Mike’s Story (by Patty W.)

Summary:   Mike tells how he came to the Sherman Ranch.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  51,000


 

For 322 Jude

Introduction by Mike Williams

I guess I was real lucky fetching up at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station the way I did, but at the time I sure didn’t feel lucky, no siree.

See it was this way.

I was travelling  due West with Ma and Pa on the wagon train — well, a few wagon trains, if truth be told, as we’d had a whole parcel of trouble along the way. Problems with  the wagon a few times, a broken axle, then one of the horses upped and died on us; then the very worst — Ma got the fever and that meant a lie-over in a ratty ol’ town we all hated for nigh on a month.

Anyway, we finally signed up with this new wagon train, but I could tell right from the start Pa wasn’t too happy with it. See, it was nuthin’ like the wagon train we was ridin’ with before, Mister Hale’s train. That was real big and cheerful, and I made a mess of friends. Then Ma got sick, and Mister Hale, he said he was real sorry but he couldn’t stop over for Ma to get well again, and I can understand that I reckon.

So we went with this real small, kinda shabby outfit, and I guess the scout didn’t do his job too well, not like Coop Smith back at the Hale wagon train. This guy never seemed to go out very much.

So anyway, we was attacked by Indians and I guess I was kinda lucky as I was off foraging for wood for the fire when they hit us. Saw it all, mind you, from the woods. Ma, Pa — them all killed…

Anyway, I guess I don’t wanna ponder on that too much.

The next thing I knew, these foreign folk — Orientals they were — picked me up and done took me to the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.

Well, I tell you I was real upset to start with, even though I could see the cowboys were tryin’ to be kind, but I guess I was so spooked up it took me a while to get back to normal.

I remember that first night — a tall blond man smiling, like his mouth were gonna split he smiled so much. Then this other man, very dark hair, and all I remember were these real blue eyes, so kind and carin’… And I guess even then, what with the blond man’s smile and the dark man’s kind eyes, I kinda knew everything would be alright.

It all seems like a distant memory now, those ol’ Orientals puttin’ a show on; it was  good, I suppose, but I was still feelin’ real sad.

Then the Orientals went and I guess I settled down into life with Slim and Jess. 

Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, that is, partners in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.

Heck, Slim and Jess were simply the best right from the start. They seemed to understand I was hurtin’ real bad, especially Jess. But when I got to know him well and heard how he lost most of his family in a terrible bad fire when he was still only fifteen years of age, then I figured we’d kinda got stuff in common. Then Slim was kind and patient with me too, and I thought, well this is gonna be OK.

Then the Sheriff landed and said we needed a housekeeper, before the circuit judge visited to decide if Slim and Jess could look after me, keep me for good.

Well heck, I could have told that ol’ judge we didn’t need any old housekeeper ‘cos Slim and Jess were lookin’ after me just fine.

Well, we saw a whole mess of housekeepers, but none of us could agree on the one we liked best.

Slim there seemed to favor older ladies who looked kinda straight-laced and wouldn’t stand no messin’, and Jess liked the ones that had real curvy figures and wore make-up and real tight dresses. But Slim said the cat knew more about housekeepin’, and so that was no good. Me, well I didn’t like any of ‘em; none of them was like my Ma or my old aunty that’s for sure.

Anyway, the way it happened there was a lot as went on that day, the day the judge landed.

What with judges and outlaws and housekeepers coming and going, it was real confusing, but what I do remember was Aunt Daisy arrived and she agreed to be our housekeeper and the judge said that was just dandy and so I guess everyone was happy.

Well, Aunt Daisy is real, real special and not just to me either; gee, she acts like a Ma to Jess and Slim too. I’ve heard Jess say she’s saved his bacon more than once when he was laid up real bad. Heck, she even took a bullet out of his chest once, saved his life for sure that time. See, Jess is always getting beat up or shot and in need of Aunt Daisy’s nursin’. Well, she’s a proper nurse — went all through the war saving lives and helping the doctors out — and I figure that’s why she’s so good at it.

But nursin’ ain’t all she’s good at. Nope, I guess she’s the best cook in the whole of Wyoming and you’ve just gotta taste her chicken and dumplings to know that.

Of course, she’s a typical Ma, always wantin’ you to take a bath and checkin’ you ain’t forgotten behind your ears and that can get a boy down, but to be honest, I kinda like her fussin’ after what happened to my buddy Butch Jeeves.

Him and his Ma and Pa had a little place just over the ridge and he was just six months older than me, but boy did he have a good life — or so I thought anyways.

He was allowed to ride his pony out any time, go anywhere, but Slim said I wasn’t to go off of the ranch unless him or Jess was with me.

Then Butch never did any chores around the place; his Pa told him to, but he never checked so Butch didn’t bother.

Well, I remember forgetting to clean out the chickens once and Jess was real mad with me. Then after he’d finished sounding off and could see I was pretty near to tears, he hunkered down by me and explained.

“See it’s this way, Tiger; we’re a team here and we have to pull our weight if things are going to work. We all have our jobs, and I guess we kind of depend on each other to get ‘em done. Like me and Slim workin’ our butts off around here to earn the money so as we can all get the stuff we need and Miss Daisy cookin’ up a storm an’ carin’ for us all. Then you, Mike, cutting the wood for the cook stove, carin’ for the chicks… Well, that just as important.”

Well, I don’t think I’d ever heard him say so much in one go before, and I figured he really meant it; it was important. Well, that’s how he made me feel too, real important like I was part of the team and not just a little kid. 

Anyway, Butch just went on riding where he pleased and  not helpin’ out and not even washing and it soon got as folk didn’t wanna sit next to him in class ‘cos he smelt real rank. Then he left town, him and his Ma, and I kinda missed him.

Well, it was a few months later that I overheard Jess and Slim, out in the barn, talking about Butch and his family. I know it’s wrong to listen in, but I really wanted to hear about what had happened to Butch so I hunkered down and listened.

“So what was Tom saying in the saloon about Bill Jeeves?”asked Jess.

“Just that he’d run out on his wife. Been drinking real hard and neglected the spread, neglected that poor kid Butch too; just let him run wild,” Slim replied.

“Umm, that’s a cryin’ shame he was a nice kid — well, could have been, given half a chance,” murmured Jess.

“Well, he sure didn’t get that; according to Daisy, his Ma spent all her time just sitting around moping. Didn’t even give the kid a bath or mend his clothes. Just too bad,” Slim said, shaking his head.

That’s when I ran out from where I was hiding and threw myself at Jess and gave him a big bear hug, just feeling so lucky that they cared about me, cared enough to bring me up right.

Jess hugged me right back, and then pushing me gently away so he could look me in the eyes, gave me that quirky look of his, his eyebrows kinda questioning. Then he said, “Hey Tiger, what’s brought this on? You OK?”

“Yup, I’m fine,” I said, “just glad to be here with you guys, I guess, and Aunt Daisy.”

Then Jess threw Slim a surprised look and said, “Well, we’re real glad you’re here with us too, buddy; the old place sure wouldn’t be the same without you.”

That’s when I hugged him again and then Slim. Then I ran off to play with Buttons, my dog, thinking it was all kinda worth it — the chores, not riding out alone and the baths an all — because they made me do all that stuff because they cared about me and I felt sorry for poor Butch then.

So Aunt Daisy looks after me real good with all the baths and washing and mending my clothes, not to mention being a wiz at chicken dinners and apple pies and special cocoa and all.

She’s real good at making me feel kinda loved too, just like your Ma does — just the little things I guess. Like sayin’, “Don’t forget to take your spelling book tomorrow, dear.” Or “Go change those wet clothes, Mike, before you catch your death”. And “Off to bed and you can have milk and cookies because you’ve been so good today.” All that kinda stuff, you know?

Then there is Slim; he is just so big and tall, as tall as can be, and with that big wide grin of his, he looks real friendly and kind and he is. I reckon Slim reminds me some of my Pa. He wasn’t as tall, but he had that big smile and blond hair just like mine, and he was always lookin’ out for me just like Slim does.

Slim can be kinda strict sometimes and says things like, ‘Have you done your homework Mike? Then let’s just check it.’

Heck, he’ll spend hours goin’ through my math with me and story writin’ and such; holds a lot of store by book learning does Slim. But then his Ma was a teacher and his kid brother Andy is real bright and off at school back East, so I figure that’s why he’s that way and I reckon he just wants the best for me.

But me, I’d rather just be a rancher and mustanger like Jess. If Slim is like my Pa, then I guess Jess is like my best friend. Oh, don’t get me wrong; he’ll bawl me out just like a Pa if I do wrong, but he’s more than a Pa. Like I say, he’s a buddy. We do stuff together — go fishing and hunting too.

Gee, I remember the first time he took me hunting up to Paradise. That’s right on the edge of the Sherman Ranch and Slim and Jess have left it wild, so it’s full of deer and wild turkey  — rabbits too — plus the odd bobcat and wolves, come winter. There is a mountain and woodland and a swell river just jumpin’ with fish. I guess that’s why they call it Paradise, ‘cos it sure is a swell place.

Anyway, we went up real early one morning just before Thanksgiving for the turkey and Jess let me take first shot. Well, I guess I winged him and the Jess finished him off — said it was a joint effort and that made me feel real good about it.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are real hard when you’ve lost your folks, you know. But Slim and Jess — Aunt Daisy too — made a real effort to make that first Christmas special for me and it was as well. I’ve had some real swell Christmas’s and birthdays too since I landed here and sometimes, you know, I feel kinda guilty enjoying myself, knowing that Ma and Pa are dead. Heck, sometimes I can hardly remember a time when I wasn’t living here at the ranch. But then Jess said something real important to me when I told him that.

He said my Ma and Pa were in Heaven looking down on me, and all they wanted was for me to be happy. So that made me feel better. Then he said, “And you know, Mike, your Ma and Pa are here,” and he touched his heart “and here too,” and tapped his head. Then he said, “As long as you keep ‘em safe there, they haven’t really left you at all — you understand that?”

Well, I guess I did, and it made me feel so much better, knowing Ma and Pa were right there with me, every step I took and watchin’ over me too.

Well, I guess it’s Jess I always want if I’m sick, or just feelin’ kinda sad. He always seems to know the right thing to say, like he really understands what I’m feeling, you know?

Well anyway, we have a whole mess of fun here on the ranch too, and Aunt Daisy often says Slim and Jess are bigger kids than I am. They’re always larking about — wrestling, cussin’ each other and generally roughhousing — but all that’s just in fun, ‘cos they’re real good buddies — well, best friends, I reckon.

Of course, sometimes Jess gets real mad and cusses something fierce, using real bad words, but that’s usually when a mean ol’ mustang’s tipped him off or stomped on him;  then  he really lets rip. But he says that’s just yard talk and not for in front of the likes of Miss Daisy or any of the other ladies we know.

Boy, does Jess know a lot of ladies. Leastways he used to, always goin’ around with these different girls, but I figure his favorite has always been Miss Millie from  the saloon, and  at the moment he just seems to see her all the time. I guess that’s a lot more restful for all of us as he gets on real well with Miss Millie and  he doesn’t seem to have those big bust-ups with her like he did with Miss Kate and that Suzy and all the others.

Slim is dating Miss Lily, who is blond and real shy, whereas Millie is dark and good fun, always joshing with me and making me laugh.

Aunt Daisy says she despairs of both Slim and Jess. She says as how they should make honest women of Lily and Millie, and up and marry them, start a family, that kinda thing. Well, that would be swell because I’d get lots of brothers and sisters to play with. But they both go kinda quiet and change the subject when Aunt Daisy gets to talkin’ weddings, which is awful strange, seeing as how they seem to set so much store by their lady friends.

Anyway, last fall, I figure lady friends were the last thing on Slim and Jess’s minds because they were planning a big hunting trip up the mountain. They’ve been up the mountain on a hunting trip, staying in the old line shack up there, a few times since I’ve been here. Especially if it’s a real mild fall, one of those Indian Summers, and I always beg to go too.

Well, Slim is real strict on that and always says, “Mike, we’d like you to come, but school will be closed with the snows down soon and you’ve got to get your schooling while you can’ and all that real boring grown-up talk.

Jess though always looks real sad and says, “Sorry, Tiger,” but in the end, he backs Slim up and says my schooling is real important. But heck. so is shooting moose, ain’t it?

So I was real pleased when Mose the stage driver brought the news that my teacher, Mr. Brown, was sick. Well, sure I was sorry for the guy, but he’d only had a broken leg, so it wasn’t like he was dyin’ or anything. Well, Jess said he was probably glad of the rest from all us ornery kids and I figured he had a point.

So the upshot was that Mr. Brown was gonna be out of action for several weeks and the School Board couldn’t find a replacement and so all us kids had to stay home.

Mr. Brown set loads of homework — books to read, math, essays and the like — but I figured I could just as easy read a book at night up in the old line cabin, I sure didn’t need to be at home for that. Then , as to the essay writing, well, the subject was to write about our favorite things, and seeing as my favorite thing  is hanging out with Jess and  Slim, well, that hunting trip was just perfect to give me something  to write about I guess.

It was Jess that swung it for me in the end.

Slim was still going on about how I should be doing my school work and Aunt Daisy said she wasn’t sure it was safe me going off hunting and riding all that way and all.

But Jess said as how he was going  off hunting in the Big Open when he was a heck of a lot younger than me, and how hunting taught a boy to be resourceful, how to live on his wits, not to mention how to learn to provide for a family.

Well, Aunt Daisy said as seeing as how I was only ten, it would be a long while before I needed to provide for a family, and if I followed in the footsteps of my guardians, it would be even longer still.

Slim and Jess had a good laugh at that, but Jess eventually managed to persuade Aunt Daisy that they’d look after me and the experience would be real good for me. She said they better had look after me, and I don’t know what she said after that because I was whooping and jumping around like a crazy person. Then Jess grabbed me and threw me in the air and said, “Come on then, Tiger, let’s go pack”

*****

It was the night before the proposed hunting trip, and Jess and Slim had taken themselves off for an early night in preparation for the dawn start the following morning.

They had finally managed to get Mike to do likewise, but he was so excited about the trip that they had the Devil’s own job to settle him down.

Now they were in their room, Slim having a wash as Jess stretched out on his bed yawning.

After a moment, Slim wandered over, the towel still slung around his naked shoulders as he sat down on his own bed and peered across at his buddy. “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing taking Mike with us, Jess? He’s still very young.”

“Huh?” asked Jess, pulling himself back from thoughts of his best girl before replying. “Well, sure. Like I said, I was off on the trail way before that age. He’ll be just fine, Slim; quit you frettin’. After all, what can happen with us to look after him?”

Slim threw his friend a quizzical look. “You sure manage to get yourself into enough scrapes, even now.”

“The hell I do!” cried Jess indignantly.

“Well, how about the time you tangled with that cougar and came off worst, not to mention getting caught in that snow storm and near freezing  to death or…”

“OK, OK you’ve made your point. These things happen sometimes, you know, Slim, even to experienced hunters. But I’ll be looking out for him real good. Besides, you’ll be there,” Jess finished sarcastically, “the voice of common sense and reason.”

Slim flipped him around the head with the damp towel, and a brief tussle ensued before they finally settled down for the night, both secretly almost as excited about the hunting trip as Mike.

The following morning they were off at first light, but Daisy had got up before that to make sure they set out with a good breakfast inside them. Now she stood on the porch to see them off. Slim and Jess were riding their large mounts Alamo and Traveler, with Mike sitting between them on his palomino pony, Sunny, a huge beam on the child’s face. “Take care then, boys,” she said returning the smile, resignation in her old grey eyes.

Jess suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for the elderly woman, and jumping back down from the saddle, ran over and gave her a bear hug before pulling back and smiling into her eyes.

“He really will be OK, Daisy,” Jess said softly. “And the Jackson boys will be over every day to see to the stock and fix up changing the stage team,” he said referring to their neighbor’s teenage sons.

“Yes, I know, dear. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. You have a good time and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.” With that, she waved them bravely off.

As they rode out of the yard whooping and waving, Daisy turned back to the house, her back ramrod straight as she took a deep breath to steady herself.

Well, she thought, I’m not going to spend the next two weeks worrying. Time for a good clean up, I think. Rolling her sleeves up, she marched purposely off to Slim and Jess’s room, the light of battle in her eyes. It’s high time their cupboards had a really good clear out she decided and goodness knew what horrors she’s find lurking under their beds. She smiled to herself. “That’s right; keep busy, gal, and they’ll soon be home,” she murmured as she set about her task.

*****

Slim, Jess and Mike made good progress and were more than half way to the distant mountains by late afternoon. They decided to make camp in the shelter of some huge standing pines near a small sparkling stream, the bubbling water fresh and cool after the long hot ride.

Jess slipped down from the saddle, and removing his hat, wiped his sleeve across his sweating face, looking out to the distant mountain range. “Gee, it sure is warm for Fall,” he said, absently patting Traveler’s neck.

“Well, we certainly don’t want it any other way,” said Slim, looking serious. Then casting a knowledgeable look to the sky, he said, “I guess this warm spell will last until the end of the month. Plenty of time for us to get that old moose and get back home again,” he said smiling broadly at young Mike.

“When will we see them, huh….huh?” Mike asked, turning from Slim to Jess and back, hardly able to conceal his excitement.

Jess leaned over and ruffled the child’s mop of shining blond hair. “Not for a while yet, Tiger. Gotta make it up to the line cabin tomorrow and then start lookin’ the day after.”

The boy jumped up and down with impatience. “I just can’t wait to get to the line cabin,” he said with excitement.

“Yes, well, you’ll have to,” said Slim grinning down at the youngster. “Now you go find some wood for the fire while Jess and I tend the mounts, and then you can help make the camp fire, OK?”

“Yes siree,” whooped the boy, running off to do as he was bid, leaving the adults shaking their heads, looking after him, grinning at his energy and enthusiasm.

It was after supper when he had finally been persuaded to at least lie down on his bedroll, even if he wasn’t sleepy, that Mike started talking to Jess about his past.

The two men were laying back, saddles for pillows, enjoying a final coffee before turning in, listening to the night time sounds, the cheerful camp fire crackling away and casting shadows on the huge pines surrounding them.

After a while Mike turned to his hero and said, “What was it like bein’ on the drift Jess, travelin’ on your own and all?”

Jess cast him a thoughtful look and then said, “Well, depends, I guess, Tiger, as to where I was — different on different days really.”

“Go on,” pleaded the youngster his eyes alive with interest.

“Well, when I was first on the drift, it was just after the fire,” Jess said softly, alluding to the one that had been set by the Banister gang, killing most of his kin. “I guess I was so dang mad, hurtin’ so much too that I just got on with it; wasn’t a feared, that’s for sure. Seemed like the Big Open was my friend; those night time sounds like a lullaby to me.”

They were silent for a moment listening to the distant owl calls and rustling of small creatures in the undergrowth, before Mike gave a big sigh. “Gee, I guess I’d be real scared out here on my own.”

Jess shook his head looking off to the distant mountain peaks, now bathed in moonlight. “No,” he said quietly. “See, I felt safe. Couldn’t bear to be confined indoors after being trapped in the fire; couldn’t sleep indoors for a long time after that.” Then he roused himself from his reverie, and smiling at the youngster, said, “Anyway, that was all a long time ago,” not wanting to dwell on the tragedy lest the child had nightmares.

But Mike was obviously fascinated. “But you weren’t always trailing the Banisters,” he persisted, “so what else happened when you were on the drift? Did you always feel safe?”

Jess shook his head. “Oh no. I guess I was just way too innocent when I lit out. Heck, I was only a fifteen-year-old kid. Nope, I soon learnt to respect the Big Open…and be frightened sometimes,” he said honestly.

Mike’s head shot up at that. “Heck, Jess, you ain’t frightened of anything.”

The dark haired cowboy grinned at that. “Oh I guess I am,” he laughed, then sobering, “anyway, it makes sense to be scared sometimes, Mike. That way, you’re on your toes, looking out for danger. Heck, I was frightened of the animals, wolves, cougar, bears, and the two legged ones too — Indians, outlaws…”

Slim broke in at that. “Hey pard, I don’t think we need go into too much detail,” he said, giving Jess a meaningful look which Mike intercepted.

“Oh, that’s OK, Slim; I ain’t afraid with you and Jess to watch my back,” Mike said cheerfully. Then after a moment, he added, “And anyway, there ain’t any around here are there — wolves and bears and outlaws and such?”

Jess grinned over at him from where he was resting back on his saddle. “Nope, we’re quite safe, Tiger. Now why don’t you settle down, huh? Long day tomorrow?”

“OK, Jess.” Then Mike turned back to him said sleepily, “Reckon I’ll go on the drift one day. Sounds like fun.”

“No!” said Jess, more loudly than he meant causing Mike to jump and throw him a surprised look.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s no life for a youngster — for anyone,” Jess said gruffly. “You can get into all sorts of trouble, end up on the wrong side of the law, like I did, and worse,” he said, looking into the fire. “So no more talk of that, OK?”

“OK sir,” said Mike quickly, not too sure as to what he’d said wrong.

After a moment Jess relented. “We just want the best for you, Mike, that’s all. Get a decent education and a good life at the ranch, maybe even college like Andy. Not an ol’ drifter like I was; I’ve told you that before, ain’t I?” he said throwing the youngster a firm look.

“But I want to be just like you and Slim,” replied the boy, his eyes now growing heavy.

“Yep, well, you just aim at bein’ like Slim,” said Jess softly, patting the child’s arm affectionately, but Mike was already asleep.

Once the boy was sleeping peacefully, Slim and Jess settled down for the night too, Jess staring up at the myriad of stars as Slim cast him a concerned glance.

“You were a bit hard on him then weren’t you Jess?” Slim asked after a moment.

Jess just continued to stare at the sky. “Don’t want the kid ending up like me,” he said finally.

“Would that be so bad? “

Jess swiveled his head at that. “You’re kidding; of course, it would. Don’t tell me you want to see him on the drift?”

“Well, of course not; that’s just his hero-worship thing. It’s all romanticized in his eyes, drifting from town to town, a new adventure every day. You know what kids are like, Jess.”

“Yeah, but we both know it ain’t that way. Hell, stuff I saw and was party to on the drift…” Jess just shook his head. “Some stuff so bad I ain’t even shared it with you, Slim.”

Slim looked down at that. “Yeah, yeah, I know, pard. But it’s just not real to Mike; he’ll grow out of the notion, anyway.”

“Umm, you think so, do you?”

“Yep. Why? Don’t you?”

Jess shook his head. “I really don’t know, Slim. I think…well, sometimes, I ain’t the right kinda person to be bringing up an impressionable kid.”

Slim laughed at that. “You’re crazy; you’re just the sort of person. Hell, Jess you’re brave, loyal, honest… Heck, what more of a testimonial do you want? And a damn good horse breaker to boot.”

“And also an ex-gunslinger.”

“That was all in the past; doesn’t count for anything, not as far as Mike’s concerned, anyway.”

Jess shook his head and turned to look at Slim. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, pard. Know what I caught him doin’ behind the barn the other day?”

Slim raised a quizzical eyebrow. “No, what? “

“He’d found that old holster of Andy’s and then he went in the chimney breast and found my old gun…”

Slim gasped in shock. “What, the gunslinger one you gave up when you moved to the ranch?”

“Yep, the very same — the one with the filed down pin and hair trigger. Must have seen me cleaning it a while back and then went and found it when we were all busy.”

“Hell. It wasn’t loaded?”

“No, thank God. But behind the barn, I caught him practicing fast drawing, Slim, and you know what he said when I bawled him out? Said he wanted to be just like me.” Jess shook his head sadly. “Well that just ain’t right, Slim.”

Slim shook his head. “No. So what did you do? “

Jess sighed. “We took a trip to the woodshed and I gave him a good thrashing.”

Slim shook his head sadly. “You said you’d never beat the boy after what your Pa was like with you.”

Jess looked down and sighed deeply. “I know, but hell, Slim, if it stops him messin’ around with guns and fast drawin’, then it was worth it.”

“So why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were away on that stage line business in Cheyenne, then he begged me not to tell you or Daisy. Crazy kid got it into his head that we’d send him away. It was seeing me so mad, I guess. I put him straight on that one; he knows we’d never send him away, but anyway…”

“So you agreed not to say anything?”

“Yep, we made a deal; I wouldn’t tell you if he never went within a mile of that damn gun again. I never promised him, Slim; just said as how you probably didn’t need to know. Well, now I think you probably do.”

“So why are you telling me now?”

“I just figure you need to know. I thought we’d settled it; I told him he didn’t want any part of growing up the way I did, on the drift, bein’ a fast gun and all. Then tonight with all that talk of goin’ on the drift again, well, I reckoned you should know.”

Slim looked thoughtful. “Yep, I guess you’re right; thanks, Jess. And just for the record, I figure you did the right thing tanning his backside; he knows he shouldn’t touch our guns.”

“Umm, well, anyways that’s why I wanted him to come on this trip with us. I thought it would be a good idea if he spent a bit more time with the ‘Sherman voice of common sense and reason’,” Jess said with a chuckle, repeating what he had said the previous night as they were discussing the trip.

“Yeah, maybe, but Jess, don’t put  yourself down; I stand by what I said. I really couldn’t think of a better guardian for Mike than you — and me too. I figure between the two of us, we’ve got everything he needs to know to grow up a good man covered, and he needs us both Jess, don’t forget that.”

“Thanks, I appreciate you saying that, and maybe if he sees us as we really are — just ordinary folk trying to scratch a livin’ as best we can — instead of the crazy idea he has of us as brave gun-fighting heroes, well, the better it will be, I reckon.”

“Yeah, you’ve got it, Jess. And things like hunting — using a gun in a positive way — that’s what he needs to see.” On that note, they finally turned in for the night.

*****

They had reached the base of the mountain by noon and decided to take a break after the long, hot, hard ride of the morning. Both men had also noticed that Mike was unusually quiet. Thinking maybe the pace was a little too taxing for him, they made sure he relaxed while Jess went off to scare up a rabbit or two for lunch and Slim built the fire.

Once Jess had headed off and the fire was crackling brightly, Slim turned his attentions to the youngster. “You’re a mite quiet, Mike. Did you sleep OK?” asked the tall rancher solicitously.

“Yup, I guess, except for…”

“What, Tiger?” asked Slim, now hunkering down beside the child.

“Well I kinda woke up and heard Jess telling you about that trip to the woodshed.”

“Oh that. Yeah, well, he didn’t actually promise not to tell me, Mike, and I figure he just felt I should know.”

“It ain’t that I don’t understand that he needed to tell you; you two don’t have any secrets. It’s just that I was worried as to how you’d take it, you see?”

“Well sure, I was disappointed in you, Mike, but as long as you’ve learnt your lesson and don’t do it again, well, that’s just fine; no more to be said.”

“So why did he tell you?” asked Mike in a small voice.

Slim thought about that and then said, “Well, I figure it was you saying  as how you wanted to go on the drift — be just like Jess — and I think that’s not what he wants for you. Me neither.”

“But, I just wanna see a bit of the world before I settle down to ranching and all. Gee, there’s so much out there, you know, Slim, like Aunt Daisy’s sister’s place in St Lois and that time I visited Boston with my friend Billy’s family. That’s all I meant. Its real exciting travelling.”

Slim heaved a sigh of relief and had a faint sense of déjà vu, as his kid brother Andy always had a hankering for travel. “Well, if that’s all, I imagine we can work that out. But it would be good to have a good education behind you before you take off travelling, Mike, and some money too. You’d see much more of the country if you go by railroad instead of on an ol’ horse.”

The child beamed at that. “Sure, I guess I would, wouldn’t I!”

Then more gently Slim said, “So why did you do it — take Jess’s gunslinger weapon? “

“Huh?”

“The gun that was hidden by the fireplace — Jess’s old gunslinger weapon?”

“Oh that. Well, I just thought it was an old gun that he didn’t use and he wouldn’t mind. It wasn’t loaded, you know, Slim; I was only playing, but gee, Jess was mad at me. I’ve never seen him so mad.”

“Yeah, well, that’s because we told you not to touch our guns, and that one especially.”

“What’s so special about it? So why do you call it a ‘gunslinger’s’ weapon?” the child asked, looking perplexed.

Slim sighed. “Well, see, Mike, it’s specially customized for killing — for gun fighting, anyway. That filed down hammer, hair trigger… It’s basically not your everyday gun and it belongs to Jess’s past — parts of which he’d rather forget, isn’t any too proud of it, you see. Well, when he saw you using it, saying you just want to be like him, I guess he saw red. Those were dark days for him, Mike — real dark — and he doesn’t want that for you.”

The child’s eyes opened wide in shock at that. “Heck, I don’t wanna be an outlaw, run with gangs and the like; I want to be like Jess is now, helpin’ the Sheriff out and all, ridin’ posse. You have to be a real quick draw for that and he’s the fastest. Everyone at school says so; they all think he’s just ace!”

Slim smiled inwardly at that. “Yep, he is real fast, but you know what, Mike? If you asked him, I guess he’d say he was more proud of being a top mustanger and a partner in the ranch than being a fast gun.”

Just then they heard Jess clearing his throat from where he had been standing silently listening for the last few moments.

Slim and Mike turned as he moved forwards and hunkered down by the boy.

“Slim’s right about that,” Jess said softly, “and I’m sorry I didn’t explain properly about the significance of that gun, but you understand now?”

“Sure I do, Jess…and I’m real sorry.”

“And I’m real sorry about that trip to the woodshed, but you do understand why?” Jess asked again.

“Sure,” said the youngster smiling now. “And I guess it makes me feel good –now, that is. I sure didn’t feel good at the time!”

“What do you mean?” asked Slim looking surprised.

“Well, the way I figure it, you and Jess only bawl me out and smack me because you care about what happens to me. I got to thinking on my buddy Butch and how his Pa didn’t give a fig about him, so I reckon it’s better that folk care enough to put you straight,” Mike finished, grinning.

“Well, I’ll be…” said Slim smiling back. “I figure we’ve got ourselves quite a little philosopher here, Jess.”

“Huh?”

“You know, a real good thinker?”

“Oh yeah, philosopher…sure. Heck, I can’t even spell it, Slim. Guess he’s got that from you then!”

“Yep, well, with my thinking and your doing,” Slim said, tipping his hat towards the brace of rabbits, “I guess the boy won’t go far wrong.” All three laughed as they went about the task of cooking lunch.

