Snowbird Saves the Day (by Patty W.)

Summary:  Money troubles a require creative solution.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Adult themes, strong language and some disturbing scenes)
Word Count:  42,837


 

Slim Sherman, owner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, along with his best friend and business partner, Jess Harper, rode into Laramie late one Saturday morning in early summer, the sun beating down relentlessly on the two young cowboys.

As they hitched up their mounts in front of the saloon, Slim took off his hat and raked a hand through his blond hair, his tall lanky frame leaning back on the rail for a moment, his eyes worried. “Well here goes, pard; wish me luck,” he said, looking over at his friend.

Jess’s deep blue eyes narrowed as he squinted against the sun. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come, Slim? If that ol’ bank manager don’t come up with the loan, I could always offer a little ‘friendly persuasion’,” he said, cracking his knuckles and casting his friend a cheeky grin.

“Um, that’s exactly why you aren’t coming,” said Slim. “I can’t risk the legendary Harper temper letting rip right now”. Then he looked even more worried. “This really is serious, you know, pard.”

Jess sobered at once. “Do you think I don’t know that, Slim? I was there when we lost all that stock in the floods, and when some of our best breeding stock died of that sickness too. Sure I know it’s serious. I’m just tryin’ to calm you down is all. I can see how worried you are right now.”

“Yeah, sorry, Jess. Guess I am a bit strung out. You go and set ‘em up,” Slim said, tipping his head towards the saloon, “and I’ll be with you later.” With that, he marched off down Main Street towards the bank.

Jess entered through the saloon’s batwing doors and paused for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the dimness after the bright sunlight of the street. Then he advanced on the bar where Tom, the elderly barkeep, was polishing glasses and chatting to one of the few customers.

“Howdy, Jess. What’ll it be?” Tom asked with a welcoming grin.

“Couple of beers,” said Jess returning the smile. “It’s quiet; I was expectin’ a card school this afternoon.”

“Yeah, they’ll be in later sure enough; you’re just a bit early, son.”

Jess nodded and took a pull of his beer, looking absently around the bar and saw that one of the customers was Curt Hicks. A new neighbor and as ornery as they come, Jess thought to himself as the man scowled at him and then turned his back.

Then suddenly Millie ran out from the back room and came around the bar to plant a loving kiss on his lips.

Millie and Jess went way back to their childhood days on the Texas panhandle and had hooked up on various occasions over the years; Jess had always considered her his best female friend.

Then things had changed just over a year ago when they had made their very open, light relationship into something a little more serious. They weren’t exactly engaged, he had explained to Slim, but they had an understanding that he and Millie would more than likely wed one day, when they both felt ready.

“Hey sweetheart,” Jess said smiling down at the curvaceous, pretty brunette. “How are you?”

“Just fine,” Millie said, giving him a warm hug and then pulling back to look at him properly.

“What?” Jess asked as she scrutinized him carefully.

“Just looking for evidence of your work,” Millie said with a giggle. “Yep, here we are,” she murmured as she gently caressed a nasty bruise to his cheek bone. “So you have started breaking those mustangs you caught last week then?”

Jess grinned at that. “Sure have, and that’s the least of my problems. You should see the rest of the bruises. I’m black ‘n blue all over,” he said ruefully.

“Well, I’ll look forward to that later then, cowboy.” she said, throwing him a smoldering look.

Jess chuckled at that. “Whoa there, girl; got me a poker school to tan the hides off of first.”

“Oh, so you’re actually going to win something this week are you then?” Millie said, laughing now.

All the light-hearted banter was not being appreciated by Jess’s new neighbor, however; and he grunted and then loudly asked Tom if he could get some service around here or was the barmaid purely there to entertain her boyfriend.

Jess’s hackles rose at that and he turned to say something, but Millie quickly stopped him.

“It’s OK, Jess. I should be working anyway. Don’t make a fuss; I might get in trouble,” she whispered.

Jess just nodded and returned to his beer, but still kept a wary eye on the situation.

Once Millie had served him, she came back and sat on a barstool beside Jess, her back to Hicks.

“What is it with that guy any way?” asked Jess quietly. “He’s blanked me ever since he moved into the old Johnson place down the road. Me and Slim went and welcomed him and he seemed OK, then the next time I saw him, you’d have thought I’d shot his granny.”

“Um,” she said softly, “I know what you mean. He’s the same with me, and I think I know what it is too. I guess we come from the wrong place, Jess. He doesn’t like Southerners.”

“Huh, well why not?”

“The War, apparently. According to Tom, nearly the first thing he asks folk when they’re introduced is what side they were on, and if they were a Rebel, well, that’s it; instant hate as far as Curt Hicks is concerned.”

“But that’s crazy. The war’s been over years. Ain’t no point in holdin’ a grudge.”

“I know that, but just look at him, Jess. He’s so bitter and twisted. He looks to be in his forties, but he’s only a year or two older than us. All that hate has turned inwards and soured his whole life.”

Jess turned and glanced at the grim-faced man with the livid scar down his cheek and prematurely graying hair, an air of repressed anger about him, and gave a little sigh. “Guess we should pity him then,” he said softly. “Must have had a real bad war to act that way.”

“Well so did you,” she said indignantly. “That isn’t an excuse, Jess. You suffered terribly — still get the nightmares — but you don’t go sounding off all the time.”

Then the conversation came to an abrupt end as Slim crashed in through the batwing doors, a look of thunder on his usually placid features. Elbowing Jess out of the way, he reached for his beer and downed it in one before slumping down on a barstool and cussing softly.

“Ladies present, pard,” Jess said gently.

“Sorry, sorry, Millie,” Slim said, giving the pretty woman an embarrassed smile.

“So I take it we didn’t get the loan then,” said Jess with a hint of irony.

“No, we didn’t get the loan, and I tell you, Jess, if I ever get any serious money together again, I won’t be putting it in the Laramie Bank. I’d rather stuff the mattress with it than hand it over to that charlatan.”

“Look, don’t fret Slim. This new man doesn’t know us yet, I guess, and anyways he’s only temporary. Old Horace Noakes should be back as soon as he’s fit again.”

“Yeah, but that could be months, Jess, and we just don’t have that time. We need to replace the stock now, not in the fall.”

“Well, we’ve got the money coming from the mustangs once I bust ‘em; the deals already made with the Army. All I have to do is supply the beasts.”

“Yes and how long is it going to take you to break them all, Jess? We’ve nigh on a dozen animals in the corral.”

“I know that. Figure I’ll just have to get a wiggle on, work my butt off and that money should see us out of trouble. We should be able to replace at least half the stock.”

“But that won’t be enough, not long term.”

“Oh Slim, will you quit your frettin’? Have another drink and a couple of hands of poker and relax some huh?”

“Are you crazy? I haven’t got money to throw away on poker games, and neither have you.”

Jess realized the irony of the situation, but he wasn’t about to change his mind anytime soon. “Well, I might just surprise you and win,” he said with his cheeky grin.

Slim shook his head. “I despair of you, you know that, Jess?”

“Yeah, well, no point in us both goin’ fussin’ and frettin’, is there, pard?”

Slim gave him a small smile at that. “No, I guess you’re right.”

“You’ll stay then?”

“No, my heart really isn’t in it; I’ll see you back at the ranch, OK?”

Jess was quiet for a moment and flicked a glance to where Millie was serving customers at the now lively bar. “You want me to come back with you Slim?”

“Hell no. Anyway, Millie would never forgive me,” he said with a genuine smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll have a family meeting, first thing; see if we can think of something, yeah?”

“OK, see you later, Slim.”

Soon after Slim left, Jess was joined by his good friend Sheriff Mort Corey and his young Deputy Lon, along with old man Benson, a neighbor.

“So you ready to play?” asked the Sheriff getting   down to business once they were all furnished with a drink.

“Sure.”

“So where’s Slim then?”

“Oh, he er… had business back at the ranch; sends his apologies.”

“Well that’s too bad.”

Then the men settled down to their game.

As it happened, Jess did indeed win quite a few hands, and by the end of the evening, he had made a modest profit and stood the Sheriff a final drink after the others had left.

“So why did Slim really leave?” Mort asked, casting Jess an amused look.

Jess grinned back. “Never any gettin’ anything past you, is there, Mort?” Then he sighed deeply. “We’ve got money problems and old Hardrock,” he said using his nickname for Slim, “is takin’ it kinda bad.”

“Oh, well, I’m sorry about that. I do hear this new chap at the bank is something of a stickler for red tape.”

“Um, you could say so.”

Then there was a disturbance at the end of the bar; Curt Hicks staggered a little as he got off his bar stool.

As he passed the Sheriff and Jess, Hicks cast Mort a baleful look and said, “I’m real surprised at you, Sheriff; didn’t think a man of your caliber would be supping with the likes of Harper here.”

Jess’s head shot up at that and he turned to face the big ugly man. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” he asked angrily.

Mort put a gentle hand on Jess’s chest to restrain him. “Easy, Jess, the man’s plainly drunk. Let it go.”

Jess took a deep breath and sat down on his stool again and peered into his whisky glass.

But Hicks was determined to get a rise out of Jess. “Yes, real surprised, Sheriff, that you’d drink with a Johnny Reb.”

Jess’s fingers went white where he was holding his glass, but he said nothing.

“Clear off home, Hicks,” said Mort, a warning note in his voice.

Hicks ignored the Sheriff, and leaning forwards grabbed hold of Jess’s arm and pulled him around to face him. “Don’t turn your back on me, Reb,” he snarled.

Jess sighed deeply. “What’s your problem Hicks?”

“Oh I’ll tell you my problem all right, Harper. See this?” Hicks said, pointing to the ugly scar running down his cheek. “You know how I got that, Johnny Reb? One of your bastard outfits did it, that’s how.”

Jess just stared at him. “Well, I guess we all had a bad war, mister, but it’s over and the sooner you accept that, the better.”

Hicks went scarlet with fury at that, but before he could say or do anything further, Mort stood up and placed himself between him and Jess, and glaring at him with his sternest expression, said quietly, “You are out of order. Now get out of here, Hicks, or so help me, you’ll spend the next few days in my cell. So which is it to be?”

Hicks swayed a little and then just staggered off without replying.

“Sorry about that, Jess, and thanks for keeping a lid on it,” said Mort, patting his friend on the back.

“Yeah, well, it was all a long time ago.”

Mort grinned then and exchanged a look with Millie. “Jess with a voice of reason. Am I dreaming?”

Jess just grinned. “Hey Mort, I can control my temper, you know.”

“Sure… sure you can,” said the Sheriff with a chuckle, before saying goodnight to all.

*****

Jess was dreaming he was back in the isolation cell at the prisoner of war camp. It was almost pitch black, with just some grey light filtering through the barred window, and he could see nothing. But he could hear the scuttling noise the rats made and the odd scratching sound of the multitude of cockroaches as they ran across the floor and fell from the roof into his hair and on to his naked chest, sending shivers of revulsion through him.

He was manacled and shackled, the cold steel digging into his wrists and ankles painfully. But that was nothing to the raw agony of his back. He had been given twenty lashes of the cat for stealing some water to give to a dying friend, and now he was paying the price. He could feel the sticky blood still running down his back from the open wounds and a wave of nausea overcame him. Then he heard someone calling his name, louder and louder, and his eyes sprang open.

He was lying in Millie’s big comfortable bed, the sun streaming in through the window, her arm around him and her anxious brown eyes just inches from his. “Hey, it’s OK, honey,” she whispered softly, “you were just dreaming.”

He stared at her, for a full minute with unseeing eyes, and then he looked around the room and then back into her beautiful concerned face and gave a huge sigh of relief. “Jeez, I’m sorry Mill. Did I scare you?”

She shook her head. “No, I guess I’m used to it. You were back in the camp, weren’t you?”

He just nodded, not wanting to even think about it again.

“It’s that darn Curt Hicks; he has done this to you,” she said angrily. “Stirring it all up again.”

“Hey, it’s OK,” he said softly, running a comforting hand down her naked back and pulling her close. “Let’s forget it.”

She leaned down and kissed him gently on the lips, and then moved down to caress his bruised chest. “You were right,” she said glancing up at him. “You sure have taken a beating from those old mustangs. I wish you didn’t have to do that job, Jess.”

Jess smiled lazily at her. “It’s my work, Mill; you know that. I have to turn a buck.” Then he sighed. “And I guess I should be doin’ it now; I really should be goin’, sweetheart.”

She gave a little frown at that. “Aw Jess, it’s Sunday morning. Do you have to go?”

“Yeah. We’ve got money trouble, Millie. You know how ol’ Hardrock is right now about everything; he wants to talk it through today, although I can’t see what difference talkin’ is gonna make,” he finished irritably.

“Well these horses you’re breaking will make a difference, won’t they?”

“Um, but not enough, according to Slim. Those were prime breeding stock we lost. Will cost a small fortune to replace ‘em all.”

Then she thought about the problem, lying in the crook of his arm staring up at the ceiling. After a moment she turned her head to look at him. “Well, there is always the Laramie Races coming up in a few weeks. You could enter Snow Bird.”

Jess’s eyes opened wide and then he sat bolt upright. “Of course, I could, couldn’t I?! “

Millie was referring to Jess’s prize quarter horse and the love of his life, as she often quipped. (* See “Daisy’s Dilemma”)

“I’d need to do a whole mess of training. Ain’t raced her in a while. Need to get her fit, but I guess I’ve got enough time if I work her real hard.” Then Jess looked down at Millie. “That’s a great idea, Millie, thanks. I don’t like racing her, so darned dangerous, the types that do the quarter mile now, but hell, it’s just a one off. Reckon she’ll be OK.”

She smiled indulgently at him. “You and that horse — I swear you love her more than me.”

He chuckled at that. “Well, she is kinda cute,” he said, avoiding the swipe she made at his head, and then moving in for a kiss.

She returned his kiss passionately, her body soft and yielding beneath him, and he felt an urgent stab of desire and gave a little moan of pleasure. “I really should go,” he whispered in her ear, before kissing her neck. “I really should…” But they both knew he would not leave her yet.

*****

Jess rode Traveler into the yard just before noon and Slim strode out of the barn to meet him.

“I thought we were having a meeting first thing,” Slim said throwing Jess a hard look.

“Sorry, pard; I kinda got side tracked,” Jess said, throwing Slim a sheepish grin.

“If you spent half as much energy on work as you do on your sex life, we’d be millionaires,” said Slim dourly.

Jess blushed at that. “Aw, Slim.” He took Traveler, his mount, off to the barn and started unsaddling and rubbing him down as Slim followed him in, ready for some more teasing.

However a moment later, Mike Williams, their young ward, came in and said dinner was ready. Mike ran up and gave Jess a bear hug,  and the cowboy grinned, picked him up and swung him around before landing him safely back on the  ground.

“Gee I’m sure glad you’re back, Jess; I missed you last night.”

“Well it’s good to be home too,” Jess said, smiling down at the youngster.

“So what were you doing? You look real tired, Jess. You been helpin’ the Sheriff out again?” said the child innocently.

Jess flushed up at that. “Nope, just a late night playin’ cards, Tiger,” he said, turning away to tend his horse. “Tell Daisy I’ll be in shortly.” The child ran off to do as asked.

Slim leaned on the stall and grinned over at his pard at that. “Cards, my foot,” he scoffed.

“Well I did play cards…some of the time,” said Jess with a little shrug and grinning too. “And I won, so how about that Mr. Sherman? Didn’t think I would, did you!”

“Great; we’ll all retire on your winnings then, shall we, Jess?” said Slim sarcastically, but with a twinkle in his eye. The pair made their way in to the meal chuckling. Jess pleased to see that Slim had relaxed a little and regained his usual good humor.

As soon as they entered, Daisy, their elderly housekeeper and surrogate Ma, bustled out of the kitchen to welcome Jess, drying her hands on her apron. Then one hand brushed her white hair back from her face, flushed with standing over the cook stove. “Did you have a good time in town, dear,” she asked kindly.

Jess flashed Slim a quick glance and then said, “Er, yes, fine, thanks, Daisy. Just a few hands of cards, bit of a late night, I guess,” he said looking the picture of innocence.

“Oh, that’s nice, dear,” she said vaguely as she set the table. “Oh, and that reminds me. I must give Millie that recipe she wants next time you ride in.” She was off, back into the kitchen.

Slim grinned and winked over at his pard, but Jess threw him a quelling look, and they went and sat down to the meal.

Afterwards Jess could avoid the ‘talk’ no longer as they all sat around the dining table with their coffee.

“So,” Slim said in conclusion, “I guess we need some sort of miracle to see us through this.”

“Well I could get a job,” Mike piped up. “I reckon I could go work for Billy’s Pa; he says I’m a real good rancher, way I help out around here,” he said, his eyes alight with enthusiasm.

“Well that’s real good of you,” Jess said, exchanging an amused glance with Slim, “but you’re kinda young at ten to go out workin’ full time, Tiger. Got to get your schooling under your belt first.”

“But you didn’t get much schooling, Jess, and you turned out real good. So why do I need it?”

“Because one day you’ll inherit this place, and you’ll need all the book learnin’ you can get to run it properly, that’s why. Slim does all the business side, keeping the books in order and the like; you’ll need to know all about that, Mike”.

“I guess,” Mike said, looking disappointed.

“Besides,” said Slim earnestly, “you’re really needed around here, Mike, I don’t reckon we could cope without you around to do your chores while I’m off riding fence and Jess busy with those ol’ mustangs. Nope, you’ve got a real important job here.”

The child flushed with pleasure at that. “OK, Slim, I see,” he said smiling broadly. “I’ll just work extra hard then.”

“Good boy,” said Jess, affectionately ruffling the child’s blond hair.

“Well, I can cut down on the housekeeping,” said Daisy. “It will mean having more basic meals for a while, and no luxuries — sweets, tobacco and the like — but I’m sure I can reduce our spending.”

“Thanks, Daisy,” said Slim casting her an appreciative look. “I sure hate to ask you to do that, though.”

“Nonsense, dear. we can survive for a while, just until things are back on track.”

Jess leaned across the table and squeezed her hand. “Thanks, Daisy.”

Then there was a commotion outside which broke the moment, and they all ran out to see Mike’s dog Buttons tearing across the yard, barking furiously at a neighbor’s cat, which disappeared off under the fence and away at speed, leaving  Buttons yapping in frustration.

The ranchers laughed at the excited dog, and eventually Jess picked him up and put him in the child’s arms. “Here go take him inside, Mike before he gets into any more trouble.” The child marched off indoors, taking his pet to task for his behavior.

Jess grinned after him and then wandered over to the corral where his pride and joy Snow Bird was standing, but as soon as she saw Jess, she ambled over, knowing he would have a treat in his pocket.

Jess fondled her nose for a while and then fed her the sugar lump she had been looking for, all the time talking softly to the beautiful grey quarter horse.

Slim came over and looked on. “You spoil that horse,” he said after a while grinning at his buddy. Then more reflectively, he added, “Sure is a shame we couldn’t afford the stud fee on that stallion over Cheyenne way; we’d have made some good money on a foal out of that Merlin.”

“Yeah, he’s a mighty fine horse,” Jess agreed.

“He sure is — a winner in the races too, as well as looking good. Those pure white quarter horses are real rare.”

“Um,” said Jess. Then turning to his buddy, he said, “So is Snow Bird. Remember how I won the races a couple of years ago with her? Well, I figure I could do it again, Slim.”

“Hey, whoa there. I thought she was to be our prize brood mare. She has a bad fall racing, she’ll be no good for that; put an end to breeding her pard.”

“Well, who says she’s gonna have a bad fall?”

“Oh come on, Jess; you know the way those quarter milers are. The stake money is so darned high, half the riders cheat, play dirty, Jess, and people — and animals — get hurt.”

Jess looked down, clearly troubled. “Yeah, well, I don’t want anything to happen to her either, but we need the money, Slim, and this just might be a way to get it.”

“I don’t like the idea, Jess; besides she’s out of condition. Sure, you’ve been working her around the ranch, but she hasn’t been doing any sprinting. That’s a special sort of stamina she needs for that, plus good food and lot of training. Hell, you haven’t got the time, Jess, with a deadline on breaking those mustangs. That’s got to come first.”

“Do you think I don’t know that,” said Jess turning angrily on his partner. “Sure, it will be hard work doing it all, but what’s the alternative? If we don’t buy that new stock in, get it fattened up and sold on, and some good quality breeding stock for next year, well, we’re gonna have a pretty lean time of it around here.”

“Sure, but even so, Jess, I know how you feel about the horses, especially this one. Anything happens to her you’d be devastated.”

Jess’s eyes hardened. “Well, I’ll just have to make sure nothing does then, won’t I? And at the end of the day, she’s my horse and my decision.” He marched off to the barn, every inch of his back saying just leave it now.

Slim stared after him, his eyes full of compassion, knowing how hard the decision had been for Jess, feeling the way he did about Snow Bird, and he cast his mind back to the horse auction a few years back when Jess had bought her.

Jess had stood mesmerized as the filly had cavorted about their neighbor’s corral, playing to the audience, gracefully tossing her head, her long legs giving her the perfect gait.

“Ain’t she just the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen,” Jess had breathed, as he stared at her in wonder.

“She’s way out of your league; you just can’t afford her, pard,” Slim had said, grinning at Jess’s infatuation.

But then the bidding had started and finally Jess was head to head with old man Benson, and he really thought he had lost her, until Slim had put in that extra $50 dollars, which had finally ended the auction.

Jess had paid up, and eventually also paid Slim back the loaned $50, and Snow Bird was all his.

That had been a while ago and she had  given them  two beautiful foals since then and had the potential to provide many more, if she survived the racing, Slim thought anxiously.

Knowing Jess needed to be alone, he returned to the ranch where Daisy was now sitting before the fire with her mending.

“Is Jess alright, dear? I thought I heard raised voices.”

Slim slumped down in his chair. “I guess not, Daisy; we had words.” He sighed deeply. “He wants to race Snow Bird again.”

“Oh no! Those races are so dangerous, and besides I thought he was breeding from her now?”

“Yeah, but he thinks he can win enough money to see us out of the fix we’re in.”

“And can he, dear?”

“Oh yes — well, a good way towards it, anyway. There is a lot of interest in the races now, Daisy, and a good horse like Snow Bird would create high stakes. Yes, he could do well, but at what cost?”

“Oh dear, and he’s adamant?”

“Yeah; you know how stubborn he is, Daisy. No changing his mind now, the crazy fool,” Slim whispered.

However, Daisy heard the affectionate way he uttered those last words and hid a smile. Her two special young men never fell out for too long, she thought to herself, and jumping up, she went to put the coffee on for when Jess came back in.

*****

Jess started work before first light the following morning. He had crept out of the room he shared with Slim so as not to disturb him and gone over to the barn and saddled up Snow Bird before it was even light. He walked her slowly out of the yard and down to the Laramie road. Then he walked her on for a mile or so, by which time the first fingers of light were brightening the sky in the east, and he deemed it safe to mount up, not wishing to ride her in the dark for fear of her stumbling in the rutted road.

The area he had chosen was very flat and straight, and from some standing pines at the roadside to the cross roads was exactly a quarter of a mile, making it the perfect place to train. He started off slowly and gradually increased his speed, until the beautiful animal was tearing along, her mane flying and her hooves pounding as she ate up the distance, more and more quickly with each run.

After an hour or so, Jess knew he had pushed her hard enough, and patting her beautifully arched neck he said, “I guess that you and me had enough for now, Snowy.” He rode her gently home before rubbing her down well and giving her a good supply of the high-quality food she needed to perform at that level.

When Jess burst into the ranch house some time later looking hot and tired, the others were already seated around the breakfast table.

Slim threw him an enquiring glance. “What have you been up to, pard?”

“Oh nuthin’ much; just seein’ to the beasts.”

Slim gave him a quizzical look but didn’t pursue the matter, and then all was forgotten with the scramble to get Mike ready for the early stage to school and then all the yard chores to be attended to before Jess started work on the mustang breaking for the day.

To be honest, Jess was feeling like he’d already done a day’s work before he started on the exhausting work of horse breaking, but he got to it with the usual Harper grit and determination, and worked solidly all day long, with just a short lunch break.

Then after supper, he asked Mike if he’d like to saddle his pony up and accompany him down the road to put Snow Bird through her paces, and the child’s whole face lit up with excitement. He was a real help to Jess too, timing the race and generally offering support with his youthful enthusiasm.

At the end of that first day, Jess threw himself into bed feeling that he couldn’t have moved a muscle even if the house was on fire, and he fell into a deep sleep within seconds of his head hitting the pillow. However, the following day he did exactly the same as the previous one, and that was to become the pattern for the next two weeks, with Jess pushing himself to the very limit.

After a while, though, Slim and Daisy were aware that all was not well with Jess, as he became more and more ornery as the constant heavy work load made him weary to the bone and short tempered to boot. But Jess being Jess told them to quit their frettin’ and he was fine, just workin’ hard was all.

During the second week of Jess’s self-imposed, punishing regime, Slim awoke and heard him leaving the yard, and peering at his Pa’s old timepiece on the nightstand, was amazed to see that it was five in the morning and not even light yet.

