The Secret Admirer (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   32,521


 

It was a warm summer morning on the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station in Wyoming, and Slim Sherman, the tall, blond owner, was sitting at the breakfast table along with his elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Daisy Cooper, and his best buddy and partner in the ranch. Jess Harper.

 Both men were looking uncomfortable as their housekeeper and surrogate Ma addressed her argument with zeal. “Well, it’s not as though I bully you two into attending church every Sunday,” she said smiling across at them, “but the new Minister started this week and I really think we should show him some support.”

“Yeah, well, I’d really like to,” said Jess, peering at her with what he hoped was an innocent gaze, “but see, I’ve really gotta crack on with breaking those mean ol’ mustangs today.”

“Oh, and why is that, dear? You’ve been working with them all week. Surely you both deserve a rest,” she said throwing him a winsome smile.

“Well, I dunno, Daisy. See, you’ve just gotta keep at it when your breaking mustangs. Kinda grind ‘em down, you know?”

“Well, I hear what you say, dear, but I’m sure even those poor beasts deserve a break.”

Then Daisy turned her forthright gaze on Slim. “You’re very quiet, dear. Surely you realize the importance of welcoming our new minister?”

“Well, sure, sure I do, Daisy, but you see, I can’t risk leaving Jess working the horses on his own. Could be really dangerous. I need to watch out for him in case he has a fall.”

“Uh,” said Daisy softly, deciding to use her trump card. “Of course, not attending will be sending out a very bad message to young Mike,” referring to the men’s adopted young ward, Mike Williams.

Both men exchanged a look and knew when they were beaten.

“I’ll go get changed and tell Mike we’re going,” sighed Jess.

“And I’ll go hitch up the buckboard,” said Slim, equally unenthusiastically.

“Oh, no need, dear. Mike is ready to go and is hitching up the buckboard as we speak. So you two run along and get your Sunday best on and we’ll be off.”

“What!” exploded Jess.

Slim slapped him on the back. “Come on, pard, just give in gracefully.” Then turning to Daisy, he said, “I guess I know when we’ve been out maneuvered.”

“Again,” said Jess, throwing his beloved housekeeper a cheeky grin before going to do as he had been asked.

Both men were changed into clean white shirts, black string ties and dark frock coats along with their Sunday best Stetsons and polished boots within five minutes, and the group were soon bowling along towards town, with Slim driving Daisy and Mike in the buckboard and Jess following along on Traveler. Jess secretly hoped he’d be able to sneak away for a little while after the service and catch up with his best girl Millie, who would be working in the saloon, but knew drinking on a Sunday was somewhat frowned on by Daisy, so he would have  his work cut out to get away with it.

It wasn’t as though Daisy ruled the roost, he said to himself. Heck, he wasn’t petticoat-bossed, but it was just that Daisy had this way of lookin’ at a body more in sorrow than in anger and could make her boys feel real guilty at times, even if they were only thinking of transgressing.

Jess smiled to himself, thinking how much his life had changed since landing at the Sherman ranch more than a few years back now, and even more so since the advent of Mike and Miss Daisy. He’d been a wild one, he reflected, with one hell of a lot of history and not much of it good. What with losing all his kin after their home was fired at aged just fifteen, then fighting for the Confederacy in the war, followed by five years on the drift and drifting on the wrong side of the law more often than not. Yes, he sure was one troubled young man when he had fetched up at Slim’s place all those years ago and finally found the peace and sanctuary he so craved.

Yes, he was pretty near domesticated, Jess reflected as he rode on towards town, the sun warm on his back. But not so darn tame not to cut free and enjoy a few drinks and the company of his Millie later, he thought smiling inwardly as he envisaged the banter in the bar and maybe even a chance to spend some time alone with his girl.

After the service, Daisy introduced her surrogate family to the new minister and his wife, Reverend and Mrs. Joshua Wesley, and their daughters, fourteen-year-old Faith and twenty-year-old Hannah.

“It really is good to meet you two gentlemen at last,” beamed the kindly-looking middle-aged minister. “Daisy here has told me all about you and has been so welcoming.”

“That is so,” piped up his cultured-looking wife Mary. “Dear Daisy has taken me into the heart of the community. I’ve joined the sewing bee and the women’s group, all so neighborly,” she said, clasping her hands together and casting Jess and Slim a winsome smile.

“Well, it’s good to have you here. We’ve sorely missed Reverend Myers since he retired, but I guess you’ll find it a lot different from your church back East,” said Slim with a friendly smile.

“Well, yes, I guess life was a little, er, different back in Philadelphia,” agreed the reverend. “But we like a challenge, don’t we, my dear,” he said,  casting a look in his dear wife’s direction and receiving an earnest nod in reply.

“So come to civilize the natives have you then?” asked Jess with a cheeky grin.

Daisy cast him a quelling glance, but the good Reverend took it in his stride, and turning his kindly smile on Jess, said easily, “Yes, dear boy, where it is needed, but according to my predecessor, I think many people hereabouts are good God-fearing folk, not least yourself.”

Jess raised an eyebrow and cast him a look of askance.

“Oh yes, young man,” the Reverend said, taking Jess aside as the others continued to chat animatedly amongst themselves, “Reverend Myers spoke very highly of you. He said you had traveled a very hard road at times, very hard,” he said shaking his head sadly, “but had won out over adversity through sheer guts and a good sprinkling of faith too. Now am I right, young man?”

Jess just stared at him for a moment, never having met someone so forthright on such a short acquaintance, and as he was an extremely private man, he felt somewhat annoyed by this intrusion into his personal life. He just looked down flushing a little, wondering how to respond.

The older man saw his discomfort at once and patting him on the arm was immediately contrite. “My dear fellow, I have overstepped the mark again. My darling Mary is always bringing me to task for it. I’m so sorry; I shouldn’t have been so open on such short acquaintance. Quite crass of me> Please forgive me?”

Jess was mollified at once. “Well heck, Reverend Wesley, that’s OK. Just doin’ your job, I guess, lookin’ out for my immortal soul,” he said with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.

The minister beamed back and pumped his hand. “I think you and I are to be good friends, Jess Harper, and please call me Joshua; everyone does.”

“Sure, thanks, Joshua.”

Then Mary Wesley swept across, ushering her two young daughters. “Why Mister Harper, I don’t believe you’ve been introduced to our daughters. This is young Faith, still attending the school with your little Mike. And this is Hannah,” she said proudly, pushing a pretty girl with blond curls and wide innocent blue eyes forwards. “She hopes to be helping out as a trainee teacher there soon, don’t you, my dear?”

Jess winked at young Faith and took Hannah’s proffered hand, shaking it earnestly before smiling into her eyes. “Welcome, Hannah, I hope you’ll be real happy here,” he said.

“Thank you, Mister Harper,” she said, blushing to the roots of her hair.

“Jess, please,” he said ,thinking how pretty the young woman looked in her flustered state.

“Jess,” she whispered before turning and chivvying her younger sister along.

Joshua turned amused eyes on his new friend. “You must forgive my daughter, Jess; she is very unworldly and naive, has little experience of the opposite gender having attended an all-girls seminary back east.”

Jess just nodded and was finally able to make his excuses and leave as Slim escorted the others back to the waiting buckboard.

“Are you not returning with us, dear?” asked Daisy with a raised eyebrow as Jess made no attempt to mount up and merely stood there, fondling Traveler’s ears.

“Well, see it’s this way, Daisy. Tom from the saloon has been havin’ some trouble with his old  grey mare. He thinks she might be coming up lame and asked me to check her out, so guess I’ll look her over while I’m here. Makes sense; save another journey over next week.”

“Oh yes, of course, dear, off you go.”

Slim helped Daisy up onto the buckboard, and once settled, she looked back down and said with a twinkle in her eye, “And if you should happen to bump into Millie, do give her my love.”

Jess flushed up, but just nodded.

Slim checked the harness before turning to his buddy and saying very softly, “I figure Millie would be kinda annoyed knowing you were referring to her as an old grey mare, pard.” He chuckled.

“Shut up, Slim,” Jess whispered back, throwing his friend an exasperated look, not wanting his cover blown, although he knew in his heart old Daisy had seen through his ploy, as she always did. Wily old bird, he thought to himself, as he waved them off and then marched purposefully towards the saloon.

When Jess walked in, Millie came from behind the bar at once and gave him a big hug. “Hey cowboy, I wasn’t expectin’ you today,” she said, grinning up into his deep blue eyes.

“Well I was kinda railroaded into town to welcome the new minister, but I guess I’m real glad on two accounts.”

She smiled up at him. “Oh? How so?”

“Well, one, I got to meet a real nice guy, and two,  I get to spend Sunday afternoon with my best girl.”

“Oh you do, do you?” she said with a wicked smile.

“I thought, well, maybe Lily could cover and we could get to, er,  you know, catch up?”

“Catch up?”

“Oh come on, Mill, don’t be fickle. I just wanna be with you for a while, you know,” Jess said, giving her a cheeky wink.

She finally relented, laughing. “Well, I’ll go check with Tom, and I guess I might kinda like to ‘catch up’ too,” she said with a loving look.

Much later, they were lying in each other’s arms in her big comfortable bed. Jess stretched and yawned. “Figure I should be getting back soon.”

She turned and pouted. “Do you have to go?” she whispered. “It’s  always quiet downstairs on a Sunday night and old Tom won’t mind. Besides, I don’t know when I’ll see you again.”

“Huh?” Jess sat up resting on his elbow, all the better to see her.

“I’ve got to visit Ma in Cheyenne,” she said quietly.

“Hell, she’s not sick again, is she, Mill?” he asked with concern.

“Nope, she’s just fine, but moving house. Her landlord is selling up, so she’s got to find someplace else. Said I should go up and help her for a spell.”

Jess leaned down and caressed her cheek lovingly. “I’ll miss you real bad,” he said softly, “and sure, I’ll stay tonight, if you want me to.”

She smiled up at him. “Oh, I want you to alright, cowboy,” she said with a chuckle.

Then he smiled at her, shaking his head.

“What?”

“Oh I was just thinkin’ I guess my new ‘best friend’ wouldn’t approve.”

“Who? Oh, the new minister, Joshua, you mean?”

“Yeah. You met him? Jess asked in surprise. “I didn’t know you were a church member?”

“Well I’m not really — strictly high days and holidays…well, Christmas anyway,” she said truthfully. “No, he came here to the saloon.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. He reckoned that the people he really wants to get through to wouldn’t go within a mile of his church, so he said he’d just have to come out and find them if he wanted them to learn about the good Lord.”

Jess shook his head in disbelief. “He sure is some guy.”

“Yeah. Mary is lovely too.”

“Hey, now don’t tell me he brought his wife in with him?”

She giggled at that. “No, silly, I met her at the women’s group.”

“I didn’t know you went there. What, the one Daisy attends? “

“Yeah, that’s right. Heck, it’s the only way a girl gets to hear all the gossip.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes, really. You’d be surprised to know what Daisy says about you boys.”

“Huh…what sort of things?” Jess asked, looking suspicious.

“Oh, just stuff…you know.”

“No, I don’t know. What sort of stuff?”

“Well the amount of shirts you rip when you’re mustanging and how you seem to spend half your time in the dirt being thrown and she’s for ever having to patch you up.”

“Wait till I see her!” Jess said, his eyes narrowing.

“Oh I shouldn’t fret. It gets you the sympathy vote, see. All the women think you are wonderful, so brave,” Millie said, giving him a mock swoon.

He just tickled her at that, until she screamed for mercy. “What else then?”

“Oh, how Slim is such a thoughtful person, always checking she isn’t working too hard.”

“Uh,” said Jess dryly. “Working too hard patching me and my shirts up, I suppose.”

She giggled again at that. Oh come on, Jess, I can tell you are her favorite, the way she worries over you. And Mike too. Poor little boy — how is he these days?”

Jess sobered shaking his head. “Had another week off school with that wretched tonsillitis. He’s falling way behind with his studies. I’ll just be glad when  he can finally have the operation and that should fix him up OK, according to Doc Sam,” he said, referring to their family physician and good friend.

“So when is he to have it?”

“Dunno; just waitin’ on the hospital in Denver to give us a date.”

She gave a low whistle. “That’s going to cost something.”

“Yeah, I know, but heck Millie, what’s money where that little fellah is concerned. I just wanna see him fit and healthy again.”

“Sure. So how are you going to pay? I know things have been pretty tight for you since you lost all those steers in the floods last winter,” she said casting him a concerned look.

He smiled down at her then. “Well, good old Sam has got us a deal. If Daisy goes along to help nurse him after the operation and  we take all his food in, do his laundry and that, well, we can get a real good discount. Luckily, one of the doctors there knows Daisy from her nursing days and he’s happy to take her on for the time Mike is there. I’ll travel down with them and maybe even find some work for a while to help out.”

“So how long will you be gone?”

“Dunno. About  three weeks or so, I reckon, and what  with you being off at your Ma’s, well, I guess we’re going to be apart for quite a while,” Jess said sadly. Then he rallied and smiled down into her deep brown eyes. “I guess we’d better make the most of the time we’ve got,” he said, and leaning in, started kissing her all over again.

As he rode back to the ranch early the following morning, Jess reflected on his current relationship with Millie and smiled to himself. They were best friends and it seemed like he had known her forever, having grown up on the Texas panhandle together. Then, over the years, they had met up at odd times and carried on with their open but sincere friendship, and if Millie welcomed Jess into her bed on occasion, well, that was nobody’s business but their own.

So it had been that they were always to be found together, if neither of them was dating anyone else, and they were also very honest telling the other if they were seeing someone. And boy, had Jess seen a lot of women over the years. Millie too, had dated other men, but they always seemed to gravitate back to each other in the end.

They had always said that as they were best friends and they were afraid of losing that closeness if they dated seriously and, well, things didn’t work out, so both of them had been happy enough with the status quo.

But then just last Thanksgiving, things had changed between them. Jess had asked her if she thought that maybe they could make a go of things, get wed, have a home and family, and to his delight she had said yes, she would definitely think on it. Maybe both of them weren’t quite ready for that commitment just yet, but someday, yes… She’d said yes, she was really considering it seriously for the first time.

Now as Traveler trotted briskly towards home, Jess remembered the passionate love making of the night before and the companionable breakfast they had just shared and his heart was full of hope for their future together.

He rode into the yard and went to put Traveler up, and he was just grooming him when Slim strode in a broad grin on his face.

“Uh, must have been some problem with Tom’s mare,” Slim said with a chuckle. “Sat up all night nursing her, did you, Jess?”

Jess threw him a pained look. “Just because you’re jealous and couldn’t think of a reason to stay over with Lily…”

“Did you see her?” asked Slim at once, his interest making him forget to tease his buddy.

“Sure did. She covered for Millie while we went and got caught up.”

“’Caught up,’ that’s what you’re calling it now is it?”

“Aw Slim, will you quit teasing me.”

Then Mike ran in and threw himself at Jess, flinging his arms around his waist and giving him a hug, before grinning up at him. “Hey Jess, we missed you at supper last night. How is Tom’s mare?”

Jess flushed a little feeling guilty at lying now. “Oh just fine, Tiger, but never mind that. How’s your throat today?”

“Loads better. I’m goin’ back to school and I’m real glad too, Jess.”

“You are?” asked Jess in amazement. “How so, Tiger?”

“Well you know that real pretty daughter of the new minister?”

“Yeah, er…Faith. She’s in your class ain’t she?”

“No, that’s the kid sister. I mean Hannah!”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess looking surprised. “Hannah, right.”

“Yeah, well, she’s starting as a teacher’s assistant at the school and she said that she’s going to be my special helper to get me to catch up with all the work I’ve missed. Isn’t that neat, Jess?”

Jess tipped his hat back and looked quizzically at the youngster. “It is?”

“Why sure, Jess. Like I said, she’s real pretty.” Mike ran off to fetch his lunch pack as they heard the early stage approaching.

“Looks like he’s got a massive crush,” said Slim, grinning across at his buddy.

Jess just shook his head in wonder. “The boy’s growing up fast, Slim. We’re gonna have to have that ‘birds and bees’ talk soon. Toss you for who tells him?” he finished hopefully.

“Uh, ok…but with my coin. I’m not trusting you with your double-headed one,” Slim laughed as they went off to change the team.

*****

And so life went on at the usual pace at the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station. Jess went to town to see Millie off to help out her Ma, and continued breaking the bunch of mustangs he and Slim had caught earlier in the year. Mike made good progress under the supervision of Miss Hannah Wesley at school.

But there was also something new that occurred, something strange.

Jess suddenly started receiving little gifts, or ‘love tokens’, as Slim dubbed them, teasing his buddy mercilessly.

It all started about a week after Millie left, when a brand new blue work shirt was left in the hall used by the women’s group.

It was Mary Wesley that brought it to Daisy’s attention. “Daisy my dear, there is a brown paper parcel here with your young rancher’s name on it — ‘Mr. Jess Harper’. Have you bought something at the haberdashers that you have had sent here to the church hall for you to collect?”

“No, no Mary, I haven’t,” said Daisy looking perplexed. “I always take anything I have bought right away.” Then fixing her new friend with a totally honest eye, she said, “And there is precious little housekeeping to go buying new shirts, anyway, at the moment. I’m just having to make do and mend until this latest batch of mustangs is sold.”

“Well, it is definitely for your Jess. Maybe from a well-wisher,” Mary said smiling. “I have heard how popular he is here in town.”

Slim and Jess were equally surprised when she brought the bounty home and Jess said he couldn’t accept gifts from a stranger.

“Sure you can, pard. It obviously gave them pleasure sending it, so you might as well just enjoy wearing it and you can hardly say you don’t need it,” Slim finished, smiling at his friend.

“I guess,” said Jess quietly, although the whole business didn’t sit well with him.

If that had been an end to it, Jess would have thought no more about the subject, but it was just the beginning.

Little gifts kept turning up in the strangest of places, all with Jess’s name on.

Some of his favorite brand of cigarettes in his saddle bag, although he had no spare cash to buy them. A new pair of work gloves in the livery right where Traveler was stabled, and then finally a new black string tie, back in the church hall again at the women’s meeting group.

Jess and Slim were sitting by the fire over a late night coffee, pondering this latest offering, with Jess feeling more and more uncomfortable.

“I reckon it’s someone that knows Millie is out of town and is making a play for you,” said Slim./ “Maybe an old flame?”

Jess shook his head. “I dunno. Like who?”

“Well, maybe a member of this women’s group, say Suzy Morgan?”

“Hell Slim, I ain’t been keeping company with Suzy Morgan for one hell of a while. Last I saw of her, she threatened to have me hung drawn and quartered if I so much as spoke to her again.”

“Oh come on, Jess, she didn’t mean it. She was just mad at the time, but she’s still crazy about you; everyone knows that.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. She is about as crazy as one of those mad mustangs out in the corral, and would just as soon trample  on me too.”