****

It was when they were all packed up ready to continue the last leg of their journey — a few miles up the mountain to the line shack — that Jess gave a little gasp of shock and nudged Slim. “What in hell is that?” he asked, peering up the mountain.

Slim looked up to where his buddy was pointing and saw a thin plume of smoke, looking a lot like it was rising from the line shack chimney.

They exchanged puzzled glances and then Jess said, “Looks like we’ve got unexpected guests — unless there is something you ain’t told me?”

Slim looked equally puzzled. “Nope.”

“Then let’s go,” said Jess, leaping up on Traveler. All three started to make their way hastily up the steep mountain track.

*****

They reined in outside the Sherman line cabin about an hour or so later and jumped down from their mounts. Then, taking a cursory look around, Jess and Slim insisted Mike stay with the horses before they burst into the cabin, guns drawn, and  stood there peering round the empty room.

Slim was the first to come to his senses, and wandering over to the fireplace said, “Well, there was a fire here, but looks like they’re long gone. Maybe hunters like us and just taking advantage of the place being empty?”

Jess still stood stock still and seemed to be sniffing the air.

Slim turned and threw him a puzzled look. “Did you hear what I said?” Then looking more closely, he said, “Jess, what’s up?”

“That smell, the perfume — sorta lavender. Hell, Slim can’t you smell it?” Jess cried, suddenly looking wildly around.

Slim threw him a surprised glance and then sniffed too. ”Yeah, I guess I can smell something,” he replied eventually.

“Something?” replied Jess looking suddenly distraught. “That ain’t just something; that’s lavender perfume — the one Flora used to wear.”

Flora was Daisy’s beautiful young goddaughter who had tragically died from consumption. Her last wish had been to spend her final days up on the mountain, and it had been Jess who had accompanied her and nursed her through those last days. Now her final resting place was out behind the cabin, overlooking the breath-taking views below; a beautiful hand carved cross, made by Jess, marking the spot.*

At her name, Slim spun around and cast his buddy a shocked glance. “What are you saying Jess? Flora’s dead and buried.”

Jess just looked completely devastated. “Yeah, I know that don’t I,” he replied gruffly.

“So what are you saying — she’s haunting the place?”

Jess just shrugged and turned away.

Somehow the emotive power of the sense of smell brought back so many memories of her. Also brought raw emotions to the surface making Jess feel that he could just reach out and touch her, her presence was so strong.

“You OK, pard?” asked Slim looking concerned.

“I guess.” Then Jess started looking around the cabin more closely.

The old place had sure changed over the last couple of years. Gone was the ramshackle basic furniture; now there was a comfortable couch in front of the large fireplace, a table and chairs, large double bed with pretty patchwork quilt in the corner  of the room and a good sized cook stove along with all the necessary pots and pan, plates and cutlery.

There was even a bearskin rug in front of the fire and pretty patchwork drapes to the windows — all courtesy of a local family, the Fosters.

Jess had been staying in the cabin alone one night when he heard a loud knocking at the door and opened it to a poor bedraggled pregnant woman seeking somewhere to escape from the wild storm without. Jess had offered her shelter and ended up delivering her baby, much to the relief of her husband and doctor who arrived shortly after the birth. It was not long after this that the family — Pete and Annie Foster and their new daughter little Jessica — went west with the wagon train, and leaving their old way of life as trappers on the mountain, gave all their heavy furniture to Jess and Slim for the cabin as a heartfelt thank you for all Jess had done.**

Now Jess took in the smart surroundings, but something was subtly different from the last time they had visited. There was the odd woman’s touch about the place. Colorful cushions on the old couch, a water color seascape on the wall and a prettily stitched pan holder by the cook stove.

Then Jess finally strode over to the table and picked up a vase full of wildflowers and turning to Slim said, “So these hunters as have been using the place, they pick wild flowers, do they?”

Slim’s eyebrows shot up at that. “Well, I guess I got that one wrong, but someone’s sure been here. Not hunters maybe, but not a ghost either.”

Just then Mike peeked around the door. “Can I come in now? I’m getting kinda lonely out here.”

Slim and Jess had almost forgotten about the child and quickly welcomed him in.

“Sure, buddy,” said Slim beaming at the youngster. “We don’t know who was here, but guess they’re long gone, so let’s get unpacked and supper on, huh?”

Slim and Mike busied themselves with the tasks indoors whilst Jess opted to settle their mounts down for the night in the little lean-to stable abutting the cabin.

About an hour later, Mike was dispatched to call him in to supper, and unable to find him in the stable, wandered around the back of the cabin. After a moment, he saw Jess’s still form, standing head bowed, beside Flora’s grave beneath a huge Scots pine and overlooking the mountain range beyond.

The boy stood there for a good couple of minutes, and then the early evening chill prompted him to go across to his buddy.

As Mike approached, Jess spun around, his colt in his hand within a split second, but he relaxed and re-holstered it almost as quickly when he saw who was standing there. “Sorry. Tiger,” he said gently, “guess I’m feelin’ kinda edgy.”

The boy came over and looked down at the grave. “That’s OK,” he said softly. Then nodding to the grave, he asked, “Is this it? Where you buried Flora?”

Jess just nodded.

Mike looked up into the cowboys sad blue eyes. “I really miss her, Jess.”

“Me too, Tiger,” Jess murmured, throwing a comforting arm around the boy’s shoulders.

 Then after a few minutes they turned and went slowly back in for their supper.

Once the scratch meal was over and they were settled down in front of a crackling fire, Slim turned to the youngster and said, “Better fetch your book, Mike. You know what you promised — an hour’s reading before bed every night.”

“Aww, Slim, do I have to?”

“Sure you do. You promised Mr. Brown, didn’t you? And Aunt Daisy. Of course, if you’d rather do some math…?”

“No sir,” replied the child quickly, “I’ll get my book,” and the two ranchers exchanged a smile over his head.

Mike returned a few minutes later with his reading book, Robinson Crusoe, and peace reigned for the next hour or so.

Then seeing as he was feeling kind of sleepy himself, Slim suggested it was time for bed.

“Aww, Slim do I have to?” asked the younger flicking a glance up from his book. “This is a great story.”

Slim rolled his eyes, and turning to Jess, said, “First we can’t get him to read and now we darned well can’t stop him.”

Jess grinned over at the child. “So what’s it about then, Tiger?”

“All about this guy who goes to sea on one of those real big schooners with all those masts and sails, like in my picture book. Then there’s this huge storm and he’s shipwrecked and lands on this island all alone. I want to see what happens next,” Mike said, his eyes alight with excitement.

“Well I guess he’ll have to make himself a shelter and a fire to dry off some, kill something to eat, or pick fruit, maybe, if he ain’t got a gun. Maybe go fishin’. Gee, it sounds like a pretty good life, Tiger; reckon I wouldn’t mind bein’ shipwrecked myself,” laughed Jess before chivvying the child off to wash up before bed.

It had been agreed that Mike would take the big, more comfortable, bed to ensure a good night’s sleep in the strange environment and the men would take the two old cots pulled up by the fire.

It was when Jess turned the quilt back prior to making up the bed for the boy that he got yet another shock.

The bed was already made up with fresh dry, sweet smelling linen, and when he pulled the top sheet back he gave a little involuntary cry and cussed softly with shock at what he saw there.

“Jess?” Slim’s head shot up and he and Mike went across the room to see what had spooked the young cowboy.

Seeing Mike’s troubled expression, Jess quickly pulled himself together and removed the tied bunch of lavender from the bed and put it to one side before saying, “Come on then, Mike; in you get. Me and Slim are turning in now; busy day tomorrow.”

The youngster gave his friend a puzzled look before saying, “What were you cussin’ at, Jess?”

“Huh? oh nuthin’, buddy. Thought I saw a spider — you know how I hate ‘em. All gone now, so hop in.” Jess tucked him in before turning the night light down. “Night, Mike.”

“Night, Jess, Slim,” replied the drowsy child and was fast asleep in minutes.

The men went back to the fire and settled down for a quick shot of Red Eye before bed. Slim looked over, and after a moment, said, “So what really spooked you?”

Jess leaned down and picked up the lavender that he had placed on the floor by his chair, and threw it across to Slim. “I found this in the bed; smells like it’s fresh picked too.”

Slim sniffed the small bouquet thoughtfully.

“Slim, Flora used to do that, put lavender in the bedding to make it smell sweet.”

Slim cast his buddy an anxious glance. “All this has got you really spooked, hasn’t it? Heck Jess, Daisy does just the same thing with the linen at home. So did my Ma. So it doesn’t follow that Flora — or her ghost — did this. It could be anyone.”

“Well whoever it is, they’re trespassin’ and we need to do something,” Jess replied gruffly, throwing Slim a stubborn look.

“Oh come on, pard; it’s hardly the crime of the century, leaving wildflowers on the table and lavender in the bed. Kinda nice, really, having a woman’s touch about the old place.”

“Umm,” said Jess morosely. Shortly afterwards they turned in, but Jess tossed and turned long into the night, poignant memories of Flora’s last days on earth lingering with him, until he finally slept and dreamt of her.

He was standing outside the line shack and the snowflakes were floating down as Flora danced in the snow, throwing her head back and laughing, her eyes sparkling as happy and carefree as a child as she spun around pirouetting in the fast falling snow.

That had been her last night on earth as she lost her battle with the terrible disease that night.

Then, in his dream, Jess had awoken to Flora cold as marble, lying so still and peaceful in repose and he just lay there staring at her, the evocative smell of lavender filling the deeply silent room.

*****

Jess awoke the following morning to the same smell of lavender and was immediately transported back to that other morning, but then he heard Slim moving about and Mike laughing at something and gave a huge sigh of relief.

Then Slim wandered over and passed him a coffee. “You OK, pard? You’re looking kind of peaky.”

“Yup, I’m fine; just had a few bad dreams is all.”

Slim nodded sagely, being used to Jess’s disturbed nights, and said no more.

They set off after breakfast, but had no luck picking up moose tracks until late afternoon.

Jess swung down from the saddle and took several minutes to read the signs and then beckoned Mike over and showed him the tracks and how to read them.

“Gee Jess, it’s so easy when you know what to look for, ain’t it? Was it your Indian friends that taught you that?”

Jess nodded. “Yep, Little Wolf taught me animal tracking real good.”

“So how far then?” asked Slim from where he was still seated on Alamo.

Jess shook his head. “Too far to catch up with them today; it’ll be dark in an hour. Figure they’re heading back towards the lake, so if we get up at first light, we should find ‘em there tomorrow.”

On their return journey, they let Mike take first shot at a couple of rabbits for the pot. He did really well, bringing the first down with a clean shot, and Slim helped him dispatch the second one.

“Your turn to cook tonight, Hotshot,” Slim said turning and grinning at Jess.

Jess smiled back. “You never know; our resident ghost might already have supper on,” he laughed.

Slim smiled back, glad to see his buddy had regained his usual sense of humor and they made for home at a good pace.

It was when they were passing through a narrow gully that disaster struck.

They were travelling in single file as the  trail between the two high rocky outcrops was very narrow — Slim out in front, then Mike on little Sunny and Jess taking up the rear. Jess was suddenly alerted to the fact that  all was not well as he felt Traveler tremble beneath him and then give a little whinny of fear before sidestepping and tossing his head in distress.

Then looking up, Jess was just in time to see a shadowy form high above them on the rocks to his left. He quickly pulled his hunting rifle out of its scabbard, at the same time yelling a warning out to Mike.

The youngster spurred his mount forwards out of trouble just as the cougar pounced and Jess let off his shot, killing it  stone dead as it leapt off the rock heading for where Mike’s pony had been just seconds earlier.

The scream of terror from Mike’s pony, along with the big cat falling to its death just feet from Traveler, spooked the usually calm horse so much that he reared up in terror, unseating Jess who still had both hands on his hunting rifle.

He fell badly on his back, hitting the back of his head hard on a rock and then lay deathly still.

It was a few minutes before Slim could get back to him, the seriously spooked mounts blocking the narrow pass as they paced about, giving frightened whinnies and tossing their heads, the smell of the big cat striking terror into their hearts.

Eventually the critters relaxed a little, and Slim and Mike were able to make their way back down the track to where Jess had fallen and was still out cold.

Mike fell to his knees beside his hero, looking terrified as he shook him, trying to rouse the deeply unconscious man.

Then Slim rolled him onto his side and saw the deep gash to the back of his neck, blood now soaking his pale blue shirt, and immediately sent Mike off to fetch a canteen.

Slim removed Jess’s bandana and cleaned the deep wound with the cool water before tying the scarf back around his neck as a make-shift bandage, stemming the sluggish flow of blood.

Mike watched the proceedings, pale and trembling. “He will be alright, won’t he, Slim?” he whispered after a few minutes, when Jess was till out cold, looking a sickly grey color.

“Sure, he will buddy,” said Slim sounding much more confident than he felt. “Tough as old boots is Jess, you know that.”

However it was a further half hour before Jess finally came around, and then he was violently sick; Slim’s suspicions that his pard had a nasty concussion were confirmed.

After a while, they managed to get Jess mounted up on Alamo, and they rode double, Slim taking his weight as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

On arrival back at the cabin, Mike insisted Jess have the large comfy bed, and once Jess was lying down Slim painstakingly cleaned the wound and put a makeshift dressing to the back of his head.

Slim looked into his friend’s eyes and noted that he looked completely dazed, almost as though he didn’t know where he was for a few minutes, before he took a deep breath and rallied.

“Gee, that sure is a nasty gash, Jess. You want to head back home tomorrow? Let the doc patch you up?”

“The hell I do,” replied Jess quickly. Had worse, I guess…Shlim. I’ll just rest up sh… some.” After a minute, his deep blue eyes closed and soon he was snoring gently.

Slim stared down at his buddy, the fact that he was slurring his words and was now deathly pale a  sure sign that he was quite badly concussed.

A little while later, Mike burst in from tending the mounts and stared down in consternation at his hero. “He looks awful Slim…real white. You sure he’ll be OK?”

Slim wandered over from where he’d started fixing supper. “I guess so, Mike. He just needs to sleep it off; he’ll be fine tomorrow,” he said lightly, trying not to worry the boy, although he was secretly quite concerned.

Jess lay there feeling terrible, his head aching fit to burst and waves of nausea threatening to overwhelm him as the first light of dawn filtered through the windows. He heard Slim moving quietly about and then Slim was by Jess’s side with a coffee. He pulled himself up as Slim passed it over and then sat down on the edge of the bed.

“How are you feeling, pard?”

Jess shook his head and then regretted it, giving a low groan and closing his eyes as the agony spread from his head down the back of his neck.

“That bad eh?” asked Slim, casting him a concerned look.

“I guess I ain’t goin’ anywhere right now, Slim,” Jess finally managed. “But you go. Take Mike; he’ll be real disappointed otherwise”.

Slim started to shake his head. “I don’t like leaving you like this, Jess; you look real sick.”

“I’ll be fine; just need me some peace and quiet. You take off and let Mike have first shot, you hear? He’s been looking forward to this so darn much, you know.”

Slim gave him a small smile. “That he has. OK, I’ll get him up and we’ll take off. Be back before nightfall, if not sooner. I’ll leave you some chow, OK? “

“Don’t bother; I ain’t hungry, Slim. Just some water…and the bucket,” Jess said as an afterthought.

“Are you still feeling sick? “

“Some.”

Slim sighed. “I really don’t want to leave you.”

“There ain’t nuthin’ you can do. Go on, get out of here,” Jess said, throwing his friend his infectious grin. “And make sure you bring me back a nice big moose, you hear?”

It was late morning when Jess thought he heard a noise outside, and staggering up from the bed, he lurched across the room, gun in hand. Hauling the door open, he peered around the open countryside with the backdrop of majestic pines and mountain peaks.

Then he saw a raccoon scuttle across the porch and disappear around the corner and smiling to himself withdrew back into the cabin.

As he walked back to bed, the room seemed to tip and Jess grabbed hold of a chair for support, coming out in a cold sweat. The nausea rising again, he closed his eyes and swallowed deeply.

Then he opened his eyes and peered across the room to the bed that seemed miles away. He blinked his eyes several times, his vision suddenly double and then so blurred he could hardly see at all.

After several deep breaths he was finally able to make his way back to the bed and threw himself down with relief, dragging the covers over and falling into an exhausted sleep.

It was late afternoon when he awoke with the last golden rays of sunshine filtering in through the windows.

Then as he opened his eyes and looked around him, feeling slightly disorientated, his eyes finally came to rest on a diminutive figure standing at the foot of the bed and he gasped in shock.

It was Flora.

The light seemed to hurt his eyes and he squinted, trying to focus.

The slight figure stood just staring back. She had a heart shaped face and that long dark hair, that he remembered so well. The sunlight behind her was casting her features into shadow, but he knew it; he just knew it was Flora. Then he sensed the lavender perfume again and he felt as though his heart would break.

As she took a pace towards him, he was again overwhelmed with a wave of dizziness and felt lightheaded. His last thought before he passed out was why — why is she here? He had buried her, prayed for her immortal soul and now she was walking the earth again. Why?

When he came around, the lamps were lit and there was the smell of cooking, the fire crackling brightly and a warm cozy atmosphere around him.

He sat up and turned half expecting to see Flora working at the cook stove, but it was Slim.

The tall rancher suddenly seemed to be aware of his buddy’s scrutiny and turning beamed at him and walked over. “How are you feeling Jess?” The he leaned over and removed a damp cloth form his forehead. “Did that help the headache?” he asked solicitously.

Jess put a hand to his head looking dazed. “I guess so. Did you do it?”

Slim looked surprised. “Nope, you did. It was on your head, rung out in fresh cool water when we landed home an hour or so ago. I was kind of surprised you found the clean rags; I’d put ‘em out on the line to dry.”

Jess said nothing, just looked dazed.

“So I see you made yourself some broth too. Decided not to risk it in the end then?” Slim asked, nodding to the pot of fast cooling broth at the bedside.

Jess glanced down at the broth and then back at his buddy, now looking totally bewildered.

Slim sat down on the edge of the bed and threw his friend a concerned look. “What is it, Jess? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Jess swallowed hard and then looked deeply into Slim’s eyes. “Well, I guess that’s because I have,” he finally whispered.

“Huh?”

“Where’s Mike?”

“Out chopping some wood. Why?”

“Because he don’t need to hear this.”

“Go on…”

“She was here this afternoon, tending me.”

“Who?” asked Slim looking bewildered.

“Flora. It was her as fetched the bandage and made the broth.”

“Jess…”

“It was, Slim; I swear. She was standing at the bottom of the bed. I saw her, real skinny just the way she was when she passed — her hair so long and dark. Hell Slim, I saw her,” Jess said, his eyes now open wide in terror. “What’s she playin’ at Slim? Why’s she come back?”

Just then the door burst open and Mike careered in beaming from ear to ear. “We nearly got him, Jess. A real big bull moose and I would have shot him, but we were much too far away Slim said, and then something spooked the herd. But we’re going’ back and I guess you’ll be well enough to come too.”

Then remembering his manners, Mike threw himself down on the bed and said, “Sorry, Jess. How are you feelin’ now?”

“Just fine, Tiger,” Jess said softly. “So are you gonna tell me all about it then?”

“You bet,” and the next half hour, up until supper, was full of the joys of hunting, the youngster bedside himself with excitement.

It was much later, after supper and with Mike fast asleep after the adventures of the day, that Slim and Jess could talk properly again.

Jess had insisted in getting up and sitting at the table for supper, but it was obvious that he was still very weak and he retired again soon after Mike.

Slim wandered over to the big bed that Jess was still using, and casting a glance over to the  fireplace where Mike was asleep on one of the old cots , he settled down on the edge of Jess’s bed and said softly,” I figure we need to talk this out, pard.”

“Nuthin’ to talk out. I saw her Slim…and that’s the truth of it.”

Slim sighed deeply. “Come on, pard, you don’t believe in ghosts. You were sick, Jess — still are, I guess — and a hit on the head like that can do funny things to a man. You just imagined it all.”

Jess turned angry eyes on his friend. “What the bandage to my head, the broth… Imagined all that?”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe you did those things yourself and forgot about it. Heck, Jess, you were pretty much out of it this morning.”

Jess just shook his head. “She was here, I tell you, Slim. Sure felt like she was anyway,” he finished softly.

“Yeah, sure, I know,” said Slim kindly, “but just rest up and we’ll see how things are tomorrow, huh?”

Jess just nodded. “I guess.” And the two men turned in.

*****

The next day, Jess was feeling much better, and so all three hunters set off shortly after dawn and made their way down to the lakeside where Jess knew they would probably find the animals taking their ease and drinking their fill before moving onwards.

Using a back trail, they made their way down to the lake in record time, and Mike was delighted to see his quarry in exactly the area Jess had predicted. It was merely a matter of getting close enough for a good clean shot.

Jess took Mike off towards the herd, crawling through the undergrowth on their bellies for the last few yards, while Slim stayed slightly behind, watching their backs, ready to take his shot if Mike or Jess missed.

Mike lay looking through the sights of the heavy hunting rifle, hardly daring to breathe as he marked the huge bull moose several yards away.

“Remember what I told you, Tiger. Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it, and get the place you’re aiming for in your sights. Hold your breath and then shoot.”

Mike did as he was told, and a minute later a shot rang out; the moose leapt in pain as it was hit in the shoulder and then a second later another shot was fired, hitting straight through the head and he fell down dead.

Jess turned to the youngster and saw the flush of excitement on his cheeks. “Well done, Mike. Your first moose!”

“Well, you and me both,” breathed the child. “I figure you finished him off.”

“Team work, buddy,” said Jess, grinning at the child and turning to encompass Slim in his smile as he joined them.

“Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?” said the boy grinning from ear to ear before running off to admire his kill.

Later that afternoon, they had returned to the cabin and Jess had instructed Mike as to the intricacies of butchering his kill, much to the child’s distaste. But as Jess had said, if he was old enough to kill the critter, then he was darned well old enough to butcher it too. He reminded him that a good hunter always butchers his kill for the cook, just the same way as a good fisherman gutted his fish.

However, Jess took pity on the youngster when it came to gutting the moose and just showed him how to joint it and prepare the meat for preservation and storage prior to talking it back for Daisy to salt down, but tended to the grizzly business of gutting the animal himself.

Later, the two men were taking their ease in front of the cabin fire, leaving young Mike out in the stable grooming his pony.

“He did real well, didn’t he,” said Slim, beaming across at his buddy. “You were right to make him learn how to butcher the critter. I guess he’s growing up really quickly. I think I tend to forget he’s not the little kid that landed a few years back. “

“Sure, he’s growing up and there are things he needs to learn, no matter how hard they are to do first time,” replied Jess grinning across at  his pard. “And compared with your first kiss, I guess butcherin’ an old moose is real easy.”

“Hey steady on, Jess; he’s only ten, remember. I reckon it’ll be a while before we start having to help nurse a broken heart.”

Jess expressive eyebrows shot up at that. “Well, I was fallin’ in love at…”

“Yeah, yeah, we all know about you and the ladies, Casanova!”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. So Jess, we’ve still got us another week. So how about some fishing?”

*****

Later on, Jess went off to see how Mike was doing grooming the mounts and stopped just outside the stable at the sound of voices. Entering softly, he saw Mike sitting on a bale of straw looking up at a girl, totally captivated and drinking in her every word.

The girl was Flora.

Jess stared at her in amazement — her slight figure, the almost black hair, and again that poignant lavender perfume.

Mike suddenly saw his buddy and looking past the girl said, “Hi, Jess.”

Then Flora turned…only it wasn’t.

Jess gasped, feeling dizzy the disappointment like a kick in the guts, but of course it wasn’t Flora his rational side told him. She was no more.

“This is Charlie,” Mike said grinning. “Charlie Donaldson, my new friend.”

The young girl smiled at him. “Charlotte, that is,” she said, “and how are you feeling now, Mister Harper?”

Jess looked astounded. “It was you as tended to me — the damp cloth, the broth?”

“Why, certainly. I thought it was the least I could do seeing as I had appropriated your dwelling for myself.”

“Huh?”

“Since I have…well, borrowed, I guess, your lovely line cabin…as a retreat, you see, when the clamor of family life proves too much for me.”

Light finally dawned.

“You mean as it was you who has been stoppin’ here, brought the cushions, wildflowers and the lavender and all?” Jess asked looking mightily relieved.

“Well yes, Mister Harper, that’s what I just said — and I am truly sorry if I have caused you any distress.”

“Nope, I guess not,” Jess said smiling at the young girl. “So you live around here?”

“Yes, with her Ma and Pa and brother and sister,” said Mike quickly. And guess where, Jess? They’re staying in the Foster’s old place.”

Jess looked surprised. “Well heck, Annie and Pete Foster left on the wagon train a couple of years since and we’ve got anything they didn’t take. It must be a mite sparse up there for you.”

“Oh no, not really; we are used to camping out because of Papa’s work.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes he’s a botanist, up here doing a geographical survey for Congress,” she said proudly.

Mike gave a little snigger at that, but then Slim joined them wondering what all the chatter was about and turned a reproving eye on Mike.

Slim smiled at the young girl and introduced himself, and then turning to Mike said, “I reckon you’ve not heard of the study of botany, Mike. It’s all about plants and flowers — that right, Charlotte?”

She beamed at him. “That’s right. Papa had been studying Alpine type plants here.”

“So who else is here on the mountain?” asked Slim kindly.

“Well, Mama and Papa, my big sister Shona — she’s just seventeen — and little brother Rory; he’s just turned six.”

“Charlie’s thirteen,” said Mike proudly.

“Yes, thirteen, just a whisker older than you,” she said smiling across at her new best buddy.

Jess and Slim exchanged an amused look before noting Mike’s obvious discomfort, and both figured that if he wanted to add on a couple of years for the benefit of his new lady friend, well, who were they to quibble.

“So, do you wanna stay for super, or do you have to get home?” asked Jess kindly.

“Er, I’d better get back,” she said quickly. “I will see you tomorrow, though, Mike?” she asked.

Mike threw Jess a pleading look.

“Sure. We thought we might go fishin’ down at the lake. Would you like to join us –if that’s OK with your folks?” Jess asked.

“They don’t mind what I do,” she said quickly. “Sure, that will be fine.” After casting Mike a lovely smile, she ran off into the woods.

“Ain’t she just great?” Mike sighed.

Jess exchanged a look with Slim and whispered, “I told you; he sure is growin’ up fast.”

The following morning found Jess, Slim and Mike down at the lake for a mornings fishing and two out of the three were really enjoying themselves. But young Mike was like a cat on a hot tin roof until Charlotte finally arrived, accompanied by her big sister Shona. It was Jess who was the first to see them.

Mike and Slim were at the lakeside, but Jess had gone back up to their makeshift camp to build a fire to cook their meal on. He quickly stood up from his task when he saw the two young ladies enter the camp.

Jess’ head shot up as he saw Charlotte’s big sister, an incredibly beautiful girl, with her abundance of black locks and slender, but womanly figure.

“You must be Mister Harper?” Shona said smiling over at him. “Papa asked me to accompany Charlie. I hope you don’t mind?”

Jess pulled himself together at once. “Of course not; the more the merrier,” he said lightly.

She smiled at that and sashayed over. “Well, I’m glad at that. Charlie never said there were other young folk about; I figured you’d be real old like my folks.”

“Oh,” said Jess with a grin, “they’re real ancient, are they then?”

“Umm, I guess so; older than you anyway.”

Just then Mike ran up with Charlie.

“Aww sis, do you have to stay? Am I destined to have no life of my own?” asked a disgruntled Charlotte.

“I’m afraid not,” said Shona cheerfully. “Anyway, what are you doing keeping these lovely cowboys all to yourself?” she asked throwing Jess and Slim, who had now wandered over, a playful look.

Jess swallowed hard and remembered he was walking out with Millie before throwing Shona a friendly, but business-like glance and giving her a non-committal reply before quickly introducing his pard.

Shona gave Slim a cursory glance before turning her attentions back to Jess. “So would you like me to do that?” she asked nodding to where Jess was about to begin frying up the morning’s catch.

Jess gave her a genuine grin at that. “Why sure, Miss Shona; that would be great.” He relaxed back and let her get on with the chore while he chatted quietly with her. “So, where do you all come from? “

“New York, but we’ve been out West with Papa’s work since the spring; we go home in a few days.”

“Yeah, you sure don’t wanna be stuck up here in the winter,” Jess agreed. “So what about schoolin’ for your little brother and Charlie there?” he asked tipping his hat to where Mike was showing the pretty young girl how to cast a line.

“Oh, Mama home teaches them — always has done.”

“So she’s a teacher then,” asked Slim looking interested. “My Ma was too.”

“Umm….” Shona said dragging her gaze away from Jess. “Oh yes, a teacher and an anthropologist.”

Jess looked slightly dazed at that.

“You know,” she prompted,” the study of human beings, their culture, different beliefs and relationships, that sort of thing?” She raised a questioning eyebrow in Jess’s direction.

“Oh… yeah, sure,” said Jess vaguely.

She grinned at him at that and slapping his arm said, “Oh you’re so funny!”

Slim threw his buddy an amused glance at that. “Hilarious,” he muttered, before calling Mike and Charlie over for lunch.

As they settled down ready to eat, Shona made a beeline for Jess, and sitting down beside him, gushed, “I should imagine you have a most stimulating life as a rancher, positively amazing, with all that land to care for and the beasts too?”

“Oh yeah, it’s all of that,” said Jess dryly, winking at Slim. “Real stimulatin’ bein tipped off of mustangs, and as to ridin’ fence, well, that’s way beyond amazing, ain’t it, Slim?”

Slim chuckled and Shona hit Jess even harder. “I do believe you’re teasing me, Mister Harper!”

Jess grinned at that. “Sorry, Shona, but I guess you kinda asked for that, though. Ranching is just hard work — and then more hard work,” he said seriously, then more kindly “and it’s Jess.”

“Well then, Jess, I think I shall make you my case study — anthropology-wise, that is. Sort of East meets West and we can see how our different cultures — and belief systems, like close relationships — differ maybe?” she asked, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow in his direction and giving him a meaningful smile, whilst studying him coquettishly.

Jess looked startled at that. “Well, you don’t hang back, do you,” he said quietly, for her ears only. “And if its culture and the likes you’re interested in, I figure Slim’s your man; much better educated up than I am,” he finished with a tight smile.

