Ghost Horse (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,095


 

Slim Sherman of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station and his business partner and friend Jess Harper leaned on the corral fence, their eyes sparkling in pleasure.

They were admiring the group of wild mustangs, captured in the foothills on the edge of Sherman land just the day before.

“Well they sure look a lively bunch. I reckon you’re going to have your work cut out breaking this lot for the military Jess,” Slim said, turning to his buddy who seemed lost in thought. “Jess?”

“Huh? Oh yeah, sure. That grey… Slim, does he look kinda familiar to you?” asked Jess, his deep blue eyes narrowing as he peered out across the corral.

Slim looked over to where a big grey stallion was galloping around whinnying shrilly and making his displeasure at being confined evident to one and all.

Slim looked closely. “Well, now you mention it, he does have a look of that beast Mike named The Ghost. But that can’t be, buddy; you broke and sold him to the Army last year. There is no way that critter has been broke.”

Just then, Mike, their ten year old ward, ran out of the ranch house and joined the men. He climbed up on the bottom fence rail, his young face alight with excitement. After a moment, he turned bewildered eyes to Jess. “Hey, ain’t that The Ghost?” he asked.

“Isn’t that the Ghost,” Slim corrected automatically.

“That’s what I said,” exclaimed the youngster, sighing. “So is it?”

“Jess thought he recognized him,” Slim replied.

“One way to find out,” said Jess. Fetching his lanyard, he roped the beast, and after a short tussle, finally got him close enough to take a good look.

Once the animal stopped rearing and playing up, Jess shortened the rope and put a tentative hand out to caress the magnificent creature’s arched neck. He talked softly all the time, and after a few minutes, the splendid animal seemed quite relaxed. He even accepted a sugar lump from Jess’s hand, whilst the young cowboy checked him over thoroughly. After a moment, Jess gave a little cry of shock and turned to where Mike and Slim were watching him intently.

“Well, I’ll be… You’re right, Tiger,” Jess said, turning to the blond youngster. “It is that awkward old critter. Looky here, see this nick in his ear…and that scar on his shoulder. That was where that buckskin nipped him. Yep, it sure does look like your Ghost, Mike.”

Jess took his hat off and ran a hand through his dark locks, before jamming it back in place. “I just can’t figure what he was doin’ runnin’ wild with the herd again, though. I broke him, and Major Adams came by with some troopers and took all the horses off, you remember, Slim?”

“Sure I do; he came early, didn’t he? Said they were in need of them sooner than they’d thought. But he still paid us top dollar, even though they weren’t all broke. Sure is a fair man that Major.”

Jess shook his head. ”So I don’t understand it. Why would they loose him off that way, back into the wild?”

Slim shook his head. “Maybe he just escaped. Wasn’t there something kind of strange with this one? I remember he was a complete nightmare, tipped you off at every opportunity and I wanted to get rid…”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Jess animatedly, “and then I was struck down with that dang tick fever. I was feeling real bad but carried on working. One day I got up feelin’ like death, just waiting for him to throw me and probably stomp on me for good measure, and nothin’. Dang me, he was gentle as a lamb and I broke him that day.” *See story “Daisy’s Boys”.

“And then the troopers came early and fetched him. I was kinda sad at that,” piped up young Mike.

“Yeah, you and me both, Tiger,” said Jess, grinning down at the child. “He was a real hard to break but I guess I liked his spirit; got kinda used to him.”

“Major Adams is due by in a week or so to check this bunch out and decide which ones he wants. I figure we can ask him then,” said Slim.

The matter was then dropped as a discussion ensued regarding the more pressing problem of finding help on the ranch, while Jess started work on breaking the latest bunch of mustangs.

“I figure we’re going to have to try and find some spare cash to buy help in,” said Slim, looking serious. ”We’re going to be real hard pressed getting this lot broke and doing all the jobs  that need doing around the place before the fall.”

“Uh, not to mention bringing all the stock down for the winter,” agreed Jess, looking equally worried.

“If I hadn’t been shot up so bad riding posse for the Sheriff, we’d have got us some mustangs in the spring. It’s the wrong time of year to start workin’ ‘em now,” Jess continued, looking exasperated.

“That can’t be helped. Maybe one of the neighbors’ boys can give us a hand, and they wouldn’t need too much in wages.”

“Hey, how about me,” said Mike jumping around exuberantly. ”I can help fix the place up for winter and bring the stock down too. Can I Slim, Jess, can I, huh?”

The two ranchers exchanged an amused glance before Slim squeezed the youngster’s shoulder affectionately. “Well, sure you can help some at the weekends, Mike, but you’ve got school, remember, and we need someone full time.”

“Aw Slim, I can skip school just for a few weeks. Can’t I…please?”

“Nope, you ain’t doin’ that, Tiger,” Jess said immediately. ”You need your education, boy.”

“But you didn’t get too much, Jess, and you turned out real good,” said the youngster, beaming up at his hero.

Jess shook his head, a wry smile on his face. “That’s just where you’re wrong, Mike. Sure, I get by, and I make a reasonable rancher. It definitely beats my earlier career,” he said, throwing Slim his cheeky grin, alluding to his less that salubrious past as a gun slinger and drifter. “But you need to do more than just get by.”

“What do you mean, Jess?”

“Looky here,” Jess said kindly, hunkering down by the child so that he could look him in the eyes. “One day you’ll inherit this spread, all the land and stock as well as the Relay business. Then you’re gonna have to have a good business head on your shoulders. Be able to tally up the figures every month, work out good deals as well as all the ranchin’ work, so you need book learnin’ for that.”

The boy opened his mouth to argue, but Jess put a hand up. “No, listen. I get by ‘cos me and Slim are partners. He does most of the business side, we both do the day to day chores and I’m not a bad horse whisperer. We can teacher you ranchin’, sure, but book learnin’…” He sucked in a deep breath. “Well, I reckon that’s up to your teacher Mr. Smith down at the school house, so that’s the way it’s gotta be, Tiger, you understand?”

The boy nodded. ”I guess,” and ran off to play with his dog, Buttons.

Jess and Slim exchanged a grim smile. ”Well done, pard,” said Slim. “That should keep him on track, for a while at least.”

“Uh, but he’s a spirited kid. I reckon we’ll have more than a few fights over this as he gets older. Remember what your Andy was like,” Jess said referring to Slim’s kid brother, now happily at college back East.

“Yep, he sure was a handful.”

“Remember that time he wanted to stay home from school and you fed him that speech about needing to get all educated up — and he said he didn’t wanna be clever; he just wanted to be like you an’ me!”

“Don’t I just,” said Slim with a grin. “Guess we’ve got all those difficult years still to come with young Mike.”

*****

It was the following week when Major Adams arrived at the ranch to inspect the latest input of wild mustangs he hoped to acquire for the fort.

 Mrs. Daisy Cooper, the rancher’s elderly housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all at the ranch, was there to welcome him with freshly baked pie and coffee.

After he had finished the unexpected repast, the Major smiled over at Daisy. “Thank you so much, my dear; that was excellent. I’m sure you spoil these young men,” he said, with a twinkle in his old eyes.

“Oh I think they can stand a bit of that, Major,” Daisy said as she smiled back. “They both work so hard.”

“Um, and a darn good job they do too,” the Major said as an aside. ”especially that young Harper. Best darned horse whisperer I’ve ever met, but don’t you go a telling him that or he’ll put the prices up and fleece me something rotten!” he said with a chuckle.

Turning to where Jess and Slim were waiting for him by the door, the Major said, “Come on then, gentlemen; lead me to these wonderful beasts of yours.” After thanking Daisy again for her hospitality, he followed the others out to the yard.

Major Adams duly admired all the animals and picked out a dozen of the best. Then his eyes roamed over to the smaller corral where Jess had penned the grey as he had been stomping about and upsetting the other animals.

“Darn me if that isn’t Spirit,” said the old Major, wandering over and admiring the restless prancing stallion.

“So I was right, this is the grey we sold you last summer?”

“Oh yes, the boys changed his name from Ghost to Spirit. Figured he was so damn spirited it suited him better, and did we have fun with him!”

“You did?” asked Jess, his mobile eyebrows working overtime. “He was sweet as a nut when I sent him off with you.”

“Oh yes, I can vouch for that,” replied the Major with a twinkle. “I had one of my best troopers up schooling him and he was fine at first. Then I don’t know what happened but all hell broke loose — bucking and rearing kicking up the dust. He threw poor Barnes and hightailed it off,” he said with a sigh. “We caught him and started breaking him all over; seemed fine and then he just exploded again when we were branding him. He kicked out and broke a trooper’s leg in two places. Well, we just had to cut our losses and let him go back to the wild.”

“I sure am sorry, Major; I’d no idea,” said a concerned-looking Jess.

“Oh don’t fret, Harper,” said the Major slapping his arm kindly. “Not your fault. He had all of us fooled too. Only ever seen it once before in a horse — an old buckskin my Pappy had. Gee, he was a good horse man… Anyway, just the same thing. Got him gentled, and then blow me, he’d take off and act like a mad creature a few weeks later. Pappy reckoned it was a sign of a real clever beast.”

“Oh, how so?” asked Slim, looking curious.

“The horse tries to outsmart you, you see? Lets you think he’s all broke and quiet, and then just when you relax, well he kicks off. Works every time. In the end, the poor sucker just gives up and lets the horse go free, which is what the beast wanted all along. Either that or he was just an ornery cuss that was never broken the first time around. Who can say, but I guess some horses just can’t be domesticated.”

Jess looked thoughtfully across at the horse the Major had called Spirit.

“I can see in your eyes you aren’t going to let him outsmart you,” said Major Adams, chuckling now.

“You ain’t wrong there,” said Jess with the stubborn look on his face that Slim knew so well. “I don’t like to be beaten, you know, Major.”

“Um, well as long as you don’t send him back my way. Those others I’ve selected will be just fine and you’re OK with that deadline?”

Slim and Jess exchanged an anxious look before Slim smiled and offered his hand. ”Sure, you’ve got a deal, Major. Jess will come up with the goods, don’t you worry.”

As they waved the soldier off a few minutes later, Jess turned to his partner. “‘Jess will come up with the goods’, will he? So what about the rest of the work, Slim? We can’t do it all!”

“Don’t worry, pard; I’ll sort something out. I’ll ask around town; sure to be someone looking for a bit of extra work,” Slim said, looking more confident than he felt as they turned back to the corral.

“I figure we’ll add an extra animal above the Major’s requirements. I feel kinda bad landing that rebellious critter on him, even if I weren’t aware as how bad he was at the time,” Jess said thoughtfully. Then his attention was back on the big horse and his face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. “I’ll be, Slim; look at that,” he said pointing to where Mike’s little Palomino filly was tethered to the corral fence. The big grey stallion was standing on the other side, nose to nose with Sunny and now completely placid.

“There you are,” said Slim, grinning. ”Love of a good female, that’s all he needed to get rid of his wild streak. I figure you’d know all about that, Jess!”

“Uh, well, there ain’t one has tamed me yet,” Jess said with a grin, “and I guess this ol’ fellah is the same deep down — just lookin’ for some romancin’ and then he’ll be off.”

“Oh so you reckon your Millie hasn’t tamed you then, pard? Well just wait ‘til I see her,” said the tall rancher, with a smirk as he turned toward the ranch house in search of the coffee pot.

“Hey Slim, wait up. I didn’t mean it that way. Don’t you go mixin’ it with Millie…”

The truth was that Jess was completely smitten and Slim knew it.

Jess and Millie had been best friends since their childhood days on the Texas Panhandle. They had met up over the years, and then when she moved to Laramie just a few years back, they had picked up their relationship as friends and sometimes lovers, but Jess figured that was their business.

However, just last year, their relationship had moved onto a new level with both of them finally admitting that they couldn’t imagine sharing their future with anyone else.

Jess had told Slim and Daisy that he and Millie had a ‘kinda understandin’, but would not be more forthcoming. However, in his own mind, he knew that he and Millie would get hitched at some stage…but not just yet awhile, and he figured that Millie felt the same. Heck, they were both still young, with time enough for marriage and kids someway along the line in the future. They were happy, weren’t they, and that was the main thing.

*****

As Slim and Jess were sitting drinking another coffee later that same evening, Millie and her friend Lily were at work in the Laramie saloon as usual.

Millie glanced over to the batwing doors that had just admitted a blond-haired young man dressed in smart clothes with a silly grin on his face. It was still quite early and the bar almost empty as the young cowboy made a beeline for Millie.

“Oh no, not again,” she whispered to her friend. “You serve him, will you, Lily?”

However before Lily could move, young Johnnie was square in front of Millie. Casting a glance at her boss, old Tom the barkeep, she realized all she could do was serve the boy with the polite and welcoming demeanor which Tom expected from all his staff.

She sighed deeply and turning away rolled her eyes at Lily before turning back to the customer and pinning a welcoming smile on her face. “Good evening, Johnnie. So what can I get you tonight?”

The youngster leaned on the bar and assumed the stance of a man of the world — in his eyes at least — and giving her his best smile, said, “Your company is all I want, you know that, Miss Millie.”

Millie kept the smile in place, although now slightly forced, and said,”Yes, but what would you like to drink?”

“Beer, if you please.”

She drew him a glass, took the money and went to turn away, but quick as a flash, he grabbed her arm.

Millie looked down to where his hand was gripping her tightly, and then up at his face, her dark eyes suddenly annoyed. “What is it?” she asked with some asperity.

“Don’t be in such a hurry, sweetie. So how about that date I keep asking you on, huh?”

She sighed deeply and pulled her arm away. ”And like I keep saying, I’m seeing someone, Johnnie, so just leave it.” She marched back down the bar to where Lily was watching the proceedings with a twinkle in her eye.

Millie saw the look and whispered, “Hell Lilly, this isn’t funny. If Jess gets wind of this, he’ll give the kid a real hard time.”

“Well maybe that’s just what he needs, Mill. He’s been pestering you for weeks; just won’t take no for an answer.”

“Um, well, he’s been back East at school these last few years; maybe the girls are different there — say no when they mean maybe?”

“I reckon it’s because he’s been away he doesn’t know about you and Jess, and like you say, he won’t like it,” said Lily again.

“Yes, I know that but Tom won’t like it if I’m rude to him either, the amount of money he spends here in a night,” Millie said ruefully.

“Yeah I guess, but he’s never here on a Saturday night when Slim and Jess are in. I guess that’s why he’s gotten away with it for so long.”

“Yeah, well, seems like his Pa insists the family eat together at the weekend, or so he told me. He’s the only child now since his brother was killed, and the apple of his Ma’s eye, so I hear,” Millie replied.

“Um…and spoilt rotten, so I hear,” said Lily, casting the young man a dismissive look as he took his place at one of the tables where he could watch Millie’s every move, as per usual.

Finally Millie had had enough, and after considering Lily’s words, she waited until the bar was reasonably quiet towards the end of the evening and went and sat over at Johnnie’s table.

His face lit up as she arrived and he offered to buy her a drink.

She just shook her head. ”No thank you, but we need to talk.”

He looked up expectantly. ”I knew it; you’ve changed your mind. So where would you like to go — dinner, dancing? You name it; I can afford the best, sweetie.”

