The Long Dark Veil (by Effie)

 

Summary:  After Slim fires him, Jess hits the road to hell.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA (subject matter–violence and romance)
Word Count:


 

Slim lay in bed, he was nervous and sleep would not come, even though he ached with tiredness. It had been another frustrating day. Jess had galloped away on another crusade, days ago now, promising to return, but not knowing when, and Slim, as usual, had struggled to keep the relay station running as smoothly as possible.

The routine jobs of maintenance of the ranch were put on hold. Slim tossed, turned, and did what he did best, and that was worry. He was the first-born, and like all those born first, had the responsibility of caring and supporting his family. Such a task had robbed him of a carefree, play- filled childhood. When his kid brother had been born, it was too late for Slim to bond with him because he had already become a driven, solemn, upright young man, old for his years, totally dependable, who found little time for fun and laughter during his backbreaking, hard- working days.

Jess’ unexpected arrival and “adoption” had changed the solemn atmosphere of the ranch and slowly Slim had begun to relax. It was as if the tight springs that had churned up his insides were loosening their hold on him and he embraced the changes. Although he would never, unless hugely provoked, tell Jess how much he enjoyed his company and companionship, he had to admit that he did. Jess was the friend that he had never had – he had never met anyone like him. They were as different as chalk and cheese, but in a strange way, they complemented each other.

Jess however, was not the easiest of men to share a roof with. He was stubborn, confident and held little respect for authority. He was reckless, fought and tormented Slim, and it was only Slim’s compassion for the vulnerable and troubled soul, that he occasionally got sight of through the rare chinks in Jess’ hard protective shell, that stopped them coming to blows. Slim, however, found it exhausting, as Jess often felt compelled to tear off on some life saving mission or other. He felt he was coming to the end of his tether with him. He wanted him to commit himself wholly to the ranch and relay station and by so doing make Andy really happy. The youngster, who hero-worshipped the drifter, was always anxious that Jess would ride away out of his life. Slim often thought it would maybe for the best, as life would be more settled with a more steady and committed ranch-hand. Slim was torn up and he agonized over the problem. Like Andy, he was always anxious when Jess was high-tailing it over the horizon. He had already dragged him out of the Lolo where he had nearly drowned. He had dragged him out of saloons before some enraged trail-hands tore him and the bar apart. Now he was away again and Slim shuddered in the cold as he wondered how he would turn up this time, that is, if he did.

He finally got up, dragging his blankets with him. He wrapped them around himself as he stood and stared out of the window into the blackness. He knew Jess would not arrive in the night, he would never risk Traveler’s legs in the pit-black of a trail, which was rutted and pot-holed by the constant comings and goings of coach traffic. He stood and stared into the impregnable darkness and thought how winter would soon be here again. Blizzards. Wild storms. Days, which before Jess had come, were filled with terrible loneliness and fear.

Like tonight – his pard should be safe in his own bed, not risking his life chasing after another lost cause or a damaged friend from his turbulent past. The days were passing. The hours were crawling past with no signs of his returning. He had not even sent a wire, which could have been delivered by Mose. It was as if Jess had dropped off the edge of the world again.

The wind started to buffet the clapboard ranch house. Wind and wind and wind that knocked the breath out of a body; that could knock a man down when he tried to walk and stand in it. The noise, the whine, the howl that became so high-pitched it stabbed, lance-like, into the brain. It robbed a person of the power to think, and it drove a man crazy. Slim leaned his head against the glass panes and closed his eyes. He felt as if he could not take much more of this constant worry, and now this storm. Tomorrow he would go out and look for Jess again. He dreaded what he would find, but at least he would know. His guts would no longer be churning and he would maybe find some peace.

At last, as the outline of the barn started to turn a lighter dark against the darker darkness, and a dull gray light pushed into the eastern skies, Slim heard the rattle of the kitchen range being riddled. It would be Jonesy getting rid of the old ashes so he could get the range fired up again and the day begun. Maybe there was a lesson in that. It would be better sooner than later, for Jess had not really dug his roots in that deep, except in their hearts. Soon the coffee pot would be bubbling away, the breakfast would be on the go and the warmth would return.

Slim dressed quickly and went through to a startled Jonesy.

“Morning son, you’re up before the cock crows, can’t sleep?”

“Right again, Jonesy, just couldn’t, have tossed and turned all night,” the big rancher groaned.

“You worried about that scallywag? Don’t be, when he’s hungry, no money and shot full of holes, he’ll come loping down that hill, like the stray cat he is,” the wise old man said.

“I’m getting mighty low about it! I can never relax. He is hard to handle at times. Why can he never do as I ask him, Jonesy?”

“Cos, there are not enough years between you. And you have become friends, you have become too familiar,” old Jonesy pointed out.

“I don’t know what to do,” the rancher continued miserably.

“Don’t do anything. You have another choice of, course. Tell him to draw his pay. You would sleep better, but the place would be dead again.”

“You’re right, but I find it so tough. I try to treat him fairly, I’m reasonable, I try to be easy going, but it’s hard with so much to do.”

“I know Slim, and him and Andy sneaking off to go fishing and all.”

“Aw! Stop, Jonesy. This is mighty serious, you know that.”

“Well, take it easy. Just see how things go when he gets back.”

“Do you think he’ll come back?”

“Sure do, he misses my cooking for a start.”

“Stop it, Jonesy. You’ll make me laugh and I’ll wake up Andy.”

“Yeah? YOU? Laugh? Now that would never do!”

With that, the boss of the Sherman Ranch and his oldest friend both put their heads back and did just that. They laughed.

*****

They were at breakfast the next morning and had given up any attempt of trying to hold any type of conversation, as the wind’s howling, screeching voice drowned out their own.

Suddenly, the door was flung back. The fire backed down the chimney and filled the room with its acrid blue smoke, which was chased up through the rafters by the yellow ochre dust from the stable yard. Slim sprang up to close the door and found that the doorway was filled by a grinning, laughing Jess. His hat was tied down and his face and clothes were all covered by the yellow-colored trail dirt.

“Howdy, that my breakfast I smell?” the wanderer laughed.

“Told you, Slim, that he’d be back when he was hungry,” the old man shouted.

“You aunt got time for breakfast, the stage is due in soon, there’s too much work to do. Where’ve you been? If ye’re stopping, close the door. Are you okay?” a relieved Slim tried to shout above the wind.

“Good to see you too, Slim,” Jess continued to laugh as he swung Andy around, who without a word had launched himself into Jess’ arms. “I’m glad to see the Tiger’s pleased to see me,” he continued.

“Come on boy, sit yourself down. Get a coffee and I’ll go kill a pig and fry you up some breakfast,” old Jonesy said, as he collected the empty plates up and headed off towards the kitchen.

Jess closed the door and freeing himself from Andy’s embrace after giving him a life-threatening bear hug, began to dust himself down as he moved into the room.

Slim’s guts stopped knotting up and churning and he finally allowed himself to smile. He held out his hand towards Jess.

“Glad to have you back, Jess,” was all he said.

“Glad to be back,” was all Jess replied.

*****

Therefore, life went on at the Sherman Ranch, but it was an uneasy peace, which had to come to a head, and Slim was always uneasy, as Jess’ mood had not really improved.

It had been a week of seemingly never ending aggravation, as fences seemed to down all over the place for no particular reason. Two horses had gone lame and the mare that was in foal was not eating her feed as she should and Jess was anxious that she might drop her foal early.

Slim was exasperated and needed to go into Laramie, but was expecting a visit from the Stage Coach Superintendent so could not get to the bank to pay the month’s mortgage, which he had scraped together. He had no option but to send Jess, who had immediately wanted to steer clear of going and, as usual, they had had an angry, bristling exchange.

Slim had stomped into the house to try to cool his temper, as he felt like dragging Jess out of the barn and giving him a good, old-fashioned thrashing. Slim knew he could end up in bed if he tried, as Jess was like a coiled spring and would, no doubt, love a chance to let off steam by pounding someone in the face, even if it were his boss and friend, Slim.

Slim got the mortgage money ready and sighed, as he got himself together to go out, tackle Jess, and make him go. He’d first saddle a horse for him. That would make things move along faster and so it was with an anxious shake of the head Slim went out to the barn to saddle up the five-year old that Jess had said needed trying out. He been schooling it for weeks but had never taken it far, so going into Laramie would be an ideal opportunity to try the young gelding out. He came out of the barn and called to Jess who was walking towards the ranch house, probably for yet another cup of coffee.

“Are yer gonna do as ye’re told for once?” Slim said, raising his voice, “or are we gonna have our usual ruckus?”

“Naw,” replied Jess and he gave Slim one of his annoying, mocking grins. “I’ll be straight there and back! I promise! You can count on me.!”

“That’ll be a first,” Slim moaned.

“Not believe me? You know you can trust me!” Jess said and his hackles began to rise.

“Well, we’ll see.”

Spring was in the air and Slim was becoming even more anxious as he realized that Jess was becoming restless. He seemed to be like a stag standing sniffing into the wind undecided which way to run and Slim and Jonesy were finding him more and more difficult to live with.

Jonesy, especially thought Slim and Andy would be better off without Jess’ disruptive presence, as he listened to the angry words that floated in from outside. He thought the young gunman seemed to thrive on turmoil and chaos and if it involved a fight so much the better. He was like a wild thing causing anger and upset when everything was running smoothly and was peaceful. The old man shook his head as he thought how Jess taunted Slim and goaded him into the occasional row and, although he and Slim had not yet traded blows, Jonesy knew that it was only a matter of time before they would have an almighty, bone-crunching bust-up and Jess would be chased off. Maybe not with his tail between his legs, but certainly he’d be left knowing that he was no longer wanted or welcome at the Sherman Ranch.

That morning it had almost happened. Jess could feel how angry Slim was getting, but he did not back down. He did not want to leave the mare and he had every right to say so. However, he thought he had better let it go, as he could be into Laramie and back before noon if he galloped hard enough. Slim gave him the money and said little to him. He did not smile but just kept that frown on his face that caused his brow to wrinkle and his eyes to narrow.

“Take one of the second string. I’ve already saddled it for you. And you can pick up a fresh one for the way back. You can keep Traveler for this afternoon. That’ll speed things up!” Slim instructed.

Jess turned, looked at him and sneered, “I don’t get to decide what I get to ride now?”

“Stop it, Jess! I just want you there and back before dinnertime. You’ve got the money. Don’t forget a receipt!” Slim called anxiously, trying to get to Jess as he had turned away and sulked off making for the barn.

“What have you done with that money? Got it safe?” Slim yelled. “It’s two months” mortgage money! Look after it!”

Jess did not turn round. He just shouted back, “I’m walking on it! Safe enough? See you when I see you!”

“Well, get a move on!” Slim yelled, trying to hurry him on.

There was no answer, as Jess was now in the barn, busy tightening the cinch on the saddle that Slim had put on one of the young geldings. It was the five- year old and had not had much work. Jess had always wanted to see how much bottom it had. Slim had begun to walk across to the forge when he heard a shout.

“Get outta the way Grandpa!” and a horse in a leaping lunge sprang out of the darkness of the barn and swerved past him, almost knocking him over. In fact, Slim had to arch his back away, as a bullfighter does, to avoid the charging maddened bull.

It was Jess. Who else? Riding – his hair on fire, his weight balanced over his horse’s shoulders, as he kicked hard and pushed his horse into a full gallop. Slim only saw his back as he and his mount disappeared up the trail to Laramie in a cloud of dust.

“Damned young fool! He will kill that horse or he’ll kill himself. Why has it to be all or nothing with him? I’m glad that Andy didn’t see that! Damned dangerous,” thought Slim as he got on with his work, and shook his head.

He didn’t see anything funny about being nearly stomped into the ground by Jess’ reckless riding.

Then Slim thought, “If Jess was nothing else, he was a superb horseman and could dare a horse to do almost anything he asked – including nearly spinning him into the earth!

Jess kicked on and made good speed for Laramie.

“Can’t think why I’m riding this horse into the ground?” he thought, but he was.

It was because of Slim Sherman. He knew that they got on well together. Well, most of the time. He also knew and felt that Slim was like an older, judgmental brother. Always out to teach him, criticize him and never admitting to being wrong. Jess had never taken so much grief from any man, without decking him or certainly trying to. Jess realized that he was half-killing the horse and himself in another effort to win Slim’s approval, for with that came Jonesy’s. He already had Andy’s in spades, doubled. He wanted it, as he’d come to enjoy being part of a family again. He realized that this was what he had been searching for all these years, wasted on the drift. The only thing that he had gained for those lonely, lost, bitter years was a reputation as a gunman – a paid killer in many men’s eyes. It was hard to live with, as the decent folk tended to shun him.

The lawmen were relieved when he rode out of their towns. He was never wanted for himself, only for his quick draw, which men would pay for, either inside of the law or outside it. It had led to a spell in jail and a lonely life that had unexpectedly changed the day that he had tied Traveler’s reins to the tree by the “Keep out – Private Property”, Sherman Ranch sign. He had just lain back against a log and stretched out when he had met Slim Sherman.

Jess smiled when he thought about that. He always did, as it was one of the few times that Slim had taken Jess by surprise, but Jess had quickly regained the upper hand with his lightening speed. He never mentioned it, but he knew that whenever they argued, Slim watched Jess like a hawk, always ready to pounce, determined not to be taken again.

*****

Jeff, the wrangler at the livery stables, heard the blowing horse as it was pulled up outside the stables and he went outside to see who’d been riding hell for leather.

“Sioux, or was it the Shoshone, after you?” he questioned him, with a smile. He liked the new young ranch hand. He had a real feeling for horses.

“Nope, Jeff! Just my boss. He’s got his spurs dug into me and has a list of “dos” as long as my arm and he it wants it all done this afternoon. Never thought that ranching could be so hard. I hate fences, trees, hayfields, painting, lumbering and digging holes. Looking after the stock is the easy part,” Jess replied with a grin.

“Well, I’ll get to it,” said Jeff “suppose you’ll be needing a remount?”

“Sure will. You’ll take good care of the young’un here. The poor boy has had the life frightened outta him,” Jess then turned to his horse, rubbed his hand gently down its jaw, and gave it a scratch under the chin.

“Good boy, you’ll get a nice rub down, some oats and can snooze all afternoon in the shade. Bet you didn’t think that you could gallop so fast?” He then took off his saddle and put it over one of the loose box rails.

“I’ll pick him up in a couple of days. I need a good, fast one that can gallop to get me back before noon. Will you pick one out for me please and make it ready?” Jess requested. “I’ve got to get going, Jeff. Sorry I can’t stay and chew the fat with you! If I’m late back Slim will have my guts all over the corral rails”.

“Well boy! I’ll see you in a couple of days,” replied Jeff. “That’s if you are not laid up with a broken wing or something. You take it easy, you hear son? You’ll not always bounce and walk away.”

“Yeah, I know! Folks are always telling me that!” Jess laughed, “I’m gone, Jeff, see you soon,” and he headed over towards the bank.

He threw a glance towards the sun and figured out that there were still a few hours before high noon. He’d got plenty of time to get back by then and he slowed his speed right down. He took time to smile and touch his hat to anyone who smiled at him. There were one or two. Not many and he sighed.

He finally made it into the bank and was surprised to find that there was a line of folk waiting. There were two couples, obviously up from the country as they were in their going-to-town clothes. There was also a group of wranglers, who knew each other, as their banter was light- hearted and based on their friendship. All the groups ignored Jess. They never once glanced in his direction, as being still covered with trail dust he looked like a typical saddle tramp.

Jess grinned to himself and thought, “Well, I am one!”

He tilted his hat over his face, leaned back against the wall, and relaxed.

“I wonder when would be the best time to get Slim’s mortgage money out of my boot?” he thought, “maybes, when I am up at the counter?”

Jess was lost in his own thoughts as he leaned back and relaxed against the wall. The next words shocked him.

“Git yer hands up! Git over agin the wall,” a dark, wolfish-looking man snarled. He stood, legs braced apart, leveling a .45 at their chests. There were three others with him. One, a small, wiry man with greasy, blonde hair and eyes so pale that they seemed to have no color, was pushing the bank manager across the bank towards the office to open the safe. The third was older. His face seamed with deep lines and his skin like tooled leather. He simply threw the saddlebags across the counter towards the teller.

“Fill ’em up!” was all he growled in a deep, thick voice.

The only thought in Jess’ head was how he was going to save Slim’s hard-earned money. Without thinking, he made a move.

“Stop there, cowboy! Or do you want a third eye?” It was the fourth man. He was thick set and brutish looking. He looked eager to smash anyone down who gave him an argument or got in his way.

“Drop yer irons real slow, make no mistake if I have to fire, I will kill you!”

Jess began to slowly reach for his gun. He knew if any shots were fired it would alert the whole town as to what was going on down at the bank. The Sheriff and his deputy would come high-tailing it up the street, guns drawn and ready to open fire. The townsfolk would also be out on the street eager to take a shot at the outlaws. The last thing these men wanted, as Jess knew from experience, was a gunfight. They wanted to fill their saddlebags and get away with no gunplay. They would pistol-whip anybody who stood in their way, but shooting would be the last thing on their minds. They would probably save that for the street, shooting at anything that moved, be it man, woman or child. Jess was pretty sure that if he could get the outlaw to fire his gun it would bring the Sheriff racing for the bank and the outlaws would be moving fast to get away. He hoped that the others would perhaps back his play. It was a chance worth taking, as a fleeing gang of outlaws could bring untold bloodshed to a street, and that was the worst thing that could happen. It would be worth taking a chance to go for the outlaw’s gun and making him fire it. The robbers would be fully occupied dealing with him, and he hoped and prayed that they would just panic and make good their escape without killing anyone in the bank or in the street.

Jess took his time to drop his iron and gun belt. He deliberately did this, as he wanted to draw attention to himself. He wanted the big man to get close enough to him so Jess could make a grab for his iron.

“What’s taking you so long, boy?” the outlaw snarled. His black-fringed eyes had narrowed and had become dangerous slits. “You need some help?”

“Watch him Chris.” The leather-faced outlaw turned and held his gun on Jess. He could smell the man’s foul breath through the bandana he wore over the lower part of his face. He was getting really close. The gunman moved in on Jess and as he raised his gun to bring it down on Jess’ arm ……… Jess exploded into action!

He attacked with the lightening speed of a mountain lion. He lunged and caught the outlaw’s arm on the back swing. He grabbed his hand and gun in both of his and held on with all his strength. They wrestled across the floor. The bigger, heavier man was swinging around Jess, but he doggedly held on.

Jess was like a terrier with its teeth sunk deep into the throat of its prey and would, by instinct, hang on for grim death. Jess could feel the gunman kicking and kneeing him. He didn’t fight back. He just stubbornly clung on and tried to get to the trigger of the Colt. The outlaw was yelling for someone to get a hold of Jess. He had his arm at full stretch and his free hand had a grip of Jess’ throat. Jess still held on as tight as a steel-jawed bull terrier, but he could feel his strength begin to ebb away as his body continued to take a pounding. It had only lasted for about a minute, but already it had seemed like a chaotic, crunching, gut-tearing eternity. Somewhere there were women screaming like banshees in a northern bluey and men shouting and cursing. Suddenly, Jess’ eyes, ears and head were filled with a crescendo of sound and color. There were tongues of scarlet and yellow flames spiking into his eyes, and smoke, which choked his lungs. The stench of cordite made his eyes water as an explosion seemed to tear the back of his head off. The Colt had fired twice, harmlessly into the ceiling, bringing down the bank manager’s prized plasterwork like snow.

“I told you to watch him, Chris,” the gunman snarled. “I should kill him now,” with that, he gave Jess a vicious kick in the side.

“No time, Walt. Get going!” the leader shouted. “Come on! Move! Move! Move! Let’s go!” called out the blonde and he snapped a shot at the ceiling bringing down even more plaster.

And then the gang was gone. As quickly as they’d walked in the outlaws were out on the street. They mounted their horses, as the street suddenly erupted in gunfire from the Sheriff and a number of the townsfolk, who all took great delight in emptying their guns after the disappearing outlaws.

*****

Mort Corey was an ex- soldier and an excellent shot with his preferred weapon, the rifle. He downed two of the bank robbers, including the one who was carrying what little money they’d gotten away with. A third was thrown from his horse as the jug- head went loco at the sound of all the gunfire and the screams of the wounded men. It had also picked up the smell of blood with its sensitive nostrils, enough to send any self-respecting mustang crazy. The fourth outlaw high-tailed it out of Laramie for the foothills to the east, where the fifth member of the gang was waiting for them with fresh horses.

“Right men, I need to get organized. Who will ride with me? They’ll not get far!” Mort Corey the Sheriff shouted. “Be back here in twenty minutes and we’ll get after them. I need to go over and check out the bank. Is the Doc in town? Frank, will you take the wounded men over to the jail and lock them up? Take Jake and Tom with you. See if you can keep ’em alive “till the Doc gets here.”

The menfolk began to mutter, some went to get their horses and others slunk away home, not keen to get involved in one of Mort’s posses, which could end up in a wild goose chase lasting for days, or even worse, collecting a slug or even getting killed. Mort would, as usual, end up with a group of hotheads, more trouble than they were worth. At least if they were with him, they were not causing mayhem in the town. He turned away and headed down the street towards the scene of the robbery.

What met him when he went into the bank caused him to lift his Stetson and scratch his head. The first thing was the noise of the two women bawling their heads off, being comforted by their husbands.

“Nothing much of the frontier about these two,” thought Corey, “purely decorative and not by much.”

The manager and the teller had closed the counter and had locked themselves in. The other three men were standing looking down at a body, which lay unmoving at their feet. All of them were covered in plaster dust, which gave the whole scene an unreal and spooky feeling.

“You got one!” Corey said. “You saved the bank. You have done real well.”

“No Sheriff!” one of the cattlemen said, “he ain1t one of them. He was waiting his turn like the rest of us when the gang burst in.”

“Anyone know him?” asked Corey, as he crouched down beside the unconscious body of Jess and carefully rolled him over.

“Yeah!” Jack Rider, the ramrod of the “Triple E” replied, “he’s that young gunslinger Slim Sherman took on a few months back. Says he’s a top hand. Great with horses.”

“What’s he like with guns?” Mort asked.

“Dunno, Sheriff. Slim has never said,” Jack replied.

“So what happened?” Corey questioned, “You all see?”

“Sure, Sheriff, Rider continued, “we were all told to drop our rigs. The boy here was almighty slow and one of the gang went to pistol-whip him. He musta had it planned, ‘cos as soon as the outlaw raised his gun to hit him, the youngster went for him as fast as a rattler, grabbed his gun hand. They fought and two shots were fired. Then one of the others smashed his rifle-butt over the boy’s head, kicked him and they all headed out.”

“You’ve not checked him over? Not think to help? He saved yer bank and yer sorry hides!” the Sheriff pointed out. “Well, you can help him now. Take him over to the hotel. Doc’s at the Carter place, won’t be back until this afternoon. The jailhouse is full. See that he is well taken care of. I will be over later. Yeah, and find out his name!”

The ranch hands quickly gathered up Jess’ unconscious body and carried him out, suddenly shame-faced for not acting quicker.

The Sheriff turned to the banker and questioned him. He was a mighty relieved man as the outlaws only had a couple of hundred dollars out of the teller’s cash drawer. The shots had caused the robbers to flee before they had the safe open. It had been a brave and reckless act, which the manager smugly announced would be well rewarded.

“Yeah? You looked after the young fella then?” the Sheriff snipped at him.

“Well, no Sheriff! It all happened so fast. I’m sorry, I suppose we could have done more,” the manager said guiltily.

“I’ll tell him that when he comes to,” and Corey turned to the others and said, “Go home folks. You’ve all been mighty lucky, so think on we all owe that young man a lot. Remember that the next time you meet him.” That was his parting shot to the remaining customers, who still looked a mite comical in their layers of white plaster dust.

Mort Corey left the bank and started up the street for the hotel. He wanted to check on the young ranch hand before he hit the trail. He was not all that concerned about forming a posse now as they’d got away with hardly anything and three of them were already locked up. Mort had been lucky, two of them were injured and one had been unhorsed by the skittish mustang. He knew he’d make the effort, as it was what was expected of him. Anyways, he thought it would give the townsfolk something to jaw about.

Before that, Mort Corey decided to look over the young drover who had got himself a gunfighter’s reputation. He was certainly brave and nerveless enough. It took a cool head and a strong, stubborn ruthlessness to grab a man’s gun-hand when the man had three others backing him up. The Sheriff hoped that the youngster was not going to cause him any trouble in the future. Usually, young men with such a reckless disregard for danger attracted trouble to themselves like bees to a honey pot and Mort groaned at the thought of it.

He walked into the cool shade of the hotel lobby and was greeted with:

“They’re on the first floor, room 115, quiet and shady, looks over the back,” Jim Burton, the hotel manager said.

“One of yer best?” sneered Mort, who knew that it was not.

“Well, who’s paying for it?” Burton replied, “You?”

“Did you have much in the bank?” Mort demanded to know.

“Some, Sheriff.”

“Well, you owe that boy up there with the busted head. He kept it safe for you!”

“I didn’t know. I’ll send Elsie up. She was a nurse in the war,” Jim Burton offered.

“See that you do,” Corey flung back over his shoulder as he went up the stairs to the first floor.

He went along the corridor and tapped on number 115. The door was opened immediately and what he saw surprised him. He’d expected to find the young ranch-hand in bed. Instead, he was sitting at the table holding his head between his hands, propped up on his elbows. Jack Rider and the others had dusted him down and he looked like any other cowpoke. Black boots, blue shirt, black vest and Levis. His Stetson and gloves were on the bed where he should have been. There was a bowl of water on the table and Johnny Watson from the “High Fork” was trying to bathe the youngster’s neck and back of his head.

“Will you lay off? Are you trying to drown me?” the injured cowpoke softly growled.

Mort had to strain his ears to listen as the boy had a deep, husky voice.

“Can’t be a whisky voice,” thought the Sheriff, “He’s too young. Maybe he hurt his throat?” as he remembered someone had said that the outlaw that he’d fought with had had him by the throat.

“Well, young man, how are you doing?” the Sheriff questioned him.

“Who’s asking?” came the unfriendly reply and Mort Corey caught sight of two brilliant blue, hostile eyes, which peered out of narrowed, dark, eye-lashed slits. They were slightly unfocused and reflected the tension in the boy’s face, as he struggled with the pain.

“I’m Sheriff Corey, son. I’ve come to see if you need anything. We’re gonna look after you, “till you can ride outta here. The Doc will be over as soon as he is back, so you need to take it easy. A blow to the head is a serious matter,” Mort Corey went on seriously.

“Thanks, Sheriff! I need to ask…you… a favor!” With that, the youngster held out his hand towards Mort. “Come close!” he said, his voice sounding weaker.

Mort went over, lifted a chair and sat down beside the injured ranch hand.

“I’ve got an envelope with $425 in my right boot. It’s Slim Sherman’s two months’ mortgage money. He is a good friend of yours, I hear, and it has to be in the bank today. Can you sort it out for me please, Sheriff? Yeah, and I almost forgot, he wants a receipt.”

“Sure son!” and Mort quickly bent down and drew the money from inside of the youngster’s right boot, which the Sheriff had to remove for him. “So this is why you took ’em all on? Saving yer bosses money?”

“Something like that. Aw! Gawd, I’m gonna be sick,” and with that, Jess lost his breakfast, luckily, into the bowl of water. At that point, and without ceremony, the door was opened and Burdon’s wife, Elsie marched through.

“What have you all bin doin’? He should be lying” down!” were the first words out of her mouth.

“I need to get back to the ranch,” and Jess began to pull himself to his feet. He finally made it and slowly turned his head towards the Sheriff and mumbled, “Can you pick up my horse fer me? He’ll be saddled and waiting fer me!”

“Jess Harper, you get on to that bed this instance!” Elsie ordered. “Mort, take his other boot off! I don’t want my coverlet torn up with those spurs.”

“Look “a here, ma’am…” Jess started to argue, but even as he did so, he saw the faces that had all been watching him begin anxiously to circle around in front of him. Then the room seemed to go dark as it spun around and tilted away.

“Catch him quick! He’s gone!” and Jack rider and the Sheriff made a grab for Jess, as he began to double up and slip to the floor.

“I’ve got him!” called out Rider as he picked Jess up like a long-legged colt, carried him over and carefully laid him down on the bed.

“Turn him on to his side. If he’s sick again, he could choke to death,” Elsie ordered, “and don’t ferget the spurs, and the boots while ye’re at it.”

“You know him Elsie?” asked Mort.

“Sure do! Been in here for the occasional meal with Slim Sherman. Nice, polite young fella, likes my cookin’ and never gives us any trouble.”

“That’s why I don’t know him,” the Sheriff said sternly. “In my job, I have to deal with all the rogues, drunks and troublemakers. So far, he doesn’t fit in with that group. But this young ranch-hand hasn’t been around here very long, and no doubt, Sherman will have kept him busy.” Mort thoughtfully rubbed his chin. “Well, I’ll know him from now on. He did a big service for the folks of Laramie today and I hope they’ll remember that, when some night he’s taking the saloon bar apart,” the Sheriff said with a smile.

