Baby Love! (by Patty W.)

Summary:
Category:  Laramie
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG   (Some strong language, violence and adult themes.)
Word Count:  35,100


 

 

Late one summer’s afternoon, the owner of the Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Slim Sherman, a tall blond rancher, and his dark haired, blue-eyed business partner and friend, Jess Harper, were busy driving a small group of mustangs back to the ranch for Jess to break and sell on. It had been a long arduous trip, and they were, hot, dusty and tired, both looking forward to a rest once they hit home.

They had been gone a week, and while their neighbor’s sons had taken care of the stock and relay side of the business, their motherly housekeeper, Daisy Cooper, had taken a well- earned short break with her sister over in Cheyenne. As luck would have it, the Laramie school was also closed for the week due to the teacher being sick, and so Mike Williams, the ranchers’ young ward, had accompanied Daisy on her jaunt.

As the ranchers rode along the last mile or so of range, Jess suddenly turned to his partner and said, “Heck, Slim, I’d clean forgotten. Daisy is still away, and there was I dreaming of fried chicken, followed by apple pie.”

Slim’s face fell. “Yeah, you’re right; Daisy and Mike aren’t due home until the afternoon Stage tomorrow.” Then with a resigned shrug, he added, “Guess it’s another night of trail fodder. Bacon and beans suit you, buddy? “

Jess grimaced back. “All I wanna do is wash this trail dirt off, tuck this here ornery bunch of mustangs up for the night and hit the sack myself. I’m plumb tuckered out.”

As they neared the ranch, Jess spurred on Traveler, his mount, and galloping ahead into the yard leaned down; he opened the corral gate as Slim drove the mustangs in.

Jess jumped down and quickly closed the gate behind them, and then leaned on it, surveying the sweating, blowing animals. Slim dismounted and came to join him. “Fine bunch,” he said, then turning to his friend,” guess you’re in for some fun, Jess; they look a lively lot.”

“Yeah,” agreed his partner, “I can feel the bruises already. Guess I’ll wait for the morning to make my acquaintance, though.” He headed for the barn to bed his horse down for the night.

Once both men had tended to their mounts, they headed for the house, with Jess stopping off at the lean-to wash house near the door to pump some cold water over his head, as he was hot and sweating from the fast ride. He shook his head like a dog as the icy cold water revived him, and grinning across at his friend, said, “Gee, that’s better.”

However, Slim’s attention was elsewhere, as he stood on the porch peering down at what looked like a picnic basket covered with a snowy white cloth.

Jess went and joined his friend and they both looked down at the basket. “Someone left us supper after all?” asked Jess hopefully.

As they watched, something strange happened and Slim said, “Not unless they ain’t cooked whatever it is yet. That basket’s moving, Jess!”

Jess squatted down, gingerly pulled the cloth to one side, and practically fell back in shock at what he revealed. A tiny baby stared up at him, its big blue eyes opening wide in surprise, and the rosebud mouth formed a perfect O before, it kicked its little feet in the air, beaming up at Jess’ shocked expression.

Jess looked from the baby, up at Slim, and back again. “It’s a baby,” he said in awe.

“Yeah,” said Slim dryly, “I can see that, buddy, but what’s it doing here, Jess?”

“Don’t ask me. How the heck should I know?” his partner said defensively; then suddenly realizing what Slim was implying, he stood up. “Oh no buddy, don’t go laying this at my door. I ain’t responsible,” he said, slowly backing away and shaking his head.

“Well somebody has laid it at our door,” persisted Slim. “Must have a good reason why they chose us.”

“Maybe they left it for Daisy to care for,” said Jess with an inspired guess. “She’s always acting as midwife and caring for local babies and such,” he finished hopefully.

“Um, maybe,” said Slim looking unconvinced. “Well, we can’t leave it here; guess we’d better take it inside and look out for it until Daisy lands back.” With that, he picked up the basket and headed indoors, followed reluctantly by Jess.

Slim put the basket down on the table, and turning to Jess, said, “Well, come on, buddy, you’re the baby expert round here. So what do we do with it?”

“Aw Slim, just ‘cos I delivered one once* don’t make me an expert,” said Jess, looking embarrassed. *(see Return of the Bounty Hunter)

“What about our friends from the mountain that stayed that time? You looked after their baby real well, as I remember; his Ma said you were a natural.”

Jess gave a deep sigh. “OK, you win,” he said, and picking up the baby, he disappeared off into the kitchen with it. When he returned the child was wearing a makeshift diaper made from some old muslin rags and he held a baby bottle in one hand.

“Where did you get that?” asked Slim, looking surprised.

“Found it at the back of the cupboard. Guess it was left from when Daisy was lookin’ after one of the Patterson’s babies a while back when her Ma was sick.”

With that, Jess sat down in his rocker and started feeding the obviously hungry baby.

“So what is it?” asked Slim with interest as he watched.

“Huh?”

“So what sort is it, Jess,” he asked. “You just changed the diaper, didn’t you?”

Jess grinned over. “Oh yeah, see what you mean. It’s a little girl.”

“How old do you reckon?”

“Dunno, two maybe three months.”

“She’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she,” said Slim, still watching the infant feed. “What with all that black hair and blue eyes.” A cheeky grin was on his face.

Jess caught his drift and just said quietly, “All new babies have blue eyes, Slim.”

“Oh, thought that was just kittens. Anyways, don’t often see babies with real deep blue eyes like that, do you?” Then after a minute, Slim asked, “So who were you actually going out with, er…about 12 months ago, Jess?”

Jess’s head shot up and he gave his friend, who was now grinning from ear to ear, a hard look. After a moment’s thought, he said, “Suzy Morgan, and I can tell you right now, Slim, her Pa would have been banging our door down months ago, with his shotgun in one hand and the wedding invitations in the other if anything like that had happened to his precious daughter.”

Slim nodded sagely. “Yeah, guess you’ve got a point there buddy.”

Jess’ chin jutted out and he gave his friend an appraising look. “So what about you then?” he said.

“Guess it was that teacher from back East, the one that kept stringing me along. Never got past the kissin’ and hand-holding stage, and then it turned out she was engaged to some guy back East and she went off and married him,” he finished ruefully.

“Oh yeah, I remember that,” said Jess with feeling. “You were like a bear with a sore head for weeks.”

“Well, anyways, guess that lets us both off the hook, so maybe it is just that someone has left her to be cared for by Daisy,” said Slim.

“Yeah, but what sort of Ma would do that — abandon a little tiny baby like this?” said Jess angrily.

“A pretty desperate one, I guess.”

With that, they bedded the little one down for the night and soon after they ate their frugal supper and retired themselves.

It must have been in the small hours of the morning when Slim was rudely awakened by the child’s heart-wrenching cries.

“What in hell!” yelled Slim, sitting bolt upright in bed. Sharing a room with Jess, he knew it took a lot to wake him but even so, he couldn’t believe his buddy was sleeping through this din. He leapt out of bed and went over to the chest of draws where they had put the baby basket. The child was red faced with screaming and obviously distressed.

Slim went over to Jess’s bed and shook him roughly until he finally surfaced. “What?” Jess muttered.

“Darn it, Jess, will you wake up. It’s the baby; something’s wrong.”

Jess dragged himself out of bed and staggered over to the baby. Looking at it with bleary eyes, before looking back at Slim. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong, just wants feedin’,” he said with a yawn,  returning to his bed.

“What, you fed her before we turned in. Can’t be that, buddy.”

Jess yawned again. “Needs doin’ every four hours,” he said, and threw himself back on his bed and was practically asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Slim went straight back and shook him awake again. “Jess, come on, you’re gonna have to show me what to do.”

Jess rolled over onto his front and pulled his pillow over his head. “I’m asleep.”

“Jess!”

“OK, OK, I’m coming,” he finally replied and pulling himself out of bed again the two went off to heat up some milk.

Jess patiently showed him how to check the heat, and then how to feed the baby and then wind it afterwards.

At the end of the process, Slim suddenly burst out laughing.

Jess gave him an indignant look. “What?” he asked.

“Sorry, Hot Shot,” said Slim, trying to control himself. “It’s just seeing the famous ex gunslinger sitting up at 2am, wearing nothing but his shorts and  burping a baby.”

“Yeah, well nobody’s gonna hear about it, are they?” Jess said with a hard look.

“Guess not,” replied Slim, still grinning.

“Um”, replied Jess, passing the baby none too gently to his friend. “Guess you can see to the other end then and put her back to bed,” and with that, he  left the room, heading back to his own  bed with a determined look in his eye.

Slim stood there with a puzzled look on his face for a minute. “The other end?”

Then the penny dropped. “Oh yeah, the other end.” He went off to get his first experience of diaper changing, and by the time he finally finished, his partner had been happily snoring away for a good half hour.

It was Jess, though, that got up for the 6am feed, and afterwards, he was so bushed he just sat back in his rocker, the baby’s head on his shoulder, fast asleep. Pretty soon Jess joined her and that was how Slim found them when he awoke a couple of hours later.

They gradually got their act together and maybe a little later than scheduled. Jess was busy starting work on breaking one of the new mustangs, while Slim sat the corral fence, watching out for him, the baby safely in the shade of the porch.

That was how Mort Corey, Sheriff of Laramie and very good friend of the ranchers, discovered them later that morning when he rode in .As he approached, Slim waved and when Jess noticed him, he slipped down from the back of the mustang he was currently working, glad of the break. Walking over, he  smiled up at his friend and said, “Hi Mort, what brings you out here?”

The Sheriff looked from Jess to Slim and back again and then said, “Well, I’ll tell you. I’m sorry to have to say, boys, but the Jacksons have managed to escape from the Cheyenne jail.”

“What!” yelled Jess in fury. “After all we did to nail them after they robbed the Laramie Bank, killing four good citizens, they’ve gone and lost ‘em?”

“Easy, Jess,” said Slim. “Guess there will be a good reason, eh, Mort?”

“Well, I suppose, of sorts; thing is they had someone one on the inside, a bent Deputy. Sprung them as soon as the Sheriff’s back was turned. And, I hate to tell you, but the word on the street is that they are after you, no matter what; blame Jess here for the death of their cousin…and well I guess they are after sweet revenge, no matter what it costs them.”

“Guess it’ll cost them their lives,” said Jess quietly, “and their goddamn cousin deserved to die. He was the one that shot the woman and kid in the bank raid…and I’d damn well shoot him again, if I had to do it all over.”

“Or could cost you your life, Jess,” said Slim soberly, then looking back at Mort. “Do we know anymore? When they might attack?”

Mort shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. I figure they’ll lie low for a while , but guess you’ll have to watch your backs for a bit, that’s for sure.”

Jess suddenly turned a worried look on Slim and then Mort. “What about Mike and Daisy — they are due back this afternoon — not to mention the baby.”

“Baby?” asked Mort

Slim led him towards the house. “Guess she’s due a feed,” he said, “and we could do with a coffee.” So they all entered the ranch, picking up the baby in her basket from the porch on the way in.”

Once they were all sitting around the table with their coffees, Jess feeding the baby, Mort watched with an amused look on his face. “Pretty little thing, ain’t she,” he said. “Kinda reminds me of you, Jess.”

“Don’t you start,” snarled Jess, putting the infant across his shoulder to burp her.

Slim and Mort exchanged looks. “Expert,” mouthed Slim and Mort just nodded and winked.

“So what are you gonna do about her then, Mort,” asked Jess getting straight to the point. “This baby ain’t nothin’ to do with me or Slim, so what shall we do with her?”

Mort scratched his head and looked thoughtful. “Well, I guess if nobody claims her within a week or so, she should go to the state children’s home.”

“Nobody claims her!” exploded Jess. “You make her sound like a stray dog”.

“Well, that’s the way it is, son; abandoned babies have to be dealt with like everything else.”

“Dealt with? Tell him, Slim; you can’t treat a baby that way.”

Slim and Mort exchanged another look before Slim turned to his partner and said, “Well what else can we do, Jess? We sure can’t keep her.”

“Well, I know that, don’t I,” Jess replied angrily. “But the children’s home…do you know what those places are like, Slim?”

“Guess we can’t help that, buddy.”

“Well, once Daisy lands back, she could help out and maybe the mother will come forward, you think, Mort? “

Mort felt quite moved at the young cowboy’s emotional response. “Well, maybe son,” he said softly, “but guess we have to be realistic here and as Slim says…you can’t offer her a permanent home here and you know it.”

Jess patted the baby on her back and said softly. “Yeah, I know it.” Then he seemed to pull himself together. “Anyway, the most important thing right now is the safety of Daisy, Mike and this little one,” said Jess. “So what are we gonna do to keep ‘em safe?” he asked looking from Slim to Mort.

“Well, I guess you don’t have too much to worry about, regarding the rest of the family, Jess. The Jackson’s aren’t like their cousin; they would never harm a woman or child. It’s just you they are after.”

“We’ll just have to be extra vigilant, buddy,” said Slim seriously. “As long as you’re on  the ranch, shouldn’t be a problem; just have to stay close for a while until they are picked up.”

Mort nodded. “That’s right; there is a posse after them. Shouldn’t be too long. As I say, just watch your back for a while.”

After Mort finished his coffee, he made his goodbyes with a promise to ask round town about the abandoned baby, and the ranchers walked out to resume their work.

As they headed for the corral, Slim said, “So how do you know so much about children’s homes then? “

“Was put in one once,” said Jess succinctly

Slim looked shocked, “You were… Why?” He knew Jess had endured a life of poverty and neglect growing up in a large family on the panhandle in Texas, but this was the first he had ever heard of him being put in an institution.

They had reached the corral and Jess leaned against the fence looking out to the horizon with unseeing eyes,” Ma got real sick,” he said quietly, “lost a baby at birth, little girl. Anyways after that she got real ill, we all thought she wouldn’t last and my Pa couldn’t cope with the five of us…so he sent us away”.

“For how long, a few days, until she was better?”

“Nigh on a month.” Then turning to his friend. “Figured he wasn’t going to get us back, Slim, so I busted us out.”

“You what!”

“I got us out of that goddamn awful place and we walked home, all twenty miles of it…had to carry the youngest most of the way, but we made it in the end, that’s all,” and Jess had that closed look on his face that said don’t ask me anymore.

Slim knew Jess hated talking about his childhood, but he couldn’t resist asking, “So it was OK when you got back?”

Jess threw him a hard look. “It was never OK there, Slim, you know that, and looking back, well, those kids died in the fire, maybe they’d have been better off in that hell-hole after all.”

Slim knew Jess was referring to the fire set deliberately by the Bannister gang that had burnt the family home to the ground, killing most of his kin, after which the 15 year old Jess went on the drift, got in with bad company and acquired a reputation as a fast gun. He had lived by and was prepared to die by the gun, and it wasn’t until years later when he fetched up at the Sherman Ranch that he had finally put up his old gunslinger weapon and lifestyle for good, and settled down to ranching, with Slim’s support.

Now looking at the pain in his friend’s eyes, Slim felt sorry for prying.

 Leaning over, Slim squeezed his buddy’s shoulder. “I guess you can’t think that way,” he said quietly. “You did what you thought was right at the time, Jess; you couldn’t have done more than that, couldn’t have know what was going to happen in the future, either.”

Jess just shook his head sadly. “Guess not. Fact remains,” he said softly, “those places can be real bad, Slim. I sure as hell don’t want that little girl to end up in one.” With that, he vaulted the fence and went to catch the recalcitrant pinto he had been working with.

The pinto was a real brute, and as Jess said, gave a whole new meaning to the word ornery. He was big for a wild mustang and strong too, but it was his rearing and bucking that was causing Jess a headache, literally, as he was thrown numerous times.

It was just after lunch when he really had the bad fall, though. He was beginning to think he was starting to tame the animal who was standing blowing, head down in defeat, but it proved to be just another of the creature’s tricks. As Jess let his guard down for a fraction of a second, the big horse suddenly took off at speed and then bucked so fast that Jess was flying through the air before he could do anything. He fell with a sickening thud, catching his head a glancing blow on the corral fence, and this time he didn’t get up.

Slim charged over and was just in time to drag his partners limp body under the corral rail before the pinto stomped on him. He gently rolled him onto his back and sucked in a sharp breath at what he saw. There was a deep gash to Jess’s temple and the blood was streaming down his ghostly pale face. Slim ran for a canteen, and using his bandana, wiped his buddy’s face with the cool water. After a few minutes, Jess came round and tried to sit up, but fell back groaning.

“Easy Jess,” said Slim with concern, “that was a real bad fall; figure you’d better call it a day and come in and I’ll fix up that head.”

“I’m OK,” said Jess in his predictable way, struggling to sit up again and then with Slim’s help, he dragged himself to his feet and stood there, swaying slightly.

Slim gave him a firm look. “There is no way you are getting back up on that widow-maker again today, now do as you’re told for once will you, Jess?”

Jess knew when to admit defeat and although he was loath to admit it he was feeling real bad, his head splitting and he felt nauseous and faint. “You win, pard,” he said with the ghost of a smile, “guess the baby needs feeding again anyway,” he finished motioning towards the porch where the first hungry cries were emanating from the baby basket.

As soon as Slim had cleaned the wound, Jess picked up the now screaming baby and fed her. Once she was satisfied, she looked around her with her big blue intelligent eyes, finally resting on Jess’s face. After a minute she gave him a huge smile and waved her little hand towards the abrasion on his head and the bruising that promised a black eye.

Jess smiled down at her. “So you think that’s funny, do you? Should see the bruising on my chest,” he said with a grim smile.

“Guess Daisy will have a field day patching you up when she lands back,” said Slim, grinning across at his friend.

Jess rolled his eyes. “I kinda hoped she’d be too busy with this little one to notice,” he said with a rueful look.

However his hopes were soon dashed. He had just put the baby down for her nap when the ranchers heard the afternoon stage rolling in and Jess, ignoring Slim’s advice to rest, went out with his partner to change the team as usual.

As they advanced, they saw Daisy and Mike peering out of the stage window and they ran over to help them down. As soon as Daisy saw Jess, the delighted smile of welcome froze on her face and she gasped. “Oh Jess dear, whatever have you done this time?”

“I’m OK Daisy,” he said grinning at her,” just a bit of a misunderstanding with one of the new broncos.”

“Misunderstanding?”

“Yeah, he don’t understand I’m the boss,” he said laughing.

Mike came and threw an arm round his friend’s waist. “Gee, it’s good to be home Jess,” and then seeing his hurt head and black eye, said, “Golly Jess, you been fallin’ off again?”

“What do you mean again? said Jess giving him a playful clip round the head, which the youngster easily dodged.

Then Slim came over and ruffled the boy’s hair and kissed Daisy on the cheek. “It’s good to have you two back,” he said with a broad grin. “We’ve missed you something fierce, haven’t we, Jess.”

“Sure have,” he agreed.

Mike had run on into the house but now he came pelting out again, a look of delight on his innocent young face. Hey, Slim, Jess,” he said looking from one to the other, “who does that baby belong to?”

Daisy looked utterly shocked and staring at the two young cowboys said weakly, “Baby?”

“Yeah, it’s kinda a long story,” said Jess quickly, seeing that Mose the old stage driver had suddenly pricked up his ears. “Come on in and we’ll explain everything,” he said, and picking up her bag and throwing  a comforting arm around the motherly woman’s shoulders,  he escorted her to the house.

As soon as she saw the sleeping baby, she was completely captivated. “The dear little soul,” she whispered.

“Um,” said Jess, “not quite so ‘dear’ at 2am, but guess she is kinda cute,” he finished smiling down at her.

“So?” said Daisy, raising an eyebrow and looking from one to the other of the young ranchers.

Once they had explained she looked puzzled. “The poor little mite. Why on earth did they leave her here?” she said. “Do you really think someone wanted me to care for her?”

“Could be,” said Slim. “You do have a good reputation around here as being the person to call on if people need help with their young ‘uns, that’s for sure.”

“Well what are we going to do with you little one?” she said softly, looking down at the sleeping child.

Jess looked across at Daisy. “Mort says she’s got to go to the Children’s Home if nobody claims her in a week or so,” he said, gruffly, his manner disguising his true feelings.

But Daisy knew him well and said softly, “Would that be so bad, Jess?”

He just nodded. “Yeah, I guess it would.” But Daisy could sense he didn’t want to discuss it and guessing it was part of his troubled past, she just acknowledged, what he had said.

