Sweet Charity (by Patti W.)

Summary:  A Tale of Passion and Betrayal.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Adult themes, violence and strong language)
Word Count:  43,834


 

Jess Harper, partner in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, stretched and rubbed the small of his back where he had a nagging pain after a fall from one of the mustangs he was currently in the process of breaking, and then removed his Stetson, running a hand through his dark locks before ramming it firmly back in place.

He leaned against the corral fence, his deep blue eyes narrowed against the brilliant sunlight, watching the prime beasts circling and weighing each other up, taking in their new surroundings as all the wild horses did for a few days following capture.

He had started the arduous task of breaking the wild mustangs just the previous day and now he knew he was up against the clock with over a dozen animals to tame and get green broke for an Army contract.

After a moment, the tall blond Slim Sherman, best friend and partner in the ranch, wandered over from where he had been chopping logs for the stove and gave his buddy a cheeky grin. “Well, you’re not going to get ‘em broke by standing staring at ‘em, pard. Or is this a new technique? You fix them with the Harper glare and terrify them into submission. “

Jess came out of his reverie. “Huh?”

“I said you need to get a wriggle on with the breaking, Jess; we do have a deadline, you know. “

“Aw, Slim, will you quit your fussin’. I’ll do it OK. Just need another coffee to get me started. Hell, it’s real early; the stage ain’t even been through yet.”

The men returned to the ranch house where Mrs. Daisy Cooper, their motherly housekeeper, was chivvying Mike Williams, the rancher’s young ward, to get his books ready for school. “Come along, dear; run along and find your spelling book. You know Mose won’t wait for you if you’re late for the stage.”

The youngster turned to do as he was bid and then saw the ranchers coming back in, in search of the coffee pot. “Jess, can’t I stay home and help you with the mustang breaking?” he pleaded.

“Hey Tiger, we went through all this last night. You need your schoolin’ if you to make anything of yourself. You don’t want to end up a dead beat old cowboy like me, do you?”

“Sure I do.” said the youngster looking up at the man he idolized.

Jess clipped him gently around the ea. “Scoot,” he said laughing. “And you make sure you get ten out of ten for your spellin’ test; then maybe you can give me a hand come Saturday.”

The youngster beamed at him. “OK,” he said happily and ran off.

“Gee, I wish you were as easy to get going in the mornings,” said Slim, chuckling and passing his pard the necessary gut rot coffee that would get him into work mode.

“Oh, ha ha…very funny,” said Jess glaring at him and sinking down at the table to enjoy his coffee in peace.

Jess spent the morning up on a big buckskin that Mike had named Thunder, and true to his name, he literally thundered around the corral, pausing occasionally to buck or rear in an attempt to throw Jess in the dirt. This he managed on several occasions, and as the morning wore on, Jess was becoming more and more annoyed, hot, tired and filthy. The fourth time it happened, he was badly winded and lay prostrated as the stallion danced around him; Slim had to dash out, waving his arms and scaring the beast off while Jess made his way to the fence where he stood swaying and cussing softly.

Slim wandered over to him. “Want to have a break, pard? The noon stage is just about due.”

“Garl darn ornery beast,” Jess muttered darkly.

“Guess it takes one to know one,” said Slim grinning over at his friend.

Jess muttered something under his breath and limped over to the pump, rubbing his painful knee and put his head beneath the water source, letting it gush down over him, cleaning off some of the dust and effectively reviving him some too.

Slim came over and looked down at his friend who was now shaking his head like a wet dog, the water droplets sparkling in  the hot noontide sun and running down his face to make dark patches on his pale blue work shirt. “You OK? Hurt your knee?”

“I’m OK; just knocked it,” Jess said, rubbing it absently before wiping his sleeve across his face to dry it off, his wet black hair sparkling in the sunlight.

Then they heard the distant sound of the stage approaching.

“Well I sure hope Mose hasn’t got any passengers on board,” said Slim, grinning once more. “State of you, you’re enough to frighten the horses, never mind the good Overland Express passengers.”

Jess just threw him a dirty look, not thinking that comment worthy of a response and merely went off to get the replacement team ready.

A few minutes later, the stage rattled into the yard and came to a standstill right beside Jess. He grinned up at old Mose the driver. “Any passengers aboard?”

The old timer looked somewhat confused. “Yeah, we’ve got some sorta person on board.”

“Person?” asked Slim, looking bewildered.

“Well, a lady or a gentleman, Mose?” Jess asked walking towards the door to help the passenger alight.

“Ain’t too sure,” said Mose, jumping down from the box to join the ranchers. “Ain’t a fellah, but sure ain’t a lady either.”

Slim and Jess exchanged a puzzled glance before Jess wrenched the door  open and came forwards offering a hand to help the passenger down, the expression on his face suddenly changing  from polite enquiry to alarm and then  dismay. “Oh no, not you,” he groaned.

The passenger took the offered hand, and then with a little squeal of delight launched herself into Jess’s unwelcoming arms. “Jesse, oh my darling! I’ve found you. How wonderful!”

Slim and Mose stood back enjoying the show, and after a moment. Slim came to Jess’s rescue. “So aren’t you going to introduce us to your…er, friend then, Jess? “

Jess just shook his head, looking dazed.

The young lady turned stunning blue eyes on Slim and gave him a delightful smile, and he was immediately captivated.

She had a fringe and long blond hair tied back; she wore a Confederacy peaked forage cap at a jaunty angle, a Confederacy grey shirt, open at the neck and showing a soft swell of cleavage, and tight denims tucked into well-polished boots. The whole ensemble, although different, was in Slim’s view totally charming, the figure hugging clothes leaving nothing to the imagination and her large intelligent eyes twinkling with a knowing look.

She looked from Jess to Slim and back. “Oh, the poor love is just so surprised to see me,” she said with a pretty tinkling laugh. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Charity…Charity Harper. I am Jess’s wife”.

*****

Slim’s face registered extreme shock, which was mirrored by Mose as both men stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Jess.

The dark haired cowboy just stared at Charity for a full minute before finally bursting into life. “What!” he spat. “What the hell are you playin’ at Charlie?”

“Charlie?” questioned Slim and Mose as one.

Jess suddenly became aware of his audience, and roughly grabbing hold of the girl’s arm, he dragged her over towards the corral where they could talk more privately. “Well?” he spat, “I asked what in hell are you playin’ at?”

She cast him a demur look, gazing up through her fringe. “Well, ain’t you pleased to see me, Jessie?”

“No, I ain’t and it ain’t Jessie anymore, just Jess. But seein’ as how you’re my wife, I reckon you should know that,” he said bitterly.

“Oh come on,” she wheedled, “it’s just a little fib.”

“What!” he yelled. “A little fib? You’ve just told my best friend you and me are married and God knows who else along the way…and you’re sayin’ it’s a little fib?”

“Well, we sure have been close enough in the past,” she said with that tinkling little laugh again. “Just never got around to visiting the preacher man I guess.”

“Anything we ever were to each other in the past is over, and you know that, and you know why too,” he said angrily.

“Well that doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends,” she said, smiling sweetly.

“And why would I want to do a damn fool thing like bein’ your friend again?” he spat.

“Now Jessie, there is really no need to be so bitter.”

“What? No need to be bitter after the way you treated me? Hell not once, but how many times, Charlie? How many times have you ripped my heart out and stomped on it. Well, no more; just get the hell outer my life.” With that, he strode off to the barn without a backwards glance.

Sometime later, he heard the stage leaving and emerging from the barn, made for the kitchen, thinking he’d better explain things to Slim and Daisy.

He pushed the door open and then stood stock still staring at the scene that met him.

Charity was sitting center stage at the table, entertaining Daisy and Slim with a tale of her past with Jess, growing up on the Panhandle together. And he saw at once that his good friends had been sucked in by Charity’s charisma and charm, and knew he had lost the battle of convincing them about what she was really like, before the first shot had even been fired.

“What is she still doing here?” Jess said as he stormed in.

Slim’s head shot up and he looked annoyed. “Hey, Jess, is that any way to treat an old friend?”

“Friend. Is that what she’s told you? Oh no, let’s get this right. I ain’t a friend, am I, honey? I’m your husband.”

Charity blushed and looked down. “Well, maybe that was a bit of an exaggeration, but I just needed a reason to stay here, Jessie, just for a little while, and I thought your friends here might have been a mite more accommodating if they thought we were wed.”

Jess just shook his head in despair. “And why should I want you to stay here?” he asked.

Slim stood up quickly. “Jess, will you just simmer down? Charity here has explained everything to us. She’s fallen on bad times recently, had a robbery and lost everything and now she’s working her way west and thought you might help her out some.”

Jess sank down at the table and just stared stonily at Charity. “So what do you want from me this time, Charlie?” he asked her in a resigned dead pan voice.

“Nothing. Honey, really nothing much; just a roof over my head and maybe some work. Slim said as how you’d a deadline for some mustang breaking. Well, you know that’s meat an’ drink to me, my love. I can help you out with that real well. You know I can, Jessie,” she said, casting him a pleading look from her beautiful soulful eyes.

Jess looked down, struggling with his emotions. As much as he resented her — hell, hated her — he still couldn’t see her in trouble. And knowing Charlie, she was probably up to her eyes in trouble, only it was more likely she had been doing the robbing, rather than the other way around. He gave a deep sigh and then said, “Suppose we can do with the help; it’s down to Slim. He keeps the books; he can say if we can afford you for a while,” he said gruffly.

“Sure we can,” said Slim, beaming at Charity, then turning a more business like face to Jess. “That’s if she’s up to it. Mustang breaking is pretty hard for a woman.”

“Oh she’s up to it alright,” said Jess grudgingly. “Have no fear on that account.”

*****

Early the following morning, Charity was able to prove her worth almost at once.

As soon as Jess came to the breakfast table limping badly, it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to sit a mustang, that day at least. Daisy fussed around him and put a cold compress on the badly strained knee joint, and after a while, he was able to hobble out to the corral and inspect the newest member of staff at work.

Slim turned and grinned at him from where he was sitting on the corral fence watching Charity work a particularly skittish little palomino. “You were right, pard; she sure knows what she’s doing. Sticks to those doggone mustangs like she was glued there.”

“Oh, sure she knows the horses, OK,” said Jess laconically. “Should do; was ridin’ practically afore she could walk.”

Slim gave a little whistle. “You two go way back then.”

Jess just nodded as he watched Charity ducking and diving on the strong horse.

“So what’s your problem with her then? Why are you so dang mad at her?”

Jess turned his concerned blue eyes on his pard. “Because she’s trouble with a capital T.”

“Well she doesn’t look much like trouble to me, Jess.” Then letting his face relax into a soppy grin, Slim said, “In fact, she looks pretty darn good to me.”

Jess’s shot his friend a furious look, shaking his head. “Oh no… Oh no, Slim, don’t you even think of goin’ there. She ain’t no good, I’m telling you.”

Slim gave him a bewildered look. “Hey, simmer down, pard. I wasn’t thinking of muscling in on your girl.”

Jess got really angry at this. “How many times do I have to tell you? She ain’t my girl, Slim; she ain’t nuthin’ to me.”

Slim looked from his partner to Charity and back again. Well, I guess that isn’t what she thinks, pard,” he said softly.

*****

Charity worked hard all the day, and by late afternoon, Slim insisted she took a break.

“Aw, she’s OK,” said Jess. “Used to workin hard, and anyway we’ve gotta get the job done, Slim. Deadline, remember?”

Slim threw him an irritated look. “Way she’s going the only thing that’s going to be dead around here is her.” He marched over to where she was just saddling up another tough looking horse.

“That’s enough for today Charity,” said Slim firmly. “Guess you’ve proved your point; you can hold your own amongst the best of them. Now go take a shower. Supper will be ready in an hour or so.”

She didn’t argue and took herself off to wash; an hour later, she presented herself at the dinner table as soon as Mike called her. He had been dispatched over to the bunkhouse where she had insisted on staying, saying that after all she was only the ‘hired help’, her bitter irony falling on deaf ears as far as Jess was concerned.

When Mike came back in from his task, he left the door open for her and running up to the table. “Gee, Slim, Jess, she’s changed into a lady — a real pretty lady too,” he said, beaming as the two cowboys raised their heads to look at the vision of loveliness which had just entered the room.

Charity had piled her white blond glossy hair up on top of her head and she was dressed in a low cut tightly-fitting deep blue dress that brought out the color of her eyes, which were now dancing with merriment at the obvious stir she had caused within the male fraternity of the Sherman household.

Slim couldn’t take his eyes off her and she seemed to be equally relishing his attention, but Jess remained taciturn throughout the meal. He quickly made his excuses and left shortly afterwards to finish off some chores outside.

Slim spent the evening pleasantly flirting with Charity and getting to know her a little better and was sorry when she pleaded fatigue and went off for an early night.

She made for the bunkhouse, but then seeing a light on in the barn, made her way there. Pausing for a moment just inside the door, she was able to see Jess leaning over his horse, illuminated by the dim light of a lantern suspended above the stall.

She wandered over and leaning on the stall said softly, “You were very quiet at supper, Jessie.”

He spun round and glared at her. “It ain’t gonna work this time, Charlie.”

She tutted. “Will you stop calling me by that name? I’m all grown up now.”

“Well, start acting that way then,” he spat angrily.

“I really don’t know what you mean,” she said, her chin jutting up and a challenging look in her blue eyes.

“Sure you do, flirting for all your worth with old Slim there, trying to make me jealous. Well, it won’t work. Like I told you, we’re through. I ain’t got anything left to give you, so forget it. And leave Slim alone too. He ain’t as worldly as we are and I don’t wanna see him hurt with your foolin’ about, you understand?”

She ignored his outburst, and opening the stall door, came and stood in front of him, so close that he could feel her sweet breath on his cheek. Her eyes looked huge in the dim light as she gently put a hand up and stroked a finger down his cheek. No need to take on so, honey,” she said softly.

He stared at her and then his eyes travelled south almost of their own volition to her deep curve of cleavage, before he dragged them back up to her lips and then up into those oh so familiar blue eyes and he took a shuddering  breath.

She moved her finger from his cheek to his lips and gently caressed them with a light fingertip, before giving him a mocking little smile. “Goodnight, Jess,” she whispered, before turning on heel and leaving the barn.

He stood watching the closed door for several minutes, a tremor running through his body, before he cussed softly and returned to the task of grooming his mount.

*****

Jess slept badly and awoke with a headache and in no mood for any of Charity’s shenanigans.

He was up and ready to work early, and the two took turns in working the horses, with Jess pushing her harder and harder.

After a while Slim came to intervene. “Just because you want to work yourself into the ground, Jess, it doesn’t mean you have to take Charity with you.”

“She’s fine.”

“She isn’t; she’s getting tired, pard, and pretty tired of you yellin’ at her all day too.”

Jess hung his head, aware that his friend was right; he had tried to submerge the awakening of his feelings for Charity the night before by being particularly harsh and acting as a real taskmaster. “Jobs gotta, be done,” he muttered. “Just tryin’ to keep her on task.”

“Seems to me like you’re trying to punish her for something, Jess, something I can’t see that she’s done.”

Then Jess looked furious and turned on his pard. “No, you can’t see it, because you don’t know what a devious conniving little bitch she is.” With that, he marched off.

Slim stared after his pard, and then his head swung back towards the corral where he saw Charity riding away from the fence, where she had heard the whole diatribe.

Jess marched off to the barn and emerged a few minutes later saying, “Goin’ to check fences for a while; you look after her if you think she’s so great.” With that, he left the yard at a fast trot.

When he returned at supper time and they all sat down, it was obvious that Charity was not going to join them.

“So where is she? Sulking I suppose?” said Jess.

“No, actually she rode out a couple of hours ago, saying she needed to do something in town.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Oh no… What was she wearin’?”

“I don’t know, riding gear I guess. She was up on the buckskin, Chief; I think she had the stuff on she arrived in — the Reb cap and shirt, I believe.”

Jess put his head in his hands. Oh no… Was she packing an iron, Slim?”

“Huh?”

“Was she wearing a gun? You know — six shooter, colt.45, piece of ol’ metal as goes in a holster?”

“Yeah, yeah, OK I know what a gun is. But I didn’t even know Charity owned one. Why? Is there a problem?”

Jess looked down. “If she’s gone on a bender like I guess she has, then yes Slim…one hell of a problem.”

“What sort of problem?”

“Don’t ask, pard, just don’t ask.”

But Slim didn’t have long to wait for an answer.

Later that evening, as the two men were sitting enjoying a coffee on the porch, Mort Corey, the Sheriff of Laramie and their good friend rode in, and after hitching his mount, he accepted a chair and coffee on the porch with his friends.

“So what brings you out here at this time, Mort,” asked Slim, smiling at his old friend.

Jess looked down from where he was leaning on the hitching rail, having given Mort his seat, and said quietly, “Don’t tell me. It’s Charity, ain’t it? What’s she done, Mort? Shot up the town?”

Mort looked from Jess to Slim and back and shaking his head said quietly, “That’s some woman you’ve got there, Jess.”

“Hey, don’t blame me for any of this; I ain’t responsible for her.”

“Not the way she tells it. Said you’d be over to bail her out come tomorrow.”

Jess just shook his head in acceptance. “So what’s she done this time then?” he asked flatly.

“Well pretty much like you said. She went in the saloon, drinking most of the early evening, and then a couple of guys hit on her, wanted to take her dancin’ or something. Anyway, she took offence and started yelling; then old Tom, the barkeep, asked her to leave…and well I guess that’ s when the shootin’ started. She smashed a couple of lights in the saloon and then burst out of there like a wild cat and was takin’ on all comers. That’s when I arrested her. She was on the wrong side of nearly a bottle of Red Eye, Tom said. Nothing for it but to jail her for the night to sober up.”

“Sure,” said Jess, “and I’m real sorry for your trouble, Mort. I’ll be in first thing to bail her out.”

The men chatted on about this and that and finally Mort left and they retired for the night.

“I figure there is more to our Miss Charity than I first thought,” said Slim dryly.

“Yeah, you sure got that right,” said Jess sighing. “And you don’t know the half of it.”

The two men had turned in and Jess was lying on his bed staring up at the ceiling with Slim still sitting on the edge of his own bed, looking over. “You want to tell me some of it then?” he asked.

Jess just shrugged. “What is there to tell? We’ve been friends — no, she was right — we’ve been lovers for longer than I can remember. But she’s a real hard woman, Slim; real hard to please. And I reckon she’s always wanted things from me that I wasn’t prepared to give.”

“Like commitment…marriage?”

“Yeah, I guess, but it’s more than that. She plays these games — likes to get you right there in the palm of her hand and then she throws you back for someone else. I can’t tell you the number of times she’s near broke my heart that way, Slim. Like she enjoys seein’ me in pain. Anyway, the last time she threw me over, I said that was it; no more and I meant it, but…”

“But what, pard?”

“But she still always has this last ace to play.”

“Huh?”

“The guilt card — the thing she always has over me, Slim; the reason I’m goin’ to bail her out tomorrow.”

“Oh, and so what’s that, pard?”

“Her brother Adam, he was in the war with me — a real nice guy, good friend.”

“And?”

“And he took a bullet for me. There was a Yankee sniper; we saw him and then suddenly Adam dived in front of me, saved my life. Lost his. The other men saw it too. It got back to Charity. Well, he was her big brother and she was so upset. And I felt so goddamn bad about it, Slim. Figure I’ve tried to make up to her for all these years, helped her out when she needed it, way Adam would have done.”

“I see.”

“That’s what the Confederacy stuff she wears is all about. It’s to remind me, see. Remind me about what I owe her.”

Then Jess looked angry again. “But that don’t make it right what she’s done to me all these years, Slim — the way she’s messed with me. Maybe it’s some sort of revenge — I dunno — but I do know we’re no good together, no matter how much she wants it,” he finished.

“Well maybe she’d changed; maybe it will work out between you this time?”

Jess just shook his head, “No Slim, I just can’t trust her; she’s a crazy woman.” He signed deeply. “Years back, when I was on the drift, we hooked up again. Well, she really had me, Slim. I sure was in deep. Hell, I was just a kid back then really, still wet behind the ears. Anyway, she wanted to get wed, and I wanted her, so… well, I agreed to it.” His eyes turned misty as he stared up at the ceiling, remembering how it was.

“Go on.”

Jess sighed again and rolled his head on the pillow to look at his pard. “Night before the wedding I caught her in bed with my best friend.”

Slim let out a low whistle. “I’m beginning to see why you’re the way you are with her,” he said softly. “So what did you do?”

“Well, I learnt a lesson. One, my best friend wasn’t really my best friend, and two, I couldn’t trust Charlie as far as I could throw her. She said she just wanted to have one last day of freedom, said it was better than fooling around after we were married, but, well, I didn’t see it that way.” Jess gave Slim an ironic smile. “Didn’t stop me forgiving her when we ran into each other a couple of years later, though.”

Jess sat up then, leaning back on the pillows, and said, “Well, you know I’m not really the forgiving sort, Slim. Someone crosses me, well, I find it hard — real hard — to forgive them. But Charlie there…”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I’ve forgiven her so many goddamn times, Slim. Sacramento, she ran off with a travelling circus the day after she’d pledge to love me to the end of the world.” Jess laughed bitterly. “She’s a great one for her grand gestures, is our Charlie.”

“Then we met down in Abilene, worked together in a bar. It was all perfect until she got the hots for the bar owner; he had more prospects that a lowly cow puncher.” Jess smiled bitterly to himself. “And then she really out did herself. We were back together and I was skirting the wrong side of the law some, had some real devious friends — I knew Jake Ryan.”

“What? Of the Ryan gang?” asked Slim in awe at the mention of one of the most notorious gangs in Texas.

“Yeah, well, she blew me out again; hooked up with Jake Ryan and ran with the gang for… two, maybe three years — robbing, killin’, every damn thing you like as long as it was illegal. She got into some real bad ways. That’s when she started the heavy drinkin’. Stayed with them until Ryan and the rest were caught — killed mostly. That’s when she came lookin’ for me again.”

Jess looked reflective. “She promised me that was all behind her — the drinkin’ an’ all. Seems like she’s lied about that, too. Hell, Slim the only reason she’s shown up here now is because she’s on the run. Stole a horse in Denver; dang thing upped and died on her, and that’s when she caught the stage at Cheyenne for Laramie because she remembered that was where I lived. She’s just usin’ me like always.”

Slim looked over at the worry etched on his friends face. “I’m real sorry, Jess; I figure I’ve misjudged you over all this business. Do you want me to let her go? Reckon we can manage with the breaking now.”

Jess turned sad eyes on his pard. “No, we promised her the job; she needs the money to go West. And who knows? Maybe she’s being straight this time.” With that, he lay down and settled to sleep.

But Slim lay awake for a long time, amazed again at the resilience of his partner and his colorful past. He just hoped that Charity wouldn’t do anything to hurt his friend this time, although with her track record, he didn’t hold out too much hope.

*****

Jess set off early the next morning and walked into Mort’s office just as the good Sheriff was draining his first coffee of the day.

Mort gestured to the pot, and Jess poured himself a cup of the strong bitter brew that passed for coffee in the Sheriff’s office. Jess sank down in the chair opposite the desk sipped in with relish, before turning resigned eyes on his friend. “So what’s the damage then, Mort? “

The wiry, graying middle-aged man turned amused eyes on his buddy. “Well, seeing as it’s a first offence, I figure I can let her off with a warning, if you’ll vouch for her future behavior,” he said, giving Jess a penetrating look.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess so, as much as anyone can vouch for her. But let’s put it this way, anymore of this crazy actin’ up and she’ll be goin’ over my knee, and that’s a promise, Mort. “

“Sounds good to me. Just need to settle up for the damage to the saloon. I’ve paid old Tom for you.” Mort passed a scrap of paper over the desk, an invoice for four new lamps and two chairs.

Jess shook his head; reaching in his pocket found the right money, he threw it on the desk for the Sheriff. “Thanks, Mort, I appreciate it. So how is the prisoner?”

The older man grinned broadly. “Not too well, I reckon, judging by the cussing that was coming from her cell. Gee, Jess, she knows words that even shock me.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Charlie,” Jess said with a grim smile.

Mort went to fetch her and returned with a pale shaking, very sheepish looking Charity.

She sidled over to Jess, and taking his arm, peered up at him from beneath her thick blond fringe. “Gee, I sure am sorry, honey. Don’t know what came over me.”

Jess wrenched his arm away from her. “Sure you don’t; never do, do you, Charlie?” He turned to the sheriff. “That all, Mort?”

“Yeah, I reckon. Me and Charity had our little talk first thing. I think she’s seen the error of her ways.”

“Well, that’ll be a first,” Jess muttered under his breath, but he merely nodded to his friend. “Thanks,” Taking Charity none too gently by the arm, he marched her to the door.

As soon as they were outside, he spun around, his eyes dark with anger. “You ever show me up like that again,” he spat, “and so help me I won’t be responsible. Do you understand?”

She just nodded, looking down. “I’m real sorry, honey.”

He shook his head and turned away. “Get on your horse; we’ve got work to do at home.” With that, he hopped up on Traveler and kicked him off to a brisk trot without a backwards glance.