“OK, well, who else?”

“I don’t know who. I’ve not seen that many women in town…mostly been away from home.”

“Uh,” said Slim, remembering the various unsuitable liaisons Jess had made over the last few years. “Well, what about that woman from the haberdashers that Daisy fixed you up with? What’s her name? Annie…Annie Peters.”

“Hell Slim, we only went out the once. I’d no sooner held her hand than she was all for havin’ the banns read and choosing the name of our first born.”

“Well, she could be in the running then, trying to get you back on side while Millie’s out of town.”

Back on side? What are you on about, Slim? I was never on side. Hell, I ran a mile after that first date; went off to collect those steers from Texas to put some space between us, if you remember?”

Slim chuckled at the memory, stretching his long legs out before the fire. “Yeah, I do at that,” he agreed. Then he sobered. Well, of course, there is Carrie; she goes to the group.”

Jess’s head spun around and he glared at his buddy. “Why do you say that?”

“Oh come on, Jess, we both know there has been stuff between you two for years.”

Slim was referring to Doc Sam’s daughter who had had a monumental crush on Jess at the age of just fifteen, when she had first moved to Laramie, but that had been successfully dealt with. Until a few years later, when the tables were reversed and Jess had feelings for the then eighteen-year-old, but eventually had come to his senses, feeling he was too old for her, although all the old feelings had been reignited in Carrie, and their parting for the second time had been very painful for both parties.

Jess’s face had its closed look. “Don’t, Slim; don’t stir all that up again. It ain’t her, I just know it,” he growled.

“OK, OK, simmer down, pard, I didn’t mean to upset you, but, well who else could it be? “

Jess just shrugged. “Well, whoever it is,  they’re sure goin’ about it the wrong way. Hell, Slim, if some girl really wants to know me, well, why don’t she just come up and say hello, instead of all this cloak and dagger stuff?”

“I guess maybe she’s shy, kinda testing the waters to see if you’ll bite.”

“Hell, Slim, you make me sound like a prize catfish,” Jess said, throwing his buddy a troubled glance, but Slim just chuckled and got up to turn in for the night.

*****

The following day was the last of the school term and Slim had been summoned to school for Mike’s end of year progress report while Jess stayed at the ranch to deal with the stage teams.

Slim waited patiently in the lobby for his turn, before entering the classroom with a very subdued Mike.

James Jackson, the school master, stood up and smiled at Slim, shaking his hand and making some small talk before turning and saying, “You know Hannah Wesley, of course, my new assistant.” Slim touched his hat and agreed that he did.

“Well young man, I think we’re just about turning the corner with you,” said the kindly teacher beaming down at his young charge. Then looking to Slim, he said, “Thanks to Miss Hannah here, we’ve  got this young man back on track after all the absence he’s suffered.”

“Yes,” said Slim, smiling at the now prettily flushed young lady, “we wanted to thank you very much for all you’ve  done to help Mike — me, Daisy and Jess, that is. We really appreciate all the extra time you’ve  spent with him.”

Hannah just nodded and said they were welcome and Mike was a very bright young man and a real credit to his guardians.

And then it was Mike’s turn to blush with pleasure at such high praise from his heroine.

“Have you a date set for the operation?” asked James, now looking concerned.

“Hopefully within the next month or two — the sooner the better.”

“Good, good. Now then Slim, Hannah has made a most generous offer which I think would benefit the boy highly, bearing in mind he may miss some more schooling after the operation.”

“Oh?” said Slim, turning a polite gaze on the pretty young blond woman.

She flushed up again, her voice trembling a little, but spoke up clearly. “Well, Mister Sherman, I think Mike would really benefit from some private tutoring during the summer vacation, to put him ahead a little, against the possibility of having to be absent again after the surgery, and I would be most willing to come out to the ranch, say, two mornings a week, to offer the coaching, if that would be acceptable?”

“Heck, that would be way beyond acceptable, Hannah, but  we can’t ask you to give up your holiday that way and…” Then he looked embarrassed. “I’m afraid with the cost of the operation and  all, we couldn’t really afford  to pay you.”

“Oh no, Mister Sherman, you misunderstand me. I don’t require payment. It would be my pleasure to help the dear boy, really, if he would like me to, of course,” she said, casting a hopeful glance in Mike’s direction.

The boy’s face lit up with joy. “Please, Slim, can she? It would be real fun havin’ Miss Hannah over at the ranch and I know she wants to learn to ride better too. Maybe you or Jess could help her out with that?”

Slim turned twinkling eyes on the young lady. “OK — on two accounts, though. You call me Slim — none of this Mister Sherman — and we teach you how to ride real good western style on one of our prime mares. Deal? “

She beamed at him and shook the offered hand. “Deal!”

*****

And so it was the following Tuesday morning, Hannah Wesley arrived and she and Mike settled down at the dining table surrounded by books, where she endeavored to impart her knowledge on everything from Math to History and Geography, to English. The young boy thrived within her lively company.

She was a changed person when solely in Mike’s presence, making the lessons interesting, particularly bringing history alive, and he found a growing thirst for knowledge of his county’s history that he had never experienced before.

However, she found it very hard to relax in the ranchers’ presence, keeping her eyes down and replying to friendly questions with only very brief answers. Then escaping out to help Daisy in the kitchen or suggesting to Mike that they carry on with the lesson, she made it obvious that it was time the break was over and the men went back to their duties.

After Jess had spent a difficult ten minutes in her company without any eye contact and just whispered answers to his lively banter, he retired back to the corral where he was still working with the mustangs. He leaned on the corral fence and turning to Slim shook his head. “That young woman sure is hard work.” Then more reflectively, he added, “You know, Slim I reckon she don’t like me much.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Oh I dunno. She ain’t like the usual girls around here. If I sweet talk her some, she just turns scarlet and clams up, and if I’m just plain polite and  chat to her, she won’t look at me. No, I figure she thinks I’m kinda out of her class — too rough and uneducated for the likes of her.”

Slim shook his head grinning at Jess now. “Hey don’t put yourself down, pard. Hannah isn’t that way inclined. No, I figure she’s just real shy. You know what her Pa said as how she’s been to an all-girls school, never  dated or anything. Well, I figure she just doesn’t know how to take you is all.”

“Hell, Slim I ain’t thinkin’ on hittin’ on her, if that’s what she’s thinkin’. Why would I, seein’ as how me and Millie are stepping’ out?” Then more reflectively, Jess said, “And anyways, she ain’t my type. Those blond, curly haired girls are more your thing.” He grinned across at his buddy.

“Uh, but she’s way too young for me, in her ways if not her years, and anyway, I’m seeing Lily…well, when I can,” Slim finished sadly, knowing he had neglected her recently due to pressure of work.

“OK, so neither of us are up for it with her, but don’t forget that promise you made. I figure we’d better keep our end of the bargain and start those old riding lessons, so whose gonna do it?” Jess asked casting his friend a questioning glance.

“Toss you for it?”

Jess made for his ‘special’ coin in his top shirt pocket, but Slim’s  hand shot out and he grabbed his wrist. “Oh no you don’t. We’ll use one out of Daisy’s housekeeping pot. That way we’ll be sure it’s got a head and a tail,” he said, going off laughing to get one.

As it happened, Jess lost the bet, and so the following week, once Mike’s lessons were over, Jess saddled up Betsy, the strong old paint mare that was an easy ride, and walked her over to where Hannah was waiting by the corral, looking slightly apprehensive.

“Can I give you a leg up?” asked Jess politely, and after a moment, she nodded shyly. He helped her into the saddle before giving her a few pointers on her seat, and how to hold the reins and the like, and was quite surprised at her lack of expertise. “Ain’t you ridden at all before?” he asked softly as he saw her looking distinctly uncomfortable, trying to hold the reins, the way he had shown her.

“Oh yes, but I was taught the classical method at my school,” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“You know, the English way of riding, like they do in the old country — short stirrups, a lightweight smaller saddle and looped reins.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I see. Yes, I know all about that, but I guess you’ll find this way easier,  especially if you’re in the saddle all day. These ol’ American saddles are like a favorite  ol’  armchair, much easier on  the, er, much more comfortable, that is,” he finished quickly, thinking that if he mentioned her rear end, she would positively burst into flames, never mind just blush.

They finally set off at a slow walk, and after a while, she began to relax into the easy rhythm as Betsy loped slowly along.

“So what else did they teach you at that girls school back east then?” Jess asked after a while, trying to break down the barriers a little.

She turned and threw him a small smile. “Well, it was a classical education all round, I suppose,” she said softly.

“Oh…er…right.”

“You know, Latin, a little Greek, English, of course, from Shakespeare through to some Dickens for light relief,” she said, casting him another gentle smile.

“Oh, yeah,” said Jess vaguely, “real good for a bit of light relief is old Dickens.”

Hannah’s eyes twinkled at that. “Now you’re teasing me, Mister Harper.”

Jess just nodded. “I guess. And it’s Jess, OK?”

“Ok…Jess. So what about you? What were your school days like?”

Jess gave a hollow laugh. “Pretty much none existent.”

“I beg your pardon?” she said looking surprised.

“My Pa didn’t hold much with schoolin’; would rather I was workin’ the land,” Jess said gruffly. “I guess I was as good as most of the others, times I was able to go. But like I say, it wasn’t too often.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Do you regret that, having missed out?”

He thought about that. “Yes, I guess I do, well, since I’ve had Mike, anyways. Sometimes there are things he asks and I just don’t know.” But then he turned and gave her a cheerful smile. Slim usually comes to the rescue, or Miss Daisy. I figure we’re pretty much a team as far as Mike goes. And…”

“Go on.”

“Well, Slim’s been real patient with me over the years, taught me to cipher, spellin’ and the like, so I guess I can holds my own now as far as the business is concerned,” Jess said quietly.

“I’m sure you’re a fast learner, like young Mike, and I bet you’ve taught him a lot too — things you can’t necessarily find in books,” she said, casting him another shy smile.

“Uh, maybe,” Jess said quietly. They rode on through the warm summer’s afternoon, the start of a fragile friendship beginning, or so he innocently thought.

However, being Hannah’s friend proved very difficult for him as she acted like a scared little mouse half the time, seeming to be completely in awe of the sassy young cowboy. He made a huge effort to watch his language and manners and not to flirt with her, although that was so much a habit he found it hard to know when he was doing it. It meant absolutely nothing to him, and was just harmless banter as far as he was concerned.

To Hannah, though, he was a completely closed book. She had no point of reference, no previous experience of men, especially men as worldly and complex as Jess Harper, and she  spent most of her time in his company in a complete daze, experiencing a whole spectrum of thoughts and feelings she had never known before.

She spent all her spare money on penny dreadful novels telling of love and romance, and lost herself in the fantasy world, hiding them from her mother, who she knew would not approve.

It had been through her mother’s harmless gossip and idly repeated tales of the ranchers’ home life, via Daisy at the Women’s Group, that she had learned a lot about the two men. Information that she so craved, as she had been nursing a secret infatuation for Jess since she had first clapped eyes on him that first Sunday.

However, all these different physical feelings and emotions were completely new and alien to her, and the only way she felt she could respond to them was by showering Jess with little gifts, although she would have been totally mortified if he had discovered their source.

No, she just had the urge to give him some innocent pleasure, the thought that she might one day pleasure him in another way being just too terrifying for her to even contemplate, so was her naivety and lack of experience and knowledge of love. She only knew that she had this deep yearning for something — something she didn’t at once recognize, save for the fact that it was all to do with Jess Harper.

But even in her state of deep infatuation, she was still able to see how hopeless her pursuit was, as she was made aware of how much Millie meant to Jess. However, that fact, in some ways, just seemed to make her more determined. Anyway she was here — and Millie was away. Then she felt terrible for her wicked thoughts and wondered what her dear Papa would make of her duplicitous desires.

It was one afternoon when she had stayed on at the ranch to help Daisy with some sewing that she was really made aware of the depth of Jess and Millie’s long standing relationship.

Daisy had been mending one of Jess’s shirts and she glanced over at where Hannah was hemming a pillowcase, insisting that she was happy to help the elderly housekeeper. “Do you know Millie Johnson?” Daisy asked smiling at the younger woman. “You know, Jess’s girl?”

Hannah continued to look down at her work, knowing her face was blushing deeply. “Er, I think I may have met her, yes,” she said softly. “The pretty dark-haired girl from the saloon?”

“Yes that’s her.” Then Daisy gave a little sigh. “She’s over with her dear Ma right now and Jess is quite bereft.” She smiled sadly. “He tries to hide it with all his banter and joking, but I know he’s missing her; he’s not even been to town since she left.:

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Hannah, noncommittally before changing the subject, her heart beating so fast she thought that dear Daisy must hear it.

Meanwhile Jess soldiered on in blissful ignorance of the young woman’s rollercoaster emotions.

He continued helping Hannah with her riding and was pleased to see she was gaining confidence, but other than that, he merely passed the time of day with her as she continued to tutor Mike and went about his own duties breaking the mustangs.

That was until the day of the accident.

He was up on a particularly nasty piece of work which Mike had named Devil’s Shadow, a huge powerful black stallion, whose whole purpose in life seemed to be to throw Jess in the dirt and then  try and trample him.

Jess had already had a couple of spills that morning, and he was feeling tired and none too well as the noontide sun beat down on his aching frame.

Slim was just about to suggest that they call it a day and go and sample the cold fare Daisy had left out for them before she went to visit a sick friend. Then the worst happened and the recalcitrant creature suddenly reared and then bucked, sending Jess flying across the corral before he was slammed against the fence head first. After the initial impact, he collapsed to the ground out cold, a deep gash to his forehead.

Slim ran over and hauled him to safety before turning him gently over and surveying his buddy’s deathly pale face. The blood from  the cut was pouring down  his face and staining his dusty blue shirt.

After a moment, Jess’ eyes flickered open and he squinted up into Slim’s face. Then he let fly a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush.

“Geez that’s a nasty knock. Come on, pard, let’s get you cleaned up. At least you’ve still got the energy to cuss,” Slim said gently as he hauled his friend up and helped him to the house.

Hannah and Mike leapt up from where they were working at the table as soon as Slim and Jess entered, and Mike cried in consternation at the blood which was now coursing down his hero’s face and soaking the front of his shirt.

“It’s OK, Tiger,” Jess said softly. “It looks worse than it is. Don’t fret.”

“Please let me help,” said Hannah, quickly taking Jess’s other arm and leading him to a chair by the table before she bustled about collecting a bowl of water and clean rags.

“You don’t have to do this really,” said Slim quickly. “It’s usually Daisy or me that sorts him out when he’s hurt. It’s not your job.”

“I know,” she said quietly, “but I want to and I am a trained nurse, you know.”

At this, the men’s heads shot up. “I didn’t know that,” said Slim in surprise.

“Oh yes,  I was trained as a children’s nurse at the local hospital back east, but I gave it up as there isn’t a nearby hospital here and I love the teaching anyway,” she said, giving Mike an encouraging smile.

“Well, it looks like old Hotshot is in good hands then,” said Slim grinning across at her.

She deftly started cleaning up the deep abrasion, and she looked to all the world like a professional at work, but inwardly she was quaking, not because of the severity of the wound, but because of the close proximity of the object of her desire.

Her heart was pounding in her ears and she felt the sweat begin to trickle down her back and her whole body was trembling, but she carried on with her task, cleaning and binding the wound.

After a while, Jess turned quizzical deep blue eyes on her and said quietly, “You OK, Hannah? You’ve gone kinda pale.”

Hannah forced herself to look into those wonderful concerned blue eyes, just inches away from her own, and then her gaze dropped to the sensual curl of his lips. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what it would be like to be kissed by him, before dragging herself back to reality. Stepping abruptly backwards, she said, “Oh, I’m just fine. It’s you that is pale.” Then turning to Slim, she said, “I really think he should go and lie down; he may have a concussion.”

“I’m OK,” said Jess quickly and made to stand up, but Slim gently pushed him back down in his seat.

“I’ll get you a medicinal whiskey and then you’re going to lay down like the lady says, and no arguments, Jess.”

Once Jess was safely tucked up in his bed, Slim went and checked on the mustang and loosed him into the larger paddock before returning to find Mike studying alone at the table. He wandered into the kitchen and found Hannah up to her elbows in suds washing Jess’s badly stained shirt.

Slim came over and gave her a questioning look. “Hey Hannah, you really don’t need to do that. Daisy will sort it out later.”

Hannah looked down, blushing deeply. “It’s alright, really,” she said quickly. “It will stain if it’s not attended to at once.”

Slim threw her a puzzled look, but just gave her his thanks and left it at that. But that moment was to come back and haunt him much later, and he cursed that he had not seen the truth there and then.

As it was, Slim merely wandered off to check on his buddy and the moment was forgotten.

*****

This was to be the beginning of a chapter of bad luck and ill health for the members of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station.

It was a couple of days before Jess was well enough to get back in the saddle. In fact, Daisy would have made him relax for the rest of the week if she had had her way. As it was, her attention was deflected from Jess as Mike once more succumbed to a nasty attack of tonsillitis and Doc Sam was called.

“When in hell is this darned appointment gonna come through, Sam?” asked a frustrated Jess.

Their good friend and physician shook his head sadly. “I’ll wire them today. I know there is a long waiting list, but I’ll try and make Mike a priority case.”

Jess hung his head feeling a little embarrassed at his outburst. “I’m sorry, Sam. I just hate to see the little fellah hurtin’ this way, you know?”

“Sure, sure, and how are you? Miss Hannah was telling Carrie that you’d had a nasty fall. They got talking when they met at the women’s group this week.”

Jess shook his head, chuckling. “That darned women’s group. Ain’t they got anything more interestin’ to discuss other than me bein’ tipped off a nasty mustang?”

“Apparently not,” laughed the doctor. “So how are you? Let’s get that dressing off and check it out.”

“Aw, Sam…”

“Never mind that. Come on, buddy, let’s check out Miss Hannah’s handy work.”

Jess finally agreed and the good doctor was able to see that the wound had been cleaned carefully and was beginning to heal well. “Uh, maybe she’d like to fill in for Carrie when she goes on that training course next month,” he said thoughtfully.

At the mention of Carrie’s name, Jess went quiet and dipped his head. After a moment, he said softly, “How is she, Sam?”

The doc knew exactly what his good friend meant, and sitting down  beside him, he said gently, “She’s fine; working hard for her advanced midwife’s badge, not dating right now, but I reckon she’s cheerful enough. Got over  all that now, I figure,” he said, giving his friend a penetrating look. Then more quietly, he asked, “How about you?”

Jess was silent for a long time. “You know how I feel about the whole business.”

“I know you think you’re too old for her and not good enough and I figure you know I think you’re wrong on both accounts.”

“Sam, please let’s not go there again. It’s finished, history. <e an’ Millie are together now. I just needed to know she was alright.”