Slim rolled over for another half hour, and then quietly dressed and saddled up his horse, leaving the yard just as dawn was breaking. He had no trouble picking up Snow Bird’s tracks in the pristine early morning dust of the road. He’d only ridded a mile or so when he heard the thundering of hooves and quickly reined Alamo into the cover of some brush wood beside the road.

Then Slim stared in amazement as Snow Bird galloped past him at an incredible speed before slowing to a gradual standstill, heaving and blowing as Jess slipped down from the saddle and caressed her nose, talking softly to the spent animal.

After a few minutes, Slim felt uncomfortable spying on his buddy that way and rode out onto the road, reining in beside a surprised Jess.

Slim tipped his hat back and gazed down at his best friend a look of irritation mixed with grudging admiration in his eyes. “So this is why you’ve been walking around looking more dead than alive these past weeks,” he said shaking his head in despair at his friend’s irrepressible ways.

“I guess,” said Jess, looking down and just patting his horse’s neck.

“Why didn’t you say something?” continued Slim more gently.

“Because you’d have said I was crazy and moaned somethin’ fierce,” said Jess sulkily.

“Well, sure I would. What are you trying to do, kill yourself, Jess? I thought it was too much training her every night after all that bronc bustin’, but twice a day…!”

“OK, OK, let it lay, will you, Slim? I’m just doin’ what needs to be done, ain’t I!”

*****

It was probably the fact that he was feeling worn out and frustrated that everything kicked off later that day, but as Slim said afterwards, he really couldn’t blame Jess after the provocation he had.

It was late afternoon and Jess had just been thrown badly from a great brute of a stallion, his heart  as black as his coat, young Mike had surmised when he had named him Satan’s Warrior. Although Jess had laughed at the time, he was beginning to think the beast was well named.

He dusted himself down with his hat, cussing softly and was casting aspersions on the creature’s parentage when Slim came over and patting his buddy on the back said, “I guess you’ve done enough for today, Jess. Why not call it quits and take the big fellah on again tomorrow, when you’re rested some?”

“Slim, will you cut me some slack here? I’ve gotten a job to do and it don’t help me any with you acting more of a mother hen than Daisy all the time!”

Slim took umbrage at that. “Well, hell, I’m only trying to look out for you, Jess. Look at the state of you, almost dead on your feet, hot and filthy to boot. Just take a break, pard; have a wash and cool off some.”

“Oh well, I’m sorry if my appearance offends you, Mister Sherman, but I’m afraid it kinda goes with the territory. Now will you get outta my way and let a man do his work!”

Slim just raised his hands in submission, knowing when it was pointless to argue with his buddy, and retired to the corral fence where he could pick up the pieces if Jess came to grief.

However, before Jess could get back up, a rider approached and Slim realized it was Curt Hicks.

Jess had told Slim all about the fracas in the saloon a while back, and Slim had been surprised. “Well, he was here the other day when you were out and he was admiring Snow Bird, wanted to know if she was for sale, but…”  Then Slim stopped.

“But what? “

“Well when I said she was your pride and joy and no way would you sell, he got kinda funny and said he wouldn’t buy anything of yours anyway. I thought it sort of strange at the time.”

“Yeah, well according to Millie, he thinks I fought on the wrong side in the war and he’d like me to be six foot under, along with all my brothers in arms.”

“Um, well he’d better keep his opinions to himself,” Slim said,” I don’t like that kind of bigotry.”

Slim remembered that conversation as Hicks rode into the yard and noted that he glared at Jess before dismounting and walking over to Slim.

“Afternoon, Sherman,” Hicks said, now studiously ignoring Jess.

“Hicks, what can I do for you?” asked Slim, casting the tall man a questioning, but not particularly welcoming, look.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Hicks. “You seem to have nigh on twenty head of my stock down in your south pasture. Would you mind telling me how they got there and what you aim to do about it?”

Slim stood up straight not liking his neighbor’s tone. “Well, I don’t know what you’re implying, Hicks, but if your beasts found their way onto Sherman land, I imagine one of your fences is down. “

“What are you saying, Sherman? I don’t maintain my fences? There aren’t any fences down, I can assure you of that.”

Jess had been standing quietly taking all this in, but at that he stepped forwards and said, “So are you callin’ Slim a liar?”

The ugly man glared at Jess. “I’m saying my cattle are on your land and I wanna know as to how they got there!”

“Well, if your fences are all intact like you say, maybe they sprouted wings and flew over,” said Jess sarcastically, knowing dang well that Hicks was implying they’d been stolen.

“Don’t get smart with me, Reb,” Hicks exploded. “I wouldn’t put it past you having rustled the beasts. A low-life Johnny Reb like you is hardly likely to know right from wrong.”

Jess stepped forward, his fists balled at his sides, his heart pounding. “Now just a minute, Mister!”

“Ease off, Jess,” said Slim, gently moving in front of him a little. “I don’t take kindly to that kind of language, Hicks. Now, we know nothing about your beasts and I suggest you go out and ride fence, because that’s the only way they’ve strayed onto my land.”

“Well, I think it’s kind of funny. You end up with some of my prime creatures on your land when everyone knows the bank has refused a loan for you to buy in stock.”

Slim stared wide-eyed, not believing what he was hearing. Their personal business was obviously common knowledge and he felt humiliated.

“And what’s more, Sherman, I should be very careful of the company you keep. A Rebel like Harper here could turn on you at anytime, and maybe he took the cattle and forgot to mention it to you. So you take my advice and don’t trust a filthy southerner,” Hicks spat.

Hicks never saw the punch coming.

Jess was totally incensed now. Not only was their private business somehow made public knowledge, but even worse, this man was saying he would double cross Slim, and that was just a step too far where Jess was concerned.

Jess threw a haymaker that connected with Hick’s chin and sent him flying several feet across the yard, coming to rest in a messy heap, his nose bleeding profusely and looking apoplectic, with an angry flush suffusing his face and neck.

“Why you Confederate bastard!” Hicks yelled, staggering up.

Jess was all for giving more of the same, but Slim strode over and placed a gentle hand on his chest. “That’s enough, pard; lets’ not stoop to his level.” Then he turned and addressed Hicks. “Enough!” Slim bellowed, looking furious. “Get off my land Hicks, and if I ever hear you bad-mouthing my partner again, you’ll get a dang site worse than that. Now get of my property and don’t come back until you’ve learnt to keep a civil tongue in your head.”

Hicks staggered over to his mount, wiping his bleeding nose on his sleeve and pulled himself up into the saddle. Once he was safely mounted he turned to scowl at Jess. “You’ll pay for this, Harper,” he spat, before spurring his mount out of the yard.

Jess picked his hat up from the dirt and put it on, pulling it down hard, his eyes dark and dangerous. “He’d better keep out of my way from now on, Slim. I walked away from him once, but this…today…What he said about me double-crossing you…” He shook his head, unable to go on, such was his fury.

“It’s OK, Jess; try and forget it. How about that coffee break now, huh?”suggested Slim, trying to diffuse the situation.

Jess stared hard at Slim for a full minute, and then his face broke into a grin. “You just don’t give in, do you, pard!” Then he glanced across to where Devil’s Warrior was still pawing the ground, a look of doom in his eyes and Jess sighed deeply. “Yeah, why not.”

The two friends made their way inside, in search of the coffee pot.

They sat over their drinks, and after a while, Slim said, “I wonder how he knew about the bank?”

“Search me. Only folk I’ve told are Mort and Millie and they wouldn’t gossip”.

“No, they wouldn’t, which just leaves Mr. Robbins, our friendly neighborhood banker,” said Slim dryly. “Not very professional behavior.”

“Um, you’d have to prove he’d said something, though Slim, before you go sounding off.”

“Guess you’re right.”

Then Mike came running in from school. They went out to change the stage team and the subject was dropped for the time being.

Mike was full of news about a new student in his class, twelve-year-old Butch, who had his own pony like Mike, but was allowed to ride out alone, which Mike thought was really cool.

“Well Mike, we let you ride over the back track to your friend Billy’s place now,” said Slim.

“Yeah, I know, but it’s not the same. Seems Butch can just take off and doesn’t even need to tell his Pa.”

Slim and Jess exchanged a troubled look at that.

“Well, he’s a bit older than you,” said Jess placatingly, “and to be honest, it don’t make no sense riding out without tellin’ your folk as to where you’re goin’ and when you’re due back. Anything can happen out there. You know that, Mike. A rattler could spook your pony, or there could be hostiles about, even wolves in the winter. Sure ain’t safe for a young‘un to go off that way.”

Mike nodded at that. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Jess. At least you and Slim care about me, don’t you”? With that, he ran off to help set the table for the evening meal.

Over supper, the conversation resumed.

“So can Butch come over and play here?”

“Sure I guess so,” said Slim smiling indulgently. “So this Butch…does he have a second name then?”

“Yeah,” said the boy giggling. “Of course he has. Hicks — it’s Butch Hicks.”

Jess’s head shot up, and he and Slim exchanged an anxious glance, which Mike picked up on right away.

“Something wrong,” Mike asked innocently. “He only lives over at the old Johnson place; it ain’t far for him to come.”

“It isn’t far,” said Daisy, automatically correcting his grammar, then she smiled at the youngster. “Well, we’ll just have to see Mike. Eat your supper now before it gets cold.” She wondered just how they would deal with this latest turn of events, having witnessed the recent argument in the yard.

However. Mike wasn’t going to give up that easily, and when bedtime came, he went over to Jess and Slim, who were sipping their coffee by the fire, and said, “Well can I? Please?”

Playing for time, Slim said, “What’s that Mike?”

Mike gave a little sigh, thinking, not for the first time, how difficult grown-ups could be sometimes. “Have Butch over to play, on Saturday maybe?” he asked in a wheedling voice.

Slim cast Jess another anxious look and then said, “Well, I’m not sure as that’s a good idea, Mike. See, we’ve got a bit of a problem with Butch’s Pa right now — kind of a misunderstanding about his stock wandering onto our land; he got real mad about it and we had words.”

Mike looked surprised. “Well, I know all about that. Butch said his Pa was real mad because some of their fences had come down in that big storm we had a few days back and all the beasts had escaped. So why is he mad at us?”

Slim just shook his head. “It’s just grown up stuff, Mike; don’t you worry about it, eh. Now off to bed, young man. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, huh?”

“Aw Slim, must I?”

“Yeah, you must. Go on, Tiger, and I’ll come and tuck you up in a minute,” said Jess, ruffling his hair.

The youngster sighed. “OK. ‘Night all.” He wandered off.

Once he’s gone, Jess turned to his buddy and said, “We’re gonna have to explain the real reason we had that bust up.”

“What? About why Hicks hates you so much?”

Jess nodded. “I guess so, because it’ll come out sooner or later and I’d rather Mike got my version rather than the one Butch Hicks will doubtless tell him, colored by his Pa’s beliefs.”

“Um, I can see your point. I just wish Mike didn’t have to be involved in it, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, he’s growing up fast, Slim, and while this kind of prejudice still exists, I guess he has to learn how to deal with it.”

“So how does he deal with it, pard? Same as you did, with his fists?”

Jess looked down and flushed. “Yeah, maybe that was wrong, but hell Slim I was sorely tried and when he said, I couldn’t be trusted, I’d do the dirty on you… Well, I guess I just saw red.”

Daisy piped up at that. “For once I see your point, Jess. I can quite understand why you did what you did, but we don’t want Mike doing the same thing. As I say, I understand why you used violence, dear, but I can’t condone it.”

“I know, Daisy, and don’t worry. What’s that saying? Do as I say, not as I do. I figure I’ll tell him that,” Jess said with a grim smile as he went off to tuck the child in.

Jess tapped lightly on the door and went in to find Mike already cuddled down, looking somewhat apprehensive.

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled down at him. “Why so worried, Tiger?”

Mike looked away and then back at Jess. “Is it me, Jess? Does Mr. Hicks think I ain’t good enough to play with Butch, with me bein’ an orphan and all?”

Jess’s jaw dropped open in amazement. “What? Heck Mike, whatever made you think that?”

“I…I dunno; just something Butch said. He said he’d like to be my friend, but his Pa is kinda particular as to who he plays with. Said he might object.”

Jess felt his temper rising, and he breathed deeply and swallowed hard. “Now you listen to me, Tiger. Don’t you ever think that. This is nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me.”

“Huh?”

“Mr. Hicks doesn’t want you playing with his son because I fought for the Confederates in the war — and he really don’t like me. Kinda bears a grudge, see?”

The child’s eyes opened wide in shock. “But that’s crazy talk. The war was over years and years ago. And anyway, what does it matter? You and Slim are best buddies and he fought for the Union, and I was just a baby. I didn’t have anything to do with the war.”

“I know Tiger, it don’t make no sense, but Mr. Hicks there had a real bad war and I guess he just can’t forget…or forgive.”

“But that’s not right, Jess. You had a real bad war. I heard you talkin’ to Slim about it once.” Mike flushed up at that. “I know I shouldn’t have listened at the door, but you had been yellin’ something fierce and I came to see what was up, and heard you telling Slim about the bad dream.” Then his eyes filled with tears. “I felt so sorry for you, Jess.” Then the tears brimmed over.

Jess pulled him close and hugged him. “Hey Tiger, it’s OK. Like you say, it was all a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten about it most times. Just I get these dreams sometimes, like you do about the Indian raid when your Ma and Pa died.”

The boy nodded at that.

“But that’s all it is — a dream — and we’re OK most of the time, ain’t we, huh?”

“Sure we are, Jess. I’m real happy here — you know I am — living with you and Slim and Aunt Daisy.”

“Well, I guess that makes us both real lucky, but see Mr. Hicks ain’t that lucky. He doesn’t just have the odd bad dream; his whole life is like a bad dream and he can’t put all that bad stuff behind him, so I guess we should feel kinda sorry for him.”

“I guess…”

“Look Mike, I have to be real honest with you, because I know Butch may tell you, but when his Pa was round here today, I…well, I decked him.”

The child’s head shot up and his eyes shone. “You did!”

“Yeah, and I’m not real proud of it either, Tiger. He was saying some real bad stuff, sayin’ as how I maybe stole his steers and as how I couldn’t be trusted to be a good friend to Slim and I lost my temper. But that wasn’t right and I don’t want you getting into any scraps over this, you understand?”

“Sure, I guess so, but maybe if his Pa is like that, I don’t want Butch for my friend. And his Pa lied about the fences too. You said he thought you had stolen the steers, but he knew full well the fences were down. He just wanted to make trouble!”

“Maybe he did at that, but that’s Mr. Hicks’s problem. None of this is Butch’s fault, any more that it’s yours, Mike. Just see how things go, huh. And maybe you should just play together in recess at school for now, yeah?”

“OK, Jess, that sounds like a good idea.”

“Right. Well, it’s Saturday tomorrow and if you want to come out trainin’ with me and Snowy at first light, I figure you should be turning in, cowboy.”

Mike beamed up at his friend at that. “Do I! ‘Night, Jess.” He curled up for sleep at once.

“‘Night, Tiger,” Jess said as he kissed him tenderly on the forehead before dimming the night light and softly leaving the room.

*****

It was just a week later that they all set off for the Laramie Race Day. It was an annual event and the whole town turned out. There was a Carnival atmosphere about the place. Colorful banners across Main Street promoted the race, inviting all comers to enter, and the general public to enjoy the many sideshows and stalls.

Slim drove the buckboard in, carrying Daisy and Mike and several boxes containing produce made by Daisy’s fair hand for the baking competition. Jess followed on behind, riding Traveler and leading Snow Bird, who had been groomed within an inch of her life.

On their arrival, Jess went down to the makeshift corral that had been placed at the end of Main street on the area usually used for the summer dances. He paid his entry fee to Mort and then loosed Snow Bird into the corral with the other contenders, who were milling about looking alert, ears pricked and heads shaking and generally absorbing the charged atmosphere.

Snow Bird, being the prima donna that she was, immediately played to the audience, moving briskly round the arena, tossing her head and lifting her dainty hooves in a smart trot. Jess hid a smile, knowing what a show off she was.

However, her posturing paid off, and Jess noted that old Barney West who was keeping the tote had the majority of the bets in Snow Bird’s favor, followed by old man Benson’s High Flier and then an outsider, Union Force…owned by none other than one Curt Hicks.

There were twelve contenders in all, and the way the races worked was that there were three heats on this first day of the racing; at the end of the day, the two horses that had won the most races or were most highly placed went on to a head-to-head the following week, where the event ended in a grand alfresco dance and high-spirited party, the winner being the guest of honor.

However, Jess knew he had stiff competition to beat if he was to claim the final accolade which would hopefully be a purse containing enough cash to see them out of their present financial dilemma.

He went and leaned on the corral fence, and after a moment, Snow Bird saw him and cantered over for the sugar lump she knew would be waiting. He duly treated her and then rubbed her nose gently. “The odds are in our favor, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Now all we’ve gotta do is come up with the goods.”

It was an hour later that Jess was mounted and nervously waiting at the starting post at the top of Main Street, lined with expectant noisy crowds. The event brought spectators from as far away as Cheyenne and Boulder, such was its reputation as an exciting spectacle, and with no-holds-barred, the punters knew anything could happen.

Now Jess felt all his senses on the alert, his heart pounding and his breathing fast, as he felt Snow Bird move restlessly beneath him, her muscles like coiled springs and raring to go. He gently caressed her neck and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “Steady, girl, easy,” his voice soft and calming her some.

Then Mort shot the starting pistol and they were off.

Jess had been able to avoid Curt Hicks prior to the race, keeping  company with Slim and treating Mike to some candy floss and helping  Daisy carry her cakes into the judging hall, but  now he found himself boxed in close to the surly rancher’s big boned bay, who was wild-eyed and  sweating before the race even started.

Almost as soon as they were off, Hicks deliberately steered his mount into Jess’s path and the animals would have collided if Jess hadn’t skilfully maneuvered Snowy out of the big bay’s way. As it was, she faltered a little and lost ground, but being the trooper she was, she quickly recovered and spirited on, and was shortly neck a neck with Benson’s horse, with Hick’s about half a length behind and the rest of the field pretty much out of the race.

At the finishing post, Jess won by just a head. Benson came out of the crowd and shook his hand at once. “Well done there, Harper,” he said grinning. “I thought I was in with a chance, putting my grandson up — light as a feather the boy is — but I guess your Snow Bird had the edge on my High Flier.”

“Thanks,” grinned Jess, who had slipped down from the saddle and saw Slim, Daisy and Mike advancing to congratulate him.

“Yes, a good fair race,” continued Benson. Then seeing Curt Hicks standing back scowling, he continued loudly, “Mostly that is — with one exception,” staring hard at Hicks, who just cussed and turned away.

Then Slim was there, slapping Jess on the back; the family ushered him away and the moment passed. But Hicks stood still, the crowd parting around him, as he stared at Jess’s retreating back, pure hatred in his eyes.

There were two more heats, one at noon and Jess  came in second, with Hicks in first place, having again tried his cheating tactics, pushing Benson’s High Flier out of the way just yards from the finishing post and flagrantly shoving his way past Jess, making him again have to push Snowy out of harm’s way.

Old man Benson had remonstrated long and hard to the judges as to Hick’s bullying, but they were unable to do anything.

“You know as well as I do there are no hard and fast rules on this form of street racing; it’s just a free-for-all,” said Mort patiently. “None of us like to see this sort of bad sportsmanship, Mr. Benson, but I’m afraid Hicks hasn’t broken any laws, as such.”

“Well, in that case, I’m withdrawing my horse,” said Benson angrily. “I can’t risk my grandson’s life, and another stunt like he’s just pulled could be fatal to any horse and rider that tangled with that no good cheat.”

Hicks had remonstrated with that. ”Come on, Benson, you’re just a sore loser,” he spat, the crowd enthralled with this added bonus of the angry confrontation in the middle of the street.

Jess, however, wasn’t prepared to make his case in front of an audience and waited his turn just before the start of the final race of the day.

Jess took Hicks to one side and said very quietly, “I’ve got just one thing to say to you, Hicks. You do anything — anything at all — to harm my horse and you’ll wish you’d never been born, you understand me?”

Hicks looked into the hard eyes, almost black with fury and saw Jess’s taught muscular body ready to fight at the drop of a hat. If he thought he had seen Jess mad back at the ranch when he was taunting him, well, that was nothing compared to the look in the cowboy’s eyes now and he felt a shudder of fear down his spine. He went deathly pale and just nodded before turning away to mount up.

However, Jess needn’t have worried as Snow Bird was on top form and showed Union Force a clean pair of heels right from the off, with Jess winning by a length, Hicks in second place and the rest of the field way behind.

There was a wild burst of applause and cheering as Jess hurtled across the line, being a very popular winner and Snow Bird a particular favorite, so full of character and such an attractive little mare.

Jess slipped down from the saddle, patting his horse’s neck, and then he was surrounded by well-wishers while Hicks strode off with a face like thunder. Then Slim, Daisy and Mike were there, all looking ecstatic, followed by Millie, who threw her arms around his neck. “My hero,” she giggled.

Jess felt elated. Not only had he won a handsome sum of money, he had also got Snow Bird safely through the race in  one piece, and  at the end of the day, that was the most important thing, he thought as he rubbed her nose affectionately, and smiled as  he  was congratulated over and over.

Later, the family returned to the  ranch, as the stock had to be tended and things were getting somewhat lively in  the streets for the likes of Daisy and Mike anyway.

“Have a good evening, Jess,” Slim said, grinning at his friend and patting him on the back. “And don’t forget where you live, ‘champ’; chores waiting for you tomorrow, Jess,” he said chuckling.

Jess had arranged to stay in town, wanting Snowy to rest up after the day’s exertions, plus he had a hot date fixed up with Millie. “Sure, sure, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He waved them off.

Jess spent a long time settling Snow Bird down at the livery, insisting on grooming and feeding her himself, much to old Burt’s amusement.

“I’ve got a boy for that, you know, Jess; you should be off in the saloon celebrating.”

“Nah, this little lady comes first, Burt,” Jess said with his shy smile. Then he spent an equal amount of time seeing to Traveler’s needs, until in the end old Burt said, “Figure I’ll be offering’ you a job if you hang around here much longer, cowboy!”

*****

Much later, Jess relaxed in Millie’s room, sitting on the old couch, one arm draped lovingly around her shoulders, legs stretched out in front of the fire and feeling pretty mellow after all the drinks he had been bought earlier in the evening.

“I’m real proud of you, Jess,” she said, “and Snow Bird too. She’s beautiful, and when she’s racing, she almost looks like she’s flying. I guess that’s how she got her name and she’s just so darned fast, isn’t she!”

“Yeah, feels a bit like she’s flying too,” he laughed. “She sure is a wonderful ride and real smart too you know.”

“Really, is she?”

“Sure, she does all these tricks,” he chuckled.

“Like what,” she asked indulgently, leaning back in his warm embrace.

“Oh, she’ll rear on demand, to a whistle, roll at a hand signal, and loads of stuff.”

“How on earth do you get her to do that?” she said amazed.

“Real easy. Like I said, she’s smart; likes to do that kinda thing. Mike’s always thinkin’ up new stuff for her to learn, too I guess she’d do pretty much anything for me…well, for  a sugar lump, if I’m honest,” he qualified with a laugh.

“And there’s me thinking it was all hard work over at that ranch,” she laughed.

“Oh well, it is. That’s why it’s kinda nice to have the night off, have a rest from all that…er, hard work,” he said, giving her a teasing look.

“So were you thinking of resting your weary bones here?” she asked with a little giggle.

“Well, if you’re inviting me to stay Ma’am,” he quipped.

“Oh, I think I could put up with you,” she said softly and leaning forward she gave him a smoldering look.

He was just moving in for a kiss when there was a thundering at the door.

“What the Hell? Who’s that at this time? The saloon’s shut, ain’t it?”

She shook her head. “No, Tom said he’d be staying open late because business is so brisk right now with the races and all.”

There was another tattoo at the door, and Jess got up reluctantly and went to answer it. “Keep your hair on,” he called at he opened up.

Young Tommy Barnes, the stable lad from the livery, stood there looking pale and shaken. “Mr. Harper, you’ve gotta come real quick. The livery’s on fire and we can’t get your Snow Bird out.”

Jess let out an expletive and then pulled his boots on and ran from the room, throwing a quick, ‘sorry’ over his shoulder to a shocked looking Millie.

“Jess, take care,” she yelled, but he had already gone.

He tore down the street with young Tommy and then he stopped for a moment. “Trav… Traveler, you got him out, Tommy?” he asked his expression anguished.

“Sure, Mr. Harper. He’s just fine in the corral back of the mercantile with the other beasts. Just Snowy and old man Parker’s donkey still in.”

When Jess arrived, he was gratified to see a human chain of men working on the fire, passing water buckets along, but there was still a plume of black smoke hanging in the air and the sound of Snow Bird neighing loudly and beating her hooves against the stall.

“Why ain’t anyone got her out?” Jess yelled at Burt,” or called me sooner.”

“We tried, Jess, really we did, but she just wouldn’t come out and that fool donkey is staying with her.”

Jess wasted no more time, and quickly dampening his bandana and tying it round his nose and mouth, he ran into the burning building.

