The Hard Ride (by Effie)

 

Summary:   A sequel to Abandoned.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (subject matter)
Word Count:  49,643


 

“You plan on staying in bed all day?” yelled Slim.

Jess heard Slim yelling again. He knew he should be up and he could smell the bacon and coffee. He just couldn’t be bothered. He’d spent the last fortnight on and off, breaking in the mustangs for the army order. He felt not only exhausted and weak, but as if he’d been rolled over in a stage coach wreck.

All his old injuries were this morning, alive and well. They were reminding him of all the stomping, biting and kicking he had taken from the wild eyed mustangs. The old wounds he’d suffered over his short and violent life were also alive and well. They were also biting back. They wanted to stay in the soft warm bed as well.

Jonesy would laugh and call him soft, he wasn’t soft he just felt awful.

He realized that a lot of his problems had been his own fault. Jess had a reckless disregard for danger. He ignored any threat and if there was any trouble. He met it head on. He spoke with his fist and guns. Yeah, his mouth also got him into a lot of fights. He worried about the consequences later.

His injuries had been caused by men much like himself. They gave no quarter and expected none in return…..It was something he accepted. He tried to ride with the punches and the bullets. He kept his teeth tightly clenched. Nobody would ever dare to call him soft, but this morning he felt just that.

“Come on Jess!” Slim shouted again. “Day’s a wasting!”

“Ok! Ok! Ok! I’m up!” Jess lied. He finally rolled over and sat up. He slowly stretched out like a cat and finally stood up. He felt more than a shade fragile. He pulled a face as his muscles complained and his bad shoulder threatened to go into a spasm. He then turned and began to look for his clothes which he had scattered the night before, as he had flung himself into bed. He grunted when he caught sight of himself, half naked in the small mirror. He looked a wreck. Many of the bruises were swollen deep crimson, purple to black and others were on the mend turning yellow. He pulled his shirt on fast as he didn’t want Jonesy, moseying around, wanting to cover him with his miracle horse, hound, and man liniment. Jess knew of old it didn’t do any good, just made a mess of his already tatty old duds. He didn’t like the smell of it. He slowly pulled on his boots and felt his shoulder muscles complain. He felt a painful twitch in his ribs as he dragged his old mule ears on. God! he thought, what am I going to be like if I get to be an old man. I’ll be a wreck……..

Jess normally didn’t think that far ahead. He was used to putting his life on the line and knew one day he’d get caught out. He only hoped that when that happened, it would be on the wing. Like a goose in full flight, fast and almost unknowing. He’d rather die like that, than be left waiting to die of old age; spending a lifetime, dependent on others charity. A tragic figure to be pitied. He’d seen it happen to others and it happened fast. If Jess feared anything it was that. It could be today. The big black brute of a stallion that he was going to throw a leg over after breakfast could easily see him off. It had a wild madness about it. Its hooves would come down like sledge hammers and would kill or maim just as easily. It was going to take all his strength to hold on to the outlaw horse. He knew it had a mouth as hard as old boots and it could pull like a train. Yeah, thought Jess, it could well be today as he did not feel that strong, but he thought he was lucky, he’d often walked away when others bit the dust. He finally exited the bedroom and went into the living room where Slim, Andy and old Jonesy were sitting around eating their breakfasts.

“About time!” moaned Jonesy, getting up. “I’ll do you some more eggs……these are cold…..I’ll feed them to the hens.”

“No Jonesy, they’ll do fine,” murmured Jess and he tried not to look at Slim, who he knew watched him like a disapproving big brother a lot of the time.

“They won’t,” argued Jonesy already dropping the eggs into the hot fat in the skillet. You’re the star of this morns rodeo show and you are gonna need all yer strength.”

“And then some, pard,” added Slim. “You sure you’re up for it, you look a mite peaky to me.”

“I’m fine,” replied Jess as he helped himself to the first coffee of the day.

“Ya always say that….even when yer head is hangin’ off.” Slim grudgingly answered. “Can never get the truth outta ya. Yer’re a real mule-headed hombre; you’ll get yer head kicked in one of these days.”

“Not by you!” growled Jess as he felt his hackles rise in temper. Why couldn’t Slim leave him alone to have his breakfast in peace?

Slim saw signs of Jess’ rising temper and let him alone. He obviously wasn’t in the mood for any banter.

Jess got on with his food. Slim was right he was going to need all his strength and then some. He just hoped they were not going to stay and watch, as he knew he would be spending the morning flying through the air and rolling in the dirt, trying to avoid the killer hooves of the stallion.

“Do ya think you’ll have him beat this morning?” Slim enquired quietly of his pard.

“Don’t know; you’ll have to ask him. I’ve tried every trick in the book. But he is stubborn, a boneheaded lunatic that doesn’t know what’s good for him. He won’t meet me half way. I’ve tried kindness, sweet talk, carrots, sugar lumps. He danged near took my hand of. He just watches me with those narrow, little devil eyes, just waiting for a chance to kick or stomp me. He’s got no respect, certainly no fear, just wants to get away and run wild causing a ruckus and upsetting the whole of the herd. He keeps them on the move. I don’t think he’ll ever be broke. He’ll always be looking for a chance to get away. God help his rider, he’ll always want to stomp him. Talk about biting the hand that feeds him? He will always be aggravation wherever he is. Thank God we’re not keeping him.”

Slim listened to Jess as he moaned on about the stallion and thought ruefully that he could be describing himself. Except that Jess seemed to be finally putting down roots, and certainly his actions over the past year had earned him a soft spot in many of the locals” hearts. Jess certainly behaved like a stallion as he watched over a lot of the folks in Laramie, who he thought needed a hand. Folks only had to ask and he’d be there at the gallop.

Jonesy started to laugh and he caught Slims’ eye, and he started to laugh as well.

“What’s the joke?” asked Andy innocently.

“Yeah?” quipped Jess, “What’s so funny about me taking my life in my hands, so you can make a profit. You’d moan if you had to deal with that evil, black hearted devil yourself.”

That brought even more laughter and Jess looked at the two of them in disgust.

“Don’t you know, Jess?” laughed Slim who was almost choking with mirth. “The way you’ve been talking about that stallion, you could have been describing yourself, ‘cept it has four legs, and brown eyes.”

“Yeah?” smiled Jess, “I told you what a fantastic horse he was. Brave, good looking, really fast. His mares love him. Told you, you’d not find better.” That brought on even more laughter.

“Please Jess no more! Get your breakfast down! I’m gonna bust a gut at this,” moaned Jonesy. “Just don’t let that four legged twin of yours roll on you.”

“Don’t worry, Jonesy, I’ll put a bullet “tween his eyes first” said Jess with a grin.

“No you won’t,” said Slim. “I’ve only known you do that to the two legged, and they’ve deserved it.”

“Now stop going on,” Jess continued, “I’m gonna have another go at him, but I’ll take it easy. I’ve to go into Laramie later on. Is that still on? You still want me to drive the stage to Cheyenne in time to catch the train to Denver. It’ll mean a night in Laramie and a start around dawn. Is that what you want, Slim?”

“Yeah,” Slim replied, “Tad is still laid up, and this was a one of job that I’m not covered for. I’ll go if you don’t want to. Just thought you’d enjoy a quiet night with Mort. You deserve a break after the hammering you’ve taken from those mustangs, and we’ll see you in a couple of days.”

“You’ll be gone all day?” Jess enquired.

“No, pard, Be back for dinner,” replied Slim, “to see how you and your friend has been getting along………maybe I’ll bring the doctor with me”.

On hearing that, Jess sprang up and made a grab for Slim, who was ready and was almost out the door before Jess had cleared his chair

“You’re getting slow, Harper! You coming, Andy?” Slim laughed and headed out the door. “See you, tough guy!”

The two of them were left to finish their breakfast in peace. Jess started to pour another coffee. “You want some Jonesy?” he asked.

“Na, thanks, it’s too brewed for me now…it would give me the shakes,” said Jonesy mournfully.

“It’ll help me keep my wits about me,” grinned Jess.

“You’ll need to,” old Jonesy agreed. “I’ll come out every so often and check if you’re still standing.”

“Thanks,” said Jess seriously”, Hope to God I am”. With that he got up, collected his hat, and headed out for the door and the stallion.

*****

Slim and Andy made their way back early for dinner. They hoped to catch Jess putting the stallion through its paces, as by now, Slim thought the stallion would have learnt some manners, and it would be behaving like all the others that Jess had had through his hands, all doing their damnest to please him.

Slim pulled up, at the edge of the group of trees and took out his field glasses. He nodded to Andy to keep quiet, and focused on the corral. He was just in time to see Jess being hurled through the air and over the corral fence. He caught the top rail of the fence with his leg, and was spun to land hard on the other side.

“That must have been sore, pard; here Andy take a look,” said Slim and he handed the glasses to his young brother. Andy followed his big brothers direction.

“Slim, is he all right?” asked Andy with worry written all over his face for his friend.

“Why?” asked Slim, “Has he not got up? Here give them to me, let’s take a look.”

Andy handed them over and Slim quickly readjusted them and took another look. He watched as Jess slowly climbed over the rails; this was an unusual sight as Jess prided himself on being able to vault them.

He laughed at Slim, who couldn’t and said it was because he was too big, too clumsy, and too fat. Slim grinned as he watched Jess go towards the big horse with his hand held out. The big horse was standing with its legs slightly apart, ears laid back and tail up. It was blowing noisily down its nostrils and watched Jess as he approached him.

Slim couldn’t see, but he knew that the whites of its eyes would be showing and it would be baring its teeth. Yeah, thought Slim, a dangerous beast if I ever I saw one. He watched as Jess got hold of the cheek strap and pulled the horses head round hard and with the reins in his right hand got hold of the saddle horn and athletically vaulted into the saddle. The horse just stood still and gave a violent shake of its head. Phew! thought Slim, that was some trick that paid off!

“Did ya see that?” said Andy.

“Yeah,” said Slim, “and don’t you go trying anything like that”.

At that moment, as Slim still watched through his glasses, he heard as well as saw the horse’s screams of rage. It reared onto its back legs and then bounded onto its front legs, and put its head between its legs. It came upright again and shied violently to one side and took off at a gallop; not towards the rails but towards the barn. Jess managed to cling on, but he was being thrown around like a rag doll. Slim couldn’t bear to watch, but just saw the horse shie away at the last second, as it did so it athletically started to corkscrew and buck. He saw Jess flung violently sideways against the wall of the barn.

“Come on, Andy!” Slim dug his spurs in and took off in a totally dangerous and reckless way. Completely out of character for him, who always approached problems in a calm, measured, surefooted way. He pulled up at the corral, just as Jonesy was kneeling beside Jess.

“Is he O.K.?” Slim demanded to know.

“Think so. Won’t know “till he tries to move”, replied Jonesy, as he used a wet towel to bathe Jess” face and neck. Jess gave an involuntary groan and slowly shook his head.

“Will you quit that…..I’m getting soaked,” Jess weakly said.

“Are you O.K., pard?” Slim asked anxiety written all over his face.

“Been better, felt better, give me a hand up, will ya,” said Jess.

“Do you not think you should get your breath back first” asked Slim.

“No, I’ve got to get on that bastard. I think he’s tiring,” said Jess.

“He’s not,” Jonesy remarked. “I recon he is getting worse. I’ve been watching him and he is toying with you.”

“So now you know all about breaking horses,” Jess said getting irritated; by now he was on his feet and was gently moving around, checking to see if he was alright. He knew that the adrenalin tended to mask the initial pain, but he also knew, what a broken bone grinding against another felt like. He knew he hadn’t broken anything; he’d bounced as usual and had kept his head tucked in. Jess went to go after the horse, but swayed and staggered and if had not been for Andy and Jonesy, he would have fallen.

“Well, that’s it, Jess; I need you on that stage tomorrow. The horse can wait. How’s dinner coming, Jonesy?”

Slim took charge of the situation and by the sound of his voice, Jess knew that there was no use arguing. Anyway he’d had enough and was glad that the problem had been taken out of his hands. He felt battered about anyway, and needed a rest.

“I’ll get the saddle offa him.” said Jess quietly.

“No you won’t! You get inside and get a coffee, then get your feet up……….I’ll see to the evil varmint.” Slim ordered.

“You’ll not shoot it?” grinned Jess.

“Not today,” laughed Slim, glad to hear that Jess was beginning to joke again, a sure sign that he was not feeling too bad.

Jonesy, Jess and Andy walked back together towards the old timber ranch house. Andy put his arm around Jess and he appreciated the affectionate gesture, and put his arm around the young boy’s slim shoulders, and gave him a squeeze.

“Don’t worry, Andy, I’m O.K. Just met up with another wild critter that doesn’t want to be domesticated.” And the two of them laughed at their own private joke.

“You need some doctoring Jess,” asked Jonesy eagerly.

“No thanks. I’ve got to go into Laramie and I don’t want to smell like a skunk,” replied Jess with a laugh.

“My liniment don’t smell like skunk, you’ll be glad of my doctoring skills one of these days, you see if you won’t,” moaned Jonesy.

“Yeah. Unless your cookin’ kills me first,” Joked Jess, who secretly thought Jonesy was a great cook, he made excellent pies.

The four of them finally sat down to eat. Jess was quietly relieved that he wouldn’t have to go near the stallion again or a few days. His shoulder, which had had a bullet cut out of it by the army doctor when the Taylor boys had used him for target practice, still occasionally, gave him hell.

The doctor in town said it would heal in time as the damaged tissue was replaced with new. Today however it had enough and already he could feel it as it began to stiffen up.

He thought when he got to Laramie, if the sheriff would let him, he’d have a long soak, in his big tub. Mort kept it in the spare cell in the back of the jail house. He said it was to keep his prisoners clean, but Jess knew, that with the exception of himself, when he had been locked up in Mort’s jail for 21 days, nobody was ever in Mort’s jail for more than 2 or 3 days. They were either released or moved on to Cheyenne.

Jess had come in for special treatment and he still couldn’t fathom out why. He’d come to use the tub a lot and knew it was brilliant for aches and pains.

“Cat got yer tongue?” Slim asked suddenly breaking into Jess” thoughts.

“No. Sorry folks, I’ve been thinking,” replied Jess.

“Heavens alive,” laughed Jonesy, “you’ll have it snowing if you keep that up.”

“Well? Are you gonna share these thoughts or are they a dark secret?” asked Slim still wanting to know.

“They’re not worth repeating and you’d laugh if you knew. You’ve had enough fun out of me for one day…..if that’s O.K. pard,” Jess ruefully replied and gave his head a slight shake. It was sometimes hard living on the Sherman ranch, he came from that part of the world where you did not ask any man a question about himself, it was polite to wait, and if he wanted to tell you he would, in his own good time. Slim always wanted to pick the bones of everything; it was hard to keep anything to you.

“Now, now, don’t take on so. I was just worried that with you being so quiet you were not feeling so good… What do you think Jonesy?”

“I think, with my doctoring experience , that he should go and lie down and get a rest, before he takes off for Laramie,” said Jonesy.

“That’s it then, you go and get your head down. We’ll take care of things. Are you ready?”

“Yeah, I don’t need much anyway, Don’t I get a say in this?” asked Jess not liking being told what to do again

“No, you’ve a coach and four to drive for two days. So you need to be fit. Just go and get yer head down, just be sensible for once and don’t argue” ordered Slim.

“Yes, boss,” said Jess with his usual mocking smile on his face.

“I wish that were true,” said Slim.

“I’ll go and check over Traveler first, and then I’ll get my head down.” Jess replied. With that, Jess got up and headed for the kitchen.

“The carrots and apples you stole and hid are in a bucket under the sink,” grinned Jonesy and he winked at Slim.

Jess sighed and shook his head, he was right. That was the problem living with folks, you couldn’t have any secrets. He got the bucket and went out to the horses to give them their treat. It was one of the ways that Jess found helped him to relax.

*****

Slim and Jonesy listened to him go, and then the three of them began to laugh and decided amongst themselves how long it would be before Jess came rushing back through the door to tell them what they already knew. Almost before they could decide on a time, he came crashing through the door.

“Come on Slim, quick, that black brute has gone. We need to ride if we’re gonna catch him,” cried Jess out of breath as he began to buckle on his gun belt.

“Come on Slim! Get moving” yelled Jess, “didn’t ya hear me….he’s gone!”

“Yeah, I know,” said Slim, ‘I turned him loose. He’s a wild one; if he wants to, he’ll be back. If he’s not, he’s better of out on the range, where he won’t get into any trouble.”

Jess looked at Slim, in astonishment, then his whole manner changed, it was as if someone had hit him in the guts.

“And I was never asked? I’ve put in all that work with that black hearted devil. I’m black and blue all over. The thought of putting my leg over any horse at the moment makes me want to throw up and you decide to just turn him loose.” Jess complained bitterly.

“Look Jess, there’s some you can win round and some no matter what, will never settle, will never be of any use, will always cause you problems. He couldn’t be relied on except to cause us constant aggravation. He was one of those. In the end it wasn’t worth the effort, he’d never be any good. He was just trouble no matter how good a horse you thought he was. We are well rid of him.”

Jess had his head down and he just listened. His face suddenly filled with color and then equally fast, it went pale again under his tan. “You never turned me loose” said Jess quietly.

“Oh yes I have you’re still going off, whenever you get a chance, getting into all kinds of trouble. You’ve got more horse sense than him, you know where you belong, and you always come back. Anyway you’ve nowhere else to go. Enough of this,” said Slim as he caught the look on his friends face and realized that he had hit on nerve and had probably offended him.

“I thought you were going to get a rest. Andy will give the horses their treats. Won’t you, Andy?” his big brother asked.

“Sure will, Slim” He smiled at Jess.

“Well if that’s what you want,” said Jess in a low husky voice which could hardly be heard.

“Yeah pard, that’s what I want,” said Slim. “I’ll see ya afore ya go?”

“Sure thing,” said Jess and he turned to Jonesy and asked him to wake him up in three hours, no later.

“Yeah Jess, now go and get your head down and try and get some sleep, boy. Excitement’s over for one day.” Jonesy’s face lit up with an unfamiliar grin and he gave a sad little shake of his head.

With that, Jess turned away and went through into the bedroom and closed the door.

The three others looked at each other and grinned, until Jonesy said, “You’d better go and check if he’s okay. I don’t think he took that at all well.”

“Ya think? Never thought that Jess was so touchy, he’s no violet,” said Slim.

“He’s sensitive, very vulnerable and has too much pride. Shows how much you know him. He keeps his feelings to himself, well hidden and buried deep. Talking to him at times is like peeling an onion and I think we have maybe torn a bit too much of today. He doesn’t like you to know how easily he is hurt, but I’ve seen it. That’s why he is so easily offended,” old Jonesy muttered on in his usual fatherly manner as he tried to help Slim out with his ongoing “hot and cold” relationship with Jess.

“When did you get to be so wise, Jonesy?” questioned Slim.

“When I stopped hollering at folk and ordering them about as if they were nothing. I listen to them and I watch them. You don’t try hard enough to get to know folk. You never give any one the benefit of the doubt; it is all black and white with you. You’d make a great hangin’ judge. You’ve more or less told him in there, that he is dangerous, and even if he feels he belongs here …You’ve made it clear that he has nowhere else to go. That’d make anyone fell great, and I don’t think,” Jonesy raked on. “I know how much he cares for you, and you know he loves Andy. You’ve just made light of that by reminding him that he’s got nothing and there is nobody who gives a can of worms for him.”

“Gee Jonesy you make me out to be a brute,” complained Slim.

“Well you are at times, a real pain in the butt,” Jonesy replied.

“I didn’t mean that at all, it just got out of hand, you know that Jonesy,” said Slim, then he went on and said, “I can’t imagine life here now without him. He’s what makes this place hum. When he’s low, why even the horses go of their feed. I know I don’t sleep worrying about him. Look at the hell he puts us through when he goes off, shouldering some one else’s problems and the upset he causes when he sometimes comes back hardly able to stay in the saddle.”

“Well he needs to hear that from you, Slim. At the moment, I think he feels that you take advantage of him, because he has nowhere else to go except on the drift again. May be even take up that fast gun of his again, the one that’s hidden in the cubby hole on the mantelpiece.”

“I’ll have a word with him right now.” Slim then turned to his young brother, who had been quietly sitting hanging onto every word. “Andy, I thought you were going out to give the horses their tit bits?”

“Sure Slim I’m on my way.” Andy headed out to the barn to spoil the horses like Jess did.

“Wish me luck, Jonesy,” said Slim quietly and he went and knocked on their bedroom door and gingerly went in, unsure what kind of welcome he would get.

He sighed with relief as he found Jess in bed curled up on his side facing away from the door. All his clothes were scattered over the chair and Slim saw all the bruises Jess had collected over the past fortnight, some from two hours ago and some fourteen days old., all very colorful and looking a mite sore.

“You asleep, pard?” Slim asked quietly.

“Well I was. What’s the matter? Changed your mind? Want the stallion back?” asked Jess in exasperation at being woken up.

“No, Jess, we need to talk,” said Slim grimly.

“Well, get on with it. I’m all ears,” replied Jess and he flung himself angrily over to look at Slim

“Well pard, it is a bit difficult, but you know how we were joshing about you being just like that rogue stallion, hard headed, stubborn and dangerous?”

“Yeah. Made me feel really great and happy especially in front of Andy,” said Jess quietly.

“Well, what I need to say first, Jess, is, I’m sorry. It got out of hand; you know my mouth can be as bad as yours when I get going. You must know I didn’t mean any of it. I’m sure you know that you are worth more than that. We all need you, and want you here. How many times do I have to tell you that the place would not be the same without you?”

“You must know that you make this place come alive with your enthusiasm, and energy. It’s your damned joy of life that keeps us all going, especially when the going gets tough,” Slim went on, not knowing what to say because he knew how easily Jess got offended.

“Great Slim, thanks, but what has this got to do with letting that horse go?” asked Jess wearily.

“You want the truth? Okay then, Jess. I was frightened. You can be stubborn, you know you can. You don’t seem to know when enough is enough, when to let it go and throw in the towel. I was frightened you’d keep after that brute and it would end up killing you. Both those falls and I only saw the last two could easily have crippled you and both were in the killing class”.

“Just look at the bruises you’ve got, I bet Jonesy’s not seen them. He’d have told me how bad there were and made you stop. I never ever want to have to think of a time of being here without you to help run the place. We are a great team, we work well together, and you are always there to back me up. You take on my fights just as if it they were your own. You’ve proved yourself time and time again, that you are part of this family, with bonds as strong as blood. I think of you as a brother and I don’t want to see you get hurt or killed just over a wild mustang.”

Slim went silent. He wanted to tell Jess that he loved him like a brother, but he knew that Jess would not like to hear what he called sissified talk, so he waited to hear what Jess would say.

“Slim, why are you taking on, I know all this, and it’s good to hear you say it, but you must know that I feel the same way about all of you. You’re my new family that I am lucky to have found to take the place of the one that I lost. I belong here, I know that now.

“I need to be here because I love to be here. I could always find somewhere else to go, I get enough offers. You know Mort and the sheriff over in Cheyenne are always after me to work for them. I choose to stay here with you all, sides the place would fall apart without me.”

“I know I’ve been a bit “ornery this last couple of days, but it is because I’m sore and doggone tired. I’ll never get that blasted stage to Cheyenne if you’re gonna sit there yakking and talkin’ rubbish all afternoon.”

“Can you not find something more useful to do besides raking me again? I need to get to Laramie, I want to see Mort about his boiler, and at this rate I’ll be too damned jiggered to pull me boots on….never mind drive a team of Moses best young uns.”

“Ok, Ok, Ok, I’ve got the message” Slim smiled and he got up, “We Okay now?”

“Damned right we are; we were before.” Jess smiled and held out his hand and the two friends shook on their friendship.

*****

Jess got into Laramie just as the sun was going down. He stopped off at the livery stable and talked to the two old boys there, they were going to take care of Traveler, and he wanted them to check his horse’s right fetlock as the chestnut was beginning to favor it.

He then wandered over to see the sheriff, Mort Corey, who had become a real close friend over the time he had been in Laramie. It hadn’t stopped him from doing his job when Jess had had to do twenty one days hard labor. Mort had a lot of time for Jess as whenever he needed a good tracker, a fast rider, and some one good with a gun. He knew he only had to ask and Jess would be there raring to go.

As for Jess, he still found it hard to believe that he and a lawman could be such good friends. He smiled, when he thought of this as he opened the jailhouse door and walked in.

“Hello son,” Mort said as he looked up with a smile on his face, “not seen much of you lately”.

“I’d have thought that would be no bad thing,” joked Jess, “we don’t always meet up to have a friendly chat”.

“Now don’t you start,” complained Mort, “I thought we had moved on?”

“We have” said Jess “I just like to rake you a bit, now and then. Remind you that I’ve not forgot.”

“Coffee just brewed if you want one”, Mort went on.

“Yeah, thanks. Shall I do you the honors?” Jess asked.

“Please,” replied Mort “You want something in it?”

“No Mort, but thanks anyway.” Jess took Mort his coffee over to him and sat down at the desk beside the sheriff.

Mort picked up his coffee and started sipping it, and then he said, “Got yer message about the boiler. It’s on; water should be piping hot.”

“When? How? Asked Jess in surprise.

“Well I called in this afternoon, on me way back from the Black’s place and Slim told me that you were coming to see me about the boiler. He wasn’t very happy at not being in on the secret. It won’t do him any harm ….it’s nice to keep some things to yerself,” the sheriff said.

“Yeah. It’s kinda hard to do that….He’d have to do 21 days hard labor to find out.” Jess laughed when he saw the expression on Mort’s face. “Did he say where I was?” Jess continued.

“No, in fact, I never asked him; didn’t see ya, thought you must have been out fence riding. Where were you?” Mort enquired suddenly curious.

“In bed”, and Jess laughed. “Slim reckons that I nearly got myself killed trying to break this brute of a horse, the Comanche way didn’t seem to work.”

“Well”, said Mort, “did ya?”

“Nope. That’s why I need a good long soak. Horse nearly broke me.” Jess grinned.

“Do you want to get your supper now? You can come home with me. I believe herself is doing stew and dumplings.”

“No thanks, Mort, I fancy one of Julie’s big steaks, eggs, you know……I don’t have to tell you,” smiled Jess as he remembered his time in jail.

“Yeah, you cost the county a fortune, that time I had you locked up,” grinned Mort.

“I bet it cost more than the fifty dollar fine, to feed me and take care of Traveler,” Jess agreed.

“What about the doctor’s bills?” added Mort. “No can’t afford to jail you too often, much too expensive.”

“Good, because I can’t do time, you know that. I can’t stand it” said Jess seriously.

“Yeah, I know, son,” said Mort in an equally serious voice.

“Anyway the town got its money’s worth outta me; never seen the Main street look so smart, and that deputy of yours also took his pound of flesh outta me, the madman.”

“Or so white”, laughed Mort. I’ll see you back here later?”

“Do you ever hear anything of those bastards?” asked Jess.

“Yeah, they got parole; they got a good lawyer who pleaded their case on youthful excitement. They and Billy Tait are out at their spread. Just hope they stay there. Now don’t you go looking for trouble, Jess. Let it go do you hear?”

“Yeah, Mort, but if they push me I hope you won’t mind if I push back.”

“As long as you don’t start the pushing. Will I see you back here later?” asked Mort.

“Yeah Mort ……..I’ll be in the tub…..don’t leave it too long in case I fall asleep and drown.”

“That’s all I’d need!” Mort shook his head. “Get on with yer nonsense, you drive me mad. Get going before I change my mind and let all the water away.”

With that, Jess picked up his hat, twirled it around, and put it on pulling it well down over his face, he exited the door and was gone.

*****

Jess went over to Julie’s, and as usual she gave him a great welcome.

“Heard you were in town from young Jed, him and his Dad are coming over to eat with you. I’ve got your usual. Found a piece of steak that’s been lying around, really black. You’ll not need a knife to cut it. I guess you’ll want your eggs soft and fried potatoes brown and crispy?”

“You’re a mind reader,” grinned Jess.

“No, you just don’t seem to eat my stew and dumplings; they are a real house specialty. Most trail hands wolf them down,” Julie continued.

