Renegade (by Effie)

 

Summary:  Jess turned and tipped his hat back and walked over into what was to become a nightmare…the worst he’d had in years.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   21,389


 

“Whoa boy…hold up…whoa.” Jess cursed as he sat down hard and eased up his grip on Traveler; immediately, the big horse stopped. He had cast a shoe. “Damn and blast, what now?” Jess thought. “More trouble.”

He eased his weight onto his right side, resting his left, which had taken much of the beating he’d suffered that day, doled out by trail hands that he’d ridden and fought with not that long ago as friends, down in Texas.

They had joined the Confederate army together during the brutal last years of the war. Jess had been wounded, and when he had recovered, he returned to his unit and they had met up again, only to be captured. When it was finally over, they’d stuck together, living hand to mouth during those hard bitter months after the war, sometimes by their wits, sometimes by their guns, sometimes within the law, but more often on the other side. He’d not seen hide nor hair of them since he’d decided to ride northwest to try and get away from the hurt and anguish which was the South and his own ever-quickening slide into lawlessness, which had led to nothing except a spell in prison. Which still gave him the occasional nightmare. And now, even more likely, an early grave as his reputation as a fast gun spread. He made it into Laramie and had been there — was it 10 months already? Time was flying — ever since.

Today, he thought, had started really well. He had found Andy wondering what to do with the huge rat that had got into one of the cages after food. It was too good a chance to miss; they cornered it and Jess, after great fight with it — which had had Andy screaming — had taken it into the kitchen and put it in Jonesy’s big pot which he used for making the “Mulligan”. He and Andy had then sat down to breakfast, waiting for the explosion which they gleefully hoped would come; they had not been disappointed. The almighty crash of pots and pans, the shouting and cursing caused the pair to erupt in howls of laughter.

“Why, you no good saddle-bum,” Jonesy yelled, as he came out of the kitchen, wielding a skillet, which he had swung at Jess and had caught his left elbow as he flung it up to protect his head. “Whipping’s too good for you; not a day passes when you’re not causing a ruckus. Wait till Slim gets home. I’ll tell him! He’ll kick you down the trail, faster than a skinned cat.”

Jess couldn’t answer, gasping with pain at the crack on his elbow and choking with laughter. He and Andy lit for the door; Jess, grabbed his hat and jacket as he made a crashing exit. The two of them clung to each other in their mirth, almost pushing the hitching rail over, helpless with laughter. They could hear Jonesy shouting insults and threats as Jess went to climb into the buckboard to go into Laramie for supplies. He been left in charge to take care of business, and he thought, perhaps Jonesy was right about him being an irresponsible, immature idiot with a short temper, lightning reactions and the strength to back up his aggressive nature. He also had a big mouth, which he didn’t seem able to control and which got him into all kinds of trouble. Today, he’d not said anything; the rat had done the talking.

*****

Jess had been working on the Sherman Ranch 10 months now, and he knew that Slim and Jonesy still had their doubts about him, as they realized that Jess’s past was dark, full of violence, death, and hurt. Slim was also worried about Andy, who hero-worshipped Jess. He loved Jess’s easy- going, boyish ways from the start. Jess loved to torment and play; he poked fun at Slim’s ramrod, stern, and upright manner. Jess knew that it would probably come to a head one day; there’d be a showdown and he’d either be accepted for what he was or he’d be hitting the trail again. Jess didn’t really want that; he enjoyed being part of the brotherhood and only hoped the Jonesy and Slim would realize that, for all the banter, the ruckus and the trouble he could cause, he worked hard, fought hard, and would always be there for them, in whatever way he could. He knew, however, that if it hadn’t been for Andy, he’d probably have been down the trail some time ago.

Yes, that had been the start of what was turning into a bad day. He’d shot through the door, grabbing his stuff and found his gunbelt was not there. He’d left it, as he didn’t want to cause any more aggravation for Jonesy. He was only going for supplies, a quick drink as they were loaded, and back. He had his rifle under the seat so he didn’t think he’d need his iron.

Everything was going to plan. He’d loved the early morning drive into Laramie. It was a wonderful, autumn morning; the sun still had a little warmth in it but the air, held a frosty freshness that sharpened the senses and cleared the head. He’d left the order at the store and headed for the Sheriff’s office, where you could always get a coffee whether Mort Cory liked you, or not. Slim had wanted him to drop in and tell the Sheriff that he’d be at the Army outpost for a few days, helping out as their blacksmith who had broken his hand in a brawl, with some work that needed doing. Slim was in the local volunteer group, which Jess, being new to the area, was unsure of. Slim had felt obliged to go and help, especially as the young Sioux braves were beginning to range outside of the reservation, and the cavalry were busy rounding them up and forcing them back.

Mort had eyed him with some distaste. He didn’t like the way Jess usually carried his gun so low and tied down and he had few words for him. Jess felt the same way, as being around a lawman always made him feel guilty and edgy.

“No gun today, Harper?” asked Mort.

“No sir, I’m not planning on running into trouble.”

“That’ll be a change! What happens if trouble runs into you?” Mort enquired.

“Well, I just hope that you are around to save my sorry hide,” replied Jess.

“Yep, son, we’ll see.” Mort then returned to his paper work. With that, Jess left the office and wandered down the street into the saloon.

The saloon was, as always, buzzing with the conversations of the various cattlemen, ranch hands, horse wranglers, towns folk and the odd drifter. It was smoke-filled, with the pungent odor of hand-rolled cheroots, and the odd expensive cigar. Jess felt his eyes begin to water with the dense atmosphere after the frosty freshness of the early morning drive. He leaned against the bar, ordered a drink, and downed it with a grimace as the fiery liquid hit his stomach. He ordered another, then glanced up into the big mirror behind the bar. His heart started to race as he saw his old compardres — all eight of them — lounging around the big table in the corner. He pulled his hat down fast over his face and kept his head down. Maybe they wouldn’t notice him as they were busy joshing with two of the saloon girls; their usual banter made him realize that maybe he had not changed that much He still belonged with them, rather than on the Sherman Ranch.

“Jess! Jess Harper ……is that you?”

“Can’t be! He’s not packing.”

“Must be a first! Never seen Jess naked before.”

With that Jess turned and tipped his hat back and walked over into what was to become a nightmare…the worst he’d had in years.

At first, there was much hand shaking, back slapping, and laughing, as they talked of the old times and laughed at the trails they had ridden, the barrooms they had wrecked, the towns they had been chased out of and the ruckus they had caused all over the southwest. They had been like a lot of young men after the war, finding it difficult to adjust to peace. It was a hard lesson to take: they were only wanted around in times of trouble; there was no real place for them and their wild reckless ways in peace. What had started out as mad fun slowly slid into lawlessness. For now, it was forgotten as there was no mention of the killing and the robbing, of the agony of slugs being cut out, the misery of riding hell for leather through all weathers for the border with a posse after them. At last the light hearted banter took on a serious turn, as what they were doing so far north came into the conversation.

“We’re looking to collect some money to see us over the winter,” said Charlie, the leader of the gang.

“Yea, some nice fat, juicy banks here around,” went on Dave.

“A stage coach run to sort out,”

“Plenty of ranch houses, with brick-lined holes in barns just ripe for the picking,” Cole said with a grin.

“You can’t be serious,” said Jess, shocked at what he was hearing. “These folks live hand to mouth. They work like dogs, fight the Apache, have a constant battle with the weather. Your raiding would wipe them out.”

“Why, have you become one of them?” Charlie enquired with a mocking smile.

“Yeah, I suppose I have. I’d like to think I have. I’m happy and I like being settled. I can sleep at nights; I’m not wanted anyplace. I don’t have any gunslick trying to make his reputation calling me out in the street.” Jess suddenly felt a feeling of warmth as the truth finally hit him. He liked ranching, loved working with horses, being part of a community, even though it was country and small. Best of all he felt that he had been being accepted into the Sherman family; he belonged. He had friends, especially Slim, who would ride the river with him. He didn’t have to ask. He just knew he would. He would always be there for him.

“So we can’t get you to take up your gun again and ride with us? We’re going to be busy and could do with you.”

“No!” said Jess. “I’m finished with all that.”

“Say! Where are you working anyway?” asked Cole.

“I’m cow-punching, a ranch hand. I work on the Sherman Ranch, a small spread. It’s also a relay station so I’m always kinda busy,” replied Jess.

The others became silent and furtively glanced at each other.

“Would that be Slim Sherman’s place?” Charlie quizzed him.

“Yeah,” Jess replied.

“Well, we’ve come for him as well.”

“Why?” asked Jess, dreading the answer. He felt coldness well up in the pit of his stomach. He could not believe that Slim could ever have had any dealings with the likes of Charlie. He was too straight and honest to ever have any truck with the Texan gang. He was always amazed that he had so much time for him and his aggravation. Slim had always laughed and called it Harper trouble….said the place would not be the same without it.

“Well, Jess, we took our kid out on the owl hoot, year and a half ago south of Denver; ran into a fight with a posse and this big blonde guy shot young Ben down, never gave him a chance. A rifle shot took him clean outta the saddle. Never knew what hit him. He was only seventeen, on his first ride. We’d got clean away…were leaving the posse for dead. You know how we like our horses, fast and fit. It was a lucky shot. I vowed to get the big guy then.” Charlie told Jess the tale, his voice full of bitterness and hate.

“How d’ya know it was Sherman?” Jess asked quietly.

“Not many really young ranch owners with a relay station who joins posses, and keeps his hand in with the army, a right upstanding citizen. He was easy to track down,” went on Charlie.

“Are you becoming a right upstanding citizen …and law abiding?” sneered Cole.

Jess ignored the jibe.

“Do you know him?” asked Peter. He had a cunning smile and Jess knew from before he was a dangerous hombre. He didn’t say much but always seemed to ask the right question.

“Yeah,” said Jess. He put his head down and at first didn’t know what to say. “I work for him,” he answered and looked challenging at them.

“Well now, how’s that for luck. This will be easy. Where is he? We know he is not at the ranch; the stage driver told us he’d gone away.”

“Dunno,” replied Jess.” He’s the boss, doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Sure he doesn’t,” snarled Cole accusingly.

“You’d not tell us, anyway, would ya?” said Charlie, his face turning red with temper.

“Yeah, that stubborn streak is gonna get him killed one day,” quipped Cole.

“Come on, Harper, spit it out,” snarled Charlie, his face full of threat.

“No, I won’t say. I take his pay, I eat at his table….I owe him,” said Jess. “That’s not being stubborn.”

“What about us? Don’t you owe us?” asked Charlie.

“No, I don’t see it that way. When I left, you crossed the line for keeps and I didn’t want to follow,” replied Jess, knowing that this was only the beginning.

“Well, it’s a damn shame it’s going to end as it must; we’ve had a real nice visit. You won’t throw in with us and you won’t give up your boss Sherman,” Charlie sadly shook his head.

“No, I guess not,” replied Jess, tensing up for what he knew was to come.

It came, and it came fast. Charlie landed a haymaker on the side of Jess’ face, which decked him. The attack was sudden and total. He lay on the saloon floor, shook his head and tried to get his wits about him. Hands grabbed both his arms and dragged him to his feet. Cole hit into him with glee, a crushing jab at Jess’ jaw, which sent him reeling back. Jess pushed back hard, he tried to raise his legs to kick Cole in the groin, but a rabbit punch knocked him almost senseless. One of the others put his head down and started to use Jess’ ribs and stomach as a punching bag. Jess gasped and started to wretch and the others started to laugh. They let him go and he slowly folded and slipped onto the blood and beer stained floor.

“Where’s Sherman? We can keep this up longer than you!” Someone kicked him viciously in his side, then stomped on the middle of his back. He arched his back and was again kicked in the ribs.

“Go…to….blazes,” Jess just managed to gasp out.

He felt his side being kicked again. He rolled away to take another blow to his lower back and felt someone stomping on him again. They dragged him to his feet and then a blow to his face threw his head back and split his lip. Blood splattered down his shirt. He spat out a mouthful of blood and felt that he was going to be sick. He slowly drew his legs up towards his chest as he curled up around the pain in his body.

“Had enough? Ready to tell us? We’ve only just started,” snarled Charlie.

“No! You’ve just finished.” It was Mort Corey, the sheriff, and his deputy Billy Tait.

“Leave him!” snarled Corey as he lifted his shotgun and he waved it in their direction.

“There’s more of us; fancy the odds, sheriff.”

“I’ll cut you in half.” Mort watched and waited as they slowly backed away and moved towards the door.

“Right, leave him be and get outta town,” threatened the sheriff. Jess heard and saw nothing as he lay unconscious. The crowd, who’d backed off, now gathered round to look at his bloodied body.

