The Road to Albuquerque (by Patti W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  36,367


 

For Sally B

 

 

JESS’ STORY

 “I’m going to Albuquerque to kill a man,” I answered.

“Jess!”

“What?” I barked angrily.

“Are you crazy, what in hell’s gotten into you lately?”

I turned around to face him from where I was saddling Traveler.

“Maybe I’ve just realized that ranchin’ ain’t the life for me after all Slim. I’ve got to go and do this and I know you can’t accept that, so I guess it’s a parting of the ways.”

*****

Now three years down the line, we were sitting in front of a blazing fire at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, and Slim Sherman, my best friend, had brought the whole sorry business up again.

We were relaxing after a hard day and sipping an unaccustomed whiskey a piece, with young Mike, our ward, long in bed. Mrs. Daisy Cooper, our wonderful elderly housekeeper and honorary Ma to us all, had also retired for the night, and I was just thinking on going abed myself when Slim turned to me and raked it all up again.

“Remember that time you took off for Albuquerque?” he asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

I took another swig of my whiskey before turning to face him. “You know I do,” I said gruffly. “What about it?”

“Oh nothing,” he said backing off quickly, realizing he’d upset me.

Then after a pause, “Well, I was just thinking — how everything would have been so different around here if things hadn’t worked out.”

I sat back in my rocker and took a deep breath. If I’d died, you mean?” I asked.

Then it was his turn to sigh deeply, his expression suddenly serious. “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“So what’s brought all this on then, Slim?” I asked, slightly more gently.

He was silent for a long time, just gazing into the fire and trying to collect his thoughts, I guess, before he finally answered. “It was what happened today when we were riding posse with Mort,” he replied, referring to our good friend and local Sheriff Mort Corey.

“What about it?”

“Well I guess you saved my life,” he said with a rueful grin. “Yet again.”

“Didn’t know as how we were counting,” I replied.

“Umm…well, I’m not; figure we’re about even anyway. But that’s not the point, Jess. “

“So what is?” I asked impatiently.

“Well, like I said, I just got to thinking what would have happened if you hadn’t come back. I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable taking on adopting Mike on my own and I’d never have got to know Daisy. Hell, Jess, I’d probably be dead anyways — like today if you hadn’t seen that sniper and dispatched him. Well, that would have been the end of yours truly. “

I thought about it for a while and I guess it kinda made sense.

“I was real surprised,” I admitted after a moment, harping back to the road trip to Albuquerque, “when you stuck by me.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t?”

I shrugged. “Not many have.”

“It wasn’t meant as a criticism, my bringing it up,” he said then, throwing me that open sincere look that is so much a part of Slim. “I just got to thinking as to how much you’ve changed since Albuquerque. How much we both have, I guess, and for the better too.”

I just nodded and stared deep into the fire and cast my mind back to that time that seemed so different from my life today, almost like another country — another person.

Yeah, I’d changed — but at what cost. I might not have died, but then I guess maybe there are some things that happen in life that are almost worse, or at least they seem that way at the time. Pain, suffering, misery or just dread of what may befall those you care about…

*****

I guess it had all been building up for a few weeks, even before I got that telegram which sent me flying headlong into trouble as I headed back down to the southern states.

See, the reason I stayed on at the Sherman Ranch in the first place — really tried to make a go of things — was down to young Andy, Slim’s kid brother. It was him that welcomed me when I drifted in that day looking for that no-hoper card sharp who had fleeced me. Anyway, guess I kinda felt sorry for the boy, stuck out in the middle of nowhere and watching folks coming and going on stages which he never got to ride on.

Then Slim there seemed like he was real hard on the boy, makin’ him toe the line, doin’ chores and having no fun…or so it seemed at the time. Then once I landed, well, I guess things changed some. I really took to the life and enjoyed being around the boy too, getting up to mischief of all sorts and driving Slim and old Jonsey crazy with our antics.

Looking back on it now, I figure I was just making up for lost time. See, I didn’t get much of a childhood, bein’ born into the kinda family which had next to nuthin’ and not a lot of hope of getting anythin’ better either, with my Pa spending most of our money, hard earned as it was working the land, down at the saloon.

But I guess it was pretty much the same for most of us young ‘uns down on the Panhandle at that time and anyways moaning about it don’t change nuthin’. But like I say, I just wanted the kid to really enjoy bein’ a kid, while he still had the chance.

Then there was Jonsey.

 Boy, what a character he was, with his lifelong mistrust of anything on four legs, horses in particular.

 And boy, could the old fellah moan.

 I’ve met some pretty fussy women in my life, but ol’ Jonsey… Dadgum it, he could nag for Texas.

Walking yard mud in on his clean floors, not turning up for our grub on time, messin’ up clean clothes or worse rippin’ ‘em up.

“How in hell am I supposed to break these doggone mustangs and come in clean as a dang new born baby?” I yelled.

“Well, that’s your problem, boy; if you had to do all the washing and mending I do, you’d surely be more careful.”

“Yeah, yeah. So has anyone ever told you, you sound more like an old housewife than any old housewife?”

“Well, if that’s the way you feel, you won’t want any of my good Mulligan stew then?”

“Aw…Jonsey I didn’t mean it.”

Then there was that god-awful liniment he brewed up and insisted on using on everything from a bruised fetlock on the horses to a chest cold in us poor humans.

But give the old timer his due; he sure nursed you pretty good if you were really banged up bad, like I had been more than once, having stopped a bullet or two in my time.

Yep, Jonsey was a character alright, but I never expected to miss him so much when he went to St Louis to look out for Andy when the boy went off to school there.

Well sure, I missed Andy something fierce, just the way Slim did.

I’d kinda figured the set-up around there by then, and knew that Slim was just hard on the boy on occasions as he was havin’ to take the place of his Ma and Pa, who had both died a few years  since, leaving a young Slim to bring up the kid almost on his own, save for Jonesy’s input. I guess that was why he was so hard on me too, especially when he caught me teachin’ the boy the kinda stuff only a gunslinger knows. Well, I reckon I was real out of order there.

Anyways, if we both missed young Andy, I reckon we didn’t figure on missing old Jonsey quite as much as we did, and not for his banter and sense of humor, that’s for sure. Nope, but hell, we sure missed all the chores he did around the place and I guess that’s where the trouble really started.

We’d had a rough old winter of it, losing stock in a very early snow storm and trying to beat the weather, bringing the rest down in the snow, which weren’t easy. Then we were snowed in for a few weeks, making us both pretty near stir crazy — me just as bad as Slim, if not worse, just craving the spring and some time out in  the big open, even  if it just meant taking those ornery old steers back up to the summer  grazing.

Once that was done, I figured that maybe things would settle down, but they just got worse.

I remember we nearly lost our tempers completely one morning when I was tryin’ to bring in the clean washing off the line and Slim wouldn’t let me in the house because of the mud on my boots messin’ up his clean floors. Well, I’ll tell you, it nearly came to blows that day, until we just caved in laughing, realizing how stupid we were acting, like a couple of spoilt kids.

Then that fatal day dawned when the wire arrived.

It  was my turn to make the breakfast, and  seeing  as yours truly ain’t so good at getting’ goin’ in the mornings,  it  was kinda late, which put Slim’s back up before he even saw the burnt offering  I shoved down on the table in front of him.

He stared down at the burned bacon and blackened eggs and turned a look of disbelief in my direction. “What in blue blazes is this?” he yelled.

“It’s your breakfast, take it or leave it!” I spat back.

He stood up, his six foot somethin’ frame towering over where I was seated at the table, sipping my gut rot coffee. “I’ll leave it,” he managed before striding out of the kitchen, those big long legs of his covering the ground before I could think of a suitably harsh reply.

It was just a short while later that I heard the stage rattling in and thought of making amends by changing the team while old Mose the driver and Slim came in and sampled my biscuits, which were slightly less well done than the bacon.

I strolled out and grinned up at where the old-timer had brought the stage to rest just by the door, the horses sweating and blowing ready for their food and drink and good rub down.

“What have you done to your boss?” he called down to me an eyebrow raised in question. “He sure is in an ornery mood today.”

I cast a glance at my buddy’s back, where he had marched off to get the replacement team and suddenly felt a wave of regret hit me. Hell, it wasn’t anyone’s fault if we weren’t as good at all that domestic stuff as old Jonsey had been, and I resolved to make it up to him later, maybe shout him supper at Miss Molly’s café in town later in the week.

“Just missin’ Andy and Jonsey, I guess,” I answered. “Coffee and biscuits inside for you, Mose.”

The old man jumped down from the box, and then patting his pockets for a minute or two, finally found what he was looking for and produced a telegram. “For you, son,” he said, looking at the envelope with interest, “from down New Mexico way, I believe?”

“Oh really,” I answered, thrusting it into my own vest pocket. “Thanks.”

“You ain’t gonna read it then?”

“Got work to do, haven’t I, Mose.” I replied with a hard look, before starting to deal with the team.

It was much later when Mose had headed off, throwing me a hurt look, and Slim had gotten stuck into cleaning out the chucks, that I got a moment to myself to check out the message.

I stood in the barn, in Traveler’s stall, and ripped open the envelope, before staring down at the content with at first shock and then anger — no, anger didn’t come anywhere near. I was way beyond angry; I was doggone furious and all fired up to kill someone, and nobody but nobody was gonna stop me.

It was Slim as tried. “So where do you think you’re off to?”

Well I guess this is where we came in…

“I’m going to Albuquerque to kill a man,” I answered.

“Jess!”

“What?” I barked angrily.

“Are you crazy? What in hell’s gotten into you lately?”

I turned around to face him from where I was saddling Traveler.

“Maybe I’ve just realized this ain’t the life for me after all Slim. I’ve got to go and do this and I know you can’t accept that, .so I guess it’s a parting of the ways.

So that’s exactly what I did. I saddled up and rode out of the Sherman Ranch and Relay for what I really thought was the last time.

Sure I really rated Slim; hell, I guess even then, I figured he was the best friend as I’d ever have. Young Andy was a real great kid too, but I couldn’t take that chance — the chance of them getting mixed up in all the trouble I carried, and especially the stuff as was waiting for me down in New Mexico. Hell, you wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy, and certainly not a good friend like Slim.

*****

Only it wasn’t as easy as that, of course.

There was no way Slim was gonna let me ride out of there without a battle.

At first he was real angry. “What in hell are you talking about, Jess? I need you here. What am I supposed to do, run the whole damn shooting match on my own?”

I shrugged. “I guess school will be out soon and Andy and Jonesy will be back to help you.”

He suddenly looked incredibly sad, and pulling a letter out of his vest pocket, waved it in front of my nose. “Well that’s where you’re wrong. You weren’t the only one to get mail today. Mose gave me this just now, from Andy, says that Jonesy’s sacroiliac is playing up and he’s booked in for surgery, so neither of them will be going anyplace this summer.”

I took this piece of information in my stride, kinda relieved that the boy wouldn’t be moping around the place when Slim told him I’d lit out.

“OK, so call the Jackson boys in,” I said referring to a neighbor’s sons. “They’ll be home from college in a week or so and I figure as how you won’t be payin’ me no more, you can afford them to come by. And anyways, you said yourself it was real quiet right now.”

“Jess…”

“And think how much you’ll save not havin’ me eatin’ you out of house and home.”

“Jess, will you shut up and listen to me…”

I said nothing, just stood there, my hand resting on my gun, but  we both knew I wouldn’t draw on him, .not after last time when he’d gotten the gun off of me just by askin’ me for it. Wouldn’t — hell, couldn’t — ever hurt him that way again and he knew it.

“Look, come in the house and tell me what was in that wire, at least,” he said humoring me now.

“How do you know about? Hell, I’ll swing for that old goat Mose; just doesn’t know when to mind his own dang business!” I spat angrily.

“Please Jess, you owe me that at least — an explanation of some sort?”

I suddenly felt madder than a wet hen. “Oh no, oh no you don’t, Slim. Don’t you dare play the guilt card. Sure I owe you — more than you’ll ever know — but that don’t make it right that I should cave in. This is my private business and nuthin’ you can say or do is gonna stop me, so you might as well just save your breath.” I turned back to Traveler, giving the cinch an unnecessarily hard jerk, making my horse flinch and turn reproachful eyes on me.

I patted his neck gently. “Sorry, boy,” I whispered before taking the reins and leading him out of the barn, and then hopping lightly up into the saddle.

Slim followed me out and stood staring up at me. “So you’re really going then — just riding out and not coming back?”

I thought of the odds that I might come back and figured they were stacked against me. Hell, to be honest, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I’d be back.

I swallowed, suddenly finding it real hard to speak. “I’m sorry, Slim,” I finally managed, and leaning down, offered my hand.

He stared at it for some seconds before finally taking it and shaking it.

“It’s better you don’t know, pard — really, it is,” I whispered before kicking my horse off up the rise at a brisk trot.

I paused at the top of the hill, and reining Traveler in, looked back to where Slim still stood where I had left him, gazing after me.

I touched my hat in a last little farewell salute and was gratified when he raised a hand in acknowledgement. Feeling like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on, I turned and headed for the Laramie road, leaving the life I had come to love and my friends behind me forever.

*****

When I hit town, I went straight to the bank, although I knew there was precious little in my account after the bad year we’d had previously, when I’d worked for no pay for a few weeks just to keep our heads above water. There certainly wasn’t enough for a railroad ticket, and anyways, I figured if it was to be my last week or two on earth, I might as well enjoy a leisurely ride in the company of my faithful old horse.

Next I went and replied to the wire before I hit the mercantile and stocked up for the journey, so it was early evening when I finally made for my last port of call — the Laramie saloon.

As I had hoped, Millie came over to greet me at once.

“Hey Jess, what are you doing out here on a week night? Slim finally gotten sick of your cooking and thrown you off the ranch?” she said with her cheeky grin, her beautiful brown eyes sparking with delight at seeing me.

“Somethin’ like that, sweetheart,” I said with a smile I found hard to muster.

She poured me a beer without waiting for the order, and after casting a practiced eye down the bar to check nobody was waiting to be served, she came and leaned on the bar counter opposite me, her tightly fitting low cut dress showing off her curvy figure to perfection. “Jess?”

I guess my eyes had kinda drifted south, and I reluctantly dragged them back up to her questioning face. “Huh?”

“I said have you really had a fall-out with Slim?”

“Nah…well, not really. See, I’ve got some personal business to attend to down in New Mexico and he ain’t too pleased at me pullin’ out,” I said with typical Harper understatement.

She nodded at that imagining the scene, I guess.

“Anyways, figured I’d stop by and say…..” I suddenly realized I couldn’t do this — lie to Millie. It was unthinkable, and anyways, she’d see right through it like she always did. But how could I break the truth to her that I was leaving for good?

“Say what, Jess?” she asked looking puzzled.

“Say good-bye, I guess,” I said feeling choked.

“Well, that sounds kind of permanent.”

I just shrugged and then someone called for a whiskey, and she made off, saying she’d catch me later.

It was much later, towards the end of the evening, when she wandered over again. “You staying over?” she whispered, just like I knew she would.

I nodded. “Thanks, sweetheart. Guess I’m feelin’ kind edgy, though. Sure you wanna put up with me?”

She grinned at that. “Well, I’ve got a real good cure for that,” she said with a wicked wink before sashaying down the bar to serve some last orders.

See the thing you have to know about me and Millie is that we go way back and have been best friends since we were kids together back on the Texas Panhandle. Best friends and lovers too, as long as neither of us is seeing anyone else, that is. Millie’s OK with that, provided I’m always honest with her. Right then, we weren’t seeing anyone and if she chose to share her bed with me, then I figure that’s nobodies dang business but ours.

Right then, I guess I really needed a little lovin’, even though it darned near broke my heart knowing it would be the last time.

I gave her five minutes before I said my goodnights in the bar and made my way outside, down the alley and up the outside staircase to the top floor.

She threw the door open at my first tap and ushered me in, casting  a glance up and down  the corridor before closing and locking  the door behind her and turning to face me. “So what’s all this about, Jess? Sounds kind of cloak and dagger. So what’s this personal business down south then?”

I knew if I told her she’d be real upset, maybe even try and talk me out of it like Slim would had. But there again, she knows me too dang well and so she probably wouldn’t bother, knowing there was no profit in arguing with me once my minds made up on somethin’.

Either way, I didn’t want to discuss it right then, and so did what came naturally and leaned in for a kiss, pretty soon finding out about my proposed trip was the last thing on her mind.

The lovin’ was so, so sweet and so darned sad too, knowing it was the last time I would ever lay with her. It sure was a pure joy, as it always was with Millie, but it wasn’t until she lay in my arms later and ran a finger gently down my cheek and wiped a tear away that I realized I was crying.

“Jess honey, what is it?” she whispered.

“Nuthin’, sweetheart, I’m OK.” I sighed and pulled her close, her head lying on my shoulder as we stretched out in her big comfy bed; I gently stroked her hair, too choked to speak.

When I awoke, the first light of dawn was shining through the window and the bed was empty.

I rolled my head on the pillow and watched her idly as she knelt by the open fire and carefully poured us both a coffee before bringing mine over and placing it on the nightstand.

She wore the brief, low cut white nightgown of the night before, and with her bare feet and tousled dark hair loose around her shoulders, she looked just like the young girl I recalled from our childhood.

“Hey, don’t get cold, sweetheart,” I whispered, sitting up and pulling the bedding back so she could climb back in beside me.

She made to get in and then paused by where I’d thrown my shirt on a chair the night before. “Want a smoke with your coffee?” she asked.

“Sure, thanks,” I nodded and she delved into my shirt pocket where she knew I kept my smokes and pulled the packet out — along  with the telegram in  its buff envelope, my  name clearly visible through the little window.

She held it aloft. “Umm…so is this a clue to this ‘personal business’ you’ve managed to sidestep telling me about?” she asked with her attractive little giggle.

“Millie, give that here,” I said, suddenly terrified that she would read it.

“Hey honey, so what’s so important then? Is it from a lady?” she asked looking a little surprised. “It’s not like you to keep that kind of thing secret, Jess. I thought we had an understanding about that?”

“We do…we have, sure,” I said quickly. “It ain’t from a woman. Please, Mill, just leave it, will you?”“

“So when did we ever have secrets?” she asked, throwing me a startled look.

I just hung my head. “Ok, read the damn thing; you will anyway.”

She tore the envelope open and started to read.

I watched the expression on her beautiful face change from moderate interest, through to alarm and finally horror as he eyes opened wide in shock. “Hell Jess, you can’t be serious? You’re not going are you?”

I stared over at her, my expression mirroring hers, now one of despair.

“How can I not?” I whispered.

“Oh, Jess…”

“Come here,” I said pulling the bedding back again and she ran over and threw herself into my arms, now weeping softly.

I pulled her close, gently caressing her hair. “It’s OK, sweetheart, it’s OK,” I whispered, although we both knew it really wasn’t OK at all.

We finally made love again and then fell asleep in each other’s arms until we were awoken by someone hammering on the door.

Noontide sun was streaming through the windows, illuminating Millie’s still tear-stained face as she lay in the crook of my arm. “Go away,” she called. “I’m sick. Just tell Tom I won’t be down for work today. “

When the pounding continued, she sighed, and rolling her eyes at me, pulled on her shawl and padded across the room, pulling the door open revealing a sulky looking Ruby.

“I said I was sick,” said Millie, quickly trying to push the door closed.

Had it been Lily or any of her other workmates, they would have covered for her, but, oh no, not the miserable and extremely lazy Ruby.

Ruby dodged inside the open door and peered across at where I was still laying in the bed, and then threw me a wicked grin. “Oh dear, so are you sick too, Jess?” she asked giving me an intimate look followed by a lecherous wink.

“Look, Millie’s kinda upset; just cover for her, will you, Ruby?” I asked forcing a smile in her direction.

Ruby seemed to weigh up the question and then turned and brushed past Millie, who was still holding the door open. “Nah, I don’t think so,” she replied nastily. “I’ll tell Tom you’ll be down directly, Millie, unless you’d like him to pop up with some hot milk or something…you being so ill and all?”

I guess Mille knew when she was beat. “I’ll be right down,” she spat, slamming the door before turning heartbreakingly sad eyes on me. “Is there anything I can say — do — to stop you? “

I shook my head. “It’s out of my hands now, sweetheart; figure I don’t have no choice.”

She just nodded and we dressed hurriedly before she showed me out, down the back stairs.

I turned in the yard and kissed her one last time, and then opened my mouth to speak, but she stopped me with a finger on my lips.