“Maybe someone will come forward,” she said, “and in the meantime, well I guess one more in the household will be OK, don’t you think, Slim?”

He looked concerned. “Well I don’t know, Daisy. I sure don’t want you to take on all the extra work, getting up to feed her at all hours and then doing your regular work. I guess that is too much to expect.”

“So, think I’m not up to it?” she said challengingly, her arms akimbo, but with a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean that,” Slim said quickly, flushing, until he saw the mischief in her eyes and laughed. “Guess we’ll all muck in and help anyway, yeah Jess?”

“Sure,” said Jess, “I’ll do my share.”

“Me too,” piped up Mike, and then the  baby opened her big blue eyes and yawned hugely before looking at the  sea of faces staring down at her and chuckled to herself, her little fists waving as she gurgled happily, and her willing slaves looked on in adoration.

Daisy peered down at the baby. “There is something familiar,” she said quietly. “I can’t put my finger on it, just something…”

“You wouldn’t think something so darn small could have such a huge effect on us all,” laughed Slim smiling down at her. “Figure you’re going to turn our lives upside down little lady, for a while anyway.”

*****

Slim and Jess agreed to keep the baby in their room again that night as Mike and Daisy had experienced a long journey and were understandably tired.

So it was Jess who got up for the 6am feed and afterwards sat in his rocker, cuddling and talking animatedly to the baby.

Daisy had been awakened by the hungry cries, and after a while, she decided to get up early and check all was well. As she entered the room, she was enchanted to see Jess dozing with the baby resting on his shoulder, but his eyes sprang open at her approach and he said softly, “Sorry Daisy, did we wake you?”

She shook her head. “Wanted an early start. You’ll spoil that baby cuddling her all the time,” she said with a broad smile.

“Well guess she won’t get much spoiling in the children’s home,” he said bleakly.

Daisy gave him a concerned look. “Will you tell me about it, Jess?”

He started to shake his head and then looking over at the kindly anxious face of his dear friend, he changed his mind and told her what he had said to Slim.

She felt a pang of pity for him. “How old were you, dear?” she asked.

“I was nine, maybe ten. Francie, a bit older; my other brother lit out before we were taken away, so there was just the four of us went. My little sister was six and then there was my baby brother.

“Was it really so terrible or were you just homesick?”

He gave her a sardonic look. “Guess my home wasn’t the kinda place you missed,” he said.

“No it wasn’t that. They were just plumb cruel, Daisy. First night my little brother wet the bed — hell, he was scared, I was scared. Anyways, next morning they beat him black and blue because of it. He was only three years old, Daisy. That happened every day, poor little tyke.”

Daisy just looked on shaking her head, tears in her eyes.

“Anyways, I knew there was nothing I could do, but it was hard ‘cos I kinda felt responsible for them, you know? They split us up too. I didn’t see the girls after that first day, and then I heard from one of the other kids that my little sister was real sick. I went to the Superintendent, a fat old bast…er, man with a big gold watch chain stretched across his belly, I remember that,” he said with surprise. “Funny the things you remember.

“Well I asked to see her and he wouldn’t let me and then I asked for a doctor for her and he said as how he wouldn’t spend good money out on scum like us, and how it was  a lost cause anyway, as she’d probably die before the day was out.”

He gave a deep sigh, his eyes unseeing as he looked back to that bleak time, then he looked over at Daisy and continued. “So I hit him, Daisy, punched him real hard in the gut and he doubled up, fell to his knees and that was the first time I ever hit anyone in anger. Yeah, I’d fought with all the local kids as you do, but I’d never experienced that white hot anger of really wanting to kill before,” he said, shaking his head sadly.

“Well, I just stared at him, then I ran, through the door to the girls rooms and found my sister and I sat with her for two, maybe three days…and you know what, nobody stopped me. I think maybe they were scared of me, thought I was a bit crazy. Anyways it turned out, she wasn’t that sick and she started to get better as soon as I was there. What I didn’t know was the Superintendent was making plans for me to be shipped out to a labor camp at the local prison. Anyways, once my sister was well, I waited until it was real late one night and I busted us all out and we hightailed it back home,” he finished smiling and gently rubbing the baby’s back.

Then Jess glanced up at Daisy again and was shocked to see the tears rolling down her papery old cheeks. He reached over and took her hand and squeezing it said, “Hey Daisy, don’t take on so. It was all a long time ago now; I’d forgotten it…until this little one landed that is,” he finished.

Daisy looked deep into his eyes and said, “We shall keep her as long as we can, Jess, and then if her mother doesn’t get in touch, well, I will do my best to find her a good home, somewhere nearby.”

Jess’s face lit up. “Maybe we could smuggle her into the Patterson’s place,” he said with a grin. “Old Ma Patterson has got so many kids, I guess she would hardly notice an extra one”.

Daisy beamed back at him. “We could try,” she joked and then getting up, she leaned over and kissed him gently on the top of his head.

”You’ve got a good heart, Jess Harper,” she said softly, and then with a twinkle, “and don’t let anyone say different,” and went off to make him some good strong coffee.

*****

So things settled down into a routine with everyone pulling their weight and little Rose, as Mike had christened her, had soon found her way into everyone’s heart.

Mike was always the one to name the animals on the ranch, usually very astutely and so when Jess asked why Rose he knew there would be a good reason.

“Well,” said the youngster,” the way she yells when she’s hungry I thought we could call her after the ‘yeller’ Rose of Texas,” he said grinning from ear to ear. ” ‘Cos she spends half her life yelling!”

“You’re not wrong there,” Jess smiled back. “So what are you callin’ the pinto then?”

“How about Puzzle.”

“Yeah, why Puzzle?” Jess asked intrigued.

“Because he looks like a jigsaw puzzle and it’s a puzzle as to how anyone could stay up for any time,” Mike said grinning.

“Well that’s the truth,” said Jess with feeling, rubbing the bruises on his chest “but guess we’ll get there in the end, Tiger. Just a matter of time.”

Jess spent the next couple of days on or off the back of the big horse, and according to Slim mostly off, and it wasn’t until the week’s end that the animal finally showed signs of defeat.

All that time, since Jess’s bad fall on the day Daisy and Mike returned home, Slim had noticed a change in his buddy. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was subtly different. He was usually poetry in motion to watch on a horse; even an ornery, mad bucking one, he still had poise and grace, but these last few days he had looked awkward.

 Jess had also started falling over things and only that morning he had cussed Slim for leaving his boots where he would fall over them, even though it was plain as the nose on your face as to where they were. Slim had retorted and said Jess was getting clumsy in his old age.

There had been other things too; he had been more short-tempered than usual, and although the Harper temper was legendary, he had calmed down a lot over the last few years. Slim had just put it down to the lack of sleep due to caring for Rose, but now he wasn’t so sure and he thought maybe something was bothering his friend.

As he watched Jess dismount from the heaving sweating beast, he saw him shake his head as if trying to clear it and when Slim called out to him, Jess looked up, but seemed not to see him.

Slim ducked under the corral fence and walked over to his friend, and as Jess looked up, he could see Jess was blinking his eyes as if trying to focus. He got right up beside him before Jess seemed to notice and Slim reached out and put a hand on his friends arm. “Hey Jess, you OK?”

“Sure I am,” came the gruff reply, but Slim thought otherwise.

 It suddenly struck him. “Jess, are you having trouble with your eyes?”

Jess’s head shot up. “No. Why do you ask?”

“Dunno, just seems you’re not right, pard, not yourself.”

“I’m fine, quit your worrying Slim,” and with that he marched off to the barn without a backward glance.

But Slim wouldn’t be moved and he wandered back into the ranch and found Daisy in the kitchen busy baking. Pulling a chair out, he slumped down resting his elbows on the kitchen table and gave his faithful housekeeper a worried look.

She stopped her work and came and sat down opposite him and after a moment said, ‘What’s the matter, Slim? “

“It’s Jess, he isn’t right Daisy, hasn’t been since that fall couple of days ago, I think it’s his eyes, but you know him…..always says he’s fine, but he really isn’t. Can you speak to him?”

“Well of course I will, dear, but he isn’t much better at listening to me either. You know how stubborn he is. I’ve noticed it too; he has spilt his drink twice at the dining table and then he fell over the cat yesterday. I think maybe you are right. “

That evening after supper Daisy and Slim both questioned Jess, and as usual he said nothing was wrong.

Then Daisy turned towards him and said firmly, “Jess, you forget I am a retired nurse and I just know there is something wrong, so why won’t you tell us?”

He was sitting in his rocker in front of the fire with Daisy and Slim nearby and he suddenly put his head in his hands and groaned, then he looked up, “OK,” he said, “I admit it; my eyesight, well it ain’t so good right now.”

“At last,” said Slim softly. “So why didn’t you say something sooner, Jess? It isn’t that bad; we’ll get Sam on the case,” he said, referring to Doc Sam Baker their doctor and close family friend.

“Ain’t so bad!” exploded Jess suddenly. “I can hardly see Slim, and if it don’t get better. I won’t be no use to you here on the ranch, plus I’ve got those damn Jacksons gunning for me. What am I supposed to do if they draw on me? Ask them to wait while I find my iron…hell, Slim this ain’t funny. “

Daisy has gone pale at the mention of the Jacksons. “I had no idea they were on the loose,” she said shocked.

Jess closed his eyes and swore very quietly under his breath. “Sorry, Daisy, shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Well Mort thinks there is no immediate danger,” said Slim, “as long as Jess stays close to home, and anyway, there is a posse out gunning for them. Figure it will be OK.”

Daisy gave Jess an intense look. “You must see Sam as soon as possible; it could be something, well…really serious, or it could be that when you fell off that blessed horse and banged your head, it caused some bleeding in your eye and that should settle if you rest. But you must do as Sam says and you need to see him tomorrow…yes?”

“I guess,” Jess replied reluctantly.

And so it was that Jess and Slim drove into Laramie to see the Doc first thing the following day.

Jess was as usual saying it was a big fuss over nothing, but Slim had  insisted and then  showed Jess the latest feed bill and said casually, “Just check that, will you?”

Jess took it and peered for all of two minutes, the figures swimming on the page, before admitting defeat. “Can’t make it out,” he said gruffly.

“Yeah, so are you ready then?” asked Slim giving him a hard look.

“I guess.”

Slim hitched up the buckboard and they drove off.

As they entered Sam’s office, Carrie, his young daughter and nurse, jumped up from her desk, “Well, hello, you two,” she said with a broad grin, “so how are you?”

Slim smiled at her. “Well I’m good, but Jess here needs to see Sam if he’s about”.

She smiled up at Jess, for whom she had a real soft spot and immediately said, “Sure, take a seat and I’ll fetch Pa…and some coffee? “

Both men nodded yes and she disappeared; a moment later, Sam bowled in, and taking one look at Jess, motioned for him to follow him to the examination room at the back.

Slim sat there chatting to Carrie and drinking his coffee, but he leapt up when Jess and Sam returned, with Jess looking tired and very vulnerable.

Sam smiled over at his old friend. “Guess Jess won’t mind me sharing this with you,” he said, before casting a glance at Jess and receiving a nod. “Your buddy here has suffered a real nasty blow to the head, resulting in a bleed behind the eyes, causing the sight problems .But…if he is sensible, doesn’t ride any broncos for few weeks and keeps out of any fights, well, guess he should be OK.”

Then turning to Jess again, Sam said, “I really mean it, Jess; keep out of trouble, or I can’t guarantee, your sight, understand? You have to lie down, keeping your head completely still for at least a week or so and then take it easy for another week. I’ll come and check you out in a few days, but as I say, another serious knock….and well, the damage could be permanent, understand?” he asked giving Jess a concerned look.

Jess just nodded. “Yeah, I do, thanks, Sam.”

Then Sam turned to Slim and said, “I’ve got that fishing book I promised you,” and walked him through to his office, leaving Jess chatting to Carrie.

Sam closed the door behind him and after fetching the book said, “Sit down Slim; I need to talk to you.”

Slim sat and cast his friend a worried look.

Sam perched on the edge of his desk, and after taking a moment to collect his thoughts, he finally said, “I need you to watch out for him, Slim. I know what he is like, but if he doesn’t follow my instructions…well, he may well go permanently blind. If he keeps real still, then the blood will disperse and he’ll be fine to go back to the bronco busting, but only after I give him the all clear.

“Sure, I’ll sit on him if I have to, and watch him, see he behaves.”

Sam smiled. “There is something else, Slim. His eyes have got worse even over the last day, which is normal in cases like this; they get worse before they get better, especially after the couple of falls he has had since the original accident. He will need your help over the next few days; he can barely see at all right now, though he’d never admit it to you. Some stupid idea that he’s a burden.”

“The crazy idiot,” Slim whispered, “he’d never be that.”

“Yeah, well you know what he’s like. Just look out for him. Don’t leave him alone and you’ll have to guide his walking, not that he’ll appreciate that,” he said with a grim smile. ”Tell Daisy what I’ve said, she’ll know what to do.”

Slim shook hands and thanked the doctor and soon after the friends left.

*****

It was as they walked out of the Doctor’s office that it happened. Jess and Slim were standing on the sidewalk, just wondering whether to take in a quick visit to the saloon or not when the Jacksons rode in.

Slim saw them at once and stood ridged, and although Jess couldn’t see, he sensed his partners tension and said, “What, Slim?” grabbing his arm and looking myopically around.

Before Slim could say anything, Pete Jackson was down off his horse and backing off from Jess, and yelling harshly, “I’m callin’ you out, Harper. Git over here; payback time, boy.”

Suddenly they heard running and gunfire from behind them, and Slim pushed Jess roughly out of the line of fire, across the side walk, and at the same time the Jacksons remounted and rode hell for leather down the street out of town. Slim fired on them, and then a second later Mort and Lon, his deputy, were behind him firing too and he realized that was where the other gunfire had come from.

As the outlaws disappeared in a cloud of dust, Slim acknowledged Mort. “Going after them?” he asked briefly.

“Can’t,” came the reply. “Got to take a prisoner to Cheyenne on the stage, due in anytime now. How about you and Jess? I can deputize you.”

Slim looked over to Jess who was still standing on the sidewalk where he had pushed him, looking pale and shaken. He turned to Mort and said very quietly, “Can’t Mort, Jess’s none too well right now.”

Mort looked over and then gave Slim a questioning look. “Come into the office for a coffee and we can talk,” he said, suddenly aware of the gaping bystanders,

Slim went over to Jess and took his arm, feeling him shaking and said softly. “Come on, buddy, let’s get a coffee with Mort.”

To his surprise, Jess didn’t shrug off his arm, but allowed himself to me led into the office, and once inside Slim guided him to a seat in front of Mort’s desk and helped him to sit.

All this didn’t go unnoticed by the Sheriff, who was already pouring the coffee. He walked over and gave one to Slim and went to pass the other to Jess, but Slim intercepted it and grabbing hold of his buddy’s hand said quietly, “coffee, Jess,” and passed it to him, helping his friend to grasp the cup.

Mort sank down into his chair opposite his two old friends with an expression of shock on his face. He looked from Slim to Jess and back again, raising an eye brow, before saying bluntly, “Jess, are you blind?”“

Slim gave the Sheriff a warning look, but before he could reply, Jess drawled, “Just ain’t seeing too good right now Mort, that’s all.”

Mort looked back at Slim for corroboration. “He took a bad fall off a mustang,” replied Slim. “Got bleeding behind his eyes, but he’s going to be just fine shortly,” he said with feeling.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” said Mort. “And I’m real sorry for your trouble Jess; guess we’ll just let the law look after those no good Jacksons. Rest easy, son, we’ll get ‘em before long.”

Jess just looked down and said, “Sure, Mort, I guess you will, and there ain’t much I can do right now anyways”.

They spent a little while discussing the Jackson issue and then moved on to the baby.

“Well I haven’t found any news about her in town,” he said, “and time is a marching on. Guess we’ll give it another week or two and I’m honor bound to contact the Children’s Home,” he said with a sheepish look at his friends. ”All I can do.”

Slim nodded sadly. “Only doing your job, Mort, I realize that, but it’s tough. Guess the longer we have her, the more attached we get.”

Mort looked over at Jess, but he was just looking down and didn’t make any comment.

He exchanged a look with Slim and he shook his head sadly, and Mort realized that it was probably Jess who would feel the wrench most and remembered the way he had tended the baby so naturally, last time he visited the ranch.

Slim broke the moment by suggesting they should be on their way and the couple made their farewells and left for the ranch.

Once they arrived back at the ranch, they headed inside and Daisy came running to meet them. “How did you get on?” she asked, concern in her kind face.

“Just fine,” smiled Jess, “got to rest up some that’s all.”

“Got to keep lying flat, no movement for a week,” said Slim firmly and explained exactly what Sam had said.

“Off you go then,” she said cheerfully. “Get tucked up in bed and I’ll bring you a coffee in a minute dear.”

Jess just stood there looking embarrassed until Slim came over and took his arm. “Come on, buddy, let’s make sure you do as you’re told,” he said, making light of the situation.

Daisy looked on shocked at the obvious deterioration in just a few hours.

A few minutes later, Slim returned., “He’s lying down, just need to keep him that way now,” he said with a deep sigh.

“Oh Slim,” said Daisy, tears in her eyes. “He can’t see at all, can he?”

Slim shook his head, and taking the elderly woman’s hand guided her to a chair by the fire and sat down beside her.

“Very little,” he replied softly,” but he won’t admit it, Daisy; told Sam he didn’t want to be a burden to us, crazy fool!”

She shook her head sadly. “Poor boy,” she whispered, “he must be terrified.”

Slim nodded and remembered the way he was shaking after the Jackson’s had attacked, bad enough to have to deal with being called out, without the added agony of not being able to see your attacker.

“You haven’t told me everything have you?” she said astutely.

Slim shook his head giving her the ghost of a smile. “No hiding anything from you is there?” he said, before going on to tell her about the Jackson’s appearance.

As he knew she would, she took it all in her stride. “Well at least he’s tucked up in bed where we can keep an eye on him,” she said philosophically, “and maybe the posse will have caught them by the time he’s better.”

“He will get better, won’t he, Daisy? “

She looked anxious. “I nursed a case in the war and… well no he didn’t recover, but he was much worse than Jess, I imagine he has every chance of a good recovery, as long as he behaves  himself,” she said with a brave smile.

But it was not to be.

After the first day, Jess opted to rest on the old leather couch in the main room as he didn’t feel so isolated. He behaved impeccably, though, and lay completely still and the family drifted in and out taking it in turns to sit with him and entertain him with the daily happenings on the ranch.

At first he was fine, but as the days progressed and there was absolutely no improvement, he became quiet and then morose, just lying still staring up at the ceiling or sleeping.

The doctor visited at the end of the week and breezed into the room, expecting to see his friend greatly improved, but as soon as he saw him lying so still, the usual twinkle gone from his deep blue eyes, he knew there was something wrong.

Daisy and Slim gave their friend some privacy and left Sam to his patient.

Sam walked over and sat on the edge of the couch. “Hey buddy, how are you doing?” he asked quietly.

Jess’s head shot up and he gave his friend an accusatory look. “You said I’d be OK by now Sam; you promised if I did as you said, I’d be OK …but I can’t see a blessed thing.” he said harshly.

“Just relax, Jess. I’m going to shine a light in your eyes, have a good look at you; just keep looking up at the ceiling, OK?”

Jess did as he was bid, and after a few minutes Sam sat back, looking at his friend with deep concern in his eyes.

“It isn’t looking too good Jess,” he said gently,” I had expected to see a big improvement, but…well….”

“Am I going to be blind, Sam?” rasped Jess his voice thick with emotion.

Sam paused and then said, “Too early to tell yet, Jess. Guess we need to give it a little longer. I figure those two other falls you had after the main event, well, they did more damage than I had originally thought, but there is still a chance, buddy. You must hang onto that.”

“Sure,” said Jess quietly, with a deep sigh and closed his eyes against the threatening tears of frustration. Then, even more softly, “Explain it to the others, Sam…and tell ‘em I’d kinda like to be on my own for a while, will you?”

“Sure, buddy.” Sam sadly left the room and went out to the porch where he knew Daisy and Slim were anxiously waiting for news, although they knew Jess had made very little progress.

Just one look at the Doctor’s face told them all they needed to know.

