The New Sheriff (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG  (Some strong language, violence and adult themes.)
Word Count:  43,272


 

It was late Spring at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, and Mrs. Daisy Cooper, housekeeper at the ranch, had gotten the owner, Slim Sherman, and his business partner and best friend, Jess Harper, up a ladder painting.

“Well, paintin’ every darn thing that didn’t move,” according to the dark-haired Jess as he narrowed his deep blue eyes and cussed lightly under his breath as he slopped even more paint down his shirt instead of on the barn wall. “Why are we doin’ this?” he asked angrily turning to his partner, the light of battle in his eyes.

“Well, we did promise we’d do it in the Spring, Jess. We said way back in the Fall that we’d tend to all the mending around the house and all the painting too. And it’s Spring, so…”

“I reckon the darned owner should decide when to paint his own place — or in our case, the partners — and I for one don’t think it darn well needs paintin’”

“So, you going to tell Miss Daisy then?” asked Slim, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“What? And live on cold beans and watered-down coffee for the next month? No thanks.”

“Oh come on, Jess. She wouldn’t do that to you; you know you’re her favorite,” chuckled Slim.

“Why Slim Sherman, shame on you. You know I don’t have any favorites,” said their diminutive, elderly housekeeper — come surrogate Ma — as she walked up quietly behind the two men.

“I sure wish you wouldn’t wear those moccasins,” said Jess, casting her a good natured smile. “It’s enough to spook a man, creeping up on him that way.”

“Um, well, I just came to tell you both your dinner is ready.” Then casting Jess a mischievous look, Daisy added, “and I can assure you it is not cold beans and watered-down coffee, dear,” With that parting shot, she marched back into the house, leaving the two young cowboys looking suitably chastised.

They entered the ranch house a little later to see Mike Williams, their young ward ,busy setting the table, and within a few minutes, they were all sitting down to plates of delicious rabbit stew.

Jess cast Daisy an anxious glance. “I were only kiddin’. You know that, don’t you, Daisy?” he said softly.

She gave him her warm smile at that. “Of course, and I was just teasing you, dear, but I really don’t know why you and Slim detest painting so. Really, I don’t.”

“Well, you see, I kinda need to be out on the trail soon,” said Jess, putting a serious look on his lean handsome face. “Nearly time to go mustanging. It’s that time of year and if I don’t get off after ‘em soon, well…”

“Well, what will happen, dear?” Daisy asked ingenuously.

Jess’s eyes flicked over to his pard for help, but receiving none, floundered on. “Well, see, Daisy, it’s like this. Those ol’ mustangs don’t hang around too long, no siree. If I don’t get out there lookin’ pretty darn soon, well, the whole bunch could have moved on.”

“Oh, and so there are some about, then,” she said looking even more innocent. Only we haven’t had word, have we, Slim?” she asked, turning her gaze on the blond rancher, knowing he found it almost impossible to fib to her.

“Um…well…er, I guess not. Well, not as such,” Slim said, throwing Jess an apologetic look. “But that’s not to say we won’t hear of some soon, real soon,” he finished, fixing his eyes on his dinner plate, unable to meet the look of distain in his pard’s deep blue eyes.

“Well, I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” piped up nine-year-old Mike. “I sure like painting.” Then turning pleading eyes on Jess, he asked, “Can’t I help, please! “

“No!” came the resounding reply from all three adults.

“Aw, you’re no fun,” said the child sadly. “I don’t know why I can’t help.”

“Because you end up with more paint over you than the walls,” said Jess with feeling, “not to mention that poor dog of yours.”

“Well, I reckon you’re just as bad,” stated the child, not meaning to be disrespectful, just honest as he gazed at Jess’s multi-colored shirt bearing the evidence of the morning’s endeavors.

“Why you little…!” yelled Jess as the child whooped with laughter and made for the door with the young cowboy in hot pursuit.

Jess caught up with the boy by the corral fence and play-wrestled him to the ground to shrieks of laughter from the child before leaving him to play happily in the yard with his dog.

Jess returned to the table for a final coffee. “That kids getting way too fast,” he said, grinning as he re-joined the others. “You’re goin’ to have to stop feeding him so well, Daisy.”

“It’s not that; you’ve just slowed down,” laughed Slim, punching his buddy lightly on the arm. “You’re getting out of condition, pard.”

“Um, it’s all that doggone painting,” muttered Jess under his breath, casting a glance to where Daisy was disappearing off to the kitchen to start the washing up. Then he turned to his friend. “I tell you, Slim, we’ve gotta find a way out of this before I go plumb crazy,” he whispered.

As luck would have it, assistance was to land in the unlikely form of old Mose, the stage driver, when he drove the afternoon stage into the Relay Station yard later that day.

Mose pulled the horses to a standstill and looked down at the two young paint splattered cowboys, giving them his toothless grin. “Well hotdiggerydog, don’t you two look the business,” he guffawed. “So taken up painting as the new job, have you, boys?”

“Aw, pipe down you, old goat,” said Jess gruffly. “You think we’re doin’ this for fun, do you? “

The old timer took Jess’s comments  in good spirits, and turning to Slim, gestured to where Jess had gone off sullenly for the replacement team before saying, “He gets a mite strung up when he’s confined to barracks, don’t he, Slim!”

The tall blond rancher grinned up at his old friend. “That he does, Mose; wants to be off mustanging and Daisy won’t have it until we’ve finished all her chores. Got herself a bad dose of Spring Cleaning Fever,” he said chuckling.

“And how is the dear lady?” asked Mose, now beaming as he had a real soft spot for Miss Daisy.

“Oh she’s real well. Off in town doing the marketing with young Mike, so we don’t have pie,” Slim continued. “Coffee’s hot if you’d like one, though.”

“Uh…so who made it?” asked the old timer suspiciously.

“Er, Jess. Why?”

“In that case, I’ll pass,” Mose harrumphed. “Think more of my old belly than to fill it with that black tar the boy calls coffee.”

“Suit yourself,” snapped Jess, returning and hitching up the fresh team.

“Now don’t you be so fast with your insults, Jess boy,” the old man said, flicking a glance at Slim and winking. “You don’t wanna go looking a gift horse in the mouth then, do you?”

“Huh?” muttered Jess as he finished his task and patted the lead horse gently on the rump, looking up at the old rapscallion. “What are you on about, Mose?”

The old man’s eyes twinkled in delight as he strung Jess along for as long as he could, before finally explaining. He patted his shirt pocket. “Got me a note here from the stage superintendent askin’ if one of you could ride shotgun over to Cheyenne and back come tomorrow. Regular man’s off sick and there’ll be a strong box aboard return journey — wages for the railhead workers.”

“So maybe we should toss for it?” said Slim hopefully.

“Hang on,” replied Jess quickly. “We take it in turns to cover stage jobs, and if my memory serves me right, you went last time, Slim.”

Mose grinned down. “Sorry, but he’s right Slim. It’s his turn.”

Jess was now filled with the milk of human kindness at this unexpected break from the drudgery of painting. “Well thanks, Mose, and it will be a pleasure to accompany you tomorrow,” he said grinning cheerfully now.

Mose guffawed and waved a hand as he rushed the horses on their way out of the yard. “And don’t be late,” was his parting shot as the stage disappeared over the rise in a haze of dust.

*****

The following day, the trip out to Cheyenne was uneventful and Jess made his farewells to Mose once they landed in town, saying he was going to book into Mrs. Johnson’s Boarding House and he’d catch Mose bright and early in the morning for the return trip with the payroll.

Ma Johnson was the mother of Jess’s best girl, Millie, who worked at the Laramie saloon. They’d been friends since childhood and were now dating seriously. Jess had caught up with Millie early that morning before meeting up with Mose and she had been real pleased to see him.

“Be sure to stay with Ma won’t you, honey, and give her my love?”

“Sure I will and what’s more, I guess they can spare me at the ranch for another night. Why don’t I stay over with you here in town on the way back?” Jess asked a twinkle in his deep blue eye.

She smiled back. “Have to smuggle you in the back way. You know how the new barkeep is about gentleman callers,” she said with a giggle.

“Um, I had heard,” Jess said ruefully. “So when will Tom be back from his trip back east then?”

“Another couple of weeks, and it can’t be soon enough; this new guy is driving us girls crazy.”

“How so?” Jess asked, his eyes suddenly narrowing. “If he’s been upsetting you, sweetheart…”

“No, nothing like that, Jess. He’s just a bit of an old woman you know always fussing, wanting us to do extra shifts and the like.”

“Um, well, you just let me know if he’s botherin’ you,” Jess said ominously quietly.

Millie sighed. “Now don’t you go rocking the boat, honey? I like this job and I aim to hold onto it; I can handle the likes of Mr. Soames.”

Jess grinned at that and leaned in to kiss her softly on the forehead. “I know that, Mill, but you can’t blame me for wanting to look out for you.”

“I don’t,” she giggled. “Now you get off or you’ll miss the stage and have Mose getting all ornery. Tell Ma howdy from me, OK?”

“Sure I will, and let’s just hope she ain’t got Spring Cleanin’ Fever like Daisy,” Jess said laughing good-naturedly.

Now he was standing outside the brightly painted front door of Mrs. Johnson’s boarding house, and after a minute, she pulled it open in answer to his knock and stood smiling up at him. “Why Jess dear what a lovely surprise.” Then she looked behind him. “You haven’t brought my Millie with you, have you?”

“Nope, sorry, Ma, but she sends her love. I figure the new barkeep has got her pretty much workin’ flat out right now.”

“Um,” Mrs. Johnson said as she showed him into the smart comfortable house. “So I hear. A real tarter by all accounts.”

She showed Jess up to a pleasant room, and after supper they sat and chatted about this and that for an hour or so before he excused himself, saying he’d just stroll down Main Street and have a quick drink before turning in.

She smiled at that. “Here, dear, take a key; I’ll be turning in shortly.”

“Thanks, Ma, I won’t be late,” and he sauntered off.

Jess looked into the Sheriff’s office for his friend Doug Masters, but the place was in darkness and Jess assumed he was out and about carrying out his Sheriff’s duties. He would maybe catch him in the bar later.

Jess entered the crowded saloon and ordered a beer, and then leaned on the bar, surveying the boisterous crowd. He turned back to the barmaid, who was an old friend of Millie’s. “Got a lively crowd in tonight, Jenny,” he said.

Jenny rolled her eyes. “You’re telling me. Most of them are drovers and on a mission to get drunk as skunks before the nights out.”

He grinned at that. “Well, all good for business, I suppose”.

It was later in the evening when two things happened that were to have a lasting and profound effect on Jess’s immediate future.

The first was that he bumped into an old friend.

 Well, friend was probably not the right word, as Jess was to explain to Slim much later, but someone from his past — someone he’d really rather forget. One Chas Walker — gunfighter, outlaw and out-and-out bad lot.

Chas Walker walked over to the bar, and it wasn’t until he elbowed Jess out of the way that he realized who it was.

Jess’ head went up in shock. “Walker, what in hell are you doin’ here?” he spat. “Thought you were in jail in Texas with the key thrown away.”

The short, sandy-haired man stared at Jess with the rheumy eyes of a perpetual drunk and then his face creased into a huge grin. He grabbed hold of Jess’s hand and shook it. “Well Jess Harper, you old son of a gun. So what brings you to these parts?”

“Workin’. Riding shotgun,” Jess said succinctly.

“Now you don’t look too pleased to see an old friend,” said Walker swaying slightly and trying to focus on Jess.

“Well, that would probably be because I ain’t,” said Jess dryly.

“Jess, Jess boy, no need to be that way. Here, have a drink with me. Come on, for old time’s sake, huh?”

Jess recoiled. ‘‘No thanks, Walker; I’m kinda picky about who I drink with.”

“Well, there ain’t no call to be so ornery.”

“No call? Are you kiddin’ me! Last time I saw you, you had your gang beat me to a pulp and left me in the middle of the goddamn desert. How do you expect me to be?”

“Well Jess boy, you shouldn’t have come gunning for me.”

“And you shouldn’t have robbed that bank,” spat Jess. “I was riding out on a mission for the Sheriff. What did you expect me to do when I found you — look the other way?”

“Yeah, I do actually; a real friend would have done.”

“Oh don’t give me that crap. We stopped bein’ friends when your gang started killin’ innocent folk and shootin’ up towns just for the hell of it. Talking of which, so what are you doing out of jail?”

“I served my time,” Walker said sulkily. “There ain’t no posters out on me. Ask your friend if you don’t believe me,” he muttered nodding to where Doug had just entered the bar. “And as for Lennie, well, they strung my brother up for that murder, Jess, and you know that. I’m a free man. Like I say, ask the darned Sheriff!”

Doug looked over and grinned at Jess and then the look of pleasure at seeing his friend turned to a puzzled frown when he saw the company he was keeping. However, before he could come over, the second thing that was to have a profound influence of Jess’s immediate future happened when he suddenly heard Jenny crying out in pain. Spinning around, he saw one of the drovers accosting her.

Jenny had been waiting table and the big burley man had pulled her roughly onto his knee and was now attempting to kiss her as she struggled and screamed.

Jess was over in a split second, and pulling the girl free, sent a fist slamming into the drover’s face, sending him flying across the room. Then a free for all ensued.

However, it was short-lived as Doug leapt into action by firing off a shot and threatening to jail the whole bar if they didn’t all simmer down, which pretty much did the trick.

Doug turned his attention to the drover who was standing swaying and eyeing Jess ominously. “Right, you and your friends out, and I mean out of town. I don’t want to see you around here in the morning, you got it?”

The big ugly man grabbed his hat from the floor and made to leave, but as he passed Jess, he muttered, “Don’t think this is over, friend.” He lurched out of the saloon supported by the half dozen other troublemakers in his crowd.

Jess went over to Jenny. “Are you OK?”

“I sure am; thanks, Jess.” She went off with one of the other girls for a break and to change the dress the drunken drover had ripped.

Jess returned to his beer and was grateful to see that Chas Walker had left. Then a moment later, Doug came and sank down on the bar stool next to him and shook his hand. “Good to see you, Jess. So when did you land?”

“Afternoon stage; riding shotgun for the payroll delivery tomorrow. Stage company was a man down.”

“Ah, and so you got the short straw huh?” Doug said grinning.

“Nope, I volunteered. See Miss Daisy’s got us paintin’,” Jess said with a thin smile. “Needed to get away for a while.”

Doug chuckled at that. “Well, I can see as how you would.” Then he sobered. “Saw you keeping pretty strange company before, Jess. you know Walker then?”

Jess’s face got that closed look that Doug,  being a good friend, recognized as his ‘that’s in my past, don’t wanna talk about it ‘ face.

Jess just nodded. “Used to, yeah.”

“Rode with him… back in Texas, maybe?” suggested the Sheriff.

Jess nodded again. “Yeah, until he went kinda crazy and then we parted company.”

“Um, well, I’m glad to hear it. He isn’t the sort you want to be seen keeping company with, Jess.”

“I know that, don’t I!” said Jess gruffly, then saw his buddy flinch. “Sorry, Doug; I get kinda spooked when my past comes back to haunt me…yet again,” he said with irony.

“Yeah, well, he’s out of jail now, not wanted as far as I know, but I’m keeping an eye on him and the rest of his buddies.”

“Yeah, well as long as they stay out of my way, I’ll be happy,” said Jess, ordering them another couple of beers.

It was half an hour or so later when Jess stood up to leave.

“You going already?” asked Doug in surprise.

“Yeah, got an early start and I don’t want a bad head tomorrow. I’ve gotta keep in good with Millie’s ma too. I don’t want her thinkin’ I’ve been tipping the jug all night,” Jess said with a grin.

Doug laughed at that. “OK, Jess; safe trip and see you soon.” With that, Jess wandered off back to the boarding house.

A thin drizzle had started to fall and the streets were deserted as Jess made his way down Main Street towards the boarding house and he just never saw what hit him.

Suddenly a gang of men sprang from nowhere, and  one started punching him; then the others all joined in, three of them holding him as others rained punches to his face and  body before leaving him sick and bleeding in  the gutter. The last thing he saw was the burly drover’s ugly face as he leered down at him.

“Said I’d see you right, didn’t I, cowboy,” the drover spat before rolling off down the street with his friends, laughing drunkenly. A few minutes later, Jess heard them riding out of town at speed.

Jess finally managed to drag himself up and stood swaying on the sidewalk, blood running down his face from as deep cut to his temple, wondering if it was worth it to report the attack to Doug. But the men were long gone, and as he clutched his ribs in agony, he decided to just cut his losses and get back to Millie’s Ma’s place and his bed.

Jess let himself into the sleeping household quietly and staggered upstairs to his room. After lighting the lamp, he looked at his battered bloody face in the mirror over the wash basin and groaned. Then he very slowly undressed and surveyed the damage. Multiple bruises and cuts to his face, torso and belly, and some very painful, possibly cracked, ribs. “Just great,” he whispered sarcastically. “If I’d know this was to happen, I figure I’d have stayed home and done the goddamn painting.”

Jess cleaned himself up as best he could and bound up his ribs. Then he collapsed on the bed, feeling nauseated and dizzy, berating himself for not having been more streetwise. But he’d been tired and had just been thinking of his warm bed and the attack had come from nowhere. Then he thought back to the last few hours — first meeting that low-life Walker again and then the vicious attack. He lay there feeling real sorry for himself, but even then he had no idea how these two incidents were going to have such a dire effect on his life.

The following morning at breakfast, he was unable to hide his injuries from Millie’s Ma and she fussed as he knew she would.

“You can’t possibly go out like this, dear,” she said. “You need to see a doctor”.

“I’m fine, Ma, really.”

“Oh Jess, see reason. You really aren’t fit to work today and I know Millie would be so worried if she knew.”

Jess sighed deeply. “Well, she don’t, and anyway what are you gonna do — write me a note? ‘Dear Stage Superintendent, Jess cannot attend work today ‘cos he’s real poorly’?”

She looked so hurt he immediately regretted his sarcasm, and taking her hand lying on the table cloth, squeezed it gently. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, really I am,” Jess said sincerely. “But I guess I am hurtin’ some and you really ain’t helping with all this frettin’, I’ve got a job to do and I have to see it through; stage company’s relying on me.”

She looked sympathetic at that. “Miss Daisy always says you are the most stubborn  young man she’s ever met.” then  giving him a kind smile, she added,  “Come along; at least let me clean up those wounds properly before you set off.”

A little later, Jess made his way down to the stage office and was greeted by Mose already sitting up on the stage box.

Mose gave a low whistle when he saw the young cowboy striding over. “Gee boy, what happened to you last night?”

Jess just threw him a pained look. “You ready to go?”

“Yep. Got the strong box on. Just check in the office to make sure there’s nothing else to go, will you?”

Jess went in and was greeted by the very officious middle-aged deputy superintendent and he sighed softly. Nobody got on with the fussy man, and he thought little of Jess at the best of times. Now as Jess presented himself looking by far the worse for wear, the man glared in contempt. “Well, what sort of message does this send out to our passengers, Harper? An employee that has been brawling in the bar all night coming to work in this state. What do you reckon they’d think…eh?”

Jess just glared back at him. “Well, if we had any passengers — which we ain’t — I guess they’d think, well, at least we’ve got us a guard who’s no stranger to fighting and can protect us real good.”

“Um,” growled the petty little man, not liking the smart reply.

“And seeing as I  got jumped by a  gang of drunken drovers last night after tryin’ to protect a lady’s honor, I figure you lucky  I turned up at all ,” Jess spat.

The little man glared, and for two pins would have liked to fire him, except for the fact that he knew the high regard in which the superintendent held Jess Harper. Nope, if push came to shove and it was between him and Harper, he knew the boss would take the dark-haired cowboy’s side every time, so he reluctantly backed down and just sniffed and disappeared into the back office.

Jess was just leaving when a scruffy looking young man coming from the direction of the telegraph office rushed over. “Message for Harper from the Laramie Office.”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Got a message to say you’re to take the old road in to town; been a landslide on the main road.”

Jess looked surprised and glanced up to Mose. “This is news to me. Have you heard anything, Mose?”

“Nope, but we’ve had a mess of rain lately; it often does go down just past Pike’s Bluff.”

“Is that it?” asked Jess, turning to the rather anxious-looking young man.

“Yeah, that’s it — by Pike’s Bluff. Can’t even get a horse past it’s so bad.”

“Come on then, son,” said Mose impatiently. “That’ll add an extra twenty minutes to the journey. Let’s get movin’.”

The coach was about an hour out of Laramie when the outlaws struck.

Jess and Mose were driving through a narrow ravine, and Jess was on the alert, shotgun ready on his lap and his eyes constantly searching the surrounding hills. But one man alone couldn’t look everywhere, and suddenly a lone shot rang out, catching Jess in the left shoulder and making him cry out in pain before he leveled his rifle and returned the fire, yelling for Mose to urge the horses on to greater speed.

However, that was to be their downfall because as they rounded a bend in the old track, there was a massive tree blocking the way. As Mose yanked on the reins to try and avert the danger, the team careered off to the left and the stage toppled and then crashed into the rock face, bouncing off again and then came to rest on its side, the wheels spinning and the terrified beasts, still harnessed crying in terror, stamping and shaking their heads before they finally stood head-down, trembling and blowing.

Jess and Mose had been thrown clear of the stage and were both knocked unconscious, but it was Jess that came to first, groaning and cussing at the pain in his shoulder, before he was suddenly poked in the ribs by a rifle. Jess found himself looking up into the flushed triumphant face of Chas Walker.

Jess sat up, clutching his chest and looking around to see the whole of Chas’s gang, faces he remembered so well from the past, and then one he had only seen that morning, the scruffy looking telegraph messenger. It had all been a set-up, and he’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for it.

Then he saw Mose move and open his eyes, looking around fearfully. “No,” he whispered. “The payroll, they got it, son?”

Jess looked over to where two of the gang was already emptying the strong box. “Yeah,” he replied gruffly. Then he turned his gaze on Chas, who still had the rifle aimed at his belly.

“Don’t be a fool, don’t do it,” Jess said. “You are a free man right now, Chas; just leave the money and go.”

“Uh uh…can’t do that, buddy.”

Mose’s head shot up at this.

“Buddy! Hell Jess, you know these bastards? “

“Less of you cussin’, old man,” spat Chas, aiming a boot at Mose, leaving the old timer clutching his stomach in agony.

“Leave him be, Chas!” yelled a furious Jess.

“OK Jess boy, simmer down. If he’s a friend of yours, sure we’ll take it easy.”

Jess just cast Mose an anguished look but said no more.

Then Chas chuckled to himself. “Well, thanks for your help, Jess boy, and it sure was good to catch up again.”

“Huh?”said Jess, looking bewildered aware that Mose was staring at him in shock.

“Sorry I had to get the boys to work you over some to make you see my side of things, but you sure came up with the goods in the end and I appreciate it. See you back in Texas maybe?” was Chas’ parting shot before he jumped up on his horse. After a moment, the gang disappeared around the bend in the road.

Jess and Mose locked their gaze.

“Please tell me you didn’t believe any of that,” said Jess quietly.

Mose looked away and then back again. “Sounded pretty convincing, son, and you’ve sure been beat up, he got that right. And you didn’t wanna talk about it this morning either.”

“Mose!”

“OK, no, I guess I don’t believe them, but that ain’t to say others won’t,” Mose said sadly.

“Um, well, not if I go and fetch them back and the money,” Jess said, a determined look in his eye as he started to stagger up.

Mose cast him a compassionate look. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere, son.” That’s when Jess looked down and saw the whole of the front of his shirt soaked in blood from the bullet in his shoulder. He cussed and sank back down again, knowing the truth of it.

Mose cleaned him up as best he could, but once his shirt was removed, it was obvious that the wound was serious and needed medical intervention as soon as was possible.

 The old stage driver managed to get Jess tied onto the back of one of the team and he rode another, slowly leading Jess’s horse as the young cowboy drifted in and out of consciousness. It was late afternoon before Jess was finally delivered to Doc Baker’s office and Mose went off to the Sheriff’s office to make a statement.

*****

Mort Corey, Sheriff and very good friend of both Jess and Mose, tipped his hat back and looked exasperatedly at the old timer. “So you’re telling me that you don’t know as to why you were on the old road? Some story about a landslide, which isn’t true? And you don’t know who the gang could be and Jess didn’t see anything because he was out cold all the time?”

“Yep, that’s about it in a nutshell,” said Mose, refusing to meet the Sheriff’s gaze.

“So why do I think you telling me a tissue of lies then, Mose?”

“Look Mort, I’ve told you all I can. Shouldn’t you be taking off with a posse or something?”

“Nope, Lon, my Deputy, is on the case already. Ridden out with a dozen men. But it would sure help if we knew what direction they took? “

“I dunno. Told you; they hightailed it down the road, but could have gone any which ways. Probably split up by now, I shouldn’t wonder. “

“Well thanks, Mose, that’s a lot of help.”

There was an uncomfortable silence and then Mose said, “So why ain’t you riding out then, Sheriff?”

“Because, if you must know, I’m busy packing. Catching the morning stage.”

“Oh… holiday then?” asked Mose sarcastically.

“Nope, my old Pappy down in Denver is real sick, been asking for me.”

Mose suddenly looked contrite, “Well, I’m real sorry to hear that, Mort; he’s a grand old man.”

“Yeah. Kinda gets you thinking…” said Mort sadly. “Well, you’re a long time dead and maybe it’s time I retired, enjoyed some fishing and the like before it’s my turn.”

“Heck no, you can’t do that Sheriff,” said Mose scandalized. “We don’t want a new Sheriff.”

“Well you’re getting one,” said Mort firmly. “And he arrives next week, so you’d better get used to it.”

“But just temporary…right?”