“Don’t say it, Jess; don’t you dare say goodbye.” Turning, she ran back up the stairs, sobbing quietly.

*****

I rode out ten minutes later, pausing by the saloon door for a moment, hoping to maybe catch a last glimpse of her, but knowing it was unlikely.

Then I spurred Traveler off up Main Street at a gallop, suddenly unwilling to face Mort Corey or Doc Sam Baker — indeed any of my Laramie friends. I just needed to get away and face up to this whole sorry mess, while I still kept my nerve.

I made for Cheyenne and then picked up the Goodnight Loving cattle trail, which I knew would take me down as far as New Mexico.

OK, it wasn’t the safest route, I figured, what with renegade Indians around, the disastrous time they’d had on the reservation making a few of them real ornery, but hell, who could blame them after being treated that way?

Then there were stretches of real rough terrain, deserts to cross, mountain passes to find and rivers to ford, but I’d done it before and I reckoned me and ol’ Trav could do it again. I was so dang mad I kinda took off not really caring as to my fate anyways. I just had to get there in time.

I was probably near on a week into my journey when disaster struck and I kinda figured, well, maybe I didn’t feel too sorry for those ol’ renegade Indians after all; nope, not one little bit.

It was high summer when I rode out, and the further south I travelled the hotter it got, making the going real hard, with us resting in any shade we could find from the midday sun for an hour or two before pushing on until it was almost dark most days.

The previous day we were getting dangerously short of water and that’s why I took a risk and drank from a waterhole that was far from fresh. I should have realized when Traveler turned his nose up at it, but by then it was too dang late. Hell, I’d only had a small sip or two before deciding it was tainted, but I guess that was enough, and later that day I was sick as a dog and spent the rest of the day and night with a raging fever and chucking up until my belly ached. I just wanted the blessed relief of a peaceful death and sooner rather than later too!

The next morning, although weak as a day- old pup, the fever had broken and  I wasn’t chucking up anymore, so I  figured I’d better get on my way, having lost a good day of travelling and knowing I had to make my destination on  time or face the consequences.

I was just north of Pueblo and heading west, making for the Arkansas River where I could fill up my canteens and water Traveler too. I guess it was because I was so dadgum thirsty, after my sickness, that I didn’t take enough care, if I’m bein’ honest.

It was getting on for noon by the time we saw the river’s sparkling waters down in the valley below us, and urging Trav off to a brisk trot, we made it down that last mile or so in record time. Well, to be honest, I figure the old fellah was as desperate for a drink as I was, so I guess I couldn’t have slowed him down any even if I’d had the strength, which I didn’t.

I slipped from the saddle and led him over to the river, which was running slow after the scorching sun had been burning down relentlessly day after day, but it was fresh and cool. I watched my horse for a moment, and once I was sure he wasn’t drinking too fast, I knelt down by the edge, and cupping the freezing water in my hands, drank and then splashed more over my face and shirt. The feeling was dadgum wonderful after the long hot ride.

I was just debating whether to strip off and have a good wash when something startled Traveler; his head jerked up and he gave a little warning whicker.

“What’s up, boy?” I whispered, looking nervously around.

Then they hit — a band of six or seven renegade Apaches, whooping and screaming, war paint on and bloodlust in their eyes.

They seemed to come from nowhere and then they were suddenly upon me, splashing through the shallows at the river’s edge, their paint pony’s kicking up spray and the sunlight flashing on their raised tomahawks and knives .

The first two braves were the only ones with rifles, and as they opened fire, I quickly came to my senses, diving and rolling before sending back a barrage of fire, killing the first one and wounding the other.

Then the remaining braves were upon me, their eyes blazing with fury, just lookin’ for revenge.

 Well, if they were furious, I was none too pleased either, and from some hidden place, deep inside of me, I seemed to get the strength of ten and I fought them off killing one with his own knife.

Then two of them attacked me at the same time and we exchanged blows before rolling around in the shallows when one managed to get on top of me and force my head below the water.

I could feel his hands, vice-like around my throat; my chest was feeling like it would explode and then somehow I managed to break free and I was atop, pushing him under the water, until just minutes later I felt his grasp on me slacken and knew he was gone.

All the time I had been holding him down, the other Indian had been trying to drag me off, and as I finally loosed my hold on his buddy, I staggered up and smashed a fist into his face, knocking him out cold and he too sank below the icy waters.

There were just two left, now plus the rifle-toting brave that I had shot in the shoulder.

I stood in the shallows, shaking and cussing under my breath, watching them to see what they would do.

They were just a few yards away and seemed to be in deep conversation. I went for my gun, before realizing it had been lost during my last skirmish and my rifle was on Traveler, who had sensibly taken himself off downstream a way.

Then a miracle happened; one of the Indians helped the injured one up on his pony, and  leaping up on his own horse, made off at speed the way they had come, leading the injured man’s mount.

I fixed an icy stare on the last remaining brave, hoping to God that he would just back down and follow his brothers, because I was sure done in now and hardly had the strength to wade out of the river.

After a pause that seemed to last for minutes, but was actually merely seconds, he seemed to come to a decision and slowly started making his way towards me.

I figured he’d seen I was pretty much done in and was goin’ to try his luck.

We circled each other like a pair of big cats, him with a vicious looking tomahawk and me with just my hunting knife giving him the advantage of a longer reach.

He made several slashes aimed at my head with the axe, which I ducked and then my strength and luck finally ran out.

In my weakened state, I was now hardly able to function. Sweat was pouring down my back and face, and my vision was blurring, making the dancing, plunging Indian slashing the tomahawk in my direction, seem almost like some strange unworldly vision.

Then, like a rattler, he struck, bringing the tomahawk down hard and knocking the knife from my hand before he lurched forward, wrong footing me, and I fell hard on my back,  my breath and  all  my fight suddenly knocked out of me.

He threw himself down on top, straddling  me, and  pining me down  with one hand  on my chest and then with a murderous look in his dark eyes, raised the tomahawk aloft and poised himself ready to smash it into my skull…

I could smell the sweat on him, see the garish paint on his face, the bright feathers in his night black hair, saw the curl of his lips as he threw me a sneer of triumph and I closed my eyes tightly, but even as I continued to struggle, I knew that this was it — this was the end.

*****

A rifle shot rang out — and I felt the Indian pitch to one side, the bullet to his back killing him instantly. His lifeless hand dropped the tomahawk as he fell partially across me, his dead weight crushing me.

After a minute, using the last of my strength, I managed to pull myself upright, heaving the lifeless form away from me, and then sat, staring off into the distance to where the shot had come from.

Through the heat haze of the noontide sun, I saw a tall figure make his way towards me, those long legs covering the ground in seconds and then he was kneeling down beside me and I was peering into the deeply concerned eyes of…Slim Sherman.

“What in hell are you doin’ here?” I finally managed.

“Came looking for you,” he replied evenly.

I just shook my head. “Why, Slim? Why’d you do that after the way I left?”

“Because you need me — don’t you?” he asked with that big grin of his that lights up his whole face.

I just shook my head again. “This ain’t your fight, Slim,” I muttered, feeling real choked now.

“Let me be the judge of that,” he said firmly. Now, you getting up or what?” Grinning again, he offered a hand.

Slim hauled me up and then gazed at me as I stood there shivering in spite of the sun beating down, and then as I bent down to retrieve my hat, I staggered, nearly falling again.

“Hey, take it easy, pard. You want to sit a spell get your wind back?” he asked kindly.

“Nah, figure we’d better be movin’, Slim. If there are any more of those ol’ coyotes about, I figure that shot will bring ‘em down on us.”

He nodded. “Anything I can do for you, Jess, just say huh?”

“Well, there is one thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Go fetch my horse, will you? He wandered off that away — ‘bout a mile downstream by now, I guess.”

Slim rolled his eyes at that. “Don’t push it, Jess.”

But he still jumped up on Alamo and went off to fetch my good old horse back, and as soon as he returned, we crossed the river and covered our tracks well before heading due south for the Santa Fe Trail. We didn’t stop until we’d put one heck of a lot of miles between us and the Indian territory, I can tell you.

We finally settled in a cool wooded area near a stream, and boy, was I ready to rest up.

We’d been so busy putting the miles between us and the hostiles that we’d hardly spoken, and so it wasn’t until supper time that we actually really talked things through as we sat by the camp fire and dusk slowly fell around us.

I’d refused any food, much to Slim’s astonishment.

“I was runnin’ kinda low on water yesterday, and then the hole I’d remembered from my last trip turned out to be sour. Heck, I only had a drop, Slim, and I’ve been sick as a dog and had a real bad belly ache ever since; just can’t stomach food even now.”

Not to mention the multitude of cuts and bruises I was sporting after my run-in with the Indians. Yep, I guess I was feelin’ kinda sorry for myself.

Slim threw me a sympathetic look. “I was wondering as to how I managed to catch up with you seeing as how you had a day’s start on me. Now I know; you must have lost a day being poorly.”

I nodded. Yep, but I’m more interested as to why you’ve come, Slim.”

“Like I said, because you need me right now.”

I turned and smiled across at him then. “Yeah. I guess you’re right. Thanks for today, Slim; figure you saved my bacon.”

“So are you going to tell me what this is all about? Millie was real upset when she told me about it the other night.”

“Millie?”

“Sure. It was her as told me about the wire. Way she talks, you’re on a suicide mission, Jess.”

I was silent for a long time and picked up my gun that I’d fished out of the river, and started cleaning it, before I finally glanced over at where Slim sat patiently waiting. “Maybe I am,” I finally whispered. “Maybe I am.”

“Well, are you going to tell me?” he persisted.

I sighed deeply. I really didn’t  want  Slim  involved, didn’t want him  anywhere near that Mexican bandit, the one who was allegedly the fastest draw in Mexico — hell, the whole dang country if folk could be believed. The one who was now gunning for me — Pedro Fernandez.

I reluctantly explained to Slim how I’d met Fernandez back in Texas where he was trouble, even as a young man. He was a good five years older than me and was in and out of jail for petty crime.

“My earliest memory of him when I was about ten and he was fifteen,” I said gazing over at Slim, remembering that time like it  was just yesterday. “I caught him whipping his donkey. The poor little critter was so heavy laden it could hardly move, and he just stood there yellin’ at it and whipping him and I guess I saw red. Well, he was a good foot taller and way heavier, but I just flew at him, knocked him  down and started punchin’ an’ kicking, like the very devil was in me.”

“I can imagine,” Slim said with a broad grin. “Guess you’ve always cared for the  four legged critters more than humans, haven’t you, Jess. You kind of understand each other,” he chuckled.

“Yeah, well ,they don’t answer back — or make stupid comments,” I said dryly.

“OK, OK, go on I’m listening.”

“Well an adult came and pulled me off, read us both the riot act, and then  made him unload the poor beast, so I guess I won on  points.”

“Then what?”

“Oh, we had a few more skirmishes — nuthin’ serious, just kid’s stuff —  until he got in  with a gang and left town. Got himself a serious career as a gunslinger, bank robber, bounty hunter — real respectable, you know?” I said with a harsh laugh.

“Sounds like a real character.”

“Oh yeah, he was that  alright, and real good at what he did, I have to say. Fastest darn  draw I’ve ever seen.”

Slim’s head shot up at that and he looked anxious. “Faster than you?”

I thought  about it, but not for long. “Yep, I guess so.”

“Hell Jess, so why are you going up against him? Are you mad?”

“I’ve gotta, Slim. See, some of my old friends are in danger; he’s using them as collateral to get me to meet him.”

Slim shook his head at that. “I might  have known that crazy sense of loyalty of yours would  be  involved.”

 Well, I reacted kinda badly to that.

“Hell, what do you want me to do, Slim? Just stand by while he kills my friend’s wife and daughter, or goddamn hurts them real bad — rapes then  in  front of him  maybe —  and then finally kills them all real slow and painful, because that’s his style. Why finish a man  cleanly if you can  make him suffer?”

“He sounds a bundle of laughs,” said Slim with a grim expression.

“Oh yeah, he’s great fun.” I agreed, spinning the chamber of my gun before I started loading the now clean, dry iron.

“So you’re going  to stand up to him then?”

“Like I said to Millie, I ain’t got no choice, Slim.”

“There’s always a choice, Jess. Hell, haven’t you learnt that yet? Why don’t you  call in  the law to deal with  him?”

I just laughed at that. “Have you any idea what the law is like down here? They’re either terrified of him or in league with him. Either way, they ain’t  gonna go out of their way to help me. Nope, most of the lawmen would rather watch him hightail it over the border to Mexico when he’s committed a crime than  take him on. “

“Sounds like maybe they’re sensible,” Slim  said thoughtfully, “if he’s as fast as you say. “

“Meaning I’m not sensible?” I growled.

He just shrugged at that and changed the subject. “So who are these folk you’ve  come all this way to protect?”

My expression softened at that. “The nicest folks you could meet on a long day’s walk, Slim Martha and Chuck Davies and  their daughter, young Nancy. They were close neighbors and friends — well, to me anyways — when we lived on the Panhandle.”

“To you? Not the rest of the family? “

“Ummm, I guess Ma and  Mrs. Davies got on  OK, but not Pa — not after what happened anyways.”

He  just raised an eyebrow at that so I carried on, although reluctantly, hating to recall those times,  the way my Pa was an all…

“I was just a little kid — six, maybe seven — and Pa had kept us kids off school to work the land again and I guess I was real tired. I remember the sun was just setting, and I figured Pa would be off to the saloon soon and  I could sneak back inside have some grub and a drink.”

Slim just nodded looking  real sad.

“Anyways, just as I thought, Pa came out bound for the saloon and saw me takin’ a rest and came over and really laid into me, callin’ me a lazy little bastard — all the usual stuff, you know,” I said casting my eyes down embarrassed.

“Yep, go on Jess,” he said kindly.

“Well, he lashed out , sent me flyin’ into next week, and next thing I know, he’s lyin’ in the dirt beside me with a bloody nose and  old man Davies standing over him looking  real mad.”

“ ‘If I catch you abusing  those kids of yours one more time I’m calling the law in,’ he spat and Pa…well, he looked real fearful, knowing that would cost him his job — lose the land and the house too, it all belonging to the farmer and  us just workin’ the land on shares.

“So what happened?”

“Well, Pa went to the saloon and  I went home and hid under the bed, just dreadin’ him  comin’ back, knowing I’d be in for worse, much worse — but nuthin’,”  I said, raising astonished eyes to Slim,  still amazed all these years later.

“And he never hit me outside the house again. Plenty of times behind closed doors. But never again in front of anyone, and from then on Mr. Davies watched out for me. He was a great guy, Slim.”

I thought back to that time with deep gratitude in my heart. “He and his family were there for me after the Bannister gang fired our home,” I continued, referring  to the  terrible tragedy that  befell our  family  when  I was just a kid of fifteen and  the Bannisters had set  the fire to our homestead, killing my Ma and Pa and most of my  brothers and sisters. There had been seven in my family and only three of us walked out alive. “He and Martha were there for us,  Slim; looked after me until I rode out after the gang. Said there would  always be a home there for me. They didn’t have to do that, you know.”

He nodded, knowing all about that terrible time; hell, I woke him occasionally with the nightmares I still got.

“We met up again when I came home from  the war. He and Martha were real kind to me. I was in a bad way, Slim, still sick after my spell in the field hospital — and so sick at heart with all that killin’. Well, you know how it was.”

He nodded. “Sure I do, pard.”

“But I ain’t seen them since. I never forgot them him lookin’ out for me that way, though, Slim and I guess I really owe them.”

“Yeah, I can understand as how you’d feel that way. So why do you think he did that, stood by you that very first time, I mean? Your Pa was a big man and handy with his fists. Wasn’t Davies bothered?”

“I guess not and I thought about that later. Maybe it was because I used to stand up for young Nancy; she was kinda bullied at school.”

“Oh?”

“Umm,” I said looking down  not wanting to go there.

“So, this Nancy must be about your age. Maybe she’s moved on now, Jess; gotten married so Fernandez won’t be able to hurt her,” he suggested hopefully.

I shook my head no. “She won’t be. “

“But Jess, you haven’t seen them in years; you don’t know that.”

“I do. See, Nancy just ain’t the marryin’ kind,” I said gruffly. “Now just leave it, Slim; I’m kinda beat.”

“OK, just one last thing. Why does he want to kill you, Jess? Why now? Just because you didn’t hit it off as kids?”

I sighed deeply. “There was a woman, well, Fernandez’s woman. She was kinda keen on me at one time.”

“I might have known it!” Slim exploded.

“Look, I ain’t done anything Slim , not touched her and  I guess that’s the problem. What is it they say — hell hath no fury like…”

“A woman scorned,” he finished. “So she’s got this Fernandez all fired up and gunning for you because of some lies she’s made up?”

I just nodded. “Maybe.”

He shook his head sadly and made to turn in.

“Oh Jess, what are we going to do with you?” Slim sighed and, stretching out. pulled his hat over his face and was soon snoring softly.

But I just lay there staring up at the stars. That time I had rejected her — and hell who wouldn’t; even I’m not crazy enough to mess with Fernandez’s woman — that time had been years ago. The last time I’d seen her, hell, we’d  hardly exchanged two words. So why oh why was she doin’ this to me?

*****

When I awoke the following morning, I knew just what I had to do.

Slim had rustled up some bacon and beans, and although I still wasn’t too hungry, I ate some before pushing my plate away. After a swig of coffee, I looked across the fire to where he was polishing off his meal with relish. “Slim, we need to talk.”

“Huh,” he asked looking over. You want some more beans?”

“No…no thanks.” I sighed deeply, searching for the words.

“Well, what?”

“I want you to go home.”

“What!”

“You heard me. Go back to the Relay. Like I said, this is my fight and I don’t want you gettin’ involved.”

He looked real serious at that. “Well, I figure the day we became friends I WAS involved. Reckon it goes with the territory of friendship, doesn’t it, Jess?”

“Look Slim, don’t try an’ confuse me with fancy words and ideas. Sure we’re friends, but there just ain’t no point.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you know what I have to  do — face up to Fernandez and there ain’t much likelihood of me walkin’ away from  it. And  even if by some miracle I do, well, I won’t be coming back to the ranch.”

“Well why in hell not?” he yelled, looking really angry then.

“Because I ain’t no good for you, Slim — or the boy. How many times have I brought trouble to your door since I first landed? How many times have I ridden out with you never knowing when I’d be back, and then I’d land home all shot up or hurt and you and ol’  Jonsey would have to fix me up? Well it just ain’t right, Slim. I’m movin’ on and you ain’t coming,” I finished, knowing my eyes were flashing black with anger now.

“So you don’t want me along?”

“Said so didn’t I?” I spat.

He just bowed his head at that and then after a moment looked me in the eye and said quietly, “You’re lying, Jess.”

I jumped up at that and went and stood beside him staring down. “I ain’t lyin’. Now just ride out for home, Slim!”I yelled before turning and collecting my gear and marching off to saddle up Traveler.

He followed me over a few minutes later and just stood watching me, until I turned back to him.

“Just answer me one thing,” Slim said.

“Go on,” I sighed.

“Do you really value yourself so little that you think you can  ride away and not be missed?”

I shrugged at that. Maybe, I thought.

“Hell, Jess, not only would me, Andy and Jonsey miss you, but what about your Millie, Mort, the Doc and Carrie, even ol’ Mose. Can you really not see that?”

In my heart, I guess I knew the truth of it, now that he’d spelled it out for me, that is, but what did it matter? I was gonna die anyway, wasn’t I?

“Look maybe we can change things, reason with this Fernandez — or his lady, if this is down to her. Maybe we can make her change her mind, exonerate you from whatever it  is you’re supposed to have done?”

I gave him the ghost of a smile at that. “There you go again, Slim, tryin’ to wrong foot me with you big words.”

“Come on, Jess, you’re one heck of a lot smarter than you let on. You know exactly what I’m saying. Let’s give it a go…huh?”

After a while I finally nodded.

Maybe when the time came, I could persuade him to keep away from Fernandez, and right then I knew he was right; I sure as hell did needed a friend. “Sure, I understand what you sayin’…and thanks, pard. Figure maybe I could do with a little help along the way. We’ll try it the way you want.”

Looking back on that moment over the years, I figure that was a real turning point for me, on two accounts.

Firstly, I was finally able to accept help from someone else.

Jeez, I guess it was ground into me pretty deep that the only person I could ever rely on one hundred percent was me. But now, suddenly my ideas had to change. Slim was in for the long haul and ready to support me against all odds, and I knew I could really depend on him. I guess all we’d been through together since I first landed at the Relay should have made me realize that, but you know, well, some things take time to really sink in, I guess.

