Snow Bird’s Last Race (by Patty W.)

Summary:  (A Sequel to Snow Bird Saves the Day!)
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Some strong language, violence and adult themes)
Word Count:  26,992


 

Prologue

When the ranchers suffered financial difficulties, Jess decided to race his beloved Snow Bird in the Laramie Quarter Mile Race to help make ends meet. However, Jess had fallen foul of their new neighbor Curt Hicks, who was a staunch hater of all southerners following the Civil War, and Jess in particular as an ex-Confederacy soldier. Things got worse between the two as Hicks tried to prevent Snow Bird winning through various underhand means. However, when Jess won the race anyway, Hicks was furious, and after bushwhacking Jess, kept him prisoner in his cellar until he was eventually liberated and returned to his family, suffering badly after his incarceration. Hicks, who was mentally unstable, finally took his own life, and that seemed to be an end to the troubled times.

Jess went on to enter the Cheyenne Quarter Mile Race after Chet Adams, a famous horse breeder, offered the services of his wonderful stud horse Merlin, free of charge, if Jess should win on Snow Bird. However, prior to the race, Snowy’s food had been contaminated and she had nearly died. There was no conclusive evidence of foul play and so nobody was brought to justice at the time. Once she made a full recovery, though, the horse doctor said she was fit to race, and so Jess decided to go ahead, knowing that a foal out of Chet’s stallion Merlin would mean an end to their financial difficulties for good. But could he win, and if so, at what cost? Now read on…

*****

Jess rode Snow Bird out to Cheyenne for the long-awaited final Quarter Mile Race of the season in late September. He had decided to go out a couple of days early in order for Snow Bird to recover from the long ride before the race, and  was to stay at Millie’s Ma’s Boarding House, where he knew he’d be spoiled rotten.

Then Millie and Slim were riding over on the stage from Laramie for the weekend to cheer him on.

“Gee I wish I could come too, Jess,” said Mike for the third time over breakfast on the day he was to leave.

“Well, me too, Tiger, but we’ve been through it. Cheyenne is a real rough place, and especially on race week. There’ll be a mess of tough hombres on the streets and it just ain’t the place for you and Miss Daisy.”

“Anyway, we need you to stay and hold the fort. You know old Barney looks to you to help him out when he’s covering for us,” smiled Slim.

The youngster cheered up a little at that. “OK, I guess I can do that,” he said happily, always thriving on responsibility.

“Well done, Tiger. I’ll bring you some candy back as sorta extra wages,” said Jess, beaming down at the youngster.

*****

When Jess rode into town, the assumption made by him and Slim appeared to be true — the place was packed and mostly it seemed with some very unsavory characters, Jess thought as he rode down Main Street towards the livery. After a moment, he reined Snowy in and paused near his friend Sheriff Doug Masters’ office. Then he slipped down from the saddle, and after tethering his mount securely, went on in.

Sheriff Doug Masters was a real good friend. Aged about forty, tall, handsome and black-haired, the older man had been a rank or two above Jess when they were both fighting for the Confederates, but they soon had become firm friends when they were taken prisoner. Doug had said to many a friend that if ever he was in a tight spot, it would be Jess Harper he would want fighting his corner.

Masters knew all about Jess’s walk on the wild side after the war, and often laughingly referred to Jess’ time on the drift flirting with lawlessness as Jess’s ‘lost years’. However, the Sheriff knew that, deep down, Jess’s integrity and loyalty to his friends had never faltered, and when he turned up in Cheyenne a few years back, the friendship had been reignited, with Jess helping his buddy out as deputy on several occasions.

Doug jumped to his feet and went over to greet his friend beaming warmly and offering a hand. “Why Jess, it sure is good to see you. You’re not here to do a spot of Deputy duties for me, are you? I could sure use the help. The whole town is full to busting for this darn race next Saturday.”

Jess grinned at him. “I’m sorry, Doug. I’m actually here for the ‘darn race’,” he said chuckling.

“Yeah, I heard as much actually. So then, are you in need of a bed for the night?”

“No thanks, buddy; got me a billet at Millie’s Ma’s place.”

“Ah, right. And I take it the delectable Miss Johnson will be joining you?”

“Yeah, her and Slim, are coming over on the stage in a day or two — comin’ to cheer me on.”

“So, I hear the smart money is on you, especially since old man Benson is out of the running.”

Jess’s face clouded. “Yeah, a real bad business that. I thought I was gonna lose Snowy too. I’d bought feed from the same batch. We still don’t know if the feed was deliberately poisoned or just not been stored right, but I ain’t takin’ no chances. I’m making sure she’s well guarded here, that’s for sure.”

“Jeez, that’s bad. And she’s OK now though?”

“Yeah, fit as a flea.” Then Jess took pity on his buddy. “Look Doug, I’ll need to train her for an hour or two first thing and late afternoon, but other than that I guess I’m all yours. Until my girl arrives anyway,” he said with a cheeky grin.

“Hey, that’s swell, buddy. I just need you for a couple of days. Then my deputy should be back from delivering a prisoner over at Rawlins.” With that, Masters flipped a badge over to Jess. “Consider yourself on the team. Now go and get your horse sorted out, and I’ll put the coffee pot on,” he said grinning.

Jess took Snow Bird down to the livery and handed her over to his good friend Bill. “You’ll take real good care of her, won’t you?” said Jess looking anxious. “I don’t want anyone getting to her before the race — try and lower the odds some, if you know what I mean.”

“Don’t worry, son; she’ll be in real good hands here. I’ll put her in a stall by the house door towards the back there, and have the boy sleep the night in the hay loft. He’s been doin’ that the last few nights anyways.”

“Worried about all the strangers in town then, Bill?”

“A mite, yes. Don’t like the look of some of them Jess, and that’s a fact. Looks like half of ‘em would sell their granny for a glass of rye.”

“Yeah, I figure you’re right,” Jess chuckled. “Good thing old Doug’s got me helpin’ him out then, until his deputy lands home, that is.”

“Um, well, you watch your back, son,” the old timer muttered before going off to tend to Snowy.

On his way back to the Sheriff’s office, Jess decided to call in at the Boarding House to drop his gear and have a quick word with Mrs. Johnson, Millie’s Ma.

As soon as she opened the door, Mrs. Johnson beamed in delight when she saw Jess standing there, his saddlebags slung across his shoulder and a warm smile in his deep blue eyes.

“Howdy, Mrs. Johnson. Just thought I’d drop my stuff if that’s convenient?”

“Sure, sure, it is Jess boy, and less of the Mrs. Johnson. I’m Ma to you, ain’t I?”

“Sure, Ma,” Jess said, grinning and leaning down gave her a little peck on the cheek.

She looked even more cheery at that. “Come along in then, young man, and I’ll show you to your room.”

Jess ran lightly up the stairs behind her and was pleased to be shown into a bright airy room containing twin beds, just next door to Millie’s at the end of a long corridor.

“Will this do you and Mr. Sherman?” she asked, looking around the clean pleasant room.

“Just fine, Ma’am, thanks”.

“Yes well, I think you’ll find it comfortable, and of course being down at this end of the house, you young people can come and go as you please and you won’t disturb me. I’m sleeping up in  the attic room now. Won’t hear a thing,” she said with a wicked wink.

The fact that Jess was bunking down right next to Millie’s room wasn’t lost on him, or her Ma’s comments. He gave her a cheeky grin in response, but said nothing.

*****

It was later that evening when Jess had his first run-in with some trouble in the town.

Doug was on a well-needed break when someone from one of the saloons fled down to the Sheriff’s office saying there was trouble at The Nugget, and Jess went straight along, wielding a shot gun.

He was just in time to see the miscreants fall out onto the street, the main perpetrator being one Holy Joe, better known as Reverend Joseph Mahoney, a defrocked and incredibly volatile man of the cloth.

Or ‘our ex-man  of the cloth’, as Doug often described him, because although the Sheriff  for one thought his heart was in the right place, his mission to save  lost souls was definitely frowned upon by the established Church.

His methods were unorthodox in the extreme, and in this case, employed shooting at the miscreants’ feet in an effort to get them to kneel down and beg for mercy for all their sins.

Luckily, Jess was aware of Holy Joe’s methods and strode over to the scene being acted out in front of the saloon with a small twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

As he arrived, Holy Joe was still aiming shots at a couple of cowboys feet making   them dance. “You repent from all ye sins!” he yelled with great gusto.

Jess advanced and aimed his rifle at the incensed cleric. “Come on now, Joe, just simmer down, will you? Maybe these good folk ain’t about ready to repent just yet…huh?”

“Ah, Brother Harper, is it?” asked the man, clearly drunk. “Well, what a pleasure. And you have come to aid my evangelizing, have you, dear boy?”

“Nope, Joe; more to bang you up in jail for the night,” Jess replied pleasantly.

“Hang it all, that doesn’t sound entirely Christian, young man!” Joes said, almost falling on Jess’ chest now, more from the amount of strong drink he’d imbibed than religious fervor, Jess secretly thought.

However, Jess finally managed to frogmarch him back to the cells, more for his own safety than that of the town’s folk. “Here we go, Reverend,” he said not unkindly. “You’ve got yourself a safe billet for the night –and maybe it would be a good idea to save your preachin’ until after the races, huh. I figure things will be a mite more relaxed by then.”

When Jess escorted his prisoner into the Sheriff’s office sometime later, he was greeted by a mournful look from his buddy the Sheriff. “So what have you been up to this time, Joe?” he said wearily.

“Merely spreading the word of certain damnation and Hell Fire to sinners, and the Good Lord knows the town is abounding with them presently,” slurred Holy Joe, hiccupping and all but cannoning into the sheriff, save for Jess reaching out and grabbing him.

“Shove him in number one, Jess, and don’t forget the slop bucket. I don’t wanna have to start cleaning up after him tomorrow.”

Once he’d returned, Jess helped himself to a coffee, and after taking a grateful sip, surveyed the Sheriff over the rim of his cup. “It’s getting’ a mite lively out there, Doug. Do you want we should take a little walk around?”

Masters  sighed deeply. “Yeah, I reckon, but hey, Jess, don’t you be too zealous out there. You go arresting every Tom, Dick and Harry as is up to no good I figure the cells will be full before midnight.”

“Don’t worry, Doug,” Jess chuckled. “Ain’t me as has got religion real bad. I figure I can turn a blind eye same as you, but I reckon if we’re seen, it’ll likely damp down their high spirits some.”

The two men took off down Main Street, calling in at all the various drinking houses, not to mention one or two of the town’s brothels, to check everything was reasonably within the bounds of the law. While things were pretty lively, as Jess had said, with more than a modicum of drinking and whoring going on, at least none of the town’s folk or visitors were actively trying to kill each other.

Jess had gone into one saloon and stopped a free-for-all brawl by merely firing off a couple of shots and threatening to run them all out of town unless they settled down some, and that seemed to do the trick.

Meeting up with Doug later, they were in agreement that the general feeling in the town was one of good-natured banter rather than out and out villainy, apart from a couple of no hopers who seemed honor bound to try and rip one another’s head off, and Doug had no other choice but to bang them up into the jail along with Holy Joe.

*****

However, before long things were to change, and there was definitely some villainy afoot.

Unbeknown to Jess, two shady characters were whispering together in the saloon where he had quelled the fist fight.

“So Jess Harper is filling’ in for the Sheriff’s deputy,” said one Pete Downs, his eyes following the dark-haired cowboy as he left the bar.

“Um, sure looks like it. Now I would think that’s kinda a bad move, wouldn’t you,” replied his buddy, Chuck Brown. “You’d think a man would be real careful to look after himself with an important race like this comin’ up.”

“Just what I was thinkin’, Chuck. Seems to me if he was to suffer a little accident and was out of the runnin’, well, then our good friend Jake’s horse would be in with a good chance — a real good chance. “

“Sure thing, and it seems that the little extra nutrient we added to that batch of feed in the Laramie mercantile didn’t do the trick — well, not with Harper’s nag anyway. Saw Benson’s off, and if we can get rid of Harper, I reckon it will be plain sailing for Jake’s Black Boy,” said Chuck

“Um, I still think it’s a bit risky trying to take Harper out. He’s one hell of a fast gun, you know,” replied Pete looking doubtful. “Why don’t we just try and  knobble the horse again?”

“Well, I’ll tell you as to why. Because the critter is in a stall right by old Bill’s house, plus the lad is sleepin’ with the critters, not to mention Harper and the Sheriff checking the place out all the goddamn time. Then just think how dang mad Harper would be if anything happened to that prize nag of his. Reckon he’d hunt us down and that would be curtains. No, we’ll jump Harper when he ain’t expecting it, and with us two plus Lefty and Buck, we’ll sort him out real good,” said Chuck with an evil grin.

“OK I guess that makes sense. So when? “

“Just you be patient. We’ll strike when I say. Just trust me, huh?”

*****

That had been on the Wednesday night.

As planned, Jess had exercised Snow Bird the following morning and then supported the Sheriff in his duties for the rest of the day. It was later that evening, when he was just saddling Snow Bird up for her evening training session, when a burly man entered the stable asking for Jess Harper.

Jess came out of the stall when he heard his name. “I’m Jess Harper. Who’s askin’?” he asked with a frown.

“Adams, Chet Adams is the name. I wrote to you, Mister Harper.”

Jess’s expression relaxed into a friendly grin and he came forwards offering a hand. “Jess, please. Real good to meet you, Mister Adams.”

“Chet,” said the tall gray-haired man, returning the smile. Then he cast his gaze over to the stall where Snowy was nodding her head and moving around restlessly, impatient to be off. “This is the mare then,” he said looking impressed. “So can I see her in action, young man?”

“Sure. I was just gonna take her down the road a spell put her through her paces, if you’d care to come along?”

They returned to the livery about an hour later, and Chet Adams leaned over the stall watching Jess carefully rub down his mount and start to groom her, a gleam of excitement in his old eyes. “That sure is one hell of a horse,” he said softly. “All I’ve heard and more. She moves like a dream, Jess, and speed…well, that sure is something to see.”

“So, you’ll be interested in your Merlin payin’ a little visit then?” said Jess, mentally crossing his fingers.

 The older man smiled at the euphemism. “Um…well, I didn’t say that, son. Sure she’s some horse and she performed real well tonight, but I still need to see her under race conditions. Some horses can’t take the pressure, just go to pieces when challenged by a whole bunch of unruly horseflesh. I need to see she can hold her own, see if she’s got guts.”

“Oh, I can assure you she can hold her own…and then some,” said Jess gruffly. Then he took a deep breath; knowing diplomacy was never his strong point, he tried again. He stopped grooming her, and coming out of the stall, looked the big man in the eye. “Yeah, I guess I can understand how as you need to see her perform for yourself. So if I win, is the deal on then?”

Adams nodded his gray old head and beamed at the confident young cowboy. “Absolutely. If you win, the deal is on. We’ll cover Snowy with Merlin, and I’ll pay you top dollar for the foal and also sing her praises from the roof tops. You’ll have no problem selling on any further progeny. This could be the making of your business young man.” With a firm handshake sealing the deal, he strode off whistling, leaving Jess ecstatic.

Jess returned to the Sheriff’s office a little later for his evening stint, and was pleased to hear that the deputy should be arriving the following day — Friday — along with Slim and Millie on the afternoon stage.

Jess told Doug all about his encounter with Chet Adams, but was repeatedly interrupted by Holy Joe butting into the conversation from where he was still being detained in the cell incorporated into the Sheriff’s office.

“Can’t you shut him up?” said Jess quietly to the Sheriff when Joe held forth once more on the matter of the ill-fated race.

“Mark my words, Mister Harper, no good will come of this folly. You are doomed…”

“What’s he still doin’ here anyway? Thought you were lettin’ him go at supper time?” Jess asked the Sheriff.

“Yes, well, I was, until I realized that he’d got a half bottle of moonshine stuck down his boot. I figure he’s been nipping at it all day. He’ll just get in another scrap if I let him out now.”

Jess surveyed the prisoner sourly. “Looks like it’s gonna be a long night then,” he said.

“Mister Harper, will you please lend me your ears for a moment?” enticed the old man.

Jess threw Doug a glance, casting his eyes to heaven before walking over to the cell. “What’s the problem then, Reverend?”

“Nothing with me, my son, save not having my liberty restored as I thought had been promised.”

“Well that ain’t gonna happen until you sober up some,” said Jess making to turn away.