“I really don’t know, Mose. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do, and right now, I’m going over to the doc’s place and see if Jess is making any more sense than you are.” With that, Mort jammed his hat on firmly and marched across the road to doc Sam Baker’s office.

When Mort landed in Doc Sam’s office, he was concerned at the good doctor’s serious expression.

“So can I see the patient then, Sam?” asked Mort, nodding towards the hospital room at the back of the surgery.

“Um, I guess so, but don’t stay long. He really isn’t too good right now, and worse, he keeps saying he wants to join your posse, crazy notion,” Sam said, shaking his head. “But then you know Jess.”

The doctor was a good friend to all at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, spending many a happy Sunday afternoon fishing with the boys, and he had a real soft spot for Jess, even if he did drive him to distraction as he was such a dreadful patient

Mort picked up the note of anxiety in the kindly middle aged man’s voice. “It’s not like Jess to make heavy weather of a shoulder wound. You say he’s not so good then? “

“Um, it’s not just the shoulder wound, although he did lose a fair amount of blood. No, it’s all the other injuries. He took a really bad beating last night, covered in bruises and a couple of cracked ribs too. And then that fall from the stage… Well, that hasn’t done him much good that’s for sure. And there is something else, Mort.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, he seems troubled, I mean really troubled. Seems to be taking this thing real personal. Maybe he’ll talk to you,” Sam finished, ushering the Sheriff through.

Mort went in quietly, and removing his hat, sat down gently on the edge of the bed and looked down in shock at his good friend. Jess’ face and naked torso were battered and bruised, and his chest and shoulder tightly swathed in bandages.

Then as he watched, Jess’s long lashes flickered and he opened his eyes a crack to peer up at the Sheriff.

“Mort,” Jess croaked after a moment. “So why ain’t you out chasin’ that scum Walker and his gang?”

Mort’s head shot up at that. “Walker, do you say, Jess?”

“Yep. They conned me into thinking the road was closed — had a bogus telegraph boy as gave us the message — and  then  down the old road, one of the bastards shot me and…” Then Jess broke down coughing.

“Take it easy, Jess boy,” said the Sheriff as he gently raised his friend’s head and helped him to a drink.

“Thanks,” Jess whispered as his head sank back down on the cool pillow.

“So then what?”

“Tree. Tree in the road, coach went over,   knockin’ me an’ Mose out cold. Next thing, I knew Chas had gotten a rifle aimed at my guts and they’d got the strong box open. There was nuthin’ we could do. Sorry, Mort.”

“Hey, you haven’t got anything to be sorry for, Jess; you did what you could, I guess.”

Jess just rolled his head on the pillow, the pain in his shoulder really kicking in again.

Mort made as if to rise and go and then changed his mind. “There’s just one thing that doesn’t make sense, Jess. Mose, well, he said you were out cold, didn’t see a thing. How come he’d say something like that?”

Jess closed his eyes and swallowed hard before opening them and casting his clear blue gaze on Mort. “Protecting me, I guess. Chas was making out I was in on it, said he’d worked me over the night before and afterwards I’d agreed to trick Mose. Was in on the bogus telegraph message and everything. And I think Mose kinda believed him for a minute there — possibly still does.”

“And why should he believe a dang fool thing like that?”

Jess sighed deeply. “Because I do know him, Mort, all the gang. Rode with them back in Texas. But that was one hell of a long time ago, and I lit out just as soon as he started killing and robbing. I swear, Mort, I never got in any trouble with him.”

Mort just nodded. “Anything else you want to share then, Jess?”

The cowboy sighed deeply. “I had a drink with him the night before, a lot of people saw me at the bar with him, including the Sheriff. “

Mort looked increasingly troubled. “But you explained the situation, you told Doug, right?”

“Sure, sure I did, but that was before he upped and robbed the stage, Mort. Maybe he’ll think the same as Mose?”

“Nope, I doubt it; ol’ Doug knows you better than that. And this beating you’ve had… If it wasn’t Chas Walker’s men, who was it?”

Jess explained all about the drover and Jenny.

“Might have known there would be a young lady involved,” said Mort with the ghost of a smile. “So you reported the incident of course?”

Jess went even paler. “Err… no. Well, there didn’t seem no point, Mort; they’d ridden out. I was needed on the morning run. I didn’t think it was worth it.”

“So who knows what really happened?”

“Just Ma Johnson; she patched me up some.”

Mort shook his head. “If ever there was a magnet for trouble, it’s you, boy. Now here’s what we do. I’ll write up that statement for you to sign, and right now, it’s your word against Walker’s. And as he isn’t here, I’ve no earthly need to jail you on suspicion of collusion. But Jess, I’m gonna be away for a while and I reckon the new Sheriff might not be so accommodating. So please just keep out of trouble, will you?”

“Sure I will, Mort,” said Jess finally smiling. “I’ll spend the next few weeks just paintin’; won’t step off Sherman land, I promise.”

“Um, well, see that you behave.” Then throwing him a friendly grin, Mort went back over to his office.

A couple of days later, Jess was well enough to get up, and he wandered over to the saloon to meet up with Millie as he had promised he would do on his return journey.

As soon as he entered sporting the bruises and his arm in a sling, Millie ran around the bar and gave a little gasp of shock. “Jess, honey, what have you been doing?” she asked reaching up and kissing him lightly on the lips.

“Oh, just found me a mess of trouble as usual,” he said, trying to make light of things.

“I heard about the stage holdup but nobody said you had been hurt,” Millie said quickly. “I just thought you’d gone straight back to the ranch.”

“Now would I do that?” Jess asked, grinning down at her and gently caressing her cheek.

Then they were both suddenly dragged away from their mutual adoration by a loud cough just behind them.

“You are still on duty, Millie dear,” came a superior voice, “So put that young man down and come and serve some drinks if you will.”

Jess spun around, his eyes flashing in anger as he took in the prissy looking elderly man wearing an eastern style suit; a pair of gold rimmed eye glasses balanced on the end of his nose.

“She’ll be right there,” Jess spat, before turning round and resuming his conversation. “So are we still on for tonight?” he asked giving her his cheeky wink.

“Sure we are. Be on the back fire escape when we close and I’ll come and let you in.”

“Millie, I’m waiting,” said the dapper little man, now tapping his foot impatiently.

Jess tensed and was about to sound off when Millie shook her head.

“No Jess, just leave it, huh. Like I said, I need this job and Tom will be back soon.” With that, she went off back behind the bar.

Jess threw the new barkeep Percy Soames a hard look before marching out.

Jess was waiting to be let in later that night, as promised, and after a few minutes, a giggling Millie and Lily threw open the fire door leading to the corridor above the saloon where their rooms were situated.

Jess greeted them warmly, but quietly. “So where’s the ol’ woman then?” he asked grinning at the girls.

“Percy is down in Tom’s quarters behind the bar,” piped up Lily. “Just brewing himself some China tea.”

“Huh,” said Jess looking bewildered. “Percy, you say? Brewin’ what?”

Lily and Millie exchanged smiles. “Never mind,” said Lily, “‘Night both.” Then casting Jess an intimate glance, she added, “Be sure to say hello to Slim for me when you land home, won’t you?”

Jess smiled kindly. “yeah, sure I will,” before disappearing into Millie’s cozy room and turning the key in the lock behind him. Then he turned back to Millie and moving in kissed her very thoroughly. “Jeez, I’ve missed you, sweetheart,” he said with feeling.

Millie pulled back and surveyed his face and ran a gentle finger over the bruising. “Me too. Oh Jess, your poor face,” Then glancing down, she asked, “And how’s the shoulder?”

 “Healing real good the doc says.”

Once he’d removed his gun belt and boots, she took his hand and led him over to the big comfortable couch. Sitting down, she cuddled up close beside him before resting her head on his shoulder, his good arm automatically pulling her close. “Come on,” she said softly, “so tell me all about this trouble then.”

Jess began to tell her, starting with the beating he’d received at the hands of the drovers and how kind Millie’s Ma had been.

“You mean she fretted and fussed you to distraction,” Millie said grinning.

“Yeah, that was about the size of it,” Jess agreed, smiling down at her. “But I guess her heart’s in the right place, like her daughter’s.”

Then their gaze locked before Jess looked down at her beautiful lips. Leaning down, he caressed her face with his good hand and started kissing her, at first very tenderly and then more and more passionately.

*****

It was the following morning over breakfast at Miss Molly’s café that he finally resumed his story, and the more Millie listened, the more concerned she became for him.

“It’s OK,” Jess said quickly. “Mort’s got a statement from me, says it’ll all blow over If I just keep my head down. Seeing as Walker and his gang have hightailed it back down to Texas, I guess it’s the problem of the law down there, so there’s no need to fret, sweetheart.”

 However Jess was to live to regret those words as things did not go at all to plan over the ensuing weeks, and he had cause to wish he’d just followed his instincts and taken off after the Walker gang as soon as he was fit again.

*****

It was the following day before Jess was able to travel back to the ranch where he was greeted by a worried looking Slim.

Mort had taken the time to fill them in at the ranch on Jess’s latest exploits when he stopped over on his journey to see his Pa.

“Oh Mort, do you think he’ll get into trouble over it?” asked a worried looking Daisy as she poured him another coffee.

“Well I sure hope not, Miss Daisy. I don’t really think anyone would pay any heed to Chas Walker’s version of events over Jess’, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt for him to lay low for a while. I have heard tell that this new Sheriff that’s covering for me is kinda thorough, and maybe it would be good to keep Jess out of town for a while.”

“Well I’ll do my best,” said Slim, “but knowing Jess, he’ll want to start trying to find them and bring ‘em to justice.”

“Well he can forget that,” said Mort quickly. “Out of my area now. The posse tracked them as far as the east of Cheyenne, and they looked to be heading back to Texas; the law has been informed on that route. So it’s out of our hands now.”

*****

Slim shook Jess by the hand as he alighted from the stage and looked around the yard. “Sure good to be home, pard,” Jess said with his shy smile.

Slim took in the cuts and shadows of dark bruising to his face, and the left arm in the sling, and gave a low whistle. ”Good to have you back too, pard, even though you are beat up.” Then with a small grin, he said, “things a man will do to get out of a bit of painting.” Slim chuckled before he went off to change the team.

“Yeah, yeah… sure,” replied Jess, grinning back.

Once the stage had left, Slim turned back to his pard, who was leaning on the corral fence watching the horses. “So you’ve been finding a whole mess of trouble then, I hear, Jess.”

Jess just nodded. “You heard about that?”

“Um, Mort stopped by and it’s kinda hard to miss, Jess,” Slim said gesturing to the cuts and bruises and the sling.

Jess nodded again and then looked concerned. “The word is that Mort’s going to visit his sick Pappy and not coming back.”

Slim looked equally concerned. “Well, I sure as hell hope that’s not true, Jess. I really don’t like the sound of this new man. Mort seems to think he’s something of a stickler for doing everything by the book.”

Jess grinned at that. “Lord help Lon then; that won’t sit too well with him,” he said, referring to Mort’s young deputy.

“Or anyone else, I imagine,” said Slim quietly. “And I reckon it would be as well if he wasn’t to get acquainted with the Harper temper either, Jess. Mort seems to think you should keep out his way.”

Jess’s eyes narrowed some at that and he thrust his chin out stubbornly. “Well, I’ll steer clear of him as long as he does the same,” he said firmly before marching off to find Daisy and the coffee pot.

*****

Later that night after they had turned in, Slim could hear Jess turning restlessly, and after half an hour or so of this, he finally gave up and lit the lamp on the nightstand and peered across at his pard in the other bed. “So you want to talk about it then, Jess? “

Jess rolled his head on the pillow so that he could see Slim, and then after a minute, pulled himself up to lean on the pillows and said softly, “I guess I do. yeah.”

“Fire away then, pard.”

Jess sighed deeply. “I guess maybe I wasn’t quite straight with Mort.”

“Go on,” said Slim suddenly wary.

“I told him I never rode with the Walker gang when they were in trouble, but that wasn’t quite true.”

Slim said nothing but carried on watching his buddy and waiting to hear what he was going to say.

“Well,” Jess sighed obviously finding it all heavy going, “see, the thing is — I ain’t too proud of this — but I…I double-crossed them. See, they’d robbed a bank down in Texas, and Lennie, Chas’s older brother, had shot one of the tellers — a sweet kid. He asked her for the cash, she panicked and he shot her…dead.”

Slim tried not to look too shocked and just nodded encouragingly.

“I hadn’t been running with ‘em for a long time, but the Sheriff — a nice guy, George Cole — he knew that I knew them well and also that I was real mad about the girl bein’ killed. He asked me to infiltrate the gang, find out where their hide-out was and then report back.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “Gee Jess, you and trouble really are best buddies, aren’t you?”

Jess just threw him a hard look. “You wanna hear this or what?”

“Sure I do, go on”.

“Well it all went wrong. One of the gang members got wind of it and they beat me up and left me for dead in the desert.”

“But you got out OK?” said Slim, now hanging on his every word.

Jess rolled his eyes. “No, you’re talkin’ to a goddamn ghost. Yeah, of course, I did. Some Indians found me, the friendly sort luckily; think one of the squaws took a kind of liking to me and…”

Now it was Slim’s turn to roll his eyes heavenwards. “Why didn’t I know that? Always has to be a lady somewhere in the plot, doesn’t there, Jess?”

Jess ignored that and carried on. “So the upshot was I survived, but by the time I got back to town, Lennie had been caught and strung up, and the rest of the gang had gone to ground but were picked up later and did time for robbery.”

“And you?”

“Well that’s the problem. There were some folk down there who genuinely thought I was one of the gang because I’d been seen with them when I was tryin’ to help the Sheriff out. And well, there might still be some folk as think the same. Got me kinda spooked, Slim, especially if this new Sheriff starts sniffin’ around into my past.”

Slim cast him a kindly look. “I really don’t think you need to worry, Jess. Like you said, that was all a long time ago. You’ve made a statement regarding this latest robbery; there’s no reason this new Sheriff should make the connection. He’ll probably be far too busy trying to keep Lon in line anyway.”

Jess grinned at that. “Yeah, you’re right, and I guess I’ll be too darn busy with my head down painting to get to town anyway, won’t I!” The men relaxed, and shortly all that could be heard was the sound of gentle snores.

*****

The next few days settled down into a reasonably peaceful routine, for once, and Jess even did a little painting without complaining too loudly.

“Of course, I can’t do too much, not with this shoulder and all,” Jess said at dinner time, casting innocent eyes on Daisy.

“Oh no, of course not, dear,” Daisy said kindly. “And I know you really aren’t up to climbing ladders, so that’s why I’ve got you a nice relaxing little task for this afternoon.”

“You have?” Jess said looking hopeful.

“Yes, dear. I thought you might like to whitewash the kitchen. The walls aren’t too high, and if you get started as soon as our meal is over, you should have it finished by supper time.”

“Aw, Miss Daisy, I ain’t been too well, you know…”

“Of course, dear, I do understand. That’s why Slim has saved the barn roof until next week”.

Jess just gaped at Slim.

“See how I look out for you, pard?” Slim said grinning across at his friend.

“Thanks, Slim,” said Jess with a deadpan expression.

That was why there was an almost universal sigh of relief when Daisy announced that she was taking off to visit her sister in Cheyenne. “If you can spare me, of course,” she said, casting her ingenuous gaze towards the two cowboys.

Jess fought to keep the grin off his face and turning to Slim said, “I figure we could manage, couldn’t we, pard?” Then turning back to Daisy, he added, “As long as you ain’t away too long, of course, Daisy.”

Slim nodded, also trying hard to look slightly forlorn. “Well yes, I guess, Daisy. We’ll all miss you, of course, but I reckon you deserve a break.”

Jess nodded vigorously. “Yeah]. I mean, after organizing all this paintin’ and spring cleaning and all, Daisy, well, you must be fair tuckered out.”

Then Mike piped up. “Don’t you worry, Aunt Daisy, I’ll keep an eye on things for you. Make sure we all eat real good and keep the place clean and all.”

“Well, goodness me,” said Daisy chuckling, “anyone would think you boys would like a rest from me.”

“Well heck, of course we don’t,” exploded Jess, feigning shock.

“Absolutely not Just thinking of you, Daisy, I figure you need a good rest, like Jess said,” agreed Slim.

“And I’ll miss you something fierce,” said young Mike, jumping down from his chair and running around the table to hug her.

She really did laugh then. “All right, I believe you all and  I know I’ve  been kind of hard on you, but you’ll thank me when the ranch is all ship shape and clean as a new pin now, won’t you?” she said, beaming  at all three of her ‘boys’ as she lovingly referred to them.

“Sure,” came the less than sincere reply from Jess, who was kicked under the table by Slim, before he smiled over at Daisy. ”So…do you need a hand packing then?”

And so the three remaining members of the Sherman Ranch lapsed happily into bachelordom, but the idyll was not to last.

*****

It was just the following day that things started to go disastrously wrong for Jess.

They had seen Daisy off on the early morning stage and then retired to the house to make plans which largely featured fishing, swimming and hunting with the odd bit of ranch work factored in.

“So what about the barn roof then?” piped up Mike.

The two men exchanged a smile and then Jess grinned down at the youngster. “All in good time, Tiger, all in good time.”

Later that day, they had just got back from a fishing trip to the lake when the afternoon stage hurtled into the yard and drew to a standstill right next to the house. Jess came running out from where he and Mike had been gutting the fish for their supper, and a moment later, he was joined by Slim, leading the replacement team over from the corral.

“There’s a passenger aboard,” Mose called down to Jess as he advanced, “and a mighty important one as well”.

Jess marched over and opened the Stagecoach door for the passenger to alight and Slim looked on inquisitively.

As the tall red-headed middle-aged man jumped down and stood looking around him, Slim saw Jess’s expression of polite interest and welcome turn to one of extreme shock, his mouth agape and his blue eyes open wide as though he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Then Jess suddenly backed off, his hand inching down and resting on his gun butt.

Slim left the team and strode forward, resting a gentle hand on Jess’s arm. “Steady, pard,” he whispered.

The visitor seemed to be suddenly aware of the men’s scrutiny and turned his gaze away from his inspection of the yard to regard the Relay staff.

Then, as he glanced over, his dark eyes rested on Jess for a moment and his whole demeanor suddenly changed from one of world-weariness to shocked surprise and then something akin to hatred flared in his eyes.

Jess just continued to stare at him, the ruddy hair now flecked with silver, the almost black eyes cold and as lethal-looking as a coiled rattler ready to strike. The craggy face was older, but still the same man — the man of Jess’ worst nightmares.

Then Mose jumped down from the box. “Well, come on then, boys, say hello to Mr. Frank Brady, our new Sheriff!”

Jess was the first to react, and after throwing the tall man a scathing look, said “We’ve already met,” before turning on heel and marching back into the ranch house.

Slim and Mose exchanged a perplexed look before Slim remembered his manners. Reaching out a hand, he said, “Welcome to Laramie, Sheriff.”

The Sheriff looked at the offered hand for a moment and then shook it half-heartedly before saying, “And you are…?”

“Sherman, Slim Sherman. Would you care to sit a while Sheriff while I change the team. Coffee inside.”

“Oh I think not, young man,” the man said, casting the ranch house, where Jess had so recently disappeared, a disdainful glance before he wandered off to admire the view while Mose and Slim changed the team in record time.

The tall man made his way back as soon as they were ready to roll, and standing by the stagecoach door, he turned back to Slim and said contemptuously, “I suppose you know the reputation of your hired hand?”

Slim bristled at that. “Jess isn’t my hired hand; he’s a partner in the Ranch and Relay Station. And yes, I know of his past. I also know he’s turned his life around. And I think there is something you need to know, Sheriff. Not only is he my business partner, he’s also my best friend, so you have any problems with Jess, then I guess you’ll have them with me too.”

The Sheriff looked outraged at that. “Well, that is a very foolish mistake to make, Mr. Sherman. I am not a man you want to cross; Harper will tell you that. I wish you good day.” With that, he jumped up onto the coach, slamming the door in Slim’s face. Mose clicked the team on, casting Slim a concerned look before taking off at speed.

As Slim slowly returned to the Ranch house, he met Mike coming out.

“I’ll start rubbing down the team, shall I? And Slim…”

“Yeah, what is it Tiger?”

“I think Jess is feelin’ sick; he’s got Miss Daisy’s medicinal whiskey out”.

Slim’s head shot up at that and his eyes narrowed. “He has, has he?” he replied almost to himself. Then glancing down at his young ward, he said kindly, “Could you feed the team for me as well, Mike? I need to have a chat with Jess alone, OK? “

“Sure, Slim, and then I’ll finish gutting the fish if Jess is feelin’ poorly.” Mike went off cheerfully to attend to his chores.

Slim entered the house quietly and stood by the door for a moment, looking over to where Jess was sitting at the table with the bottle, staring morosely into a half empty tumbler.

Slim came closer, and leaning over, twisted the bottle so that he could see the label. Yep, it was Daisy’s very strong spirit alright, the stuff she used to disinfect wounds and added the occasional drop to coffee as pain relief. But Slim had the feeling that the whole bottle wouldn’t alleviate the sort of pain his pard was experiencing right then.

Slim slumped down in the chair opposite Jess. “This isn’t like you, Jess, tipping the jug in the middle of the afternoon.”

Jess just stared at him with unseeing eyes for a moment, then he picked up the glass and knocked back the lethal drink in one, before shuddering slightly.

“Come on, Jess, talk to me about it.”

When all Jess did was to pour himself another drink and knock it back, Slim started to feel irritated. “Do you really think that’s going to help?” he said impatiently.

Jess seemed riled at that and lurched up from his chair, knocking it over as he did so. Picking up the bottle, he glanced down at Slim, a look of total despair in his deep blue eyes. “Probably not, but I guess it can’t do no harm,” he muttered, and taking the bottle and glass, he staggered across to the bedroom and disappeared inside.

“Well I guess you’re wrong about that one, pard,” Slim said to himself as he wandered off to finish gutting the fish for supper.

Slim figured it best to leave Jess to his own devices for the rest of the evening, and when Jess didn’t appear for supper, he went along  with Mike’s misapprehension that Jess was sick and suggested they leave him  be until he was feeling better.

After supper, Slim played a couple of games of checkers with the child and then sent him off to bed early on the pretext that he had school in the morning, knowing that  would enable him to go and question Jess. However, when he finally entered the bedroom, it was to find Jess lying fully clothed on his bed, snoring loudly, the empty whiskey bottle on the nightstand.

Slim stood staring down at him for a few minutes. “I don’t know what this as all about, pard,” he said softly, “but it’s sure got you running scared.” Then he pulled the blanket over Jess and went off to get ready for bed himself.

Slim spent a disturbed night with Jess restlessly lashing about, having one of the dreadful nightmares he suffered from occasionally, and the rest of the time he seemed to spend in the outhouse, chucking up the killer whisky.

When Slim awoke, he washed and dressed quickly before he strode over to Jess’s bed, taking in his friend’s unshaven, ashen face, before leaning down  and shaking  him gently. “Come on, Jess, roll out; it’s late.”

Jess just groaned, and his eyes flickered open briefly before closing again.

“Jess!”

Jess sighed deeply and opened his eyes again. “I’m dyin’ here, Slim,” he whispered.

Slim looked down at his buddy again, red-eyed and deathly pale, the dark stubble making him look even paler. “Uh, maybe you’d better stay put on second thoughts,” he said. “I don’t want Mike seeing you in this state. I’ll call you when he’s gone to school.” With that, he marched off with an air of disapproval.

Once the child was safely dispatched on the early morning stage, Slim yelled his pard again. “Come on, Jess, get out of your pit; coffees on.”

That finally did the trick, as Slim knew it would. Five minutes later, Jess staggered to the bedroom door and stood their swaying for a moment, clutching his stomach, before he finally advanced on the table and sat down slowly.

Slim poured him a hot strong coffee, and after a moment, Jess picked it up and sipped gratefully, his hands shaking badly, Slim noticed. After a while, Slim said softly, “So what’s it all about then, pard?”

Jess suddenly had that closed look on his face. “Don’t wanna talk about it, Slim. Can’t.” Then he jumped up and went to the door, pulling it open and striding off across the yard.

After a moment, Slim followed him, determined not to give up on his friend, no matter how doggone stubborn he was being.

When Slim caught up with him, Jess was leaning over the corral fence. Slim thought he was going to up-chuck again, and he walked over and stood beside him, a gentle hand on his arm. “Are you bad again?”

Jess closed his eyes and swallowed deeply, before replying. “No, I’m OK.” Then it seemed as though his legs would support him no longer, and Jess turned and slid gracefully to the ground, his back resting against the fence as he buried his face in his hands. “What a Goddamn mess,” he whispered.

After a moment, Slim hunkered down beside him and just waited.

A couple of minutes later, Jess finally turned to him and whispered, “I’m done for, pard.”

Slim remained patiently waiting before Jess finally started talking.

“See, thing is, Slim, I think I may have to kill him, because otherwise…he’ll kill me. One way or another, I’m dead meat now Brady’s landed.”

“Go on.”

Jess took a deep breath. “This is real hard for me, you know?”

Slim just nodded and waited.

“I’ve met Brady before. I first met when I was taken prisoner in the war. I was only a kid, not long enlisted, and me and young Davy Scott were taken, captured by a Union patrol and taken to a POW camp. You know all about that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but you escaped, didn’t you, Jess? Fought on before you were wounded and captured again towards the end of the War?”

“That’s right, but I was in that hell hole for a while — long enough, anyway. It was terrible there, Slim — hardly any food, no sanitation. Men were dying like flies.”

Slim hung his head, knowing the truth of it. The conditions in the Union camps was one of the things in the war that he, serving as a Union soldier, wasn’t proud of. But there again, he reckoned the conditions in the Rebel camps weren’t much better.

