To Hell and Back (by Patty W.)

Summary:   A Laramie Story as told by Jess Harper.
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (Some adult themes, violence and strong language.)
Word Count:  27,425


 

“To Hell and back,” that’s where I’ve been, I told Slim when I rode back into the yard at the Sherman Ranch and Relay station late that afternoon, and I guess I wasn’t exaggerating too much either.

It all happened a couple of months ago, but even now when I think on it, well, I come out in a cold sweat and start shakin’. And though I say it myself I’m a pretty tough guy, but nuthin’, no nuthin’, prepared me for what happened down in Texas that summer of ’76.

It all started when Slim got a letter from an old friend of his Pa’s, a guy named Angus Campbell.

Mose, the old stage driver, had done his usual stint of scarin’ the chickens half to death  as he drove  in, scatterin’ the critters all over the shop, and I ran out and cussed him as usual too and told him how we were gettin’ darned sick of eatin’ chicken every night and would he take it a mite easy!

Well, he knew it was just banter and Slim and me went about changing the team as usual and then just as Mose was leaving, he tossed a letter down, post marked Texas and addressed to Slim — and that was unusual to say the least.

Sure we get letters from time to time, mostly feed bills or the occasional letter for Daisy, our housekeeper, from one of her friends, but today we got this one for Slim from Texas and we both knew he didn’t know anyone there.

“Thanks, Mose,” I said, grinning up at him, and from the way he was lookin’ down at me, I knew darned well that for two cents he’d have reined the horses in and had a good nosey as to who it was from and what they wanted.

But knowing what a gossip the old fellow is, me and Slim were havin’ none of that, so we waved him off and took our booty back indoors.

I studied Slim as he opened his letter and started reading, his blond head bowed over the closely written pages, his usually serious expression even more so than normal. He sure is a worrier, ol’ Slim, I thought as I watched him. Mind you, not without cause as he’d had a pretty rough time with his folks both up and dying when he was still a very young man and he’d had the worry of running the ranch and rearing his kid brother. I figure the responsibility hung pretty heavy on his shoulders back in those days.

Anyway, young Andy was off at college back east now and Slim had me to help carry the load of running the place, so sure he’s lightened up some since I rode in all those years ago, a drifter with a greased holster and trouble in both pockets, as he had described me then.

Well, I kinda liked it around here and decide to hang my hat a while, and then I finally gave up on my murky past and gunslinger ways and got myself sorted out. Now I’m darn right respectable, a partner in the business, and hell, even deputize for ol’ Mort Corey, our Sheriff, every so often.

Anyway, like I was sayin’, ol’ Slim there was real straight laced and well…stuffy, you know, until I kinda loosened him up some. Got him into the saloon, showed him how to go about romancin’ the ladies and the way to drink way too much Red Eye, not to mention how to find your way around a poker game. He sure benefitted from the education, and he’s real good company now, especially when we let our hair down on a Saturday night, hitting  the town and spending time with the gorgeous saloon girls or playing a round or two of cards.

Anyway, the way he was lookin’ right then, I could tell Saturday night with his best girl was the last thing on his mind.

“What’s up, Slim?” I asked softly. ‘Bad news?”

He glanced up from the letter with unseeing eyes for a moment before collecting his thoughts. “Yeah, I reckon you could say so, pard.”

“Well, go on then,” I replied, patience never being my strong point. “So spit it out.”

To my surprise, he jumped up and made for the door. “Not right now, Jess; I’ve got to think on this.” He disappeared, those long legs of his striding across the yard towards the barn at speed, leaving me feelin’ real shocked.

Well, to be honest, I was feelin’ kinda hurt. We share everything, are real up front with each other. Wasn’t always that way, though, no siree. Took me a real long time to learn to trust him. After my past, I guess that’s hardly surprising, with me mostly keepin’ the kinda company whose own Ma wouldn’t trust ‘im. But that’s all long past, and me and Slim are about as close as brothers; he’s my best buddy and I was real  sorry that he didn’t trust me with his problem, whatever it was.

Anyway, I didn’t have too long to fret on it, as just then I heard the buckboard driving into the yard and went out to meet Mrs. Daisy Cooper, our elderly housekeeper, although she’s more of a Ma to us, truth be told, and young Mike Williams, our ward, back from their shopping expedition.

I marched out and helped Daisy down from the wagon and then Mike jumped down grinning up at me.

“Guess what,” Mike said. “Aunt Daisy bought me some new hooks for my line, so can we go fishin’ later, Jess, with it bein’ Saturday an’ all? Can we?” he pleaded.

I flicked a glance over to the barn, where Slim was still holed up, doubtless worrying about whatever was in that darned letter, but heck, if he didn’t wanna talk…

I leaned over and ruffled the kid’s mop of blond hair. “Don’t see why not, Tiger. You help me unload the shoppin’ and then we’ll go first thing after dinner, OK?”

The boy gave a little whoop of delight and started doing the chores as asked, and I followed Daisy into the kitchen.

“Slim’s had a letter,” I said quietly.

She turned her innocent old grey eyes on me. “Oh really, dear? Who from?”

“Dunno. He don’t seem to want to tell me,” I said, trying not to sound sulky but hardly managing it as Daisy gave me an amused look.

“Well, maybe it’s from a girlfriend, dear; heaven knows you keep all your dealings with young ladies close to your chest.”

Then we both realized what she’d said and gave a little chuckle. “Well, you know what I mean,” she said. “You like to keep your love life private and I quite understand, and doubtless Slim is the same.”

“Um,” I said thoughtfully, “except this letter is from Texas. That’s kind of a long distance romance, ain’t it, Daisy?”

She chuckled at that too as she started putting the shopping away. “Don’t you fret, dear; he’ll tell us when he’s ready.”

Then I had an awful thought. “Hell, Daisy…” Then I checked myself, and giving her an apologetic glance, said, “Sorry, I mean, heck, Daisy, you don’t think it’s something about me, do you? My past, I mean, with it bein’ from Texas and all.”

“Jess, I know you are originally from there and you have…er….shall we say a checkered history,” she said diplomatically, “but all that was a long time ago. It is years since you were in trouble with the law. I’m sure it’s nothing sinister dear.”

“Um,” I muttered, “you didn’t see his face,” and I went off to help Mike unload.

Well, we took off fishin’ down to the creek as soon as we’d eaten, like I promised him, and I even asked ol’ Slim if he wanted to come with us, but he just muttered somethin’ about business in town and wouldn’t even look me in the eye, so I just let him go. Mike and I took off without him, even though the young ‘un was kinda upset.

“What’s wrong with Slim, and why has he gone into town early? I thought you usually rode in together after supper on a Saturday?”

“Um, so did I,” I muttered under my breath, but then said, “Dunno, Tiger. Got some business, I guess. So come on — are we fishin’ or what?”

“We’re fishin’,” he said grinning up at me, and so we took off and spent a real good afternoon just lazin’ away in the sun and catchin’ the odd fish or three.

When we landed back home, there was still no sign of old Hardrock, as I affectionately call Slim, and so I gutted our catch. Miss Daisy cooked ‘em up, and when supper time came and went with still no Slim, I guess we both began to worry some and Mike, a lot.

Thing with Mike is, you see, he don’t like change. Likes his routine and gets kinda twitchy if things are different, like Slim goin’ off to town alone on a Saturday and then not fetching back for supper. I understood why the kid was that way; it was all down to the fact that his folks — well, the whole darn wagon train he was riding with — were massacred in an Indian raid, save for young Mike who managed to escape. He fetched up on our doorstep, and then when no kin came to claim him, me and Slim adopted him. He knows he’s got a good kind home with us for life, but that don’t stop him frettin’ if one of us don’t turn up when we’re supposed to. He gets to thinkin’ we’ve gone, the same way as his Ma and Pa, see.

So I was getting’ kinda annoyed at ol’ Slim for worrying us all when he finally rode in. Once he’d put his horse up,  he marched in, and  after throwing his hat and  gun belt  on the hook by the door, made towards  our room without so much as a word.

Daisy and I exchanged a look, glad that Mike had finally been persuaded to go to bed and was now fast asleep.

“Hey, Slim, what’s up?” I asked moving towards him and grabbing his arm as he opened the bedroom door.

He pulled his arm away roughly and snarled, “Just leave it, Jess,” and went in, closing the door in my face.

Well, one thing I’m not real well known for is my patience, like I said; in fact, some say I’ve got a kinda hot temper, and at that last stunt it was getting up to boiling point real fast. I made to go and knock some sense into that thick head of his, but Daisy called me back.

“Leave him, dear; he seems awfully upset and I think he’s been drinking too.” Then almost to herself, she added, “That’s so unlike him to go to the saloon before supper.”

“Yeah, well,” I said darkly,” the saloon’s lookin’ like quite a good prospect right now.”

Then I glanced across and saw the look on her face and went and slumped down on my rocker by the fire.

“OK, Daisy, you win,” I said gently. “I guess Laramie can survive without me hell raisin’ for one Saturday night.”

She gave a little sigh of relief. “Thank you, dear.” Then she bustled off to the kitchen to brew some coffee.

I drank my coffee and then she poured one for Slim.

“Maybe you should take this in, dear; he may be glad of it if he’s overindulged a little and he may be ready to open up to you  by now too.”

I smiled inwardly at Daisy’s turn of phrase, and personally thought Slim had looked as ‘overindulged’ as a skunk, but said nothing and just took the offered cup and made for our bedroom.

When I went in, the room was lit by the lamp on the nightstand and Slim was lying fully clothed on his bed, just staring up at the ceiling.

I went in quietly and adjusted the light so it was a mite brighter, and putting the cup down on the nightstand, sat down on the edge of my bed and said quietly, “Daisy’s made you some coffee.”

After a while, Slim turned his head on the pillow to look at me and then finally sat up and picked up the cup. “Thanks,” he whispered before sipping it gratefully.

“Got a thick head?”

“Yeah, some.”

“That ain’t like you, drinkin’ so early,” I said. “So what’s it all about, Slim? You gonna tell me now?”

“Tell you?”

“What was in the letter…from Texas?”

And then I felt I had to ask. “Please tell me it ain’t something I’ve done, Slim. Am I in trouble down there over something?”

He gave me the ghost of a smile at that. “I don’t know, pard…are you?”

I shook my head. “Dunno. Could be; got a few folk down there as would like to see me dead, that’s for sure. Can’t lead the life I did without makin’ a few enemies along the way.”

When he said nothing, I got kinda rattled. “For God’s sake, will you tell me, Slim? Is it my fault you’re so darned ornery?”

Then he sat up and really paid attention. “Hell no, pard. It’s nothing to do with you at all.”

I sighed with relief. “So what’s it all about then, Slim?” I asked softly. “You can trust me, can’t you?”

He sighed deeply. “Sure I know I can trust you. It’s just something I reckon I had to decide myself. Well, I thought I did, but I guess it impinges on you too.”

“Huh?”

“It kind of involves you too. You see, I went to the Laramie Bank today and drew out a tidy sum of money — our money, that is — from our joint business account.”

I looked over. “So, if you needed to, that’s OK by me. You’re the one with the business head. So what’s your problem?”

He sighed again and looked troubled. “Well, I’m not so sure you’ll say that when I tell you what the deal is.”

“Go on then — I’m listening.”

 “I drew the money out to take with me down to Texas to buy a share in a herd of beef coming up. I’m going to organize it all — ramrod it, hire the wranglers, everything. Be gone a while.”

I must have just looked kinda shocked because he cast me a sort of wary look and then went on.

“That letter was from an old friend of my Pa’s — Angus Campbell. He moved down to Texas when I was a youngster, but I remember him really well. Pa bought him out and he went south to raise beeves in a warmer climate — leastways that’s what he said.”

“So why can’t this Campbell arrange the cattle drive himself? Why get you involved?”

“He’s sick, Jess. Says I have to help him.”

Something in the way ol’ Hardrock said have to help him struck me as kinda odd.

“What do you mean you HAVE to help him? And what’s the deal? He’s paying you to do all this, right?”

He shook his head. “No. I’m going to buy half the beef; the rest going to a buyer in Cheyenne.”

“Hell, hang on a minute here, Slim. This sounds like a done deal. Didn’t you think to run it past me first? We are partners, you know.”

“What do you think I’m doing now?” he yelled, looking more angry than I’d seen him in a long while.

“Well, don’t go yellin’ at me. And anyway the boy’s asleep; you’ll be waking him.”

Then I remembered how upset Mike had been, and Slim’s uncharacteristic drinking and felt real mad at him and then worried too. “Hell Slim, what’s this all about? Just level with me, will you?”

“I’ve told you — Angus asked me to help him out some and I’m going to say yes.”

“So let me get this straight. You go all that way down to Texas hire on the wranglers…and pay their wages too?”

He nodded.

“Then work the cattle drive, deliver half the beasts to Cheyenne, and then pay this Campbell for the privilege of doin’ it all. And that’s a good deal?”

“I never said it was a good deal; I just said I had to help him out.”

“So what about me?”

“What about you?”

“Well I’m left running  the ranch and  relay, riding fence, bustin’ mustangs and every other goddamn chore all on my own am I? “

“Well, no, of course not; we’ll hire in some help.”

“Oh great — this just gets better and better. So as well as hiring wranglers and payin’ out for beeves sight unseen, we also have to pay out for a hired hand. So how much of a loss do you reckon we’re gonna make on this deal of yours then, Slim?”

He suddenly swung his legs over the edge of the bed and I thought he was gonna jump up and take a swing at me, but instead he just put his head in his hands and gave a low groan, whether from the effects of the alcohol, or despair about the situation it was impossible to say. But that simple gesture kinda dampened down my anger some, and after a minute, I leaned over and squeezed his shoulder.

He looked up at me and his face crumpled in pain and I could see he was real upset.

“Come on then, Slim,” I said wearily, “tell me about it — and I want the full story this time.”

He sighed deeply. “Yeah, OK, I guess you deserve that. Sorry, Jess.”

“See old man Campbell was a real big buddy of my Pa’s — heck, they were as close as we are, settled here at the same time, raised their families. Then Angus’s wife Maud got a hankering to go back home to Texas, and so Angus put the place on the market. Well, back in those days, it took a while to sell places. The house was done up real pretty by Mrs. Campbell, and an elderly couple wanted that, but not the land. Well, it abutted onto Sherman land, so Pa offered to buy it — even though he could ill afford it — but he did a deal with the bank and paid Angus the going rate.”

“Go on.”

“So the deal was done and we bought what is now the East pasture.”

“Nice piece of land.”

“Sure it is, but now Angus has written to me saying Pa swindled him out of it, saying Pa threatened him, saying if he didn’t sell then he’d make darn sure nobody else would buy it.”

“Hell, that don’t sound like your Pa from what I’ve heard.”

“No, it’s not Jess, but there aren’t that many folk left around here who would know that, and what Angus Campbell has said in his letter is that unless I do exactly as he says, well, then he’s going to make sure that everyone within a hundred mile radius knows what a cheat my Pa was and will make darn sure that they believe his son is the same. Hell Jess, if this gets out, it could ruin us!”

I shook my head trying to take all this new information in. “Yeah, but so how is he gonna spread the word? He’s stuck in Texas, too sick to travel, right?”

“Do you know the name of the new editor of the Laramie Sentinel?”

