Love Lost, Survived (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A love story.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,226


 

It was a typical morning on the Sherman Ranch in mid-summer. Mrs. Daisy Cooper, the motherly housekeeper, had been up since first light, busily bustling about the small ranch kitchen, baking fresh biscuits, brewing coffee, and was now looking to set about frying up some bacon for her three hungry surrogate “sons.”

Daisy had been working at the ranch for several years and as her “boys” freely acknowledged she ruled the roost. She mothered, occasionally nagged and generally loved and cared for little Mike Williams, the nine-year-old child the two ranching partners had taken into their home and hearts and adopted after his parents were killed in an Indian uprising. And she admitted she treated her two older “boys” — Slim Sherman the tall blond ranch owner with his broad cheerful open countenance and Jess Harper, his young dark haired, blue eyed business partner and best friend — in exactly the same way as Mike, offering kindness and unconditional love.

 If she were to be completely honest and under oath, she would have had to admit that it was the sometimes shy, charming, complex Jess, ex-gunslinger, with his colorful past who was her favorite and was most in need of her stable no-nonsense caring. Although to all the world a fast gun, with an even faster temper, at times, he was really a very vulnerable young man, still coming to terms with the lives he had taken in past conflicts, both as a boy soldier and later when he had had to use his gun to survive. He’d lived and been prepared to die by the gun at one time, and it was only his move to live and work at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station that had brought an end to the desperate lifestyle and he had put up his old gunslinger weapon for good.

 Having left home at just 15 after his family had died in a horrendous fire at their homestead, started by the Banister gang, Jess had wandered far and wide, always alone with his bitter memories, surviving as best he could, drifting from one job to another as he worked his way through the vast States from his homeland of Texas travelling West. His only companion was Traveler, the horse he loved and cared for above and beyond his own needs. He would have given his last drop of water, last bit of food to his friend and knew the horse appreciated the loving care he received from his master.

Probably the best thing that had ever happened to Jess was, when riding through Wyoming and trespassing on Sherman land, he met Slim Sherman. Although their initial meeting was explosive as the two very different characters clashed, the partnership was eventually forged as the young drifter accepted a temporary job at the ranch. After many more “explosions”, trouble, fights, danger, fun and laughter, the brotherly bond between the two men was strong and true. Their friendship had endured many tests, especially when the “big open” called to Jess and he set off on an adventure rescuing old friends and often fetching up in danger and trouble. But he always seemed to find his way back to the Sherman Ranch, the place he now hung his hat and called home.

Daisy glanced up from the frying pan and smiled as she heard loud voices coming from the room Slim and Jess shared. As the door crashed open, she heard Slim cuss and yell, “Will you get your ornery hide out of your pit, Jess, or so help me I’ll fetch the water bucket in!”

A disembodied reply came from within and a hurled boot hit the door just as Slim slammed it shut on the obviously now fully awake occupant within.

Seeing Daisy peering around from the kitchen, Slim looked sheepish and flushed slightly. “Er, sorry Daisy didn’t realize you were about,” he mumbled.

Five minutes later, Daisy and Slim were sitting enjoying a quiet coffee as the bacon finished frying when the bedroom door crashed open again and Jess fell out of the room, desperately hopping to keep his balance as he tried to put on his second boot. With his black, wavy hair mussed up and his blue shirt hanging half out of his tight blue jeans, he looked much younger than his years, and the shy lopsided grin he gave Daisy added to the general picture of boyish good looks. Charmed by this spectacle, as any woman would be, Daisy jumped up to get his breakfast while Slim sighed in mock exasperation at the state of his partner and friend.

“Come on, Jess, get a wriggle on, we need to eat and get out on the range if we aim to bring those stray steers down before lunch. Don’t forget it’s Saturday, Pard, and if we want to get to town by two, we need to get moving”.

“Aw Slim, let a body get outside a cup of coffee first before you start your naggin’, will you!” replied Jess sleepily.

Daisy marched back in, placing large plates of bacon eggs and biscuits in front of the two men and pouring a coffee for Jess, smiling at them both. “Come on now, you two keep it down to a low roar, will you, or you’ll wake Mike and it’s still very early.” Although privately she thought if Mike could sleep through the two friends early morning joshing and banter, he could sleep through a hurricane.

All three continued their breakfast in companionable silence, and after giving Daisy a hand to side the dishes, they left with a cheeky grin, wink and a “See you later, Daisy “as they went to saddle up and start the morning chores before the summer heat got too unbearable.

*****

The white heat of the noontide sun was beating down by the time the two cowboys arrived back at the ranch. As they lead their mounts over to the water trough for a welcome drink,  the ranch door crashed open and Mike pelted out running up to the men, a welcoming grin on his face, his long blond hair shining in the bright, relentless sunshine.

“Gee Jess, Slim, I thought you were never gettin’ back an’ Aunt Daisy’s made a real nice meal. Come on, hurry up; I’m real starvin’.”

Whisking Mike up with one hand, Jess held him over the water trough and lowered him dangerously close to the cold water below. Looking over to Slim he said, “What about it, Pard? Think Mike here could use an early bath?” he asked questioningly, black eyebrows arched and a grin on his handsome face.

“Put him down this minute, Jess Harper, and come in for your lunch all of you,” came from  Daisy as she retreated into the cool of the ranch house to put their food out.

“Aw shucks, you’re no fun, Aunt Daisy,” called out Mike as he was unceremoniously tossed from  Jess to his partner and carried into the house under Slim’s arm like an old parcel. Used to this treatment, Mike just laughed and went off to wash up before lunch, reminding his two friends that they had better do likewise if they wanted to eat.

It was some time later that Daisy was helped up into the buckboard by Slim, followed by Jess throwing Mike up on the seat beside her, “like an ol’ sack of tatters,” as Mike said laughing. Daisy was planning to drop him off at a friend’s ranch just down the road where he had the promise of a swim in their water hole and a night camp out with his best friend Jamie. Once he was settled, Daisy intended to have a visit with her friend at another ranch, in the knowledge that her other “boys” would be home late after their usual Saturday night on the town in Laramie.

Once the buckboard had disappeared over the rise in a haze of dust, Slim and Jess looked at each other, both suddenly struck with the same thought — who was going to make it to the shower first? An undignified scuffle broke out, and after much cursing and banter, Jess’ ducking, diving and speed won over Slims long legs, and he just made it to the old outside shower a second before his partner. Slamming the door in his affronted partner’s face, Jess proceeded to wash off the trail dust and dude himself up for a Saturday night with his girl.

As he washed, his mind cast back to that magical afternoon over six months ago when he had first caught sight of Miss Maria Bernadette O’ Donnell of County Cork, Ireland.

It was the beautiful Irish lilt of her voice that first caught his attention, and peering through the smoky haze of the Laramie Saloon, he saw a diminutive figure behind the bar turning to laugh at something old Tom the bartender had said. She turned back, suddenly aware of Jess’ intent stare across the saloon, their eyes met and locked, and as they say, the rest is history.

 Jess was completely and utterly lost in the dark blue pools as a gentle smile spread across her face and she tossed her long black hair back in a challenging way as if saying. ‘Come on there, Mister, just who are you staring at?’ Inside though, she felt none of the bravado she was exhibiting; her stomach had turned over and a thousand butterflies were now flying in formation within it.

Jess’ sudden preoccupation had not escaped Slim sitting next to him at the corner table; he leaned over and whispered, “Go on then, Pard , go introduce yourself to the pretty lady. But, uh, Jess, think you should close your mouth first; your jaw is practically down to your knees, pal!”

As if in a dream, Jess stood up and marched to the bar. Blushing to the roots of his hair, he said, “Excuse me. Could I have two beers please, ma’am>”

Um, thought Maria, not only cute but shy too, I’m loving this!

Tom was quick to notice Jess’ discomfiture and came to his rescue, introducing Maria as his new bar manager and accountant.

Jess was impressed and slightly in awe of the beautiful young lady whose dark hair and incredibly blue eyes matched his own coloring almost identically. Fancy, thought old Tom, they could be mistaken for brother and sister, but by the look in ol’ Jess’s eye, that ain’t exactly the sort of relationship he has in mind!

Smiling broadly at Jess, Maria laughed nodding over to Tom and said, “Would you believe the Blarney of your man there. Manager. Accountant. Skivvy and bookkeeper more like, and he has me waiting on in the bar come Saturday too. Did you ever meet such a slave driver, Jess?” she enquired, cocking a beautifully arched eyebrow in Jess’ direction. He was completely lost for words but smiled in agreement.

“Sure if he wasn’t one of my old Daddy’s best friends, God rest his soul, I wouldn’t be after staying here, Jess. But I’ll take pity on the old man, and who knows? I might just stay a while in  Laramie.”

Things are certainly looking up, she thought privately.

*****

That had been over six months ago and their friendship had grown and strengthened; now the entire town knew they were together with a certain future. Instead of Jess, it was now always Jess and Maria, which Jess secretly loved. His surrogate family were all almost as besotted with Maria as Jess was. Slim treated her like a little sister, teasing her mercilessly. Daisy found her a wonderful friend and companion, and they were united in their mutual love of Jess. As for little Mike, he had found it difficult to share his hero with another and was jealous of Jess’ obvious feelings for Maria. However, after an initially rocky start, she now held a very special place in the little boy’s heart and he loved her as much as he did Daisy and the loving mother he had lost so tragically.

However, the relationship between the two young lovers did not always run smoothly, and although loving and kind to a fault, Maria possessed a streak of stubbornness to rival Jess’; when the two met head on in an impasse, it was impossible to move either of them. The ensuing sparks that flew were enough to terrify anyone within hearing distance, and Jess would be seen marching off muttering “Women!!” darkly under his breath. However, these spats became less and less as the couple learned to compromise and understand each other at a far deeper level. Now Jess felt confident that they would be together for the rest of their lives. They had an understanding that as soon as they could manage financially, a small homestead would be built over in the north pasture and Daisy and Maria were beginning to think about making plans for a Spring wedding. While Jess was secretly enjoying the idea and the fuss and arrangements, outwardly he pretended to be bored with it all and said that was all women’s stuff.

When he thought about it all, Jess couldn’t quite believe his luck at finding this wonderful girl. However, the path to true love had not been smooth, and it was only shortly after they became lovers that Jess thought he would lose it all. It was another Saturday night, and with old Tom turning a blind eye, Jess had stayed over in Maria’s room above the saloon for the first time. He was a gentle and considerate lover but very passionate, and their love-making was an incredible, wonderful revelation for them both. While Jess was by far the more experienced of the two, with a past littered with a variety of relationships with many different women, this was probably the only woman he felt he could give himself to completely — heart and soul — and felt he would never need to look elsewhere. Everything he wanted and desired in his life was provide by Maria.