Both men had suffered during their war years, but fighting on different sides had never prejudiced their friendship, thank God, Slim thought now.

Jess sighed deeply again and then continued. “So everyone around us was getting sick. the conditions were so darn cramped and then Davy came down with dysentery. Gee, he was sick, Slim. And all he wanted was water; he was so dang dry and the Warder wouldn’t let him have any. Said it was a waste, ‘cos he was gonna die anyway.”

Slim looked horror stricken at the inhumanity of it.

Jess looked down and then said softly, “So, I stole it for him, didn’t I.”

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile. “You would, wouldn’t you, pard.”

Jess dipped his head. “Yeah, he was my friend, wasn’t he?” he replied almost aggressively. “He was worth it, Slim.”

“Worth it?”

“I stole the water and he lasted two, maybe three more days and then the guard discovered what I’d done and reported it to Captain Brady.”

“Captain Brady?”

“Yep, aka Sheriff Frank Brady, as he is now.”

“So what happened, Jess? Is that what you got that beating for?”

Slim was familiar with the fine silver scars still visible on Jess’s back as a constant reminder of that time.

Jess just nodded again and took a deep breath. “Twenty lashes, overseen by the Captain, and then…”

“Yes?”

“Then Captain Brady reckoned the Warder wasn’t putting enough effort into it — not hittin’ me hard enough — and he admitted it afterwards, I heard. The Warder reckoned I didn’t deserve that punishment. None of them did. So, anyway, Captain Brady took over, and hell, Slim, no one could have accused him of shirking, that’s for sure.”

“So I guess you had every right to hate him,” said Slim thoughtfully.

Jess nodded. “I swore I’d kill him if I ever saw him again.”

“And did you…see him again, that is?”

Jess was silent for so long Slim thought he wouldn’t reply, but finally his head came up and he looked out to the mountains before saying bitterly, “Oh yeah, I met him again.” He sighed deeply.

“It was after the war and I was passing through a small town in Texas. Stopped in the saloon for a drink and then I turned around and he was there, Slim, and all that hate, all that bitterness I felt towards him came back. And I knew it, I knew I just had to get out, because if I didn’t… Well, I didn’t know as to what I’d do, so I went to go past him and he grabbed hold of me and pulled me back.”

Jess was back there he could remember every goddamn second of the encounter.

Their eyes had locked and then Jess had taken a deep breath and said to himself, ‘let it go. War’s over, that’s all gone, and nuthin’ you do won’t bring Davy back.’

Then Brady had stepped in front of him. “Well, what do we have here,” he said, looking around at the crowded saloon. “A low-life stinking thief.”

“Well, I was still in Rebel country, and if he’d have said as to what I’d stolen and why, I doubt if they’re would have been a man in the bar as would have supported him. But no he didn’t. See, he didn’t like getting too close to the truth, did old Brady. So he made me out a lyin’ cheatin’ no good, and then something just kinda went off in my brain, Slim,” Jess said, suddenly coming back to the present. “All I wanted to do was to shut him up, to make him pay for what he’d done to me, to Davy. Hell, to us all. And that’s when I knocked him to the ground, jumped on him and had my hands around his throat and…”

Jess was sweating profusely now, and he ran his shirt sleeve across his face before continuing, so quietly Slim had to lean in to hear.

“And… I guess I would have strangled him if four men hadn’t pulled me off him.”

There was a heavy silence between the two men before Slim finally pulled himself together and said quietly, “Who’s to say, I — or anyone else in the War — in that position wouldn’t have done the same, Jess. You tried to walk away and then he provoked you; it would be real hard to turn away from that.”

Jess looked down. “But I should have done, should have been stronger, I know that. But it was still real raw. Anyway, that that’s how it was.”

“And that’s why he hates you, why you think he’ll give you a hard time now he’s Sheriff?”

Jess almost laughed and shook his head. “Hell no, it goes way deeper than that, Slim.”

Slim sighed. “So for goodness sake, Jess, tell me everything. If I’m going to support you, I need to know it all,”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “So are you still goin’ to support me, even though you don’t know the full story?”

“Sure I am. How long is it going to take for you to believe I trust in you pard, no matter what?”

Jess just shook his head in amazement and then finally continued. “Well, they pulled me off him and he stood up and that’s when I saw it. He was wearing a Deputy badge Slim. He took me back to the office and threw the book at me, had me charged with attempted murder. Said he’d make it so as I’d hang if he could.”

“Well, you didn’t, so what happened?”

“Folk rallied around. Word got out as to how this was all about the War, and so of course I had the support of the locals. A lawyer offered his services for free; had lost a son in the conflict — wanted to help me. He got people from the camp to testify, say what a raw deal I got, Davy got too. And it was a close run thing as to Brady losing his job over it all. The Sheriff weren’t too pleased, that’s for sure. Anyway, in the end, the charge was reduced to assault and I was just given a couple of months’ imprisonment…at the local jail.”

“The one where Brady was Deputy?”

“Yeah, you’ve got it. And although the Sheriff was real nice to me, he was near retirement and so a lot of the duties fell to Brady.”

“And he abused you?”

“You could say. Every time the Sheriff was out, he’d find a way to get to me — riling me by taunting me about the War, holding back water, saying maybe I’d go the same way as my buddy…things like that.”

Slim just shook his head in revulsion.

“Then it got worse; he started putting stuff in my food — poison. Oh, not enough to kill, just enough to give me the runs, or make me up chuck, but he’d remove the slop bucket and leave me lying in my own mess. Hell, Slim, I’ve never been to humiliated, so goddamn ashamed in my life.”

“And the Sheriff didn’t notice, didn’t do anything?” asked Slim in shocked disbelief.

Jess finally smiled. “Oh yeah, he was a good man, and finally he realized and acted as he should have done. But that was later. Before that, I met Brady’s daughter and that was really a turning point, I guess.”

“Go on then,” said Slim throwing him a knowing look. “Daughter eh?”

Jess shook his head. “Heck no, it wasn’t like that, Slim. She was just a kid — fourteen years old when I met her. She brought my food in sometimes and then we got talking and it was a while before I realized that she was Brady’s kid.”

“Then one night her Pa was away, out of town and the old Sheriff was dozing, and she visited with me and we started talking. I mean, really talkin’. And it turned out that she loathed her Pa; he was a cruel man — battered his wife and kid. “

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Young Annie said he hit her and her Ma. Hell, they were both shit scared of him. He was — is — just an out and out bastard Slim, you have to see that.”

“Go on.”

“Well, young Annie started visiting regular, as regular as she could, and she was a great kid, Slim. I felt so dang sorry for her. Saw the bruises on her arms; she’d a black eye once too. Then one night, she told me they were leaving, running away back east to live with her Ma’s parents, and you know what had made Mrs. Brady finally decide, Slim?”

Slim shook his head.

“Me. Well, the whole trial, when all that stuff came out about how he’d abused the prisoners, beaten me for trying to get water for a dying man. Well, I guess that was the last straw for her and she decided to take her daughter away to safety.”

Jess shook his head, a sad smile on his face as he remembered. “I was real glad they’d escaped. She came to me the night before they went, young Annie, in tears; didn’t wanna leave me but she said…she said, Slim…if her and her Ma didn’t go, she reckoned he’d kill ‘em eventually. The beatings were getting’ worse and worse, so they just had to go, I guess.”

“So what happened then, pard?”

“Well, Ma Brady happened to mention, in her goodbye letter, that she could no longer live with someone who had committed the… what she called ‘atrocities’ to prisoners of war. And those that he had committed since the war too. And so he realized she was referring to me, what he’d done to me in the jail. So later that night, he got real drunk, opened up my cell and beat me to a pulp.”

Slim’s eyes were huge now as he took in every word, astonished at what he was hearing.

“Anyway, thank God, the Sheriff arrived just in time to pull him off me and fired him on the spot. So in one night he lost his wife, his daughter and his job — and he laid it all at my door, Slim. Promised me that if we ever met again, he’d kill me.”

“And you believed him?”

“Hell Slim, I’ve never believed anything more in my life. It’s just a matter of time.”

*****

It was just a couple of days later when Mose drove in the noon stage with some more troubling news.

Slim and Jess had finally got around to painting the barn roof, and they had swung down from the ladder to change the team, expecting some banter and ribald remarks about their paint splattered appearance, but got nothing.

Mose simply jumped down from the box and said, “Coffee on then?”

The two young cowboys exchanged a surprised glance and then Jess said, “You know Miss Daisy’s away, don’t you, Mose? It’s my gut rot brew or nuthin’.”

Mose cast him a kindly look. “Well, that’ll be just fine, boy, just fine.”

Jess took his hat off and scratched his head. “Ok. Slim will see to you while I change the teams.” He went about it as Slim and Mose disappeared inside the house.

As soon as he sat down with his coffee, Slim could tell that all was not well as Mose had a sort of guilty, worried look about him.

“Hey, ol’ Jess’s coffee isn’t that bad, is it?” Slim said, grinning at his friend and trying to lighten the atmosphere.

Mose took a good sip, and said, “Nah, it’s fine. It ain’t that, Slim. It’s just that I’ve got some news and I reckon you and Jess ain’t gonna like it too well.”

“Spit it out then,” said Slim, still smiling.

The old timer took a deep breath and then turning his rheumy old eyes on Slim said, “Well, you remember when the stage was robbed a while back, and there was all that business with the gang knowing Jess and all, saying he was in league with them?”

“Sure I do, but you didn’t believe any of that rubbish surely, Mose. Jess admitted to knowing them years back, but he certainly wasn’t implicated in the robbery, you know that”.

“Well, sure I do.” But the old man couldn’t seem to look Slim in the eye.

“You do believe that, don’t you, Mose?” said Slim urgently.

“Yep, but I reckon this new Sheriff don’t, and I think maybe he’s read too much into that statement I made at the time.”

“Well, don’t worry about that Mose. Jess made a statement too, and I reckon seeing as how Chas Walker and his gang are long gone, then I figure that’s an end to it.”

“Well that’s what I’ve got to tell you, boy. They aren’t long gone back to Texas as we thought. It seems Chas had a girl in these parts, came back to see her and got himself caught. Sheriff Brady’s holding him for trial in Laramie, and word is he’ll want to talk with Jess about it all. Seems he’s kinda suspicious. Had me back in and…”

“And what, Mose?” said Slim warily.

“Well that’s what’s botherin’ me I may have spoken out of turn, said stuff that made Jess seem guilty. Hell, I didn’t mean to, Slim, but this new Sheriff is mighty clever with his words — makes you say things you didn’t mean. Sort of confusin’ to a simple man like me, I guess”.

Slim sighed deeply. “Don’t worry, Mose; he hasn’t got any evidence against Jess. But listen; just let me explain this to him, huh. He’s kind of touchy where Brady’s concerned.”

Mose gave a sigh of relief. “Well thanks, Slim; I didn’t relish bein’ on the receiving end of old Jess’s temper, that’s for sure.” With that, he went off back into the yard.

After he had left, Jess threw Slim a puzzled look. “So what was wrong with the old goat then? Is he sickening for somethin’? I expected him to have hours of fun at our expense, state we’re in,” he said. casting his pard a wide grin.

Slim said nothing, just looked down for a moment before he said, “Let’s have a break; come and get your coffee, Jess.”

Jess sat at the table and took a sip of the strong brew before studying his pard over the rim of his cup. “Why do I have the feelin’ you about to tell me some bad news?” he said after a moment.

Slim sighed. “No getting anything past you is there, pard?”

“Well, tell me then,” Jess replied impatiently.

“It’s about that stage robbery; I think Brady wants to see you.”

Jess just threw him a stony look. “Go on,” he said quietly.

“Mose was asked to make another statement. Seems he may have spoken out of turn, given the Sheriff cause for doubt. He didn’t mean to, Jess; he said the Sheriff sorta tricked him into saying stuff he didn’t mean to.”

“Um. Sounds like his style. So why now? Why drag it all up again?”

“Because he’s brought in Chas. Picked him up visiting his girl. It seems he’s convinced the Sheriff you were involved.”

“Well I bet he didn’t need much talkin’ into believing that one,” said Jess bitterly.

There was silence for a while and then Slim said, “So what are you going to do, pard?”

Jess stood up and wandered over to the window. He stood moodily looking out at where the chickens were scratching in the yard and then he turned back to look at Slim. “I guess I’m gonna have to run, Slim.”

Slim stared at him in deep shock. “No,” he whispered. Then more loudly, he said, “No, I can’t let you do that, Jess. You can’t throw away everything you’ve worked for, your life here, all your friends.”

“And I can’t stay either, Slim. I told you he wants me dead and he’ll get it one way or another. I’ve gotta go.” Jess marched into the bedroom to start packing.

Slim followed him in and stood watching him, leaning against the door frame as Jess threw clothes in a saddle bag. “You do this and everyone will think you’re running because you’re guilty,” he said finally.

“Well, that’s too bad,” said Jess angrily, “because I’d rather be a live villain than a dead hero.”

“Look, if you won’t do this for me, then do it for Mike. It will destroy him if you ride out and don’t come back.”

Jess shot him a furious look. “That was a bit below the belt, weren’t it, pard, and anyways I figure that’s better for the boy than seeing me hang”.

“Jess, for God’s sake, it won’t come to that!”

“Oh, won’t it? I guess you don’t know Brady then. Like I said before, Slim, I stay around here, I’m gonna have to kill him before he kills me. And if I shoot down a lawman, I figure I’ll hang anyway, so I reckon I ain’t got nuthin’ to lose by running.”

Jess pushed past Slim, and carrying his saddlebags, went into the big room and then went over to the desk and fetched some paper and a pencil.

“So what are you doing now?”

“Writing a note for Daisy and Mike. Least I can do, I guess. Just wish I could say goodbye properly.”

The front door had been left partly ajar, and as the men had been in the bedroom, they hadn’t heard a lone rider enter the yard and tether his horse.

Now the front door suddenly burst open and Brady stood there his colt.45 aimed at Jess’s head. “Thinking of going somewhere Harper?”

Jess instinctively went for his gun, but Brady cocked the colt. “Don’t even think about it. Harper, because you are absolutely right what you just said. I aim for you to die, and it might as well be here and now as later on the end of a rope. So it’s your choice.”

Jess just dropped his hands to his sides.

“Wise move.” Brady stepped forwards and pulled Jess’s gun from its holster and stuck it in his own belt, before handcuffing him.

Then Slim, who had been standing agape watching the proceedings, suddenly sprang to life. “What in hell do you think you’re doing coming into my home and arresting Jess this way? What evidence have you got?” he spat angrily.

“Oh plenty, Mr. Sherman, back at the office. Enough to get him a nice long prison sentence, Chas Walker has made a statement implicating Harper in the crime. Oh yes, he’s in it up to his neck, Sherman, no matter what lies he’s told you!” Then he cast a glance at Jess. “Yep, a real cozy jail waiting for you, boy!”

Jess just shuddered, but said nothing.

“Oh no… I remember now. You don’t take well to incarceration, do you, Harper? If I recall, you absconded from the POW camp, and then you didn’t take well at all to that little stay you had in my jail in Texas, did you?”

Jess glared at him, but again stayed quiet.

“Well, I’ll just have to make you real comfortable in Laramie, as only I can. And we won’t have a pesky old Sheriff poking his nose in all the time. Just you and me Harper.”

Slim looked furious. “Are you threatening your prisoner? He has rights you know!”

Brady turned a countenance so full of wrath on Slim that it made him near quake.

“Harper lost his rights when he set my wife and daughter against me and lost me my job. And now it’s time for me to get my own back on this scum, Mr. Sherman, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” With that, Brady gestured with his gun for Jess to go outside.

Then at the door, Brady turned. “Oh, and should you repeat any of this conversation, I shall simply deny everything, your word — the friend of a gunslinger, against a United States Sheriff. No contest, Sherman.” With that, he left with his prisoner.

Just before they rode out, Slim ran across the yard and grabbed hold of Traveler’s bridle. “Jess, it will be alright. I’ll get our lawyer on the case. Just hang on, OK.”

Jess pulled his hat down hard, the look in his eyes one of desperation. “I should have gone when I had the chance,” he said. “It’s too late, Slim.”

Then Brady came over and whacked Traveler hard on the rump, and the two horses galloped out of the yard and up the rise at speed.

When they arrived in Laramie, Brady unceremoniously hauled Jess from his mount and almost threw him across the sidewalk by the jail so he staggered and almost fell, much to the shock of the small crowd that had gathered.

“What are you a doin’ with Mr. Harper?” asked Bob from the hardware store. “He ain’t no criminal, Sheriff; hell, he deputizes for Sheriff Corey more often than not.” Several of the bystanders corroborated that.

“Well I reckon his Sheriff’s duties are over because this is one bad lot, and it  would serve you good people to remember that,  I guess he’s hoodwinked you all far too long,” came the terse reply.

“Shame on you, Sheriff,” said a voice from the crowd. “We all know Jess; he’s a good friend to the folks of this town.”

Then the Sheriff turned on him looking furious. “And I know this man too, from the war and later, and he’s nothing but an outlaw and a no good gunslinger.” Then he peered at the crowd and said, “And anyone as sides with him are against me, and I can assure you that is not a place you want to be.” With that, he roughly pushed Jess on inside the jail.

Brady shoved Jess hard into the chair opposite his desk and then rested his rifle against the desk and gave Jess a hard look. “So we meet again then, Harper, and have absolutely no doubt about it, what I said to you back in Texas about killing you…well. it still holds.”

Jess just glared at him. “I didn’t think you’d disappoint me, Brady; once a bastard always a bastard.”

“Why, you…” Brady leapt forwards and gave Jess a viscous backhander, making his head snap back, splitting his lip, the bright red blood gushing down his shirt front.

Just at that moment the door burst open, and Millie ran in. Seeing Jess manacled and bleeding, the Sheriff looming over him, his hand balled for another blow, she screamed out and ran forwards, grabbing hold of Brady’s arm. “Stop it!” she screamed.

Brady shook her off so hard that she fell back, and that was when Jess leapt up and flew at the Sheriff, determined to protect Millie even though he was still handcuffed.

Quick as a flash, the Sheriff put the chair between them and then grabbed for his rife and thrust the barrel into Jess’s belly, making him fall to his knees in agony clutching his stomach.

Millie had rallied by this point, and she flew over to Jess’ side, and kneeling beside him, flung a comforting arm around him.

Jess glared up at Brady. “You hurt her, and by God, I’ll kill you with my bare hands,” he spat now absolutely incensed.

“Um,” said Brady reflectively, “I seem to remember you tried that once before, Harper.”

“Just leave her alone,” said Jess ignoring the jibe.

The Sheriff came forward, and taking Millie’s arm, he pulled her up, but she wrenched free and threw him a hard look

“Get off,” she spat angrily.

“Now, now, my dear, I mean you no harm. In fact, quite the reverse. I shall be coming over to the saloon to get to know you a whole lot better very soon.” Then glancing from her to Jess, Brady said, “I take it you are Harper’s current…er…what shall we call it, close friend?”

“Shut your filthy mouth,” spat Jess. Then he turned to Millie. “Go on back, sweetheart; I‘ll be OK.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, Slim’s on the case, don’t worry.”

As she turned to go, Jess saw her stifle a sob and it was like a knife through his heart, he wanted to comfort her so dang much.

“Aw, how touching,” said the Sheriff sarcastically. Then moving across to open the door for Millie, he said,” I’ll be seeing you shortly, my dear; I’ll help take your mind off things.”

She completely ignored him, and turning back to Jess, gave him a brave smile. “Don’t fret about Trav; I’ll take him along to the livery.” With that, she was gone.

The Sheriff turned back to Jess, and gesturing with the rifle for him to walk towards the cells, he unlocked one and pushed him hard inside, so this time he did fall, badly hitting his head on the wall, and he cussed loudly.

Then the cell door clanged shut behind him and Jess was filled with a feeling off such dread and panic he could hardly breathe.

Brady grinned at him through the bars. “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten how much you hated being locked up. Well, you’d better get used to it. Oh and Harper, just to let you know, I’ve got kinda a deal going with the new barkeep over the road. I give him protection and he lets me…” Here he chuckled evilly, “he lets me have the pick of his girls. And I don’t mean to just chat to either. And know who I’m havin’ tonight, Harper?”

Jess’s head shot up, his eyes wide in shock.

“Yep, that pretty little brunette, and she won’t have any choice, either. She does just what I want or she loses her job — and you wouldn’t want that to happen to your special girl, would you!”

Jess threw himself at the bars, and even though they were between him and Brady, the older man took a step back and looked slightly uncertain for a moment before laughing again and wandering out closing the adjoining door between the cells and his office.

Jess threw himself down on the bunk and was suddenly aware of scrutiny from the other cell; he found himself looking into the watery eyes of Chas Walker.

“Afternoon, Jess. You wouldn’t happen to have a flask on you, I suppose; I’m kinda dry.”

“Go to Hell!” Jess replied before he lay down and turned his back on the outlaw. ‘So how in hell do you get out of this one, Harper?’ he thought.

*****

Meanwhile Slim had been busy. He’d collected some clean clothes for his pard, aware that he had gone off in his paint splattered shirt and denims, and then he had gone straight to Mr. Benson’s place, the office of his family lawyer.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sherman, I’m afraid Mr. Benson is out of town on a case right now, but I can get him to visit Mr. Harper on  Friday if that would suit?”

“Heck, Mrs. Benson, I need him now. That’s three days away. “

“Well, I’m sorry, dear, but Maurice is over in Denver in court with a client. That’s the best I can do.”

“Then thank you, Ma’am; I’ll see him Friday then,” Slim said, turning away and feeling terribly let down.

Slim went straight to the jail and was incensed when Sheriff Brady refused to let him see the prisoner. “Hell Brady, it’s a prisoners right to have visitors! “

“Not in my jail, it isn’t. You’ll just have to forget it; Harper isn’t seeing anyone.”

“Well, he’ll see Mr. Benson, my lawyer, and trust me, Benson will make darn sure he does. Now tell Jess I’ll see him soon and give him this change of clothes.” Then steeling himself, he said, “Please.”

“Leave ‘em there,” Brady said, pointing to Mort’s old leather couch. Slim did as he was told and then left, knowing there was nothing else he could do.

After a moment, the Sheriff got up and threw the clean clothes in the dust under the couch before making for the cells.

Jess was up and by the bars in a second. “Was that Slim? “

“Yes, Sherman did come by. Something about your lawyer. Seems he can’t make it, not for a while anyways. Got more important fish to fry, I guess.”

Jess looked crestfallen. “What about Slim?”

“Said he’s kinda busy right now. Seems you’ve left him with a mess of work to do. Can’t spare the time to hang about visiting the likes of you, I reckon.”

“You’re a dirty, stinkin’ liar,” yelled Jess, looking furious.

“Simmer down, Harper,” Brady said before turning to go.

“Can I have some water?” asked Jess quickly while the man was there. His lip where the Sheriff had hit him was throbbing and he had the horrible metallic taste of blood in his mouth.

“Oh sure, sure you can…tomorrow sometime,” Brady said vaguely, before laughing and wandering off.

Later food and drink came for Chas Walker, but nothing for Jess, and he just lay looking up at the ceiling, feeling utterly abandoned.

That went on for the next day, but on the evening of the second day, he was given some supper and some water.

Whether or not he was sick because he bolted the food, being so hungry, or because Brady had tampered with it he never knew, but suspected the latter, and later when he was sick after the food again, he refused to eat anything served up by the Sheriff.

“OK, suit yourself, Harper; your choice. But folk know I’ve been offering to feed you; can’t complain about that.”

“Yeah, but feeding me with what,” spat Jess angrily. “Rat bait like last time?”

The big man merely smirked and turned away at that.

It was late the following afternoon when Mr. Benson breezed into the Sheriff’s office with Slim and demanded to see his client.

“Well, of course, sir,” said the Sheriff feigning pleasantness. “Walk this way, gentleman; I’m sure Harper will be happy to see you.”

When they entered the cell, Slim hardly recognized Jess. He seemed to have lost weight in just three days, he was filthy and unshaven, his paint marked shirt now splattered with other detritus, his whole persona one of neglect and abandonment.

Slim turned angrily on the Sheriff who was still loitering in the background. “I thought I gave you clean clothes, and surely he can get a wash and shave. What sorta place are you running here, Brady?”

The Sheriff turned innocent eyes on Slim and the lawyer. “Well he’s been chucking up so much I didn’t think, I’d bother giving him the clean clothes; seemed a kind of waste. And as to the shave, well, I don’t trust him with a razor, might have slit his throat. He’s been sort of down, so I figured it a kindness, Mr. Benson. Didn’t want any harm to come to a prisoner in my care.”

“No harm?” muttered Slim looking at the bruise to Jess’s temple and the still swollen split lip.

“Oh yes, the prisoner is a little accident-prone; he slipped and fell in his cell, I’m afraid.”

Jess had grown suddenly very red in the face and looked like he was about to choke or have a fit. Mr. Benson, being quite well acquainted with the Harper temper, thought it advisable to get rid of Brady. “Quite so, Sheriff. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to consult with my client in private.”

“As you wish,” said the Sheriff sniffing and marching off, slamming the office door behind him.

Slim threw himself down on the bunk next to Jess at once. “Oh pard, I’m so sorry,” he said. “How are you coping?”

“How do you damn well think? The bastards been tryin’ to poison me again. Withholds water, makes me beg for the slop bucket!” Then Jess turned pained eyes on Benson. “You’ve gotta get me out of here, Mr. Benson.”

“All in good time, young man. I need to see copies of the statements, but I have already got a short hearing lined up with the circuit judge when he comes in a couple of days, and with any luck, he will at least grant you bail. That will give me time to prepare a case, if indeed we have a charge to answer to. So come along, let’s hear your version of all this nonsense. “

Talking in low voices so Chas Walker wouldn’t overhear in the next cell, Jess told Benson everything right from the POW debacle through to his previous run in with Brady and also his time with the Walker gang.

