The Fortune Teller’s Daughter (by Patty W.)

Summary:   Regular readers, please note this is before Millie & Jess got together.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Some violence and adult themes)
Word Count:  41,702


 

For Pat Goldammer with love. 

Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, partners in the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, leaned against the corral fence, watching a recently caught bunch of wild mustangs.

The magnificent creatures milled about looking less than pleased by their incarceration, shaking their manes and whinnying with displeasure.

“You’re going to have your work cut out breaking this lot, pard,” Slim grinned, turning to his friend.

Jess removed his Stetson and ran a hand through his dark wavy locks before ramming it back on at a jaunty angle. ”Ain’t one that has beat me yet,” he replied, a determined glint in his deep blue eyes.

Slim adjusted his lanky frame so that he could reach across and pull his saddle off the fence, then made towards his mount tethered nearby. “I’ll just go bring the house cow in from the meadow for milking and then we’d better make a start after breakfast, Jess.”

Jess just nodded, never being one for too much idle chit-chat first thing in the morning. Not until he’d downed a cup or three of gut rot coffee, anyway. However, after a moment, he paused and glanced up the trail as he heard a wagon approaching. Then he turned back to his buddy a look of astonishment on his handsome features. “Hey, Slim, what in Hell is that!”

Both men stood staring in amazement as a huge vehicle, similar to a covered wagon but constructed of brightly colored, intricately carved wood, made its way slowly down the track then into the yard.

Painted scarlet, it was decorated across the sides with a pattern of flowers and leaves in bright green. It was pulled by two hefty Paint horses, and there were a pair of diminutive brown donkeys tethered at the rear, trotting briskly along.

Slim and Jess exchanged baffled glances. ”Well, did you ever see the like?” gasped Jess while Slim just tipped his hat back, then shook his head, unable to tear his gaze away from the strange vision before him.

The caravan was driven by a huge bear of a man sporting a long black beard. His grin split a deeply tanned, swarthy face, as sparkling dark brown eyes smiled down at the look of astonishment on the faces of the two young cowboys. His luxurious black locks were tied back by a scarlet bandana which matched his red silk shirt, his costume completed with a black vest and dark trousers.

The driver reined in the team and proclaimed in a booming voice, ”Greetings, greetings. I am Angelo Petulengro.” Then turning to gesture proudly at the young lady next to him, he continued, “And this is my beloved daughter Rosetta Petulengro. At your service, gentlemen.”

Jess’s eyes swiveled to the beautiful dark-haired girl sitting demurely next to her father. She wore a low cut, off the shoulder, white peasant blouse and an intricately woven red shawl draped over her head and shoulders. A wide, black figure hugging belt and a brightly-colored skirt completed the ensemble. Large silver hoop earrings adorned her pretty little ears, whilst several silver bangles jangled at her wrist, as she moved her hands nervously, her deep brown eyes locking with Jess’s admiring gaze.

Slim was the first to recover. “Welcome to the Sherman Ranch and Relay, Mr. Petulengro,” he said politely. I’m Slim Sherman and this is my business partner, Jess Harper, Can we be of some help?”

Angelo beamed down at the tall blond rancher. ”Excellent, excellent, pleased to meet you. Yes indeed, if we may water our horses, maybe visit for a little while?”

“Sure,” agreed Slim easily, “just pull her over at the back of the barn there.”

“Thank you, my friend,” the driver replied happily. “Then we have a cornucopia of delights and experiences to share with you both.”

Jess, who had come forward to help lead the horses round to the back of the barn, looked up at Rosetta and smiled. “You have, huh?” an unmistakable twinkle in his blue eyes.

She flushed and looked down coyly, but did not deign to reply.

Just then, Daisy, their elderly housekeeper, bustled out of the house, wondering where the breakfast milk was, but stopped in her tracks as she saw the brightly colored van.

As Daisy halted, young Mike cannoned into the back of her and he too stood staring in amazement.

Slim turned, and taking Daisy’s elbow, led her forward. “This is Mrs. Daisy Cooper, our housekeeper, and our young ward Mike Williams; this is Mr. Angelo Petulengro,” he declared, beaming at the newcomer.

Angelo Petulengro passed the reins to his daughter, then leapt down from the caravan. “Enchanted, Mrs. Cooper,” he smiled with a small bow, and taking her hand, kissed it charmingly.

“Oh my, well, I’m pleased to meet you, Mr…”

“No, no, please you must all call me Angelo”.

Then Mike came forwards and offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you sir,” he said politely.

“And you too, little master,” Angelo asserted again bowing to the youngster.

Jess finally dragged his eyes away from Rosetta and addressed Angelo. “So that ain’t an American name. European, er, maybe Spanish or Italian?”

“Yes, my dear sir. My grandparents were Italian. My Papa married an English Rose and moved over to England. From there, we sailed across the seas to New England, then just carried on travelling, always wandering ever onwards. We have a nomadic way of life, you see; we never settle anywhere for long.”

Jess grinned at that. “Kinda like bein’ on the drift, I guess?”

Angelo nodded. “Exactly — a new horizon every day. You understand such things, such wanderlust?”

Jess just smiled. ”Some; I was on the drift myself until I landed at the ranch, then Slim, along with Daisy here, made a half decent job of domesticating me,” he replied, giving Daisy a cheeky wink.

Angelo laughed. “Oh you have the look of a free spirit to me, and I should know, for I am the Mighty Petulengro, Fortune Teller Extraordinaire! There are no secrets hidden from me, or my dear daughter,” he said, glancing up to Rosetta on the wagon. “She will tell you your past, present and future, Jess, just by reading your palms.”

“She will?” asked Jess, looking somewhat worried by that, casting an apprehensive glance up to the now self-assured looking young woman.

She nodded and gave him a knowing smile. “You do not wish to know your future, Mr. Harper?”

Jess grinned up at her. “Jess, please. Well, the way my life usually pans out, I guess I’d rather not know what’s gonna happen next. I kinda like the surprise element.”

Then Daisy broke in. “Won’t you good people join us for breakfast? We are all ready, just as soon as someone finds that wretched cow and milks her,” she finished, glancing over at Slim.

Angelo beamed, “You are most kind, but we do not wish to intrude.”

“No trouble,” replied Slim quickly. “I’ll just go find ol’ Betsy.”

“I will milk her for you while Papa splits some wood for your cook stove,” suggested Rosetta happily, then started to clamber down from the caravan. Jess stepped forwards and helped her down, holding her in his strong embrace for a second or so longer than strictly necessary, making her blush prettily again  before casting her eyes down.

Breakfast was a lively affair as the Petulengro’s filled them in on their general way of life, adding the odd interesting bit of information as they went along.

“So are you Gypsies then?” asked Mike with all the innocent enquiry of youth.

“Well, in a way, but we prefer to be called Romany travelers, or the proper term is Rominchals, as we come from England, second generation, anyway. The word Gypsy or tinker sometimes is used to describe us in a bad light.” Angelo turned, looking at Slim then Jess before continuing. “There are good, also bad in all society, but I am afraid the traveling people tend to get blamed for a lot of things that they have not done, just because they are strangers and different. But we are a noble race with much tradition who always try to act in an honorable way.”

“Well, I’m sure you do and it would be a pleasure for us to have you stay as long as you need to,” affirmed Slim sincerely.

After breakfast, Jess wandered back to the wagon with Rosetta while Angelo sat on with Slim and Daisy, regaling them with tales of his travels. Then Angelo went on to describe some of the fantastic articles of merchandise he carried with him, secretly hoping to trade with these friendly, welcoming folk.

Outside, Jess eyed the vehicle with interest. “Say, is that a chimney up top?”

Rosetta nodded. “But of course; I cook all our meals in there.”

“Heck, so you got a cook stove on board? How does that work, is it safe?”

“Oh quite safe,” she assured him with a charming little giggle. “Would you like to see inside?” she asked, turning to look at this handsome young cowboy. Her heart suddenly skipped a beat as she took in the dark good looks, the blue work shirt he was wearing bringing out the amazing color of his eyes.

“Sure would,” Jess agreed, his face lighting up with pleasure.

The horses had been put out in the home pasture to graze and Angelo had placed some brightly colored steps between the wagon shafts leading up into the van.

They mounted the steps, then opened the little stable style door behind the driving seat leading down into the caravan. Jess gasped in surprise at what met his eyes.

The whole interior was done out in an opulent style with a red velvet sofa in front of a decent sized cook stove with highly polished brass pots and pans surrounding it. There was a small table, an easy chair, and then towards the back of the caravan, a partially drawn lush scarlet, velvet curtain led to two large bunk beds.

Jess advanced slowly, his gaze taking everything in; then he looked up to the ceiling and was amazed to see it had been gilded, shining  with a deep golden glow. “Jeez,” he whispered, “it’s like a goddamn palace.”

Then he suddenly remembered his manners. “Er…excuse me, Ma’am, but I ain’t ever seen a wagon as doggone splendid as this before.”

She smiled back. “Not a wagon. It is a Vardo, a traditional Vardo.”

Jess moved further inside and saw several baskets hanging from the ceiling, others attached to the walls. “What’s in them?” he asked inquisitively.

“Our merchandise, what we trade in,” Rosetta replied softly. “Here, see.” She pulled a basket over, full to the brim with toys and musical instruments, everything from penny whistles to tambourines and flutes. Then another, with rag dolls and stringed marionettes, all beautifully made to a high standard.

Another basket contained pretty painted pots, pans, jugs, wooden pegs, brushes and ribbons along with multi-colored materials, lace and bobbins.

“Where does all this come from?” Jess asked in awe.

“Much of it we make ourselves, in the wintertime when the weather is too hard to travel far. Other things we trade or barter for, then sell on. We also put on shows with the marionettes. Papa juggles and I dance, as well as the fortune telling, of course,” she finished, turning to smile at him again.

Jess just shook his head in amazement. “Well, you’re versatile, that’s for sure. So you make a livin’ OK?”

“Oh yes we get by, and there are just the two of us.”

“Um, I was meaning to ask you about that. So you ain’t got a Ma?”

Her face clouded and suddenly had a closed look to it. “No, my mother is no longer with us.”

Jess assumed she was dead. “I’m sorry,” he replied softly.

“Oh don’t be,” Rosetta retorted quickly. “We manage just fine, Papa and me.”

“No brothers and sisters then?”

She shook her head, ”No.”

“I see,” Jess said, gazing around again before making to leave. Then turning as he jumped down, he offered her a hand as she followed him down the ladder and was rewarded by a shy smile.

Once they were both back outside, Jess turned a quizzical gaze upon her. “So ain’t it kinda lonesome, just you with your Pa? Don’t you want the company of some other young folk at times?” he asked, knowing how all the girls he knew enjoyed youthful banter, giggling and sharing secrets together.

She shook her head again. “No, not really.”

“So how about boyfriends?” Jess persisted. “Must be kinda hard to make relationships if you’re always movin’ on.”

Rosetta flushed up at that. “Like I say, it’s just me and Papa; we like it that way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I promised I would help Miss Daisy with the dishes.” With that, she bustled off towards the back door.

Jess’s eyes followed her, a look of faint concern in them, before he shrugged and wandered off to start the day’s work.

A little later, Slim came out to join him and sat the corral fence as Jess mounted the first mustang of the day — a big bay stallion with attitude. Then Jess spent the next hour or two alternately cussing as he hit the dust, but mostly staying precariously on the bucking, diving wild creature that rolled its eyes and shook its mane in a display of displeasure.

After his third fall of the day, Jess was winded and decided to take five, so he wandered over to the fence to join Slim. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his dark hair, then wiped his sleeve across his sweating face before squinting up through the strong sunlight at his buddy. “Bit of an odd one that, Rosetta,” he asserted tipping his head towards the house.

“Oh, how so?” asked Slim looking interested.

“I dunno; somethin’ about her ain’t right. She seems happy; it’s just her an’ her Pa. Well, a young girl like that needs friends her own age, don’t she?”

“Well, I guess she doesn’t have much choice in that, Jess, if they’re nomadic the way her Pa says.”

Jess grinned. “Sounds kinda romantic bein’ nomadic; sorta a cut above just bein’ on the drift.”

Slim grinned at that. “Yeah, you could be right, and they sure seem different, really unlike anyone we know, I guess. I hope they stay a while. I figure that Angelo has a tale or two to tell; be good to get to know them some.”

Jess turned back towards the house, a look in his eyes Slim knew all too well. “Yep, it sure would be good to get to know them better,” he said dreamily.

Slim sighed deeply. “Now why do I get the feeling you’re talking about Miss Rosetta and not her Pa?”

Jess just gave him his cheeky wink and returned to work.

*****

However, it looked like neither of the cowboys would get their wish, as after breakfast the following day, Angelo declared that he and Rosetta would be on their way.

The previous evening, after work was over, all the members of the Sherman household had been welcomed to the Vardo where they were indeed overwhelmed by the ‘cornucopia of delights’ for sale, just as Angelo had predicted.

In the end, a deal was struck with Daisy buying an exquisitely worked lace shawl made by Rosetta’s fair hand. Mike chose a set of juggling balls after he had been taught the rudiments of juggling by Angelo earlier in the day.

“Gee, these are great,” Mike exclaimed, his young face lighting up with pleasure. “Every time I practice, I’ll remember you!”

Slim chose a new yard brush and Jess a finely stitched black string tie.

“I’ll think of you whenever I wear it,” Jess said, his eyes twinkling as he echoed Mike’s earlier comment. Rosetta returned his gaze, a secret smile playing around her lips before looking down demurely.

“Um…and that’ll be quite often,” said Slim with a grin. “Every week when he’s off to town on a Saturday night, going off and…” He had been going to say romancing the women, but he caught the glitter of challenge in his buddy’s eyes and hastily amended, “Er…when we’re off playing a hand or two of cards, that is.”

“Ah, my friend, so you do get into town on a regular basis?” asked Angelo.

“Sure do,” agreed Slim, “And if you’re going to be there for a week or so, we’ll be in come Saturday. “

“Good, excellent. I shall look forward to seeing you both then, and maybe we will put on a show for the good folk of Laramie.”

“Perhaps I will get to read your palm too?” questioned Rosetta, casting Jess a teasing glance.

Jess looked uncomfortable. “Well I dunno about that, Ma’am, but we’ll sure look you up next time we’re in town.”

Then Slim and Jess went off to help Angelo hitch up his team. But Slim came back again shortly afterwards looking worried, leaving Jess talking to Angelo.

 Slim joined Daisy and Rosetta, looking worried.

“Whatever is the matter, dear?” Daisy asked.

“Trouble, I’m afraid, Daisy.” Then turning to Rosetta, Slim said, “I’m real sorry, Ma’am, but one of your horses has come up lame. Looks to have a sprain. Can’t say how bad it is yet, but he isn’t going anywhere today; I’m real sorry.”

“Oh dear, which one?” asked Rosetta looking upset.

“Apollo, but don’t worry. Jess is going to bring him in the barn and check him over. Start treatment right away. He’s real good with sick horses, Rosetta — the best — so please try not to worry.”

Then Jess joined them and shook his head sadly. “I guess we should never have put him in the meadow with the ranch horses. It seems they all got kind of lively, galloping around, and the old fellah has just over done it some, I reckon.”

“Oh can’t we loan them one of our horses in the meantime?” asked Daisy, seeing how troubled the younger woman looked.

“Afraid not, Daisy; we just haven’t got anything big enough. Apollo and Chief are heavy horses; need their weight and strength to pull a wagon like the Vardo. Nope, I’m afraid you’re stuck here for a few more days at least,” admitted Slim.

“Well, as long as Apollo will be alright, I think it would be rather nice to stay a little longer,” Rosetta said, her gaze flicking to Jess and then back to Slim’s open friendly face, “as long as we won’t be a nuisance?”

“Nonsense, dear, it will be lovely to have another woman around for a while longer,” professed Daisy, beaming at the younger woman. “Besides, you can help me with the never-ending battle of house training these young men,” she laughed, ruffling Mike’s hair.

“Gee, this is just swell, Ma’am; Angelo can teach me some more Juggling tricks,” responded the youngster happily.

Rosetta threw the boy a kindly smile. “Yes and maybe I will be permitted to read all your hands,” she suggested, her glance again flicking over to Jess, who was now leading Apollo slowly into the barn.

*****

It was later that evening when Rosetta finally had her chance to show off her prowess at Palmistry.

Daisy offered to be her first subject and was intrigued by the whole thing, especially when Rosetta’s brief summary of Daisy’s previous lifestyle back East was surprisingly accurate.

Then Rosetta continued. “Your present time is happy and busy, but not without moments of deep anxiety and trouble upon occasion,” she said sagely. “Generated by the acts of those close to you maybe?” she asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow and giving Daisy a little smile of encouragement.

“Oh yes, that is certainly true,” said Daisy, returning the smile. “I think you could say my boys do have their moments. Why, Jess alone has shortened my life by about ten years the worry he causes me. The number of times he gets beaten up or worse, taking off riding posse with the Sheriff and finding all manner of trouble,” she continued, playfully leaning over and ruffling his hair.

Jess had been whittling another little critter for Mike’s Noah’s Ark, feigning disinterest in the ongoing saga of Daisy’s life history via palm reading, but now he looked over and gave Rosetta a shame faced grin. “Yep, she’s right there, I guess.” Then he turned to their elderly housekeeper, who he thought of as a surrogate Ma, truth be told, and said sincerely, “Sorry Daisy, guess I do bring a whole parcel of trouble to your door, from time to time.”

The elderly woman laughed. “For all your wild ways, I wouldn’t change my life here with you all for a moment, as well you know,” she said, casting him a warm, loving look.

Then Rosetta continued. “As to the future, I see a long and happy life, with many more youngsters to care for,” she finished, exchanging a secret smile with Daisy, as Jess and Slim’s eyebrows shot up at the thought of the ranch being overrun with children.

“Well, they’d better hurry up and meet some nice girls and get themselves married first,” chuckled Daisy, much to the young cowboy’s embarrassment.

Then it was Slim’s turn and Rosetta made a very accurate character analysis, picking up on the huge responsibility he had needed to shoulder after his parents died leaving him in sole charge of running the business and bringing up his younger brother Andy. “I feel you have had to act maturely from an early age. I see a burden of responsibility here, and sadness at the loss of those close to you,” she said gently, holding his hand and looking into his eyes for confirmation.

Slim looked astounded. “Hey pard, you been talking out of turn and filling Miss Rosetta in on my life?” asked Slim, turning to Jess.

Jess looked equally impressed. “Nope, she’s heard nuthin’ from me.”

“I haven’t said a word either,” added Daisy.

Mike had been sent off to bed, but Rosetta asserted that he hadn’t talked about any of his adopted family either. “You have a younger sibling of whom you are very proud. He was a real handful,” she chuckled, “but now is a very clever and able young man.”

“That sounds like Andy,” observed Jess, beginning to feel unnerved by her accuracy.

“And here,” Rosetta said animatedly, pointing to a line on Slim’s palm, “another younger brother, very wayward, tests your patience sorely, but is still very important in your life. You care for him very deeply.”

Slim looked puzzled at that. “Nope just me and young Andy, but guess he could produce the trouble of two,” he asserted with a wry laugh.

“Ain’t that so,” agreed Jess, grinning over at his buddy.

Rosetta went quiet. “It is very clear. No matter, it will come to you in time.”

Slim secretly thought that he would dang well know if he had another brother, but let the moment pass and was soon enthralled again as Rosetta prophesied a bright future in both his business and personal life.

“Some shadows will fall, as in every life. You will experience some loss and change, but the future is generally very positive,” she surmised.

It was some time later, when Daisy had bustled off to make some coffee, Rosetta’s Papa had retired for the night and Slim had gone to fetch some more logs that she finally turned her attentions to Jess. She had an instinctive feeling that he would not wish to participate in the evening’s entertainment and certainly not before an audience, but now she took her chance.

“May I?” Rosetta asked softly, sliding into the seat Daisy had recently vacated, next to Jess’s rocker and glancing down at his busy hands.

Jess reluctantly put his knife and the toy he was whittling down and let her take both his hands in her own.

She looked at the backs of them first. “Good strong hands,” she noted, “firm and yet I feel can be very gentle too.”

He said nothing. But as soon as she had taken his hands, he felt a little twist of excitement at her touch. Now as she looked up into his eyes, he could see that she too had felt something.

Then she very gently turned his hands over and Jess tensed. “You don’t wanna see this,” he whispered.

Her gaze flickered up to his face and back down again, one finger gently tracing a line on his palm. “This is your heart line.” Then moving down a few inches, “and this your head line. And over here this curve, your lifeline.”

Then Rosetta gave a little gasp. “So much tragedy,” she whispered. ”So young; I see death, pain, bitterness…” Her eyes were suddenly full of compassion.

Jess pulled his hands roughly away from her grasp and stood up hurriedly. “Like I said, you really don’t wanna see that,” he repeated gruffly. “Excuse me, I need to check on your horse.” In a couple of huge strides, Jess was across the room and out of the door.

Slim came in bearing the logs a moment later. “Where’s Jess off to in such an all fired hurry?” he enquired, casting a quizzical look in Rosetta’s direction.

She looked flushed and upset, and when she didn’t reply, Slim threw the logs down in the hearth and came and took Jess’s rocker next to her. “Are you OK? Jess hasn’t been upsetting you, has he?” he asked anxiously.

She shook her head fervently. “No, quite the reverse; I think I have upset him.”

“Oh, how so?”

She sighed and looked over at the kindly rancher. “I insisted on reading his palm, even though I knew he really didn’t want me to and what I saw…” She stopped suddenly feeling emotional and unable to continue.

“Oh I see. Well, ol’ Jess there is a real private person, you know. He doesn’t open up to folk too easily. Heck, it’s taken me years to get to know him properly. I guess he found this whole business kind of intrusive.”

“Because of his life, the terrible tragedies he has suffered?”

“I guess so, to some extent. So he told you about his past then?” Slim questioned, looking surprised.

She shook her head. “No, but it is all there in his hand — such a complex hand. It would take me hours to decipher it all. But some things just stand out, and yes, the horrors of his early life are carved deeply into his hand.”

“Yes, well, like I say, he doesn’t like to talk about it too much.”

“I understand and I will apologize to him before the sun has set.”

Then Daisy came in with the coffee and the conversation turned to lighter topics.

Shortly after she had finished her drink, Rosetta made her excuses, saying she was tired and was opting for an early night like her Papa.

“Is he quite alright, dear?” asked Daisy solicitously. “Your father seemed a little tired and drawn at supper I thought.”

“Oh he’s fine,” Rosetta replied cheerfully. “I’m always nagging him; he gets quite breathless sometimes. But he just reminds me he’s no spring chicken,” she laughed. “He’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep; he always is.”

“Oh good, I’m glad. Well goodnight, dear; see you in the morning,” replied Daisy kindly.

Daisy went off to the kitchen, but Slim wandered over to the window and was just in time to see Rosetta disappearing into the barn. Looks like she’s going to keep her promise and make it up with Jess, he thought, before going to turn in himself.

When she entered the barn, it took Rosetta a few minutes to get used to the dim light, and then she saw the glow of a lamp towards the back and made her way quietly over to where Jess was standing in one of the stalls.

He was leaning over Apollo, tending his injured leg, with his back to her, but after a second, he spun around and she was shocked to see he had drawn his gun with lightning speed and was aiming it in her direction.

Rosetta shrank back a look of shock on her face, but Jess holstered the gun almost as quickly as he had drawn it and strode towards her full of apologies. “I’m so sorry, Rosetta; I mean you no harm, honestly. I’m just a bit edgy, tend to get spooked when folk creep up on me,” he finished ruefully.

“That’s alright,” she finally managed in a small voice, still feeling quite shaky.

“You come to see how ol’ Apollo’s doin’ then?”

“Yes…no… well, sort of.”

Jess grinned at her, “Well, which is it then, sweetheart?”

Her heart leapt at the endearment and it was a moment before she could collect her thoughts. “Well I do want to know how he is, of course, and to thank you so much for caring for him.”

Jess gave her a shy smile before turning to pat the big Paint’s rump. “He’s a lovely old boy. I’m just sorry he got hurt here. I guess one of our younger horses was playin’ a bit rough. Anyway, he’ll be OK. I’ve treated him with cold bandages all day and the swelling’s come down some already, Should be ok in a few days… a week at most,” he answered, all the time patting the old horse gently.

Rosetta leaned forward and impulsively squeezed his other hand resting on the stall door. “Oh thank you so much,” she whispered, before pulling back quickly, seemingly embarrassed at her boldness.

He regarded her quizzically “That’s OK. Was there somethin’ else? Seems like you came over for another reason too.”