Sam smiled over at his friend then and patted him on the arm. “Oh don’t you worry about my daughter, Jess; she’s a survivor, pretty much like yourself.”

Then Daisy bustled in with the coffee and the subject was changed until later that same night.

Jess was lying in bed, hands laced behind his head, surveying the ceiling with unseeing eyes as Slim washed up and finally came over and sat down on his own bed.

Slim had overheard the earlier conversation and now he glanced over at his buddy. “So it’s not Carrie then?”

Jess just shook his head. “Nah. I said it wasn’t, didn’t I?”

There had been several more presents over the last few weeks, ranging from  a bandana to a small hip flask made for carrying  whiskey — this last one turning up in Daisy’s shopping basket just a couple of days after Jess’s accident.

“I just can’t figure it,” said Jess turning questioning eyes on his buddy. “Why is someone doing this Slim?”

“Well, not so much the why as the who. It’s obvious as to why. Some woman’s got the hots for you — and she sure seems to know you well, from the brand of smokes you use to the fact that you’re not adverse to the odd drop of whiskey.”

“That don’t prove nuthin’. What man doesn’t like the odd smoke and drop of whiskey?”

“OK, so what about the work shirt? The brand you always buy and the exact size. And how about that string tie turning up the very week after Jasper had shredded your old one,” Slim said, referring to the ranch cat.

“Darn cat,” said Jess. “I’ll swing for that evil critter one of these days.”

“He was just playing, Jess.”

“Sure he was, like when he ate that rat in the barn and then went and chucked it  back up in my bed the other night,” Jess spat. “I tell you, Slim, that animal’s got it in for me.”

“Oh well, when you find this new love of your life, you can give her the cat as a present,” Slim said, chuckling now.

“Oh sure, and anyway I’ve already got the love of my life, Millie or had you forgotten?”

And on that note the two turned in, to dream of their best girls.

The next bit of bad luck came just the following week.

Daisy was up on the step ladder cleaning the windows in the living room, even though Jess had offered to do it later in the day.

“Daisy, what’s your hurry? It’s not as though we’re having visitors.”

“Well  it’s not about that, dear. I just want to leave the place looking shipshape before I go to Denver with young Mike, and  according to Sam,  it could well be next Monday.”

Both men were out in the corral, with Jess sitting yet another ornery beast, when they heard a crash from within the house.

Slim was at her side first, holding her in his arms and looking stricken. “God, Daisy,” he whispered, “where does it hurt?”

“I’m OK, dear,” she finally gasped. “Just this silly ankle of mine again, I guess.”

She was referring to an ankle she had sprained really seriously a few years ago and which now in its weakened state always seemed to be the first casualty if ever she had a fall.

Both men were versed in the ways of Daisy’s ankle, and Jess ran for the cold compress made from rags seeped in ice cold water while Slim helped her to a chair and gently put the affected limb up on a stool before going to fetch a small tot of whiskey for the shock.

Eventually, the ankle was bandaged and Daisy was sitting with a cushion to her back, her poor painful leg up on the stool, and a tear in her eye.

“Hey Daisy,” said Jess, who was hunkered down beside her and was holding her hand, “it ain’t the end of the world, you know. Sure it’s painful right now, but it will be on the mend in a week or two.”

“Yes dear, but that’s the whole point. Mike’s appointment could come through on Monday. What are we going to do? Who can nurse him? If I don’t go, we won’t get that discount Sam has arranged, and we can ill afford that, we all know that.” Then she started crying in earnest, Jess just throwing a comforting arm around her shoulders and casting his buddy an anxious glance, knowing the truth of her words.

The following morning, when Hannah came around for her usual coaching session, she was surprised to find the house in chaos, the chores not done, washing up still in the sink and no sign of her dear friend Daisy. “What’s the matter?” she asked Mike, who was still looking pale and off color from his recent bout of tonsillitis.

“It’s Aunt Daisy,” Mike said sadly. “She’s had a real bad fall and is in bed and she’s been cryin’ because she can’t come with me to Denver to the hospital next week.”

“Oh poor Daisy,” Hannah said at once. “I must go and see her.” Then she stopped in her tracks. “What, the appointment is through at last?”

The boy just nodded. “Mose brought a letter this morning, but I guess it will be kinda strange goin’ without Aunt Daisy.”

The young teacher nodded. “Sure but…” Then she thought hard, and then continued. “What if I were to accompany you and care for you. I am a qualified children’s nurse after all.”

A second later,  Jess came out of the kitchen a look of relief on his face, having overheard the conversation. “You’d do that for us, Hannah? You really would?”

She grinned across at him. “Of course,” she whispered shyly. “You know I would.” ‘Because I love you,’ but the words were left unsaid. She merely turned shyly away and sought out Daisy.

Later that week, they had a visit from Reverend Joshua Wesley, one of many little trips that he had made out to the ranch since his induction earlier that summer. Like their good friend Doc Sam Baker, the minister professed a love of fishing, and so the men often went down to the creek or lake together and enjoyed a few hours fishing, along with some lively debates as Jess challenged some of the Reverend’s ideas and beliefs.

As Joshua had predicted on the day they met, he and Jess had become really good friends and he was often surprised by both the young cowboy’s knowledge of the scriptures and his simple but profound faith.

“Well, I guess that’s down to Ma,” Jess told his new friend. “We might not have had too much schoolin’ but we attended church every week and she read to us from  the Bible most nights, so I guess some of it must   have gone in.”

Joshua also got to know Slim, Mike and Daisy well, too, and thought them a delightful group, living the scriptures in the way they cared for each other, a true Christian family he often thought.

Now he marched over to the corral where Jess was about to start work, a look of concern in his usually dreamy grey eyes.

“Hannah has told me of dear Daisy’s accident, so I came as soon as I could.”

“Morning, Joshua,” said Jess smiling at the tall lanky man. “Oh, she’s fine now; over the shock and with Hannah offering to come to Denver with us next week, well she’s much happier.” Then his face creased in concern. “Heck, it is OK with you that she comes, ain’t it, Joshua. I guess we should have checked with you first.”

“Oh no, my dear boy,  she is quite old enough at twenty to make that kind of decision…er, well, she should be.” Joshua shook his head, and then looking deeply into the younger man’s eyes, said, “Can we sit a spell, Jess? I need to talk to you about my girl.”

Once they were seated on the porch, Joshua began his tale. “You see, when Hannah was only three, we nearly lost her to whooping cough, and well, after that, I guess Mary and I kind of wrapped her in cotton wool. She didn’t mix with other children too much, and then when she was seven, she went to a very strict girls school.”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess with a faint smile, “I’ve heard all about that — all Latin and Shakespeare and the like.”

“Quite so, and precious little else, I’m afraid. She didn’t even do any biology until she did her nurse’s training with the nuns.”

“Nuns?”

“Yes, she was a trainee nurse at the Convent Hospital next door to us.”

Joshua sighed deeply. “I suppose what I’m trying to say is that my little girl is very innocent, with little knowledge of men, relationships, all those kind  of things, well, the things  that most twenty year olds would be comfortable  with, you understand me?” he asked, casting Jess a penetrating look.

Jess looked perplexed for a moment and then asked, “Heck, Joshua, what are you sayin’? I ain’t about to start romancin’  your daughter, you know. I like her, sure, but not that way. She’ll be perfectly safe travelling with me.”

Then it was Joshua’s turn to look puzzled. “My dear boy, I wasn’t implying that at all. No, no. I just want you to look out for her, that’s all. She’s a pretty little thing, and well, if she were to meet someone on your trip and they were to, er, start ‘romancing’ her, as you call it, well, I just don’t know how she would cope.”

Jess grinned across at his friend. “Well, I promise you I’ll keep an eye on her and keep her as safe as if she were my own daughter, Joshua, don’t you fret about that. And maybe…”

“Yes? “

“Well, I guess it’s none of my business but maybe she should start socializing some, go to the church dances and  meet the kinda boy  that you’d approve of. Guess she’s got to start dating sometime.”

Joshua frowned and then  looked over at his friend. “You’re right, of course, and I will encourage her to do just that as soon as you are back from your trip. Now I must see dear Daisy.” With that. the conversation  was over. But Jess was to remember it later.

The day of their departure dawned bright and sunny, and there was a flurry of excitement as Jess threw their luggage up on the top of the stage before lifting Mike up to his seat and turning to assist Hannah. She blushed as she usually  did at his touch and felt something akin to a shock wave traveling  up her arm as he innocently took her elbow to help her  climb up to her seat.

Then Jess turned back and gave Daisy, who had hobbled out to see them off, a hug and pumped Slim’s hand before jumping nimbly aboard himself.

Hannah had never been in such close proximately with Jess before or for so long, and she was in a complete turmoil. She reverted to her previous behavior of answering any questions succinctly and then peering out  of the window. In the end, Jess gave up with the small talk and dozed the journey away, just assuming that  she was overwhelmed with the new experience of traveling so far from home and her kin.

After a while, Mike’s animated chatter ceased as he happily watched the view from the stage window and she was able to really look closely at Jess as he slept.

He was clothed in his usual Sunday best attire, for traveling to the big city, with a sparkling white shirt, and at the neck she was thrilled to see the new tie she had bought him, although she just knew she would die from embarrassment if he were to learn the truth. His dark frock coat was unbuttoned and she could see his gun belt on his narrow hip, dark trousers and highly polished boots. Then she looked up to his lean face. Looking  so young in repose, his best Stetson sat on the  back of his head exposing a mop of unruly black curls falling over his forehead, the silver scar from  his recent mustang fall just visible. The dark quirky eyebrows that could be so expressive stilled, and his long lashes casting a shadow on the gentle curve of his cheek. Then she cast her eyes down to his firm, but sensual mouth and her heart flipped as she imagined kissing him and had to finally tear her gaze away as she felt herself once more flushing; a frisson of desire ran through her body, so strong that she felt quite dizzy.

Then she cast her mind back to a recent meeting of the Women’s Group before Daisy’s accident, when they had been  discussing the most  recent gift that Jess had received, and  the company were speculating as to who could be responsible. Hannah had kept very quiet, her eyes cast down, and just hoped that nobody noticed that she was looking flushed and guilty.

“So is it you then Suzy,” said Carrie with a little giggle. “Trying to win him back from Millie?”

Suzy Morgan’s beautiful blonde head had shot up at this teasing. “Certainly not. I hate the man, you know that, Carrie. I threatened to have Mort Corey sling him into jail if he ever came anywhere near me again after our last argument.”

“Oh come on, Suzy, you deserved that telling off he gave you. You deliberately went out with Carl Jones and then flaunted the relationship in front of Jess. He’d warned you what  he’d do if you two-timed him yet again.”

“Well, I was only trying to make him jealous,” Suzy pouted. “He hadn’t visited in ages.”

“He had been away mustanging, Suzy; he did tell you,” said Daisy kindly. “The boy has to make a living you know.”

Suzy looked a little sheepish at that. “Well, yes, maybe I did act sort of badly,” she agreed. “And maybe I would forgive him, but it looks like he’s happy with Millie, so I guess we are history.” Then she turned twinkling eyes on Carrie. So how about you? Trying to put us off the scent by accusing me, are you?” she said with her tinkling laugh.

Carrie sobered at once. “No, not guilty,” she said softly.

“Uh, but you’re still carrying a torch for him though, aren’t you?” said Suzy somewhat spitefully.

Daisy looked up quickly and saw the young Carrie look forlornly down, obviously hurt. “There is no need to be unkind, Suzy,” said the older woman.

“I’m sorry,” said Suzy, immediately contrite. She reached out and squeezed Carrie’s hand and was rewarded by a little smile. “If truth be known, I’m kind of jealous of your relationship with him.”

Carrie raised an eyebrow questioningly.

“Well, you seemed to have remained really close, really good friends, even though you’re not dating anymore. I just don’t seem to be able to be like that with him,” Suzy said honestly.

“Anyway, it’s all academic for whoever is sending him these little love tokens,” Daisy had said wisely. “Because I believe he is very much in love with Millie and I’m just pleased for him.”

Then Carrie had beamed across at the older woman and said, “Me too, Daisy, me too.”

Then the conversation had moved on to something new, and Hannah had sighed with relief at not being found out. But she was deeply troubled by Daisy’s words. Was it true? Was he in love with Millie?

She glanced back at the object of her desires and was surprised to see him wide awake and staring quizzically at her.

“You’re looking kinda thoughtful. What’s on your mind, sweetheart?”

She gasped in shock, not just because of what she had been thinking, but also the use of the endearment. Did he refer to all girls in this teasing flirty way, or did it mean something, she wondered.

He raised an enquiring eyebrow when she didn’t answer and she racked her brains to think of something suitable.

“Er, I was just wandering about the arrangements. You know where you will be staying?” she asked, saying the first thing that came into her head.

He smiled lazily at her. “Well, I know Sam has fixed up for you to stay in the nurses’ quarters when you’re not lookin’ after this little fellah,” he said reaching over and ruffling Mike’s blond mop. “And I guess I’ll find a room nearby so I can visit, when it’s allowed that is,” he said quietly, knowing how full of rules and regulations hospitals always were. Then he noticed that Mike was suddenly very subdued. “Hey Tiger, you ain’t worried are you,” he said softly.

The boy’s eyes suddenly looked huge in the dim light of the stagecoach, and he just whispered, “Kinda, I guess. Will it hurt real bad, Jess?”

“Hey, come here,” said Jess at once, and the boy moved across so that Jess could cuddle him, a strong arm flung reassuringly around the youngster, holding him close, before he looked down and answered honestly. “Well, I reckon it will be a mite painful when you wake up,” he said, “but it won’t last too long, and I have  heard tell as to how you get to eat jelly and ice cream.” He smiled across at Hannah.

“Oh yes, that’s right,” Hannah said, picking up on the fact that Jess needed her to reassure the child. “And even if Jess isn’t allowed to visit all day, I will be there to look after you, I promise,” she said with a kindly smile, and the child seemed to relax a little at that assurance.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. They arrived, Mike was booked in to the hospital, Hannah was sent off to get a uniform, and Jess was ushered out with the promise that he could visit Mike the following evening.

Jess stood outside the hospital feeling suddenly bereft, then pulled himself together and went and found a room nearby.

He knocked on a door of a building offering clean bed and good breakfast, and he was welcomed in by an ancient crone whose face lit up at the sight of this handsome, well-heeled young man. Jess was glad that he was smartly turned out, even if his appearance didn’t exactly reflect his true financial status.

The room was indeed clean enough, and although basic, comfortable enough too, and most importantly within spitting distance of the hospital.

Then Jess turned to the landlady, and smiling, said he would take the room and did she know of any temporary work available in the area.

“Well yes, my dear, but it would be across the town. I know for a fact Jed Brown is taking on staff at  his livery, if that would be the sort of work you could do? “ she asked, looking slightly unconvinced seeing Jess’s smart attire.

“That would be exactly the sorta work I could do,” Jess said, grinning down at her.

“Oh well, in that case, mention my name, dear; Jed is my brother-in-law.”

And so it was Jess started working at the livery the very next day.

Jed Brown took to Jess at once, liking the deep blue twinkling eyes and the easy way he had around the horses.

On his initial visit, Jed asked Jess about his experience.

“I’m partner in  a Ranch  and Relay up in Wyoming. Work a lot with the horses — shoein’ breakin’, some doctoring, anything  as is called for really,” Jess  said, and then went on to explain  his position and how he only needed temporary work.

At this, the old timer’s face lit up. “Well that  would suit me just fine, son. Got me a bunch of green broke mustangs need schooling on how  to be hire horses. Think you could make a start on  them?”

And so the deal was done. Jess started at first light, caring for the horses at livery, and then spent the rest of the day working on the mustangs. He was allowed to finish late afternoon so that he could walk the long way back to the hospital in time for visiting.

The livery was situated in a very rough part of the town, with several insalubrious saloons and brothels nearby, but that didn’t worry Jess. Nobody bothered him, seeing from the way he carried himself and the low slung gun he wore that he was not a man to be messed with.

 It was an exhausting schedule, especially with the long walk at the beginning and end of the working day, but Jess figured it wasn’t forever and he really needed the money to pay for his room and all the incidentals of meals and laundry and the like for young Mike.

*****

On the  first day, he was shown  up to the ward where Mike was recovering from his operation and  was distressed to see how sick the young boy  looked — pale and  tearful and  obviously in a lot of pain. When visiting hour was over, Jess really didn’t want to go from the boy, who got  increasingly upset  as the young  cowboy tried to make his leave.

When the nurse came around a second time and told him he must go, Hannah, who had also been visiting, tried to reason with Jess, but he turned anguished eyes on her. “I can’t leave him like this, Hannah, I just can’t,” he said softly.

However, eventually the youngster settled down to sleep, and Jess was finally persuaded that the child was in good hands and would sleep through until morning.

They made their leave and went to a nearby café for supper, but Jess was very quiet and distant throughout the meal and Hannah could see how upset he was.

“He will be OK,” she said softly, smiling across the table at him. “It’s usual for them to be poorly for a day or so, but he’ll soon bounce back.”

Jess just nodded. “Yeah. it’s just…well, it’s real hard for me seein’ him that way, you know,” he said, turning troubled eyes on her.

Hannah’s heart melted at this new side of the young cowboy, and the tender vulnerability in one so usually strong and tough made him even more attractive to her.

They had finished the meal and she reached across and daringly took his hand and said softly, “Don’t worry, Jess.”

He looked up, surprise registering on his face at this unexpected intimacy, but after a moment, his face  softened and he turned her tiny hand over and squeezed it gently. “Thanks, Hannah,” he said quietly. “I’m real glad you’re here with me.”

Later that night in bed in the nurse’s quarters, she played the scene over and over again in her mind, and the more she revisited it, the more she embellished it, seeing things that just weren’t there. The squeeze of the hand an invitation to deeper intimacy; the remark about his being glad she was there a sign of how important she had become to him.

Then she cast her mind back to the journey — how he had taken her elbow and helped her down from the stage and again on crossing the busy roads. How he had stared coldly when a stranger had come up and smiled at her and tried to chat. He was so protective, she thought, inwardly swooning; he cared about her, he really did.

From Jess’s perspective, he was simply looking out for her like he had promised her Pa that he would do. In fact, she was something of a liability being such an innocent abroad, and he felt he couldn’t let her out of his sight when they were away from the hospital. However, he was genuinely glad of her insights into Mike’s illness and the way she was looking after the boy and offering her reassurances. Even so, he would be glad when he could hand her safely back to her Pa, he thought as he finally fell asleep that night.

It was a couple of days later when the real burden of responsibility of looking out for Hannah was fully realized.

Jess was busy grooming one of the livery horses in his stall when he heard an altercation out in the yard and then a woman screaming for help. Charging outside, he was just in time to see a rough looking hombre holding a woman who was struggling violently, while his buddy tried to kiss her and a third man looked on laughing drunkenly.

Jess marched angrily across and then stood staring in disbelief for a moment when he suddenly realized the young woman was Hannah.