“I eat stew nearly three times a day back at the ranch; even have it ‘tween two slices of bread cold.” Jess went on, “Jonesy is not the best cook in the world.”

“Stop moaning; he does his best fer ya all. You want pie and cheese to follow? Want a coffee while you wait?” Julie continued.

“Yeah, that would be good. Apple pie and cheese sounds swell.”

“Well, I’ll get started. In fact I already have……That’ll be a Harper special times three.”

Jess laughed and turned away as he heard the door open. The blacksmith and his son walked in; they all shook hands, got their coffees and took the table in the corner.

The conversation was easy going and Jess listened to the gossip, some of which went over his head as he didn’t know who they were talking about. One thing was decided; Jed’s dad had said that he could ride up alongside Jess on the stage coach box and go with him to Cheyenne tomorrow. He’d be able to stay over and come back the next day if that was the plan.

“That’d be swell,” said Jess. “I’ll have some company alongside me .We can get a meal, a few hours in Cheyenne before we head back. I don’t like sleeping in strange beds.”

So the conversation went on, they ate their meal and Jess broke up the evening by saying he wanted an early night, as there was a full moon and they could hit the trail real early about 4 am.

“In fact Jed, you could do something for me,” said Jess. “Go to the hotel and tell Jamie Curl to get his quests up and out by 3:45. Can you do that; on your way home?”

“Sure Jess, I’ll do it right away,” grinned the youngster.

“Well, that’s fine, you’ll keep an eye on him for me, Jess,” said the blacksmith, “Make sure he doesn’t get into any trouble.”

“It’ll probably be the other way round, but I’ll do my best,” said Jess with a smile as he thought how Slim and Jonesy would yell with laughter if they had heard that remark.

“Julie, that was great. How much do I owe you?” asked Jess.

“Forget it, Jess, that was on me” said the blacksmith.

“You sure?” asked Jess. “Well thank you kindly. You don’t have to, I’m happy to take Jed with me. I’ll be glad of the company, will keep me awake.”

“No, I want to,” said the blacksmith. “You’ve done a lot for Jed; anyways I’ll see you in a couple of days, have a good trip.”

“Thanks,” said Jess and he got up as the blacksmith left and paid the bill before he left.

Jess went over to the counter to have a last joke with Julie. “That was a great pie, Julie; I reckon I’ll have to marry you.”

“You “d better get in line,” Julie laughed, “you’re about number eleven….a lot of richer, taller, better looking men than you have already asked me already.” Julie laughed as she replied.

“Yeah? But are they single, young and fast?” Jess replied with a grin.

“Maybe not, but they don’t have to be fast or sit in corners with their backs to the walls,” she pointed out.

“Now Julie, you know that is for protection from all the husbands and fathers who take on after me with their shotguns,” Jess replied.

“That’s rich. When did you ever take on after anyone?” asked Julie.

“Yeah, you’re right. You know what I am frightened of? A good woman getting me. Yeah, and being left a foot,” laughed Jess. “Ask Billy Tait; he’ll tell you that I ruined his love life. He and his kin have been after me ever since.”

“Yes Jess, I heard about the Taylor’s and I know what Billy Tait did, I was glad the sheriff got rid of him after what he had a go at you. I must have missed his love life. I reckon he must have been dreaming.”

“That makes two of us. I still don’t know who she was” said Jess.

“Anyways enough of this, I’ve got to get on. Want anything else?” Julie turned all business like and continued.

“Breakfast early, at about 3:15, the usual. Will you put something up for Jed and me to eat on the trail?”

“Sure Jess, I heard you were off at dawn…..3:15….that’s the middle of the night. Should be a nice trip that early. Sure you’ll be up?” |she laughed.

“I’ll be up….am looking forward to it…….well I’ll see you tomorrow, or should I say the middle of the night.”

With that, Jess put on his hat and walked away into the street. Dusk had given way to darkness, and the moon, which was full at that time had not yet risen. The town was so dark Jess could hardly make out the buildings as they loomed out of the darkness as Jess walked carefully down the street towards Mort’s office

*****

Jess had decided to ask Mort if he could stay the night there, in the cell he had occupied for the 21 days he had done hard labor; it was in the back opposite the cell with the hot tub. It wouldn’t take long to sort out the bunk again, as the sheriff often stayed overnight in it himself. He’d been very comfortable and had slept well in there. Anyways he didn’t relish getting out of the tub, getting dressed again and walking back up the street to the hotel.

Jess was thinking all this through as he made his way up the board walk. As he stepped down to go between two buildings, he suddenly heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

Immediately he fired in the direction of the sound, simultaneously both guns spoke together. The bullet went past with its usual waspish sound; whoever they were they had missed, even so, he heard another shot. Jess then started to give chase into the alley, and he saw some shadowy figures as they darted away. He brought his gun up again, but as he did so he stumbled and fell over something. He’d lost them.

He quickly holstered his iron and bent over to see what he’d fallen over. As he did, other folk started to run towards him and the figure on the ground. They all gathered round to watch as he turned the body over. It was a youngster of maybe 17, and thank God, thought Jess he was still alive. Jess examined him , the boy had got a nasty crease running alongside his head for about 4 inches above his right ear; he had been lucky.

“O.K. folks, off you go there is nothing to see.”

Jess looked up, into the stern and unsmiling face of Mort Corey.

“You got anything to do with this?” asked Mort, suddenly Jess’ friend was gone, and the sheriff was standing over him.

“Yeah, it looks that way,” said Jess quietly.

“Right. John, I’ll leave you with the boy, he doesn’t look too bad, get him up to the doctor’s office and stay with him. When the Doc’s, seen to him, come back to the jail house and report to me.”

“O.K. sheriff.” and John Barnes the new deputy took over.

“Right, Jess, you’re to come with me.” Corey ordered.

“Why? Are you arresting me?” asked Jess.

“No, Not yet. I’m taking you into protective custody. The boy is one of the Wilson’s; they’re a wild bunch and are probably still lurking around. I don’t want them having another go at you.”

“Well if I’m not being arrested, I’m keeping my iron, I don’t feel safe without it, and you know that.”

“O.K, son. That’s what you want, sounds reasonable”, agreed Mort. “Now get going, I’ll be behind you to watch your back”.

“Fine,” said Jess, “who’s watching yours?”

“Not your problem, young man, now get going,” ordered Mort Corey.

The sheriff escorted Jess down to the jail, watched by some of the townspeople, who were already nodding and shaking their heads, all harking back to the other times that Jess had been escorted down the street by the sheriff. They got to the jail and went inside.

“O.K., son,” said Mort, “get through to the back, and get your soak. You can sort out your bed as the tub is filling.” With that, Mort locked the jail house door and pulled down all the blinds.

“Look Mort…or are we now official? Is it sheriff again?” Jess asked his friend who sighed and shook his head.

“Not yet. Jess, but you could be in trouble; we’ll have to see what the Wilsons want to do about it. They may make a complaint, or decide to forget the whole thing.”

“Well whatever you say. But you can’t have me until tomorrow night as I have to take the stage to Cheyenne at four tomorrow morning. Slim’s counting on me, but I’ll come straight back. I promise, Mort; I give you my word.” Jess said sternly.

“O.K. son, it’s a bit unusual, but if anything happens, it won’t be until tomorrow morning when the office is open again, and you’ll be long gone. I want you straight back, you hear. It’ll be some drive.” Mort shook his head ruefully.

“I’ll be O.K. I’ve got young Jed with me, he’ll keep me going, and I’ll take it easy. I’ve got everything organized, breakfast as the cocks crow, stage pickup at 3:45……it’s all done.”

“Well I’ll stay here tonight,” mused Mort “and get Julie to bring breakfast over here. The fewer people who see you the better.”

“Why would the Wilsons want to take a shot at me, Mort?” Jess questioned the sheriff.

“Don’t you know who they are?” asked Mort.

“No, I know nothing about them,” replied Jess.

“Mrs. Wilson is Billy Taylor’s sister and the Taylor boys are also Billy’s nephews, so it looks as if Billy has got some of his kin to help him gun you down; that’s what he promised. You see that there is a lot more to this than meets the eye,” Mort explained. “I’ll just have to get the truth out of the youngster before his uncle gets him to start lying.”

“That could cause a big problem for me. What would the charge be, if they decide to go after me?” asked Jess and he felt his stomach turn cold.

“Not sure; it’s be serious because of the gunfire. If we can get the boy to tell the truth, that he wasn’t alone, and they were armed and took a shot at you, it would be O.K. as that would be self-defense. Anything else could go from assault with a deadly weapon all the way to attempted murder,” Mort continued to explain. He was well aware of the troubled expression on Jess” face for, with his reputation, he was always first in the firing line when the blame game started.

“God, Mort that sounds mighty serious” said Jess in a low voice.

“Yeah son,” said Mort “the courts are tightening up on gun crime, trying to make the west a mite more civilized. The case would go to trial, with a jury of locals. The problem is we need witnesses, as I said the best bet is the boy. He may not hold up in court, I think then we’d get the truth out of him. Of course Billy with his big mouth could get the case thrown out of court anyway.”

“What if the case goes all the way and I’m found guilty? How long, Mort,” asked Jess. “d’ya thinks I’d get?”

“Could be anything up to ten years,” said Mort and he shook his head. He felt sorry for the young man who was standing in front of him, and thought of the times Jess had backed him up when he’d asked him to ride with him and the posse; there was also the fight with the gang from Texas, that Jess had had an almighty tussle with; and he knew that Jess would bear the scars of that incident to his dying day. In fact, thought Mort, he was hardly over that last meeting with the Taylor boys and now this.

Mort decided he’d do his level best to sort out this latest load of trouble that had landed so unexpectedly and so undeservedly at Jess’ feet.

Jess sat down and quickly put his head down. Mort saw the small involuntary shiver that went through Jess body, and he put out his hand and gave Jess’ shoulder a squeeze. “Now come on, Jess, nothing has happened, and I’ll do my damnedest to see that it doesn’t, so try not to worry.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” said Jess. “I’m sorry, Mort, I’m not handling this very well. Will you get word to Slim if you’re going to arrest me when I get back, please?” implored Jess. “I may not even come back if that’s facing me. I think I’d rather be dead than face being locked up for ten years.”

“You’ll come back; it’s not like you to run away when the going gets tough. I know you too well. Now stop worrying and let’s get the tub sorted out, then you can hit the sack,” Mort said as he started to get Jess organized.

“Don’t feel much like it now,” said Jess

“You’ll be O.K, once you get in. I’ll make you a coffee and put a belt of snake eye in it, which will help you to relax,” said Mort kindly.

“Do you honestly think I will be able to sleep?” asked Jess.

“It was self-defense, an accident; it’ll be O.K. It might be tough proving it with Billy Tait stirring things up. But we’ll get it done.” Mort tried to assure Jess.

“Who was this girl I’ve supposed to have stolen of Billy anyway? She sure has hell caused me a lot of grief,” Jess went on to enquire.

“Damned if I know; he never did say, but he’s not forgotten,” said Mort.

“And he’s sure not forgiven me. It seems he’ll not be happy until I’m dead, that’s bad enough, but not to know who or why, makes it really hard to take.”

“Yeah I know, son. Well, are you going to get yourself sorted out? I think that’s John at the door, I’ll go and let him in and put some coffee on.”

Jess went through to the back and got the tub filled. He’d been looking forward to this treat for days, but now the pleasure had been taken away with this trouble, which had suddenly and unexpectedly been dumped on him. He thought back, he’d heard the gun cock and had instinctively turned and fired, at the same time as the other gun had gone off. That’s why they were saying there was only one gun shot, but he wasn’t wrong. He knew what he had heard, it was a rifle and thank God it had missed.

He’d given chase and that’s when he had fallen over the Wilson boy’s body. It could end up his word against the kid’s and nobody would bet on how that would go. Jess was a new comer to the town, and with a dark reputation. The Wilson boy had been born and raised in the country side around Laramie, he was from a well established local family, and would have a lot of local support. Mort had said he could end up facing ten years.

Jess hated jails, being locked up in a cage, sometimes being kept in chains because of some insolent crack he’d made. He’d already spent time in jail, a lot of it outside in the broiling sun breaking up rocks. He’d had more than his fill of that. He thought he could maybe handle ten days but any longer, especially ten years that would kill him. Why? thought Jess, does Mort think I’ll come back; but he knew he would. He’d worked hard and had tried hard to get folk to forget about his reputation and he wasn’t going to prove the doubters right.

He knew he had a lot of support and respect from many of the people of Laramie, but he also knew that there were many who, for one reason or another would like to see the back of him. He also knew that above all he valued Mort’s respect and even above that Slim’s. He wasn’t going to let them down, no matter how much it cost him. Anyways, he thought, by now up to his neck in hot soapy water, it had not happened yet. He was just looking on the black side of things.

He put that down to being tired and even after Slim’s talk about how much he needed him, and rated him. He was still upset. Slim had said what he had, about him only staying because he had nowhere else to go. He’d admit to being stubborn and maybe even dangerous, but wasn’t everybody when backed into a corner. He was fed up at having it thrown in his face, especially in front of Andy and Jonesy, it made him feel so low.

He also thought that if nothing else Slim knew that he was loyal and wouldn’t high tail it anywhere when the going got tough. Maybe this would be the chance to prove it; but ten years was a big price to pay. It was then that Mort came stomping through breaking up his thoughts.

“Here’s your coffee and I’ve given you a good strong slug of medicine,” Mort said trying to sound cheerful. “Come on, Jess, take it, or do you not want me to see you up to your old tricks, washing yer duds at the same time. I forget how you treat this place like a hotel and me like your servant.”

“That’s yer guilty conscience, as when you lock me up I’m usually innocent.” Jess laughed and sat up. “Look Mort, I’m buck naked.” He held out his hand for his coffee. Mort was quick to notice the evenly spaced scars on Jess’ left arm, which with the hot water was causing them to look fiery. He also saw that the gunshot wound in Jess’ shoulder also still looked angry.

“Your shoulder still giving you trouble, Jess?” asked Mort kindly. “It looks kinda sore to me.”

“Yeah,” said Jess and he looked down and flexed his hand at the same time. “It does some times. I’ve landed kinda hard on it a couple of times lately, so it’s biting back; but it’s O.K. most of the time I feel nothing. Do you ever hear anything of those two Taylor brothers?”

“No, can’t say that I do ‘cept I think they got parole; I “vet told you all this already. You tangling with them was my fault, I shouldn’t have left them with you. I didn’t realize until it was too late, what hot heads they were just like their uncle. I couldn’t believe what they did to you, just two vicious youngsters who will end up at the end of a rope or in jail; can’t come too fast for me,” Mort went on.

“Come on let it go, Mort. You were doing your best. The posse was too big; you had some really wild old boys along, and that other hothead deputy Billy Tait didn’t help. Anyway maybe you could get their lawyer if it happens I need one,” said Jess with a small smile.

“You’ll get the best, you know you will, Slim will see to that. Now don’t you go and start worrying again, nothing has happened. John’s been and gone and the boy is going to be O.K.”

“He should wake up tomorrow. He’ll have a helluva headache for a bit, but he was lucky. I just hope he’s an honest kid and the court will scare him into telling the truth,” Mort went on about the shooting and his voice was full of doubt as he knew how vengeful some small town feuds could be.

“Amen to that,” said Jess. “Well Mort, I reckon, I’m done. Will you throw me a towel or close your eyes. You know what a shy retiring violet I am about my body,” Jess joked. With that, Mort threw Jess a towel and went out.

Later Jess was in his cell, in bed, which was as soft and warm as he remembered it. He lay there knowing that Mort would come through again to see him. He wanted to thank Mort for all his care not just for tonight but for all the times in the past, when Mort had picked him up and tended to him. The big lawman could be fearsome, but he had a gentle, tender side, especially when someone was in trouble through no fault of their own.

He would never forget how Mort had tended to him, after Charlie’s gang had beaten him up. The next time was when Tait, had put Jess in bed for a couple of days. That attack had cost Billy Tait the deputy’s job, because Mort was right, it had been a vicious and cowardly affair, as Jess was in leg irons and handcuffed at the time. He would never forget Mort’s concern at that time and how he’d kept an eye on him as he recovered.

He just couldn’t find the words to thank him, but he hoped Mort knew, that Jess would always be there to back up his play if he were ever needed and maybe that would be thanks enough. Jess heard Mort coming through from the front office and he smiled gently and thought what an old softy he was, nearly as bad as Jonesy.

“Well Jess, you ok now, son? Feel better?” Mort asked him and looked anxiously at Jess and saw that he seemed quite relaxed and was relieved. “You want anything else before I turn in? You know that you have got the best bed in the house…..mine!”

“Sorry, Mort.” Jess pretended to get up.

“No, you young varmint, rest easy. I’ll just be next door and John is staying the night as well. He can get us our breakfast and be my gofer tomorrow.”

“Thanks Mort,” said Jess quietly.

“Well, see you at dawn, goodnight, son.” With that, Mort turned and went to settle down in the cell opposite.

Bless him, thought Jess, he did not even mention the cell door or make any attempt to close it. He trusted Jess 110%; and Jess found that hard to take. No, how could he run out on Mort he thought? He’d never run out on Slim and now Mort was added to the list of folk that had Jess hog-tied to Laramie; so with a deep sigh, Jess turned onto his side and tried to get some sleep, but the thought of ten years caged up floated on the edge of his consciousness and kept him awake.

*****

Next morning, nothing was said about the events of the past evening, as all was haste and bustle. Jess, was ordered to forget about tiding up his cell, it’s be taken care of and to concentrate on getting a good breakfast and getting up the trail early as he had planned. That Jess did, he ate with Mort, who fussed around him like a clucking hen. Did he have enough of this or that? Did he want to take Mort’s shotgun? Until Jess had to tell him to calm down, as he was making him jumpy.

Then the two of them, went along to the stables, where they found Jed who couldn’t keep still, he was almost as bad as Mort and danced around with excitement. The stockmen were waiting to be of, they had watched their luggage loaded, and they were now ready to board the stage themselves.

“Well son,” said Mort, “take it easy, and see you all when you get back.”

“Sure thing, Mort, and thanks again.” Jess held his hand out and Mort took it in his strong grip.

“Watch yer back cowboy,” he said.

“O.K. Dad,” joked Jess. Mort tried to give him a cuff on the back of his head, but he was too slow, for by now Jess was up on the box, picking up the reins, beside a smiling Jed.

“O.K. let’s go.” Jess released the brake and the coach began to lumber forward. Jess raised his hand to his hat and saluted Mort, John and the stable hands. He then concentrated on getting the coach out of Laramie without rousing the sleeping dogs, which in turn would wake the whole dreaming population.

*****

They were soon out in open country side, which was bathed in the eerie silver light of a full moon. It hung like a huge lantern in the navy dark sky to the west. Already the eastern sky was beginning to brighten along the horizon line, and the odd bird began its welcoming call to the new day. The smell of the earth had a heady frosty tang, which was at once cool, fresh, and sharp to the senses, which were still warm, softly numb from the hours abed.

Yet again Jess reveled in this early, early pre dawn time, which for him had always been magical. He always felt glad to be around at the moment of the awakening world. Its sights and smells filled him with the untold joy of being alive and at a time of the boundless energy of his youth.

The horses slowly got into their rhythm of a fast canter and Jed was kept busy trying to stay in his seat, as he was unaccustomed to the swaying hard ride of being up on the box. The moon was beginning to turn golden with the coming dawn, and the landscape stopped looking like a corpse in the silvery light, as with the coming dawn it became clear, real, and alive.

The odd homestead with its fields and fences began to glow in the golden light and here and there Jess could see in the whiter fields the rows of ripening corn. On one side of the coach there were woods and here and there a rocky outcrop. On the other side was along steep drop into a dry gulch. The trail was dry and rutless as the road had long been trampled and driven over by the countless passage of vehicles of all kinds and this had made it smooth. They were going past the turn of for the ranch up by Baxter Ridge and Jess smiled and wondered if they were up yet. If they were not they were missing the best part of the day.

Jess was kept busy keeping the horses concentrating on pulling together. It wasn’t a bad team, honest, strong, and well matched and they were doing their best thought Jess. It was at that point that he felt a bullet go past like a wasp in flight and then he heard the shot. He then heard another one, but by this time he was fighting to control the horses. One of them must have been hit because as one they all shied away from the gun fire led by the horse that had been winged. It caused the coach to veer dangerously close to the steep drop into the bottom of the dry gulch. Jess couldn’t hold it.

“Jump, Jed, now!” Jess yelled, as he knew that something was wrong. The ground on the ravine side was too soft. The coach began to tip on to its” side and Jess couldn’t do anything to stop it. The moon for a few seconds jolted wildly about the sky and Jess was aware of being thrown violently forward and of the reins being torn from his hands.

He felt the sickness knotting and welling up in his stomach and the smell and taste of bacon and coffee which rose and then burst acidly in his mouth. He was aware and felt all the sounds of the world smashing as it hurtled towards him to finally explode in his brain. His arms were thrown violently upwards and struck against the coach work as they were now free from the constraints of the reins. For a moment he seemed to black out completely, then the moon hurtled towards him with full force and smashed itself against his eyes and awoke him brutally to a moment of gut wrenching blind terror. In that moment he raised his hands to protect his head and he felt his right arm strike something sharp, with sickening force. Jess felt a heavy weight push him into the ground; he felt the earth as it pressed against his face and his arm being pinned down as if nailed into the ground. The moon then exploded into a thousand bloody splinters as something smashed across his head. In that moment Jess crashed into a time when there would be no remembering.

*****

When he opened his eyes, the moon was full in his face. He could smell the sickness on his jacket. He could feel in a way that was causing him so much pain and was worrying him, the beat of a wheel as it went round. The motion seemed to be centered, pumping and thundering in his right arm, which was hot and sticky. The terrible rumble of the wheel thumping round was beating down his arteries in a rushing, pulsating throb as if it were about to sever his arm from his shoulder.

“It’s O.K., Jess,” Jed tried to reassure him. Jess couldn’t answer. He knew he was lying on his back as he could see Jed’s head as it moved across the line of the moon. He vaguely wondered what had happened to the others.

“It’s O.K.,” said young Jed again, as if reading Jess’ mind. “Everybody is alright.”

“What………..argh……happened,” gasped out Jess.

“Somebody took a shot at us and made the horse’s shie away towards the edge. You’d nearly held them, but the ground was too soft and she slowly tipped over. You told me to jump, and it was lucky that I did. You held on and well, you’re caught under the coach Jess. Mr. Dawson’s riding to get some help. I’m gonna crawl under there and bring you a drink.”

“No…………no. Please, it could roll……..it’s ……..tilting…….could go any……second…..and trap you…….I’m …O.K.” murmured Jess faintly.

He didn’t feel O.K. The thump of the turning wheel seemed to be pulling his arm out of its socket and the sickening pain began to increase with every second as his consciousness fully returned. He felt as if there was no blood in his lips and his face felt terribly cold and drawn, even though he knew his face was covered with blood from the glancing blow to his head.

More and more the pain in his arm was sucking away his strength and he felt himself being dragged down helpless, through a cold, wet descent into a darkness that was greater than black and so dense Jess felt that he could touch it. With his free arm, he dug his fingers into the earth and made a great effort to keep himself, cold and weak as he was on the edge of consciousness. He couldn’t hold on and felt the velvet blackness roll up and engulf him. With that Jess” head rolled to one side and once again he slipped into the waiting darkness of oblivion.

*****

Slim was busy working at the forge when Neal Dawson rode up; he was barely keeping his seat, as he was riding bareback on one of the stage horses,

“Sherman!” Dawson called out. Slim threw down his tools and strode over and caught the horses bridle and raised his hand to calm the excited animal, which was unused to being ridden even if it was only for a few miles.

“Stage is over on its side, about to go down the slope on the Baxter Ridge trail!” yelled Dawson his face flushed with excitement and the effort of trying to ride a dray horse. “Someone took a couple of shots at us and the horses went mad. I don’t know how he held on to them for so long, but it seems that the edge was too soft and she’s tipped up and ready to roll. You need to bring something to stop it from rolling into the gulch.”

“Where’s Jess?” asked Slim, “is he O.K.?”

“Yeah I think so, it was so confusing, and so fast; I was ordered to go and get help.”

“Anyone hurt?” Slim asked anxiously.

“No, maybes a few bruises; it seemed to happen so slowly,” Dawson explained.

“I’ll get you another mount,” Slim said, “and would you go into Laramie and send the sheriff and the doctor out, please. Just in case somebody has been hurt.”

“Sure, will do,” said Dawson, “I’ll go inside for a coffee, if that’s O.K., and then I’ll be on my way.”

“You’re welcome and thanks.” said Slim, who then turned and got a horse saddled, and the wagon loaded with the blocks and tackle to pull the coach upright.

It was some time before Slim arrived at the scene of the bush whack and he was amazed at what he saw. The front of the coach seemed to be rocking ever so slightly and balanced on the edge of the long slope which went down to the bed of the now dry river. There was some sign that they’d made an effort to stabilize it, with rocks under parts of the coach work and a rope around the axle, the other end of which was tied to a tree. The three horses were now grazing quietly up the slope, and Slim saw that one of them had blood down it’s flanks, where it had been shot, it didn’t look to be in any distress so that was a relief.

“Well, Jess,” Slim said to himself, “so much for your early start.” Who in tarnation would want to hold up a stage carrying no money, and only a few stockmen on board, especially so early in the morning? He thought that Jess had done well, keeping the coach and horses from going hell for leather down the slope; that would have been a major pile up and didn’t bear thinking about. Anyway, where was he? Thought Slim… He expected to see his pard buzzing around and even have the coach back on its four wheels. He’d done this kind of thing before, just using the team to pull the coach upright. Slim walked towards the toppled stage and saw Jed who was racing towards him.

“Morning Jed, exciting first ride on the box. Did you jump or did Jess push you? You look O.K. Where’s Jess?” asked Slim, still not able to spot his friend.

“He’s under the coach, we can’t move him.” Young Jed roughly wiped his sleeve across his eyes. “He’s awful bad, Mr. Sherman.”

Slim didn’t wait to hear any more. He raced for the front end of the coach, where half a dozen men were grouped. He pushed them roughly aside. He still couldn’t see Jess, and then he saw Jess’ black boots sticking out from underneath the coach. He quickly dropped to his hands and knees and looked under the coach, what he saw caused his heart to lurch.

“Oh! Jess,” he murmured, as he got flat on to his stomach and struggled and pulled himself along under the wrecked coach to get to his friend.

“Jess, Jess, it’s me, Slim, can you hear me?” Slim said softly.

Slowly Jess’ head turned towards him. “Lo…Slim.……argh…..be ….careful…….she ….could ….go.” Jess said in a weak voice.

“Don’t worry it won’t, they’ve got her steady. How ya feel?”

“Been better…….argh…God it’s ….. my …arm.” said Jess,” I think it’s …….broken…….and there’s ……….a lot of blood……..coming from somewhere,” gasped Jess and he closed his eyes as another stabbing thrust of pain lanced through him.

“We’ll have to get you from under there before we can find out. Can you move at all?” Slim wanted to know. Worry was etched all over his face as he saw how the coach was pushing Jess into the ground.

“No, something is……pressing me down…….I can’t move my right……… side….argh….at …all.” Jess gasped out as his breathing became faster and he began to pant.

“Right. Do you want anything?”

“I’m cold…..Slim….so cold. I can’t…….hear so good. …….Your voice seems so…..faint and……..far away……..I……..don’t ….know how much……longer I can…..hold on.”

“Just stay with me, pard, and I’ll have you out of there before you know it,” Slim said and did his best to sound confident. Jess didn’t reply as his strength seemed to go suddenly and he then concentrated all his efforts on staying awake. He tried to focus on the moon, which now with the approaching day was turning from the golden buttery color to look like an old man’s grey face. It then started to swing in the sky as dark shapes crossed in front of it.