When they arrived back, the couple started work without a further word, and when Slim came out to see how they were getting on  he felt shocked at the way Charity was looking — pale and sick, but with a determined glint in her eye.

She was up on a tough-looking grey and was being thrown about like a paper doll, but Jess just watched dispassionately, ready to run out and help her if she fell, but that was all.

Slim came and stood by his pard. “Hell, Jess, she really doesn’t look up to it today. Cut her some slack, huh?”

Jess merely looked down and shook his head. “Gotta get the job done, Slim. She’s up for it; said she wanted to work.”

Whether Charity was genuinely trying to make up for the error of her ways or if she was just trying to prove the point that she had just as much endurance as Jess had when it came to bronc bustin’, nobody knew, but the fact was that she was working herself into the ground.

By the end of the second day, even Jess was worried about her and told her to finish early.

Slim had taken Daisy and Mike to town and they were due back before supper time, so Jess decided that he would go and make a start on the meal for Daisy.

He went into the barn to tell Charity, and was just in time to see her about to saddle up another horse, even though she was pale and shaking with fatigue.

Jess felt a surge of irritation. “I told you enough was enough; you’re to do no more today. What are you trying to prove anyway? What a bastard I am working you to a standstill?”

Her head shot up at this, her cheeks suddenly flushed and her eyes were flashing with anger. “I’ll do what I damn well like, Jess Harper. You don’t own me. You had the chance to have me as your own and you blew it, wouldn’t commit to me. Well, I don’t have to answer to you anymore.”

“Sure, you do,” he said, anger coursing through him now. “I pay your wages, so you damn well do as I say. And as to commitment, if I remember rightly, it was you who was always high-tailin’ it off, not me!”

She turned her back on him and bent to tighten the chinch, and he suddenly lost his temper completely. He was hot and tired after a long day, and the last thing he wanted was for Charity to fall and hurt herself, which he knew she would, seeing how exhausted she obviously was. “Hell, will you do as you’re told for once?” he said, dragging her around by her shoulders and shaking her roughly.

She wrenched herself free and slapped him hard across the cheek, making him draw back, his eyes black with fury.

He stood there, swaying a little from the totally unexpected attack, staring at her, one hand to his face.

Her long blond hair was tousled and framing her face prettily, her cheeks on fire and her blue eyes flashing dangerously. She stood arms akimbo, her chest stuck out in a provocative way, the buttons of her shirt straining against her shapely figure.

She threw her head back, her chin up at a challenging angle, her eyes boldly locking with his, and then…

He leaned forwards and gripped her shoulders again, but this time he pulled her towards him, his mouth finding hers. He kissed her hard, pulling her closer, one hand tangling in her hair as she responded kissing him back ardently.

Suddenly all the passion he had been holding back was released and he was kissing her face her hair.

She arched her back, and he kissed her neck and suddenly their knees buckled and they were lying in the straw, rolling over. Then Jess was lying on top of her groaning with desire, one hand unbuttoning her blouse, feeling her soft body yielding beneath him, her kisses growing hotter and hotter as she ran a hand through his black hair, the other caressing his back where she had pulled his shirt free.

Then Jess suddenly froze, the hand on her blouse stilled, as he heard it — the distinct sound of the buckboard entering the yard.

He dragged himself up, shaking, his breathing harsh, and his eyes dazed. He looked down at her, his eyes still misty with desire. “Get dressed,” he whispered. “I’ll go head ‘em off.”

He tucked his shirt in and dusted off the straw before marching out of the barn just as Mike ran full tilt into him.

“Hey Tiger, where are you off to in such a hurry?” Jess said, grabbing the boy around the waist and hauling him up in the air, impeding his progress towards the barn.

 Mike laughed as he was spun around and then placed back on the ground. “Wanna see Miss Charity, show her my new penknife,” he said eagerly.

“Well, she’s in the outhouse right now, Mike, so figure it’ll have to wait. Come on, let’s help ol’ Slim unload the buckboard.” The two went off about their task.

Slim was just unloading a sack of supplies when  he saw Charity making her way out of the barn, looking  flushed and more than a little disheveled, and he smiled to himself.” Jess, you old dog,” he muttered, and hauling the sack onto his shoulder, marched back into the house, preserving Charity’s dignity by pretending not to see her.

During supper, Jess and Charity were very quiet, unable to meet each other’s eyes, and Slim, furnished with certain facts, could feel the sexual tension in the air. However, Daisy, who hadn’t been privy to seeing Charity emerge from the barn, was completely unaware of the present undercurrents and chatted on about this and that keeping the conversation going.

However, Daisy being Daisy, knew something was not quite right, and when Slim joined her in the kitchen later to dry the dishes, she whispered, “Are Jess and Charity alright? They don’t seem to be speaking again.”

Slim hid a smile, but knowing what a private person his best friend was, he decided not to say anything and merely made the comment that that was hardly anything new.

Meanwhile, in the main room, Mike was at the table doing his homework while Jess and Charity sat by the fire together. After a while, she stood up, and stretching affectedly, said, “Well, I’m for an early night.” Then she cast Jess a questioning look. “Er, Jess, would you mind just checking the bunkhouse door? It keeps sticking.”

“Huh?”

“The door, Jess. Could you just come and check it for me?”

“Oh, yeah… right,” he said, and getting up, followed her from the room.

Mike got up to follow just as Slim emerged from the kitchen. “And where do you think you’re going, young man?”

“To help Jess with the door. He says I’m his right hand man when it comes to jobs like that.”

Slim smiled inwardly. “Well, I reckon that is one job he can manage without you, Tiger, and you’re going nowhere until this Math is finished, OK.”

The youngster hung his head and trudged back to his chair. “OK, Slim.”

Meanwhile, once in the bunkhouse, Jess turned and locked the door before turning back to face her, his expression unfathomable.

She held her hands out and he walked across and took them. “Jess?”

He shook his head. “No,” he whispered, “I can’t…”

“What is it?”

“You know what it is. I won’t put myself through it all again, Charity; can’t have you messin’ with my heart no more.”

“Jess, it’s different this time, I promise you. Please…” She licked her lips and looked up into his deep blue, tormented, eyes and then down at his lips. Moving forward, she kissed him, at first tenderly and then more passionately, and he responded to her, again lost under her spell.

Then Jess suddenly stopped and pulled back, looking her in the eyes again, his expression one of profound sadness. “I’m sorry,” he said, and releasing his hold on her, he turned. Unlocking the door, he strode back across the yard and disappeared inside the house, leaving her watching him something akin to astonishment on her pretty face. Never had he walked out on her before, and it had a profound effect on her as she turned and threw herself on the bunk. What now? she thought.

When Jess marched back into the ranch house, Slim raised an eyebrow, but said nothing, noting his pard’s agitated state.

Jess flung himself down in his rocker, looking moodily into the fire, and Daisy, who had just entered the room, exchanged a glance with Slim, before turning to Mike. “All done, young man?”

“I guess, but the math is kinda hard. Will you check it for me, please, Aunt Daisy?”

“Of course. You go get ready for bed and I’ll look at this, and then bring you some milk and cookies.”

Mike knew it was kind of early to turn in, but sensing an atmosphere, he decided to play along, and after, all milk and cookies was a fair enough trade off.

Once Mike had gone to bed and Daisy was in settling him down, Slim turned to his friend, who was still staring morosely into the dying embers of the fire. “You OK?”

Jess said nothing for a while, then, “I just don’t get her, you know. Slim. She can he so dang special, so, so Goddamn perfect…and then she just seems to lose it all. Not care — just goes off and leaves me, leaves everything we’ve had together. How can she do that, Slim? How can she be that way?”

Slim shook his head. “Beats me. Sounds like she’s looking for something — the perfect partner, perfect life…something that really doesn’t exist.”

“Um…maybe you’re right. Whatever it is, I don’t want no part of it anymore, Slim. If I did, I figure she’d drive me plumb loco.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have to. The job will be finished by the end of the week, and we can send her on her way. We’ll be off to the army camp at Cheyenne with the mustangs.” Then Slim’s face clouded. “We really need this money, you know, pard, to see us through the lean period of winter. Next year, maybe the weather will be kinder to us and we won’t lose as much stock in the floods.”

Jess nodded, and then Daisy returned and the conversation returned to light banter before they finally turned in.

*****

It was on the Friday that Slim returned from town with some difficult news.

Daisy, Jess and Charity were sitting around the table having a morning break when Slim strode in looking worried.

Daisy made with the coffee pot, and he collapsed into a chair, raking a hand through his blond locks before taking a sip.

“Hey, what’s up, Hardrock?” asked Jess his eyes twinkling. “Don’t tell me Lily from the saloon turned down your date?”

Slim stared at his partner with unseeing eyes for a moment and then brushed the frivolous comment to one side. “No, it’s the stage company. The inspector wants to pay a visit in the next couple of days. It’s real important I talk to them, Jess, about the contract for next year.”

“But we’re due to take the mustangs tomorrow, and it’s way too late to get any help. Hell, I’m good Slim, but even I can’t manage twelve mustangs single-handed, even if they are green broke.”

The two men stared at each other in consternation, and then a little voice piped up. “I’ll go with you, Jess.”

Both men turned to stare at Charity, and Jess’s heart sank. The last thing he wanted was to be out on the trail alone with her. But what was the alternative? Lose the army contract, after all their hard work?

Jess looked over at Slim and knew what he had to say. “Er, OK, thanks, Charity; that would be great.”

*****

They set out at first light on the Saturday, Jess hoping to deliver the mustangs to the commander of Fort D A Russell to the west of Cheyenne in plenty of time for them to make it into town and secure hotel rooms for the night, rather than spend the night together out in the Big Open, where he thought the romantic ambience might get the better of them. He was resolved not to weaken, and just wanted the job to be over and Charity on her way West with her stake for a wagon train place.

Jess had business in town with the stage company, delivering some reports to the Overland Office for Slim, before parting company with Charity as she made her way west and he returned home. At least, that was the theory.

They made good time and delivered the mustangs by mid-afternoon to a very appreciative commanding officer.

“Well, Harper, you’ve done us proud again. Top notch beasts, and if you’ve been instrumental in the breaking of them, I’m sure we’ll have good reliable animals to work with once we’ve brought them on some.” Then the officer turned to include Charity in his appreciative grin. “See you’ve brought the little lady along with you, Harper. Here for the ride, are you, my dear?”

Jess saw Charity bristle at this and prayed she wouldn’t go off on one of her rants, never one to keep her feelings on equality of the sexes to herself.

However, for once, he saw that she was keeping a lid on it, and after a little more banter, the CO handed over a substantial cash sum for the prime animals. Jess put the envelope containing the wad of notes safely down the side of his boot.

“And can I rely on a similar deal in late spring?” asked the officer giving Jess a shrewd look.

“Certainly sir,” replied Jess with a measured look, “so long as the price is right.”

The older man grinned, liking this tough young cowboy’s style. “Oh yes. You bring me beasts of this caliber well broken, and I can assure you of that.” With this good piece of news, the men shook hands and Jess and Charity made to leave.

“Pompous ass,” whispered Charity as they rode out. Brought the little lady along for the ride,” she mimicked. “Hell, I sweated blood helping you bustin’ those damn critters.”

“Yeah, I know, honey, but no point in rockin’ the boat. He’s got prime animals well broke and we’ve got the money. Deal done, and I ain’t got time to spend singin’ your virtues and tryin’ to convince the guy you’re a fantastic horse breaker…even if you are,” Jess said, winking at her.

“Um,” she said, “well, let’s just get to town before dark. Reckon there’s a hot tub there with my name on it.”

When they arrived, it was late afternoon, and Jess had to hurry to catch the Overland Office before it closed for the weekend. He left Charity to book the hotel rooms and have her soak in the tub.

When he arrived about an hour later, he marched up to the desk and said to the young clerk, “Harper. I believe you’ve got a room for me?”

The young man studied the register and said, “Oh Jess — Mr. Harper — room number 7, second floor rear. You’re lucky to get it. Last room in the house with this big wedding we’ve had in town today.”

“Thanks,” said Jess, looking to take the key.

“You’re welcome, sir. Your wife is already up there; she took the key.”

“Huh?”

“Mrs. Harper has the key to the room, sir.”

Jess looked dazed for a moment and then said, “Oh yeah, right. Last room in the house, you say?”

“Last room in town, I should think,” the young man said grinning. “Sure is a real swell wedding.”

“Um”, said Jess, pensively before turning on heel and running lightly up the stairs.

He tapped on the door.

“Come in, honey; its open.”

Jess opened the door and stood on the threshold, taking in the vision before him. A recently bathed Charity stood in the center of the room, a towel swathed around her hair and another tied loosely around her curvaceous young body.

“Well come on in, Jess; don’t be shy. You’re just in time to dry my hair,” she said with a wicked gleam in her eyes.

“What in hell are you playin’ at now, Charlie?” he said in a long-suffering tone.

“Well, happy families, I guess,” she said with her tinkling laugh. “See, there was just this one room, so I figured for proprieties sake we should be married, my love.”

He just shook his head. “You really do beat all, don’t you?”

The towel had begun to slip as she moved towards him, but Jess wasn’t having any of it.

“For goodness sake, get yourself dressed,” he spat. “I’ll see you in the dining room for supper in ten minutes.” With that, he turned on heel and left her, his heart pounding, all his senses on alert.

Jess knew he had been unnecessarily harsh with her as he tried to control his escalating feelings, and part of him hated himself when he saw the hurt look in her eyes, but heck he had to preserve his sanity.

“Don’t do it, Harper,” he whispered to himself. “Don’t go there, or God knows you’ll live to regret it — again.”

*****

She came down half an hour later and stood posing demurely at the bottom of the stairs, looking over into the lounge where Jess was standing at the bar with a whiskey. Then he looked up and saw her reflection in the mirror above the bar and stared at it for a full minute before slowly turning to look at her properly, as every other red-blooded male in the bar had done.

She really had pulled out all the stops, he thought as his eyes roamed over the curvy figure wearing the low cut, strappy silver dress, slit along one side and showing an elegant shapely leg. Her white blond hair was up in a casual style, little tendrils framing her beautiful face, her huge eyes smiling over at him from beneath her full fringe.

Jess’s heart melted as she glided towards him, and not for the first time, he was amazed at how easily she seemed to be able to slip from happy-go-lucky tomboy to this stunning seductress.

Envious eyes watched as Jess took her arm and guided her to a table and furnished her with a drink. Then he looked down at his dusty, travel-worn appearance and gave her a sheepish grin. “If I’m goin’ to be keepin’ company with the most beautiful woman in town, I guess I’d better go and wash up some too.”

She nodded smiling. “I’ll be here. Don’t be long, cowboy; I’m starving.”

He grinned at the momentary return to the Charlie he knew and loved, and with a promise to return shortly, he left her in the safe environment of the smart hotel lounge.

When he returned a short time later, the first thing he saw was Charity in deep conversation with a tall handsome middle-aged man, talking intensely, with eyes for each other only.

He stood there staring at them, his heart suddenly pounding and a wave of dizziness threatening to floor him. He took several deep breaths before walking over, and standing behind Charity, said in a frightening quiet voice, “So who’s your friend then, honey?”

She jumped and the man stood up, quickly offering a hand. “Joshua Manning at your service, sir. Just discussing some business with the little lady.”

“This is Josh,” said Charity, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I told you about him, didn’t I?”

Jess gave her a cold look and merely shook his head.

“Well, I’m sure I did. Anyway it’s Josh who has offered me a place on his wagon going west. He’s off in a few days so we were just discussing arrangements.”

“I see,” Jess said softly, wondering why he was so dadgum angry. After all, that was what she’d arranged to do. He knew that, sure he did, but just seeing them together, even if it was a purely business arrangement…

“So, you like to join us for supper?” Jess asked gruffly, desperately trying to be sensible.

“Oh, no, no thank you, Mr. Harper. Things to do, you know.” Then turning to Charity, he said, “I’ll be in touch as arranged,” and walked off without a backwards glance.

Charity turned to give Jess a small pout. “What’s up, honey? You’re not jealous, are you?”

“Nope. So are we eatin’ or what?”

“We’re eatin’.” She allowed him to take her arm and escort her to the dining room.

After a few minutes, Jess settled down and reclaimed his good humor, inwardly chastising himself for being silly. Charity was her own woman; there was no understanding between them, as she had quite rightly said. But he still had some niggling doubt about her future plans. Was the older stranger trustworthy?

They chatted away animatedly and the wine flowed, and after a while, the wedding guests started to filter in. Jess and Charity were included in the party, along with all the other hotel guests, the happy couple wanting to share their special day with one and all.

Later, doors were opened from the dining room out onto a lamp-lit terrace, and a band struck up. The party became more and more lively with dancing, laughter and flowing drink.

Jess and Charity entered into the spirit of things, enjoying the party ambiance, and by the end of the evening, they were dancing cheek to cheek as the band struck up romantic and nostalgic numbers, suiting the mood of the few remaining revelers on the dance floor.

Jess held her close as they moved slowly around the floor, his chin resting on the top of her blond head. As he inhaled her perfume and felt her lithe body mould itself to his own, he suddenly realized he was a little drunk, but really didn’t care.

After a moment, he looked down and lifted her chin with a finger so that he could gaze into her beautiful eyes. What he saw made his heart leap. She had a dreamy, romantic look about her, and after a moment, he gently bent his head and kissed her very tenderly, before sighing and pulling back, giving her a questioning look.

She seemed to understand at once. “It’s late. Shall we…”

Jess felt completely torn. He had decided to bed down at the livery, stay away from the temptation sharing a room with Charity would bring, but as the evening had progressed, he had felt his resolve weakening and knew it would take very little for him to forget his promise to himself. Just one night, a little voice whispered in his head. She’ll be gone soon — no harm done. But in his heart, he knew that if he took that irrevocable step, he would be totally in her thrall, as in the past.

Then the decision was taken from his hands as she reached up and kissed him passionately, her hands raking through his black hair and her mouth soft and sweet so that all his senses reeled. He took her by the hand and led her quickly up to their room.

Jess closed and locked the door behind him before adjusting the lamp and then she was suddenly in his arms, the restrained passion of the last few days finally unleashed as they kissed again.

Jess was shaking as he gently began to undress her and she whispered in his ear, telling him what she wanted, how she loved him, needed him, and as always, he believed her.

Then they were in the big bed, her eyes huge as he looked down at her. “Charlie,” he whispered. “I…I need to know. You mean this?”

She reached up and put a tantalizing finger to his lips. “Hush,” she whispered. “Just love me — just love me now.”

*****

Jess awoke at dawn and lay just watching her for a long time, a mixture of intense emotions coursing through him as all the old feelings for her that he had kept so well locked up finally rose to the surface again. He wondered how he would live without her when she rode out to meet the wagon train the following day.

As though she could read his mind, her eyes suddenly flickered open and she looked up at him with infinite sadness. “Jess,” she whispered,” I can’t lose you again, not after this — what we are to each other.”

He ran a loving finger down her cheek. “Well, it’s you as is hightailin’ it off as usual. I ain’t set to go anywhere”.

She reached up and kissed him lightly on the lips, their eyes locking in mutual desire, before she said very softly, “You could, though. Could hightail it off…with me?”

He looked shocked. “Huh?”

“We could go together, on the wagon train. With the mustanging money, we’d have enough to get us there and a nest egg to start up, buy some land.” She pulled herself up and grabbed the top of his arm. “Oh Jess, don’t you see it’s meant. You and me against the world, like it always was — just the two of us”, she said animatedly.

Jess looked profoundly shocked. “What…what you sayin’, Charlie? I steal the money — Slim’s money? Just take off with it and leave Slim and Mike and Daisy to get through the winter with no back-up money, no cash to buy in new stock in the spring? To bankrupt them, bring ‘em to their knees? Is that the sorta man you think I am?” he yelled, furious now.

She looked alarmed at this turn of events and tried to calm him down. “No… no, of course not. Just borrow it. Take this opportunity, and then when we’re settled, you can send it back — plus interest if you like. It’s good land out in California, Jessie; fortunes to be made. I love you and need you. Please,” she said staring to cry quietly, “please come with me.”

“I can’t,” he whispered. “Can’t do that to them. They’re my friends — hell, my family, I guess. You can’t ask me to turn my back on ‘em that way.”

She jumped out of bed and screamed, “If you loved me enough, you’d do it!”

He glared back. “And if you loved me enough, you wouldn’t ask me to!”

She turned and ran to the window, looking out at the dawn, tears streaming down her face. After a moment, he could stand it no longer, and hopping out of bed, he went and stood behind her, his arms snaking around her waist as he leaned in to kiss her neck.

She turned and looked up at him, the tears now coursing down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked you. It’s just that I can’t bear to lose you again.”

“Well don’t go then. Stay with me in Laramie. Please, honey, don’t go.”

She looked down, unable to meet his candid gaze, and then she gave a little sigh. “Guess I’ll think on it, maybe try Laramie for a little while…”

His eyes lit up and then grew misty with desire as he took her hand and led her back to the large comfy bed — where they stayed for most of the day.

They rose at supper time and had another meal in the dining room, but this time, they only had eyes for each other, holding hands across the table and neither of them very hungry.

After the meal was finished, they saw Joshua Manning enter the bar. He nodded over to them and then turned and ordered a drink.

“I’d better go and talk to him, let him down lightly,” said Charity. “I guess he’ll still have time to find a replacement before the train sets off.”

Jess rose to accompany her, but she put out a restraining hand to his chest, “No,” she said firmly, “let me deal with it, Jess.”

Jess glanced across at where Manning was enjoying his drink and some banter with the barkeep and back to Charity. “You sure?”

“I said so, didn’t I? Some on, Jess. When was I the little woman that needed protecting? This is my business and it’s down to me to sort it out.”

He grinned at her. “Well, you sure ain’t a helpless female; I know that.”

“Right, you go on up, and I’ll bring you a surprise up. Be with you in ten minutes, OK?”

“I guess,” he said reluctantly and after casting the odd backward glance, he finally went off upstairs.

True to her word, she was back up in their room in the allotted time and had a bottle in her hand. “Night cap,” she said triumphantly.

He grinned over at her from where he was sitting on the couch in front of a cheerful fire. “Well, bring it on, woman,” he laughed.

In the other hand, she held two shot glasses, provided by the resourceful bar man who liked to keep the hotel guests happy and  line his own pocket at the same time. Charity poured out two good measures and passed Jess’s over, watching his face all the time.

He thanked her and then knocked it back in one, as she knew he would do.

Then his face was a picture of shock as it turned red, and he coughed, grabbing his chest as the fiery liquid made its way down. “Goddamn it! What the hell is that?” he spluttered.

She laughed with delight. “Tequila,” she said proudly. “Barkeep got it from under the counter. Bootleg straight from Mexico.”

“Gee, it’s been a long time since I’ve had this. Sure tastes strange, though,” he said licking his lips thoughtfully.

“Well, have another,” she said pouring another hearty measure out. “It’ll improve with practice.”

He downed it, but refused a third, surprised at how quickly the drink had gone to his head.

Then glancing across at where she was standing in front of the fire, he said, “Hey, you’ve not touched yours. Bit late in the day for you to sign the pledge, ain’t it!”

She made a gentle swipe to cuff his head which he dodged.

“Cheeky,” she laughed. “Anyway, I want a clear head to deal with you mister!”

He laughed up at her, his eyes dancing. Then she leaned down and hauled him up. “Come on, let’s get you to bed,” she laughed “You’re lookin a mite worse for wear, Mr. Harper”.

Jess staggered and shook his head. “Yeah, I’d forgotten what a punch that stuff packed,” he said, shaking his head to clear it and letting her support him over to the bed.

He sat down on the edge of the bed; she pulled off his boots and went to put them over by the door.

“Hey, leave ‘em here,” he said. “Money’s still in ‘em.”

She laughed. “So what’s wrong with your wallet like everyone else?”

“Well I figure if I’m walkin’ on the cash, nobody’s gonna get it,” he said, grinning at her.

She just shook her head and went about helping him undress and get into the bed, but by the time she was in beside him, he was snoring gently.

She lay beside Jess, and leaning up resting her head on her hand, she gazed sadly down at him before running a gentle finger down his cheek. “’m sorry, my love,” she whispered, before lying down and turning from him. But sleep evaded her, and she lay staring into the darkness, her mind in turmoil, until there was a light knock at the door and she went to answer it.

*****

When he awoke, the light filtering through the window made him think it was late, maybe afternoon; he was alone and he felt like death.

 He felt completely out of it, his head pounding, and he couldn’t even lift it from the pillow. He felt sick to his stomach, and then the belly ache started and he bent double, lying on his side, his knees up, as he groaned in agony. Hell, this was no hang over; he’d been poisoned, he just knew it, and then he passed out.

When he came to again, it was getting dark and the pain was worse. He was sweating and finding it hard to breath and he felt confused. Where was he? Then he remembered and where the hell was Charity? He called out weakly, but nobody came.

It was the following morning before anyone came to check on him.

The young clerk who had signed them in knocked tentatively on the door. “Mr. Harper, is everything alright?” he called.