Sam shook his head,” I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Slim looked shocked to the core. ‘Is there no hope?” he asked.

Sam looked at his good friend. “There is always hope, Slim, and I guess you have to make him understand that. Don’t let him give up, keep positive and I’ll come back next week, tell you what the options are.”

“Options? “

“Yeah, well, if the worst happens, you’ll have to consider what is going to happen. It would be real difficult looking after him here, Slim; a working ranch is a dangerous place to be if you can’t see.”

Slim leapt up from his chair and said angrily, “What are you saying Sam, we should send him away…to some sort of institution? “

“There are some very good homes for the blind, Slim; they’d help him, teach him Braille, that kind of thing.”

“Are you mad?” spat Slim. “It would kill him, I’d never do that send him away, never!” and with that he marched off to the barn without a backward glance.

“I’m sorry,” said Daisy, “he’s upset. Jess is like a brother to him, you know, and a son to me. He is right, we could never send him away.”

“I understand, Daisy, but you just have to think what would be best for him, you know.”

She just nodded and as the doctor turned to go, he said, “Jess asked to be left alone; guess he’s kinda upset.”

The elderly woman shook her head. “Oh no,” she said,” I’m not going to let him feel sorry for himself. I need him to get his fight back. We’ve got one heck of a battle ahead of us and I aim to make sure he wins it,” she finished a glint in her eye. “Good morning, Sam,” and with that she marched back into the ranch.

Sam walked off to his buggy, shaking his head and smiling to himself. “Well if anyone can sort the boy out, it’s you Miss Daisy,” he said softly.

Daisy took a deep breath and on entering the ranch went straight over to Jess and sat down on the edge of the couch beside him.

He had his eyes closed so she just waited and after a minute said firmly, “Jess , you’re not asleep, look at me.”

After a moment he opened his blue eyes and turned his head in her general direction. “What?”he said irritably.

“Jess Harper that is no way to speak to me,” she said, crisply.

“Sorry Ma’am,” he replied automatically, looking a little surprised at her more than brisk tone.

“Now just you listen to me, young man. I won’t have you feeling sorry for yourself. Just because it is taking longer for you to heal than Sam first thought, that is no reason to give up hope. I’m telling you now, you will get better, if I’ve got anything to do with it, so you’d better set your mind to it, do you understand?”

He gave her the glimmer of a smile. “Are you bullying me, Daisy?”

She smiled back, and he could hear it in her voice. “Now then, if that’s what it takes, yes, I am.”

Just then the baby started crying and she went over to the crib set by the fire and lifted her out.

Jess looked in her direction and said anxiously, “What’s up, Daisy? You ain’t long fed her.”

She looked at the little one who was now screaming and fisting her cheek, and said, “I guess she’s teething, pure little mite. Here you are, Jess, try and sooth her while I start supper.”

Jess had refused to have anything to do with the baby since his failing sight as he was terrified of hurting her and now he just said, Can’t, Daisy, can’t see her properly.”

“So when did you have to see to offer a cuddle and a little loving care,” she asked briskly and with that laid the child gently in his arms. “I’m just next door in the kitchen; if you need me, call out,” she finished and bustled off, leaving Jess literally holding the baby.

He held her close to his chest and gently rubbed her back and after a little while the crying finally subsided and she relaxed back into sleep.

From then on, he did his share with the baby and very gradually his sight started to improve, and by the end of the week, he had gone from being just able to make out shapes to almost normal vision. He still had a problem reading and recognizing people in the distance, but when Sam visited he said that would improve in time and he must be patient a little longer.

The breakthrough had come just three days after Daisy had had her little talk with him and he was again minding the baby. As she entered the room, she saw him standing by the window, the child in his arms and they were both looking out into the yard. As she entered, he spun round and she saw tears in his eyes and he said in wonder. “I can see Daisy, I can see right over to the corral.”

“Thank God,” she whispered before running across the room and embracing him warmly.

He leaned down and kissed her gently on the top of her head. “Thank you,” he said softly, “guess I needed telling.”

She smiled back. “Guess you did. Now come along, back to the couch, and just be patient a little while longer.”

That was all he seemed to hear from Daisy and the doctor and he was not the most patient of men as they both knew, but on this occasion, he behaved himself, and just four weeks after the initial accident, he was completely back to normal and able to go back to his work with the horses.

*****

 

They were back into their routine of Jess sitting the mustangs, getting them green broke with Slim watching him from the sidelines, ready to get him out of harm’s way should he have another fall.

This particular afternoon the work was going well and Jess hadn’t been tossed off once.

“Hey, Hot Shot think you’re finally getting the hang of this horse breaking,” Slim said with a big grin. “You’ve managed to stay in the saddle all afternoon.”

“Too dang scared to fall off after last time,” his buddy replied laughing. Then something caught his eye, up on the tree line above the ranch. “Hey, Slim, there is someone up there watchin’. Don’t figure it’s those darn Jacksons back again, do you?”

“One way to find out,” said Slim, and running to their mounts, both men galloped out of the yard heading for where a rider was fast disappearing in a cloud of dust.

Slim was nearest, and as he spurred Alamo on he drew parallel with the other horse and leaping from his mount, jumped on the rider, dragging him unceremoniously from the saddle and the two hit the ground hard.

Jess was just behind him and, reining in Traveler, smiled down at the two bodies rolling around in the dust. After a moment, Slim gained his feet again and pulling the other up by his shirt, he was about to punch him when the rider’s  hat flew off and long black hair fell around her shoulders and she threw her head back, giving Slim a challenging look.

Slim dropped his hands immediately. “You’re a girl,” he said in a shocked voice, looking her up and down.

She was dressed in tight fitting denims tucked into riding boots and a loose man’s shirt, hiding her shapely figure.

Jess grinned down from his horse. “Well spotted, Slim.”

“I’m so sorry Miss,” said Slim quickly. “I didn’t mean to harm you really, I…er… we”, glancing up at Jess, “thought you were someone else.”

She said nothing just looked over at Slim and then up at Jess.

“So why did you run?” asked Jess giving her a calculating look. “And what were you doin’ spying on us anyway?” he continued.

The young girl’s face suddenly crumpled and she started crying. “I… I just wanted to see her, just for a minute,” she said in between sobs.

Jess slid down from  his horse and walking over gave her a sympathetic look, never being able to see a pretty girl cry, and this was a very pretty girl he decided. He patted her arm gently. “Don’t take on so, it’s alright,” he said.

“So who was it you wanted to see?” asked Slim giving her a puzzled look.

“My baby,” the girl whispered, “Daisy, my little baby girl.”

“She’s yours?” asked Jess, suddenly angry again. “What are you thinkin’ leaving a little baby all on her own? Are you crazy or just plain feckless?”

She turned on him. “Neither,” she shouted. “I love her, but I was desperate; that’s why I had to leave her with Aunt Daisy.”

“Aunt Daisy,” said Slim…”Daisy is your Aunt?”

She just nodded.

“Well, why in hell didn’t you just come and knock at the door?” spat Jess.

“It’s a long story,” she said, “but the main reason was I was scared someone would contact my parents. They know I’m safe, but not where I am and I aim to keep it that way. I’ll tell you everything later, maybe,” she finished defiantly.

“Well, guess we’ve got time.” said Jess giving her another hard look. “Come on, let’s go pay Aunt Daisy a little visit…that’s if she is your Aunt.”

When they arrived at the ranch, Daisy came out to meet them and stopped in her tracks before running forwards and embracing the young girl.

“Guess they know each other then,” said Jess turning to wink at Slim.

“Gina, my dear whatever are you doing here? Are your parents with you?”

She shook her head vigorously. “No, Aunt Daisy, and I never want to see Ma and Pa again either.”

“Well I know your mother can be difficult dear but….”

Just then baby Rose, who was in her cot in the ranch, started crying and they all  turned towards the sound and then Gina gave a little cry and ran headlong into the house, the others exchanging looks before following her.

As they entered, they were just in time to see Gina reach down into the crib and lifting the baby out, held her close, tears streaming down her face. “Oh I have missed you so much,” she whispered.

Daisy looked shocked, a hand shooting to her mouth, her eyes open wide in astonishment. “Gina….she’s …she’s your child?”

The young girl nodded. “She is, Aunt Daisy, and Ma and Pa have disowned me. I can never go back, that’s why I had to leave her here. I needed to find work, get settled and I knew you would care for her. You have been more of a mother to me than Ma ever was, Aunt Daisy. Please help me now…you just have to,” she finished looking beseechingly at her elderly aunt and then over at the two surprised cowboys. “Please,” she whispered again.

Slim was the first to come to his senses and said gently, “Figure we had better all sit down and talk things through, but why don’t you two catch up first. Come on, Jess,” he said nodding towards the door.

Slim walked towards it and then seeing Jess was still standing agape, he grabbed hold of his arm and said firmly, “Jess”, and they went out of the door, leaving the women standing staring at each other, Daisy trying to come to terms with the shocking news that her dear niece was an unmarried mother.

Once outside Jess gave a low whistle. “So whose daughter is she then? Not the sister in Cheyenne?”

“No, the other one; used to live near Daisy back East, married to the banker. You remember, Jess, she visited that one time; a lot younger than Daisy and a real piece of work. Spent all her time telling Daisy she was crazy to move out here ,’housekeep for a pair of heathen rowdy cowpokes, in a dreadful draughty ranch house’, or something like that!”

“Oh yeah, I remember her, all God fearin’ and tellin’ us we should read our Bibles more…moaning about everything. No wonder the girl shipped out.”

Slim just shook his head and gave him a wicked grin. “Aw, Jess, behave,” he said chuckling.

Inside Daisy had sunk down onto one of the fire side chairs and was visibly pale. Her niece put the baby, who had now settled, back into the crib and ran over and squatted down by her aunt taking her hand and saying softly. “I am so sorry, Aunt; it must be a terrible shock for you.”

Daisy, made a valiant effort to rally. “Well, these things happen,” she said, “but where is the father, dear? Has he not stood by you?”

After a moment the girl swallowed hard trying to keep tears at bay and finally said, “Truth is, I don’t know where Edward is. He worked for Pa in the bank, and then one day he was just gone. After a long time, I discovered Pa had sacked him. It was just after he found out we were seeing each other, Aunt; that’s why Pa got rid of him, well Ma, really. She told him to do it and you know Pa — whatever Ma wants, she gets.”

“But what about little Rose? Surely he must want to provide for her?”

“Rose?”

“Oh Mike, Slim and Jess’s adopted boy, he called her that; she seems to respond to it as well,” said the older lady with her gentle smile.

“That is a lovely name, I had called her Daisy — after you — but maybe that would be too confusing. I could call her Daisy Rose, to be known as Rosie,” she said, smiling for the first time.

“So what about Edward?” persisted Daisy.

“Well, he doesn’t know about her,” Gina replied. “I didn’t find out myself until he had been gone a few weeks, then I hid it from Ma as long as long as I could…” Then she started weeping again.

Daisy threw a kindly arm around her. “It’s alright, dear, don’t upset yourself; we’ll think of something.”

“I can’t go back home, aunt, I really can’t. Ma and Pa say I’m not welcome back unless I come without my baby and I just can’t do that.”

“Well of course you can’t, dear. Really that Lily, she may be my little sister, but she has no heart, never has had, always was  a cold fish, even as a child. But, you should let them know you are safe.”

“Oh, I have,” she said quickly. “They sent me to a mother and baby home, and I ran away soon after, Da… I mean Rosie, was born. I wired them after to say I was fine; they wouldn’t care anyway,” she finished bitterly.

“And then what did you do?”

“Stayed with a friend for a while and then decided to make a fresh start, I had some savings and so Rosie and I came here and I have found a job in Laramie, helping out at Miss Mollie’s café. There is a room above the shop she says I can have in a few weeks, once the other girl has moved out and I could have Rosie there.”

“So where are you staying at present?”

“Right now I am at a boarding house and they won’t take children, but if you could just keep her a little bit longer, Aunt Daisy, I can have her back with me again. I hate to ask but…”

“I will try, dear,” the older woman broke in, “but it isn’t just up to me; it depends on what Slim and Jess think too.”

“Slim is the tall blond one, isn’t he? He looks kind. Maybe he’ll say yes?”

“Maybe.”

“The other dark one with the very blue eyes, he was so angry with me, Aunt Daisy; he scared me.”

Daisy chuckled. “Oh Jess’s bark is worse than his bite…where young ladies are concerned anyway. No, he was just worried about the baby, furious that anyone could abandon her, but once he knows the truth about it all, well, he’ll calm down.”

“Um…if you say so, aunt.”

“I do say so. Jess has been absolutely wonderful with little Rose, fed her, changed her diapers and even nursed her when he was sick himself.”

“He’s been ill?”

“Well sort of, oh nothing catching. He lost his sight for a while, but he’s fine now. Anyway, Jess, Slim and little Mike are all very fond of your baby; she has been well cared for by us all, my dear, and I can’t imagine either of my boys will throw her out now.”

“Your boys?” Gina said with a little smile.

“Yes Gina, that is how I have come to think of them now; all three are very dear to me. They are like family and as such I must respect their wishes. Anyway, I will make us all some coffee and we’ll sit down and talk it through, alright?”

“Yes, and thank you so much for being so understanding and not judging me too harshly.”

At that point, Slim tapped on the door, “OK for two tuckered out cowboys to sit a while and have some coffee and pie maybe?” he asked with a friendly grin.

Once they were all seated around the table, Daisy explained the situation to the two ranchers and Slim at once smiled over at the young girl and said, “I reckon we can put up with the little terror a while longer. What say you, partner?”

Jess who had had his head down, staring into his coffee cup, listening as the whole sorry tale unfolded, now looked straight at Gina and giving her his shy smile, he said softly, “Sure, and I’m sorry I misjudged you, Gina”.

She blushed prettily. “That’s alright, you were only looking out for Rosie and I appreciate all you have done for her, all of you,” she said finally dragging her gaze away from Jess’ deep blue eyes to encompass the others.

“I must start supper. Will you stay the night Gina, ride back tomorrow?” asked Daisy.

“If that is alright with you all,” she replied, “then I must return the hired mount to the livery first thing.”

“I’ll go stable your horse, pick out one for you to keep at the livery, so you can visit when you like,” said Jess, before getting up quickly and heading for the yard.

“See,” said Daisy with a little wink at her niece, “I said he would come around.”

As Jess went to attend to Gina’s horse, Slim watched her face as he left the room and saw an all too familiar look in her eyes, the sort of look that Jess often attracted from the opposite sex, and his heart sank. Not another complicated entanglement was his first thought, and then, how does he dang well do it, was his rueful second one.

Meanwhile Jess was completely oblivious to the young girl’s interest and he strolled into the barn with the livery horse which he started to groom and feed. After a moment, Mike walked up; he had said hello briefly to Gina and then set about his after school chores. Now he sat on a straw bale and watching Jess work said sadly, “So does that mean Rose will be goin’ away with that pretty lady then, Jess?”

Jess turned to the young blond headed boy and gave him a friendly smile. “No I guess not just yet, Tiger; Gina has to get a decent room sorted out. Should be another couple of weeks”.

“Yippee!” yelled the youngster. “I’m sure glad about that Jess, aren’t you?”

Jess stopped grooming the horse and considered the matter for a moment, remembering the teething, messy diapers and two o’clock feeds and then turning to the boy gave him a big grin. “On balance, yeah I guess I am glad too,” he said sincerely.

After supper, once Mike had gone to bed, the adults sat around the fire with their coffee and as Gina sat down, Slim  noticed her wince. “are  you hurt?” he asked quickly. “Heck. I am so sorry I pulled you off of your horse that way, Gina. If I’d known you were a girl…”

She reached out a hand and patted his arm gently. “It’s OK.” she said quickly, “just a little bruise, but I’ll be fine.”

 Before supper, Daisy had provided her with a pretty blouse and clean skirt, held tightly in with a wide leather belt, showing off her hour glass figure to perfection, and now Jess grinned across at her. “Well. no mistaking you for a boy now, that’s for sure.”

She blushed again and then said, “So who was it you thought I was?”

Slim and Jess exchanged anxious looks.

Daisy looked over at them. “Slim?”

He shook his head slightly, then, “Thought it might have been one of the Jacksons; they are still at large.”

“Who are they?” asked Gina curiously.

Jess replied, “A couple of no-good hombres that robbed the Laramie Bank along with their cousin. I killed him and so they are gunning for me.”

“You killed someone,” said Gina in a shocked voice. ”Killed them…dead?”

“Only way I know,” said Jess dryly.

She looked scandalized. “It’s no joking matter,” she said, then turning to her aunt. “Guess Ma is right it is barbaric here after the East. Can people go around shooting others just for bank robbing?”

Jess turned furious eyes on the young girl. “I’ll tell you what’s barbaric, as you call it — entering a bank and taking hardworking people’s money, and then gunning down four innocent bystanders. Yeah, I killed their cousin and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because he killed a young mother and her six year old daughter, and then he fired on me and Slim. What should I have done…turned the other cheek? ” he finished sarcastically.

Gina sucked in a deep breath, and looked over at him her eyes wide with shock. “I’m sorry; I didn’t know such things happened. I guess I’m going to have to toughen up and learn a lot about living out here.”

“Guess you are,” said Jess gruffly.

*****

The following morning Jess and Gina lit out early to return the hired horse and to be sure Gina was in time for her shift at the café. Jess was leading a pretty little palomino that he had selected as an easy mount for the young girl and she was delighted with her.

“Thank you so much for lending her to me,” she said as they settled the horse in a stall at the livery.

“You’re welcome,” said Jess kindly, feeling a little guilty at his outburst the night before. “She’s  trained to work the buggy  too, so if you ever want to go visiting anywhere with Rosie, then you can borrow the little buggy your aunt uses; it’s real easy to drive,” he finished.

Gina’s eyes welled up with unshed tears. “You are all so kind to me, even though I have been so judgmental…of you in particular, and I don’t deserve it,” she said softly.

“Hey, cheer up,” he said quickly. “If you are related to Miss Daisy, guess that makes you almost like kin and that’s what family do for each other, help each other out.”

She gave him a watery smile. That’s just what aunt Daisy said; she calls you all her boys and says she thinks of you as family.”

Jess was really touched; he knew the truth of it, but had never actually heard it said before.

Now he grinned across at Gina. “Well she sure acts like a Ma to us, way she nags us something fierce,” he said laughing.

Then he remembered the recent conversation with her, when he was in the depths of misery facing possible permanent blindness and how she had made him see sense and he had said ‘are you bullying me, Daisy?’. That had been the moment he had turned the situation around and started feeling better, knowing Daisy was fighting his corner.

He looked down at Gina and said, “Seriously, she is an amazing woman, your aunt, the way she looks out for us all. Guess she’s saved my bacon, more than once,” he finished softly.

Gina looked up at him, their eyes locking, before the moment was broken by the livery owner striding over to talk business with Jess.

*****

Over the next week or so, Gina became a regular visitor, riding over whenever she could in the week and staying over at the weekends. She was soon absorbed into family life, helping Daisy with her duties, watching Jess and Slim working with the mustangs and encouraging Mike with his homework.

One afternoon Slim had taken Mike and Daisy visiting a neighbor and Gina and Jess found themselves alone. Jess was sitting in the yard mending harnesses and Gina came to watch him.

After a few minutes she said, “Neither you nor Slim has ever asked me about Rosie’s father.”

Jess’s head shot up. “Guess it’s none of our business,” he replied, giving her an appraising look.

“Well, I feel it is,” she said, “seeing as I’m living here part-time, as one of the family;  figure I owe you an explanation. “

“Up to you,” said Jess.

“Well his name was Edward and I loved….love him one heck of a lot. We were engaged to be married, secretly that is…Pa would never have stood for it.”

“Why so? “

“Oh, I guess nobody would have been good enough for his little girl and even if I’d got round him, well my Ma…”

“Yeah,” said Jess dryly, “I know all about your Ma.” Then looking down he said softly,  “But your Pa must love you, care about you, Hell, he must be missing you something fierce.”

“No, no Jess you’ve got it all wrong. Pa owns me; he throws money at me,  bought me my own pony, gifts, a  private tutor, everything a child could want or need  except for love. “

“And so you fell into the arms of the first man you met, just to show him,” said Jess angrily.

“No…. that’s not true,” she shouted. “I cared about Edward and him about me.”

“So where is he now?”