“That rag? Now why would I know that, Slim? Since Burt, the last so-called editor, blackened my name, I’ve not read the darn thing, you know that.” (See The Persecuted).

“Yeah, well I’ll tell you. It’s Carl Campbell, Angus’s son, and if I know him, he’ll do anything his Pa tells him to, including libeling me and all at the Sherman Ranch!”

“Well, maybe he just needs a good talkin’ to,” I said, balling my fists and narrowing my eyes, thinking I might enjoy knocking some sense into a newspaper editor, them not being my favorite kinda folk.

“No good, Jess; he’d find a way around it. I’m going to have to go if I want to preserve our good name in these parts, and I’m telling you now, this would be a hell of a lot easier for me if you were on side. Guess I can’t fight you too,” he finished, looking real wretched.

I dipped my head and studied the floor for a few minutes, trying to think it all through. But he was right; if this Campbell wanted to ruin us, for whatever reason, well, the power of the press was a darned good way to try, as I knew to my cost.

“Ok so I’ll back you for now, Slim, but I’m still gonna try and find a way out of this if I can before you have to ride out.” On that last word, we finally turned in, ol’ Slim there wishing he’d never entered that saloon earlier, and me darned well wishing I had!

*****

The following morning, Slim looked pretty rough as we sat over the breakfast table, and I have to admit I felt kinda sorry for him.

Once Mike had been dispatched to his chores and Daisy to the washing up, we sat over a last coffee before going about our work.

After a moment Slim looked over at me and said, “Thanks, pard.”

“What for?“

“Well, for being understanding about all this business and for staying with me and not hightailing it off to the saloon last night. I guess Millie will have missed you?”

Slim was referring to Millie, one of the saloon girls and my best friend. Well, more than that, really; we’re REAL good friends but that ain’t nobody’s business. Enough to say we’re very close and, if she occasionally shares her bed with me, well, like I say, it’s our business.

“Well as it happens, Slim, Millie was over at her Ma’s in Cheyenne over the weekend, so I guess it wasn’t too much of a hardship for me.”

He grinned at me then. “Well, I’m sure glad I didn’t get in the way of your love life,” he said, with a return to the old Sherman humor and I felt kinda glad that things were back to normal for then at least — although it didn’t last.

Later that day, Slim struck up a conversation about his trip again, sayin’ as how he’d ridden out to our neighbor’s place and arranged for his eldest boy to come over and give me a hand for the next few weeks.

Well, I was real mad about that.

“Hey, you’re kinda jumping the gun, ain’t you, Slim? I thought you were gonna give me some time to think on it, try and see a way out?”

He bowed his head and then looked out to the distant hills beyond the corral, where he we were leaning on the fence, and said quietly, “Sorry, pard; the time for thinking is over. I have to go and sooner rather than later. Guess I’ll go at the end of the week.”

Well, I didn’t like it none, but then I remembered what he’d said about making his life a darn sight easier if I was on side, so I just swallowed my argument and nodded. “OK, Slim, whatever you want.”

It was the following day that somethin’ happened that was to change our plans, and as far as I was concerned, not for the better.

I was out in the yard shoeing one of the stage horses and Slim was in the barn doin’ some chores when I heard this almighty crash and then a whole mess of cussin’. I threw the hammer and shoe I was workin’ on down and tore into the barn to see the hayloft ladder on the floor and Slim laying there too, holding his arm and cussin’ something fierce.

“Hey pard, what are you doin’ down there?” I asked and he threw me a look which would have curdled the milk. Not surprising’ really; guess it was a real bad time to be tryin’ to crack jokes.

I apologized and went over to try and help him up, but he gave a cry of pain as I touched his arm; I figure we both knew right away that it was broken, there and then.

I rode off for Doc Sam and he drove back with me right away.

Doc Sam sure is a nice guy; we’ve known him and his pretty daughter and nurse, young Carrie, for a few years now, and me and old Hardrock sure bring a lot of business his way — the times we both get beat up or shot, or just plain hurt like that day. But as well as bein’ our doc, he’s a real good buddy too and just about as obsessed with fishin’ as I am, so he spends a fair amount of time over at the ranch with us, indulging his hobby either at the creek or our well-stocked lake.

Today, however, it was purely  business, and once he’d checked Slim  over and set and bandaged the arm, he sat back, and giving  him a big smile, said, “I guess you and old Jess there just about keep me in business, you know, Slim. Between the two of you, yes siree, my best customers you are!”

However, for once Slim wasn’t in the mood for banter. “How long, Sam?” he asked looking real upset.

“What? Until you can use it again? Well, it’s a nasty break, Slim. Four to six weeks at a guess.”

“What! That isn’t any good!” Slim yelled.

“I’m sorry, Slim,” Sam said, looking surprised at my usually placid pard’s outrage. “That’s the way it is. Use it any sooner and you could damage it for life.”

Then Slim told him of the proposed cattle drive.

“I’m sorry, but no way. If it’s really that important to you both, then I guess Jess will just have to go, because you my friend are going nowhere.” With that being his final word on the subject, Sam took his leave.

I showed him out and shook his hand. “Thanks, Sam, and pay no heed to Slim; he’s just kinda worried about some stuff right now.”

Sam nodded. “I figured he wasn’t himself. Anything I can do?”

“No thanks, Sam; I guess this one is down to me.” I waved him off before turning back into the house, knowing what I had to do.

I slumped down in my rocking chair by the fire and looked over to where Slim was stretched out on the couch, looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Then I gave him a small smile. “Well, I guess the doc is right; there’s nothing else for it but for me to go instead,” I said softly.

He shook his head. “I can’t ask you to do that, Jess; this is my problem.”

“The hell it is, Slim. I’m part owner of this ranch, in case you’d forgotten,” I said hotly. “And if our reputation is at stake, well, then I aim to fight for it, same as you were.”

Then Daisy came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron, and sank down on the couch beside Slim. “Oh Slim dear, I didn’t want to see either of you ride out all that way and take part in a dreadful cattle drive, so dangerous,” she said with a little shudder. But then she seemed to pull herself together. “But if this man does as he has proposed and aims to blacken your name and that of the Sherman ranch, well, I think you need to stand up to him”

Then she turned to me. “And who better to do it than Jess? He may be able to reason with the man and get a better deal, because from what you’ve told me, he is being totally unreasonable.”

“She’s got a point,” I said.

In the end he caved in — had no choice, really — and so that Friday, I set of for the Campbell ranch out near San Antonio, Texas.

*****

It was a long tiring journey via stage, railroad and hire horse, but I finally rode in late one afternoon, feeling just about ready  for this Angus Campbell to be acquainted with the legendary Harper temper. I was hot, tired and in no mood for any  threats of blackmail regarding my best buddy back home, and so it was with great surprise that I found I was welcomed with open arms.

As I rode into the yard — weary, dirty and pretty hacked off — the front door flew open and this huge bear of a man with a fearsome red beard ran out and grabbed my hand practically before I’d slipped from the saddle. Giving me a bone-crunching handshake, he bellowed something unintelligible at me.

I stood there mouth agape and just said, “Huh?”

“I said good day to you, laddie,” he said beaming at me.

I just nodded, lookin’ kinda bewildered I guess and said, “Pleased to meet you…Mister Campbell, is it?”

“Aye, that it is, laddie, and duna worry, you’ll soon get used to the brogue. Come away in and we’ll have us a wee dram afore the Mrs. catches us!”

It suddenly occurred to me that for a man who was too sick to go on a cattle drive, he looked mighty chipper, but all was to become clear later.

I just smiled rather foolishly and followed him in, and then was kinda relived when his wee dram turned out to be a glass or three of his finest Scotch whiskey.

“Pure nectar laddie, from my beloved highlands of Scotland, my homeland, that is.”

I nodded, beginning to feel more than a little mellow, and thinking  I should really get down to business before I drank anymore.

As if reading my mind, he said gently, “Look, laddie, I imagine you’re feeling a wee bit annoyed with me for the tone of my letter, am I no right?”

I nodded. “Well, it was kinda harsh Mister, Campbell — threatening, really, I guess — and ol’ Slim don’t need that, don’t deserve that kinda treatment. His Pa neither, by all accounts.”

Campbell just beamed back at me and refilled my glass. “Now bide your angst awhile, laddie, while I explain, and please to call me Angus if you will?”

I just nodded waiting for an explanation and I didn’t have too long to wait either.

“I can see you are fiercely loyal to your friend, and I like that in a man. And yes, you are right. Young Mathew…er…Slim that is, didn’t deserve that rubbish at all –not at all. It’s just that I was so fearful — well, hell if I’m honest, sonny — I was plain worried sick and I just had to make him do my bidding. But I should just have been honest with him and begged for his help rather than forcing his arm that way.”

I gave a faint smile thinkin’ it was Slim’s darned arm that had gotten me into this mess, but then I tried to concentrate — as well as my whiskey fuddled mind would let me — and said, “So why did you? What’s so all fired important that you had to act that way?”

Just then, the older man cocked his head on one side as if listening and said, “I think you are just about to find out for yourself.” He leapt up and opened the door to an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair in which sat a raven-haired, black-eyed, Spanish-looking beauty, who, by my estimation, was a good twenty years younger than Campbell.

“Come in my dear,” said the red haired Scot, “and meet young Sherman’s partner, Mister Jess Harper.

“Jess, this is my wife Rosa,” he said proudly.

She smiled up at me and I guess my heart melted there and then. “Pleased to meet you Ma’am,” I said, jumping up and taking the tiny fragile hand she offered me.

“Delighted to meet you Jess,” she smiled. “And it is so kind of you to come all this way to help us.”

All my stress and anger just melted away. Ok, I know, I’m a pure sucker for a beautiful lady, and Mrs. Rosa Campbell sure was a beautiful lady.

Anyways it was after supper,  when Rosa had retired to bed, that me an’ old Angus got stuck into the whiskey again and he explained exactly why he’d been so darned pushy wantin’ Slim to ride ramrod on his herd.

See, it turns out that Rosa had suffered a real bad fall from her horse, and for some time it looked like she was gonna be confined to the wheelchair for good, until another doctor saw her and said if she went back to Scotland, there was a specialist at a big hospital there who would be able to perform surgery. Said it was almost a done deal that she would be able to walk again, but time was of the essence, he said — like it was real important as she was seen sooner rather than later.

“So you see, laddie, I was desperate to sell up here, sell the stock too and get over to the old country as soon as possible, with no time to move the herd myself, even get the wranglers. I needed to be off really soon. However, as it is now I have secured some men to accompany you; I managed to strike a deal with the rancher in Cheyenne — a man named Swan — and he is taking on some of my staff too…for his sins,” he laughed. “So you see, my dear laddie, you’ve no need to fret about that. Got a chuck wagon and cook too, so all you have to do is drive them down to Wyoming.”

“And pay for it all too,” I said bitterly.

“Pay? Why no. Whatever gave you that idea? I just had a little…er, cash flow problem when I wrote, but that’s sorted out now.”

“Huh?”

“I was short of cash, laddie, but I’ve had the check from Swan now, so the men’s wages are all taken care of and I’ve prime stock waiting for you to view tomorrow. I think Slim will certainly get his money’s worth. Er, you do have the money?”

“Sure I do and you’ll get it when I’ve seen the stock, OK?”

He grinned at me at that. “I do like a man that calls a spade a spade. Come, my boy, drink up and then I’ll show you to your room. Busy day tomorrow!”

*****

The following morning, even the lovely Rosa couldn’t raise my spirits at breakfast as I stared into a bowl of what looked like something the cat had chucked up, my head throbbing fit to burst.

She smiled over at me, “I think you do not care for the porridge, si, mi amigo?”

I stared back down at the grey mush in front of me. “Guess not, Ma’am,” I whispered, even that sound making me wince.

She gave a little giggle and gestured to the elderly housekeeper to remove the offending matter and replace it with a steaming cup of coffee.

I smiled. “Thanks.”

“De nada, and once you have drunk that, my husband awaits you in the yard, for you to inspect your stock, no?”

I nodded. “Yeah, and when I’ve given them the once over and paid up, I figure you’ll be on your way huh?”

“Quite so.” Then she looked kinda sad, she added. “I will miss it here — so many Spanish friends you see — but Angus is a good man. I will be cured and he will live out his days in his home lands, so we will both be happy, I think.”

“I sure hope so, Ma’am,” I said, wondering how the big rough redhead had acquired this young beauty.

As if reading my thoughts, she said quietly, “II love my husband very much. As I say, he is a good man and so sad after his first wife died.”

“Oh yeah,” I said trying to look like I knew.

“Si, he lost his dear Maud, the mother of his son, many years ago now. Do you know the boy? He lives in Laramie, Jock Campbell?”

“No Ma’am,” I said briskly, not wanting to go down the line of newspaper editors, and their underhand ways.

“Well no matter,” she said with a faint smile. “I mustn’t detain you, Jess; my husband will be waiting.”

I drained my cup, and excusing myself went off to the yard to seek out Angus, but what she had just said had again made me question his methods.

I must have looked kinda brooding, because Angus picked up on my mood at once.

“Jess, laddie, I hope you’re not still worrying about that letter. To be honest, I wrote it after a dram or two and I was feeling quite desperate. There was nobody I trusted here abouts with the beasts, and I just wanted Slim to help me out so much I think I overstepped the mark by, well, maybe inferring my son would besmirch his father’s name. That was quite remiss of me. Mathew was a good friend and a fair business man too.”

“Yeah, well…” I looked down, still not wholly trusting the guy.

“I will send Slim another letter this very day withdrawing everything I said in that last letter and apologizing. Is that alright, my friend?” he asked, offering his hand.

I looked him in the eye and suddenly knew he was telling the truth. “Sure,” I smiled, shaking his hand warmly, “so let’s check out these beasts of yours, huh?”

We went over to several corrals behind the ranch and saw a bunch of prime young Texas Longhorns.

“They tick free?” I asked raising an eyebrow.

“Certainly they are, laddie — fit and healthy and well fattened. ‘Tis a tough trail along the Goodnight, I know, but they shouldn’t lose too much weight along the way.”

I nodded and turned to move away. “They look real fine,” I said smiling.

“Not so fast, laddie; these aren’t the only beasts I have. No, I’ve got something special for young Slim, something I think his Pa would have liked. Come away.” He led me to another huge corral behind his barn.

I just stared in amazement at what I saw — a massive big brute of a black bull as muscular and healthy as I’d ever seen, his black coat gleaming in the early morning sunlight. He was tethered by a nose ring, but in the next corral were a dozen or more young bullocks and heifers in his image.

“Meet Blackjack and his progeny,” Angus said, grinning at the look of shock on my face. “Old Blackjack is staying here with a neighbor — a wee bit long in the tooth for the journey — but every one of those young bullocks have his blood in them and have the potential to sire prize-winning beasts. I want young Slim to have them all, bar a couple that are for the Swan ranch, included in the price of the Longhorns you’ve bought.”

I let out a long breath and just stared in amazement, before turning and asking. “So what breed are they?”

“Well I’ll tell you, boy, they’re Aberdeen Angus, the best damn cattle to come out of Scotland, and one day, they’ll be what every stock man over here wants. Trust me, laddie, Slim could make his fortune with those beasts.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “I just don’t know what to say, Angus. Thanks very much!”

“Think nothing of it, son. I can’t take them with me and wanted them to go to a good home. You just get all the beasts safely there and that’s all the thanks I need.”