Jess groaned and eventually the man opened the door and stepped inside.

“Mr. Harper, I’m sorry to disturb you, but you’re wife has checked out and said you would be settling up and leaving today…” Then he stopped in his tracks as he saw the pale shaking man in the bed.

Jess looked up at the clerk, his eyes full of pain, and then it happened again. He had a tremendous feeling of foreboding, and then numbness in his arms and legs and then felt he was falling, falling, and then nothing. The young clerk looked on in horror as the cowboy started to violently convulse.

The clerk saw Jess’ body jerking and his eyes go back in his head as he lost consciousness and then the young man  ran from the room yelling, ”Someone fetch the doc quickly. Fetch Doc Lloyd.”

*****

When Jess awoke, there was a bright lamp above him and it hurt to open his eyes, but someone kept saying, “Come on, Jess; open your eyes, boy. Talk to me, Jess.”

He just wanted the irritation to go away; he wanted to sleep — no, correction; he wanted to die, he felt so Goddamn bad. Where was he? What was wrong? His head rolled on the pillow and he groaned.

“That’s the boy. Come on, son; open up your eyes now. Time to wake up.”

Jess sighed deeply and then finally did as he was bid; he peered up into the kindly eyes of the Cheyenne doctor, Doc Tom Lloyd.

Jess squinted up at the doc, who he knew quite, well having been patched up by him a time or two, and whispered, “What’s your problem, doc? Can’t a man get some sleep around here?”

The older man grinned down at his patient. “Well, I reckon there is sleep and sleep, but you’ve been out of it for nigh on two days. That was one heck of a Mickey Finn someone slipped in your drink, boy. Nearly did you in.”

“Huh?”

“I guess it was mixed with some real strong drink, like Tequila?”

“Tequila?”

 Jess put his hand up to his aching head, trying to remember, and then he had a vision of Charity entering the room the bottle held triumphantly aloft, his surprise…

Then how it tasted funny, kinda bitter, and his throw away comment, “Kinda late to sign the pledge, ain’t it?” when he saw she hadn’t touched hers.

He looked up into the kindly doctor’s eyes, “Charity?” he croaked.

“What, Jess?”

“Charity, girl in my room… Where is she?”

“Nobody there when I came over. Clerk said she’d booked out the day before I believe. Why?”

Jess just shook his head. “Nothing.” Hardly managing to believe it himself. Why? Goddamn it, Charlie, he thought. Why have you done this to me?

Then he remembered their argument about joining the wagon train and the penny dropped. “My boots, Doc… Where are my boots?”

The doctor looked surprised. “Why, over here, son, with the rest of your stuff — gunbelt, clothes, all here. Nothing to worry about.”

“My boots, for God’s sake, doc. Check my boots. Should be nigh on $2,000 in them, in $50 dollar notes.”

The doctor threw him a quizzical look, wondering if Jess had been dreaming, but as his patient became more agitated, he went and checked. Bringing the boots over, he said “No, sorry, son; nothing here.”

Jess struggled to sit up and see for himself, and then tried to get out of bed, but the doc just pushed him back down, Jess being as weak as a new born pup.

“Now where do you think you’re off to, young man? “

“To find that scheming bitch that drugged and robbed me,” he spat.

The kindly doctor just shook his head. “You’re going nowhere, Jess; you’re sick, real sick, boy. I don’t know who gave you that drug, but they didn’t know what they were doing. The dose was way too strong and it’s affected you really badly.”

“How so? I’m Ok, just kinda tired.”

The doctor shook his head. “No, Jess, you’ve suffered several really bad convulsions since you’ve been here.”

“Huh?”

“Fits…and bad ones. It’s a side effect of the drug overdose, and you’ve also got depressed breathing and heart palpitations. In other words, son, you’re sick and going nowhere. It’s just a miracle that whoever did this to you isn’t up on a murder charge.

Jess just lay back on the pillow, suddenly feeling total desolation. Charity… Had she really wanted him dead? Hell, he thought she loved him. He closed his eyes tightly, holding back the threatening tears. He had really thought she loved him, that they could make a go of it this time. What a fool he’d been, what a bloody stupid fool…

And then he had the bad feeling again, like he was out of control, his arms numb and heavy. As his limbs started shaking and jerking again, the doctor looked on helplessly as he watched his young friend suffering yet another attack.

When Jess came around, the doctor was peering down at him, a concerned look in his eyes.

“It happened again?” Jess asked.

“Yes, I’m afraid so, but they are getting less frequent. You really need to keep calm, Jess, not worry too much about anything right now and…”

“Not worry!” Jess yelled. “I’ve just had over two thousand bucks stolen from me by a girl I was considering spending the rest of my life with I’ve been betrayed in the worst possible way, and my friends — my real friends, that is — face a hard time of it because of that conniving bitch. And you’re tellin’ me not to worry?” he finished, almost beside himself with rage.

The doctor just patted Jess’s arm gently. Knowing the dark-haired cowboy of old and being quite familiar with the Harper temper, he wasn’t fazed in any way. “That’s right, young man. Because if you go getting so all fired upset this way, you’ll doubtless bring on another convulsion. Take it easy, rest up, and you should be well enough to ride out in a week.”

“A week!” Jess screamed. “Hell, doc, she’ll be clear way across the country in a week.”

The older man just shook his head sadly. “Well, I’m sorry, Jess; you’ll just have to be patient. Ride out being this sick would be very risky. Now, is there anything I can do for you?”

Jess threw himself back on the pillows a look of resignation in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Doc; none of this is your fault, and I appreciate your help, really I do.” Then he paused. “Could you send a note home for me, give it to old Mose, the stage driver?”

The doc smiled benignly. “Sure, son, sure.”

Jess made it brief and to the point; the last thing he wanted was for Slim to come and look for him, thinking something was wrong.

Dear Slim, Been held up some. Don’t worry, will explain when I see you, Jess.

Jess figured Charity had been gone three or four days, and knew he couldn’t leave it any longer, no matter what the good doctor thought. So he waited until the household were sleeping that night before slowly dragging himself out of the hospital bed in the little room behind the doctor’s office.

He dressed, buckled on his gun belt, and then felt in his pockets for the money for the doc’s fee and left it along with a short note on the night stand.

Sorry doc. Can’t wait no longer. Hope you understand, Jess. 

He made his way silently through the house and let himself out of the front door and stood on the sidewalk trembling with fatigue.

He gripped the hitching rail and shook his head to clear it, feeling the sweat run down his back, his legs leaden. “Come on, Harper, get a grip,” he said firmly to himself before making his way down the deserted street to the livery.

As he had hoped, the stable lad was asleep in one of the stalls and Jess woke him.

The boy looked frightened until he recognized Jess. “You startled me, Mr. Harper,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“Sorry to disturb you, boy, but I need to take my mount and pay you.” Then Jess glanced around the dimly lit stable. “So where is Chief, the big old Buckskin?” he asked.

“The lady took him, Mr. Harper; the real pretty blond lady. She left with the gentleman with the covered wagon, once I’d patched it up some.”

“Patched it up?”

“Yeah, the blacksmith fitted a new wheel and I helped mend the harness some, but he ain’t gonna get that rig all the way to California, Mr. Harper. It just ain’t up to that kinda journey. Anyway, the lady left, taking Chief and said you’d be by to pay the bill on ‘em both.”

Jess felt the stirring of anger and betrayal again. Hell, she’d even stolen one of his favorite horses too. He just shook his head and reaching in his pocket paid up. “One more thing. Could you saddle ol’ Traveler for me? I’ve been kinda sick and not up to much just now.”

The boy did as he was bid but gave the older man a worried glance. Sure you’re OK to be ridin’, sir?”

Jess just nodded. “Give me a leg up, will you?”

Again the boy did as he was asked and Jess swayed in the saddle for a moment before finding his seat and urging Traveler forward. Then he paused and flipped a coin down to the eager- faced youngster. “For you trouble, boy. Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Gee thanks, Mr. Harper,” said the boy, his eyes shining in delight. “Safe journey.”

Jess rode due north, knowing that Manning would be heading to pick up the wagon train as it passed through Fort Laramie, and he stopped only for a short break to water and feed Traveler.

The journey was a complete nightmare for him — feeling sick and in pain, terrified he might throw another fit and hurt himself falling from the saddle — but such was his determination to get the money back that he persevered. He figured he would be gaining on the slow moving, heavily packed covered wagon. He knew that most wagons on the train tended to go little faster than walking pace, and so he had urged Traveler on to a fast trot for most of the day and reckoned that he would be in sight of his errant ex-lover within the next day or so.

As darkness fell, he finally made camp, but was too weary to eat anything. After tending to Traveler, he made a small fire to keep the chill at bay and then just fell down on his bedroll exhausted.

It was in the small hours of the morning that he was awoken by the ominous rumbling of thunder in the distance and then lightening flashed illuminating the sky, before more thunder erupted, this time much closer.

He leapt up and rummaged around in his saddle bag, and then cussed loudly at the realization that he had not packed his rain slicker. Just then, the heavens opened and the rain poured down, soaking him to the skin in   a matter of moments.

He stood up and went to check on Traveler where he was ground hitched, his rump to the prevailing weather and his ears flicking at the sound of the thunder as it crashed violently overhead.

“Easy, boy,” Jess whispered, patting his neck.

After a while, the storm passed over and he went back to the guttering fire. Wrapping a blanket around him, he sank down beside it, a picture of misery.

Sometime later, he fell into an exhausted sleep; he awoke at first light shivering and feeling sick to his stomach. He groaned and  sat up, his limbs feeling heavy and  stiff, and  for one dreadful minute he thought he was about to succumb to another fit. But the moment passed and he finally got shakily to his feet and made to break camp; the fire had gone out and he just didn’t have the energy to light another to make coffee.

At least it was a clear sunny morning after the storm, and he quickly dried off, his clothes steaming. But he still felt ill and was really not in a good place as he made his way across the endless open countryside following the unmistakable tracks of Manning’s wagon.

It was early afternoon when he saw it hove into view up on the horizon, and he reckoned he would make it within the hour if he put Traveler to a fast trot. He felt guilty at pushing his horse so far, but figured he could have a good rest when Jess finally caught up with them; he could even ride the buckskin for a while resting his mount.

If Charity wanted to stay with Manning, then so be it; he really didn’t care anymore. He just wanted his money and his horse back, and figured that the couple probably deserved each other. He also reckoned that it was easier to cope if he could try and hate Charity for what she’d done to him — taken him for a fool yet again.

Manning seemed to have no idea that he was being followed until Jess was up alongside the wagon team. Jess reached over, and grabbing hold of the nearest horses harness, dragged them to a standstill before turning his horse to face the astonished travelers.

If Manning looked wary, then Charity looked positively terrified when she saw the blazing fury on Jess’s face.

“So which one of you bastards wanted me dead,” Jess spat angrily. “Or was it both of you?”

“What,” cried Charity staring from Jess to Manning and then back again. “Dead?”

“Yeah,” Jess said. “Whoever made up that Mickey Finn, it was a lethal dose. Another glass and the doc said I would have been a goner.”

“Josh?”

Joshua Manning looked very sheepish. “He’s exaggerating, my dear; I used just enough to knock him out, maybe make his a little sick…”

“A little sick,” yelled Jess furiously. “Hell, man, I was in a coma for nigh on three days, had heart and breathing problems and I’ve been having convulsions. You call that a little sick, do you?”

“Jess, I’m so, so sorry. I never meant for any of this,” said Charity, her voice shaking with emotion.

“Oh really? So you didn’t drug me and steal $2,000 and my horse then?” Jess said, casting his glance to where Chief was tethered behind the wagon. Then he was suddenly choked up. “How could you? How could you do that to me, Charlie, after the way we were together? Hell, I was goin’ to ask for your hand, God help me. How crazy is that, eh?” he finished bitterly.

She just went white as a sheet. “I’m sorry; I couldn’t help it, really I couldn’t. It was Josh. He…”

“Shut up!” shouted Manning furiously and then he made the fatal mistake of drawing on Jess.

Even in his weakened state, Jess had his iron out and was pointing it at Manning’s belly, even before the other man had reached his gun butt.

“Get down,” said Jess, quietly.

The older man sat there clearly terrified at the speed of Jess’s reactions.

“I said get down!” yelled Jess, and this time, Manning jumped down. Jess hopped down from Traveler’s back and took Manning’s gun, shoving it into his own belt. Then Jess got him to turn around and lie prone on the ground, before turning his attention to Charity.

“Get my money,” Jess said flatly.

“Jess, please let me explain…”

“Just get the money,” Jess said in a weary tone. “I don’t wanna hear your lies.”

“Jess, please, you have to hear me out. I was walking out on you, I admit it, and I agreed to Josh’s idea to slip you a Mickey Finn so I could go when you were asleep. But then I let slip about the money and he got greedy, wanted that too. I was desperate to go west. I gave you the chance to go with me. If you’d just taken the money, I’d have gone with YOU.”

“But I’m not a lying, robbin’ cheapskate like your pard there,” spat Jess. “So you decided to go with him instead.”

“It wasn’t like that,” she said, almost crying now. “I had to go west. You know me; I get the call of the wild and I have to go, have to move on. Never been one to settle for long.”

“Sure,” Jess said bitterly. “I know that. I just thought it was different this time.”

“It was; it still could be if you’d just go with me. Please,” she begged.

He just shook his head. Just get the goddamn money, will you?”

She really was crying now. “I didn’t know the drug would make you so sick, really,” she said. “And I didn’t want to take all the money, either. Josh made me. He was just outside the door, Jess, and he threatened to come in and back shoot you if I didn’t do as he said, and that’s the honest truth.”

His face was completely deadpan. “Hell, Charity you wouldn’t know the truth if it upped and bit you. Now, I won’t be askin’ again…”

She jumped down from the wagon and went around the back, before returning with the wad of notes. “It’s all there,” she said, passing it across to him.

Jess took the money from her and he put it in his vest pocket. Then their eyes locked.

“Please…” she whispered putting a hand to his face. “ I love you. I…”

“No,” Jess shouted. “Don’t you dare say that, after the way you’ve been. You don’t even know the meaning of the word.” He grabbed hold of her arms, pulling her roughly towards him. “Have you any idea what you’ve done to me?” he asked, his eyes black with rage and misery.

Then suddenly he was catapulted forward as Manning hurled himself at the young cowboy.

Caught off guard, Jess fell badly and sprawled in the dirt as Manning kicked him hard in the guts. Jess cried out in agony.

Then the bigger man was on top of him, raining down punch after punch to Jess’s head and torso.

Somewhere from deep inside, Jess finally pulled on his inner resources and started to fight back, landing a vicious haymaker that sent Manning flying through the air. Then Jess was up and striding over, hauling him up by his shirt before landing another blow to the jaw and then the stomach. The big man finally fell to his knees, and then crumpled out cold, bleeding profusely from a split lip.

Jess had a gash to his cheek, and he roughly wiped the blood away with his shirt sleeve as he stood panting, looming over his adversary, shuddering with the exertion.

Charity ran over to him. “You’re hurt,” she cried and grabbed hold of his arm.

But Jess shrugged her off. “Don’t, don’t touch me,” he spat as he staggered a little, feeling suddenly dizzy and faint.

She hung her head, flushing. “I’m sorry,” she whispered again, but he didn’t even acknowledge her. He was hard put to it, trying to stop himself from passing out, and he gasped, taking several deep breaths, until the threatening darkness receded.

He felt like he just wanted to lie down and not get up again for a very long time. Instead he went and looked the wagon over.

“The kid at the livery said this would never make it all the way west,” he said, throwing her the polite look of a stranger, “and I guess he was right.”

“Well, it ain’t going to,” came a quiet voice from the dirt where Joshua lay, after coming around.

“What!” said Charity. “What do you mean?”

“I mean we were never heading for the wagon train. Once I’d got me some good stake money, I was heading for the nearest sizable town. See, I’m a gambler, my dear, not a pioneer. I’m a gambler and we were never going anywhere near that old wagon train. I just wanted a pretty little companion, thought you might bring me luck. Figured we could work a scam or two between us maybe.”

Charity looked scandalized. “You tricked me! I believed you.”

“It don’t feel too good being lied to and betrayed does it?” said Jess, giving her a hard look.

Then Manning spoke again. “Well, I’ll tell you, Harper, the truth of the matter is what the little lady said. She didn’t know about the strength of that drug. I wanted you well and truly blotto. And I did threaten to kill you if she didn’t go ahead with my plan to relieve you of your money, so I reckon she isn’t quite as black she’s been painted.”

Jess glanced over to Charity and finally believed her, but she had still been going to run out on him yet again and he couldn’t forgive her for that. “Well, I reckon the two of you deserve each other,” he said quietly, before he jumped up on Traveler. Riding him around to the back of the wagon, he liberated Chief. “I’ll be takin’ my horse too,” he said, “unless you want to buy him — $200 and another $30 for the saddle?”

They just stared at him not having anything like that between them.

Jess looked from one to the other. “No, I thought not,” he said quietly. He took Manning’s gun from his belt, and after emptying the chamber, threw it down beside the older man. “You ever try that on me again,” he said very quietly “so help me I’ll shoot you down.”

Then Jess rode over to Charity and looked down at her. Tears were now coursing down her cheeks and he remembered all they had been to each other, the nights of passion, and felt wretched. He just gave her one last, deeply saddened look and shook his head, before turning his horse and kicking him off to a fast trot, leading the buckskin back the way he had come.

“Jess, please… don’t leave me,” Charity cried.

Jess reined in and paused; without turning to look at her and closing his eyes, he swallowed deeply. Then using the last of his resolve, he kicked his horse on again and rode off without a backward glance.

*****

Jess was hurting something fierce — aching all over, his head throbbing, his breathing coming in harsh gasps and  his heart rate fluctuating, hammering so hard in his chest he thought it might burst one minute and missing beats another. For the first time, he considered the wisdom of taking off from his sickbed against the doctor’s orders.

‘Risky’ he said it would be to get up too soon. Hell, he’d done a bit more than just get up, he reflected, and now he was paying for it.

He was suddenly gripped by a wave of nausea and dizziness, and it was all he could do to stay in the saddle. He reined Traveler in and considered his position.

He had only been riding for an hour or so, and it was mid-afternoon, but he knew he must make camp while he was still able to care for the horses and build a fire to keep him warm through the long chilly night.

He looked around him and saw some standing trees on the edge of a small brook just a few yards to his right. He figured that would be as good a place as any, and kicked Traveler on to the lush grazing to be had just beyond the trees.

He reined him in and all but fell from the horse’s back, grabbing hold of his mane to steady himself before taking both horses to the stream to water them. Then he tended to their needs before ground-hitching them, and made a fire to set the coffee on before falling back exhausted.

However, Jess knew what he must do. He had hardly eaten for several days, and he knew that much of his fatigue was down to lack of food, so he finally forced himself up and wandered over the open grass land until he spotted several young rabbits and managed to down  one for  supper.

By the time, he’d butchered it and roasted it over the fire, he was almost too tired to eat it, but he forced some down and then, although it was still only early evening, he fell back on his bedroll, weary and miserable, as he thought once again how Charity had walked out on him.

*****

As Jess had ignored her final plea and ridden away, Charity realized she had made the biggest mistake of her life leaving him. Why, oh why, had she done it? After their passionate lovemaking, she had thought he would follow her to then ends of the earth, steal his partner’s money and do as she asked, and maybe the old Jess Harper who she had once known would have done.

But he had grown, matured since she saw him last, and had a strength and resolve that she had been unaware of and to some extent now admired. He had been alone in the world when she had known him before, and now he had this ‘family’ as he called them, and a strong sense of loyalty towards them that she hadn’t bargained for.

She was torn between the idea of staying with him and settling in Laramie, or following her dream to go west. Now that she had seen him again, she was aware of what she had really known all along — she had made the wrong choice by throwing in her lot with Manning.

This had partly been due to Manning’s influence when the friendly acquaintance she had met and agreed to travel with suddenly changed into this frightening desperate man once he got wind of the $2,000. Then things had suddenly been taken out of Charity’s hands. She had been too scared to warn Jess on that fateful last evening, as she knew Manning was listening outside the hotel door,  gun in hand, ready to burst in and finish Jess with a bullet in the back, while he was in bed with her, the very thought of it distressing her beyond measure.

Now she turned to look at the bloodied face of her traveling companion.

“Well, lot of help you were,” he snarled, as he marched to the rear of the wagon and fetched a bottle of Red Eye. He pulled the cork with his teeth and spat it out on the ground before necking the bottle, tipping it and taking a good draught before peering at her with narrowed eyes. “So I reckon you’ve decided you’ve made a bad choice, haven’t you, my dear,” he said, his formal speech at odds with the look of drunken debauchery he had about him.

She looked down and just nodded. “I didn’t realize how much I cared until just now. Seeing how I’ve hurt him, I feel just terrible.”

He took another swig. “Well, I guess you should have thought of that before you ran out on him.”

“You don’t understand,” she cried. “I thought he would follow me. After….after the way we were together, I thought he’d change his mind and come west with me. I really thought I had him…just here,” she said turning her hand palm up, before she sank to her knees sobbing again.

“Call me an old cynic, my dear, but I think you need a lesson in loving. To my mind, you want to control Harper, want him to dance to your tune every time, and as far as I can see, he is his own man, and won’t dance to anyone’s tune, even to a beautiful woman like you. No, sweet child, I’m afraid you are stuck with yours truly, and once I’ve finished this bottle, I think we’d better sit down and make some plans for our future.”

“Our future!” she spat. “Why would I want to throw my lot in with you after what you did to Jess and then betrayed me that way over the wagon train?”

He took another slug and leered at her. “Because, my dear, you have very little choice. Harper obviously doesn’t want you, and you are stranded out here with me. So I suggest you just make the best of it and start our supper; this grog has given me an appetite.”

She sighed and did as he asked, but he was asleep and snoring loudly before she had even made up the fire.

She turned and looked down at him in disgust — drunk and snoring, far too old for her to be interested in anyway…and then she suddenly made a decision. Of course she had a choice; she could take one of the wagon team horses and follow Jess.

He couldn’t have gone too far, not looking as ill he had. Then she would seduce him, make him see he just couldn’t live without her, and Jess and his $2,000 would be heading west with her, just as she planned.

She made sure Manning was fast asleep, and then she went over to the horses. Choosing the younger of the two, she lightly jumped up, using the animal’s mane to pull herself on to his back. Riding bare back was no problem to an experienced rider like Charity, and with a couple of sacks containing as many of her possessions as she could carry across the horse’s shoulders, she kicked him off in the direction Jess had taken just a few short hours earlier.

*****

She set off and figured that Jess couldn’t be too far in front of her, looking as ill as he had done, and so she followed the tracks she and Josh had made on the way out, figuring that that was the way Jess would be travelling back.

Then, after a while, she heard the sound of shooting and figured that would be Jess getting himself some supper. However, it took her longer than she thought to finally spot him, and the sun was just going down as she finally approached his camp.

She saw the smoke from the fire first, and then Traveler and Chief tethered nearby; she felt a frisson of excitement at the thought that Jess was so close to her and she could be sleeping in his strong arms that night, if only he would listen to her and forgive her.

She rode quietly into the camp and was surprised that her reception wasn’t Jess up on one knee, his Colt.45 cocked and all his senses alert to the intruder. Instead, she dismounted and walked softly over to where he lay by the fire, and even in the dying light from the sunset, she could see he was in a bad way.

He lay close by the fire, covered with a blanket, but he was still shaking with cold. Yet his face looked flushed with a slick of sweat on his brow, and he didn’t even register her presence, which was unheard of when Jess was in the Big Open. He might sleep through a hurricane back at the ranch, but out in the wilds, his survival skills and vigilance were second nature.

She squatted down beside him and gently brushed his tousled black locks back from his forehead but even that didn’t rouse him.

“Jess…Jess,” she whispered, and then finally after a moment, his eyelids flickered and opened. He looked up at her with a dazed expression that turned to one of irritation as he realized who was there.

“What the hell are you doin’ here?” he asked, his tone less than welcoming.

“I’m here to look after you, Jessie, and by the looks of things, you’re sure in need of it.”

“I don’t need anything from you,” he said angrily, making to sit up.

“Take it easy; I can see you’re not well,” she said, trying to push him back down.

Something deep inside Jess stirred — whether it was just his natural survival instinct or he was indeed feeling terrible and couldn’t face playing her games, he never knew. But he did know he was suddenly incandescent with rage.

He leapt to his feet, glaring down at her. “What in damnation do you want from me, Charlie? You’ve made me love you all over again, and then you’ve robbed me and darn near killed me, so what else? You come to gloat? Or make another play for the money, because I can tell you now…”

But Charity was never to hear what he was going to tell her because he suddenly stopped ranting and looked at her with a strange vacant expression. The next thing she knew he had hit the ground and lay there, his whole body in terrible spasms as he suffered another convulsion.

She had only ever seen a person throw a fit once before — a client in the bar she and Jess were working in — and the elderly man had died as a result.

Now she stared down at Jess in utter horror as his limbs jerked uncontrollably, his eyes rolled back and then he finally lay still deeply unconscious.