It was pitch black and he felt his way towards where the now almost hysterical cries of his beloved horse could be heard. Then a section of the roof collapsed and the interior of the building was suddenly illuminated by bright moonlight, filtering through the curling grey smoke, and he saw Snowy in her stall and then the donkey free but with his head over the stall for all the world looking like he was trying to keep her company, although Jess dismissed the thought as crazy as soon as he thought it.

He ran over and saw the stall door was already open, and then stopped in horror as he realized why they had been unable to get her out. She was hobbled, her two rear legs tied tightly together with a length of rope.

“Easy, easy, Snowy; it’s OK,” he whispered as he bent down, and pulling his hunting knife from his boot, quickly sliced through the rope. Then in one graceful movement, he jumped up on her back, and driving the donkey before him, trotted her out of the smoke-filled barn. Although she side stepped and shimmied a little, she soon responded to the comforting weight on her back. A moment later both animals burst out of the burning building to cheers from the fire fighters.

Old man Parker was there and tearfully claimed his donkey, cussing the creature as he patted it at the same time, such was his relief, and then thanking Jess profusely.

As for Jess, he was coughing and shaking, but after a minute, he recovered sufficiently to ask for a bridle. Once he had a lead rein on Snowy, he walked away from the melee a little, to try and find some peace for her to calm down.

Walking away, he bumped into a grave-faced Mort.

“You OK, Jess? I was out up the far end of town, just heard. Are your critters alright?”

Jess surveyed Snow Bird. “Just shook up some, I guess, but she’s alright”.

“Um good. All the others got out?”

“Yeah, they’re all out in the corral back of the mercantile. Hell, I’ve gotta get Trav, Mort,” Jess said, suddenly needing to check his beloved horse was safe, with his own eyes.

“Sure, take it easy now, Jess. Why don’t you bring them both back to my place, bed ‘em down in my stable along with my Buck? They’ll be safe there and it’ll be quieter than being stuck out with all the other beasts.”

“Thanks, Mort, I really appreciate that.”

It was some time later that Jess had finally been convinced that both horses were unharmed and would be safe in the Sheriff’s stable. He stood with Traveler, having settled Snow Bird down, and Mort could see that his buddy was trembling as he patted his horse, talking softly to him.

Jess’s face and hands were blackened from the smoke and he was obviously very shaken up; he also kept coughing, his breathing raspy and his voice hoarse.

“Jess, maybe we should take a trip over to Doc Sam,” said Mort, referring to Doctor Sam Baker, local physician and good friend to all at the Sherman Ranch.

“Nah, I’m fine; it’s these two I’m worried about, Mort. Maybe I should just bunk down here with them tonight. I need to be sure they’re safe, see?”

“Look buddy, old Red sleeps in here,”  Mort said, referring to his hound dog. “And believe me, if even a mouse gets in, well, the whole town knows. He barks fit to wake the dead. Yes sireee, they’ll be safe as houses in here, no need to sleep in with ‘em.”

Jess was finally convinced and was persuaded to clean up and then sit and have a glass of whiskey with the Sheriff before he returned to the saloon for the night.

They sat at Mort’s kitchen table, the older man scrutinizing Jess over the rim of his glass for a while before saying quietly, “I know those animals are real important to you, Jess, and I can figure as to why you’re so darned upset, but there’s something else bothering you isn’t there?”

After a while, Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Remind me never to lie to you, Mort. Yeah there is something, but I’m kinda havin’ trouble believin’ it myself.”

“Go on.”

“It’s Snowy — Snow Bird that is. Hell, she was hobbled, Mort. Someone had gone in and secured her back legs so as she couldn’t move. That’s why the livery staff couldn’t get her out. She wasn’t just spooked; she wasn’t able to walk.”

Mort’s head shot up at that and he gave a low whistle. “That’s darn right evil. What low life would do that?”

“Just one as I know that hates me enough, wanted to get even too — Curt Hicks.”

“Whew, that’s some accusation Jess. Are you sure?”

“As sure as I can be. You saw the way he was with me in the saloon the other week, and then he came out to the ranch and started bad mouthing me in front of Slim and I…”

“Go on,” said Mort, his voice resigned and the glimmer of a smile on his careworn face.

“Well, I decked him. And he said I’d pay for it. Then you saw the way he was today in the races.”

“Um, he sure is a bad sport and a bad looser too, but this… Deliberately putting all those critters at risk, just to get even with you? Well, I dunno.” Mort shook his head in disbelief.

“It was him, alright, I just know it, Mort, but he’ll have an alibi. He may be mean, but I figure he ain’t stupid.”

“Well, I’ll investigate it, sure I will. I’ll take Lon out with me first thing, but like you say, if he’s got an alibi, there is precious little I can do. But Jess, I don’t want you going off half-cocked. Just you leave it to me and my deputy, huh?”

“I can’t promise you that, Mort. Anything else happens to any of my beasts…well, I won’t be held responsible.”

“Yes, well, I don’t blame you. If it was one of my animals, I’d feel the same. But still, ease off until I can try and sort it out OK, Jess?”

He just nodded and Mort knew that was the best he could hope for. Shortly afterwards, Jess left, thanking the Sheriff again for offering sanctuary to his horses.

Jess arrived back at the ranch surprisingly early the following morning, and Slim, who was just coming out of the barn, gave a double take when he saw Jess riding in and leading Snow Bird just after breakfast. “Hey Jess, I was only kidding you about getting back early for the chores,” he said, grinning over at his buddy.

Then he saw Jess’s grim face, and walking over, he patted Traveler’s neck absently. “Hey, you and Millie had a lover’s tiff or something?”

Jess shook his head. “Millie is fine…just fine,” he said, his eyes lighting up for a moment at the memory of how she had been so kind and understanding the previous evening. And then he remembered their love-making later that night that had been so special, their closeness bringing him some comfort and healing after the traumatic events of earlier. Gee, she was some girl, he thought, before Slim brought him back to the present.

“So what’s up, pard?”

When Jess told him everything, Slim’s face was a mask of horror. “He hobbled Snowy, you say? Hell Jess!” Then he took a deep breath. “You got any evidence it was Hicks?”

“No, but I know it was…and you do too, dontcha, Slim?”

The blond rancher looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I do. But how are we going to prove it, Jess?”

“I dunno, but so help me, Slim, that bastard will pay for this, one way or another.” With that, he marched off to the barn leading the two horses.

It was later that day when Mort Corey rode in.

The sheriff reined in his big Buckskin and hitched him to the porch rail, and Slim came out of the house just as he was about to knock on the door.

“Ah, Mort good to see you. I guess this is about the fire. Shall I fetch Jess? He’s in the barn.”

“No, at least not right now, Slim; I think we need to talk first.”

“Oh?”

The two men sat down on the porch chairs, and after a moment’s silence, when Mort looked to be collecting his thoughts, he said, “I guess there is no easy way to say this, but I’m afraid Hick has got a rock-solid alibi.”

“Oh? who?”

“Mr. Benson.”

“Benson! “

“Yeah, apparently he was so dang mad about that stunt Hicks pulled, nearly unseating Benson’s grandson, that he went round to have it out with him. Well, there was no fighting or anything, just a humdinger of an argument apparently — you know what a law-abiding citizen old man Benson is. Hell, his brother is your solicitor, isn’t he?

Slim just nodded. “And he was definitely with Hicks?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so — at exactly the time the fire was set.”

Slim sighed deeply. “Jess isn’t going to take kindly to this.”

“I know. I saw the state of him last night, Slim; he was as rattled as I’ve seen him in a long while. If he hadn’t been so concerned for the beasts, I figure he’d have ridden out and sorted Hicks out last night. As it was, he agreed to let me deal with it, but now, well…”

Just then Jess came out of the barn with the harness he’d been mending. Slinging it on the corral fence, he wandered over and leaning on the hitching rail, tipped his hat back. “Morning, Mort.”

“Jess.”

Jess studied his old friend for a minute and then said, “Why do I think you ain’t got good news, Mort?”

The Sheriff just looked down, unable to meet the challenging gaze. “He’s got a rock solid alibi, ain’t he?” he finally said.

Mort just nodded. “Um, Benson. Sorry, Jess.”

Jess slammed his fist into the porch rail and swore loudly. “Well, if he didn’t do it, he paid someone!” he yelled.

“I’ve no doubt, Jess, but it’s a case of proving it.”

“I’ll damn well prove it,” Jess muttered. “Just give me five minutes alone with the bastard.”

“Jess, that’s not the way and I can’t back you, you know that. Just be patient and we’ll get him,” said Slim earnestly.

Mort got up to go, pulling his hat down hard. “Listen to Slim, son; he’s right. And I promise I’ll be watching him like a hawk. One foot out of line and we’ll have him.”

“Yeah, thanks, Mort,” said Jess gloomily, and drifted off back to the barn.

Mort mounted up and then turned back to Slim. “I nearly forgot to tell you. That race between Jess and Hicks for next week has been postponed ‘till the end of the month because of the livery fire. Tell him, will you, Slim. Give ol’ Snow Bird time to recover from the fire anyways,” he said sadly as he rode off.

*****

It was the following Saturday afternoon when Slim and Mike were sitting the corral fence watching Jess breaking a spirited pinto mustang when they saw a lone rider galloping down  into the yard. After a moment, Mike jumped down from the fence, a welcoming smile on his face. “Hey Butch, what are you doin’ here?” he asked running over to see his friend.

Slim’s head swiveled towards Jess, who had slipped down from the mustang and was standing stock still watching the two children. He had been adamant that Mike shouldn’t take sides, had even played down  the way Butch’s  Pa  had cheated at  the race and made sure that he knew nothing about the ranchers thinking Hicks was responsible for firing the livery.

So Mike just remembered the conversation he and Jess had had a while back when he had simply said Mr. Hicks had probably experienced a bad war and that was why he was so bitter and should really be pitied.

“Hell, Slim, none of this is the kids’ battle; they shouldn’t be involved. I don’t want Mike to fall out with his friend over this. Just because Hicks is full of hate, it don’t mean his kid has to be the same, and I sure don’t want Mike involved in that kind of prejudice,” Jess had said.

Now Jess strolled over to where Slim was still sitting on the corral fence and leaned on it as the two youngsters ran over.

“Is it OK if Butch visits for a while?” Mike asked, eyes sparkling.

Slim and Jess both smiled at the youngsters.

“Sure,” said Slim, “if it’s OK with your Pa, Butch.”

“Oh, he doesn’t care what I do,” said Butch beaming at Slim, unaware of the pathos of his statement.

Jess flicked Slim a quick glance at that and then smiled back at the boys. “Why don’t you take Butch inside and ask aunt Daisy for some milk and cookies,” he said kindly and the boys went whooping off with glee.

“Poor kid,” muttered Jess before getting back on the mustang.

The youngsters had been watching Jess break the mustang and then Mike had pleaded for Jess to put Snow Bird through her paces, doing her tricks of rearing on command and even coming and trying to nibble the sugar lumps straight from Jess’s top pocket, which they thought was hilarious.

Then Mike took him off to the barn to show off his pony.

Butch sat on a straw bale, admiring Mike’s pony Sunny, and after a while he nodded out to the corral and said, “Your folks are real neat, you know, Mike.”

The youngster agreed. “Yeah, I figure I was real lucky to land here.”

Butch shook his head. “You know, I don’t understand it. I really like Jess, but Pa has been saying some real wicked things about him, saying he was a Rebel in the war and a bad person. But when I asked Pa what Jess did to him, he said he’d never met him before we moved here. I just can’t figure how you can hate someone you’ve never met, can you, Mike?”

“Beats me, Jess just says we’ve got to be understanding, ‘cos your Pa had a real bad war.”

“Um, I guess he did. He’s got that scar on his face and another real bad one on his chest too.”

“Well, Jess was a prisoner of war and kept in this tiny cell with rats and things and no food or water, until he was near dead, so I guess he had a real bad war too. But he don’t go cussin’ strangers about it,” said Mike stoutly.

“I figure my Pa’s wrong, you know. Me and Ma get real tired of him going on about stuff in the past. I wish he was more like Jess.”

*****

It was the following Friday, before the race, when an incident that was to prove devastating for the members of the Sherman Ranch and Relay took place.

Mike was now on the summer school holidays, and he had opted to help Daisy with the weekly shopping trip while Jess and Slim went about finishing the work on the mustangs, knowing that their deadline was growing close.

Jess was not in a good mood as he was pretty near exhausted, having resumed his rigorous training schedule with Snow Bird as the race was the next day and yet also working around the clock to meet the army deadline on the mustang contract.

So he was pretty hot and tired when old Mose brought the noon stage hurtling down the track and into the yard.

Jess slipped down from the horse he was working, and removing his hat, wiped his perspiring brow with his shirt sleeve before jamming his hat back on. “Hell, is it noon already, Slim?”

“Must be. I wonder where Mike and Daisy have got to; they’re running kind of late, aren’t they?”

“Um, don’t tell me it’ll be a cold dinner,” Jess said looking pained. “A man can’t do this kinda work on cold cuts and a chunk of bread, you know, Slim,” he said irritably.

“You and your stomach,” Slim muttered as he advanced on the stage.

“Any sign of Mike and Miss Daisy on your travels, Mose?” asked Slim as he started to change the team.

“Nope,” said the old timer. He jumped down and gave the boys a hand with the harnesses so the task was soon completed.

“So you want coffee?” asked Jess, grinning at his friend once the job was done.

“Nah… er, thanks, but not if Miss Daisy ain’t made it. Can’t be stomaching your gut rot excuse for coffee,” Mose said mournfully. “No offense,” he added.

“None taken,” said Jess, cheerfully grinning up at where Mose now sat up on the box. “Just tell Miss Daisy to get a wiggle on if you see her,” he added. “We’re gettin’ a mite hungry here.”

“Will do.” Mose started patting his pockets and looking bemused. “I nearly forgot. Some hombre stopped me just down the track with a message for you, Jess.” He finally found the envelope, and after passing it down, clicked the team off out of the yard.

Jess gazed down at the letter for a moment and Slim came over a big grin on his face.

“Don’t tell me Millie’s got a saloon customer to bring you a billet-doux now! “

“Huh? “

“A love letter, Jess.”

“Oh yeah.” Jess smiled as he ripped the envelope open, but the smile froze on his face as he quickly read the contents and, cussing, handed it to Slim to read.

If you want to see the old woman and the kid again, Harper, then ride the quarter horse out to the standing pines by the lake. Come alone and don’t involve the law, or they’re dead.

Jess was already on his way to the barn to saddle Snow Bird up.

Slim read the note again, and then ran after him and started to saddle Alamo.

Jess turned at this. “What are you doing?”

“Coming with you, of course.”

“Come alone, Slim! The note said come alone. We can’t risk it. Daisy and Mike are out there with some maniac. We do as they say. I’ll hand over Snowy. Ain’t nuthin’ else I can do, Slim; we can’t mess with a crazy person.”

“Do you think this is Hicks again?”

“I guess, or one of his paid lackeys. Hell, Slim, I don’t care; we’ve just gotta get ‘em back in one piece.”

“I’ll ride for Mort then. By the time we get out there, you should have done the deal and got Daisy and Mike back. Then we can trail them and get Snow Bird back.”

“Maybe. Just watch what you’re doin’, Slim; we have to be sure they’re safe before Mort goes stickin’ his nose in.”

“Sure I will. Mort wouldn’t do anything to endanger them, you know that, Jess.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve gotta go, Slim; ride for Mort like you say, and I’ll see you later.” With that, he spurred Snow Bird out of the yard at a gallop.

Jess’s heart was pounding fit to burst and a cold sweat was pouring down his back; his breath coming in harsh gasps as he spurred Snowy onwards, forcing himself not to think about what he was going to do.

He saw the man at once, standing under the pines, a hand on Mike’s shoulder, and holding a rifle in the other, pointed in Jess’ direction.

Jess advanced slowly and then reined Snow Bird in and sat looking down the barrel of the rifle. Then he glanced at the tough-looking, middle-aged man with the red beard and terrifyingly angry expression. “Mike, you OK?”

The child squirmed beneath the vice like grip of his captor and just nodded, obviously too upset to speak.

Jess thought he might very well jump down and strangle the man with his bare hands, but managed to restrain himself. “Get off the boy!” he yelled angrily.

“All in good time, Harper,” red beard growled. “Get down and hand the reins over…now!” he said waving the rifle in Jess’s face.

Jess stared at him and then saw the raw terror on Mike’s face and did as he was asked, swinging down from the saddle and passing the reins over.

Then the big man pushed Mike harshly towards Jess, but kept his gun trained on the youngster.

“Take it real easy, Harper; I really wouldn’t wanna have to kill the kid. Now just back off.”

Jess held Mike close for a moment and then did as he was told backing away a little.

“Good, very good. Now take your iron out real slow and throw it way over into the bushes,” he said gesturing with his head and Jess again did as requested.

Snow Bird had stood quietly by, but now she suddenly seemed to pick up on the atmosphere and she gave a plaintive whinny, and pawed the ground restlessly.

The man pulled on the reins harshly. “Settle down,” he spat.

Jess moved forwards, but again the rifle was pointed at Mike. “I’m not gonna warn you again, Harper. Back off.”

Then the red-bearded man jumped up into the saddle. “The kid will show you where the old girl is. And if you’ve got any sense, you won’t even think of following me. You do and I’ll put a bullet through this critter’s head, you understand?”

“Yeah.”

Then kidnapper spurred Snow Bird off towards the distant hills, but he had only gone a matter of yards when Jess did two things. He pushed Mike away from him towards some huge boulders. “Run,” he said urgently, “And keep down.”

Mike did as he was bid, tearing towards the rocks and then he threw himself down behind them.

Then Jess stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle.

The pretty grey stopped in her tracks and reared, almost unseating her rider, and turned to trot back towards Jess, all the time the outlaw struggling to  control her and cussing loudly.

Jess never saw it coming, one minute the outlaw was struggling to control Snow Bird and the next he had drawn and fired on Jess, wounding him in the thigh. Jess fell and rolled trying to get out of trouble, lying down behind some brush wood near where he had thrown his gun. Then after a moment, he managed to scrabble around in the undergrowth until he found the gun. And all the time he was watching Snowy turning to come back to him, to claim her sugar lump reward, after her usual rearing trick.

 Then Jess whistled shrilly again, and again the horse reared up; this time, the big man was thrown and he fell badly, completely winded.

Jess took his chance, and with his gun in his hand, staggered to his feet, the wound in his leg making him wince in pain. But he managed to cover the few yards between him and the fallen man. looming over him, he bent and threw the rifle out of harm’s way and holstered his own colt before yelling at him to get up.

The older man staggered to his feet only to be laid flat again by the haymaker Jess threw at him. “Come on, get up, you lowlife,” he yelled again. “You’re pretty good at hurtin’ kids and old ladies; let’s see how you get on with me.”

The stranger again managed to stand and threw a punch at Jess, but his heart really wasn’t in it; he knew he had met his match as Jess continued to rain punches until his opponent was pretty near senseless. Feeling somewhat appeased, Jess stood back, looking down at the bleeding wreck of a man at his feet.

“OK, roll over on your belly,” Jess said, looking down without the trace of compassion in his eyes.

The man was panting, his eyes glazed in shock after the fight, but following a well-aimed kick from Jess, he finally did as he was told. The dark haired cowboy reached over and took his rope from Snowy’s saddle and started to tie the man up tightly, ignoring his cries for mercy.

Then Mike was suddenly at his side. “Jess, your leg,” he gasped. “It’s bleeding something fierce.”

Jess looked down, and seeing his denims soaked with blood, pulled off his bandana and tied it tightly around his thigh, stemming the blood flow, before giving the youngster a brave smile. “It’s OK Mike, looks worse than it is. bullet went straight through. It’s just a flesh wound.”

Then the boy flung his arms tightly around Jess’s waist. “Oh Jess, I was so scared,” he said sobbing.

Jess held the boy close, talking gently to him, before suddenly pulling back. “Hey Tiger, where’s aunt Daisy? Is she OK?”

The two made their way up to the cave, Mike supporting Jess’s weight, but as soon as they entered and saw Daisy lying on her side bound and gagged, Jess staggered forwards, cussing softly under his breath. He gently removed the gag and cut through the ropes and then held the elderly woman close. “Daisy, you OK? I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

He could feel her trembling, but after a moment she replied, her indomitable spirit coming to the fore as usual. “Quite alright, dear; just a little cold and stiff. Shall we get out into the sunlight?”

Jess staggered as he made to stand and she was immediately in her nurse’s roll. “Oh Jess dear, he’s hurt you.” Then she turned worried eyes on the youngest member of the family. “Mike, are you alright?”

“Just fine, Aunt Daisy, and Jess has tied up that bad man like a Christmas turkey, so we’re quite safe now.”

“Oh well, thank goodness for that. Come along then, Jess dear; put your weight on me and we’ll hitch up the buckboard and get you home. That leg needs dressing properly.”

Jess hid a smile, thinking what a wonderful spirit their old housekeeper had.

“Well come along, dear; I expect Slim is fretting too. Let’s hurry along.”

Jess openly smiled at her then. “Nothing fazes you, does it, Daisy?”

But before she could answer, they heard riders advancing, and Jess drew his gun, only to holster it again a moment later with a sigh of relief as he saw Mort and Slim advancing at speed.

Once it had been ascertained that Mike and Daisy were unharmed, Mort took their assailant back to town with Jess saying he would see him in the morning to make a statement.

Once Mort had ridden off with the prisoner, both Daisy and Slim turned to face Jess.

“Jess, you’re hurt, dear; you need to rest,” said Daisy, looking concerned.

“Hey, you’re not going anywhere, partner,” agreed Slim, looking down at Jess’s blood stained denims.

Jess’s head snapped up at that. “Heck, have you all forgotten I’ve got a race to ride in tomorrow? I’ve got to go, you know that; we need the money, Slim,” he continued, turning his troubled gaze on his buddy.

“Jess, you aren’t up to it,” argued Slim, as he saw the way Jess was now swaying slightly, his skin pale and sweating.

His deteriorating condition wasn’t lost on Daisy either and she quickly pulled herself up to her full five foot and took control of the situation. “Slim dear, can you hitch up the buckboard and make Jess comfortable in the back please?”

Then turning to Jess, she said, “And don’t argue, young man; we need to get you home and tend to that wound. Then we’ll discuss tomorrow later,” she said, effectively cutting short Jess’s argument. “Mike, round up Alamo and Snowy and hitch them to the back of the rig, will you, dear. Let’s get home; I for one could do with a good strong coffee!”

*****

Later that night, Slim had just finished helping Daisy with the washing up and he wandered back into the living room and threw another log on the fire as the evening had turned chilly. “Come on, Daisy,” he called over his shoulder. “You’ve done quite enough; come and sit down. I don’t know why you wouldn’t let me and Mike fix supper after the day you’ve had,” he muttered to himself.

“Oh I’m quite alright, dear,” she said, smiling up at the blond rancher as she entered bearing a tray with their coffee.

Then Slim looked around him. “So where’s Jess gone?”

Daisy looked surprised. “Well, maybe he’s done as I suggested for once and had an early night?”

Slim marched over to their room and stuck his head road the door. “Nope, not there.” Then he went and peered out of the window and saw a light in the barn. “Garldarnit, Daisy, he’s only out with the horses,” he said irritably. “What’s he playing at? “

“He really does need to keep off that leg, dear. Go and fetch him in, will you?”

Slim threw her a skeptical look. “Well, I’ll try,” he said with a faint smile and wandered off to the barn.

As soon as he entered, Jess, who had been in with Snowy, spun around, his gun in his hand in the blink of an eye.

Slim stood still, his eyebrows raised in censure. “Well, your leg maybe bothering you but there’s nothing wrong with your reactions,” he said severely.

“Sorry, Slim,” Jess said, flushing a little and holstering his gun at once. “Guess I’m kinda strung out, what with the fire and then this business. Someone sure wants to get their hands on Snow Bird, or kill her anyway.”

“Do you think that hombre is working for Hicks then?”

“I dunno, but you can bet your life neither of ‘em will be admitting to it any time soon if he is.”

“Yeah, you could be right. So I guess if he’d got away with it, Hicks would have won by default as you wouldn’t have been able to race. That’s the way the rules work, isn’t it?”

“Exactly, and that’s why I have to race tomorrow, Slim; you must see that,” Jess said, turning pleading eyes on his buddy.

“Um, I also see all the money in the world isn’t worth killing yourself for, Jess.”

“Oh come on, it’s just a flesh wound, stop actin’ like Miss Daisy. You know as well as I do I’ve ridden with far worse than this,” snapped Jess.

“Maybe, but not in a full on race like this. You know how much it took out of you last time. I really don’t want you taking any risks, pard.”

“Well, that’s too bad, Slim, because I’m ridin’ tomorrow whether you like it or not, and it’s not just about the money anymore either, it’s the principle. You start lettin’ folks push you around this way, then where does it stop?”

**********

The following morning Slim and Jess rode into town, but Daisy had opted to stay at home, saying she was a little sore after the manhandling she received the previous day from the would-be horse thief.

Jess was instantly contrite. “Daisy, I’m so dang sorry you were involved in all this. Would you like me to ride over to the Patterson’s place and get Ma Patterson to come sit with you, or fetch Doc Sam to you maybe?”

