The New Housekeepers (by Patty W.)

Summary:   Some strong language, violence and adult themes.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:   42,857


 

It was a typical early morning start for Mrs. Daisy Cooper at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, as the housekeeper, nurse, power of strength and general Ma to all went about her morning tasks.

She had been first up, as usual, and lit the cook stove in readiness for preparing a hearty breakfast later for the men folk. Now she wandered about the kitchen, humming absently as she prepared the coffee strong and dark, just the way Jess liked it.

Jess… What a complex, sometimes difficult, but to her mind, simply charming young man he was, she reflected, and her favorite person in the household, although she would never admit to having favorites.

He had been brought up in poverty on the Texas panhandle. Oh, she knew Jess had not had an easy start to life alright, bless him.

When Daisy had finally heard the full story of how most of his family were killed in a terrible fire set by the Banister Gang when Jess was just fifteen, her heart had bled for him. From then on, he had been on the drift, not always on the right side of the law, using his fast gun to make a buck or two along the way. Then he signed up and fought for the Confederacy in the war, before surviving on the drift for five more hard years, eventually landing at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.

Jess was honest enough to admit to Daisy, when they were chatting once, that it wasn’t until he finally found sanctuary at the Sherman Ranch and a loyal friend in Slim Sherman that his life had begun to turn around. He had put up his old gunslinger weapon — and ways — for good and embraced the new life of ranching.

However, those early years had been hard for both men, with Jess trying to come to terms with a new life at the ranch with its many restrictions and back-breaking hard work, and Slim having to learn to be patient with his new friend. Yes, it hadn’t been an easy time, Daisy knew, but worth it in the end, she truly believed, when she saw the camaraderie and deep friendship the two now shared. Although it was sometimes hard to discern it, the way they teased and argued with each other, she thought smiling.

Now she knew Jess was happy and settled at the ranch, and she also knew that he cared for her just as much as the Ma he had lost all those years ago. He would do anything for her, as he has proven in the past more than once.

Then there was Jess’s partner in the ranch and best friend, the tall blond Slim Sherman, as opposite in looks to his shorter dark haired buddy as he was in character. Slim had a more balanced, placid view of life — slow to anger, whereas he often said Jess used to have a temper almost as fast as his legendary quick draw, although Jess had mellowed a little over the years.

Slim had benefitted from a close loving family, unlike Jess, and apart from his time fighting for the North in the war, he had hardly strayed from Wyoming where his heart was firmly embedded, the ranching way of life meaning everything to him.

Jess was easily roused and passionate about unfairness or injustice, be it to Indian or white man, rich or poor…and had even been known to champion outlaws if he felt they were getting a rough deal. Whereas, Slim was the calm voice of reason, always taking everything into account before making any decision, which occasionally drove his best friend crazy.

But all in all, they tended to complement each other, and whereas some of Slim’s rational common sense and business acumen had been absorbed by Jess, so some of the dark haired drifter’s happy-go-lucky attitude, love of poker, the odd strong drink and company of saloon girls had certainly made Slim’s life more exciting.

Daisy smiled to herself as she thought of her two adult ‘sons’ and then remembered the reason she had been employed in the first place — the arrival of young Mike Williams after the untimely death of his parents at the hands of a renegade band of Indians. The Indians had attacked the wagon train the family were travelling with, killing all save for young Mike, who was hiding in the undergrowth during the massacre.

Mike had been found nearby and brought to the ranch to recover. Then when it became apparent that he had no surviving kin, the two young cowboys took him on, not wishing him to end up in a children’s home. Shortly afterwards, they had officially adopted him as their ward, and consequently employed Mrs. Daisy Cooper to care for him.

Considering the child’s horrific history, Mike was very well-adjusted and seemed to face the ups and downs of life pretty much undaunted. However, if Mike was occasionally sick or upset, it always seemed to be Jess he wanted, while he turned to Slim to support him with school problems and Aunt Daisy for everything else a Ma usually did for her young ones.

Daisy reveled in caring for all three of her ‘boys’, each with their own particular needs, and she made their happiness and wellbeing her raison d’être. Daisy could always be relied upon to dispense wisdom and kindness in equal proportions when either of the young cowboys found themselves in trouble of some sort. From affairs of the heart to business matters, she was always there for them, with advice and compassion.

As for young Mike, his needs were usually much more easily resolved with a bandage, cuddle, or reassuring word, healing most problems the youngster faced.

Now she heard faint stirrings coming from the room Slim and Jess shared, and a minute later, Slim sauntered out before turning back and calling impatiently, “I mean it, Jess; you’re not up in five minutes, I’ll fetch the water pitcher to you!”

There was the sound of a dull thud as one of Jess’s boots hit the closing door and a minute later Slim entered the kitchen, beaming across at Daisy.

“Good morning, dear. Is Jess being difficult?” Daisy asked mildly.

“Morning, Daisy. Just the usual,” Slim replied. “I dunno what time he landed home last night. Garldarn it, he’s hard enough to get up of a morning when he has a good night’s sleep, but just lately, well…” Then his outburst was silenced as young Mike entered, his hair tousled and shirt hanging half out of his trousers as he slid into his place at the table, declaring he was ‘starving’, as usual.

“Have you washed up and brushed your teeth, young man?” asked Daisy, turning from where she was now cooking the bacon at the stove and noticing his somewhat disheveled appearance.

“Yes, Aunt Daisy,” Mike said, a look of childish innocence in his wide eyes.

“Um, well, give your hair a brush before you go out, dear,” she said kindly. “I don’t know what Miss Smith will think if you go to school looking like that.” Miss Smith was Mike’s adored teacher, and Daisy certainly knew how to get the boy to do as he was asked.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Mike said quickly, “I will. That is, if I really need to go today?” Then turning to Slim, he asked,”Do I have to go to school, Slim? I wanna stay here and help Jess with the mustang breakin’.”

“Um, I’m sure you do,” said Slim absently, helping himself to a coffee. “If he ever gets up, that is,” he muttered to himself.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Mike, and yes, you do have to go. So are you all ready for that spelling test today then? “

The child sighed deeply. “I guess. Except I ain’t quite finished the homework. I’ve got to put those last couple of words I learned in a sentence.”

Slim shook his head indulgently. ”Well, go get your book; we’ll help you out over breakfast. But get a wiggle on, because you know old Mose won’t keep the Stage waiting for you.”

The child ran off to find his spelling book, and a moment later a bleary-eyed Jess finally shuffled into the kitchen. Yawning hugely, he slumped down in his seat, eyes still half closed as he felt for the coffee cup and brought it to his lips, sipping gratefully.

Daisy and Slim exchanged an amused glance as Jess sat there, his dark wavy hair falling untidily across his forehead and his pale blue work shirt still hanging open.

“Jess…” Slim sighed.

“Wah?”

“How are we going to get Mike to smarten up if you come to the table looking a total wreck, like you’ve been sleeping in the barn all night?”

Jess looked slightly bemused at that. “I never…”

“I didn’t say you had, I just meant… Oh, never mind; just eat your breakfast, pard.”

Jess dug in happily, and then Mike returned with his homework and the problem was tackled as the men enjoyed their meal.

“So let’s get this right,” said Slim. “You have to put the words you learned how to spell in a sentence to show you know what they mean, yeah?”

“Yep, and the first one is refrain. R-e-f-r-a-i-n. To hold back, stop doing something,” Mike said knowledgably.

“Well done,” said Jess, feeling slightly revived now, being on his second strong coffee. “So you want a sentence then?”

“Yep.”

Jess thought for a moment and then cast his buddy a pained look. “How about, ‘Slim should refrain from pulling Jess’s blankets off of him and yellin’ in the morning’.”

“Um, I don’t think Miss Smith wants to hear about our…er, early morning contretemps, Jess,” said Slim dryly.

“Huh? I thought it was supposed to be Mike who had swallowed the dictionary, not you.”

“It means our arguments. Jess. We don’t want Miss Smith to be party to all that, do we? And anyway, I wouldn’t have to yell at you if you weren’t out a courting half the night, getting home at all hours,” Slim finished with a wicked grin.

Jess had the grace to blush a little at that, but soon changed the subject. “I know,” he said, the light of inspiration shining in his eyes. “Ol’ Tom’s got a new sign over the bar in the saloon. ‘Customers are asked to refrain from spittin’ in this bar’. How about that?” he finished triumphantly.

Slim’s jaw dropped and he was rendered speechless for a moment before Daisy quickly came to the rescue. “One should refrain from talking with one’s mouth full,” she said, giving Mike a sharp look.

Mike swallowed his last mouthful of breakfast and thanked her before carefully writing the sentence down neatly.

Then, thankfully, all of their brains were saved the task of having to tackle ‘rebellion,’ and several other words starting in RE, as they heard the stage rattling into the yard.

*****

It was later that morning, after being thrown for a third time, that Jess decided to take a break. Leaning on the corral fence, his deep blue eyes narrowed to slits as he glared at the big, black, ornery mustang.

Slim wandered over and slapped his buddy on the back. “So Jess, what are you trying to do, scare him into submission?” he asked, seeing the look in his friend’s eyes.

“Somethin’ like that. Would be a lot easier on my butt,” Jess said ruefully, rubbing his backside, still hurting some from his last tumble.

“You know, I figure you wouldn’t get tossed off so darn much if you’d had a good night’s rest,” said Slim quietly. When he got no response, he continued. “So what’s all this about, Jess? You’ve been out to town three times this week and not back until the small hours. You can’t carry on this way, pard.”

Jess turned to regard his friend, his gaze suddenly cold and aloof. “Guess that’s my business,” he growled before turning and marching back to the recalcitrant mustang without a backwards glance.

Slim watched him go, a puzzled frown on his face. Heck, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his friend this distant and unfriendly. What’s the dang matter with him, he wondered as he went off about his chores.

Jess seemed to get even more morose over the next couple of days, and when he made yet another trip to town a few days later, Slim really began to lose his patience with his friend.

“I just don’t get it, Daisy,” Slim said as the couple chatted after supper. “It’s not like him to burn the midnight oil this way. Ol’ Jess is way too fond of his bed, if anything. What do you suppose he’s up to?” he asked when Jess had lit off for town yet again after the evening meal.

Daisy sighed deeply. “I really can’t think, dear, unless he just wants to see Millie. They are very much in love, you know,” she said, referring to Jess’s long time girlfriend.

“Well sure, but he’s never done this before. Besides, Millie’s working in the saloon until late most nights and anyway…”

He paused, not wishing to voice his thoughts. If Jess had been seeing Millie, then he’d have stayed all night, not be riding home in the wee small hours.

“Anyway what, dear?” asked Daisy, glancing up from a letter she had been looking at on and off all day, a worried frown creasing her usually placid countenance.

“Oh nothing,” Slim said with a slight blush. “Er, so what’s that letter, Daisy? You’ve been reading it all evening. Not bad news, I hope, if you don’t mind me asking?”

She said nothing and after a moment he heard her sniff.

“Daisy?” Slim got up from his desk and went over to sit beside her in front of the fire. “What is it?” he asked softly.

She took out a lace hanky and blew her nose genteelly before replying. “It’s my sister,” Daisy said finally. “She’s not too well.”

“Oh, I’m really sorry to hear that,” said Slim at once. “Er, which one?”

Daisy had two sisters. Violet-Ann was recently widowed and ran an upper class boarding house in Cheyenne. She was well loved by all at the ranch and was referred to as Aunt Daisy’s nice sister, with uninhibited honesty, by young Mike. As opposed to her other sister was left unsaid but understood by all at the ranch.

Daisy’s other sister, Lily, lived with her husband, Jacob, back East and was…well, ‘rather a difficult character’, as Slim had once described her charitably. She was famous for once describing Jess as, “the one with boyish good looks and bad attitude’. Suffice to say, no love was lost between Jess and Lily, with neither prepared to make an effort to bury the hatchet. Lily suffered Slim and referred to Mike as ‘that boy,’ so she was hardly the most welcome visitor to the ranch, occasioning Jess to remark once, “Is she really your sister, Daisy?”

Slim came out of his reverie as Daisy finally replied. “It’s dear Violet-Ann,” she said quietly. “She hasn’t really been well since poor Fred passed over, and I thought she was just grieving, but now, well…it seems she is sick.”

“Well, you must go and visit,” said Slim at once.

“Oh my dear, that is kind,” Daisy whispered. “Maybe just for a week or so. She just needs some tender loving care, and well…Lily is staying at present…” She left the sentence in the air as they exchanged a knowing look.

“Well, I’d better get that stage ticket for you then,” Slim said with a chuckle. “Can you be ready to go by the end of the week? That’s three days away.”

“Are you sure? I hate to leave you boys, especially with Jess being so, well, not himself right now.”

“Oh, you leave old Hotshot to me, Daisy, and yeah, we’ll be fine. Mike‘s still at school for another two weeks before they finish for the summer, and you’ll be back by then, I figure. I reckon it would be a mite difficult managing when he’s home all day.”

“Oh goodness me, yes, dear. I only aim to stay a week or so. Send Lily off home and get some good nourishing food into dear Violet, and I’ll be back before you know it,” Daisy said with a winning smile.

*****

Jess was back late again that night and he woke Slim as he entered their shared room, tripping over an ill-placed boot. “Sorry, pard,” he whispered as he made his way to his bed, stripping off his outer clothes as he went, looking to Slim’s eyes, totally exhausted.

“Where in Hell have you been till this hour?” Slim asked irritably, turning the nightlight up and glaring at his friend.

“Just out.”

“Jess!”

Jess ignored his buddy, and having stripped down to his undershorts, threw himself on the bed, lying back with a deep sigh.

“So how was Millie then?” asked Slim, casting him a furtive glance.

“Dunno.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I weren’t with Millie,” Jess replied quietly.

Slim couldn’t help but notice the faint aroma of perfume emanating from his friend, and unless he’d started wearing ladies scent, well… then he’d been with another woman.

Slim just gaped at his old friend in shock. He wouldn’t do it. It was inconceivable. Jess wouldn’t two-time Millie…would he? “So where have you been then?” he finally managed.

Jess could see he wasn’t about to get any sleep unless he answered, so after a moment’s hesitation, he said gruffly, “If you must know, I’ve been over at ‘The Last Chance’.”

Slim sat up and swung his legs out of bed, looking scandalized. “What? That dump on the edge of town? Are you mad? Hell Jess, you said you’d never go back in that place after you caught ol’ Ezra watering down the whiskey.”

Jess ignored Slim’s outburst and simply layback on his bed, lacing his hands behind his head and staring up at the ceiling, a look of barely concealed anger on his face.

Slim sighed and raked a hand through his blond locks. “And those working girls he’s got there, they’re so dang rough. Jeez, please tell me you haven’t been messin’ with those girls, Jess,” he said casting his pard a look of utter disbelief.

“It’s none of your goddamn business,” Jess suddenly exploded, turning his head to glare at his friend. “I told you before keep out of my business, Slim — I mean it!” With that, he turned away on his side and feigned sleep.

Slim sighed again and fell back down on his own pillows. First dear Daisy was leaving them, and now Jess seemed to be going off the rails and heading for certain disaster if he carried on this way, Slim thought morosely. And what the hell would Millie say if she knew Jess was carrying on like this?

*****

The following morning, once Mike had gone off to school, the adults sat around the table having another coffee, and Slim broke the news of Daisy’s mission of mercy to Jess.

Jess had been sitting peering into his coffee cup, looking to Slim like he was pretty much worn out before the day’s work had even begun. However when Slim’s words sunk in, his head whipped up and he threw Daisy a look of deep compassion. “Heck Daisy, I’m real sorry. Sure, you must go and see her; stay as long as you need. We’ll be just fine, won’t we, pard?”

Slim gave a sigh of relief; this was more like his good friend he thought thankfully.

“Bless you for being so understanding, dear,” Daisy smiled.

Jess reached across and took her hand, squeezing it gently. “You just tell her to get well real soon,” he said smiling into her eyes.

Later that morning, Daisy had driven into town to do some last minute shopping before her trip, having gone off feeling much more cheerful knowing she would see dear Violet-Ann soon.

Slim was shoeing one of the relay horses when he looked up in time to see Jess, who was breaking a big mean pinto mustang, looking like he was in real trouble.

The big critter had been tossing him about in the saddle bucking and diving with Jess holding on for dear life, but now it became obvious he was tiring and Slim marched over to tell him to take a break.

However, Slim was just halfway to the corral when the pinto seemed to almost explode. The horse tore across the corral and stopped short of the opposite fence, bucking Jess off. Jess was thrown against the corner fence post with a sickening thud and lay there unmoving, the over- excited mustang’s hooves landing dangerously close to his head as it reared up screaming in fury.

Slim vaulted the fence and waved his arms wildly at the mustang, yelling and cussing until the animal backed off, tearing away to the far end of the enclosure, freeing Slim to drag his pard to safety.

Jess had been thrown badly, smashed into the corner post and then ricocheted off, cracking the back of his skull, and now he lay there white-faced and motionless.

Slim looked down at his buddy, taking in his pale sweating countenance and now grimacing in pain as he gradually came to.

After a moment, Jess’s deep blue eyes flickered open and peered up at his buddy in shocked disbelief. Then a moment later, he turned away and was violently ill. “Sorry…sorry, Slim,” he whispered after he was done, his skin now with a faint green tinge to it, making him look even worse.

“Hey, it’s ok, but I reckon you’ve given that head of yours a nasty bash. Goy some concussion, maybe. You’re going to rest up — understand?” Slim finished very firmly.

Jess looked him in the eye and then glanced away, knowing he had met his match right then. Sighing, he said, “Sure. Help me up, will you?”

Once Jess was inside, Slim helped him to the old leather couch in the main room and went off to fetch some fresh water and spirit to clean his wounds.

Jess’ chest was badly lacerated, but amazingly, no broken ribs. He also had a nasty bump to the back of his head, but at least the skin wasn’t broken.

Once Jess was cleaned up, Slim wanted him to turn in.

Jess sat on the edge of the couch, looking pale and sick, but the Harper spirit had rallied by then. “Sorry, pard, I can’t do that.”

“Hell, Jess, you promised!”

“Nope, I promised to rest up some, not turn in. I ain’t goin’ to bed, not before supper anyways.”

“Well dang it, Jess, now or later, what’s the difference?”

“The difference is, I can sit around the place drinkin’ coffee or helpin’ Mike with his homework and Daisy will think it’s normal. I go turn in, well, she’ll know something’s wrong.”

“Well, heck Jess, she’s going to know anyway. Look at you — white as a sheet, chucking up and all those cuts and bruises.”

“Slim, will you quit your fussin’! I can convince her I’m fine, and if I don’t, well, she’ll go cancel her trip to care for Vi. And we can’t let her do that, can we?”

Slim was silent for a while. ”No, I guess you’re right. But you take it easy and have an early night, OK?”

“Sure, sure; quit fussin’.”

Slim stood with his hands on his hips, staring down at his buddy, knowing the truth in his argument, but also aware that he should really be lying down if indeed he was concussed.

Jess took off his filthy, blood-splattered shirt and handed it to Slim. “Here, lose this, will you?”

“Huh?”

“Get rid of it, Slim. If she sees all that blood, it’s a dead giveaway.”

“What shall I do with it? Washing basket?”

“Nah. She’ll look in there, most likely do the washin’ before she heads off. Stick it under my bed; she don’t look there.”

“Um, I don’t blame her,” muttered Slim dryly as he went off to do as he was bid, returning with a clean shirt and chucking it over to his friend.

When Daisy arrived home a little later, she failed to notice Jess’s pale sickly appearance for once, as she was so busy fussing about trying to leave everything shipshape before her trip.

“Now there is a fresh pie in the larder and a stew to heat up. I’ve done all the washing…”

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance at that, but said nothing.

“Now Slim, you will be sure Mike does his homework, and Jess, don’t forget to give him a regular bath — you know what he’s like,” Daisy said, smiling over at the dark-haired cowboy who was sitting on the couch nursing a coffee. Then her smile faded as she walked over and peered more closely at him. “Why, Jess dear, you don’t look too well. Are you alright?” she asked, looking concerned.

“Yeah, sure, why wouldn’t I be?” Jess answered quickly, pasting a grin on his face, although he was feeling distinctly nauseous again and his head was throbbing something fierce.

“I guess he’s just been over doing things.” said Slim quickly.

“Oh yes, of course,” said Daisy visibly relaxing. “Do try having a few early nights, young man; you’re looking quite pale and sick dear,” she said not unkindly.

“Yes Ma’am,” Jess said, quickly ducking his head so that she couldn’t look into his eyes, knowing she could read him like a book.

Then they heard the sound of the stage approaching, bearing Mike home from school and the moment passed.

Jess did indeed have the promised early night, but his sleep was very troubled with him muttering and cussing under his breath half the night. Then he called something out loudly and Slim was rudely awoaen. He lay listening to his buddy tossing and turning, and then Jess was muttering again. “Zara…No… Zara!” he kept saying, getting more and more distressed.

After a while, Slim could stand it no longer and gently shook his friend awake. “Take it easy, pard; it’s just a bad dream,” he said softly.

Jess looked bewildered for a moment and then fell back to sleep, this time more soundly, much to Slim’s relief. Shortly, all that could be heard was the sound of gentle snoring.

The following morning there was a flurry of goodbyes. Mike was off to school and Daisy on the stage with him heading for Cheyenne; the old ranch house suddenly felt very quiet and empty. Mike was to stay in town for a friend’s birthday party and would not be home until the following afternoon, so it was just the two cowboys left.

Slim looked across the breakfast table at his friend as he poured them both another coffee. He wondered whether to mention the issues of the previous night, but seeing the dejected look in Jess’s eyes decided to leave it, for the time being at least. Who the heck was Zara, he wondered though. “You’d better take it easy today, pard. Rest up, light duties, huh?” he said, casting his friend a worried glance.

“I’m fine,” Jess muttered.

“That’s as maybe, but you’re not doing any horse breaking today — or for the rest of the week. Not until those headaches have gone — understand, Jess?”

“Hell Slim, we’re on a tight deadline with those beasts, you know that. We don’t come up with the goods, then old man Bryant will go someplace else.”

“Well, rather that than you get really sick and falling off again. I’m telling you, Jess…or do I have to ride out for Sam?” Slim asked, raising a questioning eyebrow.

Doc Sam Baker was a real good friend to all at the ranch and also their physician, always around to patch Jess up and read him the riot act when he wouldn’t behave, so Slim knew the threat might just bring his buddy into line. However, he wasn’t expecting the violent reaction the simple suggestion produced in Jess.

“No!” Jess shouted, leaping up from his seat and glaring at his friend. “Don’t involve Sam. It’s OK; I’ll do as you say. I’ll rest up, I…I promise, alright?”

“OK, sure, pard; take it easy. So why are you getting so het up about seeing Sam? You two haven’t had words or something, have you?” Slim asked, genuinely surprised at the reaction, knowing what good friends Jess and the doc were, spending hours indulging their passion for fishing together.

“No, we ain’t,” Jess said gruffly. “Just leave it, huh, Slim. And no doctors, OK?” With that, he marched off to start the yard chores, leaving a puzzled Slim staring after him.

It was later that evening when things really came to a head.

They had finished supper and Jess had offered to wash the dishes much to Slim’s surprise.

However, once the chores were done, Jess buckled on his gun belt, took his hat from the peg by the door, and casting a quick glance to Slim sitting at his desk, said briefly, “Night Slim; see you later.”

“What? Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Slim asked, looking angry.

“Out.”

“To that cathouse?”

“Maybe. What’s it to you?”

“Jess, what in hell’s come over you lately, spending all your time drinking and gambling in that place, and God knows what else. So what does Millie make of it all, eh?”

Jess looked furious. “Leave Millie outer this,” he spat. Then seeing Slim’s hurt look, he cast his eyes down and swallowed hard. “Just trust me, will you, Slim? I’ve just gotta go,” he said softly, a pleading look in his eyes, before he turned and marched out.

Slim glanced through the window and saw him make his way across the yard to the barn. Then a little while later, Jess and Traveler left the yard at a brisk trot, heading up the rise to the Laramie road and town.

With Mike staying the night with his school friend, the house was completely empty, and the silence after their harsh words almost deafening.

Slim stood irresolute for a moment, and then reaching for his hat, he made for the barn, saddled up Alamo, and slowly followed his friend to town.

*****

When he reached ‘The Last Chance’, on the edge of town, Slim immediately saw Traveler hitched up outside. Leaving Alamo next to him, Slim pulled his hat down hard, took a deep breath and pushed his way through the batwing doors into the heaving bar.

The air was thick with the smell of cigarette smoke and cheap scent; a honky-tonk piano could be heard above the rising noise of drunken female laughter and bawdy jokes.

Slim quickly scanned the bar, and then through the haze of cigarette smoke, he finally made out his buddy, leaning nonchalantly against the wall watching a blackjack game in progress at the far side of the room, his eyes never moving from the female croupier. She was raven haired, and had the bone structure and looks of a real beauty, with a curvaceous figure shown off to full advantage by a very low-cut, clinging black dress. Although she dealt the cards with the ease and confidence of a professional, Slim noticed that her gaze frequently flickered over to Jess, as though to reassure herself that he was still there.

Slim wandered over to the bar and got himself a drink and then asked the barkeep who the woman dealer was.

“Huh? Oh, you mean Miss Zara. Sorry, mister, she ain’t workin’ tonight. Got her man in, see. But buxom Betty’s free if you like ‘em dark haired and curvy.”

Slim just shook his head and took his drink over to a seat in a quiet corner where he had a good view of the card table and Jess. He was feeling terrible at spying on his friend, but consoled himself with the thought that he was only there because he was worried about Jess.

Hell, what had the barkeep said? She’d got her man in? Jess? Was her man?

After a while, the woman finished her shift and changed places with a gray-haired man as she went off for her break. Then Slim just watched in shocked disbelief as she sidled over to Jess, snaking an intimate arm around his waist and laughing up into his blue eyes.

