept her portmanteau in place.

“Wait, I have to get my bag,” she replied excitedly.

“Leave it.” Jess breathed.

“No! It has my money and jewels in it. We will need them to get back to Scotland.”

Jess leaned his head, and rested his forehead against the saddle as he dimly heard what she had said. He held on trying to gather enough strength to drag himself into the cabin. He groaned as all he had heard from this woman, who declared such love for him, was her anxiety about her money, and her plans for him and her to escape to that rain-lashed island that seemed to hold such magic for her.

He sighed, and then shuddered as another pain, like a bear clawing at his back, shot through him. He shook his head as the dark had become darker, tinged with scarlet stabbing light, he then saw the ground seeming to swell and was about to rise up and smash into him.

“Marie…,” he moaned weakly.

He then felt a strong arm go around him.

He looked up and dimly recognized the big round face of the ginger headed Irishman.

He did not know how long the night had been, but it was that time of year when the nights in the North Country were short. The moon and the stars had melted away with the coming of the false dawn, and Jess could see in the grey darkness of star set; the worried frown on Paddy’s face.

“Come on, laddie, I’ve got ye,” the big man said softly. “Yer lucky Charlie sent me after you when we heard the shotgun and no answering shots.” With that, Jess allowed him to almost carry him into the cabin.

“The ….horse….” Jess groaned.

“I’ll see tae ‘im after I’ve settled you,” the Irishman said with a horseman’s understanding.

Paddy sat Jess down on the chair at the rough-hewn table, where he could lean forward and support himself. He then went outside to deal with Jess’ horse. He came back in with the wind at his back, and Paddy then, without a glance at Marie, busied himself lighting the fire. He collected all the odd assortments of pots, pans, filled them with rainwater from the butt outside, already getting what was needed for the makeshift surgery, and clean up that Jess was going to need.

At last, he turned to Marie, who had made no effort to comfort Jess. She was sitting perched on a log beside the fire clutching her precious bag.

“Miss, have you anything we could use for bandages? We do not have enough, and Jess is going to need a lot of patching up. How about making some coffee, while I tend to him. Can you please help?”

Marie quickly looked towards Jess and as quickly turned back towards Paddy.

“I have a petticoat in my bag, you are welcome to that, but I am sorry you will need to tell me how to make coffee. I have never ever made any,” she confessed. “I do not think I would be of any help, as the sight of all that blood makes me feel faint. I just know that I would be sick.” With that, Marie went through to the makeshift bedroom, where she furtively opened her carpetbag.

Paddy shook his head and swore under his breath, as he quickly darted forward to catch hold of Jess as he began to slide off the chair towards the earthen floor.

“Hold on, Jess,” said Paddy as he gently lifted the wounded youngster and took him over towards the fireplace where he laid him down in the comforting warmth. He then went outside to collect the bedrolls, which he would make into a bed before the fire to make Jess more comfortable.

Jess drifted in and out of consciousness and was unaware of the others return. It was only when Two Moons finally arrived that Paddy and he began the torturous business of using their razor sharp knives to cut the lead shot out of Jess’ back. At times, Jess regained his senses, which jerked him into a world of searing, white-hot agony, which left him screaming and shuddering as he fought the hands, which were trying to hold him down. His body sweated with the ongoing approach of fever as they tried to pour whisky down him. He gagged on it, and spewed it back up from his protesting stomach, which left him gasping for breath. They used the red eye to cleanse the open bleeding wounds of his peppered back and arm. It was torture and Jess pleaded with them to stop, as he kicked and lashed out at them with the last of his failing strength.

Finally, with his wounds bound up with Marie’s fine lawn and lace petticoat, Jess fell into a fitful sleep, but even then, he occasionally called out as he turned; and twisted; and sought some comfort away from the pain. Marie sat and watched with horrified fascination, but made no attempt to go to the aid or comfort the wounded cowboy, who again was suffering for his efforts to try to help her.

Charlie’s tight gang were well seasoned and organized; being on the owl hoot trail they had to be to survive. They had laid up supplies and had killed game so the evening and next day was spent taking care of the horses, cooking and, more importantly, guarding the approach to the cabin, whilst Paddy and Two Moons tried to help Jess. The Indian concocted some kind of broth made from the rabbits which scurried around the woods outside. He added herbs and it smelt mouth wateringly wonderful, so as Paddy supported Jess in his arms, Two Moons spooned the nourishing soup down him.