“Oh no dear, I’m quite alright in myself.” Then she added in a lower tone, “To be quite honest, Jess I really don’t want Mike to go. I know there will be a lot of drinking and… er, high spirits afterwards, which isn’t really suitable for a young boy and…”

“Yeah?”

“Well, if there is any more unpleasantness between you and Mr. Hicks, well, I just don’t think Mike should witness it. He’s bound to be upset, with Butch being his friend and everything.”

“Um, I figure you’re right there, Daisy. How about we ask him to be ‘the man of the house’ and keep an eye on you while we’re away?”

“Oh that’s a good idea, Jess; thank you for being so understanding. I don’t suppose I can talk you out of going too?”

Jess just grinned at that. “Nope, sorry, Ma’am,” then more seriously, “I really am sorry, Daisy, but this is just something I have to do.”

“I know you feel very strongly, Jess dear, but really that leg is in a very bad way. The wound is deeper than I first thought, and even when bound, it could easily bleed again. Won’t you reconsider?”

He just shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t, Daisy.”

“Well, just try and stay safe and keep away from that dreadful man if you can…yes?”

“Sure.” With that, Jess was off to saddle up and carefully made sure he didn’t limp in Daisy’s presence, although the leg wound was hurting something fierce.

*****

That had been earlier, and now they rode into town and went straight to Mort’s office.

The Sheriff looked up from his paper work at once, and grinning at his friends, gestured to the coffee pot on the stove. “Help yourselves.”

Once they were settled with a drink, the fact that Jess was now limping badly hadn’t escaped Mort’s notice. “So how’s the leg then, Jess? Sure you should be ridin’ today?”

“Never mind about that. What have you done with that low life that abducted Daisy and Mike?”

“How is the dear lady?” asked Mort solicitously

“Well, how do you think an elderly lady would be feelin’ after bein’ snatched, bound and gagged and pushed around by some bastard like that?” Jess said, jerking his head towards the door to the cells.

“Steady, Jess,” said Slim, coming forwards and pushing him gently back down in his chair from where he had risen as his anger erupted. Jess subsided for a moment and took a sip of his coffee.

“So what’s going to happen to him, Mort?” asked Slim, straddling a chair and sitting down too.

“Well, that pretty much depends on you folk making a complaint. He’s down for abducting a woman and child, attempted horse theft, and malicious wounding. Yes sireee, I reckon we’ve got enough there to bang him up for a good long time.”

“So has he admitted to being in league with Hicks then?” asked Jess.

“Nope, he denies it completely. Says he was paid to steal Snow Bird for a source over in Cheyenne; some guy saw her race the other week and got a notion to have her for his own.”

“So who is it, and why didn’t he just ask if I wanted to sell? “

Mort shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine and there is no way our ‘friend’ in there is about to spill the beans.”

“Just let me in there,” Jess said leaping up. “It’ll be his guts he’s spillin’ when I’ve finished with him, never mind beans.”

“No Jess, I can’t let you do that. But at least he’s banged up and won’t be troubling you again, I promise that,” said Mort sincerely.

“Guess that’s the best we can hope for, Jess,” said Slim, patting his buddy lightly on the arm.

“And so what about Hicks? He gets off Scott free again, does he?”

“Well, you can’t prove he was involved, you know that, Jess.”

“Yeah, but you and me know the truth of it, don’t we, Mort!” With that, Jess stood up and marched out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

“Will he be OK?” asked Mort, looking concerned.

“Yeah, he’ll simmer down in a while, don’t worry, Mort.”

“Well, I sure can understand why he’s so dang frustrated. He’s right; we all know Hicks is probably at the bottom of this. If I could just darn well prove it…!”

“Yeah well, as long as Jess wins today, I guess that will go some way to making us feel better.”

“That’s a foregone conclusion, isn’t it, Slim. I hear all the smart money is on him. That nag belonging to Hicks is pretty good, but I reckon Snow Bird has the edge and Jess is a way better rider.”

“Um, usually he is, but you saw him, Mort. He’s got that really nasty wound to his leg, bound to make a difference. Just riding in this morning, we took our time, but he wasn’t sitting well. Could tell he was in pain, but you know him. Daisy tried to talk him out of coming today. She’s real worried, says she’s patched him up as well as she could, but he needs to keep completely off it. But I might as well talk to that wall,” Slim said sighing.

“Sure, I know what he’s like. Anyway, I’ll be there to cheer him on, along with half of Wyoming,” Mort said with a chuckle. “Sure is getting busy out there already.”

“Yeah, figure I’d better go and catch up with him, keep him out of trouble,” Slim said looking concerned. “God help us if he catches up with Hicks.”

“Come to think of it, I figure I’ll walk along with you now,” said Mort, casting his buddy a long-suffering look, and the two men left in search of Jess.

However, Jess was in the very last place Slim would have thought to look for him — in Doc Sam’s office.

Carrie, the doctor’s pretty daughter and nurse, was a good friend of Jess, and on opening the door gave a little cry of delight when she saw who it was standing on the doorstep. “Why hello, Champ,” she said giggling. “I’m surprised you’ve got time for the likes of us this morning. Shouldn’t you be with your loyal fans? “

He returned her smile, and then said, ”Hi, Carrie. Is your Pa in, sweetheart?”

Seeing that Jess was obviously in no mood for banter, she threw the door open wide at once. “Sure Jess, come along in. Are you OK?”

Then she saw he was limping and wasted no time in fetching her Pa.

*****

Doc Sam leaned back from where he had been dressing the deep wound. “Miss Daisy was quite right you should be keeping off this leg Jess.”

“Oh, I’m OK.”

“Well I’m pretty sure you’re not, because it just isn’t like you to seek medical help, Jess, unless you’re in a really bad way. I usually see you when you’ve been herded in by Slim, cussing and saying how you’re fine and don’t need me. And yet here you are on my doorstep of your own free will?”

Sam and Jess were real good friends and wiled away many hours at the Sherman lake fishing together, but Sam was the first to admit what a bad patient Jess was, and Jess himself concurred with that, knowing  that was the truth of it.

“So, are you feeling really bad then?”

Jess was quiet for a minute. “Well, I’ve felt better, but see thing is, Sam, I just wanted to try and get it fixed up as good as possible before the race at noon.”

“Race! Don’t tell me you’re still riding in the race, Jess! That wound could burst open again at any moment, even though I’ve bound it now. You were crazy to ride in here at all today, I figured you’d just come in to postpone it.”

“Are you, mad, Sam? The money that’s been wagered on this… Hell, I’d get lynched if I backed out now.”

“Well, be it on your own head, Jess, but I really don’t recommend you doing anything but rest up for at least a week.”

“OK, I’ll rest up…after the race.”

Sam sighed deeply. “You really were at the front of the line when the good Lord was dishing out stubborn, weren’t you, Jess!”

“I guess,” said Jess looking down sheepishly. But then he looked his friend in the eyes, and said, “I’m sorry, Sam, but I have to do this.” He went on to explain everything that had happened both between him and Hicks and the subsequent things that had happened to Jess and Snow Bird.

Sam gave a low whistle at the end of all this. “Until I heard this Hicks sounding off, I didn’t think that kind of prejudice was still about. I guess the man must be sick in the mind to act this way you know Jess.”

“So that makes it OK, does it?” said Jess angrily. “OK to kidnap little old ladies and kids, have me shot up this way. Hell, and when I think of what he nearly did to Snowy…” He was so full of anger at the memory of the burning barn and the horse’s frantic cries of terror that he was trembling with fury.

Sam saw this and took pity on his friend. “Just take it as easy as you can and I’ll be there at the end if you need me.”

Jess offered his hand. “Thanks for that, and for sorting’ me out, Sam; its feeling better already.”

“Um, well, you take it easy, and I’ll check you out after the race.”

Jess thanked the doctor and left shortly afterwards.

Jess finally met up with Slim and the Sheriff back at Mort’s stable where he had again left Snow Bird for safety, as he had been worried Hicks might try an eleventh-hour ploy to somehow scupper his chances in the race.

“I figure he’d do pretty much anything to try and stop me now, considering his track record,” Jess said earlier. “And I reckon he’d get clean away with it too, wouldn’t he, Mort,” he finished bitterly.

The Sheriff was feeling bad, as it was having his hands tied so to speak, and part of him really wanted to let Jess have five minutes with his prisoner and knock the truth out of him, but knew it was impossible. “We’ll get him in the end, son, don’t you fret,” he’d said.

Now the two men walked into the stable and Slim gave a sigh of relief. “So here you are; we’ve been looking for you, Jess.”

“Yeah, well, I had some business…”

“That wouldn’t have been with Hicks, would it, Jess?” asked Mort, looking concerned.

“No, it wouldn’t,” spat Jess. “I told you I wasn’t gonna see him before the race, didn’t I?”

“And afterwards…?”

“Depends, don’t it,” said Jess doggedly. “He’d better just not try anymore tricks on ol’ Snowy here,” he said, turning to fondle the horse’s ears.

There was a heavy silence and then Slim said, “Race is due to start in half an hour or so; you’d better saddle her and get warmed up, Jess.”

The streets of Laramie were packed by noon, with gambling and drunkenness abounding, and Mort and Lon had their work cut out to keep a lid on things as the crowd shoved and pushed for a better view of the proceedings.

At last Mort was in position and Jess and Hicks mounted and ready to go. Slim and Lon, who were acting as self-imposed supervisors of the race, made sure there was a good gap between the two riders so that Hicks couldn’t play dirty again.

Jess had impressed Mort by studiously ignoring Hicks, but Slim new his buddy better and was quite aware that retribution would be delivered at some stage in the future, if not today. Nobody, but nobody, got away with ill-treating one of Jess’s animals and Slim knew Hicks’ time would come.

He dismissed the thought from his mind as the horses were on starter’s orders though, and then they were off.

During the last few seconds before the starting pistol had gone off, Hicks had narrowed the gap between himself and Jess, and then after just a few yards he did exactly as he had done previously — deliberately driven his horse at Snowbird. Union Force crashed into the side of Snowy, his muscular flank hitting Jess’s injured leg and making him scream out in agony and all but fall.

The crowd was going crazy booing and yelling at this overt foul, and for a moment Snow Bird lost her footing and looked like she would go down. But then she recovered and Jess somehow found a renewed strength from somewhere deep inside him to carry on.

It came from that part of him that had been tormented and abused in the war and since — the part of him that had been shot up and beaten, left for dead on so many occasions — the part of him that always managed to rally, to get up and fight on. His indomitable spirit. It saw him through this latest crisis as it always has done.

Snow Bird had recovered, and she felt her master willing her on. All she wanted to do was to please him, and so she put all her heart into the race. Within seconds of her stumble, she was flying along and caught up with Union Force, passing him as if effortlessly and sailed on to win by a good length.

The crowd went berserk, stamping and cheering as Jess brought a sweating, heaving Snow Bird to a halt. He slid down from the saddle and patted her arched neck, calming her as the crowds pushed around him, everyone wanting to pat his back and shake his hand.

Then suddenly something in the atmosphere subtly changed and the crowd parted to allow Hicks to elbow his way through.

He stopped a few feet from Jess and then spat. “So all you good men fawning over this…this Confederate. I guess you’ve all got pretty short memories. Have you forgotten what his sort did to us good men in the war? “

This statement was met by jeers and cries of “shame.”

Then one of the members of the town council came forth. “I don’t know who you are, Mister, but we judge a man by his character and the man he is now, and not by the past. Jess here has been a good friend to the people of Laramie, and I think I speak for us all when I say your comments are way out of order. The war is long over; let it go, man!”

“Hear, hear!” yelled the now openly hostile crowd.

Hicks didn’t seem to even hear him and just advanced on Jess, who was standing absolutely still and silent just watching his adversary.

“You cowardly Rebel bastard!” Hicks taunted.

Then Jess finally reacted and threw a punch that was so forceful Hicks flew through the air and landed several feet away, much to the crowd’s delight. He advanced and stared down at his bleeding cowed adversary.

After a moment, Hicks rallied a little. “See,” he said appealing to the crowd. “You say you’ve forgotten the war, but Harper here hasn’t; he hates the Union as much as I hate the Rebels”.

Jess just stared at him and shook his head, his eyes black with fury. “Oh no, Hicks, don’t you dare tar me with the same goddamn brush as you. That punch was nothing to do with the war, and everything to do with what you’ve done to my horse. And not just today.”

“What…. what are you talking about Harper?”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Jess frighteningly quietly. “You are responsible for having the livery torched and hobbling my mare so as she would have burnt to death if I hadn’t come and got her out.”

There was a great intake of breath from the crowd at this, and people began to mutter and throw Hicks even more damning glances.

“What’s more, you had an old lady and a kid abducted to try and steal my horse so as you’d win by default.”

Again the crowd started talking animatedly as the accusations unfolded.

“That’s pure lies,” said Hicks now looking decidedly furtive. “You prove it, Harper.”

“Oh, I aim to,” said Jess. “And if you ever come anywhere near this beast again,” he said, tipping his hat towards Snow Bird,” I’ll kill you.” With that, Mort came and took Hicks off away from the mob for his own protection.

Then before Jess could be ushered over to the saloon by the lively crowd, Sam was beside him. “I think we need to go over to my office,” he said gently.

Jess saw the crowd moving off and his chance for free drinks going with it and turned back to Sam. “Aw, Sam, I’m Ok, really. I…”

“No, you really aren’t, Jess.”

Sam merely gestured down to Jess leg, and following his friend’s gaze, he saw his denims were soaked with blood, the dark patch growing larger as he watched and then suddenly it was all too much…

“Catch him, Slim,” shouted Sam as Jess collapsed in a dead faint.

Slim and Sam carried Jess across the road to his office, and while Sam tended to his buddy, Slim went and stabled Snow Bird back at Mort’s place. Then he went in the saloon to tell Millie Jess was delayed and finally returned a while later to see Sam looking grave.

“Where’s Jess,” asked Slim as he entered. “He is OK, isn’t he, Sam? I thought you’d just be bandaging him up again?”

The good doctor shook his head and gestured for Slim to sit. “No, it was quite critical for a while there, Slim. One of the larger blood vessels had been lacerated by that stunt Hicks pulled and he lost a heck of a lot of blood. But I’ve cauterized it now and stitched him up and I figure he’ll be OK as long as he behaves for once.”

“Oh, he will, be sure of that, Sam.”

“Um, well, no riding for a couple of weeks and positively no brawling. If he’s got differences to settle with Hicks, then I guess they’ll just have to wait until he’s fit and healthy, Slim. I really can’t guarantee his healing otherwise, you understand?”

“Loud and clear. Can I see him?”

“Sure. He’s still a bit drowsy, but I reckon he’s finished chucking up now.”

“You had to sedate him then?” asked Slim, knowing the adverse effect anesthesia had on his buddy’s stomach.

“I’m afraid so, Slim. He needed some pretty nimble sewing to fix him up and I had to have him completely still. Anyway, come on in.” Sam led Slim to the hospital room at the back.

Carrie was sitting beside Jess, wiping his forehead when they went in, and she smiled across at Slim. “Come and cheer up the conquering hero,” she said with a grin. “He’s just complaining that he’s missing his victory party.”

Sam and his daughter left Slim with his buddy, and as the door closed, Jess said sadly, “And the dance. Hell, Millie will go mad if I don’t turn up for the dance. She’s been really looking forward to it, Slim; bought a new frock an’ everythin’.”

“She’ll be just fine, don’t you worry. I called in and said Sam was just patching you up, but hell, I’d no idea it was so bad. I’ll go and let her know you won’t be showing up.”

Jess groaned and went even paler.

“You going to chuck up?” asked Slim, glancing round for a receptacle.

“Nah,” said Jess quickly. “Ain’t that, it’s just the thought of everyone enjoying themselves and Tom will probably make Millie work if she ain’t got a date.”

Slim thought about that. “Well, how about I take her to the dance?”

“Thought you were takin’ Lily.”

“Well I am, but I’ve got two good arms, Jess; one girl on each arm,” he grinned. “I’ll be the envy of the town.”

Jess chuckled a little at that. “Well, guess that would do the trick, Slim. At least she can get all duded up and enjoy herself. But don’t let her enjoy it too much,” he said with the hint of a twinkle in his blue eyes. “I’d like for her to miss me a little bit.”

“Hell, she’ll miss you something fierce; we all will, Jess. I’ll go and tell her now and I’ll pop back later to see how you’re doing, OK?”

“Thanks, Slim.”

When Slim and Millie called in later on their way to the alfresco dance, Sam said Jess was sleeping and couldn’t be disturbed. “I’m sorry folks, but he took a bit of a turn for the worse after you’d gone, Slim; kept throwing up and then he pulled the stitches, so I’ve given him a sleeping draft and he’ll be out of it for another couple of hours at least.”

They all went off to the dance but Slim could see Millie’s heart wasn’t really in it and he and Lily felt pretty miserable too without Jess’s usual lively company.

Then Slim saw Hicks sidle in, and after taking a bottle of whiskey, staggered off to a table at the edge of the dance floor and sat there muttering darkly to himself. Slim felt his hackles rising.

“Just ignore him, Slim,” said Lily and ushered him off for a dance, leaving Millie staring around her and wishing again that Jess was there.

Of course, Millie had no shortage of dance partners, but she looked far from happy as the evening wore on, and after a while, she whispered to Slim that she thought she’d call it a night.

“It’s still really early, Millie. Are you sure?”

“Yes; I thought I might call in at Doc Sam’s just to say goodnight to Jess.”

“OK, come on then.”

“Oh I didn’t mean for you to come, Slim; I’ll be fine.”

“Heck, you’re not walking home alone, Millie. Jess would murder me. Lily will be fine for five minutes,” Slim said gesturing to where his date was deep in conversation with a girlfriend.

It was as they were leaving that the incident happened.

Slim had taken Millie’s arm and was just escorting her away from the dance when he was suddenly aware that Hicks had got up to follow them.

Slim spun around and surveyed the red faced man swaying in front of him. “What do you want, Hicks?” asked Slim gruffly.

“Just to see what a low-life Southern-lover looks like. Your best buddy’s a Rebel and this here woman’s a Southerner. What is it with you, Sherman? You fought for the Union, didn’t you? What are you playing at, man, mixing with this scum?” he asked, unaware that a small crowd had gathered around him, their expressions grim.

“Leave it, Hicks. You’re drunk. Get out of my way.” Slim made to move off, a protective hand on Millie’s elbow.

“Can’t even be bothered to turn up for his own party.” Then Hicks turned to the bystanders. “See, that no-good scum Harper can’t be bothered to turn up for his prize. Even lets his buddy here share his girl. My, you must be real close friends, Sherman,” he spat, a salacious look in his rheumy eyes as he looked Millie up and down.

That was the final straw as far as Slim was concerned and he threw a haymaker, connecting with Hicks chin and sending him flying for the second time that day. As with Jess’s punch, Hicks was knocked almost senseless with the force of the blow.

However, this time Mort wasn’t around to defuse things and the mob turned on the hapless man, attacking him viscously, all incensed at his brutal words defiling both Slim and Jess, not to mention Millie, who was very popular with the town’s folk.

It was Lon who finally came to the rescue by discharging his shot gun into the air and shouting for everyone to stand back.

“You weren’t here, Deputy. Didn’t hear what this man was implying. He’s sick…needs locking up,” shouted one worthy, backed up by the crowd.

“Well whatever he’s said or done, it’s down to the law to deal with it,” said Lon stoutly. Then looking to Slim for support, he said, “Can you walk him down with me, Slim?”

Slim swallowed his anger and agreed and finally he and Lon half carried Hicks down to the jail, Millie following on.

She left them at the doctor’s door, calling her goodnights, and a few minutes later the door was opened and she was ushered inside.

Sam wasn’t surprised to see Millie, and smiling at her, said, “So I suppose you just have to see my patient then, my dear?”

“Please doc,” she said with her most charming smile. “I’ve really missed him tonight.”

“Alright, I give in,” Sam said, chuckling and raising his hands in submission. “But not too long, Mille; he really is still quite poorly, and he may be asleep, so go softly, OK?”

She tapped very lightly on the bedroom door and went in, taking a moment to get used to the dim light cast by a lamp on  the night stand by the bed. Then she tiptoed over, peering down at Jess.

Seeing he was indeed sleeping, she sat down on the edge of the bed and prepared to wait. She watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest, his long dark lashes casting shadows on the soft curve of his cheek, one hand thrown up behind his head and his face looking so young and vulnerable in repose.

After five minutes or so, Jess stirred and then his eyelids flickered and his eyes opened. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment before rolling his head on the pillow, and then as he focused on Millie, his face suddenly lit up with joy. “Hey, sweetheart. What are you doin’ here? You’re supposed to be enjoyin’ yourself at the big dance.”

She shook her head and took his hand which was resting on the coverlet. “I couldn’t, not without you.”

“Aw, honey, I’m so sorry. I really wanted to go, you know that, but ol’ Sam had to knock me out to do some fancy stitchin’ and then I spent the next few hours chuckin’ up.”

“So I hear,” she smiled. “Carrie was at the dance.”

“Poor kid. She always seems to be the one as has to look out for me.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t complaining. She was just so mad at what had happened. She said her Pa had checked you out earlier and fixed you up; it was that Hicks crashing into you with that big-boned bay that did the damage.”

“Um, well, at least Snowy wasn’t hurt, that’s the main thing, and I figure Hicks got his comeuppance in the end,” Jess said, rubbing his skinned knuckles.

“You and your horses,” she giggled, reaching over and ruffling his hair affectionately.

Then he grabbed hold over her hand and  pulled her gently down, towards him,  glancing down at her full red lips and  then back into her adoring brown eyes before leaning in for a kiss, one hand tangling in  her long dark hair and  pulling her in  even closer. “Oh baby, I’m so darned sorry I’m laid up this way,” Jess whispered after a moment, pulling back and gazing into her eyes with a look of concern mixed with desire.

“Heck, it’s not forever, Jess. You’ll be well again soon, and if you play your cards right, you can come and convalesce at my place for a day or two. After all, if Sam says you can’t ride…”

“Well, that sure sounds like a good idea to me,” Jess said, suddenly looking much more cheerful. “Come here,” he said softly and she moved in for another kiss.

When Sam entered the room quietly an hour or so later, he wandered over to the bedside and then stood smiling down  benignly at the young couple, both fast asleep, Millie having nodded off with her head on Jess’s chest, a protective arm around her holding her close.

Sam smiled and then very gently shook Millie awake and later walked her home across the street and in the back entrance of the still busy saloon.

“Thanks, Sam,” she said sleepily, “and thank you for looking after Jess too.”

“Well, you know he’s my favorite patient, don’t you?” Sam said chuckling.

“He is?” she said her eyes opening wide in disbelief.

“Why sure. If it wasn’t for Jess, I’d have gone bust long ago. He’s either knocking five bells out of someone, or in trouble himself. Yep, he sure is good for business.”

“Oh you,” she said with a little giggle. “Tell him I’ll come by tomorrow, will you?”

“Sure. See you, Millie, goodnight.”

Millie slipped off up the backstairs to bed and Sam went back to give his patient a final check before turning in himself.

The following day, Sam was able to relinquish his ‘favorite patient’ into the tender care of Mille and Jess spent a very pleasant few days in his girlfriend’s rooms, recuperating.

*****

“Recuperating?” said Slim raising his eyebrows and an evil twinkle in his eyes. “So that’s what you’re calling it now is it Jess?”

“Aw, Slim, quit your joshing,” Jess replied as he slid down  from Snow Bird’s back and looked round the yard, glad to be  home even if he had enjoyed his time in  Laramie.

“Well after all that ‘nursing’ Millie’s been doing for you I expect your fighting fit now then, Jess, ready to do my chores as well as your own.” Then seeing the look on his buddy’s face. he said, “Hey that’s only fair, Jess; you’ve been gone nearly a week, you know.”

“Yeah, well, that weren’t my fault,” said Jess, now on the defensive. “Sam said I couldn’t sit a horse for a few days. I was just following doctor’s orders, Slim, like you’re always banging on about.”

Slim cast his eyes to Heaven. “Er, it might have slipped your notice, pard, but this here is a Relay Station,” he said making a grand gesture with his arms, encompassing the yard and ranch. “We get stage coaches in here, and they run pretty regular actually.”

“Oh, yeah, right,” said Jess looking down sheepishly now. “I guess they do at that.”

Slim just shook his head in mock despair. “Did you two actually get out of bed at all over the last week?”

“Hell, Slim it weren’t that way,” Jess said, really looking uneasy now, wondering how Daisy had taken his prolonged absence. ”I was pretty sick, you know, and then Millie had to work…and…”

Then Daisy appeared at the ranch doorway. “Slim, will you stop teasing the boy and tell him to come in; coffee’s on,” she said with a little chuckle. Jess marched over and gave her a big hug and the pair disappeared inside, Slim following on, a big grin on his face. Ol’ Jess was such an easy target sometimes…

*****

It was a week later when Jess took off for the fort to deliver the green-broke mustangs. It was a long ride, and Slim would have gone himself if it hadn’t been for the fact that the stage line superintendent was due for his annual visit to check on things, including the accounts.