Jess passed her a drink, and then after chatting for a few minutes, he took her hand and they disappeared into a back room out of view.

Slim threw back his drink, banged the glass down on the table and marched out of the rough saloon feeling sick to his stomach.

How could he? How could he do that to Millie? Slim felt like he really didn’t know his best friend at all anymore.

Slim wandered over to Alamo, unsure as to what to do next, and then he felt a light tap on his shoulder. Spinning round, he found a voluptuous, dark-haired woman of about forty — or maybe even older — leering up at him, her thick mask of makeup doing little to hide her fading looks and air of desperation.

“You want a good time, cowboy?” she asked, leaning towards him and tracing a finger down his cheek, her cheap perfume making him want to gag.

Slim shook his head, shrugging her hand off, which was now travelling down his chest. “No!” he said gruffly. Then seeing her tired, despondent gaze, he replied more kindly, “No thanks, Ma’am; I’m kinda busy right now.” Then he dug in his pocket and brought out some lose change which he tossed to her. “Have a drink on me, huh?”

She smiled at that and whispered, “Bless you, mister,” before turning back into the mayhem which was the Last Chance saloon.

Slim shook his head and kneed Alamo off to a quick trot, just wanting to get away from the place, and then after a minute, he reined in and considered his options.

What he really wanted to do was to ride into the town and see his girl Lily.

Slim smiled for a moment as he thought of the slender, pretty blond he had been dating for quite a while. Ironic, he thought, how two women with the same name could be worlds apart. Daisy’s Lily was so bossy to the point of offensiveness and selfish to the core, whereas Slim’s Lily was kind and loving, even a little shy — an unusual trait in a saloon girl. She worked in the Laramie saloon alongside Millie, and they were best of friends; the two men double-dated them on many occasions.

Then Slim’s heart missed a beat. He couldn’t go see Lily, because Millie would be there. And now, knowing what he did, well, he really couldn’t face her. Sadly, he turned Alamo for home and the dark empty ranch house.

*****

Much later that night, Jess made his way slowly down the back alley that led along the side of the Laramie saloon. Running lightly up the wooden fire escape steps at the back, he found the hidden door key under the mat and let himself into the staff quarters above the saloon.

jess made his way down the dimly lit corridor to Millie’s door and tapped lightly on it.

After a few minutes, Millie called out that she was coming, and then finally the door was pulled open. She stood there in a pale grey, silk negligee, her black hair falling prettily around her shoulders and her big brown eyes sparkling in pleasure as she saw who it was.

Jess leaned on the door frame, a lopsided grin on his face. “Got room for a waif and stray?” he asked hopefully.

She laughed at that. ”What’s up? Slim thrown you out?”

Jess shook his head, his smile fading a little. “Nope, not yet. But I guess I couldn’t blame him if he did, way I’ve been lately.”

“You’d better come in and tell me all about it,” Millie said with a kindly glance, taking in his pallor and the look of fatigue around his eyes.

“Thanks.”

Jess divested himself of his gun, hat and boots by the door, as per Millie’s house rules, wandered over to the crackling log fire, and sat down, relaxing back into the soft old couch, set before it.

She sank down beside him, curling her legs beneath her and then sniffed, throwing him a mock frown. “Don’t tell me. You’ve been to that place again,” she said.

He sighed deeply. “You know I have to right now, Mill; I can’t help it.”

“I know. It’s just that cheap scent Zara uses it stinks,” she said honestly.

Jess just nodded. “Yeah, don’t I know it.”

“So is that what this is all about between you and Slim. He’s mad at you going there? “

“Yep, I guess so. He thinks I’m two-timing you, going with one of the girls — gambling, drinkin’, you name it.”

“Well, he’s kind of right in a way, isn’t he? I mean…”

“Millie, don’t. Please don’t say it. You know there’s nuthin’ between me and Zara.”

She sighed and then took his hand. ”Yeah, I know, honey, but it’s kind of hard for me, you know. If it had been anyone else… But you and Zara, she was real important to you once…in the past.”

“And that’s what it is. Anything we ever had is in the past…and that’s where it’s stayin’ I’m there to do a job, and the sooner it’s done the happier I’ll be.”

“I know. I just wish you could let Slim in on the secret though. “

“Heck, you an’ me both, but Mort says not. There’s too much at stake. If Slim were to overreact…try to watch my back…you know?”

Millie nodded. “And I guess he would,” she murmured.

“Yeah, sure he would. Then he could wreck the whole thing. Nope, I guess I’ve just gotta try and bluff it out.”

Millie went and fetched them a glass of red eye apiece, and they sat companionably in front of the fire, Jess’s arm comfortingly around her shoulders as he thought back to that fateful day, just a few weeks ago, when Mort Corey, Laramie Sheriff and good friend, had called Jess into his office…

*****

Jess sauntered into the sheriff’s office, chucking his hat down on the desk, grinning over at his buddy. “So where’s the fire then, Mort? Lon said you wanted to see me right away.”

“My deputy is nothing if not efficient,” said Mort dryly. “I did want to see you…and, yeah, I guess it is kind of urgent.”

“Sounds serious,” Jess replied, sinking down into the chair opposite Mort’s desk.

“Um, do you remember a villain named Vern Dorsey? Married to an old flame of yours, wasn’t he? Sara?”

“Zara. Yep, wanted for that stage job. Shot that young couple two, no three, years ago.”

“Yeah, that’s him. Well, his wife Zara has been working over at the Last Chance for a few months now.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So you haven’t been to see her then?”

“No, why would I? Like you say, she was in my past. And it was all a real long time ago.”

“So, you wouldn’t like to renew your friendship then?”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “Hell no. Have you any idea what she’s like? And anyway, I’m with Millie now.”

Mort sighed deeply, before giving Jess his most earnest look. “Well, what I’m really asking is, will you renew your friendship? See, the thing is, I need your help, buddy –real bad.”

Jess sank back into his seat. ”Why do I get the feelin’ I ain’t gonna like this?”

“See, it’s this way…” Mort replied.

Mort went on to explain that Dorsey had recently escaped from prison and had been on the run for a week or more. Apparently he had met up with some old friends and one of them had sent a wire to Doc Sam Baker, threatening him and his daughter Carrie.

 “He what!” exploded Jess at this point. “What do you mean threatened?”

“Says he’s going to kill them both — Carrie first, then Sam — because it was Sam’s evidence in court that finally sent Dorsey down for the ten stretch. Would have hung if the young married couple hadn’t survived.”

Jess just whistled softly. ”So where do I come in?”

“Well, it seems that Zara has moved on. Dorsey had other women, and this last stunt — robbing the stage and all — well, it was a step too far and she’s washed her hands of him. Thing is, though, Dorsey doesn’t know it and the word is that he’ll be seeking her out. And it’ll have to be before he tries to kill the doc. We think he’ll ask her to go on the run with him.”

“So where do I fit into all this?”

“Well, I thought if word got out that you were sniffing around her, he’d be bound to come looking for you. Call you out and then well, you do have the advantage of being a real fast draw, Jess. I’m hoping you’ll be able to kill him, or at least slow him down some, before he has a chance to get to Carrie or the doc.”

Jess knew the truth of it, knew how jealous Vern Dorsey was. Hell, they’d come to blows once years ago when someone told Vern that Zara and Jess had dated. So if he really thought they were together again, well, sure he’d come out shootin’ first and asking questions later.

“The thing is, though,” said Mort looking very serious, “this has to just be between you and me. Fewer folk know it’s a trick, the better. So that means you mustn’t tell anyone.”

“Not even Slim?”

“Especially not Slim. Hell, you know what he’s like. He’d be hanging around all the time, watching your back, and that would make folk suspicious. I’m pretty sure Dorsey’s got pals in town watching our every move, and if word gets back to him it’s a trick, well, he’ll just concentrate on dispatching Sam and Carrie.”

“So what are you doin’ to protect them?”

“Well, as much as we can — keeping them in town, and Lon or I go on house calls with him. But I’m worried, real worried, Jess.”

“What about Zara? Is she in on it?”

“Nope; too risky. I guess she wants her old man dead as much as we do, but she may say something and let the cat out of the bag. It’s best if she thinks you’re really interested in her, I guess.”

“Jeez Mort, you’re asking one hell of a lot,” Jess sighed, looking down and was silent for a while, shaking his head sadly.

Then he finally replied. “I don’t like deceivin’ her that way. Hell, we finished it years ago and it was a real bad ending too. She’s…” He sighed. “Well, let’s just say she’s a real difficult woman. Got a temper, you know?” Jess asked, raising a dark quirky eyebrow.

“Um, I had heard. Seems one guy thought he’d get away without paying and she turned a knife on him; he soon saw the sense in completing the transaction,” Mort laughed.

“Yeah, well, she sure ain’t a woman you wanna cross,” agreed Jess. “Or mess about with, either.”

“What’s the phrase? Oh yeah, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” grinned Mort.

“You got it,” agreed Jess, with the glimmer of a smile. ”Guess I’ll need your protection when she finds out I ain’t really interested and it was just a trick to kill her husband, even if I will be doin’ her a favor by all accounts,” he added morosely.

“So, are you up for it then?” asked Mort eagerly.

”You know I have to do it. For Carrie and Sam. How could I not. But one thing. I’ve gotta tell Millie. She can be trusted, won’t interfere, but she don’t deserve to think I’m two-timing he. I won’t let her think that, Mort, no matter what.”

“OK, I can see that, Jess. But just Millie. Nobody else. Because it’s Sam and Carrie’s necks on the line here.”

*****

“Jess, you don’t look so good.”

He was finally brought back from his reverie. “Sorry, sweetheart. What?”

“I said you don’t look too well.”

“Nah. Well, I had a tumble from a mustang a couple of days ago. Kinda got banged up some.”

“Aw, Jess you should have said. Do you need anything?”

He turned and looked at her, drinking in her creamy skin, large brown intelligent eyes and her curvy figure, ill-concealed in the brief negligee. Then he leaned in and kissed her deeply, before pulling back and smiling into her eyes. “Just you, I guess…”

“Um, well, if that’s the case, I reckon I can oblige. But if you’re thinkin’ on sharing my bed cowboy, you go out the back and wash up. Because I’m sure not about to sleep with that awful perfume Zara favors,” she said with a little smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

The following morning Jess made his way back to the ranch, knowing he would compound Slim’s fury if he didn’t turn up sooner rather than later.

As it was, he rode in early, and after putting Trav up, went about doing Mike’s chores before he finally entered the house and saw Slim sitting at the table, just finishing breakfast.

Jess slumped down on the seat beside him and after a moment said, “So any coffee on the go then, pard?”

Slim just shrugged, looking far from friendly. “I guess,” and he pushed the pot over.

“Look, about last night…” Jess started.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Slim quietly. “You needed to be there, not here — or with Millie. Well, I guess that says it all,” he finished sadly. “You really don’t give a damn anymore, do you, Jess?”

“Slim, hang on; it really ain’t that way.”

“So if I go to the Last Chance and ask for Zara, she’ll tell me different then?”

Jess ducked his head and said nothing — but that nothing was speaking volumes to Slim.

“It ain’t the way it seems, pard,” Jess finally said, turning pleading blue eyes on his best friend. “I guess you’re just gonna have to trust me on this one, Slim.”

“You think you still deserve my trust?” Slim spat, and lurching up from the table, he marched out slamming the door behind him.

If Slim thought things seemed real bad right then, well, they were just about to get a whole lot worse.

Mose brought the early morning stage briskly into the yard and refused coffee. “No thanks, Slim; if it ain’t made by Miss Daisy’s fair hand, then I guess I’ll pass.” Then patting all his pockets several times, he finally pulled out a rather battered envelope.

“I do believe this is from the dear lady,” Mose said, looking like he was somewhat loathed to part with it. “Maybe saying she’s coming home soon?” he suggested eagerly.

“Thanks,” Slim replied, pocketing the note and giving the harness a final check, before standing back.

“So you ain’t opening it then?” asked Mose, looking crestfallen.

Slim merely shook his head. “Be seeing you,” he called as he made his way briskly over to the barn without a backwards glance.

“Well, I’ll be,” muttered the old-timer. Wonder who rattled ol’ Slim’s cage this mornin’, he thought before clicking the team off at a brisk pace.

It was much later when Jess was taking a welcome break from breaking mustangs, leaning on the corral fence, hat tipped back and one hand massaging his aching back, when Slim strode over.

“Bad news,” Slim said briskly.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, we got a letter from Daisy,” Slim said passing it over. “Says she won’t be home for a while.”

“Huh?”

“Just read it, Jess,” Slim said irritably.

Jess did as he was bid and then looked up anxiously. “Says Violet-Ann’s real bad, needs an operation. Well sure, Daisy has to stay and nurse her; we’ll cope, pard.”

“Will we, though? Have you forgotten school’s out on Friday and we’ll have Mike to care for full time?”

“Oh quit fussin’. He’s a good kid; looks after himself mostly.”

“That’s as maybe, but we can’t leave him home alone, Jess. One of us has to be in shouting distance — and at home at night too,” Slim said, casting his buddy a meaningful glance.

“Yeah, well I’m happy to be around in the day, or take him out with me on the range if needs be.”

“And in the evening?”

Jess shook his head. “I have to be out some nights. Sorry, Slim.”

“Have to?”

“Yep.”

“Jeez, she really has got her claws into you, hasn’t she, Jess. I sure hope she’s worth it, because I figure she’s pulling this family apart. If you’re willing to put her before Millie, and now Mike…” With that, Slim marched off, leaving Jess feeling sick to his stomach, but knowing he couldn’t risk saying anything. Hell, Sam and Carrie were counting on him.

*****

Jess was finding it increasingly difficult to prevent his relationship with Zara from reaching its natural conclusion. She was a very passionate woman and she also knew Jess of old; that was why she was somewhat puzzled that he had not yet succumbed to her many charms.

It was just two days since he had spent the night with Millie and he was even less inclined to romance Zara than he had been on day one of their renewed acquaintance, knowing how he would be hurting his girl, even though she understood the circumstances.

It had only been the fact that her room was shared by two other girls — all of them using it for ‘business’ — that Jess had avoided further intimacy. As it was, he had kissed her and made various overtures to try and convince her that he was indeed serious, but things had gone no further.

Now he was seated at the table in the back room behind the bar of the Last Chance, a glass of red eye before him while Zara paced moodily about the room, taking out her bad humor on the dirty dishes from their recently shared mea; she collected them up and turned and started clattering about at the sink.

Jess knew the signs. She was working herself up into one of her tempers, which were a real spectacle to see, and he wondered vaguely if such rages were normal. In fact, she seemed to see-saw between being overly passionate and loving one minute and acting like a pure little hell-cat the next. Nope, he figured, definitely not normal. He sighed deeply.

However, after a minute, he remembered what he was doing here. He had to convince her that he was in love — and everyone else in the bar too — if he was to keep the pretence up and fool Dorsey into an act of revenge. And that wasn’t gonna happen if the whole saloon heard her cussing him as only she could with her volatile Latin temperament.

“Zara.”

“What?” she asked turning exasperated eyes on him.

“Come here and leave that, will you?”

Zara stood arms akimbo, looking down scornfully, her beautiful dark eyes flashing ominously. “I thought you weren’t in the mood for romancing,” she cried bitterly. “Too battered after falling of those goddamn mustangs all day, didn’t you say?” she asked haughtily, her performance hiding her hurt feelings as Jess guessed.

She took a pace towards him and Jess grabbed hold of her hand and easily pulled her onto his knee, holding her tightly around the waist.

Zara struggled for a token moment before leaning in and kissing him passionately, one hand raking through his thick dark hair. He felt his body respond to her. Hell, he didn’t give a damn about her, but she was a very passionate and attractive woman and he was just a man forced into this situation. What could he do?

His mind desperately trawled around for an answer, while his devious body continued to respond to her overtures.

After a few minutes, she pulled back, looking him in the eyes. “I was beginning to think you didn’t care,” Zara said softly, running a finger seductively down his cheek and then to his shirt, which she deftly unbuttoned, sliding an amorous hand inside, caressing his naked torso seductively.

“Sure, sure I do,” he groaned. God forgive me, he secretly thought.

“Well, what are you waiting for then?” she asked, a beautifully arched eyebrow questioning him.

Jess leaned in and kissed her again, one hand slowly pulling the strap of her dress down as he caressed her silky skin.

The back door crashing open, sometime later, tore them apart as though someone had physically divided them, with Zara leaping up and pulling her dress down, while Jess instinctively went for his gun.

However, it wasn’t Jess that Vern Dorsey aimed his colt at. It was his wife. “You bitch,” he spat, discharging his weapon.

At exactly the same moment, Jess pushed her hard to one side and she fell, a bullet just catching her upper arm as she yelled in terror and pain.

Then Dorsey turned his gun on the dark-haired cowboy, but Jess was a whisker faster, squeezing the trigger and shooting him cleanly through the heart before he could reciprocate.

Dorsey stood there a look of stunned amazement in his eyes for a moment before grasping his chest and falling dead at Jess’s feet.

The sound of the gunfire reverberated around the room, the smell of chordate almost choking and then there was a moment of complete silence as Jess and Zara contemplated the dead man.

Then all pandemonium erupted as half the bar seemed to tumble into the small back room, staring in horror at the gory scene before them.

Jess immediately strode over to where Zara still lay, a pool of blood dripping down onto the floor as she clutched her arm, the blood oozing through her fingers as she sobbed softly.

“It’s OK honey,” Jess said before quickly picking her up and taking her in his arms he pushed his way through the crowded room to the door, where he paused. Mort Corey stood there, his rifle in his hand and a look of shock in his grey eyes.

Then the sheriff glanced down at Zara, and taking in the situation quickly, pushed the crowd away, walking over to the doc’s with Jess and leaving Lon, his deputy, to sort out the mess back at the saloon.

*****

It seemed like hours before Sam finally joined Jess and Mort in his office.

“She OK?” asked Jess, casting his friend an anxious glance as he entered.

The doctor just nodded and poured the two men a whiskey, pushing Jess’s towards him. “Here, drink this, Jess; you’re looking a mite pale.”

“She will be OK?” Jess persisted.

“Oh yes. Lost a lot of blood, but given a week or two, she should be back to normal, I guess — with the proper care.”

“She can stay here, can’t she? Have Carrie nurse her?”

The older man sat down at his desk and looked at his old friend. “Well, normally yes, but, well, something has just come to light. Mort, would you care to explain?”

The old sheriff looked decidedly sheepish, but finally turned to Jess. “It looks like it weren’t just Vern Dorsey we needed to be wary of. His brother Butch has made it known that he intends to carry on where his brother left off,  that is he aims to get satisfaction for his dead brother by…” Mort sighed deeply before continuing. “By killing you and Zara there for having an affair.”

Jess lurched up from his chair looking incandescent with rage. “Hell, where is all this gonna end, Mort? We didn’t have a goddamn affair. Can’t you tell him?”

“Lon already tried to, but he wasn’t having it. And as for Zara, well, she believes it herself. I guess you were real convincing, Jess.”

Jess looked down and cussed softly under his breath before turning to the Sheriff. “So what now?”

“Well, in the interim, I figure the safest place for her would be in my jail, but I just don’t have the facilities to nurse a sick woman. So I was wondering…well, if you and Slim could see fit to caring for her. Just until she’s fit enough to travel back down to Texas. Seems there are kin there who will look after her. Heck, I hate to ask you Jess, but you can keep her safe far better than the doc could, and I really don’t want to put him and Carrie at risk again.”

“So this Butch ain’t gunnin’ for you then Sam?”

“Seems not. He knows his brother was guilty and deserved to do time, but he seems furious about your relationship with Zara, Jess. He’s been down in Texas, and only just found out about Vern escaping. And then when someone in the bar told him as how you’d struck up a relationship with Zara, he went crazy.” replied the doc.

“Well, hell, Mort, can’t you just lock him up?” asked Jess looking annoyed.

The gray-haired sheriff shook his head sadly. “He’s not actually done anything, except make a few nasty threats. And then he left town. Apparently, a friend tried to make him see sense and they rode out together. It may all come to nothing, Jess.”

Jess knew when he was beaten and he raised his hands in submission. “Ok, ok, I’ll do it. But God knows what Millie will say, not to mention Slim,” he muttered.

Then Sam went and topped up his friend’s whiskey glasses. “What with all this disruption, I haven’t thanked you properly for all you’ve done to keep me and Carrie safe,” the doctor said beaming at Jess.

With characteristic bashfulness, Jess waved the comment away. “You’re welcome,” he said softly.

“No, really, Jess, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for keeping me and my little girl safe from that lunatic. If there is anything I can ever do for you…”

Jess again, just smiled and shook his head, before there was a sudden light of hope in his eyes. “Well now that you mention it, Sam…”

Later that day, Jess rode into the yard followed by the doctor driving his buggy with a pale looking Zara up on the seat beside him.

Once they were in the yard, Slim came running out of the barn to greet them, stopping in his tracks when he saw who was accompanying the doctor. He glared at Jess, looking askance.

Jess merely helped Zara down, and taking her arm, said softly, “Come on, honey; I’ll show you your room and you can rest up some. Time for introductions later,” he said for Slim’s benefit.

Then turning back and eyeing his partner, Jess said, “I think Sam has something to say to you, Slim,” before entering the ranch house, Zara still on his arm.

It was much later, when Zara had turned in for the night in Daisy’s room, declining supper and Sam had left, that the two cowboys had a chance to talk

Jess was banging about in the kitchen, rustling up ham and eggs helped by a rather puzzled looking Mike.

“So who is that pretty lady again?” he asked Jess.

Slim walked in on them, and ruffling the youngsters hair, said quietly, “She’s just an old friend of Jess’s staying here a while as she’s kind of sick, Mike.”

The youngster nodded at that, accepting the explanation and taking everything in his stride as usual. “Maybe we can ask her to stay until Aunt Daisy comes home, to help with the cookin’ an’ all?” Mike asked innocently as he eyed Jess’s culinary efforts with a slightly jaundiced eye.

“Git out of here,” laughed Jess. “Go lock up the chickens, Tiger; supper’s nearly ready.”

Once the youngster had gone, Slim sank down at the kitchen table and eyed his buddy warily. “I guess I owe you an apology, Jess. Sam told me everything and as to why you couldn’t share it too. That must have been real hard for you.”

Jess spun around from the cook stove and flushed up a little. “I guess so, yeah.”

“I’m sorry, pard; I should have trusted you,” Slim continued, and then stretched a hand out. “No hard feelings?”

Jess paused and then shook the offered hand, grinning happily. “Nope…and I’m sorry too, Slim. I guess I was kinda ornery about the whole thing.”

“So how did she take it when you told her it was all a trick — you pretending to romance her and all?” Slim asked with interest.

Jess turned back to the cooking and declined to answer.

“Jess?”

He sighed deeply. ”Well, I ain’t had time to explain yet, with her bein’ so sick and all,” he finally admitted.

“Well, Jess, I guess you’d better break it to her real soon. It’ll only make matters worse otherwise.”

Jess just shook his head. “Oh, I reckon it couldn’t get much worse, Slim. She’s gonna be real mad at me.”

“Aw, Jess, she looks a nice enough woman, real pretty that’s for sure. I guess she’ll probably see the funny side.”

Jess rolled his eyes. “You do? Well, I guess you don’t know Zara. See, she’s half Spanish, Slim, and she’s inherited this kinda hot blood. She’s either real passionate or real mad — and right now, I figure she’s gonna be real mad. And trust me, that’s somethin’ you really don’t wanna see.”

Slim chuckled. “Oh come on, Jess, just relax. She’ll be fine.”

The following morning, when the two men entered the kitchen looking bleary eyed and arguing gently over who would make breakfast, they stopped in their tracks at the vision of loveliness in front of them — a scantily clad Zara, wearing a short low cut night dress with a loosely fastened shawl doing little to hide her feminine attributes.

“Good morning, querida,” she whispered, throwing Jess an amorous glance as she turned from where she was cooking breakfast at the stove.

Slim looked embarrassed at her attire and Jess looked slightly annoyed at the endearment, biting back the comment, ‘I ain’t your darling’.

“Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this. You’re sick. Maybe you should go back to bed?” Jess said, looking at her bandaged arm.

“It’s just fine, honey; only a scratch,” Zara replied, beaming at him.

“Um, ok. Er, I’ll finish up here Zara. You go get dressed then, huh?”

She looked surprised at that. “You don’t like me like this,” she asked, twirling around, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

Jess ducked his head, “Sure, but the boy…You know he’ll be up soon.”

“Oh, yes, of course….excuse me.” She ran from the room.

When she returned a little later, she was clad in a revealing, tightly-fitting dress, looking more suited to the saloon than a ranch breakfast table, but Jess thought better than to object again.

Zara gently pushed Jess aside from the stove, where he had taken command of the frying pan and continued cooking the meal, all the time casting loving glances over at where Jess was now seated at the table, pouring coffee and studiously ignoring her.

Breakfast was a lively affair, with Zara insisting she was fine and intended to help out around the ranch in the absence of their regular housekeeper, much to Mike’s delight and Slim and Jess’s surprise.

“I never had her down as the domestic type,” whispered Slim to his pard when Zara left the room to fetch more coffee.

“Me neither” agreed Jess.

Once the meal was over and Slim and Mike had retired to the yard to make a start on the chores, Jess went to follow them out, but not before Zara had grabbed his arm, pulling him back, into the relative privacy of the kitchen.

She wound her arms around his neck, and leaning in, kissed him hard, before he could pull away. But something in the way he kissed her made her frown slightly. ”Jess?”

“Look, Zara, we need to talk.”

“Si si….later,” she said, caressing his cheek and kissing him deeply again. Then, after a moment, she pulled away again and looked deeply into his troubled blue eyes. “Jess,” she whispered. “Tonight, we need to be together. I need you so much. Can we go somewhere? That bunkhouse maybe?”