“You think he’s a fighter?” one of the ranch hands queried.

“I know he is now that I think about it. I’ve seen his face scowl out at me over the years from wanted posters. I didn’t recognize him at first, covered with all that plaster dust. Yeah! I’ve heard of Jess Harper. Not much this last year or so. He must be growing up, calming down and putting his wild days behind him, or else he has been in jail. Never thought we’d have his sort settling down around here in Laramie. Shows you, takes all sorts. If you ever feel the need to fight him, use your fists. Never brace him with a gun; you’ll end up full of holes and maybes in Boot Hill, depending on how he’s feeling when he guns you down,” Mort Corey went on.

He found it difficult to come to terms with the reputation of Jess Harper, when faced with the actual young man who lay curled up like a boy. His face was now at peace and looked as innocent as any young kid, now that he no longer felt any pain or pressure to be galloping back to the Sherman Ranch. The Sheriff had been a lawman long enough to know that some of the worst killers on the frontier looked like “baby-faced” mothers” boys. Only time would tell how this one would turn out. He had the reputation, which was well known to all the men who tried to uphold the law on the frontier. It all depended on how the young man was going to live with it, now that he seemed to want to settle down and work on a ranch outside of Laramie. Mort Corey sighed. He hoped for the best as the youngster’s intentions seemed sound. The Sheriff knew, however, that the boy would always wear his hog-leg low and tied down to his thigh. He couldn’t change his spots that quickly.

Mort Corey left Jess in the capable hands of Elsie. Jack Rider also said he would stay and give her a hand until the doctor came by. Elsie had made Jess as comfortable as she could and had finished cleaning him up. She had not said anything, but she was secretly worried about the blow to his head and the fact that he had been sick was not a good sign. But she had done her best, as she liked the young cowpuncher who always teased her and had offered to marry her if she dumped her husband. She’d laughed and had said that he didn’t need to go to those lengths to get a piece of pie. She smiled to herself as she found out that he’d said the same darned thing to Julie across at the restaurant.

Jess had tried to be sick again before she left him, but at last he seemed to be finally settling down and was fast asleep as his gentle snores filled the room.

“I’ll leave you to him, Jack. I’ve gotta go and get supper started. Let me know if there’s any change. Now you keep an eye on him, you hear?” Those were Elsie’s last words to Jack as she exited the room and made for her kitchen.

Jack put his feet up against the windowsill and tipped his hat over his eyes and he began to doze off. Sometime later, he was suddenly awoken out of a dream by a faint voice. He was slow to realize where he was. Jack was not the brightest bear in the woods and he slowly dropped his feet off the windowsill and sat up with a yawn. It was Jess.

“Has she gone?”

“Yeah son, how you feeling?”” asked the ramrod, kindly enough.

“Felt better, been better,”” came the usual reply. Jess would have to be almost cut in two before he would admit to feeling fragile or sore.

“Feel like a drink? Could help settle your stomach,” and the big cowpoke pulled out a bottle of brandy from his dustcoat.

“It’s fer my boss. He won’t mind. I’ll tell him it was fer a good cause. You like brandy?”

“Dunno if I’ve ever tried it. I…usually drink beer…if it is good…moonshine…snake eye…I probably never had proper…whisky either… but I’ll try anything if it’ll get me up on my horse. I really gotta get outta here,” Jess hurried on, then slowly sat up and swung his legs off the bed. He quickly got hold of the bedpost as he felt a wave of dizziness, which almost knocked him sideways.

“Take it easy, young fella. Here, drink this,” and Jack Rider handed Jess a tumbler full of best Napoleon Brandy. Jess took the glass, and after the first sip, knocked it back and gulped the brandy down in one. He choked and gasped as it hit his stomach.

“Gee boy, it’s supposed to be sipped, not swilled down like that!”

“Kill or cure, I can’t feel any worse,” Jess choked, thanking Jack. “Have you seen where they’ve put my boots?”

“Here they are son! Need a hand with them?”

“Naw, thanks kindly, though. You wouldn’t get my horse from the stables would you? Don’t think I could walk that far,” Jess said, holding onto the bedpost like a drowning man clutching a branch.

“Sure, son! I’ll bring it round the back for you. You might just escape Elsie’s clutches that way.” Jack Rider grinned at his own joke.

“Thanks, I owe you,” Jess said in a tired voice.

“I’ll leave you the brandy. It’ll keep you going. Battles have been won by men who were drunk on it,” Jack grinned.

“Who told you? That doesn’t sound right to me?”

“My Pa. He was in the army,” Jack simply said.

“Well, that’s good to hear, ‘cos I’ve a battle to face. What time is it anyhow?” Jess asked anxiously, suddenly remembering how late he was going to be. “When I get back my boss is gonna have my guts for garters.”

“Coming on for one,” and that was an answer Jess dreaded to hear. “You’ve been asleep a good three hours!”

“Goddam! I’m late. I’m really late. I can’t believe how late it is. I’ve gotta get going,” and Jess got up shakily and went and got his boots.

Jack Rider exited the door with, “I’ll be back soon. I’ll throw a stone up against the window. Now take care, yah hear?”

Jess struggled with his boots and took the occasional swig from the bottle of brandy. He wasn’t sure if it was doing him any good, but it seemed to ease the pain and made him feel warmer and stronger. He slowly pulled on his jacket, picked up his hat and wedged it firmly over his eyes. He sat down again and pulled on his gloves. He then realized that his iron and rig were missing, but by then he didn’t care. The brandy was doing its work and except for feeling sick and a bit dizzy, he could feel nothing. His tongue felt swollen and his face felt all numb and, for a second, he wanted to giggle.

“Yeah,” he thought, “I am as drunk as a Lord”. Then he shook his head, which felt like it might fall off.

Finally, he heard the clatter of small stones against the window. He sighed and picked up what was left of the brandy and exited the door. He went down the back stairs very gingerly, taking care where he put his feet. Finally, he made it out into the alleyway, where Jack Rider was waiting with his horse.

“You be okay, son? You don’t look so good!” Jack exclaimed as he gave him a quick glance up and down and thought that Jess should have stayed in bed, as he looked as if he had been run over by a herd of young broom-tails.

“I’m fine, just a bit dizzy,” Jess answered, as he tried to swing up on to his horse. He then suddenly found that his legs had turned to jelly, as he couldn’t even lift his left leg into the stirrup.

“Hold up, son! I’ll give you a hand!” said the ranch foreman who then bent over and cupped his hands together for Jess to put his left foot into them. Then the big ramrod hoisted him easily into the saddle.

“You okay?” Jack asked anxiously, as he watched the young man sway as he went to pick up the reins.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll take it easy. I owe you,” Jess murmured,” “I’ll see you!”

“Por Nada!” was all the ramrod replied as he watched the young gunman wheel his horse around and head up the trail for the Sherman Ranch and Slim.

*****

“Damn and blast his eyes, Jonesy! Do you think he has taken off with the mortgage money?” an angry Slim asked, as he paced up and down the living room floor. He’d been out on the range since just after dinner and couldn’t believe that his ranch-hand had still not got back from Laramie. Slim was worried, he trusted Jess and liked him, but these last weeks had been hard. Jess had changed, and his easygoing, cheerful ways had gone to be replaced with an antagonizing and challenging manner. He was obviously restless and maybe bored. He had come to resent Slim’s hard, straight-backed ways and suddenly could not handle criticism. He always seemed ready for a fight. The whole atmosphere on the ranch had changed, even Andy had noticed. Slim was fed up as he felt as if he was walking around on eggshells. The slightest thing could smash everything up, but this was the last straw, as Slim felt that Jess was now deliberately defying him. But for all his anger Slim decided to wait to see how Jess would explain himself. He could have run into trouble and that would not be the first time. Anyway, Jess would surely realize that he trusted him. Slim hoped that would mean something.

“Dunno, Slim, depends on how much he rates that horse of his; it’s still here,” Jonesy replied. “Anyway, you take it easy; you’re wearing out the floorboards.”

“Jonesy, he’s finished here! He’s just not worth the trouble and upset he causes. It’s my fault; I thought he’d be okay! Well, I guess I read it wrong,” Slim murmured to him. “I’m sorry, Jonesy, you were right!”

“Naw, Slim, don’t be so hard on yourself. It would have been fine if it had worked out. Harper is a good worker, a great horseman, he liked my cooking and he made Andy laugh. Yeah! This is gonna cause a ruckus with Andy.”

Slim shook his head. “Too bad. Will you bundle up his stuff, including that filed down .45? I’ll work out the pay he is due.”

“Sure Slim, if that is what you really want!” Jonesy replied, and he shook his head sadly.

He thought that for all Jess’ faults, he was what Slim needed. A friend around about his own age. Jess had the makings of such a friend if he would only calm down a little and back off. He was forever challenging Slim, and taunting him. It made for sometimes an uneasy peace, as the two young men walked around each other, their hackles raised and both ready to shed blood.

“Yeah, it is,” and Slim turned to his desk to work out how much he owed him.

A little later, Jonesy had Jess’ gear piled on the table along with his gun. There was precious little there, hardly enough to fill two saddlebags. He’d also put up some grub for the youngster to take along with him, as he knew full well Slim would not allow Jess to eat with them at supper that night.

Jonesy had been a bit wary of Jess, as he was uncomfortable with his reckless and dangerous ways. He always thought that he would get Slim caught up in one of his wayward adventures, which could end up with Slim being shot or even killed. Jess’ lean frame carried many scars, which he laughingly dismissed, as the price he had paid for living the life he did.

Jonesy did not want that for Slim, but now that the young ranch hand was going, Jonesy had a heavy heart. He was going to miss the boy, who had brought his lighthearted banter and fun as well as his thirst for adventure to a quiet and somber house and had filled it full of life and laughter again.

*****

“Well, here’s the bad penny now!” blurted out Slim who had been watching and waiting. They both hurried outside and watched as Jess slowly rode down the hill and into the stable yard.

“He’s swaying in the saddle, Slim. Do you think he’s hurt?” Jonesy said, his old face puckered up with anxiety. Slim growled and his face turned red with temper, “If he’s not, he’s gonna be in a few minutes.”

“Take it easy Slim. Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Hear him out!” Jonesy advised.

It was already too late, as Slim marched out to meet Jess as he reined in his horse and slowly swung out of the saddle. He was standing there hanging on to the saddle-horn, waiting for the dizziness to pass when Slim charged up, grabbed his arm and swung him around.

“Where in Hell’s name have you been?” Slim stormed.

“You’ll not believe…” was as far as Jess got.

“You’re drunk. You smell like a distillery, you no- good-saddle-tramp! Did you get to the bank? Did you get a receipt?” Slim raged.

“No, I …” and again Jess didn’t get a chance to explain.

“You’re through! Your stuff’s inside, along with your pay and your gunfighter’s iron. You’ll be needing that for your next job! Get that saddle off my horse, pick up yer own and get going. If you are still here in ten minutes, I’m gonna tear you apart!” Slim spun about, a look of disgust clouding his handsome face. Jess reached out and tried to catch Slim’s arm before he could move away.

“Slim, I…” He got no further, as Slim swung round and with an almighty, vicious back-hander cracked Jess across the side of his face. Jess was spun round and had to grab the saddle-horn to stop himself from falling into the dust of the bone-dry yard.

“You’re wasting time! I’ve warned you!” and Slim headed to the barn to pen up the chickens and the hogs for the night. As far as he was concerned, Jess was fired and would soon be gone.

Jess shook his head trying to clear it and then slowly headed for the barn, trailing Slim’s horse behind him. He got there, and he was sick again just inside the door. He slowly unsaddled the horse and put the blanket and saddle on Traveler. He was cinching in the girths when Jonesy appeared at the door carrying Jess’ meager belongings.

“Come on son! I’ll give you a hand,” the old man said kindly. “You hurting?”

“Some!” Jess grunted and he allowed Jonesy to pack his saddlebags for him. He noticed that the old man had brought in a gunnysack and he noticed how heavy it was, as he took it out of the old man’s hand. “Thanks for the food!” Jess murmured, as he tied the gunnysack to his saddle.

“Here’s yer pay,” and Jonesy held out a few notes, his voice low and sad.

“Thanks,” was all Jess could manage to say.

“Where will you go?” Jonesy asked.

“You care?”

“Yeah, I care,” old Jonesy said quietly, “and so will he in the morning,” and he nodded his head towards the yard where the indignant chickens and a cursing Slim were destroying the peace of the early evening.

“I pray to God I’ll be long gone and well away from here. I was hoping to see Andy… see you, Jonesy and thanks. Tell Andy I’ll write to him…no better not…just tell him…Goodbye,” was all Jess sadly said. He pulled himself achingly slowly into his saddle. Jonesy saw the enormous effort he had to make, as he saw the beads of sweat burst out on Jess’ brow and a flicker of pain wash over his face.

“Stay, Jess! You’re not fit to ride!” Jonesy called out. “You can sleep in the bunkhouse,” and Jonesy grabbed hold of Traveler’s bridle.

“No! Jonesy, you heard what he said. He wants rid of me. Don’t worry about me. I can always do it, if I have got to. I will be okay. I have nine lives or have you forgotten? Take care of the big bully and Andy. You hear?” and with that Jess gave Jonesy a sad smile. “Just let me go Jonesy, please,” and Jess pulled Traveler’s head round, as old Jonesy dropped his hand from the bridle.

Jonesy sighed and watched him go. He saw how carefully Jess was holding himself and wondered what had happened in Laramie. It could not have been much, as Jess would have been in jail, or Mort Corey and a posse would have been high-tailing it down the trail, hot on Jess’ heels. He just hoped they’d find out soon and it would be the kind of news that would bring Slim to his senses and make him gallop up the trail after his friend and hopefully bring him back home.

*****

Jess slowly cantered up the hill away from the ranch. His chin was almost on his chest, as he found the ache in his head and the horse’s loping stride robbed him of what little strength he had left. He took it real easy, as he hoped that he’d hear Alamo and Slim come racing up behind him. It had happened before, but today he had never seen Slim so full of fury. He had been pushed too far. Jess was the one who was usually incandescent with rage and ready to rip into whatever was in his way with his bare hands. Today he had seen another side of Slim Sherman and maybe he was lucky that he had got to ride away with only a swollen jaw and a couple of loose teeth.

“No!” he thought, “that is probably the last time I will see Slim Sherman and the ranch. He was suddenly filled with despair. He had enjoyed the warmth and the companionship of the others and for the first time he realized how lonely he had been since he’d lost his family.

He’d tried to settle down and fit in with the Sherman family, but after so many years drifting on both sides of the law, a spell in the army and a spell in prison, he’d found it difficult to be committed to just one place. The easygoing familiarity of a new family, although warm and comforting, had brought intrusion, a loss of independence and loss of freedom.

“Well,” he thought, “I have my independence and freedom now, and at a painful price.” Jess felt as if his heart were being torn out of his chest by gigantic steel claws. If he’d had the strength, he would have flung his head back and howled like a wolf. A lonely, chilling sound which was a signal to the pack that the animal was lost, lonely and needed the pack to find it.

After a while with his head still hammering, he turned towards the line camp that they occasionally used. It was near the ranch and the trail and Jess did not feel up to a night in the open. What he desperately wanted was sleep and by the time he got to the old shack he could hardly stay in the saddle.

He managed to pull the rig off Traveler and to hobble him so that he could forage for himself. He stumbled through the door, dropped his saddle in the middle of the floor, sat down and then drank down half his canteen of water. When he’d finished, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve got hold of the gunnysack and tipped it up to see what Jonesy had packed up for him.

For the first time that day, he had to fight back the tears. The old man had carefully wrapped up everything in what appeared to be Slim’s new clothes. There were socks shielding two jars of the Mulligan. A side of bacon, a loaf of newly-baked bread, coffee, sugar, beans and a huge hunk of cheese, an apple pie and best of all, a can of peaches. It was all wrapped up in Slim’s new underwear, vests, a shirt, scarf and three pairs of socks. There were even two towels and a bar of soap. No wonder the sack had seemed heavy for an evening meal!

Jess wished that Jonesy were here now to rustle him up some supper, as he felt too tired to be bothered and also to do something for his head, which felt as if it were going to fall apart at any moment. He clenched his teeth tight and got down to making some supper. He decided to heat up the stew. That would be the easiest, if not the tastiest. At last, Jess chased the food around his tin plate. He found that he could not eat it, so he made do with some pie and coffee and he would save the mulligan for breakfast in the morning. He doubted he would feel like cooking in the morning, as the way to cope with his headache, he found out, was to do as little as possible. Anything else made his head spin and his stomach heave.

He made a quick check on Traveler and then went and dragged his bedroll from his saddle. He smoothed it onto the bunk and went into his saddlebag again to get out his thick jacket. As he pulled it loose, a small, unopened bottle of whisky tumbled out onto the clay floor. That was the final straw for Jess. The words, “for medicinal purposes only” rang in his head and he lowered his head and fought back the tears that threatened to wash down his face. The kindness of the old man, who only owned the shirt on his back, cut into him like a white-hot blade. It had been a wonderful few months. It had shown him another way to live. A life where hard work, laughter, friendship, the occasional bust-up and the continual bonding brought about through shared experiences, far outweighed lying free and independent in the dark gloaming of the endless, empty land.

He could have had the open sky, the frosty nights out under a million stars as well, because Slim had a feel for the great wide open, too. He relished the mountain trails and loved to leave his heavy, dragging responsibilities behind him. Now alone, Jess had only the great wide horizons and the stars to look forward to, along with Mariah, the moaning wind, which whipped through the pine trees, the moon-glint on snow and the lonesome howl of brother wolf. The happiness he’d found was now heightened by the enormous pain he felt, now that he’d lost it.

*****

The next morning, Jonesy was bustling around the kitchen when he heard a horse ride up.

His immediate thoughts were, “It’s Jess. He’s come back to tangle with Slim and sort this mess out. He must be feeling better.”

He quickly looked out of the window and his heart sank when he saw it was the Sheriff, Mort Corey. The old man untied his apron and went outside to greet him.

“Morning, Jonesy,” said the Sheriff, “young Harper around, or have you kept him in bed?”

“Morning, to you!” Jonesy replied, “No! Jess has gone!”

“How come? He couldn’t mount his horse yesterday,” said a bemused Mort. “Well, is Slim around?”

“Yeah! He’s in the barn mending tack. I’ll walk you over.” With that the two of them made for the barn.

“Morning Mort,” Slim called out when he lifted his head and saw who was coming through the door.

“Morning, Slim, I believe you’ve let young Harper go?” the Sheriff asked.

“Why? You come to arrest him!”” Slim exclaimed. “I told you, Jonesy, he’d been in trouble in Laramie. Just hope my money is safe.”

“No, Slim! I’ve brought his rig back and I’ve got a receipt for your money!” the Sheriff began to explain.

“What happened, Mort?” Slim asked quietly.

“Jess never got to explain,” Jonesy butted in, “Big Bear here mauled him before he could say a word.”

“Thanks Jonesy, just what I needed to hear. Let’s go inside for a coffee. Sorry we have no pie. Jonesy lost one yesterday,” Slim went on, shaking his head, as they went over to the ranch house.

They sat around the kitchen table in silence and listened to Mort. Slim could feel his guts as they began to tighten with guilt as Mort told them how Jess had arrived early in Laramie, his horse almost dead on its feet as he had ridden like a Comanche.

Mort went on to describe what he had been told by the other customers in the bank. How Jess had sprung at one of the outlaws like a wild cat, and had caused two shots to be fired. He had been kicked and clubbed down by one of the other outlaws. Three of the bank robbers were in jail, two with flesh wounds, the other had been unhorsed.

Mort said that he had seen to it that Jess had been taken care of at the hotel.

“He’s a stubborn young devil. He was being sick all over the place. He gave me your money to take over to the closed bank and he was busting a gut trying to get up and get back here. God only knows why! Anyways, Elsie made him lie down for a bit. Then that damned fool, the ramrod from the Triple E poured brandy down him. Near enough, a bottle of best Napoleon, I believe. There’s a trail of it ‘tween here and Laramie,” Mort explained.

“Yeah, it finishes inside the barn,” said a grim-faced Slim.

“Anyways, Jack Rider got him his horse and had to help him on board. Jess couldn’t haul himself into the saddle and that is about it. If your young gunfighter hadn’t gone for the owl-hoot’s gun, they’d have probably got clean away with the townsfolk’s” money. He’d had to drop his rig and I brought it over for him. How is he? I’m surprised he was able to ride the way he looked yesterday.”

“To tell the truth, Mort,” Slim went on miserably, “I cleared him off late yesterday. Wouldn’t listen to him. Didn’t give him a chance to speak. I thought he had been in the saloon all afternoon. He seemed to be all over the place. I gave him ten minutes to pick up his gear and hit the trail.”

“Yeah,” Jonesy put in his penny’s worth. “You’ve missed out how you punched him in the face.”

“Don’t start raking me, Jonesy. I can’t feel any worse,” Slim complained. “I’ll get finished up and go and see if I can find him. You say that he was hurt, Mort?”

“Yeah, Slim. Elsie figured he had a bad concussion, from the blow he got when the outlaw pistol-whipped him. He should be kept in bed for a day or two, to let his brain settle down,” Mort continued. “When I get back to town, I’ll wire the local Sheriffs” offices and ask them to keep a look out for him. I will think of a way to get them to hold him if he turns up in their town.”

“That’d be fine Mort,” Slim said. “I reckon he would never want to come back here, but I’ve got to make it right between us. I will not forgive myself if I do not try and make it up to him. You know what he’s like. Would make a saint swear.”

“Yeah, I know, can be damned irritating at times, but you went off half-cocked, Slim. I just hope the boy is alright.”

“Yes, Mort. So do I,” said a sad and guilty Slim.

*****

When darkness finally stole in, the long hours for Jess became a nightmarish time, never knowing if he had been asleep or unconscious. He had tossed and turned as he sought somewhere comfortable to rest his head. All the time his thoughts were back at the ranch. He felt bitter by the way someone, he had thought of as a friend, had treated him. He’d not been allowed to say one word in his own defense. He had been shouted and beaten down and he knew then that he would never give his trust to anyone again. He had tried so many times in the past and each time it had ended badly. Again, he found himself alone, his heart feeling like it had been torn out of his chest. He was numb and cold and an involuntary shiver went through him.

He felt he was nearing the end of the trail, as he had no choice now. He’d go back to the old days of hiring out his gun. It was one thing that he knew he was supremely good at and he did not have to make any kind of commitment to people or to a place. He could just do the deed and ride on.

 Even so, he knew his luck would not hold out forever and if he were not gunned down by a faster gun than himself, he’d probably be back-shot by some craven coward out to make a reputation for himself. He knew it would happen in some two-bit town nobody had heard of and nobody would ever remember. A place with only one tumbleweed, wind-driven street. Probably a desolate, wretched town which the desert winds would overwhelm and blow away, to leave nothing but banked up sand dunes. All traces of man and beast would be gone until finally, the hot winds would uncover the bleached bones and they, in time, would be scattered over the floor of the burning white hot desert to become the home of the rattler, the scorpion and the gila monster.

Jess shuddered at the thought. He sighed and mused how a gunfighter’s life was not long. Their stories and reputations were like spring snow. Dazzling in the early morning sun for a brief time, but gone well before noon. Their early deaths were accepted as part of the way they lived and they lived by the gun and they died by the gun. Few mourned their passing. The memory of their deeds, whether for good or bad were only remembered by old men in saloon bars, or kept alive in the mournful ballads sung around campfires by lonesome drovers.

Jess lay torturing himself as he watched the sky lighten and the blood-red dawn bleed into the day. His head felt as if there was a heavy ball inside it, rolling around and clanging against his skull. He had to be careful how he moved as any sudden motion caused the dizziness, darkness and nausea to roll over him in waves.

He eventually made it to his feet and took time to make himself some coffee. He drank it down, finished off the apple pie and the hunk of cheese. He’d looked at the cold Mulligan with the fat globbed on the greasy surface. His stomach had heaved, and he threw it away. Some weasel-like creature would find it and would think it had died and gone to heaven.

He slowly gathered his gear together and finally made it outside to see to Traveler. He found the big horse in a skittish mood. He wasn’t used to being left to fend for himself. He was used to a warm stable and company. Being left alone had unnerved him and Jess had some difficulty saddling him. At last, he managed to haul himself into the saddle and was on his way. He vaguely planned to head north, until he hit the trail which would take him up to Casper and then on to Buffalo and Montana. He hoped to get up to Canada and into more of the big wide open where, hopefully, no one would have heard of him.

Jess slowly made his way up the trail, still deep in thought as to what to do next. His first notion was to get his head right, as he still felt awful. He had a thumping headache, felt dizzy and sick most of the time. He was desperate to find somewhere safe to hole up and sleep until he was better.

*****

It was the waspish sound of a bullet, which sent his black Stetson spinning away, that dragged him back from his dreaming and planning. Instinct and habit kicked in immediately, as that sound made Jess dive from his saddle in a headfirst tumble. He hit the ground as he heard another shot and as he rolled, he sensed and heard Traveler take off at a heart-stopping gallop.

Jess lay there for a moment and tried to control his breathing. He felt his heart beating hard against his ribcage, now in time with the drum-like pounding in his head. Jess felt defeated and frustrated as he realized that he was afoot and this brought him close to the end of his physical and mental tether. He lay there, feeling dirty, bloodied, weak and empty. He groaned, got himself together and kicked himself on.

He inched his way to see over the edge of the gully into which he’d tumbled, in time to see two men, way off to the west. One was mounted on a big raw-boned horse and the other was on a paint. Both carried their rifles under their arms and were looking in his direction. Jess trembled, partly through weakness and pain and partly through fright. But he could do nothing about any of this. He’d learned, long ago, not to worry and fret away his time and strength over things he could not help or control. He had only one thought in his head. To try to catch Traveler and avoid getting shot. He was still well within range of their big guns.

He decided to make a move and he dived to the side again just as a bullet ricocheted harmlessly off a rock which lay alongside him. For Jess, his luck finally ran out. His dive was, as usual, well timed and fast. He rolled as he landed further down the slope of the gully, to be stopped when his body and head slammed into a rock. For Jess, it was the end, as his head smashed against the sandstone and instantly he was spun into the darkness and silence of oblivion.

Up on the wooded slope overlooking the gully, the two gunmen had watched Jess’ efforts to avoid their rifle fire.

“I think you got him that time, Chris! Can you see?” the gunman on the paint asked.

“Use your glasses!” Chris Walker, the gunman who’d been in the bank and had clubbed Jess with his rifle, took out his field glasses and trained them on the motionless body of Jess.

“Yeah Ben, he’s hit. We’ll get down there and check him out. We owe him, the nosey bastard!”

They holstered their rifles and spurred their horses on down the slope to where Jess’ body lay, almost at the bottom of the shallow, dry gully. They came up to it, dismounted and tied their mounts to a cottonwood.

“Turn him over Ben,” said Chris “Where did I get him?”

“Dunno, Chris! I can’t find anything. There’s no blood except from this gash alongside the back of his head. He’s out cold though,” Ben replied.

“Must have missed him, when he dived. Did him no good, as that is some wound he’s got at the back of his head. He’s going to have some headache when he wakes. If he wakes? Let’s see if he’s got anything worth having?” suggested Chris with a wolfish sneer.

Ben needed no invite as he immediately bent over and began to go through Jess’ pockets. He found Jess’ wallet and split the money with Chris.

“He’s called Jess Harper. Say, wasn’t there a Harper mixed up in that gun battle down in Abilene? I’ve heard this name before,” Ben said, as he read an old tattered letter, which he had found in Jess’ wallet.

“Yeah, that’s right. He’s a gun fighter. Used to have a big rep, but I’ve not heard much of him lately. I thought he’d cashed in his chips.”

“He’s done time and it says here in the letter that he’s not wanted here or in Colorado, Texas or New Mexico. It was just our luck to run into someone like him the other day.”

“Funny how he’s turned law-abiding. It’s cost him, though, at this rate it will get him killed.”

“I’m having his boots!” announced Chris. “They look real nice, look almost new,” and he started to pull them off. “Gee Ben, he’s got on new socks as well. This is better than putting a slug in him. We’ve got his boots, his socks and his horse has high-tailed it home. I bet it’s in Laramie by now, the rate it was going. Leaving him here like this will kill him for sure.”

“I’m having his vest and jacket; they’ll fit me. They look pretty new as well. I wonder why he wasn’t packing?” Ben thought aloud. “His hat’s over there!”

“Don’t want that! It’s got a hole in it,” Chris laughed. “I’ll tell you what! I will have his gloves and bandana,” and he bent over and pulled Jess’ gloves off. He tried them on. They were a bit big for him but he kept them anyway. Chris’ pale eyes turned to his partner and gave him one of his wolfish smiles.

“I think we’ve got everything. We might get folks riled if we took the rest of his duds. He’s got nothing else we could take?” And he then yanked Jess’ favorite silk bandana from his neck, a prized gift from Andy and Jonesy.