She ran and knelt beside him, a hand to his chest, feeling the heart beating rapidly. “Jessie, my love, what have I done? God forgive me, what have I done.”

After what seemed an inordinately long time, he stirred and his eyes flickered open. He looked around in a dazed manner before finally focusing on Charity. “You still here?” he groaned.

“Yes, and I’m not going anywhere until you’re better — no matter how much you hate me.”

Jess turned tired, hurt eyes up to where she was still squatting down beside him. “I don’t hate you,” he whispered, his eyes looking infinitely sad. Then with the ghost of a smile, he said, “So how about you help me up then and we can fix us some coffee.”

*****

He squatted down and poured her a drink before doing the same for himself, and then he sipped it, looking deeply into the fire, trying to make sense of his emotions. Just her closeness was making his heart beat faster and he felt a frisson of desire which he tried to deny, knowing he just couldn’t go down that road again.

“You OK now?” she whispered, peering anxiously across at him.

He nodded. “Yeah, and I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“Don’t be silly; it’s not your fault. Heck, if anyone is to blame, it’s me for getting involved with that scum Manning.”

He said nothing, just looked down.

“I really didn’t know he’d put so much of that stuff in the drink. Honestly, I just thought you’d have a good sleep and…”

“And wake up to find you’d run out on me yet again,” Jess said bitterly. “Why Charlie? Why do you treat me so bad — and why do I let you?” he said almost to himself. “I thought it was real special between us. The lovin’ it was so good, wasn’t it?” he said, casting her an anguished look.

Tears welled up in her eyes at the mention of their intimacy. “Yes,” she said softly,” the very best.”

“So?”

“I thought that you’d follow me if I left, figured you were so deeply involved you wouldn’t be able to resist coming with me out west,” she said with a little shrug. “Guess I was wrong.”

“Yeah, I guess you were. Anything there was between us is over, Charlie, for good. You know that, you understand?” he said, his eyes imploring her to see the truth of it.

Her large blue eyes opened wide in shock and held his gaze for a moment before looking down into her cup. “Well, I hear you,” she said softly.

Shortly afterwards, he turned in again and  she spread her bedroll by the fire close to him…but not too close, instinctively knowing  he really didn’t want to feel her presence.

He fell into a troubled sleep almost at once, fuelled by the utter exhaustion he always felt after a fit, but Charity lay awake into the wee small hours, scheming and plotting as to how to get him back.

The following morning, it was obvious that he was far from well and she knew they wouldn’t be going anywhere that day. But even so, she was quite surprised when he agreed with her and just turned over and went back to sleep when she suggested he wasn’t well enough to ride.

She took off with his rifle and shot a couple of rabbits, making them into a stew for supper. Having slept all day, Jess managed to eat a little before leaning back against an old log and looking into the fire.

She cast him a concerned look. “You really must be sick if you’re off your grub. This isn’t like you, Jess.”

Then he finally told her about what the doc had said, that he should really still be in the nice comfortable hospital bed back in Cheyenne.

“Well, why aren’t you then?” she said, looking deeply worried now.

“Because I had to go hightailin’ it half way across Wyoming to get my cash back off of you, didn’t I,” Jess said wearily.

“But your health is more important than money!” Charity exploded angrily. Her anger, she knew, was fuelled by guilt.

He shook his head. “You just don’t get it, do you? That money is to get me, Slim, Mike and Daisy through a cold hard winter and then buy in new stock and feed for the beasts. Without it, we ain’t gonna survive. So yeah, I reckon that is worth more than my health. See, I’ve got other people to consider than just me Charity.”

“I see; I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

He ignored this and then. “So what are your plans? Still all-fired set on California?”

She looked up at him from beneath her heavy fringe, her eyes pleading “Well, I’m not sure. Laramie is looking pretty tempting from where I’m sitting.”

His head shot up and he threw her a hard look. “What? With me?”

She nodded. “Yes with you. Please, Jess, we were so good together. Give me another chance…please,” She reached out and took his hand.

They were sitting in front of the evening fire, backs still against an old log, legs stretched out, and he looked down at her hand holding his for a full minute before pulling away.

“You ain’t listened to a thing I’ve said, have you? We’re finished, Charity; I don’t want nothin’ more to do with you.”

She felt her heart would break, and she remembered all the times she had let him down in the past. Led him on, and then once, he was well and truly hooked, knocked him back and left, until the next time. And so on… How many times had she hurt him? What had he said to her? She’d ‘ripped his heart out and stomped on it’. Well, now she knew exactly what he was talking about, what it felt like.

He cleared his throat, obviously feeling emotional himself and said gruffly, “So if you still wanna go with the wagon train, we’ll head off for Fort Laramie tomorrow. Reckon we’re nearer there than Cheyenne, so I’ll ride along with you. I know Chris Hale, wagon master; he may be able to find a family as needs some help; get you a free passage in return for some work. That suit you?”

She thought quickly. At least that would give her another day in his company and maybe she would be able to change his mind — hell, seduce him, if she was honest with herself. Once she got him back in her bed, she knew she could win him back. “OK,” she said, “thanks.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said brusquely. “The route is easier home from the Fort than havin’ to ride all the way back to Cheyenne, and anyway, I want to be sure you go — get you out of my life for good.” With that, he stood up and went to bed the horses down, leaving her  near  to tears as she saw her plan begin to dissolve before her eyes. There looked to be no way he would ever let her get close to him again.

The following day, they set out on the last leg of the journey to Fort Laramie, and while Jess was polite, he might have been escorting a mere acquaintance. Charity felt hurt and helpless by his cool attitude.

When they got near the place where Manning had camped and got drunk, giving Charity the opportunity to leave, Jess turned the horses in that general direction.

“Where are you going? Manning had left the route to the Fort,” she said. “He admitted he was just heading for the next big town.”

“Yeah, and he won’t have got very far with that loaded wagon and only one horse to pull it,” he said briskly.

“Oh, he’ll manage, and why do you care anyway?”

Jess turned to look at her properly for the first time that morning. “Well, he might not be my favorite person, but nobody deserves to be left afoot out here. I don’t reckon he was up to riding the other beast bare back, so that’s pretty much what he’d be — left afoot miles from anywhere. I can’t be party to that, Charity. Ain’t the cowboy way, and you know that as well as I do.”

She hung her head, blushing a little. “Yes, of course. He said he wasn’t a pioneer and I guess you’re right; he was like a fish out of water out here. It was me that had to drive the beasts and care for them; he didn’t have a clue.”

“Yeah, well we’ll give him his horse back and help him on his way, and you can ride Chief over to the Fort.”

Before long, they saw the wagon off in the distance. Jess stood up in his stirrups, and shielding his eyes from the sun, peered off at the vehicle and then gave a low whistle.

“What is it, Jess? What’s wrong?” she asked, looking from him into the distance.

“Dunno. Can’t see the other horse, and looks like Manning is just sitting out there in this hot sun. Crazy dude; he’ll be gettin’ sick.” With that, Jess spurred Traveler on towards the wagon.

However, as they approached, it soon became apparent as to why Joshua Manning was sitting leaning against the wagon wheel in the noontide sun. He had an arrow through his chest.

Jess threw himself from his mount and ran over, but the man way past help. As Charity followed him, a hand flew to her mouth and she gave a little cry of horror. Oh God no,” she whispered.

Jess instinctively threw a comforting arm around her shoulders and pulled her close as his eyes scanned the open countryside for any sign of the raiding party.

“Who…who did this?” she asked after a moment.

Jess glanced down at the arrow.

“Cheyenne — a renegade bunch of young braves goin’ off half-cocked, I guess. We’ve a peace treaty with them right now,  but I’ve heard tell of this small gang of youngsters who have broken free of the main tribe and are completely out of control, killin’  mainly for rifles and alcohol, which makes ‘em even more dangerous.”

She pulled in closer to him. “They won’t come back?”

“Nah, they’re long gone. Taken the other horse and any drink ol’ Josh had stashed away, I guess.” He pulled free of her and went and checked the back of the wagon before returning with a spade.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, still trembling.

He gave her a surprised look. “Well, what do you think? Bury him. Can’t leave him a lyin’ there for buzzard bait.”

She looked frightened. “But shouldn’t we get moving in case they do come back?”

“I told you they won’t. Now why don’t you get any other stuff of yours out of the wagon that you need. We can use that horse you rode as a pack horse, and I’ll see to things out here.”

She still looked terrified, and he gave her a small push towards the rear of the wagon. “Go on get to it,” he said, and eventually she did as she was bid.

Jess lost no time in getting back on the trail for the Fort once his duty was done by Manning. He was concerned the young braves could still be somewhere around, although if his suspicions were right, they would be holed up somewhere during the heat of the day, knocking back the copious supply of Tequila and Red eye Manning had had on the wagon.

It was nearing sundown  when they finally reached the wagon train camped a mile or so outside the Fort, and as Jess and Charity rode in, he gave a sigh of relief,  knowing he was amongst friends.

They made straight for the chuck wagon and Jess was gratified to see that old Charlie Wooster, the cook, was still hard at work, preparing the evening meal for the staff members.

Jess leapt from Traveler and marched over to the older man. Grinning at him, he said, “Hi Charlie. Still tryin’ to poison us all then?”

The bearded, irascible old man gave him a big grin in return and came to shake his hand. “Well, I’ll be — Jess Harper. Come on in, son; sit you down. Come and have some coffee. Chow’s nearly ready.” The words came like fired bullets as the old man spoke at his usual break neck pace.

Then Charlie espied Charity, and his old face was wreathed in smiles. “Well, aren’t you gonna introduce me to your lovely lady then, boy?” said the diminutive old rapscallion.

Charlie might be as old as the hills and have the look of a tiny old grizzly, but he still had an eye for the ladies, thought Jess, smiling inwardly. “Sure, Charlie this here is Charity Jones. Well, she’ll probably say it’s Charity Harper, but don’t you believe her any,” he said giving Charity  a teasing look,  mixed with one of warning that he would not stand for any of her shenanigans here amongst his friends.

Then Chris Hale, the wagon master, and his second in command, Bill Hawkes, arrived and more introductions were made.

Charity was her usual charming self as she was introduced and she liked the look of the middle-aged, rugged-featured Chris Hale; she got a feeling of strength and wisdom as she looked into his kind eyes. Bill Hawkes was taller and had almost white hair above a countenance that didn’t quite look old enough to sport the hair coloring, and as she looked into his twinkling blue eyes, she saw someone who might be instrumental in helping her get Jess back. Yes, maybe some good old flirting with Bill Hawkes would get Jess back into line, she thought. If he was around for long enough, that was, she thought desperately. But little did Charity know that her prayers were shortly to be answered and Jess wouldn’t be going far for a while.

As Charity was found a seat and cup of coffee by Bill and Charlie and was generally made a fuss of, Chris Hale came over to Jess with a look of worry on his face. “Can we talk, Jess?” he said, leading him off to the comparative peace and quiet round the back of the chuck wagon.

“Sure,” said Jess accompanying him. “So where are Duke and Coop then?” he asked, referring to his good friends and the wagon train scouts.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” said Chris, sinking down onto a fallen log and gesturing for Jess to sit beside him. “I had to leave them back in the last town we passed through. We were involved in a bit of trouble with some bank robbers. Well, Coop and Duke were just in the right place at the right time to sort things out, and they apprehended the gang, but they are prime witnesses at the trial and won’t be joining the train again until we hit Rawlins in a week or so. I was wondering if you could scout for me.”

Chris looked over at his good friend and saw the troubled look in his eyes. “II know it’s a lot to ask, Jess, but we’ve worked together before and I know I can trust you. See, I’ve heard rumors about a young Cheyenne raiding party. Well, I need someone I can rely on to make sure we all get to Rawlins in one piece.”

Jess sighed deeply. “They aren’t just rumors, Chris”, and went on to tell him of Manning’s sad demise.

Jess looked down, thinking hard. Hell, he was late back at the ranch already and the last thing he wanted to do was spend any more time with Charity, feeling his resolve slipping the more time they spent together. But he also knew he couldn’t leave his friends in danger, plus he needed a favor from Chris if he was to take Charity on — that was the clincher.

He looked up into his friend’s concerned eyes. “Yeah, sure, I’d be glad to help you out. Chris.”

“Well, good. Thank you, Jess; I knew I could rely on you.” Then with his merry blue eyes twinkling, Chris asked, “So what about the beautiful young woman then, Jess? God knows you’ve always cut the mustard with the ladies, but this time I guess you’ve really excelled yourself. She’s very lovely.”

“Um,” said Jess thoughtfully, “She may look that way, Chris…” The he stopped himself. No need to paint a dark picture of her if he wanted Chris to take her on board. “Well, yeah, she is a stunner,” he agreed. “Thing is, Chris, she’s looking to beg a ride out west. She’s got a stake to pay her way; just needs a ride. See, the guy was supposed to be taking her was the one killed by the Cheyenne, so…”

“So you want me to find her a safe billet and look out for her?” said Chris, with a shrewd look.

Jess smiled back. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m askin’.”

Chris Hale beamed at his old friend. “No problem. In fact, I think I know the very person. So how is she around the horses, driving a wagon?”

“Born to it. Ridin’ afore she could walk. That’s how she got her stake — mustang bustin’ with me.”

“Excellent, couldn’t be better. I have a lovely young lady Annie, with a six week old baby; lost her husband a few weeks back — tragic accident Anyway, we’ve all been taking turns to drive the wagon as she’s still pretty weak from the birth and isn’t really too keen on the horses and stuff, so your Charity would be doing us all a great favor if she took over the Morris wagon. I know Annie would be indebted to her.”

“Consider it a done deal,” said Jess, grinning and patting his friend on the back. “Shall we go and introduce ‘em?” and the two men went off, both happy with the recently struck arrangements.

And so it was that Charity moved into the Morris wagon and the two women bonded quickly, even though they were poles apart. Annie very quiet and feminine, a real home body, and Charity, feisty and — according to her — equal to any male, and perfectly able to manage the team and wagon and any other task that had been allotted to Annie’s late husband.

Jess fitted back into the wagon train staff easily, as he was liked and respected by all who knew him there. There was plenty of laughter and banter around the supper table that first night.

He happily insulted Wooster’s food as the other men did and also put up with their teasing, especially about the beautiful woman he had brought with him, although he really didn’t want to discuss his relationship with Charity with them. It still being far too raw.

“So are you and her together?” asked Bill as they chewed on Wooster’s stew, casting Jess a speculative look.

Jess looked down. “Nah, just old friends,” he said, not seeing the look of disbelieve Chris flashed across at Bill.

“So how are Slim and Daisy and the boy?” asked Chris changing the subject, seeing Jess was looking uncomfortable at the mention of his relationship with Charity.

“Oh they’re well, as far as I know, that is,” Jess said. “Kinda been away a while what with one thing and another.”

“Charity?” asked Charlie, looking interested and nodding his head vigorously.

“Yeah, some of it to do with Charity,” Jess agreed. “So anymore of that stew then, Charlie? It ain’t half bad.”

“See, Mister Chris? Takes a traveled connoisseur like old Jess here to appreciate my cookin’!”

“Huh?” said Bill and Jess in unison.

“Connoisseur — that’s foreign speak for someone as knows what’s what…knows good cookin’ when he tastes it, and such, see. Ain’t that right, Mister Chris?”

“If you say so, Charlie. Come on then, men, let’s eat up and hit the sack. Long day tomorrow getting all these folk on the road again,” said Chris as he drained his coffee.

As they went to turn in, Bill whistled the first few bars of ‘I wish I was in Dixie,’ the battle hymn of the Confederacy — always a little joke between Jess and Bill. “Good to have you back, Reb,” he said, punching Jess gently on the arm.

Jess grinned across at his friend. “Good to be back, Bill.” Suddenly, he realized he really meant it. He had missed the adventure and light banter of traveling with the train, and looked forwards to the next week or so, even if it would be tough with Charity still around.

Jess didn’t realize how tough, though, until the following evening when he returned from his days scouting with happily nothing untoward to report.

“Come on then, Jess, get your skates on and get washed up. You and I are eating out tonight,” said Bill Hawkes with a huge grin.

“Huh?”

“Yeah, your Miss Charity has been around, and you and I are invited to supper with her and Annie.”

Jess shook his head. “Oh no, I reckon not, Bill. I’m kinda bushed. It’s been a long day, you know, and…”

“And nothing. That Miss Charity is a cracker, and you may have no interest in her but that don’t include me, Jess. It isn’t often I get invited out by a lovely young woman like that, and we’re going — OK?” Bill finished, casting Jess a hard look.

Jess knew when he was beaten. “Ok, ok, keep your hair on, Bill I’ll go get a shave and wash some of the trail dust off and be right with you.”

They arrived at the Morris wagon sometime later with Bill bearing a bottle of wine he had sneaked out of the chuck wagon, and both men were made welcome as they sat down at a nicely laid out table, the smell of a good beef stew coming from a pot on the open fire.

Charity was looking amazing in a low cut, deep blue, figure hugging dress and she was determined to make Jess jealous if it was the last thing she ever did.

Since they had joined the train, it hadn’t escaped her notice that most of the women folk had sat up and taken more than a passing interest in the black haired, blue eyed handsome young man who was the latest member of staff. Jess seemed to be completely oblivious to the way some of the women went out of their way to wish him the time of day, or merely cast longing glances in his direction, and that had made him all the more desirable to her.

Now she set about enchanting Bill and she didn’t have to work too hard to do it either, as he was putty in her hands from the first flirtatious glance she cast him. He was soon laughing at her jokes and giving her the sort of adoring look she had come to expect from most of the men she met — all except Jess that was. Well, Jess since she had betrayed him, she amended mentally.

She was cool but polite to Jess; he realized exactly what her game was from the first and just felt sorry for Bill being used as a pawn in her underhanded little game.

Jess also felt sorry for Annie Morris being used in this way too. She was a pretty young woman but the toll of losing her husband and caring for a new baby was obviously telling on her as she had deep shadows beneath her eyes and she looked exhausted to Jess. He made an effort to engage with her, though, and found her to be a charming intelligent young woman. He began to quite enjoy the evening, in spite of Charity’s game playing, which he studiously ignored.

The meal and wine were both excellent, and afterwards, they sat around the fire, chatting and laughing. Charity couldn’t help but notice the way Annie and Jess had hit it off.

Charity began to see that her little plan had backfired on her and maybe she had gone off on the wrong tack trying to make him jealous by flirting with Bill. She felt annoyed with herself for her less than subtle behavior.

Annie had left the party for a little while to feed and change the new baby, but about an hour later, they were disturbed by the little girl’s plaintive cry coming from the wagon.

Annie looked like she might very well cry too, and Jess’s heart went out to her, knowing from  a friend with a young family how exhausting these first few weeks with a young baby could be.

“What is wrong with her?” asked Charity looking concerned. “She’s been fed and changed. She’s not sick, is she, Annie? She’s usually so good.”

The younger woman shook her head. “No, teething I think,” and dragged herself up from her chair to go and tend the infant.

Jess reached up and gently restrained her. “You sit down, Annie, have another glass of wine; I’ll bring her out and see to her for you. You just relax a while.”

“You,” she said looking amazed, but relieved. “You know about babies?”

“Sure I do,” Jess said grinning and went off to fetch little Ginny, returning some time later with the pitifully crying child. He sat back down and placed the little bundle on his chest, and tipping his chair back, he rested one foot on a log and gently rocked the chair backwards and forwards for a while, all the time talking softly to the little one and rubbing her back gently.

After a few minutes, the cries became less and less until, at last, she was sleeping peacefully in his strong arms.

“Well I’ll be… Where in hell did you learn to do that, Jess?” asked Bill looking astonished.

Jess merely winked at him and tapped his nose, and the baby slept on, one star shaped little hand clutching his blue shirt front and her downy head resting on his shoulder.

Bill looked across at the women folk and saw that they were both completely enchanted by this picture of Jess with the baby. Then he looked more closely at Charity and saw the look of undisguised love in her eyes and suddenly realized he’d been duped. She had been using him to get back at Jess for some reason, and he felt saddened and not a little foolish as the realization hit him hard.

Annie, not knowing Jess well, said, “So do you have children of your own then, Jess?”

He bit back his usual humorous answer of ‘not that I know of’, in light of the female company and instead just said, “Yeah, I’ve got an adopted boy at home — Mike.”

“So how do you know about little babies,” persisted Bill. “Young Mike was about 8 when you adopted him, wasn’t he?”

Jess nodded and then flushing a little and looking down at the baby’s sweet head ,said softly, “Well, I’ll tell you, Bill. It was a couple of years ago now and I was up at the line cabin over in the foothills on Sherman land when a young lady came knocking at the door in a fierce storm one night — and, well, she was in labor.”

Bill’s head shot up. “No, really?”

Jess just nodded as the women listened with rapt attention. “So, well, her husband had gone for the doctor, but she knew she didn’t have time to wait, so she tried to make it to a woman neighbor, but only made it as far as the shack. So, well, I delivered the little one.”

“Really, Jess? I didn’t know that,” said Charity in amazement.

“Well, guess you don’t know everything about me,” Jess said softly, throwing her a meaningful look.

Bill was fascinated. “So what happened?”

Jess glanced at him and then smiled. “Well, I told her not to worry, and as how I’d delivered scores of foals and calves, it couldn’t be that much different.”

“And so was it?” Bill asked.

Jess looked up and locked eyes with Annie. “Oh it was different alright,” he said, grinning at her and she returned the smile, both knowing the truth of it. “And so I helped look out for the little one and kinda found I was pretty good at it,” he finished softly, again smiling down at the sleeping form of little Ginny.

Annie nodded in agreement. “You’re a natural,” she laughed, and her whole face lit up, shedding the look of exhaustion and making her suddenly beautiful.

“Well I kinda like the little ones,” Jess said honestly. Then turning to Bill, he said, ‘And you breathe a word of this to the others and you’re dead meat, Hawkes! “

Bill laughed, forgetting the frisson of jealousy he had felt at the way Charity had been looking at his friend and thought what hidden depths Jess had — a man so full of contrasts. Old Jess Harper, fast gun, an expert at looking out for babies. Who’d have thought it? he mused, smiling inwardly.

This seemed to make Jess even more attractive to Annie, and they talked children for a while before she stifled a yawn. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said quickly.

“Heck, that’s Ok,” said Jess. “Time we were moving anyway; busy day tomorrow.” He carefully handed the sleeping baby to Anne.

“Thank you so much,” Anne whispered softly. “You’ve been so kind.”

Then in a flurry of goodnights, the two men drifted off back towards their bedrolls by the chuck wagon fire.

As they wandered back, Bill looked over at his friend and said, “So do you ever want kids of your own then, Jess?”

Jess turned and looked reflectively at his old friend. “Yeah, I guess one day maybe, if I find the right woman.”

Bill threw him a sardonic look. “Well, I guess Miss Charity would oblige you anytime you like.”

“Huh?”

“Oh come on, Jess; you just played the baby card; women can’t resist a man who likes kids. Neither of them could take their eyes off of you, holding that little scrap.”

Jess laughed. “You’re crazy; you’ve had too much of that good wine you liberated from Charlie’s store,” he said, clapping his friend on the back and chuckling again as they made their way off to bunk down for the night.

*****

The following morning, Jess left camp early, wanting to get a good start so that he could check out the distant foothills for possible marauding renegade Cheyenne. He made good time and reached the area he wanted to check by late morning, and then he saw something, way up in the rocks to his right — a quick flash of color — and then it was gone again.

He reined Traveler in and pulled the binoculars Chris had loaned him out of his saddlebag. He scanned the area and there it was again — the flash of an Indian headdress and then a paint pony, moved slowly up the rocky incline, his rider scanning the distant plain just as Jess was doing.

Before he had a chance to kick Traveler off to the cover of some scrubby trees, he was spotted, and after a moment, he heard the sound of an owl call ring out across the open plain. He knew the brave was signaling to the main war party down in the foothills below, and that they would be much nearer to him.

In a second, he had turned Traveler and kicked him on to a fast gallop back the way he had come, knowing he must warn the wagon train at all costs.

From the vantage point high up in the rocks, the brave would have been able to make out the advancing train in the far distance and the idea would have been to attack as they entered the rocky canyon. Now with their plans scuppered by Jess, they started pursuing him, in the hope that they could kill him off before he was able to warn the hapless travelers ahead.

He spurred his horse on to greater speed and chanced a look back over his shoulder only to see a group of twenty or so braves in hot pursuit, now giving tongue to a blood curdling war cry as their quarry lost ground.

Jess’s heart was pounding and the sweat poured down his face and back, but he didn’t give an inch, just kept Traveler focused on the distant wagons as they finally came into view. He thundered on across the plain and again chanced a glance behind him and saw that they were narrowing the gap. Then the arrows started flying through the air, one narrowly missing him and he heard the loud swish as it whistled past his right ear.

He tried desperately to weave his mount from side to side, while still keeping the speed up, and then he was close enough for Chris Hale to see a fast moving dust cloud as Jess urged Traveler on, the Indians still gaining on him.

Once Jess was in sight of the camp, he drew his colt and fired several shots in quick succession to warn them that there was trouble ahead.