Jess pulled away shaking his head. “Hell Zara, your husband ain’t even cold in his grave.”

“Pah! What do I care for Vern? I cut him out of my life ages ago. He is but nothing to me!”

Jess looked scandalized at that. “Well, he sure didn’t know it, and even so, we need to talk things through. There’s stuff you don’t know. I…well, I ain’t been completely honest with you. See, I…”

“No, I don’t want to talk. All I want is you!” she cried, breaking in, tears brimming in her eyes.

Then Mike burst in, calling to his hero. “Jess, stage’s here,” he yelled from the front door. “Slim wants you.”

“Coming, Tiger.” Jess gently disentangled himself from her grip. “I have to go.”

She nodded. “Si querida… later.”

Once the stage had lit out, Slim turned towards his buddy. “So you told her then, Jess?”

Jess looked down, flushing a little. “Nope. Not yet, that is. It’s kinda hard, you know. I’ll tell her later. Just leave it huh, Slim?” He marched off to the corral to start work on the mustangs.

It was after supper that things finally came to a head.

Jess had decided to share a drink with her once the others had retired for the night and explain the situation. She’d be mad, sure, but she’d get over it, and the longer he left it, the worse it would be, he knew that.

Already Slim had walked in on them kissing again, before supper, when Jess had tried to back off, but Zara was nothing if not tenacious. If she wanted something, well…she just took it. Hell, Jess knew that from the past.

Jess had been in his early twenties when they had a passionate affair that ended with her threatening to kill him if he left her. At the time, he had thought himself to be in love, but later realized that his feelings for her were purely based on lust.

Hell, the things she could do to a man… But Jess had been overwhelmed by the strength of her feelings for him and also her mercurial character which found him in her loving arms one minute and being harangued and sworn at the next. Yep, she was way too taxing back then. And she really hadn’t changed any, he thought now.

They were just finishing supper when Mike turned to him and said, “So what’s happening on Saturday night? Are you seeing Millie as usual Jess?” he asked innocently.

Jess turned to where a shocked looking Zara was staring at him.

“Slim and Jess go to town to see their girlfriends on Saturdays,” Mike went on conversationally. “And they usually stay over as it’s a long ride back in the dark an’ all. So maybe you’ll look after me, Miss Zara?”

The room was deathly silent, save for the ticking of Slim’s Pa’s old time piece on the wall.

Then Zara finally spoke very quietly. “Millie? Millie Johnson? You’re dating Millie?” she asked her eyes, wide with dismay.

“Sure he is,” cried Mike excitedly, “and they’ve gotten a kinda understandin’, too. ain’t you, Jess?” he said, turning shining eyes on his friend.

Jess finally managed to drag his eyes away from Zara, who he had been staring at with a sort of morbid fascination, just waiting for her to let rip.

“Go to bed will you, Tiger.”

“Huh?”

“Bed, Now. I’ll be in later. Just go to your room and stay there — no matter what. Understand?”

The boy knew that tone of voice, used very rarely, but when he heard it, he knew he had to do as he was told and at once.

“Night all,” Mike said quickly and made for his room at speed, closing the door behind him.

Jess turned back to look at where Zara was now looking flushed and agitated. “Look I can explain,” he said quickly, half rising from his seat.

“You two-timing…” She lurched up from the table, and picking up the first thing that came to hand — a cream jug — threw it at Jess catching him full on the chest, the remainder of the cream splashing down his shirt front.

“Zara, just take it easy, huh. Hear me out?”

“Take it easy!” she screamed. “You…you gusano!” (Worm)

“Zara!”

Jess ducked as she picked up a plate and threw it, catching him on the temple.

Slim leapt up at this and made for the front door, closely followed by Jess.

“Cerdo!” (Pig)

“What she say?” asked Slim as he dodged another couple of plates and a cup.

“Don’t ask. Come on, Slim, get out of here.”

“Piojo sucia!”(Filthy louse), she screamed.

“Look, I’m sorry, ok? Lo siento!” Jess called, wrenching the door open as a further volley of plates shattered around his head.

“Bastardo!” was her parting shot as the two cowboys made it outside to the relative safety of the porch.

“Ah, I guess I understood that one,” said Slim with the flicker of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Jess looked at his pard and then he too saw the funny side, and after a moment they were doubled up in silent laughter, desperately trying not to make a sound.

After a while, they recovered and Slim looked over at his buddy. “What now?”

Jess shrugged. “It don’t usually last long. She’ll calm down and turn in soon, I guess, then we can risk goin’ back in.” Both men sank down on the porch chairs to wait.

“She sure is one hell-cat,” said Slim, grinning across at his buddy.

Jess nodded indulgently. ”Ain’t she just? But she’s a darn good kisser, gotta give her that.” Both men chuckled again.

*****

It was sometime later before they risked entering the ranch house.

Everything seemed quiet, the lamps dimmed and the only sign of the previous turmoil was all the broken crockery strewn across the floor.

Both men cleaned the place up and were just about to turn in when they heard weeping coming from Daisy’s room and exchanged an anxious glance.

“Oh hell,” whispered Jess.

“That’s down to you to sort out, I guess, pard,” said Slim. After a moment, Jess nodded, and tapping lightly on the door, entered Daisy’s room, closing it behind him.

Daisy’s usually neat and tidy room looked like a hurricane had struck, with clothes and shoes abandoned about the place, a mixture of makeup and jewelry cluttering the dressing table. Zara’s scent permeated the room to such an extent that Jess wondered fleetingly if they would be able to get rid of the smell before Daisy landed home in a few weeks, but then turned his mind to the current problem.

Zara lay in the bed, wearing the same brief night gown that she had done at breakfast, and her eyes were red from crying, her expression one of utter defeat.

“What do you want?” she muttered when he entered and stood staring down at her.

“We need to talk,” Jess said quietly.

“What about?” Zara asked with spirit. ”Your romance with Millie or the way you thought it was fun to string me along? What was that about, Jess? For old time’s sake, eh? But as I remember it, you said I was too…er…what was it? Too demanding, that’s it. That’s why we finished, wasn’t it?”

Jess looked down, embarrassed. “I guess we just weren’t suited, and anyways that was a long time ago. We were very young.”

“So why mess with me now — bring it all back? Hell, I really cared about you; you were everything to me.” She stifled another sob.

Jess looked stunned at that. “Heck Zara, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you felt that way. I’d no idea. I just thought we were a pair of kids foolin’ around.”

She sighed deeply. “So what was it you wanted to say to me then? “

Jess sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand before looking deeply into her eyes. “I never meant to hurt you this way,” he said, and then he explained all about the trick and how he’d been acting on the Sheriff’s behalf to stop Vern before he could kill or injure the doc and his young daughter, using his alleged relationship with Zara as bait to make Vern come out of hiding.

“But why didn’t you just tell me?”

“I wanted to. Hell Zara, it was hard for me too, havin’ to deceive you that way. But Mort said we couldn’t take the risk. If word had gotten out that we were just play acting, then Vern would have gone straight for the doc, before I could stop him.”

Once he’d finished, Zara stared at him for a good minute before finally saying coldly, “I see.”

“Do you?”

Then she sighed. “Yes I suppose so and, well, it is kind of you to take me in right now. I guess old Butch is really gunning for us?”

“You know about that?”

She just nodded.

“Looks like he could be, yeah,” Jess told her. “But you’ll be safe here with me and Slim around. You’re welcome to stay until you’re well enough to travel down to Texas and your kinfolk.”

She looked down at that, ‘Well, it may be some time, Jess. that was a nasty wound. Gunshots, well, you can’t be too careful, you know. It seems ok, but they can get infected.”

Jess felt like telling her that was completely at odds with what she had said just that morning, but decided to quit while he was ahead. “Sure, sure. See you tomorrow. ‘Night.” He quickly stood up and left before she could start getting emotional again.

When Jess entered the bedroom, Slim was already stretched out ready for sleep but the lamp was still burning for him. Jess started stripping off for bed.

“Well, what did you say?”

“The truth, of course. I reckon she understood in the end.”

“Good. So I figure she’ll be off home soon then?”

Jess turned away and climbed into bed making a great fuss of puffing up his pillows.

“Jess?”

Jess sighed and finally slumped down on the pillows, before turning to face his buddy. “Looks like that arm’s botherin’ more than she said before. Seems she wants to stay on a while, until it’s completely better anyways.”

“Oh?”

“Well, come on, Slim, she ain’t that bad. She can cook OK, maybe she could stay on as housekeeper for a little while, look after Mike when we’re busy?”

Slim took a deep breath. “Well, no offense to her, pard, but do you really think she’s a suitable sort of woman to be looking after an impressionable young boy?”

Jess raised his eyebrows. “Well, why not?”

“Heck Jess, just look at her. All that makeup and real revealing low cut dresses, not to mention the way she is around you. Well, that just isn’t suitable behavior in front of Mike.”

“So are you gonna tell her then?” asked Jess challengingly.

Slim sighed deeply again and cast his pard a baleful look. “Guess we’d better sleep on it.”

*****

As it happened, they had little time to worry about the situation the following morning, as the corral fence had been broken down and two of the green broke mustangs had hightailed it during the night.

“Garldarnit,” muttered Jess. “I said we should move those ornery critters out to the home pasture.”

“Yes, well, neither of us did, so no use in crying over spilt milk,” said Slim resolutely.

“Well, that’s easy for you to say. It weren’t you as practically busted a gut breakin’ the dang critters,” Jess said, marching off in high dudgeon towards the barn.

Slim followed Jess a few minutes later and found him saddling Traveler. “So where in Hell do you think you’re going?”

“To get ‘em back. Where do you think?”

“Well, if you’ll hold fire a minute, I’ll come with you.”

“Can’t Slim; we can’t leave Mike alone — or Zara for that matter — in case that Butch comes sniffin’ around.”

Slim sighed deeply, “The sooner Miss Daisy comes home, the happier I’ll be.” He strode off to fetch the fresh mounts for the early stage, which was due in.

A few minutes later, Jess rode out of the barn, raising a hand in farewell.

“When will you be back?” Slim called after his pard’s receding form.

“When I’ve found ‘em!”

“Oh just great,” Slim muttered to himself.

As it turned out, it was nearly two days before Slim was to clap eyes on his partner again — two very full and informative days for Slim as well, as he got to know Zara much better.

There were several times over those days when Slim had to bite back comments or criticisms regarding the way Zara went about her housekeeper’s duties — from the revealing clothes she wore to the high disregard she seemed have for all Daisy’s pristine kitchen equipment, not to mention the tall tales she insisted on telling. He found her whole style difficult to cope with.

Finally she was recounting something that had happened to one of the working girls at the Last Chance over the supper table, and Slim was forced to stop her. “Er, I don’t think that kind of talk is, well…suitable for the youngster,” he said, throwing her an embarrassed glance.

“Aw Slim, I like Miss Zara’s funny stories,” said Mike, although in all honesty most of them went over his head.

“Mike,” said Slim brusquely, “have you finished?”

“Yep, I guess so.”

“Well then…”

“I know,” Mike said in a resigned tone. “Go and get washed up for bed.”

Slim nodded, and then added more kindly, “Supper was rather late, Tiger, and it’s way past your bedtime.”

“OK,” said the child, reluctantly slipping down from his seat and heading for his room. Then he turned at the door. “Jess is awful late. Is he gonna be home tonight? “

Slim shrugged. “I don’t know, Mike; I guess not. Those critters had a good head start on him and you know Jess — he won’t come on home ‘till he’s found ‘em.”

“Sure wish I could have gone with him.”

“I know, but you’re needed here, young man; we rely on you to keep things ticking over when one of us is away. You understand that, don’t you? “

The boy grinned at that. “Sure I do. ‘Night Slim, ‘night Miss Zara.”

Once he’d gone, Zara turned to Slim. “I’m sorry about that; I guess it was kind of an improper story for a young one. I wasn’t thinking.”

“No,” said Slim succinctly, concentrating on the contents of his coffee cup.

“You don’t like me much, do you, Slim?”

He flushed up at that, “Well, I really don’t know you too well.”

“Um, but you think I’m a bad influence on the boy?”

Slim just shrugged.

“And Jess too? “

“Jess is old enough to make his own decisions,” said Slim, looking up and throwing her a hard look.

“But you still don’t approve, of me, the Last Chance, any of that? “

“I guess not,” Slim said honestly. “Ezra is an old thief who waters down the whiskey and keeps a bawdy house. I guess no decent man would be seen in the place, if I’m being honest.”

“Well you certainly don’t pull your punches, do you, Mister Sherman?” Zara said, looking flushed and aggrieved.

Slim felt the stirrings of disquiet and wondered if he was about to get the same treatment as Jess had the other night. “Well, you asked me,” he said quietly. “I was just telling the truth. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.”

She sighed deeply. “No, it’s I who should be sorry. It is an awful place, and I guess even with my tarnished reputation, well, I felt real ashamed working for Ezra. But I didn’t have a lot of choice if I wanted to stay around here.”

“And why did you? Once Vern was in jail, why didn’t you just go back to Texas?” Slim asked, looking puzzled.

She threw him a long calculating look before replying. “Because I was living with Butch over in Cheyenne. We got together after the trial. Then we had a massive row a few months ago and I remembered Jess lived over this way, so I thought I’d try and throw my lot in with him again.”

“You did?” asked Slim, looking astonished.

“Yeah, I tried to get a job at the Laramie Saloon, but they weren’t taking on and the old man — er, Tom — said he didn’t employ working girls anyway.”

Slim nodded. “That’s right.”

“So anyway, I got a job at the Last Chance and just hoped and prayed that Jess would hear about me and come visiting.”

Slim said nothing, knowing that Jess had been aware of her presence but had given her a wide berth, not wanting to open old wounds for either of them, until the Sheriff had persuaded him to take part in the trick to protect Doc Baker. He took all this in and then said, “And now?”

“I really don’t know. I still have feelings for Jess, but I don’t think he’s interested. We finished on, well, on bad terms.”

Slim just looked noncommittal, not wanting to delve too deeply into his buddy’s past love life.

However Zara seemed determined to unburden herself. “We were young — early twenties — and so in love,” she murmured, her eyes having a faraway look. “I am very…apasionado — how you say…er, passionate.”

Slim suddenly felt the room had gotten kind of hot and ran a finger around his shirt collar and gave a vague nod.

“So when I met Jess, well, there were fireworks,” Zara said, smiling. “He too is very passionate, I think. We were such great lovers together. But we both had the temper and then things would go whoosh!” she said, raising her eyebrows and gesturing with her hands. “We would fight like cat and dog, and then…make up,” she said, casting him a smoldering look.

“Umm, I can, er, imagine,” said Slim, not quite meeting her eye.

Zara sighed deeply. “Oh how I loved that man!” She looked down before throwing Slim an angry look. “And then one day, he ups and says he is going. He has places to go in that ’big open’ of his,” she spat, looking furious at the memory.

“Well, that’s Jess,” said Slim softly.

Zara ignored him as she stared into space continuing her narrative. “He said I was unpredictable, too…too hot-blooded and fickle. I ask you…me?” she cried, casting hurt eyes on Slim. “I am just apasionado; I cannot help the way I am.”

“No, sure, sure you can’t,” replied Slim placatingly, not wanting her to erupt again and wake Mike.

She sighed deeply, tears now in her eyes. “But he went anyway. Said it was the best for us both. But it wasn’t — not for me. I swore I would kill him!” she cried her anger erupting once more.

The old saying, ’Hell hath no fury…’ came to Slim’s mind again and he wondered if this beautiful ardent woman would be capable of a ‘crime of passion’ and thought she well might. “And now? Do you still feel that way?”

Zara gave him a genuine, if sad, smile. “No. Time heals. I have forgiven him, but I still have feelings for him, Slim. God knows I would show him if only he would allow me to get close,” she whispered almost to herself.

Slim ducked his head before looking deeply into her sad eyes. “He loves Millie,” he said softly. “Very much. And I guess there really isn’t anything you can do about that, Zara; he will never leave her.”

Her head shot back almost as though he had slapped her, her eyes bright with unshed tears again, her face a mask of anguish. “Really?” she whispered.

He just nodded and reaching across the table took her hand and squeezed it gently. “Yes. I’m real sorry.”

After a moment, she finally responded. “Well I know Mike did say they had an understanding, and I shouldn’t be so surprised. I grew up on the panhandle, knew them both a little back then. They were always together as kids, always best friends,” she said bleakly. “I guess over the years of dating other people, they finally realized what they needed had been there all along — each other.”

“You’ve got it,” said Slim softly. “That’s just the way it was.”

She was silent for a minute and then gently removed her hand and gave him her beautiful smile. “Thank you for being so honest with me, Slim. I’ll go, just as soon as Jess gets back. I’d like to say goodbye at least.”

“What will you do? “

“Oh, I’ll be fine. Butch will take me back; he’s a good man.”

“What! I thought he’d threatened to kill you and Jess?”

“No, he would just have been sounding off. Butch is nothing like Vern. He is a good man. Sure, he was angry, but when I explain it was all a trick to save the doc from Vern, well, he’ll understand. I’ll just tell him I was in on the trick too; everything between me and Jess was just one big act.” Zara sniffed and then when she looked back up, the tears finally made their way down her beautiful cheeks.

“After all, that’s the truth isn’t it?” she whispered, before getting up and running to her room as the tears started flowing in earnest.

*****

Jess finally made it home on the afternoon of the second day, both mustangs roped up and following him into the corral a faintly sheepish look about them, Slim thought hiding a grin. “You found them then!”

“Yep, all the way down by Dead Man’s canyon,” said Jess leaping down from his mount and hustling the horses into the corral where Slim had opened the gate for him. “Has everything been ok here?”

“Well, er, yeah, I guess.”

Jess spun around, “You don’t sound too sure.”

“It’s just that Zara’s decided to move on. She’s stayed as she wanted to say goodbye to you.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Have you been upsetting her?”

“No, I haven’t, well, not really.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“We did have a sort of difference of opinion about a few things.”

“Like what?”

“Her outfits, way she leaves the whole darn house like a tornado’s passed through, things she’s said in front of Mike, her language. Gee, I never heard a woman cuss that way.”

“Anything else?” asked Jess dryly.

“Nope, I guess that covers it. She’s just not housekeeper material, Jess. I did say at the outset.”

“So she’s goin’ and we’re left without any help and Daisy not due back for weeks. Just great, pard!”

“Look, it’s not my fault she’s leaving; I guess that’s down to you.”

“Me? Hell, I ain’t even been here!”

Slim sighed. ”Come on, Jess, let’s go put Trav up. I think we need to talk in private, and the barn’s as good a place as any.”

They had been deep in conversation for several minutes with Jess getting more and more bewildered. “She said what?” he asked again.

“That she still has feelings for you. Remembered how it was between you two way back. All about fireworks and stuff and what a passionate lover you were,” said Slim, smirking and beginning to enjoy himself.

“Oh, you’re just lovin’ this, ain’t you,” said Jess squirming.

“Well, it’s not my fault if your murky past is coming back to haunt you, pard.”

Jess finished tending his horse and patted him fondly on the rump. “Well, I guess I’d better go and face the music — say my goodbyes.” Then turning anxious eyes on his buddy, he said, “Heck, you don’t suppose she’s thinkin’ of goin’ before she’s made supper, do you, Slim?”

“Get out of here! You and your stomach!” chuckled Slim, landing a playful clip around his friend’s head.

Jess was actually very kind and gentle with Zara, treating her like a lady and making a fuss of her on her last evening with them, insisting she relax whilst he and Mike washed the dishes. Then he put the boy to bed and finally said he was going to check on the recalcitrant mustangs, and as he had hoped, she had retired by the time he came back in.

“Zara said goodnight; she’s catching the early stage for Cheyenne. Said she needed her beauty sleep,” said Slim with a grin as Jess entered their shared room.

“Cheyenne?” echoed Jess. “What’s she doin’ there? I thought she was bound for Texas?”

“Well, it turns out she’s been living with her brother-in-law, Butch, ever since Vern was banged up three years ago. It was only because they had a massive fall out that she came over to Laramie hoping to hook up with you.”

Jess looked bewildered. “I thought it was this darned Butch who was gunning for us, looking on gettin’ revenge for his brother?”

“Nope. According to Zara, he was just plain mad at her for running out on him and real jealous of you. Seems he swallowed the story about you and her being together. That’s what all that was about.”

“Um, well I figure he’ll still gunnin’ for me even if he does forgive her,” Jess said morosely.

“Nope; she’s going to explain it all to him — how there isn’t anything between you two. Says he’s a real nice guy; shouldn’t hold a grudge.”

Jess relaxed some at that and sank down on his bed, then turned to look over at his friend. “Tell me Slim, why is my life so garldarn complicated? “

“Something to do with you and women folk, I guess,” said Slim. “If you hadn’t had so many women in your past, then life would be one heck of a lot simpler, you know, Jess.”

Jess lay back on his bed, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling, absorbing his friend’s wise words. Then he turned back to Slim with a cheeky grin said, “Life sure wouldn’t have been as much darn fun though, Slim.” With that, he relaxed back on the bed, a happy grin on his face.

*****

The following morning breakfast was quite a sober affair, with Mike especially sad to say goodbye to the lady who had taken over Daisy’s duties of caring for him.

Once the meal was over, Mike and Jess tidied the table while Zara fetched her luggage and made a token effort of tidying Daisy’s room — although tidy wasn’t her natural state, as they had all begun to realize.

“Gee, I’m gonna be really sorry when Miss Zara goes,” said Mike with a sigh

“How so, Tiger?” asked Jess, looking down at the youngster.

“Well, she’s real good fun, ain’t she, Jess? The way she cusses and don’t fuss about everywhere being tidy and clean — even me,” Mike said, looking delighted.

“Um, I guess she ain’t too particular. But I figure you’re gonna have a bath sometime, Tiger. Otherwise, I’ll get it in the neck when Aunt Daisy gets home, not just you.”

Then they looked up and saw Zara standing at the kitchen entrance watching them.

She came forwards and ruffled Mike’s hair. “I’ll miss you too, honey,” Zara said, smiling fondly down at him. Then looking more seriously at Jess, she asked, “so will you miss me too?”

Their eyes locked and Jess opened his mouth to reply, just as Slim burst in.

“Stage is here and Mose is running late; no time for a stopover. You got everything?”

There was a flurry of goodbyes and then Jess escorted Zara out to the yard while Mike watched. Slim threw her valise up top of the coach.

Then, she finally turned to Jess. “So this is goodbye.”

Jess nodded and then said softly. “In answer to your question — yes, I will.”

Zara reached up and lightly kissed his lips and then she was in his arms. He kissed her back very thoroughly before finally pulling away and looking deeply into her misty eyes. “Bye Zara. Be happy.” They continued to just stand there, holding each other and looking into each other’s eyes, until Jess was finally dragged from his contemplation by the sound of someone clearing her throat. Looking over at the stage, he saw a middle aged woman standing there glaring at the couple.

Slim went over, and smiling at the lady, dressed in a business-like suit and a fierce expression, said “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m afraid the stage isn’t stopping for a break today; the driver’s running late.”

She turned dark, stern eyes upon him. “Is that so?”

“Yes, ma’am. Well, unless you want to use the facilities, that is,” Slim said. flushing a little.

“Facilities? Facilities!” she roared. “What on earth are you referring to, my good man?”

“Er, the outhouse,” Slim said quietly, gesturing with his head, looking even more embarrassed while Jess and Zara looked on trying to keep a straight face.

“What? Oh, I see. You mean the cloakroom…or water closet?”

Slim looked vague. “Er, yes ma’am.”

“No, that won’t be necessary, young man. Just show me to my room.

“Huh?”

“Well, you did get dear Lily’s letter, didn’t you? “

Slim just shook his head looking mystified.

Jess had come forwards now looking worried. “You know Lily? Daisy’s sister Lily?” he asked warily.

“Well, of course. Who else?” asked the woman, staring at Jess like he was a complete idiot. Then she threw him a cool look and continued. “Um, so the way you were practically devouring that woman,” she said turning to give Zara a dismissive glance, “and you’re — yes, I agree, boyish good looks and doubtless bad attitude — you must be Mister Harper.”

Yes, dear Lily was quite right about that, she thought. Not safe around women, good looking, and trouble with a capitol T no doubt.

Jess just stared mouth agape for a moment before saying quietly. “Yep, I guess you’re a friend of Lily alright.”

She just nodded and turned to Slim. “So you must be the sensible one who fusses and worries far too much. And you,” she said swinging around and glaring at a now giggling Mike, “you must be, ‘That boy’!”

Mike looked somewhat chastened at that and glanced at Jess for reassurance, and received a friendly wink.

“Well, now that’s all established,” said Slim coming to his senses, “who are you, ma’am, and what can we do for you?”

The woman sniffed at that and then said, “Well, it’s what I can do for you, my dear boy. It has been arranged that I shall come and take on the post of housekeeper until Miss Daisy is able to return. Now if one of you will get my bags down, I really would like to see my room…and maybe bathe before luncheon? “

“Huh?” asked Jess looking bewildered.

“I guess she wants a go in the tub before dinner,” whispered Slim as he accepted the bags from a now irate Mose.

“Come on, get a wiggle on, Slim. I’m late. So you getting on board then, Miss Zara, or what?” Mose asked testily.

“Oh, yes, that’s for sure,” Zara said and grinned at Jess as he helped her up. “Good luck, honey; looks like you’re gonna need it.”

Then Mose whipped the team out of the yard at a cracking pace, leaving a somewhat troubled Jess and Mike watching.

“I reckon that lady ain’t gonna be nuthin’ like Miss Zara, is she, Jess?” whispered a dejected Mike.

“Um, I reckon you’ve got that one right, Tiger,” Jess agreed heartily. “Nuthin’ like.”