“I’ll be just fine, Slim. The leg’s pretty much all healed, and anyway, you know me and them books. I get me all of a muddle once it comes to gross profit and balance sheets and all that technical stuff.”

“Yeah, well, it didn’t help last time when the figures didn’t balance and you just got Mike’s India rubber and changed the figures so they did,” laughed Slim.

“Yeah… well, I guess I’ll do the mustang trip then,” said Jess with his cheeky grin.

*****

He was on the way back when disaster struck.

He had delivered the mustangs on time and the Army was delighted with the beasts, paying top dollar. Jess couldn’t wait to get back to Laramie to bank the sizable amount of cash. He smiled to himself as he rode on through the heat of the day as he remembered a recent conversation he had had with old Tom from the saloon.

Apparently it wasn’t just the Sherman ranch business that had been aired across the bar by the unprofessional new bank manager, and after he had been the worse for drink on several occasions and openly discussed his client’s financial problems, Tom had blown the whistle. Mort was involved and the manager was replaced soon after.

“So, I guess we can trust the bank again,” Jess had said happily as he had recounted the news to Slim later. “You won’t have to start stuffin’ the mattress with our ill-gotten gains,” he joked.

However, much later he was to think that if he’d been able to take the money straight home instead of heading for Laramie first, he would have saved himself one hell of a lot of bother and heart ache.

As it was, the wad of notes was in a money clip and carefully stuffed down the side of his boot. He figured it was as safe there as anywhere, thinking if it came to it that some hombre was able to remove his boots, well, he’d be past worrying about the fate of the money and more of the fate of his immortal soul.

And so it was that he was bowling along at a good pace and just thinking that he might very well book Traveler into the livery and spend the night in town with Millie before riding home when a rifle shot rang out, the bullet creasing Jess’s temple. He fell from his mount like a stone and lay deathly still on the ground.

When he came to sometime later, Jess was lying across his mount, tied and gagged and covered over with an old tarp, to all the world looking like a deer kill to any passer-by.

The blood was pounding in his head, which was aching badly, and he could feel a trickle of blood running down his face. The more he struggled, the tighter the ropes became knotted around his wrists and ankles, the gag making any kind of protest impossible. All he could see from his position laid across the saddle, like a sack of taters, was the ground passing beneath him, and he could feel the regular rhythm of Traveler’s careful walk and thanked God that he was at least still on his own horse.

Thoughts were chasing around in his brain like rats in a trap. Who had bushwhacked him and why? Surely if they knew of the mustanging money, they’d have stripped him off and found it by now and killed him, or left him tied up to be found. Why take him off this way? Where were they going? What was his fate?

It seemed like hours later that they entered a yard that was vaguely familiar to Jess. he recognized the white painted five bar gate that was left open, and then as Traveler was brought to a halt by whoever was leading him, Jess managed to turn his head to one side and look at the ranch house and outbuildings. It was the old Johnson place, the ranch now owned by Curt Hicks — just a few miles from home, but the way Jess was trussed up, it might have been a million miles away.

He was eventually dragged from his horse and thrown in the dirt, falling hard and jarring his hip badly. Then the rope around his ankles was cut, so that he could walk.

A vicious hand gripped his arm hard, yanking him up from the ground and pushing him forward, the hard metal of a rifle in the small of his back, pushing him on towards the ranch house.

“Go on you, low-life Reb, get moving,” spat Hicks, ramming the rifle hard into his back making him stagger.

That made Jess see red, and even though the odds were against him, his hands bound and still gagged, he made a spirited attempt to fight back, and ended up with Hick’s rifle barrel crashing into the back of his neck. He fell down like a dead man for the second time that day.

Jess came to as he was being unceremoniously bundled down  steep cellar stairs and was literally thrown down the last couple of steps onto the cold earth floor where he sprawled, his eyes desperately trying to focus through  the gloom.

Then Hicks was hunkered down beside him and he hastily snapped manacles around Jess’ wrists, Then quick as a flash, he pulled off Jess’s boots and threw them to one side. Moments later Jess felt the cold steel of shackles being attached to his ankles and those, in turn, attached to a heavy chain fastened to a huge ring set into the cellar wall.

Jess slumped back and looked around him with a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Kinda familiar to you, is it, Harper?” asked Hick, peering down at Jess.

Then he suddenly remembered where it reminded him of and a shiver ran down Jess’ spine. The prisoner of war camp solitary cell, the one where he had all but died. He turned wide, fearful eyes up to Hicks.

The big ugly man reached down and pulled the gag down. “That’s better, Harper. You can talk now and I figure the first thing you’ll want to do is plead for mercy.”

“Rot in Hell, Hicks,” Jess spat.

“Oh, no, it won’t be me that’s going to rot, Harper; it’s you. It’s payback time for every last darn Union soldier you and your renegade buddies killed.”

“You really are a crazy man, ain’t you? “

Hicks gave a hollow laugh. “Well, let’s just see who the crazy one is when you’ve been locked up down here for a few weeks with pretty near no food and water.” With that, he marched off up the stairs and a moment later Jess heard a solid door clang shut and then a key turn and bolts slide home.

The first thing Jess did was to scrabble around in the semi darkness for his boots; he finally located them just within his reach and snatched them up, a  hand checking the wad of notes was still clipped into the side of the boot and gave a sigh of relief. Then he took both boots and pushed them down behind him so they were shielded from view by his body. He sure as hell wasn’t going to lose his hard earned money, no matter what.

Then he peered around him, looking for a means of escape.

The cellar was icy cold and damp and measured only about ten foot square, with a tiny window with bars across set high up in the wall, giving a view of part of the front yard. The light filtering in was dim and growing fainter, and Jess figured it would be dark soon.

Then something caught his attention on the other side of the cellar. There was a small hole in the wall, and as Jess watched in morbid fascination, a huge brown rat emerged, closely followed by another. They sniffed the air, their beady little eyes looking over at where Jess lay, chained to the wall, and he gave a shudder of repulsion as they fearlessly came closer and closer.

He felt around on the earth floor for something to chuck at them and finally found a small piece of rock and hurled it furiously at the rodents, which immediately scuttled back into their hole. But for how long, Jess thought bitterly as night finally fell and he was left cold and hungry in the pitch dark.

He figured it was one of the longest nights he could remember. He was cold hungry and thirsty and also constantly on the alert, not only aware of the rats scuttling about the confined space, but also listening out for Hicks coming to at least give him a drink. But nothing.

He finally fell into an uneasy sleep in the early hours of the morning, but an hour or so later, he was rudely awakened by several rats running across his chest and legs. He yelled out, a shudder of revulsion running through his exhausted body.

As the first fingers of dawn penetrated the dusty barred window and filtered into the confines of the cellar, Jess lay listening for movement from above. He was desperately thirsty now and he craved some icy cold water, his tongue feeling swollen and his throat dry and aching.

Then he heard it — the sounds of movement above and then the distant sound of a door slamming followed some ten minutes later by the sound of someone riding out of the yard at speed. Hicks had left, and with him, Jess’s only hope of food and drink. He cussed under his breath long and hard. He was aching all over from  the night on the hard damp floor, and now without any prospect of sustenance, he could have wept with frustration and  anger as he pulled on the manacles, the cold steel digging into his already chaffed wrists.

He wondered if he yelled loudly enough Ma Hicks or the boy Butch would hear him, and then he suddenly remembered the gossip he had heard when he was convalescing over at the saloon. How Tom had said the word on the street was that Mrs. Hicks had left her husband and taken the boy back East to stay with her Ma. Then Mike had confirmed the story, but said Butch had said it was just a visit and he’d be back for school in a few weeks. Whenever they returned, it would be too late to help him, Jess thought bitterly as he peered at the faint rays of sun making a barred pattern on the floor of the cell. Yes, he now thought of it as a cell and every bit as appalling and horrific as that one so long ago in the war.

By the end of the day, he was getting more and more anxious. Supposing Hicks had just ridden off and had no plans to return? Maybe he’d gone off to bring his wife back from her visit? Maybe Jess would indeed rot there and finish his days as rat fodder. He gagged at the thought and felt nauseous, plus his head was aching like the hangover from hell as the effects of lack of water began to hit him.

He spent another night shivering with cold and then the dehydration started to cause muscle cramps and he yelled in pain as his legs went into spasms of agony. Water, for God’s sake; he had to have some water. It was all he could think about.

Late on the morning of the third day of his incarceration, he finally heard the sound of hoof beats and then the door banging again, and after what seemed like a lifetime, the sound of the bolts being drawn on the cellar door and then heavy boots thundering down the steps.

Jess’s head jerked up when Hicks entered, and he thought he might faint with relief when he saw he was carrying a canteen.

The big ugly man slouched against the wall an evil smile on his face. “Well then, Harper you’re looking kind of peaky.”

“Water,” Jess whispered, lifting his manacled hands up for the canteen.

Hicks held it just out of his reach.

“Come on now, Harper, didn’t your Ma teach you any manners? Please and thank you?”

Jess swallowed down his rising anger. “Please,” he croaked.

“Well, that’s better.” Hicks let the canteen drop into Jess’s waiting hands.

Such was his need that Jess swigged from  the full canteen, and  then a moment later, he chucked it all back up again, and lay there panting and retching, his eyes streaming.

“Well, that wasn’t very clever was it, Harper. Guess you’d better be a bit more careful. See, that’s your water ration for… oh, about a week, so you really don’t want to waste it that way.”

*****

Back at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Slim had just ridden into the yard, returning from town, and Daisy ran out to meet him, drying her hands on her apron, a look of worry in her grey eyes.

“Any news, dear?” she asked as soon as Slim reined Alamo in and slid down from the saddle.

He shook his head. “Come inside, Daisy, we need to talk,” he said, taking her arm and escorting her back inside.

Daisy immediately picked up on the tall rancher’s mood, and as they sat together across the table, she gave him a minute to collect his thoughts.

Then after a little while, Slim reached across the table and took one of her hands. “This is real hard, Daisy, but it looks like Jess is missing — clean disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“Tell me, dear — everything.”

“Well, as you know, he sent a wire saying he’d be back in town last week, and that he’d call into the bank and pay the money in. Well, I know we both reckoned that he’s probably stay over, see Millie…”

“Yes, of course, but he’s still two days overdue.”

“So that’s why I rode in. I wired the Fort and he left on time, just like he said. Then I called into the saloon and old man Parker was in there; said he’d seen Jess heading for town three days ago.”

“Oh, he actually saw him that close?”

“Yep, just near Parker’s shack; said he was going to the bank and then for a nice cool beer.”

“And he never arrived? “

“Nope. So me and Mort back tracked all the way to Parker’s place and looked around. there were no tracks, what with all that rain we had yesterday, and no sign of him anywhere. We went up by Scott’s Bluff and you can see for miles from there. Nothing. No sign of a camp or fire. Heck Daisy, he could be anywhere.”

“So what happens now?”

“Mort’s getting a posse together tomorrow and we’re going to cover the whole area thoroughly. If he‘s been bushwhacked for the money, we’ll find him, or Traveler.”

“Oh Slim, do you think that’s possible?”

Slim just shook his head. “I don’t know what to think, Daisy.”

She sighed deeply and then asked, “What else, dear?”

“Huh?”

“What is it that you’re not telling me?”

“Oh Daisy, Jess is right; there’s never any kiddin’ you.” Then he sighed deeply again, missing his buddy so darned much.

Slim shook his head, looking suddenly angry. “Hicks was in the saloon, bad mouthing Jess again; I nearly took a swing at him, Daisy, he made me so mad.”

“Why, whatever was he saying?”

“That Jess had double-crossed us, lit off with the money, never intended coming back, was probably half way back to Texas already.”

“But that’s a wicked thing to say. How dare he!”

“Yeah, well, you know Hicks. He’s so darned prejudiced and he was just loving this, not that anyone paid him any mind, but still… I really wanted to lay one on him, then Mort came along…”

“Well I’m glad. That’s not like you, Slim.”

“Yeah, I know, but I just saw red, I guess.” Shaking his head, he went off to tend his mount.

The following night, Slim arrived back late from the search and still had no news.

“How’s Mike taking it?” Slim asked once he was seated by the fire with a coffee in his hand.

“Not too well; cried himself to sleep again. Oh Slim, what do you think has become of him? It’s the not knowing that is so difficult.”

“I don’t know, Daisy. He’s certainly not lying injured anywhere and there’s no sign of Traveler either. If he‘d been bushwhacked, I reckon they’d have just taken the money and left him.”

“So what are you saying? That he actually has gone off somewhere of his own accord? No, I don’t believe it, Slim, and you don’t either. Do you? “

“I don’t know, Daisy. Ol’ Jess there has got a pretty colorful history. Could be he’s  off helping someone in trouble and maybe someone not on the right side of the law; the guy is so darned loyal… If an old friend needed him, he’d just go; after all, he has done that in the past and we both know it.”

“Maybe, but I still think he’d have banked the money first. He knows how important it is to us all, and he’d have let us know if he possibly could too. Goodness, Slim, the last we heard he was heading for town and a cold beer. Does that sound like the talk of a man off on a mission of mercy?”

“Well, if you put it that way, I guess not, Daisy. But in that case, where is he?”

*****

Jess glared up at Hicks. “So are you gonna feed me, or do you want me to get on my knees and beg?”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary, Harper. Sure, you’ll get some scraps. I’ll be feeding you and … the other vermin in here,” he said gesturing to where an inquisitive rat had poked his nose out of the hole.

“Well, thanks,” said Jess sarcastically.

“Oh don’t thank me, Harper. I’m just going to give you the bare minimum to keep you alive, and by the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll be begging me to finish it, to put a bullet through your head to relieve the agony.”

Jess just shook his head and then squinted up at to where Hicks was standing glowering down at him. “Why?”

“Because you’re a bastard Johnny Reb, I’ve told you before Harper. I hated you from the moment I met you, and then that business of the race — that finished it. That was your death knell.”

“What?”

“You, you turned the crowd against me, all booing me, and treating you like some goddamn hero. I couldn’t stomach to see it.”

“Only person as turned the crowd against you, was you — when you cheated that way, nearly unseated Benson’s young grandson and then ridin’ into me, causing my wound to open up so I darn near bled to death.”

“Yes well, you’ll wish you had by the time I’m done.” With that, Hicks strode off, the cellar door clanging to behind him, and then there was a deep silence once more, save for the scrabbling of the rats and cockroaches. Away off in the distance, the very faint sound of a cockerel crowing. The one back home at the ranch. So darn close, he thought, but it might have been a world away.

As one day slid into the next, Jess went through a myriad of emotions from rage to despair, and finally he felt more and more desolate as he could see no hope of escape.

As Hicks had said, he gave Jess the minimum of food for survival, and often what he was given was tainted and  made him chuck up, or have terrible stomach pains. The less he ate, the more lethargic and hopeless he felt.

That was when Hicks started taunting him, sitting for an hour or more telling tales of his war, all bitterly recounted almost as through Jess had personally perpetrated every deed that Hicks remembered, from being half-starved as a prisoner to the attack which had disfigured his face.

However, Jess never retaliated, never compared Hicks lot with the terrible atrocities he himself had suffered at the hands of the enemy. He merely lay there looking into space and mentally turning off.

But this seemed to send Hicks into a wild fury, more so than if Jess had answered him back or argued, and on several occasions, he lashed out at Jess, on one occasion, throwing a vicious backhander that split his lip.

“Don’t you dare ignore me! Look at me! “

Jess stared at him, now equally furious. ”What do you want me to say, Hicks? I’m sorry? Sure I am. Sorry for every poor bastard that went through that war, but we were fighting for what we believed in. Maybe we were wrong, maybe not, but it’s over. We all suffered, but you have to get over it and move on. What you’re doin’ is wrong. Can’t you see that?”

Hicks just glared at him and cussed.

“You’re sick, Hicks; you need help. For God’s sake, man, just let me go!”

“Oh no, it’s not that easy, Harper. I’m not sick, just got me a heart full of hate. Need revenge, need to see you suffer the way I did, and I need to hear you beg for mercy!”

“Well you’ll wait ‘till Hell freezes over,” muttered Jess, knowing that his fate was sealed no matter how much begging for mercy he might do. Hicks aimed to see him dead and Jess knew it.

And as time moved on, he was even more convinced of this when Hicks started leaving the ranch for longer and longer spells and then coming back looking like he’s been drinking all the whiskey in the saloon single handed.

Hicks started just disappearing for a day or two, and then  it turned into three or four, leaving  Jess in total isolation, with some water, but very little in  the  way of food in his absence.

Every time he lit out, Jess had the terrible feeling that he was going for good and the loneliness was really getting to him as well. He even looked forward to Hicks coming down and swearing at him before lapsing into a semi-drunken reverie, because at least it was human company.

‘Hell, Harper, is this how low you’ve sunk,’ he asked himself one night when Hicks had staggered up the cellar steps to his bed. ‘The company of someone like Hicks was better than nobody at all?’

Jess had been alone many times when on the drift — for maybe weeks at a time — and so why was he finding this so difficult, he thought. But then he suddenly realized it was all about liberty. On the drift, he had that — could wander at will. Now he had lost that freedom completely. He was   confined like a caged animal and he was beginning to feel pretty much like one.

Then he got sick, really sick. He was lashing about with a fever and the next minute freezing cold, and with no one to care for him, he quickly slipped further towards the jaws of death.

But Hicks wasn’t prepared to lose him yet. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the sport wasn’t over and he aimed to prolong the agony for as long as he could.

Hicks spent more time down in the cellar, wiping Jess down with cool water and allowing him to drink as much clean water as he needed, but his care was tempered by cussing and cruelty. “Don’t for one minute think I care about you, Harper,” he growled, “but you ain’t getting away from me that easy, oh no. You’re not gonna die until I say so,” he spat as he roughly forced more water down Jess’s throat.

Jess finally recovered, but he was very weak and the illness had also damaged his indomitable spirit. For the first time that he could ever remember since the war, he thought maybe it would be just easier to up and die than carry on this way, and that was to be his last rational thought for quite some time.

Jess was a fighter; God knows he had had to be one all of his life, and when he had first been incarcerated, he had thought long and hard as to how to escape. He had looked at the ring embedded in the wall and wondered if he could somehow manage  to loosen it and release his chains, but there was nothing at all he could use as a tool to accomplish that.

Then he thought about trying to talk reason into Hicks, but that produced a big blank too. As far as Jess could see, the guy was just plain crazy and impossible to reason with.

So his final hopes were pinned on Slim and all back at the ranch. Surely they would have been searching for him, he thought — had Mort on side, maybe even a posse? Traveler would have returned home. Wouldn’t they have tracked him, seen where he had come from?

Then one fateful morning shortly after Jess had recovered from his fever, Hicks thundered down the stairs, and for once, told Jess he was heading off.

“Oh yeah,” said Jess laconically, past caring either way.

“Well aren’t you interested in what I aim to do today?” asked Hicks briskly.

Jess just cast him a withering look, but didn’t reply.

“Well, I’m off to dispatch your horse, Harper. Got the family comin’ back soon and can’t risk the boy finding him.”

Jess sat bolt upright, Hicks having all his attention now. “Trav? You ain’t let him go? “

“Nope. Been eating me out of house and home these last few weeks. The ornery critter’s going permanent like and right now. Just thought you’d wanna know, Harper,” Hicks said with an evil smile, and then he moved off towards the stairs.

“No!” yelled Jess, straining at his chains his face pale and horror stricken. “Hell Hicks, you can’t do that. This has nothing’ to do with my goddamn mount. Please, I’m beggin you; just loose him off.”

“Oh yeah and have Sherman and the Sheriff nosing around. I think not.”

“Well, take him off away from the town; it’ll take him a while to find his way home. Hell I might be dead by then anyway. Please Hicks, just loose him, huh?”

“Sorry, Harper; got a gravel pit just by the gates; figure he can be buried there where nobody will find him.” Hicks left the cellar without a backwards glance.

Jess heard him leave the house, and then a while later the unmistakable sound of a horse being led from the barn. He pulled himself up and was just able to see a section of the yard from the window and he had a fleeting vision of Traveler being led away.

“Trav!” he yelled as loudly as his weakened state would allow, and the big horse paused for a moment; his ears flicked, and then Hicks drove him forwards and he disappeared from Jess’ line of vision.

Then a few moments later there was the sound of a single rifle shot and then silence.

Jess stiffened every fiber of his being in an agony of loss.

Then he slumped back down to the dirt floor and closed his eyes. His old friend was dead — and it was all his fault.

*****

Traveler trotted into the Sherman Ranch yard at supper time the following day, just as Slim was finishing off the evening chores.

Mike came running around from the back of the spread, where he had been locking up the hens for the night, and they both stopped in amazement as Traveler swung into the yard like he owned the place and also like he had been off for a short ride, when in truth he had been gone for nigh on five weeks.

He moved to go straight into the barn, all his focus on supper, but Slim suddenly leapt into action and grabbed his bridle and then withdrew slightly in shock as he saw the saddle and bridle was covered in blood.

Slim would have ridden out at once to retrace Traveler’s tracks, but it was nearly dark. He waited until the following morning, and then with a good neighbor, old Barney West, he followed Traveler’s tracks where they led back to a point beyond the Laramie road and then the tracks seemed to disappear, but whether by a deliberate act or just the forces of nature, it was hard to tell as there had been a strong wind in the night. Then Slim had ridden to Laramie, and he and Mort had covered the area carefully again, but eventually he had to return to the ranch none the wiser.

Later he discussed the matter with Daisy.

“I just don’t know what’s happening? Those blood stains seemed quite fresh, but in that case, where has he been all this time? And where is he now?”

“It’s been over five weeks, Slim. I just don’t understand what’s going on. But one thing is sure — that boy would never let them take Traveler away from him without a struggle.”

“I know that, Daisy, that’s what’s worrying me. I figure the outcome of that ‘struggle’ is all over his saddle.”

A hand shot up to Daisy’s mouth at that and she gave a sharp intake of breath. “Are you saying he was a captive and then tried to escape, but was shot… or worse?”

Slim reached across and took the elderly woman’s hand and said softly. “I’m sorry, Daisy, but that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

*****

The following Saturday Slim had gone into town to socialize for the first time since Jess had disappeared.

He had said he wasn’t interested, but Daisy had insisted saying that Lily, his current girl, would have forgotten what he looked like, plus he needed to maybe treat old Barney West to a drink or two for offering to mind the ranch while Slim was away on business.

Even though his heart wasn’t in it, Slim knew that he had to try and replace the mustanging money, and as luck would have it, Mr. Horace Noakes was now fit and well and reinstalled as the manager of the Laramie Bank. Noakes had been more than happy to provide Slim with the loan he needed for the new stock, and Slim was due to ride out the following week to spend a couple of days fetching the beasts from a ranch some fifty miles away while Barney minded the ranch for him.

Slim walked into the Laramie saloon that Saturday evening for his date with Lily, one of the girls who worked there, and the first person he saw was Millie.

Millie came over as soon as she saw Slim, and with her brown eyes full of concern asked, “Any news yet? I hear Trav has been found.”

Slim felt immediately contrite for not telling her earlier. “Jeez, I’m sorry, Millie; I should have told you. Old Traveler walked in a while back, but still no sign of Jess.”

“He’s OK,” she said quickly, “I just know he is, Slim. We just have to find him.”

“I know, but we’ve looked everywhere, Millie. Me and Mort, the posse and even old Barney, have covered every square inch of the area where it looks like he should be, but nothing.” Then he touched her arm. “I’m so, sorry, Millie; I just wish there was something more we could do.”

She sighed deeply. “I know, but there is something, Slim.”

“Oh”?

“Yes. Not give up hope, because I won’t ever.”

He nodded and gave her a warm smile. “Me neither, Millie.”

*****

Further along the bar, Curt Hicks stood, taking in these little tableaux of the concerned friends and figured he’d relate it back to Jess when he returned. Might make for some good taunting later he thought darkly.

After Hicks had led Traveler from the yard, he had discharged his rifle and then poured the chicken blood from a bird he had slaughtered earlier liberally over the saddle and reins, so it looked like the rider had been brutally attacked. Then he led Traveler from the ranch, and after wiping all his tracks away, he finally sent him off in the direction of the Sherman Ranch.

The truth was that other events had finally overridden the mysterious disappearance of Jess Harper. It had been all the  bar could talk about a few weeks back, and Hicks had so enjoyed being able to throw in  his opinion, night after night, liberally laced with what a low-life Harper was. But then other gossip and news had taken over, and Hicks desperately wanted to be back in the limelight, via Jess.

That was when he dreamt up the scheme of loosing Traveler off with the bogus blood stains, and just as he had hoped, the whole speculation as to what had become of Harper opened up again.

Most of the bar was of the opinion that Jess had been bushwhacked and then held against his will, and Traveler suddenly reappearing convinced friends and neighbors that this was the case.

That was until Hicks put his far from sober opinion in to the mix. “You men are all crazy if you think Harper has been abducted. He’s just taken off with the proceeds of the mustanging and his horse landing back is just a decoy to make you suckers think he’s in trouble,” he spat. “What’s a horse worth when a man has gotten all that money anyway? Nope, Harper just abandoned the critter”.