Jess let out a furious roar, and grabbing the man who was forcing himself on the young woman, he seized his collar and literally threw him across the yard before striding over and laying a haymaker to his chin which felled him.

The man who had been restraining Hannah then pitched in to help his buddy, but Jess threw a punch to his belly and a chop to the back of the neck and he hit the dirt groaning.

Then the third man threw a lucky punch that split Jess’s lip, the blood pouring down his chin to make an ugly red stain on his pale blue work shirt, and then the first assailant rallied and grabbed Jess from behind while the second man rammed a fist into his belly, making him groan and fall to his knees, where he was then viscously kicked.

That was the last straw. Jess was now way beyond mad, and he dragged himself up and hurled himself at his attacker, throwing a punch that knocked him out. Turning. Jess did the same to the next man and finally the third one backed off.

“Guess I’ve had enough, Mister; no woman is worth all this fussin’ and frettin’, not when I can pay for it down the road. You’re welcome to her, mister.” After helping his buddies up, the trio staggered away, back to the saloon, as Jess stood there blooded and swaying slightly, watching  them go, his eyes  flashing black with fury.

All the time the fight had been going on, Hannah had been kneeling in the dirt where her attacker had thrown her unceremoniously when he had gone to the aid of his friend. She had watched in total shock as the vicious blows where exchanged, shaking and white, never having experienced such violence in her life. The almost animalistic ferocity was deeply terrifying to the young woman; the force of the blows that had rained down on Jess made her tremble and feel physically sick. His own rage as he attacked the men was truly chilling, and she felt like she really didn’t know him at all. She had no idea that such violent exchanges took place in real life, and to have been the instigator of it all was deeply shocking.

After a minute, Jess got his breath back. He picked his hat up and rammed it firmly back on his head before wiping his sleeve across his filthy, blooded face. Then he advanced slowly to where Hannah was still squatting down, her arms clasped protectively around her body, pale and shaking.

Jess leaned down and gently hauled her up and held her in his strong arms, whispering softly to her as he felt her trembling against him.

This sudden intimacy was almost as shocking as the fight to Hannah, but in a completely different way, as she felt her heart begin to pound as his strong arms encircled her and one hand lightly caressed her hair.

After a moment, Jess pushed her gently away and looked deep into her light blue eyes. “I’m so sorry that happened, sweetheart. Are you alright? They didn’t hurt you?”

She just nodded and then shook her head. “No, I’m fine. Oh Jess, that was terrible,” she whispered and then the tears flowed down her face and she started crying hysterically.

Jess led her into the livery and seated her on a straw bale before fetching her a tin cup of cold water, which she drank down, and finally her sobs came to a hiccupping conclusion. “I’m sorry,” she said giving him a watery smile. “You must think me an awful baby.”

He hunkered down beside her and just shook his head. “But what the hell…er, excuse me, what the heck are you doin’ here, Hannah? Why ain’t you at the hospital?”

At the mention of the hospital, a hand flew up to her mouth and she turned a shade paler.

“Oh Jess, I had to come and fetch you. It’s Mike; he’s got a bad infection and he’s calling for you. The Matron said I was to try and find you and bring you back. They’re really worried about him,” she whispered in anguish.

*****

Jess entered the small side ward that Mike had been transferred to and immediately strode to the bedside, sitting down on the edge of the bed and taking the child’s hot little hand before casting a glance over to where the Matron was busy filling in the temperature chart.

“Oh good, Mister Harper I’m glad you are here,” the Matron said ,peering over her spectacles at him, not unkindly. “Our young charge here is suffering a rather nasty post-operative infection, and under the circumstances, the surgeon has agreed you may stay with him,” she said, nodding to another bed on the opposite wall.

Jess just nodded, his gaze never leaving the youngster’s flushed face as he slept restlessly. After a moment, he dragged his gaze away and looked at the kindly middle-aged woman. “He will be alright though?” he whispered.

She came over and squeezed his shoulder, before turning to leave the room. “Just call if you need anything, my dear,” she said sadly, before bustling away.

Jess turned back to Mike, his eyes open wide in shock as he stared at the youngster. What was she sayin’? Mike wasn’t going to make it? Hell, he was gonna die?

When Doctor James Scott came to do his evening rounds, he found Jess in exactly the same position he had been in when Matron had left him several hours earlier. His heart went out to this personable young man who sat staring at the child and holding his hand and mopping his brow with cool water.

Doctor Scott had trained with Jess’s friend Doc Sam Baker, and he had heard all about the family at the Relay Station, about Jess’s checkered history, how he had turned his life around, and now he was the proud guardian of young Mike Williams.

Now the doctor cast a look down at his patient and saw that the fever was slowly taking the youngster, and he doubted if he would last the night.

Jess finally tore his gaze away from Mike’s face when he realized the doctor had entered. He gave him a brief nod, having been introduced on his arrival at the hospital, “Doc… so how is my boy?”

The doctor sat down on the edge of the other bed, and gesturing to the nurse to leave them, contemplated Jess for several minutes before replying. “I’m so sorry,” he said softly. “There was a complication after the operation. An infection has occurred and I’m afraid it looks like this young man can’t fight it for much longer.”

Jess just stared at him and then looked back at Mike and then over at the doctor again and when he spoke his voice was thick with emotion. “What’re you sayin’, doc?” he said gruffly. “You saying he ain’t gonna make it?”

Doctor Scott just nodded. “I’m so sorry, son…”

Jess stared at him in shocked horror before responding the only way he knew how — with anger. “No!” he cried. “He ain’t, doc. I ain’t gonna to let him die.” Then turning  his furious gaze on the hapless doctor, he shouted, “You said this was a simple operation, practically no risk. Hell, I’d never have let him go through with it if…” Then his voice broke and he couldn’t go on.

After a few minutes, he gathered himself, and looking back across at the doctor, he said, “I’m sorry, doc, This ain’t your fault; I know that. I’m just kinda…”

“I know, son,” said the good doctor. “I understand. Just try and keep him cool like you have been  doing, wiping his face with cold water. When  he wakes up, water to drink. I’ll be back in an hour or so to see how he’s doing.” With that he left, sadly feeling that the youngster wouldn’t last even that long.

It was a little later that the door opened again and Hannah sidled in.

On her return to the hospital, Matron had taken one look at the pale, shaking girl and told her she must go off duty and rest at once. Hannah was led away by a colleague and given a sedative. However, she had awoken a short while since and made her way to Mike’s bedside at once.

Now she looked at the flushed agitated child who was sleeping so restlessly, and then tore her eyes away to look at Jess’s face, dreading what she would see.

Jess seemed completely unaware of her presence, his head was bowed, and as she moved closer she saw that his lips were moving and realized that he was silently praying. She watched him for a while, and then she fell to her knees beside the bed and started praying herself. That was the way Doctor Scott found them when he returned a little later.

He leaned over and examined the young boy and was surprised to see that he hadn’t deteriorated any further, and in fact on taking his temperature, noted it had dropped a degree.

Jess suddenly became aware of the doctor’s presence and then Hannah on her knees beside the bed, and for one terrible moment, he thought Mike had gone. He jumped up and leaned over the boy before the doctor gently restrained him and pushed him back down onto the edge of the bed.

“It’s OK, Jess,” the doctor said quietly. “I think we’re back in with a fighting chance.”

The nursing staff renewed their efforts with the boy — someone on hand all through the night to swab him down and frequently change the soaking sheets — and by morning, all the hard work had paid off. The child opened his clear innocent eyes, and smiling over at Jess, said sleepily, “Hey Jess, is it breakfast time yet? I’m real hungry.” Then he just stared at his hero, looking surprised. “Jess, are you mad at me?”

Jess swallowed hard. “Heck no, Tiger. Why do you say that?”

“I dunno. You just look kinda sad, like you’re gonna say I’ve done something wrong.”

Jess just shook his head. “No, I ain’t mad at you, Tiger, just kinda upset. You’ve been real sick and I was worried, is all.”

“Oh, right, well, I’m just fine now Jess. So do you think I can have ice cream for breakfast?”

“I think you can have whatever you darn well want,” Jess said, grinning across at Hannah, who smiled back and then ran off to fulfill the order.

From that moment on, Mike started to make a full recovery, and Jess and Hannah could breathe a sigh of relief. It was later in the day, when the child was sleeping naturally, his temperature back to normal, that Jess was able to talk properly to Hannah.

They were seated in a quiet corner of the hospital, neither wanting to stray too far from Mike’s side, and Jess reached over and took her hand in his. “I want to thank you for sticking by us last night,” he said warmly. “For praying with me,” he whispered, his eyes suddenly bright.

“I’m just glad he’s going to be alright,” Hannah replied softly.

Then Jess tried to lighten the emotionally charged atmosphere. “I guess it helped you bein’ a minister’s daughter,” he said smiling warmly at her then. “Kinda hot line to the Almighty.”

She grinned back. “Oh sure, one of the perks of being a minister’s daughter,” she said light-heartedly, although in reality, her pulses were racing, and as he still held her hand and smiled into her eyes, she felt her heart would explode with joy.

*****

By the end of the week, Mike was well enough for Jess to return to work and he toiled extra hours to make up the time, concerned that he would be short of cash by the time Mike was finally well enough to be discharged and he would have to settle up at the boarding house.

And so it was that the following Saturday evening — dusk was just falling — as he made his way over the stretch of common land behind the hospital for his usual visit, feeling pretty beat after a day spent in the saddle trying to school a particularly recalcitrant mount.

Then something suddenly alerted him to a middle-aged, smartly dressed woman approaching the hospital from the opposite direction, and as he watched, he saw a pair of scruffy-looking youths start to follow her, both of them looking suspicious as they glanced around and slowly moved in on her.

Jess wasted no time in speculation and sprinted the few yards over towards the woman, just as one of the men struck, moving in to grab her bag.

She screamed and held on for dear life, and then a tussle ensued before Jess was suddenly at her side. Grabbing the man from the back, he yanked him round and threw a punch that felled him.

Then the other man struck with the lightning speed of a snake, and just as deadly, as he thrust a knife into Jess’s ribs, As he sank to the ground clutching his chest in agony, the two men made off at speed. However the woman’s screams and Jess’s actions had alerted several bystanders and they were soon in hot pursuit of the would-be thieves.

The woman fell to her knees and cradled Jess’s head as he began to slip into unconsciousness, blood oozing out of the deep wound, and the last thing he heard was the woman crying for help.

When he awoke, he was lying in a hospital bed, and the first thing he saw were Hannah’s troubled eyes peering down at him from where she was sitting at the bedside.

His ribs felt like they were on fire, and on putting a tentative hand up, he felt a swathe of bandages around his chest. He opened his mouth to try and speak, but it was too dry, and a moment later Hannah lifted his head gently and put a cup to his lips. He drank greedily and then relaxed back on the cool pillow before scanning her face and trying again. “Is… is she OK?” he whispered.

“Mrs. Scott? Yes, she’s fine, just shaken up some, but Doctor Scott says she will be OK,” Hannah replied softly.

“She was the doc’s wife?” he whispered.

“Yes. They had arranged to go to the theatre after work, and it was such a pleasant evening, she decided to walk over instead of getting a carriage,” she started to explain, but  he fell asleep again as she was talking and the next thing he knew the doctor himself was leaning over him checking his pulse.

Once he saw Jess was awake,  gave him a warm smile. “Hell Jess, I can’t begin to thank you for what you did for my Gina last night.”

“She sure is a feisty one,” Jess said softly. “No way were they gonna get that ol’ handbag.”

He nodded giving the dark haired cowboy a rueful look. “Well you see, son, all our boy’s letters are in that bag; she never lets them out of her sight, since he was killed in the war. I guess she’d have been totally devastated if she’d lost those; we both would.”

Jess ducked his head. “I’m real sorry for your loss,” he said softly. “It was a hard old war; a lot of good men were killed.”

The doctor just nodded, too upset to speak for a minute. “You were in the war too then?”

Jess nodded, “The Confederacy,” he said quietly.

The doctor gave him a small smile. Yes, young Jamie was too. We lived down in Albuquerque in those days.” Their eyes locked, an instant bond between the two men. Then he examined the wound and looked concerned.

“This is a really nasty stab wound, Jess. I operated yesterday and I’m glad to say no major organs were damaged, but I’m afraid you won’t be able to go back to work, not for the next few weeks anyway, that is.”

Jess cussed softly under his breath, now really anxious about all the debt he  was incurring. Not only did he have to pay for his boarding house thus far,  but now also a hefty hospital bill too and he  just closed his eyes and groaned softly.

“I’ll get you something for the pain,” the doc said quickly, assuming that that was Jess’s problem, and went to find the nurse, leaving Jess staring up at the ceiling, wondering how he was going to deal with this latest issue that life had thrown at him.

If only they weren’t in such dire straits financially at the Relay, he thought to himself, ruing the fact that they had lost stock in the floods the year before and still had not recovered properly. Then there had been the unexpected need for Mike’s operation and now this, he thought desperately wandering what to do.

“Well, Harper,” Jess said softly, “you’ll just have to rob a bank,” smiling to himself and thinking that he might be pretty beat up, but his sense of humor was still intact.

Maybe he could discharge himself, he thought — just hole up at the bed and breakfast until he was feeling better. He tried to pull himself up in bed but fell back at once, crying out in pain as the stitches on the fresh wound pulled.

Then the Matron bustled in. “I hope you’re not doing what I think you are, Mister Harper,” she said with a twinkle in her old eyes.

He lay back and fixed her with what he hoped was his innocent look. “Well, what would that be Ma’am?” he asked solicitously.

“Like discharging yourself, young man,” she said, fixing him with a steely glare now. “Because I don’t have to remind you that you have a young ward in this hospital who needs a healthy guardian to care for him shortly, and to be brutally honest, young man, if you try and leave now, well, you wouldn’t make it as far as the front door. You understand, son?”

“Yes Ma’am.” Jess sighed. “I guess I know when I’ve been out-maneuvered.” He was suddenly reminded  of being back in the kitchen at the ranch with Daisy haranguing them about church going, and  he  wished to hell he was back there right now.

The following day he had a visitor, Mrs. Gina Scott.

Jess was dozing at the time, and she came in hesitantly and slipped into the seat beside the bed, looking down at the lean face, looking so young in repose, with the black unruly hair falling over his forehead and she had to suppress the mother’s instinct to brush it gently back.

After a little while, the long eyelashes finally flickered and he opened those amazing deep blue eyes and found himself staring at the doctor’s pretty, middle-aged wife.

“Mister Harper — Jess — I hope you don’t mind, but I just had to come and thank you personally and to say how very sorry I am that you have been so badly hurt.”

Jess tried to sit up, but fell back down on the pillows and she immediately looked concerned. “Oh my dear, are you alright?”

Something in  her motherly manner reminded him so much of Daisy that he felt completely bereft for a moment, but then managed to pull himself together. Giving her  his boyish smile, he said, “Well, I’m just glad I could help you out, Ma’am.”

“I know I shouldn’t have been so stubborn,” she said looking down, “but I just couldn’t let those thugs have my bag.” Then turning to look at him again, she added, “I know you must think I’m crazy, fighting them that way.”

Jess was very quiet for a movement, and when he answered ,she saw his eyes glittering. “Well, I can understand why you did that. The doc told me about your boy, how his letters were in there, so sure, makes perfect sense. I figure my Ma would have done the same in your place.”

She was so moved she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Your Ma must be very proud of you, Jess.”

He seemed to flinch and she wondered what she’d said wrong as his face hardened and he looked away.

Then after a moment he sighed and gave her his shy smile again. “I hope she would have been, Ma’am, but she’s dead — all my kin are. “

She gave a shocked intake of breath. “Oh my dear, I’m so sorry; I didn’t know,” she whispered.

“Yeah, well, how could you? And anyways, it was a long time ago,” Jess said, closing the subject.

She seemed to know that he didn’t want to pursue his past, and so she tentatively opened her bag and said, “My husband said you fought for the Rebels too. Would you like to see a likeness of my Jamie.”

This time he managed to pull himself up in the bed and gave her a genuine smile. “I sure would, Ma’am.”

She looked in her bag and then passed a sepia photograph across for Jess to see.

He smiled down at the image of a blond haired young man with a cheeky grin, his Confederacy cap at a jaunty angle and a twinkle in his kind friendly eyes.

Then Jess’s expression changed to one of shock. “Scotty,” he whispered. “Your son was Scotty?”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise. “Yes, that was Jamie’s nickname in the Army. Why? Did you know him?”

“Know him!” said Jess excitedly, “Hell, I served with him Ma’am.” Then more softly, he added, “And a nicer, braver guy would be hard to find.”

“Please,” she said her eyes now beseeching, “tell me everything, everything you can remember about him.”

So Jess spent the rest of the afternoon talking exclusively about his good buddy Jamie Scott, how they had watched each other’s backs, how their shared sense of fun had seen them through some harrowing times and finally how he had met his end.

Gina insisted he tell her every detail of his demise, and although she wept wretchedly after he had told her, she quickly rallied and thanked him profusely for his honesty. “I needed to know that, dear, and you have no idea how much you have helped me by knowing he didn’t suffer at the end.”

However, all the emotionally charged discussion had taken its toll on Jess and he was exhausted.

Looking down at him, Gina noticed and was immediately contrite. “I’m so sorry, Jess, quizzing you this way; you look worn out.”

“I’m OK,” he said quickly. “It’s just made me feel kinda bad remembering it all. He  was such a great  guy. It’s hard remembering…all the ones that never came back,” Jess finished quietly.

She nodded, patting his hand in a motherly way. “Well, I’m just so pleased you made it,” she said softly, “and I  really can’t thank you enough for this afternoon. Now you must sleep.” She pulled the covers up before tip-toeing out of the room.

Outside, she met Hannah who had just come off shift caring for Mike and who now intended to visit with Jess for the evening, knowing that her young charge was well on the mend. Mike had been returned to the main ward and had struck up a friendship with the little boy in the next bed, and so she knew her presence wouldn’t be missed.

Hannah was also keen to get away from the youngster and his questions about why Jess hadn’t visited for the past day. Thinking that the knowledge of Jess’s recent attack would upset him too much, she had made up a story about Jess having to work extra shifts to make his money up, but she knew that the child would only swallow that tale for a little while before he became suspicious, and so she wanted to be able to report that Jess was on the mend when she broke the news.

However, when she saw Doctor Scott’s wife looking quite worried as she left the room, she wondered if she would be able to impart good news of Mike’s guardian.

“Oh Hannah dear, I’m pleased to see you,” said Mrs. Scott. “It’s Jess; I think I’ve exhausted him asking all about the war. You see, it turns out he and Jamie were close friends and he’s been talking to me all afternoon and now he looks so pale and sick. I really think you need to watch him.”

Hannah reassured the older woman, and said she would sit with Jess that night if she could OK it with the Matron.