*****

They marched into the house to the sound of the new housekeeper’s strident tone.

“What is that terrible odor?” came from the depths of Daisy’s room.

“Huh?” asked Slim, glancing around him and then rolling his eyes as Jess and Mike entered.

“That dreadful smell,” she replied, throwing the windows open wide before returning to the main room. “It’s just too…too awful for words. And the mess!” she said, closing her eyes as if in pain.

Jess had just about had enough of this intrusion now, so ignoring the jibes about Zara’s choice of perfume and somewhat lack of domesticity, he said, “So what was actually in this here letter then, Ma’am?”

“Why just that I would be arriving today to ‘hold the reins’, so to speak, until dear Violet-Ann is well and Daisy can return home.”

“So you are a friend of Lily and her sisters then?” asked Slim, hardly believing that Daisy would count her as a close friend.

“Well yes, of course. I can’t believe that dear Daisy has never mentioned me as one of her sister’s dearest friends. I am Lady Marjorie Fortescue- Smyth,” she said grandly.

Jess tipped his hat back viewing her like some exotic species he had just come across. “You ain’t from these parts are you, ma’am? “

She sighed deeply. “No, my dear boy; I am from London England. You may have heard of it?”

Jess decided to ignore the sarcasm, “Well, you’re a mighty long way from home. So how come?”

“It has been my lot in life to travel these last few years since dear Daddy died and my brother inherited the family seat.”

“Seat,” echoed Mike. ”You just had the one?” he asked, looking shocked.

She leaned over and ruffled the boy’s hair and gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Oh my goodness, I can see I am going to have my work cut out educating you, young man. My family seat refers to our ancestral home, which is always left to the eldest son. And so I was forced to leave when dear Daddy passed over. My brother and I tend not to see eye-to-eye. Hence my long visit with dear Lily.

“So you and Lily you’re old friends then?” asked Slim politely.

“Oh yes; she was educated back in the old country, you know. Being the youngest, her Papa wanted the best for her, spoilt her a little, I suspect. And so we were at school together. Unfortunately, the family circumstances were unable to run to a classical education for Violet and Daisy, so they were…regrettably educated over here,” she said with a dismissive sniff.

“Poor them,” muttered Jess under his breath.

“So why are you called Lady, er Fortesc…thingy?” asked a bewildered Mike.

“Fortescue-Smyth dear,” she said, throwing him a rather chilly glance. “That is called a title, because my dear daddy was a Duke — a member of the British nobility, you see.”

“Oh, I see,” said the child politely, not really understanding at all.

“But you may all call me Miss Smyth,” she said, beaming at them as though she were bestowing a great honor. “It will be easier all round, I suspect. So if you would just show me to the bathroom, then I’ll have a wash before luncheon is served,” she said with another patronizing smile.

“Sure I’ll show you,” said Jess, winking at his pard and he led the way outdoors again and showed her to the old wooden shower with the half door.

“There you go, Ma’am. The water’s a tad cold, but I guess it’s a nice warm day so shouldn’t be a problem. Kinda refreshing, you know?”

She turned a horror stricken face to him. “This is it? No indoor bath?”

“Oh yeah, sure we have. There’s a tub we put in front of the fire come Saturdays. We can fix that up for you, I reckon,” he said with a smile that looked very much like a leer to Lady Marjorie’s unversed eye.

“No, that will not be necessary. Maybe you could give me a jug of hot water. I’ll, er, tidy up in my room.” She walked slowly back to the house looking defeated.

“First round to me… my Lady,” Jess whispered happily to himself.

Once Lady Marjorie was busy attending to her ablutions in her room, Jess and Slim got in a huddle in the kitchen.

“How in hell are we gonna get rid of her?” Jess whispered, throwing his buddy an agonized glance.

“Well, I don’t see as how we can. She’s here to do us a favor and must be with Daisy’s blessing. We can’t go upsetting Daisy, Jess, not when her sister’s really ill and everything.”

“No, I guess not. But I ain’t havin’ anything to do with her. If she’s anything like that Lily, she’ll have it in for me, Slim. I can tell she don’t like me already.”

“Hey, pard, just relax. What is there not to like?” Slim asked with a smirk.

Jess ignored the remark. ”And what’s all this about luncheon bein’ served? Does she think we’ve got a dang butler and maybe a cook and a few maids hanging around the place?” he growled. “Because she sure is lookin’ to get a big shock.”

“So what is there for dinner then? What were you going to do, Jess?”

“Well that’s down to her, ain’t it?”

“Heck, we can’t make her cook after that long journey.”

“Oh alright, keep your hair on. I’ll go rustle up some beans and bacon for her ladyship.”

The meal was not a great success with Lady Marjorie, although the others wolfed it down in true rancher style.

Once the repast was over and the plates cleared and washed by Slim and Mike, Lady Marjorie sat looking pensively into her cup, before raising an aristocratic eyebrow to where Jess was enjoying his third helping of gut rot coffee.

“Tell me again. What is this?” she asked, gesturing weakly to her cup.

“Why it’s Arbuckle’s finest, Ma’am.”

“Well I’ve never tasted coffee like this before!” she said, her feelings of complete repulsion being mistaken for admiration by Jess.

“Well I guess it’s all in the brewin’,” Jess said modestly. “I kin show you if you’d like?”

“No,” she said quickly. “Er, that is, tea is really my preferred drink. Maybe we could do some marketing later. I see the cupboards seem rather bare, plus I have had dear Lily send me some supplies over. They should be waiting at the railroad office by now.”

“Well sure. Slim will take you into town. I’m afraid I’m real busy right now with mustangin’ and all,” Jess said quickly.

*****

However, when Lady Marjorie was all dressed up, ready to head for town the following morning, Slim dropped the bomb shell that he was expecting the Overland Superintendent on a regular visit to check the books.

“Come on, Jess, you’re going to have to take her,” Slim said as they stood outside the barn preparing the buckboard. “Besides, play your cards right and you can have a swift drink and see Millie.”

“I guess, but hell, Slim, what do I talk to her about? We ain’t got nuthin’ in common.”

“Sure you have. Lily — you can chat about her.”

“Well that won’t take long,” Jess sniffed. “Can’t stand the woman.”

“Well at least she’s sent us a housekeeper. She may be a real good cook; you never know. And she’ll sure keep Mike clean and tidy.”

“Um, poor little kid,” Jess muttered as he harnessed up old buckboard and drove it over to the porch to await Miss Marjorie.

As it happened, Jess needn’t have worried about making light conversation as Lady Marjorie harangued him for the whole drive to town, from the lax ways and unreliable character of their previous housekeeper — aka Zara — to the woeful inadequacies of the ranch in general and the kitchen in particular.

“Now hang on a minute,” Jess remonstrated. “Zara is an old friend of mine. Sure, she ain’t the greatest housekeeper but she was just doin’ us a favor.”

“Oh I saw that alright, with the way you said your goodbyes,” Miss Marjorie said dryly. ”One just wonders as to where these favors ended. Hardly the right atmosphere for a young impressionable child!”

Jess flushed up at that. “Heck, nuthin’ like that went on. I wouldn’t, not with the boy around!”

“My dear young man, what you get up to or do not has nothing to do with me. I was merely saying that…”

“No it ain’t!” Jess burst in effectively, silencing her for a moment at least

They progressed in silence before she sighed deeply and then continued. “I really don’t know how dear Daisy copes. That kitchen is totally inadequate, you know,” she said turning fierce eyes on him.

“Yeah, well, she never complains, and anything she needs, we’ll get for her. She knows that,” Jess said firmly.

“Well she could definitely do with a new modern cook stove, some decent utensils, new cutlery, crockery…where to start!”

Then it was Jess’s turn to sigh. He twisted round to face her from where he’d been looking out to the horizon with increasing frustration and gave her the full benefit of the Harper glare. “Look, ma’am, this is a workin’ ranch, not  some family seat. And there ain’t too much cash to go around. Garldarnit, some months, it’s all we can do to break even, without spendin’ out on a whole lot of stuff we don’t need. Now if you’re sayin’ you can’t cope with the job, well, that’s just fine. I guess me and ol’ Slim can manage Ok until Daisy fetches back home.”

There was a long awkward silence, and when she finally turned to him she had what seemed to Jess to be a hint of fear in her dark eyes. “No,” she said quickly. ”That won’t be necessary. I’m sure I can cope. Please Mister Harper, don’t say anything to Daisy…or indeed, Lily. I should hate to think I’ve let them down.”

Jess raised a puzzled eyebrow, but decided not to pursue this conversation, feeling slightly wrong footed at this sudden turn about. “As you say, Ma’am,” and they continued on in silence until they reached town.

Jess reined in the buckboard beside the mercantile, and jumping down, reached up to help Marjorie down and was surprised when her plain, pale face was suffused with a deep blush.

Hell, he thought, I’m only givin’ her a helpin’ hand, not comin’ on to her.

But she quickly pulled herself together, and brushing his hand that was still steadying her aside, said in a business-like manner, “I’ll get about my shopping — that is, marketing — then, Mister Harper.”

“You want me to give you a hand, carry the stuff an’ all?” Jess asked, without conviction.

“No, that won’t be necessary, thank you; I am quite capable. I shall meet you back here in say…one hour?”

Jess’s spirits rose. A whole hour to sink a pint or two and see Millie. Yep, things were sure looking up.

However, first, he had some business to attend to himself — see old Bill at the livery and settle the feed account, put a check in the bank, and then, to the saloon.

Jess almost had it in his sights when he was accosted by Casper Wright walking unsteadily along the side walk. The drunk stopped in his tracks at the sight of Jess walking purposefully along, and after a moment, he lurched forwards and intercepted him. “Harper at last. Thought you’d been avoiding me,” he slurred.

Jess threw him a disdainful look. “So why would I be doin’ that?”

“Because you’re runnin’ scared of what I’m gonna do to you, after that business when you chucked me off of your ranch!”

“I slung you off the ranch because we couldn’t get a darn day’s work out of you, because you were never sober. And I guess nuthin’s changed. Now get lost, Wright; I’m kinda busy.”

That was when he was suddenly alerted to the fact that Casper Wright was not alone; he had his big brother Lonny and cousin Pete riding shotgun over him, and now they advanced threateningly from the shadows — Lonny swaggering over and pushing Jess hard in the chest, making him stagger back.

“Don’t think it’s just my kid brother, Harper.” Lonny spat. “He’s got back up.”

“Seems real fair,” said Jess sarcastically. ”Three to one. So what’s your grievance then, Lonny?”

“Like I say, just looking out for my kid brother.” Then Lonny threw a punch that Jess neatly parried and returned with force, sending his adversary flying across the sidewalk.

That’s when the good folk of Laramie fled the scene, calling for the Sheriff as fists flew, Jess giving as good as he got as first Pete, then Casper and finally Lonny tried to down him.

The cries from without brought onlookers from the shops, and Marjorie joined them to look on in shock as Jess rolled around in the dust, wrestling with one of the Wrights while the others pitched in, trying to kick him.

However, after a few minutes, Jess got the upper hand again and had all three knocked down, if not completely out, by the time Sheriff Mort Corey strode into view.

Then the matter seemed to be quickly resolved with some banter between Jess and the Sheriff, and then Corey and his deputy marched the miscreants off towards the cells while Jess brushed himself down and moved off towards the saloon.

A jovial-looking elderly woman next to Marjorie grinned at the newcomer. “That Jess Harper certainly puts on a good show,” she said with relish.

Marjorie turned to stare at her. “You mean he brawls in the street often?”

The woman seemed to consider this and then after a moment said, “No, not in the street; usually in the saloon, I think, and not as what you’d call regular. But he sure is good to watch; moves real good, don’t he?” She grinned before going about her business, leaving a bewildered Lady Marjorie staring after her.

Jess marched into the saloon and ordered a beer, taking his hat off and brushing himself down again as Tom looked over and grinned,”You been gettin’ some exercise then, Jess?”

“You could say. That darn Casper Wright and family jumped me,” Jess spat. “All of ‘em drunk as skunks and it ain’t even noon yet, Tom; I guess that’s down to you.”

“Hey, slow down there, boy,” said the old barkeep, his hands up in submission. “It ain’t down to me at all; they drink over at the Last Chance.”

Jess shook his head. “Beats me as to how anyone can get drunk down at that place, the way ol’ Ezra waters down the beer and spirits. Sorry, Tom; weren’t your fault then.”

“That’s OK, buddy. Beer you say?”

Jess was about half way down his drink when Millie breezed in from the back room, her face lighting up when she saw Jess leaning on the bar.

She ran around to his side, and the couple embraced; she gave him a light kiss on the lips before pulling back, a slight frown on her pretty face. “Jess, you’ve been fighting,” she said, raising a censorious eyebrow. Then her expression softened as she touched his cheek gently. “Hey honey, that’s a really nasty gash. Come round and let me clean it up. There’s some grit in it.”

“I’m ok, Mill, really.”

“Jess!”

“OK, OK, I’m comin’. “

“Won’t be long, Tom; just going to clean up this hero,” Millie said with a chuckle as she led Jess out the back.

Jess sat on a kitchen chair while she fussed around with clean water and dressings and proceeded to clean and disinfect the wound with spirit. He flinched a little when she cleaned out the abrasion, but said nothing, and once she had finished, she smiled into his eyes, shaking her head a little. “What am I going to do with you, cowboy?”

“Well, I’ve got a real good idea,” Jess said with a cheeky grin before pulling her down onto his knee and leaning in, kissing her soundly.

After a moment, Mille pulled back, her eyes sparkling with merriment. “Would you like to come up for a quick….coffee?” she asked, throwing him a seductive look.

“Um, well, I sure would,” Jess replied, but then he glanced at the clock on the mantle and saw he was already five minutes late for Lady Marjorie. “Sorry sweetheart, can’t right now. Guess I’m keeping a Lady waitin’, and I really don’t need the sufferin’ that’s gonna cause me.” He sighed and went on to explain about the new housekeeper.

Millie chuckled at that. “Looks like she’s going to knock you boys into shape where Miss Daisy’s failed,” she laughed.

“Well, we’ll see about that,” Jess returned briskly. Then gently tipping her off his knee and rising, he made for the back door.

Millie walked out with him, and they wandered down the alley at the side of the saloon together before stopping at the top. Then Jess took her in his arms again. “It sure is tempting to stay with you for a while,” he said, shaking his head sadly.

“I’ll see you at the dance Saturday anyway,” she replied placatingly.

“I guess.” Jess leaned in, and taking her in his arms, kissed her deeply again. “That’s on account; the rest come Saturday,” he said as he pulled back and grinned down at her.

Across the road, Lady Marjorie stood by the buckboard, tapping her foot and watching this little display of affection with narrowed eyes.

“Whatever next?” she muttered to herself. Had the man no shame, brawling in the street, and now this? At this hour of the day and out on the side walk for anyone to see? Disgusting!

Well, down the side of the saloon and maybe she was the only one to have noticed, but that wasn’t the point, she said firmly to herself. The man is totally shameless, she thought, as she continued to watch in grim fascination. Then she softened a little as she saw the tender way he ran a finger down the woman’s cheek and said something that made her laugh. I wonder what that feels like, she suddenly thought, and the malicious look in her eyes was tinged with wistfulness. What was it like to be loved that way?

Jess finally ran across the street, dodging horses and the stage as he made for Lady Marjorie, arriving a little breathlessly. “Sorry Ma’am; I guess I got held up some. “

She looked him up and down, taking in his still slightly dusty, disheveled appearance and the faint flush to his cheeks, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of …what? Jealousy? Frustration? She didn’t know as the unfamiliar emotions stirred deeply within her.

Then, not knowing how to deal with these foreign sensations, she reverted to normal and started berating him for everything, from his lateness to his recent street fight and finally the little scene with Millie. “Scandalous, Mister Harper; that’s what it is, “she said coldly. “Brawling in the street, drinking and then canoodling with that…that floozy in the alley for all to see! “

Jess had been taking the slating quite well up until Millie was mentioned and then his face hardened. “You leave Miss Millie out of this,” he said frighteningly quietly, his eyes suddenly darkening with anger. “What I get up to ain’t any of your business; I thought we’d agreed on that. Now if you’re ready, I guess we’ll be headin’ back.” He offered a hand up to the buckboard seat.

“Well, really,” she muttered, but finally accepted his help and sat up on the seat next to him, her back ramrod straight and her gaze fixed firmly ahead. Her swiftly beating heart and the slight flush to her cheeks were the only signs of her inner turmoil.

It was later, after Jess had unloaded the shopping and was in the barn tending to the old buckskin, that Slim entered the kitchen to check Miss Marjorie had everything she needed.

“Yes, thank you, Mister Sherman. I’ve shopped for fresh ingredients and also retrieved the chest sent over from dear Lily. I think I can make you much more comfortable now and we can at least dine like the aristocracy, even if we are unable to live like them.

“Um, oh good, that’s fine, Ma’am,” Slim said absently, not really following her drift.

Then she peered over at the young rancher, and nodding to the main room, said quietly, “May we sit a moment? I need to speak to you, Mister Sherman. I am most distressed.”

Slim looked anxious. “Why sure, Ma’am.” He led the way through, gesturing for her to take Jess’s rocker, whilst he took the other fireside chair. “So what’s on your mind Lady Marjorie? Is Mike a little lively for you?” he asked with a concerned glance.

“Oh, no, well, not really. He is a little headstrong. I am used to children being seen and not heard, but it is early days. No, it is Mister Harper who is worrying me. “

Slim sighed softly. What had his pard done now? He gazed over at the forty-something, rather stout, plain woman, with her hair scraped back in an unbecoming bun. Well, at least he wouldn’t have been messin’ with her, he thought with relief. So what else?

“I really have to tell you that what I have witnessed today, Mister Sherman, was totally beyond the pale, er, or as you would say, out of order. Well, indiscreet anyway.”

“Huh?”

She sighed at this and muttered softly, “Do you good people not speak the Queen’s English at all?” Then more loudly, she said, “I mean Mister Harper operates outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. He’s completely uncivilized.”

Slim tried to hide a grin at this. “Why, yes, I believe you may be right, Ma’am. So what’s he been up to now?” he asked indulgently.

Marjorie took this rather nonchalant attitude badly, and rising, she said loudly, “I’ll tell you exactly what he’s been up to. Brawling in the street, drinking in one of those despicable saloons, and worst of all, carrying on with one of those dreadful saloon women in public, for all the world to see. I’m sorry to have to say this, Mister Sherman, but he is a very unsuitable guardian and I intend to let the powers that be know that as soon as I am able.”

Slim just stood looking up at where she had been marching around the room, waving her arms and becoming more and more flushed and agitated.

“I really don’t think you are taking this seriously enough, Mister Sherman!”

“Well, I guess our ways are somewhat different as to what you’re used to, Ma’am, but if Jess got himself into a fight, I’m sure there would be a good reason for it. And as to the saloon, well, I guess you can’t blame the man for taking the opportunity to slake his thirst and spend some time with his girl.”

“His girl!” She almost spat, looking shocked. “You mean he knows her? She’s a…girlfriend, not just some prostitute?” she almost squeaked.

“Heck, no! And for goodness sake, don’t let Jess hear you talking that way. Millie and Jess are walking out — have been for some time — and yes they’re best friends too. And she certainly isn’t a working girl. Never has been!”

“Well, even so, maybe he should rethink his personal life. I’m telling you now, Mister Sherman, he is a totally unsuitable guardian for that impressionable young boy and I see it as my duty to make sure the child finds a more appropriate home.”

“You’re what?!” exploded Slim, suddenly coming to his senses.

But then before he could say more, the front door, which had been ajar as they spoke, suddenly burst wide open and a red-faced, tearful looking Mike flew in.

He had been sitting out on the porch, polishing his boots as instructed by Lady Marjorie, and couldn’t help overhearing the conversation going on within.

Now, however, he forgot he was totally in awe of her and he ran up and yelled, “No!!! I don’t wanna go anyplace else! Slim is like a Pa to me and Jess is my very best friend and I love ‘em somethin’ fierce and I ain’t goin’ away — I ain’t!” he shouted, throwing her a belligerent look before collapsing in tears and throwing himself into Slim’s arms.

Then a moment later, there was a shadow cast on the room as someone stood in the open doorway. A moment later, Jess strode in, and looking around the room, said coldly, “So what in hell’s goin’ on?”

Mike ran from Slim to Jess and throwing himself at his hero cried, “She ain’t sending me away Jess, tell her… tell her!”

Jess knelt down and threw a comforting arm around him. ”You ain’t goin’ nowhere, Tiger, trust me,” he said softly.

“But she said as to how you weren’t a suit…suitable guardian because you get in fights and like a beer and ‘cos you love Miss Millie. But that don’t make no sense, Jess,” the child wailed. “Heck, we all love Miss Millie an’ fighting’s what you do real well, ain’t it?”

Jess and Slim exchanged the ghost of a smile before Jess turned back to the child. “Go finish off groomin’ old Buck for me, will you, Tiger? I’ll be out in a few minutes, OK?”

Mike turned his tear-stained face to Lady Marjorie and then back to where Jess had now stood up, a muscle working in his cheek and his hand clenching and unclenching the only sign of his deep emotions.

Once the child had gone, Jess glared over at her. “So what’s this all about?”

She had the grace to blush, but then seemed to get her second wind. “I was merely discussing your…lifestyle with Mister Sherman, and I feel it is sadly lacking in the morality needed to bring up an impressionable young child.”

“You do, do you?” spat Jess, looking belligerent and taking a pace forwards.

Slim moved in and placed a gentle hand on his friend’s chest. “Easy,” he whispered.

Jess turned angry eyes on his buddy then. “So what’s she been sayin’ then, Slim?”

“Just that you’d been fighting and then went in the saloon. Er, and she saw you with Millie,” Slim finished, looking embarrassed at the ridiculousness of her argument.

“So when was havin’ a beer and kissin’ your best girl a hangin’ offense?” snarled Jess angrily. “And as to the fight…they jumped me. Three to one; I was just defending myself, Ma’am,” he said sarcastically, “or maybe you’d have preferred a dead saint to a live sinner who is…what is it? Oh yeah, sadly lackin’ in morality!”

“Jess, that’s enough; just leave it now, please?” said Slim looking increasingly anxious.

Jess just continued to glare at Marjorie, his eyes black and furious.

Then Slim took hold of his arm and said softly, “You’re really not helping, pard; just go cool off, huh?”

Jess looked from his friend to Lady Marjorie and back again, and then he sighed deeply. “Sure.” Turning, he left for the barn before he said something he would regret.

Once he had gone, Slim threw her an intense look. “You’ve gotten him all wrong, Ma’am. For all that you think of him, Jess actually has a very strong moral code, about the things that really matter, like truth, honesty, loyalty…and he’s teaching all those things to young Mike. In fact, I figure the kid couldn’t have a better start to life than having Jess, me and Daisy in his corner. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” He marched out of the house, leaving Marjorie looking after him shock and surprise in her dark eyes. Was she so very wrong?

*****

Jess gave Lady Marjorie a wide berth from then onwards, keeping his head down, going about the business of mustang breaking and being icily polite at mealtimes. However, she had other ways to make her presence felt, and a couple of days later she struck when Jess was least expecting it.

He had come to the breakfast table in his usual semi-comatose state and felt around for his coffee cup with eyes half closed when he took a sip. Coughing and spluttering, he almost spat it out all over the table. “What in hell…heck is that?” he choked, casting accusatory eyes on Miss Marjorie.

“Why it is Grey’s tea, of course. So much better for you than that dreadful beverage you call coffee out here.”

Jess turned pleading eyes on his pard. “Slim?”

“Well, I’m sure the drinking of tea is second nature to an English Lady like yourself Lady Marjorie,” said Slim with his most charming smile. “But I’m afraid Jess here can’t function come a morning without his, er, strong coffee.” Without more ado, he went over to the stove to brew some.

“That ain’t the point,” muttered Jess as the two men stood in the privacy of the barn after breakfast. “She’s takin’ the place over Slim an’ I don’t like it.”

“Yeah ,and like I said, it’s easy enough to sort things out. She was OK about the coffee, wasn’t she?”

“Um, maybe, but I reckon she’s gotten one hell of a lot more up her sleeve, Slim. She don’t like me, for a start, and I figure she won’t be happy until she’s gone and turned us all into English gentlemen either.”

“And would that be so bad?”

Jess gave him a withering look and marched out of the barn. “I figure if you’ve gotta ask that, she’s halfway there, pard,” he threw over his shoulder as he  left, bristling with indignation.

It was the steady onslaught that really got Jess down — the way she badgered and fussed at every turn. Like Buttons with a bone, she just wouldn’t let it go.

She moaned about Slim for his constant support of his best friend. “He’ll never learn Mister Sherman, if you constantly intercede.”

She moaned about Mike for his ‘slovenly appearance, inattention to personal hygiene and lack of attention to his school work’.

When these grievances were discussed between Slim and Mike later, the child remonstrated, “Why do I have to do school work in the summer holidays anyway, Slim? It just ain’t fair!”

“Well, I guess she just wants the best for you, Tiger, and it won’t do you any harm just to study for an hour or so of an evening. Besides, think how pleased Miss Smith will be when your grades are up next term.” Slim grinned, referring to Mike’s beloved school teacher. However, the child just wandered off to take his anger out on the log pile as he had seen his hero do many times before, still feeling very badly done by.

As to Jess, he was moaned at for just about everything from the state of his clothes — dusty, bloody and ripped after mustanging — to his ‘impossible attitude’.

“Well, I wouldn’t be so dang ornery if she’d leave me alone,” Jess declared to Slim one evening when they had taken sanctuary in the barn, yet again. “She don’t feed a man right. How are we supposed to do a full morning’s work on scrambled eggs that look like the cat’s just chucked up?” he asked balefully. “And what in hell was that we got for supper the other night — Pease Soup? Soup made with dried peas, for goodness sake, Slim. What’s all that about?”