Old Burt, from the livery, sitting by the bar, could suddenly stand it no more. He was a quiet peaceful man, the horses his world, but he could not see Jess Harper defiled in this way. He suddenly leapt from his chair. No, stop it, Mister; you’ve got Jess all wrong. He’s a good boy and looks out for his horses real good, and I won’t have the likes of you bad mouthing him!”

“Oh shut up, little man,” jeered Hicks drunkenly. “You don’t know him.”

There was a pregnant silence in the bar, as all were suddenly aware of Slim Sherman’s presence.

 Slim had been sitting with Lilly at a table at the back, and now he rose in anger. “Well I’ll tell you, Hicks, old Burt there knows Jess as well as any man in this town and knows he would put his mount ahead of his own needs any day of the week. If Traveler came home the way he did, then Jess wasn’t able to look out for him, and that’s for sure!”

“Oh. So you think that?” spat Hicks.

“No, I know it, and I guess every man in this bar does, so back off, Hicks!”

There was a rumbling of assent from all present, and finally Hicks walked out, but Slim still felt awful. Would this terrible nightmare never end?

When Hicks returned that night the worse for drink, he took great pleasure in retelling the events in the bar, but with his own spin on the proceedings.

He had Millie hysterical, Slim in a drunken rage and all in the bar condemning Jess out of hand for abandoning his friends and running off with the mustanging money. He nearly threw in about him ill-treating and abandoning his mount too, until he suddenly remembered that Jess thought Traveler had been shot, so he played on that as well, leaving the dark haired cowboy looking close to tears as Hicks had embroidered Traveler’s last few minutes on earth, saying the old horse was terrified and had suffered a very bad death.

The image of his precious horse dying that way haunted Jess all night long and he was in a terrible state when Hicks came down the following morning.

“Hey Harper, you really are looking in a bad way,” Hicks said in mock concern as he looked down at where Jess lay, visibly shaking, his face pale and sweating, his eyes lifeless as he stared unseeingly at the ceiling. Then he gave him an evil grin. “Anyway, I figure you’re in for a tidy amount of peace and quiet as I’m heading off back East to fetch my family back. The wife’s been gone way too long; missing my husbandly comforts, know what I mean Harper?” he asked, with a suggestive leer.

Jess just ignored the comment and continued looking off into space as he so often did when tormented my Hicks.

“Oh no, I forgot; must be a while since you’ve been with a woman.” Then more reflectively, Hicks said, “She’s quite something that, little Millie. Wouldn’t mind her company myself. Once she’s over you, I figure I might try my luck there.”

Jess just took a deep breath, but said nothing.

“Anyways, I’ll be off.” Hicks produced half a stale loaf and a canteen of tepid water. “Your rations, Harper. I’ll be a week, maybe longer, so make it last.” And with an unpleasant snigger, he turned and left.

*****

The days that followed were probably the very worst that Jess experienced.

The lack of food and water and isolation were finally beginning to play tricks on his mind and he started hallucinating.

It began that night. He was lying in deathly silence, and then he heard it — at first as though  the very walls themselves were whispering, then a low moan, followed by a sudden cry of fear or pain, then more low moans — the very same sounds he had fallen asleep to every night in the prisoner of war  camp all those years ago.

He pushed his fingers in his ears to drown them out, but still they came — low murmurs and whispers, then a howl of agony that made him jerk bolt upright, his eyes desperately trying to penetrate the all invasive darkness.

When he awoke at first light, he could see them, the bodies of his dead and dying comrades lying all around him, some crying out for mercy and others already dead.

“No!” he screamed, hiding his face in his hands, but when he peered out between his fingers, they were still there, and he knew the truth of it they were real. Well, they certainly seemed real to his exhausted, tormented brain.

As the sunlight filtered in through the dusty window, they gradually seemed to evaporate, like the early morning mist over the meadow, leaving him completely alone again, shaken and terrified.

That was just the first of the many apparitions of the dead and hallucinations of the living too, that he was to experience over the next few days as he gradually became weaker and weaker, his grasp on reality slackening with each day that went by.

He kept hearing the cellar door squeak open and then footsteps thudding down the stone staircase, only to reveal nobody there, and this would happen several times a day.

Then on one occasion when that happened, he looked up to see Slim there, standing over him, then he hunkered down beside him, his kind broad face creased with concern.

“Oh pard, what has that bastard done to you? “

Jess was beside himself with relief. “I knew it,” he croaked. “I knew you’d find me, Slim.” He’d reached out and  grabbed Slim’s hand, feeling  the warm flesh, looking up into his light blue  troubled eyes — and then his friend had simply melted away, just the bare brick wall where he had been .

“Slim!” Jess screamed in anguish. “Don’t leave me! Please, don’t leave me here!” But his friend had gone and he was alone again.

It just went on and on — Mike shaking him awake, telling him it was time for breakfast and he was to come at once as Daisy was threatening to give it to Jasper, the ornery old tom cat, if Jess didn’t get a wiggle on.

Then  Daisy herself was there, her kindly old eyes looking down  at him  with compassion  and  she had brushed back the lock of hair from  his forehead in such a familiar gesture that Jess felt totally bereft when she too just turned into a shadow and faded away.

But probably the most real and worst was when he awoke one morning to feel Millie lying in his arms.

He could feel her sweet breath on his cheek, and then she opened those wonderfully expressive dark brown eyes and looked at him with such love, he could scarcely breath.

Then she had kissed him and he could taste her sweet lips, feel the passion rising within him, and then she had pulled back, a look of such distress on her beautiful face. “Don’t leave me, Jess, please don’t go…don’t go.”

And then she too had faded away and he was left with empty arms and an even emptier heart.

Then he knew that Hicks had been right. When he returned, Jess would beg for him to finish it. He could no longer bear to be alive, to live in this purgatory.

*****

Hicks finally returned with his family, but by that time, Jess was either too weak or past caring, and didn’t bother trying to cry out and alert Mrs. Hicks and Butch to his predicament.

“It would be a waste of time anyway, Harper,” Hicks had said late that night when he had visited Jess after Mrs. Hicks and Butch had retired for the night. “The cellar door is nigh on four inches thick, and they’d never hear you. My wife is hard of hearing anyway, and as for Butch, well even if he did find out, he knows dang well better than to say anything lest he gets his hide tanned.”

Jess just groaned.

“You want some grub then, Harper?” asked Hicks, raising a questioning eyebrow.

Jess just shook his head. He had been feeling increasingly nauseated over the last week and the less he ate, the less he wanted to. The dry bread had lasted a day or two and then when he woke on the third day he found the rats had finished it off.

“You’re welcome,” he’d whispered as one of the fattest ones had popped out of its hole and peered at Jess with a slightly condescending expression, he had thought at the time. Then shaking his head, he’d muttered, “For God’s sake, get a grip, Harper; you’re dang well talkin’ to rats now!”

Once Hicks had gone, Jess was left in silence for a while before the usual sounds started up, but this time the mutterings and groans were accompanied by a low persistent drum beat.

“Billy…Billy, that you?” whispered Jess, remembering the ten year old drummer boy that marched with his battalion,  keeping them in step and giving them their orders dependent on  if they were to attack or retreat via the drum beats.

“Billy?” Jess whispered again, and this time his question was answered, when the monotonous drumming suddenly changed and he heard the evening Taps played out.

“Night, Billy,” he whispered as he fell into a troubled sleep.

*****

It was Snow Bird who was to finally save Jess’s life.

Mike had been terribly upset by Jess’s disappearance, but somehow he started to rally with the appearance of Traveler, and in his young mind, it somehow seemed that Jess was close by and would be returning soon.

Slim and Daisy were at odds as to how to deal with the situation and whereas Slim thought the boy should face the truth, Daisy was more for letting him keep his hope alive.

“After all, dear, I believe he’s still alive and he will be coming back. I’d just know if he was dead.”

Slim nodded trying to show understanding. “I thought the same at first too, but heck Daisy, it’s been nearly two months now. I guess we have to face up to things.” He had gone off about his business, his face set and his whole demander one of hopelessness.

Then the letter had arrived from a horse breeder in Cheyenne, the owner of Merlin, the pure white quarter horse stallion Jess had wanted to breed with Snow Bird, but had had to reconsider as the stud fees were way too high.

Mr. Adams had heard of Snow Bird’s triumph in the Laramie race and had suggested that Jess enter in the Cheyenne Race to be held in the fall, and if Snow Bird did well and Adams liked the look of her, he had offered to waive the stud fees and pay top dollar for the foal when it was born.

Slim had opened the letter at Daisy’s suggestion, and now as he passed it over to her, his face was tormented.

“That’s just what he wanted,” Slim said sadly, “a foal out of Merlin. Snowy would have sold for a substantial sum — seen an end to our financial difficulties anyway, that’s for sure.”

Daisy had sighed deeply. “Well, couldn’t you still enter her, Slim? You ride her. It’s what Jess would have wanted.”

“Um,” he said thoughtfully, “but I just don’t have the time to train her, Daisy. It’s hard enough trying to manage here single handed as it is.”

That was when Mike had piped up. “Well, I could do it, Slim I could ride her out every day give her, her head — in the meadow, where I’d be safe — and then she’ll be all ready for the race when Jess lands home.”

Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance at that and Slim was just about to shake his head when Daisy stopped him.

“Slim?” said Daisy, touching his hand and giving a little nod.

Slim sighed deeply. “Well OK, Mike, but be really careful, huh?”

“Sure, I promise. I’ll get her in tip top condition, and Jess will be real pleased when he gets home. I’ve been grooming Traveler real well too.” With that, Mike shot off, his eyes sparkling for the first time since Jess had gone missing.

It was a week later when Mike failed to keep his promise of training Snowy off in the meadow at the back of the ranch. He had meant to keep his promise, he really had, but the temptation of showing off to his friend was just too great.

Mike had caught up with Butch in town the previous week when he had gone in to do the marketing with Daisy, and the two youngsters took the opportunity for a chat in the hardware store, while Daisy and Mrs. Hicks shopped.

“So is Mr. Harper home yet?” asked the boy kindly.

Mike’s face clouded. “Nah, not yet, but he’ll be back as soon as he can, I guess, and in the meantime, I’m training Snow Bird for him.”

The other youngster looked really impressed at that. “No kidding? Mr. Sherman lets you ride him out then?”

“Well sure,” said Mike, now showing off a little, knowing that Butch was older and allowed to roam freely along the local roads.

“Well, ride him over next Saturday, when Ma and Pa are off out,” Butch said quickly, “and you can put her through her paces for me, OK?”

Mike looked concerned for a moment, and then he remembered Slim had a meeting in town with the stage company boss next Saturday and old Barney West was covering, so he had a chance of pulling it off.

“OK, deal,” the blond haired youngster said happily before Daisy called him away.

The following Saturday, Mike waited until Daisy was up to her elbows in baking and old Barney was changing the afternoon stage and then he called out, “Just taking Snowy out to the home pasture Barney, OK?”

The old man was preoccupied and merely grinned over and nodded, not really having heard properly.

However, Mike wasted no time in saddling Snow Bird and then he lit off over the back pasture and then cut across the south pasture and over onto Curt Hicks’ land. He trotted into the yard just ten minutes later, and Butch ran out to meet his playmate. They were soon racing Snowy across the meadow next to the ranch, with Butch timing her.

After an hour or so, Mike said he’d better get back, secretly worried that Daisy would have missed him, and Slim was due home soon too.

They returned to the yard, and then Butch ran off to the barn to find a special bridle he had promised to loan to Mike, and the youngster waited patiently over near the house.

That was when something strange happened.

Snowy, who had behaved well all day, suddenly started playing up, her head nodding, then her ears pricked and she pawed the ground.

Mike, who had been standing holding the reins, looked on in surprise. “Hey Snowy, what’s gotten into you?”

The animal’s hearing was way more acute than Mike’s and she was hearing something she had not heard in a very long time, that special whistle that her beloved master gave when he wanted Snowy to rear up.

She put her head on one side and listened intently, her ears flicking, and then she gave a little whinny of pleasure and reared up, much to Mike’s shocked surprise.

“Hey, girl, steady. what you playin’ at?” asked the child.

Then he heard it for himself, that special piercing whistle of Jess’ as if from a very long way off, but before the child could do anything, he was literally pulled forward as he held the reins and Snowy made for the house where the sound had emanated from, intent on receiving her sugar lump reward.

Mike looked puzzled, then glanced up at the house windows, but could see nothing. Then the whistle came again, louder this time, and Mike realized he was standing right beside a cellar window. Kneeling down, he reached over and ran a hand across the dusty surface before shading his eyes and peering down into the room that was illuminated slightly by the late afternoon sunshine.

What he saw made his heart miss a beat; there was something down there. At first, Mike thought it was just a bundle of old clothes and then it moved.

He leaned over and peered more closely, and then he saw it was a person –a man with black hair and a black beard, looking stark against a very pale face, and then the sunlight filtering in caught something in a shaft of its light, something that made Mike cry out in shock. It illuminated a pair of beseeching deep blue eyes. “Jess,” he whispered, “It’s Jess.”

Then suddenly everything happened at once. Butch ran out of the barn calling for Mike to come over quickly, and the shocked youngster did as he was bid.

“Here you are, Mike,” said Butch passing him the bridle, then  he had a look of fear in his eyes as he looked out to the distant road where a dust cloud heralded the arrival of his parents back from their shopping trip.

“Look you’ve gotta go, Mike. I wasn’t allowed out until I’d done my homework and Pa will skin me alive if he catches me out here.” With that, Butch ran off into the house.

Mike paused for a moment unsure as to what to do.

Every fiber of his being wanted to run to Jess, to help him, but something told him that if Mr. Hicks caught him on the property, he would be incarcerated along with Jess and the thought made him tremble with fear.

No, the best thing he could do was hightail it home, admit he’d been out without permission and get Slim to come and rescue Jess. With that, Mike leapt on to Snowy’s back and rode around the back of the Hicks spread and hell for leather all the way home.

*****

Jess collapsed back on the dirt floor a harsh sob in his throat; it had been Mike and Snowy… he knew it had, but then he had a moment of lucidity.

“Come on Harper,” he said firmly to himself, “you’ve been seein’ visions for weeks, and that’s just the latest one. You saw the boy because that’s what this damn brain of mine wanted to see.” He closed his eyes and gave himself up to pure misery, wondering how much longer he could last.

*****

When Mike galloped into the yard, Slim was sitting on the porch having a coffee with the Sheriff who he had met up with on the road. The good Sheriff had been returning from visiting Slim’s neighbor, and had been happy to stop by for a drink and a chat.

Then an obviously distressed Mike tore into the yard and swung down from the saddle, running over towards Slim, his eyes wide in shock and both men rose and went to meet him.

The child hurtled into Slim’s arms and gabbled so quickly that at first he was completely incoherent.

“Hey, steady there, Tiger,” Slim said, seeing the child’s distress and deciding to remonstrate with him for riding alone on the road later. “Take a deep breath and start again.”

“It’s Jess,” said the boy, now almost shouting in frustration desperately needing to be understood. “I saw Jess at Butch’s place; he’s locked up in the cellar, Slim. You’ve gotta come now,” he said grabbing hold of the blond rancher’s arm and trying to physically drag him towards where Alamo was tethered by the corral.

“Butch?” said Mort looking from Slim to Mike and back.

“Curt Hick’s kid,” said Slim quickly, before both men ran towards their mounts.

“Go in and explain to Aunt Daisy,” Slim threw over his shoulder, “And stay indoors ‘till I get back!”

“Yes sir,” said the boy and ran off inside importantly to impart the exciting news.

Mort and Slim rode into the Hicks yard, and as they slid down from their saddles and walked towards the door, Curt Hicks came out cradling a shotgun and looked expectantly from Slim to the Sheriff and back. “Sherman, Sheriff, what can I do for you?” he asked, frowning slightly.

Slim moved forwards shaking with anger, but Mort put a gentle hand on his arm. “I’ll deal with it, Slim,” he said softly. “We’ve had reports that you may be holding Jess Harper here against his will, Hicks. I need to search the place.”

Hicks looked surprised. “Harper, Jess Harper you say? Why he’s half way to Texas with your mustanging money, ain’t he, Sherman?” he asked casting Slim a challenging look.

“Now just a minute here, Hicks!”

But again, Mort got between Slim and the rancher. “I ain’t got all day, Hicks. Now I’d be obliged if you’d throw that rifle down and let us get our job done.”

“Sure, sure,” said Hicks expansively and he threw the rifle down as he’d been told and stood to one side, to let the men enter.

They were met in the living room by Mrs. Hicks, and both men respectfully tipped their hats.

“Excuse me, Ma’am, do you have a cellar?” asked Mort politely.

“Well, yes, we do. What’s all this about Sheriff?”

Before he could answer, they suddenly heard the sound of a horse in the yard and they ran out, just in time to see Curt Hicks mounting and kicking his mount off at speed.

Mort leveled his rifle. “Stop right there, Hicks!”

The tall, ugly man paid no heed and just turned in the saddle to raise a fist in a defiant gesture.

“Stop or I shoot,” yelled Mort — and then opened fire shooting near the horse’s hooves. The beast reared in terror dumping Hicks unceremoniously in the dirt, before bolting.

Mort ran the few yards to where he had fallen and quickly handcuffed the winded rancher and brought him back to the house where he was tied to a chair.

“Right, we’ll try that again,” Mort said, glaring at his prisoner. “Don’t you move an inch,” he snapped and then turning back to Mrs. Hicks, “The cellar, Ma’am?”

They unlocked the door and ran down the steep steps to the dark, rank cellar, and both men stopped in their tracks as they entered,  waiting a moment to accustom their eyes to the  dim light and then  stood in horror, appalled at the sight that met them.

Jess lay on the dirt floor, surrounded by detritus, stripped to the waist. he was filthy and covered in bruises, his ribs sticking out in his painfully emaciated body. The dark growth of beard made his face look gaunt and pale, a man more dead than alive, but the very worst thing was his eyes, the look of terror in his deep blue eyes.

Slim approached slowly and fell to his knees. “Oh pard, what has that bastard done to you,” he whispered.

It was identical to the hallucinations that Jess had been experiencing and now he just didn’t believe what he was seeing.

The last time this had happened, he remembered the overwhelming feeling of relief as he touched Slim’s warm reassuring hand — and then he had just melted away into thin air.

Now he just couldn’t believe the truth in front of him.

“No, go away. For God’s sake leave me alone!” Jess screamed, shrinking back and then covering his face with his hands.

Slim and Mort exchanged a horror-stricken glance, before Slim tried again. Very gently he took Jess’s hands in his own and pulled them down from his face, noting that his wrists were bleeding from the constant chaffing of the manacles, and he cussed inwardly, goddamn Hicks. “Jess, it’s me, Slim. It’s OK now; you’re safe. You hear me?”

Jess stared at his friend for a long time and then he finally whispered, “Slim, that really you?”

“Yep, it’s really me, Jess.”

Jess stared for another full minute and then threw himself into Slim’s warm embrace shaking uncontrollably. “Don’t leave me. Don’t go,” he whispered.

“I won’t leave you, pard,” Slim said, glancing over to Mort, who looked completely stricken at the terrible state of his good friend.

Then after a long time, Jess pulled back and reaching behind him. He pulled out his boots and thrust them towards Slim. “I got it,” he whispered. “Top dollar. Didn’t let that bastard find it, Slim.” And then he finally passed out.

Slim looked anguished as he brushed Jess’s dark hair back from his forehead and studied his buddy more closely, seeing the new pain lines etched around his mouth, the accumulated grim  of weeks on his painfully thin torso, and then the red raw wrists and ankles where the restraints had eaten into his flesh.

Slim turned eyes dark with wrath on Mort. “Go get the keys for them,” he said gesturing to the chains. “I can’t see him again Mort, else I think I very well might do something both of us would regret.”

“Sure, sure Slim.” The Sheriff went to do as he was bid.

How Mort managed to get Curt Hicks to jail without Slim killing him he would never know.

Mort had just had to make sure that Slim was preoccupied with looking after Jess. With carrying his buddy up to the buckboard, they had commandeered to drive the short distance back to the ranch, and making him comfortable, so he had no time for thoughts of retribution, then anyway.

The Sheriff had made the excuse of leaving the room to hitch up the wagon and had taken his prisoner and tied him up in the barn out of Slim’s way.

“If you know what’s good for you, Hicks you’ll keep real quiet until I come back, because if Slim Sherman gets hold of you, well… you wouldn’t last two minutes. The way he is right now, I figure he’d kill you with his bare hands. “

The rancher just looked down and didn’t respond.

“You hear me?”

“Yes I hear you, Sheriff, but it’s your job to protect me, ain’t it?” Hicks said arrogantly.

The Sheriff was fuming at that. “I’ll tell you this,” he said menacingly. “There’s only one thing stopping me from doing the same — this tin badge. And the way I’m feelin’ right now, I may just take it off. So I should watch your tongue, Hicks.” Then he marched off to help Slim move Jess.

As he had carried his partner up the steep steps and into the waiting buckboard, Slim was amazed at how light Jess was, barely seeming to weigh more than Mike, and he easily managed to carry him outside and made him comfortable on a bed of straw in the back of the vehicle.

Mrs. Hicks had come out, a protective arm around her young son, and her eyes misted with tears as she looked at the still unconscious young cowboy. Then she dragged her eyes away and fixed Slim with her gaze. “I didn’t know,” she whispered. “You have to believe me. I really didn’t know.”

Slim merely raised an eyebrow.

“It’s true,” she continued. “I had noticed him visiting the cellar a couple of times, but he just said he was laying rat poison, and Butch and I mustn’t go down as it was dangerous.”

Slim’s head shot up. “What? There are rats down there?”

She nodded sadly. “Yes, the place is teaming with them. That’s why we had that thick door fixed. They chewed the bottom of the other one and got in the house.”

“Oh God,” whispered Slim with feeling.

“I’m so, so sorry.” Then she broke down in tears at the enormity of what her husband had done.

Slim finally felt sorry for her and patted her arm. “Don’t take on so, Ma’am; nobody blames you for this.”

She just nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Sherman, and I hope your friend recovers.” Then she turned to face the Sheriff. “The boy and I will be returning to live with my mother back east, Mr. Corey. I would be obliged if you tell my husband that, and say we never want to clap eyes on him again.” With that, she turned and walked with Butch back into the house, closing the door quietly behind them.

*****

Nothing could have prepared Daisy and Mike for Jess’s appearance when Slim finally drove the buckboard into the yard.

From what Mike had said about the black beard and everything, Daisy imagined that he had been incarcerated down in the cellar for some time and the first thing she had done was to set the tin bathtub in Jess and Slim’s room, thinking that he would feel better for a wash and shave, and then she went about preparing his favorite apple pie, more for something to keep her occupied than anything else.

“I guess Jess will be real hungry, huh,” said Mike in excitement. “Gee, it will be swell to have him back, Aunt Daisy, and I guess he’ll be real pleased with everything I’ve done with Snow Bird won’t he?”

“Yes dear, but Mike…”

“Yes Ma’am?”

“Well, don’t expect too much of him. If he’s been locked up, he may be sick, or if I know Jess really mad, so just give him some time to settle, alright, dear?”

“Sure, Aunt Daisy, whatever you say.”

Then they heard the buckboard rattling into the yard and ran out to meet it.

Jess was huddled in the back on his side and covered over with a blanket, and as Slim drew the wagon to a halt, Daisy got her first glimpse of the young man she considered to be one of her sons. Her mouth dropped open in shock as he gazed over at her, the look of fear and misery in his deep blue eyes heart stopping.

“Oh my,” she whispered before pulling herself together and hurrying forwards to help Slim support him into the ranch house.

When young Mike saw him properly, he too was utterly shattered. His hero, the man he loved so much, looked up to, was a mere shadow of his former self. He couldn’t even walk unsupported and he looked like a completely different person to young Mike, someone he didn’t know, and he was suddenly afraid.

Slim helped him into their shared room and throwing Daisy a warm look said, “I guess I can cope for now Daisy.”

“Oh, yes, of course, dear,” she said quickly, knowing how embarrassed Jess could get if his dignity was threatened, and that included being seen stripped off by any female who he wasn’t actually romancing at the time, as he had once told Slim, with a cheeky grin. That suddenly seemed like another world, another person, Slim thought as he gazed down at his stricken buddy.

Daisy merely squeezed his hand. “I’ll see you later Jess when you’ve washed up,” she said gently, leaving the men to some privacy.

Once she had left, Slim smiled over at his friend. “Ok pard, let’s get you cleaned up some, huh?”

To Slim’s surprise, Jess didn’t resist his help at all; in fact, he just lay there passively while Slim helped to strip  him off and get him into the tub. He even allowed Slim to shave him and seemed to be completely cut off from everything that was happening, almost as though he was in a world of his own.

Slim himself found the task incredibly upsetting as he saw the multiple vicious bruises and abrasions to his buddy’s body, not to mention the extent of his weight loss, his slender body now looking positively gaunt.

Once the sorry task was over and Jess was in his bed in clean undershorts and freshly shaven, Slim smiled down at him, desperate for some reaction. “So feelin’ better, pard?” he asked.

Jess just stared up at him uncomprehending.

“Would you like some food, Jess, a nice coffee, maybe?” Slim tried again.