“Come on Billy, give us a hand. We’ll take him over to the jail and get Dr. Broxton to check him over. Damn young fool! Have you gotta hold on him?” With that the sheriff and his deputy took Jess across to the jail. Nothing unusual about that, as many of Jess’ trips to town ended up in the sheriffs” office. Not always to drink his excellent coffee.

*****

Jess finally woke up. He rolled over and groaned; he was in a cell. Billy was cleaning up the vomit and blood of the floor. Mort was bathing Jess’ face, getting rid of the smears of blood, which hid most of the bruises.

“Should’ve come packing, boy; you never stood a chance. Told ya,” Mort grumbled.

“Damned young fool.”

“Mmmm…….argh,” was all that Jess could get out.

“Now rest easy, son. You’ve broke nothin’; just got yerself a mite banged up. You’ll be O.K. in a day or so,” Mort explained as he continued to clean Jess up.

“Mmmm…” moaned Jess as he lay on to his side, curled his legs up and hugged his ribs, trying to find a more comfortable position for his bruised and battered body.

“Gonna be a long day; it’s not ten o’clock yet,” remarked the deputy.

“Yeah. For him maybe,” Mort replied.

“Sheriff,” gasped Jess and he reached out with his hand. “There’s something you gotta know.”

“Not now, son. You gotta rest and I’ll get to you later.” With that, the sheriff turned away.

“But, sheriff, please listen,” Jess gasped out weakly.

“No buts; we’ve got to go. You try and give yerself time to come round proper. We’ll be back soon; just want to see if your pards have left town.” With that, Mort and his deputy picked up their rifles and exited the door.

Jess lay there, curled up. He tried to find the strength to get up. He had to get back to the ranch. Get Jonesy organized and pick up his horse and guns. He wasn’t going to let Charlie and his gang raid and ruin the area. It was his home, or was fast becoming his home. It was where his new-found friends lived. He cared too much for them to allow Charlie to destroy it all. He also had to protect Slim; he’d didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of out gunning Charlie. Jess wasn’t that sure that he did either but it was a chance he was willing to take. He’d have to try and get himself together, as at the moment he could hardly lift his head, never mind lift his gun. He drifted off. He tried to relax and let his body rest and maybe get some strength back. He’d a long way to go.

*****

A barking dog awoke him as the stage lurched into Laramie. Jess didn’t know how long he’d been out. He ached all over but he felt better. He tried easing himself up but the cell tipped up and swung round. He sat down again, closed his eyes until the waves of dizziness had passed. He finally tried to lever himself upwards by grasping hold of the bars of the cell. His breath came in short, pain-filled gasps, but at last he was standing and he was beginning to feel stronger. He gave himself a few minutes, and thought of what he’d said to Mort just a short time ago. Yeah, the sheriff had saved him from a severe beating as they had only just got started. Jess wondered who had gone for the sheriff and who had told him about his relationship with his old gang. He seemed to know all about it. Jess knew he had some explaining to do when he next ran into the lawman.

Jess then went unsteadily out of the cell. He smiled ruefully to himself. He’d never been in a cell before that hadn’t been locked. Even so, he still hated the feeling, the whole smell of the place — vomit, piss and carbolic. It was sordid and made him feel filthy inside and out. He’d explained all this to Slim as he’d told him bits and pieces about his life on the drift. He went over to the potbellied stove, with its wonderful smoky smell and comforting heat. Would there be any coffee? Would it be hot? Yes, he was lucky on both counts. It wasn’t as hot as he’d have liked, which was just as well, as it was still hot enough to send a shooting pain through his split lip. This was where most of the blood, which was dry now and which had stained the front of his shirt, had come from.

He looked around for his hat. It was on Mort’s desk. He reached for it and carefully put it on. He pulled it well down over his eyes as he tried to hide the bruises which he could feel and which were now beginning to show. He walked slowly and gingerly towards the door. He looked out over towards the store and saw the buckboard and horse waiting for him. The horse was dozing, its weight being taken on its three legs as it stood with its head down and enjoyed the sun on its back. He walked slowly along the boardwalk. Frank the store keeper, must have been keeping an eye out for him, because he came hurrying across the street to meet him.

“You OK, Jess? You look like you’ve tangled with a bear. Need a hand?” The kindly man asked.

“Thanks, nope. Don’t think so, just keep an eye on me in case I fall,” replied Jess trying to smile.

“Well, everything is ready. Do you think you’ll be O.K.?”

“Yeah. Horse knows its way back. I’ll take it easy.”

They reached the buckboard and Frank gave Jess a steadying hand as he painfully heaved himself onboard. Then the old storekeeper untied the reins from the hitching post, organized them, and passed them back to Jess. “I’ve given him a hay net and he’s been watered so you don’t have to worry about him.”

“Thanks,” said Jess. I owe you.”

With that and a couple clicks from the side of his mouth, Jess got the horse going and the buckboard moved off. Jess touched his hat in goodbye and headed for the Sherman Ranch.

*****

After an uneventful and uncomfortable trip, he pulled up in the yard. Andy came racing out, and when he saw Jess bent over holding himself, he rushed back indoors for Jonesy

“Dang, blast ya! Can’t even go over a few supplies without causing a ruckus? Now you’ll take to your sack for days and leave me and Slim to do all the chores. Soon as I saw you with your card tricks and greased holster I knew you were trouble. Slim must be mad keeping you — he should throw you off the place, you no good son of a…!”

By this time, Jonesy was up alongside the buckboard, and his anger died as he caught sight of Jess’s face, his blue eyes clouded with pain. His tanned face had paled and it had a pinched and gaunt look.

“I know, Jonesy, and whipping’s too good for me,” murmured Jess.

“Come on, son; let me help ya down,” said the old man.

“Andy… will you…see to the horse… and saddle Traveler for me?” asked Jess.

“Sure, Jess,” Andy replied.

“You’re not going into town like this? Can’t you let things lie till you are in better shape?” said Jonesy, beginning to get angry again.

“No, Jonesy, is not that. Look, I haven’t got the time or the strength to explain and argue. Let’s get inside and I’ll tell you. I don’t want Andy to hear,” was all that Jess said.

Jonesy tried to help, but Jess, tried to prove he was stronger than he looked, and shook his kindly arm off. “Don’t baby me, Jonesy; just get me a coffee please,” said Jess.

The coffee came up, hot, strong and fortified by the stuff kept for medicinal purposes only. Next came a bowl of Mulligan, and fresh biscuits. Jess tried, but couldn’t get the food down.

“You must be feeling bad; it’s serious when you can’t eat,” Jonesy said, and he looked worried.

“Listen, Jonesy, let me tell you before Andy gets in. I “vet got to get to Slim. He’s going to be in danger, and I also have to warn Mort Cory.”

“How can Slim be in trouble? He is with the Army,” said Jonesy.

“Just believe me. I haven’t the energy to argue with you. You need to get to the next ranch and get them over to help as I may be a way for a few days….I don’t know.” said Jess.

“Yeah, I’ll see to it, don’t you worry,” said Jonesy. “Now, let’s have that shirt off and I’ll get some of my liniment on ya. That’ll help.”

Jess wasn’t convinced it would as it hadn’t in the past, but it would make the old man happy. He cringed as Jonesy smeared the foul concoction onto his bruises. Jonesy kept it away from any broken skin. He knew, from personal experience, that it would be unbearable.

Jonesy was shocked and worked in silence. He’d never really seen Jess totally naked before, and he was taken aback, not so much at the state of the new bruises, but at the old scars, evidence of a very hard life on the trail.

Jess did indeed carry a lot of scars. There was a pale evidence of a whipping he’d endured. There were marks made by flesh wounds, faint stitched-up knife wounds, cauterized bullet holes and may be, even worse, very, pale evidence that someone had tried to hang him. Jess picked up on his silence and looked at Jonesy, his eyes bright with anger and humiliation that someone else had now seen the evidence of his violent past. “Now you know, Jonesy,” said Jess.

“Yep, Jonesy replied, but didn’t pass any further comment. He didn’t ask any questions as to how Jess had come by all these old injuries. He felt sorry for the young man. Jess was not long out of his boyhood, which showed in so many ways; he was strong and hard, but there still was a lot of the kid about him.

“What did the other fella look like?” asked Jonesy.

“Not a mark on him,” replied Jess.

“How come?”

“There was more of them and they held me down,” sighed Jess.

“He must have had some fist to do all this.”

“They used their feet,” Jess replied.

“The rotten bastards! Why, Jess? What did you say?” Jonesy was shaking his head as he helped Jess on with a clean shirt. He’d noticed the huge bruise on Jess” left elbow stretching up and down his arm and suddenly and guiltily he remembered that this was down to him.

“That was just it; I said nothing. Jonesy, will you get me my gunbelt and iron, please, and a box of 3030’s? I’ll have another coffee, and then I’ll be going. Sure you’ll be okay? Will you be able to get some help? There’s that north fence needing sorting, you’ll not forget? The stock will be all over Wyoming if it’s left,” said Jess, beginning to worry about leaving the spread so vulnerable.

“Don’t teach your ma to suck eggs, boy; you’re beginning to sound like a rancher and one Slim Sherman is more than enough. I don’t need two.”

“Don’t make me laugh, Jonesy; I’m too sore,” grinned Jess and smiled as Andy bounced through the door.

“Travelers ready Jess. Can I come? I can help you.”

“No, Andy. Jonesy will be here on his own for a bit and he needs you. Slim would want you to stay and take care of everything. They’ll be other times when I’d love to take you and will need to take you.” Jess looked up over Andy’s head and saw Jonesy nod and smile. At last, he’d said something right.

“You promise, Jess?” asked Andy earnestly.

“Yeah,” said Jess, “we’ll shake on it.”

With that, Andy grabbed Jess, around his middle, causing Jess to grit his teeth to stop himself from yelling out with pain.

“Here, Jess, your gun; I’ll help you,” said Jonesy as he watched how slowly, Jess buckled on his gunbelt. He didn’t fail to notice the sweat on Jess’ face, and how his hands trembled ever so slightly. Jonesy bent down and tied Jess’ holster down on his thigh, knowing that Jess wouldn’t be able to bend down and do it himself.

“Thanks, Jonesy, for everything,” said Jess huskily.

“Well, you ready? More coffee? Something to eat for the trail? No? Okay? Andy, let’s help him get started.”

With that, Jonesy turned quickly away. He picked up Jess’ jacket and gently, even tenderly, helped him into it. Jess knew what he was thinking, but didn’t know what to say that would help the old man, who was obviously thinking, that he’d not see Jess alive again. “Don’t take on, Jonesy. You’ve always called me a wild cat. Don’t you know I’ve got nine lives?” Jess joked.

“Yeah,” replied Jonesy quietly,” and how many have you used up?”

*****

Jess left the ranch; he made as much speed as his body would allow as he rode for Laramie, and the sheriff. He was desperate to warn him about the Texan gang of which he had once been a willing member.

He finally got into Laramie, but it was already too late. The bank had been held up not long after Jess had lit out for the ranch. The teller had a bullet through his side, the manager was concussed, and three of the townsfolk had flesh wounds. God, thought Jess. It was a miracle no one had been killed.

All were shocked and angry, and some were already pointing their fingers at Jess, accusingly, saying his beating was to distract the sheriff and deputy away on a wild goose chase as the gang split into two. One half had the sheriff hightailing after them, while the others circled back and took the undefended bank.

Jess was aware of the unfriendly looks he was attracting and heard the muttered comments. He sighed as he realized that this was another mountain he would have to climb before he could settle at the Sherman Ranch — if he were still welcome there. Would Slim side with the townsfolk? He’d obviously had had an attentive audience in the saloon which had given way to a lot of discussion and gossip after he’d left. He carefully dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office as Mort the sheriff came out to organize his posse.

“Well, there you are, Harper; surprised to see you show your face,” said Mort accusingly.

“I tried to warn you. You wouldn’t listen,” said Jess.

“Yep, I suppose. Don’t remember you trying that hard,” replied Mort, with a shake of his head.

“I didn’t think they’d strike so soon,” said a miserable Jess, for some reason, feeling guilty. “I came back as soon as I could to warn you, but I’m too late. I’m sorry, sheriff.”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” said Mort, sternly. “You men ready to ride?” he called to the others.

“Are you fit, Harper? Are you coming?” asked Mort.

Jess nodded and gingerly climbed back onto Traveler. His injuries all cried out in protest again. He pulled his hat down hard over his face as he wanted no one to see his hurt, and set his teeth against the pain, which surely was to come.

“He’s not riding with us!” one of the Taylor brothers yelled. “A no-good gun-slick like him.”

“He was right friendly with them,” Mark Lomas cried out accusingly.

“He was one of that gang,” yelled another.

“We all saw what a fuss they all made of him.”