The old man shot an arm through the bars at that, grabbing hold off Jess’s arm and impeding his departure.

“Hey, what’s your game?” said Jess gruffly, shrugging the old man’s hand away.

“Please, Mister Harper, listen to me. You are in great danger. Don’t ride on Saturday. Heed my words,” Joe cried now working himself up into a frenzy.

“Pipe down, old man, or I’ll gag you,” shouted Doug from where he was trying to write a report at his desk.

Jess gave the ex-Holy man a puzzled look. “So what are you worried about? Are you thinkin’ gambling’s a mortal sin now?”

“Well it surely will harm you if you don’t listen to me, my son.”

Jess just threw him a thin smile at that. “Well, if you’re worried about my immortal soul, I guess I sold out to the Devil long ago, so quit your frettin’. I ain’t worth it.” With that, he withdrew and Holy Joe went and slumped on his cot and started praying quietly.

Doug threw Jess a quizzical look. “You better hadn’t let Miss Daisy, hear you talking that way,” he said with a grin, then sobering. “You don’t mean it, do you, buddy?”

Jess grinned back. “Sure I don’t. You know me –good clean livin’, God-fearing boy.” Then he cast a look back over to the cell. “It sure shut him up good, though, didn’t it,” he said with a broad grin.

Much later that evening, the two men again went on their rounds and were pleased to see that things looked pretty quiet and more on the lines of a normal Thursday night.

“Tell you what, Jess, I’ll take me down to the edge of town heading East and you take the West road, and we’ll meet back for a coffee and wee drop of comfort in, say, half an hour or so?”

“You got it.”

The two friends parted company.

Jess visited a few saloons on his rounds and all seemed reasonably quiet. Then he stuck his head in to the Painted Parrot, and  the Madame gave him a friendly smile and said all was well and would he like to call in for a little rest and relaxation?

Jess smiled back, but withdrew smartly. “Sorry, Ma’am,  I’m on duty right now.”

Madame Fifi, rearranged her scarlet wrap to expose a generous glimpse of cleavage, and reaching up stroked a sensuous finger down  his cheek. “Another time then, Jess?”

Jess dragged his gaze up from where it had suddenly dropped and said, “Sure, some other time, Ma’am,” before backing out and marching off down the street. What would Millie make of that, he thought to himself wryly. Then his heart lifted at the thought of her imminent arrival.

If he hadn’t been day-dreaming about his girl, maybe he wouldn’t have been duped so easily, but as it was, when someone called for help from a nearby dark alley, he went without a second thought.

Jess ran towards where he had heard the cry for assistance and stopped, his gun already drawn. The he heard the voice call out again. “Deputy, the Sheriff’s here…he’s been hurt.”

Jess ran forwards and then the next thing he knew, he was sprawled in the dirt, having been pistol whipped from behind.

He shook his head to try and clear it, groaning, and then he felt rough hands upon him, pulling him up. Then a punch landed on his jaw and another in his belly, making him fall to his knees clutching his stomach in pain.

Jess stayed there for a moment catching his breath, but now he was way beyond mad, and when he finally staggered to his feet, he retaliated, flooring two of his attackers. He was just getting stuck into the third one when he was again struck from behind, and this time the rifle butt that came in contact with his skull, rendered him unconscious.

That was when the two men he had floored retaliated, kicking him hard in the stomach and groin, before finally putting the boot into his chest.

It was finally Pete that pulled off Chuck, who looked like he might kill Jess. “Come on, let’s get out of here before that swine Masters realizes his buddy has gone AWOL.” With that, they slipped from the alley and disappeared off into the night.

Jess was deeply unconscious, and  as he lay there, the ominous sound of thunder rumbled off in the hills. A few minutes later,  the heavens opened and he was soaked to the skin shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, back at the office, Doug poured his coffee and added a liberal splash of whiskey before taking a grateful sip. Leaning back  in his chair, he put his boots up on the desk and leaned back, savoring  the moment.

Masters finished his brew and looked out of the window as yet another flash of lightening illuminated the now empty street, as the pouring rain had made all those still abroad run for cover. “Where in heck has Jess, got to,” he mused, then a grin lit up his handsome face. “Ah yeah, he’ll be babying that mare of his, probably afraid of storms,” he chuckled.

“Huh?” said Holy Joe.

“Aw, just jawing to myself,” said the Sheriff with an embarrassed smile. “Like a coffee, Joe?”

The elderly man nodded and Doug poured it out and took it over, sans whisky.

“Thanks. So where is young Harper. He should be back, should he not?” asked the cleric with a worried frown.

“Keep your hair on, Joe; he’ll be back when he’s ready.”

The older man looked disturbed. “I did warn him, but young hot heads take no heed.”

“Warn him?”

“Of the danger. He is plotted against, my dear Sheriff. Evil abounds in this town believe me.”

“If you’ve got something to say, just spit it out, will you?”

Joe sighed deeply. “I already have. Mister Harper is doomed, I told him so earlier.”

The Sheriff threw him a wary look. “Don’t suppose it’ll hurt any to go check on him.” He threw on his rain slicker before picking up his rifle and hat and trailing out into the storm.

It was a good half hour later  when  Masters came upon  one of the girls from the Painted Parrot on her way home from work, looking terrified and soaked to the skin, a shawl doing little to protect her  scantily clad body from the now raging storm.

She was obviously distressed and almost fell into the Sheriff’s arms when she saw him striding along Main Street. “Oh Sheriff Masters, come quick! It’s your deputy. I think he’s dead.”

Doug’s head shot up. “Huh? Jess dead, you say?”

“I was coming home from work, down the short-cut though the alley by the mercantile, and I literally fell over him just lying there Sheriff, all white and not moving. Fair shook me up.”

Taking her elbow, the Sheriff retraced her steps a few yards.

“In here, you say?” asked Doug as they approached the alley.

The girl pointed. “I can’t go back in, Sheriff; I’m so upset.” She started weeping. “Me and all the girls think Mister  Harper is so sweet, so gentlemanly. I’m real troubled by all this,” she managed through increasing sobs.

“Yes, I’m sure. Er, Opal, isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well, you wait there and I’ll go take a look.”

Doug made his way down  the dim alley until he was just able to make out Jess’s body lying  in the mud, soaked through and unmoving. He bent down beside his buddy and very gently turned him over and was relieved to hear a faint groan and  then several very explicit swearwords. “Still got the  strength to cuss then, buddy,” he said, the relief in his voice palpable.

“Doug, that you?”

“Yeah, come on, Jess. Think you can walk if I pull you up?”

They made it as far as the Sheriff’s office with Opal’s help.

“Just wait until I tell the girls about this tomorrow,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears as she looked down at Jess, filthy, blooded but alive.

At that Jess’ head shot up from where he was lying on the old leather settee in the Sheriff’s office. “No!” he cried, “don’t say anything to no one, you hear me, Opal?”

She looked puzzled for a moment. “OK, Hon, if that’s what you want. I expect you’re kinda embarrassed at being tricked that way, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah…that’s it. So our secret, sweetheart, OK?”

“Sure.” Blowing him a kiss, she went on her way.

Doug glanced down at his buddy. “Jeez, the state of you. I’m fetching the doc over, buddy.”

“No,” Jess yelled again. “Not here. Later maybe, at the Boarding House, but not here, though, Doug. Can’t have anyone knowing. Someone might see him coming in.”

Doug sat back scratching his head, “What’s going on here, Jess? There is more to this than you just feeling  kinda stupid for being caught out that way.”

Jess just nodded. Jeez, but he was feeling bad; every inch of him was aching. It was agony to even breathe. he was seriously considering a head transplant, and the aching in his groin and guts was bringing tears to his eyes. He groaned and  put a hand up to his head, the sweat pouring down  his face.

“You gonna chuck up?” asked Doug, peering  around for the slop bucket.

Jess sighed deeply. “Maybe.”

Doug found the object and placed it strategically beside the couch before looking back into his friends  ashen features. “So what’s this about?”

“I figure those guys want me out of the race. And if I don’t ride, I don’t win. Then the deals off with Chet Adams.”

“Well, Jess, you can’t help being beat up.”

Jess half sat up, grabbing Doug’s shirt. “You don’t understand. This deal is real important to us at the ranch. It’s make or break time, buddy. We’ve debts to pay and a long hard Wyoming winter  to get through, and it’s all ridin’ on me wining  that race. If anyone knows I’ve been hurt, the odds will go right down. You must understand; nobody has to know about this.”

Doug shook his head. “I can’t make any promises, Jess, but let’s get you home and then  I’ll call the doc over see what he says, OK?”

Jess just nodded, feeling too darn sick to argue.

When Mrs. Johnson answered the Sheriff’s urgent banging at the Boarding House door, she stood back in shock,  a hand flying to her mouth as she saw the soaking wet , bedraggled, bloody and beaten Jess being almost carried in by the Sheriff. “Oh my goodness! Whatever has happened, dear?” she said as she pulled the door open wide, admitting the two men.

“Jess, got in a little trouble helping me out today, Ma’am. I reckon he needs his bed.”

“Um,” said Ma Johnson, surveying the mess that was her daughter’s lover. “I think maybe a trip to the hot tub on the way, Sheriff,” she said, gesturing up to the indoor bathroom up the stairs,“ and I’ll run for the Doctor, shall I?”

“No!” said Jess

“Yes!” said Doug at the same time.

Ma Johnson looked bewildered. “Why ever not, Jess, dear?”

“Long story,” he muttered, looking like he would either faint or chuck up, turning even paler.

“Get him upstairs,” she said softly to the Sheriff. “I’m going for the   doctor.” Turning  back to Jess, she looked unrepentant. “Millie would never forgive me if anything happened to you, my dear.” With that, she threw a coat on and ran across the street for the doctor.

The doctor  was already treating a patient, and so by the time he came across to deal with Jess, Jess had had a quick swill in the hot tub, aided by Doug, and now he was stretched out on top of his bed, naked save for a strategically placed towel across his hips.

Jess was covered in cuts, abrasions and bruise, pretty much all over, and so Doug hadn’t seen much sense in dressing Jess just for the doc to strip him off again. Anyway, he had been chucking up for the last ten minutes, clutching his head and swearing softly, and so Doug  thought bringing any clothing into the equation would be somewhat counterproductive, as they would doubtless be soiled pretty quickly.

Jess was just lying back on the pillows, pale and shaking, when the good doctor arrived.

Doc Tom Lloyd was a kindly man who had treated Jess on several occasions  and  was used to his stubborn ways, but he had a sneaking admiration for the young man who seemed to accept his  lot and get on with life without all the wailing and complaining he  got from  so many  of his patients. The only thing that upset Jess was not being able to get on with his life when struck down by illness or injury, and that made him an exceedingly difficult patient. Now as the doctor entered the bedroom, he thought he was in for the usual shenanigans from young Jess Harper, if he believed what Ma Johnson had said about him not wanting to see a doctor.

The doctor breezed into the bedroom where the Sheriff was sitting on the other bed watching his buddy with worry etched into his handsome features.

Masters leaped up when the doctor arrived. “Ah, Doc Tom, good of you to come. Jess has been attacked; he’s in a real bad way.”

Jess’s eyes flickered open at that and he coughed and finally whispered, “I’m not that bad, Doc Just kinda beat. Be fine if I could just  get some peace to sleep,” he said, casting Doug  a hard look.

“Um, well, let me be the judge of that, Jess boy,” said the doctor kindly, taking in the already forming deep purple and almost black bruises to his torso arms and legs and particularly his chest. He started examining him very carefully, and on touching the ribs, it was obvious several were cracked or broken. He cleaned up the abrasions that were bleeding  and bandaged up the ribs tightly before checking the large lump to the back of his head. “Been sick?”

Jess nodded.

 “And a headache? Dizzy?”

“I guess.”

“Umm.” Then the doctor gently picked up the corner of the towel that was protecting his modesty, and gave a low whistle at the bruising to his lower belly and groin area. “Well, it’s a good job it was just a horse race you had booked for Saturday and not your wedding,” he said with a hint of humor. “Because I guess we’d have one real disappointed bride. As to the race, I figure that can go ahead without you.”

At this, Jess’s head shot up off the pillow before falling back as he gasped in agony, clutching  it with both hands and cussing. After a moment, he said through gritted teeth. “That’s where you’re wrong, doc , because I’m still riding come Saturday.”

Now it was the doctor’s turn to look stunned. “Are you crazy? You can’t sit a horse in this condition, let alone race one!”

Then Jess finally gave his old friend that wicked grin that so many people found hard to resist. “Sure I can, doc… with your help.”

“Jess, you have multiple cuts, abrasions and bruises, several cracked or possibly broken ribs, severe concussion and possible other internal injuries. Like I said, are you crazy?”

Jess ignored all that and just turned innocent blue eyes  on the doctor. “So are you gonna help me or what?”

The doctor sighed and cast his eyes to Heaven. “Right now, I’m going to give you  something for the pain and to help you sleep, and we’ll talk again in the morning, OK?”

Jess took a deep breath and regretted it immediately, his ribs burning  with agony. But then he looked on the bright side of what the doc had said. At least that wasn’t an outright no,  so he figured he’d behave  for now and fight his corner  again in  the cold light of day.

“Sure doc… and thanks,” Jess said, throwing him an angelic smile that cut absolutely no ice with anyone in the room.

They all knew Jess was merely gearing up for round two in the morning.

*****

The following morning, Millie’s Ma was amazed to see him wandering down to breakfast.

“What on earth are you doing up” she said anxiously. “I was just preparing a tray for you.”

“No need, I’m fine, Ma, he said sliding into his seat at the breakfast table and stifling a yelp of pain as his ribs protested as he sat down.

However, there was no pulling the wool over Ma Johnson’s eyes. “Jess Harper, you’re obviously far from alright. Whatever am I going to do with you?” she said wearily.

Jess looked up and fixed her with his sweetest little boy lost smile and said appealingly, “Feed me?”

She sat, elbows on table, head supported by her strong caring hands and watched as he demolished a large plate of bacon, eggs and biscuits washed down by several cups of strong coffee.

“Oh well there’s nothing wrong with your appetite,” she said grudgingly. “You’ve stopped feeling sick then?”

He nodded. “My head has stopped throbbing too. See I’m on the mend now. Ma.”

She just shook her head. “You sure were at the front of the line when the good Lord was handing out stubborn, weren’t you, boy?”

He grinned at that. “I guess; that’s what Miss Daisy says anyway.”

“Um, that good lady talks a lot of sense; you want to listen to her sometime, boy.”

Later on Jess decamped to the Sheriff’s office and was greeted in a similar vein to that of Millie’s Ma. “What in Hell are you doin’ out of your bed, boy!”

“Well, helpin’ you out, Doug; we had a deal, right?”

“I didn’t mean you to keep to that, Jess. Heck, you got beat up wandering the streets helping me out. I feel kinda responsible you know.”

“I got beat up because some low-life wants me out of that race tomorrow,” said Jess quickly.

“You think?”

“I know. Heard them talking some when they were laying into me; said as how Snow  Bird would be minus a rider.”

“Ahem, he’s right, you know.”

Jess and Doug looked over to where Holy Joe was standing by the bars of his cell, openly eavesdropping on their conversation.

“And what do you know about it?” spat Doug angrily.

“I know about as much as Brother Harper here, and possibly more.”

“Go on,” said Doug, now taking an interest.

“Well I did try to tell you, gentlemen, but you professed no interest.”

 “Yeah, well, we’re sure interested now, so just get to the point, will you?” said Jess.

“Well, like I warned you, Brother Harper, you were doomed if you rode in that race. I heard some men in the Nugget plotting your downfall.”

“Downfall?” asked Doug.

“Surely. They have a friend with a horse running…er, Black…something. Black Boy, that’s it. Jake’s horse, and they wished it to win, and with your Snow Bird in the reckoning, they figured they had no chance. Hence, your current state, Brother Harper.”

“Well, why in hell didn’t you say?” asked the Sheriff.

“Well, I did try.”

Jess leapt up from his seat at that, and then subsided just as quickly, keeling over and grabbing his ribs, cussing loudly.

“Jess!”

“I’m OK.” Jess got up more circumspectly and walked over to the cell. “So where can we find this Jake and his friends then?” he asked narrowing his eyes and giving Holy Joe the full benefit of the Harper glare.