Jess just shook his head. “Nope, feelin’ a bit sick, but thanks, Slim.” Then he turned away on his side and closed his eyes.

“Er… Ok, Jess, you rest up some then, huh? “

But there was no reply and so Slim left the room closing the door quietly behind him.

*****

Slim went and joined Mike and Daisy in the main room. Mike was sitting down in front of the fire looking like a lost little boy and he turned his anxious gaze on Slim as soon as he walked in. “Can I see him?” he asked jumping up.

“Um, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mike; he’s kind of beat right now, taking a nap.”

“Ok, guess I’ll go and groom Traveler for him,” the child said and moved to the door; then hesitantly, he asked, “He will be alright, won’t he, Slim? He…he don’t look like Jess no more,” he said, his lower lip wobbling.

Slim immediately picked up on the boy’s feelings, knowing how close he and Jess were, especially with their shared history of loss of kin. “Come here.” he said gently and the child ran into his arms, his eyes brimming with tears.

“It scared me Slim, seeing him that way. It’s like he ain’t there anymore; he looks the same person, ‘cept real skinny, but his eyes… It’s like Jess has gone.”

Daisy and Slim exchanged an anxious glance.

Slim held the boy close soothing him and then pulled back so he could look him in the eyes. “Well I figure ol’ Jess there has been through a bad time, a real bad time — like his worst nightmare.”

“The one about the war when he was in that prison with the rats an’ all?”

“Yeah, that’s it, Tiger, and I guess he doesn’t really know whether he’s coming or going right now. It’s brought back real bad memories. And, well, I think sometimes he isn’t too sure about where he is, what’s going on right now. Sort all muddled up with the past and present, so I figure we’ve got to be really understanding, OK?”

The child beamed at that. “Sure, I can be understanding, just so long as I know he’ll be OK sometime soon.” With that, he ran off happily enough.

Slim sighed and sank down in Jess’s rocker by the fire and looked over at Daisy. “He’s a mess Daisy, and I don’t just mean physically.”

“Everything you’ve just said, you’re sure then, dear? He really is that bad?”

“Worse, if anything. When I found him, he couldn’t accept it was me. Seems he’s been hallucinating, seeing me, you, Mike on a daily basis, only we weren’t really there. So now I guess he’s just not sure whether he can believe what his eyes are telling him or not.”

“Oh, the poor boy.”

“It gets even worse, Daisy. That cellar where he was holed up…he was shackled and manacled, had nothing to eat but stale bread and water and the only company he had was rats. Just like that prison camp. Hell Daisy, it’s enough to turn a man’s brain.”

“Oh…I must go to him.”

Slim shot out a hand to stop her rising from her chair. “No, leave him right now, Daisy. I figure he needs to be alone to take stock.”

“Maybe you’re right. He needs building up too — good fresh food — and I think we need Doc Sam to visit as well.”

“Um, I’ll ride out tomorrow, but he won’t like it.”

Surprisingly, for Jess, he made no comment about the doctor’s proposed visit, just impassively accepted anything that was thrown at him, from Daisy feeding him with broth and eggs beaten into milk to Slim helping him to wash and shave again.

“It’s just so unlike him,” Slim said in despair. “Heck, he should be yelling he wants streak instead of ‘baby food’ and telling me to get lost when I offer to clean him up. It just isn’t right, Daisy.”

She sighed deeply. “Give it time, dear; he just needs time.”

*****

Doc Sam Baker breezed cheerfully in, late the following morning. “I hear we have a young man feeling a tad sorry for himself,” he said raising an eyebrow in Daisy’s direction.

However his bright manner soon changed as he listened to what Daisy was to tell him. “Have you heard exactly what has happened Sam?”

“Well, no. Slim just said he’d been held captive, knocked about a bit. but that’s the story of his life — a magnet for trouble is that young man. We both know that, Daisy my dear.”

“Sit down, Sam; we need to talk.”

The more she spoke the more serious the doctor’s expression became. Doc Sam had a great respect for Daisy’s nursing ability, knowing she had nursed through the war and now he considered her words carefully.

The middle-aged, handsome doctor shook his head in sorrow. “I had no idea; that Hicks must be a truly evil man, or maybe just a very sick one,” he said thoughtfully. “Thanks for filling me in, Daisy; I appreciate it.” He rose to see his patient, and then stopped. “So where is Slim? He seemed in a rush this morning when he popped in?”

“Oh a neighbor stopped by. Some of our stock had strayed. He’s had a tough time of it while Jess has been away, running the place single handed.”

“Yes, it can’t have been easy.”

“And there is something else. I think he’s very worried about Jess. We both are.”

“Yes, of course, I’ll go and see to him.” The doctor marched purposely into Jess’ room.

Jess was lying staring up at the ceiling, but he rolled his head on the pillow to look over at Sam when he walked in.

His good friend sank down on the edge of the bed and gave him a concerned look. “I hear you’ve been having a tough time of it Jess?”

“Kinda…”

“You want to tell me about it?”

“Nope.”

Sam raised an eyebrow; usually a question like that would have caused a major ruffling of the Harper feathers and an answer batted back — ‘No I don’t wanna talk about it, Sam. Are you crazy? Just give me some of your medicine and let get me back to work!’

But nothing, just a soft,” nope,” and then he continued to study the ceiling.

Sam sighed. “OK buddy, let’s take a look at you then”.

Sam checked him over, listened to his chest and took in the cuts and bruises and also his extremely leanness. “That Hicks didn’t feed you much. How about water?”

“I got enough I reckon.”

“And now Daisy says you’ve been chucking up quite a bit, but you have to persevere Jess. It will take your stomach a while to recover; you just have to try and eat a little.”

“I have to, do I?” Jess asked laconically.

“Well sure, if you want to get well, buddy. You do want to get better don’t you?”

Jess just shrugged.

“You’re very angry, aren’t you, Jess?” Sam said softly.

“Wouldn’t you be!” Jess exploded, suddenly looking for all the world much more like himself.

Sam hid a smile. That’s more like the Jess Harper we all know and love, he thought fleetingly.

However, the outburst was soon past and Jess sank back into lethargy, hardly even looking at Sam, or bothering to answer him.

“Look, you’re going to have to eat, Jess, put some weight on before you can even think of getting up and about again. I’ll leave a tonic with Daisy that will help your appetite.”

“Thanks.”

“And Jess, I wasn’t kidding. I figure you do need to talk all this business through, get it off your chest. Maybe talk to Slim, if not me, but you can’t keep it all in, buddy; you’ll go crazy.”

Jess turned to him at that. “Oh, I guess I’m pretty darn crazy already, Sam; Hicks saw to that.” Then he just rolled over and closed his eyes, making it obvious the discussion was at an end.

Sam leaned over and patted his arm gently. “I’ll come and check on you in a few days,” he said softly before taking his leave.

When he went back out, Daisy said Slim had returned and was in the barn.

“Thanks, Daisy. You’re right; he certainly isn’t himself.”

Sam left the tonic and instructions to try and get him to eat and went off to find Slim. He caught up with him in the barn, grooming Snow Bird.

“I heard from the Sheriff that it was this little lady that liberated Jess,” Sam said, admiring the pretty mare.

Slim threw him the ghost of a smile. “Yeah, that’s right in a way,” and explained all that had happened.

“That reminds me; I haven’t torn a strip off Mike for taking off without permission, but he’s so darned upset about Jess I just don’t have the heart to do it.”

Sam nodded. “They’re very close those two, aren’t they?”

“Um, well, they were, but Jess keeps making excuses not to see him…and Millie. He went berserk when I suggested I drive her over at the weekend; says he doesn’t wanna see anyone,” Slim said, sighing deeply. “Hell Sam, he’s been through a real rough time. I guess we can’t hardly begin to know how rough, but even so, it’s not helping him isolating himself this way is it?”

The doctor shook his head. “I guess not, but I figure Jess is really quite low after this business, and angry too, but he doesn’t seem to be able to express it. It’s almost as though he’s given up on everything. When anger isn’t expressed, then it can turn in on a man and make him real depressed.”

Slim cast him the ghost of a smile at that. “Well, he sure hasn’t ever had a problem with expressing his anger up until now,” he said.

Sam gave a faint smile back. “Yep, that’s for sure, but then I guess he’s never been pushed this far before.”

“I know. It’s just like he’s not really with us. Hell Sam, he hasn’t even asked about Traveler. Well, that’s just not like Jess; I just can’t figure that.”

“I guess it will take time, Slim, for him to heal mentally as well as physically. You’re all just going to have to be really patient. As to Millie, I’ll have a word with her. I know she’s been beside herself with worry these last weeks, but she needs to be in the picture and she’ll understand I’m sure.”

“Thanks, Sam. I wish he’d just sound off, get real mad. I’m kinda missing his ornery side,” said Slim quietly and went to see the doc off.

Even though everyone showed Jess infinite patience and understanding, he still didn’t seem to be getting any better and just shut himself away, barely eating and making little progress physically.

 A couple of weeks after the doctor’s visit Slim nearly lost his temper. “You’ve got to eat Jess,” he said a touch of asperity in his tone, such was his worry.

“I ain’t hungry.”

“Look,” said Slim, suddenly beginning to lose his temper, “I’ve cut you a Hell of a lot of slack over the last couple weeks, but I need you back on side, Jess. I need you fit and healthy; I can’t keep running the place single handed!”

Jess’s head shot up at this, his expression suddenly contrite. “Gee, I’m sorry Slim; guess I have been kinda selfish. It’s just…”

“Just what, buddy? Tell me.”

“Nuthin’.” He rolled over and closed his eyes, and Slim sighed before taking the tray with the practically untouched meal away.

It was that night, however, that things were about to change.

Jess had suffered terrible nightmares since his imprisonment, which was hardly surprising, but when Slim had been woken by his heart-rending screams for mercy, Jess had hardly woken up and seemed to remember nothing of it the following morning.

However on this particular night, he was dreaming and as usual screaming, “No! God no!” Slim rolled out of bed, and after lighting the lamp, went and tried to wake his buddy.

After a few moments, Jess sat bolt upright, the sweat pouring down his face and chest. His eyes were open wide and he stared around the room, as if seeking something, until his gaze finally rested on his best friend. “Slim?”

“It’s OK, Jess; just that nightmare is all.”

Then Slim saw Jess was shaking, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. Slim cussed under his breath. “Jess, what is it, pard? Tell me.”

Jess said nothing for a very long time, just looking down, his breath coming in harsh gasps, and then he finally spoke. “I feel so dadgum ashamed,” he finally whispered.

“Ashamed?” said Slim in surprise. “Hell, Jess what have you got to feel ashamed about?”

Jess turned angry blue eyes on his buddy. “Look at me, Slim, look at the state of me. I’m a complete wreck, shaking like some little kid afraid of the dark. I shouldn’t be like this; I’m a grown man. Hell, it beats me how I let that no-hoper bushwhack me and take me prisoner in the first place. And then everything else that happened, I should have managed to escape. Should have coped better, anyway.”

“Jess, stop being so hard on yourself. Hell, I’d have caved in long before you did. And he knew what he was doing. Apparently he knew all about your past — that time in the prisoner of war camp. That’s why he did it; he knew it was your worst nightmare.”

“He did. How?”

“Oh, Mike and Butch got talking. Mike was sticking up for you, saying as how you’d had a bad war, but didn’t blame the world and his dog like Butch’s Pa.”

Jess gave a faint smile. “Trust Mike to be fighting my corner.” Then the smile faded. “I guess I ain’t been very kind lately; I’ll make it up to him.”

Slim nodded at this. “It’s OK; he understands. You’ve just been sick, Jess, and so anyway, I guess that’s why you’re getting those dreams about the camp again and it’s hardly surprising after what you’ve been through.”

“Um… except that one wasn’t about the camp. It was about…” Then Jess swallowed, unable to continue.

“Come on, Jess, tell me; it may help to talk it out.”

Jess turned anguished eyes on his buddy. “How in hell can it help, Slim? Won’t bring him back, will it!”

Slim looked puzzled. “Bring who back?”

Jess sighed deeply. “Why, Trav, of course. That bastard shot him Slim; I saw him walk him across the yard, then a few minutes later this… Oh God, this single shot. And then he came back and gloated about it, said as how the shot went wide and he was rolling in agony, before he finally died. I keep seeing him that way, Slim,” Jess finished, his expression desolate.

Slim looked shocked to the core for a few minutes before pulling himself together. “No, Jess, listen, he’s fine, really. Didn’t anyone tell you? Traveler landed home a few days before we found you. Hicks confessed it all — loosed him off in case the kid saw him and then put chicken blood on the saddle so we’d all think you’d been shot.” Then he grinned. “Traveler sure was pleased to be home. Went straight to his stall and did that thing he does, kicking the stall door, like he does when he’s impatient for his supper.”

But Jess just couldn’t believe it; he just shook his head. I heard the shot. He’s dead, Slim.”

Slim sighed deeply. “Get up, Jess, and get your pants and boots on. We’re going out.”

“I…I don’t think I can walk, Slim; I’m kinda shaky right now.”

“Get up, Jess, and get dressed. You’re coming over to the barn with me, even if I have to carry you!”

They lit a lamp, and with a comforting arm slung around his waist for support, Jess made it to the barn, but even that short distance had him unable to catch his breath. He looked very pale, and for a moment Slim questioned the wisdom of bringing him out, but no… Jess had to see for himself if he was to have any peace of mind that night.

They entered the stable, the sweet smell of hay and underlying musky smell of horse greeted them and then Slim lit the barn lamp and stood back, watching his buddy’s face as his eyes gradually became used to the dim light.

He stood stock still, staring towards the end of the barn where Traveler’s stall was situated, and then after a moment, he started to walk unsteadily towards where the big horse stood. Trav’s ears flicked and his kind eyes watched the cowboy approach. Then he suddenly got Jess’s scent and his head went up, and he let out a low whinny of welcome, moving around in his stall, his head craning forwards for the gentle caress and sugar he knew was to come.

Jess advanced on his beloved mount and just stared for a full minute, his deep blue eyes shining in wonder, before opening the stall door and running in. He threw his arms around the big bay’s neck and held him close, whispering softly to him.

Slim pulled back and went and sat on a straw bale; he left Jess alone with his horse for a while, knowing how emotional he would be.

After a while, though, he shivered and looked over to where Jess stood naked to the waist, still talking softly to Traveler and feeding him the expected sugar treats.

 Eventually Slim wandered over. “Come on, Jess, you’ll be catching your death out here and I’ll have Daisy after me.”

Jess nodded and gave his faithful old mount a final pat before following Slim out of the barn, but when they got to the porch, he stopped. Leaning on the hitching rail, he looked out to the moonlit horizon, and then suddenly crashed his fist against the wooden upright, his eyes flashing almost black with fury.

“Jess?”

Jess turned to face his pard. “How could he do that to me, Slim? That bastard Hicks — how could he do that?”

“I dunno, Jess; Sam thinks he’s sick in the head.”

“Oh no. He ain’t gonna get out of it that easy. He’s gonna pay for what he’s done, Slim. I’m goin’ to town tomorrow to sort this business out for good and I’m going to see that bastard stays in jail where he belongs, if it’s the last thing I do!” With that, Jess marched back inside.

Slim watched him go, a big smile on his handsome face. “That’s my boy,” he whispered. “Welcome home, Jess.” He followed Jess back inside.

The following morning, when Slim awoke, Jess had already lit out.

“Crazy fool,” Slim muttered. “Hell, he could barely walk across to the barn yesterday and now he thinks he can up and ride to town, and I’m gonna have to fetch him back.” Sighing, he got up and started dressing.

Daisy was in the kitchen cooking breakfast. “Tell Jess the coffee is on, and I’ll bring it through in a moment,” she called when she heard Slim moving about.

Slim walked into the kitchen and straddled a chair by the table. “Can’t, Daisy; he’s lit out.”

The elderly lady spun around, nearly tipping the frying pan over. “What! But, Slim, he can barely walk. Where on earth has he gone and why?”

Slim explained, but told her not to fret; he’d ride out after breakfast to get him back.

She shook her old grey head sadly. “That poor boy. No wonder he didn’t ask after Traveler if he thought the horse was dead.”

“Um, you should have seen his face in the barn last night, though, Daisy — like a little kid on Christmas morning.” They exchanged a fond glance.

Then Slim shook his head. “But he was powerful mad afterwards. I wouldn’t like to be in Hicks shoes when he lands in town, even if there are bars between the two of them.” Then he chuckled. “Way he was last night, I reckon just one look would be enough to melt those old cell bars clean away. Gee, it’s good to see him back to normal, Daisy. I reckon this is just what he needed — something to get real mad about.”

“You’re probably right, dear, but I doubt if getting mad at Hicks will be a miracle cure. He’s been severely mentally and physically damaged, and these things take time to heal.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, but at least he’s on the right track, huh, Daisy?”

She beamed over at the blond haired cowboy. “Oh yes, dear; I’d say he’s on the right track.”

*****

As it was, Slim was delayed in his trip to town as the Line Superintendent turned up on the early morning stage just as Slim was about to leave and requested an impromptu meeting, and so it was noon before he managed to get away.

Meanwhile, early that morning, Jess had dressed quietly and made his way over to the barn and saddled Traveler up. It had been so hard for him as he was as weak as a kitten, and it took all his strength to haul the saddle up on the horse’s back. By the time the task was completed, he was sweating profusely and trembling.

However, Jess being Jess wasn’t going to let the little matter of physical exhaustion get in the way of his retribution. What he needed to do was to go and cuss Hicks long and loud, and if he got half a chance, lay one on him too. It was that which was the driving force that led him on and gave him the energy to mount up and ride out.

It was still quite early when he landed in Laramie, and he tethered Traveler outside the Sheriff’s office, pausing for a moment to get his breath, cussing softly, feeling terribly vulnerable in his weakened state. Then he stood up straight, pulled his hat down hard and marched into Mort’s office.

His good friend was sitting back, his feet on the desk enjoying the first coffee of the day, but he looked up in shock when he saw Jess standing there looking — as he said later — looking more dead than alive and as mad as a wet hen.

Jess cast a glance towards the empty cells. “Where is he?” he spat angrily.

“Morning, Jess, how are you,” replied Mort with a quizzical expression. “Coffee?”

Jess looked a tad sheepish.

 “Sorry. ‘Morning, Mort, thanks.” Jess went and poured himself a drink from the pot on the stove, and then returning, straddled the chair opposite the desk. After taking a sip, he said more reasonably, “So what have you done with the prisoner then, Mort? Rapped his knuckles and sent him home because ol’ Sam says he ain’t right in the head and couldn’t help it?”

“Now Jess…”

“Couldn’t help keeping me in a doggone cell, shackled and half-starved while cockroaches and rats ate the stinkin’ muck he called food? While he took my horse out and told me he’d shot the poor creature and he died in agony? He couldn’t help any of that — is that the way it is, Mort!”

“Look Jess, will you just simmer down and I’ll tell you exactly where Curt Hicks is right now.”

“Go on, I’m listenin’ and it better be good, Mort.”

“He’s down the road at the funeral parlor.”

Jess’s head shot up and he nearly spilled his coffee. “He’s dead?”

“Yep.”

“How?”

“He hanged himself last night.”

Jess just gaped at Mort, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. He’d wanted Hicks to suffer for what he’d done, sure, but dead? Somehow he felt cheated. Now he would never be able to tell Hicks exactly what he thought of him — try and make him understand the depth of the pain and distress he had inflicted on another human being. “Go on.”

“Well, you know Lon is sick right now, so without my Deputy, it was down to me to watch the prisoner around the clock, which I’ve been doing, sleeping in the end cell like I usually do. Then last night a message came across from Miss Molly sayin’ as to how she was real busy and could I step across and fetch my supper myself.”

Jess nodded.

“So I did, and when I returned, he’d hung himself with his belt from the top bar of the cell. Must have stood on the stool and then kicked it away. found him hanging there, dead, when I got back. Well, it sure put me off my supper, I can tell you.”

“Yeah, I guess something like that would. So you reckon he was crazy then, Mort?”

The older man shook his head sadly. “Could well be. I dunno, but Sam visited him a lot. They talked for hours. I guess he’s the man to ask.”

“Yeah, maybe I will,” said Jess suddenly feeling completely drained. Thus far he had been riding along on wave of adrenaline, but now he felt absolutely done in.

Mort noticed Jess’s hands shaking as he sipped his coffee and threw him an anxious look. “You OK, Jess? It seems to me you should be visiting Sam anyway.”

“I’m OK, just darned weak from all the layin’ around, Mort. Need me some work, I guess. Gotta get back in shape. Poor ol’ Slim is near worn out carryin’ the load for so long.”

“Um, I imagine. Well at least you can forget about Hicks; he isn’t gonna bother you again.”

“No, I guess not.”

Shortly afterwards, Jess made his farewells and then stood outside the Sheriff’s office, somewhat at a loss as what to do next.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted — hell, he needed — to see Millie. But now as he stood there on the quiet sidewalk, he wondered how welcome he would be.

Millie had said she wanted to visit him, but he had refused, saying he wasn’t well enough. But the truth was he was feeling so dadgum ashamed, just like he had admitted to Slim the night before. It was so unlike Jess for anyone to be able get the drop on him; with his fast draw and streetwise ways, his liberty had been rarely compromised, save for a spell in prison once and also his incarceration during the war.

But since then he had pretty much looked after himself. Sure, he’d been bushwhacked, shot and beaten up, but he had always managed to get himself out of the trouble eventually. But this last venture had made him feel incredibly vulnerable and embarrassed, not to mention really depressed, and that was why he hadn’t wanted to see his best girl — or anyone really. But that to Jess was a weakness in itself — the depression, the nightmares, the way he had been so emotional lately. That all smacked of being helpless and he just couldn’t cope with it.

Now as he stood undecided as what to do, Jess suddenly realized Millie was more important to him than anything; no matter what, he had to see her.

He strode down towards the saloon, and on entering, old Tom called out from the back, “Not open yet, mister.”

Jess continued in and leaned on the bar until Tom’s head peered around from the back room, and then he grinned and came out. “Why, Jess Harper! how are you, son? I’d heard you’d been laid up.”

“I’m OK. Er, is she in, Tom?”

The old timer grinned broadly. “Sure she is; not surfaced yet this morning, though.” Then he gestured with his head to the stairs. “Go on up, son, I figure she’ll be real pleased to see you.”

“Um…I hope so, Tom.” He made his way up the stairs, pausing to catch his breath before knocking on Millie’s door.

After a few minutes, she was there and stood blinking up at him like she had just awoken. Her dark glossy hair tumbling down around her shoulders, and wearing a white nightgown with little pearl buttons up to the high neck, she was looking for all the world like a charming innocent young woman and Jess thought she had never looked more desirable.

She was suddenly completely alert, and a hand shot to her mouth when she saw Jess standing there, his gaunt frame and almost haggard face totally shocking to her.

“Jess. Oh, Jess,” she whispered and then burst into tears.

His blue eyes opened wide in concern. “Hey sweetheart, there ain’t no call to go frettin’,” he said softly.

“No call,” she said with a flash of anger. “No call, Jess? Look at you. What has that awful man done?”

“Come here,” he whispered and then he opened his arms and she almost fell into them. After a moment, she pulled him inside her room and closed the door behind him.

“Let me look at you properly.” She ran a hand down his cheek, her eyes brimming with tears once more. “Slim told me all about what you’ve been through. I’m just so sorry for you.”

“It’s OK, don’t be, Mill. Please. I don’t want your pity. it don’t matter now…nuthin’ does. All I want is you,” he said as  he took hold of her by her shoulders and then leaned down and kissed her at first so tenderly and  then more passionately, pulling her closer, one hand moving up and becoming entwined in her hair,  pulling  her closer still.

“I missed you so dang much,” Jess whispered in her ear, before kissing her face, her hair, then moving down to the base of her throat, kissing her more and more passionately.

“Me too.” Then she gave a little gasp of pleasure as he continued kissing her neck and then very gently started to undo the little pearl buttons, and leaning down, kissed the gentle curve of her cleavage, before picking her up and carrying her over to the big comfortable bed.

He quickly pulled off his shirt, boots and pants and lay down beside her, taking her in his arms telling her everything she needed to hear — she was his wonderful girl, how tough it had been without her, about hallucinating, feeling her in his arms, tasting her sweet lips and then how she had just vanished from his sight, melted away like mist in the morning sunlight, leaving him desolate.

And then the time for talking was over, and he held her close and they finally made love very tenderly. All the pain and fear of the last weeks gradually faded away and was replaced by a deep peace and feeling of release, and he began to feel that the healing had begun.

*****

Much later that morning, once Millie had gone to work, Jess wandered over to Sam’s office and was greeted warmly by Carrie, who answered the door.

“Morning, sweetheart. Is your Pa about?”

Carrie smiled up at him, trying hard to hide her initial shock at his appearance. “Sure, go on through to the study; coffees on.”

Jess smiled his thanks and tapping on the door entered the doctor’s private domain.

Sam jumped up as soon as he saw who it was. “Why Jess, what are you doing here? I thought you were still abed. I was going to come out and visit later.” He pulled out a chair and pushed Jess gently down, studying his pale face, still looking gaunt and decidedly unwell, so the doctor thought.