I was still standin’ lookin’ kinda awestruck, I guess, when a young lad ran over, and looking at Angus, said, “Shall I show Mister Harper the horses?”

“Why sure sonny,” he said resting a huge hand on the youngsters shoulder. Turning him to face me, he added, “This is Billy; he’ll be accompanying you Jess.”

The boy fixed me with a look that said, ‘don’t mess with me, mister,’ but he shook hands politely enough before running off to fetch the mount Angus had chosen for me.

As soon as he was out of earshot, I turned to the big man, “Ain’t he a mite young for this, Angus? It ain’t gonna be no ride in the woods, you know.”

“Yes, I know, Jess. The boy may be young but he is quite up to the task and has a good job awaiting him. I’d be really obliged if you could take him with you.”

I shook my head. “There ain’t no room for passengers, you know, Angus.”

Just then the boy emerged from the barn, leading a tough looking little buckskin, and I could tell at once that he’d heard me.

“I ain’t lookin’ for a babysitter, mister; I can wrangle cattle with the best of ‘em!”

Something about this skinny little barefooted ragamuffin kinda reminded me of myself back awhile.

“So how old are you, Billy?” I asked not unkindly.

He pulled himself up to his full 5 foot, and throwing me a defiant look, said, “Just turned fifteen.”

I hid a smile. “That old, eh?”

“Can’t do nuthin’ about bein’ young, mister.”

I grinned at him then, kinda liking his style, and said, “That you can’t, boy, and I figure it ain’t incurable. Welcome on board.”

“Gee thanks, Mister Harper,” Billy said, his smile lighting up his whole face, his deep brown eyes wide with excitement. “I won’t let you down, I promise.”

“Ok, so who have you got here?” I asked nodding at the buckskin.

“This here is your mount, Mister Harper, and he’s a real good ride — fast as the wind, sure-footed and brave and true.”

I looked the critter over and liked what I saw. He had a kind eye and a compact tough lithe body, the sort of horse that could turn on a dime and race his guts out for you.

“Quarter cross?” I asked raising an eyebrow to Angus.

“That he is, laddie, bred him meself. Crossed with a wild mustang. Got speed and stamina this one; he won’t let you down.”

I nodded patting the horse’s neck, and then giving him a  sugar lump from my shirt pocket, asked, “So what’s he called then?”‘

“Clyde,” said Angus proudly.

I chuckled. “What sort of darned name is that for a horse?”

“A very good one,” said Angus in mock indignation. “Named after one of the finest rivers in God’s own country of Scotland, I’ll have you know, boy.”

“Excuse me,” I laughed. “Well, he looks to be a real good horse, Angus, thanks. How much do I owe you for him?”

“Nothing, nothing at all, laddie. I’d like you to have him as a present.”

“Hell, I can’t take a good animal like that as a gift.”

“Of course you can, laddie. Look, Jess none of this was your problem, but you’ve come here and stood in for your buddy, and saved our bacon…that’s what you say, isn’t it? Yes, you’ve saved our bacon, and me and Rosa appreciate it, boy; we’d like to say thank you by giving you old Clyde here.”

I felt real touched at that and smiled at the old man. “Thanks,” I said real sincere like. “I’d be proud to have him, much appreciated.” We shook hands on it.

*****

And so it was that I set off on the journey through Hell, although I didn’t know that at the time.

The crew consisted of young Billy, and Jon, a sandy haired lad not a lot older that Billy at about nineteen, but fit and strong enough with a cheerful smile and nice uncomplicated way about him.

Then there was Cookie, who Angus had hired in to run the chuck wagon.

I introduced myself to the old timer who had a shock of white hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes.

“Jess Harper, trail boss, and you are?” I asked smiling encouragingly as I offered my hand.

He pushed his hat back and gave me an appraising look before shaking my hand. “Cookie,” he said finally.

I nodded tryin’ to be patient. “Sure, that’s what you do, but your name?”

“Like I said, just Cookie.” He marched off back to his wagon.

“Right, that’s all your men,” said Angus, “Er, except for Carl.” Then turning to Jon, he said, “Where in tarnation is he?”

“Still in town sir, had some…er… business”; said he’d meet up with us down the trail aways.”

“Um…sorry about that, Jess. Carl isn’t the best hand I’ve ever had, but I needed to make up the numbers and I’ve no doubt you’ll knock him into shape, laddie.”

I’d no doubt either, already having taken a dislike to the elusive Carl.

Anyways, there was no time to be frettin’ about that; we had a herd to move. So without further ado, we headed them out, me in the lead with a top steer that had done the trip before — old Blue — and Cookie way out ahead, so as he could camp and have our chow ready when we pulled up later in the day. I was kinda glad to have him along as he knew the trial like the back of his hand and would act as scout as well as cook. We’d also tethered the extra horses on the back of the wagon so he was in charge of them too, but he just seemed to take it all in his stride, bein’ real experienced in cattle drives an all.

“He knows where he’s a going, son,” Angus had laughed. “Done the trip before. Always helps to have a good lead beast, like old Blue there, and a good cook too, and reckon you’ve got both, laddie. So good luck!”

So I was up front with Blue and had Jon and Billy riding flank and one of Angus’s hands riding drag until we picked up Carl a way down the trail.

Well, it was actually a good twenty miles down the trail, and we’d set up camp before Carl met up with us and I was feelin’ real mad even before I clapped eyes on him. Then as soon as I did, I knew dang well as to why he hadn’t met up with us at the ranch, because he knew I’d have refused to ride with him.

Carl jumped down from his mount and walked over to where I was hunkered down by the fire pouring a coffee. As he approached, Billy said, “Here’s Carl now. Carl Jones, this is the trail boss, Jess Harper.”

I stood up slowly, my eyes narrowed and my hand resting on the butt of my colt and threw him a hard look.

Carl looked real wary and came and stood in front of me. “Jess,” he said quietly.

“So Carl Jones, is it now,” I said. “Not Doon anymore then?”

Billy looked from me to Carl and back. “You two know each other then?”

“Could say,” I drawled.

Then Billy looked back at Carl. “Your name’s Doon?”

Carl flicked a glance over to Billy. “Beat it, kid; me and the boss have some catchin’ up to do.”

Billy looked shocked and then threw me a worried glance.

I gave him a smile and jerked my head gesturing to the chuck wagon. “Go get your chow, boy,” I said not unkindly.

When he’d gone, I weighed up Doon.

He hadn’t changed that much — put on a few pounds, I guess, and his black hair streaked with grey. He had the florid complexion and watery eyes of the perpetual drunk.

“So why are you late turning up?” I asked.

“Had business in town, couldn’t get away…”

“Business in the saloon no doubt,” I said icily.

He just shrugged and looked down.

Well that really riled me. “So why should I take you on!” I spat.

He shrugged again. “Guess you’ve not got much choice,” he said gesturing to where Angus’s hand was saddling up ready to go home.

“So that’s why you didn’t turn up at the ranch. You knew darn well I wouldn’t ride with you…didn’t you!”

“I guess,” he muttered.

Then Carl looked me properly in the eye for the first time. “Look that business was a long time ago. I guess we’ve both moved on some, huh? “

I just shook my head. “As I remember it, you swore to kill me if we ever met again, though God knows why, seein’ as it was me as was wronged.”

“Yeah, in your view,” Carl said angrily. Then remembering he was trying to keep his job, he just muttered, “Like I said, it was a long time ago.”

I sighed deeply. “So you still drinking?”

“Not on the trail.”

“Well you’d better not be. This is a small outfit and we all rely on each other. There ain’t no room for mistakes, you understand?”

He nodded. “Sure Jess, you won’t get any trouble from me.”

Every fiber of my being was saying ‘no… don’t do this, Harper.’

“OK, so you’re on trial. Any trouble and…”

“Yeah, I know boss,” Carl said with an evil grin and marched off to get his chow.

After a while, I joined the men at the chuck wagon. It took old Cookie a good few minutes to lever himself up from his seat and go and serve me, and I figured he was a helluva lot older than he had first appeared.

Anyhow he dished up this brown mush and I raised an eye brow and said conversationally, “So what’s this then, Cookie?”

“Stew.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” I said raising my eyes to give him the full benefit of the Harper glare. “But what kinda stew?”

“Brown stew,” he said with a triumphant look.

I admitted defeat and went to sit down to eat, and ponder my lot.

I sighed deeply. I was saddled with a couple of kids barely wet behind the ears, a drunk who wanted me dead, and an ancient, smart-ass cook, so things just couldn’t get much worse — could they?

That night the youngsters took first watch over the herd, with me and Carl goin’ to take over from midnight to dawn. I got my head down soon after supper, but as I lay there lookin’ up at the stars, I couldn’t help but remember that other  starlit sky, a good few years ago now, when Carl and I had nearly killed each other.

He had a good fifteen years on me, and as soon as I rode into that Texas ranch lookin’ for work and he strode out, rifle aimed at my head, well, I just knew he was trouble.

Before Carl got to sayin’ anything, the boss of the outfit came out and gave him a mouthful as to that was no way to greet visitors. With a filthy look, Carl had backed off and left me and the boss to get acquainted.

I was offered a job mustang-breaking for him and I did a real good job, if I say it myself, and before too long, me and the boss were getting along real fine.

He sure was a real nice man and he had a real nice daughter too — young Jenny. So cute — blond curls, turned up nose, freckles. Yeah, she sure was a sweet kid. Well, I was in my early twenties then and she was about eighteen, and things sorta went a pace with us. We got to be close, real close. But, ol’ Carl was none too keen on this. Seems he wanted her for himself, but hell, at nearly thirty five, he was way too old for her and she didn’t even like him either.

The upshot was that he reckoned I’d muscled in on what he hoped would be his girl, so he tried to get me in bad with the boss. Used every darn trick in the book, from stealing stuff and  puttin’ it in my saddle bag to puttin’ his empty bottles under my bed — yeah, he was a drunk even then. Anyway, I managed to expose him for what he was, the way he’d framed me, and so the boss had fired him and that was when he swore he’d get even.

But he wasn’t done then, oh no. He hung around the place, and one night just after I’d seen Jenny home after a date, he broke in and tried to force himself on her.

Her Pa was away on business and so she was home alone, but I heard her yellin’ and screaming way out in the bunk house. So did the other men and we tore over to the house, thinkin’ she was bein’ robbed or something.

I soon saw what was goin’ on and pulled him off, threw him out and then started knocking nine bells out of him. I broke out in a sweat even now at the memory, knowing how close I came to killing him with my bare hands.

Then I cast my eyes up to the Heavens and remembered it had been just such a night as this. I glanced over to where he was bunked down by the fire and wondered if he was remembering too, but he was out of it and snoring loudly.

So the men had pulled me off of him, and he’d gone to trial and did a lengthy prison sentence for conspiracy and attempted rape. The boss moved his family back east and I moved on.

And now here he was back  in my life again, and I’d have been pretty naive if I hadn’t realized that he’d try and get back at me at some stage.

Yeah, looked like bein’ a real interesting ride, I thought, before rolling over and trying to get some shut eye.

*****

The following day we got the herd movin’ at first light, as I wanted to get some miles behind us as soon as we could because we were suffering probably some of the hottest weather I could ever remember in Texas. The sun was a white hot ball in the sky beating down relentlessly and I was sweatin’ and weary by mid-morning. However, we pushed ‘em on, knowing that we had to make the journey as quickly as we could, while there was still some grazing and water to be had, because the way that ol’ sun was beatin’ down, well, I couldn’t predict how long it would be before we hit drought conditions.

I’d sent the chuck wagon on ahead with the remuda in tow, and I was ridin’ point with ol’ Blue, the lead steer nearby. The two youngsters were riding flank, with Carl riding drag. It seemed to be working real good, with the youngsters fetching back any stray steers at once and keeping a nice compact line.

However, even with my feelin’s about Carl, I figured it wasn’t fair to make him ride drag for the whole trip , it bein’ the very worst position, what  with all the dust and dirt thrown up by the herd, not to mention the stench that they left in their wake. So the following morning, I switched Jon and Carl and gave him a spell ridin’ flank. What a mistake that was.

His mount was fit and capable, that was for sure, but Carl just wasn’t up to it; once one of the steers broke away, he’d head off after it and then disappear out of view for long periods, supposedly chasin’ the beast. But when it happened the third time, I was beginning to think he was takin’ off for a rest. So the next time it happened, I rode out just far enough so that I could get a squint of him with my binoculars, and sure enough, he was sittin’ idle havin’ a smoke and watching the steer grazing within a few feet of him.

Well, that made me real mad, I can tell you. I put my fingers in my mouth and let out an ear-splittin’ whistle, and his head shot up. He moved like the Devil was after him and started guiding the steer back, but it was way too little too late as far as I was concerned.

It was later that evening when we had made camp that I took him to one side and read him the riot act.

It had been another long hot day in the saddle, and I was in no mood for mincing my words, so I let him have it.

As soon as he dismounted, I was there and used all my will power not to physically knock some sense into him.

“So what the hell do you think you’re playin’ at, Doon?” I spat.

He threw me a defiant look. “Don’t know what you’re talkin about, boss,” he said sulkily.

“Goddamn it, of course you do, playin’ us all for fools here, going off for a smoke and a rest, and leaving a young kid doin’ all the work for you.”

“I wasn’t. I…”

“Just shut it, Doon; save it for someone who gives a damn. You’re ridin’ drag from now on,” I finished before turning on heel and heading for the chuck wagon and the coffee pot.

After that he pretty much kept his head down, and to be honest, I figure he knew I was in no mood to be messed with as this cattle drive was turning out to be the job from hell.

I’d already figured that it had been a hard dry old summer for them down in Texas and New Mexico when I rode in, but it really hit me as we headed for the Horsehead crossing on the Pecos River. I was darned pleased that we were on our way there, because the ground was parched and the waterholes nearly dry on the way over. If it hadn’t have been for that old river ahead, I would have been real worried.

As it was, I made sure we didn’t waste a drop of water and kept the herd moving as long as it was light. In fact, as we neared the river, the grazing was sparse and the water practically non-existent, so we actually drove on through the night.

Well, of course that didn’t go down too well with the troops. The young lads moaned some, but could see the sense in it and old Cookie was real understanding. But Carl Doon, well, hell, you’d have thought I was asking him to move the herd single-handed the way he cussed and fretted. So in the end, I told him straight he could like it or ride out, and to be honest, by then I wasn’t particular as to which he chose.

Well, as it happened he came back on track, and I decided the place him where he could do the least damage at night, riding point. We were travelling real slow and all he had to do was follow the Tilley lamp swaying from the back of Cookie’s chuck wagon, and figuring even he could do that, I went and rode drag, worried that some of the animals might try and stop for the night and so we needed someone kinda alert to keep an eye on them.

The following morning we were in spittin’ distance of the river, so I said we could haul to and take a good long break for breakfast and a nap, in turns.

Well ol ‘Carl looked sick, real sick, pale and sorta shakin’ and I thought he wouldn’t last out the trip, he looked so darn rough.

Anyways he said he was riding out a spell have a look see how far the river was and when he returned an hour or so later he looked much better, but I wasn’t to discover what all that was about until much later in the drive, although I was to remember later and then a lot of things made sense.