The old man shook his head sadly. Won’t help you, son. I reckon Jake knows nothing about it. Jake Hanson is not a bad young man, just not too particular in the company he keeps. It could be any one of a dozen reprobates plotting against you.”

“Doug?”

“I guess he’s right, Jess. Maybe we should just get this race over with and then try and apprehend these felons once it’s over. Doubtless they’ll be the ones making trouble after you win.”

Jess’s head spun around to look at his friend. “So you still think I’m ridin’ then?”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“Sure I am.”

The Sheriff chuckled at that. “Takes a lot to keep a good man down,  but if you’re relying on Doc Lloyd supplying  pain relief to help you out  some, I reckon you’ll be disappointed there, Jess. He runs a real tight ship, and only place he wants to see you is in your bed.”

Jess threw him his determined look and said, “Well, I guess he’s goin’ to be disappointed then, ain’t he.” Then he shook his head and  gave his friend a grim smile. “Getting’ to be kind of a habit. This, last race, I was shot up and now this. Figure this race might have to be the end of my racin’ career, if I aim to stay in one piece.

Doug shook his head and chuckled, “You and your life, I figure you must be nearing number nine.”

“Yeah well, I’ll be OK. Figure I’ve got one more race in me.”

However, as the day wore on, Jess came to regret his fine words as he felt sicker and sicker, and the only place he really wanted to be was his bed.

He was sitting in the office after lunch with Doug having a coffee before doing the rounds of the own when his friend looked over and said softly, “Why don’t you just admit defeat, buddy, and get back to your bed, huh?”

Jess bristled and looked like he was going to meet that remark with typical Harper rancor, but then he relaxed back and turned candid eyes on his old friend. “See the way I look at it is this, Doug; those bastards are figuring that if they lay me low, the betting on me and Snowy will drop. Even better still if I don’t turn up. But either way, they’ll win. So I aim to show the whole damn town that I’m fighting fit and will give ‘em all a good ride for their money tomorrow, see?”

The Sheriff smiled sadly at his buddy. “So how are you aiming to do that, Jess?”

“By acting like everything’s fine, by greeting my pard and my best girl off the Stage this afternoon, and goin’ for a few drinks tonight where the whole bar can see how fit I am, OK?” Jess said, his eyes pleading with the Sheriff.

“And you want me to be in on this subterfuge?”

“Huh?”

“You want me to back you, Jess? “

“Well sure I do. What are buddies for?”

The Sheriff grinned broadly at this, remembering all the times Jess had stuck his neck out for him. “Sure, I guess you’re right, pal. But I’m tellin’ you now, I’m  not going to lie to Slim, or Millie. They suss it out, I tell them…OK? “

“Sure, sure, buddy. Now any more of that coffee for a thirsty man?”

It was later that afternoon when the stage finally bowled along Main Street and came to a halt just beyond the Sheriff’s office.

Jess and Doug were waiting on the sidewalk, and Doug leaned forward and opened the door, helping Millie out , before turning to grin at Slim, the only other passenger.

Jess and Millie locked eyes, and the she threw herself into his arms; it took all his resolve not to cry out in pain. Instead, he pushed her gently away before kissing her deeply and saying, “Hey Mill, I’ve missed you something fierce.”

She looked deep into his eyes. “Me too,” she whispered.

Then Slim was there pumping his hand. “So how’s the Champ then?” he said with his broad grin.

“Oh, just fine, Slim”.

“And Snow Bird?”

“She’s just fine too.”

“So isn’t it about time to put her through her paces, pre-race ride?” Slim asked, his eyes sparkling with excitement

“Er, yeah, I guess so, but see thing is…young Robbie, the stable lad, is riding her out today, on account as he’s a lot lighter. Figured it would be good for her, to have a break from me, you know?”

Slim momentarily threw Jess a puzzled look, and then the logic made sense. “OK, so shall we go see Millie’s Ma then? I’m really looking forward to her cooking; I’m half way starved after that journey.”

“Sure, sure Slim.” said Jess quickly, casting a glance at Doug before hurrying the couple along to the Boarding House.

As it happened, luck was on Jess’s side as Millie’s Ma had been suddenly called away to tend a sick friend and it was Millie’s Auntie Betty standing in. She was such a scatty  old woman that she held absolutely no threat to Jess’s secret, merely hoping all went well on the morrow for the big  race.

After supper, Jess suggested they all retire to the Golden Nugget for a few drinks to settle their nerves before the race the following lunchtime.

Slim was all for it, but Millie slightly more reticent.

“Maybe I should go help Ma with old Mrs. Brown; I figure she could do with a hand.”

Jess nodded. “Whatever you want, sweetheart.”

She looked deeply into his eyes. “You and Slim go and have a few drinks and I’ll see you later, huh?” she whispered.

 And for once, to Slim’s surprise, Jess didn’t argue.

Once Slim and Jess were holding up the bar in the Golden Nugget, Slim cast his friend a speculative look. “So why didn’t you want Millie along tonight?”

Jess’s head shot up. “I did; just thought it could get a mite lively,” he said, tipping his head to the already jumping bar.

“And you think Millie isn’t up for it? Hell Jess, she works in a place like this every doggone day of her life.”

“Um…well, maybe I don’t wanna see her puttin’ up with it when she don’t have to.”

There was a long pause as the two men sipped there beer, occasionally breaking off as Jess received good wishes for the race the following day.

Then Slim took a deep breath. “So what’s this really about then?”

“Huh?”

“Oh come on, Jess. Something’s happened, hasn’t it? I’m not stupid. I can see you’ve been worked over some.”

Jess opened his mouth to deny it, but Slim was too fast for him.

“I know you too well. You’re hurting something fierce, I can tell — and what’s more, so can Millie. She just asked me to sound you out first and if I drew a blank then…well, she was going to get it out of you later.”

Jess just hung his head, unable to speak.

“Oh come on, buddy. How many years is it going to take before you realize folks really care about you?”

Jess just shook his head. “Sorry, Slim. I guess, I should have known better with you and Millie on my case anyways.”

“Sure you should,” said Slim kindly. “And so shall we finish these and then go home and you can tell me all about it?”

Jess looked deeply into his beer and then casting Slim a weary look said, “Yeah, I guess so, pard.”

When they got back to the Boarding House, neither Millie or her Ma were back and  her aunt was  abed, so Jess and  Slim made themselves a pot of coffee to  have along with the  a glass from  the small bottle of moonshine Slim had brought.

They went off to their room and enjoyed their coffee before sitting and exchanging a few home truths.

“OK so I’m listening. What’s going on then, Jess?”

Jess filled him in on the attack, but as ever, making light of his injuries. But Slim was having none of it. “Come on, Jess, tell it like it is. I’ve seen you with busted ribs before, so I reckon that’s one thing and I figure if I was to strip you off — which I’m not thinking of doing,” he said with a twinkle, “but if I did, I figure I’d find you black and blue. Am I right?” he finished more severely.

“I guess that’s about the size of it,” Jess said finally after a few minutes.

“So what is the extent of your injuries then?”

“Huh?”

“How bad hurt are you, Jess?”

“Shucks Slim, I keep tellin’ you — I’m just fine. Will you quit your frettin’?”

“Nope, I reckon that isn’t something I can do, as far as you’re concerned, Jess. Now just tell me, will you?”

Jess sighed deeply. “Ok. I got a real good beatin’, I guess, and the doc says I should probably be takin’ it  easy, but hell Slim, you know the way we’re fixed. I have to ride that race tomorrow.”

“No, no you don’t, Jess. We’ll manage without the extra money.”

“Manage maybe. But hell Slim, I had to manage all through my childhood. That means lean pickings, if not worse. And that’s not what I want for Mike, or Miss Daisy either — and neither do you, so just let me do this will you?”

“You’re not going to listen to me, are you, Jess?”

Jess looked down and then up at his buddy, a faint smile on his handsome features. “Nope, I guess not.”

“So how about if I ride her?”

“Wouldn’t work, Slim; you’re way too heavy for her. Thanks, but it just wouldn’t help any.”

Slim stared at his buddy in despair. “What are we going to do with you?”

However, before Jess could answer, there was the sound of the front door banging and someone running lightly up the stairs.

Jess got off his bed where he’d been reclining as they chatted, and going over to the door, opened it. On looking out, he said something softly to whoever had come in. Then he turned back into the room and gave Slim his cheeky grin and a wink. “Don’t wait up, pard,” and with that, he withdrew; a minute later Slim heard Millie’s door closing.

Slim shook his head as he stretched out on his bed, smiling to himself. “Guess you’re not feeling  that bad then, Jess,” he chuckled before settling down  for the night.

Jess closed Millie’s bedroom door behind him and she threw herself into his arms and then they were kissing passionately, whispering endearments, and he was telling  her how much he loved her, how much he needed her  to understand everything, to be on his side.

After a moment, she pulled back and studied him closely. “I don’t understand, though,” she said softly, “I don’t understand. Why didn’t you tell me, Jess?”

He just stared down at her like he was going to deny everything, and then thinking better of it , he said softly, “Guess I didn’t want you worryin’ about me.”

“Well, of course I’m going to worry,” she started, peering deeply into his eyes.

“Who told you? Your Ma, I suppose?”

“No, well, not too much at first because she was real busy looking after her friend Liza Brown. No, it was her son, Chuck Brown, that mentioned it.”

Jess’s head shot up at that. Well, how in hell did he know about it? I’ve made darn sure nobody in town knew I’d been hurt, lest it scuppered the betting.”

“Well, he seemed to know you’d been beaten up, said you were in a real bad way yesterday.”

Jess’s eyes narrowed and his fists clenched as he marched over to the window and peered down at the moonlit street below and then he turned to Millie. “Only way he could have known about it, Mill, was if he was involved. So where does this low-life live then?”

“No Jess,” she said quickly, “you’re not going to fight. You can’t, not in the sorry state you’re in already. Just leave it for now, please.”

Jess was about to argue and then he saw the sense of it. He sure wasn’t fit enough to hold his own in a fist fight right then, and if he came off worst, well, that was definitely good-bye to any chance of winning the race.

Jess looked down. “I guess he’ll keep,” he muttered, walking back to her and placing a hand on her shoulder he looked deeply into her eyes.

“That’s better,” she said as she gently started unbuttoning his shirt, a little smile playing around her sweet lips as her eyes looked lovingly up at him.

Then she glanced down at his now exposed torso and the smile froze on her lips as she saw the bindings around his ribs and the black and purple bruising radiating from the edges of the bandages, and covering his chest and belly. “Oh Jess, no,” she whispered. “How bad is it?”

“Bad enough I guess.”

“Please tell me you’re not still riding tomorrow.”

He said nothing just threw her his stubborn look.

“Oh Jess,” she whispered shaking her head, knowing argument was useless.

“Hey”, he said softly, as he put a finger under her chin and tipped her face up so she had to look him  in  the eye. “It will be OK, you’ll see.” Then  very tenderly he reached down  and  kissed her forehead, and  then down  to her lips, taking her in  his arms and pulling her close.

She pulled back after a minute, and looked up at him with concern. “Will it, though? From what Ma told me later, the doctor was saying it would be  suicide to ride out tomorrow, what with those busted ribs and… all the other injuries,” she said dropping  her gaze.

“Um… she told you about the good kicking I got right?”

She just nodded. “I can’t bear to think of them doing that to you,” she whispered.

He sighed and held her close again, stroking her hair, and then said shyly, “Look, I might not be much use in the…er…romancing department right now, but can we turn in? I…I just wanna be with you tonight, hold you.”

“Of course,” she said softly, “and I want to be with you. It doesn’t matter about that. I just want to fall asleep in your arms, feel you close to me.”

He reached down and kissed her, very tenderly. “You’re real special…you know that?”

She smiled. “Yes, cowboy, I know that.”

They snuggled down together, Millie lying in his arms, and after a while he said, “So is your Ma coming back tonight?”

“Umm… what? Oh yeah,” she said sleepily. “Mrs. Brown was feeling much better, so Ma was going to settle her down for the night and then come on home.”

“Will she be OK wandering about this late?”

“Oh sure; they only live a couple of doors down, Jess, real close neighbors.”

“So what about that bastard Chuck?”

“Oh, he would never hurt a woman, and anyways, he was getting well stuck into a whiskey bottle when I left. He’s probably sleeping it off by now.”

They had been asleep for an hour or so before they were rudely awakened by a door banging and then Millie’s Ma crying out in distress.

“What in hell,” said Jess, sitting up and after gently disentangling himself from Millie he leapt out of bed. He searched around for his pants, and then gun in hand ,thundered downstairs, closely followed by Slim and Millie.

The lamp was still on in the hallway, and then he heard voices in the parlor. Running in, he was just in time to see Chuck Brown holding Mrs. Johnson’s arm in  a vice like grip.

Brown’s head shot up and he leveled a gun at Jess;  then he turned it on Mrs. Johnson. “Reckon we’ve got some unfinished business, Harper,” he spat, swaying slightly.

It was obvious to Jess that the man was very drunk, and not wanting the volatile situation to escalate, he said reasonably, “Just put your weapon up and let the lady go, and then we’ll settle the matter man to man.”

However Brown kept his grip on Millie’s Ma’s arm and stared at Jess with glassy eyes. “Oh, I think I hold all the cards right now, Harper. You get your gear and ride out of town, and the lady will be just fine.”

“I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” said Jess, his small amount of patience dwindling fast.

Then Millie, who was standing in the door way just behind Slim, and who hadn’t been noticed by Chuck, suddenly ran forwards. “Why Chuck Brown, what in hell do you think you’re doing!” she shouted angrily.

In the split second Chuck’s attention was distracted, Jess lunged at the man, wrestling the gun out of his hand and allowing Mrs. Johnson to run to safety, before he lashed out  throwing a haymaker to Brown’s chin.

However, Brown rolled with the punched, and looking furious, launched himself at Jess, head-butting him in the chest, making the dark haired cowboy fall to his knees in  agony as Chuck’s bony head came into contact with Jess’s damaged ribs.

“No!” yelled Slim, and springing forwards, he dragged Brown away and felled him with a left hook that sent him flying across the room. Slim ran over and delivered another couple of blows that rendered the intruder unconscious before coming back to Jess who was on his knees retching in pain, with Millie beside him looking white and fearful.

“I’m OK,” whispered Jess after a moment, squeezing Millie’s hand. “Go see to your Ma, sweetheart.”

Millie threw Jess and then Slim a worried glance before doing as she was bid.

Slim hunkered down by Jess. “You want the doc?”

“No… no need, Slim; I’ll be OK once I’ve rested up some.”

“OK pard, I’ll take that low-life to the Sheriff’s office; be right back.”

When he returned a good hour later, once all the reports had been filed and Doug had promised to keep Brown in jail until after the race and then some, Slim made his way straight up to his room and was surprised to see Jess in the other bed.

“You OK?”

“Yup”.

“Thought you were keeping Millie warm tonight?”

“Um, yeah, well, her Ma was real upset; Millie’s bunking down with her. “

“Makes sense.”

“Sure… sure. Hell Slim, I feel real bad about this, dragging Millie and her Ma into my problems”.

“Well I reckon it can’t be helped and they don’t blame you, you know that?”

“Um…I guess.”

“So, the race… Are you still up for it?”

Jess smiled with a hint of evil. “Oh sure, I am, and I’m gonna win it come hell or high water, because those bastards that did me over sure ain’t havin’ the last laugh. No sireee.”

*****

The following morning, before the race, Slim insisted on Jess seeing doc Lloyd again after the happenings of the previous night, and again the Doc said his advice was not to enter the race.

Jess digested this piece of information and then said, “So if you were in my position, what would you do, doc?”

“In your position, there is no way I would ride,” came back the quick fire answer.

“But if you felt you really had to, to secure the future of those you…” Here he found it real hard, but finally continued. “Well, those to who you really care about, felt you had to do this for them?”

Doc Lloyd sighed deeply. “Well, I guess I’d give myself some real strong pain relief.”

“Like what?”

“Laudanum.”

Jess suddenly sat up straight. “No, I ain’t takin’ that.”

“Why ever not, man? It’s the best thing that will keep you in the saddle during the race.”

Jess just shook his head. “Sorry, doc; ain’t takin’ that, like I said.”

“Why, Jess?” asked the doctor gently.

Jess was silent for a very long time and then said softly, “Because I got a mite too fond of it at one time, doc, and I ain’t goin’ back down that road, that’s for sure.”