“It has got blood on it!” Ben remarked.

“So much the better; never mind, it will wash.” Chris stuffed it into the back pocket of his trousers and he bent over and examined Jess. “I think we’ve got everything now. Have we left him with anything?”

“His life!” said Ben grimly. “I don’t think he’ll have that long. That head wound looks like it could kill him. He’s bleeding like a stuck hog.”

“I must be getting soft. I’d like his belt. It’s got a nice big silver Mexican buckle,” Chris said with a grin which showed his brown, tobacco-stained teeth. “But we can’t leave a guy with nothing to hold up his pants – that would be real evil!”

“Well, we’ll leave him to the wild creatures, the buzzards and wolves. Revenge has sure been sweet. I wish we could leave him a note and tell him it was us. Wait ’till the news gets out. The great Jess Harper jumped on the trail, left afoot, near naked and robbed blind. He’ll be laughed out of every saloon bar on the frontier,” Ben laughed.

“Just as well he’ll never know. He’ll be in a murderous mood when he wakes. I’d not like to tangle with him or, have him on my tail. Shall I put a slug in him?” suggested Chris. “For old time’s sake and for the boys, the poor bastards. That would slow him up a mite.”

“Naw, just let’s leave him be. I’d not like to be in his shoes when he wakes, the state he is in now. We’ve had some fun; let’s get out of here before some busybody moseys along.”

They turned away and packed Jess’ duds into their saddlebags, mounted their horses and cantered up the trail. They headed west towards Salt Lake City, the Rockies and the setting sun.

*****

“What time you reckon we’ll be back?” questioned Keith Massey, the wagon master of a train heading for California. He was talking to his scout, Derek Frith. The two of them had been into Laramie, Massey to pick up some extra supplies and send off a wire and Frith to get a tooth pulled.

“Dunno, you’ll have to ask this darned mule. He seems to have only one speed today, one forward and two back. I don’t know why we don’t put a bullet ‘tween his eyes and eat him,” Frith replied.

“You like mule? I thought that you were strictly a beef man?” Keith Massey asked. He had a smile on his face, because no way would they eat the mule. He had been given a name; he was like an old friend. A damned nuisance, but you couldn’t eat him.

“Well, I suppose you’re right. I’ll eat most stuff now, as meat’s meat. Especially if I don’t know what it is and it has got plenty of pepper and salt on it. Yeah, and fried onions would be nice as well,” Derek remarked, as he tried to get the stubborn mule to move at a brisker pace.

They were moving slowly along the trail by the dry gulch where Jess was still lying. He had never moved and by now, the late afternoon sun was bathing his body in light, making his pale blue shirt highly visible against the dull yellow ochre of the rocks that he had smashed in to. It was the first break in his misfortune for days, as the two wagon train wranglers quickly spotted his body as they slowly rode along the trail, dragging the obstinate mule along with them.

“Is that a body down there? You see it Keith?” It was the hawkeyed scout who had spotted Jess. “Come on, let’s get down there.” He kicked his horse on and down the slope to where Jess lay.

“Well what do you reckon to this then?” the wagon master commented, on seeing how Jess had been stripped.

“Looks like he has been bushwhacked. They’ve taken everything, just about. Bastards have even taken his boots and socks,” Derek said, “and this head wound looks pretty serious Keith, he’ll need a fair bit of doctoring.”

“Yeah, we’ll get him dressed and take him with us. We are nearer the wagon train than Laramie. If he survives, he can decide what he wants to do. He may want to stay with us, as he does not have anything to his name. Maybe back in Laramie he has family and friends who will be looking for him. He could be from a well-established ranch and will go straight back when he is able to ride. We will have to see how the land lies when he wakes up.” The wagon master shared his thoughts with his scout, as the two of them went to work on Jess.

Keith Massey was an old hand with wounds, broken bones and all the ailments common to leading a wagon train up the trail. He washed and tightly bound a compress over the deep gash at the back of Jess’ head. Derek broke out his heavy jacket and between them they got it on to Jess who had begun to shiver, as the sun sank lower behind the snow-capped mountains to the west.

“He’s well out of it,” Keith Massey observed. “He’s never made a sound. What do you think, Derek? You think that we’re wasting our time?”

“Head injuries are funny things,” commented the scout “can kill you instantly, and there are times you live but never really recover. Other times you sleep or lie in a coma for days, even weeks and then suddenly wake up, ready to eat the hind leg off a donkey. Then again, some never wake up. Only time will tell.”

With that, they repacked the supplies on the mule, dividing it between the three mounts, freeing up room for Jess. Between them, they got him on the mule and tied him on to the animal. It was his good fortune that he was unconscious, as it was going to be a most uncomfortable ride, bound on tight to the obstinate creature that brayed and complained all the time. It was one journey that he’d best not know about.

*****

The wagon master and scout finally arrived back at the wagon train. It was dark and the folks were finishing their suppers and were getting ready to turn in for the night. It was going to be a cold night, as the stars were even more jewel-like than normal. The horses looked as if they were steaming, as along with folks” breath, the air seemed full of soft gray fog. The light shed by the hurricane lamps gave the whole camp a warm golden glow and the men were thankful that they had at last made it with the injured stranger.

“What you got there?” sang out the old cook, Al Tranter, a bald-headed, round little man, whose face always shone with sweat.

“Dunno really, found him on the trail backaways. Looks like he has been bushwhacked and he has got a fearsome head wound. You fancy some neat stitching, Al?” called out Keith Massey.

“You keep us any supper?” Derek wanted to know, as he set about untying Jess from the mule. Between them, they finally got him lying on some blankets beside the fire. Derek took over reheating some stew made out of tough venison and a few vegetables that the old cook had managed to scrounge, whilst Al Tranter tended to Jess’ head injury. By now, there was quite a group of curious people gathered around to watch and listen to what was being said and done. The wagon train folk were a kindly bunch and Keith Massey knew that before long Jess would have all the clothes he would ever need from hat to boots and everything else in between.

It was often the case that people who did not own many material possessions were always the first to share and the first to help. They were and would become, in time, the backbone of the new emerging nation.

“You can put him in the bunk in my wagon,” Mrs. Bentley offered. “I sleep in the tent, anyways. You men can help him keep clean. I will keep an eye on him and he will be comfortable until he wakes. If he decides to stay with the train, I’ll employ him to drive for me, help out and take care of the horses.”

“Well, you sure Mrs. Bentley, it could take some time?” said the wagon master, not sure how it would all turn out.

“It will be fine. I am only going as far as Casper to meet my husband and I will be glad to help. In fact, when he is up and about I will be grateful for anything he will be able to do. You have all done your best for me and I am forever in your debt. He’ll be able to take a load off us all,” Mrs. Bentley went on sweetly, ignoring the fact that the injured young man might not recover.

She was a strikingly beautiful woman, who had been raised in an army family. She may have looked like a Southern Belle, but she had the steel of a Northern army background bred in her bones and that had made her determined and strongly independent. She had travelled from the east to Cheyenne by train, accompanied by her father’s groom and his wife, whom, it was planned, would cook, do laundry and generally act as Mrs. Bentley’s maid. However, this plan had fallen apart when the groom had attempted to stop a runaway wagon. Its team of horses had bolted and had galloped through Cheyenne, leaving a trail of debris behind them. He had broken his leg and wrist, so the couple had been left behind and Mrs. Bentley had been forced to continue her journey without them. She found that she had all the help she needed, as she was not too proud to ask for it and paid generously for people’s time. Her every need was taken care of and she was left free to enjoy the journey.

The trip, so far, had been long, hard and challenging and though she relished her independence and the freedom that the great wide open offered her, Mrs. Bentley also looked forward to and enjoyed the cosseting, being looked after by any man afforded to her. She loved their attention and worship as she enjoyed being spoilt and manipulating them to indulge her every whim. She glanced down at Jess, who appeared so vulnerable. He had that heart-breaking look of a young, handsome, wounded hero of her girlish fantasies and she was determined to take care of him. She was already planning on how, when he was recovered, with her female wiles and encouragement, he would look after her and fill the lonely hours of boredom, which had so far blighted this trip.

Al Tranter worked on Jess’ head wound. He cut the hair away as best he could, cleaned it up and then brutally poured neat whisky over it. He then sewed the lip of the wound together using the same needle and threads that the mustangers used to sew horses” nostrils up. Jess lay as if dead. He never moved or made a sound and the old cook looked up at the wagon master and sadly shook his head. The young man was deeply unconscious and maybe would never swim back up from the deep place he was sleeping.

Some of the wagon train folk had already come by and had brought what clothes they could spare, and Tranter and Frith got him changed and finally wrapped up. He was then carried and placed on the bunk that Mrs. Bentley had prepared in her Conestoga.

“We’ll call before we turn in, just in case he needs seeing to,” Derek Frith finally said as they began to drift away leaving Jess with Mrs. Bentley.

“I do not know what gets into you men. We women bring you into this world. We spend our lives, washing, mending, taking care of your hurts. Suddenly, when there is a bit of bare skin belonging to a stranger turns up, needing help, everyone turns bashful. Do not be embarrassed on my account. Bare skin is just that – bare skin. It doesn’t make me feel faint,” Audrey chastised them, impatient at their stupid, false modesty, when the one who should have been embarrassed and awkward was unaware of anyone seeing his nakedness and helplessness.

“He’ll do ’till the morning,” she continued, “come by then. I will need help with the horses. I guess he’ll be the least of my problems.”

It was as she predicted. Jess gave no trouble, as he continued to lie silent and unmoving, completely unaware of the care and attention he was getting from Keith Massey’s team of scouts and drovers. Totally unconscious of the continual presence of Audrey and some of the other womenfolk on the wagon train who went out of their way to give her help and support.

Mrs. MaKay was especially kind. She, her husband and family were riding the train to its final destination in Sacramento. For them, what had started out as an optimistic dream for a better future for their family had quickly turned into tragedy. Their eldest son, Ewan, had been a bright boy of some twenty years, enthusiastic, hardworking and had been excitedly looking forward to a new life on the golden fringes of the New World. It had all been snatched away when a Conestoga had hit an uneven part of the trail and had turned over. Ewan’s horse had suddenly shied away and had violently catapulted the boy under the huge axle. It had crushed the life out of him.

Mr. and Mrs. MacKay began to let their son go by bringing his clothes, boots and all, over to Mrs. Bentley’s wagon and had left them for the young man, who himself had nothing, and who hovered between life and death. Nobody knew or could guess which way he would drift, but everyone’s thoughts were drawn towards him, as they could quite easily have been him, caught and surprised by bushwhackers in this strange, brutal and lawless land where death was a constant and familiar companion.

Mrs. Bentley and the other ladies were never far from Jess’ side. They tried to coax minute spoonfuls of broth down him. They battled to get water into him, they held his cold, lifeless and unfeeling hand and they talked and cajoled him to come back to the living and leave the shadowy world he was lost in.

Finally, on the fourth day, his eyeballs could be seen to be moving from side to side behind his closed eyelids. It was the first signs of his returning consciousness.

“Go and catch up with Mr. Massey and Al Tranter. Tell them, I think that he’s beginning to come round,” Mrs. Bentley called out to the girls in the back of the wagon. Joyce Gardiner nimbly jumped down from the back of the Conestoga and darted off to find the two men.

Jess laid still, his head moving slightly from side to side with the motion of the big wagon, when suddenly his carers were rewarded when he gave the softest and weakest of groans.

“I think he’s back!” Ellie Redhead exclaimed excitedly, as she wrung out a cloth and gently bathed his forehead. Audrey Bentley did not relinquish her place at the side of his bunk. She obstinately sat there, in the way, as the two others began to tidy up his bed and made an effort to lift up his bandaged head so they could fluff up his pillows.

“Are you feeling better, yet?” she asked him. He did not respond. Then, for the first time in four days, she felt his hand move in hers.

The morning dragged on. Keith and Al had been and gone and had both agreed that the young drover had turned the corner….he had chosen life. Time would tell what kind of life that would be, as the extent of the damage his head wound had caused became more evident.

Audrey Bentley finally left his side as the train pulled up for the noontide break. She was busying herself making coffee and cutting into the last of the new bread when she heard the sound of something falling over inside the wagon. She quickly climbed into the back, to find Jess hanging over the side of the bunk trying to reach for a pitcher of water. His bandaged head was down, his wavy dark hair almost lost under the compress and dressings which still protected his wound. Slowly, he managed to pull himself back onto the pillows and then he looked up at her, squinting slightly, as his eyes became used to the light again. She caught her breath as she looked into the clear, sapphire-blue eyes, fringed with long, thick, dark lashes, the likes of which she had only seen before on a young deer.

“What happened to me?” His voice was also a surprise. He looked little more than a youth, his boyhood only a few years behind him, but the timbre and deep huskiness of it was that of a mature man.

“Do you truly not remember?” she asked, not surprised, considering the severity of his head injury.

“No, ma’am,” he weakly replied.

“I will get you a drink, maybe you could cope with a bowl of soup? It has been a few days since you’ve had either,” she continued and she got a little flustered at the unwavering stare of the brilliant blue eyes that had never dropped their gaze.

“I would like a drink, that would be fine,” he answered, in a soft weak voice.

“You surely can, there will be one coming up straight away,” and Audrey turned as she left him to get the coffee. As she was returning with Jess’ drink, Keith Massey and the ever-faithful Al appeared and helped her to climb back inside. They took the drink from her and shooed her away, as they tended to Jess. They finally got him comfortable and helped him sit up a little against their rearranged pillows. Al helped him sip the life-reviving coffee.

“What’s this?” Jess asked, as he slowly drank the hot liquid.

“Why son, its coffee,” came Al’s reply, “you’ve forgot. You must have drunk it before.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember,” and Keith Massey caught the quick, haunted, look of fear as it flitted across Jess’ face.

“You took a fearsome tumble from your horse, just don’t worry you’ll get your memory back in time,” the wagon master said, sympathetically. “Remember, you’ve only just come round. We will help you get comfortable and then the ladies will want to feed you. You should then try to get back to sleep. That is a great healer. That and time.”

“Thanks,” was all Jess could mutter as he finished his coffee.

“Look you here, son,” it was the old cook, Al Tranter, who had decided to introduce everyone. My name is Al Tranter; I’m the cook and the other older guy, the one with the whiskers and the out of control eyebrows, that’s the wagon master, Keith Massey. The lady who owns this wagon is an army officer’s wife. She’s Mrs. James Bentley, her name is Audrey. And what handle do you go by son?”

Jess had tried to concentrate but his eyelids had suddenly become so heavy they had begun to droop and close. On hearing the question his eyes went wide and he stared at the two men with the look of a lost boy in a strange land who suddenly found himself alone and very vulnerable.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember,” was Jess’ tortured answer.

*****

When Jess looked back at his days with the wagon train, for all the care he was given and the wholehearted generosity of the people, it was, for him, like a bad dream. He became very silent, which for him was very unusual, as Jess was always ready with an opinion or a question and even some smart crack, which could raise a laugh, or a fist. Now, he had no past and the present was nightmarish. He found he had nothing to say except a laconic, “yes” or “no”, when questioned. He quickly regained his strength and not knowing what else to do, he readily agreed to drive Audrey’s wagon to wherever she was going to meet her husband.

He mixed well with the wagon train wranglers and sitting around the fire one night, they decided to call him Jeff, because he said that name felt familiar. So Jess Harper became Jeff No-name. He gave a wry smile and said it sounded Comanche and that decided them. The men all agreed that he had a vaguely Texan accent and the fact that he’d mentioned the tribe that was local to Texas must mean that he was from that neck of the woods.

“Well, if that was the case, what was he doing so far north, up and around Laramie?” he had asked them.

“That is easy,” they’d said, “as by the scars they had all seen, it looked like he had been in the war.”

After the war, many confederate soldiers found that there was nothing to go back to. The South, as they knew it, was gone. It was bankrupt and its bones were being picked clean by carpetbaggers and other incomers, who saw a great opportunity to acquire land and property for a song. The South had become an embittered place for the many that had fought and sacrificed so much. For them it was a bitter pill to swallow. Some had taken the owlet trail, or had gone north to the dirt and the industry of mining and factories, others had gathered the rangy, long-horned cattle, which roamed wild and unbranded across Texas, and started them on the great cattle drives north.

“Did any of this sound familiar?” Jess was asked.

He shook his head and gave the same answer, “I don’t know, I can’t remember.”

One thing he decided was that he would leave the train when he’d finished driving for Audrey and he’d head back to Laramie and try and pick up some clues to his past life. Maybe, he’d be known there. He might even have someone looking for him and an established family who loved him. How he yearned to belong and be part of something that was good. He hoped so, for anything else filled him with dread, emptiness, and longing.

So Jess began to work hard, as he tried to get enough money for a horse, rifle and rig. He worked tirelessly to help the folks that had been so kind and generous to him. Especially the McKays, as without their help he would be standing barefoot in just his trail-worn trousers and shirt.

Every day was filled with pushing the team up the trail and work. He would have found driving the horses at walking pace, mind-blowingly boring, if it had not been for Audrey. She sat up beside him, in her pretty cotton dresses and straw hat, which was trimmed with flowers and “do-dahs” that she had made herself. He enjoyed her company, as she was interested in everything he had to say. It was during one of their lighthearted conversations that the name, “Slim Jones” suddenly came into his head.

He could not for the life of him remember who this “Slim Jones” was, but at least it was a crack in the stone wall which protected his fragile memory. Audrey told him not to think about it, just let it drift and slowly more would seep through. She was right, as the names “Andy” and “Traveler” crept into his consciousness. He couldn’t tie them together, but he felt more relaxed now, as he felt that, maybe, he was finding himself again.

The wagon train scout laughed and suggested that he might be better not knowing. His treatment by the bushwhackers could have been a vengeful attack for some trouble or grief that he had caused them. Jess had just grinned at that and let it go, if he got his memory back he’d know all about it then. In the meantime, he was not going to worry about something over which he had no control.

He also tried hard to grin and laugh when Derek Frith and, especially, the old cook teased him unmercifully about his blossoming friendship with the Major’s wife. It was the normal bunkhouse banter, but it made him feel uneasy all the same and worse, it made him blush, which had the others howl with coarse, lewd laughter.

He had tried hard to resist her, but he found himself becoming more and more reliant on her. He felt so safe and secure when she was nearby. It was, of course, because of her commitment to him when he lay helpless, and how she had tenderly cared for him as he regained his senses. He did not realize at the time that she was mothering him and he accepted her devotion and loving care as it aroused feelings in him, which he’d not experienced since, as a young boy, he had lost his mother.

Jess had a softness about him. This was obvious in the way he handled horses, chased after the youngsters who wanted to play with him and now he was ever ready to tend to Audrey’s needs and to run at her every beck and call. She blossomed in his attention and shamelessly flirted with him. She’d ruffle his hair, would constantly lean against him and would put her hand deep into his pocket to keep it warm. He’d respond by putting his arm around her and would softly caress her face with his. He would gently muzzle her verbena-scented hair, which looked like warm syrup with the gold of the sunset shining through it. He loved the soft, velvet, downy feel of her skin and the sweet smell of rosebud, which wafted around her. He wanted to take care of her, to protect her creamed, peach skin and not let her small delicate hands come in contact with anything that would harm them and cause her pain. She, like women from the dawn of time, played him like a fiddle and she luxuriated in his care and the way he saw to her needs swiftly and without fuss.

He tried to control his feelings for her by keeping his distance. When the evening meal was over and everything was tidied away, he’d go and sweet-talk the horses, or go and help out the McKays. He would sit around the fire jawing with the other trail hands as they tried to jog his memory of stories of the war and of the cattle drives. Nevertheless, he could not avoid being alongside her every day as he drove her wagon. Audrey was always waiting for him to spend the last hour with her before the camp turned in for the night. He looked forward to this hour, as the temptation of her obvious invitation to develop their relationship was flattering and exciting in the extreme.

However, Jess knew it was wrong, that he wanted her to want him.

She was another man’s wife and what he was doing was against the code of the time. Jess knew that his behavior was unacceptable and inexcusable. However, it was also exciting and dangerous and it stirred his forgotten senses, which now lay just below the surface of his slowly returning memory. He came to realize that he enjoyed taking risks, was not afraid of the consequences, and would gladly pay them if he were caught out. He had done so in the past and he would probably do so in the future. He would accept the responsibility and, blame and regarded it to be all worthwhile. Another part of his forgotten past had fallen into place, as he realized that he was no timid, callow youth, frightened of his own shadow. He had seen that he bore the marks of shackles around his wrists, which spelt of troubles past, but he felt strong and knew what he wanted, and even if wrong, he would go all out to get it.

So the pair played their risk-taking game. A dance of invitation and rejection. A chase and a capture, but so far Jess had never demanded a submission. They did exchange kisses, which, with time, were becoming ever more passionate, as their tongues toyed with each other. Jess playfully kissed her throat, the nape of her neck, nibbled her ears and buried his face in the warmth of her inviting breasts. He could feel her heart racing as she became breathless with every passing moment, as he aroused her and excited her with his hard, demanding body. He forced his leg between her calico-shrouded thighs and with his protective, strong arms around her, he kept her body close and captive in his embrace. He then took a handful of her chestnut hair and dragged her head back and closed his mouth over hers, thrusting his tongue deep into her sweet berry-tasting mouth. He felt her as she began to go limp and he quickly released her mouth and began to caress her swan-white neck with his lips.

She began to moan his name, “Jeff.”

That was the trigger. He stopped. For suddenly, in his mind’s eye, a large figure loomed, the face hidden, but he could tell by its whole attitude it was one of disapproval and disappointment at his actions. It was the mysterious “Slim Jones“, whoever he was, and he was not happy with Jess.

The thought of it was enough to stop Jess in his tracks and he murmured, “I’m sorry Audrey, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

“But Jeff, I want you and I know that you feel the same way about me. How can it be wrong when we both need each other, so much?” she began to ask huskily and he saw the tears well up in her tawny, hazel eyes, which glittered in the firelight.

“Because you are Major Bentley’s wife; we’ve got no future together, well not one that you could handle. I have nothing and I can offer you nothing. I am falling in love with you, you know that, and I need you and want you so much that it hurts, but we have to stop. I don’t want to destroy your marriage and your future. I cannot remember anything of my past except that I’ve lived hard and maybe the law, who knows, wants me. At the moment I have enough problems without adding an enraged husband to them, one who would be well within his rights to shoot me down like the worthless dog that I am. I’ve been selfish Audrey; I’ve taken advantage of your kindness and I’m so sorry.”

“Oh Jeff! I can’t let it end like this,” she replied, the tears were now coursing down her cheeks.

“Come on, Audrey! Where is your handkerchief? We have not really begun and it will hurt for a while, but I’ll keep my distance. It will be easier for us both if I ask Keith Massey to find me another job, one which puts some distance between the two of us. I know it would be for the best,” Jess argued, trying to control a situation that had promised agony and hurt from the very beginning and now could only lead to a bitter tragic end.

“No Jeff, I couldn’t bear it,” she quietly sobbed. Her words were now muffled as her breath came in heart-rending sobs.

“It’s hard for me, as well,” Jess replied. “How about if I drive the wagon and you sit in the back? We could still talk, but it would be easier on the both of us if we were not sitting together. Does that sound okay? It’s not as bad as me being on a different wagon, or maybe riding and looking after the remuda.”

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” She choked out her answer and looked at him, her tawny eyes looked luminously large as they were awash with her tears.

“You agree? Then we’ll give it a try?” he said, with as much conviction as he could muster and he began to turn away and got ready to leave her.

“Yes Jeff,” Audrey sighed, “will you kiss me goodnight, please?” and she turned kitten-soft as she reached up on tip-toe and held her face up to be kissed.

“You’re killing me, asking me that!” groaned Jess, “I thought we’d agreed to stop?”

“But Jeff, just one last kiss please, is that too much to ask before you go?”

“Audrey, I can’t trust myself to one last kiss,” Jess reproached her miserably. “I’d want our one last kiss to last forever. We both know we can’t, so please don’t torture me or yourself, any longer. I’m going over to bed down with Al and Derek. You will be safe in your wagon now. You were before. I’ll see you in the morning when I come to harness up the team. I don’t think there is anything else you want. Please say if there is.”

Jess took Audrey’s arm and helped her into the Conestoga. He did not follow her this time, but simply stood and waited whilst she lashed up the back curtain. At last, it was done and he turned away and began to pick his way carefully through the enveloping darkness of a starless, ink-black night.

He turned his head and stopped for a throat-tight moment when he heard her soft voice call out in a breathless whisper, “Goodnight, Jeff! I love you.”

Jess’ heart leapt. She had said it. He put his head down and felt a shiver of pleasure ripple down his spine. He turned and went over to the fire that was now a low pile of cinders, the glow and warmth nearly gone and picked up his forgotten bedroll. He sighed and made his way over to the other side of the camp to lie down alongside Derek and Al Tranter.

*****

The days went by, a difficult and increasingly miserable time for Jess and Audrey, who still rode on the same wagon, but she sat in the back and he tried to keep an emotional and physical distance between them. He was, however, constantly aware of her presence as the scent of rosewater and verbena hung in the air and, like a cloud, wafted mistily around her. Audrey’s freshly laundered clothes, which smelt of the drying winds of the now flower-covered prairie was a heady mixture, which made his senses swim. She smiled wistfully at him and shyly watched him from under lowered eyelashes, which fluttered like soft moths” wings. Her conversation was unwavering and was centered on him, the latest subject being horses and how much he could remember about them.

He had no doubts that if he were from Texas and the far west he would almost have been brought up on a horse. He worked well with them and they felt very familiar to him. It was the same with guns, he did not own one at that point in time, but he felt as if he were used to their feel. He had no doubt that he had used one, since it was obvious from his many scars he must have been in a war and it was anybody’s guess how many gunfights he had been involved in since.

He also tormented himself with the thought of this, “Slim Jones“, as he seemed to have had a big influence on him. He knew he was not his father, as when he thought of him he felt a slight quiver of fear run through his body. “Slim Jones” was different, he felt he needed his approval, and he wondered who the hell he was that he had rejected the advances of the exquisite Audrey for this shadowy figure from a forgotten past.

Jess tried his best to avoid being close to Audrey, feeling his resolve melt away as he sensed her warmth and the musk of her body waft around him when she was near. He could feel the blood pound through him and he would break into a sweat, which would leave his body cold and clammy in the night. His nights were full of restless dreams of her. He yearned for her. He went through the biggest battle of his life when every evening, he unhitched the horses and led them away, leaving her misty-eyed as she watched him go.

He now spent the evenings working either for the McKays, or for anybody else who would employ him. He groomed Audrey’s team and jawed with the other wranglers. He was often the centre of their conversations, as they were as anxious to fathom out his past as he was. They also delighted in using his relationship with Audrey to entertain themselves with their crude, cowboy humor. They tormented him unmercifully by suggesting that he had become a lovesick wreck, who needed putting out of his misery with a bullet ‘tween his horns. He had been spurned and tossed aside by the high-stepping, pedigree mare, the gorgeous Audrey. He was asked how far he had gotten breaking her in? Had he used the gentle Comanche way or did she prefer the rough, tough mustanger’s curb? They laughed and taunted him and said he would have to try something new, and fast as the romance was cooling, maybe if he ignored her, she would come sniffing around like a curious filly might. He should try that. Jess clenched his teeth. He wanted to fly at them, smash his fists into their vile, stupid, ignorant mouths, and hopefully, knock their teeth down their throats. He could not defend her, as that would lead to even more damaging gossip, so he would have to wait his time. He knew that it would eventually stop when they found some new and more interesting piece of trail gossip to entertain them.

Finally, after another night of, “Let’s laugh at love-sick Jeff” wound down, the scout asked him if he’d like to ride over to Alder Creek, where some mustangers had their summer camp. He was looking for some decent broomtails and Jess might like to come and pick one out for himself.

“I’ve only got fifteen dollars to my name,” Jess replied, shaking his head, “I’ve no saddle and tack, or anything.”

“You’ve been working hard, boy. Keith reckons we can stand you a mount and saddle. It will be interesting to see how well you can ride. Once you are mounted, we can work you harder. You have it too easy driving that wagon at a snail’s pace,” Derek Frith commented dryly. “I’ll find someone else to drive Mrs. Bentley’s wagon, so we can hit the trail by sun-up and with a bit of luck be back before supper.”

“That sounds great,” said Jess, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. “I’ll get to it. Thanks, and see you all later.” He didn’t argue, but just felt overwhelmed by the trail boss’s generosity.

*****

The sun was still below the rim of the purple foothills and the earth smelled fresh and sweet in the gentle, dawn wind, when for the first time in weeks, Jess mounted a horse. The other wranglers looked on in surprise at the expert and athletic way he seemed to hop into the stirrup, throw his leg over and gently become as one with the saddle. In a matter of seconds, he collected his horse, and it was off at a smart canter.

“You ain1t forgotten how to ride, boy!” Derek shouted after him as they hit the trail.

“Yeah” he yelled back, “don’t know what happened, just did what I must have always done.”