She shook her head in despair. “He would be with me if he could…I know he would.”

 Then she continued. “Jess, listen to me, this relationship with Edward it was…it was really special. We got engaged, were going to save up and then tell Pa. Then one night…well, we got carried away. I trusted him, it was just the once and then Pa found out about our relationship and fired him. He went, and nine months later Rosie arrived.”

Jess just looked down a furious expression on his face.

After a minute she looked over at him. “Haven’t you ever been carried away with the moment….?”

“Sure I have,” he broke in.

“Then why are you so mad at me then?” she shouted, tears starting to spill down her cheeks.

Jess threw down the harness and moved forwards, reaching out and holding her close/

”Because I care about you of course,” he said. “That’s why I’m so goddamn mad, because I care about you and little  Rose and I don’t like to see you hurt that way.”

“I’m OK,” she said quickly. “With or without Edward. we will be OK., I have to be with my baby, Jess, you must understand that; no matter what I have to keep her.”

“Well why shouldn’t you?” he  asked  looking surprised “She’s your child and nobody can take her,” then seeing the fear in her eyes said, “I promise you, Gina, nobody can take her.”

Gina suddenly felt incredibly moved by this volatile, but caring young man. She looked up at him and then suddenly gave him a shy smile. “I wonder what it would be like to be kissed by you,” she said softly.

“Hey whoa there, you’re still promised to Edward, ain’t you?”

“Yes, but you’re here and he isn’t,” she whispered. She looked up into those kind concerned eyes and after a moment leaned forwards and very gently brushed his lips with hers and then kissed him properly.

 He tensed for a moment and then kissed her back, at first very tenderly and then more passionately, one hand caressing her cheek, the  other running up and down  her back, before finally stopping and pulling her even closer to him so she felt the firm  strength of his muscular body through her thin dress.

After a few minutes, he pulled back, his breathing fast, a look in his eye she had never seen before.

Her heart was pounding and her stomach full of butterflies, all her senses aroused. “Wow, a girl certainly knows she’s been kissed when you do it, Jess,” she said softly, with a little nervous giggle.

 But Jess threw her a stern look and said quietly, “Don’t mess with me if you don’t really mean it, Gina,” before turning and striding over to the barn without looking back.

*****

Later that night after supper, when the rest of the family had retired for the night, Slim and Jess sat out on the porch, chairs tipped back, feet up on the rail, enjoying a final cup of coffee before turning in.

After a while Slim turned to look at his friend and said, “What’s going on, Jess?”

“Huh?”

“Between you and Gina, so what’s going on?”

Jess turned and gave Slim a hard look. “Nothing’s going on.”

“Come on Jess; don’t give me that I saw her at supper watching you, like a puppy waiting for you to throw a stick.”

“Don’t know what you mean”.

“Sure you do,” replied Slim, getting impatient.

“OK, OK… She came on to me this afternoon, kissed me…but I backed off, Slim, honestly. I ain’t setting myself up for a fall for when good ol’ Edward marches back into her life”.

“Daisy would like you two to get together,” said Slim thoughtfully.

“Or you,” replied Jess giving his partner a speculative look.

“Nah, not my type. Anyways, figure she’s too young; she’s only just turned 20, you know, Jess.”

Jess gave him a broad grin. “We like ‘em young down in Texas; my Ma had three young ‘uns by the time she was 20.” Then sobering, he continued. “Anyways I figure she’s still in love with Edward, so just leave it eh buddy?”

Before Slim could reply, they heard hoof beats drumming down the track.

Both men immediately went for their guns. “Kinda late for visiting, ain’t it?” asked Jess.

Then the rider came into view and both men relaxed as Mort Corey, Sheriff and good friend, reined his mount in beside the porch. He sat looking down at the pair, hat pushed back and a broad grin on his face.

“Howdy Mort,” said Slim, “Kinda late to be calling. There’s nothing wrong is there?”

“No, no don’t worry,  had to visit the Patterson place and thought I’d just call in here on my way back, got a message for you.”

“Oh? “

“Yeah, I got a wire from the Superintendent of the nursing home where Gina had the baby, something about some papers need signing….not sure why he wants me along, but there you go. He’s visiting in a few days, says he needs to see Gina and the baby.”

“What he’s comin’ all the way over from Philly, just to see the baby?” asked Jess in amazement.

“No,” said Mort with a smile. “I know Gina hales from Philadelphia, but she actually had the baby at the Mother and Baby Home just outside Cheyenne.” Then with a wicked grin, “Thought you’d know all about that place, Jess, what with your reputation with the ladies and all,” he said looking across at Slim and winking.

Jess threw him a wide eyed innocent look. “Who me?”

“Yes you…hardly a heart left unbroken in Laramie so I hear,” Mort continued, grinning across at Slim again.

“That ain’t so,” said Jess indignantly, “And anyways, I might not be good, but I sure as hell am darned careful,” he said, grinning up at Mort.

“Coffee, Mort?” asked Slim, hiding a smile.

“Well, I’d love to stay here chattin’ with you, and delve a little bit deeper into the murky depths of ol’ Jess’ love life, but my supper awaits.” With a cheery, “Night both”, he turned and trotted out of the yard.

“Wonder what that’s all about,” asked Jess turning to his buddy. “Don’t it strike you as odd that the Superintendent would come all this way just to sign off some papers? “

“Yeah,” said Slim. “Figure we’ll make sure she meets him here and we have a good look at those papers before she signs ‘em.” And with that, they headed off for bed.

The following morning when they were all sitting around the breakfast table, Slim broached the issue of Mort riding in with the message that the Superintendent wanted to see Gina over some papers that needed signing.

When she heard the news she turned pale and wanted to know exactly what Mort had said.

“There isn’t a problem, is there, dear?” asked Daisy looking worried. “You said you ran away from the home. Is that something to do with it? “

“I don’t think so, aunt,” she said quickly and then composing herself, said, “I’m sure it is just some silly formality and nothing to worry about.”

Then the subject was dropped as Mike was pleading for a lift to his friend Tommy’s   house at a nearby ranch.

“Well I don’t know, Tiger,” said Jess. “Slim and I are kinda busy today breaking the broncos and Aunt Daisy is doin’ her usual Saturday baking session. Maybe this afternoon when we get through work.”

“OK,” said the boy good-naturedly.

“I could take him,” broke in Gina, “if I could borrow the buggy. I could take Rose with me; I wanted to see Tommy’s Ma anyway, to thank her for the little dress she sent over.”

“That’s all settled then,” said Slim happily, “Mike can sleep over as planned and we can fetch him back tomorrow, so if you drop him off, you’ll be back by supper at the latest, yeah?”

“Oh yes,” she agreed, “I won’t keep Rosie out any longer than that.”

So it was agreed and they all went about their business.

Gina and Mike set off after Mike’s early morning chores were completed and the other members of the family got on with the day’s work. Slim and Jess set to, with the horses and by the end of the day they were exhausted but triumphant with another two mustangs green broke.

When supper time came around and there was still no sign of Gina and Rosie, Jess opted to go and meet them and Daisy held back supper until they arrived.

When another hour had passed, both Daisy and Slim were beginning to get really worried until they heard a horse entering the yard. “Oh, there they are at last,” she said with a sigh of relief, turning into the kitchen to start dishing up the food.

Slim went out onto the porch and to his surprise saw Tommy Brown’s older brother Charlie. He jumped down from his mount and walked over to Slim.

”Evening, Mr. Sherman, I’ve got a message from Mr. Harper, said to tell you that Miss Gina is missing. She left our place just after lunch,” the young man said anxiously, “and we all thought she was coming straight back here. Well, Mr. Harper, he checked the tracks and looks like the buggy took off the other way. Said he’d track her and camp overnight, not to expect him back, and if he don’t land home tomorrow, you are to fetch the Sheriff and some help to lookin’ for her.”

Slim cast him an anguished look. “Left after lunch. Well where the heck can she have got to?” he said, almost to himself.

“Pa said to tell you we’ll bring Mike back tomorrow and he hopes you get some news real soon,”  finished the boy before remounting.

“Thanks, Charlie,” said Slim distractedly, before turning back to the house to share the news with Daisy that her beloved niece was missing.

Meanwhile Jess was riding through the fast gathering dusk, following the tracks of the small buggy. It had been obvious which route she had taken once leaving the ranch, out onto the Laramie road, but instead of continuing that way he saw that she had come off the road at the lake and taken the old narrow track that wound its way around the lake to the hills and cave on the opposite side.

“What the heck is she playin’ at?” he muttered to himself.

He was aware that she knew the area as they had all visited recently on a picnic and fishing trip and had sheltered in the cave during a brief rain storm.

When he finally arrived, he was relieved to see the buggy pulled off the track and the little palomino hobbled and grazing peacefully. Slipping down from Traveler, he tethered him to a bush and made for the short steep track up to the cave overlooking the lake.

When he arrived it was almost dark and there was no sign of life. He called out softly so as not to frighten the girl, “Hey, Gina…you here?”

There was no reply and so he advanced on the cave, this time calling more loudly and a second later he was rewarded by Gina, carrying the baby, dashing out to greet him, tears streaming down her face.

She ran into his arms and was almost hysterical, but finally after several minutes her sobs died down and holding her gently away from him, so he could see her face, he said softly,

”Hey sweetheart, what’s all this about?”

“I…I’ve been so scared,” she whispered. “I had to get away Jess, get the baby away, thought I’d be safe up here, just until he’d gone….but I’ve been so frightened. There were strange noises and I felt like there was someone watching me…oh I am so glad to see you,” she finished standing looking up at him, shaking violently.

He rubbed her arm gently. “Hey, you’re freezing. Why didn’t you set a camp fire? “

“Don’t know how,” she said quietly.

He shook his head in disbelief. “OK. I’ll get some wood,” he said in a resigned voice. “Guess we had better stay here tonight and you can fill me in on everything once we’ve got you and little Rosie warmed up some.”

Mrs. Brown, Tommy and Charlie’s Ma had been remarkably fast thinking and had supplied Jess with a gunny sack containing some trail grub, a large bottle of milk for Rosie, coffee and an extra bedroll. “I felt she wasn’t herself today,” Mrs. Brown had said sadly, “like she’d got something on her mind, but she said she was just tired. You will find her won’t you, Jess?”

“Sure, I will, Ma’am,” Jess had replied looking more cheerful than he felt.

*****

Now they were sitting around a blazing fire and having eaten the meal Jess had provided, they were sipping their coffee, gazing deeply into the flames that were casting flickering shadows around the cave walls. Jess had brought his saddle up after he had tended to his horse and now the baby was resting against the upturned saddle, wrapped in Jess’s jacket for extra warmth and sleeping soundly.

“Well then,” asked Jess, “Goin’ to tell me what this is all about? And it better be good, Gina; you really were crazy putting little Rosie at risk this way.”

She looked startled “Risk… I didn’t mean to Jess…”

“Meant to or not, you still did,” he said harshly. “Have you any idea how cold it gets at night sleeping out in the big open? Then there is the wildlife, rattlers, even the odd renegade wolf… Hell, do you want me to go on?”

“No…no and I’m sorry; I was just desperate to get away…”

“Away from who…me?” he asked softly.

She gave him a puzzled look before replying, “No, not you. The Superintendent. He’s coming for Rosie, Jess, he’s coming to take my baby away.”

Jess looked shocked and sat for a moment absorbing the information “But why…why should he want to do that?”

“Because after Rosie was born I was sick for a few days…out of it, really not myself. I remember they kept badgering me to sign her away, to offer her for adoption, which is what Ma, and Pa wanted…but I refused to sign, Jess.”

“Well that’s it then. They can’t do anything can they?”

“You don’t understand. The Superintendent signed a statement saying I was mentally unstable, couldn’t care for a child, didn’t know what was best for my own baby and so he got my parents to sign the adoption agreement on my behalf. Pa had paid him off Jess, I’m sure of it.”

“That ain’t right. Can’t be legal surely?”

“I don’t know, didn’t wait to find out. I’d got friendly with one of the nurses. She tipped me off that a couple were coming to adopt my baby; she helped me escape Jess. That’s why I left Rosie at the ranch; I had to be sure they didn’t find her.”

He shook his head sadly. “And you’re still running now.”

She nodded. “Daisy had the bedroom window open last night and I couldn’t sleep, then I heard Mort ride in….heard everything he said to you.”

Jess flushed remembering how Mort had been teasing him about his love life.

Gina gave him a quizzical look before she went on. “As soon as you and Slim had retired for the night I got up and packed a bag with clothes and food for us both, then the ideal opportunity came along when Mike wanted a lift. Thought I’d  hang out here until the coast was clear,” she finished sadly.

He shook his head. “Oh no, we’re goin’ back come morning.”

“Jess!”

“It’s the only thing we can do, Gina, face it full on. Slim has a good family solicitor; he’ll speak for you. There ain’t a court of law in the land that would take a baby from their mother…unless she couldn’t care for it maybe. Don’t you see, bringing her up here to the cave…well they might see that as you bein’ feckless, not caring for her properly. We have to go back, Gina, and I’ll stand by you,” he finished softly, giving her his shy smile.

She looked back at him still uncertain. Well, I don’t know… “

“Sure, you do, it’ll be fine,” he said firmly, “and if you’re thinkin’ of taking off as soon as I’m asleep , well, forget it, ‘cos I sleep with one eye open,” he finished, now grinning over at her.

She finally returned his smile. “OK you win.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while and then she glanced across at him. “So why did you think I had left because of you?” she asked.

“Dunno, thought maybe the way I kissed you. Then hearing all that nonsense Mort was sayin’ about me and the ladies….well I thought maybe, you didn’t wanna be around me anymore, decided to head back to Laramie at the first opportunity, but didn’t like to say why,” he finished quietly.

She sat up straight from where she had been leaning back against the cave wall, and looked him in the eye. “How could you ever think that,” she said, more loudly than she had meant, then seeing she had disturbed the baby continued more softly, “It’s just the opposite, Jess; I want to be with you. You’ve no idea how pleased I was to see that it was you who had come to find me….”

He said nothing, just looked down, with an expression on his face that she couldn’t fathom.

“Jess?”

“I… I don’t know what to say, Gina. I like you, sure I do…I… but, well I figure you still have unfinished business with Edward and I ain’t gonna make a move on you until that is resolved.”

“Like I said before, he’s not here and you are. Surely he’d have done something by now if he really cared,” she said with spirit.

“Gina, he doesn’t even know about the baby. Don’t you think he deserves to have the chance to take on the responsibility?”

“Meaning, you don’t want it?”

“That’s not what I said, or what I meant either. Hell, I figure I’ve shown I would be happy to take on the little one. I’ve looked out for her good  so far, ain’t I? “

She looked down, tears springing to her eyes. “Yes, yes you have been wonderful with her… and I can never thank you enough. I’m sorry, Jess; I just feel so scared and mixed up.”

“That’s why I don’t want you to rush into a relationship with me right now, you understand?”

She just nodded, refusing to look at him.

He reached over and tipped up her chin, so that she had to look deep into his intense blue eye. “Gina?”

She gave him a small smile.

“That’s better. Now shall we get some shut eye? It’s gonna be a long hard day tomorrow.”

He threw some more logs on the fire and they spread their bedrolls out and they lay down as close to the warming flames as they could. It was quite cold and damp in the cave and after a few minutes, Jess got up and checked on the baby again and satisfied she was warm and sleeping peacefully he settled back down.

“You warm enough Gina?” he said after a little while.

There was no response, so he looked over and could see she was shivering, but after a minute the muffled reply came, “I’m OK.”

“No you ain’t,” he said and getting up, he took his blanket and spread it over her.

She looked up in surprise. “I’m OK really, Jess, you’ll be cold.” Then after a moment she said softly, “Why don’t you come under here too? We can keep each other warm.”

He hesitated for a minute, looking down at her, his expression difficult to make out in the dim light from the fire, then , “OK,” he said and laying down beside her he pulled the blanket over them both and then turning towards her drew her close, encircling her with his arms. He sighed deeply, and then whispered, “That better?”

She snuggled closer. “Much better,” she replied softly.

*****

The following morning when she awoke, Jess had gone.

The baby crying for her early morning feed had woken her, so she tended to the child and then went to the cave entrance and looked out at the beautiful dawn of a perfect summer’s day.

Placing the baby in her little Moses basket, she carried her down to the lake, where she guessed Jess would be.

He had awoken at first light and had made his way down to the lake to check on the horses, and then he had stripped off and taken a leisurely bath in the cool waters before lying on a rock in the sun to dry off. Then he had replaced his denims and gun belt, but not his shirt and as Gina approached, he was standing looking out to the horizon, enjoying the sunrise.

At her approach, he turned quickly, his gun out of its holster in the blink of an eye.

 As soon as he saw who it was he returned it immediately, and walking over, he shook his head. “I’m so sorry, Gina. Guess it’s an automatic reaction when anyone walks soft around me; I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t…really,” she said, quickly gathering her wits, although the lightening speed with which he had drawn the gun had completely shocked her.

He smiled down at her and then reaching forwards he took her hand and said softly, “You OK this morning?”

She nodded and after a moment he leaned down and kissed her very tenderly.

Then he heard it, the sound of a pistol cocking and pushing Gina aside, looked into the faces of the Jackson brothers, standing just a few feet away, both with their guns aimed at the couple.

“Oh, very touchin’, Harper. So this is the latest little lady in your life…and complete with a readymade family too…or is the kid yours?”

“None of your goddamn business,” spat Jess, his hand hovering over his gun.

“Oh well I aim to make it my business; you see, if this pretty lady has feelings for you, well, guess she’d be mighty interested in your immediate future.”

Jess turned to Gina. “Take the baby and go back to the cave,” he said urgently. “Wait for me there.”

She turned to follow his instruction and the taller of the two brothers, Jed, who had been doing all the talking so far, said, “Hold it; don’t you go anywhere pretty little lady. You stay right there and watch the fun.”

Jess lurched forward, ignoring the gun aimed at his belly. “You hurt her and by God, you’ll regret it,” he growled.

Jed jerked the barrel of the gun hard into Jess’s ribs and he fell to his knees, groaning in pain.

Then Pete, the other Jackson, moved quickly forwards, and after removing Jess’s gun and throwing it to his brother, proceeded to tie Jess’ hands tightly behind his back, before dragging him to his feet.

“Now then, Harper,” Jed snarled, “you and me are gonna have some sport before I kill you, a little entertainment for the young lady here .See I remember what a good fist fighter you are, Harper, so just to even things up a bit, I’m gonna fight you, but you’ll have the slight handicap of not being able to hit me back,” he said laughing loud and long.

With that, he landed a hard blow to Jess’s jaw. He rode with the punch, his head snapping back, his blue eyes almost black with fury, a dribble of blood running down his chin from a cut lip.

Jed hit him again, harder this time, but Jess still remained standing, a defiant glint in his eye.

Obviously getting frustrated, Jed used all his strength to punch him hard in the guts and was rewarded by Jess falling to his knees and then he lay prostrate, sprawled on the rough ground, hitting his head, hard.

Pete ran forwards and hauled him up on his feet again and his brother continued to rain punches to Jess’s head and upper body as Pete held him tightly. Jess was in a bad way, the recent blow to the head when he fell, causing blood to stream down his face obscuring his vision and his breath coming in harsh bursts as he struggled to stay conscious.

Suddenly Gina screamed and ran forwards. “Stop it, for God’s sake, stop it; you’ll kill him.”

Jed turned a cruel grin on her. “We’ll that’s exactly what he aim to do, little lady.”

Tears were streaming down her face now and she pleaded with them to stop again.

Jess, who was only still upright because of Pete’s firm grip, shook his head violently to try and clear it and looking over at Gina said, “It’s alright, I’m OK.”

“Sure you are,” snarled Jed, throwing another punch at Jess’s belly and this time Pete loosed his grip so Jess fell to the ground, where Pete then started kicking him hard in the chest and belly.

After what seemed like a life time to Gina, they finally stopped and, leaving Jess where he lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground, they advanced on her.

“So,” said Jed, “you’re with Harper, are you?”

She said nothing just stared at him, mesmerized, hardly daring to breathe.

“Figure you should know a few things about him,” he continued. “First off, he’s no good lying scum who can’t be trusted. Time was he rode with the best of ‘em, shot his way outta trouble, wasn’t too fussy about which side of the law he was on. But, well the boy has changed, too good for the likes of us now. Thinks he’s a damn rancher, even deputizes for the Sheriff, so figure it‘s time he was cut down to size.”