The doctor threw him a compassionate look. “Well, I can understand that, Jess, so all I can do is bind you up real good, and then when the race will be over, in a matter of minutes and if you’re feeling bad… Well, then I’ll be there to patch you up  afterwards, OK?”

“Thanks, doc,” said Jess, shaking the older man’s hand.

*****

Jess had left the stable lad to warm up Snowy, knowing how good he was with her, and to be honest, he was feeling far from well and so figured it better to save himself for  the actual race.

When the time came for him to mount up, Jess just had to just steel himself, and pulling his hat down hard, he took a deep breath and gathered the reins.

Slim, who had been there to give him a leg up, knowing Jess was far from his usual athletic self, cast him an anxious glance. “Are you OK, pard?” he asked as Jess took his seat.

“Sure, let’s get it over with,” Jess said, kicking Snowy on to a brisk walk towards Main Street and the race start.

When they turned the corner into the bustling street, they were amazed to see even more folk than they had expected. Jess spent a minute or two scanning the crowds for Millie and her Ma and also managed to see several other friends and acquaintances in the melee, including Chet Adams standing near the start line, watching Snow Bird carefully.

Jess was glad to see she was at her best, showing off, her head nodding and her whole demander one of a polished pro; the pushing and shoving crowds and other horses were not phasing her one jot.

Then they were all on the starting line jostling for prime position, before the Sheriff fired off a shot to signal the start of the race.

Jess was crowded by a heavy looking  bay to his left and a big black stallion to his right, but Snowy quickly surged ahead and  got them out of trouble, and after just a few yards, was showing most of the field a clean pair of heels — all but the black stallion, who stuck beside her like glue, his rider whipping the poor creature mercilessly and  screaming  at him.

Jess just clung onto Snowy for dear life, the agonizing pain from his multiple injuries shooting through his body with each step the lively horse took. The feeling  that  she was just flying , for once, was not in evidence as his over sensitive nerves felt every  jar as she hurtled on towards the winning post.

Then he was suddenly alone at the top of the field as she pulled ahead, and as the end came in sight, she gave an extra spurt, finally beating the black stallion by a good length.

Jess could feel the sweat pouring down  his back, his heart hammering within his chest and  a thundering noise in his ears; he gradually began to lose his grip on  the reins, and as she finally slowed down  to a standstill several yards after the finishing post, he felt himself begin to slip from  the saddle.

Then Slim’s strong arms were around him, supporting him and yelling at the crowd to get back and give the rider some air.

However,  the masses still swarmed around Jess, their expressions changing from joy and utterances of congratulations to shock, their good wishes dying  on their lips as they watched as Jess fell into a faint and Slim gently lowered him to the ground, calling out for the doc.

Then Doc Lloyd was there, bending to examine his patient, a look of worry etched on his old face as he called for Slim and the Sheriff to help carry Jess across the road to his surgery.

Jess came around some time later and saw Slim leaning over him, his expression tense. “I did win?” he whispered.

“Sure, sure you did, pard.”

“And Snowy? She’s OK? Someone caring  for her?”

“Yep. Doug took her over to the livery. she’s cooling  down in the yard and then he’s promised to make sure she’s Ok, gets a good rubdown, blanket and feed, so quit your fretting Jess.”

Jess turned eyes on doc Lloyd who had just entered. “Can  I go home, doc? I’m fine now, really I am.”

The older man just shook his head in disbelief. “Yes, sure you are, Jess,” he said with  a touch of irony as he listened to the young cowboy’s chest and then took his pulse, before glancing over  to where Slim was looking on anxiously. “Well Slim, I’ll probably  regret  this, but I guess you can take him back to the Boarding House.” Then he cast a beady eye on Jess. “But no high tailing it over  to the saloon  as soon as my back is turned and definitely no riding for at least a week. So if you want that mare of yours back  at the ranch, then Slim is going  to have to ride her, savvy?”

Jess just nodded, eager to do whatever the doc said as long  as he ‘got under the wire’.

“Um, well, I’ll leave you to Mrs. Johnson’s tender care. I figure she won’t stand any nonsense from you.” Grinning, the doctor wandered off to take evening  surgery.

While Mrs. Johnson and Millie fussed around Jess, making him comfortable on the couch in front of a blazing fire in the parlor, Slim went and checked on Snow Bird at Jess’s request. When he returned some time later, Slim looked excited.

“I met up with Mr. Adams down at the livery, looking over Snowy, and he sends his best regards and to tell you that was a magnificent race and well done, but he’s sure sorry you’re sick.”

“Never mind about all that. Will he sign up? Will he let us use Merlin?” asked Jess impatiently.

“Sure will; all arranged. As soon as she comes into season, you’re to wire him and he’ll send Merlin over with his foreman for the honeymoon.”

Jess grinned at his buddy’s turn of speech, figuring he was toning things down as there were ladies present and not wanting to use ’yard talk’ as Daisy called their sometimes graphic discussions on animal husbandry.

“So are you gonna ride her back for me then, Slim, like the doc suggested?”

Slim nodded. “Sure, and I figure I’ll head off first thing tomorrow. I reckon we’ve left old Barney in charge for long enough. You and Millie follow on, on the stage in a day or two, soon as you’re feeling more yourself, eh, Jess?”

The following morning Slim made his farewells and was off shortly after breakfast, leaving Jess pottering about the Boarding House helping Millie was the dishes, an old apron of Mrs. Johnson flung around his waist.

“Now don’t you get too settled in this here domesticity,” Slim kidded him before he left. “Got plenty of chores waiting for you back at the ranch you know.”

“Sure, sure,” grinned Jess, coming to the front door to wave his buddy off, one arm slung possessively around Millie’s shoulders.

Mrs. Johnson had gone to visit her neighbor, Mrs. Brown, directly after breakfast, and once the dishes were seen to, Jess was just wondering if he should chance his arm and suggest he and Millie go back to bed for an hour or so, when there was a thunderous knocking at the door. He went to answer it, surprised to see Slim standing on the steps looking distressed.

“Slim?”

“It’s Snowy, Jess — she’s gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean gone?”

“Gone, vamoosed, missing. Someone’s taken her, Jess!”

Jess reached for his hat and jacket and was halfway out of the door before Slim could do anything.

“So where in hell are you going? The doc said to rest!”

“Where do you think?” Then calling a quick, “See you later” over his shoulder to Millie, Jess was gone with Slim in fast pursuit.

Bill from the livery was beside himself, so distressed was he at the loss of Snow Bird. “I just don’t understand it,” he said yet again. “One minute she was here and the boy went out the back to bring in another bale of beddin’ straw, and the next minute she’d gone. Just don’t know as how you missed her, Mr. Sherman; she’d gone just seconds before you arrived.”

“Well, come on then,” said Jess quickly. “Let’s get on after them. Saddle us the fastest animals you’ve got, will you, Bill?”

“Now hold fire, son; you’ve no idea which way they went. There’s a good four routes out of town. Could have gone on any one of ‘em. Why dontcha ask around while I saddle up for you? Have the beasts waiting for your return, huh? “

As it happened it took them a good two hours before they were finally on the trail of their beloved horse.

Nobody seemed to have seen Snow Bird, and it was almost as though she had been spirited away into thin air.

After asking around up and down the Main Street and coming up with a blank they finally called in on the Sheriff.

Doug stood up as the two anxious cowboys entered. “Hey, Jess, you feelin’ better? You sure missed a good drinkin’ session last night, with half the town raising a glass to your success,” he said grinning. Then his friend’s demeanor registered. “Hey buddy, Slim, what’s up?”

“The horse has been stolen, Doug. Where’s that low-life Chuck Brown?” Jess continued, peering into the empty cells.

“Well, I’m sorry, Jess, but I had to let him go. Mrs. Johnson didn’t seem to want a make a formal complaint and we had no actual proof he was the one that beat you up. He had a couple of alibi’s for that night.”

“You’re kidding me,” said Jess, looking incensed. “He’s gone free?”

“Like I said, had nothing to keep him on. Anyway, so what’s this about Snowy?”

Slim filled him in while Jess prowled around the office like a caged animal, just wanting to punch something, or somebody hard, not being too particular as to what, such was his anger. Then he turned and started listening to something the Sheriff had said to Slim.

“What was that?” Jess asked.

“I heard Chuck and a buddy, Pete something — Downs, that’s it, a fellah that came in to visit — talking and they were saying something about getting top dollar from a breeding mare down in Texas. Had a stud lined up down there, but I never thought they were talking about your horse, Jess. But it’s beginning to make sense now.”

“It sure is,” said Jess, his eyes narrowing.

“They must have got wind of that deal you’d gotten with Chet Adams,” said Slim quietly. “Decided to get a deal for themselves with her when they knew the kind of cash involved.”

Finally Slim persuaded Jess to go back to the Boarding House and pack for a few days ride, knowing that they’d be gone a while and would need supplies if they were going to make it over the rough terrain. “Besides, you want to say goodbye to your girl, don’t you, Jess?”

Jess ducked his head. “Yeah, sure, of course I do. Feel bad at running out on her, but guess she’ll understand.”

Millie and her Ma felt terrible when they knew of Chuck Brown’s probable involvement.

“I’m so sorry, son; I just couldn’t press charges with Mrs. Brown being so sick. It would kill her if Chuck had been jailed for any length of time.”

“I understand, Ma, but I figure she’s gonna have to face it sometime, and jail might be the least of his problems if her son is a horse thief,” Jess said, leaving the possible consequences to her imagination.

Millie finally bid him an emotional farewell. “I don’t know what doc will say when he knows you’ve ridden out strictly against his orders,” she said with a worried look.

“Well, he ain’t gonna find out ‘til I’m long gone,” Jess said with the characteristic Harper grin. Then he pulled her into a close embrace, kissing her long and hard before releasing her, his eyes glittering with emotion. “I’ll see you back in Laramie, yeah?”

She nodded. “See you, honey.”

And then  Jess touched his hat to her Ma before leaning in and pecking her on the cheek. “See you, Ma, and thanks for lookin’ after me so well.”

“You’re welcome, boy. Take care, both of you, and look after yourself Jess, Slim…you hear!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they said in unison, and the two friends strode off down Main Street.

It was five minutes later, just as they were about to leave town, that Doug’s deputy came tearing up to the livery and stood panting for a minute, a hand resting on the bridle of the feisty looking buckskin Jess was riding. “Jeez, glad I’ve caught you both. You’re missin’ a horse, the boss says?”

“Yeah, you seen her?” asked Jess looking startled.

“I may have done, buddy, I saw Chuck Brown, Pete Downs and a couple of other guys — Lefty and Buck something, brothers — all leaving town about a couple of hours ago.”

“Go on,” said Jess.

“Well, thing is they did have a horse with them. I didn’t take much notice; it was covered over with a big blanket, I thought it kinda strange, and then I just thought it had been in the race yesterday, maybe picked up a chill afterwards or something.”

“Which way?” yelled Jess.

“Huh?”

“Which way were they heading?”

“Oh, yeah. Out of town; took the road east and they were going at quite a clip too, Jess.”

Jess and Slim had already spurred their mounts on.

“Thanks, buddy,” Jess called over his shoulder as they galloped out of town heading east.

They rode hell for leather for over ten miles and then Slim called to Jess to rein in.

“Huh, what is it?”

“Take it easy, Jess. Slow down some, will you?”

“What?”

“Slow down, Jess, if not for your own health, then for that of that poor critter under you. That unfortunate ol’ Buckskin hasn’t done any wrong and you sure as hell are punishing him.”

Jess looked down at the sweating, heaving beast beneath him and his face contorted in pity. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said eventually. He took a deep breath, trying hard not to show how much he was suffering as well. Heck, it was only a short while since he’d been beaten, and although he had made a remarkable recovery, he  was still having a hard time riding so far and so fast.

Slim threw him a compassionate glance. “Look, pard,  we know where they’re heading and it’s a heck of a long way down to Texas, so I guess we can afford to cut us  a bit of slack, ease off today and catch up with them tomorrow, yeah?”

Jess looked back down at his mount, patted his neck, and then ran a hand over his painful ribs. Yeah, guess you’re right, Slim. We’ll just get to the top of the next ridge, see if we can see anything, huh?”

Slim gave a deep sigh. “OK , but we strike camp the other side, OK?”

Jess nodded wearily. “Yeah, ok.”

They finally camped on the far side of the ridge, down by a fast moving stream near some standing pines and, under different circumstances of a mustanging or hunting trip, it would have been a very agreeable spot.

However, Jess was so strung out and worried about his beloved mount that he scarcely noticed where they were and just sat by the camp fire, refusing any supper and looking morose.

“Come on, Jess, we’ll catch up with them eventually.”

“Yeah, but will we? There’s a hell of a lot of land between here and Texas.”

“Look, we agreed that they wouldn’t stay on the road out of Cheyenne — too much traffic to see them — so the obvious choice will have been this old drovers trail. This is the only way they are guaranteed a good water supply; it’s just a matter of time, Jess.”

Jess, who was lying back against his saddle, rubbed his ribs thoughtfully. “I guess you’re right,” he said grudgingly.

“You hurting?”

“Some.”

Slim went and got a small bottle of  Redeye  from his saddle bags and poured a generous measure into Jess’s coffee, before adding a drop to his own.

“Thanks, pard.”

Slim just nodded. “Look, Jess, I know how much Snowy means to you and I agree that deal with Adams would have seen us out of financial difficulties, but we’ll manage, you know.”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “This ain’t just about that deal, the money. Hell Slim, you know me better than that. I…well, I really care about that ol’ horse, you know. I figure she dragged me back to sanity after…well, after all that business with Curt Hicks.”

“Go on,” said Slim softly.

“After I was imprisoned that way, in that goddamn cellar, I found it hard — real hard — to get my head right again. All those dreams and the like. And it was Snowy as dragged me out of all that. The race and getting up of a morning to train her, it was all just so…I dunno, relaxing, I suppose. d I gradually started healing, up here,” he said tapping his head. “Yeah, I guess I sure owe that ol’ horse.”

Slim felt quite surprised at Jess’s unusual openness at his admitting to what he would call weakness, and he was very touched. “Look, I do understand that, Jess, and we will find her, I promise, no matter what it takes,” he said softly.

But when he uttered those words, Slim had no idea exactly what it would take to get Snow Bird back again.

*****

The following morning they set out at first light, and after travelling for a couple of hours, Jess reined in the buckskin; after sliding down from the saddle, he bent down to study some tracks. “Looks like we’ve finally caught up with them, Slim, I figure all the way out of town  someone’s been backtracking to brush away the tracks, but I reckon that they think anyone would have given up by now — either  that or they’re just gettin’ shoddy in  their work.”

“Well, I guess they didn’t reckon on your stubborn streak, Jess!”

“Um. Well, if it’s that low life Chuck Brown, maybe he’s been tipping the jug and just don’t care about keepin’ safe no more,” said Jess acerbically.

It was later that day when Jess again dismounted and checked out the tracks. “Looky here, Slim; it looks like two of the riders took off down the trail this away, and the other two along with Snowy went this away.”

Slim slipped down from the saddle, and bowing to Jess’s greater skill in tracking, said, “So how do you know that the third horse is rider-less then?”

“See the tracks? These are deeper, carrying more weight, see. The rider-less horse don’t make at deep a hoof print, and I don’t reckon Snowy was wearing a saddle, either. Certainly  didn’t take mine. Weren’t enough time to saddle up, anyway.”

“So, why do you think that is?” asked Slim. “Why have they split up?”

“Dunno. Maybe it was part of the deal — just to go so far — or maybe they’ve had a fallin’ out. Hell, I don’t know, Slim. What does it matter!” asked Jess impatiently.

Slim pushed his hat back and looked perplexed. “Well, I don’t know either, but something doesn’t smell right, Jess.”

“So what are you sayin’? We should split up, follow both trails?”

Slim looked undecided. “Maybe that’s what they hoped we’d do, if they are aware they’re being followed that is.”

“So?”

Slim sighed deeply. “So I guess we follow the horse without a rider and just assume that it is Snow Bird. After all, her saddle wasn’t taken, as you say.”

Both men re-mounted and turned their steeds to follow the tracks of the two men and the rider-less horse, just hoping and praying that they had made the right decision.

It was almost dusk when they finally caught up with the riders just beside a pass through the mountain range. As Jess and Slim rode in and the riders became aware of their presence, the thieves hightailed it up into the foothills, and before long opened fire on the two cowboys.