“Oh, you leave her to me dear,” Gina said with a little chuckle. “We were at school together and she’s a pussy cat really.” With that, she marched off to seek the head of nursing.

Hannah slipped quietly into the room, and on seeing Jess was sound asleep, she sat down beside the bed. After checking his pulse, she settled down, her eyes never leaving his sleeping face, and she thought back over the last twenty four hours.

She had been waiting in  the hospital lobby knowing that Jess was due to visit, and so she aimed to meet him and then  go and change ready for going out for supper as had become their habit, catching up on the day’s events before she retired back to the nurses quarters. She had made an effort to look her best, and had even borrowed some makeup and dresses from the other nurses in a bid to charm him.

However, he didn’t seem particularly romantically inclined and never even held her hand again as he had on that evening when he had been so upset about Mike. He had treated her with old-fashioned politeness and was a perfect gentleman at all times; in fact, he could have been escorting a sister or maiden aunt, she thought sadly. He seemed more interested in his food than her, and she suspected that he was just eating once a day to try and save on money.

So she had been waiting in  the lobby on that fateful day when  she heard a commotion outside, and a moment later Jess was carried in by several men all talking loudly of a vicious attack, and then Mrs. Smith was beside the young cowboy in  floods of tears, calling for assistance.

Hannah had stared down at Jess’s unconscious, bleeding body as gentle hands transferred him to a waiting stretcher and he was carried away. Her heart had lurched in terror and she had nearly fainted with the shock of it all. Then one of the other nurses had come to her assistance and led her away to find a strong sweet coffee for the shock.

Later that night, she had been allowed to visit him for a short while, but he was heavily sedated against the post-operative pain he had suffered. She had sat by the bed before Matron had come in and chivvied her off to bed before going  off about her duties and putting the fear of God into some of her other nurses.

As she had risen to leave the silent room, she had leaned forwards, and on impulse, had kissed his forehead, her lips caressing his warm skin for a moment, before looking down at his sleeping face. A wave  of love  and longing made her tremble uncontrollably before she scurried from the room, fearing Matron’s return.

Now, as she surveyed his sleeping body stripped to the waist, she thought that her surmise that he had been hardly eating to save money was probably true as he looked so thin, his ribs sticking out, and the soft curve of his belly showing not an ounce of surplus flesh. Then, as she looked more closely, she could just see the waistband of his undershorts, startlingly white against his deeply tanned body, and knowing that he would be embarrassed at her seeing him this way, she leaned forwards and pulled the covers up a little.

He stirred and then slept on as she gently took his hand and held it, the warm firm feeling giving her strength as she sat on, hour after hour, willing him to recover and to see those blue eyes twinkling in merriment as he gently teased her again.

She fell asleep several hours later, the traumas of the last few days finally having taken their toll on her weary body and she dozed in the bedside chair.

It was in the wee small hours of the morning when she was jerked awake by Jess’s tormented cries. Suddenly wide awake, she stared at him in shock as she saw him writhing in the bed, still deeply asleep and yet yelling in mortal terror.

Then his eyes shot open and he gazed around the room as if not knowing where he was, pale and shaking, the sweat pouring down his face.

“Jess, Jess,” Hannah whispered and he finally looked towards her, peering at her like she was a total stranger. Then he took a deep shuddering breath and cussed softly before he ran a hand over his sweating countenance and continued to look deeply troubled.

She reached out a tentative hand and gently caressed the top of his naked arm, before taking his hand. “Whatever is it?” she whispered.

Then he suddenly threw himself into her arms, his head resting on her neck as she held him close and gently rubbed his back, talking softly to calm him as she would have done with Mike. After long minutes, she finally felt the trembling cease, and he pulled slowly back and surveyed her, a look of embarrassment in his deep blue eyes.

“Heck, Hannah, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to do that. It was just this nightmare I get sometimes,” Jess said very quietly, throwing himself back on the pillow and looking up at the ceiling with haunted eyes.

She was still trembling from the whole thing, not least the feeling of having his strong arms around her, and she could barely speak for a few minutes as she felt her heart pounding in her ears.

He had held her close — so close — had needed her. She knew in her heart that  he had been so upset he hardly knew what he had been doing, but nonetheless, she had been here for him when  he needed her and she rejoiced at the thought.

Then she gathered her wits and said softly, “What was it, Jess? You looked so scared, so upset. Whatever caused it?”

He shook his head. “You don’t wanna know,” he said bitterly.

“I do, really,” she said tenderly. “I hate to see you so upset, Jess.”

Then Jess looked at her properly for the first time. “And I hate to upset you, sweetheart,” he said softly. He sighed deeply. “It was a bad dream I get sometimes, about the war. I was in a prisoner of war camp, and I guess, well, it wasn’t the best time of my life,” he said with typical Harper understatement.

She peered over. “It was really terrible, wasn’t it?”

He just nodded. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“And it was talking to Mrs., Scott about her son that brought it all back to you,” Hannah surmised.

He nodded again. “Yeah, I guess.”

Then Hannah realized she was still holding his hand and withdrew, looking embarrassed herself now.

Jess didn’t seem to notice, but made himself more comfortable on the pillow. “So what are you doin’ here? It must be real late. You should be getting your beauty sleep,” he said with a teasing smile.

“Mrs. Scott was worried about you, thought you looked really poorly after she’s been plaguing you with questions all afternoon. She asked me to look in on you.”

He just nodded and then she saw his eyes growing heavy again.

“Just go back to sleep,” Hannah said tenderly. “I’ll stay a little while longer, just in case you need anything.”

His eyes were closed now and she knew that he was nearly asleep, but he stretched his hand out to her and whispered, “Thanks.”

Hannah took the offered hand in her own again and listened until his rhythmical breathing could be heard and she knew he was asleep. She sat on,  staring down  at him and looking at his hand clasped gently in her own with renewed hope in her heart. Maybe he did have feelings for her after  all.

The following morning when he awoke, Jess was alone and he had only sketchy memories of the night before. Had Hannah been with him or was that just a dream? He couldn’t remember and, shrugging, he sat up,  waiting in eager anticipation of his breakfast, suddenly feeling much better.

*****

It was a week later when both Mike and Jess were ready to be discharged.

It was the day Jess had longed for and yet dreaded.

Sure, he wanted to see the back of the place and get home, see Mike safely back where he belonged, not to mention Hannah back in the bosom of her family. The stresses of keeping her safe weighed heavy after the nasty attack she had experienced at the livery.

But truth be known, he was also dreading the conversation he knew he must have with Doctor Scott, saying he would have to wire him his hospital fees once he could make some arrangements for an overdraft from the Laramie bank.

Ma Brown, from the boarding house, had been around with his wages from the livery job on behalf of her brother-in-law, and even after he had paid her his rent, there was still some money left.

“Hey this can’t be right, Ma,” Jess said, looking at the contents of the envelope she had pushed across to him.

“Well it is, son,” she said giving him a firm look. “Old Jed was real pleased with your work, particularly with that nasty tempered bay. Said nobody else had managed to teach him any manners until you upped and sorted him out. So he’s given you a bonus and strict instructions you are to take it,” she said, standing to make her leave.

Jess just grinned up at her. “Well, tell him thanks,” he said.

Then Ma Brown turned back, and leaning down, kissed him softly on the cheek. “And you look after yourself, boy,” she said kindly, before leaving.

“Sure, you too, and thanks again, Ma,” Jess said softly, contemplating the contents of his wage packet.

He had hoped if he had worked all the time Mike was in the hospital, he would have been able to afford railroad tickets home, the journey being quicker and less arduous than by stage. However, now he was relieved that he had just enough for stagecoach tickets.

Jess was just packing his bag and steeling himself for his talk with the doctor when the good man breezed in, all smiles and with his wife on his arm. “Just thought we’d come to see you off, Jess,” Gina said, smiling up into the young man’s clear blue eyes.

Jess tipped his hat to her and then turned troubled eyes on Doc Scott. “Look, doc, I need to talk to you about settling the bill,” he said, flushing with embarrassment.

The doctor grinned across and said, “I’m sorry; I can’t do that, young man.”

“Huh? “

“I can’t talk to you about it because there isn’t a bill.”

“What?”

“Do you really think I could charge one of Jamie’s comrades in arms,” Scott said, now looking quite pink with emotion.

“Well…well I dunno. I…can’t…”

“Hush, child,” said Mrs. Scott smiling up into his deep blue eyes. “Let us do this for the memory of our  dear Jamie. We can’t help him anymore, but we can help you. Please let us, dear; it would mean a lot to us both,” she finished stifling a sob.

Jess looked into her kind face, then leaned forward and kissed her tenderly on the cheek. “I guess I’d be honored to accept your help, Ma’am.” Then turning to Doc Scott, he shook his hand. “Thank you, doc,” he said with a deep feeling and relief.

*****

They had been bowling along at a good speed in the outward bound stagecoach making for Cheyenne, where they would catch the local one over to Laramie.

Jess was gazing out of the window and wondering what his chances of seeing Millie were, wondered if she was still in town with her Ma or had gone home, when the stage started to slow down some.

Then the next thing it juddered to a halt and he heard someone shouting and a gun shot.

Telling Mike and Hannah to get down on the floor and not move, Jess burst out of the coach, his gun already in his hand, only to be confronted by a big rough looking hombre, a rifle pointed at Jess’s head, while another man had already circled to the other door and was dragging Hannah and Mike out at gun point.

Jess took this in, and immediately relinquished his gun, throwing it down and saying gruffly, “Just don’t hurt the lady or the kid.”

Then a third man told the driver to get down from the box, but for some reason, old Charlie decided to chance his arm and made a grab for his rifle. That was his fatal mistake, and the gunman shot him through the heart, staring dispassionately as the old timer fell like a stone and lay in the dirt, dead before he hit the ground.

The gunman transferred his cold stare back to Jess. “See what happens if you get smart,” he sneered. “So if you want your wife and kid in one piece, I suggest you do exactly as I tell you,” he snarled.

“Well, I guess I don’t have a lot of choice,” Jess muttered darkly.

Then Mike and Hannah were hustled back into the coach, both looking pale and terrified ,and Jess was told to get up on the box and drive the stage off the road and to the east, following one of the gunmen while another travelled in the coach.

“Just do what you’re told, cowboy, and my friend in the coach there won’t feel the need to use his gun. Any clever stuff and they’re dead meat, you understand?”

“I understand.”

They drove away from the road for twenty, maybe thirty miles until they reached the edge of a rocky gorge. Then the gunman out front signaled Jess to heave to. He instructed Jess to throw down the strong box and unhitch the team.

Mike and Hannah were pulled out of the coach again, and this time Hannah was pushed roughly; she fell, giving a little cry of fear and pain. Jess immediately sprang towards her attacker, but before he could strike, the third man brought his rifle down on the back of Jess’s head felling him as Mike cried out in fear.

“Leave him alone, you big bully!” Mike cried shrilly.

The big man leaned forwards and picked Mike up by his shirt collar and looked at the child with amused eyes. “Quite the little hero, ain’t you, son,” he said with an evil chuckle. Then sobering he threw the child down next to Hannah and spat, “So kid, if you want your Pa alive, just button it and do as you’re told, OK?”

“Yes, sir,” stuttered the now-terrified child.

The men tied the strong box onto the back of one of the team, and then with some difficulty, pushed the coach to the very edge of the steep gorge. After levering it with a log against the back axel, it teetered on the edge before finally tipping over and crashing down to the bottom where it smashed into a thousand pieces.

The sound finally brought Jess around and he shook his head to clear it just in time to see the men begin to take their leave, leading the stage team with them. “What in Hell are you doing?” he spat angrily.

“Well, I thought that would be pretty darned obvious,” said the big, ugly ring leader. “We’ve crashed the coach and  driven miles off course, so I reckon by the time they figure the stage has been robbed, we’ll have hightailed it over the border.”

Then Jess saw they were taking the horses. “You can’t do this,” he said beseechingly, “not leave a woman and child afoot out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Sure I can. You’ll be OK. Just head due North West and you’ll find Cheyenne in about oh, forty miles or so,” he said with a cruel laugh.

“You bastard!” Jess exploded.

”At least leave us some water,” said Hannah pleadingly.

“Now why would I wanna do that? Survival is the name of the game, you see, Ma’am. Should be a water hole somewhere up north. I forget where exactly. Near some standing pines, if I remember rightly,” he said vaguely. “That should tide you over.” With one more evil chuckle, he kicked his horse off, leaving them staring after him in disbelief.

After a few yards, the man stopped, and looking back, threw Mike and Hannah an almost remorseful glance. Then looking back at Jess, he threw the cowboys colt .45 down. “Guess you’ll need this to get your supper,” he growled before kicking his horse off again, following his fellow outlaws off in a cloud of dust.

As the dust settled, Jess turned and looked at where Hannah had collapsed to her knees, her face in her hands, silently weeping, and then to where Mike was watching her, his own bottom lip trembling. He knew he had to be strong for them, had to bring them through this, no matter what it took.

“Go fetch my gun, Mike,” Jess said softly, and once the boy was out of earshot, he went over and hunkered down beside Hannah, gently pulling her hands down so that she could see him. “Listen to me,” he said urgently. “You’ve gotta get a grip, Hannah, for the boy’s sake. I know we can survive this; we’ve just got to stick together and stay positive, you understand?”

Hannah turned shocked eyes on him at the brusque way he was addressing her, but after a moment, she did pull herself together, and when Mike returned a moment later, she threw him a watery smile. “Well, this will be a real adventure to tell them all back at school, won’t it?” she said, patting his arm and giving him an encouraging look.

Mike nodded. “So shall we head for that ol’ water hole then, Jess? I’m kinda dry.” he said softly.

*****

They had been walking due north for what seemed like hours, the relentless sun beating down on them, with not a tree or shrub on the horizon to afford them any shelter. The heat had finally proved too much for young Mike and he collapsed to his knees in the dusty ground.

Jess knew Mike’s muscles were weak from the prolonged bed rest he had endured over the past three weeks and so he didn’t chivvy the boy on; he merely picked him up and gave him a piggy back ride, the youngster holding on tightly as Jess staggered on through the heat of the day, constantly offering Hannah encouragement.

Finally she too collapsed to her knees. “I can’t do it, Jess; I can’t go on,” she cried,  once more weeping silently.

“You can and you will. Now get up!” Jess growled angrily.

She stared at him with hurt eyes. “Jess?”

“Come on,” he said more mildly, taking her hand and hauling her up. Then he threw his arm around her waist, and almost supporting all her weight her, urged her on towards the shimmering horizon.

It was late afternoon when Jess finally saw the standing pines and knew the water was within their reach. “Come on,” he said softly, “nearly there and then we can take a break, bed down for the night. Come on, sweetheart, just a little further.”

At the endearment, her heart sang, and she moved forwards with renewed vigor, but it was nearly another two hours before they finally reached their destination, the shade of the pines balm to their weary souls and bodies.

Just beyond the pines was the promised water hole, and even at the height of summer, it was still full, fed by a small spring. The water was cool and fresh.

Mike slid down from Jess’s back and threw himself down by the edge; he started drinking his fill before Jess came over and pulled him gently away. “Take it easy, Tiger,” Jess said. “You’ll make yourself sick. Just a little for now, OK?”

The boy nodded, and then Hannah was there sipping the cool water and then washing it over her face, relief flooding through her.

Jess knelt down by the water, and when he had drunk some, he took off his bandana. After soaking it, he started to bathe the wound to the back of his head where he had been brutally coshed by the rifle.

Hannah was at once full of remorse. “Oh Jess, your poor head. Here, let me,” she said, taking the kerchief and tenderly cleaning the abrasion.

After a while, she pulled back and looked into his deep blue eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “All I could do was weep and wail while you must have been in such pain with this, but you still looked after us, got us here safely.” Her eyes brimmed with tears again at the thought of what he must have been going through.

“I’m OK,” Jess said softly.

She put out a tentative hand and caressed his cheek, then seemed to suddenly come to her senses. Blushing, she jumped up and started organizing Mike into fetching firewood.

Jess stared after her for a moment, a puzzled expression in his eyes before he just shook his head and went off in search of a rabbit for their supper.

The meal was very basic, cooked on a stick over the fire and no coffee, of course. Right then, Jess figured he’d have sold his soul to the devil for a good strong brew, preferably laced with a drop of Red Eye.

He had been sitting staring into the dying embers, and after a moment, he was aware that Hannah was scrutinizing him.

“What are you thinking of?” she asked softly.

Jess smiled to himself, thinking how much a minister’s daughter would disapprove of his current line of thought which had moved on from the desire for strong drink to the even greater sin — of having his best girl in his arms and making sweet love to her.

He coughed and looked embarrassed before collecting his wits and saying, “Just looking forward to getting home, I guess.”

“We will make it alright?” she whispered, casting him an anxious look.

“Sure, the worst part was today, I guess. It’ll be hard going, but I figure  we should make it by nightfall. The terrain is easier — more  tree cover, a couple of streams to cross. Sure we’ll be OK,” he said, turning his shy smile on her.

Her heart was beating so hard she thought he must surely hear it as she just nodded and looked away, afraid he would see her lustful thoughts in her eyes.

Over the last few hours, she had convinced herself that he had feelings for her. The way he had looked out for her, holding her so close, practically carrying her at one stage. Then there had been subtle little things, like the way he looked at her with a slightly bemused gaze, like he was maybe trying to come to terms with his feelings for her, or the right way to broach the subject she thought.

Maybe she should say something, she wondered, and not for the first time she cursed her lack of experience.

That was why she had asked him what he was thinking. He had been gazing down into the fire, his eyes so full of emotion, his lips curled as if in contemplation of something — or someone — very dear to him. Was he thinking of her, she wondered.

Then when he had looked so shy and embarrassed, she just knew she was right; he was falling in love with her and was too shy to say anything.

What should she do, she wondered. What would the heroine in one of her penny dreadful stories do? Why, get real close, of course. After all, Jess was a very passionate man — she knew that from  the little she had gleaned from his various relationships with the likes of Carrie and Suzy Morgan, although they tended to be somewhat circumspect with what they said around her, with her being the minister’s daughter.

However, she did recall one day when the girls were chatting quietly in the church hall before a Woman’s Group meeting, and unbeknown to them, Hannah had been making tea in the little kitchen just behind them and heard every word.

“The thing with Jess,” said Suzy with her infectious giggle, “is that when he kisses you, well, you sure know you’ve been kissed.”

Carrie made a mock swooning motion and grinned back at her friend. “I’ll say,” she agreed.

“Not just the kissing itself,” Suzy said thoughtfully, “but that thing he does, sort of cupping your face in those big hands of his, so tenderly, like you’re made of the finest porcelain and he doesn’t want to break you.”

“Yes,  but then  heck, he starts off that way, but then, well, I reckon he’s just so darn passionate… Gee, he just takes your breath away, the way he…”

But then the door was flung open by a particularly sanctimonious old widow woman and the conversation came to an abrupt halt, the girls giggling softly and trying not to catch each other’s eye as the elderly woman came and plonked herself down beside them.