“Johnnie, will you hush a moment and listen to me?” Millie said more firmly than she had intended.

He just stared. “OK.”

“Look I’m sure you’re a nice boy. How old are you seventeen, eighteen?”

“Nearly nineteen,” Johnnie said proudly.

She hid a smile at that.

“Um, well you see, Johnnie, I’m quite a bit older, and more importantly I am seeing someone. Well, more than that really; I’m kind of promised. So will you please just stop all this nonsense, coming in every night and sweet talking me and staring, because I really have had enough.”

He just stared down into his beer as she stood up to go.

“Look I’m sorry Johnnie, ok, but just do us both a favor and find yourself a nice girl of your own age and leave me alone.”

Johnnie suddenly jumped up, and raising his glass, smashed it down on the table, chards of glass flying around and making Millie jump back, a look of fear in her beautiful brown eyes. “No!” he shouted angrily, and throwing her a furious look, marched out of the saloon without a backwards glance.

Tom strode over surveying the mess darkly. “What in tarnation was that all about?” Then seeing how distressed Millie looked, his expression softened. “Hey girl, you OK?”

She just nodded, but looked pale and shaken.

“You go out the back, Millie. Take five; I’ll clean up,” Tom said kindly and then the matter was forgotten.

Until Johnnie arrived in the saloon again the following night.

Tom eyed him warily. ”I hope you ain’t going to give me any trouble, young man.”

Johnnie merely shook his head.

“Um, well make sure you don’t, and leave Miss Millie alone too. She’s spoken for, boy, and you sure don’t wanna mess with her man…understand?”

Johnnie nodded again and ordered a bottle of Red Eye.

“Huh, you sure? That’s mighty strong drink for…” Tom was about to say a youngster, but seeing the look in the boy’s eyes just muttered, “mighty strong,” and pushed the bottle and glass over, accepting the payment. Then he as he turned away to put it in the till, Tom said quietly to Lily, “Any trouble and you tell me; I’ve a feeling that young man is up to no good.”

And that was how it had been every night since, although Johnnie tended to just drink a couple of whisky’s stare at Millie and then lurch out — until that fateful Saturday night.

Lily went to serve him and said brightly, “Evening, Johnnie; we don’t often see you in at a weekend.”

“Free country, ain’t it?” he said gruffly, and ordering a bottle, lurched off to a table in the dim recesses at the back of the saloon. After a while, the bar filled up and Lily forgot all about him.

But although he wasn’t noticed, young Johnnie was noting everything that went on in the bar, his expression one of suppressed anger. A friend had told him he’d seen Millie with a man in the saloon a few weeks back on a Saturday night. If that was the day he was usually in, thought Johnnie, I’ll be there too. He decided the time had come to make a play for the woman he thought of as ‘his’ girl and call this boyfriend of hers out. That would really show Millie he was no kid, he thought, as he sipped his whiskey and waited, one hand occasionally resting on his gun butt.

It was about an hour later when he saw some neighbors walking in — Slim Sherman and his buddy Jess Harper — and Johnnie unconsciously sank lower in his chair, not wanting Slim to see him there. The tall rancher was a good friend of his Pa’s. If word got back that he’d been knocking back whiskey in the saloon instead of visiting a buddy’s house, as he’d told his folks, well, he reckoned he’d be in for some nagging.

But then Johnnie tipped his drink back and poured another one. What the hell, he didn’t give a damn. So what was his Pa going to do anyway, he thought as he peered morosely into his glass.

Suddenly his introspection was cut short as he heard Millie give a little squeal of delight. Running around from behind the bar, she threw herself into Jess’s waiting arms, before giving him a passionate kiss.

Johnnie just stared horror stricken. Harper? Jess Harper was her boyfriend?

He couldn’t believe it, but as he watched in grim fascination, he saw the dark haired cowboy sneak an intimate arm around her waist. Then he whispered something in Millie’s ear which made her cast him a look of such devotion that Johnnie felt quite sick with jealously.

Johnnie sat there all evening, just watching them talking and laughing in  the spare moments Millie had between serving customers, and it became increasingly obvious that she and Jess were indeed together. Also, that Slim was dating Lily.

Towards the end of the evening, Tom let the girls finish early and they both went and sat at a table with their boyfriends, laughing and chatting happily.

Johnnie had been sipping Red Eye all evening, and now he was quite drunk and it was when Jess threw a possessive arm around Millie’s shoulders that he could bear it no longer. Getting up, he staggered over to the table and stood there swaying and glaring down at them, his gun in his hand.

“Ger off her!” Johnnie slurred.

“Johnnie, no!” yelled Millie, looking terrified.

Jess turned quickly, spied the gun and stood up swiftly, getting between Johnnie and Millie. “Back off Bradley,” he said gruffly, “and put that iron away.”

“Well you get away from my girl then,” slurred Johnnie, his eyes narrowed with anger.

Jess did a double take, staring from Millie to Johnnie Bradley and back. She just shook her head almost imperceptibly. “He’s crazy,” she muttered.

Then Slim stood up, and gently pushing Lily out of harm’s way, said, “Come on, Johnnie. Do as Jess says; put your gun away before someone gets hurt.”

“Oh, someone’s gonna get hurt alright if he don’t back down and get the hell out of here,” said Jess darkly.

That was the final straw as far as Johnnie was concerned, and he discharged his gun aiming at Jess’s feet. “Come on, Harper, let’s settle this once and for all.”

Jess cast a quick glance behind him and said urgently, “Get out of here, Millie.” After a moment’s hesitation, she and Lily fled to relative safety behind the bar.

Then Jess just stared at Johnnie. “You really are crazy, ain’t you, son? Now I’ll tell you one last time — put the gun away and get off home.”

“OK, I’ll put it away alright,” Johnnie said, holstering his colt, but then he backed off, taking the gunfighter stance. There was the sound of chairs scraping back as everyone within range moved hastily away.

Jess just shook his head. ”Don’t do this, kid.”

“Come on,” yelled Johnnie, now on a high and so drunk his befuddled brain didn’t seem to register the danger he was in. “Fight for your girl or don’t you care enough?”

Jess said nothing but his eyes narrowed and his hand hovered above his gun.

“Jess!” yelled Slim, but he just flicked a glance at his buddy and then back to his adversary.

Then Johnnie went to draw, but Jess’s gun was out and pointing at the youngsters head before he had even slapped leather.

Jess took a couple of paces forwards and removed the gun from the youngster’s holster and shook his head as he looked into the now profoundly shocked face of his neighbor’s son. “You really didn’t wanna do that,“ he said, “and I figure the best place for you right now is Mort Corey’s jail where you can’t get into anymore trouble.”

Just then, the Sheriff himself strode over from where he had been watching proceedings from the saloon door. He’d been waiting for the matter to be resolved before he marched in, afraid of spooking the obviously drunk youngster and scaring him into letting off a shot by accident. Now he threw Jess a grim smile. “Yep, I agree with you. Thanks, Jess; I’ll take care of this young man now.”

Then turning to Johnnie, the Sheriff said gruffly, “I guess you really don’t know how lucky you are, son. Jess here would have been within his rights to gun you down. I sure don’t know what’s got into you, boy, but whatever it is, I figure we need to sort you out before you end up dead.” With that, he took his prisoner away, helped my Slim.

Jess immediately sought out Millie, holding her close and tenderly kissing the top of her head before pushing her gently away so that he could look into her troubled eyes. “You OK, sweetheart?”

“I’m so sorry, Jess,” she whispered.

“Hell, you ain’t got nuthin’ to be sorry for. The kid’s just gotten a crush on you is all; that ain’t your fault.”

Lily came over a moment later. ”He’s been a nightmare, Jess. He wouldn’t leave her alone; kept on pestering an’ pestering her.”

Jess looked at Millie. “Heck, why didn’t you say something sooner, honey?”

“I…I thought I could handle it. Didn’t want you going off half cocked, you know, the way you can be. That temper of yours, Jess…”

“Yeah, well, maybe if I’d knocked some sense into him earlier, he wouldn’t have put you at risk that way.”

“I was OK; he wouldn’t have hurt me.”

“Millie, you were in the line of fire! The way he was, he couldn’t have hit a barn door; the shot could have gone wide if I hadn’t stopped him!”

She just looked down and said nothing.

“Hell Millie, have you forgotten my fiancée was gunned down in front of me at this very spot by some crazy gunman?”

Her hand shot up to her mouth in horror at that. ”Oh God, no… of course not. Jess, I’m so sorry!”

“Hush, it’s OK,” he said, quickly taking her hand and squeezing it gently.

Then Slim was back after having helped Mort half carry the inebriated young man to the jail. “Are you OK, Jess?”

Jess nodded. “Real mad, but yeah, I guess.”

Then Tom was there. ”Take Millie off upstairs, son,” he said, throwing Jess a concerned look. “I guess Lily can help me tidy up and I reckon I’ll close; that’s enough excitement for one night.”

Once they were safely in her cozy room, Millie immediately went behind the screen to change into her nightdress while Jess threw some logs on the fire. He then made them both a good strong coffee, liberally laced with whiskey.

Millie emerged from behind the screen a little later wearing a pretty lace shawl around her shoulders over a pale blue, low cut nightdress. Her dark hair hung loosely, framing her beautiful heart-shaped face, and Jess thought how lovely she looked. He patted the place next to him on the old couch now pulled close to the fire and she snuggled down close to him.

 Once she was settled he passed her a cup. “Here drink this, sweetheart; should help you sleep.”

She nodded her thanks and took a sip before studying him over the rim of her cup, and after a moment she said hesitantly, “Do you still think of her?”

Jess instinctively knew she was referring to Maria, the beautiful Irish girl he had been engaged to a number of years ago and who had met a tragic death, gunned down in front of him by an ex-lover. *See story “Loved, Lost, Survived”.

He took a sip of his coffee and then placed the cup down on the little table beside the couch and Millie noticed his hand was shaking. After what seemed an age, Jess finally turned to face her and nodded, “Sometimes, yeah.”

She gave a little sigh and looked deeply into the fire and eventually said softly, “And do you still love her?”

“She’s dead, Millie,” he said gruffly.

“Do you?”

He was again silent for a long time before he finally whispered, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

She said nothing, and when he finally turned to look at her, he saw a single tear running down her cheek. “Millie,” he gasped, “oh Mill, I love you too. Hell, of course I do. It’s just different with us, is all.”

“How…how different?”

He sighed. ”I dunno. I guess when I think of Maria, I’ve kinda turned her into some kind of saint. Her dyin’ that way so young and so goddamn lovely… But she weren’t, you know, a saint; that is, hell, we used to fight like cat and dog sometimes…”

“But you still loved her…love her?”

“I guess I always will…but it’s not the same as I feel about you.”

“Go on,” she whispered.

He took her hand and looked deeply into her eyes. “We’re so, so special together,” he whispered, “because I guess we’ve got somethin’ me and Maria never had. We’ve got history. Hell Mill, you knew me when I was a skinny little kid with the seat out of my britches and a snotty nose.”

She gave him the ghost of a smile at that. “And I was in my big sister’s hand-me-down dresses and had my hair in braids.”

He nodded. “We sure suffered some, livin’ so poor — me with that huge brood of Harpers and you with your big sister and kid brother. Young Tad always taggin’ along with us everyplace we went.”

She genuinely smiled then. ”Fishin’, hunting rabbits.”

He nodded. ”You and that ol’ sling shot — best darn shot of all us kids you were.”

She just nodded at that, knowing the truth of it.

“Then you were there for me when the Banister Gang burnt my family out.” He gave her a grim smile. “Me fifteen and you just turned fourteen… Hell Mill, I guess I loved you even way back then…and I don’t mean like a brother either,” he said with his cheeky grin.

“But you rode away…”

“Had to, didn’t I?” Jess said bitterly. “I had to go gunning for those bastards.”

“Then we caught up after the war. Hell Jess, I hardly recognized you — so thin, so sick looking and yet…”

“Um, what?”

“And yet you’d changed. You were a man — so hard, so bitter. It took me a long time to find you again after that.”

“Find me? “

“Yes. The old Jess from the Panhandle, he was deep inside somewhere. But all that suffering all that pain… It changed that old Jess and I guess I lost sight of him for a while.”

Jess nodded and squeezed her hand. ”Yeah, me too. I guess I lost my way for a while too, riding with those gangs, turning a buck by using my gun, all that killin’.” He shook his head and sighed deeply, “Then takin’ off into the Big Open, just me and my horse…”

“You sure were a wild one back then,” Millie agreed.

He smiled down at her. “So you think you’ve tamed me now, do you?”

She shrugged. “Nope, I guess no woman will ever completely get rid of your wild side…and you know what, cowboy?”

“What?”

“I guess I really don’t want you too darned domesticated anyways, because that wouldn’t be the Jess Harper I know and love. “

“So…you still love me then?”

“Always have,” she whispered.

“And me, you too, I guess,” he said softly. “So we’re OK? You ain’t upset?”

“No,” she said softly, “I guess I understand now, and I can share you…with her memory, anyways.”

Jess nodded, and then running a finger down her cheek, he looked adoringly into her eyes. “Just as long as you don’t expect me to share you with anyone else — especially not that Johnnie Bradley.”

She giggled at that, and leaning in, kissed him passionately.

*****

The following morning found Slim, Mort and Nick Bradley, Johnnie’s Pa, sitting in Mort’s office.

“I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am about my boy’s behavior,” said Nick, glancing from Mort to Slim and back. ”I just don’t know what’s got into him lately. God knows he’s always been difficult. I thought school back East might have straightened him out…” he said almost to himself. Then looking at Mort again, he said, “This drinking and shooting his gun in a crowded saloon… Well, I just don’t understand him.”

Mort cast him a serious look. “He was just lucky it was Jess he came up against. He’s so darn fast on the draw he was able to keep his nerve, outdraw your boy and take his gun. Someone else, well, I guess you’d be having this conversation down at the undertakers.”

Nick nodded, looking very shocked. ”Yes, of course. Where is Jess? I must thank him.”

“Over at the saloon; stayed with Millie last night. It seems this is what it’s all about, Nick; your Johnnie has got the hots for Jess’s girl,” said Mort briskly.

Nick bent his handsome old grey head. ”So that’s it — why he’s been spending so much time in the saloon. I might known there was a woman involved.”

“Yes and Jess’s woman,” said Slim stoutly. “Hell Nick, you know those two have been together forever and there isn’t a man in this town who would have been foolish enough to try and come between them.”

Nick sighed deeply. “Um, I know that but obviously my son didn’t.” Then he turned pleading eyes to his friend and neighbor.

“Slim, I heard you were desperate for some help over at the Relay with Jess having to fulfill this contract with the military. Could you…well, could you take Johnnie on? Knock some sense into him, educate him up in ranching? God knows I’ve tried but he doesn’t listen to a dang thing I tell him.”

Slim and Mort exchanged a glance.

“Sure would see the boy out of a hole if you took him on for awhile,” said Mort hopefully. “And ol’ Jess there, well if he can’t knock some sense into the lad, nobody can.”

“Um,” said Slim, “but will he? He was real upset last night, Mort, especially after what happened in the past. Someone shooting so close to his Millie — he was real angry.”