Suddenly there was a loud, strident groaning and men’s voices, which seemed so far away, shouting; there was the sound of horses blowing and calling to each other. Jess closed his eyes and tried to escape from the swinging, banging confusion. When all of a sudden there was an almighty crash and a great weight was lifted of him. Jess was then aware of hands as they began to touch him. He opened his eyes and was blinded by the light. Instead of the underside of the coach which had blocked out the light, it was the shape of Slim and Mort Corey who were crouched down beside him, and were anxiously peering into his face.

“Are you alright, pard?” Slim asked Jess again.

Jess stared at him and heard Mort calling for whisky, and the bandages out of the rig, which Slim had brought. He concentrated and answered faintly.

“Gee, I don’t know ………argh ….it’s my arm.”

“I’ll get your jacket off,” said Slim, “Give us a hand, Mort, to raise him up. Give Jed a shout, will ya. He can sit back to back with him and give him something to lean on. Are you ready for this Jess?”

Jess was gently rolled on to his left side and Mort pulled his jacket open. He then helped Slim to raise Jess up; by this time young Jed had appeared and on the instructions of the two other men sat down with his back against Jess, who leaned back with a groan and closed his eyes. The movement had made the bile at his throat end rise up and try and choke him, and he gave a rasping cough .The pain in his arm seemed to grip his whole body as it pounded and pulsated even stronger with the effort of moving and he felt a coldness well over him in waves.

“Here, Jess, take a slug of this.” It was Slim and he held the whisky flask against Jess’ chattering teeth.

“Get it down you, it’ll help,” he said as he tried to get Jess to take some of the malt from one of the stockmen’s hip flask. But Jess shook his head frightened of being sick again; then Mort took hold of the bottom of Jess’ sleeve and slowly and gently began to pull it down.

“Got your knife handy…..we’ll need it to cut his sleeve away.”

“Yeah,” said Slim, “I’m ready, hold on Jess”.

The pain of this slow movement crawled up Jess’ arm and beat against the downward flow of blood, until it reached the socket and Jess felt a wave of devastating agony flow over him. He tried to moan but no sound came, it was choked by breathlessness that had started to make him pant for air as he felt as if he were choking. The sleeve came slowly, slowly off and with it, as it came free, all the sickness and blood which filled his world returned.

He felt for a moment so weak that he could not focus on the fading moon as it was losing out to the first rays of the rising sun. He looked down at his arm instead; and in that moment, as his jacket fell free he saw a spurt of his own blood spewing upward from deep inside the jagged ugly deep wound. The blood was dark and thick and pumped, irregularly from the mess which was his upper arm.

“For God’s sake, hold it up, Mort, while I try to get a pad on it…..it needs to be bandaged tight…..that should stop the bleeding.” Slim hurriedly instructed Mort as he struggled to wrap the bandage around Jess’ arm. Mort had raised his wrist and arm a little, but it had made no difference. The flow of blood was changed but it had not lessened. The pain of it was still sucking and thumping from the socket of his arm to the tips of Jess’ fingers.

Suddenly Jess felt the pressure of Slim’s thumbs on his arm. The two thumbs were big and violent at the first pressure, and he felt a wave of cold sickness reach up to his throat end; then as they bit deep into his arm he felt the pull of the blood lessen. Jess felt himself slipping away down the slope into the cold darkness again, when he heard Slim and Mort’s voices coming as from far away. They were talking about bandages, pads, stitches, the doctor, infection, and how tight and how loose the dressings should be. Jess suddenly felt a shiver of fear run through him as he realized he must be more seriously injured than he had realized. He then allowed the unthinkable to creep into the edges of his thoughts. He could lose his arm.

His musings were then abruptly silenced as he felt the bandage being applied so tightly that he felt the pain explode behind his eyes in a flash of red and white that filled his world with a roaring as it traveled through him like a tumultuous wave of excruciating agony. Jess suddenly felt as if he had nothing below his right elbow and his fear of losing his arm roared back. He’d seen men with only a broken arm loose it in the war. He had a broken arm and a deep wound which they seemed unable to stop bleeding.

Jess couldn’t bear to think of what life would be like for him crippled. In many ways his life was built around his fighting ability and his capacity for hard work. He was an excellent ranch hand and could turn his hand to almost anything. He had a special gift with horses and could handle the stage coach almost as well as old Mose. He knew with total certainty that his life depended on his physical abilities and that life and reputation was centered on his right arm. Jess was suddenly aware that someone was speaking to him.

“It’s O.K. Jess; we’ve got the bleeding stopped. Dr. Broxton will attend to it properly when he gets to see you…….it just needs a few stitches and it will be O.K., so don’t worry,” Slim went on as he tried to make light of his injuries. Jess tried to answer him, but there seemed to be a lost link between his tongue, which still felt numb, cold and bloodless and his brain. He couldn’t find any words that made any sense. He must make an effort, he thought and he weakly tried to get up, but he found that he was too weak to even lift his head and he lay back against Jed and closed his eyes again.

“Come on Jess, get some whisky down you, it’ll help.” Slim put the small metal cup against Jess’ clenched teeth. Jess took a sip, and coughed as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat. He tried but couldn’t stop Slim as he poured more of it into him; some of it dripped down his chin and onto the mess which was his shirt. Jess then began to drink more quickly, spilling it again, but he felt it beating sweetly against the sickness and the acid which was still in his throat. With an enormous effort he forced himself to feel better. He certainly felt warmer and began to feel a little stronger.

“Is that better Jess?” his pard asked as he willed his friend to find some strength from somewhere.

“Yeah Slim……..I think so……..I just feel……so cold……and weak…….I keeps wanting to ….. throw up,” replied Jess in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper.

“That’ll be all the grease you ate this morning,” Mort said as he tried to lighten the mood.

“Maybes……..you’re right.” Jess gave a weak grin.

“Do you think you could move? We need to get you to the buckboard, or we can carry you,” said Slim.

“I don’t …….know…” Jess murmured. “I think if …… you got……me up I could …try.”

“O.K. then,” Slim said “as soon as you feel you can, we’ll give it a go.”

Jess willed himself to concentrate, as he knew he had to get to the rig and he hated the thought of being carried.

“Get me up,” Jess finally said.

“I’ll hold yer arm,” Mort told him. “Don’t worry we’ve got you.”

He was trembling and fearful of more pain, as they gently helped him to his feet. The earth and sky suddenly appeared to change places as waves of faintness and nausea broke over him like waves on a beach. Finally he was standing between them, and he knew at once if they let him go he would crumble to the ground. His body felt like an empty shell, it was empty of all the basic needs that gave body strength; there was no blood, and no warmth. Only a huge feeling of coldness that was causing involuntary shivers to strike at his very core. He knew that not long ago he had been sick down his shirt and jacket, and now the smell of it turned his stomach and made him wretch.

“Just hold me please.” Jess said weakly “I feel sick.”

“Here Jess,” Mort said. “Have another slug. Go on, Slim, get it down him. It’s maybe not the right thing to do, but it might help.”

“Here, Jess,” murmured Slim, “take some more.”

Jess did just that, and he felt the Water of Life as it warmed him and gave him a little strength.

“Sit down Jess,” said Mort, “give yerself a minute or two.”

“No,” Jess replied, “I can stand.”

“I’ll go and find some more whiskey.” Mort went away to see if the others had another hip flask. Jess stood lop sided and leaned against Slim, who was supporting Jess’ injured arm, young Jed stood at his other side with an arm around Jess’ waist, as he did his best to keep him upright.

“I don’t know what’s happening …I can’t stand straight” said Jess.

“You’ve been out cold for maybe ten minutes that sure don’t help none,” explained Slim.

“It could have been ten years,” he said. “Yeah,” thought Jess, “I’m obsessed with ten years, but maybe that’s not going to happen,” he had to get through this first. He knew his injury was serious, far more crippling than any gunshot wound he had ever suffered. It was not going to be easy, and Jess didn’t know if he had much stomach for such a fight knowing what he may have to face at the end of it.

*****

Mort came back with some more whisky and helped him get some down, Jess allowed the big lawman to pour it down him as he didn’t have the strength to argue with him; the pumping and throbbing in his arm had now finally stopped, and slowly Jess could feel the warmth begin to flow back slightly, especially into his face and lips. He tried to take his first faltering steps, with Slim and Mort supporting him on both sides, when he found that his legs had no feeling in them. They felt boneless and hallow and as they touched the earth and caused shooting pains of pins and needles to run up his legs. He felt as if he’d not used them few weeks, almost like an invalid who’d been in bed for months. With his arm supported in the buttoned front of his jacket he groped his way towards the rig. Progress was very slow as Jess was so weak, but they were moving.

“Nearly there,” Slim said as he tried to encourage his friend. “Do you want another slug? Or maybe take a rest?”

“I’m all right,” murmured Jess.

The words came to him automatically, as they always did for no matter how awful he felt, or how sometimes he could hardly stay in the saddle because of some hurt or other the reply was always the same. He stood still and tried to get his breath back, as he felt extraordinarily weak again. The thump of blood had begun again in his arm. Either the bandage was too tight or too loose, but the pain had started as fiercely as before. Below the bandage, his arm felt dead; and not for the first time that morning, as he tried to walk on legs which had no feeling in them, the morning chill which had dried the sweat of his exertions on his neck and back, made him start to shiver. He wondered about the size of his wound. If it were as large as it looked and was close to the vein there would be little hope, he thought of the blood congealing….Jess was suddenly frightened of the outcome.

“Shall we give it another go?” asked Slim. “We’re nearly there.”

Jess began to walk forward again. His chest heaved in great gulps as he gasped in the air, and try as he might he could not silence the loud painful breaths he was taking, as it was too loud to suppress.

“Take it easy, son,” said Mort quietly.

“I’ll be all right …Nearly there,” Jess repeated.

“Are you sure you can do it?” Mort responded.

“I can do anything I’ve got to,” said Jess wearily.

“Damn it Jess, you’re a stubborn devil,” moaned Slim as he helped his friend drag himself towards the waiting rig. Jess was busy concentrating on making his last stupefied efforts and tried to answer Slim, but he found he couldn’t force the words through the sudden tightness of his throat. He felt as if someone had hit him an almighty blow on his heart. It was like being drunk as his senses dimmed, receded and then surged back again; and he desperately fought to hold on to them. At last they were there, they had covered only about twenty five yards, but for Jess it had seemed like a marathon.

Jess was completely exhausted, he leaned against the wagon and tried to get his breath back as once again the blood had started to pump into his arm and face. He didn’t know how he was going to cope getting into the rig, but that problem was overcome by the other men who gathered round and gently lifted him into the back of the wagon. Slim climbed in and Jess finally lay with his left side supported by Slim’s chest and arm. Jed sat on his right side and supported him also. They were all doing their best to see that he wouldn’t be jolted around too much by the lurching of the spring less wagon.

Mort’s horse was tied up behind as Mort had insisted on driving the rig down to the relay station himself. Already there was a big group of small time ranchers, all neighbors who stopped in passing and were now busy sorting out the stage coach. The stockmen who were now over the shock of being in an overturned coach were planning on continuing their journey

At last the wagon jolted off. Jess had to clench his teeth as the comfortless motion began to jar every bone in his body. It caused the broken bones in his arm to grate together and caused Jess to break out in a cold sweat as this new pain roared over him in waves. Nothing had been done about that injury as it had seemed superficial to the gaping wound further up his arm. Jess lay there feeling foolish, but he knew it was for the best as trying to lie in the wagon without support would have caused him untold agony, and would have made the journey even slower as they would had to favor him even more.

Jess was vaguely aware of driving through the pines on Baxter ridge, and of the trees blacking out the brilliant blue sky overhead. He felt the coolness as he lay in the shadows and felt the cold wood against his legs. He lay motionless and then he slowly began to slip weakly down into the old familiar darkness of coldness and sweat. It gradually took him down, down until he could feel the pain of his arm no longer.

*****

When he awoke, the day was hot and calm. The wagon was moving slowly, the two horses steadily plodded on. Jess could see a jagged blade of sunlight, bright and intense slitting through the black edges of the overhanging trees above the trail. He recognized them he was nearly home. His mouth still felt full of the taste of bile and he felt sick and as his head moved from side to side with the movement of the wagon, it was as if there was a weighted leaden ball in his skull which rolled from one ear to the other. He came out of his stupor and tried to turn his body. He then felt the pain in his arm and with a slow shock he remembered all of it. He looked up into Slim’s concerned face.

“Hold on Jess, we’re nearly home” said Slim and gave his pard an encouraging smile. Jess couldn’t talk. He just nodded and gave a little lop sided grin. He looked down at himself, slantwise, as he lay in Slims arms and saw that his whole arm had been quite skillfully bandaged. It lay flat diagonally across his chest and at some point his jacket had been taken off, and it had been laid over him. It had slipped a little and Jess noticed a bullet hole, which hadn’t been there before, making a neat button hole just below the rest; so he had been the target. Slowly they moved into the blinding sunlight and down the long curving trail to the ranch. At last they were home.

Jonesy was the first to see the wagon as it made its way down the hill and hurried out to meet it. He took his apron off as he went and went over quickly to talk to Slim and Mort.

“What have we here then?” Jonesy said and then looked over the side into the back of the wagon and saw an unconscious Jess as he lay in Slim’s arms.

“It’s Jess, the stage rolled over on to him.” Mort explained bringing Jonesy up to date with what had happened.

“Oh, Jess, my dear boy, what can I do Slim?”

Slim lifted his head in amazement. He’d never heard Jonesy talk like this before, maybe to himself or Andy, but never to Jess; maybe their war was over, it certainly sounded like it.

“We’ll need lots of hot water, heat some stones up, sheets, bandaging, you know Jonesy. Yeah, and get some coffee going and is there anything to eat? I don’t know, I thought the doctor would have been here by now,” Slim suggested to Jonesy who normally didn’t need any advice about taking care of illness or injury.

“It could be sometime before we see the Doc; there’s been a fire out at the Jackson’s place, and there has been a few folk badly burnt. Looks like it will be some time before he gets out here. We’ll have to try and manage without him.” Jonesy told Slim and Mort.

“We should get him inside before he starts to come round again. Give us a hand Mort,” Slim went on his voice full of anxiety at the news that they would have to deal with Jess’ injuries themselves.

“How do you want to do this?” asked Mort.

“I’ll wrap his jacket around his arm, to keep it against his chest, and then I’ll get him up and hold him on the edge of the wagon. Jed if you can then ease his legs over, I’ll lower him down to you. Hang on to him and I’ll get to you as fast as I can and give you a hand.” As he finished he and Jed held Jess up. Slim worked fast and managed to tie Jess’ jacket around his wounded arm and chest; Jess gave a low groan and a shudder ran through his body; but thankfully he did not wake. They did as Slim had suggested and Mort held Jess as best as he could as Slim vaulted over the side of the wagon.

“Great Mort, I’ve got him, I’ll carry him in. I’m glad he is out of this, as he’d go mad if he knew I was carrying him.” Slim went on about Jess’ hatred of being babied or whatever he called it; but at this time it was the fastest and easiest way of getting Jess indoors.

Mort opened the door and found Jonesy busy ripping up sheets, the fire was blazing, and something smelt good coming from the stove in the kitchen.

“Where do you want him?” asked Slim.

“He’ll not like it but put him in his bed,” replied Jonesy. “He’ll rest easy until I’ve had a look at him.”

Slim carried Jess through and with Mort’s help got him settled on his bed. Slim took Jess’ boots of, removed his jacket and then got a couple of blankets and a quilt and covered Jess up.

“He doesn’t look too good, does he Mort?” a worried Slim stated, “He” getting feverish already”.

“You’re right, Slim, I think he is in for a rough ride; that arm is going to cause some problems.” Mort shook his head sadly. “You know what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah, Mort, I’m thinking the same. I can’t think of anything worse for Jess,” Slim replied.

“Last night he was worried about maybe getting ten years for attempted murder. You’ll not have heard yet, Slim. Jess heard someone cock a rifle in an alley way and of course he shot at them and gave chase.”

“The only one he hit was the seventeen year old son of the Wilsons, Billy Tait’s in-laws. They are all crying out now for Jess’ blood. The boy is going to be O.K. It seems they’re determined to have a pound of flesh of Jess here. He was going to do a quick turn around when he got to Cheyenne and come back to see if they’d filed charges; any ways they’ll be nothing done until he’s better.”

“I don’t want the job of taking care of him, as I’d have to do if I arrested him. It’s a tough job when he’s O.K., I don’t want any more of that,” Mort said as he told of night’s trouble in town he continued and ruefully shook his head. “Jess seems to attract trouble….in spades.”

Slim listened in astonishment. “I can’t believe it, but surely Mort, that was self – defense!”

“Yeah, you’re right. But proving it is going to be hard. They claim the kid was on his own and that there was only one shot fired; but don’t worry. I’ll get to the bottom of it and if it goes to trial, I know a good lawyer down in Denver, who’ll sort that kid and Billy Tait out in court.”

Before anything else could be said, Jonesy came in carrying a bowl of water and towels.

“You put him in bed with his clothes on?” Jonesy said in surprise. “What have you been doing?”

“Nothing,” said Slim, “what do you want me to do?”

“Get his boots of for a start, next his levis. I’m going to bathe his face and neck, and clean him up as best I can. We need to get some clean underwear on him. I’ve got some warming by the fire. You can help Slim, by getting this shirt offa him, looks like he has been rolling around in the dirt in it. Is all this blood stains, Slim? Don’t look to good,” Jonesy anxiously commented as he got to work on Jess.

“I’ll go and start some coffee,” said Mort and he went out and left Slim and Jonesy alone to try and make Jess more comfortable. Finally they managed to get Jess changed into clean, warm underwear and Jonesy had a good look at him. He decided it was best to leave the bandaged arm alone, in case they had trouble stopping the bleeding again; but Jonesy did unwrap as much as he dared, until he had removed a lot of the blood stained cotton strips and replaced them with fresh. All the time he was doing this Jess, simply and occasionally rolled his head from side to side and gave a low, soft moan.

“Well, Slim, I think this wound is the worst of it. I think he’s got a couple of cracked ribs. He’s broken his arm just above the wrist. His shoulder seems O.K. I thought it had been dislocated, but it seems to be alright. He’s had a blow to the head, that’s where some of this blood has come from. You can see that he’s far from well. I think he’s lost a lot of blood, just look how pale he is. He’s feverish already and he’s also very cold. His breathing is very shallow and I bet his heart is not doing too good. I think we should get his arm in a splint while he is still unconscious. Get the splints and I’ll get the bandage; we’ll need Mort for this as well. I’ll get the whisky out.”

Slim listened to Jonesy as he described Jess’ injuries and thought his own heart wasn’t doing too well either as he realized what a hard ride lay ahead for the three of them.

Thank God, he thought, that Andy was staying with his friends for a few days fishing. He’d have been distraught and taking care of Jess was going to be enough to cope with. It was when Slim had hold of Jess’ arm and Jonesy had manipulated the bones back into place and was strapping the splints on to it that Jess finally woke.

“Leave me be…argh …For pity’s sake….leave me,” sobbed Jess. He felt as if his whole arm was being pulled out of its socket and the blood was pounding and racing through his body, causing his heart to pound as if he’d just run up a hillside He gasped for breath and tried to get away from Slim and Jonesy who held on to him. He found he was unable to move as Mort was pinning his left shoulder down which stopped him from thrashing around.

“We’re done now, son,” murmured Jonesy, “You’ll feel better soon. I’ll get you a drink.” Jonesy stood up and went through to the kitchen to rustle up one of his brews for Jess.

“Slim……argh,” groaned Jess.

“Yeah pard, I’m here; I’ll not leave you,” said Slim.

“Promise me…….don’t let them……….take my arm ……..off,” Jess managed to gasp out.

Slim looked up at Mort, who shook his head sadly and turned away.

“Promise me” pleaded Jess.

“But what if…” Slim began to say.

“No………..what if’s,” Jess struggled to say. “If I lose my arm I don’t want to live.”

“But Jess, there’s lots of things…” Slim began to say.

“No, Slim…..I’ll fight ….for my arm……” went on Jess slowly, “Without it, I’ll not fight….I’ll let go.”

“Now Jess, son,” said Mort,”it might not come to that.”

“You’ve seen it…..” breathed Jess. “Have….you ever seen ……..worse? Promise me Slim……….argh please.” Jess held out his hand to Slim. “Promise me.”

“O.K. Jess if that is what you want.” Slim took Jess’ hand. “You’re freezing….. Mort will you see if Jonesy’s got those stones heated up yet.”

Mort went out to check

“What can I get you, Jess?” asked Slim.

“Nothing. Pard, just stay a bit……..I’m not feeling…….too strong……and I’m not handling this too well,” said Jess. “I’ve become a cry baby, like Jonesy’s always said.”

“You’re doing great,” said Slim. “Like you did this morning. You slowed up the coach; you stayed with it, and kept the whole lot from crashing down into the bottom of that gulch. You’re the only one that got hurt, so don’t think for a moment that you’ve not handled yourself well. You know you’re badly hurt. You’re allowed to moan and groan and swear and curse when you’re hurting. Nobody wants you to suffer in silence, scream, and cry if you want too; we’re all here for you. When you stop that is when we’ll worry.”

As Slim finished Jonesy came through the door.

“I’ve got you a drink, it’ll help, Jess, so don’t go on making a fuss.”

Slim sat on Jess’ left side and rubbed his hand trying to get some warmth back into it. He didn’t know what else to do as he felt so helpless. Jonesy went to the top of Jess’ bed and put his arm under Jess head and shoulder and lifted him just enough to get a small bowl of warm milk to Jess’ mouth. Jess recognized the herby taste of the milk from the other times in the past. It had an after taste of bitterness which always brought back the darkness; but he drank it without protest as he resigned himself to Jonesy doctoring.

“Jonesy,” sighed Jess quietly whispering,” don’t let them cut my arm off…Please….you…promise…me. “

“Now dear boy,” said Jonesy. “Whatever gave you the idea that I’d allow such a thing?”

But Jess didn’t hear, his head rolled to one side and he slipped away again as he became unconscious. Jonesy gently slipped his arm from underneath Jess head to leave it cushioned on the pillow.

“Now Slim, we need to get these stones wrapped up and put to Jess’ feet and try to warm him. I only hope the doctor gets here soon.”

“Amen to that,” said Mort. Slim couldn’t answer, as he felt as if his throat was constricted with agony and the terrifying ordeal that lay ahead for them all. As he felt they are going into a fight that this time Jess was going to lose.

*****

The next few hours passed slowly as they waited for the doctor. Mort had gone; he could no longer leave Laramie without its sheriff. His new deputy had turned out to be a sensible man, earnest and well meaning, and keen to uphold the law. In many respects very much like Mort himself, but he was new to the responsibilities of being a deputy and Mort in all conscience felt he could not leave him alone; so Mort went, his sympathy and heart went out to Slim who was fretting and fearful as to what was going to happen to Jess. He could find no words of comfort, for he knew what Jess had murmured was right, Jess crippled without his right arm , unable to rope, brand, break horses, hunt, fight, shoot was no longer Jess Harper.

He knew the boy didn’t want to live in the shadow of what was once the glory of the young Jess; who’d rode into their lives a year and a half ago. Yeah, he’d still be alive, but would he? thought Mort. Far better to let him fight for his arm and his life, and if he lost the fight, well, so be it. It would be hard for them all to live without the vibrant, fun loving, devil may care that was Jess; but it would probably be harder to live with a broken hearted, embittered man who could end his own life in a saloon brawl or maybe trying to ride a horse that was too strong for a one armed man.

No, Mort continued to think, let Jess keep his arm, and if it kills him it may be better for them all in the long run. Mort of course did not say any of this to Slim. He felt that he had enough to deal with, suffering as he was, without Mort bringing his own doubts into Slim’s consciousness. Mort had gone he said he’d be back the next day to check out how Jess was and to help Slim if he needed it.

Jonesy meanwhile took care of a restless Jess, who although unconscious was becoming more and more feverish. He was restless and was obviously living passed traumas in his delirious state. He called out as if he was in a battle, then his voice turned to entreaty, as he pleaded for his life. Jonesy shook his head as he continued to bathe Jess’, face, chest, and arm in a bid to try and keep the fever under control. He listened to Jess’ feverish ravings and thought it was a miracle that Jess seemed to be as well balanced as he was after the harrowing events of his early years.

It was coming on for midnight when Dr. Broxton finally arrived. He was a well meaning man, who knew Jess well as he had often had to treat him in the past. Tonight he was almost out on his feet as he had fought hard all day to save the lives of the four badly burnt ranch hands at the Jackson’s place. He apologized for being so late and quietly dreaded what he would find after so long. Slim took him through to the bedroom where Jonesy was still working on Jess.

“Hello, Jonesy,” said Dr. Broxton.” How is he?”

“Not good, Doc,” replied Jonesy. “He’s cracked maybes a rib or two, he’s got a broken arm just above the wrist, and that wound in his upper arm is killing him as we speak.”

“Well, let’s take a look.” With that Dr. Broxton started to examine Jess. He put his stethoscope to Jess’ chest; he listened then moved it around. He heard the deep thump and the occasional flutter of Jess’ heart as it fought hard against the rising infection. The problem would be, not so much about Jess giving up, but his heart might fail as this infection was going to get a lot worse before it got any better. Finally the Doctor stood up and looked across at Jonesy and muttered.

“I’ll need to have a look at this arm. It will of course need stitched. I’ll need lots of hot water, bandages, whiskey. We’ve got an uphill battle against infection as this is going to get a lot worse and maybe it will take him in the end. I’ve not checked his arm yet, but seeing how the fever has taken hold, I think that the only sure way to save Jess’ life is to take his arm off. The sooner the better,” was the Doctor’s final verdict.

Slim heard and went cold and burst out. “No, Jess doesn’t want that. He’s made me promise not to let you take his arm. I’m sorry, Doc, but I’ll not let you, no matter what you say or do.”

“I’m not prepared to fight you over this, but I’m warning you, be prepared for the worst,” replied the Doctor and he sadly looked down at Jess and shook his head.

“I’ll never be prepared for that. I can’t begin to think that we could lose him,” said Slim.

“Anything you want to add Jonesy,” the Doc. asked the old man.

“No Doc.” Jonesy shook his head. “I think that you are probably right, but I’ve given Jess my word as well. I’ll do my damnest to try and get him through this, and if I fail at least I’ll have done my best and I’ll not have let the boy down.” It was during this conversation, that Slim saw Jess stir as he began to open his eyes.

“You O.K., pard?” Slim asked anxiously, “Anything you want?”

“Water please…….I’m so……..dry.” Jess moaned softly.

“Well now Jess,” the Doctor said in a bright voice, “been in the wars again, I see.”

“Just…..a bit.” Jess murmured weakly.”

“Well, you can get your drink, then I’m afraid, son, I’m going to have to attend to this arm of yours. do you feel up to it?”

“It’s got to ………..be done………maybes the……sooner….the better,” Jess replied softly.

“Yes my boy, quite right.” Then the Doc turned to Jonesy. “Well, have we got everything to hand? Maybe we could soak these instruments in some whiskey; while I wash my hands” said the Doctor as prepared for the harrowing task which lay ahead. Slim came back with Jess’ drink.

“I’ve got you some ice cold root beer. D’ya fancy that?” Slim enquired, worried already about the outcome of the whole procedure.

“That’ll……do nicely.” Jess made an effort to raise himself on his left arm.

“Stay still Jess, let me help you” said Slim.

“You’re …babying……….me………again,” Jess complained

“Can’t a fella help you when you need help? Come on, Jess, be sensible for once;

you’ll need all your strength when the Doc. starts,” Slim complained to his stubborn friend. With that Jess gave up and allowed Slim to support him while he gave him his drink.

“Right.” said the Doctor. “Are you about ready Jess?”

Jess didn’t answer, just nodded.

“How long ago since you did this?” the Doc. asked.

“Just after dawn or thereabouts,” Slim answered for Jess, who had his teeth already clenched as he waited for what was to come.

“As long ago as that. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner, but I’m here now.” The Doctor began to gently unwind the bandage from Jess’ arm. Blood had soaked the bandage leaving a huge brown patch, which got darker as each layer of the bandage came off, until it looked almost black in the center.