Jed paused for breath, and removing a small bottle from his vest pocket, pulled the cork out with his teeth and spat in at her feet before taking a swig and offering it to her. The stink of whiskey made her gag and she just shook her head, before he passed it over to his brother.

“Figure you’ll regret not having a drop to take the edge off things,” he said in a frighteningly quiet voice. “See you’re gonna experience something, well, kinda upsetting, especially if you an’ Harper there, are close…and if I know ol’ Jess, guess you’re real close, know what I mean, honey,” he slurred, his filthy face inches from her terrified one, giving her a suggestive wink. “Well, guess it’s time he paid for what he done in killing our little cousin, brother,” he said to Pete. “Wake him up.”

Pete brought a canteen over from his saddle and poured the contents over Jess’s head and Jess came around, spluttering and swearing.

“Easy there Jess boy, ladies present,” said Jed with a sickly grin.

“So, I’m gonna give you the opportunity to apologize for shootin’ down our cousin, before you meet your maker, “said Jed.

“Your cousin was a murdering bastard who gunned down an innocent woman and her six year old daughter and if I had the chance, I’d have made it a lot worse for him than a clean bullet through the heart.” Jess spat. “And you’ll rot in Hell before you get any kinda apology from me.”

“If that’s the way you want it, Harper, guess we’d better get this thing over with. Figure I’ve got some business to attend to with this young lady here once you’re dispatched, show her what a real man is like,” he finished with a sickening leer.

Jess was incandescent with rage and launched himself at Jed, but Pete was too quick for him and in his already weakened and battered state, he was comparatively easy to restrain, even though he struggled valiantly.

“So still got some fight in you; we’ll see about that,” Pete said, giving him another blow to the stomach, which winded him and then a vicious back hander to the face which knocked him unconscious again.

“OK enough,” said Jed roughly,” put his gun back in the holster, Pete, and untie his hands; never let it be said I didn’t give him a fair chance.”

At that Gina could contain herself no more. “A fair chance, against the two of you, with him hardly able to see or stand?”

“Fiery little thing, ain’t you,” snarled Jed. “Now shut up. Told you, I’ll deal with you later.”

Once more Pete doused Jess with water and Jess gradually started to come around.

Pete grabbed him and set him on his feet and Jed walked over, and pushed his face into Jess’. “Now listen good, boy, I’m a givin’ you a fair chance; you got your iron back and you can use it…I’m talkin’ about a fair shoot out here.”

Jess swayed on his feet, the blood still running down his face. He angrily wiped at it with one hand. “Oh yeah, real good of you, I really appreciate that,” he said sarcastically.” So I get to shoot the two of you do I?”

“That’s about the size of it, Jess boy, but then you’re such a fast gun, guess you shouldn’t have a problem…no siree, no problem at all,” he finished as he backed away, his eyes narrowing, his hand hovering over his gun.

His brother Pete, who had as yet said nothing, also backed off and was to Jess’s left, looking anxious, his weak eyes flicking from his older brother to Jess and back.

Jess turned to look at Pete now and said, “Ain’t heard much from you, Pete; you happy to commit murder, or are you just goin’ along with big brother as usual?”

The younger man looked down and then back at Jess, “Ain’t murder; you got a fair chance like ol’ Jed says there.”

Jess squinted across at him trying desperately to focus. “See sense for once in your life, Pete,” he said quietly. “It’s him as will hang. He murdered the other two in the bank; you just minded the horses. Get out of this while you still can.”

Pete shook his head sorrowfully. “Can’t do that Jess,” he said.

Jess gave a deep sigh. “OK come on then, when you’re ready, Jed. Let’s finish this.”

Jed stared steadily for a full minute before drawing and firing.

Jess felt a searing pain and knew he had been shot in the shoulder, but still managed to return the fire, killing Jed instantly with a clean shot through the heart.

Then he felt a second shot pierce his side from Pete’s gun, but as he fell, he rolled and emptied his chamber in the direction of Pete, the barrage of shots finding their mark and killing the outlaw instantly.

After the gun shots, there was total silence the smell of cordite and smoke in the air, then the silence was broken by the baby’s whimpers and Gina screaming.

She ran over to Jess throwing herself down beside his limp body and gently turning him over she saw the blood seeping from his shoulder and side and his deathly white face and assuming he was dead, cradled him in her arms rocking him and weeping.

A few minutes later, she heard the sound of horses approaching and terrified that it might be another member of the gang she sprinted towards the Moses basket and she about to run to the safety of the cave with her baby when two riders came into view and to her immense relief, she recognized Slim’s tall figure on Alamo, followed closely by the Sheriff.

“Oh thank God,” she cried,

Slim leapt from the saddle and then running towards her he stopped in his tracks as he saw Jess lying deathly still, the bodies of the other two gun men prone and obviously dead.

Gina ran over to where Slim was standing staring at Jess and grabbing hold of the blond rancher’s arm said, “Slim, he’s dead,” and started to weep again uncontrollably.

Mort, who had checked on the dead outlaws now walked over and he and Slim knelt down by Jess a look of anguish on both their faces.

Mort was the first to pull himself together and he leaned down and checked the pulse at Jess’s neck, suddenly his face transformed as he said urgently, “There is a pulse, Slim, not much, but he sure ain’t gone yet.”

Both men immediately sprang into action, staunching the bleeding and washing the blood from his face and body with cool water from the lake.

Slim then took a good look at the wounds. “The one in his side is fine; bullet went straight through”, he said looking across at where Mort was hunkered down on the opposite side of  Jess. “But this one in the shoulder, we’re gonna have to take the bullet out before we risk moving him I guess Mort.”

All this time Gina had been standing over them, an anxious look on her face, but at Slim’s words, there was a shocked intake of breath from her before she said, “What, operate out here in the wilderness, with no instruments or anesthetic? You can’t mean it Slim?”

Slim looked up and gave her a sympathetic look. That’s just what I do mean, Gina…else we’ll lose him.”

She said nothing, but her hand shot up to her mouth to stifle a sob and tears welled up in her eyes.

“Guess we have to do things kind of  differently here than back East,” Slim said apologetically, then more firmly, “We’re going to need your help, Gina. There are bandages and stuff in my saddle bag. Can you get them please.”

Happy to make herself useful, she ran off to obey him and Mort and Slim exchanged looks. “Think he’s got a chance?” asked Mort.

Slim just shrugged. “You know Jess; he’ll fight with his last ounce of strength, but…” He just looked down at the battered, bloody body of his best friend and shook his head sadly unable to finish.

While Gina fetched the things Slim needed, Mort set about building up a fire and shortly afterwards they moved Jess gently onto his bedroll and made him as comfortable as possible before the painful procedure of digging out the bullet commenced.

Jess had been drifting in and out of consciousness, then suddenly his blue eyes opened wide and he focused properly on Slim for the first time, then he tried to speak, but just ended up coughing violently.

“Take it easy, buddy,” said Slim, lifting his head and offering some water from the canteen.

After a couple of swallows Jess waved it away and then croaked, “Gina….Rosie…? “

“Both fine, they’re here,” Slim said pointing behind him with his thumb. “Now quit talking, Jess; we’ve got to get this slug out, so just hold on, OK,. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

With Mort holding his shoulders down firmly, Slim probed for the bullet and Jess did his best to keep from moving, while Gina looked on aghast.

After a few minutes Mort offered Jess a swig of whiskey from the medical supplies Slim had brought and he drank it gratefully, knowing it would take the edge of the pain.

Jess was sweating profusely now, his eyes closed and his mouth in a tight line against the pain from the knife, as Slim dug deeper and deeper after the elusive bullet.

It was obvious Jess could take little more; he was deathly pale and his breathing labored, when at last Slim gave a huge sigh of relief and he finally held the offending item up for the others to see.

Gina suddenly realized she had been holding her breath and let it go, relief flooding through her, but the ordeal wasn’t over yet.

Mort had to pour some of the spirit into the open wound to clean it, making Jess buck and cry out. Then Slim covered it with a clean bandage and applied pressure to try and stop the bleeding. He too, now had sweat pouring down his face and he looked decidedly ill as he knelt beside his buddy.

After a moment Gina sank down beside him. “Let me take over. Slim Have a break; you look awful,” she said quietly.

He nodded his thanks and stood up as she took his place, holding the wad of bandages firmly over the bullet hole.

After a minute Jess’s eyes flickered open again and he whispered,” You OK, sweetheart? He didn’t hurt you when I was out of it?”

“No I’m fine really. Hush now, don’t try to talk.”

Jess’ head dropped back and his eyes closed again and he lay still, hardly breathing.

“Slim?” Gina called urgently.

Slim got up from where he had been sitting on a log by the lake, his head in his hands, exhausted from the recent ordeal.

Walking over he knelt down by his buddy and felt for the pulse in his neck. “He’s OK, just very deeply asleep, best thing I guess.” Then he lifted the blood sodden pad from the wound. “Looks like the bleeding has almost stopped,” he said, “thank God.”

Mort came over from where he had been tying the dead outlaws onto their horses. “Guess the best thing I can do now is head back with the bodies and escort Gina to the ranch.” Then glancing down at Jess, “No way he’s gonna sit a horse anytime soon. Shall I get Miss Daisy to drive out with the buckboard, then I can ask the doc to meet you at the ranch?”

“That would be just fine, thanks Mort.”

Gina looked upset, a protective hand on Jess’s chest. “I don’t want to leave him,” she said tearfully.

“Have to,” said Slim firmly. “You can’t leave Rosie out here much longer, she’ll get sick. Gets mighty hot out here in the day and far too cold for her at night, and besides with Daisy driving out we need someone back at the ranch to look out for Mike and explain everything to Mose when he drives the stage in…please, Gina.”

“Yes, you are right of course,” she said, and leaning over Jess, kissed him very tenderly on his forehead before rising and going to collect her belongings.

Slim and Mort exchanged a grin and Slim shook his head and said quietly, “Beats me how he does it, Mort.”

The older man grinned back. “Told me once it was all in the kissin’,” he said, with a chuckle.

After the others had left, Slim threw some more logs on the fire as it was still quite early and the air crisp and cool and then he settled down next to Jess and watched his slow rhythmical breathing, waiting patiently for him to wake up again.

After about an hour, Jess’ eyes flickered and opened and he stared around him for a minute before his gaze finally settled on Slim.

“How are you feeling buddy?”

“Been better, any water?” Jess whispered.

Slim helped support his head and offered the canteen, then Jess rested back again. “Thanks”.

“Mort and Gina have gone back, sending Daisy out with the buckboard for you.”

He nodded.

“Looks like they gave you a rough time. Jess. They beat you up before the shoot out?”

“Yeah, caught me on the hop, tied my hands, then…well, you can see.”

Slim nodded gravely. “Looks like a couple of busted ribs, then guess the rest of you is more bruising than skin, but you’ll be OK in time. Going to have to give it some time you know, though, Jess,” he said firmly.

“Guess so.”

“So what happened between you and Gina? You seem mighty close today.”

Jess just shook his head. “Aw, Slim… “

Slim knew Jess would never discuss his conquests, but he was really interested;  after all, this was Daisy’s niece.

So he tried again. “Well, think you might make a go of it together?” he asked a speculative look in his eye.

Jess took a deep breath and closed his eyes and he was silent for so long that Slim thought he had drifted off to sleep. Then he opened his eyes again and looking up at Slim said quietly. “Guess not; figure this whole sorry business has really frightened her.”

“Well, it would do, but that’s no reason not to see you…”

“Sure it is. Come on, Slim, this ain’t just a one off. You and me are always getting beat up or shot at, you know that, and as long as we live here, lead this kinda life, it’s gonna carry on this way.”

“Well, she sure seems pretty stuck on you right now, didn’t want to leave you, and kissed you before she went.”

Jess allowed himself a brief smile at that, then continued, “Young girls are like that, Slim; get carried away by the moment, but once she’s had time to think it through, well, I figure she’ll think  being a banker’s wife back east is a much better proposition. Guess it makes sense to marry someone you’re pretty sure ain’t gonna end up dead before their time.”

Slim looked shocked. “Is that what you think, you’re going to die before your time? “

“Sure,” he said softly,” always have.”

“But things have changed Jess, you’re not on the drift anymore, not living by your gun. You’re safe now, buddy; you have a good long life ahead.”

Jess gave him a weak smile. “Just look at me, Slim. Are you sure of that?”

Slim couldn’t say anything, just squeezed his friend’s shoulder and then said softly, “You made it though, that’s, the main thing.” Then more firmly, “Now quit your philosophizing and get some sleep.”

“Huh?”

“Thinkin’… stop your thinkin’, Jess. Just rest that brain of yours, OK?”

Jess gave him a small smile, getting the joke. “OK Slim ,” he said and fell asleep, almost at once.

He was still sleeping when Slim heard the buckboard rattling down the track and leaping up he went to greet Daisy. She looked concerned and as he helped her down he kept hold of her hands and said,” I think you should prepare yourself, Daisy; he’s in a bad way. The Jacksons worked him over some.”

She nodded and taking a deep breath walked over to where Jess lay beside the fire at the lakeside, his head resting on his upturned saddle, for a pillow, a blanket covering him.

She knelt down beside him and gently brushing his hair from his forehead she  rested her hand there for a moment ,checking  for signs of fever, before saying softly, “Poor boy”.

Then she lifted the blanket away and saw the dark bruising to his still naked chest and the binding around his ribs and the gunshot wound and nodded at Slim kindly. “Looks like you did a good job patching him up, dear.”

“Mort and Gina helped,” he said looking down at the elderly woman.

“Gina was in a terrible state when she arrived back,” she said. “I didn’t have time to ask her about running off; I will have a long chat when we get back. Anyway, our first priority is this young man,” she said her eyes returning to Jess’s bruised and battered body.

After a few minutes Jess woke up again and seeing Daisy’s kind face smiling down at him he felt a massive lump in his throat. “Daisy?” he whispered.

“You’ll be fine now dear, just try and relax,” she said softly.

Slim made preparations for the return journey and noticing fresh hay had been placed in the buckboard to make the ride more comfortable ,he put a bedroll  over it and then came back and looking down said, “Where’s your shirt, Jess?”

He looked bewildered for a moment and then gestured over to the rock where he had dried off after his early morning bathe.

Slim fetched it and helped him put it on and then lifted him and carried him to the buckboard, ignoring his protests that he could walk,  and made him as comfortable as he could before, helping Daisy up onto the box. Then he hitched their mounts up behind and finally jumped up next to Daisy and slowly started the journey home.

 When they arrived back at the ranch, Doc Sam was already waiting for them and Jess was carried by the Doc and Slim to his bed where the Doctor made a full examination stitched the wounds and re dressed them.

After a while he returned to the main room and sat down at the table with Slim, Daisy and Gina and after accepting a coffee, took a welcome sip and then sat back in his chair a thoughtful look on his face.

“Sam?” Said Slim with a look of concern, “Jess will be OK?”

He paused for a moment, before smiling across at his friend. “Oh yes, I think so, but you must keep him quiet for a few days, in bed for a week and then light duties. You need to watch out for infection, Daisy, but on the whole you did a pretty good job, Slim. Have to watch my back; you’ll be after my job,” he grinned.

A little while later, Sam said he must be off and Slim went to show him out. The two men stood on the porch and as Sam turned to go Slim called him back and asked him to sit down for a moment.

The doctor did as asked and Slim said quietly, “There is something you’re not telling me Sam. Is it Jess? Is he real sick and he’s asked you to say nothing? “

Sam looked down and then back at his friend. “No,” he said, “nothing like that. He is sick,, Slim, no denying that — gunshot wounds, two broken ribs, multiple bruises and abrasions, he’s in a bad way that’s for sure, but he will be OK as long as he rests, takes it real easy…and nothing upsets him.”

“And you think something is…going to upset him, that is?” Slim asked.

Sam was quiet for a moment, “Well that’s what I was pondering about just now,” he said, “but I didn’t say anything….patient confidentiality, you know.”

“Just spit it out will you, Sam?”

“Well OK, guess she’s almost family anyway,” he said. “It’s Gina, all this business about a visit from the Superintendent, well I had a wire from him too and it turns out that her parents signed an adoption agreement with the Mother and Baby home. Gina told me all about it while we were waiting for you. Thing is, she’s told Jess too. The Superintendent will be here in a few days and I’m real worried Jess will want to get involved, fight Gina’s corner…and well, he mustn’t, Slim. If he gets mad or worse, starts debating the matter with his fists, well, he could do untold damage to himself. You have got to keep him out of it all.”

“Sure, I’ll make certain he doesn’t know anything about it. Tell him the visits been cancelled or something, and I’ll get old Benson, our family solicitor, on the case too.”

“Right you are Slim, that sounds fine, but just make sure Gina doesn’t say anything. She seems a bit….well a bit dependant on Jess? Very close to him anyway. Are they…you know?”

“Search me,” replied Slim. “You know how discreet Jess can be about that kinda thing, if he’s a mind to, but they seem pretty close right now.”

Sam got up to go. “Any change in his condition, just call me out,” he said, and shaking hands he left.

***** 

Later that evening, Daisy was sitting by the fire enjoying a last cup of coffee before turning in and for once she was on her own. Jess had taken the pain killing medicine left by Doc Sam and had been out for the count since supper, Slim and Gina had both opted for an early night after their trying day and Mike had been dreaming away for hours.

 Daisy turned as her bedroom door opened and Gina ran out looking distressed, a shawl thrown around her thin nightdress.

“Why whatever is the matter, dear?” she asked seeing the girl’s pale, tearful face.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, aunt, but I had a terrible nightmare. Do you mind if I sit up with you for a while?”

“Of course not, dear, come and sit here,” she said relinquishing Jess’s rocker near the fire, and with that she bustled off to heat up some milk for the young girl. On her return she perched on the nearby couch with her coffee and said gently, “Do you want to tell me about it Gina?”

The girl had been looking sadly into the flames, sipping her warm drink, but now she dragged her gaze away and said, “Oh auntie, it was awful. I kept seeing that dreadful man kicking and kicking Jess and then he turned to me and said, ‘he’s dead and now it’s the turn of your baby’…and he walked towards Rosie and I was trying and trying to run and help her but my legs wouldn’t work…I couldn’t move….” Then she hid her face in her hands and started crying again.

Daisy came to her side at once and threw a comforting arm around her. “There, there dear, it’s over and you are all safe now.”

After a while the girl calmed down and turning her tear stained face to her aunt said, ”He really is alright, isn’t he, auntie? Have you checked?”

Daisy took the girls hand and leading her to the room Slim and Jess shared, she quietly opened the door. and putting a finger to her lips, entered softly.

They tip toed past Slim’s bed and went and stood by Jess’, Gina looking down in fear. Daisy ran a cool hand across his forehead and pulled the blanket up, where he had restlessly pushed it off, and then gestured for Gina to leave with her.

Once they had resumed their seats, Daisy smiled over at her niece. “he’s absolutely fine. No sign of fever and breathing well, so there is nothing at all to worry about dear.”

Gina gave a huge sigh of relief. “Thank you, aunt Daisy. I expect you think I’m being silly.”

“Not at all, dear, I think you have maybe grown very fond of Jess over these last few weeks?”

“I think I love him aunt….but I am so confused. I still think of Edward too. He meant the world to me, but where is he, aunt, where is he?”

“I don’t know dear, but I really think you need to see him before you even think of committing to anyone else, tell him about the baby; he deserves to be told.”

“I know; that’s what Jess said.”

“Well, he is talking sense then and Gina, maybe you shouldn’t…well, encourage Jess until you are sure of your feelings for him. I really don’t want to see him hurt.”

She hung her head. “Yes, I know, I…well, I kissed him a while back and he said the same,

 ‘don’t mess with me if you don’t meant it’,” she said in a passable impression of Jess, and both women exchanged a little smile.

“He’s got a point,” said Daisy.

“Yes I know, but I am so attracted to him, he’s so different from Edward, so wild and dangerous, so exciting, auntie….but I love Edward too, for his quiet safe, caring ways; both so different,” she finished shaking her head in wonder. “Then last night, he was so loving…. we got so…so close, and then this morning that terrible thing happened and I’m scared auntie, scared to love him, in case I don’t have him for long. The way he lives his life …it’s all so scary, so unpredictable. I don’t think I could bear it…waiting at home, never knowing if he was dead or alive, what state he would land home in, beaten or shot…or worse…it must be awful. How do you stand it, aunt? You said you love Jess and Slim like your own kin…how do you stand it?”