“Can’t blame him for that,” said Mort.

Nick was silent for a while and then threw Slim a searching look. “I figure Johnnie’s big brother would have appreciated it too, don’t you, Slim?”

Slim’s head shot up and he looked suddenly terribly vulnerable. He whispered, “Yeah… I guess he would at that.” He turned to Mort. “OK, we’ll take him on for the summer — get him all trained up in ranching and keep him out of trouble.”

“You’re sure?” asked Mort looking doubtful. “What about Jess? He certainly isn’t gonna like this?”

“You leave Jess to me,” said Slim with a grim smile. Then turning to Nick, he said, “I guess I owe you anyways, don’t I?”

“Yes, well, that was all a long time ago, Slim.”

“But we both know I still owe you, your family…”

“Um, but still, Jess?”

“Like I say, you just leave my buddy to me.”

*****

Later that day, back at the ranch, Slim decided to sound Jess out as they stood in the yard checking out the mustangs.

“Are you dang crazy?” exclaimed Jess. “Do you know what that kid did? He’s been pestering Millie for weeks, then tried to take me on. Hell Slim, Millie could have been killed in the crossfire and you’re askin’ me to take him under my wing, teach him ranchin’, for goodness sake. Like I say, are you crazy?!”

“Listen Jess, this is really important to me. Old man Bradley came out here with my Pa; we’ve been neighbors for as long as I can remember and I owe him. Please help me out here, will you?” pleaded Slim.

Jess looked exasperated. ”OK, you figure you owe him for some goddamn reason, so YOU straighten the kid out. Just leave me out of it.” He marched off into the barn.

*****

Johnnie and his Pa rode in that afternoon. The boy was looking pale and sulky, his Pa anxious. Nick slipped down from the saddle and went to meet Slim, who was just emerging from the barn.

The two men shook hands and then Nick Bradley beckoned his son over.

The boy slouched over and stood beside his Pa.

“Come and thank Slim for taking you on, boy,” Nick said gruffly.

Johnnie looked anything but thankful, and said in a bored voice, “Thanks, Slim.”

“Uh, well as long as you pull your weight and do as you’re told, I guess we’ll all get along,” said Slim with a welcoming smile.

“There’s something else as well,” said Nick. “He needs to apologize to Jess for what he did the other night.”

Slim looked slightly nervous at that. “Well, there’s no need. You see…”

Just then Jess strode out of the house and paused as he saw who it was.

“Jess, can we have a word?” called Nick, throwing him a friendly look.

Jess walked slowly over his expression wary.

“Mornin’, Nick,” he said, throwing Johnnie a guarded look.

“My boy here has something he wants to say,” said Nick, pushing him forwards.

Johnnie looked down at Jess’s feet and muttered, “Sorry.”

Jess just stared at him and then at Nick, before sighing deeply. “That it?”

“Said I’m real sorry, didn’t I,” said the youngster belligerently. “What more do you want?”

“Johnnie!” exploded his Pa, looking deeply embarrassed.

Jess just shook his head. ”So are you really sorry, or is that just what your Pa told you to say?”

The boy just shrugged and looked down again.

“You wanna say it like you really mean it, come find me,” Jess spat angrily. “And in the meantime, keep the hell out of my way.” With that, he marched off to the corral to start work on the mustangs.

Slim turned sad eyes on his friend and neighbor. “Sorry, Nick; I guess he’s still kind of wound up. He was worried for Millie what with Johnnie waving that gun around; kind of got to thinking history might repeat itself,” he finished ruefully.

Nick looked puzzled for a minute and then comprehension dawned. “Oh Maria. My dear boy, I must go and apologize. I see now why he would be so darned mad.”

Slim put out a restraining hand. ”No, just leave him, Nick; he’ll be OK. The least said…you know?”

“Yes, of course.” Then Nick turned to Johnnie. “You behave and do exactly as Slim and Jess tell you and none of your backchat, son. You’re dang lucky to get this chance; if it wasn’t for these two good men taking you on, I guess you’d be in Mort Corey’s jail and don’t you forget it,. With that, he rode out without a backwards glance.

Slim clapped him on the back. “Come on, Johnnie, I’ll show you where you can bed down tonight,” and he walked him over to the bunkhouse.

Johnnie walked over the threshold and paused looking around him, the first glimmer of interest in his eyes that morning. “Hey this isn’t half bad,” he said, giving Slim a faint smile.

“Yes, well, we did the place up a while back. Had a lady staying and so we made it real nice for her…” he finished quietly before changing the subject quickly.

Slim thought back to Flora, Daisy’s beautiful young Goddaughter who had spent her last months of life here in the converted bunkhouse on the ranch as she slowly faded away dying of consumption. And how Jess had agreed to her final request, to end her days on the mountain where he had tenderly nursed her to the end. *See story “Daisy’s Dilemma”.

Every time either of them entered the converted bunkhouse, it brought her sad demise back to then sharply. Now Slim sighed deeply and turned to Johnnie. “Anyway, you dump your stuff and then come over to the house for coffee and I’ll tell you what’s to be done.”

Jess studious ignored the boy for the rest of the day, busy as he was working on the mustangs. However, come suppertime, he had no choice but to sit down at the table with the rest of the family and Johnnie.

But the usual suppertime banter was absent, and even young Mike, who was always full of the day’s happenings, was unusually silent. The youngster had picked up on the charged atmosphere and seemed almost relieved when he was sent off to bed.

It was later that evening after Daisy had said she needed an early night and Johnnie had skulked off to the bunkhouse that the two friends had a chance to talk properly.

They were sitting by the fire over a final coffee when Jess turned hard eyes on his buddy. “Well, how did he do today? “

Slim avoided his friend’s eye, but eventually said, “Not so good.”

“Huh. So what did he do…if anything?”

“Managed to break the pitchfork when I asked him to clean out the barn, disappeared for about an hour when I sent him out to the home pasture to fetch the cow in for milking. Then came back without her — said she wasn’t there.”

Jess’s head shot up. “And weren’t she?”

“Sure she was; Mike went out and was back with her in ten minutes.”

Jess just shook his head. ”What else?”

“Well, then I set him to chopping some kindling and he couldn’t even do that. I had to show him from scratch how to use the axe. Heck, Mike would have made a better job of it, easy.”

“Hell Slim, I thought the whole point of us buyin’ help in was to take over my chores, so as I could get the mustangs broke while you and the hired hand worked the ranch. It sounds like he’s gonna be more trouble than he’s worth. Let’s cut our losses and dump him now.”

Slim looked stubborn. “Sorry pard, I can’t do that.”

Jess looked incensed. ”Why the hell not? What is this huge debt you owe Nick anyways? He must have done something real important for you to want to take the useless kid on?”

Slim sighed deeply looking down. “Well, I guess so. He saved this place, you see, Jess.”

“He did?”

“Yep.”

“You wanna tell me about it then?”

Slim turned and gave his buddy a tired smile. “I guess I have to if I want to get any peace. See me and Johnnie’s big brother were best friends — as close as you and me are.”

“I didn’t know he had a brother. Sure acts like a spoilt only child.”

“You want to hear this or not?”

“Yeah, sure go on; sorry, Slim.”

“Well, Kenny and I were brought up together, his spread being just over the hill. Went hunting, fishing…got up to all the mischief young boys do.”

Jess grinned at that. “Go on.”

“Nick and Amy — Mrs. Bradley, that is — came here from back East. I guess Ma Bradley was never too keen on the ‘wild ways’ of Wyoming, as she called ‘em. So when young Kenny was just eleven, he was sent back East to get all educated up same as Johnnie has been.”

“Much good it’s done him,” said Jess morosely.

“Uh. Well, anyway, I missed my buddy something fierce. But he came home for the holidays and I’d keep him on track with all the ‘wild ways’ his Ma was always a fretting about,” Slim said with a chuckle. “Anyway, then we grew up, the war came and we both enlisted, went off to fight together. Only Kenny never came home.”

Jess’s head shot up and he saw the pain in his buddy’s eyes. “Gee, Slim, that’s hard.”

Slim nodded. ”Hard on me… but even worse for his Ma and Pa. Heck, it nearly killed his Ma, Jess.”

Both men sat staring into the fire for a while remembering the Hell of their own wars.

“Anyway, Johnnie was just a young kid back then. I figure both his Ma and Pa kinda wrapped him in cotton wool; he was never allowed to play out with the rough boys, like our Andy,” Slim said, referring to his kid brother and receiving a smile from his buddy. “Never was expected to do a hand’s turn around the ranch in those days either, in case he got hurt.”

“Well that sure shows,” said Jess belligerently. “But hell, Slim he’s all grown up now; he should be able to pull his weight.”

“Apparently not. Nick sent him back East to school, and when he came back on the holidays, he had this attitude like the world owed him a living. He plumb refused to learn anything about ranching and just messed around all the time; always been the same and that’s the way he is now.”

“Well why don’t his Pa do somethin’ then?” asked Jess angrily.

“He says he’s tried but the kid just won’t behave and do as he’s told.”

“I can sure get him to behave and do as he’s told,” said Jess darkly. “You just give me five minutes with him behind the barn and he’ll be the most well behaved and doin’ as he’s told kid you ever met.”

Slim gave his partner a small smile. “Oh I don’t doubt it Jess, but that’s not the way.”

“Why the hell not? It sure didn’t do me any harm. Jeez, if I’d cheeked my Pa that way, I wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.”

Slim threw him a sympathetic smile at that. ”Guess you didn’t have the easiest of childhoods, huh?”

“Um, you could say that. So anyway, you never said as to why you owe Nick big time. You say he saved the ranch somehow?”

“Yeah, that’s right. When I came back after the war, Pa was dead and the place going to wrack and ruin. We owed the bank and the stock was all sickly or dead. Heck, it wasn’t Ma’s fault; Andy was just a little kid and all the help off fighting a war.”

“So what did you do?”

“Oh I tried to get it all back on track. Worked my butt off, but it was obvious I couldn’t do it alone. That’s when Nick stepped in — paid off the bank loan and sent his hands over to help me get the place back in shape.”

“Jeez, so why should he do that? “

“He said it was because him and Pa were such good friends — and in memory of Kenny. Said it was what he would have wanted. Hell Jess, that made me feel so dang bad. So guilty, you know? That I’d made it back and Kenny hadn’t,” said Slim, turning anguished eyes on his buddy.

“Um, I can see as how you’d think that. I guess a lot of us that survived the war and left good friends rotting on the battlefields felt the same. But it don’t make no sense, you know, Slim; all that guilt won’t bring ‘em back.”

“I know. I know that, but I still felt that way. No still feel that way. Sure, I paid the debt back once I got the place ticking over again, but like you say, I could never bring Kenny back. So maybe that’s why I feel I have to try and help him out with Johnnie now.”

Jess was silent for a long time and then turned and gave his friend the ghost of a smile. “Yeah, I reckon I can understand that, and I can see as how you wouldn’t want me knocking nine bells out of the boy too,” he said with a grim chuckle.

Slim nodded, “You’ve got it. So will you help me?”

Jess sighed. ”Well, as long as he steers clear of Millie, I guess I will.”

Slim leaned over and clapped him on the shoulder. ”Gee thanks, pard. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”

“Sure, sure it will,” said Jess sarcastically and he made to turn in, before turning back a twinkle in his deep blue eyes. “So you want me to go out to the bunk house and read him a bedtime story and tuck him in then?” Both men roared with laughter as they went off to bed.

Johnnie crossing the yard, from a trip to the outhouse, heard it and stopped in his tracks. What must it be like to have a real good friend like that, he wondered sadly as he stood in the cold yard and watched as the living room light was extinguished. Then all that was to be heard was a lonesome wolf high up in the hills.

He shivered and made his way back quickly to the sanctuary of the bunkhouse, feeling lonely and more than a little afraid.

*****

The following morning, Slim tapped on the bunkhouse door and told Johnnie breakfast was on the table. He’d let him off early morning chores with it being his first full day and secretly thinking, by the time he had got the boy working, he could have done it himself.

Jess muttered something about spoilt brats, but considering he himself was hell to rouse in the morning and prone to dark mumblings before he was outside his first coffee of the day, Slim chose to ignore it.

However, by the time breakfast was nearly finished and Johnnie still hadn’t made an appearance, young Mike was dispatched to go and fetch him.

The youngster arrived back several minutes later looking flushed and upset.

Jess, who was still sitting at the table enjoying his third cup of strong coffee, pulled him close, and flung a protective arm around the boy. “Hey Tiger, what’s up?”

The boy gave a tremulous sigh before saying, “I reckon Johnnie is real mad at me.”

Jess looked surprised. “Why’s that?”

“Well, I just told him what you said, as to how breakfast was on the table, and he was real mad and started cussing real bad. You know, Jess, yard talk,” Mike said in a loud whisper casting Daisy a wary look.

Jess’s eyebrows shot up. “What, he swore at you?”

“Oh yes sir,” the boy confirmed. “He told me I was a little bas…”

“Mike!” said Slim quickly, throwing Daisy an anxious glance. “That’s OK, buddy; you needn’t repeat it all.”

“Oh I don’t mind,” said the youngster, now getting into his stride. “He told me to go to He…”

“OK Mike,” said Jess quickly, “I’ll sort him out. You go get ready for school or that ol’ stage will be goin’ without you… OK?”

“OK, Jess,” and the youngster ran off happily enough.

Jess rose from the table and marched towards the door, snagging his hat from the hook and pulling it down hard, a look of grim determination in his eyes.

“Oops,” said Daisy turning twinkling eyes on Slim. ”I don’t think I’d want to be in that young man’s boots right now.”

“Me neither, Daisy,” said Slim with an answering smile.

Jess strode over to the bunkhouse and barged in without knocking and advanced on the bed where Johnnie was blissfully unaware of his presence, snoring lightly.

Jess looked down at the sleeping boy for a moment before leaning over and plucking a jug full of icy water from the nightstand. Then with a grim smile, he poured the contents onto the sleeping youngster’s head.

Johnnie jerked awake and sat bolt upright, spluttering and swearing before he finally became aware of Jess’s presence. “What the… Why’d you do that?” he gasped.

Jess ignored the question. “Where the hell do you get off cussin’ at a little kid like Mike?” he spat angrily.

“Well he shouldn’t have come in here wakin’ me at the crack of dawn,” the boy returned sulkily.

“Why, you little…..” Jess grabbed hold of the boy’s undershirt and hauled him up, one fist balled and threatening. “Maybe Slim’s wrong and the only way to get any sense into you is to beat it in.”

Johnnie suddenly looked terrified. “No, please Jess, I’m sorry…really I am.”

Jess threw him back down on the bed. “Right; so if I ever hear you so much as raise your voice to that child again, you and me are gonna fall out, you understand?”

Johnnie just nodded vigorously, his mouth so dry with fear he couldn’t speak.

“OK, well, get up and go and start muckin’ out the barn — and you break anymore tools you pay for ‘em, understand?”

The boy just nodded and then croaked, “Breakfast?”

Jess gave him a wicked smile. “Oh no, Sunshine. The folk that get breakfast around here have to work for it. Now git, before I change my mind and give you a good thrashing.”