She was far less experienced than Jess and had only ever really had one lover before — her childhood sweetheart back in County Cork in the old country. Marcus O’Leary was the only person she had ever gone out with. A friend  from the age of five, they became lovers at just sixteen and would have married if both families had not refused them. thinking them too young to know their own minds. It was then that the star-crossed lovers decided to take matters into their own hands and took the steamer over to Liverpool in England where they managed to find work and a ramshackle cottage, and set up together as man and wife.

Except they weren’t married as Maria kept making excuses.

She discovered her mistake in running away with Marcus almost as soon as they started living together. The one thing she had never been aware of before was Marcus’ overbearing jealousy. Another man merely had to look in her direction for him to see red and start a fight.

Once away from home, Marcus seemed to change overnight. Her gentle kind lover became rough and uncaring of her feelings. Living in poverty in the squalor of the inner city, they soon began to fight, and more often than not, Marcus came home drunk; when she refused to share his bed, he beat her mercilessly. The following day he would be beside himself with shame and remorse and begging her forgiveness. Maria’s stubborn streak rose to the fore and, while she realized it better not to cross him, she decided the only way to escape was to get a better paid job so that she could afford her fare home to Ireland. Secretly, she sought work away from their home.

The following week she found herself behind the bar of a lively Liverpool Pub near the docks. After tricking a neighbor to find out where his wife was working, Marcus decided to pay a call and catch her out. On that night when he came into the bar and saw her chatting and laughing innocently enough with the customers, he saw red, and had not the landlord thrown him out, he would have beaten her again in front of everyone. After that episode, she stayed with a girlfriend and then moved over to the other side of town, but Marcus quickly found her, working in a café this time. As soon as she waited a table full of cheerful young men, he again made his move, This time, dragging her outside, he beat her unconscious, shouting loudly at the pale, shocked bystanders that anyone messing with his girl would die.

This pattern followed time after time as Maria moved desperately up and down the whole of  England, but always Marcus tracked her down.

Fearing for her safety, not to mention that of anyone who should befriend her, she led a solitary life, never settling in any one place for very long. She could not face returning to Ireland as her parents were both dead by this time, and the rest of the family gone to the four ends of the earth seeking a better life, Vaguely she remembered a cousin had taken the boat over to America; that was when she remembered Tom visiting her Da when she was a school girl and all the tales he told about his saloon in Laramie and the excitement of the New World. There, at that moment, Maria decided to leave England and the ever present threat of Marcus forever. With her life savings, she booked her fare to America and a new beginning.

Once briefly, she thought she had caught a glimpse of Marcus not long after her arrival in New England, but she didn’t see him again, and shortly afterwards ,she left for the long trip to the West and “Uncle” Tom in Laramie. That had been months ago, and now she had begun to feel secure in her new life in Laramie. That was until she took Jess as her lover and suddenly realized the danger he could be in if Marcus were really in the country. Since  meeting Jess, she had desperately tried to put the idea out of her mind, but after tonight’s passionate love-making and realizing how very much she cared for Jess, she realized she couldn’t expose him to that sort of danger and she must finish it now.

Lying in the crook of Jess’s arm, she turned to look him in the face, a tear escaping from her gentle blue eye and rolling down her cheek. Jess immediately sat up, “Hey, what’s up sweetheart?” h asked softly, leaning over and wiping the tear away with his finger.

She remained silent for a while, and then forcing herself to look deeply into his dark blue, concerned eyes, she whispered, “ I can’t do this, Jess, you and me. It’s got to stop. I’m no good for you.”

Jess sat bolt upright his eyes wide open, first in amazement, turning to anger and then fear. “What do you mean? “ he croaked.

She had been planning to lie, making any excuse so that that Jess would hate her but would at least be safe. But looking deep into those intense, hurt eyes, she just couldn’t do it; she couldn’t lie to him and so, sadly, the whole sorry story came out.

When she got to the part about Marcus beating her Jess groaned and swallowed hard, thinking he was going to throw up, such was his anguish. He leaned over holding her tightly, gently stroking her hair as she wept safe in the comforting circle of his arms. As the first light of dawn crept through the window, she slept peacefully in Jess’s warm embrace, but he lay wide awake, a hard look of anger mixed with resolve in his eyes as he imagined a meeting with Mr. Marcus O’ Leary.

All that had been several months ago, and the following day, after hours of arguing, pleading, and cajoling, Jess finally got Maria to see things from his point of view. He figured that she would be in no real danger with him around to protect her. What chance did some Irish country boy have at out-shooting Jess’s fast gun? Gradually, the fear lessened, and although it always remained in the back of their minds, as time went on the threat seemed to diminish.

Jess was suddenly dragged from his reverie by Slim’s insistent pounding on the wooden shower door. “ Hell, Jess, will you get out of there before you plum dissolve away? How long does it take to shower anyway? Even you can’t be that dadgum filthy, Jess,” he finished angrily.

Sheepishly, Jess emerged from the shower, a tiny towel tied roughly around his waist. “Shucks, sorry, Slim, guess I got tothinkin’ about stuff.” he replied lamely.

Slim shoved past him, elbowing his way into the shower muttering darkly about if his partner had more than two brain cells, he’d be mighty dangerous But his wit was lost on Jess as he suddenly realized the early afternoon stage was just rattling in, and the fact that a young cowboy was standing in the middle of the yard almost buck naked had not gone unnoticed by the astonished passengers peering out. Matters were not improved any by Mose, the old driver and good friend of the Sherman ranch, who managed to bring the team to a standstill directly beside the now frozen-to-the-spot Jess, who stood gaping at the coach before pulling his wits, not to mention his towel, together and high-tailing it to the ranch door at record speed, Mose and Slim’s laughter echoing in his wake.

*****

Sometime later, the two buddies rode down an almost deserted Main Street and into the cool dark livery at the end of town. Exchanging news and banter with old Bill, the livery owner, they left Alamo and Traveler in his capable hands and strode off to the saloon for a cold beer or two. After the heat of the street, the bar was cool and dark and it took the friends a couple of minutes for their eyes to adjust to the dim light. Sitting around a table towards the end of the bar sat their good friend Sheriff Mort Corey, along with a couple of friends from the Fly S ranch, all waiting on Slim to join them for their pre-arranged poker game.

“What kept you, Slim?”drawled Mort, as they walked over.

 Slim jerked a thumb towards Jess standing just behind him. “Hot shot here had to spend about three hours in the shower getting duded up for his girl,” laughed Slim , turning to grin at Jess’ obvious embarrassment.

Just then, the object of his desire entered the bar from the room behind, and quickly walking up to Jess, she stood on tip toe to reach up and kiss him warmly on the lips. A brief cheer  came from the seated party; then drinks were ordered and the young couple forgotten as the game of poker began in earnest.

Jess suggested a walk, as he wanted to spend some time alone with Maria away from the prying eyes in the bar.

The street was still deserted as most people were taking a well-earned siesta in the heat of the afternoon and they wandered hand in hand towards the livery, chatting and laughing quietly as they went.

They walked in, and on noting  Bill had also gone for a nap, Jess made for Traveler’s stall to check his old buddy had been well taken care of. On seeing Jess, the horse raised his head from the hay bale and blew through his nostrils gently in greeting. Jess reached forward and stroked the horse tenderly on the nose, producing some sugar from his pocket, passing the treat over to his old friend. So engrossed was he in petting his horse that he didn’t see the look of intense love in the eyes of Maria as she watched him. Leaning over, she gently reached up and touched his arm to get his attention. Glancing quickly down at her, he saw something deep in her eyes that made his stomach flip in anticipation as she reached up and their lips met.

Taking her in his arms, they embraced passionately and Jess felt all his senses heighten as the kisses became hotter and more abandoned. If it hadn’t been for Traveler moving in the stall and nudging him gently in the back, he might have forgotten where he was completely as the urgency in Maria’s kisses matched his own.

Stopping and pulling away from her embrace for a moment, he glanced up at the hay loft and then back down at Maria with a quizzical little smile playing on his lips. She caught his drift at once, and with a stifled giggle, she quickly made her way up to the hay loft ladder, pulling Jess behind her.

*****

Jess lay there completely spent, with his girl’s head on his chest as she dozed. Life doesn’t get any better than this, the cowboy thought as he rested in the sweet hay waiting for Maria to awake.

He didn’t have to wait long, but on gazing down at her, he saw there were fresh tears running down her cheeks as she opened her beautiful deep blue eyes and stared up at Jess.

“Why are you crying, honey? I wasn’t too…”

She stopped him by placing a finger gently on his lips,

“No, Jess, you were wonderful, everything is wonderful, I’m just so happy; that’s why I’m crying.”

Jess looked down at her. I’ll never figure women if I live to be 100, he thought to himself.

“ Jess, if I died right now, I’d know my life had been perfect; thank you for loving me,” she whispered softly, her warm breath against his cheek.

Jess was moved almost to tears himself and said nothing, just held her close and rocked her gently in his arms.

Much later, they strolled back to the saloon and took up places on a couple of bar stools near the table where the poker game was still in full swing. Looking over and seeing them sneak in the back door, Slim smiled. Excusing himself from the game for a few minutes, he went over to the couple and offered to buy a round of drinks. Accepting eagerly, Jess and Maria ordered cold beers, and Maria excused herself for a minute to wash up. Jess enquired as to Slim’s luck with the game.

“Not quite as good as your luck by the looks of things, Pard,” he whispered in Jess’s ear.

Playing the innocent, Jess blustered, “Don’t know what you mean, Slim.”

“Oh, I think you do,” replied Slim, grinning from ear to ear as he reached over and removed a piece of straw that was caught in the back of Jess’s vest and placed it carefully on the bar next to his beer. “Funny place to get a piece of straw stuck, that’s if you’re in an upright position, that is,” he drawled, his grin getting wider by the minute.

Jess turned pale, and then blushing, he whispered furiously, “Slim, you just dare say anything to that card school, so help me I’ll boot you way over to next week!”

Smiling viciously, Slim picked up his beer and wanderer back over to the table. “Guess you’ll just have to trust me on that one, Hot Shot,” he sniggered as he went to sit down.

Maria returned and sat back down next to Jess. “What was all that about?”she asked casually, “Slim teasing you again?”

Jess smiled. “Yeah, something like that,” he growled, quickly changing the subject.