The second thing that finally began to dawn on me was that, yep. I was actually really important to folks — and not just because they were using me, which had been so often the case in the past — but because they genuinely cared about me. And I’ll tell you, that was one hell of a thing for me to take on board. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Slim was right and I began to rethink a heck of a lot of ideas then.

You know it’s real hard to change notions that  you’ve believed in all your life and trade them in for a whole new set of ideas and values, but I reckon on the road to Albuquerque…well, both me and ol’ Slim did just that — or started to at least.

*****

We rode into Albuquerque just before noon the following Saturday as planned.

The wire had said I should meet up with Fernandez at the Golden Nugget on Main Street, a high class saloon and gambling house owned by Miss Cristobel Sharpe, leastways that’s what she was callin’ herself now. Fernandez’s woman…and I sure had a bone to pick with her.

Slim and I strode in through the batwing doors and stood still for a moment, allowing our eyes to get used to the dim light within.

After a moment, I realized how quiet it was. Well, that wasn’t right. Wherever Fernandez was. there was always laughter and drunkenness as he surrounded himself by his followers, all drinking and carousing — and usually at his expense. But what the hell, with his lifestyle of robbing and killing for money, I figured he could afford it.

Slim and I wandered over to the bar, and after a moment Miss Cristobel herself came forwards to serve us.

Well, that was real unusual, because as the owner I imagined that she rarely served on the bar herself.

“Why, Jess honey! So to what do I owe this honor?” she asked as she sidled over.

The figure-clinging, darned near indecent, showy dress and feather boa around her neck made her look every inch the woman she was — money-grabbing and cheap, to my mind anyways, but even so, every eye in the house ogled her as she wandered over.

I fixed her with the full strength of the Harper glare and said, “You can answer me two things ‘Honey.’ So what in hell do you think you’re playin’ at, and secondly, where is that bastard Fernandez?”

Before she had a chance to answer, the Sheriff, who had been propping up the other end of the bar, sauntered over and said, “I figure I can answer the second part of the question. So who are you? ‘A good friend’ of Fernandez then?” he asked sarcastically.

“Well, I reckon as that  doesn’t describe me in anyways,” I replied, “but I sure wanna  catch up with him. Figure as how we’ve  got some business to finish. So are you gonna help me with that then, Sheriff?”

“Well I dunno, son, but if you’re so all fired wanting to catch up with him, maybe we can do some business.”

“Huh? So what do you want from me, Sheriff? Either he’s here or he ain’t.”

“He ain’t. Had a shoot-out with my deputy a few days since and the posse lost him some miles out of town, and so I figure he’ll be back over the border now and out of my jurisdiction. But a man like yourself and your partner here,” he said including Slim, “well, I figure crossing the border wouldn’t be too much of a problem. If you’ve a mind to, that is.” he finished throwing us both a speculative glance.

Slim and I exchanged a look and he nodded.

“Well, what did you have in mind, Sheriff? I take it your Deputy is dead.”

“Oh yes, very dead,” he confirmed sorrowfully, “and that’s why I was real gratified to get a wire from the Sheriff of Laramie regarding you two cowboys.”

“So Mort wired you then?” asked Slim, looking relieved.

“Sure did. Said as to how you were riding out to support your buddy here and how he was all set to take on Fernandez….” He paused and shook his head at that. “So you got a death wish then, boy?”

I ignored that. “So what else did Mort say?”

“Just that would I help you out anyway I could, and as to how you were both top men and deputized for him regular… And well that got me thinking.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, see if you’re going after Fernandez anyway, you may  as well wear a deputy badge while you’re doing it. Maybe able to get a few reinforcements if you’re can flush him back onto this side of the border, see.”

“Oh come off it, Sheriff,” I said angry now. “You and I both know that every lawman in the territory gives Fernandez a wide berth; that’s how he’s gotten away with murder for so dang long.”

The Sheriff looked like he was gonna argue the toss with me, but then just looked away, embarrassed. “Maybe you’ve got a point at that, boy,” he muttered. “I was out of town and I guess young Clint was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Come on, Sheriff, everyone knows he holes up here with his woman between jobs, or else down at my old town on the panhandle, and you just turn a blind eye to it all.”

“Well no more, son; I’m all through with his filthy cheating ways and I promise you if he shows his face back in town, I’ll do my duty. I figure young Clint dying that way has been the wakeup call I needed.”

“It can’t hurt wearing a couple of deputy badges to back us up, Jess,” said Slim quietly — always the voice of reason.

I nodded. “OK Slim, maybe you’re right. We’ll come over to your office later, Sheriff; I’ve just got a little business to attend to with Miss Cristobel first.”

She showed us into the backroom, not wanting me to bawl her out in public, I guessed. She offered us a drink, which we refused, and a seat, which Slim took, while I strode over and stood with my back to the fireplace in the large elegant room. Bought with blood money, I thought as I looked around at the fancy furnishings.

Then I turned my gaze back to where she was eyeing me with that patronizing look she kept just for me.

“Well? “

“I wanna know where that bastard is for starters,” I spat, “And don’t even think on tellin’ me you don’t know.”

She smirked at that. “Now why would I lie to you, honey? And anyways I kind of want you to catch up with him. Its time you met. How long has it been since he challenged you and you walked away?”

“You know dang well it was when I came home from the war, and you know as to why I walked away too. I didn’t think it was worth getting my head blasted off for the likes of you!”

She seemed to take that one on the chin and then sidled over to me, turning those big blue eyes on me and tossing her perfect, blond hair like some kinda prize filly. “But you think it’s worth getting it blasted off for that little imbecile Nancy Davies then? “

I suddenly felt my pulses start to race and I darned near lashed out. “Don’t speak about Nancy that way,” I yelled.

She just shrugged and turned away. “You really are strange, Jess, taking the side of her over me, just the way you did all those years ago in school.”

“Well maybe that’s because she needed me, seeing as how you were the biggest bully in school and tormented her every doggone day!”

All the time this slanging match had been going on, Slim just sat there mesmerized by this. What he saw as a vision of loveliness, and feeling his eyes on her, she turned to appeal to him.

“I believe we met at the Relay Station a month or so back…Slim, isn’t it?” she said turning on the charm.

“Yeah, that’s right Ma’am,” he said rising and shaking her hand. “I knew I’d seen you; just couldn’t recall where.”

“Well Slim, can you imagine why Jess here should prefer some little nobody to a lady like me? “

He just shook his head. “No Ma’am,” and the look of admiration in his eyes suddenly made me see red. Hell, she  was such a manipulative bitch I thought. “Lady!” I spat. “Hell, you ain’t no lady. I remember you when you were called plain Mary Briggs and your Pa owned the mercantile back on  the Panhandle. You were a no good, two-timing  little whore then and I figure you ain’t no better now!”

“Jess! You can’t say that,” said Slim looking horrified.

“Why not? It’s true. Hell, she was anyone’s for a couple of dollars, and then she decided just because I weren’t interested she’d chase me. Only problem  was she had Fernandez  in  tow by then,  didn’t you” I spat. “And yeah sure, I  left town; figured I was kinda young to die.”

“Umm…but my plan worked,” she said, suddenly looking like the cat that got the cream. “He was so jealous that he bought me an engagement ring the very next day.”

I glanced down at her finger. “Don’t look like he’s  got around to making  an honest woman of you yet,” I said with a nasty grin. “Must be the longest dang engagement in history.”

Suddenly the door crashed open and her little sister Jane stood there, her eyes looking wild and furious. She marched in and stood beside me her eyes glaring at her sister.

Now Janie there was a whole different person to her sister — quiet, sweet natured and a real nice kid…..usually that is. “Tell him, Mary…tell Jess the truth!”

When Mary aka Cristobel merely turned away to gaze out of the window, Jane continued. “I got engaged a few weeks ago, to Jake — a lovely man — and we’re off to Chicago to be married next week.”

I smiled. “Well congratulations, Janie; I’m real pleased for you both.”

“Thank you,” she said quickly. “But that’s not it, Jess. The point is that my sister was so darned jealous that she formulated  this little scheme to finally force Pedro into getting Wed.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me that’s what her mystery trip through Laramie was all about?”

She nodded,” Mary told Pedro that she’d been passing through Laramie and you’d met her and made it clear that  you had feelings for her, might even be thinking of proposing….”

“What? And Fernandez swallowed that? “

“You know my sister; she can be very convincing.”

I turned on Cristobel then. “Why? Why do this to me –and worse still, why involve poor Nancy and her folks?”

“It was Pedro that thought to use them to get you here. And as to why, yes, I figure Jane is partly right. Thank you for explaining, little sister,” she said sarcastically, turning to Jane.

Then she turned back to me. “But partly revenge, Jess. You see, you don’t realize how much you hurt me rejecting me when we were kids, and later when you came back home after the war. I’d have left Fernandez for you and you know that, but you just didn’t want me, did you?”

I just shook my head at that.

Sure I didn’t. Hell even if Fernandez hadn’t been in the picture I wouldn’t have hooked up with a slut and out-and-out bully like her.

“Then I heard you’d taken up with that little tart Millie Johnson,” she said her eyes full of malice.

“Why you!” I yelled, spinning round and grabbing her arm and jerking her around to face me. “Millie is worth a hundred of you.” Hell, I’d never hit a woman, but now seemed like a real good time to start…but I pulled back in time,  taking a deep breath and just cussing softly.

Then Slim was there, beside me. “Take it easy, Jess. Maybe we should be going. Got to see the Sheriff,  remember? Jess? “

I just stood there shaking, feeling so dang mad I was almost dizzy with it.

“Jess, pard, she’s just trying to get her revenge, trying to hurt you that’s all,” Slim said gently.

“Well, I figure she’s succeeded there,” I muttered, before turning and marching out of the room. At the door, I stopped and turned back to Jane. ”Thanks for bein’ so honest…and be happy huh? “

She just nodded. “Rake care, Jess.”

Then Cristobel called me back. “You’ll find him at our old home town  on the Panhandle; said he wanted to stay  real close to the Davies family and he’d see you just as soon as you could make it.”

I just nodded and turned away without a backwards glance.

*****

We rode out for Texas the following day.

We’d been duly sworn  in  by Sheriff Dawes and agreed to bring in the prisoner dead or alive  to face the charges of bank robbery and murder of the  deputy,  although by the look in the Sheriff’s eyes, I reckoned he  wasn’t about to hold his breath.

I guess I couldn’t blame his lack of confidence in us — two cowboys  off chasin’ the fastest gun in Mexico. Well, I  figure he felt pretty much like Millie did; I was on a suicide mission and the nearer  we came to our quarry the worse I felt.

I was kinda worried about Slim too.

The weather was real hot now, even by Texas standards, the sun beating down out of a clear blue sky, day after day as we trudged through the desert-like terrain towards the Panhandle.

Poor old Slim there wasn’t used to the heat and I figure he felt it more with his blond hair and pale skin, his’ Nordic good looks’, he says his Ma used to call them, whatever that meant. I figure she was sayin’ as how they originated in colder climes way back in the old family tree, unlike yours truly.

Apparently there is some Irish blood in me — hence the dark blue eyes — goin’ way, way back and then this Irish girl had hooked up with a Mexican and I figure that’s where the black hair and dark skin color are from. So I guess I’ve got a better tolerance to the heat because of that, although to be honest, Pa used to say that us Harpers were like mutts, with all the mixture of blood in us and he was probably right at that.

Anyways, whatever the reason, old Slim there was sure sufferin’ in the heat and I had to keep reminding him to go steady with the water too, as I knew most of the watering places along the way would be pretty low by now, if not dry.

Then we were in the desert proper for a couple of days — nuthin’ but mile after mile of dust an’ sand, no water, no vegetation and no garldarn means of makin’ a fire at night when the temperature dropped way down, leaving us shivering with  the cold and miserable.

It was one such night, when we were huddled under our blankets staring up at those bright stars and a moon so close you felt like you could just pluck it out of the sky, that we started to talk. I mean, really talk, sayin’ all the kinda stuff that you just never get around to under normal times, I guess.

Talked about everything.

 How we’d grown up in completely different ways, him with a lovin’ Ma and Pa and about all the fun times he had as a kid…until his folks died when he was a young  man and then he had to take on Andy’s upbringing, which he had found real hard. Then as to how I’d landed and taught him about all the essential skills in life, like how to sweet talk a saloon girl, drink Red Eye until your head near explodes and play a mean hand of poker. He chuckled at that, the sound immensely reassuring in the dark vast silent night of the desert.

I tried to paint a picture of life growing up on the Panhandle, but I found it real hard. Sure I’d told him about  the fire and he knew what  it was like growing up in that  brood of Harpers, with my Pa way too fond of lashing out at  us kids and drinking all the profit we made working  the land. My poor downtrodden Ma, old before her time with five of us kids and another three in their graves. But the everyday grinding poverty…well, I guess I just couldn’t describe that, or wanted to really.

We talked about the war and I figure it says one hell of a lot for our friendship that we can be so darned close, such good buddies, and yet he fought for the Union and I for the Confederacy. But hell, there were good and bad on both sides, some horrendous outrages committed by soldiers in the name of war. But I guess that’s the nature of the game, and it was over — all that horror best just consigned to the history  books and I figured we’d both moved on from that time.

Then just before we fell asleep, I voiced the thing that had been on my mind since we set off from Albuquerque.

“Slim?”

“Huh?” came the sleepy reply.

“When we find Fernandez, I don’t want you…well, I don’t want you involved. Leave him to me, OK?”

“What? You want me to just stand by and let him blast you to kingdom come and not lift a finger to help?” he asked sarcastically.

I was silent for a long time. “Yep, I guess that’s about the size of it.”

“Jess?”

“Look I’ve got a plan.”

“Go on.”

“Fernandez… the way he works… Like I told you, he don’t kill a man cleanly, don’t kill him outright; he wounds him, usually shoots  him twice, maybe three times. Never fatally — just wounded so bad as you’ll die, but real slow and painfully.”

I heard a small gasp, but he said nothing.

“See, the way I figure it, after the first wound, folks lose their nerve, panic, and then he gets in the second shot. Well, I ain’t like that Slim; I don’t panic under fire.”

“Well, that’s true I guess”.

“So even if I’m a mite slower, I figure I’ve still got me a chance of bringing him down after that first shot.”

“So what are the odds?” he asked…and I could hear him holding his breath in the dark waiting for my answer.

“As good as some, better than most,” I said lightly.

*****

We hit the old town just before noon the following day and what a dump it was.

Even to my eyes, the boarded up, or partially demolished buildings gave off a feeling of death and decay ,and the businesses that had survived the onslaught of war looked tawdry and run down.

Old man Briggs mercantile was still open and doin’ brisk business I saw, and he was doubtless handing out goods on tick and then sending his heavies around to extract the cash, plus an obscene amount of interest. I shook my head sadly; it was plain to see where his daughter Mary got her bullying ways from; it was just a mystery as to how Jane had turned out such a nice kid.

The streets were filthy with rubbish, and young ‘uns ran out to meet us, wearing rags, lookin’ half-starved, with their dirty faces upturned, dogging our steps and begging for pennies.

We dismounted and I threw them a handful of change and watched as they fell on it like scavenging dogs.

Then I glanced over at Slim and saw the look of shock in his eyes.

“Welcome to my world,” I said dryly and made for the only saloon in town, figuring we needed a quick drink before we headed out to the Davies place a mile or so outside town.

At every street corner stood raggedly dressed young men, looking vaguely menacing as they eyed us up, maybe looking to chance their arm with a vulnerable stranger. However once I fixed them with the Harper glare and they saw my low slung rig, the way my gun sat on my hip, tied down, gunslinger style, they melted away, allowing us to make our way to the saloon unmolested,  the look of arrogance in  their eyes turning  to mistrust or  even fear.

“Is it me or do you get the impression they don’t welcome strangers around here too much?” whispered Slim as we entered the run down place and the barkeep fixed us with an unfriendly eye.

“Yeah?”

“Two beers,” I growled, “and make ‘em good an’ cold; we’ve had a long hot ride.”

The barkeep nodded and drew the beer, which was cold and wet if nuthin’ else. “So you on Fernandez’s payroll then?” he asked once we’d downed the beers in one and were sipping our second.

“Nope. Come here to see him, though; he still out at the Davies place?”

The barkeep just shrugged. “Dunno.”

Then his eyes narrowed and he looked at me more closely. “So are you that no-hoper ex- gunslinger that’s supposed to be on the way to call him out then?”

I nodded, exchanging a grin with Slim at the description. “Yep. Harper, Jess Harper.”

“What…Harper from Dayton Ridge? “

I nodded.

“Well… I’ll be! So you came home then, did you?”

“Do I know you?”

“Sure do. Pete… Pete Downs, we was in school together.”

“What…‘little Pete’?” I asked, amazed staring at this great fat lump of a man. “Hell, you sure filled out, Pete.”

He grinned at that and patted his belly happily. “Didn’t I just; beer as does it.” Then after a moment, “So hell, are you really taking on Fernandez, Jessie?”

I nodded. “Me and my pard are here to arrest him for murder back in Albuquerque,” I said, pointing out our badges, which he’d obviously failed to notice, old Pete never bein’ what you might call observant. “So you think the Sheriff would help us out some?”

He shook his head at that. “Nope; was killed last month and ain’t no one as wants the job.”

“Well, will anyone help? We need men for a posse.”

He shook his head. “You may not have heard, Jesse, having been gone so long, but Fernandez owns this town — him and his men — and folk are plain a feared of him. You won’t get a man or boy to stand with you, and that’s a fact. And if you’ve got any sense at all, you’ll hightail it out right now while you can still walk.”

“Can’t do that, Pete; he’s threatening’ to kill the Davies family — and I can’t just walk away from that.”

“Umm, no more you can,” Pete muttered and then turned away embarrassed. “I’m sorry….”

“It’s OK,” I said, suddenly feeling sorry for the man. “Look, if by some miracle I do nail Fernandez, will that be an end to it all do you think?”

He looked thoughtful and then grinned at me. “Hell yes,  sure  it would. All his men rely on his lead; without him I guess they’re nothing. Yep, finish him and I figure we get our town back.”

“Umm…such as it is,” I muttered to Slim as we left.

*****

As we neared Dayton Ridge, I steeled myself for what I knew I would see — but it was even worse than I remembered.

I reined Traveler in as we crested the ridge and looked down at my old home — well, the charred remains of my old home, that is.

But it was worse than just the burnt shell that I remembered; it was partially covered by vines and weeds now, and all the pasture around it left fallow — not a crop or beast to be seen.

As we had ridden over, the devastation of the area was still plain to see, the aftermath of the war everywhere we looked. The odd homestead standing empty, the land left barren after the demise of the farmer in the war, his family having fled or starved to death, I thought bitterly. Sure it was easy to try and forget the war, put it all behind me when I was back in Wyoming, but here the stark reality hit home hard.

Our place was on a huge spread still owned by old man  Dyson, and I was surprised that he hadn’t reclaimed the land, razed the old house and built new for the next tenant farmer, as had happened on  so many of the bigger spreads, slowly recovering from  the war.

I’d almost forgotten Slim’s presence until he reined Alamo in beside me and looked down at the ruin that was my former home. “That it,” he whispered, almost in awe.

I just nodded, being unable to speak for a moment, the horror of that night flooding my senses, the screams of terror, the stench of burning, my Ma’s face at the window…trapped — the horror of it all.

“You OK?”

I pulled myself together at that. “Sure. Lets push on; the Davies place is a about half a mile away across the pasture,” and we kicked our mounts on, to a brisk trot.

*****

We heard it as soon as we rode into the yard — an ear splitting scream coming from the house, and exchanging a shocked glance, we leapt from our mounts and tore in through the open front door.

The scene before me sent shivers down my spine.

Pa Davies had been decked and was out cold, and a big ugly customer had hold of Ma Davies who was struggling and hollering as the second man attacked Nancy.

Her dress was already ripped and now he was pushing her down and forcing himself on her as she struggled and let out another terrified scream.

I let out a roar of fury and hurled myself at her attacker, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and hauling him off of her before landing a haymaker to his chin which sent him flying across the room, where he hit the wall with force and slithered to the ground, a look of amazement on his filthy face, his piggy eyes staring wide in shock.

Meanwhile Slim was making light work of the other guy and had him out cold with a few well aimed blows.

I turned back to my opponent and dragging him up threw another punch and then another, before Slim was by my side.

“Jess, he’s out cold; leave him, pard.”