“But that’s the whole point,” she said equally softly. “Slim is a lovely man, I’m sure, but obviously the product of a typical Midwestern, reasonably well-to-do family. A landowning rancher father, teacher mother with all the aspirations and accepted norms one would expect.”

Jess said nothing, wondering vaguely if they were still both speaking the same language.

“Whereas you,” she continued, “are something completely different, I imagine. You have a wild, untamed feel about you, an almost…er, dangerous aspect to your nature,” she concluded, again casting him a speculative look from under her lashes.

Well, Jess might not understand all that talk of anthropology and accepted norms and the like, whatever they were, but he sure as hell knew when he was being flirted with and figured it was just about the right moment to call time. He finished his meal, put the plate down carefully and then said firmly, “Excuse me, Ma’am; need to check on the horses.”

Shona looked askance as he stood up quickly and strode off towards where the horses were tethered, and then looking to Slim said, “Oh dear, have I upset him?”

Slim threw her a questioning glance. “I don’t know….have you? “

Jess spent the rest of the afternoon in Mike and Charlie’s company, showing them the best way to cast a line and taking them off down the other side of the lake to try their luck there, leaving Slim to amuse Shona.

It was nearly dusk when they made their farewells and accepted an invitation to supper at the Donaldson’s place for the following day. It wasn’t until Mike had turned in that the two ranchers discussed their day.

“That Shona sure is pretty,” Slim said, casting Jess a searching look.

Jess took a sip of his whiskey and stretched his legs out in front of the fire, before replying. “Yep, that she is,” he said softly.

“So what are you going to do about it?” persisted Slim.

Jess’s head swiveled at that, “Well nuthin’,” he said at once. “She’s way too young…and anyway, I’m seein’ Millie right now, ain’t I?”

“Umm…just so long as you’ve not forgotten that,” said Slim quietly.

“Well, I ain’t likely too, am I?” Jess interjected forcefully. “Not with you there to remind me all the darn time!”

“I was just saying, that’s all.”

“What, that I can’t keep my hands of a pretty girl?”

“No, I didn’t mean that, but she was rather throwing herself at you.”

“Yeah, well, novelty value, you see, Slim. I guess she ain’t ever met anyone like me before.” Then looking serious, Jess added, “Anyway it ain’t Shona that bothers me; it’s Charlie.”

“Huh…what do you mean?”

“Just that I think Mike has fallen head over heels for the kid — and it’s gonna end in tears, Slim. She’s shipping out next week.”

“Naw, you’re joshing me. Mike, he’s just a little kid. Sure he likes her, but anything more…?” Slim just shook his head, smiling benignly at his buddy.

“I’m not joking, Slim. He’s got all the signs — hangs on her every word, practically drooling over her, tongue tied, blushes at the least thing. Yep, the kids got it bad.”

*****

It was the following day that Slim finally thought that there just might be something in what Jess had said.

The men had opted to stay around the line cabin as there were a few repairs that needed to be attended to before winter set in and Mike took himself off to the little creek out the back to do some more fishing.

It was a glorious Indian Summer’s day, and after Jess had completed mending the corral fence, he left Slim fixing a light dinner and went off to fetch Mike back. He found him sitting on the rocks beside the creek, looking dreamily out across to the distant mountain range. Mike jumped when Jess hunkered down beside him.

“You were miles away. What were you thinkin’ on, Tiger?” Jess asked with a friendly grin.

Mike looked at Jess and then off to the hills again “Promise you won’t laugh?”

Jess made himself more comfortable on the warm rock beside the boy and said kindly, “‘Course not. What’s on your mind?”

The child gave a huge sigh and then looking at his hero said softly, “It’s Charlie. I think I love her, Jess.”

Jess swallowed hard before replying, trying to get his thoughts in order. Sure, he’d half expected this, but now it was out in the open, he felt almost as surprised as Slim had been, but quickly pulled himself together. “Well Mike, that’s sure a big thing, bein’ in love an’ all. Have you told her?”

The boy shook his head. “Nope, I ain’t really sure, you see, Jess. Thought I’d kinda ask you about it first.”

“Umm…well, so how do you feel around her?”

“Nervous, excited, kinda shy, and when she looks at me with those big dark eyes, well, my heart sorta beats so fast I think it’s gonna jump right out of my chest, and I feel kinda sick and dizzy. I’ve got these sorta butterflies in my belly. Heck Jess, it’s awful,” Mike said, turning intense eyes on his friend.

Jess sighed and then gave the child a sad smile. “Yep, buddy, sure sounds like a bad case of love to me.”

The boy nodded at this and then said, “So how old were you when you first fell for a girl, Jess?”

“Ten — same as you — and with an older woman too. Gee, she was somethin’, Mike.”

“How old was she?”

“Fifteen — and she didn’t give a cuss about me. I tried real hard to court her, you know,” Jess said, casting a glance down at the child. “Took her wild flowers, candy when I could afford it.”

“So what happened?”

“Oh she was kind to me — sometimes — let me hold her hand, even kiss her once,” Jess said, remembering it all so clearly. Abby…

Abby Jackson, now there was a name to conjure with. For his first awakening of feelings for the opposite sex, he had to choose Abby Jackson to fall in love with, when probably every red-blooded male in the town was in love with her…and didn’t she know it.

Gee, she had been so, so beautiful, with those huge eyes and long reddish golden hair; he sighed at the thought. She was a tease of the very worst sort, though, leading a man on and then, backing off, seeming to be laughing at him, he recalled. Boy, did he suffer loving Abby. Sure, she’d thought he was cute and occasionally would let him get close to her — and then she’d knock him back, leaving him devastated as she took off with someone else without a backwards glance.

Now his heart bled for Mike, knowing he had all this pain and heartbreak to come, and he just wanted to protect the child. But he knew he couldn’t; some things just had to be learnt the hard way, he thought sadly.

Then he was suddenly aware that Mike was speaking again. “So what happened in the end?” he asked.

“She dumped me. Well, we were never really together. See the age difference was way too much; she was practically a full grown woman and I guess I was just a little kid to her. But it sure hurt, Mike, because no matter what people say, those feelings are real, even if you are kinda young.”

“I know,” Mike whispered. “So what should I do, Jess? Do you think I should kiss her?”

“Well I dunno about that, buddy. Do you think she wants you to?”

“Yes…no…maybe. She held hands with me yesterday and said she really, really likes me, so I guess maybe she does.”

Jess sighed again. “You know she’s goin’ away, Mike, next week all the way back to New York. Well, these long distance romances… They don’t tend to work out, you know,” he said softly, taking the youngster seriously, knowing that, that was what he would have wanted at that age — had he had anyone to confide in that is, he thought bitterly.

“We talked about that. Said we’d write, and then her Pa will be coming out west next summer…” Mike lapsed into silence once more, looking out to the distant peaks. Then he looked back to his hero. “So what’s it like kissin’?” he asked. You’re real good at it, ain’t you, Jess?”

Jess smiled at that. “Well, I guess, and it’s nice, Mike, real nice if you’re kissin’ the right person. But you have to be sure  she wants to kiss you too; otherwise, well, you lookin’ to get your face slapped,” he said with a grin. Then sobering he said, “I figure maybe you should tell her how old you really are, huh. Most important thing in a relationship is truth, Tiger. If you ain’t got trust, then you ain’t got nuthin’.”

“But she’ll think I’m just a little kid,” Mike said, looking dismayed.

“Well, she don’t right now, does she? “

“No…”

“Well then, age is just a number. You ain’t gonna suddenly change because you tell her your age, are you? And even if she does decide you’re too young for her, it’s still best to tell the truth, and maybe if she feels that way, it just ain’t meant, you understand?”

“OK, Jess, I guess you’re right.”

“Sure. Anyway, Slim’s made dinner. You coming?”

The child sighed. “Well, I’m not really hungry, but I guess I could try.”

“That’s it, Tiger; gotta keep your strength up,” Jess said, chuckling as they made their way back to the cabin.

After lunch, Mike wandered off again and Slim threw the child’s retreating back a worried glance. “So what’s up with Mike? He hardly touched his meal.”

Jess shook his head and then grinned over at his buddy. “Well, I’ll tell you, Slim; our boy has got a real bad case of puppy love.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “So you were right then?”

“Umm, looks that way.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“Ain’t much we can do, is there; just let it run its course I guess.”

“Heck Jess he’s only a kid and so is this Charlotte. What are her folks going to say?”

“Well, not much, I guess. Hell, come on Slim, lighten up; it’s not like he’s dang well gonna elope with her, is he? They’ll just hold hands and maybe share a kiss or two and then in a few days, she’ll be off home to New York and Mike will fret some. But we’ve all gotta grow up some time.”

“I guess so…”

They made the short journey up the track to the Fosters old shack early that evening, for the supper invitation, all three having dressed as neatly as possible, although they only had their usual work a day clothes with them. But they were clean — the men freshly shaved and Mike with his hair neatly combed, bearing a very large bouquet of  freshly picked wildflowers for his love.

As they walked along, Jess noticed the flowers and said, “you know what, Mike? If I was you, I’d give some of them to Charlie’s Ma.”

“You think so?” asked the child eagerly.

“Sure, Rule number one is keep in with her Ma, ain’t it, Slim?”

“Absolutely, yep.”

When they arrived at the shack, Charlotte came running out to meet them, beaming at a totally besotted Mike and relieved him of some of the flowers with a huge grin. “Oh my word. Flowers! How wonderful…what a delight!”

Slim and Jess hid a smile at her sophisticated turn of phrase and figured she and her elder sister spoke like they’d swallowed a dictionary due to their intellectual parents input.

“These others are for your Ma…er, from  us all,” Mike quickly improvised as Mrs. Donaldson suddenly joined them.

Jess and Slim stood transfixed at the vision of loveliness that wafted her way towards them.

She seemed to be wearing some sort of diaphanous gown in muted shades of red and gold, tightly fitting around the bodice and then cascading down to the floor. Her reddish golden hair fell in waves, flowing around her shoulders, and her striking blue eyes were open wide with pleasure as she almost floated towards them, a welcoming smile on her classically beautiful face.

She looked indeed as though she had just stepped from  the lounge  of a large modern New York apartment rather than a dirty little shack in the  backwoods.

Slim had been expecting a rather severe academic type with eyeglasses and graying hair, and Jess, maybe an older version of Shona. But this vision of loveliness was completely unexpected. Maybe in her late thirties, she had a perfect hourglass figure and the demeanor of a dancer or actress.

“My dear Mister Sherman and Mister Harper; how lovely to make your acquaintance at last,” she enthused in dulcet tones.

Slim was the first to come to his senses and offered his hand, “ Ma’am…and it’s Slim, please. This is my partner Jess.”

“I’m delighted,” she said with an enchanting  little giggle. Then turning to Jess. “I hope you have made a full recovery now Jess?”

“Yes Ma’am, thank you,” Jess said, touching his hat and smiling deeply into her astonishing deep blue eyes.

“Good, I’m so glad and please call me Iona.”

“That’s a beautiful name,” Jess murmured, thinking how lovely she looked.

“Thank you, Jess. Well, it’s a lovely place; I am named after an island in Scotland where we were originally from.”

Then a huge man came up behind her and boomed out a greeting. He sported a long black beard, a mop of unruly dark, curly hair and was dressed in a kilt complete with sporran. “Welcome, welcome, my friends; please come in and sit ye down. I am Callum Donaldson; I think you’ve met the rest of the clan…ah, except for wee Rory here,” he said, whisking a diminutive dark haired boy up into his arms. “Say hello son.”

“Hello Mister Harper, hello Mister Sherman,” the boy said politely before wriggling to get down and run off to play with Mike and Charlie.

Then Shona wandered in and threw Jess a covert look, before smiling at Slim and welcoming him and then finally Jess and giving him an intimate little smile. She too was adorned as if for a grand party and her mother suddenly became aware of how they must look to these young ranchers, dressed in all their finery in the middle of a forest and halfway up a mountain.

“You must forgive our eccentricity,” Iona said, wafting a hand at her dress and that of her older daughter and her husband’s dress shirt and kilt. “But once a week, we make it a rule to dress up properly so we do not forget the conventions, I think some sort of  decorum is so important, even out in the wilds; one must keep up standards, do you not agree?”

The men nodded courteously and Slim agreed that yes one did, whereas Jess just said softly, “Well, if it makes you happy…”

Iona smiled at that. “Yes, I think it probably does. Now do come along in, gentleman, and share our hospitality, such as it is in this isolated place,” she added with another charming little giggle.

When the men entered, they were amazed at the way the old place had been cleaned up. With a fire crackling in the grate and a beautifully set table, laid with a damask cloth and silver cutlery, it did indeed look very fine, if slightly incongruous, in the old cabin.

“My one luxury.” Iona smiled, noticing them looking  at the table. “I must have my cutlery and good cloth, and dear Callum indulges his silly little wife,” she said giggling again.

“Umm, well this ‘silly little wife’ of mine has a degree in anthropology and a teaching degree as well,” Callum said proudly, throwing a possessive arm around her shoulders.

“Oh come, Callum, the gentlemen don’t want to hear all about that; sit them down and fetch a dram, whilst I dish up,” Iona said, waltzing off to the stove and chivvying Shona to help her.

It was an enjoyable meal, with lots of lively conversation, and Jess was relieved that it was not completely above his head. In fact, academia was hardly mentioned and the main focus of attention was on life in the west and the intricacies of carving out a living from ranching.

“Gosh you’re so lucky going to a regular school, Mike,” said Charlotte. “Having so many friends and everything and then being snowed in, in the winter,” she finished her eyes wide with excitement, “that must be such fun!”

Mike’s eyes sparkled. “Sure is. I get to help around the ranch, and me and Jess build snowmen and all that kinda neat stuff.”

“Umm,” said Slim smiling across at the pretty young girl, “and he also has to do school work every day and all his chores. Then after a couple of weeks, he gets really bored.”

The adults all laughed at that.

“Well ranching certainly sounds like hard work to me, laddie,” Callum said addressing Jess. “So what do you do to relax, or is it all hard grind?”

Jess grinned at that. “Well, it sure feels that way sometimes, but no, we get to have some fun too. Huntin’, fishin ’and then there’s trips to town.”

“Ah yes, that would be Laramie. We have been a couple of times over the summer for supplies — a lively place,” said Callum, winking at the men.

“Yep,” agreed Jess, “so we get in about once a week for a few drinks, hand or two of poker, see our girls and go dancin’ — that kinda thing.”

“Girls?” echoed Shona who had been drinking in his every word.

Jess flicked a glance at Slim and then down the table to Shona. “Sure,” he said quietly, “we’re both datin’ at the moment.”

Iona smiled across at Slim. “So any weddings on the horizon?” she asked light heartedly.

Slim flushed a little at that. “Well, me and Lily have only been keeping company for six months, so guess it’s early days”  Then, turning to grin at his partner, said, “But I guess Jess and Millie have been knocking around together forever.”

“Oh really?” said Iona with a warm smile, rather enjoying the embarrassment of the two big tough ranchers where affairs of the heart were concerned, and taking in the slight flush to Jess’s cheeks.

“Well, yeah, me and Millie grew up together on the Texas Panhandle; figure we’ve always been best friends. She’s a great girl,” Jess finished firmly, flicking a glance down the table to where Shona was looking on unhappily.

At that Charlotte clasped her hands together. “Oh that’s so sweet.” Then turning sparkling eyes on her  mother said, “well, I reckon me and Mike are best friends now, so maybe we’ll get married one day,” flicking a little glance at  Mike next to her who was looking ecstatic.

Iona smoothed her daughter’s hair down and gave her a loving look. “Yes, maybe you will dear,” she said kindly, before bustling off to get desert.

However, when her mother returned with the apple pie Shona excused herself, saying she wasn’t hungry and would have an early night. Flicking Jess a heartbroken glance, she marched off to bed.

After supper, the children ran off to play and Slim and Callum repaired to the fireside with the whiskey bottle, but Jess and Iona sat on at the table in deep conversation.

Through the course of the evening, the talk had finally turned to Iona’s work as an anthropologist and it transpired that she was very interested in writing a paper on one of the Native American tribes. So when it became apparent that Jess was not only well versed in the ways of the Arapahoe tribe, but had actually lived with them and married an Arapahoe squaw, then she was absolutely fascinated. ***

 “They taught me all I know about trackin’ and horse whispering,” Jess said proudly. “and Little Wolf, my blood brother, is the Chief now.

“And your wife, you are no longer together?” asked Iona looking puzzled and wondering where Millie fitted into the picture.

Jess bowed his head. “No, Sky was killed.”

“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry,” said Iona, a hand shooting to her mouth and a look of shock in her beautiful blue eyes.

“Thanks,” murmured Jess, “‘twas some time ago. But I still have Asha, my little step-daughter; I see her a couple of times a year and she’s growin’ up real beautiful like her Ma.”

“You must miss her dreadfully.”

Jess just nodded. “I guess, but it was the right thing to do, leaving her with the tribe. Little Wolf and his wife are bringing her up as their own, with the beliefs and culture of the tribe, which I guess is what Sky would have wanted. I reckon you can understand that, with your anthropology work and all?”

“Yes, of course, and you did the right thing.”

Then much later, Jess suggested it was time they found Mike and headed home but Iona paused before getting up to find the children.

“Er, Jess I must apologize for the rudeness of my daughter, walking off that way, but the truth is, I think she’s got a crush on you.”

Jess flushed a little and said brusquely. “No offence taken, Ma’am.” Then looking deeply into her eyes, he said, It’s your other daughter I’m more concerned about.”

“Oh, why is that?” Iona asked looking surprised.

Jess sighed and tried to collect his thoughts. “Well I reckon young Mike is more than a little taken with her, and after tonight, it seems as though Charlotte is feelin’ the same. And what with you takin’ off in a few days, well…I figure they’re maybe gonna be kinda upset?”

“Oh, yes I see what you mean and I had noticed. They really seem to have hit it off, don’t they. A really bad case of puppy love,” Iona said with her attractive little giggle.

“Yeah, but I guess it’s real to them,” said Jess thoughtfully.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right. Anyway, we’ll just have to encourage them to write and maybe meet up next year?” Iona asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Sure,” said Jess with a warm smile, “that would be great.”

“And Jess, maybe you would let Mike visit tomorrow and stay over. It will be our last night and I know Charlie would love his company. He could bunk down with young Rory and then see us off. If that would be alright with you and Slim?”

“Sure, that would be swell, but I guess it’s past his bedtime right now.”

Jess and Iona saw that Slim and Callum were getting well stuck into the whisky, so exchanging a smile. Jess said, “I guess it’s down to us to round up the kids.” They let themselves out of the shack and wandered round the back where the youngsters had been playing.

Seeing there was no sign of them, they walked further on into the moonlit woodland, every now and then calling out to the youngsters.

“I bet they’ve gone down to the little lake,” said Iona indulgently. “I know Charlie wanted to show Mike the kayaks we have built.”

“Lake?,” questioned Jess looking surprised. “But that’s over a mile away?”

“No, just out the back here, two minutes down the track.”

Then light dawned. “Oh, you mean Jezebel’s Pool?” Jess said laughing.

“Is that what it’s called? What a funny name. But it’s quite big…with that little island in the middle?”

“Yep, that’s the place.”

“So why the name?”

Jess looked slightly uncomfortable. ”Well, the story goes that the wife  of one of the Mountain Men was unfaithful, and she felt so darn bad about it that she upped and threw herself in the lake and drowned. “

“Oh, how awful…”

“Yeah, and it’s supposed to be haunted. They reckon you can see wood smoke from a fire she lights on the island on a clear night.”

Iona’s eyes opened wide. “That’s so spooky.”

“Umm…would be if it was true,” Jess said with a little smile.

“It’s not?”

“Nope; it was a tale made up by another of the Mountain Men to keep people away from the island.”

“But why?”

“Because that’s where he’d built his illicit still,” said Jess grinning from ear to ear.

Iona looked shocked and then saw the joke and laughed. “Oh you!” she giggled and slapped him lightly on the arm.

She looked so beautiful standing there in the gossamer gown, laughing up at him in the moonlight that Jess was totally captivated and felt his pulses quicken. Their gaze locked and she moved a fraction closer looking deeply into his eyes and then down at his firm mouth…

Then all mayhem erupted as the children burst out of the undergrowth where they had been hiding and jumped around the couple whooping and laughing — and the spell was broken.

*****

Later that evening, once Mike was settled down in the big comfortable bed once more, Slim and Jess had a last night cap before turning in, settled on their beds in front of the fire.

“Gee, that was a swell evening,” said Slim happily. “They’re real good company, the Donaldson’s, aren’t they, Jess.”

“Umm.”

“And that Callum is really generous with the whisky too — the real McCoy that was, you know, Jess, imported Scottish Whisky.”

“Yep.”

“Well you’re sure talkative tonight, aren’t you?”

“Huh?”

“Jess!”

“Sorry just thinkin’.”

“Oh… about the delightful Iona Donaldson, I imagine. She sure is a stunner. So what did you two find so engrossing to talk about half the night?”

Jess flushed a little before he finally answered. “The Arapahoe. She’s writing one of them academic papers on ‘em; just wanted to know all about the life in the tribe, that sorta thing.”

“Oh, is that all,” said Slim looking relieved.

“Sure. Why? What did you think, pard? I was flirtin’ with her?”

Slim chuckled at that. “Well, wouldn’t be the first time and she is a stunner.”

“Umm…she sure is. But did you see the size of her husband? I ain’t got a death wish,” Jess laughed softly.

“Nope, I reckon we’ll leave the romancin’ of the Donaldson women to young Mike.”

Both men grinned at that before turning in.

But Jess lay there for a long time before sleep finally came, remembering the beautiful woman laughing in the moonlight and he reflected that it was probably just as well that the children arrived when they did.

*****

The following morning after breakfast, Mike and Slim sat on at the table chatting whilst Jess went off to feed the horses. Slim instinctively knew something was bothering the boy, and after a while, he said softly,” So did you enjoy yourself last night then, Tiger?”

The child’s face lit up. “Oh, sure I did. It’s just…”

“What, Mike? “

“Well, it’s Charlie; she’s just so smart and I feel kinda stupid sometimes.”

“Hey, you’re not stupid, Mike; your near the top of your class at school, and don’t forget she’s got a few years on you too.”

Mike smiled at that. “Not as much as we thought, though. She fibbed about her age too; turns out she’s just had her twelfth birthday, so she ain’t that much older, ‘cos I’m nearly eleven.”

Slim grinned at that. “Well, it’s a woman’s prerogative to lie about their age and  as to her being smart, well, don’t forget she’s got her Ma teaching her one to one; bound to get a good education that way.”

“Umm, I know, but it seems like she knows stuff like I’ve never heard of. Like did you know that in Australia, they have these kangaroos and the baby ones live in a little pocket in their Ma’s tummy, called Joeys?”

Slim smiled at that. “Yep, I had heard tell.”

“And Mister Donaldson was tellin’ me all about these flowers that eat bugs. Heck, can you believe that, Slim?”

Slim looked slightly fazed at that, but figured that if Callum had said it, then it was likely to be true.

“See,” said Mike triumphantly, “I guess even you didn’t know that!”

Slim agreed and then looked thoughtful. “So is that bothering you, buddy — not knowing all this stuff?”

He thought about that. “Some, I guess; it’s pretty hunky dory being smart, ain’t it, Slim?”

The tall cowboy hid a smile. “Yep, I guess so.” Then he thought of something. “Heck, Mike, you know I’ve got a whole set of encyclopedias up in the attic. They were my Ma’s and I figure they’ve got just about everything you want to know in them. Would you like to check them out when we land home?”

“Would I! Yeah, thanks, Slim; you’re the best!” Mike said, giving him a big hug. “I figure maybe I could be a professor like Mister Donaldson one day and travel around the world just like I wanted.” With that happy thought, he ran off to tell Jess all about it.

*****

 The men dropped Mike off at the Donaldson’s place before taking off to see if they could spook up a wild turkey or two to take back to the ranch.

“Thanks for having him,” Slim said to Callum before he left. “We’ll pick him up after breakfast tomorrow and then we can help you pack up your wagon.”

“Well that’s really neighborly of you, Slim, thanks. See you both tomorrow.”

The ranchers rode off, giving Mike a farewell wave.

Once they were on the trail Jess turned to Slim with a big grin on his face. “So it looks like our boy is growing up in more ways than one, what with all this talk of wantin’ to be a professor like Callum and travel the world.”

Slim grinned back. “Yep, I figure this Charlotte is a real good influence on him.”

“Well bein’ a professor sure is a darn sight better career move  than bein’ a fast gun and goin’ on the drift,” Jess said chuckling and they kneed their mounts onto a faster pace as they went off on their turkey hunt.

**********

It was early the following morning when the two ranchers were rudely awakened by someone banging  long and loud on the door.

Jess sat himself up looking surprised. “What the hell?” he muttered, flicking a questioning glace at Slim before rolling out of bed and staggering over  to the door. He hauled it open and stood blinking into the bright early morning  sunshine, before relaxing and pulling  the door open wider. “Mornin’, Callum. Where’s the fire?”

Slim wandered over and smiled at the big Scotsman. “Howdy, Callum.”

Ignoring the niceties, Callum looked from one to the other before crying, Are they here? Charlotte and young Mike?”

Jess looked mystified. “No; they’re over at yours, ain’t they?”

“No. They’ve  gone off somewhere. We went to wake Charlotte for breakfast and she wasn’t in bed. Shona said she thought she’s heard her get up in the night — just assumed she’s gone to the outhouse and  she fell asleep again — and we checked on Rory’s room and young Mike had gone too. Hell, they’ve  run off some place!”

“Steady, Callum, they won’t be far; probably just taken off for an early morning walk, catch a few fish for breakfast maybe,” said Jess reasonably.

“We’ll come back with you have a look,” said Slim quickly, and a few minutes later the men took off for the Donaldson shack, taking their mounts with them.

When they arrived,  Iona was waiting for them looking extremely distressed. “I really didn’t think she’s do this again,” she said as soon as Callum arrived.

“We don’t know for sure, my darling; she may just be fishing with Mike. “

“Hey,” said Jess suddenly picking up on the atmosphere, “what do you mean’ do it again? You mean the kid has run off before?”

Iona and Callum exchanged an embarrassed glance before Iona turned troubled eyes on Jess and Slim. “Yes, well, several times, to be honest. When we come to the end of a trip, she just hates the thought of going home and she…well, she runs away and hides or befriends some locals. Says she wants to stay with them, but I thought she’d grown out of it.”

“What!” gasped Jess and Slim looking askance.

“Well, we thought it would be OK this time; she’s older and made friends with Mike. We didn’t think she’d do it again,” agreed Callum.

“Umm, so I figure Mike has gone with her,” said Slim.

“Well, that ain’t like the kid. Hell, he knows better than to run off — especially around here with all the dangers,” Jess replied.

“Yes, but you’re forgetting, Jess; he’s not really himself right now, what with this crush and everything. I figure he’d do anything Charlotte wanted,” Slim replied.

“What do you mean danger?” Iona cut in anxiously, looking at Jess.

“Mountain lions, wolves, bear, not to mention the two legged variety — drunken mountain men, maybe even the odd renegade Cheyenne brave,” said Jess now looking deadly serious.

“But surely not big cats or wolves at this time of year,” gasped Callum. “I thought it would be safe around here, until the snows came anyway.”

“It ain’t safe anywhere in the Big Open,” said Jess, angry now. “And you should know that, Callum, bringing your kids out here.”

“OK, Jess, back off,” said Slim. “No point in losing your temper; we need to get  looking.”

“Sure, sure,” muttered Jess.

“Look Callum, why don’t you back track down by the creek — see if they’ve  taken off fishing — and Jess and I will ride round Jezebel’s pool take a look-see there,” said Slim calmly.

“What about me?” asked Iona looking upset.

“I figure you’d better stay here in case they come back,” said Jess. Then casting a glance over to where Shona and Rory were standing, their eyes huge with fear, “And watch out for the young’uns too,” he added, tipping his hat towards the youngsters.

“Yes, yes of course,” Iona said quickly. Then grabbing hold of Jess’s sleeve, she pulled him gently back. “You will find them, won’t you?”

Jess looked down at her and then was suddenly overwhelmed with pity for the frightened, beautiful woman. “Sure…sure, we will,” he said patting her arm gently, before hopping up in the saddle and taking off for the pool at a brisk trot.

Once they arrived, Jess reined Traveler in and surveyed the vast expanse of water, and then looking at the little beach in front of them, cussed under his breath.

“What’s up buddy?”

“When me and Iona came lookin’ for the kids the other night, she showed me the pair of kayaks they’d built. They were right here on the beach, Slim — and they’ve gone.”

Slim’s head shot up. “You sure?”

“Yep, two of ‘em right here. They’ve taken ‘em, Slim — gone out on the water.” He sat up in the saddle, straining his eyes for some sign of the children and the small rather fragile vessels.

“I guess they could have paddled off and landed anywhere along the shore. It must be a good couple of miles around it; we’d better get looking,” said Slim.

“Well, let’s just hope they’re camped up somewhere, fryin’ up breakfast as we speak,” replied Jess hopefully.

“Umm, look, I’ll go to the right; you, the other way. And if we see anything, fire off a shot, OK?”

It was over an hour later when a single shot reverberated into the calm morning sky.

Slim turned Alamo and galloped back the way he had come, and sometime later he threw himself from the saddle and ran over to where Jess was hunkered down at the water’s edge. “Jess?”

Then  he saw what his buddy was looking at —  the overturned hull of one of the Kayaks.

Slim sank down  beside Jess and they exchanged a horror stricken glance.

“Oh, dear God, no…”whispered Slim.

“We don’t know, not for sure. They could have got out, swum to the shore; they had a kayak each. One of them may be OK; we have to keep looking Slim.”

They pulled the small craft out of the water onto the shore and were just about to resume their search when Iona came tearing up, panting, her eyes wild as she looked down and saw the abandoned boat. She turned horrified eyes on Jess and a hand shot to her mouth  as if to stifle a scream.

She shook her head, the tears  now running freely down her face “No,” she whispered.

Jess was the first to come to her aid. He held her close for a moment as she started to sob, Shona and little Rory now looking on fearfully.

After a few minutes, Iona seemed to pull herself together and Jess gently wiped a tear away from her  cheek with his finger. “We don’t know,” he said softly. “We could still find them; you mustn’t give up hope.”

