Thanksgiving (by Patty W.)

Summary:  A Thanksgiving story.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG   (Some adult themes, strong language, and violence)
Word Count:  20,395


 

(For Bertie with love and thanks)

It had been a long hard run up to Thanksgiving for all at the Sherman ranch and Relay station. Winter had come early, and consequently, Slim Sherman and his partner in the ranch and relay Jess Harper had to bring the beasts down onto the lower pasture in dire weather conditions.

The sleety snow and evil little wind had seemed to cut through them making their faces feel raw, and even their mounts had balked at the atrocious state of affairs.

Jess pulled his hat down hard and patted Traveler’s arched neck as he squinted through the wind and sleet, regarding the miserable looking steers before him. “I guess I know how you feelin’,” he said with the ghost of a smile.

A moment later Slim’s mount Alamo came into view through the murky light and the tall blond man reined him in beside his friend. “Talking to the critters ain’t going to get ‘em moving, pard,” he said with a chuckle.

Jess threw him a reproving look. “Traveler don’t like this darned weather; just givin’ him a moment.”

“Yeah, well I’m not too excited about it either, Jess, but sooner we get ‘em moving, sooner you’ll have a coffee in your hands and be toasting your toes in front of the fire.”

Jess raised a hopeful eyebrow at that. “Yeah, suppose.” He patted Traveler one more time, and then putting two fingers in his mouth let out an ear splitting whistle, got the small bunch of steers soon hightailing it down the valley towards the home pasture.

**********

If the weather was sorely trying the two men now, well, that was nothing to the difficulties they had experienced earlier in the year after their barn had been partially damaged by fire.

It had been at the end of a long hot summer, and the grass and trees were like tinder, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when fire had decimated some of their neighbor’s land several miles away.

Jess and Slim had ridden over as soon as they were alerted to the danger, both to the Patterson’s place and also their own spread, should the fire not be stopped.

Then the worst happened. Unbeknown to the men, a spark from the original fire set off another and this time much closer to the Sherman ranch. As the wind changed, the fire moved on apace.

Luckily, Daisy, their wonderful housekeeper and surrogate Ma to all at the ranch, saw the advancing smoke in the distance and had the presence of mind to send Mike, their young ward, over to their neighbors for help.

With the original fire at the Patterson’s now controlled, Slim and Jess had ridden hell for leather back home, Mike following on, but they were not in time to prevent fire on their own property.

Some sparks from the grass fire had ignited bales of hay by the barn door and the whole place was soon alight.

 Arriving shortly afterwards, they were in time to see a smoke-blackened Daisy intrepidly fighting the fire with buckets of water from the well.

“Oh Slim, Jess, thank God,” she cried, the elderly lady obviously overwrought by the current events.

“Hey Daisy, take it easy; me and Slim can take over now.” Jess, firmly removed her from the danger, took her by the arm and rushed her over to the porch.

“Of dear, where is Mike?” Daisy cried, looking around, obviously distressed.

“Right behind us, Daisy. Look,” said Slim, gesturing to where Mike was just trotting his mount into the ranch yard.

“Go on, go take a break, Daisy,” Slim yelled as he filled yet another bucket, hating to see the elderly lady so distressed. “Mike will help us finish off out here.”

It was another hour before the fire was under control. They had removed the burnt timber and covered the missing section of roof with a large tarp.

“Thank the Lord it wasn’t worse,” said a relieved but exhausted Jess, later that night as they went out to damp down the barn timbers one last time before turning in.

“When I think what could have happened…” Slim agreed, shaking his head as he looked to where a tarpaulin was covering the missing roof section, the stench of burning still in their nostrils.

Jess nodded. “Lucky the critters were all out in the pasture not the corral. Heck, though, Slim, all this,” he said, gesturing to where a third of the barn lay in ruins. “From just a few stray sparks. Imagine what it would have been like with a full-blown prairie fire.”

Slim nodded, looking deathly serious. “That would have been disastrous,” he agreed.

“No arguments there,” Jess muttered. “Remember, I lived through one of them first hand last year and it ain’t an experience I wanna repeat, I’ll tell you!” * see To Hell & Back.

“Oh, yeah, I’d forgotten. Gee, that sure was a nightmare come true by all accounts, pard.”

“Yep, it was,” Jess said softly, his heart pounding faster at the thought of it, all those months later. Then tearing his thoughts away from the God awful experience, he surveyed the damage once more. “This could have been one heck of a lot worse,” he repeated. “At least we only lost some of the grazing in the small pasture before the wind changed. Then that downpour after supper finally seems to have put an end to it all, thank God,” he said sincerely.

*****

That had been several months back, and now as they rode into the yard, having settled the steers down in the home pasture, they both looked over to the new barn extension, pride mixed with sadness in their eyes.

Gee, it had been one hell of a lot of work, though, as Jess frequently lamented and hard under the circumstances too.

“It was worth it, wasn’t it, pard,” Slim stated now as they rode into the yard and looked up at the new structure before them.

“Well, sure, had to be done, but heck Slim, we sure didn’t need all the extra work what with every other dang thing as has happened these last few months,” Jess replied bitterly. He was feeling plumb wore out and chilled to the bone after a day in the saddle, fighting the inclement weather and ornery steers, and was in no mood to stand there admiring their handy work.

Now as they hustled into the warm dry barn to put up their horses for the night, Slim mentally tallied off all the trials and tribulations they had suffered since late summer.

*****

The barn fire had been just the start of their problems.

Both men had been so preoccupied with the damping down activities that it was the following day before they realized Daisy was sick.

It was Jess who was alerted to it first. He heard her coughing and coughing in the early hours of the morning and awoke Slim. “Can you hear that, pard? Do you think she’s OK?”

Slim looked anxiously across at his buddy before the almost hacking cough commenced again. “I don’t know. What do you think we should do…go check on her?”

Jess shrugged looking equally anxious. “I guess so. I know she likes to be kinda private in her room, but even so…”

They finally got up and went and knocked on Daisy’s door, but it was a couple of minutes before she was able to call out for them to come in.

Daisy lay in bed, tears streaming down her papery old face, desperately trying to catch her breath.

Slim at once entered the room and helped her to sit up, while Jess poured a drink from the jug on the nightstand and helped her to sip some of the cool water.

“Thank you dear,” Daisy finally managed a few minutes later. “I’m sorry to be a nuisance.”

“Heck, you couldn’t be that,” Jess said quickly whilst Slim smoothed out her pillow and helped her to lie back. “Better?”

“Yes thank you, Slim, Jess; I’ll be fine now. Goodnight, dears.”

The men exchanged a bemused glance and then considered themselves dismissed, but Jess wasn’t finished with the matter yet. “I’m ridin’ for Doc Sam at first light,” he said gruffly, his rough tone hiding the depth of his feelings, as both men returned to their beds looking very subdued.

The following morning Doc Sam Baker arrived at the ranch along with Jess, just as Slim was remonstrating with a flushed and upset Daisy.

As the doctor entered, Slim relaxed, looking relieved. “Thank goodness. Sam, will you tell Miss Daisy here to get back to bed and stop being difficult.”

The handsome middle-aged doctor’s brown eyes twinkled at that. “Well, you know, Slim, Miss Daisy here usually knows best.”

Just then Daisy started coughing again, doubling up, and the tears soon streaming down her cheeks.

“On the other hand…” said the doc exchanging a glance with Slim. “Come along, my dear; let’s get you back to bed and take a listen to the chest of yours,” he said kindly, helping the elderly lady out of the room.

Jess shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his denims and sighed before wandering over to the fireplace and staring down into the embers for a minute, then he turned to face his buddy. “Think she’ll be OK? “

Slim shrugged. “Don’t know, pard. She sure doesn’t sound too good right now.”

It was a good half hour later when the doc finally emerged from Daisy’s room and took a seat at the dining table where the men were drinking coffee.

Slim poured the doc a cup, but Jess didn’t stand on ceremony.

“Well, doc… so what’s wrong?”

Sam nodded his thanks to Slim before turning to address Jess. “That fire you had, was Daisy involved at all?”

“Why sure, she was fillin’ buckets and fightin’ it like a good ‘un. She sure has some spirit for an old lady,” Jess said enthusiastically.

“Umm…maybe a bit too much for someone of her years. It looks to me like she’s got a nasty lung infection going on, from where she’s inhaled the smoke.”

“But she will be OK?”

Sam looked Jess in the eye before looking down. “Depends.”

“On what?” asked Slim, looking worried.

“Well, on how badly the lungs have been affected. I’ll leave some medicine to ease the coughing. She needs plenty of fluids and relaxation, and the rest is down to her. But I have to say it’s not looking too good right now.”

Both men looked extremely upset at that.

“But, you know, she will get better?” Jess asked.

“I hope so, buddy; time will tell. I’ll call back in a day or so; if she gets any worse just call me.” Sam swigged back the coffee and then stood up to leave. “Sorry, I’ve got me a real long list of calls today and I have to be on my way.”

Jess followed him out and stood on the porch looking so forlorn that Sam took pity on him.

“She’s a tough old bird, Jess. If anyone can turn back from this, it’s her. Just make sure she rests, OK?”

“You got it; thanks, Sam.”

*****

Now a couple of months later, in the cool dim light of the barn, Slim sighed deeply as he remembered that day and all that had happened since.

After a few minutes, Jess became aware of his pard standing staring into space and wandering over slung a friendly arm around his shoulders. “Are you thinking about Daisy, Slim?”

Slim nodded, looking profoundly sad, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Come on, Slim, we can’t keep beating ourselves up for what happened. Sure, we wouldn’t have let her anywhere near that darned fire if we’d been around when it started, but we weren’t. And sure as hell, she wouldn’t have let the place burn down around her if she could do anything to stop it.”

“I know that, Jess, but at what price? She should never have had to do that. If she’d just waited for us to get back, she’d never have gotten so sick and…”

Jess sighed deeply. “I know.” Then he gave Slim’s arm a little punch. “Come on, pard, I’ll put the coffee on and make a start on the supper. Mike will be home from school soon.” The two men made their way sadly over to the cold, empty ranch house.

It was later that night — the scratch supper over and washed up over much argument as to whose turn it was. Mike had finally done his homework and been dispatched to bed by Jess while Slim sat before the  fire, a pair of Mike’s pants on his lap and a large sewing needle in his hand as he persevered with patching the ripped knee.

Jess came back in and settled down in his rocker.

“Get him off alright?” asked Slim.

“Finally. He’s frettin’ about some do at school; apparently Daisy always provided the cakes for it.”

Slim shrugged. “I guess that’s down to you, I’m having enough darned trouble mending his clothes.”

Jess just nodded and poured them  both another coffee before sitting looking morosely into the fire, his mind going back to that time earlier in the  year. Early fall it was…the time when things got even worse, for him anyway.

*****

As though it wasn’t hard enough trying to cope without Daisy, they had the added work of rebuilding the barn. So what with that, caring for the stock, mustang breaking and all the added work caring for young Mike entailed, the two cowboys had little time for a social life and matters came to a head one day in early fall.

Both men had been getting more and more short-tempered through the relentlessly hot summer days, all the extra work making them snap and snarl like a couple of prairie dogs. Mike was feeling out of sorts and lonely, missing his beloved Aunt Daisy.

For Jess, though, it wasn’t just the unremitting daily grind that was getting him down, but more the lack of female company. It was several weeks since he had laid eyes on his special girl, Millie Johnson from the saloon, and although they had an understanding and she knew he was totally committed to her, he also knew she must be feeling neglected.

Jess was pretty much worn out with all the extra work too…and melancholy, missing Daisy so dang much. Then the barn repairs were taking longer than they thought, and Slim was forever worrying that the new roof wouldn’t be completed in time for the winter weather.

One morning, Jess’ thoughts were of Millie as usual. If he was honest, he was feeling downright frustrated, just wanting to hold his girl in his arms and feel her sweet lips on his, too.

“Jess….Jess! Will you stop daydreaming and pass me that darned hammer,” Slim called from the barn roof.

That’s when Jess finally exploded, cussing and yelling, his reaction totally out of proportion to Slim’s simple request. “I ain’t your goddamn slave; fetch your own darned hammer,” he spat, before marching off to his horse, and leaping athletically up into the saddle, galloped out of the yard.

Jess returned an hour or so later and apologized profusely, looking down and embarrassed.

Slim threw him an understanding glance. “Look, I figure I know what’s wrong, pard, and if it means that much to you, you ride into town and see Millie tonight. I’ll stay in and look after Mike.”