“Oh, yes, well… I just wanted to apologize, for before. It was tactless of me. You made it obvious that you didn’t want to take part in the palmistry. I shouldn’t have forced you that way. I really am sorry.“

Jess left the stall at that and came and stood close to her, looking down into her eyes, his expression unfathomable. “Hey, that’s OK,” he said eventually. “And I shouldn’t have walked out on you that way, like a stroppy kid. It’s just that I find it real hard opening up to folk I don’t know too well. I  guess I’m a kinda private person and kind of ornery too, if I’m honest,” he said with a wry grin.

“No, no you’re not,” Rosetta said quickly. “I understand, really I do.”

“Do you?” he asked wearily, with a little sigh. “Anyway, it’s forgotten.”

She smiled. “So, we’re friends?”

Jess gave her a huge grin. “You bet!”

Rosetta turned to go, but then stopped at the barn door and looked back, expecting him to have returned to tending Apollo. But he was standing exactly where she had left him, again an unreadable expression in his deep blue eyes. She half raised a hand in farewell. “Night,” she whispered.

“Night, sweetheart,” Jess replied softly, and she turned and ran back to the Vardo, her heart pounding in her chest and her cheeks aflame. What was it about that man, she wondered. How can he turn me to jelly with just one look?

******

The following week was full of fun and laughter, with Rosetta being the perfect companion for Daisy. Angelo spending much of his time teaching Mike how to perfect his juggling act and also entertaining him with some magic tricks, much to the child’s delight.

Rosetta also spent some time out in the yard with Slim and Mike, cheering Jess on as he continued with the mustang busting. However, the couple had not been alone together since their meeting in the barn, much to Rosetta’s disappointment.

Jess was very warm and friendly, and she occasionally caught him watching her with that thoughtful, far-away look in his eyes, but he made no attempt to get close to her, or romance her in any way. She was beginning to think she had imagined the way he looked at her and the chemistry between them when she had held his hand on the night of the palm reading. But then she would see his glance flick towards her and just knew that he wanted something more. So why didn’t he make a move?

The truth was that, although Jess was interested in the beautiful young girl, he knew there was no future in a liaison of any sort as she would be moving on soon. He wasn’t the kind of man to indulge in a casual, fleeting relationship, not with a well brought up young lady like Rosetta anyway. So he sadly tried to remain just friends, but was finding it increasing difficult as the week wore on.

On the last evening, Angelo and Rosetta decided to put on a performance for the ranchers as a little thank you for all they had done to help them during their stay.

Daisy, Mike, Jess and Slim arrived promptly for the show and were delighted to see the Vardo lit up with lamps hanging from the roof and a makeshift stage in front of it, the whole scene looking almost like a proper theatre in the ensuing dusk.

Rosetta showed them to some benches set before the stage and then introduced her father with much fanfare, as the ‘Magnificent Petulengro’, who entertained them with his juggling prowess and magic tricks.

This was followed by a puppet show, especially written by Rosetta for her audience. The marionettes were now dressed in cowboy clothes as a tale of bravery and excitement was played out, featuring two well-known cowboys, their housekeeper and young ward.

The tongue-in-cheek show brought the house down, and there was much laughter and clapping from all present, both men relishing being the butt of Rosetta’s clever humor. The astute observations of their characters bore testimony to Rosetta’s insight and understanding of the two young cowboys, Daisy noted.

Even on a brief acquaintance, she seemed to have their individual personalities to a tee: Jess being wild and reckless and Slim the voice of reason, while Mike’s character obviously idolized the two heroes and the poor housekeeper was left to pick up the pieces.

However, the clever twist to the ending of the story was that it turned out that the housekeeper saved the day and the ‘heroes’ were forever in her debt.

As Rosetta and Angelo took their bows to thunderous applause from the ‘audience’, Rosetta winked and shared a secret smile with Daisy. A true bond of friendship had been forged between the two very different women.

Then the mood changed as Angelo picked up his handmade flute and started to play a hauntingly sad melody, the pure, vibrant notes ascending into the clear evening sky and sending a shiver down Jess’s spine.

Jess was immediately transported back to a time in his life when he was living with the Arapaho people and his blood brother Little Wolf had played just such an instrument — an end blown flute, fashioned from river cane. Even the way Angelo played it and the melodious tuneful refrain was strangely familiar to him. *See the story ‘Blood Brothers’.

Rosetta, who was sitting to one side, studied Jess closely and was surprised to see tears in his eyes. But then the music was incredibly poignant and she just assumed he was moved by the silvery notes as they shimmered through the night air, their resonance being almost tangible.

After a little while, Rosetta finally managed to drag her eyes away from the face that fascinated her so greatly, and made her way into the Vardo to change for the finale of their act.

Once Angelo finished playing, there was a split second of deathly silence before the house once more erupted in enthusiastic applause. Jess surreptitiously wiping his sleeve across his eyes, glad of the cloak of darkness now surrounding them.

Angelo lit two more lamps and laid them on the stage floor before picking up his accordion. Then he began to play a rhythmic lively tune. The sort of music that made the body and soul just cry out to dance.

Rosetta walked onto the stage to a small gasp from the audience as they observed her costume. Transforming her and making her look even more stunning, like a Gypsy Queen, Jess thought privately.

Rosetta wore a gossamer dress in rainbow colors of red, blue and green, with a very deeply cut bodice showing the gentle swell of her cleavage, before the dress was tightly belted at the waist, opening out into a full skirt, the hem ending in scarlet ruffles.

The diaphanous material left nothing to the imagination, her shapely legs and nubile curves clearly visible as she danced and swayed rhythmically about the stage, her bare feet moving like quicksilver, her movements both graceful and erotic as Jess and Slim watched, transfixed.

As the dance became more and more sensual, the men exchanged a glance before throwing Daisy a covert look. But to their relief, she seemed to be enjoying the display and there was no look of censure in her kindly old eyes.

Jess ran a finger around his starched shirt collar, regretting having made an effort to dress smartly for the performance at Daisy’s behest and felt the sweat running down his back. He flicked a glance over to Slim and saw he was looking equally uncomfortable as the young dancer increased her fervor.

Now the fluid, perfectly balanced steps were quickening. She turned into a mercurial Kaleidoscope of color as she leapt and twirled, all the time never taking her eyes from Jess’s face. He, in turn, sat mesmerized, all thoughts of the others slowly forgotten as he felt his body responding to her. He felt a buzz of excitement bordering on intoxication as she danced on with renewed zest and vigor.

Then Rosetta finally concluded her performance, and after leaping high in the air, came to rest on her knees, head bowed, and her long, black hair tumbling forwards like a dark shining waterfall.

There was a burst of applause and everyone spoke at once, congratulating her on a sensational performance. Stamping and cheering, they rushed forward to congratulate her again.

But amongst all the clamor, she quickly flicked a glance over to Jess, who still sat on the bench watching her. The look of longing in his eyes was all she needed to see.

It was quite late once the performance was over, and Angelo opted to retire for the night, advising his daughter that she too should not be long as they had an early start on the morrow.

Daisy sent Mike off to bed and hurried off to make some coffee whilst Slim and Jess stayed in the living room, chatting with Rosetta.

“That sure was a swell performance,” Slim announced, grinning at her. “So where did you learn to dance that way?” he continued.

“The skill is passed down through the generations and has its roots in Indian dance. Every movement tells a story, has significance. That one was a traditional Gypsy dance, though. Full of passion and unrequited love, about the differences and similarities between different peoples, different races,” Rosetta finished shyly.

“Well, I thought it was wonderful,” said Daisy, coming into the room with a laden tray, which Jess took from her as they seated themselves around the fireside.

“Thank you, Daisy; I appreciate that,” Rosetta replied softly.

“Yes, I remember seeing a troupe of dancers from India doing a similar routine when I lived back East with my dear husband. We were great theatre goers,” Daisy said smiling. “Dear Henry loved the arts.”

Slim and Daisy reminisced about theatre they had enjoyed in the past, leaving Jess to daydream.

Jess secretly hoped Rosetta wasn’t about to give a similar performance to the Laramie residents. He imagined that the men folk would be more interested in admiring her nubile figure than to appreciate the dance as an art form, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

After a while, Rosetta stifled a yawn. “Oh excuse me, I am a little tired. All that exercise has taken it out of me,” she giggled.

Slim and Jess rose as one, but Jess was first to make it to the door. “I’ll see you over to your wagon,” he offered, as Slim took a pace forwards looking crestfallen.

“Oh, thank you.” Rosetta jumped up quickly and was at Jess’s side in a matter of seconds, smiling up into his eyes.

Jess opened the door, taking her elbow, before half turning and flashing a quick smile of triumph at his buddy as he bore her away on his arm.

Once outside, Rosetta seemed in no hurry to get back to the Vardo and wandered over towards the corral fence. Leaning on it, she stood looking out to the distant moonlit hills.

Jess came and leaned on the fence beside her, his pulses racing at her closeness, her soft perfume making him feel slightly light headed. He took a deep breath to try and steady his nerves, and she turned to look at him.

“It’s so beautiful here; I shall miss it when we move on.”

Jess just nodded and then turned and looked deeply into her eyes, trying to read their expression. “And I’ll miss you,” he said eventually, his voice deep and low.

She smiled up at him and placed her small hand over his as it lay on the fence, sending a sudden shock wave of desire through him. Her eyes were warm and inviting, her lips slightly parted, and as he put a hand gently on her shoulder, he felt her tremble.

“Are you OK? Cold?” Jess asked as he looked down at  the diaphanous gown she still wore, his gaze drifting to her delectable cleavage before he finally managed to look back up into her amused eyes.

“No, not cold,” she whispered.

He took a deep breath. “Oh I see,” Jess said softly.

“So, Jess, you liked the dance?”

“You know I did,” he confirmed, his gaze never leaving hers.

“How did it make you feel?” she whispered.

He very tenderly ran his hand up and down her naked arm. “I guess you know that too.”

Rosetta nodded in acknowledgement, and then to Jess’s dismay, she gently disengaged herself and started moving off back towards her wagon. She stopped after a couple of paces and raised a quizzical eyebrow. ”So are you seeing me back then?”

Jess exhaled the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and gave her a cheeky grin, before striding over to her and once more taking her elbow in a gentlemanly grip.

Once they were in the shadow of the Vardo, Rosetta stopped and turned to him. “Thank you for seeing me back,” she said almost formally.

Jess gave a little nod. “You’re welcome.” He stood staring at her for another minute, before dropping his gaze. “Goodnight, Rosetta,” he said quietly, and he turned to go, but a hand shot out stopping him, as she grabbed his arm and pulled him back towards her.

He stood perfectly still and glanced down to where her hand was still restrained him and then up into her eyes, his expressive brows raised in question.

She moved forwards so he could feel her sweet breath on his cheek and the warmth of her body emanating from the folds of the rainbow gown. “Haven’t you forgotten something?” she whispered, glancing at his lips and then back into those amazingly blue eyes, now looking dark with passion.

“Have I?” he whispered, his gaze never wavering.

Then very slowly, Jess leaned in and just brushed her lips tenderly with his own, before drawing back so that he could gage her reaction.

What he saw made his heart hammer even harder, the flush to her cheeks and sparkling eyes telling him all he needed to know.

Jess took her in his arms, then caressed her cheek gently with his thumb, before gazing into her eyes and then down at her soft, full lips again.

Rosetta gave a little shuddering sigh, the anticipation almost driving her crazy, as he knew it would. Then he finally leaned in and took possession of her lips, kissing her, oh so tenderly at first, then more firmly, leaving her in no doubt as to what he would like to do next.

Jess pulled back after a few minutes and gently stroked her cheek again, his eyes full of regret. “Goodnight sweetheart,” he whispered, before turning and walking slowly away.

She gave a little gasp, her hand flying to her mouth. How could he leave her now? But then she knew the situation was hopeless, so how could he not? Turning, she made her way silently into the darkened Vardo, where her father lay sleeping.

*****

When Jess returned to the bedroom, Slim was stretched out in bed, but had left a light burning on the nightstand. “What took you so long?” he asked irritably.

Jess cast him a wicked grin, but didn’t deign to reply as he collapsed down on his bed.

Slim flicked his eyes to heaven before relenting and returning the grin., “She sure is a stunner.”

“You ain’t got that wrong.” Then after a moment’s thought, Jess said, “I can’t figure her, you know, Slim. When she arrived, she seemed so young and innocent, heck so doggone shy. But that dancing, well…”

“Uh, it was rather risqué, but like Daisy said, it’s kind of an art form, you know, Jess I guess she didn’t mean anything by it.”

Jess looked down a secret smile on his face. Then he shook his head and turned to look at Slim. “Oh come on, buddy, that was more than just art. Hell, you can’t dance that way and not be meaning somethin’. Well, you saw her, Slim.”

“I saw the way she was looking at you,” replied Slim, a hint of envy in his voice. Then he said again, “So what took you so dang long out there?”

Jess got up from the bed and started stripping off. He went over to the washstand and had a cursory sluice before returning to get into bed, when he finally answered. “We were just enjoying the view, you know…” he said vaguely.

“I’ll bet you were,” said Slim, his voice loaded with sarcasm. “So did you kiss her? “

Jess sighed. “Yep.”

“So what was it like?”

“Come on, Slim, you know I never talk about my ladies.”

“Jess!”

He sighed again. “OK…it was wonderful.” Then Jess turned to look at his buddy. “And I’ll tell you somethin’, Slim, she sure don’t kiss like an innocent, shy young girl either.“

Slim had to smile at that. “So what are you going to do?”

Jess lay back. “Nuthin’; there ain’t nuthin’ to do, is there, Slim? She leaves tomorrow.” With that, he blew the lamp out and lay there in the dark, thinking about the mystery who was the Fortune-teller’s daughter.

*****

The following morning, the Petulengros were up and ready to go at first light, but Daisy persuaded them to join the family for breakfast before they lit out.

Angelo was his usual charming self, complimenting the cooking, company and kindness of his hosts.

However Daisy again thought he looked tired. “You look a little peaky after all the excitement of last night,” she said hesitantly. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to stay one more night?”

“Thank you, dear lady, but we really cannot impose on you any longer. Besides, we must take advantage of the proximity of Laramie and sell some of our wares. Also do some fortune telling before we set off for the clan meeting at Boulder, later this month.”

Jess’s face lit up at that. “So you’ll be in Laramie for a while then?”

“Yes, my dear boy. As I told you when we were originally heading off  before poor Apollo was hurt, we will be there a week, maybe two. So you boys will ride in and see us?”

Both cowboys beamed at the elderly man. “You bet!” they said in unison.

*****

The following Saturday afternoon, they rode into town ready for the usual few hands of poker and some banter with the saloon girls. They were also looking forward to visit with Angelo and Rosetta. But on making their way to drop off their mounts at the livery, they stopped in their tracks.

Jess had slipped down from the saddle and was leading Traveler as he entered and called out for Bert the owner. “You around, Bert? Got us a couple of thirsty nags here,” he yelled, peering into the dim recesses of the stable looking for his old buddy.

Slim jumped down and joined him and both men finally put their mounts in the nearest couple of stalls before wandering out the back looking for the old timer.

As they walked through, they suddenly heard the sounds of a woman screaming in terror and the unmistakable sound of a scuffle going on.

The friends exchanged a startled glance before tearing out to the yard at the back of the livery. This was where Bert had let the Petulengros park their van, and the men stopped in their tracks at the shocking scene before them.

Angelo was lying on the floor, rolling in agony and clutching his arm as Carl and Wayne Perks kicked him viciously. A stranger was attempting to kiss Rosetta as another two men held her arms tightly and a couple of others looked on laughing, all obviously drunk.

Jess gave a roar of fury and launched himself at Rosetta’s attacker, pulling him around and smashing a fist into his face that sent him reeling across the yard, and then he turned his attentions to the miscreant’s friends.

Meanwhile, Slim laid into the Perks brothers who had been attacking Angelo and made short work of rendering them both unconscious.

Both ranchers then turned on the remaining men and floored another two, the others deciding to cut their losses by making a run for it.

However, unfortunately for them, they ran slap bang into Sheriff Mort Corey, who had been fetched by Bert on seeing the brawl when returning from a late lunch.

Mort grinned across at Slim and Jess before looking down at the recumbent Angelo and he raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I see your friend here has ruffled a few more feathers.” Then he turned and addressed the Perks. “Come on, you two, let’s take a trip over to the jail and sort this matter out.”

Then turning back to his buddies,  Mort said, “I’ll catch up with you boys later after you’ve attended to your friend here.” The Sheriff nodded to where Angelo was beginning to come around.

Slim knelt down and turned Angelo over gently, before looking up to where Jess had a protective arm around the now silently weeping Rosetta. “We need to get him over to Doc Sam, Jess; he’s in a bad way,” he murmured.

Angelo finally came around just as Slim uttered those words and started to panic. “No!” he cried, ”no, doctors. Please, I will be alright.”

“The hell you will,” said Jess, coming over and hunkering down beside the big man. “Come on, Angelo, I’m none too fond of doctors myself, but ol’ Sam there is a real good guy. He’ll fix you up. That arm looks to be broken, buddy, and your ribs stove in, so you ain’t got no choice.”

“He’s right Angelo,” agreed Slim. “Come on, buddy; we’ll help you over there.”

Angelo carried on objecting weakly, but in the end had no choice as Jess had said and allowed himself to be taken across the road to the see the doctor.

The two men carried Angelo over to their good friend and physician, Doc Sam Baker’s office, and while Slim went to the Sheriff’s office, Jess stayed to comfort a still very upset Rosetta.

They sat on the couch in Sam’s front parlor and Jess gently took her hand. ”Don’t take on so, sweetheart,” he said kindly. “He’ll be OK; made of tough stuff, your old Pa.” He felt her hand trembling in his and threw her an anxious look. “So, are you OK? Those bastards…well, they just tried to kiss you, right? Nuthin’ else?”

Rosetta blushed deeply at that, and shook her head. “No I am alright, just shaken up, that is all,” she admitted with a tremulous sigh.

“Sure, sure you are,” Jess answered and as he threw a comforting arm around her felt her tense, beneath its weight. “Hey, it’s OK,” he whispered. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, you must know that, don’t you, Rosetta?”

She nodded. “Yes, I know that, of course I do.” After a moment, she gave a deep shuddering sigh and rested her head on his shoulder.

Meanwhile, over at the Sheriff’s office, Mort was staring at Carl Perks, in astonishment. “So, let me get this straight, Mr. Petulengro did a Tarot Card reading for you?”

“Yep, he did.”

“At your request, I presume?”

“Well, er yeah, I guess,” Carl replied reluctantly.

“And he said that your wife was playing around — about to up and leave you?”

Carl looked uncomfortable. “Well not in so many words, Sheriff; said somethin’ about there could be some domestic strife — problems with relationships, that kinda stuff.”

Mort and Slim exchanged a glance. Hell, everyone in town knew what a flighty lot Bella Perks was — everyone save her husband, it seemed.

“So, go on I’m listening,” Mort prodded.

“Well, I went straight home, had it out with her, and it turns out her bags were all packed and she was ready to go off with that bastard Lennie Brown.”

“So you upped and knocked nine bells out of Petulengro then?” asked the exasperated Sheriff.

“Oh no, I gave the wife a good spankin’ first. Then went and knocked Lennie Brown into next week. It was after that I upped and sorted out that meddling Gypsy bastard. It was all his fault.”

Slim shook his head. “Well, how do you make that out, Perks?”

He looked embarrassed. “I dunno, do I? All that mumbo jumbo, cutting cards, all them pretty pictures — Stars and Devils and Empresses and the like — it’s doggone witchcraft. He turned her head some way.”

“Looks to me like it’s a good old fashioned case of shooting the messenger, Perks,” said Mort, scratching his grey head and throwing the younger man an irritated glance. “Well, I guess you’re gonna have plenty of time to figure it all out because you and your wastrel brother can cool your heels in my jail for a week or two and then maybe you’ll think first before throwing punches at innocent folk.” Mort sighed deeply.

Once the men were banged up in the cell, Mort returned to his office and poured himself and Slim some coffee before taking a seat behind his desk.

“Thanks Mort,” said Slim throwing his friend a serious look. “He’s a real nice guy, Angelo; didn’t deserve this.”

“No I reckon he didn’t, but still…”

“What, Mort?”

“Well, there are some as don’t hold with that Tarot Reading malarkey. They reckon it’s blasphemous and yes, maybe even smacking of witchcraft. I don’t reckon the good folk of Laramie are ready for that kind of entertainment. And I’m darned sure the Reverend wouldn’t be too happy about it either.”

“Uh, maybe you’re right, Mort. Anyway, I don’t reckon he’ll be doing much of anything for a while; he looked real sick by the time Sam saw him — real sick,” repeated Slim thoughtfully.

Slim returned to the doctor’s office just as Sam was emerging from the treatment room. “You can see him now my dear,” he said kindly to a pale and shaking Rosetta.

Once she’d gone in, Sam turned to his buddies and shook his head., ”Nasty business.”

“So what’s the damage, Sam,” asked Jess looking anxious. “Can we take him back home with us for Daisy to nurse?”

Sam sucked in a deep breath and shook his head. ”No, sorry; as you’ve already seen, he’s in a real bad way, busted arm, fractured ribs and, well, other stuff too,” he said vaguely.

“What sort of other stuff?” asked Slim, alerted by Sam’s concerned tone.

“Come along, Slim, you know better than to ask that — patient confidentiality, and anyway…” he continued quietly, ”the man has problems he doesn’t even want his daughter to know about.”

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance, but before they could comment further, Rosetta returned saying her Papa wished to see the boys.

*****

“So you want us to take your daughter and the rig — the Vardo, that is — back to the ranch until you’re better?” asked Jess, smiling down at the big man. Then he turned to Slim. “I reckon we can do that can’t we pard? “

Slim nodded. “Are you worried about your merchandise being stolen, Angelo?”

Angelo nodded, his eyes full of fear and misery. “And for my little girl too. The way those men attacked her…” He gasped, his eyes suddenly brimming with unshed tears.

“Yeah,” said Jess bitterly, ”but don’t fret none, Angelo; they got sorted out real good.”

Angelo nodded. “Thank you! So you will convince her to go back with you? Please, I’ll just worry otherwise if she stays around town.”

“Sure, sure we will,” said Slim squeezing his shoulder. “You just take it easy and get better; we’ll look out for Rosetta and your wagon.”

*****

They finally managed to persuade Rosetta to leave her Pa in town, but not until the older man had practically broken down as he pleaded with her to stay with Daisy and the boys at the ranch.

“They are good people,” Angelo said softly, “who will know what to do if, well, if I don’t make it.”

She cried. “Papa, please don’t talk that way. You have been beaten badly, but it’s not life threatening.”

“No, no of course not; forgive your old Papa. But I must know you are safe and also I need your promise that you will still meet up with the family at Boulder next month, just as we have planned.”

Jess and Slim, who were standing nearby, exchanged a look at this, before Slim wandered over to the bed. “Heck Angelo, you’ll be on the mend long before that, but if you’re not up to driving that rig of yours,  Jess or I will drive you over. How about that?”

The big man looked close to tears again. “Thank you, my friend, that takes a weight off my mind,” he sighed in relief.

So it was that Rosetta joined the men back at the ranch, settling down well and sharing Daisy’s room.

The perceptive housekeeper had instinctively known that Rosetta would feel bereft stuck out in the Vardo on her own without her dear Papa’s company and she took her under her wing, accepting help with the housework as some form of recompense.

Meanwhile, Slim and Jess trod carefully around her, knowing how traumatic she had found the recent attack. Jess even made a conscious effort not to flirt with her, second nature though it was to him to sweet talk any pretty lady that came within his radar.

He couldn’t help but think of that passionate kiss they had shared, but hell, this wasn’t the time or place, he acknowledged honestly.

*****

It was a good two weeks later when they finally got word that Angelo was asking to come and spend the rest of his convalescence at the ranch with his beloved daughter.

Sam rode in early one morning when Jess was hard at work breaking one of the mustangs. Slim was watching his back as usual as he wandered around  doing the yard chores, keeping an eye on his partner should he take a tumble.

The tall, handsome middle-aged Doctor slipped down from the saddle and wandered over to the corral. Jess was attempting to stay on the back of a lively Paint that Mike had named Jigsaw — Jiggy for short. The horse was aptly named too, as he danced and capered around the corral, using every trick he knew to try and displace Jess. However, the young cowboy had a gleam of determination in his deep blue eyes and he managed to stay the course in spite of the horse’s bucking and prancing.

After a few minutes, Jess became aware of his audience and managing to canter over, slipped down from the saddle and came and leaned on the fence beside his friend, just as Slim strode over to join them.

