The Visitor (by Patty W.)

Summary:  Some strong language, violence and adult themes
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:   35,150


 

 

Jess Harper and Slim Sherman, co-owners of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, leaned on the bar of the Laramie Saloon, a beer apiece, deep in conversation.

“I’m not saying it’s desperate. Just that we could do with a few extra bucks coming in until we sell those steers on,” said Slim calmly.

“So how come?” asked Jess a belligerent look in his eyes.

 “We’ve got what we call in the business world as ‘a sort of cash flow problem’ OK? Well, in your language ‘lack of ready cash’ right now, Jess,” said the tall blond Slim Sherman, giving his buddy a friendly smile. “But nothing to get so dang ornery about.”

Jess Harper took a long draw of his beer and then pushed his hat back and scowled at his best friend. “Well I’m workin’ my butt off, Slim. What else do you expect me to do?”

Slim threw him an amused look. “Well, I don’t know, pard. As to what else you could do? How about this?” He proffered the local paper folded to an advertisement in bold type.

“Huh?”

“Just up your street that, Jess, knowing how good you are with the ladies and all.”

Jess looked down at the paper.

 Gentleman Escort Required For Lady Visiting Wyoming, Top Rates Of Pay.

“What? Hell, what are you sayin’, Slim? I ain’t no gigolo,” Jess hissed, looking over to where his girlfriend Millie was serving a customer at the far end of the bar.

“Well, I figure you’d be real good at it,” Slim insisted. “All the experience you’ve had over the years with women.”

“Yeah, but not now, not anymore. Hell Slim, you know I’m seeing Millie…”

Slim, couldn’t restrain his mirth any longer at that and clapped his buddy on the back. “Gee, you’re so easy to wind up,” he said, openly laughing now.

Jess narrowed his deep blue eyes and took his hat off, running a hand through his unruly dark, wavy locks before ramming it back on and pulling it down hard. “Well I’m glad you find it so dadgum funny,” he growled, “because you can take your goddamn ‘cash flow problem’ and stick it up…”

“Are you boys ready for a top up?” asked Millie, suddenly materializing in front of them, her beautiful brown eyes open wide in amusement.

“I reckon he’s had enough already,” said Jess darkly, “the strange notions he’s been comin’ out with.”

“Like what?” she asked, arching a perfectly groomed eyebrow at her lover.

Jess flushed and looked down. “Oh nuthin’; just some business idea he had.”

“Oh that sounds interesting,” she said with a touch of sarcasm and wandered off to serve another customer.

“See? See what you’ve done now?” said Jess turning on his buddy. “She gone heard what you were sayin’ about me and the ladies and…”

“Jess, will you simmer down? She never did. Anyway, when was Millie ever jealous? She just isn’t the type. Now are you having another beer? Might help us to concentrate on my business plan.”

Jess looked slightly appeased. “Well, I’ll have another beer, but I ain’t promising anythin’ about your ol’ business plan — not if it concerns me and women, that is.”

It was a few drinks later when Slim came to the conclusion that they would maybe just have to wait for opportunity to strike, because every idea they came up was either impractical, illegal or darn right impossible.

“Somethin’ will turn up, don’t worry, Slim,” said Jess cheerfully, as Millie sidled over at the end of the evening.

“You stayin’ over then, Jess?” she whispered, and of course he didn’t need asking twice. “Tomorrow, Slim. I promise, we’ll think of something tomorrow,” and he was gone.

*****

Jess sat on the old leather couch in front of Millie’s fire, the night having turned chilly although it was early summer, sipping a coffee. After a moment, he observed her over the rim of his cup, to where she was bustling about, tidying discarded clothes from the floor. “Come and sit down,” he said throwing her a lazy smile.

After a moment, Millie tossed the last of her fripperies behind the screen in the corner and came and sat beside him. She drew her bare feet up beneath her and smiled into his eyes.

Jess took in the scarlet lacy negligee she’d changed into, and the way her hair had been released from its pins and now flowed in a dark glossy cascade down her back, framing her heart shaped face and he thought how lovely she looked. He passed her cup over and she took a tiny sip before raising an eyebrow. “So are you taking that job then?”

His relaxed pose suddenly became alert. “Huh?”

She grinned at that. “The one in the paper, escorting a lady?”

“Oh, that,” Jess said quickly. “Slim was just teasin’ me.”

“Well I don’t know. I figure you’d be real good at it,” Millie said, barely concealing her mirth.

“You really ain’t the jealous sort, are you, honey?” he said raising a quizzical dark eyebrow.

“Nope, I guess not. Anyway, I trust you, Jess. God knows we have enough history.”

Jess thought back to how they’d grown up on the panhandle in Texas and then met up every so often over the years and dated some, but never real seriously, just an open, light relationship based on mutual affection. Hell, he considered Millie to be his best female friend, always had since they were kids. Then just last year something had subtly shifted in their relationship and they both realized that life would be incomplete without the other in it. Darn it, no; more than that, Jess had acknowledged. Without Millie being there as a lifetime partner, a lover…hell, he’d admitted it finally — a wife — then his life would be meaningless.

Sure, they’d been lovers on and off over  the years and could usually be  found together if they weren’t seeing anyone else, but now, well, now they were promised exclusively to each other. Yep, sure, she trusted him, Jess realized, and he, her too.

Jess was suddenly aware that she was staring at him. “What are you thinking on, Jess?” Millie asked softly.

He put his cup down and took hers and placed it on the coffee table beside the couch. Then he took her beautiful face between his hands, gently stroking her cheek with his thumb, the light of passion suddenly burning in his deep blue eyes.

“Just how much I dang well love you,” Jess whispered before leaning in and brushing her lips with his own. He felt her tremble and submit to him as he kissed her more deeply before snaking a hand down her back and pulling her into an intimate embrace.

*****

The following day was Sunday and Jess rode into the yard just before Daisy was about to serve the lunch.

“Hello, dear. Did you have a good time in town?” asked their cheerful elderly housekeeper as Jess entered, looking somewhat heavy eyed.

“Yeah, er, thanks Daisy; late poker game,” Jess muttered. He studiously avoided his buddy’s eye as Slim turned from where he’d been checking the books at his desk yet again.

“Well, got ‘em lookin’ any sweeter?” asked Jess with his cheeky grin.

“No I haven’t, and this isn’t funny, Jess. We need a cash injection and sooner rather than later,” hissed Slim, not wanting Daisy to overhear and start worrying.

Just then, the door burst open and Mike Williams, the rancher’s cute young ward, ran in and threw himself at Jess giving him a bearhug. “Jess, you’re home! I really missed you at breakfast. You been working in town?”

“Um…er, yeah, sorta. So how’ve you been Tiger? “

“Real good, and guess what? I can vault the corral fence just like you do now.”

“You can?”

“Sure and I can rope my pony…well, when he’s standing still, that is.”

“Well that’s real good, Tiger; we’ll make a cowboy of you yet,” Jess said, ruffling the child’s blond locks. Then he turned to his buddy. “Come on, Slim; lighten up. Something will turn up, I bet you.”

*****

As it was, that ‘something’ turned up on the noon stage the following day.

Mose drove in at his usual breakneck speed and brought the prancing, blowing horses to a standstill beside where Jess was standing  waiting to change the team, a welcoming grin on his handsome lean face.

“What’s up, Mose? You’re losin’ your touch? You didn’t dispatch one chicken this morning,” Jess said, tipping his hat to where the squawking hens had scurried off at the first sounds of the advancing stagecoach.

“Aw, you,” said the good natured old driver, flapping a hand at Jess.

Then Slim wandered over. “Coffee’s on, Mose,” he said, grinning up at the old timer.

“Well, I don’t mind if I do,” Mose replied, climbing down from the box. “Got a passenger aboard as would like one too, I guess.”

Slim nodded and opened the door for a tall dark haired gentleman in his early thirties wearing an immaculate eastern style suit of dark grey pinstripe over a white shirt with a high stiff collar and white silk cravat. He sported a dark bushy moustache, wore gold pince-nez and bore a flower in his lapel, all topped off with a light grey bowler hat.

Jess just stared in barely concealed horror, but Slim was quick to gather his wits and welcome the stranger.

“Good morning, I’m Slim Sherman, co-owner of the Relay and this here is my partner Jess Harper,” said Slim, offering a hand.

The tall personable gentleman regarded Slim with kindly intelligent brown eyes, taking his hand and shaking it firmly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Sherman, Mr. Harper,” he said, turning and including Jess in his warm smile. “I am Jack Williamson, writer and photographer, visiting from New York.”

“Well, that’s real interesting,” said Slim. “Go on in and have a drink, and we’ll be along once we’ve attended to the team.”

As soon as Jack Williamson and Mose had disappeared inside the ranch house, Jess turned to Slim, a look of shock in his deep blue eyes. “Well, ain’t he the pretty one.”

“Hush, Jess; he’s just an Easterner. They have kind of different ways to us, you know.”

“I’ll say. What in hell were those funny little eyeglasses stuck up on his nose? And a flower? What’s that all about, Slim?”

“Well the eyeglasses are called pince-nez… and ….”

“Huh?”

“Pince-nez, Jess; it’s French for…oh, I dunno. Anyway, they’re all the rage back east. And the flower, well… Maybe he’s just kinda eccentric. You know, a photographer and all,” Slim finished vaguely.

“No, I don’t know, and I guess I don’t want to either,” he said darkly. “The guy looks kinda sissified to me.”

As soon as the team was changed, Slim marched into the house to chat to their guest while Jess busied himself in the yard. However, after a good ten minutes had passed, Jess’ curiosity got the better of him and he wandered into the house. He took his place at the table, as far away from the newcomer as he could, and accepted a steaming coffee from Daisy.

Slim looked up beaming at his friend. “Oh, there you are, pard. Mr. Williamson here has got a business proposition for us,” he said looking gleeful.

“He has?” said Jess warily.

“Yeah, and just what we we’re looking for too,” said Slim casting Jess a meaningful look. “About that ‘lack of available means situation’,” ”he continued in a low tone for Jess’s ears only.

“Oh, yeah, right,” said Jess still looking far from happy.

“Yep. You see, Mr. Wil… “

“Er, please call me Jack,” interrupted their guest.

Slim turned and smiled. “Thank you and I’m Slim.” Then turning back to his buddy, Slim continued. “So Jack here has asked if he can stay with us as a kind of… paying guest and would like you to show him around a bit.”

“Show him around,” said Jess guardedly. “You mean like escort him?”

“Well, yes,” said Jack beaming at this dark haired rather serious young man. “Exactly. That’s what I’m looking for — an escort.”

Jess shook his head now, looking deeply troubled. “Well, I dunno. I mean, I’m real busy, ain’t I, Slim?” he said turning a pleading look on his friend.

Slim threw him a mystified look and then got up quickly. “Excuse us Mr.… er, Jack. I need to just consult with my partner. Back in a minute.” He almost frogmarched Jess from the room and out onto the porch.

“What in hell are you playing at, Jess? The man is willing to throw money at us just for the privilege of staying here and having you show him around. Wow, what is so hard about that? You know we need the cash!”

Jess threw him a scandalized look. “And what are people gonna think when they see me wandering about with the likes of that, with his gold eyeglasses and flowers and all?” he said, looking pained.

“I don’t really give a damn what they think,” said Slim angrily. “Like I said, he’s the answer to our prayers, offering top dollar that will see us right until those steers are fattened up.”

“Well, why can’t you do it then, if you’re so all fired keen?”

“You know I can’t be away from the ranch for any length of time, Jess. We’ve got the new Overland inspector due anytime, not to mention I’ve taken on doing the books for a couple of local ranchers to keep the wolf from the door. Nope, this one’s down to you, pard.”

Just then the door opened and Mose and Jack Williamson emerged.

“Gotta be on my way,” said Mose. “Runnin’ late as it is.”

Then Williamson turned concerned eyes on Slim and Jess. “Er, if my request is inconvenient gentlemen, well, then I quite understand. I can maybe find something in town,” he said, casting them a sad look.

“No,” said Slim quickly. “Don’t do that. It’s not inconvenient, is it, pard?” he said, turning beseeching eyes on Jess.

Jess looked from Williamson to Slim, and back again, before replying. “Nope, no problem at all, Mr. Williamson. Be pleased to guide you.” Slim breathed a sigh of relief.

“Jack…please, and thank you, Jess; I really appreciate it.”

“Come on then, folks. If this here gentleman is a stayin’ with you, I need his luggage off,” said Mose briskly and the men advanced on the stage to do as they were bid.

Jess climbed up and was about to throw the first of three large wooden cases down when Jack Williamson bellowed, “NO! Er, sorry. Jess, just hand it down gently, would you?”

Jess looked slightly taken aback and did as asked with all three boxes before leaping back down.

“Thank you so much, my dear chap; I was just a little worried about my plates.”

Jess’s face was a study and he looked askance of Slim, muttering softly, “Damn it, Slim the guys brought his own plates. “

However unbeknown to Jess, Williamson had excellent hearing and he turned to the two ranchers and smiled benignly. “Photographic plates that is… of course.”

“Oh, yeah, of course,” said Jess vaguely.

“Um, made of glass, you see, for the photographic images I take. And I’ve some tin ones as well, for the ferrotype, and then my chemicals too. All I need for the Collodion process.”

“Yeah, right,” said Jess, looking like he was losing the will to live. “So where shall we stack all this… er… stuff then, Slim?”

Slim looked thoughtful for a minute and then turned to Jack Williamson. “I was going to suggest Jess and I move out and you take our room in the house, but maybe the bunkhouse would suit you better. It’s certainly larger. Would you care to take a look?” he asked politely.

“Certainly, Slim, lead on.”

The men walked across the yard to the old bunkhouse, and as Slim threw the door open and stood back for their guest to enter, Jess pulled him back and whispered, “So when did you decide I was gonna give up my bed then?”

“Shush… he’ll hear you.” Slim strode into the bunkhouse.

Jack turned around beaming. “Why, this is just splendid. A little palace — it will suit me perfectly. I was expecting a worker’s shack,” he said, turning to grin at the two men.

“Yes, well, it was until last year,” said Slim honestly. “But we had a lady guest — Miss Daisy’s Goddaughter — staying and we did it up for her.” * See Daisy’s Dilemma

Jack took in the comfortable space with the whitewashed walls, a bed against one wall covered with a pretty patchwork quilt. Several bunk beds stacked against the opposite wall, the only sign of the room’s original use. There was a bookcase and wide selection of reading matter, a small table and chair, a rocking chair and a small stove, plus a sink and washing facilities in the far corner. “Goodness, you’ve even got drapes on the windows; this could double up as a dark room! It’s wonderful. This will do me perfectly, and plenty of space for all my equipment too. Thank you,” he said beaming at Slim and Jess.

“Well, good; I’m glad that’s settled,” said Slim happily.

“Just perfect,” said Jack again, moving about the room, looking around him before turning back towards the men. “This young lady must have been very special; you sure made her comfortable here,” he said, grinning at them.

At that, Jess’s face clouded. “Yes, she was…real special.” Then turning, he said gruffly, “I’ll go get your stuff,” and left quickly.

Jack’s head shot up at that and he threw Slim a concerned look. “Did I say something out of turn? “

Slim just shook his head. “No, don’t pay any heed to Jess; he’s just kind of sensitive about Flora.”

“Flora? Oh, Daisy’s Goddaughter.”

“Yeah. You see, we did the place up for her because she was dying of consumption. She stayed here with us looking after her, and then at the end…”

“Yes?”

“Well, Jess took her up the mountain. It was her last request to end her days up there and so, well, he took her. Tended her to the end, like I say. He’s still kind of grieving, you know?”

“Oh of course; I’m so sorry, my dear chap. I didn’t know.”

“Of course not, how could you? Just leave it, Jack. Jess will be fine as long as we don’t dwell on it, huh?”

“Oh sure, no, of course not.”

Then Jess returned, carrying one of the heavy boxes. Smiling at the newcomer, he asked where Jack would like it stacking.

It was after supper, as they all sat around the table drinking coffee that the men discussed what exactly it was that Jack required.

“Well, you see, what I am trying to achieve is to sort of paint a picture about life out West for the folks back home. What life is really like out here. I have been commissioned to take a series of photographs and interview people to find out all about this very different culture.”

“Yeah, I guess it sure is different,” said Jess, once more taking in Jack’s attire.

The older man grinned at that. “Well, I guess knowledge helps to break down prejudice,” he said mildly.

“Hell, I’m not prejudiced,” said Jess quickly. “It’s just that…”

“Go on,” said Jack patiently.

“If you go into town looking that way, well, you’re likely to end up…”

“Jess!” said Slim quickly. “Jack is our guest. Don’t go sounding off. It’s none of our business the way he dresses…or anything else,” he finished, throwing his buddy a warning glance.

“Oh, but I disagree, Slim. It is your business if I am to be staying here.” Then Jack turned his kindly gaze on Jess. “I agree, Jess; I do look something of a dandy to western eyes, I expect. But fear not; I do have a change of apparel.”

“You do?” asked Jess looking somewhat baffled.

“Why, certainly — denims, a cotton shirt, even a Stetson.”

Jess relaxed at that and said happily, “Well, where do you wanna go then, Jack?”

Jack had explained to Jess exactly what he was after. “I would like to meet all your friends, other ranchers, the town’s folk. Get them to pose for me, maybe, and then we need to go further afield.”

“Further afield?” asked Jess, looking concerned.

“Well yes, Jess; I hope to cover a good area of Wyoming looking at…well, I don’t know. The Indians,   mountain dwellers, the countryside and the critters as you folk call them — deer, wolves even. Everything that this wonderful place is about.”

Jess and Slim had exchanged an anxious glance at that.

“Well you know Wyoming isn’t New York,” said Slim. “All those things are…well, kind of difficult to set up, you know.”

“Oh I can pay, that’s no problem,” said Jack, smiling at the blond rancher.

“It ain’t about money,” drawled Jess, suddenly apprehensive as to what they had taken on.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, tangling with the Indians, even taking off into the Big Open, well, it can be dangerous and downright exhausting if you ain’t used to it. Jack, wouldn’t you be happier just stayin’ close to town?”

Jack looked at Jess and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Well, yes, maybe I would be, but I’m not being paid to be happy and neither are you, Jess. Sure it won’t be easy; I don’t doubt that. But hell, it’ll be worth it in the end, won’t it? When we’ve captured all those people in my camera lens for posterity, so folk ten, fifty, maybe even a hundred years from now will know how the west was won. That has to be worth something, doesn’t it, Jess?”

Jess dipped his head and thought about that for a while and then grinned over at Jack. “Yeah, I guess maybe you’re right, buddy; we’ll get to it first thing tomorrow. “

*****

Jess was true to his word, and as soon as breakfast was over, he suggested they ride into town for the day and start their initial work photographing and chatting to the locals.

“Certainly,” smiled Jack. “I’ll get everything ready and meet you outside shortly.”

When Slim and Jess wandered over to the bunkhouse a little later, they were amazed to see Jack standing outside with a huge amount of luggage surrounding him.

Jess and Slim exchanged a puzzled glance before Jess said evenly, “Well, what’s all this then, Jack? I thought we were just visitin’ town for a few hours, not setting up camp there.”

Jack threw him a rueful look. “Well, I’m sorry, Jess, but this is me travelling light. You see, I need everything here.” He went on to itemize all the amassed equipment from several cameras to all the chemicals necessary for the production of a photograph.

“It needs to be developed within fifteen minutes of the exposure, you see, dear boy. Then there are the plates — we need to take enough — and…”

“So what’s this then?” asked Jess picking up a black canvas tent-like structure.

“Why, my portable dark room, of course, and then there is my tripod, notebooks and pencils. Oh dear, I suppose I do have rather an embarrassment of treasure here.”

“Huh?”

“He’s got a lot of stuff to take, Jess,” said Slim, grinning.

“Yeah well, I can see that,” spat Jess, throwing his buddy a black look. “Guess I’ll go get us a pack horse,” and he retreated towards the barn.

The two men finally set off for town, Jack mounted on one of the ranch horses — the dependable Rosie, who pulled Daisy’s small carriage and was ‘suitable for your granny to ride’, as Jess often described the little grey mare.

Jess was mounted on Traveler and led Buck, an elderly, tough old buckskin, who was more than capable of carrying the heavy load. They slowly made their way out of the yard, Jess casting Slim a long suffering glance and a laconic, “expect us when you see us” as they rode out, heading for town.

Their first port of call was Slim and Jess’s good friend Sheriff Mort Corey, mainly because Jess was sure he’d have a coffee pot on the go and he was feeling the need for some sustenance after the long, mind-numbingly slow ride.

Jess swung into the Sheriff’s office, smiling in welcome at his friend. “Got the pot on then, Mort?”

The wiry, graying middle-aged Sheriff looked up from where he was perusing wanted posters and beamed back at his friend. “Why Jess, long time no see. So what’ve you been up to over at the Relay then?”