“Hell, Slim,” cussed Jess as he jumped from the saddle pronto and dived for cover behind a convenient rocky out crop, “what the heck are they playin’ at?”

“Just protecting their investment,” said Slim sardonically.

“Investment?” spat Jess as he let go with a volley of shots at the now bunched up marksmen in the foothills.

They returned solid fire for some time and then Jess called across to Slim.

“Say, did you see any sign of Snowy, Slim?” Jess asked as he returned fire.

“Can’t say as I did, Jess; all three nags looked bay to me.”

“Umm…..just what I thought,” said Jess as he returned fire again. “Come on, Slim; I ain’t messin’ about here all goddamn day. You keep ‘em busy and I’ll circle around the back.”

It took Jess no time at all to get around the backs of the inexperienced gun fighters, and as one turned, he had no choice but to shoot him first, but the other laid down his arms, knowing when the game was up.

Jess yelled down for Slim to come on up.

“So which one are you?” spat Jess looking at the sheepish looking cowhand.

“Lefty; that’s my brother, Buck,” he said quietly.

Jess looked over to the fallen man, now kneeling in agony clutching his shoulder. “Well, I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “but if you ain’t up to playin’ with fire, then I guess you shouldn’t.”

The younger man looked down at his fallen sibling. “I guess we learnt the hard way.”

“Yeah, I reckon you did,” said Jess. “So where is my horse? Because trust me, I ain’t gonna rest ‘til I’ve got her back.”

The young man looked belligerent for a moment and then finally looked down…beaten.

“He isn’t kidding,” said Slim sincerely. “Believe me, he won’t rest until he gets his mare back and he doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way.”

“Yeah, I figured that,” said Lefty, finally. “I guess you mean business, Mr. Harper.”

“You bet,” said Jess harshly.

“OK, well I’ll tell you then. Chuck and Pete have doubled back and then are picking up the trail again at Scott’s Bluff, and then turning back east, figuring anyone would have lost interest by then, I guess. The way their play; it is Chuck’s riding your horse, Harper; the extra mount with us was just a decoy.”

Jess threw Slim an urgent look. “Shall we go?”

Slim nodded and then turned his gaze back to Lefty. “What about him, though?”

Jess looked from Lefty to his brother, now lying in the dirt groaning. His glance flitted from Slim to the badly injured man and then to his brother and finally back to Slim. “Oh, I figure maybe he’s learnt his lesson,” he said gruffly, looking over to Lefty.

The young sandy-haired man looked from Jess, to his injured brother and back. “Oh yes, I figure we have, Mr. Harper. I promise this is the end of our walk on the wrong side of the law.”

Jess just nodded briefly. “Good, glad you’ve seen sense,” he said quietly, and with that, he and Slim mounted up and rode off without further comment or looking back.

They rode on at speed and had significantly narrowed the distance between them and Scott’s Bluff by nightfall. They finally set up camp, once they both agreed it was dangerous to ride any further in the poor light.

They were hunkered down buy the fire, Jess still looking far from happy, when Slim finally broached the subject. “So how are you gonna play it when we catch up with them?”

Jess shrugged. “Depends on them, I guess. I don’t wanna kill anyone Slim, but I ain’t gonna let them get away with it either.”

“Yeah, sure, I know that, but maybe we can try and take it sort of easy, if they don’t open on us?”

“Sure, I guess,” said Jess quietly. “I just want Snowy back in one piece, is all. Guess I’m kinda beat for takin’ any revenge anyway, you know, Slim.”

“You’re hurting more than your letting on, aren’t you, pard?”

Jess rubbed his ribs and threw Slim a sheepish grin. “I guess maybe I am. All I want is some peace and rest to be honest, Slim — just as soon as I get my horse back.”

“Sure, sure. So let’s hope we can deal with it real easy and nobody else gets hurt. Come on, let’s turn in; tomorrows another day.”

They were up and at it at first light, kicking their mounts into a brisk trot as they headed out for Scott’s Bluff, but as they got closer, Jess suggested they take it real easy and rode in slow.

“Thing is, if they’re still anywhere near the top, they’ll be able to see us coming from miles away,” said Jess.

“Yeah, I’d figured that. So how about we just mosey on down to the river, head east for the rest of the day and then lie in wait for ‘em. They’ll have to pass down this way eventually, and then we’ll have the drop on them?”

Jess looked thoughtful for a minute, really just wanting to find the horse as soon as he could, but once he’d thought on it he knew the plan made sense.

And so it was they turned and headed off towards the river, and after another few hours ride, found the ideal spot in which to take the horse thieves unawares.

It was an idyllic spot with the river meandering along, standing pines for shelter and a small hill behind to offer them a good view of the trail from whence they expected to see the horse thieves within a couple of days.

In the meantime, both men decided to take some time for a little rest and relaxation and were soon happily settled down on the river bank fishing for their supper.

As the afternoon wore on,  the Indian summer sun beat down on their backs and both men decided to strip down  to their undershorts and take a much needed swim to cool off.

They ducked and dived good naturedly splashing each other and generally acting like a couple of kids, Jess was to ruefully remember later, as though they had not a care in the world.

The icy cold water seemed to relieve the continuous ache in Jess’s healing ribs, the cool water refreshed both men, and after a while, they settled down on a large rock on the riverbank in the afternoon sun. Before too long, all that could be heard was the quietly contented snoring of the two friends.

After half an  hour or so, Slim awoke and wandered over to where he had left his pants, and as he picked them up to put them back on he suddenly felt an agonizing pain in  his lower leg.

Slim screamed out in agony, and looking down, saw a large rattler begin to slide away from  where it had been sleeping prior to its untimely disturbance by Slim, having taken the ultimate reprisal. Slim fell to the ground clutching his leg in both hands and crying out once more as the burning pain engulfed the limb.

Then Jess was there, his gun in his hand, and he quickly dispatched the snake by emptying a round of bullets into its jumping body. Then he threw himself on the ground beside Slim, his face pale with shock. “Let me see, pard.”

Slim relinquished his vice like grip on  his leg, exposing the bleeding limb with two tell-tale fang bites about four inches below the knee.

Quick as a flash, Jess — who had got dressed after the swim, saying he felt chilly — tugged off his bandana and  tied it tightly around Slim’s leg  just below the knee. Then drawing his hunting knife from  his boot, he pulled the affected leg straight and then glanced at Slim’s face for a moment, still contorted in pain. “You know what I’m gonna do?”

“Yes, for God’s sake, Jess, just do it, quickly!”

Jess looked down at the bleeding bite, and without a moment’s hesitation, he cut deeply into the flesh with his fiercely sharp knife, before leaning in  and  sucking hard at the venom, now liberally mixed with blood. He then leaned away and spat it out, before carrying out the sucking and spitting procedure several times, all the while Slim groaning and cussing.

Then Jess half-carried, half-dragged his friend’s recumbent body to the shallow water at the river side and immersed the already swelling limb in the icy water. “Stay there an’ don’t move,” he said, his voice gruff with anxiety, and he ran off, returning a few minutes later with Slim’s bottle of Redeye and offered him a drink.

Slim was shaking so much he couldn’t take the offered drink, so Jess held it to his lips and gave him a swig, before taking one himself.

Then Jess threw a comforting arm around his buddy and talked to him gently, trying to calm him some, knowing that panic could be a very large factor in the outcome of events. After a good five minutes, he looked down at the leg, still in the icy water. “Has that helped the pain any?”

“I guess; I can’t hardly feel the darn thing at all. It’s gone numb with the cold,” said Slim, now shaking all over, but whether from cold or shock Jess was not too sure.

However after a while, Jess figured Slim was getting way too chilly, so he heaved the leg out and was horrified to see that the limb was very swollen and a terrible purple color around the fang bites. He took up the whiskey bottle, and telling Slim to brace himself, poured some of the spirit into the open gash he had made with his hunting knife.

Slim’s leg shot up and he recoiled in agony, cussing some more.

“Sorry, sorry  Slim, gotta do this,” Jess muttered.

“I know; pay me no heed and just do what you’ve got to, Jess.”

Jess gently pulled Slim away from the river and helped him to dress, and then after throwing some more logs on the small camp fire they had lit in anticipation of cooking their fish supper later, he rose to go.

“Where are you dang well going,” asked Slim, his head shooting up from where Jess had made him comfortable on his bedroll, the affected leg with the trouser leg rolled up and a clean bandage covering the wound, raised slightly.

Jess was in two minds as to what to say. The wound still looked angry and could be life-threatening, he knew, if all the venom hadn’t been extracted. Now he needed to try an old Indian remedy he knew of, but he doubted if Slim would have much faith in it, plus he didn’t want his buddy to think that the condition was so dangerous that Jess was resorting to anything to save the day, but hell, that was the way things were  he thought to himself.

Slim was still shaking, pale and sweating, and the wound seemed to have become even more swollen in just the last few minutes.

“I’m gonna go and find a herbal remedy for you, works a treat,” Jess said, forcing a warm smile on his face. “Just as a back-up you know?”

Slim looked him in the eye and gave a deep sigh. “This is real serious, isn’t it, Jess. Am I gonna die, do you think?”

Jess stood frozen to the spot for a couple of seconds before leaning down and grinning at his buddy. “‘Course you ain’t; I’ll see you right. It’s an old remedy Sky taught me, and she weren’t ever wrong.“ (* see Blood Brothers.)

“OK, don’t be long, huh?”

“No, sure I won’t. You just take a nap and I’ll be right back.”

As far as Slim was concerned, it just seemed like a few seconds before his buddy was back gently shaking him awake.

Jess had ridden out, his gaze glued to the ground hunting for a patch of Plantain, which he knew would grow in this area. However, such was his agitation that it took him a while to locate what he was looking for. Then he jumped down from the buckskin and cut as many of the tender looking, younger leaves as he could carry before jumping back in the saddle and trotting the short distance back to the river side.

Once he had jumped down and tethered the horse, Jess looked over to Slim, and his heart seemed to stop as he peered at his buddy lying so still and pale. For a horrible moment, he thought Slim had gone.

He raced over and threw himself down at Slim’s side, and after a moment was rewarded by him groaning and finally opening his eyes.

“So what kept you”, Slim quipped, really feeling that his friend had only just left a minute before.

“Just shut up with your smart cracks and get chewing’ on this,” said Jess, thrusting a small handful of Plantain leaves at his buddy.

“Huh?”

“Chew it, Slim; the juice will help your innards, and then if you spit out the rest, that’ll work as a sort of poultice on the wound. Helps draw out the venom, if there’s any left in.”

“You’re kiddin’ me.”

“No I ain’t kiddin’ you, Slim. Now will you just do as I say!“

Slim took the offered leaves and started chewing, but gagged after a few minutes. “Jeez, that’s awful!”

“Well, so when did you ever have any medicine that tasted good?” retaliated Jess, taking a large leaf and biting into it himself. “See, it ain’t so bad,”” he said hiding a shudder.

Eventually both men managed to chew enough of the dreaded plant to form a reasonable sized poultice, and  Jess put it over the bite and held it in place with a clean bandage.

“So what do we do now?” asked Slim, looking up at his buddy with bloodshot eyes.

Jess looked back down at his good friend. “Pray,” he said softly. Then with the tiniest hint of a twinkle in his deep blue eyes, he added, “And get a little drunk maybe.”

Whether it was Jess’s swift  action with the knife and sucking the venom out,  the Plantain poultice, the prayers or the getting a little drunk that cured Slim, they were never to know. Years later when they retold the tale, Jess was adamant that it was Sky’s Plantain poultice that did the trick; Slim was more of a mind that it was a combination of everything, plus Jess’s good nursing.

Whatever it was, Jess spent one hell of a bad night with his pard, thinking all the time that he would lose him at any minute.

If he’d thought that first night in the cellar at Curt Hicks’ place was the longest he could remember, well, then this came a close second. (*See Snow Bird Saves the Day).

Slim was cussing and wheezing, unable to catch his breath at one stage, and Jess was really spooked. “Come on, buddy, just breathe for me, will you?” yelled Jess, getting really upset.

Slim, looked up at him. “I’m trying, aren’t I,” he gasped.

“Yeah, well try harder!”

Slim finally relaxed into a restless sleep just before dawn, and Jess lay beside him, watching every rise and fall of his chest as the first light of the new day gradually lit up the camp site.

After that, things improved rapidly, and by noon of the following day, Slim was able to sit up and eat a hearty meal.

As Jess watched him digging into the rabbit stew he had provided, he grinned at his friend.

Slim was suddenly aware of his buddy’s scrutiny. “So what’s so funny then?” he asked , looking exasperated at Jess’s attitude, when  he was still feeling far from well, truth be known, although  he was much better.

“Nuthin’,” said Jess softly, “just glad you’re  back to normal, that’s all.”

Slim  suspended the fork on the way to his mouth  and  smiled over at his buddy. “Me too. Thanks, Jess”.

*****

It was the following  day that Jess began getting edgy knowing that the horse thieves  were due to pass through at  any time, but he felt real bad saying anything as it was obvious that Slim  was still far from well after his recent ordeal.

After he’d watched Jess prowl around the camp site for the third time, Slim finally lost his patience. “Jess, for goodness sake, will you go up the hill a spell and see if there’s any sign.”

Jess peered over. “You don’t mind?”

“Of course I don’t. It’s why we’re here isn’t  it?”

“Yeah, but since you got  sick, well… I figure it changes things; I sure don’t wanna put you in any danger, Slim. “

“Look, I’m fine. I might not be able to run too well right now, but I can still hold a gun and shoot straight. So will you just hightail it off and see if there’s anything you think we might need to shoot at?” he said with a friendly grin.

Jess was gone so long that Slim thought he had come to grief. But then he hadn’t heard any gunfire, so at least he hadn’t been shot, Slim pondered as he lay waiting for his pard’s return and wondering what had befallen him as the minutes gradually turned into hours.

*****

Jess had ridden up to the top of the hill and found a good place to lie in wait in a small clump of cottonwoods, with scrubby bushes below, and he lay there in  the noontide sunshine, his field glasses focused on  the distant trail from whence he expected Chuck Brown and his buddy Pete Harvey to be travelling.

He’d been lying there motionless for nearly two hours and was just thinking he should really go back down and check on Slim when he saw something in the distance. A fast approaching dust cloud heralded the approach of two riders galloping their horses at a tremendously punishing speed, bearing in mind the heat of the afternoon sun beating relentlessly down on horse and rider.

Jess cussed under his breath before running to his mount, and leaping up into the saddle, he rushed to carry out his hastily formulated plan.

The riders had to follow the trail through a narrow, steep-sided gully, and that was where Jess aimed to take them by surprise.

He quickly made his way down  to the area, tethered the buckskin out of sight, and then took up his position on a rocky outcrop overlooking the trail below, where he would be completely unseen by  the riders beneath him until it  was too late.

Although the odds were two to one against him, Jess wasn’t particularly worried, as not only did he have the element of surprise on his side, but he was also the superior marksman and thought little of his adversary’s chances of retaliation.

He waited until exactly the right moment to launch his attack, and as the men rode into the narrow ravine  just below him, he struck by firing a warning shot over their heads that brought them to a dust-raising standstill, looking up in shock.

Then before the two could register what was happening, Jess had them in his rifle sights and yelled down, “Drop your weapons and git down real slow, or so help me I’ll blast your goddamn heads off.”

Both men looked completely shocked at this sudden turn of events, and after a moment, they did as they were told, throwing their hand guns and  rifles down before very nervously slipping down from the saddle, standing there peering up at the lone cowboy glaring back, the look of fury in his dark blue eyes truly terrifying.

Jess jumped lightly down from the rock, landing right in front of Chuck Brown, and still pointing the rifle at his belly, flicked his eyes across to where Snow Bird stood head down, panting and shaking, in a lather of sweat.

 If he was mad before, then what he saw made him way beyond angry.

Jess walked over and reached out a gentle hand and caressed her neck, all the time his gaze boring into Brown’s eyes, and after a moment, the horse thief looked down unable to meet the furious glare. “You bastard,” said Jess ominously quietly, “you’ve damn near run her into the ground.”

And then Jess could finally contain his temper no longer, and throwing his rifle aside, he lashed out, the punch to the chin, sending the stocky young man flying before Jess launched himself at him. The two men rolled on the ground, exchanging punches and oaths as they pounded each other furiously.