Jess’s head shot up, his face flushed with pleasure. “You will…really?”

“Yep, really. But just tonight, Jess. I don’t want you moving into that saloon for the next week. We’ve still got this roof to finish before the rainy season.”

“Sure, sure, I know that, pard.” Jess dashed off to wash up and get a really close shave.

*****

At about the same time as Jess was, ’getting scrubbed up real good’, the love of his life, Millie, was having a whispered conversation with her best friend Lily behind the bar of the Laramie saloon. “Please, Lily, will you serve him? He really is driving me mad now.”

Lily sighed and rolled her eyes. “I’ll try, Mill, but you know how he is. If you’re not free to serve him, well, he’ll just wait until you are.”

“Why?” burst out Millie, beginning to look decidedly tearful. “I haven’t given him any encouragement, and anyway, everyone knows I’m with Jess.”

“Well maybe that’s what he needs, to see Jess around the place. Heck Millie we haven’t laid eyes on either Jess or my Slim in weeks now. No wonder Vince Kane thinks he’s in with a chance.”

“Well, Vince is just plain crazy if he thinks that. I’m not remotely interested in him. He’s way too old and not my type at all…and he scares me some too, if you must know.”

“I know what you mean. It’s as though he’s obsessed with you, the way he stands with his one glass of beer night after night, just staring.”

“I know; it’s horrible isn’t it.”

“Maybe you should tell Jess when he shows up next?”

Millie shook her head. “What with all he’s been through lately — the fire and then poor Daisy…” she said looking tearful again. “Heck no, he doesn’t need this on top of everything else.”

Then their conversation was interrupted.

“Come on girls, I ain’t paying you two to gossip the afternoon away; Mister Kane here needs a drink. Hop to it,” said Tom briskly.

It was early evening when Jess left Traveler at the livery for the night and made his way down Main Street, stopping to say howdy to one or two folks on his way, as it had been a while since he’d been out and about.

Jess strode into the dimly lit saloon and stood for a moment by the door as his eyes became accustomed to the light. Then he heard a shrill little cry of delight, and next thing Millie threw herself into his arms. He held her closely, grinning down, surprised and pleased by her exuberant show of affection.

Jess took her hand and led her back to the bar and said softly, “It’s so good to see you…and I’m real sorry it’s been so long. It’s been kinda difficult, you know?”

“Sure, honey, I know” she whispered. “I’d better get back to work. I’ll fetch you a beer. You can stay over?”

Jess nodded, grinning happily. “Sure, we’ll talk properly later huh?”

Millie just nodded, flicking a quick glance to the end of the bar where Vince Kane was staring at Jess with pure hatred in his eyes.

Much later that evening, old Tom the barkeep took pity on Jess and Millie, knowing they had been kept apart for so long. He whispered to Millie, “Go on then, girl. I guess you can finish a mite early tonight.”

Her eyes sparkled and she gave him a peck on the cheek. “Thank you so much, Tom.” Catching Jess’s eye, she gestured to the room behind the bar.

Jess swigged down the last of his beer and slipped behind the bar, following her out. He threw Tom a grateful grin and the couple left by the back stairs.

Once they’d gone, a rather the worse for wear looking Vince Kane called Lily over. “Give me a whiskey, girl…an’ leave the bottle.”

*****

Once inside the warm comfortable room above the bar, Jess divested himself of his gun belt, hat and boots and left them by the door, as per Millie’s house rules, before taking her in his arms.

They kissed passionately for a few minutes before he drew back, smiling tenderly down at her. “Gee, I sure have missed you something fierce,” he said softly, his deep blue eyes burning with passion.

“Me too,” she whispered.

He took her hand and led her to the deep comfortable couch set before a glowing fire and sank down on it, pulling her down onto his knee, holding her close.

“So how have you been managing?” she asked solicitously.

He shook his head sadly. “I never realized just how much Daisy did for us. It’s not just all the cookin’ and cleanin’ and mendin’ and stuff. It’s everything else. Like how she’d talk stuff out when you were troubled — always could see the bright side, too — that kinda thing, you know?” he asked turning sad blue eyes on her.

“Sure. It must be hard, for you all right now, especially little Mike.”

“Yeah, we’ve not wanted to leave him alone too much. I guess that’s the main reason I ain’t been out, plus that dang barn. You know Slim — always a fussin’ and frettin’ needing it all done like yesterday. “

She smiled at that. “That sounds like Slim. Er, give him Lily’s love, will you? She said specially to tell you that.”

“Sure, I will. So how have you been…not too lonely??”

She shrugged. “You know. But I’ve been real busy, and at least this situation won’t be forever, will it?”

Jess shrugged looking very anxious. “Well I sure hope not.” Then he smiled sadly down at her. “No point in frettin’ about stuff we can’t change, I guess.”

“No, you’re right,” she agreed, love and compassion shining in her beautiful brown eyes.

Then their eyes locked, and he felt his heart pounding, all his senses alerted suddenly. “Come here, sweetheart,” he whispered as he bent his head, taking her face in his hands and kissing her at first tenderly and then more and more passionately.

It was some time later and things had moved on and were just getting ‘real interesting’ as he was to tell Slim later, when there was a tremendous crash and the door burst open, admitting a drunken, furious Vince Kane.

Seeing as how Jess was fixed right then, it took him a few seconds  to adjust his clothing and start to get to his feet, by which time Kane had advanced on him and sent him sprawling with a lucky punch, having caught his opponent off balance.

Jess dragged himself up, blood dripping down his chin and a murderous glint in his eye as he retaliated with a swift right and left, downing the big, awkward man.

Millie screamed for them to stop and Jess turned to her, trying to calm her down, his attention momentary distracted. That’s when Kane made his move, and having recovered quickly, scrabbled up and hurled himself at the cowboy with almost inhuman strength, such was his furious jealousy at finding Jess and Millie together that way.

Catching Jess momentary unawares, Kane threw a punch that sent him flying forcefully backwards, Jess’s head smashing against the edge of Millie’s brass bedstead, hitting it with a sickening thud before he slithered to the floor, rendered instantly unconscious.

Then some sort of insane frenzy took hold of Kane and he started kicking Jess’s unconscious form viscously in a jealous rage, Millie all the while screaming for him to stop and trying to pull him off.

It was only a matter of minutes later before Mort Corey charged in. closely followed by Tom and Lily. Mort quickly grabbed hold of a panting, sweating Kane, who swayed drunkenly, all the time uttering profanities, and glaring down at Jess.

“Shut your mouth,” said Mort brusquely. “Ladies present.” Then he handcuffed him and pushed him roughly down on the couch before making his way over to Jess.

Millie was already crouched over him, crying silently as she brushed his dark hair back from his waxy forehead, a trickle of blood running down his face from a gash to his temple.

“Go run for Doc Sam, will you, Lily?” Mort said glancing from Jess to the saloon girl, before he bent down beside his good buddy. He gently patted Jess’ cheek a couple of times but it was obvious Jess was out for the count.

The Sheriff exchanged an anxious glance with Tom and Millie before looking back down noting the blood beginning to seep through his shirt from where Kane’s boot had made contact with Jess’s chest, and he sighed deeply. “Looks like that Vince Kane worked him over pretty good. Come on, help me get him on the bed will you,” he asked glancing from Millie to Tom.

Once Jess was lying back on the bed and in Millie’s tender care, Mort started to leave, taking his prisoner and promising to return later, but he bumped into Doc Sam just as he was going through the door.

“What’s the boy been up to now?” asked Sam light-heartedly, knowing Jess’s track record for finding trouble with a capital T.

“It was awful,” Millie piped up from the bedside. “That Vince Kane acted like a crazy person; threw a lucky punch and then when Jess was knocked out he just kept on kicking him. He’d have killed him if Mort hadn’t arrived Doc Sam, he really would!”

Mort nodded to the Doc in agreement before marching his unrepentant prisoner out of the room.

Doc Sam Baker sobered immediately and rushed over at once and sat on the edge of the bed, brushing a hand across the still unconscious man’s forehead before gently unbuttoning his shirt. Then he listened to his chest with his stethoscope before palpating his stomach and chest, and after a moment, Jess gave a low groan and then cried out.

“Easy, buddy,” Sam said as Jess tried to sit up and defend himself, thinking he was being attacked again.

 Then Jess looked desperately around him. “Millie?”

“It’s OK, I’m here, Jess; just lay back,” she said, coming over and sitting on the other side of the bed and taking his hand.

“Are you OK, sweetheart? That bastard didn’t touch you?”

“No, I’m fine, Jess, really I am.”

Jess relaxed back on the pillows again, giving a little involuntary groan as he clutched his chest.

Sam threw Millie a concerned look as she too had turned deathly pale. “Tom, a glass of whiskey for Millie maybe; she looks a mite peaky. Er, and some hot water too, if you please?”

 “Sure thing, comin’ right up, doc.”

While Millie sipped her drink with a shaking hand, Sam bathed and cleaned Jess’s wounds, shaking his head and tutting before looking down at his friend. “I don’t know what you’ve done to that man, but this attack is nothing short of brutal. These injuries look to be inflicted by someone totally out of control.”

“I ain’t done nothing, but you’re right, he was dang well out of control alright,” Jess muttered darkly. “And got the drop on me too, or he’d never have floored me that way.”

“So, you’re attention was elsewhere? You were distracted maybe when he attacked you initially then?” asked Sam, with an innocent smile.

But Jess wasn’t fooled. “Well of course I was. I was with my girl, wasn’t I, and not seen her in a month of Sunday’s, sure, I was kinda distracted,” he said crossly.

Sam hid a smile, knowing it was unfair to wind up his buddy this way, and anyway he was really quite badly hurt and unlike Jess to come off worst in a fist fight.

Jess was obviously thinking the same, and half sitting up, muttered, “Just you wait ‘til I dang well see him. I’ll git to the bottom of all this, so help me.”

“Alright, I’m sure you will, buddy, but right now you’re going nowhere, except to sleep.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve got multiple bruising and contusions to your abdomen and chest, with a possible cracked rib, a nasty gash to the head and almost certainly mild concussion. So you, my friend, are going nowhere until I say so…understand?”

 “Aw, Sam!”

“No arguments.” Then seeing Millie had wandered off to compare notes with Lily, Sam whispered, “For Pete’s sake, man, you’re in the delectable Millie’s warm comfy bed. Now what more could you want, huh?”

Jess exchanged a smile with the doc. “Well, when you put it that way, I guess Kane will keep.”

“Umm…good man. I’ll come and check on you tomorrow.” The doctor snapped his bag shut and rose to leave. “Keep an eye on him Millie dear. I’m just over the road if he gets worse. And no over excitement,” he finished with a tiny wink in Jess’s direction before taking his leave.

A little later Lily left and the couple was alone at last.

Jess fixed Millie with a speculative look. “So you know this guy Kane then?”

She nodded, unable to meet his candid gaze. “He’s been coming in regular these last few weeks.”

“But he’s new to town…right? Can’t say as I’ve seen him before?”

“Well, you’ve not been in town for a while. Hardly at all since Daisy, you know…”

Jess looked down and then tensed. Swinging his legs out of bed, he walked over to where she had collapsed back down on the couch and stood staring down at her. “So what is he to you? If he don’t know me, I figure this has gotten everything to do with you…huh?” he asked his eyes narrowing and his expression cool.

“What are you saying? I’ve been encouraging him…seeing him?” she cried, now visibly upset.

“Hell no, of course I ain’t sayin’ that — but it is you, ain’t it? He’s been making a play for you, ain’t he? “

She looked down and nodded almost imperceptivity.

“Goddamn it!” Jess spat angrily before marching over to the door and pulling on his boots.

She ran over to him and grabbed hold of his arm. “Where are you going?”

“Where in hell do you think!” he yelled yanking his arm free.

“Jess, please you’re hurt. Wait until tomorrow at least.”

But Jess was way beyond angry now and he strapped on his gun belt and then put his hat on, pulling it down hard.

“Jess?”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, he ain’t getting’ away with this.” Then Jess stopped in his tracks and turned back from the door. “Why didn’t you say something, tell me?”

“You haven’t been around, have you? And even if you had, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I can handle him. Well, I thought I could, but after tonight…”

“After tonight, he won’t be botherin’ you ever again,” Jess growled, before heading for the door and a minute later she heard the back door slam.