If Slim and Jess were to think this was to be an end to their problems with young Johnnie, then they were to be sorely mistaken.

Sure, Johnnie was pretty much scared of Jess and what he could do to him, but he was also aware that Slim wouldn’t stand by and let him suffer at his partner’s hands. He wasn’t stupid and had heard his parents discussing the past. The war, how Slim had survived it and Kenny had not, and was aware of the sense of duty that had been instilled into Slim. He figured as long as he didn’t push things too much and stayed around the tall blond rancher, giving his partner a wide berth, all would be well.

The following morning he dragged himself up as soon as he heard Jess banging about in the yard, and collected the eggs and brought in the kindling as requested. If he broke several eggs and the kindling was damp, so be it; he’d done as he was asked, hadn’t he?

Luckily for him, Jess was far too distracted working all the hours God sent, breaking the mustangs for the Army contract, to notice what the boy was up to. But Slim and Daisy were getting more and more frustrated with the Johnnie’s shoddy ways and poor time keeping.

Daisy was also rather worried about the effect the young man was having on Mike too. Only that morning he had argued with her about his chores, saying it wasn’t man’s work to set the table.

“Man’s work or not, it has to be done by someone, Mike, and I only have one pair of hands. So set to it, young man, or none of us will get any breakfast.”

Mike did as he was bid, but copied the sulky demeanor so often displayed by Johnnie. Daisy sighed deeply at the bad influence Johnnie was having on the impressionable youngster.

However, it was at supper that night when things really came to a head as far as Mike was concerned.

Mike had been feeding his dog under the table which was strictly forbidden, and Jess told him to stop it at once.

“Why?” asked the youngster, throwing Jess a challenging look.

“Because it’s a waste of Miss Daisy’s good cookin’ and it ain’t good to feed a dog too much anyways. He’ll get fat and sick if he has too many potatoes.”

“Well I wanna feed him and he’s my dog,” said the child sulkily.

Jess threw him a hard look, and leaning down he scooped up the animal and put him out of the room.

Then to everyone’s surprise, Mike really kicked off. He glared at Jess. ”Why did you do that?!”

Jess looked equally angry. ”I told you why now simmer down and eat your supper, Mike.”

“No!” shouted the boy. “And you can’t make me!” he yelled looking flushed and defiant.

 There was suddenly a pregnant silence in the room all eyes on Jess.

“Go to your room, boy,” Jess said, frighteningly quietly.

Mike opened his mouth to object and then saw the look in his guardian’s dark blue eyes, and thinking better of it, rose to go.

“And you’d better sort yourself out, Mike. Else you want a trip to the woodshed?” was Jess’s parting shot as the now tearful boy ran from the room.

“What the heck was all that about?” asked Slim once Mike’s door closed behind him, “I’ve never seen him that way before. Heck, he adores you Jess. Why would he act that way?”

Then Jess looked over to where Johnnie was sitting with a huge smirk on his face enjoying the drama. “I dunno,” said Jess darkly. “Maybe Johnnie knows.”

“Huh…me? How should I know anything?” Johnnie said belligerently, chancing his luck in Slim’s safe presence.

Jess stood up, his chair making a grating noise as he pushed it back and he towered over the youngster. “Well he sure wasn’t this way before you landed,” he spat.

“Now simmer down, Jess; we don’t know this is anything to do with Johnnie.”

Jess turned blazing eyes on his partner. ”The hell we don’t! He’s been nothing but trouble since he landed, and every chance he gets he’s been filling the kid’s head with nonsense.”

Slim turned troubled eyes on Johnnie. “So is what Jess says true?”

“No sir, he’s lying,” Johnnie said, casting Jess a challenging look.

“Why you!” yelled Jess lunging at the boy

However, Slim pushed him back down. “Jess you’re really not helping.”

“Well, ask him about filling the kid’s head about ‘women’s work, how real men don’t do housework, or collect eggs or milk cows. Not to mention as to how ranching is a mug’s game for folk who can’t do nuthin’ else,” said Jess quoting what Mike had said earlier in the day to Daisy.

Slim turned hard eyes on the boy. ”You said all this Johnnie?”

“I may have done. Anyway, I’m right! It’s women who should do all the menial work as they’re way more stupid than us men…”

Both Jess and Slim were incensed at that, and Slim did nothing as Jess grabbed hold of the boy and manhandled him out of the room, pushing him unceremoniously out through the door.

“Well if you think women are so stupid I guess you won’t wanna be eating anymore food cooked by one. Now get out an’ don’t come back until you’ve got a civil tongue in your head and you’re ready to apologize to Mrs. Cooper,” Jess said, slamming the door and then coming over and slumping back down at the table.

“Jeez, I’m sorry, Daisy,” Jess said, casting sad eyes at their elderly housekeeper come surrogate Ma.

“It’s alright, dear; it’s his poor parents I feel sorry for.”

Jess sniffed sat that. “I dunno why. I reckon they can take the blame for some of it.”

“Maybe you’re right, dear. He does seem very spoiled and has a terrible view of women.”

Slim put his head in his hands and sighed deeply before looking up and regarding his partner. “You were right, Jess; we should never have taken him on. The kid’s a hopeless case. “

“Yeah, well if you’d let me take him out behind the barn, maybe he’d be halfway respectful by now,” said Jess angrily.

Slim just shrugged. “I don’t know… maybe.”

Then Daisy turned anguished eyes on the dark haired cowboy. “Oh Jess, you’re not really going to give Mike a spanking, are you? I know he was terribly rude, but maybe there is a reason?”

Jess just nodded and reaching over patted her arm gently. “Nope, I guess I was just angry. I’ll go talk to him.” He got up wearily and tapping on the door entered the boy’s room.

Mike was lying under the covers still sniffing, and as soon as Jess came in, he sat up and threw him a miserable look. “Jess, I’m so, so sorry; I should never have talked to you that way.”

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed and the boy threw himself into his arms sobbing loudly.

Jess held him close, gently rubbing his back and calming him until finally the sobs subsided. Then he pushed the child gently back and smiled down at him. “It’s OK,” he said softly, “I forgive you. But what’s all this about, Tiger? This ain’t like you. “

The boy swallowed hard. “It was what Johnnie said, the way he talks, well, it’s so real. And I kinda believe everything he says, even though in my heart I don’t want to.”

“He’s real convincing, is that it?”

The boy gave him a watery smile. “That’s it…real convincing. What he said about me just bein’ a slave around here — a no-account orphan — and as how you brought me in to do all the work that you don’t wanna do. Like feed the chickens and stuff. Said you got me just to do the work and you don’t really care about me.”

“Heck Mike, you don’t believe that, do you?”

“No… well, I didn’t. But then I overheard you and Slim talking in the barn, and you said, ‘well at least Mike’s good for all the basic stuff around here, while I’m doing the breaking and you can get the rest of the tough work done’.”

Jess scratched his head and thought back to that conversation. “Well sure, I said that and we really rely on you to do all that stuff, Mike. Otherwise, Slim would have to take it on as well as everything else. We’re real hard pushed right now with all these dang mustangs to be broke, you know that, Mike. It’s why we took that useless boy on board.”

“Yes, but I offered to help. I wanted to stay off school and help you out.”

“I know and we explained about that, as to how you need your schoolin’.”

“That’s what I told Johnnie and he said ‘why do I need schoolin’ just to be a dumb rancher’ and I tried to explain the way you did about the business side and all, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Jess just nodded at that. “I guess I can see your point, and we have relied on you to do all the boring stuff lately. I promise as soon as I’m done with those ornery critters, we’ll make some time to do some interesting stuff with you, like helping to bring the stock down in the fall maybe.”

The boy grinned at that. “That would be real swell, Jess; thanks.”

Jess smiled down and then looked suddenly saddened. “What’s really botherin’ me is that you’d believe him when he said we don’t care about you. You know that ain’t true, don’t you, Tiger?”

“Sure I do. It’s just you’ve both been so busy, you ain’t had time for me. I know I should be all grown up about it, but I miss the fun times — fishin’ and you tellin’ me a bedtime story and all.”

Jess suddenly felt terrible, sure he’d been neglecting the child and it was real hard for a young‘un, he could see that. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. ”I’ll try and make more time for you, Tiger and you promise not to listen to any of that rubbish Johnnie’s been tellin’ you. Deal?”

“Deal,” said the now heavy eyed youngster. “Thanks, Jess; you’re the best.” He yawned broadly.

“You too, Tiger.” Jess tucked the boy in and quietly left the room.

*****

Jess closed the bedroom door quietly behind him, his face like thunder.

“Jess?”

He ignored Slim and made for the front door, throwing it open and marching across the yard before barging into the bunkhouse, practically bringing the door off its hinges.

“Come here, you lowlife,” Jess growled.

Johnnie leapt up from the bed and backed off, his eyes open wide with fear. ”Wh… what is it?” he stuttered.

“You know damn well what it is! You’ve been fillin’ that young kid’s head up with lies and he’s real upset. Have you any idea what life has been like for him over the last few years? Seeing his folk massacred by hostiles and then havin’ to make a new life here, adapt to a hard life on a workin’ ranch? Of course, you wouldn’t know about that, would you,” Jess sneered, “havin’ been spoiled rotten all your goddamn life.”

“Please, I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t mean to upset the kid.”

“I should punch you into next week.”

Then Slim was suddenly there beside him. “Leave it, Jess; just calm down and we’ll discuss it in the morning, huh?”

“Discuss it!” Jess spat. “Hell Slim, we’ve been discussin’ it since this bastard arrived and he ain’t gettin’ any better.”

“Look, I said I’m sorry. I’m young, OK. Maybe I’ve got some lessons to learn…”

“Young!” spat Jess. “Hell, I was fighting a war at your age.”

“And so was my brother and he never came back!” yelled Johnnie, now flushing with anger.

“Yep, I know,” said Jess quietly, “and you ain’t never gonna let Slim forget it, are you?” With that, he turned and left, knowing in his heart it was what Slim needed him to do. But how much longer before he lost all patience with the spoilt brat, he wondered as he made his way back across the yard.

Jess threw himself down on his bunk and breathed deeply trying to calm down. Hell, this was crazy. Why was he letting the kid get to him this way? What was it about him that made him so dang mad?

Slim came in and closed the door quietly behind him before walking over and sitting down on his own bed. “You OK?”

“I guess. just mad. Those stories he’s been feeding, Mike… The kids real upset.”

“Should I check on him?”

“Nope, reckon he’ll be asleep by now.”

“OK”

“Aw Slim it ain’t just that. I feel real bad. It seems Mike’s feelin’ kinda neglected. I guess neither of us have had much time for him lately with all the extra work.”

“He said that?”

“Uh, kinda.”

“Don’t worry; we’ll make it up to him. He’s a good kid; he knows we’re having a tough time right now.”

“Yeah, I guess. So what about Bradley then?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’re stuck with him a while longer. We did promise Mort.”

“Well, just keep him away from me or I won’t be responsible, and I mean that, Slim!”

Slim sighed deeply and cast his pard a questioning glance. “What’s this all about, Jess? I know the kid’s a mess but you’re kind of over-reacting aren’t you?”

Jess shrugged. ”Maybe.”

Slim sighed deeply and looked over at his best friend. ”Do you think maybe a tiny bit of you is jealous?”

“What!” exploded Jess looking shocked to the core. “Of him?” he said his voice incredulous. “You’re kidding me.”

“Oh not of him as such, but all the advantages he’s had, that you never had and he’s just wasted it. Thrown all his chances away. Is that why you’re so goddamn mad, Jess?”

Jess stood up, thrusting his hands deep into his denims and paced angrily around the room and then turned back to his partner, his eyes wide with surprise, his expressive eyebrows arched. “I really don’t know,” he said after a moment, all his anger suddenly evaporating. “Maybe if I’d had his chances I would have been able to make more of my life. Guess we’ll never know.”

And I guess we don’t get to choose who we’re born to… or where. So you can’t really blame him, Jess.”

“Maybe not, but I can sure blame him for not appreciating all he has, and for making your life a misery, not to mention upsetting Mike and Daisy.”

“Yes, well, maybe he’ll change. Being here with us, seeing how folk work together to make a go of things. Maybe that will change him.”

“I doubt it,” said Jess darkly and started getting ready for bed. He went over to the basin to wash up and then paused turning back to his buddy. “Maybe I should teach him horse breakin’; those old mustangs might just knock a bit of sense in to that thick skull of his, where we’ve failed,” he said with a chuckle.

Slim grinned back at that. “Good idea you should put him up on Spirit aka Ghost; he’s sure got plenty of energy to spare.”

“Oh no; he’s all mine and I’m savin’ him ‘til last. Been sweetening him up for weeks now and I sure aim to get him broke if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Way he is, it probably will be,” replied Slim laconically. “Anyway, I thought you said you didn’t want him anywhere near you?”

Jess gave him a wicked grin. “Ah but this way I get to see him eat dirt when the critters tip him off and I don’t even have to throw a punch.”

Slim smiled shaking his head. “Anyone ever tell you you’re pure evil?”

“Oh yes,” said Jess happily as he climbed into bed and after a minute fell into a deep peaceful sleep.

*****

The following morning Jess broached the subject with a very way looking Johnnie.

“So you ever done any horse breaking back at your Pa’s place?” asked Jess, trying hard to be patient.

The youngster just shook his head. “Nah, Pa always buys in horses already broke, and anyway…”

“What?”

“Oh nuthin’,” Johnnie said sulkily.

Jess sighed. ”You got somethin’ to say, just say it, Johnnie. “

“Well anyway my Ma would never have allowed it; she’d say it was too darned dangerous,” Johnnie said bitterly.

“Um, I’d heard your Ma was a mite clucky.”

Johnnie rolled his eyes. ”And then some.”

Jess threw him a grin. “Anyway, she won’t know, will she. So you up for it?”

Johnnie gave him his first genuine smile since he arrived. ”You bet!”

It was a long hard day for both men — Jess, trying to remain patient and help his prodigy whilst Johnnie had felt a mixture of pure terror having to try and ride the great bucking beasts mixed with a feeling of pride and achievement as he gradually made some progress.

However, as Jess had predicted, he did indeed spend one heck of a lot of time eating dust. After that first baptism of fire, Jess gave the youngster a specific horse to work with and explained to him all about horse whispering — how to gentle the creature by spending time getting to know it and only when the beast was used to a human being around would he start to be saddle broke.

Jess chose an easy-looking buckskin and said it was Johnnie’s special project, that he could work on the horse along with doing all the chores that were so necessary around the place. The boy was and pleased at being given the responsibility. Heck, he was even beginning to tolerate Jess — in fact, to secretly almost admire him, the way he was around the horses, so damn good at what he did.

However, there was one thing still bugging the boy and it was getting worse and worse as the days drew on — the deep infatuation he had for Millie.

Johnnie hadn’t seen her since that dreadful night in the saloon when he had attempted to take Jess on. But the longer her absence from his life, the greater his feelings for her. She was in his dreams every night and she was the first thing he thought of when he awoke in the morning. He felt almost sick with desire and half-crazy with jealousy when he thought of her and Jess together.