“Yes, that’s right! Many others joined in the chorus of protest with cries of “Get rid of him”;”Hang him now; Save time.” “We don’t want his sort with us; he’s an outlaw.”

“How do you know he’s still not one of them,” shouted one of the Taylor brothers.

“How’d you know he is, Taylor? Til you’ve got evidence, you’ll keep your mouth shut!” exclaimed the sheriff.

The posse had 15 members, too many for Mort’s liking, but they were after a big gang. He was more used to hunting with a posse of four or five, but this gang out of Texas was well organized, a tough group — more like a small army patrol — and would take a lot of man-power to round them up.

“Have you all got enough ammo?” called out Mort.

“Yeah. And enough rope to hang ’em all,” called out one.

“Hear that, Harper? You’re going to a neck-tie party. You’ll be the first to dance,” laughed one of the Taylors.

“There’ll be none of that, you hear, boys? We do things right, exactly by the letter of the law,” said Mort.” If you don’t like it, stay here! I want no hotheads riding with me. Okay, let’s go.”

With that, they wheeled their horses in behind Mort and set off at an easy canter. They knew it was going to be a long hard haul against a cunning clever gang that was out to take everything in its path. Jess followed, riding towards the back, doing his best to stay low. He didn’t even know why he was going along. He’d given Mort as much warning as he could and he should now be concentrating on Slim, but he couldn’t risk the anger of the men; you could never tell where that would lead. Anyway, he hoped that Mort would help him with Slim’s problem by dealing with his ex- trail friends, the outlaws.

*****

The trail led them through the foothills on the edge of the Sherman Ranch. Jess knew it well. There were small valleys, dry gulches, caves, thick undergrowth — lots of places a gang could hide and get lost. It was within striking distance of the where Slim was, and there was the big W Ranch, just on the other side of the outpost between there and Laramie. They finally started searching and Mort decided to split the posse in two, Billy, the deputy, leading one group, and Mort the other. They would ride in a pincher movement, hopefully catching the gang in the middle and driving them into a gulch or valley where they could trap them.

Billy’s group turned west and headed off. Mort was a might worried. He didn’t trust his Deputy. He was unreliable, unpredictable, unstable — a real hothead. Mort wished he could get rid of him, but he was stuck with him. He didn’t have any choice but to let him lead the other group. He turned his group east, and they rode off.

It was getting to the late afternoon, when Traveler lost a shoe. Jess called out to the others, but he was ignored. What did he expect? He was from Texas, and that was enough in their eyes to condemn him. He never thought that in all his life the only person giving him the benefit of the doubt would be a lawman. He smiled painfully as he thought of the odds he would have got at one time. He sat for a while, favoring his left side as he steadied himself to get out of the saddle and see if he could find the shoe and knock it back on with the heel of his pistol. Slowly and carefully, he stepped down and tied Traveler’s reins to a bush. They were getting into the trees and the dappled shade was soothing to Jess’ aching head and jaw. He slowly made his way back along the track until he found the shoe and hunted around til he found the nails; he carried more in his saddlebags but couldn’t face struggling to get them out. He realized he was going to have a hell of a job getting the shoe on, and even worse, keeping it on. Jess worked slowly, fighting the pain in his ribs, as he used his gun to knock the nails in.

Fast traveling was now out of the question. He’d have t to catch up with Mort and explain, and then head for the Fort, which was nearer than Laramie, and can get Traveler re-shod. Jess thought that that was an excellent move, as he’d get to see Slim as well. So Traveler throwing a shoe had turned into a lucky break, after all. He did his best to get the shoe on and it would, with a little luck, get him to the outpost.

When he had finished, he was wringing with sweat because of the effort and his weakened condition. He was thirsty, but had given Traveler, the last of his water, using his hat as he was too tired to get the canvas bucket out of his bags. Finally, he managed to drag himself into the saddle and set about following the trail the others had left. He rode in on them as they were sitting around their campfire, getting ready to eat and drink.

Must be crazy, Jess thought, his old army training and trail craft, making him realize that, what with the trees and firelight, they were sitting targets.

“Where in tarnation have you been again?” called out, Mort on seeing Jess slowly slipping out of his saddle and lean against Traveler.

“Been having a parley with his outlaw friends,” one of the young bucks called out.

Jess, clenched his teeth, he was going to have to tangle with him sometime — hopefully soon.

“Horse threw a shoe a few miles back. I have been fixing it,” replied Jess. “I did call out.”

“Yeah, of course you did,” one of the Taylors, scornfully said.” did you hear him, Jack?”

“Nope,” said Jack, his brother.

“He’s a slippery one; difficult to ride herd on,” one of the others said.

“He wouldn’t slip off if I roped him,” said another.

“That’s enough of that,” said Mort, “Let’s eat. Want something, Harper?”

“Yes, please sheriff, just a little. Would kill for a coffee, though,” said Jess.

“Did your friends not feed you?” Lomas asked. “Too busy running around after them, I suppose.”

“Yeah, he looks like he’s been doing a lot of tearing around. Plum tuckered out. Both him and his horse,” remarked George Taylor.

“Course he is, being tooing and frowing all day. Running with them, and chasing with us,” Lomas called out.

“Did ya hear him? Would kill for a coffee—-spoken like a real gun-slick,” smirked one of the others.

They are all against me, thought Jess. What a mess. He took his food with thanks, drank his coffee, but again couldn’t hold the greasy beans down as he sat shunned and ignored by the others. The tension and uneasy silence was finally broken by two riders who galloped into camp – causing the others to curse and leap out of the way of the excited horses.

“Mort!” said Billy as he gasped for air. “That gang ambushed us. Cookson’s dead and Peter and Dave are gunshot. We gave chase but they’re heading up for the border — they’ll be in Canada two/three days at most.”

“A great bit of planning. I wonder who gave them the lay of the land?” said Angus, throwing a challenging look at Jess.

“OK boys! We’ll have to ride over and get this sorted. Peter, Dave, and Cookson need to go to the army outpost and then we’ll give chase,” said Mort.

“What about Harper? His horse looks beat, and even if it’s OK, by the looks of him, he won’t keep up,” said Billy the deputy. “He’s gonna slow us down.”

“We can hang him here – you know he’s tied in with them,” yelled George Taylor.

“No, I don’t, but I agree he’ll slow us down,” said Mort.

“We can’t afford to lose another man to guard this lump of trail dirt, and ya can’t trust him to ride to the outpost at his own pace,” reasoned Billy.

What had he ever done to Billy the deputy to cause such hatred and loathing? thought Jess. He hardly knew him, but Tait was continually baiting him, treating him with loathing and contempt.

“I’ll give you my word, sheriff,” said Jess softly; the feeling of dread began to make him feel breathless. “I’ll go to the outpost, surrender to them if you want; you’ve my word on it,” repeated Jess and he looked intently, pleadingly at Mort.

“Sure he will, the lying piece of scum.” yelled Jack Taylor.

“He’s a back-stabbing renegade – needs hangin’,” someone called out.” We’ll get it done now, Mort!”

“He’ll go seek his pards…..tell ’em even more! Hangin’ too good. He’s a worthless renegade. Couldn’t trust him as far as ye could throw him.” Old Black said.

Don’t trust him, Mort,” one of the others shouted out.

“I need to hold him til I can get the truth sorted out. You two, Mort nodded to the Taylor brothers, “unsaddle his horse, hobble it and tie Harper to a tree – that’ll keep him secure until we double back later and pick him up on the way to Laramie. He’ll be OK for the night – build a good fire by him. When we get back, we’ll sort out his involvement properly.” Mort couldn’t think of anything else to do as it was obvious Jess was in no fit state to travel and neither was his horse. “OK, boys, let’s mount up and get going.”

Mort mounted his horse and turned towards Jess as the Taylor boys were going towards him. They’d pulled their guns out and were not taking any chances. Jack Taylor went around the back of Jess and lifted his iron out of his holster.

“Nice gun, Harper. Good balance – filed down hammer, but I’d expect nothing less from a gun-slinging killer rat like you,” George spat at him.

“Enough of that, Taylor. He’s innocent til proven guilty; don’t make this any worse than it has to be. You know what you have to do – horse, fire and rope Harper to a tree – that’s all. I don’t want him hurt none.”

“It’ll be a pleasure,” grinned Taylor.

Should have chosen someone else, thought Mort. Two more sadistic bastards like his deputy. Too late now. He hoped they’d not be too rough, but then the outlaws had been ruthless. Enough of the men had seen in the past that, for all his youth, Jess in action could be equally ruthless. Even so… As Mort led the posse away, he turned to Jess and said, “I’m sorry, Harper – I’ll see you again, hopefully before tomorrow.”

“OK, sheriff, it’s not your fault.” Jess grunted wearily, as he felt his arms being grabbed on both sides by the Taylors as they dragged him towards a tree. He saw the other men ride away without a second glance towards him, satisfied at their small victory over what they thought was a Texas outlaw, now unable to get the information to the rest of the gang as to what Mort’s plans were.

Jess felt his back being pushed against the tough trunk of the tree and then his wrists were tied with damp pigging string. In a short time, this would dry out and cut deeply into the thin flesh of his wrists. The vicious bastards knew what they were about as they strung the rawhide around his wrists three or four times. It would cause maximum pain, and then they pulled his arms back tight around the back of the tree. His broken shoulder, which he’d hurt breaking in Cyclone and which he thought was well and truly mended, screamed out in protest; the pain already made him want to throw up as he could feel the bile in the back of his throat `rise and threatened to choke him.

“Have I ever done you some kind of hurt? Why’d you’d want to go after me like this?” Jess gasped out.

“Ask Billy, our uncle!” laughed Jack Taylor. “You took his girl offa him at a dance. She was promised to him, he said. He was real soft on her. He’s not forgotten; he’s always said he’d make you pay. Reckon it ruined his life. We’re just giving him a hand.” By now, the Taylors had taken a lariat around Jess” chest, then his waist, cinching it as tight as they could.

“We’ll need another one!” George ordered.

“Argh,” groaned Jess, already feeling cramp growing in his shoulders. “I’m gonna kill… you for this…you know that…it’s a promise! The sheriff will understand. “

“Yeah, good friend he turned out to be, leaving you with us,” laughed Jack.

“Well, I don’t think you’ll be around to tell him.”

George grinned and turned to his brother. “Reckon you’re right; can’t see him riding out of here.”

“Don’t you remember the girl? Her dad sent her to kin up in Seattle……didn’t want her taking up with a saddle tramp and gunman like you. She got married,” George went on about his uncle’s hatred of Jess. It was entirely his fault that the girl had left him. The West being the West, Jess had made an enemy out of the deputy; now all his kin could be counted as his enemy. Now the Taylors, like their hot-headed sadistic uncle, were enjoying taking a piece out of Jess’ hide.

“We’re giving our Billy a hand. Anyways we didn’t like the way you rode into Laramie; always throwing your weight around, you and Sherman getting to think yer top dogs. Not much of a top dog now, with no Sherman to watch yer back.” Again the brothers laughed as they bound Jess to the tree. The two of them then turned away and set about hobbling Traveler and gathering firewood as the sheriff had ordered.

Jess tried to remember the girl that was giving him all this grief. He and Slim always had trouble at dances. The girls, who even if they had partners, were always keen to change; this always led to a few thrown punches. The girls pursed them relentlessly. It must have been one of those times, just one of so many. Jess, no matter how hard he tried, just couldn’t place her. He could remember the song “Leaving Cheyenne”; he always got hold of a girl to dance to that since it was his favorite, but he just could not think of the girl. She was costing him dear and he groaned softly.

Jess struggled; the second rope had been circled around his knees and ankles. He found that no matter how hard he pulled and tugged, he was lashed so tightly to the tree that he could easily have been be part of it. He could only move his head. His struggles had caused the rawhide on his wrists to tighten their vice- like grip. He felt as if they were on fire. Jess knew that, come tomorrow, he’d not be able to stand. The returning circulation was going to be agony. Maybe his shoulders would be dislocated; if the blood flow was cut off from his hands, he could quite easily loose them, even die of gangrene. A death he had witnessed during the war — not a way anyone would want to die. Not a clean death — just slow, stinking, drawn out, putrid agony. Already he had no feeling in his hands. He dropped his head and closed his eyes, gave another soft moan and tried to keep himself from thrashing around like a wild critter caught in a trap. It would only make his lashings tighter. Just as quickly he lifted his head and opened his eyes as he heard the Taylors returning. He’d be damned if he would give them the satisfaction of thinking he was beat, but he felt he was. He knew nothing and nobody was going to save his sorry ass this time.

The world was beginning to spin. Jess must have passed out for a short time as when he came to again, he found there was a huge fire blazing. They are going to have the undergrowth alight if they keep piling up the wood at this rate, thought Jess. Maybe I’m gonna be burnt alive. He felt a shudder grip his body. No, he thought, it won’t last as he felt the first spots of rain as it fell onto his sweat drenched face.