Jess burst into Mort’s office like a rampaging bull and the Sheriff’s head snapped up at the intrusion. “Where is that lowlife?” he yelled, his eyes flashing dangerously.

“Hey take it easy, Jess; thought you were on your sickbed. What in tarnation are you doing here?”

“Come to sort out that bastard Kane.” Then he turned on Mort. “Did you know he’d been fooling about with my Millie?”

Mort looked surprised and then he remembered there had been  some gossip that the newcomer, Kane, had the hots for one of the saloon girls, but he’d thought no more of it, knowing the girls could look after themselves…until now that is. “There was talk,” he said now, “but I didn’t pay much attention. There’s always rumors brewing around town about this and that.”

“I thought we were buddies,” Jess spat looking even angrier.

“Sure we are, and if there was a real problem, I’d have ridden over and told you. But this Kane is like a lot of men. Just likes to look at the merchandise, but doesn’t touch…you know the sort.”

“Well, he’d have dang well touched her tonight if he’d gotten half a chance,” Jess yelled. “He was as mad as all get-out and that was down to him finding me and Millie together that way.” Then he paced about the office. “So can I see him then?”

Mort shook his head. “I’m sorry, buddy; he’s out for the count. Had a bottle slipped down the side of his boot and finished that off before I saw it. He won’t come around until tomorrow.”

Jess rained a punch down on the stove, making the coffee pot rattle and then staggered a little.

Mort leapt up from his desk and ran over, taking his arm and leading him to a seat. “Garldarn it, Jess, you should be in your bed, not over here yelling. You can’t do anything tonight. Come back in a day or so when you’re feeling better and give me a statement. The way you’re looking, I figure he’ll be banged up in my jail for a good few weeks. An unprovoked attack like this, well, you’re looking at a couple of months…longer maybe. That OK for you?”

“It’ll have to be,” said Jess looking slightly mollified.

“Good man. Now how’s about a coffee, if you ain’t spilled it all, and then I’ll git you back to Miss Millie’s place before  the doc comes chasin’ you.”

Jess landed back at the saloon half an hour later and apologized to Millie. “I’m so dang sorry, sweetheart. It was just the thought of him and you….what he wanted to do…all the upset he’s caused you too.”

“It’s OK,” she said softly. “I understand, really I do, and I should have told you tonight. I just didn’t want anything to spoil our time together.”

Jess nodded, looking weary.

“Go, get back to bed and I’ll make us a drink,” she said kindly.

“How are you feeling now?” Millie asked a little later, coming over and sitting on the edge of the bed. She placed the hot drinks on the nightstand and then rested a gentle hand on his bandaged chest, looking deeply into his eyes.

“I’m OK,” Jess said softly, “just feelin’ every kind of a fool letting that low life beat me up that way.”

She gave him a little grin at that. “Well, to be fair, you were… er…rather distracted when he burst in on us,” she said.

“Uh… I was, wasn’t I?” he said pulling her gently down towards him, their lips meeting as she gave a little gasp of pleasure, the hot drinks forgotten.

*****

The following morning when Millie awoke she was aware at once that all was not well.

She could feel the heat radiating from his naked body next to her and his breathing sounded labored, each breath a rasping sound, alarming her.

“Jess…Jess, are you OK?”she whispered.

After a moment, his eyes opened a crack and he groaned, a hand shooting to his head. “No… not really,” he muttered. “So what in hell were we drinkin’ last night?”

She shrugged. “Nothing, save those few beers you had in the bar. After the fight, you said you were feeling kinda sick when I offered you a shot of Red Eye.”

“Uh…oh yeah, I remember now. That bastard Kane downed me, didn’t he? What was I thinkin’ letting him do that!” he rasped angrily.

“It was just a good job he was out of it when you charged round to the jail,” she said calmly, “or you’d have gotten in trouble with Mort no doubt, with what you had in mind for Kane and all.”

“Probably,” he mused. “And I ain’t finished with him yet, either.”

“Never mind about that,” she said quickly. “I’m more worried about you right now. You sound to be real breathless and burning up honey. I’m going for the doc.”

“I’ll be OK. Gotta sort out Kane and then get back to the ranch. Slim’s waitin’ on me to finish that dang roof.”

“Oh, bother the roof, and bother Kane too,” she said with spirit. Jumping out of bed, she rushed off to dress and ran from the room shortly afterwards.

*****

Doc Sam leaned up from where he’d been listening to Jess’s chest and threw him a concerned glance. “You’re not looking too good right now, Jess.”

Jess’s head shot up. “It ain’t that long since you said that about Daisy,” he said with an agonized look.

Sam looked down sadly. “Yep, I know that, and you know why I did what I had to, too don’t you?”

“I guess,” Jess muttered darkly.

There was a long difficult silence between them and then Sam said, “In this case, I think careful nursing by Miss Millie here will see you through, as long as you rest and take things easy for a day or so, OK? You’ve had a nasty blow to the head,” he continued, “which accounts for the hangover from hell feeling. The kicking to the chest is causing your breathing difficulties. I reckon you’ve a mild infection going on, too, so you really need to take it easy and rest up. It’s not life-threatening — as long as you’re sensible and stay in bed for a while,” he said with a warning look.

“Yeah, yeah, but it will be dang life-threatening if I don’t get back to the ranch pronto, Sam. Slim will be gunning for me. I promised, garldarn it — really promised I’d be back today.”

“You leave Slim to me. Just rest up, ride back in a day or so and then complete rest to the end of the week. I’ll come over Saturday; check on you and how the fish are biting too…deal?”

“I guess…”

“Good man. Now I must be off. There’s flu in town and looks like it could be spreading. See you later, and I’ll call in on Slim when I visit the Patterson kids later. I’ll tell him you’re laid up.” Then the doctor gestured for Millie to see him out.

“Keep an eye on him, my dear, and any dizziness or vomiting, call me back at once. It could be signs of a serious concussion. That was a nasty blow to the head …very nasty.” With that, same rushed off to his next appointment.

Once the doctor had left, Jess made to get out of bed.

“Now where do you think you’re going? “

“Aw…Mill, I’ve got work to do,” Jess wheezed.

“Jess, listen to you. You’re going nowhere!” she cried and fixed him with a quelling look.

He sighed deeply and lay back down. “OK,” he sighed. “You win.”

Then after a moment, his blue eyes twinkled up at her cheekily, as he pulled the bedding back. “So you getting back in then…huh….huh?”

She made a gentle swipe in the general direction of his head laughing. “You’re incorrigible, Jess Harper,” and waltzed off to fix him some breakfast.

*****

In the end, Jess slept away most of the day, uncharacteristically doing as he was told, and it was the following morning before he felt well enough to get up and on with his life.

“This has really knocked you about, hasn’t it,” said a concerned Millie, surprised that Jess had reacted so badly to the attack. Heck, he usually bounced back like a rubber ball, joking and making light of his injuries. However, this morning he looked almost gray, the bruising to his temple where he had crashed into the bedstead, a kaleidoscope of colors from dark red through to blue and purple.

Jess just shrugged. “I guess and I’m real mad too. Gonna go and sort out that Kane, and if he goes anywhere near you again…”

“He won’t; Tom’s made sure of that. He’s been banned and Mort’s locked him up until you go and make a statement, so I reckon he’ll have learned his lesson.”

Jess just grunted at that and finally made his fond farewells to Millie, promising to get back into town as soon as he could and then called in at Mort’s office, ready to face his attacker and acquaint him with the full force of the Harper temper.

*****

“What do you mean he’s at the doc’s place?” Jess bellowed.

Mort, called upon to use all his diminishing supplies of patience, took a deep breath before replying. “He was taken real sick yesterday, not long after you left; started throwing up blood, so of course I called the doc in. Look Jess, I understand you want your pound of flesh as far as Kane is concerned, but to be honest, the way the guy is suffering I figure he’s getting his just rewards and then some.”

Jess sighed deeply. “That bad, eh?”

“I’m afraid so. Doc doesn’t hold out much hope. It seems he likes the whiskey a little too much, had been told to stay off it, but then what with his infatuation with Millie, then you coming on the scene, he went on that bender and it ain’t looking too good.”

“Well, maybe that’ll teach him to stay away from other folk’s women,” Jess said doggedly.

Mort threw him a reproachful glance at that.

Jess sighed deeply and pushed his hat back. “OK, OK maybe you’re right and he’s gotten enough to worry about without me goin’ off half cocked, but I’m tellin’ you, Mort, any more messin’ with Millie and he’ll have more than his drink cravin’ to worry about.”

“I hear you loud and clear, and if he does make a recovery, I figure I’ll be recommending it’s time he moved on….alright?”

Jess grinned at that. “Yep; thanks, Mort.”

“So how are you?” asked the Sheriff, taking in Jess’s grey countenance and the severe bruising to his temple now exposed with his hat sitting at a jaunty angle..

“Oh, you know, felt better, but I gotta be on my way or Slim will be frettin’. We’ve got a barn roof to mend. See you, Mort.” Jess marched out.

At the livery old, Bert was busy with a client so Jess just tossed him what was owed and went to saddle up Traveler himself. It was when he threw the saddle up, that everything started spinning and he had to lean heavily on his horse for a moment or two, his eyes tightly shut, feeling sick to his stomach.

After a minute Bert wandered over. “You OK, son? “

Jess swallowed hard before glancing across at the old timer. “Uh, sure, thanks, Bert; just a mite dizzy.”

“I heard as there was some kinda ruckus in the saloon,” Bert said with a friendly grin.

“Yeah, well it’s done with,” Jess said brusquely, and once Traveler was ready to go, he jumped up in the saddle. With a small farewell salute, he trotted out of town at a brisk pace.

When Jess landed back at the ranch later that morning, Slim strode out of the barn with a face like thunder. “Where in the blue blazes have you been!” he spat angrily.

“Well good morning, Slim; good to see you too,” Jess replied with a sarcastic grin.

“Don’t give me that. Where the dickens have you been? You know I can’t finish this roof job on my own.”

Jess dismounted and started unsaddling his horse, before turning and raising a quizzical eyebrow. “Didn’t Sam let you know? He was gonna be out this way, said he’d explain.”

“No, he hasn’t,” said Slim, eyes narrowed and arms folded.

Jess sighed. “Well, he promised. Anyway, I got into a fight and…”

“Typical; I might have known it,” Slim stormed. “Hell, Jess, can you not just go to town for one night without getting into trouble?”

“Look, it weren’t my fault. I was attacked; this guy flattened me with a lucky punch and I fell kinda badly. Been sleepin’ it off, if you must know; doc Sam insisted.”

“Uh, OK so where?”

“Huh?”

“So where were you sleeping off this attack then? “

“Well, I stayed at Millie’s and…”

“Oh yeah, sure, sure,” Slim broke in, in a voice now dripping with sarcasm. “So tell me, you were staying at Millie’s place and kinda forgot where the door was, huh? “

“It wasn’t like that, Slim. Just listen to me, will you?”

“Nope, no time. So now you’ve finally deigned to return, do you think you could take time in your busy day to give me a hand?”

Jess rolled his eyes and walked his mount over to the barn. “Soon as I’ve seen to Trav,” he called over his shoulder.

*****

It was later that day when misfortune struck Jess yet again.

Both men had been up on the roof in the blazing sun for most of the day, and then Slim asked Jess to get up in the hay loft and double check there were no chinks in the new boarding of the roof.

“And while you’re up there, throw some hay down, will you? There’s still a mess of good stuff that the fire didn’t get,” was Slim’s parting shot as Jess made his way up the ladder.

“Thought Lincoln has released the slaves,” Jess muttered under his breath as he made his way up to the hay loft under the barn roof. He made his way right to the back, under the old roof, and there was indeed plenty of hay that hadn’t been touched. h started to fork it out towards the edge of the loft.

Jess’s head was throbbing and he felt real sick again, but then they’d hardly stopped work all day so it was hardly surprising, he thought, knowing Doc Sam had told him to rest. The afternoon stage bringing Mike home from school was due shortly, and then it was his turn to make supper, but there again he wasn’t hungry. Just wanted to lie down and sleep, preferably for a week or so, he thought morosely.

“Come on, Hotshot, get a wiggle on will you,” called Slim’s insistent tone. “What are you doing up there?”

Jess thought of a very rude reply, but bit it back and just started forking the hay down to Slim below.

It was a good ten minutes later — the bed of hay below now substantial — that Jess began to feel dizzy again, the barn spinning around him, sweat pouring down  his back and then everything went black as the pitchfork dropped from his  hands and fell down below, narrowly missing Slim.