Chris put a hand up to halt the chuck wagon and those following behind, and he reined in his mount. He peered out to where the gunshots had come from, and then he saw Jess being hotly pursued by a large party of young braves. He called over to Bill who had just joined him. “That’s Jess and he looks like he’s got some company. Come on, Bill, help me get ‘em circled up.” Then turning to Charlie, he yelled, “Circle up,” and then went on down the line. The call went from wagon to wagon. “Indians, circle up…circle up.”

Jess really thought he would make it unscathed. He was so nearly at the wagon train; he could see they had circled up, and every able man and woman that could hold a gun were at the ready.

He swerved Traveler, getting him ready to leap the lowest barrier of some straw bales that had been hastily erected,  when it happened — another arrow swished past him and then another and  finally the third found it’s mark, catching  his left arm, ripping the flesh open in an agonizing burst of pain, but thankfully passing on and not imbedding  itself.

Jess swore gently at the pain, but still kept his pace going, and moments later, Traveler took off and jumped the straw bales perfectly, landing in the safety of the encampment, slithering to a standstill, blowing and trembling.

Jess almost collapsed against his mounts neck, and then caring hands were pulling him gently from the saddle and carrying him over to a safe place behind the chuck wagon. Old Charlie was there, fussing and scolding as he gently cut away the bloodied shirt to tend the viciously deep laceration.

Jess lapsed in and out of consciousness as Charlie went through the excruciatingly painful process of cleaning the raw wound out with neat whiskey. But at one stage, when he came round, the old man had to physically restrain him from attempting to get up and join the affray.

“Steady there, Jess boy. You’ve done your bit warning us all and getting yourself ripped up in the process. Now you just lay quiet and let old Charlie doctor you,” the cook said firmly.

Jess just groaned in response as he heard the bedlam of the Indian attack going on within feet of him, desperately wanting to drag himself up and play his part.

As it was, it was more of a skirmish rather than a full scale attack, with the young braves backing off when they saw the force of the opposition.

They were all youngsters, impulsive and not a little drunk, and as they lost one young brave and then another and another, they decided that it would be circumspect to retreat and regroup or maybe even move  on to more easy pickings.

Chris Hale watched them backing down and finally disappearing over the ridge before turning to Bill. “I reckon that will be an end to it. We showed them what’s what,” he said grinning, then soberin. “Thanks to Jess. Figure it would have been a different story if they’d have taken us by surprise going through the pass.”

Bill nodded in agreement. “So how is Jess then?”

“Not good; looks to be a nasty wound,” Chris said shaking his head, concern in his eyes.

Both men  went over to the chuck wagon where Jess was now  stretched out by the fire, covered with a blanket and Charity sitting  by his side, holding the unconscious man’s hand and looking  anxiously down at him.

Chris hunkered down beside her, looking down into Jess’s pale sweating face and then over to Charity. “He’s not too good?”

She shook her head. “Mister Wooster’s gone to fetch some of his special medicine to help with the pain, but it’s a nasty wound and he thinks the tip might have been poisoned with something,” she said, looking deeply distressed.

“Well I reckon it couldn’t be too bad; a lethally poisoned tip would have done for him by now. If Charlie’s cleaned it out real good, he should be OK, just needs to rest up some,” Chris said, giving her an encouraging smile, wondering again about the seriousness of her relationship with Jess, as he saw how genuinely distressed she was.

Bill Hawkes wandered over and looked down at the pretty girl of the night before, and was amazed at the transformation. She was still pretty sure — hell, she was beautiful, thought Bill — but now she sported the Confederacy cap and shirt she had worn on her arrival, along with tight fitting denims and a holster complete with a Colt.45 — a real contrast with the low cut feminine gown of the previous night. He saw the look of concern on her face and then glanced down at Jess, looking pale and sick, and felt a stab of fear for his good friend. Then Charlie bustled up and started wiping Jess’s brow and fussing around, and it wasn’t until later that night that they realized exactly what Jess meant to Charity.

Jess had come around, and even managed a little broth, fed to him by Charity, at supper time, before falling into a restless asleep again.

When it got late, Charlie came over and said, “Well then, young lady, I’ll look after him now. You must be worn out tending him all day. Run off and get your beauty sleep.”

Her head shot up from where she was gazing down at Jess. “Oh no,” she said quietly, “I’m not leaving him.”

Bill and Charlie exchanged a look before Chris cleared his throat. “Well, my dear, I’m sure Jess will be well cared for and… maybe it’s not quite right you should bunk down with all us old bachelors. You don’t want the tongues wagging,” he said with an embarrassed laugh.

She merely glanced up for a moment and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Hale; I’m not going anywhere. Jess is one of the oldest and dearest friends I have, and I’m not about to leave him now when he needs me.” Then she smiled up at the men, encompassing them all. “I know you all mean well, but Jesse needs the loving care only a woman can provide right now, and I aim to give that to him.” Then she continued her task of wiping his fevered brow.

Charlie shook his head and went off muttering, and Chris and Bill exchanged looks before Chris went off to fetch some more blankets. “Here you are, my dear,” he said quietly. “It gets pretty chilly sleeping out these nights, even with the fire.”

“Oh it’s OK, Mr. Hale, really. I’m used to sleeping out in the Big Open. Jess and I were out together not long ago”.

“Hump,” muttered Chris noncommittally, and then he gestured for Bill to move his gear over to the other side of the camp fire. Both men bunked down there, leaving Jess and Charity together, Charlie having disappeared up into his bed in the chuck wagon.

“That’s one single-minded young lady,” whispered Bill as he and Chris laid their bedrolls down and Chris grinned in return.

“Yeah, guess ol’ Jess has got his work cut out with that one,” Chris replied before turning in chuckling to himself.

“I guess so,” whispered Bill back, and then under his breath. “Lucky son of a…”

Jess woke in the small hours of the morning, shaking and feeling sick to his stomach, and he gazed around him, disorientated for a moment as he sought the comforting figures of Chris and Bill nearby. Not seeing them, he raised himself up on his elbow to scan around, worried there might be more trouble afoot. Then he saw them on the other side of the fire and relaxed back with a little sigh.

Then he was suddenly aware of somebody close to him and turning saw Charity’s beautiful blue eyes flicker open; she sat up quickly as she saw he was awake.

“Charlie, what in hell are you doin’ here?” Jess whispered harshly.

“Hush, lay back and relax, Jess. I’m just looking after you, honey. You caught an arrow and been kinda sick ever since, so I’m staying with you until you’re feeling better.”

“Charlie, what are you playin’ at? You can’t…” He made to sit up and then fell back gasping in pain and clutching his bad arm.

“I can do as I please,” she retorted. “I’m not leaving you in the care of that grubby old man with the beard; you need some proper nursing care, Jess.”

“Wooster is just fine; he’s a good man and a friend Charity,” he whispered, giving her a hard look.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure he is, but he doesn’t have my special touch, does he, Jessie,” she said as she took a cloth and almost sensuously wiped his face and then his chest with cool water, leaning over him, with a loving look in  her  beautiful eyes.

Jess grabbed hold of her hand and pushed it away a little. “I’m OK,” he said quietly, but she could see the pain in his glittering, fevered eyes, and knew he was not.

“Jess, please just rest back,” she said softly, and eventually he could hold out no longer and did as he was bid. She pulled the blanket over him and lay down very close to him.

He seemed to sleep but she lay awake keeping a vigil over him, and sometime later, she was aware that he was awake again and now shivering uncontrollably, his teeth chattering.

She quickly covered him with her blanket, and when that seemed to make little difference, she spooned up behind him, pulling him close so that the heat of her body gradually started to warm him

“Charity?”

“Hush, it’s OK,” she whispered. “I’m only warming you up, Jess. You’ve got fever and chills. You need to be kept warm, just relax, it’s Ok now, just take it easy.”

After a little while, she felt the tension leave him and then the gentle rhythm of peaceful sleep. She lay with one arm flung across his belly, pulling him close to her as she listened to his gentle breathing, praying for his recovery.

His closeness was tantalizing and she longed to feel his arms willingly encircle her again and to surrender to his passionate kisses, but she knew in her heart that he wouldn’t be forgiving her for what she had done to him anytime soon, if ever. And she had the terrible feeling that this time she had pushed him just too far.

When she awoke at dawn the following morning, it seemed as though some of her prayers had been answered.

Jess had rolled over in the night, and now he was holding her in his arms, her head resting on his chest. Although she knew it was probably just a natural instinct to hold her that way and he was deeply asleep and unaware of what he was doing, she still felt a stirring of hope. Maybe he would come round eventually. Also, as she luxuriated in his close embrace, she was aware that he was much cooler; it seemed as though the fever had broken and he was on the mend.

Then she heard the men starting to move about and knew that she should get up, as she didn’t want to embarrass Jess in front of his friends by letting them see her lying in his warm embrace. She gently eased herself free of his strong arms; he muttered in his sleep and just rolled over onto his back and continued sleeping deeply as she sat up and covering him over with the blanket, then stood up and stretched. Then she was suddenly aware of Bill and Chris grinning at her from the other side of the fire where they were enjoying their first brew of the day, and she blushed a little in the knowledge that they had seen her in Jess’s arms.

However, Chris didn’t look fazed at all and merely asked how the patient was.

“Much better,” she said smiling shyly into the kind wise old eyes of the wagon master. “His temperature has dropped. Just try and keep him quiet for a few days and he should be fine.”

Bill gave a grim laugh. “I thought you said you knew this fellow. Only way to keep Jess down is to hog tie him.”

She grinned across at the white-haired ramrod. “Yeah, don’t I know it,” she said giggling, before making her excuses and going to help Annie hitch up her team.

After she had gone, Bill and Chris exchanged knowing looks, but said nothing.

*****

Jess had been dreaming that he was back with Charity; she was gently caressing his face and whispering softly in his ear before holding him close, and he was trying to resist her, fighting the feelings. Unwilling to let himself be sucked in by her again, he tried to pull away.

However, the whispering was hypnotic, sounding almost like a fervent prayer of some sort and then he felt her arms around him and gradually the urge to pull away from her lessened. He realized he was too weak to fight it all anymore, and he relented and took her in his arms, holding her close. Gradually the shaking and the fever subsided and he felt whole again and at peace.

Jess awoke to Bill grinning down at him. “Wanna a coffee then, Romeo?”

“Huh?”

“That’s your new name,” said Charlie Wooster, looming into view behind Bill and chuckling at Jess’s mystified gaze.

“What you talkin’ about, Wooster?”

“Oh just that you had a young lady keepin’ you warm last night. Reckon she figured you’d prefer her in your bed than some of my good warming special medicine.”

Jess looked even more bewildered, and then he suddenly remembered waking and Charity being with him and then spooning up to keep him warm. He flushed and looked away. “Oh her, yeah,” he said gruffly.

“Well, you might be a bit more civil,” said Bill heatedly. “After all that girl has done for you, nursing you and not to mention sharing you bed.”

Jess looked astonished at this. “It weren’t like that…”

“Sure it wasn’t,” said Bill. “So you didn’t look like love’s young dream with you holding her in your arms that way? Just good friends, is it?” he said with an unkind smile.

Jess was getting angry now. “Goddamn it, what’s that darn woman been saying now?”

Then Chris came over and interceded on Charity’s behalf. “Hey steady, Jess; Bill’s right. She’s looked after you real good since you were injured. So what’s your problem? She’s a lovely girl.”

“Lovely?” spat Jess. “You think so, do you? Hell, you don’t know the half of it.”

“Well, sure we don’t, if you don’t tell us,” piped up Wooster, always ready to hear a juicy piece of gossip.

Jess looked down. “Just leave it, Charlie,” he growled.

But Bill was now equally angry. Seeing her and Jess that way had fuelled the feeling of jealousy of the night before and now it came spilling out. “Hell Jess, you don’t know when you’re lucky, having a wonderful young lady like that in love with you. I…”

Jess jumped up and threw Bill a furious glance. “Don’t talk about what you don’t understand, Hawkes,” he yelled turning away.

Then Chris came over and put a restraining hand on Jess’s arm. “Hey, simmer down, buddy. I don’t know what’s got you so all fired mad, but why don’t you just tell us what the problem is with Miss Charity. She sure seems keen on you, and like I said, a real nice girl.”

Jess had had enough; he was feeling sick and shaky and his arm was throbbing something fierce.

He turned back to face his friends and said, “OK, OK I’ll tell you what the problem is. That scheming bitch and her accomplice drugged me so bad that I nearly died; they Mickey Finned my drink and I was out of it for nigh on three days, had heart and breathing trouble, and kept throwin’ fits. And then they robbed me blind and took all the mustanging money that was to see us through the winter.

The three men stared at him, mouths open in shock, eyes wide, staring at their friend with new compassion in their eyes.

“Go on, Jess,” said Chris softly.

“So then I had to traipse halfway across Wyoming to get it back,  not to mention a good saddle horse she’d stolen, getting  even more sick on the way, and  all this from a woman  that says she loves me. Well, I’m sure glad she don’t hate me, ‘cos I reckon I’d be in real trouble then.” After glaring at them all, he stalked off in the direction of the horses, leaving them looking shaken and not a little guilty at the way they had teased him.

Bill shook his head sadly and made to follow him, but Chris pulled his arm back. “No, I’ll go; state he’s in right now, he’ll probably land one on you. Maybe he’ll restrain himself some with me, seeing as I’m paying his wages,” he said with a grim smile.

Chris found Jess tending to Traveler, as he knew he would do, and just stood watching the dark haired cowboy grooming his mount for a while before coming over to pat the horse’s neck and throwing his friend a speculative look. “You calmed down some now, Jess?”

Jess looked down and then up into the wagon master’s kindly old face. “Yeah, I guess, Chris. Sorry about that. Kinda a touchy subject.”

Chris nodded. “You know, Jess, in all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard you call a woman a bitch before. You must really hate her. There is more to all this than her drugging and robbing you, isn’t there?”

Jess sighed deeply and there was a long pause; Chris, knowing what a private man he was, realized he was weighing up whether or not to unburden himself.

Finally Jess leaned on his horse, looking over at Chris, and said, “Yeah, I guess there is.” He went on to explain the rollercoaster relationship he and Charity had always shared. How time after time she had made him fall in love with her, and then when she had him, backed off and hightailed it away…until the next time, when she begged forgiveness and promised to be eternally faithful.

Chris shook his head. “It’s not like you to take that kind of messing from a woman, Jess; she must be real special.”

Jess remembered back to their most recent passionate affair and just nodded, his eyes misty. “Oh yeah, she’s some woman alright,” he said. “But you’re right, Chris; I ain’t takin’ it from her anymore. Gotta back off. Guess I weakened some last night and that’s why I sounded off when the guys were teasin’ me. I’m mad at myself, Chris, not them, and I’ll apologize to old Bill and Charlie. Guess I’m just kinda edgy.”

“Well Hell, son, I can understand that and so will the others. You just lie low for a day or two. We’ll be in Rawlins come the end of the week, and you can high tail it back to the ranch. I reckon Miss Charity will be our problem then.”

“Well, good luck,” said Jess morosely. Then he said softly, “You got something wrong, though, Chris. I don’t hate her; I just wish I could. It would sure make my life easier.”

“Well, I can see as how it would, but I guess we can’t help who we fall for, can we. And she is one hell of a woman, got Bill all twitchy that’s for sure, not to mention Wooster!”

“Lord, help us,” said Jess darkly, and then turning to look at his friend, couldn’t help grinning and shaking his head in bewilderment. “Old Charlie too, eh?”

 The older man slapped him on the back chuckling. “Come on, Jess, come and make your peace with the troops.” They made their way back to camp both men feeling better for their talk.

*****

As predicted, Jess wanted to get straight back in the saddle and carry on his job of scouting, but Chris managed to pull rank and insisted the young cowboy ride up on the chuck wagon for the day. He sent Bill out scouting, secretly thinking it would be good for his friend to get away from the train for a while. It hadn’t escaped Chris’s notice that Hawkes had been jealous of Jess when he saw the younger man in Charity’s arms, and he certainly didn’t want any serous fall outs between his men.

Jess grumbled for a while and then settled down to chew the fat with Wooster, and the day soon flew past. Before he knew it, they were circling up for the night.

“Stoppin’ off kinda early, ain’t we, Charlie?” asked Jess, turning to the old timer.

“Well, it’s Saturday night, Jess; traditionally, we get an early supper and then all go to the dance.”

“Dance? Out here?”

“Why, sure. We’ve got several real good musicians, and we have a beer or two and the ladies all dress up in their finery. Mister Chris says it’s real important for morale; keeps their spirits up, see, after all the hardship — Injun raids and the like,” Charlie said, nodding down to where Jess’s arm was still tightly bound, speaking at his usual break neck speed.

Jess looked thoughtful for a moment “Oh well, reckon I’ll give it a miss. Rest up, you know?”

“Oh no, Mister Chris is real insistent that we all attend and dance with the ladies, specially the unattached ones. Says we have to keep ‘em happy.”

“Aw, Charlie…”

“Well, it beats fightin’ Injuns, don’t it, boy?”

Jess just nodded, but he wasn’t any too sure.

*****

After supper, the men all washed and shaved and changed into smart clothes before heading for the designated dancing area in the center of the camp.

As it happened, Chris had taken pity on Jess knowing he didn’t want to be in close proximity to Charity, and so he said Jess should just attend for an hour or so, and then he could turn in, pleading a need for rest after his injury. He even lent Jess a clean shirt.

“Hey you don’t scrub up too bad,” said Wooster, looking the young, freshly shaven cowboy up and down. “Reckon the ladies will just love you.”

“Charlie!” said Jess, giving him a warning look as he turned and started walking away from where the others were heading for the dance.

“So, where are you off to then?” called Charlie Wooster after his retreating back.

“Check my horse,” Jess threw over his shoulder. “Be with you shortly.”

Charlie just nodded and went off muttering to catch up with the others.

When he reached the place where the horses were ground tethered, Jess went straight to Traveler and was greeted by a welcoming whinny. He fondled the horse’s nose lovingly and then gave him a sugar lump and talked to him softly.

About quarter of an hour later, he heard the cheerful music striking up in the camp and knew he could delay his arrival no longer. He had just turned reluctantly to go, when he heard the pitiful sound of a crying baby.

He turned to see Annie off in the distance walking towards a small copse of trees, carrying a distressed Ginny.

Jess walked purposely over and called out so as not to frighten her. She turned towards him and her worried countenance changed to one of welcome when she saw who it was.

“Hey Annie, what you doin’ out here? You shouldn’t leave the camp, you know. Could still be the odd Indian around.”

“Oh yes, I never thought,” she said casting an anxious glance around her. “I just had to get away for a while; thought the change of scene might calm her,” she said gesturing to the red faced baby.

“Teeth again?” he asked sympathetically, relieving Annie of her little bundle and looking down with concern.

“Yes, she’s had some medicine that dear Ma Croft swears by and it should work soon.”

Then he glanced across at the pretty young widow, and noting that she was still in her dark brown work a day clothes, said softly, “You’re not going to the dance then?”

She shook her head. “No. I was really looking forward to getting out and chatting, but with this little soul to care for, I haven’t had a chance to fix myself up,” she said, putting an absent hand up to brush her hair back.

Jess grinned at her. “Well, you’ve got a babysitter now. You go and get yourself all prettied up and I’ll sit by your wagon with this little terror. If she settles enough, you can take her to the dance in her Moses basket. Lots of the Ma’s do that and take turns to watch the kids, Chris was telling me. I know he was looking forward to a dance with you,” he said encouragingly. “Me too.”

Anna’s eyes misted over. “You’re all so kind to me.”

He just grinned back. “Come on,” and he led the way back to the camp.

Whether it was the Harper magic touch or Ma Croft’s medicine, they never knew, but little Ginny settled down to a contented sleep shortly after Jess had been cuddling her for a while. By the time her Ma appeared looking pretty and happy, she was in a deep peaceful sleep and so the two placed her in her Moses basket and carried her carefully to the dance.

Charity was dancing with Bill, but all the time she glanced around the camp for a glimpse of Jess arriving. She had eagerly asked Charlie Wooster if Jess was well enough to attend the dance, after  having made a couple of visits up to the chuck wagon earlier  in  the day, only to be told by Chris that Jess was resting and  was not to be disturbed.

“Oh yes, Ma’am, ol’ Jess has been told he has to turn out like the rest of us. He’ll be here later.”

“Told to? He has to?” she queried.

“Well,” Charlie looked embarrassed, “Not that we have to be asked twice, of course, no Ma’am. We really enjoy these here shindigs, yesiree. No, it’s just old Jess is still kinda tired, I guess, so Mister Chris said he didn’t have to stay all evening, that’s all.” he finished lamely.

The current dance had just finished and Bill was escorting Charity back to the table she was sharing with Charlie and Chris when she saw Jess arrive, carrying baby Ginny in her basket and the other arm protectively linked in Annie’s. The young couple looked to all the world like a happy young family on a night out.

Charity’s heart missed a beat and her eyes opened wide in shock at the spectacle; she gave a soft cry.

Bill was alerted to her distress and looked across to where Jess and Annie were now chatting to the other young parents and settling Ginny down in the makeshift crèche. Then he glanced back at Charity and saw the despair in her eyes and his heart missed a beat as he realized yet again that he  had no hope with her while Jess was still on the scene.

After a while, Jess left Anna in the company of Ma Croft and some young mothers who were now close friends, and wandered off to the what served as the bar, promising to return  later to claim her for a dance.

He leaned on the makeshift bar and took a long pull on his beer before turning around and surveying the scene set before him.

The small camp had been transformed into a fairy tale dance floor with colored lanterns dotted around, sand strewn on the earth to make a pleasant dancing place, and  tables and chairs taken from  the wagons, laden with snack and drinks — all looking welcoming and festive.

Jess took another sip of his drink, thinking he really should show his face at the staff table when Charlie Wooster suddenly materialized beside him. Lifting his cheeky bearded face up to Jess, Charlie said, “Well, I won’t say no if you’re offering.”

Jess sighed and dug in his pocket and paid for another couple of beers before turning back to watch the dancers charging past in a rollicking quickstep. Then, after a moment, he was aware of Charlie digging him in the ribs. “Well, come on then; you’d better show your face or Mister Chris will think you’ve skived of somewhere,” Charlie said chuckling, as he pushed Jess away from the bar and in the direction of the staff table.

However, Wooster’s real aim was to get Jess set up with Miss Charity. Sure, they may have had their differences in the past, but it was obvious to the old timer that the young woman was smitten with Jess, and being a romantic at heart, he was determined to get the couple back together if it was the last thing he did. And if Jess had got wind of his scheming, it probably would have been too.

As it was, Jess was completely unaware of Charlie’s matchmaking or that Charity was ensconced at the staff table until he arrived. She beamed up at him from where she was sitting between Chris and Bill, both of them completely enchanted by the beautiful woman. She was dressed in the low cut silver gown with the split up the side showing a generous amount of shapely leg, and the only concession she had made to the somewhat unsophisticated gathering was the fact that she had covered her shoulders with a pretty lace wrap.

As Wooster marched up with Jess in tow, he beamed down at the pretty young woman. “Well looky who I’ve found, Miss Charity, and he’s real desperate for a dance, aren’t you, Jess?” he said turning artless eyes on his young friend.

Jess cleared his throat and looked down before gazing back at Charity, taking in her dress, his eyes lowering slightly to the soft swell of cleavage before looking her in the eye.

What could he say? It would be incredibly rude for him to refuse, and he saw Chris give him a little nod and knew he wanted no scenes at the light-hearted gathering. So Jess silently reached across for her hand, and they walked over to the dance floor, closely watched by Charlie who was nodding his old head vigorously and grinning across at his companions.

After the previous raucous dance, the band was letting folk get their breath back by playing a slow melodious number. Couples were immediately moving in close, the men with their arms around their wives or girlfriends.

Charity gave him her charming smile before moving in and snaking her arms around his neck, and he pulled her close, his arms encircling her waist in an almost automatic gesture, but if his movement told of romance, his eyes and speech denied it.

“So what do you want?” he asked bitterly.

She ignored his tone and question. “How are you?” she asked casting him a concerned look.

“So why do you care?”

“You know why. I lo…”

“No,” he spat, “don’t start that again Charlie, for Pete’s sake.”

“Well, I do care and I want to know if you’re OK.”

“It don’t really matter, does it? I’ll be off at the end of the week.”

She looked shocked. “So soon? I thought…”

“Thought you’d talk me and my money into going all the way west with you? Yeah, I know, but that ain’t gonna happen. I’m contracted to go as far as Rawlins, and that’s where I get off and go home,” he finished, giving her a hard look.

“Why are you being like this to me, Jess? You care about me; I know you do…”

Even then, she could feel his heart pounding as they were so close and could read the look in his eyes. She had seen the quickly suppressed look of desire when he had first seen her. She just needed to convince him to stay, and she thought she had found the answer.

“You know why,” he said softly. “I can’t stand it anymore, Charlie. You’ve messed with my heart once too often. I can’t…I won’t let you get close again.” With that, the dance ended and he led her back to the table, and after sitting her down, excused himself and went back over to the bar.