I was having trouble doin’ as Slim suggested, that’s for sure; I just wanted to knock him into next week for what he’d tried to do to Nancy.

Then suddenly Ma Davies yelled. “Jess…look out!”

Spinning around, I was just in time to see the other guy going for his gun. I drew, shooting him clean through the shoulder before he even hit leather.

He screamed like a stuck pig and writhed on the floor, fussin’ and frettin’, and I marched over and relieved him of his gun before picking him up and hurling him in the general direction of the couch where he came to rest in a bloody heap.

Meantime, Slim had roused my fight buddy by emptying a jug of lemonade off the table over him and he came to, spluttering and groaning.

I marched over to him, and grabbing his jacket, shoved him in the general direction of his partner. “Take your friend and get the hell outer here,” I spat, “and if I see your face anywhere near again, you’ll be prayin’ I’d finished it here and now — get it?”

He just nodded and pulled his buddy up and helped him towards the door.

But I called them back. “So where is Fernandez then? I’ve come a powerful long way to see him. Ain’t he here? “

The tall bastard that had been hitting on Nancy shrugged. “Said he’s waiting’ for you up by the Stormy Caves; got wind  of a couple of deputies heading this way and didn’t want a run in with them right now. I figure he just wants to see you — it is Harper. isn’t it?”

I nodded, “Now git, while you’re still able,” I muttered and they staggered out. Moments later, we heard the horses leaving at speed.

During the fracas, Chuck Davies had come around and now he staggered over and grabbing hold of my hand pumped it and stood there beaming at me. “Jessie boy, we knew you’d come, we just knew it!” Then he suddenly sobered and went over to where Martha was trying to calm an almost hysterical Nancy. “Baby,” he whispered taking his daughter in his arms, “it’s OK, honey, he’s gone, you’re OK now, my angel.”

Then Slim came over and I introduced him to Mr. and Mrs. Davies.

“I’m real sorry about your lemonade, Ma’am,” Slim said, ever the polite one, and she smiled at him, charmed at once by my tall blond buddy, Nordic good looks an’ all.

“Plenty more where that came from, my dear. Wow sit a while, boys; you’re both looking mighty hot and tired — and you, young Jessie, need feeding up,” she said reprovingly as she bustled off to prepare some food for us.

Then Nancy came over, her beautiful eyes peering up at me from behind her eyeglasses and then she put a hand out to my chest. “Jessie, is that really you? But you’re all grown up,” She whispered, her head on one side, her blond braids swinging around her shoulders and a look of such love in her eyes that I felt completely choked.

I flicked a quick glance over to where Slim was watching the little scene play out, a look of slight puzzlement in his blue eyes, although he said nothing.

“Sure it’s really me,” I said taking her in my arms and hugging her tightly, before releasing her and looking deeply into her eyes. “You OK now? “

“I guess. That man was bad, wasn’t he, Jess? I think he wanted to hurt me?”

I felt a wave of pity and love for her. “Yep, I guess he did, sweetheart,” I said softly, “but like your Pa says, he’s gone now and he won’t be back. Now why don’t you go change your frock, huh?”

She nodded happily enough, and I avoided Slim’s gaze and went and sat with old man Davies in front of the fire.

“I can’t thank you boys for turning up this way. I really appreciate it, but please tell me you aren’t going to take on  Fernandez like he wants, Jessie. Hell I know you’re fast boy, but…” He shook his old grey head sadly.

“Look don’t you worry about that; me and Slim have got it all sorted, ain’t we, pard?” I asked, throwing him a meaningful look.

He was still looking over at where Nancy had recently left the room, but he seemed to pull his wits together and wandering over took a seat beside the fire with us. “Oh sure, sure Mister Davies, don’t you fret, me and Jess have a plan.”

Then Ma Davies bustled in with supper and  talk of the ‘plan’ was put on hold as I think we all felt that the woman folk shouldn’t be worried by talk of the shoot-out.

I’d forgotten what a good cook Martha was, and even though I was sorely troubled by the events to come the following day when were to go after Fernandez, I still managed to put away a couple of plates of chicken and dumplings washed down  with a glass or two of Chuck’s best homemade cider.

“So you and Jess were at school together?” asked Slim smiling over at where Nancy was now looking much more relaxed.

“Yes, we were in the same class, weren’t we, Jessie,” she said with a big smile. He’s six months older than me,  so we sat near  each other…well, that’s when his Pa let him come,” she added sorrowfully. “I used to wait for him by the tree on the edge of town,” she went on, turning to Slim, “and the days he didn’t show were just awful.”

“They were….why?” he asked encouragingly.

She looked down embarrassed before looking back up at this tall blond stranger with the big smile and kind eyes.

“I was teased; the other kids were real mean to me,” she finally whispered.

“Anyways that’s a long time ago,” I butted in, suddenly unable to bear her vulnerability, “and you’re all grown up now, Nancy, and a real good help to your Ma, I’ll bet.”

Martha threw me a grateful glance, “oh yes a real big help aren’t you honey.”

At the end of the meal, Nancy asked if she could get down and then she ran off and came back a few minutes later with a picture book.

“Jessie, will you sit a while and tell me the story,” she asked, throwing an arm around my neck. “Please, please, will you, just like you used to?”

I flicked another glance at Slim and saw that look of bewilderment in his kind eyes, before I answered her. “Sure, sweetheart; let’s go sit on the couch, huh?”

I spent the next hour or so cuddled up beside her, reading stories and telling jokes to entertain her until I saw her eyes begin to grow heavy. “I guess it’s your bedtime, Nancy. “

“Oh, must I, Jess? I want to stay up with you a little longer…please!” she cried looking adoringly up at me.

Finally I started yawning myself, and her Ma took over and hustled her off to bed, but not before she’s said her goodnights, hugging and kissing her Ma and Pa and me too, before turning to hug Slim and wait expectantly for a kiss to the cheek.

My buddy looked kinda surprised, but I gave him a tiny nod and he kissed her and wished her sweet dreams and she ran off happy enough; a little later we went off to bunk down in the barn.

“I’m real sorry we haven’t got a spare room,” Chuck had said but we assured him we’d be just fine in the barn and took ourselves off.

We were laying on our bedrolls ready for sleep when Slim finally broached the subject.

He sighed deeply and then said softly, “Nancy…she isn’t…” and then paused.

Well, I guess I’ve always been kinda over protective of her and I responded angrily, “Not what, Slim? she isn’t quite right in the head….isn’t normal, eh? “

“I….I didn’t mean it that way, Jess; I was going to say she isn’t what I’d expected…and yeah, Ok, I guess she’s maybe a little different. But I didn’t mean to upset you pard.”

I lay in the dark for a few minutes before finally replying. I turned to look at him, just visible in the faint light from a lantern strung from the overhead beam. “No, I’m sorry, Slim; I should have said something earlier, but I guess I just didn’t want you to judge her.”

He remained silent, knowing I was trying to find the right words.

“She was born on the wagon train, and when her Ma got into difficulties….well, there was nobody there to help her. Sure the women folk rallied round for the birth, but when she wasn’t bein’ born quick enough; there was nuthin’ to be done. Well, anyways she was finally born. But not before she’d been kept short of air, and that caused brain injury,  Slim.”

“Go on,” he whispered.

“Well, she was real slow at doin’ everything — walkin’, talkin’ — but she always seemed to catch up — until she reached about six or seven and then her brain just kinda got stuck there. See, the truth of it is, Slim, Nancy is a full grown woman stuck in the mind of a six year old…and that ain’t never gonna change.”

He gave a little gasp at that, and leaning up on his elbow so he could see me properly said, “Gee, I’m real sorry, pard, and I guess I can see now why you’re so protective of her, why you came all this way to keep her and her folks safe too.”

I looked over and nodded. “Yep, that’s it, Slim. See, she’s just so darned innocent…..”

I sighed and  tried again. “When that guy was attacking her, she just  didn’t know, didn’t understand what was happening to her. Hell, that kinda attack is horrific for  any woman, but  Nancy…… “

Slim was silent for a long time and then he said very quietly, “Don’t fret,  pard; we’ll get that bastard Fernandez one way or another. We’ll keep her safe.”

*****

We rode out for the Stormy Caves at first light, before the family were up, avoiding all the goodbyes, not to mention the possible tears and fussin’ of the women folk, which I figure neither of us felt like coping with right then.

Well ol’ Slim wrote a note, him bein’ the neatest writer, sayin’, as how we needed an early start and thankin’ them for everything  and as how we’d be in touch. I secretly thought that was kinda optimistic, but I let it ride.

We were travelling due north now and the terrain was much more rugged than the trip from Albuquerque, with scrubland, and then on the horizon, the canyons where the caves were, about a ten mile ride away.

“So what’s the story then? Why Stormy Caves?”asked Slim.

“They’re real old and the Indians, Mexican, well any travelers I guess, use ‘em to hole up in when the weather turns bad. This area gets real nasty dust storms when the winds from the west and you really don’t wanna be caught out in one. Well, those old caves are a home from home;  some of ‘em real big, spring water, even  some grazing and woods full of rabbits. As good a place to hole up and escape the law as any, as well,” I said turning to grin at him.

“Yeah, well I figure Fernandez won’t be expecting those two deputies he’s trying to avoid turning up on his doorstep,” Slim replied with a grim look.

“Hey, you’re right,” I said thoughtfully. “I guess he won’t be expecting the two of us, so if you stay back you’ll have a good chance of finishing him off if I don’t.”

He just nodded at that.

“Slim, I meant what I said; I don’t want you going head to head with him”

As it happened, I didn’t think either of us was gonna take him on, because when we arrived at the caves , there was no sign of him.

We rode in  real slow and  careful, expecting him  to jump out on us at any moment, but  we got right up to the main cave, where he was supposed to be and nuthin’. Sure he’d been there; there were signs that he’d had a fire, butchered a rabbit and tracks all around, but then they just seemed to vanish into thin air. He’d just disappeared off the face of the earth.

“What now?”

“I dunno; sit it out for a while and see if he shows, I guess,” I said feeling kinda flat. I reckon I’d worked myself up to fever pitch anticipating the fight, and now it wasn’t happening, I felt real restless and edgy.

I looked up the rocks behind us, wondering if he was up there waiting to bushwhack us, but no, that wasn’t his way and I knew it.

I figure the phrase’ honor amongst thieves’, could have been  written for him  and if he said he wanted a fair and  square shoot-out with me, then that’s what he meant. As far as I was concerned, that’s what he was gonna get.

OK, I might be wearing  a deputies badge, but first and foremost this was personal — real personal — and that’s why I didn’t want Slim going in all guns blazing, and I sure didn’t wanna see him  dead either — which would be what would happen if he took on Fernandez, I figured.

I turned back to Slim. “Let’s get the horses in out of this heat; those old caverns are real big, room for a small herd,” I chuckled. “Then we can make camp in  there; no point in advertising’ the fact that we’re here. If he wants to play games, I guess we can too.”

We’d brought provisions for the horses as well as ourselves, as I wasn’t too sure if there would be much grazin’ left after the sweltering summer weather. So they were fine holed up in the cool at the back of the cavern, and Slim and I made ourselves comfortable near the entrance.

I figured we could keep an eye open for Fernandez from there, but we were to be  in for quite a long wait — both of us gettin’ kinda strung  out, as the time  ticked by, which thinkin’ on it later was just what  he  wanted.

We finally settled for the night and the first light of dawn was just filtering in through the cave entrance when I heard someone approaching, and then a moment later Fernandez’s gruff voice, still with a trace of his Mexican accent, called out. “You in there, Jessie Harper?”

I was up in a flash, grabbing my gun belt with one hand and restraining Slim with the other.

He’d sat bolt upright at the sound and now I pushed him back into the shadows, one hand firmly on his chest.

“Stay in here,” I whispered urgently, “and don’t show yourself until it’s over.”

He made to argue, but I threw him a fierce look.

“If he finishes me, he’ll come over to check. Get him then; he won’t be expectin’ anyone else around. You show yourself now, he’ll gun  us both down.” With one final hard shove to his chest, I buckled on  my belt and walked outside.

“Ah, there you are, mi amigo, So I caught you napping, did I?”

I shook my head, taking in this rough looking hombre in the traditional Mexican garb he favored — a short tightly fitting dark jacket with fancy silver stitching and a large sombrero — although he was born and bred on the Panhandle same as me.

He looked much older than I expected and he held a bottle of whiskey in one hand. I wondered if that was anything to do with his unshaven, scruffy appearance, the dark rings  around his eyes and the thickening to his waist.

“I ain’t your amigo,” I spat in reply. “Never was.”

He nodded at that. “No, even as a child you were a thorn in my side. You remember the incident with the burro?”

I just nodded. “Never did like cruelty to dumb beasts, and that little fellah was treated real mean by you Fernandez, but I figure that ain’t why you want revenge now.”

He laughed at that. “No, mi amigo…er…no, Jessie, it is far more serious than that. You have disrespected me by propositioning my woman, and for that I’m afraid you must die. I am here to fight for her honor.”

I almost laughed at that.

“Figure you’re a bit late for that ain’t you. She lost her….’honor’ years ago, and I don’t know what she’s told you, but she’s a lying conniving bitch. I didn’t want her that time back in Texas and I sure as hell don’t want her now, whatever she’s told you!”

He suddenly lost his look of cool appraisal and flushed an angry red. “How dare you speak of my Cristobel that way. Are you loco? You want to die?”

“I guess I’m gonna anyway, so you might as well know the truth about your woman. She’s a fake, Fernandez, from  her wild stories down to her name, and it’s time you woke up to her. only reason she’s fed you these lies is because she thinks it’ll make you finally wed her!”

“You’re lying!” he yelled, wildly waving the whiskey bottle about, and I thought for a moment he would chuck it at my head.

I just shrugged. “So taken to havin’ a little pick-me-up before breakfast,  have you then Fernandez?” I asked spitefully.

He put the bottle down carefully.

“No don’t worry about that. I am quite sober; I have just been paying a visit to Injun Joe to stock up,” he said, seemingly calm again.

“Is that old crook still brewing that gut rot moonshine?” I asked surprised, thinking the old timer must be well over eighty now.

Fernandez nodded. “Your old Pa was pretty partial to it as I remember,” he smirked.

“My old Pa was partial to anything wet in a whisky glass,” I replied bitterly. “But I ain’t my old man, Fernandez. I’m sober too. So are we gonna sort this out or what?”

“Oh yes, mi amigo, but there is no rush. You were always so hot-headed, Jessie, so impatient to right the wrongs of this world. Whereas I wish to savor the moment of your last minutes on earth.”

I could feel my pulses beginning to race and the sweat breaking out and running down my spine, as he backed off some and took the gunfighter’s stance.

This was it then. This was where it ended.

I watched for the sign that he would draw on me — the slight widening of the eyes — as his hand went for his gun like greased lightning.

When it finally happened, it was too fast to even see. His hand a mere blur and I felt a sickening pain in my knee, and even as I started to crash to the ground, another bullet slammed into my chest and I jerked backwards. But in that split second between being hit and falling, I let off a shot, and as I fell back, I saw he too fell, crashing into the dirt like a mighty oak. A vision of the look of complete shock  in his  dark  eyes  the  last thing I saw  before I too lay  in  the dirt, the searing pain in  my chest taking my breath away.

As I had fired, so had Slim, both bullets hitting their target, and now he ran out from the cave entrance, and after  quickly checking on  Fernandez, rushed over and threw himself down on his knees beside me, cradling my head and looking down in  horror as the blood soaked my shirt.

“You’ll be OK, Jess,” Slim whispered, “Just hang on there, pard; you’ll be fine.” He hastened for the canteen and returning helped me to a drink.

After a moment, he removed my bandana and shoved it inside my shirt to help stem the blood flow, but I figure we both knew it was pretty useless right then.

“I’ll get you in the cave and clean you up, get this bullet out,” he said gently, before casting a glance down to my denims which were also red and soaking wet with blood from the knee wound.

“No,” I whispered, “Just leave me, Slim. Take the water and head back. Leave me out here, the end will come quicker that way.”

His head shot up and he looked profoundly shocked. “Are you crazy? Hell Jess, you’re no quitter.”

I shook my head. “I told you, didn’t I , the way he  works. He injures you just enough  to kill you, but real slow and painful — and I don’t want that  Slim. And I don’t want you to see it, either. Now do as I say and just leave me, will you….please,” I whispered and then everything went black.

*****

SLIM’S STORY

When Jess’s head rolled back, I thought he was dead, I really did.

I slipped a hand inside his shirt, and after a few seconds, which seemed like hours, I finally felt a faint heartbeat and knew he was still with me.

I very carefully lifted him up and was surprised at how light he was; even though he was unconscious and a dead weight, I could carry him easily enough. I remembered what Ma Davies had said about him needing to be fattened up some and I figured we’d both lost weight over the long tiring journey.

Once in the cool of the cave, I set to tending his wounds, but gee it was hard, real hard.

The bullet in the chest was  well away  from the heart by several inches, but it was in deep and  the more I probed around for it  with my knife, the more he bled and I figured that Fernandez really knew what  he was doing and that the blood loss would eventually kill my partner.

Then just as I made contact with the bullet with the tip of my knife and  saw the end in sight, knowing I could finally get it out and bind him up, that’s when he came around.

The pain must have been horrendous, and he bucked and writhed away from me, whilst I tried to keep him still.

“Jess… Jess, pard, you’ve got to hold still. It won’t be long, I promise; just stick it for a little while longer.”

He nodded and closed his eyes, his mouth a tight line of pain and I could feel the tension emanating from every fiber of his being as I stuck the knife in one more time and finally got it beneath the bullet and flipped it out.

He cried out at that and cussed long and loud; once he was done, I lifted his head up and gave him a sip of Fernandez’s moonshine to help with the pain.

His eyes opened wide in shock at that and he almost choked.

“What’re you tryin’ to do, Slim…kill a body? I thought you were all for savin’ me.”

I chuckled at that, glad to see the Harper sense of humor was still intact, and once he was looking a better color, I bound his chest tightly before starting work on his leg.

It was a good hour later before I’d fixed him up real good. The bleeding to his knee completely stopped and I was relieved to see the bullet had gone slightly wide and missed the kneecap, although it had splintered the bone to the right of it some, before passing straight through. The wound to the chest seemed to have stopped bleeding too, and I hoped and prayed it would stay that way, thinking that he would probably not survive the agony of cauterization if that became necessary.

Now he turned those deep blue eyes on me, filled with pain and fear. “How is it, Slim… my knee?”

I knew better than to lie to him.

“It’s nasty, Jess; you’ll need to keep off it for a good while, but the kneecap’s still all in one piece. It should heal I figure.”

He just shook his head at that. “That bastard Fernandez sure knew his trade, didn’t he. He knew that I make my livin’ working with the horses.”

Then turning troubled eyes on me, “Slim, that don’t heal right, I’ll never break a bronc again. Hell, I’ll never even sit a horse again,” he finished bitterly.

“I know, I know, Jess, but it may not come to that. Like I say, the wound’s clean and the kneecap is intact; just take it easy, huh.”

He gave me a look as though to say I was crazy, but subsided into a moody silence and I went off to get some more wood for the fire so that I could brew us a much needed coffee.

After he’d had a sip or two, he relaxed back on the  saddle he was using as a pillow, and I sat there just peering into the fire, feeling sorely troubled and not just about the fate of my buddy, although that was bad enough.

After a while I felt his gaze on me.

“What’s up, Slim? You ain’t mad at me, are you?”

I looked surprised at that. “No…why should I be? “

“I dunno….landin’ you with all this grief?”

I shook my head at that.

“Hell, no. I’m just feeling kind of bad….well, I know it’s crazy, but the way I finished Fernandez. I feel almost like a bushwhacker. He didn’t even know I was here Jess and I killed him.”

“You had to do that, though; it was the only way.”

“I know, but I’ve never done that before — killed a man in cold blood like that when he wasn’t shooting at me. Like I say, it’s crazy; he had to die, but I just feel kind of ashamed about it all.” I flicked an anxious glance over to him.

He said nothing for a while and then, “You buried him yet, Slim?”

I shook my head. “Sun’s at its zenith; figured I’d wait until it cooled down some out  there.”

He nodded. “Go look at the body then.”

“What?”

“Go look at the body; you’ll find two wounds. Come back and tell me where they are.”

I  did as he asked and  came back a minute later, sinking back down  beside him. “One straight through the heart; the other just winged  him.”

“Well there you are then,” he said with the ghost of a smile.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m  saying it was my bullet that  killed him; I saw it Slim, nailed  him dead center. Yours went wide.”