“Hey, what are you playing at!” Slim yelled up. Then his eyes opened wide in shock as Jess followed the pitchfork down, falling as though in slow motion down, down onto the mound of hay far below, which at least cushioned his fall a little, as he landed with a dull thud.

Slim stood frozen to the spot, deep shock in his eyes, before dashing forwards and bending over his buddy. “Jess, pard….what happened?” he asked, but his friend was out cold.

Jess’ hat had been lost as he fell and Slim suddenly saw the gash to his temple, the colorful bruise radiating from it, all which had previously been obscured by his Stetson.

“What in hell have you been up to,” Slim muttered, peering down at Jess’s pale lifeless looking form and feeling racked with guilt at the way he’d treated him since his return that morning.

It was a few minutes later when Jess finally came around, groaning and cussing.

“Jess, I’m so dang sorry,” Slim said at once. “You should have said you’d been hurt; hell, I wouldn’t have asked you to work this way.”

“Tried didn’t I,” Jess said, more in sorrow than anger. “But you didn’t wanna hear, did you?”

Slim looked down and flushed. “I guess not…sorry.”

Then Jess got a look in his eyes that Slim knew of old — usually after an excess of ratified whiskey had been imbibed — and turning away, Jess started retching into the hay. After a while, he lay back panting, “I’m sorry, Slim.”

“No,” said Slim, almost sharply. “It’s me that’s sorry, pard. Do you think you can stand?”

Jess nodded. “I guess.”

“Come on, then, let’s get you inside, cleaned up and into bed. I figure that bang on the head is a mite more serious than you thought.”

Never was a truer word said Jess was to say later, a grim smile on his face.

Slim gave him a hand to pull him up, but as soon as Jess moved, the world started spinning again and he fell back with a low groan. “Can’t do it, Slim.”

Then a moment later they heard the Stage rattling into the yard.

Slim dashed out and returned a few minutes later with a pale anxious-looking Mike in tow, followed by Mose, the driver.

“Not feelin’ too clever then, son?” the old timer asked with his quirky smile.

Jess just groaned which could have been in the affirmative.

Then Mike came into his line of vision and Jess pulled himself together, throwing the youngster the ghost of a smile. “Hey Tiger, I ain’t dead yet, so don’t you go frettin’.”

Between the pair of them, Mose and Slim carried Jess into the ranch, and once on his bed, Jess closed his eyes tightly, swallowing hard. Mike was dispatched to find a bucket.

Meanwhile Slim and Mose reconvened back in the yard to change the team.

“You want me to get a message to doc Sam?” asked Mose once he was back up on the box and ready for off.

Slim nodded. “I guess. I really don’t like the look of him.”

*****

It was quite late that evening when doc Sam finally arrived, offering profuse apologies. “This darned flu is doing the rounds and I’ve been run off my feet.” Then he rubbed his hands together. “So where is the patient then Slim? In bed, I hope, like I told him? “

“Huh? “

“Well, he did tell you about that nasty gash to the head. I wouldn’t have let him ride out, but you know the way he is. So I told him, light duties.”

“You’d better take a look, Sam. He’s been up on the barn roof helping me all day and took a tumble from the hay loft. Gee, it’s all my fault; I shouldn’t have yelled at him that way when he was so late back.”

Then Sam’s hand flew to his forehead. “Garldarn it! No, it’s my fault Slim; I promised I’d ride over and tell you he was sick and I clean forgot.”

It was some time later when Sam took his leave, pausing on the porch to chat to Slim. He shook his head again. “He’s really done it this time. When will that boy learn to pay heed to what I say?” the doctor growled in exasperation. “These real powerful headaches, double vision and dislike of bright light all adds up to a really nasty concussion and possibly a bleed on the brain. Too early to speculate, but I’m not happy, Slim,” he said with a worried glance at his buddy.

Slim ran a hand through his blond hair, his expression one of deep concern. “I’ll do all I can to keep him real still, in bed and all, Sam, of course I will, but I can’t stay at the bedside all day, what with the business to run and Mike to care for too. Gee, I sure wish Daisy was still with us.”

“I know, Slim, I know,” Sam said, patting his friend gently on the arm and looking deeply saddened.

Both men were silent for a moment, looking out to the distant horizon, the sun gradually setting.

“These things take time, you know that, don’t you?” the doctor said softly.

Slim just shrugged. “I guess.”

“Look, I’ll send out Carrie tomorrow to nurse him through the worst. Sure, the aftermath of a real bad concussion like this can last for weeks, with the dizziness, terrible headaches but…”

“But what, Sam?”

“Well I was going to say, but if it’s anything worse than that, well, we should find out in the next day or so — that is, if there’s some permanent damage to the brain. Carrie will nurse him through the next few days, make sure he behaves and then we’ll just have to wait and see the outcome.”

Slim reached over and shook Sam’s hand. “Thanks and I appreciate all you’ve done. I’ll look forward to seeing Carrie tomorrow; that’ll be a real Godsend, thanks.” He turned back into the ranch, feeling like the weight of the world was resting on his shoulders.

When he returned to the room he shared with Jess, Slim found Mike sitting on the edge of the bed looking tearful and Jess fast asleep.

The youngster’s lip was trembling and he turned huge worried eyes on Slim. “I’m scared,” he whispered.

Slim took his hand and led him from the room, casting one last anxious glance over at his buddy, before pulling the door to. Then he went and sat by the fire, pulling the youngster onto his knee, noticing the tears now brimming in his eyes. “Hey Tiger, what’s this all about?” he asked kindly.

“Doc Sam was funny — like strange — really worried, wasn’t he. He usually makes jokes and joshes with Jess, but he was real serious.” Then turning troubled eyes on his hero, Mike whispered, “Jess ain’t gonna die, is he, Slim?”

“Heck no, and Miss Carrie’s coming over to stay a while to nurse him, just until we’re sure he’s over the worst. So he’ll be looked after real good Tiger.”

“I guess,” Mike said, brightening a little. “I really like Carrie, she’s the best. But it ain’t the same as Aunt Daisy caring for him, is it, Slim?” he asked, the tears finally brimming over and trickling down his pale, pinched little face.

Slim held him close. “No, it ain’t, Mike, that’s for sure. Guess there isn’t anyone quite like Aunt Daisy when it comes to nursing.”

*****

Sam’s daughter and pretty nurse arrived early the following morning, in good time to make breakfast for them all and see Mike safely off to school, looking much more chipper with Carrie’s usual cheerful, no nonsense approach.

Once the youngster had left, she rolled up her sleeves. “Right, now for the patient,” she said with her infectious giggle.

“Good luck,” said Slim dryly. “He’s been moaning and cussing since first light, real ornery this morning.”

She looked unperturbed at that. “Well, that can be one of the symptoms of severe concussion as well as the dizziness and nausea, headaches and the like. Irritability is another symptom.”

“Uh…. kinda hard to tell with Jess, though, isn’t it?” Slim said, exchanging a knowing smile with the young woman.

She nodded at that. “Don’t worry, Slim; I won’t take any nonsense from him.” With that, she bustled off.

“I figure you’ve just met your match, buddy,” Slim said to himself, with a small smile as he made his way out into the yard, beginning to feel more cheerful already.

Jess and Carrie had history that went way back to when she had first arrived in Laramie with her widower Pa, Doc Sam, as an impressionable fifteen year old. * See The Doctor’s Daughter.

As soon as she clapped eyes on Jess, she was smitten and he was to become the love of her life, so she felt then, and her first crush. It had been a long hard road for her and equally difficult for Jess as he sidestepped her many devious teenage advances upon him. Eventually, though, they had got though the situation pretty much unscathed, and Carrie now considered him one of her closest friends, her infatuation merely a distant but cherished memory.

Since then she had nursed him on several occasions and had just about got his measure.

She knew that he was incredibly shy and embarrassed at the intimacy involved in being nursed, having once told her hotly that a man should only ever be seen buck naked by his Ma if he was under five and his best girl — and then only under certain circumstances. She had had a good giggle at that, but it still hadn’t prevented her from doing what was necessary and Jess knew he had met his match.

Now when she entered the room and looked down at her sleeping patient, her heart bled for him. He looked so young, almost her age of just eighteen, and very pale, the bruise to his temple now dark blue and purple, showing up starkly against his waxy complexion.

After a few minutes, Jess became aware of her scrutiny and his eyes flickered open. He peered up at her through the dim light and gave her a weak grin. “Howdy, sweetheart. I must be sick if your Pa’s seen fit to send you over to ride shotgun.”

She nodded. “Sick enough for you to obey me to the letter, Jess Harper, or pay the consequences.”

“Which are?” he asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

She suddenly lost her businesslike persona and sank down on the edge of the bed, grasping his hand in hers before looking deeply into those oh so familiar blue eyes. “Pa isn’t sure of the extent of damage to your brain, but what he does know is that it’s vital for you to keep completely still and relaxed to give it the best chance to heal. Or else, well, it may not…”

“I see,” he said quietly after a few minutes.

Then squeezing her hand, Jess threw her a genuine warm smile. “Well, I’d better behave then, hadn’t I, Ma’am.”

*****

Behave he did, for a while anyway, but then something happened that was not exactly conducive to his convalescence. And that ‘something’ was in the form of Mrs. Bertha Kane.

The subject of Vince Kane had come up on the first evening of Carrie’s stay at the ranch.

Jess had been bemoaning the fact that the no hoper had managed to catch him ’off guard’, he had substituted, not wanting to go into too much detail in front of Carrie, and how a lucky punch had sent him flying into the bedstead causing the wound to his temple.

Carrie looked quite shocked when Kane’s name came up and she came and sat down on the edge of the bed next to Jess. “Of course, you won’t have heard.”

“Heard what?” he asked throwing her a lazy look.

“He’s…he’s dead, Jess; died a couple of days after the fight. He suffered a fatal stomach bleed as a consequence of his alcohol addiction and died; there was nothing Pa could do.”

“You’re kiddin’ me,” said Jess looking aghast. “Hell, I sure was mad at the man but I didn’t want him dead. Gee, Carrie. So what caused it? The fight? Did that start the bleeding?”

“No, you didn’t work him over nearly as badly as he did you. No, like I said, it was the amount of sprit he imbibed. His stomach was already ulcerated and he’d been warned of the consequences of strong drink, but it looks like he was so infatuated with Millie, he just didn’t care. If he couldn’t have her, he didn’t want to live; he told that to Pa, in confidence, before he died.”

Jess just shook his head. “So did you know about this thing he had for Millie then?”

She shook her head. “I knew Millie had been having unwanted attention from someone and she always tried to get one of the other girls to serve him. None of this is her fault, you know, Jess; she’d never cheat on you.”

“Heck I know that, honey, sure I do. I just wish I’d known. I should have gotten into town more regular but, what with Daisy an’ all…you know?” He shrugged sadly.

“Sure I do,” she said squeezing his hand in a comforting way….

“I’ll go and fetch you a hot drink and then you’d better turn in; you really need to rest, Jess.”

It was later that evening when she was sitting by the fire with Slim — Jess asleep and Mike long in bed — that the topic came up again.

“Dead you say!” exclaimed Slim, looking every bit as surprised as Jess had done.

Carrie explained the situation again and affirmed that Jess had played no part in the other’s demise, save for killing the last hopes he may have had of striking up a relationship with Millie. “I guess as soon as he saw them together, he knew it was impossible and that’s why he drowned his sorrows that way and then attacked poor Jess so viciously.”

“Yeah, I’d been wondering about that. According to Sam, Millie said that Kane just went berserk, kicking old Hotshot and if Mort hadn’t happened along, well…”

Carrie nodded sympathetically. “That isn’t an end to it either,” she said anxiously. “You don’t know about Mrs. Bertha Kane, do you?”

“No… and I don’t think I want to. Sounds like trouble but go on,” Slim said resignedly.

“Well she is Kane’s wife and turned up just hours before he died and was hysterical. Apparently, he’d left her a few months since and she’d sold up back east and followed him out here, thinking to make amends, wanting him to take her back.”

“Go on.”

“Well, of course he didn’t want her to know about Millie, so he made up some crazy story about Jess forcing himself on Millie and how he went to the rescue, and the stupid woman believed it. then the next thing, he upped and died. Well, Pa tried to explain the truth, but she really didn’t want to hear it, convinced herself it was a blow from Jess that did for him. I imagine she was really shocked anyway, after her husband died that way; she certainly wasn’t making any sense. “

“Yeah, she would be real upset, I guess. Where is she now?”