“So let me get this right. The Texas Sheriff, George Cole, was the one who put you in his jail, after you attacked his Deputy Brady? “

“Yep.” Jess remembered back to the time he’d met the Deputy Sheriff again after the war, how he’d tried to walk away from him and how he’d called him back and it had ended with Jess with his hands around Brady’s throat.

“And later when you were in jail after assaulting Brady, then Cole fired Brady after he attacked you while in his custody?”

“That’s right. His wife and kid had walked out on him. The last straw was when Ma Brady heard the evidence at my trial, the way Brady had abused me and the others in the war. That’s when she finally found the strength to leave him — and his twisted mind blamed me for her going”

“Hmm, go on, young man. Then later, it was this Sheriff Cole who employed your help in trying to find the Walker gang’s secret hideout?”

“That’s right; we got to know each other well while I was in his jail, and strange as it may seem, we got to be friends in a way. So when he asked me to help him out with the Walker gang, I agreed, except I never did bring ‘em to justice. They found out I was working for the Sheriff and near killed me,” he said, casting a bitter glance over to the other cell.

The elderly lawyer just shook his head smiling at that. “You never have been a stranger to trouble, have you, Jess?”

Jess threw him the ghost of a smile. “I guess not.”

“So what puzzles me is the fact that Brady was then made Sheriff of that town when Sheriff Cole retired sometime later.”

“Um, I thought that kinda odd too,” said Jess. “But according to Chas,” he said, gesturing with his head to the other cell, “it seems that once Cole retired nobody wanted the job, so they brought back Brady. It was a tough old town and I guess they reckoned Brady was better than nothing. Been there ever since and now he’s semi-retired, just doing the odd covering job, like now.”

“Umm, well, I shall be looking into that very closely. Now don’t worry, young man; I think I’ve got enough evidence to prove that you have been ill-treated during your stay here, plus there is virtually no concrete evidence of this alleged collusion with the Walker Gang. So I shouldn’t have a problem with bail. I’ll have you out in the next day or so I can promise you that.”

“And as soon as we’ve finished here, I’ll go over to Miss Molly’s and fetch you some supper and watch you eat it too. And I can promise you it won’t go anywhere near that bastard Brady,” said Slim, grinning at his pard.

Jess leaned over and punched Slim gently on the arm. “Thanks, Slim.”

Slim had made sure the Sheriff agreed to him visiting with Jess before Benson left, and so he spent a couple of hours with him later. They ate supper together and then just sat and chatted.

“So where is Lon?” asked Slim after a while. “Hasn’t he been looking out for you?”

“Haven’t you heard? Brady fired him. Just said he wasn’t up to the job and gave him his marching orders.”

Slim gave a low whistle. “Mort will sure be mad about that when he gets back.”

“If he gets back,” replied Jess, looking somber.

“Yeah, if,” sighed Slim. Then he surveyed his pard washed shaven and finally in the clean clothes. “Well, you’re looking better anyway, and it looks like you’ll be out of here in a day or two. Then you should walk away a free man after old man Benson had finished his investigations. He’s riding over to Cheyenne tomorrow to see Sheriff Cole.”

“Really? I never knew he lived so close.”

“Yep, moved from Texas a few years since. Benson had already started looking into Brady’s past on behalf of Lon, and he reckons all isn’t as it seems with our Sheriff. No, I think once your case is heard, everything will come out and the man will be exposed for what he is. Just hang on to that temper of yours for a few days more, OK, pard?”

Jess threw him a tired smile. “OK, I’ll sure try.”

Unbeknown to the two men, the Sheriff had been listening at the partially open door for the last five minutes or so and had heard enough to make him not only real worried, but real mad too. Suddenly he could stand it no longer and he burst in on the men. “Come on, Sherman, I’m not running a hotel here. Get off home; it’s time the prisoner was bedded down,” he snarled.

Slim got up affably enough. “OK, Sheriff.”

Then the older man almost dragged Slim out as he opened the door. “Come on, I haven’t got all night!”

Slim pulled his arm angrily out of the others grasp. “You seem to have lost your polite manner, Sheriff, just about the time Mr. Benson left. Funny that.”

“Don’t you go getting smart with me, Sherman, or you’ll end up in the cell along with your buddy. I rule the roost around here, and you’d better remember it, and it’s going to take more than a smart lawyer to stop me finishing off Harper too!” Then Brady clamped his mouth shut and turned away, as though he regretted saying too much.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean!” yelled Jess, now looking almost as mad as the Sheriff.

“Nothing, nothing; just sounding off. Come on, Sherman, I’ll show you out,” Brady said more reasonably.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, pard,” said Slim, casting Jess and anxious glance.

Jess tried to give him a reassuring smile. “Sure. Night, Slim”.

Once Slim had gone, the Sheriff came back and stood leaning casually against the wall looking through the bars at Jess.

After a while Jess felt uncomfortable at the big red haired man’s scrutiny. “What?”

Then the Sheriff came over to the bars and spoke very quietly so that Walker wouldn’t hear.

“You think you’ve outsmarted me don’t you, boy? Think you’ve won?”

Jess just looked down and said nothing.

“Well?” Brady suddenly shouted angrily.

Jess looked up unmoved. “Well, it’s me as is in the cell, ain’t it, Sheriff, and you as is walkin’ free.”

The Sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, it is, isn’t it,” he said with an evil leer. “Think I’ll take myself off down the saloon for an hour or so”, and turned to go. Then he turned and came back and leaning in close to Jess whispered, “Nothing has changed, Harper; I said I would see you dead. And God help me I will,” and with that he left.

It was about midnight when the Sheriff, staggering slightly, returned to his office and made his way through to the cells. He stood watching the sleeping prisoners for a moment before unlocking Jess’s cell and walking stealthily across.

Jess was in a deep peaceful sleep — the best rest he had had in days. He was cleaned up and comfortable, had a full belly, and with the knowledge that freedom seemed almost within his grasp, was consequently sleeping like a baby.

Then he was suddenly hurled out of his calm peaceful repose as the Sheriff grabbed hold of his shirt, pulling him off the bed and throwing a punch to his chin which sent him flying across the cell. Then Brady started raining blows randomly on the cowboy, but even in his befuddled state, Jess was shrewd enough to realize the Sheriff’s ploy. If  Jess fought back and did some serious damage to the Sheriff, then bang went his bail and maybe even his chance at winning his case, so he just tried to protect himself as well as he  could as Brady pounded him with vicious  blows.

However, unbeknown to both of them, the Sheriff had been closely watched by two men for the last hour or so.

Lon, Mort’s deputy, and Tam Cartwright, leader of the town council, a frail elderly gentleman, had been sitting in the saloon watching the Sheriff getting more and more inebriated, and then had followed him down the street to the Sheriff’s office where they had stood outside, debating their next move.

“I agree with you, Lon,” said Tam. “I believe the town council made a grave error hiring that man as Mort’s replacement, but we needed someone quickly and he was around. so…”

“Um,” said Lon, “and since then, he’s tried to corrupt old Tom’s saloon by insisting  this new man hires working girls, has mistreated his prisoner according to Slim  and Mr. Benson, and most nights gets  drunk as a skunk. How much more evidence does the council need to fire the man?”

“I really don’t know, Lon. There are a couple of real hard nuts on the council, and they say we’ve to stick with him no matter what. I just wish Mort would get back, or you’d accept the job like we first asked.”

“I explained about that,”said Lon sadly. “With a young kid and another on the way, it would have been more than my life’s worth to work all those extra hours; Suzanna would have killed me,” he said with a lopsided grin.

“Well, if that’s the case, I just hope Mort comes back soon.”

“You and me both,” said Lon with feeling, “and I sure need my old job back too.”

And then their conversation was broken off as they heard sounds of a fight coming from the cells. and after exchanging a shocked look, both men hurried inside.

They stood in shock for a moment, watching the Sheriff laying into Jess and the young cowboy just taking it, before Lon launched himself at the Sheriff, pulling him off Jess and punching him hard on the chin, sending him flying.

However, the big man was up in a second and knocked Lon almost senseless with a haymaker before turning back to where Jess was standing, swaying slightly by the bed.

There was an ominous silence as the Sheriff moved forwards and then Jess and Lon both saw it — the flash of a knife.

Jess straightened, his eyes narrowed, and he had a look of determination that Lon knew so well, but then before either man could do anything, Brady lunged forwards with the knife, ripping Jess’s shirt sleeve and a thin scarlet stain appeared quickly soaking the material.

“Brady, what in hell are you doing?!” shouted Lon.

The Sheriff glanced up for a split second and then growled, “Just killin’ vermin, deputy,” and he lunged forwards again.

That was when Jess finally had had enough. He dodged the knife, grabbed hold of the older man’s arm and wrestled the weapon from him and it fell clattering to the ground, before Jess followed through with a right and left flooring the Sheriff. He stood over the downed man, panting and cussing under his breath.

Then Lon and Tam were at his side.

“Jess, you OK?” asked Lon, pulling off his bandana and tying it around Jess’s wounded arm.

Jess wiped the sweat from his brow with his other arm and glared down at the Sheriff. “Yeah, and thanks, Lon. I’m OK now, but when he comes around, I guess I’m done for.”

“Hell, Jess, we’ll speak up for you. The man’s pure evil; anyone can see that.”

“Yeah, evil and smart, though Lon, real smart. He’ll worm his way out of this. He wants to see me hang and I reckon he won’t rest until he does.”

“But that’s crazy, Jess; I’ll bear witness to tonight’s events,” said Tam quickly.

“Well you’ve not managed to get rid of him yet, have you, Tam,” said Jess tersely. “You tried after he fired Lon and you were out voted.”

The older man had to just hang his head and agree.

Then the Sheriff’s eyes opened, although he had been conscious throughout and now he sneered up at the men. “I should listen to Harper, he’s right; I aim to see him dead no matter what. And who’s going to take what you say into account, Lon — a man whose been fired. And as to you,” he said turning to Tam, “I reckon nobody will listen to the ramblings of a senile old man who should have been turned out to pasture years ago.”

Both men glared at him but Brady refused to reply. “Nope. What folk will hear is my account — about how Harper said he was feelin’ sick, I entered the cell and he jumped me. Yep, I reckon that should be enough for the circuit judge to see things my way. After all, I am the law around here, so who is going to question that?” he said openly sniggering now.

It took all Jess’s willpower not to lay into him again, but instead he followed the other men out of the cell and slammed the door shut on the still prone Sheriff.

“You can run, Harper,” Brady yelled after him, “but I’ll find you in the end, don’t you worry!”

Jess walked through into the front office, and finding his gun belt in the Sheriff’s desk drawer, he strapped it on and then went about the task of reloading.

Lon and Tam just watched him without speaking.

“So what are you going to do, Jess?” Lon asked eventually.

“What do you think?” Jess spat angrily. “Make a run for it, of course; I ain’t stayin’ around here for him to kill me. And you’ve gotta believe it, Lon, that’s what he intends to do. And going by tonight’s little fracas, before I even come to trial, I guess.”

Lon removed his hat and scratching his head exchanged a glance with Tam.

Then Jess looked up from his task and glared at the two men. “Why? Are you thinkin’ of stopping me?”

Lon looked away and then back at the intense blue eyes and sighed. “No, I guess not. I owe you, Jess; you’ve watched my back, saved my bacon more than once. I’m not going to sell you short, and that’s for sure.” Then he turned to Tam. Sorry but that’s the way it is.”

The old man looked past Jess to the cells where the Sheriff was now reclining on the bunk. “On the contrary, Lon; I agree with you. I reckon you’ve no choice boy,” he said looking over at Jess, “so what will you do?”

“I’m gonna go and find the rest of the Walker gang and bring ‘em in along with the payroll.”

“Jess, you don’t have a hope in hell,” said Lon in bewilderment.

Then Jess grinned at him. “Well that’s where you’re wrong, buddy. Old Chas there has been getting bribes from the Sheriff in the form of whiskey, so he’ll testify against me. But he kinda shot himself in  the  foot  because after a drink or three, he’s been filling me in on the gang — and I’ve a pretty good idea where to look for them and where the  money is too. I find that, bring it back; figure it will prove my innocence once and for all.”

“It’s a pretty tall order, young man,” said Tam Cartwright.

Then Lon looked at his friend’s pale face and saw him cradling the wounded arm. “You don’t look too good, Jess; maybe you should rest up some before you take off chasing those bastards?”

“Yeah, I aim to; thought I’d hole up at the cave,” Jess said, referring to a cave overlooking the lake on Sherman property. “Will you tell Slim? Get him to bring some medical supplies and food. In a day or two, once the heats off, I’ll set a false trail; shouldn’t be hard to fool that ol’ drunkard,” Jess said, gesturing to the cells. Then he looked worried. “What about you two, though?”

Lon just smiled. “Reckon  we’ll play him at his own  game; as long as we’re not implicated, we’ll let him  get away with his tale about you jumping him — and then as soon as you get back, the real truth will come out. Me and Tam will make statements and give them to Benson, OK?”

Jess beamed at him. “Sure, thanks, Lon, Tam. I owe you.” Then after shaking both men’s hands, he took his hat and jacket from the door and made his way stealthily down the deserted street to the livery where he found Traveler, and then five minutes later he left town at a gallop.

**************

Lon went to Slim’s hotel room first thing the following morning and filled him in on the events of the previous night.

Slim  was furious and was all for having  the Sheriff exposed for what he was, but was finally convinced to keep the secret until all the evidence was stacked against Brady.

As it was, the Sheriff kept his part  of the bargain, not implicating Lon  or Tam, knowing that he would be in real trouble if they told the truth about the previous night’s events, and just got on  with his roll of Sheriff, although not very well.

When he called for a posse to trace Jess, there was not one man who would come forward to help him, all of them secretly pleased that the young cowboy had made a break for it, knowing the new Sheriff’s harsh reputation and most of them believing in Jess’s innocence anyway.

Finally, Brady paid a couple of his barfly buddies to ride with him, but they were easily led awry by Jess’s bogus trails, and after a frustrating morning, gave up on him. The Sheriff comforted himself by having multiple wanted posters printed and sent off to the surrounding towns.

Then Brady sat back in Mort’s chair, whiskey glass in hand, and stared down at the poster — Wanted Dead or Alive Jess Harper — and chuckled to himself. “Oh, I’ll get you in the end, Harper, don’t you worry,” he growled.

Once Slim was aware of the Sheriff’s aborted posse attempt and was convinced the cat could do a better job at tracking than Brady, he wasted no time in putting supplies together and readying himself for a trip.

Mike had been staying the week at a friend’s house while Slim had been in town supporting Jess, but Daisy had arrived home from her sister’s place in Cheyenne the previous day and Mike was due back that afternoon.

Now Daisy and Slim sat at the table having a quick coffee before he headed off.

“You sure you’ll be OK, Daisy? Old Barney West will be around later to deal with the stages and all the chores; said he’s happy to sleep in the bunk house and he’ll stay until we get back.”

“I’ll be fine, dear; don’t worry about me. It’s you and Jess I’m anxious about. Oh, can’t you talk him out of searching out that dreadful gang, Slim? “

Slim gave her a tired smile. “I doubt it, Daisy. He thinks that’s the only way he can exonerate himself, you see. In his eyes, he has to absolutely prove his innocence.”

“Oh but can’t he see it is that corrupt  Sheriff’s fault for bringing  all the past up again, and  he will be proven  to be  the bad lot he is by Mr. Benson  shortly.”

“Yeah, I agree with you, Daisy, but try convincing Jess.” Both of them sighed and continued sipping their coffee, dumbfounded yet again by their young friend’s stubborn streak, particularly when it came to matters of honor.

*****

Slim rode up to the cave and arrived by late afternoon; he was careful not to spook what was by now, he guessed, a very strung-out Jess.

He walked quietly up the steep trail to the cave and then paused and called out. “Jess, it’s me, pard,” but there was no cheerful answer or sign of life. So drawing his gun, Slim entered the cave cautiously and then quickly holstered the weapon as his eyes took in the scene before him, in the dim light of the cave.

There was a sulky little fire, its glowing embers bearing testimony to the fact that it hadn’t been tended for a while. Then beyond it Slim could just see the outline of a recumbent figure, lying on a bed roll, head on his saddle and sleeping deeply — Jess.

Slim walked quickly over and hunkered down by his friend, resting a hand gently on his chest and taking in the pale sweating brow and blood stained sleeve of his shirt. “Jess,” he whispered.

Then after a moment the long lashes fluttered and the deep blue eyes opened all at once, gazing intently up into Slim’s kind eyes. “You came,” Jess sighed.

“Sure I did. What did you expect?”

Jess looked thoughtful for a moment. “I dunno; yeah, I figured you would, but then old Slim might have thought twice about aiding and abetting a runaway.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve changed over the years,” said Slim with a self-depreciating smile. “Guess I don’t see things in black and white quite as much as I used to.”

Jess smiled. “Well, I’m glad of that, but don’t worry, I won’t impose upon your snowy white conscience too much, pard. Just patch me up and you can be on your way.” The twinkle in his eyes and grin took away the sting of the words.

Slim grinned back. “Oh no, you’re not getting rid of me that easy, Jess; I’m coming with you.”

Jess sat up at that. “The hell you are! I ain’t seeing you in trouble, Slim. Just clean up the wound, feed me and head on home.”

“Sorry, can’t do that, pard, and besides I’m getting mighty sick of you being the hero. ‘Brave Jess Harper did this and brave Jess Harper did that.’ Well, I’ll tell you I want some of the action this time. Maybe some of the glory too when we come back with that Walker gang and the money,” Slim said, now beaming down at his friend.

Jess sank back down on his saddle pillow, too weak to argue. “OK Slim, you win. Now will you put the coffee on? I’m gaggin’ for one.”

Later, after Jess had had his coffee fix, Slim went about cleaning up the knife wound. “This is real deep and painful, pard,” Slim said as he gently cleaned it up.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” was the sarcastic reply. “Hurts like hell, Slim, and you know what the worst of it is?”

Slim stopped his tending and looked down. “No, what’s that, Jess? “

“He slashed me with my own goddamn knife.”

Slim looked shocked. “He did?”

“Yep, my hunting knife. He found it in my boot when he arrested me and took it away. Then after the attack, I picked up the knife and it was mine. I figure he was gonna say I’d found bein’ confined all too much and had stabbed myself with my own knife… committed suicide. Can you believe that, Slim?”

The blond rancher shook his head. “It’s like you say, Jess, he’s real smart. He could have stabbed you last night and then just said he’d found you that way — killed yourself because you couldn’t hack jail, like you say, or you were guilty. Either way, he’d have got off Scott free and who’s going to question a Sheriff?”

“See what a devious bastard he is?” said Jess softly.

After a pause, Slim turned to his pard. “So where are we off to then, Jess? Lon seemed to think you knew where the Walkers where hiding out?”

“Yep, got a pretty good idea, thanks to Chas. See, he had a girl in Cheyenne, wanted to take her with them, but I reckon she weren’t convinced, so he went back to try and persuade her. The rest of the gang were holed up outside town. Then, according to Chas, after he was picked up they went on up towards Rawlins as previously arranged. There’s an old ghost town up in the hills. You know it? “

“Sure I do, but it’s a hell of a place to reach, Jess. All the old trails up there are gone now; it’s real tough terrain.”

“Well, I guess that’s why they chose it. Stop any lawmen snooping around unless they were real dedicated,” Jess said with a wink.

“Well, I reckon they don’t come much more dedicated than us,” said Slim with a grin. “Well, not with so much to lose anyway”.

“Us? “

“Yep, we’re partners, aren’t we, Jess? I need you to keep that old place back home ticking over, not to mention finishing painting the barn roof! “

“Oh yeah,” said Jess laughing. “Knew there’d be a catch.”

They settled down for the evening after Slim had provided a meal with the food he had brought with him. Then they lay by the fire, sipping a coffee liberally laced with spirit, and as Slim looked over at his pard, he saw a look of profound sadness in his deep blue eyes. He was way too quiet and looked to be brooding to Slim. “You OK, Jess?”

“Yeah, just thinking of them back home. Was Daisy upset? “

“Some, but she understood, I guess, and she’s going to explain to Mike. Hopefully, we’ll be home before too long, and Barney’s there keeping an eye on them and the business.”

“Good, that’s good.” Then Jess sighed deeply. “I wish I could have seen Millie before I lit out. That bastard told me he was going visiting.” Then his head shot up and his eyes narrowed, and he looked closely at his pard. “If he’s upset her any…”

Slim suddenly looked guiltily away, but not before Jess had seen the look in his eyes.

“What…what aren’t you telling me, Slim? Has that bastard been coming on to her?”

Slim was silent.

Then Jess looked really rattled. “Slim, will you just tell me for God’s sake!”

He sighed. “Take it easy, Jess; she’s OK. Just kind of shook up, I guess.”

“Go on.”

“Well, apparently Brady and that new guy, er…Soames? “

“Yeah, that’s it Percy, an old fuss pot, a real old woman.”

“Well I wouldn’t call him exactly that, Jess. It seems him and the Sheriff are on a mission to turn the saloon into a whore house.”

Jess went white. “What? But Tom’s always kept a good clean house. Hell, if a man wants that sorta thing, he goes to old Bawdy Bill’s place on the edge of town.”

“Um, that’s right, but seems Percy was trying to get the girls to do a little ‘business’.”

Jess looked infuriated at that. “What? Our girls — Millie and Lily, and the others too?”

“Yep, so they’ve walked out.”

“What? Lost their jobs, you mean. Hell, Millie will be furious. So what’s she done? Where is she, Slim? Is she OK?”

“Jess, will you just calm down? She’s fine. Apparently Brady was drunk; he went in and propositioned her, she whacked him across the face and then before Soames could fire her, she upped and quit, taking all the others with her.”

Jess just shook his head, but a small smile of admiration flitted across his handsome features. “That’s my girl,” he whispered.

“Anyway, she’s staying with her Ma in Cheyenne until Tom lands home; taken Lily with her. Rosie’s got a temporary job  at the mercantile, and young Lizzie has gone back to her folks ranch; says she’ll be back when Soames leaves too.”

Jess grinned now. “So who’s running the place?”

“A couple of prostitutes from Bill’s dive — Elsie and Madeline.”

Jess pulled a face. “Real classy ladies then,” he said sarcastically.

“Um, oh yeah, and old Ma Green’s serving drinks.”

“Ma Green? Hell, she must ninety if she’s a day.”

“And swears like a trooper,” Slim agreed. “There’s rough and then there’s Ma Green.”

Jess grinned at Slim’s uncharacteristic brutal honesty and figured it was the whiskey talking. “Well. good luck to him with that crew,” he said shaking his head in disbelief.

“Oh I reckon he’s going to need it. Apparently now he’s brought the working girls in, none of the self-respecting married men dare go near the place, and last I heard it was full of drifters and troublemakers. Tom will go mad when he gets back.”

Jess shook his head and chuckled. “Old Elsie and Madeline, eh. What do you know?”

“So you’ve frequented Bawdy Bill’s place then, have you, pard?” asked Slim with a twinkle and raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Nah. Well, not often; he waters down the beer.”

Slim grinned at that. “Well, I guess folk don’t go to Bawdy Bill’s place for the drink so much, Jess.”

“Well, you sure wouldn’t catch me in there lookin’ for anything else,” said Jess with a chuckle. Then he sobered. “So Mill, she is alright then, Slim?”

“Sure, pard, she’s fine. Sent her love and says she’ll see you as soon as she can,” said Slim kindly.

Jess just nodded and continued looking into the fire. “Can’t come soon enough for me,” he thought sadly, as he finally stretched out and settled down for the night. Then he suddenly remembered something. “Hey, I never told you. Last time I stayed over with Mill, I saw Lily and she said I was to especially say hello to you. I figure you’re really in there, you know, pard.”

Slim’s head shot up. “Well, why didn’t you tell me, say something before, Jess!”

“Well I’ve been kinda busy; had a few things on my mind you know. Sorry, pard.”

As ever, Jess was the master of the understatement, Slim thought. “Um, well, I guess it’s good to hear anyway,” said Slim, grinning broadly before settling down for the night himself.

They were up at first light, and although Slim thought Jess still looked kind of rough after his recent run in with the Sheriff, Jess insisted on getting on their way.

“Come on, Slim, sooner we go, sooner we can be back home. And besides, we’ve gotta go and fetch our women back from Cheyenne, ain’t we.”

Slim threw him a big grin at that. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

The weather had turned unseasonable hot, and so they paced themselves as they made for Rawlins across country, not wanting to be seen, or ‘out amongst the Willows’, as Jess referred to dodging the law.

 It still wasn’t sitting well with Jess, and he kept casting Slim the odd uncomfortable glance the further away from Sherman land they rode. “Still time to head on home, Slim; I won’t think any the less of you.”

“I know that.”

“Just don’t like to think of you getting on the wrong side of the law, Slim, you know?”

“Sure I do, Jess, but I’m doing it because I want to and if Brady is the law…well, I guess I want to be on the wrong side of it.”

Jess just gave him his shy smile and nodded and they rode on throughout the heat of the day, needing to get the miles behind them.

It was hard going, the terrain rough and very steep in parts, and after a while Jess looked down, saw how his horse was sweating, and after a moment turned to Slim. “How about we risk riding the road a while. It would sure be easier on the horses, quicker too, and we’re a long way from town now.”

Slim looked uncomfortable at that. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not? Stop your frettin’, pard Like I say, we’re miles from town now and nobody’s gonna be none the wiser. Anyone we meet is hardly likely to know I left the Sheriff locked up and hightailed it out of town, are they?” Jess said with his cheeky grin.