Hannah was suddenly catapulted back to the present.

“I said you’ll be OK if I go and fetch some more wood for the fire?” said Jess, staring down with that same quizzical expression in his eyes.

“Sure,” she said smiling up at him. “Don’t be too long.”

When he returned, he looked down at where Mike was sleeping peacefully by the fire, wrapped in Jess’s frock coat.

The evening had turned decidedly chilly, and as Jess knelt down by the fire to replenish the wood, she saw him shiver, attired as he was now in just his thin shirt, and that gave her an idea.

“I guess we’d better turn in,” Jess said, turning to smile at her. “Got a real long day tomorrow.”

She nodded and got nearer to the fire; she lay down on  the piece of ground he had cleared and covered with some sand from under the trees to make it slightly softer, but he knew they would have  an uncomfortable, cold night.

Then he lay down nearby.

After a few minutes, Jess noticed that she was shaking. “You cold?” he whispered after a while.

“Freezing.”

Jess sighed deeply, unsure as how to deal with this latest problem, but as she continued to shake, he knew what he had to do. “Look, honey,” he said softly, “I figure you’re in danger of getting way too cold, so I’m gonna cuddle up to keep you warm. Is that OK?”

More than OK, she thought secretly.

 “Of course, yes, thank you,” Hannah whispered.

“You understand,” he said softly. “I’m not…well, you know… I’m not gettin’ fresh.” He wanted her to be absolutely sure on that account, remembering the conversation he had, had with her Pa before they left about her complete innocence as far as the opposite sex was concerned.

“Of course not; I know that.”

Jess smiled inwardly at her faith in  him and basic trust, which he knew he would never even think of abusing, and  so he gently cuddled up to her  back, taking her in his strong arms. After a while, he felt her gradually stop shaking as she warmed up a little.

She practically held her breath , willing her heart  to stop pounding, fearing he would hear it.

His strong arms encircled her, holding her close to his firm lithe body and she was overcome with waves of desire, yearning for him to reach down and kiss her, caress her, the way he had done with Carrie and Suzy, and countless others. She suddenly thought hopelessly: if she did get him, would she ever keep him?

Then she became aware of a change in him, and listening closely, she heard the quiet even rhythm of his breathing and suddenly realized he was sleeping.

Why  didn’t he make his move? Was he waiting for morning, or maybe when  they could be completely alone together? Of course, that would be it, she thought. He wouldn’t start anything with young Mike on the other side of the fire. Of course he wouldn’t.

*****

The following morning when she awoke, Jess was gone. Then she heard him over the other side of the camp talking softly to Mike; he looked over and smiled.

“‘Morning, sleepy head,” Jess said teasingly. “We’re just about ready to roll; need to get a start before the sun gets too hot.”

“Yes, yes of course,” she said, trying to see some light of passion in his eyes after the closeness of the night before, but he just seemed the same, kindly Jess. Her heart ached for some sign of his interest in her.

When they got to Cheyenne, she told herself, he’ll make some excuse to be alone with me then, tell me of his true feelings.

“OK then.” Jess asked, “Do you need to wash up before we go?” His tone was slightly impatient.

She just nodded and disappeared towards the water hole, leaving the two males smiling at her dreamy girlie behavior.

The final leg of the journey back to Cheyenne took them a long time and wasn’t without its difficulties.

Mike still found the travelling tiring, and after three or four hours of steady walking, he was just about done in again and Jess insisted in carrying him.

Then Hannah was sick. Jess wasn’t sure if it was the less than digestible rabbit from the night before, but whatever the cause, she was really ill and they had to slow their pace. At one stage, Jess was thinking they would have to just give up and spend another night on the plain.

However, she rallied after stopping at a stream to rest a while and drink the sparkling water; they persevered and finally made it into town just as dusk was falling.

Jess made straight for Doc Meres place, the good doctor having fixed him up on several occasion and was now considered as an old friend.

The doctor’s housekeeper gave a little cry of shock when she saw Jess with his three days of beard dark against his pale face and pain-filled eyes, and then she looked down at young Mike, asleep in his arms, and finally at the pretty young lady looking white as a sheet and fit to drop. She ushered them all in before going to fetch the doctor.

Jess explained what had happened and Doc Meres immediately took control of the situation, showing Mike and Hannah to the small hospital suite where they could bathe and then be tucked up in bed before his housekeeper brought them supper.

Once they had been taken off by his housekeeper, the doctor turned concerned eyes on his friend. “So how about you, Jess? You look pretty sick yourself. If you’re in need of a billet for the night, you can have the sofa in here,” he said smiling.

“No,  I’m fine, thanks, Doc,” Jess said quickly. “Got business with the Sheriff and then I’ll book into that new boarding house across the street, but I truly thank you for looking out for the others. That’s the new minister’s daughter, you know,” he confided, “and I’m kinda responsible for her. Getting’ something of a burden too,” he said honestly, “and young Mike just getting over that operation, well, I figure they’re both in need of some lovin’ care.”

“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” laughed the doctor. “You know what a softy my Mrs. Briggs is; she’ll spoil them something rotten. You just pop back tomorrow and we’ll see how they are, OK?”

“Thanks, doc, I owe you,” Jess said with a cheerful grin before leaving and striding down the street to the Sheriff’s office.

He marched into Doug Master’s office just as the sheriff was thinking of calling it a day, but the sheriff’s face lit up when he saw who had barged in at this late hour. He jumped up from his desk, grinning at the young cowboy.

“Why, Jess Harper! What brings you to this neck of the woods. Not trouble, I hope,” he said, his face sobering as he knew what a magnet for trouble the young man was.

Jess shook the offered hand and then sank down in the seat opposite the sheriff’s desk and tipped his hat back. “Well, kinda, Doug. You missin’ a stage?”

The Sheriff sat back down in  his own seat. “Well, funny you should say that,” he said. “Got my deputy out looking  for it as we speak. Over  a day late; thought they might have had a horse go lame, or come off the road.”

“Oh  it’s come off the road alright,” said Jess with irony. “Come off about thirty odd miles off track and sitting at the bottom of a ravine.”

The Sheriff gave a low whistle. “And Charlie?”

“Dead. We were held up, Doug; gang of three mean lookin’ hombres. Took the cash, shot Charlie, ditched the stage and then left us afoot.”

“Us?”

“Me and the minister’s daughter and young Mike, on our way back from Denver.”

Doug nodded. “Any idea where they were heading?”

Jess nodded. “They said the border, but they sure weren’t heading that way. Figure they’ll hole up in the mountain foothills just south of Scott’s Bluff; the whole place is riddled with caves and they’ve got the river for fresh water and fishin’. Yeah, I reckon that’s where we’ll find ‘em.”

We? So you’ll ride posse with me then?” asked the Sheriff, looking pleased.

“Sure. Ain’t gonna let those bastards get away with leaving a woman and kid afoot in the middle of nowhere, am I?” Jess said angrily. “Not to mention doing for poor old Charlie.”

“Sure you’re up to it, buddy? You’re looking kinda beat.”

“Oh, I’m up to it alright,” said Jess, the light of battle in his deep blue eyes. Then he hauled himself out of the chair. “Figure I’ll get me a good night’s sleep first though, Doug.” Grinning at his friend, he left for the new boarding house that he had noticed as he rode in.

Jess marched down the street and knocked at the door of the freshly painted, wholesome looking house offering clean rooms, bed, breakfast and hot tub at very reasonable rates.

After a moment the door was opened by…Millie.

Jess just stared at her his mouth agape, and then after a moment, he said, “What in hell are you doin’ here?”

“Well, what are you doing here?” Millie replied, beaming. “You’re in Denver.”

“Not any more I ain’t,” Jess said, grinning broadly, and then she was in his arms and he was holding her so tightly she thought he would never let her go again. Just as she had that thought, he released her and cupped her beautiful face between his big hands and kissed her, at first very tenderly and then with more passion.

After a few minutes, Millie pulled gently away, and casting a glance up and down the street, grabbed hold of him by the arm and pulled him inside, closing the door behind him. “You’ll have my reputation shot,” she said, laughing up into his twinkling blue eyes.

“So is this your place then, Millie?” Jess said, glancing around the smart comfortable lobby. Then turning anxious eyes on her, he asked, “Please tell me you ain’t moved down here permanently?”

She gave him a slow smile. “So would that matter to you? “

He threw her a hurt look. “Sure it would. Hell, you know it would, Mill.”

Millie suddenly felt terrible for teasing him; something about his whole demeanor was somehow very vulnerable and she at once took pity on him. “I’m sorry, honey; just teasing. No, this is my Ma’s new place. She and my auntie Betty have gone into business together. Just opened this week. I’ve been helping her out, but old Tom won’t keep my job open forever, so I’d figured on going home next week.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief. “Me too,” he said quietly. “Just got some business to attend to first.”

But before he could explain more, Millie’s Ma was there, throwing her arms around him and giving him a big hug and then chivvying  him off to the hot tub while she prepared him a huge meal, declaring that he was way too skinny and looked kind of peaky. Jess went off grinning to himself and thinking how like Daisy she could be.

It was much later, after Millie’s Ma and old aunt had retired for the night and they were sitting having a final coffee, that Jess was able to tell Millie everything that had happened since he saw her last.

She was very shocked to hear of the stage being hijacked and asked after Hannah and Mike. “They must come and stay here while you are charging off trailing those outlaws,” she said. Then turning troubled eyes on her good friend, she said, “Oh Jess, do you really have to ride posse? Can’t you leave it to the Sheriff? Ma is right; you don’t look too well.”

“I’m OK and besides I owe it to old Charlie’s memory. He didn’t deserve  to die that way, Mill, and I guess he was trying to protect us. No, it’s something I have to do.”

She turned to argue, but then seeing how exhausted he looked, she changed her mind.

“So you gotta a room I can rent then?” Jess asked after a while, giving her a cheeky wink.

“Well I guess, but we’re kind of busy. Figure you’ll have to share,” Millie said with a mischievous sparkle in her eye.

“I reckon I could put up with that,” Jess replied, now openly grinning at her. Then after a moment, he asked, “What will your Ma think, though?”

Millie stood up, and reaching down, grabbed his hands and hauled him up. “Oh I figure Ma will turn a blind eye,” she said laughing. “She thinks you’re kind of cute too.”

“She does?” Jess  said chuckling as he threw an arm round his girl and they went off to bed.

*****

The next day, Jess was up at first light and already dressed by the time Millie’s big brown eyes finally flickered open.

He went over and sat down on the edge of the bed. “Morning, sweetheart. You OK?” he asked, caressing her cheek tenderly.

“Sure; just wish you weren’t riding out today.”

“Gotta be done,” Jess said, casting her a rueful look. “You know that, Mill.”

“I guess.” Then Millie looked at him with his shirt still unbuttoned, and sneaking a hand onto his naked chest, she gently stroked the scar where he had been knifed. “It’s hardly surprising I worry,” she said looking down at the healing wound. “The amount of trouble you get into.”

“Yeah, well…” Jess said, and gently removing her hand, started buttoning the blue work shirt up. “Thanks for this,” he said, referring to the shirt and denims he was wearing, needing to change the subject. Also her gentle caress had suddenly lessened his resolve of making an early start and he felt he had to make a move before he changed his mind and got back into bed.

Millie had slipped out to the haberdashers the night before and provided the new clothes, knowing that all his stuff had gone over the ravine along with the stage. “That’s OK,” she said with a mischievous grin. “After all, we can’t have you riding posse in your best duds.”

“Why not?” he said, looking sorrowfully at the state of his Sunday best clothes. His prized frock coat was filthy after having been used as a blanket by Mike out on  the trail, and his smart trousers also looked dusty. “Seems like I’ve hiked halfway across Wyoming in them.”

She grinned at this. “I guess your white shirt could do with a scrub too. Don’t worry; I’ll fix everything up for you while you’re away so you can land back in Laramie in style.”

Jess leaned forwards and kissed her very tenderly. “What would I do without you?”

Mille just grinned up at him. “Off you go, and I’ll book us all seats on the stage while you’re away.”

“And you’ll see Hannah and Mike for me? Guess it’s a mite early to go calling.”

“Sure.” Leaning up, Millie kissed him softly. “Go on,” she whispered, “before you change your mind.”

Jess threw her a regretful look, and then pulling his hat down hard, he strode off to face what the new day would throw at him.

*****

They caught up with the gang’s tracks near Scott’s Bluff, as Jess had predicted, and then the outlaws appeared to have split up. So the posse of six men split up too, heading in different directions, Jess riding with the Sheriff. The two made their way cautiously up towards the foothills, knowing full well that their approach would probably be seen before they managed to spy their quarry. They were not wrong.

They were a few yards away from a canyon splitting the mountain range when the first shot whistled passed them, and both men dove from  their mounts and rolled, finding some cover behind some scrubby  bushes.

Another shot rang out and then another from a different location. The men suddenly realized they had been  duped. The rest of the posse had gone off on a wild goose chase following a false trail and all the gang  members were holed up together here.

“Divide and rule,” muttered the Sheriff. “Oldest trick in the book. They figure if they split us up, they can  get the upper hand.”

“Yeah, but not by much. They’re still only three against two,” said Jess. “Had worse odds.”

“I don’t like it,” said the Sheriff. “You do know who we’re up against, don’t you, Jess?”

Jess raised a questioning eyebrow. “No. Who?”

“Only Jake Wells and his brothers,  probably one of the most notorious gangs to work out of Mexico.”

Jess gave a low whistle. “Yeah, I’ve heard old Jake is pretty darned fast with a gun,” he mused.

“Fast, accurate and a convicted murderer. Got one hell of a price on his head. That’s why I figure he killed old Charlie so easily. Guess you can’t hang twice,” said the Sheriff with irony.

At the mention of Charlie, Jess was immediately infuriated, just wanting to get justice for the old timer.

“Maybe we should head back and pick up the rest of the posse,” said the Sheriff thoughtfully as yet another bullet zinged past his ear.

“You’re kiddin’. They’ll hightail it into those caves and we’ll never find ‘em. No, Doug, you keep ‘em busy while I circle around behind.”

The Sheriff looked like he would pull rank, but then seeing the resolve in his buddy’s eyes reluctantly agreed.

Sheriff Masters let off a volley of shots as Jess broke cover and ran full pelt to some nearby rocks and then back to make the full circle behind the enemy.

His ploy paid off and he was able to down two of the men easily, but then there was a stand-off with the gang leader Jake Wells.

They had been  exchanging rifle fire and then both men seemed to run out of ammunition at the same time. After a few minutes, Wells stuck his head up above the rocks and yelled, “You done with that rifle then, cowboy?”

“Yeah, I guess. You?”

“Yes. So how about you and me finishing this off with a nice civilized gunfight?” Wells shouted.

Jess considered this notion, and never  one to back down from a fair fight, he agreed.

Both men threw their rifles out and advance with their hand guns still holstered.

Once out in the open, Wells appraised his adversary. “Oh so it’s you, the guy from the stage. So you got to town in one piece then.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you,” said Jess gruffly.

“Um, so the little lady and  the kid OK?”

“They are; more than I can say about old Charlie the driver, though.”

“He was a friend of yours?”

“Yeah, he was. I work for the Overland; knew him real well.”

“I see.” Then Wells’ eyes narrowed. “So who am I gonna have the pleasure of killing then?”

Jess gave him a cruel smile. “Well, I’ll tell you, Mister Wells, the names Harper, Jess Harper. And all the pleasure in killin’ is gonna be mine, I can promise you that.”

Jake Well’s eyes opened wide in shock. “Harper, from the Texas panhandle?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“Uh…you have a certain reputation of being a fast gun, Mister Harper.”

Jess threw him a scornful look. “I figure you thought it would be the easy way out, calling out some dumb guy riding posse,” he said bitterly.

Jake looked thoughtful. ”Yeah, well maybe I did, but could be to your advantage Harper. There’s one heck of a bounty on my head, you know.”

Jess just sighed. “If you wanna do this, then draw, Wells. I ain’t in it for the money.”

The older man’s hand hovered above his gun and then in the blink of an eye he drew, but Jess was the fraction of a second faster and his bullet hit Wells in the chest. The outlaw slumped to the ground.

Jess ran over and knelt by the big man, whose eyes were open wide in shock.

“Guess I made a bad call there,” Wells whispered. “You were a mite faster after all.” With that, he breathed his last.

“Never gamble if you ain’t sure of the odds,” Jess whispered, looking down at the dead man and shaking his head sadly.

Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and he was looking up into the kindly eyes of Sheriff Masters.

“Well done, Jess. I figure you got the odds just about right on this one. Glad I listened to you.” Then patting him on the back, the Sheriff said softly, “Come on; let’s round up that posse and go home, son.”

*****

At about the same time as the shoot-out, Millie was making her way over to the doctor’s house to invite Hannah and Mike to stay with her until Jess was ready to  travel back home.

Hannah had been waiting patiently for Jess’s arrival and knew nothing of his decision to ride with the posse. So it came as a huge shock when Millie was shown up to her room with the news that Jess had ridden out first thing that morning on a mission to catch the perpetrators of the stage crime.

“Couldn’t you have stopped him?” Hannah cried looking at  Millie in despair. “He’s not been at all well, you know”.

Millie sank down  on the edge of the bed and gave the young woman a sad smile. “Well, sure I tried, but you know Jess. Once he makes his mind up, well…” Then she looked more closely at the Minister’s daughter, and  seeing she was genuinely upset, smiled kindly at her and took her hand. “Don’t fret; he’ll be OK.”

Millie didn’t know the girl too well, only having met her at a few of the Women’s Group meetings where she had appeared quite shy, and so now she aimed to try and make amends. “Jess has asked me to fetch you and Mike. You’re to stay over at our boarding house until he gets back.”

Hannah’s head shot up. “He stayed there last night?”

Millie flushed a little, knowing how her and Jess’s close relationship might well be frowned upon by the Reverend’s daughter, and just agreed that yes, he had stayed there, along with her Ma and Aunt.

Hannah seemed to relax a little at that and then Millie went off to get Mike up while Hannah washed and dressed.

Then Hannah sat staring out of the window at the street below wondering when Jess would return. Why hadn’t he come and told her himself, she wondered. Millie had said that he left  at first light, so he must have seen Millie before he left. Then why not come and visit her, Hannah? She had hardly slept a wink all night for thinking of him — reliving the night before when he had held her in his strong  arms, remembering every look, every touch  over the last few days, and building it all up into some fairy tale that bore no relation to reality. Kindness and courtesy were suddenly transformed into expressions of his love for her.

Yes, he would profess his true feelings as soon as he was back from his mission, she decided. And then there was a soft knock at  the door and Millie was back to escort her across the road.

“This is really good of you,” said Hannah once she and Mike were sitting  around the dining table with milk and cookies.