Carrie shrugged. “I don’t know. Pa offered to put her up, help her with the arrangements, but she just flounced out, and nobody’s seen her since, as far as I know, that is.”

Slim looked concerned at that.

“And there’s more, too.”

“Go on,” he said with a sigh.

“Apparently, Jenny Jackson, my friend from the women’s group, knows her. they were neighbours back east. She thought she recognized Vince, but he’d changed so much, looked so sick, she wasn’t sure. But then when she saw Bertha running out of Pa’s office, she recognized her, but by the time she’d crossed the street, she’d gone. Anyway, Jenny came over later and said she’d looked every place and couldn’t see her. Then she told me what a real harridan she is — apparently led poor Vince a real dance and only stayed with him for his money. Seems he’d come into a small fortune and she wasn’t about to lose it, so she followed him out.”

“But according to Mort, he said he was practically penniless, had gambled away hundreds since he landed here in Laramie a few months back.”

“It seems this Bertha is a force to be reckoned with anyway, according to Jenny,” Carrie finished looking worried.

“Uh…well, I reckon we won’t tell Jess about all this. I guess he’s got enough on his plate right now without distraught, angry widows to add to the mix!”

*****

It wasn’t the fact that she was distraught or angry that Jess found somewhat concerning, he was to tell Slim later, and more to do with the fact that she was totin’ a rifle, aimed at his guts and had a kinda crazy look in her eyes.

It all happened toward the end of the week.

Jess had, for once, behaved himself impeccably regarding his convalescence from the severe concussion. Suffering the indignity of complete bed rest bravely, from blanket baths to surviving on broth and milk, although he prevailed upon Slim to help him with the ‘outhouse side of things’. There were certain limits as to what he’d put up with, he had told Carrie briskly when that issue had come up on the first day, and on this point, she felt she had to concede.

Now it was the day before she was due to return home and she was having ‘the devil’s own job’, as she had reported to Slim, in keeping his partner confined to bed.

“You just stay put, Hotshot,” Slim said firmly. “Carrie says you can get up for an hour or so tomorrow and not before, understand?”

Jess just threw him a pained look at that.

“OK, so I’m just going out to check on the stock; be back in an hour or so.”

“Right,” Jess said rolling his eyes and sighing.

“Carrie’s ridden over to the Patterson place. Seems Ma Patterson has got half her brood sick with this flu and needs a hand, but she’ll be back later to fix dinner. So you just behave, huh!”

“Oh come on, Slim, I ain’t six. I can be left for a couple of hours, you know.”

“Um….well, just stay in bed and behave. I’ll see you later.”

Jess was dozing lightly when he heard the front door open and close. “That you, Slim? Any chance of a coffee?” he called out, waiting expectantly for his buddy’s blond head to pop around the door.

When there was no answer, he tried again, “Carrie….?”

Then after a moment, the door burst open and a tall, buxom, middle aged woman, with a florid face, stood there glaring at him, a rifle in her shaking hands aimed at Jess, who was now half out of bed.

He instinctively, jumped back in and pulled the covers up over his naked torso and cut down, red long johns. “What’s your game?” he spat aggressively, eyeing the rifle in some trepidation.

“Are you Mister Jess Harper?” she roared in a surprisingly deep voice, waving the rifle about haphazardly.

“Who’s askin’ and what the hell are you doin’ in my room?” Jess yelled back, looking every inch the wounded party. “And keep that dang thing still,” he added crossly.

She focused the gun on his head now, looking furious. “I’m Bertha Kane and you murdered my husband,” she spat angrily. “And now it’s time you got what’s owed you…Mister Harper!”

“Oh no lady, you’ve got this all wrong, real wrong. Now you just back off and let me get dressed and then we’ll talk…OK?”

“There’s no talking to be done, Mister Harper; my man’s dead and that’s laid firmly at your door. Now there’s two ways we can deal with this. Either you compensate me — oh, say about $ 5,000 should cover it — or you prepare to meet your Maker.” She waved the rifle under his nose menacingly, looking almost comical to Jess’s eyes, if she hadn’t been so darned serious.

“I guess there’s a third way we can deal with this. You can put that gun down and get out of my house!”

As she twisted around to see Slim standing in the doorway looking mad as hell, Jess leapt from his bed and easily wrestled the gun from her hands. He nodded across at Slim, throwing him the rifle. “Thanks, pard.” Then his eyes flicked back to Bertha Kane. “So let’s try that again, shall we, Ma’am? Like I said, you wait outside and I’ll put my pants on and we’ll talk this out, huh?”

She was sitting at the table drinking coffee made by Slim and looking very self righteous when Jess emerged fully dressed a little while later.

“OK, Mrs. Kane, I can see as how you’d be real upset about your husband dyin’ and all,” Jess said, showing uncharacteristic patience, “but this really ain’t the way to deal with it, lady. I ain’t responsible for your man dyin’. I guess that was down to him and his tippin’ the jug a mite too much.”

“What are you talking about?” she responded acerbically. “My Vince was sick, I admit that, had stomach problems. That’s why he was so brave taking you on when you attacked that poor defenseless girl in the saloon.”

“What the heck are you talkin’ about?” asked Jess, looking astounded.

“Kane told his wife that you tried to force yourself on Millie, and he came to her rescue,” Slim supplied. “Carrie told me all about it. Sam told Mrs. Kane here the truth, but she doesn’t seem to want to hear it!”

“What?” yelled Jess looking askance. “You’re kiddin’. Me hurt Millie? Are you crazy? She’s my girl. It was your dang husband who wanted to bed her. That’s what the fight was about.” Je jumped up, pacing around the room, looking furious.

This turn of events seemed to upset her, and although she showed no sign of believing the truth of it, she looked somewhat disconcerted at Jess’s anger and version of what had happened and decided attack was the best means of defense.

“Why, a woman isn’t safe with the likes of you about, young man, molesting innocent girls,” she said, edging a little closer to Slim.

“Oh believe me, you ain’t got any call to be worried, Ma’am,” Jess said with feeling. “I can assure you, you’ll be real safe around me.” His sarcasm was sadly lost on her, though.

“Uh….that’s as maybe,” she said stoutly and then rallying, threw him a hard look. “So what about my payment then? You owe me for killing my man!”

Jess and Slim just stared blankly at her, wondering how she could be so dang stupid…or at best, totally in denial of the facts.

Unbeknown to the men, Carrie had entered the room silently and had been listening for the last few minutes, but this lasts tirade was too much for her and she marched across, looking flushed and very angry. “Why you wicked old woman,” she cried. “How dare you speak to Jess that way! It was your darned husband who was in the wrong, as I’m sure you know. He frightened and upset my good friend Millie with his constant unwanted attention and then when he saw Jess and Millie together, he just couldn’t stand it. He proceeded to drink himself half to death and then attacked Jess viciously in a jealous rage!”

“No… no, that can’t be true. Vince wouldn’t go after another woman and certainly not a saloon girl!”

“Would and did,” Jess muttered.

However it was Carrie who now had the situation firmly in control. “Your husband beat Jess mercilessly, and he’s been so sick I’ve had to stay over here to nurse him, so if anyone deserves any compensation, as you put it, it’s Jess!”

Bertha stared from Jess to Carrie and back and then over to Slim. “Is this really true?” she whispered, seeming to be coming to her senses at long last.

“Yes Ma’am, it is,” replied Slim sincerely. “And I can vouch for my partner here. He really was the injured party, I can assure you, and Millie is his girl.”

But Bertha Kane had lost her need for reprisal now as the truth that her husband was a chronic drunk and womanizer finally hit home. Putting her head in her hands, she started to weep softly.

Once Carrie was sure she had completely exonerated Jess in Mrs. Kane’s eyes, she was immediately her usual, compassionate, kind self again and threw a comforting arm around the middle aged woman. “There now, don’t take on so, please, Mrs. Kane. My Pa will help sort everything out I promise,” she said kindly.

Once the woman had finally pulled herself together and apologized, Carrie asked, “So is that your hire buggy in the yard?”

The woman just nodded.

“Right. I’ll drive you home and you can stay with us as Pa suggested. We’ll help you make all the arrangements and lay your husband to rest….yes?”

“Thank you, my dear,” she whispered, now a completely broken woman, too embarrassed to meet Jess’s eyes after her terrible accusations, not to mention threatening him with a gun. What had she been thinking, she wondered.

“Will you two be OK if I go home a day early?” Carrie asked, turning to a bemused looking Jess and Slim.

“Sure,” said Slim, “we’ll be just fine.”

“Yep,” Jess agreed, “and thanks for carin’ for me so well, sweetheart.”

“You’re welcome,” Carrie said, her beautiful smile encompassing both men, and she rose to go, helping Ma Kane up. Then she turned back to Jess. “Oh, and Jess…”

“Yeah? “

“Get back to bed. I said you could get up tomorrow…just for an hour or so, remember?”

He threw her a big grin at that. “Yes Ma’am, whatever you say!”

*****

If the issue over Vince Kane whopping Jess good left him feeling slightly annoyed with himself at being caught off guard that way, he was soon to get back into the ‘swing’ of things. Literally, when he was involved in a saloon fight just a week or so later. But ‘it really weren’t his fault’, so he was to explain to Slim later.

It all started when young Billy Myers decided to try his luck with Millie, but unfortunately for him, this time Jess was around.

The youngster came from a very well-to-do family and had been brought up to believe what little Billy wanted, Billy got. Now at just eighteen, he still believed that, and right now what the half-drunk Billy wanted was Miss Millie.

He had been attempting to sweet talk her with silly wisecracks and declarations of love for a week or more and Millie had simple swatted him away like an annoying fly. But tonight in his alcohol inflamed condition, Billy wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

As soon as Jess could see Millie getting flushed and annoyed, he walked over from the end of the bar, where he was enjoying a quiet beer, and tapped Billy on the shoulder. “The lady said she ain’t interested, kid. Now push off and leave her alone, OK?”

Billy turned around and weighed up Jess looking him up and down a sneer on his baby face. “Well if it ain’t the great Jess Harper. Seems I heard last time a man went after your girl, he floored you and you were sick for a week or more. Nah, you don’t bother me, Harper.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from the nearby drinkers and a shift away from the bar in the vicinity of Jess and Billy.

“Look kid, I don’t wanna fight you. Just back off and go find a girl your own age,” said Jess patiently.

“I bet you don’t want a fight,” said the kid, reaching for his beer and downing it, before wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Then he turned back a belligerent look in his eyes. “Come on, Harper. Or are you too scared to fight, huh? Lost your bottle, have you?”

“Go home, Billy an’ sleep it off,” Jess said wearily, turning back to the bar, to speak to Millie.

That’s when the youngster threw a punch — and that was a step just too far for Jess, patience never having been a virtue he possessed one heck of a lot of.

Jess parried the blow easily and slammed his fist into the kids face, flooring him instantly, in one fluid movement.

That was when Billy’s Pa’s beefy foreman, Pete Deacon from  the Bar X ranch, and several ranch hands pitched in, throwing punches at Jess, who parried, ducked and  then returned in kind, sending the men  sprawling. Several of their punches hit home, however, and he was blooded and swaying at the end of the altercation as he stood surveying the unconscious or injured ranch hands, sprawled about the bar.

After a moment there was the sound of solitary applause. Mort Corey stood watching, cradling his rifle, his eyes twinkling wickedly as he looked at the aftermath of Jess’s retribution. “I think you’ve proved your point, Jess,” said Mort dryly, who had been watching the fight with interest. Then he turned to the others. “Get that kid home, Deacon, and keep him well away from town for a while and Miss Millie in particular. He got off lightly this time. Next time gun play could be involved. Now clear out the lot of you; I’m sick of your trouble making. And you can tell Jack Myers I’ll be over to talk to him about his son in the morning. If the kid can’t hold his drink and learn some manners, then he’s better off at home,” he drawled as the sorry gang left, looking sheepish.

*****

It was a couple of days later when Slim drove the buckboard into the yard after shopping in town and jumped down, calling for Jess.

Jess emerged from the barn a few minutes later, wandered over and started to help unload the merchandise. “So what’s the news in town,” he asked cheerfully as they started to stack the goods in the kitchen.

“Oh, nothing much. Carrie stopped me in the street and asked if the usual arrangements for Thanksgiving still held.”