Slim reined in Alamo, and after taking off his hat and wiping his perspiring brow, he put it back on and said quietly, “Yes they are, Jess.”

“Huh? “

“He’s got Wanted posters out on you, Jess. Got ‘em printed the day you left; they’re all over town, wired to every Sheriff in the state and Brady had his men — well, drinking buddies — pin them up on every highway and byway for miles around.”

Jess threw him a shocked glance. “No kidding!” he spat angrily.

Slim just threw him an anxious glance, knowing the full force of the Harper temper would doubtless explode shortly.

“How much?” asked Jess.

“Huh?”

“So how much is the bounty on my head then?”

“$5,000.”

Jess gave a low whistle. “That much, eh. Hell, you could turn me in and buy that prize bull you’ve been hankering after,” he said with a bitter smile.

Slim looked amazed at that and then saw the irony in his pard’s eyes. “Aw Jess, don’t talk that way.”

Jess’s eyes narrowed and he looked at his pard with his clear blue gaze. “Hell Slim, do you think I want to see my face on a Wanted poster again? Makes me so goddamn mad. But it’s done and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it, except get on with things. No point in frettin about it; easier to make a crass joke, I reckon, because if I start ranting, no tellin’ when I’ll stop.” With that, he kneed Traveler on to a steady trot.

It was late afternoon and they were about to enter a deep canyon as they passed through the Medicine Bow mountain range when Jess reined in his mount and waited for Slim to catch up with him.

Slim stopped alongside and threw him a questioning look.

“Don’t turn around,” said Jess looking off to the horizon, “but we’ve been followed for the last couple of miles.”

“What! Are you sure?”

“Sure as I can be. Every time I’ve turned, he’s hung back; then when we changed direction a while back so did he. And why would a man be travelling up here when there’s a perfectly good road a mile away?”

“Well, you’ve got a point. So do you think it’s one of Brady’s men?”

“Nah, they ain’t got a brain cell amongst them; pickled them on the grog long ago. No, I figure it’s a bounty hunter.”

Slim gave him the ghost of a smile. “Your favorite two legged animal, eh, Jess?”

Jess nodded. “Yep. On a par with rats and cockroaches, only I find them a mite more appealin’.”

“So how do you want to play it”?

“We’ll carry on into the canyon, and then once we’ve gone a few hundred yards, I’ll jump ship and you carry on with the horses. It’s real narrow once you enter this gully and there’s a mess of bends so he’ll be able to hear the two horses but only one of ‘em will have a rider. I’ll be up on the rocks on the left of the canyon — get a real good view from there — and I’ll see him before he sees me. Then we’ll have a little chat; find out what his game is. Once I’ve got him in my sights, I’ll let off a shot and you can get yourself back, ok?”

“I guess; just be careful, though. If he’s a bounty hunter, he’s bound to have a few tricks up his sleeve. Watch out he doesn’t see you first.”

“He won’t; element of surprise, see. And anyway, I reckon as bounty hunters go, he ain’t too experienced, way he kept duckin’ behind the tree cover. Well, h was as obvious at the nose on your face. Nope, I reckon we’ve got us a real amateur, Slim.”

They followed through with Jess’s plan and once they were deep in the canyon and out of the bounty hunter’s line of vision, Jess slipped gracefully from the saddle, with Traveler barely slowing from his brisk trot. Slim took the reins, leading the horse onwards through the rocky enclave.

It took Jess no time to clamber up onto a rocky outcrop about six feet above and overlooking the narrow trail, and before too long, he heard a horse advancing.

He stood up straight, every inch of him alert eyes trained on the rocks below, rifle at the ready, and a minute later a rider appeared.

Within a split second, Jess had the rider in his sights and sent off a warning shot which had the mount rearing up and nearly unseating the bounty hunter who looked up fearfully in Jess’s direction.

To Jess ‘s great surprise, the newcomer made no attempt to retaliate, and as Jess jumped down and grabbed the horses bridle, the rifle still trained at the bounty hunters belly, he just stared  fearfully down at his adversary.

Jess was even more surprised when he saw how young the rider was, and gesturing with his gun, he said, “Get down and throw you weapon down.”

The youngster did as he was told and just stood there, shaking and looking alarmed.

Then Slim galloped up leading Traveler, looking anxious until he saw the prisoner and his face relaxed. “Hell, it’s just a kid,” he said to Jess.

“I ain’t; I’m nearly nineteen,” the youngster said stoutly, his fear almost forgotten as he angrily defended himself.

“That old, eh,” muttered Jess softly.

The boy then took his hat off and wiped his brow on his sleeve, and as he did so Slim gave a little gasp of recognition. “Heck you’re Burt Cole’s boy from up north of Laramie, aren’t you,” he said. “Dan… no Davy, Davy Cole, isn’t it?”

The boy flushed up at that, and looking down, just nodded.

“So what in hell are you doin’ following us then,” said Jess angrily. “You darned near got your head blowed off.”

“Take it easy, Jess; his Pa is a tough cookie but he’s not a bad man and I figure young Davy here doesn’t mean us any harm. Just cut him some slack huh?”

Jess just threw his pard a deadpan stare before looking back at the unkempt youth. “So looks like you’ve been roughing it,” said Jess slightly less irritably. “You been on the trail long?”

The youth nodded. “Yeah, a few days.”

“So what are you doing following us?” asked Jess again, beginning to regret wasting time on this unprepossessing youngster.

“Ain’t any law…” said the kid sulkily.

 Jess was beginning to lose patience now and then he suddenly saw a folded sheet of paper sticking out of the youth’s vest. Leaning forward, he grabbed it and shook the large piece of paper out, revealing a dog-eared wanted poster.

Jess stared down at his own face glaring back up at him for a good minute before pushing it at Slim. Then leaning forward, he grabbed hold of the youngster’s shirt front, and his eyes alight with fury, he growled, “So which is it to be, sonny? Are you gonna take me dead or alive?”

“Neither, I guess. I’m sorry, real sorry Mr. Harper.”

Jess’s eyebrows shot up at that and his eyes narrowed. “You know me…apart from that poster, that is?”

“Yep, well, your reputation anyway. I saw you once In a shoot-out in town. Some hombre took you on. Well, you-out drew him; never seen anything so doggone fast in my life, I was just a kid, but I’ve always remembered it.”

Jess was never much moved by people who were impressed by his fast gun; to him, it was a mere necessity for survival, and nothing to be proud of. He just shook his head sadly now and released his hold on the youngster, pushing him roughly away so he cannoned into his mount, but stayed upright, now peering into the ex-gunslingers deep blue eyes as if mesmerized. “So you thought it would be easy to take me in?”

“No, of course not. I had a plan.”

Jess just sighed deeply at that and turned away to tether his horse.

However Slim gave the youngster an encouraging smile. “So what was that, Davy?”

“I…well, I thought I’d wait until you were asleep and then I was going to creep into the camp and catch you unawares. I’ve even borrowed my old grand pappy’s handcuff’s to take the prisoner in,” Davy said, now opening up to the more easy going Slim. “He’s a retired law man, you know.”

Jess turned at that. “Well, I guess you must have been pretty desperate to think you could carry that one off,” he said with the hint of a smile now.

“Oh yeah, mister, I’m real desperate,” Davy confirmed. “Really need that bounty money.”

Slim shook his head. “Well, Davy, things can’t be that bad. Why don’t you just ask your Pa for the money if you’ve got yourself into debt or something?”

The youngster looked down at that. Oh, it’s worse than that, Mr. Sherman, much worse, and Pa will likely kill me when he finds out. He won’t be the only one as will want to kill me either; truth is, I’m scared, real scared!”

“Come on, boy, it can’t be that bad,” said Jess, thinking now that they really needed to be on their way and didn’t have time for all this youthful angst.

“How about your grandpappy then? The ex-Sheriff maybe he’d be more understanding,” said Jess. Then he looked very thoughtful. “Hang on, did you say you’re name was Cole? “

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Your grandpappy, he wouldn’t live over in Cheyenne would he? “

“Yeah.”

“It’s not Sheriff George Cole by any chance? “

“Yeah, that’s him. Why? Do you know him, Mr. Harper?”

“Yeah, I did a long time ago. We got to be friends, in the end that is.”

The boy looked puzzled for a minute. “So is it true what they’re saying, that you only overpowered that Sheriff Brady and lit out to try and bring the rest of the Walker Gang to justice and clear your name then?”

“Got it in one, boy,” said Jess, now regarding the youth in a more favorable light. “So if you believe what folk are saying, why did you try and pick up the bounty on me?”

The young man looked down at that. “I’m not proud of it, Mr. Harper, and now that I think about it, well, it was a crazy notion. But like I say, I’m really desperate.”

Slim looked at the troubled youngster and felt a wave of compassion for him. “Just tell us, son; it’ll help you know.”

The boy looked down and flushed scarlet before mumbling, “It’s my girl, Anna; she’s in the family way.”

Slim and Jess exchanged a shocked glance, thinking that the youngster was pretty much just a kid himself and realizing how hard that kind of responsibility would have hit him.

Jess was the first to recover. “Well, I guess it ain’t the end of the world, son; you’ll just have to up and marry her.”

“Oh I aim to, Mr. Harper, but we need to get away too. I need some money for the wagon train; we’re going to California.”

“Well, isn’t that rushing things a bit?” said Slim. “You need to have the baby arrive safely first and then plan for going west when you’ve got the cash.”

“No,” Davy cried now looking terribly troubled. “You don’t understand. If her Pa finds out, I guess he’ll kill me!”

“Well, sure he’ll be pretty mad,” agreed Jess, “but I figure as soon as he sees you’re gonna do the right thing, well, he’ll come around.”

The boy shook his head adamantly. “Nope, no, he won’t, Mr. Harper. You don’t know him, know what’s he’s like.”

“So who is this ogre?” asked Slim with a kind smile. “I’m sure he’s not that bad. Davy.”

The boy looked up and turned pale. “It’s Sheriff Brady; her Pa is Sheriff Brady.”

Jess’s eyes opened wide in shock. “You’re kidding? “

“No sir, I promise you I’m not.”

“But Anna, she’s back East with her Ma, ain’t she? “

“No, her Ma died a few years ago and Anna came back to live with my grandparents — Sheriff Cole, as you know him, and my grandmother. See, they were real close when Brady worked as grandfather’s deputy. It was grandpa who helped them move back east. He was like an uncle to young Anna, and then when he heard her Ma died and left her destitute, he went and fetched her back. Been living with my grandparents these last five years, up until a few months ago.”

“And that’s where you met her and fell in love?” asked Slim.

“Yes sir. I used to stay with them a lot, and although Anna is a few years older than me, well, we just clicked. She’s all I’ve ever wanted and we’re so happy, really want the baby too. But then Sheriff Brady landed in Laramie to cover for the Sheriff and I’m terrified at what he’ll do if he finds out.”

“Um,” said Jess with feeling, “I can sure see what you mean. I crossed him and I guess I’m still payin’ for it. God help anyone in your position.”

Slim cast his pard an irritated look. “That really doesn’t help much, Jess.”

“Just bein’ truthful.”

“Um, well anyway, so where is Anna now Davy?”

“Back in Cheyenne. She moved out of my grandparents place a while back. She runs a coffee shop with her friend Betty; they live over the shop. Well, it’s early days yet; she isn’t showing, so nobody but me and Betty know, but it’s only a matter of time.” Then he looked troubled. “And there is something else.”

“Go on,” said Jess, wondering when this tale of woe was going to end.

“Betty is her best friend, but she got mixed up with Chas Walker a few years back, wrote to him in prison and everything. Anyway once, he was released and she saw him again, she realized what a bad mistake she’d made and didn’t want anything more to do with him. Then a while back, he came looking for her; wanted to take her back to Texas but she refused, and then Brady came over. It was just good luck that Anna was out when he picked Chas up. You see, he could ride into Cheyenne and find her at any time. That’s why I need some money to take her away…urgently!”

Jess was having trouble assimilating all this new information. “So you sayin’ Anna and this ex of Chas’s are best buddies?”

“Yep. It was Anna made her see sense, see what a bad lot Chas Walker really is.”

Jess just took his hat off and scratched his head and then he motioned for Slim to move away out of earshot of the youngster. “A word, Slim.”

Five minutes later, the two cowboys returned.

“Right, I’ve got a plan,” said Jess, now actually smiling at the youngster. “Seein’ as I hate Brady’s guts and I’ve got kinda a soft spot for young Anna, here’s what we’re gonna do. Me and Slim are gonna bring in the rest of the Walker gang and the payroll, for which there is a hefty reward and Slim and I think it should go to you and Anna.”

“Oh, Mr. Harper…Mr. Sherman, I couldn’t. I mean, oh, thank you; it would save my life. I mean…”

“Hey, hold hard there; we ain’t got it yet and ain’t likely to either if we stand about here jawing much longer,” said Jess with a friendly grin.

“Well, can I ride along? Help?” asked the youngster eagerly.

Slim and Jess exchanged a quick glance and Jess shook his head almost imperceptibly; this was a hard enough call as it was without a wet-behind-the-ears youngster tagging along.

Slim threw the boy a friendly look. “Well, that’s mighty good of you to offer, Davy, but I guess you should be getting back to look out for your girl, and anyway, you won’t be much good to her if you get shot up.”

“Are you sure? I…”

“Yeah, we’re sure,” said Jess, quickly jumping up in the saddle. “You get yourself back to your girl and we’ll let you know as soon as we can help you out.” With a wave, he kneed Traveler off at a good pace before the youngster could argue, followed a moment later by Slim.

*****

It was early evening before they finally camped on the shore of a fast flowing river for the night and were able to sit and discuss the issues of the day.

“Well, that was sure strange,” said Jess as they sipped their coffee, resting by the evening camp fire. “Anna coming back west and then meeting up with Chas’s girl.”

“Um, I suppose so, but I guess they buddied up because they were both originally from Texas and then found themselves in Cheyenne. Like they say, it’s a small world.”

“Yeah, that makes sense, but what about everything else that’s happened? Just coincidence you think?”

“You mean like you riding shotgun that day, Chas deciding to hit that particular stage and then Sheriff Brady covering for Mort? Yep, all full of life’s little twists of fate,” said Slim, grinning at his pard.

Jess was silent for a long time. “Um, unless it wasn’t.”

“Huh?”

“Unless it wasn’t just a coincidence that Brady turned up in Laramie to cover for Mort and the stage got robbed. Maybe it’s all linked.”

“Jess, what are you talking about?”

“Just this. Maybe Sheriff Brady’s gone bad, and he’s in collusion with the Walkers. Took the job of acting Sheriff so that he could be around to make sure the gang weren’t apprehended.”

“But the robbery happened before Mort left.”

“Yeah, but only just before; Mort sent Lon out with the  posse, if you remember, and then the next thing, Lon’s fired,  Brady in sole charge. and the only person that could maybe track ‘em — me — he locks up in jail.”

“Yeah, but he’s got Chas banged up in jail too.”

“But don’t you see, Slim that could just be for show. For all we know, he could be planning on letting Chas go and then sharing the profits of the robbery. And it was that bastard Chas’s evidence that got me banged up, wasn’t it.”

“Um, well, it all sounds kind of farfetched, you know, Jess. I reckon you’ve had one bang on the head too many over the years. You’re getting real fanciful — and maybe there’s just a little bit of you that wants the Sheriff to turn bad like you say…huh, pard?”

Jess chuckled at that. “Well, maybe, but there’s one thing I am sure of. I aim to get that Walker gang tomorrow if it’s the last dang thing I do.” With that, they turned in for the night.

*****

The following morning, Jess and Slim were awake at first light and soon on their way for the last leg of the journey. And it proved to be the most difficult one too.

They had been riding for about an hour when Slim reined in and gestured to a track leading off to their left and winding its way up the mountain side. “That’s the original road up to the old mining town, and if there are any lookouts, I guess they’ll be posted somewhere along there.”

“So…. we go in the back door then? “

“Yep, I reckon,” said Slim. “There’s an old trail about another mile on that led up to the mine works and then  the town  is just beyond that, what’s left of it that is. Been abandoned for years”, he continued.

“You seem to know a lot about it?”

“Yeah, I visited on business once with my Pa years ago.” Then he turned to grin at his pard. “Gee, it was a wild old town in those days, Jess, full of saloons, gambling dens and wild, wild women,”  he  chortled.

“Sounds just my sorta place.”

“Yeah, well, the Sheriff sure had his work cut out. Shoot-outs nearly a daily occurrence and drunkenness. Yep, those old miners may have worked dang hard but they sure played hard too.”

“So you had some fun then? “

“Nope; like I said, I was with Pa and I’d only just turned sixteen. He couldn’t get me out of there quick enough — before I was corrupted, he said,” replied Slim with a grin.

Jess grinned back at that. “Guess it was too late for me by then. I was already corrupted; didn’t have a Pa to look out for me like you.” But whether Jess saw that as a benefit or not wasn’t clear.

Slim studied his pard for a minute; feeling amazed once again how two such different people, with such a diverse start in life could have become such close friends. Then he realized Jess was asking him something.

“So what do you think?”

“Huh, sorry. What, pard?”

Jess rolled his eyes. “I said, maybe it would be best to attack at night. If the place is completely abandoned like you say, I guess they’ll all be holed up in the same place — a saloon most likely.”

“Yeah, probably. So go on.”

“Well, in the dark, it’ll be easier to find out which one; it’ll be the only place lit up.”

“Good thinking. Yeah, you’re right, and if they’re anything like your pal Chas, they’ll have brought plenty of grog with them.”

“Yeah, and if they’ve been tipping the jug all night I guess they’ll be a might easier to take too.”

“So how many are there in the gang? “

“Four that I saw at the stage hold up — well, five with the bogus telegraph boy — but I figure maybe they just brought him in for the day and paid him off. But four members I knew. Then Chas is banged up, now so that leaves three I guess. “

They had reined in their mounts while they talked, and now Slim cast his pard an uncertain look. “Are you sure you’re OK with this, Jess? I know it isn’t easy for you betraying people from you past…old friends.”

Jess looked thoughtful for a moment and then shook his head. “Nope, don’t have any worries on that score, Slim. This lot ceased being friends the moment they were party to shooting down young Ginny in cold blood.”

“She was the bank teller?”

Jess nodded. “I know that was down to Chas’s brother, but they were all involved. Ad you know the worst of it. Slim?”

“Go on.”

“They didn’t give a damn; just didn’t care who they killed, what they did. Nope, I just wanna to get ‘em banged up where they belong and get the money back.”

Slim nodded. “OK. Well as I remember it, there is a small meadow just below the mine workings. We can leave the horses there and make the rest of the way up on foot. And as you say, we leave it late enough in the evening and I guess we can take them unawares.”

Jess was none too happy leaving Traveler and Alamo so far from the ghost town, but he knew it was the only sensible option. He finally unsaddled his horse and loosed him into the small meadow below the mine workings. “You behave yourself, old fellah,” he said fondly as he patted the animal’s neck, knowing that being left free to graze was better than being tethered in the town for goodness knows how long, and he finally turned back to Slim. “Come on, then, pard, let’s get this over with.”

A nasty wind had got up and the evening turned chilly, but there was a full moon and plenty of light to see by as they made their way up the steep trail past the mines and finally along the dusty old main street.

Both men stopped as they entered the town, and an involuntary shiver ran down Jess’s spine as he surveyed the decayed, abandoned place.

The wind had got brisker and was sending tumbleweed bales skittering down the street and made the old hotel sign creak eerily.

Both men were carrying their rifles and were alert and ready for anything.

Halfway along the street, Jess pulled his collar up against the now icy wind and his hat down hard. He exchanged a glance with Slim, who was looking equally cold and uncomfortable as the wind moaned up and down the alleyways, blowing dirt and dust into their faces.

“You think Chas was havin’ me on?” asked Jess. “This is just a goddamn wild goose chase?”

Slim shrugged, his eyes constantly scanning the street, and then he saw it, way down at the bottom — the glimpse of a light shining out of one of the saloon windows. He gestured with his head towards the dim light. “Well, I don’t know if it’s the Walker gang, but there’s surely someone abroad.”

They made their way cautiously down the street, keeping in the shadows of the old buildings, taking care not to stumble over the many loose boards of the timeworn sidewalk, until they finally made it to the only sign of life in the whole town. They stealthily crept up to the dilapidated building.

Peering through the grubby window, Jess was able to just make out three figures sitting around a table, a bottle between them, and every now and then he heard an explosion of raucous laughter as they shared yet another bawdy joke.

“You ready, pard?” whispered Jess raising a questioning black eyebrow.

Slim nodded.

“On three…”

They burst in through the batwing doors, rifles pointing at the three astounded men, and before they could rally, Jess yelled, “Take your weapons out and throw ‘em down here or by God I’ll blast your heads off.”

The shock of their unexpected entrance plus Jess’s brutal verbal attack made all three men react immediately as they jumped to their feet, ready to fight it out, but then saw that the two cowboys meant business, rifles aimed and a killer look in their eyes. Then, all that could be heard was the dull thud of the guns being thrown to the floor.

The tallest man, Frank Brewer, cussed loudly. “What in hell are you playing at, Harper? Who do you think you are…some goddamn lawman?”

“Nope, I’m just the goddamn sucker ridin’ shotgun when you robbed our stage, so I figure it’s my job to bring you and the money in,” said Jess scowling.

“Hey Jess boy,” said an older, genial looking man — Billy Walker, Chas’s cousin. “We go back a way, don’t we? Rode together. Surely you’re not serious about this. You just want a cut right?” he asked, trying a different take and throwing Jess an encouraging smile that encompassed Slim too.

Jess just ignored him, and casting a glance at the third man, young Denny Thomas, was just in time to see him reach inside his vest for a hidden derringer. But quick as a flash, Jess thrust his rifle into the outlaw’s belly, making him keel over, falling to his knees in pain.

Slim reached down and removed the offending weapon before throwing it behind him.

“Right. Walk over to the wall real slow with your hands behind you,” snarled Jess.

The men shuffled over to the far wall as requested, and while Jess kept them covered, Slim went about the task of tying their hands. He had completed the first man and was proceeding along the line when there was a sudden scream from out the back.

Both men turned to see a fourth man enter from the back room pushing a pretty dark girl in front of him and holding another red head tightly by the upper arm, all the time training his .45colt at the brunettes head.

Jess’s eyes widened in shock; it was the bogus telegraph boy, who hadn’t been paid off as Jess thought but was another gang member, he realized too late. Then as he peered across the gloomy, ill-lit room, he realized that the brunette was young Anna Brady, looking terrified, and he figured the red head was her friend Betty and Chas’s ex.

The telegraph man — aka Chalky White — gave Jess a hard look. “Hello, sucker. Looks like we’ve got the last laugh,” he smirked. “Now throw your weapons down, gentlemen.”

Jess and Slim exchanged a look before White shoved the gun closer to Anna’s temple. “Come on, do as I say or do I have to blow her brains out to make you see reason.”

Then Anna screamed hysterically and Jess reacted at once, throwing the rifle and his colt down quickly, as did Slim.

“OK, Ok, just leave her be will you!”

“Jess!” cried Anna, with a mixture of shock and relief.

White looked from Anna to Jess and back. “Ah… so you two know each other then?”

Jess just nodded and then growled. “You better hadn’t hurt her, mister. You’ve got our guns, now leave her be.”

Then the burley Frank Brewer strode forwards and said, “What have we here then? Some history between you two is there?”

Jess shook his head. “Just old friends is all.”

Frank gave Jess a nasty look. “You forget I know you of old, Jess boy, and I find it kinda hard to believe you know any woman as just a friend,” he spat, throwing Anna a licentious look.

“You don’t know me,” spat Jess. “You never did. Now just leave her alone like I say!”

Frank marched over to Jess and backslapped him hard across the face. Jess’s head snapping back and his eyes opened wide in shock before he went to retaliate, but Frank was too quick and he pushed his rifle in Jess’s ribs hard.

“Move a muscle and I’ll drop you here and now, in front of your girlfriend. So if you don’t want her to have nightmares for the rest of her life, I guess you’d better fly straight and behave yourself, Harper.”

Jess backed off but didn’t deign to reply.

Then Frank turned his attention to where Slim was standing looking on. “So where do you fit in. mister?”

Slim cast him a hard look. “Just along for the ride. I work for the Overland, same as Jess; we figured we’d try and get the money back.”

“You did, did you?” said the big man. “So anyone else out there we should know about? “

“Nope.”

Then Frank went over to where Chalky was still holding onto Betty with his gun trained on Anna, and pushing her hard towards Jess, said, “Is that right, Harper?”

“He said so, didn’t he?”

“Um.” Frank went over to peer outside as Anna inched her way over to Jess until he was able to take her trembling hand.

“You OK?” Jess whispered.

Then Frank turned quickly and marched back over. “And why shouldn’t she be? “

“No…no reason,” Jess stuttered, flushing slightly.

Frank peered at him closely and then harrumphed, before turning back to the gang. “So what do we do with these bastards?” he asked, addressing Denny and Billy.

Denny shrugged. “I guess they’re extra insurance. We get stopped on the way back to Texas, we can always use ‘em to negotiate with, maybe?”

“Um, maybe; might be more use than these darned hysterical women anyway,” said Billy.

Finally, they agreed that they would decide the newcomer’s fate in the morning, and Slim, Jess and the girls were unceremoniously bundled down a steep staircase to the cellar below the saloon for the night.

Anna was the last to come down the stairs, and Denny gave her a vicious push to hurry her along. She would have fallen badly if Jess hadn’t turned and caught her, holding her in his strong arms as she gave a little cry of distress.

Jess yelled at Denny but he merely cussed back before slamming the cellar door on them.

Jess continued to hold her for a minute longer feeling her trembling. “You OK, sweetheart?” he asked gently.