Then Slim turned to the children. “Where’s your Pa?”

They shook their heads. “I think he’s still down the creek looking,” whispered Shona.

Jess beckoned her over. “Come here sweetheart,” he said gently, “and look after your Ma. Me and Slim have gotta keep looking.”

Shona ran over and threw a protective arm around her mother, Rory joining them, and the sad little trio made their way over to some nearby rocks to await news as Slim and Jess rode out again.

They spent the whole of the rest of the day circumnavigating the small lake and then struck off to the surrounding countryside, hoping against hope that the children had managed to swim to safety, but there was no sign of either of them.

Dusk was falling as they sadly made their way back to where they had left Iona and her children and were surprised that there was still no sign of Callum, but said nothing as Iona was beside herself with grief.

Again Jess tried to calm her, and Slim took charge of the children, thinking they should really make their way back to the cabin as the evening was getting chilly.

However Jess, true to form, was stubbornly still casting his gaze about him, desperately seeking some sign of hope.

Slim finally persuaded Iona that she must go in for the sake of the other children and they had sadly moved off, leaving Jess standing alone by the lakeside — and then he saw it.

A plume of smoke curling up from the small island in the centre of the lake into the clear evening sky.

“Slim!”

Slim, Iona and the children turned as one and ran back to where Jess was now standing staring out to the island.

“Smoke,” Jess whispered and then louder. “Someone’s lit a goddamn fire.” Then turning to Iona, he said grinning, “And it ain’t Jezebel’s ghost either!”

Slim shot him a look and then remembered the old legend of the woman who had thrown herself in the lake after being unfaithful and how she haunted the island, showing her presence by lighting a camp fire.

“It’s gotta be them,” said Jess joyfully and he ran over to the beached Kayak and started launching it.

“What are our doin’, pard?” asked Slim, following him.

“Well, goin’ over of course.”

“It’s nearly dark…and maybe I should go. I’m a stronger swimmer and this doesn’t look any too safe,” he said looking at the flimsy craft.

“Yeah and look at the length of it, Slim; you’d never fit in with those great long legs of yours. Nope, I’ll be OK; it ain’t even dark yet.”

“Maybe I could go,” suggested Iona. “I’m used to using them.”

The men exchanged a glance, both with the same idea. What if just one child had survived? How would she cope?

“No,” said Jess quickly, “Guess this is men’s work. Look,  I’ll go over and, if…that is, when I know everything is OK, they’re both safe, I’ll let off a volley of shots. I’ll stay over there and bring ‘em back at first light…alright?”.

“What if we don’t hear anything?” Iona asked, looking agonized.

Jess just shrugged. “Then I guess at least you’ll know, one way or the other.” With that, he pushed the light craft off, and jumping in, paddled purposefully away.

Shona had returned home for a lantern and some blankets; Jess had attached the lamp to the bow. As he made his way across the lake, the group on the shore could just make out the small light gradually getting dimmer the further out he went. Straining their eyes in the dim light, they finally saw him land on the distant shore and disappear from view.

They stood there tensely waiting and waiting, but there was no sign.

Slim was just about to suggest they made their way back and seek out Callum and tell him the horrific news when the silence of the now moonlit lake shore was shattered by a volley of shots crashing through the night air.

Slim and Iona turned and stared at each other for a full minute before the truth sank in; they were safe. “Oh thank God,” she cried as she fell into Slim’s arms.

*****

Once Jess landed on the island, he pulled the craft in, and making sure it was well beached, he made his way stealthily through the dense woodland, carrying the lamp as it was now quite dark, a little moonlight filtering through the dense tree cover the only illumination.

He had lost sight of the wood smoke curling through the trees, but he could smell it, and a few minutes later, he could hear the fire crackling before he finally burst through the dense undergrowth into a small clearing and could see the lively flames leaping up into the night sky.

Then he saw Mike squatting down by the fire, leaning over the body of Charlie, her still form illuminated by the flames.

“Mike!” Jess called, and after a second, the child looked up and then charged over throwing himself in Jess’s arms sobbing hysterically.

“Jess, its Charlie! She’s dead! She’s dead and I killed her!” Mike cried.

“Easy  there, Mike; let’s take a look-see,” said Jess sounding more calm than he felt as he took the child’s hand and advanced on the deathly still form of the dark haired girl.

Jess knelt down by the little girl and took in her almost grey face with a faint blue line around her mouth, and gently, put a hand to her neck feeling for a pulse. Eventually he was rewarded by a very weak one, and bending his ear to her chest, could just discern shallow breathing.

“Mike, run back to the beach, there are some blankets in the kayak,” Jess demanded. As soon as he had gone, Jess removed his jacket, covering the child and threw a couple more logs on the fire.

When Mike returned, Jess wrapped the girl in the blanket and held her close, his own body warmth gradually warming her icy cold one. Then he flicked a glance at where Mike was also shivering and gave him the other blanket. “Wrap up warm, Tiger; you’ve both just got way too cold, is all. Charlie ain’t dead; she’ll be OK, I promise.”

Then looking puzzled, Jess asked, “What did you mean you killed her?”

“Well I guess I didn’t manage to look after her right, like the man should do. I should have kept her  safe Jess and I couldn’t.”

It  was Jess’s first instinct to say, “Well heck, you’re just a kid.” But he reined the comment back and merely said, “I guess you did your best, Tiger, as well as anyone could.”

It was another fifteen minutes before the girl coughed and then finally opened her eyes and started crying.

Jess cuddled her until she calmed down, and then she finally gave him a watery smile and he knew she would be OK.

That was when he finally fired the volley of shots and then settled down with the youngsters to hear exactly what they had been up to.

“Gee, Jess, I’m so darned sorry for worrying you this way,” Mike said as soon as he knew Charlie was alright.

Then the other youngster piped up. “No, Mister Harper, it wasn’t Mike’s fault; it was all my idea.”

“Go on,” said Jess in a deadpan voice, “let’s hear it….and this better be, good young lady. You’ve just shorted your  Ma’s life by a good twelve months, you know.”

“Well, Mike had been telling me all about the story of Robinson Crusoe and being stranded on a desert island and  I thought it would be an absolutely splendid game to play at being stranded and so  it was my idea — to come over first thing, catch some fish and  cook an early breakfast.” Then she looked down, unable to look Jess in the eye any longer. “We planned to be back by the time the others were up.”

Jess secretly doubted that, but turned his attentions to Mike. “So what have you got to say, Mike? You know perfectly well you ain’t allowed to swim or boat alone without an adult around, especially out here.”

“I know,” said Mike hanging his head, “but Charlie really wanted to go. Said she’d go alone if I was too chicken,  so I thought I should go and look out for her.”

Jess just shook his head at that. “Is that right?” he asked turning to a now very pink Charlotte.

“Yes sir.”

“OK, so go on then. What happened?”

“Well, we were nearly here and Charlie lost her paddle, and she reached out to get it –and that’s when the kayak turned over. She tipped out and the boat and… well, it sank.”

Jess just stared looking at the youngster, his mouth open and eyes wide in shock.

“So I was already on the beach and I dived in and pulled her out,” Mike said softly. “Charlie don’t swim too well you see.”

“What!” exploded Jess. “Your folks let you play around on the water and you don’t swim? “

“Well, no,” Charlie admitted. “I’m not allowed out here  alone either.”

Jess sighed again. “So then what?”

“Well we were real wet, soaking,” said Mike, “and real cold. Well, I fished my flint out of my pocket, but that was wet too and all the twigs and branches were wet from the dew and I couldn’t make a fire. I remembered what you said, see Jess, about bein’ shipwrecked an all, how you said you’d dry off by a fire and then make a shelter, catch some fish or pick fruit.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Jess impatiently, “so you couldn’t start a fire?”

“No. So anyway, I made us a kinda shelter with some branches and grass and stuff, and we settled down in there, trying to think what to do next and I guess we must have fallen asleep, and when we woke up, the sun was hot and we dried off real good.”

“So why didn’t you come on home then?” asked Jess. “I figure those kayaks will take two?”

“I really don’t understand it,” said Mike suddenly looking puzzled. “I beached it  real well, like you showed me with my little boat  back home,  but when we came to get the kayak, well, it had floated off, was heading back towards the far shore.”

“Umm…which is where I found it,” said Jess throwing him a hard look.

Mike suddenly realized the significance of what his hero was saying. “Gee, Jess, did you…did you really think we’d drowned?”

“Yep.”

The child looked devastated. “I’m just, so… so sorry; I really didn’t mean to worry you that way, Jess.”

Jess looked long and hard at the youngster and then reached over and ruffled his hair. “No, I know you didn’t mean to, Tiger. So what did you do when you knew there wasn’t any way of getting back?”

“Well I figured my flint would be working again, and there was plenty of dry tinder around. But then I couldn’t find my flint an’ steel; I left them right here on this rock, and when I woke up, they’d gone. Anyway, I knew we’d be in big trouble and it was too far away to yell, so I figured wood smoke would be a kinda signal, like the Indians use, you know, Jess?”

“Umm. Go on.

“Well I looked everywhere, and then I tried making a fire with sticks the way you showed me, but I couldn’t do it, Jess — tried all darn afternoon — and then the sun went down and it started getting real cold. And that’s when I got  lucky. I found the flint and got a fire going, and then you saw it,” Mike finished breathlessly, throwing  his buddy an imploring look. “I really  am sorry.”

Then Jess turned his attention to Charlotte. Well, you’ve been mighty quiet, young lady. Anything to say?”

She looked very flushed and refused to look Jess in the eye.

“Well?” Jess asked fixing her with an icy glare.

Jess saw her lip tremble and, after a moment, Charlie cried, “OK it was me; it was all my fault.”

“Huh?” asked Mike looking  puzzled.

Charlie turned to the youngster. “I’m sorry, Mike; I lied to you. When you were still asleep, I went and pushed the kayak off and then hid your flint too.”

“But why?” Mike asked, looking deeply shocked.

“Because I wanted us to stay here, to hide, be proper castaways, and I thought maybe Ma and Pa would think I’d run away and they’d go on home. And then maybe Jess and Slim would take me in too — and we could be together,”  she finished softly.

“What? Are you crazy?” exploded Mike at once. “How could you do that, Charlie? How could you worry your folk that way!”

She just shook her head, and then seemed to lose her temper. “You don’t know what it’s like Mike, being constantly on show — my clever daughter, our little protégé, learning all this stuff and passing exams — when all  I want to be is…what did you call it? Yes, I know, a regular kid. That’s all I want to be — just ordinary, going to school with other children my age, and coming home and doing chores like you do and… and just having fun, like you do with your guardians and friends. My Ma’s idea of fun is a quiz on algebra!”

As Charlie had been speaking, Mike and Jess had watched her with mounting sympathy, and when she finished and burst into tears, it was Mike who put a consoling arm around her shoulders.

After a little, while Jess went and found some more wood for the fire and then settled the children down for the night.

As he tucked the blanket around Charlotte, She whispered, “Are you very cross with me, Mister Harper?”

Jess looked down at her pinched little face and again he was struck by her likeness to Flora. “No,” he said gently, “I guess you’ve learnt your lesson and I forgive you. But I don’t know what your Ma and Pa will have to say.”

“Mister Harper? “

“Yeah?”

“Could you…could you explain to Ma…the way I feel? She might listen to you.”

Jess shook his head. “You and your sister sure are up front, ain’t you,” he said with a grin. “You sure don’t hold back if you want something,” he chuckled.

“So, will you…please?”

“Ok,” Jess said with a sigh. “I guess so, but you get your beauty sleep now, young lady, OK?”

“Sure…and thanks Mister Harper. Mike’s right; you really are the best!“

*****

Meanwhile back at the Donaldson cabin, Slim, Iona and the children returned. Iona suddenly realized that she hadn’t cast eyes on her husband since early that morning. Then as they approached the cabin, they saw the lamps were lit and the door suddenly burst open as Callum staggered out, a look of  doom  on his swarthy features. “I heard the shooting, any news?” he implored.

“It’s OK,” said Slim quickly. “They’re over on the island; my buddy’s with them. He’ll bring them back at first light.”

The big man swayed and almost fell; then, as the light from the cabin illuminated his bulky frame, they saw that he was bleeding from the head and his arm was hanging at a strange angle.

Slim moved swiftly forward and took his weight, supporting him back into the cabin , while Iona and the children fussed around him.

“Oh my love, what happened to you?” asked a pale faced Iona, once the big man was sitting down at the table, looking grey and sick.

“I was searching down  by the creek and I followed it along  and then climbed up the rocks at the side, thought I’d get a better view of the landscape…”

“Go on,” said Iona, now bathing the nasty gash to his head.

“Well stupid fool that I am, lassie, I went and fell…tipped right down to the bottom. Must have been out of it most of the day. Came around a little while ago,  made  my way home and then heard the shooting.”

Slim looked concerned. “I hate to tell you, Callum, but that arm is broken, and badly too, by the looks of things.”

The older man’s head shot up. “So you’re versed in the first aid then, laddie?”

Slim smiled at that. “Well, not as such, but living with Jess, you kind of pick it up really fast.” Then he asked for some bandages and managed to splint the arm, reasonably well. “You do need to see the doctor in Laramie, though; it really  is a nasty break.”

“You  think so — and you know about these things?” Callum persisted.

“Oh yes. Like I say, number of times ol’ Jess gets beat up or shot, well, you get to know what to do really well.”

Callum was finally persuaded to go to bed, and while Iona was looking after him, Shona came and sat by Slim  who was sipping a coffee at the table. “So why does Jess get hurt so often?” she asked with interest.

“Oh well, he does a tough job, you know. Mustang breaking  — he gets hurt doing  that — sometimes riding posse for the Sheriff who deputizes him quite regular too.”

“Mike said he used to be a gunslinger,” Shona said, eyes open wide with excitement. “I imagine he got shot up a lot in those days too.”

“Umm, well, that’s all behind him now,” said Slim quickly. “II guess he doesn’t like to talk about it too much.”

“But Mike said he was the fastest gun in Texas, and so brave and…”

Suddenly Slim was aware that Iona was standing in the doorway.

“Shona?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“I think it’s time you were in bed, dear; it’s late.”

She sighed deeply. “Alright, Mama, goodnight. Goodnight, Mister Sherman.”

Once Shona had retired, Iona came and took the seat opposite Slim and poured herself a coffee. “You’ll have to forgive my daughter; she’s very fanciful.”

“That’s Ok and I guess Jess is quite an interesting character.”

Iona looked down quickly, avoiding his eye, but said nothing. There was a pause and  then she said, “So it’s true; Jess was an outlaw at one time.”

Slim’s face clouded. “Like I said, that’s all behind him now; he’s turned his life around.”

She said nothing to that, just sipped her coffee.

“I can assure you, Charlotte is quite safe with him,” Slim said after a moment.

Iona’s head shot up at that. “Goodness me, Slim, I know that; I have absolutely no worries on that score at all. In fact,  I don’t think she could be in better hands. If it hadn’t been for his tenacity, we would never have seen that smoke, nor had peace of mind tonight.” Then she sighed softly. “No, I was just thinking what an interesting and complex character he is , that’s all.”

Slim  hid a smile. “Oh, he’s that alright,” he said softly.

Then Iona seemed to pick up on the slightly tongue in cheek attitude and pulled herself together. “Why don’t you bunk down in Rory’s room tonight?” she suggested. “And then we can all be at the beach first thing to welcome them home.”

*****

By the following morning, it became obvious that Callum was in need of medical intervention, not  only for the fracture to his arm, but also the severe concussion he was now suffering from the blow to his head.

“I think he needs to rest up for a day or so, and then take a visit to Sam to set that arm properly and tend the head wound too,” said Slim.

“Sam?” asked Iona.

“Ah, that’s Doctor Sam Baker our family physician and good friend. He’ll patch up Callum, don’t you worry.”

They were standing at the lakeside in the early morning light, having left Callum and the youngsters sleeping, whilst they went to greet their errant children home.

The walk down to the small lake had been magical, the early morning mist swirling around the trees making every sound somehow muffled as they chatted softly before they reached the beach, their eyes at once straining for a sign of the returning party.

Then they slowly became aware of the kayak emerging through the early morning mist and gently gliding across the water. Slim almost moved to tears as he saw Mike and Charlie in the bow and Jess just behind them, paddling away, cutting effortlessly through the glass like surface of the lake.

When Jess  finally brought the small craft safely ashore, there were many tears of joy from Iona, and back-slapping and  general good cheer from Slim as the wanderers returned and were led home for breakfast, followed by recrimination, then finally forgiveness.

Then Slim and Jess took Mike off home to the line cabin, with the agreement that the Donaldson’s would dine with them there that evening before they all finally decamped back to Laramie.

Slim had insisted that Mike have a good wash and then get his head down for a few hours, and once he was asleep, the men repaired outside to tend the horses and split some firewood.

“So it was all that Charlotte’s idea then?” said Slim once he had heard the full story from Jess.

Jess nodded. “I know Mike would never have gone if he’d thought it all through, but she was determined to go anyway, so he figured he had to go to look out for her.”

“Umm, or he could just have woken her folks up and warned them,” said Slim.

“Well, there you go,” said Jess grinning over at his buddy. “The Sherman voice of common sense and  reason — except that wouldn’t have done their relationship a whole lot of good Slim. The kid’s totally bewitched by her, so cut him some slack, huh.”

Then Slim turned his attention to the other thing that was worrying him. “So what in tarnation are we going to give these folk to eat tonight then, Jess?”

Jess’s head shot up and he had a look of astonishment in his eyes. Then, after a moment, he slowly tipped his head to where the jointed moose was packed up in muslin gunny sacks and hanging from the lean to beam. “Er, how about moose?” he said raising an eyebrow and grinning over at his partner.

Slim looked embarrassed. “umm… yeah.” Then brusquely, “Well, OK, I’d forgotten about it with all the excitement!”

Then Jess took pity on him, and slinging an arm around his shoulders, said, Come on, pard, let’s get one of those joints in a real slow oven and it will be done to perfection by tonight. Trust me, moose roast is my specialty, and it’ll go down a storm, even if we ain’t got a fancy cloth and silver cutlery!”

*****

True to Jess’ words, the meal was a great success, and even though Callum sent his apologies, regretting that he just didn’t feel up to it, he sent a bottle of his finest Scotch whisky over, so his return to good health was duly toasted by the adults.

“Are you sure you should have left him?” asked Slim, ever the worrier.

“Oh yes, he just needs some peace and quiet, so I thought it wise to  bring the children out,” said Iona with a little smile. “And I’m so glad we did; this is an excellent meal.”

“All down to Hotshot there,” grinned Slim nodding towards his buddy. “He says moose roast is his specialty and I guess he wasn’t kidding.”

That brought general cries of agreement from all present as an embarrassed Jess looked down and missed the look of longing Shona threw in his direction. Not only a hunk, but one that  could cook too. Wow! she secretly thought.

Slim intercepted the look and hid a smile, wondering if he should mention that moose roast was about the only thing his buddy could cook to perfection.

After a while, Jess disappeared outside to get some more logs in and Charlotte  excused herself, saying she was going to the outhouse, but really made a bee line for Jess.

Jess raised a questioning eyebrow when the child practically cannoned into him, almost making him drop the pile of logs. “Hey steady, sweetheart,” he said grinning down at her.

“Oh Mister Harper,” Charlie said quickly, “You haven’t forgotten your promise, have you? To talk to my Mama about me going to a proper school and everything? “

“Er, well, no, but I guess she’ll think it ain’t any of my business, you know, Charlie.”

“Oh, please, please, Mister Harper. Mama likes you…a lot. I’m sure she’d listen, and she’s in a really good mood at the moment after that lovely meal and everything,” she finished casting pleading eyes on the dark haired cowboy.

Once again, Jess was reminded of Flora, at the end of her life, pleading with him for just a little more time sitting out on a moonlit night just like this one and he wavered. “OK, I’ll talk to her later, alright?”

Charlie jumped up and down with joy. “Thank you so…so much!” She dived off to open the door for him, leaving him smiling and shaking his head slightly. Kids!

Once the meal was over, Iona jumped up ready to clear the table and swayed a little.

“Hey are you alright?” asked a concerned Slim.

“Oh yes, I’m fine. It’s just rather warm in here and maybe the unaccustomed whiskey too,” she said with her charming little giggle.

“Why don’t you get some fresh air, Mama?” said Charlotte quick as a flash. “Mister Harper will escort you while we tidy up and make the coffee,” she suggested, casting Jess a pleading look.

Knowing it would look churlish to refuse, Jess stood up at once and offered his arm to Iona who took it willingly, and ignoring the slightly censorious look from Slim, he walked her out into the cool, moonlit night.

Still holding her elbow, they made their way around the back of the cabin to take advantage of the wonderful view of valley, creek and distant mountain range set out below them all bathed in silvery moonlight.

“This is such a beautiful country,” Iona said emotionally, drinking in the view and then casting a glance up at Jess, who merely nodded.

She was again wearing that beautiful diaphanous gown, her reddish golden hair up in a casual style with little tendrils framing her face,  her beautiful blue eyes sparkling and he wandered if she knew how incredibly attractive she looked.

Then something caught her eye and she wandered over to the huge pine tree with Flora’s last resting place set below it and read the words Jess had carefully carved on the intricate cross standing at the head of the grave.

“Oh how sad to die so young,” she said “Was she a friend of yours?”

Jess nodded. “Daisy — our housekeeper, that is — Flora was her Goddaughter.”

“So why was she buried all the way up here?” Iona asked innocently.

Jess sighed deeply not really wanting to talk about it, the whole business still being quite painful for him to recall, but eventually he wandered over to the grave, his hands thrust into his pockets, as he looked  down at the cross and said softly. “See she was real sick, dying from consumption and her last wish was to go home to Scotland. Anyway, she was too sick to travel. So I brought her up here. I guess it was the next best thing; she loved the mountain…and the snow,” he finished his voice suddenly thick with emotion.

Her head shot up and she looked closely at him, seeing the pain etched into his handsome features. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to pry. But you brought her up here to die — just the two of you?”

“What she wanted,” Jess said gruffly assuming censure.

But when Iona spoke again it was with complete approbation. “You really are a very special man, aren’t you,” she said softly. “I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been — to nurse someone so young through their last illness. You must have been very close?”

Then Jess could bear it no longer. “Yes we were,” he said quickly, “but you just do what you have to when…when you care for someone, don’t you?” With that, he turned away, making it clear that the conversation was over.

He wandered over to the bench overlooking the view behind the cabin, and after a moment, she came and joined him.

He threw her his shy smile and said, “I guess Charlie set this up; she wanted me to talk to you.”

“Oh Charlotte, yes. She can be a difficult child; I’m sorry if she has been annoying you Jess.”

“Heck no, she’s a lovely kid,” he said quickly.

“It’s such a difficult age,” she said reflectively, “I think the child has an alter ego, you know,” she said casting him a pertinent look.

“Umm, “said Jess noncommittally wondering what in hell this beautiful, if slightly baffling, woman was talking about now.

“From the Latin of course, meaning other self. It’s almost like Charlotte is two people sometimes; one is Charlie the happy-go-lucky tom boy who wants to play at being  stranded on a desert island,”  she said casting him a little smile at that. Then looking more seriously, “And  then there is the frighteningly grown-up Charlotte, who thinks she is worldly and sophisticated and  believes she is in love with your boy.”

“Well I guess it ain’t easy being at that kinda in-between stage,” said Jess seriously. “I figure it’s the same for Mike too.” He shook his head. “The boy sure is growing up fast, and whatever you think about puppy love, Iona, it is real to them, you know — very real — and I figure we should respect that.”

“Love,” she said in a rather cynical tone, as she looked out to the distant hills. “So what is that anyway?”

“Don’t you know?”

She sighed at that. It means different things to different people, I suppose — familiarity, security, comfort. Maybe those things are more important than passion.”

“Umm,” he said evasively, not really sure what she was trying to say and certainly not agreeing with the sentiment.

Then she took his hand and looking deeply into his eyes said. “So what does it mean to you?”

Jess was suddenly conscious of a subtle shift in the atmosphere and was aware of her closeness, her heady perfume, and felt his pulses start to race. “What?” he said playing for time.

“Oh come,” she said almost brusquely, “You must know. You’ve been married after all.”

He carefully  removed his hand from  her grasp at that and looked out to the distant view before replying quietly, “Well, I guess that is kinda private — not the sorta thing a man talks about.”

She gave a little gasp, suddenly remembering how Sky had died. “I’m sorry I’m being very insensitive tonight; I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You ain’t,” he answered quickly. Anyway, it was Charlotte I wanted to talk to you about,” he continued neatly changing the subject.

“Oh?”

“Yep, we had a real long talk on the island,” and he went on to explain the way Charlotte felt about her life in general and her schooling in particular — and finally her  relationship with her parents.

“So I guess that’s why she does that runnin’ away stunt when it’s time for you to go home. Why she got ‘em stranded on the island too. She said…”

But then he found it too difficult to go on. Hell, who was he to tell these intelligent people how to bring up their own daughter, one of them a teacher, for goodness sake.

“Go on,” she insisted.

“She said she thought that you might  think she’d run off and would go home without her and then she was gonna ask…” he sighed deeply before casting her an embarrassed glance, “she was gonna ask if we’d take her on, bring her up with Mike.”

She gasped at that and  shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “How could she think we’d abandon her, just give up on her like that?”

He took her hand gently at that and said softly, You said yourself she was a mixed up kid. Maybe she just needs you and Callum to talk to her — to listen too. Heck Iona, would it be so bad if she went to an ordinary school for a while, made some friends, had some fun?”

She stared at him for a full minute before shaking her head sadly and saying, “No, of course not, if that’s what she wants. I never knew she felt this way. I thought we were giving her the best start in life. I really did.”

Jess just stroked her hand gently with his thumb, Yeah, I know,” he said softly.

She took a deep breath and gazing at him said, “You know what  really hurts so much?”

He just raised a questioning eyebrow.

“When they landed back from the island and came running over to us, all Mike could say was how he was so, so sorry that he’d worried you and Slim; all he could think of was how he’d upset you, let you down. But Charlotte…all she was thinking of was herself.” A tear escaped and ran down her cheek as she looked bleakly off to the distant mountains.

“Hush, it’s ok,” whispered Jess softly, “don’t go frettin’; it will be alright.”

She turned to stare at him for a good minute, their gaze locking, then she moved a little closer before finally  leaning in and  gently brushing his lips with her own.

Then  they were suddenly kissing passionately, leaving her mouth burning with fire and all her senses alive as he pulled her close, one hand tangling in her long hair and the other running up and down  her back.

Then,  just as suddenly as he had returned her kiss, he raised his mouth from hers and gazed into her eyes, before shaking his head almost imperceptibly. “No,” he whispered. “This ain’t right; I’m out of order. I’m sorry, Iona.”

She took a deep breath. “No, it’s I who am sorry, Jess; that was all down to me. I shouldn’t have…

“Look, it’s OK; I understand. You’re upset is all…”

She looked him in the eye again and gave him a  rueful little smile. “Just blame it on the moonlight and a silly emotional woman. I think maybe I should collect the children. Callum will be wondering where we are.”

“Sure, of course,” he said quickly standing up and taking her hand they made their way back indoors.

Slim looked up from where he was pouring the coffee and saw the tear stains on Iona’s face and her eyes glittering, a becoming flush to her cheeks. Then he noticed Jess gently pull his hand from  where she was still holding it, and Jess making his way over to the stove to throw another log on, studiously ignoring Slim’s gaze. Then when Jess finally turned back to the room, Slim saw his buddy’s cheeks were flushed and he had a very guilty look about him and Slim’s heart sank. What in hell had his pard been up to now?

Iona seemed slightly dazed and accepted her coffee and then sat staring into the cup, ignoring the children’s banter and Slim’s attempt at light conversation.

After a moment, her head shot up and she said, “I’m so sorry, Slim. What were you saying?”

“Just that Jess, Mike and I will come and help you pack up your wagon tomorrow. I reckon Callum won’t feel up to it and then we’ll escort you over to Laramie. One of us could drive your rig for you maybe?”

She glanced over to Jess and gave him an intimate little smile before remembering her manners and beaming at Slim replied, “Yes, that would be most helpful thank you so much.”

Then soon afterwards, she made her farewells and Slim offered to walk them home, casting Jess a warning glance, but Jess made no argument. So the family left with thanks for the wonderful meal and company.

When Slim arrived back half an hour later, Mike was fast asleep and Jess had washed the dishes and lay propped up on one of the cots, sipping a whisky and looking morosely into the fire.

Slim crashed down  on the other cot and Jess wordlessly passed him a glass of whiskey over.

“Thanks.”

They sat in silence sipping their drinks until Slim could stand it no longer. “OK, spit it out. What have you been up to, Jess?”

“Huh?” Jess asked raising a quirky eyebrow.

“You know perfectly well what I mean. You’ve been messing with the delectable Iona, haven’t you — or should I say, Mrs. Donaldson?”

“Alright, alright, don’t start,” growled Jess angrily. It ain’t what you think so just leave it, Slim.”

“Well if it isn’t what I think, what is it then, pard? Because from where I’m sitting, you look darn guilty and Iona was looking like she’d been…”

“Slim, will you leave it?” Jess cut in quickly casting an eye over to the still sleeping Mike. “There ain’t a problem. now let’s turn  in. Busy day tomorrow ain’t it.”

Slim sighed knowing when to back down. “I guess. ‘Night then.”

“‘Night.”

*****

They arrived after breakfast the following day, having packed up everything at the line shack, and then the men helped load up the wagon, with Callum looking on anxiously as his precious plant specimens and notes were loaded  up in the back of the old covered wagon, along with all the family’s luggage.

Then they made Callum a comfortable bed in  the back while Shona and Rory settled themselves by the tail board so they could see all that as going  on.

Meanwhile, Charlie sat proudly up on Mike’s mount Sunny, looking on, so excited as Mike had promised she could ride the frisky little palomino some of the way back. A sure sign of the strength of the boy’s feelings, Jess thought as he watched his ward grinning over at the young girl.

Now it just had to be determined as to who should drive the rig for Iona, and to Slim’s surprise, Jess suggested that  his buddy  should do it. Slim grinned, happy to oblige.

“Why don’t you toss for it,” suggested Mike, “that’s what you usually do when you both want  to do something.”

Iona blushed a little at that, as  she sat up on the wagon seat waiting patiently, but when the men looked to her for askance, she just nodded laughing, “Why not?”