It must have been about ten minutes later when Slim sensed a change in atmosphere in the bar; the low hum of desultory conversation had died away and suddenly the bar was completely silent. Looking up from his hand of cards across to the bar stools where Jess and Maria where still sitting, he saw Maria’s head suddenly shoot up as she looked at a reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He saw her eyes widen in terror, and in the next split second, she screamed “Jess, watch out!”, as she ran in front of him, shielding him from the person she had seen in the mirror and who was just out of Slim’s line of vision. Almost immediately two shots rang out, one striking Maria in the chest causing her to slump to Jess’s feet and the other penetrating Jess’s left arm. His lightening reaction and shots were a mere whisker of a second behind, and fanning his colt, he emptied all six shots into the heart of the gunman, who bucked and writhed , but was dead before he hit the ground.

The silence in the bar after the shots was palpable as Jess fell to his knees. cradling Maria in his arms.” God damn it, get the Doc!” he screamed. Gently lifting her chin up, he looked deep into the two pools of blue reflecting back his own pain and fear.

 “Marcus,” she said weakly. “He found me, Jess.”

“Shh, don’t try to talk,” he whispered, holding her close and feeling her warm life blood oozing relentlessly into the front of his shirt.

Suddenly seeming to rally, she reached up, and pulling herself up by his shirt front and leaning up, she kissed him gently on the lips and said, “ Don’t you ever forget I love you, Jess Harper.” Her head suddenly dropped back, the life force finally leaving her.

Jess let out a blood curdling scream. “ No! Dear God! No!”

*****

As Jess’s tortured scream echoed around the bar, every man stood still rooted to the spot, bearing witness to the young man’s pain, feeling it acutely. Many of them knew Maria from her role in the bar and her friendship with Jess, and they were shaken to the core.

Suddenly Slim and Mort leapt into action, Mort checking on the dead man and removing his gun and Slim crouching down by Jess, his arm slung loosely round his friends shoulders as his buddy continued to hold his girl in his arms rocking her gently.

Tom, the old bar man who had become a surrogate father to Maria, knelt down by Jess and smoothed her hair back gently, looking at the beautiful pale face. Suddenly jumping up, his anger and pain spilt out as he turned on his customers.

“Show’s over, folks. Ain’t you got no homes to go to? There’ll be no more drinking in here tonight. Get off home to your loved ones and thank God you’ve got ‘em,” he finished miserably turning away.

 Looking over at the back of the bar, he saw two of his barmaids crying hysterically, and taking them gently by the arms, he led them from the bar to his private quarters at the back.

Mort quickly cleared the bar, and walking over to Jess, he looked down and shook his head sorrowfully. Turning to Slim, he said, “I’ll go over and fetch the undertaker to take care of things.” Exchanging a worried look, with the blond rancher, he said in a quieter tone, “Think he might be going into shock, Slim. Try and bring him over to my office. I’ll fetch the Doc there too.”

After everyone had left, Slim tried to get Jess to put Maria down and have his arm checked, but the dark haired young cowboy hardly seemed to hear and just replied with a brief shake of the head, no. Slim could see that the wound was nasty and bleeding out profusely, Jess’ blood now mingling with that of Maria’s, which completely soaked the front of his blue shirt. Taking off his bandana, he tied it tightly round Jess’s arm to stem the flow of blood and looked into the deathly pale face of his partner.

What he saw made the hair stand up on the back of his neck and shivers run down his spine. The all consuming look of abject misery shook him to his soul.

Suddenly turning to look at his partner, Jess started to speak in a harsh whisper, the words seemly dragging out of him. “You were right about me and Maria, about what we’d been up to this afternoon, you know.”

Slim’s heart missed a beat.” I’m sorry, Jess; I was just teasing you. I’m so so sorry!”

“No, it’s Ok,” continued Jess. “I know you were just kidding me. Thing is, we were…….doin’ what you said, and afterwards…well, afterwards, she was crying,” His blue eyes full of pain looked up into Slim’s. “I felt real bad, thought I’d been a bit rough…you know,” he finished quietly.

Slim gave a brief nod.

“But it wasn’t that, Slim. She said she was cryin’ ‘cos she was happy.” He smiled grimly, “Women…can you figure ’em, Slim? Anyways, right after that, she said…” Struggling to control himself, Jess swallowed hard. After a long pause, he tried again. “She said if she died right now, she’d know her life had been perfect, and said thank you for me lovin’ her.” Jess faltered and gave into the pain, bitter tears mingling with the blood of his girl as Slim looked on helplessly, a protective arm flung round his buddy’s shoulders.

That’s the way Mort and Charlie, the undertaker, found them when they arrived back in the bar sometime later. Again, Slim tried to move Jess and get him to relinquish Maria’s body but he wouldn’t lose his vice like grip on her. Eventually, Mort bent down, and taking Jess’ shoulder firmly, he forced the young rancher to look at him.

”Come on, boy. I know you’re hurtin’ but you gotta let ol’ Charlie do his job now, Jess boy,” he said softly.

Reluctantly Jess loosened his hold on Maria, and looking up at Charlie, his dark blue eyes still brimming with tears, he said, “Treat her real gentle, won’t you, Charlie?”

The old man’s eyes misted and he reached over and patted Jess gently on the shoulder. “Like she was one of my own, Jess, like she was one of my own,” he promised.

Jess gave him a curt nod and stood up; with one last look down at Maria’s crumpled form, he started to stride out of the bar. As he got to the door, he saw the body of Marcus partly covered by a blanket. He aimed a brutal kick at the exposed leg, and turning to Slim, he growled in a low menacing voice, “Guess I nailed him to the gates of Hell,” and then more quietly, almost to himself, “sure don’t make me feel no better, though.” He walked out of the bar onto the deserted street.

*****

As soon as the cold night air hit home, Jess reeled as a sudden bout of nausea and pain struck him. His arm was throbbing in time with his heart beat and he felt sick to his stomach. He lurched forwards and would have fallen if Slim hadn’t grabbed his good arm and steadied him; Mort looked on anxiously.

“Hey, take it easy there, pard. You Ok, feelin’ sick?” Slim asked.

Jess nodded, and swallowing hard, managed to control the rising nausea and muttered, “I’m Ok.” They proceeded slowly to Mort’s office across the street.

As they entered the dimly lit space, Doc Johnson stood up from the Sheriffs comfy chair where he had been waiting patiently, and after one shocked look at Jess, quickly helped him into the place he had just vacated.

 “Let’s have a look at you Jess, lad,” he said and gently began to undo the buttons of Jess’s shirt.

Jess weakly pushed his hand away and said, “It’s my arm that’s botherin’ me.”

The Doctor looked at the large dark blood stain now covering the front of Jess’s shirt and looked puzzled. Catching the look, Jess said quietly, “Not my blood, Doc”.

It took a moment for the significance of the remark to register, and then the Doctor sucked in a breath; leaning over to look Jess in the face, he said, “Sorry, Jess”.

Jess just nodded and waited for the Doctor to look at his now excruciatingly painful wound.

The Doctor removed Slim’s bandana and noted the fresh blood still oozing out of the ragged wound. The bullet was still, in having splintered some bone, and a major blood vessel was also involved. Looking worried, he said , “You need some work done’ here and unfortunately I’ve got the  Patterson  brothers back in my office with a bad dose of the mumps. I guess you don’t need that, so I’ll have to treat you here, if it’s OK with Mort”.

Standing up, the doctor said, “Have to go back to the office for the anesthetic” and turned to go.

Jess called him back weakly. “No, Doc, don’t want it.”

The Doctor turned back. “Sorry, Jess, you’ll need some chloroform. Have to put you out, son. This is a mighty nasty operation; need to fetch the bullet out and then cauterize to stop the bleeding. You really don’t want to be awake for that.”

Jess sat forwards looking intensely at the Doctor. “No,” he said firmly. “I was sick as a dog and out of it for a couple of days last time I had that stuff, and I got things to do tonight Doc. I’ve to see ol’ Charlie and make the arrangements, and then tell Daisy and Mike before they hear the news from some stranger. Just get on with it and do what you have to.”

“Jess, are you sure? I really think …”

Jess cut him off with a growled, “Said so, didn’t I!”

The Doctor stopped speaking and looked down; the room was completely silent for a moment.

Jess looked up at him and said very quietly, “Sorry, Doc, didn’t’ mean to be rude, but I’m hurtin’ real bad here and it ain’t just my arm. Please, just do the job.” He looked near to tears again.

The Doctor took pity on his young patient, and with a sigh, he said, “Ok, Jess, we’ll do it your way. Knowing how stubborn you can be guess I’ve no choice”, he added, smiling grimly.

Slim and Mort prepared a couch at the side of the office with clean sheets and a hurricane lamp above and the Doctor put his instruments to boil on the old stove in the corner. Mort had brewed some coffee and he handed a cup to Jess with a large splash of rough Red Eye whiskey in it. “Here, Jess, get that down you,” he said. “Not an anesthetic, but kinda works the same if you have enough.”

Once all was ready to go, Jess stretched out on the makeshift operating table, and with Mort holding his legs and Slim his chest, the Doctor proceeded to dig about for the bullet. It was a lengthy very painful process, but Jess held still, and apart from his tightly closed eyes and set mouth, he gave no sign of his distress. A couple of times, the Doctor paused and Slim poured a little more of the Red Eye down Jess’s throat to help take the edge off his pain.

Once the bullet was out, the profusely bleeding wound had to be cauterized. Slim felt sick as he saw the Doctor approach with the red hot instrument and proceeded to hold it down on the open wound. Although Mort and Slim held him firmly as the burning hot instrument seared his flesh, Jess bucked and yelled. Sweat broke out on his face and he turned a terrible pale grey.

“Easy, son, easy,” whispered the Doctor, “all finished now.” He started to bandage the wound.

Jess felt sick to his stomach, dizzy and ill, and not a little drunk from the effect of the whiskey but he was determined not to show it. Just half an hour after his ordeal, he professed he was fine and needed to go and attend to  business with Charlie. The Doctor had been called out on an emergency visit and left strict instructions that Jess should remain at the Sheriff’s office overnight, as he was in no shape to be moved. However, he hadn’t realized how strong-minded and determined Jess could be.

Slim and Mort did their best to dissuade Jess, but he refused to listen and pulled himself off the bed and started for the door. He had difficulty in staying upright as he was so dizzy, but the need to go over to Charlie’s and make the funeral arrangements drove him on.

“Jess, no, please, see sense,” said Slim., looking anxiously at his partner.

Jess paused, supporting himself by the door and looked over at Slim, his deep blue eyes filled with pain. “Look, Slim, he said quietly, “I’d really appreciate your help here, but with it or without it, I’m still goin’,” he growled and proceeded to lurch out of the door to the sidewalk.