Jess felt the bandage sticking and heard the slight crackle as the dried blood broke up and gave way. Jess looked down at his arm and saw how the bandage had bitten into his flesh, and how swollen his arm looked above and below the line of the cotton binding. Jess knew fearfully what was coming, as the bandage no longer pulled against its folds, but was now beginning to tear, deep, and harsh against the torn flesh of his wound.

His breathe started to quicken and beads of cold sweat broke out on his brow as he watched the Doc soak some torn up sheet in some whiskey. Jonesy handed the Doc. a piece of towel he had been soaking in hot water and then the Doc. began to soak the bandage in an effort to get it free. Jess felt the Doc. pull the bandage gently away. The pain did not increase much, but he felt the pull against his flesh as it seemed to be pulling the lips of the wound apart. Jess looked down again at his arm and saw in the middle of the open wound the blood had clotted in a large black lump.

“You must have lost a lot of blood, Jess,” said the doctor.

Jess couldn’t answer as he felt a sudden pain stab up from his arm and lance into his forehead, ending in a hammering behind his eyes which made him want to throw up. The Doctor, suddenly, and without saying another word had ripped the bandage with skilful savagery off his arm.

Jess had felt the raw, live tissue pulled away in a violent second of excruciating pain. He blindly reached out with his left hand to have it taken in Slim’s strong grasp. Jess felt the lips of the wound as it broke open again and the congealed blood slit open. The new blood, hot and sticky pumped up through the cracks in the clot and ran down his arm, soiling the sheet underneath him. The violent impact caused the nausea he was feeling to surge up and fill his throat and mouth with the sourness of the root beer. He wanted to spit it out. He tightly squeezed Slim’s hand in an effort to ease the pain.

Then before he could think again, the Doc poured whiskey on to the wound and Jess cried out and tried to thrash away in his anguish. The Doc went on and did it a second and third time and the first coolness of the raw spirit turned into a scorching, burning torch which bit deep down into his raw flesh. He felt the Doctor’s hands as they pulled his flesh apart, with all the controlled savagery of a mountain lion on its prey. The sourness had now drained out of his mouth and was replaced with the dry air of faintness, which rose into his face and broke out on his forehead in renewed sweat.

The flesh of his arm was now broken apart, and then, in a few moments of confusion when the pain and faintness was beating him back again into the colder and colder, darkness. He felt the Doc’s hands as they began to stitch the lips of his wound together.

“Hold on, Jess,” murmured Slim, “not long now, almost done”.

Jess couldn’t speak; his jaw was clenched so tight that he felt that he would break it. He continued to hang on to Slim’s hand as if it was a life line and he rolled his head from side to side as he sought comfort and escape from the horrendous ordeal.

Jess continued to feel the Doc as he stitched and pulled the raw edges of the wound together; this was a new pain, both tight and unrelenting. The edges of his torn flesh gnawed at each other before they were finally and tightly fused. The Doctor then took the whiskey soaked pad and brought it down one more time on the neatly stitched wound. Jess now lay with his arm flat and taunt as if wired through every vein and artery. The pain beat through them in an uneven throb transmitted in anguished waves to his shoulder, down the nerves at the back of his eyes and down his arm into his finger tips.

He gave a groan and an involuntary shudder tore through his body; then he suddenly felt the hot pungent wetness of sickness spew on to his chin, neck, and chest. He felt himself being lifted and supported as someone was holding a bowl under his chin and he continued to wretch into it. It was agonizing to wretch on an empty stomach and he gasped as the pain in his ribs intensified with the continued uncontrolled heaving from his stomach.

Jess felt a coldness as it began to bite, even though he was burning up and his whole body began to tremble and shiver. He was aware of voices seemingly far away and of hands wiping his chest and of warm water as it brought comfort; it was Jonesy who went on and washed Jess’ face and neck and murmured soothingly to him, but Jess couldn’t hear, he was still far away in a private battle with the pain. He felt the familiar earthen ware bowl being held against his chattering teeth. He continued to hold on to his pard’s hand as he felt himself slipping away; then he sipped the warm bitter tasting milk which always brought back the silence and the darkness of a place of unknowing feeling.

“He’s gone again, Slim; you can let him lie down now. He’ll sleep for a bit; at least let’s hope so,” said Doctor Broxton. “There’s nothing I can do now. I’ll come around in the morning and check his arm again. Try and keep him as quiet as possible. When he comes round, get some water down him, only a little at a time though. Give him too much and you’ll have him retching again and may cause more damage to those ribs.”

“How d’ya think he is Doc?” Slim anxiously asked.

“His injuries on their own are not life-threatening, hellish painful, yes, but normally would not kill him; but that arm was exposed for a long time, the wound is very deep and I do not know how it will heal, that is if it ever does. The infection and fever is going to be the big problem, and if anything it will be that and the fever that will kill him. You should let me take that arm off. There is no guarantee that it will ever be any good, but if I take it now there is every chance that he’ll survive and will be O.K.”

“I can’t, Doc. I promised him, I can’t go back on my word. He’s worth more than that. He wants to fight for his life with his arm. He doesn’t want to live or try to live without it.” Slim’s shoulders were slumped down and his voice was quiet and full of anxiety.

“Well I’m sorry Slim, and for you Jonesy too; I think you are wrong, but you say it’s Jess’ call, so be it. You’ll have a huge fight on your hands and I don’t think you stand any chance. The odds are piled against him and what is more, by his life signs he’s dying now as I speak,” the Doctor went on as he gathered his instruments together and packed his bag. His face was somber as he couldn’t believe that Jess, who he’d patched and sewed up so many times, was dying after a stage coach accident.

He never thought that something so simple would take the life of someone who had come to mean so much to so many in the Laramie community. He turned once more to the two men who were standing beside Jess’ bed; they looked at the Doctor in the helpless way he recognized from all such crises he’d attended in his professional life. He tried once more and appealed to them. “It’s now or never, tomorrow his system will be over whelmed with infection, and he’ll not be strong enough to take the amputation.”

“No, Doc. I agree with Slim; Jess may be dying, but he still has a chance while he is breathing and I have breath in my body. He doesn’t want you to take his arm and that is that. We’ll see you tomorrow?” old Jonesy spoke for the two of them.

“Yes, I guess so,” replied Doctor Broxton. He took one final check on Jess’ pulse and sadly shook his head and turned to follow a despondent Slim who escorted him out to his surrey. Slim had been stunned and shocked by all that he had witnessed and by all that he’d heard.

*****

The long, dark hours past in a nightmare, as Slim and Jonesy were never far from Jess” side. They bathed him continuously as they fought to keep the raging fever down. Jess was restless and flayed around. He called out for his sister Francie, who had been dead this past year. He called for Andy and Jonesy and others whom he’d never spoken of before. He constantly called for Slim, sometimes appealing for his help, often asking where he was and if he was alright. Slim never left Jess’ side.

He held his hand which sometimes grabbed hold of Slim’s in a strong vice like grasp as a new wave of agony shuddered through Jess’ body. Most of the time however it lay cold and Slim was tormented by the lifeless feel of it, as Jess’ grasp became more and more feeble. The fever raged and intensified so that Slim himself could feel the heat being pumped out of Jess’ burning body that at once warmed the room and made Jess bed and clothes wet with the sweat of his agony.

At last dawn broke, but there was no respite for Jonesy from the continual care he put into Jess. He was tireless, there was no mention now of his bad back, aches and pains or the aggravation that the “young varmint”, his usual name for Jess, was causing him. Jonesy could not have taken better care of Jess if he’d been his own son. He tended to him with compassion and gentleness often found in caring sensitive men. He spoke to him continually, he jollied him along and never once allowed a word of pity or sympathy to enter into his dealings with him; because he knew from his dealings with Jess in the past, he could stand a lot of things but pity and what Jess called being babied was not one of them.

Doctor Broxton arrived early on his way to check out the burnt men at the Jackson place. He again examined Jess’ arm, which was now swollen, bruised and showing the signs of the infection spreading , as angry looking purple, red lines were creeping up and down his arm from the site of the deep wound. He worked quickly, and looked up at one point into Jonesy’s eyes and slowly and sadly shook his head. He finally collected his things and with a final gentle touch on Jess’ shoulder went into the living room.

Slim placed a cup of coffee and a piece of pie on the table in front of the Doc and then sat opposite him.

“Well Slim, I don’t have to tell you; you and Jonesy can see for yourself how he is failing. I doubt if he will last beyond dawn tomorrow, and I don’t think he will make that. He’s fighting hard, but I think his heart will fail. He wouldn’t have lasted so long if he had not been so fit and young.”

“Is there anything I can do?” implored Slim.

“No. Maybe in the future there will be a drug discovered that will fight infection, until then sepsis will always be a killer. Just keep bathing him and try and keep his temperature down. Just hope and pray for the best. I’m sorry; there is nothing else I can do. It is hard to lose someone so young and with so much promise. I don’t think he is strong enough now to take his arm anyway, that would I think have probably saved him.”

“That was never on the cards,” said Jonesy.

“Yes, would have probably saved his life,” replied the Doctor.

“Maybe,” went on Jonesy”, but not the life Jess wanted.”

With that Slim got up. “Thanks Doc. I’ve got to see to the stock. We’ll see you tomorrow?” he said.

“Yes Slim. I’m sorry, son. I know you are close,” replied the Doctor. Slim just nodded he lifted his hat of the peg by the door and went out.

“He’s gonna take this mighty hard,” said the Doc.

“Yeah. We all are,” said Jonesy. “The boy has a way of getting into your heart; if he goes he’ll be leaving a big hole.”

“Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. See you tomorrow,” said Dr. Broxton, and he stood up and Jonesy escorted him out to his Surrey. He saw him aboard and waved him off. He finally turned to look for Slim, but he was nowhere in sight. So Jonesy went over to the barn, but before he opened the door he heard the sound of sobbing, deep and breath stopping, an agonized sound of someone whose heart was being wrenched out of their chest. It was Slim already mourning the death of his best friend. Jonesy sorrowfully shook his head and went back to the ranch house to see how Jess was holding up as he fought for his life.

*****

When Slim came out of the barn, he found Jonesy emptying the big horse trough which was over by the corral. Slim walked over to him.

“How is he now, Jonesy? Is he any better or is he worse?” Slim asked.

“He’s desperate, Slim. He’s crying out for his mother, he wants her. I’ve never even heard him mention her name before. Anyways I want you to empty this trough as best you can, and then refill it with the ice cold, fresh water from the well. Then we’ll put Jess in. It’s an old remedy we used to use in the old Mex. wars. Sometimes it works, when the heart is strong enough, the shock and all breaks the fever. I don’t think it matters if it doesn’t work, as we both know what the outcome is going to be. The well water is ideal; it’s fresh, clean, and above all really, really cold.”

“Do you think it could work?” asked Slim as he immediately began to empty the trough as fast as he could.

“Don’t really know. I’ve seen it work and it is sure worth a try; there is nothing else we can do and it is better than doing nothing. Come and tell me when you are done. I’ll go and get Jess ready.” With that, Jonesy went towards the ranch house and left Slim to refill the horse trough. Slim was glad to get something to do that might help Jess as he found watching his friend getting weaker by the hour unbearable. Finally Slim had finished and headed towards the ranch house door, just as Jonesy opened it.

“Come on Slim, we’ve got to be quick and get on with it,” Jonesy urged. Slim hurried through the house and into the bedroom. Jess was lying very quietly; his breath was coming in short shallow gasps. He was soaked in sweat and Jonesy had taken his vest off and Slim could see how his whole body was glistening with perspiration. He went around to Jess’ left side and took his hand. It was limp and lifeless and Slim felt how he was burning up as the fever continued to rage.

He looked at Jess’ face and for the first time saw how deeply unconscious his pard was, as Jess’ face no longer showed any sign of pain or suffering. His mouth was slightly open as he softly gasped for breath. He seemed to have lost a lot of the flesh from his face which now had the clean honed look of a boy, and with the long dark eyelashes made him look suddenly very young and vulnerable; there was nothing now of the tough gunman, there was no fire and little fight left in him. Slim knew in his heart that the end was not far off.

It was dusk now and Slim was dreading the dawn as that was when the fires of life burnt low. Slim had seen how men and other hurting critters seemed to let go and die in the early hours before the sun clawed its way above the edge of the world.

Jonesy came bustling in at last.

“O.K. Slim, we need to wrap him in this sheet. You can then pick him up and get him outside. We’ll put him into the trough and wait and see what happens,” Jonesy went on trying to be as unemotional as possible as he could see the pain and shock etched on Slim’s face. With that Slim and Jonesy wrapped the sheet around Jess and Slim lifted him up with ease as he seemed to have become, in a matter of hours, a bag of bones. They went out and Slim and Jonesy gently lowered Jess into the ice cold water. Jonesy held Jess’ arm clear of the water and instructed Slim to pour water over Jess’ head

“How long do we need to leave him in Jonesy?” Slim asked.

“Don’t rightly know Slim. We’ll wait until he starts to shiver and maybe that will be it, the fever will break and his temperature will start to come down. I don’t really know,” said Jonesy.

*****

Slim didn’t know how long they kept Jess immersed; it seemed an age. then as Jonesy had predicted, Jess’ teeth began to chatter and his whole body was convulsed with violent shudders, which finally settled down to continual shivering.

“Right,” said Jonesy briskly. “We need him out of the tub and inside. Rub him down and get him back into bed; then we’ll warm him up and see what happens.”

“How d’ya know all this?” asked Slim as he bent over to take Jess in his arms again.

“I don’t, it’s something I remember seeing years ago, as a youngster.” Jonesy replied.

Slim carried Jess back into the ranch house and then into the bedroom, where on Jonesy instructions he laid him on Slim’s bed, while old Jonesy changed and made up Jess’.

“Get his underwear offa him and get him toweled dry; then we’ll get him dressed again and into bed. He’ll be mortified if he knew what we’re about. Only tell him if he asks you, Slim,” said Jonesy as he toweled Jess’ hair dry. They got him into bed and Jonesy had him lie on his left side and supported him with pillows, under which he had put some hot stones. Well wrapped up hot stones were also put at Jess’ feet. He was then smothered with blankets and a quilt.

But still Jess shivered, Jonesy felt him and shook his head.

“He’s not warming up. O.K. Slim, strip off to your underwear and get in beside him. Lie back to back as close as you can get, that will help.”

Slim stood astounded; he’d never been asked to do anything like this before. He’d never even heard of it happening; so in a daze he did as he was asked. Slim slipped between the covers and pressed his back against Jess’. It was then he felt how deathly cold he was and how, even now he was still shivering.

“Do you think this will do any good?” asked Slim.

“Well it won’t do any harm, and you’re a lot bigger than any stones I’ve been heating up. Do you want a drink? Maybe with something for medicinal purposes only in it?” Jonesy asked Slim as he piled another blanket on top of Slim and Jess.

“Yeah Jonesy, That would be great,” replied Slim.

The night passed slowly, and after what seemed an age Jess stopped shivering. Slim eventually, on Jonesy instructions got out of the bed. He got dressed and went through to the living room. It was not worth going to bed as the sky was beginning to lighten and he would soon be outside tending to the stock. He also had to round up and harness the team for the first stage of the day that was due in soon. Jonesy had the coffee on, but was not about, for once again he had gone through to be with Jess. His devotion to his care, made Slim feel for the first time in his life totally inadequate. He wasn’t handling the situation at all well. He found it hard to sit beside his friend’s bed and watch him writhe around in pain, unable to do or say anything that might have been of some comfort; and then these past hours when the Doctor had said that Jess was dying.

Slim couldn’t sit and watch Jess’ struggle for life. He couldn’t do anything to help, he couldn’t change things, and he couldn’t cope. He’d finally got up and made his way outside. The cock had started to crow and the morning gloaming was filled with bird calls as it seemed every feathered creature had awoken to join in the dawn chorus. He knew that this was Jess’ favorite time of the day and that he could be leaving it, as it was at this hour, the early dawn, and the time of the dawn wind that the ill, weak and old seemed to die.

Slim could smell the dew and the pungent smell of the earth and he knew that it was going to be a lovely day. He could also feel a lump developing at the back of his throat again as he tried to choke back the tears which had torn through him yesterday. He was frightened of shedding more because he’d howled like a dog and it had left him emotionally and physically done to death.

He couldn’t afford to let that happen again; too much depended on him remaining strong. He was finally jolted out of his thoughts by Jonesy, who was standing at the kitchen door shouting for him. Slim tossed aside the pitchfork he was using, and raced for the house. His heart had turned cold and he felt as if someone was trying to squeeze the very life out of him as he gasped for breath. He stumbled as he ran expecting to find the worst.

“Come on, Slim quick!” yelled Jonesy

“God, has he gone? Please God no!” cried Slim as he pushed past Jonesy and made for the bedroom. He fearfully pushed the door open and saw Jess’ head as it turned slowly towards him. Gone was the glistening perspiration of fever. His breathing was deep and slow and his eyes were wide open and wonderfully blue and clear.

“Hello, Slim…you’ve been ……gone……a long time.” Jess whispered his voice even deeper and huskier than Slim remembered it.

“Not as long as you, pard.” Slim responded and went to take his friends hand as he struggled to disentangle it from the bedcovers.

“Am… back …now.” Jess replied.

“Thank God; you’ve given us a helluva fright,” Slim said gravely.

“Bad as….that? Jess whispered, his voice mirroring his weakness.

At that Jonesy walked in, with a huge beaming smile, something you rarely saw on his usual mournful old careworn face. “Well my dear boy, I suppose you’ve felt better?” he asked.

“You’re a …mind ….reader Jonesy,” breathed Jess.

“I’m going to try and make you more comfortable. Slim will give us a hand, do you think you could manage to sit up a spell? I’ll get you something to eat, then we’ll get you washed and shaved, it’ll make you feel better. By then the Doctor will have been here, and we’ll have our hands full picking him of the floor,” laughed Jonesy in real good spirits.

“He doesn’t…expect me …to…be here?” questioned Jess.

“No, but then he is only a doctor,” continued Jonesy, his mood irrepressible.

“Doesn’t know the young Harper here.” Slim joined in the banter. “He can do anything he’s got to. He said so just a day or so ago. We shouldn’t have been so worried.” And with that, Slim smiled and gave Jess’ hand a gentle squeeze and was relieved that Jess had the strength to return the friendly gesture. He then replaced Jess’ hand beneath the bedclothes and turned towards Jonesy and waited for his instructions, as to what he was expected to do to help make Jess more comfortable.

*****

Later that morning, after the stage and the Doctor had been and gone Jonesy and Slim for the umpteenth time that morning went into see how Jess was faring. After being frightened of going in there and of what he might find, Slim couldn’t keep away. Jess had been washed and shaved. Slim had been over the moon to hear how Jess had complained, knowing that that was a clear sign that Jess was feeling better and was on the mend. Jonesy had gotten Jess to eat some scrambled eggs and a slice of freshly buttered bread and of course a couple of cups of his beloved strong coffee.

“How you feeling now, pard?” Slim asked Jess for maybes the fifth time that morning.

“Quit asking me Slim, please…you wearing…me out…I can’t think…..of anything……….else to say……..” moaned Jess.

“Now stop it, you two!” said Jonesy coming in on the end of the two friends” exchange. “I don’t want Jess getting tired and stressed. You heard what the Doctor ordered, rest, good food and easy does it. Now give us a hand to sort out these pillows. We’ll get Jess’ head lower and he’ll be able to sleep; that’s what he needs now. Is your arm paining you much son?” asked Jonesy.

“Yeah, a might,” said Jess.

“Right I’ll get you something for that.”

“No Jonesy……..let me…..be…I’ll try and…..sleep…..without…..getting …knocked out….but thanks….I’ll be……O.K.” said Jess as he suddenly felt exhausted.

“O.K. Jess, if that’s what you want, I’m only next door and I’ll leave it open. If you want anything, you just have to holler. I must find a bell or something; don’t need no bell. Slim will be clucking around like a mother hen……..now try and get some sleep.” Jess’ eyes were already closed and for the first time in days he slipped into a deep healing sleep. The high color of fever was gone, and his breath came deep and even and soon the only sound from him was a soft gentle snore, something which he always denied.

Slim did indeed hover in and out, whenever he got the chance. He began to relax as he realized that he was not going to lose his best friend. A dark cloud was lifted and suddenly the day seemed brighter and all the chores and work he faced seemed as nothing, after the past few days of anguish and the exhausting fight for Jess’ life.

The next few days were spent taking care of Jess, who wary of sympathy complained about the constant attention. He was rarely left on his own, especially now that Andy was back and Jess entertained him by playing cards, much to Jonesy’s disapproval.

It was during this time, that Jess found how difficult life was without the use of his right arm, which was bandaged down to the splints which were supporting his broken arm. Jess was difficult to take care of, as he was afraid of pity at this time. He would never ask for help, to ease his pain or make himself more comfortable. He couldn’t shave himself, couldn’t wash, and couldn’t even cut up his own food. Jonesy elected himself to do these chores. Slim was amazed at how Jonesy could handle Jess and his complaining and his awkwardness at any help or kindness that was offered.

He heard Jonesy say things and call Jess names that if Slim had dared, when Jess was fit, would have resulted in a sharp exchange of blows. Maybe in the early days before he came to the Sherman Ranch, he’d have put a bullet ‘tween the horns of anyone who so verbally abused him. It was obvious, thought Slim, that the two men so dissimilar in age, background and outlook were very close. Jonesy had tended to Jess like a father, frightened of losing a much loved son; and Jess responded to his fatherly care as the old man partly filled the hole, and need left when he’d lost his family in the tragic fire down on the Texas Panhandle.

Slim was surprised as he always thought that war raged between them; it was obviously a cover up for the affection between the two men. Jess relied on Jonesy care and advice, bred out of his sometimes daily doctoring needs and help when he was in trouble with Slim. He always appeared to take the old man’s concern lightly and joked about them, but it was now clear how much Jess appreciated the attention and comfort the old ranch hand afforded him.

The day came when the stitches were to be finally removed from Jess’ arm. Slim kept Andy out of the way and again it was Jonesy who was by his side whilst the painful procedure was performed.

“That must feel better now?” stated Doctor Broxton, “not as tight.”

“Still looks fearfully swollen?” remarked Jonesy and he shook his head. “How long before it goes down, how long before he can use it?”

“It will take time; when the broken bones are healed and the splints are off, then we’ll see how well the arm has healed,” explained the Doctor. Jess said nothing; he’d been concentrating on keeping still as the gut with which the wound was stitched, was cut, and drawn out followed by a slight oozing of blood. He had broken into a cold sweat and was now anxiously listening to every word the Doc. said, as far as he was concerned his arm did not seem much better.

“Here Jess, you young varmint, keep still,” moaned Jonesy as he tried to wipe Jess’ face with a damp cloth.

“Oh, Jonesy, stop it! You trying to drown me?” moaned Jess as he tried to move his head out of the way.

“Wish I had when I had the chance. Would have saved me a lot of work and grief,” old Jonesy came back at him.

Jess chose to ignore that remark and started to question the Doc. again. “Is there anything I can do, besides lie here going mad, to get my arm working again?” he asked.

“Well, I think you should start getting him up, Jonesy, just take it easy. A few hours a day at first, just sitting around; then when you feel stronger, Jess, short walks. Nothing much you can do with only one hand, except wait until it is properly healed.” Jonesy saw how Jess’ head went down and turned away at that. He didn’t need to hear that from the Doc. He already knew.

Next morning, Jess wanted up, and it took a lot of effort from Jess as well as Jonesy to get him dressed. Even then he had to lie down again and recover from the exertion of getting dressed. Slim came through and helped Jess to get to his rocker in front of the fire. By now Jess was soaked with sweat and out of breath.

“Gosh, Jonesy, I’m not right, am I? How long do you think I will be like this?” he gasped.

“Now, now, boy, we came close to losing you, what with the infection and the blood loss. Just be patient, it’ll take a little time, but you’ll be O.K. soon…….driving us all mad,” replied Jonesy.

“He’s driving me mad already,” joked Slim, “never finishes demanding attention, you’d think he’d been ill”.

“Jonesy, get him outta here or I’ll stomp on him,” Jess retorted.

“Look forward to the day you try.” With that Slim went out, happy to hear that his pard, who looked anything but well, was able to joke.

The days drifted by. Jess tried his best to help around the ranch as his strength slowly returned, but he found there was little he could do. He took to walking, checking the fences, that was about all. He didn’t feel confident enough to throw his leg over Traveler. Finally, the splints came off his broken arm and Jess looked down at it and did not recognize it as his. The upper wound had healed, but the way the arm and muscle looked it wasn’t right. It looked as if someone had taken the muscle and had twisted it around. His forearm was unhealthy and sickly white looking, just like the maggots that swarmed and writhed over dead, rotten meat.

“Now Jess, this is where the hard work starts for you. You must start to exercise it. You know the kind of thing; no press ups or such like yet, just take it easy. Get Jonesy to show you how to play scales on the piano, that will help get the muscles in your hand and fingers working again. I’m sure between the two of you you’ll think of other things you can do.” The Doctor instructed.

“When can he chop wood?” asked Slim. “Bout the only thing he’s really good at.” He gave a laugh when he saw his pard’s face darken.

“That’s some way of yet,” Doctor Broxton said missing out on Slim’s joke. “I must be going. I’ll come back next week and see how you are doing; just remember it takes time.”

With that the Doc. and Slim exited the door.

Jess sat on the edge of his bed and tried to make a fist. His fingers failed to fully respond and he gasped as a stabbing pain shot through his arm.

“Take it easy, son,” said Jonesy, “Do you want a coffee?”

“Yeah, please,” replied Jess and Jonesy saw the look of despair that flitted across Jess’ face for a second.

“I’ll be through in a minute.” Jonesy went through into the living room to find Slim waiting for him. He was desperate to know what the Doctor had said. Jonesy put his finger to his lips, and signaled Slim to keep quiet. He then put his head down and shook it sadly and followed by Slim went through to make some coffee.

*****

It was from that day on that the atmosphere changed on the Sherman Ranch. Jess spent much of his time away from the others, either walking the fences or trying to work his hand and arm. Slim was worried about how silent Jess was becoming. He rarely joined in a conversation; getting him to talk was like trying to get blood out of a stone. Jonesy was worried as he could not get Jess to talk to him either, and tell him what was wrong. He did know that Jess was not right. His whole body language, the way he sat, walked, and the fact he avoided anything to do with the horses told Jonesy that Jess was still in pain, and even worse was making no headway with getting some mobility back into his arm and hand.

The Jess they knew was fast becoming a fading memory, as they were left with this hurting, silent, and unapproachable young man who seemed like a stranger. He had a haunted look on his face, which always looked tense. The light tan he always used to have had given way to an unhealthy, grey pallor that often shone with the sweat of over exertion. He rarely had time for Andy, which hurt the youngster and made Slim and Jonesy even more worried about their friend. Finally, things began to come to a head with the arrival of Mort Corey. He’d come to see Jess, who was as usual of walking a fence somewhere.

“I’m sorry Slim, but the Wilsons have finally filed a complaint. Jess is going to be arrested and the charge is attempted murder. It will go to trial. There is nothing I can do,” said the sheriff as he dropped the cannon ball on an unsuspecting Slim.

“Over my dead body,” retorted Slim and his voice began to get dangerously quiet, and his face colored with pent up rage. “You’ll have to go through me first. I’ve never challenged a badge before, but I’ll do it for Jess. I’ll see to it that he gets away until he is well.”

“Now, now, son. Stop that, I’d heard from Mose that he was well on the mend. The splints were of and he was back at work.” Mort explained.

“Hardly Mort.” chimed in Jonesy. “He’s not got the use of his arm back yet, can hardly hold a fork; doesn’t ride, doesn’t do anything really. You’d hardly recognize him. He’s not the boy you knew.”

“Yeah, Jonesy right,” Slim continued. “He hardly opens his mouth. I can’t see him ever riding with you again Mort. I doubt if he’d get into Laramie on a horse.”

“Well I’ll see what I can do,” said Mort. “I do know a good lawyer in Denver, it’s a good way off, but I’ll go over and have a word with him. I’m sure with a good man on Jess’ case; it would be flung outta court. We just need someone who can organize the evidence and make a good argument. It’ll cost though.”