“Ok,” said Slim, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he really didn’t want Jess up that close and personal with the lovely Iona. He was purely thinking of the issue of the night before, he kept telling himself, although if he was honest, a little part of him was envious and really wanted some more time in the company of the interesting and beautiful woman himself.

In the end he tossed a coin, Jess called and  Mike ran to check it out. “You win, Jess,” he said cheerfully before starting to make his way round the back of the wagon to join the other children.

However,  Jess neatly sidestepped in front of him and, grabbing him around the waist, threw him up on the seat so that he would sit in between himself and Iona. “Guess you can ride shotgun, Tiger,” and the child laughed happily.

Once they were all ready to go, Jess clicked the team off and they started to make their way slowly down the steep mountain trail.

Iona was painfully aware as to why Jess had enlisted the child to ride up with them and was surprised at how much she minded, but put on a brave face as they moved off.

Mike was surprisingly silent for the first few miles, and after a while, Jess threw him a quizzical glance. “You OK, Tiger? You’re kinda quiet.”

The boy looked at him and then said softly, “I was just thinkin’ on something.”

Jess just threw him a smile and eventually the child seemed to make a decision and turning to Iona said, “I want to say I’m real sorry for what happened yesterday, Ma’am.”

She gave him her lovely smile, “Well, I accept your apology, my dear, but I think it was really Charlotte who was the instigator.”

Mike gulped and looked from Iona to Jess, his eyebrows raised in question.

“Mrs. Donaldson figures it was mostly down to Charlie; it was her as persuaded you to go,” Jess supplied.

Mike turned back to Iona at that. “Well, I guess so, Ma’am, but I was the man and I figured it was up to me to go with her and look out for her,” he said earnestly. “That’s what men do, you see, look after the ladies,” he finished.

Jess and Iona exchanged an amused glance over his head at that, but then he continued.

“Trouble is, Slim said I should have gone and told you she’d lit out, but that’s kinda bein’ disloyal to a friend, so I couldn’t do that. But then after everything  that happened, well, I guess she could have  drowned when the kayak rolled, so maybe Slim was right. Anyway, I’m real sorry.”

Iona was nearly moved to tears at that and threw a comforting arm around the boy. That’s alright and there really is nothing to forgive; in fact, we are in your debt for how well you looked after Charlotte. You saved her life, Mike, and we will never forget that.”

Meanwhile Slim and Charlie were riding along together behind the wagon, and after a while Charlie said, “You’re so lucky being Jess’s best friend; he really is the best just like Mike said.”

Slim smiled to himself, noticing how the child had begun to lose some of her scholarly turn of phrase and taken on Mike’s way of speech.

“Um, he’s a great guy,” Slim said, vaguely wondering if this young girl had fallen for his buddy’s charms just like every woman with a pulse seemed to do.

But then the child was speaking again, “He keeps his promises, doesn’t he.”

“What sort of promises?” asked Slim, suddenly looking wary.

“Well, when we were on the island together, I told him about how unhappy I am, with the way I’m home schooled and never able to make new friendships, and then when I do, like Mike, well it’s so very difficult for me to leave them. That was what all the running off was about, why I felt I had to run away with Mike. You understand, Mister Sherman?”

 He nodded encouragingly.

“Anyway, Mister Harper promised to explain it all to Mama for me. She likes him, you see, so I thought she’d listen.”

Slim gave a noncommittal, “umm” to that and so the child continued.

“So anyway, I asked him again last night, then I set it up for him to go out with Mama after supper, so he did and talked to her like he promised. Then she talked it all through with me last night at bedtime, and I’m getting what I want — a place in the local school, so I can make friends my own age. Isn’t that just splendid, Mister Sherman?” she said, grinning across at him.

Slim felt a wave of relief; Jess had been just been  playing  the Good Samaritan and not Casanova as he’d assumed. He beamed across at the child. “That’s  just swell, Charlie,” he  replied, making a mental note to apologize to his pard.

It was later that morning when everyone realized that the balmy Indian summer was fast drawing to a close; the temperature had dropped alarmingly and there were thunderheads on the distant horizon, heralding a storm before the day was out.

Slim rode up beside the wagon and got Jess’s attention. “We’d better start thinking where we are going to camp. Looks like there’s a storm coming, Jess, even snow. It’s darned well cold enough,” he finished, pulling his jacket collar up.

“Yep, I’d noticed that, pard. How’s about we get a wiggle on and we’ll be down by Jacob’s caves come night fall. Plenty of shelter in the caves and grazing for the horses too. I guess it takes us a few miles off course, but it’s the safest option.” Then Jess tipped his head toward the back of the wagon, “what with the kids and all.”

“Sounds good to me, Jess; head ‘em on out.”

Jess cracked the reins and the team moved forwards at a renewed, faster gait, causing  Iona to grab hold of her seat and  tense her  body.

Jess half turned to her. “Sorry, Ma’am; I guess it’s gonna be a bit hard goin’ for  the next few miles, but we don’t wanna be caught out in the open if it does snow, trust me.”

“We do have snow in New York, you know Jess,” she said with a small smile. “How bad can it be?”

“Bad enough,” Jess muttered.

“We need to get somewhere that we can build a real big fire,” Mike said conversationally turning to Iona. “It’s the cold that’s a real killer, ain’t it, Jess?”

“Umm, I guess so Tiger,” Jess replied, concentrating on keeping the team on track.

“It  was the cold that nearly did for you that time we were all stranded at the line cabin in the snow, weren’t it Jess?” the child persisted.

“Er, I don’t reckon Mrs. Donaldson wants to hear about that Mike,” Jess said quickly.

“Oh but I do,” she said clasping her hands together and beaming down at the Mike. “It sounds quite an adventure,” assuming it was a childish tale and Jess had caught a cold or  some such thing. “I should love to hear about it.”

Jess just looked down his expression unreadable.

“Well we were snowed in and there was this wolf attack,” Mike began. “There were about a dozen weren’t there, Jess?” the child said in an excited tone.

Iona smiled to herself at the fanciful idea and cast a glance at Jess and was astonished when he just nodded. “Yep, about that.”

“Anyway, Slim and Jess killed most of ‘em, but they’d got in with the horses, spooked ‘em something fierce, broke the shutters open and even tried to attack Traveler, Jess’s mount.”

Jess just looked ahead saying nothing, but from his grim  expression Iona knew the child wasn’t exaggerating.

Mike took a deep breath. “So Slim stayed in  the shack with me in case more came back and Jess slept out in the lean-to stable, and it was way beyond cold; I mean it was real freezing,” he said giving a little shudder for effect.

“Yeah, we get the drift, Tiger,” Jess said with a faint smile.

“Well, the way Slim tells it, the next morning, he went to wake Jess up for his breakfast, only the blanket he’d put up at the broken shutter had  blown down  in the night and it had snowed in and  Jess…well, Jess was pretty near frozen solid, and Slim thought he was dead,” the child said turning  tragic eyes on Iona who now had his  complete attention a look akin to horror  in her  beautiful eyes.

“So what happened?” she whispered.

“Well, he was just gonna cover him with a blanket and come and tell me, when he saw this little  biddy speck of blood on his shirt see.”

Iona just looked puzzled.

Then Jess broke in. “I’d been hurt the previous day, you see, then, that morning Slim had given me a good shaking trying to wake me. Must have opened the wound again and it started bleeding. Well old Hardrock remembered the doc saying ‘the dead don’t bleed’, so he kinda knew there was a chance, fetched me in the house and warmed me up some. So yours truly lived to fight another day,” he finished with a little chuckle, making light of the nightmare affair.

She looked profoundly shocked at that. “You were within an inch of losing your life. How can you joke about it that way?” she asked.

Jess just shrugged. “It’s the way it is out here. You get to thinkin’ on things too much, well, you just wouldn’t do anything. Life’s full of risks and the way I deal with stuff is just to try and laugh it off. Ain’t no point in frettin’; it don’t change nuthin’.” With that, he clicked the team on, leaving Iona completely stunned and yet again deeply aware of the vast  differences between the east and the west and the ethos of their people.

It was late afternoon when the snow slowly started to fall, at first in delicate little flurries, followed by larger flakes drifting effortlessly down, looking so pretty and causing the youngsters to cry out in joy as they put their hands out to catch the icy cold flakes and then they stuck their tongues out and the soft flakes melted in moments making them giggle and call for more.

“It’s so beautiful,” gasped Iona. “It never looks quite like this in the city, so dreamy and romantic,” she whispered casting Jess a covert glance.

However his  attention was elsewhere as he anxiously peered up at the leaden sky and then whistled Slim to come over. “I don’t like the look of it, Slim. Are you sure we’ll make the caves in time?”

“Yeah, I reckon so; just another couple of miles, pard.”

But even as they were speaking, the wind got up and the softly drifting snowflakes suddenly changed into bitter little darts cutting into the cowboy’s faces and soon leaving a deep white coating over the horses, wagon and everything else in their path.

“I don’t like it,” said Jess gruffly. “Let’s get movin’, Slim — and get Charlie off of Sunny and into the back.”

Within the hour, the snow had been blown into a frenzy of violence by the gusting wind and blizzard conditions prevailed.

Iona had lost her look of gentle pleasure and now peered out at the scene in front of her in trepidation. “Oh Jess,” she cried,” will we be alright?”

“Sure,” Jess said ,smiling across at her and took her hand, squeezing it for a moment, before returning to the look out at the increasingly dire weather conditions. “Figure maybe I’d better lead the team, though. Why don’t you go sit in the back with Callum? I guess he’ll be worried about you.”

She just shook her head and wrapped a blanket more  securely around herself and Mike as Jess jumped down from the rig and taking the lead horse’s reins started leading the poor creatures slowly on through the  storm.

It was almost dark when they reached Jacob’s Caves, an unusual rock formation about a day’s ride from the ranch.

The area had been used years ago as an Indian encampment and it was ideally placed, the large caves being overlooked by a massive pine forest with a tinkling brook running through it.

Jess always said it was the ideal place to romance a lady, but unfortunately  as it was a good day’s drive from the ranch, so not very practical. However,  as they finally arrived  in the area,  he had never  been so glad to land any place.

Jess grinned up at Mike and Iona, who were still sitting up on the wagon. “I guess we’ve made it,” he laughed.

Then there was all the hustle and bustle of getting everyone down, the caves were inspected and firewood and supplies brought in.

It was much later. when everyone finally settled down, that Jess and Iona were able to speak again.

“You must think me such a silly romantic dreamer the way I was about the snow,” Iona said ruefully as Jess helped her tidy up after the meal while Slim and Callum supervised the youngsters bedding down around the huge camp fire they had set near the cave mouth.

“Well I guess it took me a while to learn,” he said honestly, “but, well, you’ve just gotta understand you don’t mess with the Wyoming weather, that’s for sure.”

“So we’ll be alright tomorrow? We’ll make it back to Laramie?”

Jess wandered over to the cave mouth and looked out to where the snow had stopped falling, but was now being blown into high drifts by an increasingly strong wind. “I reckon, we can’t stay here, that’s for sure,” he said grimly. Then he pulled his hat down hard and his collar up.

“I’m gonna go check the horses,” Jess said. “Why don’t you see how Callum’s doing?” With that, he marched off into the cold dark night, leaving her feeling strangely bereft.

Jess returned a while later, leading a  couple of the horses and tethered them much closer to the cave, between where they had parked the wagon and the cave mouth, before he went back for the other three.

Slim went out to help him. “What’s up, pard?”

“I dunno. Trav was kinda spooked. I figure he could hear something I couldn’t — wolf,  cougar maybe. Whatever it was, he wasn’t any too happy, so I figured I’d bring ‘em a tad closer in.”

They returned to the cave where the children were settling down, and Shona, her mother and father were huddled around the fire looking slightly anxious.

“Everything alright?” asked Callum, throwing a wary look out into the snowy night.

“I reckon…so far,” said Jess softly as he came over to the fire and warmed his hands before laying down on his bedroll and stretching out.

It was an hour or two later when the party where awakened from their slumbers by the spine chilling sound of a lone wolf howling in the night.

The Donaldson children were wide-eyed with fear and Iona and Callum looked almost as afraid.

“Just the one, do you reckon?” asked Slim, casting Jess a concerned look.

“Umm. So far, I guess. Maybe we’d better take it in turns to keep watch,” Jess said. “He could have a few buddies with him later.”

Iona looked terrified and clasped her husband’s hand, while looking over to Jess. “They won’t attack…will they?” she gasped.

“Shouldn’t think so, not one alone. If there’s more, well…” Jess shrugged.

“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Mike piped up. “You’re quite safe with Jess and Slim; they won’t let no harm come to us. They’re real good at shootin’ wolves.”

“Umm, well, that’s a relief,” said Callum, “because I wouldn’t know where to start, laddie.”

Slim took first watch, and it was about an hour later when he went across and shook Jess awake. “We’ve got company, pard. Looks to be about half a dozen of them, by the sounds of things. Been circling off in the woods, but I reckon they’re coming in closer now, the way the mounts are sounding off.”

Jess quickly awoke Callum and Iona. “Looks like we may have a little trouble. can you wake the kids and take ‘em right to the back of the cave,” he said urgently.

Callum started waking the youngsters at once, while Iona stood there seemingly rooted to the spot.

“You need to get back,” Jess said throwing her a firm look, “and keep the kids calm, huh.”

She stared at him her eyes wide in terror as the horses started neighing loudly and the baying of the wolves became louder and louder.

When it was obvious she wasn’t going to move, he took her elbow and pulled her none too gently to the back of the cave where Callum had the children holed up. Jess threw him a spare rifle. “You know how to use one of these?” he asked tersely.

“I, er, I think so.”

“Well now might be a good time to learn,” Jess said dryly. “Keep it trained on the cave mouth. Anything gets through, just shoot it, OK?”

Callum just nodded, looking petrified.

“Don’t worry; it shouldn’t come to that. Me an’ Slim have got it covered.” Then Jess ran back outside the cave where Slim was already firing off a few shots as the hungry wolves crept closer to the now terrified mounts.

Both men went out of the cave, and with their backs to the horses, scanned the cold dark night for signs of wolf. It was only a minute or two later when the first made a dash towards Mike’s little palomino pony, but Jess shot him straight between the eyes and he fell dead. The others scattering deep into the woods before gradually sneaking back, crawling on their bellies and yowling and crying, making a din fit to wake the dead.

In the back of the cave, Mike had an arm around a pale and shaking Charlie and was trying his best to allay everyone’s fears. “It’ll be OK, really, it will,” he said, his eyes wide and innocent as he told them how Slim and Jess would see the critters off and they really shouldn’t worry.

Even when they could hear Jess cussing, the horses crying in terror, and shot after shot being fired off as the wolves bayed and mounted attack after attack, Mike still insisted all would be well, and they weren’t to fret none.

Then suddenly everything went deathly silent, which was almost scarier than the clamor of the wolf attack, with none of them being able to see what was happening outside the cave.

Then, just when Iona felt she couldn’t bear it any longer, Jess and Slim walked back in looking tired but triumphant.

Iona who had been sitting with her arms around Shona and young Rory just stared up in shock as the men returned.

“Guess that’s the last we’ll see of ‘em tonight,” said Jess grinning down at the family and then leaning over ruffled Mike’s hair. “OK, Tiger?”

“Sure,” beamed the child happily. “I told ‘em you and Slim would see them darn critters off,” he said with a huge grin.

“That you did, laddie,” smiled Callum, dragging himself up and clasping Jess’s hand shook it warmly. “Thank you indeed, Jess,” and then did the same to Slim as he joined the group.

“I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to use this thing,” Callum said as he gestured to the rifle he had been holding with his good arm. “I’m not too good with firearms at the best of times, but with this broken arm, I think I would have been useless.”

Jess flushed at that, completely having forgotten about Callum’s arm in the heat of the moment. “Oh yeah, sorry,” he said ruefully, “I didn’t think.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, young man; you two gentlemen kept my family safe and I thank you for it, indeed I do.”

Then Iona leapt up and gave Slim a big hug, and turning, did the same to Jess and then kissed his cheek softly. “Thank you so much,” she whispered, her eyes gazing deeply into his, saying a thousand words in that one adoring look.

Jess pulled gently away after a moment, flushing and looking down. “You’re welcome, Ma’am,” he said softly before turning to haul Mike up and went off with the child to check on the horses, the boy being concerned about his pony.

Iona looked sadly after him, realizing he hadn’t called her by her name since what she thought of as, ‘the night of the kiss’, and by the  use of the formal, ‘Ma’am’, knew  he was somehow deliberately making their relationship more formal. She felt suddenly quite desolate.

Later, once the children were all finally bedded down again, Callum produced a bottle of his excellent Scottish whisky and the adults all took what he referred to as a wee restorative dram before turning in.

“Mike really is a credit to you both,” said Iona, now looking slightly flushed by the whisky and seemingly recovered from her recent ordeal.

“Oh really?” asked Slim, an eyebrow raised in question.

“Yes, he was amazing — so calm, kept telling us everything would be alright, you two would look after us all. He was a real inspiration, wasn’t he, Callum?”

“That he was. He’s a grand wee laddie, and you must he very proud of him.”

“Yep, he’s a good kid,” said Jess quietly.

“He certainly is and wise beyond his years and he showed us a lesson in faith today,” said Iona softly ‘He really believes you two are invincible, doesn’t he?”

Slim just grinned and shook his head with a rueful smile. “Well, I just hope he’s never proved wrong…in that kind of situation anyway.” They all raised their glasses to that before finally turning in.

*****

The following day they started to make their way slowly through the snow-covered countryside, the deep drifts making traveling difficult and hazardous in places, and again Jess insisted in wading through the snow and leading the horses. He knew that they were in danger of slipping and maybe breaking a leg in the dire conditions, and the pace was painfully slow as he walked through the drifts, his denims soon soaking, his collar up against the relentless wind.

Slim led Alamo too, with Traveler and Sunny hitched behind the wagon, containing Callum and the children, whilst Iona and Mike sat once more on the wagon seat chatting quietly.

Mike had been telling her a little of his history and the more he talked the more amazed and impressed she became. “Yup, I guess I was real lucky ending up on the ranch with Jess and Slim…and Aunt Daisy,” he said happily.

Iona secretly wondered how it was possible to be happy ever again after experiencing the kind of trauma young Mike had gone through seeing his parents massacred that way, but  the more she listened to him, the more captivated she became.

“See, we’re a team at the  Ranch and Relay,” Mike said proudly. “We all have our jobs to do and kinda rely on each other to do their bit. If one of us doesn’t pull their weight, then things can go wrong. It’s just a case of all workin’ together, you know?” he asked earnestly.

She nodded. “So Jess and Slim taught you that?”

Mike nodded. “That and lots of stuff. Slim helps me with my schoolin’ and Jess with things like ridin’ and ropin’. But more than that, I guess; they taught me all about trusting folk and friendship, doin’ what’s right — even if that’s real hard — all that kinda thing. Riding for the brand, you know, Ma’am, like the code of the West?”

“Go on,” she said fascinated.

“Oh, all about fair play and loyalty, not letting a friend down, respect for folk, er, caring for your horse before yourself — Jess is real keen on that one,” Mike said with a grin.

“What else?”

“Only cuss around men, cattle and horses; never ladies. That’s another one of Jess’s rules, ‘cos he cusses a lot, well, when he’s horse breaking that is,” Mike said smiling. “Same with yard talk, about breeding the brood mare and the like; see that’s yard talk, not for in front of the ladies.”

She nodded at that trying to keep a straight face.

“Then stuff like you should keep your promises, a hand shake is your word — all that kinda stuff,” Mike finished vaguely.

“They sound like really good guardians,” Iona said smiling down at the child.

“Oh they are, just the best,” Mike agreed. “But it ain’t all about learning stuff and being  good. We have some real fun times, hunting and fishing, goin’ swimming’ in the water  hole and then Jess and Slim are always joshing and messin’ about. Aunt Daisy says she reckons they’re bigger kids than I am sometimes,” he finished, grinning at her.

“Well, it certainly sounds like you have a very happy life at the ranch,” Iona said, thinking about how dissatisfied Charlotte seemed with her life and beginning to wonder where she had gone wrong.

“Oh Yes Ma’am,” Mike said, beaming at her “Real happy.”

They had been in such deep conversation that they hadn’t noticed that the wind had got up even more; it had now started to snow again, and within a few minutes they could barely see where Jess was plodding on ahead leading the team.

“We’re going to have to find someplace to haul to,” Slim shouted over the now screaming wind.

Even though he was walking along next to his buddy, Slim still had to yell to be heard, and as the weather closed in, both men were at a loss as what to do. There was no visible shelter and they knew they couldn’t stop or they would be lost, so they just continued trudging forwards each step more and more difficult in the deep slippery snow.

The two friends staggered on in the freezing blizzard for another hour before they finally made out some familiar landmarks and realized they were coming to a small pine forest on the edge of the lake a couple of hours ride from  the ranch, and knew they would be able to find shelter there.

The trail led through the tall pines down to the lake, and once they entered the woods, the wind seemed to drop and the visibility improved. They moved on down a steep bank until they were nearly at the lakeside where there was a small clearing but were still afforded some shelter from the trees. It seemed an ideal spot to rein in and wait for the snow storm to finally abate.

“Well, good place or not, I dang well ain’t walkin’ any further in this goddamn storm,” Jess said firmly to his buddy.

“Me neither, pard. I guess I’m as cold and miserable as a wet hen,” Slim said with feeling.

Jess turned to look at his pard and then grinned at him. “Come to think on it, you kinda favor ol’ Rufus,” he said referring to the ranch resident rooster, a surly bird at the best of times.

“Well, gee thanks, pard,” said Slim, reaching over and shoving a handful of snow down his friend’s neck, after which an unseemly scuffle ensued both men ending up laughing heartily.

Iona, watching their antics from the wagon, shook her head in wonder. How could they be laughing and joking in this godforsaken storm when they must be freezing cold and exhausted, she wondered and turned to look at Mike as he grinned down at the young ranchers.

“See,” Mike said happily, “just like Aunt Daisy says — worse than me!”

Then everyone jumped down from the wagon and Callum organized the youngsters into searching for dry firewood and pinecones beneath the huge trees whilst Slim and Jess unhitched the team and began rubbing all the horses  down.

Their brief period of high spirits was due to the relief of finally finding a safe haven and was quickly followed by fatigue. The men were also suffering from bone chilling cold as they worked on in their sodden denims, determined to tend to their mounts before anything else, as usual.

It was Slim who succumbed to exhaustion first, sagging against Alamo and nearly falling.

Then Callum was suddenly by his side, closely followed by Iona.

“My dear chappie, you’re done in. The fire’s going well; go and  take your ease and I’ll finish  off here. I’m sure I can care for your beast even with just one good arm.”

Slim protested weakly, but after a moment, agreed and wandered over to the fire where he slumped down, totally spent.

Then Iona went over to where Jess was still carefully tending Traveler. “Won’t you let me do that for you?” she asked gently. “Go and rest with Slim; you look dead on your feet.”

He tipped his hat back and gave her a weary smile. I’m OK, thanks, Ma’am. See I never let anyone else tend ol’ Trav here; he’s my responsibility.”

“But you must be just as tired as Slim; please…” she said, feeling terribly sorry for this clearly exhausted young man.

“I reckon I am,” he said, “but then I was first in line when the good Lord was dishin’ out stubborn and I guess that usually sees me through.”

She gave him a little smile at that. “I can see where Mike gets his tenacity from. He said just the same thing, that it is his job to tend to his horse before he has anything to eat or drink.”

Jess just turned back to his task. “It’s our way, Iona,” he replied softly.

She stood there watching him for a few minutes before turning away, thinking that at least she could have a good hot meal ready for him when he finally finished the task.

After she turned away she then glanced back at him. He had called her Iona again. Maybe he had forgiven himself for what he perceived to be a transgression and they could get back to that friendly informal friendship they seemed to have forged before.

Although the snow had stopped, the wind was almost gale force, blowing the flakes on the ground around into even deeper drifts and making the cold temperatures seem lower still.

Slim and Jess had finally hunkered down by the fire and their denims had begun to dry off, but both men looked pale and bone-weary after their long day’s walk. As the weather closed in yet again with more snow threatening, it was decided that they would camp out for a second night and make the last leg of their journey the following morning when all were feeling rested.

Throughout the journey, Shona had been watching Jess closely and the attraction she had felt towards him on their first meeting was still there. She had tried to ignore the fact that she was clearly wasting her time. He had been quick enough to rebuff her flirting on that first afternoon and then had later made sure she was aware that he was seeing someone.

Now, however, as she saw him squatting down by the fire looking cold and weary, her heart went out to him, and taking the coffee her mother had just poured, she quickly said, “Let me, Mama.” Before Iona could say anything, Shona she made her way around to the other side of the fire and proffered the drink.

“I’ve brought you a hot drink Jess,” Shona said softly. “You look like you need one.”

Jess threw her a lazy smile. “Thanks, sweetheart,” he said taking the cup. “You ain’t wrong there.”

Her heart leapt at the endearment, and feeling emboldened, Shona settled down beside him and cast a coquettish glance from beneath her sweeping eyelashes. “I thought you were so brave last night,” she said breathily.

Jess was only half-listening; most of his attention on the fact that he was still uncomfortably wet and his body ached all over from the physical stresses of the day. All he really wanted to do was lay down and sleep — preferably in a warm bed and for about a week.

Then his attention was finally brought back to the present.

“So do you then, Jess?”

“Huh?”

“Like dancing? I just love it and I thought if we stayed in Laramie for a while we could maybe go?”

Jess tried hard to address this latest problem. “Er, yeah,” he said vaguely. “Guess your Ma and Pa might enjoy that.”

Shona gave a small sigh and then her mother called her over to help with cooking the meal and she wandered of reluctantly, saying she’d talk to Jess later.

Then Slim came and threw himself down on his bedroll laid out near to Jess. “What did Shona want?” he asked.

Jess just shrugged. “Dunno. Oh yeah, she brought me a coffee. You want one? “

Slim just groaned. “Nope. I’m going get my head down for a while; I’m just dead beat.” He lay back on his saddle and was snoring gently in  moments.

A little later, Iona came over and tapped Jess gently on the shoulder. “Food’s ready.” Then she looked over to Slim. “Should we wake him?”

Jess shook his head. “I guess not; he’s real wacked.” Leaning across, he gently pulled his buddy’s blanket over more securely and cast him a slightly anxious glance.

Iona watched him, marveling at how such a strong, tough, man could also be so tender and caring.

After casting his pard a final glance and checking the fire was blazing well, Jess followed Iona around to the cook fire Callum had built near the wagon.

Truth be known, Jess was almost too tired to eat himself, but he sank down near the fire with his back to a huge fallen log and accepted the plate of stew from Shona with thanks. But by the time the meal was over, he could hardly keep his eyes open, even though it was still early evening.

Shona had kept a steady flow of conversation going from where she had settled herself beside him and he had answered her briefly if at all.

Then Iona had started fretting about another wolf attack and the children were becoming somewhat fractious as they were all tired and over-excited too, and all Jess craved was some peace and quiet.

Dusk was gathering, and he decided to go and check on Traveler and the other horses before bedding down himself. Telling Mike to get himself off to the big fire where they were all spending the night, he levered himself up and made for the horses. “Tiger, be real quiet, buddy. Slim’s already asleep; I’ll be with your in a minute OK?”

“Ok sir,” said Mike respectfully, instinctively knowing that Jess was real tired and in no mood to be messed with.

Callum took charge of getting Charlotte and Rory off to bed whilst Iona tidied up after the meal, asking Shona to help.

“In a moment, Mama,” she said quickly, before taking off in the same direction as Jess had gone.

When he got to where the horses were tethered just a few yards away, he double checked that they were securely hitched and all were well rubbed down and blanketed against the cold night.

Jess was just stroking Traveler and giving him a sugar lump when he felt a presence behind him, and swinging round, he drew his gun with lightning speed, only to sigh and replace it when he saw Shona in the shadows, looking terrified. “Gee, I’m sorry sweetheart,” he said quickly. Then, throwing her a rueful smile, said, “I guess you shouldn’t creep up on a man that way; you don’t know what he might do.”

“You could have shot me,” Shona whispered. “Why did you do that, Jess?”

“Look, I’m sorry, OK. Just a knee-jerk reaction. The way my life’s been, I kinda draw first and ask questions later. Sometimes easier stayin’ alive that way.”

She looked shocked at that. “So Mike was right; you really are a gunslinger.”

Was,” he said grimly. “I ain’t no more.”

“Yes, yes of course he did say that, but it must have been very exciting…?”

“Killin’ folk before they get a chance to kill you? Always watchin’ your back, drawin’ on innocent girls because you never lose that edge? Oh yeah,” Jess said sarcastically. “Real excitin’ that is.”

She glanced down at that, looking uncomfortable, but after a moment collected herself. “I’m sorry. Of course that was tactless of me. It must have been a hard life.”

“Yeah, you could say,” Jess replied gruffly.

They just stood and stared at each other and then her face crumpled. “I’m sorry you must think I’m terribly insensitive,” and a tear rolled down her cheek.

“Nope… just a tad young maybe,” he said tiredly. “Come on, Shona, your folks will be worried about you. Let’s get back.”

Then an owl hooted close by, and the sound sent the already jittery girl careering towards Jess in terror.

He instinctively opened his arms and held her for a moment, seeing that she was shaking in fear — or maybe just cold he thought later. “It’s OK,” he said quickly. “It’s only a lonely old owl; won’t do you no harm.”

After a moment, she pulled gently back from his embrace so the she could look into his concerned blue eyes and then she reached up to kiss him.

He sprang back at once. “Whoa! Hey, what in hell are you doin’, Shona?”

“What does it look like,” she asked looking up at him with glittering eyes full of youthful passion. “You like me don’t you?” she asked snaking her arms around his neck.
“Don’t you want me…just a little bit? We could get together, later when everyone’s turned in.”

He stood back quickly and pushed her away. “Get back to camp,” he said gruffly, ”right now young lady!”

Then he heard a movement in the trees just behind him and a second later Iona came out. “That’s good advice, Shona; run along,” she said very quietly.

“But Mama, I didn’t… I mean, I wasn’t going to…”

Then Iona threw her an angry look. “Do as I say…at once! We’ll talk about it later.”