“I…I think so, yes, thank you.” She finally pulled away, blushing slightly and went to comfort Betty, who was crying softly.

Meanwhile, Slim had found an old lamp and lit it so they could at least see their squalid surroundings.

It was a small, low ceilinged cellar with empty beer kegs along one wall and a makeshift bed along the other, made out of a couple of straw mattresses and a couple of grubby blankets.

Slim looked around horrified. “Don’t tell me they’ve made you girls sleep down here?”

Betty, who now seemed to have recovered, gave him a grim smile. “It’s not so bad — better than the alternative, anyway.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Which was?”

“What do you think? They wanted…us to, well…” Then she looked down, suddenly shy. “Well, you know…”

 Jess cussed softly. “They didn’t… I mean, they haven’t hurt you, have they?” he asked, searching Anna’s face, his eyes full of concern.

“No,” she said quickly. “They tried it on at first, but they backed off when we started screaming and taking on, but then, Denny…well, he tried to force himself on me.”

Jess looked furious and exchanged a look with Slim, his fists balled and looking like he might well try and force his way out of the cellar to find Denny and pull him limb from limb.

However, Anna was suddenly aware of the effect her words had had on the young cowboy and she grabbed his arm pulling him towards her, looking earnestly up into his face. “No, it’s alright, Jess, really. Billy and Frank pulled him off and then they said we should sleep down here; said we’d be safer.”

Jess was still looking like the legendary Harper temper might well erupt at any moment, so Slim changed the subject quickly. “So I guess we should introduce ourselves properly,” he said, giving Betty a shy smile and he went on to explain the events of the last few weeks, starting with the stage robbery and then their involvement since.

Anna cast Jess an anguished glance at the end of their tale.

“It sure looks like Pa’s got it in for you, Jess. I remember what he was like all those years ago when I used to visit you in the cells. I don’t know what he’ll do to you when he finally arrives.”

Jess’s brows shot up at that. “Arrives? What here, you mean?”

“Yes; Betty and I heard them talking yesterday. Apparently Chas has told him that the gang had taken me  and Betty and he was real shocked; didn’t even know I’d moved back to live with Uncle George and Aunt Olivia. He went ape and said he was riding out and bringing Chas. Apparently he’s been in league with them all along, it seems; helped mastermind the whole robbery.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Slim, looking skeptical.

“The men have been talking, bragging about how the lawman has gone bad. Seems Pa lost his job in Texas again and it’s just a matter of time before he’s found out for what he is, so he figured he’d make some easy money. And when he found out you lived near Laramie, I guess that was the icing on the cake, Jess,” she said sadly.

Jess threw Slim a desperate look. “That’s just great, ain’t it. And I hate to say it, Slim, but I told you so, didn’t I,” he whispered.

*****

The sleeping arrangements were very basic and cramped, and after some discussion, the men settled down against one wall, taking one of the rough mattresses, but leaving the girls both blankets as it struck bitter cold in the dank stone cellar.

Jess and Slim chatted softly as the girls settled down for the night.

“So what in tarnation are we gonna do, Slim? Once Brady finds me, that’s curtains, pard. You know that, don’t you?”

Slim nodded. “I guess our hands are pretty much tied at the moment; we daren’t risk anything, Jess, in case the girls get hurt.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

Then with the hint of mischief in his eyes, Slim chuckled. “That Anna sure seemed pleased to see you again, pard.”

“Aw, shut up, Slim; she’s promised to Davy Cole. Hell, she’s carryin’ his baby or had you forgotten that?”

“Um, but it looks like maybe she has,”

“Slim!”

“OK, just kidding you. So have you got any ideas on escaping? Because I’m darned sure I haven’t.”

“Nope; guess I’ll sleep on it.” And in true Harper style, Jess lay down, closed his eyes and a few minutes later started snoring gently.

*****

The following morning they were rudely awakened by the cellar door slamming against the wall as someone above kicked it open, and then Frank was yelling at the men to ‘get their sorry asses’ up there.

Slim and Jess exchanged a glance before complying with the request, and on arrival at the top of the narrow stairs, were hustled roughly outside where they were frog-marched down the street to a large cabin on the edge of the ghost town. The gang were using it as a headquarters, and the area had obviously been used to house several horses, as it boasted a large plot with a corral out front and, beyond that, a small thicket of cottonwoods.

After the cowboys’ hands and feet were securely tied, they were thrown against the corral fence and tied to it with thick ropes. The early morning sun already hot on their heads as it beat relentlessly down out of a clear blue sky.

“What are you playin’ at,” complained Jess. “You could put us in the shade at least, and how about some food and water?”

“You’ll shut up, Harper, if you know what’s good for you,” spat Frank. “Some of us around here have got mighty long memories, and I for one ain’t forgotten how you double crossed Chas and the rest of us.”

“You know darned well why I did that,” said Jess equally angrily. “You stopped bein’ buddies when you went on a killing, raping and robbing fest — and you know it. And as for young Ginny, she didn’t deserve to die that way, gunned down at her place of work.”

“OK, OK, spare me the moralizing, Harper.” Then Frank turned his attention to Slim. “So what’s your gripe? Why are you involved Mister?”

Slim just threw him a dirty look. “Loyalty to a buddy and trying to fight for what’s right, but I guess you wouldn’t understand about that.”

Frank made an exasperated tsk noise and moved away, back into the cabin for his breakfast, the smell of frying bacon driving Jess mad.

“Can you smell that?” Jess asked, turning to Slim. “And I bet there’s hot biscuits and coffee to go with it.”

Slim shook his head in disbelief. “Do you never think of anything other than your belly?” he complained.

Jess considered that. “Sure I do. I think of women too — a lot.”

Slim just rolled his eyes to heaven. “Well, do you think you could get your mind off women and food and  concentrate it on  getting us out of this mess, before we end up fried like that bacon?” he said casting a glance at the red hot ball rising higher in the sky above  them.

Then after a moment Jess grinned at his pard. “Well, maybe I can help you out there, Slim.” He nodded towards his boot. “Guess they forgot I always carry a huntin’ knife in my boot!”

It took a lot of laborious work to cut through the thick ropes binding them to the corral fence post and then the ones binding their hands and feet, and the progress was impeded by the intermittent cursory surveillance by various members of the gang wandering over to check on them.

It was high noon before they were eventually free, and as fate would have it, just before they could make their move they were joined by all the gang members coming out onto the porch, pushing the women roughly in front of them.

“So feeling a mite warm?” asked Denny with a sneer.

That got Jess’s hackles up. He hadn’t forgotten the revelations of the night before and he’d promised himself the pleasure of knocking Denny Thomas into next week at the very first opportunity.

As it happened, that opportunity presented itself just a few minutes later, when the gang were sprawled out on the porch, swigging beer from bottles and generally laughing and joking.

The girls had been brought over from the saloon earlier and were now sitting a little way from the group of men, under a large pine tree, mid-way between the porch and the corral fence where Slim and Jess were just waiting to make their move as soon as the men were preoccupied.

Then it happened. Denny wandered away from  the main group and over to the girls, looking  down at where they sat  and started making lewd remarks to Anna, which she studiously ignored, turning  away from  him and  chatting quietly to Betty.

As soon as Denny had gotten up, Jess had tensed, and his deep blue eyes narrowed as he watched the tall rangy young man’s every move.

Then Denny made a tactical error; he moved in on Anna, pulling her up from where she was sitting on the little bench under the tree and into his arms and started trying to kiss her.

Jess was up in a flash, the ropes all now finally cut through, and launched himself at the tall man, sending him flying across the yard with a haymaker to the chin. Then Jess ran over to drag him up by his shirt front and punched him hard in the face again, the blood now pouring down the hapless outlaws face from a busted nose.

By now the gang had recovered from the initial shock of finding one of their prisoners free — and what’s more in fighting mode — and were standing back and enjoying the fracas, shouting Denny on and grimacing and booing when Jess threw yet another punch.

After a few minutes, though, it became obvious that Jess had the upper hand as Denny collapsed into a bleeding, shaking wreck in the dirt. However, Jess was on a roll and beside himself with fury; he was quite happy to continue bashing seven bells out of his adversary until he was eventually hauled off and restrained by the other three men.

All the time the fight had been going on, Slim had very slowly pulled himself up from the fence where he had been bound and started making his way stealthily across the yard towards the house where he could see a rifle laying across one of the old chairs on the porch. He reached his goal as all attention was still on Jess and Denny, and had the rifle in his hands when suddenly everyone was startled by a shot being fired. Sheriff Brady and Chas Walker ran around the side of the cabin, their rifles in their hands, glaring at the scene before them.

Still struggling and violently cussing, Jess’s head shot up as he took in  the new arrivals  and then his gaze fell on Slim, rifle  leveled and about to declare his hand and open fire on the gang.

“Drop it, Sherman,” snarled Brady pointing his rifle at the tall blond rancher while Chas ran forward and put his colt.45 to Jess’s head.

Slim immediately threw the recently-claimed rifle down and glared over at Chas. “OK, Ok, leave him alone,” he yelled.

Chas threw Jess an angry look before pushing him hard towards the other outlaws. “Tie him up and do it properly this time,” he spat, looking over to the frayed ropes by the corral fence where the men had been bound.

Then Brady glanced towards his daughter. “Anna, my dear,” he said icily, “it’s been a long time. Come and give your old Pa a kiss,” he said, advancing upon her, his whole demeanor threatening and cold, making a lie of the welcoming words.

Anna gave a little whimper of fear and immediately bolted towards Jess for protection, throwing herself into his arms.

The outlaws, who had loosened their hold on Jess once Chas’s colt was leveled at him, watched in surprise as Jess opened his arms to the now sobbing young woman, holding her close and casting Brady a challenging look.

Brady’s eyes opened wide in shock and then narrowed in fury. “How touching,” he said, his voice laden with sarcasm. “So if you would rather have the company of the likes of Harper over your own dear father,” he spat. “So be it.” Then turning to Frank, Brady said angrily, “Chuck ‘em down in the nearest cellar and leave ‘em there until my daughter sees sense.”

Marching across, Brady grabbed Anna roughly by the arm and dragged her from Jess’s embrace before viciously backhanding him across the face. “You took my daughter from me once before, Harper; you were responsible for her and her Ma leaving me. But this time she’ll be begging my forgiveness before I’ve finished with the pair of you.” Then he turned back to Frank. “Get them out of my sight,” he spat bitterly.

Jess was way beyond mad now. “They left you because of your abuse,” he shouted. “The poor kid was black and blue, and her Ma just as bad. The only thing that beats me is why in hell they didn’t ship out sooner.”

Brady  gave an almost primeval roar of rage at that and he lunged forward with his rifle, thrusting it hard into Jess’s belly, bringing him to his knees, before crashing the butt across the back of Jess’ head, knocking him senseless as he sprawled in the dust.

Anna gave a cry of horror and ran to him, falling down beside him and pulling his unconscious form into her arms. Slim also ran forward, but stopped in his tracks as the Sheriff turned on him.

Brady swung his rifle towards the blond rancher. “Hold it right there, Sherman, or you’ll get the same,” he spat. “Now get them out of my sight like I said,” Brady yelled. “And tie Sherman up good too.” He marched off towards the saloon.

Frank’s head shot up at that. “So what in hell’s going on, Chas? Who does he think he is, marching in here and acting like he owns the goddamn place? I thought he was just in for a share of the money and then he’d butt out.”

Chas threw his friend a troubled look. “Yeah, well, that was before he found out you’d taken Anna along with Betty, and then when he realized Harper was heading this way too…well, there was no stopping him.”

“So what does he aim to do? Like I said, the deal was he got a cut for making darn sure we weren’t apprehended. Our side of the bargain was you havin’ a spell in jail to make it look like he was on the case, then you were supposed to allegedly bust out and we’d wire him the money as promised.”

“Yeah, well things have changed,” said Chas, looking over to where Betty was looking anxious and tearful. “I guess something’s don’t change, though,” he said dolefully. “My girl don’t seem no more pleased to see me than Anna does her Pa.”

Then Chas noticed Slim still standing there taking everything in. “Get rid of the cowboy; go tie him up,” he said, yelling across to Billy. “And then once we’ve got Harper and Anna locked up, I figure we all need to sit down and talk things, through. I’ve a feeling Sheriff Brady might be a whole parcel of trouble.”

*****

When Jess woke up, he was lying on a cold stone floor in a pool of his own blood.

He groaned and tried to lift his head up, but fell back again as a searing pain shot through his skull and neck.

“Jess,” came a small voice from nearby in the semi dark dungeon, “are you awake?”

He groaned again softly and then tried to pull himself together. “Yeah, I’m awake. That you, Anna?” Then he felt her move closer, a gentle hand caressing his face and then brushing his hair back.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “Are you hurting bad? “

“I’ll survive,” Jess said softly. Then more urgently, he asked, “Anna are you OK?”

“Fine; just cold and scared, I guess.”

Jess gradually dragged himself up into a sitting position and rested back against the cellar wall, breathing deeply as a wave of nausea hit him. He allowed his eyes to gradually accommodate to the dim light, and after a moment, he was able to make out Anna’s pale anxious face close to him. “Come here,” he said, opening his arms and she crawled closer so that she was nestled in his warm embrace. He could feel her trembling and her warm breath on his cheek. “It’s Ok,” he whispered, “we’ll get out of this, I promise you. Don’t fret, sweetheart.”

She gave a little sigh at that.

“What is it?” Jess whispered, peering at her through the faint light filtering in through a grubby window above their heads.

“You used to call me that when you were banged up in Pa’s jail back in Texas, when I came and sat with you, odd times Pa was out. ‘How are you doin’, sweetheart,’ you used to say. and it fair took my breath away.”

Jess gave a low chuckle at that. “Really?”

“Yes. You see, nobody had ever…well, talked to me that way before. You made me feel special, grown up, like I could do anything, I guess…even stand up to Pa.”

“Well, you were real special,” Jess said gently. “You were a lovely, caring kid, and I appreciated everything you did for me back then.”

Anna gave a little gasp. “A kid! Is that how you thought of me, Jess?”

He squinted across at her. “Well, I guess so. You were just fourteen, weren’t you?”

She again caressed his face gently. “I’m not now, though, am I, Jess? I’m not a kid now.” She moved closer, and leaning in, brushed his lips very gently with her own.

He kissed her back for a brief moment — that being second nature to Jess — and then he suddenly realized what he was doing. He pulled quickly back. “Whoa there, Anna. What are you doin’?”

“I…I don’t know. It was just so good to see you and all those old feelings came flooding back — the way I felt back then. I…was in love, I guess; you were my first love, Jess. And now, just in this short time, you’ve been so attentive. I thought, well, you were interested in me…maybe?”

Jess shook his head. “Look, sweetheart, you’ve got it all wrong. I’ve just been tryin’ to look out for you, keep you safe, especially as…” His gaze dropped down to her slightly rounded belly, but he said no more.

She followed his gaze and then looked up into the deep blue eyes. “You know! Oh God, you know, don’t you, Jess?”

“About the baby? Yep, and Davy Cole too. He really cares about you, you know, Anna.”

“Davy,” she said, her head shooting up. She grabbed his arm painfully. “You’ve seen Davy. Is he alright?”

“Yeah, he’s fine; was heading back to Cheyenne, thinking to visit you last I saw of him.”

She gave a little gasp and then a sob, and he held her closer, caressing her hair gently. “Hey, it’s OK.”

“I feel so bad. Here’s me flirting with you and Davy’s out there probably worried sick about me.”

“Well, by now I figure someone will have missed you and Betty. He’ll get on to the law; he knows where we were heading. It’s just a matter of time, Anna. We’ve just gotta sit it out until help comes.”

“Yes, you’re right. And Jess, I feel so ashamed; I don’t know what came over me.”

“Hush, it’s OK,” Jess said, still holding her protectively. “I guess it goes with the territory. I’ve heard tell pregnant ladies go a little crazy sometimes, get strange notions.”

She giggled at that and punched his arm gently. “Did anyone ever tell you that you are a very nice man, Jess Harper?”

“One or two,” he said, grinning down at her, glad the atmosphere had lightened between them.

They were left down in the cellar for the rest of the day and night and clung together for warmth, the temperature having dropped alarmingly once night fell.

Poor Anna was practically faint with hunger, eating for two the way she was, and terribly thirsty as well, whereas Jess felt more and more nauseated and dizzy as time wore on.

When the first light of dawn finally filtered through the small window, Anna awoke to find herself held in Jess’s warm embrace and slowly disentangled herself so that she could look at him and was shocked by what she saw.

As the sunlight began to shine in, she was able to see him properly for the first time since they had been incarcerated. “Jess, you look awful.”

Jess drew his knees up, and with elbows on his knees, sank his head into his hands as yet another wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. “I’m OK,” he muttered. “Just a mite dizzy.”

Then as he had rested his head in his hands, Anne was able to see the laceration to the back of his skull where her Pa had hit him with the rifle butt, dried blood staining the back of his shirt. “Jess, you’ve been bleeding and you’ve a nasty gash on your head,” she said. “No wonder you’re feeling so bad.

“I’m OK,” Jess said, forcing a weak grin. “Guess I’ll just rest up some. Not like I’ve gotten anything taxing to do is it? “

But  before she could answer, there was the  scraping noise of the heavy cellar door being pulled back, and  then moments later, rough hands where dragging them  up and frog-marching them  up the stairs.

They stood blinking in the bright morning light as they were once more escorted to the gang headquarters by Denny and Frank. Then they unceremoniously thrown down beside the corral fence, where Slim was already tied.

Slim gave a harsh gasp when he saw Jess looking as white as a sheet, the back of his blue work shirt stained with dark blood, and Anna looking pale and fragile. He opened his mouth to ask if they were alright, but then Brady was suddenly amongst them waving his rifle threateningly.

“No talking; button it Sherman or I’ll gag you.” Then Brady hunkered down so that he was on eye level with Anna and Jess, lying against the corral fence where they had been brutally thrown by Frank. “So, did you have a good night, my dear?” he asked sarcastically.

Her eyes were wide in terror and she was unable to answer.

This seemed to incense the Sheriff. “I asked you a question!” he bellowed.

“Leave her alone, Brady; you can see the kids scared shitless.”

“Shut your filthy mouth, Harper. I’ll deal with you in a minute.” Then Brady asked her again, fixing her with an intimidating stare.

“No… no I didn’t Pa. I was hungry and cold and Jess is hurt. Please have his wound tended to. Please Pa,” she whispered.

Brady gave a sneering smile at this. “Oh no, I don’t think so, my dear. You see, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble as Mr. Harper doesn’t have long to live.”

Her head jerked up at this and she looked her father in the eye for the first time. “No!” Ann screamed. “No, Pa, please. I’ll do anything, come back to live with you, but don’t hurt him please!”

Brady gave a malevolent laugh to that. “How very touching, my dear. I had no idea you held Harper in such high esteem.” Then he turned his menacing glare on Jess. “And what do you have to say, Harper? Are you equally concerned as to your fate?”

Jess deliberately misunderstood the question. “I’m real concerned about your daughter, Brady. For God’s sake, man, will you look after her? She hasn’t had a drink or food in hours and…”

“Shut it, Harper; that wasn’t what I meant and you know it. Now just you leave my daughter for me to worry about.” With that, Brady signaled for Frank and Denny to pull the prisoner up and drag him over to a large stake that had been erected in the center of the yard.

The stake was in the shape of a huge cross and they tied his hands up to the tee bar going across; his legs and chest were also tightly bound to the stake so that he couldn’t move a muscle. In fact, it was the tight bindings that were holding him up because he had no strength to support himself by this point. Then as the sun rose in a relentlessly blue sky and its heat beat down on his head, he began to feel even more sick and light-headed.

Slim protested long and loud, but just received a crashing backhander from Frank and the promised gag. On seeing this and Jess’s ill-treatment, Anna dissolved into helpless weeping.

Brady ignored his daughter’s distress and marched off for breakfast, leaving Frank and Denny guarding the prisoners.

The two outlaws sat down on the bench in the shade under the huge pine, Denny chewing on a match and looking moodily over at where Jess was staked out. “So how long have we got to hang around here?” he spat. “Should have been long gone by now”.

“Well you heard what Chas said at the meeting last night. Just long enough for Brady to get his revenge on Harper.”

“Well that shouldn’t take too long by the state of him,” snorted Denny. “So then what?”

“Looks like Brady is gonna ride with us back to Texas. Given up all pretence of bein’ a lawman; decided to take his chance and throw his lot in with us,” replied Frank, looking far from happy.

“We should be heading off. What’s gonna happen when the good folk of Laramie find their Sheriff is missing?” asked Denny, looking anxious.

“Well, that’s where Brady is kinda smart. Let Chas out and then made as though he’d escaped and the good Sheriff was off trailing him. That should keep everyone in town in the dark for a good while. By the time they realize the Sheriff’s gone for good, we’ll be half way home — all that’s going, that is,” Frank said, casting a bitter smile in Jess’s direction.

“What about the women folk?” asked Denny thoughtfully.

“Chas reckons there’s no going back with Betty, not after the way she was last night. But I guess the sucker really cares about her; says he’s going to drop her off some place safe on the way back.”

“And so what about Anna then?”

“Brady’s keeping’ her close; reckons she’ll fall back into line once he gets to discipline her…as he calls it.”

“So Harper was right? He does beat her then?”

“Looks that way. Anyway, what’s it to you?”

Denny fell silent his ferrety eyes just looking out to the horizon.

Frank gave a low whistle. “Don’t even think of goin’ there, buddy. Anyone as messes with his little girl is in big trouble. You want proof, look no further that that sucker,” he said, gesturing to where Jess was sweating in the relentless heat of the day, the only thing supporting him the ropes, now digging painfully into his flesh.

Anna had now recovered her composure and was edging her way across the yard towards where Jess was, her eyes casting troubled glances back to where Denny and Frank were still in deep conversation.

They had been told not to tie Anna to the fence, but allow her a little freedom as long as her hands were tied, and so now, she reached Jess and gave a harsh gasp at his sickly appearance.

Anna thought at first that he was unconscious as his head was drooping down on his chest,  his eyes closed, but then he seemed to sense her presence and lifted his head, his deep blue eyes flicking open as he regard her with  concern.

“Are you OK, sweetheart?” Jess asked at once, his voice deep and gravelly with the lack of water, his mouth so dry he could barely form the words.

“I am, yes, but you, Jess…”

He shook his head dismissing her worries. “Slim — is he OK? He’s kinda quiet.”

Anna nodded, gesturing to the corral fence where Slim was eyeing them anxiously. “He’s OK, but they’ve gagged him.”

“Has he had some food and water? “

“Yes…at least I think so.”

“What about you?” Jess asked again, his eyes searching her face. “You need to look after yourself. It can’t be good for…” He dropped his eyes and then looked back into her pale face. “It can’t be good for the baby, Anna.”

“I know,” she whispered, “but what can I do?”

“I dunno,” Jess said, his face looking drawn and anxious. “Pretend to faint or something. Hell, he’s you Pa, ain’t he; he should be looking out for you.”

“You don’t know him,” she muttered. “He doesn’t give a damn about me; I’m just another possession as far as he’s concerned.”

Jess thought his Pa just about took the biscuit when it came to lack of parental love and care, but he figured Brady even surmounted him. “What…well, what if he knew you were pregnant. Surely then he’d take care of you?”

She looked uncertain, remembering briefly how her Ma had said it was the only time he had actually acted like a proper husband. But then the circumstances were different and maybe he’d just get even more angry with her — she just didn’t know.

But before she could reply, they were interrupted by loud voices and laughter coming from the cabin, and then Brady, Chas and Billy joined the others out in the yard.

As soon as Sheriff Brady saw his daughter beside Jess, he marched over, his eyes dark with rage, and grabbing hold of her, he roughly pushed her away. “I might know you’d be sucking up to that bastard, Harper. You always were mooning around him, even as a kid, drivin’ him mad with your childish crush, no doubt,” he said nastily. “Think I didn’t notice eh? “

“Pa, that isn’t true,” Anna said, suddenly angry. “Look at him; look what you’ve done. Just let him go. He’s done no wrong.”

“No wrong!” bellowed Brady looking incensed. “Why, it’s down to him that my life has been Hell, the reason you and your Ma left me.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Anna screamed, now looking as angry as her Pa. “That was your fault, all yours!”

“Get out of my sight,” Brady snarled, pushing her hard so she tripped and fell heavily.

That was suddenly too much for Jess, and he strained at his bindings, cussing loudly. “For God’s sake, man, she’s pregnant. Your daughter’s havin’ a baby. You gotta look after her!”

Brady stood stock still, his head shooting up as though he’d been physically hit, and he just stared at Jess for a full minute before turning his full wrath on his hapless daughter. “Why you little tramp,” he roared. “So come on. Who’s the goddam father? “

She said nothing, just lay where she had fallen, one hand protectively across her belly, her eyes cast down, all the anger suddenly drained from her as she had this new fear for her unborn child.

Then Brady turned back to Jess. “Of course; I should have known. It’s Harper, isn’t it?” he sneered.

“No, no, of course not. Are you crazy?” Anna replied, casting Jess a horrified look, wondering what her father’s next move would be.

Brady waved her denials aside contemptuously. “Don’t waste your breath, my dear,” he said suddenly icily calm as he advanced on Jess and leaned in close. “Well, Harper?”

Jess looked down and said nothing. What was the point of protesting, telling Brady that the first time he’d clapped eyes on his daughter since she  was a kid  was a few short hours ago?

Then Brady’s temper seemed to flare again and he spun around to where Anna had now gotten hesitantly to her feet, and backslapped her hard across the face, sending her reeling again. “Tell me,” he bellowed, “just tell me!”

But before she could answer, Jess yelled at the brutal man. ”Yes! It’s me, Brady; I’m the father. Just leave her alone, for God’s sake!” He knew he had to deflect Brady’s attention from Anna before his anger overwhelmed him and he struck her so hard he killed her and her baby.