Jess was pleased and tried his best not to show it. As time went on, he had found that his body was remembering, well before his memory did, all the things he could do and he came to realize that he was a first-rate wrangler and probably a top ranch hand. The others had laughed at this claim and said that his hands looked too soft and pale to have done any real, backbreaking work. He was more likely to be a top road agent and gun-slick and that brought more howls of laughter.

They made the mustangers’ camp well before noon as the midday victuals were being cooked. It was really another breakfast, for on the trail each meal could sometimes be the same, bacon and beans. The only variation being if there had been some game killed or some other concoction added to the pot or the frying pan. But after hours of hard riding, most things tasted well. It was against the cowboy code to ever compliment the cook. A battered coffee pot hung suspended precariously over the fire on a framework of some treasured, metal rods. The ever-welcome biscuits were browning away in the Dutch oven and they were all greeted cordially enough and invited to step down and dig in.

Jess made for the coffee, as he’d found that he loved it and needed two belts of the strong, black brew before he could plan out his day. They all squatted around the fire as the chill morning breeze of the high plains made them shiver. The camp was in the lee of some rocks and the sun had not reached it yet, as it was still some time before high noon, and it would take the warmth of the sun to warm them as it reached its zenith. In the meantime, they would have to make do with the small cook’s fire, and the scalding coffee.

It was as he was drinking his coffee and warming his hands around the cup, that Jess heard the swat of something hitting flesh, followed by the agonized scream of something that could be of a human kind being tortured. Jess leapt up immediately.

“Leave it, boy,” one of the mustangers called, as Jess strode away towards the desperately, distressing, tortured screaming. What he saw when he reached the rough-made corral made him almost throw up. He was sick to his stomach. Someone he had never met was beating a horse. It was a beautiful palomino mare, which had been snubbed to one of the heavy corral posts and a mustanger was using a weighted, plaited quirt on her, as her trembling flanks were criss-crossed with bloodied welts. The terrified mare was rolling her eyes and was foaming at the mouth as her tongue hung out in terror.

The man was a big brute, bald as a coot, with an unhealthy, maggot-colored pallor, which was almost jaundiced yellow to look at. He had pointed, vicious, black teeth that looked as if they had been filed down. He had a scar, which ran from the left side of his jaw, across his face, splitting his right eyebrow and ending up in his hairline. He had blood-shot eyes and was running to fat.

“Touch that horse again, mister and I’ll kill you,” Jess snarled.

“Oh yeah, cowboy,” Rob Larkinson growled, “with what?”

“My bare hands if needs be. I’ll give you fifteen dollars for her. That’s a fortune, as it is all I’ve got in the world.”

“You talk big and bold for a skinny piece of Southern trash. You can give me a little exercise and if you can put me on my back, you can have her. Fancy a bit of that? You reckon you can break me? You lump of rebel dirt?” the ugly big Larkinson spat out.

“Guess I can, I’ve ridden tougher, more “ornery jug heads than you and they were not all talk, mister!” Jess curled his lip and sneered.

“That a fact? Well, I own a jug head of a horse and if you can break him, I’ll give you my rig. It’s of fine Spanish leather and there’s a Colt .45 with an extra chamber. Looks like you need one, and you’d never afford one in this life.”

“That’s mighty generous!” remarked Jess. “I suppose it’s a killin’ bronc? Got to be at that price.”

“No stomach for it, cowboy? You just got a big mouth and a head the same size?”

“Nope,” Jess answered. “I break my horses the Comanche way. Don’t like them hating me or being scared of me. It’s a shame to break a great horse’s spirit that way by riding it into the ground.”

“Chickening out? It’s my horse. You know the deal and you can have the palomino and good riddance, if you can deck me. You want the rig? Well, you’ll have to green-break the brush tail stallion,” and the boss mustanger laughed at him.

“What happens if I can’t?”

“Well, you come and work for me till you’ve paid for the mare and the rig” the big bastard sneered and began to laugh and turn away, “that will take you a few months. You still like the odds, boy? Still think you got the guts for it, or have we finally shut your mouth and cut you down to size?”

That was enough for Jess. He was almost blinded by rage and he did not care what it was going to cost him. He just wanted to try and knock this loathsome, sneering, lump of shit into next week.

“Well, let’s get to it!” Jess said, in a low voice, as he lowered his head and his eyes narrowed to become dark and dangerous slits under a raging brow, which was already shining with sweat. “No weapons, I’m not packing.”

“Ok, boy!” said a surprised Larkinson, “all you’ll need is your fifteen dollars for a pine box on Boot Hill.”

Without further ado, Larkinson put his head down and charged at Jess like a crazed bull. Jess quickly sidestepped, put his foot out and brought the charging mustanger crashing down in the dirt. Larkinson swiftly recovered and, holding his arms wide, began to circle around Jess. He watched him like a rattler about to strike, but Larkinson took his time. He then took a swing at Jess, who ducked, put his head down and slammed his fists in a quick combination of three into the big man’s gut. Larkinson let out an explosive grunt and, bending over, ran at Jess and got him in a bear hug. He held Jess tight in his crippling grasp, drove on, and slammed him against one of the upright pillars of the corral.

Jess, at first, could do nothing, as he felt his ribs being pushed up into his lungs and his windpipe being choked off. He strained hard and got one arm free and clubbed Larkinson across the throat. For a moment, the grizzly oaf of a man relaxed his hold, just long enough for Jess to get his other arm free. He immediately chopped Larkinson a blow under his nose with the edge of his right hand and felt the gristle give way. This was swiftly followed by Jess’ left fist held stiff and hard as it rammed into the ox-like man’s throat. He was not finished, as he gouged his thumbs into the mustanger’s eye sockets and then smashed the man’s skull hard against the corral post.

Larkinson doggedly held on, screaming and cursing obscenities, the like of which the young cowboy had never heard before. Jess was slowly weakening, as Larkinson suddenly let him go. He dropped to the ground. Larkinson drove his fist into Jess’ face, splitting his lip and gouging a gash across his forehead with his fancy ring made out of a double eagle. Jess rolled away until the corral fence stopped his body. The bear-man went after him and raised his boot to stomp on his head, but Jess caught the boot and, with all his strength, pushed and twisted it back, causing Larkinson to spin away and land on his back in the dirt. Jess quickly got to his feet and went after him. He got hold of Larkinson to try to raise him up high enough to drive his fist into his face. That didn’t happen, as Larkinson kicked out and caught Jess in the stomach and, rolling backwards, tossed him in an arching swing, that saw him flying through the air to land on his side. Jess was winded, but not enough to not know where he was. He crabbed round onto his feet and began to circle the bloodied mustanger again.

Larkinson made another feint for Jess, but this time Jess was poised and ready. He ducked under the intended haymaker and, with his head down and his chin tucked in, landed a swift, short, vicious jab just below Larkinson’s heart. He went forward as the mustanger backed away and backhanded a powerful crushing blow to the side of the big man’s face. Jess felt the jar and the cheekbone gave way, as a pain ran up his right arm. He followed through with a short left jab to the man’s jaw and swiftly followed it with a right jab, full on his nose, which was already split and flattened, by one of Jess’ earlier fearful uppercuts.

His opponent staggered back and Jess went after him, but at last the big man came to a stop against the post. Jess watched as the man’s eyes began to roll into the back of his head, his knees buckled and he sank down slowly on them, as his body fell and he finally lay flat on his face in the dirt and muck of the corral. He lay silent and unmoving at the feet of a swaying and bloodied Jess.

“Looks like the palomino’s yours, boy,” one of the watching mustangers said.

“Sure is!” said another. “We don’t get to see such bloodletting, that often, these days.”

“Thanks, glad I could oblige,” Jess replied weakly. “If you’ll get me my horse, I’d be obliged. I don’t think I could make it if I had to walk.”

“Come on, son,” Derek said kindly, “let’s have a look at you! You’re not gonna be much use to man nor beast today.”

“Gotta break that jughead,” groaned Jess “need an iron and a rig.”

“Well, okay then, leave it “till later, son,” Derek agreed. “We’ve got plenty of time. You got yourself a fine looking little mare and at a good price.”

“Sure!” said Jess wearily, “just a split lip, lots of blood and I’ll be black and blue for weeks!”

“Yeah, I forgot,”” laughed Derek, “will slow up your big romance. But don’t you worry, son’ women kinda like their men hurting. They also like bad boys. You’re a gift from heaven. You’re mysterious, carry a few scars and you could be one of the younger boys. I am dumbstruck we’ve not got more of the women mooning over you, we’re lucky that Mrs. Bentley seems to have got her brand on you. That helps keep them in order”

“Please, Derek, stop that,” Jess moaned, “you know it’s a lot of bull, just more of your trail fancying.”

“Yeah, son, but amusing. Keeps us laughing through the long, cold, winter nights.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Jess said quietly, “well, if you’re done, I’ll go and doctor the mare. Poor little girl has been terrified.”

“No Jeff, I’ll get one of the boys to take care of her. We need to doctor you some, get you rested for your bronc-busting later on. You still want to give it a go?” asked Derek.

“For a new black, Spanish-tooled, leather rig and an army issue Colt .45? Damned right I do! Besides, if I don’t, I will be stuck with this outfit for heavens knows how long. I’ll be his slave, his whipping boy, so I’ve got to ride that jug head.”

At that, everything seemed so familiar. He felt the old feeling of confidence return and he thought to himself with a grin, “Yeah, I must have been a bit of a maverick!”

The wranglers, who’d come along with Jess and Derek, were men who thrived on the comradeship of the trail. They did not ask any man questions about his background or business. They bided their time until they were told and, if they were never told, that was all right by them. They had done their best with Jess to jog his memory and now that he had been in a fight they took care of his hurts, again, unquestioningly. Neither did they offer an opinion nor advice on the coming bronc-busting. He knew that they would be there for him, as they had been when he had fought Larkinson, but equally, they knew he would be there for them.

The day was getting on and the big thunderheads were taking on a tinge of burnt sienna. It would not be long before the dying sun turned the prairie blood red, as it slowly slipped behind the snow-heavy peaks of the western fringe of granite. Jess could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance and the air had lost its hot, dry intensity, as he could smell the oncoming breath of rain.

“We’ll be back before dark,” Dave Ashton observed.

“Yeah,” Derek agreed. “It’s a good trail, well marked out; it’s been smoothed by all the travelers it’s seen. Won’t be hard to make it out in the dark. We’ll string the brush-tails together; will be easier to drive them like that in the night.”

“You still gonna have a go at that bucking bronc, Jeff?” Dave asked.

“Sure am. Let’s get to it,” replied Jess, ‘cos if I can’t stick on it, I’ll be stuck out here till Hell freezes over.”

These attempts at humor brought a laugh out of them, as they all walked over and were joined by the mustangers. They all leaned against the corral and eyed up the rogue stallion. He had a wild look in his eye and bared his teeth at them, as if deciding already that they were the enemy.

“That looks like half a ton of trouble,” Derek stated. “He’s mucho horse. Isn’t gonna like what you’ve got planned for him, Jeff.”

“I know,” Jess agreed. “But if I want that gun belt and .45. I’ll have to do it; I’ve no option.”

“Listen, boy,” the scout replied, “I’ve got a .52 cal Spencer repeater you can have. You’ll not need a sidearm if you have that.”

“Thanks, Derek, I’ll pay you for that,” Jess responded, his voice suddenly becoming husky again, as he appreciated the scout’s concern and kindness. “I need an iron, I feel naked without one. Besides you know what I agreed and I don’t mean to go back on my word.”

The wranglers all exchanged glances as they realized that another piece of Jess’ memory had dropped back into place.

“I’ll get a hackamore and a kak outta the wagon you can use if you really want to throw a leg over this killer. Boss didn’t think that you’d risk it. Thought we’d have you with us for a spell,” one of the older wranglers said, and he turned away to go and collect the tack.

“Well you can tell him he got that wrong, but I could be here a spell, we’ll have to see,” Jess called after the mustanger, his usual bravado and smart mouth taking over. He then turned and nimbly mounted the sorrel and rode into the corral. In a deft, skilful motion, he dropped the lariat over the big yellow buckskin. He then dragged it, bucking, screaming and pawing the earth out of the corral. Derek and Dave quickly closed the gate while, with the help of the mustangers, he chased the stallion inside.

Jess carefully removed the rope from the big horse’s powerful neck and quickly got out of the corral. The old mustanger had now turned up with a blanket, a bronc-saddle and hackamore.

“Not a bad saddle, Jeff,” Dave Ashton remarked after he had given it a quick examination. “Its three quarters rigged and slick-forked. It’ll help you get the job done.”

“Okay, Jeff,” Derek yelled “watch yerself and good luck. We’ll not let the brute stomp you into the ground too deep.”

“No,” laughed Dave, “he may send you flying, but no worries we’ll catch you boy.”

Jess smiled painfully and licked his cut lip as he listened to the good-hearted fun the wranglers were having at his expense. He carried the gear to the corral whilst the wild, half-mad horse snorted and blew nervously and began to circle around. Jess followed him, turning and always facing the big animal, as he shook out a long loop from his lariat. He watched the stallion as he swung the loop he had made, and when he saw his chance, he threw it and snared the horse’s forelegs the first time. He quickly leaned back and dug his high-heeled boots deep into the dirt. He jerked in the slack and using his hip, he anchored the rope fast.

The other wranglers gave each other a furtive look as they recognized an expert when they saw one, as Jess had timed his pull perfectly, as he made to jerk the buckskin’s front feet out from under him. With a scream like a maddened banshee, the big stallion crashed to the ground, raising clouds of dust, which made them all cough and splutter.

The stallion was angered out of its head, but unhurt and lay kicking out with its back legs and snorting. Its lips were curled back from its big, yellow teeth, and slimy saliva flew across its chest. Jess quickly moved in on the downed horse and tied a rope round the one holding its front legs together. He then tied its two back legs together and pulled them closer to its front feet. He nimbly jumped out of the way of the sledgehammer hooves that would have crippled him if they had made contact. He finally had the big horse helpless, just as he had planned and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket, before he put on the hackamore and saddle. He was surprised, because without too much of a struggle he got the hackamore over the bronc’s head. He’d had to give it a punch between the eyes, as the stallion had laid back its ears and had tried to bite him. He got the blanket and saddle on the sweating animal and then slid his hand under the heaving body until he could get hold of the saddle’s cinch ring. He took a firm hold on it, and sitting down, put his feet against the horse’s side and pushing against the animal’s flank yanked it from under the big animal’s body. He then slowly got up and tightened the girth, and at last, the wild brute was saddled.

He raised his arm and signaled to Dave Ashton, who quickly opened the corral gate. Jess crouched, and got ready to step into the saddle, as he let go of the ropes that held the horse’s feet together. The ropes dropped away easily enough and the brush-tail struggled gamefully to its feet. Jess, by now, had swung into the saddle and when the big horse was finally up it found that a hated man was on its back.

It bucked, it screamed and whipped its head around and tried to bite Jess’ leg. It sun-fished and then made an effort to roll in the dust of the corral. Jess nimbly dropped out of the saddle and with just as much agility hopped back on when the horse had finished its roll. He held on tightly to the rope hackamore as the stallion pulled off like a team of panicking horses and made three lightning fast leaps in a row, twisted around and stood stiff-legged. Jess just had time to brace himself again, when the mustang threw itself backwards on to its heels, pounced forwards and put its head between its front legs and nearly cart -wheeled over. Jess was thrown into the air and came down hitting the saddle with a spine-cracking jolt that almost unsaddled him. He held on with both hands as his body was flung back and forth, then whipped from side to side as the wild brute under him humped its back, shot straight into the air, crashed down again and all the time shook itself savagely, as it did its damnedest to unseat the hated rider.

Jess’ legs pounded the horse’s flanks and he choked as he gulped in the lungful of dust that was raised by the stallion’s violent acrobatics. Suddenly, the buckskin stood still, but Jess did not trust it. It had been too easy, so he gripped more tightly with his knees and took a firmer hold on the hackamore. He was right, as the brute exploded again. It bucked and its body was bent double as it flew four feet into the air. Jess was flung so far out of the saddle that Derek could see clean underneath him from across the corral. He came down and was thrown forwards and picked up a nasty, breath-stopping blow from the saddle horn. The horse was not even winded as it again reared up on to its hind legs and clawed at the air with its fully stretched out front legs. Jess had to make a grab for the matted tangle of mane to stop him from sliding over the back of the saddle.

Again, the stallion lunged forward with its head between its front legs, in a bone-snapping crack. Suddenly, the big, yellow horse swung around and, with its hooves, raised clouds of acrid dust, as it galloped out of the corral. Jess let go of the horse’s mane and held on to the hackamore with both hands, as he gripped the buckskin’s sides hard with his knees, and riding forward like a jockey, he tried to stay in the saddle. As the mustang galloped on, it shook its big body violently from side to side, as it was still determined to get rid of the hated man on its back.

Cold sweat poured down Jess’ back, face and chest. It coursed into his eyes and threatened to blind him. His body, which had already taken one pounding that day, screamed out in protest and Jess began to feel his energy slowly ebbing out of him. When he thought he could hold on no longer, the big animal came to a dust-stirring, sliding stop. It was as if the animal was keeping the best until last, as it threw its hind legs in the air and tried to kick a hole in the reddened clouds. Then the stallion balanced on its front feet again, its head well down between its legs, and gave an enormous second kick. Jess’ chin was almost between the stallion’s ears and as he clung on, he suddenly remembered what his father had said: “The only thing you can do that’s worth a damn is to stick to a horse like a flea!”

Jess clung on with that thought bouncing around in his head, both hands were full of the matted mane and his knees, which were gripping the animal’s sides, were beginning to tremble with effort. Finally, the horse gave a succession of bone-jarring leaps and, each time, the horse climbed as high as it could. All the time the horse shook itself into a quivering, violent spasm, causing it to sweat so much that it became smothered in a sheet of white foam. Jess hung on and wondered who would go first, himself, the bronc, or the cinch?

At last, the big animal stopped. The girth and the cinch had held and the stallion began to gallop with Jess stuck on like the flea his father had described. Suddenly, Jess could feel, with a sinking heart, that the saddle had begun to slide sideways from underneath him. He was about to make a dive off the horse when, at last, the fight went out of the mustang. It came to a trembling, shaking stop and stood shivering with its head down. The winded stallion stood blowing heavily and shaking saliva all over itself and Jess.

He sat, totally exhausted, and wondered what the horse would do next. He could not believe that it was all over and that the big, brave, mustang had finally given up. The horse stood for a time with his head down, then took a few more steps continuing to shudder as it moved, then it swung its head around and eyed Jess, with an evil little squint. He put his spurs gently in and the brave animal headed back to the corral where all the men were waiting. Jess was surprised and pleased when the big stallion cantered over the ground so meekly and didn’t try to fight him. He got to the corral, where he was greeted with the usual, black, cowboy humor.

“That bronc sure likes to play,” said one of the mustangers.

“Yeah, he looks real fun to ride,” Dave Ashton laughed.

“Fun ain’t the word I’d use,” Jess replied. “He’s murder, that’s more like.”

Jess stepped down from the saddle and felt his knees begin to buckle with fatigue. He clung on to the saddle for a few moments feeling as if he had been caught out in a group of charging broncs. A horse would always try to avoid anything live on the ground, but even so they could stomp, roll you over, and leave you like a piece of meat. Jess felt just like that, a piece of raw beef without a bone or ounce of blood left in him.

“Watch out Jeff!” Derek Firth shouted, but Jess was waiting. He knew that the horse was not finished with him as it stretched out its neck, barred its teeth and, as fast as a rattler, tried to bite him. He punched the yellow stallion on the side of its head with his fist and knew by the big horse’s reaction and the shake of its head, that the once wild renegade had given up. The battle was over and it was Jess, who just about managed to keep standing, even though every muscle in his body was trembling with fatigue.

Later on, Derek decided to stay the night and camp out near the mustangers. Rain was threatening and with Jess almost asleep on his feet and a number of fresh-broke mustangs to drive up the trail, it made more sense to bed down for another night with the rough looking crew. With an early start in the morning, they’d easily make up lost time. He was right because, as they all lounged around the campfire it was as much as Jess could do to keep his eyes from dropping closed. It was well past sundown and the moon had not yet risen. It gave way to a long twilight of soft purple shadows and of silver mist, which swathed and lay in the hollows, softening out the landscape. This enhanced the eerie silence, which was occasionally broken by the hair-raising screech of a lone hunting owl.

One of the mustangers came over towards them from out of the mist. He was well wrapped up against the night chill and he was carrying a bundle.

“You Jeff No-name?” he asked Jess. “The boss ain’t up to moving, but says to take the palomino and here’s the .45 and gun belt. He says he’d like yah to set aside yer differences with him and come and join his team.”

“Thank him kindly,” replied Jess wearily, “it ain’t my way to break a horse and one like him, in any life, is more than enough. I’m obliged for the gun. Tell him I’ll take good care of it.

“So long then,” and the mustanger dropped the bundle into Jess’ hands, turned, and disappeared into the mist.

Jess immediately unrolled the belt and began to examine the dark metallic Colt. It was a well-tooled weapon, beautifully balanced. It had a filed-down hammer and no sight, with a silent, smooth-spinning, chamber cylinder and it came with a spare. Its last owner had known how to use and look after a gun. Once again, Jess felt on familiar ground. He must have known all about guns, as this one felt so at home in his hands. He quickly loaded it and again spun the chamber.

The other three lay back and watched the young wrangler and waited to see what he’d do next. Jess took them by surprise when he buckled on the gun belt and adjusted it until the holster hung low over his slim hips. He worked the hog-leg a few times in the holster until he was satisfied with the smooth motion, then he took a piece of pigging string from his pocket and tied the holster down low just above his right knee.

“Well son! Now you’ve got yourself armed and dangerous,” mused Derek, “can you hit what you aim at?”

“You want to try me?” Jess grinned and the scout caught the mocking feral grin, the narrowed, dark-fringed eyes and a shiver of an icy hand ran down his back, as he recognized the wolfish, leering smile of a confident gunman. “Well? Do you? And then we’ll all know,” said Jess quietly and deadly serious.

“Yeah, Jeff, ‘cos, you can’t remember,” they all laughingly chorused.

“That’s right,” Jess murmured and he bent over to pour himself another coffee.

“Jeff, in the top of that old tree behind you, there’s a little old nest; you’ll be killing nothing if you can hit that,” said Derek.

Before Derek had finished speaking, Jess had spun round and with lightening speed, which later on they all agreed was too fast to catch, his gun bucked in his right hand and with his left, he fanned the hammer and the nest exploded into a thousand pieces and slowly dropped out of the darkening night sky.

“Well, son, that is something else you’re good at. I best get you that rifle I promised you. A fella wouldn’t want to fall foul of you,” Derek joked and he wearily got up and went to fetch the gun which he had promised Jess.

He felt very uncomfortable at what he had just seen as the youngster was fast turning into a dangerous hombre. He was glad that he was only going as far as Casper with Mrs. Bentley, and then he had said that he planned to head back to Laramie, to find out if he had a home there. Derek knew that Jess had been in jail. It had never been mentioned, but Jess’ wrists bore the gall-marks only left by long periods of being shackled. The boy was trouble. He now began to look like a gunfighter and they always came with both pockets full of trouble. The sooner he was gone, the better Derek would sleep. He tossed the rifle over to Jess, who expertly caught it and by the easy way he handled it and yanked its action, he was as equally at home with that as he was with the iron.

As he was working with the rifle, another piece of his memory dropped into place.

“I’ll only borrow it, Derek,” Jess murmured, “I think I’ll stick to my sixteen shot .44 cal. Henry. It’s never let me down.”

“That’s okay, son; looks like you’ll not be long now till everything comes flooding back and maybes bites you.”

“Yeah, Derek, you could be right. Seems I musta done a lot of things, just doesn’t show yet,” and Jess gave a laugh.

“Yer body does,” pointed out Dave, “you must keep your head down, well tucked in, but leave the rest of you and your butt blowing in the wind.”

“I ain’t gonna listen to any more of your trail hog wash,” Jess complained, “I’m bushed, I’m gonna get my head down.”

“Yeah,” laughed Dave, “youngsters and a growing boy like you need their sleep.”

With that, Jess went to throw his coffee over Dave, who laughed and rolled away.

“Goodnight, killer; I wonder what the gorgeous Audrey, will think of her little pet now?” and they all laughed at the murderous expression on Jess’ face, as he turned away.

They all turned in for the night and Jess lay with his back to the fire and thought of the great day it had been. He was sore, aching and was finding it difficult to get comfortable, but he had a great Spanish-tooled gun belt, that he could never have afforded and a fine top quality iron. The rifle was okay, but he still preferred his old Henry. He had a great palomino mare, which he would school, for Audrey. He still had his fifteen bucks and his memory was at last beginning to flood back. He had shown them all that he could ride any horse.

“Of course, I could,” he thought “I’m a Texan; I was born a horseman. I’m probably part Comanche!” and he grinned to himself, as another memory slipped in… his Pa would have whupped him good for claiming Indian blood!

*****

They hit the trail back to the wagon train just as the sun began to clear the rim of the hills and brought the silver-gray land to life with the golden-rose light of a dawn sky. The birds chattered away in the mountain ash and the cottonwoods and the air held the freshness of the overnight rain. It had a dawn chill that, at once, cleared the head, like champagne clears a worn out, faded palate.

Jess was delighted with the palomino, as she moved briskly along at his side, matching his sorrel stride for stride. I think I’ll call her “Strawberry”, he thought. His plan was to work on her and make her as gentle as a kitten. She would be his, “farewell” present to Audrey. He knew he was being a fool, because Audrey was never far from his thoughts and the only way he could handle the situation was to keep his distance. Jess knew that this amused her and it made him angry when he suspected that she was only toying with him to pass the time – a cure for her boredom and a distraction from the daily grind on the trail.

They were making good time and Derek had said that he thought that they would meet up with the wagons at around noon. The news pleased Jess as he could have eaten the maggot-infested leavings of a mountain lion’s kill. He’d not eaten much yesterday, as he was just too damned sore and plain tuckered out to be bothered to chew the tough venison stew which was on offer.

It was at that point that Dave Ashton interrupted his thoughts as he yelled, “Hear that?”

“Rifle fire and a lot of it,” Derek shouted back, “let’s go,” and with no more said they dug their spurs in and kicked their mounts into a gallop.

Jess had no choice. He quickly cut the palomino’s leading rein short, so that she could not trip up, as she raced along after the others. He was mightily relieved as her herding instinct kicked in and she galloped along with them towards the distant sound of gunfire.

It seemed to take them an age to get there, but that was always the case when time is important and Jess was distraught when he thought that they already could be too late. What they saw when they got there caused Derek to curse. The wagons were organized in a defensive circle and were exchanging shots with thirty or so Sioux. Some of them had rifles, which sounded like Spencers, but more made do with their bows and arrows. It made little difference, as the Indian was a brave and well-respected fighter, a first class light cavalryman and a tough and savage enemy. It did not matter how he was armed; rifle, lance, axe or knife, he was deadly. It was only the white-eyes” superior firepower that had kept them at bay in the bitter fight to retain their own lands, which were slowly being stolen from them. The Indian was rarely defeated, as he would withdraw, regroup and wait for another day.

Jess pulled his hat down hard, quickly checked to see if his reins were tied together and then swiftly wound them around his saddle-horn. He did not know how he knew that he would be able to push and direct his horse with his knees and body, as he would need both hands to fire his rifle with any accuracy. This he did immediately, and because the Spencer was a long-range killer, he saw his first target somersault backwards over his horse, as a bullet tore a hole in the warrior’s chest.

“Got to get into the train!” Derek needlessly ordered, as they neared the circle of wagons. They saw a gap had been opened for them and they went full tilt for it. Jess was being crowded and jostled by the others and, thought it was dangerous that they should all try to go for the tight gap together. He quickly yawed the sorrel’s head round, and leaning into the turn, pushed it towards the pile of sacks and boxes. This made a defensive barrier between two of the other wagons. He swiftly shipped his rifle, took up the reins, leaned forward and urged the sorrel on. It was a courageous and willing horse and knew what was expected, as with saliva streaming from its mouth and its eyeballs rolling, it gathered its powerful hindquarters together. It took a long and then a short stride and bravely launched itself into the air, clearing the barrier and leaving plenty of daylight beneath it.

“Good boy!” Jess yelled out, as the big horse almost buried its nose in the dirt on landing, and Jess had to throw his weight over its hindquarters to help it stay on its feet. The plucky palomino followed, and almost crashed into Jess and his sorrel as they recovered from their hair-raising leap. He swiftly threw himself out of the saddle and dragged the Spencer out of its boot. He glanced around anxiously, searching for Audrey. He found her. She was standing on her own pressed hard against the protective walls of the Conestoga. He ran over to her and before he could raise his rifle, she had thrown her arms around his neck.

“Darling, you came back for me,” she whimpered in a faint voice.

“You know I’d die for you,” he hastily buried his face in the side of her neck and kissed her.