I gave a deep sigh, feeling almost dizzy with relief.

“You sure?” I asked.

He nodded. “Sure I am. I keep tellin’ you, don’t I, that new gun of yours pulls to the right.“

I nodded. “Yep you do,  pard…and maybe you’ve got a point.”

He shook his  head and  gave me a genuine smile at that. “We’ll never make a gunslinger of you Slim, that’s for  sure.”

*****

He fell asleep shortly after  that…and I sat there beside him watching his chest slowly rise and fall and cast my mind back to everything that had led us to this terrible position.

I had stood in the yard and watched him ride out, feeling so betrayed — so mad at him — and then he paused and reined Traveler in and for one heart stopping moment I thought he was going  to change  his mind, going to turn around and listen to reason for once in his life, but  I guess I should have known  better.

Then he gave  me that little salute of his and I knew it his way of asking  for forgiveness, and  after a moment, I raised my hand in a gesture of farewell. After all we’d been through together, …well, I couldn’t let him  ride out thinking I was still mad.

It was when I rode into town that Millie told me he had lit out on what she called a suicide mission.

“Please Slim, I know Fernandez’s reputation from when I was back in Texas. He’s so fast;  I don’t think even Jess could down him. You’ve got to go and stop him before it’s too late…please.”

I looked into her beautiful eyes, brimming with tears and cursed him for hurting her that way, for hurting us both.

“I just don’t get it,” I said gruffly, trying to hide my raw emotions. “What the heck’s it all about, Millie?”

“He had no choice, Slim; he had to go to protect some old friends.”

“I might have known it,” I muttered. “Him and his crazy sense of loyalty.”

Now with hindsight, I could see exactly why he’d had to come — to protect the Davies family and especially Nancy.

I cast my mind back to just yesterday when I’d first met them. What a great family and obviously real fond on Jess — or Jessie as everyone around here called him.

When I first cast eyes on Nancy, I thought what a cracker. She was different OK, with the eyeglasses and long braids, not Jess’s usual type, but beneath all that, she  was a real stunner, and gee, was she  pleased to see  ol’ Hotshot, and I smiled at the memory, the adoration  on her face there for all to see.

Then very gradually it  dawned on me, she  was different…real different.

The way she acted around her Ma and Pa, seeming  to be waiting  on them to tell her what to do…

Then when she had asked to ‘get down’  from the table, like a child would,  and had run off to find a picture book for Jess to read to her. Well, that was when the penny  finally dropped and I realized her mind had been damaged in some way, and my heart bled for her and her parents.

Then I’d sat quietly chatting to Pa Davies after  supper whilst Jess entertained Nancy and I was amazed the way Jess  was with her — so understanding and patient, seeming to be so in tune with her.

Later I went out into the kitchen for a glass of water and offered to help Ma Davies dry up the dishes.

“Is he alright?” she had  asked tipping her head to where Jess was laughing  with Nancy. “He looks so thin and tired.”

“Well we’ve had a long  hot journey, Ma’am,  and Jess got sick  on  the way — drank some tainted water — but I figure he’s on the mend now. Certainly took to your swell cooking anyway.”

She smiled at that looking relieved. “He always did. I used to give him the odd treat as a child; Lord knows he didn’t have much  at home.”

I just nodded knowing the truth of it.

Then we heard Nancy’s happy giggles coming from the parlor and her Ma smiled up at me.

“It’s wonderful to have him back; he was always so good with young  Nancy — just accepted her for the  way she is, whereas all the other children bullied her terribly. He got more than  a few cuts and bruises fighting her corner,” she said sadly.

“Umm, that sounds like Jess.”

“You’re very fond of him, aren’t you, dear?”

I nodded. “Figure he’s about the best  friend I’ve ever had…but  he sure isn’t easy,” I said with a rueful grin.

She  nodded at that. “He’s had a hard start to life, but he’s on the right track now, and from what I’ve seen, I reckon that’s a lot to do with  you, young man. I think you’ve  had a good steadying  influence on him.”

‘I wish,’ I thought secretly. He was still out on this suicide mission, wasn’t he?

Then I was suddenly brought back from my reverie as he groaned and  his eyes flickered open. “Slim…Slim, you there? “

“Sure, pard. How are you feeling?”

He just shook his head. “I thought I told you to ride off, leave  me, Slim. I ain’t worth the bother.”

“Will you stop it!,” I said suddenly angry. “I’m staying and you’re going to get through  this, if it kills us both!”

He gave me the ghost of a smile at that. “Figure it might just come to that,” he  whispered, before accepting some  water, although  he said he felt real dizzy and the darned place was spinning, when I sat  him up for the drink.

That was the last rational conversation we had for a while…if you could call it rational.

He slipped in and out of consciousness. I just wished to God that Doc Sam was there and wracked my brains to think what he would say and  do if he were.

‘Keep him calm and warm and offer fluids every hour or so.’ I could hear the doc’s rich warm voice in my head, and goodness knows we’d both been shot up badly before, so I could do this, knew what to do.

However, as with every time I’d ever had to nurse Jess, things were never as simple as they seemed.

“Aww, will you leave me alone?” He cussed long and loud as I awoke him  again and again through the night to get the vital fluids down him to replace the blood loss, and he glared at me like I was a complete stranger.

Then things went from bad to worse. His breathing  was really shallow and rapid, and when I took his wrist to check the pulse, like I’d seen the doc do,  his skin was really clammy and cold and I could barely find a beat.

I went out into the night and brought back more wood for the fire and  then  covered him with another blanket before just sitting there helplessly watching and praying, as my friend’s life just seemed to be ebbing  slowly away.

It was no good; he needed a doctor. I’d done all I possibly could, but he just seemed to be sinking, and on the odd occasions he awoke, he hardly seemed to recognize me.

It would take me most of the day to get back to town,  locate a doctor and bring  him back. I just didn’t know if Jess would last and I sure didn’t want him to die all alone.

I must have fallen into an exhausted sleep sometime in the early hours of the second day after getting him to drink as much as was possible and knowing I had done everything I could. I reckoned it was in the lap of the gods now as to the outcome.

 A few hours later, I was jerked awake by Jess yelling in terror, his head rolling from side to side and his eyes tightly closed.

I shot up and went to his side, and after a few minutes, he sat bolt upright staring around him in bewilderment — wide awake.

“Hey, Jess, it’s OK, pard; I’m here.”

“S….Slim, that you?”

“Sure. Were you dreaming?”

He nodded and gave a huge sigh before lying back down. “Yeah, that nightmare I get about the fire…”

I looked sympathetic. “Must have been seeing the old place the other day brought it all back to you.”

He nodded and then I suddenly realized he was lucid — chatting normally and looked a better color too.

“So how are you feeling then, pard? You’ve been kind of out of it for a while.”

“I have?”

“Yeah, cussing and moaning that I was ‘drowning you,’ with all the water I was trying to get down your neck.”

He gave a small smile at that. “Yeah, I do recall somethin’ like that. Sorry, Slim.”

I grinned down at him. “That’s OK. Now how about a drink of nice cold water, eh?” I asked cheerfully.

He drank it under protest and then I brewed us both a coffee, but he only managed half a cup and it was clear that he was still far from well.

“Look Jess, I think you really need to see a doc. How about I ride into town? Will you be OK? “

He shook his head. “No point. There’s only that old soak Doc James there; he’d most likely kill me just by breathin’ his whiskey fumes all over the shop.”

“That bad huh?”

He just nodded. “I’ll be OK, Slim; just need to rest up a while.”

“OK, well, seeing as you’re looking a mite more perky — due to all the water I’ve gotten down you — I figure I’ll go out and bag us a couple of rabbits come first light. Stew for me and some nice nourishing broth to build you up,” I said with a cheeky grin.

He smiled back at that. “You know, I reckon you’ve just carved out a whole new career for yourself, Slim…as a doc. Maybe you could take over from ol’ Doc James; figure you couldn’t be much worse!”

*****

I wasn’t gone too long, and decided I’d butcher the brace of rabbits on a large rock outside the cave. I  was busy at my task when I heard the distinctive sound of a gun cocking just behind me and a rough voice drawled, “Put ‘em up, cowboy, and turn around real slow.”

I did as he asked and looked into the piggy eyes of Nancy’s attacker.

“I thought you’d have learnt your lesson,” I growled, flicking a quick glance towards the cave and hoping Jess hadn’t heard him arrive.

He ignored that.

“Throw down your gun….and that hunting knife,” he barked. “So where is that murdering swine then?”

“Huh?”

“Your partner, Harper — the bastard that killed my big brother!”

“What are you talking about? Jess just shot him in the shoulder. If he’d wanted him dead, he would be, trust me.”

“And I’m saying he IS dead. Doc James took the bullet out, and next thing we knew, he’d done bled to death.”

“Well, why doesn’t that surprise me,” I muttered.

“So where is that lowlife?”

I thought on my feet and tipping my head to where I’d recently buried Fernandez said, “He’s over there.”

“So Pedro finished him then?”

I nodded.

He stared at me for a long time and then shook his head.

“No,  you’re lying’, mister. You wouldn’t be cooking up a meal cool as a cucumber if you’d just buried your best buddy.”

Then we heard a sound and both turned to the cave where Jess stood swaying slightly.

“Well you’ve got that right,” he spat “So you want somethin’?”

“Yes…to finish you, you murdering scum,” he yelled and swinging his rifle away from me,  turned it on Jess and immediately fired off a shot.

But the newcomer was no gunfighter and the shot went wide, whistling past Jess’s left ear, leaving him to retaliate with lightning speed, and his victim jerked back as the bullet hit home, full in the chest, killing him outright.

Then Jess looked over at me. His face drained of color before his legs gave way beneath him and he fell gracefully to his knees in a dead faint.

I tore over and rolled him on his back and then cussed as I saw the red stain begin to seep through his denims, yet again, where the knee wound had opened up.

He came to a few minutes later, grabbing for his knee and groaning in pain. Then turning to me, “What did he mean, murderer? I only caught his brother in the shoulder. Why did he have to come here, Slim? The stupid idiot.”

 I sighed deeply, knowing Jess felt bad about the shooting, but he’d had no choice; it was kill or be killed. I was feeling real sick at all the pain and suffering that had been caused by that Cristobel and her crazy notions. Then it hit home as to why Jess had been so down on her; none of this would had happened if she hadn’t tried to make Fernandez jealous and I wondered if she would ever know exactly what she had done, how many lives she had wrecked.

I glanced down at Jess and gave him a grim smile. “He saw Doc James, though, didn’t he? Figure you were right about him, Jess. Come on, pard, let’s get you in the cool.”

I half carried him, half-dragged him, back to his bedroll and was dismayed to see how much pain he was in.

It took a while to clean up and re-bandage the leg and I really didn’t like the look of it. The swelling and heat made it plain that there was some infection going on.

I went out back to the stream and soaked some rags in the icy water and wrapped it around the limb, hoping to reduce the swelling some and then sat back on my haunches eyeing my pard.

“Jess, I’m going to have to get you some help. If that quack is no good then, maybe I can borrow Mister Davies’ buckboard and take you back there. I figure Ma Davies would be able to nurse you real  good.”

He turned to me, looking as bad as I’d seen him, a slick of sweat shining on his pale face and he was shaking again, but he just tipped  his head towards the cave entrance. “Sounds like a good idea, Slim, but I guess you ain’t about to go anywhere, leastways not for a while.”

 I followed his line of vision to the view beyond the cave mouth and what I saw made my heart miss a beat.

The sky was turning dark and a wind was getting up; it looked like we were in for the mother and father of all  dust storms. I flicked my glance back to him, seeing the look of despair in his eyes. Hell, was there no end to this nightmare, I thought.

We moved to the back of the cave to get away from the dirt and dust that was blowing everywhere and Jess asked me to check on the horses, desperately wanting to go over and reassure his horse himself I knew.

I wandered back and slumped down beside him, listening to the roaring wind without, the cave almost pitch black now save for the faint light from the small fire.

“Is Trav ok?”

“Sure he is; quit worrying.”

I’d taken the horses out earlier in the day when I went hunting, watered them and left to graze on the meager pickings outside and had only brought them in when the storm broke.

As if hearing his name, Traveler plodded over from where he had been standing patiently at the back of the cave. I had glanced over a few minutes earlier and he was standing quietly in the dim light, his head resting on Alamo’s shoulder, both animals relaxed and looked to be dozing.

Traveler ambled over to where Jess was laying back on his saddle and blew down his nostrils into my friend’s tired face, before nibbling gently at his hair.

Jess grinned at that and put out a  hand to caress the horses nose, before reaching in his shirt pocket and  offering the  sugar lump he knew the critter was looking for.

Traveler accepted it graciously and stayed a little longer, with Jess scratching his ear, before he wandered off back over to the cool depths of the cave where his water bucket was situated.

Jess sighed deeply. “What’s gonna happen to him if I can’t sit a horse again?”

“Don’t talk that was, Jess; you’re going to be OK. I told you that.”

“So you’re an expert now?” he growled.

“I didn’t say that, but you’ve got to stay positive.”

“Have you forgotten Patrick Morgan?” he asked aggressively. “He got a bullet through the knee, never worked again; lost his wife, his spread and he ended up in a wheelchair. And that was even after Doc Sam had done his best for him. Hell, what chance have I got with that ol’ drunk in town?”

“Look, Patrick was different; he had a bullet through the kneecap. It was shattered; no one could have fixed him up. Fernandez’ bullet went wide. We’ll get this infection under control and you’ll be good as new.”

“Sure I will,” he drawled sarcastically and relapsed into a moody silence.

The fever really took hold that night, and what with the storm raging outside the cave and Jess cussing inside, we got little sleep and were both feeling pretty grouchy by first light.

He was still feverish, although quieter and seemed to accept that I had to leave him to get help and just nodded with uncharacteristic lack of argument. “Sure go on; I’ll be fine.”

I stared down at where I’d moved him to the cave mouth so that he could see if any danger approached, and I propped his rifle against the wall beside him.

“Look, I’ll be as quick as I can; borrow old man Davies’ wagon and get you a nice easy ride back.”

“Just go, will you, Slim? Stop fussin’; I’ll be just fine. After all, I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he finished irritably.

I had only been riding for half an hour or so when I saw the dust raising in the distance, and after a few minutes was able to make out a farm wagon travelling towards me at breakneck speed.

What the…

As it came closer, I was finally able to make out the diminutive figure of old man Davies driving like the devil himself was on his tail. However, he pulled on the reins when he saw me approaching and reached for his rifle and aimed it at me as I rode over with one hand up in a gesture of surrender.

As soon as I came within a few yards, he finally recognized me and his face relaxed into a huge grin. “Slim, thank goodness. I thought you were that dratted Jack Jones that attacked my Nancy.”

Then the smile froze on his face. “Where’s Jess? oh God, tell me Fernandez didn’t…

“No,” I said quickly. “Jess is fine. Well, he’s alive, but kind of sick. I was just coming to fetch you. Thought maybe we could take him back to your place?”

“Sure, that’s why I’ve come. Would have been here sooner, but that lowlife Jones threatened to come back and finish what he’d started with our Nancy if I followed him. Well, I had to look out for her, Slim. I’m an old man…can’t fight ‘em like I once could.”

“Sure, I understand.”

“Anyway, it was my Martha that convinced me I should come and help you. Said she and the girl would hide out in the root cellar; said as how we owed our lives to you and Jess, and I just had to come. Would have been here before, but for that dang storm.”

“Well, you’re here now and that’s the main thing,” I said smiling at the old timer.

“Come on then, boy,” he said suddenly leaping to action, “let’s go fetch Jess and don’t you fret none. My Martha will nurse him real good. He’ll be up and about before you know it.” And on that cheerful note, we hastened back to the cave.

*****

Martha shook her old head sadly, “I’m really sorry, Slim, but there is no more I can do for him.”

We were sitting in the parlor having just come from dressing Jess’s leg yet again and had seen little sign of improvement.

We had been at the Davies place for three days now and they sure had made us welcome.

Nancy had moved into her parents room, and Pa Davies had rigged up a couple of cots for us in her bedroom, so I was on hand to see to Jess at night and Martha nursed him through the day, but even her vigilant care had failed to clear up the infected knee.

“I saw several cases like this when I nursed in the war,” she confided in me now, “and they all needed surgery. You see the infection isn’t due to dirt in the wound, but tiny fragments of shattered bone, like needles digging in. Every time he moves or tries to stand, it just makes matters worse. The wound needs to be opened up and all the fragments removed, and I’m afraid that’s a medical man’s work, Slim. I couldn’t do that.”

“Of course not, and you’ve done so much already. I really appreciate it, we both do. But now I guess it’s down to Doc James, if there isn’t anyone else?”

She shook her head. “No, the nearest town with another doc is back in Albuquerque. That’s just too far to travel, Slim; he’d never make it….not being as weak as he is from the blood loss after the chest wound and all.”

I shook my head sadly knowing the truth of it. “So it has to be Doc James then?”

She sucked in a deep breath and then looked real troubled. “He’s no good, Slim; the man is sick….drinks like a fish. It’s so sad; he wasn’t always that way you know.”

“No?”

“No, it was the war that did it. He lost so many patients, through no fault of his own; he didn’t have the equipment or help. Tried to care for all the casualties alone, then he just lost his nerve and took to the drink.”

“So is he ever sober?”

“Well, he’s hung over most mornings and then goes to the saloon all afternoon. Catch him early enough you may get some sense out of him, but Slim, like I say, he’s lost his nerve. I doubt he’d operate; he only treated the Jones boy because his brother had a gun trained on him.”

“Oh, he’ll treat him alright,” I muttered, “and he’ll be stone cold sober when he does it too.” With that, I marched out of the room and made for town at speed.

I figure I was feeling real desperate by the time I located old Doc James and I all but frogmarched him back to the ranch, with him protesting long and loud that he no longer practiced as a medical man.

“Well you’re all I’ve dang well got, so you’d better just reconcile yourself to coming out of retirement,” I yelled aggressively, then smiled inwardly. Hell, I was getting to sound more and more like Jess every day.

I eventually got him to look at the injury, but then I had Jess’s attitude to deal with too.

“What in hell have you brought that ol’ drunk here for?” he asked in a stage whisper as the old man was washing up prior to examining him.

“He’s all we’ve got, Jess, and if you want to walk again, I figure you just simmer down and let the doc do what he can.”

After a prolonged examination, the doctor merely gave Jess a cursory nod before retiring to the parlor.

“Yes, you are right, my dear,” he said turning to Martha. “He needs surgery to save the knee — well the whole leg, the way that infection is setting in — but  alas I’m not the man to do it,” and he turned towards the door.

I was there like a flash, blocking his way. “You’re not leaving, doc, leastways not until we’ve talked.”

Then I turned to Martha. “Go brew us some strong black coffee, will you…and keep it coming.”

We settled down by the fire and he eyed me warily.

“So, you were a medic for the Confederacy?” I started looking expectant.

He just nodded. “For my sins.”

“Yep, Martha told me you had a rough deal. It was a hard War for us all, especially my partner there. He nearly died in a Union prisoner of war camp, in the hospital wing. More dead than alive when he was finally liberated, but he made it eventually.”

He nodded sadly. “Well, so many didn’t. I guess your friend was lucky.”

“I reckon you make your own luck in this life. He pulled himself through by sheer guts and determination, and  he’s been through one hell of a lot since then to get where he is now. and that’s why I’m not going to let a coward like you stand by and let him die.”

“How dare you speak to me that way!” Doc James yelled, leaping up and glaring at me.

“Well that’s what you are, aren’t you,” I said standing up myself and towering over him. “You’re so darned scared that you’ll fail that you won’t even try to save him.”

He looked away at that, but not before I had seen the shame in his eyes.

“You know why he’s lying there banged up so bad don’t you?” I asked.

Then when I got no reply, I continued.

“It was Jess who came here to save the Davies family from that no good killer Fernandez, and it was him that did this to Jess. But Jess killed him in the end, so this town you call home can hold its head up again without the fear of Fernandez and his men. Hell, isn’t that worth something — and you’re telling me you won’t lift a finger to help him?”

He sighed deeply at that and sank back into his chair, holding his shaking hands out before him, for me to see. “I figure we’d better get started on that coffee now,” he said with a weak smile, “if we’re going to operate later today.”

If I thought it was difficult to convince the Doc, then I hadn’t reckoned on Jess’s arguments.

I left Martha pouring coffee into the doctor and went to tell Jess the good news.