Later he had some dances with the other women on the train including several with Annie, and actually found he was enjoying himself. He was surprised when the slow numbers, signaling the end of the evening, were being played by the band.

He was dancing  with Ma Croft at this stage, and just beginning to wonder how he could extricate himself from the middle-aged woman’s vice-like grip, when  a ladies’ “excuse me” was called. Quick as a flash, Charity was there tapping the older woman’s shoulder and waltzing off with Jess.

He threw her a warm look. “Thanks,” he said.

“Looked like you needed rescuing,” she said. Then the music changed again, and as the romantic notes rose and fell, the couples on the dance floor moved closer and whirled around, in a gentle romantic haze.

Jess picked up on the atmosphere, and as he took her in his arms, she rested her head on his shoulder. He inhaled her perfume and could again feel his resolve faltering. He had had a couple of beers and then several whiskey chasers, and was feeling a little mellow. As she ran a hand gently down his back, he leaned down and caressed the top of her head with his lips, suddenly feeling a shock wave of desire shooting through his body.

Don’t do this Harper, he said to himself, but even as the thoughts were forming, he was pulling her closer and feeling her soft body respond beneath his gentle pressure.

Then she raised her head from his shoulder, and looking up, their eyes locked; Jess was completely mesmerized, like a moth to the flame. He glanced down to her lush full lips and then back to her eyes, and after a moment, he looked down again and moved in for a kiss.

The second their lips met, he felt a shockwave of desire so strong that he felt dazed as he kissed her, at first gently and then more and more passionately, all his senses suddenly alert and crying out for her.

After a moment, she pulled back and whispered in his ear. “Not here, honey.” After a quick glance around, she took his hand and led him away from the dance floor, off towards the little copse where he had seen Annie earlier in the evening.

Away from the camp, in the heart of the copse, it was quiet and private. Leaning his back against a tree, Jess again took her in his arms and kissed her deeply. Giving a soft groan as she pushed closer, her whole body molded to his as she ran her hand through his dark tousled hair.

Then he was kissing her hair, her face and down to her neck. She gave a little cry of pleasure and whispered his name as their passion grew and his caressing became more intimate.

She could feel his heart pounding through her thin dress and hear his breath coming in harsh gasps as he started to pull in closer still, his hands running down her back, before they came up and cupped her face again, his kissing suddenly so erotic and breath taking that she could only think of the next step, desperately wanting him.

And then he pulled away, taking a deep shuddering breath and shook his head, looking into her surprised eyes, his deep blue gaze full of remorse. “I can’t,” Jess whispered. “I can’t do this Charity.” He pushed her gently aside and took a step away from her, looking down, breathing heavily, his eyes tightly closed as if in pain.

She walked over and spun him around to face her. “What…why? Jess, I don’t understand?”

“I can’t do it because I’d just be using you,” he said, with infinite regret in his voice. “This ain’t about love right now, Charity. I’ve told you I can’t fall in love with you again, won’t let myself be that way — the way you want me to be. This is pure lust…and I’m sorry, real sorry.” Jess turned and looked down again.

He wasn’t looking at her and didn’t see the secretive look that was in her eyes. As soon as she had seen Jess enter the dance with Anna on his arm and proudly carrying little Ginny, she had started formulating a plan, and now turning to Jess she started plotting to get him back in her life… for good.

She took a deep breath and then gave a small sob.

He turned back to face her immediately, his face registering concern. “Sweetheart, don’t,” Jess whispered. “You know we’re no good together. Sure, we’re good in the sack, the very best,” he said coming over and wiping the tear away with a finger. Then he sighed deeply. “But you know as well as I do it wouldn’t last, the two of us together. The grass is always greened someplace else and you’d be off. Or you’d see some good lookin’ guy you fancy, and you’d go with him without a backwards glance.

“But I always come back to you,” she whispered.

He just shook his head a look of incredulity in his eyes. “So that makes it OK, does it?” he asked. “You can just carry on, breakin’ my heart, but hell, that doesn’t matter as long as you come back to me…some time…when you’re ready.”

She continued to cry and he suddenly felt exasperated. “Hell Charlie, do I have t remind you I found you in bed with my best mate the night before we we’re to be wed?”

“Well it’s different this time. I’m older and…” but she couldn’t speak. She just stood there, trembling and crying softly.

“And what?” he said suspiciously, suddenly alerted to the fact that all was not well.

 She was gazing at him, biting her lip, a look of something akin to fear in her eyes.

“And what, Charlie?” he asked again, his tone one of dread.

 He walked over to her and was so close he could feel her soft breath on his cheek, and their eyes locked for a moment, before she tore her eyes away from his intense gaze. She took a deep breath and then, still looking down said softly, “Because I’m pregnant, Jess; I’m expecting your baby.”

He just stared at her for a good minute and then his eyes opened wide in astonishment and he shook his head slowly, as his gaze hardened. “Oh no, oh no, you ain’t, Charlie. It won’t work you’re lying again. I don’t believe a word of it!” he yelled.

“It’s true,” she shouted back. “I’m telling you the truth, Jess; I’m expecting a baby and it’s all down to you.”

He turned away from her looking down and shaking his head in disbelief. “You can’t be,” he whispered, “I was so dang careful, you know that. And you –you said it was the safe time for you. You said it was OK.”

She sighed deeply. “Well, a girl can make a mistake, you know, Jess. Thing is, if a man and a woman tangle that way, well, sometimes there are consequences. It’s a fact of life. Thought your Pa would have told you that,” she said bitterly.

He threw her a dark look. “Don’t you go bringing my Pa into this.”

“Why not? He had enough kids and then some; thought you’d have learnt by his mistakes.”

He looked furious. “You can’t compare me with my old man. Hell, he was drunk when half us kids were conceived and he didn’t give a damn about Ma. I ain’t like that; I’ve always looked out for you that way, Charlie, and you know it.”

“Well, maybe so, but I’m just reminding you, Jess, we go way back. I knew your Ma and Pa and all those kids. Can’t remember a time we weren’t foolin’ around together; hell we’re almost family already. Maybe it’s just time we made it kinda legal, give my baby a name.”

He just stared down not knowing what to say. If she really was carrying his child, then sure he’d make an honest woman of her —  IF she was. But how could he trust her, he thought, remembering her track record with him. All the times she’d lied and let him down… How could he know?

He took a deep breath and looked across at her. “OK, you win,” he said softly. “When we get to Rawlins, we’ll have the doc check you over, and then if it’s so…well, I guess we’ll have to sit down and make some plans.”

She gave a little squeal of delight and threw herself at him, holding him close and smiling up into his troubled eyes. “You won’t regret it, I promise,” she whispered, kissing his cheek, chastely.

“Come on, it’s late; let’s get you back to the wagon,” he replied briskly, and taking her elbow, guided her back to the sleeping camp.

Outwardly, Jess looked reasonably calm and in control as he walked her back to her wagon and said goodnight before striding off back to the chuck wagon, but inwardly he was in turmoil.

He stopped short of the wagon and stood leaning on a tree, just looking out to the distant, moonlit horizon, so many emotions churning around inside him that he felt quite sick.

Shock at what he had allegedly done. Hell, he wasn’t a callow youth who had never been with a woman before. He was experienced, and even though he sometimes joked about it, he had never ever been in this situation before.

Then denial. No, he still didn’t believe it. This was another of Charity’s little scams, he just knew it — or did he?

 Then he felt a rush of white hot anger. She’d tricked him, duped him again. And how long would he keep her interest this time until her wanderlust got the better of her?

If indeed she was pregnant with his child, would she just take off and leave him, taking his baby too? The thought was so agonizing he couldn’t stand to imagine it.

And then he let his mind drift into the realms of fantasy, married to a changed Charity who was the perfect mother and wife, standing by his side through thick and thin, rearing a brood of bright, happy, well-loved children.

He sighed deeply. Ain’t gonna happen that way, Harper, he said to himself before, weary at heart,  he returned to the chuck wagon  and took his place by the fire, moving quietly so as not to disturb his sleeping buddies.

The following morning when he first awoke, it was a moment before he remembered the disclosure of the night before, and he felt the heavy weight of responsibility and worry on his shoulders as he sat up stretching and listening to Charlie Wooster muttering away to himself as he brewed the first coffee of the day.

Jess went over to the fire and poured himself a strong coffee from the pot that Charlie had just brewed, and sank down on a bench near the old timer, staring morosely into the embers of the night fire.

Charlie glanced over and then with his wicked chuckle, said, “So you finally made it home then, did you, Jess? We saw you and that pretty little lady hightailin’ it off to the woods.”

By this time, Bill and Chris were hunkered down by the fire pouring out cups of the strong brew too.

Jess flicked him a fleeting look, before gazing down into his drink and saying quietly. Just leave it, Charlie.”

“But we all wanna know what…”

But Chris, having seen Jess’s anxious expression, cut off the old cook. “Ain’t it time you were burning our breakfast by now, Charlie?”

“Oh, but Mister Chris, I wanna hear…”

“Wooster!”

“Yes Mister Chris, breakfast comin’ up.” Charlie wandered off muttering to do as he had been bid.

“You OK, Jess?” asked the kindly wagon master, but before Jess could reply, Annie approached, baby Ginny on her hip.

The men looked up and welcomed her and made room on the bench.

“Oh I don’t want to disturb you; it’s just that I could do with a little help. I hate to ask but Charity is ill and…”

Jess’s head shot up. “Ill? Is she OK?” he asked looking apprehensive.

“Well, she’s just been sick this morning, and she’s a wee bit pale and shaky. Only the thing is, I can’t really manage the team on my own, not with the baby and all, and poor Charity just isn’t up to minding her at the moment.”

Jess sprang up. “I’ll come right now,” he said quickly before taking Annie’s elbow and marching off, leaving his friends looking puzzled.

“Something not right between Jess and that Charity,” said Bill lugubriously.

“Well I guess it’s none of our business, so let’s just concentrate on getting these good folks to California and leave the gossip to the women folk,” said Chris briskly. With that, he strode off leaving Bill and Wooster looking surprised.

“Well what’s gotten into him?” asked the diminutive cook.

Bill shook his head. “Dunno, but he looks kinda worried.”

Jess strode over to Annie Morris’s wagon and saw Charity sitting by their camp fire, looking white as a sheet, a slick of sweat on her face, a shawl slung around her shoulders and a look of misery on her beautiful face.

Anna could see Jess wanted to talk to the girl, so she made her excuses and took Ginny off to the back of the wagon to feed her, leaving Charity and Jess alone.

He hunkered down beside her a look of deep concern in his eyes. “Hey sweetheart, not too good?” he said softly.

She nodded. “I guess the little one is making his presence felt already.”

Then it suddenly hit Jess like a thunderbolt. She wasn’t lying. This was all real; he was really going to be a Pa and he had a feeling of such elation it practically floored him.

He looked at her in wonder and then put one hesitant hand on her still flat belly, before looking up into her wide innocent eyes. “I’m sorry,” Jess whispered. “Sorry, I doubted you, but I promise you and the little one will want for nothing now. I’ll look after you.”

Then she heard Anna moving about, and she had a look of fear in her eyes.

“Jess… please don’t say anything to Anna — or anyone. Please, promise me,” she said leaning forwards and gripping his arm hard.

“Hey, honey, what’s the matter? If you’ve been chucking up in the mornings this way, I figure Anna will already have realized, and as for the others, well, they’ll just be happy for us.”

“No,” she said urgently, “I don’t want anyone to know, especially Anna. I’m just kinda superstitious; its early days yet, you know?”

“OK, OK, don’t upset yourself, sweetheart,” Jess said kindly. “I won’t say anything, if that’s what you want, but I guess they’ll figure it sooner or later,” he said, casting his glance down to her slim figure.

Then as Anna came back. He grinned at her and said, “Right, Ma’am; I’ll go sort out your team.” With a cheery wink, he was on his way.

Anna stared after him. “He’s sure in a good mood this morning,” she said laughing. “Nothing to do with you, is it, Charity?”

****

From that moment on, Jess spent as much of his free time as he could over at the Morris wagon, to such an extent that one morning when  he had gone over first thing to help out as Charity was still a little peaky,  Chris had to have a word with him.

“Look Jess boy, I can see as how you’re kind of smitten, but you haven’t forgotten you’re supposed to be scouting for this outfit have you?”

Jess looked down and flushed. No, I ain’t forgotten Chris. It’s just…”

 “What?” asked the older man, giving Jess a kindly look.

His caring manner reminded Jess so much of Slim that he suddenly felt he had to share his tremendous news. “Look Chris, if I tell you something, will you promise not to breathe a word?”

“Sure, you know you can trust me, Jess.”

Jess took a deep breath and then unable to prevent a huge grin forming on his handsome features. He said quietly, “Its Charity, Chris. She’s expectin’; she’s carrying my baby! “

Chris looked shocked for a moment and then his face creased into a happy smile and he pumped Jess’s hand. Well, congratulations! But why all the secrecy? I figure this calls for a big party.”

Jess shook his head. “Hell no, Chris, Charity don’t want anyone to know — not yet at least. She’s kinda superstitious, you know?”

“Women,” said Chris shaking his head knowingly. “Women.” He wandered off chuckling.

After their little talk, Jess took his duties very seriously, riding far and wide each day to be sure there was no sign of trouble ahead. They were just a couple of days outside of Rawlins when he again saw signs of Indian activity.

“Yeah, there was the sign of a camp site. Looked to be heading to the foothills, east of Rawlins. Shouldn’t bother us Chris, but need to keep a wary look out, especially at night. They might try and lift some of our horses. Need a night guard, I reckon.”

That night he had supper with Anna and Charity, and afterwards he had again, he played nursemaid to little Ginny, who was still bothered by her teeth.

They were all sitting around the fire, Jess had worked his magic on the baby yet again and she was asleep on his shoulder when Anna looked across and said softly, “I really hope you have young ‘uns of your own one day, Jess; you sure are Pa material.”

Jess and Charity exchanged a secret look, but said nothing, and shortly afterwards, Anna retired to bed, leaving the young lovers to their own devices for a while.

Once they were alone, Jess took her hand and looking deeply into her eyes said gently, “So how are you now? Still sick?”

She smiled. “In the mornings a little, but I guess it will all be worth it.”

He nodded, and then said softly. “You know, Charity, I can’t begin to tell you what this means to me. After the fire — you know, when Ma and Pa and all the young’uns were killed excepting me and Francie — well, I missed the kids so dang much. Figure it’s only now I’ve realized just how much.” Then he squeezed her hand. “We’ll make a go of it, won’t we? A proper go?”

“Sure, honey”.

“You know, Slim and I said who ever got married first would have that prime building land on the South pasture, and I reckon he’ll help me build us a real good homestead there. What do you say?”

“Sounds real good, Jess,” she said giving him her beautiful smile.

Then he said thoughtfully. “When we land at Rawlins tomorrow, we’ll have the doc there check you out real good and then…”

“No,” she cut in quickly, “I don’t need to see the doctor. That was just to confirm the pregnancy.” Then she threw him a rueful look. “Guess the way I’ve been lately, we don’t need to do that.”

“Well no,” he agreed, “but you’re seein’ the doc, Charity. It’s a long ride back to Laramie and I want to be sure you are up to it. And I want to talk to the doc anyway, just to be sure I’m doin’ all I can to help you.”

“Jess no!” she said more firmly. “There is really no need. I’ll see doctors enough at the birth.”

Jess ducked his head and then gave her his determined look, “Charity, you’re seein’ the doc tomorrow and that’s final. It’s my job to care for you and the baby, and that’s all I’m doin’. You understand that, don’t you?” he asked giving her a concerned look.

Then she nodded, and next minute was in his arms, the argument forgotten as he kissed her tenderly.

*****

The following morning, Charity was gone.

Anna came over at breakfast time, looking a little embarrassed, thinking that Jess and Charity must have gone off somewhere together, and then when she saw Jess there, looked quite worried.

“Hello, my dear,” said Chris kindly. “What can we do for you? In need of Jess to tend to the team again? Charity slept in?” he asked, carefully negotiating around Charity’s delicate state.

Anna cast a worried look towards Jess, before returning her gaze to Chris, “Well that’s the point, Mr. Hale. It’s Charity; she’s disappeared. Her bed hasn’t been slept in and her horse is missing!”

Chris looked at Jess, who jumped up immediately and went off with Anna. It was true. Not only had Charity and Chief, the big buckskin gone, but so had supplies for a few days.

Jess looked shocked. “What in hell is she playing at?” he said to Anna. “I told her not to ride Chief until she had seen the doc.”

Anna threw him a puzzled look. “Sorry, Jess. Why do you say that? We both know Charity is magic on any horse. And why does she need to see the doctor? She just had a simple stomach upset. Lots of people did after the dance; there was some bad meat served.

Jess sighed deeply knowing that if Charity had lit out, for whatever reason, that she was still vulnerable. He felt Anna finally needed to know her condition, and being so concerned about his girl, he didn’t take into consideration what Anna had just said.

He looked over at to where Anna was seated by the fire with Ginny gurgling away on her knee.

“Well the truth is,” Jess said softly, “she’s carrying our baby and that’s why I need to know. Figure maybe the reason she’s lit out is something to do with that.”

 Suddenly remembering how against a doctor’s visit she was, he felt his heart beating even faster. What in Hell was she playing at now?

He looked at Anna again. “She’s pregnant,” he said again, waiting for her reaction. “She really didn’t want you to know; guess she didn’t want you worrying about her. But, well, I reckon it don’t matter now; people will know sooner or later anyway.”

Anna just stared at him for a full minute and then went and deposited little Ginny into her Moses basket before turning to Jess. “She isn’t,” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“She isn’t pregnant with your child, Jess. I am so, so sorry, but I know for a fact that cannot be true.”

“Sure she is. She was sick — in the mornings — and she told me Anna; she told me…”

She walked over and put a gentle hand on his arm. “Jess, listen to me. I told you, lots of people had stomach upsets after the dance; it was down to old Ma Johnson’s home cured ham, only something went wrong with the curing, I guess. I didn’t have any, but Charity and several others did and all were sick.”

“Well even so…”

“Jess, I know because…” She looked down and flushed a little, but knew her embarrassment shouldn’t come between Jess and the truth. “I know because she had her monthly time just after she joined the train.”

His head shot up his eyes wide with shock, not because of what she had said, she realized, but the implication of what it meant.

He had turned very pale and she could see he was trembling slightly.

“You sure?” he whispered.

“Absolutely.”

Jess suddenly felt his legs would hold him no longer and a wave of dizziness and nausea crashed over him. He sat down heavily on the bench beside the wagon and dropped his head in his hands.

After a few minutes, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and Anna was there offering a tumbler of cold water. Jess took it gratefully and drank it back, returning the glass. “Thanks.”

She sank down beside him on the bench. “I really am sorry,” she said softly. “I can see what it would have meant to you, and it was terribly cruel of her to lie to you that way.” She cast a glance over to where Ginny was beginning to get a little fractious at having been deposited in her bed again when she had just been taken out for a cuddle.

“Well it ain’t the first time,” Jess said bitterly as he too watched little Ginny, a look of abject misery on his face. “But it sure is the last.”

Then Ginny started to grizzle, and Anna sighed and went to pick her up to prevent a full scale crying fit, and returned to the bench.

As soon as the little one spied Jess sitting there, she started cooing and held out her little arms to him to be picked up.

“I’m sorry,” said Anna, “this must be like salt in the wound. I’ll put her in the wagon.” She rose to leave, but Jess put out a restraining hand.

“No, it’s OK really.” He took the chuckling little baby from her arms and held her carefully, somehow finding some solace in the infant’s warm embrace. He held her close, his eyes suddenly pricking with tears, and he closed them tightly to prevent them forming. As Anna watched, she thought she had never seen such raw pain and her heart ached for him.

After a while, Jess bent down and kissed the downy little head before passing her back to her mother and standing up. “Guess I’d better go find her. Pregnant or not, it’s dangerous out there for a woman alone with those Cheyenne braves still around maybe.”

Anna shook her head. “Why? Why has she done this to you?” she asked. “She told me she loved you so much, you know.”

“Yeah, well… maybe she does in her own way, Anna, but Charity…well I guess she’s a one off. It’s always been the same, you see. She wants me, and as soon as I’m sucked in, she takes off somewhere or some guy catches her eye and  she’s off…until the next time, when she reckons we’ll just carry on where we left off.”

Anna’s eyes were wide in shock but she said nothing as she saw the look of stony resolve on his face.

“Well, no more,” Jess said quietly, pulling his hat down hard. “This is the very last time. She ain’t messin’ with me again, not after this last trick she’s pulled,” he said shaking his head sadly. Then he looked down at the young widow, who he had come to admire and think of as a good friend. “Thank you,” he said softly, “for being so honest with me; I really appreciate it.” Touching his hat, he strode off to saddle up his mount.

It was his last day with the wagon train, and they were camped just half a mile from Rawlins so that the passengers could go to town to stock up with supplies. Duke and Coop, the scouts, were due to meet up with Chris there in another couple of days.

Chris Hale stood watching Jess saddle up his mount, sensing there was something seriously wrong with his young friend, but not wishing to pry. After a while, he decided that he must ask about Jess’s plans, though. “So once you find her, I suppose you’ll both be heading home?” he asked quietly.

Jess spun around from where he had been tightening his cinch. “Well, you suppose wrong then. Chris. I’ll be goin’ home sure, but Charity… Well, I guess she’ll still be headin’ West with you, if you’ll have her, that is.”

“Why sure. She’s been a great help to Anna, I know, but surely… I mean with the baby and all, you’ll be staying with her, won’t you, Jess?”

He looked down for a long minute before springing into the saddle. “Ain’t no baby. She lied,” he said harshly. “I’ll get her back before you roll. So long, Chris.” With that, he kicked Traveler off to a brisk trot, leaving a shocked Chris Hale staring after him.

It didn’t take long for Jess to pick up Chief’s tracks as the only other person to leave the train recently had been Jess himself.

After an hour or so, he dismounted and hunkered down to look at the tracks, and was dismayed to see she had left the trail and was now on course for the foothills just to the east of Rawlins, where Jess had seen signs of recent Indian activity. “Crazy woman,” he muttered under his breath as he remounted and urged Traveler on with renewed vigor.

As he rode on, Jess wondered what the rationale behind her thinking was, and he figured she aimed to camp out in one of the caves that were in abundance in the area and sit it out until the wagon train moved on, knowing Jess would come looking for her. Then he reckoned she’s try and sweet talk her way out of visiting the doctor, but make their way home to Laramie, via the most direct route and bypassing the town. Then on the way home, she’d be sure they made love with abandon, knowing there was now no need to be careful, and hey presto, she really would be pregnant in the next month or so.

He shook his head, unnerved at how easy it was to get inside her mind now he was aware of the truth of her condition, thanks to Anna.

How did I get to be played for a fool again? he asked himself as he rode on, inwardly fuming with himself. Then he had to be completely honest; he had believed her because he wanted it to be true. He wanted her to be carrying his child. He wanted to fall in love and have a family — replace everything that he’s lost on that fateful night of the fire when he had lost his kin.

Sure, Daisy, Mike and Slim were like kin to him now, but he was a red blooded male. Hell, he needed a woman in his life, at some stage, and his own place. “But it ain’t gonna be with you, lady,” he whispered to himself as he rode on in the relentless heat of the day, following her tracks ever onwards towards the distant mountains.

By lunchtime, he had arrived at the foothills and started to make his way up towards the rocky outcrops where the majority of the caves were, keeping a watchful eye all around for any sign that the pack of young braves had passed that way.

He came to the place where he had originally spotted their camp site, but all was as he had left it, with no recent activity, and as he had seen before, the group were making for the canyon that bisected two small mountains and led through to the open plain beyond and the Cheyenne hunting grounds. It looked like the renegade gang might be returning to the main tribe with their tail between their legs after their humiliating defeat when they attacked the wagon train. Or they could be holing up in one of the caves, licking their wounds and waiting for the opportunity of another attack when the train moved on. If so, he knew both he and Charity were in big trouble.

Hell, she might already be their prisoner and going through untold pain and distress — or worse — and at the thought of it, he broke out in a cold sweat and urged Traveler on up the rocky incline. As he moved further on, he had a real bad feeling, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose as he entered a deep ravine, the tall rocks on either side looming over him. Even Traveler was spooked and gave a startled whinny, his ears back, and he pranced and side-stepped as they moved forwards. Again, Jess cast anxious glances around him and patted the old horse’s neck. “Steady, fellah,” he whispered. “I don’t like it here either, but we’ll be through in a minute.” He kicked the horse on to a steady trot.

When they emerged on the other side, he was in an open grassy area and the rocky hills where the caves were, spread out to the east. He made for them, just hoping and praying that the only occupant was Charity, and not a mess of angry braves with nothing they would like more to do than scalp the young cowboy who had out ridden them to warn the wagon train.

It was about half an hour later that he saw the smoke from a camp fire curling up into the blue sky and reining Traveler in, was able to make out a figure sitting by the fire outside the mouth of one of the larger caves. It was Charity.

“Thank God,” he whispered to himself, before kicking his mount into a gallop.