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out there, Jess,” said the doctor, tipping his Stetson towards where the lively critter was now galloping around the confined space, rolling its eyes and shaking its mane in anger.

“You can say that again,” broke in Slim, a twinkle in his eyes as he looked over at his buddy. “I guess Jess there is getting mighty familiar with that corral dust, number of times he’s been rolling in it today.”

Jess turned on his partner, the light of battle in his eyes. His blue work shirt was covered in the local red dust, the back black with sweat, bearing testimony to Slim’s words. However, he finally took the taunt in good part and just cussed good naturedly before throwing a light punch at his buddy’s arm. Then he turned to grin at Sam. “So what brings you over here doc, have you got some news of Angelo?”

Then as he nodded in response, Slim offered to go and fetch Rosetta.

Sam reached out a hand and pulled his friend back, though. “No… hang on a minute, Slim.” He glanced from Jess to Slim and back and then sighed softly, “I guess there is never an easy way to break bad news; I wish there were,” he said almost to himself, before looking down sadly.

“Bad news?” repeated Jess, taking his hat off and running a hand through his untidy hair before replacing it, pulling it down firmly, and casting Sam a wary look.

Sam looked back up then and finally said, “Yep, it’s Angelo; he’s not going to make it, I’m afraid.”

“Huh?” queried Jess, a look of shock in his eyes.

“But he was just beaten up Sam. That shouldn’t be life threatening, surely?” asked Slim looking deeply troubled.

“Well, I’m afraid it can be — if you’ve got a predisposing heart condition.”

“And he has?” whispered Jess, looking like he’d suddenly had all the stuffing knocked out of him.

Doc Sam just nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance before Jess asked the question they were both wondering about, “So does Rosetta know about this?”

Sam shook his head. “Nope, and he doesn’t want her to be told either. Says he wants to break it to her himself.” He sighed again and then continued. “He asked me to tell you, so that you’d be aware of the situation — be there at the end to help her through it, maybe. I know it’s a heck of a lot to ask of you boys, but…?”

Jess was the first to respond, “Hell, we’re OK with that, ain’t we, pard?”

“Sure, sure, we are; I’m just so dang sorry. He’s a really nice guy,” responded Slim.

Just then the front door burst open and Rosetta ran out, looking anxious. “Doctor Baker, do tell me — is there some news of my Papa? “

Sam cleared his throat and pinned a smile on his face. “Yes, my dear, I was just telling these two — your father is coming back to the ranch to rest. Tomorrow, if that’s OK?” he asked, spinning around to face the ranchers again.

The men just nodded in agreement, neither of them able to look Rosetta in the eye knowing the terrible truth about her father.

*****

As soon as Sam drove into the yard in his buggy along with Angelo, it was obvious that the big man was not at all well. Rosetta had visited him at the doctor’s office several times over the last couple of weeks, but even she saw a difference in him. He seemed to have lost weight and his complexion was almost grey with a fine slick of sweat on his brow, his eyes lackluster and sad.

Angelo’s arrival struck them all dumb for a few seconds as they took in the sorry state of the big man, noting how he could hardly haul himself down from the buggy.

Jess was the first to recover and tried to make light of the situation, joshing Angelo, and the moment of strain and embarrassment passed as he slowly made his way down from the doctors rig, smiling in welcome.

“My dear friends, I really appreciate all you have done for my little girl here. Also you all agreeing to let us stay a while; I can never thank you enough,” Angelo finished, looking emotional.

“You’re welcome; you know that,” replied Slim kindly. “Let’s get you bedded down, rest up a while, huh?” He offered Angelo a hand and the two men wandered over to the Vardo together.

Meanwhile, Jess looked on as Rosetta fixed the doctor with a concerned gaze. “He looks so ill, Doctor Baker. What is wrong with him? He looks so old, so fragile,” she lamented, a sob in her voice.

Jess’s glance flicked from Sam to Rosetta and back and he raised a questioning eyebrow at his buddy, wondering how he would deal with this sensitive situation.

Sam patted the girls arm gently. “I think you need to talk to your father, my dear. We’ll leave you together to have a little chat.“ He turned back to the buggy. “I’ll be out in a day or two, Jess; let me know if you need me,” he said quietly before taking his leave.

Rosetta turned frightened eyes on the dark haired cowboy. “Jess?”

“Like doc said, I guess you need to talk to your Pa, sweetheart,” Jess murmured. She turned to go, but he impulsively shot a hand out and grabbed her arm, turning her back towards him. “Rosetta, if you need anything, I’m here for you, OK? “

Rosetta looked bewildered at that, but then just nodded, and turning, ran over to the Vardo, where Slim was just taking his leave. “Your Pa’s asking for you,” Slim said gently, and again she nodded soberly before mounting the steps into the wagon.

The men were finishing off the evening chores in the yard when they heard a cry of anguish followed by loud sobs emanating from the Vardo.

Jess and Slim exchanged an anxious glance. “Guess he’s told her,” whispered Jess. “What should we do?”

Slim shook his head sadly. “I reckon there isn’t much we can do. Just be here for her if she needs us.”

*****

Jess sat out on the porch, the yard and distant hills bathed in the silvery glow of a full moon.

He had retired for the night, then tossed and turned, unable to sleep, so had finally got up and wandered out onto the porch, his feet and chest bare, having just pulled on his denims as he crept from the room, trying not to wake his buddy.

It was unlike him not being able to sleep. Slim always joshed him saying his pard was asleep before his head even made contact with the pillow — but not tonight.

Whether it was the pain he had felt and the shiver which had run down his spine when he heard Rosetta weeping that afternoon, or merely the hot sticky air in the bedroom, Jess wasn’t sure. But sleep had eluded him and now he felt restless and uneasy, but for no real reason he could figure.

Jess put his bare feet up on the hitching rail, pushing the old chair back into a more comfortable position; his eyes fixed on the distant hills and as he breathed in the cool night air, feeling himself visibly relaxing with each new breath.

After a few minutes, he was aware that he was not alone, and glancing up, he saw Rosetta standing in the shadows of the house, just a few feet away.

When she realized he had seen her, Rosetta came shyly forward. “May I join you?”

“Sure,” he replied. Jess pulled the other chair towards her.

Rosetta took it and relaxed back, pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and arranging the long white night gown she was wearing demurely around her legs, before turning her gaze on Jess.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “About your Pa and all.”

“You knew?” she asked almost accusingly.

“Sam told us — your Pa asked him to — but only yesterday, I swear. See, he wanted to tell you himself.”

She nodded. “Of course.” Then giving him a weak smile, Rosetta said,  “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just that it has been such a shock. I had no idea. I thought he was so strong, fit.” She gave a little sob. “I’m sorry.”

“Hush, it’s OK.” Jess took her hand, squeezing it gently. “I think I understand how you’re feelin’ — well, some anyways.”

She looked down at his big comforting hand and then up into his kind concerned eyes. “You do?”

He just nodded. “Yes, I lost nearly all my kin when I was just a kid.”

She gasped. “I’m so sorry. That was what I saw in your hand maybe?”

He sighed. “Yeah; it was a long time ago, but I still remember how it was, how I felt.”

She just nodded.

“So these folk you’re meeting up with in Boulder, they’re close kin then?” asked Jess

Rosetta nodded. ”My Uncle, Aunt and cousins, and a few others — family friends, a whole bunch of Travelers. We often ride together, but without Pa…” She sobbed again.

Jess moved closer, throwing his arm around her shoulders. ”Hush, honey, don’t take on so,” he pleaded, hating to see women folk crying.

She pulled herself together with a huge effort and wiped her tears with her nightdress sleeve. “I’m sorry; you must think me a terrible cry baby.”

He looked deeply into her eyes. “I think you’re a very special lady. Well, I figure you know how I feel about you,” Jess said softly, tracing a finger down her cheek and wiping a tear away. “But now ain’t the right time for that and you’re tired, honey. I figure you need your sleep if you’re going to be able to look after your Pa properly.”

Rosetta took a deep breath. “You’re right, of course.” She managed a tremulous smile before standing up to go. “‘Night, Jess…and thank you.”

“Night, sweetheart,” Jess whispered, but he sat up long after she had left, staring out to the distant hills, remembering. Sure, he could remember how it felt — like it was just yesterday.

The fire set by the Bannister gang had killed his Ma and Pa and all but two of his siblings. He remembered how he had been trapped in the burning inferno that had been the family home, how he had managed to burst out into the blessedly reviving fresh air, gasping and retching, the acrid smoke deep in his lungs. Then the family’s screams of fear and agony had rent the air and he tried desperately to return to try and rescue them.

 Hell, he felt he could still hear their cries of terror even now.

But then he had been held back by neighbors who could only watch in horror as the house burnt down, any possible attempt to save the family seeming utterly impossible. Would he ever forgive himself he wondered?

Jess gave a little shudder at the memory before finally pulling himself together. “Come on, Harper, get a grip,” he whispered angrily before getting up. After one last look at the first light of dawn creeping into the Eastern sky, he returned to bed.

*****

Life carried on at the ranch and relay station as normal, with Jess working the mustangs. The hard pace somehow helping to ease the sorrow he was feeling about Angelo’s sad plight and keep in check his feelings for Rosetta.

In some way, Jess’s company seemed to help Rosetta too, and when her father was sleeping, she spent most of her time either watching Jess, or helping Daisy around the house.

Sam had provided them with a wheelchair for Angelo, who was now breathless and weak. However, Angelo enjoyed being pushed out for an hour or so, and seemed to derive pleasure from watching the pure poetry in motion that was Jess on horseback.

Even when Jess was being thrown around by a wild mustang, bucking and rearing, he was still able to make the whole art of staying on board look like second nature. The grace and ease with which he handled the massive creatures a delight to behold.

Jess had been working the Paint, Jigsaw, again and had just about got him green broke. Then after a celebratory turn around the corral, where the big beast obeyed all his commands, Jess grinned at the amassed company of Slim, Mike, Angelo and Rosetta. “I guess the big fellah’s finally realized who the boss is,” He slipped down from the saddle, patting the creature’s arched neck before striding over to lean on the fence beside Angelo.

The older man’s eyes were sparkling with pleasure as he beamed up at the young cowboy. “Goodness, that was wonderful Jess,” he said happily. “I could watch you all day.”

“Yes, well, you can’t, Papa; it’s time for your nap,” said Rosetta softly, throwing Jess a shy smile.

“I feel so much better, my dear,” Angelo responded. “All this fresh air and excitement is doing me the power of good, I’m positive.”

“Well, you sure look better, Angelo,” observed Jess, and then he caught a look from Rosetta. “Better do as you’re told, though, buddy; don’t wanna upset the women folk,” he observed, seeing Daisy marching over ready to help Rosetta tend her father.

Angelo just nodded. “Yes, I know when I’m beaten, son,” he asserted with a rueful smile. Then he leaned up from the wheelchair and offered his hand. ”Thank you for a wonderful day, Jess,” he said quietly.

Jess raised a questioning eyebrow, but took the offered hand and shook it firmly. “You’re welcome; glad of the company. We’ll do it again tomorrow, huh?”

The older man nodded and then the women folk wheeled him off for his nap.

Slim wandered over and leaned on the corral fence by his buddy as they watched the big man depart. “I reckon he’s looking better,” he said quietly. ”He’s right; it has done him good being out here in the fresh air with you.”

Jess glanced over at his buddy and then to Angelo’s retreating form. ”Yeah, maybe he’ll be OK after all,” he said the light of hope in his deep blue eyes.

They were woken at dawn by a hammering on the front door, and a bleary-eyed Slim, closely followed by Jess, dragged the door open to see Rosetta standing there looking distraught.

“Come quickly!” she cried. “It’s Papa: I think he is dead.”

*****

Rosetta stood by the graveside, her head bowed and her black shawl pulled closely around her head and shoulders, as a summer storm raged around her. She was alone but for Jess. A protective arm held her close, almost supporting her as she swayed slightly, overcome by a wave of dizziness and nausea.

Jess could feel her trembling beneath his hand, and whether from cold or shock, he wasn’t sure. Probably both, he thought wretchedly.

The wind whipped rain into their faces, the wetness mingling with her tears as she looked down into the grave, sobbing quietly.

Jess glanced back towards the graveyard gate where Slim and Daisy were waiting patiently to drive her back to the ranch. But he instinctively knew she needed these last few minutes with her beloved father — time away from the curious eyes of the town’s folk, still gathered in small groups chatting and casting inquisitive glances towards the pretty Gypsy woman beside him.

 “You want me to go, leave you for a little?” Jess asked softly.

Her head swiveled, and her eyes opened wide in fear. “No, please Jess, stay with me; don’t go.”

“Sure I’ll stay,” he whispered. “Just take as long as you need.”

By the time they walked down from the graveside, Rosetta was soaking wet and shivering violently. Daisy fussed around her, helping her up onto the buckboard and tucking a warm blanket  around her legs before she drove for home at a fast lick, Jess and Slim following on horseback.

As soon as they arrived back at the ranch, Daisy insisted on tucking Rosetta up in bed for an early night, with some of her special tea to help her sleep, while Jess and Slim dried off and made some coffee.

A little while later, Daisy joined them by the fire and accepted a cup from Jess.

“Is she OK?” Jess demanded looking worried.

“Yes, dear, she’s sleeping now. After she drank the chamomile tea, she seemed more relaxed. She should sleep through the night and that is just what she needs.”

Jess looked deeply into the fire. “I just don’t get it, you know, Daisy. He seemed such a strong healthy guy when we met him. How could he die like that, go downhill so darned fast?” he asked turning troubled eyes on the elderly lady.

“Doc Sam explained that to me. Apparently he discovered that Angelo had been suffering from heart disease for some years when he examined him after that dreadful attack. But Angelo swore him to secrecy; he didn’t want Rosetta to be worried.”

“So he’d been ill for a while?” asked Slim looking surprised.

“It seems so; he just got very good at hiding it from everyone. He blamed the shortness of breath on just getting older and heavier. Rosetta believed him, but I must admit I was worried about him. My nurses training, I suppose. He did seem to tire too easily.”

“But it was that fight that made things worse wasn’t it?” asked Jess, looking angry.

“Oh yes; as a nurse, I truly believe that. The stress of that vicious attack will have shortened his life. But then again, proving it is another thing.”

“Well I guess I’ll dang well prove it if I run into those Perks brothers anytime soon,” muttered Jess darkly.

Daisy got up and put their cups to one side before gently patting his shoulder. “No, Jess, that won’t bring Angelo back. Or help poor Rosetta. No good will come of further violence, dear; it really wouldn’t help,” she said sadly as she went off to prepare a light supper.

“Well, it’d sure make me feel better,” murmured Jess, casting Slim a dark look.

*****

Over the next few days, Rosetta was completely inconsolable and insisted on moving back from Daisy’s room into the Vardo, saying she felt closer to her father there. She was barely eating and seemed to just want to sit alone in semi-darkness for hour after hour

After a week or so, Daisy addressed the subject at breakfast one morning. Mike had been staying with a school friend since before Angelo’s funeral, so it was just the three of them around the table, sipping their coffee as Rosetta had once more refused breakfast.

“I really am worried about that girl.” Daisy said anxiously. “She’s going to make herself ill if she carries on this way.”

“Um, but I guess there ain’t much we can do, Daisy. Folk all have to grieve in their own way and their own time,” Jess observed.

Daisy reached across the table and squeezed his hand gently. “I know, dear,” she said softly. And God knows here is a young man who understands all about the grieving process, she thought sadly to herself. Then she sighed. “But there must be something we can do to help her.”

“Maybe we should suggest she thinks about meeting up with her kin in Boulder as planned; I know that’s what her Pa wanted her to do,” said Slim thoughtfully.

“Well heck, we don’t want her to think we’re chuckin’ her out on the street,” Jess interjected.

“No, I don’t mean it that way, pard. I just think maybe they’re the right people to look after her now. When you’ve lost someone close like that, I guess you need your kin around you.” Not would-be lovers, he thought secretly, but did not voice his thoughts, knowing the rather fragile situation between Jess and Rosetta.

“Maybe you could talk to her, Jess,” Daisy suggested. “She seems quite close to you; you get on so well together, don’t you?”

Jess sighed and looked down, before throwing Daisy his shy smile. “I guess I could try.”

He marched over to the Vardo sometime later and knocked lightly on the door. After a several minutes, Rosetta eventually answered.

She looked terrible, her face pale and drawn, her hair unkempt and her eyes red rimmed and swollen.

“Can I come in… talk to you?” asked Jess softly.

She stood to one side to let him pass.

He turned and then took a seat on the scarlet velvet sofa, casting a glance in her direction and taking in her woebegone appearance. He cleared his throat, obviously feeling uncomfortable. “So how are you?” he asked.

Rosetta slumped down on the couch beside him and shrugged without answering. Then she just stared at the cards laid out in front of her, set in neat piles on the highly polished coffee table.

All the curtains were still drawn. However, Jess was just able to make out the strange looking cards by the dim light of a table lamp, the only illumination in the shadowy wagon. “Them those Tarot cards?” he asked after a few moments.

She just nodded, but continued staring at the colorful pictures depicting all manner of creatures and people.

Jess leaned forward, fascinated by the strange images and picked up one with a drawing of a huge sliver moon. “So what does this stand for?” he asked, trying to humor her.

Rosetta’s gaze flicked from the card to Jess and she gave a little gasp of surprise.

“Well?”

“It means I must travel in the dark. There is no sunlight in my life anymore,” Rosetta replied. “I am alone on my journey and I cannot see the right way to go.” She sighed deeply. “It says I am escaping into dreams to avoid the terrors of the reality of being alone.”

At this, Jess’ heart lurched in pity and he took her hand in his own, holding it gently. “You ain’t alone; you’ve got me and everyone here at the ranch, ain’t you?”

She gave him a small nod in response and continued, “And it says I am desperately in need of help and support.“

Jess smiled. “Well, you’ve got it and I guess these ol’ Tarot cards are spot on,” he said, slightly tongue in cheek.

Rosetta picked up on his faint sarcasm and parried, “Well, you chose it, Jess, out of all the cards on the table.”

He gave her a wry smile. “I did, didn’t I.”

“So, what do you think I should do?”

Here was his chance to do what he had come for in the first place. “Go to Boulder and hitch up with your kin like your Pa wanted. One of us will take you, like we promised your Pa. We said we’d take you if he wasn’t well enough to drive the rig, remember?”

“You…you’ll take me?” Rosetta asked eagerly.

Jess looked down to where he was still holding her hand and gently released it. “I don’t think that would be such a good idea,” he said softly. “I figure maybe you’d be more comfortable with Slim?”

Rosetta just stared at him looking hurt and bewildered. “But why?”

Jess looked down, suddenly embarrassed. He was going to say, ‘You can’t deny there’s somethin’ between us. I figure you don’t need that right now’, but changed his mind, not wanting to bring up something that was maybe just in his imagination.

“Well?”

“I dunno; I thought maybe you’d feel safer with Slim. After all, he’s the sensible one and I’m the wild, free spirit,” Jess said with an engaging grin, referring to the little puppet play she had written.

That lightened the atmosphere between them and she again said, “So will you?“

Jess gave her his shy smile. “Sure, if that’s what you want. Tomorrow; we’ll go tomorrow, yeah?”

*****

They set off early amongst a flurry of goodbyes and made good time, only stopping briefly for a quick coffee, neither of them being hungry.

Jess finally pulled the Vardo up in the late afternoon, and although he had kept up a steady pace, he could see it was going to take some time to get to their destination as the rig was big and cumbersome. Plus he had the two diminutive donkeys hitched on behind as well as Traveler, again slowing their pace down.

He’d asked Rosetta what earthly use the diminutive critters were. Where the donkeys fitted into the scheme of things?

“Why, they are invaluable, Jess; they carry all our goods around the streets when we park outside a new town. Their panniers full of the toys, material and musical instruments that we trade with.”

“So saves taking the Vardo in, I guess? “

“Precisely, and anyway…”

“Anyway what?” he asked with an indulgent smile.

“You have to admit they are kind of cute.”

Jess rolled his eyes at that before finally grinning back. “I guess — if you like stubborn critters.”

“Oh I do,” she nodded with a twinkle in her eyes, looking relaxed for the first time since she’d lost her dear Pa.

*****

Now Jess looked around, at the vast plain ahead, a small group of standing pines to their right and a noisy brook bubbling along beside the trail.

“Looks as good as any place,” he said, turning to smile at Rosetta from where he sat next to her on the wagon seat. “Will you be OK to light a fire if I go and scare us up a couple of rabbits for supper?”

Rosetta reached out and grabbed his hand. “I’m really not hungry Jess.”

Jess felt a frisson of pleasure at her touch and flashed a look into her eyes to see if she had felt it too, but all he saw was an exhausted grieving woman. He bowed his head and gently removed his hand from her grip. “You have to eat, honey, or you’ll get sick,” he said gently. Turning from her, Jess leapt down and led the team over to the welcome shade of the pines.

Once he had unhitched the horses, Jess turned and helped her alight. His firm hands lifted her easily and she flushed slightly at his closeness before turning away, saying she’d fetch some wood for a fire.

When Jess returned half an hour later bearing a brace of rabbits, there was no sign of her.

Jess slipped down from the saddle and wandered over to where a fire was burning cheerfully and looked around him, thinking maybe she had gone down to the creek for water for their coffee… but no. Then he wandered over to the Vardo and called out, and when he got no answer, climbed the steps and tapped lightly on the door.

When she didn’t respond, Jess entered quietly and was just able to make out her still form lying curled up on the sofa, a blanket covering her.

He walked softly over and hunkered down beside her, taking in her tightly closed eyes, her whole body tense and shaking slightly. “Hey sweetheart, are you feelin’ sick?” he asked gently.

Her eyes sprang open and she looked at him in fear for a moment and then she realized who it was and relaxed a little. “Yes…no… just…very tired and kind of fearful. And my heart is pounding. It’s hard to get my breath too. Before,  when you left, I sort of panicked and came in here; I feel safe in here,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Jess replied softly, “I should never have left you.”

“No, it’s me; I’m being silly. But why do I feel like this, Jess? You don’t think I’ve inherited the heart problems Papa had, do you? He had a pounding heart and was breathless too.” She looked flushed and frightened, loose tendrils of her dark hair softening her beautiful face and sticking to her now damp forehead.

Jess very gently reached out and tucked a little strand of hair behind her ear, his finger trailing down her cheek, as he looked tenderly into her eyes. “You’re just grieving,” he said quietly. “It takes folks that way sometimes; you get to imagining all kinds of things…like your mind plays tricks on you.”

“You really understand, don’t you?” Rosetta said softly. “I saw it in your hand that night. It wasn’t just your kin you lost, was it, Jess? There have been others…very close to you. Am I right?”

He just nodded and looked down. ”Yeah, I understand OK,” Jess confirmed quietly. He suddenly felt he couldn’t talk about it, not right then anyway. “Why don’t you wash up?” he said kindly. ”I’ll go start supper.”

“I can do it,” she said, “cook it in here on my cook stove.”

“Nah, you’re alright; I’ll cook tonight. You look dead beat,” he replied, not unkindly.

After supper, they sat beside the fire, Jess leaning back on his saddle. Rosetta, her back to a huge log, curled up on Jess’s bedroll. Her Tarot cards were  once more in front of her as she feverishly dealt and turned them. Looking more and more jittery as she continued, her troubled eyes were glued to the flashing cards.

After a while, Jess could bear it no longer. “What’re you doing?” he asked.

“Seeking answers,” she said distractedly. “I need to find the truth, the answers.”

Jess leaned forwards and grabbed her hand to stop her endlessly moving the cards. “Stop it,” he pleaded. “For God’s sake, Rosetta, the answers ain’t there; they’re here,” he said tapping his chest. “You’ve gotta rely on yourself, not a set of dang cards.”

Rosetta looked angrily up at him. “It’s what I do! What Papa did to find the answers to problems too.”

Jess shook his head. “I reckon if the good Lord wanted us to use cards to plan our lives, he wouldn’t have given us free will.”

She looked puzzled at that. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re lookin’ to the future, ain’t you? To try and see how it’s gonna pan out, right?”

She nodded.

“So if those old cards of yours hold all the answers, can tell you the future, well, it looks to me like it’s all mapped out for you. Your future is set in stone, unchangeable. If that’s so, then I guess there is no point in frettin’, ‘cos you can’t change it.” Jess shook his head. “I don’t believe a pack of cards or any fortune teller can predict the future, because it ain’t been written yet. I believe our future is in our own hands, to make or break, but it sure ain’t been decided on by a set of cards.”

“You feel very strongly about this, don’t you, Jess. Why?”

“I dunno; I just figure it’s kinda like giving up, you know? The cards say I’m gonna die, or lose my home, and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it.”