“Well, Jess said I was to look out for you especially,” Millie said, grinning at her new friend. “He worries about you, you know.”

This was the truth of it as he had confided the night before how looking after Hannah had been weighing him  down and about the conversation he had had with her Pa before they left on the trip.

“She’s so darned innocent, Mill, that she’s a liability. I haven’t  been able  to relax the whole time, worrying something will happen to her. Geez, I’ll be glad to turn her over to her Pa,” he had said with feeling, remembering the attack she had suffered at the hands of the drunks at the livery, not to mention the horrific stage robbery.

Now Hannah just took this to be another sign of his devotion and her eyes sparkled. “He’s so sweet,” she whispered.

Mike and Millie exchanged a glance and rolled their eyes, but said nothing.

Then sometime later Millie offered to show Hannah up to her room so she could freshen up before lunch.

As they walked along the corridor the door, to the room at the very end was open and Hannah could see Jess’s frock coat hanging up. Assuming that was his room, she said, “Oh, he’s left his jacket in his room. What’s he wearing Millie? All his stuff was lost?”

“No that’s my room,” said Millie without thinking,  then flushing looked down. “I…er…I offered to clean his jacket,” she said, “and he’s got a change of clothes.” Then quickly changing the subject, she threw a door open and entered a bright cheerful room. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here,” she said quickly.

Hannah’s face looked like she’d  be anything but, although she quickly hid her emotions and thanked Millie, saying it would be just perfect.

“Good, I’ll leave you to settle then,” said Millie quickly and scuttled off to attend to lunch, cursing herself for being less than diplomatic.

Hannah threw herself down on the bed and thought she might very well weep.

Had he stayed the night with Millie?

Surely not. How could he, the way he had been with her?

Then she remembered when she had been at the ranch helping Daisy with her sewing and the elderly lady looking across and saying, “Do you know Millie Johnson, Jess’s girl?” Jess’s girl. No, she screamed inwardly; that was all over and done with. It had to be…it just had to be!

*****

Meanwhile, Jess was making his innocent way back to town with the rest of the posse, tired but triumphant at the outcome of the day’s work.

He called in at the Sheriff’s office to write up his statement, but then turned down a celebratory drink, saying he had people to see.

“And would they be of the female persuasion then, Jess?” asked the Sheriff winking.

Jess grinned back. “Might just  very well be, yes, Sheriff.”

Doug Master’s smiled back. “I saw Millie was in town helping  her Ma set up the new business and figured you’d be missing her.”

“Something  fierce,” Jess nodded. “Been out in Denver over three weeks and can’t wait to get home,” he said honestly. “I figure we’ll use the tickets Millie’s got on the first stage out tomorrow.”

“Oh well, if that’s the case, you’d better have this now,” said the Sheriff and wandering over to the office safe. He returned a little later with a bulky envelope and threw it over to his buddy.

Jess looked puzzled. “What’s this, Doug?”

“The bounty on Jake Wells head, and quite a substantial amount too Jess.”

“I can’t take this,” said Jess, looking scandalized. “You know what I think of bounty hunters.”

“Well, that’s as may be, son, but you earned it fair and square. Gunned him down in a fair fight and so it’s yours.” Then seeing the look in the young man’s’ eyes, the Sheriff said, “Hell, Jess, give it to the orphanage if you must, but it’s yours and I need you to sign for it.”

Jess went over to the desk and signed the chit and then pushed the envelope into his vest pocket. “I can’t pretend we don’t need it,” he said honestly. “Hell, I couldn’t even afford the doctor’s fees when I was laid up in Denver.”

“Well, there you are then; you can settle up.”

Jess cast his mind back to his parting with the Scotts and just knew they would be deeply offended if he was to throw their kind gesture back in their faces. “No,” he said. “I figure they kinda wanted to treat me, but…” He made a decision. “Things  are real difficult at the Ranch and Relay right now, so I will use half of it. But the rest goes to old Charlie’s widow.”

The Sheriff smiled over at his friend. “Good call, Jess,” he said, shaking his friend’s hand. “Safe journey and try and keep out of trouble,” he said with a rueful laugh.

“You bet!” With that, Jess was gone.

Jess marched back to the boarding house and Millie answered the door as she had done previously. She hurled herself into his arms. “Thank goodness,” she whispered.

Jess hugged her and then moved in for a deep passionate kiss, but after a moment, he felt eyes on him. Pulling away, he saw Mike’s scandalized face.

“Yuk,” Mike said. “That’s so yucky, all that kissin’ you an’ Millie are always doin’.”

Jess grinned down at his little buddy. “We ain’t always doin’ it and, anyways, it ain’t yucky,” he said reaching over and ruffling the boys blond hair.

The child smiled back up at his guardian. “Gee, I’m glad you’re back, Jess.” He ran into Jess’ arms and the young cowboy hugged him tightly.

“Sure good to be back, Tiger,” Jess said softly.

The Millie’s Ma bustled in. “Oh Jess, I’m glad you’re back,” she said serenely. “Go and wash up, dear; supper’s almost ready.”

Jess and Millie exchanged a smile at her mother’s typically unruffled attitude, acting like Jess had just been out for a walk, instead of apprehending dangerous outlaws.

Then Mike was dispatched to tell Hannah to come down for supper as she had been in her room since lunch, pleading a slight headache.

However, Mike returned a minute later, saying she wasn’t in her room or the bathroom. A thorough search of the large house ensued, but it was soon obvious that she had vanished without trace.

Jess cussed softly. “Where the heck could she be?” he asked, turning anxious eyes on Millie.

“I can’t think. It’s not as though she knows anyone in town to go visiting. And why would she just take off without saying anything anyway?”

Jess just shook his head, looking puzzled. “I dunno.” Then he looked thoughtful. “Was she OK? I mean…did you have words or anything? You know, say I was sick of lookin’ out for her or something? She’s kinda sensitive, you know, easy upset.”

Millie shook her head. “No, I did say you worried about her but she took it as a compliment.”

“Said you were sweet,” said Mike, making a gagging gesture.

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile and then said, “Hey Tiger, just go and check out the back yard, will you? She may just have gone out for some air.”

“I already looked, Jess.”

“Well,  try again,” Jess said, giving the lad a firm look, and Mike went off, dragging his heels.

As soon as Mike was out of earshot, Jess turned troubled eyes on Millie. “Does she know about us?”

“Huh?”

“Where I slept last night,” he said urgently.

Millie flushed. “Well, I’m not sure. She may have guessed, yes. She saw your jacket hanging up in my room, all your stuff in there too — and she did go kinda quiet after that.”

Jess looked down, shaking his head. “Well, that will be it, I guess. She figures she can’t stay under the same roof if we’re committing a sin.”

“But it’s none of her business! What’s it to her anyway?” said Millie, now feeling a mite miffed.

“Well, I figure it’s just the way she’s been brought up and she doesn’t really understand about all that stuff. I guess she just follows the Bible and what she’s been taught, and so in her eyes, we’re really wicked.”

“So what would she do? “

“I dunno. Maybe she’s gone to stay someplace else.”

“Like where? You know this town, Jess; good decent boarding houses are pretty thin on the ground. She could get into all sorts of trouble booking into one of those cheap places. Heck, some of them are no better than whore houses.”

He sighed deeply. “Well, I’d better get lookin’ then, hadn’t I?”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No you won’t. I don’t want you wandering the streets any more than Hannah. It’s Saturday night, Mill, and the town will be full of drunks before too long. No, you just stay here in case she comes back.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Hell, this ain’t your fault. Just keep safe, sweetheart, and I’ll be back as soon as I can. Mike, look after the ladies, OK, buddy?” Jess said to the youngster, who had wandered back in.

“Sure, Jess, you can rely on me,” said the boy proudly. Then he asked, looking concerned, “You will find Miss Hannah, won’t you Jess?”

“Sure, buddy,” Jess replied, and pulling his hat down hard, made for the door, cursing this latest turn of events.

 What would turn out to be one of the longest nights of his life then followed.

Jess made his way from one boarding house to another, some of them reasonably smart and others just glorified brothels as Millie had said, but there was no sign of Hannah.

As the evening wore on, the streets were teeming with drunks — some happy and others spoiling for a fight — and Jess had to sidestep several near fights as he made his way through the town.

Feeling as he did, Jess thought a good fist fight might dissipate some of his anxiety and anger, but he knew he couldn’t run the risk of ending up hurt, or worse, banged up in Doug’s jail for brawling.

He did indeed think of enlisting the help of the Sheriff and then he remembered that it was his night off and he was out of town. Jess figured his deputy would have his work cut out dealing with the usual Saturday night fracas without adding hunting for a hapless young woman to his work load.

Jess was practically despairing as he wandered from one place to another, and as it got increasingly late, some people refused to come to the door and others cussed him for waking them, but all he could do was continue his search, refusing to go home without her. The words he had spoken to her Pa before they left were constantly running around his brain. ‘I’ll look out for her like she was my own daughter.’ And he had failed miserably. If anything had happened to her, how could he ever face Joshua, he thought grimly, as he continued pacing through the night, his fears mounting by the minute.

It must have been the small hours of the morning when he finally sat down on a bench on the sidewalk and put his head in his hands, almost ready to admit defeat. Maybe she had just gone out to let off some steam and she was now at home in bed, but somehow he thought not.

He had wandered right to the edge of the town now and it was deathly silent, all the revelers having returned home or were tucked up in the town jail. Jess shuddered with a mixture of cold and apprehension. He finally raised his head from his hands and stared bleakly into space. What was he to do?

*****

After Millie had left her, Hannah had indeed wept and it was with a tremendous effort that she returned downstairs for lunch, and then afterwards she said she had a headache and scurried back to her room.

“That young lady isn’t right,” said Millie’s Ma perceptively. “Not a happy girl at all. You mark my words, Mill; she’s in a real state over something.”

Millie had felt worried and went and tapped on Hannah’s door, but when there was no answer, she assumed Hannah was napping and went off with her mother and  aunt to do the Saturday afternoon marketing, taking Mike along to treat him to some sweets.

As soon as she heard the front door bang behind them, Hannah knew what she must do. She had to get away; the thought of seeing Jess and Millie together suddenly too much for her to bear.

Hannah quickly pulled on her coat and hat and taking her handbag and small amount of cash, ran from the house and down the road towards the center of town.

She tried several respectable looking guest houses before she realized that her funds would not pay for even one night, and so she started approaching the more down-at-heel establishments, but when she saw the other clientele, who were obviously unsavory, she backed away and made her excuses.

At one place, a seedy looking man in his filthy undershirt answered the door, and leering at her, tried to pull her inside. The whiskey on his breath made her  gag and she  had struggled and ran away crying, not stopping until she was several streets away.

By this time, it was very late and the drunks were starting to take to the streets. She was truly terrified and she decided to swallow her pride and return to the boarding house. Then she realized she was completely lost, all the streets looking completely different in the dark.

It was when she was standing on the sidewalk hesitating, unsure as to which street to take that the man advanced on her.

He was smartly dressed and stopped and smiled at her when she seemed distressed. “Are you quite alright, Miss?” he said solicitously.

She peered over at the smart well-spoken gentleman and decided to ask for his help.

“Ah yes, I know the place. Come with me, my dear; I shall deliver you home,” he said cheerfully.

They had been walking for quite some time when she realized that they were nowhere near the boarding house; in fact, they seemed to be heading for the outskirts of town. Then before she could say anything, they came to an abrupt halt.

He had hold of her elbow, and now his grip tightened as he took a key out and started to unlock a door in a scruffy looking house just off the sidewalk.

“Where is this place?” she ventured. “It’s not Ma Johnson’s.”

“No, my dear. I thought we’d just drop in at my place for a nightcap.”

“No,” she said firmly. “No thank you. I am expected back home; I have to go.”

“Oh no, I think not, dear,” he sneered. “You’re coming in with me and I’ll show you a real good time.” He made to kiss her.

She shrank back and screamed, but by now the streets in this part of town were deserted and there was nobody to hear her. Then he tried to pull her inside and somehow she found the strength to drag free. Kicking him hard on the shins, she pelted off down the street.

He had cussed in anger and pain and sprinted off after her, and she could hear his ragged breathing as he advanced upon her.

She was suddenly aware that there was a large dark building just beside her, surrounded by a low wall, and then there was a gateway. She ran through and into an open porch and stood there in the shadows, shaking as the man flew passed and on down the street calling out to her.

Hannah breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back and then felt something cold and hard in her back. She turned and saw it was a door handle. Very carefully, she turned it and a large door swung open. She found herself looking into the dimly lit interior of a huge church.

Hannah crept in and closed the door behind her before advancing down the central aisle towards the altar, where she fell to her knees crying hysterically.

After a long time, she finally gained control and then knelt there and prayed for her salvation before finally dragging herself over to one of the pews. She began to try and make sense of what had been happening to her.

Why had she done it? Why had she run away? To make Jess worried, came the honest answer.

‘He worries about you,’ Millie had said. Well surely that was a sign that he cared about her, loved her.

All the things he had done for her, cared for her when they had been left afoot. And before that, he had needed her, hadn’t he. He had lain in her arms after that nightmare, needing her closeness, and when Mike had been so ill, he had needed her then too. Yes, there was a strong bond between them, and as he searched for her now, he would realize how strong that bond was, how important she had become to him. Of course he would.

*****

Jess was still staring bleakly in front of him when it started to drizzle and he could have wept. He was weary, cold, desperately worried, and now he was going to get soaked too, he thought morosely. Could it get much worse?

As the sky started to lighten a little in the East, he realized that the huge building in front of him was a church.

Later, if he was brutally honest, he would say that he got up and wandered over and entered more to get in out of the rain than to pray, but then he thought a few prayers might not go amiss anyway.

Jess entered quietly and went and sat on the back pew; he bent his head in silent prayer.

After a while, he sat up and looked up the aisle to the altar. As his eyes got used to the dim light, he could just see someone kneeling in prayer on the altar steps.

Jess stood up to go, feeling he was intruding, but then something made him glance back. The candlelight from the altar illuminated a blond curly head bent in prayer.

Jess slowly advance down the aisle and then  stood transfixed. “Hannah,” he whispered, then more loudly, “Hannah?”

She turned and then stood up slowly, her eyes wide in shock. Then she gave a joyful little cry, “Oh Jess,” and threw herself into his open arms.

He held her tightly, feeling her heart beating so fast he thought  it might burst. He eventually pushed her away and gazed into her eyes, brimming with tears. “Why?” he asked dangerously quietly. When she didn’t respond, he said more loudly, “Why did you do this to me, Hannah?”

Her lip quivered at his sharp tone. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

He just stared at her agape, his eyes suddenly turning dark with anger. “Oh yes you did,” Jess spat. “I think that’s exactly what you wanted to do. You wanted me to suffer, didn’t you?”

She just looked down now, unable to meet his angry gaze. Hannah had witnessed the Harper temper in full flow once before, when the men had attacked her at the livery, but never had it been directed at her before and it truly terrified her.

“Well?” Jess shouted, now completely losing it, his angry voice echoing around the silent holy building, his fists clenched by his side and his eyes flashing almost black.

He was shaking, whether from cold or emotion Hannah couldn’t tell, but the whole spectacle was very frightening. She suddenly realized she had been playing with fire, trifling with his emotions, trying to make him care for her by duplicity and silly childish schemes, and she felt deeply penitent.

“I’m sorry,” she just whispered again.

Jess sighed deeply. “This is all about me and Millie, ain’t it? You ran off that way to make a point, maybe even to censure our behavior, is that it?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you do. You know Millie and I shared her bed last night and you disapprove and so you thought you’d punish me. Well, I can tell you it worked pretty good,” Jess spat, “because yes, I’ve  been worried.” Then he advanced on her and grabbed hold of her shoulders; she was forced to look up into his face, the pain and anguish there stabbing her heart like a knife. “I’ve been worried sick, spent the whole night long searching  for you, thinking you were lost maybe, in trouble, been attacked. Hell, been raped and left for dead.”

Jess took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing. “If anything had happened to you, it would have been all down to me, Hannah, because I promised your Pa I’d keep you safe. I promised him,” he yelled, his voice breaking as he turned away from her and thumped a fist down on the pew beside him.

“No,” Hannah screamed back, running to him. Grabbing hold of his arm, she dragged him around to face her. “None of this was your fault. It was me — all down to me — and I truly am sorry for what I put you through. It’s just…”

Jess stared down at her and took another deep breath, desperately trying to calm himself. After a moment, he said softly, “Just what, Hannah?”

“You’re right,” she finally whispered. “It was all about you and Millie and I just couldn’t bear to be under the same roof as the pair of you knowing…knowing how you are together.”

Jess sighed deeply again and then saw that she was shivering. He pulled off his jacket and put it around her shoulders before taking her hand and leading her over to the  front pew where she sat, and after a moment, he sat down beside her.

He stared at the golden cross illuminated by the altar candles for a good minute before he turned to gaze at her. “We need to talk,” he said softly.

Jess still held her tiny hand, and looking down at it nestling in his large one, he tried to find the words.

“You see ,I love Millie,” he started. “We’ve  been real good friends — no, best friends — for as long  as I can remember; gone around together and yes,” he said looking her in the eye, “I share her bed sometimes. We figure, well, that’s nobody’s business other than ours. It’s private, Hannah.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but he put a hand up. “Let me finish. I have to try and make you understand. Like I said, I love Millie; she means the world to me. And one day we might even make a go of things, but right now we’re happy the way he are — both of us. I’d never force her to do  anything she didn’t want to.”

“I never said… I never thought you would,” Hannah whispered.

Jess looked down, flushing a little. “You see, the truth of the matter is when  two people feel that way, are that close, well, they need to — have to — express it in physical love. I know…well, I know your church teachings say it’s wrong, that we should wait until we’re wed.”

He sighed again. “But I figure that’s down to me and Millie to make that decision, and I reckon I’ll answer to my Maker when the time comes.” Then turning his sad gaze back towards the cross on the altar, he said very quietly, “I just hope He don’t judge me too harshly.”

“Jess,” Hannah said quietly, “you don’t understand; you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t judge your relationship. It’s just that…” She turned to look him in the eye, tears threatening again.

She took a deep breath. “It’s just that I couldn’t bear to be under the same roof as the two of you because I was jealous — I am jealous — because I want you for myself. Jess, can’t you see that? I love you,” Hannah whispered, before she dissolved into tears.

He pulled his hand away and just stared at her in shocked disbelief. “What?” Jess whispered. “What you sayin’?”

“Don’t,” she sobbed. “Don’t make me say it again. I feel foolish enough as it is.”

Jess looked down shaking his head before looking back at her. “Why?” he whispered. “I never gave you cause to think that I was interested that way. I never led you on…did I?”

When she didn’t answer, Jess turned to her and put a finger under her chin so she was forced to look into his deeply concerned eyes. “Did I?” he asked again.