“Bustin’ a gut tryin’ to earn an honest dollar an’ make ends meet,” Jess replied. “Been mustang breakin’ last few weeks.” Then he remembered his manners. “Oh Mort, this here is Mr. Jack Williamson, a real famous photographer. Come to steal our souls. I’m helpin’ him out some for a few weeks,” he said.

Jack strode forwards and shook the Sheriff’s offered hand. “Good to meet you, Sheriff.” Then he turned back to Jess, raising a quizzical eyebrow. “Come to do what, Jess?”

Jess cast Jack an amused look, his blue eyes twinkling. “That’s what the Indians believe. If they have their likeness taken, then the camera steals their soul.”

Jack looked confused at that. “But how?”

Jess just shrugged. “Don’t ask me; you try gettin’ inside their heads. I have enough trouble with my own figurin’,” he said with his cheeky smile.

Jack grinned at that, wondering for a moment if Jess was of a similar mind as the Indians, but deciding not to ask. “So how about you, Sheriff? Can I commit your photographic image to the annals of history?”

Mort and Jess exchanged a bewildered glance and then the Sheriff’s brow cleared. “Oh, you mean you want to take a picture, Mr. Williamson?”

“Yes, please, Sheriff and do call me Jack.”

“Well then, Jack, I reckon as how I could oblige, but are you sure you wouldn’t rather have a villain? Might prove more interestin’ to your…er, history books and the like.”

Jack’s eyes lit up at that and he glanced over to the cells where an elderly man was stretched out on one of the bunks, snoring lightly. “Why that would be a real treat, Sheriff. Maybe one of you together, sort of the law verses the criminal element? So what’s he done –bank robbery, murder?” he asked, looking animated.

Jess and Mort exchanged an amused glance. Nope, drunken and disorderly!”

Jack tried to hide his disappointment. “Never mind, sheriff; that would be fine — a likeness of the two of you together, if you can wake him, that is…?”

“Oh, that’s no problem,” said Jess, and after a brief nod from Mort, he wandered over with the water ladle and keys. On entering the cell, Jess poured the contents of the ladle over the recumbent man’s face. “Wake up, Homer; your face is needed,” he said laughing.

“What… what the…what you doin’, Jess!” exploded the old-timer angrily.

However, once the proposition was put to him, Homer was more than happy to oblige. After some posing, Jack finally got an excellent shot of the criminal, alongside the strong arm of the law, both men peering rather warily into the camera lens.

Jack had mounted his large camera on a tripod and then disappeared under a black cloth, fiddling and focusing, constantly telling his subjects to keep still and then it was finally over. Mort and Homer breathed a sigh of relief.

But that was when the fun started as far as Jack was concerned. The photographic process had begun. He exhorted Jess to run for his box of chemicals and then asked the Sheriff if he had a room that could be darkened.

“Well there’s the room out the back where I keep my tub. Got no windows. I just light a lamp when I’m usin’ it. That do you?”

“Absolutely excellent Sheriff, ideal. And there is a water source?”

“Yep, from a pump.”

“Couldn’t be better, my dear chap, thank you.” Then Jack chivvied Jess on with the chemicals. “Come along, Jess, no time to spare, no time to spare. We must set the process in motion at once.” He bustled away, leaving Jess rolling his eyes at a sympathetic Mort.

“I hope he’s paying you well for this, Jess,” Mort whispered.

“You bet, top dollar. Why else would I…”

“Jess, are you coming, old chap?”

Jess sighed. “Yeah, on my way, Jack; keep your hair on.” He marched off at speed.

It took nearly an hour before the process was finally completed and Jack returned triumphantly bearing the plate with an image of Mort and his prisoner gazing earnestly back out of the picture, their persona preserved in time for ever.

Homer had retired back to his cell and was once more snoring away, but Mort and Jess admired the final result.

Jess put his head on one side, examining the plate carefully. “Gee Mort, that really looks like you, you know?”

Mort’s eyebrows shot up. “Well who in hell did you think it would look like, Jess?”

Jess just shrugged. “Dunno. Just didn’t think it would be quite so…er…”

“Yes?” asked Jack eagerly, “so…?”

“Well, so doggone good,” said Jess, grinning across at him.

Jack beamed back. “Right, so who’s next then?”

It was now well past noon and Jess was feeling  in need of some liquid refreshment with something more of a kick to it than Mort’s strong coffee. “Well we could always go over to the saloon,” he said raising a hopeful eyebrow. “Guess you’ll find some interesting characters over there, huh Mort? “

“Oh yep, a whole host of interesting folk over at the saloon,” the Sheriff agreed, a mischievous twinkle in his grey eyes.

“Well, lead on, my friend,” said Jack, amiably grinning across at Jess. “And maybe we’ll have time for a drink?”

“Now you’re talking,” beamed Jess.

Then Jack turned to the sheriff. “My dear Sheriff, might I impose on your good nature a while longer and use your tub room for my photographic developing whilst I am in town? It is ideal for the purpose and I would willingly pay you for the privilege.”

“Feel free,” said the Sheriff expansively. “You’re most welcome, Jack, and I guess I’ll be interested to see how the good folk of Laramie take to this photography. We ain’t seen too much of it around these parts, save for the odd travelling fair as has passed through. So it will be a real treat for us.”

The two men made their way over to the saloon, which was still quite quiet, being relatively early on a week day. Jess went across to the bar, ordering a couple of beers before introducing Jack to Tom the barkeep and explaining his business, Tom being a good friend to Jess and Slim.

“Well now that’s real interesting, Mr. Williamson, and I really would like a picture of me with my girls,” said Tom with a big grin. “It sure would look swell behind the bar.”

“Well of course,” said Jack looking pleased. “No trouble. Er, girls?”

“Oh, my saloon girls,” said Tom quickly. “They’re good girls; this is a good clean house. They are just hostesses and serve the drinks, you understand?”

“Oh yes, absolutely. Well, I would be happy to take a likeness and maybe have a chat later about your clientele — what it’s like running a saloon in these parts.”

Tom scratched his head and looked a little flummoxed at that. “Well, sure, mister, but I can’t see as anyone would be interested.”

“Oh trust me, the folk back east and in the Old Country will be fascinated,” Jack reassured the barkeep. “Now you said girls? “

“Sure, sure.” Tom called out the back and a minute later, Millie and Lily came in, closely followed by Ginny and Bella.

Jess, who was propped up at the end of the bar enjoying the proceedings, gave Millie a wink and she grinned back and then came forwards. She was introduced to Jack along with the other girls and chatted pleasantly to him for a few minutes before gradually edging her way to the end of the bar so that she could have a quick word with Jess.

The couple was never very demonstrative in public, not wishing their affairs to be subject to the lively barroom banter, but all the same, Millie reached over and gently caressed the hand encircling his beer glass and Jess threw her a loving look.

“You OK, sweetheart?” Jess asked softly.

“Yeah, I’m fine, and it’s great to see you. So you’re looking after the photographer guy then,” she asked raising a questioning eyebrow. “That’s not your usual kinda work, honey.”

“No… well, I sort of got pushed into it by Slim and his darn cash flow problems,” Jess said with a rueful grin.

“So how is it?”

“OK so far. He’s kinda picky, but then he is payin’ top dollar and well I guess it ain’t forever.”

Just then, Millie was called over to pose for the staff picture, leaving Jess to his beer. But their eyes had locked as she said, “Catch you later maybe?” He had nodded, a twinkle in his deep blue eyes that held a promise.

The very moment Jack cast eyes on Millie, he thought it was love at first sight. Never had he seen such an exquisite a young woman, from her dark glossy hair pinned up into a sophisticated style to those deep brown teasing eyes, to the hour glass figure all of her was perfection as far as Jack was concerned. He went through the motions of greeting the other girls, hardly acknowledging their names as all he could think of was this vision of loveliness, Millie.

Jack finally pulled himself together long enough to get the group into a suitable pose and prepare his camera, chivvying Jess to help him set everything up towards the back of the barroom. Finally the job was done and he was rushing to the Sheriff’s office to start the developing process off again.

Meanwhile Jess took advantage of the spare time to chat to his girl. “So what are you doing later?” Millie asked. “Staying in town or heading home?”

Jess looked undecided. “I dunno. Stay, I figure. It sure takes a dang long time carting all Jack’s stuff around, so if he wants more pictures, I guess we’ll stay over. He said he’d pay for us to stop at the hotel if we needed to.”

Then Jack was back with the pictures and the conversation was curtailed.

“I may see you later then,” Millie whispered. Jess gave her his cheeky wink and nodded before he was called to help Jack again.

Later, Jess introduced Jack around town, and he met several other worthies from members of the town council to one or two notable ranchers. Jack’s portfolio of pictures grew as the day lengthened, and by suppertime, both men were pretty bushed. However, after supper, taken at Miss Molly’s café, it was Jack who proposed that they repair to the saloon for a couple of nightcaps.

Jess looked surprised. “I didn’t have you down as much of a drinking man, Jack.”

The older man looked a little discomforted at that. “Well no, Jess, I’m not usually, but there’s something about that Laramie saloon that I kind of took to, a nice atmosphere, you know?”

“Oh yeah,” said Jess laconically, “sells good beer too.”

“Uh, well, there is that,” Jack replied, “and those young ladies are pretty easy on the eye too. “

Jess looked surprised at that. He sure didn’t have Jack down as a ladies man, but there you go — his original opinion of Jack at first sight, with his pince-nez, silk cravat and button hole flower were fast under review. Thank goodness, he sighed, as they returned to the saloon.

They had a pleasant time, with Millie and the other girls coming over to chat, and as the evening progressed, Jack became more and more besotted with Millie. Although he was somewhat unversed in flirting, he did all he could to hold her attention by chatting to her every chance he got.

After a while, his obvious infatuation was not lost on Jess and he looked on with some amusement at Millie’s easy sidestepping of the older man’s attentions, being pleasant, but business-like.

However Jack persisted, and when he asked if Millie would pose for him on her own, she looked askance of him.

“Well whatever for, Mr. Williamson? You have taken my likeness already?” Millie said, offering a tight smile.

“Well yes, I know, my dear, but I think you would be an ideal candidate for one of my paintings. You see, I am quite an accomplished artist and you would be a perfect subject, if Tom could spare you, that is? Of course, you would be well remunerated.”

Millie looked thoughtful and cast Jess a quick glance, but he merely raised his eyebrows and gave her a look as to say, it’s up to you. Then Jack went over and approached Tom, and Jess and Millie were left alone.

“What do you think? Is he trying it on, Jess? Why would he wanna paint me?”

He grinned at her at that. ”Because you’re so darn beautiful, of course,” he said, “and I guess he’s pretty smitten with you. But he’s harmless enough, and if he just wants to paint you, well why not, if you can make a buck or two?”

Then Jack came back and started making arrangements for Millie to sit for him and said Tom had agreed they could use her room.

Millie still looked undecided, then she said, “Well, I suppose so, but I would like Jess there too, seeing as he is working for you anyway, Mr. Williamson. It would be more fitting to have another party present if we are to use my room.”

“Why yes, of course, my dear,” Jack said at once, inwardly cursing. The last thing he wanted was Jess acting as gooseberry. Sure, all he wanted to do was to chat and get to know this lovely creature better, but he really didn’t imagine he would be able to say what he needed to with Jess looking on.

It was much later in the evening when Jack had drunk a mite more than usual that he picked up on the banter going on between Millie and Jess. Once she was called away to another client, Jack turned to Jess and said, “So you and Millie are good friends then?”

Jess grinned at that. “Hell yeah; we go way back. Brought up on the panhandle in Texas together. Been best friends ever since, I reckon. We’ve been our own separate ways over the years, but guess we’re together now,” he finished, smiling over at his love, their eyes locking for a brief moment.

However, Jack missed the look and just imagined that the couple were old childhood friends and no more. Shortly afterwards, he admitted he had maybe overindulged a tad and should retire.

Jess realized the situation at once, and after saying his goodnights to Millie and Tom, helped Jack across the street to the Laramie hotel and up to his room. “How about we meet up at Miss Molly’s for breakfast?” he suggested as he made to leave, Jack already stretched out on his bed.

“Well OK, but you’ve got a room here too, Jess. What’s wrong with eating in the hotel? “

“Well nuthin’, Jack, except the cook was shot dead last week and so the restaurant’s closed right now.”

“Oh, right,” Jack said with an astonished glance at his new friend. “Things sure are different out here, after back East, Jess.”

Jess grinned at him. “Yep, I guess they are at that,” and with that retired for the night.

*****

As it was, Jack got very little sleep, totally besotted as he was with Millie, and spent half the night plotting and planning as to how he could get together with her, how he could impress her. He finally drifted off, his dreams filled with thoughts of her dark beauty.

The following day, Jack continued photographing the local residents. Then finally in the afternoon, he started his portrait of Millie, with Jess looking on and making the odd wisecrack until Jack thought he could well punch him. All Jack desired being some time alone with Millie, to get to know her better.

The same thing happened the day after and the day after that, with Jack’s emotions getting more and more stirred every time he saw Millie, while she remained totally unmoved and just treated him with friendly politeness. All the time, Jess in attendance until Jack though he might well go crazy.

On the Friday night of that first week, Jack overindulged again, thinking maybe a little Dutch courage was what he needed to finally tell Millie of his true feelings and he did indeed flirt with her a little, but she just laughed it off and turned away to deal with another customer.

Then Jack had turned back to Jess, and for the first time, seen something in his deep blue eyes that he didn’t recognize — a glint of warning? Then it was gone, and he thought he had imagined it when Jess leaned over and slapped him on the back.

”Come on, buddy, I figure you’ve had enough for tonight. I’ll walk you across the road.”

Jack awoke early with a raging thirst and thick head, and after he had taken a drink of water, he wondered over to the window, looking out as the early morning sun lit up the street below him.

He was just turning to get dressed, remembering he had arranged to meet Jess at Miss Molly’s shortly, when a movement on the other side of the street caught his attention. He looked over to the alleyway beside the saloon opposite and then he saw two people emerge — Jess and Millie, hand in hand.

Jack stared, totally mesmerized. What were they doing together so early in the day?

They walked along the street a little way, and then Millie said something and they stopped. Jess looked down at her, perfectly still for a moment, and the he leaned forward, and stroking her cheek with a finger, leaned in and kissed her. Then Jess took her in his arms, pulling her close, one hand running down the length of her back, pulling her even closer in the sunlit, deserted street.

The whole act so intimate as to be…almost erotic. Jack couldn’t bear to watch any longer, but then as he was just about to turn away, they parted and continued on down the street, laughing together at a shared joke.

Jack turned away and went and sank down on his bed feeling totally defeated. Jess and Millie? He thought they were just childhood friends, and then he remembered Jess’s words on that first night in the saloon, ‘been our separate ways over the years but I guess we’re together now’. Together now, as in seeing each other. Hell, why hadn’t he realized that? Because he didn’t want to, he thought now; he had just been in denial.

Then that glint in Jess’s eye the night before, when Jack had made a rather suggestive remark to Millie. Warning him off. Of course he had done. Jack had been trying to sweet talk his girl. What else would Jess do? However, he hadn’t acted impulsively, as he very well might have done if Jack could believe all he had heard about Jess’s legendary temper. He could only guess that Jess had held it in check thus far because technically he was working for Jack, and by all accounts, the ranch needed the money right then.

*****

When they had finished breakfast at Miss Molly’s café and Jack still hadn’t turned up, Jess saw Millie back to the saloon and then went in search of his temporary employer.

He knocked on Jack’s door, entered, and then stood staring down at where Jack sat slumped on the edge of his bed, fully clothed, but looking like he was going nowhere, a hangdog expression on his weary features.

“Jack, are you sick?”

The slightly older mad raised deeply troubled eyes to Jess’s concerned gaze. He shook his head and then after a deep sigh muttered, “Why didn’t you tell me, Jess? Tell me you and Miss Millie were that way together?”

Jess looked surprised. “What way?” Then casting a glance towards the window, he realized Jack must have seen them kissing earlier that morning. He swallowed and then looked back. “Well, I did, Jack. When you first met her, I said we were together.”

Jack stared up at that with a pained expression. “Yeah, but I thought you were just friends, not keeping company.”

Jess was silent for a long time and then said, “Well, it’s more than that, Jack; she’s promised to me. We ain’t set a date yet, but I guess we’re pledged.”

At that, Jack gave a little groan and put his head in his hands.

“Jack?”

Jack just couldn’t speak, his last hopes dashed. Had they just been dating maybe she would have been persuaded to finish with Jess, if Jack had persevered. Hell, he was prepared to do anything, he was now so deeply infatuated. But to break up a couple who were pledged, well, it was unthinkable. Anyway, the way they were together, it was inconceivable that he could do anything to take her away from Jess.

Then Jack finally looked up and what he saw in Jess’s eyes made his heart start to beat a little faster and a shiver run down his spine. The blue eyes had a distinctly chilly look to them, and when Jess spoke his quiet voice held a hint of menace.

“Look, Jack, she ain’t done nuthin’ to encourage you, and I’m real sorry if you didn’t realize about me and Mill. But I’ll tell you now, just back off…or you and me will be havin’ a fall out, job or no job, you understand?”

Jack looked up, Jess’s eyes hard as granite and a similar dark color. “Sorry. Sure, I’ll back off and I’m real sorry. it’s just that…”

“Just what?” asked Jess, slightly more kindly.

Jack shrugged and looked up into those deep blue eyes. “I love her,” he whispered.

Jess stared at him and looked astounded and then finally said, “I figure we’d better call a halt to this here portrait paintin’, don’t you?”

Jack nodded. “I guess I can finish it from the photograph.”

Jess nodded. “Right. So where next?”

Jack looked deeply saddened. “Anywhere away from here, I think, don’t you?”

Jess just nodded. “Yep,” and turned to go. “I’ll go pack up the gear,” he said and was gone, leaving Jack feeling worse than he could ever remember, at least not since that other time, but then he didn’t want to even think about that.

Of all the girls he had to pick to fall head over heels in love with, why in Hell did he have to choose Jess Harper’s woman, he thought to himself. Hell, he liked the guy. Sighing again and shaking his head, he started to throw stuff in a case. Time to move on.

Jess made for the saloon and found Tom and Millie companionably washing glasses together behind the bar. As Jess marched in, they both looked up, pleased to see him.

“Can I have a word with Millie…in private?” asked Jess, urgently ignoring their welcoming smiles.

“Well I’d have thought you’d have said all you needed to last night,” said Tom with a chuckle. “Heck, Jess, you’ve only just left.”

Jess ignored the banter, and seeing the young cowboy was obviously upset over something, Tom just shrugged good naturedly, “Sure, son, go out the back.”

They went through the back room and out into the little courtyard behind the saloon where there was a bench where the girls took their ease when on a break between shifts. Jess gestured for her to sit.

“Why, whatever is it, Jess? You’re white as a sheet,” asked Millie.

Jess sank down beside her and took her hand. Then he looked deep into her eyes. “You know how you asked me to stay up in your room with you all the time Jack was paintin’ you? Why did you do that? “

“Like I said,” she replied, “for propriety’s sake. I didn’t want folk talking, me having a strange man up there alone.”

“Was that the only reason?”

She flushed a little at that. “No, maybe not.”

“Go on,” he said ominously quietly.

Millie’s eyes flicked away and then back at him. “OK, you win,” she said. “Don’t get mad but I had an inkling that he liked me — I mean, really liked me — and it made me feel kinda uncomfortable.”

His head shot up at that. ”Hell Millie why didn’t you say somethin’? “

“Because I didn’t want to make you mad like you are now,” she cried. “I know you need this job right now, Jess, and I was afraid you’d do something silly and lose it if I said anything. Besides, I can handle men like Jack Williamson; he was never a threat.”

“That ain’t the point. You should have told me. It would have saved a lot of bother.”

“Bother?”

“Yep, because I could have put him straight sooner. See, the guy thought we were just real good buddies, nuthin’ else.”

“He did?” Millie said looking surprised.

“Yep. Thought he was in with a chance. He reckons he loves you, Mill.”

Her head shot up at that. “But that’s crazy. He hardly knows me. Heck, we’ve only ever talked when you’ve been around. How can he say that?”

“Dunno, but the guy’s sure got it bad.”

Then Millie grabbed his hand, looking deep into those blue eyes. “Please tell me you haven’t floored him, left him bleeding someplace?”

Jess chuckled at that. “Nope I ain’t laid a finger on him. But we are pulling out today Millie, may be gone a while. I just wanted to say goodbye, explain why we’re going.”

“Oh, of course. But Jess, you do know I didn’t encourage him, don’t you? Sure, I was flattered he wanted to paint me, but that was all.”

Jess leaned over and tipped her chin up with a finger so he could gaze deeply into her beautiful troubled eyes. “Of course I know that. Trust you, don’t I,” he said softly, before leaning in and kissing her very tenderly.

It was quite some time later when they finally repaired to the bar again and saw old Tom standing waiting for them.

Jess cleared his throat, knowing that he’d have to say that Jack wouldn’t be visiting to paint Millie any longer and therefore the financial deal Tom and Jack had struck would be called off.