Jess hadn’t been to town since Johnnie landed, as he had been far too busy with the mustangs, but the following Saturday he told Slim he was going to visit his girl.

“Hell Slim, I’ll go plumb loco if I don’t see her soon,” Jess said quietly that morning as he was grooming his horse.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’d hoped to ride in and see Lily too, but I promised Daisy and Mike I’d take him over to visit with the Dawson family. Ma Dawson has invited us to supper, so can you give Lily my love and say I’ll see her sure and definite next week? “

“Sure I will. I’ll give her a kiss for you too if you like,” Jess said with a cheeky grin.

“No thanks,” said Slim smiling. “You keep your hands off my girl. Anyway, I reckon you’ll have enough on your plate keeping Miss Millie happy,” he laughed. ”I guess she’ll have been missing you something fierce too.”

Johnnie turned away from the barn door where he had overheard the banter. Pain twisting in his guts as he suffered an agony of jealousy and felt he just wanted to find a gun and blast Jess off the face of the earth, such was the depth of his feeling.

As it was, he just sloped off and kept out of everyone’s way for the rest of the day, saying he was going to ride fence. It was after the late afternoon stage had gone through that Jess finally caught up with him.

“Looks like you’re home alone tonight, Johnnie. Slim’s taken the others out for the evening and I’m just off to town. You’ll be OK?”

The boy nodded, looking totally crestfallen, and Jess felt a monetary stab of pity for him. “Look you done good today, kid. I’d let you ride in with me but Mort Corey don’t want you back in town for at least another month. Sorry. “

Johnnie just nodded. “Yeah, I know,” and wandered off to the bunkhouse.

Jess watched him for a moment and then hopped up on Traveler and kneed him off at a steady trot bound for town and his best girl.

As soon as he saw her, Jess instinctively knew something was wrong.

Oh she was pleased enough to see him OK. Running around the bar and kissing his lips lightly before smiling up at him. “I so hoped you’d make it,” she said softly. “It’s been a while.”

“I know; I’m sorry, sweetheart. Been so dang busy, but I’ve missed you something fierce.” Then kissing her cheek, Jess whispered, “I’ll make it up to you later huh?”

She flushed a little at that and nodded before being called off to attend to a customer.

He watched her go and had a sudden feeling of unease. She was flushed with pleasure at seeing him sure, but there had been a faint slick of perspiration on her forehead too and her eyes were glittering — almost too brightly.

A short while later, Lily came and relieved her at the bar as Millie had arranged to take the later part of the evening off anyway, and she went and sat at a quiet table in the corner with Jess.

He nodded over to where Lily was still serving and said, “So you figured I’d turn up tonight, did you? Arranging for Lily to cover?”

She smiled at that and took his hand across the table. “No, not really. I wasn’t feeling too good earlier. It was Tom that insisted Lily stand in for me.”

“Oh sweetheart, you should have said if you were feelin’ sick. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Just a headache, feel kind of hot — it’ll pass.”

“I was gonna take you dancin’ but maybe a quiet night in would be better? “

She nodded looking relieved. ”You don’t mind?”

He shook his head and squeezed her hand affectionately. “Why would I? I’m still with you, ain’t I?”

A little while later, they made their way up to Millie’s cozy room and Jess insisted she lie on the couch by the fire while he made some coffee.

After a while he collapsed down beside her, lifting her legs up onto his lap, gently massaging her bare feet. “So how are you feeling now?” he asked anxiously.

“A little better. I guess it’s my own silly fault. I was out in that storm yesterday, got soaked and then I was late on duty and didn’t dry my hair properly. Just coming down with a cold, I guess.”

They chatted quietly for an hour or so until Jess noticed she was getting progressively worse. Now she was perspiring freely and looking flushed and feverish. When she started shivering too, he was even more concerned.

“Look you go get ready for bed, and I’ll settle you down with plenty of blankets,” Jess said, throwing another log on the fire.

It was when she rose to do as he suggested that she staggered and all but fainted, Jess catching her just in time. “Heck Mill, this ain’t no cold. I’m going for Doc Sam.”

“Don’t fuss, Jess; I’m OK,” she whispered.

He lay her gently back down on the couch and went and fetched a blanket from her bed before excusing himself.

Jess ran lightly down the stairs to the now quiet bar and marched over to Tom. “Can you or Lily go fetch Doc Sam?” he asked urgently. “I’m kinda worried about Millie; she just near passed out.”

“I’ll go,” said Lily at once, throwing her shawl around her shoulders and dashing across the road to Doctor Sam Baker’s office.

The good doctor was a great friend of all at the Sherman Ranch and shared a passion for fishing with Jess, spending many a happy hour out at the lake with his friend. Whilst he and his lovely daughter Carrie were frequent supper guests too. Now he bustled into Millie’s room in his usual cheery manner.

“I hear we’ve got a young lady who isn’t feeling too well?” Sam said, rubbing his hands together and beaming at Jess and then down at Millie.

“I’m OK, Doc,” Millie replied faintly. “It’s this old fuss pot of a boyfriend of mine,” she said throwing Jess a fond look.

“Yes, well, he was quite right to call me, so let’s take a good look at you. young lady.”

Jess took himself off to Millie’s little kitchen and brewed some more coffee while Sam went about the business of checking his patient, but he called him back shortly afterwards. “Well, I don’t think there is too much to fret about,” he said. throwing Jess a kindly look. “I reckon Millie here has got a severe chill after that dousing she had, but she should be on the mend after a good night’s sleep.”

Jess looked relieved.

“I’ll leave you some medicine to help you sleep, my dear. and I’ll call back tomorrow. I should send this young man packing,” he said with a grin in Jess’s direction. “You need your rest.”

Jess went to show him out and stood in the corridor for a moment with his buddy. “Are you sure she’s OK, Sam? She looks really bad?”

“She’ll be fine,” said Sam, slapping Jess’s arm reassuringly. “You did right to call me; these things can develop into lung fever,” he said softly, causing Jess’s eyebrows to shoot up in anxiety. “But not in this case, my dear chap. She’s young and healthy, and a good sleep should see her much improved by the morning,” Sam reassured him.

Jess just nodded. “You’re sure?”

“Sure as I can be, yes. Now you get off to the ranch and call back, say, tomorrow afternoon. I’m pretty sure she’ll be fine by then, or at least much more herself.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Jess said, shaking his good friend’s hand.

He turned back into Millie’s room and saw she was nearly asleep, cuddled down in her big comfy bed, the coverlet pulled up and the fire crackling brightly.

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed and gently brushed her hair off her still hot forehead. “You’ll be OK?” he asked.

She gave him a drowsy smile. ”Sure; Lily will pop in and check on me.”

“I don’t like to leave you…”

“Go on. I’ll be fine and I’ll only keep you awake if you stay over, being so darn hot. You need your rest, honey,” she said giving him a little push. “Go home; I’m fine.” She closed her eyes.

Jess stayed another ten minutes, and once he was sure she was asleep, kissed her tenderly on the forehead. As he reluctantly left the room, he bumped into Lily in the corridor.

“Is she OK?” Lily asked, looking worried.

“Yep, I guess; sleeping anyways.”

“That’s good. I’ll keep checking on her, don’t worry, Jess.” Lily gave him her warm, friendly smile.

”Thanks, Lily. Oh, I forgot; Slim sends his best, says he’ll see you next week, for definite, ok?”

She beamed at that, nodding, and he went off to find Traveler, asleep in the Livery, not expecting a journey back home at this late hour.

Jess rode quietly into the yard and went and put his horse up, imagining all the family were abed as it was now after midnight as he started to rub Traveler down. A few minutes later, he heard the barn door open and he swung around expecting to see Slim asking if his message had been delivered to Lily.

Then in the dim light from the overhead lantern, Jess saw Johnnie standing on the threshold, just staring.

Jess gave him a questioning look, saw him stagger and then noted a glint of light on the bottle he was holding. “Johnnie, you OK?” he asked, turning from his horse and walking out of the loose box.

The young man staggered again and Jess realized he was clearly very, very drunk. “Hey kid, what’ve you been up to?” he asked.

Johnnie fixed him with a furious look. ”More to the point, what have you been doing with my girl?”

“Huh?” asked Jess looking dazed.

“Millie. You’ve been with her tonight, haven’t you?”

Jess was suddenly angry. ”I guess that’s none of your damn business.”

“Well that’s where you’re wrong, Mr. God’s gift to women Harper,” Johnnie slurred.

Jess just raised an eyebrow and said nothing.

“Oh come on, don’t be so darned modest. All the women go for you. Harper, so I’ve been told. So why can’t you just leave my Millie alone?”

“She ain’t your Millie,” Jess said gruffly, “and you’re drunk.” Then he saw Slim enter the barn and said, “The kids gotten himself a bottle from somewhere.”

Slim wandered over. ”It’s late Johnnie; why don’t you turn in,” he said, trying to defuse the situation, seeing Jess was beginning to look far from calm.

“Can’t do that,” slurred Johnnie. “See, I have to talk to this womanizer. Convince him to leave the lovely Millie alone.”

“Womanizer!” spat Jess looking furious now.

“Sure. The kid, young Mike that is, told me all about the women that have been real special to this family. Well, to you, in particular. What did he say? Oh yeah, there was a Maria and someone called Flora. Hell, you did the bunkhouse up for that one; must have been real cozy! Goodness knows how many others along the way, so I guess that Millie is just one of the many. You’ll be ditching her sometime soon as well — and then I’ll claim her,” Johnnie finished, swaying and looking triumphant.

He never saw the blow coming. Jess just took one pace forwards and threw a haymaker that knocked the youngster clear across the barn. Then Jess went over and stood looking down at the semi-conscious boy and his glance flicked up to where Slim had joined him. “Get him out of here,” he said frighteningly quietly, “or I might just finish the job.”

*****

Slim entered their shared room a good half-hour later and saw his buddy was in bed but still awake. “So what was all that about?” he asked, sitting down on his own bed and peering across to where Jess had now hauled himself up on his pillows.

“Dunno, you tell me. I landed home and he was just there, drunk as a skunk and bawling me out about Millie bein’ his girl. Hell, you saw it, Slim!”

“OK, simmer down. Sure, pard, of course I did. I just can’t figure it, that’s all.”

“Well, Slim, I can. It’s obvious he’s still got the hots for Millie and he’s hell bound to try and get her.”

“Well he surely will be bound for hell if he tries to cross you. So why are you back tonight, anyway?” asked Slim.

“Millie’s sick; she needed to rest. I’ll ride back in tomorrow, I guess, see how she is.”

“She’ll be OK? “

“Oh yeah, I figure. She’s seen Sam; he don’t seem too bothered. Says it’s just a bad chill.”

Slim gave a sigh of relief. ”Well, that’s good. “

“So what about Johnnie then and where did he get that bottle from?” asked Jess.

Slim looked down and then back up at his buddy. “I hate to tell you but it was that last half bottle of moonshine you got from those Mountain folk you met a while back.”

“Hell Slim, we were saving that for Christmas!”

“Well I’m sorry, Jess; I guess you just didn’t hide it well enough in the barn,” said Slim, looking slightly amused.

“Hey, this ain’t no laughing matter! Have you forgotten he’s disrespected the memories of not only Maria, but also Flora, not to mention my goddamn reputation?” Jess spat angrily.

“Hey, steady there, buddy. He was really smashed and I don’t think he meant any of those things he said.”

“Meant them or not, I sure heard them…and so did you. I figure it’s time that kid sat up and took some notice — or I reckon he’s out of here, Slim. I’ve just about taken as much as I’m gonna.”

*****

The following morning Jess didn’t see Johnnie as he was still languishing in the bunkhouse nursing his hangover when Jess rode out to see Millie.

Jess tapped lightly on Millie’s door and a minute later he heard her calling for him to come in.

She was once more laid on the couch in front of a roaring fire, wrapped warmly in a pale blue woolly dressing gown. Her dark hair was framing her beautiful, if pale, face and her eyes now bright and healthy. Jess’s heart skipped a beat, thinking how lovely she looked.

She held out a hand to him and he strode over and sat down beside her. ”How are you, sweetheart?” he asked lovingly.

“Oh, just fine. Still a mite tired, but otherwise just fine,” she said with a warm smile.

Jess held her hand, gently caressing it with his thumb, and they chatted quietly for a while and then she glanced down at where his hand was still clasping hers.

“Hey cowboy, have you been fighting?” Millie asked as she noted the bruising to his knuckles.

Jess withdrew his hand, and rubbing it, cast her a rueful look. ”Not fighting really; just laid one on that bastard Johnnie Bradley last night.”

“Oh Jess, he’s not that bad. Just an impressionable kid, and I guess he can’t help having a crush. I think he took all the usual bar room chat and banter too seriously,” she said, looking sad.

“Um, well you didn’t hear what he was saying,” said Jess bitterly.

“Well was it about me again?”

“Some of it, yeah,” he replied.

“And he was drunk too, I imagine?”

“Yep. So how did you know?”

“Oh I figure it’s the only way he’d dare to rile you,” Millie said with a small smile.

“Well I’ve just about had enough of him. Life at the ranch is tough enough right now without his upsettin’ folk right, left and center.”

She sighed at that. “I still reckon he isn’t all that bad.”

“You do?” he asked looking surprised.

“Um. It can’t have been easy for him, losing his brother that way.”

Jess gave her a meaningful look. “It never is easy losing kin,” he said in a voice loaded with irony.

She squeezed his hand at that, knowing he was alluding to his own past. “I know, honey, but well, I guess Kenny was a hard act to follow.”

Jess raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Have you ever heard old man Bradley go on about his first born?” she asked.

He just shook his head.

“Well I have, in the bar here, to anyone who will listen,” Millie explained. “You’d think he was a darn saint — the best rancher, best soldier, and best son as ever lived. I reckon Johnnie couldn’t begin to compete with him so he just gave up. That’s why he shows no interest in the ranch; just setting himself up to fail, I guess.”

Jess thought back to his conversation earlier that month when he’d said he’d kinda turned Maria into some sort of saint in his own mind and could understand the way Nick Bradley was thinking. “Yeah, well, just as long as he don’t pull another stunt like he did last night…” Jess said darkly.

“He’s just young,” Millie said placatingly. And as for thinking he could make it with me? That’s crazy. Apart from anything else, he’s way too young and not my type,” she said with a little wink. ”You do know that?”

“Sure I do,” he said, squeezing her hand gently.

“The mustanging, how’s it going?” Millie asked, subtly changing the subject.

“OK, going well, and at least the kid seems to have some ability at workin’ the mustangs, if nuthin’ else.” Jess grinned. That ol’ Spirit seems to be seein’ sense now too. I’m thinkin’ of putting a saddle on him come next week,” he said, his face shining with enthusiasm.

“What, the one Mike called the Ghost? I thought he couldn’t be broke?”

“Well, you know what they say: ‘ain’t a horse that can’t be rode…’”

“’Ain’t a man as can’t be throwed’. I know. Just make sure you don’t get ‘throwed’ too darned hard. I want you all in one piece for the dance next Saturday.

*****

When Jess rode back into the ranch that Sunday afternoon, the place looked deserted, save for Johnnie, who made his way out of the barn as soon as he heard Jess ride in and tether Traveler to the corral fence.