“Well, that’s it, Harper; you’ll be warm enough. We’ll have a bit of fun afore we go; can’t leave you here with that big mouth of yours ready to tell tales about us to the sheriff, can we?” Sides you make a great target. Jack here has never shot a two-legged critter; you can be his first. Sheriff will think your pards did it; they might think you sold them out too.” George said. He wasn’t finished as he went on, “We’re doing you a favor; they are planning on hangin’ ya. Yer better shot than strung up, don’t you think so, fella?”

With that Jack pulled his iron and fired at Jess. The bullet tore into Jess’ side, a glancing shot which went straight through. Jess choked and gasped. He felt his throat constrict against the acid which was surging up from his stomach. He fought the sickness as it threatened to spew out and cover his chin and chest with the sour stench of vomit. He tried to tear himself away from the pain; except for a few inches, he was rigidly pinned against the pine.

The two brothers looked at each other and laughed.

“That’ll please our Billy. What’d ya think? Not bad — a bee sting, just a nick,” cried an excited Jack.

“My turn now. You gonna plead tough guy? Go on, let’s hear ya,” yelled his brother George.

Jess shook his head. “Go to…argh…blazes,” he gasped out. His head dropped slowly to his chest. The burning, throbbing pain in his side was taking over his whole abdomen. His breath was coming in shuddering gasps, fast and deep. Suddenly it was smashed out of him as George’s bullet buried itself deep in Jess” shoulder. He felt as if a red hot poker had been hammered into his flesh, burning and nailing him even tighter to the tree.

The pine needles around his feet seemed to swell up and push against his face, then as quickly retreat. Along with a hammering behind his eyes, his whole world was filled with a torrent of sound roaring in his ears. He suddenly couldn’t focus, as coldness overwhelmed his body. The world turned a jagged red, as sharp daggers of orange, yellow, and white flashes of light burst behind his eyes. It was the fire as it spluttered, jolting at the edge of his consciousness, in the sleet which was now falling steadily. Jess felt the muscle tearing bullets burning his flesh and he was convulsed with violent shudders. He gasped and let out a sob. He felt as if he were dropping away down into a place of sterile nothingness, empty and unfeeling. It was a cold place, dark and lonely. Jess was no stranger to it and remembered it well.

The Taylors were now mounted and they pulled their horses heads round to follow in the direction of the posse. George however was not finished.

“I’ll have another go! I think I only nicked him,” he cried out. With that, he snapped another shot at Jess. The bullet this time grazed him across the chest, just under the rope which bound him to the tree. It was a long, shallow wound which already made every breath feel like a stab wound.

Jess’ head now rested on his chest. It was the only part of his body he could move, but it had become so heavy that he could not hold it up any longer. He was slowly drifting, slowly becoming unconscious, and letting go. His spirit, ever so strong, was willing to stay and fight but his body had had enough.

Sometime later, Jess slowly swam from out of a seemingly deep, black pit. He panicked and struggled against the rawhide and ropes which held him fast. The fight was over in seconds as the pain hit him and he remembered where he was and what had happened.

He felt the cold sleet, which was still falling. It was soaking him and making him shiver and the fire continue to spit and splutter. As his consciousness returned, so did the pain .It roared back, making his whole body feel as if it were on fire. Some mighty hand was pushing a white, hot, spike into his shoulder. Flaying his side and dragging a knife across his chest. His senses returned and he allowed himself to holler and sob. He was in excruciating pain. He desperately looked around and wished someone would come and put a gun in his mouth, pull the trigger — not pretty, but fast…and fatal. Slowly, he became aware of the huge silence. He opened his eyes again and found he was looking down at his chest which was covered with blood. The silence filled his world. He couldn’t hear the hissing fire or the blustery wind which was whipping the sleet through the trees. He could only hear a strong thud which was racing; he did not know it but it was his heart pounding fast against the slow continual blood loss. His injuries were not life-threatening in themselves, they were very painful, and if not treated and the blood loss stopped, they would kill him. He was not going to die of gangrene after all, but of simple blood loss.

*****

Across the valley Whitehead and his son Dave, were making their way back to their ranch after a day spent on the round up of yearlings up on the high plains.

“Is that a fire ‘cross there, Dad? A bit early for that.”

“Pass me the glasses, son,” Whitehead requested and held his hand out.

“Well I’ll be a skunk’s mother. There’s two cowpokes taking pot shots at a fella tied to a tree! Here take a look. What do you reckon?”

“Yeah, Dad. I heard the shots, but we’re a ways off, I wasn’t sure where they were from. Them’s the Taylor brothers from the crossed T,” Dave told his Dad.

“I think we should mosey over and take a look,” Whitehead grunted. With that, he gave his whip a crack in the air over the horses. “Back. Get up boys.” The horse set of at a smart pace and headed for the clearing on the other side of the valley.

When Whitehead and Dave got to the clearing in the trees, the light was almost gone. The night was turning black, wet, and cold. What greeted them prompted them to ask the questions: Who? What? and Why?

“Do ya know him, Dave?” Whitehead asked his son, “Come on, I’ll try and hold him. You cut him free. Then give us a hand to get him into the buckboard.”

“Yeah, I know him. It’s Jess Harper; he’s been working at the Sherman place for maybe the last ten months or so,” Dave answered his Dad. “I wonder what’s been going on, Dad. Jess is alright. I’ve always had a laugh with him and Slim.”

“Dunno, son,” replied Whitehead, “but unless we get him to a doctor and some shelter, we’ll never know. He looks pretty bad. You get his saddle, chuck it in the back. We can lay him on the horse blanket and cover him up with his oilskins. Tie up his horse behind; it’s over there by that spruce.”

With that, Dave got on carrying out his Dad’s instructions while Whitehead got to work on Jess. He examined him and decided the most important thing to do was to try and stop the bleeding from the shoulder wound. It was still pumping blood down Jess’ shoulder and chest.

He tore pieces from his own tartan shirt and did his best to plug the bullet hole. He also made a pad for Jess’ side and chest wound, which he held in place as best he could with what was left of his own shirt. He covered him up with his jacket, which had been removed earlier and then Jess’ oilskin coat. It was all he could do. He had done his best.

At last, with Traveler tied up behind, they set of for the fort, where Whitehead knew there was a doctor. The old rancher turned and looked down at the bloodied body of the young cowboy, who was lying silent and shivering in the back of the buckboard. He was glad that Jess was unconscious as this was one journey he’d best not know about. For at best, it would be more than a mite uncomfortable; in Jess’ state, it could quite easily kill him, that was if the blood loss, cold and rain, in the meantime didn’t. They drove slowly on, through the misery of the growing gloom and the sleeting rain. Hoping that Jess, whose head was slowly rolling from side to side with the comfortless motion of the buckboard, would be strong enough to hold on.

*****

Slim had been in what passed as a mess when the dead and wounded posse members had been brought in. Mort, Billy, and the rest went high-trailing after the gang, as they were supposedly heading for Canada. Dave Yates and Angus Mackenzie’s story of the whole incident held them all in horrified fascination, as they recounted what they knew, what they’d been told, and what they imagined. There was this gang of Texas outlaws who seemingly Jess Harper knew, and had ridden with; there was his unexplained beating and rescue by the sheriff and deputy. Harper had then disappeared, to resurface again after the bank raid, on his own horse, outside Mort’s office. Why? Did the horse and rider look exhausted? They must have met up with the gang! Harper had then gone with the posse, and when it had split in two, he disappeared again to turn up claiming his horse had thrown a shoe. They’d not seen the outcome of this but everyone, except the sheriff, thought that Harper had thrown in with the outlaws and had spent the day keeping them warned of the sheriff’s plans and helping them with knowledge of the area. They claimed he was dangerous and treacherous and had stabbed them all in the back. He’d sold them all out. Mort had left the Taylors to tie Harper to a tree, to be picked up in the morning when the sheriff would take him into Laramie and get the truth out of him. It seemed Harper appeared too weak to ride and his horse was also exhausted.

“No wonder,” they claimed. He must have spent the day coming and going keeping his outlaw friends informed. They should’ve hanged him there and then, but they’d get it done tomorrow with or without Mort’s say so.”

“How do you know Harper was involved?” someone asked before Slim could get a word in.

“Well,” said Mackenzie,” after bushwhacking us, before they rode off, one of the gang had shouted, ‘Tell Jess Harper thanks and we’ll see him soon’.”

The group of men began to mutter about hanging, treacherous dog, dirty backshooter, chicken-livered trail scum, yellow varmint needing skinned alive and hanging’s too good for him. The mood was dark and ugly and Slim felt sick to his stomach. How could he be so wrong about anyone? Yes, Jess was a handful. Jess always lived as best he could. He disregarded, even ignored, any feral threat that lay in wait for him. He would meet trouble whether from man or beast head on. He fought for keeps. He took no prisoners and he accepted the same treatment from anyone or anything that challenged and fought with him. He loved to fight and play and drove Slim mad with his taunts and fun-poking, but he worked hard, didn’t know when he was beaten, and when Slim had been in trouble, had stood shoulder to shoulder with him and had put his life on the line to save his. He’d watched his back and was ready to ride out of their lives if he thought his presence at the ranch was endangering theirs. He was wonderful with Andy; Slim would always be grateful for that. He’d made the boy smile and laugh again. He played with him, something that Slim, weighed down with responsibility, could never find the time to do. He smiled as he remembered Andy’s attempts to teach Jess to swim, and the hunting trips that ended with a couple of rabbits when they’d been after deer. He knew Jonesy was still a bit wary of Jess – even after he’d gotten him the piano. Jonesy thought Jess was dangerous – he was right of course, Jess was dangerous. He was lightening fast on the draw and deadly accurate with rifle or sidearm. He was quick tempered and easily offended; he was always ready for a fight.

Yet, thought Slim, he was also gentle. He remembered how he’d tended Slim when he was hurt; a woman’s hand could not have been more gentle and tender. This softness also showed with the animals. The horses loved him, just wanted to please him – he broke them easily with a firm, quiet gentleness that even that hard-mouthed Cyclone became a soft eyed baby in Jess’ hands. They trusted him and just wanted to please him. Jess could get them to dare to do the impossible. In his hands, they would jump, swim, and slide down hillsides on their hindquarters. Out on the trail, when they were freezing and camping cold, Jess would always sleep with his horse’s bridle and bit close to his body, to keep it warm He laughed when he was questioned about it and said, “I wouldn’t like a lump of frozen steel shoved in my mouth afore breakfast. Would you?”

Jess could ride like an Indian, bareback, ride low, shoot under a horse’s neck and belly and pick stuff off the ground. Now he was being branded a renegade. He was out there, tied to a tree and the mood and hope was that he’d be dead in the morning.

That’ll not happen, thought Slim, and he made his way to the door to go and see the captain. He wanted to go and bring Jess in; even if he was guilty, he deserved a fair trial and not be left in the cold and wet, tied to a tree to die alone. He said nothing to anyone; they were all too busy embroidering the story of the dangerous renegade who’d helped to rob the Laramie Bank and who was Sherman’s ranch hand.

*****

Slim ignored it all. As he stepped into the night, he realized that it was raining heavily now; this will surely kill him. Slim was in despair. He then noticed a horse which was tied to the back of a buckboard which was heading towards the doctors dispensary where the wounded men were being taken care of. He was sure it was Traveler. He ran over quickly. The doctor and his aide were there; so was Whitehead the rancher and his son. They were all looking inside the back of the rig. Slim’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest when he caught sight of Jess lying there; the rain had spread the blood so it was dripping out of the side of the buckboard making a dark puddle on the ground. Jess was plainly quite unconscious, if not dead, his head rolled slightly with the motion of the buckboard. On the grayness of his usually tanned face, there were smears of blood. The dust of the trail was in his dark hair and clung to his clothes even in the cold rain. Jess’ jacket had been flung over him, part of his shirt had obviously been removed, and his shoulder at least was swathed round with a bloody wrapping that had been part of a tartan shirt. His shirt was torn where the bullets had ripped through the material and it was black with blood. His wrists were cruelly torn and his hands were blue, almost black. Slim then fearfully looked at his face; his lip was badly cut, and his face was bruised. Slim was startled as Jess suddenly opened his eyes, which were cloudy with the torment and the pain of his wounds.

“Slim, is that you?” Jess raised his arm and put his hand out which Slim clasped.

“Yes Jess, we’ve got you. You’ll be OK,” said Slim but Jess had drifted off again and his hand, which was so cold, went limp.

“What we waiting for?” demanded Slim. “Let’s get him inside, out of the rain.”

“Sorry, Sherman,” said the sergeant. “The wounded Laramie men don’t want him in there with them. I don’t blame them – damn saddle tramp – this is all down to him.”