However before he could say anything, Millie chipped in. “I’m sorry, Tom, but the painting deal is off. Jack and Jess need to head off someplace else right now so he can’t finish the painting.”

Tom’s head shot up at that and he grinned at the young lady. “Well, that’s where you’re wrong, my dear. He’s just sent a note over from the hotel, explaining he has to leave and asking Jess to bring the painting with him. Says he will finish it back at the ranch with the aid of a photograph. Seems he thinks he’s taken up too much of your valuable time.”

Millie and Jess exchanged a look at that, but said nothing.

“And the best bit,” Tom continued, “is the check he’s sent to be split between us. It’s for twice as much as he’d promised. So how about that, Millie girl; I figure you must be a real hit with him,” he said, beaming across.

“Oh yeah, she’s that, alright,” said Jess, his voice loaded with irony, but old Tom never noticed; he was too busy happily regarding  the large check and marveling at their good luck.

It was while Jess was out getting the mounts sorted out at the livery that Jack took his final chance and went over to say goodbye to Millie.

He had asked to speak to her alone, and after casting a glance at Tom, she had merely gestured to the end of the bar.

Jack was silent for a while, and then after a minute, fixed his gaze on Millie’s puzzled face and said, “I guess you know why I’m here.”

She just shook her head looking worried. “Well, no.”

“Because I have to tell you how I feel. You must have guessed?”

She again looked worried. No, well, maybe, but Jack, you must know how I feel about Jess.”

He stared at her for a long time before finally nodding. “Yes, my dear, I think I do, and I was wrong to ask you. But I just had to be sure there was no chance?”

“There is no chance,” she replied softly. “I love Jess and I guess I always have.”

He nodded at that. “Sure; I think I knew that and I’m sorry.” He turned away, all his hopes finally dashed.

*****

The two men arrived back at the ranch by noon and Jack disappeared into the bunkhouse, saying he had some notes to write up from all the interviews he’d had with the various townsfolk and would meet up with Jess later.

Slim was delighted to have his buddy back and wanted to know how everything had gone.

Jess was very quiet, however, and just said everything was fine and he was taking off to ride fence for an hour or two.

Slim looked astonished at that. “Are you feeling OK, pard? I thought you’d want to sit a spell, tell me all about this photography thing, not take off doing your least favorite chore. Are you feeling sick?”

Jess flicked a quick glance at his buddy and then looked away. “No, I’m fine. Just need some space, you know?”

“Sure, OK, Jess; catch  you later,” Slim said, and stood watching as his buddy rode out, riding Snow Bird, his prize quarter horse, to give Traveler a rest.

After a moment, Daisy came out of the house. “Was that Jess I heard?” she asked, looking around and drying her hands on her apron. “I’ve got a pie just out of the oven; lunch will be ready soon.”

Slim looked down at her, a puzzled look in his light blue eyes. ” Yeah, he was here. Just taken off to ride fence. Guess he doesn’t want lunch, Daisy.”

She exchanged a troubled look with Slim at that. “Is he sick, Slim?”

“No…at least, I don’t think so, but he did look kind of troubled.”

“So is Jack back too? Will he be joining us?”

“Yeah, he’s back and he doesn’t look any too happy either, Daisy. I’d better go and speak to him.”

“Oh, I hope everything’s alright,” said Daisy, anxiously casting him a worried glance.

“So do I,” said Slim, a flash of anger passing across his normally placid features. “If Jess has been upsetting him and we lose this contract, I’ll be real mad,” he said angrily before marching off to the bunkhouse.

Slim knocked and entered when Jack replied, and saw the tall personable gentleman sitting at the table, his pince-nez once more in place, pouring over some notes. “How’s it going, Jack?” asked Slim cheerfully.

Jack looked up distractedly. “Oh, just fine, thank you, Slim; just a tad busy right now,” he said, gesturing to his notes.

Slim’s eyebrows arched in surprise at the less than friendly response, but he quickly recovered. “Oh sure, sorry. Miss Daisy wondered if you’d like lunch; it’s nearly ready.”

“No. I mean, tell Miss Daisy no thank you. I’m not hungry right now.”

“Oh…er, right, OK.” Slim turned to go, then stopped in his tracks as he saw the half-finished painting of Millie propped against the wall and stopped to admire it. “Gee, this is good, Jack. Millie sure is a stunner isn’t she?”

To his surprise, Jack flushed up and said something noncommittal.

“Jess sure is a lucky dog,” Slim continued, smiling across at Jack, but Jack just nodded and returned to his work.

Slim shook his head slightly. What was going on with these two? They sure had come back in a funny mood, he thought before going off to eat their share of Daisy’s sumptuous lunch, thinking every cloud had a silver lining.

It was after supper before Slim finally got Jess to open up and tell him what had been going on in Laramie.

The men were sitting on at the supper table, Mike having retired to bed, and after a while, Daisy went off to the kitchen to brew more coffee.

“So you’ve finished in Laramie then? Photographed everything you wanted, Jack?” asked Slim amiably.

“Er…yes. Jess and I thought we’d take off tomorrow. I really need to get some shots in of the countryside and some sketches of the wildlife, that kind of thing,” said Jack earnestly.

“Well, sure, that sounds good. So where are you thinking of heading, pard?” Slim asked, glancing over to where Jess was still very quiet.

“I figured we’d take off West through Medicine Bow and then head for Rawlins; come back by way of Paradise. Maybe pick up something for the pot,” said Jess finally.

“Sounds good to me. So how long will you be away?”

Jess gave Jack a small smile. “Well, you know the speed we travel with all Jack’s stuff on board. I figure it’ll be best part of three weeks, maybe a month.”

“Well that’s OK, Jess; we’re pretty quiet here right now. You’ve broke and sold most of the mustangs and the stock’s fattening up nicely, so just the Relay and general maintenance. Yep, I figure I can manage without you for a while longer.”

Then Daisy bustled back in with the coffee and started pouring.

“Not for me, thanks, Miss Daisy. I think I’ll turn in, dear lady. It looks like a long day tomorrow out in Jess’s Big Open,” Jack said with a grin, returning to his previous good humor.

Once he had left, Daisy turned to Jess. “Are you alright, dear? You’re very quiet and you missed lunch too.”

“I’m OK, Daisy,” Jess said, patting her arm gently as she passed his coffee over.

“That’s a mighty fine painting of Millie,” said Slim, watching his buddy for a reaction.

Jess’s head shot up, but he just agreed that it was ‘real pretty’.

“So why didn’t he finish it then?”

“Er, he sent a note over, kinda thought he was taking too much of her time up,” said Jess, staring studiously into his coffee.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance. “And the real reason?” asked Slim, scrutinizing his friend.

There was a long pause before he finally answered. “I told him to call a halt,” Jess said in a deadpan voice.

“You did? But he was paying Tom and Millie top dollar, according to Mose. They wouldn’t be too pleased,” said Slim sternly.

“Yeah, well, he’s still paying them. In fact, he’s paid up double what he first agreed,” said Jess gruffly.

“So why did you stop him?” asked Slim again.

Jess sighed and was silent for a long time, just peering into his coffee as though the answer was at the bottom of his cup. When he eventually replied, he looked up at his buddy and Slim saw a glitter of resentment in his deep blue eyes.

“Because he said he was in love with her, that’s why, Slim,” Jess said angrily.

Daisy took a sharp intake of breath. “Oh my. Well, she is very sweet. I suppose you can’t blame him for finding her attractive, dear.”

“Oh, can’t I?” said Jess gruffly.

Slim sighed deeply. “Please tell me you haven’t had a fight with him, Jess.”

Jess glared at him at that. “I think you’d kinda know, wouldn’t you?”

Slim had seen more than enough victims of Jess’s powerful left hook to know he hadn’t laid a finger on Jack. There was certainly no evidence, no blooded nose or black eye, nothing. Jack looked fine, if slightly troubled.

“Oh, yeah. Well, sorry, buddy, but you’re real mad, right?”

“Kinda, I guess. But anyway, me and Millie talked it through and I told Jack to back off and he has. So as long as he stays away from her, I guess I can carry on with the job. After all, we need the cash, don’t we, Slim?”

“Well, yes, you know we do, but not if it’s going to be difficult for you. I guess we’ll manage.”

“No,” said Jess quickly. “I had enough of ’managing’ as a kid. I don’t want Mike to suffer because of this. He needs new boots. We need stuff for the ranch too; that harness is on its last legs, not to mention those forge tools.”

“Jess?”

“Look, I can handle it, Slim. Don’t worry; I ain’t gonna get in any trouble. I’ll just take him off to see the Big Open and then bring him back again — all in one piece, OK?”

“Um…”

*****

So it was that they rode out early the following morning, Jess making a concerted effort to be pleasant, and Jack, if anything, being somewhat too jovial, trying to compensate for his less than sociable attitude of the previous day.

As well as Buck the buckskin horse, Jess had also taken Harpy, their ancient pack mule. They had inherited the mule from an old prospector and he had originally been named Harry, but due to his incredibly ornery attitude, Slim had renamed him Harpy, short for Harper, a family joke enjoyed by all, save Jess.

The problem with Harpy was he was the devil to get started in the mornings — another characteristic he shared with Jess, Slim said — but once he was up and running, he would just go on forever. That is why Jess had persevered with him that morning, and it was worth the effort because now, an hour into the trail, the diminutive creature was trotting along, happily bearing his share of Jack’s equipment, freeing up Buck to carry the rest of the equipment, rations and all the paraphernalia Slim and Daisy had felt necessary for Jack’s trip into the Big Open.

“Oh, why don’t you just pack the cookstove and have done with it,” Jess had said good-naturedly to Daisy that morning as she fussed around adding extra cooking pots and food.

“Well, Mr. Williamson is a gentleman; you can’t expect him to grub around using his fingers to eat with and licking the plate clean like you do,” she laughed. “I’ve packed some cutlery and a wash pot, for the washing up.”

“Well thanks, Ma’am,” Jess said turning to Slim and rolling his eyes. “Guess we’ll find that real useful.”

Now, as they rode on down the trail, Jess grinned to himself at the memory; old Daisy sure was a fuss pot, but heck he loved the woman like she was his own Ma.

Then Jess glanced across to Jack and saw a look of profound sadness in his eyes. Even though Jess felt a sharp frisson of jealousy, he still also felt sorry for the guy, who had professed to being in love with Millie but had absolutely no chance of getting her.

They made good progress and were in the Medicine Bow lush forest by late afternoon. After casting a glance at Jack and seeing he was looking mighty fatigued, Jess decided to make camp for the night. They had landed in a magical spot with views over the distant mountain range, tall pines all around them. A small stream trickled down the valley where it joined forces with a larger river and Jess had high hopes of catching some fish there the following day.

They were sitting around the campfire, satiated by the good provisions Daisy had packed for them, and Jess had even made an effort to use the cutlery, but he had jibbed at washing up in the bowl and had merely given the plates a cursory sluice in the stream, as per usual.

Now they were lying back on their bedrolls, saddles for pillows and sipping a coffee.

Jack glanced over to where Jess was looking pensively into the fire before clearing his throat and saying, “I guess we need to talk, Jess.”

The young cowboy’s head shot up and he raised one eyebrow quizzically. “We do?”

“Yes, I think we need to clear the air.”

“Oh?”

“About Millie and everything. I should explain.”

Jess threw him a hard look. “No need.”

“Well, I think there is. I owe you an apology to start with. I said I didn’t know you two were together, but I guess that was a lie, I just didn’t want to see it, I reckon. But the way you are together, well, it’s obvious she loves you, I guess…and you her.”

“So you thought you’d try an’ turn her head with all that sweet talkin’ and ‘oh, you’re the perfect subject for one of my portraits,’ crap you were feeding her? “

Jack blushed to the roots of his hair. “Yes I guess so,” he whispered. “I wanted to take her from you and I need to say how sorry I am, my dear chap. I…”

“Sorry!” exploded Jess, suddenly furious. “It’s one thing chatting up a girl as you think is free; it’s another when you know she’s taken. Hell Jack, I should knock you into next week for that,” he spat bitterly.

The two men were now sitting up, alert, Jack peering across the dying embers of the fire. ”I’m just so sorry,” he whispered, remembering as to how he had tried one last time to sway her even as Jess was preparing the horses for their journey.

“So that makes it OK does it?” said Jess, now really getting into the spirit of playing the injured party.

Jack looked aghast at what he had done and even more so at revealing all to this man he knew so little of. Oh, he’d heard the tales about Jess in town alright — how he had a temper almost as fast as his draw, how he was a reformed gunslinger with a very checkered history behind him, how a lot of men were lying in their graves because they had taken him on and lost.

But then Jack had also heard that he was the sort of man you wanted on your side in times of trouble, how he was a loyal and true friend. Also, Jess was the best doggone scout for miles around and Jack knew he couldn’t be in better hands, so why oh why had he antagonized him that way? Was it some strange way to relieve himself of the burden of guilt he was feeling after professing his love for Millie?

Jack looked across at Jess, about to apologize again, and then just stared transfixed at the gun in Jess’s hand. Oh God, he thought, this is it. This is the end; he’s going to kill me. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, before opening them again and instinctively raising his hands in an act of submission. “Please,” he whispered.

“Keep dead still,” Jess barked.

Jack squeezed his eyes tightly closed, knowing this was definitely the end. He’d seen the intensity in the deep blue eyes, heard the merciless tone of the gravelly voice.

Then a shot rang out and Jack flinched, waiting for the agony, the blood. Hell, at this range, he must have hit him straight through the heart.

But nothing.

Jack cautiously opened his eyes and was in time to see Jess holster his gun and wander over towards him.

Then Jess reached behind where Jack was still, sitting shaking from head to toe, and picked up a very dead rattler. “Looks like this ol’ fellah was thinkin’ of sharin’ your bedroll. I thought it best to dispatch him. Sorry if I startled you,” he said as an afterthought.

Jess went and slumped down on his bedroll, having chucked the offending snake off into the brush wood. “So you were sayin’? You wanted to explain somethin?”

“Yes, but first I need to thank you so much, my friend; I believe you just saved my life there.”

Jess just shrugged. “So go on, get explainin’”

Jack tried hard to get his emotions in check, to still his pounding heart, and eventually said, “Yes, I wanted to explain as to why I found Millie so attractive. “

“Go on.”

“Well, you see, shortly before I left New York, I broke off my engagement to my girl, Carolina.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You see, she was so like Millie, in looks that is — the same soft brown eyes, the same full ruby lips…”

“OK, Ok, get on with it,” said Jess, impatiently.

Jack sighed deeply. “Well, that was where the likeness ended; you see, my Carolina was nothing like your Millie. She was something of a harridan, I guess.”

“Huh? “

“You know, Jess, a real nagger. Once she’d got the wedding planned, well, I saw her true colors, and could see how life would be, too. Nothing but niggling and wanting more and more — better house, better job… You know the sort of woman?”

“Not really. So you decided to take off then?”

“You bet I did. Called off the engagement just before I came out west, thank goodness — a real near escape I had. You know what I mean.”

Jess had to grin at that. “Well, I figure…yeah. So where does my Millie fit in?”

“Well Jess, I have to tell you she was so like my Cary — in looks that is. Those dark laughing eyes and the, well, you know figure,” Jack said, tracing an hour glass with his hands.

Jess just nodded.

“And then your Millie was just so kind, you know — such a really lovely girl — that I kind of lost my heart to her, I guess. Sort of on the rebound from my romance with Cary,” Jack said with a rueful look.

Jess thought on this long and hard, and then finally said, “Well, I guess I’m the lucky guy here, and as long as you realize that, I reckon there are no hard feelings.” He reached across and shook hands. “So how about some shuteye, huh. Long day tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course, and thank you, Jess for being so…you know, understanding. You had me worried there for a moment you know!”

“Huh?”

“Before, when you drew your gun. Well, I knew you were really angry with me and…”

“And you’d heard of my reputation as a gunslinger and figured I’d shoot you in cold blood because you’d been messin’ with my girl, is that it?” asked Jess bitterly.

“No…yes…no, not really. It’s just that…well, you did have your gun in your hand, Jess, and you drew so darned fast, I just didn’t know what to think. I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

Jess just shook his head slowly. ”Hell Jack, I wouldn’t shoot you. What sort of a guy do you think I am?”

Jack stared at him for a long time and then said softly, “I really don’t know, but I’d like to find out, to get to know you. Find out about you, what makes you the way you are.”

“What, an ornery cuss as would go around shootin’ all in sundry for no good reason, you mean?” Jess said, his voice loaded with irony.

“No, of course not; I really didn’t mean that, but you have killed a lot of men Jess, led a really tough life and I’d really like to hear about it.” Jess’s blue eyes suddenly blazed with anger. “So as you can write it all down in your little notebook and publish it all for your friends back east to read,” he growled. “Find out what turns a man into a killer, livin’ by the gun, in the old untamed Wild West. Is that it, Jack? A bit of fun for your sophisticated pals?”

“No, please, Jess, don’t be this way. I’m not belittling you, judging you even. I’m just trying to work you out, find out what makes a man lead the kind of life you have. Mort was telling me you’d been on the drift since you were only fifteen. What sort of parents would allow that, for a start?” Jack said, his kindly open face full of concern and sympathy.

“The kind that had burned to death in a house fire along with most of my family, set by a local no-good gang of thugs. Revenge is what makes someone as bitter as that young kid was, and then he gets in with the wrong crowd, gets into trouble and needs to be able to shoot fast and accurate to stay alive. Then he gets him a name and folk have to try him on. And before he knows it, he’s got one hell of a reputation as a gunslinger.” Jess sighed wearily. “And then he finally meets up with someone who trusts him, gives him a second chance — Slim Sherman.”

Jack nodded. “I see.”

“Good, because that’s all you’re gonna get out of me. The subject of the life and times of Jess Harper is closed…OK?”

“Ok, Jess. I’m sorry.”

Jess nodded. “Night, Jack. Like I say, long day tomorrow.” He turned in, rolling over away from Jack and pulling his blanket closely around him. But it was a while before sleep claimed him. Did Jack really think he would shoot him in cold blood? The thought making him shiver with revulsion that someone could think that of him.

*****

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, business went on as usual. In fact, Slim was inundated with help for a change as a neighbor’s nephew was staying for the summer and looking for some experience in ranching, particularly with the horses.

“He ain’t looking for paid employment,” said old Bert, who lived in at a nearby spread. “Just looking to gain some knowledge about shoeing, harness mending, you know the sort of stuff you do all the time. See, he just can’t get that with me. I only keep an old mule; the rest is down to cattle,” he finished sadly.

Slim had tipped his Stetson back as they chatted leaning on the corral fence, watching the many horses. “Well, I guess I can oblige you Bert as long as he doesn’t want payment. Got Jess away right now, so I figure I can find him some work. “

And so it was that young Davy arrived the following day and proved to be a real hit with all at the Sherman Ranch. He was only just eighteen, but had a good head on his shoulders and was willing to learn. “See, my Pa back east wants me to get a real good grounding in horsemanship, starting at the bottom with all the chores, and I guess a Relay is a real good way to work with lots of different horses.”

Slim smiled at that. “Well, we sure have a lot through here, all in need of caring for. Need to check them real close that they’re not hurt, shoes all OK, that kind of thing. Shame Jess isn’t here right now as he’s the horse man. Into mustanging, breaking, that kinda thing.”

The boy’s face lit up at that. “Well, I’d love to meet him, but while he’s away, can I work here Mr. Sherman…please?”

Slim’s face broke into a huge grin. “Sure you can. son. Might even leave the place in your hands and take myself off fishing,” he joked.

However the way things turned out, the joke was to become reality, to some degree anyway.

It was just a day later, and Jess and Jack had been on the trail a few short days, when the stage flew in at its usual breakneck speed and Mose beamed down at Slim and Davy. “Gotta a lady aboard in need of some coffee, I reckon.”

Slim made haste to help the young lady down, and the first thing that struck him was the similarity to Jess’s Millie. Same dark glossy hair and deep brown eyes, and same wonderful womanly figure, but there the similarities ended as Slim soon became aware.

“Mr. Sherman?” she asked at once as he helped her down from the stagecoach, fixing him with a steely look.

“Yes Ma’am,” Slim said touching his hat and smiling down at her. “Can I help you? “

“Well, I very much hope so. You see, I am looking for my fiancé. I think he is travelling this way.”

“Oh… right. Well, who would that be then, Ma’am?” asked Slim, suddenly aware that Mose had jumped down from the box and was taking an interest in the proceedings as per usual. “Maybe we should discuss this inside,” he said, flicking a glance to where Mose was now standing looking askance. “Davy’ll help you change the team,” he said cheerfully, “then coffees on in the house, Mose.”

Once the lady was sitting at the table with Daisy and Slim in attendance, she introduced herself. “I am Carolina Southern, and I am looking for an escort in these parts. Perhaps you saw my advertisement, Mr. Sherman?” she said, casting him a business-like glance and passing a copy of the Laramie Sentinel over to him.