Slim exchanged a look with Mort, “Dadgum stubborn son of a …….” he drawled and followed his friend out of the door. Supporting Jess, Slim helped him down the road to the Funeral Parlor.

Charlie was deeply shocked by Jess’s appearance when he entered and made him sit quietly to get his breath back before they got down to the sorry business of arranging Maria’s funeral.

After the formalities were over, Jess asked to see her and was led into a private chapel of rest at the back of the building.

Maria lay in a casket in her blue dress — Jess’s favorite — with her hair lovingly dressed and her smooth beautiful skin as white and cold as stone. Jess reached out his hand and ran a finger gently down her face. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “so sorry” as a single tear ran down his cheek. He stood, head bowed in prayer, for a moment and then turned and left the room.

Passing Charlie by the door, Jess reached out and shook his hand. “Thank you,” he whispered gruffly, before leaving with Slim beside him.

*****

It was still only mid-evening when they rode into the ranch yard and Daisy, who had not long been home after her visiting, peered out of the window, surprised to see the men back from town so soon; she turned away to put a pot of coffee on for them.

Meanwhile, the ranchers dismounted and led their horses into the barn. As Jess half-fell from Traveler, he clutched at the saddle to steady himself and leaned against the horse’s side, his head bowed. The whiskey had finally got the better of him on the way back and they had to stop several times as he was violently ill. Now feeling dizzy with a pounding head, he was not looking forward to facing Daisy with the devastating news he knew he had to impart.

Slim had offered to do this, but stubbornly Jess said he should be the one. Slim held back from arguing, knowing it would serve no purpose.

Once the horses had been cared for, Jess steeled himself for what was to come and the two men strode across the yard and entered the house.

Daisy popped her head round from the kitchen and said, “You two are back early. Coffee’s on. Everything alright?” she asked enquiringly, coming over to greet them.

Jess had his back to her as he was unbuckling his gun belt and hanging it on the hook by the door along with his hat, and as he slowly turned, Daisy gasped in horror at his pale face, his blood-soaked shirt and his blue eyes expressing his deep seated pain and misery. “Dear Lord, what is the matter, Jess?” she gasped.

“It’s alright Daisy”, Jess said quickly and glancing down at his soaked shirt said,” It’s not as bad as it looks, really”. Taking her hand, he led her to her favorite chair by the fire. Slim followed them across and took up position leaning on the mantelpiece ready to offer his support when it was needed.

Squatting down beside her, Jess gently took both her hands in his and said, “I’m sorry, Daisy; I’ve got some real bad news.” Taking a deep breath, he looked into her kindly grey eyes and said, “It’s Maria… Daisy, she’s dead.” He closed his eyes and swallowed deeply and then opened them again, dreading seeing what he knew he would.

Daisy’s eyes opened wide in shock and disbelief; glancing briefly up at Slim, she saw him nod gravely, and looking back again at Jess, she uttered a little whimper, her eyes filling with tears that ran un noticed down her cheeks. “How…what happened?” she choked out.

“Shot, in the chest, by Marcus,” was Jess’s brief reply, his voice cracking on Marcus’ name.

Daisy nodded briefly; she knew all about Marcus and his threat to the young couple. “Oh Jess, my poor, poor boy.” She reached out a hand to stroke his face gently and then withdrew it; putting her head in her hands, she started weeping in earnest.

Jess could bear it no longer and stood up, just as Slim returned from the kitchen where he had gone to fetch a drink for Daisy. He leaned over and offered the small glass of whiskey to her lips and she took the burning drink reluctantly, shuddering as it went down.

Jess turned deathly white, swallowed hard, and suddenly dashed out of the room, saying he needed some air, and disappeared out of the kitchen door, slamming it behind him. Daisy looked up, an anguished expression on her face. “Oh Slim, is he alright?” she gasped.

“Yeah, just sick, I guess,” replied Slim. “I figure it was the smell of the whiskey; we got about half a bottle of Red Eye down him while the Doc was taking a bullet out of his arm and he spent most of the journey back from Laramie chucking it back up,” he said ruefully.

“But Slim, why ever were you using that dreadful hill whiskey of Mort’s’ as a pain killer? Why didn’t the Doctor use a proper anesthetic?”

When Slim explained that Jess wanted to keep a clear head so he could make the arrangements for Maria and also his need to return home to spare Daisy and Mike the pain of hearing the news accidentally from a coach passenger, she was absolutely stunned and again started weeping gently.

“Oh Slim dear, do you think you should check on him?” she said tearfully a little while later.

Slim went over to the window, and kneeling up on the leather couch, he looked out and saw a light on in the barn. “It’s Ok, Daisy; he’s probably pouring his heart out to old Traveler. I’ll give him ten minutes or so and then I’ll go and fetch him in,” replied Slim gently.

True to his word, a little while later, Slim strode across the yard and entered the barn quietly. Peering into the dim recesses, he was able to make out Jess standing in Traveler’s stall in a circle of light emanating from an old lantern hung on a beam. He was leaning against the  horse, his head resting in the crook of his arm, eyes hidden and the other hand holding tightly to the mane as if supporting himself.

“Jess,” said Slim quietly so as not to startle him.

Jess showed no sign of being aware of Slim’s presence, save for a slight tensing of his back.

“Jess, you OK?”

After a moment, the cowboy turned and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

“What you doin’, buddy?” asked Slim gently

After a long pause, Jess finally answered. “Thinkin’ and wishin’. Wishin’ Marcus had been a better shot and finished me off too instead of just winging me,” he said in a low tired voice.

Slim’s head shot up and he replied more aggressively than he meant to. “Don’t say that, Jess, don’t ever say that!” He was exhausted, on edge and he too was grieving for the beautiful young woman he’d come to think of as family. The very thought of losing Jess too  was just too much to bear at the end of the long traumatic day, and as soon as the words were out, he knew they sounded harsh, even to his own ears.

Jess looked squarely at him his chin up and the stubborn look in his eye. “Why not?” he challenged. “It’s true.”

More reasonably, Slim said, “Come on, Jess; I never had you down as a quitter. When you’re knocked down, you dust yourself off and get right back up again.”

Jess turned on him, his deep blue  eyes blazing, all the pain and anger generated by the day’s events spilling out of him as he said, “ Yeah, I got up and dusted myself off when the Banisters burnt my family to death, and I got up and dusted myself off after the War and that God damn awful prison camp, and yeah, I even got up an’ dusted myself off after all the bloody things that happened while I was on the drift , some so hellish I could never even tell you about, Slim. But now, right now, I think I’ll just stay down this time.” The furious passion suddenly left him, and visibly drooping, he turned back to his horse resting his head on his arm, thrown across Traveler’s back.

“Jess, please…” started Slim.

Jess broke in, his voice harsh and deep. “Go away, Slim’ just leave me alone!” he shouted and then more quietly, “Just go. I don’t want you seeing me this way,” he finished. Bowing his head, a muffled sob escaping from his hoarse, dry throat.

Slim took a step towards him as if to go and comfort him, but then thinking better of it, he stepped back into the shadows, sat gently down on a straw bale and waited as all the pain and hurt poured out of Jess, his sobs wracking his whole body. Slim sat helplessly watching, unable to do anything, but also, equally, unable to abandon his friend and leave him alone.

After what seemed to Slim like hours, gradually Jess quieted, and a few minutes later, stood up straight. Brushing his shirt sleeve across his eyes, he turned and saw Slim sitting patiently in the shadows. He looked surprised. “You still here?” he said, and then with a touch of amazement in his voice,” Don’t you ever get sick of lookin’ out for me, Slim?”

The blonde rancher stood up, a hesitant smile on his face. “Nope, thought you’d have learned that by now, Jess.” Walking over, looking him in the eye, he said, “Are you gonna stop bein’ stubborn now, Jess and come in? ‘Cos Daisy’s  frettin’,”

As he moved closer, he could see Jess was shaking, whether from emotion or the sudden chill in the barn he couldn’t tell, but he knew he should get him into the warmth of the ranch house. Coming up to Traveler, he patted him on the rump and said, “Besides, this big fellah needs some shut eye and  is kinda tired of your weepin’ and rantin’. Wants to know what a horse has to do to get some peace around here!”

A ghost of a smile crossed Jess’s face and he reached up and scratched Trav behind his ear. “Sorry, old boy.” Turning round to face Slim and looking him in the eye, he said, “Sorry, Slim; I didn’t mean any of that stuff I said. Guess I’m a bit outta my head right now,” he said apologetically.

Slim reached forwards and squeezed his shoulder affectionately. “I know, buddy; nothing to be sorry for.”

As they turned and headed for the warmth of the ranch, a little smile played across Slim’s face, “Anyway,” he said, “we’d better get back in case Daisy’s decided to hit the whiskey bottle.”

“Aw, Slim, don’t mention whiskey,” groaned Jess in disgust, turning and punching him lightly on the arm as the two made their way across the yard to the comfort of home.

*****

Jess was so exhausted that he fell into bed and dropped into a deep sleep almost at once.

Seeing his friend was settled for the night, Slim went back to the fireside and sat for a little  while with Daisy as they sipped a warm mug of her special cocoa.

Gently, she quizzed Slim about the events of the afternoon, and although she could see the tall blond rancher was also suffering under the strain of the events and supporting Jess, she just needed to know the facts, no matter how painful for them both.

Slim tried to tell her all she wanted to know, leaving out some of the harsher details.

However, when it came to the blood soaked shirt, he had to explain how Jess refused to relinquish Maria’s body for over an hour, just kneeling with her in his arms rocking her gently and talking to her in a low whisper.

“Oh my,” said Daisy, “I saw that in the war in my nursing days. The mind is unable to accept the death when it happens so suddenly and violently like that. Poor Jess,” she whispered.

Slim decided not to reveal any more details of the terrible afternoon, and instead told Daisy about the funeral which had been arranged for the following Friday. Suddenly, Daisy sat up straight and put her hand up to her mouth. “Oh dear, what about Mike? Who will break the news? He’ll be devastated, Slim,” she said, looking up tearfully into his eyes.

“At least he was over staying with his friends tonight,” said Slim sadly, “but Jess said he’d ride over tomorrow and pick him up and tell him on the way back.”

“Oh, are you sure that’s a good idea?” asked the kindly housekeeper. “It will be so hard on Jess.”

“No, probably not,” replied Slim, “but you try talkin’ him out of it. I sure as hell…er, I mean I sure can’t. You know how stubborn he can be!”

“Oh yes,” smiled Daisy grimly, “I know alright. Maybe this is one time we’d better just give in though,” she said sagely. “I think it really needs to come from him, for Mike’s sake. They are so close. Maybe it will be easier for Mike to hear.”