*****

So we made it to the river Pecos the following day and were we glad to get there, especially those ol’ steers. Hell, it was impossible to hold ‘em those last few miles. They got the scent of the water and they just went, stampeded the last half mile or so and then ran straight in, heads down drinkin’ their fill. I was real worried. See, I’d heard tell as how other drives had had cattle drink way too much of the salty water and get sick, plus the area was real treacherous with steep banks in some places and quick sands in others. So although I was mighty glad to get them watered, it didn’t come without its worries.

As it turned out, we managed to get them across and moving on, although we followed the river for a while so had plenty of the much-needed water, plus the grazing was better within the river flood plain.

So things settled down some. Carl seemed calm enough, the boys had a laugh and a joke, and Cookie produced stews in a variety of colors. We ate them up OK, without knowing what was in ‘em, but they tasted alright and did the job, so nobody had cause for complaint.

Then as the relentless heat just kept on beatin’ down, I figure we all got kinda short tempered and little things started bugging us.

Cookie was a complete nightmare to talk to as he seemed almost stone deaf, but I had my suspicions that his hearing loss was selective because he sure picked up on any whispered comments casting any criticisms as to his cookin’!

I could see young Billy was strugglin’ too, and me and Jon kinda helped ease the burden by helpin’ him out some. But not old Carl. Oh no, he’d have let the kid do all his work as well as his own if I hadn’t watched him like  a hawk.

And watch him I did. I’d almost convinced myself on several occasions that he was drinkin’ again. He sure looked that way, staggerin’ sometimes, slurring too, but when I challenged him he denied it somethin’ fierce and when I got up real close, I couldn’t smell anything on him at all. Then I’d caught him hanging around the chuck wagon a few times lookin’ kinda guilty and I got  to wondering if he was flitching the supplies, but Cookie said no, nuthin’ was missing,  so I just kept on watchin’ and a waitin’, knowing he was darned well up to something.

Well, we’d made it all across New Mexico through the Raton Pass and into Colorado, and it sure was a long hard pull, with us all feelin’ the strain. So none of us was too impressed by what happened next.

Carl and I were on night watch, and it was an hour or two before dawn when suddenly several shots went off from way over the other side of the herd where Carl was supposed to be on guard. Well, that ol’ herd just took off like the devil himself was after them, and before we knew it we had a full blown stampede on our hands. To make matters worse, they had headed off through the camp, narrowly missing the sleeping youngsters and the chuck wagon.

I was up on my horse and just in time to see Carl staggering around looking bleary-eyed and almost out of it. There was no time to check out what he’d opened fire on; I just yelled for everyone to get mounted and we tore after the herd. It was a good two miles down the line before we managed to turn them and gradually slow ‘em down and bring them to an uneasy halt.

It was still real dark, and as I went to cut off one of the steers, the tough little Buckskin Clyde, caught his hoof in a prairie dog hole and fell badly and rolled over on me.

Looking back it could have been one hell of a lot worse, and I managed to stagger up and stand up after a moment, feelin’ real sick from the damage — some cuts and bruises and what felt like a smashed rib, the pain in my chest when I breathed being something fierce.

Anyways my first worry was my mount,  and I thought at first he’d busted a leg, I cussed softly as I stroked his fore leg  and then tried to check him out , but knew I’d need to wait some, until sunrise, to examine him properly.

I removed my hat, wiped the sweat from my face and turned to face Jon and Billy, who had just ridden up.

“You OK?” I asked.

Billy nodded, looking scared, the poor kid, but Jon was fine, just lookin’ kinda beat like me and real concerned too.

“You OK, boss?”

I put a hand protectively to my chest, but just nodded.

“I’ll live, not so sure about this ol’ fellah, though,” I said softly patting the horse’s neck and throwing him a real worried look.

“So what in hell was that all about?” Jon asked giving me a bewildered look. “And where is Carl?”

“Good question,” I said bitterly, but then we saw the chuck wagon finally approaching and Carl riding along side.

Carl slipped down from his horse and wandered over, looking a mite sheepish. “Gee, I’m sorry about that,” he said with a faint grin. “I kinda dozed off, and then when I woke up thought I saw a rattler, shot off a few rounds before I realized I was shootin’ at an old branch.” He shook his head and sniggered, staggering slightly.

I just glared at him, not believing what I was hearing, then he staggered again and hiccupped.

“Goddamn it, you’re drunk!” I spat.

He shook his head in denial and walked over to stand protectively by his horse; this time something in his eyes told me he was lying through his teeth.

I marched over and pushed him roughly away from his mount and he fell awkwardly and lay on his back staring up at me in anger.

“What’s your game?” he slurred.

I turned my back on him and unbuckled his saddle bag revealing one full and one half drunk bottle of spirit.

I uncorked one and sniffed the clear liquid, and then took a small swig before spitting it out. Vodka.

I was way beyond mad now. I knew my eyes were flashing darkly as I turned to face him, my fists balled at my side and a flush of anger across my cheeks. “So that’s why I never smelt it on you,” I said staring down at where he still lay in the dirt.

“Give that back,” he slurred, trying desperately to sit up.

I pushed him back, none too gently, with my boot and then threw both bottles against a rock where they smashed, the white spirit draining quickly into the parched earth.

“You can’t do that!” he protested loudly.

I ignored him. “Anymore?”

“Huh? “

“You got any more of the goddamn stuff stashed away?”

He just shook his head.

But then Cookie jumped down from the chuck wagon, and after disappearing into the back, emerged a moment later toting a large covered box. “This what you’re looking for, boss?” he asked, pulling off the lid to expose about another dozen bottles.

I nodded grimly.

“He had them under my bed in the wagon; said it was some old family china and stuff of his Ma’s wanted to take it up to Cheyenne with him. Well, I didn’t check it. Sorry, Jess.”

“Not your fault, Cookie,” I said.

Then I turned to Jon. “Take this over yonder and dispose of it,” I said quietly.

Suddenly Carl went crazy, jumping up and cussing, and in the end I had to draw my gun on him. Cookie tied his hands and feet, and we threw him in the back of the wagon to calm down as he looked like he was about to have a fit or somethin’, he was so rattled.

I helped Cookie manhandle him into the wagon and then sank down on a log holding myself and cussin’ something fierce, the whole of my chest feelin’ like it was on fire.

Old Cookie doubled up as our medic, so he took no time to strip my shirt off and start binding up my ribs real good. “That don’t look too good, boy; smashed at least one rib, maybe two. You’re gonna have to take things easy.”

“Oh yeah, sure,” I said sarcastically, turning my eyes  towards the herd as the sun came up, casting a rosy glow on the beasts and the mountain range to the west  and rear, as well as the great prairie running out as far as the eye could see to the  East.

“So what were you thinkin’ I should do, Cookie? Book in to that fancy hotel over yonder or maybe pay a little visit to that doc across the street there?”

He gave me an old fashioned look and said. “Hey son, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just telling you how it is. You’ve been rolled on by more than a few pounds of horseflesh and you’re black and blue, got busted ribs and could even have internal bleeding, so I’m tellin’ you, you need to rest up some. What you do about that is your business, I guess; I ain’t your Pa.”

I hid a smile at this. “That you ain’t,” I said softly, “and I’m sorry Cookie. I’m just kinda troubled, you know? I’m busted up, got me a drunk tied up in the wagon, and a couple of pups still wet behind the ears to help me. I’m tryin’ to herd a load of ornery beasts another God knows how many hundred miles. Yeah, guess I’m kinda troubled.”

“You forgot to mention the ancient, stroppy old cook,” said Cookie with a grin.

I shook my head and laughed. “I figure you’re fitter than the rest of us put together and got a heap more common sense too.”

“Well I don’t know about that, boy. I signed on for this here trip, so must have a few marbles loose! Anyway, an army marches on its stomach, so I figure I’ll go about fixin’ you all some breakfast.”

I gave him a genuine grin then. “Thanks Cookie,” and turning, went off to tend my mount.

Well, that was the one good thing that happened that day. Sure, the horse had damaged his front nearside fetlock, was favoring that leg, and it was kinda swollen and painful, but I figured it was just badly bruised. A day or two of complete rest would hopeful see the old fellow on the mend.

At breakfast, I sat around the fire with Cookie, Jon and young Billy and told them the plan.

“I figure we’ll lay by here a couple of days, give old Clyde there a breather, and get the rest of the branding done.”

We’d left San Antonio so quickly that some of the steers still hadn’t been road branded, and I knew that was real important as there was always the threat of rustlers, plus as we passed nearby the odd large town, there was also the risk of the Sheriff coming out to check  that the stock were all branded correctly. The road brand we were using for all the stock was a Trident, and then when we got our beeves back to the ranch we’d re brand them with the SR for Sherman Ranch.

“So you get the fire goin’ real hot, will you, Cookie? Me and the lads will go and round up a few steers and we’ll get ‘em branded.”

Cookie said nothing, just shook his head and gave me a hard look, as he really didn’t think I was up to it. Hell, I didn’t think I was up to it, but what choice did I have? I couldn’t leave rounding up and branding forty odd head of steers to a couple of kids and an old man.

As we got up to go, Jon asked what had been on everyone’s mind.

“So what about Carl then boss?”

I shook my head. “I could string him up for what he’s done,” I said, casting Clyde a concerned look. “But the truth is, I guess we need him, until we make it to Cheyenne anyways.”

“He’s not in very good shape,” said Cookie. “Just looked in and he’s looking real sick, Jess.”

“Good,” I spat angrily, “serves him darn well right.”

Cookie gestured to the boys to go about their business and then came over and fixed me with his tough no nonsense stare. “Look son, I know you’re real mad at him but…”

“Mad,” I spat. “Mad don’t come anywhere near, Cookie. You saw what happened. He caused that stampede through his own fault — drinkin’ on duty — and that could have cost the lives of you and those two kids, not to mention a darned good horse. He’s just no good, trust me; I know him from way back.”

“That’s as may be, son, but the fact is he’s ill. That drinking, well, it’s an addiction for him, like a sickness. He just can’t resist it, and now you’ve cut off his grog, well, it’ll make him real bad. Give him the shakes, belly cramps…”

“Do you think I don’t know that, Cookie? But it was the only way. He’ll just have to do cold turkey, and the sooner he gets his butt out of bed and starts workin’, the sooner he’ll start feelin’ better.”

Then I remembered back to that night I’d let him ride point and how rough he’d looked the following day. I figured because we were rolling all night, he wasn’t able to get at his grog. Then he’d ridden off and come back more himself. Hell, it looked like he needed the darned stuff to function.

I just shook my head. “I’m sorry, Cookie. I guess it’s going to be tough for him, but maybe if he can get off it out here without any temptations, he’ll stay off it once we get to town.”

“Maybe, son, maybe.” Cookie shuffled off to get a good fire going for the branding.

We spent the whole day ridin’ and brandin’. I rode one of the remuda, a tough little bay that reminded me a bit of Traveler, and he sure was a good worker, so we got over half of the unbranded stock done and the rest the following day, working as a tight team. I was real pleased with the way the youngsters got stuck in.

It was the second day before we got any sense out of Carl; he was a sweatin’ and shakin’, and even I felt kinda sorry for him. But by the third day, he was looking a mite better and even seemed sorry for what he’d done. Me like a fool accepted his apology and began to think that maybe he’d seen the error of his ways. How wrong could I be?

I was feelin’ pretty much crap myself from where old Clyde had rolled on me, and on the second day when I stripped down for a wash, Cookie gave a low whistle. “You’re really are in a bad way, son. So how are the ribs?”

“I’ll live,” I said, as usual, but I was aching all over  after the rough riding and branding we’d had to do and really just wanted to be able to lie on a proper bed and sleep for a week, but that wasn’t gonna happen.

That night, as I lay on my bedroll looking up at the stars, I thought about sleeping on a proper bed again as all the bruising was making it nigh impossible to get comfortable. And then I got to thinkin’ about one bed in particular — a large comfortable double  one with a feather mattress and colorful patchwork counterpane, a certain bed belonging to one Mille Johnson of the Laramie saloon. God, it felt like years since I’d held Millie in my arms and made sweet love to her, and now I squeezed my eyes tightly closed and sighed deeply, wanting her so damn much it hurt.

I’d spent the night before I rode out with her in that big old comfortable bed of hers, and we’d talked long into the night about the trip and about her spending time over in Cheyenne, helping her Ma and aunt who had recently acquired a boarding house there. It was doing real well and I was pleased, but sorely missed Millie on the odd occasion when she was out of town. Anyways, it wasn’t often that old Tom the barkeep could spare her, I thought now, so she was bound to be home in Laramie when I landed back later that month. Then I cast my mind back again to the last time I’d seen her.

She had lain beside me and ran a finger gently down my cheek. “Well, if you miss me that much, you’ll have to come over and stay,” she had laughed.

“Oh sure and what would your Ma make of that?”

She giggled. “I’ve told you before she’s got a real soft spot for you cowboy. She’d turn a blind eye. After all, she did last time you visited.”

Then I’d leaned down, teasing her with gentle kisses before I kissed her more deeply, tangling  a hand in her beautiful dark hair,  pulling her closer, feeling her responding, her heart beating next to mine, then  she had uttered a soft moan of pleasure as I…

“Hell, stop it, Harper,” I said to myself now. “She’s over a hundred miles away, so just stop your frettin’ and stop thinkin’ on her too, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.” After that strict talking to, I turned over and willed sleep to deliver me from my torment, but it was a long time before I finally fell into a restless slumber.

*****

So we continued the journey, Carl looking like a ghost but finally back in the saddle again. I guess he was finding the going hard, as we all were, to be honest. The heat was relentless, as was the dry, continuous wind that burned our faces and blew sand and dirt around, getting into our mouths, water supply and even our food.

The landscape was now an ochre sea of tinder dry prairie grass, broken up by the odd swathe of cottonwoods around mostly dried out water holes. I was growing increasingly worried about the water situation, knowing that the next river was another good day’s ride ahead of us. I told the men to ration their water for themselves, their mounts being a priority, but I could see they were all struggling. Especially young Billy, being unused to such arid conditions for so long. However I couldn’t afford to cut the men any slack, and we had to keep moving forwards at the fastest pace we could manage, needing to hit the next river and some refreshing water as soon as we could.

Carl was being particularly difficult, continually moaning about riding drag, and I caught him bullying young Billy to swap with him on more than one occasion. The second time I came upon them having words, I really laid into Carl.

“Look, you just ain’t fast enough to ride flank. It’s a young man’s position and I can’t afford for you to ride point and go getting’ us all lost. I’m sorry Carl, but you’re just gonna have to put up with it.”

 He went off cussin’ and muttering to himself, but hell, I wasn’t runnin’ a darn rest home here. If he wasn’t up to it, then there was nuthin’ I could do.

When we finally stopped for the night, it was almost dark, but I figured we’d made good time and we were well past Denver now, where Cookie had gone into town to collect supplies. I figured we were less than a hundred miles from Cheyenne. If we kept up at this pace, we should make it in four or five days, I reckoned, and I really couldn’t wait.

I knew the men were feelin’ kinda strung out and really needed to hit the town’s saloons and find them a woman, and it wasn’t just them that was feelin that way, I can tell you. I wanted to find me a woman too — well, one particular one anyway. They were real sore that I wouldn’t let them go into town, but hell, with such a small crew, it was impossible and we sure couldn’t leave the herd unattended. Plus I’d figured that if we’d let Carl into town, he’d have taken off on a bender and we’d never have seen him again.