Daisy gave a deep sigh. “Well, it is just part of my life here dear and I have had to adapt to it. It is so very different from what we were used to back east. But you learn in time. And then I just have to put my faith in the boys, they can look after themselves and then when the bad things happen, well, I just put my faith in the good Lord and patch ‘em up as well as I can…”

“You are so brave, aunt Daisy,” the girl whispered. “I wish I could be more like you.”

“I’m not brave, dear; I just deal with these things because I have no choice, I am part of the life here now and I couldn’t change.” Then looking seriously at her niece, “But you do have a choice, Gina; you can choose to try and make a life here or you can go back east, maybe find Edward, or start a fresh. But whatever you do, dear. you must be absolutely sure it is right for you and Rosie. You have that little one to consider too now.”

The girl nodded. “Yes I know and the first thing is to face the Superintendent and make sure I can keep Rosie. That’s what I must think of right now and at least we should find out soon.”

 But it wasn’t to be. When Sam rode by later in the week to check on Jess, he said he had received another wire from the Home, saying the Superintendent would not be visiting for a while due to unforeseen circumstances.

“What on earth can that mean, Slim?” Gina asked when they discussed it later.

“Beats me, at least we don’t have to lie about it to Jess,” he said with a relieved grin. “Guess we know each other too well; he always knows when I’m lying and vice versa.”

She smiled across at him. “You know Jess real well, don’t you?” she said softly.

“As well as anyone can know him, more than most, yeah,” he agreed.

“Do you know what he thinks about me? “

“Hasn’t he told you?” asked Slim, playing for time.

“Not as such. We’ve become … well…., we’ve become real close, but no he hasn’t really made his intentions clear,” she said giving Slim a quizzical look.

“Then guess you need to speak to him,” said Slim, “but figure I should leave it a while; he’s still real sick, Gina, needs to rest up , you know? “

“Yes of course,” she replied quietly.

Gina was still staying with them at the ranch after her ordeal, as word had been sent that Miss Mollie had closed the café for a while as her Ma was real sick in Denver and she had gone to stay with her for a little while.

Daisy was glad of the young girl’s continued presence as she was an invaluable extra pair of hands with Jess laid up, plus she loved the company and that of little Rosie too.

Gina in turn was delighted to have the opportunity to stay at the ranch and spent as much time as she could care for Jess and generally helping her aunt around the place.

Towards the end of the first week it was obvious Jess’s patience was running out and he wanted to be up and about again. Never a good patient he had made a huge effort with Gina being around to behave himself, but now he had reached the end of his tether and the full force of the Harper temper could be heard all over the house as he remonstrated with Slim.

“Garldarn it, Slim, I’ve been laying here for a week now and I swear I’ll go plumb  crazy if I don’t get some fresh air and exercise soon. Hell, I’m as weak as a kitten. I need some decent steak, instead of all that goddamn broth and I need t get out. Come on, Slim, help a body out here,” he finished, giving his partner a pleading look.

“Down to the doc and Daisy,” replied Slim, smiling down at his wild eyed friend.

Then taking pity on him said,” tell you what, Sam is due by today, guess I’ll put in a good word for you….if…. “

“Aw, Slim, if what?”

“If you behave yourself once you’re up again.”

“Well, what’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jess flushing up.

“Oh, I think you know what I mean buddy.”

Jess said nothing, then after a minute,” Gina?”

“She doesn’t seem to know where she stands with you Jess, figure you need to square things with her….oh and Jess you’ve not forgotten she’s Daisy’s niece have you?”

“Sure I ain’t forgotten,” he replied angrily. “I ain’t gonna hurt her either. What do you take me for, Slim?”

Slim relented, “I know,” he said softly,” just take things easy yeah? “

“Yeah, alright Slim, now just you make sure you bust me outta here…OK?”

“OK buddy,” he said chuckling,” I’ll do my best.”

The following day Jess was allowed up for the first time and gained great pleasure from sitting out on the porch and  taking the air, but he was amazed and daunted at how quickly he tired. In true Harper fashion he refused to admit to this, as he saw it, weakness, and Slim had to practically frog march him to bed that evening though.

However as the days went on he started to regain his strength and he kept his promise to Slim about taking things real easy around Gina. In fact ever since the shooting he had treated her very much like a little sister and had made sure they were not left alone together.

Although Gina was delighted at his recovery she felt hurt and puzzled by his attitude and longed for just one little sign that he had deep feelings for her, but he continued to keep his distance and she just did her best not to show her frustration .

One morning about a week after Jess had first got up he started light duties around the ranch, although he was strictly forbidden from sitting a horse for another week or so. On this particular day Daisy asked him to accompany her to town to fetch some supplies. Little Rosie had a cold and so Gina opted to stay at home and look after her and so it was  just Daisy and Jess that set off after the morning Stage had left.

They had done their business and were on their way home, passing the lake, when Daisy asked if they could stop for a while and have a break in the glorious sunshine.

Jess quickly agreed and reining the team in, he helped Daisy down and they strolled over to a large fallen log by the lakeside and settled down companionably, surveyed the view of the tranquil waters.

 After a little while the elderly woman looked across at the dark haired rancher and said,

” Jess, can we talk?”

He smiled back at her. “Sure, Daisy, what’s on your mind?”

“It’s Gina…..”

“Oh…”

“Jess I don’t mean to pry , but she is my niece and well, talking to her, you seem to have got really…well really close and yet lately,  well you are very cool with her and I think she is feeling very confused by it all”.

Jess paused for a long time before looking over at Daisy and saying softly,” that’s the whole point Daisy,  she’s very young and very confused, I guess she has some feelings for me yes, but I reckon she’s got business to finish with Edward too. Heck Daisy, the guy deserves to know about Rosie and I figure she still loves him and they could make a go of things and I told her that. Said I wouldn’t make a move until she was sure it was over with him”

Daisy gave him a kindly look,” that is sensible dear,” and then looking puzzled, said softly,

” so if you feel that way, why did you lead her on Jess?”

“Huh? “

“The night you spent together at the lake when you…well when you became…so, close.”

“What? What has she told you, Daisy, that we are lovers, is that it? “

“Well, not in so many words, but she implied it yes.”

Jess looked down and shook his head, then  his honest blue eyes looked into Daisy’s and  he said,” that night it was real cold, she was shaking, so I went under the blanket with her held her close, then  we went to sleep. I’ve kissed her a few times, and that’s it Daisy, I told her I wouldn’t get involved until everything was sorted out with Edward and I meant it.”

Daisy gave a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, Jess; I’ve misjudged you and maybe read more into what Gina has said than she meant.”

 Then more quietly,” maybe I secretly wanted it to be true,” and looking deep into Jess’s eyes ,” nothing would make me happier than for you two to get together, you know that don’t you Jess?”

He just nodded and reaching over he squeezed her hand and soon afterwards they made their way back to the ranch.

That night, long after everyone had turned in, Jess was awoken by Rosie crying, he sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed, pausing for a moment, an ironic smile on his face, how is it I can sleep through a tornado, but little Rosie whimpers and I’m wide awake, he wondered in amazement. Then he remembered back to her first night with them and Slim had needed to shake him roughly to awaken him, but now it was second nature to him to wake to her cries, just like she was mine he thought forlornly.

Stopping only to pull on his denims and boots, he quietly opened the bedroom door and joined Gina in the main room. She was pacing back and forth, trying to pacify the crying child and as soon as she saw Jess she apologized profusely. “I’m so sorry, figure she’ll wake up the whole household in a minute,” she said.

“Give her to me,” Jess said softly and holding the baby close, he headed for the door, before turning back to Gina,” come on,” he said with his shy smile,” it’s real warm tonight, she’ll be fine out here for a while.”

The couple went out quietly and Jess paced around the yard for a while, rubbing the baby’s back and talking softly to her, before the child finally settled and he walked back to the porch and sat down on a chair next to Gina. He put the now sleeping baby up on his shoulder and relaxed back in the chair, his feet up on the rail and grinned across at Gina,” she’s fine now,” he said,” got the magic touch see.”

She smiled back,” you sure have, she was driving me crazy.”

Then reflectively, “It’s funny how you are so impatient, have such a short fuse, where most things are concerned, but with little Rosie there, you are so understanding and patient,” she said, shaking her head in wonder.

“Guess that’s ‘cos I really care about her,” he said softly.

“And me…do you care about me too Jess? “

“You know I do.”

“Well, you haven’t shown it much lately.”

He looked down at the baby’s downy head and then finally across at her. “I explained about that,” he said. “We ain’t goin’ anywhere until Edward knows he’s a father and he has a chance to do something about it.”

“But how can he, he doesn’t even know where to look for me, if indeed he’s been bothered to look,” she finished bitterly.

Jess was silent for a long while, and then he sighed deeply. “Guess I’ll just have to go and find him,” he said eventually.

“You’d do that for me?” she asked in a small voice.

“Have to, guess we all need to know where we stand.”

She nodded” yes, you are right.”

Then after a long silence he said, “why have you been making folk believe we are lovers Gina?”

She looked up, total shock on her face….” I never said…. “

“Maybe not, but you implied it, Daisy thought so and I guess Slim does too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said after awhile,” I guess I just wanted it to be true and I thought if everyone else thought we were together, then it would be easier for us later, if we really did decide to marry. Then the other night when we lay together, it felt so right, I wanted to make love…so much.”

“Do you think I didn’t?” he said angrily. “Hell, I’m only human, Gina. What man wouldn’t be tempted, but I told you how it was gonna be and I always keep my word.”

“Yes, I can see that now and I’m sorry if I put you in an embarrassing situation.”

He just shook his head. “You haven’t, forget it, and look Gina, as soon as I can ride again, early next week, I’ll go look for Edward and bring him back…OK?”

“OK…… Jess ………….thanks.”

He stood up, the baby still on his shoulder and walking back into the house he laid her gently on the old couch by the door, before turning to Gina and taking her in his arms.

She looked up into his deep blue eyes and saw a look of such love and tenderness she caught her breath.

“Whatever happens,” he said very softly,” never forget that I do care for you, Gina, and I always will.” and with that he leaned down and kissed her very tenderly before releasing her and after glancing down at the baby and then back at her beautiful mother, turned and disappeared back into his room.

*****

 The following day he was with Slim when the morning Stage rattled in. Jess greeted Mose and they exchanged the usual banter, while Slim opened the Stage door and helped the passengers alight.

Suddenly Jess’s attention was diverted from Mose as he heard a strained sound in his buddy’s voice and turning he was just in time to see Slim helping Lily, Gina’s Ma, down from the Stage closely followed by her Pa and a stranger that Jess presumed was the Superintendent.

Slim cast Jess a worried look, before ushering the visitors towards the ranch, then turning back said, “Can you change the team buddy?”

As Slim entered the ranch with the visitors, Daisy and Gina emerged from the kitchen bearing coffee and fresh biscuits and stopped in their tracks at the sight of their kin.

Daisy was the first to gather her wits, and said,” Lily, Jacob, what a surprise.”

“Yes, I’m sure it is, especially for Gina,” said Lily angrily,” so we track you down at last young lady.”

Then walking over to her looked down and said fiercely,” how dare you bring such disgrace on our family by coming out here, burdening Daisy with all our sinful troubles! “

“Now hold on a minute,” said Slim angrily,” Gina is my guest here and a very welcome one too, so please don’t adopt that tone. Daisy is a very good friend and any friends or family of hers are welcome here, but please know we all support Gina and really don’t judge her.”

“Well that just shows me what a totally un God fearing society you  are out West, Mr. Sherman,  and well, I appreciate you looking out for our girl, but I think we will be taking her back east with us shortly, just as soon as the adoption is sorted out.”

 Then turning to her sister and daughter she said, “This is Mr. Horace Bell, the Superintendent from the Home in Cheyenne and he has a lovely couple just dying to take on little …well the little baby,” she finished.

“Ma, you don’t even remember her name and I don’t care what you and this…Mr. Bell have organized. Rosie is my baby and I’m keeping her.”

“I would beg to differ with you my dear lady,” said Mr. Bell in a smarmy voice. “If I am not mistaken I have a signature from your parents offering the child up for adoption and I really think……”

“That isn’t legal Bell, and you know it,” broke in Slim angrily,” and the baby is going nowhere until my solicitor has studied the document.”

“Just as you like, Mr. Sherman,” said the Superintendent looking somewhat abashed. “I will wait in town for your instructions.” he said turning to Jacob, and with that returned to the Stage coach.

 At that moment Jess put his head round the door,” Stage is going,” he said looking pointedly at Gina’s folks.

Lily looked from Slim to Daisy and back again, waiting for an invitation and after a few seconds Slim and Daisy exchanged resigned looks and Slim said quietly,” you are welcome to take my room, for the time being, Jess and I will move out to the bunk house.”

Jess just stared open mouthed, but said nothing and after a few minutes went and started packing his stuff up to move out.

 Slim joined him after a while and said,” Sorry buddy, what could I do?”

“Yeah, I know, let’s just hope it ain’t for too long,” replied Jess.

“I’m with you on that,” said Slim grinning across as he hitched a bag containing his clothes on his shoulder”, sooner they are on their way happier I’ll be!”

When the family sat down to supper later, Lily seemed to find fault with everything, from the way Gina left the table to tend to the baby, “you’ll spoil that child let her cry herself to sleep”, to Mike’s enthusiastic comments on a recent fishing trip, “children should be seen and not heard.”

At this last comment Jess, who had remained silent and taciturn throughout the meal, opened his mouth to retaliate, but Slim, who was sitting next to him, shot a hand out under the table and pinched his knee, and then shook his head imperceptibly and Jess merely swallowed hard and said nothing.

By the time the pudding came around Jess could stand the company no longer and turning to Daisy he said quietly,” that was lovely, thank you Daisy,” and  casting an eye around the rest of the table he said, “excuse me please,” and with that left the room, heading out to the bunkhouse.

“Gee Slim, doesn’t Jess want any pie? It’s his favorite?” asked Mike in surprise.

“No Tiger, guess he’s kind of tired, he’s still not completely well yet you know,” he said softly to the child.

Lily snorted. “Just gone off to sulk more like. I don’t know why you keep on that surly hand Slim, I really don’t.”

Slim looked up, his face flushed with anger,” he’s not just a ranch hand, he’s my business partner and best friend and what’s more…”

Lily cut across him looking scandalized. “What? You’ve made that murdering, ex- gunslinger a business partner? Well, I don’t believe it! Why he doesn’t even pull his weight around here, you went off chasing those strays this afternoon and Jess just dawdled about the ranch, mending the odd fence, spent most of his time smoking and chatting to the boy there as far as I could see ,”she finished a look of self satisfied distain on her face.

Slim took a deep breath. “The reason he’s on light duties is because he is recovering from some life threatening gunshot wounds and… “

“Ha, I might have known it, gun fighting again you see,” then turning to Jacob,” it just isn’t safe out here with the likes of that Harper about.”

Gina who had been staring mesmerized at her mother suddenly found her voice,” he nearly got killed protecting me Ma, I lit off with the baby, when I heard the man from the home was coming, and Jess came and found me, even though he knew these men were after him.”

Lily looked abashed for a moment before collecting her wits,” well, he doubtless deserved it.”

“He killed their cousin,” piped up Mike with pride in his eyes.

“Well, there you are you see, he’s a no good murderer, like I said in the first place,” she said complacently, turning to smile at her husband again.

Slim looked at her and then said in a quiet menacing voice,” he killed their cousin because he was robbing the Laramie bank, the man had just gunned down an innocent woman and her young daughter, then he turned his gun on me, that’s when Jess shot him and if he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here right now to tell the tale.”

“Oh well that sounds very dramatic I’m sure, but I still think you are mad to go into business with him, I doubt he can be trusted.”

Suddenly Gina could bear it no longer, she stood up, tears in her eyes, “stop it Ma,” she shouted,” I love Jess, he’s a good man and I’d marry him tomorrow if he’d have me, “and with that fled to her room.

Lily’s eyes opened wide in shock and turning to her downtrodden husband said,” did you hear that Jacob…do something….at once.”

“Well, my dear, I don’t really think… I mean, well…… “

“Oh, stop dithering Jacob, if you won’t do anything I will,” and with that she stood up and made to leave the room.

“I really wouldn’t disturb Jess right now,” said Slim, seeing she was heading for the bunk house, but she completely ignored him and marched off.

Slim and Daisy exchanged a look, Daisy’s eyes twinkling,” guess she’s asked for it,”  said Slim very softly for her ears only.

“I would  love to be a little fly on the wall right now,” she whispered back,” I think my sister is just about to meet her match.”

Lily wrenched the door of the bunk house open and marched in just as Jess was undressing, his shirt hung open, but he was fully dressed otherwise and his head shot up at her dramatic entrance.

He gave her a cold look,” where I was brought up we were taught to knock on folks bedroom doors,” he said.

“Oh, don’t give me that rubbish,” she spat,” you were dragged up and we both know it, you are no good scum Jess Harper, now what is all this my daughter has been saying about marrying you?”

Jess threw her a resigned look and then sighing deeply said,” what’s she been saying now? “

“Just that, that she would marry you tomorrow.”

“Did she say I’d asked her? “

“Well…….well no.”

“Well there you are then, now if you’ll excuse me….”he said giving her a hard look.

“Oh no, I haven’t finished with you yet,” she said coming closer, “what have you been doing with my daughter …….have you seduced her?”

Jess was beginning to get angry now. “Look here, Ma’am, I’ve been real patient with you up to now, for Daisy’s sake, but well I’m very tired and pretty sick of your attitude.”

Then sighing deeply he continued. “No, I ain’t slept with your daughter, no I ain’t thinkin’ of askin’ her to marry me anytime soon and yes I’ll be headin’ out to round up old Edward next week so that she can decide what she wants to do. So the boy can have a chance of bringing up his daughter, the one you ain’t puttin’ up for adoption,” he finished triumphantly.

Then looking over at the woman, her mouth open, shock in her eyes, he said harshly,” I figure that just about covers everything don’t you….now if you’ll excuse me I want to get to bed,” and with that he started unbuckling his belt.

She stood rooted to the spot in shocked fascination.

Jess continued unbuckling his belt and then his hand hovered over the top button of his denims.

Suddenly she came to her senses and backed off,” well, I’ve never been so insulted in all my life!” she shouted as she turned to go.

“Oh, I very much doubt that Ma’am,” said Jess, politely as she ran from the room slamming the door behind her.

When she burst back into the ranch house she was an unbecoming shade of red and looking at the amassed company said,” that man is totally indecent. Come Jacob, we shall retire now and leave for Laramie on the first Stage out tomorrow, I can’t be anywhere near that dreadful man, he is positively dangerous,” and with that she swept from the room, Jacob following her.

Daisy and Slim exchanged amused looks.

“Gee, Slim, what do you suppose Jess has done?” asked Mike.

“Lord knows,” said Slim with feeling.

Then, “bed Mike,” and with that he went off to help Daisy with the dishes.

As soon as the coast was clear Gina crept from her room and ran over to the bunk house, bursting in without knocking such was her desire to escape from the ranch house and her mother and see Jess.

Jess was lying on one of the cots, wearing just his white under shorts and as she entered he hurriedly covered himself with a blanket.

“What is it with your family?” he said irritably. “Don’t any of you knock? “

She flushed up, prettily. “I’m sorry Jess; I just had to see you and apologize for Ma.

“No need,” he said quietly. “I guess your Ma and I understand each other now, we’ve kinda cleared the air some.”

She came over and he patted the edge of the cot for her to sit down.

There was a small table on which stood a night light casting a romantic amber glow, but otherwise the room was very austere.

“I’m sorry you are stuck out here,” she said giving him a sympathetic look,” at least it won’t be for long, Ma and Pa are moving to the hotel in Laramie tomorrow.”

He grinned up at her,” well that’s good news.”

She beamed back at him,” it sure is, how did you do it Jess? “

“Dunno, just told her how it was, you know?” he finished laconically.

“Well whatever you did you sure put the wind up her,” she finished with a little laugh.