It soon became obvious that Jess had the upper hand, however, and after just a few minutes, Brown was on his knees begging for mercy.

“Why in hell should I show you any mercy? You ain’t shown her any!” yelled Jess, totally incensed, throwing another vicious backhander at the man who fell back cowering in terror.

Then Jess’s attention was suddenly dragged away from the fight as he heard the sound of hoof beats and realized that while he was busy knocking nine bells out of Brown, his accomplice had beaten a hasty retreat. Now all that could be seen was a fast disappearing rider, and after a few minutes he was a mere dust cloud as he made for the distant horizon.

Jess stooped down and picked his hat  up out of the dirt and brushed himself down  with it before putting it back on. Pulling the firmly down, his eyes narrowed as he  watched the fast retreating horse thief and wondered if it was worth his while giving  chase. Then he thought better of it as he remembered his buddy lying over the hill and still really sick. Nope, from the looks of it, Pete Downs was heading back towards Cheyenne, and Jess figured he’d be easy enough to pick up when he was ready.

“Git up!”

Brown just stared at him with glazed eyes, looking more dead than alive and trembling in fear.

“I said git up!” snarled Jess, reaching down and pulling the man to his feet by the front of his shirt. Then he pushed him up against Snowy, and leaning over, took the rope from the saddle; tying his arms firmly to his sides, Jess pushed his rifle hard into the man’s back. “Now get movin’,” he spat, and the two men marched back towards the riverside camp, Jess leading Snowy and picking up the buckskin on the way.

When they arrived back, Slim already had his gun drawn as he heard them approach and then breathed a huge sigh of relief and holstered it once he saw Jess shoving his prisoner roughly in front of him.

“You OK Slim?” Jess said quickly, seeing how pale his buddy was looking.

“Yeah, sure; just getting kind of anxious. You were a long time.”

Jess just nodded. “Yeah, well, I’ve got one of the bastards. The other lit off back to Cheyenne, but he’ll keep a while I reckon.”

Then Brown threw himself at Slim’s mercy, pleading for understanding. “Please, mister, keep him off of me. The guy’s darn crazy.”

Jess just pushed him roughly down  beside one of the huge pines and tied him to the tree before turning his back on  him. Walking over to where he’d ground hitched Snow Bird and without  another word, he removed her saddle and started rubbing her down, watched closely by Slim and Brown.

Then after a moment, Slim saw his back tense and he stopped what he was doing and appeared to be just staring at the horse’s broad back. “Jess?”

After a good couple of minutes, Jess swung around and the look in his eyes made even Slim quake. “What is it, pard?” he asked softly.

Jess ignored him and very slowly and menacingly advanced on his prisoner, who just stared helplessly up as his adversary advanced, Brown looking like a stag startled in the woods.

Jess stared down at him for another moment before exploding in anger, and throwing a backhander that made Brown’s head snap back so it seemed that it might part company with his shoulders.

Immediately Slim sprang up from his position by the fire and grabbed his pard’s arm restraining him.

Jess pulled angrily away, but made no further attempt to attack Brown.

“Jess, just take it easy, for God’s sake! Another blow like that and it’ll be you looking at the business end of a rope, never mind those no good horse thieves. Now for God’s sake, get a grip,” Slim said, anxiety making his voice harsh.

Jess’s hunched shoulders slowly relaxed and he let out a huge sigh. “Sorry, Slim,” he said shakily, before turning away from Brown and wandering back to his mount.

Slim followed him and then saw what it was that had incensed his buddy so.

Snowy’s withers were red raw with weeping saddle sores from a dirty, ill-fitting saddle, and as Jess’s gentle hands checked her over, he found more tender spots under the girth too.

Slim sucked in a shocked breath. “Oh Jess,” he whispered, looking over at his friend’s anguished expression, “can you treat her here?”

Jess nodded. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll put on a cold compress, plenty of nice cool water at least, and I’ve got some iodine in my saddle bag that should help with the infection.” And then he went about the painstaking business of very gently checking every inch of his horse for further damage before setting about tenderly treating her.

Jess spent a good hour tending Snowy’s wounds before seeing to the buckskin and finally collapsing down by the fire with Slim and pouring them both a coffee. “So how are you feelin’ now?”

“Much better, thanks. I figure I’ll be able to ride tomorrow…maybe.”

Jess shook his head. “Nah, I’d give it another couple of days. If there’s any poison left in there, you sure don’t want it movin’ about.”

“Umm, I guess you’re right. So what about him?” Slim said, nodding towards where the prisoner was still tied to a tree, trying not to even breathe loudly lest Jess should come and work him over  some more.

“Well he ain’t goin’ any place, is he?” replied Jess laconically.

“I guess not. But Jess, you’ve finished with him, yeah?”

Jess was silent for a long time, looking down into his coffee before eventually replying. “Sure, there’s no need to worry on that account, Slim. I ain’t thinkin’ of swingin’ for him; he ain’t worth it.”

Slim just nodded visibly relaxing. “Well, I guess’s he’s Doug’s problem, just as soon as we get back to town.”

If it had been left up to Jess, he’d have made Brown walk all the way back to Cheyenne, but finally common sense prevailed and he let him ride the buckskin, while he rode Snow Bird bareback so as not to damage her newly-healed back with the ill-fitting saddle.

“We’ve really got to get home, Jess, and if you make him walk, it’ll take us days to make it back to town.”

“Um, well, maybe we should just leave him afoot and let the vultures be judge and jury,” said Jess morosely.

As it was, they arrived in Cheyenne a couple of days later and handed the prisoner over to Sheriff Masters.

They were pretty worn out when they landed late in the evening, so they just left the prisoner at the jail and promised to return first thing to make a statement before retiring  to Mrs. Johnson’s Boarding House.

Mrs. Johnson looked delighted when she answered the door and Jess threw her his charming grin.

“Evenin’, Ma’am. Have you got room for two weary cowboys?”

“I certainly have,” she said beaming at the two young men. “Come on in and get washed up, boys; suppers nearly ready.”

Then as she stood back to let them enter, she peered more closely at Slim. “Why Slim dear, you look a little peaky.”

“Yeah, well, he’s been messin’ with rattlers, ain’t he,” said Jess with a wink.

However, Mrs. Johnson didn’t think that at all funny and made a real fuss of the blond cowboy, ushering him in and sitting him by the fire, insisting that he tell her all about it while Jess grinned and rolled his eyes before taking their saddlebags upstairs.

It was after supper when Jess, Slim, Mrs. Johnson and her sister Betty were all sitting around the fireside sipping their coffee that the subject of Chuck Brown and the crime of horse stealing came up.

“So what will happen to him?” asked Mrs. Johnson, looking to Slim.

Slim flicked a glance over to Jess and then said quietly, “Well, horse stealing is a hanging offence in this state, Ma’am.”

She flinched at that. “Yes, so I believe.” Then she cast Jess a concerned look. “You are very angry about it, aren’t you, my dear?”

Jess just nodded. “It ain’t just that he stole her, Ma,” he said honestly, “but hell — er, excuse me — heck, he ran her into the ground, set an ill-fitting saddle on her, didn’t groom her, rub her down or anything. Didn’t care for her at all. She was in pain with real bad saddle sores. I reckon if we hadn’t caught up with him, well…she’d never have made it to Texas.”

“I know. I do understand dear, what he did was very bad — evil in fact — but to hang, to lose his life, well, I just don’t know what it will do to his Ma, with her having been so sick and all.”

“Well, he should have dang well thought of that before, shouldn’t he!” spat Jess suddenly angry.

There was a shocked silence in the room, and Ma Johnson and her sister exchanged a glance, and then Jess dipped his head before leaning over to where she was sitting next to him and placing his hand over hers he squeezed it gently. “I’m sorry, Ma; I didn’t mean to shout at you. I’m just kinda beat. And yeah, sure angry too. Guess I’ll turn in, if you’ll excuse me.” With that, Jess got up and left the room, cursing himself for upsetting Millie’s Ma and Aunt  that  way and wishing too that  Millie was here with him instead of back at work in  Laramie. He sure needed that girl, he thought sadly.

After he had gone, Slim gave Mrs. Johnson a kind smile. “He doesn’t mean it, Mrs. Johnson. We’re both tired. He may change his mind about pressing charges tomorrow, when he’s slept on it.”

“He’s a good boy,” she whispered, “but I know him and his horses. I know how hard this is for him. But to hang?” She shook her old head in despair. “I just feel so bad for poor Ma Brown, I really do.”

Slim excused himself a while later, and when he entered their shared room, he wasn’t surprised to see the night light still burning brightly on the bedside table and Jess lying on his bed, fingers laced behind his head and staring moodily up at the ceiling.

Slim sank down onto his own bed and glanced across at his buddy. “Feeling bad, eh?”

Jess nodded. “I didn’t mean to yell at her. Hell, I’m real fond of Ma Johnson. It’s just…”

“That you’re real mad, I know.”

“Yeah.” Jess sighed. “And I know what it’s like to feel a rope around my neck, and maybe…well, maybe he don’t deserve that.” he said softly. Then with more conviction, he continued. “But he’s gonna pay, Slim , you be sure of that. If I don’t press charges, I still want him to suffer some, know what he’s done,  and be dang sorry about it too.”

“Well, the way you laid into him, buddy, I guess there’s no danger of him not realizing exactly what he’s done.”

Jess threw him the ghost of a smile at that. “No, I guess not.”

When Jess and Slim entered Sheriff Masters’ office the following morning, they were surprised to see him looking very serious instead of his usual cheerful self.

“Hey, what’s up, Doug?” asked Jess grinning at him and helping himself and Slim to a coffee.

“Umm, I guess you won’t be looking so cheerful when I tell you what I’ve gotta say,” said the Sheriff, sitting up in his seat and casting Jess a concerned look.

“Oh?”

He tipped his head towards the cells. “Your pal in  there made a full confession last night, and like I say, you ain’t gonna like it, Jess.”

“What do you mean made a full confession? Hell, we caught him red-handed with the horse. I figure he didn’t have any choice but to admit it,” said Jess in surprise.

“Yeah, but it ain’t just that that’s he’s admitted to.”

“Go on” said Slim, sitting down and sipping his coffee.

“Well, see, he’s admitted to something else — to contaminating the feed that you bought from the mercantile that poisoned Snowy and killed Benson’s horse.”

It took Jess a minute to assimilate this latest piece of news, and then he turned and charged at the cell, grabbing the bars as though he would part them to gain access to Brown, who was cowering on his bed looking terrified as well he might.

Jess stood there red faced and raging, calling him all the names under the sun, his language turning the air blue, before Slim finally came over and pulled him away.

“Jess, this isn’t doing anyone any good. Now just simmer down, will you?”

“Simmer down… simmer down — are you mad? You heard what Doug said. That bastard near killed my horse, and did kill old man Benson’s, and you want me to simmer down?”

Then Doug came over. “Look Jess, there’s more to this than I’ve told you. Now why don’t you go check on your horse and calm down  some, and we’ll discuss it a mite later, huh?”

Jess took a deep breath. Sure, he did need to check out Snowy, and if he couldn’t knock Brown into next week, he figured he didn’t wanna be sharing the same air right then. “OK,” he said gruffly. “See you later.” He marched off.

Slim went to follow him, but Doug put out a restraining hand and shook his head imperceptivity. “Give me a minute, huh, Slim?”

Slim nodded. “Be right there, Jess. You go on.”

Once the dark-haired cowboy had left, Doug poured them both another coffee and nodded for Slim to sit opposite his desk.

When they had relaxed back and were drinking their coffee, Doug gestured to the door where Jess had so recently left. “He’s taking this really badly, isn’t he?”

Slim just nodded. “Well, you know him and his horses.”

Doug nodded with a faint smile. “Sure I do, and I’m pretty similar myself. Someone messes with my mount, well…”

“So what’s this all about then, Doug?”

“Well I’ll tell you, Slim. I’ve only known Chuck Brown a short time but he hasn’t seemed to be  a bad kid up to now, easily led I guess. That Pete Harvey, well, he’s a nasty piece of work; shouldn’t be surprised if most of the planning was down to him.”

“Go on, and if you think I’ll be able to convince Jess to forgive him on just that, I reckon you don’t know him too well, Sheriff.”

Doug threw him a genuine smile at that. “No, I didn’t figure he would. Anyway this is the story. You know his Ma is real sick?”

“Yeah, sure Mrs. Johnson’s been visiting.”

“Um, well apparently young Chuck got involved for the cash; needed it for his Ma’s doctor’s fees. Like I said to Jess, there’s more to this matter than he realizes,” the Sheriff said.

“Oh, so that makes it all alright, does it?” asked Slim bitterly.

“Nope, of course not, but it is the reason why. And believe me, Slim, he is truly sorry. What he did to the horse wasn’t willful either, just ignorance. He only came here from the city a few months back after his Pa died, and he’s had little to do with saddle horses. Didn’t know anything about their care and up keep, didn’t even know contaminating the feed would kill them. Just thought they’d be a mite sick and miss the race, he says.”

Slim mulled all this over. “And so you want me to try and talk Jess around to dropping charges, get him a jail sentence instead of a rope, is that right? “

“That’s about the size of it, I guess.”

“Um, well, like I say, maybe you don’t know Jess too well.” But then Slim’s honest, open face broke into a grin. “But I guess I can try.”

Doug returned the smile. “Well, I reckon that’s all I’m asking.”

Slim caught up with Jess back at the livery where he was still busy tending Snow Bird. “How is she?”

Jess spun around. “OK I guess, physically at least; her sores have started to heal. But she’s still pretty spooky — frets at the least thing. I figure those bastards hurt her real bad, scared her too.”

“Umm, well, Doug wants me to talk to you about that. Er, maybe later?”

Jess just threw him a withering look. “Uumm, maybe,” and he turned back to his mount.

It was much later when both men were sitting in front of the parlor fire in the Boarding House, with the owner and her sister having retired for the night, that they eventually addressed the situation again.

Slim poured out everything that Doug had told him, about the young man being ignorant of horses and their care — especially the effect the contaminated food would have on the horses or the result of the poorly fitting saddle.

However Jess just looked completely skeptical. “So he don’t understand when a beast’s in pain then?”

“Well, maybe he just didn’t notice.”

“And what about him and the others knocking me senseless before the big race in Laramie? Was that just that he didn’t understand what pain he would cause me?” said Jess sarcastically.

“Well…no, of course not, but that was never proven you know, Jess.”

Jess just looked down shaking his head in disbelief. “So you, Ma Johnson and Doug Masters are all sayin’ he’s a poor innocent boy that deserves some understanding, are you?”

Slim looked down for a long time, and then fixing Jess with his open blue gaze, said softly, “Well, you got some from me, didn’t you, when you needed it, and I figure that helped you some?”

Jess was deathly quiet for some time and then threw Slim a hard look. “You don’t have to remind me, Slim, but I don’t figure that has anything to do with this.”

“Well, I still think you need to think about it, though, Jess, and so does Doug. Not to mention Mrs. Johnson. To be real sure of what’s going on here — whether the boy’s innocent  or not.”

“Oh well, I’ll just give in and let the bastards get away with it then, shall I?” said Jess bitterly.

Slim sighed deeply. “I didn’t say that. I just think you should cut him some slack; maybe he isn’t as bad as you think.”

Jess just shook his head and turned away, not wanting to argue about something he had no intention of changing his mind about. Hell, he knew Brown was a bad lot, he just knew it, his gut instinct told him so and it was never wrong…was it?

Meanwhile back in the jail, Mrs. Brown had been visiting her son, who had asked that the minister visit as he wanted to repent and tell the whole town, including Jess Harper, how sorry he was.

“ Ma, I just feel so bad. Please, please ask Mrs. Johnson to plead with Harper. I want to live Ma and  I’ll make amends I swear it!”

“I know, boy, and I believe you, really I do. We’ll do all we can for you, I promise. I’ll visit Mrs. Johnson tomorrow. Don’t worry all; will be well, son.”

Chuck put his head in his hands and wept. “I can’t die, Ma, I just can’t!”

Mrs. Brown kept her promise to her son and visited the Boarding House the following morning after breakfast, asking to speak to Mr. Harper.

Jess, who was just finishing his coffee, cast Mrs. Brown a wary look before getting up from the table and politely offering her a seat, while Mrs. Johnson and Slim hovered anxiously in the background.

“Thank you, young man,” Mrs. Brown said, casting him a faint smile.