“You going to let him die out here, Doc?” pleaded Slim.

“No! We’ll take him to the guard house; its warm in there and there are bunks in the cell,” said Doc .Johnson.

At that point the captain, who’d arrived unnoticed, put in his two-cent worth. “Get this man inside pronto – you’ll need extra light, clean blankets, sheets, mattresses – get this organized, sergeant. This man’s innocent “till proven guilty and I’ll not have him die out here because of a few hot heads. See to it!” With that the captain, a dour Scot called Douglas, strode off.

Slim sighed with relief as the rig went towards the guard house.

“I’ll see to the horse,” said a young soldier, desperate to get away from the ugly scene.

Slim and the rancher carried Jess through into yet another cell and laid him on the bunk. The doctor called for two buckets of warm water to soak Jess’ hands and wrists in – to ease off the rawhide which was buried deep into the flesh of his wrists. Suddenly the place was a hive of activity, with the changing of mattresses, blankets, and sheets. Supplies were brought from the dispensary, lamps appeared. The guard house table was washed down with carbolic and covered with a sheet soaked in it.

Slim carried Jess through and laid him on the table. He then removed Jess’ boots, smiling at Jess’ big toe sticking through the hole in his sock, then set about his chaps and Levis which were stained with blood. They’ll wash, thought Slim; Jess’ wardrobe wouldn’t stand the loss of a pair of jeans. He covered Jess with a sheet as the doctor lowered Jess” hands and wrists into the pails of water, which were now standing on two chairs on either side of the table. The doctor then began to cut Jess” shirt away, passing no remark about the old and new wounds, except shaking his head and pushing his glasses further up his nose.

“What’s all this brown stuff?” asked Doc Johnson,

“Its liniment. Jess must have seen Jonesy this morning for Jonesy to have smeared him with the stuff,” replied Slim.

“Does it do any good?” asked the doctor.

“Sometimes it does, but you’d need to ask Jess. He’s always covered with the stuff – that is, him and the horses.”

With that, the doctor got down to cleaning Jess’ wounds. He sewed up the gash in his side, and with Slim holding the still unconscious Jess up in a sitting position, bandaged his side and chest.

“That’ll do for now, Sarg. Go to the cook house; I want some strong beef tea made as soon as possible. Bring some coffee, sandwiches and pie over – we’ll eat it over here. I want it done like, yesterday,” the doctor ordered.

“Sir!” and the sergeant disappeared.

“Doctor”, said Slim, his voice full of anxiety, “how is he?”

“Well, as you can see, he’s unconscious, which is a blessing. I want to get that bullet out and soon. He’ll need nursing, bandages changed, kept quiet, fed broth and brandy, and hopefully his body will do the rest. He’s young and strong, so hopefully his recovery will be rapid. The problem is getting proper care. I have the other men to see to and as they’ve all got him down as a renegade, true or not, they’ve no use for his sort in there. No, I doubt he’ll get any help from anybody on this outpost after what they say he’s done. What he really needs badly right now — and I’m no sentimentalist — but guilty or innocent, what this unfortunate boy needs, as he has probably never needed one before, is a friend; someone who believes in him, so much the better. Only friend he doesn’t need is someone, who seeing his trouble, will cross over the street, ignore him, and pass him by.

“He’s already got one – he’s got me – I’ll look after him,” said Slim quietly.

“You’ll not be popular,” said the Doctor.

“I don’t do things to be popular,” replied Slim. “Just tell me and show me what to do and I’ll do my best – I’ll try not to harm him,” said Slim with a worried frown on his face.

“Don’t think you’ll kill him – looks like lots of folk have tried, and not just today,” said the Doctor. “Texan, I heard; by the looks of him, he doesn’t take the easy way out.”

“What do you mean, doc?” asked a puzzled Slim.

“Look at these scars — would have been easier to die from the looks of some of them,” the doctor explained.

“Yeah, he’s pretty tough. He has had to be. You’re right; Jess doesn’t do anything easy.” Slim replied ruefully.

“Another thing, doctor; I want his bed out of that cell. I don’t want him waking up to look at bars; he’s been through enough of that already,” demanded Slim.

“You know him well?” asked the doctor.

“Well enough. I’ve not known him long but I know he wouldn’t do what he’s been accused of,” said Slim.

“Ah!” said the doctor. “A champion – he’s going to need one, if you ask me.” The doctor put his hand weightily on Slim’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“Don’t think so. He’s innocent,” said Slim.

“How d’ya know?” said the Doctor.

“Just look at him. Does he look like a man who’d betray his friends and neighbors?”

“I guess not,” said the Doc. “Now let’s get to this shoulder.”

It was during the probing of Jess’ shoulder that the coffee and victuals were brought. Jess opened his eyes and stared straight into Slim’s anxious and concerned face. Jess’ eyes were alight with pain, and although he tried to suppress it, he groaned and whispered, “I can …argh… smell coffee.”

“Sure you can, Jess – you’ll get some soon,” replied Slim with a grim smile. It would be the smell of coffee that dragged him back, he thought. During the next half hour of probing, it was as much as Jess could do to keep a hold on consciousness. He made no shadow of protest or complaint. He struggled and fought occasionally, but he mainly lay not looking at anything, his mouth set hard and breathing fast with an occasional low groan. Slim was holding swabs and a bowl for the doctor and his orderly. A couple of soldiers were helping to keep him from moving when Slim was suddenly aware that Jess, in his anguish, had blindly reached out and caught Slim’s hand. Slim took it and was amazed at the strength in his grip. Jess’ head went from side to side and then again he stared into Slam’s eyes. Jess’ eyes narrowed, the desperation and the anguish he was feeling making the usual brilliant blue eyes cloudy. He moaned and Slim bent over to catch what he was saying.

“You’ll take me… argh… back home…no matter what?” gasped Jess weakly.

“Sure, pard.”

But Jess didn’t hear; his head rolled to one side and his eyes closed and his hand went limp. The blooded bullet dropped into the bowl, turning the water red. Jess didn’t hear; he’d slipped back down into the silence and black void that took away the pain.

Slim looked down again and studied Jess’ face, wondering about the accusations against him, but all he got from the scrutiny of the strong delicate features, was the complete and extraordinary effect of honesty, innocence and helplessness given to it in Jess’ sleep, by the motionless lashes, as long and curving as those of a boy.

“Good,” said the doctor, “We’ll get this wound cauterized — unpleasant but necessary — bandage him up, and then see about these wrists. They look a mess but at least his hands are back to a normal color. I’m always worried about rawhide – seen men loose a hand and even an arm before now; nasty thing to tie a body up with wet rawhide. How you holding up, Mr. Sherman? You look almost as pale as he does. You OK?”

“Yes,” said Slim “If he can stand it, so can I.”

*****

That night and the next day were hard for Slim and Jess. Jess, who was never the best of patients, was restless and fought against any opiate the doctor tried to spoon down him. Jess was visually anxious to stay awake and fought against his weakness and was desperately trying to get up. Slim got beef tea and brandy down him every two hours or so, then the doctor ordered a mixture of ground beef, meal and brandy. Jess took it, but like a little kid, pulled his face and complained. Slim was happy and relieved; the more Jess complained, the better he began to look and, on the third day, much against the doctor’s orders, Jess wanted up.

The rancher, Mr. Whitehead, sent his son home for a shirt and carefully they got Jess up and dressed. He looked like something to scare the crows – he seemed to have lost a lot of weight, he looked ill and gaunt. “I’ll be OK. I’m fine, just needing my gun belt,” growled Jess.

“No you don’t,” said Slim sternly. “You need to sit quiet, rest and try and mend. You’re not going to pack anything – you’re as weak as an hour- old calf, and I’m not going to let you undo the doctor’s and my hard work.”

“Slim, nobody is ever going to get the drop on me again – I don’t feel safe with no iron at my hip,” replied Jess.

“I’ll keep you safe. Now, settle down; you’re as jumpy as a dog with fleas,” said Slim, his exasperation beginning to show through his concern.

“Well, I’m gonna walk up and down and try and get a bit fitter,” said Jess.

“No, you’re not. The doctor’s due soon to change your bandages so you’ll need your strength for that. Now please — for my sake — take it easy,” moaned Slim, finding the whole task of taking care of his friend suddenly exhausting.

Jess went and lowered himself gingerly on to his bed. He was going out of his head with worry. He was waiting to hear from Charlie and expecting him sometime soon to show up and carry out his threats. Jess knew that while they were on the outpost, Slim would be safe, but once on the move again, he’d be an easy target. Jess didn’t know how he’d cope but, with his gun, he knew he’d be ready and Slim would stand a chance. He just wanted to know where Charlie was, and the not knowing was keeping him constantly on edge; he could think of nothing else.

Jess did get some respite from his anxiety; that was when the doctor came to redress his wounds. It was torture, but it took his mind of the Charlie problem for an hour, but even after a slug of brandy the doctor always insisted he drank, his fears and worries came flooding back. The atmosphere at the camp had not improved and Slim wouldn’t let Jess go out and sit on the porch; he’d hear the contempt and comments that were being bandied about. He didn’t want Jess who, as ill as he still was, throwing himself into any fights and risk further injury. Jess was good at that, throwing himself into any trouble without thought of the consequences. He’d said, with a laugh, the red mist came down and there was nothing he could do. Slim often thought that he might have Scots or Irish blood in him, as he seemed to relish a fight. Jonesy once remarked that he’d probably had had more fights than hot dinners, and by the look of his lean frame, he was probably right. Slim smiled to himself; yes, Jess Harper could cause a fight in an empty house.

Early on the fourth day, Jess ate a hearty breakfast, a sign that he was getting his appetite back. The pain, except when he tried to move fast, had eased and he was getting restless. He was still far from well, but in himself, he felt he was getting stronger. Then Mort appeared with his deputy Billy. They brought news of the gang. Out of eight, three were dead, two were in the jail in Cheyenne with gunshot wounds and the other three — Charlie the leader, the vicious Cole and the half-wit brother Paul — were hightailing it for the Canadian border. Mort said that he and Billy were going to have a last look round and do some further checking, but it looked like things were over and they’d soon be back in Laramie. Jess then asked that as soon as he could, would Mort check out his story. The sheriff needed to talk to Jonesy, the store-keeper, the barman and girls, as well as all the customers in the bar; there was also the rancher Whitehead who could confirm what the Taylors had done to Jess as he’d been the one to cut him down and bring him into the army outpost.

“Yes Harper, I’ll see to it,” said Mort, who turned to Slim and said, “When do you think he’ll be fit to travel?”

This riled Jess. “Don’t ask Slim, ask me! I’ll be OK tomorrow,” said Jess sharply.

“You won’t sit on a horse,” said Slim. “I’ll take you to Laramie, but only in a buck-board.”

“Well,” replied Jess. “I won’t go then. I’ll be OK on Traveler.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” said Slim “and only if the doc agrees.”

“Anyway,” continued Slim, “who am I to argue?”

“I’m just your nurse and servant to go around picking up the pieces and slaving and cooking for you,” complained Slim.

“Yea,” said Mort and then dropped the bombshell. “You’re also his jailer. Harper, you are under arrest, you know what that means.” said Mort sternly.

“Sure, sheriff,” said Jess quietly, and with that, the fight seemed to go out of Jess. He suddenly sat down on the chair by the table, put his elbows on the rough wood in front of him, and lowered his head into his hands. Jess couldn’t believe that Mort still thought that, maybe Jess was guilty of the accusations which had being flung in his direction.

“Slim, I know this will be hard for you – the two of you being friends and all. Billy will take care of it if you can’t face it. I want Harper kept locked up from now on, and tomorrow when you leave, I want him kept handcuffed ’til you get him to jail, understand,” said Mort solemnly.

Slim looked stunned.

Mort went on, “I’m going to deputize you so it will be official. It may also give Harper some protection from all these hotheads that are out to hang him still.” Mort then put a deputy’s badge on the table. “Do you think you’re up to it? You’ll get paid the usual rates, Slim.”

At that, Billy reached into his pocket and laid the handcuffs and keys on the table.

“No, Mort…” Slim began, but before he got any further, Jess stood up and picking up the cuffs held them out to Mort.

“If you’re worried about Slim, put them on me now Sheriff,” said Jess.

“No Harper, tomorrow when you leave will do,” said Mort.

Then Jess thrust the cuffs into Slim’s hands, saying, “Don’t worry – he’ll get it done.” With that he shakily walked over to the empty cell, went in, and quietly closed the door.

Billy broke the silence with, “That was easier than I guessed it would be; you didn’t need me after all,” and he sniggered.

“I would have needed more than you and Slim to get Harper in there if he was fit and well and he didn’t want to go,” the sheriff remarked and looked at his deputy with something like disgust written all over his face.