Then looking down at Jess she suddenly sobered and leaning down kissed him tenderly.

He returned the kiss passionately, a hand caressing her hair, before he stopped and said in a voice husky with emotion,” guess you’d better turn in now sweetheart, I’ve resisted your charms once, don’t think I can do it again….and anyway…..”

“What?” she said pulling back so she could look him in the eye, noting the amused twinkle there.

“Well it would be so darn good to see your Ma’s face at breakfast if we did spend the night together. Guess it truly is tempting.”

“Jess Harper, Ma is right; you are downright dangerous,” she said with a wicked grin and bending over she kissed him again ardently.

At that moment the door flew open and Slim stood there.

 He immediately took in the situation and stopped dead in his tracks,” sorry Gina, thought you’d gone to bed,” he said in a shocked voice.

The couple had leapt apart at Slim’s entrance and now Gina quickly pulled herself together.

” Yes I was just going,” she said quickly and she jumped up from the bed and walked hastily across the room.

At the door she turned and cast Jess a loving look,” ‘night,” she said softly and turning left.

Slim closed the door behind her and padded softly across to Jess,” sorry buddy did I interrupt something?”

Jess gave him a cool look. “What do you think?”

“Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s OK. Probably came just at the right time. Things were getting a mite too interestin’ and I figure the girl don’t need any more complications in her life.”

“Is that how you see yourself as, a complication, Jess?”

“Sure, don’t you. Come on, Slim, it wouldn’t be easy being married to me. She’d be better off with Edward and we both know it.”

Slim stared down at his best friend,” I figure she couldn’t do any better than you Jess,” he said quietly, than with a twinkle ,” there is just one problem though…”

“Huh?”

“Well, look at your Ma-in-Law…”

“Aw, Slim, don’t,” he chuckled, before turning over and falling asleep within minutes.

*****

 

The following morning Gina’s parents were true to their word and headed out on the early morning Stage.

Jess had slept in and much to Lily’s relief didn’t appear at breakfast, but he had surfaced by the time the Stage rolled in. Lily, escorted by her hen pecked husband rushed to the vehicle, giving Jess a wide berth.

“Come along dear,” she said hurrying her husband along as Slim helped her aboard.

Jacob looked over to where Jess was standing a little way back watching the proceedings, a wary look in his eyes, and he mouthed,” sorry,” to the young cowboy.

Jess’s face split into a cheerful grin and he nodded in acknowledgement of the older man.

Then he climbed on board and Mose hustled the team out of the yard to a collective sigh of relief.

Jess turned to Daisy and with a twinkle said, “Is she really your sister Daisy?”

She gave him a rueful smile.

“Afraid so, she was terribly spoiled as a child you know and well, I guess Jacob took over where Pa left off. But she’s not happily married,” she said softly, “that’s why she is so horrible to poor Jacob, he’s given her everything, but nothing is ever enough.”

“Oh,” said Slim,” so why did she marry him?”

“Pa thought he was suitable after, well after the love of her life was killed.”

“Killed?”

“Yes, he was very charismatic, very charming, but a bit of a rogue…an exciting, dangerous man…”she finished looking off into space with unseeing eyes.

“Sounds a bit like Jess,” said Slim grinning. “Isn’t that what she said about him last night, downright dangerous?”

Daisy beamed at him,” so she did, well I never, maybe ….. “

Jess butted in then, seeing the way the conversation was going and not liking it, “so how was he killed?” he asked.

“Shot down in a gun fight, he was a professional gambler,” she finished sadly.

“Well, I’ll be…..” said Jess softly, “old holier than thou, dating a gambler….”

“Aw Jess, hush,” said Daisy laughing,” come on in and I’ll see if I can find you some breakfast,” she continued smiling up at him and linking his arm they walked back into the house.

It was the following day that word came from Mr. Benson, the Sherman family solicitor, that a meeting had been arranged at his office at the end of the week with Gina’s parents and the Superintendent and requesting the attendance of Daisy, Slim and Jess.

“Why me?” asked Jess in surprise. “I ain’t nothin’ to do with this sorry business.”

Slim secretly  agreed and would have found the whole palaver less stressful if Jess were not to attend, as he knew he would have to spend all his time trying to keep, Jess’s temper in check.

“Well, I figure there must be a good reason, buddy,” he said. “Now just try and keep a lid on it, though, will you, Jess?”

Jess looked hurt. “Well, sure I will. What do you take me for? I know how to act at a solicitor’s, you know.”

“Sure you do buddy, I know that, it’s just, well that Lily kind of winds you up doesn’t she?”

“Nope, not anymore, we understand each other now Slim.”

“Is that so?”

He just nodded and the subject was forgotten as the Stage rolled in and the men went about their business.

The day of the meeting dawned and Daisy insisted on them all attending in their Sunday best.

“Aw Daisy must we?” moaned Jess.

But she was adamant. Yes, we must. I’m fed up with my little sister looking down her nose at us. We’ll show them that we know how to behave when it matters.”

“Sure we will Daisy,” said Jess,” sure we will,” having given up as soon as he saw the light of battle in her eyes.

As it happened the legal proceedings were over almost as soon as they had started. Mr. Benson pronounced the document of adoption to be completely illegal and then said, looking over his spectacles at Gina’s parents and Mr. Bell. “Of course we could wait and put it to the circuit judge, but there could be the very real outcome of prosecution against you for harassing this young lady…but if that is the route you wish to take?”

“No…err no, that won’t be necessary,” said Mr. Bell at once,” I think that maybe we should leave things as they are,” and shortly afterwards left the meeting, hightailing it for the next Stage back to Cheyenne.

“Now then,” said Mr. Benson, “we will proceed to the next piece of business we need to address.”

“Next business?” said Lily looking surprised and speaking for them all.

“Yes,” said Mr. Benson. “Mr. Pope, Gina’s father has spoken to me in confidence and he has requested that I speak to you all present on his behalf.”

“What…what is he talking about Jacob?” asked Lily giving him a furious look.

“Order please,” said Mr. Benson dryly.

“Now acting on Mr. Pope’s behalf, I wish to convey his thoughts on the matter of his daughter and his, currently estranged potential son in law.”

“What!” shouted Lily. “What are you talking about?”

“Just this, Ma’am. The fact that you have received over twenty letters from Mr. Edward Jones, written to your daughter and have concealed these letters from her, plus a telegraph, saying Mr. Jones’s father was dangerously ill and he would not be able to keep in touch with your daughter for the foreseeable future, but that he did indeed love her and wish to marry her as soon as he possibly was able.”

“Ma?” said Gina…”is this true, Edward has been writing all this time and you never told me?”

Lily looked flustered and blushing said,” well it was all for your own good, the boy is too young, too soft…you need a real man, a strong man willing to fight for you a man…. “

“A man like Jess,” said Gina loudly,” is that what you want for me Ma? Because if so, well I guess that is the first time we have ever agreed on anything.”

“No…no of course not,” she said looking over at Jess an unfathomable expression in her eyes.” I think you should just come home, with the baby if you must, and we will find a suitable spouse for you…in time.”

“No Ma,” shouted Gina,” you are not running my life for me anymore, I will make my own decisions, I need to see Edward, hear what he has to say, after all Rosie is his child.”

“Quite so,” said Mr. Benson, “and this is where I come to Mr. Pope’s proposal. He requests that Mr. Jess Harper seeks out the father and speaks to him on the matter and on finding his true feelings reports back to the meeting and hopefully there will be a positive and fruitful conclusion to the narrative.”

“Huh?” said Jess quietly to Slim.

“He wants you to go and find Edward, tell him about the baby and see if he wants to wed Gina.”

“Well why didn’t he say so,” whispered Jess in frustration,” I was gonna do that anyway wasn’t I! “

Slim just shook his head smiling, “yeah, guess you were buddy.”

Once the meeting closed everyone filed from the room, with Lily making her excuses and returning to the hotel at once after casting Jess an apprehensive look.

However Jacob Pope remained and walking over to Jess said, “Well, son, are you willing to take on the job? I am happy to pay you handsomely.”

“That won’t be necessary sir,” Jess said at once,” I ….well I really care for your daughter and I will find Edward for her, as I was gonna do anyways, as I figure that is what a good friend would want to do.”

Mr. Pope leaned over and took Jess’s hand, shaking it firmly,” you are a good man Harper, and the way you stood up to my wife…well I don’t know what you did, but it sure inspired me. I’m a changed man, this business with Gina and Edward is just the start of it. I’m going to stand up to her too, from now on and…well, if she doesn’t like it guess she’ll have to go,” and with that he thanked Jess again and walked off, head held high, a different man.

“Well I’ll be…” said, Slim. “So what did you do to the woman, Jess? “

Jess just smiled and tapped his nose, before walking off to the Saloon for a well earned drink.

Early the following week, Slim was surprised to see Mr. Pope riding into the ranch, and calling Jess out from the barn, the two ranchers went to greet him.

He reined his mount in and climbed down, shaking the men’s hands, “good morning, Slim, Jess,” he said with a friendly smile,” hope you don’t mind me dropping by, I need a quick word with Jess here and then maybe spend some time with my little girl?”

“Sure,” said Slim at once, “you’re real welcome, Mr. Pope.”

“Jake to my friends,” he said, inclining his head and walking towards the ranch house as Slim ushered him in.

“Wonder why his wife calls him Jacob then?” said Jess softly, for Slim’s ears only.

The tall rancher hid a smile and then called out to Gina that she had a visitor before repairing to the kitchen to rustle up some fresh coffee.

Jess offered him a chair at the table and sitting down opposite him said, “You wanted to speak to me, Mr.…er, I mean, Jake? “

“Yes Jess, it’s about this trip out to find Edward, well I thought it might save time if I wired him and asked him to meet you in Cheyenne, I’ve been in touch for a while now, hoping I could persuade Lily. Anyway it’s all sorted now, maybe you could fetch him and then you could ride in with him, spend a bit of time on the trail, explaining about things…you know, about the baby and all, get his take on it.”

“Sure Jake I can do that, get to know him some too, explain what’s been going on, about the missing letters and all. Guess he’s in for a big surprise.”

“Yes I figure it will be a mighty big shock. Gina has explained to me about how understanding you and Slim have been over this business. How you cared for the baby all on your own when Daisy was away and that scamp of a girl of mine left her here. Well what I’m getting at Jess, is I figure you’re the best man for the job, to explain to young Edward what it’s really like to care for a little one. I don’t want him to commit out of pity or a sense of duty.”

“Yeah, I can see as how you’d feel that way,” said Jess with a small smile.

“I’ll be honest, young man, I have not had a happy marriage and I don’t want the same for Gina. I’d sooner she stayed single than married the wrong man. And I’ll go a step further and say if I had anything to do with the matter, then I’d want you for a son-in-law and that’s the truth, boy.”

Jess looked down and then locking eyes with the older man said,” thank you, that means a lot to me.”

“But I figure, like you do, that Edward deserves the chance to take on his responsibilities and I know he loves my girl, so guess we’ll just have to wait and see. And I’m the first to admit it I was wrong to fire the boy when I heard he was seeing her, very wrong. So is that OK with you Jess? “

“Sure, sure it is and I’ll do my best; be riding out in a couple of days.”

Just then Slim came back with the coffee and Gina came in with the baby and Jake looked delighted to see his granddaughter.

Gina reached over and kissed him warmly on the cheek. “Pa, its real good to see you.” Then more quietly, “Where is Ma? “

“Gone back home, said her rheumatics were playing up, but between you and me, I think this young man here has put her nose out of joint,” he said grinning across at Jess. “But she did say to tell you she is truly sorry about the letters and that you are welcome home whenever you are ready.”

“With or without my baby, Pa?” she asked hesitantly.

“As far as I am concerned, little Rosie will be more than welcome, you too, honey, and I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you in the past. I guess I sort of left the parenting to your Ma….well she insisted on it really, but all that’s changed now and I want to make a fresh start with you and Rosie there, if you’ll let me?” he finished.

“Oh Pa”, she said wrapping her arms around his neck, “that’s all I’ve ever wanted, to talk and spend time together, not money and gifts.”

“Well from now on, you shall have my time.”

 Then turning to Slim and Jess who were looking embarrassed at being part of this very personal scene, he said,” sorry about this boys, but I guess I’m glad you are here to see this because I guess I owe everything to you all, here at the Sherman ranch.”

Slim started to protest but Jake put his hand up,” no, hear me out boy, the way you and Jess have accepted my girl and her baby, not judged her and looked out for her; well it’s been a real eye opener to me. Hell Jess here even put his life on the line for her….well, I’m going to make darn sure I am as good to her as you all have been,” he finished emotionally.

Daisy came to his rescue then,” come along Jake, drink up your coffee and there is fresh pie here and then Gina can show you how to change a diaper, I guess if Slim and Jess can do it it’s time you learned!”

And with the following laughter the company relaxed and enjoyed their drink, until little Rosie’s insistent cries led her grandfather to his first diaper changing lesson, which caused much joshing and laughter from all present.

A couple of days later Jess made ready to ride to Cheyenne to find Edward and bring him back to the ranch to meet up with Gina again.

He had been very quiet over the previous few days and Slim knew there was something on his mind and as Jess went about packing his saddle bags in their shared room early that morning Slim, who was sitting on his bed watching his friend, said eventually, “Jess you OK with this, going to find Edward an’ all?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you want Gina for yourself maybe? “

Jess turned on Slim, obviously about to answer angrily, then he stopped himself and looking down took a deep breath. “Yeah I guess you’re kinda right,” he said quietly, “but figure I can’t take the risk, Slim.”

“Risk?”

“Yeah, sure of Edward turning up after we were wed, maybe got another kid on the way and he turns up and she suddenly realizes she’s made one Hell of a mistake.”

“Well I guess that’s true of any marriage, there’s always a risk.”

Jess shook his head. “No I’m pretty sure she still loves him, Slim; just got herself kinda infatuated with me, ‘cos she thinks he don’t care. Soon as I bring him back, figure they’ll be wed in the blink of an eye.”

Slim took this on board. “Like I said, you sure you wanna go, Jess? Would you prefer I went, you take off someplace until it’s all sorted?”

“Nah, I’m OK Slim, I promised Jake I’d do it, so figure I will, anyways gets me away from that dang bronco busting’ for a few days,” he said with a cheeky grin.

Slim reached over and gave him a friendly clip around the ear which Jess neatly dodged and then the two of them were called to breakfast by Daisy.

 No sooner had they all sat down to the meal than Rosie started bawling for hers too.

As Gina rose from the table Jess put out a restraining hand. “I’ll tend to her,” he said softly.

“No Jess, get your breakfast you’ve got a long ride,” she said.

He just shook his head. “I want to,” and getting the baby’s bottle from the kitchen sat down with her in his rocker and proceeded to feed the hungry little girl.

Daisy and Slim exchanged knowing looks but said nothing.

Later, after breakfast was over, Jess left and went out to the barn to saddle up Traveler for his trip.

Shortly afterwards Gina excused herself from the breakfast table and walked across to the barn.

She entered quietly and stood watching Jess saddling up, talking softly to his mount.

After a few minutes she walked forwards and he swung round at her approach.

“All ready?” she said.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said continuing his task and turning away again, finishing his work without looking at her.

He finally turned and looked her in the eye and could see she was visibly upset. “Hey honey, you OK?”

“Jess, I just don’t know if I want you to go. you and me, well we could be good together, you know?”

He shook his head,” we’ve talked this through, agreed it all, I have to go Gina, you know that and you know why.”

“But Jess, you, well you care for me and I figure…you love Rosie don’t you?”

He looked down, closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed, but didn’t reply and then he led Traveler out of the barn and hopped up onto the saddle, with Gina following him out.

“Jess?”

“See you , take care,” he  said simply and offering a little salute to Daisy and Slim standing by the ranch door he headed his horse up the track and kicked him  on to a fast trot away towards Laramie and then Cheyenne.

***** 

He arrived in Laramie and stopped off at the bank to pay a check in for Slim and then decided to call in on Mort for a quick coffee before his long journey. It was over 50 miles to Cheyenne and if he pushed Traveler he knew he would make it before nightfall, if he set off soon, but he decided a few minutes to catch up on the latest news with Mort would be worth it and he wasn’t far wrong.

As soon as he entered Mort’s office his friend swung his feet down from the desk and leapt up from his seat. “Well, I’ll be… I was just thinkin’ of you,” he said grinning at the young cowboy.

Jess backed off, his hands up in surrender. “Now if you’re wantin’ me to play deputy today, then ‘fraid I can’t Mort. I’m on a mission, rounding up that ol’ Edward, Gina’s fiancé.”

“Oh yeah, I heard tell you were off to Cheyenne from Mose,” he said, pushing his hat back and returning the grin.

Jess shook his head in bewilderment. “Ain’t there anythin’ that ol’ coot don’t have his nose in?”

“Guess not,” smiled Mort, then looking more serious,” I did want to see you Jess, but not for deputy duty, well not right now anyways.”

“So, what then?” asked Jess helping himself to a coffee.

“Well just to tell you to watch your back really. There’s been trouble over in Cheyenne lately and I guess you don’t need any more with this young Easterner to collect and bring back for Miss Gina?”

“So what kinda trouble, Mort?”

“Oh nothing the Sheriff can’t handle, just some drovers in the area been raising cane in the town, getting drunk, fist fighting, nothing you can’t handle normally either, Jess, but if you’ve got a greenhorn in tow, well you might want to take things kind of easy, I guess Miss Gina is hoping to get him back all in one piece.”

Jess agreed heartily and shortly afterwards set off on the long journey.

He arrived in Cheyenne by late afternoon and made straight for the livery so that Traveler could be tended to after the long ride and old Bill greeted him warmly.

“Well hello again, Mr. Harper.  Don’t tell me — horse wants a good rub down, blanket, best stall in the house and extra rations. Am I right? “

“You got it, Bill,” grinned Jess.

“I’ll tend to him myself…well have to anyways,” he said with a lob sided grin. “That useless boy as used to work here upped and left. You just can’t find the right sorta lad these days you know, Mr. Harper, all too clever by half and don’t wanna put the hours in.”

“Well, now Bill, I’d be up for the job myself if I didn’t have a ranch and relay to help run back in Laramie,” said Jess with a warm smile.

The old man chuckled, “I sure like a boy as looks out for his horse,” he said as he took Traveler’s bridle. “Anything else I can do for you?”

“Yeah,  there is actually, I’m meeting a young man, should have arrived on the afternoon stage, and I’m after a real easy ride for him. Aim to go over to Laramie and leave the mount for pick up at the Laramie livery, would that be OK?”

”Yeah, that’s fine by me and I’ve got an old grey mare over there gentle as a lamb.”

“Thanks,” said Jess and after checking out the mount, he wandered over to the hotel to find Edward.

He didn’t have far to look as he found a pale anxious looking youth sitting in the lobby of the hotel  and as soon as Jess strode in he leapt up from his seat and said earnestly,

” Mister Harper, is it?”

Jess turned and if ever he’d encountered a bank teller then this was it he thought as he surveyed the skinny nervous looking youth.

“Well howdy Edward,” he said offering a hand and grinning over,” real good to meet you, so how about some grub and a quick drink while we get acquainted?”

Edward threw him a nervous glance, “it’s kind of lively out there,” he said tipping his head towards Main Street, to where the drovers were beginning to enjoy themselves.

Jess hid a smile. “Guess we’ll eat here in the hotel rather than the saloon. it’ll be a mite quieter, and we can have a nice peaceful chat.”

As it was Jess found Edward very difficult to talk to as he seemed extremely shy and tongue tied and after a few hours he lost his patience and gave up, suggesting they meet for breakfast and would then head off for Laramie and Gina, although what she sees in that stuffed shirt, I sure can’t figure, he thought to himself.

The following day after breakfast they went over to the Livery and old Bill brought out the grey mare and Traveler and Jess paid and thanked him and they were on their way.

However it soon became obvious to Jess that young Edward was no rider and he sat the gentle old mare like a sack of tatters and if they went anything above a trot he looked in dire danger of pitching off.

He smiled to himself, suddenly aware of what a greenhorn he had with him, but decided to be as kind as he could for Gina’s sake.

Hell just the thought of her made his heart beat faster, all his senses come alive as he remembered kissing her, holding young Rosie, carin’ for them both… how could he hand them over to this callow youth who hardly seemed able to look after himself?