Once Shona had left them, Iona turned back to Jess, her eyes wide and her expression one of humiliation mixed with anger.

Jess stared at her for a moment and then said quietly. “I didn’t do anything. Hell, I didn’t encourage her, Iona. Please believe me!”

She came over and took his hand in hers. “Oh I do. Goodness, Jess, it’s not you I’m angry with; it’s that daughter of mine who is at fault. I’m so sorry. I feel so embarrassed; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!”

He stared at her. “Huh?”

“I was just there in the trees; I came to get her back to camp to help me clear up and I heard everything. I just want to thank you for dealing with it so sensitively, well, for being such a gentleman, that is.”

“And did you think I wouldn’t be?” Jess asked throwing her a hard look. “After the other night, that is.”

She flushed up at that. “No; of course, I didn’t think that.” Then deciding to steer the conversation back to her daughter, Iona said, “It’s probably my fault…well, mine and Callum’s, I rather imagine. We’ve kept our eldest daughter wrapped in cotton wool for much too long.”

He just raised a quirky eyebrow at that.

“You see she has been home tutored, like Charlotte, and so she has had very few dealings with the opposite sex. The truth is, she just doesn’t know how to act around…well…attractive young men. She is just very immature for her age, I’m afraid, and she enjoys flirting, I suppose,” Iona finished vaguely.

Jess was beginning to lose the will. He was tired, cold and more than a little embarrassed with the latest turn of events and all he wanted was his bed.

“Well that’s OK; no harm done I guess, this time anyways. But believe me, she ain’t just flirtin’; she’s playin’ with fire if she tries that on with the wrong man. Things are different out here; a woman acts  up front that way…well, some men will get to  thinkin’ she means it — you know what I’m sayin’? ”

“Yes, yes, of course; I see. And thank you for being so understanding — for your plain speaking too. I’ll talk it all through with her, I promise. ”

“Yeah, sure,” Jess said, edging his way back towards the fire. “You do that…Ma’am.” With that, he turned to go, breathing a sigh of relief.

Then Iona grabbed his arm as he made to leave.

Jess looked down to where she was holding him and then flicked a glance up to her face.

She blushed a little, relinquishing her hold. “I just wanted to say I’m truly sorry…for everything.”

Jess nodded, and then gently taking her elbow, said softly, “Come on, let’s get back; it’s cold away from the fire.”

When they returned, Iona went to finish the chores with her eldest daughter and Jess marched off to the blazing fire that now had all the bedrolls laid out around it ready for folk to turn in.

As soon as he arrived, Jess could hear young Rory kicking up a fuss about something and he went over to where a harassed looking Callum was trying to get the boy to bed.

“What’s up?” asked Jess gruffly, not relishing a noisy child robbing him of his well-earned rest, and casting a glance over to his buddy, saw Slim had been disturbed.

“Just over-excited, I think, what with the snow and everything,” said Callum with a rueful smile in Jess’s direction. “He wants a drink now.”

 “Don’t you, my wee laddie?” Callum said, smiling indulgently at the six-year-old.

Jess had secretly thought the child thoroughly spoilt by his doting parents and now he could see he had been right.

“OK, why don’t you get him one and I’ll bed him down,” said Jess, casting Callum a questioning look.

“Oh…er, well, yes, thank you, Jess.” The big man strolled off leaving Jess in charge. Then thoughtfully, Callum added, “The child’s upset because he’s lost Joey; I’ll have another look for him in  the wagon.”

“Joey?”

“Yes, his little carved horse, takes it to bed with him, finds it hard to sleep without him. Bairns, you know,” Callum said with an embarrassed shrug.

“Yeah, right; you go look-see then, Callum.”

Jess  hunkered down by the diminutive boy.

The child looked up at the black haired, blue eyed rancher in awe. He had been spell-bound by Mike’s tales of Jess’s past, and then had seen him in action first hand during the wolf attack, and now as he looked into those tired, deep blue eyes, he felt the stirring of alarm.

Sure, Jess was good fun, when those blue eyes sparkled with laughter. But Mike had said he could get mad sometimes, real mad, and to young Rory, it looked a lot like Jess was about to get real mad right about now.

“Right. I’ll tell you how it’s gonna be,” Jess said conversationally. “You’re going to cuddle down under that blanket and go fast asleep and we won’t  hear a peep out of you until tomorrow morning….deal?”

The child opened his eyes wide in shock, never having been spoken to that way before.

Jess, thinking that there was maybe something the child wasn’t understanding, sighed before casting another glance over to where Slim seemed to have settled into slumber again. “See, me and my pard there are real tired on account of havin’ walked through a blizzard most of the day,  so we’d really appreciate some peace and  quiet…or I might get kinda troubled,” he finished, leaving nothing to the child’s imagination. “So you’re beddin’ down now, right?”

The child’s eyes were huge and he nodded vigorously. “Yes sir,” he whispered, copying what he’d heard Mike say.

Jess beamed down at him, his eyes now kindly once more. “Good…that’s great, champ. See you tomorrow then, and I guess your Pa will have found old Joey by then too, huh?”

“Yes, I hope so. Goodnight, Mister Harper,” the boy said a smile on his cherubic features now as he closed his eyes and pulled the blanket around him.

By the time, Callum arrived back with the water but no Joey; a few minutes later, the child was fast asleep.

“Goodness me,” Callum said, looking astounded. “How on earth did you do that? I thought I’d be sitting up with him half the night, or spend it searching for the wretched toy!”

Jess gave him a cheeky grin. Well, I just told him to go to sleep or I’d be forced to tan his hide,” he said lightly.

Callum’s jaw dropped in shock, then he saw the twinkle in the younger man’s eyes and gave him a broad grin, clapping him on the back. “Well, whatever you did, it worked,” he said with relief. Then more seriously, “Though I think you’ve got  a point, laddie. My Iona and I…well, I admit we’ve spoiled the youngster a wee  bit, with him being the first boy, you see?”

Jess just shook his head. “Nope, not really.”

“Well, I suppose we were so glad to have the  wee chappie that we…well, over-indulged him, let him get away with things. Maybe we should re-think it,” Callum said with a deep sigh. “He’s beginning to be a bit of a handful, I must admit.”

Jess just made a noncommittal, “umm” and moved to turn in.

Callum looked thoughtful, and then said, “Mike seems very well behaved. Does he always do as he’s told right away?”

Jess grinned at that. “Oh believe me, he has his moments. Back at the ranch, he’ll argue about goin’ to bed, havin’ a bath. He’s just a regular boy. But on the trial, he knows how to behave, sure.”

“Go on.”

“Well, I guess we’ve taught him how dang dangerous it can be out here, and I don’t just mean about me getting kinda ornery when  I’m dead beat either — like tonight,” Jess said with a depreciating grin.

Callum had noticed the respectful, ‘yes sir’  and the way the child had gone off to bed  at once  after casting  an  eye at his beloved hero and seeing how worn out he was.

“Hum, dangerous, you say? The wolves you mean?”

“Sure, but not just that.” Jess went on to tell Callum about the cougar attack, when he had yelled a warning to Mike and the boy had spurred his mount on immediately, doing what he was told at once and  how that had  saved his life.

“I see,” said Callum very seriously. “I really had no idea there were so many dangers out here. I just assumed the local wild life would be scared by man’s presence and give us a wide berth.”

“Yeah, well in the summer, maybe, but with these early storms, they start hunting and little kids are kinda easy pickings — especially youngsters like little Rory there. You really need t0 keep him close, Callum,” Jess said softly, throwing the now deeply asleep child an affectionate look.

“Yes, I will, and thank you, my dear chappie; your advice is appreciated. I believe I still have a lot to learn about the west.” With that, they turned in.

**********

The following morning when they awoke Rory had gone.

The morning dawned with a beautiful pink light in the east and it was several degrees warmer, the snow beginning to thaw at first light. By the time the camp was up and about, great lumps of melted snow were falling from the trees and  the ground underfoot at first slushy, quickly turning to mud.

It was half an hour or so before they realized little Rory was missing.

Charlotte and Mike had begged to run the few hundred yards down to the lake for fresh water and everyone assumed that Rory had tagged along with them as usual.

It wasn’t until they returned ten minutes later that Iona realized her little son was missing and became almost hysterical.

“Maybe he’s just hiding someplace about the camp,” said Slim, practically, knowing that was the sort of jape the youngster tended to get up to, but a quick search proved fruitless.

“Did you not see anything, Charlotte?” cried her father as the girl had been sleeping next to her little brother.

“No, I was still awake when Mister Harper settled him down. Rory was being a pain,” she explained to her mother. “Then Papa went to fetch a drink for Rory, then Mister Harper said that he and Mister Sherman were real tired and would Rory go to sleep and he just nodded, smiled at him and said ‘Yes Sir,’ and he went off to sleep real happy. Then this morning I thought he was in the wagon with you, Ma…”

All eyes turned on Slim and Jess.

“Can you track him?” asked Callum, looking fearful.

Slim looked to his pard as the expert and saw the grim look in his eyes; the conditions were almost impossible after the snow, then the thaw, and the camp was trampled with all their different foot prints.

Jess shook his head. “We can try, I guess.”

“Maybe towards the lake,” suggested Callum. “Before you settled him last night, he was asking to look at the lake and I promised him we’d go this morning.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” gasped Iona, “come on,” and she stared running towards the lake.

Jess was the first to catch up with her as Callum was dealing with a distressed Charlotte. He caught up with her and grabbing her arm pulled her to a standstill.

She turned anguished, questioning eyes on him. “What is it?”

“Look, take it  easy Iona; no point in  goin’ off half-cocked this way. You’ll just  get yourself lost, or worse still fall and hurt yourself, dashing  about this way.”

She was panting with exertion and her eyes looked wild, but after a moment she seemed to calm herself. “Yes, you’re right, but Jess I’m so scared. He’s not an accomplished swimmer.”

“Hush,” Jess whispered, pulling her into his warm embrace for a moment, feeling her heart pounding ten to the dozen and suddenly feeling a stab of pity for the beautiful woman. Then he gently pulled back and surveyed the lake side, so perfect in the early morning, diffused light.

A mist still hung on the surface of the water and the whole vista spoke of peace and tranquility.

Then the others ran up and Slim and Jess quickly organized them into search parties, with Slim, Mike and Charlotte taking one route, Callum and Shona another and finally Iona and Jess headed off towards the edge of the lake.

After they had been walking for a while, Jess dropped down on one knee and looked intently at a foot print. “Could be him, or Mike from this morning;  got similar boots and it’s kinda hard to tell with all the snow melting.” He stood up and looked towards a rocky outcrop set back from the lake and said softly, “Didn’t I hear Mike telling him about how we camp out in the caves when we come here fishing?”

“Yes I believe he did say that. Callum said he’d take him exploring if we had time and the weather improved.”

“Well, I guess he knows what a cave looks like from where we stayed the other night and even  a little fellah like Rory would be able to see it from down here. Worth a try, huh?” Jess glanced down at her and saw her still scanning the lake surface, tears  in her eyes. He felt profoundly moved, and taking her hand said softly, “Come on, sweetheart, let’s go look.”

She gave him a watery smile, and still holding hands, they made off towards the distant cave.

The sun was fully up and the temperature rising  as they finally made their way up the steep path that led to the cave, but when  they were just halfway up, again Jess fell to one knee and looked down at the ground, and  what he saw set his heart pounding — the  large paw print of a big cat.

“God no,” he whispered under his breath.

Iona was immediately alert. “What is it?” she cried.

Too late, Jess realized he should have kept quiet, but now there was no hiding it from her and as she knelt down beside him, she saw the unmistakable paw print.

Jess turned to look at her and was dismayed to see she had turned chalky  white and was visible trembling.

“My boy, my wee bairn,” Iona whispered, and scrabbling up, started to run up the hillside with renewed purpose, before Jess again caught hold of her arm  to restrain her.

“No,” Jess whispered fiercely. “We’ve gotta go in  real slow and quiet. If that critter is in the cave and  we spook it,  well, it’ll attack.”

“Maybe it already has,” she whimpered, tears now streaming down her ashen cheeks. “Maybe he’s  dead!”

“Hush,” Jess gasped. “We don’t know that. Now stay behind me, Iona; it  could be anywhere.” Drawing his gun, he went on slowly up the hill.

They were almost there when the big cat was suddenly in front of them and it was a toss-up as to whether the cat or Jess and Iona were more shocked.

The creature was obviously satiated, with blood staining its jaws, and was making his  way leisurely down the track to drink at the lake and hadn’t reckoned on meeting up with anyone.

Jess raised his gun immediately and shot the cat through the head almost at point blank range, rendering it lifeless just as it was tensing itself to spring.

Iona fell against him, unable to say what she was thinking. Her only son was dead…

Jess threw a protective arm around her and helped her to stumble up the remaining few yards to the cave mouth.

When they finally  arrived, Jess took her in his arms again and said, “Let me go in alone, sweetheart.”

She just stared blankly at him before realizing  what he was implying. “Jess….please?”

“Stay here, Iona; I’ll be back in a minute.”

It seemed like hours rather than minutes when he finally emerged.

He stood there at the mouth of the cave swaying slightly and looking pale.

“Jess?” she cried  in anguish.

He shook his head before running forwards and taking her in his arms. “There’s no remains –nuthin, save for the carcass of a small deer. He ain’t there, Iona. He ain’t there!”

The shock almost floored her and she staggered before Jess helped her over to a large rock near the cave entrance and gently helped her to sit, before throwing himself down beside her a comforting arm pulling her close.

She gave a little sob, and within seconds Jess felt the front of his pale blue shirt grow damp with her tears. After a moment, he hesitatingly caressed her hair and whispered soft words of comfort.

She could feel his gently hand on her hair and the reassuring deep tone of his voice and gradually began to relax against him a little.

Strangely, she was glad that it was Jess who was with her rather than Callum, because she knew she would have tried to be strong and comfort her husband, whereas now she was able to just sink back and accept Jess’s soothing presence.

After a while, she stopped crying and he pulled back a little and ran a finger down her cheek wiping her tears away.

“Better?”

“I think so. I’m sorry, Jess. It’s just, well, you can’t imagine what it’s like — to think my  little boy is lost somewhere out here.”

Jess took her hand and looked deeply into her troubled face. “ I guess I can, some at least. See, we lost Mike once; well, he was abducted, taken by some mountain folk, desperate for a child of their own. He was missing for a few months; it was hell,” he said softly.

“Oh my goodness, the  poor boy, after the terrible Indian raid and everything.”

“Yeah,  the kid ain’t had it easy. Anyway, we got him back — none the worse for wear — and I figure we’ll do the same with young Rory. Come on, sweetheart, let’s get to lookin’ again.”

They spent the next hour or so skirting  the lake but there was absolutely no sign of young Rory, and eventually with heavy  hearts, they returned to the camp to meet up with the  other equally anxious searchers.

Callum looked pale and drawn , his broken arm clearly giving him a lot of pain.

Iona  rushed to him at once and the couple embraced, talking softly.

Then  after a moment, Iona wandered over  to Rory’s bedroll, and  looking at it, her features etched with pain, she  said softly, “He took Joey with him, so at least nobody stole him; he  went of  his own accord.”

Callum came over  and took her hand. “No, Joey was lost; that’s why he was fussing last night….”

Then Jess’s head shot up. ”That’s it! I said you’d find him Callum and he weren’t to fret. Well when  he woke up and Joey was still missin’, I guess he went lookin’ for him!”

Iona’s eyes opened wide in shock. “Why yes, that is exactly the sort of thing he would do!”

“He had him  in  the wagon,” piped up Charlotte. “t  was just when we entered the woods he lost him; he could have fallen out of the wagon, I suppose.”

“That’s it,” replied Slim. “He must have thought the same and followed the wagon tracks back through  the woods the way we came. We’ve  been looking in totally the wrong  place.”

“Well let’s go,” said Jess with renewed vigor. Then he glanced over to Callum and saw him  stagger as he  got up from  the log where he’d been resting. “Maybe it would be better if just me and Slim went looking,” he said tactfully. “You  folk stay here in case he comes back.”

“Yes, that makes sense,” said Slim, backing up his buddy. “Jess and I will travel faster and know the lay of the land around here.”

Callum sank back on the log  looking defeated. ”Maybe you have a point, and I’ll stay here with Iona and the girls.”

“Well I’m sorry, Callum,  but I have to go,” said Iona, her face flushed and her  whole demeanor agitated. “I just have to look for him.”

“I understand, my darling.” Then Callum turned pleading eyes to Jess and Slim. “Is that  OK with you?”

“Sure,” said Slim with a good natured grin. “ I guess the little fellah will need his Ma when we find  him”.

“And a friend,” said Mike. “Can I come and help too? I’ll be real good; I’ll do  just what  you say I promise.”

Jess leaned over and ruffled the child’s hair, knowing how much it meant to him to be ‘one of the team’ and, after raising an eyebrow to Slim  and receiving a tiny nod,  said, “OK, Tiger, but just watch your back, huh?”

“Sure Jess,” beamed the child before going to fetch his jacket and saddle up Sunny. “I’ll bring my hunting rifle too; you never know there might be another cat out  there,” he called over his shoulder, making poor  Iona shudder.

They set off at once retracing the way they had driven the wagon through the woods, Jess with his eyes glued to the ground for some trace of the boy’s passing by, as he rode Traveler slowly along.

After a while, they came to a densely wooded area, and Jess suddenly stopped and slid down from the saddle as he finally saw what he’d been looking for — footprints going off into the woodland. He stood completely still, looking baffled. “Now why in hell would he do that?” Then flicking a glance to Iona, Jess said quickly, “Excuse me, Ma’am.”

She ignored his apology for cussing and just said ‘What…hat has he done?”

“Well, looky here. He’s run off through the trees, off the main trail. Looks like he was chasing something, the way the foot prints are ground into the earth. See here…”

“Or being chased,” Iona said looking  tearful again.

“We don’t know that,” said Slim quickly. “So which way, Jess?”

Jess pushed his hat back, really not knowing. “Well, the tracks come to here,”  he said walking  forwards, “and then it looks like he ran this way and that. Could have gone right or left, but  here beneath  the tree cover, the grounds bone dry and, with that wind blowing, well, there’s no trace.”

“So what do we do?” asked Slim.

“Split up, I guess; you and Mike go left and me and Iona will go this away.”

Slim thought about that and then figured that Jess had the edge on him when it came to dealing with  hysterical females and so let it go. “Ok. When we find him, we’ll let off a shot and meet back here.” asked Slim.

“You got it, pard.” With a wink at Mike, Jess hoped back in the saddle and took off through the dense forestation, followed by Iona riding one of the wagon horses.

It must have been about lunch time when they saw it — a plume of smoke rising up into the clear autumnal sky.

“What’s that,” gasped Iona in fear. “Indians?”

Jess hid a smile. “Shouldn’t think so. Most of ‘em  are on the reservation or moved on to their winter camps. Nope, more likely Mountain Men.”

“I thought they were all in the hills, where we’ve just come from ?” she asked in surprise.

“Yeah, well in the fall, they tend to travel to the nearest towns and do a little trading afore Thanksgivin’  and Christmas, if you get my drift?”

“No, no, Jess, I don’t believe that I do,”  she said honestly. “Trading, you say?”

“Moonshine, Ma’am.”

“But that’s illegal, isn’t it?”

Jess grinned at that. “I guess so, but only if you’re found out…and they’re real careful as to who they trade with.”

All the time they had been talking, Jess and Iona had been riding further into the dense forest. Then they finally came to a clearing, and the first thing they saw was the fire with  its blue smoke furling lazily up into to the clear sky.

Then the second thing they noticed were three rough- looking men sitting around the fire cooking something and in between them, the diminutive figure of …Rory!

*****

Rory looked up as Jess and Iona entered the camp, and then beaming he jumped up and  ran over to them. “Hi Mama, Mister Harper, you’re just in time for dinner with my new best  friends, Mister James and Cody and Mick,”  he said excitedly.

Jess came forwards and offered his hand. “Denver, boys, good to see you,” he said beaming at the buckskin clad trio of Mountain Men.

“Well met!” cried Denver James  in his usual cheery manner. Then he continued. “I reckon we’ve got us a young ‘un as belongs to you here. We was just gonna enjoy our vittals and then we were gonna come lookin’ for his kin,” said Denver, throwing his toothless grin at Jess and Iona.

However, Iona had  already encompassed her son in a bear hug and was weeping softly.

“Women…” said Jess for Denver’s ears only.

“Sure… sure,” said the huge old Mountain Man. “Guess she’s kinda twitchy, thinkin’ she’s lost the young ‘un? “

“Could say so,  yeah,” agreed Jess with his classic understatement. “So what are you cookin’ Denver — and please tell me it ain’t bear!”

Jess’s history  with  eating bear in the company of Denver James and his sons Cody and Mick was legendary throughout the Laramie Saloons — how he was sick for nigh on a week and as how the trio always teased him relentlessly about it when  they met.

True to form, Denver fixed him with a twinkling eye. “It’s OK, son, ain’t bear. Just a little ol’ buck as found its way into our pot.”

Umm, thought Jess darkly, a buck that rightly belonged to the Sherman Ranch, this being Sherman/Harper property, but what the hell, they’d found the kid alive and well, and he knew darned well that they would have brought him on home too. So he just grinned and said, ”That sounds real good, thanks, Den, but I figure we’d better be gettin’ back. This young ‘un’s got a Pa and sisters frettin’ on him.“

“Oh, yeah I see,” said Denver, grinning over to where Iona had now composed herself. Then in a stage whisper, he added, “I’ll be down your way in a few weeks Jess if you and Slim are in the market for some…”

“Yeah,” Jess cut in quickly, casting a glance over to where he could see Iona was taking everything in. “Sure, Den, we’ll see you later and thanks for looking after young Rory here.” Then drawing his colt, Jess said, “I’ll just tell the others he’s safe,” and fired a couple of shots into the air.

That seemed to spur Iona into action. “Yes, thank you so much,” she said, coming over and offering a hand, feeling great warmth towards these big rough-looking men. She was again amazed by how people she would doubtless cross the street to avoid in normal circumstances could be so kind and caring. Never judge a book by its cover, she thought to herself as she surveyed Den James with his grey straggly beard, filthy buckskins and strange fur cap.

“Well, you’re welcome, little lady,” the big man said cheerfully. Then  turning to young Rory, he said, “And you do what your Ma and Pa tells you in future, young  man; just like the Good Book says, you honor your Ma and Pa, you hear?”

“Yes sir,” said the child, gulping and squeezing his mother’s hand.

The Denver grinned at him and ruffled his hair.

Just as they were turning to go, Denver called Jess back and Iona saw him thrust a small flask into Jess’s hand. “Take that on account, Jess boy. Kinda payment for the buck, yeah?”

Jess beamed at him. “Well, that’s right generous of you, Den, thank you kindly.” He slipped it into his pocket before striding off to catch up with Iona and Rory.

Iona was again struck by the contradiction in these western men. Here was this Mountain Man, quoting the Bible one minute and then passing over illicit drink the next, and it looked a lot like Jess and Slim were no strangers to Denver’s line of business either. Well, certainly Jess was a rough diamond and might imbibe occasionally, but Slim Sherman had seemed a pillar of the community, with his honest, open face and perfect manners. But, there again, Jess, the ex-gunslinger, had impeccable manners when around the ladies too. Yes, they certainly were a puzzle, these cowboys, she thought to herself. But the main thing was little Rory, her baby, was safe and she rejoiced in the fact.

Jess caught up with them and helped Iona up into the saddle before throwing Rory up on Traveler and then hopping up in the saddle behind him. He held the child firmly with one hand and kneed his mount off towards the meeting place.

Once they got on their way, Jess deliberately allowed Iona to go on ahead. Then he said, “So why did you do it then, Rory — take off that way? “

The boy was feeling mightily relieved that he had been  found and was quite flushed with the success of his mission now and answered what he thought was a friendly enquiry quite happily. “Well I lost, Joey, you see. He’s my special horse granddaddy carved for me. So I went to find him this morning.” Then Rory pulled the red painted horse from his pocket. “And here he is, good as new; found him down the track a way. “

“Go on,” said Jess very quietly.

“Well then I saw this rabbit. Mike has been showing me how to hunt rabbits with a sling shot; he even made me one of my very own,” Rory said cheerfully.

Jess remained ominously silent, but the child seemed not to notice.

“So I chased the rabbit, but he was real fast and then I…well, I sort of got lost, until Mister James found me, that is. And then you and Mama came,” Rory finished, suddenly aware that the atmosphere was somewhat chilly.

“Yeah, your Ma. So what did you think when she was cryin’ that way, huh?”

“I…well, I guess she was upset I took off? “

“Sure, she was upset. Heck Rory, she was way beyond upset — your Pa too, and your sisters. All of us, boy; we’ve  been worried sick. And I’m tellin’ you now if you were Mike, well, I guess me and Slim would be real mad at him — tan his hide, that’s for sure. See your folks thought you’d maybe got eaten by a cougar. Heck, anything could have happened. Do you understand that!”

Jess felt the child shake with fear, but experienced no guilt; hell, he wanted to put the fear of God into him, if it stopped him wandering off again. “But I guess your Ma and Pa wouldn’t do that,” he continued. Tan your hide, that is. But I reckon you really need to know what pain you’ve caused ‘em, Rory.”

The child could hardly speak he was so distraught at Jess’s words. “I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t. I just didn’t think.”

“Yeah,  well, I guess you’re old enough to start thinkin’ now, Rory. You ain’t a little baby no more. You’re old enough to realize that what you do affects other  folk — you understand?”

“Yes, yes, I really do, Mister Harper, and I’m truly sorry.”

“Well, that’s OK, boy, but I figure it’s your Ma and Pa you need to be saying that to, huh? “

“Yes sir…I will.”

“Good boy. Now if you hold on real tight, I figure we could get ol’ Traveler here up to a canter and make it back to camp for some grub before we both starve to death, huh?”

“Yes sir!” the child said enthusiastically, and Jess kneed Trav on back towards the camp.

On arrival back,  Callum and Rory’s sisters were almost as emotional as his Ma had been when they saw he was safe and sound.

However, Jess was pleased to see that after his father’s initial joy, there came a really stiff telling off, with the youngster reduced to tears. Then when Iona remonstrated with Callum, saying he should just be glad the child was safe, Callum took her to one side.

“Can you no see how we have spoiled the boy, lassie?” Callum, said earnestly. “Our indulgence of the laddie could have cost him his life out there today, and I thank God that these good people have made me realize it.”

She just stared tearfully at him. “But he’s just a wee bairn; he doesn’t understand!”

“No, he isn’t, Iona; he’s nearly seven years of age and he needs to learn some discipline and respect, just like young Mike there shows for his guardians.”

She sighed deeply at that. “Yes, I know in my heart you’re right, my dear. We have been too soft with him, with all of them, and maybe this trip had been what we needed to really re-think things — our whole way of life maybe.”

“How do you mean?” Callum asked.

“Well, perhaps we have been selfish, just carrying on our work and expecting the children to tag along as we travel all over the country. Maybe we should settle in the city for a few years and let them go to school, make proper friendships. You could take that professorship at the University and maybe I could just stay home for a wee while. Be a proper mother. Instead of this nomadic way of life?”

“You mean it?” Callum asked, looking surprised.

She nodded, “I think so, Callum…and maybe it’s what we need too.”

Then before he could ask her what she meant by that, Iona seemed to stagger a little and Callum could see how pale and sickly she looked. “My dear, this business has been a shock for you; you look quite poorly. Let’s get back  to the  Sherman Ranch and you can rest up for a little before the final journey back East.”

“Really,” she asked, “Can we impose on them any longer? They’ve been so kind already.”

“I think so. Slim offered; he said they’ve got a good sized bunkhouse where we could all sleep, and to be honest, I think he’s a little concerned about traveling any further in these bad conditions. I believe he was thinking of resting our poor horses as well. Apparently, it’s another dozen or so miles further on to Laramie — a hard journey in these conditions too. ”

She smiled at that. “Oh yes, it would be lovely to rest a while before the long journey back East. I really do feel quite exhausted.”

Then Jess came up to them. “I’ve hitched up the wagon. If you’re ready to go, we should still make it by dusk if we head off now,” he said looking slightly anxious.

“Yes, of course, laddie; I’ll get the youngsters on board if you are happy to drive again?” Callum asked rubbing his bad arm ruefully, wishing again he was able to pull his weight more.

“Sure that’s fine.”

They were soon heading for home, Iona once more riding up beside Jess, with Slim and Mike flanking the wagon on their mounts.

They hadn’t gone too far when it became apparent to Jess that Iona was far from well.

She was pale and shaking, but refused to sit in the back of the wagon, saying the motion made her feel sick unless she was out in the fresh air.

Finally Jess stopped to fetch another blanket and secured it carefully around her, his tender ministrations bringing tears to her  eyes.

What is wrong with me? she thought crossly. Why am I such a cry baby lately?

However, Jess pretended not to notice and  clicked the team on to a greater pace, just wanting to be home in the warm and have Daisy spoil him  some too, if he was honest.

They were about an hour from home when Jess was suddenly aware of Iona’s weight  leaning against him, and flicking a glance at her, saw her eyes were closed and she looked deathly pale, with a slick of sweat to her forehead. “Iona,” he whispered, “are you OK?”

Her eyes flicked open and she licked her lips before answering, “I feel…a little strange, sort of hot and cold?”

“Sounds like a fever; maybe you should lie down  in the back.”

“No…no, please, I don’t want to worry Callum; I’ll be fine if you can just support me a little. I feel a wee bit faint.”

Jess looked anxiously about him, but Slim and Mike had ridden on ahead a little way, and casting a glance into the dark interior of the wagon, it looked like Callum was sleeping.

Jess sighed inwardly and then threw a protective arm around her so that her head was resting on his shoulder, and holding the reins with the other hand, slowed the team to a sedate walk. “Is that better?” he asked.

She gave a soft sigh. “Yes, thank you. I’ll be fine once we get to the ranch and I can rest.”

They finally arrived, as Jess had predicted, by late afternoon. While Slim and Mike hitched up their mounts, Jess reined the team in, and jumping from the rig, reached up to lift Iona down.

As he helped her, she gave a little gasp and collapsed against him.

Then Daisy and Slim were beside him. “What’s wrong is she sick?” asked Slim, looking worried.

Jess just nodded grimly, and scooping her up in his arms, made for the door as Daisy ran ahead, opening it for him and fussing around, telling him to lay her on the couch near the fire.