“Well, I guess she’s just finding her feet, trying us with different stuff, you know,” replied Slim confidently.

Jess shook his head. “Have you seen how many jars of dried peas and beans there are on the larder shelf? Hell, a man could fade away with her in charge of the cook stove, pard.“

“Um. And she hardly seems to eat anything. She’s lost a lot of weight since she’s been here, have you noticed?”

“Can’t say as I have,” Jess drawled. “And anyway, that just proves my point. She can’t even stand her own cookin’. So when’s Daisy due back?”

“Not for a few more weeks. Guess we’ll just have to bite the bullet and get on with things, Jess.”

Then Jess’s face was suddenly a study of horror. “Hey, so what about us going to the dance Saturday, Slim?”

“What about it?”

“Well, she got real fussed when I said we’d be goin’ out. Said she wouldn’t stay here alone. Either one of us stays to look out for her or else she wants to come along.”

“What!” exploded Slim. “She can’t come to the town dance! it’s, well, it’s unsuitable.”

Jess grinned at that. “A night of  — what was it she was quotin’ out of that posh magazine of hers — dances and celebrations in the West often means an evening of drunken deb… debauchery. Hell, what’s that when it’s at home, Slim?”

“Debauchery is like sinfulness, Jess.”

“Oh, yeah, OK, drunken debauchery and womanizing. Yep, sounds pretty much like the Laramie Saturday night dance ok. So does she really wanna come?”

Slim shrugged. “Could be she wants to see how the other half lives?”

“Why’s she so scared of bein’ left home anyways? “

“I don’t know, Jess — Indians, outlaws maybe, all sorts of imagined fears. This is a foreign country to her after all.”

“Hell, there ain’t no Indians around here, and as to outlaws, I figure they’d come off worst if they started messin’ with Miss Marjorie, anyways. Guess she could just nag ‘em to death,” he finished darkly.

“Well, that’s as may be, Jess, but we’ve got to think of something…and quickly too.”

Eventually, they decided that the only way out was to indeed allow Lady Marjorie to accompany them, and that’s when they called in a favor from Doc Sam to help them out some.

“After all, the way you stuck your neck out for him over that Vern Dorsey business, I guess he feels he owes you a good turn,” suggested Slim.

“Um, but I reckon there are good turns and good turns,” said Jess mournfully. “Ain’t this askin’ an awful lot, Slim?”

“No, I don’t think so. Don’t forget, Sam hails from back east originally and he’s travelled extensively in the Old Country too. I reckon they’ll get on like a house on fire.”

So the following Saturday evening found Slim and Jess duded up in their usual Saturday night attire of best Stetsons, sparkling white shirts beneath silver brocade vests, a long dark top coat and black string tie, along with dark trousers and highly polished boots, both of them looking ‘real easy on the eye’, as Millie was apt to say.

However, the longer they waited, the more agitated they became.

“How long does it take to get done up for a dance, for goodness sake?” muttered Jess.

“Well I figure these things take a little longer for ladies of a certain age,” responded Slim, adjusting his tie in the square of mirror on the kitchen wall.

“Why how old do you think she is?” asked Jess, leaning on the table, arms folded. “Violet-Ann is the oldest, ain’t she?” he continued. “Then Daisy, so Lily is the baby and she went to school with our Miss Marjorie. So that must make her, er…” He looked up at the ceiling, pondering for a while, a frown on his handsome features.

“What’s up, pard, run out of fingers?” asked Slim with a smirk.

“No I ain’t; just doin’ the math that’s all. So early forties right?”

“Yep, that’s about right, I figure. She sure looks older, though, doesn’t she?”

“Well, she’s never had the love of a good man,” said Jess chuckling. “And everyone knows that’s what keeps a woman young lookin’.”

“Hush,” said Slim looking scandalized, “she’ll hear you.”

Then both men turned as Daisy’s bedroom door opened and this stranger emerged.

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance and Jess whispered, “Who in hell’s that and what’s she done with Miss Marjorie?”

The woman bore no resemblance to Marjorie. She seemed much slimmer and younger, her hair slightly darker, falling in attractive ringlets, and her figure had been poured into a tight, albeit still modest, dress. It was made of a midnight blue material and had many pleats and frills, or ‘fussy stuff’ as the cowboys would have said. The boned bodice kept her newly slender body in check and the square neck, although unrevealing gave a certain look of femininity to the whole ensemble, making her look almost desirable.

“Well, I’ll be…” muttered Slim under his breath, while Jess was speechless.

Then the spell was broken.

“Well, come along, young men, or are you going to stand there gaping all night?” she asked, swishing her cape around her shoulders and heading for the door.

They dropped off Mike at his friend’s house where he was staying the night on the way, and then made their way to the doc’s house, with Slim driving the buckboard and Jess following  behind on Traveler.

Jess left Slim to do the introductions and made his way over to the saloon to pick up Millie and Slim’s date Lily. Then he escorted the girls down the street to the summertime open dance floor, arriving at the same time as the others.

Lady Marjorie seemed perfectly at home on Doc Baker’s arm and she looked around the alfresco dance floor, illuminated by pretty hanging lanterns, the small area playing host to a band and tiny bar. The whole scene looking quite tame and respectable to Miss Marjorie’s eyes.

Certainly it had none of the ambiance of the hunt balls and big house parties of home, but it certainly didn’t seem the shameless house of sin which she had expected.

At the end of the day, yes, there were a lot more high spirits, the occasional drunk and some very, very lively dancing, but nothing to really take offence at, she felt. And as for Doctor Baker, why he was a complete gentleman. He could even pass for an Englishman, she thought privately.

Even Jess Harper had conducted himself with due decorum in her presence, making light conversation and not being overtly affectionate to his date, although Marjorie’s beady eyes did notice some hand-holding and the odd lingering look exchanged between the couple.

As to Millie herself, Marjorie was pleasantly surprised by the girl’s attitude as she asked intelligent questions about Lady Marjorie’s life back in the old country, and was generally amenable and bright. Hardly what Marjorie had expected from a mere saloon girl. No, this young lady obviously had hidden depths.

The young couple were both very popular too, she noted, as first Millie and then Jess were whisked away by friends of the opposite sex to the lively dance floor. Marjorie watched Jess cavort around with a tiny, high spirited blond girl as Millie looked on indulgently. “Don’t you mind?” she asked after a moment.

Millie turned sparkling eyes on the older woman. “Goodness me, no. Why on earth should I? Jess is just enjoying himself and Suzy is a good friend of us both.”

Marjorie tried to assimilate this information before muttering, “Well, that really wouldn’t do back home.”

Millie raised an amused eyebrow. “Um, I suppose some of our ways are a little strange to you,” she agreed kindly, then Jess returned and whisked her off and the moment passed.

It was later, when the others were all either dancing or chatting at the bar, that Jess found himself alone at the table with lady Marjorie, her toe tapping to the lively music and her eyes alight with pleasure. He thought again what a strange contrast this new persona was with the usual stiff, officious Lady Marjorie. On a recent trip to the bar, Jess had kindly offered to fetch her a lemonade, but she had eyed his empty glass speculatively.

“What is that you’re drinking, Mister Harper?”

Jess sighed slightly. “Can you not call me Jess, ma’am? And its beer.”

“Oh,” and she flushed a little. “Alright…Jess. And I’ll try some beer if you please.”

“Huh? You sure, Miss Marjorie? It’s alcoholic, you know.”

“I’m sure a little will do me no harm,” she chuckled. “Just a small one. When in Rome, you know.”

Jess didn’t, but just nodded politely and marched off to the bar, returning with two frothing glasses of Tom’s best brew.

Now she sat looking wistful as the dancers sped past, and after a moment, Jess took a good pull of his beer and said gallantly, “You like to dance then, Miss Marjorie?”

Her face was suddenly suffused with a becoming blush. “Why yes, I believe I would Mister…er, Jess, thank you.”

They took a few turns of the dance floor together and then the music changed from a lively quick step to a much slower romantic dance. Jess was all for returning to their seats. However, Miss Marjorie seemed to have other ideas and moved a little closer, so he had no option but to take her in his arms and gently guide her around the floor.

Whether it was the effect of the beer or the close proximity of this young, very handsome, virile cowboy, Marjorie wasn’t sure, but she suddenly had the stirring of feelings she had not felt for many a year — since before her dear fiancé had been killed, in fact.

She gave a little sigh of pleasure as his strong arms enfolded her, and she felt a tremor of desire as she was suddenly aware of the proximity of his muscular body.

Jess squinted down at her. “You OK, Miss Marjorie?” he asked respectfully.

She looked up into those deep blue concerned eyes, just inches away, and for a moment, her heart was lost and all she wanted was for him too lean in and kiss her. Then the moment passed and she came to her senses.

“Yes, quite alright, thank you,” she murmured as she reveled in his warm embrace, wishing the moment could last forever.

Finally the dance finished. Jess led her back to their table and took his place back beside Millie, but noted that Marjorie seemed to be in a world of her own. Her flushed cheeks and misty eyes made him think that the beer had maybe not been a good idea, totally unaware that it was indeed he who was the cause of her subtle change in demeanor.

After awhile, he and Millie excused themselves, saying they wanted some fresh air and moved off towards the small pine copse, where many of the carriages were parked, and disappeared amongst the huge trees.

Slim and Lily exchanged a knowing look, aware that the small area of secluded woodland was the ideal place for a lovers tryst, and was the main reason why the outdoor dance floor was such a favorite with young couples.

They hadn’t been gone long when Marjorie too excused herself, saying she wished to retrieve her wrap from Doc Baker’s rig, parked off near the woodland.

She stealthily moved to where she had last seen the couple. Why had they gone off, she wondered, feeling annoyed and wanting Jess to have at least one more dance with her before the evening was over.

She took her cape from the back of the carriage and flung it around her shoulders before very quietly moving forward amongst the dark trees.

Then she saw a movement just ahead of her, and shrinking back, she watched with fascinated horror at the scene before her.

Jess had his back to one of the huge pines and Mille was in the circle of his arms, one hand resting lightly on her waist, the other gently caressing her back, where the low cut dress exposed her naked flesh, Lady Marjorie noted with a stab of shock.

They were talking softly, the words indistinct, but the tone obviously one of lovers. Then he cupped her face between his hands and kissed her very tenderly, the loving act bringing tears to Marjorie’s eyes — at first because she was so moved by the simple gesture and then they became tears of frustration and envy. Had it only been a few minutes ago that she had reveled in his firm embrace and looked into those blue eyes willing him to kiss her in just that way?

She could bear it no longer, and stifling a sob, she ran back towards the warmth and light of the dance floor.

Then it was all over — the music, dancing and excitement — and Doctor Baker delivered her to the door of her hotel.

“A real pleasure, Lady Marjorie,” Sam said as he made his good nights. “And I’m sure Slim and Jess will be back to join you for breakfast at the local cafe and then the trip home.“

Her face clouded at that. ”You mean they are not staying here, doctor?“

Sam looked slightly wrong-footed at this, but quickly pulled himself together. “Er, no Ma’am. Jess and Slim usually stay with friends or at a cheap boarding house when they come to town, but they’ll be around to escort you back tomorrow, I’m sure,” he finished with a slightly less than open smile.

“I see,” she replied, returning a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. ”Well, thank you for a most pleasant evening, doctor; I hope we shall meet again. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lady Marjorie,” he replied, before touching his hat and moving off, a new spring to his step as the favor to his friends was finally fulfilled and he was once more free to do as he pleased.

*****

Meanwhile back in Millie’s room over the saloon, the coffee and lively conversation flowed.

“I really don’t see what your problem is,” said Lily, lounging on the couch in Slim’s warm embrace. “She seemed a lovely lady.”

“Um, you don’t know her,” said Jess morosely. “She just weren’t herself tonight, that’s all.”

“You can say that again,” chuckled Slim. “Heck, she was almost human, drinking beer and making sheep’s eyes at you all night, Jess.”

Jess nearly dropped his coffee cup at that and placed it carefully on the table beside his armchair before replying fervently. ”The hell she was!”

Millie chuckled then from where she was perched on the arm of Jess’s chair. “Not to mention cuddling up against you on the dance floor.”

Jess looked scandalized at that. “She never…”

Millie ignored his outburst and continued teasing him. “And didn’t you see the way she was when she came back to the table all flushed up and misty eyed?”

“Yep,” agreed Slim. “She’s definitely got the hots for you, pard.”

Jess looked horror stricken. “Garldarnit, I’d rather she was naggin’ me. At least a man knows where he stands when a woman’s a naggin’ him.”

“No, nothing for it,” Millie continued relentlessly. “See, you’ve held her in your arms for a slow dance, so in English law, I guess you’re engaged now, Jess,” she finished, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

Then Jess realized he was being provoked, and finally laughing, he said, ”Why you…!” He  pulled her none too gently onto his lap before holding her close and kissing her very thoroughly.

*****

The following morning, Lady Marjorie, who had not slept well, was awake early, and after washing and dressing, was idly peering out of her window at the early morning street when something caught her eye.

She pulled back as she saw two figures emerge from the alley at the side of the saloon opposite and stroll arm in arm down Main Street as plain as day.

“For goodness sake,” she whispered to herself. “A little kissing and canoodling was one thing, but spending the night together? Well, that was the last straw.”

Her heart started pounding and she felt slightly dizzy as she watched Jess and Millie make their way hand in hand down the sidewalk before disappearing inside Miss Molly’s Café.

“How could they?” she whispered. “How could they be so brazen?”

Then Lily’s angry words came back to her. ”He’s a murdering ex-gunslinger who is positively dangerous, my dear Marjorie. He really shouldn’t be allowed around decent women. You just watch out for him.”

Then she remembered her feelings of the night before and blushed with shame. Was she really indignant at his outrageous behavior — or merely jealous? And what of her dear friend Lily? Why was she so opposed to the young man after all this time? Goodness, it must be nigh on three years since the two had crossed swords, but Lily still seemed inordinately upset by just the thought of the young cowboy.

He certainly seemed to have a profound effect on folk, she thought to herself, but not her — not anymore. No, now her resolve was even stronger. She would make sure he was banned from caring for that innocent child and be exposed for the womanizer he was, she thought bitterly as she sat down and started to formulate her plans.

When she failed to arrive at the café, Slim was dispatched to find her and received a note from the hotel porter, saying she was attending morning service at the local church and hoped to meet them there.

“Gone prayin’ for our immortal souls, no doubt,” muttered Jess when he received the news.

“Well, yours anyway,” countered Slim, with a chuckle.

However, that was to be, almost, the last joke at Miss Marjorie’s expense for a good while as she slowly put her wicked plans into action.

*****

Slim and Jess were not sure whether they rejoiced at the return of the nagging, overbearing Lady Marjorie the morning after the dance or not. However, on balance, Jess decided it was marginally better than the unpredictable, faintly worrying Marjorie who had emerged at the dance.

“So why do you reckon she was so weird that night?” asked Jess, breaking off from grooming Traveler a few days later.

“Search me. Maybe it was ol’ Tom’s beer, but she really looked to be enjoying your company, Jess. Thought she’d taken a shine to you — for awhile there anyways.”

“Um, god forbid,” Jess muttered. ”Well she sure ain’t now. Did you hear her bawlin’ me out just because I’ve ripped another shirt? Hell, how does she expect me to break mustangs without gettin’ a mite untidy?“

Slim chuckled at Jess, the master of understatement as ever. “Well, I guess you get a tad more than untidy, pard,” he said, surveying Jess’s filthy torn shirt and mud splattered denims.

“Hey, whose side are you on anyway?”

Before he had a chance to reply, they heard Lady Marjorie’s urgent cries coming from the yard, and running out, they were just in time to see her tussling with a large bed sheet, by the washing line, while Buttons had the other end firmly in his mouth and was backing up, a look of determination in his dark, shiny little eyes.

Quick as a flash, Jess made for the little dog and removed the item from his jaws before tucking the critter under his arm and making a dash to catch the sheet before it fell in the dust. That was when Bandit, Mike’s pet raccoon, came tearing over to join in the fun and got hopelessly entangled in the sheet, pulling it into the dirt as the two cowboys finally collapsed in laughter.

However, it was short lived as Lady Marjorie turned the full force of her temper on the young men.

“…and furthermore, either that creature…” she said glaring at the dog still resting in Jess’s arms, ”goes or I go.” She marched off, stiff backed, towards the kitchen.

Jess turned twinkling eyes on his buddy then. “So, I’ll go buy a stage ticket, shall I, pard?”

“Hush,” whispered Slim and strode off after Marjorie to try and make amends.

*****

“It ain’t fair,” said Mike for the third time as he lay in bed, Jess sitting on the edge, looking equally unhappy.

“Can’t be helped, Tiger. Slim promised her Buttons would be tied up durin’ the day and sleep in the barn, and so I guess that’s the way it’s gotta be. Just until Miss Daisy lands home, anyway.”

“Well heck, Jess, when’ll that be? And why is Slim bein’ so darned nice to her when she’s so nasty to you and me? “

“Well, I guess he’s just tryin’ to keep the peace, Tiger, and he figures — well, we both do — that Aunt Daisy don’t need any more worry, what with her sister bein’ so sick an’ all. If she gets wind of the fact that Miss Marjorie’s gone and left us, she’ll feel she should be back here lookin’ after us, see?”

The child nodded wisely after a moment. “Oh yeah, I get it now. And I’ll explain it all to Button’s tomorrow. Unless…?”

“Huh, what, Mike?”

“Well, maybe I could sleep out in the barn with Buttons too?”

“No, Mike,” Jess said laughing. “You just get your shuteye and I’ll go check on that darned pup of yours OK?”

“OK. Night, Jess.”

*****

Mike didn’t mean to do it, he really didn’t — but he just couldn’t help it.

He had overheard Slim and Miss Marjorie talking the night before and she had threatened to write and tell Lily, who would pass it on to Daisy, exactly what a terrible time she was having out at the ranch and Slim had seemingly persuaded her to change her mind.

That was why it was such a shock when Mike came upon the half-finished letter addressed to Daisy and Lily. It was lying on the kitchen table where Marjorie had been sitting until she was called away outside to inspect the new washing line Slim had just constructed for her.

Mike had wandered into the kitchen for a glass of milk, and seeing the posh blue notepaper on the table, glanced down at it. He generally found grown-up ‘squiggly’ writing hard to decipher; however, Miss Marjorie’s writing was very large and bold and he easily picked out the gist of what she was saying.

He made out, ‘unruly, badly behaved boy,’ and sucked in a deep breath. Heck, that wasn’t fair; he’d been on his best behavior, hadn’t he? Except for that time he was a tad rude to her about Button’s bein’ locked up in the barn. But he’d said he was sorry!

Then another phrase jumped off the page. ‘Mister Harper is everything you said, Lily. Positively dangerous around decent women and a terrible role model for the innocent boy, with his blaspheming and heathen ways. The sooner the child is moved to a respectable God-fearing home, the happier I will be, and I will make it my mission to achieve this at all costs. I am sorry, Daisy dear, but it is my Christian duty.’

“No!” cried Mike, and then did the only thing he could think of. He picked up the jar of ink and tipped it over the letter…just at the precise moment that Slim and Marjorie entered the kitchen.

They both stopped in astonishment before Marjorie was galvanized into action. “You wicked, wicked boy,” she screeched. “What have you done!”

Mike just stood there red-handed, his lip trembling and his eyes open wide in shock.

“Mike?” asked Slim advancing on the boy. “What in heck’s gotten into you?”

“It’s…it’s her, Slim. She wrote real bad things about me and Jess and it would have upset Aunt Daisy. I couldn’t let her send it. I…”

“Well, you should have thought about that before you were so rude to me about me confining that dreadful dog,” broke in Marjorie. Then turning to Slim, she said angrily, “The child deserves a good hiding for this!”

Slim ignored this and gave Mike a searching look. ”No matter what the reason, this was the wrong way to deal with it, wasn’t it, Mike?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well?”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, real sorry,” Mike said sincerely.

“Oh, that’s easy to say when you’re about to get a beating,” she replied angrily and threw Slim a look of askance, waiting for him to carry out the punishment she had prescribed.

At that, Slim turned to face her. “I’ll deal with this if you don’t mind, Ma’am,” he said brusquely. Then turning to Mike, he gestured with his head. “Bed, Mike.”

The child just nodded and went off forlornly to do as he was bid.

*****

It was after Lady Marjorie had retired herself, following a particularly taciturn supper with Slim, that Jess finally arrived home after delivering some of the green broke mustangs.

He strolled in, and noting Slim sitting by the fire with a glass of red eye in his hand, raised a questioning eyebrow. “Tough day?”

Slim threw him the ghost of a smile, and passed the bottle over. “Yeah, you could say. Help yourself. Had supper?”

“Um,  oh yeah. Ma Bryant fed me and the old man was real pleased with the horses,” Jess replied, fetching a tumbler and settling down in his rocker.

“Er, right. That’s good, pard,” replied Slim vaguely.

“Well, is that all you’ve gotta say?” asked Jess indignantly. “After I’ve spent most of the day in the saddle, gotten top dollar for the horses,” he continued, pulling a wad of notes out of his pocket and throwing them across to his buddy, “you might be a bit more excited!”

“I am, I am. Sorry, Jess; it’s just… Well, we had a kind of rumpus today with Mike and Miss Marjorie.”

Jess sighed deeply. “Go on. What’s she done now?”

“It’s not what she did; it was Mike.” Slim went on to explain and the reason for the conflict.

Jess rolled his eyes. “Well I guess that’s partly my fault. I told him as how we didn’t want Daisy worried and I figure that was the only way he could see to stop the letter going.”

“Well, sure, but he knows better than that, Jess. He knew he’d done wrong. Lady M. wanted him to get a good thrashing for it.”

Jess’s head jerked up at that. “You didn’t, did you?”

“No; just sent him to bed without supper.”

“So where is it?”

“Huh?”

“This letter, Slim. What did you do with it?”

“Oh, in the kitchen bin, I guess.”

Jess went and retrieved it and after smoothing out the screwed up paper was able to read the content quite easily as Mike had only spilt a little ink before he was caught.

He read it to himself, but Slim could see he was getting more and more annoyed, before he finally quoted, ”Listen to this, Slim. ‘Mister Harper is positively dangerous around decent women…blasphemous…heathen…’ Hell Slim, where does she get off sayin’ this stuff? I ain’t never cussed in front of her, and I sure as hell ain’t done anything as would make her think she was in any danger from me. Heck, we even went to Church with her last week too.” he finished bitterly.

Slim took the note from him and scanned it. “She says Mike is rude and disrespectful and I am ineffective in my role as guardian, allowing the child to run wild,” Slim growled. looking equally annoyed.

Jess shook his head. “The woman’s crazy, Slim; she’s gotta go.”

The blond rancher just shook his head. “But how do we do that without upsetting Daisy? She’ll feel honor bound to return, and according to Doc Sam, well…Violet is still real sick. It’s just not fair to put her in that position, Jess.”

“Well, she’s gonna find out anyways when the ol’ bat writes, ain’t she?”

“Um,  not necessarily. Maybe we can stop her writing, pull out all the stops, be a model family. If she hasn’t got anything to complain about, well then…” Slim finished lamely.

Jess tossed his drink back and poured another before turning his stubborn look on his pard. “Oh no. She’s had about as good as I get, Slim. I’ve tried to be polite, keep clean, ain’t been cussin’ — and none of its good enough. What do you want me to do? Sign the pledge and give up women?” he spat angrily.

“Well, just for a couple of weeks maybe?” wheedled Slim.

Jess just threw him a hard look and picking up the whiskey bottle retired to bed.

*****

The following morning the atmosphere in the ranch house was far from convivial and was hardly helped by Jess suffering an almighty hangover and a nasty cold as he sneezed his way to the breakfast table, making Marjorie tut and roll her eyes. Slim was feeling little better, with an almighty sore head after their overindulgence of the previous evening. The prospect of signing the pledge had produced something of a thirst in the two cowboys that was only assuaged once the bottle was empty, much to their embarrassment the following day. And whereas Jess swore his share was for medicinal purposes only, Slim didn’t even have that excuse.

Jess slumped over a coffee, refusing any further sustenance, while Slim made a gallant effort with the usual scrambled eggs before admitting defeat and leaving hastily for the outhouse.

Lady Marjorie eyed Jess suspiciously. “What on earth is the matter with you two today?” she asked brusquely. “I do hope you’re not going to be very ill. I do not do nursing, you know,” she said firmly.

Jess threw her a bleary look. “No, not that sick, Ma’am. Just a head cold, I guess,” he replied before dragging himself up from the table and making for the yard.

All the time this had been going on, Mike had tried to hide a smile, but once the men had gone Marjorie turned on him. “Well what’s so funny young man?”

Mike was caught unawares, and without thinking, just said with childish innocence, “Don’t worry about them, Miss Marjorie. I figure that Slim and Jess have just had a tad too much whiskey last night; it makes then kinda poorly sometimes.”

Lady Marjorie’s head shot up at that and she eyed the boy like a cat with a plump young mouse in its line of vision. “Pray go on, my dear,” she said kindly. “Whiskey, you say?”

“Yes Ma’am,” Mike said happily. “They like whiskey, and I guess they must have been kinda celebratin’ the mustang sale,” he went on thoughtfully.

“Um, so Miss Daisy condones the drinking of spirits in the house?” she asked quietly.

“Huh?”

“Miss Daisy doesn’t mind them drinking whiskey?“

“Oh no, Ma’am. They just have the odd medicinal drink when Aunt Daisy’s around. She don’t like strong drink in the house, and especially not hill whiskey.”

“Hill whiskey?” she asked looking perplexed.

“Yep. You know, like moonshine?”