Jess threw him a wary look as he approached. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

“Miss Daisy and Mike went to church and then visiting, and Slim’s out. A fence was down on the East pasture.”

“So why ain’t you helping him?” asked Jess irritably.

“I was going to but he said I was to stay here and wait for you. Besides…:

“What?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Oh, you do? “

“Yes… to apologize. Jeez, I’m so sorry for what I said, Jess; I was way out of order.”

The dark haired cowboy took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve before replacing it and casting the boy a quizzical look. “Is that you apologizin’ because you mean it, or because Slim told you to?” he asked.

“Oh, I mean it, right enough. But Slim did speak to me, explained about Maria and Flora. Hell, I never would have said what I did if I’d known they’d passed over. Mike never said, just that they were real special to you.”

“Yeah, well, he was mighty upset when they died. He lost his Ma and then when I was engaged to Maria, he got to start thinkin’ of her as his Ma. As for young Flora, well, she was like a big sister to him. He gets real troubled when he remembers how we lost them. That’s why he never said they were dead. Johnnie, you ain’t the only person sufferin’ loss of someone close, you know.” As they talked, they had been walking towards the house and now they sat down in the shade of the porch and the youngster looked down at his boots.

“I guess not,” Johnnie said quietly.

“So this brother of yours… Your Pa speaks real highly of him; seems he was a good rancher? “

“Oh yes,” said Johnnie bitterly. “Not just good, Jess, the best, best roper, best at doing the chores, best at herding the stock…you name it.”

“How about mustanging?” asked Jess, throwing him a questioning look.

The boy’s head shot up at that. “Nope, never did it. Like I said, Pa always buys ready broke.”

“Well if I get you all trained up in mustang breaking, guess he won’t have to any more, will he? I figure that would be something you’re better at than your Kenny too.”

The boy’s face lit up at that. ”You’d do that, Jess? You’d really help me?”

Jess just nodded. “Well, we’ve already made a start and you show promise, so I don’t see why not.”

“Why? After all I’ve done to you?”

“Because you need it,” said Jess softly. “And folk have given me a hand in the past when I’ve needed it.”

Johnnie took this on board and nodded. ”Thanks, Jess,” he said sincerely. Then softly, he asked, “I’m real sorry about Miss Millie. How is she?”

Jess gave him a speculative look. “She’s better today,” he said quietly. “She’ll be fine.”

“Good. And Jess, I’m sorry; real sorry for the way I’ve been with her, pestering her that way and everything. It’s just that I love her so much,” he whispered.

Jess gazed over at him and took a deep breath steadying himself. “No,” he said gently, “no you don’t, boy.”

Johnnie opened his mouth to protest, but Jess put a hand up to silence him. ”Listen, let me finish.”

The youngster just nodded.

“I know you think you do. You have all these strong feelings for her. But you don’t know her, Johnnie, not really. I figure you’ve just got yourself a case of good old fashioned lust.”

“No. Well, maybe, but she’s so sweet and funny and kind…and she made time for me, listened to me, talked to me like no other girl ever has.”

“Johnnie, it’s her job; it’s what she’s paid for, kid. To talk to the customers, laugh at their jokes. She’s a saloon hostess; that’s what she does for a living.”

Johnnie looked deeply shocked at this, although deep down, he knew the truth of it, but had denied it, just wanting to think that she thought of him as being special.

“Look, if she’s made you think there was more to it than that, then she’s sorry, real sorry. She says you’re a nice kid and I figure she wouldn’t like to think she’d hurt you. But, well, even if I wasn’t around, she wouldn’t date you. You’re a mite young for her, you see, Johnnie, and that’s a fact.”

“Honestly, she said that?”

“Yep. I know that seems kinda hard right now, but if you just accept it, well, I guess you never know who else is out there till you’ve gone lookin’, huh? “

Johnnie gave him the ghost of a smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right…if there is no chance.” Then he turned agonized eyes on his mentor. “Hell Jess, I’ve made such a fool of myself, haven’t I?”

“No more than any of us where women are concerned,” Jess said with a grin. Welcome to the club, buddy.”

*****

The following morning, Jess kept his promise to Johnnie. “I figure I’m comin’ to the end of the horse breaking contract for the Army, so you can help me with the last couple and I’ll help you out with your chores.”

“Really?” asked the youngster, looking pleased.

“Yep. And you know, Johnnie, every one of those chores is important. Sure they may be kinda boring, like feedin’ the chickens and splitting the kindling, but they all need doin’. We work as a team around here and it don’t really matter who does things as long as they’re done and done well.”

Johnnie nodded. ”I guess I never thought of it that way. See, Pa has hired help to do all that stuff and I guess I just take it for granted.”

Jess tipped his hat back and looked the boy firmly in the eye. “I guess our spread ain’t as big as your Pa’s and everyone has to pull their weight around here and take pride in what they do.”

“I see that now, Jess, and you know, I reckon I feel real good when I do stuff right, the way you and Slim have shown me. I guess I’m not as useless as I thought I was.”

Jess grinned over at him and punched his arm lightly. “Ok, go see if you can bring all the eggs in without smashing any and I’ll chop the firewood for you and then I’ll go get the first ride of the day ready.”

Slim wandered over to where Jess was splitting the kindling. “‘It really doesn’t matter who does the chores as long as they’re done well’,” he mimicked Jess. “Er, just remind me who was it that went ape when they were asked to feed and lock up the hens the other night?” he said with a smirk.

“Well, Hell Slim, I was all duded up for town, wasn’t I!”

“Uh, and who got all ornery when sweet Miss Daisy asked him to peg the washing out? Huh huh, all working as a team are we, eh, pard?”

“Look, I’m just tryin’ to encourage the kid. Millie reckons he’s had a crap deal since Kenny died, tryin’ to live up to his memory.”

Slim sobered then. ”Yeah, I’ve heard Nick talk about Kenny. I sometimes think he’s got the wrong boy,” he said with a faint grin. “Sure, Kenny was a good rancher, but he had his faults too, just like the rest of us. But the way his old man talks, well…”

“Exactly,” said Jess, “and that’s why I’m givin’ the kid another chance to try and prove himself,  maybe even impress his Pa, if he makes a halfway good horse breaker.”

Slim slapped his arm lightly. “I’m impressed, especially after the way he’s been with you. You’re a good man, Jess Harper…no matter what folk say!”

Jess grinned at him and then it sunk home as to what Slim had actually said and a scuffle ensued. That was followed by a chase round the yard, culminating with Jess wrestling Slim to the ground, making sure he was liberally coated in dust and debris before releasing him, both men laughing uproariously.

Daisy, having the back door open, had also heard Jess’s little homily to Johnnie, and now came to the door and called out, “Er, if you boys have finished ‘working together as a team’, breakfast’s ready.

Jess worked hard with Johnnie all that day, teaching him some more of the intricacies of horse whispering. The boy was an attentive learner and worked hard with excellent results.

At the end of the day, Jess slapped him on the back and said, “I guess we’ll make a cowboy of you yet!” The young man glowed with pleasure, a completely different boy to the one who had arrived just a few short weeks ago.

Later that evening, as Slim was getting ready for bed, he looked over to where his buddy was already stretched out, hands laced behind his head, looking tired but relaxed.

“Well, you sure did a good job with the kid today,” said Slim, coming over and sitting down on the edge of his own bed, a towel still around his shoulders from his recent ablutions. ”So why do think he’s changed?”

Jess looked thoughtful. ”I dunno. My approach to him, I guess. Deciding to give him another go. We talked things through, about his Pa’s attitude and all. I reckon he just needed someone to believe in him.”

Slim nodded. “Yeah, that’s good, Jess, real good.”

“Then of course there was that haymaker I landed on him. Reckon that helped focus his mind some too,” said Jess with his cheeky grin. “In fact, if you’d have let me beat some sense into him when he’d first arrived, we’d have saved ourselves one heck of a lot of trouble, you know, Slim.”

Slim’s eyebrows shot up and he shook his head. “And here was me thinking you’d got all caring and understanding in your old age,” he said chuckling.

*****

The following morning, Jess decided to start working on Spirit, aka The Ghost. As he went out to the corral, the early morning mist was still drifting around. Then the big grey stallion suddenly emerged from the haze, looking just as ghostly as Mike had once described him when they had first caught the animal. Jess chuckled to himself; he truly looked like a ghost horse as he merged back into the mist, seeming to disappear like some phantom.

Jess smiled. “You may be good at the disappearing act and look like a ghost, but I figure Spirit suits you better because you sure ain’t short of that, boy.”

At the sound of Jess’s voice, the big horse came forward out of the now slowly rising mist and blew through his nostrils in welcome anticipation of the sugar he knew was to come, the desire for the sweet treat greater than his wanderlust, for a few short moments at least.

Jess offered the sugar lump and caressed the horse’s nose for a few minutes before the great creature galloped off, tossing his mane as he clattered around the corral.

“Guess we’ll make a half decent mount of you yet,” Jess whispered. “And as soon as you’re broke, I’ll ride you over to the fort and show Major Adams,” he finished with a determined smile. Ain’t no ol’ mustang goin’ to get the better of me, he thought privately before turning back to the house and breakfast.

Jess spent the rest of the day working on the wayward animal with Johnnie, Slim and Mike cheering from the side-lines, wincing in dismay when Jess took yet another fall. That was to be the pattern for the rest of the week, in between doing all the other chores necessary to keep the ranch and relay ticking over.

However, by the Saturday afternoon, things were looking good and Jess was in complete control as the big grey made his way around the corral, acting like the perfect gentleman.

It was just Slim in attendance, and Jess slipped down from the saddle and caressed the critter’s velvety nose, “See, Slim, gentle as a kitten.”

“Uh, I seem to remember you saying that once before. But Major Adams said he’d bolted a couple of times, then kicked out and broke a trooper’s leg! That’s why they loosed him back into the wild if you remember rightly, Jess.”

Jess’s head swung round. “Yeah, and if you remember rightly, I’d only just broken him when the Army collected the mustangs early. This way I can keep an eye on him, be sure he’s completely gentled, and it takes time; you know that, Slim.”

Slim just shook his head, eyeing the beautiful horse warily.

“What?”

“I don’t know, Jess. There is something about that critter that reminds me of you when you first landed here.”

“Huh?” exclaimed Jess is surprise.

“Yeah, that look in his eye. Seen it in yours too. See, look at him now, way he’s looking out at the hills, kind of sad and yearning to be off out there.”

“You’re crazy,” said Jess, grinning at his buddy. “It’s a horse. He’s probably thinkin’ on his dinner, or that pretty little Palomino filly of Mike.” He shook his head chuckling.

“Yep, just the same as you,” insisted Slim. “Kinda likes the idea of being domesticated, and then the big open calls and he’ll be off. Sort of edgy and ornery just the same as you were too…still are sometimes,” he said laughing and avoiding the swipe Jess threw at his head.

Just then their banter was rudely interrupted by a neighbor riding hard into the yard.

Pete Baxter was looking real worried as he dismounted and walked quickly over.

“Hey Pete,” said Slim, “you’re looking in a hurry. Where’s the fire?”

“Isn’t any fire, Slim,” said the tall rancher nodding to Jess and then looking back to Slim. “I’ve got one of my prime heifers stuck in my waterhole. Been trying to pull her free this last hour and I’m fair tuckered out. Could you two give me a hand? Figure the three of us should be able to do it.”

Traveler, Alamo, Johnnie’s mount Lee and Mike’s Sunny were all tethered near the corral and it didn’t take the men a moment to jump to their neighbor’s rescue.

“Johnnie, Mike,” yelled Slim and the two ran out of the barn which they had been cleaning out. “We’re going to help Pete out. We won’t be long. Once the barns done, put up your mounts for the night ok?”

“Sure,” nodded Johnnie and Mike in unison.

“Oh and can you take off Spirit’s saddle and loose him in the big corral for me, Johnnie? I’ve tied the reins; just lead him over OK?” added Jess. Then grinning, he added, “Reckon it’s early days but I figure I’ve just about broke him.”

“Gee that’s swell, Jess! Yep, I’ll look after him. See you later.”

With that, the ranchers rode out at speed.

Once they had gone, Johnnie wandered over to the corral and watched the big grey moodily stomping about. The big horse was looking highly displeased that Jess had taken off, leaving the saddle and bridle in place and he wanted rid and a good roll.

Then Johnnie suddenly made a snap decision, and vaulting the corral fence, he made his way slowly over towards the big horse. After a moment of gentling him, Johnnie leapt lightly into the saddle. At first he was amazed that the big horse seemed to take it in his stride and walked slowly on as Johnnie hesitantly kneed him forwards.

Meanwhile Mike had climbed up on the fence and was watching in dismay. “You really shouldn’t be riding him, Johnnie,” he called out. “Jess has tied the reins; he just meant for you to lead him out.”

“He’s fine, kid; stop your fretting,” said Johnnie, now proudly sitting the big animal. “I’ll ride him over to the holding corral; just open the gate.”

Mike sighed deeply. “Jess won’t like it.”

Johnnie threw him a disparaging glance. ”He won’t know, will he. Now just get the gate, kid; come on, hurry up.”

Mike ran over and opened the gate of the large corral a few yards away, making it easy for Johnnie to ride straight in, and then reluctantly came and opened the gate of the working corral, pulling it wide to let horse and rider through.

All the time Johnnie had been in the saddle, Spirit had been getting more and more restless. At first, he thought it was the dark haired cowboy with the firm, but kind hands that brooked no arguments. He was getting used to the feel of him on his back, the strong confident way he sat, the odd gentle caress to his arched neck and whispered endearment.

But this person felt hesitant and nervous. There was no confidence in his behavior and no reassuring pat or whispered comments, and Spirit felt at first uneasy and then irritated. Suddenly feeling that the rider was not in control, he seized his moment. He reared and then bucked, throwing Johnnie hard before bolting out of the corral across the yard and up the rise towards the Laramie road.

Mike ran over and helped the hapless boy up. ”You OK?”

“Sure, just winded, I guess.” Then as he saw the big grey disappearing in a cloud of dust, Johnnie cussed and ran to his horse, which was still tethered alongside Mike’s Palomino pony by the corral.

“Where are you going?” gasped Mike running after him.

“To catch that darn critter, of course, or Jess will flay me alive,” Johnnie yelled, leaping into the saddle and galloping out of the yard.

Mike mounted his pony, Sunny, and followed, just as Daisy came out of the house to see what all the shouting was about and was just in time to see both boys ride off up the rise at speed. She called after them, but they were too far away to hear, and in a minute, disappeared from view.

She looked anxiously towards the empty corral which had contained that dreadful big white horse Jess seemed so taken with. Then she looked out to the rise again, hoping upon hope that Jess and Slim would be home soon to sort the matter out.

Daisy even considered hitching up the buckboard and following them, but doubted the runaway would stick to the main road. So she reluctantly returned to the house to await the young cowboys return. As she was about to enter, Daisy heard the ominous rumble of thunder which had been rolling around the sky all afternoon. She looked up and saw the dark advancing thunderheads and then a flash of lightening. Her old heart becoming even more troubled as she went inside to await the rancher’s arrival.