As Jess had hoped, the Sheriff turned his attention from his daughter back to him.

Sheriff Brady face was a study of pain mixed with fury, and he just glared at Jess, unable to find the words.

Jess returned the stare, then something made him look down, and in Brady’s hands, he saw it — a coiled bull whip.

Jess’ mouth went even drier and a sweat broke out down his back and he felt a shudder of horror. His worst nightmare was returning to haunt him.

“Frank, Chas, turn the prisoner and remove his shirt. Twenty lashes is the punishment for desertion of duty; this soldier has been AWOL.” When nobody moved, Brady turned and glared at the outlaws. “Come on, men, jump to it.”

Chas and Frank exchanged looks, really wanting no part of this bizarre turn of events.

“What you talking about,” asked Frank wandering over. “He ain’t no soldier, Sheriff.”

“Are you defying an officer?” asked Brady, now turning his rifle on Frank and Chas who had come to join him.

“I guess we’d better do as he says,” muttered Chas. “I reckon the guys plumb loco. This business with Anna’s addled his darn brain.”

“Stop talking in the ranks,” shouted the Sheriff, “and do as your told or face the consequences.” He had a wild look in his eye and the rifle again turned in their direction.

The men came forward and released the ropes binding Jess to the stake. Jess shouted out as his arms came down from where they’d been suspended above his head, the pain as the blood started circulating again agonizing.

Then supporting Jess, as he was completely unable to stand on his own, the outlaws unbuttoned his shirt and removed it before tying him back to the stake, but this time with his back to them.

Then Brady unfurled the whip, a light akin to madness in his eyes.

Chas stood back, looking alarmed by the Sheriff’s whole demeanor. “What’re you gonna do?” he murmured.

Brady glanced briefly at him. “What I should have done last time I had the bastard. Kill him, of course,” he said before turning back to his victim.

All the time this had been happening, Anna had very slowly backed off, making her way across the yard to where Slim was watching the unfolding drama with horrified eyes above the filthy kerchief that was gagging his mouth.

She finally reached him, and after checking that the whole gang was now standing transfixed as Brady raised his arm to deliver the first stroke, she quickly unknotted the gag, just as the first lash of the whip hit its mark with a sickening cracking sound.

“Noooo!” screamed Slim. “Stop him, for God’s sake. Someone stop the lunatic!” he said, wrestling with the ties that still bound him securely to the fence.

But nobody reacted, almost mesmerized as they were by the events unfolding before them.

All the time Anna had been looking around desperately for some source of help, and then finally her eyes rested on a flint arrow head lying in the dirt a few feet into the corral. Within seconds, she had ducked under the fence and grabbed it before turning back and collapsing down beside Slim and thrusting it into his awaiting hands.

All the time Slim could hear the punishing cracks of the whip as it lashed down, seemingly with renewed vigor at every new stroke. He desperately tried to switch off from his best friend’s suffering and concentrate on what he was doing as he ran the razor sharp arrow head against the ropes securing Anna’s wrists.

It was all done in a matter of seconds and then she quickly did the same for Slim. Moments later, he was massaging life back into his numb arms.

Slim had meant to think his attack through, to back off and try and find a firearm in the barn or cabin maybe, but suddenly all his plans went out of the window as yet another brutal whiplash hit home, and for the first time Jess screamed out in torment.

Slim could bear it no longer and he hurled himself across the yard, reaching the big man in seconds. Ignoring the outlaw band, which seemed to have been hypnotized as they just watched the barbaric act, he elbowed his way past. Then grabbing hold of the arm wielding the whip, he dragged Brady around to face him before punching him hard on the chin, the older man losing his footing and staggering for a moment.

Brady quickly recovered, and raising the whip, lashed out at Slim, catching him a painful blow to the cheek, blood pouring down his face instantly. But if anything, that just made Slim madder as he tore across the yard and threw another punch at the Sheriff.

This time, however, Brady staggered and fell, but scrabbled up again and immediately drew his gun. “That’s enough, Sherman. Now back off or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

Then suddenly a lone shot rang out and everyone in the yard turned, as one man, to face a group of men striding out of the cotton wood copse just adjacent to the corral.

A familiar stern voice cried out, “Drop your weapon, Sheriff Brady; it’s over.” Mort Corey stood there flanked by Lon, his deputy, ex-Sheriff George Coles and his grandson Davy, all of them leveling rifles at the Sheriff and members of the Walker gang.

The gang, who were no fools, knew when they were beaten and dropped their guns to the ground immediately, but Brady turned away and leveled his colt at Jess’s bleeding, shaking back and cocked the trigger. “I don’t think so, Corey,” he spat.

As quick as a flash, Anna had dived for the gun Chas had thrown down immediately in front of her, and just a split second before her father discharged his weapon, she shot him in the back. He fell like a stone, the shot aimed at Jess going wide by several inches.

Then all hell broke loose. The gang were roughly handcuffed and led away by Lon and George Coles, whereas Davy made a beeline for his girl, who had fallen to her knees and was now shaking and sobbing with shock at what had happened and the part she had played.

Mort and Slim made for Jess and very gently cut him free, Slim catching him in his arms as he fell. almost gagging at the bloody bands covering much of his back. His pard had received over a dozen lashes before the proceedings had been brought to their dramatic close.

Slim supported Jess to a sitting position, not wanting to lay him down on his wounded back, and exchanged an anguished look with the Sheriff. “Thank God you made it just in the nick of time, Mort,” he said with feeling. Then he turned to look at his pard, who he thought was unconscious, but after a moment the long eyelashes flickered and then his eyes opened and Jess looked straight at Slim.

“Is he dead?” Jess whispered.

Slim nodded and patted his shoulder gently. “Yep, very.”

Jess gave a deep sigh of relief and instantly passed out.

*****

Mort helped Slim carry Jess into the bunkhouse, adjacent to the cabin that the gang had been using. He quickly commandeered one of the cots and laid Jess gently down on his side before they surveyed the damage in shocked silence.

“Oh pard, you’re a mess,” whispered Slim, looking down at the blood seeping from the numerous whip wounds to his back and then the recent blow to his skull from Brady’s rifle butt, still looking raw and painful as well.

Mort was the first to pull himself together. “Go get the medical supplies from my saddle bags, Slim. I’ll put some water on the stove to heat up. He’ll feel a mite better once we’ve cleaned him up some and dressed the wounds, and we’d better patch you up too, pal. That’s a nasty gash to your face there. Gee, that guy sure was a vicious bastard.”

Slim looked up at him with unseeing eyes for a moment before nodding and putting a hand up to his smarting cheek. Then after one more concerned glance at his partner, he went off to get the medical supplies.

Jess came round halfway through Slim and Mort tending to him and asked  for water, but brought it back up again a few minutes later as the pain of Slim cleaning out the raw wounds made him retch and yell out in agony at one stage, which was so unlike Jess that Slim knew he was really suffering.

“I’m sorry, pard,” Slim muttered, “But I’ve got to clean your back real good with this spirit, else you’ll get an infection and then…” But the unsaid words hung in the air between them, both knowing that there was a high fatality rate after a flogging of this magnitude and usually from an infection.

Jess was lying on his belly and now he buried his face in the crook of his arm. “Go on, Slim, get on with it,” he growled. “Just ignore me. It’s OK.”

Mort and Slim again exchanged a hopeless glance, hating to see their friend suffer this way, but Slim took a deep breath and finally finished the task.

Jess had been slipping in and out of consciousness, but once the task was completed he seemed to rally a little. “Is Anna OK?” he asked Slim.

“Yep; well, as far as I know. Davy and Betty are looking after her. You want me to go check?”

Jess nodded. “And the others. You’re sure Brady’s dead, ain’t you, Slim. You ain’t just saying it?”

Slim leaned over and squeezed his shoulder gently, and Jess looked up anxiously from where he was now laying on his side, his wounds bound with clean bandages. “Really, pard; I promise you. Now will you be OK if me and Mort go and talk to Sheriff Cole and check on Anna?”

“Sure, I’ll be fine,” Jess whispered, and as his eyes closed, Slim reckoned he’d be asleep before they even reached the door.

*****

It was noon the following day before they spoke again, as Jess was out of it for the rest of the day and night. It was late morning before he finally awoke and Slim heard him calling out and ran in to check on him.

“How are you feeling, pard?” Slim asked anxiously.

Jess took a deep breath and then gave Slim his shy smile. “Like I’ve been beaten half to death by a mad man.”

“Yeah, well, by all accounts, that isn’t too far from the truth, Jess. We all heard him sounding off like he was back in the Army, treating the gang like troopers and you a soldier gone AWOL. I figure he’s been pretty near crazy all along.”

“Um, and I reckon it was me spillin’ the beans about Anna carryin’ a child and then sayin’ it were mine was the last straw for him. Kinda tipped him over the edge into insanity, I guess.”

Slim nodded in agreement. “So why did you say that, Jess? You must have known he’d go ape, way he felt about you.”

Jess sighed deeply. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. I just wanted to get him off of Anna’s back. So how is she anyway? You were gonna check and tell me.”

“Well, I did, pard, but you’ve been out of it for hours, you know.”

Jess gingerly pulled himself up in the bed and Slim helped him, putting a pillow to his back to support him.

“Guess I’ve missed breakfast then?” Jess said sadly.

Slim sat down on the edge of the bed and grinned. “Last night’s supper and breakfast, but I could put in an order for dinner,” he said with a chuckle, glad to see his pard was feeling a little better.

“So what’s been happening?”

“Well George Cole, Davy and Lon have taken the prisoners back to Laramie, and they’ll stand trial for the stage robbery. George was real sorry not to get to speak to you; say’s you’re to call in on him next time you’re in Cheyenne.”

“I’ll do that. And Anna?”

Slim looked down. “Well, she’s not too good, Jess. That fall…”

Jess sat up straight, looking worried. “The baby? Hell, she’s gonna be OK, ain’t she, Slim?”

“I think so, yes. Betty was a nurse before she opened the café with Anna and thinks she should be fine, but she needs to rest up a few days. So Mort stayed back to help look out for the women folk, help us get ‘em safely back when everyone is fit to ride — including you, Jess. You need to take it real easy too you know.”

“Davy went and left her?”

“Well, she insisted. Said he was fussing way too much, and I figure she wanted him to back up Sheriff Cole too. He’s not getting any younger.”

Jess shook his head. “Mort should have gone too; we could look out for the girls.”

“Jess, you were real sick yesterday and Mort said he wanted to stay here and help me out. Besides…”

“Besides what, Slim?”

“Well there is that little matter of you jumping ship, leaving Brady locked in his own jail. I figure he’ll want to talk to you about that.”

“Oh yeah, that…” said Jess looking sheepish.

“He’s out fetching the horses back right now, but he’ll catch you later.”

“That’s swell; I’ve been worryin’ about ol’ Trav”.

“And don’t I know it.”

“Huh?”

“You nearly drove me and Mort crazy last night. You were having a bad dream and kept callin’ out for your darned horse.”

Jess grinned at that. “Well, you know he’s the most important critter in my life. Well, the only one that don’t answer back anyway,” he said with a tired grin.

“You get some rest, pard; I’ll wake you when it’s feeding time!”

However, when Slim returned an hour or so later to tell Jess grub was up, he couldn’t raise him as he seemed to be either deeply asleep or unconscious again. He looked down at his pard and felt a stab of fear in his guts. Jess was sweating profusely, his black curls stuck to his forehead and his breathing rapid and shallow. Slim put the tray down on the floor and ran from the room, returning a few minutes later with Betty.

Betty sat down carefully on the edge of the bunk and took his pulse, all the time searching the pale drawn face for clues to the cause of this relapse. Then she very gently removed the bandages with Slim’s help and recoiled slightly at what she saw — several of the wounds infected, looking red and angry.

Slim cussed under his breath. “This is all my fault,” he said in anguish, but Betty threw him a sympathetic look.

“No, it isn’t really. I’m sure you cleaned the wounds as well as possible. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I should have helped you, but Anna was in such a state I really couldn’t leave her.”

“No, of course not. So he will be OK, won’t he, Betty? What can we do? “

Betty looked deeply troubled for a moment and then took a deep breath. “Yes I’m sure he will, but he’ll need careful nursing, and to be honest we aren’t exactly in the ideal place here,” she said, casting a glance around the dirty decaying old bunkhouse.

“I reckon it’s the best we can do,” said Slim apologetically.

“Yes, the cabin where Anna and I are camped out is no better. Well, it’s decades since the place has been lived in. What can we expect? “

Then their conversation was cut short by Jess groaning; his eyes opened and he looked around him, appearing to have some difficulty in focusing on anything.

“Jess, are you Ok, pard?” asked Slim softly.

Jess stared at him for a moment as though he was a complete stranger and then seemed to come to properly. “S…Slim, I…” Then he had to stop as he was gasping for breath.

“It’s ok; take it easy, pard. Betty here is a nurse. So how are you feeling?”

“Kinda sick and dizzy and I can’t seem to….” Jess stopped and then tried again. “Can’t seem to get my breath.”

Betty looked concerned at that. “Help me sit him up, Slim,” she said quickly. Then more reassuringly, she said to Jess, “Just try and relax and breathe real slow and deep, OK.”

He nodded and tried hard to do as she said, but he was still panting, his breaths coming in ragged gasps and his eyes opening wide in fear as he cast an agonized look at Slim.

Betty continued to talk quietly to him, gently rubbing his chest, and after a while, he relaxed a little and the breathing became slightly easier and the dreadful blue color around his lips slowly faded.

“Can you go fetch some cool water and a basin and cloth? You’ll find all the stuff over in the cabin,” Betty said, turning anxious eyes on Slim. When he returned, she started to swab Jess down with the cool water, but Slim could see his heart was still pounding and his sweat soaking the bedding.

After a while, Betty turned back to Slim and gestured they should go outside for a moment. He nodded and then turned to Jess. “Be back in a moment, pard; going to get you a cold drink.”

Jess just nodded, but didn’t open his eyes which had been tightly closed for a while, his mouth set in a tight line. A nerve twitching in his cheek the only sign of the stress he was under.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Slim turned to Betty. “What is it? He seemed fine before?”

“Delayed shock, I think, due to the infection beginning in one or two of those wounds to his back. He has the classic symptoms — nausea, dizziness, a fever — and the worst thing for him right now is not being able to catch his breath.”

“So what do we do?” asked Slim looking horrified.

She took in his demeanor and then patted his arm gently. “The first thing is to keep completely calm. He’s tending to panic because he can’t breathe properly. Then that makes him over-breathe and it just gets worse, so we have to be real calm around him.”

Slim nodded. “Sure.”

“Then the next thing is to clean out the wounds again and then work on getting his fever down.”

Slim nodded again. “Had plenty of practice at that,” he said with the ghost of a smile, but then it faded. “But heck, Betty, I don’t relish cleaning out those lash wounds again.”

“Nor do you have to. I’ll attend to it, if you can just keep him still.”

Slim nodded grimly. “Yeah, I reckon I can handle that.” He turned to go and find the cold water he had promised to take to his pard.

“Oh, and Slim, you might want to check out the saloon. See if they left any whiskey behind. I guess that’s the only anesthetic we’ve got right now.”

*****

It was a toss-up at the end of the hour, when Betty finally finished tending to Jess, as to who was in the worse state, Slim or his pard.

Both were pale and sweating, and both had partaken freely of the ‘medicinal’ whiskey.

Now looking  down at where his partner lay deathly pale, his breath coming  in harsh gasps and shivering, Slim’s heart went out to him.

As Slim stood there swaying a little, Betty took pity on the tall blond rancher, who she had begun to take a real shine to. “Why don’t you take a break?” she said kindly.

Slim looked uncertain.

“Go on, pard, I’m fine,” whispered Jess. “Go and sit a spell before you fall,” he added with the ghost of a smile.

Slim smiled back and gave him a gentle punch on the arm. “OK hotshot; just holler if you need anything. I’ll be right outside.” With that, he took his weary leave.

Slim walked out of the bunkhouse and took a deep breath, and then seeing Mort sitting out on the cabin porch, went and joined him.

Mort looked up anxiously. “How is he?”

Slim shook his head. “Not good, Mort — sweatin’ and shakin’. Jeez, I never want to go through that again. When I think what that bastard did to him…twice!”

“Simmer down, Slim,” said the Sheriff kindly. He got up and disappeared inside the cabin before returning with a coffee pot and cup. He poured Slim a drink before replenishing his own cup, and the two men settled down in companionable silence for a while.

Then Slim turned to Mort. “Still no luck?”

“Nope. I’ve turned this darned place inside out, but no sign of the payroll.”

“Looks like Chas is going to have the last laugh if we can’t find where they’ve stashed it,” said Slim sighing.

“Oh no he isn’t,” said Mort grimly. “As soon as Jess is better, the three of us are going to tear this town apart, because I sure ain’t leaving without it.”

Slim looked sorely troubled at that. “If, Mort. If Jess gets better.”

Mort’s head shot up and he looked shocked. “Bad as that eh?”

Slim just nodded and the two lapsed into thoughtful silence.

After a while, Slim looked over at his good friend and said, “So are you going to tell me the real reason why you stayed on here and young Davy went back with his grandpappy?”

Mort gave Slim a slow smile. “Not much gets past you, does it, Slim.” Then he took a deep breath and said, “Well, I’ll tell you. I needed time, you see. To consider my options, I guess, and there was something else too. I felt so darned bad about running out on you all that way, leaving Jess shot up and then inflicting some guy I’d never met on you all. And what a mistake that was!”

“Well, you sure got that right,” said Slim with feeling.

“Anyway, I needed to talk to you both — apologize I guess — and that’s why I kind of pulled rank on young Davy. Plus that Anna really was feeling sick; said she didn’t want him to see her that way.”

“Uh, it figures, I suppose. So go on then, Mort. Have you come to any decisions yet?”

The older man gave a big sigh and then turned to face his friend. “Yep, I have. I’m staying, Slim.”

Then it was Slim’s turn to give a huge sigh — of relief. “Well, thank goodness for that. I really don’t know what we’d have done without you, Mort, I really don’t.”

Mort looked quite touched at that. “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll just slow down some, give the boy Lon a bit more responsibility. Figure I can still make time for some fishing and hunting if I play my cards right. And seeing as how my old Pappy made it through this sickness and is as hale and hearty as ever, I figure I’ll make old bones too, so no rush to retire.”

Slim beamed at him at that and reaching over pumped his hand. “Welcome back, Mort.” Then more quietly, he asked, “So what did it? What made you change your mind? “

There was a long pause where the Sheriff stared at the ground, and then he raised his eyes to Slim. “You did. You and Jess.”

“Huh?”

“The way you both pitched in over this business, the way Jess took on that bastard… After all he’d done to Jess in the past. Well when you told me all about it last night, I couldn’t believe it. But he still lit out after the Walker Gang, knowing that Brady would more un likely follow him. But he still did it, Slim, knowing that bastard wanted him dead.” Mort shook his head. “That’s way beyond brave, you know.”

Slim nodded acknowledging the fact. “Jess never was one to back down.”

Mort smiled. “Yeah. And then there was you pitching in to help him, leaving your business and everyone back home to take off with him. Fighting a battle I should have been fighting, Slim. Goddamn it, it’s what I’m paid for, you know. I should have been here.”

“Well you’re here now, Mort, that’s all that matters, and you’re staying. Hell, that’s the main thing, buddy!”

A little later, Slim and Mort went over to the bunkhouse to check on Jess, and Mort was deeply shocked at the deterioration in his friend after just a few hours.

Betty was still washing him down with the cool water in an effort to reduce his temperature, but Jess seemed completely out of it, mumbling and lashing about on the cot, and when he nearly hit her as he rolled around ,completely unaware of what he was doing, Slim stepped forwards.

“Why don’t you take a break, Betty? I figure Mort and I can take over from here. We’re kinda used to dealing with him when he’s this way.”

She smiled and stood up. “Well, I could cope, you know. He wouldn’t have been the first ‘lively’ patient I’ve had to deal with, but to be honest, I really need to check on Anna. I’m a little worried about her.”

Slim looked concerned at that. “Gee, I’m sorry. She isn’t going to lose the baby is she?”

“Oh no, nothing like that. No, she’s just really upset about everything that happened, killing her Pa and all.”

“Well, sure she would be, that’s natural,” said Mort. “But she had no choice. he would have back shot Jess if she hadn’t acted so darned quickly. We couldn’t get a clean shot in because she was standing in the line of fire.”

“Yes I know and so does Anna, and she believes she did the right thing. Heck, she hated her Pa –was terrified of him and she…well, she thinks a lot of Jess. Always has done since she first met him as a kid. But at the end of the day, he was still her Pa and killing anyone isn’t easy, I guess, even when there is no choice.”

“You get off and sit with her,” said Mort kindly. “We’ll sort Jess out, don’t you fret.”

With one last troubled look at her patient, Betty turned and left, giving Slim a small smile as she passed him.

After she’d gone, Mort tipped his hat towards the door where she’s just left. “I think that young lady is a tad sweet on you, Slim.”

Slim blushed. “You think so?” he asked looking pleased. But then he remembered his responsibilities and went and sat down on the edge of the cot and peered down at his pard. “Jess…Jess, you awake?”

Jess’ eyelids flickered, and after a moment, his eyes opened. He looked straight into Slims and finally whispered, “It’s kinda hot, ain’t it?”

“Uh, you’ve got a fever, pard, after that beating you took, remember? “

“Yeah, I remember,” Jess said bitterly and then rolled about on the cot again grimacing.

“You hurting, pard?”

“Nah… well, yeah, some, I guess, and this darn mattress don’t help. Feels like it’s full of rocks.”

Mort and Slim exchanged an amused glance. “Well, I guess they’re all the same, Jess. My mattress is real hard too, but we can swop if you’ve a mind.”

“Nah, you’re OK. I guess it’s just me.” Then Jess looked up to the ceiling. “Sure is hot in here…”

It was the following morning before Jess’s fever broke, and as the first rays of the sun lit up the dusty room, Slim gave a deep sigh of relief to see his pard was cool, his breathing back to normal and he had fallen into a deep relaxing sleep. Slim finally wandered over to his own bunk and crashed out.

It was Mort who took over caring for Jess later that morning, leaving Slim to lie in.

The three men were sharing the bunkhouse, leaving the small cabin to the women folk, and as Slim had opted for the top bunk over in the corner of the room, Jess and Mort were able to chat quietly without disturbing him.

Mort made some coffee on the small stove, and after helping Jess to sit up, handed him the steaming brew before making himself comfortable on an old rocker beside the bunk.

Jess sipped his coffee appreciatively and then flicked a glance at Mort over the rim of his cup, before saying softly. “So is this where you read me the riot act then, Mort?”

“Huh?” asked the Sheriff looking surprised.

“Well, for bustin’ out of jail and leavin’ the Sheriff trust up like a turkey on Thanksgivin’. I figure you gonna bawl me out, ain’t you?”

Mort smiled and then he chuckled.

“Well what’s so darned funny, Mort? Just get it over with, will you? Unless you thinkin’ of doin’ more than bawl me out. Hell, Mort, am I in big trouble?” Jess asked, looking alarmed.

“Hey simmer down there, Jess boy, you’ll be getting your temperature shooting up again carrying on this way. No, you’re not in trouble, son. Quite the reverse.”

Now it was Jess’s turn to look puzzled. “What do you mean, Mort?”

“Just that the reason I stayed back here and sent young Davy off with the prisoners was because I wanted to thank you and Slim for all you’ve done, apprehending the gang, dealing with  that low life Brady… Well, I appreciate everything, I really do. I know how hard it was for you too, son, after everything that happened between you and Brady in the past.”

Jess looked surprised. “So you know about that then?”

“Yep; Slim filled me in. He was a real bad lot, Jess…real bad.”

 They were silent for a while contemplating everything that Brady had put Jess and the others through, then Mort broke the silence. He looked over at the young cowboy who was resting against the pillows looking strained and in more than a little pain, Mort guessed, but he wouldn’t admit it, knowing Jess, he thought wryly. “There is something else too. What I told Slim yesterday; it’s down to you two as to why I’ve decided not to retire.”

Jess sat up at that. “Really? You’re staying on, Mort? Well, that’s great!”

“Uh, well as I say, it’s down to you and Slim. Way you’ve been…sorting all this lot out — and at great cost too, I know — well, it really made me realize how lucky I am to be living and working around here and with folk like you, Slim,  Lon and others in town.” Mort looked quite emotional. Then he pulled himself together and winked at Jess. “Nope, I reckon you’re not getting rid of me that easy, not for a good while yet anyways!”

“That’s just swell, Mort.” Then Jess sobered. “It would be just perfect if only we could find that doggone money.”

“Slim reckons you two have got a lot riding on us finding it. Got plans for the reward, so I hear. That’s mighty generous of you boys, considering young Davy was after the bounty on you at one stage too,” Mort said with a grim smile.

“Yeah, well, when he told us how he’d got his girl in the family way, and then who her Pa was, what could we do? I figured he needed all the help he could get, and I was right too. Look what happened to me when Brady thought I was the father,” Jess said bitterly.

“You said that to get Brady away from Anna, didn’t you?”

Jess just nodded. “Yeah, sure I did.” Then he thought on what his friend had just said. “Yeah, of course I did. Hell, you didn’t think it was true, did you, Mort?”

The older man looked down, a small smile playing around his lips. “Well now, Jess, would I think a thing like that about a good clean living boy like you?”

“Uh, well, I should hope not,” said Jess, looking the picture of innocence. “We’re just old friends, is all.”