Jess just nodded and sat back down. “I believe you’ve been sick, Ma’am,” he said respectfully. “So how are you?”

She smiled genuinely now. “Much better thank you, Mr. Harper; the doctor says I will make a full recovery shortly. It was nothing too serious — just the flu — but it took me very badly; they were all worried at one stage. But as I say, I’m on the mend.”

“Well I’m pleased to hear that, Ma’am,” Jess said, sitting back and waiting for her to state her business.

“You know why I’m here?”

He just nodded again and said nothing.

“Mr. Harper, do you have children?”

He looked surprised at that. “I’ve got me a ward, young Mike Williams; I guess he’s like a son to me, yeah.”

“So you understand the bond between a child and its parent.”

Jess looked cagey. “What are you getting’ at,  Ma’am?”

“Just this. How would you feel if…er, Mike’s life were in danger. He could possibly hang for something he hadn’t done — well not deliberately anyway. Was just led astray. You would back him wouldn’t you?”

Jess was silent for a long time, looking down, then  when he turned his deep blue eyes on her they were  filled with sympathy. “Sure Ma’am, but I’m sorry to have to tell you that I don’t believe that’s the case with your son. I believe he deliberately attacked me of his own accord and also intentionally poisoned my horse, killed another, and then stole Snow Bird, rode her real hard with no regard to her wellbeing. And that’s what I aim to stand up and say in court. As to the outcome, well, I reckon that’s up to the judge and jury.”

“I see. So you won’t help me — won’t help Chuck — then?”

“No Ma’am. Least ways, I won’t help him get off scot free. I guess I wouldn’t wanna see him hang, but like I say, that’s up to the jury not me.”

She sighed deeply. “You do know the trial is to be held in Laramie?”

“Well, I guess that’s where the poisoning of the horses took place. As to me being beaten up before the race, well, sure that was here, but the circuit judge sits in Laramie next.”

“Allegedly beaten up, Mr. Harper. My boy  isn’t violent;  he would have played no part in that, believe me.”

“Yeah,  well,  I have the ‘alleged ‘ bruises and bust ribs to show for it,” Jess muttered darkly.

“Jess!” said Slim, suddenly feeling he had to wade in. “I guess this isn’t helping Mrs. Brown none and she has been sick you know.”

Jess threw Slim a hard look, but said nothing  more.

“Please,” said Millie’s Ma, “Will you just consider speaking up for him at the trial? The people of Laramie trust you, respect you, Jess. They’ll listen to you, and if you say you think he’s a good man who has just lost his way, wants to change, then I’m sure they would be very lenient, maybe just give him a warning?”

“So you want me to lie under oath,” Jess said angrily. “Help him get away with everything he did. Walk away free.”

“But it’s so,” said Mrs. Brown fervently. “Really, he isn’t a bad boy. Why can’t you see that?”

“And why can’t you see the truth?” said Jess quietly. Then he rose to go. “Excuse me, Ma’am.” He left without a backwards glance, knowing he was in danger of losing his temper with  Millie’s Ma and that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Jess wandered into the Sheriff’s office a while later, thinking maybe he should chat to the prisoner himself, try and see some good in the man if it was there.

Doug threw him a wary look when he entered. “You haven’t come to make trouble, have you, buddy?” he said quietly.

“Nope, just the opposite in fact,” said Jess looking sincere. “Thought I’d have a chat with the prisoner see if I can see the sun shinin’ out of him, like his Ma can.”

Doug grinned at that. “You’ll have to wait then, I’m afraid; he’s praying with the Minister right now.”

Jess’s eye brows shot up at that. “The hell he is,” he said in surprise.

“He asked to see a man of the cloth directly after he had confessed everything to me, including the whereabouts  of his accomplice Pete Harvey.” The Sheriff shoved a signed confession across the table towards Jess.

“So he’s ratted on his buddy then?” asked Jess, thinking that was the lowest  of the low, even if he would have been  protecting  an outlaw. In Jess’s book, you didn’t tell on a friend, no matter what, and his fierce loyalty had got him in hot  water many times in the past.

Doug smiled at that. “You don’t  approve? “

Jess just shook his head. “Nope.”

“Honor amongst  thieves, is that it?”

“Somethin’ like that,” said Jess before turning  his attention to the confession.

It basically said that he had been witness to Jess being beaten, but had tried to stop it and was incredibly sorry. Then he claimed that he was unversed in horsemanship, and had no idea of the effects of the  food contamination or to the way to care for a horse; hence, Snow Bird’s poor condition. He finished with the fact  that  he had been pressured into stealing the horse to pay for treatment for her poor sick old Ma.

Jess looked like he was going to gag when he’d finished reading it. “So you believe all this crap then, Doug?”

“Ain’t down  to me, is it, Jess? “

“So you think he’s a nice lad just  been led astray?” Jess persisted.

“Maybe.”

“Have you forgotten you had that bastard in the cells not too long ago for putting a gun to Ma Johnson’s head and threatening to kill her lest I rode out before the  race?”

“No I haven’t forgotten, Jess, but he explained all about that — how he was unaccustomed to strong drink and was worried about his Ma. That’s why Mrs. Johnson didn’t press charges; she understood he was in a bad way.”

Jess just cussed lightly under his breath. “And she saw the bad way I was in when he’d finished puttin’ the boot in.” Jess  shook his head. “He’s conned you all, ain’t he ?”

Doug decided to ignore that rather contentious comment and  changed the subject. “I need to round up his accomplice see what he  has to say. You free to ride out with me and find him, Jess, say tomorrow?”

“I suppose,” said Jess, less than enthusiastically, still stinging from the fact that everyone seemed to believe Chuck Brown’s version of events over his own.

“And I was sort of wondering if Slim would agree to take the prisoner over to Laramie on the stage tomorrow. I really need my deputy here if you and I are going after Harvey.”

Jess just shrugged. “You can ask him.”

Later that night  Jess and Slim had retired for the night after a supper charged with atmosphere.

Ma Johnson tried to persuade Jess to speak up for Brown again, and Mrs. Brown, who had stayed for supper, ended up in tears and was pleading with the young cowboy, making him feel incredibly uncomfortable. But Jess being Jess refused to alter his first answer; he wouldn’t lie under oath and he didn’t believe a word of what Chuck Brown had said.

Now they were laying in their beds, the night light still burning as neither of them felt like sleeping.

After a while Slim turned concerned eyes on  his buddy. “Jess, why are you being this way? I thought you of all people would be aware of how important a little compassion can be, can turn a body’s life around.”

Jess sat up at this and looked furious. “I keep tellin’ you, this ain’t nuthin’ to do with what you did for me, Slim. I’m truly grateful for that and you know it. But Brown…” He just shook his head sadly. “He don’t deserve no compassion for what he did to me and to Snowy, not to mention Benson’s horse.”

“But Jess, he could hang and just because he got in with the wrong crowd, was pushed into doing something he didn’t want to, just to help his poor Ma out.”

Jess rolled his eyes. “And you really believe that?”

“Yes, yes I think I do.”

“Well I don’t, so I guess you’re gonna have to choose, Slim — me or Brown — because I reckon you can’t be on both sides. If you want to speak up for him in court, well then do. But just don’t expect me to back you up. Because I can’t, Slim; it just wouldn’t be right.”

Slim sighed deeply. “But what do you base that on, Jess? His Ma knows him better than you do and Mrs. Johnson forgave him after what he did to her. Even the Sheriff seems to think he’s getting a rough deal.”

“I just know, is all,” said Jess stubbornly. “I feel it, Slim.”

“You and your feelings,” said Slim, with the ghost of a smile, somehow admiring Jess’s tenacious quality, although it nearly drove him crazy sometimes.

“Yeah, well, I’m never wrong,” Jess said firmly, and with that, he turned over and pretended to sleep, but it was a long time before either finally drifted into a restless slumber.

*****

And so it was that the following day Slim caught the early morning stage with his handcuffed prisoner,  and Jess and the Sheriff rode out to find Pete Harvey and bring him to trial.

“So where are we headin’?” asked Jess after they had ridden east out of town for about half an hour.

“Saddle Ridge. It’s about another half hours ride. Apparently Harvey’s Pa had an old cabin out in the woods, just off the trail, and Brown reckons that’s where he’ll be holing up — on a hunting trip until things cool down some.”

“Wise man,” muttered Jess.

“You don’t like any part of this, do you, Jess?”

Jess sighed. “I wanna bring him to justice, sure I do; just don’t like the way we’re goin’ about it, is all.”

“Yeah well, I just want him banged up in my jail, any which way.”

A while later Doug signaled for them to stop. “Just  up there a ways, Jess. See that turning off the trail? The shack is about half a mile down there. /figure we’ll leave our mounts at the top of the trail and walk in — surprise him some.”

“Oh yeah, I guess it will be that alright,” said Jess with irony.

Five minutes later, they approached the shabby looking cabin with a bored looking bay hitched up outside, a few animal hides drying in the sun, and little else.

The men drew their guns and went stealthily forwards until they were able to sneak a look inside, through the dusty window, and were rewarded by seeing a man sitting  at the table, addressing himself to his lunch, looking like he had not a care in the world.

“Seems like almost  criminal to disturb him, don’t it?” whispered Jess with an evil glint in his deep blue eyes.

“You’re right there,” smiled Doug, “but figure he’s got a date with the  circuit judge next week and the good man doesn’t like to be kept waiting, so reckon we’d better mosey on in.”

“On three?”

“You’ve got it.”

The two men crashed through the door at the count of three, guns pointed at Harvey’s astonished head.

“Hold it right there,” snarled the Sheriff as Harvey leapt up from the table, knocking over his tumbler and plate, the contents spilling to  the floor.

Once he saw Jess and Doug’s colt .45’s trained on him, Harvey stood stock still, raising his hands. The Sheriff moved forward and removed Harvey’s gun before snapping on the handcuffs and pushing him none too gently back into his seat.

“Whh… what’s all this about, Sheriff?” Harvey asked. “I ain’t done nuthin’ wrong.”

“Now is that a fact?” spat Jess. “So it wasn’t you that knocked me senseless the other night, poisoned my horse, and then stole her. ‘Cos you look kinda familiar, you know, Harvey, and the last time I saw you, you were hightailing off at speed while I was havin’ words with you buddy.”

Harvey sighed deeply at that. “So how did you find me then?” he said his voice resigned.

“Your best pal Chuck Brow, told us where to find you,” said the Sheriff ingenuously.

“Why the two-timing, double-crossing bastard!” Harvey exploded.

“Umm.. my sentiments exactly,” said Jess  dryly. “Guess you need to choose your friends a bit more carefully in future,  Harvey.”

“What future?” Harvey asked morosely. “I’m gonna hang, aren’t I?”

“Up to the judge; it isn’t my call,” said Doug briskly, “but according to Brown, it was all your idea.”

“Why that lyin’ hound,” cussed Harvey. “It was  his idea. And it was him that beat you nearly senseless, Mister. Would have  done for you if I hadn’t pulled him off of you.”

“Is that so,” asked Jess with interest. “And here was us thinking he was a nice young man, just easily led.”

“What? You’re kidding me. Like I say, it was all Chuck’s idea. He got the poison that killed Benson’s horse. Was him as stole that  horse of yours, too. I wasn’t up for it, but he said we’d make a killing with her down in Texas; got horse friends down there see.”

“Oh… so he knows all about horses, does he then?” asked Jess innocently.

“Sure he does. Was a horse trader up until he got in trouble back east and his Ma insisted they move out here for a fresh start. Horses have always been his business.”

All the time Doug was taking this in, his expression was getting more and more troubled.

“And one more thing, while we’re havin’ this friendly chat,” said Jess, now on a roll. “So the reason that Chuck got into this bit of bother, it was all to help out his poor sick old Ma, right? To pay for her treatment, doctor’s bills and the like? “

“What? No way did he pay old doc Lloyd. The doc said there was no charge, her being an old widow woman and all. And even if he had charged her, well hell, Chuck wouldn’t have paid up. Heck, he was riding out to Texas and leavin’ his Ma; said he’s had enough of her frettin’ an’ preachin’ at him, tryin’ to get him to Church and all. Oh no, he was out of there, no matter  what.”

“So, er, he don’t have much time for religion and all then?” asked Jess, really beginning to enjoy himself now.

“What, Chuck? Sure he don’t. Jeez, get him in a church or talkin’ to a minister — he’d sooner die.”

“Umm,” said Jess grinning over at his friend the Sheriff. “Well, I reckon that could be arranged, don’t you, Sheriff?”

However Doug wasn’t smiling; his eyes were serious and full of remorse. “Jess I’m so sorry, buddy; I guess I’ve been taken for a prize fool.”

“We’ll I guess you weren’t alone in that. He’d just about convinced everyone that butter wouldn’t melt, hadn’t he? “

“Yeah, but not you, Jess.”

“Well, it  takes a lot to get past the Harper ‘gut feelin’,”  Jess said with a grin that held no recrimination. “Come on, Sheriff; lets git your prisoner back to town.”

“So, you’ll make a full statement saying everything you’ve just told us?” asked the Sheriff glancing at  Pete Harvey.

“Sure I will. Nuthin’ to lose, have I? And there’s a good few in town as know him for what he is too. Guess they’ll be happy to tell you what he’s really like, Sheriff. Don’t just take my word for it!”

True to his word , Pete Harvey wrote and signed a statement admitting to his part in the various crimes and also saying the part played by Chuck Brown, and to a lesser extent, by Lefty and Buck Higgs.

Then Jake Hanson, whose black stallion had been in the race, was called in to make a statement, and as the Sheriff surmised, he knew  little of the plans that Brown and Harvey had for Jess. He had only found out about it later, when it was too late to do anything  about it, and  so he hadn’t  come forward. However, he did make a statement saying that, later, Chuck had bragged about doing Harper over, and how Pete had needed to step in and pull Chuck off before he killed Jess.

The Sheriff gave Hanson a stern warning  about the folly of withholding  evidence, but let him off with just the warning.

Jake was totally contrite and couldn’t apologize enough  to Jess for everything. “I sure am sorry, Mr. Harper. See they had all their money on my Black Boy, and that’s why they wanted Snow Bird and you out of the running, but I swear I knew nothing of it until it was too late.”

Jess just nodded. “Well, just put it down to experience and maybe choose your friends a little more carefully next time, huh?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Harper, you can be sure of that.”

“Oh and Jake…”

“Yes sir? “

“That’s a mighty fine horse you’ve  got there. Sure gave Snowy a tough time.”

Jake grinned at that. “Thanks.” He left, relieved he wasn’t in  deeper trouble and resolving to steer clear of the likes of Brown and Harvey in future.

Finally, all the evidence had been recorded,  not just from  Jake, but several others who came forward to put on record a variety of misdemeanors that Brown was responsible for. Then it was obvious the true villain he was and not the poor badly done-to boy he was trying to portray. Doug Masters was totally convinced of the true nature of his prisoner.

Once all the irrefutable evidence was recorded, Doug Masters gave a huge sigh.

“What’s up, Doug?” asked Jess from where he was sitting with his feet up on his buddy’s desk enjoying yet another coffee.

“I guess I’m going  to have  to go and talk to Mrs. Brown, tell her what an out and out villain her son really is,” the Sheriff said, looking miserable at the thought.

“Um, well, I reckon she already knows to some extent,  if it’s true what Harvey said about him being a horse man and all. She lied about that and probably everything else as well. I guess she was just trying to keep him safe. Can’t blame her for that. It’s what Ma’s do. “

“Yes, I suppose so, but nonetheless, she’s in  the wrong and needs to know that. Hell Jess, look at the pressure she put you under to lie too. No, that just ain’t right, clucky Ma or not.”

“I reckon that’s one visit you can do on your own,” said Jess with a tired smile. “And if you want me to take the prisoner over to Laramie tomorrow, well, I guess I’ll get me an early night,”  he said standing up and stretching. “Figure I’ll just get a drink on the way back, though. You wanna come?”

“No thanks, buddy; guess I’d better get to it. See you tomorrow bright and  early.”

Jess just had a couple of whiskeys and then returned to the boarding House , but as he knocked, he wondered what his reception would be like from Ma Johnson, knowing she felt he had let her down.

Mrs. Johnson answered the door and pulled it wide to admit him, a look of extreme sadness  about her as she ushered him into the parlor and poured him a coffee after gesturing  to the armchair by the fire.

“Thanks,” Jess said softly as he took the cup and sat.