Quickly, he took her arms from around his neck. “Now let me go, you will get us all killed, as I cannot fight with you hanging around my neck,” he grimly said, as he pushed her to the ground beside the wagon, standing astride her, protecting and shielding her with his own body. “Can you reload that rifle for me?” he shouted, as he saw a rifle lying under the wagon and he continued to fire at the encircling warriors.

“I can’t,” Audrey wailed, “my hands are shaking too much.” He wondered at that, as she had described how she had been reared on army camps. Maybe she had never been out west? Her memories of the army would no doubt be of the officers” mess, regimental dances, the hunt and taking tea.

Jess quickly tried to forget her and concentrated on fighting off the Indian attack. It was not easy, as the Indians rode like fury. They constantly made their nimble mounts change direction as they swung under their painted and feathered ponies” necks, and presented little or no targets for the wagon train defenders.

Suddenly, Audrey screamed and Jess glanced down at her. She had a look on her face of gut-wrenching blind terror and she was pointing. Jess whipped round to see a Sioux brave riding down on him with a tomahawk raised above his head. Jess got a quick look at the painted face, feathered headgear, and heard the gurgling, maddened screams as he launched himself at his attacker.

The Sioux warrior brought his tomahawk down and it glanced off the muscle on the top of Jess’ shoulder. It did not go in deep as he had grabbed the warrior’s wrist as he brought the tomahawk down to cut into him. He headed back and dragged the Indian from his pony, which was unbalanced and so crashed onto its side. It then began to roll back and forth, and kicked its legs in an effort to get up. Jess and the Indian rolled away from the flaying hooves.

He now had hold of the Indian’s wrist with both his hands, as he grimly tried to wrestle the weapon away from the painted warrior. As swift as a sidewinder, the Indian let go and sprung away, and as he did so, he pulled a huge hunting knife from its sheath behind his back. Jess got up more slowly, as he felt the blood, as it ran hot and sticky down his left arm. The front of his shirt was soaked and he could feel the day as it began to turn cold. He heard the hammer of his heart pounding in his head and a wave of dizziness caused him to stagger. He managed to draw his Bowie knife from his boot and bending low, with arms outspread the two men circled each other. They both pushed on their attack, feinting first one way and then the other. Jess tried a sweeping strike, but the Indian leapt back, as Jess’ blade slashed past within inches of the Sioux’s chest.

Finally, they clashed. Each got hold of the other’s knife-holding wrist and they pushed and pulled and wrestled as they tried to bring their weapons to bear. Jess was fast becoming weaker, as his pants were now soaked, as well, with the blood from his shoulder. Suddenly, the Indian dragged Jess to him, then put his foot behind and between Jess’ legs and pushed him hard away. Jess went flying and landed, winded, on the flat of his back. Immediately, the Indian was on top of him, as Jess had not been able to hang on to the Indian’s wrist. The grotesquely painted man now sat astride Jess and he raised his knife. As he was about to bury it deep in Jess’ chest, two shots rang out. The Indian was hurled backwards, his knife still raised, his face still contorted in hatred, as two bullets burnt holes in the middle of the red man’s chest.

Jess rolled his head towards the gunfire and saw Dave Ashton just smile and nod his head in his direction. He pushed himself to his feet using his good arm and staggered back to the Conestoga and Audrey, who was weeping. Her breath was coming in great choking gulps and she was fast becoming hysterical. Her eyes were unfocused and wide with terror. She raised her hands, grabbed her hair and began to scream. Jess could do nothing else. He quickly raised his hand and slapped a stinging blow across her face. She started to moan and she cried softly as she collapsed into his arms. He gave her a quick, reassuring embrace, buried his face in her sweet-smelling hair and then he brushed her tear-stained eyelids with his lips and pushed her against the side of the wagon. He leaned his body against hers, giving it as much protection as he could with his own. He then slowly and painfully started to fire his rifle at the still screaming and circling Indians. Eventually, the attack began to slow and weaken, as some of the braves were turning away and were heading out over the rise and up into the sparse woodland that stretched away into the blue distance.

“Come on Audrey,” Jess said, “you’re okay; it’s nearly over,” and he moved away slightly to look at her. At that moment he gasped! He dropped his rifle and grabbed his right thigh, as an arrow had whipped out of nowhere and had buried itself deep in the top of Jess’ thigh. He grabbed hold of the tongue of the wagon to stop himself from falling and he lifted the Colt from his rig and continued to fire at the still circling redskins.

“It was a waste of ammunition,” he thought, as they were slowly backing off and were almost out of range.

At last, it was over, and Jess let himself slip to the ground, as his strength finally failed him. Audrey had gone to look for help and he quietly let go and lay down, unable to move. He closed his eyes, as the sun was blazing down and it filled his head with dazzling light that was as painful as the pain of his wounds. It seemed to hammer behind his eyes and its blinding rays filled his conscious world with excruciating agony.

His past memories came roaring back and flashed across his mind’s eye with the tortured images of blinding explosions, cannon fire, the sound of volley fire hitting flesh, the stink of cordite, the stabbing of bayonets, the smell of blood and rotting flesh and the tearing pain of wounds. His present injuries had dredged up his past times served with the Confederate Army and the memories of a Captain Bentley, who had saved him and his comrades from a firing squad.

“Surely,” Jess thought, as he savagely tore at himself, “Audrey could not be James Bentley’s wife? That would too much of a coincidence, too much to bear, too cruel to imagine and much too much to live with.”

He heard voices from afar talking to him and he heard someone scream out in agony. He hoped it wasn’t him, as he felt hands lift him and he could feel himself being gently carried. He groaned aloud and longed for that dark place which was so familiar and now so eagerly welcomed. For him, it was a place where there was no feeling, there was no past and, certainly, there was no future.

They laid Jess on the table outside Al’s cook tent and the old cook began to check over his wounds. Jess was aware of someone gently smoothing the rebellious hair from his sweat-streaked forehead and of a fragrant hand, which wiped his face with a soft, cool, damp rag. It was Audrey. He opened his eyes and saw her tear-stained face and moist, parted lips that were now asking him how he felt. Jess couldn’t answer. The arrow in his leg was throbbing in time to the pounding of his heart and causing a hammer to bang around inside his skull. It was making him almost blind with the pain.

“Jeff, boy,” the old cook said, “we gotta get this arrow out! You know how it’s done.” He then turned to Audrey and said, “You had better go Mrs. Bentley, this isn’t gonna be pretty.”

Jess stared at Al Tranter, and he began to pant with fear, for he knew what the old cook was going to do. He had held down a few cowpokes in his time fighting the red man and knew the savage butchery that was involved in getting an arrow out. He lashed himself with contempt, at shivering and showing his naked fear for what lay ahead.

“Get her away from here,” Jess whispered weakly, “I don’t want her to see.” Audrey had heard, for she quickly ran her fingers over his forehead and was gone.

“Derek, hold him. I need to get rid of some of this shaft,” said Al, then with a nod from him Derek, Dave and Bragg held Jess down and still, as the cook quickly snapped the feathered shaft of the arrow, some three quarters of the way down, towards his leg.

Jess arched his back, put his head back, and hollered. He lashed about, as if he was a wild thing caught in a trap, and the wranglers had to use their body weight to hold him down.

“Easy, boy, we’ll get some snake eye down you; you’ll not feel a thing.” Al then turned to the others and ordered them to get some water boiling.

Dave, you and Bragg get your Bowies in the fire, you know what we need.”

Jess put his head back and felt his trousers becoming cold and he began to shiver again. Al came over, lifted Jess’ head and supported it, as he started to pour the vile snakehead liquor down Jess’ throat. It burnt like a fiery concoction of chili pepper. It made him wheeze and choke as it brought tears to his eyes. It was a poor substitute for a painkiller, but on the frontier, it was all that they had.

“Come on Jeff, finish it so we can get this done,” said the old cook not unkindly. At last, Jess stopped gasping, he could finally breathe and he took the rest of the fiery liquid, which brought on a second bout of coughing and choking. He felt the grain alcohol burn its way down to his stomach and then felt as if he was going to throw up as his insides and guts rebelled against the vile, poisonous, witches” brew.

“Cannot think…argh…why they call….it moonshine!” Jess tried to joke in a weak voice.

“You’re right there boy, shoulda called it cow or weed killer….reckon that it could do both,” and Al Tranter grinned.

“Get on with it, Derek,” and with that the wagon train scout cut Jess’ trousers and long johns away, exposing the angry, bruised, purpling wound with the arrow shaft still sticking out of it.

“Hope he’s got some more duds!” exclaimed Al.

“Sure, the boy’s got plenty. Folks on the train have taken a real shine to him. He’s been spoilt; he has more clothes than me,” Derek Frith retorted and he wondered how this latest misfortune would turn out. One thing he figured, it would put the romance back on the fire, as Mrs. Bentley had already disappeared to get Jess’ bunk ready in her Conestoga. Jess had not been in and around there in weeks, as he had made his bed alongside Derek and Al by the cook’s fire on the other side of the camp. Al Tranter, by now, was bathing the blood of Jess’ leg, who groaned and declared that he was going to be sick. They all watched and waited for the rotgut whisky to take hold as Jess lay panting and covered with sweat, and he gave the occasional shiver.

“Are you ready Jeff?” asked Tranter.

Jess could not say anything, he simply reached out blindly and Dave Ashton took his hand in his powerful grip.

“Hang on, son!” was all he said.

Al nodded to Derek who drew his Colt, reversed it and gripped the barrel. He took hold of the broken shaft of the arrow in his left hand and, with the Colt in his right, he swung the gun back and brought the butt down hard on the end of the shaft. Jess hollered and fought to get away from the pain, but the wranglers held him down fast.”Again, Derek,” said Al.

Once again, the scout brought the Colt down onto the shaft and they all saw the blood flow out and drench the blanket, which Jess was lying on. They watched in horrified fascination as the barbed arrowhead pushed through the flesh behind Jess’ thigh. Al got a grip of the blood-slimy tip and slowly pulled the shortened shaft through the gaping wound and out it came, agonizingly slowly, along with serrated flesh, and dark, thick, oozing blood. Jess gave a weak cry. He had bitten his already cut under-lip and the blood was running freely down his chin and chest. His eyes were alight with pain and he rolled his head from side to side, as he tried to the escape the agony, which now filled his conscious world.

“You did well son!” Al Tranter said, trying to praise Jess’ stoicism as he lay, still groaning quietly, his eyes glittering in the firelight and his face, hair and chest wringing and shiny wet with sweat.

“That was the easy part, boy! You ready to finish it?” the old cook asked, anxiously. Jess could not reply, he just gripped Dave’s hand even tighter and gave a slight nod of his head.

Al turned and nodded to the two wranglers who took their long Bowie knives out of the fire. The blades glowed red and the dust in the air around them momentarily burst into flames. They waved them about slightly until the red glow had dulled to a specter gray. Dave then awkwardly held the knife an inch or so away from the angry-looking entry wound, which had now turned black and purple. Bragg lined his up at the back of Jess’ thigh, the still bleeding hole, marking where the arrow had been hammered through the skin. They looked at each other. Bragg nodded and they moved together and pressed the flat, hot blades down on the bleeding flesh. Jess arched his back and felt his world hammering in on him in torment. Somewhere he could hear someone screaming. He realized, in horror, that it was himself, as it was a sound which carried all the anguish of his violent past and it spewed out of him in a shameful, uncontrolled torrent.

He rolled his head to one side as he felt a boiling sensation that started in his guts. It began to erupt upwards and the torrent gushed out of his mouth, over his chin and down his chest, in a smell of stinking bile and acid. The faces that were all staring down at him began to spin round, as the excruciating pain caused every nerve in his body to tighten and cause his muscles to cramp up in tingling, exquisite pain. He heard a huge roaring in his ears and a thudding in his head, which was keeping time with his racing heart threatening to tear itself out of his chest. Then, miraculously, his world of bile, vomit, blood and agony, turned silent, black and painless, as he slipped away into the soft, warm darkness, which he welcomed like a long-lost friend.

“He’s gone, at last, the poor bastard,” remarked Dave as he loosened his hand.

“Yup, it’s a savage way to treat a body,” Al Tranter agreed.

“Better than the boy losing his leg in a week or so, maybes even his life,” agreed Bragg.

“We’ll get to this shoulder wound now; it’s not too deep, just slashed the muscle some. I think I’ll cauterize that as well. It will stop the bleeding and any infection that might start there. Thank God he’s out of it. Bring the water and stuff over, I’ll be cleaning him up while the Bowie heats up again,” the old cook went, on giving out instructions to the other wranglers who were all keen to help.

“Want me to make some coffee?” asked Bragg.

“Yeah, that would be great,” said the wagon train scout, “the youngster’s downed all the snake eye.” The others just laughed, which finally broke the tension which witnessing the savage butchery had caused.

“He’ll know about it when he wakes. He’ll have a helluva a hangover!” said Dave with a laugh.

“I’ll go see Mrs. Bentley; she’ll want to mother him again and she’ll have some fresh duds for him.” With that comment, Derek turned and left. Al and Dave continued to work on Jess’ shoulder wound and by the time he had returned they had cauterized it and were finishing bandaging it up.

“You’re in trouble, Al,” laughed Derek, “the women all heard the young fella screaming and they say that you are a cruel monster, the worst kind of savage. You’ll need to watch yer back, as I reckon they’re out to get you!”

“Well that’s fine; I’ll leave the doctoring up to them!” Al Tranter grinned.

“Oh, no, you won’t!” Derek exclaimed, “They’ll be cat fighting over him worse than last time and he’d end up getting smothered. I want him up and well and on his horse, out of here and back up the trail towards Laramie as soon as we get to Casper. Just you help Mrs. Bentley see to him. Dave will you drive her rig?”

“Sure thing, Boss,” said the wrangler.

“Well,” said Al Tranter “if kindness doesn’t kill him, your driving surely will!”

*****

For some time Jess was unaware of what was happening as his world was one of darkness and pain. He knew that there were times when people were around him and he could feel their hands as they touched him, reawakening the numbed pain, bringing it refreshed, as it roared back and caused him to slide away again into the darkness. He knew when Audrey was near as her sweet-smelling, musky body, freshly laundered cottons and the heady smell of her perfumed soap filled his senses and even in the darkness and through the burning agony, it filled him with a yearning and warmth, which he knew was wrong and he knew he could never have.

He recognized Al, because it was Al who supported him. Al held him in his arms and kept the rough, earthenware bowl against his chattering teeth. He tried to get Jess to take the bitter-tasting brew which always brought back the darkness, but which also took away the pain and gave him some rest.

Sometimes, he knew he was in a wagon, which was still. It was also dark because Jess could not see the stars. Other times, when he drifted close to consciousness, he could feel the warm, soft breeze on his face and smell the sweat of the horses and the rich odor of leather harness. There was also the gentle, soft motion which cushioned his body, as Al Tranter had found that the jolting and jerking of the Conestoga was causing Jess too much anguish, that it was likely to have killed him, as he could find no comfort or rest from the hard, springless ride. The old cook had then had a travois rigged up for him and, with the more soft, lurchless ride, Jess began to look better, as he rested easier and began to drift back into the world. His time of being conscious was increasing until on the fifth day he spoke to Al as he changed his bandages.

“Where’s….Audrey?” Jess softly asked, his voice so weak that Al had to lean over and put his ear almost to Jess’ lips.

“She’s safe, son, thanks to you,” Al replied. “You need her? Want to see her?”

“No,” Jess replied. He did not want the gossip to start again. Of course, he needed her and wanted to see her, but he would have to wait.

“It will keep. Where’s the horses. How’s Traveler?”

“Yer horses are fine. Derek has seen to them, so they are being well cared for,” the old cook quickly reassured his patient, not wanting him to waste his energy fretting over his animals. “Who’s Traveler? You’ve never mentioned him before.”

“My horse!” and Jess gave a weak smile that lit up his face, as he remembered the big bay, his only companion and friend for so many lonely years on the drift. “Al, I’ve…remembered Traveler…you…were right. It’s slowly….coming back,” Jess said, a little more strongly.

“Take it easy, son; it will all come back. I’ve told you, it is just a matter of time. “Do you think you could keep some soup down and maybe even a weak coffee?”

“Yeah Al …thanks for…everything…I’ll try,” said Jess.

That evening, Jess found out how Dave, Al, Derek and Bragg had carried him and settled him into his bed in Audrey’s Conestoga. He hated it, and complained.

“Wish you’d stop babying me,” as they saw to his every need.

Dave laughed and joshed, “Yer our baby. We’ve never had a dog, so you’ll do till we get something else to pet!”

Jess smiled weakly and replied, “I will walk myself tomorrow…you’ll see.”

“Course you will, son, and we’ll be there to catch you when you hit the dirt!”

The banter went on for a few more minutes, as the wranglers were all happy to find that Jess’ fever had not lasted long. They were relieved that, except for stiffness and quite a lot of pain, Jess had turned the corner and would soon be fit. The wranglers liked the young man. He seemed dead straight and honest. He would probably have had a few tussles with the law, but that was not uncommon at that time, as the war had left many youngsters without a home and a future. Their world had been swept away and devastated, as brother had fought brother and fathers had fought sons.

He listened wearily to their lighthearted banter and knew that they were doing their best to distract him from the crippling discomfort of his wounds. He began to fall asleep when he heard the gentle, girlish voice of Audrey.

“Come on boys, he needs his rest,” she stated, “you’ll have him worn out.”

“He’ll wake soon enough when he hears you,” Al pointed out and they all grinned. Jess heard and clenched his teeth. He could not bear to hear them talk to her like that, as it made her sound so cheap. He realized that she was already paying the price for their closeness and he knew that it was going to get a lot worse before it got any better.

The next day he insisted that they got him up and helped him to dress. He was determined he was going to walk, however, his plan soon fell apart when he found that his leg would hardly support his weight and that he could only stagger a few steps before he began to crumble to the ground. The wranglers were kind and did not remind him that they had warned him that he would probably fall flat on his face.

He had thought that he would be able to walk alongside the wagon in an attempt to get fit, but he realized that this was a dream and it was going to take a lot of effort, pain and time. He found that he was totally reliant on the others. He could not get in or out of the wagon without their help. He hated how easily they could lift him, as if he was a feeble old man or an ailing child. They were kind at a time when he feared kindness, and he hated that, and became very hostile and aggressive. They laughed and said that it was because he was an invalid and that was what made him bad tempered and “ornery. However, when he was better they’d take his darned meanness out of his hide and teach him some proper Southern manners, unheard of in that uncivilized place he came from.

They brought the sorrel and palomino around when he could stand, so that he could groom them and gentle them. However, Jess found his recovery very hard, as the slightest exertion caused him to break out in a cold sweat and leave him exhausted. He tried to keep his distance from Audrey and although he had to be helped to mount and be carried off his horse when they came to a halt for the day, it was easier to bear, than sitting alongside her and Dave.

It was the evenings which were the hardest, as at first Jess had been too ill and too weak to really talk to her. She had made herself totally available, as she would have redressed him and rebathed him if she had been allowed to. However, she made do with a continued check on his well being by touching his forehead, taking his pulse, and feeling his cheeks, for any signs of the returning fever. She cut up his food for him and for many days she spooned it down him and then went on to wipe his mouth and face, as if he were a helpless little boy. On one of the last occasions when she had fed him, she had just finished spooning a pudding containing prairie honey down him, when she had leant over him and without saying a word, she had kissed his honey-tasting lips with her soft, warm mouth, which was equally sweet, with the taste of sugar and butter.

“We will call that a second helping,” and she had laughed when she had seen the expression on his face. “Like some more?” and without any further invitation she again leaned over him, and his senses went swimming away, as her auburn hair blocked out the lamplight and her honeyed, moist mouth touched his.

His lips parted, and he felt her warm tongue tremble as it entered his hungry mouth. He wrapped his arms around her and ignoring the pain in his shoulder, pulled her down and held her captive in his arms. It was their first kiss for weeks and it seemed to last forever, until he began to get cramp in his leg and felt himself break out in a cold sweat. He let her loose and groaned trying to sit up and massage his cramped calf muscle and foot.

“No, let me,” she softly said and she pulled the bed covers down and began to manipulate his foot and leg which seemed to be locked in an invisible vice. He groaned and flung his head back as the cramp’s stranglehold crunched his leg even tighter, then with a shuddering sigh he began to relax as it slowly began to release its iron-like grip on his leg.

Audrey lay softly down beside him and, like a mother comforting an ailing child, she took him into her arms, tenderly kissing his sweating forehead, tightly closed eyes until, finally, her trembling lips nervously found his. She held him close rocking him gently and soothing him until she began to feel the tenseness of his body relax.

“Audrey,” he groaned “we can’t do this.”

“But why, Jeff? I know you want me and it is only a little happiness. Women like me do not marry for love; I’ve always known that. It was my father who picked my husband for me,” she began to explain.

“That’s just it,” Jess replied, his voice had become so low and hurt that she could feel the torment that was raking through him. “You’re a married woman. You can never belong to me. I could never make you happy. Love like ours is great when we are still young and we could survive on rabbits, squirrels and a crust of bread in a one-roomed shack. But when nobody wants me, I can’t find work and, maybe, not be able to afford a horse, we would have nothing. We would starve and you would end up hating me. Please, Audrey, let it be. You know it can never be ours; it’s not for us.”

“Now hush up, Jeff,” was all she said, “you’re not well enough to make any sense. We’ll talk about it when you are feeling stronger.”

*****

Over the next week or so, they talked of hardly anything else. Jess’ wounds were well on the mend and he could ride with only a little discomfort. His leg was still very weak, as he needed help to mount his horse and to get into the wagon. His shoulder was getting stronger, the slashing cut was almost healed, but the damaged muscles were still not strong enough to handle the Conestoga’s team, so Dave still drove the wagon and Jess was free to range up and down the train as he wished.

He schooled the palomino, Strawberry, and she was going to make a wonderful, gentle horse for Audrey. He helped out as best he could around the camp. He lovingly cleaned and oiled his guns and polished the soft, black, leather gun belt. However, his mind was still full of his love for Audrey. He despised himself and felt ashamed for allowing their relationship to drift along and become more and more intimate with every passing stolen hour.

It was to his credit, one of the few things of which he could be justly proud, that they never ever capped their love by actually giving into their desires completely. He had never allowed himself to sink totally into her ever-open and welcoming arms and take for his own her alluring, and breathtakingly beautiful body.

They now slept in each other’s arms, as he would wait until the only light visible was from the stars, and at a time when the silence felt as if even the night itself was holding its breath. He would creep slowly, softly, and silently to her. She would open her arms, and pant out a breathless welcome as he pulled the covers over them. He loved and explored every inch of her body. His tongue was hot and teasing and it drove her to breathless ecstasy. He had to cover her mouth with his own, to silence her enraptured cries of delight. He loved her breasts with their raspberry-colored nipples, which would quickly become erect and as hard as bullets, with the caress of his lips and the gentle nibble of his teeth, before he took them into his mouth and lovingly fondled them with his tongue.

He delighted in driving her mad by caressing the most secret and intimate parts of her body. She moaned and pleaded with him to love her and make her his. However, as his head pounded and he shivered with the fever and the hot blood of longing, he always pulled away. It was not only the thought of this specter from his past, Slim Jones, but now the idea that Audrey could even be James Bentley’s wife, that stopped him from taking her and making her scream out as he thrust his manhood into her, like an Apache war lance. Her pain and exquisite pleasure would match his own, as they would both drown in a sea of unimaginable bliss, and in the joy and delight of knowing that they were now, at last, as one.

It was on the last night of being on the trail together, that he finally told her about James Bentley. She had described him as being a most eligible choice for a general’s daughter. He was a superb horseman; he fashionably followed the foxhounds and hunted all kinds of game, rarely, the kind you could eat. He was the darling of the Washington set, as he was so tall and dashing in a Nordic-looking way. He could dance, play Bridge and never tired of small talk. The ladies, the fathers and their daughters saw him as a good catch. He’d had a good war, in as much as he had only killed Southerners, never any one on his own side, and had always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He had, however, never done anything to win any medals, but even better, he had never done anything to bring shame to his family, his uniform or his superiors. He was the model career soldier, and Audrey’s father had thought he would go far and went all out to buy him for his daughter, with heady promises of rank, an excellent dowry and, after his army days were over, a glittering life in politics.

Jess listened and wondered what she was doing, risking her lavish, promised lifestyle, by dallying with him, and he began to realize that he was probably not the first to be swept off his feet by the beautiful, eastern beauty.

Jess finally told her about being part of a company of eleven confederate soldiers, who had been cut off from the main group. They had been trying to sneak back through enemy lines when they had been captured. He’d had a hole in his side you could have put three fingers in. The ball was still embedded deep and the wound looked darkly purple with yellow pus along with bloody serum oozing out of it, as it slowly turned septic. Two of his friends were supporting Jess when they had finally been surrounded. They had been ordered to lay down their weapons and to raise their hands by the well-fed looking Yankees who had pushed them into a line. Then, using the butts of their rifles, they knocked Jess’ friends to the ground and pushed them into the line. Jess could not stand and had slumped to the ground, feeling the butt of a rifle stabbing him in the back. He would have cried out but did not have the strength. The “blue-bellies” had muttered amongst themselves and they had decided they did not want the extra burden of guarding and feeding another eleven men, as well as doctoring a wounded one.

“We’ll shoot them,” their sergeant declared. “No law agin that in a war. Get them lined up, and the one that cannot stand, rope him to a tree. Get it done; we don’t want to take all day. Remember to aim for the center of their chests.”

The Union soldiers had again used their rifle butts to push them into a line. They had dragged Jess to a tree and roped him tight, so that he would remain upright. He told Audrey that he was in his late teens and though he was hurting and semi-conscious, he was well aware that he was about to die. He told her how he was shaking like a leaf and, after a last look at the brilliant blue, sunny sky, he had closed his eyes tightly to stop the tears from running down his face. He said that he had heard the bird-song that had sounded so very normal in such a shell-ravaged place.

All at once, he heard a voice shouting. He had wearily opened his eyes to see a mounted Union officer, who began to command the men to shoulder their weapons and form a column. The officer cursed them for being cowards and ordered them to escort Jess’ Confederate comrades back to the rear, where they would be held as prisoners.

“Release that wounded man. He’s a soldier; show him some respect. Make a litter; he’ll need to be carried.” That was all Jess could remember.

He knew he had been looked after in a stinking, rat infested hospital and there had been times he had wished he had been shot, as the endless days turned into weeks and months. They were penned and starved in a Union prisoner of war camp and it had left him bitter and scarred for life. He did find out that the newly promoted officer was a Captain James Bentley and Jess and his friends owed him their lives.

“So, my love, what I’m doing is doubly shameful. I am in love with another man’s wife and I am making a cuckold out of that same man who saved my life. I deserve to be horsewhipped at the very least,” Jess murmured, miserably, as he tried to explain as best he could how he felt. “So, darling, tomorrow, when we part, we must never see each other again. Nothing. Nada. Look at it as if I were dead. That is how I want it to be. Major Bentley doesn’t deserve to lose his career, his life and you, because of my weakness and selfishness at being unable to resist loving you.”

“So you’re finally spurning my love, rejecting me because of my husband, who regards me as a possession, along with his thoroughbred hunter, his dogs and his fancy Purdy shotgun?” and she laughed bitterly.

“No,” sighed Jess, “it’s a question of honor.”

“Oh, Jess,” she said and she tossed her head back and laughed again. “How old-fashioned you sound and for someone so young. You sound like a real old stuffed shirt, with britches too tight. Why, my friends and I are what we call professional wives. Our marriages are arranged and once we are safely married, we can take as many lovers as we like. Men have their mistresses. It all works out pretty well, as long as we turn a blind eye and be discreet. You really do make me laugh. Who do you think you are? Sir Lancelot? Or maybe Sir Walter Raleigh, who threw his cloak down so that good Queen Bess did not have to walk through the mud?”

“Never heard about them, but then I didn’t get as much schooling as you. Sounds like me though, or, as I would like to be. But what if you are found out? What happens then?” enquired Jess, shocked at what he had just heard.

“Sometimes they move the whole family into the country for a time, until all the gossip stops. Or…they meet behind a church, normally at dawn, take ten paces, turn and fire. That’s how they settle their matters, of what you call it, “honor”,” and she gave him one of her mocking, simpering smiles.

Not for the first time he wondered if he had been her first lover, or was he just one of many? Perhaps he’d been used as a distraction to pass the time on a dull drive west, with what she thought were dull, boring people, with dull clothes and dull, boring lives.

He often felt that she had been laughing at him, as she teased him and could get him to do just about anything for her. However, their lovemaking was no laughing matter. He could play her like a fiddle. She may have been from a solid, upper-class family, with money and land. Her husband was an officer and by Act of Congress, a gentleman, but Jess knew how passionate she was. She gave herself without any hint of shyness or modesty and was completely wanton. She behaved like a whore, but Jess didn’t care; he was completely besotted, blinded and lost in a fog-shrouded sea of need and want. He felt he only came alive in her arms and looked at his future as a bleak, colorless place with no appetite for it without her in his arms.

“I would like to give your husband satisfaction, but that would be damaging to him, his career and you. Letting you go will be punishment enough, far worse than being shot down by his bullet. I will never forget you.”