Jess paused from stacking cans of beans in the cupboard and suddenly looked distressed. Hell, Slim, I’d forgotten all about that coming up in a couple of weeks.” Then he shook his head sadly, “It sure ain’t gonna be the same without Daisy, unless…”

Slim jumped in before he could say more. “I figure we’ve just got to accept it, pard — Daisy not being around. Anyway, Carrie said we could go out to them this year if we wanted, but I said no, what with the stock to tend and everything. So I said we’d have the meal here as per usual. Carrie and Sam can come; Millie and Lily have got cover at the saloon so they’ll be with us too. Plus Mort and Mose, so looks like we’ll have a full house!”

But Jess had stopped listening.

“What’s up, Jess?”

“What are we gonna do? For food, I mean? All that stuff…well, Daisy does it all, don’t she? The pumpkin pie, apple pie, turkey, stuffin’ cranberry sauce, all that stuff, Slim? We don’t know how to do that kinda thing!”

“Well I guess it’s time we learned. We can cook a turkey OK. Just hang it in a slow oven, don’t you?”

“I reckon there’s a mite more to it than that, Slim, the amount of fuss the women folk make an’ all.”

“Oh we’ll manage and I figure maybe Carrie will come early and help us out some.”

But Jess still looked anxious.

“Anyway, that wasn’t all the news.”

“Oh?”

“Uh…I ran into Mort and he told me all about that little contretemps you had with young Billy Myers the other night.”

“Huh, so what are you talkin’ about, Slim?”

“Contretemps, it’s foreign for quarrel, argument, fall–out. Dang it, Jess, fist fight!”

“Well why didn’t you say so? Doggone it, Slim, do you have to talk like you’ve swallowed the darned dictionary every livin’ minute?”

Slim looked a little sheepish. “Sorry, pard, but I can’t help it if Ma was a teacher, now can I? So, what’s the deal with you and Billy? He’s a bit young to be suffering your fist in his face, isn’t he?”

“Aw, he asked for it, Slim; he was messin’ with Millie and wouldn’t take get off home for an answer.”

“Like that, eh. Mort said you floored the whole of the Bar X ranch single handed. That’s quite impressive, Jess, even for you”

“Yeah, well I guess I needed to kinda assert myself after that business with Kane. If youngsters like Billy think they can get away with messing with my girl…” he said hotly.

“So that’s what it was all about, you claiming your rights again.”

“Maybe,” Jess replied looking down, somewhat embarrassed, but then he rallied. “Look Slim, it really weren’t my fault. I tried to get him to back off and then he threw a punch, and then well…you know how it is….”

“I know how it is with you,” Slim said with a grin. “Anyway, Mort said he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in months and the kid needed taking down a peg or two.”

It was about this time that the two men decided to make a few plans regarding their visits to Laramie.

Ever since they had been without a housekeeper, their trips to town had been severely curtailed because of Mike and they were unable to ride in together for their usual Saturday night of seeing their girls, having a drink or three and playing the odd round of poker.

It was Slim who suggested they take it in turns to go to town, and then on the third Saturday, Mike would stay over at his friend’s house, young Tommy Briggs, and they could both go out. Then finally the following week, Tommy would stay over at their place.

“So who stays home and rides shotgun over the kids when it’s our turn?” asked Jess suspiciously.

“Toss for it,” suggested Slim. Then he remembered Jess’s two headed coin. “Or just take it in turns?”

“Nope I figure maybe we’d better both stay home,” Jess laughed. “You know those two when they get together!”

So it was that Mrs. Rose Briggs, Tommy’s Ma, found them busy one Sunday morning a week or so later when she came to collect her lively son.

Slim opened the door to her, and putting down the shirt he was mending, asked her to come in and went off to find the boys, calling through to Jess in the kitchen that they had company.

Jess came in a moment later, face streaked with flour and a goodly amount of pastry dough still adhering to his hands from where he was attempting to make an apple pie. “Sit down, Ma’am,” he said politely after offering a hand and then withdrawing it quickly with a rueful smile.

“You look busy,” Rose said with a warm smile, watching the handsome young cowboy as he tried to wipe off the worst of the offending dough onto one of Daisy’s colorful aprons, slung low around his hips.

Rose Briggs was a lovely woman — kindness itself, everyone in the woman’s group said — but boy, could she fuss.

‘Gee, she could even give Daisy lessons in fussing and fretting,’ Slim had observed once.

Now she looked at Jess carefully, her head on one side for a moment. “Why I do declare, Jess, you are looking positively skin and bone. Have you lost weight recently?”

He shrugged. “Dunno, Ma’am. Been pretty busy, I guess, what with the young ‘un and work an’ all. Don’t get to sit around too much, that’s for sure,” he said with a chuckle, remembering the merry dance the boys had played them at bedtime the night before.

“Oh, you poor dear…and what’s that you’re up to?” she asked nodding to the persistent dough still covering his fingers.

Jess wiped his hands down the apron again looking embarrassed. “Apple pie.”

“Oh my….. and Slim there doing the mending. You must miss poor Daisy so much.”

“We surely do, Ma’am,” and then before he could say more, the over-excited boys burst in and all conversation was abandoned for the moment.

*****

The weekly meeting of the Laramie and District Women’s Group was underway in the hall next to the church, Mrs. Bessie Adams, from the KF ranch in the chair. “So that concludes our business for this evening, ladies,” she boomed out, smiling benignly around her. “So do we have any other business?”

Rose Higgs waved a hand about. “Yes, yes Madam Chair, I do.” She stood up and beamed at the group members. “I have no need to tell you all what a very sad loss to the group is our dear sister Daisy Cooper.” Much head nodding and ‘hear, hears’ ensued. “Well I have to report to the group that those dear boys back at the Relay Station are having trouble coping without Daisy on hand to organize them and everything.”

All eyes were upon her now, especially those of Millie and Carrie.

“Up to their eyes in women’s work and childcare, not to mention all the work on the ranch, and poor Jess Harper is a mere shadow of his former self,” Mrs. Higgs continued, casting a sad glance around the room.

Millie and Carrie exchanged a secret smile at that, knowing for a fact that he had put away a good three helpings of apple pie at Carrie’s house the previous week and enjoyed a good steak dinner at Millie’s just the day before, but they said nothing.

“Now with Thanksgiving almost upon us and Christmas soon after, I really don’t see how they will manage,” she concluded looking even more anxious.

“So what do you propose, Rose dear?” asked Bessie Adams, aware time was getting on and they all had to get home and feed their men folk and young ‘uns.

“Well I thought we might all pitch in…a list of some sort, to cook, clean the ranch, do the washing and ironing, that sort of thing?”

There was a rousing jabber of approval, the younger members quite happy to offer their help to the two handsome bachelors and the older ones wanting to feed them up and mother them.

It was a highly charged excited bunch of women who left the hall that night, all on the ‘Special Work List’, ready to offer their help as from the following day.

Carrie linked arms with Millie as they walked home together, hiding their laughter.

“They’ll absolutely hate it,” said Carrie. “Them having strange women around the place, turning out their draws and washing and mending their underwear!”

“It just ain’t fittin’ havin’ women folk all over the dang place messin’ with our stuff!” said Carrie in an admirable imitation of Jess’s gruff tones.

Millie could hardly speak for laughing. “Tidying the place up and cleaning everything… They won’t know where to turn. But I guess Jess will appreciate the cooking,” she said thoughtfully.

“Oh yes….definitely,” Carrie agreed and then caught her friend’s eye and they doubled up with laughter again.

*****

“What? They’re doin’ what!” Jess yelled looking totally taken aback.

“Taking it in turn to come and, ‘look after our interests’ was the way Rose Briggs put it,” Slim said looking equally aghast.

“Well, I’m just fine mindin’ my own ‘interests’, thank you,” Jess said decisively.

“I know, but it’s kind of sweet of them isn’t it? Heck Jess, they’re doing this because Miss Daisy was so popular with them all. They just feel they want to help out I guess.”

Jess looked down thoughtfully. “I know, and I reckon its real kind of them all…but come on, Slim. Bessie Adams darning our socks…or worse!” he said suddenly looking horror stricken, remembering the condition of his winter underwear.

“Might not be so bad, though, Jess. Old Ma Jackson cooking our supper…that’s got to be good news, hasn’t it?” said Slim encouragingly.

Jess sighed. “I guess…”

“Millie, Carrie and my Lily are all on the List too, you know, so that should be kinda fun having them around.”

Jess visibly brightened at that…but not for long.

It was Miss Esmeralda Green, the padre’s spinster sister, who thought it unfitting that single ladies should visit the ranch, and made sure that they were all chaperoned by a much older married companion.

“There just ain’t no justice,” Jess had said sadly when this latest bit of news filtered through.

Matters finally came to a head the following week.

Slim had suffered the indignity of being offered a spoonful of syrup of figs early one morning by a dear old lady who swore by it. “I give my boys a dose every morning before work; keeps them real regular,” she said grinning at a red faced, embarrassed Slim.

Jess had just made it out the door in time before he too was offered the medicine. “I wouldn’t care,” he said laughing when they reconvened in the barn later, “but her ‘boys’ are over fifty and both of ‘em real scrawny and sickly lookin’.”

“I’m not surprised.” said Slim, licking his lips thoughtfully.

“Hell, pard, you didn’t take it, did you?” Jess fell about laughing for the next hour or so, every time he thought of it.

However, there was the good side to the visits as well, and all three enjoyed some very tasty suppers prepared by the women. Jess also noticed that their larder was filling up nicely with pies, puddings and cakes all ready for Thanksgiving. “Maybe this ain’t so bad after all,” he said cheerfully one day as the couple rode out to check on the stock.

Unfortunately for Jess, the day ended in disaster, though, when one of the steers found his way into a muddy pond, and in an attempt to rescue it, Jess ended up covered in the black slimy stuff from head to foot. On arriving back home, he quickly set up the old tin bath in front of the fire in the big room, while Slim was busy dealing with the horses in the barn.

Jess had just relaxed back in hot tub when the front door banged, and Mrs. Bessie Adams marched in, a cake tin in her hands.

Jess just stared in shocked amazement as she strode past him towards the kitchen.

“Don’t mind me, dear,” she called out merrily as she glanced over at him. “Just stocking up your larder….unless you’d like your back scrubbing too. My husband says I have a very light touch!” she added with a winsome smile.

Jess was still near hysterical an hour or so later, Mrs. Adams having long gone.

She had left as soon as Jess had yelled for Slim, but then stood on the porch for a good five minutes chatting with him.

“I really can’t see what all the fuss is about,” she had said as her parting shot. “After all, I am a married lady. There’s nothing in this house that I haven’t seen before.” She marched off, chuckling to herself.

“Well she ain’t seen anything of mine,” Jess said firmly after she had left. “And she ain’t gonna either. Hell, Slim, how are we going to get out of this?” he asked turning pained eyes on his buddy.

Slim shrugged. “I really don’t know, but we can’t hurt their feelings, that’s for sure.”

“Well doggone it, Slim, what about my feelings?”

*****

It was just the next day that they found a solution, although not one they would ever have chosen, if it hadn’t been thrust upon them.

When Mike returned from school that afternoon, he looked pale and not his usual cheery self at all.

Then when Jess asked him to get to his chores, he argued, which really wasn’t like him either.

“I’m tired; don’t wanna do the chicks,” Mike said, throwing Jess a belligerent look.

“Well you’re gonna,” Jess replied, feeling pretty tired himself and not relishing the presence of yet another Women’s Group member in their kitchen, even if she did produce a wonderful meal.

Mike had slunk off looking mutinous, and after a while Jess went out to check on him and heard some loud sneezes coming from the depths of the hen house.

“Dust gotten up your nose, Tiger?” Jess asked with a grin, but when the child emerged a moment later, he got no answering smile.

However, it was at the supper table that the partners first realized there was something really wrong with their young ward, when he refused his meal.

It was Mrs. Braddock, Doc Sam’s housekeeper, on duty that evening and she was immediately on the alert.

Jess ran a gentle hand over the youngster’s forehead and then looked concerned. “Hey Tiger, you’re burning up. How do you feel?” he asked kindly.

“Not too good,” the child admitted, sneezing again and wiping his nose on his sleeve.

Slim and Jess exchanged an amused look at that, Jess rolling his eyes.

“Haven’t you got a hanky, Mike?” asked Slim eventually.

“Nope,” said the child, looking down sullenly.