Slim looked down at the advertisement that he had ringed not so long ago in the Laramie saloon to tease his buddy with, but now there was no laughter in his honest blue eyes. “If you’re looking for an escort, Ma’am, I figure you’ve come to the wrong man,” he said, flicking a glance over to Daisy as she brought the coffee in.

There was an embarrassed pause and then Carolina said, “Oh, Mr. Sherman, I fear you misunderstand me — a cultural rift between the east and west maybe?”

“Oh, really Ma’am?”

“Why, yes, of course. When I said escort, I merely meant a gentleman to help and support me on my journey, to act as a guide and helpmeet, nothing more.”

“Helpmeet?”

“Surely, if that would be possible; please see here,” she said, pushing the paper over which had caused Jess so much distress, the advertisement clearly ringed.

Slim looked at it again as Daisy poured the coffee. “So what is it you actually want, Ma’am?”

Daisy smiled over at the personable young lady. “Well, I think she requires the services of a respectable guide to look out for her, is that right, Miss?”

“Exactly, thank you, my dear woman. So Mr. Sherman, are you able to oblige? I really want to leave shortly and I have significant remuneration to offer.”

Slim looked bewildered. “Well, we do have plenty of help available in the person of young Davy,” he faltered, and then as if by magic Davy appeared.

“Can I help, Mr. Sherman?”

When it turned out that the young lady needed to find her lost love, everyone was in league with her, wanting to know how they could help, from Miss Daisy through to young Davy and eventually   Slim was won over.

“OK Ma’am, you win, but we’ll need to set off tomorrow. Give me time to find you a suitable mount. Er, you do ride?”

“Why, of course, Mr. Sherman, Western and Eastern style, and I am strong and resilient to boot. You have no fear of travelling with me. Just get me to my dear Jack that is all I ask.”

“Yes Ma’am,” said a beaten Slim Sherman. “But I figure our best bet is to ride out straight to Rawlins and meet up with them there. You see they’re travelling across the Medicine Bow forest and then heading for Rawlins. We’ll definitely be able to hook up with them there; easier than trying to locate them on the trail. I guess Jack will be really pleased to see you,” he said smiling down at her.

Carolina looked back and threw him a smile that did not reach her eyes. “Oh yes, I’m sure he will, Mr. Sherman,” she said, with just the hint of bitterness.

So it was that the couple took off on their quest early the following day.

*****

Meanwhile, Jess and Jack were well on their way through the forest and had stopped several times so that Jack could make sketches of the local wildlife, mostly deer, which Jess would have preferred to take a pot shot at but knew there was no point with them being headed away from home and no way to preserve the kill for the length of their journey.

As the miles built up behind them, so did the gradual understanding and acceptance increased between the two men.

However, it was when the next life-threatening situation occurred that they finally really bonded and Jack was assured of Jess’s complete trustworthiness.

They had been riding along the side of a hilly area, a narrow trail with a steep drop to one side, when the accident happened.

Jess never found out what had spooked Jack’s usually placid mount — another rattler or maybe just a leaf blowing in the breeze — but whatever it was, had disastrous repercussions.

Jess, who was riding in front and leading Harpy the old mule and the buckskin, both loaded with supplies and equipment, suddenly heard a distressed whinny and then a tremendous crash. Turning  just in time, he say Jack unseated and falling down the steep side of the hill before finally coming to rest several feet down on a crumbling ledge, where he lay deathly still.

Jess cussed softly, leading his horses plus the now recovered Rosie, to a safe place and tethered them before running back down the trail with his lariat.

Jess secured one end to a tall pine, and then other end he attached around his waist before lowering himself slowly down the steep ravine. As he made his way cautiously down, he displaced the odd rock; the whole rocky edifice crumbling and he cussed softly, not wanting to damage Jack any further by bringing an avalanche down on his head — or to break his own neck in the rescue attempt.

Jess finally made it down to Jack’s side and reviewed the damage.

Jack had a nasty gash to his temple and looked deathly pale, but he didn’t appear to be bleeding anywhere else. As Jess watched, the older man’s eyes finally flickered and opened and he gave a low groan.

“Take it easy, buddy,” said Jess softly. “You took a bit of a tumble off old Rosie; something spooked her.”

Jack stared at him and then tried to sit up, but Jess gently pushed him back. “Don’t move, Jack; we’re in a kinda awkward spot here. You mustn’t move around, buddy, or you’ll have us both over the edge.”

Jack took a cautious glance around him and immediately understood the danger. “Hell, Jess, how did you get down here?”

“Rope,” said the young cowboy grinning. “And it’s how we’ll get back up, as soon as I’m sure you ain’t got anything broke.”

It took a good hour before Jess finally  managed to edge his way back up the steep rock face bearing the weight of the tall photographer, who, although not badly hurt, had sufficient cuts and bruises, plus a badly strained ankle, as to render him unable to make the climb of his own accord.

When they finally made it to the top, both men collapsed onto their backs, panting with exhaustion. Then Jess turned his head to look at his travelling companion and said lightly, “Well, I guess we don’t wanna do that again in a hurry, do we, buddy.”

Jack grinned back and then gingerly stood up before offering Jess a hand and hauling him up too. He looked deep into the twinkling blue eyes. “I think I owe you my life yet again, Jess, and I am deeply indebted to you, my dear friend. And Jess, may I consider you a friend?”

Jess grinned across at the tall man, and after a moment, slapped him on the back. “Sure you can. Now come on, let’s get back to the horses and I’ll fix up that head for you.” He strode off, leaving Jack looking after him with something akin to awe in his eyes. Yes, everything they had said about Jess Harper was true; you sure did want him fighting your corner when the going got tough.

It was a hour or two before they got back on the trail after the accident, and then they were  to have yet another  encounter that was to cause Jack some consternation, although Jess less so.

When they first encountered a small band of Cheyenne braves, Jack was at once terrified, having read vivid reports in the Eastern papers as to the ways of these ‘savages’, as they had been reported, killing and scalping innocent whites, and there being news of a possible uprising, Custer having been called in to calm things down.

However, Jess was more philosophical. “It’s ok, Jack; don’t fret. I figure they’re friendly…well, reasonably,” he said with a shrug and his shy smile.

They had spied the party of four braves just down below them in the valley heading for the Medicine Bow River, and as they watched their progress, Jess grinned across at Jack.

 “So you wanna make their acquaintance then?”

Jack looked back and gave him a slow smile. “You know, if you think it’s OK, Jess, then I guess I would.”

As Jess had already been aware, the group had gone down to the river to camp for the night and so they followed them on down, Jess making sure that the young  Indians were warned of their presence and wouldn’t be spooked into a knee-jerk attack.

Once they were close enough to distinguish faces, Jess’s relaxed into an easy smile and he kneed Traveler on towards the camp where the braves were suddenly alerted to the presence of strangers.

Jess leapt down from his mount and raised a hand in greeting. “Avonaco,” he said beaming, “good to see you again.”

The young brave, his dark hair decorated with feathers and wearing a colorful necklace, raised his hand in friendship. “Ohtama” (welcome).

 “Well, it’s good to see you all,” Jess said, encompassing the other young braves in his broad smile, and was regaled with much smiling and nodding. Then he turned to introduce a rather reticent Jack. “This is my buddy Jack, and he’s a photographer.”

All the Indians looked completely uncomprehending. “What is that, my friend?”asked Avonaco.

“He takes your likeness, sorta like a paintin’,” Jess tried to explain, “but he just clicks this little box and a while later out comes your picture.”

“Ah, yes he takes… I have heard of this. He takes your soul,” said one of the other braves, looking terrified. Then he started ranting on in his own language, explaining to his brothers.

“Hey, take it easy,” said Jess calmly. “You didn’t think as I’d bring someone around who would do that, did you? Hell no. He’s a good guy; ol’ Jack, will bring you no harm, I promise that.” He put his hand over his heart to endorse the promise.

At that, the Indians visibly relaxed a little, and after a while, their inherent curiosity took over and they started to look at the equipment loaded on the pack mule. After that, it just took a little while longer for Jess to be able to persuade them to pose for Jack.

The pictures Jack took that late afternoon were some of the best he had ever taken in his life — the brave spirit of the young native Americans shining through — and the very best one was of Jess sitting in the center of the picture, the braves all around him, obviously respecting the young white man. He was to ponder on it in later years, after the battle of the Little Big Horn, and wonder where things all went so terribly wrong.

However, at that precise moment in time, all was well with those particular Indians and that special white man, and they settled down to camp together for the night amiably enough, sharing their meal. Later, Jess and Avonaco trying to outdo each other with their exaggerated tales of fishing prowess, much to the amusement  of the other braves.

The following morning the young braves cooperated once more, and they were happy to pose again for Jack, this time with all their ponies and weapons, the bows and blow pipes adding an extra dimension to the fierce looking ensemble. As Jack had predicted when he first met Jess, that picture was to be still viewed over a hundred years later as it was given pride of place in a New York museum, a tiny glimpse into the past and a different way of life that just a few short years after that photograph was taken would be gone forever.

*****

It was late morning before Jess and Jack finally turned towards the mountain range which lay between the forest and town of Rawlins where Jack hoped to take some more pictures of life in a small western town. Jess was looking forward to a good chat and few beers with his good buddy Sheriff Red Smith, or Smitty to his friends.

It was getting on to supper time and Jess was  wondering where they could make camp as they made their way up a steep mountain trail. The pace very slow due to the pack mule and horse, and he decided that the next plateau they came to would  have to be their campsite, as daylight was fast fading.

They finally passed through a densely wooded area and then the trail opened out and dropped into a small valley below, with a stream running through — the ideal campsite, Jess thought. He reined Traveler in and Jack rode up beside him; both men contemplated the view. Then Jess stood up in the stirrups his gaze suddenly alert.

Jack picked up on the change of mood at once. “What is it, Jess?”

“Seems someone else thinks this is a good place to camp too,” Jess said, pointing to where a thin line of smoke was spiraling up into the clear evening sky.

“Trouble?” asked Jack, looking anxious.

“I dunno; could be.”

“Who do you think it is, Jess?”

He shrugged. “In these parts, probably mountain men.”

“Pardon?”

“You know, trappers. Still a few left in these parts, although they’re a dying breed. Tend to make more money out of producing moonshine.”

“Dear me, but that’s illegal, isn’t it, Jess?”

Jess grinned at that. Only if  you’re found out.” Then he sobered. “Thing is, it makes these mountain men kinda twitchy around strangers, sorta guilty conscience, if you get my drift?”

Jack nodded wisely. “So what do you want to do?”

“Oh, we’ll mosey on down and pass the time of day. Could be I know them. And if not, as long as they know we ain’t the law, we should be OK.” With that, Jess kneed Traveler on down the track, leading the pack beasts and Jack following on behind.

As they arrived at the camp, they saw three men dressed in identical rough buckskins and they rose as one, their hunting rifles pointing in the direction of the interlopers.

Jack cast Jess an anxious glance and was then surprised when the dark haired young cowboy tipped his hat back and grinned in welcome.

“Hey Denver, you ain’t gonna shoot me are you?” Jess laughed.

“Jess? Why, Jess Harper, you old son of a gun, welcome… welcome,” said the oldest of the three, a grin now splitting his deeply tanned face.

Jess jumped down from the saddle and went over and pumped the old timer’s hand before grinning over at the other two much younger men. Then he turned back and gestured for Jack to join them. “This here is a friend of mine, Jack Williamson, Jack, this is Denver James and his boys Cody and Mick.”

Jack gave them a friendly smile as he took in Denver’s mischievous blue eyes, straggly beard and filthy apparel, and thought what a wonderful subject he would make. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. James,” he said politely.

Denver raised a quizzical eyebrow and shot Jess a look, obviously thrown by the cultured accent. “So what do we have here,” he said, looking slightly taken aback. “Your friend ain’t a lawman, is he, Jess? I know you keep some strange company sometimes,” he continued, referring to the friendship Jess had with the Rawlins Sheriff.

Jess grinned at that. “Nope, your murky deeds are quite safe, Den,” he said. “Jack here is one of them photographers.”

Denver looked interested at that, and ignoring Jess’s comments about his illegal still, wandered over towards the pack horse and took in all the equipment, as Jack nervously watched, wondering what this huge rough character would do next.

“You’re not exactly travelin’ light, are you,” Denver said with a chuckle. “You’ve a whole mess of stuff here, ain’t you, Mr. Williamson?”

“Yeah and every bit of it counted too,” said Jess firmly, “so keep your thieving’ paws off of it Den.”

“Me?” asked Denver casting wide innocent eyes at his friend. “Now would I think on takin’ another folks stuff?”

“Yep,” said Jess amiably. “If it weren’t tied down, I guess so.”

Denver turned on him at  that, the hunting rifle still in his hand, his expression unreadable and Jack had a terrible feeling that this rough old rogue would shoot Jess down for his cheek.

But then the moment passed and the old man let out a huge guffaw and slapped Jess on the back. “you know me too dang well, young ‘un. Come and sit. You folks eaten yet? Come and join us; we’ve gotten plenty, ain’t we ,boys?”

The two young men grinned at that. “Sure, plenty to go round. Jess, Mr. Williamson, come and sit by the fire a spell.”

As they approached, Jess gave the Appalos (meat and fat cooked on a skewer) a wary look. “Ain’t bear, is it?” he asked cautiously.

Cody and Mick exchanged an amused look remembering they had fed Jess bear once and he’d been sick for a week, his digestion not able to cope with the tough, ill-cooked semi rancid meat.

“Nope, don’t fret, it ain’t bear,” said Denver as he took his place by the fire and turned the skewers over carefully.

Jess hunkered down beside him still giving the meal a suspicious glance. “Coon?”

“Well no, son, I’m sorry to tell you it ain’t raccoon either, as I know that you’re a real partial to a bit of ‘coon.”

Jess heaved a sigh of relief and hid a shudder, remembering the last ‘coon’ he’d eaten and the after effects of that meal too. He started regarding the now almost cooked meat more hopefully.

It was Cody who finally put him out of his misery. “It’s only deer, Jess; shot him this morning. Sorry we can’t offer you anything more interestin’.”

“Hell Cody, don’t you go a worrying about that; this’ll do us just fine, won’t it, Jack?”

Jack, who had been regarding this conversation with ill-concealed horror ,looked relieved too. “Sure, just fine,” he agreed weakly. Then turning to Denver, he said, “And maybe tomorrow you’ll do me the honor of posing for a photograph?”

The old timer grinned back at him. “Why, sure Mister; thought you’d never ask.” Then tipping his hat towards Jess, Denver said, “And pay no mind to that young son of a bitch; your stuffs safe here. Don’t you worry on that score,” he finished, winking at Jess to take the sting out of his words.

After supper, the men sat around the fire with a coffee apiece liberally laced with the aforementioned moonshine.

After a while, Jack took out his little notebook and started interviewing the men about their lifestyle, how they traded and where they lived etc., the questioning getting more and more probing as the evening wore on.

Finally Denver’s patience ran out and turning to Jess he said, “Your pal here sure asks a whole mess of questions. You sure he ain’t a lawman?”

“My dear fellow, I am so sorry,” said Jack immediately contrite. “I expect it does seem something of an inquisition.”

“What’d he say?” asked Denver, turning to Jess, who just shrugged.

“What I mean, my dear man, is that I apologize if my questioning is worrisome to you, but you see, your life really fascinates me as it will my readers.”

“It will?” asked Denver, still looking completely mystified again turning to Jess for some clarity.

Jess finally took pity on the old timer. “See it’s this way, Den. Jack here is takin’ photographs and writin’ this here book all about the folks out west, so the folk back in the east will know what life’s like out here. He seems to think people are interested in that kinda thing,” he finished lamely.

“Oh but they are,” interjected Jack passionately. “They are fascinated to see and hear about those brave warriors we met yesterday, for example. They’ll be just spellbound by your life too, I promise you. And you…”

However Den broke in. “Warriors, you say?” he asked looking worried.

“Just Avonaco and some buddies,” said Jess, calming the older man. “Nuthin’ to get your britches in a ruck about, Den.”

“Oh that lot,” Denver said dismissively. “They’re the reason we ain’t eatin’ ‘coon; had a whole mess of them just afore we landed. Spooked the rest, I guess, darned injuns.”

Jess chuckled at that and mentally sent a prayer of thanks to his Indian friends. “Anyway, seems you’re a dyin’ breed,” he said, grinning across at Denver, “and ol’ Jack here wants to commit your ugly mug to the history books, see.”

“Well sure, sure he does, I can see that. Just as long as you don’t mention the still, or where I live,” Denver said, turning to Jack. “I may be a dyin’ breed but I ain’t dead yet, and I still need to turn a buck or two, you know?”

“Of course, Mr. James, and I respect that. I will hide your identity, I promise you that.”

“Umm, well, that’s OK then and I figure you can call me Denver,” the old man said with his infectious grin, finally accepting this stranger with the posh accent and all his questions. Heck, if he was a friend of Jess’, well, then the guy couldn’t be all bad.

The following morning, Jack set up his equipment and started taking shots of the Mountain Men. They were quite wary at first, like the Indians had been, but eventually settled down. Jack was even able to get the odd smile out of young Cody, but the other men remained stony faced as they peered into this new contraption called a camera, each wondering secretly if the Indians had a point on the soul stealing front.

Jack had taken several shots and then developed them in his portable black out tent and was just thinking of doing a couple more when a disaster, in the form of a brown bear, was narrowly averted.

Jack had been once more at the camera and Jess was sitting way back, half-watching the proceedings and half- keeping an eye on the fire where he was cooking up a mess of beans for breakfast, as he had been dispatched to cook duties while Jack made the best of the early morning light.

It was probably because it was still so early and in a completely isolated area that the bear decided to come down to the stream for some water and maybe even a spot of fishing. This Jess had complete sympathy with. However, once the bear got their scent from way off and raised himself on his hind legs sniffing the air, he started running towards the small party. That was when Jess felt he had to take action and call out a warning. The bear covered the several hundred yards from where he had been drinking downstream to the camp site surprisingly quickly.

Then all four rifles were trained on him, Jess yelling at the others to hold their fire as he sent a couple of warning shots over its head, but the bear just kept on coming. So the bear was eventually shot, all four men  turning  their rifles on him,  and with a mixed cry of fury and pain, the huge lumbering creature was felled like a mighty oak, crashing to the ground with a sickening  thud.

Jack had watched the proceedings white-faced and shaking with shock as he turned to Jess, his mouth agape. “My God, he really would have attacked us all, wouldn’t he? “

Jess just threw him a cheery grin. “Yep. On his home ground see. Don’t much take to folk tramping around in their back yard, don’t bears.”

Jack just nodded, trying to control himself. “Well, I imagine he will make a magnificent picture,” he said eventually, and so it was he got the second best shot of his entire career as a photographer.

The James family along with Jess all put a boot on their kill, their rifles on their shoulders; all four men finally having broad grins on their tanned, strong faces. Another shot that would live on in perpetuity, reminding future generations of the tough men that forged their way across the new country, their indomitable spirit to be remembered with admiration and respect.

Shortly after the photographs had been taken and all their gear stored away, Jess and Jack finally embarked on the final leg of their journey to Rawlins.

 However, Denver had tried to persuade Jess to stay and eat with then again that night. “Guess it’ll be bear on the menu, Jess my boy, and we all know how mighty fond of that you are,” he said, exchanging a glance with his sons, all chuckling at Jess’s expense.

Jess repressed a shudder of revulsion. “No thanks, Den. You’re alright. Figure me and Jack here  need to get off to Rawlins, thankin’ you  kindly, “ he finished  with his cheeky wink and  pulling his hat down hard he kicked Traveler off down  the mountain trail, throwing a friendly wave  over his shoulder.

*****

Meanwhile, as Jess was enjoying all the shenanigans of Indians, mountain men, and bears, not to mention daring cliff side rescues, Slim was having his own troubles with Miss Carolina Southern.

Things had started as Miss Southern obviously expected them to continue, with poor Slim at her beck and call, and with him being such a gentleman, he complied with her every wish — at first at least.

It started with the pace they rode out at. “Far too brisk, Mr. Sherman; I am a lady you know, not one of your dusty ranch hands”  to “Why Mr. Sherman, what on earth is this we are eating? Beans again? I do declare, this is really not the diet which I am accustomed to.”

“Well I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I guess it’s the best I can do on the trail. You see, we call it trail grub, in that it keeps safely. Too much fresh meat and it goes rancid; can cause belly…er, excuse me, stomach pains. Much better to stick with beans and bacon, the odd rabbit that I can shoot, that sort of fare.”

“Well, I can imagine that makes perfect sense to you, Mr. Sherman, but I really must say it is not what I am used to. Where are the fresh fruit and vegetables? This really isn’t my usual healthy diet.”

Deep sigh from Slim. “No Ma’am.”

Things got even worse when they camped out that first night.

“So what do we use for bathroom facilities, Mr. Sherman?”

“Pardon me, Ma’am?”

“You know, one’s needs. Oh dear me, what do you call it in this godforsaken country — an outhouse, man, an outhouse.”