Slim and Jess were cold, drenched and muddy on their return an hour or so later. Then as if being soaked pulling the terrified heifer out of the waterhole wasn’t bad enough, low and behold the heavens opened on their ride back, making them even more wet and irritable.

“Garldarnit,” muttered Jess, “darned Wyoming weather! What’s more, we’ll be late for the dance in town tonight by the time we’ve cleaned up and dried off.”

“Well can’t be helped, pard; we couldn’t leave old Pete in a spot.”

“No I guess not,” agreed Jess. “But I think…”

Then his mouth snapped shut and Slim was never to hear what else Jess thought on the subject as they entered the yard and saw both corral gates wide open and no sign of Mike, Johnnie, their mounts…or Spirit.

“Check the barn,” said Slim urgently, but Jess immerged moments later and shook his head.

“No sign of Sunny or Lee. Guess Spirit broke free and they’ve hightailed after him,” Jess said gruffly.

Then Daisy was at the door wringing her hands in distress. “Oh thank goodness you’re back!” She said. “The boys are chasing that awful big horse of yours, Jess…and in this terrible weather too!” Casting her eyes to the heavens where the storm was still raging with thunder clashing above and the dark sky constantly being illuminated with slashes of lightening, she turned frightened eyes to the men.

“How long?” asked Jess looking apprehensive.

“At least an hour. Oh dear, I just didn’t know what to do. They were gone so quickly. I called but they were up the rise and never heard me.”

“It’s alright, Daisy,” said Slim, reassuringly patting her arm. “There was nothing you could do. Now don’t fret; we’ll bring them back in one piece. Just try not to worry; they’ll be fine.”

“Oh no they won’t,” muttered Jess as they made their way back to their horses. “That Johnnie will be far from fine when I get hold of him.”

“Oh come on, Jess; you don’t know it was his fault.”

Jess said nothing, just pulled his hat down hard and narrowed his eyes against the driving rain, but Slim knew that look of old and just hoped Johnnie had a good excuse.

They had been riding for over an hour, but the terrible weather had fast destroyed any tracks they could follow and they were just continuing in the general direction where the first tracks had led.

Finally the storm passed over and then the late sun broke through, and after a while, the whole of the hillside was shrouded in mist.

Jess reined Traveler in and cast his buddy an anguished glance. “Just great. First we lose the tracks and now we can barely see a few yards ahead.”

“Well we have to carry on,” said Slim. “It’ll be dark in a few hours and it gets mighty chilly out here at night. They’ll be cold, wet, and Mike will be kinda scared too, I guess.”

“Do you think I don’t know that!” spat Jess angrily.

Slim cast him a wary look but said nothing.

After a moment, Jess apologized. “Gee, I’m sorry, Slim. I guess I’m feeling kinda guilty; I should have tended to Spirit before we lit out, not left it to that greenhorn.”

“Well, Pete was real distressed, and anyway, the kid should have been able to simply put him in the corral, for goodness sake.”

Then Jess’s head suddenly shot up. “Hell Slim, what’s that?”

Slim peered through the mist. “Can’t see anything.”

“Look, over there by those pines. It’s Spirit, Slim. Come on.”

“Jess, wait,” Slim said urgently. “Just take it real easy. You spook him, you’ll never find him in this fog.”

“OK, OK. Come on.”

The big grey seemed to be aware of their presence, but just kept tantalizingly out of roping distance, and Jess knew that if he took off in these conditions, they would lose him.

After half an hour or so, Jess turned to his buddy and whispered, “This is really weird, Slim; it’s almost as though he’s leading us somewhere.”

Slim gave him a small smile. “Yeah, leading us on a merry dance.”

Then Jess looked suddenly serious. “Hang on. If we’ve found him and we’re an hour behind Johnnie and Mike, well, how come they haven’t already spotted him?”

Slim looked equally serious. “Maybe they’re in trouble?”

“Well, that don’t surprise me none,” said Jess darkly. ”A little kid and a tenderfoot taking off in these conditions, it would be kinda strange if they weren’t in trouble of some sort. Let’s just hope it ain’t too serious.”

As it turned out, things could have been worse, as Jess said later anyway.

They continued following the big grey mustang. Then after another ten minutes or so, the horse whinnied loudly, and a moment later, the cry was returned.

“Hell, Slim that sounds like Sunny.” Jess spurred his mount on, closely followed by Slim.

They had crested the hill and were halfway down the other side when they saw Sunny and Lee ground hitched beneath some huge pines, and at their approach Johnnie ran forwards to greet them. “Thank God you’ve found us. It’s Mike…”

Jess was off his horse in a split second and had sprinted the few feet to where Mike was lying beneath the pines, with Slim hard on his heels.

His eyes wide with fear, Jess crouched down by the unconscious youngster and then he glared up at Johnnie. “What in hell happened to him?”

The young man flushed up looking uncomfortable. “We were trying to catch Spirit, and as we came down this side of the hill, there was a flash flood. The whole hill seemed to be moving and Sunny there lost his footing and Mike was thrown. Hit his head real bad. Gee, I’m so darn sorry,” Johnnie whispered, ducking his head.

“You will be,” muttered Jess darkly. Then turning to an anxious Slim, he asked, “Can you get a canteen?”

Both men then hunkered down by the child, bathing his face with the cool water as Johnnie slunk off, feeling he was just in the way.

After a moment, the child came around and groaned.

“Mike? Hey Tiger, are you OK?” asked Jess anxiously.

The youngster’s eyes tried to focus on Slim and Jess, and after a moment, he whispered, “You’ve come; I knew you would.”

“So how are you feeling?” asked Slim again.

“I’m OK, just kind of sick and dizzy. My head hurts something powerful.”

The men exchanged an anxious glance. “I figure we’d better let him rest tonight. How far are we from that old shack by the river?” asked Jess, looking around him.

“Good idea. About ten minutes, I guess, across county. At least it’ll be dry and we can light a fire get him warmed up some.”

Jess picked the youngster up tenderly and placed him on Traveler’s back before jumping up behind him, wrapping a protective arm around the child, who lay back feeling safe in his hero’s firm grip.

Jess flicked a glance over to where Johnnie stood looking on, a mixture of fear and shock on his young face. “You bring Mike’s pony,” Jess said gruffly before kneeing his mount on to a steady walk.

They arrived at the shack shortly and Johnnie went to tend to the horses whilst Jess looked after a very tired and sore Mike. Slim made up a fire and managed to throw together a scratch meal. Luckily they kept supplies there for the odd occasion they used the place when fishing that stretch of the river or just resting over after working on that far flung corner of the ranch.

It was once Mike had at last fallen into a fitful sleep, snuggled down in a blanket in front of the blazing fire, that Jess finally turned his stony gaze on Johnnie. “Well?” he said gruffly, “And this better be good.”

The young man ducked his head before finally managing to meet Jess’s angry gaze. “I guess it was all my fault, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

“Do what?” asked Slim gently.

Johnnie’s eyes swiveled to the tall rancher and threw him a look of gratitude. “That I could ride Spirit without being throwed. Jess said he was about broke and I just wanted to try him out. So I rode him across to the other corral — well, tried to anyway — instead of leading him like you said,” he finished in a whisper.

“Why you stupid garldarn fool! Haven’t you listened to a thing I’ve taught you!” Jess sighed in exasperation. “I explained how you have to get the critter’s confidence. Sure, he was gentle with me, but I told you it was early days. It takes weeks for an animal like that to accept just any rider!” he spat angrily.

“Jess, simmer down,” said Slim, nodding to where Mike was sleeping. “You’ll wake him up sounding off that way.”

“Well, what do you want me to say?” asked Jess, turning on his partner, albeit in a slightly moderated tone. “The boy done wrong and he has to be told.”

“OK, well, you’ve told him, so let’s all get some shut eye, huh?”

“There’s somethin’ else too, Slim,” Jess continued.

“Huh, what’s that? “

“We just done stood up our girls and I figure there will be hell to pay when we finally get into town.”

Slim turned pale at the thought of upsetting his beloved Lily. “Oh Jeez, you’re right, pard,” and he turned less than forgiving eyes on Johnnie.

*****

The following morning, they were mighty relieved to see Mike back to his usual cheerful self, with little to show for the adventure but a small bump to the back of his head.

Jess took Johnnie to one side. “You’re sure lucky, because if the boy had been hurt bad, I’d have had your hide! You know that, don’t you?”

The young man nodded vigorously. ”Sure and I’m real sorry, Jess. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’ll get him back for you.”

“Oh no. Oh no you don’t. You fetch after him and we’ll never see him again. Have you forgotten that poor critter is still wearing a saddle? He’ll be real sore and uncomfortable by now and I’ve got to catch him real quick.”

Johnnie sighed, looking wretched. “Well, can I help at least?”

Jess looked over to where Slim and Mike were saddling up. “What do you think, pard? You OK to take Mike home if me and Johnnie go after Spirit?”

Slim nodded giving his friend a warm smile, glad that his attitude towards Johnnie had thawed a little. “Sure and you’ll probably be glad of the help. Took the two of us to hold him when we caught him, if you remember?”

Jess pulled his hat down hard. “Take care, Tiger; be back soon. See you, Slim.”

Then turning to Johnnie with a deep sigh, Jess said, “OK, come on then, kid.”

After mounting, Jess spurred Traveler off in the direction they had last seen the big grey.

The morning was again misty, the strong sun not yet having burnt through. It was about an hour later when Jess saw the ethereal form of Spirit drifting in and out of the mist several yards ahead of them. Then the big horse caught their scent and galloped off at speed, with Jess chasing him, followed by Johnnie hard on his heels.

It was a long hard ride and Jess almost felt like he wanted to give up hounding the magnificent creature, but they had come this far and had to carry on. Finally their persistence paid off and the big horse slowed his pace some, obviously exhausted, enabling Jess to get a rope on him.

Then everything seemed to happen at once as far as Johnnie was concerned. Jess was pulled from the saddle, but hung on to the rope like grim death, his typical Harper stubborn streak kicking in. Then Johnnie managed to get a rope on the stallion too and eventually the men had him, kicking and screaming in anger, but once more restrained.

Jess stood up from where he’d been unceremoniously dragged along in the dirt for several yards. After brushing himself down with his hat, he cast Johnnie a triumphant grin. “Well done, kid.” He eventually made his way over to the big horse, talking softly to him, and after a few minutes, Spirit was calm enough for Jess to fondle his nose. The horse accepted a sugar lump, blowing down his nostrils and to all the world looked to be tamed once more.

Johnnie stood back scratching his head. ”I just don’t get it, Jess. He was half-crazy a few minutes ago and now he looks as gentle as a lamb.”

Jess just shook his head. “I dunno; figure he’s a kinda mixed up critter. He don’t know if he wants to be domesticated or keep his freedom. Pulled in both directions, I reckon,” he said softly.

“So what do we do?”

“Take him back, of course. This old fellah is worth a lot of money to us, Johnnie, and the amount of work I’ve put in on him, well, I guess I ain’t givin’ up on him now. With that, they started to make their way back to the ranch.

*****

The incident regarding Mike’s accident and the part Johnnie had played was forgiven by the ranchers, but not completely forgotten. Certainly not by Jess, anyway, and he kept a sharp eye on the young man, especially around Mike. But there was no repeat of his thoughtless behavior. In fact, Johnnie was becoming a valuable member of the team. His horse whispering skills were slowly improving; the two mustangs he had been given to work on green broke and ready for schooling on.

Johnnie’s Pa had visited once or twice and told Slim he was highly impressed by his son’s progress. However, he didn’t share his sentiments with the boy but rather just told him to keep his head down and work hard.

Jess, who had been sitting on the corral fence watching the youngster work one of the horses, during Nick Bradley’s latest visit, saw the look on his face at his father’s brusque words and suddenly felt a stab of pity for the boy. He swung down from his seat on the fence and walked over to where Nick Bradley was now preparing to mount up and go home.

“Can I have a minute?” asked Jess gruffly.

Nick raised an eyebrow at Jess’s somewhat abrupt tone. “Well, sure, Jess. So what’s the boy done now?” he said with a hefty sigh.

Jess knitted his expressive eyebrows. ”Nuthin’, least ways nuthin’ wrong. In fact, he’s doin’ real well, really taken to the horse whispering. You can see that for yourself, can’t you, Nick?”

“Why sure; he’s handling that nag like a professional. You’ve done a real good job teaching him, Jess, and I appreciate it.”

Jess just shook his head and threw him a hard look. ”That ain’t it, Nick. I don’t want your thanks, but don’t you think you should tell him if you think he’s done well?”

The older man looked troubled, and then embarrassed. “I guess he knows how I feel. I said he’d done a good job didn’t I?”

Jess sighed deeply. ”Sure you told me, but not Johnnie. I figure he’d like to hear it from you.”

Nick nodded and then slowly dismounted. “If you think so.”

Jess nodded. “And I figure you can tell me it’s none of my goddamn business, but I reckon the kid don’t think he can hold a candle to your Kenny. I think that’s been his problem. He feels he’s just setting himself up to fail all the time in your eyes. I guess you’ve set the bar kinda high for him, Nick.”

Nick Bradley flushed up an angry color and Jess wondered if he’d over-stepped the mark and Bradley was about to punch him. However, Bradley just clenched his fists and took several deep breaths before glaring at Jess.

After a minute or so, though, the glare softened and Bradley gave the young cowboy the ghost of a smile. “You know what, son? Nobody has ever had the courage to stand up to me and say that before. All the times I’ve bragged about young Kenny… Hell, I’ve turned him into a darn saint, I guess.” He sighed deeply and looked down before fixing Jess with his weary gaze again. “Truth is, he was just an ordinary man like the rest of us poor sinners. Some good points, some not so good. And I guess I’d kinda forgotten that. Thanks, Jess.” He patted Jess’ arm before walking over to speak to his second — and only surviving — son.

After he’d gone, Johnnie wandered over to where Jess was getting the replacement team ready for the noon stage and beamed at him. “I don’t know what you said to Pa, but he was real nice to me! Really treated me like an equal and even wants me to do some horse breaking back at our place for him,” the youngster said, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

Jess grinned across at the lad. “I figure maybe we’d better let you get off home soon then, once those last two critters are ready to go. The military will be picking them up before too long and I can get back to ranch work. That means you’re out of a job.”

Johnnie beamed at him and then sobered. “You know what? I guess I’m just about getting used to it around here. I figure I might even miss you all.” He wandered cheerfully back to work, Jess shaking his head and grinning at his retreating back.

Once Johnnie had returned home, life at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station returned to normal, with Slim and Jess busy bringing the stock down for the winter.

Jess also continued working with Ghost aka Spirit and was finding it hard going.

“I just don’t understand that critter, Slim,” Jess said one evening as they were leaning on the corral fence watching the big stallion mooching about looking decidedly moody. “Sometimes I think I’ve cracked him and he’s as kind and gentle as you could ask a horse to be. Then he just kicks off and seems like he gets the old Devil in his soul and he just wants out. I don’t reckon we dare sell him on again.”

“So what are you saying? We keep him here on the ranch as a working horse?”

“Uh, I reckon that’s all we can do. He’ll be useful as an extra mount, I guess.”