It seemed to give Jess some strength for, as the day passed, by the time the early evening sun was beginning its slow descent into the west, Jess wanted help to get up. He insisted on sitting at the table. He wanted to fight against the pain and weakness and did not feel he could do that lying, wrapped up in his bedroll in front of the fire allowing himself to drift.

He needed to plan, as he would need all the help he could get because he knew that his wounds would make days in the saddle, trying to outrun the Sinclair outfit, impossible. He needed somewhere to hole up. He needed Charlie’s help. Some of his comrades from his army days surrounded him, and he knew that they did not wholly approve of his foolhardy adventure with the rich and beautiful Marie. They thought that he was risking all their lives for a runaway romance that could get them all killed. The tough outlaws were following Charlie’s lead, but they voiced their disapproval in their silence, and Jess had never felt so alone.

They were all extremely polite to Marie, but it was obvious that they did not trust her and they felt that she had little feeling for Jess. She had fluttered around a little, but it seemed that she could not bear to touch him. He was sick, in pain, but Marie was so emotionally crippled herself that she could not bring herself to share his pain or even comfort him.

All she seemed to say were sweet meaningless nothings, a continued declaration of her love for him. Jess heard her and feverishly thought that the words were for herself; it was as if she was repeating a mantra, persuading herself that she still loved him, whilst all her actions and body language screamed out, that that was untrue.

Her dream was dying; she did not know that, for Jess, it was already dead.

*****

She watched him from lowered eyes that glittered in the firelight, and in its’ warm light some of her youthful beauty seemed to radiate again. She watched as Two Moons helped him on with a fresh shirt, his only shirt now that the other had been shredded by shot. She saw the old scars and the enormous bruising that fringed the edges of her lawn petticoat bandage. She saw how slowly and carefully he moved, and how the sweat caused by the pain and fever made his skin glisten in the firelight. She knew that he would not be able to ride for days. She finally went towards him and sat down beside him. He had his arms cradled in front of him as he tried to control the occasional shiver that racked his body. She laid her hand gently on his arm.

“How are you feeling, Jess?” She softly murmured.

“I’m fine,” Jess mumbled.

“Jess, my love, listen carefully. I am going to ask if any of the others will help me to escape to the nearest railhead or stage stop. Please, do not argue; you’ll not be fit to ride for days, maybe even weeks.”

“No, Marie. I said I’d always be there for you, and I will, I promised.”

I know, my love, but you cannot. You could not even walk to that door. Besides, it will be safer for you if my father does not catch us together. Look what we have, or rather what I have done to you. You have paid an awful price for loving me and I am not worth it,” Marie tried to explain.

“But I thought that you wanted us to be together?” Jess said. This was what he had wanted to hear, but listening to her planned rejection of him and his way of life still filled him with agony.

“We could never be together. We come from different worlds; our differences would, in the end tear us apart. They have already nearly killed you twice. Please Jess, let me go, and you go on and live. We will always have last spring and summer. We did not have much time, but it will be enough and I will cherish the memories and never forget you.” Marie spoke so softly that, no one could hear, and as her words faltered, a tear slowly slid down her pale cheek.

“I’ll speak to Charlie,” Jess said slowly as he gingerly moved his arms and folded them protectively onto the table. His movements signaled to his body and the pain screamed from every pore as he lowered his head and rested it upon his arms.

He trembled and bit his lip in an effort to mask his feelings.

She had set him free.

She watched him sadly, as she saw how he shivered, and she turned around to look for his jacket. She found it flung on the floor against the wall; it was darkened with blood and in tatters. She looked up to see he big Irishman take a blanket from a bedroll, and flipping it open gently laid it across Jess, tucking it in around his lower back, legs and waist.

“Hold on son, you’ll be okay,” was all that Paddy said.

“Thanks,” was Jess’ weak reply.

*****

Supper was over and Jess sat and listened to Marie as she coquettishly appealed for help to get her to the nearest railhead or stage stop. So far, she had been unsuccessful, as out of loyalty to Jess, she had not found anyone willing to take her offered money and to help her.

Jess was beginning to feel a little stronger, although the pain was still immense; he seemed to have more energy and felt that soon he would be able to stand up. He would go outside and relieve himself.