Jess turned to the boy and said softly, “Thank Mrs. Braddock for comin’ out to cook for us, Tiger, even if you ain’t hungry.”

The child looked like he might cry and then turning to Ma Braddock, said, “Thank you for coming over and cooking a nice meal, Ma’am; I’m sorry I ain’t hungry.”

“That’s alright, my angel, I understand,” she said giving him the benefit of her loving smile.

“Come on, buddy, let’s get you off for an early night, huh?” said Jess, getting up from his meal and taking the child’s hand.

The fact that Mike went off without any argument spoke volumes, and on Jess’s return some ten minutes later, Mrs. Braddock looked concerned.

“There you are, dear,” she said bringing his supper in from where she’d been keeping it warm. “So how is the little chap?”

“Fast asleep, but he really ain’t right, Ma’am,” Jess said throwing her an anxious glance.

“It’s probably this wretched flu that’s been doing the rounds,” she said earnestly. “Poor Doctor Baker has been run ragged, out day and night and some of the babies and old folk have been real sick with it.”

Slim looked immediately worried at that. “Heck Ma’am, if he has got that, then I guess we’d better put a stop to all the ladies visiting us. I sure would hate for any of them to catch it from Mike. Er,  you have had it  haven’t you Mrs. Braddock?” he asked suddenly worried.

“Yes, bless you son, I’m quite immune now, but I think maybe you are right. Some of the helpers are quite elderly and others with young families. Maybe we’d better call a halt until the little man is better.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief and then remembering his manners said, “Real swell meal, Mrs. Braddock, thanks.”

“You’re welcome, young man. Dear Daisy would never forgive us if we didn’t take care of her special boys,” she said kindly. Then she stood up, suddenly looking weary.

“Where are you off to?” asked Slim, jumping up too as Jess continued to shovel Mike’s leftovers down.

“Washing up, my dear.”

“No you don’t. Off by the fire and I’ll bring you a nice coffee, before I drive you home. Jess will do the dishes,” Slim said, throwing his buddy an evil smirk.

“No need, Slim dear; Doctor Baker said he’ll pick me up on his way back from the Patterson place. He should be here soon.”

True to his word, the doctor arrived a little later and took a cursory look at a very sleepy and rather tearful Mike and agreed it most likely was the flu that was doing the rounds. “Keep him warm, lots of hot drinks and keep visitors away,” he said with a tired smile.

“We’d agreed on that,” said Slim. “Mrs. Braddock will ask the ladies not to call until young Mike’s OK again.”

“Very wise,” said the doctor. “He should be right as rain by Thanksgiving. We’re still on for that, are we? “

“Yep,” smiled Jess. “Thanks to the good ladies of Laramie, our larder’s burstin’ at the seams; figure you’re in for a real treat, doc!”

It was as the couple had driven off into the night that the true significance of what the women had done for them all really hit home.

Slim glanced over to Jess, who was looking well fed and had a cheeky grin on his face. “All sorted out,” he said happily. “Peace at last and we can lay around in the tub as long as we want and no ladies wanderin’ about.”

“Uh, I guess I’m kind of relieved too, pard. But have you stopped to think what those ladies have done these last weeks?”

Jess just stared at his buddy. “What do you mean?”

“Well, all of them are either really old, or young with families to care for, or work to go to, but they’ve put us first, coming out and looking after us. Sure, I know it’s not been  easy, but heck Jess, you’ve gotta admire them for it.”

Jess nodded. “I guess I never thought of it that way. You’re right, pard. They did it for us and for Daisy too, I guess.”

Slim looked suddenly deeply saddened. “It just won’t be the same next week without her, will it?”

Before Jess could answer, a little voice called out desperately, “Jess…Slim, I feel sick!”

Jess threw his buddy an exhausted look. “It ain’t the same without her now, never mind next week,” and he went off to check on the youngster.

*****

Mike was ill with the flu for about a week, but as Sam had predicted ,was up and about again the day before Thanksgiving.

Even so, he missed the turkey shoot, and instead of the three of them taking off as usual — Daisy waving from the door, insisting they take care of the youngster — it was Jess alone who rode out.

He had returned with a good sized bird, and both men had sweated over one of Daisy’s cook books long and hard, discovering the mysteries of stuffing, tying and finally, once oven ready, setting the bird to cook overnight in a slow oven.

“I sure hope Carrie comes early like she promised, ‘cos I ain’t gotten any idea as to what we do next,” said Jess with a bewildered glance at his pard.

Slim shrugged. “Me neither. There’s gravy and all sorts, isn’t there,” he said shaking his head sadly at the enormity of the task before them.

“How about we crack open that bottle of moonshine we’ve been saving, sit a spell on the porch,” suggested Jess.

Slim nodded. “Why not? Turkey’s in, Mike’s fast asleep; guess there isn’t anything else we need to do tonight.”

They were sitting out, it being a particularly mild night for November, sipping the whiskey, when Jess turned back to his buddy. “Daisy always seemed to, though, didn’t she? “

“Huh? “

“Did stuff night before Thanksgiving. She’d always be wandering around, humming the way she did, tidyin’ and cookin’ extra stuff, always busy. “

“Yeah, it seems so dang quiet in there without her, doesn’t it?”

They sipped their drinks some more and looked out to the moonlit horizon.

After a while Jess gave a deep sigh. “The number of times she’d nursed us, cut bullets out of us… Heck, been a Ma to us both and then when she needed us.”

“Don’t, Jess; it wasn’t our fault that we weren’t around when the  fire started. We’ve been through that a hundred times. And what happened afterwards, well, it was just the way things were. We had to do the best we could at the time — did what Sam suggested was best for her.”

“Sure but at what cost? She ain’t here now, is she!”

“I know, pard, it’s hard, real hard for us all.”

They lapsed into silence, and after a while, Slim topped up their glasses and they sat back, feet up on the rail, alone with their thoughts of their beloved Daisy.

*****

Thanksgiving dawned bright but chilly, and all at the ranch were up at first light, to get the chores done before their guests arrived.

Mike was now fully recovered, but was a little quiet — probably missing Daisy, Slim surmised — so he kept him busy, cleaning out the chickens and feeding and watering his pets, knowing that if he was kept occupied, he’d have less time to mope.

Jess had been in the kitchen since breakfast preparing all the vegetables, and once the outdoor chores were done, Slim wandered in to join him.

The back door was open to let the steam out from the bubbling pans, and Jess was lounging against the door frame, smoking and looking moodily across the yard.

“How’s it going?”

Jess shrugged. “OK I guess.”

“Have you been basting it?”

“Huh?”

“The turkey, Jess, way Daisy does; You know, uses that big spoon and kinda spoons the fat out of the tin over the bird. Supposed to keep it moist or something.”

Jess rolled his eyes. “Quite the expert, ain’t you, Mister Sherman.”

“Well have you?”

“Yes, I have, as it happens,” Jess replied, taking a deep drag on his cigarette and  then  squinting up at Slim through the exhaled blue smoke that curled all around him.

“Thought you’d given up?”

“I have….kinda.” Jess took another deep drag and then flicked the butt into the yard, still staring morosely off into the distance.

“Jess, look, I know this is real hard, but you’ve got to make an effort, for Mike’s sake at least…huh?”

Jess sighed deeply and then kicked the door to with his foot; turning, he gave his friend the ghost of a smile. “Sure, Hardrock, I’ll try.”

“Gee, I hope Carrie turns up soon, ‘cos I ain’t gotten a clue as to what to do next,” Jess continued, his face relaxing into a genuine grin now.

“Me neither,” said Slim, casting an eye over the bubbling pans. “At least you’ve done enough. Looks like the feeding of the five thousand in here,” he said returning the grin.

“So where’s Mike?”

“In the barn grooming his pony, I thought it best to keep him busy, and I guess he’ll feel better once everyone arrives.”

He’ll feel better?  Heck, I’ll feel better, as soon as Carrie comes and takes over,” replied Jess looking anxious. “Guess I’ll go and check on him, if you watch over the pans?”

Jess wandered into the barn and stood watching Mike tending his pony for a few minutes, a look of compassion in his deep blue eyes, before he strolled over and leaned on the stall. “Sunny sure is lookin’ good,” he said looking the pretty little palomino filly over, but as the child spun around, Jess saw the recent tears on his face. “Hey Tiger, what’s up?”

The youngster gave a huge sniff, wiped his eyes on his sleeve and whispered, “Nuthin’,” before turning back to his task.

Jess entered the stall and placed a gentle hand on the child’s shoulder. “Mike?”

After a moment, the boy gave a huge sob and threw himself into Jess’s arms.

“Hey Tiger, what’s brought this on?” Jess said after rubbing his back gently and holding him close for a few minutes.

After a while the youngster pulled himself together, and turning soulful eyes on his hero, said, “I guess I’m just missing Aunt Daisy. She should be here Jess, a special day like this,” he said in an almost accusatory tone.

Jess felt his heart lurching in his chest and was darned near tears himself. He took a deep breath and then ruffled the child’s blond hair. “I know, Tiger. I wish she was here too. Wish we’d done things different when she got so sick. But I guess we’ve just gotta try and be brave about it all, huh?”

“I guess,” the child said with another sniff.

“So if you’ve finished out here, why don’t you come and get washed up and changed into your best clothes, huh?”

“Aw, Jess, do I have to dress up?”

“Sure you do. Aunt Daisy would have expected it, wouldn’t she? And it’s Thanksgiving. That’s a real special day, you know that, Mike. Gotta look the part, don’t you?”

“I guess.”

“Well then. And once you’re presentable, you can give me a hand setting the table.”

Jess had spent the next hour or so constantly wandering over to the window, and after a while Slim could stand it no longer.

“Jess, will you quit fretting? They’ll be here.”

“She said she’d be here an hour since; she promised, Slim!”

“Well maybe something’s come up. Sam may have needed to attend an emergency, and it won’t be the first time they’ve arrived late for a meal.”

“Well, it’s the first dang time I’m cookin’ Thanksgivin’ dinner and they’ll be late,” Jess replied forcefully.

“Look this isn’t all down to you, Jess. I’m here to help too you know.”

It was a good half hour later, when both men were poring over one of Daisy’s cook books trying to figure out the mysteries of gravy making — not to mention that of cranberry sauce — when Mike called out that a buggy was coming into the yard.

“About time too,” said Jess as the two men made their way through from the kitchen.

Mike had already thrown the front door open and was welcoming their first guests — Mort and Mose escorting Lily and Millie.

Jess’s face relaxed into a cheerful grin as he cast eyes on his best girl, all thought of the dinner trials and tribulations forgotten for the moment.

“Welcome all,” said Slim, happily grinning at Lily. Sure is good to see you,” he said softly, before encompassing Mort and Mose in his cheerful smile.

“Got a message from Sam,” said Mort, flinging his hat on the hook by the door and making himself at home.

“Oh,” asked Jess looking guarded. “He is coming…and Carrie too?”

“Yep, don’t fret; they’ll be along. Something about having to meet a patient off of the railroad. Said he’d be along as soon as he’d sorted everything out.”

“Uh,” said Jess, “as long as Carrie makes it OK; we kinda need her advice.”

“Sure, sure, she’ll be along too,” said Mort expansively. “So anyone for a drop of cheer?” he asked, producing some lethal looking hill whiskey.

“Wouldn’t say no,” said Mose, looking suddenly much more chipper after initially feeling really miserable, as he remembered Daisy wouldn’t be their usual lovely hostess on this special day.

“Anything I can do, honey?” asked Millie, wandering over to Jess, taking his hand and smiling up into his eyes.

He looked down with a small smile, knowing Millie’s expertise in the kitchen was not much better than his own, but relished the idea of a little time alone with her anyway.

“I dunno,” Jess said softly. “Come and have a look see.” He led her off to the kitchen as the others settled down around the fire, Slim playing host and dispensing drinks and general good cheer.

Eventually Millie and Lily were able to produce a pretty authentic looking gravy and the cranberry sauce looked just fine too, everyone said, although secretly Jess thought there was some mystery ingredient missing. It just didn’t taste like Daisy’s, but he was sensible enough to say nothing to the girls, just feeling relieved that they had saved the day.

When time went on and there was still no sign of the doc and Carrie, Slim had a whispered confab in the kitchen Jess.

“It’s well past dinner time, and I really don’t think we can keep this lot hot much longer. Do you think we should serve it up?” asked Slim.