Slim stretched and yawned. “Guess you’re right, Daisy. I’d better turn in if I’m to get Jess up in time. You alright now?” he enquired gently.

“Quite alright dear, thank you.” Kissing him gently on the cheek, Daisy smiled bravely as he went off to bed.

Once his door closed, she sat down again, and looking deep into the fire, she wept silently for the beautiful “daughter-in-law” that she would never have.

*****

Early the following morning, the three of them sat around the breakfast table in silence. It was quiet without Mike’s cheerful chatter, and Jess was even more reticent than usual. He was always quiet before his first coffee kicked in, but today his silence was brooding and all Slim’s attempts to cheer him failed miserably. None of them were hungry, and finally Jess set off in the buckboard to fetch Mike, after kissing Daisy gently on forehead.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered, “It’ll be fine,” although in his heart, he just knew it would be anything but.

Slim helped him hitch up the rig and raised a hand in farewell as the dark haired rancher pulled his hat down hard over his eyes and shook the reins to hustle the team out of the yard at a fast trot.

When he arrived at their neighbor’s ranch, Mike and his friend Jamie came running out of the ranch house as Jess brought the buckboard to a halt. Jess jumped down and Mike ran over and gave him a big hug. Looking expectantly over at the buckboard, he said, “Hey Jess, where is Maria?”

Jess was knocked sideways by the question. Of course. He should have remembered that it was his habit to bring Maria over to the ranch to spend her Sundays with the family. He looked blankly at Mike and then managed to find his voice and said lightly, “Oh, she couldn’t make it today, Tiger. Something came up. “

Jess looked away from Mike directly into the eyes of his friend and neighbor Billy Jefferson, Jamie’s father. He saw at once from the look in his eyes that he had already heard the news through the bush telegraph. Thank God he hasn’t said anything to Mike, thought Jess to himself.

The boys had run off to pet the family dog and Billy came down the steps from the veranda. Taking Jess’s hand, he shook it gently. “We’re so, so sorry, Jess,” he said quietly. “We’ve said nothing to the boy; thought it better not to.”

“Thanks,” said Jess, “on both accounts.” Before he could say more, Mike hurled himself at Jess, grabbing him round the waist in a bear hug. Looking down at the childish joy in the boy’s face, Jess’s mind reeled at the thought of what he had to do.

Mike said his ‘thank you for having me’ speech and they were shortly on the Laramie road for home.

 After a little while, Jess broke the silence. “Er, thought we might drop by the lake on the way back,” he said casually.

Mike seemed happy enough at this unexpected treat, but after a while he looked up into Jess’s face and said, “Am I in trouble, Jess?”

Jess turned and looked quizzically at him. “I don’t know, Tiger. Are you?” he asked.

Mike shook his head emphatically. “No, at least I don’t think so.”

“Then what’s your problem? Why did you think you are?” Jess asked, smiling down at the innocent, upturned face.

“We’ll, it’s the way you look,” said Mike slowly. “Your mouth is smilin’ at me but your eyes look kinda sad, like when I’ve been bad and you say ‘I’m really disappointed in you, Mike’,” explained the little boy.

Jess’s heart missed a beat and he had to look away quickly, gathering himself. He changed the subject as they were nearing their favorite spot by the lake. They jumped down, and tying up the team, went and sat down by a big log beside the lake.

Mike loved coming here and hearing the tale about how this was the very place where Slim and Jess had first met. How old Traveler was hitched up to the no trespassing sign and Slim came over with his riffle and threw Jess off Sherman land, and how he kept coming back  and trespassing until Slim and his little brother Andy and old Jonsey gave up and let Jess  make his home with them. At least that was the way Jess told it.

Mike was just about to ask for his favorite story again when he saw a look in Jess’ eye which silenced him. Mike had jumped up from his seat on the log and had been skimming pebbles across the lake surface when he turned to look at his friend and Jess said quietly, “Come and sit over here with me, Mike. I’ve something I have to tell you.”

Running over, Mike sat next to Jess, looking trustingly up into his adopted father’s face expectantly.

Jess looked at him, and swallowing hard, looked off at the far horizon, desperately trying to gather his thoughts. His stomach was tightly knotted and he had a huge lump in his throat, making speech impossible for him. Suddenly he felt a small hand in his and Mike spoke softly, “What’s the matter, Jess? Why are you sad?”

Gathering all his strength together, Jess took a deep breath, looked into Mike’s eyes and said, “See, it’s like this, Tiger. Remember when your Ma and Pa died and we had a long talk about it — you me and Slim?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“We said how as your Ma and Pa were safe in Heaven and they would always be part of you because they would live on in your heart and in your memories of ‘em.”

“Yeah, sure I remember, Jess, and then you and Slim and Daisy said I could be your little boy for always and forever.”

“That’s right, Mike. Well I gotta tell you some real sad news now.” Jess paused, swallowing hard, closed his eyes and then looked down at Mike again. “It’s Maria….she’s dead, Mike. A real bad person shot her yesterday and she’s in Heaven with your Ma and Pa.”

The little boy’s eyes opened wide in horror, his mouth dropped open and he just stared at Jess for a full minute. Then he screamed, “No, no that ain’t true, Jess, that ain’t true!” Jumping up, Mike ran towards the lake edge.

 Jess sprang up and, catching up with him, dropped down on his knees by the boy holding him as he fought to get away. Mike drummed his fists against Jess’s chest and screamed, “Why did you let it happen, Jess? You were supposed to keep her safe. Say she ain’t dead, Jess; say she ain’t, say it ain’t so,” pleaded the little boy, his anger suddenly dissolving as huge tears ran down his cheeks.

Jess held him tightly, and whispered softly, “It’s so, it’s so, Tiger.”

The man and boy clung together and wept bitterly until both were exhausted. Jess picked the boy up and carried him back to the log; resting his back against it, he sat down next to Mike, and the pair sat in silence looking out at the calm lake, the morning sun reflecting off its surface.

After a while, Mike turned to his adoptive father and friend and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, Jess. I didn’t mean to be so unkind; I was just so angry.”

“I know, Tiger, I know,” said Jess gently.

Suddenly, the little boy’s face looked full of fear. Sensing this new emotion, Jess said quietly, “What is it, Tiger?”

Mike gave another huge sob and it was several minutes before Jess could understand him.

Through the tears, Mike said, “You promised, you an’ Slim an’ Daisy to be my always and forever family and it ain’t going to be like that. Aunt Daisy, she’s real old and you and Slim are always going off and comin’ home all beat up or shot up and one day some bad man will shoot you dead too and I’ll be left again,” he cried, getting more and more upset.

“Hey whoa there, Tiger, just a minute,” responded Jess. “For a start, don’t you go telling Aunt Daisy she’s old, or you’ll be in big trouble. She’ll still be around when you’re married with half a dozen young’uns under foot. As for me an’ Slim, heck, you know how we look out for each other. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to us, that’s for sure.”

“Really, Jess, really?”

“Why sure. I promise.”

Mike looked down at his feet and said nothing. Jess put a finger under his chin and tipped it up so he was looking straight into the boy’s clear blue eyes. “You do believe me, don’t you Tiger?” he asked.

“Yeah I guess…” said the boy, still looking tearful.

Jess tried again. “Hey, have I ever lied to you Mike?” he asked seriously,

“Well, no, I guess not”.

 “And haven’t I always been here for you when you needed me?”

“Yeah, you have.”

“Well, then nothin’ has changed. We’re a family, Mike, and we’re your always and forever family and don’t you forget it, buddy.”

The youngster grinned. “I won’t, Jess.” Then throwing his arms round the cowboy, he added, “You’re the best”.

“I think it’s time we headed for home now, Tiger, Aunt Daisy’s been cooking up a storm for your comin’ home and it’s nearly lunchtime”, said Jess kindly.

With that, the little boy jumped up and said,” Ok Jess.” But shaking his head sadly, he said, “But it just won’t feel right without Maria there for Sunday lunch will it?”

“No, I know, Tiger,” said Jess as he took Mikes hand and headed for the buckboard, “that it won’t”.

*****

The day of the funeral dawned grey and chilly with thunder clouds threatening on the horizon and although it was still high summer there was a hint of autumn in the air.

It had been a difficult week, with all the family, feeling the stresses and trauma of the newly bereaved in their own individual ways.

Mike was still very tearful and clingy, hardly letting any of the adults out of his sight and was especially anxious when Jess rode off to carry out work further a field on the ranch. One morning, a neighbor called by to say some of the Sherman stock had strayed onto his land as a fence was down and Slim and Jess were gone all day. When they got back, Daisy said Mike had been almost hysterical when they hadn’t returned in time for the evening meal and spent hours standing at the window looking out for them. Finally, Daisy got him to bed and the youngster had cried himself to sleep. The men felt terrible and agreed that for the next week or so they would try and stay as close to the ranch as possible.

Daisy coped by fussing around her men folk, cooking and baking food nobody really wanted and offering kindness and wisdom in equal quantities.

Slim went into his usual behavior of worrying about everyone else and tried to look after Daisy and Mike by being around and offering help and support where it was needed. However, his real worry was Jess.

He coped by retreating into himself, refusing to accept any help or comfort that was offered and spending long hours grooming Traveler or working from dawn until dusk, coming in and falling into bed exhausted. The only person he really connected with was Mike and he kept the promise that he had made to him by the lakeside and was there for him whenever the little boy needed a cuddle or an extra bedtime story.

When Mike woke the whole household crying desperately after one of the dreadful nightmares he had not suffered from since his parents were killed, it was always Jess who got up and calmed him down.

Very early one morning, Daisy had entered the living room on her way to fix breakfast when she stopped in her tracks. Jess was in his favored rocking chair, black head bent over the little blond one as Mike lay snuggled in his lap, a blanket around him and both of them fast asleep. The scene brought a tear to her eye and, reaching forwards, she gently tucked the blanket more securely around them both and went off to brew some good strong coffee for Jess and fresh biscuits for Mike.

That had been two days ago, and now the day of the funeral had arrived and the family were assembled in their Sunday best, black armbands in place and grim expressions on their faces.

There had been long discussion as to whether Mike should be allowed to go and it was Jess who said maybe the youngster was old enough to decide for himself. Mike insisted that he should be allowed to go and say goodbye to Maria, and so it was agreed. He now stood quietly amongst the adults, feeling the strength of his family around him.