Jess wasted no time in getting to the point. “I needed to see Hicks. I was so dang mad at something he’d done, I needed to have it out with him, but now, well…”

“So you’ve heard then. Nasty business. Shocked Mort. He wasn’t expecting that; neither of us were.”

“So you’ve been seeing a lot of him then, according to Mort?”

“Yes, yes I have. As you know, one of my pet interests is mental disorders and Curt Hicks was a very complex case.”

“So you’re sayin’ he was crazy,” burst in Jess looking angry. “You think he was off his head then?”

“Well, certainly mentally disturbed, don’t you?”

“No I don’t,” Jess spat. “I think he was just pure evil. You saw what he did to me, Sam, to my body…and worse, to my mind.” He tapped his head. Darn near sent me crazy, that’s for sure. And you’re going to tell me it was all just because he was sick?”

“Well someone in their right mind doesn’t take off their belt and hang themselves, do they, Jess?”

Jess was silent for a moment. “I dunno; depends how all fired spooked they are. Maybe if he thought he was gonna hang anyway, he figured he’d rather just get it over with.”

The doctor looked skeptical for a moment, but then said, “Well yes, the word was that you were very sick, and I figure if you hadn’t made it, he would have been up on a murder charge.”

“Well, there you are then. He just couldn’t hack goin’ through the trial and then waitin’ for the noose.”

“You think so?”

“Hell Sam, have you forgotten I’ve been in that position myself? it sure ain’t easy waitin’ to feel that ol’ rope around your neck, you know!” (* see “The Silver Lady”.)

“Yes, yes, of course; I’m sorry, Jess.”

They lapsed into silence, then after a while, Sam gave him a speculative look. “Something must have made you very angry to ride out all this way. You’re still far from well, and about as weak as one of those kittens you’ve got in your barn right now, I’d imagine. Am I right Jess?”

Jess’ head shot up and he was about to deny it, and then his gaze locked with his good friend and he knew it was pointless lying. “Guess I am at that,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“So what was it all about?”

After Jess had explained, the doctor gave a low whistle. Knowing the way Jess felt about all horses and Traveler in particular, he had a good idea that Jess was feeling way beyond angry. “I guess he couldn’t have done anything much crueler, could he, knowing the way you are with the horses, and what ol’ Traveler means to you especially,” he said softly.

Jess merely nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“And now I guess you’re so damned angry because you feel kind of cheated that you can’t have your say, tell him how you feel. Am I right? “

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Spot on as usual, doc.”

“Um… so do you think it might help if I told you some of his story? Why he had it in for you so much?”

Jess sighed deeply. “I doubt it, but you can try I guess.”

“OK well. I’ll make this as simple as I can for you.”

“Yeah, seein’ as I’m none too bright, you’d better be doin’ that, Sam,” Jess said, somewhat acerbically, but with a little twinkle in his eye, rendering his comment less bitter.

“I didn’t mean to patronize you. I…” Then he saw the smile on his buddy’s face. “All I mean is, it’s a very complex subject even for me to understand, and I’ve had years to try and learn more about the mind, that’s all.”

“OK, go on, Sam; I’m only joshing’ you.”

“Well, you see it was all about guilt, Jess. That’s what caused all his problems — the guilt.”

“Well I guess he had one hell of a lot to feel guilty about after what he did to me!” said Jess angrily.

“No, you misunderstand me; it was guilt that caused him to be the way he was, in the first place.”

Then the doctor settled down to explain Curt Hick’s history.

“He was a young messenger rider in the War, taking important messages to different groups of Union troops. Well, he’d had a real bad time, been captured and then escaped and that’s when he lost his nerve. Couldn’t risk getting banged up again, he said. That’s when he turned into a’ lousy coward’ — his words.”

“Sounds about right,” said Jess darkly.

“Well anyway, he was supposed to ride with a message warning his division that they were riding into a trap…and he just couldn’t do it. He went and hid instead, and as a result, thirty good men died that day, including his best friend, one Pete Harvey. “

“Oh?”

“Yes, he described him very accurately to me — about 5’11’’, slim build but muscular, real strong, wavy dark hair and deep blue eyes and a real way with the horses. Remind you of anyone, Jess?”

Jess sighed. “So if I reminded him so much of his best buddy, how come he near killed me? “

“Because of the guilt, Jess. I said it was complex, didn’t I?”

“Um.”

“You see, he was responsible for his best buddy dying and all his comrades, and he just couldn’t face the fact. So he blanked it out and made all these different stories up that he used to tell around the bar. How a Confederate soldier scarred him, for example; that was a lie. That scar on his face was inflicted by a fellow soldier, one that survived the massacre, and when it came to light that Hicks was responsible, he upped and attacked him, cutting his face. Then Hicks was court marshaled for dereliction of duty and due to go before the firing squad. He was truly hated by all his ex-comrades.”

The doctor sighed deeply before continuing.

“But then the rest of the battalion was attacked by Confederates, and he was the only one to survive. Escaped in the battle and hid up in the mountains until the war was over, and because the men were all dead, nobody knew about the court marshal. He got clean away with it; his secret died with the troops.”

Jess sucked in a deep breath, but said nothing.

“But the guilt was never ending, and over the years, it took over his whole life; and such was the shame that he couldn’t handle it and he unconsciously laid it all at the door of the enemy. In the end, he really believed it — believed he was just a victim of the war. And in a way, I guess he was.”

“So you’re sayin’ that all the hate that he felt for himself for bein’ a coward, he shifted it all onto the enemy instead…and me in particular?”

“Exactly. And seeing you looking so like Pete sparked it all off. Then he saw the deep friendship you and Slim share. Then you and the horses… Well, that was the last straw, and I figure that’s why he wanted to hurt you so much by the way he tormented you over Traveler. You were alive and his best buddy was dead, but he couldn’t blame himself, so he had to blame you, take all his guilt out on you.”

“I guess you weren’t kiddin’ when you said it was difficult to understand,” Jess said with the ghost of a smile.

“But you do get it?”

“Oh sure, I get the theory; just ain’t sure as how I believe it all. I guess he just could still have been plain evil and takin’ you for a fool with all this confessin’, thinking maybe he’d get of Scott free if he was committed as being crazy.”

“Yes, that he could, and I guess we’ll never know, eh, Jess?”

Then the dark haired cowboy smiled grimly.

“What is it, buddy?”

“Well it’s kinda ironic really, he thought he could really drive me crazy by sayin’ he’d destroyed my horse, but in the end, it was a horse that saved the day and got one over on him.” He explained all about Snow Bird’s role in his release.

The doctor beamed at Jess, suddenly looking very pleased with himself. “What is it, Sam?“

“You. I guess you’re looking a lot more like your old self,” said the doctor happily. “And you know, Jess, whether you believe my diagnosis on Hicks or not, I figure you’re ready to move on now and get on with your life, aren’t you? “

Jess thought for a moment. “You know, Sam, I reckon I am.” Then he grinned over at his good friend. “So, how long before I can get back in the saddle and do some serious work with Snow Bird, ‘cos I’m thinkin’ of entering her in the Cheyenne Quarter Mile Race next month, and we’ve got us one heck of a lot of training to get through before then!”

*****

In the end, Jess always reckoned that it was his friends — and Snow Bird — that got him through the ‘kinda rough spell’, as he called it, that he experienced after his horrific incarceration.

Whereas his chat with Sam about Curt Hicks’ possible motives, along with the time spent in Millie’s loving company, heralded the start of his recovery, he still had quite a way to go. The following weeks had many peaks and troughs before he was a hundred percent back to normal.

 Or back to his ‘good old ornery self’, as Slim was to say later.

That day he walked out of Sam’s office and cannoned directly into Slim walking in.

“What are you doin’ here, pard?” asked Jess looking surprised.

“Baby-sitting you, of course!” came the abrupt answer from Slim.

“Hey,” said Jess angrily, “I ain’t no kid needing to be looked after.”

“Well don’t darn well act like one then!” yelled Slim, looking more angry than Jess had seen him in a long while.

“Huh? “

“You’ve had me chasing’ all the way to town to look after you. Don’t you think I’ve got enough to do, Jess, without all this on top of it. You’re not well enough to be riding yet. Hell, you could hardly make it across the yard last night, and what’s more…”

“Hold it, Slim, will you simmer down? I’m sorry, alright?”

“Sure you are, until the next crazy stunt you pull.”

“Hey pard, what’s gotten into you?”

Slim turned and slumped down on the bench outside Sam’s office, and after a moment, Jess sat down beside him.

“Well?”

Slim sighed deeply. “I guess I’m just beat. All the worry we had when you were taken, and then since you’ve been back, well, you haven’t been the easiest, Jess, and I guess I’m just plain wore out.”

Jess dipped his head and studied the side walk for a good minute before turning to really look at his best friend properly. Slim looked pale and drawn, and as he took all that in, Jess began to feel terrible. He took a deep breath. “Jeez Slim, like I said last night, I reckon I’ve been real selfish. Guess I shouldn’t have lit out here today. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

“No need,” said Slim wearily. “Let’s just go home, huh?”

“Sure…and I really am sorry, Slim.”

They landed back at lunchtime, and Daisy was just about to dish up when they marched in. Looking up, she cast Jess an anxious glance. “Well thank goodness you’re alright, dear,” she said kindly.

Jess was beginning to feel a mite tired of apologizing, but then he knew it was needed. He knew he’d been far from easy lately and his close friends had to know exactly how sorry he was for all the trouble he’d caused them.

“Look I figure I need to say something,” Jess said as he came over to the table, absently ruffling Mike’s hair as he sat down.

“There’s no need,” said Slim quietly.

Jess threw him a quick glance before looking over at an expectant Mike and Daisy. “Well I reckon there is, Slim.” He turned to encompass them all. “I figure I’ve been kinda difficult lately, cutting’ myself off from everyone and not makin’ an effort to get well, not even thanking’ young Mike here for looking after Trav and Snowy so dang well, or you Daisy for tryin’ your best to feed me up and get me fit an’ all.”

Then he looked at Slim. “And I figure I’ve been leavin’ all the work to you to sort out, Hard Rock.’ I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is I’m truly sorry and I aim to make amends, to you all.”

There was a hushed silence, and then everyone spoke at once, trying to reassure him, Daisy fondly kissing his cheek and Mike hugging him, while Slim looked on smiling kindly at his best buddy.

Daisy was the first to recover. “Come along then, you boys, eat up, and especially you Jess. If you’re going to start helping out again, I think you need feeding up, young man!”

It was another week or so before Jess got his strength back sufficiently to be able to do much around the ranch, but once he was able, he really started pulling his weight. There was no stopping him.

“Jess, will you just take it easy,” said Slim one evening when Jess was leading Snow Bird back into her stall after he had spent an hour or so working her down the Laramie road over the quarter mile stretch.

“Gotta make up for lost time, pard,” said Jess as he started rubbing her down. ”Young Mike’s done  a real swell job keeping her in condition, but she needs to get her speed  up some before the race in Cheyenne.”

Slim sighed. “Jess, are you sure you want to do this? You’re still not fit yourself.”

“I’m Ok,” Jess muttered, concentrating on his task. “Anyways we can’t afford to throw a good deal like that away, Slim. You saw that letter from Chet Adams; he’ll waive Merlin’s stud fees if I win and he likes the look of Snowy here.” Then he fondled the pretty mare’s ears. “And who wouldn’t,” he said grinning over at his partner. “Ain’t she the cutest little thing on four legs you ever saw?”

“Sure, sure,” said Slim chuckling, “and I guess we could use the extra cash a win would bring in to pay back the rest of that loan we had for the new breeding stock.”

“Well then.”

“But I don’t want to see you get busted up in the process, Jess, or Snowy either.”

“It won’t come to that, and it would really assure her future too, Slim. A foal out of Snowy by Merlin would be somethin’ real special. She might even have a pure white and we could ask top dollar for that and old Adams would be sure to pay it too.”

While Jess was working Snowy or up on Traveler riding fence or doing any of the usual chores around the ranch, Jess looked to be his usual self. But at other times, he would become very introspective, often sitting looking into the fire and seemed not to hear when anyone spoke to him.

Then there were the terrible nightmares that seemed to afflict him more and more frequently as the days passed.

One night after a particularly bad one, he sat up sweating and cussin, and Slim went and fetched him a drink of cold water. Relaxing back on the edge of his own bed, Slim passed it across.

Jess took it his hands shaking. “Thanks,” he said after he had taken a long draft, and then he turned troubled eyes on his buddy. “Gee, I’m sorry, Slim. I guess you don’t need me frettin’ and cussin half the night. Maybe I should move out to the bunk house for a spell?”

“Nope, you’re not going anywhere, pard, except maybe back to Sam. He might be able to help.”

Jess shrugged. “I don’t know as how. He can’t take it all away, can he, Slim. What that bastard did to me…”

“I guess not. That’s what the dreams are all about then, same as you’ve been having since you landed back?”

“Um, yes, about me bein’ back in the ol’ cellar and the rats and all. Then I hear that shot ringing out… But then I’m standing there with Trav, seeing…what he did,” Jess finished, looking anguished.

Slim sighed deeply. “Funny old thing, the mind. Way it plays tricks on you, I mean. He didn’t even harm Traveler, so you couldn’t have seen it — just imagined it all.”

“So what are you sayin’? I’m goin’ crazy?” asked Jess belligerently.

“No, of course not. Hell, don’t get mad at me, Jess; I’m trying to help you here.”

Jess suddenly looked contrite. “Yeah, I know you are. Sorry, Slim. It’s just…well, things seem to be gettin’ worse ‘stead of better; I thought I’d be fine by now.”

“I guess these things take time, pard. After all, you suffered really badly, and it’s bound to take a while to recover from something like that.”

But Jess was adamant that he would be fine. His continued emotional state just smacked of weakness to him, and he lost patience with himself, getting angry and frustrated, which in turn made him even more anxious and the nightmares even worse.

*****

It was one morning a few days after Jess and Slim had had their midnight chat after Jess’s nightmare that a real waking nightmare occurred as far as Jess was concerned.

 Snow Bird got really sick.

At  first, when she had gone off her feed a day or so earlier, Jess just thought that the grain and supplement he had been feeding her to build up her strength and energy for the race was filling her up too much, and so he held back and just gave  her a smaller portion.

However, as soon as he entered the barn that morning, he knew instinctively that all was not well.

At first, he just had a gut feeling — something about the way she was holding herself — and then instead of reaching out her neck for him to scratch her ears like she usually did, she just ignored him and looked moodily into space.

“Hey girl, you OK?” Jess asked softly, patting her neck and offering her food and water which she barely glanced at.

He went and tended Traveler, who was his normal happy self, and fed him and Alamo and the other horses before coming back to check on Snowy. But there was no change, so he went in reluctantly for his breakfast.

Jess pushed his food around the plate before abandoning it in favor of the coffee pot.

“What’s up pard, not hungry?”

Jess shook his head.

“Are you sick, dear? You look a mite peaky.”

Jess turned to Daisy. “Nope, I’m fine, really. It’s Snowy; she don’t look right.”

“Well, you have been working her kind of hard you know, Jess,” said Slim gently.

“Heck Slim, I wouldn’t do anything to make her sick, you know that.”

“Sure I do, buddy. Come on, let’s take a look at her. Probably just a mild chill; she did get a good soaking the other day.”

“Yeah, but I rubbed her down real good and gave her a bran mash,” Jess said, getting up to check on his beloved mare.

Slim rose to following him out, casting his eyes to Heaven as he passed Daisy. “Cares about that dang horse more than he does us,” he whispered as he went out, and she gave a little chuckle.

However, once they entered the barn, both men could see all was not well.

Snow Bird was sweating and stamping around in her loose box, looking decidedly uneasy.

Jess went in and took a closer look and saw that her teeth were clenched and she was salivating freely. “I reckon she’s hurtin’ some, Slim.”

Then she started pacing around in the confined space and would have rolled if Jess hadn’t grabbed hold of her halter and led her out into the yard. “I reckon she’s got fret,” said Jess, looking mightily concerned now.

“What, colic? You sure, Jess? That can be real serious if she’s twisted something.”

“Well she don’t look right, does she, Slim?”

Jess walked her about the yard for a while, and then she did go down, rolling and salivating, her eyes showing the whites and looking decidedly panicky.

Just then, the early morning stage swept in and Mike came running out for school, but stopped in his tracks when he saw Snowy was down. He ran over and cried, “Jess, Jess, what’s wrong with her?”

The young cowboy’s head shot up, and although he was sorely worried, he knew the child should be protected from his fears, especially as he was disappearing off to school for the rest of the day.

Jess tried to relax and smile. “It’s OK, Tiger; I guess she’s just got a real bad belly ache. Figure we’ll ask old Mose to call in on Doc Peters, the horse doc from town, and get him to visit. He’ll sort her out; don’t you worry.”

As soon as the stage left, Jess glanced over to Slim, a look of deep concern on his handsome features. “So what do you think then, Slim?”

The blond rancher took off his hat and scratched his head thoughtfully as he watched Snow Bird, now up again but turning her head to look at her sides before leaning in and giving it a little nip.

“Well, you’re more an expert than me, Jess, but it sure looks like colic. But as to its cause, well…” Slim shook his head. “I really dunno. You look after her real good; can’t be anything we’ve done, that’s for sure.”

“Well, if it’s a strangled gut, then that’s it, Slim. I’ll have to shoot her; ain’t nuthin’ as can be done.”

Slim walked over and squeezed Jess’s shoulder. “Hey, pard; take it easy. There’s a lot of causes for the fret, and it doesn’t follow its going to be that. At least old Doc Peters is a good man, not like his predecessor. Hell, he’d have given her Daffy’s Elixir and just hoped for the best.”

“Yeah, you’re not wrong there. I reckon old Doc Scott gave that for every darn ailment any of the critters got.” Jess gave him the ghost of a smile, and then as Snowy started pacing and sweating he sobered. “Hell Slim, I can’t lose her; I just can’t.”

It was a couple of hours later when Doc Peters rode in on his ancient old buckskin and slowly dismounted before wandering over to where Jess was still walking Snow Bird, trying to relieve her discomfort. “Mornin’, Jess. So the little lady’s feelin’ a mite poorly, is she?”

Jess nodded and waited while the elderly man poked and prodded Snowy and generally checked her over, before straightening up. “Well, you were right to call me out. It is colic, and a real bad case. Now tell me, Jess. I believe you’re entering her for the Cheyenne Quarter Miler. So have you been giving her some special rations, something to give her that extra bit of stamina maybe?”

“Well sure I have, doc; you can’t expect her to run that kinda race on just fodder. I bought in the very best from the mercantile in town.”

“And you bought the latest batch, a few days ago, just before the problems started?”

“Yeah.”

“Um, same as old Benson. Been feeding his quarter horse on the same mix. I’m real sorry, Jess, but that batch of feed is contaminated.”

“What? You’re kiddin’ me!”

“Nope. I’m sorry, son; it looks like we might lose Benson’s horse.”

Jess sucked in a deep breath, turning pale. “Goddamn it, Doc. Can’t you treat her? “

“It’s kind of hard because the batch has been disposed of now, so I guess we’ll never know if it had been poisoned deliberately or just stored badly and gone bad. So difficult to know what we’re dealing with.” But then the vet leaned forward and patted Jess’ arm kindly. He had a lot of time for Jess, considering him to be a darn good horse man and probably the best horse whisperer this side of Texas as he often told folk.

Now Doctor Peters turned to Jess and said. “Easy, son. I didn’t say I couldn’t treat her, did I? We’ll give her a drench of sulfuric ether and a tincture of aloes; that’ll sure get her gut moving. Should sure shift anything she’s eaten, and let’s just hope we’re in time.”

“Thanks, Doc,” said Jess quickly, and they went about the business of treating Snow Bird.

That night Jess slept in the barn with her and spent most of his time replenishing the straw bedding as she was really suffering from the effect of the medicine.

The following morning, she seemed little better, and when Jess went out to help Slim change the horses on the early morning stage, Mose had some sad news for them.

“I just met Mr. Benson on the road. Said he’d lost his prize racer, told me your Snow Bird’s got the same sickness. I’m real sorry to hear that, boys”.

Jess turned pale. “She’s dead, you say?”

“Yeah. Was lashing around in agony he said; had no choice but to shoot her.”

Jess turned away and went to fetch the fresh team.

“So how is she, Slim?”

“Not too good, Mose. Doc Peters is treating her but…” Slim just shook his head sadly as Jess wandered over with the team and started hitching them up.

Doc Peters visited again later in the day and gave her another drench as Jess held her head, and then the two men stood back watching her as she paced and pawed the ground, still obviously in pain.

Jess shook his head. “Do you think I should finish it now, doc? I hate to see her hurtin’ that way.”

The old man looked serious. “I guess that’s your call, Jess, but if she was mine I’d give her another twenty four hours. I’ll leave you something for the pain. Once that drench has worked to clear her gut out completely, we’ll see how she is, OK?”

“I guess,” Jess said reluctantly.

However later that night, he nearly had a change of heart as Snow Bird took a turn for the worse.

Slim came out to the barn after supper and saw that the pretty grey was looking decidedly poorly as she paced and nipped at her sides.

Jess was standing watching her, his shot gun in his hands and a look of intense sadness in his deep blue eyes. “I can’t let her suffer this way Slim, I’m gonna have to shoot her.”

Slim sighed deeply. “How about you try her with just one more dose of that pain killer. Can’t do any harm. Then see how she is in the morning huh?”

Jess stood immobile for a few minutes, and then propping his gun up in the corner of the barn, he nodded. “Ok, give us a hand will you, Slim.” They administered another large dose of the medicine.

That seemed to do the trick, and she calmed down after just a few minutes.

“Are you sleeping out here again then? “

“Sure; I can’t leave her right now, Slim.”

“Well you won’t help her any if you get sick too. “

“I’m fine; quit your fussin’.”

Jess slept out with her that night and for the rest of the week, until he was sure she was completely cured.

Things had turned around for the better just hours after he was going to shoot her, and by the end of the week, she was back to her old self.

“Thank God you stopped me from finishing her,” said Jess, as Slim and Doc Peters surveyed the mare as she pranced around the corral, showing off in her usual way.

“So are you still entering the race then?” said the doc, grinning over at Jess.

“Dunno, maybe not. I figure maybe that feed could have been poisoned. Someone wants her out of the running possibly.”

“Oh come on, Jess; she’s absolutely fine and we don’t know if it was poisoned. Could just have been a bad batch. I think it would do her no harm at all to race. Besides, I’m laying good money on her winning,” Peters finished with a huge smile.

Jess nodded at that. “If you think she’s OK…”

“Look at her, man — the picture of health.”

“Yeah, I guess she is,” Jess said, grinning happily now.

*****

And it wasn’t only Snow Bird who was completely fit and healthy again either.

It was about a week after Snow Bird’s recovery that Doc Sam Baker visited his good friends for a fishing trip.

They were settled by the lakeside in companionable silence waiting for the fish to bite when Sam turned to Jess. “So how are you feeling now, buddy? Looks like Daisy’s been feeding you up.”

Jess grinned at that. “She sure has. Second helpings of apple pie every night. I’ll have to go on a diet at this rate.”

The doctor chuckled at that. “So how about those god awful nightmares of yours?” Sam turned to Slim. “Is he still waking you up every night cussing?” he asked Slim with a twinkle.

Jess and Slim exchanged a surprised look.

“Heck, no, he hasn’t. You’ve not had one of those in weeks, have you?” Slim answered.

“No, I guess not, not since Snowy got sick.”

“Well that’s real good,” smiled Sam

Then Jess grinned over at the doc. “Could be because I slept the week in the barn lookin’ after Snowy. I guess I’ve been too dang exhausted to bother havin’ nightmares since then!”

All three men laughed at this.

“Yes, you could be right at that,” chuckled the doctor. Then Slim got a bite and the conversation and theories were abandoned as the men concentrated on the much more pressing issue of fishing.

*****

Epilogue

From that day on, Jess rarely suffered from the debilitating nightmares and he gradually returned to, his normal ‘ornery self’, as Slim delighted in saying.

They rarely discussed the matter again, but on the odd occasion that it came up, both men puzzled about the whole sorry business.

Had Curt Hicks been a victim of the war? Suffering mental illness after betraying his comrades through a deep-rooted fear he that he was unable to control? Or was he just pure evil? A man with a grudge who got pleasure from inflicting pain and misery on another? They were never able to decide.

And whereas Jess tried to forget the incident, he could not forgive it because he was never given the chance.

Jess wondered sometimes what the outcome of his ‘talk’ with Hicks would have been on that day when he rode into town feeling so mad. Would he have shown some charity if the guy really had been proven to be plumb loco, or mentally ill, as Sam preferred to term it? Jess liked to think, well, maybe…given time.

 As to Curt Hicks’ family, Mike had the occasional letter from Butch, who had settled well at his grandmother’s house back east. A year or so after they had left town, he was delighted to tell Mike that his Ma had remarried and he had the sort of Pa he had always wanted. “A lot like Slim and Jess — real good fun, but kinda strict sometimes too. A real swell Pa,” Butch had added

As to what happened next at the Cheyenne Races and Snow Bird’s future…well, that’s another story!

***End***

Thank you for reading!

 

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