He put his head down and she took his hand. She shivered and responded to his gentle touch as he cupped her face in his strong, wind-burnt hands. She tossed her long, auburn hair back and he tried to undo her high collar. He dimly heard the lace rip and then her shoulders were bare. “Why did he call her a whore and wanton,” he thought? He was as bad as she was, as he flicked his tongue over her marble white skin and she crooned with ecstasy.

Their last day together was bittersweet as they rode together on the Conestoga. She leaned against him, her hand holding the inside of his thigh and her lips occasionally, hotly, flicking his ear, until following and caressing his firm jaw line with her mouth, she found his lips. Gone was the frantic obsession, as the misery of parting was getting nearer. Audrey was incessantly demanding they end their all too short affair with one last night, when they could finally unite and be carried away with each other’s all-consuming passion. Jess resisted, as if he did, he told her that he would feel obliged to call Major Bentley out and instead of stealing his wife like a fox in the night, challenge him and fight for her like a man. Whatever the outcome, it would be disastrous. If he won, he would have her, but for him, she would have nothing. She could never go back to her old life and take her place in society. Whether Major Bentley was alive or dead, she would be shunned and never socially accepted by the world she was from. If the Major killed or wounded Jess she would still be the loser, as the Major was well within his rights to divorce her. More likely though, she would be kept behind closed doors and locked shutters, a creature that was never seen and would attract no gossip, unless rumors were bandied about as to the state of her mind.

It was an unfair world. The men would always win and the women would always be vilified and marked damaged. She would soon become a social outcast, shunned and ignored. He told her that she would soon find out how many friends she truly had.

No, he had told her, they would have dinner together and then he would ride back to the wagon train. The next day he planned to set out for Laramie to try to find out who he was and if anyone was looking for him. She would be safe with the escort that was to meet them later that day, and tomorrow, she would be reunited with her husband. Jess told her that their affair had been a magnificent obsession, a brief, once in a lifetime, glorious, golden interlude that he, at least, would keep close to his heart, bring out, and relive sometimes in the dark chill of his loneliness.

Audrey listened to him and then she tossed her head back yet again, laughed, and called him a romantic fool. He felt his face flush with temper and he wanted to put his hands around her throat and choke the mocking laughter out of her. She was right; he was a fool. She had been toying with him all along, yet her loving had seemed sincere and honest. Perhaps she was one of those women, who could love one man, but needed another and could never be truly faithful to either. He thought she probably did love him, as far as she could, but she needed her husband to provide the security and status she was born to. Like a shattering illumination of sheet lightning, he realized that he was the one she wanted as her lover, but it was her husband she needed. Jess had given her his heart and although she loved him in her way, delighted in his adoration and their rapturous lovemaking, she had used him for her own gratification and would ruthlessly tear his heart apart. He felt helpless. He was spell- bound and knew he would ride with her, wherever the trail would take him.

He loved her unconditionally, but just because he had given himself so completely, did not mean that she was bound to completely give herself to him. He would leave her to return to her husband. He knew that she would not desert the Major and remain in Casper, or go back east on her own. She would remain with Major Bentley and no doubt wait, until someone else came along to distract and entertain her.

They rode on, now, together in silence. She moved away from him and kept her eyes fixed on the horizon. Jess felt numb, but could do nothing. He was in love, but unfortunately, for him the woman he loved did not really exist. She was a beautiful, living, vital woman, an exquisite goddess and he realized that he did not really know her. What he did know of her was an imagined fantasy born out of his own vulnerability, loss and need.

They would spend the last few hours together, he still caught up in her golden web and she bathing in his love and adoration. She would, no doubt, weep bitterly. Women seemed to have the gift, from the time they were born, to tear a man’s heart out with their tears. It was a skill, which never deserted them, it was their ultimate weapon. Few men could deny a sobbing, tearful woman, anything. Jess certainly could not. He would bear anything to spare her tears and pain, but then he was senseless. He was, after all, in love.

*****

On the outskirts of Casper they met up with the four soldiers who were to make up her escort for tomorrow. The sergeant was a competent man, named Constantine Moriarty – Con, for short, from Galway and a lover of fine horses. Jess immediately liked him as he admired the strawberry-colored palomino and handsome sorrel, which were tied up behind the Conestoga.

“They look a picture, sir,” he commented to Jess, his voice richly thick with an Irish brogue.” You’ve spent many an hour seeing to their grooming. Their coats are like silk, to be sure they are, never seen anything like them, save on the head of some high-stepping lady of quality.”

Then he became flustered and apologized to Audrey for being so free with his comments, when a lady was present. Jess laughed at his embarrassment and thought what he would think of this high-stepping lady if he knew? He walked with the soldier up the street to the hotel, talking about the noble beast, and for a few moments forgot all about Audrey. Con said that they should leave the wagon and horses he would see that they were taken care of and he would collect Mrs. Bentley in the morning. Jess explained he would be returning to the wagon train after supper and invited the sergeant to join them. He flushed with pleasure, as pleased as Punch to be asked, but he refused. He said that it would not be fitting, anyways he needed to stay with his men, so with that, Jess shook his hand and the soldier saluted Mrs. Bentley. Jess and Audrey both turned away and left the Conestoga in the sergeant’s care.

Jess picked up Audrey’s valise and carried it through to the reception desk, where he saw to it that she was booked in and was given a suite of rooms, amongst the other respectable clientele of the hotel. He asked if the hotelkeeper’s wife was available to escort her to her rooms and the man quickly responded by offering two of his hotel maids to attend her, carry her luggage, unpack for her, help her attend her toilette and change for supper. Jess smiled at her and indicated that he would dine with her, and in the meantime, he would wait for her in the hotel lounge. He watched her go and felt that he had already lost her, as she was now returning to the world of dining salons, Bridge parties and the hunt ball. He would last in that world as long as a snowflake lasts in the noonday sun.

He turned away and decided to go for a drink while he waited for her. She would take some time and as the sun was still high in the sky. Dinner was aways off yet. He went into the hotel bar and ordered a whisky and as he threw his head back and downed it, he heard a voice behind him growl.

“You still got that palomino you stole off of me boy?” Jess turned around and saw it was the mustanger, Rob Larkinson. Still looking like a mangy, stray dog, smelling like an old polecat, and even worse, looking as dangerous as an angry grizzly, who had been woken up early from his long winter sleep.

“Yeah,” Jess replied, “and the rig I nearly got my neck broke paying for.”

“Well, you’re still standing; couldn’t have been that bad,” replied the older man, his chewing baccy dribbling down out of the sides of his mouth, before he expertly aimed and spat it into the spittoon.

“You didn’t see,” and Jess could not resist the jibe. “I heard that a young Texan had put you in yer bed for a week!”

“Do you reckon he could do it now?” Larkinson growled.

“Why would he want to? You’ve got nothing that he wants,” Jess answered.

“Maybe a bit o” exercise?”

“Naw, I’d like to accommodate you, but I have got to keep my clothes, such as they are, decent. Some other time maybe,” replied Jess.

“Oh, yeah, son. There will be a reckoning; I’m not finished with you. Not by a long shot. I’ll not forget and neither will you boy, not until the day you die.”

Larkinson turned away and was followed out of the bar by the other two mustangers. Jess ordered another drink, glad that they had gone and that they’d only stalked around each other, hackles raised. He did not want to spend his last few hours looking like a stagecoach wreck and with Audrey fussing around like a mother hen. He wanted the last few stolen moments spent with her to be a time they would both remember and cherish.

He wanted to find the right words to tell her just how much he loved her. She knew he worshipped her and delighted in his adoration and had loved how his body had expressed his devotion to her. He just needed to find the words to express his feelings. Some words she would maybe remember and keep in her heart, as they both went their separate ways, never, ever to meet again. When he had spoken of this, she had laughed and said it must be a Southern thing for men to want to talk in a soft, romantic way. She had never heard of such a thing in the North, where a woman came after a man’s love for his dog, his horse and his land. It was at that point that Jess felt sorry for her. She was trapped in a loveless marriage and she was as lonely as he was.

Finally, he left the bar and went down the long street to the barbers, where he knew he could get a quick bath, a shave and his hair tidied. He had thick, dark, wavy hair and Audrey had teased him and said it looked like a buffalo pelt. Since then he had tried to keep it shorter, but still it went its own unruly way. At last, he returned to the hotel. He felt cleaner and had brushed up well, but his clothes told the tale of a hard, tough time on the trail.

He lounged on a sofa in the reception area and first saw her as he glanced up at the big mirror above the mantelpiece. Her reflection caused his breath to choke at his throat end. She had taken his breath away. He quickly stood up, feeling unkempt, undressed and at a total loss as to what she could possibly ever have seen in him. He had on a well-faded blue shirt, blue Levis, which if people described them as being blue, they were being kind. He wore some old down-at-heel boots and spurs, which announced his every move. His black, leather vest was well scuffed and his jacket bore the marks of thorn bushes, horses” teeth and a bullet hole.

She floated into the room in an off the shoulder, white, evening dress made of silk tulle and Brussels lace. It glittered, shimmered and shone in the lamplight from the embroidery of thousands of seed pearls, which picked up the delicate, lacy pattern of lilies. Her auburn curls were piled high and ringlets wispily softened the fringe of her forehead and neck. In her hair, she wore a small pearl and diamond tiara, which looked like ribbons of hooked hearts. Around her neck was a magnificent, emerald necklace, which was matched by the fabulous earrings, and made up the suite. She wore white, kid gloves that came up above her elbows and she looked like a creature from another world. She slowly glanced around the reception area and the lounge until she caught his eye and she gave him the smallest of smiles.

The buzz of conversation died and all eyes followed her as she glided like a swan across a lake holding out her hand to Jess.

“I’m sorry, ma’am; I don’t think we’ve been introduced!” Jess tried to joke, as he fought hard to stop some mad gibberish from spluttering out.

“No, I don’t think so! You know my sister, though, quite intimately, I believe,” she answered him, in kind, and then she gave a mocking laugh when she saw the expression on his face. Jess just grinned; he felt an idiot, but that was nothing new, and with old- world gallantry, he took her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it. The room full of fascinated folk continued to watch in silence, as this goddess took what appeared to be a saddle tramp’s offered arm and allowed him to escort her into the dining room.

They were shown to a table in an alcove which was decorated with store-bought, silk-white lilies, and the small intimate corner was lit by candles in crystal holders, which softened the light, making her flawless complexion as perfect as any seen on an Italian cameo.

“We have the dining room to ourselves for at least two hours and I want our remaining time together to be perfect, something we will always remember and cherish. I do not want anyone sharing it with us,” she spoke gently and sadly.

“Audrey, I feel that the last few weeks have been my life. From now on, I will only exist and go on marking time, until my life on this sorry earth ends,” Jess told her. “I sometimes curse the day we met, but know that I’d give anything to be with you until I draw my last breath… You know, Audrey,” he went on, “if God had offered me all this world’s riches and the sun, the moon and all the stars in one hand…and had offered me you in the other…I would always have chosen you.”

“Please, Jeff, do not say any more,” and she smiled, then put out her gloved hand and grasped his, and again he lifted it and brushed it with his lips.

They sat and talked, shared their thoughts and past times that they could each remember. Jess could not match her stories of growing up, because, although he had little memory, it was still that. He did not want to talk of the present, as that would only end in tears. As for the future, he had no future, his future ended with her. He would go back to Laramie and if he was not known there he would just drift, be blown like tumbleweed, wherever the wind in its vagrant mood would take him.

All too soon, their meal was ended. Their coffee, brandy and sweetmeats were done and all that was now left was their goodbyes.

“I know what you will say, Jeff! Please come to my suite. We never got to say ‘goodbye’ today,” she pleaded, her tawny eyes were moist and mirrored the anguish in her heart.

“I cannot take you upstairs,” he said, “the whole town would know in an hour. They’re already describing and making up stories about a lady and a saddle tramp.”

“What can we do?” she murmured, her voice beginning to tremble with anxiety.

“Go upstairs, close one side of your curtains and put a lamp on so I will know which is your room. I’ll throw a stone up and when you hear it, put the lamp in that room out,” Jess went on, giving her instructions “I’m a good climber, well, I think I am?” he said with a small laugh.

“What about your shoulder?” she said, “you might fall, and it’s not strong enough yet.”

“Well if I do, I hope I break my neck, it will put me out of my misery,” Jess tried to joke.

“Oh! God! Jeff,” she gave a little cry,” I’ll never forgive myself if anything were to happen to you.”

“Don’t worry darling,” Jess reassured her and gave her hand a gentle squeeze, “I can always do it, if I really have to, and this is one of those times I really have to.”

With that, he helped her up, removing the chair from behind her. She replaced and rebuttoned her gloves, and took his proffered arm, as he escorted her out of the dining room, across the lounge and reception area to the bottom of the grand staircase. She finally turned towards him, her eyes glittering with unshed tears, her lips soft, pink and moist in the candlelight and said in a breathless tiny voice, “Goodbye and thank you.” She offered her hand and for the last time he bent over, raised her gloved hand and kissed it with trembling lips.

He watched as she slowly mounted the wide staircase and when she reached the top, she turned, gave a very slight bow of her head, as she waved and was gone.

The hotelier had watched them throughout their little bit of play acting, which was for his benefit, and he could not work out, what a woman, who looked like a duchess, would want with a down-at-heel, at best a drover, and at worst, a saddle tramp. But, then again, he wore a good-looking rig tied down low. Maybe they were plotting something, and he allowed his imagination to run riot. Jess turned, nodded to him, put on his Stetson and headed for the door.

“Goodnight, sir! We’ll take good care of her,” he said.

“No need! Jess replied, “she’s in the capable hands of the army now!”

Jess left and made his way up the street to the stables to check on his horse. He would be going to need him later on.

“Thank God,” he thought. The moon was full, the trails were well marked a worn.  Getting back to the wagon train was not going to be a problem.

Her suite of rooms covered the corner of the hotel at the back. A favorite place, as those rooms were quiet and well away from the noise of the busy street, especially at night when the saloon bars were emptying and men made their noisy way home, sometimes with a few well aimed punches and occasionally with gunfire. Jess was in luck, as in between two of her windows there was a “Y” shaped downspout from the bathroom. He searched around and found a couple of smallish stones, which he threw up against the window. She had been waiting, as she heard the tinkle of the stones and quickly doused the light. It was the bedroom. She had hurriedly changed and now her dress, underskirts, bodice and shoes were strewn about the room. Her priceless jewelry lay with her gloves amongst the usual female clutter on her dressing table. She wore an off-the-shoulder nightdress, which was completely unfitted and made of the palest, primrose-yellow silk. It was shot here and there with gold thread and it flowed mistily about her body, at once defining her curved hips, smooth rounded belly and breasts. She had let her hair down. It shone in the soft candlelight, and it framed her delicate features and cascaded down her back almost to her waist. It was the wonderful color of maple syrup with a hint of the sun shining through it, and so she stood, trembling in the shadowy room waiting for him.

At last, he climbed in through the open window, which after closing the heavy brocade curtains, he closed. She quickly turned up the lamp and when he saw her, his heart rose into his mouth and stopped. He felt as if he was choking as he could not breathe. He just moved silently towards her. She lifted her arms and, with palms open, she wrapped them around his neck, as he took her protectively into his arms. She then put her hands behind his head and pulled him down on to her waiting, moist lips.

Their lips met, feverishly explored, and drank in the honeyed wine of their longing. She moaned as she felt him pull her head back and he kissed her throat. His tongue and lips smothered and nibbled her skin as he moved down her neck that pulsated as she panted and whispered her longings, pleadings and desires. He picked her up as if she were of no more substance than gossamer and, with his head now buried between her breasts, he carried her over and laid her gently down upon the bed.

“Oh Jeff.” she whispered, “My love!”

“Please don’t say that,” he murmured softly, “I’m breaking up, saying that is killing me.”

“My love! My love! My love! My beautiful love!” was all she breathed, “how can you leave me?”

“Please don’t,” was all he said, “I’m lying in the arms of a good man’s wife, a man who saved my life. No matter how much you say you love me, and I know I would die for you, it is wrong!” he said gravely and sadly. “I must leave you and soon.”

It was at that point the evening stillness was shattered by two shots, which rang out and echoed around the street, to be followed by the sounds of running feet, which quickly faded into the distance.

“What was that Jeff?” she said in alarm.

“Sounded like a .44, could be anything, just a bit early for gunfire. Don’t worry about it; you will get to know all about it in the morning,” was all he commented, as they lay there wrapped in each other’s arms.

They clung to each other, their lips exploring and caressing each other’s bodies for the last time, as they exhausted themselves with their passion, which was made all the more excruciatingly painful by the way that Jess never allowed it to reach its logical and ecstatic climax. He always groaned and moved or turned away, for all her entreaties and sorrowful pleadings, he stayed strong and kept what little self-respect he still had left. For all the love he had for her, and would always have, its perfection was tainted by the fact that he had found this precious gift in the arms of another man’s wife.

Finally, he kissed her once again and told her he must go. She choked back her tears and clung to him as she tried to savor their last few moments together. She whispered in his ear, pleaded with him as she tried to break down his resolve, and held on tightly to him, as he disentangled her arms from around his neck.

“Be strong for us both. When I go outta that window, I will be outta your life. That is how it has to be, you know that. It is what I want. Go live your life, have children and if you have a boy call him ‘Jess’. Just let me go, please, this is hurting so bad because we loved so much.”

“I know my love, but why do you want me to call my son, “Jess”?” she murmured softly, in a hushed, broken voice.

“I think that, maybe, that’s my name. I’ve thought on it for a time now and it sits with me better than Jeff does. I feel more like a Jess than the other,” was all he said as he moved towards the window.

“Well, my love, I must go before the moon’s up,” he whispered. It was almost full at that moment in time. Soon the dark world would become a silver wonderland and there would be little shadow for him to get lost in.

“Goodbye, my love, goodbye Jeff,” she would always know him as that and she tried to hold him as he moved away.

“You’ve got to let me go, darling,” he softly said.

“Goodbye Jeff,” she answered. She could say no more as her tears were choking her. They now ran silently down her cheeks as she watched him open the curtains, lift the sash, and like a dark shadow, he turned once more towards her. He gave her one of his boyish smiles, which tore her heart out. Then he was gone into the darker darkness, and the curtains fell gently back into place.

*****

He rode into the wagon train camp as the moon hung like a giant lantern in the sky. Its silvery light cast soft shadows and turned even the ugly into a thing of beauty. It softened the landscape and turned it into a dream world for lovers, as its shimmering light touched everything to make it a magical and mysterious place, well suited to secret trysts, stolen kisses, leaf-hidden bowers and unrequited love. Jess was in a daze. His misery was almost physical and he felt it, as it hung around his neck like a rotten carcass, filling him with a sickness and longing, which he felt he would never be rid of. He was at a loss as to what he should do, but decided to stick to his plan to return to Laramie, as he could think of nothing else. Maybe he would find out if his name was Jess and if he belonged to someone in that area.

The others greeted him with their usual coarse humor.

“Get her bedded down for the night?” called out Dave.

“Did she moan and groan when you left her?” Al Tranter questioned him. “Yer a hard-hearted villain and you just outta short pants.”

Jess gritted his teeth at their sneering laughter and tried to keep his mouth shut. He knew they were goading him into fighting, but he had no heart for it.

“Let them talk,” he thought, for that’s was all it was, talk, and that was cheap.

“Any coffee?” he asked.

“Sure son,” replied Al, “some just brewed. You want something in it to fend off the night air?”

“Naw! But, thanks kindly,” he responded to Al’s question, “I’m plain tuckered out. I’ll get this and hit the sack. I want to be up the trail early tomorrow. See yah all. Goodnight.”

Jess turned away and took his coffee with him. He still had the sorrel to make comfortable for the night, as their big journey started tomorrow and they both would need their rest.

In the morning, he said his “goodbyes” and they all promised to keep in touch, but they all knew that they never would. Jess was sad to be leaving, as they had been good friends. The type to ride any river with, or anything else for that matter. He owed them a lot, as he would have had a rough time and it was with their help that he had made it through. They had taken him into their close-knit group, making him feel very much a part of it and wanted. However, Jess needed to know if there was another close-knit group to which he was strongly bonded, who was missing him and waiting for his return. He would make it to Laramie in a few days as he would not be moving at a snail’s pace and then he would find out. He was eager to get there and kept up a smart pace.

He rode away down the trail, lost in thought, ignoring the early morning golden light, which heralded the first rays of the sun. It was heaving itself into the sky from behind the foothills, which lay to the east. The sun began to burn off the morning mist, which lay in the hollows, and everything took on the look of a brand new spanking day. He did not notice three riders who were coming towards him, their mounts cantering easily and relaxed. When they saw him, they began to slow up until they stopped and waited for him to reach them. Jess rode up, stopped, and waited for them to speak.

“Morning, young fella,” the oldest one said. He had a face that looked as if it had been tooled out of old saddle leather. He was well turned out and looked like a prosperous rancher, until Jess noticed part of a silver star that was pinned to his vest, which was partly hidden by his jacket. He was the Law, but Jess thought that he could not be in any trouble. He wasn’t wanted any place and this past few weeks he’d not been fit enough to take any bar apart, so he knew that they had not come for him. He could not have been more wrong.

“Are you Jeff No-name?” the Sheriff began by questioning him.

“Yeah, at the moment,” Jess replied.

“Well, you need to come with us. We’ve got some questions for you to answer back in Casper, and we’ve some eye witnesses who need to identify you,” the Sheriff continued. “Pass us your gun, real careful, son; you don’t want your head blown off because of a few questions I need to ask.”

Jess saw that one of the deputies already had his gun out and had it leveled at his chest. He had no option than to obey. He had no room to run and he was outnumbered and outgunned. He sighed and handed his iron over to the sheriff who took it. Then one of the deputies dragged the rein from Jess’ hand and they turned back towards Casper. He could do little, he had not been accused of anything, he had not been arrested, but already he felt with a cold, sinking heart that he was a prisoner. His horse was being led towards Casper and he was helpless, unarmed and was being led back to face whatever awaited him.

The Sheriff and his prisoner got back into Casper at about noon. Jess was shepherded into the jailhouse and ordered to sit in the chair by the desk.

“Go get the two witnesses, Bob,” ordered the Sheriff, “they’ll be over in the saloon. Willy, you make some coffee and then we’ll get down to business.” The Sheriff, in the meantime, got up and went rummaging in the cupboard, until he finally came back with an old battered cardboard box. He then sat down at his desk and began to go through it. Jess watched him and realized that he was going through old wanted posters.

“Thought I recognized you. You’re not Jeff No-name. You’re Jess Harper…a gunman, maybe a road agent, what have you? I don’t think that you are wanted anywhere’s at the moment. Last I heard you’d sided with the Law in that gun battle down in Abilene, killed three or maybes four men, depends who’s telling it.”

“Look sheriff, I got a bad concussion a while back and I’ve still not recovered all my memory. I only remembered I was called Jess a couple of days ago; everything else is real hazy. The wagon master, Keith Massey, and his scout found me beside the trail, aways back. I’d been robbed, left afoot with only my shirt and pants. They had even taken my boots and socks, and I have been travelling with the wagon train ever since,” Jess quickly explained and he went on to say he was on his way back to Laramie, because he had been found just north of there.

“That’s very interesting, son, and I know the Law in Laramie was looking for you a while back. I’ll go wire him, but first, we need to sort out your involvement with this killing,” Hank Watson, the Sheriff replied. Jess was shocked and quickly and angrily raised his voice.

“What killing? I’ve not killed anyone! I’ve not fired my iron in days, check it out.”

“Okay son, we’ll soon know. We’ve got two witnesses, who claim to have seen everything,” Watson responded, and he noted how quickly distressed Jess had become. “You take it easy. If you weren’t there and you’ve got an alibi, you’ll get a coffee and yer iron back and be out of here and down the trail afore you know it.”

At that point, the deputy walked in followed by two men. Jess was amazed when he recognized the mustanger, Rob Larkinson, and one of his sidekicks. They were no friends of his and Jess saw the mocking little smile that played around Rob’s baccy- stained mouth.

“Right boys. Just need to ask you one or two questions. Do you know this man?”

“Yes Sheriff,” they both chorused.

“How come?” asked the Sheriff.

“We both saw him shoot Brian Redhead in the back, killed him like a dog. It was last night at about nine thirty,” Larkinson stated and his sidewinder pard smiled and nodded his head in agreement.

“How d’ye know it was him. Pretty dark at about that time of night and moon wasn’t up?” the Sheriff remarked.

“His duds, the way he carries his hog-leg – not many honest men carry their gun tied down so low,” Larkinson said.

“Yeah, and I saw him drive into Casper in the afternoon. I knew him straight away, couldn’t miss him under the big oil lamp down in front of the Town Hall,” the little sidewinder said and looked at Jess and sneered.

“Very well, boys, come back tomorrow and I’ll get a written statement off you. You’ll need to stay around Casper for at least a couple of weeks, maybe three, for the trial, as the usual judge has a broken leg and we’ve to wait for the other one to come and take his place. That be okay with you?” Hank Watson enquired.

“Yeah Sheriff, we’d like to help out and see justice done,” Rob Larkinson said with a slight snigger.

Jess sat as if struck by lightning. He had just heard these two pathetic excuses for men, horse killers both, lie and swear his life away.

Jess did what he normally did when he felt that he had been backed into a corner, he came out fighting. He exploded into action and took the Sheriff and the others completely by surprise. Willy yelled as he dropped the coffee pot and scalded himself, and already one of the mustangers was out cold on the floor with a broken nose and fractured jaw following Jess’ hammer-like upper cuts. One and two had smashed into his face and had dropped him to the floor like a felled tree. At first, they had been unable to land a blow on Jess, as he whirled in amongst them pummeling at whoever got in his way. At last, two of them managed to grab him, but he fought on, lashing out with his feet and even tried to bite one of them who came in too close. The Sheriff finally finished it. He caught Jess on the side of his jaw, with the heel of his .44 and Jess crumpled over pole-axed, to lie unmoving on the dusty office floor.

“Gee, Sheriff, what a wild cat! He doesn’t look that big, but he sure can pack a powerful punch,” Bob the deputy said, as he gingerly felt his jaw.

“Yeah, I agree,” said Hank Watson, “he is dangerous. He’s gonna kill one of us or get killed trying. I’m going down to the Telegraph Office to wire Mort Corey, in Laramie. You, Bob and Willy get the cuffs on this wild cat and the leg irons. I want the leg irons padlocked to that bit of spare chain and then padlocked to the bars. I don’t want him able to get to the front of the cell by the door. That should keep us safe and him secure. Get on with it before he starts to come round!”

Watson then left the jail and went up the street to the Wireless Office, to pass the word along that Jess Harper had finally turned up and he had him in jail, accused of murder.

*****

The Sheriff was, at last, back from the Telegraph Office and was in the front of the jail with his deputies Bob, and Frank. Willy was still across at the doctor’s getting his burns attended to. All of the talk was of the accused youngster in the cell at the back.

“Any sign of life yet from the wild one?” Watson asked.

“Nope,” Bob replied, “last time I looked in he was still out for the count.”

“Well, keep an eye on him,” Watson went on, “get him a cup of coffee and see if he wants something to eat. Don’t take any chances, Bob; you’ve seen how he can go off.”

“Yeah, Sheriff! And I can still feel it,” the deputy answered, as he tentatively rubbed the side of his jaw where a bruise covered a lump, which gave his face a lopsided look.

It was the sound of their voices that Jess heard first, as he slowly swam out of the comforting darkness. He opened his eyes and quickly closed them again, as an excruciating pain shot up from his jaw and sent flashing stars and stabbing, painful, lance-like lights hammering behind his eyes. He weakly raised a hand to his throbbing jaw and found that his other hand was being dragged upwards as well. He was handcuffed. He let his hands fall and tried to pull them apart, but the chain was heavy and kept his wrists shackled together within six inches of each other. He awkwardly moved his arm and tried to lever himself on to his side in an effort to sit up. He was devastated to find that his ankles were fettered together in leg irons, which themselves were chained to the bars of the cell. He felt a cold wave of horror and sickness wash over him. How had this happened? What had he done to be chained up so securely and caged? Then he remembered. He had been accused of murder, of shooting someone in the back. That murdering, filthy mustanger, Larkinson, the horse killer, who had vowed to get even with him, was out to get him hung. Jess had been astonished as he had listened to the black-hearted, bastard lie Jess’ life away. He then recalled how he had gone crazy and he looked down at his knuckles and saw how grazed and swollen his hands were. He had certainly smashed a few heads and bodies before someone had knocked his lights out.

He sat on the edge of his bunk, his head held bowed down into his hands, supported by his elbows, which were, in turn, on his knees. He did not know what he could do. The Sheriff had him well and truly hog-tied and it would have taken a gang of Texas Rangers to get him free. Of course, he had an alibi. He had been in Audrey’s arms at the time of the murder and they had even commented on the shots that they had heard. But he could never say. He would never betray her or the man he had so shamefully wronged. The man who had saved his life.