I watched him like a hawk as we passed near the large towns, and I figured if he’d got the cash. he would have lit out long since. But his wages, along with the others, was waiting for him in the bank in Cheyenne, so he had no choice but to stay with the drive, although I could tell it was really riling him.

We settled down that night, with Billy and Jon taking the first watch and me and Carl from midnight to dawn.

I was a sittin’ there by the ol’ camp, fire havin’ the first coffee of the day just before dawn and I was suddenly aware that something wasn’t quite right.

I didn’t know what it was at first, and I peered out into the dim early morning light. Then sniffing…

I smelled it before I saw it — the unmistakable smell of burning. Looking out to the horizon, I saw a distant ribbon of red, and then as I scrambled to my feet and stood, staring in horror. I heard it –the wind beginning to roar and the faint crackling of the fire advancing towards us.

“Billy, Jon, Cookie, Carl,” I yelled. “Get out here. Fire! Damn it, fire!”

The following few hours were a mixture of terror, pain and pure hell, as I told Slim later. Yeah, I sure went to hell and back during that day, and later too — and the memory will to stay with me forever.

We broke camp immediately and got the herd moving, but even as we moved them on out, the wind started roaring even louder. The fire that had been on the distant horizon was moving in on us at a frighteningly fast pace. Before too long, that thin band of flame had grown, and the smoke and fire seemed to be chasing us like some great fire breathing monster out of one of Mike’s story books — a dragon, that was it. That goddamn fire was like a mighty dragon, chasing us across the prairie and it looked awfully like it was goin’ to win the race and catch us too.

We hurtled along at a breakneck speed, the herd now stampeding as they smelled the smoke, knowing instinctively that they were in danger. It was all we could do to keep up with them. I was real worried about the crew and tried to watch them as well as stay with the terrified beasts. As I glanced back at one stage, I noticed that Carl was riding flank along with Jon, and Billy was way back riding drag. I made a mental note to give Carl the hiding of his life for disobeying me — if we all survived that is, I thought bitterly to myself.

Poor ol Cookie was driving the chuck wagon as fast as he darn well could, and it looked pretty much like it was in danger of fallin’ apart. I went and rode beside him for a spell before he waved me off with an angry, “I’m OK, boy; see to your beasts. I can manage!”

I had already released the remuda and they were running free ahead of the herd, all hell bent for the river. I just hoped and prayed that the flames wouldn’t be such that they would be able to jump the waters, as I had heard of them doing in other fierce fires.

My heart was practically leaping out of my chest it was beating so dang hard, and I couldn’t ever  remember feeling so  terrified as that searing heat and roaring inferno chased us across the plain.

Now as the fire advanced on us, it was like a roaring tornado with grey ashes falling all around us, the smell hurling me back in time to that fifteen year old kid I’d been when the Banister gang had torched our family home and I’d nearly burnt to death. They’d been seven of us in my family and only three of us got out alive. Even now, I thought I heard the screams of my Ma and Pa and the other kids in  the flames that were chasing me, and I remembered how a neighbor had had to hold me back as I fought to go back in and try and  save them.

Then I was suddenly whisked back to the here and now as I saw the river glinting in the morning sun about half a mile ahead of us. I knew then, in my heart, that we would be saved and felt almost light-headed with relief.

The horses and steers threw themselves into the shallow water and made it across to the safety of the other side, closely followed by Cookie and the chuck wagon, with Jon and Carl following on and I brought up the rear.

As soon as we were safely over and the herd was beginning to settle — some of them already grazing peacefully — I rode over to where Jon and Carl were gasping for breath, their faces blackened from the smoke and their clothes covered in the ashes and looking half-dead. I figured I was lookin’ little better, but that was the least of my worries.

“Where’s Billy?” I yelled as I dismounted and ran over to the men.

Jon shook his head looking shocked. “Dunno. He was ridin’ drag.”

Then I turned on Carl. “And why was he doin’ that?” I spat angrily.

He looked numb and said nothing, just shook his head wearily. “Said he didn’t mind swapping for a spell,” he finally muttered.

I turned back to the river, expecting to see the flames leaping at its shore, but a miracle had happened even in the short time we’d been talking. The wind had changed direction, taking the flames away to the east, leaving a blackened, barren stretch of scorched wasteland as far as the eye could see.

I went and stood by the river bank and scanned the area with my binoculars, but there was no sign of the boy. I dipped my head in sorrow; the fire had got him.

Without a word, I went over and remounted the buckskin, but before I could ride out, Cookie came over and grabbed the reins. “Hey, where are you heading off to, son?”

“Fetch him back…what’s left of him,” I said, my voice thick with emotion.

Then I turned furious eyes on Carl. “I’ll deal with you when I get back,” I growled before kicking my mount off back the way we had come.

Once I’d crossed the river, I paused, and cutting up my spare blanket. I soaked it in the river before tying pieces around the horse’s feet to protect them from the still scorching earth before riding off on my grim mission.

I’d been riding  for about  half an hour when I saw something in  the distance, and raising my glasses, I saw Billy’s little Paint  pony trotting along  towards me. He was rider less.

When I caught up with him, I checked him out and he seemed to be OK. I slapped him on the rump and he made his way down towards the river at a good pace, and I resumed my quest. I was constantly scanning the black waste for signs of Billy’s charred remains, his discovery so very important to me, as I needed to lay him to rest, but the thought of actually finding him also deeply distressing.

I was suddenly alerted to the presence of fire again, and looking out to the East, I saw a small grove of cottonwoods well on fire. As I rode closer, I could hear the roar of the flames and a terrible cracking sound as one of the mighty trees was felled by the fire and crashed to the ground, flames and sparks leaping from it.

Then I heard it, above the crackling of the fire, an unearthly scream as of a terrified, trapped animal. I figured it had made its way to the trees in search of water and had become imprisoned by the flames. I’d come across many charred victims of the fire on my ride, from prairie chickens to a wolf, and I figured that the eerie sounds were coming from just such a critter.

And then I heard it again, and this time I stiffened and stood up in my stirrups, starring at the distant flames as the sound was now unmistakably human. Billy — it had to be Billy, frantically screaming for help.

I spurred Clyde on towards the bank of flames, and once we neared it he shied and snorted, showing the whites of his eyes, all his instincts being to bolt, but I held him and patted him gently. Then leaning over his neck, I whispered words of encouragement into his ear before kicking him on towards the creaking, crackling gates of Hell.

All we could see were the flames and smoke as the trees burned and crashed around us and it was only the continued frenzied screams of the boy that drove me on.

Touching my spurs once more to the buckskin’s flanks, I set him towards the still burning fallen tree. He careered forward as I urged him on, and leapt over it as though he were flying, landing well and continuing forward.

Now we really were in hell, the stench of burning flesh all around, the flames almost engulfing us. The ear-splitting crack as another tree fell made my horse rear in terror, nearly tipping me off.

The air was full of curling wafting smoke, and the fire was casting a hellish red glow over everything, but finally I found what I was seeking. There, on his knees in the center of it all, was Billy. The look of terror in his eyes suddenly changed to disbelief and then amazement as he saw me riding towards him.

I spurred Clyde onwards, and like I had thought when I first clapped eyes on him, that ol’ horse could turn on a dime. We galloped across the few short yards separating us from the boy, and I reached down and grabbed hold of Billy’s arm, dragging him up behind me. Within a split second, old Clyde had turned and was hightailing it back the way we’d come, and even with two up, he still sailed over the burning log and was halfway back to the river before I had a chance to catch my breath.

I eventually found the strength to rein him in and slid from the saddle. Billy all but fell down beside me, the tears rolling down his blackened face.

“I’m so darned sorry, boss,” he whispered, before really breaking down and sobbing.

Well, I have to tell you I felt pretty much like doin’ the same, but I managed to hold it together. Once he’d calmed down some and had a pull from my canteen, I threw him a puzzled look and said, “So what in hell have you got to be sorry for, boy?”

“Well, sir, I was ridin’ drag, and a couple of the steers busted free and struck out for that ol’ water hole by the cottonwoods and I went after them. Well, I couldn’t save them, boss, and I’m real sorry. My old pony pitched me off, and I guess I banged my head; I only came around just before you rode up, and by then, the beasts were dead and my pony bolted.”

Then I remembered the stench of burning flesh as I’d entered the jaws of what I would always think of as Hell, and figured it was the steers burning. I just hoped they didn’t suffer too much, that they were rendered unconscious before they burned.

“Heck boy, that ain’t you’re fault,” I said quickly. “And you should never have been riding drag anyway.”

The kid dipped his head at this. “I guess not, but old Carl can be real persuasive and I figured I’d better do as he said.” Then he looked upset again. “Don’t say nuthin, boss; I’m real scared of Carl.”

I gave him a grim smile then. “Oh, don’t you worry about Carl, boy; you just leave him to me.”

When we rode back in an hour or so later, the herd was still grazing peacefully and Cookie had a fire going and the coffee on, with the crew sitting around licking their wounds after their recent dice with death.

Jon and Cookie rose as one when I rode in with Billy, and they both ran forwards, Cookie helping him down with a look of pure delight on his old face. Jon ran over and ruffled the boy’s hair.

Then we all turned and stared at where Carl was still lounging by the fire, a look of disinterest on his scowling face.

I advanced on him menacingly. “What’s up, Carl? Not pleased to see your buddy back safe and sound, or are you afraid he’ll say as how you bullied him into riding drag and nearly got him darn well killed in the process?”

Carl got to his feet at that and threw me a defiant look. “He’s alright, ain’t he,” he muttered. “Don’t know what you’re frettin’ about.”

Well, that was just about it. I was way beyond the jumping off place now, and I glared at him, my eyes glinting black with fury and my fists balled ready to lay one on him.

“The kid nearly died — me too — and if it hadn’t been for the courage of that ol’ horse of mine, I guess we both would have perished.”

Carl just shrugged at that and went to turn away, but not fast enough as I rammed my fist into his face, sending him crashing to the ground several feet away.

He shook his head to clear it and glared up at me. “I guess you’ve been wanting’ to do that ever since you clapped eyes on me, ain’t you?” he sneered.

“Well, you’ve sure been askin’ for it.”

He got shakily to his feet and shook his head again. “Oh no, this isn’t about now and the way I’ve treated young Billy, is it, Harper? This is about back in Texas and that girl — what was her name? Jenny, that’s it, cute little thing she was — and I nearly had her that night, before you busted in on us,” he said with a bitter laugh.

I marched over and threw another punch that again sent him flying. and he lay there, blood now streaming down his shirt front from his busted nose.

“No,” I said shaking my head, “the first one was for Billy alright; that one was for Jenny.” With that, I strode off to attend to my mount, not daring to stay in his company for risk of what I might do to him if provoked any further. I still had a herd to deliver and that had to come first; time to settle old scores later, I figured.

*****

I decided that we’d lay over for a couple of days and continue on to Cheyenne once we were all rested. Now that we were so close, I figured we could afford to relax some and allow young Billy time to recover. Cookie had given him the once over and said he’d a nasty gash to the head, so I made sure he rested up in the chuck wagon until he was feelin’ better.

I looked out to where the sea of flames was receding, leaving a blackened wasteland and an eerie red glow in the sky, and figured unless we were real unlucky, that would be the last we saw of it. But my heart bled for the poor folk upon which it was advancing.

 I reckoned the last few hours had shaken me up more than I cared to admit, and as I stood watching the distant flames, I got a chill down my spine as I remembered hearing distinctly those desperate screams of my  dying family carried in the flames and wind of the advancing fire. I shook my head hard to try and remove the memory, and pondered what a dadgum strange thing the mind was, conjuring up all those images just through the smell and sound of fire.

I decided I needed something to take my mind off things and so went to inspect the herd. Finding a couple of young steers who had still managed to avoid being road branded, I took Jon with me to cut ‘em out and left Carl to heat up the branding irons as Cookie was busy tending to young Billy’s injuries.

Carl was none too pleased at workin’ with me after the battering I’d given him, and I suppose I can kinda understand that, but hell, we’d got a sick kid laid up in the chuck wagon and I was still really jittery after rescuing the boy. I figured Carl had gotten what was comin’ to him for deliberately disobeying my orders. And I was dang sure he wouldn’t have hightailed it into a burning copse after the stray steers either, even if he had been riding drag.

Anyway, once the work was done, Carl just went off sulking and it was down to me and Cookie to take the first watch. Then Carl and Jon took over at midnight, well, when Jon finally managed to rouse him that is. He was sleeping like the dead and I wondered if I’d hit him even harder than I thought. Eventually they went off to watch the beasts, and me and Cookie got our heads down, with him sleeping under the wagon, letting young Billy have his bed until he was feelin’ a bit better.

I wandered down to the river before I turned in to fill up my canteen, and then I paused for a while, looking out to the horizon. There was still a strange red glow in the sky, illuminated by a full moon that had crimson clouds scudding across it, and I figured I’d never seen the like before. It made me shudder, and I felt there was pure evil in the air somehow. I shook my head. ‘Come on, Harper, get a grip,’ I said gruffly to myself, before turning and making my way to bed.

It must have been just before dawn when I was awoken by a terrible nightmare, about as bad as I’d ever had — and that’s sayin’ something. See, I’ve suffered from bad dreams almost all my adult life, I guess. They’ve gotten a lot less since old Slim and me hooked up and I found a new life at the Relay, but they’d usually come on me when I was real stressed or upset. So it was no surprise that I had the usual one about the fire at our homestead. Well, I woke up shakin’ and sweatin’, but looking around, I didn’t seem to have woken Cookie, so I lay back down and tried to sleep again.

Well, I guess I was in that weird place — mid-way between wakin’ and sleepin’ — when it happened. I suddenly had this feeling that something real evil was abroad and I kinda half-opened my eyes. Then I really wished I hadn’t, because standing there in front of me was…The Devil — Satan, Old Nick, call him what you like — but it was him all right.

He was red, real red, from his face to his clothes, scarlet — no, blood red, that’s it, blood red — and he stood there leaning over me, his eyes black and as evil as I have ever witnessed. The whole world seemed to be blood red too, and I was transported back to the cottonwood copse where me and the buckskin had leapt into the jaws of Hell to rescue young Billy.

And then I got to thinkin’. Maybe I hadn’t rescued Billy; maybe we’d both perished there in that living Hell of flames and smoke, the stink of death all around us. Maybe we’d died, and now I was to meet the Devil before I was thrown into hellfire for eternity.

It was the strength of the ol’ Harper temper that came to my aid, I reckon, because I looked that ol’ Devil in the eye and said, “Go on then. You want me to burn, just go ahead and do it!”

Then I saw he’d got his trident in his hand. I remembered Ma showing me a picture of the ol’ Devil in one of her books when I was a kid, his body all red, horns to his head, a tail and carrying this here three pronged fork, ready to pitch folks into the fires of Hell she had said. Great one for spoutin’ about Hell and damnation was my Ma, and it sure kept us kids in order.

Anyways, I was a lyin’ there thinkin’ that after the life I’d led, it was hardly surprisin’ I was goin’ to the warm place, when the Devil suddenly lunged forwards and stabbed me in the shoulder with his trident and I smelt burning flesh and then agonizing pain. I twisted and rolled away from it –and then I was suddenly fully awake.