Hannah shook her head. “No, but you’ve been so kind so thoughtful…the way you’ve looked after me, everything you’ve done.”

“Well sure,” Jess said. “I was just lookin’ out for you, like I promised your Pa — just bein’ polite, like I would have been with any female. Of course I’ve looked after you properly.”

Hannah just shook her head. “I’m so sorry; I guess I’ve read more into what you’ve done than was really there.” Then she turned to look him in the eye again “But I do love you.”

He shook his head. “No, no you don’t. You don’t even know me.”

“I do! I…”

He just shook his head again and threw her a hard look. “I killed three men yesterday.”

Her head shot up and she looked profoundly shocked before recovering and her chin up she said, “Well then, they were probably up to no good, outlaws or something.”

“So, thou shalt not kill — it’s got reservations on it, has it? Yeah, it’s OK if they’re outlaws?”

She just looked confused.

“And that ain’t the only one I’ve broken,” he said honestly. “Like I say, I’ll answer to the Good Lord one day, but in the meantime, I guess I’ll just try and get through life the best I can. But believe me, honey, my best wouldn’t be anywhere near good enough for you or your kin.”

She opened her mouth to deny that, but he just shook his head again.

“And what’s more, I’m spoken for right now. I may be a lot of things but I ain’t no two-timer and I’m with Millie, you know that.”

At that, Hannah finally broke down weeping again and Jess looked on, feeling helpless. Then he took her hand again. “Hannah, sweetheart, don’t take on so, please. I’m honored, truly honored, you should feel this way, but it ain’t real, honey. It just ain’t and you have to see that.”

Hannah was silent for a long time, and then sniffing, she gave him a watery smile. “I guess I’ll try.”

“Come on then,” Jess said softly, “let’s get home. I figure they’ll all be real worried about us.”

She nodded and rose; then Jess threw her a speculative look. “Hey, just a minute. All those gifts I kept getting, were they…?”

Hannah nodded. “Yes, I just wanted to make you happy,” she whispered.

“Well, you know what would make me really happy?” Jess asked.

She shook her head.

“To see you settled with a nice young man that’s more worthy of you. For you to be happy and a credit to your Pa.”

“But you’re worthy….” Hannah started to say.

Jess tipped his hat back and just shook his head, giving her the sort of firm look he always used to bring Mike into line. She smiled again, properly this time.

“OK,” Hannah whispered, “I’ll behave. Let’s go home.”

**********

Epilogue

They travelled back to Laramie the following day, Jess thankfully relinquished Hannah back into the bosom of her family.

He never breathed a word of what had passed between them in the church that night, to a living soul and he was nothing but kind and patient whenever their paths crossed.

Joshua took Jess’s advice of ensuring his daughter started to socialize more, and within a couple of months, she had met a personable young man at one of the church socials; he was training to be a teacher and  a perfect partner for her.

Mike’s operation was a complete success, and after his  crush on Miss Hannah, he got over her and made friends with a cute little girl in his class called Ginny. Then  Slim and Jess decided they must finally  toss the coin and fill the youngster in on the ‘ birds and bees’. As it turned out, Mike was considerably less self-conscious about the whole business than Slim, who had lost the spin of the coin and had to explain everything to the youngster.

Jess had visited old Charlie’s widow and given her half the bounty money. She was forever grateful, singing Jess’s praises until the day she died, many years later, having had a comfortable life thanks to the young cowboy’s kindness.

*****

Then later that summer, something strange happened. The little gifts for Jess started arriving again.

Daisy came home from the Women’s Group with a little brown paper parcel with Jess’s name on it and she passed it over to him after supper.

“What’s this Daisy?” Jess asked raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“I don’t know, dear; I’ve just found it in my basket. it certainly wasn’t there when I left this afternoon for my group.”

Jess and Slim exchanged a look, and then the dark haired cowboy ripped it open to reveal a hoof pick.

“Well I’ll be,” said Jess beaming. “This is just what I need, since I bust my old one last week.” Then his face clouded. “So this ain’t from you then, Daisy?”

“No, dear. As I say, I just found it in my bag.”

Jess’s heart sank. Was this Hannah at her silly games again?

Slim seemed to read his thoughts. “Hey buddy, we never did find out who sent you all those other things, did we? Seemed to stop coming once you went off to Denver, but looks like they’re starting again. I wonder who it could be?”

“I dunno,” said Jess morosely, but he sure aimed to find out. “So who could have known I’d busted the old one?” he asked.

Daisy looked thoughtful. “I may have mentioned it at the group; I  can’t remember. It’s not really the sort of thing I would discuss. But then yes, I did say something as Carrie was asking to borrow one from somebody.”

“I asked if they’d got any in the hardware,” said Slim. “There were plenty of folk in there as heard me say you’d busted yours. Anyway, I got the price like you asked, and old Sam said he’d keep one back for when you went in next week.”

Then Mike ran in, saying his kitten had caught a bird, and in the following bedlam, the matter was forgotten. It wasn’t until the following week that another gift arrived.

This time it was through the mail, posted the previous day in Laramie.

Old Mose, the stage driver, climbed down from the box and grinned at Miss Daisy as Jess and Slim went about changing the team.

“Why whatever is it, Mose?” Daisy asked, throwing him a quizzical look. “You look like a man with a secret?”

His toothless grin grew even broader. “Well, that I have, Miss Daisy,” Mose said. “Looky here,” and he passed her a small package addressed to Jess.

“Well, what’s so remarkable?” she asked. “Probably something he’s sent for mail order; most likely a boring old piece of equipment for the stable, I shouldn’t be surprised.”

He shook his head. “Sniff.”

“What. dear?”

“Sniff it, Ma’am.”

Daisy did as directed and was rewarded by a whiff of very strong perfume. “Oh my,” she said reeling back in surprise, “that is pungent.”

“From a lady,” Mose said tapping his nose. “Lady admirer, if I’m not much mistaken.”

Then Jess came over grinning at Mose. “What are you gossiping about, you old reprobate,” he said teasingly.

“Reprobate!” shouted Mose. “You been sleepin’ in the dictionary, boy?”

“Nah, just tryin’ to improve myself,” said Jess with a grin. “Been readin’ one of Mike’s English school books. Never too old to learn, you know, Mose,” he said cheerfully.

“Uh,” Mose growled. “Well, sniff this and you might learn something else,” he said, thrusting the parcel at Jess.

Then Slim  joined the party, and they all looked on as Jess did as he was bid and started coughing. “What the… What is this, Mose?”

“Parcel, addressed to you and from a lady,” surmised Mose.

Jess just gawped at him.

“Well, go on then, son, open it. I ain’t got all day to stand jawing with you good folks, you know.”

Jess controlled the urge to say, ‘Well, don’t then,’ and merely opened the package as instructed. He was shocked to see two beautiful silk handkerchiefs embroidered with his initials.

He just held them aloft looking amazed.

“Any note?” asked Daisy.

Jess shrugged. “No.”

“Well, those will be real useful,” Slim guffawed. “Next time you come off of one of those old mustangs, guess we’ll be able to mop the blood off in style.” He and Mose went off chuckling.

Meanwhile, Jess threw Daisy a heartfelt look. This ain’t funny, Daisy. If Millie gets to hear of it… well, guess there will be ructions all around.”

“Have  you no idea who it could be dear?” she asked sympathetically.

Jess just shook his head. “Not really.” But he decided he was going to accompany Daisy to church that Sunday and get to the bottom of it once and for all.

The following Sunday, Daisy was surprised and yet gratified when Jess offered to accompany her to morning service.

“Well, dear, first all, this reading you’ve been doing and now Church going. You haven’t fallen off  one of those beasts and had a bang on the head have you?” she teased as he drove her to town.

Jess took her gentle chiding in good heart and then said thoughtfully. “It was something Hannah said a  while back, about schooling.”

“Oh yes?”

“Uh, she was asking me about my school days, well, you know what Pa thought of all that kinda thing — the sooner we were all earnin’,  the better.”

Daisy nodded sadly. “I do, dear, and it’s a crying shame. All children should be allowed to be children, have school and  play; I fear you had neither, in any quantity, but you have made up for it  since and you’re a very good scholar.”

“Yeah, well, I get by. But Hannah asked if I regretted missing out  and I said  well yeah, where Mike’s concerned,” Jess said, turning to look at Daisy properly. “And I guess I just felt as he was growing up fast, I need to sort of keep up with him, be able to help when he needs it, you know?”

Daisy felt deeply moved at this. “There is more to helping him than just book learning, you know,” she said gently.

“I guess, but I reckon there’s no harm in tryin’ to better myself anyways.”

“Quite right dear,” Daisy agreed, beaming across at him. Then reflectively, she added, “We haven’t seen much of Hannah since you came back from Denver. Everything was alright over there, wasn’t it?”

Jess couldn’t meet her eye and just muttered something noncommittal. “I guess. Was kinda a busy time, you know?”

“I had thought…” she said softly.

“Huh?”

“I had thought that maybe she was a little too fond of you at one stage,” Daisy said, remembering the conversation with Hannah, where she had deliberately mentioned Jess’s girlfriend, Millie.

“Why do you say that?” Jess asked, looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Just the way she was around you; something  about the way she looked at you. I’m not wrong, am I, dear?”

Jess said nothing, just looked down embarrassed.

After a while, Daisy reached over and squeezed the hand holding the reins. “It’s alright, dear. I do understand your loyalty and I won’t ask you anymore, as long as I know you can deal with it?”

Jess nodded and gave her the ghost of a smile. “Yeah, I can deal with it, Daisy.” Then he squeezed her hand back. “Thanks.”

Then they arrived at the church, so the conversation was curtailed.

After the service, the congregation filed out. Joshua stood by the door, shaking hands and  having a little chat with everyone, and  when Daisy and Jess walked past, his face lit up. “Why Daisy, how have you  convinced one of my favorite parishioners to join us? Even if I never see him from  one month’s end to the next, still a favorite,”  he said chuckling.

Jess took the teasing  in good part. “Well, I guess I don’t need to come over too often, Joshua, seein’ as how we tend to put the world to rights in  the Good Lord’s own Kingdom,” referring to the  fishing lake.

“That we do, son, that we do,” Joshua chuckled. “And I’ll be over before too long, when the fish are biting.”

Jess and Daisy moved on and made their way towards the buckboard. Then Daisy excused herself to pass the time of day with a  friend and Jess took his opportunity. Seeing Hannah standing alone near the church gate, he marched quickly over.

Hannah’s head shot up and  she blushed a little when  Jess came  and stood beside her, but held her ground and welcomed him shyly.

They had only met  a few times since their return home and now the shock of seeing him,  looking so handsome in  his Sunday best, set her pulses racing.

Jess leaned on the gate beside her and tipped his hat back. “Hello, Hannah. Good to see you, lookin’ so well too,” he said softly.

Hannah dipped her head and then looked back up into those deep blue eyes that visited her so often in her dreams. “And you,” she replied. “You look a lot better now. I guess you had a rough time when  we were away.”

“I guess we both did,” he  said softly.

Hannah just nodded and looked away.

“So how is…er…Davy,” Jess finally plucked the name from the ether. “Not in Church today?”

She smiled at the name of her new beau and  was immediately reminded at how lucky she was to have  found him and how happy she was with him, in spite of the  unsettling effect Jess still had on  her. “He’s visiting his Ma this weekend; be back tomorrow,” she said with an  easy smile.

“So is it serious?”

Hannah flushed at this. “Well, its early days, but we get on really well; yes, I think it could be.”

“Good,” Jess said quietly. “I’m real pleased.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh no reason.” He turned to go. “Better get movin’; Daisy’s waiting.”

Hannah reached out and grabbed his arm, and looking up into those amazing eyes she said quietly, “It’s about the gifts, isn’t it?”

Jess’ head shot up and his eyes narrowed. “Gifts?”

“Oh come on, Jess. Daisy mentioned to me that you had got some more presents. You think it could be  me again, don’t you?”

He just raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Well?”

Hannah shook her head. “No, I promise, it really isn’t me. I can’t pretend you’re nothing to me, because it would be a lie, but I am getting over it and Davy is special, really special,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Jess said at once. “Sorry I had to ask, that is. It’s just, well, I have to stop it. I’m  committed to Millie and  I don’t want anything — or anyone — to upset that, you understand?”

Hannah nodded. “Well, sorry, not guilty,” she said with a little twinkle and he believed her at once.

“Well, thanks anyway, and Hannah, be  happy, huh?” Jess  said quietly before wandering  off to help Daisy up on the buckboard.

Jess was very quiet on the way home, and Daisy left him to his own thoughts, knowing he was feeling troubled. She just resolved to try and help him get to the bottom of the problem, and it wasn’t long before she was able to do just that.

The following Tuesday, Daisy was sitting chatting with a friend when she suddenly said out of the blue, “So did Jess like the kerchiefs?”

Now Daisy had mentioned the latest gift within the group, but not specified to what it was. Now she saw her friend’s eyes open wide and give a little gasp as she realized her mistake.

Daisy turned surprised grey eyes on Maud Brown, old Charlie’s widow, and said in amazement, “It was you, Maud! You’ve been sending these latest gifts to Jess. But why, dear?”

Her old friend flushed and looked near to tears, before she slowly answered. “Well, it was you telling the group about the gifts that some young woman was sending him that gave me the idea — a sort of anonymous way of sending him kind thoughts without embarrassing him, you know?”

“But I still don’t understand as to why, my dear?”

“Well he was so kind and generous after dear Charlie’s death, giving me that money, more than I have ever seen Daisy, my dear.” But then she sighed deeply. “But it wasn’t just that. It was his kindness — checking I wanted for nothing, popping by to see I was alright — and I know Charlie was fond of the boy too. I just wanted to make him happy, in a small way,” she finished, sniffing and pulling a hanky from her sleeve she blew her nose loudly.

Daisy immediately patted her hand gently. “Oh don’t fret, Maud dear. No harm done. But I really feel  you must curb your ways. You have the poor boy completely spooked, thinking some young woman is after him; he is worried his girl will get annoyed about it all.”

“Oh I shouldn’t wish to upset dear Millie,” she said quickly. “It’s just that I so love to spoil the boy a little.”

Daisy considered this and then smiled broadly at her old friend. “Well, my dear, he has a birthday next week. Why don’t you send him something for that — anonymously, if you must — but then just keep these little gifts to once a year. Yes?”

Maud beamed at Daisy. “That is a splendid idea, and I can spend all year planning something really nice for him.”

“Um,” said Daisy carefully, “but nothing too expensive, Maud. Maybe some of your excellent home knitting or sewing; the boy gets through clothes like you wouldn’t believe.” The old friends chuckled together at the carelessness of youth.

The following week, everyone was sitting around the breakfast table watching Jess open his birthday presents and he had admired the largess happily.

Slim had bought him a beautiful new hunting knife, the blade so keen it would cut through leather like butter, and Jess’s eyes had lit up. “Hey, thanks, pard; that’s just swell,” he enthused.

“Well, I’ve seen you converting it in the mercantile these last few months, and thanks to that bounty money you’ve put into the business, I figure we can afford to slacken our belts a little,” Slim said, grinning over at his buddy.

Daisy had bought him a new Sunday best shirt, and said she hoped it would encourage him to join her at the Sunday service a little more frequently, with a little giggle; Jess had kissed her fondly on the cheek and promised he would. Then he suddenly had a flash back to sitting around the same table several months ago and being bullied into attending the new minister’s first service and all the things that had ensued since.

Jess was dragged out of his reverie by Mike passing him his present, and he tore off the paper to reveal a book entitled Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.

 Mike studied Jess’s face to see his reaction and was rewarded by a huge grin.

“I guess your teacher had something to do with the choice,” Jess  said, his blue eyes twinkling with merriment.

Mike grinned back. “Yeah; she said that seeing as how you were all for improving yourself by doing more readin’, you might be glad of a little…” He looked to the ceiling searching for the exact words Hannah had used.

“A little light relief?” suggested Jess.

“Yeah, that’s it,” the boy beamed. “And she said as you’re not to worry  because it has a happy ending and the good wins out over the evil, just like in real life. Said I was to be sure to tell you that.”

Jess looked down at the book and smiled. “Thanks, Tiger; it’s a great present.”

Jess didn’t just mean the book, but Hannah’s kindly thoughts towards him as well — accepting her naïve view of life, as just being Hannah — and he wondered absently when the time would come when good did always win out over evil.

Then there was just one more present on the table, carefully wrapped, with his name on.

Jess took it and raised a questioning eyebrow at Daisy. “Who is this from? “

“There is no name, dear.”

Jess cast it a suspicious glance and then recognized the same wrapping paper that had covered the silk handkerchiefs and the hoof pick. “Oh no,” he said backing off. “It’s one of them, ain’t it?”

Slim’s eyes twinkled. “Now, the smart money is on that  Annie Peters from the haberdashers,” he chuckled. “Least, that’s the word in the saloon.”

“What?” exploded Jess. “Ain’t folk got anything better to talk about than my love life — and in the saloon of all places,” he said, turning agonized eyes on his buddy. “What if Mille hears all this rubbish?”

“Already heard it, Jess, and she thinks it’s as hilarious as the rest of us.” Then Slim punched his friend’s arm gently. “She really trusts you, Jess; you haven’t got anything to worry about and she says she’s looking forward to your birthday meal come Saturday, OK?” he said sincerely.

Jess breathed a sigh of relief. “OK.” Then rallying, he a bit fearfully said, “But I might just have to take some of that bounty money and take myself off to buy us some steers down in Texas if that Annie Peters is on my case again.”

Jess cast his mind back to the church service the previous week and how she had grinned across at him when he was in the church yard and beckoned him, and how he had pretended not to see and hurried off to speak to Hannah. “Geez, it is her, ain’t it, Daisy?” he said fearfully.

“Oh, don’t listen to Slim,” Daisy said chuckling. “The only reason she wanted to speak to you last Sunday was to tell you she is engaged. She was grabbing anyone who would listen and showing off her engagement ring.”

Jess gave a huge sigh of relief and then prodded the parcel suspiciously.

“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” Daisy asked.

Jess reached across and pulled the paper off to reveal a beautifully knitted pair of warm winter socks and his face lit up. “Well, that’s more like it,” he said noting  that they were hand knitted. Now I reckon that ain’t a particularly romantic present, is it,  Daisy?”

“Oh no dear, definitely not.”

Then Jess’ head shot up and his eyes narrowed. “You know who this secret admirer is, don’t you, Daisy?”

She just grinned over at him. “My lips are sealed, but I don’t think you will be troubled any longer. Well, not until next birthday, anyway, that is,” Daisy said, smiling over at him.

“Well I don’t know as I can wait that long if she’s gonna send me great presents like this,” Jess said laughing  as he and Slim  went off into the yard to start the day’s chores. They left leaving Daisy shaking her head and smiling after them, just glad that peace reigned again — for the time being, anyway!

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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