“Shut up, Billy, get out, and see to the horses,” said Mort coldly. With that, Billy left, but not before turning to grin at Jess and scoffed, “See you again soon. We’re not done, you no good lump of rebel trash. You know, sheriff, his horse is named after Robert E. Lee’s old charger Traveler.”

“That’s enough of that” snapped Mort Corey. “Get out before you get kicked out! I’m sorry, Harper; my deputy will one day let his mouth get him into some serious trouble. By my reckoning, he has been asking for it for years. He takes advantage of the badge he wears.” He then turned towards Slim, who was standing with his head down, slowly shaking it. Slim wanted to deck the deputy, as he knew his pard had not got the strength to do it himself.

The sheriff turned towards the door and grimly said, “Well, that’s it then; I’ll see you in Laramie. By then, I’ll have got to the bottom of this. In the meantime, keep Harper secure, Slim. I want this done right, got it? I’ve no time to go chasing all over Wyoming if he escapes.”

“Yes, Mort,” Slim said softly and Mort went out, banging the door as he left.

*****

Jess lay on his back and put his arm across his face, trying to plan ahead, but nothing came. The circumstances were bad before, but now, officially branded an outlaw and renegade, everything was blacker. He shivered at the shock of being locked up, even if it was only for one night; it was going to be as much as he could bear. Then tomorrow, riding into Laramie, his horse being led, and he in handcuffs, was too much. Jess was a proud man and the shame made him blush to the roots of his hair. One thing he decided, when this was over and if he were not jailed but was freed, he’d leave Laramie; he’d never feel free from the shame and the stain on his character. The worst part of it was he was innocent.

“Jess, are you going to stay and sulk in there for the rest of the day?” called out Slim.

“I’m your prisoner. You heard what your friend the sheriff said — You’ve to keep me secure and do it right,” said Jess.

“That’ll be the day, when you want to do it right,” said Slim.

“Well, now might be a good time to start. It’s the only chance you’ll ever get — now, when I’m as weak as an hour-old calf,” said Jess.

“So you reckon I’ll not be able to whip you when you’re back to your old wildcat self?” smiled Slim enjoying the old banter.

“That’ll be the day– I can’t wait,” said Jess and the old twinkle returned to his eye. “Let me get a coffee while you sort out the bed in the cell for me. I want it soft and then you can lock me up — I’ll go quietly, deputy.” With that, Jess got up and opened the cell door and got himself a coffee. He poured one for Slim as well and left it on the table while Slim moved all the bedclothes and made Jess’ bed up, taking care and making it as soft as he could, and then he stood by the barred door.

“Your cell awaits, m’lord; you’ll have to rest now,” Slim smiled.

“Thank you, my man,” replied Jess and grinned as he went in. Slim closed the door gently and locked it.

“I’m sorry,” said Slim.

“Yeah, I know,” said Jess, “it’s not your fault. I should never have trespassed on your land.”

With that, Slim put his hand through the bars and Jess took it, and the two friends shook hands, closer than they’d ever been before.

*****

Next morning, the whole camp was astir, knowing what was happening. The early morning start never happened, though, as the Doc insisted on changing Jess’ dressing and padding his wrists just in case the cuffs got close and chaffed them. Captain Douglas came over to enquire if Slim needed any help, but on seeing how ill Jess still looked, didn’t ask.

“Well Jess, are you about ready?” said Slim as he unlocked Jess” cell. “Let me help you on with your jacket.”

“Thanks,” said Jess, shutting his teeth for the ordeal which he knew lay ahead.

“Slim, I want to wear my gun belt. I’m a dangerous gunslinger and I want to look the part — not go out like a whipped dog.”

“OK, Jess,” said Slim and took it out of the saddle bag and gave it to him to put on.

“Will you tie it down for me, please,” said Jess thinking how Jonesy had done it. “I don’t think I can bend that far yet.”

“Sure.” Then for the first time Slim called Jess “Pard” and looked up at him and smiled as he tied the holster down.

“Thanks,” was all that Jess could manage.

“Well, this is it — I’m going to have to handcuff you. Will you be OK? Damn it, this is hard,” grumbled Slim.

“Yeah. Let me put my hat on first.” With that, Jess picked it up and pulled it well down over his face.

“In here or on Traveler?” asked Slim.

“In here Slim, and do it fast.”

“I hate doing this,” said Slim.

“Get on with it, for God’s sake; you’re getting to be an old woman. It’s me that’s got to wear ’em, not you, and it won’t be the first time and maybes not the last. Just be careful not to nick my skin and not too tight,” complained Jess.

With that Jess held out his wrists in front of him and grunted in impatience. “Come on! Come on! Come on! Get it over with,” wailed Jess. “Will you stop being nice to me and babying me. It doesn’t help; it makes things worse. I need to stay strong and I want you to stay strong. Stop pussy-footing around, apologizing all the time. None of this mess is your fault. You’ve got a job to do, Deputy; now for God’s sake get on with it. I haven’t the strength to stand around all day waiting.”

Something snapped in Slim and he grabbed Jess” wrists and, none too gently, snapped the cuffs on.

“Ouch! Now that’s more like the big bully Slim we all love and hate,” smiled Jess and tried to pull his wrists apart. Slim went to punch him on the shoulder. “Hey, you’re not allowed to hit a prisoner. I know my rights,” laughed Jess.

Slim thought, “Thank God that’s over.” What could have been an agonizing situation had again been saved by Jess’ boyish good humor and guts. Little did he know of Jess’ black despair that he was so cleverly hiding and of the dread of facing so many people who wanted to express their hatred and contempt? He was also out of his mind worrying about Slim, and the whereabouts of Charlie.

“Ready, pard?” asked Slim.

“Yeah, as I’ll ever be.”

Slim opened the door of the guardhouse and Jess went through, his wrists chained closely together and already causing his wounded shoulder to ache at the constraints that caused his damaged, torn shoulder muscles to scream out.

Slim took Jess’ words seriously and pushed Jess forward between the shoulder blades. This caused Jess to stagger and, if it hadn’t been for Slim’s quick reactions at grabbing him, Jess would have fallen across the hitching rail. Slim got hold of Jess and helped him to his horse. Jess raised his hands and got hold of the saddle horn; he couldn’t hop into the stirrup as normal but put his foot in Slims cupped hand and was heaved up. He was nearly thrown over the other side of the saddle. Slim had to grab his leg to stop him falling over the other side of Traveler. Jess pulled his hat down even more firmly over his eyes, which were beginning to water due to the dazzling brightness of the sun after so long inside.

It was at this point that the small crowd of onlookers made Jess aware that he had an audience, when one laughed at how he’d nearly fallen over the other side of his horse.

“See ya at your hanging, you murdering scum.”

“I’ll have that horse of yours when they sell your stuff,” said one.

“Where’s your trail pards now? Hightailed it to Canada, left you to die?” laughed another.

“Cat got your tongue, boy?”

“Fast gun, no good to you now, Harper, you chicken livered piece of dirt.”

It was at this point that someone threw a clod of earth at Jess, which made Traveler shie away and almost unseat Jess. At that point, Slim got off his horse, his face red with anger, but the badge he wore to protect Jess also protected his tormentors. Slim went into his saddle bag and brought out Jess’ gun. He spun the barrel and checked to see if it was loaded and the sun caught the gun-metal, and made it look dark blue. He then walked round to Jess’ right side and dropped the gun into its holster.

“Feel better, tough guy?” asked Slim grimly.

“Yeah. Just great,” said Jess.

“It’s loaded,” said Slim.

“Thanks. Do you think it’ll be like this in Laramie?” asked Jess through clenched teeth.

“Better not be or else there’ll be a line at the doctors,” said a Slim, his face was tense and his jaw was clenched.

“Thanks, Slim. I’m sorry about all this; it’s kinda hard to take,” said Jess.

“Yeah, I know; it’s kinda hard for me to take as well. Now look who’s being an old woman. Things wouldn’t be the same without you and your troubles — and this is just another one,” smiled Slim and he playfully gave Jess’ leg a gentle punch.

“Come on then, let’s go,” said Jess, who looking up again and found that the crowd had slunk away. With that, Slim mounted Alamo, and taking Traveler’s reins, led his friend and prisoner out through the gates and on to Laramie.

*****

However, their plan to get to Laramie by late afternoon was abandoned as Jess couldn’t stay in the saddle. He realized how weak he really was, and how the motion of being in the saddle was becoming unbearable. He had fooled everyone with his usual bravado, but his spirit was making demands his body could no longer meet and he began to slide out of the saddle.

“Hang on, Jess; I’m going to ride up behind you.” Slim stopped Alamo, dismounted and then climbed up behind Jess. He tied Alamo’s reins to the saddle horn and put his arms gingerly around Jess, frightened to cause him anymore pain. It was the only way he could keep Jess in the saddle and from falling off Traveler.

“We’ll stop at Whitehead’s ranch, get some help and you’ll get a rest, so just hang on Jess,” said Slim.

Jess couldn’t talk and he just nodded weakly.

It was about an hour later when they pulled up in the yard. Slim hurriedly got down and then eased Jess out of the saddle. “Damn, why didn’t you say something?” said Slim as he realized that he hadn’t removed Jess’ handcuffs. Jess had refused to let him do so earlier as he wanted Slim to “do it right” and not risk falling foul of Mort. Jess said nothing as Slim unlocked the cuffs.

“Is my gun loaded? Jess weakly asked again.

“Of course it’s loaded,” snapped Slim. “I’m sorry, pard – ignore me.”

“I always do,” smiled Jess weakly.

By now Mrs. Whitehead had come out and began to hustle them in, shocked at how ill Jess looked. “What have they been doing to you, son?” she asked.

“He’s been trying to kill me,” snarled Jess.

“Don’t listen, Mrs. Whitehead, he’s nothing but a damn liar,” smiled Slim.

“Come on in, Jess. You’re going to have a lie down and rest while I make you all something to eat. The boys won’t be back ’til late; they’re up on the North range branding some young stock.”

Mrs. Whitehead led them to the stairs but Jess was beginning to sway.

Sorry, Jess.” Slim put his arms behind Jess’ back and knees and picked him up.

He was babying him. Jess tried to struggle, but his efforts were feeble. “Put me down,” he pleaded.

“Stubborn fool! I’ll drop ya over the banisters if you say another word,” said Slim.

“Mrs. Whitehead, please tell him,” implored Jess, embarrassed. He hated being made to feel so helpless.

“Tut, tut, son, just relax, you’ll do yourself a mischief,” the rancher’s wife kindly said.

Slim carried Jess through to the back bedroom, anxiously aware of how light Jess had become. Whenever he’d wrangled with Jess, although smaller than himself, his body was sinewy, very well muscled, and hard. When you hit him, the pain jarred your hand and arm. Jess carried no fat and his muscle made him heavy, but the trauma of the last week or so seemed to have melted his muscle tone away. For all his cheerful banter, Slim realized just how fragile his friend had become. He didn’t know how he’d managed to stay on Traveler so long.

Once in the bedroom, Mrs. Whitehead helped to get Jess settled down on the feather bed. Jess wouldn’t let Slim take anything off him except his boots and jacket, but he let Slim check his bandages to see if they were still in place and the wounds hadn’t opened and were bleeding again. Everything was OK.

“Come on, deputy. You gonna be a good boy and cuff me?” grinned Jess weakly, tormenting Slim.

“One of these days, Harper, I’m going to have to teach you to respect your elders,” said Slim.

“And your betters?” asked Jess.

“Yep, them as well. Get some rest, you hear,” Slim ordered.

“Yes, deputy, sir.” Jess closed his eyes. As soon as Slim was gone, he out took his gun, checked it, and slipped it under the bedspread. He pulled the blanket up closer and closed his eyes and he lay, listened, and waited.

A little later Slim put his head around the door and was surprised to find Jess still awake.

“Good, here’s your favorite — you’re being spoilt — a pot of coffee, steak, eggs, hot apple pie and cheese,” smiled Slim, delighted at the feast Mrs. Whitehead had rustled up so quickly after Slim had told her of Jess’ favorites.

“I can’t eat all that. I’m an invalid,” protested Jess.

“Yeah? And I’m little Red Riding Hood. Come on, Jess, try — if not for me, try for Mrs. Whitehead.” Slim tried to encourage Jess to eat as his lack of appetite made Slim worry.

“I’ll eat the pie and cheese — if you’ll eat the steak and eggs,” bargained Jess.

“I’ve had a steak.”

“Well, have another. I’d eat it for you,” said Jess.

“You’re trying to manipulate me?” asked Slim.

“Me! Never, not got a bad bone in my body,” joked Jess, beginning to flag already with anxiety and of trying to keep up the banter with Slim.