“Just do it, Mort, I don’t care what it costs, and don’t come thinking I’m gonna let you take Jess into Laramie under arrest. I’ll ride in with him when the time comes,” said Slim sternly and he looked at his friend Mort and dared him to say otherwise.

“O.K., Slim I trust you. Meanwhile I’ll slow up the paper work. One thing about us small town lawmen, we can move awfully slow if we need to.” Mort gave a small shake of his head. “Wait till I see that old varmint Mose, never can get a story right. Yeah, and another thing, Slim. Why don’t you get another Doc to take a look at Jess’ arm? Dr. Broxton is O.K. but he is hardly a surgeon, and that’s what Jess needed at the time. I’ve always wondered how it would turn out; it was us that set hat arm if you remember.”

“I’m not likely to forget any of it,” said Slim, “What d’ya think, Jonesy, about another Doc taking a look at Jess’ arm?”

“Fine, but is he gonna let you?” the old man replied, knowing how Jess couldn’t stand any one touching it some days. He wasn’t sure that Jess could go through it all again.

“He’s gonna have a fight on his hands stopping me,” said a determined Slim. He now began to feel more confident than he had in the past miserable few weeks, knowing that something positive was going to be tried.

“Mort?” Slim continued. “Will you send a wire for me please? To the Surgeon General at Fort Bridger. He’s an old friend of my Pa’s. I’m sure he would come if I asked. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.””

“Sure happy to,” replied Mort “write it down and I’ll see that it goes this afternoon. I’ll see to it that Morse brings you the reply.”

“What about the other trouble?” asked Jonesy, “do we tell Jess?”

“No, leave it for now,” said Mort. “We’ll see what the Doc can do. I’ll get on to Fairweather the lawyer, and start the wagon rolling. From what you’ve said I think that Jess has got enough on his plate. Don’t even tell him I was here. O.K? then, I’ll be in touch”

“Here’s the wire and details,” said Slim and he handed the paper he’d written the message on up to Mort who folded it and put it into his wallet.

“Thanks Mort,” said Slim and he held his hand out to the big sheriff. “Sure appreciate it”.

“Glad I got to help,” was all the sheriff began to say. “Can’t afford to let a good man go without a fight. Don’t get many like Jess in a dozen,” he added. “Bye then, be seeing ya all.” With that he wheeled his horse around and headed up the hill towards Laramie.

*****

The day had been unseasonably hot, and when Jess got back to the ranch, he felt sick and weak. The pain in his arm was fast becoming unbearable and the wound was swollen and hot to the touch. Jess had had trouble trying to hide his anguish from the eagle eyed Jonesy and his pard Slim who followed his every move.

The evening meal was another quiet affair and Andy had taken his food outside to have it with his critters. Slim managed to get out of Jess that there was a bit of the south fence missing. Jess had said that he had fixed it as best as he could; but he’d not been able to check if any of the stock was missing. Slim then asked him when he thought he’d be ready to ride again as he was missing him; but Slim didn’t get an answer.

Finally Jess got up and went outside and Jonesy nodded to Slim to follow him. He did so and found Jess sitting outside in his favorite chair; tilted back as normal. Slim went and sat down beside him. They sat in companionable silence, but Slim was well aware how tense and uneasy Jess was. Jess had every reason to be. He’d done his best to replace the missing bars in the fence and now his arm was playing up more than normal. He was never free from pain now and any exertion, no matter how small sent shooting pains from his shoulder down to his finger tips. Any jolt or stumble had the same effect and Jess was fast becoming fearful, as he thought that his arm was getting worse.

It often looked fiery and was hot to touch. Tonight was one of those times; his arm was giving him hell. He had hardly touched his supper and he could feel a slight touch of fever returning. The evening sky had been drained of all color by the days baking, unrelenting heat. The stable and corral yard had a bleached and weary look and the air was still hot and heavy. Jess was feeling more and more sick. The pain in his arm was becoming excruciating and the torrid, breathless night was making his head swim. He tried to relax, and not move about too much, well aware that Slim was watching him out of the corner of his eye. Jess moved again as he pretended to watch the birds roosting along the drain at the edge of the roof.

“Wound bothering you some, pard?” asked the ever- watchful Slim.

“No. Why, Slim?” muttered Jess through clenched teeth.

“Oh, just wondered,” said Slim. “You sure?”

“Yeah, real sure.” Jess replied.

“What a damned liar you are.” Then as Jess’ mouth tightened and he began to get up, Slim exploded in anger. “If that old idiot Broxton can’t sort your arm out, I damn well know a man who maybes can. It’s been going on long enough! I’m sick of watching you crawl around trying to get on with things. Can’t even be bothered with Traveler, so you must be hurting. You’re a stubborn fool, you must be sick of it. God knows I am; it’s painful to watch.”

Jess hung his head and slowly he began to turn away as he tried to escape Slim’s anger, and the truth of what he was saying.

“Don’t you dare walk away.” Slim went on, “Why can’t you be honest. We’ve all got eyes. We know you are in agony some days, we can smell it.”

“You’re right as usual,” said Jess in misery, his voice becoming even more husky as he sat down again. “I’ve tried; it’s no use. I’d be better off without it; at least I wouldn’t be hurting any. I’ve been thinking of moving on. I’m no good to you here.”

“Stop that, pard! You’re going nowhere,” said Slim. “As I said, if that fool Broxton can do no more, I think I know someone who can. I’ve sent a wire to him; he’s an old friend of my Pa’s. He’s gonna come and take a look at it. Don’t worry, I’ll not let him take it off,” and Slim gave Jess a smile.”

“Do you think he’ll be bothered to come and check this out?” said Jess softly, suddenly weary of the whole thing and glad that someone else was going to take a hand in getting it right.

“Yes I do. He and Dad were in the war together and he’s now a surgeon general, so what he doesn’t know about wounds is not worth knowing.” retorted Slim.

At that Jess, leaned his left elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his head on his hand. Slim leaned over and gave his pard’s shoulder a squeeze, and felt how little flesh Jess now had on his onetime well muscled body. Just then Jonesy came through with a coffee for them both.

“Here you are, Jess, and it’s got something in it, for medicinal purposes only. You’ve had a rough ride lately son, but maybes soon, things will be back to normal again; and we’ll have our old wild cat back, with all his trouble, tormenting us and driving us all mad again.”

“Is that what you really want?” Jess asked softly, his eyes glistening with moisture.

“Sure is,” smiled Jonesy.”

“Amen to that,” added Slim, and gave his pard’s shoulder another squeeze.

“Well it’ll be hard, but I’ll try to oblige,” Jess said and he gave them both one of his rare toothy smiles that showed the gap between his front teeth; which he prized, as it gave him the loudest whistle of any wrangler he knew.

*****

Mort was as good as his word, as Mose delivered the message that the surgeon general would be arriving the next day. Jonesy was then flung into a frenzy of activity, suddenly cleaning and boiling sheets and making pies. Slim laughed and tormented him by saying that it wasn’t his maiden aunt that was visiting, but a field surgeon of some 30 years, well used to working sewing up broken bodies and always up to his elbows in blood and gore.

It was too much for Jess, he decided to head out to the big pool up in the area that they called “the Jewel”, and do some fishing. Andy went with him and Slim was glad to see that Jess was taking a little more interest in the boy, even though it was perhaps only for a day, it was a start.

The surgeon, General Wooding, arrived, as promised, the next day on the first stage. He turned out to be a jovial, big hearted man, keen to listen, exchange stories and seemingly at first took everything very lightly; there didn’t seem anything that could worry him. At first Slim found this irritating, as he did not appear to be at all interested in Jess’ condition. In fact he had greeted Jess in a friendly enough way, but hadn’t offered to shake his hand.

Jess, hadn’t said anything since he’d arrived, and had just picked at his food throughout dinner. Slim was worried as he noticed that Jess had begun to look feverish again, and his face looked gaunt and gray. Finally the meal was finished and the Doc turned to Jess and without any further banter said.

“Well young man, when you’ve finished your coffee, I want your shirt and vest of, and I’ll take a look at this broken wing. It’s still giving you trouble. I knew that as soon as I saw you; that’s why I didn’t offer you my hand. Didn’t think you’d want any one shaking it the way you were favoring it.”

“You noticed, Sir?” said Jess, easily slipping back into his old soldier boy manner, when talking to army officers. It always made Slim laugh at him.

“It’s my job. Anyways have you got some where I can get a good look at you son, maybe without an audience?” General Wooding asked. He then turned to the others and said, “I’ll examine him on my own if you don’t mind. I’ll come straight out and let you know what I think.”

Jess then led the way through to the bedroom followed by the surgeon. He left Jonesy, Slim, and Andy sitting starring at their retreating backs. It had happened so fast, they would soon know the worst and they were dreading it. Jonesy at last broke the silence by saying. “Let’s get cleared away….do nobody any good by just sitting brooding about what could be.”

Jess went into the bedroom and slowly eased of his shirt and vest.

“Well son, it looks like you get yourself into plenty of scrapes. Something about being a Texan, Eh, you been in the army? I’ll not ask which side, boy.” The Doctor kept up his quick-fire questions.

“Yes Sir, I fought for one and rode for the other.” Jess admitted.

“It looks like you use your sword, or should I say gun, rather than the pen to get your message across,” and the Doc chuckled at his own attempt at humor.

“Could say that; then again not too many men out here read. My mouth also tends to get me into a lot of fights,” replied Jess responding to the Generals sense of fun.

“Well, hush now I want to listen,” replied the surgeon. Jess sat on the edge of the bed, whilst the old Doc, listened to his heart, and his lungs; moving his listening horn over Jess’ chest and back, and giving the occasional grunt as he did so.

“Banged up your ribs as well?” he asked.

“Yes sir.”

“Now lie down, son. I want to take a good look at this arm of yours. These burn marks on your left, accidental or deliberate?”

“Deliberate, sir,” answered Jess and he gritted his teeth as he hated being asked how he came about getting all the scars, the evidence of a hard life on the frontier.

“Wrists look like they’ve seen better days, rawhide? Cuffs? Was it? Not that long ago. Give you any trouble?”

“Both, sir, and no, I don’t have any trouble; they look a lot worse than they really are.” Jess got out stiffly.

“The scars, like all the others will, in time fade; now do you have anything else, other than this arm which gives you grief?” Doctor Wooding asked.

“My left leg, I broke it a few years back, and when it’s cold, and sometimes in the morning it will bite back,” answered Jess, giving up, as he realized that the surgeon wanted to know everything there was to know about Jess’ physical condition. Jess was relieved that the doc didn’t seem to be interested in how Jess had got himself so torn up, and simply answered his questions.

He was however amazed at the huge scar that started at Jess’ middle and then ran up to his armpit. He remarked how lucky Jess had been to have survived such an injury, and then laughed when Jess had told him, that the bullet had ricochet of a big Mexican belt buckle.

“Devil certainly looks after his own. Now then, let’s get to this arm; be prepared son, I may hurt. I’ll do my best not to, but don’t worry go ahead and yell; you’ll not be the first and you will certainly not be the last.”

With that Doctor Wooding started prodding and manipulating Jess’s injured arm. His fingers delved deep into Jess’s muscles. He pulled his arm straight, bent it this way and that; all the time feeling the muscle. Jess gave a soft moan and did his best to keep still. He could feel the injury spring to renewed life as splinter like shards of pain stabbed at the very heart of the wound. He fearfully tasted the acid sickness well up again and hit the back of his throat and he felt himself slowly slipping back into the silent darkness. He clamped his jaw tight and hung on as best he could until suddenly the prodding, twisting and pulling stopped. He opened his eyes and felt the cold sweat running down his face and saw the surgeon standing now and looking down at him.

“Hitch over son, and let me sit.” ordered Doctor Wooding.

Gingerly Jess moved over the bed and the surgeon sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Now then, get a hold of my hand and squeeze it as hard as you can. Good. Good, now make a fist. And open. Make a fist and now stretch your fingers. Good, let me feel.” And with that the Doctor took Jess’s hand and proceeded to manipulate it and his wrist. At last he was done.

“O.K. son, you stay there and rest easy. I’ll send Jonesy in with a coffee and you’ll want to see Slim,” stated the Doc. “Now then before I go, I’ve got some good news and some pretty awful news. We’ll get the bad out of the way first.”

Jess felt his stomach churning and it began to turn cold as he thought his worst fears were going to be realized.

“The Doctor who tended to this arm of yours was no doubt a good enough type, for digging out slugs, setting a simple fracture and dealing with pregnant women and all the usual colds and stomach upsets ; anything worse they usually died or he’d kill ’em trying to help them. Your injury was beyond his skill. It’s not been cleaned out properly and the muscles have not been restored to their proper place. The whole job needs doing again. I’ll do it first thing in the morning and will stay over until you are well on the mend. I might get in some fishing. The good news is I am pretty positive that with the way you normally seem to heal, you’ll be up and back to your old self in may be six weeks or there about; that’s up to you.”

With that he got up and began to roll his sleeves down again. Jess thought about Doctor Broxton with fondness, as he’d always done his best for Jess and had treated him with kindness and compassion, he was nothing like this efficient no nonsense medical man. Jess was slow to realize what the surgeon had meant and he ran the tip of his tongue over his dry lips and looked hard at the Doctor, as he tried to concentrate.

“You mean it is all to do again?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“That’s right, son,” said the surgeon as he stood up to go.

Jess tried desperately to steady the shameful flinching at the corner of his mouth, and turned his head away. He was doubly ashamed as he felt himself start to shake. Doctor Wooding put his hand on Jess’s shoulder and kept it there until the shivering had stopped. For a moment Jess lay rigid under the strong and kindly hand, and then he drew a long and uneven breath. He relaxed, and with a crooked attempt at a smile said.

“I’m sorry Doctor Wooding; I’m not handling this well….I reckon. I’m a mite tired.”

“Yeah, son, you’ve had a hard ride lately. Just take it easy, you’re going to need all your strength for the morning,” the surgeon said with quiet sympathy. “You’ve better times ahead, now try, and get some rest.”

“Thanks Doctor, Sir.” Jess held out his hand.

“Your left one will do,” the Doctor said as he took Jess’s hand. “See you in the morning. Now get some rest, son.” With that the Doctor exited the room.

With him went Jess’s hard held courage, because in a moment of sheer cowardice he felt himself start to shiver again; it was like when a horse smells fire and is terrified. He was going to have to endure the whole ordeal again, this time knowing that he would have to face the recurring nightmare of excruciating endless pain, helplessness and humiliation as his spirit and body took another pounding. He wished that the Doctor had never told him, had just woken him up, and got started.

With that thought, the door opened and Slim walked in.

“You alright Jess? Want me to help you get dressed again?” asked Slim.

“No, I’ve to rest up. You spoke to the Doc?” Jess asked. “You’ll be there in the morning to help out?”

“Sure will, pard. I’m sorry you’ve got to go through it all again. I wish it could be me. You seem to be the one who is always full of holes and bleeding.”

“It’s O.K. I should keep my head down and my mouth shut.” Jess said wearily. “You know where I want buried if the worst happens tomorrow?”

“Will you stop that talk? I know up in the trees where the horses go for shade, you’ve told me a hundred times pard, and you are still here,” Slim replied and tried to be as positive as he could. His friend was not always as fearless as some people would believe. Slim knew that at times like these Jess felt vulnerable and very much alone. It was hard to deliberately put your head in the lion’s den knowing it was going to get chewed of.

“I could use a coffee, Slim, please,” was all Jess said to Slim’s brief reply.

“Sure pard, one coming up,” and Slim left Jess to go and get his drink. Jess flung his arm across his face, ashamed at himself for being so afraid and for showing it.

Jonesy then came bustling in, and Jess didn’t look at him as he knew that the old man would know how he was feeling and he was not going to talk any more about it. Slim knowing was more than enough.

“Now Jess, take this, you know I don’t approve but under the circumstances I think it’s just what the Doctor ordered. I’ll get you a fresh shirt; you’ll not get it dirty as you’ve to stay in bed.”

With that Jonesy gave Jess a fair tot of whisky and then got Jess his clean shirt and helped him put it on. Slim came back with coffee for the three of them, and Slim and Jonesy tried to keep Jess distracted from what lay ahead. Jonesy was a wily, cunning old bird and after a word with the surgeon had put some of his strong herbal opiate into Jess’s whisky. Jess didn’t notice and the two of them exchanged smiles as they watched their friend’s eyelids droop and close. Slim caught the half cup of undrunk coffee as Jess’s head slowly rolled to the side. He was sound asleep. Jonesy pulled up the sheets and blankets and took a pillow away to let Jess lie more comfortably, and then the two of them rejoined Dr. Wooding to hear their instructions for the coming morning.

*****

Slim bunked down alongside Jess as normal. He had never awoken from Jonesy’s “knock out” potion and was still in a deep sleep, gently snoring. Slim was not so lucky. He lay fretting about the next day and more importantly the outcome of the whole sorry business. Would Jess ever be right again? Would Jess ever recover from the blackness that seemed to have taken hold of his once care free spirit? What would happen at the up and coming trial, as no matter how long Mort could stall it, it would eventually happen? What would the verdict be? How could Billy Tait’s imagined grievance cause all this trouble, anguish, and pain for Jess.

Even now it had got worse as Tait’s three nephews and heaven only knows how many more kin were involved. Jess had told him as much as he knew, but even he didn’t know or didn’t remember the incident; or the girl who had caused all this grief. Slim tossed and turned, everything seemed worse in the night. The hours passed so slowly and then Slim was aware that Jess’s breathing had changed. The snoring had stopped and the room had suddenly become quiet.

“Jess, you awake, pard?” Slim whispered.

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Jess. “Jonesy musta slipped me something. It’s getting I’m frightened to eat or drink cos of his doctoring. He’ll end up poisoning me one day.”

“He means it kindly, you know that,” said Slim. “Nobody could have looked after you the way he has. He’s worn himself out. He’s not finished yet. He’ll not be happy “till he sees you tearing around again raising hell.”

“Well, I hope I’ll be able to oblige,” Jess murmured.

“Sure you will. You heard what the Doc. said. You just gotta believe him,” replied Slim.

I know Slim,” but then Jess went on and said, “I may not be free to tear around anywhere for years. I saw Mort here the other day. I suppose he came for me.”

“You’re right; we’ve got a plan, though. It’s all being taken care of. Mort has got us a good lawyer from Denver dealing with your defense. In the meantime, Mort is busy loosing paperwork and slowing things up until you’re one hundred percent fit.” Slim explained. “When you are ready and that is up to you, we’ll ride into Laramie together and you can surrender yourself to Mort.”

“You and him are doing all this for me?” Jess asked, his voice betraying his emotion. “How much is it all gonna cost? I can never repay you, you know that.” Jess said despairingly. “You’ve put a mighty burden on me.”

“Don’t start Jess!” retorted Slim, “You damn well know if it wasn’t for you coming between me and some of those who’ve tried to kill me in the past, I’d not be here. I know that Mort feels the same way. We owe you. Anyway we will win and they will pay costs; so we are paying the debt we owe you. Sides we need you around.”

“I’d do it for anyone who was in trouble, I don’t want paying for saving anyone’s life,” said Jess tersely.

“Well, too bad; are you going to try and get back to sleep now? You know what the Doc. said,” Slim went on in his usual big brother way.

“No, I can’t,” replied Jess. “I think I’ll go and make some coffee”.

“You’d better not,” Slim grumbled. “You’ll have the whole house up and its hours “till day break. Anyways, I don’t think the Doc. would want you drinking coffee before the operation.”

“Yeah, you’re right as usual,” Jess agreed, “Slim, if I am found guilty and am jailed. The charge is the big one, isn’t it? I know that the Wilsons, Taylors, and Billy Tait would want attempted murder. I’ll be locked up in Rawlins or somewhere for years. I want you to forget about me and get on with making this place successful. I don’t want you high tailing over to see me every few weeks or so, wasting time and money. That goes for Jonesy and Andy, you’ll do that for me, you promise? I’ve been thinking about nothing else as I’ve been laid up.”

“No, I’ll damn will not. Quit talking like that, and quit thinking like that, no wonder you are so down. I’m not going to run out on you. I’ll be holding your hand tomorrow trying not to throw up, and we’ll all be there for you if you are jailed. We could sell up and get a place nearer to where ever you were imprisoned. I don’t know why I am thinking like this, I know it will be O.K., I am getting as morbid as you are. I will not think about it until it happens, and I’ll lay money on it that it doesn’t.” Slim went on as he began to feel uneasy at his friend’s sudden lack of fight.

He wasn’t finished and in exasperation he went on.

“Jonesy and me worked hard to keep you alive and we’re not going to let you go that easy, are you listening real hard? You’ve got to keep fighting Jess, I’m frightened you are beginning to throw in the towel, you owe us that at least, to keep trying.” Slim finally finished and felt better. He’d got a lot of his worries out in the open. He didn’t realize that he’d have to face it all so soon and he was amazed how quickly he’d made the decision and as he talked he knew it was the right one.

“Thanks pard,” was all Jess could say.

“Try and get some sleep,” ordered Slim.

“Slim, I’m gonna be asleep or unconscious, for God knows how long, so let me be. You sleep if you like, but I can’t. I need to get myself together for tomorrow.”

“You’ll be O.K; we’ll be all there for you,” smiled Slim.

Jess closed his eyes and smiled too, so this was how it felt to be part of a family. To have brothers and friends; even if one was a law man. The fear of what lay ahead did not seem so bad now, as he knew that he’d not be on his own.

*****

The next morning Jess was awakened by Jonesy who came in bustling around and very organized. “Come on Jess, I’ve got to get you ready. The Doctor wants you to have a real good wash, get shaved and a good clean up. It seems that’s the latest, when it comes to surgery, cleanliness before anything else.”

“As God is my witness, I have done nothing for weeks to get me dirty. I had a good scrub for the Doc’s visit, and Slim will tell you I did nothing last night. I don’t need you trying to drown me again,” Jess complained.

“That’s right Jonesy; he’s been out like a light. He must be clean as a whistle,” said Slim, backing up his friend’s reluctance to get washed down.

“You heard me, get stripped off,” ordered the old wrangler, not in the mood for Jess’s arguments.

“Well, gosh Jonesy, give me time to wake up. What’s the hurry? I’ve not had a coffee yet.” Jess continued to moan.

“You’ll not be getting one, cos as soon as the Doc starts, you’d be wearing it all down your front. Now come on, no more nonsense. We’ve got to give your top half a really good scrub, and your arm. I’ll get you shaved, don’t know how long before we get another chance. Slim, you go next door and see if anything there needs doing.”

Finally, Jess does what he’s told and allows Jonesy to give him a really good wash down. He does manage to shave himself, and Jonesy makes him change his long johns. He makes him put on two pairs of thick socks, and a couple of clean vests. At last it’s done and Jess and Jonesy go through to the living room. Jess is taken aback, by what he sees as the living room has been stripped bare down to the lamps and the table. It is very warm as the fire is banked up and burning fiercely. The whole place looks as if it has been scrubbed down and even the floor looks damp. In the middle, the table has been made into a long narrow structure, with two wooden arms sticking out at the top at right angles.

Jess turned to Jonesy about to question him.

“Now Jess, don’t be alarmed; we need to fasten you down tight. The Doctor has some real fancy, delicate work to do and he doesn’t want you to move. It’ll be easier if you’re cinched down tight. We’ll make it as comfortable as we can, so you don’t go on making it worse by complaining.”

“Sure Jonesy, but I don’t like it,” said Jess between clenched teeth as already he could feel a cold wave of fear as it began to make him tremble and cause a cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

Slim and Jonesy helped Jess to get settled and comfortable on the table. Jess moaned and said it was rock hard, and continued to complain as they padded his chest and bound him down with broad linen bands across his chest and shoulders. He was fastened down around his hips, above and below his knees. His left arm was strapped down as far as the elbow and the right one was bound down from the elbow to the wrist, his right shoulder was already held down by the cross bands across his chest. At the top of the table not far from Jess’s head, the surgeon’s instruments were lying under a towel which had been soaked in carbolic. The smell seemed to fill the room.

By now the surgeon had come in; he was stripped down to a clean white shirt and an enormous rubber apron, his hands and arms as far as the elbows had been immersed in some kind of disinfectant which made them look brown. He checked the position of Jess’s arm and seemed satisfied. Meanwhile, Jonesy had covered Jess up with a sheet and then blankets to keep him warm.

“Well, everything seems to be in order,” said the surgeon. “Are you ready, son? Here bite on this; it will stop you biting your tongue and maybe your lip and cheek.”

With that, the Doc produced a thick leather wad, which he offered to Jess who opened his mouth and bit down hard on the tough piece of leather.

“Well, every one, you O.K.? Hold his hand, Slim; it’ll give him some comfort. Are you ready Jonesy? Know what I want?”

“Yes sir,” Jonesy replied. He had also broken out in a sweat caused by the fire.

Slim took hold of Jess’s left hand in his and grasped it tightly as Jess looked up at him, his eyebrows were almost meeting and his eyes were alight with the fear of what lay ahead. Slim tried to give him a reassuring smile, but he was filled with dread.

He knew that Jess had not been eating properly for some time and had got to look thin and gaunt, but today for the first time he realized that Jess had also begun to look frail; and he now understood how tired Jess must be with what had been an almost none stop struggle with all the aggravation and pain that the Billy Tait affair had cost him.

It was not over yet, as Jess still had an uphill battle to get fit, and Jess himself feared the struggle with what he knew lay ahead. Slim also knew if Jess survived this last onslaught on his now frail spirit and body, there was still the court case to come and Slim began to think, what for him would normally be unthinkable, to get Jess over the border into Canada, they could all pack up sticks and go, and leave all the trouble well behind them.

The surgeon was painting Jess’s arm with some kind of antiseptic and then he covered it up, just leaving the twisted wound exposed. He broke into Slim’s thoughts of escape by saying.

“Right then, Jess, hold on son. Here we go.” He picked up a scalpel, from the now uncovered tray and without any hesitation made along incision down the length of Jess’s wound. Blood followed the incision and flowed along the line of the deep cut. Jonesy did his best to stem the flow and keep the field clear for the surgeon to see.

Jess gave a soft moan and bit deep on the leather mouth piece and he held Slim’s hand in a vice like grip, with all the desperation of a man hanging on to another, as he hung over a dark abyss.

The surgeon then followed the same line, this time cutting deeper into the wound. Jess’s head moved quickly from side to side. He crushed Slim’s hand as he sought some relief and escape from his agony. Without further ado, the surgeon wrenched the wound apart with his metal retractors, and exposed the mess which lay beneath. Meanwhile Jess spat out the leather wad and gave a loud, gut wrenching groan as he felt the all consuming blackness roar over him and drag him down into the familiar darkness and silence, where there was no past, no present and no future.

“Good,” said Doctor Wooding, “We can really get on now, now that he is dead to the world.” And the Doctor grinned at his own insensitive joke. He looked up and caught the expression on Slim’s sweating face. “Sherman, don’t you go and faint across him or be sick. If it’s too much for you, get out,” the Doctored ordered fiercely.

“I’ll be O.K.”, said Slim as he fought the rising sickness, but still held on to his pard’s now limp and lifeless hand.

With that, Dr. Wooding began to search the wound, and slowly scraps of debris, stones, grit, and pieces of timber were dropped into the kidney bowl. The surgeon cursed and explained, “This wound was never properly searched or cleansed. He’s had hole in the bracerial artery and it’s by some miracle that it has closed itself. This boy must have being going through hell. We’ve even got a piece of mangled bullet in here. Must have disintegrated when it hit the coach, looks like a bit of a 30-30; there’s enough splinters in here to re-spike a porcupine. Damn country doctors, assassins every one, they get away with murder; think that sewing up a wound is enough. If we’d left this in this condition it would have eventually killed the young fella. No wonder he looked so bad when I first saw him. He had that look about him, you know, not so much how long “till I am fit, rather how long “till I die. Here Jonesy take this and pass me that sponge. I’ll also need some more hot water, bandages, and my bag, Thanks kindly.”

“Will he be O.K.?” Slim asked as he still clutched Jess’s hand and willed him to fight.