“Oh I see,” said Slim, blushing to the roots of his hair. Well, I’m sorry, Miss Southern, but I figure I couldn’t carry one of them, even for you,” he said, with a twinkle beginning in his light blue eyes.

She looked decidedly affronted. “So what do I do?”

“Well Ma’am, the same as the rest of us do on the trail — make our own arrangements. There’s a Hel…excuse me, a heck of a lot of countryside out there, and I can assure you, you will have plenty of privacy as far as I’m concerned. So…”

Carolina tutted loudly, but eventually did as Slim suggested and made her way discreetly to the cover of some bushes.

When they finally rode into Rawlins, it was difficult to decide who drew the deeper sigh of relief.

“I’ll book you into the hotel, Ma’am,” Slim said solicitously, “And then see if there is any news.”

Once Carolina was ensconced in the hotel, ordering a hot tub and the finest wines and food they had to offer, which were somewhat below her usual standard but way above Slim’s ‘trail grub’, Slim made his way across the road to the Sheriff’s office. He breezed in and was relieved to see his old friend sitting at his desk perusing old wanted posters.

However, as soon as the sheriff saw Slim, he leapt up and grinning went over and pumped his hand. “Hey, buddy, so what brings you here?”

Slim sank down in a seat opposite the Sheriff’s desk, ignoring his question. “Got any coffee Smitty — or something stronger maybe?”

Red Smith grinned across at his old friend. “Like that, is it, Slim?” A moment later he pulled out his desk draw and produced a bottle of Red Eye and two glasses. “You sure look like a man in need of sustenance,” he said grinning. “So what’s the problem then…a woman? “

Slim took a slug of the strong drink and then relaxing back in his seat said, “Yeah, sort of. So how did you know that?”

“The kind of haunted look. Seen it before,” laughed his buddy. “So what’s the problem?”

“Well, how long have you got,” asked Slim, looking exhausted, “and more to the point, have you seen my pard?”

“What, Jess you mean? Nope, neither hide nor hair. Why? Is he expected?”

“Yep, and the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned,” said Slim darkly and went on to explain all about his trip with Miss Southern and her relationship to Jack Williamson.

“So you see, the sooner Jess arrives with Jack and he takes her off my hands, the happier I’ll be.”

However, as with most things in life, it was not that straight forward.

It was another day before an exhausted Jess and Jack finally arrived in town after they had experienced yet another setback. The tough buckskin who was carrying the lion’s share of Jack’s  heavy equipment had come up lame, so all his load had to be  distributed between the men’s two mounts, and so consequently,  they  had to walk the remaining twenty miles or so, across very tough terrain. It was no real hardship to Jess; although one of his biggest hates was to be left afoot, he was quite capable of coping with it. However, he had grave concerns for his companion, fearing that the punishing regime in the fiercely hot weather would make him sick. Therefore, he insisted they take frequent breaks and that Jack drink plenty of their dwindling supply of water, with Jess taking the minimum amount to just keep going.

It wasn’t until late the following day that Jack suddenly became aware that Jess had been donating most of his own water supply to the tall photographer. “My dear chap, I had no idea,” he said, flushed with embarrassment. “I thought this was an extra canteen, not your personal supply.”

“That’s OK, Jack; guess I’m more used to short rations than you are. I’ll manage.” Then his deep blue eyes twinkling with merriment, Jess said, “Besides you can buy the first beers when we hit town.”

And so it was later that evening Jess and Jack moseyed into the saloon once they had put their horses up at the livery. Jess made sure that Buck’s pulled muscle was attended to before he went off to find that long-awaited beer with his name on it.

As the two travel-worn men entered the saloon, Jess was surprised to see Slim and Red Smith propping the bar up and looking like they’d been doing some serious drinking.

Jess marched over a broad grin on his face, all fatigue forgotten. “Hell Slim, where did you spring from?” he asked clapping him warmly on the shoulder. Then sobering some, he said, “Hey buddy, whose back home minding the shop?”

Once Slim had explained about their temporary help, Jess relaxed some and then started trading insults with his buddy Red Smith, as was their way, while Jack bought the beers as promised.

Jess took his drink, and nodding his thanks, downed it in one; it hardly touching the sides. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and grinning across at the barkeep, said, “Set ‘em up again, Jake,” and the old man did as he was bid, smiling benevolently at the young cowboy’s thirst.

Jess considered his pard and buddy, Smitty, and figured he’d got some catching up to do and downed half of the second pint before he finally remembered his manners and introduced Jack to Red Smith.

“Ah so you’re the illusive fiancé Jack,” grinned the Sheriff. “Got a young lady awaitin’ at the hotel for you.”

At that Jack turned a ghostly white and Jess, who thought that Jack had drunk his beer too fast and was going to chuck it back up, took a wary step backwards.

However, Slim was more perceptive. “Heck what is it, Jack? You got a problem with young women visiting, even if she is your fiancée come to check you’re behaving yourself with these gorgeous western women we’ve got?” he said jovially.

After a moment, Jack seemed to pull himself together. “What are you saying, Slim? Carolina is really here?”

Jess, who had been watching Jack’s distress, was suddenly aware of the problem, remembering their discussion earlier about how Jack had left town after finishing their relationship. “Uh uh,” he said softly to himself, turning back to the reassuring presence of his beer, just glad that he hadn’t been run to ground by an ex-fiancée.

Finally, after another couple of drinks, Jack was persuaded to go and seek Carolina out in her large room at the best hotel in town, which she had insisted on and also insisted in paying for, much to Slim’s relief.

What transpired between the couple was never common knowledge amongst the three men left in the saloon, but by all accounts and purposes it was not good. Suffice to say, the couple did not share the large double bed in Carolina’s room, or breakfast the following day.

Jack and Jess had joined Slim and stayed at a far more  modest boarding house down the street, and  it was the following morning when Jess, Slim and Jack met up for breakfast at a nearby cafe that the situation was addressed.

“Well I reckon she’s your problem now, Jack,” said Slim, throwing him a meaningful look. “She asked me to escort her here and that was all; no talk of seeing her back again.”

“She’s damn well not my problem either, not any longer!” said Jack angrily.

Slim and Jess turned surprised eyes on the tall photographer, unused to this departure from his usual calm polite ways.

“Take it easy, Jack. This ain’t Slim’s fault, you know. He didn’t even know that you’d left her.”

Jack immediately turned to Slim. “I’m so sorry my, dear chap; very rude of me. It’s just that…er, what was that delightful phrase you used the other day, Jess? “

Jess just raised an eyebrow, unaware that any of his phrases could be termed as delightful.

“Oh yes, that’s it, I remember.” Then turning back to Slim, Jack said, “It’s just that all this business has got my britches rucked some.”

Jess smiled widely at  that and then  said, “Well, the guy’s got a point, Slim; I reckon if I’d got some woman chasing halfway across the country after me, I’d be runnin’ kinda scared too.”

“So what are we going to do about her? We can’t just leave her here to get back unaccompanied?”

Jack sighed deeply. “No, of course not; I suppose I must be a gentleman and see her home safely.” Then turning to both men, he said, “But with your support, if I may have your company. That would be a great comfort.”

Jess grinned at that. “Sure. After all, I’m ridin’ shotgun on you anyways, so I guess one more won’t make no difference.”

He was to remember those words and later say ruefully to Slim, “Oh how wrong can a man be.” but hindsight is a great thing.

From the very first moment Jess clapped eyes on Miss Carolina Southern, he knew she was trouble with a capital T.

They had agreed to meet Carolina at her hotel for a meal that night to discuss plans for her return journey, and Slim and Jack were already sitting looking decidedly uncomfortable in the posh hotel lounge, with Carolina looking rather bad tempered when Jess finally arrived some ten minutes late.

She glanced up as she saw a  handsome  young man with dark wavy hair and deep blue eyes enter, remove his hat and glance around the room before striding over throwing his hat down an a nearby chair and then collapsing into another.

Her heart missed a beat and she could never remember feeling this way before, not even with Jack. So this is what it must feel like, she thought to herself as she felt her cheeks flushing and her heart start to pound — love at first sight; this is what it is like.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said smiling at the amassed company, “just checkin’ on the horses.”

Jack smiled in welcome, “Carolina dear, this is my friend and guide, Mr. Jess Harper. Jess, Carolina.”

Jess looked over and locked eyes with Carolina, and for a moment his heart seemed to stand still too, as she was remarkably like Millie in many ways. The same glossy dark hair, the same wonderfully womanly figure, but then he looked deeply into the big brown eyes and that was where the resemblance ended. This woman’s eyes had a scheming look to them, Jess thought, as she smiled at him.

 “Pleased to meet you Mr. Harper,” she almost purred.

Jess had the feeling that he was a mouse about to be toyed with by a very mischievous lady cat and he didn’t like the feeling one little bit. “Ma’am,” he said politely, before turning to Slim and talking about the horses.

Throughout the whole of the meal, Carolina spoke exclusively to Jess, his replies getting more and more taciturn as the evening progressed.

She started off harmlessly enough. “So Mr. Harper…er, may I call you Jess?”

He just nodded and threw her a tight smile.

“Well then Jess, is this your line of work…guiding?”

“No Ma’am, I’m a rancher; got part shares in a Ranch and Relay along with Slim here.”

“Oh really,” she said her eyes opening wide in surprise. “What, that big place where the stagecoach dropped me off?”

Jess just nodded. “Yep, that’s the place. Not a bad spread of land, is it Slim?” he said, desperately trying to include someone else in the conversation.

Carolina completely ignored Slim. “So what kind of work do you get up to?” she said with a mischievous little giggle.

Jess hid a sigh. “Well, the usual — you know, ropin’, brandin’ the steers, ridin’ fence, carin’ for all the critters. There’s mustanging — breakin ‘em and sellin’ them on — all that kinda stuff. Then all the Relay side of the business keeps us real busy, don’t it, Slim?”

“Sure does.”

Carolina again ignored Slim, her eyes firmly on the lean, wonderfully interesting face in front of her. She nodded sagely, although most of it had gone completely over her head. However, she felt she could sit all night just listening to that deep husky voice and watching the twinkling blue eyes and expressive eyebrows as he talked of his work with obvious enthusiasm.

Much later, they were seated around the dinner table, sipping their coffee, and Carolina had angled a seat next to Jess. Now she reached across and ran a sensuous hand down his arm. “Well, all that hard work you were telling me about earlier certainly keeps you in good shape, Jess,” she cooed.

The expressive eyebrows shot up at this and he sat back in his chair quickly, taking himself out of range of that ‘pesky woman’ as he had begun to think of her.

There was an embarrassed silence which was finally broken by Slim. “Well, I figure I’ll turn in. if you good folk will forgive me. Er, I expect you’ve a busy day planned with my partner tomorrow, Jack?”

“Indeed. I’ll just see Carolina off to her room and follow you on.”

Carolina looked decidedly annoyed that the party was breaking up, but  before she could say anything, Jess leapt up from  his seat as though he’d been stung by a wasp.

“I’ll walk over with you Slim,” Jess said quickly, and a minute later, much to Carolina’s disappointment, both men disappeared off into the night.

They stood outside the hotel breathing deeply.

“Saloon?”asked Jess, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Yep,” came the quick answer, “you bet.”

The men stood in the saloon and knocked back a large glass of whiskey apiece before Slim turned to his buddy. “So what was that all about then Jess?”

Jess shrugged. “Hell, you’ve got me, pard. The woman’s crazy.”

“Crazy for you, by the looks of things.”

Jess raised his eyes to Heaven. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Well, she sure didn’t have eyes for anyone else tonight, pard.”

Jess poured himself another whiskey from the bottle and knocked it back, grimacing slightly before turning his deep blue, troubled eyes on his friend. “Nope, I’ve met her sort before. She’s just playin’ games, tryin’ to make ol’ Jack jealous, I guess. Once she sees I ain’t playin’ ball, she’ll back off, you’ll see.”

“Um, well, I hope so, for Jack’s sake. It must be pretty embarrassing for him, even if he has thrown her over.”

“You think he’s embarrassed?” Jess cried. “How do you think I feel?”

Slim chuckled at that. “You’ll cope. After all, you’re used to having women throw themselves at you, aren’t you, pard?”

Jess just shook his head, a look of defeat in his eyes, and poured them both another drink.

*****

The following morning, both men were feeling somewhat the worse for wear, and it took Jess several of Red’s gut rot coffees to get himself moving. He finally went off to help Jack photograph a few likely subjects in the town.

It was later that afternoon that he suddenly became aware that Carolina was in the small crowd of onlookers in the Main Street where Jack was busy photographing a very colorful old character whose tall tales and dress of filthy buckskins had alerted Jack’s interest.

The old timer was recounting  being a wagon train scout and Jack was fascinated, avidly asking questions and taking  notes before taking several pictures of the amused elderly man, who was secretly enjoying being in the limelight.

All the time this was going on, Jess could feel Carolina’s eyes boring into him, but he made sure not to even glance in her direction not wishing to encourage her in anyway.

Slim wandered over to where Jess was tidying up some of Jack’s materials and whispered, “Don’t look now, buddy, but you’re being drooled over.”

“Aw, Slim, will you shut up,” Jess whispered back.

Then in his normal voice, Jess said,”Here, make yourself useful. Put them chemicals away in those wooden boxes and take ‘em back to the lodgin’ house.” Then sotto voiced, he added, “I’m goin’ to the saloon; figure she won’t dare follow me there.” He marched off a determined look in his eyes.

However, even Jess couldn’t stay in the saloon indefinitely and eventually made his unsteady way back to the boarding house.

Slim greeted his arrival and shook his head in mock despair at his buddy’s appearance. ”You’ll end up the town drunk if she doesn’t back off soon,” he said with a chuckle.

“Hell, it’s all very well for you,” Jess slurred. “It’s me as has to hide away in the saloon to escape the darn woman.”

“Well, you’re wasting your time, buddy, because Jack wants to call it a day tomorrow and head back to Laramie, so you won’t be able to avoid her then I guess.”

“Oh Hell Slim. Maybe I could ride out tonight. You escort ‘em back huh…huh, buddy?”

“Oh no you don’t. Jack’s paying top rate for you to guide him, not me, and anyway, you know the terrain better than I do.”

“So I do, do I? Since when?”

 “Well, he wants you to try and rustle up some more deer for him to sketch up in Paradise on the way back, and you’re way better at finding them than I am, you know that.”

Jess just looked beaten. “I’m off to bed,” he muttered.

Slim looked amazed at that. “What, without any supper?”

“Had a liquid supper,” Jess said laconically before staggering off to bed.

*****

The following morning when they all assembled at the livery to start their journey home, Jess was looking pale and sick, but manfully made the effort to pull his weight and helped pack up all the equipment on the now fully recovered Buckskin.

Then a few minutes later, Carolina came waltzing in looking every inch the lady in a crisp white blouse and smart dark riding skirt with highly polished riding boots. However, glancing briefly across at her, Jess noticed that the first two buttons of the blouse had been deliberately left undone, showing a soft curve of tanned cleavage, and her hair was falling softly around her shoulders in a much younger style than she had been wearing the night before. He muttered something unintelligible under his breath before returning to his task.

Her new softer image hadn’t got past Slim, either, and he looked amazed as a whole new persona suddenly emerged. Gone was the brisk business-like way he had been used to on the trip out, with orders almost barked at him, and a new, decidedly different Carolina appeared.

Once she was ready to mount, she turned helpless eyes on Jess and said seductively, “Oh, could you give me a hand, Jess? It seems an awfully long way up.”

Slim just stared in astonishment. Where was the brisk woman who had said just a few short days ago, “I can ride Eastern and Western style, Mr. Sherman, and I am strong and resilient as well.” Now she seemed like a poor, weak female in need of a strong man to look after her every need. Well, one strong man in particular, Slim thought as he grinned across at his buddy but made no move to help him.

Jess threw Jack an anguished look, but he was too busy checking on his precious equipment, so after a moment, Jess wandered over and gave her a leg up, politeness dictating that he could do nothing else.

Carolina leaned forwards in the saddle, giving him a good view of her cleavage, and Jess quickly looked away, but not before she had seen his glance. She gave a little triumphant smile. These men were so easy to play, she thought to herself as she expertly kneed her horse off.

Slim threw Jess a sympathetic look. “You OK, buddy?”

Jess just shrugged. “I’ll live…probably.”

“As bad as that eh?”

“Worse.”

“Well, that’ll teach you to skulk away in the saloon half the night,” Slim said with a grin. “What do you expect?”

“Hell Slim, I had to have a drink or two. Can’t expect to take up good drinkin’ space and not buy nuthin’, and then Red was buyin’ a few too.”

Slim merely shook his head at his friend’s logic. “No, I guess not,” he said. “Anyway, come on, pard; let’s get home,” although both men knew it would be a trip of several days due to all the luggage they were carrying.

They had only been riding for an hour or so, a fierce sun beating down on them, when Jess reined Traveler in. Throwing himself from the saddle, he ran over behind some trees, and falling to his knees, started retching, losing his breakfast. After a while, he just lay there groaning and muttering, “Oh God, just take me now,” softly to himself.

The rest of the party had also stopped and Carolina looked over to Slim with troubled eyes. “Oh, the poor boy. Is he ill? Should I go to him?”

“No!” said Slim loudly, then more kindly. “That is, no thank you, Ma’am; best leave him. He’ll be OK just now.”

“Whatever is wrong?” she asked as Jess groaned again slightly louder this time.

“Er…supper last night; I think maybe it didn’t agree with him too much,” Slim said, winking at Jack, who knew perfectly well what Jess’s problem was.

After a few minutes, Slim dismounted and wandered over to where Jess was lying on his side holding his belly and cussing softly. “You OK, pard?”

“Do I look OK?” Jess said between clenched teeth.

“Well, seen you better,” Slim had to admit.

“Just shoot me, will you?”

“Nope, no can do. You’ve got a job to do, Jess; now get up and let’s see these good people home, yeah?”

After a few minutes, Jess nodded, “Give us a hand up, will you, Hardrock?”

Slim pulled him up, and the two men walked back to the others; Slim wordlessly handed his canteen over.

Jess took a couple of sips and then nodded his thanks before pulling his hat down hard. “Sorry about that,” he whispered to the company in general.

“Well that’s alright, you poor dear,” said Carolina softly. “Can I do anything to help you?”

I guess you’ve done enough already, thought Jess bitterly. But he just shook his head and stifled another groan. “No… er, thank you, Ma’am.” He remounted, a stoical look in his eyes as he kneed Traveler on.

By supper time, Jess had recovered sufficiently to partake of the bacon and beans that Slim had knocked up, but turned in early, using the excuse of continued stomach and headache to get him out of having to make polite conversation with Carolina.

Jess had taken himself off to the other side of the large campfire from where the other three were conversing softly so as not to disturb him, and he soon fell into a restless sleep.

After a while, Carolina excused herself and disappeared off into the woods to attend to a call of nature, but when she returned, she walked very softly into the camp, and unobserved by Slim and Jack, who were deep in conversation, she made her way around to the other side of the camp fire and knelt down beside Jess’s sleeping form.

He was clearly illuminated by the fire and also a huge moon which had just risen casting a magical glow around the camp with its unique silvery light. His lean face looked very young in repose and she was suddenly struck by the fact that she had a good five years on him, but there again, she really didn’t look her age, she thought vainly.

He was lying on his back a protective arm slung across his belly almost as though he was still in pain, his face ghostly pale in the moonlight, his unruly dark hair falling across his forehead and his long dark sweep of lashes casting a shadow on the soft curve of his cheek.

Then suddenly she could contain her feelings no longer, and reaching out a tentative hand. she lovingly swept the hair back from Jess’ forehead. Leaning down, she planted a soft kiss there.

“Millie?” Jess whispered.

After a second his eye lids flickered and his deep blue eyes opened and regarded her, at first with a drowsy loving look which was quickly replaced by one of almost horror. “Carolina, what in hell are you doing?” Jess cried.

That alerted Jack and Slim, who sat up, peered over and were just in time to see Carolina getting to her feet.

“Why nothing,” she stammered, then sad more firmly, “Goodness, Jess, I was merely checking that you were alright after you being ill before. There is no need to make such a fuss.” She stalked off back to her place on the other side of the fire, away from all the men.

Jess just stared after her for a moment. Had he been dreaming, imagined the whole thing? But no, he was pretty sure he hadn’t. Darned woman. Sooner he got home the better.

After a while, Slim came and joined him, throwing his bedroll down and sinking onto it. “What’s up Jess?” he said softly.

“That darned woman, that’s what’s up,” Jess replied throwing him a black look. “Hell, she was kissin’ me, Slim.”

Slim tried to hide a smile, but couldn’t quite manage it. “Heck, Jess, you like kissing, don’t you?”

Jess threw him an even blacker look. “Well, sure I do,” he hissed. “I just like to do the choosin’ as to who I’m kissin’ that’s all,” With that, he turned on his side and fell asleep again almost at  once, much to Slim’s amusement.