His deep blue eyes narrowed with mistrust. ”Oh no, no, you ain’t lettin’ that drunk anywhere near me with a scalpel, Slim. I saw what he was like when I rode in after the war; he was a broken man then and I figure he’s ten times worse now.”

“Listen Jess, he’s sober now, least ways he will be soon, and he’s willing to take you on, so I don’t see as how there is any other way — unless you want that leg of yours amputated.”

His head shot up and he looked shocked to the core. ‘Well tell it like it is, why don’t you.”

“I thought you always wanted the truth. Well that’s it, Jess. You see the doc or that infection is going to take your leg. So which is it to be?”

We were all set to start the operation when Jess spotted the Doc preparing the anesthetic.

“Oh no I ain’t havin’ that ether; you know it makes me sicker than a dog, Slim.”

Then it was doc James’s turn to speak and I was relieved to see he seemed to have gained some confidence back as he addressed Jess directly for the first time. “Your partner, in his wisdom,” he said sarcastically, “has asked me to perform this surgery, which I will do to the best of my ability. But I cannot work on a moving target. It is very precise work, and if I have gone to the trouble of sobering up for you, young man…well, the least you can do it comply with my wishes.”

Jess still wasn’t convinced. “Aw Slim, will you do somethin’?”

“Look Jess, Nancy is just outside that door and the more you kick off, the more upset she’s getting. Now are you going to simmer down and do as the doc asks or shall I just go start digging the grave now?”

Well I guess that was a bit over the top, seeing as how Nancy was off visiting a friend and it was only his leg at stake, not his life, but it seemed to do the trick and he lay back and let Martha help the doc with the anesthetic. Once he was under, the operation finally started.

Well, Jess was sure right about one thing — he was sick as a dog for a good few hours after the operation, but thank goodness he was wrong about the doc. He did as good a job as even Sam would have done, I reckoned. Even I could see the professional way he went about the work, and with Martha’s help, the operation seemed to be a success.

“I’ve done all I can,” the doc said sighing and wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “I guess it’s down to your buddy here now, Mister Sherman, but I’ll warn you now, it will be a long slow haul and there is a chance he may never fully recover.

I just nodded at that. “Look, I know Jess, doc, and I figure he needs some hope, so maybe I won’t share that possibility with him,” I said looking down  at the deathly still form of my best friend, knowing instinctively what he needed.

“Well, that’s up to you, young man.” Then he came around the bed and shook my hand. “I want to thank you for your straight talking and making me face up to a few things, Mister Sherman.” Then he turned and smiled at Martha. “We make a good team and I’ve just realized how much I miss the work.” Martha beamed back at him, looking relieved.

He glanced down at Jess and then across at me. “It’s a real privilege being trained to save lives  — and one I’ve sadly neglected through my own stupidity. I swear now, I’ll never touch a drop of alcohol again. God bless both of you,” he whispered as he turned to leave.

“Just keep him off that leg for another week and then gentle exercise; hopefully he’ll be able to ride back to Wyoming with you by the end of the month, but he will suffer a deal of pain, I’m afraid. Just watch out for him…huh?”

I nodded. “Sure, and I can’t thank you enough, doc.”

*****

It was a long hard road to recovery, and although Jess’s leg seemed to be getting gradually stronger, enabling him to get about the place with a stick after a week or so, mentally he was in a real bad place.

He seemed to get more and more depressed as the days went on, withdrawing from me and even seemed to find it hard to talk to Martha and Chuck Davies; the only person he would chat to being Nancy.

She came and sat out on the porch with me one evening and turning those beautiful eyes on me asked shyly, “Why is Jessie so sad? “

“Well, it’s real hard for him right now, honey,” I said gently. “I guess he’s kind of worried because he still can’t walk too well.”

She thought hard about that and then said, “Well if he can’t ride horses anymore, maybe he should stay here and work the land with my Papa. He could do that once he’s a little better, couldn’t he, Slim?”

My head shot up at that. “Well, is that what you want?” I asked trying not to sound hurt.

She nodded vigorously. “And Mama and Papa do too. I heard them talking the other night when they thought I was asleep,” she said turning her innocent eyes upon me.

“My Ma is a nurse you know,” she added proudly.

I nodded. “Yep, I know, and a real good one.”

She nodded again. “Anyway, my Mama doesn’t think Jess will get well. Not well enough to break the wild horses again anyway. That’s really dangerous, isn’t it, Slim?” she asked looking troubled.

“I guess,” I agreed.

“So I’m glad. Glad he won’t do that dangerous job anymore. I don’t want him hurt. I love Jessie. He’s a special friend, isn’t he, Slim?”

I just nodded. “Yes he is honey, real special.”

Gee, I was missing him — that wicked sense of fun of his. Heck I’d even be glad to hear his ornery side kicking off. But nothing. He just seemed to be distancing himself from me more and more as the days went on — until one evening about two weeks after the operation.

He was still in a lot of pain and watching him limp around the place with that determined look in his eyes near broke my heart. He was so very different from his athletic self, always vaulting a fence, or doing that little hop of his to jump into the saddle, seemingly so effortlessly. Now he walked with a stick and a pronounced limp and was able to only do what he called women’s work around the place and I could see his frustration growing day after day.

Now we had turned in for the night, and he lay there as he had every night since the operation, just staring blankly up at the ceiling.

However, after a moment he turned to me and said quietly, “I’ve been thinking, Slim; you should be heading home. We’ve been away far too long.”

I nodded. “Don’t fret. I forgot to tell you I got a wire from old man Jackson a day or so ago. Says the boys are doing a grand job and not to worry; the ranch is in safe hands. It’s a real relief, I can tell you,” I said giving him a happy smile.

He nodded at that. “Even so, you should be heading off Slim.”

“Sure, just as soon as the doc gives you the all clear to ride. As long as we’re back for round-up…”

“If! “ he growled

“Huh? “

“If the doc gives me the OK to ride.”

“Well sure, but that shouldn’t be a problem…”

He just sighed deeply and resumed his study of the ceiling and I figured all conversation was over for the night.

The following morning he seemed a little brighter and said he was driving the wagon into town to do some marketing for Martha.

I had been making myself useful by working the land with Chuck, but I offered to accompany him, saying old man Davies could doubtless spare me for an hour or so.

He shook his head. “No, I’ll be OK, Slim; Just need some space, you know?”

“Sure, ok pard, see you later.”

When it got near to supper time and he had still not returned, I saddled up Alamo and went off to look for him. “Don’t worry, Martha. I guess he’s just bumped into some old friends and forgotten the time,” I said trying to reassure her.

She nodded. “When you find him, maybe you should stay over in town, make a night of it. After all, it’s a bit quiet out here for two lively young men,” she said with a conspiratorial smile.

I walked into the crowded saloon and made my way to the bar and catching Pete’s eye he came over, with a friendly smile this time.

“Come to fetch your buddy home have you?” he said with a wink.

“Huh?”

“Jessie. he’s over there, but he ain’t any too happy, friend. Been sitting with a bottle since lunchtime and he’s looking kinda down — real down — and more than a little drunk too, I have to say. Figure he’s in need of a friend right now to look out for him.”

I followed Pete’s gaze to a table in a dim corner of the bar, where Jess was sitting with a nearly empty bottle and staring morosely into his glass.

“Thanks,” I muttered and sauntered over and stood staring down at him for a few minutes before my presence finally registered.

“You won’t find the answers in the bottom of a whisky glass,” I said finally.

He glanced up at me then, trying hard to focus. “You been sent t0 bring me home then?” he slurred.

“Nope; was just concerned about you that’s all.”

“Fetch a glass, come and join the party,” he said sarcastically.

I sank down into the chair opposite. “No thanks and I reckon you’ve had quite enough too, Jess.”

“Oh you do, do you, Mister high and mighty, holier than thou Sherman. Well, I’ll tell you I ain’t had nearly enough.” With that, he downed the contents of his glass and refilled it, throwing me a defiant look.

“Jess, don’t do this to yourself.”

“Why the hell not. If I wanna get a little merry, I don’t have to ask permission do I? Hell, you don’t own me body and soul, Slim; I’m just the hired help. Now go on home.”

I shook my head. “I’m going nowhere.”

That seemed to incense him and he dragged himself up and would have laid one on me, I figured, if his leg hadn’t given way beneath him and he crashed down to the floor, much to the enjoyment of the bar flies who gave up a cheer.

He threw them a filthy look and I knew darned well that if he’d been well and sober he’d have decked the lot of them — but he was neither.

I reached down and hauled him back up into his seat.

“Stay there and don’t move,” I growled, before turning back to the bar. “You got any letting rooms, Pete?” I asked.

“Sure, a couple up the stairs. Umm, on second thought, you’d better take the one out the back; two cots in there. It’s a bit basic, but I doubt he’d make the stairs.”

“Nor he would,” I agreed. “Thanks.”

“Key’s in the door, oh and Slim, bucket in the kitchen next door. I don’t wanna have to clean up after him.”

I just nodded and returned to where Jess was now resting his head on his arms. “Come on pard, time to turn in.”

“Wah?”

“Come on, Jess.” I managed to pull him up, and supporting him, made for the back room.

I leaned him against the wall once inside, one hand to his chest supporting him as his head rolled around, and I knew darned well if I let go he’d hit the deck.

With the other hand, I managed to light the lamp and looked around the dusty, sparsely furnished room. “Welcome to paradise,” I muttered sarcastically.

Grabbing hold of him, I lay him on the bed and removed his hat, boots and gun belt, before covering him over with the grubby blanket.

His head rolled on the pillow and he looked anxiously around him. ‘Where am I?”

“Pete’s back room. Now don’t you dare chuck up; I’m going for a bucket.” I left him quickly, but thankfully when I returned a few minutes lately, he was out of it, snoring lightly.

I got ready for bed myself and climbed into the other cot, after placing the bucket conveniently next to Jess’s bed and I heard nothing from him — until, as predicted, he started chucking up in the small hours.

After a while, I lit the lamp and poured him a glass of water before going to sit on the edge of his bed.

“You all done?”

He nodded, looking pale and shaken and as I passed him the glass I noticed his hands were trembling.

I shook my head. “What are we going to do with you, pard?”

He put the glass down and sank back on the pillow before turning sad eyes on me. “Dunno. Loose me off back to the hills, like you would any ol’ ornery mustang that you couldn’t tame?”

“Is that what you think I want to do….tame you?”

“Well, don’t you?” he spat, now angry.

“No,” I yelled equally angry. “I just want you to be happy, want the best for you.”

He looked away at that, unable to look me in the eye. “Well maybe I’d be happy here,” he muttered.

“Is that what this is all about? you getting tanked up on Dutch courage to tell me you’re staying here?”

“Maybe.”

“You’d really be happier here?”

“Said so didn’t I?” he replied, still not looking at me.

I took this on board, but something didn’t sit right. Hell, he’d been happy back in Wyoming — I knew that — and he’d always said there was nothing left for him back in Texas, how he couldn’t go back.

“Is this about Nancy….and her family? Do you think they need you?”

He just nodded at that. “Yep, that’s about the size of it,” he agreed.

But no it was all too pat; it didn’t add up. Sure he got on with them, owed them for all their kindness to him as a child, but he’d paid that debt, and then some, in the way he’d come to their rescue and rid the town of Fernandez and his men. Nope, that debt was well and truly paid and his best girl and friends were all up in Laramie; it just didn’t make any sense.

Then the penny dropped.

“Jess?”

“What?”

“Look at me.”

After a while he finally turned his deep blue eyes on me.

“This isn’t anything to do with the Davies family at all, is it, and everything to do with the fact that you don’t think you’re going to be able to pull your weight back at the ranch.”

He said nothing for a long time, but I could see the truth of it in his eyes.

“Jess?”

“OK… OK,” he spat, “maybe I do feel that way, but hell, Slim, that place won’t support no passengers. You can’t employ a cripple; it don’t make no sense.”

“And so staying here where you’re unhappy and drinking yourself into the ground does make sense does it?” I asked sarcastically.

He just stared up at the ceiling again like he had done at the Davies place….refusing to engage.

“So you’re just going to end up a drunk like your old man then,” I asked brutally. “Waste your life the way he did?”

He sat bolt upright at that, looking more furious than I could ever remember.

That’s more like it, I thought; the old Harper fighting spirit was alive and well.

“Don’t you dare!” he yelled. “Don’t you dare compare me with him!”

“Well, stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I replied, a twinkle in my eye now.

“Why you…” he muttered, realizing I’d been winding him up to get him motivated, help him to drag himself out of the terrible pit of misery he seemed to have dug for himself.

“You will get well,” I said more gently. “You’ll just have to be patient a while longer, pard ,and besides….”

“Besides what?”

“I guess I need you, just as much as you needed me on this trip. I need someone I can rely on  to watch my back, and yes, a good horse breaker too. I can’t run that place single-handed Jess. Believe me, you’re needed back on the ranch.”

He just stared at me, but his eyes said it all.

“Now get to sleep; you’ve gotten a lot of healing to do if we’re riding home at the end of the month,” I said, and seeing he was looking real emotional, I dimmed the lamp. “Night, pard.”

“Night Slim,” he managed. “And thanks. Guess I needed telling.”

*****

It was when we were wandering about town the following morning, finally getting around to doing Martha’s marketing, when we realized how much the place had changed in just the two weeks since Fernandez’ death.

His men had left, as predicted by Pete, and now there was a brand new Sheriff in office and a sense of purpose and energy about the place which had been sadly lacking before.

There were a team of men renovating the damaged church, whilst a young man of the cloth looked on appreciatively, and the sidewalk was full of cheerful-looking woman and young girls, who had not dared show their faces whilst Fernandez’s men roamed the streets.

Sure there was still the crippling poverty and many shops still boarded up, but the general feeling was a positive one, and I felt real proud of my buddy for the part he’d played in this amazing transformation.

When I mentioned it to him, he chuckled. “Keep selling it that way, Slim, and I figure we’ll both wanna move down here,” he said with a merry twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

Gee, it was so good to have my old buddy back, and even his limp was less pronounced today. Yep, things were certainly on the up — or so I thought.

It was just a couple of days later when another fierce storm broke, and Jess and I were caught up in it as we’d been mending fence way out on the east pasture.

It was the first time he had sat a horse since the shooting and he was tired and in some pain, I could see, and now the darned dust storm hit and we had the devil’s own job finding our way back to the ranch house.

The wind was moaning in a real spooky fashion and I guess we were both real glad when we finally made it to the sanctuary of the barn.

Jess insisted on rubbing down and feeding Traveler, even though I offered to do it for him, and so it was late afternoon before we finally made it back to the house and were greeted by a near hysterical Nancy.

She threw herself into Jess’s arms whimpering and it was a while before we could find out what the problem was.

As Jess sat beside her, one arm protectively around her shoulders, she finally began to explain, in her own child like manner. “It’s the wind,” she whispered turning huge, fearful eyes on my pard. “it sounds like the people, I hear…that terrible crying sound.”

“Hey, sweetheart, it’s only the wind. Can’t hurt you; you’re real safe in here, with your Ma and Pa,” he added turning troubled eyes on where Martha and Chuck looked on.

“No,” she said, “you don’t understand. It’s not the wind that a fears me, just the way it sounds….like the dead people.”

Jess’s expressive eyebrows shot up and he turned a questioning glance over to Chuck Davies. “Dead people…is this one of her fairy tales?” he asked, knowing the child had a rather scary book of folk tales, which she loved but which also frightened her.

Chuck just shook his head. “Nope.” Then turning back to Nancy, “How about you go with your Ma and make us all some nice cocoa?” he asked cajolingly.

She shook her head. “Want to stay with Jessie.”

It was much later, once she was tucked up in bed, and we were sitting around the fire after supper that Jess brought the subject up again.

“So what was all that about dead folk screaming like the sound of the wind then, huh? “

Martha and Chuck exchanged an uncomfortable glance.

 “Oh just some childish nonsense,” Chuck replied.

However, Martha fixed him with an anxious look. “I think we should tell him, my love…in case someone in town says something.” Then she turned troubled eyes on Jess.

“You won’t like this, dear, but well…folks say your old home is haunted….and I’m afraid I have to agree with them.”

“What? You’re kidding me You don’t believe in that kinda rubbish, do you?”

She looked a little sheepish, but stood her ground.

“Not usually…..no, but you see the thing is, Jessie, I have heard it with my own ears….and that’s why old man Dyson can’t get a tenant. Folks around here are way too scared to live there. You see, it isn’t just me and Nancy that have heard it; there are others too — even Fernandez’s men. In fact, it was one of them that told me about it in the first place, and goodness knows it takes a lot to spook his men.”

Jess scratched his head and turned to me. “What do you think, Hardrock. Reckon there’s any truth in haunting?”

I shook my head. “Well they do say there’s more in Heaven and Earth than folk know about or understand; I suppose it could be possible.”

Jess looked real upset at that. “What you’re saying is my kin are sorta stuck here, ain’t been laid to rest proper?” He stood up and limped over to the fireplace, resting an arm across the top and laying his head on it for a few moments, trying to collect his thoughts I guess.

Then he turned back to Martha. “So you believe it…my Ma and Pa….damn it…the little ‘uns too….are still sufferin’ that hell?”

She just shook her head. “I don’t know, dear; I just know what I’ve heard….that’s all.”

He was shaking now and had turned terrible pale. “You were there that night, both of you,” he said turning to include Chuck. “You saw how they suffered in that darned inferno. Please tell me that they’re not still burning,” he begged turning wild eyes on them.

“I knew we shouldn’t have said anything,” said Chuck, turning angry eyes on his wife.

“Better the boy hears it from those who care about him, than strangers,” she said quietly. “And if he’s staying, then it’s only a matter of time before someone tells him anyway.”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “Stayin’? Who said I was stayin’?”

“Well er…we just assumed that if you couldn’t work the horses anymore, you might settle here,” said Martha looking hopeful.

He looked down and shook his head before going over and taking her in his arms. “I’m sorry, Ma,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean you to think that. Me and Slim are headin’ home just as soon as I’m able. I’m real sorry, but I guess that’s where I belong now.”

I saw her take a deep breath and then she pinned a smile on her face and patted his arm fondly. “Of course, dear, we understand and we just want you to be happy, is all.”

But I saw what Jess didn’t, the look of deep sadness in her eyes as she turned away, and felt real sorry for her. I guess we all wanted a piece of Jess and I figured he’d never realize how much he meant to folk.

In bed that night, he all but broke down and turning deeply troubled eyes on me asked, “So you think it’s possible then, Slim, my kin are haunting the old place?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know pard, but if it upsets you so much, why don’t we ask the padre to visit, say some prayers; it might help.”

“You think?”

“Maybe. I’ve heard tell they can sort of send the spirits on their way. Couldn’t do any harm anyway.”

On that sad note, we finally turned in, although Jess had a terribly disturbed night, tossing and turning and I could only guess at the awful nightmares he was suffering.

The following morning he was up at first light and had that determined look in his eyes that I knew so well. “I’m going over, take a look around,” he said quietly. ”Wanna come with me?”

“You want me?”

“Said so didn’t I?”

“Ok…sure.”

We could just hear the cockerel crowing back at the Davies’ spread when we reined in our mounts and sat looking around the yard of Jess’s former home.

Jess stared at the blackened shell of a building for a long while before taking a deep breath, then dismounting, and I figured he was steeling himself for the ordeal ahead.

He looked up at where I still sat Alamo. “You coming in then?”

“You want me with you Jess?” I asked, assuming that he would rather be alone for this intensely moving experience, the first time he’d entered his old family home since the fire.

He half turned and pulled his hat down hard. “Yeah, I want you with me,” he replied gruffly, before edging his way through the rubble, to the entrance and after a moment I dismounted and followed him.

Even though the ceiling had fallen in during the fire, making the internal layout difficult to see, there was still a distinct atmosphere of entering someone’s home, not just a wreck as it looked from the outside.

The large stone fireplace still stood, and beside it a pair of cupboards deeply set in the stone wall.

Jess wandered over to one and pulled the door open and it fell from its hinges, revealing a doll and tiny pair of children’s shoes. He reached out and picked up the shoes.

“I bought her those,” he said very quietly. “She used to feel the cold, got terrible chilblains; we all did. No shoes, see,” he said casting a glance in my direction. “So I got me a job at the mercantile, bagging up the orders and delivering too. Jeez, that was powerful hard work” he said with a tight smile. “Anyways, I got ‘em for her. She only wore ‘em for a couple of months before she…” He took a deep breath, “Before the fire,” he finished.

Then he picked up the doll and shook his head. “funny, ain’t it. A dang doll survives this,” he said tipping his head around the room in general. “And people die. It don’t make no sense, does it, Slim?”