“I don’t know, son. We need to get him through this first. His arm was never properly tended to before and he has lost a lot of strength just fighting the infection and pain. I don’t know how he will hold up in the end. He’s not like you and your Pa. You’re built like cart horses, can go all day, solid, tough and will endure anything that is thrown at them. Your friend here is more like the pedigree, fast, athletic, can get them to dare most things, but lacking in the Clydesdales’ strength.”

“He’s strong Doc,” said Slim. “He’s been through a lot, and he always bounces back.”

“Well, we’ll see ,” said the Doctor, “Keep him quiet, feed him well and keep him warm, but let’s get this over with first and then we’ll see what tomorrow brings. Hopefully there will be a tomorrow for him. What you think Jonesy?”

“Yeah, I think so,” said the old man whose face was even greyer than normal.

“Now let’s see what we can do with these muscles. I need to sort them out. Leaving this arm like this for two months, no wander he had trouble with all the rubbish left in it; damned country quacks.” The surgeon went on muttering to himself.

Jonesy and Slim watched and were amazed at his skill; at how fine and how neat his work was. Jess was still deeply unconscious, but was still visibly sweating. His breathing was coming in short gasps and Slim got the job of wiping his face and neck with a damp cloth, but other than that he could only watch. He’d told Jess, he wished it could have been he that had to go through the operation, but now when he saw what it had entailed, he guiltily thought he was glad that it wasn’t him. Cart horse or not, he felt pain as acutely as any pedigree.

*****

It was two days now since the operation and Jess slowly began to come round and begin to get a grip on consciousness, he held on as best he could as he did not want to slip away again. He could remember now, although it was far back as if in a dream, someone holding a bowl cool and hard against his chin and he had been painfully sick into it several times.

He also remembered the feel of the ceramic dish against his lips and the taste of the Jonesy’s brew which always brought back the darkness. Now as he was returning to the world, he was surprised that everything seemed to be cut in half. He was lying flat on his back, so stiff that it seemed he might be strapped down. He could only see the top of the chest of drawers, the upper half of a chair and the top half of a window which was filled with the deep blue of a summer sky; and finally the upper half of an older man whom Jess didn’t recognize. He was standing dressed in black and white and immobile as he was framed by the summer sky behind him.

Jess pulled himself back fully into consciousness and lay very still as he was aware of the deep throbbing in his arm, which made him give an involuntary groan. The pain roared back, but for Jess that was an enormous relief as only healthy nerves felt and screamed in such agony. He looked down and saw that his whole right arm was incased as was his chest in a wrapping of bandage, which gave him the feeing of being strapped down. The strange man moved over towards him and laid his hand on his forehead, and Jess cringed away from his touch.

“It’s alright son, you don’t recognize me yet. I’m just checking to see if you’re running a fever; everything seems to be fine,” said the surgeon.

“Can……I…get…argh….some ……water,” groaned Jess, his throat was full of the acid of his earlier sickness.

“Sure son” and he filled a glass from a pitcher of water on the chest of drawers. He then came around to Jess left side to support him and allowed him a few sips of water.

“That’s enough, anymore will make you sick again.”

“You’re… the ….Doctor?” Jess whispered. “I’m beginning….. to …remember….now. I’m back…… in…… my…… own bed. I was……on……a…..table……before hellish…..hard.”

“That’s right. I’ve cleaned out your wound. Slim has kept all the rubbish to show you. I’ve also resectioned the muscle and got it to look like a muscle again. I’m pretty optimistic; you’ll be as good as new, given time. A lot depends on you.”

“Thank you…sir.” Jess quietly said. “I’ll …do ….my best….to see that….all your….work….hasn’t been wasted.”

“I know you will son,” replied the Doctor,” now are you ready for visitors? They’ve been willing you to wake up these last couple of days. Jonesy and I have kept you asleep. I find it is the best way to handle acute pain; and I think we’ve had enough heroics, you’ve had a bad time of it these last few weeks.”

“I thought I was dreaming, as I recognized the bitter tasting milk that Jonesy pours down me,” said Jess ruefully.

“You’re right and it had a little extra from me.” The Doctor went on. “How’s the pain now?”

“Just about bearable, I don’t want to be knocked out again.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, son. Just you behave and stop telling us two old guys what we can and cannot do. You’ll do as you’re told. Do you feel up to eating something?” The surgeon went on sternly; he was obviously used to dealing with awkward patients.

“I’m sorry Doctor; I know I make a lousy patient. I will try something if I must,” Jess replied quietly, the fight over before it got started.

“Well I’ll go and see Jonesy. Now you lie quiet.” With that the surgeon went into the living room and Jess heard him talking and warning Slim to go easy and not stay too long and tire Jess out.

Jess felt as if he had been away along time as everything seemed so unfamiliar and he had awoken to see a strange face peering down at him and that had given him a shock; it had taken some time for him to realize that he was back in his own bed. He was thinking about the Doctor when the door opened and there was Slim’s big friendly face looking down at him.

“You awake, pard? You O.K., Jess?” was the first thing that Slim asked. “You’ve had a hard ride again.”

“Yeah Slim to both. I seem to have been away for weeks. I’m aching all over and don’t ask about my arm. Just let’s say I know I’ve got one and somebody’s been chopping it around.” Jess said his voice weak and husky.

“Where’s Andy?” he continued.

“I’ve sent him to his friends. He’s like the horses — doesn’t cope when you’re not well. He’ll be back in a couple of days.”

“Well I want up by then.” Jess said.

“You’ll do as you’re told,” replied Slim, “you’ve just come round; can’t you take it easy and give yourself time to heal. There never a middle way with you, you’re either throwing in the towel or tearing somebody’s head off.”

Jonesy came in on the middle of Slim’s complaints and immediately went for them both by saying, “You two arguing already, can’t be left two minutes, without some aggravation starting. You heard what the Doc. said Slim. Anyway how are you Jess? Are you warm enough? Anything I can do to make you more comfortable?” the old man fired questions at Jess and never gave him chance to answer. “I’ve got some chicken soup, will that do you?” he continued.

“Sounds great,” and Jess smiled weakly as he had already begun to feel tired.

“O.K. Slim, get a couple of pillows, and get him raised up some and I’ll get this spooned down him before it gets cold.”

Slim did as Jonesy had ordered and then he sat on the chair and watched as Jess let Jonesy feed him. He took the soup without a murmur; then the old man took the pillows away and laid Jess’s head back down.

“Thanks Jonesy.” Slim heard Jess whisper, he seemed to say a lot to Jonesy, but Slim couldn’t hear as Jess’s voice sounded so weak and tired.

“Now dear boy, you don’t have to thank me. I just want you to get well, that’s all the thanks I need.” With that the old man wiped Jess’s mouth and pulled up the covers to Jess’s chin again. Slim again realized that the two of them seemed to have a special bond that he’d never noticed before. Perhaps it was a father and son thing as both had neither.

“Now get back to sleep.” Jonesy said.

“I’ll try. Are you staying a bit, Slim?” Jess asked his friend.

“No he’s not. You’re to sleep, and not argue with him,” Jonesy ordered.

“You heard him, pard. I’ll see you later.” With that, Slim leaned over and gave Jess’s shoulder a squeeze. He then got up and followed Jonesy out of the bedroom. Jess closed his eyes, and felt the warming comfort of the soup making him sleepy. He was over the worst of it and now the fight against the pain and immobility would start, as Jess began the long battle to find his old self again, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

*****

Doctor Wooding kept Jess in bed for another 3 days, and on the fourth day, he allowed him to get up. He helped him to sit on the side of the bed and began to remove all the bandages. Jess was giddy at first and Slim had to sit beside him, in case he needed any support. Jonesy meanwhile stood with a basin and cloth incase Jess lost his breakfast.

The bandages were finally removed and Jess very hesitantly looked down at his arm. The Doctor then began to gently feel it; he took Jess’s hand and manipulated it, then his elbow, wrist, and shoulder. It caused Jess to grunt and gasp a little as he looked down and studied his arm; he saw that the swelling has almost gone and so had the redness. He was dismayed at how thin his arm looked and the muscle was much smaller than he remembered it to be. He saw the two fine lines held together with many, many tiny fine stitches all very close and even. The arm looked almost normal now. Jess realized that the pain he was feeling was mostly caused by the stiffness at not being able to use his arm for so long.

“Well folks, what do you think of that?” a beaming Doctor Wooding said, very pleased with what he saw.

“Looks very well, a great job” said Jonesy.

“Yes. Thanks Doctor, it’s not like the same arm,” Slim added. “We owe you a lot.”

“No Slim, I enjoyed the challenge; it was hard, especially as our young friend here, and who it appears has lost the power of speech. Now that is a miracle. Was not the most co-operative patient I’ve come across. I think he’ll be O.K. In fact I’ll put money on it.”

Jess then looked up at the Doctor, “How can I ever thank you. I don’t know what to say.”

“All I want is to hear that you are doing everything you could, what was it? Three, four months ago.” replied the Doctor smiling.

“Don’t know if I’d go that far.” smiled Slim.

“Leave of Slim, or we’ll have to go outside”, Jess said with a grin on his face. “Anyways I thought you were going to help me get dressed. I want up, I want to go outside. I need to see the horses. I need some sunlight.”

“See Doc. he’s well on the mend, he’s starting to demand and order us all around again. When he starts to moan and complain we’ll know he’s recovered.”

The Doctor laughed, “Well it’s good to hear. I’ll leave you two to get on, Jonesy and I need to talk. I need to tell him how to take the stitches out. Show him the exercises Jess will need to do and how to help Jess regain his strength and get really well. He doesn’t think so but he has a ways to go yet.”

The road to a full recovery started almost immediately for a soon as Jess was dressed, and with Slim by his side and Jess holding on to him as he wasn’t that steady yet; the two of them went outside. They made their way slowly over to the corral as Jess wanted to see Traveler. The big horse recognized him as he drew nearer and trotted over to the rails, with a lot of snorting, blowing as he tossed his head back.

“Good to see you too, big fella. We’ll be off together soon.” Slim heard what Jess had said to his horse and realized that this was the first time since the accident that Jess had even mentioned throwing his leg over a horse again. True to his word, it wasn’t long before Jess started to groom the horses, who all nipped and kicked at each other, as they all vied for Jess’s attention. Slim heard him laughing and talking to them and thought it was great to hear his friend laugh again.

During this time Jonesy kept after Jess, making him do the exercises that the Doctor had ordered. Jess complained bitterly, and Slim marveled at the fact that Jess allowed Jonesy to boss him about. He could and did insult Jess in an effort to get him to work harder; there was a time when this would have lead to an almighty row, and many men had been “decked” for saying less.

Jonesy had even got away with calling Jess soft and a cry baby, when he took the stitches out of Jess’s arm and Jess was too squeamish to watch. It was obvious that Jess was well on the mend as he started to play with Andy again. He showed him how to take care of his new saddle, they went fishing together, and Jess even started to swim again. The big breakthrough came when Jess started to chop up wood again, this was a sure sign that his am wasn’t paining him anymore and he was anxious to regain his muscle strength in his right side. Slim finally realized that the battle was nearly over, when he awoke to find that Jess’s bed was empty and his pard was gone. No one had heard him go and as they sat down for breakfast Jess walked in.

“Where’ve ya been?” Jonesy immediately demanded to know. “You shouldn’t take off without a word. All kinds of stuff could happen and you’re not that fit yet.”

“Hush up Jonesy, worst that can happen would be if I couldn’t get back on Traveler. Anyways, I was sick of beef and I went early and bagged us some venison. It’s outside for you to butcher.” Jess said with a happy grin on his face.

“That’s great,” said Slim. “You should have said; Andy and I would have loved to have come with you. It was a lovely morning for it.”

“Maybe the next time,” replied Jess. “This was something I had to do by myself. You must understand, don’t ya?”

“Sure pard”, was all that Slim said, and watched as Andy and Jonesy went out to check on the kill.

“It’s great to see you doing so well,” said Slim.

“Yeah, thanks, I’m beginning to feel strong, almost as good as new. I suppose I’ll have to be thinking of going into see Mort about the Wilson thing”.

Hold on Jess, you’ve a bit to go yet, so don’t let’s hurry it. Mort has not sent word or anything yet. He’ll let us know when it’s time”.

“I expect so, but it’s never far from my thoughts, how much longer have I got, before you know what I’m thinking”.

“I know Jess, and I can’t understand why you always seem to think you’re going to get the worst of it and be found guilty? I know that Mort and the Doc. have some really good evidence in your favor, so why you’re talking as if you’re going to be put away for years, I can’t figure. It’ll be fine, just you wait and see,” Slim went on trying to cheer his friend up.

“Tell you why Slim; these past twelve months or so, every time I have had dealings with Tait and his kin, the Taylors and now the Wilsons; I’ve come of worst. It was the Taylor boys who nearly killed me, when we went after Charlie, I ended up doing time and getting eight bells knocked outta me, after that brawl in the saloon when I accidentally caught Tait in the mouth; now this, caused by, I bet, by one of that crew taking a shot at me. I never seem to be able to win when I tangle with them. They all seem hell bent on taking some real raw revenge outta my hide”.

“Yeah Jess, I can understand how you feel. It’s a great tangled web, the Wilson kid, and the Taylor boys all being Billy Tait’s nephews. He’s sure got “em riled up; but you wait, it’ll be different this time. I’m here to help and Mort is on your side one hundred percent. Things have changed a lot since the fight with the Texan gang. You and Mort are real friends now and I know he has a lot of time for you. How many times have you saved his neck? He doesn’t forget. You’re his number one boy when he wants to chase the bad guys. I’m way down the pecking order now. Cos of you, your fast gun and mad in and at them ways,” Slim grinned as he tried to make his friend smile.

“I wish you’d stop going on about me like you do. I’ve got a temper that’s got me into a lot of scrapes. I don’t want to talk about; and I wish you’d forget about this fast gun thing, it is going to get me killed one of these days. I don’t need reminding. I help Mort out because I can, and I do not have as much to lose as a lot of men with families and responsibilities, so do me a favor and stow it, I am no hero, just been lucky. You know I bleed and hurt like everybody does, so don’t go on as if I’m something special, I’m not. I am shaking in my boots over this coming court case and I just hope that you will be proved right. I’m a worrier when it comes to dealings with the law; I’m no stranger to being locked up. I can’t stand being caged; you ask Mort how I created the last time”. And with that Jess put his head down and started to moodily chase his breakfast around on the plate.

*****

The days passed and by now Jess was again working almost full time on the ranch. The two friends were in good spirits and were again enjoying each other’s company as they worked the spread often side by side. One day Jess asked if it would be O.K., if he didn’t work that day, as there was something that he needed to do. Slim didn’t ask him what, but had offered his help which had been refused, so Slim had left it at that as he knew that Jess would get round to telling him when he was good and ready. Nobody saw hide or hair of Jess for the rest of the day. Jess who was late for supper that evening finally came in and Slim watched as Jess unbuckled and uncinched his gun belt and hung it up. He’d not worn it since he’d been injured.

“So that’s what you’ve been doing all day?” enquired Slim.

“Yeah. And cleaning it and all, it had got into a right state, if I’d tried to use it, I reckon it would have cost me a few fingers,” replied Jess.

“Well, how did it go?” asked Jonesy, never happy when guns were involved.

“Great!” replied Jess with a broad smile. “The Doctor was right, I might have forgotten how to do things, but my muscles, reflexes and whatever haven’t. It was as if nothing had ever happened”

“Yeah,” went on the mournful Jonesy, “And maybe the hours of practice and years of bloodletting had something to do with it”.

“Here we go again,” laughed Jess, “still think my last names James, even after all this time. God Jonesy, I’ve not spilt anybody’s blood for months except my own”.

“Come on you two, it’s Jess and me that argue. I thought you two were best buddies?”

“Not me,” Jonesy complained. “I can’t stand the evil young varmint. Don’t know why you keep him around, gives us nothing but trouble and a lot of extra work. It’s as bad as looking after hens keeping him on his feet.”

Jess put his head back and laughed. “Get me my supper Jonesy, I’m starving.”

“Talk to me like that, Harper, and you’ll be wearing it.” Jonesy gave one of his usual sniffs and went through to get Jess’s supper. The two fiends looked at each other and laughed as they both knew the truth of Jess’s and Jonesy relationship.

The next couple of days the weather was beautiful, and Jess now wearing his rig again relished being able to work. He was at last beginning to look tanned and fit again, and one day Slim caught him vaulting over the corral fence; then came the morning when he started his old trick of somehow hopping into his stirrup leathers.

At last, Slim thought, the old Jess seemed to be back. We’ve only to get this court case out of the way and everything will be back to normal. It was as if Jess had read his mind, because that evening, as they were sitting as usual on the porch, Jess once again brought up the subject. He was still worried sick about the outcome and again pleaded with Slim that if the worst happened, he, Andy and Jonesy should get on with their lives and forget about him. Yet again Slim refused, and would not even discuss such an outcome. Finally with a sigh Jess said.

“Well I can’t dodge this any longer. I need to get in touch with Mort, and see how he wants to play it.”

“You feel ready?” Slim asked.

“No I’ll never feel ready. To be honest, I want to high tail it out of Wyoming as of now. It’s only you, Mort, Andy and Jonesy that keeps me hog tied here. I’d be letting you all down if I put my tail between my legs and took off,” Jess said miserably.

“You’d be letting yourself down as well and you’re worth more than that, Jess,” said Slim suddenly feeling very sorry for his friend and what he must be going through as he realized how churned up he must feel inside. He had gone through so much and had worked tirelessly, being bullied all the time by Jonesy to get fit; and now he was right, it could all end horribly wrong.

“I’ll do it for you; I’ll go into Laramie tomorrow and see Mort. You be O.K., taking care of things here?” Slim suggested.

“Thanks pard. Yeah, I’ll be O.K. Is there anything pressing that needs done, before…” Jess asked.

“No, just take care of things as normal, if there’s no problems , after the noon stage you take Andy swimming, fishing whatever you want.”. Slim replied.

“Yeah, I’ll do that. Want a coffee, Slim?” Jess asked as he leaned back in his chair and stretched out.

“Yeah,” said Slim, “that would be swell”. With that, Jess got up and went inside to make some coffee, whilst Slim leaned back in his chair and began to think what lay ahead of them all with some dread. What if Jess’s worst fears were realized and the jury found against him. The Wilsons were an old well-established family and not everybody thought of Jess like the sheriff did. What could they do? What would they do?

Next day Slim rode into Laramie to see Mort, who was as always pleased to see the young rancher he regarded as a friend.

“How’s Jess?” Mort immediately asked.

“He seems well enough, but this court case is dragging him down and keeping him really low. I wish to God it were over,” said Slim.

“You’re not the only one. I’m glad to hear that the boys better. I couldn’t come out and see you. The Wilsons would have found out and it could affect the outcome of the trial. You know….I had a personal interest in the case and the Wilsons were not being treated fairly. You know what I mean”.

“Don’t worry Mort, Jess has been too busy to notice if you’d been or not. He’s worked himself into the ground getting fit and what with Jonesy’s nagging, was too exhausted to notice or to care. He did go on about this wonderful boiler of yours. When are you going to let me in on the secret?” smiled Slim.

“Now boy, there’s some things Jess and me need to keep to ourselves,” the sheriff said with a smile.

“Well there’s another special bond, Jess has one with Jonesy too, he’s his blue-eyed boy, can do no wrong. I guess it is the same with you?”

“Yeah, Slim, he gets under your skin; you know that. Look how he’s tormented and driven you loco in the past, and you still watch his back and take his aggravation. Anyways how do you want to play this?” Mort continued, “The trial can be set for next Thursday, so that will give you over a week. Do you want me to come out to your place and arrest him and bring him in?”

“No, we’ll come in next Tuesday. Jess has to see his lawyer, and he wants a haircut, not a Jonesy special that makes him look like a hard case. We’ll eat at Julie’s and stay at the hotel for the night. On Wednesday, he’ll come over with me as I’m gonna to stay with him, and he’ll surrender himself to you. Does that seem O.K. Mort?” said Slim.

“That’ll be fine, I’m not around on Tuesday, I’ve got to go up to Bosler, and it’s not far from your lake. There has been some aggravation up there I have to deal with. I’ll tell John about the arrangements. You sure you want to bunk down with him. You’ll be in the next cell, you’re sure?” asked Mort.

“Yeah. If that’s O.K.” Slim replied.

“Well it’s your choice, you’ll find out all about the boiler then; as I don’t know if Jess will want to move out of the back. Anyway, that can be sorted when you get here. You want to stay for supper? You’d be welcome”. Mort continued.

“No thanks, I’ll pick up some bulls eyes for Andy and then I’ll head back; so I’ll see you week after next. O.K.?” Slim said as he turned towards the door.

“Yes son, let’s hope it turns out well,” Said Mort.

“Amen to that Mort, it doesn’t bear thinking about,” Slim agreed.

“I’m building a nice case against Billy and the Taylors; they’re on their way back to jail, so try not to worry. I’m pretty confident ,everything will turn out O.K. So long, Slim,” Said Mort and with that Slim thanked Mort yet again and the two friends shook hands and then Slim turned and exited the door.

When Slim got back to the ranch, it seemed deserted as there was no sign of Jess or Andy. Slim took care of Alamo and then went into the ranch house and found Jonesy in the kitchen busy making the supper.

“You’re busy making a pie? What’s the special occasion?” asked Slim.

“Does there have to be a reason?” moaned Jonesy. “Can’t a body do something special without a lot of questions?”

“O.K. Jonesy, I only asked,” Slim replied. “Anyway, where’s Jess and Andy?”

“They’ve gone fishing. I’m expecting them back soon; there’s coffee made if you want some, pour me one, we need to talk.”

Slim did as he was asked and sat down and waited for Jonesy to come through. He obviously needed to get something of his chest and Slim wondered what else could have happened. Jonesy finally came into the living room, sat down and took his coffee.

“O.K. Jonesy, what’s been eating you?” asked Slim.

“It’s Jess, he’s really low Slim,.” Old Jonesy said his mournful face was even more miserable than usual as it was etched with a new set of worry lines, which went deep.

“Yeah, I know; I don’t know what we can do. I’ve talked to him and there is nothing else I can say. He’s convinced he’s going away for years. I don’t know what else I can say or do,” said an equally grieving Slim.

“I know , we’ll just have to try and be there for him Slim. He wants me to promise to keep Andy here at home when he has to go to Laramie. He says he doesn’t want Andy’s last memory of him being lead away in handcuffs. Being put in the tumbleweed wagon with maybe a crowd of Wilsons and Taits jeering , and calling out and making fun of him in the street. He doesn’t want Andy to see him going through that. I didn’t know what to say to Jess. I couldn’t say anything. Jess also said he’d wished we’d let him die than have saved him for this. I want to be with him, but you know that Andy will not stay here if I go to Laramie”

“Jonesy, Andy will want to go to Laramie, but I agree with Jess. I don’t want Andy to see Jess being jailed. He’ll see him enough when he’s in jail, and he’ll be older and he’ll understand more” agreed Slim. “He must be feeling desperate if he wishes he’d died, God, this is awful.”

“Jonesy. We’re getting as bad as Jess thinking the worst; so that’s it, give Jess your word. It’ll make him feel a bit better and it will be something less for him to worry about . I guess I know what all the pie making is for; you’re going to spoil Jess while you’ve still got him”.

“Yeah Slim, something like that,” murmured the old man.

“Well, don’t let him get wind of it; he’d go mad if he found out.” At that, the door opened.

“Who’d go mad if he found out?” Jess asked with a grin.

“We’ve got trout for breakfast, Slim,” Andy piped out, and he proudly held up a string of a dozen or so plump fish.

“Well? Who’s gonna go mad?” Jess demanded to know.

“You are!” said Jonesy.

“How’d we know? He’s always mad, going mad or been mad,” laughed Slim.

“O.K., O.K., Sherman, laughs on me as usual, I guess I’m not gonna find out, that’s right?”

“Yeah, you got that right,” said Slim.

“Can I smell pie? Great Jonesy, we’ve got here just in time; I’m starving,” said Jess. With that, Slim and Jonesy smiled at each other, glad to see that Jess seemed a little bit happier and relaxed. It didn’t take much to make Jess happy, a bit of fishing and something good to eat was all.

After that, the next few days flew by, it seemed that Jess tried to cram so much into everyday as if it was going to be his last. Explaining to Andy was hard, and it was left to Jonesy who always could find the right words for difficult situations when it came to the Tuesday morning, when Jess was due to leave, it was a very tearful time, as Andy was heartbroken. He thought he’d never see Jess again and Jess found it hard to speak to either Jonesy or to Andy; they both gave him a hug and wished him “good luck”, but even then Jess couldn’t say a word. He wasn’t going to say “good bye”, just made good with “I’ll see ya all”, then he slowly mounted Traveler, took a quick look around, and pulled his hat low over his face and with Slim by his side set of up the hill towards Laramie.

When they got into Laramie, they headed straight to Jeff’s livery stable, it was easier to leave the horses there to be taken care of , it just meant that they would have to walk every where they wanted to go. Slim didn’t say anything, but he was worried as a man on foot was an easier target than a man on horseback. Mort had warned him, that whoever had twice had a go at gunning Jess down, might try and see if he could make it “third time lucky”.

He decided not to say anything, as he knew that Jess was usually on guard wherever he went. He always sat with his back to a wall in a corner; and if he could manage it he tried to have the light behind him wherever possible shining in his attackers eyes. Jess was careful, all these were legacies learnt and remembered from his days as a top gun.

The lawyer’s room at the hotel was the first stop and at last, they got some good news. The evidence that Mort and the lawyer had gathered all seemed to point to Jess having no case to answer.

“Of course,” said Fairweather the lawyer, “I’ll do my best to drag the truth out of the young Wilson lad, but I think we’ve got enough for a straight verdict of not guilty”.

“I’ll not count my chickens yet”, Jess said, suddenly unable to stop smiling as Slim pounded him on his back.

“What have I been telling you?” grinned Slim, who turned to Fairweather and said.

“He’s been worrying us sick for these last few weeks. He’s threatened to throw himself in the lake, he’s written out his will, given his horse and guns away. He’d got himself convinced he was going to jail. I was stupid enough to get as bad as he was.”

“Stow it Slim, I was not as bad as that,” Jess mumbled suddenly feeling foolish and embarrassed at Slim’s outburst.

“Listen, pard, I’ve aged ten years these last months with you and your trouble; so don’t tell me how bad it was. I lived through it with you and poor old Jonesy is on his last legs,” Slim continued to rake on. The lawyer smiled as he listened to the two friends, the older one was more pleased seemingly, than the young accused, but he, still had a court case to face.

“Well I can’t make any promises, and nothing is one hundred percent guaranteed, but I would be very surprised if the jury finds against him. Then with the evidence the charge could be reduced and with that automatically the sentence. Let’s not worry, be confident, and be positive. I’ll see you both again tomorrow, Jess boy, don’t worry, it makes you look guilty.” Fairweather laughed as he shook their hands and saw them to the door.

Jess and Slim, split up after seeing the lawyer. Jess wanted a decent haircut and Slim needed to go to the bank; so they decided to meet up at Julie’s for their supper, as Jess wanted his usual favorite. They were both in high spirits and Jess couldn’t keep the grin of his face as he realized that everything was probably going to turn out alright.

“Well Jess, I’ll see you at Julie’s. Do me a favor and keep outta trouble and watch your back. We don’t know if those bush whackers are around,” said Slim ever the cautious one.

“Oh, go on Slim, they’ll be long gone; anyway they wouldn’t try anything in Laramie. Just quit worrying,” laughed Jess.

“You telling me to quit worrying? That’s great coming from you,” said Slim, “you’ve done nothing else for weeks”.

“Not me, I aunt the worrying kind,” laughed Jess, “I’ll see you later,” and he turned away and headed for the barbers.