The little Church was full to capacity with the whole town attending and emotions ran high. The Minister gave a fulsome eulogy and mentioned how tragic the loss of a young life was, especially someone so vibrant, beautiful and in love as Maria was. He went on to say how fortunate she had been, to be so in love with a good man, nodding towards Jess. It felt to him like the whole town were staring and it took all his resolve not to break down at the Ministers words. Jess was a very private man and he was determined to remain dry eyed and passive throughout the whole ordeal, as he refused to let anyone see how much he was suffering.

Finally the service was over and the funeral procession led through the town to the outskirts and up the hill to the grave yard where Jess, Slim, Mort and Tom carried the coffin up to Maria’s last resting place. Jess stood ramrod straight by the graveside during the committal and only a nerve twitching in his cheek betrayed the deep emotion he was feeling as he looked down as the small coffin and imagined his dearest love inside. Slim’s close proximity gave him some comfort and he felt his friends hand reach out and steady him as a wave of nausea and dizziness threatened to overcome him; he glanced across the eyes, grateful.

Sitting out on the porch later that night with Slim as they sipped their coffee and reflected on the day’s events, they agreed it had been the right decision to allow Mike to attend. He had behaved impeccably and he seemed to be able to tune into Jess’s awful feelings of loss and abandonment. It was he who stayed by the graveside with Jess once all the town had wandered slowly away in small groups after the service was over .It was Mike who’s small hand found Jess’ as they stood together by the graveside, heads bowed, and gave him comfort when he most needed it. And it was Mike who finally led him away to the waiting family and sat close by him on the return journey to the ranch.

Now he was fast asleep after the long day, as was Daisy, and just Slim and Jess sat up in the cool evening air, the rumble of distant thunder ever present.

 They hadn’t sat out together in the evening after super, which was their usual custom, since  before Maria’s death and Slim had missed Jess’s company. The two would mull over the day’s work, plan for the future and discuss any things unsuitable for the older or younger ears of the family to hear, relaxing with banter and laughter with the odd dash of strong language, like all young men when away from the children and womenfolk.

Tonight, though still a little withdrawn, at least Jess had seemed happy of the company and Slim hoped that now the final stage of the sad events had been played out with the funeral, that maybe life would gradually start to return to normal. But he had a very bad feeling that this was not to be.

Over the last week, Jess had hardly eaten at all and his already thin but muscular frame was looking much leaner; deep hollows had appeared in his cheeks. He was also quiet, too quiet for Slim’s peace of mind, and he wondered exactly what was going on in his friend’s head.

 His greatest fear was that Jess would up and leave. It had been over two years now since their formal business partnership which had sealed Jess’s commitment to the ranch and Slim.

Prior to that, he had been very much a free spirit, often leaving on one pretext or another only to land back home when least expected, much to the relief of Slim and especially his little brother Andy, who hero-worshiped him. Now Andy was at medical school back East, but still enjoyed his visits to the ranch during the holidays.

Slim couldn’t imagine what Andy would say if he returned to find Jess missing, and as to Mike and Daisy, well, he just couldn’t contemplate their hurt feeling were Jess to up and leave.

 He knew how committed Jess was, not only to the business, but to the family, but he had also seen how devastated he was over the recent events. He knew Jess of old and how his initial reaction to this sort of pain was to flee and try and outrun it, even though logically he knew that was not the answer. Slim had seen this behavior emerging as Jess’ sort solitude over the last few days and the look in his eyes as he stared out to the distant horizon said it all. He knew in his heart Jess wanted space and the big open was calling him .He smiled sadly across at his partner, deciding now was not the right time to tackle the subject and they relaxed into a companionable silence, with their own thoughts the only sound the rumble of thunder as the storm approached.

Neither of them realized, but this would be the last time they would sit together in this way for many weeks.

******

As Slim had feared, Jess’ mood did not improve and he gradually became more and more morose. All his waking hours were spent working hard, pushing himself to the very limit and mostly opting to work as far away from the ranch as possible on his own. He came back late, ate very little and retired to bed exhausted. However, he did not sleep well, and although he had always been a restless sleeper, often disturbing Slim with his frequent nightmares, now things took a turn for the worse.

 A couple of days after the funeral, the whole household was awakened by Jess’ screaming and shouting. He was thrashing about on his bed, sweat pouring down his face and across his bare chest. Slim gently awoke him and held him as the young cowboy tried to get his breath, all the while staring around the room eyes wide with fear. It was nearly an hour before Slim could calm him, as he sat next to him on the bed, talking softly to him and rubbing his back gently. He was shocked to feel Jess’s vertebrae sticking out, sharp to his touch, and realized again how much flesh his buddy had lost.

The following morning, with downcast eyes, Jess apologized to the family. Slim tried to make light of it, but Jess could see that little Mike had been clearly frightened by the nocturnal happenings.

It was when it happened for the third time that Jess decided to move out to the bunk house so that he would not disturb everyone, and even though Slim tried his hardest to change his mind, Jess was adamant that he should go, saying it was just a temporary measure until he felt better. In reality, he just felt completely numb as he had done since coming home from the funeral. Although he was still going through the motions of living and interacting with the others, he was finding it more and more of an effort. Now he had the excuse to be alone even more and he gave up the fight and sank into a deeper depression.

Daisy was extremely worried about him and called Doc Johnson out on the pretext of checking out the progress of his wounded arm. The Doctor arrived early one morning and caught Jess before he left for the day and he was alarmed to see the changes in him just in a few weeks. He looked almost emaciated, his complexion grey and his eyes were dull and lifeless, the former blue sparkle gone completely.

The Doctor expected Jess’s usual forthright reaction to the visit and his cheery, “I’m Ok, Doc”, even when he very obviously was not.

However, this time Jess accepted the Doctors checking and probing and even sat quietly while he lectured him about how he must eat and take more care of himself. He sat there passively and then walked quietly away to saddle up Traveler for the day’s work .The Doctor returned to the ranch house where Slim and Daisy waited anxiously for his verdict.

On hearing Jess ride out of the yard, the doctor turned tired, worried eyes on them. “Well”, he said, “I know I shouldn’t really discuss patients, but well, you’re family and I think you should know we’ve got one sick boy out there”.

Daisy put her hand to her mouth, “Oh, doctor, is his arm ailing? He point blank refuses to let me tend him right now.”

“No, Daisy, it’s not his arm,” the Doc replied kindly. “Although it’s not healing as quickly as I’d like, it is OK. No, it’s his heart I’m, worried about. We’ve all heard about dying of a broken heart; well, I do believe it can happen and I think that Jess is half way there.”

Daisy looked shocked to the core and said with a sharp intake of breath, “No, please no.”

Slim put a reassuring arm around her and said, “What do you mean exactly, Doc?”

“Well,” he replied, “Jess is suffering from severe depression as a result of his bereavement, causing him to stop functioning. He just doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He is so run down now that even a severe chill could take him. Basically, he just hasn’t got any fight left in him.”

Slim and Daisy exchanged looks. “What can we do, Doc?” asked Slim. “Whatever it takes, we’ll do it.”

“The only way with depression is to sit it out, but in Jess’s case, I think he is feeling terribly guilty and also he seems to be unable to accept the loss. How we deal with that I don’t know,” said the Doctor honestly. “Just give him as much loving care as you can, that is all you can do, really, and try and get him to talk to you, to open up and say how he’s really feeling. He has to face up to all this before he can move on, really accept her death,” he said, sadly shaking his head.

After the Doctor left, Daisy set about getting ready to visit a sick neighbor, and although she didn’t want to leave, she had promised. “Oh, please talk to him, Slim, and try and make him see sense,” she cried, “and I will be back as soon as Mary is on the mend.”

Mike was away with his friend Jamie and his family visiting friends back east for the remainder of the school holiday, so Slim had the place to himself, and he sat out on the porch as night fell waiting for Jess’s return.

*****

Meanwhile, after Jess had ridden off after the Doctors examination, he rode out to the edge of the North pasture and spent the morning checking fences and looking for the odd stray.

As the heat of the day kicked in, he made his way to the lakeside where he had brought Mike on the day he shared his sad news. He frequently came here as it had also been Maria’s favorite place and one where they had shared their first kisses and many happy hours together.

Today there was an early autumn mist over the lake, and as the cowboy settled down for a nap with his back to the big log, he looked out to the horizon, the beauty and peace of the place bringing him a little comfort.

He awoke to a familiar smell that of Maria’s almond blossom perfume.

Opening his eyes, he saw a figure dressed in blue, standing just by the lakeside with her back towards him. Sitting bolt upright, he strained his eyes to see more. When the woman suddenly turned to face him, he found himself locking eyes with those oh so familiar pools of blue as he looked directly into Maria’s eyes. He took a sharp intake of breath, his heart pounding in his ears, his body suddenly trembling; looking into those beloved eyes, he saw a great sadness and longing that threatened to break his heart. Although dizzy and trembling, he pulled himself up and took a step towards her. Maria gave a gentle shake of her head and gradually the mist from the lake seemed to engulf her, and within seconds she had disappeared. Jess sank to his knees, completely overwhelmed, one hand across his mouth as if to stifle a scream, his eyes wide with shock.

Much later, he returned to his work, the vision he had seen haunting his every waking minute.

Jess didn’t think he believed in ghosts and there should be some rational explanation, but the more he pondered, the more confused he became. Eventually he came to the only conclusion he could: he’d gone plum loco. His pain and loss had finally driven him crazy. The more he thought about this, the more frightened he became, and trying to work off these feelings, he pushed himself even more than usual. By early evening, he was so exhausted he could barely mount his horse.

He headed Traveler towards the ranch, but long before they arrived, he was semi-conscious in the saddle. Old Trav knew his way home and was also aware that his beloved master was either asleep or the worse for wear, and he trod gently as he made for home and his supper.

At the sound of Traveler’s hooves coming slowly across the yard, Slim jumped up from his rocking chair and went to meet his friend and was just in time to catch Jess as he fell from the saddle in a dead faint.

A combination of lack of food and delayed shock had caught up with him and he was out cold. Slim gently carried him to his cot in the bunk house, shocked at how light his partner was to lift. He fetched a damp cloth and wiped the sweat from Jess’ brow and waited patiently as he came to. Slowly, Jess’s eyelids flickered open, revealing his deep blue eyes looking up in bewilderment at Slim.

“How’d I get back?” Jess murmured.

“Old Trav brought you home,” smiled Slim. “Guess he’s had plenty of practice the times you’ve been beat up unconscious or worse. So what happened this time?” he asked.

“Don’t really know,” answered Jess honestly, struggling to sit up. “Just knackered, I guess. Worked a mite too hard in the sun maybe,” he went on giving Slim a sheepish smile.