She looked up as he entered her camp and then stood up and moved towards him a look of delight on her beautiful face. “I knew you’d come,” she said happily.

He leapt down from his horse, his expression stony. “What in hell are you playin’ at, coming out here alone? You knew I’d seen Cheyenne in these hills.”

Her head shot up and she looked equally angry. “And you said you figured they’d moved on. It’s safe as houses here, Jess; quit your fussin’.”

This was like a red rag to a bull and he flushed up and stood there, his right hand clenching and unclenching, like he would like to draw his gun. “So why did you run off?” he spat.

She looked down, and decided she needed to humor him, get him back on side. “I just needed some space, some time alone to come to terms with the baby and all,” she said, putting a protective hand across her belly.

“Oh really,” he said with a deadpan expression. “And so how are you Charity — you and the baby?”

“Why are you so angry?” she asked. “We’re fine. I’m still sickly in the mornings, but I guess it will all be worth it when  you’re holding this little one in your arms,” she  said, again putting a hand to her flat stomach and throwing him a triumphant look.

He suddenly felt so angry that he thought he might well hit her.

Jess strode forwards and, grabbing her by the shoulders, shook her hard. “Will you stop it, Charity? Stop your lyin’!”

“What…what do you mean, stop it? Jess, you’ll hurt me…hurt the baby.”

“There ain’t no baby,” he yelled, his expression one of furious rage. “Stop lyin’. It’s over, Charity; I know you’re not pregnant!”

She turned very pale and looked down before whispering, “Anna?”

He nodded.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said, reaching up a hand to his chest and looking him in the eye properly for the first time. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, really, I didn’t; I just had to stop you from leaving me.”

“Didn’t mean to hurt me!” he said, his eyes open wide with astonishment. “You knew how I felt about having a kid. I told you stuff I’d never told anyone before, Charlie. I trusted you, goddamn it,” he said his voice breaking. “I trusted you…” He wrenched free of her and turned his back, breathing deeply, trying to control his anger and pain.

“Please,” she said, “it will be OK. We can have a baby, Jess, be together…”

He spun around to face her, his eyes, flashing dangerously. Oh no… oh no you don’t,” he spat. “This is it, Charlie…the end. It’s over and for good this time.”

“No, Jess, please. You love me, I know you do. I…”

“No,” he growled, “no I don’t. Any love I had for you died when Anna told me the truth. We’re really through this time, Charlie.” He gave her a hard look. “Now get your gear. We’re goin’ back to Rawlins. Chris has kept your place on the wagon train; you’re goin’ west like you wanted — and I’m going home.” With that, he turned and walked away a little, surveying the distant hills, his ramrod straight back brooking no argument.

She sighed deeply, knowing the battle was lost but not the war. She still had time to get him back, she thought, as she started to break camp.

They were riding in single file, with Charity riding in front, passing through the narrow canyon, when it happened.

Again Traveler started to play up as he entered the restricted space and Jess was immediately on the alert, expecting an arrow to whistle past them at any stage and cursing Charity for putting them in this danger.

Traveler, who had been increasingly hard to handle, suddenly sidestepped and reared up, nearly throwing Jess. “Hey, fellah,” he said in surprise. “Easy…”

He was so busy trying to control his mount that he failed to see the big cat leap from a rocky outcrop and pounce on Charity, raking his claws down her back and throwing her from her horse. Immediately, it started to tear at her arm as she fought hysterically to free herself, screaming and crying for Jess.

Within seconds, Jess threw himself down from the saddle and shot the creature in the back of the head killing it instantly, but not before it had mauled Charity.

He ran to her and hauled the dead animal away from where it had fallen across her chest, and scooped her up in his arms, carrying her several yards from the dead beast before laying her down gently and peering into her horror-stricken; pain infused face.

“It’s OK, it’s OK, sweetheart,” Jess said softly as he gently began to remove the shredded shirt from her arm and looked at the lacerations.

When he saw the deep puncture marks the cat had made to her arm, and then when she sat up, the slashes to her back, he knew she was in need of some serious doctoring and not here in this dangerous place either, where they were sitting ducks.

Jess scanned the area again, worried that if there were any Cheyenne about, they would have been alerted to their position by the recent gunshot.

Jess made a quick decision. He tied his bandana around the still bleeding arm and then said “Come on, honey; let’s get you up on old Trav with me and get out of this death trap. Sooner we’re out in the open, then safer we’ll be, and then we can strike up a camp and I’ll tend that bite…OK?”

She just nodded, not really caring; all she could focus on was the searing pain in her arm and back and trying to stay conscious.

Jess lifted her up to a now more controlled Traveler, and picking up Chief’s reins, he jumped up behind her. Taking her weight as she leaned back, he kicked his mount on to a slow walk, leading the big buckskin.

After half an hour or, so they were back out on the open range with Rawlins a mere couple of hours ride away, but it was nearly dusk and Charity was looking far from well, so he decided they would have to camp for the night and revue the situation in the morning.

They came to the stream that had run down from the higher ground and some standing trees for shelter and shade; it looked like a good place to stop for the night. He reined his horse in, and after hopping down, gently lifted  Charity down. “I reckon we’ll be safer here out in the open rather than back in those old caves. At least we’ll see ‘em coming if there are still any renegades about,” Jess said.

But then he realized that she was hardly listening and he quickly put down a bed roll for her to lie on. He went about setting a camp fire to boil some water for coffee and to clean her wounds.

Her back was not too bad, but it was still a painful business washing the wound, first with water and afterwards with pure alcohol to be sure it was completely clean. She screamed and then cried pitifully when he poured the whiskey on  the open  wound and  he felt terrible, but knew he  had to be  sure it  didn’t get infected.

If that  was bad the wound to the arm was much more difficult to clean as there were several very deep punctures that he had to clean out, but he  knew from  his own experience that these were the most dangerous and needed special attention.

She groaned and squirmed as he tried to treat her, and he felt himself breaking out in a cold sweat as he felt her pain. There was no way round it, though, and for her own good, he had to try and hold her down while he attended to the nasty wound.

“Look, Charlie this will hurt something fierce,” Jess said softly as he prepared to disinfect the deep wound with the whiskey, once he had washed it with cool water. “But I’ll be as quick as I can, OK?”

She nodded, but when the agony flooded through her, she bucked and fought him, trying to pull away, and he had his work cut out tending her.

In the end, both of them were pale and trembling, and Jess took a good swig of the whiskey before passing it to Charity, but she just shook her head, saying she felt sick. Then she gave him a grim smile. “I guess this is my comeuppance for betraying you that way. You know, like Karma. What goes around comes around.”

He shook his head, his deep blue eyes full of concern, and he whispered, “I wouldn’t wish this on you no matter what you’d done to me, and I’m sorry for you…real sorry. And Charlie, I guess I can understand you must have been pretty desperate to make up that story. But…”

“What, Jess?” she asked, a gleam of hope in her eyes, at him being so reasonable.

“But it don’t change anything, Charlie. Sure I feel sorry for you, sorry your hurt an’ all, but it don’t change the fact that we’re still through. Bottom line is I can’t trust you, and if a man and a woman don’t have trust between them, then they don’t have nuthin’.”

She opened her mouth to object. “But Jess, the way we are together, so close, the lovin’…”

But Jess just shook his head and covered her over with a blanket. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It ain’t up for discussion. You try and get some rest, and I’ll make us some supper.” With that, he walked off to fetch some more wood for the fire, leaving her staring after him, a look of shock in her beautiful eyes. This time he really meant it, she thought.

He had set about preparing them some trail grub, although neither was very hungry after the past few traumatic hours, when he heard a rider approaching at a fast trot.

The sun was just setting behind the newcomer, making it impossible to see his features, and Jess leapt up, picked up his rifle and strode over in front of where Charity still lay, protecting her. “Hold it right there, mister,” he shouted as the rider advanced on the camp, leveling the shotgun at the man.

Then there was something familiar about the horse and the way the man sat him, and a moment later, he recognized the cheerful, weather-beaten face of Bill Hawkes.

Bill put his hands in the air in mock protest. “Well, that ain’t a right friendly way to greet a buddy bearing’ gifts,” he said with a laugh.

Jess lowered the gun and gave his friend a sheepish look. “Gee, sorry, Bill. Guess I’m kinda edgy, what with renegades and mountain lions about the place. Reckon I’m gettin’ as spooked as ol’ Traveler there,” he said with a grin, tipping his hat to where Traveler and Chief had heads up and ears back, surveying the new horse and rider anxiously.

Bill grinned back, slid down from the saddle and then saw Charity lying down, propped up on her saddle and covered with a blanket looking pale and sick. He ran over at once, concern on his face. “Hey little lady, you been in the wars?” he said softly.

“Tangled with a cougar, until Jess dispatched him, that is,” she said glancing up at where Jess had wandered over. “Saved my bacon, I guess.”

Jess grinned down at her. “Well, I was goin’ to leave her to it. Loves a good fight, does ol’ Charlie here, but then she looked to be comin’ off worst, so figured I’d lend a hand.”

Charity and Jess thought this was hilarious, both now feeling relieved the worst was over. They were also on the outside of a couple of reviving slugs of whiskey and feeling a little mellow, Charity having decided it might help with the pain.

However, Bill didn’t see the funny side at all and seemed very troubled by the incident. “Hey, this isn’t a laughing matter, Jess,” he said gruffly. “Poor kid could have been killed.” He knelt down beside her, taking her hand and patting it solicitously.

Jess was a bit annoyed at this. “Hell, do you think I don’t know that Bill? No point in fussin and frettin’, though; that won’t help her none.”

“He’s right, Bill. I’m OK, really. Jess knows what I’m like; I’d rather try and see the funny side than dwell on things.”

Bill still looked very upset though and so Jess decided to change the subject. “So old Wooster’s cookin’ get too much for you then, Bill? Had to hightail it over here just to get some of my decent trail grub?” He gestured to Bill to take a seat and started dishing up, passing a plate of bacon and beans to his friend.

“Um… does smell mighty good,” said Bill, happily digging in.

They ate quietly for a minute or two and then Jess said, “So what did bring you out here then, Bill?”

“Um? Well, like I said, I come bearin’ gifts. See, Chris Hale said you lit off in such a dadgum hurry you forgot  your wages, and he thought  you might decide to go across country home — if Miss Charity here decided not to carry on west with us,” he said , avoiding Jess’s eye. “So anyway, he asked me to bring ‘em over and see as to what your plans were.”

Jess was perfectly aware that Chris knew he wouldn’t just take off into the blue yonder without his wages, but he just said. “Oh thanks, Bill.” But secretly he was aware that the reason Bill had ridden  all this way was to look out for Charity and maybe even to persuade her to continue west with them.

It didn’t take a genius to see Bill was badly smitten with Charity, and he felt sorry for his old friend, knowing how she might well just amuse herself for a while when she was confined to the wagon train before leaving him flat as soon as she tired of his company. But then again, he reflected, it was nothing to do with him. Charity was out of his life and Bill was old enough to look after himself — he hoped.

“Well, reckon it’s real good you’ve happened along then, Bill. Saves me a journey back to Rawlins with Charity. I can go east back to Laramie. That’s if you’ll be good enough to escort Charity back with you? “

Bill looked like all his birthdays had come at once. “So Charity’s coming back to the train?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“And you’re not?”

“Got it in one, Bill.”

The white-haired cowboy beamed and then tried to hide his look of delight. “So you’re not…er…you’re not…” he floundered, looking embarrassed.

“No, we’re not together anymore,” said Jess, finally getting tired of the protracted discussion, knowing that Charity was more than a little upset about it all.

Bill finally relaxed. “So you’re coming back with me then Charity?” he said hopefully.

“Looks like it,” she whispered, staring down into her untouched supper.

Bill looked worried and cast Jess an anxious look.

“She’s kinda tired,” Jess said softly, “and hurtin’ some,” referring to her injuries. Bill just nodded and cleaned his plate.

Shortly afterwards, they retired to bed, with Bill and Jess opting to keep guard in view of the possible proximity of the marauding young braves.

Jess took first watch to midnight and was just about to wake Bill when Charity did it for him.

She had fallen into a deep sleep, probably fuelled by the slug of whiskey he had given her to help with the pain, but now she was suddenly screaming hysterically. Jess ran over and it was obvious she was having a terrible nightmare; she kept screaming and screaming for Jess.

He knelt beside her and took her in his arms gently, trying to wake her while Bill looked helplessly on.

In a few minutes, she was fully awake and, after staring around her, looked up into Jess’ concerned, kind face. “I dreamt it was attacking me again,” she said. “I was so, so frightened.” Then grabbing hold of his arm, she said, “Don’t leave me, Jess; please don’t go.”

“It’s Ok,” said Bill quickly. “Guess it’s my turn on watch; you stay here by the fire with her, Jess.”

“Thanks.” Jesse went and got the canteen to give her a drink, and then covered her over, lying down nearby.

After Bill had gone to sit over on a log where he could look out to the moonlit plain, she said, “Jess, I am so scared, hold me…just for a little while.”

He moved closer and took her in his arms. “It’s OK, you’re safe now,” Jess said gently. As she rested her head on his shoulder, he could feel her shaking and knew this was no scam; she really was terrified.

A little while later, when Bill wandered over to get a coffee from the pot on the fire, he glanced over  and again felt a spasm of jealousy as he looked down at Charity, now held tightly in Jess’s arms, both of them fast asleep, but for all the world looking like young lovers.

“Not together anymore?” he whispered under his breath and went off with his coffee and a heavy heart.

*****

The following morning, when Jess awoke, he was aware of a dead weight lying across his chest and realized it was Charity, with her head on his shoulder and cuddled up close, embracing him in her sleep. He remembered how distressed she had been the night before.

He very gently extricated himself from her grasp, trying not to wake her, and she just gave a little whimper before turning on her side and going back to sleep.

Jess stood up and went over to the fire, and that was when he saw Bill sitting on the opposite side, staring sullenly across at where Charity slept on.

“You looked kinda cozy there,” Bill said gruffly. “So you two made up your differences then?” he asked, unable to keep the note of jealousy from his tone.

Jess hunkered down beside his friend and helped himself to a cup of coffee before replying. He sighed deeply. “So what makes you think that, Bill?”

“Well, you have just got out of her bed. Like I say, you looked really cozy there and…”

“No Bill, we ain’t made up our differences. She was just real upset and needed comfortin’ “

“Oh so that’s what you call it is it?” said Bill, sarcastically.

Jess had just about had enough. “Well, what’s it to you anyway?” he asked giving Bill a hard look.

Bill flushed and looked down. “Well, she’s a real nice girl and I guess I care about her. Don’t want to see her hurt.”

“And you think I do?” broke in Jess. “Hell, me and Charity go back forever. We’ve been as close as it’s possible to be, Bill, so don’t go thinkin’ I don’t care about her because it ain’t true. It’s just that we ain’t no good together long term; it wouldn’t work, because Charity ain’t a settling down kinda girl.” Then he gave his friend a penetrating look. “And I sure hope you don’t have to find that out the hard way, Bill.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Bill, looking flustered and blushing some more.

“Sure you do,” said Jess quietly.

However, before he could say more, Charity stirred, sat up stretching and smiled across at them.

Jess poured her a coffee and took it across. “How’re you feelin’ today?”

“Much better. I figure you cleaned those bites real good, and I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time over it. You were just doing what had to be done; I know that now,” she said, giving him a sweet smile.

“So you’ll be OK to ride out with Bill today then?” Jess asked calmly.

Her face fell. “Jess, please…”

He stood up. “Guess I’ll get some more wood for the fire and cook you breakfast.” he said quietly before wandering off.

Bill watched her as her eyes followed Jess’ every movement as he walked away from her, the look of deep regret on her beautiful face moving him intensely.

Jess cooked a good breakfast as promised, but Charity merely pushed her food about her plate before abandoning it and sipping her coffee.

When the meal was over and tidied away, Jess insisted on checking her wounds and was pleased to see there was no sign of infection. “Yeah, I reckon you’re fine to ride. It’s only a couple of hours to town from here; should make the wagon train in plenty of time.”

She refused to look him in the eye and said nothing, just sat there looking down.

Jess glanced at her. “Charity?” She still said nothing and so he continued speaking. “Anyways, I want you to have this,” he said, pulling out the wage packet Bill had brought him and then also taking some notes out of the mustanging money, now safe in his wallet.

Her head shot up. “What’s this for?”

“Help pay your way and some for a place when you get there. Tide you over before you get a job, or find another man,” he said with a hint of bitterness.

“That’s the mustanging money… you can’t,” she said softly, biting her lip and refusing to be angry at the comment about another man.

“It’s OK; that’s my share of the bonus. Was goin’ to buy a new saddle, but I guess old Trav won’t mind puttin’ up with the old one a while longer.”

“Oh, Jess,” she whispered, her eyes filling up. Charity jumped up and moved towards him, but he backed off throwing her a wary look.

“Don’t start,” Jess said gruffly, his tone belying his true feelings of deep emotion. He turned away, her vulnerability suddenly contrasting with the tough image she usually portrayed, moving him deeply.

“Jess?”

He turned back and stared at her, thinking how beautiful she was, even though her face was pale and tearstained.

She was wearing the Confederacy cap and shirt again, and as she pushed the cap back, and wiped a tear away, she looked him in the eyes, and he knew what was coming.

“I guess Adam would have been real sad to see this day, Jess, the way you’re abandoning me.”

Bill had been keeping out of the way on the other side of the fire giving her some privacy as Jess had to pull up her shirt to dress the wounds to her back, but now he started to take notice.

Jess felt suddenly angry. “Hell Charlie, are you never goin’ to let that lie? All my life I’ve tried to pay back that debt, looked out for you…you know that. And you’ve always thrown it back in my face, by bein’ unfaithful or walkin’ out on me,” he shouted.

Bill suddenly stood up. “Jess, you can see she’s upset. Quit yellin’ at her.”

Jess rounded on his friend. “Just keep out of this, Bill; you don’t have a clue as to what this is all about.”

“I can see she’s upset,” Bill insisted.

“Bill, you’re really not helping here,” said Jess in exasperation. “Just give us a minute, will you?”

Bill looked embarrassed, and then glancing over to Charity, said, “That what you want, Miss Charity?”

Charity turned and peered at Bill like she had forgotten he was even there. “Yes. Er…yes, please Bill, if you don’t mind. Jess and I just need to sort something out.”

Bill turned away. “I’ll go saddle the horses then,” he said curtly, disappearing off to where the horses were tethered, down near the stream several yards away beyond the trees.

After Bill had left, Jess threw her a hard look. “Do we?”

“Huh?”

“Do we need to sort something out?”

“I think so, yes.”

He just gazed at her, one eyebrow quizzically raised, waiting for her to go on.

“We need to be completely honest with each other. I love you…”

“Charity!”

“No, let me finish, please. I love you, and it’s only really now that I’ve come to realize how much. And I believe you love me too. When you hold me, when you look deep into my eyes, when we make love…” she said whispering now. “You couldn’t fake all that, Jess. I know you love me and we have to be together,” she finished walking over and placing a hand on his chest and looking up into his eyes, “We just have to.”

He looked back and shook his head sadly. “No,” he whispered, “I told you, Charlie. I can’t do this anymore. When you told me…” He stopped and swallowed and then tried again. “When you told me you were carrying our baby that changed my life. I have never — never — felt that way before. And then when I knew you’d lied, well, that was it, Charlie. I mean, really the end. Ain’t no goin’ back from that.”  He gave a deep shuddering sigh. “I’m sorry; this is the end of the line for us.”

“Never a truer word spoken, Harper!”

Jess spun round, his colt in his hand in a split second, but what he saw made his heart miss a beat.

Standing just a few feet away was Jake Ryan of Ryan gang fame, a rifle aimed at Jess’s head. Beside him his brother Toby, his gun aimed at Charity.

“Drop you iron, Jess,” said Jake Ryan in a quiet reasonable voice. “Or Toby shoots Charity’s brains out right now, in front of you.”

Jess threw his gun down and then turned on him. ”I thought you two were locked up and the key thrown away,” he growled.

Ryan smirked at him. “Yeah, well, I figure you thought that or you wouldn’t be messin’ with my girl.”

Charity’s head shot up. “I’m not your girl, Jake; we split up long before the law caught up with you.”

Now Ryan moved over to Charity, and with the gun still trained on her, leaned over and caressed her cheek. “Now we both know that was just a misunderstanding, little darlin’. Sure you still want ol’ Jake, don’t you?” he said grabbing her arm and squeezing it tightly.

She tried to pull away. “Stop — in you’re hurting me.” But Jake just laughed cruelly.

“Leave her alone, Ryan,” yelled Jess, but Toby, who had moved forwards to cover Jess, now jabbed his rifle hard into Jess’s belly. Jess fell to his knees in agony, clutching his stomach and retching as he lay curled up on his side.

“Don’t interfere, Harper, if you know what’s good for you” spat Toby, callously kicking the young cowboy for good measure.

“Stop it, stop it!” screamed Charity, wriggling free of Jake’s hold. Running forward, she slapped Toby hard across the face.

The big ugly man went to grab her but Ryan intervened. “Leave it, kid. Plenty of time for me to teach this little lady a few manners later.” Then looking speculatively at Jess, he said, “So the word I’ve heard is right? You two are together again? Sure don’t look like you’re through with her like you were saying when we just came up, Jessie boy. Looks to me like you’ve still got the hots for my girl. Figure I’ll have to teach you both a lesson in manners.”

Jess said nothing as he was still gasping in pain, the white hot agony in his belly radiating down to his groin and making him feel sick as a dog.

“Come on, Jess, get up; don’t be shy now. How’s about a little sparrin’ for the lady’s hand?” suggested Ryan with a cruel smile.

Toby went and grabbed Charity roughly by the wrists and dragged her away a few yards from where Jess had fallen while Jake Ryan wandered over to Jess. Looking down to where he was still lying on his side his hands protectively across his stomach, Ryan kicked Jess hard in the back and Jess was again flooded with agony.

“Come on then, Jessie boy; ain’t like you to turn down a good scrap.”

The kick to the back along with this latest taunt was all Jess needed to get completely fired up. He felt the red hot fury suffusing his body, and slowly he got to his knees and finally pulled himself upright, trembling and sweating. “Bring it on, Ryan,” he snarled, his eyes narrowing and his fists clenched.

Ryan had the looks of a thug. He had cropped reddish hair and an ugly blemished face. He was a good head taller than Jess and several pounds heavier, but he was also several years older and considerably out of condition after his long prison sentence.

As he went to land a punch on Jess’ jaw, the young cowboy easily ducked it, even in his weakened state from the recent attacks. He threw all his weight behind a punch that caught Ryan straight in the face, sending him flying backwards, blood streaming down his face from a smashed nose.

Ryan lay in the dirt for a moment, surveying his adversary with a mixture of shock and grudging admiration. “I guess we ain’t slowed you down an, boy,” he said as he got unsteadily to his feet, but before he could retaliate, Jess swung a hard right to the jaw and the older man fell again.

This time, Jess didn’t give him the chance to pull himself together but merely dragged him up before raining punches to his head and chest, which were retaliated half-heartedly by Ryan who managed to graze Jess’s cheek, but did little  other damage. Finally, Jess punched him hard in the belly before chopping the back of his neck as he doubled over, and the big man fell at his feet, out for the count.

Jess stood there shaking and swaying, looking down at his opponent and wiping blood from a gash to his face with his shirt sleeve and he never saw it coming.

Toby came up behind him and brought the butt of his rifle down heavily on the back of Jess’s skull, flooring him instantly; when Charity screamed and ran forwards to help him, Toby gave her a vicious back hander, sending her sprawling in the dirt alongside Jess.

Toby then ignored them and went over to help his brother whilst Charity crawled over to a deeply unconscious Jess. Pulling his head onto her lap, she brushed his hair back from his deathly white face and held him close.

Meanwhile, Bill Hawkes pulled hard on the ropes that had him tied to a large pine, and shook his head to try and clear it. He had been taken totally by surprise and never saw what hit him. One moment, he had been bending to tighten the chinch on Jess’s big bay and the next thing he knew, he was seeing stars, being tied to the tree and having a filthy gag shoved in his mouth.

“So you’re a friend of Jess Harper, are you?” spat Jake Ryan. “Well, real pleased to meet you. I may be in need of your services later, friend. Little matter of diggin’ a grave for ol’ Jess.” With that, the two men had left, treading softly as they crept up on the unsuspecting couple.

Later Bill heard the shouting and sounds of a vicious fist fight going on a few yards away, but he was screened by the trees and couldn’t see anything. Then he heard Charity’s anguished scream followed by silence, and he tugged again at his tight bonds cussing with frustration as they merely tightened around his chest the more he struggled.

Back at the camp, Toby had thrown some water from his canteen over his recumbent brother and Jake came around, coughing and spluttering. “What are you doin’?” he yelled at his kid brother. “You near drowned me.”

Toby grinned down at him. “Figure you’re out of condition, brother, letting Harper there beat the lights out of you. Hell, I’d already knocked the stuffin’ out of him before the set to and he still finished you.”