I lay there sprawled in the dirt and, then I stared up into the eyes of…Carl Doon. No devil, but he sure looked like one with his florid face, red flannel undershirt and holding the branding iron up high — the trident branding iron, the red morning sky behind him.

I gasped in shock and pain, and then was suddenly galvanized into action as I jumped up and wrestled the branding iron from his hand before laying a haymaker to his chin.

I staggered back after that, the pain in  my shoulder making  me retch,  and it was when  I  was doubled up on my knees that he came back at me and threw a punch that felled me.

I lay there in the dirt and he was kicking  me in the belly for all he was worth when I heard old Cookie yellin’ at him to stop, and I just knew I had to get up and deal with him else he’d lay into the old man too.

 I dragged myself up, sweatin’ and cursin’, and I guess I looked pretty fearsome. I was truly mad, that’s for sure. Well, I laid into him and threw a punch that floored him — and that was when he drew the knife.

I knew he kept a huntin’ knife in his boot same as I  did, but I’d no idea it was so goddamn lethal. Jeez, it was a good eight inches long, and as he came at me with it, I felt the sweat running down my spine and knew I was in deep trouble. I went for my knife and then I remembered too late that I’d lent it to Jon earlier that day, and now I was defenseless.

He came at me, slashing the knife through the air, and I dodged and weaved, but not fast enough as he finally managed to slash it down my arm; a bright red ribbon of blood stained my shirt sleeve almost immediately.

Well, if I was mad before, I was real crazy now and I lunged at him. Grabbing his arm, I tried to wrestle the knife from his grip, all the time Cookie yellin’ like a mad person for us to stop and then callin’ for the boys.

Well eventually we both had hold of the knife and were tryin’ to get control of it for what seemed like forever; one minute he was desperately trying to thrust it into my chest, and the next I got control and did all I darn well could to wrestle it from his hand.

We stared into each other’s eyes for a few seconds before it registered, one of us had been fatally wounded — and as old Cookie told it later,  from the looks on our faces it was dadgum difficult to tell which one, as we both looked  so shocked.

Then I let go and Carl fell — dead before he reached the ground, his own knife in his chest.

I never wanted him dead. The fool — why did he do that? Why pull a knife? We could just have thrashed it out, couldn’t we, with a good old fist fight. Had he really hated me that much?

Then I remembered something — the smell. As we were tussling with the knife, I smelt it on his breath — whiskey. He’d been drinking again, and the whole darn attack had been alcohol fuelled, I guess, making all rational thought go out the window.

Then suddenly, all the fight was knocked out of me. I started shakin’ and felt real sick; I fell to my knees, the pain in my arm and shoulder agony. I must have looked real bad, because next thing I knew, old Cookie was there along with Jon, and they picked me up real careful like and half- carried me over to my bedroll by the fire. Then Cookie took a look at the wounds.

It had been such a warm night I’d unbuttoned my shirt, and that was how Carl was able to press the branding iron directly onto my chest. The pain was incredible, far worse than any gunshot wound or knifing I’d received in the past.

Now Cookie leaned over me looking worried. “That’s real nasty, boy. I can patch up the cut to your arm, but I don’t like the look of that old burn, boy. That bastard branded you good; you need a doctor.”

“Well, we ain’t got one, Cookie, so I guess it’s down to you. Just do what you can,” I said before groaning, thinking I might chuck up.

“OK, OK boy, calm down.” Cookie started cleaning me up as best he could, binding the arm and then started to put a clean rag over the burn. But even that was agony, and I pushed him away after a minute. Then he turned away and muttered something to Jon, who disappeared and returned a few moments later with a bottle of whiskey.

“Here son, take a slug of that; it will ease the pain a little.” Cookie helped me sit up and I took a swig before lying back down.

Then I fixed Cookie with an icy glare. “Your medicinal whiskey — give some to young Billy last night. did you?”

He nodded looking puzzled. “Yes?”

“So did you lock it up again, like you always do? “

He looked real sheepish then. “No, guess I didn’t.” He held the dark bottle up to the light. “Gee, that’s gone down some. it was freshly opened and the lad only had a thimble full; now it’s darned near empty.”

I looked up to heaven before staring back at Cookie. “Yeah and my guess is Carl had the rest. Must have waited for you to fall asleep, then he went in, found the grog and had himself a nice little party. Trouble is, I guess the more he drank, the more bitter he got, and that’s when he had the idea to brand me like one of the darn steers.”

Cookie looked down and groaned. “Jess, I’m so sorry; I guess this is all my fault.”

Then I took pity on the old-timer. Hell, we’d sure been through it yesterday — all of us had; no wonder he’d made a mistake.

“No, no it ain’t, Cookie. I guess Carl had it in for me and he’d have found a way of getting even sooner or later. And laying his hands on some grog too… Reckon it was just a matter of time.”

Cookie just nodded sadly. “You try and get some sleep, son; me and Jon will go and lay him to rest afore the buzzards start botherin’ us.”

I just nodded and lay back feeling real sick and dizzy with a cold sweat running down my back. I sure wished I was home with Daisy fussin’ around me instead of in the middle of nowhere with a couple of hundred head of cattle waitin’ on me to get to feelin’ better and getting’ them delivered.

In the end, we rode out the following day. Cookie had a good old moan saying as how I should be resting, but hell, I just wanted to get back to civilization, have me a bath and a few drinks and sleep in a proper bed. So we finally headed off, goin’ real slow as now we were down to three and it took another few days until we finally landed at the Swan Ranch, and gee, was it a smart place.

Old man Swan came out to meet us and couldn’t have been happier to see us if we’d been carrying a wagon load of dollars. After talkin’ to him, I figured he reckoned that’s exactly what those old Aberdeen Angus critters were. ‘Worth their weight in gold,’ so he reckoned. He looked ‘em over and seemed well satisfied with the couple I’d brought him and the prime Texas Longhorn steers too.

“You tell Sherman these Scottish critters are the way forwards, boy,” he told me with a cheerful grin. “You look after them and breed ‘em on, and you’ll make a real killing, trust me. This is the third lot I’ve had from old Campbell — fine animals, just fine,” he said beaming at me.

He was happy for me to graze our steers on his land for a couple of days, and I figured we were all due some R and R; we headed for town soon after we arrived at mid-day on the Friday.

I figured young Jon and Cookie would keep an eye on the boy, so I had a quick couple of whiskeys with them and then I arranged to meet up with them back at the ranch on the Monday morning. Old man Swan had offered me a couple of his best hands to help us deliver the rest of the stock back to Laramie.

So my crew went off lookin’ for a few wild hours on the town, but me, well, all I really wanted right then was a hot tub and a bed, as I was still feelin’ kinda rough from the fight with Carl, the burn in particular hurtin’ real bad still.

I wandered down Main Street and knocked at the freshly painted smart front door of Millie’s Ma’s boarding house, and after a minute or two, it was hauled open by Mrs. Johnson herself. She stared for a moment and then beamed at me. “Why Jess dear, what a lovely surprise. Come along in,” she said, pulling the door open wide.

I dusted myself down with my hat as best I could, suddenly realizing how dadgum filthy I was — my clothes grimy, after rolling around in  the dirt fighting Carl, not to mention all the trail dirt and  dust and ash. The sleeve of my shirt was ripped and bloody and I had a good three days growth of beard.

I looked down embarrassed as I entered the sparklingly clean lobby. “I’m sorry, Ma’am; I guess I’m a mess,” I said sheepishly.

She nodded in agreement and then said cheerfully, “Nothing a hot tub and a bit of lovin’ care won’t remedy, son.”

I smiled at that. “So, can I get a room then, Mrs. Johnson?”

“Bless your heart, of course, my dear.”

 The she looked a bit thoughtful. “We are actually fully booked, but I don’t see why you can’t use our Millie’s room.”

Then before I could ask, she said, “She’s not here right now.” My heart sank; I had so hoped she might be spending one of her occasional weekends helping her Ma.

Anyway, Mrs. Johnson was the next best thing, and I knew she’d go a fussin’ over me just like Daisy; I wasn’t far wrong.

“Go on up, dear; there’s plenty of hot water. Just leave your clothes outside the door and I’ll wash and mend them for you. And I’ll take a look at that arm later too,” she finished, having noticed the blood stain.

“Aw, you don’t have to do that, Ma’am.”

“I know I don’t have to. I want to. Now run along — and you do have some clean clothes, don’t you, Jess?”

I showed her the saddlebags looped over my shoulder. “Sure do, Ma’am.” I went off happily enough to that hot tub with my name on it.

An hour or so later, I was in Millie’s room and had just buttoned up my clean denims and had the towel still slung around my neck, my hair damp from the bath, and was digging about in my saddle bags for a clean shirt when there was a knock on the door.

I walked over to answer it and then stood back in amazement. Standing there grinning up at me was…Millie!

I couldn’t believe my eyes as I drank in the vision of loveliness, her gleaming chestnut hair, those big brown eyes, now twinkling with merriment, and her hourglass figure, dressed in a low cut green dress molded to her figure and showing every inch of her to perfection.

I must have looked kinda dumb, because she said. “Jess… are you alright?”

I just gaped at her and then managed to pull myself together. “Your Ma…your Ma said as you weren’t here.”

She looked even more mischievous at that. “She said I wasn’t here right now, and I wasn’t. I’ve been out visiting a friend. Just got back and Ma said as how you’d landed and so well…here I am.”

 Opening my arms, she flew into them and held me close.

“Oh Mill, I’ve missed you so darn much,” I whispered, kissing the top of her head.

“Me too.”

Then I pulled back so I could study her lovely face, and all but broke down, all the terror and pain of the last few days suddenly catching up with me.

Well ol’ Millie there, she knows me so dadgum well, and she sure knew things weren’t right. “Jess…oh honey, what is it?”

I dipped my head so she wouldn’t see how dang bad I was feelin’ “I’m OK; just kinda a rough trip, you know?”

Then she studied me properly and noticed the knife wound to my arm and the angry looking burn on my chest and gave a little gasp of shock. “Oh Jess, you’ve been hurt.”

“It’s OK; guess I’m on the mend now,” I said quickly, searching around for my shirt.

But she took my hand and led me over to her big bed, and we sat down. Then she put a gentle hand on my cheek and tipped my head towards her so I was forced to look her in the eye.

“Tell me all about it,” she said softly.

So I did — about the shock of finding I was riding with Carl Doon after all those years. Well, Mill knew about  Carl and what he’d done in  the past,  so it came as no big surprise to her that he wanted me dead, knowing the way things were between us.

But it was the tellin’ of the prairie fire that got me real emotional, and once I started tellin’ her, I just couldn’t stop — about the flames chasin’ us across the prairie like some great fire breathing monster tryin’ to out run us, the terrible noise and the herd stampeding and then hearing my folks and the kids screaming in the flames for my help as they burned…and at that she had tears in her eyes and she held me close. “Oh my poor love,” she whispered.

Then about how brave that little buckskin was taking me into the heart of the fire so that I could rescue young  Billy, and how he kept his nerve with the trees all burning and crashin’ around us and then jumped the burning fallen tree with two of us up and brought us safely out alive.

Well, Mill and I go way back — grew up on the Texas panhandle together — so she knew all about the Banisters setting that fire and what it did to me. About the nightmares I still get and all. And then I told her about the terrible dream I had, and how I was half-asleep and half-awake with Carl standin’ over me; I thought he really was the devil and maybe Billy and me had perished in that cotton wood copse along with the steers…

Well she really did break down and cry then, and I held her close, apologizing for upsetting her and feelin’ darn near to tears myself, but she shook her head. “I did ask you, after all; it’s just that I can’t bear to think of you suffering that way.”

Then she pushed me gently away and looked again at the scar from the branding iron and gasped in shock. “He really did that to you?”

I just nodded.

“You should see the doc.”

“I’m OK. All I really need right now is you,” I whispered. I enfolded her in my arms, and kissed the tears away very tenderly, before moving down to her mouth. As I felt her respond beneath my lips, I gave a little groan and pulled her even closer, her soft body yielding to mine as we lay in the big comfortable bed and made sweet, sweet love.

We finally made it down to supper several hours later, and just as I’d expected, her Ma spoilt me something rotten, feeding me up and saying Miss Daisy would think I was half-starved when I got home. Then later, she insisted on checking out my wounds, while Millie sat back giggling at my embarrassment.

Anyway, the boarding house was fully booked as there was a big wedding in town, so I helped out around the place — helping with the washing up, stoking the fires and generally made myself useful. But for most of the time, Millie and me, well we just spent time together, laughin’ and lovin’, and I began to feel so much better after the weeks of hard grind, the worry and at the last few days of pure horror.

I wasn’t completely over it, though, and that first night, I awoke in the early hours yellin’ and sweatin’ after another terrible nightmare. But this time Millie was there to sooth me. I woke up all of a sudden and sat up in bed, staring around wildly, the screams of the dying and the stench of smoke seemingly all around me. I was panting and shaking, my heart beating fit to burst. And then Mill had leaned over and turned the night lamp up so that I could see where I was. She held me close, rocking me and talking real gentle like you would to a child or frightened animal and I gradually calmed down.

She rubbed my back, and said softly, “Jess, honey, it’s OK; I’m here, and it’s all OK.”

“I’m… Hell, I’m sorry Mill. Did I wake you?” I said, swallowing and peering at her.

“It doesn’t matter. Was it the fire, the prairie fire?”

I nodded. “I could smell it, hear it, and I saw this body, this charred body and it was young Billy,” I said gasping and trying to lose the dreadful image.

“It’s alright. You saved him, Jess — you saved him.”

Then I really looked at her properly. “Yeah…yeah I did, didn’t I,” I said with the ghost of a smile.

She held a tumbler of cool water to my lips and I drank and then nodded my thanks before laying back on the pillow and sliding an arm around her, pulling her close. “Thank you, sweetheart,” I whispered. “What would I do without you?”

She just smiled down at me and kissed me tenderly on the forehead. “Hush, you sleep now.” Eventually I dropped off again, her head resting on my shoulder.

It’s funny lookin’ back on it now, but the contrast between those few days I spent with Millie and the pure hell of the cattle drive was so great that I always thought of it afterwards as the difference between Heaven and Hell. Yeah, I guess if I’d been to Hell and back on that journey, well, Millie took me to Heaven as I lay in her warm embrace. We spent nearly all our time just lovin’ and talkin’ and then lovin’ again, and I’d never felt closer or more cherished by any living soul. And if that sounds kinda soppy, well, I really don’t care, because that was the way it was and I guess I’ll never forget that special time we shared.

Then we finally came to the last day, and  knowing I had to ride out the following morning, I didn’t wanna go without saying thank you to Millie and her Ma and  Aunt. So I asked them all out to a swanky hotel.

But Millie’s Ma and Aunt both said they were real tired after the busy weekend, and us young ones should go out and enjoy ourselves. Me and Millie didn’t believe a word of it and figured they were just giving us some time together, which I guess we really appreciated.

So we got ourselves kinda duded up, with me borrowin’ Millie’s old Pa’s best jacket; bearin in mind  he’d passed over nigh on ten years since, I have to say it still looked pretty good, and fitted real well. So I was done up in a clean white shirt, black tie, dark frock coat and my clean denims, but Millie was really the toast of the town in a real elegant pale blue, real low cut dress, with loads of that black lace all around — like the Spanish girls wear — and she sure did look somethin’ special.