“Well, I suppose you could look at it that way, but I read the cards to give people ideas, hope. They can be interpreted in many different ways and maybe a prompt from the cards could set someone on the right track.”

Jess considered that. “Maybe, but the way you’re going at it right now, it’s almost like you want those cards to make everything OK again for you, and it won’t be OK, not for awhile anyways.”

“What do you mean?” Rosetta asked sharply.

“Simply that you’re grieving and you have to go through it; ain’t no way around it,” Jess said simply.

She sighed deeply at that. “You’re right, of course; I know that.“

“So what was the problem?”

“What?”

“The problem you were asking the cards about?”

“This,” she said gesturing around her. “This journey. I think it’s a big mistake; I really don’t want to go, Jess.” Rosetta burst into tears.

He immediately moved next to her, sliding a protective arm around, feeling her trembling as she rested her head on his shoulder. “Hush, honey,” Jess said softly. ”Don’t take on  so. You wanna see your kin, don’t you? “

She shook her head and mumbled, ”No, that’s just it. I’m afraid, Jess. Afraid of what they will do now Papa is dead.” She started sobbing with renewed vigor.

He just held her close, rocking her gently until the crying finally slowed to a standstill, with just the odd hiccupping sob.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered after a minute. “You must be getting awfully sick of me carrying on this way.”

“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve just lost your Pa, ain’t you? It’s natural to be real sad;  would be kinda odd if you weren’t.”

She just nodded and squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”

“So what’s all this about you being afraid of your kin?” Jess asked, looking perplexed.

She sighed deeply. “It’s really complicated; you wouldn’t understand. It’s a Romany thing you see.”

“Try me,” Jess said, pulling back slightly so that he could look into her deeply troubled eyes.

“No, really, it’s alright. I’m probably just over reacting, and you’re right, I am dead beat. I think I’ll turn in,” Rosetta said, gathering the cards up and rising quickly.

“OK,” Jess said lightly. “Just holler if you want anything; I’ll be right here,” he continued, nodding to the bedroll she had just vacated.

She stood looking down at him, a troubled expression on her beautiful face. “Are  you sure you’ll be alright out here in the open? You could have Papa’s bunk.”

His head shot up at that, and his eyes opened wide in surprise before he quickly collected himself. “Er… nope, I’ll be fine out here. I’m used to the big open.” He turned to throw a log on the fire to cover his awkwardness.

Rosetta looked disappointed, but turned and made her way to the Vardo, before stopping by the steps. “Goodnight then.”

“Night, Rosetta,” he called casually, his heart beating ten to the dozen. Hell, what was the woman playin’ at, he thought secretly. Did she not know the effect she had on him,. he wondered.

Meanwhile, inside, Rosetta held the pack of cards to her chest and gave a little shudder of fear. What she had seen that night had frightened her badly. They foretold anguish and pain coming their way, but how could she explain that to a non-believer like Jess?

She frowned and made her way sadly to her bed. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was just imagining things because she was grieving.

*****

The following day they continued their journey, but the pace was again frustratingly slow for Jess, used as he was to riding at a fast trot or even a gallop, whereas now he was currently going little faster than walking pace as the huge old vehicle rumbled along the dusty track.

At least Rosetta looked better after a good sleep.

Jess glanced across at where she sat next to him, her beauty taking his breath away. She had delicate facial bones, full sensuous lips and a heart shaped, lightly tanned face, framed by long dark hair. Her deep brown, expressive eyes, gave her a foreign mysterious air, Jess mused. Slim had been right; she sure was a stunner.

“What are you thinking?” Rosetta asked suddenly, breaking into his reverie.

Jess flushed and busied himself with the reins, before improvising. “Just thinkin’ I might take off into yonder hills this evening and see if  I can bag somethin’ a bit more excitin’ than rabbit for supper. If you’d be OK, that is?” he asked, casting her a concerned glance.

She looked down concealing a secret smile, “Oh, I’ll be just fine. I feel much better now after our little talk last night.”

“You do? “

“Um, I feel so safe with you, Jess. We will be safe out here, won’t we?” she asked, suddenly looking anxious.

“Sure we will,” Jess said, his warmth and confidence reassuring her, the memory of the ominous cards of the previous night receding a little.

“I don’t know how I’d have managed with this heavy old wagon all by myself; Papa, did most of the driving you see,” Rosetta continued.

“So how will you manage once we get over to Boulder?” he asked.

“Oh I imagine Uncle Silas will get one of my cousins to take over before…well, before we figure something out,” she finished lamely.

“Like what?”

Rosetta shrugged. ”Like an arranged marriage,” she said bitterly.

“Huh?” Jess interjected, looking scandalized.

“Oh yes,” she said grimly. “Old Uncle Silas has been wanting me to marry my second cousin ever since I can remember.”

“But why? That’s crazy.”

“Well, Alberto is my Uncle Silas’s ward. His parents were killed and Uncle took him on, pretty much like you and Mike.”

Jess just nodded. “But Hell, that don’t give him the right to arrange a marriage, so how does this…Alberto feel about things then?“

“Oh he’s all for it.” Rosetta sighed. Then her brown eyes flashed and she said, “But I won’t. I won’t do it, Jess. They can’t make me, can they?”

“No, of course, they can’t, sweetheart,” he reassured her. “It ain’t right; surely, it ain’t right,” he affirmed again, shaking his head and clicking the team on to a slightly faster pace.

*****

The following afternoon they arrived in the outskirts of Cheyenne as Jess had taken the main route through from Laramie. At Cheyenne, he planned to head due south towards Fort Collins and then push on down to Boulder.

“I thought we might spend the night in Cheyenne,” Jess had said at breakfast that day turning to where Rosetta was pouring the coffee.

“What, stay in a hotel?” she asked looking excited.

“Yep; we could have dinner out, stock up on supplies. There’s a lot of territory to cross before we make it to Boulder. Thought it would be nice to catch us some civilization while we still can. Well, if you can call Cheyenne civilized,” Jess said with a depreciating grin. But I reckon the hotel is safe enough anyways,” he concluded.

Rosetta smiled. “This hotel…would it have a hot tub?”

Jess nodded. ”Oh yeah and nice soft beds too.” Then he flushed at what she might think he was implying and carried on quickly. “Not to mention the best darn chef this side of Texas. I’ll treat you to a slap-up meal to cheer us both up some, huh?”

“Oh yes,” she agreed, “that would be lovely; it will be so good to get all dressed up.” With that, she bustled about breaking the camp, ready to hurry on their way for the proposed treat.

*****

Jess stood in the hotel bar, drinking beer and waiting for Rosetta to appear. He was now on his third drink and was just beginning to think she’d plumb dissolved away in the hot tub. Then the thought of bath tubs and Rosetta completely took over his thoughts.

That was why he didn’t notice when there was a commotion in the hotel foyer and a couple of obviously inebriated cowboys all but fell into the bar and ordered a whisky a piece. They sipped their drinks and then turned from the bar to look around the room.

The two drunks were none other than the Perks brothers, last seen beating the living daylights out of poor Angelo.

Carl was the first to notice Jess leaning on the bar, staring into his beer, deep in thought. He nudged Wayne and said loudly, ”Well, look what the cat’s dragged in — that low-life Harper.”

Jess’s head snapped up at the sound of his name and he turned just as Wayne and Carl staggered over.

“So Harper, we meet again and figure we’ve a score to settle! Thanks to you we cooled our heels in your buddy’s jail for nigh on two weeks and now he’s banned us from town. So what have you got to say about that?” growled Wayne, swaying slightly and peering over at Jess through watery eyes.

Jess turned and glared at him. “I say he should have left you to rot in jail and thrown the goddamn key away,” he said belligerently, “and if I had my way, you’d have felt a rope around your neck for what you did to Petulengro.”

“What, that no account Gypsy?” cried Carl, coming over to back up his brother. “We only taught him a lesson, knocked him about a little, was all.”

“You damn well killed him!” spat Jess. “He had a heart condition and your little ‘knocking about’ made it worse and he never recovered from it. His heart gave out just a couple of weeks later. It was as good as  murder in my book!”

“Well, we never knew about that,” lamented Wayne, looking suddenly guilty.

“Don’t give me that rubbish,” yelled Jess. “You could see he was an old man and you beat him senseless, and don’t you dare deny it, you lowlife scum.”

Wayne backed off, putting a hand to the bar for support and then Carl half-turned away and stopped in his tracks as he saw Rosetta standing hesitantly in the door way.

She wore a low cut, figure hugging gown in jade, which suited her dark hair and eyes, giving her the look of foreign royalty, with the high exotic cheek bones in her delicate face.

Her expression was one of barely concealed horror, however, as she once more saw her father’s attackers.

Carl turned back to Jess, a lecherous sneer on his face. “Oh I get it now, Harper. You’re bedding the little Gypsy tart. Can’t say as how I blame you. She sure is a looker. Real hot in the sack, I bet, too.”

Carl never saw the punch coming as Jess dispatched him with a brutal haymaker to the jaw, before turning his attentions on Wayne, likewise knocking him unconscious with several hefty blows. He then dragged both men up and threw them mercilessly onto the dusty sidewalk.

Pulling his hat down hard, Jess returned to the bar where Rosetta was now standing talking quietly to the bar keep.

“Thanks, pal, I owe you one,” the older man grinned. “Been nothing but trouble those two since they hit town. Here, the drinks are on the house,” he said pouring another beer and some wine for Rosetta.

Jess smiled and thanked the man before turning to a flushed, shaking Rosetta. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said sincerely, ”but I couldn’t let it go — them insulting you that way. Besides, I guess I owe it to ‘em for your Pa’s sake.”

She nodded. “I understand; it’s alright really.” But Jess saw her hand shaking as she raised her glass and felt he could swing for the Perks brothers for upsetting her so.

However, the rest of the evening was perfect. They wined and dined in style, their new friend the barkeep making sure they wanted for nothing. After supper, they retired to the hotel lounge with a brandy a piece, feeling mellow and replete.

They sat close to each other on a comfortable sofa, hidden away in a dimly lit corner of the room, Jess suddenly aware of her closeness. He could smell her heady perfume and feel the heat of her body where their thighs just touched. He gently snaked an arm around her shoulders, and after a moment felt her relax, leaning her head on his shoulder.

Then he glanced down at the top of her head and gently kissed it, and after a moment, was rewarded by her lifting her chin and looking deeply into his eyes. What he saw made his heart quicken, and a shiver of desire course through his body.

She was tantalizingly close, her eyes willing him to kiss her. He glanced down to those sweet, full lips and then back into her lovely eyes before very gently pulling back and removing his arm.

“It’s late,” Jess said softly. “We should turn in.”

She looked down and sighed gently before throwing him an enticing look, “OK,” she whispered.

He took her hand and they wandered over to the reception desk and he retrieved their room keys, handing Rosetta’s hers before pocketing his own, then walked her to the bottom of the stairs.

Here he turned to her and looked longingly into her eyes, before breathing a little sigh and patting her arm gently. “Night Rosetta,” Jess said softly.

She stared at him, a look bordering on amazement on her pretty features. “You’re not coming?” she asked in a small voice.

He knew perfectly well what she was implying, but he couldn’t do it, couldn’t take advantage of her vulnerability. Hell, she’d just lost her Pa, plus there had been that nasty incident earlier. She was very much dependant on him right then and he knew it.

But heck that was no reason to bed her. When — if — that happened, he wanted it to be because she had genuine feelings of love for him, not just gratitude. And right then, he figured she didn’t know what she wanted, or indeed needed. As far as he knew, she was a young inexperienced girl and he just couldn’t — hell, wouldn’t — take advantage of her that way.

“No, I figured I’ll just go check the horses. See you at breakfast.” With that, Jess turned on his heel and left quickly before he could change his mind.

Outside in the shadows, the Perks brothers stood on the opposite side of the street, taking it in turns to swig from a bottle of whiskey, when Carl alerted his brother to Jess’s presence. “There’s that low-life now. Shall we get him Wayne?”

His elder brother shook his head, knowing that he was way past the point of being able to walk unaided, much less throw a punch at Jess Harper. “Nah, he’ll keep,” he said passing the bottle across and wiping his mouth on his filthy shirt sleeve. “I figure we’ll take the boys along and catch him out on the trail — wait till they’re out of town and well away from any help. Then we’ll have us some fun, bro; teach that Harper a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry. Have that pretty little Gypsy whore too. Yep, we’ll have us some good sport,” he said with a lewd wink.

Meanwhile Rosetta lay in her lonely bed staring up at the ceiling.

What was wrong with the man, she thought angrily? Hell, it was obvious from the way he just acted that he wanted her. And yet he had walked away.

She could do nothing but admire his chivalrous attitude, realizing how hard it had been for him to go. That look of yearning in his eyes before he turned and left, leaving her as to no doubt as to what he wanted to do. But even so, she secretly wished he had not been such a gentleman.

All she wanted was to feel his strong arms embrace her, to feel his lips caress hers once more and to surrender to his tender lovemaking. The thought making her twist and turn as she lay on the bed, the all-consuming thoughts of him making her feel dizzy with desire.

She just needed the warmth and comfort that loving could afford. Was that so wrong? Maybe more than that. Maybe I am falling in love with him, she thought, a warm glow suffusing her whole body at the thought of those deep blue eyes gazing into hers.

Then lying there in the dark, she began to ponder on just what it was she wanted from him. A future, a life together. But how could that work? She knew she could never be tied to a ranch. She needed — no, lived for — the adventure of travel and without it her spirit would surely die.

But what of Jess? He had been a traveler himself. Could she persuade him to give everything up? His surrogate family, his best buddy and his stake in the Ranch and Relay. And more to the point, should she? Would it be fair?

Maybe she should ask the cards, or better still read his palm and see what the future held, she thought drowsily as she finally drifted off to sleep.

Breakfast was a subdued affair and they made tracks to leave the town as soon as they had stocked up with some more supplies, both of them feeling self-conscious after the events of the previous night.

When they had been driving along for an hour in total silence, Jess could stand it no longer.

He cast her a covert look before clearing his throat. “Rosetta?”

“Yes,” she said turning to look at him her expression guarded.

“About last night, I…”

“It’s alright,” she said briskly. “No need to explain. I guess we both just had a bit too much to drink. It’s as well things didn’t go any further,” she said, pursing her lips and looking out to the horizon, her stony eyes rebuffing further discussion.

Jess opened his mouth to reply and then seemed to think better of it and merely chivvied the team on to a slightly faster gait.

It was after supper before he broached the subject again, unable to stand the frosty atmosphere between them.

They were sitting gazing into a brightly burning camp fire, sipping their coffee. He glanced at her over the rim of his cup for a moment, before putting it down and saying softly, “You know what I think about you, don’t you, Rosetta?”

She raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

He sighed deeply. “Hell, will you talk to me? I’m tryin’ to explain.”

She looked over at him, her expression suddenly softening. “Go on then.”

Jess looked deeply into the fire before shifting his position slightly so that he could take her hand and finally looked her in the eye. “I think a heck of a lot of you, too much to…well, take advantage of the situation.”

“Take advantage?”

Jess nodded. ”Sure. You’re a young girl, Rosetta, all alone in the middle of nowhere with me. Feelin’ a mite lost, I guess, after…well, after your Pa passin’ and all. It would be real easy for a man to take advantage of that, behave in a way that…well, just ain’t right with someone like you.”

“Someone like me?” she asked, now looking bewildered.

“Sure,” he nodded. “Well, the life you’ve led, bein’ with your Pa all the time. I figure you don’t have much experience of men, and, well, the first time should be real special with someone you really love, not someone you just feel grateful to.”

She shook her head and then smiled wryly. “Is that what you really think of me?”

Then it was his turn to look puzzled. ”Yeah, why?”

“Because you’ve got it all wrong, oh so wrong,” she replied.

“Huh?”

“How old do you think I am?”

“I dunno,” Jess said, removing his hat and raking his hand through his untidy hair before ramming it back in place. “Nineteen years old, twenty maybe?”

She shook her head. “I’m twenty-seven years old, Jess.”

He sat up staring at her in amazement. “You sure don’t look it,” he finally managed.

“And as for having no experience, I was married for five years”.

“Married,” Jess whispered, looking suddenly wary. “You’re married?”

“Was. I was widowed six months ago,” she said softly.

Jess shook his head trying to digest this latest piece of information. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, “so sorry. How did he die?”

“Jonty? It was a sickness; he caught a fever after he got a thorough soaking, and we thought it was just a bad chill, but he never recovered; he died within the week. I tried to nurse him. We were miles from a town or a doctor. By the time Pa had ridden for help, he was dead,” she whispered.

 Jess shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said again, looking down to where he was still gripping her hand.

“Thank you,” she said, trying to be brave, although her heart was pounding and she felt faintly sick as she always did when she thought about her dreadful loss. “So, I guess you were wrong about me,” she finished casting him a wry smile.

Jess just nodded. But not so wrong, he secretly thought. She’d lost her Pa and a husband and that in his book made her even more vulnerable and in need of protection. He just knew for sure that his initial decision not to take the relationship any deeper had been right, for her at least. It just wasn’t the right time, while she was still deeply grieving.

Shortly afterwards, she retired to bed, suddenly needing to be alone with the memories of her loved ones and to grieve by herself. But she was deeply touched when Jess seemed to understand her need. The kindly compassionate look in his eyes, full of understanding, balm to her soul.

*****

It was just after dawn the following day when they struck.

Jess had a restless night, only having fallen into a deep sleep as the first fingers of pink light started filtering through the clouds in the east.

One minute he was deeply asleep and the next he was brutally awoken by a rifle being thrust hard into his chest.

Jess was instantly awake, grabbing his chest in agony as he tried to sit up. But before he could, Wayne Perks was on top of him, the rifle now aimed at his head. ”Don’t move a muscle, Harper,” he grunted.

Then Carl came into view, an ugly grin on his bland face, his gun too aimed in Jess’s direction.

“What do you want?” groaned Jess, clutching his chest where the rifle had made brutal contact.

“Oh, just a little fun,” replied Carl unpleasantly. Then turning to a couple of rough looking hombres behind him, he drawled, “Go on then, boys, fetch the little lady out.” As they turned, Jess recognized them as the ones who had assaulted Rosetta on the fateful day when her father was so badly beaten.

A minute later, Rosetta was hauled from the wagon kicking, biting and screaming blue murder at her assailants.

“Whoa there, girl,” said Carl, “don’t take on so. We just wanna little fun, is all. “

“Leave her alone, you bastard!” yelled Jess and was rewarded by Wayne’s rifle barrel ramming home into his midriff again, causing him to writhe in agony.

“Shut it, Harper,” yelled Carl. Then he threw a length of rope to Jake, one of the two men holding Rosetta in a vice like grip, and growled, “You and Bill tie her to that wagon wheel.”

Carl lumbered over and stared down at her. ”Just sit tight little Gypsy girl; we’re gonna put on a show for you with your boyfriend here. Then I guess we’ll teach you a few manners too,” he sneered nastily.

Once they were satisfied that Rosetta was tightly bound, they set to work on Jess, the other men holding him whilst first Wayne and then Carl took swings at him.

Jess struggled and cussed long and loud. At one point, he managed to free himself and threw a couple of punches. He winded Carl and sent Jake flying with a bloodied nose. But then Wayne pitched in and rendered him unconscious with a vicious blow to the head from his rifle butt.

Carl was quickly on his feet again and advanced on Jess furiously, emptying a canteen over his head before jerking the semi-conscious man up by his shirt front. “Wake up, you low-life gun slinging bastard and fight me!” He screamed into Jess’s face.

“Leave him alone you, bully,” shrieked Rosetta, pulling at the ropes, her eyes wild and frantic.

Carl strode over and back slapped her hard across the face. “And you can shut the hell up too,” he spat before turning his attentions back to Jess, who had now rallied and was straining to escape from his captors and go to Rosetta’s aid.

“Oh no, you don’t, Harper!” spat Carl angrily as he rained blow after blow at Jess’s head and body before Jess finally sank into oblivion.

Carl, seeing that he wasn’t going to get any more fun from that party, picked up his rifle and aimed it at Jess’s head. But then seemed to think better of the idea and flung it down in disgust before moving over to Rosetta where he started taunting her. “So looks like your boyfriend is out for the count. Shame really, ‘cos he’s going to miss all the fun,” he said with an evil smirk.

It was a good ten minutes later when Jess finally came round.

He was lying face down in the dirt, and as he gradually came to, he was abruptly aware of heart rending cries coming from a few yards away. Slowly raising his head, he saw Rosetta, now untied from the wagon, and being held down on Carl’s knee. He was forcing his attentions on her, trying to kiss her as she desperately struggled to free herself, tears of shame and frustration running freely down her flushed cheeks.

Her hair was tangled and her night dress had been ripped down, exposing her shoulders and cleavage, and she frantically tried to cover herself as the men sniggered and egged Carl on.

Painfully slowly, Jess inched his way to where Carl had discarded his rifle until he felt his fingertips engaged with the cold steel of the barrel. He pulled it slowly, slowly towards him, all the time his eyes glued to the horrific scene being played out before him. Then he finally had it in his grasp. He leapt up and discharged the weapon in the air, making all four men spin around in astonishment at the sound.

 Now Jess had their full attention. He leveled the gun at them, his eyes almost black with fury. “Throw your irons down and hit the deck now,” he yelled, “or so help me, I’ll drop you where you stand!”

The men did as they were told instantly and Jess walked over, kicking their guns out of the way. He then retrieved his own, before flicking a glance over to where Rosetta stood pale and shaking. He ran to her and pulled her into a gentle embrace, still keeping his gaze and rifle on the prisoners.

“Did they hurt you?” Jess asked, quickly taking in the ripped nightdress and her flushed tearful countenance.

She shook her head. “No, just scared me.”

“They didn’t…you know…?”

She shook her head violently, “No… just tried to kiss me, that’s all.”

“That’s enough,” Jess muttered darkly, casting the men a hard look before turning back to Rosetta. “Get in the wagon, sweetheart,” he said urgently. “I’ll come in a minute.”

She hesitated for a second, just staring at him, and he gave a little gesture with his head towards the Vardo. “Go on,” Jess  said encouragingly and she finally turned and made her way slowly and painfully up into her wagon.

What followed was to be the stuff of her nightmares for months to come as she at first just listened to the sounds emanating from outside. Then, finally unable to stop herself, she came and peeped out through the door, the devastation in the camp horrifying.

Jess had tied up Jake and Bill, leaving them bound and gagged, and then he had turned to where the Perks were still lying prone in the dirt.

He threw the rifle to one side and spat. ”Right, so let’s try that one again, shall we? Only this time, let’s change the odds a bit — two to one instead of four to one, huh?“

The two men stood up slowly, staring transfixed at the look of blazing fury in the dark haired cowboy’s eyes, then exchanged a glance filled with fear, both of them wanting to just cut and run.

However, there was no way that was going to happen and Jess launched himself first at Wayne, sending him flying several feet across the camp with a brutal haymaker to the chin, before turning his attention to Carl, who he in turn floored with a deadly blow to the belly followed by a violent blow to the back of the neck.

The large ugly man staggered up, however, and retaliated with a left hook, which Jess easily parried before throwing a right and left to his belly and chin rendering him semi–conscious. The big man finally fell to his knees and groaning in pain.

Suddenly Wayne launched himself at Jess’s back, pinning his arms to his sides, but Jess quickly managed to break the hold and jabbed a sharp elbow into his attacker’s chest, winding him, before swiveling round and punching him hard on the chin again.

Wayne swayed but then threw a lucky punch that  bloodied Jess’s nose, the bright red blood coursing down his chin and shirt.

Jess narrowed his eyes and wiped a sleeve across his bloody face before giving an almost primeval roar of rage and launching himself back at Wayne. The ensuing powerful, bitter punches finally rendered Jess’s attacker unconscious.

Jess spun around to Carl, but he was laying limply, all the fight beaten out of him.

Jess wiped his sleeve across his face again, and after a moment, leaned down and picked up his hat, giving himself a cursory brush down with it before ramming it back on his head. Then he stood swaying a little and surveying the damage to the camp.

The cook pots and pans were strewn  around. His bedroll trampled and logs from the fire scattered about.

Then two things happened simultaneously. Rosetta screamed a terrified warning for him to look out, and a single shot was fired, catching him in the shoulder and spinning him around as he fell in agony, hitting the ground awkwardly.

However, even as he fell and hit the dirt, he rolled and returned the fire, downing Jake, who had shot him with a concealed derringer.

The grey haired older man cried out in pain, clutching his arm, the gun that had been hidden in his boot skittering away from him.

Jess inwardly cursed that he had not bound the man sufficiently tightly to prevent him freeing himself. But then all thoughts were suddenly vanquished as Rosetta ran to him, sobbing in dismay at the bright red blood staining his blue shirt front.