 “Sure, sure. But she did shoot her Pa to save your life. And let her fiancé ride off without too much protest,” Mort said, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Aw Mort, will you behave,” said Jess, looking down into his cup and blushing a little. “So…anymore coffee?” he asked after a few minutes, changing the subject and Mort took pity on him and went to fetch the pot.

Half way through the second cup, Mort saw Jess’s eyes begin to close and his grip on the cup slacken. The sheriff removed it from Jess before he spilt it everywhere.

“Why don’t you get a bit more shut eye,” Mort said softly, but Jess was already asleep. So Mort carefully laid him on his side, a pillow against his back supporting him so that he wouldn’t lie on the raw wounds, and then straightened up. As he did, Mort looked into the eyes of Anna, who had quietly entered the room and now stood on the opposite side of the bed looking on.

Anna was struck again by how caring and compassionate these big tough men could be, and she recalled how understanding Jess had been when they were holed up in the cellar together and also the kindness Slim had shown her when she really thought she might lose her baby.

Now she had again witnessed the strong bond the men seemed to share, so apparent in Mort’s simple act of thoughtfulness for his sick friend.

“How is he?” Anna whispered.

Mort gave her a kindly smile. “I guess he’s getting there, but he’s been real bad. Just kinda wore out now, I guess; needs his sleep.”

She nodded. “Yes, of course. Can I sit with him?”

“Well sure, but don’t expect too much from him. like I say, he’s real beat.”

She nodded and sat down in the old rocker, her eyes never leaving Jess’s face.

Jess looked so much younger in repose, Anna thought as she watched the lean face finally relaxed in a deep sleep, his long dark lashes casting shadows on his pale countenance, a stubble of beard making him look even paler. But he still looked so young, almost like the young man she had first met in her Pa’s jail all those years ago.

Slim finally awoke and came over to check on his pard, gently running a hand over Jess’ forehead for signs of fever and then pulling the blanket up, before smiling down at where Anna still sat in the rocker. “He’s fine,” he said softly. “No fever or nightmares. Reckon he’s on the mend.”

Anna gave a soft sigh. “Thank goodness.”

“So how are you?”

“Oh just fine now…and thank you. You’ve been so kind, both of you.”

Slim just shrugged. “Well, I’m just glad you’re OK”. Then he tipped his head towards the cabin. “Smells like Betty’s got breakfast in hand. You coming over?”

She shook her head and gave him a shy smile. “No; guess I’ll sit with Jess a while.”

Slim just nodded, and casting his pard a last look, strolled off to get some food.

It was mid-morning before Jess awoke and stretched. then on looking around him, his eyes finally rested on Anna, still seated in the rocking chair. “Hey sweetheart,” he said, his face breaking into a broad smile. “It’s great to see you. Slim says you’re OK.”

She nodded. “Yes, it was a false alarm. Everything is just fine,” she said, resting a protective arm across her belly.

“I’m glad,” said Jess softly. Then he reached out and took her hand gently in his own and looked deeply into her eyes. “I can never thank you enough for what you did back there. You saved my life. And I know it must have been so dang hard for you.”

She nodded and her eyes filled with tears. “I couldn’t let him do it, Jess, couldn’t let him shoot you down in cold blood that way. I tried, I really tried to just wound him, but there was no time, no time to aim right. I just had to shoot the darn gun as best I could. And I killed him, Jess; I killed my own Pa.” Then she broke down into heartrending tears.

“Hey, it’s OK, it’s Ok. Come here,” Jess said gently. She went and sat on the edge of the cot, and he held her, rocking her and stroking her hair gently and whispering comforting words to her as the tears flowed.

After a while, Anna sat back and wiped her sleeve across her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I didn’t mean to do that. And I don’t regret it, not for a minute, Jess. If he had to die so that you could live, well, I’d do it again tomorrow. It’s just so hard, though, you know?”

“Sure, sure it is. Hell, of course you’re troubled. Who wouldn’t be? After all, he was your Pa, and no matter what, I guess nothing will ever alter that. I guess you’ll always wonder if he could have changed, been a proper Pa to you.”

“Yes…yes that’s exactly it, Jess. I wanted him to change, so much — to love me — but I guess he just couldn’t. Maybe he didn’t know how.”

“Uh, you could be right, Anna, and there’s something else. At the end, these last few weeks, I figure he’d gone plumb loco — really lost his mind — and I don’t reckon anything anyone could have said or done could have changed that.”

She bowed her head and let out a little sob and then looked deeply into his eyes. “Thank you, Jess. I knew that all along, really, but I just had to hear someone say it.”

He gave her a tired smile and then rested back on the pillows, and her eyes looked bright with unshed tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve tired you with all my carrying on.”

“It’s OK,” Jess whispered back. “I guess I’m just kinda weak right now. I’ll be ok soon — real soon>” He closed his eyes.

She stood up, and then leaning down, kissed him very tenderly on the forehead, his eyes snapping open at her touch. As she drew back, they locked eyes for a full minute, before her glance flicked down to his lips and then back to the clear blue gaze as she tried to read his thoughts; his expression was unfathomable.

She believed for a fleeting moment that he would kiss her, but then when he made no move, she stood up straight and said softly, “Get some rest; I’ll come back later.” Turning away, Anna left, but she stopped at the door for a moment and turned back to see his eyes still upon her, the expression one of kindly concern.

*****

The following morning, Slim woke early to the sound of Jess lashing about on his bed and cussing softly. He’d seen little of his pard the previous day as he and Mort had spent all their time pulling the town apart looking for the hidden payroll money, to no avail. Now he was feeling a tad guilty at neglecting his friend and figured he’d better see what the problem was.

Slim got up from his bunk on the other side of the room, hiding a smile he wandered over and looked down at his pard, who was still cussing and looking decidedly miffed. “What’s up Jess?”

“This dang mattress is what’s up. I tell you. it’s like sleepin’ on a load old books. Honest, Slim, I ain’t had a wink of sleep all night long.”

“So that wasn’t you snoring away then,” said Slim, his smile beginning to show.

“No it weren’t; it was Mort. I ain’t had any dang rest, I tell you!”

At that Slim chuckled, unable to help himself.

“Well what’s so doggone funny? I’ve been sick, you know,” Jess said, playing the sympathy card.

Slim just shook his head at that. “Well, I’m not laughing at you, pard. It’s just good to see your ornery side showing; always a sign you’re on the mend.”

“Um… that’s as may be but… “

“OK, OK, quit your moaning, will you, Jess? Come on, roll out and I’ll turn the goddamn mattress for you and maybe you’ll give me some peace.”

Jess obliged and went and sat on the old rocker looking on as Slim stripped the sheet and blanket off the bed and then made to turn the ragged old straw filled mattress. He hauled it over and then bent to straighten it and suddenly stopped, staring intently at the rather grubby material.

“What?” asked Jess, suddenly aware of his pard’s stillness.

“It’s ripped,” said Slim. “The cover.”

Jess threw him an irritable look. “So, what do you think this is, a five star hotel? Slim, what are you gonna do about it — complain to the management?”

“No…you don’t understand,” said Slim, turning to look at his pard his face a study of amazement. “Come and looky here, Jess.”

Still grumbling, Jess hauled himself up out of the chair and wandered over. “What now? Don’t tell me the darned thing is full of fleas. Wouldn’t be surprised,” he finished peevishly. Then he stopped in his tracks as Slim reached inside the mattress and withdrew his hand, holding a fist full of dollars.

“Well I be…it’s the goddamn money! Hell, Slim, I’ve been layin’ on it all along,” Jess said, his face breaking into a broad grin.

“Only darn place in the whole town we didn’t look,” said Slim, shaking his head in wonder. “Hey, Mort, wake up! Come look what we’ve found!”

*****

It was another couple of days before both Betty and Slim deemed Jess well enough to travel, although Betty was still quite worried about the long horseback ride in front of them for Anna, who was still in a rather delicate state.

“I guess we’ll just have to take it real slow,” said Slim as they sat around the cabin fireside after supper, the evening before they planned to head out.

“I’m fine, really I am,” said Anna. “I’m stronger than I look you know.”

“Yes, but it’s not a case of that,” said Betty at once. “You have to be really careful in your condition; you’ve already had one scare, you know.”

“Betty’s right,” said Jess, looking over at the pretty young woman. “You need to look after yourself, sweetheart.”

She returned his glance and threw him a shy smile. ”Yes…and I will be careful, but we can’t stay here forever. You two must he dying to get back to your ranch, and Betty and I must get back to the café.” She looked over at Slim, as she spoke, where he was sitting on the other side of the fire place next to Betty, and then cast a covert look up to where Jess was standing leaning on the mantelpiece by the fire.

“And back to Davy too,” said Jess, throwing her a steady look.

“Oh…well yes, yes of course,” Anna said, flushing a little.

Mort, who was sitting on a bench near the fire, flicked a glance up towards Slim and they exchanged a look, but said nothing.

“Anyway,” said Jess, “I guess you’ll be busy makin’ plans for the wedding and your trip out west.”

Anna’s hand shot up at that. “Oh that would be lovely if it were true, but we can’t afford the wagon train, I’m afraid, not yet awhile.”

Jess smiled across at her then. “Well, that’s where you wrong, because me an’ old Hardrock there are donating our finders reward to the cause.”

“The cause?” Anna asked looking blank.

“Sure,” said Slim chuckling. “We told Davy when we met up with him — promised him  the reward, so as you could get clear of your Pa — but I guess it still stands, doesn’t it,  Jess.”

“Well, sure it does.” Jess smiled.

Anna gave a little scream of delight and jumped up from her seat. She threw herself into Jess’s arms as he cast her a slightly startled look. “Thank you. Oh, thank you!” she said, flinging her arms around his neck. And then she suddenly remembered her manners. “Oh and thank you too, Slim…Mort.” But she still stayed embracing Jess until he gently extricated himself and said he was going to check on the horses.

Jess wandered off across the cabin yard to where the horses were corralled, and after a few minutes, Traveler trotted over, blowing down his nose in welcome and reaching out his neck across the fence,  looking for the sugar treat he knew would be coming.

Jess found some sugar in his pocket and gave it to his horse before caressing his ears and talking softly to his beloved mount.

Then, after a few minutes, the cabin door went and Anna joined him, leaning on the corral fence and looking out across the moonlit mountains, beyond the cotton wood copse, the warm air full of the night time sounds. “It’s a beautiful night,” she whispered.

Jess looked down at her, her dark hair framing a perfect heart shaped face and he thought how lovely she looked, but was wise enough not to say it.

Then Anna turned to him and said sincerely, “I really want to thank you. Jess.”

“Like I said, we’re real happy for you to have the money.”

“No, I don’t just mean that. I mean the way you’ve looked out for me, stood up to my Pa that way. I really think he might have killed me if you hadn’t intervened, told him this,” she said laying a hand across the gentle swell of her belly, “this was yours.”

“Sure took his mind off of you,” said Jess with a grin, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“I don’t know how you can make light of it after what he did to you,” Anna whispered, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

Jess looked down and was immediately concerned. “Hey, don’t go getting’ upset; it ain’t good for the baby. And anyway, it’s all over now. Just try forget it, huh?”

Anna shook her head. “No, Jess, I’ll never forget what he did to you. It was just so, so terrible,” and she gave a little sob.

“Hush now, it’s OK,” Jess said, gently reaching out and stroking her hair.

Anna looked up at him then, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “I’ll never forget what you did you did for me — and I’ll never forget you either, ” she whispered.

They stood staring at each other as though afraid to move and break the spell, and  then she reached up and kissed him very tenderly before turning and running back to the cabin, leaving him standing staring after her, his expression a mixture  of affection and concern, wondering  whether  he should follow her, check she was OK.

But then Mort and Slim emerged from the cabin and made their leisurely way over to the bunkhouse to turn in, and Jess joined them, ignoring their questioning expressions after a very emotional Anna had just rushed past them.

Mort took himself off to bed right away, saying his old bones were fair aching and he couldn’t wait to get stretched out on his feather mattress back home as soon as possible. However, Slim seemed disinclined to bed down straight away and offered to make a final coffee.

Jess was lying back on his pillows and Slim made himself comfortable on the old rocker as they sipped their drinks. After a while Slim cast his pard a concerned glance. “So, er, what did you say to young Anna to upset her before,” he asked eventually.

“Huh?”

“You heard me, Jess. She ran into the cabin in tears. So have you been messing about with her? Because…”

“No I ain’t,” Jess said indignantly, but couldn’t seem to look his pard in the eye.

“Jess?”

“Well, she’s kinda mixed up right now, I guess. Kept harpin’ on about when she was a kid and used to visit me. Seems she had kinda a crush, you know,” Jess said, looking down, embarrassed.

“Well, that was all a long time ago, wasn’t it though, Jess.”

“Well, sure it was. That’s what I said when she kissed me and…”

“What! She kissed you? Where…when? “

Jess sighed deeply. “On the lips, of course. Where do you think? And the other night when we were locked in the cellar together, and well…just now too, I guess. But she’s just grateful for me helpin’ her out, is all,” Jess said, looking uncomfortable.

“Just now,” said Slim, picking up on what his pard had just admitted. “Go on, let’s hear it all then, Jess.”

“Slim, will you give over? You sound like my Ma. It just happened, OK? She got kinda sentimental thinking about the past and all we’ve done for her now as well — the money and all. And then she’s pregnant and that well…that can kinda turn a woman’s head, I’ve heard. That is, makes them do strange things, you know?” Jess finished vaguely.

“Oh really? And you’d be an expert on that, would you then, Jess?”

“No, I ain’t no expert. Just tellin’ you what happened is all.”

“So, go on.”

“What?”

“So what did you do?”

“Hell Slim, I did nothing. What do you take me for? She‘s promised and expecting Davy’s child. I ain’t gonna get tangled up in all that, am I?”

“I dunno, Jess. Aren’t you?”

“I said not, didn’t I? Hell Slim, will you cut me some slack here? I haven’t encouraged her, and anyways I ain’t even interested. I’ve got Millie, haven’t I?”

“Sure…sure you have, Jess. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just kinda jumpy after everything that happened and I feel sort of responsible for the young women.”

“Sure, I know, pard. You’re always the sensible, serious one, and I’m the one causin’ all the trouble…as per usual, yeah?”

“Well, if you want to put it like that…” Slim said, beginning to smile.

“Slim…”

“Huh?”

“Go to bed, will you?”

“Sure, sure. I’ll just check the horses and then I’ll get my head down.”

*****

They were all up early the following morning and were just finishing breakfast when they heard the sound of a wagon entering the yard.

“What the hell?” said Mort, looking surprised. Jess and Slim exchanged a puzzled glance before all three men rose as one and made for the door, telling the woman folk to stay put.

Then they stood and stared in astonishment as a large covered wagon entered the yard and pulled to a standstill. A moment later, young Davy Cole jumped down and grinned at the amassed company.

The girls, who had been peeking out of the window, came out and Anna rushed across the yard and into her boyfriend’s arms, looking up into his weary face.

“Are you OK?” Davy asked urgently.

“Sure, I’m just fine. Everyone has been so kind,” Anna reassured him. “But what about you, Davy? You look dead on your feet.”

“I am kind of beat,” Davy replied. “Been driving day and night for the last few days. Needed to get here before you set off. Didn’t want you having to ride all the way home, not with the baby and all.”

Then Mort, Slim and Jess advanced on the couple, admiring the rig.

“This sure is a mighty fine wagon, boy. So  how did you come by it?” asked Mort, always the lawman and knowing for a fact that the youngsters didn’t have the sort of cash to lay out on this kind of wagon, not yet at least.

“Oh it’s OK, Sheriff,” Davy said with a twinkle in his eye. “I came across it legal like. My Grandpappy gave it to me.”

“What, old George Cole?” asked Jess in surprise. “I never knew he had one of these old prairie schooners.”

“Yep; he came down from Texas in it. Been storing it on a neighbor’s ranch. Never thought he’d have any use for it again…until I told him our news, that is.”

Anna looked profoundly shocked. “What? You told Uncle George about the baby?”

“Yep, and my Ma and Pa too.”

“Well, what did they say?”

“Just about the same as Jess did when  I told him and Slim — that I’d have to up and marry you and that would make it all alright.”

Her head shot up and she threw Jess a tender look, before returning her gaze to her boyfriend. “So they were OK?”

“Sure; in fact, Ma is real pleased about it. Can’t wait to see you to talk weddings and stuff.”

“And the wagon? George has given it to you for your trip west?” asked Slim, looking amazed at the old man’s generosity.

“He sure has. Sort of an early wedding present, he said.”

“Well that’s just swell,” said Mort. “But I guess we’d better get this show on the road if you goin’ to get wed before the happy event,” he said looking over to Anna amongst much laughter from all.

And so they set off on the long journey home, with Slim driving the two women on the wagon, while Davy stretched out in the back having some well-earned shut eye and Mort and Jess riding along behind, keeping a weather eye on the payroll money, which they had stashed in the back of the wagon for safekeeping.

The friendly relationship Slim had struck up with the cheerful redhead Betty had not gone amiss as far as Jess and Mort were concerned, and when Slim offered to drive the wagon, they had exchanged a knowing look, but said nothing.

They made their way slowly down the mountain, this time leaving via the old main road from town instead of sneaking in by the back way. The going was much easier and reasonably accessible for the wagon, but they still had to take things slowly and it was a couple of days later before they finally arrived in Laramie.

It was with regret that Slim made his farewells to Betty as she, Davy and Anna were making their way off to stay with Davy’s parents to the north of Laramie before returning to Cheyenne to make their plans.

They were all ready to go and Slim went to shake Betty’s hand. Then in an uncharacteristic show of emotion, he pulled her close and kissed her deeply, before saying softly, “Keep in touch, huh?”

Betty blushed, but nodded and threw him a warm smile before clambering up on the wagon.

Then it was Anna and Davy’s turn to say their goodbyes.

“I really appreciate all you’ve done for us,” Davy said sincerely, looking from Jess to Slim and back. “Not just the money, although that will make our new life possible, which is just fantastic. But the way you’ve looked after my girl here too. I’ll never forget what you did for us.” Then looking overcome with emotion, he pumped their hands before turning away to speak to Mort.

Anna kissed Slim on the cheek. “Thank you so much for everything and for the other night. I guess I needed telling.”

“Well you’re welcome and don’t forget the wedding invitations,” Slim said, grinning before turning away to check the harness, giving her and Jess a little privacy. He instinctively knew that was what she at least craved.

Anna looked up into those clear blue, oh so familiar eyes that still featured in her dreams occasionally and didn’t know how she could lose him again. She had thought her heart would break when she and her Ma left town for a new life at the tender age of just fourteen, and she had really believed herself to be in love with the young cowboy then.

Now as she looked up into those eyes, she could see affection, concern, friendly warmth, but nothing more, and she knew his heart belonged to someone else.

It had been the night before they left the ghost town when she had been sitting out on the porch, unable to sleep, that Slim had seen her on his way to bed after tending his horse. He had come over, his conversation with Jess a little earlier about their relationship still fresh in his mind.

“You look like a young lady in need of some company. Can’t sleep?” Slim asked kindly, remembering how she had fled from Jess in tears earlier that night.

“Nope, too hot, I think,” Anna said casting a glance around the moonlit yard. “And yes, I’d love some company. Sit awhile,” she replied, gesturing to the seat beside her. “Jess in bed?” she asked, inwardly cursing herself for being so transparent.

However, Slim didn’t seem to notice and just nodded in affirmation. “Yep; he’s still pretty sick after that whipping he got –and not just physically.”

She turned giving him her full attention at that. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I reckon it brought all those terrible memories of the prisoner of war camp and what…” Slim looked down embarrassed. “Well…of what your Pa did to him last time”.

She nodded, “It’s alright to talk about that, Slim. I hate him for it. Even though he’s dead, I can never forgive him for what he did to Jess. And you say he’s poorly. What, troubled?”

“Uh, I guess so. He’s had some real bad nightmares. These last few days have brought it all back, you know, and the spell he had in your Pa’s jail too,” Slim said softly.

Her head shot up at that. “For me too. I remember it like it was yesterday. The way Pa was, the way I felt about Jess,” Anna finished, looking down and flushing.

“Yeah,” said Slim quietly. “He told me.”

“He did? What, about how I felt about him, how I still do?” she said finally finding the courage to admit it to this kindly man with the honest open face.

He nodded. “But you’re spoken for, though, aren’t you, Anna. Carrying Davy’s baby and all. You do love him, don’t you?”

Her eyes opened wide in shock at that. “Oh yes, of course I do. It’s just…” She sighed deeply. “Oh, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“I know in my heart that Davy is the man for me; I love him to bits. He’s kind caring, would do anything for me. but Jess… Well, he’s just so special to me.”

Slim nodded and then took her hand. “And I guess he cares about you, wants you to be happy, get wed and have your baby safely. But that’s all, Anna. He cares about you, but he doesn’t love you. Never will. He’s in love with someone else, you see.”

She took a sharp intake of breath at that revelation and stared at him with wide, shocked eyes. “He is?”

Slim just nodded and squeezed her hand, trying to offer some support as she came to terms with this latest blow. After a while, he removed his hand, and taking off his hat, ran his hand through his blond locks before returning the hat. Finally, he turned to look at her strained sad little face, trying for the life of him to find the right words to help her.

“You know, I’ve known Jess a good few years now. Got to know him pretty well too — as much as anyone can, anyway. Better than most,” Slim said with a rueful smile.

Anna turned to look at him now, hanging on his every word.

“And the thing about ol’ Jess is, he’s fiercely loyal to his friends. Won’t let you down, not ever; always be there for you, no matter what.” Slim sighed at the truth of it. Yep, as much as Jess drove him to distraction at times, well, you just couldn’t wish for a better pard.

“Go on,” she whispered.

“Well, what I’m trying to say, I guess, is just this. You may not have the kind of relationship you think you want with him right now. And to be honest, that’s probably for the best, because a blind man could see how perfect you and Davy are together. Anyway, like I was saying, you may not have that sort of romantic relationship that you want with Jess, but you still can have him as a friend — a real good friend. And I reckon in time to come, that’s all you’ll want from him. Once you’re wed and have the little one, I figure you’ll forget all about how you’re feeling right now.”

Ann stared at him for a long time and then gave him the ghost of a smile. “You know, I think you’re right. Jess said pregnant ladies sometimes go…well, a bit crazy, and I think he’s right. Maybe I’m just a bit crazy right now.”

Slim ginned at that. “Well, I figure you’re in good company then, because I reckon after the last few days, we’re all feeling more than a little crazy.”

She gave him a genuine smile at that, and grabbing his hand, impulsively bent her head and kissed it. “Oh Slim, you’re so good for me…and I’m so glad Jess has got you to look out for him.” Then she stifled a yawn. “And you know what? I think I’ll be able to sleep now.” Rising, she beamed at him. “Thank you, Slim…goodnight.”

“‘Night,” he replied, and after a moment, he made his way quietly back to the bunk house.

*****

Now Anna still stood staring into those deep blue eyes, all the hustle and bustle of the Laramie Main Street unnoticed by her as it seemed that only she and Jess existed. “I…I want to thank you for everything. And apologize too,” she whispered.

“You ain’t got nuthin’ to apologize for,” Jess said softly, his eyes never leaving hers.

“Oh I think I do,” Anna insisted. “And you’ve been so patient with me. But there’s just one thing more I want to ask of you before I go.”

“Sure, anything,” Jess said, reaching out and taking her hands.

“I…I know we could never have a loving relationship. It would be wrong — I can see that now — and I think I can even see that I’ve been acting quite irrationally. But Jess, please…can we always be friends?”

Jess stared at her for so long she thought he wouldn’t reply, but then his face broke into a huge grin and he said softly, “Sure. We are already, ain’t we?”

“For always?”

He nodded. “For always. And if you ever need anything, I’ll be here for you.”

She nodded. “Thank you,” she whispered, “that’s all I wanted to hear.”

Jess pulled Anna close in a warm embrace and kissed her tenderly on her forehead. “Be happy, sweetheart,” he whispered before gently pulling back.

Then all was hustle and bustle as Davy and Anna climbed on board the wagon, and after much smiling and banter, finally disappeared down the street in a flurry of waves and goodbye’s before all that could be seen was the settling dust in the noontide sun.

Jess turned to his pard about to suggest a cold beer when something in his pard’s eyes made him stop. “You OK, Slim?”

After a moment, Slim dragged his gaze away from the street where the wagon had so recently departed and said, “That Betty was sure some woman.”

Jess grinned across at him at that. “Well, you better hadn’t let Lily hear you say that. Tom and the girls are installed back at the saloon, you know, pard.”

“They are?” asked Slim, a look of delight in his eyes. “Well, that’s swell.”

Jess smiled again. “But that Betty really seemed to take a shine to you, you know, Slim.”

Slim beamed at his pard at that. “Yeah, she did, didn’t she. Heck Jess, I’ve got me two women interested. That’s sure a first,” he said, looking like a dog with two tails.

Jess’s eyes twinkled at that and he had a mischievous look on his face. ”Just one problem, though, Slim. Which one are you gonna take to the wedding?”

Slim’s face was a picture of horror. “Hell, I dunno, pard. What do you think? What should I do, Jess? Hey, I’m out of my depth here. You’re the one with all the experience when it comes to romancing the ladies.”

“Yep, I am, ain’t I,” Jess agreed happily.

“Well?”

“Well, this sorta problem needs a lot of consideration, you know, Slim. Can’t be rushed. Now I think maybe a beer or three might help me think on it — sorta get the old brain workin’, you know?” Jess said hopefully.

“Sure, sure,” said Slim, punching him lightly on the arm and making towards the saloon. “And while we’re in there, I can fill Millie in on you being reunited with sweet little Anna. Sure she’ll want to hear all about that.”

“Aw Slim!” came the indignant reply as the two buddies made their way over to the saloon, laughing  happily and mighty relieved that  they were home again at last.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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