The following morning, Carolina acted like nothing had happened and continued her vigorous charm offensives on Jess — all  to no avail, however, as he studiously ignored all the giggling and eye fluttering that was coming his way. She still continued to call on his assistance at every possible opportunity as well, and by the end of the second day, Jess’s normally low patience threshold was being stretched to the limit. Even Slim, who had found the whole situation hilarious, was beginning to feel sorry for his buddy and even more so for a deeply embarrassed Jack.

It was the end of the day when Slim thought Jess would finally blow a fuse.

They were all tired and hot after a long ride in the fierce midsummer sun, and as they reined their mounts in and the men dismounted, Carolina once more turned huge helpless eyes to Jess. Putting her hands down to him, she said in a breathy little voice, “Help me down, would you, Jess darling? I’m so tired.”

Jess sighed deeply and rolled his eyes at Slim, but did as he was bid, holding his arms up to help her down.

However as she landed on terra firma, she continued holding him, indeed threw herself into his strong arms, holding him tightly.

Jess stepped backwards, trying to disengage himself from her, but she held tight, and flicking her eyes up at him, whispered, “Oh but you’re so strong.”

Then when she saw his less than friendly gaze, she fanned her face. “Oops, sorry, Jess; I went a little dizzy.” She stepped away, batting her eyes at him suggestively.

“Sure you did,” Jess said sarcastically, “and I ain’t your darlin’ either.” With that, he strode off, leaving her looking bereft.

Later, Jess got Jack alone as Jack was filling up the canteens in a small creek. Jess hunkered down beside him. “Jack, I figure we need to talk.”

“Oh, what about, my dear boy?”

“I think you know…this business with Carolina.”

At her name Jack’s face clouded. Oh that. Yes, most unfortunate.”

“Look, I’m real sorry, Jack, but I ain’t encouraging her. Hell, I hardly know the woman. And well…this ain’t got nuthin’ to do with you and Millie; I ain’t getting’ my own back, you know. I ain’t that kinda guy.”

“Oh my dear chap, I do know that. It is obvious she is making all the running.”

Jess sighed deeply. “It’s only to make you jealous, you do know that, don’t you?”

Jack looked quite surprised at that. “You think so?”

Jess nodded. “I’m sure of it. Hell, what would a smart lady like Miss Carolina Southern want with the likes of me anyways? Nope, that’s what she’s doin’ — just playin’ games, buddy.”

Jack just shook his head in bewilderment.

“So how about it, huh?” said Jess hopefully. “Why don’t you take her back? “

Jack’s head shot up at that. “Oh no! Oh dear me, no. I made the decision to finish our liaison back in New York, and it was the right one, as I have had confirmed by her disgraceful behavior of late.”

Jess looked slightly crestfallen at that. “Oh well, I guess we’ll be back at the ranch in another couple of days and we can take her off to the railhead and dispatch her back east.” Exchanging a conspiratorial smile, Jess and Jack made their way back to camp.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of Jess and Jack’s absence, Carolina decided on a change of tack and went and sat by Slim, who was lighting a fire to cook the evening meal.

Slim smiled in welcome, and encouraged by that, she went and sat next to him. After a minute, she said, “So have you known Jess long?”

Slim threw her a wary look. “Yes, quite a few years now. Why?”

“I’m just interested, that’s all, in his background, you know,” she said, turning eager eyes on him. “Where he’s from, his parentage, jobs that sort of thing.”

“Texas,” Slim said succinctly, returning to the fire.

“And…?”

“Huh?”

“Well, tell me, Slim, I want to know all about him…please,” Carolina said fervently, throwing him one of her little girl lost looks that had become the norm.

Slim turned candid light blue eyes on her. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but Jess is a real private person and I guess he wouldn’t like to think of us talking this way. You want to know anything about him, well, you’d better ask him yourself.”

She looked intrigued at this. “You make him sound so interesting, mysterious. Does he have a wicked past or something? Don’t tell me he’s a notorious gunman?” she giggled. Then she saw Slim’s sharp intake of breath. “My God, he is, isn’t he? What do you call it…a gunslinger?”

“Look, Ma’am, he was, but that’s all behind him now, so just drop it will you, please. I don’t want Jess upset.”

“Well neither do I,” Carolina said coolly. Then suddenly remembering something, she said softly, “So who is Millie then?”

“Huh? “

“Millie. The other night when I was….er, checking on him, he was half asleep and he called out the name Millie.”

“Yes, well, he’s probably missing her,” said Slim playing his trump card. “See, she’s his steady girlfriend back in Laramie — a wonderful girl. And ol’ Jess there really loves her,” he finished quietly.

Carolina’s head shot up and she turned very pale. “Oh I see,” she whispered and turned away, her expression one of shock and dismay.

She was very quiet all evening, refusing any supper and taking herself off to the far side of the campfire away from the others, her thoughts in turmoil. How could I have been so stupid as to actually kiss him, she kept thinking. What must he think of me? But then again, she had never felt this way about any man before and had been completely bowled over, unable to help herself, such was her infatuation. Goodness knows she’d had enough suitors — had even been engaged twice before Jack — but she’d never met anyone like Jess.

Then the more she found out about him, the more intriguing he seemed. So what if he had a girlfriend — some boring rancher’s daughter or one of those saloon girl sluts. She’d soon see her off. But how could she seduce Jess, get him for herself?

And why would she want to? she asked herself honestly. He was hardly her type. An ex-gunslinger with a part share in a shabby little ranch miles from anywhere. He was barely educated. Well, what would her society friends make of him? And then she smiled to herself; she knew very well what they would think. They would all be completely green with envy.

He was so handsome, so exciting — that frisson of almost fear mixed with lust that he could create in her with just a glance, those deep blue eyes that looked at her with such a depth of feeling. Alright, at the moment, she had to admit that the expression in them was often wary and sometimes even darn right furious, but oh, to have those same eyes twinkle as he flirted with her or to smolder with desire…

“I have to have him,” she whispered to herself. “I just have to. But how?”

As it turned out, however, she had no time for planning and plotting her next move.

She had been feeling tired and achy all day and opted for an early night.

Once she had settled down on the far side of the fire, Jess turned to Slim and whispered, “So what’s eatin’ her then?”

Slim grinned back. “Sulking, I reckon. I just happened to mention about how you and Millie are walking out; she’s hardly spoken since.”

Jess grinned across at his buddy, delighted with this latest turn of events. “Now, why didn’t I think of that? Thanks Hardrock; I owe you.”

The following morning, Carolina looked pale and shaky and refused breakfast; she just sat sipping her coffee and looking sadly into the camp fire.

Jess raised a quizzical eyebrow at Slim but said nothing, and they rode out shortly after breakfast, heading towards Paradise where they would spend a couple of days, with Jess scaring up wildlife for Jack to sketch and paint at a later date.

They arrived in the lush valley at noon, and the men jumped down from their mounts, ready to make a camp in an idyllic spot near a stream but with plenty of shade from some tall pines, the whole area overlooking the distant mountain peaks and abounding with wildlife.

Once Jess had tethered Traveler, he again felt Carolina’s eyes boring into him and he turned, regarding her white face. Something about her whole demeanor suddenly made him feel sorry for her. He walked over and said gently, “You OK? Need a hand down?”

She just nodded. “Thank you, Jess; I don’t feel so good.”

Jess reached up to help her down and she almost fell into his arms, her head lolling against his shoulder.

“Carolina!” Jess said brusquely, annoyed that he’d been conned into one of her silly games again. He tried to back off, but then her body started to fall to the ground, and he realized that she had indeed fainted. He picked her up at once and carried her over to some springy turf near where Slim and Jack were unloading the equipment, and laid her gently down. “Jack,” he called, “It’s your woman. I figure she’s sick or somethin’; just fainted on me.”

“Swooned with passion more likely,” whispered Slim wandering over, but his grin faded when he saw her deathly pale face.

Jack came over too and all three men looked down at her still form.

After a moment, her eyelids flickered and she gave little groan, one hand on her lower belly and her face grimacing in pain.

It was a few minutes later before she was sufficiently recovered to be able to speak, however, and she and Jess were alone, Slim having gone for some fresh water and Jack dispatched to get a blanket to cover her.

“What’s up,” asked Jess anxiously looking into the brown pain filled eyes. “You hurt yourself?”

She shook her head at that. “No. I’m so sorry to be a nuisance.”

“Hey, you’re not; you can’t help being sick, can you.”

“Oh, I’m not sick…not really.”

“Oh? “

“Yes, I’ll be fine in a minute; it’s just….er, women’s problems, you know?” Carolina finished shyly.

Jess, who was hunkered down beside her, looked mystified. “Women’s problems?” Then the penny dropped. “Oh…women’s problems,” he said blushing to the roots of his hair. “Yeah…well…” He sighed and then made an effort to gather his thoughts. “So er, can I do anything?”

Carolina considered this. “Well, maybe a cup of your excellent coffee with a drop of that whiskey you men have been imbibing would help a little,” she said with the ghost of a smile.

Jess sighed with relief, knowing he could go and do something practical, and left to do as he was bid. “Sure, coming right up.” He went off to set the camp fire.

After a while, Slim wandered over, having left Jack with Carolina, making her more comfortable. “What’s wrong with her?” he whispered as Jess busied himself building a fire and putting the coffee on.

“Women’s troubles,” Jess whispered back, applying himself to the task in hand without looking up.

“Huh?”

Jess sighed deeply. “You know,” he whispered again, “women’s troubles.”

After a moment, Slim had the light of comprehension in his eyes. “Ah… Yes, well, not much we can do to help, I guess.”

“Sure there is; she wants a coffee laced with Red Eye.”

Slim nodded sagely. “Oh yeah, that should fit the bill. So you fixing it then? “

Jess nodded. “But I sure ain’t addin’ much; she’s crazy enough sober. Lord help us if she gets smashed.” Shaking his head, he went about his task.

Slim chuckled to himself. The woman sure was turning this whole trip upside down, he thought. What would she do next?

Well as it turned out, very little, for that day anyway. She mostly dozed by the fire. Jack acted the concerned friend and cared for her while Jess and Slim took themselves off for an enjoyable afternoon fishing, all three men having decided that Carolina couldn’t be left alone out in the wilderness. And so, the sketching trip was postponed until the following day.

However, Carolina took advantage of Jess and Slim’s absence by sounding Jack out about Jess’s girlfriend.

They had been chatting amiably enough about this and that, Carolina’s previously brittle attitude towards Jack now gone, as she really didn’t care about the broken engagement anymore.

Then after a while, she casually slipped the topic into the conversation. “So what’s this Millie girl like then?” she said, with a bored sigh, as though she wasn’t that interested. However she wasn’t prepared for Jack’s intense reaction. His head shot up and he blushed.

 “Millie? So why do you ask?”

She yawned. “I don’t know; just curious, I suppose. So what does she look like?”

“Well actually, very similar to you, my dear — same coloring of hair and eyes and same…er, pleasant figure.”

“Oh so I’m just ‘pleasant’ now, am I,” Carolina asked with a mock frown. “That is not what you used to say about me.”

Jack flushed again. ”Yes, well, that is all over with now, isn’t it. We’ve both decided to move on, have we not?”

She gave a faint nod. “Yes, I suppose so. So where did you meet this girl then?”

“At the saloon. She works there and I photographed her — all the staff.”

Carolina cast him a supercilious glance. “I thought as much one of those saloon sluts.”

Jack was practically beside himself with rage at this slur.” She is not! How dare you say that! She is a sweet, kind, lovely young woman.”

She cast her eyes to heaven at that. “Well, of course she appears that way, Jack. That’s what she’s paid for — to sweet talk suckers like you and then get you to buy drinks…or more.”

“Stop it, I say!” said Jack, now leaping up from where he had been lounging in front of the fire. “Take that back, Carolina. You know nothing of the girl and she isn’t like that. Old Tom runs a clean house; no working girls there, I can assure you.” Then as an afterthought, he added, “And for goodness sake, don’t you let Jess hear you talking that way or you’ll see him really mad. My goodness, there’s no knowing as to what he would do. That young man had a very volatile temper you know!”

She sobered at that and then glancing up at him, said, “Oh do relax, Jack; you’re making me nervous. Come and sit down again. And what it is to you anyway?”

He finally did as he was bid and she smiled over at him. “There, that’s better, and I’m sorry if I spoke out of turn. So this Millie person has obviously made a big impression on you. So what is so special about her?”

If it hadn’t been for the fact that they had both enjoyed more than one coffee liberally laced with whiskey, he might not have been so candid. But as it was, he looked deeply into the fire and eventually turning towards Carolina said simply, “I think it is her whole personality — so easy to talk to, so kind and thoughtful. Oh and funny too; a wonderful sense of humor.”

Carolina just gave a brief nod, not liking what she was hearing at all. However, Jack carried on regardless. “And she’s so good to Jess; he said she was his best friend as well as lover — always there for him. He’s a really lucky young man.”

Carolina sighed deeply. “And I wasn’t with you, was I? We were hardly best friends; more like bitter acquaintances by the end.”

He nodded sadly. “I’m afraid you’re right, my dear.”

“No wonder you fell for the first woman that showed you a little kindness.”

Jack’s head shot up at that. “What do you mean?”

“Oh you know perfectly well; you’ve fallen for Jess’s little Millie yourself, haven’t you?”

Jack just shook his head. “I really don’t want to discuss it my dear.”

“So does Jess know you’ve got feelings for his girl?”

Just then they heard a shout of laughter, heralding the arrival of the fishermen back in camp and their conversation was curtailed.

Jess and Slim returned to the camp that suppertime in high spirits, and Jess gutted and cleaned the fish before Slim cooked them up. The meal was enjoyed by all, even Carolina, who had finally got her appetite back and was looking much better color, although her demeanor still seemed kind of troubled to Jess. But he thought he’d leave that well alone and just concentrate on the job he was being paid for — finding wildlife and plants for Jack to sketch and views for him to photograph.

“So you up for it tomorrow then, Jack?” Jess asked, grinning across at him as they sipped their after supper coffee.

“I certainly am; I really would like to get a closer look at those beautiful antelope. Any chance, Jess?”

“Well, I’ll do my best. Gotta be up real early and we may catch ‘em coming down to the river to drink.”

“Oh can I come too?” asked Carolina, throwing Jess a pleading look. “I am so interested in the wonderful animals in these parts.”

“You are?” asked Jess, looking amazed.

“Well, of course. I have a whole new perspective on life since I met you,” she said quietly, but with none of the usual eye fluttering and knowing looks that usually accompanied such a statement.

Jess just threw her a challenging look. “Is that right.”

“Indeed. So may I?”

Jess looked across at Jack and Slim, who gave no argument, and just shrugged. “I suppose,” he said gruffly, “as long as you’re up in time and you keep real quiet. Do as I tell you, right?”

“Why, yes, of course; anything you say Jess.”

“Um.” Jess turned his attentions back to his coffee.

*****

The following morning, the whole party was up and ready to go just before dawn, and with Jess leading the way on foot, he made his way down through the lush undergrowth following the stream but staying well back from it. After walking for about half an hour, he signaled for Slim and Carolina to stay on a rocky outcrop where they would have a good view of the proceedings down by the river bank and then he led Jack very stealthily forwards, the last few yards down on the ground, inching their way forwards on their bellies. Then they stayed still and silent in the undergrowth, just yards from the river bank.

It was about ten minutes later when a group of antelope slowly made their way down to the water. The group comprised of a magnificent buck with a small harem of about half a dozen does and several half-grown youngster, the whole group looking breathtakingly beautiful in the early morning light.

There was a mist still shrouding the river, but as the men watched, the sun finally burned through, picking up the creatures’ characteristic two pointed horns, their reddish brown coats and contrasting wide white stripe to their throats and white bellies.

Jack gave a little sigh of pleasure, and making himself comfortable, found his sketch book and deftly started to produce a perfect likeness of the stately buck and his family.

Jess watched in admiration, wondering how a few scribbles with a pencil on a piece of paper could produce such an amazing image with seemingly so little effort. But then he remembered back to the truly incredible, partly finished portrait of Millie and figured this guy was indeed a most accomplished artist amongst his many other skills.

Jess looked back to where the family was still innocently taking their early morning drink, and although part of him could appreciate their beauty, another part really wished he’d brought his hunting rifle with him. But there again, maybe it wasn’t an appropriate time to go shootin’ stuff for the pot. No, that could wait until their last day, he decided, and anyway maybe they’d spot an elk, which would feed them back at the ranch for even longer.

Then Jess was startled out of his reverie by a sudden commotion at the water side, as the antelope took fright. With a flash of their white rumps, they were off at speed along the river bank and then away into the forest. A few seconds later, a cougar came into view in hot pursuit.

Jack just stared, mesmerized by the turn of events. “What on earth?”

Jess merely grinned at him. “The cat’s just looking for breakfast, that’s all.”

“And will he get it?” asked Jack looking troubled.

“Nah, I shouldn’t have thought so; they had a head start. Reckon they’d have shown him a clean pair of heels. I guess an antelope can outrun a cougar most days.”

Carolina and Slim had joined them at this stage and she turned amazed eyes on Jess. “How do you know all these things?” she asked in awe.

Jess just looked bewildered at that. “Dunno; I just picked it up, I guess.” Then turning to Jack, he asked, “You get enough there, buddy?”

They had been hunkered down watching the deer for nearly an hour and Jack’s sketch book was full of some wonderful images. “Oh yes, my dear boy; excellent, absolutely excellent.” Then turning to Slim, he said, “I really don’t know how your partner does it, Slim; he just seems to magic these ‘critters’, as you call them, out of nowhere.”

Slim turned teasing eyes on his friend. “Oh yeah, he’s real talented at magicing things out of nowhere, aren’t you, Jess? Bar bills, ripped shirts, not to mention excuses, of course; gee, we get one heck of a lot of excuses. Just magic them up real good, don’t you, buddy?” he said laughing now.

“Why, you… Come here!”

Jess made a dive for him but Slim dodged and tore off down the track back towards the camp with Jess in hot pursuit, and a few minutes later, Jess wrestled him to the ground. The two men rolled around in the dust and had a good old tussle before good naturedly getting up, brushing off and continuing back to camp, much to Carolina and Jack’s amusement.

As they followed on, Carolina turned to Jack and said wistfully, “It must be lovely to have that close sort of relationship; they’re like brothers, aren’t they?”

Jack smiled back. “They surely are,” and then thoughtfully added, “I’ve been missing Charles; it will be good to see him again,” referring to his own brother.

“So you’re going back home?” she asked.

“No… no, my dear; Charles is joining me here for a little visit.”

“Oh, I see.” Then Carolina cast her eyes back to the two young men in front of them, who were still rough-housing together. “How do you think one goes about being best friends with a man?” she asked, casting him a questioning look.

“Well, the same way you’re best friends with anyone, I suppose,” Jack said thoughtfully. “Liking them, caring about them, having shared interests, a shared sense of humor,” he said, nodding towards where Jess and Slim were now in fits of laughter over a private joke.

“Yes, but should a woman do anything differently? Behave differently?”

“What do you mean, towards Jess?” Jack asked after a moment.

“Maybe,” she replied softly.

“So you’re talking about what I said about him and Millie being best friends?”

“Maybe,” she said again.

Jack stood still and grabbed both her arms so she was forced to stand and listen to him. “Don’t even think of it, Carolina,” he said gruffly.

She just stared up at him, surprised by the force of his anger.

“Jess and Millie are happy together; they are not only best friends, they are lovers too. Their relationship is solid and true and based on a shared background, shared memories, and you could never break them up, never!”

She turned angry eyes on him then. “And I guess you would know that…because you’ve tried?” she asked.

Jack hung his head in shame. “God forgive me, yes,” he whispered. “But as soon as I saw the depth of their relationship, I backed off, which is what you must do, my dear,” he said pleadingly.

Even then, Jack still wasn’t sure if Carolina really meant it, or if Jess’s theory was right and she was just pretending to be interested in Jess to regain Jack’s affection, but either way, he knew it would all end in tears. “Don’t provoke him, Carolina. You really are playing with fire. Just go back home and get on with your life. Jess really isn’t the man for you.”

She pulled free from where he was still holding her arms and marched off before  turning and replying, “I can’t do that, Jack,” and she ran on to catch up with the others, a determined look in  her eyes.

After breakfast, they took off up a hilly trail leading up above the pine forest so that Jack could get some good photographs of the distant mountain range. Again they went on foot, with Jess leading Harpy the Mule with all the photographic equipment and Slim and Carolina again tagging along.

However, once they reached the chosen spot, Slim said he was going off to find something for the pot for supper.

Jess looked hopefully over when Slim said that, like for two pins he’d join him, but Slim leaned across and said softly, “Uh, uh, pard; don’t forget you’re the escort around here and photographer’s assistant. I’m just along for the ride.”

Jess sighed deeply and then flicked a glance over to where Carolina was staring dreamily around her. “Well, can’t you take her with you, at least?”

“Are you kidding? She’d never leave you, buddy.” With that, Slim threw Jess a wicked grin before marching off for a day of sport.

It was after Jess had assisted Jack take the photographs, helped erect the blackout tent and the photographer was ensconced inside it, carrying out his developing procedure, that Carolina had a chance to talk intimately to Jess, which she had been wanting to do since they took off for Paradise.