He then planned to try to get the others to help her while he hid out and waited for his wounds to heal. He knew that Charlie would help him as he had in the past; for if, it had not been for Charlie and men like him, he would never have survived for so long.

He was just about to try to stand when the door was quickly opened and as quickly closed again. Dave had taken the first guard duty out in the woods, keeping a watchful eye on the trail for the vengeful Sinclair outfit.

‘They’re here!” was all he said.

“How many?” Charlie questioned.

“Couldn’t count, but the woods are full of them,” Dave said breathlessly.

“Didn’t take them long,” Cole pointed out.

“We’ve not been able to give them much of a run,” Charlie then went on bitterly. “They’ve ridden their luck; well, we have plenty of ammo. It is going to cost them.”

Even as he said it, they heard a voice calling out to them.

“Hello….the cabin.”

Charlie quickly ordered them to douse the lone lamp as he moved to peer out of the wooden shuttered window space.

“Am listening!” he called back.

“You can all go; my daughter is free to do whatever she has in her mind to do. I have come for Harper,” the bullish voice of Sinclair roared out of the twilight.

“Why do you think that we would trust you?” Charlie called back.

“You have my word. I have no interest in you. Macgregor has no interest in my daughter, and I am only interested in taking Harper. He has to take responsibility for all this. He went hunting where he should never have put a foot. My daughter was not for him and I will see to it that he never gets her. I aim to bury him here.”

“Charlie,” Jess called out weakly, “it’s over; I’ll go out and meet him.”

“No Jess,” Charlie said without ever turning to look at him. “He wants to kill you. I did not watch you struggle to survive the war to see you gunned down. Besides, I do not believe a word he has said. We will maybe be taken, but we will take a lot of them with us. These rich men they all think that they are Gods, stomping over ordinary folks like us.” Charlie spoke out angrily as his face became hard, flushed and full of rage.

“No Charlie, please,” Jess pleaded his voice low and weak, “this has always been my fight. He has wanted me dead from the beginning. Where’s my gun belt and iron?”

“Jess, let me talk to him, If he kills you, he has to know that he loses me,” Marie uttered, her voice trembling and full of unshed tears.

“No, I have just enough strength to try and outdraw him.”

Then Charlie turned and called for Jess’s rig and said, “If this is the way you want it, son, I’ll not stop you. I think that you should have let us shoot it out. We stand a chance; you do not need to do this.”

“I do, Charlie. I want to try and stop him. He has bullied and ridden rough-shod over me, my family and the whole territory long enough. He is not a king; he is only an old bull, and maybe if I can cut his head off the rest will fall into line,” Jess went on his voice gathering in strength as he put his thoughts into words.

“But Jess, you can hardly stand.”

“Long enough, Charlie; anyway I don’t have to stand, just shoot,” was Jess’ reply. “I want this over; no more blood or pain — mine or anyone else’s.”

Again the bullish voice came. Jess gingerly stood up and clutching the chair for support, he dragged himself towards the boarded up window space. He squinted through a small space between two rough-hewn timbers and saw Sinclair slowly begin to move towards the open space in front of the cabin.

“Well, Harper, you lump of trail trash. You got any guts for this. Or is it all Johnny Reb bull?”

Jess felt his face flush with rage and knew that the insults would keep coming as Maries’ father goaded him into a fight.

“Got my rig?” Jess breathed softly, and was then aware that Paddy was holding his gun belt out for him to take. Jess looked at him and smiled gently at the big kind man. “You’re going to have to help me, Paddy.”

“Sure, son, and who else would it be now, and it will be my pleasure,” came the answering Irish brogue, as the Kerryman strapped Jess rig around his spare frame and fastened the tie down.

Jess slowly pulled his iron from its holster and handed the Colt to Paddy. “Check the chamber for me, Paddy,” as all he said, and he watched the big man squint down the chamber, spin it, snap it closed and put it back into the holster for Jess.

“Loaded, Jess; will get the job done.”

“Fine, thanks. Remember, Charlie, I want no bloodshed, Sinclair’s or mine will be enough. Take care of Marie for me, please. Help her will you? It is the only thing I want. I’m sorry I’ll not been able to do it. You give your word?”

“Sure, son, I’ll take her to where ever she wants to go. I will keep my word as long as they keep theirs,” Charlie replied and went towards Jess.