“Stay back honey,” Jess said urgently, not wanting her to get in the line of fire, and she stopped in her tracks, hovering indecisively.

Jess lurched up, and snagging some rope from his saddle, went and bound Jake’s wrists again before doing the same to Carl and the now partially revived Wayne.

Then he stood there swaying slightly, one hand clutching his shoulder, the blood still oozing sluggishly out.

“Jess please, let me help you,” Rosetta cried, running over and standing close.

Jess just shook his head almost imperceptivity before taking out his colt again and pointing it at the four men, glaring at them ominously. “OK, your hands are all tied with some slack, so I figure you’ll be able to mount up and ride out,” he said in a low menacing voice.

The men all peered at him, not believing their luck. Was he really letting them go?

“Well what are you waitin’ for?” Jess snarled. “I’m gonna count to ten and if I can still see hide or hair of you, I’m gonna start shootin’.” Then he staggered over to Carl and muttered very low, ”And if you ever go near that girl again, so help me I’ll kill you….understand?“

Carl gave a little yelp of terror. “Yes, yes siree.”

“Git,” barked Jess, finally losing his last ounce of patience.

Jess stood there looking resolute as they mounted awkwardly before taking off hurriedly without a backward glance.

And that was just as well, reflected Jess as he slowly sank to his knees, the blood loss from the shoulder wound finally sapping the last of his strength.

“Jess!” Rosetta cried as she ran forwards just in time to take his weight as he collapsed. She gently lay him down, before turning to run for blankets, clean water and bandages.

She returned a few minutes later looking ashen, shaking, and her eyes blinking away unshed tears as she saw the extent of his injuries.

Very gently unbuttoning his shirt, Rosetta gasped at the gunshot wound. The ragged hole in his shoulder still oozing blood.

“You know what to do?” Jess asked, his mouth set in a hard line against the pain as she carefully started to clean the blood away.

“Yes, I think so. Clean the area and bind it tightly to stop the bleeding?”

He nodded. “It went all the way through?”

She looked puzzled.

“Help me sit up,” Jess gasped. “See if there’s an exit wound…the bullet came out the back.”

She shuddered at the thought, but gently hauled him up and lifted his shirt. “Yes, there’s a wound here too.”

He nodded before lying down again, this time on his side. “You’ve gotta clean both wounds real good. Lots of water and then wash ‘em out with neat whiskey. There’s a bottle in my saddle bags,” Jess whispered faintly before his eyes finally closed and his head fell back.

“Jess!” Rosetta cried in panic, the tears now finally spilling over and coursing down her pale cheeks.

He didn’t move, but after a moment, she put a finger to his neck and could just make out a weak pulse. Then saw his chest rising and falling rhythmically and knew he was merely unconscious.

Rosetta once more went about the business of cleaning the wounds, but when it came to pouring on the neat whiskey, she suddenly hesitated, knowing how painful it would be.

Jess had come round a few minutes before and was suddenly aware of her inactivity as she paused looking down at the angry wound still bleeding freely. “Come on, Rosetta, you’ve gotta do it,” he whispered, his blue eyes squinting up at her in pain. “Please, you gotta clean it out real good or it’ll get infected.”

“I can’t,” she moaned. “I just can’t.”

“Sure you can,” Jess gasped, throwing her a beseeching look.

Rosetta bit her lip and took a deep breath before pouring the spirit onto the raw wound.

Jess cussed lightly under his breath and jerked, but recovered quickly. “Good girl. Now the same to my back,” he said, rolling over onto his stomach.

She again did as she was requested and then bound the wound tightly with fresh clean rags before gently bathing his bruised, cut face. Then she sat back, looking shaken and fearful

Once the ordeal was over, Jess took her hand. ”Thank you,” he whispered, “that was real brave.”

“No, no it wasn’t. I’m useless. I’m sorry, Jess. I just can’t bear it when someone I…I care about is hurt. I find it hard, really hard to cope, especially after what happened to Jonty and then Papa.”

“Sure, I understand,” he said softly. “Are you OK? He really didn’t hurt you?”

Her face softened. “He really didn’t hurt me, I promise.”

“That’s good,” Jess murmured before closing his eyes and drifting off into an exhausted sleep.

*****

When he awoke it was late afternoon, fingers of sunlight slanting through the trees and a curl of wood smoke drifting up into the clear sky and there was the tantalizing smell of fresh coffee in the air.

For a moment, he felt disorientated. Then the pain in his shoulder kicked in as he shifted slightly and tried to sit up. He fell back with a soft moan, suddenly remembering everything that had happened previously.

Rosetta was immediately by his side. “Jess, are you alright?” she asked anxiously.

“I guess I’m hurtin’ in places I didn’t know I’d got places, but reckon I’ll live,” he replied with a grim smile. Then he noted her concerned face and impulsively grabbed her hand, stroking it gently with his thumb. “Don’t look so worried, honey; it’s all over, and they won’t be back.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about that,” Rosetta replied quickly. “It’s you; I hate to see you this way.”

Jess changed the subject. “Say, is that coffee I can smell? “

She smiled. “You and your coffee.” Rosetta disappeared before returning with a steaming cup, and after helping him to sit up properly, passed it across.

He leaned back on his upturned saddle and took a sip, sighing with pleasure as the strong brew worked its magic. “I guess we’d better rest up for today and get going in the morning.”

She turned on him. “Are you quite mad? You’re not travelling anywhere with that terrible wound. Except maybe back to Cheyenne in a day or two to see the doctor,” Rosetta exclaimed hotly.

He grinned at her. “Hey, so where’s that shy little girl that rode into the Relay?” Jess laughed. “You’re not turnin’ into a bully are you, Miss Rosetta?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

She sank down beside him, her face suddenly full of compassion. “How can you be this way Jess?”

“Huh? What way?”

“Well, you must be in dreadful pain — shaken up too — but here you are cracking jokes like we’d just had friends around instead of you being beaten black and blue, not to mention shot.”

Jess glanced down into his cup, sobering. “I guess it’s the way I cope,” he said laconically.

She looked bewildered.

“Anyway, there ain’t no point in fussin’ and frettin’. What’s done is done; can’t change that.”

She sighed deeply. “I guess not. I’ll get you some broth.”

When Rosetta returned a little while later, Jess was deeply asleep. She hunkered down beside him, looking down at the slender face so young in repose. His long lashes casting shadows on the gentle curve of his cheek. His pale face was bruised and cut and he had one hand thrown protectively across the bruising to his chest where one of the Perks had thrust the rifle barrel.

She looked back to his face and saw a fine slick of sweat to his brow, his dark hair plastered down and damp, and she gave a little whimper, as a stab of icy fear twisting in her guts. “Dear God, no,” she whispered to herself, “don’t let him go the same way as Jonty.”

Rosetta fetched some fresh cool water from the stream behind the Vardo and wiped his face and naked chest tenderly, and after a little while, his eyes flickered open, finally focusing on her with difficulty.

Jess felt hot and nauseous, but then he often suffered a mild fever after a shooting, no matter how well the wound had been cleaned; he knew he just had to ride it out. “Don’t look so worried,” he said gently, seeing the fear in her dark eyes. “I’ll be fine come tomorrow.”

She just shook her head, looking down pensively.

“Hey sweetheart, what’s up? “

“I’m frightened,” Rosetta finally admitted. “Jonty had a fever just like this.”

Jess sighed. “Well I ain’t Jonty and I ain’t about to up and die on you either, if that’s what you’re a feared of?”

“Maybe I am,” she murmured.

“Rosetta, will you stop it with your imaginings? I’ll be fine, I tell you,” he said firmly.

She was holding his hand and he glanced down to where she gripped it gently and then grinned up at her. “Well if you don’t believe me, why don’t you tell my fortune? I guess the old palm reading should tell you if I’m about to breathe my last in the arms of a beautiful Gypsy girl,” he said with a chuckle.

His cheeky comments had the desired effect and after a moment she gave him a tiny smile. “Now you’re making fun of me…and my skills.”

Jess smiled back. ”No, I ain’t — well, maybe just a little — but you’re feelin’ better, ain’t you?“

She gave a sigh of relief. “Yes I am.”

“I’m glad,” he whispered. “I really don’t want you worryin’ over me.”

She nodded and then her eyes shining said, “So may I?”

“Huh? “

“Read your palm. You said I should.”

Jess flicked his eyes to heaven and then threw her a weary smile. “OK, go on then; guess we ain’t got anythin’ else pressin’ to do this evening.”

She took his hand and turned it over as she had done that night back at the ranch, gently tracing a finger over the deep lines imprinted there. Her face a mask of concentration as she tried hard not to show her emotions.

She studied it for several minutes before he finally broke the silence. “Well, ain’t you gonna tell me what you see, like you did with Slim and Daisy?“ Jess asked.

She nodded and took a deep breath. “I’ll try, but this is a very complex hand, Jess.” Then she flicked a glance at him. “You’re a very complex character after all.”

“I am?” asked Jess, looking surprised.

She nodded and then traced the lines again explaining them. “This is your Lifeline; it’s very deep and long. That means good health…stamina…and vitality.”

“Well that makes sense,” Rosetta continued with a smile. “You certainly need lots of stamina for the work you do.”

“You say this ‘lifeline’ is long?” asked Jess, looking hopeful.

She smiled at that. “I think maybe I’ve tricked you into having a reading,” she apologized.

“You have?” he said looking puzzled.

“Yes. You see, the length of the life line has nothing to do with your mortality.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No. I see many things in a hand, but not the time of death….thank goodness,” Rosetta said with a shudder. “But one can see trends, signs of bad health or a dramatic event maybe.”

Jess grinned at that. “I guess there’s a whole parcel of them.”

Rosetta nodded. “Oh yes,” she agreed..

“What else?”

“Breaks in it mean struggles and losses.” She sighed. “Several heart breaking losses here and here, people you have loved deeply…am I right?” she asked, her face alight with compassion, remembering their previous discussion on that subject and willing him to open up more.

Jess just nodded looking uncomfortable. “I guess. So, what else?”

“These little chains mean a hard start in life, a difficult upbringing.”

“Uh, you’re not wrong there,” Jess said with feeling.

“And here,” she went on, now getting into her stride, “see these little upward lines?”

He squinted down in the light of the fire, their heads nearly touching and nodded.

“These mean that you have overcome life’s problems through your own strong will and determination.”

“That’ll be my ornery streak and stubbornness,” Jess said with a chuckle. “You wanna ask Slim about that.”

She smiled back at him, his twinkling eyes just inches from her own.

His closeness suddenly set her pulses racing as she looked back down at his hand, swallowing hard and trying to collect her thoughts.

After she had been silent for a few minutes, Jess cast her a quizzical look. “So what about this one?” he asked pointing to a line traversing the top of his palm.

“That’s the heart line,” she said softly. “It tells of your emotions — feelings, temperament.”

He said nothing, just waited for her to continue.

“It’s telling me you are quick tempered, but very honest and loyal to those you…care about.” She was aware of his head close to hers again as he looked down at his hand, his breath on her cheek. “It is the line that tells of your love life too. You can be jealous but rarely are. You have a very passionate nature and will be loyal to just one woman, although you love women and have many women friends. Many conquests in the past, too. You love women, yes, but have a fear of commitment, maybe?“

Rosetta flicked him a quick glance and saw a look of such sweet tenderness in his eyes that her heart skipped a beat. She pulled back a little, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by his closeness and the chemistry it generated between them.

“I reckon,” Jess agreed, his voice deep and low, sending shivers of pleasure through her.

“Like I say, you are very complex, with many contrasts — conflicting feelings and thoughts.”

“I guess you’re right there,” Jess replied quietly, thinking how his feelings for her were currently in turmoil, wanting to get closer, but his gut feelings saying no.

Their eyes locked again, until she could bear it no longer and looked down, flushing prettily.

Then she saw something in his hand that troubled her deeply and she gave a little gasp.

“Well that’s enough for tonight; you need your rest after everything that happened today,” Rosetta murmured.

“You OK?” Jess asked, casting her an anxious look.

“Yes, of course. It’s just getting late.”

He nodded and then said quietly, “So why did you wanna do that, really?”

Rosetta looked down. ”To try and understand you better, I guess. Like Slim said, you’re a very difficult person to get to know.”

“You want to…know me better, that is?”

Their gaze locked, again. ”Yes,” she whispered simply.

He shook his head sadly. “There ain’t no future in it, sweetheart. Like the lines said, I ain’t about to commit to anyone — anytime soon, that is,” Jess said, the words out of his mouth before he had really considered them but knowing the truth of it.

“Yes, well we’ve both suffered terrible losses in our lives. But at some stage, you have to move on…learn to love again.”

He just shook his head looking doubtful. “Maybe.”

She let go of his hand, suddenly changing the subject. “I think you should sleep in the Vardo tonight so that I can tend that fever.”

He glanced over to the steps leading up to the wagon and shook his head casting her a rueful look. “Don’t think I’d make it. I’ll be just fine here; you turn in.”

She banked up the fire and covered him with a blanket before disappearing into the wagon, returning a few minutes later bearing some more blankets and a pillow, and settled them down nearby.

He threw her a surprised glance. “What’re you doin?”

“Staying out here with you, of course, if you can’t come into the wagon,” she said as she smoothed out her blanket.

“You don’t have to. I’ll be fine.”

She turned and knelt down beside him, again pulling his blanket up, before brushing his hair back from his burning forehead. “I want to,” Rosetta said gently, and taking a cool cloth, started to carefully bathe his face with refreshing cool water. “There, that better?”

He nodded. ”Thanks.”

Rosetta leaned down and kissed him very tenderly on the forehead. “I’m just here if you need me,” she whispered. “Goodnight.”

“Night, sweetheart,” Jess replied sleepily.

Rosetta lay awake staring up into the sky with its myriad of twinkling stars and thought about the person who was Jess Harper. His past, present and future mapped out in his hands, whether he believed it or not. Now armed with her recent insights to his character, she started to make plans. She needed a way out from her Uncle’s ideas about her and Alberto, and Jess was that way out.

Jess lay still, his head throbbing, feeling hot and slightly sick, but his thoughts were all of Rosetta. The way his heart had pounded as she held his hand, their heads almost touching as she explained what all the lines meant. How he had tried to concentrate, but her closeness making him able to think of nothing other than her soft warm body, her perfume, the way her eyes held his, seeking……what? What did she want from him, he wondered — and what was he prepared to give?

**********

When she awoke at first light, Rosetta immediately checked on him and was shocked to see how much Jess’ condition had worsened.

He hardly seemed to know her and he was lashing around on his bedroll, his shirt now soaking with sweat and his breathing rapid and noisy. She knelt looking down at him, ringing her hands and feeling the panic rising within her.

He had said he would be alright, he promised her he would be fine in  the morning, that he wasn’t Jonty and he wasn’t going to die, had made a joke of it.

She stood up and ran to the small stream for fresh water, unable to watch him suffering any longer.

Rosetta filled the canteen, but then remained there looking out to the horizon, frozen to the spot, unable to go back to him, as feelings of dread and despair engulfed her.

After five minutes, she came to her senses, and running back to Jess, stripped him of his shirt and started bathing him with the cool water.

In a surprisingly short time, he seemed to rally, his deep blue eyes flicking open and startling her with their intensity. “I’m sorry,” Jess muttered, “makin’ all this work for you.”

“Don’t be silly; you can’t help it,” Rosetta said kindly, unable to meet his gaze, knowing he would be able to see into her heart — see how terrified she was that she would lose him. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked casually, but he just shook his head and closed his eyes again.

Rosetta spent the morning working to reduce the fever, but by noon, he seemed to have slipped into unconsciousness, his breathing ragged and his skin now burning and she could suddenly bear it no longer.

She couldn’t let him die, she just couldn’t! She had to go for help.

Rosetta put a soaking rag on his forehead and left the full canteen by his side before jumping up and surveying him one last time.

He was in the shade of the pines and the fire was banked up to keep him warm later, although the day was stiflingly hot.

As Rosetta looked down at him, tears coursed down her cheeks. “I have to go for help,” she whispered. “You do understand?” but there was no reply from his seemingly lifeless body.

She gave a little sob, and turning, ran to where Apollo was tethered. Jumping up on his broad back, she turned him towards Cheyenne and kicked him on to a fast trot.

*****

It must have been an hour or two later when she realized she was hopelessly lost.

Jess had taken the wagon off the main track, saying that the terrain across country was quite easy going after the dry spell. He had headed due south for a while and then back east and she was now completely disorientated, not knowing within which direction Cheyenne lay. Or even how far away it was.

She stopped, looking distractedly around her.

History was going to repeat its self, she just knew it. Jess was going to die just as surely as Jonty had because medical help would arrive too late, or in this case, not at all.

Hadn’t she seen the traumas to come both in the cards and in Jess’s hand?

So many tragedies and disasters in his short life. It was difficult to tell which had been in the past and which still to come. Maybe today would be the end of it all, she thought, her mind in torment as she pondered what to do for the best.

Eventually she decided she must go back. If indeed he was fated to die, then at least it shouldn’t be alone. She turned the big horse around and retraced her steps.

It took her a long time to find her way back. The searing heat of the afternoon sun blazing down on her head made her stop frequently to drink from her canteen. Oh how she longed for the sparkling cool water of the stream near the Vardo.

She eventually arrived back at the camp, giving a heartfelt sigh of relief as she slipped down from her mount.

Rosetta stood there for a moment, bracing herself for the moment of truth. Would Jess be dead or alive?

Then she turned and made her way over to the shady spot under the pines where Jess lay.

Except it was no longer a shady spot as the sun had moved around and now the area was scorching, the sun beating down…and Jess no longer lay there. He had gone.

She stood there suddenly feeling totally bereft. Where was he?

Then she thought the worst. The Perks brothers had returned and killed him.

Rosetta walked unsteadily over to the Vardo and made her way painfully slowly up the steps and peered into the dim interior, Hoping upon hope that he had somehow found the strength to seek sanctuary there within its cool dark interior. But no.

She sank down on the couch feeling bone weary. She had been right then; he had been taken, or killed and already buried.

Then she heard a sound which sent shivers down her spine. The sound of buzzards calling as they hovered overhead seeking some carrion.

Maybe they had killed him and not buried him, she suddenly thought, her heart lurching within her chest. A wave of nausea made her clasp a hand to her mouth.

She got up slowly, like an old woman, and retraced her steps down into the camp and stood looking up at the clear blue sky.

Then she saw them, maybe a dozen birds circling over the creek behind the Vardo. Their incessant cries sent shivers down her spine yet again.

She walked and then started running towards the stream and stood looking up and down its length, her breath coming in harsh gasps as adrenaline coursed through her body. Then she saw it.

The body of a man, a few yards away, semi naked and lying on his back, half in and half out of the shallow, freezing water, completely motionless.

She ran to him and saw it was Jess, looking deathly pale.

She at first thought he had gone and just stood staring down. A hand again covering her mouth as if to stop a scream from bursting forth.

Then she finally stooped and started pulling his recumbent form back onto dry land.

He was icy cold, his head and torso dripping wet, his apparently lifeless form a dead weight.

She looked intently down at him, numb with horror. This was all her fault. She should never have left him.

She eventually hunkered down beside him and traced a gentle finger down his ice cold face…and then a miracle happened. He gave a little groan.

She pulled her hand back as if it had been burnt. She staring down fixedly — and then it happened again. She saw his lips move a little and he gave another little moan.

“Thank God…oh thank God,” she cried as she ran back to camp and returned seconds later with a warm blanket to cover him with.

It was nearly an hour later before she had sufficiently warmed him enough to make the effort to pull himself up. Then with her help, Jess managed to drag himself back to the camp.

It was nearly dusk by the time they made it and she threw more logs on the fire before settling him down beside it.

All their energy had been spent on getting him back to camp and they had spoken little.

She laid Jess down by the fire and covered him over with as many blankets as she could find and then hunkered down beside him.

He was still very drowsy and pale, but the fever seemed to have broken. After a while, he fell into a fitful sleep and she relaxed a little.

Rosetta sat watching him for an hour or more and was just thinking that he would sleep through the night when he suddenly awoke and fixed her with his deep blue eyes, still looking slightly dazed.

However, after a few minutes, Jess seemed to pull himself together and said indignantly, ”So why did you leave me?”

She looked nonplussed for a moment and then retaliated, “So why did you wander off and nearly drown yourself?”

“I asked first!” Jess replied, pulling himself up to a sitting position and glaring at her.

“Because I was so worried. I went to try and find a doctor of course!” she cried.

He sighed deeply. “I used up all the water you’d left me and I knew I had to cool down. So I crawled to the creek. I remember coolin’ off some an’ then I guess I must have passed out.”

“Well I imagine that saved your life; the icy water broke the fever.”

Jess looked at her, and took a couple of deep breaths. “You know I think you’re right. I don’t feel too bad now,” he said, his countenance suddenly brightening. Then he sobered again. “Hell Rosetta, I weren’t mad at you for leavin’ me. It was you I was worried about. Those damn Perks might still be around, set to finish what they started. That’s why I was so all fired mad. I was worried sick for you.”

She looked down flushing prettily. “Me too,” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“I was worried sick about you. That’s why I rode out. I really thought you were dying.” Her face crumpled as she started crying softly, sinking down beside him.

His expression softened and he pulled her gently towards him, so her head rested on his shoulder. “Hey it’s OK,” Jess said softly. “Quit your frettin’; everything’s gonna be alright now.”

It did in fact take him another couple of days to recover sufficiently for them to continue their journey, and even then he was still feeling worn out.

That was why Rosetta had taken the reins as they made their way across the open land travelling south towards Boulder.

Jess noticed how well she controlled the team, and after a while said, “Hey I thought you said your Pa always drove the team, but you’re a natural.”

She flushed a little at that. ”Well, I may not have been completely truthful…”

“Um, so what was that play actin’ when you landed at the ranch then,” he asked, casting her a quizzical glance. “Pretending to be a shy little girl when really you’re a strong independent widow woman?”

She looked down before finally meeting his gaze. “It’s a sort of way of staying safe.”

“Safe?“

“Yes, well, to stop unwanted attention. I put on this act of being a little daddy’s girl, all sweet and innocent, and it puts men off.”

“It does?”

“Yes…well, the sort of men I didn’t want to encourage, anyway. They saw how close I was to dear Papa and didn’t chance their luck — just not worth it for a causal relationship, you see.”

He just nodded. “And now?”

“Well I’ve been honest with you, haven’t I? I explained how I am a widow, and besides…”

“What?”

“Well, maybe I feel safe with you. Safe enough to let you see me the way I really am.”

He just nodded, but said nothing and they made their way on in silence.

*****

As they continued their journey, it became obvious to Jess that Rosetta was still grieving very deeply for her father. She displayed the odd flash of temper, albeit followed by an immediate apology. Her emotions were very near the surface and she was often tearful, or just sat staring off moodily into the distance.

Things came to a head one evening a few days later when they were back on the trail after the shooting.

They had eaten supper, and as she was pouring the coffee out, she forgot to use a cloth and burnt her hand, dropping the pot and splashing the boiling coffee everywhere.

Jess shot up from where he was resting back on his upturned saddle. “Hey Rosetta, are you OK?” he exclaimed anxiously.

She leapt up and turned away from him. “Yes. I’m just fine,” she shouted, sounding anything but.

Then she suddenly turned on him, her eyes blazing with anger. “Why?” she shrieked.

“Huh?” he returned looking puzzled.

“Why did Papa die and leave me this way? it’s not fair!” Rosetta put her hands over her face and started weeping noisily.

Jess jumped up and strode across the camp, pulling her into his arms and holding her close as all her anger and pain spewed forth, the sobs racking her slender frame.

He just held her firmly, until the spasms had passed. Then he led her back to the fire and sat her down, before disappearing to return with a clean bandage a few minutes later.

“Let me see,” he said gently and she surrendered her hand to him.

Jess carefully bound her hand with the rag, and then giving her his shy smile, said, ”I figure it was mostly the shock. You ain’t burnt too bad; just keep it covered for a day or two.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, looking down as the tears started to dry on her cheeks.

Jess hunkered down beside her and said gently, “It’s natural to be angry, to cuss the person who’s gone…left you. It’s all part of the deal.”

“The deal?” she asked throwing him a bewildered glance.

“Sure, the deal you make when you love someone. It don’t come with any guarantees and sometimes they up and die on you. I figure grief is all part of the deal, somethin’ you sign up to when you love someone.”

“Oh, I see. Yes, I suppose you’re right,” she said looking thoughtful.

He nodded. “I guess the alternative is never to care for anyone. Never to love anyone. I reckon you save yourself a whole parcel of sorrow that way.”