Jake sat up, rubbing his belly and cussing softly, before he glanced over at where Jess was still lying in Charity’s arms out for the count. “Well, he don’t look too good now,” he said, heaving his massive frame up and lumbering over to take a closer look.

Charity gave him a bitter look. “How could you do that?” she spat at Toby. “Jess won fair and square, and you knocked him senseless with your rifle, you cowardly bastard!”

Toby went to swipe at her again, but Jake intervened, “I told you before — she’s mine to teach a lesson to. And I want Harper awake and taking notice when I do it. Now clear off and check on the other hombre, and then get yourself off to double-check we ain’t left any trail for that posse to follow.”

“Come on, Jake, will you quit your worryin’? We aren’t going to get picked up now; they’ll have lost the trail way back.”

Jake glared at his younger sibling. “Just do as I say. Last thing I want is to be picked up and thrown back in clink. And anyway, I reckon we killed that guard back at the jail, so we’ll be looking at a murder charge this time. So go check!”

Then Jake leaned down and roughly dragged Charity to her feet and tied her hands and feet before throwing her down back in the dirt, and doing the same to Jess.

“What are you doing?” she shouted. “He isn’t about to escape. He’s unconscious, you fool.”

Jake turned on her at that. “We’ll see who’s the fool later,” he spat. “Think you can go two-timing me with the likes of Harper, do you?”

“You’re crazy. You and I split up over five years ago. Hell, you’ve been in jail for three years, and still another two to do, by my reckoning.”

“Well, don’t you go worrying your pretty little head doing the math, because I’ve got other things for you to think on. Like how you’re going to make this affair with Harper up to me. I figure we’ll start with a little lovin’ — just as soon as Harper is ready to watch.”

Her head shot up. “You’re plumb loco, you know that?”

Jake just laughed harshly and wandered over to his horse, and on finding a bottle of Red Eye in his saddle bag, went over to the fire and sat with his back to a log, ignoring them. “You just relax, honey,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll just wait until my little brother gets back and then I’ll be teaching’ you a few manners.”

Jess remained out cold from the brutal blow to his head, and once Jake got stuck into the whiskey, Charity managed to crawl painfully back to Jess. Even though her hands were tied, she was able to lift his head onto her lap and she sat there talking softly to him, begging him to wake up.

That was the way Toby found them when he rode back into the camp later that afternoon.

Toby jumped from his horse and swaggered over to them. Sneering at Charity, he said, “Well, ain’t this a pretty little scene. Worried about your man, are you, honey? Well don’t you fret; I’ll fetch him back in the land of the living.” With that, he tossed the contents of his canteen over Jess’ face and chest, and Jess’ blue eyes finally opened wide as he cussed loud and long.

“Hey, shut it, Harper. Ladies present,” drawled Toby, grinning down at the young cowboy.

Jess’s head swiveled to Charity and they exchanged the ghost of a smile. “Reckon she’s heard worse than that,” he muttered.

Then a rather drunk Jake staggered over. “So back with us, are you, Jessie boy? Good. So let’s have us some fun,” he said, turning bleary eyes on his brother and passing a fresh bottle of whiskey over.

Toby took a long pull at the bottle and then corked it. He helped Charity up and frogmarched her over near the fire and threw her down on a blanket, where she lay scowling up at him.

Then the two brothers went back for Jess and brought Bill Hawkes back into the camp too. They threw them inelegantly in the dirt on the other side of the fire, with their backs to a large log.

Jess was pale and shaking and looked like he was about to chuck up.

“You OK?” whispered Bill, who had finally had the gag removed.

Jess just shook his head. “That bastard Toby downed me with a rifle, near cracked my skull open. Feelin real sick an’ dizzy.”

“Sounds like concussion to me, not that they’ll be sending for a doc for you anytime soon,” Bill muttered.

“Shut it, you two, or I’ll gag the pair of you,” slurred Jake.

He needn’t have worried as Jess’s head suddenly fell back and he was out of it again.

Seeing this, Jake was furious; he fetched the canteen and doused the young cowboy again until Jess came around, shaking his head and looking even paler.

“You just stay with us,” spat Jake, the drink obviously making him even more aggressive than usual. “Want you to see your girl humiliated, see her grovel for my forgiveness.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Leave her alone, you lowlife,” he spat, suddenly flushing with anger.

Jake leaned down and gave him a malicious backhander across the mouth, splitting Jess’s lip, the blood pouring down his chin. But Jess said nothing; he just narrowed his eyes and squinted up at his adversary, a look of defiance in his eyes.

Then once Jake was sure he had Jess’s full attention he staggered over to Charity and offered her the whiskey bottle. “Come on, honey, have a drink. Get you in the mood for a little romancin’.”

She ignored him and just turned her head away.

Incensed at her attitude, he grabbed her hair, and pulling her head back, forced the bottle to her lips and made her drink.

She gagged, but most of the burning liquid went down, and she gasped and coughed.

“Leave her alone,” yelled Jess. “You can beat the tar out of me if you want, but leave her be.”

“Shut your face, Harper,” said Toby, coming over from where he had been lounging near his brother, watching Charity with a dangerous look in his eye.

Jess and Bill exchanged a helpless look and lapsed into silence.

The two brothers continued to swig down the whiskey before forcing more down Charity, and it was all Jess could do to stay conscious, never mind formulate an escape plan, if indeed escape had been possible, which he very much doubted.

Both he and Bill were tightly bound with their hands tied in front of them and their feet tied too; they were loosely lashed to the log they were lying against.

However as the evening wore on and the brothers became more raucous and paid them less attention, they managed to pull free of the bond to the log, but still had their limbs immobilized by the tight ropes.

Then finally, the moment Jess had been dreading arrived. Instead of trying to force yet more drink down Charity, Jake grabbed hold over her hair again and pulled her to him, kissing her deeply.

“Get off,” she screamed as she pulled away. “You filthy bastard, leave me be.”

Jess strained at the ropes and felt his heart beating so fast that he thought it might well kill him. His breath was coming in harsh gasps and he desperately tried to calm himself and think straight.

And then he remembered it — the knife down the side of his boot. He had removed the knife he habitually carried there when he had slid the envelope with the money down his boot and had carried it in his saddle bag, but now he suddenly remembered that he had put the money in his wallet and replaced the knife just that very morning.

Seeing that Jake was still preoccupied with trying to kiss Charity and Toby was looking almost comatose, he slowly reached down and felt in  his boot, the smooth handle of the knife slipping  easily into  his hand. Slowly, slowly, he eased it out, and then leaning further forward, he quickly sliced through the rope around his ankles, the knife so keen it was like slicing butter. Then he did the same to Bill; Jess then passed him the knife so Bill could cut the rope at his hands, all the time the two men casting wary glances to where Jake was again necking the whiskey bottle, his back to them.

Once Jess’s hands were free, he quickly liberated Bill and not a moment too soon.

He was looking down and massaging his painful wrists when he suddenly heard an ear-splitting scream and then Charity calling his name. Looking over, he was horror stricken to see that Jake had ripped her shirt off her and was now forcing himself upon her, aided and abetted   by Toby who was helping to hold her down.

Jess gave an almost primeval scream of rage, and leaping up, was across the short distance in a split second. He hauled Jake off her and threw a punch that sent Ryan flying way across the camp in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, Bill had laid into Toby, and such was his inebriated state that Toby was felled in one, out cold.

Bill turned away and was just in time to see Jess pulling Jake up from where he had fallen and was now laying into him like a mad man.

Bill ran over to where Charity was standing, swaying a little, and watching the scene before her in shock — and then increasing horror — as it became clear that Jess had completely lost it.

She turned a tearstained pale face to Bill. “Stop him!” she cried. “For God’s sake, Bill, stop him before he’s hung for murder!”

It took all Bill’s strength to restrain his friend and he knew perfectly well that if Jess hadn’t been beaten previously, and was concussed then he would have stood no chance. He yelled at his friend, “Stop it, Jess; that’s enough. You’ll kill the bastard.”

Jess threw one more punch at the already deeply unconscious man before Bill grabbed him tightly, trying to pull him off. Then Bill felt him shudder and then stop struggling. Jess finally shrugged off Bill’s restraining arms and staggered away a little, shaking his head as if to clear it.

Bill walked across to him. “Jess? “

Jess looked up at his friend and said softly, “It’s OK; I’m done.”

Bill sighed with relief and went about tying up the prisoners while Jess made his way to where Charity had sunk down by the fire, looking white and shaking violently from head to toe.

When Jess saw the torn shirt and scratches to her face, he went white with fury again and quickly turned away, returning a few minutes later with a blanket to cover her nakedness. He sank down beside her, putting the blanket around her shoulders, and then pulling her in close. She put her head on his shoulder and started to weep bitterly.

After a while, she cried herself to sleep; Jess gently laid her down on the bedroll and covered her carefully with the blanket, tucking it around her so that she would be warm and also her state of undress would not be apparent. Then he finally got up and slumped down by Bill, who was again with his back to the log drinking a cup of coffee.

Bill reached over to the pot and poured Jess one, lacing it liberally with what was left of Jake’s whiskey.

Jess took a sip, and on tasting the whiskey, gave Bill a small smile. “Thanks; guess I needed that.”

“Um,” said Bill throwing him a wary look. “Well, I reckon it will help to calm you down some.”

Jess dipped his head and looked into his coffee for a minute before turning and looking at his friend. “Sorry about that, Bill, it was just when I saw him…”

“Yeah, I know.”

“But I shouldn’t have…

“No. Well, I guess you stopped in time.”

“Yeah…well thanks. If you hadn’t been around, well…”

“Forget it, Jess; it’s over and those no good hombres are trussed up like a couple of prize turkeys. So why don’t we get our heads down. Guess things will look better in the morning.”

Jess gave Bill a weary look. “Best idea you’ve had all day, Bill.”

Both men stretched out and were soon snoring softly.

*****

Jess awoke early the following morning, and leaving the sleeping camp, made his way down to the stream to wash up. His face felt stiff with dried blood from the cut lip and his whole body was aching and bruised from the beating he had received at the hands of the Ryan brothers.

He removed his shirt and knelt down by the fast moving stream. He started washing in the icy cold water, the chill bringing some relief from the stinging and pain of his various abrasions.

He was squatting down, just staring out to the horizon and wondering what they should do with their prisoners when he heard the unmistakable sound of the hammer being cocked on a colt.45.

“Hold it right there, Mister. Hands up and turn around real slow.”

Jess cussed lightly under his breath furious that he’d been caught napping so to speak.

He stood and turned slowly, as he had been told, and found himself looking into the eyes of the Rawlins Sheriff, Red Smith, with a posse of men behind him.

“Jess? Hey Jess, that you?” said Red, beaming and lowering his gun. Coming forward, the two men shook hands and started talking animatedly, much to the surprise of the posse.

Red then surveyed his pard’s naked torso. “Hell Jess, see you’re still getting into trouble then,” he said, dipping his head towards the multiple cuts and bruises covering the young cowboy’s body.

Jess gave him a rueful smile. “Could say so.”

After a moment, the foreman of the posse came forward. “Am I to understand you know this…person, Sheriff?” he asked rather stuffily.

“Oh, git down of your high horse, Harrison. This here is Jess Harper, finest deputy in Wyoming, and a real good drinking buddy too,” Red said with a grin.

“Er, have I to remind you that we have trailed the Ryan brothers this far and I wonder if Mister Harper here might have…seen them,  maybe, seeing as their tracks lead straight to this camp?” His implication that he thought Jess was hiding the men was obvious.

Jess exchanged a smile with Red before turning to address the somewhat pompous man. “Well now, Mister Harrison, I reckon you done real good to track ‘em this far and you’ll find them…”

“Yes, yes, man. But you don’t seem to understand. These men are dangerous, capable of anything — desperate men — and we have to find them before they commit anymore atrocities. And what’s more, you’re wasting our precious time standing around here chin wagging with the Sheriff. I really think…”

But Jess cut in suddenly, growing tired of all the hot air from the pompous ass. “OK, Mister Harrison. If you’re so all fired to get these, er, dangerous, desperate men, you’ll find ‘em all trussed up and ready to go just yonder in the camp,” he said, tipping his head towards the other side of the trees where the men had been tied up.

“What! Why didn’t you say so, man?” said the older man, now flushing with embarrassment.

“Well I did try,” said Jess somewhat impassively. “But reckon you weren’t about to listen.”

“Um,” Giving Jess a hard look, Harrison turned away to find the prisoners. “Come on, men, get to it,” he growled at the amused faces of the rest of the posse. As Harrison turned away, Jess received several grins and the odd wink from the men of the posse, all pleased to see Harrison put in his place for once.

Jess turned to Red. “So how did you find us?”

“Got a wire from the Sheriff in Cheyenne. Said they’d broke out of jail and they were heading this way. Apparently the word was Jake was looking for an old flame believed to be on the wagon train.”

Jess nodded. ”Yeah, that’s right — Charity. She’s here.”

“Um, well, Jake Ryan went to the wagon train and managed to get the information that you and the girl had lit out and could be heading this way. We were told the same when we fetched up there later.”

“Don’t tell me. The one that spilled the beans…he was a little guy with a tatty grey beard talks like a Gatling gun? “

“That’s the one.”

“Um, Wooster never did know when to keep his mouth shut.”

“Oh well, at least we’ve got ‘em now,” said the Sheriff cheerfully.

Yeah, but at what cost, thought Jess, remembering Charity’s bitter tears of the night before.

Red picked up on Jess’s mood and asked, “You OK?”

Jess just nodded. “I guess.”

Then Red gave him a speculative look. “Tell me if it’s none of my business, but old Chris Hale filled me in some on the situation between you and the girl. He wanted you to know that if you change your mind about California…well, there’s a job waiting for you on the train.”

Jess had forgotten that Chris and Red were very old friends and so he realized why they would have shared the recent traumatic happenings between Jess and Charity. He bit back the angry comment he was about to make, knowing that both men would only have his well-being at heart.

“Thanks Red,” Jess said quietly, “but it’s kinda complicated, you know?”

Red smiled kindly back at him. “Well, when wasn’t it between you and the ladies, Jess?” he said, patting his friend on the back.

Jess just looked down, knowing the truth of it, and then smiled back at his friend. “How’s about a coffee before you ride out?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Laughing, the pair went in search of the coffee pot.

A little after Jess had left for his wash, Charity had awoken and taken advantage of his absence to tidy herself up some. When Jess now advanced on the camp, he saw Charity looking lovely in a clean shirt, hair and makeup perfect, sitting in her element, dispensing coffee and charm in equal proportions to Bill and the posse.

At the sight of her, Red stood stock still his eyes wide and his mouth dropped open.

Jess stopped too and gave his friend a quizzical look. “Say Red, I’d close my mouth if I were you,” he whispered. “You’ll be catchin’ flies.”

“Huh? Oh yeah. Hell, Jess, she sure is a looker, ain’t she?”

Jess nodded. “Oh yeah, she sure is. But trouble, Red, big trouble.” The two men advanced and accepted a coffee a piece.

 Later, the men were all sitting around the camp fire chatting cheerfully and Jess looked over at Charity on the other side of the fire and their eyes locked, a thousand words said in that one look.

After a moment, Jess stood up and said he was going to check the horses; a minute later, Charity made her excuses and got up to follow him. As Red watched, he saw her hand reach out to the dark haired cowboy, who hesitated for a moment before taking it, and they walked off hand-in-hand to the line of trees that screened the horses from the camp.

Jess turned and took her other hand, and then stood for a moment, looking down  at their entwined fingers, before saying softly, ‘So I guess this is it then; this is goodbye.”

She looked up into his eyes, her expression one of deep sadness. “It doesn’t have to be. I could still come back with you…be a rancher’s wife.”

Jess pulled his hands free and turned away to look out at the horizon beyond the stream. “But for how long?” he said almost to himself. Then he turned to face her. “How long would it last, Charity? Weeks — maybe a few months — before you got that wanderlust, had to take off somewhere, go off with someone?”

“It wouldn’t be like that this time.” But she couldn’t look him in the eye and they both new the truth of it.

“Come here,” Jess whispered, opening his arms, and she ran into them. He looked down at her beautiful upturned face. “Just can’t risk it — not again. You understand, don’t you?”

She stared into his eyes for a long minute and then nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes, I understand.”

He tenderly cupped her face between his hands, and leaning forwards, brushed her sweet lips with his own before kissing her long and hard. Finally be pulled back and said softly, “I’ll never forget you…Sweet Charity.”

She gave him a brave little smile. “Not Charlie anymore?”

He shook his head. “Nope. I guess you’re right; you have finally grown up.”

Then the posse returned to fetch their horses and load up the prisoners.

Bill and Charity had opted to ride back to Rawlins with the posse, accepting the extra safety they would provide with an Indian attack still a possibility.

The men had a spare horse for Charity, so Jess was able to keep Chief, the old buckskin, and now he stood by the two horses as both Bill and Red leaned down and shook his hand, making their farewells.

“Always a job for you,” said Bill with a grin, “if you get the urge for the Big Open, Jess.”

Jess just grinned and said he’d see his friend and the rest of the wagon train crew next time over.

Then Red pumped his hand. “Don’t leave it too long for a visit, Jess boy; got some real good seasoned whiskey back at my place.”

“Sure, Red; See you before Thanksgiving.”

The two men rode off a piece and waited for Charity.

She was up on her mount and was about to ride out, but then she reined in; jumping off, she ran back to Jess and he again held her close. They kissed passionately before she pulled back, and looking him deep in the eyes, said, “I’m goin’ on my adventure, Jess; I’ve got to. I can see that now. It’s the way I am and I figure you know me better than I know myself.” Then, with tears in her eyes, she whispered, “Thank you for everything.”

He felt too choked to answer. He just nodded and then gave her a leg back up on the big horse she was riding.

She gathered the reins up and looked down at him. “I’m gonna go and see the ocean, but figure I’ll be coming back sometime, Jess. Maybe next time well make it?”

He gave her the ghost of a smile. “Maybe.”

Jess stood watching as the little group rode off in the early morning sunshine, and then just before they disappeared over the hill, Charity reined in her mount. She raised an arm to him in a last farewell and he waved back, and then she turned her horse; a few minutes later, she disappeared over the ridge and was gone.

It took all Jess’s willpower not to jump up on Traveler and gallop after her, telling her everything would be OK and sure she could come back with him.

He shook his head as if to try and get some common sense in there, and finally he hopped up on Traveler. Leading the big buckskin, he turned his mount in the opposite direction and headed due East towards Laramie and home.

*****

Epilogue

It took him a couple of days to ride back, beat up as he was and still suffering pain  in his stomach from the rifle  blow, and the  kicking he had received, not to mention a dull headache after he had been floored by the crack on the head from Toby Ryan’s rifle butt.

So it was sunset on the second day when he finally rode up onto the ridge overlooking the Ranch and Relay Station and reined Traveler in, drinking in the scene below him.

He could see smoke rising from the cook stove chimney and imagined Daisy putting the finishing touches to supper. Then he heard the chickens squawking as Mike fed them and locked them up for the night before running back off into the house.

Then the lamps were lit, giving the place an even more warm, appealing look, and Jess felt his heart leap with pleasure. Home. Just four little letters that meant so much.

Then he saw Slim march out of the barn, his long legs covering the distance towards the house quickly.

But when Slim reached the porch, he suddenly stopped; turning, he put a hand up to shade his eyes from the red setting sun. He looked up to the ridge and saw a lone rider just staring down at the ranch. There was something about the way the rider sat his horse, but Slim could only make out his silhouette against the red of the darkening sky. Then he saw another big horse come into view. It was Chief, Traveler and Jess. Jess was home at last!

Slim ran over to the corral fence, and a moment later he heard the horses galloping down into the yard; Jess brought them to a standstill next to his pard.

Slim beamed up at him and shook the extended hand, “Welcome home, pard,” he said, grinning up at his friend. Then in mock anger, he asked,”So what took you so dadgum long? You went off to Fort Laramie for a couple of days to sell the mustangs and that was nigh on three weeks ago, Jess!”

“Well I sent you a wire sayin’ not to worry, didn’t I?” said a somewhat rattled Jess.

Slim grinned again, making it plain he was only kidding his friend. “Well, when you send a wire saying ‘don’t worry’, that’s when I usually start worrying, Jess.”

The dark haired cowboy laughed and jumped down from his mount; the two men walked over to the barn to put the horses up for the night.

As Jess began to rub Traveler down, Slim worked on Chief. After a while, Slim glanced over at his pard and said, “So what did hold you up then, Jess? I was beginning to think you’d eloped to California with Miss Charity and the two thousand bucks,” he said jokingly.

Jess smiled across at him. Would I do a thing like that?”

“Of course not. So what did happen then?”

“Well it’s a kinda long story, you know?”

“Oh that’s OK, pard; I’ve got all night. So after supper we’ll sit a spell and you can tell me everything OK?”

Jess sighed deeply. “Yeah, OK.”

*****

The two men were sitting out on the porch with a whiskey apiece and it was late.

Daisy and Mike were long in bed after having been regaled by tales of the adventures Charity and Jess had shared over the last few weeks, reduced to the edited highlights in view of Mike’s youth and Daisy’s tendency to fuss and fret if Jess got himself into too much hot water.

Slim sipped his drink and then looked speculatively over the rim  of  his glass at where Jess was gazing out to the moonlit horizon, a look of great sadness in his deep blue eyes. “So you wanna tell me what really happened and why you didn’t hook up with Charity?”

“Huh?”

“Oh come on, Jess. I can see you’re hurtin’ something fierce and I don’t just mean from all those cuts and bruises I saw when you were washing earlier either.”

Jess looked down for a long time and Slim thought he wasn’t going to answer, but finally Jess looked over at his best friend and said, “You were right, what you said in the barn. She did want me to elope to California with her. She drugged me and stole the mustanging money so as I’d follow her.”

“What!” gasped Slim, nearly falling out of his seat. “You told Daisy you just went along for the ride to the wagon train, to keep her safe.”

“Yeah, well, I guess Daisy don’t need to know the whole story. Would only worry her, I reckon.”

“So, what else? Weren’t you tempted to go with her? She’s a real beautiful woman, Jess, and any fool can see how you feel about her. So what stopped you?”

Jess took a swig of his whiskey and then said softly, “You…Daisy and Mike. I guess. You’re my kin now. This is home and I wasn’t about to walk out on it all.”

“Even so, well. Couldn’t she have stayed here with you? We could have built on the south pasture like we always said we would, and…”

“No!” said Jess loudly, then remembering the sleeping occupants in the house said more quietly, “No, that ain’t gonna happen, Slim. Just leave it huh?”

Slim was silent for a while, but like a terrier with a bone, he just couldn’t let the matter lie. “I can’t figure you sometimes,” he said, casting Jess a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t you wanna settle down with a beautiful girl like that? Yeah, sure, I know what you told me before about her jilting you and stuff, but it seems to me she’s changed. Why not give her a last chance?”

Again Jess was silent and just drained his glass and stared out into the night.

Slim sighed deeply and replenished their glasses.

“Thanks.”

“OK, cheers, pard, and welcome home.”

Then it was Jess’s turn to sigh. “OK, I’ll tell you why, Slim. See, she said she was pregnant and…”

“What she’s pregnant? With your child? And you’ve left her?” said Slim, in shocked bewilderment.

“Slim, will you listen? She said she was pregnant to suck me in again, figured I’d up and wed her.”

“And would you?”

“Sure I would,” Jess said turning to throw his friend a hard look. “Yeah, sure I would if she’d been expecting my child.”

Slim just looked over waiting. “And?” Then he saw Jess had stopped speaking because he was fighting his emotions. He saw Jess clench and unclench his fist and swallow hard before he was finally able to continue.

“She lied, Slim. She lied about it. I…believed her, I really believed her, and it felt…so darned good. I can’t begin to tell you how I felt,” Jess said softly. Looking down, he squeezed his eyes tightly shut and stopped speaking.

Slim reached over and patted his arm gently. “I’m so, so sorry, pard.”

After a moment, Jess collected himself and said, “Well, in answer to your question, I didn’t up and marry her because I can’t trust her, Slim. That’s the truth of it, and I reckon I never could” He took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing. “I’d always be comin’ home and wondering if she’d still be here, or watchin out for other men hittin’ on her, or her flirtin’ with them, more like. See, Slim, she just ain’t a settlin’ down kinda girl, or a one-man girl either. I may love her somethin’ fierce, but I sure as hell don’t trust her. And without that, I figure we ain’t got nuthin’.”

“I’m sorry, Jess, I shouldn’t have pried; it’s none of my business.”

“That’s OK, Slim; needed to get it off my chest, I guess. But Slim, do me a favor; don’t say anything about all this to Daisy, OK?”

“No, of course I won’t, but why?”

“Well, old Daisy put a lot of store by Charity, really liked her, and I guess I’d like her to remember her that way. You know, as Sweet Charity.”

“Sure, pard, I can see that.” Then Slim filled up their glasses, and turning to his friend, raised his glass. “To Sweet Charity.”

“Sweet Charity,” said Jess. Both men sipped their drinks and gazed out into the night, remembering the vibrant beautiful woman…that no man could trust.

*****End*****

Thank you for reading!

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