We went off down Main Street where I’d booked us a table in the best hotel in town, and they sure made a fuss of us. I guess they do that when you’re payin’ top dollar, but hell, I really didn’t care;  I reckoned only the best was good enough for my Millie.

So we had a real good meal, only I couldn’t tell you as to what it was now, as I guess I only had eyes for Millie. We were a chattin’ and laughin’ and had a bottle –no, near on two — of the best house wine. Then we went into the lounge where there was a real smart dance goin’ on. Oh not the sort we go to back in Laramie, but real sophisticated, with a proper orchestra and a piano player and such. Not your regular guitar and trumpet type band, no siree. Anyway, by the end of the evening, the music was gettin’ real slow and romantic, and I was holdin’ Millie so close and kinda sweet talkin’ her; she looked up at me with those big brown eyes of hers and said as how she’d had just the best time ever.

When he got back to the boarding house, everyone was abed. We tiptoed up stairs, giggling like a pair of naughty kids, and once we were in her room, I turned the key in the lock and took her in my arms, kissin’ her real passionately before I pulled back and looking into those beautiful eyes. I said, “How am I ever goin’ to ride out tomorrow?”

“It’s not forever; you’ll be home in Laramie real soon, and we can go out like always.”

“Maybe I want more than that,” I whispered.

I was remembering back to last Thanksgiving* when our relationship had kinda moved to a new level, when I’d asked her if she thought we could make a go of things. She’d replied that there was nobody else she’d rather be with and she’d definitely think on it, but we weren’t promised as such. (* See the Inheritance)

Now looking at her, I knew that she was all I wanted. “Well?”

“Jess… We said we still needed some time, to stay free a while longer before settling down with a family an’ all.”

“Yeah, I know what we said…”

She took hold of my hand, and we went and sat on her sofa in front of the fire and she looked deeply into my troubled eyes before replying. “I haven’t changed my mind. I guess I still want to think of us being together, one day — maybe one day not so far off — but not just yet.”

“Why? I don’t understand. You love me dontcha?”

She nodded. “You know I do,” she whispered, tracing a finger gently down my cheek. “I just think the timing is wrong.”

“Huh?”

She sighed and tried again. “You know when you rode in just a couple of days ago, you reckoned you’d been to Hell, and I believe you surely have — for you at least, with your history. Well, dying by fire would be the worst possible way.”

I dipped my head and just nodded, “I guess you’re right, yeah, but what’s that got to do with us?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, really; just a feeling… It’s been a safe place for you here, a place to lick your wounds, be loved and cared for.”

“That’s right, and I truly thank you for it,” I said feeling mystified.

“Well, I just want to be sure that we’re together for all the right reasons, not just because you feel grateful to me, but because you really want me forever, in the good times and the bad… I want to be needed for all of me, Jess, not just my nurturing side. I can be difficult you know…as stubborn as you sometimes.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said with a small smile.

She smiled back. “I just don’t want you to rush into marriage for the wrong reasons, that’s all.”

As usual, she was right, of course. I had been feelin’ real bad and in need of a whole barrel of lovin’ care, but marriage was more than  that,  especially when the young ‘uns come along. Maybe she was right; maybe I wasn’t ready for that responsibility quite yet. Maybe I still had a kinda wild streak that needed to die down some before I could commit completely.

I cupped her face between my two hands and kissed her very tenderly, before pulling back and studying her beautiful face. “I guess you’re right as ever,” I said. “You always know best. But one day…?”

“One day,” she confirmed. “Right now, though, I just want you to take me to bed cowboy.”

So of course I did. After all, the lady always knows best!

*****

The following morning we were up at first light as Millie was catching the early morning stage back to Laramie. I went to see her off before riding back to the Swan Ranch. There I’d pick up the cattle and continue on the final leg of my journey. I figured I’d be back about midweek — maybe sooner if we got a wriggle on — and I couldn’t wait to get home.

The stage rattled in and old Mose was drivin’, and it sure was good to see him.

I stood there one arm still protectively around Millie’s waist, loathed to let her go, and beamed up at the old timer.

“Why Jess Harper,” Mose said, pulling the team to a standstill. “It sure is good to see you; been a real long time, son.” He gave me his toothless grin.

“Hi Mose. You Ok and all at the ranch?”

“Sure, sure, fair to middling, ‘cept for my rheumatics.”

“And the others?”

“Oh just fine. Slim’s had the Harrington boys in,” he said, referring to our neighbor’s sons. “Well, he’s hardly missed you at all, boy!”

Millie and I exchanged a glance, knowing the old devil was teasin’ me.

“That so. Well, guess I’ll just stay around here then. Miss Millie’s Ma said she’d a place for me helpin’ out at the boardin’ house anytime I liked. Figure it would be a whole lot more relaxin’ than ranching too.”

Old Mose looked kinda rattled at that. “Just kiddin’ you, boy. Old Slim’s been goin’ mad tryin’ to manage, what with the water shortage and all. He sure is countin’ the days…”

“Well, that’s more like it, and you can tell him I’ll be home in a couple of days — three at the most.” I grinned. “So how about the others?”

“Young Mike’s on school holidays and has been pitchin’ in to help — brown as a berry and grown a good foot these last weeks you’ve been away. And Miss Daisy, well, she’s as lovely as ever,” he said, his eyes misting at the thought. “One lovely lady, that’s her, and wasted bein’ stuck out at that there ranch minding you folk too,” he finished sadly,

Millie and I exchanged a smile again, knowing how old Mose was kinda sweet on Daisy.

The thought of her must have stirred him up some because he said, “Come on then, Miss Millie; can’t stay around here jawing all mornin’. “

Now  the time had actually come for her to go, I felt awful;  my heart was pounding fit to burst as I held her close and then kissed her like I was never gonna stop.

Then Mose cleared his throat. “Jess. will you put her down? I’ve got a dang schedule to keep, you know! “

I finally dragged myself away and threw him a sheepish look. “Sorry, Mose.”

Then I helped her on board and slammed the door. “See you Saturday?”

She nodded, her eyes bright with tears. “You take care, you hear? “

I nodded. “You too.” Then Mose shook the reins and the team trotted off; I stood waving until just a cloud of dust remained hovering in the air.

I was just about to make for the livery when rider came in fast, and reining in his mount beside me, jumped down and I saw it was a very agitated looking Jon.

“Hey what’s up, son? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. What’s your hurry? We ain’t due at the ranch for another hour.”

“Oh Jess, it’s awful. I’ve just come from there. It’s the black beasts, the Aberdeens; they’ve been stolen in the night. Jess, all of them rustled.”

“What!” I exploded, cussin’ long and loud. “What happened!”

“Seems old man Swan let the men go to town on Saturday night, just kept on a skeleton staff to mind the ranch. Well, they’ve never had any bother before; he just wasn’t expecting any trouble.”

“No,” I muttered. “And he probably had never had several thousand dollars’ worth of valuable stock all in the same place before,” I said, mentally railing at myself for not thinking of the dangers earlier.

“He’s in a bad way; he was tied up and was only just found, and several of the men too, and one was killed. The rest of the men were in town overnight, and as soon as they landed back today, they started tracking the rustlers, but Mr. Swan sent me to town to fetch you and the Sheriff.”

“Well, come on then, boy.” I headed for the Sheriff’s office just across the street.

Doug Masters, the tall handsome Sheriff, was sitting at his desk, but leapt up when he saw me. Grinning, he offered his hand. “Jess, good to see you. I thought that  was you with Ma Johnson’s pretty daughter the other night, but you looked kinda busy — well, busy romancin’ her that is — over at the dance so I didn’t intrude.”

I threw my good friend a grateful look. “Yeah, thanks; guess we were kinda wrapped up in each other.” Then I pulled myself together. “Thing is, Doug, we’re here on business.”

It was less than half an hour later that he’d organized a posse of half a dozen men and we rode out fast and were soon on the unmistakable trail of my beeves.

We’d just paused briefly to check old man Swan, who was with the doc, and he sure was apologetic.

“Garl darn it, son, we’ve never had any trouble here before, but I really should have thought on, what with all those extra prime critters on my land.”

“You and me both, Mr. Swan, but don’t fret; I’ll get ‘em back, because I sure ain’t goin’ home until I do.”

We’d been riding for a couple of hours when we heard the sound of distant gunfire, and spurring our mounts on, finally came across where the rustlers were holed  up in some foothills on the edge of a box canyon, the cattle herded into the blind alley of the canyon behind them.

There were four of Mr. Swan’s hands exchanging fire with them, but they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so we reined in our mounts and joined them behind the cover of some scrubby trees and rocks.

Pete, the foreman, threw me and Doug an anxious look as we ran in and hunkered down beside him. “Sure is good to see you and your men; they’ve pretty much painted us into a corner here. Got a couple of wounded men back aways too.”

Doug and I quickly assessed the scene, being pretty much expert in this kinda set to, and we soon had the men in better positions. After some steady exchange of fire for ten minutes or so, we were rewarded by wounding a couple rustlers and killing one.

“By my reckoning, that leaves about five of ‘em,” said Doug. “So how do you fancy getting around the back of ‘em with me, Jess, if we get the rest of the men to keep ‘em busy from the front?”

“Sounds good to me.”

We separated and circled around the back, and a few minutes later, we were able to creep up on them. The surprise element pretty near won the day, with one wounded and the remaining four throwing down their weapons in surrender.

We took their guns and frog-marched them out to our waiting friends, and that was when I made a tactical error. I was so busy keeping my eye on my prisoners I failed to notice that one of the fallen,  who we had presumed was dead, was actually still just alive and playin’ possum. As I walked by, he aimed his colt and shot me.

Well, I guess I was real lucky, because although it was near point blank range, I figure the guy was pretty out of it, because he was way off target and just caught me on my left arm before I fired back and finished him.

Then a couple of the hands ran over and tied up the prisoners while Doug tended to me.

I’d fallen after I’d returned the fire, and then grabbed hold of my arm; the pain was  like a white hot knife stabbing me and radiating down  my arm as the blood soaked my sleeve.

“Take it easy, Jess; here lean against this ol’ rock,” said Doug as he helped me sit down before carefully checking the wound and then binding it with his bandanna.

“Thanks,” I muttered, taking a deep breath against the pain.

“Guess it’s travelled straight through, but it’s bleeding something fierce, Jess. Figure you’ll need to rest up a few days…”

“Well, you figure wrong then,” I said, throwing him my stubborn look. “I’m takin’ that herd back today, before some other jokers get a hankering for them.”

“Jess, I really don’t think…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t, Doug. So are you gonna help me up or what?”

He sighed deeply. “You sure are a stubborn one, ain’t you, pal?” he said grinning at me and finally hauling me up.

“Been told so, more than once,” I agreed affably.

He just chuckled and gave me a leg up on my horse, and we headed back to the ranch, old man Swan’s hands herding the cattle before them.

Once we got back, I checked them out and they seemed none the worst for their adventure. I figured if we set off as soon as possible, we’d make good time before we had to stop for the night.

I still had pretty much of a battle on my hands, though, as old man Swan insisted on his doctor giving me the once over and he was of the same opinion as my buddy Doug — I should rest for a few days.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood there, son; last thing you want to be doing is wrangling cattle.”

“Sorry, doc,” I said firmly, “got my partner waitin’ on me back in Laramie. They’ll all be expecting me, and been gone way too long already. No, I’m riding out today.”

The doctor just shook his head and went into a huddle with old man Swan and they finally moseyed over, looking grave.

“Look, son, the last thing I want is for you to get sick,” Swan said. “You’ve done a dang good job fetching all these steers up from Texas for me; now let me do something for you.”

I just gave him a questioning look, keeping my options open.

“How about you ride up with Cookie.”He saw my hackles rising and raised a hand. “Hear me out will you? “

I was silent.

“You sit up with Cookie, and I’ll send a couple of my best hands — Pete and Jed — with you, along with young Billy and Jon. And if — or when — you’re feeling better, you can help drive them. But for today at least, I want you to rest up and let the doc check that the bleeding has stopped before you ride out in the morning?”

I looked at his kind eager old face and figured I was bein’ pretty pig-headed over all this.

“Deal,” I said shaking the offered hand, “and thanks Mr. Swan. I appreciate your help.”

Well, it was kinda a good job he insisted, because later that day, the bleeding started again something fierce, and it turns out one of the major blood vessels was involved. In the end, the wound had to be cauterized and it was three days later before we were able to set off.

*****

And so it was that we rode out on the Wednesday, me and Cookie drivin’ ahead of the herd, ready to make camp and get the chow on with the buckskin, Clyde, tethered to the back of the wagon, and the crew drivin’ the critters on behind us.

Now the funny thing was that ol’ Cookie suddenly seemed to get his hearin’ back as we chatted away about this and that, and after a while, I realized he was real good company.

“Hey Cookie,” I said,” so how come you can suddenly hear me OK?”

He turned and gave me a sly wink. “Because I want to, I reckon, boy.”

“Why, you old dog,” I said chuckling, “So what’s all that about?”

“Well you see, boy, it’s this way. A cattle drive’s a mighty long haul. and so if you’re stuck with a load of idiots, you end up having to make idle chat every goddamn day, and that sure is tedious. Darn sight better to just think your own thoughts.”

I thought back to most of the journey when Carl had so often dominated the conversation with his stupid comments and relentless bitterness, and I guess I could see Cookie’s point. “And so you think I might have some interestin’ conversation?” I asked with a twinkle in my eyes.

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, boy, but better than some, I guess.” He chuckled as he clicked the team on and I hid a smile.

Well as it turned out we had a real interesting conversation, real interesting.

We’d been driving along for most of the day with just a short break at noon, and by late afternoon, I have to admit I was feelin’ kinda rough, that old bullet wound aching something fierce; real tired too, like the doc had said I would be, due to the loss of blood I guess.

Anyways after a while, old Cookie glanced over and said, ‘You’re not feelin’ too good, are you, son?”

“I’m OK,” I said, in my usual way.

“Why don’t you go in the wagon, get your head down for a while?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Umm. Fine, are you? Well, you sure don’t look it. Do you good a little rest. So you reckon you’re fine eh?”

“Said so, didn’t I?”I said irritably, feeling like hell and now old Cookie was nagging like Daisy on a bad day.

Then he smiled. “You sure ain’t changed none; you always were a stubborn little tyke, even as a kid.”

My head swiveled to look at him properly at that. “Huh?”

“You don’t remember me do you, Jessie?” he said with a chuckle.

I must have looked kinda shocked at the use of my childhood name. “No. Should I?”

“Name Titus Browning mean anything to you?”

I thought for a very long time and then I had a faint memory of a Titus, an old friend of my Pa’s.

Then I stared again. He sure had changed some, but then I must have been only eight or nine last time I saw him.

“Uncle Titus, that you?” I said in amazement.

He beamed at me and put out a big beefy hand for me to shake. “The very same, boy.”

I pumped his hand and grinned at him. “Well why didn’t you say something sooner?” I asked in surprise.

He just shook his old head. “Didn’t think it proper, son, with you being the trail boss and all. Thought you might have been embarrassed having to order your old Uncle Titus about.”

I thought on that; maybe he was right. I threw him a sheepish grin, remembering how I’d lambasted him about his different colored stews. “Hell Cookie, just give us a clue as to what’s in here,” I remembered saying sarcastically one night soon after we’d started the drive.