“Is that why you don’t want to fall in love again?” she asked, suddenly alert to what he was maybe implying about their new and fragile friendship.

Jess looked off to the horizon for a long time and then finally dragged his gaze back to her. “Maybe that’s just what I’m saying,” he replied softly.

She shook her head. “That’s a real shame,” she whispered, looking crestfallen.

Jess stood up quickly, and grabbing the pot, and said, “I’ll make us some more coffee.” He wandered off to the nearby stream for some water.

**********

They continued their journey, and the closer they got to Boulder, the more depressed Rosetta became.

They were sitting by the campfire on the final evening before arriving at their destination when there was the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance, heralding a summer storm, making the atmosphere brooding.

“So is it this proposed marriage that your Uncle has in mind that is botherin’ you?” Jess asked after she had been sitting just staring into the flames for a good hour.

Rosetta nodded. “I think so, yes.”

“Well we’ll just have to put him straight.” said Jess firmly. “You ain’t gonna be bullied into something you don’t want to do, Rosetta.”

She just shook her head. “It won’t do any good. As soon as you ride out, he’ll just force me into it. Oh Jess, do you have to leave me?” she implored, looking totally dejected.

He threw her a compassionate look. “You know I have to, sweetheart. Summer will be over soon and I need to get back. We’ve gotta bring the cattle down for the winter. Then I’ve to finish breaking those darn mustangs. You know how it is.” When she just threw him a pleading look, he said, ”Heck Rosetta, I can’t leave Slim with all the work. I’ve been gone longer than we agreed already.”

Suddenly there was an almighty crash of thunder overhead and the horses whinnied and stamped in fear, shaking their heads and showing the whites of their eyes.

Jess got up gratefully, glad to have the distraction. “I’d better tend to the horses. You get in the Vardo before you get soaked,” he said as fat drops of rain started to pelt down.

“You’ll come in too?” she asked as she rose to do as she was bid. “You can’t sleep out in this, Jess?”

He flinched as yet another crack of thunder rent the air and the sky was illuminated with shards of white lightening. Turning to her, he gave his cheeky grin. ”Sure, thanks, I’ll be in as soon as I can.” With that, he hurried off to settle the horses for the night.

When he came back inside the wagon ten minutes later, Jess was soaked.

“Get those wet things off at once,” said Rosetta briskly, bringing a grin to Jess’s face as she reminded him so much of Daisy in one of her clucky moods.

However, one glance at the beautiful gypsy girl told him she wasn’t kidding and he finally stripped off his wet shirt. But he drew the line at more and just hunkered down on the rug in front of the cook stove to dry off his now steaming denims.

She cast her eyes to heaven at his reserve, but just threw him a towel to dry his dripping hair and said no more on the matter.

Once he was dried off, Jess joined her on the sofa as the storm continued to crash around them, the dim light within the Vardo frequently being lit up by flashes of lightening.

“So,” she said, turning to him and viewing his muscular, naked torso with admiring eyes, “what were we talking about?”

Jess sighed quietly. ”Look Rosetta, I’m real sorry, but I signed up to take you to your kin in Boulder and that’s what I’ve done. I’ll talk to your uncle too. But there really ain’t anything else I can do, sweetheart.”

She turned and fixed her beautiful brown eyes on him and then ran a finger seductively down his naked torso. “Are you sure about that?” she asked cocking a suggestive eyebrow at him.

He looked down embarrassed, trying to quell the frisson of excitement he had felt at her touch. “Don’t mess with me Rosetta, when you don’t mean it,” Jess said finally, casting her an irritated glance, his harsh manner an attempt to cover up his true feelings.

She removed her hand at once and sighed deeply. “What makes you think I don’t mean it?”

He just shook his head. “Gut feeling, I guess. I reckon you’re just kinda desperate, not thinking straight.”

“Why?” she asked indignantly. “There is something between us, you can’t deny that. Right from the start at the ranch we were attracted…weren’t we?”

He just looked down and said nothing.

“Well, weren’t we? Come on, Jess, I couldn’t have been that wrong. The way you kissed me…that must mean something!“

“Sure,” he said, now equally roused. “I find you attractive. You know I do. But hell, Rosetta, I ain’t thinkin’ of askin’ you to up and marry me if that’s what you’re after. I ain’t lookin’ to marry anyone right now. You know that and you know why, so just leave it, will you?” Jess finished, looking profoundly uncomfortable.

Rosetta looked down, now deeply ashamed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

He sighed. “You ain’t…and try not to worry. We’ll sort something out with your kin, I promise.”

After a while, he stifled a yawn and she took the hint and wandered off to her bed on the top bunk, drawing the thick crimson curtain between them, leaving him to stretch out on the sofa and an uneasy truce prevailed.

******

The following morning, they finally located the Gypsy encampment a few miles south of Boulder.

Jess was feeling kind of relieved that his obligation to Angelo was over and his daughter safely delivered. He looked forward to making the acquaintance of Silas, Angelo’s brother, thinking Rosetta had probably over reacted regarding the possible arranged marriage.

He drove the Vardo towards the encampment situated near a stream, with plenty of standing pines for shelter. The other Vardos were circled up and the only sign of life a few skinny looking dogs sniffing around. Then a diminutive dark eyed girl came and stared at them, thumb in mouth, before running away towards the nearest wagon.

Jess jumped down and turned to help Rosetta, before taking her arm and walking in the direction where the youngster had disappeared.

However, as they approached, they were suddenly surrounded by a dozen rough-looking dark haired gypsy men, seemingly having appeared from nowhere.

Jess flicked an uneasy glance towards Rosetta and then back to the far from welcoming looking mob.

At that moment a tall swarthy individual, bearing a striking resemblance to Angelo, strode forwards his expression formidable.

Rosetta gave him a hesitant smile. “Uncle Silas, it’s good to see you again.” Then turning to Jess, she said, ”This is Mr. Harper; he has kindly brought me from Laramie.”

Silas Petulengro threw Jess a less than friendly look. “Oh yes, my dear, I have heard all about Mr. Jess Harper from some old er…. friends of his, Carl and Wayne Perks.”

Jess head shot up.

“Oh yes, you may well look shocked, Harper; you see they told me all about your sordid little affair with my niece,” Silas spat, his eyes suddenly blazing with anger. “Now it’s time to make amends.”

Jess looked totally bewildered. “Look, Mr. Petulengro, I don’t know what lies those no hopers have fed you, but the truth is, I merely escorted your niece here out of respect for your late brother, and…”

“Enough!” roared Silas Petulengro. Take him away!”

About half a dozen beefy young men approached, their strong hands suddenly upon him, and although Jess fought manfully, he was finally overcome and dragged away as Rosetta looked on in horror.

Once he was away from Rosetta, he was taken around the back of one of the Vardos, held in a vice like grip and beaten soundly until he finally passed out.

When Jess awoke, he was tightly bound and lying on the floor of a Vardo. But it was one very different to Rosetta’s wagon. This one was obviously used for transporting food for the livestock and general odds and ends, and it was filthy and had a nasty smell of damp hessian and rotting straw. He tried to roll onto his side to see out, but the door was tightly fastened. All he could hear was the low, muffled sound of a meeting taking place just outside and he figured he was the main topic of conversation.

He listened as the voices droned on, and suddenly was alerted as the door of the Vardo slowly creaked open.

Rosetta was there, falling on her knees beside him and whispering apologies. She quickly cut through the ties, and as he massaged his painful wrists and ankles, she looked on, her face a picture of fear, turning to dismay when she saw the bad beating he had taken. “Oh Jess, I am so very sorry,” she repeated, as she saw his ripped shirt and bruising to his face and torso where the shirt hung open.

Jess quickly tucked his shirt, in bowing his head a little, “It’s OK,” he muttered,” I’ve had worse, I guess.” Then he sighed deeply before turning his gaze on the apprehensive-looking girl. “So what’s the story with your uncle then? Please tell me he didn’t really pay any credence to those bastards?” he asked bitterly.

She nodded. “Oh yes, and the things they’ve told him Jess…”

“What sorta things?”

“About us…how we are…”

“Well, we’ll just have to put him straight. Hell, he can’t be that unreasonable.”

“There’s something else too.”

He gave her a look of weary resignation. “What?”

“It’s Alberto; he’s being really horrible. Says I should be punished for betraying him.”

“Huh, what does he mean? You ain’t betrayed anyone. Heck Rosetta, you’ve only been widowed six months. You ain’t had time, even if you wanted to meet someone new. Anyway, you weren’t promised to him. This is just some notion him and his Pa have cooked up between them, and like I say, surely they realize there can’t have been anyone else?”

She shook her head sadly. “No, it’s you Jess. They think I am your woman and you either marry me quickly to defend the family honor, or I will be severely punished.”

“Punished?”

She nodded beginning to cry softly now, “Disfigured, so no other man will have me, and then betrothed to Alberto. That way he will be sure I never stray again,” she finished with a heart rending sob.

Jess just shook his head in bewilderment. Where in Hell had he landed, he wondered. What was wrong with these people?

Before he could ponder the matter any further, the door to the Vardo was brutally kicked open and a huge dark haired man stood staring in at them, his whole demander menacing.

“Alberto!” Rosetta cried.

Jess staggered to his feet and put himself between Rosetta and Alberto. “What do you want?” he spat, glaring at the huge, ugly man.

“Come for you. We’ve got some stuff to sort out… you and me,” Alberto replied, leaning forwards and making a grab for Jess’s arm. However, he wasn’t acquainted with either the Harper temper or fighting ability, and he just never saw the punch coming.

Jess threw a haymaker that completely caught the big man by surprise, sending him sailing through the Vardo door and out onto the dirt below.

Alberto dragged himself up just as Jess jumped down after him, and gave a bellow of rage as he charged at the younger man.

However, Jess neatly sidestepped the onslaught and, Alberto slammed into the wall of the Vardo with a sickening thud.

Jess grabbed hold of his shoulder and spun him around before throwing a punch to the chin and then one to the belly. Then, as the big man fell to his knees gasping in pain, Jess finished him with a chop to the back of the neck which rendered him unconscious at Jess’s feet.

Jess wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve and then stooping to pick up his hat; he dusted himself down with it before ramming it firmly on his head. Then he looked up quickly to see himself surrounded by the Gypsy gang again as Silas came forwards giving him a slow handclap. “Bravo,” he said sarcastically, “You win the fight my friend.”

Jess just stared at him looking nonplussed.

“You see, Alberto came to fetch you so that he could throw down a challenge. You were to fight him for the hand of my lovely niece. But it seems you jumped the gun. But still you won fair and square. So you are quite the fighting man then, Mr. Harper?”

“I get by I reckon,” replied Jess gruffly.

“So, my friend,” continued Silas in a mocking voice, “is everything true about you –the stories Carl and Wayne told me?”

Jess threw him a dark look. “Dunno. Depends what they said, but I kinda doubt it.”

“Oh, they said that you were a professional gunfighter. A gunslinger, who had been in prison, had run with a gang, in trouble with the law on and off…no?”

Jess bowed his head, “That was all in the past.”

“Um, so there is some truth in what they said?”

Jess looked down and then ignoring the question asked. “So how do you know those bastards anyway?“

“I don’t; they came to trade with us, and then we got talking. When they realized Rosetta was my niece, well, they felt honor-bound to tell me about how you have been living in sin with her these last weeks.”

“Oh I bet they did,” said Jess almost to himself. Then he turned on the big man, suddenly losing his temper. “Are you crazy? And anyway, if we were shacked up together, why in hell would I deliver her back here to you?” Jess spat, now getting really angry.

“Because you have had your fun with her and now you are tired of her. You thought you could cast her aside for her family to take care of. Thinking Alberto would take responsibility for her and the baby!”

Jess’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Baby? What baby?” he muttered now completely mystified.

“Yours, of course, and that is why you will be married at noon this Friday,” Silas replied brusquely.

Jess just stared at him and then his head swiveled to where Rosetta stood as if frozen to the spot. “Tell him!” he yelled, throwing Rosetta an imploring glance. “Tell him it’s a pack of lies, Rosetta!”

She was unable to meet his gaze and remained silent. She just stood there, looking firmly down at the ground.

“Rosetta?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, before turning and running away.

Jess turned agonized eyes back to Silas Petulengro, “Hell, you can’t believe them surely?” he groaned.

Silas just gazed back. ”Maybe not, but I believe my niece, my own flesh and blood. Why would she lie?”

To get out of marrying that damn son of yours, Jess thought privately, but how could she? How could she betray him this way?

“Take him away,” yelled Silas, suddenly at an end of his patience. Then turning as Jess was hustled off, Silas added, “You will both see the Minister tomorrow…and if you say anything to him, I will kill you,” he said menacingly quietly.

*****

It was after midnight when Rosetta made her way stealthily to where Jess was once more imprisoned in the old Vardo.

This time he was manacled with handcuffs, and his feet also chained, so there was no way Rosetta could free him. As she entered, he threw her a far from friendly look. “So what are you doin’ here,” he muttered. “Come to gloat?”

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, casting her eyes down, unable to meet his angry gaze.

“Hell Rosetta, I’ve been in some scrapes before, been beat up, shot… But damn it I have never been on the wrong end of a shot gun weddin’ before. Why in Hell didn’t you tell the truth?”

Then she finally lost her temper too. “For you,” she spat. “I did it for you.”

“Well, how do you make that out?” he answered his voice loaded with irony.

“Because if I hadn’t pretended I was pregnant, they maybe wouldn’t have forced us to marry. I would have been made to marry Alberto and you…” Here her voice faltered.

“Yeah… and me?” he asked irritably.

“You would have been killed.”

He looked shocked to the core at that and then after finally collecting himself said, “But why, for God’s sake?”

“It would be to preserve the family name, of course. If folk had got to know about our relationship, if you had discussed it with others, the family would have been shamed. That is a dreadful thing in our society. Uncle would sooner see you dead than my name blackened.”

“But Hell Rosetta, there ain’t no relationship!”

“I know, but it has gone too far. We marry, or I will be terribly scarred and betrothed to Alberto and you will die,” she said her voice breaking as the tears came.

Jess shook his head before finally his innate compassion came to the fore. “Come on, sweetheart, don’t take on so; I’ll figure something,” he said gently.

She finally pulled herself together and sniffing said. “But it is all so fast. We are due to be married on Friday and we see the Minister to make the arrangements tomorrow. You won’t have time to do anything.”

He just shook his head. “Why so fast? I know this is supposed to be a shotgun wedding, but even so, what’s his goddamn hurry?”

“They have to move on come Saturday at the latest or they will miss linking with the rest of the clan. They’re heading south and must reach Mexico before fall. All their business relies upon them meeting up with the others and they are already late.”

Jess just shook his head, not really comprehending what was going on, or how important the clan meeting was to them all. “Isn’t there anyone here in the camp that’ll help us?” he asked, throwing her a hopeful look.

She shook her head. “My only hope was the Boswells.”

“Huh?”

“My in-laws. My married name was Boswell. I returned to my maiden name after Jonty died. It seemed easier that way,” she said sadly, “travelling with Papa as I was. Noah Boswell, my father-in-law, and Jonty’s brother Jago were the only two who would stand up to Uncle Silas, but apparently they had a big argument about me being betrothed to Alberto.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I have been talking to a couple of the women here and they have told me everything. After they heard the news that Papa was dead and I was coming back to them, Uncle started making plans for the wedding right away. Anyway, as soon as Noah heard about it they had a huge row and he left.”

“So where did they go?“

“Well, that’s the point. Gina, my best friend, was sworn to secrecy, but apparently they were going towards Laramie to head us off and warn me. They were going to offer me a place with them, so that I wouldn’t have to return to uncle Silas.”

Jess sat up looking surprised. “But we should have seen them on the way if that was the case.”

She shook her head. “No, don’t you remember? We left the road and travelled over land — you said it would be quicker — but they must have stayed on the main route and we passed each other.”

“Garldarnit!” spat Jess, looking completely crushed by this latest revelation. Then he rallied and taking a deep breath said, “We’ll just have to find ‘em then.”

“But Jess, how? We see the Minister tomorrow and are to be wed the following day. Then we will be headed down to Mexico, and I’ve no doubt we will be guarded all the time until we’re far away,” she finished breathlessly.

“Um” said Jess looking very thoughtful. “We’re goin’ to town tomorrow you say?”

She just nodded looking puzzled. “But how does that help? We’re only seeing the minister?”

Then his face suddenly lit up. “I’ve got an idea. Can you fetch a paper and pencil?”

*****

The following morning, Jess, Rosetta, Silas Petulengro and half a dozen of the younger gypsy men all set off to ride the few miles into Boulder.

At the edge of town, Silas removed the handcuffs, and glaring at Jess, said, ”Just remember there will be a rifle pointing at your head all the time, so please don’t make me have to use it.”

Jess secretly thought that if he was to be murdered in cold blood in the center of Boulder, then at least Silas would get his comeuppance, but reflected it wasn’t worth losing his life to prove a point.

They reined in by the small church on the edge of town, and were at once greeted by the Reverend Myers, an elderly white haired man with a sweet smile. “Come along in, my dears,” he said giving Jess and Rosetta a huge beam and beckoning them to join him in the little vestry room, towards the back of the Church.

However, when Silas turned to follow them, the diminutive old man turned and giving him his charming smile said, “Please excuse us, Mr. Petulengro, but I need to speak to the young couple alone.”

Silas looked shocked, but quickly collected himself. “Well…yes, alright. Er but of course.” Then turning to Jess, he said in a low tone, “I’ll be right out here,” casting the young couple a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

The Reverend spent a good hour lecturing them on the sanctity of marriage and how it should not be undertaken lightly.

Jess would dearly have loved to tell Rev Myers exactly what the situation was and how the good reverend’s views on the sanctity of marriage was being sorely tried by the whole sorry business. However, he was aware that Silas was doubtless listening at the door, so decided to just stick with the plan he had formulated the night before.

Once the interview was over, Jess passed an envelope into the elderly man’s hands and whispered, ”Can you give this to Doug Masters for me? We’re in kind of a hurry today and that’s his invitation to the wedding. He’s an old friend of mine. Would you mind?”

“Certainly, my dear boy’ lots to do before a wedding, I surely understand.” Putting the note in his pocket, the minister showed the young couple out.

Well, that was the understatement of the year, Jess thought darkly as the whole Gypsy camp was turned upside down by all the arrangements.

The women folk were hustling and bustling around preparing food for the Wedding Breakfast, which was to be held at the camp, and putting the finishing touches to Rosetta’s wedding dress.

When she saw the ivory silk dress, she almost wished that they truly were to be married, but then pulled herself together. How could she marry a man she knew did not love her? Maybe in time they could have become close and he might have taken a risk on her. But not here and now. Certainly not this way, with a shotgun to his head either, she thought sadly.

It was now late summer, and the morning of the wedding dawned bright and clear, but with just a hint of fall in the air. Not for the first time, Jess’s heart turned over as he thought of them back at the ranch, needing his help. Hell, in just a few short weeks, they would have to start thinking of bringing the stock down.

It was just after breakfast that the Boulder Sheriff, a Deputy and small posse of men rode into the camp.

Jess had been freed of his handcuffs to eat the meal and looked up as the men entered the encampment.

Silas cast him a dark look and said quietly, “Just watch your step, Harper,” before striding over to meet the Sheriff.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?” asked Silas Petulengro, smiling at the tall man who had now slipped down from the saddle and was casting a critical eye over the camp, his gaze finally coming to rest on Jess.

“Well, I’ll tell you Mister…. er?”

“Petulengro… Silas Petulengro, Sheriff, and I do hope you are not here on business? I can assure you we are all good law-abiding citizens here, even though we travelers do get a bad press from time to time,” Silas said bitterly.

“Um, well, maybe you’ll let me be the judge of that,” said the Sheriff looking grave.

“Look, we want no trouble, Sheriff; we have a wedding to attend in a few hours. Please state your business,” said Silas petulantly.

The Sheriff threw him an irritated glance. “Oh, I intend to,” he said, before pulling a wanted poster out of his pocket and passing it across to Silas.

Silas looked down at the paper and was astounded to see Jess’s face glaring back up at him.

“I have reason to believe you are aiding and abetting two wanted felons,” intoned the Sheriff grimly.

“I beg your pardon?” said Silas looking scandalized.

“Yep, one Jess Harper — that’s a Wanted Poster out on him. Also his accomplice one…er… Rosetta Petulengro.” Then the Sheriff’s head shot up. ”Say, that wouldn’t be a relative, would it, sir?” he asked, pushing his hat back and scratching his head, a bemused expression in his deep brown eyes.

Silas went from scandalized to astounded, ”Well…er…yes, she is my niece. But tell me, Sheriff, what on earth is she supposed to have done?”

“Well I’ll tell you, Mr. Petulengro, she and Harper…” the sheriff said dipping his hat to where Jess was now squinting down the barrel of the Deputy’s shot gun, “robbed the Laramie Bank of over $5,000 dollars a couple of weeks ago and have been on the run ever since. We got a tip off that they might be hooking up with you and we’re here to arrest them,” he continued.

Silas cast him a look of utter shock.

“So if you’d be kind enough to fetch your niece, we’ll be off,” the Sheriff finished.

“But this is ridiculous,” blustered Silas. “My niece would never rob a bank! “

“Well, I’m afraid she has, sir. Seems she’s got in with a real bad lot. Harper is wanted in three States, you know, for robbery and extortion. Yes, a real bad lot — drunkenness, debauchery, you name it, and dragged this girl down with him by the looks of things.”

All the time he had been talking, some of the posse had been sent to search the wagons and returned a few minutes later, dragging a pale, shaking Rosetta with them.

Silas turned on her at once. “Rosetta, is it true what these men are saying of you — you were involved in a bank robbery?”

She immediately flushed up, looking guilty and was unable to look her uncle in the eye.

“So, it really is true,” Silas gasped looking stunned. Then after scrutinizing her for a full minute, he turned angrily to the Sheriff and spat, “take her…go. I wash my hands of the girl. Just take her out of my sight!”

Then turning to his men, Silas yelled, “Break camp; we leave for Mexico today. We have been embarrassed and betrayed by one of our own; therefore, we leave at once.” He marched off without giving Rosetta a backward glance.

Then Jess was manhandled from the camp, and with one of the posse driving Rosetta in her Vardo and Jess riding Traveler with the Sheriff and Deputy flanking him, they left the camp for the final time.

*****

Jess lounged back in his seat in front of Sheriff Doug Master’s desk and grinned at his old friend. “Come on now, Doug, bank robbin’ is one thing. But drunkenness and debauchery? That ain’t right; I’ve got my reputation to think of,  you know.”

Doug smiled back, including Rosetta in his friendly beam. “I had to make it look good, buddy. You wanted me to spring you, didn’t you?” Then turning his admiring gaze on Rosetta, he said, “Can’t for the life of me think why, though. So what was so bad about marrying a beautiful lady like this?” he asked throwing Jess an artless look.

“Well it’s kinda a long story, you know, Doug,” Jess replied. Then looking thoughtful. he said, “I’m glad ol’ Rev Myers delivered my note to you. Reckon I need to thank him and explain what’s been going on.”

“So what has been going on?” asked Doug looking interested.

Jess flicked a glance over to Rosetta and could see the strain was beginning to tell as she looked pale and drawn. “I’ll fill you in later,” he said quickly before changing the subject. “So where did you dredge that wanted poster up from then?” he asked chuckling.

Doug grinned. “Found it in an old trunk out the back. I told my Deputy a while ago it makes sense to keep stuff; never know when it’ll come in handy.”

Rosetta’s head shot up at that. “So that was a genuine poster then?”

Doug nodded. “Oh yeah, but well out of date, don’t worry, young lady. Jess here has been on the right side of the law for a good long spell now. Why you ain’t robbed a bank in…er, how long is it now Jess?” he asked, giving his friend a cheeky wink.

Just then, the Deputy barged in, throwing his hat on the peg and making for the coffee pot, before turning to his boss. “All clear, Sheriff. I checked out the gypsy wagons and they headed out an hour ago, lock stock and barrel. They won’t be back, that’s for sure.”

“Looks like you’re off the hook then, Jess,” said Doug. “You won’t be needing the use of one of my cells to keep the pretence going?”

“Nope; guess we’ll book into the hotel and set off for Laramie tomorrow,” Jess said, standing up and giving Rosetta a warm smile before taking her arm to escort her out. At the door he paused. “Thanks, Doug, Pete,” he said turning to include the Deputy. ”We owe you. I’ll catch you in the saloon later, buy you a drink?”

Later that evening, once Rosetta had left him saying she wanted an early night, Jess made his way to the saloon opposite the hotel. He quickly located Doug standing at the bar holding court with some buddies.