Then Callum was beside them looking upset. “What on earth has happened to her?” he asked, turning concerned eyes on Jess.

“I dunno; she said she felt kinda sick, hot and faint, and I tried to get her to lay in  the back of the wagon but she wouldn’t. Said it made her feel bad,” Jess replied, casting an equally apprehensive look down at  where she now lay looking pale and  shaken.

“Yes, she sufferers from motion sickness,” said Callum softly, kneeling down by the couch and taking Iona’s hand.

“I’m alright, really,” she said weakly.

Then Daisy was bustling about, smiling warmly at Callum and patting Iona’s other hand. “I am Mrs. Cooper, the housekeeper. May I help you dear?”

Callum made way for this kindly but competent looking elderly lady and Daisy was soon bathing Iona’s face with cool reviving water and talking gently to her. “I think she could do with a little space,” Daisy said, glancing up and giving Slim and Jess a meaningful look.

“Yes, of course,”  Slim replied at once. “Come on, kids; we’ll show you the bunk house and then Mike’ ll give you the guided tour.”

Shona put an arm around Charlotte and called for Rory to come along, but the younger child just stood stock still, wide-eyed, staring at his Ma, his lip trembling.

Jess saw the problem at once and hunkering down by the youngster said softly, “Hey champ, you wanna rub down Sunny, huh? Help Mike out some?”

The boy tore his gaze away from his mother and gave Jess a tremulous smile. “Alright.”

“Good boy.” Jess picked him up and bore him away, leaving Callum and Daisy to care for Iona.

From that moment onward, the child stuck to Jess like glue, somehow having the innate feeling that he could trust this tough young cowboy with the twinkling blue eyes. Sure, Jess had told him off when he had run away looking for Joey that time, but Rory reckoned he probably deserved that, having upset his family so much.

Since then, Jess had treated the boy with total honesty and plain-speaking, which was somehow reassuring  for the child as he knew that Jess would be straight with him and tell him the truth when asked. He knew that he would not keep secrets like his Mama and Papa did sometimes, saying  he  was too young to know certain things.

Once they had left the house, Jess put the little boy down, and taking his hand, led him over to the barn so that he could help care for Sunny, as Jess had noticed how much the child had taken to Mike’s beloved little palomino pony.

Rory started rubbing the pony down  with Jess looking on ,but after a while,  he  ran from the stall. Throwing his arms around Jess, Rory sobbed, “Mama isn’t going to die, is she, Mister Harper?”

“Hey, little buddy, take it easy,” said Jess, immediately kneeling down and hugging the child. “Course she ain’t; I figure she just gone caught a nasty chill and reckon she‘s kinda worn out too; she’ll be OK soon.”

After a few minutes, the child wiped his face on his sleeve and  gave Jess a  sad smile. “You’re sure?”

“Yep. Well, sure as I can be,” Jess said honestly. “And if she’s real sick, we’ll get the doc, so  stop your frettin’, huh?”

The boy nodded. “OK. Thanks, Mister Harper.”

“So are you ok to  finish tending ol’ Sunny there while I bring in your folks horses?”

The child nodded, and after a moment renewed his labors, looking slightly happier.

If Jess had become his number one hero, then Mike was a big brother, and both boys grew and benefitted from this budding relationship. It gave Mike a feeling of self-confidence and he also felt protective of the little fellow; Rory hung on Mike’s every word and copied everything he did, looking up to the older boy with undying devotion.

Knowing this, Jess left Mike looking out for the youngster, and once he had tended to all the horses,  made his way back to the house, feeling that  he might very well fade away if he didn’t get a strong coffee — or three — down him. However, when he entered the kitchen, Slim and Daisy were talking softly and both looking worried.

“Daisy’s real  concerned for Iona and says Callum’s arm needs setting properly too. I guess one of us needs to ride for Doc Sam,” Slim declared. The doctor was a good friend to all at the ranch as well as their physician, and wiled away many a Sunday afternoon sharing his passion for fishing with Jess and Slim out at the lake.

*****

Sam breezed into the ranch   house in his usual cheerful manner, rubbing his hands together and calling  for coffee as he was ‘darned freezing’.

However, once he saw Iona looking pale and ill, Sam quickly introduced himself and wasted no time in examining  her thoroughly. Iona now lay in Daisy’s bed, having taken a turn for the worse even in the short time Jess had been gone fetching the doc, and Daisy had moved her there where she could nurse her through the night.

Once Sam was finished, he came out to talk to Callum and the others who were all anxiously waiting for news. “She is quite sick,” he said. “You did right to call me out, Daisy,” he said, turning and smiling at the elderly ex-nurse. “It could just be a severe chill, but she needs careful nursing or it might well turn to lung fever. She seems quite run down and rather troubled.”

“Yes, well, we’ve had kind of a tricky time over the last few days,” said Slim, thinking about Charlotte and Mike’s escapades, not to mention the shenanigans from her youngest.

“Umm, well, you know what to do, Daisy. Careful one-to-one nursing, complete  rest and quiet, then I’ll pop by again in a few days…weather permitting,” Sam said, casting an anxious eye towards the yard where the temperature had dropped alarmingly again, although it was not snowing. Then he smiled at Callum. ”And I believe you are in need of a little doctoring too, my friend?”

Sam gave the arm a cursory look and then glanced over at Jess and Slim. “So who’s handy work?”

Slim looked embarrassed. “Mine I guess.”

“Well, you did a darn good job, buddy, but it’s a really nasty break. I think maybe it needs resetting…er over in the bunkhouse, perhaps?” Sam said, seeing the wide-eyed youngsters all taking everything  in.

“Why now, children, come and sit down in the kitchen,” said Daisy quickly. “You must be starving; we’ll see what we can rustle up ,won’t we Slim.”

“Er…yeah sure,” Slim agreed and went to help out with the youngsters.

“Maybe you could give  me a hand, Jess?” asked Sam, tipping his head towards the bunkhouse.

“Sure… sure,” said Jess, and then as an aside, reached in his pocket for the bottle of illicit moonshine. “Even got a drop of anesthetic here too, Doc,” he whispered grinning.

Jess finally came back an hour or so later and reported that the arm had been successfully reset and Callum was sleeping peacefully.

Slim sniggered at that and said he bet he was, and was there any ‘anesthetic’ left?

Whereupon, Jess merely nodded and whispered, “Later, pard.”

However, Daisy was busy organizing the children  and  was far  too busy to notice. “Has Sam gone dear?” she asked eventually.

“Yep; said he’d look in, in a day or two. Are the kids all fed?” Jess asked, wondering vaguely when he’d get some food…or indeed that elusive coffee.

“Yes and I really don’t think an early night would do them any harm at all. Mike looks worn out too.”

“I’m OK, Aunt Daisy,” yawned the youngster.

“Sure you are, Tiger. Beat it,” said Jess, grinning down at the youngster and ruffling his hair.

“Aww. Jess…” Then Mike saw the raised eyebrow. “Ok,” he said reluctantly. “I’m goin’. Night all,” and wandered off, yawning even more widely.

Finally Slim whisked the others off to the bunk house, leaving Shona in charge of the washing and  bedding down, and warning them not to disturb their Pa. It was much later that the adults finally sat down to a scratch supper.

“You know, Mike’s been a real star on this trip,” said Jess enthusiastically. “He’s been a great help lookin’ after the young‘un and keeping everyone calm when we had that little bother with the wolves too.”

“Umm, not to mention taking off and playing Robinson Crusoe with his girlfriend,” said Slim dryly.

“Well heck, Slim, he only went out of loyalty to a friend and tryin’ to keep the ‘lady’ safe like we’ve always taught him,” protested Jess.

“Yeah… and you’d be an expert at that, wouldn’t you, Jess?”

“What, loyalty to friends? Yep, I guess so,” said Jess, throwing him a puzzled glance.

“Er, yes, but I was thinking more about keeping the ladies safe,” said Slim with a wicked grin

“Why…you!” Jess threw a well-aimed cuff to Slim’s head.

“Now, boys,” said Daisy absently and then more thoughtfully, “So what’s all this about Mike having a girlfriend?”

“Mike’s got a major crush on Charlie…well, Charlotte that is,” said Slim grinning at the perplexed looking Daisy, “and I reckon it’s reciprocated.”

“Oh goodness me. They’re a little young, aren’t they?”

“Oh, it’s just puppy love,” said Slim chuckling. “Nothing serious. One minute they’re making sheep’s eyes at each other and holding hands, and the next they’re off playing hide and  go seek and larking about with young Rory. Just kid’s stuff.”

Jess looked quite solemn at that. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It may just be puppy love,  but it can still hurt like hell and seem real important. So don’t you go making fun of him, huh, Slim?”

Slim and Daisy turned serious eyes on him then. “Well I wouldn’t do that, pard, and I guess maybe you’re right. The boy has certainly grown up a lot  this trip, that’s for sure, and I reckon we should be proud of him.”

Jess nodded. “It makes you realize what a good kid he is when you see how those Donaldson children act sometimes. That poor  little Rory is spoilt rotten and I reckon Charlottes none too happy, never getting to go to a regular school and make friends. Well, no wonder she kicks off the way she does.” Then turning to Daisy, he said, “All that stuff about gettin’ castaway on the island was so her folks would go back east without her and she could come and live here with us. Can you believe that? “

Daisy looked saddened. “And she really thought they would just stop looking and go off home without her? “

“I guess not,” said Slim. “I figure she wasn’t thinking straight at the time; kids get these notions and don’t think them through.”

Daisy looked reflective. “It’s so sad. I lived next door to a similar family when I was back east. Oh, they wanted the very best for the children, I’m sure, but… Well, both parents were teachers and they home-tutored  the children and they never mixed or just had fun playing with other youngsters their own age. They were pretty much kept in  cotton wool…and it ended very badly.”

“How so?” asked Slim.

“Well, the boy was very clever went off to college,  but as soon as he got away from  his doting Mama, he just kicked off the traces; took to drinking to excess, wild parties, women galore, in and out of jail for petty crime… A real misspent youth,” Daisy said sadly.

“Umm… sound a lot like someone we know,” said Slim winking at his buddy.

“Hey I never partied much,” said Jess in defense and then chuckled. Yeah, he had to hold his hand up to most of the rest though. “So what happened?” he asked.

“Oh, he was lucky; met a lovely girl, married her and had a glittering career in politics,” Daisy said with a chuckle, then sobered. “He certainly had a better life than his little sister, anyway.”

“Oh?” questioned Slim.

Daisy looked down embarrassed and sighed deeply, before giving them her honest look. “Well, she had been so sheltered, she just  didn’t know how to act around men, and  the first man she dated…well she fell pregnant by him. Was forced into a loveless marriage by her shamed parents and lived a terrible life with another five children, one after the other, and a no-good drunkard for a husband.”

Jess flushed at that and turning to Slim said softly, “You see what I mean?”

Slim nodded. “Umm.”

“What?” asked Daisy, picking up on their worried expressions.

“I guess Charlie hasn’t been the only one making sheep’s eyes,” said Slim quietly. “Jess has been having some unwanted attention from Shona.”

“Really, dear?”

Jess looked down feeling uneasy. “ I guess she just don’t know how to act around men, Daisy, that’s all. Anyway, I told her Ma; she said she’d talk to her.”

“See, Daisy? Irresistible to women,” said Slim playfully, grinning at his buddy.

“Oh don’t tease him, dear,” said Daisy, smiling over at the  handsome blond rancher. Then she noticed how exhausted he looked, and glancing at Jess, suddenly saw he was almost too tired to eat his meal and he’d obviously not even had the chance to shave  for a couple of days,  the shadow of beard making him look quite pale and edgy.

“I don’t know about those youngsters but you two look dead on your feet as well. Why don’t I fill  up the bathtub by the fire and you can have a soak and an early night. It would make you feel better,” Daisy coaxed.

“Well…I dunno,” said Jess bashfully.

“And once I’ve fixed it up for you, I will be spending the rest of the evening in  my room tending to poor Iona,” Daisy continued.

Both men visibly relaxed at that.

 “I’ll go draw some water,” said Slim happily.

“And Ill fetch the tub.” And my double-sided dollar, Jess thought privately. “We’ll toss for who goes first.”

Of course a friendly argument ensued, especially when Slim  found the double-headed coin.

“Well, you should go last and have my water,” Slim said fiercely.

“Why so?” asked Jess belligerently.

“Because you’re so dadgum filthy, Jess. Look at the state of you — muddier than a hog in a storm.”

“Now boys,” said Daisy, the ever present voice of reason, “why don’t you go first Slim and then refill the tub for Jess; that way you get first dibs as you wanted and Jess still gets clean water.”

So finally peace reigned.

It was some time later, with Daisy ensconced in her room and Jess in the tub, when there was a knocking at the front door, and seconds later Shona’s head peered around it.

Jess immediately dived for cover beneath the soapy water while Slim strode over to the door, clad only in his denims, a towel around his naked shoulders.

Slim headed her off quickly, effectively blocking  her view of the tub and said, “Er…can I help you, Shona? It’s kind of late. Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“Oh…I was, em…just wondering how Ma is?” Shona improvised.

“Well, she’s asleep, as is Miss Daisy. Like I say it’s kind of late to be calling.”

By this time, there were some strange gasps and spluttering coming  from the tub area where Jess was still submerged.

Shona peered around Slim’s bulk for a better look and said, “Is Jess alright?”

“Sure… sure; figure  he’s just lost the soap. So if you don’t mind Shona, now really isn’t a very good time for a social call.”

“Oh right, well, I suppose not. Well good night then. Goodnight, Jess,” Shona called, before reluctantly retracing her steps  back to the bunk  house.

Jess exploded from under the water, gasping for breath, his face puce. “ See!” he yelled, See what she’s like. I’m tellin’ you, pard, her Ma had better sort the kid out or I won’t be responsible.”

“Hey, calm down, pard, no harm done. Why don’t you get dried off and tell me where you’ve stashed the rest of the moonshine and we’ll have a nightcap,” Slim said placatingly.

Jess’s face relaxed into a happy grin at that. “Now you’re talkin’!“

*****

The following morning, when the men trooped in for breakfast after the early morning chores, Daisy was busy in the kitchen, but she popped her head around the door as the men entered. “All ready. Call Mike and the others, will you? “she asked.

Slim went off to do as he was bid and Jess wandered into the kitchen and stood leaning against the wall. “Are you OK, Daisy?”

“Yes, of course, dear,” she said looking somewhat flustered as she started to dish up breakfast for seven. “Just us, Callum and the children. I don’t think Iona is up to solids.”

“Er…so how is she?”

Daisy stopped in her ministrations to give him her full attention. “Not very well, I’m afraid, dear; I was up most of the night with her.”

“Hell Daisy, you should have said. And all this extra work too,” Jess said, tipping his head towards the plates of eggs and bacon. “It’s too much for you, we should have thought… I’m real sorry.”

“Nonsense, dear, we wouldn’t see a lovely family like the Donaldsons without some friendly support in their hour of need, would we? “

“Nope, I guess not, but you go sit down now. Me and Mike will finish off in here and serve up, and after breakfast, Shona can sit with her Ma while you take a break, OK?” Jess said, throwing her his stubborn look.

She smiled sweetly at that, thinking what a caring young man he could be. “Yes, alright and thank you dear.”

During breakfast, they discussed their plans for the rest of the day, and Shona seemed more than happy to care for her Ma while Daisy took a break, until it became apparent that Slim and Jess would not be around, where upon she looked slightly sulky.

“We’ll try and get back mid-afternoon, maybe sooner,” Slim told Daisy. Then turning to Mike, “Do you think you can manage to help Mose out changing the teams, Tiger?”

“Sure. Where are you going, though, Slim?”

“Me and Jess have got to get the rest of the stock down from the high ground. Luckily, we brought most of them down before our trip, but still got a few head to move. Should do it in a day or two.”

“Aww, Slim, Jess, can’t I help?”

“No, Mike we need you here to mind the shop,” said Jess ruffling the boy’s hair.

“Like Slim said, we may need you to change the stage team…and look after all these good folk. I reckon you’re the man about the place right now, Mike, seeing as how Mister Donaldson is feelin’ kinda sick today. “

“Oh dear,” said Daisy, “does he not want breakfast? What’s wrong?”

Slim and Jess exchanged an amused glance. “Er, reaction to the anesthetic, I think, Daisy,” said Jess, trying to hide a grin.

Daisy looked puzzled and then the penny dropped. “Oh yes, the, er…liquid refreshment he took to help ease the pain, I take it?” she said with a wry smile.

“Umm… you’ve got it,” said Jess. “He should surface about supper time, I guess.”

*****

It was mid-morning when a couple of rough looking hombres rode into the yard and Mike ran out of the barn where he, Charlie and Rory had been grooming the horses ready for the stage.

They reined in their mounts and tethered them to the corral fence before looking nervously around.

Mike wandered over and smiling up said politely, “Can I help you?”

The taller of the two men said, Oh hi, kid. Its, er…Mike, ain’t it?”

“Yes sir. Do I know you?”

“I’m Wes Hanson and this is Dev, from the Flying T. Me and my kid brother here used to ranch there a few years back, but Pa lost the place, so we moved on.”

“Oh, I’m real sorry about that,” said Mike conversationally. “So you need something?”

“Yep. Wondered if Jess or Slim were around?”

“Nope,. I’m in charge; they’re off in the hills bringing the stock down. Won’t be back until this afternoon. We’re just getting the team ready for the stage,” he finished importantly.

“Well, that’s good, son…real good.” Then turning to where Charlotte and Rory were standing looking on, Hanson said,” so who’s this then?”

Mike made the introductions and explained that their Pa was real sick out in the bunk house and their Ma similarly unwell in the ranch house.

“So just you kids and a pair of sick grown-ups running the place?” asked the stocky Dev, who had remained silent thus far.

“Oh no, Aunt Daisy’s here,” said the child, “She’s looking after everything…everything that ain’t man’s work, that is.”

“Oh yeah, I remember; she’s your housekeeper, right?”

The boy nodded, beginning to get slightly bored with this inquisition. “You wanna see her?” he asked. “We’ve got work to do and the stage will be here soon.”

“Sure…sure, but I think we should all go find her,” said Wes, “and right now, OK?”

Something in his tone made Mike feel uneasy, and nodding to Charlie and Rory to accompany him, he made for the house.

As they entered Daisy came through from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron and looked up in surprise as the scruffy looking pair, accompanied by the children entered. She gave them a questioning glance and then said, “Hello, can I help you? “

But then she looked more closely at them and recognized the two troublemakers who had lived at the Flying T with their wastrel father. He had been responsible for gambling  the ranch away, using it as collateral in a poker game a few years back, she remembered.

Then she recalled a conversation that had taken place just a few weeks before when Mort Corey, the Laramie Sheriff, had been visiting with some wanted posters to be displayed at the Relay.

“These two have really gone to the dogs,” Mort said tapping the poster. “Wanted for robbery and murder. Killed a stage guard over Cheyenne way last month — and all for a pittance; they weren’t even carrying a strong box.”

“You think they’ll try again then, Mort?” Jess had asked.

“Shouldn’t be surprised. They’ve got a date with a rope anyway, so nothing to lose have, they?”

Now Daisy’s blood ran cold; two wanted murders at large and all these innocent children at risk, not to mention the sick adults. “Er…can I help you?” she repeated anxiously as the men just stood staring around them.

“They wanted to see Slim and Jess,” piped up Mike.

“Oh yes, well, they should be here any minute,” said Daisy, hoping to scare them off.

Then Wes came forwards and threw her an evil grin. “Well ain’t that funny. The kid here says they’re out in the hills bringing stock down and that’s exactly what they looked to be doin’ when they went off this morning too,” he finished with a chuckle.

Daisy backed off. “What do you really want?” she asked, looking more assertive than she felt.

“Well I’ll tell you, Ma’am,” Wes said drawing his Colt and aiming it at Daisy’s head. “I want for you to take these kids and go and sit in one of the bedrooms real quiet, whilst we do a bit of business with the stage driver, and then we’ll be on our way and nobody hurt — if you do exactly as I say, you understand?”

“Well, I hear you,” said Daisy thinking quickly, “but I’m afraid I can’t do that., I have a very sick lady in my room who I need to care for  and I really have  to send Mike for the doctor too.”

Wes looked taken aback by the elderly woman’s fighting spirit, but recovered quickly. “Yeah, sure you have,” he said sarcastically.

Daisy nodded to the door. “See for yourself.”

Dev went over and pushed the door open, and took in a pale and trembling Shona and her sickly looking mother, before closing the door on them.

“She’s right, bro; the woman looks real sick.”

They exchanged an uneasy glance. Sure they were trouble with a capital T — wanted for murder, although they never meant to kill that darned guard, Wes reflected. But hurt a woman in any way, well no, that wasn’t their style. “Real sick, you say?”

Daisy just nodded. “She desperately needs the doctor, and by the time Mike has made it to town to fetch him, well, you will be long gone. The stage is due in ten minutes.”

That panicked the men some and Wes paced around the room, cussing lightly before turning towards Mike. “OK kid, beat it….but no funny business or Aunt Daisy here won’t be seeing her next birthday, you understand, boy?”

“Yes sir,” responded Mike quickly, looking fearful.

Daisy went and fetched the boy’s coat, and as she helped him on with it whispered, “They should be in the east pasture by now, Mike; just tell them what’s happened  and then stay well away.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Mike replied.

“What are you sayin’?” asked Dev looking annoyed

“I was just telling him to take care; I don’t like him riding all that way alone, but we really need the doctor, so I’ve no choice.”

“OK… OK, no need to keep on about it. You — Mike — scoot and behave yourself! The rest of you in the bedroom with the sick woman…pronto!”

*****

Mike saddled Sunny as fast as he could and then led him out of the barn, casting a wary eye towards the ranch house, but  all was quiet, so he decided to risk it. Instead of heading up the track towards the Laramie road, he quietly led his mount to the back gate onto the home pasture behind the house, which led down to the creek, and then it was a  short ride across to the east pasture.

He made it in record time, his only fearful moment crossing the ford at the creek where the water was running higher than usual after the thaw of the previous day, but he made it across OK and then kneed his mount on up the hill and to the boundary with the east pasture.

Then he heard it — the sound of restless cattle lowing as they were chivvied along. Then he heard the hoof beats drumming across the pasture, and finally the steers came into view, closely followed by Jess and Slim.

It was another few minutes before he made his presence known, finally catching their attention by putting two fingers in his mouth and emitting and ear splitting whistle, just the way Jess had taught him.

Both men’s heads shot up on hearing the whistle, and  seeing Mike, spurred their mounts into a fast gallop, heading for the youngster, instinctively knowing there was something very wrong for the child to disobey them and ride out when he’s been told to stay home.

*****

Daisy tried to keep the children as calm as she could and they were all quite good, probably not realizing the gravity of the situation, she thought later. However, that could not be said to be true of Iona, who was very troubled when she learned of what was afoot.

Physically she had actually improved significantly since yesterday, and Daisy thought her to be making a good recovery, but emotionally, she was a wreck, Daisy secretly thought.

Daisy had managed to try to make light of the situation, and, helped by Shona, had got the children playing a paper and pencil game quietly in the corner of the room. She had then turned her attention to a flushed and anxious-looking Iona.

“They are wanted outlaws you say?” Iona whispered.

Daisy nodded. “But you really mustn’t worry, my dear; I have every confidences that Mike will find Slim and Jess and they’ll know just what to do.”

“But won’t it be terribly dangerous,” Iona gasped, peering out of the window to where the outlaws could be clearly observed, lounging on the porch, rifles in hand waiting for the stage. “Goodness poor Jess…and Slim…could be killed if they try to stop them as you imagine they will,” she said, throwing Daisy a horror-stricken glance.

“Please, my dear, don’t distress yourself I can assure you that my boys won’t take any risks. Everything will be fine. Now why don’t you come back to bed. all this upset isn’t good for you.”

But before Iona could reply, they heard the distant rumbling of the stage, and a moment later,  it hauled into view and careered down the rise at a good pace and finally pulled to a standstill just a few yards from the porch.

Both men ran out as Mose heaved to, and he and Tex, who was riding shot gun, peered down at the two rifles that were leveled at them.

“Throw the box down and no one’ll get hurt,” drawled Wes, his gun pointed at Moses belly.

“Do as the man says, Tex,” rasped the old timer. “I ain’t built for heroics.”

Tex reached down for the hefty strong box beneath his seat, and then in one quick move hauled it out and then held it aloft before suddenly throwing it hard at Wes, catching him in the chest and making him shout in pain and fall backwards.

Then everything seemed to happen at once.

The stage door burst open, and Jess and Slim threw themselves out, guns drawn on the completely dumbfounded would-be robbers.

“Don’t even think of makin’ a move,” snarled Jess, ramming his Colt hard into Dev’s back, quickly relieving him of his rifle and pushing him roughly face down in the dust.

By now, Tex had his shotgun trained on Wes, who was still sprawled where he had fallen, knocked flying by the strong box.

Slim quickly disarmed him too, and it was only a matter of minutes before the brothers were tightly bound, gagged and thrown unceremoniously into the back of the stage where Tex joined them, his rifle trained on the stunned men.

Mose turned and grinned at the two cowboys and pumped their hands. “You sure did a good job,  boys…and ol’ Tex there wasn’t too dusty, either. But I reckon it  was young  Mike who was the star of the show, fetching up and warning  us all that way. Real brave  for a young‘un, that was,” he beamed. Then a thought occurred to him. “So where’s Miss Daisy? Gee, if they’ve hurt her…!”

All three men raced to the house and took no time in liberating everyone from Daisy’s room where they had been locked in.

The children seemed to have taken it all in their stride, and Charlie was already referring to Mike as her hero. Daisy was hale and hearty as ever, smiling over at ‘her boys’ and reassuring Mose that she was absolutely fine.

However, it was Iona who took it all to heart, and much to Jess’s embarrassment, threw herself in his arms sobbing and asking if he was alright several times.

“Sure, we’re fine. Gee, Iona, those guys were amateurs,” Jess replied with a chuckle. “Weren’t they, pard?” he said looking to Slim for support.

Slim nodded. “Yep. Didn’t even get Tex to throw his rifle down.”

“Umm, that idiot Wes should have known Tex would chuck the box at him; should have checked the coach for passengers too,” Jess said, shaking his head wryly. “Yeah, amateurs, the pair of ‘em.”

“Not like you eh, Jess,” said Slim grinning now. “You’d have known just what to do, wouldn’t you, pard?” he smirked, alluding to Jess’s less than squeaky clean past, and winking at Iona in an effort to lighten the tense atmosphere.

“Yeah, sure I would,” Jess said, grinning back. Then realizing what he’d just admitted to, his face was a picture of consternation. “Aww, Slim!” he said with a rueful smile and a gentle clip around his buddy’s head.

Soon afterwards, Jess managed to escape, and leaving Daisy to calm the emotional woman, went off up the rise with Charlie to bring Mike back home from where he had been instructed to stay out of sight with the horses until someone came to fetch him.

It wasn’t until much later that they remembered to check on Callum. Slim went off to see how he was faring and was amazed to find the big Scot had slept all the way through the excitement; on telling Jess later, both men chuckled.

“Yep, that ol’ Moonshine sure packs a punch,” said Jess ruefully. “I had a thick head this mornin’ after just a couple of shots, and Callum there had nigh on half the flask before he was out of it enough for Sam to work on him.”

“So I reckon he should be up and taking notice in about a week then,” Slim said, grinning at his pard.

However, Callum was back in the land of the living by suppertime and mightily embarrassed that he had missed all the action. He joined them around the supper table, and for the first time, Iona was able to join them too. It would have been pretty much a full house if Daisy hadn’t had the idea of feeding the youngsters first and dispatching them off for an early night, leaving the adults to enjoy a leisurely supper.

“So let me get this right,” said Callum. “Young Mike rode all the way over to the east pasture and found you and then you managed to intercept the stage on the Laramie road.”

“That’s it,” said Slim, taking up the story. “We rode as far as our turnoff and left Mike with the horses. Then Jess and I lay down on the floor of the stage, and as soon as Mose reined in and it all started to kick off, we just jumped down and arrested them.”

“Oh, you make it sound so easy,” said Iona clasping her hands together her eyes alight with excitement, “but we saw it all through the window. The way you just dived out of the coach and then  stopped those terrible men in their tracks… It was truly amazing.”

“Umm… and what I think is truly amazing is that little ten year old laddie being so brave,  fording the river to come and find you, sneaking off the back way like that. And you say he wouldn’t have reached you in time otherwise?”

“Nope, I guess not,” said Jess quietly. “He’s a good kid; learnt to keep his nerve, that’s for sure.”

Then the subject turned to more mundane matters, with Callum expressing an interest in the flora of the area, especially wild flowers, which Daisy was happy to discuss, sharing her knowledge on the subject.

 But  Iona  was more interested in the day-to-day experience of living on the ranch.

Slim imagined that she had her anthropologist’s hat on, wanting to know the difference between the work ethic in the West compared with the East, and as she started questioning Jess he thought, he was probably right.

“So the actual work on the ranch is predominately male-orientated, is it?” she asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Generally. I guess so; it’s what folk have been brought up to do,” Jess said honestly. “See, there ain’t many women as are brought up to workin’ with the horses, for example.”

“But there are some?” she persisted.

Jess and Slim exchanged a brief glance.

“Yeah, some,” Jess agreed.

“So how are they at the work? they are able to do a good job too?”

Jess nodded. “As good as a man, I reckon. You have to be good in the first place to succeed in that kinda business, as a woman anyway.”

Slim knew Jess was referring to Kate, a girl who had not only worked for them as a talented horse breaker, but also gone on to be an excellent horse doctor. And she had been deeply loved by Jess until the relationship ended very sadly.

Jess suddenly looked very emotional and changed the subject quickly. “So, this ain’t small talk? You’re still researching your paper on West verses East?” he asked looking decidedly wary.

She smiled at that. “You know me too well.”

He looked down at that and said nothing.

“But I am genuinely interested in your work,” Iona said, encompassing Slim in her glance as she observed both men shrewdly.

Then they were aware than Shona had been standing listening  avidly to this conversation of women doing men’s work, before speaking. “The kids are all asleep. May I join you for a while?” she asked.

“Why, of course, my darling,” said Callum and they all repaired to the fireside for coffee.