“Illicit whiskey, you mean?“

“I dunno, but Slim and Jess keep it in the barn, mostly for Christmas. But Aunt Daisy never allows moonshine in the house,” he finished firmly.

“Well, good for her,” said lady Marjorie faintly. Then gathering herself together said, “Off you go about your chores now, child. I have work to do.”

When the noon stage made its way into the yard much later, Lady Marjorie rushed out and called up to Mose to wait a moment.

Jess and Slim were just returning to the corral with the stage horses having replaced the team and Mose was just about to pull out, with just Mike standing there to wave him off.

As Miss Marjorie advanced, Mose muttered under his breath, “What does that ol’ dragon want now?” He had seen which way the land lay at their first meeting when she had complained bitterly about the dusty carriage and bumpy ride, and since then, had given her a wide berth, relinquishing his usual morning coffee in preference of a peaceful life.

However, now it was impossible to ignore her strident tones and he reined the team in and waited for her to advance before glancing down to where she stood arms akimbo. “Yep, what kin I do for you, Ma’am?” he asked politely.

“I wish you to deliver this letter to the Laramie Sheriff as a matter of utmost importance, my good man,” she said loudly, holding a letter up to him. “It is meant for the Judge when he visits town, but I believe all his mail is lodged with the Sheriff?”

“Yep, that’s right, Ma’am. Won’t be for a week or two, though.”

“Just deliver it!” she snapped and passed it up.

However, just at that moment the team, who were already anxious to be on their way, sidestepped and then surged forwards. Mose lost his grip on the letter as he grabbed the reins, and it floated down in front of young Mike, who saw at once who it was addressed to.

The Circuit Judge, he suddenly thought. That could only mean one thing — the adoption. Wasn’t it that ol’ judge who had decided that Slim and Jess could adopt him as long as Aunt Daisy was around? And didn’t this Miss Marjorie want him to go to a, to a — what was it? — a God-fearing home, away from Jess and Slim?

His eyes swam with unshed tears and his heart beat ten to the dozen as he reached down for the letter where it had fallen just feet away.

However, Lady Marjorie had a surprising turn of speed when needed. She had scooped it up, returned it to Mose and he was clicking the team off at speed almost before Mike could make his move.

They locked eyes for a moment — triumph in Lady Marjorie’s and shock and dismay in Mike’s — before he ran off to the sanctuary of the barn and his dog.

He sat there cuddling the little dog for a long time trying to think what to do.

His initial reaction was to tell Jess and Slim, but then what could they do? The letter had gone. Anyway, Slim seemed to be siding with Lady Marjorie, doing exactly as she asked and even Jess was very quiet and not his usual ornery self where she was concerned. Nope, he had to deal with this himself he figured. But how?

*****

It was the following morning at breakfast before the men realized something was wrong.

They were sitting  around the breakfast table, Slim making a valiant effort to make light conversation with Lady Marjorie, and even Jess had made an effort to come to the table looking reasonably well groomed and ate the proffered plate of scrambled eggs without comment other than a polite thank you. He’d even found a handkerchief to use when he sneezed, Slim noticed with amusement.

Marjorie hid a secret smile. So the boy had shared his knowledge of the judge’s letter and the cowboys were making an effort at last, but too little too late, she thought. Then she cast her mind back to the last conversation she’d had with dear Lily before she left for the ranch.

“You see, Marjorie my dear, I am relying on you to expose those awful men for what they are. I have never liked Daisy working there with those dreadful men in the middle of nowhere, spending all her time patching up that appalling Harper after his fights. Not to mention dealing with that cheeky little urchin. And all on practically no wages so to speak. All I can think is that Harper and Sherman drink or gamble all the profits away because dear Daisy doesn’t see any of it.”

“But why does she stay Lily? She could live with you or indeed Violet now that she is widowed.”

“Exactly my point. Violet is in need of support after this illness and I really don’t have the time,” she said sighing irritably. “She stays through some sort of strange loyalty, I imagine, and she actually seems very fond of them all for some inexplicable reason,” Lily finished, looking mystified.

“So, you want me to get the child taken away so that Daisy will have no need to return and will stay here and care for Violet Ann?”

“Precisely. And it shouldn’t be too hard, especially with Harper’s debauched ways, what with all the women, drink and fighting. Well, it astounds me that he got guardianship in the first place.”

That was why she had been so fearful when Jess had turned on her that first morning, suggesting she go back home if she couldn’t cope with the work. She just couldn’t let dear Lily down, not after she had been so good to her, taking her in as a companion after her terrible brother had abandoned her.

Then Marjorie was abruptly awoken from her reverie as she became aware that Slim was speaking to her. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said would you like some more tea Lady Marjorie?” Slim asked politely.

“Oh, er, I’m sorry. No, thank you. I didn’t sleep too well,” she continued. “That dreadful storm.”

Jess cast a glance out of the kitchen window. “Seems OK now, but looks like there’s more to come. We get real severe storms at this time of year, Ma’am,” he said smiling down at where Marjorie sat looking out of sorts and irritable.

She ignored the comment and then. “Where is that child? His eggs will be ruined?”

Jess hid a sigh and went to fetch him, but he was back in seconds. “He ain’t in his room,” he said addressing his partner. “Looks like the bed ain’t been slept in either.”

They exchanged a worried glance at that.

“Maybe he’s holed up in the barn,” Jess continued thoughtfully, after a minute. “He wanted to sleep out there with Buttons the other night, but I said no.”

“So he has disobeyed yet again!” cried Marjorie shrilly. Then she turned to Slim. “You see what happens if he is not punished properly? He thinks he can do just as he likes.”

Jess just ignored this jibe and ran outside, closely followed by Slim, but as soon as he entered the barn, Jess knew all was not well.

Jess pulled open the large heavy door, and as the light streamed in, he immediately saw that not only was Buttons missing but also Mike’s Palomino pony, Sunny.

“What the…” Jess uttered a few choice expletives before turning to Slim. “What the Hell’s the kid playin’ at? He knows he don’t go ridin’ out alone,” he yelled, worry making his voice harsh.

“I just don’t get it,” muttered Slim, shaking his head. “This isn’t like him, Jess. First that incident with the letter and now this.”

“That’s it!” said Jess turning to look his pard in the face. “It’s all down to that Lady Marjorie; she’s at the bottom of this, I swear.” With that, he marched off back to the ranch house, a mutinous look on his handsome features.

Marjorie visibly quaked as he burst into the kitchen, his eyes black with fury.

 “What have you dang well said to him?” Jess yelled, never being one to mince his words.

“I…I really don’t know what you mean Mister Harper,” she hedged.

“Sure you do,” Jess spat, advancing on her.

“Jess!”

“Leave it, Slim. This is down to her and we need to know what she’s done.“

“Alright!” she cried backing off. “If you must know, I have written to the circuit judge suggesting he re-think his adoption decision regarding young Michael.”

“What do you mean? “

“Well, simply that you are not a suitable guardian, Mister Harper. I merely have the child’s welfare at heart.”

“Sure you do,” muttered Jess angrily.

“I don’t understand,” said Slim. “So does Mike know what you’ve done — contacting the judge and everything?”

“Oh yes, he saw the letter. Has he not told you?”

Slim shook his head, looking bewildered.

“So this is all down to you after all,” Jess yelled, looking way beyond mad now.

“I was just doing my duty,” she replied, still trying to keep her nerve.

“Oh yeah, we know all about that,” Jess threw over his shoulder as he collected his hat, coat and gun from by the door. “Protecting the kid from big bad Jess Harper, womanizer and drunk,” he spat as he returned, and pushing his way past her, started filling a gunny sack with provisions before slamming out through the back door.

Slim ran out after him. “Where the hell are you going now, Jess? Just calm down some, will you?”

“I reckon I ain’t got time for that luxury, Slim. I’ve gotta find the boy.” Then casting his eyes to the heavens, Jess said, “And before the next storm breaks too.”

“Well, just hang on and I’ll come with you.”

“What an’ leave madam home alone?” Jess asked, flicking a sarcastic glance at his buddy.

“To hell with that. I figure she’s safe enough in daylight and I’ll call in at the Jackson place. Get the oldest boy to tend the stock and change the teams,” Slim said as he made haste to saddle Alamo.

Due to the storm of the night before, there were no tracks to follow so the two men were working blind, and Jess especially found that real frustrating. That, along with the cold which had now gone on his chest, making him cough so that he was feeling really miserable. “I guess we’ll just have to do the round of his friends first and then start looking further afield,” he said irritably.

When it got to noon and there was no positive response from all the ranches they had visited in the local vicinity, they decided it was time to spread the net a little wider and made for the cave above the lake several miles away but still on Sherman land.

Jess emerged from the cave followed by Slim. “I really thought we’d find him here,” he said, removing his hat and wiping his sleeve across his sweating face. The day was humid, with the threat of another storm  ever present.

“What now?” asked Slim looking despondent.

Jess shrugged. “I really don’t know. Hell, Slim what’s the kid playin’ at?”

Slim tipped his head back and surveyed the distant mountains. “I really don’t know, Jess, unless in his mind, he thinks if he disappears until Lady Marjorie goes back home…well, then everything will be alright.”

“Um, but it ain’t that easy. Do you think that ol’ judge will pay any heed to her, Slim?”

Slim sighed deeply. “I doubt it. Old Judge Havers knows us both well — too well to listen to her crazy notions. That’s as long as it is Judge Havers. He shares the circuit with that new guy — er, Judge Knowles — and he doesn’t know us, Jess. I guess it could get to court and we’d have to answer her accusations if it came to that. “

“Um, well, let’s just hope it don’t. Right now, I’m more interested in finding  Mike.” Jess eyed the sky again, casting the storm clouds a dirty look. “At least he had the sense to take his rain slicker with him, so I figure he didn’t get too wet when he lit off last night.”

“Yeah, well, that’s more than can be said for us,” said Slim with a rueful smile.

“Well, we left in kinda a hurry,” returned Jess, walking back down the path to where Alamo and Traveler were tethered near the lake.

“What now?” asked Slim, looking about him and then up at the threatening clouds again.

“Why don’t you head back home? He may have landed back. I’ll push on to the line cabin over the back of the hill down by the river. He loves it down there and the fishing’s great too — the perfect place to hole up for a while.”

“That’s quite a ride, Jess. You really think he’d have gone all that way?”

Jess shrugged. “Who knows, but I’ve gotta do somethin’, Slim, and we’ve covered everywhere else within a day’s ride. He’s either down there or home — cheekin’ it out with Miss Marjorie as we speak,” he said with the ghost of a smile before coughing painfully again.

“Hey pard, you sure you feel up to that ride? You don’t look any too well.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, I’m fine.” Jess sniffed. And anyway, you heard the lady; she don’t do nursin’. Figure I’d be better off on the trail than sufferin’ her dirty looks every time I dang well sneeze.”

Slim grinned. “Well, maybe you would at that. Sure be more peaceful, anyway. Take it easy, Jess; good luck.” After a handshake, they parted company.

*****

It was nearly dusk when Jess finally reined Traveler in outside the old line cabin. He was soaked to the skin, having spent the last four hours riding through the mother and father of all storms, which was still raging about his head, the lightening slashing through the early evening gloom and the thunder ricocheting around the nearby mountains.

He jumped down from his mount and ran a loving hand down his neck. “I’ll see you in a minute, boy,” he whispered before tethering him to the post in front of the old shack.

Jess burst into the shack, a look of expectancy on his handsome features, and then as he saw the cold dark room, with no sign of life of any sort, he collapsed back and gave a huge sigh, all his hopes dashed.

He stood there totally drained, cold and shivering before wiping a sleeve across his wet face and turning to go and care for his mount.

There was a small lean-to stable attached to the cabin and he marched over, leading Traveler, and pushed the door open before standing back, a look of surprise on his face and then gradually joy at what he saw before him.

There was a lamp hanging from the top beam, and there in the circle of its light were Sunny and Buttons. Cuddled down in the straw beside them a very tired and scared looking Mike.

Jess advanced and hunkered down beside the boy, whose expression had changed from fear as the door had burst open to joy equaling Jess’s own as he finally registered who was there.

“Jess, oh Jess,” Mike cried as he fell into his hero’s arms. “I knew you’d come find me. I just knew it!”

“What are you doin’ out here in the stable, Tiger?”

“It was Sunny; he was a feared of the storm,” the child said. “I figured me and Buttons would keep him company awhile.”

It was later, when Jess had got a good fire roaring away in the grate of the line cabin and they had a meal of ham and eggs in their bellies, that Jess finally addressed the problem.

He eyed his ward, his deep blue concerned eyes, his quirky eyebrows raised in question. “So why did you do it, Tiger? Why did you run off,  causin’ me an’ ol’ Hardrock such a worry?”

“I…I’m sorry, Jess; really I am. But you don’t know. That ol’ Miss Marjorie’s gone wrote to the judge, tellin’ all sorts of lies so as I’ll have to go to another home and leave you and Slim and Aunt Daisy and… I don’t wanna; I really don’t.” Mike finally broke down in tears, Buttons whimpering in sympathy as he capered around the boy.

“You don’t know that, Mike, what she wrote.”

“No, but she did, didn’t she? She wants me to go to another home; I just know it. she said so in her other letter.”

Jess sighed deeply. ”Yep, I guess you’re right, Tiger.”

“So, what are we gonna do?”

“Go back.”

“Huh?”

“Look, Mike, we have to face it, explain everythin’. Tell that ol’ judge how much we care about you. He’ll understand, won’t pay no heed to that Miss Marjorie. We’ll ride home tomorrow, yeah?“

“I guess if you think so, Jess. But I still think she’s a pickle…and she scares me somethin’ fierce.”

“Me too, buddy. Me too!“

*****

The following morning Jess woke up feeling real sick, although he tried to hide it from the ever perceptive youngster.

“You ok, Jess? You look like you’ve been drinkin’ red eye.” the child quipped.

Jess leaned over and clipped him gently around the ear. ”You cheeky little whippersnapper. I guess Miss Marjorie’s got a point when she says we’re way too lax with you.”

“I’m sorry,” said the youngster, sobering at once. “But I mean it; you look kinda funny, Jess.”

“Um, well, I guess I feel kinda funny, if I’m honest, Tiger. Figure I picked up a chill after that soakin’ I got yesterday on top of this dang cold I’ve got.”

“I’m sorry, Jess. I guess that was down to me runnin’ off that way.”

Jess chuckled at that. “And me too. I forgot my slicker. At least you were packed up and ready for the trip.”

“Well I had a while to think it all through, so… Are you sure you can ride all that way home?” the child asked looking anxious.

“Yep, I reckon. Come on, buddy, let’s get goin’. Sooner we’re home, sooner we’ll git this whole sorry mess sorted out huh?“

“I guess.”

It was just after noon when they finally rode into the yard, Button’s barks announcing their arrival.

The day had returned to the usual sweltering temperatures of mid-summer following the storms of the previous day, and man and boy were both hot and weary after the long ride, Jess’s cough having got gradually worse. He felt really poorly by the time they finally landed home.

Slim and Marjorie ran out to meet them, and Mike was first to dismount, running into Slim’s arms where he was held tightly as Slim breathed a deep sigh of relief at the youngster’s return, swinging him around before placing him gently back on the ground.

Then looking over to his buddy, Slim’s face clouded when he saw Jess stagger slightly as he dismounted, holding hard onto the saddle horn as he shook his head trying to clear it, sweat pouring down his face and coughing painfully, one hand grasping his chest.

“My goodness, the man is drunk,” cried Marjorie, giving him a stern look as he swayed again, looking like he might collapse.

Slim was furious at her comment, and ran forwards to support his pard. “He isn’t drunk; he’s sick,” he growled. “Get the door can you?”

Marjorie looked suitably chastened and did as she was bid before following the men into their room where Slim, who was now almost carrying his buddy, settled him down on the bed, gently pulling off his boots before casting a glance back to Marjorie. “Just get a bowl of cold water and some clean rags, will you?” Slim asked, before turning back to his pard, gently unbuttoning his shirt.

On her return, she watched hesitantly as Slim started swabbing his partner down with the cold water, wiping his face and chest as Mike looked on anxiously.

“This is all my fault,” Mike whispered. “I shouldn’t have taken off that way.”

Jess’s eyes flickered open then. “It’s OK, Tiger. Just go tend your pony and Trav too, will you?” he asked, giving the child an encouraging smile.

Mike nodded and ran off to do as he was bid, but not before Marjorie had tutted.

“Well really, I think that boy should be punished…” she started, but was silenced by the hard look Jess threw her.

“The kid didn’t mean any harm. He was just scared, is all. That’s why he ran off.” Then Jess coughed again, laying back weakly on the pillows.

“Even so, I…”

Then Slim turned on her. “Just leave it, will you, Ma’am. I figure there is time to sort all that out later. Right now, I’m more concerned about Jess,” he said coldly. Then getting up, he opened the door and stood to one side for her to pass. “Would you mind?”

She looked furious when it was obvious she was being asked to leave. “Well really,” she muttered as she flounced out, closing the door firmly behind her.

“Thanks, pard,” whispered an exhausted Jess as his eyes closed and he drifted into a restless sleep.

Once he was sure his partner was settled, Slim reluctantly made his way into the main room, and finding coffee there, thankfully poured a cup before sinking down at the table.

After a moment,  Marjorie came in from the kitchen and stood over him, looking furious. “Well?”

Slim looked up from his cup suddenly, feeling pretty angry himself, and just raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“So what are you going to do about that child? I really do think he must be punished and severely, Mister Sherman, for causing all this trouble. I cannot understand your attitude at all. I can’t think why you allow that boy to get away with things so. Goodness, my dear Papa would have horsewhipped my brother for less than that.”

Slim sighed deeply. “Well, maybe you just don’t understand the situation, Ma’am. You don’t really know Mike or any of us, do you? Only what Lily has told you that is.”

“Well I believe I know enough. I can see he is a spoilt brat and he doubtless had feckless parents. I shouldn’t be surprised if his father died in one of those dreadful saloon brawls or — what do you say — a shoot-out. Then I imagine his poor mother was unable to cope with him; that’s why he was put up for adoption!” she concluded looking self-satisfied.

That was just a step too far for the usually placid, rancher who was normally so slow to anger. “Well, you imagine wrong,” Slim replied, “Sit down,” he said frighteningly quietly.

“I beg your pardon?” she replied haughtily.

“I said sit,” Slim growled.

She did as she was bid, looking uncertainly over at the tall blond man, wondering what had come over him.

Slim inhaled a long slow breath before looking her in the eye, trying to control his impatience. “I figure you need to know something about the boy — all of us maybe. The truth that is…not Lily’s version of it.”

She just sat there lips pursed and listened.

“You see, when Mike came to us, he was about seven years old and there is an old saying, ‘show me the boy at seven, and I’ll show you the man.’ You ever heard that one?” Slim asked.

“I believe so, yes. Attributed to the Catholic Jesuit priests, is it not?“

“Yes Ma’am; they reckon those formative years are real important for the learning of religious belief — and other stuff too, I figure. Learning about knowing right from wrong, about being loved and nurtured and learning to care about others. About honor and truth — all those important things in life, you know?”

She nodded now staring transfixed.

“Well, that’s how Mike was when we got him. Had all the good stuff in there,” Slim said, tapping his heart. “Sure, the initial stage when he was adjusting to us, settling down, we had our ups and downs; it wasn’t all plain sailing. But generally, he was a great kid. He knew his Bible and prayers, right from wrong, was polite, kind — and he still is. I reckon his parents did a real fine job on him…before they died, that is. You see, they were killed, in front of the boy, by a band of renegade Indians that attacked the wagon train. Scalped while he hid in the bushes, left there all alone, everyone else dead…until he was picked up by some good people who brought him here.”

She now had tears in her eyes and sat there very still, barely breathing.

“So you see, that’s why he gets kind of upset if he thinks he’s going to lose us, his life here, everything  he’s learned to rely on. He’s learned to trust again since he’s been here. Hell, he’s learned to love again. He loves his Aunt Daisy, and me, and Jess. We’re his family now, you see?”

She just stared her eyes now brimming with tears, completely unable to speak.

“That’s why he took off that way. It was all he could think to do. He thought if he hid away until you went home, well, everything would be alright. That’s why we were both so dang worried and why Jess there,” he said tipping his head towards the bedroom door. “Carried on searching for him, even though he was feeling real sick. Because you see, Marjorie, we all love him too. And I figure that might be something Lily neglected to tell you.” With that, Slim stood up and marched out of the room, unable to carry on lest he said something he might regret later.

*****

The following morning, Slim awoke to the sound of Jess cussing softly, and he sat up at once, throwing his legs out of bed and looking over at his buddy in concern. “Jess, what is it, pard? You feelin’ worse?”

Jess turned his head on the pillow to face his friend, his eyes narrowed in pain. “Can’t breathe too well, Slim; hurts something fierce.”

Slim went across and sat on the edge of his bed, resting a gentle hand on his buddy’s chest. “What do you think is wrong? Did you fall yesterday? Hurt your ribs or something?”

Jess just shook his head. “Nope, thought I’d just gotten a fever is all, after that soaking.”

Slim shook his head sadly. “I shouldn’t have let you go on looking; I should have gone and let you come back home. Heck, I knew you weren’t feeling so good. It’s just…”

“Just what?” asked Jess with a quizzical eyebrow raised.

Slim looked down and shook his head before throwing his pard a sheepish look. ”Well, I guess I didn’t trust you not to let rip with that old temper of yours and we were trying to keep Miss Marjorie sweet, if you remember.”

“Um, well, I guess you did right then,” Jess said with a weak grin. “Because I sure would have done too, after what she’d done upsettin’ the kid that way an’ all.” Then he coughed and grabbed hold of his chest crying out in pain. “Jeez that hurts,” he whispered.

“Right. I’m riding for doc Sam,” Slim said decisively, and getting up, started to throw his clothes on quickly.

“I’ll be OK; just this ol’ chill gotten on my chest some. Quit frettin’, Slim.” Jess half sat up. However, the effort set off another spasm of coughing and he sank back on the pillow looking terrible.

“That does it; I’m going. Just hang on, pard.” With that, Slim strode out of the room.

Marjorie was just bringing the coffee pot to the table when he rushed out and she looked up questioningly at the rancher’s haste.

“It’s Jess; he’s real sick. I’m riding for the doc. Can you check on him, get him a hot drink maybe?“

She looked less than pleased at that notion. “Well I, er…”

“Look Ma’am, I know you don’t do nursing, but this is kind of an emergency. Just look out for him for a couple of hours. I’ll be as quick as I can, OK?”

She finally nodded.

Slim grabbed his hat and gun belt from by the door, and shortly afterwards, she heard him riding out of the yard at speed. A little while later she tapped lightly on the bedroom door and entered. “I’ve brought you some coffee, Mister Harper.”

Jess had quickly pulled the covers over his naked torso and looked anything but pleased to see her. However, remembering his promise to try and be cooperative, he just thanked her and nodded for her to put it on the nightstand.

Then she turned to go, but he called her back.

“Yes?“

“About Mike. You ain’t thinkin’ of punishing him while ol’ Hardrock…er, that is, Slim’s in town,” Jess asked throwing her a challenging look.

She met his angry gaze and then taking a deep breath said,  “No, I won’t. Mister Sherman explained about the child’s…unfortunate past, and I suppose one must make some allowances for him…under the circumstances.”

“Oh, well, that’s real big of you,” muttered Jess darkly.

“Allowances for him, Mister Harper, but not for you. I still agree with Lily. You are an unsuitable guardian, and so my undertaking remains steadfast — to either have you…or the child removed. And either way, I really do not think this is a proper place for dear Daisy to be working, and hopefully Lily will have convinced her of that fact by now.”

Jess sat up, clutching his chest, heedless of the falling sheet, “Why you miserable ol’… This is what it’s all about, ain’t it? Lily wants Daisy out of here! Nuthin’ to do with me bein’ suitable. She wants our Daisy to care for Violet, and as for me, well, I guess she’s just after revenge!” He fell back coughing, his eyes blazing mad.

She stood there transfixed for a moment, staring at his firm tanned torso before tearing her eyes away. “Think what you will, Mister Harper,” she finally managed and turning fled from the room, looking very guilty.

Jess lay back gasping for breath, his chest on fire; he felt like a sword had been thrust under his ribs and through to  his left shoulder blade. He cussed long and loud, really not caring if he offended her anymore. The gloves were off, he figured, now he knew what her game was.

Marjorie went and poured herself a nice cup of tea before the task of putting the clean washing out on the line, and as she raised her cup, realized her hand was shaking.

How dare he speak to her that way! And that dreadful language that had just emanated faintly from his room. Goodness, she didn’t even know the meaning of half the words.

Then she thought back to the way those deep blue, expressive, eyes had blazed in anger and the firm muscular chest, so tanned and lithe. He was certainly a handsome man, she had to admit.

Then she remembered those long forgotten feelings that had made her tremble with longing as he had held her close at the dance, when the band had played that slow romantic song and she took a deep breath to slow her leaping heart.

‘Don’t be so ridiculous, Marjorie,’ she said firmly to herself. ‘What on earth has got into you lately? I’m here to do a job for dear Lily and I aim to do it.’ With that, she drained her cup and gathered up the washing basket.

She went out to the yard and called Mike, who was busy mending harness in the barn and studiously keeping out of her way. “Michael! Michael! Oh, where is that boy,” she cried with exasperation.

He eventually trailed out of the barn. “You holler for me, Miss Marjorie?”

“No I didn’t holler, child; I called you. Please come here and pass me the pegs, make yourself useful.”

Mike hid a deep sigh and came forwards. “Yes ma’am,” he said politely, before doing as he was bid.

They were just pegging out the last sheet when three riders came slowly into the yard and sat on their mounts surveying the scene before them.

Then Casper Wright pushed his Stetson back, and turning to his brother Lonny, said in a drunken slur, “Well ain’t this the picture of domestic bliss, bro. The little lady hangin’ the wash out and junior here helpin’ — very nice.”