“Anyway, Jess, when I’ve finished, I’m going out to the North range. Mr. Whitehead has got his backboard with him and I’m taking his wagon out to do a swap so you can ride into Laramie in some comfort. OK?” asked Slim.

“Not the way you drive, Sherman,” said Jess.

“Right. Please, Jess, try, and get some rest, OK?” With that, Slim ate the eggs and put the steak in a bandana to take with him to eat on the trail.

*****

Jess lay and heard the wagon as it lurched away. He hoped that Mort was right and Charlie, Cole, and Pauly were in Canada. He wasn’t sure, as he knew how Charlie worked; he hung back, watched and waited, an impressive and patient hunter. Jess knew as he’d hunted with him in the past and had learnt his ways. But try as he might, Jess was losing the fight against weakness and fatigue and slowly he drifted off. Not even the strong coffee he loved so much could keep him awake. He finally fell asleep as the food, quietness and exhaustion overcame him.

The peace was shattered by screams coming from downstairs and then men’s loud voices shouting. Jess made to get up but thought he’d better play “the dying cowpoke” because he was going to need all his strength for what he’d planned. He found it hard, as his first reaction was to go and help Mrs. Whitehead.

“Put the old bag in the cellar,” someone called out, and after more scuffling, cursing and screaming, there was peace — except for the occasional banging on the cellar door. Certainly not enough to bring Slim racing back into Charlie’s guns.

Jess lay for what seemed hours, straining to listen until, at last the bedroom door opened and there, with a huge grin on his face, stood Charlie and his two sidekicks, Cole and Pauly.

“Well, well, well, now lookee here! Our old pard Jess Harper with his wings, by the look of ’em, well and truly clipped. Still naked, not packing. When are you going to learn, boy?” snarled Charlie.

“From you Charlie, never,” said Jess softly.

“Well then, where did we leave off?” grinned Charlie.

“I’d given him a bit of a kicking, then I split his lip and you punched his lights out,” laughed Cole in joyful anticipation of inflicting more pain.

“Then the sheriff turned up with his scatter gun,” yelled Pauly and giggled.

“Yes, and where’s our brave sheriff now? Well, let’s see –he’s been to Canada and he’s been to Cheyenne and now I believe he’s heading for Laramie. He sure loves to gallop. How many horses do you think he’s killed this week?” laughed Charlie.

“That your big horse in the stable Jess? You still like ’em fit and fast? A real outlaw’s horse,” Charlie kept on. “I guess the other one belongs to Sherman. I wonder by how much I missed him. No matter, you’ll tell me, won’t you, boy?”

Jess clenched his teeth and stayed silent.

“You not talking, boy? You know what I’m going to ask you. Where’s Sherman?”

“Same answer, Charlie. I don’t know,” sighed Jess.

“Do you like to be a martyr, Jess? What’s so special about this big blonde that you seem to want to die for him?” asked Charlie.

“You wouldn’t understand — he’s my friend,” said Jess at last happy knowing that Slim would soon be surrounded by Mr. Whitehead and his ranch hands and would ride in with them as it was getting dark.

“Well, we’ll see. I don’t hit a man when he’s lying down. We’ll have to try something else,” said Charlie.

“No,” said Jess through his clenched teeth. “You let your boys kick him, though.”

Cole laughed at this and Jess looked at him and spitted out, “I’m going to see to it that you never do that again, OK, boy.”

Cole turned silent and became very still.

“Charlie, can I kill him now?” threatened Cole.

“No, you varmint, stop it. You’ll have your fun soon.”

At that Pauly began to giggle again and chanted, “Soon, soon, soon!”

Charlie gave him a back hander that knocked him against the window, which broke.

“One last chance, Harper! I’m getting mighty bored with all this. Are you going to tell me?” snarled Charlie.

“Same answer — see you in hell,” snapped Jess.

“You enjoy a bit of burning then, Harper? Cole, go get the branding iron you put on to heat. Happens it was one they forgot. You and Harper here can have a play with it,” smiled Charlie, hoping to see some reaction from Jess. Meanwhile Cole flung himself out of the door and down the stairs, giving a rebel yell as he went.

“Now, Pauly, sit on him and hold him down as best you can, He’ll fight like a wild thing when the iron hits him so be ready.” Charlie instructed Pauly.

Charlie also climbed astride Jess’ body, pinning him down. It was agony. Jess couldn’t move and all his wounds were reawakened with the weight that was being brought to bear on them. He tried to relax and save what strength he had for later. He was comforted because he could feel his .45 digging into the bruises on his back. Cole walked through the door — the poker-like branding iron almost white hot.

Jess’ left arm was on the door side and, without a struggle, Charlie took out his knife and slit Jess” sleeve from wrist to shoulder. Jess bit his lip and looked down as Charlie nicked him with his knife. A thin line of blood ran down his arm, which was already black and blue from Jonesy’s skillet, and made the bandage on his wrist soak up the blood. Through the torn shirt, the bandages around his chest and shoulder could clearly be seen,”You always had a rare talent for finding trouble, boy. We sure can’t claim all of this,” said Charlie, and he shook his head.

“No,” said Jess weakly. “They’re down to neighbors and the law.”

“Well,” continued Charlie, “I think I’ll put you out of your misery when this is over.”

“Yeah,” breathed Jess. “Gun in the mouth, messy, fast, and total.”

“You’ve not forgotten then, boy?” Charlie laughed.

“No,” said Jess “and I’ve not forgiven. What you did to that old rancher was out of order. You wonder why I didn’t want to ride with you? Now you know the answer.”

“Yeah, boy, you have a soft spot; it always got you into trouble. Like now — won’t give up Sherman.”

“OK! Cole, have fun,” Charlie held Jess’ arm down and turned his head away.

Cole didn’t need a second invite so, with Charlie and Pauly sitting astride Jess and holding his left inner arm exposed from wrist to elbow, Cole got to it. With a wolf-like grin on his face, he stared down at Jess, and pressed the branding iron down hard. Jess tried, but couldn’t hold out; he arched his back, his whole body was racked with pain and he screamed. The room was filled with the smell of burning flesh.

Cole locked his eyes with Jess’, which were wide with agony, and gave him another wolfish smile. “How was that? Good was it? Is he worth it?” He grinned.

“Again!” said Charlie.” Get on with it.”

Cole giggled and again the poker-like branding iron came down and stayed down for what seemed like an eternity. Jess screamed again – from deep down inside, a deep animal sound of a wild creature in agony.

“Go on, again! He can’t take much more of this,” exclaimed Charlie. Again the poker came down. Jess could only whimper; this time it appeared he didn’t have enough strength to cry out.

“Going to give him up, Jess?” shouted Charlie.

“No,” gasped Jess and rolled his head away from his burning arm.

“Ok, Cole, keep going.”

The poker came down a fourth time, but the heat was going out of it fast and Cole had to leave it longer to get the arm to blister. Jess was shaking his head from side to side and began to shiver in anguish at the unrelenting torture. Blood was trickling down his chin from where he had bitten his lip and his eyes were unfocused and cloudy with pain.

“Go on, Cole, again.”

Cole was beginning to feel cheated now that Jess was lying silent and pressed the poker down as hard as he could, but Jess’ head rolled to one side and he slipped back into that lonely, silent place that he knew so well. It was dark nothingness. He welcomed it as it was the only place where he felt no pain.

“OK Cole, that’ll do. He’s not going to talk. Stubborn young devil. I shouldda known. He always had more guts than sense. He was the best of us, you know. Always liked him, real sound. He was great to have around – always felt safe with him watching your back. Made you feel 10 feet tall.

“A great pity to see what he’s come to. What a waste. Right, you two, get downstairs and find us some victuals to take on the trail and rustle up something to eat. I’ll finish up here and then we’ll get going. I’m not going to Canada, or anywhere else, until I’ve killed Sherman. First he’s responsible for our Ben and now he’s going to be the death of young Jess here. We can’t go and leave any witnesses, not even the woman. Go on then, git.”

Charlie followed them out, but before going downstairs he decided to check out the other bedrooms for maybe money, jewelry, a gold watch, diamond ring. You could never tell with these ranchers what they kept hidden in their houses, the chimneys and the brick-lined holes usually found in the barns.

Jess lay panting, slowly trying to get hold of himself, and listened to Charlie rummaging through the drawers and cupboards, obviously pulling everything out. At last he came along the landing, planning on putting a bullet through Jess’ head, hoping the boy would still be unconscious. His head was down when he reached the doorway.

“Charlie!” The voice was clear and instantly recognizable as Jess’ deep, husky drawl. Jess was standing with his legs apart, braced against the side of the bed. His right hand was held away from his body, his fingers hovering over his gun and holster in the classic gun-fighter stance which came so easily to Jess.

“After you, Charlie,” said Jess softly.

Charlie slapped leather, but before his iron was clear of his holster, a black hole appeared between his eyes and the wall behind him turned red and grey with his blood and brains. Charlie’s face showed his shock and surprise as he was hurtled backwards down the stairs. A dazed Cole ran to look up, drawing his gun and firing it upwards towards Jess as two bullets took him in the middle of the chest. Pauly was standing beside Cole as he slowly folded towards the floor, and, throwing his gun up towards Jess, started to scream, “No, please! No! Please, please, please, NO!”

Jess watched him dispassionately through narrowed eyes and immediately put a bullet through his knee cap. The gunman in Jess took over. He calmly reloaded his gun before dropping it back into its holster. He then backed up against the bed and slowly, with a huge sigh, lay down. He pulled the sheet and covers over his burnt arm and then felt for the coffee. Damn it! He thought, its cold – but he drank it down anyway, and for the first time in over a week fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*****

Sometime later, as the stars lit up a brilliant frosty night, Jess was again awoken by men’s voices and the continuous banging on the cellar door.

“What in tarnation has been going on,” yelled Mr. Whitehead. “It looks like a hog’s been slaughtered.”

“Where’s Jess?” came Slim’s familiar voice, full of alarm. Then came the pounding of feet as they raced up the stairs and Slim came crashing through the door, followed by the rancher, his wife, his son and what seemed like all the ranch hands.

“Jess! Jess! You OK?” exclaimed Slim. “What happened, who were they?”

“My old friends from Texas,” Jess said weakly. “Came to say hello – and goodbye.”

“You OK, pard?”

Jess heard that word again, and again he couldn’t bring himself to say it – yet again. “Yeah,” said Jess quietly. “I’m OK, just tired, can’t sleep with all this… racket!”

“Don’t believe him,” cried Mrs. Whitehead. “They heated one of the old branding irons and I heard him scream. They were looking for you, Slim. I’d have told them fast enough if I’d known where you’d gone.”

“Jess, what those bastards do to you?” demanded Slim, his voice full of anger and concern.

“Nothing, just tried to frighten me, that’s all,” Jess replied weakly.

“It’s his arm. Look how the bed clothes are lying,” said Mr. Whitehead, and he began to lift the sheets.

“I tell you, it’s nothing.” But all the time the trickle of blood onto his chin, from his bitten under lip gave way to the lie.

“Let me see,” said Slim. “How could you let them? It wasn’t worth it; I’d have been OK, God, if I’d known… Just let me have a look. My God, Jess, why didn’t you tell them?” said a shocked Slim, his eyes watering as he looked down at the burnt and branded arm, knowing that Jess could be crippled and would carry the scars for the rest of his days.

The other ranch hands began to mutter and move away, shocked at what they saw and wondered how Jess, who was lying so still, could have found the strength to shoot the outlaws down.

“I’ll get the fixings,” said the ranch foreman, who had doctored many burns in his time.

The burns were all blistered – none had broken the skin, but the five imprints of the iron between wrist and elbow were more than enough for Slim. He took Jess’ cold hand in his, but words wouldn’t come. The even spacing of an inch or two between each brand gave them the air of such cruel deliberation that it made Slim sick to his stomach, and he couldn’t stop questioning Jess.

“Why didn’t you tell them, Jess? I don’t know what gets into you at times. God, what mess your arm is.” Slim turned to the rancher. “Have you any laudanum?”

“I’m… not taking…that,” gasped Jess. “It makes… me sick.”

Slim turned back to Jess. “Why did you let them? Why did you? Why did you?” Slim was feeling sick by what he saw and what he knew Jess must have gone through. He felt guilty and ashamed that, even for a few minutes, he thought that Jess had betrayed him and the people of Laramie. Jess had only known him for a few months and was a difficult person to really get to know — he had a quiet reserve, was modest and shy, and didn’t like to talk about himself, yet he’d gone through hell for Slim and he’d ruthlessly killed again to save them.

Jess finally replied, in a tired, soft, low voice, “I didn’t let… them, Slim… I couldn’t stop… them,” With that, Jess closed his eyes and slipped into the welcoming darkness.