“You need a hand to get to the door?” Charlie asked, as he held out his arm and got a hold of Jess to help him stand.

“Yeah, thanks Charlie.” With that, he turned towards Marie, who had stood white faced and silent throughout this last conversation. She knew that she was listening to a man’s world, where women had no voice or place.

“Marie, I’m going to try and give you a chance to get free from your family. Take it if you want to. Just remember that I kept my promise…no tears for me, please… save your strength for your journey home.” He gave her a smile and then with what was left of himself, he willed his body towards the door and the waiting guns.

They made it to the door with calls of good luck and other words of advice echoing in his ears.

“Get away from me and thanks,” Jess murmured, and he struggled to stand upright.

“No thanks needed, son. You’ll do,” was all Charlie said. “You ready for the door?”

“Yeah!”

With that, Charlie quickly opened the door, and Jess lurched and steadied himself against the lintel for support. He then forced himself upright away from the door and kept the wall at his back in case he needed it. He stood shakily and finally managed to stand legs apart, right arm bent and away from his body, his hand hovering over his iron ready to draw.

He watched with arrogant intensity, waiting for the older man to make his move, and even as he did so, he suddenly felt a body hurtling into him and throwing its arms around him, causing him to stagger back. His world was filled with the flash of the flamed explosions of a 30.30, and he gulped in the cordite stinking air.

He was flung back against the logged wall behind him, and as his body slipped down its roughness, it dragged at the blood stained bandages on his back. He sat and leaned against the rough wood, his legs splayed out in front of him and Marie lying in his arms.

He held her close to him and as he looked down at her. He saw to his horror the flowering poppy headed crimson stain in the middle of her chest with its tell-tale blackened center.

“Marie, why?” he whispered, and then in an agony of grief, he lifted her gently against him, and buried his face beneath her chin as her head fell back. She arched her back as the pain knifed through her and he kissed her passionately and drew her even closer to his chest. He began to rock her backwards and forwards as he fought the madness and despair that welled up in him and tore him apart.

She weakly opened her dimming eyes and her bloodstained mouth gave the smallest of smiles. “I love you.”

She became still. He did not see her or feel her body gradually sinking against his, as hot tears blinded him and ran down his cheeks. He buried his face once more into her sweet smelling hair and sobbed.

From afar he heard shouting, and horses neighing and the clacking of iron shod hooves as they came driving towards him. His world was full of darkness and tears, as he felt himself become numb and begin to shiver. He wanted to scream out at the coming night, to hold back the gathering darkness. He wanted to tear into the men who were now surrounding him and Marie. He wanted to howl at the dying sun, he wanted to die, he should have died, and he had steeled himself and was ready to die. He had failed her, he had doubted her, because she did not seem to feel like he did, because she had changed, had lost her girlish softness and charms, he thought he had lost her and so he had let her go.

He was finally aware of hands lifting her from him.

“Let her go, son; her father wants to take her home. It is over,” a voice said from away of.

More hands gently lifted him to his feet and his legs buckled under him; they felt hallow, without strength, unable to take his weight. The clearing, the forest and the wranglers seemed to swell into an enormous size and as fast shrink back to nothing, as the pain began to claw at him. He felt as if his head was about to explode and a tightness like an iron band squeezed his chest and he fought and gulped for air. He hung between them like a lifeless body without bone or spirit as they dragged him into the cabin.

They poured whisky down him, they spoke words that did not register with his dying soul and they finally bedded him down in the back room that Jess had made comfortable for Marie and himself.

The wild flowers that he had picked and put in an old chipped enamel jug were still fresh and filled the room with their sweetness.

They covered him up with blankets and left him alone, shivering in the dark, with his memories and his guilt.

*****End*****

Acknowledgements, to Barb Taylor, Gail and all my other friends who have goaded me on over a very rough passage….and to all the ladies who read the first part of this story and wanted to know: What happened in the end?”,

Also to Sir Walter Scott, who lived just up the road from here and whose heroes and writings have always inspired me.

May also recommend the book ‘Highland Cowboy,’ that gave me much of my background.

All the mistakes of which they are many are mine…..and remember this is a work of fiction; “none of it was ever real,” quoted from our cowboy in March.

Finally; of course to the real Jess Harper, the very real cowboy, Lord Fuller of Lochaber.

Return to Effie’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.