Marjorie turned to face him, and squinting up against the sun, said, “Can I help you, my good man?“

“Oh, ‘can I help you, my good man’?” laughed Lonny in a parody of Marjorie’s accent. “Well, ain’t we la de dah.”

At this, Casper swung down from his horse and mooched over until he was standing within a couple of feet of her.

“Hey, she’s older than I thought,” he said with a nasty smile up at his brother and cousin, “but I guess I like ‘em kinda experienced.” He grabbed hold of her arm and tried to pull her into an embrace, but she was too quick and backed off, turning to Mike, a look of fear in her eyes.

Then a moment later, Lonny and Pete joined him, Lonny grabbing hold of Mike roughly. ”You behave, young ‘un, or you’ll feel my belt, git it?”

Mike nodded, looking equally terrified.

“So Harper and Sherman out on the range then?” asked Pete conversationally.

Marjorie and Mike exchanged a glance. Slim could be another hour at least, and Jess was way too sick to take on these three, Mike knew that. “Yes,” Mike said quickly. “Just over on the home pasture fence mending, due back for coffee anytime now.”

However if he hoped his ploy would mean the men would take off, he was sadly mistaken.

“Well, we’ll just make ourselves at home then, young ‘un,” grinned Lonny, leaning back on the corral fence and pulling out his smokes before offering them around to Pete and Casper.

However, his younger brother had other ideas on his mind, and grabbing hold of Marjorie’s arm again, he started frog marching her over towards the barn. “I figure me and the little lady will get better acquainted,” he said with a lecherous grin.

“Well don’t take too long about it. We’ve got Sherman to teach a lesson as well as that bastard Harper, and reckon we’ll need all hands on deck.”

Casper pulled his hat down and lunged at Marjorie again, pulling her close and kissing her hard, before dragging her towards the barn. “Just a quick bit of fun,” he said, leering at her again. “Bet you like  a bit of rough don’t you, my lady,” he laughed.

That’s when the penny finally dropped and she realized she was going to be raped. She let out a piercing scream fit to wake the dead and struggled for all she was worth, but Casper just guffawed even louder and renewed the strength of his grip on her arm.

Then suddenly he lost his grasp on her, and she was pushed out of the way as Jess came between her and Casper.

The next thing she knew, Jess had smashed his fist into the unsuspecting man’s face and he lay in the dust blood streaming from his nose.

Jess turned to face her then and she realized two things.

Firstly, he was naked save for his red flannel undershorts, and secondly he was shouting at her.

“I said, get in the house and take the boy with you,” Jess repeated. Then he was attacked viciously by the other two men, parrying and exchanging blows as well as he was able, but anyone could see he really wasn’t up to it.

Marjorie suddenly galvanized herself into action, and grabbing a startled Mike’s hand, made for the safety of the house, but stayed on the porch watching in horror as the scene unfolded before her.

The men were like a cat with a mouse all enjoying the spectacle of Jess looking ill and drained as he tried his upmost to fight them.

“So Harper, what are you doin’ in bed at this hour, taunted Casper. “Sick are we?”

Jess just nodded from where he lay in the dust blood, streaming from a cut lip. “Well, I’d have whopped you pretty good by now if I weren’t, wouldn’t I?” he yelled angrily.

Pete leaned down and backslapped him hard across the face. “I don’t reckon you’re in any position to be makin’ cracks, Harper.”

Jess sighed deeply knowing the truth of it. “So what do you want then?”

“Well, Casper, here seems to have set his sights on this new housekeeper of yours, Harper, so I guess we’ll indulge him. And then we’ll get about teaching you and that no-good partner of yours some manners. See, we were locked up in the Laramie jail for nigh on three days after our last little set to, so I reckon it’s time to even things up some.”

The thought of what Casper intended to do to Marjorie somehow finally gave Jess the inner strength to drag himself up from the dirt, although his chest was way beyond agony now. “You’ll take her over my dead body,” he snarled, moving towards where Marjorie and Mike still stood on the porch trembling with fear.

Then two things happened almost at once.

Buttons, who had been tied up in the barn and had been chewing through the rope since the men arrived, now tore out of the barn and launched himself at Casper, grabbing hold of his trouser leg and worrying it as he growled and snarled with uncharacteristic fury.

At almost the same moment, Mike saw Jess’s rifle leaning propped up against the old porch chair and grabbing it,  he yelled, “Jess!” and threw it to his hero.

Jess caught it easily and then trained it on the three men, who immediately stood stock still.

“Mike, call Buttons off.”

The boy did as asked, and after a few more threatening growls, the little dog ran over to his master, tail wagging.

“Right, mount up and get the hell out of here before I blast your goddamn brains out,” Jess yelled, menacingly. Then turning to Marjorie, he gave her a tiny look of mock apology. ”Beggin’ your pardon, Ma’am.”

“That’s quite alright, Jess,” she replied weakly.

*****

The men disappeared over the rise at speed, cussing as they went but knowing better than to cross Harper when he was real mad and had a loaded rifle trained on their bellies.

Jess watched them go, and then a moment later gracefully, fell to his knees and collapsed in a dead faint.

Marjorie ran over, closely followed by Mike, and after a moment she tentatively turned him over onto his back, gasping at what she saw.

He was white as a sheet, save for the blood trickling down his chin and a fast forming bruise to his cheek, with several other bruises and abrasions to his chest.

She glanced despairingly at Mike. “What do we do now?“

The boy had obviously been in this position before and replied at once. “Get him inside to bed, Miss Marjorie; you take his arms and I’ll get his legs.”

After much huffing and puffing, the two finally managed to maneuver him inside and onto his bed. Marjorie sent Mike off for clean water and cloths while she tried to make him more comfortable, adjusting his pillows and covering his semi naked body, blushing a little as she did so.

Apart from her brothers, when they were young, she had never seen a gentleman in a ‘state of undress’, as her Mother would have referred to it, and she had certainly never seen a man in figure hugging red flannel undershorts before. Even though she had been engaged to dear Edwin for nearly two years, before his sad demise in a hunting accident, they had never been intimate, and seeing a man this way was new and quite shocking to her.

She was brought back to the task in hand, though, when Mike arrived with the water. She started to gently clean off all the blood and dirt, all the time feeling incredibly self-conscious, worried lest he wake and those incredible blue eyes would peer into hers and see something there that she really didn’t want him to see — compassion, tenderness?

She hadn’t realized how much she was moved and upset by the situation until Mike shook her arm gently and said, ”You OK Miss Marjorie? You look kinda funny.”

“Yes dear, of course. I’m just sorry that Mister Harper is hurt that’s all.“

“Jess,” said Mike. “You called him Jess out in the yard.”

“So I did,” she replied softly.

She gazed into the pale lean face, looking so young in repose, the long sweep of eyelashes casting a shadow on the gentle curve of his cheek. So young and yet, in many ways, so much older than her, she thought as she gently eased his hair back from his forehead.

It was then that she felt how warm he was, and a few moments later, he started moving restlessly on the bed, although still unconscious, clearly suffering from a fever.

Then she remembered what Slim had done the previous evening, and fetching more cold water, gently wiped his face. Then steeling herself, she pulled the covers back and  started to wash down his naked chest, knowing how important it was to try  relieve a high fever.

After a few minutes, what she had dreaded happened; his eyes flickered and finally opened and she felt him gazing at her. A dazed look slowly turning to gradual awareness as he glanced around him, and then panic as he suddenly realized who was tending him. He grabbed hold of the sheet, drawing it up to his neck. “What are you doin’?” he croaked.

“It’s alright. You are just running a fever and I thought I should cool you down a little. Nothing to be alarmed about, I can assure you,” she said with a confidence she didn’t feel.

“Yeah, well, I’m OK,” he said gruffly. Then remembering the ordeal she had just been through, he asked more sympathetically, “So are you alright now?“

“Yes, thanks to you. I really don’t know how I can ever thank you,” she gushed, flushing slightly at the memory of him fighting to protect her honor.

Jess looked slightly embarrassed,  and then even more so when he remembered his semi naked state in the yard, but hell, there had hardly been time for such niceties as dressing, he reassured himself, not when a woman was yellin’ blue murder that way.

Then his blushes were spared as the door flew open revealing Slim and the Doc.

It was later, after Marjorie had left them, and the doc had spent several minutes listening to Jess’s chest with his stethoscope that he finally sat back, a worried look in his eyes as he noted his friend’s pain and breathlessness.

“Well,” asked Slim from where he was seated on his own bed looking on. “What’s the damage this time Sam?”

Sam removed his stethoscope and cast first Slim and then Jess a solemn look. “Well, I don’t like the sound of those lungs of yours at all, Jess. You seem to have a nasty infection going on; looks to be a case of Pleurisy to me.”

“Huh, so is that like lung fever doc?”

“Um, well, to some degree. You had a bad case of that last winter, didn’t you, Jess?”

He just nodded. “I guess. I was pretty bad, yeah.”

“Well, I figure it’s made you more susceptible to this sort of thing. The lung and chest wall are inflamed, causing severe pain at every breath…right?”

Jess just nodded again. “So when will I be better?”

Sam grunted at that. “Depends on how well you behave. This fight you’ve just been involved in won’t have helped.”

“Heck Sam, I explained about that. I couldn’t let those bastards attack Lady M, could I?”

“Of course not, buddy; I understand,” said the doc placatingly. “He will need careful nursing, though,” he continued, turning to Slim.

“Gee, I wish Daisy was here,” Slim replied, looking anxious.

“Well can’t Lady Marjorie help you out?” asked Sam.

“No!” replied Jess and Slim in unison.

“Well, goodness me, so why ever not?“

“Says she doesn’t do nursing,” replied Slim.

“And I don’t want her to either,” said Jess, coughing hard and nearly choking at the mere thought.

“Well, you’re going to need someone, my friend, and Slim here has been telling me all about that mustang delivery he’s to make this week, plus all the other jobs about the place, so I guess it’s going to have to be this Lady Marjorie. I’ll have a word,” he said decisively, before marching out of the room.

“Slim, tell him!” cried Jess looking fearful. “I ain’t havin’ that woman nurse me. I just ain’t!“

*****

Marjorie took over his nursing care that evening by making sure he ate up all his Pea Soup and then settled him down for the night with a dose of the pain medicine the doc had brought.

“We’ll get along marvelously, Mister Harper, don’t worry now,” she said briskly as she retired for the night.

“She sure has had a change of heart,” Jess said morosely when Slim came to bed a little while later.

“Well, I guess that’s because you saved her from a, quote ‘fate worse than death’, and she figures it’s time to make amends. I reckon nursing you is her way of saying thank you, pard.”

Jess sighed and then regretted it immediately as the knife like pain shot through his chest. “I tell you, Slim, I’ve had enough of the dang woman already, not to mention that darned Pea Soup. I’m sick here; I should be havin’ food to build me up, not that green mush,” he finished belligerently.

“Will you just simmer down, Jess. It can’t be helped. I’ve got to deliver the rest of those beasts on time or we lose the contract and there just isn’t anyone else.”

“I know, but it don’t mean I have to like it,” Jess muttered darkly.

As it turned out, Jess remembered very little of the next few days anyway. It was all a blur of pain, fever, coughing and pain medicine-induced sleep, interspersed with Lady Marjorie tending him. Almost tenderly, Jess perceived, as if he was in some sort of strange waking dream. Her newly sympathetic face kept flitting in and out of his dream-like state along with gentle hands washing him down with cool water and helping him to sip cold drinks. But it all seemed so unreal to him at the time that he wasn’t sure if he was imagining it all. Lady Marjorie, compassionate and kindly… No, it was all just an illusion, he decided.

It was Slim, however, that was around to deal with the more intimate aspects of the nursing care, like shaving and dressing, and Jess was eternally grateful for that at least, when he finally came out of the living hell of the pleurisy and started to feel a little better.

“Don’t be too hard on her, pard,” said Slim one night as he was turning in. “I reckon she’s changed, you know, since she’s been here with us.”

“You do?” asked Jess looking incredulous. “How so?”

“Well, she seems gentler, kinder. Heck, the way she was lookin’ at you when you were asleep yesterday, she seemed to be positively devoted.”

“What?” he said, sitting up and really taking notice. “Hell Slim, I’d rather she was a naggin’ me. Like I said before, you know where you are with a female that nags, especially one of a certain age,” he continued, looking sorely tried.

Slim laughed and made a swipe at his pard’s head. ”Seems to me you’re on the mend, Jess. Figure maybe you won’t need a nurse for much longer huh?”

“Now you’re talkin’,” he grinned. “Reckon I’ll git up tomorrow sit out on the porch for a while. What do you think, Slim?“

“Oh well, I don’t know, pard. Figure we’d better run it past Miss Marjorie first.”

“Aw, Slim!”

It was just a week later, with Jess fully recovered, that the two were busy mending the corral fence when they heard a couple of riders coming down the rise.

“We ain’t expectin’ company, are we, Slim?”

A moment later Mort Corey came into view followed by a younger man riding a big grey mare.

Mort reined in and cast the friends a slightly anxious glance. “Afternoon. Slim…Jess.”

“Mort, what brings you here in the heat of the day?” asked Slim, tilting his Stetson back and grinning up at his friend.

“Business, I’m afraid, Slim. This here is Judge John Knowles, the new circuit Judge, fresh out here from back East,” Mort said with a slightly disparaging tone, although his face remained pleasant enough, as he nodded over to the Judge.

Jess marched over and touched his hat. “Afternoon, Judge. So what can we do for you?” he asked politely, although his heart was beating ten to the dozen as he had a pretty good idea why the Judge was visiting.

Judge Knowles dismounted and tethered his grey before turning an icy gaze on the two men and then with a cool smile, that didn’t reach his eyes, he said quietly, “Gentlemen, I am here to discuss some very serious accusations against you both, but Mister Harper in particular. Is there somewhere we can talk please?”

Jess and Slim exchanged a glance, and Jess muttered under his breath, “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” before Slim took charge and ushered the Judge towards the ranch house, followed by Mort, with a reluctant Jess following on behind.

Once inside, they sat around the table, and Judge Knowles drew a brown envelope from his suit jacket pocket and placed it carefully on the table before him, staring at it for a moment before casting his gaze around the men. “I have here a document written by one Miss Marjorie Fortescue- Smyth, who is currently acting as your housekeeper, if I am correct?

Slim nodded. “That’s right; just helping us out temporarily. She only met us all a few weeks ago,” he added firmly.

“Yes, I understand that, but of course the role of housekeeper is, well, a very close one. They have privy to all that goes on behind closed doors, do they not?”

“Huh?” asked Jess, looking uncomfortable.

“They see and hear everything, Mister Harper, and sometimes things that maybe the family would prefer were kept private?“

“Oh yeah, I get you,” said Jess beginning to look angry. “Like getting’ drunk and womanizing — that kinda thing?”

“Jess,” said Slim brusquely. “You’re really not helping any!”

“Well, that’s the lies she’s written in that darned letter, ain’t it?” said Jess, angrily gesturing to the missive in front of the Judge.

“It’s alright, Mister Sherman. We may as well get to the point, and please don’t worry about your partner’s famous temper. That is why I asked the Sheriff to join us in case things got a little out of hand.”

Jess rolled his eyes. “So I’m gonna start a ruckus too. am I?”

“I really don’t know, Mister Harper. Are you?” asked the Judge, throwing him a supercilious look.

Jess just sighed and looked down.

“Well come on then,” said Slim, beginning to look annoyed himself. “So what does she have to say Judge?”

Judge Knowles spread the paper out in front of him and started to read.

Dear Judge,

As a God fearing Christian woman, newly employed at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station to care for the ward of Mister Slim Sherman and Mister Jess Harper, I feel it my duty to bring to light certain aspects of his upbringing that I feel are both wanting and in some cases detrimental to his wellbeing.

Jess looked pensive trying to make sense of all this and figured she wasn’t saying what a darned good job they were doing, although he wasn’t a hundred percent sure exactly what she was saying.

The following matters have caused me considerable worry and I shall merely itemize them for your scrutiny, hoping that you will maybe examine these charges in greater detail.

The child seems to run wild for much of the time, doing ranch work, some of which I perceive to be dangerous, like working near wild unbroken horses and chopping wood with a sharp axe.

He does not take well to discipline, and on several occasions, has seemed most reluctant to take a bath or to do daily study, and his guardians seem quite lax in supporting me on these matters.

Jess gave a derisive snort at that. “He’s a kid! They get dirty, for goodness sake. Can’t be washin’ all the darned time, and he don’t like studyin’ too much in the school holidays either!”

“If you please, Mister Harper,” the Judge broke in. “You may reply to the charges all in good time.”

Jess and Slim exchanged an outraged look, but said nothing.

Then Judge continued the litany of misdemeanors.

Both men seem fond of strong drink and indeed have imbibed in the house since my arrival.

Mister Harper is not only guilty of the sin of drinking strong liquor but also of brawling in the street and in the saloon. He is also keeping company with a most unsuitable employee of the saloon, as is Mister Sherman. Neither of the men are betrothed or married and yet they frequently stay in town with their lady friends. Mister Harper has also been heard to use strong language in front of his ward.

Jess merely rolled his eyes at that.

All in all, I feel neither of these men make suitable guardians for a young vulnerable child, and in view of the very real probability of their usual housekeeper, Mrs. Daisy Cooper, resigning shortly, I feel the matter should be placed in your hands and the child removed to a place of safety as soon as is possible.

I remain your obedient servant,

Lady Marjorie Fortescue-Smyth.

There was a stunned silence when he finished reading, and then both Slim and Jess started to defend themselves vigorously, but the Judge held his hand up. “Gentlemen please, one at a time, and let us just address the individual issues here.”

“OK, OK,” said Slim quietly, throwing Jess a silencing glance. “Jess is right. Sure, Mike gets dirty, but we make sure he cleans up regularly. And as to the ranching work, he’s always kept safe and he’s learning to do the work. It may look dangerous to someone like Miss Marjorie, but I can assure you he never does anything around here that would put him at any risk.”

The Judge nodded wisely at that. “Yes, I will accept that. As a rancher’s son, he needs to be able to do some of the chores and learn to work safely about the place. I understand.”

“So what about the matter of you brawling in the street then, Mister Harper? Can you explain that?”

Mort jumped in at that, explaining about the recent attack in Laramie that Marjorie had witnessed, and going on to say that most of the fights Jess got involved in were due to the fact that he was acting as Deputy and often stopping fights, not starting them.

The Judge again seemed to look on this in a favorable light. “Very laudable of you, Mister Harper.”

“Um,” Jess muttered looking down moodily, knowing that Mort was being slightly over generous, and one or two recent fights had been purely Jess being Jess and finding trouble without really trying.

Then Jess threw the Judge an angry look. “But there’s one thing I ain’t gonna apologize for or lie about. Sure I spend time with my girl, and I figure that’s nobody’s goddamn business other than ours. Hell, it ain’t gonna harm the boy; he loves Millie almost as much as I do, and she’s a real great girl — whatever  Lady Marjorie thinks,” he finished bitterly.

The Judge just made a note and said nothing. Then he turned to Slim. “And you both drink regularly, here in the house?”

Slim looked furious at that. “What in hell are you implying? Of course we don’t drink here that often, and if we do have the odd glass, it’s always after the boy is in bed, not in front of him!”

“I can vouch for that ” said Mort. “High days and holidays or the odd glass after a hard day, but I figure we all do that, don’t we Judge?”

The younger man gave him the ghost of a smile at that. “Yes, I guess so,” he agreed. He looked down then. ”So I have to ask you what all this is about? Just a woman from another way of life — from the Old Country, I believe — and maybe unable to understand our ways? Or something else?” he asked, throwing the men a penetrating look.

There was a deathly silence in the room for a minute and then Jess cleared his throat.

“Well I’ll tell you,” he said very quietly. “This whole business has been cooked up by Marjorie because Lily, Daisy’s sister that is, wanted Daisy to leave us — stay and care for her other sister who’s been real sick. Lily thought with Daisy out of the picture, well, you’d look again at the guardianship, especially if Marjorie made a real song and dance about the way we look after the boy.”

“Are you sure about that, Jess?” asked Slim looking surprised.

“Oh I’m sure, She told me herself that she wanted Daisy out of here, when you’d gone to town to fetch doc Sam to me,” Jess said, looking over at his pard. “And she almost admitted that it was revenge on Lily’s part too. I reckon that with all the ruckus that followed, I clean forgot to tell you.”

“Ruckus?” asked the Judge.

“That Casper Wright and family came out to the ranch for revenge on Jess, and then decided to attack Miss Marjorie,” said Mort, “before Jess intervened that is!” “They’re lying low right now,” he continued looking over at his buddy, ”but we’ll get them, Jess, don’t you worry.”

Just then the men heard the sound of the buckboard entering the yard, bearing Marjorie and Mike coming back from visiting a neighbor.

“So why don’t you ask her yourself, Judge,” suggested Jess, throwing him a challenging glance, “if you don’t believe me.”

A moment later, the front door flew open and Mike ran in, stopping in his tracks when he saw the smartly dressed man sitting at the table and just knew at first sight that this was the Judge. From his dark suit to his big black hat, he had Judge written all over him.

The boy ran straight to Jess’s arms and cried, ”I ain’t goin’ with that ol’ Judge, Jess. I wanna stay here with you an’ Slim!”

“It’s OK, Tiger; take it easy,” said Jess kindly, pulling the youngster onto his knee and holding him close. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, so just simmer down huh.”

Then Marjorie marched in and halted when she saw five pairs of accusing male eyes on her.

“This is Judge John Knowles, Ma’am,” said Mort standing up. “Come to investigate your claims that Mike here ain’t being cared for right and is in some kind of danger?” he finished, eyebrows raised in disbelief.

“Pleased to meet you, Judge Knowles,” she said quietly advancing and shaking the hand he offered as he stood up to greet her.

Mort pulled out his chair for her and she sat down reluctantly, having difficulty looking any of them in the eyes.

“Well, Miss Fortescue-Smyth,” the Judge said formally, “I have discussed the content of your letter and there seems to be some dispute as to the validity of its content.”

She looked down at the table for a long time before finally steeling herself to look the Judge in the eye. “Well, maybe that is because some of the content is not true — or is at least exaggerated.”

“What?” exploded Jess. “So why write it all, upsettin’ the boy this way, garldarnit!”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“These are very serious allegations you’ve made, Ma’am, and I have to know if you wish to pursue this matter or not?”

“No,” she confirmed, looking decidedly sheepish. “No, I do not.”

The Judge sighed deeply. “You are aware that this constitutes a waste of my time, Ma’am, which is, strictly speaking, an offense?”

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “Really.” With that, she got up and went swiftly from the room.

Slim and Jess exchanged a glance. Marjorie seemed to have met her match in the judge. And about time, Jess thought secretly. Then he tipped Mike off his knee  “Looks like you’re stuck with us ,Tiger,” he chuckled. “Let’s go unhitch the buckboard.” Then stopping at the door. If you’ve finished with me, Judge?” he asked with a cheeky grin.

The judge sighed again. ”Yes Mister Harper, all done. I reckon I’ve wasted more than enough time here.” Getting up, he followed the dark haired cowboy out.

Mort raised his eyebrows at Slim and whispered, “Kinda ornery these Judges from back east,” before he got up and prepared to leave too.

*****

Slim caught up with his pard a few minutes later as he stood by the corral watching the Judge and Mort ride up the rise at a fast trot.

“So what now?” Jess asked petulantly, turning his deep blue eyes on his buddy. “We just put up with her messin’ with us, Slim?”

Slim sighed deeply. ”Well, nothing’s changed. We’re still waiting on Daisy coming home and I reckon as housekeepers go, we could do worse in the meantime. Heck, she’s really changed since you were sick, you know, pard.”

Jess just raised a skeptical eye brow at that and then threw his friend a troubled look. “That is if Daisy comes home, you mean.”

“Oh come on, Jess, it would take more than Lily to make her give up everything here.”

“I dunno. She’s real fond of Violet. Maybe she’d feel kinda bad at leaving her, especially if that Lily starts makin’ her feel guilty.”

“So what are you saying? We should intervene? Write to Daisy and ask her to come home — as soon as Violet can be left that is?”

“Nope, I reckon we should ask Marjorie to do that. If she thinks Marjorie’s had enough of us and is leaving, then I guess she’ll come home.”

“Are you crazy? It’s her as has been sent by Lily to try and sabotage us. I doubt she’ll give up even now? I reckon she’d be scared of what Lily will say if she doesn’t do as she‘s been asked. She just lost her nerve with the Judge that’s all, and I believe she’ll carry out her threats in the end.” said Slim looking anxious.

 “Um, well, not when I’ve finished with her she won’t,” Jess replied, the light of battle in his intense blue eyes. He glanced around him then. “So where is she? She came out here just before the Judge left, didn’t she?”

Just then Mike came over from where he’d been throwing sticks for Buttons. “I saw her going towards the creek,” he offered. “And she looked real upset, Jess; kinda like she’d been cryin’,” he finished looking surprised.

“Um, well, I guess she’ll be doin’ some more of that when I’m done with her,” Jess said darkly as he strode off towards the path through the home pasture which led to the creek and water hole.

“Take it easy, Jess,” Slim called after him. “Remember, she is a Lady.”

Jess merely waved a hand in acknowledgement but didn’t slow his pace any.

*****

Marjorie had run out of the ranch house after her encounter with the Judge feeling totally devastated.

Why, oh why, had she written that terrible letter full of lies and half-truths?

She saw the boy watching her, and feeling close to tears, turned and made for the creek, the place that had become her own private sanctuary over the last few weeks, the place she came to think when she was feeling overwhelmed.

Now she sat on a sun-warmed rock by the water’s edge and cast her mind back over everything that had happened to her recently.