Jess was slumped down, just relaxing against a mighty pine, enjoying the view of the valley below and distant mountain range that Jack had just committed to his collection, when she came and sat down beside him. He gave her a brief smile of welcome before returning his gaze back to the view.

Carolina cast  him a covert  glance and drank in the dark wavy hair, once more spilling over his forehead, the lean face with those deep blue eyes scanning the view below as if constantly  on the lookout for trouble. Then she took in the relaxed way he was sitting, leaning back against a pine, one leg outstretched and the other up, with his arm resting on it, his rough blue work shirt sleeves rolled up a little exposing his wrist. All she wanted to do was to lean forwards and take that hand and pull it to her face, caressing it and looking up into eyes, and see them alight with passion.

Instead, she said, “You look rather pensive. Are you expecting trouble?”

He dragged his eyes away from the valley below. “Huh? Oh, I see. No, not really, Ma’am; just kinda wondering as to where that ol’ cougar went off to this morning is all.”

“Oh,” and she looked down to the valley too. “You think we may be in some danger?”

Jess looked at her properly then. “No, not as long as we’re all sensible and follow orders. Me and Slim will be on the alert; no need to fret, Ma’am.”

Her head swiveled at that. “I think we are better friends than that, aren’t we, Jess. There is no need to keep calling me Ma’am.”

“I’m here on business,” he said dryly. “Best to keep things business-like.”

She looked hurt at that. “And that is the only reason you are escorting Jack, because you need the money?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Then he saw her stricken face and felt sorry that he had so obviously hurt her. “Maybe at first it was. Yes, ol’ Slim there kinda bullied me into it; said we’d got cash flow problems at the ranch. But, the more  we’ve done — all these likenesses that Jack has taken — I think they’re real good, and I guess I’m kinda proud to be  part of it,” he answered honestly.

She turned to him, beaming at that. “Oh I’m so glad,” she gushed. “I just knew you felt that way really.”

“Yeah… well, Jack’s a real nice guy and I guess I’ve learnt a lot from him Jess agreed.”

She nodded vigorously. ”Yes; he said what a quick learner you were, what with all the chemicals and all. Said he couldn’t have managed without you.”

Jess grinned, looking down shyly, “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said softly.

“I don’t know how I’m going to either,” she whispered.

“Huh?”

Then she grabbed hold of his hand and held it to her heart. “I don’t know how I will manage without you either,” she whispered.

Then the next thing he knew, she was suddenly in his arms kissing him passionately.

He tried to push her gently away, but it was a moment before he finally broke free of her grasp. “Hell Carolina, what are you playin’ at?” he finally gasped as he pulled himself from her, leaping up and moving away.

She leapt up too and confronted him now looking flushed and tearful. “I’m not playing games,” she cried. “I mean everything I say. I am in earnest, Jess, I swear. I care for you, I really do.”

“The hell you do,” Jess spat back, suddenly losing his temper, all the teasing and provocative behavior of the last week finally taking its toll as his anger erupted. “All you’re doin’ is tryin’ to get your man back! Anyone can see that. You’re just playing me for a fool, Carolina, makin’ up to me, so as to get ol’ Jack there good an’ jealous. And I’ll tell you now, girl; it ain’t gonna work!” With that, he turned and marched off through the woods.

After a while, he stopped and took a deep breath to calm down and stood there deep in thought. Then after a few more minutes whilst he stood there undecided, Jess finally headed back to where he had left Carolina and Jack.

‘Hell, I can’t abandon them out here,’ he thought to himself and marched quickly back — and afterwards he was to thank God that he had done so.

As he returned, Jess saw something that made his heart miss a beat.

Carolina was sitting moodily where he and left her a few minutes earlier, idly watching Jack, who had now emerged from his makeshift darkroom and was hunkered down poring over the images he had just produced.

It was the low growl that alerted them both to what Jess had already seen — the cougar poised on the rocky outcrop just above where Jack was working.

Then everything seemed to happen at once.

Carolina jumped up as she saw Jess advance and then stared in horror as he drew his gun with lightning speed and then fired, without even stopping to aim.

Then her head swiveled back and she was just in time to see the magnificent cougar fall from  where he was about to pounce on Jack,  catching him a glancing blow as it fell from Jess’s bullet, falling to earth like a  stone, dead in seconds.

Jack gave a startled yell as the powerful beast fell on him, raking its claws down his arm as it came down, and Carolina gave a piercing scream, before falling to her knees, one hand up to her mouth and  her eyes wide with shock.

Jess holstered his gun and ran forwards, stooping to drag the heavy carcass from where it had fallen, flooring Jack, and saw the bullet hole square between the eyes that had rendered the creature lifeless. Then he hauled Jack up to a sitting position and took in his pale deeply shocked face and the blood soaked sleeve where the cat had caught him as he fell.

After a moment, Jess was aware that Carolina was still screaming, and turning on her, said brusquely, “Will you hush up? He ain’t dead. Just simmer down, Carolina; you’re makin’ matters worse.”

His harsh words seemed to do the trick and she immediately quieted herself.

Jess turned back to Jack, and using his bandanna, he tied it tightly around the bleeding arm. “That should hold it until we can get you back to camp,” he said, giving the photographer an encouraging smile. Then turning back to Carolina, he said briskly, “Give me a hand loading up the mule; we’ve gotta get ol’ Jack here back to the camp pronto.”

Carolina did as she was told, and it was a short while later that they arrived back at the camp in time to see Slim gutting his kill ready for supper.

However, Slim put everything to one side as soon as he saw the sorry state Jack was in, and helped Jess to tend the wound.

After a while, Jess turned to Carolina and said, “Can you finish up the supper? I have to clean this wound out real good and Slim needs to go back down the track and fetch the blackout tent back. Jack’s frettin’ about it.”

She looked uncomfortable. “To be honest, Jess, I don’t think I can. You see, I don’t cook. “

Jess looked scandalized at that. “You don’t cook?”

“No. I have a maid at home who takes care of all that sort of thing for me.”

Just then Jack gave a low groan and Jess flicked his eyes to where the injured man was looking almost grey now, and then back to Carolina. “Well, I guess now would be a good time to learn,” he said tersely before turning back to his patient.

Carolina turned to where Slim had left the now gutted rabbits, and taking a deep breath, started to prepare the meal as well as she could.

Meanwhile, Jess went about the painful business of cleaning out the deep scratches with alcohol before binding the arm up with clean rags. Jack had cried in agony when Jess poured on the neat spirit and Carolina ran over.

“What on earth are you doing to him?” she cried angrily.

“What has to be done,” replied Jess firmly, continuing his work, all the time speaking softly and reassuringly to Jack, until the job was finally done, while Carolina looked bleakly on.

By then Slim had returned, and taking pity on Carolina, he finished cooking the meal, much to Jess’s annoyance.

“Hell Slim, a woman as can’t cook, I reckon ol’ Jack there had a lucky escape,” Jess had whispered as the two men bedded the horses down after supper.

“Well, maybe she’s got hidden attributes,” said Slim grinning over.

“Darn well hidden,” muttered Jess. Then he unburdened himself as to what had happened between him and Carolina immediately preceding the cougar attack.

“Hell, she really has got the hots for you, hasn’t she, Jess?”

“Yep, and it nearly cost Jack his life. I was so darned mad with her, I walked off and left them, Slim. If I hadn’t thought it through and gone back, I guess we’d be burying Jack, not just cleaning him up some.”

Slim gave a huge sigh. “For goodness sake, Jess, you shouldn’t have left a couple of tenderfoots like them alone out here.”

“Well I know that, don’t I,” replied Jess fiercely. “That’s why I went back, wasn’t it? “

Slim merely shook his head at the logic of that.

Jess looked down. “OK, I know I was out of order, but darn it, Slim it ain’t you she’s messin’ with and I’ve sure as hell had enough of her. As soon as ol’ Jack’s well enough to ride, we’re headin’ home. I reckon my escortin’ career has just come to an end.”

Slim frowned across at his buddy’s obvious angst. “OK Jess, you win. I figure you’ve just about had as much as any man should have to take, and as soon as Jack pays up, I reckon all our financial problems should be sorted. Then, with the bonus of Carolina’s fee for my escorting, we may even have a little over for the odd treat, like that hunting knife in the store you’ve been coveting  for months.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Jess ,casting his buddy a cheeky grin and going about grooming his mount with renewed vigor.

*****

They arrived back at the ranch just two days later, and Daisy and Mike both came running out to greet them as it was just before noon on a Saturday morning.

Mike ran straight to Jess, who had jumped down from the saddle and threw his arms around the boy, picking him up and spinning him around before setting him back on terra firma.

“Gee, Jess, it’s good to see you,” cried the boy, and then ran and hugged Slim, before running back again, an arm slung  possessively around his hero’s waist as he squinted up at the other adults who had just arrived.

“Mike, you remember Mr. Williamson?”said Jess gently.

“Yes sir; good to see you, Mr. Williamson.”

Then Jess turned him towards Carolina. “And this is Miss Carolina Southern, an old friend of Mr. Williamson.”

Mike grinned across at her. “Howdy, Ma’am,” he said politely.

Carolina’s face was a study of shock. A son? Jess had a son?

The boy had obviously been at school during her last brief visit, but surely someone should have mentioned it, she thought now looking into the bright eyes of the lively youngster and giving him a weak smile of recognition.

Then Daisy bustled up. “It’s so good to see you back. Do come along in; the coffees on,” she said, beaming at the gathered company.

They sat around the table discussing their plans.

“So what now?” asked Slim, smiling over at Jack. “I guess you have all the material you need?”

“Oh yes indeed, my dear friend. Thanks to your good self and especially Jess here, I have some of the best photographs I have ever taken and I am truly indebted to you.”

Daisy had picked up on the fact that Jack wasn’t looking his usual fit and healthy self, however, as only Daisy could. “You’re looking a little peaky, Mr. Williamson,” she said gently. “Are you feeling quite well?”

He smiled over at the kindly housekeeper. “Well, my dear lady, that is very astute of you. Sad to say, I had something of a tussle with a cougar just a few days back, but Slim and Jess have treated the wound and I am almost back to my normal self.”

“Oh my,” said Daisy clasping her hands and looking troubled. “Whatever happened?”

“The big beast just jumped on Jack, and Jess there shot it. I have never seen the likes of it, Mrs. Cooper. He had his gun in his hand and shot the creature smack between the eyes in a flash; saved dear Jack’s life. I have never seen anyone move so fast; it fairly took my breath away, it really did,” Carolina gushed, throwing Jess an adoring look.

Daisy turned warm eyes on Jess. ”Oh, I don’t doubt it,” she said softly. “You would have to go a long way before you found better guides than Jess and Slim; I just knew they would keep you safe.”

Jess was getting increasingly embarrassed at all this female adoration and so got up from the table where they were all sitting and moved hastily off towards the door. “Gonna put the horses up. Wanna help me, Tiger?”

“Sure, Jess.” The boy jumped down from the table and ran off with his hero.

Once they had left, Slim turned back to Jack and Carolina. “So what next? Are you folks heading back East?”

Jack shook his head. ”No. I was meaning to ask you, Slim, if, well, if I could stay on a little longer. I have Millie’s portrait to finish and I would really like to start work on all the wildlife paintings. Your bunk house would make an ideal studio, if you could bear to put up with me a while longer. And I’d pay you top rates, of course” he said quickly.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a glance and she gave him a slight nod.

“I don’t see why not, Jack. I’ll have to check with my partner, but I figure you staying on the ranch would be just fine. But I have to tell you, I figure he’s finished his escorting duties. You see we’ve been kinda neglecting the ranch these past few weeks and got chores to attend to, stock to round up and sell, maybe another mustanging trip before the fall, that kind of thing, you know?”

“Certainly; I understand completely and I would be no trouble. You’d hardly know I’m here,” Jack chuckled.

Then all eyes turned to Carolina.

“And what are your plans, my dear?” asked Daisy kindly.

She dipped her head. “I’ve really found I like it in these parts, so I think I’ll stay a while too,” she said with a small smile aimed in Daisy’s direction.

Slim gave an embarrassed cough. “Well, er, where were you thinking of staying, Ma’am? I’m afraid we don’t have  accommodation here.”

Daisy opened her mouth to offer a share of her room, but closed it again quickly once she saw the quelling look Slim was throwing her.

“Oh no, of course not,” said Carolina quickly, meaning the exact opposite. She had really hoped to be offered lodging there so that she could continue her pursuit of Jess.

“There’s a stage due in shortly,” Slim said gently, hating to turn her out, but hating even more what his buddy would do to him if he didn’t. “Then there is a very good hotel in Laramie where they’ll look after you real good, and of course, there is the railhead, once you decide to go home.” He tailed off, suddenly unable to look her in the eyes.

“I really thought you would have been missing home comforts by now my dear,” said Jack. “Missing your family and all? “

She turned a deadpan expression on him. “No.”

There was an embarrassed silence, then Mike tore in. “Stage is here, folks!”

There was all hustle and bustle getting Carolina’s luggage together before Mose finally whisked the stage back to town, Carolina leaning out of the window and waving wistfully in Jess’s direction.

Jack wandered off to the bunkhouse to get his sketches in order and Mike went to help Daisy set the table as Slim and Jess watched the stage reach the rise and then disappear from sight, leaving just a cloud of dust.

Jess turned a triumphant grin on his buddy. “That’s her off home then,” he said happily.

Slim looked back at his friend and gave him a rueful look. “Nope.”

“Huh?”

“She’s just going as far as Laramie. Says she kind of likes it around here; going to stay a mite longer.”

Jess looked horror stricken. “You’re kiddin’ me.”

“Nope, sorry, pard. I guess we’re saddled with Miss Carolina Southern for a while longer.” With that, Slim clapped his friend on the back as they made their way into the house for lunch.

It was a week before Slim and Jess were able to make it into town as indeed the jobs around the ranch had piled up during their absence. But come Saturday night, they dressed up in their glad rags of dark frock coat, best trousers, brocade vests and Sunday best Stetsons and galloped off with whoops of pure joy, much to Daisy’s amusement as she stood waving them off. But then she returned to the old house with a troubled expression in her old grey eyes, wondering what lay ahead for her boys in town.

Slim and Jess strode into the Laramie Saloon, and the first thing Jess did was make a bee line to where Millie was just returning to the bar after waiting tables. Grabbing hold of her, he lifted her up, spun her around and then dropped her down in front of him. Then pulling her close, he kissed her very thoroughly, to the delight of all present, and there was much ensuing banter with the odd ribald comment.

“Why Jess Harper, what has got into you? Not in front of the customers,” Millie whispered briskly, but her glow of pleasure was obvious.

The couple had an unwritten law that they were never overtly affectionate in the saloon to avoid exactly this situation of wolf whistles and bawdy suggestive comment, but Jess just couldn’t help himself, so pleased was he to have  his girl back in  his arms.

He finally let her go and she escaped back behind the bar, but every spare second she wasn’t called on to serve customers, she sashayed back down towards the end of the bar where Jess and Slim were standing.

Then as the crowds began to thin; towards the end of the evening, Tom took pity on the young couple and let Millie off early.

By this time, Slim was deep in conversation with his current girl, Lily, and so he hardly noticed when Jess said his goodnights and disappeared out through the back of the bar and up to Millie’s room.

Once he had abided by her house rules of removing his boots, Stetson and gun belt and leaving them by the door, he turned and took her in his arms again, kissing her long and slow, before pulling back and looking into those beautiful loving eyes he knew so well.

She took him by the hand and led him to the comfy old leather couch by the fire before pouring him a coffee with a shot of Red Eye. Jess patted the seat beside him and she cuddled up next to him with a sigh of contentment.

“It sure is good to have you back, honey,” she said softly. “I’ve kind of missed you.”

Jess placed his cup carefully on the little side table and turned to her, one finger gently tracing down her cheek. “You have? So how much then?” he whispered, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously.

“Oh, about this much,” she said breathily, before leaning in and kissing him passionately.

*****

It was early the following morning before they talked properly.

Jess had just awoken, and after looking around feeling somewhat disorientated, was delighted to find himself in Millie’s large comfortable bed. Then he rolled his head on the pillow to see her head resting on her hand as she lay on her side contemplating him.

“Morning, sleepy head,” she said softly.

Jess leaned up and caressed her face with his forefinger. “Gee, it’s good to be home.”

“Yes,” she said with a secret little smile. “I heard you had quite a busy time.”

“Huh? So who have you been talkin’ to? I’ve only been back a week and Slim ain’t been into town.”

She gave a little giggle then. “Got you worried, have I, cowboy? “

“Huh?” he said, his quirky eyebrows working overtime. “What’re you talkin’ about, sweetheart?”

“Well, just that I’ve had it all, chapter and verse, from Carolina Southern.”

Jess shot up in bed. “What? Who? How? You don’t know her…do you?” he almost squeaked.

“Oh yes,” drawled Millie, trying to keep the laughter out of her voice, seeing how shook up Jess obviously was. “I know her very well now — almost as well as she knows you.”

“Now wait a minute, Mill, don’t you believe a thing that woman tells you…”

“Well, I should be real mad at you, Jess Harper, if I did believe anything she said but…”

“Yeah?”

“Well thankfully, I don’t, so you can relax.”

Jess gave her an uncertain smile. “So what yarns has she been spinnin’ you then?”

“Oh, just all about brave Jess Harper, who shoots bears and cougars and is such a wonderful guide,” she said rolling her eyes and pretending to swoon.

“Yeah, well, I guess that’s true,” Jess said, relaxing into an easy grin.

“And how you are desperately in love with her, but you aren’t going to do anything just yet until you’ve had a chance to break it to me gently,” Millie said, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow.

Jess grabbed hold of her upper arms and turned her to face him. “What! She said that?” he spat angrily, now feeling furious with Carolina. Then searching her face, he asked, “Hell, you don’t believe any of that crap, do you?”

Millie looked deeply into his anxious blue eyes her expression unfathomable and then her face finally creased into a warm smile. Of course I don’t, honey. What sort of an idiot do you think I am? She just ain’t your type, anyway — a right stuck up cow if ever I met one.”

Jess visibly relaxed and then pulled her gently into his loving embrace. ”Now tell me everything right from the start,” he said softly. “So how did you meet the crazy woman?”

“Well she just turned up at the Wednesday Women’s Group in the Church Hall.”

“What the one Daisy goes to?”

“Yep, and she walked in and asked Daisy if she could join us. Well, what could she say? Anyway, this Carolina just took over the meeting and spent the whole of the first half regaling us with all the tales of brave Jess Harper, and of course the girls lapped it up; they all love to hear about what you and Slim have been up to. “

“Um,” he said darkly. “I’m always tellin’ Daisy not to repeat stuff…”

“Oh come on, you’ve got to allow us girls some fun, and really, the things Daisy comes out with has us in stitches, but only light hearted stuff. Heck, she would never betray a confidence, you know that, Jess.”

“Sure I do,” he said with a smile. “And I guess me and ol’ Hardrock do give her a laugh or two. So, anyway, go on…”

“Well, it was when we stopped for our coffee break that she took me on one side; said she had some information that I should be aware of.”

“Go on,” he said again, in a doom laden voice.

“Well, she just said that  you two had gotten real close on the trail and finally you couldn’t resist her any longer and you made love, deep in the forest, and as to how you were giving everything up here and moving back East with her.”

He gave a deep sigh. “She said that?”

“Um. Well, I didn’t believe a word of it. I could tell she was lying — a woman just knows — but then I was really sure with the next thing she said.”

“Which was?”

“Well, I asked about your share in the ranch and Mike and all, and she just said that Mike would be sent to a good school and you would sell off your half of the ranch, including Traveler.”

His eyebrows just shot up at that.

“Well,” said Millie unable to conceal her mirth now, “you might leave me, put Mike in school and sell up the ranch, but hell, Jess, you wouldn’t ever get rid of Traveler, so I just knew she was lying!”

He looked at her straight faced for a moment and then his expression broke into a grin and he started laughing. Before long, they were holding each other and rolling around on the bed as they laughed until they cried.

Millie was the first to recover and continued with her tale. “Anyway, Miss Daisy was sitting close by and she heard every word, and once the meeting was over, she came and sat with me and she was really upset by it all. She knew all about this infatuation Carolina had with you. Slim had told her everything. He had to explain to her why he didn’t want Carolina to stay at the ranch.”

He nodded at that. “But Daisy never said anything to me.”

“No, I asked her not to. I wanted to talk to you myself. I knew if she said something, you’d probably go flying round to bawl out Carolina and make matters worse. I just wanted to wait until we were together so that we could discuss it sensibly.”

He sat up at that, the light of battle in his eyes. “That’s exactly what I should do — go to her hotel and tell her a few home truths.”

“No. Don’t you see? That will just start lots of embarrassing rumors. Just leave it, Jess; she’ll go once she sees she can’t have you. Just ignore her. I aim to.”