He had been in the arms of James Bentley’s wife and for that, it seemed he would go to the gallows.

Jess had been brought up in a family who were dirt poor, but his father had had the old values of honesty and honor hammered into him as a young boy. He had seen to it that his sons would live by the same old-world code as he had done. Jess had crossed over the line into lawlessness. However, more for his survival than for greed, that had been during the famine-hurting aftermath of the Civil War. He had, however, never lost his strong code of honor. He would never knowingly shoot a man in the back. In a gunfight he would always let the other man go for his gun first and relied on his own speed and nerve to save his own life, and his honor.

He valued his reputation, so his shameful and devastating love for Audrey, whom he adored and worshipped, had wounded and cut into him deeply. He realized how much he despised himself for allowing himself to fall so helplessly in love with her. They had never fully expressed their total commitment to each other and he had managed to salvage that much self-respect. He now thought his demands that they should part and never contact each other again would be tested. He hoped that if she found out about his predicament and threatened fate, she would find a way to save him. He would have certainly moved heaven and earth to rescue her, if their roles had been reversed. However, he knew he would keep silent. He would go to the gallows, perhaps, not for her after all, but for himself. He would salvage what honor and self-respect he had left by being as good as his word and going to his death with his teeth clenched, their secret remaining just that, their secret.

His thoughts were suddenly disturbed by the outer door to the office opening and Sheriff Watson coming in. He nodded to Frank and coming through to the cell area he called to Jess, “Well young fella, you’re back with us?”

“Yes sir,” said Jess quietly, as he turned and looked at him.

“You are a might rough young’un,” he continued. “You went crazy; lit into five of us.”

“Sounds like me,” Jess replied, wondering where that thought had come from. “I had good cause. I know that the deck is stacked against me…but Sheriff, I’m innocent!”

“Never hung a man yet who said he was guilty,” Watson stated. “Have you an alibi and a witness? You may not have to die, son.”

“I can’t say, Sheriff; in fact, I won’t say,” Jess said strongly. “I’ll leave it to the jury. Who would they rather believe? That filthy mustanger or me?”

“Watson laughed at that, “You may look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, but you’re no angel, son. We’ve seen your picture over the years, scowling out of the wanted posters, frightening the kids and old ladies to death with your glowering, black looks. I don’t think you should rely too much on your past history. What else have you done?”

“I don’t know, Sheriff. I’ve told you my memory is mighty hazy, but it is slowly coming back. I do know I have been in prison, as this is all so familiar and I hate being in here like this. I’d rather be dead, but I do know I’m not wanted any place, I’m sure of that,” Jess tried to explain.

“I’ve wired the Sheriff. Corey, is that his name? Tommy, the telegrapher, will send the reply down the street as soon as he gets it, so that will be another piece of your jigsaw. You’ve nothing to add? Nothing more you want to say? Is that all, son, you sure?” Watson went on and his voice became more kindly as he realized his youthful prisoner, even though he could lash out and attack like a crazed beast, came across like an honest and genuine young man. One whom he tended to believe rather than that lump of horse-killer dirt. He sighed and then he continued, “Okay, son, I’m waiting.”

“No, Sheriff, I’m sorry, but I can’t say,” was all he got in reply.

“Right, son, well I’m sorry. You want anything?” Watson asked.

“Yeah, Sheriff. Do I need to be chained up like this? I’ll give you my word I’ll give you no more trouble,” Jess asked in a soft voice.

“For the time being, young man,” the Sheriff said sternly, “you nearly killed one of the mustangers and I cannot take a chance of you going loco again. You could kill one of us and, more than likely get yourself killed as well. You’ll do for the present. We’ll see how it goes, okay, son?”

“Yeah, Sheriff, suppose you’re only doing your job,” Jess replied.

“That’s right. Nothing I can get you?” Watson asked again.

“I could kill for a coffee, Sheriff. Don’t feel like eating much,” and Jess gave the Sheriff a lopsided grin, “Somebody tried to knock my teeth down my throat, don’t think I’ll be able to chew for a week!”

On hearing that, the Sheriff grinned back and asked, “How do you like it? Sugar? Cream?”

“Just black, strong enough to stand a spoon up in,” and Jess grinned again.

“You like it bitter!” the Sheriff remarked.

“It seems so,” was all he got in reply.

*****

The day was drawing in, when Hank Watson opened the outer door to his office and walked straight through to the cellblock in the back, where Jess was the only prisoner. By the gentle snores that greeted him, Jess was fast asleep.

“You awake, Harper?” he called knowing that the young man was dead to the world. With a clash of irons, his prisoner awkwardly rolled over, swung his legs down onto the floor, turned, and looked at Hank. His brilliant blue eyes watched the Sheriff in eager anticipation, as he wondered what the Sheriff had to say. Did he bring him good news? Or was it more of the same, doom and gloom about trial dates, judges with broken legs and when was he going to give him a name, and did he really want to hang before his time?

“Heard back from Laramie. The Sheriff, Mort Corey, and the man you used to work for, are on their way,” Hank reported to Jess. “Seems they’re all fired up about all this. They’ll be here in a few days, depending how many horses they’re going to kill. You’re lucky the judge has a broken leg and there are still no plans for a trial yet. We’ll have to wait and see. You ready for some supper yet? They’ve got roast ribs or chicken and dumplings down at the hotel. I’ve got some homemade apple pie and I might even rustle you up a lump of cheese,” the Sheriff continued, glad that another lawman was on his way to maybe untangle the mystery behind his young prisoner’s silence, and his seeming acceptance to losing his life, even though he had insisted he was innocent.

“Thanks, Sheriff, that sure is good news. That’s two more people who knew me,” Jess said and he stretched his arms above his head and grinned at the Sheriff. “I’ll have the chicken and dumplings, should go down easier than roast ribs. The pie and cheese sound really good. Any coffee for starters? Jess quizzed Hank, and then he spoke more seriously.

“You say the Sheriff from Laramie and my old boss are on their way? Damn and blast! I can’t remember their names or even what they look like. Maybe, when I see them, I’ll know them. Yeah, you’re right Sheriff, if I were any luckier, I don’t think I could stand it!” Jess tried to joke. “I get to be tortured for a few more weeks before they give me a fair trial and then hang me. Rather than quick, like. It would have been tomorrow, normally, wouldn’t it Sheriff?”

“Yeah son, I suppose. If the judge hadn’t turned his surrey over, this would have been your last meal, and by this time tomorrow you’d have been in Boot Hill,” the Sheriff agreed and sadly shook his head. He thought more and more that the youngster whom he had chained and locked up was innocent. He had, that very afternoon, taken a written statement down from Rob Larkinson and his sidewinder pard, and it had barely run to three lines. It was very simple, a case of one man’s word against two others. Another one, unfortunately, had a broken nose and fractured jaw given him by the youngster who so strongly claimed he was innocent. The lad admitted he had an alibi, but still refused to say anything in his own defense and seemed resigned to be going to the gallows. The whole situation left Hank feeling more and more uneasy. He was unhappy to be involved in the hanging of any man, especially as he thought and believed that the boy — he was not much more than that — was probably innocent.

“Here son, come close to the bars here, let’s have one of your wrists,” the Sheriff instructed Jess, who moved to the side of the cell and put his right wrist through the bars for the Sheriff. Hank took a bunch of keys out of his pocket and quickly unlocked the handcuff on Jess’ wrist. “It’ll be easier to eat your supper,” Hank stated, “now I trust you. Don’t you go letting me down.”

“No Sheriff, thanks, I won’t let you down,” Jess replied in a low husky voice. His impossible situation and the Sheriff’s” show of kindness threatened to unman him and he quickly turned away, hobbling back to sit on the side of his bunk and await his supper.

*****

His supper was brought and he was instructed to move to the back of the cell as the Sheriff unlocked the door and Bob, the deputy, put the tray down on the stool, which along with a covered bucket, a large water jug and a tin cup were the only content’s of the Spartan lock up. The cell door clanged shut, was relocked and Jess felt sick at heart as he went and sat on his bunk and began to eat his supper. The Sheriff may have trusted him enough to unlock one of his fetters, but he did not trust him with a knife and fork, as Jess had to make do with a spoon to eat his supper with.

He ate with relish, as he had not realized how hungry he was until he started to spoon the chicken and dumplings down. They were excellent, the gravy was thick, full of flavor and the mashed potatoes contained green onion tails and butter. The apple pie was a delight, the pastry was short and the apples just slightly undercooked and sweetened by honey. The home-made cheese contrasted strongly with the sweet apples as its sharp, sour taste made for a flavor-filled, delightful pudding.

He enjoyed his meal and realized that Hank Watson was probably on his side and was showing his support by making his supper a meal fit for, maybe not a king or even a prince, but certainly a welcome guest. He wondered how long it would last, as he turned the clean plates onto their sides and, along with the tray, pushed them through the bars at the side of his cell. Then he lay down and waited for his promised coffee. He did not have long to wait as the Sheriff finally came through with a tin cup and coffee pot.

“This just might squeeze through,” he said and the Sheriff proceeded to pass the cup and pot through the bars of the cell.

“Thanks, Sheriff, that was great,” said Jess and he smiled. “Your wife makes a mouth-watering pie. Did she make the cheese as well?”

“Nope, that was Willy”s wife. He is the one you scalded and he’s gonna be laid up for a few more days. That leaves me shorthanded,” Hank complained. “But you’re right, she makes excellent cheese. I can’t get enough of it. She has a Jersey called, Mabel, her pride and joy. I don’t know why she does not go into business; she’d make a small fortune,” the Sheriff continued. “I’m going home now and I’ll leave you to the mercy of Frank. He’ll not bother you. I’ll be back in two hours or so to take the first watch. You’ll be okay until then. Anything else you want, son?”

Jess got up and went to the bars where the Sheriff was standing. He put his wrist through the bars for the Sheriff to chain his wrist up again.

“Thanks, son, hold still I don’t want to nick you,” he said, seeing Jess grimace as he took the cuff and relocked it around Jess’ slim wrist. “Feel okay?” he continued.

“No, Sheriff, it feels awful,” Jess grinned, “but it was great while it lasted, thanks Sheriff.”

“I know, boy; just give it time. We’ll see how it goes. My deputies haven’t got to know you yet and they’re still carrying the scars of your last meeting. They think that you’re a mad dog and they’d gun you down without a second’s thought. So think of these chains, damned uncomfortable to wear I know, as protecting your life,” Hank took time to explain. “I’ll see you later.”

“Hope not, Sheriff,” again Jess replied with a grin, “I hope to be asleep when you get back, so please try and come in quiet-like and not wake me with coffee.”

“Yer a young devil and no mistake,” and the Sheriff turned away with a laugh.

“I’ve been called worse,” Jess replied.

“Yeah, I just bet you have,” and with that the Sheriff exited the door and left Jess alone, in the dark, to sleep.

*****

Three uneventful days went by and except for the coming trial with its probable outcome, they were not too unpleasant. Jess was forced to rest and all his injuries now rarely bothered him. He still had a slight limp and one or two bruises, but otherwise he was fighting fit. He longed to go outside, to get a breath of air that was not fouled by the smell of dirty bodies and the old stale smell of vomit, piss and carbolic, the universal smell of prisons and jails the world over.

The Sheriff and the deputies found that Jess was good company and fond of a laugh. They still walked soft around him, and kept him chained, except when he was eating, as they had seen how devastatingly dangerous he could be when riled, and they were not about to take any chances. They all had their own opinions as to Jess’ guilt, but they all agreed he was tough in mind as well as in body. He seemed to dismiss his coming trial and likely execution as a day out at a fair. They couldn’t fathom it out, as he seemed to take the matter so lightly. They had seen men brought to their knees in similar circumstances in the past. Perhaps he was going to give the Sheriff his alibi, and all this was some kind of delaying tactic to allow whoever he was with, to either get away or allow them time to come forward of their own accord, and speak up for him.

The afternoon of the fourth day was steaming hot and the inside of the jail was like a furnace. Jess was lying dozing on his bunk after enjoying, yet another, excellent meal supplied by the local hotel kitchen. He vaguely heard voices coming from the outer office. He heard the adjoining door open then close again and the voices getting louder. One in particular seemed angry. He tried to ignore the sounds as he felt so tired after the large meal, and the close, hot atmosphere made him feel almost like a fish out of water, as he tried to gulp some cool, fresh air. He longed to be out on the high plateau breathing the frosty, fresh air. Then he remembered lying up beside some water, his shoulders resting against a log and his hat tipped over his eyes when he met a man who must have been a friend, as his returning memory made him smile. He was rudely awoken from his day dreaming by a voice instantly recognizable.

“Jess! Jess! Is that really you?” the voice said, at once eager and then suddenly anxious. It was Slim Sherman, and like sheet lightening, Jess’ wounded memory finally clicked in, and everything that he had lost came roaring back. He knew him and he knew Jonesy. The “Slim Jones” he thought he remembered, had been two people, his two friends. Now his best friend was standing outside his cell peering anxiously in, as Jess, with a clash of chains, moved to get up.

“Slim, you came at last!” was all Jess could say, as his throat tightened and he moved to the barred wall at the side of his caged cell. Slim came quickly around also and thrust his hand through the bars, as Jess grasped it like a drowning man. They shook hands and Slim’s hold was so strong it made Jess grit his teeth, his hand still bruised from his attack on the mustangers.

“Jess, I’m so sorry, I never gave you a chance to explain. You should be back with us all at the ranch,” Slim started to pour out his misery and guilt when he saw the desperate situation Jess was in. “I’ll never forgive myself for having a go at you. Mort has told me the whole story and I’ll never be able to apologize enough. You will come back home with us?” Slim rushed on anxiously.

“Maybe, in a pine box!” Jess tried to joke.

“Don’t, Jess! Don’t even think it! Mort will get it all sorted out,” Slim went on. “What happened? How did you get in this mess? Slim asked.

“Forget it, Slim. Por Nada, just let it go. I have,” replied Jess.

“Hang on; I need a word with the Sheriff. He must be a madman to keep you chained up like this,” Slim bumbled on.

“No, Slim, wait, it doesn’t matter, leave the Sheriff be,” said Jess and as Slim turned away Mort Corey entered the cellblock.

“Well, young man,” said Mort kindly, “got yourself in a real mess this time, no questions about that.”

“Hello, Sheriff,” Jess replied with a grave smile, “you know me, like to keep you lawmen busy.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Mort answered, as Hank took his keys out and began to unlock Jess’ cell. Slim and Mort went in and Mort shook Jess’ hand, as Hank locked them all in. Mort sat down on the uncomfortable stool, whilst Slim sat down alongside Jess on his bunk.

“Why’s he keeping you shackled?” Mort asked and indicated with his head towards the front office.

“He’s said it is for my own protection. I went crazy and took on all five of them. One of them has a busted nose and a broken jaw, the others, like me, are all black and blue. They’re not taking any chances on me going off my head again,” Jess said with a mischievous grin.

“Can’t say I blame them,” Mort said deadly serious, as he’d had had his moments with an enraged Jess in the past.

“It’s okay; I’m locked up and can’t go anywhere, so being shackled makes little difference to me. I get stiff and cramp, but leave it, I’ve already told Slim not to bother the Sheriff,” Jess stated to a surprised Mort, who knew how Jess hated being restrained in any way.

“What happened, Jess?” Slim eventually got around to asking Jess, who simply told them how he was left afoot, near naked, with a serious head injury, beside the trail just north of Laramie. He told them about the wagon train, his meetings with the mustangers and the fight with the Indians. He made no mention of Audrey and only briefly described being shot through the thigh by an arrow. He left out all the sickness and despair of losing his memory and his life.

Slim and Mort listened in silence and found it hard to believe the tough time Jess had had since he’d ridden away from the Sherman ranch, but then Jess always seemed to attract trouble. It swarmed to him like bees to honey and the evidence was written in scars all over his body.

Mort questioned Jess about the night of the shooting and Jess said he was nowhere near when it had happened. Both of them were amazed when he refused to tell them where he was and with whom.

“Damn it to Hell!” Mort exclaimed angrily, “You’ve gotta help yourself! The case against you is mighty strong. Don’t tell me you really want to hang; you’ve not started to live yet, boy!”

“If it comes to that, I will,” Jess murmured.

“Jess, you can’t be serious, we’re talking about your life here. You can’t just let it go like that,” Slim said. His voice was full of despair, as he had heard his friend’s willingness to give up his life rather than reveal the circumstances of his alibi.

“Forget it, Slim. Por nada, let it go. I have,” replied Jess, ruefully. “Just never ask me. I can’t say and I won’t say, so just leave it be. I always knew it would end up like this, if not by a rope then by a bullet or by falling off some crazed horse. I don’t expect and I never expected to live to be an old man,” Jess explained quietly, and as he lowered his head he felt Slim’s arm go around his shoulder giving him a comforting squeeze.

“Stop that, Slim; I’ve got to stay strong and you being nice to me doesn’t help,” Jess rebuked him and then he went on, “I’ve always been lucky, got away with a lot of things that got other men killed. I know I have lost lumps of my hide and spilt plenty of blood, not all my own, but I have always made it through. I just never thought that I’d go to the gallows innocent. Well, not in the eyes of the law, anyway,” Jess struggled to explain.

“What d’ya mean, ‘in the eyes of the law, anyway’? What have you done to make yourself feel so guilty you’re prepared to die? That is so selfish. Do you not think of me, Andy and Jonesy and all your other friends? We don’t want to be left with the memory of you dying, swinging at the end of a rope, because of your conscience. There must be another way. Come on Jess please; talk to the Sheriff. Let’s get this cleared up and we can get on our way home,” Slim pleaded, as he tried to reason with his friend. Slim had found that he had broken into a cold sweat and his guts were in knots. He found that he felt slightly sick and had the horrible feeling of someone running a cold hand down his spine. He gave a small, involuntary shiver and hoped that Jess wouldn’t notice.

“Slim,” Jess said sternly, “I told you I can’t and won’t say. These last few days are going to be bad enough without you raking me all the time. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about the good times we’ve had. I want you to help me stay strong. I need to get down that street to the gallows with my head up, not kicking – my step firm and no-one needing to hold me or drag me. I need you to stay strong for me, let me go and do it my way. I would like you to do me a favor? I do not want you to hang around. I want you to get back up the trail to Laramie. I don’t want your last memory of me to be seeing me kicking my life out at the end of a rope. Will you, Slim? Will you help me do it my way?” Jess went on, his thoughts sounding confused as the floodgates opened and he revealed his dread at what lay ahead.

Mort listened and shook his head sadly. He had never realized that Jess had such integrity. He respected him and had a lot of time for him. Now he knew that Slim had been right, when he had seen something special about the young gunman, who had ridden into their lives and had given up drifting, along with his gun, which had been for hire.

Slim listened in revulsion and horror to Jess’ request and fiercely rebuked him by saying, “I can’t promise you that, you don’t know what you will want when the time comes. We can deal with that later, but don’t ask me to ride away and leave you?” OKAY?”

“I’ve told you Slim, please just let me go,” Jess quietly repeated himself.

“You’re a stubborn devil,” growled Slim, “what can we do Mort?”

“It seems that the townsfolk are too feared of the mustangers to get involved,” Mort explained, “so that leaves the only probable witnesses being the mustangers themselves and the army escort that was in town that evening. I’ll ride out and I’m taking one of Hank’s deputies with me; it will make it more official. I’ll go find them and question them. I’m leaving at first light. I hope to be back before the trial, as it is not far to the fort and I hope it will be all sorted out by then.”

“You going as well, Slim?” asked Jess, fearing the answer, but too proud to ask his pard to stay.

“No, Jess, I’ll not leave you.”

“What can you do if you stay?” a relieved Jess asked.

“Well, teach you to play better poker; you’re useless at that!” and the two friends grinned at each other.

*****

Next morning, Mort was as good as his word and with Bob the deputy, set off for the fort to interview the members of the army escort that had been in town on the night of the shooting. Slim and Jess spent their time together talking over the good times. Finally, Jess gave Slim all the details of the time he had been with the wagon train. He told him how he’d earned his top quality rig and how he had saved the palomino. Slim marveled at his story of the fight with the redskins and agreed with him about being lucky that he did not get twelve inches of steel buried in his chest. He listened, horrified, as Jess described the way they got the arrow out of his thigh. He also agreed that Jess had made an enemy of Larkinson and he was most probably responsible for Redhead’s murder.

“Phew, Jess, that’s some tale! I am amazed that you look so fit, a mite thinner, but now I know how you lost all this weight. You okay, pard? Sure, you’re alright, you are a lot leaner?”

“Almost 100%,” Jess replied and he ran his manacled hands through his hair. “Got to favor my leg a bit; it’s still weak and I limp, but everything else seems okay. My memory is improving all the time and I can’t believe that I could forget a big lump like you!”

“Neither can I,” was all Slim said. “You ready for a coffee?”

“Sure,” said Jess.

Slim moved to the front of the cell and called for the Sheriff. He came and released Slim, relocked the cell and then followed him into the outer office.

“Any chance of some coffee, Hank?” Slim asked the big lawman, who was proving to be so supportive and was very pleased to have Mort along to help.

“Sure Slim,” Hank said, “Jess likes his coffee really strong.”

“He certainly does,” Slim replied. “Don’t know how he drinks the stuff; he can never get enough of it.”

“How is he?” the Sheriff asked.

“I don’t really know,” Slim murmured. “I don’t think he’s really thought it through. He is blamed determined to protect whoever could give him an alibi. He’s prepared to die to shield whoever it is. One thing’s for sure, I don’t really think he’s thought seriously enough of what it means to die. I’m sick with worry; I don’t know how I keep what little food I eat down. He wants me to take off for Laramie and not wait around to see him hang. I’m gut sick at the thought of watching him die and if I’m honest, I don’t want to. But I won’t leave him. He’d never run out on me, I now know that for a fact. He’d never leave me to face what he may have to face alone.”

“He’s a gutsy youngster and no mistake,” Hank remarked and he shook his head, “seems really honest and genuine.”

“I’ve not known him that long and he’s not been that easy to live with at times,” said Slim, “but he has watched my back, fought side by side with me, and he’s had a slug cut outta him because of me. This all started ‘cos I kicked him off the ranch,” and Slim went on and told Hank all he knew.

“When you captured him he was high-tailing it back to Laramie and now you know all that I know. I’ve asked him repeatedly about his alibi, but he is a stubborn hombre, he’ll not say, so there you have it, Hank.”

“Here’s your coffee,” said Hank, “what a story and what a way it might all end, here, son,” and he took his keys out of his pocket, “these are the keys to the cuffs and leg irons. I don’t think we’re gonna need them, do you? Get them off him; it might make him feel better.”

“Sure will and thanks Sheriff,” said Slim, as he pocketed the keys, picked up the coffees and followed the Sheriff through to the cellblock. Slim went into the cell again and put the coffees down on the stool.

“Here, give us your wrists. The Sheriff trusts you to give him no more trouble,” Slim said briskly, and with that, Jess bowed his head and held out his wrists. Slim quickly set about releasing him, but not before he noticed how the old gall marks looked swollen and inflamed and were covered with new grazes, some of which showed signs of having been bleeding. He made no comment, as Jess had not drawn attention to his injuries and would not thank Slim for doing so. He then quickly bent down and unlocked the fetters, which held Jess’ ankles close together.

Jess didn’t say anything; he just reached out and picked up the two coffees and handed one to Slim.

“Gee, it sure feels good to be free of them chains. He’s on my side isn’t he?” Jess stated in a low voice.

“Yeah, seems that way,” Slim replied.

“What did you tell him?” Jess wanted to know.

“I told him, I keep you chained up and only let you lose for the Sabbath ride to church,” laughed Slim, as he downed his coffee.

At that, Jess made a dive for Slim and the two friends ended up on the floor, laughing and covered with coffee.

“You ask him for some more, will yah?” demanded Jess.

“No, I drank mine. It was you who threw yours around. You ask him, if you dare,” grinned Slim.

“I dare!” Jess replied and he raised his voice and called out, “Sheriff…we need some more coffee…please?”

*****

Mort Corey, the Sheriff from Laramie, set off for the Army outpost a good six-hour ride to the northeast of Casper. He was welcomed and offered accommodation for himself and the deputy. However, the news was not good as Con Moriaty and his small detachment had ridden out the day before on one of their usual patrols.

“They’ll be gone normally ten days, or so,” the Captain advised them. “They never follow the same route for obvious reasons. You know how difficult it is to move across the plains without being seen. It would be easier to hide on a billiard table.

I am sorry I can be of no further help. You really have your work cut out. Is there anything else I can do? Is there anything else you want?”

“No. Thank you kindly, Captain. That’s a pity, as the young man in jail back in Casper hasn’t got ten days. Without some new evidence, I reckon he’ll be found guilty and will hang. I’d put money on it that he is innocent and it’ll be a damned shame,” Mort Corey explained to the Captain.

“Well, we do have two more patrols leaving in the next day or two, I’ll instruct them and give them orders for Moriaty to report to the Sheriff in Casper, with all haste. That is all I can do, other than show you the map of the area and some of the trails he may be following.”

“Thank you sir, that would be a great help. At least we’d not be riding blind if we have a rough idea of the area. It is all new to me. I’ve never been in this neck of the woods before. Do you know it, Bob?” Corey went on.

“No, Sheriff. Not been out here much as there is nothing here except for the Army and the Sioux, and they are normally following the game and drifting north towards Montana and the Canadian border. It’s well off the beaten track,” the deputy replied.

“Thanks again, Captain, we’ll see you before you go. We’ll get ourselves sorted out. We need to tend to the horses and we need to get an early night, as we have a lot of ground to cover in the next few days.”

“Sorry, Sheriff that I could not have been of more help,” the Captain repeated himself, “I hope you find Moriaty and everything turns out alright. This rough, fast justice kills a lot of innocent men. Goodnight, to you both and good luck,” and the soldier left them in the capable hands of the sergeant who would take care of their needs.

*****

Back in the jailhouse, after the euphoria of finding Jess again had run its course, Slim was finding it very difficult, as Jess refused to discuss the coming trial and seemed hell-bent on dying. He said his life was over, as his options were all without a future, just one of drifting and hiring out his gun again. He had been heading for an early grave, anyway, and he was tired of trying to fit in. His reputation had him prejudged and no matter how hard he tried, he was rarely given the benefit of the doubt. People shunned him and quickly condemned him. He had led a solitary life, or had, until the last few months, when he had fetched up on the Sherman Ranch. That, had not been so successful either, he’d said, as he remonstrated with Slim for keeping too tight a leash on him, and giving him no slack. Jess needed room to breathe and Slim’s constant nagging and watchful eye made Jess feel as if he were caught in a trap, cornered like a wild beast with nowhere to run. He wasn’t used to having to continually ask permission, explain where he was going, and why. He felt that Slim, no matter how hard he tried, and no matter how much he backed him up, never really approved of him or trusted him. It was as if he was always waiting for Jess to kick over the traces, or some nightmare to turn up from Jess’ past. It had made for friction and Jess felt that they had been heading for an almighty bust up anyway. This latest trouble seemed to be the final chapter as far as he was concerned and it was perhaps as good an ending as any.

Slim had been enraged as he listened to Jess open up to him, and had asked Jess if he had ever thought how the responsibility of trying to bring up a younger brother, run a relay station, as well as hold a ranch together, could wear a man down? Slim explained that he did not need Jess to constantly require his attention, like a wayward younger brother. He needed Jess to help and support him, not waste time and effort in trying to antagonize him and make trouble for him.

Jess, hesitantly agreed with him and said on the face of it, it was right that Slim had chased him off the ranch. He realized how it had looked when he had returned that day, late and drunk, but he had warned Slim that when he had first taken him in, he came with pockets full of trouble and it would be no easy ride. Then Slim played his trump card, and told him the ranch would not be the same without Jess and his troubles. He missed him, wanted him, and needed him, and anyway, he was used to the aggravation he caused now! Jonesy had said the place was too quiet and it was getting him down and Andy had turned into a silent, sad, little boy who never had any stomach for fun anymore. Slim asked him to give the Sheriff his alibi and then they could all go home.

Jess was upset at all that Slim had said and he told him that he cherished the idea of home, but he had made a mistake, one, which was unforgivable in most folks” eyes, and his silence would atone for it. He said it was a matter of self-respect and honor and he fully intended to keep his teeth shut and not say a thing.

Slim had then asked him if it was worth dying for, kicking his life out at the end of a rope in a strange town, may be being watched and mocked by strangers. Jess had turned very quiet at that, had lowered his head and said, “Yes, he thought so.” No matter how much Slim pleaded with him and cajoled him, the answer was always the same. Slim was beginning to accept that there was no way of escape and he was going to be forced to watch his friend die.

He had stayed to help Jess and keep him company, but now the roles were reversed. It was Jess who was supporting him, as Slim came to terms with his grief and anxiety, which was making him sick. Jess remained strong for the both of them, because he was resigned to his fate and had decided to die. He was prepared for it. He had looked death in the face before when he had taken an oath, almost as a boy, as with his friends, he had vowed to follow and die under the “Bonnie Blue Flag”. It was a feeling he was not unfamiliar with.