I just shook my head, not knowing what to say. Hell, there was nothing TO say….

I leaned over and squeezed his shoulder. “Let’s go, Jess. Get the preacher in…huh?”

He nodded sadly. “Yep, like you say, can’t do no harm.”

It was I who rode into town and explained the situation to the reverend Timothy Green and what a nice man he was. Sure he was young for a preacher, about my age, but what he lacked in years he sure made up for in heart and he understood the situation immediately.

“Your friend is really suffering over this business, isn’t he?” he said thoughtfully.

I nodded. “Yeah, he is, Reverend, and I figure he really doesn’t need it after all he’s been through recently.”

“Yes I heard all about that, and I knew about the fire set by the Bannisters too. Folk still remember it around here. I’m really looking forward to meeting, Jess…and please call me Tim; everyone does.”

I figured that wouldn’t go down too well with the old school churchgoers who kind of liked to revere their minister, well if the Laramie congregation was anything to go by, but personally, I liked his style and shook his hand. “Thanks, Tim; good to know you.”

He rode over the following morning, just as yet another storm looked to be brewing, and we decided to go over to the old Harper place right away, although Martha wanted to feed Tim up, like all Ma’s do with skinny young men.

Jess and Tim hit it off right away and I was glad to see my pard was looking a little less edgy than he had done ever since we had visited the previous day.

As soon as he rode into the yard, we heard it — an ungodly moaning and screaming, for all the world like a soul in distress, but amazingly Jess just took it in his stride.

Reverend Tim and I exchanged a horrified glance as the sound grew louder and louder, and the wind whistled around us foretelling of the storm to come.

I peered over at my buddy and saw him looking around him, still the picture of calm and reasonably relaxed, considering all.

I went over and stood beside him. “Jess can’t you hear it?”

“Huh…hear what? “

“You know…”

“Oh that. Hell, that ain’t dead souls, Slim; that’s just the wind in those old pines behind the house. Always made that kinda noise, I guess.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

 Then Jess went over to Tim. “I figure there ain’t any real need now, Reverend, but I guess I’d feel happier if you’d say a prayer over the old place anyways.”

Tim did as requested and we all stood, heads bowed, whilst he recited some prayers, finishing with the Lord’s Prayer, which Jess and I joined in with.

Then Jess leaned across and shook his hand. “Thank you kindly; I really appreciate this,” he said softly.

Then Tim and I walked out into the yard, leaving Jess for a few moments quiet reflection. But after a few minutes, we heard him yelling for us to come back in.

“What’s up, pard?” I asked, seeing him looking real disturbed.

“Come and look over here,” he said and we followed him over to the back of the house, where it looked like the rubble had been cleared recently, and we both peered down at a huge box, almost hidden by a couple of beams.

Jess had pulled them to one side and the box was now open, revealing an arsenal of weapons, from hand guns to rifles, plus a large supply of dynamite.

“I figure this is where Fernandez kept his weaponry for all his robberies, and the best way to keep ‘em real well hid was to start this rumor of the haunting. Meant old man Dyson had no chance of doing the place up, or renting it out as everyone was too darned scared. He must have heard the wind in the trees and thought it would make a real good scam,” he finished looking mighty relieved.

“What about young Nancy and Martha? They must have heard it before?” I queried.

“The power of suggestion,” said Tim smiling. If people are told something forcefully enough, I guess they are halfway to believing it.”

“Well I’m just glad we’ve sorted it all out,” I said with relief. “And maybe you can put them to rest properly now too, Jess?”

He just nodded. “Yeah… maybe,” but I knew in my heart it wouldn’t be as easy as that.

*****

We set off for home the following week and it sure wasn’t easy for Nancy, as she near broke her heart when she saw Jess was really riding out.

“You will come back, come and see me again won’t you?” she said, tears coursing down her lovely face.

“Sure I will, honey” Jess said, hugging her. “And I’ll write too, print it out so you can read it huh?”

She nodded. “And a picture as well. You’ll draw me a picture of where you live, like you promised the other night?”

He cast me a helpless glance before assuring her yep, he’d do his level best to draw a picture for her.

We finally set off amidst much hugging and crying from the women folk and a handshake from Chuck.

“Thank you so much, both of you, I guess we’ve got our town back and a whole new beginning for everyone.” Then he turned to Jess. “I want to thank you for all the time you’ve spent with our Nancy. Not many would bother with her, but then I guess you were always different. And if she’s looking forward to the odd letter, I figure that will help with her reading too,” he said with a wink.

Then we were on our way and I teased Jess unmercifully for the first couple of miles, suggesting he’d have to learn how to write real good if he expected Nancy to read it.

“I can write real good! “

“Sure you can, Jess; it’s just that your writing looks like a near dead spider has crawled across the page.”

“That ain’t so!”

Then after a while….

“So then, Jess, what medium are you going to use for this masterpiece?”

“Huh?”

“The picture you’re going to pain, Rembrandt. So oil or do you favor water color?”

“Slim, will you give it a rest!”

Then his face lit up. “Hey, I know what we  can do. When that travelling show comes to town next time, we’ll get the photographer guy to take a picture of us outside the ranch. She’d love that.”

I grinned back. “That she would, pard,” and we rode on in harmony.

We were travelling due Northwest up through Texas and then up towards Colorado where I hoped it would start to get a little cooler, because I sure was suffering with the heat. It seemed even worse than when we were riding down as it was now very oppressive the sun beating down relentlessly and a constant hot wind blowing dirt and dust into our eyes, food and clothes. After a few days of it, it made us real uncomfortable and irritable

I felt sorry for Jess, too, who was having a tough time sitting in the saddle day in, day out, and although I knew he’d rather chop his leg off than say anything, I could see that his knee was really bothering him. He was still limping badly too, most noticeable at night when he wandered around setting up camp, or fetching firewood and tending his horse, but he just shrugged off my offers of help saying he was fine.

In the end though, it was me that got real sick.

Like I say, I was feeling the heat and I was kind of worried about the water situation when I saw Jess rationing his intake.

“Where’s the next water hole?” I asked one evening and he looked uncertain for a moment before reassuring me that there was one within a day’s ride…or two.

“Well, which is it?” I asked irritably.

“Should reach it by noon tomorrow if we get a wriggle on. An’ if it’s dry, well, there is a spring that should be ok another day away. “

“Should be?” I asked raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah. Quit worrin’, Slim, I’ll get us there, OK?”

I just nodded.

“And drink your water or you’ll get sick.”

I took a sip and then went off to tend to Alamo, but not before I’d seen the concern in his eyes.

That night when we set up camp, I had a throbbing head, like I’d been on the old moonshine, and felt real sick and dizzy.

“You OK?” asked Jess peering at me from across the camp fire. “Not hungry then? “

I shook my head, pushing my grub away. “Nope, think I’ll just turn in, pard.”

The following morning when I awoke I felt even worse, but said nothing, and after a scratch meal, we mounted up early, at Jess’ insistence, saying we needed to get some miles behind us before the full heat of the day hit.

Then he threw me an anxious look. “You OK for water?”

I nodded.

“Well drink it then, Slim; you need to keep drinkin’ in this sun.”

“You aren’t,” I countered.

“Well I’m more used to the heat than you,” he said with a grin. “Come on, pard, let’s get going.”

We arrived at the water hole by noon as promised but it soon became obvious that it was dry.

As I dismounted, I staggered a little and grabbed hold of my saddle for support, but Jess was there in a moment and helped me to some straggly trees on the edge of the dry hole, which at least gave us some respite from the burning sun, now at its zenith.

Once I was seated, head in hands, Jess wandered off and returned a few minutes later with my bedroll and my half full canteen.

He hunkered down beside me and offered me a drink, which I took, and then I lay back on the bedroll feeling as bad as I could remember. My skin was burning hot, but dry, like I’d sweated every last drop of moisture out of my body, I had cramps and felt real sick.

“You’re not too good, are you, pard?” he asked softly.

“I guess not.”

He sighed, looking out to the horizon, shimmering in the mid-day sun, and then turned back to me like he had just made a decision. “Look Slim, I figure you need to rest up some. I’ll go on to the spring and fill up the canteens.”

I tried to sit up. “I’ll be OK; I just need a rest.”

He shook his head at that. “Nope you need to stay here in the shade and make sure you take a drink every hour or so.”

He saw me start to object but put a gentle hand on my chest to silence me. “Slim you sick with heat fever and you need to do exactly as I say. That’s real important. You drink the water and stay in the shade. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that, he turned and trudged back to the horses, and after ground hitching Alamo and giving him and Traveler a drink, he mounted and trotted off at speed without a backwards glance. I watched as he finally disappeared through the heat haze and then collapsed back on my bedroll exhausted.

It was nearly dusk when I awoke and had another drink and then I saw something beside my canteen. Jess’s spare one, full to the top with cool water and,  I figured he’d ridden off with less than half a canteen for a day’s ride to the spring.

“Crazy fool,” I muttered to myself, the fact that he’d made that sacrifice without even saying anything making it even more touching.

As darkness fell and the temperature dropped I huddled in my blanket, not having the energy to light a fire even if there had been enough kindling about, which there wasn’t.

I lay there listening to the wind whipping the dust up again and swore that if I ever made it back home, I’d never venture south again. Hell, I’d never go off the ranch again, the way I was feeling right then.

I couldn’t sleep and just lay there tossing and turning and wandering when Jess would make it back. Hell, if the spring was dry, IF he’d make it back at all. At least I was beginning to feel a little better, whether from the lower temperature around me or the water which I sipped through the night, I don’t know, but come dawn I was beginning to feel a little more normal.

All I could think about was how my pard was getting on and when he’d be back. I reckoned that even at that fast pace, he wouldn’t have made the water hole before night fall; would have set up camp and resumed his quest at first light, so all being well, he might just make it back before dark tonight.

I checked the second canteen– Jess’ — and was startled to see I was more than half way down it. But hell I had to get better, and maybe if I rested, I could set off after him this afternoon, I thought vaguely.

Later that morning something caught my eye, way off on the horizon — a dust cloud — and after a minute or two, I saw it was a lone rider and I made an instinctive grab for my gun.

I sat motionless watching the figure approach with growing anxiety. Were there Indians around these parts?

Then as the rider came closer, there was something familiar in the way he sat his horse, like he’d been born in the saddle, and then I saw the horses color through the dust — a bay, Traveler and Jess — and then he raised a hand, that little salute of his sending a flood of relief through me and I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. “Thank God,” I whispered.

He dismounted and limped slowly over, looking weary, hot and dusty, but grinning from ear to ear as he held up the full canteens.

“Do you fancy a nice cold drink pard?” he asked with a cheeky wink.

“How in hell did you get back so quick?” I gasped as he sank down beside me passing a canteen over.

“Rode through the night,” he replied casually.

“What there and back? Jess, are you crazy? You must be dang well near wore out?”

He shook his head wearily. “Yep, kinda, but not as much as my old horse,” he said throwing Traveler an affectionate glance. “Anyways,” he continued, “we’ve plenty of water now, so figure we can rest up today and get going in the morning — if you’re feeling better, that is?”

“I’m fine,” I insisted. “But are you sure we’ll have enough to get us to the river crossing?”

“Of yeah,” he said with another of his infectious grins. Then he looked up to the sky, which has lost its striking deep blue color and was turning a milky grey.

“I’m sure alright; storm on the way, see. Guess we’ll have more water than we know what to do with before the weeks out — and then some.”

“It’ll be as bad as that?” I asked, looking up at the benign looking sky.

“Yep. Your think you have good thunder storms back home? Well you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. We get REAL storms down here,” he said with a chuckle, before going off to fetch his bedroll and take a well-earned rest.

*****

Well, I guess he sure wasn’t wrong there, but it was a couple more days before the storm hit.

We made it back down to the river, where Jess had been when the renegade Indians attacked, but we were a good few miles downstream from the attack and just hoped that there wouldn’t be any other hostiles around.

The hot, humid weather had continued without a break, and by the time we finally got to the river, we were in need of not only a good long drink for ourselves and our mounts , but also a wash too.

We stripped down to our undershorts and dived in, relishing the icy water after the long, hot ride, and swam about like a pair of little kids, ducking and diving before finally emerging clean and refreshed.

Jess came out first and stretched out on the soft springy grass on the bank, the backdrop of pines as far as the eye could see, welcome after the wide open plains of the last few days.

I followed him out after a few minutes and lay in the hazy sunshine, reveling in being clean and dust free, for the time being at least. Then I heard it, the distant rumble of thunder, and the oppressive atmosphere of the last few days became even more heavy.

It was late afternoon, and Jess sat up and looked around him, as the rumbling became more and more ominous and the odd flash of lightening could be seen lighting up the increasingly dimming sky.

“Do you think we should take shelter rather than press on?” I asked eyeing the sky as I started to pull on my clothes.

He just nodded following suit. “I guess so, unless you wanna be washed clean away.”

I looked around us. “So where?”

He tipped his hat towards the pines that rose up the hillside. “Under there, about halfway up that hill, it plateaus out, so the water will run off. But we’ll still have the shelter from the trees. There’s a clearing too with some grazing. I came down that way on my way out here. A real good place to hole up for a while I reckon.”

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea to be under trees that way, in a lightning storm, Jess,” I offered, looking behind me to where the distant sky was now illuminated by flash after flash of distant lightening.

“Well, I guess the chances of gettin’ struck by lightning are less than getting drowned. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I could do with a coffee and some supper right now. So you comin’?” he asked, with his cheeky grin.

The storm was rolling around the hills, the thunder that had been but a distant echo, now getting louder and louder and the lightening illuminating the ever darkening sky.

“OK…let’s go,” I replied reluctantly.

Once we were deep in the pine wood, under the canopy of the densely growing trees, it was a different world.

 The ground was dry as tinder with plenty of firewood, the atmosphere cool with the scent of pine and ample space beneath the huge trees for us and our mounts to shelter.

“See? What did I say?” he grinned turning to me and looking pleased with himself. “A real home from home.”

“Umm…” I said looking up at the thick branches above me. “Well, let’s just hope the roof doesn’t leak.”

We found out soon enough, as the heavens opened just minutes after we had the fire going and coffee pot in place, and I was mightily relieved that the protection from the trees was as Jess had said — almost like the roof at home.

 Even so, I insisted in rigging up a shelter with our rain slickers over our bedrolls just to be sure I wouldn’t get a soaking in the night as there was ‘a deluge as had last been seen by Noah’ I said, much to Jess’s amusement.

“Told you we did things in style down here,” he said with a chuckle as we relaxed after supper, sipping a small tot of whiskey a piece.

It was the first time Jess had imbibed since the disastrous night in Pete’s bar, but the night had turned real chilly and we both felt in need of a little something to warm us up some.

We sat in the dark by the fire after supper, watching the rain pour down relentlessly, the thunder echoing around us and the lightening illuminating the standing pines, giving the whole area a strange unworldly glow.

“I guess you’ve sat out a few of these storms when you were on the drift,” I said turning to where Jess was placidly contemplating the view before us.

“Yep, I guess.”

Then there was an almighty crash of thunder making us both flinch at the suddenness and close proximity.

“Were you scared?” I asked casting him an enquiring look. “When you were younger; you were just a kid of fifteen, weren’t you. when you first went on the drift.”

He laughed at that. “Nope, storms don’t scare me…much,” he laughed as we both jumped again at a thunderous crash just above us.

“So what does scare you?” I persisted.

He shrugged. “Apart from being left afoot and the love of a good woman?” he asked, his stock answer.

I nodded, really interested now, trying to figure out this complex man who was my friend.

He looked deeply into the fire, before looking back up at me.

“Me, I guess,” he said softly.

“You?”

“Yeah, the anger in me, Slim; it’ so darn powerful… Sometimes it scares me. That fire in my belly, gets me into all kinds of trouble. I guess I act without thinkin’ things through,” he said ruefully. Then giving me a small smile, “Maybe I should be more like you and  we wouldn’t end up in messes like this,” he said tipping his hat to encompass our surroundings.

I thought about that for a minute. “Yeah, maybe you could be a bit less impulsive, try and figure problems out before running headlong into trouble,” I agreed. Then I turned sincere eyes on him. “But Jess, don’t ever lose that fire in your belly — that passion, that loyalty for your friends — because I guess that’s what makes you who you are.”

He just nodded at that.

“What else?” I asked then, feeling I was really getting to grips with the hidden depths of this very private man for once. He was really opening up and not just shrugging off my questions with a jokey answer.

He took a sip of his whiskey before finally replying. “You.”

“What… me?” I asked in amazement. ”I’m not scary, Jess; I’m a pussy cat. You’re one heck of a lot more fearsome than I am.”

“I don’t mean it that way,” he said quickly. “I ain’t scared OF you Slim; I’m scared FOR you. The way you end up in a whole mess of trouble, just because of me…”

“We’ve talked that through. That’s what friends are for. If I decide to get involved, that’s my choice,” I said softly.

Then I suddenly realized something — the thought hitting home with a jolt.

“Is that why you lit out that way, refusing to discuss it, seeming so dang angry? Was that because you were trying to protect me? Didn’t want me to have any part of the situation with Fernandez?”

He just nodded. “Yep, it was. I figured if you were mad at me, it would be easier for you, and you wouldn’t follow me. I guess I got that one wrong eh,” he said with a tired smile. Then there was a long pause. “Thanks pard,” he whispered, and we sat sipping our drinks, listening to the thunder and watching the torrential rain falling for a while before he turned back to me.

“So how about you then? What terrifies the pants off of you?” Jess asked with a grin.

Just then there was another earth rocking crash of thunder above our heads.

“This darned storm for starters,” I said and we both laughed. “I don’t know…responsibility, I suppose. Looking out for Andy, bringing him up the way my folks would have wanted… The ranch too, I guess; keeping our heads above water, and trying to achieve  everything that Pa had hoped for. I’d like to think he was proud of me, that I was doing everything right.”

Then I turned and smiled at him. “I guess that’s gotten easier since I’ve had you around to share the load.”

He just nodded, acknowledging the truth of it.

“Jess I’ve been thinking…”

“Huh? “

“About the ranch. Did you mean it? What you said the other night when you were drunk — that you’re just the hired help?”

He thought about that for a while before replying. “I guess not. The place means more to me than that. Like you said, I was just feelin’ sorry for myself, the drink talkin’,” he finished giving me an embarrassed look.

“Umm. So what I was thinking… How would you like a partnership in the ranch and relay — all signed and sealed, legal, that is?”

His head shot up and he looked shocked to the core. “What about Andy,” he finally managed. “I thought your Pa wanted you two to run it together.”

I shook my head. “We both know that isn’t going to happen. Andy’s a high flier; he’s already having difficulty deciding whether to go  in for Law or Medicine. He’d just hate to be tied to the ranch, and to be honest, Ma wanted better for him too.”

Jess still looked far from happy. “Can’t do it, Slim, on two accounts. This darn leg of mine, we still don’t know if I’m ever gonna be able to pull my weight again. And then, well, I ain’t got no stake money.”

I sighed with frustration. “Hell, I don’t want your goddamn money, Jess. I just want you to be there for me, to help me run the place, as an equal…that’s all.

“Well I’m here  ain’t I,” he said just as peeved. “I can still work my butt off for the place; don’t have to be a partner.”

“Umm…and maybe  you’re just scared of the commitment,” I said astutely. “Couldn’t go running out on me if you had that kind of responsibility could you…eh?”

He went very quiet and still at that, before finally looking me in the eye. “It ain’t that, Slim. I’m committed alright. Like I said, I’m here, ain’t I? “

*****

We gradually made our way north, my spirits rising as I inhaled the cooler, pine scented air. The countryside turned green and more fertile, and then I glimpsed a familiar mountain range ahead of us. We were back in Wyoming and I gave a deep sigh of contentment.

When we finally rode into Laramie at dusk one evening, I felt so dang happy as I really thought I’d never see the old place again at one stage.

We took our mounts down to the livery and made sure Bert treated them real good.

“Well if they’re half as wore out and filthy as you two, I figure they’re gonna need a whole bucket full of lovin’ care,” he said with a chuckle.

I looked over at Jess, and it was true he was covered in dirt and dust, from his Stetson to his boots, his lameness was very pronounced as he wandered over to check on his horse and he looked just about done in.

I figured I was looking pretty similar, save for the limp, and I knew we had to do something about our filthy state before we hit the saloon, although Jess was sure champing at the bit to get to see his girl.