How Lily had insisted that she come out to this, as she initially thought, God-forsaken spot, to help out dear Daisy. She had no issue with that and was indeed glad to help, even though she felt completely out of her depth. Dealing with these rough and ready cowboys, living such a strange existence so far removed from her own experience, she had covered her ignorance and fear in a cloak of officiousness, and was overbearing and appeared cold in her dealings with them all, she knew.

However, she had needed to be like that, she reminded herself, if she was to complete the other part of Lily’s mission for her — that of discrediting the men so that they lost guardianship of young Michael, and Lily would have Daisy back at her beck and call again. Also Lily seemed to need to heap her revenge on Mister Harper, for some unspecified misdemeanor he had committed previously and which had upset her so deeply.

 Then things had gradually begun to shift and change, notably her feelings towards Mister Harper — Jess, as she secretly thought of him now.

When had that been? At the dance certainly, when he had awakened long forgotten feelings as he held her close, dancing so perfectly and smiling down into her eyes laughing and being generally charming. But then she had seen his devotion to Millie, and that was when she had decided to continue with the plan as requested by Lily and written that terrible letter to the Judge. She sighed loudly again at the thought of its contents and how much she had hurt all at the ranch by sending it. Why, oh why? Just because I was so jealous, she thought, remembering how Jess and Millie were together.

Then he had been sick, and further more hurt, as he protected her from those dreadful men, and since then she was totally under his spell. She had gently nursed him, the intimacy again reawakening feelings long forgotten as she sat for hours just watching him and tenderly ministering to his every need.

Now she felt a very deep affection for him; further than that, she would not admit to, knowing it was hopeless anyway. But if she could just stay — look after him and the others too — that would be enough for her. Then she thought if Lily had her way, maybe they would ask her to stay and replace Daisy. But that was before she remembered about the letter and realized that all was lost. They would never trust her again.

*****

When Jess arrived at the creek about ten minutes later, he cast a glance down the bank searching for the housekeeper and wondering vaguely what she was doing there anyway.

The little creek rushed along through a narrow gulley and then widened out and slowed down as it opened into a deep swimming hole and then carried on down the valley. Here its banks were lined by huge flat boulders making ideal places to fish from and it was seated on one of these boulders looking off to the distant horizon that he finally spied Lady Marjorie.

He wandered over and hunkered down beside her; she jumped and then relaxed a little when she saw who it was. “Oh… you startled me.”

Jess tipped his hat back and squinted across at her. “Mind if I join you?”

She just shook her head. “Please do.”

They looked out at the distant view for a while before Jess turned and looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since he was taken sick and was surprised by the change in her.

Gone were the matronly clothes. She now wore a pretty silky blouse in palest pink and a dark, closely fitting skirt. Her severe hairstyle was softer and feminine with little tendrils framing her face. And yes, she appeared to be wearing a hint of makeup too.

“You’ll certainly know me next time, Mister Harper,” she said looking down and blushing slightly.

Jess looked away immediately, before glancing back. “Gee, I’m sorry, Ma’am; it’s just that you look kinda different is all.“

“Oh?”

“Yeah, sorta…younger, I guess.”

“If that is a compliment, well, thank you,” she said coyly.

Then it was Jess’s turn to look embarrassed, “Was just sayin’,” he muttered.

“So you wanted to see me, Mister Harper?” she asked, returning to her usual no nonsense persona, feeling more than a little hurt at his gruff response.

“Yes Ma’am, I do,” Jess said firmly. ”See, I want you to write to Daisy and say as how we really want her back home where she belongs, just as soon as Miss Violet can manage OK. And I want you to make it clear to Miss Lily that’s what’s gonna happen too,” he finished giving her a hard look.

Her heart suddenly started pounding, ‘No,’ she screamed inwardly. ‘Please no! I can’t leave him, I just can’t!’

Jess took her silence as a mark of her disinclination to comply.

“I figure you owe us that at least,” he said now looking angry. “After writin’ that letter full of all those lies and all.”

She looked down blushing madly. “I’m sorry for that, really I am.”

“Sure, sure you are,” he said openly sarcastic now as he threw her another angry glance. “But not sorry enough to make it right huh?”

“You don’t understand,” she whispered.

“Sure I understand. I understand you’ve upset that poor kid for no good reason as I can see, not to mention me an’ Slim. And that ol’ Judge weren’t any too pleased either. And now you’re sayin’ you won’t lift a finger to put things right?” he asked, throwing her an incredulous look.

She jumped up at that, tears suddenly springing to her eyes. ”I’m so sorry,” she said again before she fled leaving Jess staring after her in bewilderment.

“Hell, I only want her to write a dang letter,” he muttered before throwing a pebble angrily into the swirling water below. “Women,” he growled before jumping up and slowly following the fast disappearing Marjorie, back towards the ranch.

“I just don’t get it? Why won’t she write that letter?” Jess asked, leaning on the barn wall as he watched Slim grooming Alamo later that evening.

“Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? She wants to stay here,” said Slim with a grim smile.

“What? Are you totally crazy? Why would she wanna do that? Hell, she hates us all. So why would she wanna stay?”

Slim looked thoughtful, before finally replying. “Because, I guess, well there isn’t an easy way to say this, pard, but I reckon she’s gotten kind of attached to you.”

“Attached to me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I think — in her own way — she’s, well, sort of…fallen for you.”

Jess’s face was a picture, as a look of shock, closely followed by horror and then disbelief flitted across his handsome features. “You’ve got to be kiddin’,” he finally managed.

Slim shook his head and came out of the stall and faced his buddy. “Haven’t you noticed a change in her? Lost weight, changed her hair and clothes. Heck, Jess she’s even wearing makeup, for goodness sake. You must have noticed.”

“Well sure, but even so,  that don’t mean…does it?”

Slim just nodded. “You didn’t see the way she was with you when you were sick — the way she cared for you and…”

“Slim, shut up, will you? You’re really not helpin’ here.”

A little later, the two men entered the house and were surprised when no smell of cooking assailed their nostrils.

“Hell, she’s even given up on the soup now,” Jess whispered. “So what is it tonight — salad?”

The men exchanged an irritated glance before advancing on the kitchen only to find it completely empty and the cook stove cold.

After a minute, Slim went and tapped on her door and was told in no uncertain terms to go away.

“Can I fetch you something, Ma’am,” Slim continued politely. “Er, some supper?” hoping that would stir her into action.

“No thank you, Mister Sherman; I am busy. Good night.“

Jess rolled his eyes at that. “I’ll go fire up the stove,” he said. “Beans and bacon OK?”

It was much later that night, when Jess had already retired and Slim was sitting by the fire enjoying a final coffee before turning in himself, that Lady Marjorie’s door opened and she came and joined him by the fireside.

Slim gestured with the pot but she just shook her head.

“I’ve just come to bring you these,” she said softly and presented him with two letters, one for Daisy and the other Lily.

She sighed deeply. “I have done as Mister Harper requested and left them unsealed for you to read before they are sent tomorrow.”

Slim accepted them and then inclined his head, “Thank you, Marjorie. I really appreciate this and I know Jess will too.”

Her head shot up at that. “Will he? I doubt it. He hates me.”

“Heck no, he doesn’t. He’s just really protective of young Mike. Anyone that seems to be hurting him in any way, well, ol’ Jess gets kind of rattled, that’s all.“

She sighed deeply. “Well, that is the last thing I meant to do, upset him that way. At first, you see, I believed everything that Lily had said about you all. I genuinely thought I was working in the child’s best interests until…”

“Until?” Slim asked softly, throwing her an encouraging look.

“Until I saw you all as you really are — a close knit, loving family unit, who care for each other. And as for Jess….”

“Go on. “

“He is nothing like Lily described him. Yes he is popular with the ladies and he gets into scrapes, but basically he is a good man, a kind man and a very honorable man too. I can see all that now.”

“What made you change your mind about everything?”

“Just seeing you all together, how upset you were at the thought of losing the boy. How protective of me Jess was when that terrible man attacked me, and later how, well, how vulnerable he was when I nursed him. Not that evil monster he had been made out to be at all, “she finished tears now in her eyes.

“Do you love him?” Slim asked softly.

Her head jerked up  and her eyes opened wide in shock, a denial on her lips, before she looked away into the fire and whispered, “It doesn’t really matter what my feelings are. I am leaving soon and that is an end to it.”

“I’m sorry,” Slim replied. “Sorry your stay here hasn’t been easier for you.”

She gave the ghost of a smile at that. “Easy, no, but very enlightening, Slim, and for that I thank you all. I leave with a whole new outlook on life, and I will never forget you all,” she said with a little sob, before jumping up from her seat. “Goodnight.” With that, she was gone.

A little later, Slim entered the bedroom, and noting a lamp was still burning on the nightstand, said softly, “You still awake, Jess?”

After a moment’s silence, Jess replied, “No, I’m asleep.”

“Oh well, I guess you won’t want to hear as how lady Marjorie has done as you asked and written to Daisy and Lily, saying we want Daisy home.”

“What!” Jess sat bolt upright suddenly wide awake. “Really?”

“Yep.” Slim tossed the letters across, grinning over at his partner.

The one to Daisy was straightforward, explaining that Marjorie needed to move on shortly, and how much Daisy’s charges were missing her and needed her home as soon as she was able.

The other to Lily was far more acerbic, saying that she really could not concur with Lily’s views of the family and Jess in particular, and as such was unable to complete the transaction they had agreed upon, she would not be returning to stay with Lily and her husband when she left the ranch, but thanked her for all her previous help and friendship.’

At this, Jess raised a questioning eyebrow. “What’s she tryin’ to say, Slim?”

“Just that she can’t agree with the way Lily sees us, and particularly you, and so she isn’t about to do as Lily asked — that is, get Mike taken away.”

Jess beamed at that. “I sure would like to see the ol’ witch’s face when she gets this.”

“Yeah, well, Miss Marjorie’s under the impression that you hate her, Jess, so just you be real nice to her after this and make sure you thank her properly. Yeah, ‘cos she is real fond of you — crazy woman,” he finished with a chuckle.

Jess just nodded, before rolling over and closing his eyes. Sure will be good to have Daisy back,” he said sleepily, before falling into a deep sleep.

*****

The following morning was the first day back at school for Mike, and with the usual clamor to get him up and ready to catch the stage in time took all Slim and Jess’s attention.

Then the stage rolled in, and shortly afterwards Mose drove off bearing Mike and also Miss Marjorie’s letters.

It was an hour or so later when the two men were busy cleaning out the barn that Slim asked if Jess had spoken to Marjorie yet.

“Well I’ve been too blamed busy, ain’t I, what with getting Mike ready in time and all,” Jess said frowning.

“So get to it now, pard; she’s round the back tending Daisy’s vegetable patch.”

Jess sighed deeply. “Do I have to?”

“Yes you do. She’s been real good writing those letters and she, well, she sort of admitted last night as to how she’d grown real fond of you, so it won’t hurt just to be pleasant, will it?”

Jess just shook his head looking doubtful, but finally marched off towards the back yard.

Jess watched her for a moment as she stood hoeing between the vegetables in the small sunlit plot before wandering over and saying gruffly, ”Can we talk please, Ma’am?”

She looked a little shocked, but quickly gathered her wits together. They made their way over to the small bench Jess had made for Daisy to take her ease when she found a spare moment in her busy day. It was in an ideal spot, placed in a sunny corner of the yard overlooking the vegetable patch, and Jess suddenly had a picture of her sitting there with her mending, or simply taking her ease with a welcome coffee and his heart ached to see her again.

Then he was aware that Marjorie was seated and peering up at him, a questioning expression on her face.

Jess sank down on the bench beside her and after a moment said shyly, ”I just wanted to thank you for writing those letters, and putting ol…er, that is, Miss Lily straight about things. I really appreciate that.”

She threw him a rueful glance. “Well, better late than never, Mister Harper.”

He just gave her a sad smile at that and nodded. “Jess,” he said softly, “the name’s Jess.”

“Jess.”

“So what made you change your mind?” he asked.

“I… Well, as I told Slim, I just realized that I was mistaken. You are both excellent guardian’s to young Michael, and Lily was just out to discredit you for her own ends.”

Jess just nodded. “Yep. Like I said, she wanted revenge I guess we don’t see eye to eye — on a lot of things.”

She looked intrigued at that. “What sort of things? Why is she so dead against you?”

Jess looked down embarrassed. “I guess you’d need to ask her about that, Ma’am.”

“Marjorie.”

Jess turned and gave her a genuine smile at that. “Marjorie. So what will you do now, if you’re not going back to stay with Lily?” he asked.

She looked thoughtful, and then taking a deep breath she said firmly, “I am going home.”

His expressive eyebrows arched at that. “I thought you’d had a big fall out with your brother?”

“Yes, so did I, but apparently he has offered an olive branch. That letter I received last week has tickets for my voyage home along with a long letter offering me a place to live on the estate. So I will return and start a new life,” she said decisively.

“So not in the…er, family seat then,” Jess said with a faint grin.

“No. That is mainly why we fell out. My brother took himself a young wife, and the truth is we just didn’t get along; hence, my protracted visit to Lily.”

“And now? “

“Now I shall live in the lodge and be as happy as I can be.“

“Huh? Lodge?”

“Um, it is like a gate house on the edge of the estate — a lovely little place, even with a cottage garden a lot like this,” she said gesturing to the plot and then she sighed deeply. “I shall think of you — you all, that is — when I tend my little plot.”

But then she turned to look at him and he saw the naked fear and something else –affection, love — there too and felt suddenly out of his depth, not knowing what to say and just looked down flushing slightly.

She sighed again, knowing she must clear the air between them before she left. “Did Slim tell you that I have become…very fond of you?” she asked, steeling herself to meet his concerned gaze.

He stared at her and then said quietly. “He said something of the sort, yeah.”

“Well I want to tell you something. I thought long and hard about my conversation with Slim last night and I have come to a conclusion.”

“You have?” he whispered looking wary.

She looked off to the distance a faint smile on her face. “Yes. You see, I am not in love with you, Jess, as I foolishly imagined. I am in love with the idea of love.”

“Huh?”

“You see, I think being over here so far from home and then meeting you — such a…well, such a personable young man,” she said trying to spare his blushes by saying more. “Well, that reminded me of what it feels like to be in love, how I felt with my dear Edwin. I had forgotten.”

He just waited for her to go on, giving her an encouraging look.

“No,” she said after a moment’s thought, “not forgotten; just hidden it all away, so deeply, I suppose, to protect myself from getting hurt again after dear Edwin passed.”

“And now?” he asked.

“Now I feel ready to start again. There is a gentleman back home — a widower — who I know will be pleased to see my return. I feel now maybe I have the courage to see him and maybe even make a life together.”

“I’m glad,” Jess said softly, “real glad, Marjorie.” Leaning forward, he kissed her gently on the cheek. “I sure hope it all works out OK.” Then he stood up quickly. “I’d better get to it; still got chores waitin’.” He marched off.

But she sat on in the sunlight, a hand to the cheek that he had just kissed and an unfathomable look in her eyes as she watched him go.

*****

Epilogue

Daisy returned just a week later and everyone at the ranch was overjoyed to have her home again. From the moment she stepped off the stage, Jess and Slim began to feel home really was home again. She arrived on the noon stage, and as usual it stopped over for a while for the passengers to alight and take their ease and some refreshment.

However, today, Daisy was the only passenger to be dropped off, and Marjorie the only one to join the stage, so everyone collected around the table for pie and coffee and a quick exchange of news between the two good ladies, before they went their separate ways.

“I do hope my boys have been behaving themselves,” Daisy said with a little chuckle, smiling across at Marjorie who was dispensing the pie and coffee for the very last time.

“Oh, well, they did have their moments,” Marjorie said with a new twinkle in her eye. “But on the whole they have been most acceptable and looked after me very well,” she finished, casting Jess a coquettish look, which was not lost on Daisy.

Both men heaved a sigh of relief at this easy interchange, just being glad that Daisy had not been embroiled in Lily’s vendetta with Jess and all the trouble that had taken place in her absence.

Finally the men went off to change the team leaving the ladies to catch up for a few minutes longer.

Leaning in, Marjorie, with uncharacteristic openness said, “Now you are safely home, the young men will doubtless tell you everything and how your sister Lily has been…well, a little underhanded.”

“That doesn’t surprise me, my dear; there is little love lost between Lily and my boys…especially Jess,” Daisy said.

“Yes, I have realized that, much to my sorrow,” Marjorie replied. “I know that Lily has…well, a grudge against Jess, does she not?“

Daisy looked surprised and then thoughtful. “Yes, yes she does. She has a real dislike for Jess, because of things that happened in the past,” she said quietly.

Marjorie looked expectant. “Things?”

Daisy sighed, ”Well, as you are leaving, I imagine it doesn’t matter, but Jess and Lily fell out over Gina her daughter. Gina and Jess got quite close at one time, but it was actually Jess that managed to get Gina and Edward her husband together.”

“And so why does Lily hate him so much?”

“Because of what happened when she was staying here with us,” Daisy admitted. ”You see, it was Jess who…well, really lost his temper with her, I have to say — the way nobody had ever dared before and showed Jacob how to treat her. And ever since, well, that husband of hers has followed Jess’s lead and made her toe the line. I believe that is why she hates Jess so much.”

“Really?” Marjorie said laughing. “Well, I never…. “

“Yes, Jacob had been really henpecked before Jess intervened, and ever since then, he well and truly wears the trousers again. And that is why Lily is so down on Jess, as I say.”

 “I’m afraid my sister is a very bitter woman,” added Daisy, looking sadly at her friend. “Please tell me she hasn’t been making mischief again?”

Just then Mose called out, “All travelin’, aboard now, please!”

The two women exchanged a friendly smile. “Good luck, my dear!” Daisy said.

“Thank you, Daisy, and take care of Jess, well, them all, won’t you?”

Daisy smiled. “Oh yes, you can count on that, my dear.” The women went out to the yard arm in arm.

They were greeted by Slim and Jess, and the tall lanky rancher came forwards at once and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek. “Good luck, Marjorie,” Slim said softly, before pulling back.

Then Jess was there ready to hand her up into the stage. “I hope it all works out,” he said softly.

“Thank you,” Marjorie replied and then she was in his arms, kissing him deeply.

Jess, being Jess, took this all in his stride and kissed her back before gently disentangling himself and helping her up into the stage.

Marjorie leaned out and waved as the vehicle finally pulled out and rattled off up the rise. Then Daisy turned to the men. “So what’s been going on then?” she asked, looking from one to the other, a twinkle in her old grey eyes.

*****

It was several months before the men heard any news of their temporary housekeepers, and it was Mort Corey who brought news of Zara.

The sheriff rode in one afternoon, and after tethering his old buckskin, took his place in the shade of the porch. It was now late fall, but Wyoming was enjoying a short Indian summer with the weather wonderfully warm and sunny. “Just come by to tell you that I’ll be able to join you for Thanksgiving next month, if the offer still holds good that is?” he asked with his warm smile.

“Why sure, Mort; the more, the merrier, and I know Daisy will be pleased to have you,” replied Slim happily.

“So how is the dear lady? Settled back in OK?” the Sheriff asked.

“Oh pretty chipper, now she’s gotten the place back to the way she likes it,” laughed Jess. “That Miss Marjorie had everything turned upside down, tidyin’ the place so Daisy couldn’t find a darned thing.”

“Um,” continued Slim. “And as for Zara, well, Daisy reckons she can still smell that real powerful perfume around the house when the wind’s in a certain direction,” he chortled.

“Yeah, and she keeps moanin’ that we need some more crockery too,” chimed in Jess.

“Oh?” asked Mort questioningly.

“Yeah, see, we had kind of a differing of opinion and Zara ended up chucking most of it at Jess,” laughed Slim. “She sure was a fiery one.”

“You can say that again,” laughed the sheriff. Then turning to the men, he ask “Of course, you won’t have heard?”

“Heard what Mort?” asked Jess with a raised eyebrow.

“That old flame of yours, Zara. Well, she was supposed to move back in with her brother-in-law in Cheyenne, wasn’t she? That Butch Dorsey?”

“Yep, that’s him. Said she was going back to him when she left here,” replied Jess.

“Well, she got back with him alright, but then they had this massive bust up and she knifed him!“

Jess and Slim exchanged a horrified look. “Hell, you were well out of that relationship, pard,” said Slim.

“So what happened? Did she kill him?” asked Jess.

“Nope, he lost a lot of blood, but survived, and then the crazy man refused to press charges so she got away scott free.”

“Sounds about right,” said Jess morosely. “So they still together then?“

“Nope. Turns out she went on back home to Texas and has struck up a relationship with a Mexican guy who apparently has the same sort of Latin temperament as Zara, according to a good friend of mine who met up with them recently,” Mort said with a chuckle.

“That good friend of yours wouldn’t be a sheriff, would he, Mort?” asked Slim smiling over.

“Uh huh. Yep, Sheriff James of Abilene had ‘em both in the office for disturbing the peace — fighting and swearing in the saloon.”

Jess just dissolved into helpless laughter at that. “Well, all I can say is I’m dang glad she’s put a few thousand miles between us. And sounds like she’s met her match,” he finished, looking delighted.

It was Christmas before news came through from Lady Marjorie in a long letter written to Daisy, and she shared it with the family at breakfast one morning.

“She has settled well into the Lodge on the estate, and she says to tell you she is enjoying working the vegetable plot, Jess,” she said with a smile in the dark haired cowboy’s direction. “I didn’t know you were keen on vegetable growing, dear?”

Jess just mumbled something unintelligible and sipped his coffee,  remembering their intense conversation in the garden before she left for the old country and how she had said that her feelings for Jess had been the catalyst that was to hopefully change her life. Also, how she would think of him when she tended her own vegetable patch back home. Then as Daisy continued to read, Jess realized that indeed her cherished hopes had come to fruition.

Daisy’s face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. “Why, she says she has met up with an old friend — a widower with two young boys — and they hope to marry in the New Year. How wonderful!” she said, clapping her hands together, her old eyes alight with joy.

Slim flicked a glance over to Jess and they exchanged a knowing grin. “Well, that’s great, Daisy,” Slim said lightly.

“Um, she says, after Michael — as she refers to our Mike — after Michael, they are rather a handful and she sees now that the dear boy was indeed an angel. But she hopes to lick young Oliver and Richard into shape in time,” chuckled Daisy.

“God help ‘em,” muttered Jess.

“Am I really an angel?” asked Mike, his eyes huge in wonder.

“Nope, just a regular boy,” Jess replied. “And I don’t see you sproutin’ wings an’ being perfect yet awhile,” he said with a laugh — and then a soft, ”Thank goodness.”

*****

It was later, after supper, when Mike was in bed, and the adults were all sitting around a crackling fire that Daisy read the letter again to herself, and then carefully placing it back in the envelope, looked over at where Jess and Slim were sitting toasting their toes and enjoying a final coffee before turning in. Then she said thoughtfully, “You know about that letter that Marjorie wrote to me, asking me to return?”

Both men cast her an innocent look. “Huh, er, she may have mentioned it,” Jess said casually.

Daisy hid a smile at that. “Yes well, you needn’t have worried, you know; I had no intention of staying away any longer than I absolutely had to.”

“We know that, Daisy,” said Slim softly. “It’s just that we know how persuasive Lily can be, and also how fond you are of Violet. And I guess we were just getting kind of worried. And yes, we did ask Marjorie to write.”

“Oh, I know that, dear,” Daisy said lightly, “but I just wanted you to know — both of you,” she said including Jess in her open kindly gaze. “That I would never leave you boys. Never.”

“Well, that sure is a relief, Daisy,” said Jess, grinning over at her. “I figure we’re well and truly spoilt now, and nuthin’ but perfection will do!“

“Oh,  go on with you,” she laughed.

“It’s true, though, Daisy,” said Slim more seriously. “This business put me in mind of the time when we were looking for a housekeeper before you landed. Jess wanted all the ones like Zara — all perfume and frills with a shapely figure and knowing a darned sight less than the cat when it came to housekeeping.”

“Yeah, well, she was just downright dangerous,” Jess agreed. Then he looked over at his buddy. “And Slim there favored the strict, no nonsense type like Miss Marjorie, who don’t take no prisoners,” he said with a bitter laugh.

“Well, if anything has come out of this whole business, I think it’s that folk can change,” Daisy said softly. “Marjorie certainly did, and I think a lot of that was down to you, Jess dear.”

“Hey, I didn’t do anything,” Jess said quickly.

“Well, maybe not intentionally, but just by being you, I think you helped to move her on and now she seems so happy,” Daisy said with a big smile.

“And you Daisy? Are you happy?” asked Slim, looking across at their beloved housekeeper. “Are you sure you made the right decision coming home?”

She looked deeply into the fire, and then turning to him, said, ”Why, of course, dear. Because this is my home, and I will be very happy here — once we make the odd change, that is.”

“Huh?” said Jess, looking wary.

“Well dear, Marjorie did have a point. We are woefully short of crockery, and maybe a new cook stove would be a wise investment. And, well, let me see; I have a list here…”

“’Night, Daisy; early start tomorrow. We’ll talk about it…in the morning, huh?” said Jess, rising in haste and making for the bedroom door.

“Yeah, er, early start tomorrow, Daisy, like he said” agreed Slim. “Just leave the list on my desk and I’ll look at it…real soon.” He too fled from the room.

Daisy sat on sipping her coffee and gazing into the fire. Oh, it was so good to be home and nothing had changed. Nothing at all…thank goodness!

***End**

Thank you for reading!

Return to Patty W.’s home page

One thought on “The New Housekeepers (by Patty W.)

  1. Patty, just read this for about the fifth time…I get something new out of it every time. I love the content… however, there is something else I really appreciate.. the continuity of the stories as well as the clean grammar and lack of typos. Some would call that unimportant. I don’t! Reasonably good grammar and clean copy are also important to an author… your work is an absolute delight.

    Like

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