*****

Mort had been gone a week and there had been no news. Finally, a date for the trial was announced and Slim became restless. He was like a dog with fleas, he was never still. He paced about and was like a terrier after a rat, he could not leave Jess alone, he constantly went after him until Jess asked him to go and try to buy him some decent clothes for the up and coming, very public trial.

Slim went into the town and was amazed at the number of folk that seemed to fill the shops and boardwalk. He then realized that for the country folk, a trial, and maybe a hanging, was a welcome diversion from their humdrum lives of hard, back breaking toil, where every day was almost a fight for survival against weather, Indian raids, poor harvest, and disease amongst themselves, as well as their stock. The very thought of it filled him with disgust. That these church-going, simple, country folk could turn the death of a man into, what was a holiday, for them? He shuddered as a cold wave of dread ran its icy fingers down his spine and his stomach clenched into a tight frozen knot. In a daze, he managed to buy Jess a complete change of clothes, and remembered to get him two shirts, one blue and one white. He also bought him five changes of underwear, three new sets of long johns and three pairs of pants. In the end, Slim had such a pile of shopping that he asked them to deliver it to the jail. He did not know how much he had bought, as he could not get the thought out of his head, “Was a body buried in the clothes that it had died in?” All he could think of was what he could do to save Jess. He still could not accept that his friend was going to die, if Mort could not find some new evidence that would exonerate him. He wanted to ride out and find Mort and help him in his search, but he knew he could not; he needed to stay and support Jess, as the day of the trial loomed nearer.

Jess laughed when he saw all the new clothes that Slim had bought, and said he would have to take them back. Slim refused, but did agree to take the jacket back, as Jess said he liked the one the McKays had given him.

“It’s got bullet holes in it,” Slim pointed out.

“Yeah,” said Jess, “that’s why I like it. I’ve not been so well dressed since I was christened and I will look less like a ruffian. My old jacket is the real me!”

“Oh no, you won’t, not until you get a decent shave and some of that buffalo pelt thinned and cropped, even then you’ll still look like a wild desperado,” grinned Slim and he sadly shook his head as his pard, laughed and said,

“My ladies like my dark dangerous looks; if the angels don’t, well they can cut my hair. I’m keeping it,” and he laughed even more when he saw the stricken expression on his pard’s face.

The morning came, at last, when Jess was escorted, limping and handcuffed down the street to the building, which was supposed to be the Town Hall, where the trial was to be held. It was a warm, hazy morning. The sun had not yet burnt the mist off and the dew was still heavy in the air, so that every blade of grass and every, rich clod of earth filled the nostrils, awakening the senses to what was going to be a glorious day, as fine and shiny as those at the beginning of time.

Slim walked along with Jess and felt as if he were choking, as his heart was hammering and seemed to be squeezed in at his throat end. He glanced at his pard and was taken aback at the grim determination and the set jaw, which was always evidence of Jess’ stubborn, willful refusal to take a step back. He knew his friend did not step away from anything; his first reaction, whether it was foolish or reckless, was to step forward and usually, in Jess’ case, to go at a run.

Jess said little in his defense, except that he was nowhere near the shooting. He did not know the man who had been killed and said that he would never, knowingly, shoot a man in the back. He could not and would not say where he had been or with whom he had been with at the time of the killing. The prosecution presented the odious mustanger, who appeared on his own without the equally odious Larkinson. He still carried the scars of Jess’ sudden and brutal attack and the lawyer put the emphasis on Jess’ past history, which was a damning list of petty, and one or two more serious crimes. The worst was, however, that he had spent a year in jail. The mustanger’s past, except for the fact he killed horses for a living, was blameless.

The judge warned him, again, of the consequences, but Jess remained silent, he just shook his head. He did not flinch, nor lower his head, when the guilty verdict was announced, but he did turn and look at Rob Larkinson, who laughed, as the foreman read out the verdict. He remained calm and showed no emotion when the judge pronounced the death penalty. He was to be hanged by the neck until dead, in three days time. He said nothing, except he turned and gave Slim a grave smile, as the Sheriff handcuffed him and took his arm to lead him out of the courtroom, back up the street, towards the jail.

Slim stumbled along beside him and was aware of the calls from the crowd and the laughter from a group of mustangers who followed them all the way up the street to the jail. He felt as if he was living through a nightmare. The ground in front of him seemed to buck and weave and he felt dizzy, as a wave of cold sweat seemed to be pushing the bile from his gut into his mouth. Slim fought the sickness, as he stumbled along. If Jess was not going to throw up, he was damned sure he wasn’t going to, as he could hear his pard’s annoying mocking laughter in his ears already. He followed the Sheriff, Jess and the two deputies into the jail and he stood, slightly trembling, as the Sheriff unlocked the cell door and indicated with his head that Jess should enter. He went in and never said a word. The Sheriff then turned to Slim and asked him if he were going to stay. Slim nodded his head in misery as Hank held the cell door open for him too. Both men were then taken by surprise by Jess’ voice as strong as ever.

“Hey Sheriff, how about some coffee? And what have you got for dinner? I am starving. Will you get these cuffs off of me now, as I ain’t going anywhere yet?”

“Sure son, come close. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” Hank hastily explained and he quickly unshackled Jess’ wrists. “What do you fancy? Steak, ribs or maybe some sausage? I heard someone has killed a hog this week. What’s it to be, boy?” asked the Sheriff.

“I’ll take steak for a change, now that I can chew. Get me a big thick one, cut off its horns, wipe its butt and just show it the griddle. Don’t forget all the trimmings, and pie, cheese and coffee,” and Jess laughed when he saw the expression on the lawman’s face.

*****

Jess’ mood continued to be cheerful, as his memory flooded back and he told Slim of his early life on a dirt-poor sharecropper’s farm in the extremes of weather, down on the Texas Panhandle. One of the reasons that he was such a good marksman, was they were too poor to waste money on bullets and every shot Jess took had to count. He did not have enough ammunition to give him unlimited second chances. He had to collect the shell cases and take them home for his father’s inspection.

He had gone on the drift at fifteen, after most of his family had died in an arson attack and he was sick that he would never now be able to make the black-hearted bastards pay for their barbaric crime. Like most of his friends, he had joined the Confederate Army, when they should really still have been in school. The only thing he had learnt from that experience, except how to hate and kill, was the ability to eat almost anything and that was why he always relished a good meal. He could also sleep in a ditch full of mud, stained and mixed with blood and gore, alongside bodies so mutilated and stinking that there was little of them recognizable as men. The memories no longer gave him the horrors that had left him screaming and clawing for light in the night, and made him scrub his skin until it bled.

When the war was ended, like many young men of his peer group, he was unable to find work, as his only skill, was as a fast gun. He also had a hardness and ruthlessness about him, far beyond his years, that had no place in a country seeking and desperate for peace and reconciliation.

He told Slim that was when he joined up with some of the lawless men who taught him how to track, rob and draw a .45 faster than the eye could measure. He’d lived hard and had slugs cut out of him. The desert had soaked up a lot of his blood, as well as the blood of men whom he had killed in self-defense, as his growing reputation found him almost constantly challenged by young men, who seemed determined to die hard and young.

When he had trespassed on Slim’s land, he was running away from the bloodletting and his reputation, as he was sickened about what he had become. His year in prison had not made folks forget about him and even when he’d fought for the Law in Abilene, all that was remembered was how fast he was and how many men had died at his hand. No one mentioned how he backed up the Sheriff’s play and how he had had a bullet cut out of his thigh and shoulder.

Jess described his year in prison as the worst experience of his life. His nature meant that he fought lost causes and protected the weaker, older and younger men and he paid for it by some horrendous beatings from which he still carried the physical and mental scars.

Slim listened to him as he described his love of the big wide open, where the world was a never-ending, blue horizon, and the nights of indigo, black velvet where you could lie and almost touch the stars, as they hung so close to the earth. He loved the blazing sun, lying in the shade, listening to the critters that buried themselves deep in the sand, scurry around, as they found a man-thing lying in their midst. He even loved the days of howling, bitter winds and snowstorms, which left behind a virgin, clean white landscape of eye blasting light.

Slim realized that, most of all, Jess cherished his freedom. Keeping him in jail was like keeping an eagle in a cage. The loss of its freedom was a death sentence, dragged out long and cruel, as its spirit shriveled up and died, and Slim knew instinctively that was how Jess felt. He valued his freedom and independence, above all else, and would prefer to die as a goose blasted out of the sky, almost unknowing, than rot away his life in a prison cell. That was as near as he could get to explaining how death, although so final, was preferable to that. He said that all his life chances had dictated how he would die and it was what he had always expected.

Slim still argued that Jess had a choice. He could give them his alibi and walk away.

“NO!” Jess repeated.

That was not up for discussion. He would rather go to the gallows, knowing that he was innocent, with his self-respect and honor still intact, than live on as a subject of scorn and gossip. That was as far as he ever got in explaining how he got to be in the situation he was in. He said he was being railroaded by the foul mustanger, Larkinson, for no other reason than Jess had shown him to be a cruel-hearted, callous brute, whom Jess had made to look a fool and not much of a man, on more than one occasion. Jess had done well out of their encounters, as he had a palomino and a top quality rig off him. He laughed bitterly at that and said that he was now paying dearly for them and for laughing at Larkinson in the bar at the hotel. He told Slim that the evil bastard had vowed to get even with him and, except for the alibi, that was all Jess had to tell Slim about the killing. He was, however, 110% sure that it had been the gang of mustangers who were the probable killers, and so the discussion went round and around and never really arrived at a satisfactory conclusion. Jess was quietly resigned to be going to his death in two days” time and Slim’s heart was being torn apart.

Slim was in the outer office the day before Jess’ execution, when he was told by Hank how Jess was going to die. He had wondered at the three-day delay and had watched how the gallows were being built at the top end of the town before the largish building that they called the Town Hall. It seemed that a few years ago, the Mayor, and the judge had decreed that an execution should be a formal, public spectacle. To act as a deterrent, and as a somber civil occasion to be witnessed by all, it was to be carried out with as much formality and drawn-out ghoulish ceremony as possible. To this end, they employed a professional hangman, a European, who had the reputation of dispatching the felon quickly without tearing off his head. It was undesirable to risk that in front of the townswomen and children who, no doubt, would be there to watch the fearful, nightmarish death of another human being. The Town Council would all be witnesses to the proceedings from a purpose built, flag and bunting, draped dais in front of the Town Hall and gallows. The prisoner would be escorted down the street by the lawman and deputies, through lines of soldiers who were supplied by the local fort. When he reached the foot of the gallows he would be handed over to his executioner and there would be some leader of the local Church in attendance, who usually led the condemned man up the steps of the gallows to the words of the 27th Psalm. Once he was on the platform, the prisoner would be invited to address the crowd. It seemed that some men did at length, others remained silent and others had to be almost carried as they screamed, kicked and howled out their innocence.

The man who was soon to die would finally be positioned over the trap door, then his ankles, knees, and arms above the elbows, would be strapped tightly to his body, to keep him straight, and as still as possible, for the long drop. The last action would be that the condemned man would be gagged, a black hood placed over his head and tightened around his chin. The hangman would then fit the noose around the prisoner’s bare neck, with the slipknot under his left ear, and would pull it just tight enough so that the noose would not slip over the prisoner’s head, as he fell into oblivion.

The hangman would then stand back and allow the clergy room in order to call everyone to prayer. He would then give the Blessing and a final Amen. The executioner would release the lever, the trap door would open, and the guilty man would pay for his crimes, as he plunged down. With a bit of luck, his neck would be broken and death would be instantaneous. If not, two of the hangman’s assistants would be waiting below with instructions to grab the dying man’s legs and add their weight, to get the job done as swiftly as possible. The town’s band would strike up some tune that they thought was appropriate, followed by some traditional hymn tunes. The crowd usually went home with tearful women and screaming children to console. Some went on to the local hotels, which were always full on these occasions and others stayed to see the undertaker and whoever claimed the body, collect it and take it up the street to the funeral parlor.

*****

Slim listened to what the Sheriff had been describing and felt his insides turn to ice. It was worse than barbaric in its ruthless cruelty and cold disregard for human life. He was at a loss for words and he choked as he spoke to Hank.

“Are they just not content to see him die? This is savage!”

“Yeah, I agree. Man is the cruelest of beasts. I am just glad that I am not involved in the actual hanging. Never had the stomach for it, especially when I think the youngster’s innocent. You gonna tell him or should I?” Hank, the Sheriff, replied.

“I’ll tell him,” said Slim, “it just might make him come clean and tell us where he was.”

“Yeah, and more importantly, who he was with! Damned shame. I’ve taken to the young hooligan,” the Sheriff went on. “He’s got a lot of bottom. He’d be good to have at yer back and ride a river with.”

“I know Hank,” murmured Slim, “nothing will ever be quite the same when he’s gone. I still cannot believe that this is happening. I blame myself and I’ll never forgive myself, not until the day I die.”

“It’s gonna be hard,” the Sheriff replied and nodded his head in the direction of Jess’ cell. “He”d not want you to let all this spoil yer life. I bet he’d tell you to forget it, and get on and live yer life for him as well.”

“I know, Hank,” Slim mumbled, his voice choked with unshed tears. “I’m going out for a breath of air, whilst he is snoozing and I’ll tell him all the details of what lies ahead when I get back. Thanks, Hank; you’ll keep an eye on him for me, will you, please? I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes.”

Slim exited the jail house and within a few yards he was startled to run into the blacksmith, bank manager, Jack Rider, the doctor, the hotel manager and his wife and a couple of others whom Slim could not put a name to.

“Howdy Slim,” said the blacksmith and held out his hand in greeting. “This is terrible; we’ve come up from Laramie, you see. We’ve hired a couple of coaches as we wanted to come and give Jess some support. We want to let him know that he is not on his own and he’ll never be forgotten.”

“Yeah, thank you kindly.” Slim couldn’t say anymore except point them in the direction of the jail. He hoped that the Sheriff would know how to deal with them, as he felt at low ebb and was lost, any strength he had left he had to save for Jess.

He wandered down the street and saw how it was decked out, as if for a carnival, except that for the Union and State flags, the colors were absent, and everything was draped in black. The Council’s platform was a grand affair, as were the gallows, which were going to be center-stage for the whole, horrendous spectacle.

“I’m surprised they are not selling tickets,” thought Slim. “It is on the same lines as cock fighting and dog fights. People are savages, for all their church going, pious and narrow-minded ways. They are hypocrites who will always turn out for a bit of bloodletting, or to watch and call out their insults as they ghoulishly watch a man walk to his death.

With all these thoughts in his head, Slim turned and hurried back to the jail. The Laramie folk had been and gone. Jess, it seemed, had received them quietly, shaken their hands and wished them a safe return journey. The Sheriff said that he was quiet but seemed okay.

“I’ve just brewed some coffee; take it through and ask him what he’d like for his supper,” Hank said, as he handed Slim the coffee pot and two tin mugs. Slim went through and was locked in again with his friend. He was dismayed to find himself beginning to shiver, ever so slightly, and prayed that Jess would not notice.

“Got some fresh coffee,” Slim said and put the pot and mugs down on the stool. “Sheriff wants to know what you want for supper.”

“You choose,” said Jess. “I don’t care, don’t feel like eating, and am not hungry. This coffee sure tastes good. You saw the Laramie folk? Can’t believe that they turned up like that; it’s sure hard to figure at times.”

“Yeah they’re good people,” Slim replied, “they’ll not forget how you saved their bank.”

“Or their money,” Jess ruefully said, “I should have kept my nose out, it has cost me dear.”

“I know. Look, pard, I have to tell you about tomorrow,” Slim said, already dreading what he had to describe and so, with shaking knees and a faltering voice, he got on as best he could. However, before he had finished, Jess had moved to the back wall of the cell and had turned his back on Slim. He then rested his arms against the walls and buried his face in them. Slim finally finished and waited for some reaction from his pard who eventually said,

“You’d think killing me would be enough,” Jess’ voice was soft and full of emotion. “I wish I’d made a break for it when I had a bit of a chance. It would have been better a bullet in the back than this side show.”

“Yeah, I know, pard,” was all that Slim could say.

“I’ve been thinking, Slim. I’ve got nothing to leave you, except, maybe, a bit of reward money coming from the bank affair. Yes, and I have Traveler and the sorrel down at the stables. You will take care of them? Do what you like with my guns. The rifle, which I got from Derek Frith, I would like him to get back. Hank here will sort that out, I reckon. You keep my watch; it was my pa’s. That’s about all; not much to show for my life,” Jess murmured and looked up at Slim. His face was calm, but sad, and his brilliant blue eyes were clear and guileless.

Slim listened and felt as if his blood was turning to ice water, as he felt the shivers start again. How could his friend stay so calm as his life was being counted down in hours? He was facing his coming death with a quiet resolve, which was without bravado, just stoic acceptance and, Slim thought, a need to do it right.

Slim knew that Jess would allow them to do whatever they felt they needed to do to him, without complaint, or any sign of resistance. He knew Jess never seemed to take the easy way out and this was another example of his friend’s willingness to meet whatever he had to head on, hair on fire and kicking hard. Jess always told him, he could always do whatever he had to and Slim knew that Jess had decided to die by the same hard code that he had always lived by. Being true to his own ideals of integrity and honor. Slim was filled with agony, as he knew that he had been partly responsible for Jess having to face dying, innocently, at the end of a rope.

The last night passed too quickly. All their serious talking had been done and the two friends resorted to their usual discussions about horse breeding, cattle rearing, the girls in town and the times past that they had shared. Jess had laughed and had poked fun at Slim, who felt he was slowly being suffocated with his unshed tears. They would keep for later, during the long years ahead whenever he thought about his friend, who, like a glittering comet, had briefly swung through their lives leaving a ghostly trail of golden memories.

Finally, early in the morning, at Jess’ request, the barber came and Jess got a good, close shave, but he refused to have his hair cut.

“You almost look respectable now,” remarked Slim.

“Those are Jonesy’s words and you’ve told me that already,” Jess grinned and continued by saying, “it will be a first if I do. My female friends would hardly recognize me. A clean-cut kind of youth, almost presentable enough now to take home to the folks for supper!”

“Wouldn’t go that far,” said Slim, trying his best to keep up the joshing, knowing that this was what his pard wanted.

At almost a quarter to high noon the Sheriff came through and told them that the town was full of people, many in from the outlying ranches. He told them that there was no sign of the mustangers. He thought that was strange, as he had fully expected to see them, jeering and calling out their insults and taunts, as Jess was led to his death. He went on to tell them that they had about five minutes remaining and then he left them to spend their last minutes of privacy as they came to terms with their final parting.

Jess stood up and went towards Slim, holding out his hand. Silently, he took it and they shook hands, as they had often done in the past. Slim then, impetuously, put his arms around Jess, as he would have done to younger brother, Andy. It was the first time Slim had ever shown Jess how much he valued him and cared about him.

“Slim, please don’t,” said Jess in a muffled voice. “I need to stay strong and I know and can feel how much you are hurting, but this is not helping. I need to be able to walk down that street, and if I break up now, I’ll never make it. Please, pard, help me. We’ve said all our goodbyes. Just help me stay strong. Everything this morning is aching. My leg is giving me Hell, so you may need to carry me after all!” Jess tried to joke as Slim stood and helplessly watched Jess turn away, and with his head down, he clutched the bars of his cell, his knuckles shining white, with the fierce grip he had on them.

“Please, please, Jess, tell them! Give them the name. It is not too late, Hank will listen!” Slim once again pleaded with Jess, his voice and face contorted with distress and grief.

“Stop it Slim, let me go,” Jess said sternly, “please, Slim, just let me go. Forget about all this, it’s nothing. Get on with your own life and leave me to end mine. Just let it go. I have.” Jess slumped down onto his bunk and began to massage his thigh, which had suddenly cramped up.

Almost immediately, the Sheriff came through for the last time. He was carrying some handcuffs and his face told it all. It was time to go.

Jess had decided to wear just his new dark pants and a white shirt, which he left open at the neck, something that Jess had experienced before, when he had been hung and had been cut down by Marko, as they liked to put the rope around bare flesh. Hank was startled, as Jess looked even younger than before, with his freshly shaven face, longish hair and simple white shirt.

“Come on, son, it’s time,” said Hank.

“Thanks Sheriff,” Jess said.

“I’m sorry, son,” the Sheriff replied, “I hate to do this.”

“I know,” Jess continued, “just do your job. None of this is your fault.”

“No hard feelings then, Jess?” Hank asked in a low voice.

“No, Hank,” Jess said quietly.

Jess then turned towards his pard for the last time and held out his hand, which Slim grasped and held in both of his.

Neither of the two friends spoke a word, until Jess said, “You still insist on coming up that street with me, pard?” his voice as low and as husky as ever.

“Sure do, you can’t stop me,” murmured Slim.

“Why would I want to?” was all he got in reply.

Jess then went over to where the Sheriff was standing and he turned around. His insides turned cold and he trembled slightly as he put his hands behind his back and felt the Sheriff shackle the cold, unyielding steel around his thin wrists. He looked up at his pard and with a sad smile said, “Okay Slim, let’s get this done.”

The Sheriff, his deputies, along with Slim and Jess went into the street, where a huge silent crowd watched and waited. The Sheriff and Slim, and the two deputies who brought up the rear, flanked Jess. The way to the gallows was lined by troops, who also formed a square around the gallows. Jess walked on strongly with a slight limp. He felt the sun on his face and breathed in the sharp, fresh air for the last time. He screwed his eyes up against the glare and then was startled when he saw an open carriage. It was being driven by an Army major, who had his lady sitting beside him. She was dressed in a dark green, silk, velvet, day dress. Her hat and shoulders were swathed in a long, dark veil, which was caught and held on her shoulder by a large star-shaped, diamond pin.

Jess recognized her immediately, the way she sat, the way she held her head. Her face was hidden but he knew it was she. His heart began to pound and race, as he began to pant softly with shock. He gave an involuntary tremor as he felt a cold hand, like that of a dead man, run down the middle of his spine. He saw her husband put his arm around her and she leaned against him nuzzling into his shoulder. As if awakening from a bad dream, Jess realized that he had been right in his misgivings all along. He loved her, she must have known that, but his love was different from hers. She had not understood that he had not wanted to destroy her life, that he had nothing to give her but his love. He knew that would never have been enough for her, so he had shown how much he had loved her by letting her go. She had viewed this as the cardinal sin. She thought he had rejected her and scorned her.

In her eyes, she had loved him and had lost him, so his survival and future was of no further interest to her. She had known all along about his capture, trial and, now coming execution, and she had come to witness the end of the story. She had come to watch him die. She would, no doubt, entertain her friends with the tale of a romantic cowboy who had gone to the gallows for her.

What did the Good Book say about a woman scorned? Well, he was now finding out. Jess thought about his father, how he would have laughed, in his cold northern way, as he told him he deserved all he was about to get. He felt a gullible, naive fool, but he still could not stop from lifting his head. He found he could not take his eyes off her. He could not believe that she could sit beside her husband to watch him being hung. His whole being was repulsed at the thought and he was totally unaware of the faces that swam in and out of his view. Neither did he hear the subdued murmuring of the mournfully, moody crowd. He staggered along, aware of the comforting squeeze on his arm from Slim, until he could go no further.

He had reached the bottom steps of the gallows.

As if from a great distance he heard the preacher intone the words, “The Lord is my shepherd….” and he put his foot on the step and made ready to follow the sad old man up to the platform and trap door.

He looked up and saw the executioner and his assistants waiting for him and he began to slowly climb up towards them.

“God!” he thought, “please, make it fast.” He felt his legs begin to tremble and he found the climb hard. He was forced to climb the steep steps one at a time, as his injured leg was not strong enough to support him. He made his way upward, but with his hands secured behind him he could not pull himself up. He was not as fit as he had thought he was. He’d hate to think that the townsfolk and people from Laramie would think he’d needed to be hauled up to the noose because of fear….

He had always tried to act with honor, strength and courage. His father had made him respect humility and he was devastated that these virtues would be forgotten if he were to die, after being carried, like a coward, to his death.

He would fight that. He wanted to die like the man he was, by his own hard code, so he clenched his jaw until it hurt and fought his way slowly upwards. Then, he felt an arm pull him backwards and he would have fallen had, it not been for Slim, who quickly caught him, as he struggled to regain his balance. He heard a lot of whispering and hustling and then out of the commotion, he felt a vice-like grip on his arm and the Sheriff said, “Come on, son back to the jail.”

With his senses reeling, he felt himself being pulled along by Slim and the Sheriff, back up the street. As they neared the jail, he saw that the hitching rail was crowded with sweating, foam-flecked horses, that all stood with their heads down and their flanks heaving, as they struggled for air. The horses had all been ridden almost into the ground.

The Sheriff and his party all went into the jail, blindly pulling Jess along with them. He staggered, feeling his legs begin to go hollow and lose their strength as they began to buckle under him. He stood swaying and dumbstruck as the cuffs were unlocked from his wrists. Before he could massage his chaffed skin, someone pushed him down into a chair and another thrust a coffee, fortified by Jonesy’s special brew into his hands. It tasted so good and he choked on the strength of the whisky, which made the brew so life giving, and which caused his eyes to water as he coughed.

“We got them, Jess.” It was Mort Corey, who had a bloodied bandage around his arm, and with a fierce grip on Jess’ knee crouched down in front of him. “I found Con Moriarty and his men. They had witnessed the whole killing. They had done nothing about it as they had heard that the guilty party had been arrested. Besides, you know the Army does not like to be mixed up in civilian troubles. They had seen it all, Jess. You were right. It had been Larkinson and one of his crew. We were coming back here, riding hell for leather, when we stumbled upon the mustangers. We had a bit of a ruckus, they put up a fight, but in the end we got them all and they sang their heads off, so Larkinson is as guilty as Hell. You, Jess son, are in the clear!” and Mort threw his head back and laughed, as he was still flushed with his own success.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get back sooner, but the mustangers held us up. You came pretty close, son. Hank has just told me how close and I’m sorry, boy.”

“Yeah, Mort,” said Slim, “you will never know how close we came. Never want to go through anything like that again. I will never forget. It is going to give me nightmares for years.”

Jess said nothing. He just kept his head down and drank his coffee-laced whisky. Slim looked at his pard and saw how his hand trembled. He quickly moved to his side and with his big hand, he gave Jess’ now bony shoulder a squeeze. He kept a grip on him as he could feel how his pard was shivering and he held him until he could feel his friend’s body begin to relax.

The office was full of people, all laughing and talking at once. The doctor arrived to tend to the wounded and he started with Mort first, which quieted the big lawman down a mite. The Laramie folk all came in and fought to shake Jess’ hand, until he finally stood up and said to Slim,

“I must get out of here. Am I really free? Can I go outside?”

“Sure, pard,” said Slim, “I’ll kill anyone who tries to stop you,” and he gave Jess a smile and a pat on the back. “Do you need me to come?”

“No, just want to be on my own and take a walk down the street to the stables to see the sorrel,” Jess said quietly. He began to move towards the door when Hank the Sheriff saw him and called out, “Stop, Jess.”

Jess froze. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and he was ready to crash out of the window, if he needed to. Jess was ready to run!

“Don’t be long, son, we’ll be getting dinner soon,” the Sheriff added.

Jess just turned, but could not speak, so he just raised a hand to him and saluted.

“Yeah, Jess,” Slim added, “don’t you go wandering off again; we’ll be heading home soon. You will be coming back with me?”

“Sure Slim,” and Jess gave him one of his big gap-toothed, boyish smiles, for the first time in what seemed ages. “I hadn’t thought of doing anything else. That was in your plans wasn’t it?” and he laughed again when he saw his pard’s expression at his macabre effort at a joke.

Jess exited the door as the last piece of memory fell into place. He needed to get some bulls” eyes for Andy. He wondered if his credit would stand good until Slim could get along to pay the bill. He continued up the street where the folks were still milling around and the town band was blazing out in the discordant way of all small town bands. The Army had gone and people smiled at him as he limped along towards the store. The band stopped playing and then struck up the great Southern anthem, “Dixie”. Jess put his head down to hide the emotions that caused him to shudder. He had followed that tune to hell and back and it would always remind him of pain, fear and loss, and he wondered if they were playing it for him?

Then, down the street, moving at a collected trot, came a well-matched pair of grays and a surrey, carrying the Army major and his lady. She had removed her long, dark veil and hat and her maple, syrup-colored hair shone, like a golden halo around her head. She was smiling and laughing as she talked, hugged and leaned into her husband. She had her hand on his knee and Jess could feel and remember how it felt when she had held him like that. Then, as they passed him, she turned and saw him. She looked straight into his eyes and gave him a gay smile, then, as was her wont, she tossed her head back and laughed. It was only meant for him, as her mocking smile carried all the love, hurt and rejection that had been theirs.

In that moment, he felt something within him die.

He did not acknowledge her greeting, but quickly turned, and, as he reached the store, with “Dixie” still filling the street with its challenging call, went in to get Andy his bulls” eyes.

***The End***

Return to Effie’s homepage

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

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