Then  after a moment his gaze flicked to where she was sitting looking forlornly into the fire. “Would you like me to go, Ma?” he said quietly. “I can book into the hotel if you don’t want me here?”

Her head shot up at that. “Don’t want you?” she said in shock. “Why, whatever made you think that dear? “

“Well, I figure I’ve let you down — refusing to help your friend out. Heck, I’m real sorry,” Jess finished quietly, “but I just couldn’t do that, Ma — not lie like that.”

“Oh, my dear,” she said, stifling a sob. Then her hand shot out and she took his, resting on the arm of the chair. “You’ve got it all wrong, son. I just feel so, so ashamed at the way I practically bullied you into doing that. You see Sheriff Masters has been around, explained the whole thing, and I just feel so terrible at not believing you. I’ve just been sitting here trying to think of a way to apologize.”

“Heck, that’s OK, Ma’am; I understand,” Jess said softly. “It’s hard, real hard when you’re tryin’ to look out for friends, I know that. Let’s just forget it, huh?”

“Thank you, Jess,” she said sincerely and squeezed his hand gently. “I won’t doubt you again…not ever.”

“Well that’s kinda rash,” Jess said grinning at her now. “I ain’t no saint, you know, Ma, so I shouldn’t be so quick to offer that sort of promise. I have been known to fib, you know — just ask Daisy.”

She chuckled at that, and getting up, went and fetched a bottle of Redeye and splashed a generous drop into their drinks before raising her cup and making a toast. “To trust,” she said softly.

“To trust,” Jess said raising his cup, and he smiled across at her, remembering again as to why he loved her daughter so much.

*****

He rode out with the prisoner the following day, Snowy’s saddle sores being completely healed, and he landed safely in Laramie and passed his prisoner over to Mort Corey without a hitch, promising to return for the hearing set for the following week, before turning for home.

It was early evening when he arrived back at the ranch, and Slim was just putting the  horses up for the night. He came over to greet his buddy as he slipped down from the saddle, looking pretty wore out, so Slim thought.

They shook hands. Good trip? You brought Harvey back OK?”

“Yeah, sure did.”

Then Mike ran out, along with Daisy, and they fussed over him and Snow Bird, Mike asking hundreds of questions as to the race and everything that had transpired since.

However,  Slim saw his buddy’s weary face and  made Mike back off. “Go help Aunt Daisy with supper, will you, Tiger? Jess will tell you all about it tomorrow, when he’s rested up some, OK?”

“Aw, Slim…”

“Mike!”

“OK I’m goin’.” Then Mike threw his arms around his hero. “Sure is good to have you home, Jess.”

The dark haired cowboy ruffled the child’s hair affectionately. “Well, it’s sure good to be back too, Tiger.” With that, Jess turned into the barn to tend to his horse.

Slim  leaned on the stall, watching his pard fondly as he first went and made a fuss of Traveler, checking  out that he had been cared for properly during his absence, and then he went and started rubbing down Snowy,  but after a while he paused, feeling Slim’s eyes on him. Jess turned and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What’s up?”

Slim  suddenly looked embarrassed and  seemed lost for  words.

Jess left his task and came over and leaned on the stall door. “What is it, Slim? Cat got your tongue?”

The tall blond rancher sighed deeply and then his gaze locked with his friend. “I guess I owe you an apology,” he said.

“Oh,  how so? “

“Doug Masters sent a wire over to Mort, explaining all about Pete Harvey’s statement. Sent a transcript, plus all the other evidence against him. I guess he took us for a ride.”

“Yeah, well these things  happen,” said Jess dismissively, turning back to his horse.

Slim came closer and said softly. “You’re real mad at me, aren’t you, Jess?”

Jess was still turned away from his buddy grooming his horse again, the only sign  that he had heard a slight  tensing of his back. Then after a full minute, he turned and his eyes were full of pain. “Yeah, I guess so. Well, hurt, more than anything, Slim. The way you used my past as a lever… That was real low, you know.”

Slim  took a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess it was. And I’m real sorry, Jess. I never thought…”

“Huh? Never thought what?”

“Never thought it would bother you that much.”

“Yeah, well it did. What you did for me when  I first landed here was…well, real special, Slim. But with that low-life Brown, it was wrong, all wrong. Hell, I wanted to change and I never lied to you; what you saw was what you got. But Brown… I guess everything he said was a damn lie.”

“Yes, yes I know that now, Jess. What can I say? I’m sorry and I should have trusted your gut feeling — I know that.”

Jess gave him the ghost off a smile at that. “Well, it ain’t ever let me down yet,” he said.

*****

It was a few days later when Mort Corey rode into the yard just as the Slim were mending the corral fence.

Slim stood up from where he was nailing a rail in place and said, “ ‘Morning Mort. What can I do for you?”

Mort slipped down from the saddle and hitched up his mount. “Well, it was Jess I was after. Any chance of a quick word?”

“Sure. He’s in the barn; I’ll get him.”

“No…er, it’s OK, Slim; I’ll go find him.”

Slim looked a tad surprised. “OK, Mort.”

The Sheriff marched off, looking worried.

Jess spun around form where he was grooming one of the stage horses as the Sheriff entered. “Mort.”

“Hi, Jess. I just need a chat, sound you out about something.”

“Sure.” Jess put down the brushes and came out of the stall. “Coffee?”

“No, thanks. In private.”

“Oh. OK, fire away.”

“Well, you won’t like this, Jess, but the prisoner, Chuck Brown, is asking to speak to you.”

Jess’s head shot up and he opened his mouth as if to cuss, but Mort put up a restraining hand. “Now just hear me out, will you?”

Jess looked down for a minute, then. “OK,” he growled, “but make it good.”

“Well, I had to put Brown and  Harvey in separate cells, for obvious reasons.”

Jess gave a small smile and nod of acknowledgement at  that.

“Well then Holy Joe was brought in for drunk and disorderly, causing an affray —  the usual, you know. He’s on what he calls his circuit, payin’ us a visit from Cheyenne, giving old Doug  a rest, I guess.”

“Yeah, yeah, so go on.”

“So I slammed him in with Brown, and well it seems the two got talking — about you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, well, you know how old Joe feels about you — bad boy turned good. Reckons you’re a lesson to us all the way, Good will triumph over  evil or some such  malarkey.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard him say that too. Beats me as to what he’s on about.”

“Anyway, he holds you up as a good example to all the sinners he meets, saying if Jess Harper, the no good gunslinger, can turn his life around, then anyone can.”

“Hey, less of the ‘no good gunslinger’,” said Jess good-naturedly.

“Anyway, the outcome is that Brown wants to truly repent, change his ways and wants to apologize to you in person.”

“And wants me to put in a good word for him at his trial too,” said Jess bitterly.

“Well, that’s up to you, of course.”

Jess just shook his head sadly. “Guess he’s got you suckered in as well as everyone else,” he said, turning back to the horse he was grooming.

Mort looked affronted at that. “No, he ain’t, son. I dunno if he’s genuine or not ,and I sure know what he’s tried to pull before, but this time… Well, there might just be a grain  of truth in what he’s saying.”

“Yeah, and Slim gave me a break, so I should do the same for him,” spat Jess, now looking really angry.

“Now don’t go puttin’ words in my mouth; I didn’t say that,  nor would I. I’m just the messenger, Jess.”

“So why all the cloak and dagger, the private talk?”

“Because this is just your business, and if you decide not to talk to him, well, nobody will know and give you a hard time here at the ranch.”

Jess looked slightly appeased at that and after a while said, “OK Mort, I’ll think on it, but I ain’t makin’ no promises.”

“OK son, that’s good enough for me. Now how about that coffee?”

*****

Jess thought long  and hard about what the  Sheriff had said , but  it was three days later before he finally rode into town and asked to see the prisoner.

“You’re sure about this, Jess?” asked an anxious looking Mort. “I don’t want you to feel I’ve pushed you into anything  you didn’t want to do.”

Jess threw him his cheeky grin at that. “So when did you ever manage that then, Mort?”

“I guess you’ve got a  point there,” Mort said, returning  the grin and fetching his keys.

Chuck leapt up from his bunk as soon as Jess entered, and to the cowboy’s eyes the young man’s whole persona seemed to have changed. Gone was the swaggering, arrogant looking youth, and in his place stood a young man looking defeated and very frightened.

“Thanks for coming,  Mister Harper,” Brown said, barely daring to make eye contact.

Jess said nothing, just slouched down on the second bunk before gesturing for the other to sit. “So what did you want to see me about?” he asked gruffly.

Chuck Brown took a deep breath. “Well, I aren’t gonna tell you I’m a reformed character, found God or anything whacky like that, but, well on talking to that old Bible basher… Er, what’s his name?”

“Holy Joe.”

“Yeah, that’s it Holy Joe. Well, he made me see something I ain’t ever realized before.”

“Go on, I’m listening.”

“That there is another way of lookin’ at things, I guess. See my Pa was of the opinion as to why earn a living if you can just get by — and if it ain’t strictly lawful, well, who’s to worry as long as nobody sees you, you know?”

“Yeah, well, a lot of us had the kinda upbringing that maybe was lacking in a few of the basics of livin’ a good God fearing life,  but we don’t all turn into thugs and horse thieves.”

Brown sighed deeply. “I know, and I wasn’t tryin’ to make Pa an excuse; just trying to explain as to why I thought that was the only way to be. See, once I was on that path, I figured there was no turning back. But after talking to Joe about you and the way you were once — and the way you are now, — well, it kinda got me thinking that maybe I could change too.”

Jess stared long and hard at the young man, and his gut feeling was telling him this time that he was genuine. “Yeah, well, one of the things that helped turn me around was a spell in jail, and I figure maybe that’s  the kinda shock you need, too, to kinda focus your mind on really changing.”

To  Jess’s surprise, the young man nodded. “I figure maybe you’re right, and hell, I’ll do my time like a man, I hope — just as long as they don’t string me up, Mister Harper. So long as I get a second chance…” Then he collapsed, his head in his hands, weeping quietly.

Jess waited for him to recover and  then said not unkindly, “OK boy, I’ll speak up for you.”

Chuck looked up, the light of hope in his eyes. “You will? You’d do that, after everything I’ve done?” he asked in amazement. And then overcome with joy he leapt up and shook Jess’s hand. “Thank you, thank you so darn much; I won’t let you down, I promise.”

Jess gave him a stern look. “That you won’t, because, if you do, I’ll come and find you and you’ll wish you had swung — you understand me? “

“Yes sir, I understand.”

*****

So the day of the trial finally came around, and at the end, when the Judge asked for any input from those who had been affected by the crimes, the town were really surprised to see Jess stand up and plead for leniency.

The Judge knew Jess well and respected him and all at the  Sherman Ranch and Relay, so when Slim too verified that he  felt a prison sentence, rather  than hanging would be more appropriate for the crime, the judge listened. Both Chuck Brown and Pete Harvey were given  six months hard labor and then the court was dismissed.

Afterwards, Slim made his way back to the ranch, but Jess stayed in town to spend a little time with his girl.

 When he had ridden back from Cheyenne the previous week, he had been sorry to hear that Millie was out of town visiting a sick girlfriend, but she had landed back just the day before the trial, and Jess intended to make good use of his all too fleeting time with her before he had to ride back to the ranch the following day.

Much later that evening, they were sitting by the fire in her room above the saloon, his comforting arm draped around her shoulders.

After they had been chatting about this and that for a while, she  turned to him and said softly, “So what made you change your mind about Chuck then? Ma said you were adamant that you wouldn’t speak up for him.”

“Yeah well, it ain’t just women as can change their minds,” Jess said with a gentle smile as he gazed lovingly down  to where she was nestled in  his warm embrace.

“Um, sure, but why exactly?”

“I figured he’d changed — wants to anyway — and I reckon he deserves the chance, same as anyone.”

“But what about what he did to you? Heck Jess, what he did to Snowy? San you forgive all that?”

He looked thoughtfully down at her then. “Well, I didn’t say as how I’d forgiven him, did I? And I figure he’ll pay the price at that ol’ labor camp. Those places ain’t no easy ride, you know.”

“I imagine not. So what will he do afterwards then?” she asked.

“Dunno. He reckons he and his Ma are heading back east to stay with his Uncle. Let’s just hope he’s a better  bet than  his Pa was,” Jess said with feeling.

“Umm…well, amen to that,” she agreed.

Then he sighed softly. “I guess he’ll be OK. And anyway…”

“Umm?” she asked, throwing him a questioning look.

“Anyway, I guess we should be thinking about our future. Never mind ol’ Chuck…”

She smiled indulgently. “We’ll be OK, honey. When the times right, we’ll settle down. You’ll see…”

Jess nodded, content with that for the moment, and then ran a finger lightly down her cheek, gazing deeply into her beautiful eyes. “And you know what else, sweetheart?” he said mischievously.

“No Jess what?” she asked smiling innocently up at him.

“I was just kinda thinkin’… Well, how’s about a little less talkin’ and a little more action…huh?” he said, his blue eyes twinkling irresistibly.

Millie smiled lazily up at him. “Well, you know what, cowboy? I was just thinkin’ the very same thing myself,” she giggled as she pulled him down into a passionate embrace.

*****

Epilogue

Jess returned to the ranch the following day, and life resumed its usual pace, with them getting all the stock down from the high ground for the winter, and the weeks went into months before they heard any more news of the prisoner.

Then they got a letter from Mrs. Johnson, Millie’s ma, saying that Mrs. Brown had written to say that Chuck had served his time and was now gainfully employed in his Uncle’s timber business and was working really hard to make a go of things.

It was the following spring that Jess contacted Chet Adams, and he came up with the goods regarding his stud horse Merlin. It was almost 12 months to the day after Merlin’s visit that Snow Bird produced the most wonderful pure white colt.

Everyone at the ranch was absolutely besotted with the beautiful little critter, and as usual, it was down to Mike to name him.

“So have you decided?” asked Jess one morning after they had been tending the new arrival and his Ma.

“Yeah, I guess so. How about Magic?”

“Um…I like that. So why?”

“Well, Merlin was a magician according to my book about the Knights of the Round Table, so I figured he’d call a son Magic after his job an’ all. And well, he is kinda magical, ain’t he, Jess?”

The dark cowboy ruffled the youngster’s hair. “Yeah, I guess he is, Mike, and all the more so for all the trouble it took to get him.”

Slim, who was standing nearby, heard this and said, “Talking of trouble… Have you heard how young Chuck is getting on? “

Jess turned and grinned at his buddy. “Well, as a matter of fact, yes I have. Millie said her Ma got a letter just last week, and Mrs. Brown says the job with his Uncle is goin’ real well and Chuck’s engaged to be married too. So I guess that‘ll concentrate his mind on the straight and narrow!”

“Um, so maybe that’s what you need to concentrate your mind on doing a half decent job of work around here — get yourself wed to Millie?” laughed Slim, before taking off at speed, Jess in hot pursuit, a look of vengeance in his deep blue eyes.

Chuck Brown went on to be one of the biggest and most successful timber merchants in the East, was happily married for over forty years and raised five healthy and happy offspring. But he never forgot a certain dark haired cowboy who gave him a second chance in life. He often told the tale to his children and later numerous grandchildren of how Jess Harper, an ex gunslinger come rancher turned his life around and in turn, by his example, managed to inspire Chuck to change his old ways and make a fresh start too.

Snow bird went on to have many more wonderful progeny, but Jess was never to race her again.

When he broke the news to Slim, they were leaning on the corral fence, Snowbird and her latest foal standing close by.

“Well why not, pard?” Slim had queried when Jess said she was to be purely used as a brood mare from now on and never to race again.

“Heck, are you crazy, Slim? It’s too dang dangerous. Think of all we’ve been through since I started racing her. It just ain’t worth all the frettin’, and it sure ain’t good for my health,” Jess said with a bitter laugh. “Hers neither.”

“Umm, you’ve got a point there,” replied Slim, remembering how his friend rode one race after being shot up and another beat up, not to mention Snow Bird’s dice with death after the poisoning. “So no more races then?”

“Nope. Snow Bird’s run her last race, Slim, but I guess she’ll always be a winner around here though, huh?”

Slim smiled and slapped him on the back. “Oh yes,” he replied sincerely. “That’s one hell of a horse you’ve got there, pard.”

Both men watched as the beautiful animal trotted around the corral, head high, mane flowing and every inch a champion.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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