Jess went out the back door and looked up to the rise, but all was quiet and there was no sign of their missing guests.

“I guess so,” Jess replied when he came back in. “The others have all gotta get back to town tonight, so maybe we should.”

“It would be a good idea to feed Mose pretty soon too,” Slim chuckled. “I think Mort’s been a bit too free with his Moonshine!”

*****

They were all around the table, hands clasped for the blessing when there was a sudden, loud knocking on the door, startling them all.

Mike jumped down and ran from the table at once, swiftly followed by Slim and Jess, then as he threw the door open, they all stood stock still, as if glued to the spot, staring in shock at the three visitors standing beaming at them from the porch.

Doc Sam Baker and his beautiful daughter Carrie stood flanking the diminutive figure of…… Miss Daisy Cooper. Dressed in a beautiful deep blue coat, a perky little hat with matching blue flowers set jauntily on her head and eyes twinkling with love and happiness, she looked the picture of health.

Mike was the first to react and throwing himself into her arms he cried, “Aunt Daisy, Aunt Daisy….you’re home….you’re really home!”

She held him close. “Yes I am dear,” Daisy said softly. “Home for good.” Then she pushed him gently away from her. “Let me look at you. Oh my, you’ve grown,” she said, “and looking so smart too!”

“Slim an’ Jess said as how I was to git all dressed up,” Mike said with a hint of the injustice of it all in his tone.

“Quite right too,” Daisy said, now beaming across at where Slim and Jess still stood galvanized to the spot.

“Gee, it’s good to see you; I just can’t believe it,” Slim finally managed, striding forwards and taking her in his arms and holding her close for a moment.

Then Doc Sam took one look at Jess’s face and suggested that Slim show him and Carrie inside.

“Darned freezing out here,” Sam said with a chuckle, but exchanging a glance with Slim and an almost imperceptible jerk of the head towards the ranch at the same time.

Slim understood at once and they all bustled inside, leaving just Daisy and Jess on the porch facing each other.

“Jess?” she said softly, seeing the raw emotion on his face, his deep blue eyes looking suspiciously bright.

He still stood there, just staring at her, before finally managing. “We thought…we thought you hadn’t made it. You were away so long, well, we thought the worst.”

Daisy’s eyes opened wide as the truth dawned on her. “Oh my dear, you thought I was dead? “

Jess just nodded.

“Jess, I am so, so sorry. I can explain. The message…didn’t you get the message?”

“No,” Jess said almost abruptly, although she was aware that his gruff tone was an attempt to keep his deep emotions in check. He tried again, more gently this time. “No. It’s OK Daisy, really. You’re home now and that’s all that matters.” Then he strode over and took her in his arms and held her close.

 Daisy was aware of the clean smell of soap mingling with wood smoke from the fire, and also that he was shaking slightly, his breath shuddering as he fought his emotions.

Jess closed his eyes tightly and took a deep breath before finally relinquishing his hold on her. “Come on,” he said softly, “we’ve got a Thanksgivin’ to celebrate.” Giving her a heart wrenchingly loving smile, he  took her by the elbow and led her inside, to the loving warmth of her family and friends.

As Jess and Daisy joined the party, everyone stood up and clapped and cheered — Sam, Mort, Mose and the girls seemingly every bit as excited and pleased to have dear Daisy back in the fold as all at the ranch.

Mose had turned bright pink, although with pleasure at having his ‘beloved’ back or the surfeit of Mort’s hill whiskey he had imbibed, Jess wasn’t sure. As Jess entered the room, Daisy on his arm, Mort too looked delighted and the girls were near to tears, Millie running forwards and kissing her cheek fondly.

Finally they were all seated back down again, Slim at the head of the table as usual, and Daisy at a hastily laid place at the far end, where she usually sat on special occasions, flanked by Jess and Mike.

They linked hands for a sincere and heartwarming blessing from Slim and then the usual jovial, celebratory atmosphere prevailed as they enjoyed the good food and drink, sharing news around the table, laughing and smiling.

The celebrations went as planned, and a wonderful time was had by one and all. However, the day seemed to go by in a flash, and all too soon, the visitors were saying their fond farewells as they made ready to return to town.

Jess had held Millie close. “I’ll ride in and see you Saturday,” he whispered, giving her a passionate kiss as the others were busy climbing aboard Mort’s old buggy.

Once the others had been waved off, the doc and Carrie returned to the ranch with the Jess, Slim and Mike, having accepted the invitation to stay over. They were soon all settled around the fireside.

It was finally Mike, with all the innocence of youth, who blurted out what they had all been wondering. “So where have you been, Aunt Daisy? I’ve missed you something fierce — we all have — but every time I asked Jess an’ Slim, they just said you’d gone away to get better.” Then he quietly counted on his fingers. “But you’ve been away for near on three months,” he said, double checking and with much looking to the ceiling as he did the math. “That’s a powerful long time,” he finally concluded.

Then very quietly, his eyes downcast, Mike added, “I thought maybe you didn’t love us no more. Or worse, you’d upped and died and nobody was tellin’ me.” He turned a now tearful face up to her.

“Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry.” Daisy turned to look at her ‘boys’. “Did you all really think the worst?”

Slim nodded. “I guess so, when you were gone so long,” he agreed, and there was an awkward silence as she absorbed this terrible news.

Then Jess got up quickly heading for the kitchen. “I’ll make some coffee,” he threw over his shoulder.

Sam exchanged a look with Slim and Daisy, who half-rose to follow him.

“No,” the doctor said gently, “I’ll go.”

Jess was lounging against the wall watching the coffee pot on the stove; his glance flicked up as Sam entered, but he said nothing.

“You’re still quite angry with me about all this, aren’t you, Jess,” Sam said softly, “for sending her away. “

Jess looked down for so long the doctor thought he might not answer, but when he looked back up, his eyes were dark and brooding. “You bet I am. We should have nursed her here, Sam — looked after her, like she always has for us — not sent her away and somewhere up some darned mountain hundreds of miles away too. Hell, she’s like kin to me –and that ain’t the way you treat your old Ma,” he finished looking more upset than Sam had seen him in a long while.

The doctor sighed and then threw his buddy a compassionate look. “I know how you’re feeling, Jess, really I do, but do you think I’d have done that if I’d been able to deal with it any other way?”

When Jess remained silent, Sam continued. “We both know that she would never have relaxed and had complete bed rest had she stayed here. First time Mike needed cakes for the school social, or Slim wanted help with totaling  the books or you got beat up, she’d have been out of bed and pitching in.”

“I guess,” said Jess with the shadow of a smile.

“Uh, and the other thing is, well, she just didn’t realize how sick she was; none of you did. I played it down deliberately as I didn’t want her worried, but if she hadn’t gone off for that treatment, I really believe she would have died, Jess. It’s as simple as that!”

Jess’s head shot up. “Really, Sam?”

Sam just nodded. “Now if that coffee’s brewed, why don’t you come back and let me try to explain properly about the treatment. Maybe then you’ll understand why she had to go, huh?”

*****

“So you see, the ground-breaking treatment for consumption in the old country, Germany and other countries is proving that the illness can be beaten if patients are exposed to clear mountain air around the clock — bed rest, at first, followed by gentle exercise and a very healthy diet.”

“But Daisy didn’t have consumption,” said Slim looking bewildered.

“No, but the smoke inhalation had damaged her lungs, quite badly, my dear,” Sam said, giving the elderly lady a rueful look. “And at the time, although it was a long shot, well I thought the same treatment could work.”

“It was just lucky that Cousin Jeffery has been doing so much research on the subject,” said Carrie proudly. “I reckon staying at his mountain home was the very best place for dear Daisy to get well and then recuperate completely.”

Sam grinned in agreement. “Old Jeffery was pleased to have her. He was writing a paper on his research, and Daisy’s remarkable recovery will make interesting reading in the Lancet for our friends overseas.”

“Uh, well, that’s all very well,” said Jess still not looking totally convinced. “But that don’t explain as to why you were gone so dang long, Daisy. Sam said you’d be home in a month or so — six weeks at the most — and then when we didn’t hear anything, well, I guess we all began to lose hope.”

“I know, dear, and if only I had realized… But I really believed that Jeffery had contacted you, explained about the inclement weather, we were snowed in. There was unusually bad weather so early in the fall and  we couldn’t get down the mountain until just last week.”

Sam nodded in agreement. “Jeffery wrote to me alright, but the letter only just arrived. Must have been delayed. So he thought we knew all was well, but in reality…”

“In reality, we were all worried sick,” said Carrie speaking for them all.

“Yeah, well it all makes sense now,” said Jess quietly. Then he turned to the doc. “I’m real sorry I’ve given you a hard time over this, Sam. I figure you did the right thing.” Then he turned and took hold of Daisy’s hand. “At least you’re home now and lookin’ the picture of health too,” he said with his cheeky grin.

“Oh get away with you and your flattery, Jess Harper,” Daisy said, secretly feeling pleased.

She was home again with her beloved boys and all was right with the world.

******

Epilogue

It was the following evening before Jess and Slim had time to relax in front of a crackling fire.

The day following Thanksgiving had seen them trying to rein Daisy in as she bustled about the ranch putting things to rights…as she saw it.

“Daisy, will you please sit down and take a rest? You’re makin’ me tired,” said Jess, when she was still running around after supper.

“Once I’ve got my kitchen back the way I like it,” she said throwing him her sweet smile. “Those ladies seem to have moved everything around,” she continued looking slightly distracted.

“It was real kind of them to help out, though,” said Slim.

“Oh, goodness me, yes, of course; I shall be forever indebted to them,” she said sincerely. “And I shall tell them all at the very next Women’s Group meeting. I am truly blessed with good friends, and family,” she whispered encompassing both men in a radiant smile. “Now if I could just find my favorite baking spoon, I could go to bed a happy woman.”

Mike had already retired, but Jess and Slim set about the task of hunt the wooden  spoon and Daisy was delighted when it finally came to light propping open the kitchen window, where Jess had put it during his marathon cooking session on Thanksgiving.

“Thank you, my dears, I shall sleep happy now,” Daisy said cheerfully, and kissing them both tenderly on the cheek, she went off to bed.

Now as they sat in front of a roaring fire, Slim topped up their glasses with more of Mort’s killer moonshine, which had been ensconced in the barn since Daisy’s return. She would accept a bottle of spirits in the cupboard, for medicinal purposes only, but otherwise didn’t agree with strong drink in the house. And as Jess said, Mort’s moonshine had nuthin’ to do with strong drink. It was far worse!

Now as they sipped their drinks, Jess chuckled. “Well, some good has come out of all this.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I found out Millie’s turning into quite a good cook; she made a swell job of the gravy.”

“Uh, well, I figure she reckons the way to your heart is through your stomach,” Slim teased.

Jess ignored the sarcasm and was looking thoughtful. “She didn’t quite get the cranberry sauce right, though, did she?”

“I wondered about that, and asked Daisy. She said her Ma always put in a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg; says it makes all the difference.”

Jess chuckled. “Listen to us; we’re sounding like a pair of old housewives!”

Slim grinned back. “I guess we saw too much of that dang kitchen when Daisy was sick.”

His buddy nodded. “Yep, it’s  the little things in life that make all the difference, though — cranberry sauce and ol’ Daisy’s wooden spoon.” He laughed again, feeling kinda mellow now, the hill whiskey mingling with the relief that dear Daisy was safely home where she belonged.

“Yeah, the big things too, though,” said Slim, “like those women taking time out to care for us, all our  friends rallying around when we needed them.”

Jess nodded sagely again, and cast his mind back to the previous day when they had clasped hands and listened to Slim as he gave the blessing.

Dear Lord, we thank you for the blessing of all Your abundance this year, for all the bounty spread upon our table today.” Then Slim had paused significantly, before continuing.

“We especially thank you Lord for the blessings of true friendship and the joy of having our family once more sitting around this table together…and we are truly humbled and grateful that our dear Daisy has been returned to us in good health and spirit.”

This was concluded by a hearty Amen from all present.

“That sure was a good blessing,” Jess said softly now.

Slim smiled at him. “Well, it was from the heart; I meant every word of it. And we are truly blessed aren’t we?”

Jess looked deeply into the fire before turning and throwing his friend a wide grin. “Ain’t got no arguments there, pard,” he said.

Slim stretched out his long legs in front of the fire and gave a little sigh of pleasure as he sipped his drink. Yep, life was pretty good.

***End***

THANK YOU FOR READING!

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