Slim looked at his partner and wondered how things had come to this. Surely he could reach him, pull him back from the brink where he now seemed to be holding tenuously on to life. But Slim just didn’t know where to start. He recalled their conversation in the barn the night Maria had died and he figured Jess was talking in earnest when he said he was just goin’ to stay down this time.

Slim went over to the house and came back with some coffee and cold chicken and watched while Jess ate a little and drank the coffee, but after a few bites of the food, his eyes closed again and Slim had no choice but to pull the blanket up over him and leave him to rest.

Turning at the door, Slim looked back at his best friend and vowed that, come tomorrow, he would take matters in hand and one way or another. He would help his partner, no matter what it took.

*****

The following morning, Slim headed for the bunkhouse only to find Jess had already left. Determined to put his plan into action before his resolve wavered, he decided to ride out to the lakeside at noon where he knew he would probably find Jess.

Slim arrived at the lake as the sun was at its height and quickly saw Traveler hitched to the no trespassing sign and Jess leaning back on the big old log, his hat down over his eyes dozing in the noon day sun. The scene took his breath away as it was exactly the same as that fateful day over five years ago when they had first met and Slim had thrown him off the ranch.

Knowing what he now had to do, the irony of the situation was not lost on Slim.

 He hitched Alamo near Trav and walked up to Jess, leaning over and tipping his hat back.

Jess grinned up at him in welcome and Slim had a glimpse of his happy-go-lucky partner as he had been before the tragedy.

Sitting down beside him, Slim said quietly, “Jess, we have to talk.”

“OK,” responded Jess, “I’m listening.”

Slim drew a deep breath and said calmly, “I’ve been thinkin’ maybe it’s time you moved on.”

Jess sat bolt upright, his eyes wide open in amazement. “Wwwhat?” he stammered.

Slim continued calmly as though Jess had not spoken. “I’ll buy your half of the partnership, of course; I can get to the bank tomorrow and pay you back in full. And maybe it would be easier if you went soon, while Daisy and Mike are away, I can explain for you, say your goodbyes.”

“And what if I don’t wanna go!” exclaimed Jess.

“Hell, Jess, you’ve been gone in here,” said Slim pointing to his head, “for weeks. You don’t talk, you’re never around anymore; mentally, you’ve already gone.”

Jess took all this in, and shaking his head sadly, he looked over at his partner and best friend. “Are you saying you want me to go?” he asked quietly.

Slim turned away from him and looked out to the lake to hide the tears forming in his eyes. “Yeah,” he said brutally,” I want you to go.”

Slim forced himself to look back at Jess and the hurt bewilderment in his eyes. Gradually the look changed and hardened, and his chin came up. Slim saw a stubborn glint in his friend’s eye. Was this Jess getting up and dusting himself off at last? he thought.

Jess looked him in the eye. “Well, I ain’t goin’,” he said firmly, “and I don’t buy it that you want me to go either, Slim. So why don’t you just tell me what this is all about, ’cos sure as hell if you want me gone you’re gonna have to get your shot gun out again like last time”, he finished.

Slim looked over and knew he couldn’t go on with the lie anymore, and sighing deeply, he began, “Well, it’s like this, Jess. Doc says you’re real sick; all this grievin’ has taken it’ out of you, and he don’t reckon you’ll make it through a Wyoming winter. Reckons the first time you get a soaking or are out on the range in the snow, you’ll get sick with pneumonia or somthin’ and die on me, and I ain’t havin’ that on my conscience, Jess. You need to take your stake money and head back home to Texas, where its warm and you can rest up, and get away from all the sad memories you have here.”

Pausing for breath, Slim looked over at Jess to see his reaction.

Jess still had his stubborn look on and said, “I ain’t in that bad a state. I’m still pullin’ my weight and doin’ a full day’s work, ain’t I?”

Slim turn angrily back to him. “Hell, have you looked at yourself recently, Jess? You’re a wreck. You’re skin and bone, your belly’s practically touchin’ your backbone, you’re so damn exhausted you can barely mount Trav in the mornings. And look at yesterday; if it hadn’t been for that wise old horse of yours, God knows where you’d have ended up.”

“Well, I still ain’t goin’ nowhere,” repeated Jess stubbornly.

Slim had a thought. The Doc had said to try and get Jess to open up and talk about his feelings. Maybe that would help.

“So, Jess,” Slim said, “talk to me. Tell how you’re feeling right now,” he suggested.

Jess’ eyes opened wide in amazement again and then the look turned to anger as he leaped up, turning to face Slim and said, “OK, Ok, I’ll tell you how I’m feelin’. I’m feelin’ exactly like I have every day since it happened, like I’m at the bottom of a dark, dark pit, in a real dark place, Slim, and I can’t get out. I can see I’m hurtin’ you and Daisy and Mike, but it’s like I’m paralyzed and I can’t help it. I got this lump in my throat an’ I can’t eat, an’ I’m scared to sleep because I have these God damn awful nightmares where I see her dyin’ time after time. My heart aches all the time like it’s broke into a thousand pieces, an’ my best buddy’s just kicked me in the guts sayin’ he wants rid of me. All the time, all I can think of is Maria, needing her and wantin’ her so bad I can hardly breathe , an’ now I’m seeing things , seeing her, Slim, like she’s really here with me and I figure all this grief is driving me plum crazy.” He stopped yelling and finished quietly. “And I’m scared, Slim, real scared,” he finished, his hand shooting up to his mouth to stifle a sob as his head bent, all his anger spent.

This time Slim sprang towards his friend and engulfed him in a warm embrace and held him firmly until the shuddering sobs and trembling stopped. He walked him over to the log, where Jess sank to the ground, his arms resting on his knees, his head in his hands and Slim sat down beside him, a concerned look on his face.

“Now you just listen to me, Jess,” said Slim calmly, “You ain’t goin’ crazy. All these feelings are part of the natural grieving process, the stages you have to go through. Only problem is, I think you’re stuck, buddy, and you need a hand to move on.”

“What?” responded Jess. “‘Grieving’ process, stages — what the hell you talkin’ about, Slim? Sounds like you’ve been reading one of Andy’s medical text books again,” he said with a wry smile.

Slim blushed a little. “Well, actually, yeah, plus stuff I’ve learnt from Daisy and the Doc,” he admitted.

“Well, come on,” responded Jess. “What are these stages I’m supposed to be goin’ through,” he asked, looking quizzically at his friend.

“Well, first there’s shock and denial when you can’t figure the persons dead, like when you kept hangin’ onto Maria in the saloon,” Slim replied, looking at Jess and wondering if he should have mentioned that.

 Jess just looked thoughtful, though, and said, “ Yeah, guess I kind of thought while I was still  holding her and talking to her, she’d suddenly wake up an’ it would all have been just a horrible mistake and the Doc would have come along and patched her up,” he finished sadly.

“Then there’s anger,” went on Slim with a sideways glance at his partner. “Guess we seen some of that, although in your case, it’s kinda hard to tell if you’re grievin’ or if it’s just your natural ornery streak,” he said with a wry smile. The ghost of a smile crossed Jess’s face and he nodded slightly in acknowledgement of the truth.

Slim leaned back against the log and looked up at the sky for inspiration, trying to remember exactly what Andy’s book had said.

“Then there’s unfounded guilt,” he continued. “Where the person feels guilty because maybe they feel they haven’t been nice enough to their loved one, or maybe they feel they haven’t told their loved one they care…”

Jess broke in his voice full of irony. “Or maybe they feel they haven’t stopped some maniac from rushing into a bar and filling their loved ones chest full of lead,” he said, dead pan expression on his face.

Slim, decided to ignore the sarcasm, and in an equally dead pan voice, replied, “Yeah, that too.”

“’Cept, in my case, it ain’t unfounded, ‘cos I really am guilty,” he said. “I should have stopped him, Slim. Even Mike said I should have kept her safe,” he finished sadly.

“Jess, we’ve been over this a thousand times,” said Slim angrily. “There was nothing you could have done. Maria ran in front of you to take the bullet; you couldn’t have stopped her and as for Marcus, it was cold blooded murder. You couldn’t have out drawn him. JESS, HE ALREADY HAD HIS GUN IN HIS HAND WHEN HE WALKED THROUGH THE DOOR. HE WASN’T EVEN WEARING A HOLSTER!” he yelled.

Slim went on more gently. “When you promised to keep Maria safe, you were expecting a fair fight. God knows, Jess, you’d give the devil himself a fair fight, but I guess Marcus just wasn’t workin’ from the same book as you .He was crazy, Jess; for a man to behave that way, he just had to be”.

“You’ll be askin’ me to forgive him next,” broke in Jess.

“No, not forgive, not yet anyways, but maybe understand, ‘cos if you don’t, this bitterness is goin’ to eat away at you, Jess.”

The dark head nodded, but whether acknowledging Slims words or agreeing with them, he could not tell

Slim continued, “Now I guess you’re stuck in this dark pit of depression and we’ve gotta figure a way of getting’ you out, buddy.”

“Tell me about seeing Maria,” Slim continued. “Ss she here now, Jess?” he said, casting an eye around the lakeside.

“No she’s not here now,” said Jess sarcastically. “You don’t think it’s real, do you, Slim? You think it’s all in my mind.” Then more quietly almost to himself, he murmured. “Well, maybe it is all in my head, but she seems so dadgum real I feel I could reach out and touch her.”

“Guess it doesn’t matter if she’s a real spirit come down to see you, or just your imagination really, Jess. What we’ve got to figure is why you’re seeing her and I guess it’s ‘cos your brain won’t accept she’s dead.”

Jess replied angrily, “I know she’s dead, Slim. FOR GOD’S SAKE, SHE DIED IN MY ARMS!” he yelled. “I visited her at Charlie’s and her face was ice cold. I carried the coffin and lowered her into the ground. Are you trying to tell me I don’t know she’s dead?” he asked incredulously.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” said Slim patiently. “What I’m sayin’ is there’s a big difference between knowing she’s dead and accepting she’s dead. Once you can really accept it and let her go, then maybe you can get out of this nightmare hell you’re living in and move on.”

Jess sat quietly looking over the lake, mulling over Slims words. Finally he turned to Slim and responded, “Hell, when did you get to be so wise?” he asked smiling.

Slim was relieved that the atmosphere had lightened, and in that smile, he had glimpsed his old friend, hidden from him for so long. “I think you need to go to the grave,” he said to Jess. “Go up and visit her, and while you’re there, read what you put on the headstone, buddy. It might help.”

Jess nodded his agreement and the two lapsed into silence as they sat admiring the view of the lake in the early autumn sunshine.