However, as soon as Jess arrived, the two men took a bottle over to a quiet corner of the bar so that they could talk properly.

“So what’s the story with this Rosetta then,” Doug asked at once, “She sure is a stunner.”

Jess filled him in on everything that had happened since Angelo drove the Vardo onto Sherman land and what had happened since.

Doug gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Gee, Jess boy, you’ve gotten yourself in some scrapes in the past but this one sure is a humdinger even for you. So you’re saying you nearly had a shotgun wedding and you haven’t even laid a finger on the girl?”

Jess chuckled. “That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

“So weren’t you tempted,” Doug insisted, “all that time on the road together and all?”

“Well, sure I was, Doug, but if she’s lookin’ for a man to go with her a travelin’, well then I reckon she’s got the wrong one. My driftin’ days are well and truly over.”

“Um, I’d heard how you’d made a good life for yourself down in Laramie. Ranch and Relay business, that right?”

“Yep, I’m a partner with Slim Sherman. Got me a young ward and a housekeeper too. Hell, I’m dang near domesticated now, Doug,” Jess said a hint of pride in his tone.

Doug pushed his hat back observing his old friend closely. “Well, you’ve sure moved on from the bad old days when I was riding posse chasing you half way across Texas,” he said with a grin.

“Yeah, well, that was all a real long time ago, like you said,” replied Jess, looking suddenly pensive.

“Sure, sure it was, buddy, and we’ve ridden together upholding law and order a good few times since then, ain’t we?”

Jess relaxed. “Yep, sure we have.” He raised a glass. “To law and order,” he said, a trace of mischief in his deep blue eyes.

Doug smiled, “Hell you’re right; you are dang well domesticated. You just need the love of a good woman and…”

“Oh no,” cut in Jess quickly. “Told you, I’m delivering her to her friends and then I’m hightailing it back to the ranch. I’ve got a mess of mustangs waitin’ on me there, needin’ to be broke.”

It wasn’t until much later when they were taking their leave of the saloon that Doug suddenly thought of something. “So those Perks brothers. You figure they’ve still got it in for you? “

Jess just shook his head. “I dunno, Doug, but let’s put it this way. They come anywhere near me, they’ll dang well regret it.”

“Well I can’t blame you there, buddy,” Doug said looking anxious. “Just stay within the law, though, eh, Jess? “

“Hell Doug, it ain’t just this last stunt they’ve pulled.” Jess went on to explain about them beating Angelo to a pulp and probably causing his early demise and then how they had attacked both Jess and Rosetta.

“They knocked me senseless and then tried to force themselves on her and it ended in a shootin’. I won, but still caught a bullet to the shoulder and now this latest crap. Well, they’d better darn well stay out of my way, Doug, I’m tellin’ you, or I won’t be held responsible.”

Doug looked chastened. “Hell, I didn’t realize they’d done all that. No wonder you’re dang mad, buddy. Anyway, let’s hope they’ve learnt their lesson, because anything else and I’ll lock ‘em up and throw away the key and that’s a promise,” he said with a broad grin.

Jess beamed back at him. “Thanks, Doug; that’s good enough for me.” Shortly afterwards, they made their farewells.

**********

Jess awoke to a thumping head and painfully rose and washed up before making his way unsteadily to Rosetta’s room. He tapped on the door, and when there was no reply, he assumed she had already gone down for breakfast or was sleeping in, a while.

The dining room was deserted when he entered and he just opted for a coffee and stared down into its murky depths, swearing off alcohol for the rest of his life, holding his head and swallowing deeply as waves of nausea assaulted him.

However, after his third cup, he was beginning to feel halfway human again and made his way back up to Rosetta’s room, thinking that they really should make a start as it was now way past nine o’clock.

He tapped on the door and then knocked more loudly before calling out. Then when he again had no reply he tried the door handle.

It swung open at once revealing a neat tidy room….and a bed that had obviously not been slept in. Jess stared around the room in shock before cussing gently under his breath and turning he ran back down the stairs to the reception desk.

“Miss Petulengro, sir?” asked the night porter who was just going off duty.

“Yes, she ain’t in room 10. Have you moved her?”

“Well, no sir, she checked out late last night. It would be after you retired…er, about midnight, I think it was.”

Jess looked scandalized. ”What in Hell are you doin’ letting a young lady roam the streets in the middle of the night?” he roared, his eyes flashing in anger.

“Well, it’s not my place and the lady was most insistent.”

“Yeah, yeah… I know, sorry.” Jess paid his bill and marched off down to the livery, hoping to find her sleeping soundly in the Vardo.

However, at the livery, another shock was awaiting him.

He stared at the stable boy, unable to take on board what he was saying. “So she was here when you came on duty this morning?”

“Yes Mr. Harper, I start at six and she insisted I harness up her horses and she drove off just before first light, heading north, I think. Took the Cheyenne road out of town anyways.”

Jess shook his head. “Crazy woman. What’s she playin’ at?” he muttered almost to himself. Then he took pity on the young lad and tossed him a coin. “For your trouble. Saddle up the bay, will you? I’ll be back shortly.”

Jess stopped off at the stage office just long enough to send Slim a wire about what had happened and he’d be home as soon as he was able. “But don’t hold your breath, pard,” he murmured to himself.

It was nearly noon by the time he caught up with her, heading north as the boy had said and travelling at one hell of a lick too, Jess noted.

He spurred Traveler on and rode up alongside, and when it looked like she wasn’t about to rein in, he moved up to the horse’s heads, and leaning in, grabbed the reins, finally pulling the big horses to a halt.

Then he turned the full fury of the Harper temper on Rosetta as she sat staring down at him a look of complete astonishment on her face. “Why so surprised?” he asked bitterly. “Did you think I’d just let you drive off without a backward glance after all we’ve been through together?”

She seemed to rally some at that, and pulling herself up to her full height, said, “That’s exactly why I rode out. I felt you had done enough; it was time I tried to make it alone.”

“Oh come on,” he said. ”You can do better than that; so you just drove out at the crack of dawn without even saying goodbye. Hell, I deserve better than that, don’t I?“

She looked down flushing up at his angry words. “I suppose so…yes,” she faltered.

“Anyway, never mind me. What do you think you were doing with these poor horses? Hell, old Apollo and Chief are sweating real bad. As for those poor little ol’ donkeys at the back, they’re on their last legs. So are you gonna tell me what this is really all about?“

She just shook her head.

“Well you’re going to,” Jess replied, throwing her his stubborn look. “Even if you don’t want to talk, you’re gonna rest these wretched nags before you kill ‘em,” he finished angrily.

She looked somewhat ashamed. “I’m sorry; you’re right. They shouldn’t be punished for my problems. And I owe you an explanation too.”

Once Jess had tended to the horses and they had made camp near a fast moving river, they were finally able to talk properly.

While he dealt with the horses, she built a fire and brewed some coffee. Now he accepted the drink before throwing her a searching look over the rim of his cup. “So what’s this all about then, Rosetta?”

She sipped her coffee and then finally replied. “I just think you’d be better off without me. I will only bring you misery and pain, maybe even worse,” she whispered.

“Well maybe I should be the judge of that,” he replied briskly. Then taking pity on the beautiful woman, he said more gently, “So what’s brought all this on then? “

“I saw great tragedy — death and pain — in the cards last night and these things are all linked to us…our relationship. If you leave me now, maybe you will be spared.”

He cast his eyes to heaven at that. “For God’s sake, Rosetta, you have to learn you can’t rule your life by the way the cards fall. It just don’t make no sense!” he exploded.

“It wasn’t just the cards. I saw it in your hand and in the crystal ball too,” she replied. “You have to believe me Jess.”

“Believe what?” he asked looking bewildered. “What have you seen to spook you so much?” he asked taking her hand now and looking more sympathetic.

“Your death — a terrible death by drowning,” she said with a little shudder.

He shook his head at this. ”You saw this in my hand? “

She just nodded. “Yes, I couldn’t say anything — hoped I was wrong — but then it was in the cards last night.”

He sighed deeply. ”Well, I gotta admit, you sure seem to be able to see things by just looking at my hand, same for Slim and Daisy too. So I guess …well maybe there is something in it,” he said grudgingly.

“You see, I told you!” she said quickly, her face animated as she realized he did indeed believe her.

“Sure, but I guess you’re seeing something that happened a while back. Yes, I did nearly drown. I was in the Laramie river and hit my head. Would have been a goner if a guy hadn’t come down and fished me out.*  But I did survive and I guess I’m kinda spooked around water now, so there is no way I will be drowning I can assure you of that; never go in too deep, see?” (*see “Lost” by Patty Wilkinson.)

She just looked down unconvinced. “I still cut the cards and have seen danger and possible tragedy ahead. You must leave me, Jess; you really must.”

“Sorry I can’t do that, and anyway, your in-laws should meet us up on the road soon if we carry on for Laramie. I figure they can take over then and you can stop your frettin’ about me,” he concluded with a kind smile.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said softly. “I really don’t know anymore.”

He suddenly felt contrite. “Hell, I shouldn’t have left you last night after everything that’s happened,” he said suddenly. “I’m real sorry, Rosetta,  I’ll make it up to you and we’ll rest the horses here tonight and carry on tomorrow huh?”

She gave him a big smile, ”Yes I think I’d like that, thank you Jess.”

*****

 After super, they lay looking up at the stars, thinking their own private thoughts when Rosetta turned to him and said, ”What is your future? What will you do when you leave me?“

He rolled his head from where it lay on his upturned saddle and threw her a quizzical look. “Well same as ever, I guess; git back to work, sort out those no good mustangs and then it’ll be time to start bringing the stock down, gettin’ ready for the winter. So why do you ask?”

She shrugged. ”So are you happy with that?”

He tipped his hat back and scrutinized her. ”Well sure, I guess so.”

“Don’t you ever wonder about what the future holds for you?” she asked, sitting up and throwing him a penetrating look.

“Nope, I guess not.”

She sighed. “Please Jess, why don’t you let me do the cards for you? it would really put my mind at rest.”

He cast his eyes to Heaven. “I guess you’re not gonna let it rest until I do, are you?” he finally replied.

“No,” she said giving him a small smile.

“OK, but I’m tellin’ you now, Rosetta, I don’t pay any credence to it, you hear?“

“I hear.”

Rosetta invited him into the Vardo and after they were both settled on the comfortable sofa she drew up the little coffee table in front of them. Then she placed a blue silk cloth on the table along with a tall white candle. She lit the candle, the flickering light, adding a magical and slightly eerie dimension to the proceedings, then brought out the pack of strange cards Jess had seen her using  before.

She cast him a speculative look. ”First we need to ask the cards a question on your behalf.”

“How about when am I gonna land home?” he asked hopefully, giving her a teasing wink.

She smiled. ”How about our journey together, when and how will it end?”

He just shrugged. ”If you like.”

She expertly shuffled the cards and then cut them three times before fanning them out before Jess.

“Just pick the first card at random, but, Jess concentrate on the question, with your head…and your heart. “

He picked a card from the centre and turned it over so that they could both see it and she gave a little gasp;. it was The Lovers.

The card depicted a naked couple, looking a lot like Adam and Eve, Jess thought with some supreme body looking down upon them — an angel maybe, or Angelo, he thought vaguely. Jeez, what must he be making of all this he wondered, if indeed he was looking down upon them from Heaven. He flicked a glance at Rosetta who was staring down at the card looking flushed and unsure. “Well?”

She glanced at him before quickly looking away again and down at the card. “It’s not what you think, at least it’s not all about love. Tarot relies on the way the reader interprets the cards and that all has to do with the question that was asked –about our journey together and how it will end, as lovers, maybe?”

He glanced back at her, feeling decidedly uncomfortable, but she didn’t seem to notice and just continued.

“This card can be interpreted as the future of a relationship. All about choices. It is saying maybe you are at a fork in the road. One way leading home and the other…..” She shrugged. “Maybe with me, but there are many consequences to consider deeply before making a choice of this magnitude.”

“You ain’t wrong there,” he muttered, staring down at the brightly colored card. Then he looked back at her. “So what now?”

“You choose the next card; carry on until we can see a picture emerging that answers our question.”

Jess stared down at the cards and hesitantly picked another. It was The Wheel of Fortune. He grinned at that, “Figure my lucks changing. Am I gonna have a win on the dice then?” he asked, giving her a cheeky wink.

However her face was a study of worry. “No Jess, I’m sorry;  the card is a Reversal.”

“Huh?”

“It was picked upside down and so that is the opposite of good fortune. It can be a harbinger of unexpected bad luck, difficulties or delays. Circumstances out of your control. You will be pulled along on a current over which you have no control,” she said again, throwing him a pertinent look.

“Nuthin’ new there then. I guess we’ve had our fair share of difficulties and delays recently,” he said sardonically.

“Jess, please don’t jest; this is serious.”

He took a deep breath, but managed to hold his tongue, and at her gesture chose another card. It was The Star.

“Don’t tell me,” he said ”I’m gonna be following a star, just like those wise men in the Christmas Story, wandering off into the big open without a backwards glance or a thought of the folk back home, am I right? “

Her head shot up at that. “Jess do you think I’m making all this up to try and make you stay with me?”

He gave her a hard look at that. ”I dunno…..are you?”

She looked down flushing prettily. “I couldn’t do that — betray all I believe in. I am reading the cards completely impartially. I am just interpreting what I see, for you and me. we are making this journey together after all.”

“Ok, so the star means?”

“It is about faith; faith in oneself to surmount difficulties. It helps you to believe in yourself; The Star is a guiding light in the darkness.

“Well I guess I could use a bit of light being shed on things right now, ‘cos I sure am in the dark as far as all this Tarot stuff is concerned,” he said, throwing her a quizzical glance.

She just nodded. “So choose the last card; let’s see what the final outcome is,” she said softly.

He surveyed the cards and then felt drawn to one in particular and picking it up he turned it over slowly. It was The Death card.

He froze looking down at the skeletal figure riding a white horse and felt a shiver run down his spine and the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Suddenly this wasn’t a bit of harmless fun anymore.

He stared at it and then very slowly dragged his gaze away from it and looked into Rosetta’s face.

She looked pale and shocked, and as she reached out to touch the card, he saw she was physically shaking.

Then she shot a glance up at him and seemed to pull herself together. “It’s not what you think — not necessarily.”

“No?”

“No. It can mean death of old ideas, a need to change and move forwards, a parting of the ways with friends maybe,” she finished softly.

“Um, but that ain’t what you think is it? Hell Rosetta, that’s why you took off and left me, because you predicted somethin’ bad was gonna happen to me and we both know that, so quit tryin’ to  make me feel better.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in it all anyway?” she said looking close to tears.

He looked down and shook his head, before picking up the card and staring at it intently. “I don’t, but I guess I’d be lyin’ if I said I wasn’t kinda spooked by it all, whether it’s true or not.”

She suddenly looked very afraid. “Well, will you go then, leave me. Just go home, Jess. It is the bond between us that will harm you. I have seen terrible things and it is only because you are with me. Go…just go,” she cried before breaking down in loud sobs.

“I can’t do that,” he said firmly. ”You know I can’t.”

She leapt up and ran from the Vardo, leaving him staring disconsolately after her.

He gave her a few minutes to collect herself and then followed her out, finding her down by the riverside, looking out onto the breathtakingly beautiful moonlit river and mountain peaks beyond.

She turned as he came down quietly and stood beside her admiring the view for a few minutes.

Then he said, ”Rosetta, this is what life is all about, living right now, enjoying everything that comes your way, .and accepting things too. Hell, not always lookin’ to the future, tryin’ to see your way ahead, because I reckon you can’t do that. You make your own future day to day. You just do the best you can.”

“Is that what you really think?”

“I guess so…yeah.”

Then she turned and threw herself into his arms, ”Oh Jess I’m so frightened, so scared — for us both.”

“You don’t need to be; I’ll look after you. I’ve done alright so far, ain’t I?” he asked holding her close and stroking her hair tenderly.

She gave a little gulp. “Yes, you have.”

“Well then, you just take it easy and I’ll get you back to your in-laws. And I figure that’s who you need right now. Folk as know you and can help you through everythin’ — well, losin’ your Pa and all. I mean.”

She just nodded. ”Maybe you’re right”.

“Sure I am, now you get off to bed and I’ll see you in the morning ……..”

All was quiet and peaceful, until another late summer storm blew up from nowhere.

Jess had taken his usual place beneath the Vardo, sleeping on his bedroll beside the camp fire, but the heavens suddenly opened and Rosetta was at the wagon door, pleading with him to join her inside.

“Please Jess, I hate the thunder; please come in with me.”

“Ok,” he called, and went to check on the animals before finally joining her inside, shaking the rain from his hat. “Heck, it’s real wild out there,” he said with a laugh.

She was sitting on the sofa, a fine silk shawl draped loosely around her shoulders, covering an ivory silk night dress. Jess suddenly felt a spasm of desire shoot through him as he saw her scantily clad and desirable body.

“I, er…. guess, you’ll be OK, Rosetta. It’s only a storm you, know,” he muttered, averting his eyes from the delectable sight of her softly curving cleavage, revealed by the low-cut nightdress.

“Please, Jess, just sit with me for a while. I know it’s silly, but I can’t help it; I’ve always feared these violent storms.”

Then a sudden crash of thunder rent the air and she ran to him.

“Hey, steady, honey; you can’t come to no harm, you know that.”

“Yes,  I’m sorry,” she stuttered eventually. “It’s just that Pa always looked out for me. I’m a baby,  I know; I just so hate the thunder. Stay close, please, Jess?”

Jess led her back to the sofa and then threw a couple of logs on the stove before joining her. “You’re still missing him something fierce, ain’t you?” he said softly, turning his concerned gaze on her.

She nodded. “So much. I just don’t know how I’ll cope.”

“Oh you’ll cope real fine; you’re a strong woman. It’s just the loss of your husband and Pa so close together has knocked your confidence. Time, well, that’ll heal you. I guess you just have to be patient, sweetheart.”

“Oh Jess, I am going to miss you so much,” she cried, searching his eyes. “You are so good for me; you talk such common sense.”

Their eyes locked and he very tenderly reached over and placed a wayward tendril of hair behind her ear, the simple gesture sending a spasm of desire through her.

“Jess,” she whispered.

He looked down at her full, enticingly soft lips and then flicked a glance back to her eyes. Seeing the naked desire there, he finally leaned in and kissed her passionately. His touch sending a shockwave through her entire body and she surrendered to his tender kisses as he gathered her in his arms.

He pulled her closer, one hand tangled in her long raven hair and the other caressing her back tenderly.

He pulled away for a moment, the intensity in his eyes thrilling her. Then he kissed her again, more urgently this time, setting her aflame as she raked a hand through his dark hair, abandoning herself to his kisses as they became more and more passionate.

She felt the heady sensation of his lips caressing her neck, and as he gently slid her nightdress strap down, he kissed her shoulder giving a low moan of desire.

He gently eased her down on the sofa, caressing her and whispering her name softly, her body instinctively arching towards him.

Then it happened. There was a thunderous crash right over head and the Vardo was lit up by multiple forks of lightening. Then they heard the horses screaming in terror and the bitter smell of burning assaulted their nostrils.

“What in hell?” Jess sprang up and made for the door, dragging it open and looking out onto a scene of devastation.

The huge pine near where the horses were all line tethered had been rendered in two by a lightning strike and was well on fire.

The flames were lighting up the night sky and the terrified horses were rearing and bucking, the whites of their eyes much in evidence as they desperately tried to escape the inferno.

Even as Jess watched in horror, branches from the tree fell and lay smoldering, on the soaking ground.

He was suddenly galvanized into action, and turning back to where Rosetta had come to join him, her face pale and contorted in shock, yelled, “Fill some buckets. I’ll get the horses.” He ran into the night, dodging blazing falling branches as he made for the terrified creatures.

He lost no time in turning them loose, knowing they would be safer seeking their own sanctuary in the storm and would return to the camp as soon as they were hungry.

Jess started hurling water on the still blazing tree, trying to put out the blaze before it fell on the Vardo, setting that alight too.

As luck would have it, the rain, which had eased off, suddenly returned with a vengeance and the flames were finally doused.

Just as effectively as his ardor had been doused by the events of the storm, Jess was to think with irony much later.

Right then, though; all he could think of was the safety of Rosetta and the animals.

Once he was sure the danger from the ignited tree was no more, he insisted Rosetta returned to the Vardo to get dry and warm while he went after the horses.

The storm had abated by then and he figured he didn’t want them straying too far as he would have to waste valuable time seeking them all out the following day.

He whistled Traveler up. As he had hoped, his faithful old mount made his way through the woodland and was shortly at his side. Blowing down his nostrils, the horse sought  out the sugar he knew his master would provide for him.

A little later, he found the two huge horses and their companion donkeys all together, seeming none the worse for their ordeal, apart from looking rather wet and miserable.

The first light of dawn was filtering through the trees when Jess returned with the animals. He dried them thoroughly and checked them over carefully. Then he finally returned to the Vardo, where he found a fully dressed and very anxious Rosetta waiting for him.

She flung herself into his arms when he walked in, soaked to the skin and looking weary. “Oh Jess, thank God,” she whispered.

After a moment, he pushed her gently away. ”Hey, you’ll get all wet,” Jess said with a depreciating smile.

She shook her head laughing up at him. ”I don’t care,” she said, “as long as you’re safe.

It was noon, when they had stopped to take a break, before Jess finally broached the subject of the night before.

They were sitting by the fire, a coffee apiece, when he glanced over and saw the way she was looking at him, the light of passion in her eyes and knew he had to say something to put the record straight.

After a moment, Jess cleared his throat, and gazing across at her, said,  “Er, about last night. I was way out of order and I’m real sorry.”

Her head shot up and she gave a little gasp. “What?” she asked looking stunned.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come onto you that way; it won’t happen again,” he said, flushing with embarrassment.

Rosetta looked down in thought for a moment. Then she got up and came and sat close to him, looking down at where his hand was resting on his knee, before taking the hand and holding it to her lips. Then she kissed it softly, before looking at him from under her lashes. “Well I’m not…sorry, that is,” she said seductively.

He gently removed his hand from her grasp and tried again. “Look, sweetheart, I ain’t the kind of man who would, well, make love to someone like you unless we had some sort of understanding. I told you I’m not lookin’ for anything serious right now, didn’t I? I guess I just got kinda carried away last night and that was wrong — real wrong. I’m sorry.”

She was silent for a long time, and then casting him an imploring look, said, “Don’t I get any say in the matter then?”

“I guess not, no.”

She looked astounded at that. “I just don’t understand you. Why not, Jess? For goodness sake, I’m a grown woman; I can make my own choices.”

He looked off to the horizon, beyond the river for a long time before turning his sad gaze on her again. “That’s just it; I don’t think you can, not right now anyways. I figure you’re hurtin’ and your judgment ain’t reliable. I reckon you don’t really know what you want, or need, but I guess it ain’t me.”

She opened her mouth to retaliate, but he raised a hand to stop her. ”It really ain’t, Rosetta. Can’t you see it would make parting even more difficult if we got that close?”

She sighed deeply at that. “You’re right, of course. I miss it, though, Jess,” she said turning candid eyes upon him. “The intimacy of marriage, that closeness…”

“And I guess you’ll have it again one day, when you find the right man.”

“I thought I had,” she whispered disconsolately, before turning away to break camp.

His eyes never left her as she tidied up and clambered back up on the wagon. He felt a deep sadness, but he just knew he had done the right thing, no matter how difficult it was for them both.

The river, running parallel with the road, was even noisier than before the storm — a bubbling cauldron of foaming water. Rosetta eyed it broodingly as they drove along beside it.

Jess caught her looking and then gave her his cheeky grin. “Hey you’re not still worryin’ about that prediction, are you?” he asked, trying to lighten the mood. “I told you I ain’t about to go anywhere near that ol’ river.”

She threw him a small smile. “I know; I’m just being silly. And you’re right, I probably just saw that time you got into difficulties in the Laramie river, when I was reading your palm.”

He nodded. “Trust me, if you’ve had an experience like that, you don’t ever mess with a river again, especially when it’s in spate like that,” Jess said, tipping his head towards the dark rushing waters.

*****

It was late afternoon and  they had started looking for a suitable place to camp for the night when they rounded a bend in the road and came upon a scene that they would never forget.

A large Vardo, similar to their own, was pulled over at the side of the road.

Then Jess heard a  woman’s spine chilling, hysterical scream, even before he saw her standing on the riverbank.

He exchanged a dismayed look with Rosetta before rushing the team on to a trot.

Jess reined in the horses and told Rosetta to stay put before quickly jumping down and running to investigate. An elderly couple were standing on the riverbank, the woman trying to restrain the old man from entering the river.