After a while, Jess came out of the shop just as the sun was dipping behind the hills and causing long shadows to darken the streets of the small town. The few folks who were about were hurrying home to their firesides, as there was a definite chill in the air. The temperature on the high plateau dropped like a stone as the sun went down and night came on quickly. Soon the sky would be aglow with a million stars that seemed to reach down on to the prairie bottom. Between the buildings already the shadows were a dark purple and they held some danger for the unknowing as danger often lurked there for the unwary. Jess was walking briskly along the boardwalk towards Julie’s restaurant, already looking forward to his rare steak, apple pie, and cheese. He was in high spirits and the only cloud on his horizon was that he was unable to get the better news back to Andy and Jonesy. He still felt as if his heart had been torn out of his chest at the having to ride away and leave the youngster in tears.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jess felt a lariat drop over his shoulders. It was wrenched tightly above his elbows and pinned his arms to his side. It was expertly done, and a he called out and turned, as he did so he was caught off balance and pulled over. His fall was broken by the hitching post; then as he struggled to stand upright another rope dropped over his shoulders, this time it came from a different direction and again it pinned his arms tightly to his sides.

He tried, but he couldn’t get his iron out of its holster. He couldn’t loosen the ropes, as who ever had hold of them were experts, who knew that by keeping pressure on the lariats, nothing and nobody could get them loose; especially as the lariats came from opposite directions. Jess was well and tightly hog-tied, he tugged as hard as he could, but that only made the bindings tighter until he could feel the plaited rawhide cut into his flesh. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck bristle up in temper and he clenched his jaw fiercely together until he felt it would break. A cold sweat had broken out on his forehead and he wanted to kill whoever was hanging on to ropes.

“Thought you were under arrest Harper?” It was Billy Tait and the Taylors. “Trying to escape? Good job we were here, what with the sheriff high tailing it out of town. We’re doing his job for him.”

“The deputy not able to hold you?” said one of the Taylors, “Did you gun him down?”

“Naw,” snarled Jess, “but I’d like to kill you. Now get these ropes offa me.”

“Oh, no, get his iron,” ordered Billy. “We’re taking you to the jail.”

With that, they dragged and pulled Jess up the street towards the jail. The news quickly spread and a crowd soon developed to watch Jess being hauled along. The Taylors didn’t make it easy, as they tormented Jess by tugging the ropes one way and then the other, causing him to fall over in the mud and horse muck again and again; this caused great laughter and it took time; but eventually they arrived at the jail house. Without ceremony Tait kicked open the door and dragged Jess in.

“Hi deputy, want your prisoner back?” asked Tait with a smirk on his face as he turned and looked at Jess, who looked as if he’d been dragged behind a mule train for miles. He’d lost his Stetson, and his face was grazed where he’d caught it when he’d been dragged along.

The deputy looked up startled by Jess’s roughed up appearance; he looked as if he’d tangled with a grizzly.

“Well here he is. He’ll be sentenced tomorrow, we’ve got the jury in our pocket, and we’re taking no chances with this killer. It’s about time you lawmen did something “bout him, he’s filled boot hill all by himself,” Billy Tait went on; the hatred he felt for Jess contorted his face and made it look like a mask carved out of granite.

“Where do you want him?” asked George Taylor.

“In here I guess,” The deputy lifted the keys out of the drawer and walked over and opened one of the cell doors. Jess kept his head down and licked the blood from the side of his mouth from where he’d bitten his lip. He said nothing, as he should have expected something like this. He always, as he’d told Slim, came of worst when he ran into Tait and his kin. He was pushed into the cell. The door was clanged shut and locked on him. The Taylors laughed and pulled the ropes, which dragged Jess over against the bars; they then took the ropes of him and tied them away.

“I remembered the last time you roped me, you recall? ‘Twas to a tree. Well I’ve not forgotten,” Jess said dangerously quiet. “Do you remember what I promised you then? I’ve changed my mind. I want to see you serve out your sentence and…….. then I’ll kill you”.

“Sure you will Harper. I hope you’re in the next cell.” George shouted.

“You’ll never come out,” said his brother, “A gun like you makes a great trophy on any honcho’s wall”.

At that, the deputy demanded their attention by saying.

“You men have done what you had a mind to do, now get outta here. I’ll drive the train from here on in.”

“Oh no, Deputy. We’re staying. You’ll not shanghai us outta here. We want to make damn sure he’s still here in the morning. We’re gonna deliver him to the court house like we done delivered him here,” Billy Tait snarled his voice full of malice. At that, they found seats and lounged around the office, all the time watching Jess with their feral smiles and glittering hostile eyes.

Over at Julie’s, Slim was beginning to get worried. Jess should have joined him an hour ago. Julie was now watching the clock and kept giving Slim a worried look.

“You don’t think he’s hightailed it for the border?” questioned Julie, who like everyone in Laramie knew about the up and coming court case.

“No Julie, he wouldn’t run, not his style for all his talk. He must be held up. Just how long does it take to get a haircut?” Slim thought aloud. “He’ll be along in a minute. He’s talked about nothing else for weeks, well since he got his appetite back.”

“Is he really O.K. now?” Julie asked anxiously, “We’ve heard all kinds of rumors. How he was going to lose his arm. Next, that Jess was dying; then he was going to live but he’d be crippled; it went on for ages. We then heard about an army surgeon who came and tended to Jess and now it seems he’s back to his old self.”

“Yeah, he’s almost there. You know how he is, he’s tried to get on best he could over the year and has ignored Tait’s primitive need for revenge. Can you believe it has all been over some slight, some forgotten grievance caused by some girl that Jess can’t remember. Can you figure? When this court case is over; and I pray to the Good Lord that he smiles down on Jess, and he goes free, then he’ll be his old self again. The wild cat will be back, hair on end looking fer trouble. I’ll be glad; he’s had a hard ride.” Slim unloaded his fears onto Julie.

“Sounds as if you’ve all had a hard ride” said Julie sympathetically.

“Yeah, I suppose.”

Before Slim could say another word, Phil Wilson burst in.

“Mr. Sherman, my uncle has got Jess and I’m worried what he’s gonna do. He’s really out to kill him, that is what he has always wanted.” the breathless boy managed to get out

“You the boy who got shot?” Slim questioned.

“Yes, sir.” Phil Wilson said quietly.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve done the right thing at last” said Slim, “Do you know where they’ve got him? I suppose your cousins are in it up to their eye balls too?”

“Yes Mr. Sherman, I think they took him towards the jail.”

“Was there a fight? Did anyone get hurt?” asked Slim fearfully, thinking that if Jess gave one or two of them a thrashing like he was capable of doing, it would go against him in court.

“No! They lassoed him; they took him by surprise from the shadows. My cousins are good with a lariat. They got him good, he was helpless,” the Wilson boy said, not without some family pride. Not many could brag about taking Jess Harper on top of the main street in Laramie.

“Thanks,” and with that Slim was through the door and running towards the jail, sicken by what he’d heard his friend had had to go through, and fearful at what he might find.

Slim got to the jail and went in without any hesitation, what he saw brought a sigh of relief. The Taylors and Billy Tait were all lounging around the jailhouse office. The deputy John Barnes was sitting at the desk and Jess was lying on the bunk, leaning against a pillow up against the back wall. He looked relaxed, his face was grazed, and by his clothes he looked like he’d been dragged through the dirt by a crazed steer.

“What happened, John? Why have you got Jess locked up? You must of known about the arrangements ‘tween Jess and the sheriff,” said Slim who nodded towards his friend as he was speaking.

“Good to see Slim, I could do with your help,” the deputy said and he got up and slowly reached for his double-barreled cannon from the gun rack. The others were too busy watching Slim to take much notice of the deputy’s play and their faces were comical with surprise when John Barnes turned the gun towards them and said.

“Right, ya can drop yer rigs. Nice and slow. Don’t try nothin’ as I’m nervous; you could end up with your innards decorating the back wall…..Savvy?”

Slim took out his iron and covered Billy Tait.

“Well you heard him….you all stupid……or deaf?” Slim growled.

They slowly let their gun belts drop and warily watched the deputy, they looked as if they were ready to jump John Barnes and were just waiting for their chance.

“Right you two Taylor boys…..back up into that cell…and quick about it my finger is beginning to get itchy.”

The Taylors slowly moved into the cell and did as they were ordered and closed the barred door.

“Lock the varmints in, Slim; I’ll cover Tait,” said Barnes.

Slim locked the cell door and wondered what Barnes planned to do next.

“Now Tait, you get out. You’ll get yer iron back tomorrow, that is if the sheriff agrees.” The deputy whipped out and his eyes narrowed in threat at the maddened Tait.

“What about them?” yelled Tait, “Why are ya holding ’em? What’s the charge?”

“It’s none of yer business, but I’ll tell you any way. For starters, we’ve got broke parole, assault with a deadly weapon, likely wounding with intent, and fer pudding, how does false arrest and kidnap sound and lots more I’m sure the sheriff will come up with. He’ll get thinking about you to Tait, so I’d tread softly if I were you. I’ll be watching you. Go play deputy somewheres else; now get the hell outta here, before I lock you up and all,” John Barnes angrily replied, outraged at the highhanded actions of the ex-deputy and his kin.

With that, Tait exited the door almost tearing it off its hinges as he slammed it with all his considerable might. All the time he muttered a string of obscenities and foul threats as he was obviously out of control and was fast becoming dangerous and reckless.

“Thanks Slim, that’s one problem solved; these two will be going back to Rawlins on the tumbleweed,” said the deputy.

“We’ll have good company. Yer gunslinger friend Harper will be coming along with us,” sneered George Taylor.

“Shut yer teeth, or I’ll shut ’em for ya, shouted the deputy, who turned towards Jess’s cell, where Slim was already at the bars watching his pard who was slowly and stiffly getting up.

“You took yer time getting here,” said Jess. “I thought you were along to watch my back?”

“When did you ever need anyone to watch yer back? Anyways you’ll do well in there; at least you’ll not be able to wander around getting into trouble,” laughed Slim.

“Yeah, Sherman, jail suits him,” one of the Taylors said.

“I’m warning you Taylor,” Barnes grumbled as he glowered at the Taylor loud mouth.

“I think Slim has come up with a good idea, you’ll be a lot safer in there. Not as comfortable but you can’t have everything.”

“How about Mort’s place in the back? I’d rather be in there than in here with them two next door,” Jess asked.

“Well I suppose that’d be O.K.; it was what Mort had planned anyways and you can get properly cleaned up. Looks like you’ve been rolling around in the dirt,” John Barnes goes on thinking aloud.

“Yeah, something like that. O.K. then,” Jess grumbled impatiently, “let’s go”.

With that, Barnes got the keys and went across and unlocked the cell door. Jess stepped out and gave Slim’s arm a gentle punch.

“Hey, what’s that for?” yelped Slim.

“Thought you could keep me locked up, Sherman. Wrong again, you’re sure in for a surprise; come on I’ll show you the best bed in town.” Jesses turned and lead them through the door into the back part of the jail.

Slim got a surprise when he saw the comfortable looking bunk with its feather bed, sheets, and all. The cell its self was small with a small window high up, making it cool in summer and warm in winter. It was furnished with a small table and chair. The best of it was it was quiet and private. Directly opposite was another cell with only one bunk, but also a big tub to take a bath in. Slim looked at Jess and Barnes in surprise.

“What’s this for? I never knew there was all this in the back here, how d’ya know about it Jess?” Slim asked in a puzzled voice.

“Well, it’s Mort’s really, but this is where I spent those 21 days a bit ago. Best bed in Laramie.” Jess grinned at the expression on his pard’s face.

“Yeah, I forgot what a jail bird you are.” Slim laughed as Jess made a half hearted feint towards his mid drift. “So where do I sleep?” he asked. “I think we should toss for it and not with one of your dollars Jess”

“O.K., “Jess laughed, “Will you do it, John? He doesn’t trust me. Make it best of three.”

So they laughingly toss for the best bed and Jess being on a roll won two out of the three.

“Well since I got the best bed I’ll let you in on my secret with Mort” said Jess with a grin.

“It had better be good,” said Slim grimly not sure he wants to spend 2 nights in a cell with a bathtub.

“Well, the boiler secret that’s driven you loco is outside. It’s wood burning and heats the water for the tub and that’s where I’ll be soon. We should get one for the ranch” grinned Jess.

“You and Mort have had it all, planned?” asked Slim.

“No Slim, I hadn’t planned on being in here tonight, and I’m pissed off about being taken like a greenhorn on the main street like that; there were quite a few folks about,” said Jess grimly and his face suddenly turned hard as he remembered how humiliated he had felt.

“You did well, not reacting to their attack,” said Slim.

“I wanted to smash their faces in. Yeah, as God is my witness, I’m gonna kill ’em some day. They had me well and truly roped, I couldn’t lift my arms. I’m lucky I didn’t get dragged behind a horse,” went on Jess angrily as he remembered the recent tussle with Tait and his nephews.

Finally John Barnes put his head around the door, “Julies sent a message. Do you want your supper sent over?” he enquired.

“That’d be great,” said Slim, “Shall I go fer it?”

“Naw, she said she’d send it across.” And with that Barnes left the two friends alone.

The rest of the evening passed comfortably. They ate, Jess got himself cleaned up and sent his clothes over to Julie’s to get brushed and pressed. He lay in the tub, and drank coffee and tormented Slim and they continued their usual banter until it was time to turn in. Slim went into the cell with the tub and Jess bunked down in Mort’s best bed and within minutes nothing could be heard but his gentle snores, which filled the cell.

Next morning, Julie sent their breakfast across and the two friends settled down to wait for Mort to arrive and hear how he planned to organize the situation regarding Jess. That was his surrender to Mort and of course his subsequent arrest. Slim watched his friend as he lay propped up on the pillows against the back wall, and thought how well he looked at last. He hoped and prayed to God, that his court case would be over soon and everything would be back to normal. He finally broke the silence by saying.

“So this is where you spent those hard 21 days. I was led to believe that you’d gone through hell. Found it hard to figure as Mort treats you like a pet. I could do with 21 days being spoilt by Mort.”

“Now hold on, pard,” retorted Jess, “I spent every day chained up, painting. You can see for yourself, all this white wash all over the place. It was hellish hard work.”

“Oh yeah, I heard about that too. You had all the youngsters ‘tween the ages of 8 and 18 helping you; then you took them swimming with their clothes on, and nearly got them all drowned.” Slim grinned as he continued to torment his friend.

“Who has told you all this hogwash? I bet it was that old crazed fool Mose,” Jess spat out. “I worked like a dog. Yeah, the younguns were great; that’s how I got so much done. I never stopped,” Jess went on explaining to Slim.

“You got spoilt rotten, all the women folk pouring coffee and lemonade down yer neck, making ya cakes and pies. You really had it hard,” said Slim.

“Yeah, I was lucky but I paid for it when that bastard Tait took it out of my hide,” Jess said quietly.

“You’ve never really told me about that. What happened?” asked Slim.

“I never got the chance; anyway it is in the past and it was hellish hard to live through and I don’t want to drag it all out again. Just let’s say I’ll not forget it, but don’t ever ask me about it. It was a bad time for me and looking back now, I’m gonna confess it was my own fault. I’m not proud of the way I let you down. I know we are O.K. now, but I came close to losing everything.” Jess had spoken quietly. His memories of that time were still raw and he was not ready to pick them over and cause them to bleed again.

“I suppose you’re right. Jess, you nearly got yerself killed. It was lucky you’d put on so much weight, that bullet had to plough through a lot of fat,” laughed Slim.

With that Jess flung his pillow at Slim and yelled, “There’s not enough room in here to swing a cat or I’d give you something to remember that crack by.”

“Here we go again tough guy, spoiling fer a fight, cos you’re losing an argument,” Slim continued to goad Jess.

At that moment Mort put his head round the door and said, “Well boys, thought you’d be over at the hotel, not in here about to kill each other.” Mort smiled at the two of them and continued, “John Barnes has told me what went down, Jess. I’m sorry it turned out like this, but I’m pleased I’ve got the Taylors and I’ll get Tait too. I’m pretty sure all three of them had a hand in the shooting and then what happened to the stage. Anyway, Jess, how ya feeling, son? Yer looking pretty fit.”

“Yeah, Sheriff, thanks,” said Jess and he got up and offered his hand to Mort who took it and the two men, who held each other in such great respect, shook hands.

“Well son, we need to do your arrest and charges formally. I’ve got a couple of forms to fill in and you need to sign them and Slim here can witness them. After that, I’ve to arrest you and you know what happens next,” Mort went on in his businesslike manner.

“Yeah, Sheriff, you’ll be leaving me in here?” asked Jess.

“That’s the plan, son,” continued Mort. “Well, shall we get it done? Your lawyer is coming over this afternoon for a final meeting. What’s your plan, Slim?” asked the sheriff.

“Well, I’ll go down to Jeff’s and check out the horses. I need to see the agent and I think I’ll get a haircut, since Jess here has got himself looking all respectable; by then it’ll be dinner time and I’ll sort it out with Julie and eat over here with the jail bird if that’s O.K.,” Slim retorted. With that, the two of them followed Mort through into the office to work through the process of Jess’ arrest. It didn’t take long and Slim took his leave of his two friends. He shook Jess’ hand and punched him gently on his shoulder and told him to keep his chin up and then he exited the door.

Mort and Jess went through to the cell in the back, Jess took a cup of coffee with him and the local paper and went and sat down at the table.

“Well Jess, this is it, son; I’m locking you up. I know that you like to do it right. I’ve a lot of paper work to deal with, now that the Taylors are on their way back to jail, so I can” keep you company. I’ll see you at dinner time,” said Mort.

“Don’t worry about me; I’m kind of used to being on my own. Forget about me, I’ll be good.” Jess grinned.

“See to it that you are,” replied Mort with a grin and he pulled the steel door closed and locked it.

“I’ll leave the grill open in case you want anything; just shout.” Mort went through to the office and closed the door.

The morning passed slowly until Slim appeared. Mort unlocked the cell door and let Slim in and then relocked it.

“Dinner’s on its way, Jess,” said Slim, “you hungry, pard?”

“No Slim, I’ve kinda lost my appetite; it’s getting close now and I don’t mind owning up to being more than a mite nervous. I know things look good, but you can never tell with a jury. You can never be 100% sure. Being locked up this morning has brought all the old horrors back. I’m not coping, pard. I’m turning a bright shade of yella.”

At that Slim gripped Jess’ shoulder and gave it a hard shake. “Come on, pard. It’ll be O.K.; of course you’re nervous, anyone would be, but you yella? That I’ll never believe, so don’t start thinking like that.” Slim talked on earnestly as he tried to give his friend some confidence, which had disappeared again after he had left him.

“I know, Slim; I guess I’m being a mite loco. It’s them Taits; they always seem to hold all the aces when we come to a tussle. I’ve never got ’em beat yet,” moaned Jess.

“Yeah, cos you’ve either been out numbered or hogtied, you’ve never met them in a fair fight.” Slim pointed out.

“I know that but there is still a chance I’ll be jailed if the worst happens. I’ve told you about being in jail for 10 months. I couldn’t handle it then and I know I’ll not handle it now. You know, Slim I could easily take Mort and be on my way to Canada. I guess I’d have to go through you as well?” Jess stated miserably.

“Yeah Jess, you’d have to go through me,” Slim said seriously. “I don’t believe you would do that, not after all we’ve been through.”

“I suppose, Slim,” said Jess, “just let’s say it’s the way I’m thinking, it’s a sure sign of how desperate I’m feeling. No matter what you believe Slim, courage is a lonely thing, at the end of the day, and I don’t care what you say, I’ve gotta do it on my own. It’s not like a gun fight, a few seconds of brutal, blind terror where all you have is your nerve; this is a lot slower, it’s like getting slowly squeezed to death and you have to sit there and let them do it to you, and try and stop from screaming and kicking out and running. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I don’t know if I can.”

“You’ll not need to. How many times do I have to tell you? This time tomorrow you’ll be on your way home.” Slim tried again to reassure Jess and it never seemed to work for long, as no matter how positive Slim and the lawyer were, Jess seemed to always slide back down into some private dark gloom filled hole. Now he was talking of fighting Mort and Slim and making a break for it, it was getting really serious as Jess was quite capable of tearing into the two of them and that would end in tragedy.

Slim was getting to the point he didn’t know what to do or say anymore. He was worried sick about what would happen in court tomorrow, even more so if the verdict went against Jess. He could see his pard making a vain attempt to get away immediately as he went berserk. He could get gunned down if not in the courtroom, certainly in the street. Slim was getting as morose as Jess as nothing he said made any difference any more.

He did decide to have a word with Mort to suggest that he kept Jess handcuffed throughout the trial; that would slow him up if he tried to escape. It might even save him from being gunned down in the street by some overzealous citizen who got lucky. Slim was frightened but that had never stopped him in the past. He would do whatever it took to try and save his friends life. He knew that Jess would and had done the same for him in the past.

Slim also knew that Jess was nerveless and would be out to win no matter the cost to himself and others. Well, thought Slim, it worked both ways. He knew how Jess felt about being handcuffed, especially so publicly. He knew there would be trouble if he found out; but Slim could be equally ruthless, if the result was worth the risk. He was taking a chance on losing Jess’ trust and friendship; but better than him losing his life.

At that point Mort looked through the grill and started to unlock the door.

“Your dinners here boys, you ready for it? She’s done you proud — chicken and dumplings and some kindda apple and blackberry pudding, with lots of custard for you, Jess.”

“Mort, that sounds swell, I’ll see that Jess does it justice.” With that the door was unlocked and their dinner passed through. Jess never lifted his head and Slim put the tray down on the table, took his plate, and started to eat his food.

When Jess made no move to take his dinner, Slim put down his fork and turned to Jess and said, “So you’re not gonna eat? You’re gonna sit there like a whipped dog with yer tail tween yer legs. When are ya gonna stand up, stiffen that lip and fight? You’re behaving like a guilty man. Never thought I’d ever say this to you, Jess; I just wish you’d be a man.

“These last few weeks you’ve carried on like a big spoiled kid, who can’t get his own way. We all know it wasn’t your fault, but you behave like it was. God, I’m sick of all this and I’m fed up to the back teeth with you.”

Slim then pushed his plate away and watched Jess, who looked up suddenly and as fast as a rattler sprang at Slim. He swung his fist at Slim but missed, but Slim did not, he landed a punch in Jess’ side, which made him gasp for breath and doubled him up; then he punched him on the side of the head and stepped back. Jess slowly gathered himself together and shook his head, he then took a swing at Slim with his left and again missed, but he didn’t miss with his right, which caught Slim on the jaw.

He then went after Slim and landed a quick left and right to his mid drift. At that point, Slim grabbed hold of Jess and they wrestled and knocked over the table and chair which scattered the food all over the floor and the bunk. The fight was fierce until they finally slipped and landed on the floor and rolled amongst their uneaten dinner.

Suddenly Mort was in the doorway with John Barnes at his back. Mort grabbed hold of Jess whilst Barnes got a grip on Slim. The two men tussled with the two friends and finally managed to pull them apart.

“Come on boys, break it up!” Mort shouted and suddenly the fight was over as suddenly as it had started. “What’s got into you two? Do ya not think you’ve got enough trouble Jess, without making more?”

“Sorry sheriff,” Jess mumbled, “it’s all my fault….I’ll clean up the mess.”

“I’ll give you a hand.” Slim added.

“No, you won’t, get outta here. The pair of you needs to cool down. Go and get cleaned up, maybes at the hotel. You can come back with the lawyer,” Mort ordered.

“How about Jess?” Slim asked as he rubbed his jaw.

“Leave him to me,” said Mort and he shook his head. With that Slim picked up his hat and did not look at Jess as he exited the cell. He left him sitting on the side of the bunk, his head down and he was holding his side where Slim had sunk his fist into it. The deputy had by now righted the chair and table but the floor was still covered with the uneaten food.

“Get something clean this mess up with, John,” said Mort and then he turned to Jess when Barnes had left and said.

“Well son, what was all that about?”

“Just Slim, trying to get my hackles raised. He tried to get me fired up. He said I was sulking,” Jess replied in a quiet voice.

“Well? Has he succeeded?” enquired Mort.

“Yeah, I’d like to kill that bastard Tait. How can one man cause so much grief? You know what he’s done over the past year, he’s nearly got me killed twice, you’d think that would be enough, but no, he’s got me attacking Slim now. I’m as tetchy as a dog with fleas. I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow if I’m found guilty. I don’t know what to say to Slim. I caught him real good a couple of times.” Jess went on his voice strong and full of pent up rage as well as regret at hurting his pard.

“Yeah, I saw. Nothing wrong with your right, so the arm must be O.K. Do you want Slim back in here with you when he comes back?” Mort asked ruefully.

“If he comes back,” Jess replied. “He’s probably had enough of me; he said so”.

“Now, son, talks cheap. He’ll be back, he’s worried sick about you, and you must know that. I’m just glad to see the old wildcat’s back. Just sorry you sank your claws into Slim,” the sheriff said to his young friend, and then he continued and said, “Come on outta there and get cleaned up. I’ll get you a coffee and then go and get you something to eat.” said Mort. “You’ll eat it this time instead of rolling in it?”

“Yeah, Sheriff, I don” feel like eating but I’ll give it a try,” said Jess and he colored up as he saw what a mess the cell was in.

“Good, son, now get cleaned up, you look a mess.” With that, Mort went out shaking his head and left Jess to go into the other cell to get washed up.

It was after Jess had eaten and was lying on his bunk that Fairweather arrived. He had little to add to what had been said the day before. He again reminded Jess to sit tall, be confident, and look interested and strong in the courtroom, as any show of weakness would be taken as a sign of guilt. He said that he was glad that Jess’ face showed no signs of the battle he’d had with his best friend. He reassured Jess that he’d explain to the court the reason for Jess’ grazed face and the fact that the attackers were now in custody. Fairweather also asked if Slim would still be supporting him in court.

“I don’t know; I’ve not seen him since our fight and that was about 3 maybe 4 hours ago,” replied crest fallen Jess.

“Well, it’s a pity,” said the lawyer. “It’s always good to have an upstanding and staunch citizen standing by you when you’ve to face such a serious charge”.

“I’m sorry Mr. Fairweather; it was all over in seconds, and it was my fault. I’m not handling any of this……..” murmured Jess.

“Well it’s too late now; the damage is done. See you in court. Just you remember what I’ve told you: stay calm; sit tall and look your accusers straight in the eye. Think you can do that?” asked the lawyer.

“I’ll try,” Jess replied quietly. The lawyer then stood up and the two of them shook hands. “Until tomorrow son, try not to worry.” With that he turned and left.

Jess sat down again and did not even turn his head as Barnes pulled the door closed and locked it. His head dropped down as he suddenly realized that Fairweather did not seem so confident of the outcome today, he was not as cheerful as he was the day before and Jess began to feel a coldness overwhelm him again. He recognized it as fear as a slight shiver trembled through him. He lashed himself with contempt. He never knew until these last few months what fear was, he had always had a reckless disregard for it, but now with the prospect of being jailed for years a possibility it was making him shake from his head down to his boots.

Tait was certainly getting his pound of flesh, as Jess hated the feeling of being caged. His reputation as a wild cat was accurate. He was fiercely independent and a natural loner, a maverick who stalked well wide of the center way, with a soft, lethal prowl when he was on the hunt.

He was hard to handle as any rogue stallion and difficult to corral. He couldn’t cope with being jailed with its strict codes of conduct, rules, regulations, handcuffs, vicious punishments doled out for the slightest infringements against the rules, kept in chains doing meaningless tasks, shackles and beatings. He’d rather be dead.

He thought how Slim and Jonesy had fought for his life, and although he knew, he was being selfish and ungrateful he now wished they had let him go.

It would have been kinder than being kept entombed in Rawlins or Cheyenne, maybe to die in there, for he knew he could go berserk and smash his brains out against the walls. He might even take on the prison guards as his spirit and body were broken; or if he lived, be released as a grey, gaunt, shrunken ghost of his former virile self.

Jess was never frightened of putting his head above the parapet or jumping feet first into any kind of trouble. He was normally the first in and the last out of any fight and he gave it no heed. He relished a tough fight with half a ton of crazed mustang. He loved a wild ride through stormy weather with the wind at his back as he raced the whipping snow home. He stalked any kind of danger and called it excitement. A good old-fashioned fight, which ignored the rules of civilized etiquette, made his heart sing, even when he was not the last man standing.