He gave a deep sigh. “Well, if that’s what you want, sweetheart,” and then he pulled her into his strong arms and nothing else mattered but their closeness as he gently started to make love again.

**********

Much against his better judgment,  Jess rode out of town later that morning, riding swiftly past the hotel, but resisting the  urge to go in and read Carolina the riot act.

However, unbeknown to him, the very same lady had been watching the saloon, from her hotel window, on and off, since the cowboys had arrived the previous evening. Watched as the lights went on in the first floor room in the saloon which she knew was Millie’s, and she had sat up long past midnight, watching the deserted street and had seen the lamps go out in the room, but still no sign of Jess leaving, although she had spotted Slim departing, arm in arm with a young blond woman, earlier.

Now she watched transfixed as Jess appeared from the alley which led to the back steps to the rooms above the saloon just before noon, hands in pockets and whistling cheerfully. Then a little later, she saw him ride out on his beloved horse, cantering gently down the street and her eyes burned into his back.

“I haven’t finished with you yet, Mr. Harper,” she whispered. “You may be able to get around that stupid girl but you won’t find me so easy to deal with.”

*****

Jess rode into the yard just before noon and went over to the barn to see to Traveler’s needs; a while later Slim strolled in.

“So you have a good night, hotshot?” Slim asked with a broad grin.

Jess grinned back. “I sure did. Hell, I love that woman, Slim.”

“So it was a real good night then?” Slim asked again, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

Jess gave him a cheeky wink. “Oh yes,” he drawled, then laughing, “but I ain’t tellin’ you about it, Slim. You know I never kiss and tell. What goes on in my lady’s bed stays there.”

“Aw, you’re no fun. Come on then, pard; get a wriggle on. Sunday dinner’s nearly ready.” The blond rancher strode out of the barn and almost bumped into a rather flushed looking Jack.

He had been just passing the barn door, but at the mention of Millie, he had blatantly stopped to listen and his heart sank at the banter between the two men. That he could never compete with the closeness that existed between Jess and Millie was obvious; he must just complete her portrait and move on he thought sadly.

“Are you OK, Jack?”

“Er, yes, just dandy, thank you, Slim; looking forward to Miss Daisy’s cooking.” The two men marched over to the ranch house, Jack’s heart breaking at this latest revelation. Jess had spent the night with Millie, and Jack felt a sudden wave of jealousy. However, he quickly pushed it aside. Jess was a good man and a friend, and that was an end to the matter.

*****

It was the following Wednesday and late afternoon when Jess rode into the yard, hot and tired after a long day spent out on the North pasture mending fence. He was ready for a wash and his supper.

However, as he marched over to the ranch house after putting Traveler up for the night, he bumped into Mike just coming out.

“Hey Tiger, what’s the rush?” Jess said, grabbing hold of the boy to steady him.

The child grinned in welcome and then it faded a little as he replied.

“It’s that posh lady friend of Mr. Williamson. She’s been sitting jawing to Slim and then Aunt Daisy since they got back from town, and it’s getting kinda borin’, you know, Jess,” said the youngster. “All women’s talk an’ stuff, so I’m goin’ over to the barn to groom Snowy, if that’s OK?”

The child was referring to Jess’s prize quarter horse, Snow Bird, and the rancher nodded abstractedly. “Sure, Tiger, that’s fine, but I guess supper will be ready soon. “

“Nope; Aunt Daisy’s only just gone into the kitchen to start fixin’ it.”

“So where’s Slim?”

“Out in the home pasture checking on the new mustangs. He went a while back and he was looking kinda mad. I figure he’s bored with that lady talkin’ on and on too.”

Jess just nodded, and then went and peered through the window. Sure enough, Carolina was sitting in his rocker pulled up by the fire and perusing the Laramie Sentinel.

He shook his head angrily and marched down the side of the house and made his way quietly into the kitchen where Daisy was busy chopping vegetables.

As he entered, Jess put a finger to his lips and then came over and whispered, “What the heck is she doin’ here, Daisy?”

“I’m sorry, dear,” she whispered back. “She just turned up at the Women’s Group again this afternoon and then afterwards begged me for a lift here. Said she had an important and lucrative business proposition she needed to discuss with Slim.”

“And so has she?”

“Oh yes; they’ve been closeted in there for the last hour or more. And then Slim charged off out the back towards the Home Pasture, saying he needed to think. Well, that was ages ago. She’s been chattering to me none stop ever since. Goodness knows when we’re going to eat.”

“Why that darned woman!” he spat. “Upsettin’ Mill and now you. I’ve a mind to…”

But just then the backdoor opened and Slim stood there, looking pale and anxious. “Oh good, you’re back; we need to talk pard.”

“I’ll say we do,” said Jess in an angry whisper. “So what’s she cookin’ up now?”

Slim cast an anxious glance towards the main room. “Not here. Come outside.” The two men disappeared off out the back.

They automatically made their way over to the back gate overlooking the Home Pasture and stood staring at the mustangs as they moved restlessly about.

Jess leaned on the gate and looked over at his buddy. ”So what’s this all about, Slim, and why is she still sittin’ in there after what she did to Millie? I told you all about that and how darned mad I was!”

“Yes, I know, Jess, and I’m sorry, but will you just simmer down and listen to me?”

“OK, but make it snappy, because if you won’t tell her to go, then I will. There’s a stage due in an hour and she’s gonna be on it.”

Slim sighed deeply. “She has offered me a deal, an extremely lucrative one,” and he named a figure.

Jess gasped. “Hell, what does she want you to do for that much, pard. Marry her?”

“Nope and it’s not me; it’s you, Jess.”

The dark haired cowboy turned pale at that. “Hell I’m not marryin’ her, Slim, not for that and double. Garl darn it, what do you take me for?”

“Jess, will you just listen at least? She doesn’t want either of us to marry her. She merely wants you to escort her back East and stay a while, be introduced around to a few of her posh friends, take her to parties and the like, then if you’re not happy, you can come on home.”

Jess’s eyes widened with shock. “Not happy? Not happy?” he bellowed. “Are you crazy?”

“Jess, please listen.”

“No, you listen to me. I told you before I ain’t any kind of a gigolo and I ain’t about to start anytime soon. So you can take Miss Southern’s business proposition and stick it up…”

“Jess, will you hear me out!” Slim interrupted quickly.

“Go on then,” Jess said sulkily, “but this better be good.”

Slim sighed. “Have you heard of a guy named Jeremiah Southern?”

Jess pushed his hat back and considered the matter. “Ain’t he that millionaire dude lives in New York, got a finger in every pie as is goin’?”

Slim nodded. “And he also happens to be Carolina’s father.”

Jess let out a low whistle. “Jeez, no wonder she can’t cook; never needed to, I guess.” Then he turned angry eyes on his buddy. “But that don’t make no difference, Slim. I ain’t leavin’ Millie and goin traipsin’ halfway across the country for  that woman, if she’s got a  millionaire for a pappy or not.”

“There’s more Jess.”

“Go on.”

“Well she says she’ll pay you, but if you refuse, she’s going to ruin us financially.”

“Sure she is. So how does she propose to do that then?” Jess asked sarcastically.

“By making the Superintendent at the Overland rescind our contract.”

Jess’s head shot up at that. “Hey, Mr. Johnson would never do that; he thinks way too highly of us to even consider it.”

Slim shook his head. “I don’t think so. See, it would be his job at stake too. In fact, the whole future of the Overland, because Southern is the major shareholder. Carolina could have the whole company close down tomorrow.”

Jess cussed long and loud and beat a fist against the gate. “She ain’t gettin’ away with this, Slim. This is blackmail and you know how I feel about that.”

“I know and I agree with you, but I just can’t see any way out.”

“Well I can,” said Jess casting his buddy a furious look and turning he marched back towards the house.

“Jess, hold up. What are you going to do?”

“What I should have done the first time she started messin’ with me — take her across my knee and tan her sorry hide!“

However, as it happened, Jess’s extreme measures were not needed. The Harper temper was quite enough for Miss Carolina Southern to cope with.

He marched in through the kitchen door, and Daisy paused in her work, looking up with an anxious expression when she saw Jess’s furious countenance.

“Where’s Mike?” Jess demanded.

“Why, still in the barn, dear; I said I’d call him when supper was ready.”

“Good, ‘cos he don’t need to hear this.”

Daisy visibly quaked at his expression and words.

His gaze flickered over to her from where he’d been looking towards the other room. “You might wanna cover your ears too, Daisy,” he growled before striding off.

The moment Carolina saw Jess’s face, her heart started to beat twenty to the dozen and she felt light headed. All she had wanted was to see him again, and now the time had come, she was filled with mixed emotions.

Even as he stomped in, his whole demeanor one of barely controlled fury, she still had a frisson of desire. But it was quickly followed by fear as she looked into those wonderful blue eyes, now turned to a dark navy and cold and hard as iron.

“What the hell do you think you’re playin’ at, Carolina?” Jess demanded, standing in front of her, his fists balled at his side and his chest rising and falling quickly as his heart pounded hard, adrenaline flooding his system and making him feel almost weak with rage.

She leapt up from the chair and backed off against the wall. “Wha… what,” she stammered. “I don’t know what you mean, Jess?”

“Sure you do. First you try an’ fill my girl’s head full of all your fanciful lies, and now you’re doggone blackmailing me and Slim an’ I won’t have it, you hear me!”

“No, you don’t understand, my darling. I just want you to accompany me home, stay a little while as my guest…”

“And if I don’t?” he spat.

She looked down, embarrassed, and then she seemed to gather strength from somewhere and raising herself to her full height she looked him squarely in the eyes. “Well then, I shall just have to do what needs to be done to make you see reason,” she said stoutly, her eyes looking triumphantly into his.

Yes, he terrified her, but in a very…well, almost erotic way, she had to admit, but she also knew she could control him. Being disobeyed was not a behavior that Carolina was familiar with. So that is why she continued on her mission to seduce Jess, with almost religious zeal, unaware of the full fury of the Harper temper once unleashed.

He just stood staring at her and for a moment and she thought she had won.

Then his dark, furious eyes narrowed and he advanced slowly upon her. “Why you…”  Jess said, ominously quietly. He grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her screaming to the old leather sofa and threw her unceremoniously down upon it.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, looking fearfully up at him from where he stood glaring down at her.

“What I should have done weeks ago, when you started messin’ with me — take you over my knee and give you a good spanking. If your Pa had done it sooner, maybe you wouldn’t have turned out such a spoilt brat,” Jess rasped.

At that, Carolina started screaming hysterically, and a moment later, the front door burst open and Jack was standing there, looking shocked to the core. “What on earths going on?” he demanded.

“Ask her,” growled Jess, tipping his head to where Carolina was now sobbing.

However, at the sight of Jack, she leapt up and ran into his arms. “Oh Jack, thank God, take me away from this…this animal,” she cried hysterically.

Jack peered from Jess to Carolina and back. “What was he going to do?” he asked gently, pulling her closer.

“He said he was going to spank me,” she whispered between sobs.

Jack look scandalized. “Ss that true, my dear fellow? That sounds rather harsh.”

Jess almost smiled at Jack’s usual understated turn of phrase, but instead swallowed hard and just threw him a black look. “Sure it’s true an’ if you’d done it sooner, you might not have had all that naggin’ an’ frettin’ you were telling me about,” he said gruffly.

“Jack, please take me away; I’m so frightened,” she gasped.

Jess just looked down and said softly. “For God’s sake, Carolina, stop it. What are you thinkin’ of doing — goin’ on the stage? I reckon you could give a few actors a run for their money.”

At that fresh sobs ensued and Jack cast Jess an uncertain look. “I think I’d better take her out to the bunkhouse to calm her down a little.”

“Yeah, you do that, Jack, an’ talk some sense into her while you’re at it,” Jess said. Turning, he marched off back to the kitchen where Slim and Daisy stood as if frozen to the spot.

Once the front door banged behind the couple, they both stood there and started clapping loudly, before Slim strode over and patted his buddy on the back.

“Did anyone ever tell you you’re are magnificent when you’re mad?” said Daisy, beaming up at him.

He smiled at that. “Well, darned woman,” he said softly. “I figure she deserved it.”

It was an hour or so later when the late afternoon stage rolled in and the two men went out to change the horses. They were amazed to see Jack and Carolina with all Jack’s luggage around them, waiting to board.

Slim walked over and said, “Are you two leaving then?” his voice full of surprise.

Jack nodded. “Under the circumstances, I think it is for the best, yes. I have left your check in the bunkhouse, Slim, with a sizable increase that I would like Jess to have for all he has done for me. Carolina has explained it all and I am indebted to you both.”

Jess had ambled over and heard this last remark and then Jack pumped his hand.

“I mean it sincerely, my friend; I appreciate all that you have done for me and Carolina. Well, you sure had me fooled, but all in a good cause, eh? “

“Huh, what are you talkin’ about Jack?”

“Oh, no need to be coy now. Carolina has explained everything to me. “

Jess flicked a glance at Carolina who again had that cat about to stomp on a mouse look about her. “She did?” he asked.

“Why, yes,” the older man continued cheerfully. “All about how this whole thing between you and she was an elaborate hoax to get me back. A subterfuge. Her pretending to be in love with you, then you sounding off that way just now…” Jack shook his head. “I’ve got to hand it to you, buddy; you are just so believable.”

“I am?” asked Jess looking bewildered.

“Why yes. Fancy, threatening to spank my girl. Anyway, she knew as soon as I heard her crying that I’d be putty in her hands and I guess I am. The wedding is on again and we’re heading back East today, so thank you so much!”

Jess shook his head. “Now wait a garl darn minute here, Jack; I…”

Slim strode forwards and grabbed Jess pulling him away. “Excuse us a moment,” he said, giving Carolina and Jack a tight smile. “Just got to fetch the fresh team.” Slim almost frogmarched his buddy away.

“What are you playin’ at?” said Jess furiously. “She’s been tellin’ him a load of goddamn lies as to how I was in league with her to make him jealous!”

“Look Jess, what does it matter? She saves face and we get rid of her; a win-win situation. So just pipe down and let her go, and we can forget the whole sorry business OK?”

Jess looked down and nodded and went off muttering under his breath to fetch the team.

Then it was all hustle and bustle as Daisy and Mike came out to say their goodbyes, and Carolina took advantage of Jack’s attention being side tracked to say goodbye to Jess.

She sidled over to where he was checking the harness and stood very close.

After a moment, Jess turned to her. “So you’re goin’ through with it then, the wedding?” he asked looking shocked.

Carolina just nodded, and leaning forwards, stroked a hand down his chest. “Well, If I can’t have you, I guess he’ll do. He’s talented and funny and kind, and I guess I can knock him into shape,” she said casually.

“Oh, I’m sure you can,” he said bitterly.

Then she leaned up and kissed him very passionately before pulling back. “Shame, really. I think we could have been good together.”

He just shook his head, staring at her in disbelief.

“Oh come on, Jess, lighten up. It was just a bit of fun, after all,” Carolina said, laughing harshly as she turned away to where Jack was waiting to help her on board.

Jack turned back to Jess then and said very quietly, “And thanks for your advice, my dear chap. I’ll remember it, and should she get too bossy, I may well have to put her over my knee.” Shaking hands, he jumped up on the stage, and all at the ranch waved them off.

“You know, I think he might just about be able to make a go of it,” Jess said, grinning over at Slim before they turned back to the ranch and their supper.

On the coach, Carolina stared bleakly out at the Wyoming countryside bathed in evening sunshine. ”Oh my love,” she whispered to herself. It hadn’t really been a bit of fun to her, but the last thing she was going to do was to show Jess Harper her heart was broken. After all, she still had a little pride left.

Then she felt Jack take her hand and squeeze it gently. “Things will all seem better once we’re home,” he said perceptively and she smiled back at him.

“Yes, my darling, I’m sure they will,” Carolina replied with a tight smile.

*****

Epilogue

It was one Saturday, a good twelve months later, when Mose brought a parcel on the early morning stage, and once he had driven off, everyone gathered around to see what it contained.

Slim pulled off the wrappings and exposed a large book entitled ‘Life in the West its People, Flora and Fauna. By Jack Williamson’.

“Wow, now there’s a title to conjure with,” said Jess grinning.

“Um,” agreed Slim. He opened the tome to reveal copies of the excellent watercolors of all the plants and animals Jess had discovered for Jack during their travels and some wonderful landscapes too of the magnificent Wyoming countryside.

Then another section held all the superb photographs he had so painstakingly produced.

The Cheyenne group, with Jess at their center, with all their weapons and ponies around them, stares proudly into the camera lenses.

Then further on, the Mountain Men with Jess — each with a boot on the huge grizzly they had killed. The caption underneath read ‘Bear believed to be thought of as a great delicacy amongst these proud pioneering people’. Jess chuckled, remembering Jack’s look of horror at the thought of eating it. Then how he had told him of how ill he had been last time he had enjoyed the ‘delicacy’ with old Denver James and his boys.

Slim flicked through the pages with the others looking on, stopping every now and again to read an interesting bit of text out aloud.

“Uh, it says here his guide was highly experienced, intrepid and full of the wisdom of the true pioneer,” said Slim grinning over at his pard.

“Yep, that’s me,” said Jess smiling back, “not to mention full of wisdom about how to keep your woman in her place.”

“Why Jess Harper, you sound truly authoritarian,” said Daisy indignantly. “You better hadn’t let Millie hear you talking that way.”

“Well, I don’t need to, do I. I figure Millie already knows her place.”

“Oh really?” said Daisy indignantly. “Which would be?”

“Why, here in my heart,” Jess replied, placing his hand on his chest and giving her his most innocent look.

“Why Jess Harper!” Daisy said, laughing now and giving him a light bat around the head.

Then they came to the perfect portrait of Millie, taking up a full page, with the caption beneath, ‘The lovely Miss Millie Johnson of the Laramie Saloon, a very special lady’.

The picture was from a photograph that Jack had taken of the portrait, and the original now hung in Millie’s room at the Saloon.

Jess remembered taking the original over at Jack’s request when he left town and also Millie’s delight when she saw it.

“There’s a note here for you, stuck to the back,” Jess had said, and on opening it, Millie had read the content aloud.

My Dearest Millie,

I would like you to have this portrait sent with my love, unrequited though it is, I know. I realize how much you and my dear friend Jess mean to each other and I would never do anything to try to change that, even if I could, which I know in my heart would be impossible anyway.

Now I hope you will not think me arrogant, my dear, but I have to inform you that I am quite an accomplished artist and have not a little fame to that end, back here in New York, with my pictures selling for many thousands of dollars. So dear Millie, should you and Jess ever need the money, please sell the painting and I will have the honor of knowing that I have helped you in some small way. I remain your obedient and loyal servant and send you my loving thoughts,

Jack 

 

“He writes real pretty, don’t he?” said Jess in a deadpan voice.

“Why Jess Harper, I do believe you’re jealous,” Millie said.

Jess opened his mouth to deny it and then just gave her his shy smile. “Well maybe a little,” he replied honestly.

Then he returned his attention to the portrait. “It sure is a good likeness,” Jess said, peering at it closely, and he noticed her beautiful brown eyes were focusing on something across the room. “That lovin’ look in your eyes — he’s got it just right. So what were you lookin’ at?” he asked turning to give her an inquiring look.

“At you,” she said simply.

*****

Then Slim’s voice brought him back to the present. “This sure is a real swell book. And what with the check he left, I reckon Jack Williamson has been a real good friend to this family.”

Jess cast his mind back to last year when Jack had left.

After supper, Slim had remembered the check that Jack said he had left in the bunkhouse and he and Jess had gone to find it. Slim had looked shocked when he opened the envelope and revealed the amount the check was made out for, and he passed it over to Jess.

“This must be a mistake. This is nigh on double what he owed us, and that amount was real generous in the first place.”

“Well, it’s what he said he wanted, Jess. He said he’d made it out to more than we agreed as he needed you to have the extra.”

Jess just took off his hat and scratched his head. “Well, I’ll be!”

“I reckon you can afford half the store now, never mind that old hunting knife you’ve been lusting after,” said Slim chuckling.

Jess just shook his head in disbelief again and then turned to his friend. “Oh no. I’ll buy the knife, sure, and whatever you and Daisy and Mike would like, but the rest goes into the ranch account.”

“Well, that’s really generous of you, Jess,” Slim said looking flabbergasted, “but why? “

“Well, to keep your darned cash flow problems at bay, of course,” Jess said laughing. “I really don’t wanna have to take up escorting again in a hurry and that’s for sure!”

*****

Jack Williamson and Carolina were married shortly following their return to New York, but after a turbulent two years of marriage, they sadly divorced.

Carolina went on to marry a further three times, but was never to find what she was seeking, every man she met sadly lacking those deep blue twinkling eyes and magnetic persona of a certain young cowboy back in Wyoming.

Jack though threw himself into his writing and photography, producing many excellent paintings and writing numerous books. However, his most famous work, selling thousands of copies, was the one he wrote back in Laramie and went on to be the most definitive work on the West ever written and is still in print to this day, making it one of the bestselling books in the USA.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

 

Return to Patty W.’s home page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.