Then he thought about how he had to break the news of the baby to Edward and his heart stood still, how could he do that, and what would this immature young man make of it all?

As the day wore on Jess felt more and more nervous, knowing what he had to do and yet having absolutely no idea as to how to phrase it all, to break the news gently, because whatever he said it was bound to be a shock. And he thought back to his initial reaction when they had found little Rosie on the doorstep…and that stab of fear, that first thought… could she have been his? How would he have reacted if she really had been he wondered.

It soon became obvious to him that the ride was going to take far longer than usual with their slow pace and then he heard thunder rumbling away in the distance and realized they were in for a storm. He looked over to the West and saw storm clouds advancing fast and then flicked a glance over to where Edward was riding on in his lightweight city suit, oblivious to the change in the weather.

Jess reined in and gestured for Edward to do the same. “You got a rain slicker?” he asked, looking down at Edward’s valise hooked on the saddle horn.

“Er… No should I have?”

“Well, it might stop you getting soaked to the skin, yeah.”

“Oh…soaked, you say?”

Jess nodded over to the clouds. “Big storm brewing, I figure we’ll make for the caves over in yonder foothills; might as well break for the night and get an early start.”

“Camp out you mean?” asked Edward looking uncertain.

Jess sighed and tried to stay patient,” no not out, in the caves like I said, it ain’t a four star hotel Edward, but guess it’s the best I can do right now.”

Something in Jess’s tone seemed to alert the young man to the fact that he was maybe being a trifle stuffy and he gave his companion the glimmer of a smile.

“I guess I can cope with that, Mr. Harper.”

Jess grinned back at that. “And it’s Jess, OK?”

“Sure… Jess.”

The thunder was rolling around loudly as they approached the huge cave in the mountain side and Jess knew they’d have to work as a team if they were to get settled before the storm hit in all its fury and he reined Traveler in by the large opening and called across to the younger man.

“Leave your horse and I’ll settle them in the cave and can you fetch some wood for a fire before it all gets soaked?”

“Sure,” and he jumped down from his mount and went off obediently to do as he was bid as Jess took the grey’s reins and led both animals into the mouth of the cave.

He was surprised when both horses started playing up as he led them in, blowing  through their nostrils, and shaking their heads  and stamping and Traveler even refusing to budge until Jess pulled him firmly forwards all the time talking softly to him.

“What’s up, big fellah? You ain’t spooked by this old cave, are you? Hell, Trav, you’ve camped out in here loads of times. What’s wrong, boy? That thunder getting’ to you?”

He finally calmed both animals and pulled their saddles off and ground hitched them before going to see what was keeping Edward.

He’d thrown the saddles down near the centre of the cave and removed his gun belt and left it by his saddle along with the rifle as he figured all the guns would be better in the dry, as by the sound of the overhead thunder crashing about, the heavens would shortly be opening and a real deluge was promised by all accounts.

He wandered outside the cave and then saw Edward just below the cliff face, kneeling down to pick up some more wood and he was just about to chivvy him up when he saw it….. a shadowy figure on the rocky outcrop about six feet above where Edward was kneeling with his back to the rocks.

As he stared he saw the figure, outlined against the ashen sky line, poised to jump and in that split second Jess cried out and sprinted forwards, pushing Edward out of the way as the cougar pounced.

 He had immediately gone for his colt and remembering it was in the cave had done the only thing he could, pushed Edward out of harm’s way, but as the younger man fell forwards Jess was thrown to the ground as the big cat landed square on his back forcing him face down into the dirt as it raked it’s huge claws down, shredding his shirt.

Somehow Jess managed to roll from under him and he and the cat rolled down the steep bank the animal finally grabbing Jess’s arm between its huge jaws, the pain agonizing as Jess wrestled to free himself.

It seemed like an eternity that he struggled with the cougar, although it was only a minute or  so, and then just as he could  feel his strength ebbing away  a shot rang out and the animal slumped down…dead across his chest.

Then Edward was there.

 He flung Jess’s shot gun down and hauled the heavy critter off the now pale and bleeding cowboy.

He peered up at Edward, the white hot pain in his arm making him want to retch, and he felt dizzy, his heart beating practically out of his chest as he clutched his mauled arm with his good hand.

“Thanks Edward,” he whispered, “I guess you saved my bacon there.”

“Nonsense,” stuttered a pale and shaking Edward, “It was you who saved me. I’m really indebted to you, Mr. Harper… er, Jess.”

Jess gave him the ghost of a smile. “Well, I guess we can debate that later. Can you help me up? Figure we need to take cover,” he said as the first fat raindrops started to fall.

Later when he thought about it Jess was amazed at how quickly Edward had adapted to the situation, he had helped Jess to the cave and then lit the fire and tended the cowboy’s wounds, which thankfully were not quite as serious as they could have been.

 However when he  was called upon to clean them out with some of Jess’s ‘medicinal whiskey’, it was a guess as to which of them was more traumatized and Edward looked close to fainting as he saw Jess’s agony as the burning spirit purified the dirty wounds.

In the end Jess had needed to be very firm.

“Look, Edward, you need to clean ‘em out real good and no matter how much I cuss or beg you to stop, you’ve got to do it else I’ll get a real bad infection, understand? “

The young man had nodded and grimly gone about the business of cleaning and bandaging the wounds while Jess concentrated on trying not to cuss too loudly.

Once it was all done Edward had gone about preparing supper and both men had been glad of the simple fare and coffee.

As they sat there sipping the brew and listening to the storm playing out above them Jess nodded over to where Traveler was now standing calm and relaxed.

“That old fellah knew there was a big cat around,” he said with a grin. “Guess I should have listened to him.”

Edward smiled back. “This is sure a different way to what I’m used to, Jess — horse riding, camping out, shooting big cats for goodness sake. its worlds apart from what I know.”

Then turning to look at where Jess was lying against his saddle, one hand still protectively clasping his injured arm, he said, “I guess you think I’m a real…what do you say… tenderfoot?”

Jess grinned at this. “I guess I did, but not now. I figure you’re doin’ just fine, Edward, just fine.”

Shortly afterwards Edward turned in, but Jess lay by the fire, sleep alluding him, the pain  in his arm bothering him and also the thought of what he still had to tell Edward.

He’d figured they were both too strung out after the cougar attack to discuss such a sensitive  subject that night, but he knew that he would have to the following morning, come Hell or high water , he thought to himself with the ghost of a smile as the storm still raged above.

Then he got to thinking about Gina and little Rosie and how he would have to take a back seat and leave them with Edward, so that Gina could make her decision, but the more he thought on it, the more he knew it was right that Edward should bring up his own daughter but the greater his despair, knowing that the honorable thing to do would be to just bow out gracefully.

He was looking deep into the fire these dark thoughts haunting him when he was suddenly aware of someone stirring and a minute later Edward sat down beside him resting his back against the rock and turning to look at Jess gave him a shy smile, “can’t sleep.”

“Me neither,” he said and was about to offer the coffee pot.

Then he had an inspirational thought,” hang on,” he said and getting up he went and rummaged in the saddle bags before coming back with the half bottle of ‘ medicinal’ moonshine,” should hit the spot,” he said grinning across at Edward.

 He pulled the cork out with his teeth and passed the bottle to the younger man and gestured for him to take a swig.

Edward hesitated for a moment before taking a drink.

 He almost choked, but made a huge effort to swallow the burning liquid like a man. His eyes watered and his throat and stomach felt like they were on fire, but he gave Jess a nod and whispered,” Thanks, that’s better.”

Jess hid a smile and took the offered bottle back and took a long swig, pulling a face as the whiskey hit home,” gee’s that’s darn rough stuff,” he said in a hoarse voice,” but guess it’ll do the trick.”

The two men exchanged a grin and then sat looking into the fire in companionable silence. After a while emboldened by the strong spirit Edward turned back to Jess and said,” you looked mighty thoughtful just now, something bothering you…. other than those awful bites that is?”

“No, not really, just thinking about Gina and…. “

“And?”

Jess looked down and cussed under his breath. “Hell, I hadn’t meant you to find out this way, Edward.”

Then after a minute he said, “Can I call you, Ed? “

“Sure,” said the younger man, “Pa always called me that….so what about Gina?”

“This is real hard,” said Jess softly. “But you need to know. Gina has a baby, your baby, Ed; you’re a Pa.”

Edward stared at Jess like he was speaking a foreign language, then he finally found his voice,” me a Pa?”

Jess nodded in confirmation.

“But how, that can’t be……, Jess…how? “

“Well, the usual way,” I suppose said Jess ginning at him.

“But that can’t be so, we only did it the once, first time for us…for us both,” he said shyly.

“Yeah, well it can happen that way,” said Jess softly. “Did your Pa not tell you all about the birds and the bees then, Ed? “

“Well, no not really.”

Jess just shook his head in wonder. “Figure you and me need a long talk,” he said, “but maybe not here and now…but you need to know stuff, not just how you get babies but how not to,” he said with a grin.

“Anyways, whatever, you have a lovely baby daughter Ed.”

“A daughter,” he said at length and then the full significance hit him. “I’m a Pa,” he said in an awed voice, “I’m the Pa of a little girl….what’s she like, Jess?”

Jess looked at Ed and then back into the fire. “Oh she’s beautiful,” he said with feeling.

”Got this crop of black curls and these clear blue eyes that kinda watch you and weigh you up, you know? “

“Sounds like you really love her Jess,” said Ed quietly.

Jess didn’t pick up the change in Edward’s attitude such was his enthusiasm. “Sure I do,” he said smiling, then turning to look Edward full in the face. “Sure I love her; she’s so cute, who wouldn’t?”

Edward sat stock still, his eyes locked on Jess’s,” and Gina…..do you love Gina too? “

Jess tore his gaze away and looked down, saying nothing.

“Jess?”

After what seemed like a lifetime to Ed, Jess finally responded in a whisper, so quiet Ed had to strain to hear him.

“Yes, I guess I do.”

Ed absorbed this information, all his senses now aroused, he wanted to hit out at Jess, and yet in the short time he had known him he had begun to really like and respect him, his feelings were confused and erratic and he finally took a deep breath and asked the question he knew he had to.

“Does she love you?”

Again Jess paused and then looking Ed in the eye, said,” yeah, she thinks she does, but she’s real confused right now Ed… I figure she’s just infatuated with me… and it’s you she really loves.”

“Why…why do you think that she’s just infatuated with you?”

“Because I’ve been around her and you haven’t. Guess she’s got to rely on me lookin’ out for Rosie and all, rely on us all at the ranch. She didn’t know where you were Ed. She asked everyone at the bank as soon as she knew she was pregnant, but it looked like you’d just hi tailed it out of town and weren’t comin’ back.”

“But I wrote her, explained that I was earning good money in New York, was coming back for her, then as how my Pa was real, sick… But nothing.”

“She never got the letters, buddy; her Ma took them all.”

Ed looked amazed. “I knew she didn’t like me, but that…how could she?”

Jess just shook his head in agreement.

Then after a long pause something else suddenly occurred to Ed.

He looked across at Jess and said softly, “I bet you’re real popular with the ladies aren’t you? “

Jess said nothing, just gave him a quizzical look, before replying,” some, yeah, I guess I do a fair bit of harmless flirting with the ladies sure.”

“So is that all Gina’s been doing with you, just harmless flirting, or did she want more….Jess have you slept with her?”

Jess’s head swung around and he locked eyes with Ed,” Hell no,” he said,” honestly no.”

“But you wanted to….she wanted to….? “

“May be, but we didn’t and I’ll tell you why Ed, because it would have been wrong. I knew in my heart it was you she wanted, know it’s you who should be a Pa to little Rosie too, Hell that’s why I’m here Ed. Do you think I’d have gone to all this trouble if I didn’t feel it was you she wanted?”

Ed sank his head into his hands and after a while whispered,” I’m sorry Jess; I guess I’ve got it all wrong.”

“No you haven’t,” said Jess softly. “You are right — I do love her. But it’s because of that that I want her to be happy and I figure she’s got a better chance of that with you than with me.”

Ed seemed almost moved to tears and all he could do was reach across and take Jess’s hand and shake it warmly.

Jess grinned across at him, and then picking up the bottle said quietly,” guess we could both use a drop more.”

The following morning both men were suffering some from the after effects of the strong hill whiskey, plus Jess was in a lot of pain from his tussle with the cougar, but he reckoned they should set off just as soon as the storm subsided.

As they sat huddled by the fire watching the endless rain pouring down, Edward turned to Jess and said softly,” so what’s it like looking  after a baby?”

Jess thought about it long and hard, before replying.

“Well ’tis real hard work, not like mustanging or drovin’ but hard none the less, because you’ve got this tiny little person relying on just you… for everythin’, I guess, feedin’ cleanin’ up,  keepin’ ‘em safe… it’s a big  responsibility,” he said then turned his intense blue gaze on the young man, “real big.”

“And you knew how to do it all…. I feel so ignorant… how come you knew what to do Jess?”

He smiled at that. “Well, see, I’ve friends with babies, even delivered one once.”

“You’re kidding me. What was it like?”

Jess looked deeply into the fire again before casting a glance in Edward’s direction. “Special…real special, and I guess after that I’ve got one helluva lot of admiration for women… mothers, it’s real tough givin’ birth you know.”

Then he grinned across at the young  man he was beginning to think of as a new friend.

“You know I’d delivered lots of calves and foals…thought that it would be kinda the same.”

“And was it”.

He looked down and smiled. “Nope…nuthin’ like it.”

There was a lengthy silence and then Edward said softly, “Jess do you think I’m up to it? Do you think I could ever be a Pa to little Rosie?”

Jess felt his heart lurch within his chest. This was it. He felt like he could either help the boy or just as easily see him off, claim Gina and Rosie for his own.

After a long time he sighed deeply and then turning to look him in the eyes said softly,

” Hell yes, you’d be a great Pa for young Rosie, and Gina…well, she needs you, Edward.”

He smiled back and said, “Thanks Jess…. that’s all I wanted to hear.”

Then shortly afterwards the storm finally receded and they made their way to Laramie at long last.

The men reined in their mounts by Miss Molly’s café and Jess nodded over to the place.      “She should be working in there, buddy; go find her.”

Now the moment had come Edward looked hesitant,” come in with me?”

Jess shook his head in mock despair, “Ok,” he said quietly and dismounting the two men entered the café.

It was very quiet with just a couple of customers and Jess held back a little as Edward walked in.

Then he saw Gina suddenly look up from where she had been wiping down the counter and her eyes locked with Edwards’ and she gave a little cry of delight before running around and throwing herself into his arms and the couple embraced and then kissed passionately.

Jess quietly backed out and walked quickly to his horse and jumping up into the saddle kicked him off to a gallop his heart pounding and a huge lump in his throat. What’s wrong  with you Harper, he thought as he rode on towards home, that’s what you wanted, for them to be a family, for Gina to be in love…and happy, so why do you feel so goddamn awful?

As soon as he rode in Slim marched out of the barn to meet him and as Jess swung down from Traveler, he went to shake his hand in welcome, and was shocked to see Jess pull back, wincing in pain.

“Hey what’s up, Jess? “

“Had a little run in with a cougar up by Jason’s caves, and he kinda got the upper hand for a while before young Edward dispatched him.”

“Come on in, buddy, let’s get Daisy to check you over and then you can tell us all about it.”

It was later that evening when Jess finally became completely resigned to his lot with Gina.

Mike had gone off to bed after a head full of stories about cougar attacks and Slim went soon after knowing that Daisy needed some time alone with Jess.

Now they were sitting in front of the dying embers of the fire enjoying a last cup of coffee, when Daisy reopened the subject of her niece.

“So, this Edward, you think he and Gina could be happy? He’s a good man?”

“I guess so, Daisy; yeah, he sure adapted to everything that happened on the trail and I guess he’ll be the same over fatherhood, sure he’s young and inexperienced, but he’ll learn and real quick I reckon.”

She nodded and then dipped her head before glancing over and seeing how pale and tired he looked.

“Are you alright dear?” she asked kindly.

Then he turned and looked at her with his intense gaze. “No I guess not Daisy; it’s real hard for me to let her go, you know, but it’s right, it’s the right thing for her I know that.”

Daisy had been referring to his injuries and was surprised that the usually very private young man had been so honest with her, and now she took his hand and squeezed it gently. “You know how I feel,” she said softly. “I couldn’t wish for anyone better for Gina than you, but I can see that this young man should have a chance to make things right between them and bring up his own child…”

“Guess, you’re right there,” he said softly.

Then he stretched and gave her a weary smile. “So I reckon there’s nuthin’ more to say, Daisy. I’m kinda beat; guess I’ll turn in…… goodnight,” and he went off to his room, leaving her looking into the fire her old heart heavy.

*****

And so it was  a mere week later that the stagecoach hurtled into the yard, with Mose doing his best to dispatch the chucks as Slim remonstrated  with him as the coach came to a halt.

“Hey Mose you going to pay for any of these critters you see off?” he asked, a twinkle in his eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, sure Slim,” he chuckled as he jumped down from  the box and after helping  his passengers to alight he  made his way in  for coffee and pie, closely followed by Edward and Gina carrying the baby.

Jess’s head had shot up when he’d come out of the barn to change the team and seen them alighting from the coach, and he’d felt he just couldn’t face Gina, feeling as he did about her.

However she paused on the porch and gestured for Edward to go in and after a whispered conversation he disappeared into the house while Gina took one of the porch seats gazing over to where Slim and Jess were now changing the team.

After a moment Slim looked up and said, “I think she wants a word buddy.”

Jess flicked a glance over and then continued with his task. “Well maybe I don’t.”

“Jess!”

He sighed deeply. “Ok, ok I’m goin’,” and he wandered over to where Gina and the baby sat watching him.

As soon as he got close Rosie put her little arms up for him to hold her and so he had no choice but to pick her up, as Gina passed her across and the little girl cooed in pleasure as she peered up at his deep blue eyes.

He sank onto the seat next to Gina holding the baby close, the little one’s warm embrace making him feel like his heart would surely break at the thought of never seeing her again.

“Jess,” Gina whispered, “we have to talk.”

Eventually he looked her in the eyes. “Nuthin’ left to say, is there?” he said quietly. “I guess you’ve made your choice….”

“Jess, I’m so, so sorry… I….” As her eyes filled with unshed tears, she was unable to go on.

He reached across and took her hand. “Hush, you’ve made the right choice in Edward; he’s a good man and you’ll be happy so stop your frettin’…”

She swallowed deeply at that. “Yes, I guess you’re right, but a part of me will always love you Jess…”

He just nodded and then tenderly kissed little Rosie on the top of her head before handing her back, as he heard the others returning.

“Jess?” she whispered, her eyes searching his face for a response.

He knew she wanted him to say he loved her too, but he knew he just couldn’t do it, nor should he, he thought.

He looked back at her as the others came out laughing and joking.

“Be happy,” he said softly, before turning quickly away and checking on the harness.

Then Mose was ushering the team out of the yard, as the young family headed back east, and all at the ranch waved until the Stage disappeared over the rise. Then Daisy went sadly back into the ranch house and Slim marched over to the barn to get on with the morning chores, leaving Mike and Jess still standing watching the cloud of dust settling where the Stage had so recently left.

Jess threw an arm around the youngster’s shoulders gaining some comfort from his proximity and after a minute the child  raised soulful eyes to the dark haired cowboy and said sadly, “I’m gonna really miss Baby Rosie, Jess.”

“Yeah, you and me both buddy,” he said softly, wandering in amazement how something so small and fragile as little Rosie could steal a man’s heart.

”And Gina,” said Mike as an afterthought.

“Yeah…..and Gina.”

The boy looked up and beamed at his hero,” I know maybe you or Slim could get married and have loads of babies… huh Jess, how about that?”

“Er… yeah maybe,” he said smiling down at the youngster. “Figure we’ve gotta find the right girl first, though, and in the meantime…”

“Yeah?”

“Well, you know the best thing to do when you feelin’ sad?”

“No, what? “

“Go and do a mess of chores to take your mind off it.”

“Aww, Jess,” the youngster chuckled.

“Go on, get to it buddy,” said Jess ruffling the boy’s hair affectionately, and he went off cheerfully enough to do as he was told.

 Then Jess marched purposefully across the yard to the log store and picking up the axe prepared to take out his angst on the log pile.

***End***

Thank you for reading!

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