“So,” said Iona, getting back to her previous line of conversation, “tell me all about this horse breaking you do. It’s an important part of the business, I believe? “

“Yes Ma’am,” said Slim enthusiastically. “And one we’ve really been making a go of since Jess here joined the outfit.”

“Oh, really,” Iona purred. So tell me about it, Jess. How do you tame these dreadful wild creatures?” she asked, her eyes alight with interest.

“Dreadful?” Jess asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes, well, Mike was telling us about a big black stallion that he said was a widow maker. What on earth does that mean?”

Slim and Jess exchanged a glance, but knew that Iona would settle for nothing less than the truth.

“Well that’s a horse that’s kinda hard to tame,” said Jess, then sighed. “One that could kill a man, I guess, if he wasn’t too skilled in the horse breakin’, that is,” he finished quickly.

“So how do you do it? Horse breaking, that is,” Shona asked. “There are different ways, aren’t there?” she continued, looking knowledgeable.

At that, Jess grinned at her, pleased that at least she knew a little about his work. “Sure there are, and I’m a horse whisperer, I guess. I learnt that way when I worked the horses with the Arapahoe; taught me all I know about gentlin’ horses,” he finished.

“Go on,” said Shona her eyes shining and looking fascinated. “Gentling. That sounds so nice and kind.”

 Jess filled her in. “It’s all about taking one’s time, building trust, using the horses own ways of communication and the like — feeding them the odd sugar lump or two, as well,” he said grinning.

“Yep, sweet talkin’ them,” grinned Slim, “and I guess Jess is real good at that. “

Jess threw him an icy glance at that but Slim merely smirked. “Yep, ol’ Jess here is real good at sweet talking the…er…the horses,” he continued.

“Yes,” said Jess throwing his buddy a dark look before looking back to Shona. “Sugar lumps and lots of kindness. Then you get up on their back and I guess it’s just a case of stickin’ there in the end,” he finished with a boyish grin.

“So which one are you working on right now?” asked a bright eyed Shona.

Slim grinned across at that. “Well, that’s easy. he’s broke all the last batch, save for ol’ Satan’s Boy. “

“What?” asked Callum. “That’s one heck of a name. So does he live up to it?”

“Oh sure he does,” said Jess smiling back, “and it’s Mike who chooses the names. Got kind of a talent for it.”

“I figure we should just loose him off,” said Slim, suddenly serious. “He’s nothing but trouble — a real widow maker if ever I saw one,” he muttered, whispering the last sentence softly for Jess’s ears only.

“Yeah, but we’ll get top dollar for him when I break him,” insisted Jess. “And you can’t pretend we don’t need it, pard. Anyways, I like a challenge, you know that!”

Then they suddenly realized they were being less than sociable, arguing  about business matters in the presence of guests, and the subject was swiftly changed again, before they all finally turned in, Callum and Iona reunited again in the bunk house along with their offspring.

*****

It was very early the following morning when disaster struck.

Slim was in the barn checking on one of the horses, while Jess was still wandering  about their room in his usual early morning  dazed state, searching for a missing boot.

Jess finally located the boot and made his way into the kitchen, yawning widely, in search of coffee, but Daisy had beaten him to it and was now in possession of the pot. Holding it aloft, she gestured to the yard. “Could you call Slim and the others in, dear; breakfast is all but ready.”

Jess sighed deeply and dragging his eyes away from  the much needed restorative brew, made a vague response and mooched off to do as requested.

However, as soon as he threw open the front door and looked out at the chilly bright morning, his whole demeanor changed as he at first froze to the spot and then gave a harsh cry of warning  before tearing  towards the large corral just across the yard.

What he had seen had made his blood run cold.

Shona was standing in the center of the corral, her hand out in an appeasing gesture as she offered a sugar lump to the now prancing and  whinnying  black stallion.

Even as Jess shouted out a warning, over a thousand pounds of  furious horseflesh, in the form of Satan’s Boy, was heading for Shona’s diminutive figure as she blanched and stood rooted to the spot, too terrified to turn and run.

Jess vaulted the fence and tore across the corral,  arriving just in time to push the girl unceremoniously out of the way of the now-incensed mustang, which was  rearing up in front of her, his lethal hooves inches away from her terrified face.

“Run for it!” Jess yelled, and she was at last stirred into action and hightailed it across to the fence.

However, as Jess had pushed her safely out of the way, he missed his footing and came crashing to the ground just feet from where the furious critter was still rearing and bellowing in rage.

Jess tried desperately to roll out of the way, but was just a tad too slow and the animal’s mighty hooves crashed down, one of them catching a glancing blow to Jess’s right shoulder, before he did all he could do, and rolled into a tight ball, his hands covering his vulnerable head.

Then there was the sound of a pistol shot and the horse backed off and flew to the far side of the corral in terror  as Slim fired one more warning shot before vaulting the fence and tearing over to Jess.

“Come on, pard, we’re out of here,” Slim gasped as he dragged his friend up and pulled him to safety.

The shots had alerted all on the ranch, and they now stood in varying attitudes of shock as Slim gently turned his buddy over onto his back, all observing his injuries with dismay.

The gash to his shoulder had blood pouring out and quickly soaking his work shirt; another nasty laceration to his temple was also bleeding freely, the blood running down his pale face as he cussed softly under his breath, his eyes tightly closed and his mouth  set in  a grim line against the pain.

Daisy was the first to come to her senses. “Quickly, Slim, Callum, carry him inside,” she said before shooing the children out of the way. “Iona dear,  would you mind taking the children off; they really don’t need to witness this,”  she added, noting how Shona was now white and shaking while Charlie and her brother looked near to tears. Mike too clearly upset.

“Come along, my dears,” Iona said, after casting a final distraught glance in Jess’s direction. “Let’s finish off the chores; Jess and Slim will appreciate our help,” and she chivvied them all off.

*****

Once Jess was laid on the big old couch near the fire Daisy went into her nurses role and quickly stemmed  the bleeding and started cleaning the wounds, as Jess lay their stoically accepting the painful ministrations.

Slim and Callum looked on, the latter pale and  shaken, never having seen such a terrible wound before or a patient who took the injury  in his stride so bravely either, remembering the painful procedure on his arm and being  able to imagine the agony his friend was in, to some extent.

However,  once the wound was tightly bound with clean bandages and a dressing to his head, Jess rallied and managed a faint grin. “Hey Callum buddy, you’re lookin’ kinda sickly. You OK ?” he asked a twinkle in his blue eyes.

“My dear laddie, I’m fine; It’s you I feel terrible about, especially knowing it’s my wee lassie’s fault. What was the girl thinking of?” he asked turning anguished eyes to Slim.

Slim shook his head. “I’m not really sure, Callum. Trying to get into Jess’s good books, maybe. All that talk about horse whispering and the like, perhaps she was just trying to prove she could do it, trying to help us out some maybe?”

“Crazy kid,” muttered Jess, suddenly angry. “Could have done got herself killed. You talk to her, will you, Callum? Make her to see sense?”

“Certainly, laddie, of course I will. But I think she will have learned her lesson when she sees what she’s  done to you,” he said sadly, before turning away to seek out his errant daughter.

Once he’d left, Jess groaned and sat up.

“And where in hell do you think you’re heading?” asked Slim, throwing Jess an angry glance.

“Well, those darned steers ain’t gonna up and bring themselves down, are they, Slim, and by the looks of the weather, we need to finish the job today. Remember a couple of years back  when we lost that prime stock when the early snow hit?”

“OK, I agree with you, pard, and I’m on the case, but you’re not going anywhere, Jess.”

“He’s right, dear; that’s a very nasty abrasion to your shoulder. In fact, I really think Doc Sam should take a look.”

“Aww Daisy, quit your fussin’; I’ve had worse,”  Then Jess made to get up again, before falling back down, a hand shooting to his temple and a profanity escaping his lips. He groaned loudly. “Sorry, Ma’am,” he whispered.

“That’s alright, dear. I’ll go and  make you some coffee and then you can go back to bed.” Daisy bustled off leaving Jess looking pained.

Then Mike burst in, stopping in his tracks when he saw the look on his hero’s face. “You OK, Jess? Does it hurt something fierce?”

Jess took a deep breath and pinned a smile on his face before reaching across and  ruffling the boy’s hair. “Not too bad, Tiger; guess I’ll live. In fact, I really need to…”

“Jess! Will you behave? You’ve been told you’re not working today!” Slim gently pushed him back on the couch from where he had  been attempting to get up once more.

“I’ll go help you,” piped up Mike, looking earnestly at Slim. “Please, I can do it; I know I can.”

“Well, thanks, Mike, but I’ll manage.”

The child looked crestfallen as that. “I know I could help,” he whispered looking forlorn.

Jess looked at the child and then back to Slim. “Why not let him help, pard? Sunny’s got the speed and stamina, and the kid has to learn sometime, huh?”

Slim looked at the two intense faces and then chuckled. “OK Mike, go and saddle up and I’ll be along in a minute.”

“Yippee!” whooped the youngster before running off at speed.

“And you,” said Slim making his point by stabbing a finger  in his buddy’s chest, “behave yourself and do just what Daisy tells you…OK?”

“OK… you win. Now get out of here,” Jess said laughing and waving a hand at his pard.

As soon as his buddy had left though, the smile froze on his face and he collapsed back on the couch with a little groan; closing his eyes, he soon fell into a restless sleep.

When he awoke, Iona was sitting beside him, looking intently into his face, and gave a little gasp as his eyes finally flickered and opened.

Jess cast a glance up at the ceiling, then he remembered what he was doing stretched out on the couch as the pain in his shoulder and head kicked in. He rolled his head on the pillow to focus on her.

Iona took his hand and held it tightly. “I’m so, sorry,” she whispered. “This is all Shona’s fault and she is devastated. She really never meant for this to happen.”

Jess took a deep breath. “Of course, she didn’t; I know that. Just one of those things, I guess, and as long  as she learns not to mess with wild mustangs again, well…” He gave a little sigh, too tired to elaborate.

“Thank you, you’re very understanding. So how are you feeling?”

“OK I guess.” Then turning his head towards the window, Jess asked, “So what’s the weather doing?”

“Bright, but really cold. No more snow yet.”

“Good. I hope  it holds off until they get back. Should finish bringing the stock down…real soon. Sure is early for snow,” he said thoughtfully. “Heck, we ain’t even had the Harvest Dance yet.”

“So, what’s that all about? “

“Oh, well, it’s a dance for families mostly, I guess. A sort of a Harvest Thanksgivin’ held at the Jackson spread on the edge of town. He puts up buntin’ and  stuff in his barn, all the women folk take along food and homemade drinks, and a band plays and everyone just gets stuck in, I guess. Women, kids, ranchers,  grandparents –all just havin’ a  good time. Music and dancin’ till the small hours — a real good party.”

“So you all go,” Iona asked looking excited. ”When is it?”

“In a week or so, and yeah we  all go. You could come too — if you’re still around, that  is.”

She nodded shyly. “Callum is managing quite  well with his bad arm now and  thought he’d stay on and give  Slim a hand while you’re laid up.”

“There’s no need;, we can manage you know,” Jess said quickly.

“There is every need; this is our fault and you must let us help,” Iona said firmly.

He gave her a weak smile at that. “I guess there ain’t no arguing with you then, Ma’am.”

“Iona,” she said softly squeezing his hand.

“Iona,” Jess repeated, before closing his eyes and  drifting off again.

When he awoke next time, Mike and Slim were bursting into the room, looking flushed and  bright eyed with exertion;  the  cold wind that had lashed their cheeks for most of the day.

“Hey so how did you get on?” asked Jess awake at once and eager  to hear their  news.

Slim slumped down on the rocker by Jess’s couch and pulled Mike onto his knee. “Well, Mike here was a natural –a real help. We got all the rest of the steers down in record time. Figure you’re out of a job, pard. “

Jess grinned across at them both. “Well that’s good. Well done, Tiger. Guess I’ll just have to spend my days fishin’ down at the creek if you’ve taken my job,” he said, beaming at the boy.

*****

But that wasn’t to be the end to Mike’s triumphant escapade.

It was a few days later when a lone horseman rode into the yard fast, and tethering his buckskin, rapped loudly at the ranch door.

Slim opened up and smiled at the visitor. “Mort, come on in. The coffee’s hot. What can we do for you?” he enquired as the wiry, grey haired Sheriff entered, removing his hat and grinning over at Daisy.

“Ma’am,” Mort said politely before glancing over to the couch where Jess and Mike were engrossed in a game of checkers. “Well, it’s this young man I’ve come to see,” he said, answering Slim’s enquiry.

Then glancing at Jess, with his arm in a sling and bandaged temple, Mort shook his head. “You in the wars again, Jess?” he asked a twinkle in his old eyes.

“Yep, some So what do you want with Mike here? He ain’t in trouble, is he, Sheriff?” asked Jess looking surprised.

Mort chuckled at that “Nope, quite the reverse, in fact. Seems the stage sine boss was so darn pleased that you folks managed to stop the robbery and  apprehend the villains that murdered one of their drivers, he’s given you a reward. A hundred dollars apiece — to include young Mike here!”

Mike’s mouth dropped open in shock, never having owned more than $5 in his life before.

Even Jess and Slim looked pretty excited.

“Jeez,” whispered Jess,” that’s near three months wages. I could get that new saddle.”

“Or a few more prime steers.” said Slim, ever the practical one.

Then they turned their eyes on the youngster.

“So, what about you then Mike?”

He just shook his head in wonder. “I dunno. I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “Heck, I didn’t do nuthin’.”

“Sure you did,” said Jess. “You were real brave ridin’ out to fetch us and then doin’ just as you were told afterwards so we didn’t need to worry about you. Yep, you sure deserve it, Tiger.”

“How about I bank it for you until you decide,” suggested Slim. “Maybe save some for that travelling you’ve got your heart set on when you’re a mite older, huh?”

The child’s face lit up at that. “That’s a swell idea, Slim; I’ll really be able to make my dream come true, won’t I!”

“And in the meantime, how about holding a little back and buyin’ yourself a treat,” suggested Jess. “I figure you could just about buy all the candy in the mercantile, if you had a mind,” he said, grinning over at the child.

“Oh Jess, don’t encourage him,” laughed Daisy. “Then he’d have to spend the rest of it at the dentist, getting his teeth fixed!”

“Well, I say let’s have us a celebration!” grinned Slim with uncharacteristic spontaneity. “So how about it, Daisy? We could crack open a couple of flagons of the cider and roast up a  joint or two of the venison I know you’ve got hidden away. What do you say? It would be real nice to put on a party for the Donaldsons too. You’ll stay, won’t you, Mort?”

The Sheriff grinned at that. “Cider and Miss Daisy’s venison,” he said happily. “Have I died and gone to Heaven?”

“I guess we’ll take that as a yes then, Mort,” laughed Jess.

Everyone was busily putting the finishing touches to the meal and table when Shona finally made an entrance, joining the folks in the ranch house for the first time since the accident.

Iona had explained how terribly upset she had been since Jess had been hurt and had hardly eaten or slept since. Now as she came hesitantly in, she looked the picture of misery.

Jess, who was resting by the fire, his arm still in a sling, got up as soon as she entered, the look on her face filling him with sympathy for the girl. He walked over at once and took her hand with his good one and said softly, “I’m glad you came. You OK?”

At his simple, kind words she immediately broke down. “I’m so… so sorry,” she wept. “I was so stupid. I should never have….. “

“No, you shouldn’t,” Jess said seriously. “But so long as you’ve learnt your lesson — and I guess you have; you won’t be messin’ with those ol’ mustangs again anytime soon — let’s forget it, huh?”

“You’re so kind,” Shona whispered.

“Not that kind,” Jess said with a chuckle. “Go and earn your supper and give Miss Daisy and your Ma a hand in the kitchen.” Shona wandered off to  do as she was bid, casting him a fond look as she went.

“So what was all that about?” asked Mort, who was sitting by the fire keeping Jess company.

Jess just shook his head. “Don’t ask, Mort. Women, eh? Pass the cider, buddy!”

*****

The party was a resounding success, with the gap between east and west narrowing as the evening progressed.

Eventually the over-excited children were bundled off to bed.

Then Mort made his goodbyes, pleading work in  the morning, and Daisy followed  soon after, tired  but happy after her busy day.

That left just Jess, Slim, Callum and Iona round the fire, Shona uncharacteristically having offered to put the children to bed and mind them.

“That’s not like her,” said Callum casting his wife a quizzical glance as the youngster left with the children.

“Umm,” Iona said thoughtfully. “I think she’s changed since we’ve been here;  they all have, and for the better too.” Then she turned to Slim. “She saw how you and young Mike rallied around to help Daisy tonight when she was so busy, and the way you helped by entertaining the young ones with your stories,” she said turning to Jess. “You all work together as a team and that has been  sadly lacking in our  family, up until now that is,” she said smiling. “Mike told me all about it when we rode the wagon together.”

“He did?” asked Jess with a raised eyebrow.

“He said how much you have taught him about life too. What was it he said? Oh yes, about riding for the brand;  that is, working as a team, putting the job first, duty and commitment. All about the Code of the West too. Told me it was about fair play and loyalty, not letting a friend down, respecting folk, doing the right thing even when it’s really hard. Your handshake is your word. That sort of thing.”

“Wow,” said Slim softly, “He said all that?”

“And more,” Iona said glancing at Slim and then to where Jess was looking clearly moved. “He said you had taught him about trusting folk, about friendship and honor. I really was amazed,” she said softly. “He’s a very special little boy.”

“Maybe not  so little now,” said Jess. “I guess he’s growing up real fast. So what else did he tell you, Iona?”

“That you were the best at teaching him ranching, about roping and riding, and Slim helped him with his school work, but that you had lots of fun too. Swimming, hunting and fishing. Then he made me  laugh when  he told me all about not cussin’ in front of the ladies and how certain topics were yard talk only.” She smiled.

Slim grinned at that. “Gee, I hope he didn’t go into too much detail regarding the yard talk?”

“Of course not,” Iona giggled. “After all, I am a lady.” Then she sobered and glanced across at Callum. “I fear we have sadly neglected  some of these important lessons in life that seem second  nature to Mike — trust, honor, loyalty — in favor of academia. Our children may be very clever, but I’m not so sure they are going to grow up to be pleasant adults unless we make some changes,” she said seriously.

Jess raised an expressive eyebrow, and  smiling over at her, said, “And maybe throw a little fun in there too, along with all that wisdom. I guess kids aren’t kids very long and they deserve a decent childhood. I figure you’re a long time grown  up.”

“You’re right, of course,” Iona said smiling at him. “But  there again, the way Mike tells it he reckons, Miss Daisy says you and Slim can be as bigger kid as he is any day!”

“Why, the little… Just wait ‘till I see him tomorrow!” said Jess in mock outrage.

*****

The end of the week saw all at the ranch and relay setting off for the Harvest Dance, and as the Donaldsons were travelling back East the following day, they had their wagon all packed and ready to go by mid-afternoon.

Slim drove the buggy with Daisy and Mike on board, loaded with pies and savories made by Daisy’s fair hand, and Jess followed on riding Traveler.

When they arrived, they booked into the hotel and then walked the short distance to the edge of town where all the preparations for the dance were in full swing. Daisy, Iona and Shona were soon off with the all other women of the town, decking out tables, while the menfolk gathered around the beer kegs and chatted as the children ran amok, adding to the generally hectic atmosphere.

Then before they knew it, the whole town seemed to have arrived. The band struck up and everyone began to really enjoy themselves, eating, drinking and cavorting around the small temporary dance floor.

There was a truly festive atmosphere with colorful lamps suspended from the barn’s beams, casting a pretty romantic glow over the proceedings. Straw bales provided seating while make- shift tables groaned with harvest produce and homemade beers wine and cider.

Lily and Millie had been duly collected from the saloon where old Tom the barkeep had given them the evening off. They were introduced to the Donaldsons and were soon all chatting away happily as old friends.

Lily dressed in pink, her curls a blond shining halo was her usual shy self, but soon found Slim’s new friends to be very welcoming and friendly.

When Millie had entered on Jess’s arm, Iona and Shona were struck by her beauty, as well as the evident chemistry between the couple. They laughed easily together, and every so often would exchange a covert intimate glance, their hands gently clasped. Even when apart, there seemed to be an invisible chord binding them together, and when they took different dance partners, laughing and joking easily with their friends, they always returned to each other. Almost like a young married couple, Iona mused.

Iona watched in fascination as they danced past her, Millie laughing up into Jess’s eyes as they shared a secret joke, her dark hair framing her heart-shaped face, her eyes looking lovingly up at him as he held her close, their bodies swaying gently to the rhythm of the slow number.

They made by far the most handsome couple there, Iona thought. Jess with his gleaming white shirt, black tie, silver brocade vest and dark frock coat and trousers, all finished off with highly polished boots and his best dark Stetson with the silver band; Millie in similar colors, was dressed in a stunning silver grey figure-hugging dress, with a low cut bodice, showing the gentle curve of her cleavage to perfection, and her matching silver, high heeled, shoes seemed to almost twinkle as they spun lightly around the crowded dance floor.

It was towards the end of the evening when Jess began to feel a little worse for wear. He had insisted on removing the sling before the dance, and now his shoulder was aching and he felt slightly sick and dizzy. But whether from the injury, or the several large glasses of cider he had imbibed, not to mention the sticky heat in the barn, he wasn’t too sure.

Anyway, seeing as Mille had been borne away by Slim for a lively dance, he decided to go and get some fresh air, disappearing outside and taking his ease leaning against the barn wall, one hand massaging his painful shoulder.

 That was how Iona found him when she followed him out a few minutes later.

She walked quietly up beside Jess and he jumped a little at her presence, before casting her a friendly smile. “Are you too hot as well?”

Iona returned his smile and leaned back on the wall beside him, looking out to the distant hills. “No, I followed you out,” she said softly.

His head swiveled around at that and his expressive eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”

“Yes, I just wanted a minute alone together; we’ll be going early tomorrow and there may not be another chance.”

Chance for what Jess wondered warily, but just gave her a polite look, tipping his hat back and waiting for her to carry on.

“I just wanted to thank you…for everything you’ve done for the children.”

Jess shrugged. “I ain’t done much.”

“Oh you have, more than you know. Maybe indirectly, but the way you — and Slim — are with young Mike, well, it’s had a profound effect on my youngsters. Mike himself too. I don’t think we’ll ever forget him; certainly not Rory and Charlotte anyway.”

Jess grinned at that. “The romance of the century, eh. Kinda cute, don’t you think?” Then He sobered. “I guess he’s really gonna miss her. I know we’ve been making light of it, but it’s real to them you know, Iona. I can remember…”

“Go on…”

Jess flushed. “Well, I can remember my first love at about his age. Gee, I suffered; it was hell when she went away. Thought I’d just die of a broken heart,” he said giving her his shy smile.

She returned his smile. “You really are a bit of an old romantic, aren’t you?”

“Well I guess I like the ladies,” Jess said with a genuine grin now. “Well, just one lady in particular nowadays.”

“Yes, of course.” Then Iona sighed and turned to look at him again. “Jess, the other night when we…we kissed…”

Jess looked down, embarrassed. “Look, I apologized for that. We’d been drinking, the moonlight, and a beautiful lady,” he said with a twinkle. ”I guess it was kind of a disastrous combination.”

“It wasn’t disastrous — not from where I was standing,” Iona said softly. It was lovely. So has anyone ever told you what a wonderful kisser you are?” she asked with a little giggle.

Jess peered at her more closely, wondering if she was a little tipsy.

She seemed to read his thoughts. It’s alright. It’s not that excellent cider talking and you are in no danger of me seducing you, Jess. And yes the other night was all my fault It was I who started it and you have no need to feel embarrassed or to apologize.”

“No?”

“No. And I’m not tipsy, just very happy.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Do you remember what I said that night, how I asked you what love meant to you?”

He nodded. “I wouldn’t tell you; said it was kinda private.”

She nodded. “Then I told you it meant security, comfort, and, er…familiarity, I think I said. But you didn’t agree, did you? Even though you said nothing.”

“I guess not.”

“And then I got upset after we talked about Charlotte’s problems…and I kissed you.”

“Yeah, and I kissed you back…and that was wrong. I’m sorry,” Jess replied firmly.

“But don’t you see,” she said taking his hand and beaming up at him. “That kiss changed my whole life. You’ll probably think me crazy, but well, I’d forgotten how it could be. After the children, the endless grind of childcare and work — all we had left was familiarity, security. The passion — the passion we shared, me and Callum, had gone.”

She sighed deeply and their eyes locked; Jess wondering what was to come.

“Until you kissed me that way and I remembered what I was missing. Thanks to you, Jess, we are so happy. You’ve given our marriage a whole new lease of life; we are like young lovers again and I can’t thank you enough,” she said, beaming happily up at him.

Jess looked completely dumbfounded and took a deep breath to steady his nerves before saying, Er…well, I’m real glad, that’s…umm…good.” Then he had an afterthought. “Probably not a good idea to mention to Callum what brought about this, er… ‘new lease of life’, though, huh?”

Iona giggled again at that. “No, it will be our little secret.” Leaning across, she kissed him very softly on the cheek. “Come on, lets go back in; they’ll be missing us,” she said quietly.

When they returned, Slim threw Jess a hard look but said nothing until Iona was taken off on the arm of her husband to dance again.

“So what have you been up to?” asked Slim in a low threatening tone.

“Nuthin’”

“Jess!”

“Hell Slim, I tell you I ain’t done nuthin’. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what you’re thinkin’. I’ll tell you later, huh?”

Then something across the barn caught his eye. “Anyway, I guess you’ve got more to fret about than me gettin’ out of line. Looky over there,” Jess said with a broad grin.

Slim turned and looked into the dim recesses of the barn and saw Mike and Charlotte in a hesitant embrace. They kissed for a brief moment and then went happily off, hand in hand, back to the dance floor.

“Yep, the kid is sure growin’ up,” Jess said, winking at his buddy.

Slim looked shocked. “Hell, Jess, should we say something?”

“Nah, they’re fine. Heck Slim, it was only a kiss on the cheek and a hug. Anyway, the dance is over in half an hour or so. Just let the kid enjoy himself while he can. Don’t forget Charlotte heads for home in the morning — poor little guy.”

*****

It was a rather subdued group who stood and waved off the Donaldson family early the following morning — Jess and Slim feeling slightly hung over, Daisy just sorry to see her new friends  leave, and Mike suffering the first pangs of lost love.

As the family disappeared from sight, Charlotte waving vigorously until they rounded the bend. Mike’s hand fell to his side, his whole form drooping and his eyes looking bleak.

Slim and Jess exchanged a concerned glance over his head, and then Jess clapped a warm hand on the boy’s shoulder and pulled him close. “Come on, Tiger; let’s go spend some of that money at the mercantile. Want some candy and a comic?”

Mike shook his head. “Nope. I figure I’m gonna buy some writing paper and envelopes so I can write Charlie.”

Jess raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yep. But maybe some candy too — if I’ve got enough money,” he suggested looking slightly happier.

Jess grinned at that. “I figure we have. Come on, Tiger.” Half turning to wink at Daisy and Slim, he marched the youngster off to the store.

The boy looked up into his hero’s face and said softly, “Did you feel this bad when your first girlfriend left, Jess?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Mike…” They wandered down the sidewalk together deep in conversation.

“Poor kid,” said Slim, throwing Daisy a sad look as they watched Jess lean down, say something to the boy and saw him respond with a tiny smile.

“Oh don’t worry dear,” Daisy said kindly. “I believe he’s in good hands; with you and Jess to guide him, the boy won’t go far wrong.”

“Umm, maybe you’re right, Daisy, but even so, I figure we’d better follow them to the mercantile — just to make sure Jess doesn’t let him spend the whole $100 on candy.” Laughing, Slim and Daisy took off  for the store.

*****

Epilogue As told by Mike Williams    

I guess I’ll always look back on that fall as the time I really grew up some.

What with baggin’ my first moose and then having my first proper girlfriend, well gee, it sure was a time for firsts!

I guess I felt real special when Slim and Jess let me go up the mountain on the moose hunt, like I was a regular guy just like them.

Gave us a chance to talk stuff out too…kinda clear the air after that business with me takin’ Jess’s gun. We talked it all through, and I guess I felt kinda safe knowing as how much they cared about me, my future an’ all, knowing they just wanted the best for me.

Then I met Charlie — and boy, was that a shock!

Jeepers,  I’ve never  felt like that about a girl before, but Jess talked it all through with me. Said it was normal to feel that way if I was in love,  and we both figured I probably was..

Well , one heck of a lot of stuff happened when we were up that ol’ mountain and I got to feelin’ quite grown up.

 Like, when little Rory kinda adopted me as a big brother. Well, that felt so good and I taught him stuff —  Charlie too — all about survival, keepin’ safe in the Big Open, that sorta thing. Gee, it sure beats me how two such smart kids could be so, well, so real dumb when it came to things like that.

Well, talkin’ about dumb. Charlie’s older sister Shona sure took the biscuit. I mean, standing way in the middle of the corral, tryin’ to sweet talk Satan’s Boy. Of all critters to choose… I heard Jess say to Slim he thought the girl must have a death wish — either that or be plumb loco!

Anyway, I guess I got my chance at ridin’ herd with Slim because of Shona. It was down to her  as Jess was hurt so bad — and heck I wouldn’t want him hurt that way for the world — but seeing  as how he was, at least I was able to help some and ride with Slim.

Then there was that ol’ stage robbery…and turns out I ended up somethin’ of a hero. Least, that’s what Charlie reckoned, and it sure was good to get that reward!

The dance was swell, but the next day, Charlie took off back East and I felt real…real bad. But Jess was kind and understanding, and I asked him what he felt like when his first girlfriend done left him.

‘Like I’d had my heart ripped out and stomped on some’, he told me.

Well I guess that made me feel better,  knowing someone else had felt this bad…and survived it.

So Jess told me it would get better, .and as usual, he was right. Me and Charlie swap letters all the time, and like Aunt Daisy said, it’s not that long to next summer, so I reckon I’m feelin’ much better already.

Yep, so I guess I’m real lucky I fetched up here at the Ranch with Jess, Slim and Aunt Daisy.. And you know what? I kinda figure they’re glad too!

***End***

*See the story Daisy’s Dilemma.

** See the story Return of the Bounty Hunter

*** See the story Blood Brothers

Thank you for reading!

 

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