Then he laughed. “I’m right, aren’t I, though, boy?”

I nodded then, grinning across at him. ”It sure is good to see you, though,” I said smiling at him.

“I’m right about you bein’ a stubborn little bugger too, aren’t I. The way you used to stand up to your Pa and many the beating you got for it too, didn’t you, boy?”

I looked down then, suddenly angry. “Yeah, well I had to stand up to him; someone had to in our house, way he was with Ma. Hell, he’d beat her black and blue; you just don’t know the way it was then.”

“Oh I think I do, boy.”

“The hell you do. All you used to do was go drinkin’ with him and that was his problem, the grog. He drank all our money away, and us kids would have starved if it hadn’t been for me and my brother goin’ huntin’ and workin’ in the fields to put food on the table. No wonder I never got me an education,” I finished bitterly staring out to the horizon, my heart pounding and feeling real mad.

Titus was quiet for a long while and then patted my knee. “Things weren’t always that way, you know. boy. Your Pa was so full of life and enthusiasm when I first knew him as a young man.”

“Oh yeah,” I spat. “So what happened to him then?”

“Life, I guess, son, just life. He had a lot of ill luck. Had his own place when I first knew him, a nice little spread, but he lost the lot, through no fault of his own; the big drought did for him. Killed all his crops and beasts, and he had kids — three young ‘uns under five. Then he was forced into poverty, moving around from one share farm to another, and I guess somewhere along the way, he just lost his soul. Couldn’t provide for your Ma and you kids. Well by the time the youngest were born, he was pretty much a defeated man…done for — just lost his way.”

“Well he never lost his dang way to the saloon,” I said bitterly. “And as I remember it, you were always there with him. Have you any idea what that grog did to him, Titus? He’d beat us kids for nuthin’ and then try and force himself on my Ma, as though he didn’t have enough kids, with the five of us and three others in their graves.”

I felt darn near to tears now; I have to admit, seeing old Titus again and him talkin’ that way had brought back all those memories so deeply buried, raking up a past I really wanted to forget.

“I’m sorry, boy, real sorry, and I did try and help, you know. Sure I was in the saloon with him, but to try and get him to come home reasonably sober. And many is the time I took him back to my place to sleep it off too.”

I dipped my head and then looked over at him. “I’m sorry; I didn’t know that. Guess I’ve got you wrong.”

He nodded in acceptance at that and we drove on in silence for a while. Then  he  said very softly, “I figure you’ve  got  your  Pa wrong too, boy; sure he  was a mess — should have  tried harder to get off the grog, find  his way out of poverty — but it’s hard  sometimes to drag yourself up in  life, make changes, turn your life around, especially with young ‘uns at foot.”

“Do you think I don’t know that,” I said with feeling. “It’s what I had to do.”

He nodded at that. “Yes I know, Jess. See, I was real fond of you as a kid, and I always made it my business to find out how you were doing. I even came back to Texas to find you after that terrible fire that killed your kin, but you’d already moved on. Then I heard all about your gunslinger days and your war and then as how you’d gone on the drift.”

I just nodded feeling real surprised and kinda touched I guess.

“Then old Angus told me all about you — how you were a partner in a good ranch and relay business, got a reputation as a real fine horse breaker and even deputized for the Sheriff. Well, I felt real proud boy.”

I looked over and saw he was sincere. “Thanks,” I said quietly.

“And there is something else, Jess…”

“Yeah?”

“Your Pa would have been real proud too, boy.”

I said nothing just looked down, stony-faced.

“Try and forgive him, Jess; he didn’t have your strength. He was beaten and weary by the time you were born, and you never saw the person I knew. He wasn’t evil, just a broken man — and I guess nuthin’ would have saved him. But there is one thing you need to know, Jessie.”

“What?”

“He did love you, boy.”

“He had a funny way of showing it.”

“Maybe, but he done told me, see. And do you know what the problem was between you two? “

When I didn’t reply he continued, “You were too darned alike”.

I opened my mouth to protest, but he raised a hand to stop me.

“Hear me out son; you need to listen to this. See when your Pa was young he was a different man. He was full of fight, passionate about right and wrong; everything was black and white with him and if he saw injustice, well, he’d rail against it. Jeez, he had a short fuse, but he fought for what he believed in. And then slowly over the years he changed, lost his way like I say; got too fond of the grog and then it was all downhill.”

“Go on,” I said

“So when you were a little kid standing up for your Ma, and for the other kids if you thought they’d got a rough deal, you’d fight their corner. You were so fiercely loyal, so strong, always helping the underdog, and I guess you reminded your Pa as to how he used to be. And then he saw what he’d become, and he was so dang mad at himself, so ashamed, that he used to take it out on you. Couldn’t bear to see the way he used to be reflected in you — see?”

And then Billy rode up and asked when we were stopping for the night, and in all the hustle and bustle our conversation was over, for then at least.

That night I lay awake under the stars going over and over what Cookie, — AKA Uncle Titus — had told me and I have to tell you it was real hard. If I’d been to Hell and back physically outrunning the prairie fire and rescuing young Billy, well, right then  I figured I was goin’ back to Hell in my head, as I went over  and over what he’d said about Pa. Pa lovin’ me and all about why he was the way he was. Well, I’d never grieved for my Pa; in a horrible way, I guess maybe I was kinda relieved that he wasn’t gonna be around anymore. I’d wept for my Ma and the kids, sure I had, and it still upset me something fierce even now, all these years later, but Pa?

See what you have to remember is that if you think Pa and I didn’t get on any too well when I was a nipper, well that was nuthin’ as to the way we were when I hit my teens — both of us with a short fuse and him suddenly aware that pretty soon it would be me that would be able to give him a good thrashing instead of the other way around. Yeah, the sparks sure flew in our house, and I guess I wanted him dead on more than one occasion, if I’m honest.

But now, with what Titus had told me, well, I had to re-think it all and I started to remember the good times, the times he’d promised to give up the drink for good and we’d go off together fishing or hunting. Him sayin’ I was his right hand man and how he couldn’t manage without me. And then the next week, he’d be back in the saloon and this drunken stranger would be banging into the house, demanding his supper and lashing out at any of us kids who were stupid enough to get within range.

And then I got to thinkin’ what my life would have been like in similar circumstances, if I’d lost everything same as he did. Would I have found the strength to go on? Hell, my life had been no bowl of cherries, but I’d got through, with a little help from my friends anyway. Where would I have ended up without my friends back in Laramie — if Slim hadn’t given me a chance and Millie hadn’t stuck by me through thick and thin? And then for the very first time since the ranch fire, I really felt some kind of sympathy for my Pa, and I guess that night is when I was finally able to begin grievin’ for him, and start to move on.

Well, like I said it was tough for me, real tough havin’ to re-think something I’d held as the truth throughout all my adult life. But well, old Titus sure made a good case for my Pa and maybe he was right when he said later that carrying hate around just made a man bitter himself, and I guess that was the truth of it.

But it sure didn’t happen overnight, me forgivin’ Pa. I figure I’ll never really be able to completely forgive him, but I sure started to understand some on that ol’ wagon with Titus, and I’ll always be grateful to him for helpin’ me that way, even if at the time, like I say, I was back in Hell again, remembering stuff from my childhood that I really would have rather forgotten.

Anyway, we eventually made it onto Sherman land, and I guess I’d never been so pleased to see anywhere in my entire life.

We put the herd safely onto the lowland pasture, pretty near the back of the ranch where we could keep a darned good eye on them, and then suddenly everything seemed to happen at once. Billy and Jon said their goodbyes and rode off to town with old man Swan’s drovers, wanting a few beers before nightfall and who could blame them.

 Billy came to me just before he rode out and shook my hand.

“I want to thank you, boss. Guess there ain’t the words,” he said softly, looking for all the world like he was gonna break down again, like he had the day I pulled him outer the cottonwood copse.

“It’s OK, boy,” I said quickly.

“No please, Mister Harper; I need to say this.” He swallowed to compose himself and then started again. “I wanna thank you for saving my life. That was the bravest dang thing I have seen in my entire life and I guess if I live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget what you did, sir.” Then he pumped my hand and gave me a big bear hug and I held him tightly, for a moment feelin’ dang near tears myself.

“Me and that ol’ buckskin,” I said softly, once I’d released him and was grinning down into his bright eyes. “Couldn’t have done it without him, boy.”

He nodded and ran a hand across his eyes before turning and jumping up on his mount. “Be seein’ you!”

I nodded and waved to him and Jon as they lit out with the other drovers.

“Sure. Take care, son,” I whispered as he rode off, them all giving a whoop and a wave of their hats in my direction at the prospect of town and all it had to offer.

Then old Cookie — or Titus as I’d come to think of him now — was by my side.

“I guess I’ll be off too, son,” he said shaking my hand.

“You’re welcome to stay the night, meet my friends?”

“Thanks, boy, but no thanks. I figure they’ll want you all to themselves and anyways I’ve got places I have to be.”

I gave him a calculating look. “Really?”

He smiled at my disbelief. “Yes, really. Drivin’ up to Rawlins; got kin there — a sister — and I’ve a mind to stop there a while see if I like it. Figure I’m getting’ a bit long in the tooth for cattle drives,” he finished with a wink.

I just nodded. “OK, take care.”

“And you, boy. You didn’t mind…what I said about your Pa? I know it was real hard for you to hear, boy, but I figure these things have to be faced.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said softly. “Thanks, Titus.”

“Yeah well, my old Pappy used to say you’ve gotta look Hell in the face, boy, and don’t you back down — don’t ever back down. ‘Cos if you hold your ground, then that ol’ Devil can’t get you.”

I thought about that and then grinned at him. “I figure your old Pappy talked a lot of sense too,” I said chuckling.

“That he did, boy, that he did.” And he went off on his way, clicking the team on towards Rawlins and his new home.

When he’d gone, I just stood there listening to the silence and felt strangely lonesome. After being in the constant company of the others for so many weeks, it felt real strange to be on my own again, but I reckoned that we’d all remember that cattle drive. I surely knew I would anyway.

I took one last look at the herd grazing peacefully in the lush Wyoming meadow, and turning, jumped up on the tough little buckskin and headed for home.

It was late afternoon when I finally rode into the yard, and Slim came running out to meet me, a warm grin of welcome on his kind honest face. “So where have you been then, pard? We’ve been expecting you days since.”

I looked down at him and then gave him a weary smile. “To Hell and back that’s where I’ve been,” I said as I slid down from the saddle, and he clapped me on the back and ushered me in.

“Come on in then, Jess. Coffees on, come and tell me all about it.”

*****

It sure was good to be home and see everyone again.

 Daisy fussed me as only she can do, and to be honest with you, I kinda enjoyed her fussin’ and frettin’ over me. She reckoned that that old Trident scar would be with me for life. It was fading now, but I guess you could still see what it was. I chuckled to myself and figured that it would always be a good reminder that I’d been to Hell and come out the other side.

Young Mike had sure grown, like Mose had said, and Slim told me how he’d been a great help around the ranch.

“I’m real proud of you, Tiger,” I said to him later as we were putting the horses up for the night and I was making a real big fuss of Traveler. Jeez, I’d missed that ol’ horse something fierce.

“Well I’m gettin’ real strong, you know, Jess, and I figure I’ll be able to do grown up jobs soon, like helpin’ move the steers and help with branding, maybe?” he said looking hopeful.

I smiled down at him. “Well, I guess that’s the sorta thing we need to discuss with Slim, but if he thinks you’re ready, well, I don’t see why not.”

He let out a whoop of delight at that. “I am,” he said excitedly. “I really am ready, Jess.”

“Just one thing though, Tiger. That ol’ pony of yours. Well, he’s swell for riding out, checking fences and the like, but you need a real fast, brave, tough mount for drivin’ cattle, one as can turn on a dime and got the speed and stamina to keep you out of trouble, you understand?”

He just nodded looking crestfallen. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Jess.”

Then I turned and made my way to where Clyde was enjoying his supper, and gave the little buckskin a gentle pat on the rump. “Something like old Clyde here,” I said.

Mike looked from me to the horse and back, looking confused. “But he’s yours, Jess.”

I beamed down at the youngster at that. “Not anymore he ain’t. He’s yours…you want him, that is.”

The boy’s eyes opened wide in amazement. “Want him? Gee, Jess, of course, I want him, but what about you?”

“Well I’ll be ridin’ ol’ Trav, of course. What do you think he’d feel if I rode off on a new horse? He’d sulk for a week!”

Mike laughed at that and then sobered. “Gee Jess, thanks,” he said and then came and threw his arms around me. “You’re the best!”

It sure was good to be back in the company of old Hardrock too and I’d spent all that first evening, after Daisy and Mike were abed, telling Slim the whole story and he sure was shocked.

“I remember we had a prairie fire down this way when I was a kid, and I’d never been so dang scared in all my life,” he said looking over at me with something akin to horror in his eyes. “And we were safe in the ranch. Pa had dug trenches so it couldn’t get close, but I just can’t imagine what it was like being out on the prairie with one chasing you that way.”

I sighed deeply. “Nor do you want to, pard,” I said quietly.

I kinda glazed over rescuing Billy, although that was probably the very worst part where I really thought I was in the jaws of Hell, but after a ‘welcome home’ glass of Red Eye or two, he finally got the full story out of me and was absolutely stunned.

“You know, you never cease to amaze me,” he said softly, looking over in admiration.

“Just did what was needed,” I said gruffly, feelin’ kinda embarrassed.

“Sure you did,” he said with a twinkle, and then I leaned over and aimed a clip around the head, which he dodged and the embarrassing moment was over.

The following morning, we went and had a proper look at the Longhorns and the Aberdeen Angus steers. Slim was absolutely amazed and couldn’t believe our luck.

He shook his head and looked over at me. “Old Angus sure came up trumps with this lot. They really are something, aren’t they? Bless him,” he whispered.

“So you’ve forgiven him now then?”

“Sure; he wrote and told me all about it, his wife being sick and all and how he was desperate, said he was really sorry. And I guess this proves it.”

I nodded. “Kinda makes everything worthwhile,” I said softly as I watched the handsome beasts grazing happily. “They could be our future, you know, Slim.”

“I think you could be right,” he agreed.

“So ain’t I always?”

He chuckled at that and threw a playful punch in my direction.

“Sure you are, Hotshot; sure you are.”

*****

Epilogue  

Old man Swan got to be  famous throughout the territory and made a fortune  over the next few years with his prize winning herd of Aberdeen Angus, and we didn’t do too badly out of ours either.

When it came to the sale of the first stock we’d bred the following year, it was Jock Campbell, editor of the Laramie Sentinel and Angus’s son, who put the word out and advertised the sale and gave us a real good turnout. So I sure had to revise my opinion of newspaper editors.

Old Titus settled with his sister in Rawlins, and I made a point of visiting whenever I was in the area. He was always good for exciting tales about his cattle drivin’ days and they got taller and taller the older he got!

Young Jon and Billy did well at the Swan place, but Jon moved back to Texas after a year or so as he was real homesick.

However Billy stayed on and worked his way up to be ramrod of the whole outfit eventually. But he never forgot about the prairie fire and would tell the tale of the day he was grabbed from the jaws of Hell by the brave trail boss on that long ago cattle drive.

As for me and Millie… Well, I guess that’s another story.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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