*****

That night was filled with the drama of moving the dead bodies of Cole and Charlie, and doctoring the still weeping Pauly. The trail hands pitched in to help in cleaning up the blood and gore and taking furtive glances at Jess as they realized that, even though he looked half dead, he’d found the energy to kill his tormentors. They all looked at him in awe and moved around the house in respectful silence, not wanting to disturb him.

Jess found this hard to handle; it was as bad as Slim’s constant questions, constant thanks and constant apologies which he hoped would cover up his own nagging feelings of guilt as he felt he had abandoned Jess to go for the buckboard that could have waited ’till morning. He should never have left him; he thought he’d be OK resting, but he’d left him to face Charlie and Cole alone – if only he’d known. He would never forgive himself.

Couldn’t Slim get it through his head, thought Jess, that no matter how good he thought he was with guns, he was no gunslinger, and even in the fairest of fights, Slim would be dead before he got his gun out of its holster. Jess wasn’t ready to put his friend down by telling him this. Let him work it out for himself — that if Jess thought Slim could have taken Charlie and Cole by himself, Jess would have let him. The fact that he couldn’t, and if it had not been for Jess, he would now be dead, was taking a long time for Slim to figure out, but he’d get there in the end.

Jess also found Mr. & Mrs. Whitehead’s overwhelming kindness very difficult to handle. Mrs. Whitehead fussed over his arm and his other injuries like a mother hen. The foreman and the rancher immersed Jess’ arm in cold water packed with ice out of the ice house. It had then been heavily smeared with goose grease and bandaged with the finest of Mrs. Whitehead’s best linen sheets. All the time Slim had insisted on holding Jess up against his shoulder, supporting him and trying to distract him by his usual tormenting banter, much of which Jess couldn’t be bothered answering. All Jess wanted to do was to try and get away from the pain, and sleep.

Mr. Whitehead did his best to get Jess to drink his moonshine whisky but, even the smell of that turned Jess’ stomach. Jess found dealing with the Whiteheads very difficult; he knew that if Whitehead hadn’t brought his buckboard over when he saw what the Taylors had done to him and cut the ropes away which lashed him to the tree, Jess knew he would have been dead. The couple’s kindness and concern were overwhelming and, Jess, being unused to kindness and frightened of their pity, was not as grateful as he should have been. He regretted his surly silence and felt ashamed of his rudeness, but he promised himself that, if he were freed, he’d ride over and visit them, maybe even take one of Andy’s pups along for the son. As for Slim, he’d have plenty of time, he hoped, to thank him himself.

Next morning, the buckboard was filled with straw and mattresses and Jess, after a fairly good breakfast, was helped aboard. He was made comfortable and his left arm carefully padded and supported. He pulled his hat down hard over his eyes, and saying “thanks” yet again, said “Come on, driver, let’s go, and don’t spare the horses.”

Slim smiled and the buckboard headed slowly towards Laramie. After maybe five miles, a voice came from the back. “Slim… can we get…some of that…coffee now?”

“We’ve got about another ten miles,” said Slim.

“OK, if you say so…” The voice was faint and weak.

Slim sighed and, climbed down quickly, got a fire going and made Jess some of his favorite brew. Jess lay on his right side and drank it down with relish – aware that because of his weakness, he could just about get Slim to do anything he wanted. It made him smile.

“Jess, why didn’t you tell me about Charlie and what he wanted to do to me?” Slim didn’t seem to be able to leave it alone.

Jess sighed and tried to explain again. “Didn’t want you involved. You’d go looking for him and you’d get yourself killed. Andy would be an orphan and I’d be out of a job. Don’t ask me again, right? Jess then handed Slim his empty cup and Slim shook his head and went to douse the fire.

“Hey, deputy!” Jess called. “Don’t… forget…the handcuffs.”

“No! Jess, please not again,” complained Slim, hating what he knew Jess was going to insist he did. He hung his head; he knew that Jess wanted Slim to carry out Mort’s instructions to the letter — to do it right and not get in trouble with Mort for not carrying out his orders — but Slim hated it. He wished it could be him; it would be easier. He didn’t know where Jess got his strong sense of loyalty, honor, and integrity from and also his enormous sense of fun. Why did Jess seem to have chosen him to call a friend and be prepared to die for him if need be? He sighed as he climbed into the back of the rig.

“Come on, then Jess, give me your wrists if you want me to do this,” sighed Slim. “I hope you’re not just doing this to make me feel rotten.”

“Come on Slim… would I do this to myself…just for a laugh? We’ll need…to sort this out later…you know that… so just get on with it. Enjoy it while you can…. you won’t get…another chance.” Jess watched Slim’s discomfort from under his thick lashes as Slim locked the cuffs in place.

“There you go, tough guy. Happy you’ve made me feel bad?” grunted Slim.

“Yes.” It was a slight compensation to watch his big friend squirm. He hoped that Slim would realize that Jess was trying to make his job easier for him and would forgive him for his gentle fun-poking.

Jess then clasped his hands together and turned onto his right side and tried to get some sleep. Jess dozed fitfully in the back of the rig as it made its way towards Laramie. He did his best to ignore the agony, which no amount of ice, grease, whisky or care had been able to ease, but he at least felt content. He could at last relax; he was no longer anxious because the gang were dead or in jail, and those he cared about, who were fast becoming his new family, were safe. Even the ache the restraining cuffs were causing wasn’t too uncomfortable. The adrenalin, which had been pumping through his body, keeping his senses and reactions on high alert, had now subsided, and all Jess longed for was peace and a chance to sleep.

*****

The rig finally trundled into Laramie, and Slim pulled up in front of the jail where a small crowd had gathered. In fact, thought Slim, there seemed to be a lot of folk in town today. The townsfolk had obviously been alerted by the earlier arrival of Charlie and Cole’s bodies and the wounded Pauly, who’d been tied into a saddle. His riding days were over as his knee and leg would never be strong enough to sit on a horse again. Jess had figured this out when he’d shot him through the knee cap.

“What now?” Slim thought. “What else is he going to have to go through?” Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by Mort who was shouting at him. “Go to the hotel; everything’s ready for you there, and the Doc’s waiting.”

Mort by then had walked up and climbed into the back of the buckboard. His friendly smile quickly turned to concern and anger when he looked down and saw Jess looking so ill and gaunt. His clothes still carried blood stains. Jess had a borrowed shirt on, but they’d had to cut the left sleeve out, as the bandaging on his arm was too thick to go down the sleeve and Jess couldn’t stand them touching him too much. He wasn’t wearing his jacket; it was around his shoulders. Mort couldn’t see much of Jess” face as he’d pulled his hat down low to keep the sun out of his eyes. Mort did see the handcuffs he’d ordered Jess to wear and saw how closely they held the bandaged wrists together.

“Damn it and tarnation, what kind of callous bastard are you, cuffing this boy like this when he’s gone through hell for you? He’s watched your back for days and tried to save your sorry hide.” Mort shook his head and then went on. “Give me the blasted keys.”

Slim was shocked to hear Mort’s attack but, not knowing what to say in protest, passed the handcuff keys to the Sheriff. Mort knelt down and, muttering away to himself, gently released Jess, who pulled a face as he tried to straighten his arms and move his shoulders.

“It’ll bite a bit at first; take it easy, son. I’ll give you a hand.” Mort helped Jess sit up and rest his back against the side of the rig. “It’s over, son. I’ve got the full sorry story and can’t tell ya how sorry I am. I’m partly to blame for all this. I got the Taylors, though. They’re in jail,” went on Mort.

“Pity, sir. I wanted… to tangle with them… myself,” said Jess sheepishly. Mort, still swearing, rubbed Jess cold hands as he tried to force the blood to circulate in them again. Jess had lost a lot of blood over the days, and in his weakened condition, was going to feel the cold for some time to come.

“No, Jess, leave ’em. The law will be tangling with ’em for a few years to come.”

Mort then turned to Slim. Crowd or no crowd, he wasn’t going to let up on him yet. “And you – and this over- developed thing to ‘do it right’. Where does that come from? Causes a lot of grief. Can’t you decide who’s a wrong ‘un and who deserves the benefit of the doubt?” Mort raked on.

“But Mort, you told me…” Slim tried to but-in.

“Oh no! You’ll not put this down to me! Don’t you ever think for yourself? You come down like a ton of bricks on everybody. Why, chaining up this poor, sick boy, who can barely lift his head, is typical of you and your hard-nosed ways?” the sheriff continued to rage.

“That poor sick boy managed to gun…” started Slim.

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” went on Mort.

“Ask Jess,” went on Slim. He’ll tell ya. Jess, will ya tell him please,” Slim pleaded.

But Jess had put his head down and grinned from ear to ear and pretended not to hear. He just lay and listened to all this; he hugged himself, amused at the tongue lashing that poor, undeserving Slim was getting and realizing much of the cause was Mort’s own feelings of guilt at never really trusting Jess.

At that Jess couldn’t stand keeping things stirred up. He’d rather have aggravation any day than sympathy, so he said. “Yes sheriff…you’re right, that deputy… Sherman of yours… is some cruel hombre. Nearly got me killed… left me on my own,” Jess said innocently.

“Now don’t upset yourself, Jess,” said Mort and he gave Jess right arm a squeeze. “I’ll deal properly with Sherman later. He’ll curse the day he was born for doing this to you.”

“Sheriff, do you not think …” replied Jess.

But Mort wouldn’t listen and butted in. “Come on, son, enough now. Let’s help you out of the back of there.” Then slowly Mort and Billy gently maneuvered Jess to the tail gate of the buckboard. Jess felt his feet finally touch the ground, and the world tipped sideways and spun round and, if it hadn’t been for Mort hanging on to Jess’ belt and arm, he would have gone down.

“Watch out for his left arm,” cried a bemused Slim, shocked and a little hurt that Jess hadn’t turned to him for help.

Jess shook his head, and tried to clear it, as the dizziness began to overwhelm and make him feel sick. Please God, he prayed, don’t let me throw up in front of all these folk.

“Listen, boy. My friends and those I respect enough to ride with, call me Mort. I’d be mighty honored if you’d do the same.”

“And my name’s Billy,” chimed in the deputy.

“We know, we know,” snapped Mort.” I don’t think that Jess is interested in hearing yer name, I reckon. He’s not likely to forget it in a hurry and that goes for your blasted kin, the Taylor boys.”

“Thank you sir, Sheriff …sorry Mort…makes me proud,” stammered Jess. “I’ll not forget…any of that clan…in a hurry.” It was all he could say; he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Jess, who usually avoided all contact with law officers, was now on first name terms with one. The world had certainly turned upside down. “He also wanted the deputy to know he’d be round to tangle with him as soon as he was able– no matter what Mort or Slim said. Jess was a warrior before he was anything else. No one took his gun off him or filled him full of holes without paying the price. He’d not forget their names.

“Come on son, we’ve got the doc, a soft bed and a hot meal waiting for you. The Laramie paper wants to talk to you and I need to tell Slim the whole tale, the truth, and what I’ve found out. He’ll tell me what happened at the Whitehead ranch. So, come on. Easy now. You OK? How do you feel?” went on Mort.

“I’ve felt better…just keep my name… outta the papers. I want… no more old buddies…looking me up and I want to be asleep…when you tell Slim. I don’t need any more of him…spurring and raking me,” Jess said in a soft voice which mirrored his weakness.

At this point, Jess suddenly realized that somebody was missing. He turned his head round to look for the familiar face that was not at his side. He saw him standing head and shoulders above the Laramie crowd that had now begun to clap as they watched Billy and Mort help Jess towards the steps in front of the hotel. Jess couldn’t lift an arm, so he beckoned to him with his head. Slim pushed his way through the crowd, and was soon standing by his side. Billy let go his hold on Jess to allow Slim to put a supportive arm around him. Will you help me…through this, pard …please,” said Jess quietly.

“Yeah, like you helped me just now with Mort,” smiled Slim.

“But Slim, you’re…not a poor…sick boy…chained up in… the hands of a… big bullying…deputy.” The devil was rising in Jess and, exhausted as he was, making him smile.

“One of these days, Harper, I’m gonna have to teach you.” Slim’s old familiar threat was starting out again.

“And your… betters?” smiled Jess.

“No Jess, not them; never them,” replied Slim seriously.

“Slim, will you…take me home…tomorrow… please,” asked Jess wearily, beginning to falter.

“Yeah, tough guy. I’m gonna rope you, cuff you, throw you across my saddle, take you home and put the Sherman brand on you,” laughed Slim.

“Not think… I’ve been branded… enough?” replied Jess.

“Always find room for one more, can’t we, pard?” Slim smiled.

“Sure, sounds fine to me. I’d expect no less…from a bully… like you.” Jess shook his head, weary and happy.

Mort smiled as he listened to the two friends joshing. He opened the hotel door and they all walked through into the dark lobby.

***The End***

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