After a little while, Jess broke the peace. Looking over at Slim, he said, “I’ve been thinking, Pard; it’s getting kinda chilly in that ol’ bunkhouse now falls here. Would it be OK if I moved back into my old room?”

A broad grin lit up Slim’s face, and leaning over, he tipped Jess’s hat down over his eyes and, laughing, said, “Thought you’d never ask, Hot Shot!”

That evening. as the weather had turned chilly. they sat in front of a blazing fire to enjoy their coffee after supper. Jess looked deep into the flames and played over the conversation they had had by the lakeside that afternoon. He was amazed how just talking through his problems had helped so much, and whereas he knew he had a long way to go, he felt that just maybe the healing had begun.

He knew how very hard it had been for Slim to suggest he leave, Those words — “Yeah, I want you to go” — so painful for him to utter and yet it was a completely unselfish gesture, wanting only to save his friend from further stress and pain.

 Now looking over at Slim, Jess said softly, “Thanks, Pard.”

Slim raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What for?” he asked.

“You know damn well what for,” replied Jess, smiling.

Slim smiled broadly back. “Well, just make sure you get yourself fit an’ healthy again,” he said, “‘cos come winter, I don’t want any excuse for you sittin’ down by the fire while I’m out there  on the range gettin’ my butt froze off!”

Jess grinned back. “Oh, I’ve gotta feelin’ Miss Daisy’s set to fatten me up like a Christmas turkey when she gets home. Say, when is she getting back anyway, Slim?” he asked.

“Day after tomorrow,” his friend replied.

“Well, thank the Lord for that,” returned Jess. “‘Cos if I had to survive on your cookin’, I doubt if I’d make it through the Fall, never mind a Wyoming winter”, he said, ducking from the cushion Slim viciously hurled in his direction.

*****

Jess slept better than he had in weeks back in his own bed, and was up before dawn, deciding to visit Maria’s grave that very day. He crept out of the shared room, carrying his boots so as not to disturb Slim. But Slim awoke anyway as the front door snapped shut, and a little while later, he heard Traveler leave the yard at a fast trot. Turning over to snuggle back down into his pillow, he prayed his friend would find the answers he needed at the graveside.

It was still dark as Jess set out, chilly with a thick mist enveloping the countryside, but the promise of Indian summer warmth later.

Dawn was just breaking as Jess arrived at the cemetery, and hitching Traveler to the gate, he made his way up the hill to Maria’s last resting place beside a huge old pine tree.

He observed that the grave was neatly tended and realized that Daisy and old Tom were probably responsible for this; he felt a twist of guilt for not visiting sooner.

Removing his hat and kneeling down by the grave, he looked at the marble headstone and   the wording which he had dictated to old Charlie on the night of her death. At the funeral, there was a simple wooden cross at the head of the grave as the stonemason had not finished the job, so this was the first time Jess had seen the stone in place .He read the words again as if seeing them for the first time.

In Loving Memory
Of
Maria Bernadette O’Donnell
Formerly of County Cork Ireland

Aged 23 Years

Dearly beloved fiancée of
Jess Harper

I won’t forget
In my heart, always and forever.

 

The last two lines were especially personal between himself and Maria, and Slim was the only other person who understood their significance.

The words “I won’t forget” referred to Maria’s last words to him before she died. Pulling herself up by grabbing the front of his shirt, she had used her last breath to utter the words, “Don’t you ever forget I love you, Jess Harper”.

 Looking at the words, he felt a knife pierce his heart and the pain of the loss hit him hard again as he relived the moment when she reached up and gently kissed him in farewell.

Then he read the last line and again and remembered the significance of the simple words “In my heart, always and forever.”

They had not been together very long when he drove Maria over to the ranch to introduce her to Daisy and Mike. At first, the little boy found it difficult to share Jess with her and at the initial meeting, he was determined to make his place in the pecking order abundantly clear to her. With an arm possessively around Jess’s waist, he told Maria that Jess was his ‘always and forever family’. She smiled down at him, absolutely charmed by the childish phrase and the trust it showed. Soon after this meeting, Mike began to relax in the knowledge that Maria would never take Jess away and he began to trust her; as time went on, he came to love her like a mother.

Later, when she was alone with Jess, she said what a lovely phrase, “always and forever family” was. Jess smiled down at her and said, “Do you mind that I come with a ready-made family, Maria?”

Looking lovingly up at him, she shook her head gently and said simply, “If I had a boy of my own, I should want him to be just like Mike.”

A few weeks later, Jess had made his mind up to propose to Maria and he drove Slim almost insane with his constant pacing and anxiety as the chosen hour arrived.

“For God’s sake, just ask her, Jess, It ain’t hard. ‘Maria, will you marry me?’ See, easy!”

Jess looked pale with fear and was not even up to a sarcastic response, a sure sign he was mortally worried.

He picked Maria up and they went to the lakeside for a picnic. The more the afternoon wore on, the more anxious and shy Jess became. Maria was aware of his discomfort, and with feminine intuition, the reason for it; eventually, she decided to take pity on him.

Standing looking up into his worried face, she smiled, and in her beautiful Irish lilt said, “Jess, can I be part of your always and forever family too?”

A look of pure joy crossed his face, and reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Jess withdrew the little box containing a diamond solitaire ring and placed it lovingly on her finger, and leaning forwards, kissed her deeply. Their life together had begun.

Now looking down again at those words, he remembered what Slim had said to him yesterday

at the lake. “Read what you put on the headstone, buddy. It might help”

Suddenly, realization dawned on him; there it was in front of him in black and white. “In my heart always and forever.” He hadn’t lost her, not really, because where ever he went, she would always be there with him, until his days were over and they would surely be reunited. In that moment, he let go, and the devastating weight of grief slowly left him evaporating like the mist over the lake when the sun burned down. He gave a great shuddering sigh of relief, and closing his eyes, prayed.

On opening them a little later, he was stunned to see Maria looking down at him, and instead of the sadness and longing he had seen before, this time her eyes where full of love and she radiated peace and joy. Jess picked up on the feelings and they infused his whole body; he experienced so much love and happiness, he felt overwhelmed.

Their eyes met and a look of total understanding passed between them. Maria looked over at the headstone, and smiling gently in approval, she put her hand over her heart and nodded, acknowledging the words she read. With one last look at Jess, she touched her fingers to her lips in the gesture of a farewell kiss and turning walked slowly away into the mist.

 Jess knelt there waiting for the despair of loss to hit him, but nothing happened. He still felt light-headed with joy and love. Gradually, the feelings dispersed, but he was left with a deep peace, the like of which he had never experienced before.

Getting slowly up, he took one final look at the headstone, replaced his hat, pulled it  firmly down and turning,  walked back down the hillside .On arrival at the gate, he untied Traveler and,  hopping up lightly into the saddle, spurred him into a trot, taking the Laramie road.

 Jess felt a sudden need for company, and decided to head for Mort’s office. He thought he would call in on his old friend and take him over the street to Miss Molly’s café for breakfast. Suddenly the idea of ham and eggs and some of her good coffee seemed wonderful and he realized, for the first time in weeks, he was hungry.

Riding on through the misty morning, the sun suddenly broke through and he felt its welcome warmth on his back and something else — in his heart, Hope — as he spurred Traveler on into the brand new day.

*****

Epilogue

Slim and Jess were sitting out on the porch enjoying their after supper coffee and the warm early spring evening. They were pleasantly tired after spending the day breaking horses and Jess was more than a little sore from the multiple bruises he had acquired in the process.

Slim had looked on with pleasure earlier as his buddy had effortlessly vaulted the corral fence and jumped up on a particularly wayward mustang. He was thrown repeatedly, but in true Harper fashion, he refused to be beat and just picked himself up, dusted himself down with his hat and got right up there again, Slim shook his head smiling as he watched, sure,

Jess was no quitter he thought.

He remembered the sorry state his buddy had been in just a few short months ago and marveled at how he had turned things around. He knew it had not been easy for him, and even after his revelation at the grave side, he still had days when he was withdrawn or angry. But over the months, these days where fewer and fewer. Now his lively, funny, happy-go- lucky partner with the wicked twinkle in his deep blue eyes had returned to him.

A turning point had been just a few weeks ago. In a fever of spring cleaning, Daisy was clearing out Jess’s cupboard in his room and came across the jeans he had been wearing the day Maria had died. He had burnt the blooded shirt and pushed the jeans to the very back of the cupboard and forgotten about them.

It was when Daisy was going through the pockets prior to washing them that she found the love letter from Maria. It was a short hastily written note, and Daisy stopped reading it as soon as she realized its content.

She was standing with it still in her hand, hesitantly worrying about the affect it would have on Jess, when he came into the kitchen. Peering over her shoulder, he asked what it was.

Jess realized that Maria must have scribbled the note to him on their return from their love-making in the hayloft on that fateful day, and he recalled her excusing herself for a few minutes when Slim came over to buy them a drink. She must have secretly hidden it in his back pocket without him noticing, for him to read later. The content was loving, but extremely personal and he blushed to think that Daisy might have read it, but seeing his discomfort, she quickly allayed his fears.

Smiling, he carefully folded the letter, and placing it in the top pocket of his shirt, he leaned over, kissed Daisy softly on the forehead, and walked out. Daisy sighed with relief; it looked like Jess was able to look back with love and happy memories and no longer the terrible misery previously experienced. She inwardly thanked God for the strength of the human spirit.

Now, he was sitting out with his buddy, and as the sun set over the hills, Jess felt happy and at peace. Slim looked over at him and felt he needed to say something but didn’t want to upset his friend. Hesitantly, he said, “Jess, can I ask you something…about Maria?”

“Sure,” came the warm reply.

“Was it all worth it? I mean, if you could have known  what was to happen , how it was all to end when you went over and introduced yourself that night , would you have still done it?” he asked.

Jess didn’t need to think about it and smiled across at his partner. “Was too late by the time I walked over,” he grinned. “I was already in love with her the minute I looked into her eyes across the saloon,” he said.

Then more reflectively, Jess added. “If by not seeing her, it would have stopped Marcus killing her, then sure I’d have walked away, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. Marcus was out to kill her if I’d been on the scene or not. He was crazy and he’d have got her in the end no matter what,” he concluded sadly.

Then Jess went on quietly. “What’s that old saying… ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” he quoted. “Well I loved her, that’s for sure. God, I really loved that girl, and I guess I lost her, but if you’re asking me would it have been better never to have loved at all? “Well, hell no, buddy.” Grinning at his partner, he concluded, “Because she was worth it, Slim.” Turning to look off to the distant hills, in a whisper almost to himself, Jess said, “She was sure worth it.”

***End***

Thank you for reading.

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