Slim turned to his buddy. “Why do I get the feeling your heart isn’t in this, Jess?”

Jess sighed deeply looking at the horse. ”I dunno. I guess a big part of me don’t wanna be beat. Hell, you know we’ve never had a mustang that’s gotten the better of me. And yet, Slim…”

“And yet?”

“And yet, well, I guess it sounds kinda stupid, but what you were saying about him, way back. About him looking out and yearning for the Big Open. You said he was kinda like me?”

“Yep, I did, and you said he was thinking on his dinner and Mike’s cute little filly was all?”

Jess nodded and gave his buddy a sad smile. “I guess that’s part of what’s keeping him here. That and regular feeds, sugar lumps and a whole lotta sweet talkin’. But I reckon that’s maybe not enough.” He turned sadly away.

It was the following week that Spirit was to prove his true worth.

It was again a stormy afternoon, and the men were tired and wet when they returned early from bringing the cattle down to the lower pastures. Jess was riding Spirit.

It was a Sunday, and as Jess had promised, he had allowed Mike to help. It was as they were nearly home that the incident happened.

They were just rounding up some strays and getting them safely in the North pasture when a deafening clap of thunder overhead upset all the mounts. Unfortunately, Mike had dismounted and was just latching the field gate. He didn’t have a good hold on his reins and Sunny reared at the sudden clamor overhead and took off at full gallop leaving the youngster afoot.

It was a good five minutes before Jess and Slim were alerted to the problem as they were way over the other side of the pasture dealing with some more errant steers.

“Hey Tiger, you OK? Where’s Sunny?” asked Jess as they rode up sometime later.

The youngster was near to tears, but rallied well. ”She took off! That thunder was right over us! She spooked and tore off that way,” the boy said pointing to the horizon and holding back the tears.

“OK Tiger, don’t fret,” said Jess kindly. ”You hop up on Alamo with Slim, and me and Spirit will go find her. “

“You sure you can find her, Jess? It’s getting awful dark out there.”

“Sure I can, Tiger. It’s just good luck as I was ridin’ ol’ Spirit here. You know how fond he is of her; he’ll find her before you know it,” Jess said, grinning at the youngster. Then turning to Slim, he said softly, “I guess it is getting kinda murky; may have to stay out, Slim. Tell Daisy I’ll be back as soon as I can, huh…maybe tomorrow?”

“Jess, you really don’t want to be out in this weather,” said Slim anxiously.

“Don’t wanna be, but I guess I need to be. You know how he feels about that little pony, Slim; I’ve gotta find her.” With that he rode off at speed, the lightening sending slashes through the ever darkening sky.

Jess and Spirit had been riding for a good half hour before they finally saw the little Palomino in the distance, skittering about and looking terrified of the still raging storm.

Jess reined Spirit in, not wanting to startle the other horse, but then the big stallion whinnied shrilly, calling out to Sunny. A moment later she answered and started walking hesitantly towards the man and horse.

Then it took Jess no time at all to rope the pony and lead her quietly home through the raging storm.

As soon as the two horses clattered into the yard an hour or so later, the ranch house door was thrown open and Slim, Mike and Daisy came pouring out to meet them.

Mike was ecstatic at having his pony safely back and didn’t know who to cuddle first, Jess or Sunny.

In the end, Daisy insisted that Mike must come into the warmth, as must Jess, who was now soaking wet. So Slim was finally dispatched to deal with the mounts, much to Jess’s chagrin. “Heck Daisy, I need to see to my horse you know.”

“Well, I’m sure you think you do, dear, but Slim is quite capable. You, young man, are soaked to the skin. Now go strip off and get into some dry clothes. Once you’re done, there will be chicken broth waiting for you.” Then Daisy turned her attentions to Mike. “And you, dear, have already been put to bed once. Shoo now, off you go. It’s chilly out here, dear. There will be time enough to see your pony tomorrow.”

Jess and Mike exchanged a sympathetic glance. “Go on, Tiger,” said Jess softly. ”I guess Aunt Daisy’s right; we’ll check ‘em out tomorrow. OK, buddy?”

The child nodded and yawned hugely before disappearing back indoors to his room. “Night, Jess, Aunt Daisy,”

Slim headed off to tend the horses, much to Jess’ chagrin. With a woebegone look over his shoulder, he watched Slim lead Spirit and Sunny to the barn. Slim glanced back with a huge grin on his face and as the barn door was closing. Jess thought he heard a loud guffaw. Jess sighed deeply; now his pard was gonna spend the evening teasing him about being petticoat-bossed. Gee, life could be so unfair.

The following day, all were up early and Jess and Mike’s first port of call was the barn and their beloved mounts; that’s where Slim caught up with them a little later.

Jess had groomed Traveler and had started on Spirit when Slim marched in proclaiming breakfast was ready.

“I’ll be right there,” called Jess as he continued the rhythmical brushing of the big horse.

Slim came and leaned on the stall door and threw his buddy an indulgent look. “You’ve got real fond of that ornery old fellah, haven’t you, Jess?”

Jess turned and gave his partner a small smile. “Yeah, guess I have. Figure you’re right; we are kinda alike.”

“Uh, well, come on, pard; grubs up.” Both men retreated to the house and Daisy’s awaiting breakfast. Once Daisy was making a start on the dishes and Mike had been dispatched to school on the early morning stage, the two friends lingered at the breakfast table over a final cup of coffee.

“So what are you going to do, use him as a spare mount for when Traveler’s resting?” asked Slim, once more returning to the subject of the big grey stallion.

“Yep, I guess old Trav there deserves the odd day off. I don’t like to work him too hard, especially in this weather,” Jess said, tipping his head towards the window where the heavens had opened once more.

Slim sighed deeply. “I don’t like working in this weather either. But I guess we don’t have any choice if we’re to get the rest of those steers down this side of Thanksgiving,” he said with a tired grin. “Come on, pard; let’s get to it.”

By the time they’d saddled up, the rain had decreased to a thin drizzly mist. As Jess rode on ahead of Slim on Spirit, he did his usual trick of disappearing into the misty morning air, and Slim chuckled to himself. The grey looked more ghost than horse once more.

Shortly afterward, Slim and Jess split up, heading in opposite directions, hunting down stray steers and arranging to meet up for a break at noon, down by the river.

As Slim approached the river, he was pleased to see a plume of smoke rising through the now clear sky. A few minutes later, he reined Alamo in beside the fire Jess had lit, the coffee pot already in place. “Well you didn’t hang around,” said Slim dryly as he dismounted. “I thought we weren’t breaking ‘til noon; looks like you’ve been here a while, pard. You working part-time then?”

“No I ain’t workin’ part-time,” came the gruff reply. “Was just in need of a restorative, that’s all.”

“Oh dear, have those old steers been giving you a hard time?” said Slim in mock sympathy, leaning down and ruffling his buddy’s hair.

“Grr,” said Jess irritably. “It was that wretched horse, if you must know. He got wind of something — a dang female mustang most likely — and just took off. It was darned hard to turn him, I’ll tell you, Slim.”

Slim threw him a look of genuine concern. “You OK? “

“Oh sure; found me a whole bunch of strays down in the gully too. I left ‘em back with their buddies in the North pasture. How about you?”

“Yep, found a few.” Then Slim went over and patted Spirit. “He looks OK now.”

“Well I’m glad he is,” said Jess sarcastically. “Because I sure ain’t got my breath back yet.”

*****

The following morning Slim was awoken at first light by Jess moving about their shared room. “Hey, what’s up Jess? You sick or something?”

“Huh? No, why?”

“Well it must have taken something for you to get up so early, pard. What’re you doing?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago. Got some business. See you later,” Jess said gruffly, with that, marched out of the room a grim look on his face.

After a few minutes. Slim’s curiosity got the better of him and he quickly dressed and marched over to the barn where his buddy was saddling up Spirit.

“Where in hell are you off to?” asked Slim, scratching his head and looking bleary eyed.

“Told you got some business.”

“Jess?”

Jess sighed deeply and turned from his task. “I’m gonna loose out Spirit. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

Slim looked astounded. “Sure it is…well, it was. But heck, Jess, you’re real fond of him. I guess he’s a bit of a liability, but you can handle him. I reckon you proved that yesterday.”

Jess just ignored him, and after putting his rope around Traveler, he jumped up on Spirit and rode slowly out of the barn, leading the bay.

Slim sighed again and shook his head. “I’ll come with you. Maybe pick up a rabbit or two if you’re so darned set on going out early.”

“Free country,” replied Jess laconically as he kneed the big grey on to a steady trot. Slim hastily saddled Alamo and caught up with his buddy a way down the track. They rode on through the early morning light, heading to where they had been the day before — the place where Spirit had got wind of the small herd of wild mustangs passing through to their winter grazing.

After a while, the two men crested a hill overlooking the plain, the river snaking its way through the open countryside below them. Shortly afterwards, they were rewarded by a sighting of the group of mustangs as they made their way down to the river to drink.

“I thought they’d be here,” said Jess, turning his deep blue eyes on his buddy. “Just a small group mainly females and a few young ‘uns.” Absently patting the big horse’s neck, Jess said with a faint smile, “Shouldn’t be too much competition for you down there, fellah; looks like you’ve got yourself a harem.”

At first sight of the herd, Spirit’s ears had pricked forwards and now he let out a loud trumpeting whinny and several of the horses below looked up in his general direction.

After a moment, Jess patted his neck again and then slid down from the saddle and started stripping him of his tack. Finally he unbuckled the bridle, and the horse stood for a moment, looking back at Jess as though he couldn’t believe his luck, shaking his mane at the wonderful feeling of freedom he suddenly experienced.

“Well, go on, fellah, what are you waiting for?” said Jess softly.

The horse turned back one last time and looked the cowboy in the eye, then he shook his head again and let out another shrill cry before charging down the hill towards the waiting herd.

*****

It was much later that night before Jess and Slim discussed the day’s events.

Jess had been very quiet on the way back, and even taking a few pot shots at some unsuspecting rabbits did little to lighten his mood; later he had gone off chasing strays again.

Now he was seated on the porch, where he had been ensconced since supper, and was looking out to the spectacular sunset when his pard joined him.

Slim wandered out with a couple of coffee cups and said softly, “Want some company?”

Jess just nodded and accepted the cup absently. “Thanks.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while, sipping their drinks, before Slim turned to his friend and said softly, “So why did you do it, Jess?”

Jess instinctively knew his buddy was talking about him liberating Spirit. After a moment, he turned and said, “I just kinda thought it was the right thing to do.”

“Go on.”

“I guess I’ve got to thinking about a lot of stuff lately, well, since Johnnie joined us anyways.”

Slim just nodded for him to continue.

“Well Johnnie’s problems all stemmed from his Pa. The way Nick Bradley had turned Kenny into something he wasn’t, some kinda perfect hero. The old man had to let go of that idea, see Kenny the way he really was, and then he was able to give young Johnnie a chance.”

Slim smiled at that. ”Yeah; he said you’d done some straight talking.”

“Well, it needed saying and anyway I could kinda see where he was coming from. I guess I’d been the same about Maria — turned her into some sorta saint — and she weren’t; we both know that,” Jess said, turning sad eyes on his buddy. He swallowed and looked out to the horizon again. “She was just a wonderful, beautiful girl. But jeez, she could be trouble too,”  he said now, his eyes twinkling for a moment, at the memory of the way the sparks would fly between them, and then the joys of making up, and he sighed deeply.

Slim said nothing, just gave Jess’ arm a gentle punch.

“I got to thinking about how folk are,” Jess continued. “How sometimes you have to change, no matter how hard that is; change your ideas. Things you’ve always held as true… You know what I’m saying?”

Slim just raised a questioning eyebrow.

“I had to re-think the way I thought about Maria. I guess I’ve had to re-think the way I am with the horses too…well, with Spirit anyway. You see, it was all about me, Slim. About my pride, I guess. I was so dang arrogant, thinking I wouldn’t be beat by any old mustang.” Jess chuckled, “You know, I worked so dang hard just so I could ride him over and show the Major I’d won. No ol’ horse was getting the better of Jess Harper.”

“And you did that, Jess; you won. You broke him, well, pretty much as well as anyone could, anyway.”

“No, no, I didn’t win. He’s gotten his own way, hasn’t he? He’s running free, which is what he wanted.”

“But that was your choice, Jess. So why did you really do it, loose him out?”

Jess threw him a grim smile. “I guess he got to me. All that stuff you were sayin’ about him and me being similar, being free spirits and wantin’ — no, needing — the Big Open. Well, I guess you were right, only difference being I had the choice. And I guess I chose here. I figured I just wanted to give the big fellah the freedom to choose as well.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. It was the right thing to do, even though I guess it was kind of hard for you.”

“Yeah, but there was something else, you know, Slim.”

“Yeah?”

“Uh, you remember when we lit out lookin’ for Mike and Johnnie? The weather closed in and we lost the tracks, were working pretty much blind?”

“That we were.”

“Then we saw old Spirit through the mist and I said it seemed like he was leading us somewhere?”

“Yup, a merry old dance like I said,” chuckled Slim.

“But he was, you know, Slim. He was leading us to Mike. Well, maybe he was actually more interested with catchin’ up with that cute little Palomino of his, but either way, the ending was the same. He led us to Mike, and I reckon we’d have been real hard pressed to find him so quickly otherwise.”

“Hell, I guess you’re right, Jess! Well, so like I said, it was hard for you to let him go, especially after that?”

Jess smiled grimly. ”It ain’t ever easy letting go…of anything, especially ideas you’ve always held dear.”

“Nope, but I guess you’ve laid a few ghosts to rest – for Nick Bradley with Kenny, and you and Maria. And liberated one,” Slim said with a grin. ”Liberated old Ghost aka Spirit.” Then thoughtfully he turned to his pard. “I wonder if we’ll ever see him again?”

And the men sipped their coffee looking out to the distant hills as darkness finally fell, both alone with their own thoughts.

*****

Epilogue

Johnnie Bradley excelled at ranching after his experience at the Sherman Ranch and Relay had given him the confidence in himself that he so desperately needed. He heeded Jess’s advice of looking around for a more suitable girl nearer his own age, and fell head over heels in love with a neighbor’s young daughter.

Johnnie married a few years later producing a son who was the apple of his grandfather’s eye and a dead ringer for Kenny. Johnnie went on to take over the ranch after his parents finally retired back East and was always a staunch friend and neighbor to his mentors back at the Sherman Ranch. He often told folk that good old Jess Harper had taught him everything he knew about horse whispering.

As for Ghost, aka Spirit, he was seen a couple of times a year when the herd were moving through the area. He was often spied on a misty early morning in springtime or fall, when the men were out at first light on a hunting trip. Then his ghostly presence would suddenly loom out of the haze and he would give a soft whinny, shake his mane and then turn and gallop off back to his mares.

”Almost as though he was stopping by to say howdy,” Jess would chuckle.

Slim used to laugh and say the big critter was just hedging his bets and making sure there was still a home for him if his life in the Big Open didn’t pan out right. However, Jess reckoned he was just catching up with Sunny, Mike’s cute little Palomino filly. But whatever the reason, he visited regularly for many years, much to the delight of all at the ranch.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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