Jess looked over at the swirling foaming water and saw a man desperately clinging to a rock in the middle of the river.

 As soon as the elderly woman saw Jess, she ran to him, grabbing his arm and imploring him to help them. “My son, my son,” she cried heartrendingly, pointing out to the river. “He’s drowning and my husband cannot swim.”

Jess took in the situation at once, unbuckled his gun belt, and throwing it down, started to pull off his boots.

Suddenly Rosetta was at his side. “Noah, Zelda, whatever is it?” Then she looked out to the river and saw the figure of a dark haired young man clinging to a rock for dear life. “Jago,” she whispered. Oh my God, Jago?”

Then before she could do anything, Jess dived in and struck out for the distant figure.

He had just acted on instinct, so he told Slim later. Sure, he didn’t have a death wish, and no, he hadn’t forgotten the time he had nearly drowned in the Laramie River. But hell, what was a man to do?

He was half way to the stranded man on the rock when he just knew he wasn’t going to make it.

The current was way too strong, and even though Jess was a good swimmer, he could feel the water taking hold of him and pulling him away.

“Come on, Harper,” he said to himself gritting his teeth, “for God’s sake, get a grip. You can do it!”

Jess fought hard against the current and gradually made his way to where the dark haired young gypsy Jago was gasping and spluttering as he grabbed hold of the rock as though his life depended on it, and Jess figured right then it probably did.

Above the raging force and noise of the river, Jess tried to tell Jago to let go, that he would support him and get him back safely, but the younger man was terrified and merely clung on to the rock, panicking, unable to think clearly.

Then even as Jess was still trying to convince him, Jago lost his tenuous hold on the rock and was pulled under the bubbling fury of the river.

Jess dived down beside him and finally managed to get hold of the desperately struggling man. Then clasping him in a firm grip, he dragged him up and started hauling him towards the river bank.

However, Jago was totally exhausted and a dead weight. Jess  tried bravely to swim through the swelling waters as well as he could, but the weight of the young gypsy was slowly pulling him down.

He instinctively knew, this was it. He was going to die here, struggling to help this complete stranger, but even so, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave him to drown. Hell, he wasn’t gonna drown either, he said to himself, the Harper stubborn streak coming to the fore.

Then for some strange reason, he suddenly remembered Rosetta’s card reading of the night before.

How he had chosen the reversal of the Wheel of Fortune, the card implying that…what was it she had said? Oh yeah. ‘You will be pulled along on a current over which you will have no control’. Well, you sure got that one right, he thought with irony.

By this time the current was indeed taking them along faster and faster and all Jess could do was to keep his vice-like grip on Jago, desperately trying to keep his head above water.

Then up ahead he saw a fallen tree, its heavy trunk and branches fanning out in the water and he urgently started trying to swim towards it, knowing that grabbing a branch was their only hope of surviving the ordeal.

But then he felt Jago pulling him back down — down into the murky depths of the seething river and he knew that his only chance would be to let his burden go. Alone maybe he would have a hope of survival.

Down he went until he felt his lungs would explode and then suddenly he was back up bobbing along on the surface and still, miraculously, holding onto Jago.

For some reason, his mind went back to the Tarot reading again — The Star, faith in self. That’s what she’d said. You have faith in yourself and a guiding light. Sure, he had faith in himself; he could do this and he started to swim with a renewed effort.

The branches were almost within grabbing distance, just a little further. Then the unthinkable happened.

Just as he thought he was within a whisker of redemption, he felt his grip beginning to loosen on Jago, the icy cold water finally rendering his hands numb and useless. He felt the young man begin to slip away from him, then he was gone, down into the murky depths of the river.

Jess took a huge draft of air into his lungs and dived down, desperately feeling around for the gypsy, but nothing.

He tried hard not to think of the final card he had chosen and its grim prediction.

He dived again and again and finally on the third attempt, he felt Jago’s jacket, and gripping the collar, heaved the dead weight up again and both men shot to the surface, Jago coughing and struggling. But Jess wasn’t going to let him go again.

Then a miracle happened. The tree was still in front of them, its huge presence slowing the water down so that Jess was finally able to swim strongly forwards. Grasping a branch, he heaved himself across it, pulling Jago behind him. From there, it was a simple matter of half swimming, half wading the last few feet to the bank where they finally collapsed in a soaking heaving mass, coughing and retching, but very much alive.

Jess lay there chucking up, his eyes streaming and his whole body shuddering with the effort of ridding his system of the foul river water. Then he lay back gasping and coughing, his eyes tightly closed as he tried to concentrate on getting air into his tortured lungs.

Suddenly, he felt warm breath on his face, and he was being licked thoroughly by something that was panting and slobbering….

Jess opened his eyes and was face to face with a small, white, very wet dog, his tail wagging vigorously.

Then Noah and Zelda Boswell came running over closely followed by Rosetta, who fell to her knees beside Jess. “Thank you, oh thank you,” she cried, while the Boswells made a fuss of their son, Zelda breaking down in noisy sobs as she both scolded and hugged him at the same time.

Jess recovered sufficiently to be able to push the dog’s unwanted attentions gently away and grinning at Rosetta said, “So who’s your friend?”

“This is Leo; he fell in and Jago went in after him,” she sighed, hugging the little dog close.

Jess shook his head in disbelief. “He must be some dog if Jago risked his life for him.”

Then Zelda came and squatted beside Jess, patting the little dog. “Oh yes,” she said quietly. “He was Jonty’s dog. He meant the world to my boy; we just couldn’t bear to lose him, but even so, my son was foolish to try and save him.” She grabbed hold of Jess’s hand and whispered, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You saved my only remaining son and I will never forget this — never.”

Then Noah Boswell was there pumping his hand. “Such bravery, such a tenacious spirit. Thank the good Lord you were here, my boy. Thank you, thank you,” he kept repeating tears in his old eyes.

 Jess started shaking uncontrollably and Jago looked little better and the two men were bundled off to get into dry clothes and rest after their ordeal. It was much later that Jess and Jago were able to talk properly.

They were sitting by the camp fire, both men looking pale and shaken after their nightmare. They were drinking some broth that Ma Boswell had insisted on, although Jess would have preferred a slug of Red Rye. Jess grinned across at the dark haired serious looking young man. “Ma’s, eh,” he said softly with a wink and Jago smiled back in acknowledgement, his mother now in the wagon making up the beds. Then tipping his hat to where Leo was basking by the fire, Jess said, “It looks like ol’ Leo got out on his own in the end,” he said, shaking his head. “Typical, huh?”

Jago gave him a small smile back. “I was stupid to go in, I know, but he was my brother’s dog, and as such, so important to us. To Rosetta especially.” He just shrugged the gesture saying more than he could with words alone.

Then Jago cast Jess a penetrating look. “You saved my life, Mister Harper. I will be forever in your debt. For all you have done for my dear…for Rosetta too,” he said formally.

Jess felt strangely moved by the young man’s quaint turn of phrase and smiled again. “You’re welcome,” he said softly. “And it’s Jess.”

Jago leaned across and shook his hand firmly. “Thank you, Jess.”

Then the moment passed and Rosetta was there along with Zelda, fussing over her son, saying he needed an early night. She hustled him off to bed. Next the Boswells retired, leaving Rosetta and Jess by the fire.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” she asked for the twentieth time.

“Sure, sure,” Jess said, and then he grinned at her.

“What?” she asked.

“I was just thinkin’ we could have saved ourselves one heck of a lot of bother. The dang dog got out all by himself,” he chuckled.

She shook her head in disbelief. “How can you laugh and joke, Jess. You nearly drowned, just like I predicted,” she said, grabbing his hand and holding it tightly, her expression one of deep distress.

He squeezed her hand, “Yeah, but I didn’t, did I? So stop your frettin’.” Then he looked thoughtfully into the flames. “I reckon now you’re reunited with your family, I’ll ride out tomorrow.”

Her head shot up. “So soon?”

“I’m needed at the Ranch and Relay, you know that,” he said reasonably.

“Well maybe you’re needed here too,” she whispered, casting him an affectionate glance.

Just then, Leo came over to Jess and licked his hand before turning and moving over to Rosetta where he lay down, his head in her lap and his big brown eyes staring up soulfully into her face.

Jess smiled at the little dog and then back up at Rosetta. “No I ain’t,” he said quietly, ”I reckon you’ve got all you need here.”

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Your in-laws seem like real nice folk, you’ve gotten your little dog back — and then there’s Jago.”

Her head shot up and she blushed prettily. “I don’t know what you mean,” she replied quickly.

He gave her a lazy smile. ”I think maybe I’m more aware of what’s goin’ on around here than you are, in spite of all your cards and crystal balls.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that Jago’s in love with you — even a blind man could see that.”

She bowed her head and made a fuss of the little dog before muttering. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, I think you do; you just don’t wanna see it, perhaps? But it’s like you said, at some stage you have to move on — learn to love again. Maybe you should take your own advice.”

Then excusing himself, Jess went to check on the horses, and when he returned, she had retired for the night.

*****

The following morning, he was filling his canteen at the river, his thoughts full of the journey ahead.

It was still very early. The first rosy hews of dawn were starting to brighten the sky in the east when he felt her presence rather than heard her, and spinning around, he saw her standing a few feet away.

She wore the silky night dress and lace shawl that she had worn the night of the storm, her shining black hair cascading around her shoulders, her dainty feet bare. She looked very beautiful.

He raised an eyebrow at her attire and said quietly, ”You should git dressed it strikes real cold this early in the morning.”

“I will…in a minute. I heard you moving about. Thought you were going to ride out without saying goodbye.”

He looked shocked at that and walking over to her  took her hand and led her to some nearby rocks overlooking the river and mountain range.

Once they were seated  he said softly, “Heck I wouldn’t do that, sweetheart.”

“But you are going?”

“Yep, I’m going after breakfast. I thought you’d know that, what with all the palm readin’ and cards an all, not to mention the crystal ball,” Jess said lightly, his blue eyes twinkling.

“Jess, don’t tease me.”

He held her gaze. “I ain’t. In fact, I reckon there is some kinda sense in it all.”

“You do?” she asked looking amazed.

“Um,  I reckon so.”

She just stared at him, waiting for an explanation.

Jess looked out to the distant hills before turning back to her and taking her hand. “That reading you did — The Lovers Card, you said that could be interpreted different. How it could mean relationship, choices, a parting maybe. You said like taking a fork in the road, deciding which to take?”

“Yes I did.”

He tipped his hat back to the track they had been traveling along, and sure enough, just beyond where the Vardos were parked, there was a junction. Turning right, back the way they had come, the route the Boswells were travelling to set up their winter camp in Texas. Left,  to the north and Laramie.

“Well there’s your fork in the road, and I guess I’m the one makin’ the choices. For us both, Rosetta. I go home to Laramie. And so do you — go home, that is, with your family, down to Texas.”

She just nodded, seeming to accept the truth of it. She knew that was what must happen. “Go on. What else?”

“You were sure spot on with that ol’ Wheel of Fortune. The bad stuff — me bein’ out of control, pulled by a current — well, I sure was yesterday in that ol’ river,” he said chuckling.

She gave a little shudder. “I shall never forget that as long as I live — and what you did for Jago,” she whispered.

“Yeah, well, you helped some too.”

“I did?”

“Uh, I got to thinkin’ about that Star Card. How you said it meant I had real strong faith in myself. And rememberin’ that kinda stopped me from givin’ up. I just knew I could do it.”

She nodded. “he power of mind over matter can be very strong.”

“Uh, yeah,” he said vaguely, looking slightly baffled.

“What about the final one?” she asked.

He grinned at her. “Well I’ll tell you. I tried not to think too long on that one — not while I was in the river, anyways.”

“I don’t blame you; the Death Card is a difficult one to be dealt.”

“I guess so, but the way you explained it, well, it kinda makes perfect sense now.”

“Really?”

He squeezed her hand gently. “You said it could mean the parting of the ways of friends — and change. Moving on to new things. And I figure that’s what we need to do now — move on.”

Rosetta looked down and sighed. Looking back up into his eyes, she said quietly, “You were right what you said last night — about Jago. I do have feelings for him. But it was too soon before. That’s why I left to go off with Papa and why I left Leo with him. He was the promise that I would return some day. Then yesterday, when he risked his life for that little dog, I saw the full depth of his love for me. But Jess, I’m scared, so scared.” She threw herself into his arms.

He held her close and patted her back gently before replying. “What about all that business with Alberto. I don’t get it? Where does Jago fit in?” he asked eventually.

“Well, I had given up hope of Jago. I was unsure of his feelings and I think he felt terrible at stepping into his dead brothers shoes. That’s why he went away, traveling alone. Then he decided to come back to see his parents and hopefully find me too. But I didn’t know, Jess, and I felt I had to follow my Papa’s last wish, to return to my Uncle.”

“So now it looks like everything’s gonna work out OK,” he said. “You don’t have to see any of the others again, you can make a new life with Jago, huh?”

She was still in his arms and gave a little whimper. “I’m so scared. Scared to love again, Jess,” she whispered.

He held her close, feeling her shaking and then said, “I guess you have to be brave. Sign up again for the full deal. Like I told you, it may come with grief and pain sometime in the future, who knows? But maybe it would be worth it to be with Jago, don’t you think?“

She pulled away and gave him a tremulous smile, “If you put it like that, Jess… You know, I think you’re right. He is worth it. Thank you for making me see that.”

He leaned down and kissed her very tenderly on the forehead before pulling gently back, their gaze locking for a moment, thinking of what might have been.

He gave his head a little shake, and then said kindly, “Go git dressed, sweetheart, before you get cold.”

She stared at him for one final minute before saying. “I’ll never forget you.” Then she ran off to the Vardo without looking back.

He stared after her for a long time before sighing deeply, and then going off to get Traveler ready for the journey home.

*****

Jess arrived at supper time a couple of days later, and as he rode up the ridge overlooking the ranch, he reined Traveler in and sat looking down at the deserted yard, the chickens locked up for the night and horses stabled.

Then as he watched, smoke billowed forth from the cook stove chimney, and the lamps were lit as dusk fell, giving the old place a romantic warm glow.

Jess leaned forward and patted Traveler’s neck, “Jeez, it’s good to be home, ain’t it, boy,” he whispered before kneeing him on down the slope and into the yard.

As he rode in, Mike came tearing out of the house, closely followed by Slim. As Jess slid down from the saddle, the youngster threw himself into his arms.

“Gee Jess, we sure have missed you,” Mike cried, hugging him tightly.

“Me too, Tiger,” Jess said, before putting him down from where he had been swinging him up in the air and turned his attentions to Slim.

They shook hands and then hugged.

“Hey, it’s good to have you back, pard,” said Slim, his eyes lighting up with pleasure.

Jess looked around him. ”So where is Daisy?”

Slim cast him a rueful look. ”Yeah, well that’s another reason I’m glad you’re back. I cooked, so you wash the dishes,” he said as he ushered his buddy indoors.

“Huh?”

“Ma Patterson is having another. Daisy’s out there acting midwife, so all the domestics are down to us pard.”

“Oh great,” said Jess sarcastically. “Just what I need. I’d have stayed in town if I’d known,” although they all knew he was joking.

“Heck Jess, with the company you’ve been keeping, I thought Miss Rosetta would have seen it all in her crystal ball,” Slim chuckled.

“Yeah, well, don’t you mock. There is more to that stuff than you know,” Jess said, tapping his nose as they made their way into the kitchen to dish up.

Once supper was over and Mike had finally been persuaded to go to bed, Slim and Jess poured themselves a whisky a piece and settled down in front of the fire. Jess felt  relaxed and just happy to be home.

He had filled Mike and Slim in on the highlights of the trip over the meal and now Slim was mulling it all over in his mind.

“So you really think there is something in all that mumbo jumbo then, Jess — reading the cards and all that?” Slim asked, casting him a questioning look.

Jess looked thoughtful for a while and then said, “I dunno really. With the cards, well, I figure it’s more the way you read ‘em that matters. I figure if you’re real clever, you can make ‘em say what you want.”

“Is that what Rosetta did then? Put her own ideas into them, the ones she read for you I mean? “

“Maybe.”

“So did you two get on…er…well?” Slim asked with a speculative look.

“I guess so.”

“Jess?”

“OK yeah, she is a real attractive girl and I thought, well…maybe at one point. But, hell, my travelin’ days are over, Slim; you know that I belong here.”

“So how did she take that?”

“OK really well, once Jago landed anyways.”

“I still think you were crazy going in that river, Jess. Hell, have you got a death wish or something?” said Slim shuddering at the thought.

“No I haven’t got a death wish, and…”

But Slim cut in before he could finish. “So have you forgotten what happened to you when you fell in the Laramie River then?” he asked.

“No, I ain’t forgotten, but hell, Slim, what’s a man to do? I couldn’t let him drown, could I?”

“No, of course not,” Slim finally admitted. “So she’s OK then, Rosetta? Any messages for us?” he asked hopefully.

Jess smiled at that. “Yeah, there was actually.” He cast his mind back to the morning he left.

The Boswells had again thanked him profusely for saving their son and then Jago had taken him aside.

“It is not just my life I have to thank you for, I think, but also the hand of my dear Rosetta. She told me you convinced her she should take a chance on me. Thank you, my dear friend,” Jago whispered emotionally, shaking his hand and then giving him a bear hug.

Just as Jess had been about to hop up into the saddle, Rosetta came over and kissed his cheek, before saying, “Safe journey. And you are right, Jess. You belong in Laramie. The girl for you is there and you will marry her one day, when you are both ready. You also have true and loyal friends there.”

Then with a little smile she said, “Ask Slim if he has recalled that second brother I told him about when I read his palm. He really should have remembered by now.”

When Jess said that, Slim gave him a slow smile. “You know I think I do recall him now.”

Jess’s eyebrows shot up in question. “Huh, you been keepin’ secret brothers from me then, pard? “

Slim just smiled again, “Do you remember what she said at my palm reading?”

Jess shook his head, recalling how nervous he was feeling back then, dreading her looking at his own hand and seeing, well, seeing things he’d rather she didn’t. “Nope, can’t say as I do,” he replied now.

“Well I can. Gee, I’ve been running it over and over in my mind. Hell, I’d sure know if I had another younger brother and then, well, I’ve realized what she meant just now.”

“Go on.”

“She said — and these are the exact words — ‘he’s very wayward, tests your patience sorely, but is still very important in your life…someone you really care about’,” he finished. Slim grinned across with a raised eyebrow. “Well?”

Jess still looked completely bewildered.

Slim laughed at that. “It’s you, Hotshot; she was talking about you. The description fits perfectly.”

Jess thought about it and suddenly his face was wreathed in smiles. “Well I’ll be…” They exchanged a big grin.

Then Jess stood up and raised his glass. “Here’s to you, big brother.” They clinked glasses and knocked back their whisky.

Then Jess turned towards the bedroom door. “I’m beat; guess I’ll turn in.”

Slim sat bolt upright. “Well hang on there, pard. What about the dishes? It’s your turn; I did all the cooking, you know.”

Jess merely threw him a mischievous grin. “Well seein’ as how you, quote, ‘really care about me’, I figured you wouldn’t mind doin’ ‘em for me, huh?”

Slim hurled a cushion at his buddy’s retreating back. “Get out of here,” he laughed, before getting up and stretching and then going off to deal with the chore, whistling softly as he went.

*****

Epilogue

It was a good six months before they had any news of Rosetta and the Boswells.

It was a freezing cold February morning and the men were wrapped up in their thick sheepskin jackets as they quickly changed the horses on the early morning Stage.

Snow had been down for several weeks, but the stage had finally managed to get through for the first time that month. Mose, who was full of news, had quite a bit of mail to deliver as well.

The old timer sat at the table grinning at Miss Daisy and said for the third time, “It sure is good to see you and looking so sprightly and well too, Miss Daisy.”

“Why, thank you, Mose dear, and it’s good to see you too — and to have my mail order parcels,” she added quietly.

Slim and Jess exchanged a covert grin, it being a family joke as to Mose’s feelings for Miss Daisy.

“So what’s the news then,” asked Slim. “Have we missed any excitement?”

“Nah, not really, ‘cept those ornery Perks brothers were tried and sent to prison — good thing too.”

“Well, you ain’t got any arguments from me there. So what have they done now?” asked Jess, looking animated.

“Only gotten drunk and decided to shoot up the Laramie Saloon, and then took on the Sheriff and his Deputy. Well, ol’ Mort weren’t havin’ any of that, I can tell you. Threw the book at them, he did; won’t see the light of day for many a month, I reckon.”

“Good job, too.” said Slim. ”When I think what they did to poor Angelo, not to mention Jess and Rosetta…”

“Guess they got their just rewards anyways…in the end,” said Jess happily.

“Talkin’ of that Rosetta, got you a letter here, Jess. From down in Texas. Ain’t that where you said she was settlin’ for the winter?”

Jess nodded, and flushing slightly, took the proffered letter. “Thanks, Mose,” he said, putting it down on the table next to his empty coffee cup.

“Well ain’t you gonna open it then, son, see what she says?” asked Mose, positively squirming with curiosity.

Jess grinned at the old man, “Well now, I’d like to, Mose, but figure we’d better be seein’ you on your way. You don’t wanna be runnin’ late first trip out, do you?”

Mose groaned. “Oh well, I suppose not. Be seein’ you” and made his way off, muttering darkly under his breath.

Once he had gone, Jess ripped open the envelope, closely watched by Daisy and Slim. After a minute, his head shot up and he grinned from ear to ear. “She went and did it,” he said slapping the letter. “She upped and wed that ol’ Jago!”

Jess passed the letter round for the others to see and much happy speculation ensued as to when the first child would be born. Then a toast was given to the young couple’s happiness and long life together as they drank yet another cup of Daisy’s coffee.

It was later that evening when Jess had taken himself off to sit out on the porch alone after supper that Slim and Daisy discussed the letter again.

“Have you noticed how quiet Jess has been since he got that letter?” asked Daisy, casting the door to the porch an anxious glance.

“Huh? Yeah, now you mention it he has seemed a little withdrawn,” Slim agreed.

“Slim dear, go out and sit with him, I think maybe he is upset about this marriage. After all he did seem to be very close to the girl.”

Slim sighed, wondering just how many times he had, had to listen to tales of Jess’s broken heart. There again that’s what good buddies — no, ‘brothers’ — were for he thought, with a little smile to himself.

When Slim joined Jess, he was looking off to the distant horizon, now bathed in moonlight. “Hey pard, it’s kind of cold for sitting out isn’t it?”

Jess shrugged his sheepskin around him more tightly and then nodded. “I suppose so; just needed to think. You know?”

Slim took the seat beside him. “Yep — about Rosetta, is it?”

Jess just nodded, “Sort of.”

“So do you think you made a mistake then? What was it she said at your card reading? Oh yeah, choosing the right road. Are you figuring now you took the wrong one, that you should have chosen to stay with her rather than come home?” Slim asked, the words hanging on the cold night air as he held his breath waiting for the answer.

It took Jess a good minute to respond, but when he did his deep blue eyes were sparkling with laughter. “Hell no. What makes you think that?”

“I don’t know; you tell me. It’s just that you’ve been kind of quiet since you got her letter, Jess.”

“Oh that.”

“Well?”

“Well, if you must know, it brought back somethin’ she said just before I left. When she’d said that stuff about askin’ you if you’d remembered who the other brother was.”

“Yeah. So what else did she say Jess?”

He looked down and then sighed deeply, “She said that the girl I’m to wed lives in Laramie and we’ll marry when we’re both ready.”

Slim heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Hell Jess, what’s so bad about that?”

He turned wretched eyes on his buddy. ”Supposing, well supposing, I ain’t ever ready, after all that’s happened. You know…in the past, Maria and all?” Jess said, casting his eyes down.

“I guess you’ll know when the right girl comes along, Jess. It seems like it’s written in the stars. I reckon you can’t argue with that. You’ll manage OK. After all, Rosetta did, didn’t she?”

Jess slowly turned to his friend. ”Yep, she did, didn’t she!” he said grinning broadly now.

Then jumping up from his seat he said, “Hell Slim, what are we doing freezing to death out here? Come on, let’s see if Daisy’s got the coffee on.” Jess made his way back to the warm comfort of the fire side.

Slim stood up and looked out to the distant, moonlit, hills and shook his head sagely. “You were right, Rosetta,” he said softly. “He sure does test my patience sorely.” With a little chuckle, he followed his pard inside.

Rosetta and Jago Boswell were married for over fifty happy years and they often told their grandchildren and great grandchildren the tale of how they finally got together.

How it was down to a small white dog named Leo…and a black haired, blue eyed young cowboy, Jess Harper, who was there when they needed him, their mediator and savior.

***End***

Thank you for reading

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