The dealings with the law were different. He had a long list of convictions for petty crimes and a fairly long list of serious accusations some proved and some dismissed. He had also served a spell in prison. The current threat of years behind bars, wasting the best years of his life when he was young and strong filled him with dread.

Jess continued to sit torturing himself until he realized that the cell was getting dark. Time was getting on and there was still no sign of Slim. Well, what did he expect? He’d driven Slim to the end of his patience these last few weeks and months. He knew his mood had cast gloom over everybody and everything at the ranch and he felt guilty that he’d allowed his misery and foreboding to overwhelm them all. Now he was the victim of his own selfish behavior. Slim had had enough of him; for even after constantly reassuring him that he would not be on his own, Jess found that he was; the fault was his and his alone and he knew that he deserved it.

Jess heard the outer door being opened and then the jangling of keys as his cell was unlocked. He turned quickly hoping to see Slim in the doorway. He was disappointed as it was the deputy Barnes, who stepped back to allow Mort to walk into the cell carrying a sliced up cake. Jess turned away and sighed.

“From one of yer faithful followers,” smiled Mort. “You’ve got them all baking again.”

“Thanks sheriff,” Jess said grimly and moved over to sit on the edge of the bunk to leave the chair free for Mort. At that point, Slim walked in; he was carrying two cups of coffee, and without a word he handed one to his friend, who gave a sigh of relief as he looked at him and then turned away with a little grin.

He watched Slim sideways from below lowered eyelids and he saw the same private smile on his pard’s face. The acknowledgement of brotherhood, of secrecy and of intense shared experience. The cold winter nights, camped out, shivering, frozen to the ground as they endured the icy blasts of the high snow windswept plains. The dangers willingly accepted, as they rode with Mort and his posses. The terrors faced and overcome, the disappointments and injuries endured and taken lightly.

The indescribable triumph of bringing in a huge remuda of mustangs, driving them across the range and down the hill into the waiting corrals at the relay station. All the while accompanied by wild rebel yells and whistles as they strove to keep the mustangs running.

Jess and Slim were more than brothers, they trusted each other, they had bonded and twinned; their intense and mutual memories could not be written off and forgotten by a few swift blows, angry words and a roll around a cell floor.

“Do I have to give my iron to Mort?” Slim asked Jess sternly.

“No Slim, I was loco.” Jess replied.

“You sure were.” At that Slim began to light the lamps.

“Will you two be O.K. now?” asked Mort. “Is it safe to leave you? Will you play nice boys?”

“Sure sheriff. I’m sorry I’ve caused you more grief,” responded Jess humbly and again he felt the color wash up his body from his feet to his face, with the shame of being so out of line.

“Supper will be over soon. Two Harper specials. I want it eaten, not chucked around the floor; this is my den and I don’t want it turned into hovel only fit fer hogs. You listening, Jess?” Mort continued to rake Jess who was still scarlet. “Right I’ll see you in a bit, just shout if you want more coffee.” And with that, Mort went out and the cell door was closed and locked.

You O.K., Slim? You have a rough tongue at times,” complained Jess.

“You still want to fight, Jess?” asked Slim.

“No, pard, I’m through fighting. I don’t feel like fighting anybody or anything,” replied Jess.

“You gonna eat some of this cake?” asked Slim, “Mrs. Larkinson reckons it is one of yer favorites, but some other crazy female thinks her cherry pie wins hands down. Don’t know what they see in you?” grinned Slim.

“It’s my gentle, boyish, charming manner,” replied a smiling Jess.

“Sure it is, plus that dark dangerous, reckless way you have. I’ll never understand women, they all seem to like the bad boys,” Slim complained.

“You hardly know any,” grinned Jess.

“Oh? And you of course do,” replied Slim. “You love ’em and leave ’em; and can’t remember them. That’s why we’re in this mess. You never forget a horse, but a woman hardly registers in yer head at all.”

“I suppose you’re right as usual. I’m frightened of them, getting me and tying me down. Yeah, and being left a foot.” Jess grinned, happy that their old banter had returned so easily.

“Jess,” and Slim looked at him in the face all at once very serious. “What I said before, I’m so sorry, pard. Are you O.K.? Did I hurt you? I know I got a couple of gooduns in, I hurt my hand.”

“Sure am, Sherman, you couldn’t fight yer way out of a paper bag. What you said was the truth, and needed saying. Mind you, I never take what you say seriously; I always ignore you anyways.” Jess laughed and took another bite of his cake.

“Aunt that the truth.” Slim threw a piece of cake at Jess who ducked.

“Hold off, Slim. Mort will kill me if we make a mess,” Jess complained.

“Well that won’t matter.” Slim threw another piece. The cake fight ended there as there was none left and the two pards threw back their heads and started to laugh. In the outside office, Mort and John heard the laughter and Mort turned to John, nodded and smiled.

“He’s gonna be O.K.,” a relieved Mort said.

The rest of the evening was spent well enough, as Mort joined them for supper which was Jess’ favorite. Mort watched in amusement as his young friend eat his supper as if he had never had had a meal before.

They all tasted some of the cakes that had been left by many of Jess’ female admirers. Slim had laughed and asked how many were single, married, widowed or divorced and did Jess sweet-talk them all, and had they left their names. Mort and Slim had laughed even louder at Jess’ blushes, and ignored his threats.

The night drew on, and Jess wanted a final soak in the bath and Mort had as usual obliged. The friends finally finished the evening of with a few drinks, as Mort was anxious that Jess would get good night’s sleep and be relaxed for what was to come. He knew of old, how Jess could become like a coiled wound up spring, whenever danger threatened. He had seen him explode and go berserk before as he took on whatever lay in his path and fought and smashed his way through.

He needed Jess to be calm and relaxed tomorrow. Mort had listened to Slim, who also feared Jess’ temper and his need to attack if he felt cornered. He would keep Jess handcuffed, as Slim had suggested, even though it was not in the court’s regulations. Slim was right it could save Jess’ life if it controlled his quick fire temper and lighting reactions. Finally, they all turned in, Jess was very quiet and seemed relaxed as Mort locked his cell.

The following morning, the atmosphere was painfully tense. Jess and Slim hardly spoke. Jess could hardly bring himself to look at any one, and conversation was the last thing on his mind. Slim watched his pard sick with worry and unable to find the words to help or comfort him. He just thought that Jess had been right when he had said that courage was lonely, because although Jess was surrounded by friends he realized how isolated Jess really was.

Mort got on with his duties well aware of the tension, but he ignored it as he was used to this sort of behavior from men before a trial. Breakfast came and went; Slim watched Jess chase his food around his plate, but not eat a bite. At last, Mort took out his watch out and checked the time, and then he went and opened the door to the back and called out, “It’s time, Jess.”

Slim heard him as he sat in the cell with Jess who was as usual lying propped up on the bunk in his favorite position.

“Well, Jess, you ready, pard?” said Slim and he threw Jess his jacket.

“No, but I guess I’ve gotta go, I’ve no choice, have I?” said Jess quietly.

“No you’ve not. I know you Jess, you would not have run any way, no matter what you said yesterday when you were down. It’s been a long time coming, and that what’s made it worse, you’ve been ill and it’s kept you low,” Slim pointed out.

“Yeah.” said Jess, “and it’s kinda funny that Mort always says a man is innocent “till proven guilty. Yet I always get locked up, and he’s waiting out there to cuff me and give me an armed escort up to the court. How innocent does that look?”

“I know it’s bad,” replied Slim “but that’s how it’s done in Wyoming. It’ll be over soon and we’ll be able to go home pard.”

“I hope so. I just wish I felt as positive as you,” Jess said quietly and sighed as he put his coat on and picked up his Stetson and went through to the office. He found Mort and John Barnes standing waiting for him. Jess put on his hat and then walked over to Mort and held out his wrists to him.

“You’ll want to cuff me I guess, Mort?” said Jess.

“Yeah, son, I’m sorry, you know the routine. Pull yer shirt sleeves down; yer wrists don’t have that much flesh on them yet. Keep still, I don’t want to nick you.” Mort locked the Danby cuffs on Jess and then turned to Slim and said, “You ready, Slim? You take Jess’ right side, John you keep on the left and I’ll watch yer backs. O.K., no one will take on three 30s-30s. Let’s go…..Good Luck. Jess boy. I’ll buy you dinner when it’s all over,” said Mort.

“I’d rather have a quick drink and Traveler under me,” said Jess.

“I’ll second that,” said Slim.

“O.K., boys, let’s go,” said the sheriff and he opened the door and they all trooped out. Jess pulled is hat down well over his face, as he saw quite a crowd had gathered. They were all smiling and there were calls of “good luck” and “we’re all with you”. Jess could not handle it and went almost blindly up the street with Slim at his side.

The walk up the street seemed to Jess about the longest he had ever taken. It was worse than the three weeks painting Laramie, handcuffed and in leg irons; then he had had, the youngsters scampering around, talking, joshing and making the whole experience seem like fun.

Today it was deadly serious, and he realized he might not get to walk up the street again for years. He heard the calls of support, and he knew that he had a good chance of being found not guilty; however in the back of his mind still lurked the specter of being jailed for years. The best years of his life being wasted behind bars. He’d sooner be dead. He also had Billy Tait to deal with, if he were to walk free.

Eventually the two of them would meet no doubt on the street in the middle of Laramie. The out of control ex deputy would be screaming obscenities, yet cold, determined and reckless enough to try and gun him down in some raw, primitive act of revenge for some slight or other that Jess could still not remember. He just hoped he could remain silent and not provoke Tait into going for his gun as all he wanted to do was turn and walk away and forget all the hurt of the past. He did not want to take Tait’s life.

Suddenly, Jess was aware of being pushed through the crowds on the steps outside the saloon, which served as the courthouse for the day. Slim was protecting his right side, still not confident that Jess had fully recovered and he was taking no chances of his arm being crushed.

“O.K. folks, let us through,” the sheriff ordered, “There is nothing to see.” Jess was then aware of his hat being thrust into his hand as he was led blindly to his place in the courtroom. At last, he sat down with Fairweather and his assistant on his left and the ever-faithful Slim, his rock and guardians on his right. Mort Corey and his deputy John Barnes sat behind him.

Jess could feel he was turning cold and suppressed a shiver that was building up inside of him. He lashed himself with contempt, these last few weeks, he had indeed shown that he may be able to handle gunplay and a good old-fashioned thrashing, but when faced with the reality of life as a cripple and now maybe years caged up behind bars. He could be as yellow as the next man. He wasn’t this super hero, that little Andy and many of the Laramie folk thought he was.

Jess was awoken from these thoughts, which had driven him mad for weeks, by the court being brought to order, the indictment was read out and Jess plead of ” not guilty” was recorded. When he resumed his seat, Jess turned to the sheriff and with his head indicated to the handcuffs, which he was still wearing. Mort gave a slight shake of his head, which sent a negative answer to Jess; this caused alarm bells to ring. Jess hardly heard the prosecution’s evidence as his mind was racing with more implications of his own guilt.

At last, it was Jess’ turn to give evidence. It was over in a few moments, as the only comments that Jess could make were of cocking his gun and firing it in the directions of the threat. He told of the brief chase after two or maybe three men up the alleyway. The discovery of Dave Wilson’s injured body lying in the shadows of the dark alley. He was asked about the feud between himself and the ex deputy and his kin. He answered truthfully; that although the deputy and his family had caused him a lot of physical hurt in the past, Jess said, that he honestly could not remember the incident which could give Billy Tait and his family such a burning hatred of himself. He said that he did not intend to cause them any further hurt and that he was sorry if he had caused Dave Wilson any pain.

Finally, the prosecution played their trump card and Jess withered as he listened to their lawyer present Jess’ criminal record for the Jury’s scrutiny. Much of it was a list of youthful petty crimes arising from barroom brawls and fights at any gathering where young men pushed to be top dog. The list also included many unproven crimes, that even if Jess had been proven innocent still made for suspicion and left a huge question mark against his name and honesty.

Slim had never heard of Jess’ reputation as a bank robber, a road agent and a hired gun who had been involved in a few range disputes. He knew of his prison record , but hadn’t known that Jess had come close to being jailed on two other occasions, but had escaped with suspended sentences and instructions to get out of the state pronto.

Fairweather did his best as he continually objected and his objections were sustained, but the damage was done; his record was now public property. Well, that’s it, thought Jess. I knew I was right he thought. I never get away with anything when it involves Billy Tait. I have no chance, with my reputation. No one will ever take my side against an innocent, unarmed seventeen year old. I might as well plead guilty now and get it over with, he thought.

At this point Billy Tait, who was lying low at the back of the court, gave vent to his feelings with a string of insults and threats, which Jess, under normal circumstances would have silenced in his usual way.

“Silence in court,” the judge demanded, sternly admonishing the demented Tait. “If you cannot control yourself, leave my court. I will not have it turned into a bear pit.”

“Sorry your honor,” grunted Tait who then slumped back down into his seat.

The case continued, and suddenly Jess became aware that the prosecution’s evidence was very meager, as the lawyer presenting had little to say other than to repeat the motive and allege that there was only one shot fired and that from a handgun. The two witnesses had said that they thought that it sounded like rifle fire, but Jess had freely admitted firing his .45 into the alley. At last, it was the defenses turn present the case for the defense and to cross-examine the witnesses. When David Wilson took the stand, he was very shaky and nervous. He seemed to shrink when he was asked if he knew the penalty for perjury.

“Were you on your own in the alley way?” Fairweather asked.

Young Wilson looked like a startled deer and began to mumble.

“Keep yer mouth shut; you were on your own!” shouted Billy Tait from the back of the court.

“Remove that man from my court please, deputy.” The judge ordered and Barnes got up to carry out the judge’s instructions. He moved to the back of the court cocking his rifle as he went. Jess turned, and without thinking, began to get up. Suddenly he felt Slim’s vice-like grip on his arm, dragging him back into his seat and with his wrists cuffed, he couldn’t shake Slim off.

“Stay still, Jess, it’s got nothing to do with us,” a stern voiced Slim said. Jess sank down into his seat and realized he’d not be able to go anywhere. He stood no chance of a break for freedom as Slim. Mort and John Barnes had him well and truly, hog-tied. At last, the court settled down again and Barnes resumed his seat behind Jess.

“Continue please,” the judge instructed Fairweather.

“I repeat Mr. Wilson, were you on your own in the alley way?”

At last, the young Wilson responded miserably with, “I can’t say.”

“Does that mean that you were?” Fairweather asked again.

“I can’t say,” Wilson repeated and lifted his head and looked across at his family.

“Please answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question,” the judge instructed Wilson sternly and then nodded to Fair-weather to continue.

Were you on your own in the alley way?” Fair weather repeated this time his voice was raised in impatience.

Finally, in an answer so soft, that he was asked to repeat it, Dave Wilson replied.” No,”

Slim gave Jess’ arm a punch. “Told ya,” he whispered.

The next witness was Dr. Broxton, who had attended the Wilson boy in the alleyway.

“Dr. Broxton, can you describe how you found Mr. Wilson, as he lay in the alley?” asked the lawyer.

“He had been turned on his side by Jess Harper, and he lay with his head pointing towards the street and his feet up the alleyway,” the Doctor said in a strong confident voice.

“What significance has this?” the lawyer asked.

“When a bullet hits a body it is propelled in the direction of that bullet, usually backwards. I would say that the young man was shot from behind,” the doctor explained.

“Did you examine the wound?” Fairweather asked.

“Yes, when I had him in my treatment room. The wound was 4 and half inches long, a deep graze and wide. In my experience, I’d say it came from a 30-30 bullet, from a Winchester,” the Doctor continued.

“How sure are you of this?” asked Fairweather.

“As sure as 35 years of treating gunshot can be,” replied the Doctor.

The prosecution at that point seemed to thrown in the towel as Wilson’s lawyer declined to cross-examine. The rest of the court case followed in a blur. The last witness for the defense was the storekeeper, Frank, whose shop premises made up one side of the alleyway at the back.

He stated that he’d heard rifle fire and had looked out of the shop window and saw three men high tailing it up towards the back of the saloon.

The summing up was over quickly, and without much ceremony, the jury filled out and back in what seemed lighting speed .

“The court will come to order. Will the accused stand and face the jury.”

Jess stood with Fairweather beside him and Mort and John behind him. He felt Slim’s arm pressed against his side. Thanks pard he thought, he wasn’t on his own after all.

“How does the jury find?” enquired the clerk of the court.

“We the jury find, with all the jurors agreeing, to a verdict of not guilty to the charge of attempted murder,” said Alan Norman, the foreman of the jury.

“Have you any further comments to make?” asked the judge.

“Yes we request and require further investigation into the activities of the Wilsons and Tait regarding the recent stage coach attack,” Mr. Norman replied.

“Thank you” said the Judge. “Sheriff, free your prisoner and erase his name from your records. Mr. Harper, you are free to go.”

With that, Mort pushed his way past Slim and bent down and removed Jess’ handcuffs. “Congratulations, son! What did we tell you?” said the sheriff a huge grin split his face in half.

“Thanks Mort,” smiled Jess, “I feel an idiot.”

“You got that right, pard,” laughed Slim as he shook his hand. Straight away, Jess was surrounded by well-wishers, neighbors and friends all intent on shaking his hand and pounding him on the back.

“Slim, get us out of here,” complained Jess, smiling weakly at all the friendly faces. “I need a coffee.”

It took time to push their way through the crowd and out of the court room and head back towards the jail. At last, they were back in the office and Jess got a coffee. Fairweather was there and there is a lot of good-natured banter, they all drank coffee laced with the sheriff’s seemingly endless supply of snake eye. They all tasted and relished the pies and cakes that had been left at the jail for Jess, by his army of mothers who had kept Jess supplied with delicacies last time Jess did time.

Slim watched his pard, who, although he was surrounded by a jovial, laughing crowd, was for him very quiet. Over the last months and especially the last weeks, Slim had been allowed a glimpse of the real Jess. The hard riding, tough gunman who was willing to throw himself into whatever outrageous fortune had in store for him, was just a shield, a façade to protect the sensitive, vulnerable personality that was Jess. Slim knew of some of the horrors of Jess’ past and how Jess tried to protect himself from hurt by not willingly becoming too attached to people or places. His past shows of fear and weakness stemmed from his fear of losing what he’d found and what he’d worked so hard at trying to become.

It was to his credit that he still stoically did what he had to; but he had shown Slim what it cost him and how anxious it made him. Now he was feeling foolish, for allowing his anxieties to undermine his confidence. Slim only hoped that Jess would realize that what he had revealed to him, was part of their bonded, twinned world, which did not include others. Slim would never ever discuss Jess’ fears with anyone and they would never be aired again, unless by Jess.

Finally the lawyer and his assistant went. Jess and Slim refused Mort’s offer of dinner, as they were anxious to get back to the ranch and tell Jonesy and Andy the good news.

“Anyways Mort,” grinned Jess, “I’m missing Jonesy’s Mulligan; not had any for three days,” laughed Jess.

“What a danged liar you are, Harper,” Slim punched his pard in the arm.

“Quit that, Sherman, or I’ll have to teach you some manners. You see what a bully he is, Mort?” grinned Jess.

“O.K. boys, behave. I don’t want a ruckus in here; you’d smash the place up,” the sheriff grinned.

With that, Jess said he wanted to go across to the store and get some kind of treat for Jonesy and some bulls eyes for Andy. Slim suggested that he’d go up to the livery stables and collect Traveler and Alamo and meet Jess back at Mort’s, and with that, he exited the door. Jess then turned to Mort and shook hands with him and then with his deputy and thanked him.

“I’d never have got through all this, without all of you.” Jess grinned.

“Yeah, it takes quite a team to keep the young Harper standing.” In addition, Mort laughed. “You take up a lot of our time and attention.”

“What would you do without me? You and Slim would die of boredom.” At last Jess laughed.

“Might be nice to try it. I hope this wild river you sail is gonna get calmer, we need some peace,” Mort said ruefully.

“Do ya think I will ever find a quiet stretch Mort? You’re right, it would be kinda nice,” replied Jess.

“No, son, you’re not the kind for quiet waters; the rapids always draw you. Just take care,” Mort went on with a slight shake of his head.

“Anyway Mort I’ll have my rig and then I’ll get over to Franks,” continued Jess.

Mort then went to the drawer and brought out Jess’ black leather gun belt and .45.

“I’ve cleaned it for you,” said John. “It’s a nice piece, needs looking after.”

“Thanks, I owe you,” said Jess and he started to buckle on his belt.

“Nope, Jess, you’ll be watching my back one of these days and I wouldn’t want to think that you had a dirty iron,” laughed John Barnes.

“Sure will, any time,” said Jess as he now bent down and cinched the tie down to his thigh.

“See what I mean about rapids son?” said Mort. “They’re after you already.”

“Yeah, Mort I guess you’re right. O.K. then, thanks again……anything I can get you from Franks?” Jess asked his hand already on the doorknob.

“Nope, son. See ya in a bit. Take care now,” said Mort.

“With that, Jess exited the jail and stepped out into the bright sunshine which filled the street. He took his hat of and after wiping his forehead with his sleeve; he replaced his Stetson

Pulling it low over his eyes, he began to walk over the sun-baked road when suddenly he heard a voice he recognized instantly.

“Harper, you yellow livered, no good, gun slick. Turn around or do you want it in the back?”

It was Billy Tait, his screaming voice out of control.

Jess stopped; he’d wanted to walk away and he had not been able to. He now knew that this was what he’d been expecting all these months. He seemed to have been waiting for something and he realized that this gunfight was what it was. He slowly turned and looked at the demented Tait, who was watching him, staring at Jess’ face.

Perhaps, thought Jess, this is going to be my last view on earth, looking into the eyes of a mad man. Jess suddenly felt exhausted by the whole sorry mess. It had given him so much pain and torment this last year or so, but Jess knew he was not going to fight him. He would take a chance. Let fate decide, he didn’t want to take the life of such a pathetic sick critter.

Jess raised his gun hand. “I’m not gonna fight ya,” he said, and he bent down and began to uncinch the tie down on his thigh. He watched in amazement as Tait went for his gun. Without a thought, Jess dived and rolled to his left; he brought up his own iron in one easy action and he fanned his gun and fired two shots at Tait.

The bullets went exactly where Jess had intended. One tore the gun out of Tait’s hand and the second merely grazed the fleshly part at the top of his arm. Tait was swung round. He would have fallen, if it had not been for a horse he’d staggered into. He fell against it and it supported him.

“You lump of trash. You should” killed me,” Tait shouted. He then heaved himself around and dragged a rifle out of its saddle boot and cocked it. He seemed oblivious to the blood, which was soaking his sleeve and running down and covering his gun hand.

Jess was now standing. He holstered his gun and then he began to unbuckled his gun belt, his right hand was raised and he let his rig fall onto the dusty street.

“I’m gonna kill you, Harper!” Tait yelled and he continued to stare at Jess.

“I’ve told you, I’ll not fight you,” Jess said in an even calm voice.

Tait continued to stare at Jess. He didn’t blink. There was no sign of hesitation there; there was no sign of a back down, withdrawal or doubt. None. He’d got Jess in his sights and he was going to kill him.

It’s going to be now, Jess thought, as he watched the demented hatred harden on Tait’s face. His rifle came up and he straightened it; it was pointing at Jess’ chest and at this close range, it would tear a huge hole in Jess’ chest; he couldn’t miss. Jess faintly heard a voice shouting from up the street, urgent, frantic, getting nearer, but already too late.

The voice shouted one despairing word….. “Jess.” Then again…. “Jess! No!”

It was Slim, his pard.

A gun went off and the smell of cordite filled the air. The figure of Tait was blurred as gun smoke drifted across the street.

Jess waited, for the bullet to smash into his chest and kill him; he waited an age with his eyes closed until he realized that he was untouched. The bullet had missed him.

He stood and watched. He didn’t feel that he was part of what was happening. He felt very much like a spectator. He watched as Tait was propelled backwards. The weight of his body and the speed at which it was traveling broke the hitching post.

Jess felt that he was frozen. He had not moved from the spot where Tait had leveled his rifle at him. Jess had expected a bullet to bury itself in his chest and he was shocked that he had been wrong.

Slowly Jess turned and saw Mort lower his rifle and make his way across to Tait’s body. He was about to do the same, when he was nearly knocked over by Alamo being charged at him, by an angry red faced Slim. He was swung round and felt a hard punch on his arm; he ducked as Slim took a swing at his head.

“Ouch!” yelped Jess.” What was that for?”

“You’re a mad man, Jess. He was gonna kill you,” said Slim in a rage.

“I didn’t want the blood of a poor mad critter like Taylor on my hands,” murmured Jess.

At that, Mort came over, leaving Barnes with Tait’s body.

“Well boy, did you get your bull’s eyes? I want you outta Laramie; I need to get some peace. My nerves can’t take any more of yer death or glory stuff,” complained Mort.

“Thanks, Mort, I couldn’t do it,” said Jess. “He’s gone on at me these past months, how I ruined his life, his dreams and plans. How he’d have been married with kids by now. Well, that’s what he thought I’d cost him, so I wasn’t gonna take his life as well.”

“I know, son.” Mort sadly shook his head. “I shoulda done it a long time ago. I never knew of all this. I think it was all part of whatever ailed him. His family mostly stayed well clear of him. He wasn’t right; he had a nasty, vicious streak, liked to kill and inflict pain. I had to watch him all the time. Look what he’s done to you Jess, that was the last straw. I knew then that I had to get rid of him; I never thought it would end like this. You still involved in his madness.”

“Well, I’m glad to have obliged,” smiled Jess ruefully.

“Slim, will you get him outta here,” said Mort with a grin, “I’ve had enough of him and the trouble he brings.”

“Sure will. Here’s yer gun belt, and you’ll have to clean it again, pard,” said Slim. “Are you ready to come home now?”

“Yeah, Slim, you bet,” grinned Jess, who had been watching Traveler. The big horse was bouncing on tiptoe, taking small skittish dancing steps. He was ready to run, thought Jess. The horse certainly looked well, his muscles rippled beneath a shinning coat and his arched neck and pricked ears signaled that he was ready and wanted to go. Jess turned to Slim, smiled and said, “I’ll race you! See ya, Mort.” He gave a rebel yell, raced over to the rail, and unshipped the reins, vaulted over the hitching rail and into the saddle. The big horse took off before he had his feet in the leathers.

“See that Mort,” smiled Slim, “Wasn’t that great? He’s back to his old self.”

“Yeah, God help us,” moaned Mort, “like as not, he’ll kill someone galloping up the street like that. I should arrest him.”

“Oh, stop it Mort. Arresting Jess is getting to be a hobby with you.” Slim observed “You damned well know that Jess can spin Traveler around a dime; he’s got him like one of them fancy polo ponies.”

“Suppose you’re right.” grumbled Mort. “Anyways I thought you were racing?”

“Yeah, we are. Jess has only been around here a short while. He doesn’t know all the shortcuts back. I’ll be sitting down on the porch sipping a coffee when he pulls up. Alamo and me can slide down hillsides Jess would never dream of trying.” Slim explained.

“He’ll go mad, call you a cheat, knock yer head off,” laughed Mort.

“Let him try,” grinned Slim. “I hope he does; it’ll be a sure sign that the wildcat’s back. It has taken a long time and it’s been a hard ride to get this far Mort. Thanks for riding along with us.”

“Think nothing of it,” smiled Mort, “You’ve a strange idea of normal”

“Yeah?” smiled Slim, as he turned towards Alamo. “Well that’s what it”s like living with Jess Harper.” With that, he swung into the saddle and kicked Alamo on up the trail after Jess and Traveler as they galloped back home to the Sherman Ranch.

***The End***

Author’s Note: This was the last of the three stories telling of Jess and his tussle with Billy Tait. They were all set in the early days at the ranch and I’ve tried to make each one different from the last. They all illustrate the relationship between Jess, Slim, Andy, Jonesy and Mort and I have delved a little into the personality and psychic of that great fictional character so wonderfully brought to life, by that great-unsung hero of ours Robert Fuller. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them and will forgive me my poetic license.

These have been my first attempts at writing and I’d like to dedicate them to…….

……………… Jess Harper…. Who else?

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