“Come on, pard, let’s get us a room and hot tub over at the Laramie Hotel,” I said. ”You’re not looking or smelling any too good right now, and I figure Miss Millie wouldn’t be over impressed.”

We were standing outside the livery by then, and he threw the saloon a longing look, but he finally saw the sense of my argument and we crossed the street to the hotel to clean up some before our night on the town.

Once we were spruced up, we went over to the saloon and Millie spotted us as soon as we entered. She gave a little squeal of delight and ran out from behind the bar, straight into Jess’ arms, and was kissed very thoroughly, much to the amusement of the entire saloon, who gave a rousing cheer.

Jess finally came up for air and cast an embarrassed glance around the bar before retiring to the back room with Millie, and that was the last I saw of him until we met up for breakfast at Miss Molly’s café the following morning, as agreed.

In the meantime, I bought young Lily, who was now standing in for Millie, a drink and was pleased that she seemed kinda pleased to see me, so cashing in on the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I asked her to the dance the following week and was cock a hoop when she said yes.

The rest of the evening was spent with Mort, his deputy Lon, Doc Sam and a couple of other friends in  an enjoyable poker game, which I came out of better than I went in, so I figured it had been a pretty good night , all in all.

As I was leaving, Mort called me back into the saloon. “Can you bring Jess over to the office tomorrow, before you head home?” he asked.

“Sure. Er, he’s not in trouble, is he, Mort?”

“Well I dunno. You’ve been with him these last few weeks…is he?”

“I don’t think so,” I said vaguely, looking worried now.

“Well it ain’t never far away from the boy, that’s for sure,” said the Sheriff, chuckling to himself.

Then seeing my look of anxiety, Mort took pity on me. “No, he’s not in trouble, Slim, but I need  to see him about something real important, so you make sure he comes over…huh?”

Jess finally landed at Miss Molly’s café for breakfast, just as I was thinking of leaving, looking for all the world like the cat who’d had the cream, a big grin on his rather sleepy looking face.

 “Was it a good night then, pard?” I asked as he eased himself into the seat opposite and helped himself to coffee.

“The best,” he said quietly.

I raised a questioning eyebrow, but knew darned well that Jess never talked about his ladies, so I sure wasn’t going to get any details.

“How about you?” he asked taking a sip of coffee.

“Yeah, real good; got me a date with Miss Lily. Oh yeah and an appointment with the Doc for you too, just as soon as you’ve finished stuffing your face that is,” I said as I watched him digging into the house special just delivered by Miss Molly.

“Aww Slim, I don’t wanna see the doc; I’m OK,” was the muffled reply through a mouthful of bacon.

“No, you’re not. That knee is real bad, Jess. You have to have it checked out. Anyway I thought you were worried I wouldn’t be able to crack the whip and get my pound of flesh out of you,” I said grinning at him. “You need to see what the doc has to say on the subject, don’t you?”

“I suppose…”

“Then Mort wants to see you too.”

“What…what about?”

“I don’t know. You’re not in trouble, are you, pard?”

“You know I’m not. Hell I killed Fernandez and his hoodlums fair and square; the new Sheriff did the paper work and all…you know that!”

“Sure I do, simmer down. So maybe he wants you to cover for Lon — act Deputy again?”

“Aww Slim, we’ve been away far too long as it is. I just wanna go home.”

“Me too, pard, so eat up and we’ll get these visits done and ride out as soon as we can  huh?”

Jess disappeared into Doc Sam’s consulting room while I caught up with his lovely daughter Carrie, but it wasn’t too long before Sam put his head around the door and called me in.

I glanced over to where Jess was laying on the examination couch looking mutinous  and Sam gestured me to a chair opposite his desk as he slid into his chair on the other side, casting me a frustrated look.

“I guess we don’t have any issues with patient confidentiality,” he said raising an eyebrow at Jess. “You don’t mind Slim sitting in do you buddy?”

Jess just shrugged. “He knows all about it, helped the doc with the operation — once he sobered him up, that is,” he continued bitterly.

“Now look, young man, I can’t fault Doctor James’s work. he did an excellent job on repairing the damage. It’s what’s happened since that I have a problem with.”

“We had to get home,” said my partner sulkily. ”Like I told you, Sam; it ain’t my fault it’s so darn bad. We’ve got us a ranch to run, you know!”

Sam rolled his eyes at me. “Looks like he walked all the darn way, from the swelling on that knee,” he muttered.

“Umm…well..”

“Well what, Slim?”

“We caught some  bad weather a couple of days since; the ground was real muddy and slippery, we did have to dismount — worried about the horses breaking something — it was real heavy going…..”

Sam shook his head in despair. “So how far did he walk on a severely damaged knee then?”

“Five, maybe six miles, on and off, all told, I guess.”

“And you’d put your horses’ wellbeing above your own, I suppose,” said Sam sarcastically, glancing at Jess.

“Every time,” he replied, without missing a beat.

Sam finally softened at that. “Well ask a silly question….” Then he threw me a pleading look. “I need you to talk some sense into this buddy of yours, Slim. I’ve laid it on the line for him. But I don’t believe it’s sunk in. He needs to keep off this leg for a minimum of a month — and I mean off it. No feeding the chucks, or popping down  to the creek to see if the fish are biting. I mean in the chair with the leg up, or else in bed — and he’s got to do this, Slim, even if you have to tie him down.”

I nodded. “And if he doesn’t behave himself, Doc?”

“He’ll permanently damage the knee. It could just be weak and give way more and more…or it could lock, which means he’d never sit a horse again — plain and simple as that.”

I threw Jess a firm look.

“OK……OK,” he said raising his hands in submission. “I’ll behave.”

Sam beamed at him. “That’s real good, buddy I’ll come by and check on you regularly, and as soon as you’re better, we’ll both hit the fishing hole…..huh?”

Jess nodded and grinned at his friend then. “Deal.”

“Come on then, Jess, let’s go see what Mort wants and then we’re getting you home so you can rest up.”

“Aww Slim, will you give over? Your gettin’ to sound just like old Jonsey.”

“Umm, well, old Jonsey talked a lot of sense and he saw you out of a tight spot or two when you were real sick too.”

We wandered over the road and entered Mort’s office, Jess heading for the coffee pot.

“Oh, well, help yourself do,” said the Sheriff frowning in mock irritation, before grinning at both of us.

“Morning, Mort,” we said in unison.

“So you want a cup?” asked Jess coffee pot poised.

“Well thanks, if you’re sure you can spare it?”

Jess poured drinks for us all and then sank down on the seat opposite Mort’s desk, but not before our friend had seen the way Jess was limping really badly.

“So, old Fernandez gave you a kinda rough time then, Jess?”

Jess looked down and rubbed his knee thoughtfully for a moment. “Yeah, could say.”

“Doc says he’s to keep off his feet for four weeks,” I said.

“Oh boy Slim, I don’t envy you riding shot gun on that,” said Mort with a playful look in Jess’s direction.

“So what do you want then, Mort,” Jess asked, sipping his coffee and ignoring the banter.

“Well, I’ll tell you. I had a wire from that new Sheriff down in your home town in Texas…real nice guy.”

“So, what did he want? And if it’s about Fernandez, I shot him fair and square; Slim will vouch for that. He caught me in the chest and knee before I finished him off with a clean shot through the heart. Ain’t that so, pard?” he asked turning troubled eyes on me.

“Sure, that’s true alright, Mort. Can swear it in court if needs be.”

“Well now, did I say as to there was any doubt? Heck, I’d take your word above any others, Jess, and you too, Slim; you know that. No, there isn’t any problem with the killing — but there’s just the little matter of the bounty which needs collecting. “

“Huh,” questioned Jess looking surprised. “Bounty?”

“Well. sure. You must have realized there was a bounty on his head — shooting that poor unfortunate deputy in Albuquerque, not to mention various bank robberies and  murders he still hadn’t been apprehended for.”

Then Mort got up and went over to the safe, returning with a fat envelope that he threw down into Jess’s lap. “There you go, buddy. Just count it and then sign for me,” he said passing a slip of paper over.”

Jess threw me a glance before opening the envelope and pulling out a wad of notes.

He gave a little gasp. “Hell, Mort, there must be over a thousand bucks here!”

“Two thousand and fifty to be precise. The banks were getting mighty sick of him cleaning them out, so they put the price on his head, and I figure you’ve earned it, Jess. All the trouble you’ve had…are still havin’ by the looks of things too,” he said gesturing to my pard’s bad leg.

Jess looked bewildered. “I dunno, Mort. I don’t hold with bounty money. That ain’t why I took him on.”

“Well you’ve earned it, son… and it can’t go back, so you may as well sign for it and give it to the orphans, for all I care. I just want the receipt signed.”

Jess went over to the bank to deposit the money whilst I collected the horses from the livery, and when I met him outside, he had a broad grin on his face.

“Well, that ol’ bank manager has sure changed his tune; was way more pleased to see me than the last time we met up,” he chuckled.

“Umm, well, I guess there’s the subtle difference between you removing your meager savings and closing your account, to opening it again and depositing a small fortune.”

“You bet,” he said grinning. “He gave me this,” he said flaunting a cigar and then reaching in his vest pocket passed one over to me. “Asked for one for my best buddy too,” he said with a cheeky wink. “I reckon I could get kinda used to this you know Slim.”

“Umm, well, I’m glad to see you still remember your friends now you’re rich and famous,” I said accepting the cigar. “Come on, pard, let’s get you home.”

We mounted and then I tipped my head towards the bank “So what are you going to do with the money then?”

He tapped his nose. “Can’t tell you, Slim, not yet awhile anyways — all in good time.” With that mysterious answer, he took off for home at a brisk trot, with me following on.

“Jess…what are you talking about? Huh? Huh?”

*****

We finally crested the ridge overlooking the ranch and relay station, bathed in late afternoon sunlight, chucks scratching contentedly in the yard, horses in the paddock and I had a huge lump in my throat. Home — the word never sounded so sweet.

We had reined in our mounts and sat in silence for a few minutes, taking in the scene and then I glanced over at Jess and saw the pure joy sparkling in his deep blue eyes. At that moment, I knew in my heart that the old place meant just as much to him as it did to me, and I wished so much that he’d take up my offer of a partnership.

But then all rational thought was pushed to the background as he turned to me, a huge grin on his face. “Come on Slim, race you. Last one in cooks supper,” and with an ear splitting “ Yee ha,” he galloped down the rise towards the yard at speed, and after a second I spurred Alamo on, arriving virtually neck a neck.

The following few weeks weren’t easy for either of us with Jess confined to his chair, but I was purely amazed at how well behaved he was, resting up just as the doc had ordered.

The only disagreement we had was when he insisted on paying to keep the Jackson boys on a while longer to help me out on the ranch.

“Look Slim, it’s hard enough for me to lay about the place all doggone day, never able to help you, without seein’ you comin’ in near wore out every evening. Now do as I tell you, we’ll use some  of my money to pay ‘em — just ‘til I’m well, huh?”

In the end, I caved in, thinking he’d just get out of the chair and get back to work if I didn’t agree, and anyways, I was kinda bushed trying to do the work of two, if I was honest.

So he stayed put and passed his time whittling or occasionally reading some of my old books, much to my surprise. He also wrote to Nancy, but without the promised picture of the ranch.

“Darn it, Slim, I just ain’t no artist. Figure we’ll have to do like I said and get that photographer with the  travelling fair to come over and take our likeness for her, huh?”

It was when we had been home a few weeks and were sitting out on the porch one evening, Jess with his leg up on an old barrel, enjoying a coffee apiece, that the subject of our trip came up again.

“I was real surprised you didn’t want to call in on Miss Cristobel on the way home and read her the riot act,” I said, turning to look at where Jess was sipping his coffee and looking out to the distant hills.

“Nah, wouldn’t be any point, and anyways I figure I was so dang angry with her I might have broken the rule of a life time and lashed out, if I’d seen her again,” he said honestly.

“Umm… well, I can’t blame you for thinking that way, Jess. All this sorry business was down to her, the way she told Fernandez all those lies about you. Then him terrorizing the Davies family in an attempt to get you to face him, and you getting hurt so bad. It was all her fault.”

“Yeah, well, maybe we should look at the upside. I guess it’s down to her that I went and finished off Fernandez once and for all — kinda liberated my old town. I reckon life will be a bit better for the folks there after we got rid of Fernandez and his men.”

I nodded. “Umm….must have been kind of strange, you going back there after all this time.”

He just nodded, his eyes turning misty as he stared out at the distant hills again, remembering it all, I guess…those terrible memories.

Sure Jess had told me all about his childhood, how he had said, “we had nuthin’ and not a lot of hope of gettin’ anything better.” But hell that didn’t even scratch the surface and it wasn’t until I saw it all for myself that I really realized what his life had been like.

See, I guess I’ve been real lucky, the way Ma and Pa brought us kids up. We got a real good education, what with Ma being a teacher and all, were well dressed, loved and cared for and never had an empty belly in  our lives. So it was kind of hard for me to understand what real poverty was — until I saw it first-hand, that is, back on the panhandle.

It was all around us — in the filthy streets, the scruffy, almost feral looking young men, and the closed pinched faces of the elderly — but for me the worst of it was those scavenging kids begging for pennies. Their dirty little upturned faces and pleading eyes, all of them in rags and half starved, and I knew in my heart that anyone of them could have been the young Jess. And then he’d confirmed it — ‘welcome to my world’.

But worse was to come when we visited the site of his old home, the burnt out shell, half covered in ivy, its stark presence an everlasting memorial to the atrocity that had taken place there.

Then we had finally entered the building and I had shivers down my spine, the wind in the pines behind the ruin truly sounding like wailing lost souls, the stench of burning still present in the charred timbers within, and an all pervading atmosphere of terror and anguish — almost permeating from the ruined walls — and I could barely stay there more than few minutes, profoundly moved as I was. Glancing across at Jess, I couldn’t begin to imagine what being there once more did to him.

As if reading my mind, he turned to look at me now, back in the safety of our home. “Thanks for standing by me, Slim, all the way — and especially at the old place. Couldn’t have been easy for you seein’ all that, but I’m sure glad you was with me. Would have been dang hard alone.”

I just nodded, feeling amazed at how much he had changed just over the last few weeks. The way he could open up and say things like that, that he never would….no, never COULD have done before, and I figured he really trusted me now — and I him, and I put that down to everything we had experienced together on the road to Albuquerque.

Some of the things we’d said had sure made me think.

The night of the storm when we’d been so honest and said what really scared us in life, that had been a real turning point for me — and Jess too, I figure — and although it was gradual, I reckon we started to change after that trip.

I became much more easy going, didn’t fret about the business or young Andy as much. Heck, I  even started really enjoying taking off to town for a poker game and started dating Miss Lily regular too.

Whereas Jess there really made an effort to control that anger of his, and when troubles cropped up, as I knew they always would with Jess around, he took it real slow and tried to think things through. Even asked for my help. So I figured he was beginning to move in the right direction — although he was no saint and far from being domesticated…thank goodness! Yep, he was getting real sensible in his old age, even to the way he’d banked that unexpected windfall.

“So Jess, what are you going to do with all that money?” I asked turning twinkling eyes on him.

He drained his cup and then stood up. “Figure I’ll tell you tomorrow after Sam’s been,” he said secretively, and with that went off to bed, with barely the trace of his knee bothering him, I noted happily.

Sam rolled up just before noon the following morning, and on entering the ranch beamed over to where Jess was sitting in his rocker, leg up on a footstool, reading a copy of the Laramie Sentinel.

“So, you ready for the moment of truth then, Jess?” Sam asked with an expectant grin.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, I reckon,” Jess muttered, suddenly looking real anxious.

They went off to the bedroom for the doc to inspect the knee joint and give his decision as to whether Jess could resume work….or not. I made myself busy brewing some coffee, unable to stand the suspense.

Heck, it wasn’t just Jess’s health that was at stake, but his whole life, working the horses being meat and drink to him.

After what seemed like hours, but was in fact about ten minutes, I heard a muffled cheer and then Jess almost bounced into the kitchen, beaming from ear to ear. “Clean bill of health, Slim. Sam says I can start riding again today, just short journeys to start with, and bronc bustin’ by next season. How’s about that? Figure you’re stuck with me, pard!”

I shook his hand and then gave him a bear hug, feeling almost too choked to reply, and Sam joined us and we all drank our coffee. Then when Jess suggested taking the day off and going fishing, I jumped at the chance.

Sam stood there looking from one to the other of us. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said with a laugh, “but old Slim here is getting kind of reckless in his old age. Going fishing when there’s work to do?” he asked with an incredulous look in his eyes. Then he turned to Jess. “And you — actually behaving for once and getting that leg all healed up without me having to yell at you?” Scratching his head, he went off to collect his fishing rod.

It was later, when we were sitting in the sunshine by the creek enjoying our favorite sport of fishing when Jess threw me a conspiratorial smile. “So you still wanna know what I’m thinkin’ of doin’ with that cash then?”

I turned to look at him with interest, as did Sam.

“Yes, I heard as how you’d come into some money,” Sam said with a grin. “I’m surprised you aren’t down in Laramie, buying up the mercantile, with a girl on each arm.”

“Nope. Got me a plan for that money, if Slim’s agreeable that is?”

“Well?” I asked. “Go on,  Jess.”

“You know as how you asked me to be a partner in the business a while back….all legal like?”

I held my breath and just nodded.

“Well, if you’re still askin’, I guess the answer’s yes now. The Doc says my leg is all healed up so I can work again and I’ve got me the stake money now, so I figured if I put the bounty money into the business. Well, we’ve got us a deal… What do you say,  Slim?”

I still didn’t want to take his money, but hell if there was no other way…

“I say, welcome to the business…partner,” I said with a huge grin on my face.

Epilogue

As told by Jess.

We still sat by the dying embers of the fire in the ranch parlor and I turned back to Slim.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right; we sure have both changed since those days — moved on in so many ways — but…”

“But what, Jess?”

“Well I still get blazing mad at things. Unfairness, if folks I care for are in trouble, that kinda thing, and I guess that will never change.”

“Nor would I want it to. Like I said all those years ago, it’s that fire in your belly that make you, you, pard. Just the same way that I’ll still sit up nights poring over the books and worrying about the feed bills. I guess there are some things we just can’t change about ourselves.”

I chuckled at that. “Well, I figure Daisy, Mike and me kinda rely on you doin’ all the worry for us.”

Then we suddenly heard old Rufus, our cockerel, make the first rusty sounds of his dawn cock-a-doodle doing.

“Hell Slim, we’ve been sat up reminiscing all darned night,” I said with shock. “Daisy will be up any minute, rattling the cook stove.”

“Well come on, then pard, let’s get our heads down. Reckon we’ve got an hour or so before we have to roll out,” Slim said getting up.

I rubbed my knee thoughtfully before getting up stiffly. “I dunno, Slim we had a real long, hard ride yesterday in the cold. You know how that sets my knee off. Figure maybe I’d better have a lie in, rest up some huh?”

Slim looked across at me ,his eyes narrowed — and I knew at once I’d been sussed.

“So, your knee’s playing up is it?” he asked advancing on me, the light of battle in his eyes…..

“Some,” I said, holding my nerve.

“Well then maybe it needs some manipulation, like that quack doc in the travelling fair does for folk?”

“Aww Slim,  that guy’s purely dangerous,” I said, backing off and making a dive for the sanctuary of my bed. I sprinted across the room and charged into the bedroom.

Slim followed me in and stood there laughing down at me.

“Well that sure was a quick recovery, Jess. I figure you’ll be just fine for a few hours riding fence after breakfast, won’t you?”

I sighed deeply and pulled the covers up over my head. “‘Night, Slim.”

“‘Night Partner.”

*****

Jess continued to write to Nancy over the years and did indeed visit several times when he was down in Texas on cattle drives.

His home town went from strength to strength, and although it was never what you might term prosperous, it at least held no more fear from Fernandez and his gang, and citizens could hold their heads up high and go about their business safely.

Cristobel never recovered from Fernandez’ death and took her own life a few months after the news of his demise.

Slim and Jess’s partnership lasted throughout their lives and continued on to their offspring and there are still Harper and Sherman descendants to be found in Wyoming to this day.

Nancy Davies lived to a ripe old age, spending her later years with a cousin after the death of her beloved parents.

Each night before she went to sleep, she offered up a little prayer for the wellbeing of two young cowboys. The last thing she saw every night when she lay in bed and first thing she saw in the morning when she awoke was the sepia photograph on her nightstand of Jess and Slim, smiling out at the camera, standing in front of their ranch — both looking proud as punch, partners in the ranch and relay station.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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